ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 35

 

     It was almost comical, if it hadn’t been for the unadulterated lust.  He began to kiss her in earnest, his hands pulling up her boy’s tunic, and his mouth urgent upon hers as he pushed her down on the crate, but she caught her foot on a rope, and stumbled, so that they went down to the dirt floor in a heap, neither of them willing to relinquish their hold on the other to right themselves.

      “Let me douse the lantern,” he murmured into her mouth, getting his legs beneath him, so as to lift her again. “Ah, Nonie; hold—just a moment.”

     “Mmm,” she replied, paying no attention to him.

     “Hold, Nonie—Nonie; let me put the light out—if anyone comes—you are dressed as a boy—”

     She giggled, and he chuckled in response, while he righted them, holding her with one arm and lowering her onto the crate, as he stretched to douse the lantern.

     “Ouch—there’s a nail, or something,” she whispered, shifting away from it, as he wedged his hands between their bodies so as to slide her trousers off her hips.

      “Should we move to the floor?”

     “No—I’m all right. Hurry, please, I am dyin’—

     But his own need was urgent, and he required no encouragement.  After a few frantic, heated moments, the coupling was complete, and they lay entwined on the rough wood, recovering; his breath ragged in her ear.  She shifted subtly, and he propped himself up on his elbows. “Sorry—I’m crushing you.”

    “No, you are not.” She pulled his head to hers, and kissed him.  “But you’ll be needed to pluck splinters.”

    She couldn’t see his face in the darkness, but she could sense his playful mood—there was nothing like a raging round of lovemaking, to cheer a man.  “You shouldn’t encourage me; I am unable to resist you, mara.

     “So I’ve noticed, believe me. What does ‘mara’ mean?”

     “Wife.”

     She spread her hand on his cheek and rested a thumb against his mouth. “Should I be trying to learn Maltese, or is there no point, because this will all end in disaster, anyway?”

     He sighed, his breath warm against her hand.  “I would like to avoid a disaster, if it is at all possible.”

    “Not this side of that heaven you speak of, I’m thinking.”  She then paused, afraid to go on.  Coward, she chastised herself; get a hold of your craven self, and trust the man.

     As he lowered his head to nuzzle the side of her face, she ventured, “Saba says she is not your sister, but I am not so certain.”

     If she surprised him, he hid it well. “No; she speaks the truth.”

      So—he was not going to tell her what the relationship was, which was annoying but very much in keeping with his manner—as close as a clam, he was.  She tried again, “D’you mind very much, about Jamie and Saba?”

     His fingertips moved gently on her face.  “She knows her heart.”

     “As I know mine.”   She raised her head to gently kiss his chin, his mouth.  “I knew it straight from the first.”

    He cradled her head in his hands and admitted, “I must confess that I tried to resist—my plans had no room for someone like you.”

     With a light laugh, she grasped one of his hands and turned her head to kiss the palm. “Now, there’s an understatement—I landed in a bedraggled heap on the jetty for the express purpose of upsetting your plans; that is, until I found out we had it all wrong.”

     She gathered her courage, and lifted her head to kiss his mouth again—it was now or never, now that she’d softened him up.  “I wonder, my husband, if we could do a bit of compromising, you and I—if we could rethink our strategy so that we could—we could survive this, and stay together.” Listen to yourself, she thought in bemusement; it’s hopeless, you are—no one who knows you would recognize this soft, silly creature you’ve become. Except perhaps Tanny.

     He took her hand, and squeezed it, his voice soft and exultant. “Yes; you could stay here, with me. You could start a new life—”

     “We could stage a feint,” she interrupted, as though he hadn’t spoken. “I must see to it that Napoleon and the government of Algiers break it off—never to trust each other again.”

      “You were going to frame Le Capitaine for the Dey’s murder,” he agreed, as though they were discussing the weather.  “But you mustn’t, Nonie.”

     Without admitting this was the assignment, she said carefully. “There are other ways to skin that cat. For example, if Le Capitaine seized the Dey’s necromancer—that would turn the trick.”  She paused for a moment. “And no one need die, except the necromancer.” 

     He lifted himself on his elbows, and she could feel his scrutiny, even in the dark. To his credit, he didn’t immediately suggest that she was insane. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

     Focusing on his shadowed face, she urged, “You are doomed anyway, you said so yourself—the Agha wants you dead, and soon; perhaps you should grant him his wish.”

     He lowered his chin, thinking, and then said slowly, “We stage my abduction by the French—”

     “And there is a terrible mishap—”

     “I am killed. The ship sinks—”

     She corrected, “No—the ship can’t sink, because my people need to track the pearls to whoever’s on the other end.”

     He tilted his head. “If the ship doesn’t sink, then what happens to my corpse?”

     “Your poor corpse is swept out on the tide, and the French are run out of town, dodging cannon fire from the jetty, never to return.”

     There was a pause while he thought this over.  “And what of my work?”

     “I’ll go tattle to the Dey that Nadia has informed me ʼtwas the Agha who plotted your downfall with the French, and she is rightly furious.  The Agha gets expelled from the palace, and your work continues, only you are now working behind the scenes—since everyone thinks you are dead—and the Agha is powerless to put a stop to it.  Hopefully, it all works out so that I won’t soon be a wealthy widow.”

     He kissed her, but he was distracted, as he considered this plan. “You have a gift for this.”

     “You may be better,” she admitted with some modesty. 

      With gentle fingers, he pushed a wayward tendril behind her ear—her cap was all askew, due to being repeatedly bumped against the wall. “And what of you, then?”

     She took a breath. “I’ve decided to retire from the ranks.  Instead, I’ve a fancy to help you save people, in an ironic twist that should not go unappreciated.”  In the comfort of his arms, she spoke aloud a thought that had occurred to her more than once, lately. “My usefulness is coming to an end because too many have heard of me; without the element of surprise, I’d soon be a gone goose.”

     He rested his forehead against hers. “So, you will instead stay with me, and be a happy goose.”

     She frowned against his head. “Fah—I hate this place.  I hate everything about it.”

     “So do I.”

    They both chuckled for a moment, and she then confessed, “They’ll be no more French ships, coming through, though; that’s the flaw in my plan.”

     “No matter; there is an alternate route we’ve used—overland, to the port of Azir.”

    “I was in Azir,” she interrupted, very pleased to tell him this. “It’s where I landed, when I plagued de Gilles into letting me go.”

    Reminded, he lifted his head.  “How did you manage it?”

    “Can’t say.  Professional secret.”

   He contemplated her for a moment in silence. “I am sorry I hurt you,” he said softly, “but I didn’t know what else to do.”

    “No more of it,” she begged, completely serious for once. “Please. I will be a good helpmeet, I promise. But I would like to believe that we will begone from here, some day. I would like to see Malta.”

    “Soon,” he soothed, his long fingers playing with the errant tendril. “Soon, the tide will turn.”

    After a poignant pause, she said slowly, “I will tell you a secret, my friend. You can wait for it all you want, but the tide never seems to turn.”  She had seen the world from a different perspective than his, and wasn’t at all certain it was salvageable. With a mental shake, she chided herself for being so melancholy—he was going to regret his whole plan to snatch a bride by trickery, and that wouldn’t do at all. 

     With some reluctance, he raised himself off her, and helped her to sit up, so that they could re-adjust their clothing.  “I would like to speak with Mr. O’Hay, if I may.”

    Guilelessly, she explained, “Jamie is on de Gilles’ ship.”

    There was a pause, whilst he turned his head to her.

    “You are so annoying,” she retorted crossly.  “Don’t you dare let him know he’s been twigged.”

    “It is not his fault.” He rose to take her hand, as she stood also. “He cannot blend in easily, here.”

    “What are you going to say to him?”

     “I wish to speak to him of Saba.”

     “Oh.”  This did seem to be a legitimate request, particularly if he was her closest male relative, and the girl was soon to leave for parts unknown, to join up with an Irish assassin’s flanker.  “All right, then—don’t mention the new plan, if you please; allow me to break it to the poor man.”

       After determining that the coast was clear, they stepped outside, and began to walk up the alley, Nonie resting her right hand on her left shoulder in the signal to Jamie that it was safe to approach. There was no immediate response, and so she said to Tahriz, “Step apart from me, if you please; it’s worried, he is, that it’s a trick.”

     Taking a look around, the necromancer strode over to lean against a shadowed wall, whilst Nonie wandered down the alley.

     In a few moments, Jamie materialized by her side, wary. “What’s happened?”

    “He would like to discuss Saba with you.”  She braced herself, prepared for a serious dose of swearing, but Jamie instead paused thoughtfully, and looked over toward the mark. “Yes—I should speak with him, I suppose. Wait here.”

     This seemed unfair, after all she had been through to help bring this about. “Can’t I listen in?”

     “No,” he said bluntly. “Stay within sight, and try not to cause a ruckus.”

     “Aye, sir,” she teased, but he wasn’t listening, and walked over to join the other man in the shadows.

    To pass the time, she imagined the conversation between the two men, with Jamie saying, I have a tidy sum set aside, being as how I am an accomplished pickpocket, and raider of treasures. I am owed favors from various heads of state, but none will ever acknowledge me. There’ve been a few women—well, more than a few—but there is no better man in a tight corner; no better supporter and friend—

     Lord, she thought, feeling the prickle of tears yet again; I am going to miss Jamie, when all is said and done.  Everything is changing, everything except for Napoleon, who fancies he can make history bloody repeat itself.  Letting out a long breath, she waited for the men to finish their discussion.