ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 42

 

     “I’ve found them, sir,” Jamie announced to Le Capitaine. “The wife was about to leap overboard.”

     With a furious gesture, the Frenchman ordered, “Bring them forward,” then turned to shout to Fatima, “There, you see, madame? Behold your husband.”

     With an effort, Fatima raised her soft voice so that she could be heard over the whipping wind.  “He must be allowed to depart on a boat. The Irish wife, also.”

     Recalculating, Nonie decided that Fatima’s plan was not a mortal blow to the assignment; the necromancer could still be killed in some public fashion, and the pearls restored to the Frenchman.  All in all, it was not a bad turn of events, considering matters had looked grim, only a short while before. The only rub, of course, was the fate of the diminutive woman perched on the bowsprit, and dangling a handful of pearls over the water.  It was difficult to gauge who was more furious with her, the Dey or Le Capitaine, and no promise of safe passage would mean a thing to either of them.

     With angry strides, the Frenchman approached the necromancer, and raised a pistol to his temple.  “Relinquish the pearls, madame, or you will watch him die.”

     With a stealthy movement, Nonie reached within her kaftan, to close her hand around her pistol as she met Jamie’s eyes, sending a message that it was time to abandon the assignment without a qualm, and to incite a gun battle in the desperate hope that some of them would survive.  While they tensed for this inevitability, however, Fatima had other plans. With a calm flick of her wrist, the tangle of pearls she’d held dropped down, and disappeared into the churning waves.  With a deliberate motion, she reached into the basket, and drew out another.

     “Stop, I command you,” shouted Le Capitaine as a collective gasp could be heard from the men who watched. 

     Ignoring him, she dangled the next handful, gleaming in the twilight, over the water.

     Cursing, the Frenchman lowered his pistol, and Nonie let out a relieved breath.  I don’t know why I ever thought Fatima was naïve, or timid, she thought. But one thing I know for certain—I’m not going to allow the likes of her to sacrifice herself to save the likes of me.

     With an angry shout, the Agha made his way through the crowd, and into the forefront of the strange standoff. “What nonsense is this? Shoot her!”

     “No—I must have the pearls,” ground out the Frenchman.  “Stand down, and do as she asks—safe passage for everyone to get off the ship, so that I can set sail and begone from this place.”

     “Yes—stand down,” agreed the Dey, glancing uneasily toward his necromancer. “It has been nothing more than a misunderstanding.”

     But the Agha was not so willing to concede, and stalked over to confront Le Capitaine, his heavy bulk nearly shaking with fury.  “No—no, you fools—they must all be killed; they are not what they seem.” With a trembling arm, the Agha pointed an accusing finger at Nonie. “This woman is a notorious slayer of men.” 

     “Calm yourself,” admonished the Dey, with a full measure of icy scorn. “You make yourself foolish.”

     “I do not care one way or another,” responded the French captain, in cutting tones. “Leave me the pearls, and get off my ship.”

     But Nonie had heard enough, and carefully withdrew her pistol from its hiding place, as she pretended to cower behind her husband.  “The Agha knows too much,” she murmured, and raised the pistol to prop the barrel on Tahriz’s shoulder, so that no one could see what she was about. “Hold still.”

     “Nonie—no,” he said quietly, without looking at her.

     “My last one, I promise.”

     “No, Nonie,” he said again, standing completely still.

     She hesitated, responding, despite herself, to the moral imperative in his voice. “I’m not like you.”

     But he only replied steadily, “We are who we wish to be.”

     She quirked her mouth. “I don’t wish to be dead, my friend.”

     “There are worse things.”

     Lord, she thought in exasperation; I suppose he truly believes it, and I suppose I must at least make an effort to pretend he’s right.  “All right; you win—I’ll run a diversion, instead.”  Adjusting her aim, she tilted the pistol so that she could sight it on the block pulley that held the foresail over Fatima’s head.  Aiming carefully, she squeezed the trigger.

     The result was all she could have hoped for; with a crack of splintering wood, the sail fell—billowing out, and then slowly collapsing to the fore deck before the astonished men, who drew back with exclamations of alarm.

     Like a hound to the whistle, Jamie reacted by leaping over the canvas sail, so as to seize the loose rigging, and swing out over the bowsprit, toward Fatima. To all appearances, the two then engaged in a short struggle, and at its conclusion, Jamil wrested the basket from the small woman, and pushed her into the sea below.

     As Le Capitaine strode over to render his thanks to Jamie, Nonie murmured to Tahriz, “My people will fish her out, never fear.”

     “Prepare to follow her.” He touched her arm, gently.  

     Uneasy, she glanced over at the congratulatory group that surrounded Jamie. “Do you think Jamie can shoot you before the Agha does? The man is fit to be tied.”

     “You must go, namrata. I will create my own diversion.”

     “Will it be as good as mine?” she teased, as she backed away toward the water.

     He tilted his head slightly. “That was a very good shot.”

     “Is there anything worth shooting on Malta?”

     “Wild boar. It is good sport.” His eyes met hers. “I will meet you on shore.”

     “All right, all right—I’m going. Where’s your much-ballyhooed diversion? Best hurry.”

     That an argument had indeed broken out among the main players seemed evident, and Nonie strained to hear the angry words that were exchanged.  “Our one-eyed friend is unhappy he’s been shorted on the pearls,” she guessed. “One can hardly blame him; Fatima is the prodigal nun, tossing them about like so much fish food.”

      “Go,” said Tahriz urgently, as he met her eyes.  “I am going to start a fire, and I’d rather you didn’t witness it.”

     Touched by this consideration, Nonie said no more, clambering over the gunwale just as an ominous crackling sound could be heard, closely followed by a collective gasp—the lightning weapon had been unleashed.  Reluctantly, she swung her legs over the side, and took a quick glance over her shoulder to see that the downed foresail was suddenly aflame.  Because sail canvas was treated with wax, the inferno was immediate and impressive. Mother a’ mercy, she thought as she quickly turned her eyes away.  He’s going to provoke the Frenchman by burning his ship, then get himself shot by Jamie as a grand finale.  I wish I could stay to see it. With an unhappy sigh, she dropped into the sea.