ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark

 

Chapter 10

 

      With a sense of great satisfaction, Nonie observed the stir she’d created amongst the Dey and his entourage. She’d decided it was past time to put the fear of God into all these black-hearted villains, and so she’d thrown in a reference to the ghost of Admiral Nelson, who was on his way to the Barbary Coast, and none too pleased. The Hero of Trafalgar was dead, of course, but she could necromance with the best of them.

     In response to this pronouncement, there was a sudden shuffle among the spectators in the Dey’s receiving room—a worried murmuring. Superstition was frowned upon by the religious leaders here, but it was nonetheless embedded in the collective minds of these people; she could relate, being the daughter of a superstitious people, herself.  The threat of a ghostly and avenging Admiral Nelson could not be met with equanimity, regardless of how many legions of Barbary pirates one might command. 

     As it was evening, the fire trays were lit, and Nonie averted her gaze from them, feeling the familiar knot of anxiety that always began to build, just below her breastbone.  To ease herself, she focused on the upper corner of the room, as though preoccupied with the spiritual, as opposed to the temporal.  I’m like a bloody Joan of Arc, she thought as she struck the pose; complete to the bloody fire. 

     The necromancer stood in his usual position behind the Dey, the smoke curling around his turbaned head whilst the Agha paced in annoyance—he didn’t buy into whatever it wasNonie was selling, and was doing his best to discredit the red-headed prophetess.  As for the Dey—well, the Dey looked drawn, and uneasy.  Haunted, she decided; that’s the word—the man looks haunted, and small blame to him; I hear there are assassins, lurking about.

     The Dey shifted in his chair, and commanded, “Describe what it was you saw.” 

     Closing her eyes and lifting her face, Nonie intoned, “The great man comes to finish the task he started, lo, those many years ago. He approaches, holding lightning in each of his mighty hands—”

     Cynically, the Agha interrupted, “You speak nonsense; Nelson had but one arm.”

     Thus interrupted, Nonie spread her hands, unfazed. “I can only tell you what I saw—he is made whole, and ten feet tall, with eyes aflame.  He comes to retrieve the treasure of pearls from the bottom of the sea—he does not wish them in the hands of his sworn enemy.”  

      Ah—this caught everyone’s attention; interesting that the necromancer had been impervious to similar hints, one would think he would be frantic to recover the missing pearls—he was going to drive her to distraction, that man.  She resisted an urge to glance at him, as he would probably be unhappy with her for wandering off-script.  No doubt she was driving him to equal distraction, which was no less than what he deserved.

     With a menacing air, the Agha approached to stand before her. “Speak, girl; can you tell us where the Dutch ship sank?”

     Finally—finally they were getting somewhere.  She knit her brow, thinking. “I don’t know—it was very dark, and I nearly drowned.”  She paused. “But I believe Nadia will help me.”

     The Dey’s gasp was audible.

     “What do you mean? Who is Nadia?” barked the Agha, his uneasy gaze upon the Dey.

     With a show of bewilderment, Nonie spread her hands once again. “A young lady—very beautiful—” From the corner of her eye, she could see the necromancer move his head slightly “—well, not so very beautiful, perhaps, but very kind; she greatly fears the jackals that are circling—”

     “My lord,” interrupted the necromancer with some urgency. “Perhaps we should continue this discussion in private.”

     But the Dey leaned forward, his hard, dark eyes fixed upon Nonie.  “What does she say?” he asked in a hoarse voice.

     “She fears the unseen enemy; the angry man who watches from afar, and paces in his cage—he who seeks the treasure. She wants nothing more than to deliver it to him, so that her beloved will be safe.” Take that, necromancer-whose-name-is-Tahriz; trying to curtail her prophesizing just when she was getting warmed up.

     The Dey sat back in his throne-like chair with a perplexed expression. “Nadia speaks of Napoleon—and the pearls?”

     For once, Nonie could not readily find her tongue. Here was a wrinkle; apparently she was mixing her themes, and should make a strategic retreat, until she could find her bearings. “No—not especially; mainly she is worried about whether her beloved can remain safe, from the many enemies who surround him.”

     This appeared to be the right tack, as the Dey nodded, less confused.

      After cudgeling her brain for any tidbit of information Droughm had imparted, she added, “Nadia asks that you keep to mind your betrayal by the scrivener, and beware of others who seek your ruin.”  That said scrivener had not so much betrayed the Dey as he’d been framed to take the fall for Droughm’s misdeeds need not be mentioned—and good riddance to an enemy spy.  Now, it only wanted for Nonie to put in place the next mark, who was slated to take the blame for the next round of mysterious deaths.

     The reference to the disloyal scrivener seemed to have turned the trick, and the Dey nodded slowly, his expression intent.    

     But the Agha was more interested in laying hands on the sunken treasure than he was in the assorted dangers facing the Dey. “Tomorrow I will take this girl to the harbor, to show us where the ship went down.  We will see if she speaks the truth.”

     “Take every precaution to do it in secret,” warned the necromancer. “We do not wish to give hint of what is at stake—or of the girl’s abilities.”

       The Dey’s hooded gaze rested on Nonie.  “Perhaps I should keep her in my quarters—I would listen to more of her words.”

      Oh, no, no, no; thought Nonie; I can’t be anywhere near you, my friend.  When you shuffle off this mortal coil, there can’t be the smallest hint that I was in any way involved.

      “Such a move would bring unwanted attention to her,” the necromancer pointed out.  “Better to behave as though she is of no importance, and send her back to her own chambers.”

     Pursing his lips, the Dey nodded at the wisdom of this, and then bestowed an angry glare on the assembled persons. “No one is to speak of what she has said. On pain of death.”

      I’m going to get an earful from the necromancer, Nonie thought, as she was escorted—more respectfully, this time—back to her chambers. But I can’t be faulted—how was I to know he is advancing some storyline that is unrelated to my storyline, I ask you?  And what is his Nadia storyline in the first place, if it doesn’t involve the stupid pearls?  You would think the necromancer would be intensely interested in the missing casket—they knew without a doubt that he was making all the arrangements for the smuggling operation with the French, so surely he must be worried; his own neck was on the line, along with the Dey’s.  Apparently, he had other fish to fry, and so she should step very carefully—it was possible he was pulling the wool over her eyes, in his own turn.    I’d better not be the mark’s mark, she thought with some amusement; although I suppose it would scarce surprise me—nothing is unfolding as it is supposed to in this wretched place, including the extraordinary fact that I’m behaving like a lovelorn lackwit who should certainly know better.

     On the other hand, it did seem as though matters had finally fallen into train—why it had taken so long was a mystery, what with the hints that she had dropped—and she should send Jamie a message to let him know the pearls were soon to be retrieved from their watery resting place. Once he’d finished his assignment, she’d complete her task and then—as Jamie had said—they’d be home where people fought civilized wars, instead of this barbaric place, where even those fighting on the same side were constantly plotting against each other. 

      Fatima was waiting in her chamber, and Nonie considered how to best speak with the guard outside the door, so as to send word to Jamie.   “Fatima, do you think you could find me a bite of something?  It’s wearying work, having to make prophecies.”

     With a pleased smile, Fatima indicated a covered bowl next to the hearth. “I have prepared a bowl of chorba for you, Nonie. I thought you might be hungry.”

      “Ah, yes—well, that is excellent.” Nonie had no choice but to take up the spoon with a show of gratitude, even though the miserable stuff tasted like the gruel Tanny used to make, when the pantry was bare. After a bite or two she hit upon another plan, and said to Fatima with a show of maidenly modesty that was utterly foreign to her, “I think I’d like to speak to the handsome guard for a moment—perhaps he would like to share my soup.”

     Her eyes bright with approval, Fatima made a gesture indicting her whole-hearted encouragement of this plan, and then discreetly retreated to sit near the hearth, and out of earshot.  Opening the door a crack, Nonie signaled to the man outside. “Hsst.”  

     “Na’am?”  

     To her great surprise, the man who answered was not her contact, but was instead a stranger, who regarded her with an expressionless face that did not quite conceal the wariness in his eyes.  Danger, she thought, and after rapidly assessing this unlooked-for turn of events, she offered, “I wanted to show you my beautiful toenails. Do you speak English?”

      The guard frowned slightly, and shook his head, indicating he did not know what she’d said. With an inviting smile, she indicated her toes, and the man leaned forward, a crease between his brows, to observe her feet. With a swift jerk, she slammed the door on his head, and he slumped to the ground, unconscious.

     Fatima leapt up from the hearth, gasping in dismay, but Nonie motioned her back.  “I have to leave, I’m afraid. Stay there.”  

     “Nonie—oh, Nonie, what have you done—”

     “I can’t explain just now, but you must be quiet, Fatima, and say nothing.” Still clutching the bowl of soup, Nonie quickly exited out the door, stepping over the prone body of the unconscious guard.

     “Nonie—”

      “Say nothing, Fatima, and stay there.” 

      Soft-footed, Nonie hurried toward the entrance to the building, listening intently for any sounds of alarm or pursuit. It couldn’t be a coincidence, that her contact had been replaced the same night she’d spoken about the ship’s location. Something was afoot, and anyone in this business knew that a decent abduction plan never involved only one man, working alone.

       Creeping to the entrance door, Nonie cracked it open, and then threw the bowl of soup, still hot, into the face of the man who waited outside.  As he cried out and backed away, she kicked the inside of his knee as hard as she could, and had the pleasure of watching him collapse in a howl of pain.  Swiftly, keeping herself within the deeper shadows that ran along the buildings, she raced down the hill, and toward the harbor.