The Barbary Mark
At least I am in, Nonie consoled herself, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. And in one piece—leastways, as far as I can tell. She squinted up toward the small grated window, and wished it weren’t quite so high.
Gingerly, she sat up on the narrow canvas cot to contemplate her surroundings and—after taking an assessment—was cautiously relieved. Having heard terrible tales of the bagnios where captured slaves were held, she found herself alone in a tiny, dim cell which appeared to be relatively clean—although there was a dark stain on the opposite wall that could not withstand scrutiny. With a grimace, she contemplated her bare feet, noting that the bedraggled dress had disappeared, and she was clad only in her shift, which still smelt faintly of the sea. As she considered this development, it occurred to her that if the necromancer wished to constrain her to the premises, he’d hit upon an efficient method; an unclad Westerner would be like a jackdaw among the doves, and she may as well be shackled to the floor—she certainly could not move about freely.
As if on cue, Nonie heard a noise outside the cell door, and the face plate opened to reveal a pair of unfamiliar female eyes, looking into hers. “Top o’ the mornin’,” Nonie called out.
The face plate closed, and after the key grated in the lock, the door opened to reveal a slim young woman, who slipped in with a bundle under her arm. “I speak English—a little,” the woman related in a soft voice. “But I do not know ‘top in the mornin’.”
“Never you mind, then.” Nonie sized up her companion, decided she was harmless, and then tried to rein in her accent as best she could. “I am Sionnan, but my friends call me Nonie. Are you here to rescue me?”
“My name is Fatima—Saba does not speak English.” The woman could not quite suppress her satisfaction with this state of affairs.
“Saba is to be pitied, then. What have you there?”
“Clothes.” The woman set her bundle down upon the cot, and untied a string to reveal a serviceable kaftan and—thankfully—the traditional headdress that covered the hair, complete with a dusky veil that could be pulled across the face, so that only the wearer’s eyes were exposed.
Nonie noted that her companion wore the exact same uniform, and decided it must be all the rage for oppressed females who’d little choice in the matter. “Excellent, and I thank you. I will also need sandals, and any spare water you may have—what did you say your name was?”
“Fatima,” the woman repeated in her soft voice, as she settled back to sit on her legs. “Saba will come to give instruction, and I must translate.”
So; I’m to have a keeper, Nonie surmised. The man doesn’t trust me an inch, bless him; best to start befriending the watchdog. “You speak excellent English, Fatima; where did you learn?”
“I lived in France,” the woman replied serenely. “Before I came here.”
Nonie nodded, and decided it would be bad manners to probe into Fatima’s life before she was captured by the infamous Barbary pirates, who’d served as the terror of the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Between the British and the Americans, various attempts had been made to put a stop to the pirates’ slave trade, but this corner of Algiers was mainly known for lawlessness and dark deeds—some deeds darker than others.
With gentle insistence, Nonie prompted, “Do you suppose I could have a bit of water?”
“It is coming,” Fatima assured her, her soft eyes concerned. “We waited for you to awake.”
Thus reminded, Nonie observed in a tart tone, “Yes; your master has much to answer for—knocking people out, willy-nilly.”
With a stricken expression, Fatima could make no immediate response, and Nonie contemplated the interesting fact that anyone thought this sweet young woman stood any chance at all against the likes of her wily self. Her thoughts were interrupted when once again, the key turned in the lock, and the necromancer’s slave girl entered, carrying a basket over her arm. “Ah—this must be Saba. It is a shame we have nowhere for everyone to sit.”
Upon closer inspection, Nonie found that her impression from the night before was not mistaken; the newcomer was exotically beautiful, with dark hair that cascaded down her back, and an impressive figure that was draped in clothing so diaphanous it could cause a saint to sin.
After giving Nonie a quick, assessing glance, Saba spoke to Fatima in Arabic, as she set the basket on the floor. When the cloth was removed, the contents proved to be flatbread, with dates and a very welcome flask of water. Whilst Fatima responded to Saba’s questions, Nonielifted the flask and drank deeply, hoping the necromancer had hidden no further surprises in the offerings—although it hardly mattered; she was dry as a bone, and would have sold her soul for a drop of whiskey, even if it knocked her out again. She then nibbled on the bread and the dates, listening to the two women converse until Fatima made a gesture indicating the need for sandals, and Saba interrupted to make a suggestion. With a nod, Fatima bent to unfasten her own sandals, and hand them over to Nonie. “You are to see if my sandals are acceptable.”
They were indeed a good fit, albeit not of the highest quality. “I am sorry, Fatima—it hardly seems fair.”
“No—no,” the woman explained. “I speak English, so I am to take your place when you are away.” Shaking her head with regret she added, “I am not as tall, and my face is not as pale, but there was no one else, so I will stay in the bed, and keep myself covered.”
Nonie nodded, processing this surprising revelation. Apparently, the necromancer had wanted to know if she spoke Arabic so as to find a suitable substitute to sit in her cell. Which also meant she was to be allowed out—a relief, all in all; she’d had a twinge of alarm, after the mist-in-the-face incident.
Saba made a comment, which Fatima translated. “You must not go anywhere, or say anything, until you have been given instruction.”
That will be the day—when I take orders from a semi-naked floozy, thought Nonie with amusement. And there was a decided trace of hostility in Saba’s eyes, which would only encourage her to give the girl a set-down—she knew herself all too well, unfortunately.
“Do you understand?” asked Fatima with some anxiety, when Nonie did not immediately answer.
“Of course I understand, Fatima—you speak English very well.” She leaned in to confide, “I don’t think Saba likes me very much—perhaps she is worried I will steal her master away.”
Poor frozen Fatima met Nonie’s eyes in a panic, and so she hastened to add, “Don’t tell her I said it—I was only teasing, Fatima.” Not razor-sharp, was our Fatima.
After another remark to Fatima, Saba gracefully rose, tapped a signal on the door, and then departed in a whisper of silken trousers. “I’m to stay here, with you,” Fatima explained unnecessarily.
“Well, that’s a blow to the back,” Nonie remarked in a mild tone, as she carefully balanced on the flimsy cot to examine the window. “How am I to connect with my contact, whilst you are underfoot?”
“Although—come to think of it—that may be your very purpose; to thwart me at every turn.” She turned around to smile an apology to Fatima. “I’m always talking to myself; pay me no mind, Fatima.”
“Nonie.” The woman smiled with shy pleasure.
On tiptoe, Nonie returned to the window and was testing the strength of the bars, when she heard the door open and then close behind her, although no announcement was made. Without looking at her latest visitor, she remarked, “Lord; the Cat n’ Fiddle back home is not as busy as this wretched cell.”
“Miss Sionnan Rafferty, I believe.”
“Not quite.” She craned to peer without much success into the narrow alley below—it was a pity she wasn’t a bit taller, or the window a bit lower. “That’s how it’s spelled, but the Gaelic is pronounced with a ‘sh,’ which causes no end of confusion. I was named after the goddess of feckless redheads.”
“Her friends call her Nonie,” Fatima offered tentatively.
“But it is Sionnan, to you,” she corrected, and finally threw him a quick glance over her shoulder. “Am I to be coshed-out again?”
With a quiet word, the necromancer excused Fatima, and then stood silently as Nonie continued reviewing the alley below with her back to him—there was not a lot of activity to observe in the heat of the day, but mainly she was intent on ignoring her visitor.
After a few moments of silence, he offered, “There is an Irish prisoner in the bagnio—Mr. James O’Hay.”
At this, she turned to face him, balancing atop the cot, and portraying no consciousness of the fact she stood barefoot, and in her shift. “All right—you win; I am all attention.”
“Is he your object?”
She regarded him thoughtfully, and made no answer.
He crossed his arms, the long black sleeves of the djellaba hanging almost to the floor. “Come—you must see I had little choice, if I were to make it believable.”
“I suppose I had hoped for a professional courtesy, between us.”
His dark eyes held hers. “On the other hand, I was able to report to the Dey that although I could coax no information from you about the pearls, you spoke of a dangerous moon that presaged the shipwreck.”
“Oh-ho,” she exclaimed, intrigued despite herself. “So I am an oracle, am I?”
He bowed his head in acknowledgment.
She had to grudgingly admit that this appeared to be a masterstroke. “Excellent; hopefully, I’ll survive long enough to rescue Jamie, before the Dey realizes that it’s all a hum.”
“Yes; but in return I will have your promise that you will leave and not return.”
“Don’t worry, my friend; I won’t be able to shake the dust off my sandals fast enough.” Cocking her head, she considered him for a moment. “Tell me more about your schemings—which do seem to be impressive, I must say, and especially on such short notice. Where will I be going, whilst poor Fatima is slated to take my place?”
“Wherever you’d like.”
Suspicious, she contemplated him with a skeptical eye. “And why would the likes of you help the likes of me?’
“Professional courtesy,” he responded in a grave tone.
She laughed aloud, unable to resist. I believe I shall have to steal Saba’s master, she thought—these still waters appear to run very deep. “Are you Armenian?”
His lips curved into a small smile—apparently he was also unable to resist. “Is it your intention to go through the alphabet?”
“I am not good at guessing,” she admitted. “All other accents sound similarly strange to me.”
“I will help you, and I would only ask that you do not interfere with what I do here.”
“Perish the thought.” She thought about it for a moment, in the musty silence of the cell. “And what—exactly—is it that you do here?”
“You will have an audience with the Dey, soon,” he replied in a non-explanation. “Follow my lead, when you do.”
“Can I see Jamie?”
She detected a trace of sympathy in his eyes, which in turn made her lose her train of thought for a moment—truly, he had lovely eyes. “It would be best to wait a day or two, so that suspicions are not aroused. Can you do this?”
Although she supposed she should acquiesce, she could not be easy, and allowed her concern to show. “It’s just that Jamie’s not one to handle prison very well, and the sooner I can pull him out of this miserable place, the better.”
“I understand; from what I’ve learned, he is not suffering unduly.”
“Well then; you relieve my mind.”
Apparently, he was not fooled by her mild reply. “A bit of patience, please—do not attempt the window, it is a long fall.”
Dimpling, she teased, “You will goad me into trying, with such a remark.”
He regarded her for a long moment, a hint of amusement lighting his eyes. “Please refrain—remember that you will be needed to make prophecies.”
“Lord, I can hardly wait.”
With a final, amused glance, he turned and left.
I believe he fancies me, despite himself, she thought with no small sense of satisfaction, as she leapt lightly to the floor. And what a stroke of luck, to be styled as the necromancer’s assistant; Jamie and I will be in and out, and home in time for Christmas.