ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 38

 

     Jamil had entered the Dey’s chamber, seeking a private audience for Nonie whilst she waited outside in the hallway with mixed emotions—truly, it was a mournful shame that she’d decided to stand down from her assignment, since it seemed unlikely that a more convenient opportunity to put a period to the Dey’s existence would present itself.   Ah well; she would turn over a new leaf, and try to avoid cutting a swath of destruction wherever she went, however tempting it might be to revert to old habits. 

     The doors were opened by a guard, who called her forward to join Jamil.  The Dey was seated at his sumptuous dinner—apparently, the man never stopped eating, and small blame to him, since everything always looked delicious.

     “Your Excellency,” said Nonie, as she bobbed a nervous curtsey.  “I am sorry to intrude, but I have dire news from Nadia, and I thought I should not wait for my husband.”

     Intrigued, the Dey regarded her with his opaque gaze, as he wiped his chin with a silken napkin. “Yes—this man tells me of this. What is it?”

     “It’s a bit disturbing,” she warned him. “Treachery, and double-dealing.” Taking a glance from side to side she lowered her voice. “Brace yourself.”

     All attention, the Dey leaned forward. “Speak, girl—do not be afraid to tell me.”

     “It’s a vision I had as the half-moon was on the set.  I saw my husband—your necromancer—carried off by Napoleon’s eagle.”  She raised her hands and gazed into the distance, stricken by the memory. “He was snatched in its talons, and taken away, never to return.”  Pausing for a moment, she knit her brow. “I saw girls—girls who were weeping for him, and wearing chains.”

     Alarmed, the Dey sank back in his chair and blew out his cheeks. “You saw this? Then it is as the Agha foretold—it has come to pass.”

     “Oh,” Nonie ventured, surprised by this non-sequitur, and groping slightly. “Yes, the Agha knows of this—or so Nadia told me. She is very unhappy with him, I must say.”

     But the Dey only shook his head. “No—she does not know that the Agha is a loyal friend. Indeed, he told me this very day of the French plot to seize my necromancer.”  Frowning, he contemplated her with grave disquiet. “The French seek to possess his powers.”

     “I believe—sir—that it is the Agha, who is conspiring with the French.” Nonie spread her hands apologetically. “It seems unlikely that Nadia is mistaken, being as she is in the afterworld, an’ all.”

     The Dey fixed his brooding gaze on her, and considered for a moment, stroking his cheek with a finger.  “No—my beloved Nadia is mistaken; the Agha warned me of the plan, and he has promised that he will disrupt it.”

     Trying to make sense of this alarming revelation, Nonie suggested diffidently, “Perhaps you should be sending someone down to the harbor, then, just to see what’s what.”

     “What’s what?” The Dey shot a confused glance at Jamil, who made a translation in Arabic.   Watching them, Nonie thought in dismay, I’ve a bad feeling about this—there was no French plot—was there?  Surely not—I’m making the whole thing up. But it seems almost certain there is an Agha plot, and that does not bode well; not at all.  And I have that feeling I have when I think I’ve missed something important; it is almost as though the Agha knew about the necromancer’s plan to stage his own death, and is looking to pull a double-cross—

     The Dey abruptly rose, and said to her. “Yes—I will go to see ‘what is what’.  If Nadia is concerned, I must look into it.”  He rounded the table, and formally took her hand to kiss it.  “I thank you.”

     Lord, she thought, barely refraining from snatching her hand away; he’ll be coming after me when I’m a widow—best that I disappear from these parts, quick as a whisker, before I am forced to fight him off. 

     As the Dey strode from the room, Nonie whirled on Jamil. “I can’t like this development—we should warn the necromancer that the Agha is meddling in his plan.”

     But although Jamil’s gaze held a trace of concern, he shook his head.  “He is aware that the Agha is an enemy, and he will take all precautions.”

     Contemplating him for a moment, she decided she couldn’t shake her uneasiness, and announced, “Be that as it may, I’m going down there—I’m worried we’ve a traitor in our midst. You can come or stay, and it doesn’t matter to me.”

     With an apologetic gesture, the man cautioned, “I’ve been instructed to keep you away from the harbor, ma’am.”

     She eyed him, not very much surprised. “Well, I’ve been instructed in turn that you will answer to me.” 

     “In all things but this.” He added as an afterthought, “Please.”

     But before she could decide how best to overpower a priest, the door opened, and Ibram slipped through, glancing up at them, as he quietly closed the door behind them. “Have you had your meeting? Do you need to send any messages?”

     In an instant, Nonie’s attitude changed, and she approached the table in a desultory fashion, to look over the leftovers.  “I do—I’d like to send a message to the necromancer.” She turned to smile at him. “Although we may as well eat something—look at this glorious leg o’ lamb.” With a gleam, she picked up a slice with her fingers, and popped it in her mouth.

     Ibram—rather nonplussed—hovered beside her. “Yes, it does look very good.”

     “You’ve probably well-tired of eating with the fishmongers; you must have some,” she teased. “I’ll not be the only gleaner, here.” She partook of another slice, sliding Jamil a mock-guilty glance.

     With a small smile, Ibram reached toward the platter, and with a quick movement, Nonie grasped the carving knife from the lamb, and plunged it through Ibram’s hand, pinning it to the wooden table. 

     Horrified, the slave cried out in pain, but Nonie ruthlessly twisted his other arm behind him, and shoved him, face first, into the table. “I was trying to turn over a new leaf, here,” she bit out in exasperation as he struggled and gasped. “Lord, you are an annoyance—you will tell me what is afoot, before Jamil blows your brains out, all over the table.”

     That Jamil was unlikely to comply with this threat went without saying, but the other man willingly stepped forward, and drew his pistol in a menacing manner.

     Gasping in agony, Ibram watched the blood flow from his hand, and made no response.

     “Shoot him,” she commanded coolly, and Jamil cocked the hammer of the pistol.

     “No—no!” the young man stammered, frantic. “I don’t understand—please—”

      “You serve the Agha,” she accused. “Don’t deny it.”  Upon seeing him, she’d remembered what had eluded her—every time Ibram appeared on the scene, one of the Agha’s men followed shortly thereafter, and always to her disadvantage. Ibram must be the Agha’s man, and now the Agha knew of the plot to stage the necromancer’s death.

     “Miss—oh, miss; please—”

    “Twisting his arm to a tortuous angle, she hissed at her most malevolent, “Speak, before I lose my patience.”

     He closed his eyes, and took a shuddering breath. “The Agha is concerned that the necromancer has too much influence—”

     “Yes?” She applied more pressure to his arm, so that he groaned in pain, his face necessarily pressed into the greasy platter of lamb. “So, what is the Agha’s plan? Tell me now, or you will lose your hand.”

     The young man panted in agony, “He will—he will have the Frenchman framed for the necromancer’s death—”

     This, of course, was in alignment with their own plan, and so Nonie felt the tightening in her breast ease a bit.  His next words, however, brought it back again.

     “—but the shooter will be the Agha’s man, not the necromancer’s.”

    Nonie paused in disbelief—Mother a’ mercy, the shooting wouldn’t be staged, it would be real, and Tahriz had to be warned—if it wasn’t too late already.  First things first, though; she couldn’t allow Ibram to survive, so as to tell this tale.  “Forgive me, Father,” she said over her shoulder to Jamil, “I’ll be sinning, just now.”

    But before she could reach for her blade, she heard footsteps approaching from the entryway. “Put your pistol on the table,” she commanded Jamil. “Quickly.”

    Jamil, to his credit, stepped forward immediately, and deposited his pistol onto the table, just as a guard entered the room—pausing to take in the tableau before him with an incredulous expression.

    Ibram called out in Arabic, and as he did, Nonie grasped the knife that pinned his hand to the table, and with an expert flick of her wrist, hurled it toward the newcomer, twisting Ibram around before her like a shield.  In a reflex action, the guard fired at Ibram, just as Nonie   fired Jamil’s pistol back at him.  As a result, both Ibram and the guard simultaneously collapsed to the floor, dead.

     “I’m heading to the harbor,” she announced to Jamil, as she stepped over the wreckage.   Seizing a pear on her way out, she walked rapidly into the hallway, knowing the gunfire would soon attract others. “You say you’re escorting me to safety, and I’ll play the damsel—here’s your pistol back.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Jamil replied, accepting his role without demur.

     And so, when two guards confronted them in the hallway, she gestured in tearful dismay toward the Dey’s chambers, as Jamil made an explanation in Arabic.  Alarmed, the men hurried past, and Jamil quickly led her down a stairway, and out to the back alleyway.

     It is a shame I’m to give all this up, she thought, as they made a rapid progress toward the harbor; I am so very good at it. Of course, I’d best not tell Tahriz about this little episode, or he’ll be up all night, wearing a hair shirt, and praying for my poor misbegotten soul.  Reminded, she slowed down to walk abreast of Jamil. “Are you a Hospitaller, too?”

    He hesitated. “I’d rather not say, ma’am.”

     Frustrated, she persisted, “I’m only wanting to know if that husband of mine has taken holy orders.”

     It was clear that she’d finally shocked poor Jamil, and he stared for a moment. “No—no, of course not.”

     “For heaven’s sake, keep moving,” she retorted irritably. “I don’t know if all the Knights of Malta are priests, and I was worried about it.”  She amended, honestly, “Not so very worried, but a little.”

     “No. Not all Knights are priests.”  He still sounded a bit shocked that she had entertained such a possibility.

      Goaded, she tugged on his sleeve. “Listen, my friend; I’ve met priests who would sell the Blessed Mother for a tuppence and a half-pint, so don’t come over so righteous with me.”

    “My lord is not one of them,” he answered firmly. “You do him a disservice.”

    “All right—I beg your pardon, then; you’ll not mention it?”

     “No,” he agreed immediately, making it clear he didn’t wish to even think of it again.

     “You’re very disapproving, for an assassin’s accomplice,” she chided.

     There was a pause, while he thought this over. “Perhaps you’ll not mention it, in turn?”

     “Done,” she agreed.