ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 37

 

     The next day, they were assembled in the necromancer’s chambers, Jamil and Tahriz standing by the window and quietly conferring with Jamie and Saba, whilst Nonie was holding her own low-voiced conversation with Fatima.  “I’ve half a mind to push you out the window, I do—best mind yourself.”

     The smaller woman touched Nonie’s arm in distress, her soft eyes pleading. “I am so sorry, Nonie.  It was for the greater good.”

     But Nonie was not to be placated, and tossed her head. “I’ll greater-good you one, I will. We are friends, and friends do not dupe each other—it’s out the window with you, and a good riddance.”

     Coming to the realization that Nonie was teasing, Fatima smiled with relief, and then confessed, “I am glad you didn’t sail—and Saba is so happy.” 

    This was inarguable; Saba was breathtakingly beautiful in a takchita of blue silk, her eyes like stars, as she stole glances at her bridegroom. Nonie was dressed once more in a kaftan, and reconciled to reprising her role as the necromancer’s latest bride—at least until she was ostensibly made a widow, later this evening. She wasn’t clear on the outlines of Tahriz’s plan to fake his own murder—no doubt because he didn’t quite trust her people not to interfere—and so she’d been forced to take a secondary role, which was a novel situation, but one to which she must become accustomed, if she was to stay on, and help him with his slaves-smuggling.  She met his gaze across the room, and felt a slight breathlessness—the man is thinking about the session on the crate, she thought. Shame on him.

     With an effort, she pulled her attention back to Fatima, and decided to ask a few questions, being as her better half never wanted to tell her anything.  “Captain de Gilles said the girls were on their way to France.”

     Fatima smoothed her sleeve. “Yes—to France.”

    Nonie waited, but Fatima offered nothing further, so she prodded, “France seems a strange choice, all things considered. The emperor-who-shall-not-be-named seems bent on stirring things up, yet again.”

     Fatima hesitated, then offered, “We send them to a convent near Honfleur, on the coast.  Then the attempt is made to reunite them with their families. If their families cannot be found, they are housed and educated at the convent.”

     These are good, good people, Nonie thought, much impressed. And then there will be me, the token sinner, amongst them. “Lord, that’s a mighty undertaking. How many have you done?”

     Fatima looked up, as Tahriz approached them, and replied a bit sadly, “Many hundreds.”

     Nonie took her husband’s arm with affection, smiling up into his face, and knowing down to her toes that she could never willingly leave him, come what may.  “You are a fine man,” she pronounced, and privately thought; he’s a Knight, and I’m a murderess—we are a strange pairing, indeed.

     He tilted his head slightly. “I haven’t always treated you well.” 

     But she wouldn’t hear of it. “Nonsense; do you think I’d give a moment’s admiration to any man who couldn’t outthink me at every turn? I would not.”

     “Rather than outthink you, it seems instead that we have played to a draw.”

     “I suppose that is true—well then; we are well-matched.”  With a causal air, she suggested, “Perhaps I should wear a wedding ring, now that I know I’m well and truly shackled.”

     With an air of contrition, he explained, “Your ring is in Malta, I am afraid. It is an heirloom, several centuries old. I had no idea that I would be needing it.”

     “Tahriz,” she cautioned, after a moment’s dismayed pause. “You are a madman; your people will take one look at my freckled face, and know me for a sham.”

    He replied steadily, “No one dare; and if they did, they would have to answer to me.”

     She looked up into his dark eyes, and relished another novel sensation—that she’d managed to land an honorable man who would defend her from all detractors, whether she deserved it or not.  “You are too good to be true.”

     He lifted her hand, and kissed the knuckles. “I am the lucky one.”

     “I will see to that when we have a few minutes’ privacy.”

     With one of his rare, genuine smiles he replied, “Later—after I am dead.”

      Laughing, she declared, “Now, there would be some impressive necromancing—”

     Unfortunately, Jamil put an end to this promising flirtation by announcing that they were ready to begin.  Taking her hand, Tahriz led Nonie over to where Jamie and Saba had assembled before Jamil; Jamie quietly happy, his eyes straying for a moment to meet Nonie’s, before they returned to his bride like a lodestar.  

     Who could have imagined all this? Nonie thought as she clasped Tahriz’s hand in the folds of her overdress.  We stumble into this miserable backwater—minding our own business, and hoping to get out as quickly as possible—but instead, we each find something wonderful; something worth changing our lives over.  Good on us, Jamie.

     “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” Jamil began in English, and the others made the Sign of the Cross, Nonie belatedly catching up.  He then conducted the ceremony in English and Maltese, while Tahriz listened intently, holding Nonie’s hand firmly in his.  They are all very religious, she thought, observing them.  Which makes sense, if they are willing to risk so much.  I’ll be lucky if I’m not struck by lightning on the spot, in the midst of such holy company.

     Her gaze rested for a moment on Fatima, whose head was bent, contemplating her hands folded before her.  Now, there is a nun if I ever saw one, Nonie realized.  She must be from the French convent, working from this end—that’s why she’s allied with the Maltese contingent; and there are obviously sea captains—like de Gilles—who are involved, also.  A parallel operation of personnel, who were not so very interested in saving the world from a despot, as they were in saving fragile young lives—one at a time—from the misery that was slavery. 

     She brought her attention back to the ceremony, as Jamie and Saba exchanged their vows, Saba’s voice tremulous with emotion, but Jamie’s steady and sincere, his joy palpable.  After the benediction, he kissed his bride, and the happy couple accepted congratulations, Jamie enveloping Nonie in a fierce embrace that somehow brought to mind everything they had experienced together—the horror, the rootlessness, the life of shadowy service to a country not their own, and through it all, the bond that had never faltered.  “Graim thu,” he said in her ear.

     “Graim thu,” she responded, fighting tears.

     Tahriz had managed to smuggle in a very fine bottle of wine for the occasion, and they all toasted the newly-minted O’Hays.  All too soon, it was time for Jamie to leave for his assignment, and the others moved into the antechamber to give the newlyweds some privacy to say their goodbyes.

     Alive to her husband’s disposition to meddle, Nonie warned him in a low tone, “Promise you won’t be interfering with him; it is important we infiltrate those on the receiving end of the pearls.”

     Tahriz nodded, thinking. “Will he have any supporters on board?”

     “Of course,” she assured him. “But there’s little danger; he’ll bring no attention to himself until they make landfall in France—that’s when he’ll need to step lively.”  Privately, she had little doubt that Tahriz would have someone aboard to watch over Saba’s new husband—in fact, she was rather counting on it.

     He bent his head to hers, and said quietly, “Speaking of which, I would like to send Jamil with you, when you go to warn the Dey.  It is important that the Agha do nothing to thwart the plan.”

     But she couldn’t be comfortable with this suggestion, and frowned at him. “I don’t know, Tahriz; I’ve been lately reminded that the last time that I collaborated with someone else, it nearly ended in disaster.”

     “The Dey knows of Jamil’s role with the rescues; it will add credibility to your story. He will answer to you, not me—my promise on it.”

     Apparently, marriage required compromises. “All right, then. What’s the timeline?”

     “We will give Mr. O’Hay time to establish his position, and then I will go to board the ship, while you will go to warn the Dey.”

     She thought it over. “Will you arrange matters so that there are witnesses to your sad demise, or doesn’t it matter?”

     “I will assess, as the situation unfolds.”

      This was the type of equivocal answer she herself would have given—no point in relinquishing one’s flexibility— and so, she grudgingly accepted it. “How will you stage it so that Le Capitaine is the culprit?”            

     “He’ll think I’ve come to steal the pearls—I will be discovered, and confronted.”

     She nodded—that should do the trick, and stir up the hornet’s nest.  “Do you need Jamie to pretend to shoot you? He’s a foyster of the first order.”

     But he declined the offer of assistance. “No—matters have already been arranged, and it would be best to draw down no attention on Mr. O’Hay.”

     “Good point. Although Jamie shot me, once,” she fondly reminisced. “We’d staged a blackmail feint in Barcelona—I bled buckets all over the curtains, and died in his arms. It was all very touching.”

      His eyes gleamed with amusement. “Can you ever tell me of it—of the stories you have?”

     “Probably not,” she admitted. “Although I suppose I could mention that Le Capitaine’s eye rests in a pickle jar, on the top shelf at the Cat n’ Fiddle.”

    “Good God,” he exclaimed slowly.

    “Mostly, you’d be very disappointed in me—there were a lot of dark doings.”

     But he was unfazed by this admission of the obvious.  “No—I could never be disappointed in you. I think you are the most extraordinary woman I have ever met.”

     The words were palpably sincere, and to reward him, she lifted on tiptoe to kiss his mouth, even though the others could see.  “I love you,” she said, holding his gaze with her own. “Try not to let that miserable Frenchman put a period to your existence.”

     “On the contrary; I will see to it that he does.” With a nod at Jamil, he squeezed her hands briefly, and took his leave.

      Jamie then approached, gathering up Nonie in an easy embrace. “I’ll be seeing you.”

      She clasped his neck in a heartfelt goodbye. “All right, then; have a good voyage, you.”

     But now that the moment to part was actually upon them, Saba began to weep, and seeing Jamie’s stricken face, Nonie ruthlessly pushed him out the door, and shut it behind him. 

     She then turned to Saba, and asked Fatima to translate, “I know you’re grieving, Saba, but you mustn’t leave him with such a memory; next time you must try to give him a smile, even if it kills you.”

     Ashamed, Saba nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes.  “You stay here, with Fatima,” Nonie directed the girl, “—being as Jamil and I have to put the cat amongst the pigeons.”