ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 36

 

     “They are cousins,” Jamie told Nonie, as they returned to the safe house by a circuitous route.  “And she has a fine dowry, which I explained was not necessary, but which he insisted I secure.”

     “Lord,” laughed Nonie, shaking her head.  “Leave it to you to land on your feet—Tanny always said you’d charm some poor girl out of her senses, and best of luck to her.” 

     “He wanted to know if I would allow Jamil to marry us in the morning, so that he could attend. Apparently, he’s aware that I’m leaving on the tide.” He glanced at her sidelong.

     She tried not to look self-conscious.  “Yes; well—here’s the thing, Jamie. I’ve agreed not to kill the Dey, and in return he’s agreed to stage his own abduction and death at the hands of Le Capitaine.

     There was a pause, whilst he digested this startling pronouncement. “I thought we didn’t collaborate—don’t you remember the riot at the clothworker’s guildhall?”

     “I do indeed—and how the Flemish mark nearly did us in.” She sighed. “I know we don’t collaborate. But the mark is set on a course that would result in his death—sooner rather than later—and so I compromised with him.  I can be honest with him, Jamie; he packed us off with de Gilles because he’d already guessed our assignment, but the Dey is too important for his own project, being as how His Excellency the Dey of Algiers is tied to his dead mother’s apron strings.”

Jamie cast a practiced eye along the rooftops around them, as they turned a corner, and she trudged along beside him in her boy’s trousers. Cautiously heartened by his silence, she continued, “I’d like to accommodate him if I can, since I can’t like the idea of young girls being sold, and I can’t like the idea of my poor husband’s murder at the hands of the Agha, or any other blackguard.  Since the whole point of the assignment is to stir up so much trouble between Napoleon and the Dey that they no longer do business, I decided there were other ways to pluck that bird.”

     Jamie nodded as though this made perfect sense, even though she'd never countermanded an assignment before.  “So; the mark will go back to London with you, then?”

    She glanced up at him, and decided that there was nothing for it; he needed to know that nothing would ever be the same. “No. I’ll frame Le Capitaine and the Agha for his death, and then we’ll both continue his work here, behind the scenes—smuggling the girls overland, by a different route.”

     Jamie thought it over for a moment as they walked along. “All right.”

     Enormously relieved, she teased, “Confess—you think me mad as a hatter.”

     He smiled. “No. I think you are smitten, but since I’m also smitten, I can’t cast a stone—not to mention I don’t want him to rethink that fine dowry.”

    She laughed aloud, relieved that she’d cleared this particular hurdle—if Jamie had been unhappy about her plan, she would do anything in her power to ease him, perhaps even change her mind. “Will you look at us, Jamie—what has happened, I ask you?  This is exactly what I deserve, for finding myself married to a bloody saint.”

     He smiled, but his mood turned pensive, and his pace slowed, as they approached the safe house. “It’s true, though; everything is different, now—the way I look at our work is different. I used to heap scorn on the paltry diplomats, and their attempts to head off the next disaster because I welcomed the war—I needed it to keep me busy; to keep from thinking about—about everything.”  He paused outside the door, and she stood silently beside him as he continued. “It was almost a relief to hear that Napoleon would make another attempt—d’you know?” 

     She nodded, understanding completely, as no one else in the world could. Out of habit, he glanced into the shadows, and continued, “But now I’m hoping it stops before it starts, because suddenly I’m seeing a future that’s worth surviving for.” 

     She stood, silent and uncomfortable, because he had touched on the one subject they couldn’t discuss—the one, terrible memory that overshadowed everything that had happened ever since.  And he was right; suddenly there was a tantalizing glimpse of happiness, and they were terrified by it—almost too terrified to hope. “You’ve lost your bite, if you’re hoping for help from the diplomats,” she accused in mock outrage, trying mightily to steer the conversation back toward a lighter tone. “Take hold of yourself, man.”

    With a small smile, he shook off his pensive mood. “No—you’re right; the moment we lose our bite, we’ve signed our death warrants. Not to worry, I’ll not go wobbly.”  He did not turn to enter the building yet, but bent his head toward her. “Since you won’t be bringing Saba to London yourself, would you make sure whoever does is aware that she’s my wife?  And perhaps they can find someone to translate for her, so it’s all not so strange.”

     “I can’t imagine Maltese-speakers are thick on the ground, but I will do my best,” Nonie promised.

     Jamie looked up in surprise. “Maltese? She is Maltese?”

    Surprised in turn that he did not know this, Nonie nodded. “Yes. The mark is a Hospitaller.”

     With dawning comprehension, Jamie said slowly, “Of course. It makes perfect sense, that he’d be a Knight.”

     Nonie nodded.  “I never knew anyone who was—or who admitted to it. I know that the Knights Templar—the ones who survived—were folded into the Knights of Malta.  It does make sense; they’re rather secretive, and abide by their own code.”

     Jamie raised his head. “Raike’s man—the one he picked up in Spain—he’s a Knight, I think.”

     “I never met the man, I’m afraid. Well then—mystery solved.”  But she was eyeing Jamie, who had suddenly looked away, as though he found the buildings across the way to be of extreme interest. 

    The subject shifted as he asked, “How many men will we need tomorrow, and stationed where? I’ll head over to the fish market, later tonight.”

    “What is it?” she asked, not distracted by his question. 

    He turned back to meet her eyes, his own guileless. “Nothing—I’m thinking about tomorrow, is all.”

     “James Michael O’Hay,” she pronounced in an ominous tone. “Tell me.”

    Hesitating, he lowered his voice. “It’s just that Raike’s man—well, he’s a priest.”

     Nonie fixed him with a hard stare. “The mark—the mark is not a priest, Jamie.”

     “Of course, not,” he assured her hurriedly.

     “Oh, my God,” she returned.

     But he took her by her upper arms and was quick to point out, “No—no, Nonie; you said so yourself, he’s too honorable. He wouldn’t marry you, if he were a priest.”

   “No,” she agreed, righting herself with an effort.  “Although Jamil is a priest, and he’s one of them too—”

     He ran his hands up and down her arms. “I shouldn’t have said it—I’m roundly an idiot.”

     But she was still trying to reassure herself. “He likes sex too much to be a priest.”

     “Nonie,” Jamie chastised, laughing. “I’d rather not hear it, if you please.”

     She laughed in return, and the door opened to reveal Saba, who smiled to see them so merry.  Jamie gently kissed Saba’s cheek, then turned his head to Nonie. “She’d never stand for it, Nonie.”

      Following him in, she responded, “No, but it did give me a scare, for a moment.” It was true—the others would not stand idly by—unless, they thought it was merely a ploy, and didn’t realize that she and Tahriz were making the beast with two backs whenever they had five minutes and a shipping crate to spare.

     But Jamie had moved on to a topic of more compelling interest, and had taken Saba’s hands to explain in halting Italian that he had spoken to the necromancer, and that they were to be married in the morning.  The girl smiled her dazzling smile, and threw her arms around his neck, whilst Nonie tried to find something of interest in the other corner of the room.  It didn’t help to remember her own wedding, which she’d viewed, at the time, as a small step up from a farce.  “You’ll need a ring,” she reminded him in Gaelic. She rather wished she had a ring, herself.

    “Got one,” said Jamie with a grin over Saba’s shoulder. “Got one in the bazaar, the day after I met her.”

    “You are writing poetry, you nodcock,” she observed in mock horror.  “Lord.” 

     The couple murmured together in an excited undertone, whilst Nonie tried not to feel like a gooseberry, and wondered if she could pinpoint the moment when Tahriz hit upon his scheme to marry her, willy-nilly.  I think that everything shifted between us, the night I confronted him about his multiple non-wives, she thought.  Perhaps it is not such a terrible thing to be so outspoken; he may never have felt encouraged to hoodwink me, else. 

    The atmosphere changed subtly as Jamie withdrew from Saba’s embrace, his expression somber. “I have to tell her that I’m to be leaving, right after we are married.”

    “I’ll take a walk, then.” With a smile that conveyed her sympathy and encouragement, she slipped out the door, and into the hot Algerian night.