ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 39

 

     “Who is supposed to be the shooter?” Nonie asked Jamil, as they crouched to observe the flurry of activity aboard the French frigate. “Whoever he is, he’s tainted—he’s a turncoat.”

     They were hidden behind a pile of nets, Nonie debating the best strategy. The light was fading, and at this distance it was difficult to make out the figures on the deck, but she didn’t think she recognized Tahriz.  He was undoubtedly aboard, nonetheless, even though the fishmongers hadn’t spotted him—if he didn’t want to be noticed, he wouldn’t be.

     “I do not know—I am not aware of the particulars,” the man admitted.  “I am sorry.”

     “Then I’ll just have to get to Tahriz, and warn him. He’ll handle it.” She turned to ask one of the fishmongers, “Have you heard any shots?” 

     The man eyed Jamil with misgiving, and Nonie could scarce blame him, being as Jamil was allied with the mark, and the fishmongers were unaware that she was allied with the mark, herself. “Never mind him—tell me,” she insisted.

     “No,” the man replied. “No trouble.  Are we expecting trouble?”

     “I believe we are,” she replied absently, thinking. “Is Jamie aboard?”

     The man’s gaze slid once again to Jamil. “Yes.  And the woman.”

     She turned to regard him with surprise. “What woman?”

     "The one from the mark’s entourage,” the man explained, and then gave her a meaningful look. “The beauty.”

     Nonie stared at him in astonishment. “Saba? When?  Did she come with Jamie?”

     “No—later, and alone.”

     Lord, she thought in exasperation; everyone needs to stay in one place for two minutes at a time, so that I can sort it all out.  “Was she being forced against her will, do you think?”

     The fishmonger considered, and then shook his head. “It did not seem so—she carried a basket.”

     “Holy Mother,” Nonie breathed in dismay. “Saba is the shooter.”

     “No,” Jamil protested immediately. “There has been a mistake.”

     “Then why is she there?” Try as she might, Nonie was hard-pressed not to agree with Jamil—it was almost inconceivable that Saba would betray Tahriz. She shook her head. “No matter speculating—if she’s there, I’ve got to get on board, and straightaway.  We’ll need some men in boats, positioned along the perimeter to provide support—make certain everyone is armed, but make no move without my say-so; we need that ship to sail.  Quickly, now.” 

     “I will accompany you,” Jamil said firmly.

     She gave him a wry glance. “Sorry, your holiness, but I’ll not be trusting anyone, just now, especially after this Saba wrinkle.”  Thinking it over, she offered, “Although I’ll be looking to offload her, and it may be best if a familiar face was on one of the dory boats.” She nodded toward one of the fishmongers. “Bring this one along, and keep a sharp eye—I may have to wiggle the girl out of a porthole, on the sly.” 

     A short time later, she was stepping off the small tender boat to climb the rope ladder onto the French frigate, whilst two of the fishmongers loaded a barrel of brined fish into a cargo net, pretending to be suppliers.  She addressed the sailor on the gunwale, who was observing her ascent with no small surprise. “I am here to fetch my friend—the dark-haired woman. Can you show me where she is?”

     Alarmingly, the sailor immediately drew a pistol, and stepped back. “Hold,” he commanded. “Do not move.”

    “Oh, dear,” exclaimed Nonie in confused dismay, “Silly thing—what has she done, now?” She leaned toward him, and continued in a confiding manner, “She tends to stir up trouble, amongst the men.”

     The sailor ignored her, and said to another over his shoulder, “Send word—tell Le Capitaine another woman boards, seeking the first one.”

     “Monsieur, surely there is no need for your pistol—”

     “Silence,” the sailor commanded, and gestured in a menacing manner with his weapon.

     Subsiding, Nonie struck a cowed and nervous posture until—right on cue—another sailor approached in the welcome form of Jamie. “I’m to take her below.”

    “Below where?” asked Nonie in a small voice. “There has been a terrible misunderstanding; I am here to fetch my fellow wife, Saba, who I understand is on board—”

     “You will see her; the captain believes she conspires with the others to steal our cargo.” Making a gesture with his head, Jamie commanded, “Let’s go.”

     Pale and shaken, she hesitated, then clasped her hands and raised her eyes toward the heavens, murmuring prayerfully in Gaelic, “The staged shooter is the Agha’s man, and means to kill Tahriz.”

    “Enough of this nonsense,” Jamie interrupted, giving her a small shove. “Walk.”

     “Please, monsieur,” she begged, stumbling forward.  “I don’t understand—please, please let me go back—” With great trepidation, she followed Jamie to the companionway stairs, where for a brief few seconds they could not be overheard. “Saba may be the shooter,” she murmured bluntly.

     “No,” he returned under his breath. “She was fashed that she’d cried when I left, and so she crept aboard to say goodbye again. She smuggled in a letter, and a lock of hair, but the Frenchman thinks she sought to smuggle the pearls out.” He paused. “First Fatima came to fetch her, and now you.”

     Nonie made a small sound of annoyance; the sudden congregation of the necromancer’s wives would indeed appear suspicious, not to mention the necromancer himself had no business being aboard the French ship, in the first place.  The plan was quickly unraveling, unless she could think of a way to exonerate the women, and leave Tahriz on the hook so that he got himself shot. It didn’t help matters that she’d unwittingly precipitated this particular crisis by scolding Saba in the first place. I will never learn to hold my tongue, she thought with resignation; Lord.

     Jamie prodded her toward the captain’s quarters, saying in a harsh tone, “We will get to the bottom of this—such thieving will not be tolerated.”

     Terrified, she bowed her head and murmured a quick prayer in Gaelic. “Anchor chain—get us to the gun deck.” 

      He knocked on the door to the captain’s cabin and announced, “The other woman, sir.”

     The door was opened by another sailor, and Nonie stepped in to observe a tense tableau, with Le Capitaine standing beside his map table, as he confronted the necromancer, the air between the two men thick with barely-constrained anger.  Saba stood beside Tahriz, pale but composed, with Fatima to his other side. On the small table between them sat the familiar casket containing the pearls, and it seemed evident the angry Frenchman had just accused them of attempted thievery. 

     “Why, what’s amiss?” asked Nonie, her voice trembling, and her surprised gaze upon the participants. “What’s happened?”

      But the Frenchman indicated with a gesture that she was to be silent, and slowly approached to stand before her, his attitude menacing.

      Nonie, however, was never one to be impressed by menacing attitudes, and her gaze fell to the Frenchman’s sling. “Oh, monsieur—whatever has happened to your poor arm?”

     “Your business is with me,” the necromancer quickly interrupted in an autocratic tone.  “Let the women go—come; you demean yourself.”

     But the Frenchman continued his fearsome scrutiny of Nonie from his one good eye.  He thinks to prod me into gabbling, as though I’m a naughty schoolgirl, she thought. Good luck to him, and it was truly a shame that she was not slated to do him in, as he was one who deserved it more than most.

      Finally, he rasped, “What did your master command you to do, here?”

     “Husband,” she corrected apologetically. “It’s free-born, I am.”

     “Speak,” he commanded her in an ominous tone. “Unlike the Dey, I have little patience for your nonsense.”

     With a fearful glance at the necromancer, Nonie offered in a small voice, “I’d rather not say—it is a private matter—”

     Alive to the nuance in her tone, her tormentor rested his gaze upon the others for a thoughtful moment.  “You will tell me, or discover whether you are able to swim to shore.”

    “I’ve done it before—it is truly not so very far,” she assured him. “I imagine it is difficult for you to gauge distances, what with only the one eye.” 

     Angrily, he lowered his face to hers. “You, madame, need to watch what you say.”

     “Yes, monsieur, she replied humbly. “I beg your pardon.”

     “Speak,” he commanded, with unmistakable menace.

     Swallowing, she confessed in a rush, “I came to fetch Saba—she has an inordinate affection for one of the sailors, and we feared—Fatima and I—that she would disgrace us all.”

    The Frenchman’s surprised gaze shifted over to contemplate Saba, who promptly hung her head in shame.  “This is true?” he asked her.

     The necromancer, furious, issued a rebuke in Arabic to Saba, but the Frenchman silenced him with a curt gesture, saying with amused scorn, “Come, you will not be the first man to discover he is a cuckold.”  

     “It is none of your affair,” the other man ground out.  “You forget who I am, and you will pay for this insult.”

     But clearly, the Frenchman was now enjoying the situation, and circled around the fearful Nonie, who’d ducked her trembling chin so as to avoid his eye. “On the contrary, you forget that this is my ship, and the Dey has no authority here. Now tell me, madame, what do you know of this little affaire de coeur?

     “Say nothing,” commanded Tahriz.

     The Frenchman drew his sword, and held it to Nonie’s throat, whilst Fatima stifled a gasp. “You will speak,” he commanded. “I am out of patience.”

     In a semi-hysterical rush, Nonie offered, “I know she wrote him a letter, and cut off a lock of her hair to give to him.” Pleading, she added, “Please, please don’t hurt me.”

     With a deliberate movement, Le Capitaine walked over to Saba’s basket, and pulled it away from her.  Lifting the lock of hair, he addressed the necromancer in a sardonic tone.  “It appears you have a problem, my friend; perhaps you have taken in another’s bastards as your own.”

     “It is none of your concern.” The necromancer’s fists were clenched in fury.

     The Frenchman smirked. “It is my ship.  And I am not convinced that you aren’t after my pearls, after all—you knew nothing of the lovers, which is why your other wives came to save her from her folly.”

    “That is nonsense,” said the necromancer with full scorn. However, he made no attempt to explain his presence, and there was a moment of tense silence.

     “Shall I detain him, below, sir?” asked Jamie. “I will send the women off.”

     “No,” answered the Frenchman. “Leave him here, and hold the women in the brig against his good behavior, until we are out of the harbor.”

     As Jamie seized her arm, Nonie struggled against him, hanging on to the door jamb, and pleading with her husband, making her accent as thick as she could, “Nay, ʼtis tainted, the shooter is.”

    “What did she say—dechue?” the Frenchman asked Jamie irritably.

     “I don’t know—I can’t understand her.” With a yank, Jamie pulled Nonie out the door.