ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 12

 

     In the ensuing silence, Nonie felt as though the air had been let out of the room. Pulling herself together, she quirked her mouth. “You are joking.”

     But the necromancer shook his head, his expression grave.  “I am not joking, and it best be done quickly, as he may yet change his mind.  The Dey is intrigued by the idea of—” here he paused delicately “—possessing a woman with such powers.”

     “Mother a’ mercy,” she exclaimed, much struck. “I hadn’t thought of that—he’s hoping that some magic will rub off, so to speak.”

     He gave her a glance that conveyed his disapproval of such indelicate imagery, and repeated, “I think you have little choice, if you’d like to avoid being seized by the French.”

    She had never been one to accept ultimatums, but managed to keep a light tone. “No, thank you kindly. Look about you, and find someone else willing to be wife number four—I’m sure some brave soul will step up.”

     He made a sound of impatience. “Come—it would protect you, and since such a marriage wouldn’t be recognized by your church, you would be free to disregard it, once you are rid of this place.  You cannot tell me you would prefer the Dey?”

     “I’m not one for marrying,” she replied, spreading her hands. “Particularly when it comes to a man who collects women like handkerchiefs.”

     “It would not be like that.” He spoke in a reasonable tone, his hands clasped behind him. “We both know that you will not be staying here long.”

     There was a small silence whilst she wondered, with a flare of alarm, if perhaps he knew of her assignment, and then decided that he couldn’t—not possibly. On the other hand, she had already underestimated him, and more than once; it did seem that he was always five steps ahead of her.  Perhaps it was past time to set him back on his heels, for a change. “Is this a scheme to wile me into bed, Tahriz?”

     He showed no surprise that she knew his name, and offered up a genuine smile, his teeth flashing white. “In part.”

     Pleased by this rare dose of honesty from him—and basking in the smile—she teased, “Because you needn’t, you know; I would think that another orange would be all that is necessary.”

     “No.”

     The smile still lingered on his lips, and with an effort, she removed her gaze from his mouth and shook her poor head in confusion. “I wish I knew what you were about—aside from trying to vex me, that is. How can I go about my business—or see Jamie—if I am going to be guarded like St. Brigid’s shoe, for heaven’s sake?  And what if Jamie won’t have me, after I’ve made a mockery of the institution of marriage?”

     “You will be free to travel about as before.  You are not one for marrying, and Jamie has shown you little consideration on that subject.”

     “Touché,” she pronounced, and then bowed her head in mock-capitulation. “Aye then, I’ll do it—but I refuse to marry anyone whilst I smell of camel.” There was nothing for it; from the first moment he’d made the suggestion, she knew that she was doomed to agree—she was a reckless, reckless soul.

     A flash of unguarded emotion flared in his eyes—a combination of heat and tenderness that made her feel a bit giddy.  I hope I don’t regret this foolishness, she thought, and if this serves as a monumental mistake, it is nothing more than what I deserve for mooning after him—although it can’t be helped, he is so—so solid; although why such an adjective comes to mind is unclear, it seems evident he is my equal in underhanded shenanigans.

     After the momentary lapse, the necromancer was back to being his practical self. “You will be taken to my quarters, and may bathe.  I must make arrangements, and then I will join you.” He added, very seriously, “It is very important you do not mention this to anyone.”

      She was in a flippant mood, and so made a flippant answer. “Who would I tell between here and there, for the love of Mike? You give me far too much credit.”

     But he could not be easy, and searched her eyes with his own. “You will not attempt another escape? May I have your promise?”

     “That depends on events,” she replied with perfect honesty. “You shouldn’t be looking for promises from me.”

     He nodded, as though this was a reasonable answer from one’s proposed wife, and then called for an escort.  As the guard led her down the hallway, Nonie memorized the floor plan—the night’s events had thrown her off-balance, and she should be far more wary.  That she was being manipulated—and by a master manipulator—seemed apparent. On the other hand, there was no chance that she was going to pass up this opportunity to finally make her way into his bed, which seemed as good an excuse as any to throw caution to the winds.  Up to now, she had avoided combining work with pleasure—it was never good for business, to indulge oneself with a mark—but in this case she hadn’t a prayer, and had known it from the first.

      I’m not sure why I am so attracted to him, she thought; but I am, and that’s that. And I’ll have a fine tale to tell, next time anyone asks; why yes, I was married to a necromancer in Algiers once.  A charming man—except for the preying on the bereaved, of course.

      Once in the necromancer’s quarters, Nonie was relieved to see Fatima waiting within, and gave the woman a warm and heartfelt embrace.  “I’m so happy you are safe—I’m that sorry, for leaving you alone.”  Little doubt, of course, that it was Fatima who’d sped to the necromancer to report her departure, but Fatima was not one who could make decisions on her own, and so she couldn’t be blamed for bolting.

     “Nonie—oh, Nonie, you are hurt.” The woman’s soft eyes were concerned as she focused on the red and raw scratches exposed on Nonie’s forearm.

     “I scraped it, shimmying up a lattice.” Nonie bent her arm so as to examine the area—not so very bad; she would live to tell the tale. 

     “Lettuce?” Fatima repeated, her brow knit.

     Nonie laughed, and added, “—and I made the acquaintance of a camel, although the camel didn’t much care.”

     Fatima smiled as though she made perfect sense. “I guessed this; would you like a bath, Nonie?” 

     “More than anything, my friend.”

     While Fatima made the arrangements, Nonie quickly extricated the small knife, pillbox and mirror from her hem, since no doubt she’d be issued a new kaftan, after her bath.  Looking about her, she decided to secret the objects in the hem of the silk curtain, and once this was accomplished, she investigated her new quarters—Tahriz’s quarters. More spacious, certainly, and a nice window set off by intricately carved arches, but overall, not impressive. One would expect a candle guttering atop a skull at the very least, or a shrine littered with mysterious relics. Instead, the place had few appointments, other than a bed and an armoire—and provided no clue as to the antecedents of her mysterious bridegroom. Her gaze rested briefly on the bed, and she could literally feel her heart leap. Careful, lass, she warned herself; it is far too smitten, you are.

     As the servants carried in the bath water, it suddenly occurred to Nonie that matters could become a bit awkward. “Where do you sleep, Fatima?” Hopefully she wouldn’t be turning the other woman out of her bed—unless—certainly, Nonie wouldn’t be expected to join the other two?  She was aware such behavior was not unusual in the seraglio, but Nonie would have to let them know she was just a country girl from County Wexford, and not at all cosmopolitan about such things.

     The other woman looked up, as she laid out a brush and perfumed oil. “I sleep in the wives’ quarters, Nonie.”  

     Curious, Nonie asked, “Are the other wives kind to you? Do you quarrel?”

     Fatima turned her tranquil gaze to her companion. “Yes, they are kind—there is no quarreling.”

     Now, isn’t that interesting, thought Nonie with some surprise; I’d bet my teeth Fatima is hiding some secret—something big.  It was a fleeting impression, but Nonie had learned to place great faith in her fleeting impressions—often, it was what kept her alive. As the woman continued her ministrations, Nonie idly fingered the brush and reassessed her initial impression; apparently Fatima was indeed a keeper of secrets, and since she was French by birth, this did not necessarily bode well.  Best to keep her wits about her—Nonie couldn’t shake the feeling there was more here than she understood.

     “Your bath,” offered Fatima as the servant girls poured the jugs of hot water into the bath.

     “And not a moment too soon,” Nonie laughed in reply.