The Barbary Mark
“Nonie,” Jamie whispered in Gaelic. “Nonie, it’s me.”
“I’m awake.” She wasn’t—not completely, and to obscure this fact, she struggled to remember where she was, and what was about to happen so that Jamie would be waking her up. After a mighty effort, her memory came back—she’d spent a lethargic day sleeping in the necromancer’s chambers, and now it was evening, once again. Only this evening, the visitor was not Tahriz, whom she hadn’t seen all day, but was instead dear Jamie, and she shouldn’t be so very disappointed to see him, for the love o’ Mike.
Propping herself up on an elbow, Nonie saw that Jamie crouched beside her bed, whilst Saba hovered by the antechamber, listening for anyone approaching, and looking very uneasy. “Jamie,” Nonie scolded crossly, as she brushed the hair back from her face. “You mustn’t cuckold my poor husband.”
He stared at her in astonishment, having trouble finding his voice. “Then it’s true? Saba told me you’d married the mark, and so naturally I assumed you were being held somewhere and tortured. . . .”
Nonie decided the best defense was a counter-accusation. “And what is it you’re doing, consorting with Saba, if I may ask?”
His eyes slid to his accomplice, and he lowered his voice. “There is no ‘consorting’, Nonie; I asked her to take me to you and she agreed, although I’m worried she’ll change her mind and twig me out at any second.”
Nonie made a wry mouth. “Unlikely—I think she’s smitten.”
Jamie’s eyes gleamed blue in his oil-stained face. “Do you think so?”
But Nonie was having trouble sorting out this unlikely pairing. “How does Saba tell you anything, if she doesn’t speak English?’
“We manage; she speaks some Italian—but don’t change the subject, which is, have you run mad?”
With a toss of her curls—which only reminded her to keep her head still—Nonie retorted, “I have not, and you shouldn’t be so provoking—not when my head aches like a jackdaw’s been at it. Think on it—what better way to establish myself behind enemy lines? I could marry the mark or the Dey, and I can’t be faulted, for choosing younger and handsomer. You’d do the same, in my place.”
“Don’t give me your sauce,” he warned. “You’re in a hell of a fix.”
With some spirit, she defended, “On the contrary, all is proceeding as planned. I’ve only been temporarily sidelined, because I scraped my arm on a lattice, and caught a fever . . .”
“He gave you the sickness, Nonie.”
She stared at him in the sudden silence, having trouble assimilating what he’d said. “What?”
Jamie leaned in toward her, intent. “The mark gave you the sickness. He has some huge knowledge of potions and medicines—he knows how to do it.”
Unbidden, Nonie had a sudden memory of Tahriz, applying the salve, and careful not to touch it himself. “That is utterly ridiculous—what on earth gave you this idea?”
Jamie’s expression turned grim. “We had information that he was arranging for the transport of the jeune filles last night, and that he mentioned you were incapacitated—” here he paused, “—with smallpox.”
Horrified, she stared at him for a blank moment, before righting herself. “But—this isn’t smallpox, Jamie. Only look at me—I’ve no pox.”
He frowned, but persisted, “I can only say what he said—perhaps you didn’t get it as badly as he intended.”
Nonie bowed her head so that her hair fell around her face, trying to fight the sick feeling that threatened to overwhelm her. Don’t think about it, she urged herself; not now—and don’t be defending him too much, or Jamie will think you’ve indeed run mad. “What’s to be done, then? Do you think the assignment is jeopardized?”
Jamie glanced over to Saba, and lowered his voice, even though the girl certainly didn’t understand Gaelic. “I haven’t heard anything that would make me think so. Our reports say Le Capitaine is furious, because the French think they’ve been double-crossed.”
As have I, she thought sadly, and firmly quelled the unwelcome thought.
Jamie bent his head, thinking. “But I can’t like this—bloody hell; what do you suppose the mark is about?”
Annoyed by her own foolishness, Nonie replied, “Isn’t it obvious? He is trying to thwart the assignment.”
But Jamie could not accept this premise, and shook his head, slowly. “How can he know of the assignment? Nonie, you haven’t told him?” He raised his gaze to hers, aghast at the thought.
With a careless blow, she cuffed the side of his head. “Of course not; good God, Jamie.” She saw that Saba was regarding them with alarm, and lowered her voice. “He thinks I am here to rescue your sorry carcass—that we are old friends from home.” She paused, and then added honestly, “Although I am certain he knows I am here for other reasons as well. He did tell me that he knew who I was, that first night; and things being as they are on the Continent, he must know that I am up to my neck in plots and schemes.”
Assimilating this with a frown, Jamie shook his head slowly. “Still—it makes no sense; if he wanted to thwart the assignment, he would just kill you. It is not as though he hasn’t had plenty of opportunity, what with you following him about, all cow-eyed.”
She cuffed him again, for good measure, and retorted with exquisite scorn, “Pot, meet kettle.”
Jamie’s blue eyes flashed with heat. “It’s not like that, Nonie—and Saba could get in terrible trouble if anyone thought it, so I’ll be thanking you to keep a civil tongue in your red head.”
Oh-ho, Nonie thought; our Jamie is smitten, himself; it is a shame there is scant possibility this will end well for either one of us. “All right then; we are back to the nub of it—we know the mark purposefully made me ill, and in the meantime he is making clandestine arrangements behind the scenes.”
But again, Jamie shook his head. “No—the fishmongers tell me that no shipments were smuggled out last night—and Le Capitaine stayed at the embassy, drinking with the other Frenchmen.”
This was unexpected, and Nonie thought about it for a moment. “So what was the mark’s aim in laying me out? Unless he doesn’t want me to march down to the bay and raise the ghost ship—which is what I was slated to do yesterday, before he coshed me.”
Jamie made a sound of frustration. “He’s not a very good mark, I must say—he’s gone back to reminding me of the Normandy mark.”
Gingerly, she raised herself to a sitting position. “Not the same, I think; the Normandy mark wasn’t cooperating out of sheer stupidity, and that is not the case here—quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps he’s trying to throw us off—I wouldn’t put anything past him, he’s a shrewd one. Where is he now?” She had no doubt that their spies on the ground were monitoring Tahriz’s movements, and Lord, how she missed him.
“When I was there yesterday, he was at the slave market, looking over the girls,” Jamie informed her bluntly. “He’s a rum ʼun, Nonie.”
Nonie hovered on the edge of voicing her own conclusions about the necromancer’s collection of women, but drew back; Jamie would think her a besotted fool. “Charming fellow. So, where is he, now?”
Shaking his head in frustration, Jamie admitted, “We don’t know—we lost him. Then I heard Saba’s bizarre tale, and came to see if you were yet alive.”
Nonie was touched, and with a fond gesture, laid a hand on his headscarf. “You’re a good man, Jamie O’Hay—risking your health, to come look after me.”
“No danger, actually—I already had the smallpox, when I was little.” He pushed up a sleeve to show her a pock mark.
She examined his arm with interest. “Did you? Fancy that.”
He lifted his gaze again, suddenly serious. “Do you have a weapon?”
“I do,” she assured him. “And believe you me, I will put it to good use, if necessary.” She hoped this was true; in her weaker moments she admitted to herself that she would be very reluctant to take up arms against this particular mark. Reminded, she asked, “What does ‘namrata’ mean? Do you know what language it is?”
“No, I don’t—is it important?”
She sighed, and brushed her hair back again. “I’ve no idea. I’ll need a new contact, if anyone’s handy.”
Jamie’s brows drew together. “What happened to the old one—do you know?”
Pausing, she weighed how much to tell him, and once again felt that that strange sense of allegiance to her erstwhile husband, who had brought about her many problems and didn’t deserve a shred of sympathy. “I think the fellow is being detained somewhere; I would be very surprised if he’s been harmed.”
“Nonie—” Jamie warned ominously.
Deftly changing the subject, she reported, “There is no love lost between the mark and the Agha; I have the impression there is a pitched battle going on behind the scenes, with the Dey in the middle.”
The distraction did the trick, and Jamie cocked his head, thinking. “I’ll see what I can discover.”
Reminded, she added, “And my old contact mentioned a Frenchman hanging about; a laughing, brash man.”
Jamie gave her a look. “De Gilles.”
Surprised, she stared at him. “De Gilles is here? After everything that went forward in Normandy?”
“Remember, there’s a rumor that he’s involved in slave trading.”
She nodded, thoughtfully. “That would explain it, I suppose. This would not be the place to scheme any other schemes, after all—we’re weeks away from the civilized world.”
“So—he’s just a coincidence?” His question held a hint of doubt; they’d been in their business far too long to believe in coincidences.
Responding to his tone, she decided, “Let’s put a shadow on him, and see what he does.”
Jamie glanced over at Saba, who met his gaze nervously. “I should go. For God’s sake, Nonie; don’t do anything foolish. Or, more foolish than you’ve already done.”
She touched his arm. “I’ll do my best. In the meantime, try not to give my husband reason to call you out.”
With one last admonitory look, he rose, and followed Saba as she slipped through the door.