ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 18

 

     Without looking at Nonie, the young man said in a low voice, “I am to tell you that a ship sailed. It was spotted along the north coast.”

     Nonie’s gaze rested with interest on the slave who was pouring her bath, a wiry Moroccan man—in his early twenties, she gauged—who spoke polite English with a French accent.  It was early evening, and the necromancer had left to conduct a séance with the Dey, so as to raise his dear Mama.

      “Well; there’s a wrinkle.” The fishmongers must have gotten it wrong, then, and Le Capitaine must have known that he was being watched, which was why he’d spent the evening drinking at the embassy, so as to allay their suspicions.   

     As she watched the young man reach for another jug of hot water, she thought over this latest bit of bad news.  The reason she and Jamie had landed in Algiers in the first place was because their people—those who watched the harbors of the world for signs of trouble—had discovered that French merchant ships were quietly taking cargo from Algiers to an unspecified location on the northern coast of France—ships sailing with no insignia, and not following the normal protocols. With that information, it had been relatively simple to piece together the pearl smuggling scheme—a scheme which was soon to come to an inglorious end, if Nonie and Jamie had anything to say about it. 

     She mused aloud, “It is so annoying, that the British and the Americans are busy warring with each other.  If we could set up a blockade, and bombard a few people, here and there, we’d be done with this nonsense.”

     “Yes, ma’am,” the young man agreed, glancing up to make sure that Fatima did not yet approach.

     Shaking it off, she addressed him in a brisk manner. “Time to advance the assignment, then; please tell Jamie we’ll be making a visit tonight.”  Assessing the fellow, she asked in French, “What is your name, and how are you in a knife fight?”

     “I can fight,” the slave assured her in that language.  “I am called Ibram.”

     “Excellent.  You may come along, too, Ibram; we’ll have use for you. Tell Jamie.”  Usually she wouldn’t recruit a contact she didn’t know well, but he was custom-made for her purposes, and she was willing to take a chance—hopefully he wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the last contact.  Perhaps she’d say a word to Tahriz, now that she knew how to catch him at a weak moment.

     Fatima stepped into the room, along with the slave girl who would assist with the bath, and with a bow, the young man left them. 

    “Who was that fellow?” Nonie asked Fatima, testing the water’s temperature with her fingers.

    Fatima lifted her gaze. “Ibram.  He speaks English.”

     “Not as well as you, my friend.”

     Pleased, Fatima nonetheless demurred, “Sometimes I cannot understand you, Nonie, but I think I am getting better each day.”

     “You are indeed. Did you learn English from Tahriz?”

    There was the barest hesitation. “No—I learned English before.”

    Stepped in that one, thought Nonie with regret; I shouldn’t be bringing up her former life. Of course, since a captured female slave usually served as a concubine—or worse—Fatima had done well for herself, winding up as the necromancer’s wife.  Perhaps her tale wasn’t too harrowing, and Nonie was frankly curious; while Saba was beautiful and intelligent, Fatima was not outstanding in either department.  It would be interesting to discover why Tahriz had made this particular choice.

     As the female slave helped Nonie bathe, she turned her thoughts to the dismaying revelation made by Ibram—that the Dey had managed to slip another supply ship out to France, despite their watchfulness.  It was no coincidence that she’d been laid out with a fever, and that the necromancer had been out all night—he was behind it, of course, not that any verification was needed.  The only surprise was that the ship had sailed without the casket of jeune filles, which was currently sitting at the bottom of the harbor.  They had miscalculated; the trap they were setting had not delayed this particular shipment, and therefore they needed to step up the assignment. It was a bit embarrassing—that the pearls were getting through to Napoleon’s people, despite their best efforts.  

     Hard on this thought, a commotion could be heard coming from the antechamber—men’s voices. Fatima quickly snatched up Nonie’s robe, and helped her out of the bath, as the Agha and another man in European dress strode into the room.

     Speak of the devil, and up he pops, Nonie thought, hiding her satisfaction behind a flustered show of embarrassment. The others actors in this little drama must have also decided they’d like to expedite matters, and so they’ll strike whilst the necromancer and the Dey are otherwise occupied—good on them.

     Dripping water and wrapped in her robe, Nonie ventured, “Gentlemen—gentlemen, what is the meaning of this?  If you seek my husband, he is from his quarters.”

    “It does not matter; it is you we wish to speak to.”  The Agha turned to the other man, and remarked in French, “This is the girl from the sunken ship.”

     Keeping her expression carefully neutral so that they were unaware she understood, Nonie covertly studied Le Capitaine, one of Napoleon’s former naval captains, who was now overseeing the pearl-smuggling operation. It was he who had seen to it that those who were behind  the double-cross of Napoleon were brutally punished, but in the Barbary pirates, the good captain may have met his match in brutality, and as a result the truce between the two sides was an uneasy one.

     Nonie had met Le Capitaine once before, but he was not aware of this felicity, because she had been posing as a post boy at the time. He was not a striking man; of only moderate height, and not one to stand out in a crowd—except, of course, for the unfortunate fact he’d lost an eye in an ambush on a dark road, and now wore a patch. It was a shame; he used to travel about unremarked, but now—now the poor man could not avoid recognition, and could not move about so freely. Such a terrible shame, it was.

     The sharp gaze from his good eye traveled the length of her body with frank interest—never seen so many freckles in his life, Nonie concluded—but she could not like the way his assessing gaze also traveled to the slave girl, who hovered uncertainly.   She noted that Ibram had returned to post himself within the door—reinforcements were at hand, then—but it would not do at all to launch an attack on the Agha and Le Capitaine in the mark’s chambers, not to mention her assignment would then lie in smoldering ruins.

     With all appearance of bewilderment, she spread her hands. “How may I be of assistance?”

     His mouth twisting cynically, the Agha eyed her. “I was informed that you were gravely ill.  You do not appear so.”

     “Oh—I was ill, but I am much recovered, sir, and thank you for your kind concern.”

     The Agha turned to his companion to say in French, “The necromancer says the girl tells but a tale to preserve her own life. I disagree; I believe she knows of what she speaks.”

     “Mademoiselle,” the Frenchman said in abrupt English. “Tell me what you know of the sunken pearls.”

     “I think I am more properly a ‘Madame’,” Nonie ventured in a timid voice. 

     With a sound of impatience, the man circled around her, the expression in his one good eye cold. “You will answer me before I lose my temper. Speak.”

     Her voice a bit tremulous, Nonie gathered her robe closer around her. “I would very much like to see the British Consul.”  She did not add that the British Consul’s eyes would probably start out of his head upon seeing her—just before he swore he had never set eyes on her before, of course.

     The Frenchman ignored her request, and continued relentlessly, “You were wearing some fine pearls when you were rescued.  Where did you acquire them?”

     “From Captain Spoor,” she whispered, glancing up at him, as he paused beside her in an intimidating manner. “He was very fond, you see.”

     “The Dutchman; yes. And where did he get them?” She hesitated, and watching her, he leaned in with an air of menace. “Speak.”

      With trembling lips, she confessed in a small voice, “He said—he said the Dey had given them to him—as his share.”

      “It is not true!” the Agha protested into the ominous silence. “He lied—or she lies!”

      Clasping her hands, Nonie looked from one to the other. “He did tell me not to say—warned me that it was a secret.”

      Coldly, the other man addressed the Agha in French, “I will discover what is true and what is not, and those responsible will pay—and pay dearly, I assure you. In the meantime, let us attempt to recover the pearls.” To Nonie, he said, “You will accompany us to the jetty, Madame—get dressed.”

     “Now?  Oh—oh, but sir—what of my husband—”

    He turned to Fatima. “See to it—quickly.”

     Gently pulling on her arm, Fatima led Nonie to the dressing area, and as she pulled the kaftan over Nonie’s head, the other woman whispered, “I will send word to my lord. Do not fear.”

     “Tell him to be wary—ʼtis a dangerous pairing, we have here.” 

      As they made to leave, Ibram opened the door for them, and Nonie met his eyes. “Thank you, Jamie.”  She then left with the Agha and Le Capitaine to—finally—seek out the treasure that lay on the bottom of the Bay of Algiers.