ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 28

 

     “They don’t dare cross the Dey—not here, surrounded by his forces,” Nonie reassured Jamie in a low voice.  “And the Dey relies heavily on the mark—I imagine as soon as he is aware of this little outrage, they will negotiate for her release, and she’ll be home in time for tea.”

     They were once again lying prone on their rooftop station across from the embassy, watching for Fatima.  The woman, the basket of embroidery silks on her arm, had slipped in the servant’s entrance without notice—so at least she was within, and could report back.  Nonie was not at all confident of Fatima’s spying abilities, and so had impressed upon her the necessity of appearing disinterested, and of not raising the subject of Saba immediately.  “Fatima’s a little naïve, Jamie; I hope she doesn’t tell her friends that we put her up to this, and that we’re hiding outside, frantic with worry.”

     Jamie’s gaze was fixed on the servant’s door, and she could feel the tension radiating from him, despite his outward calm. “Yes—she’d not be my first choice, but it was kind of her to offer. I am a bit surprised he chose her for a wife, truth to tell.”

     “I’ll not hear you criticize a fellow wife,” Nonie chided, her chin resting on her hands.  “It’s a close-knit crew, we are.”

     “Perhaps she had a handsome dowry.”

     Nonie disabused him of this theory, which she didn’t quite like, as it made the necromancer sound mercenary. “No—it’s the opposite, in fact; she was captured by pirates.  And recall that his wives aren’t really wives in the first place; he uses them as spies, or something—she hides secrets, does our Fatima.”

     “I think your theory is right. I tried to ask Saba about—well, about how she doesn’t sleep with him, and she closed up like an oyster. She won’t say a word against him.”

     Nonie frowned behind her veil—she was keeping it carefully across her face, to guard against another dose of sun-burn on top of the last one, which would probably melt her poor face right off.  “She’s loyal to the bone—they all are. It’s hard to explain; he should be knee-deep in evil doings, on account of who he serves, but instead he seems—I don’t know—he seems very honorable and courteous, in an old-world sort of way.”

     “You’re smitten,” Jamie pronounced with a small smile. “Who would have imagined such a thing, I ask you?”

     “Not me, that’s for certain. But I’m going to cudgel my brain to come up with a way to extricate him, so that he’s not hanged for his sins.”

     Shrugging a shoulder, Jamie cautioned, “Good luck to you—he doesn’t seem in any hurry to be rescued.”

     There was a thread of warning in the words, which she took in good part—she and Jamie were nothing if not honest with each other. “No—but if anyone can do it, I can.  The man has a soft spot for me, he does.”

     Their conversation was interrupted by movement at the servant’s entryway, and they both lowered their heads and watched intently, as the handsome figure of Captain de Gilles emerged into the sunlight, deep in conversation with another man—a sailor, it appeared.  The two paused in the street for a moment, de Gilles taking a quick, furtive glance around him, before leaning in to speak to the other.  With a nod, the sailor turned to hurry down the hill, whilst de Gilles—with another quick survey of the area—strolled in the same direction.

     “Bloody hell,” swore Jamie in a soft tone. “What’s he doing at the embassy?”

     Nonie was equally surprised. “He wouldn’t be transporting pearls for Napoleon, or we’d have heard about it. It must be something else, that brings him in.”

     “They may be seeking information—perhaps about the man who disappeared, last night.”

     She nodded, turning over possible explanations. “That. Or they may be trying to bribe him—neither side trusts the other in all this, thanks to us, mainly.”  She paused. “It’s a wrinkle, though—I’d forgotten about de Gilles in all the excitement. Let’s check with the fishmongers, to see what they know, and I’ll mention him to the mark, to find out what he knows about him.”

     “Here’s Fatima,” Jamie said suddenly, all thoughts of de Gilles dismissed. The small woman headed across the street, and toward the rendezvous spot at the back of their building.  “She doesn’t look very happy,” he observed with palpable disappointment.  “All right, let’s go.”

      “Hold,” said Nonie, laying a hand on his arm. “That man there—isn’t he the Agha’s man?”  She indicated a loiterer who was dressed in workman’s garb, his sharp gaze at odds with his stance, as he scanned the passersby.  “I think the same fellow was lounging about when I winged the Frenchman. Lord, it’s like a gathering of vultures.”

     Jamie watched the man intently. “I imagine the Agha has his own spies, set at various locations.  The French embassy must be high on the list.”

     “That’s probably it,” Nonie agreed. “Le Capitaine was ready to strangle the Agha on the jetty, and the both of them were ready to strangle the mark—it’s a matter of mutual loathing, all around.”

     “We’ve got to get down to meet Fatima—let’s go separately, since this fellow’s keeping an eye out.”

     This was accomplished without mishap, and after carefully avoiding detection, Nonie caught up with a grim-faced Jamie, who was already speaking with Fatima in a shadowed alcove.  Judging by Jamie’s expression, Nonie knew what he was going to say before he said it.

      “Saba’s not in the embassy.”

     Fatima nodded, her expression stricken.  “They have taken Saba away—and they have seized one of the Dey’s wives also, although I don’t know which one. They will hold them at a secret location as hostages, to prevent any more attacks.”

     “Fatima doesn’t know where they’re holding her.” Jamie’s voice was rough.

     Nonie tried to soothe him.  “It must be nearby, Jamie; and recall that they dare not harm her.”

     “No, they dare not,” Fatima offered. “My friends overheard them joking that Saba would not wish to be rescued, from the man who holds her.”

     “Captain de Gilles,” Jamie declared immediately. “That’s why he was here—it all makes sense, now.  Lord, Nonie; we have to follow him, and quickly—what if he’s taking her somewhere on his ship? He was speaking with a sailor.”

     “Jamie.” Nonie placed a staying hand on his arm. “We need to think about this in terms of the assignment.”

     But he turned to her, a fierce expression in his blue eyes. “She’ll never find me again, Nonie—she thinks I’m a missionary in India.”

     “But we’ll be able to track her, Jamie—my promise on it. Please be sensible; we can’t storm de Gilles’ ship, just the two of us.”

     “She’s a beautiful girl,” Jamie continued, his face a grim mask. “On a slaver’s ship.”

     Nonie could think of no counter to this irrefutable fact, and so remained silent, thinking furiously.

     “Should we enlist the fishmongers?” 

     Even as he said the words, Nonie could hear the doubt in his voice, and with good reason. “No—we can’t start a pitched battle, Jamie; it would endanger Saba, and the assignment would be in ruins.” 

    Looking into his face, Nonie realized he was going to go, one way or another.  All right, she thought with resignation, if we’re going to come to a bad end—me and Jamie—better it be for a noble cause, than for some petty foolishness. “Let’s do a feint, then—I’ll be another hostage, and you’ll be a French sailor, delivering me.”

     “Perfect.” Jamie nodded, his eyes brightening as they always did, when they were called upon to improvise. 

     After cautioning Fatima to stay close, they hurried down the streets of the Kasbah, carefully staying within the thick throngs of people, and moving as rapidly as they could toward the harbor.

      “Where do we go?” Fatima finally asked, a bit breathlessly.

     Briskly, Nonie instructed the other woman, “We’ll board a ship to rescue Saba, and you must watch from the shore. If anything goes wrong, I will signal with a mirror, and if you see the signal, you are to go for help, as quickly as you can.”  This seemed the best use of her; she couldn’t send Fatima back home, for fear she’d say the wrong thing to the wrong person. 

     Jamie must have had the same concerns, and asked in Gaelic, “Can she keep quiet?”

    “I hope so, Jamie; but recall we wouldn’t have known where Saba was without her, so you can’t be resentin’ her—she’s doin’ her best.”

    “Don’t drop your ‘g’s’,” he admonished. “You-know-who’d be unhappy with you.”

    She retorted with some heat, “I’ll drop my ‘g’s’ if I please, Jamie O’Hay; it’s entitled I am, what with havin’ to deal with the crossin’s and double-crossin’s in this bloody, bloody town—and a lovesick flanker, to boot.”

     “Lord,” he exclaimed in disgust. “I’m a sorry excuse.”

    She smiled, and he smiled, and soon they were both chuckling, which is how it usually went, when they had to go in somewhere, and perform an impossible task.  It broke the tension—usually with the aid of a bracing drop of whiskey, but as there was none to be had, they’d have to do without.   

     They carefully assessed the harbor from the shadows of a fish market stall—not the most comfortable viewpoint, because the fish under the awning were beginning to smell ripe, in the heat.  It seemed to Nonie that none of the ships at anchor were in the process of mustering out, and so she waited to discover what their contact knew.  Jamie had crouched to confer quietly with a man who was sitting beside the stall, mending his nets with a steady hand, and never looking up.

     “Is he Irish, also?” Fatima whispered.

      Nonie well knew that Fatima should be told as little as possible, and so she replied, “Not Irish—but he is a friend, who will take us out to the correct ship.”  She turned to the woman to emphasize, “You mustn’t say anything of this, Fatima; if I signal with a flashing light, you are to go find Tahriz, and tell him we need help—but tell no one else.  Do you promise?”

    “I promise,” the woman responded in a serious tone, her dark eyes opaque.  She then gently took both Nonie’s hands in her own. “You will be careful, Nonie?”

    “I’m rarely careful,” Nonie confessed with a smile.  “And you mustn’t worry—I’ll be back before dinner. But remember, you are not to say anything to anyone; just wait here quietly.” 

     “Yes,” Fatima nodded.

     Jamie came back to them.  “He’ll take us out—he knows which ship, but he says they haven’t noticed anything unusual, going forward.”

    Nonie decided this didn’t necessarily mean they were on the wrong track.  “He’s a wily one, is de Gilles. Let’s keep on with the plan.”

    After reminding Fatima to wait and watch, they boarded the fishmonger’s small dory, and sat without speaking whilst he rowed them out, and approached an unmarked vessel that did not appear to be manned. 

     “This doesn’t look right,” Jamie observed as they approached.  “There’s no crew on deck, and the sails are still furled.” He spoke to the guide. “Are you certain this is it?”

    “Yes,” the man said, lifting his eyes for a moment. “This is de Gilles’ ship—and he boarded within the hour.”  

    “They’ll want to keep it very quiet, if they’re spiriting two high-value hostages away,” Nonie pointed out reasonably.  “Brandish your pistol; I’ll be defiant—and don’t forget you’re French.”

     They sidled up beside the frigate, Jamie calling out a hail in French.  After a few moments, one of the portholes opened, and a sailor leaned out, gesturing them away. “Partez.”

    But Jamie insisted, “No—I’ve another hostage; Le Capitaine wants you to take this one, too.”

      The sailor eyed Nonie for a moment, then directed them to wait, as he closed the porthole.  In a moment, the man appeared on deck, looking annoyed as he threw over a rope ladder. “Come aboard, then.”

     While their guide tied the boat to the ladder’s end, Jamie prodded Nonie with his pistol.  “Up the ladder.”

    “You’ll not be looking up my kaftan,” Nonie warned in a spirited voice. “Keep your eyes to yourself.” 

    “Tais toi,” snapped Jamie. “You will do as you are told.”

     “I demand to see the captain,” Face aflame, Nonie appealed to the sailor. “This is an outrage—”

     Jamie interrupted to ask, “Where is Captain de Gilles? I have instructions—”   

     “This way,” called the sailor over his shoulder, as he descended the companionway stairs.  “Quickly, we do not wish to draw attention.”

With a flounce of defiance, Nonie followed the man down the stairway, and below the main deck, to where he lifted the trap door that led to the cargo hold.  “The captain is counting inventory in the hold.” With a careless gesture, the sailor indicated they were to descend the steps. 

     I don’t have a good feeling about this, thought Nonie, as she followed Jamie down the rickety ladder into the darkness; it is altogether too quiet, for a ship that is supposedly guarding high-value hostages.

     Once in the hold, the weak sunlight that streamed through the small porthole revealed a variety of young girls, huddled in the bow end of the cargo hold, and watching them with curious eyes. Blinking with surprise, Nonie heard Jamie call out in a soft voice, “Saba?” 

     With a bang, the hatch door slammed shut above their heads.