ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

                                                                                                      Chapter 5

 

     Early the next morning, Nonie found herself standing a few paces away from the necromancer as he spoke briefly with one of the bagnio guards, her gaze lowered and her face veiled.  The bagnios were communal buildings which were used to house captured slaves whilst they awaited their fate—either to become galley slaves, or to be sold at the slave market in the large town square, depending on their potential usefulness. 

     As arranged, she had descended the dark steps on the other side of the secret door to follow the necromancer—dressed in ordinary clothes—through the narrow, musty tunnel, so low-ceilinged that her companion had to stoop to navigate it.  After taking a final turn, they’d come upon a crude ladder that led up to a concealed hatch, in the floor of a small storeroom.

     After his consultation with the necromancer, the guard gave her an indifferent glance and allowed them entry, although she imagined the discreet pressing of a coin into his hand was the main incentive.  It was an open secret that one’s ability to bribe the guards was directly related to one’s ability to survive here—although to be fair, it was much the same in the British prisons.

     This place, however, didn’t look like any prison she’d ever seen; there were all variety of men and women grouped about with little effort made to constrain them—apparently, there was no chance of escape, and so the prisoners were allowed to roam freely.  Most of the inmates were European in appearance because much of the slave trade was founded on extortion; indeed, sometimes entire villages would be seized and taken here to be held, pending a ransom payment by either the victims’ government or their distraught relatives. In the course of her travels, Nonie had necessarily come across a great many people who were utterly heartless, but this—exploiting the bonds of family, and threatening a lifetime of slavery if a ransom didn’t appear—seemed particularly cruel.   

     “This way, please.” With a glance to ensure that she followed—a woman couldn’t walk abreast with a man, here—the necromancer made his way along the perimeter wall, and Nonie followed him, noting the small rooms toward the back which seemed to be set apart as more private accommodations—even though they could not be described as comfortable, by any stretch. The place was noisy and the air was thick, as Nonie followed her silent escort until he finally paused before one of the private rooms.  Drawing the cloth partition aside, he indicated she should enter, and Nonie stepped into the cramped, dim room, making an involuntary sound upon sighting the figure who sat cross-legged on the pallet.

     “Yes?” asked Jamie as he slowly rose, wary. “Who is it?”

     “Jamie,” she greeted him, her voice thick with emotion as she dropped her veil. “It’s me, Nonie.”

      Thunderstruck, he stepped to her and she glimpsed his incredulous smile for only a moment before he lifted her off her feet, and spun her around in a grip like a bear’s—he was broad shouldered, with sandy hair and a handsome face that was currently the worse for sun burn. “Nonie—good Lord, Nonie; how on earth—?” 

     “Ye dinna think I’d liave ye here?” She brushed at tears with the back of her hand as he set her down.  “Oh, Jamie—I am so glad you are in one piece.”

     Laughing, he clasped her hands in his. “Look at you—Lord, you look like a Saracen in that get-up.”

     “Not with these freckles, surely.”

     He hugged her again, then set her at arm’s distance, his hands on her upper arms. “How did you manage it? Are you here on business?”

     Conscious of the necromancer, standing by the door, she lowered her voice and said, “You mustn’t say, Jamie—I shouldn’t have to keep reminding you.”

     “No—no, mum’s the word, of course.  Am I to be rescued, then?”

     She placed a fond hand on his cheek. “You are, and as soon as I can contrive it.  First things first, though—Ihave some very fine digs near the Dey’s palace; I’ll see if I can have you moved over, and we’ll work from there.”

     Subtly, his expression changed. “Oh—well, no need to move; I am quite comfortable here.”

     With some surprise she exclaimed, “Nonsense, Jamie; this place is probably teeming with typhoid or some such—”

     “Nonie,” he interrupted, and gently took her hands in his. “I’ve met someone.”  He could not suppress a broad smile. “Aditi—an Indian girl. You must meet her—she is an angel come to earth.”

     “Oh.” With a visible effort, Nonie pulled herself together. “Why—why that’s lovely, Jamie.”

     “Who is this?” As if on cue, a young Indian girl stood in the doorway, taking in the tableau before her with a suspicious eye. “Why is she here?”

     Jamie dropped Nonie’s hands as though they were hot, and strode over to the newcomer’s side, where he put a possessive arm around her shoulders. “This is Aditi, Nonie.” Bending his head down to the Indian girl, he explained, “Nonie is a friend from home.”

     “Aditi; how do you do?”  Hiding her dismay only with an effort, Nonie offered a friendly smile to the attractive young girl, who was dressed in gauzy trousers and a bare-midriff blouse that did little to disguise her form; it could not have been more evident the girl was a concubine.  Aditi offered no return greeting, but instead assessed Nonie with a mulish mouth, open hostility reflected in her unusual amber-colored eyes. 

     Into the awkward silence Nonie ventured, “I cannot stay long, I’m afraid, but we should discuss your extraction, Jamie.”

     “I’ll be going nowhere without Aditi,” he pronounced firmly, and the girl wound her arm around his, giving Nonie an arch look of superiority which made her long to slap her.

     “I’ll do my level best,” Nonie replied, as evenly as she was able. “Is there any chance I could speak with you privately, Jamie?”

     Aditi bristled, but Jamie drew her to him, running his hands down her bare arms and assuring her it that was important to plan their escape.  He then sent her away, as the girl threw a final glance at him over a pretty shoulder.

     There was a profound silence in the tiny room for a few moments, and then Jamie ran his hands through his hair, and said with a touch of defiance, “I’m going to marry her, Nonie—of course.  As soon as we can get to India, and find a priest.”

      “Jamie,” Nonie said gently, struggling to sound reasonable. “She’s using you as a mark—a dupe—for her own ends.  Trust me, I’ve seen too many of her type.”

     With some heat, he defended, “I know what a ‘mark’ is, Nonie, and I assure you I am not a mark. She loves me, and I love her.”

     After pressing her lips together, Nonie tried a different tack. “That is no missionary’s wife, Jamie.”

     But clearly Jamie had already contemplated this angle, and was undaunted.  “Nonsense; she serves as a redemption story, and I’ll not hear another word.”

     Exasperated, Nonie tilted her head to look into his eyes—he was avoiding hers. “I think perhaps you are enthralled, and for all the wrong reasons.”

     “Nonie,” he chided, embarrassed, and glanced over at the stone-faced necromancer, who gave no indication that he followed the conversation. “For heaven’s sake; you shouldn’t speak of such things.”

     Struggling to regain her composure, Nonie managed to muster up a smile. “All right—we won’t pull caps; not now, leastways, when I am so happy you are safe and sound.”

     He lowered his voice and glanced at the partition. “Can you truly get the both of us out? You must have contacts here—”

     With her smile now firmly in place, she assured him, “I will start working on it straightaway, and I’ll let you know the plan as soon as I have one.  If this man comes to fetch you—” here she nodded toward the necromancer “—you may trust him.”

     After giving her escort a cursory glance, Jamie lowered his head, and said diffidently, “About those pearls, the ones you told me about—I promised Aditi that I’d give her something special. I don’t have much money, after all, and she loves jewelry—”

     “Oh, Jamie—”

     “Come now, Nonie; it’s not as though there are not plenty—”

     “Jamie,” she said sharply. “You forget yourself.”

      He stared at her for a moment, startled by her vehemence. “I am sorry, Nonie.” Contrite, he drew her into his arms, and rested his cheek against the top of her head.  “I know I’ve knocked you back, but you will see, once you get to know her.”

      She drew a deep breath, and made an effort to make light of this unmitigated disaster. “Yes, I’ve definitely been knocked back, but I’ll recover, never fear. We’ll get it all sorted out.”

     “There’s my girl.” Drawing back, he ran his knuckles down the side of her face. “Lord, it is good to see you.”

      Her returning smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, as she backed away from his caress. “I should go before they miss me, but I will be in touch.”

     After a final embrace, Nonie followed the necromancer out the partition and through the communal area, until they descended once again into the cool of the tunnel, much welcomed after the close, heated atmosphere of the bagnio. She followed him in silence for a time, and fancied that she could feel the sympathy emanating from him.  “Well,” she sighed. “That did not go well at all.”

     Apparently, he’d been waiting for an opportunity to offer advice, because he turned immediately to face her. “The sooner you can have them removed from here, the sooner she will leave him.”

     “Yes,” she agreed, heartened by this observation. She lifted her face to his. “Is there any chance she does carry a true affection for him?”

     “No.”

      They began to walk forward again, and she nodded thoughtfully. “No—I’m just wanting to make certain I am not prejudiced against her.”

       “Your friend is merely a stepping stone for her—a means to an end.”

        She made a wry mouth. “Poor Jamie.”
        He tilted his head slightly. “It is a common tale.”

      “I suppose.” She walked a few paces in silence, and then remarked with some heat, “It is incomprehensible that men are so—so—” she caught herself, remembering to whom she spoke.

       “Yes,” he agreed. “I am sorry for your disappointment.”

       Taking a breath, she pulled herself together. “You are right, of course; she uses him as a passport out of here, so I suppose I should see to it she gets her wish. On the other hand, if he makes her pregnant we are well and truly sunk.”

      “A girl like that will not allow herself to get pregnant.”

      Belatedly, she realized she probably shouldn’t be discussing such a subject with him, although she’d never been missish before, and it didn’t seem the time to start. “No—I suppose not. I am lucky you are well-versed in loose women.”  

      “You were promised to him?”

     Thrown off by the question, she felt her color rise. “No—no, nothing like that; he wouldn’t do such a thing, if that were the case.” She paused, and then added a bit bleakly, “At least, I would hope not.”

      They continued for a time in silence, the lantern making bobbing shadows in the darkness ahead, as they made a steady progress back to her quarters.  He offered, “I will make arrangements to smuggle you out on a ship—the three of you—but it will take a few days.”

      She glanced at him in appreciation, although all she could see was his shadowy outline.  “I thank you—I confess I was a bit at a loss, as to how to proceed.”

      He nodded. “It is no easy thing, to escape from here.  I only ask that you draw no attention to yourself or to Mr. O’Hay in the meantime.” 

      They made a turn at an intersection, and within a few minutes she recognized the narrow stairway that would lead up to her building. After mounting the first step, she turned around so that she was on a level with him.  “I thank you,” she offered with quiet sincerity. “It’s a miserable situation, and you have been very helpful.”

     He stood completely still, his face inches from hers.  “It is my pleasure.”

     Lord, she thought in exasperation; I’ve done everything but throw my arms around his neck. Because she was an honest soul, she observed with some regret, “You aren’t going to kiss me, are you?”  

     “No,” he responded immediately.

      She frowned, contemplating him and genuinely curious. “And why is that, if I may be asking?”

      There was a small pause, whilst the shuttered dark eyes gazed into hers. “Because it is too tempting.”

       With a smile, she turned and began the climb up the stairs. “I suppose that is an acceptable answer, my friend.”   She decided she was rather enjoying this teasing game of civility between them, all in all.  Unless she misjudged her man, he was battling his baser impulses and if the history of civilization was any guide, it was a battle he would surely lose.  Fortunately, she would be there to pick up the pieces.