ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark


Chapter 3

     The following morning, Nonie was informed by Fatima that she was to be moved, and she was then escorted by two taciturn guards through the ancient Kasbah area, and into her new quarters.  The new building was in closer proximity to the Dey’s palace—which stood atop the long hill that rose up from the Bay of Algiers—and the new cell was definitely a step up, and probably reserved for those prisoners who were able to pay out a substantial ransom. It featured a moderate-sized arched window and a fire grate, although why anyone would want to start a fire was beyond Nonie’s abilities to contemplate—it was like living on the sun in this miserable place, and she’d never complain about the chilly morning mists again. There was also a dressing screen, and a bedstead with a straw mattress—almost like home, if home was a notorious prison, where graft and corruption reigned.

     Fortunately, she appeared to have landed on the right side of the graft and corruption—although the payout was as yet unclear. She was honest enough to admit she was mightily attracted to the necromancer, but had no desire to the latest acquisition in a fleet of concubines, which was how powerful men operated in this misbegotten corner of the world.

     One of the guards met her eyes for a significant moment, and Nonie was given to understand that he was her contact—either that, or he found her fetching, which seemed unlikely, given the current state of her poor hair.  To test it out, she wandered over to look out the window, standing close to him.

     “Les jeune filles,” he murmured in an undertone.

      It was French for “the little girls,” and definitely identified him as her contact.  “The necromancer has taken matters into his own hands,” she murmured in response.  “Stand down for now—and I shouldn’t be surprised if he knows who you are, so behave accordingly.”

     There was a short moment, whilst Nonie could sense the man’s surprise at this turn of events, and inwardly, she sighed at the prospect of having to deal with a contact who was so inexperienced as to allow his startlement to show. No doubt good help was hard to find, here in Algiers, and so she should not complain, but instead make the best of it. Hopefully he wouldn’t get one or more of them killed.

      After the guards had departed, Nonie sent Fatima to fetch food, and then quickly crouched to run her fingers along the bottom edge of the bedstead. With a sound of satisfaction, she pried loose a small, thin knife, a round mirror, and a pillbox, its contents rattling when she tossed it in the air, and caught it in her hand.  With a deft, practiced movement, she flipped the knife into her palm and tested its sharpness with a fingertip, then used it to slit the hem of her kaftan and slip it within, along with the pillbox.  With the mirror in the palm of her hand, she then approached the window to experiment reflecting the sunlight off it, her elbows leaning on the plastered sill.  Very good, she thought, as she watched the flash of light move along the building opposite hers; this should set the cat among the pigeons.   

     Fatima returned with a bowl of figs and an air of suppressed excitement. “You are to be taken to see the Dey—I am to prepare you.”

     Nonie could muster little enthusiasm at the prospect, as she sank into the bench to finger through the figs.  “It’s humiliating, it is—to be paraded about like a prize pig; not to mention I’ve no idea of my lines.”

     “A pig?” asked Fatima, bewildered.

     Her mouth full, Nonie winked at her. “Never you mind, Fatima—tell me what you’d like me to do.”

     The woman made a fluttering gesture. “We must cover your hair; and you must try to be—” here she paused, trying to decide what to say.

     “—quiet,” Nonie finished for her, laughing. “I can try, but I will make no promises.”

     “Sometimes—” Fatima continued delicately, “—you say things, because you are not afraid.”

     “I suppose not.” Nonie entertained a sharp pang of sympathy for her companion, who had been forcibly wrested away from all she had known, presumably at a tender age.  Fatima was right—she should be more wary; the necromancer definitely knew more than he ought, and there was nothing amusing about this place, particularly when it came to young women.

     After her crowning glory had been carefully tucked away in the headdress, Nonie was escorted out the building and through the central plaza of the government complex, the heat positively radiating from the whitewashed walls that surrounded her.  She observed with interest the throngs of people milling about; she’d never been to this part of the world before, but found that—aside from the clothes worn—the atmosphere was similar to that of any other government complex—men grouped in serious conversation, while others hurried to make appointments, or plead for favors.  And who could say that the favors sought were less civilized than those sought at Whitehall? I am jaded, through and through, Nonie decided; and with good reason.  I wonder what the day holds.

     Once they were within the confines of the Dey’s palace, their party proceeded through the elaborate Moorish arches until they arrived at the same reception chamber where she’d been taken that first night—all onyx and ivory floors, with the great man himself seated in his peacock chair, his hooded gaze fixed upon her as she approached. The Dey was a thin, brooding man, wearing rich silks and with a ring on every finger, but no one would mistake him for a dandy—his face was framed in harsh lines, his eyes hard. One did not become a Dey in modern day Algiers without having successfully cracked a few heads together, and this man appeared to be no exception to the rule. At first blush, he was not one who would be suspected of having a deep affection for his late mama, and it was certainly impressive that the necromancer had winkled out such a weakness.  To what use that weakness was being put, however, remained unclear.

     Several attendants flanked the Dey, amongst them the Agha and the necromancer, who smoked his pipe and observed her approach with no sign of recognition.  As it was daytime, the fire trays were thankfully not lit, and Nonie let out a breath that she had not realized she held.  Not certain as to the proper protocol in this house of heathens, she bobbed a respectful curtsey, and then awaited events.    

     The Dey made a gesture, and one of the attendants stepped forward. “I am to help translate; your English is difficult to understand.”

     My English is perfectly comprehensible, thought Nonie a bit crossly, and perversely, she resolved to speak as distinctly as she could manage—which unfortunately meant she had to hold forth as though she held marbles in her mouth.

     “I am told you foresaw the sinking of the Dutch ship.”

     Doing a rapid assessment, Nonie decided she should appear cowed before the mighty Dey; if she continued defiant, it would not expedite matters.  To this end, she bent her head, as though reluctant to admit to such a calling. “Yes, it is true. I dreamt a dream, and attempted to warn the captain that the limmering moon would devour his fine ship.  Being a reformist Dutchman, however, he paid me no mind.”

     She could sense a ripple of interest in the assembly, and the Dey leaned forward slightly, frowning in seriousness. “Oh? And you also foresee an attack, here?”

     Here was a wrinkle, and she glanced at the necromancer for guidance, her confusion real and unfeigned.

     “Speak,” the necromancer commanded harshly, gesturing with his pipe. “Tell the Dey of the coming attack by the ships.”

     This seemed little enough to go on, but she was certainly game to give it a go—she could easily surmise what was referenced. Britain was at the forefront in pursuing the abolition of slavery worldwide, and even the late Admiral Nelson had brought his mighty navy to bombard Algiers, so as to discourage the Barbary pirates—and the Dey—from pursuing such activities.  Tired of paying out huge ransoms, the Americans had also taken a turn at shelling the place; however, the British and the Americans were currently distracted by their war with each other, and as a result of this unfortunate situation the piracy—and the resultant slavery and extortion—was flourishing once again.

     Nonie raised her face, and gazed solemnly into a distant corner of the room.   “Yes—well, I foresaw an attack by warships; terrible explosions that made the ground tremble, and the buildings crash to the ground—even this one.”  She paused, then lifted a hand, as though visualizing it.  “There was a beautiful horse—white, with one blue eye, lying on the ground bleeding, whilst the birds pecked at its flesh.” 

     There were audible gasps in the room, and the Dey recoiled in dismay. There you go, she thought with satisfaction; never doubt an Irishman’s ability to tell a round tale. It was indeed fortunate that Lord Droughm had gone on and on about the Dey’s favorite horse whilst they’d been playing cards, and just as fortunate she’d paid any attention at all to what he’d said, horses being of lesser interest than the winning of stakes. 

     Unable to contain himself, the Agha sprang to his feet, and stalked over, subjecting her to an intense, hostile scrutiny. “Who brings this attack?”

     She decided that a good prophetess wouldn’t be well-informed as to the particulars.  “I dinno’ know, sir.”

     “She does not know,” translated the translator.

     The man needs to earn his bread, thought Nonie, and promptly broadened her accent. “Mi’ be the gafty banshees, an’ all.”

     While the translator struggled with this, the necromancer stepped in—apparently she had gone too far off script. “It seems likely she warns of a British attack.”

     But Nonie lifted her face, closed her eyes, and improvised, “Yes—there are enemies who beat their drums as they approach, but there is another enemy who is more deadly; one who lives in chains on an island, and who seeks to escape. This enemy should never be crossed.”  It is true, she thought fairly; say what you will about our friend the Dey, he certainly has some cheek, to be double-crossing Napoleon—he’s a braver man than I. 

     As could be expected, this news was most unwelcome, and the Dey sank back in his chair, covering his eyes with a hand, as the Agha turned upon the necromancer, his face mottled with fury. “This is your doing—do not think for an instant that I cannot see through it—”

      “Silence,” barked the Dey. With a brooding expression, he contemplated Nonie for a moment, then asked of her, “What of the pearls?”

     “The pearls bind the hands of the doughty warriors,” she replied in a solemn tone. “Woe unto them.”  Prophesizing was actually rather easy, once one got the hang of it; perhaps she could try her own hand at grifting, and learn at the feet of the necromancer—although if she were stationed at the necromancer’s feet, she would probably be tempted to indulge in other impulses.

     These pleasant thoughts were interrupted when the Agha, furious with her,  put a rough hand beneath her chin, and forcibly drew her face close to his, hissing, “What nonsense is this? Where are the pearls?”

     “She does not know,” the necromancer interrupted in a terse tone. “I have already tried.”

     While Nonie appreciated the fact that he was trying to make the despicable Agha stand down, she had her own narrative to pursue, and so contrived to look frightened.  “The captain did indeed have a casket of pearls.  He seemed very proud of them.”

     She should know, of course. She’d helped the captain secure the casket of pearls with her own hands, before they’d gone up on deck to join Droughm, who was trying to man the helm in the stormy sea.  She’d wound two strands of pearls around her neck, and with the wind whipping her hair, they’d toasted each other with a bottle of whisky.  “Proost,” shouted the Dutchman; “Slainte,” Nonie had replied, and then Droughm had helped her clamber up from the deck to stand on the ship’s railing. The captain fired two cannon balls straight down into the ship’s hull, and Nonie leapt out into the sea, holding the pearls tightly with one hand. 

     Her thoughts were pulled back to the present by the Dey, who made an agitated gesture to the guard. “Take her away—I must think.”

     That’s it? she thought in surprise. For heaven’s sake, this was a dim-witted bunch of cutthroats; you’d think there’d be a bit more naked greed in evidence—she’d practically given them an engraved invitation to go find the sunken treasure. 

     She could feel the necromancer’s thoughtful gaze resting on her, as she allowed the guard to lead her back to her quarters.   A bit more prodding was necessary, it seemed, but meanwhile, she needed to get to Jamie.