ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 15

 

     “All right now, ladies—do you remember how to count them up?  Fatima, you must try to do a better job of not showing me your cards.”

     Since the necromancer had left on whatever mysterious errand compelled him, Nonie was trying to pass the time until she would be escorted to the Bay of Algiers so as to locate the sunken ship.  She chafed a bit at the delay, because Jamie must be aware that there had been a disruption with her contact, and he would no doubt be concerned about the sudden failure of communication. 

     In the meantime, Fatima had offered to teach Nonie how to weave silks, but unfortunately this activity had not gone well at all, due to Nonie impatience with all things domestic. Then, at midday, Saba had appeared and produced—stealthily, and with much self-consciousness—a worn deck of cards.  Nonie had no trouble guessing its origin, and smiled at the girl in delight. “Jamie?” Apparently she needn’t have worried about Jamie; he had his own lines of information, which were much prettier than the fishmongers.

     And so, Nonie was now trying to teach the two women how to play a simple card game, with mixed results.  Eying Fatima’s discard, Nonie declared, “We won’t count this hand either—let me see your cards, and we’ll have another practice round.”  With more patience than she had shown with the silks, Nonie explained, yet again, the object of the game.  Saba, on the other hand, seemed to be catching on quickly, and Nonie soon learned why this was, when the girl spoke to Fatima.

     Her brow furrowed as she concentrated on her cards, Fatima translated, “Saba wishes to know if Mr. O’Hay knows how to play this game.”

     “He does indeed.” Nonie demonstrated her discard to the other two, and hid a smile at Saba’s thinly-disguised interest in all things Jamie. “He bilked me of a quid, once.”

     Fatima met her eyes in puzzlement. “I do not know what this means, Nonie.”

     “It means we played for money, and he beat me—but not fairly, I suspect.  Here, Fatima—do you see? Use this one.”  Nonie then nodded, as Saba demonstrated the correct choice with her own cards. “But since the two of you are not allowed to gamble, we will play for boasting rights only—or perhaps for pins, if that is allowed.”

     Fatima translated, and Saba made a quick response, which caused Fatima to look over at the other girl in mild alarm.  Saba made another insistent remark, and after a moment’s hesitation, Fatima said to Nonie, “Saba—Saba wishes you to know that she is not Muslim.”

     Nonie suspected this information was not necessarily intended for her benefit, and gently probed, “I see—is she Christian, perhaps?”

     There was a small silence, and glancing up, Nonie was surprised to see a silent battle of wills going on between the other two, with the gentle Fatima sending Saba what appeared to be a quelling message with her eyes.  Lowering her gaze back to her cards, Nonie offered in a mild tone, “It is none of my business, and there is nothing more tedious than religious wars—believe me, I’ve been knee-deep in a few. Your discard, Fatima—let me see what you drew.”  With a hand, she lifted her thick braid off her neck.  “Lord, it is hot in here.”

      They finished the hand, and as Nonie gathered up the cards, she asked in a casual tone, “How is Jamie, Saba? Does Aditi still cling like a barnacle?”

     Saba’s answer seemed a bit constrained, and Fatima translated.  “Saba says that Aditi was not there, at the time.”

     “Ah. Do we have more water? Lord, I am parched.”  Nonie made to rise, but Fatima stayed her, and did the honors herself, re-filling Nonie’s goblet, while Saba practiced shuffling the cards. 

     Because it seemed a bit odd that the subject of her wedding hadn’t come up, Nonie teased, “Fatima—you shouldn’t wait on me; I believe you outrank me, now.”

Fatima smiled, but Nonie noted that she did not translate the comment for Saba.  Never one to refrain from stirring the pot, she persisted, “Does Saba not yet know I am a fellow wife?”

     Fatima’s clear gaze met hers, a trace of concern contained therein.  “My lord said that you would not want this to be spoken of; he said it was not your choice.”

     But Nonie frowned slightly, and found this revelation a bit irritating. “On the contrary; no one forces me to do anything I don’t wish to do.”

     Fatima stared at her in distress, and Nonie was instantly contrite, touching the woman’s hand. “Forgive me, Fatima; I shouldn’t be snapping at you—it is this wretched heat that has me out of sorts.  Do tell Saba; I am certain she can keep a secret.”

     Fatima turned and made the explanation, and if Nonie hadn’t been feeling so miserable, she would have laughed at the conflicting emotions which were revealed on the beautiful girl’s face. She made an exclamation, and Fatima translated unnecessarily, “Saba is very surprised.”

     After a moment of recovery, Saba asked, and Fatima translated, “But what of Jamie?”

     Nonie dealt another hand, a bit more slowly this time—Lord, her head hurt. “I wash my hands of that scoundrel—look at what he has chosen, for the love o’ Mike.”

     But Saba leaned in, and spoke in an earnest manner, so quickly that Fatima was having trouble keeping up. “She says you must not blame him; it is because the bad girl is his first woman and he is blinded—”

     Afraid she would laugh aloud, Nonie interrupted to disagree with a shake of her head. “He has made his choice—let him suffer the consequences.”

     After a pause, Saba spoke again and Fatima translated, “She says she will try to speak to him again tomorrow, to make him see.”

     “Good luck to her,” Nonie replied gravely.  “I fear he is a lost cause.”  The situation was fast becoming farcical, and it was a bitter shame that she could not appreciate it more fully, but her head was aching abominably, and she felt as though she was seated next to a roaring fire. Abandoning the card game, she dropped her hand and apologized to the others. “I must go lie down, I’m afraid—I am feeling a bit peaky.” On the way to the bed she stumbled, and clutched at the bed stand, feeling lightheaded. Lord, she thought in alarm; here’s a wrinkle.

     Fatima and Saba expressed their dismay, and assisted her into the bed, Fatima manning a fan whilst Saba fetched more water.  After conferring, the other women stripped her of her kaftan, and began sponging her with cool water, Nonie too miserable to do anything other than lie back and close her eyes, her hands restlessly clutching the silk coverlet.  A short while later, she murmured in protest, as Fatima lifted her head and tried to convince her to drink from the goblet.  “Please, Nonie,” the woman soothed. “My lord said to give you this, if the fever came.”

     Too weak to argue, Nonie drank, and then sank back into oblivion.

     It was some time later—and dark—when she managed to lift her eyelids again. The necromancer sat on the edge of her bed; his hand feeling her forehead, then her neck. 

     “I am unable to make a smart remark,” she whispered, licking her dry lips.  “Sorry.”

     “Drink this, namrata.” He held a cup to her lips, his voice rich with sympathy.  She responded to his concern, and struggled to prop herself up and drink, as his hand cradled the back of her head.  She lay back, and whispered fretfully, “Can you stay?”   

    “Try to close your eyes,” he said, and, clinging to his hand, she drifted back into sleep.