ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 34

 

     But when Nonie pushed open the door to the storeroom, matters did not go quite as planned. She saw Tahriz immediately, seated on a crate, and waiting for her; a lantern on the floor beside him to illuminate the dim room.  He was dressed in servant’s clothes, and stood when he saw her.  She had the swift impression that he was weary, and tried to remember that she’d promised herself to be ruthless with him—the worthless, miserable—

     “I am so sorry, Nonie.”

     Although she’d carefully rehearsed what she would say, for some reason, different words entirely tumbled out of her mouth. “You—you sent me away—”   I am going to cry, she realized in amazement, and began to weep, her mouth working so that she could no longer speak. Wholly embarrassed, she ducked her head, and covered her eyes with her hands as her shoulders shook, and she struggled for breath between sobs.

     Swiftly, he strode over to take her in his arms. “Nonie,” he whispered, holding her close. “Ah, Nonie—nomrata; nomrata.”

     Sobbing into his shoulder, she managed to gasp, “Ye shouldna’ ha’ sent me away.”  Even to her own ears, she sounded like a broken child, but could not seem to help it—seeing him again made all her resolutions fly out the window.

     “I wanted to keep you safe,” he said, near her ear. “Forgive me, my love.”

     This, for some reason, started a fresh onslaught of tears. “I don’t want a husband—I don’t want a home—I don’t want anyone who can twist my heart—”

     “I know,” he murmured. “I know.”

     Clinging to his tunic, she wept unabated for a space of time, whilst he murmured in his strange language, and stroked the small of her back. When the storm had passed, she managed a shuddering breath in an effort to calm herself, and then said into his chest, “You mustn’t send me away again; it was horrid.”

     “Yes,” he agreed in a somber tone. “I watched the ship sail from my window—it was nearly unbearable.”

      Glancing up at him, she sniffled, and rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Why then, did you do it?”

     “I cannot allow you to assassinate the Dey.”

     For a brief instant, she stared at him, then decided it was no surprise he knew—or had guessed—the assignment. For a moment, the conversation they’d held on the rooftops flashed into her memory—the one where he had probed about her knowledge of any plans—supposedly French plans—to assassinate the Dey; he must have known, even then.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she disclaimed, her clear eyes wide.

     He did not respond, but drew her to him again, and she rested her cheek against his shoulder, wishing the world and all its wretched warmongers would just go away.  “I know about the jeune filles.” 

     “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he replied with gentle humor, in imitation of her.

     She ducked her head, resting her forehead against his chest. “Do you remember that first night, when you said you knew who I was?”

    “I do.” His voice rumbled in his chest, his strong hands stoking her arms, her back.

     “Well, I knew who you were, too—you were the mark. We thought you were the point man, smuggling pearls to Napoleon.”  She raised her face. “It was a mis-translation, a mistake in intelligence-gathering.”

      But he wasn’t interested in this irony, and instead stated bluntly, “I need the Dey to survive, and I need the supply ships to keep sailing.”

     She lowered her head again, and rubbed her face against his tunic, breathing in the scent of him.  “I’m afraid it’s all doomed to come to a crashing halt, fear ceile.”

    His hands moved gently on her back. “What does that mean?”

    “Husband.  And what was the point of that, if I may ask?  Or did you just want to have me to bed, in good conscience?”

    He bent his head to kiss the area where her neck was exposed, near her shoulder. “I cannot deny it. But also—” he paused, thinking over what it was he wanted to say.  “I wanted you to have something—something of your own.  I have land, and wealth. You would have a home, and a reason not to do what you do.” He lifted his head to look into her eyes, the expression in his own very serious. “I wanted to give you the freedom to walk away from it.”

     This made perfect sense to her; he was chivalrous to a fault.  “And where is this happy slice of heaven, if I may ask?”

     He hesitated for only a moment. “Malta.”

     “Malta?” This was an island mid-way between the coast of Algiers and the European continent; it seemed suitably obscure—small wonder she hadn’t recognized the language.  Maltese, he was—fancy that.  What she knew about Malta couldn’t fill a thimble, except, of course—

     Her gaze flew to his in astonishment. “Why, you are a Hospitaller.” She’d teased him about the brooch on this turban, that first night; it was the Maltese cross, which was the symbol for the Knights of Malta, the Order of Saint John.  An order that was famous for its efforts in fighting slavery—

     “God in heaven,” she exclaimed, closing her eyes, briefly. “I’m roundly an idiot, but so are you, for wearing it for all to see.”

     He smiled slightly without responding, and she could easily conclude that the brooch was his small defiance—his way to fly his true colors, amidst all the treachery and evil.  Everyone would assume it was stolen; there was not the smallest chance that the Dey’s necromancer was a Knight, operating right under everyone’s nose.

     She took a long breath, then chided, “Little good it would do me—to have this option of a home, and a hearth—if I didn’t even know of it.”

     “You would have been informed.  The moment I am exposed, I will be killed.”

      The words were said almost matter-of-factly; but she had already come to this conclusion when she had figured out his role—he was already at daggers-drawn with the Agha.  It was a wonder he hadn’t already been dispatched by a swift knife in the night; presumably, the only thing that stayed his enemy’s hand was the Dey’s anticipated reaction to such a development.  If the Dey himself was dispatched, then all bets were off.

      She leaned her head back, and met his eyes, her own twinkling. “That doesn’t impress me, my friend; it is the same story for me. The instant I am exposed, I can expect a knife in the back, or worse.”

     A smile played around his mouth. “What will I inherit from you?”

     She laughed, amazed that she could. “Nothing. The Home Office will disavow any knowledge of the likes of me—you’ve made a bad bargain, and let this be a lesson.”

     “No.” He kissed her temple, leaving his mouth to rest against her head.

     She lifted a hand, and fiddled with the clasp on his shirtfront. “Perhaps we should try to avoid the certain death and destruction that awaits us—lately there seems to be so much more to live for.”

     His chest rose and fell beneath her hand. “I cannot stop my work.”

      But she persisted in a practical tone, “It’s going to be stopping, one way or another. Admiral Decatur is itching for the war with England to be over, so’s he can come here and bombard the pirates, yet again.”

     “Yes,” he agreed—no doubt he had better information on the subject than she did.  “And those that meet in Vienna are working to stop the slave trade, altogether.”

     “Good luck to them, they’ll have bigger worries, soon.” The Congress of Vienna was an on-going meeting of all the allies who had defeated Napoleon, getting together to discuss how to restructure Europe so that such a thing could not happen again. Ironic, it was, since Napoleon was soon to be raising another ruckus, whilst the Congress meandered along, politely ignoring this possibility.

      He tilted his head in acknowledgment. “Nevertheless; I believe the slave trade will not survive for long—the British are very determined.”

     “Come away with me,” she said, suddenly tired of speaking of the inexplicable politics of war.   “When I leave here—”

     “I cannot,” he said softly.  “I am sorry, Nonie.”

      But she persisted, her eyes intent upon his dark ones. “You can’t risk your life for this—you’ve so much to offer; you know so much. The medicines—you know about the vax—the vaxy—oh, whatever it was—the smallpox cure. You can help so many—”

     He interrupted, lifting a hand to caress her cheek. “Do you know what happens to these girls, if we do not intervene?”

     She made a quick, impatient gesture with her head.  “Tahriz—there’s human misery and wretchedness all over; we can only do what we can.”

     “Every ship that sails is a victory.”

     “You are so bloody noble,” she declared in exasperated wonder. “To risk everything for this—what if you are ignominiously slaughtered, and nothing comes of it?”

     The timbre of his voice was completely sincere. “What happens in this life is not important.”

     Now thoroughly irritated, she tugged at the clasp between her fingers. “Then we are not slated to coexist in the next one; I have absolutely no hope of heaven.”

     “Of course, you do. Everyone does.” 

     He said it with such conviction that she was tempted to cuff him, for such a foolish thought.  “I’d be in the confessional for a week, my friend; they’d have to allow the priests to take shifts, in order to hear it all.”

     “I have every confidence in you.” He embraced her again, and she sighed into his neck. In a strange way, she respected him—even understood him, as much as he frustrated her.  Speaking of frustration, she had noted that he couldn’t seem to stop caressing her—and she was mighty tired of discussing the perilous state of her soul. There was no point in being married, unless you put it to good use.

     “Do you have anyone on site?” she whispered, her hands trailing in a suggestive motion down the front of his tunic.

     She heard a sharp intake of breath in reaction to her touch, and then he smiled into her neck. “No—do you?”

     “No.”

     He lifted his head to glance around them. “Nothing looks very comfortable.”

     “Not important, just now, Tahriz,” she breathed, and pulled his mouth to hers.