ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark


Chapter 1

     

     With a fine show of bravado, Nonie lifted her chin so as to address the ring of stone-faced men who surrounded her. “I am not without supporters, you know. They will pay a handsome ransom.”  Inwardly, she winced, because she shouldn’t have said “handsome ransom”—too confusing for non-English speakers. Instead, she amended, “I’m a very valuable prisoner, I assure you.”

     Their harsh expressions did not change, and for a moment, she was tempted to lay claim to a noble bloodline, but then decided it wouldn’t wash—not with this complexion of hers. The Irish aristocracy would never allow such a wanton mass of freckles to see the light of day, although Tanny had always tried to console her by referring to her freckles as angel’s kisses. Unfortunately, the angels were over-fond, and no amount of cucumber paste had ever made the slightest—slightest difference. A pox on my unfortunate complexion, Nonie thought for the thousandth time; else I could have easily passed as a baroness, and postponed this reckoning until such time as I could think of another excuse to spare my miserable hide.

     One of the men leaned in to murmur something in Arabic to the Dey—which seemed an ominous development—and so she pulled her thoughts back to the situation at hand.  It would be best to pay attention; matters were grim—or at least, grimmer than her usual.

      She stood, bedraggled and certainly bedeviled, as she tried to avoid looking into the flames of the two fire-trays that illuminated the chamber, one on either side of the dais.  Likes the dramatic, he does, she concluded, as she gazed upon the Dey, seated on his elaborate peacock chair.  The mughals were a superstitious bunch; perhaps it could be used to her advantage—if she managed to survive the night’s events, that was.  The crackling flames illuminated the faces of the men who stood on either side of the Dey of Algiers; ruthless men who served at the Dey’s pleasure, in this particular circle of hell.  One appeared to be minor official, and the other—the one who had spoken to the Dey—was undoubtedly the Agha, who handled the Dey’s slave trade, here in Algiers.  A hard-eyed, dissipated man as befit his trade; and fleshy besides—that type were always wont to bleed overmuch, in her experience.  And the tall gentleman who stood behind him would appear to be the famed necromancer—although she couldn’t be certain, having little experience with men of that stripe.  He was dressed in a dark, long-sleeved djellaba and was smoking a thin pipe, looking mysterious and very much the part—rather handsome, if you liked your men lean, and hawkish. He hadn’t spoken, but only observed dispassionately, as the Agha took the lead in questioning her.

     “I will give you one more chance to tell me; where did you find these?”

     With unmistakable menace, the Agha approached her, lifting a long, double strand of large pearls, which glistened in the flickering firelight. Through their loops she could see the necromancer, watching her with his unreadable dark gaze, as the smoke from his pipe curled around his head. Thoughtfully, her own gaze rested for a moment on the brooch pinned to the front of his turban, the hammered gold design embedded with rubies.  “The pearls were given to me by the ship’s captain—although ‘given’ is perhaps not the right word; ‘lent’ is more apt, being as how there was no question but that I would have to give them back.”

     As she recited the story, she considered her options; it seemed unlikely she could pass muster as concubine material—her hair must look like she’d been pulled through a bush backwards.  Therefore, the key was to convince them she was too valuable to execute outright.  Since they seemed disinclined to believe a tale of wealthy relations, the next best thing, one would think, was to claim to have valuable information—although getting them to believe her on this point was yet another hill to climb.  “There are plenty more pearls where that came from,” she disclosed in an artless manner, pausing to wring the sea water from her skirts. “There was an entire chest, brimful of them.” 

     At this, the Agha glanced over at the Dey with a significant look, and then continued his pacing. “You are English?”

     “Good God,” Nonie exclaimed, horrified. “Bite your tongue; I am as Irish as the day is long.”

     “What were you doing on a Dutch merchant ship?”

     “Sinking, mostly.”  She paused, then added fairly, “And drinking a great deal of wine, before that.  I confess it has occurred to me that the two events are not unrelated.”

     “What happened to the captain—and the crew?”

     Disclaiming, she spread her hands. “I’ve no idea—and is it fair that they left me to fend for my poor self, I ask you? No, it is not; not a twinge of chivalry amongst them.” Indignant, she tossed her head, which was not well-advised; when wet, her fiery hair fell nearly to her waist, but as it dried, it gathered into a tangled mass of thick curls that now sprang from her head as though it had a life of its own—not to mention it was stiff and salty, from its recent immersion into the Bay of Algiers.

     In a threatening manner, the Agha positioned his face close to hers; so close that she could see the pulse beating in his throat beneath his chins—not an attractive man at all, small wonder he was compelled to dally with slaves.  “Are you acquainted with an English lord named Droughm?”

     Nonie blinked. “I’m afraid I am acquainted with no English lords—although my neighbor’s cat is indeed named Droom. He is an excellent mouser, and a Hospitaller, besides.” She paused, allowing the reference to sink in, as she carefully avoided looking at the necromancer.

     But the Agha did not appreciate the change of subject, and leaned in, his beady eyes narrowing.  “Where—exactly—did the ship sink?”

     “My mother didn’t raise a fool,” she protested. “I’ll first need assurances that you are not going to do me in.”

     The Dey, who had been watching without comment, now made an impatient gesture toward the necromancer from the depths of his chair. “Enough; find out what she knows.”

     “Very well,” said the tall figure at the back. “Bring her along.”

     A guard stepped forward to seize Nonie’s arm, and she was marched down the marbled hallway in the wake of the retreating necromancer, her trailing skirts leaving a wet mark on the tiled floor.  “Are you going to cast a spell on me?” she called out to the tall, silent figure. “Can you erase my freckles, while you are about it?”

     “Silence,” cautioned the guard, with a jerk on her arm.

     “Good luck, with keeping the likes of me silent,” she replied, almost kindly. “Better men than you have tried.”

     After a few turnings, the necromancer led them through a Moorish arch and into a well-appointed antechamber, where they were met by beautiful young woman, dressed in a diaphanous kaftan. With a word, the necromancer dismissed the guard, and then the girl, who seemed rather surprised, but bowed her head and retreated on silent feet, steepling her hands after slanting a quick, covert glance at Nonie.

     Watching the graceful girl close the double doors behind her, Nonie offered, “She doesn’t have to leave, you know—it is not as though she has anywhere to hide a weapon.”

     The necromancer ignored the comment, and then proceeded through a side door, off the antechamber.  After hesitating for a moment, Nonie decided that she may as well follow him, and cautiously emerged in what appeared to be a stillroom, featuring shelves stocked with jars and canisters, the scent mildly reminiscent of camphor, mixed with herbs. As he lit the lantern on the mixing table, he asked, “Why are you here?”

     She brushed wet, salty curls from her forehead, and regarded him with surprise. “I’d little choice.  But perhaps you will tell me why a Hospitaller casts spells for slave traders.” Either he didn’t realize the significance of the insignia on his brooch, or he was having a fine joke. 

     “I do not cast spells,” he corrected, his expression impassive, as he turned to face her. “I communicate with the dead.”

     “Well, that is much more impressive.” She pretended to think over the benefits of such a talent, but instead watched the way the lantern light reflected in his dark eyes. “And who, exactly, is dead?”

     “The Dey’s mother.”

     Nonie allowed her admiration full rein. “Well done—I am beginning to think you are a grifter of the first order.”

     He made no effort to respond, but instead crossed his arms, as he thoughtfully met her gaze. “I know who you are.”

     With some amusement, she raised her brows. “I suppose you are to be congratulated, then. Who are you?”

     Again, he ignored the question.  “I will deliver you safely away from here, but you must not come back. Is that understood?”

     “I am not one to take direction well,” she confessed. “It’s the hair.”

     He allowed his gaze to encompass the glory of her curly red mane. “You would do better to disguise the hair.” 

     “I was recently fished out of the sea,” she defended herself, stung. “What will you?”

     With a measured gesture, he turned to pull a vial, and then a canister from the shelves. “I will give you a potion, and when you wake, you will be on an outbound ship.”

     “I see.  And how am I to know you will not try to have your way with me?”  Teasing, she allowed a palpable thread of hope to be heard in the words—he was rather attractive, in a sinister and menacing sort of way. I have always been attracted to sinister and menacing, she thought with regret; it is a terrible, terrible failing.

     Once again, he ignored the question. He’s as close as a clam, she thought, amused. I would very much like to provoke him into saying something unguarded, if for nothing more than the sport of it.  As she watched, he measured out a viscous, amber-colored liquid into a small cup, and then was almost startled when he chose to break the silence.

     “Where did you come by the pearls?”

     She arched a brow. “Lord, everyone is mad on the pearls—they seem to think I’ve a treasure trove, hidden away in my corset.  Why is this?”

     He did not lift his gaze from his potion-making, but replied in a mild tone, “You are not wearing a corset.”

     “Sirrah,” she admonished, quirking her mouth in mock disapproval. “Spare my blushes.”

     He continued his preparations, his long fingers shaking the cup slightly. “It is almost as though you knew you’d be tossed into the sea.”

     Astonished, she stared at him, her clear green eyes wide. “You cannot think I hoped to land in this miserable place, for heaven’s sake—at the very least, I would have filched some more pearls, for my troubles.”

     He glanced up at her.  “How did you acquire those?” 

     “I told you—I was having a fine supper with the captain, when he asked me to model them for him; a gift for his wife, he said.” She paused, thinking on it. “I’m rather surprised he had a wife—he certainly did not behave as though he did.”

     “His name?”

     “Captain Spoor, it was.    An unintelligible Dutchman with bad teeth—I charmed him, I did.”

     But the necromancer was not to be charmed in his turn, and remarked with palpable skepticism, “You sailed alone?”

     Lord, the man was a one-man Spanish Inquisition. After weighing her options, she took a breath, and confessed, “In truth, I was coming here on a mission of mercy.  A friend has been seized by the Barbary pirates, and is now in desperate need of an extraction. So you see, as much as I would like to take your potion and have all my cares erased, alas, I cannot.”

     Watching her, he shook his head slightly in warning. “This is not the place to attempt heroics.”

     “No, and my attempted heroics have certainly not gone well thus far—it’s a sad case, I am.”

     Raising a dark brow, he countered, “Come now; you did manage to sink the ship.”

     She stared at him in surprise. “You flatter me, but I assure you that I am no sinker of ships.”

     He did not pursue the topic, but instead regarded her for a long moment, his thoughts unreadable. “If I allow you access to the bagnio, you must not interfere with me.”

     “Never for a moment,” she readily agreed.  “And what is it you are about, aside from chatting up the Dey’s dead mother?”

     As was his wont, he ignored her question. “If I discover that you have been indiscreet—”

     She bowed her head in shame. “I do have a tongue that runs on like a fiddlestick.”

     He nodded gravely. “Yes. Your hair has much to answer for.”

     So—she was given a glimpse of humor, and it seemed that the brooch was indeed a fine joke.  I rather like him, she thought, her mouth pursed so that she didn’t laugh. I shouldn’t, but I do.  “Are you an American?”

     He turned to take the cup between his hands again. “Do you speak Arabic?”

     This seemed a non sequitur, but she gamely attempted to keep up. “I do not.”

     “What can I tell them, to convince them that you are worth keeping?”

     “I cannot raise the dead,” she confessed. “However, I can do card tricks.” 

     “These are serious matters.” He lifted the cup to the light, reviewing it carefully. “You would do well to be serious.” He peered inside, and she thought she could hear a faint, effervescing sound. Frowning, he shook the contents gently, as though impatient.

     “I laugh, so that I do not weep.”  Despite herself, she craned to see what it was he did, and as she leaned in, he released the small vial into the concoction, with the result that there was a sudden hissing sound, and a cloud of mist that rose up into her face.  Startled, she looked at him. “You cannot be thinking that I’d willingly drink this?”

     “Not at all necessary,” was his reply.

     As a roaring sound rose in her ears, she swayed on her feet, and the last thing she remembered was his arm grasping her waist, so as to break her fall.