The Barbary Mark
Nonie watched, fascinated, as Fatima painted her toenails with a henna extract. They were resting in her chamber as the afternoon sun slanted through the window, Nonie chafing at the forced inactivity—apparently, no one was interested in prophecies or pearls today. As she observed Fatima’s careful work, she asked with some amusement, “But how do I convince a gentleman to get past the hair and the freckles, so as to take a gander at my toes?”
Another brush stroke was applied with patient precision. “When everything else is covered, the men look at the feet.”
“I suppose that can only work in my favor.”
But Fatima would not hear it, and paused to lift her face. “You are so beautiful, Nonie—so fair. And I tried to curl my hair like yours, but it did not take.”
Nonie lifted Fatima’s thick, glossy braid from where it hung down her back. “I suppose we’re always longing for what we don’t have.”
“Yes.” With a smile, the woman placed a gentle hand on her own bosom. “I am envious of Saba.”
“Yes, Saba has an impressive set.” Nonie’s tone was tart; she did not want to think of Saba and her impressive set, or who benefited from their undeniable impressiveness.
Tentatively, Nonie wriggled her toes, whilst Fatima began working on the other set. “Saba comes to visit, soon. She will have messages for you.”
“I’ll try to possess my soul in patience, then. Are there any other visitors I’ll be having?” In truth, she was hoping for one particular visitor; there’d been no word from the necromancer today, and she’d had no news as to his whereabouts.
Knowing exactly to whom she referred, Fatima glanced at her in apology, as she gathered up her utensils. “My lord is resting today.”
Suddenly alert, Nonie wondered if perhaps the activity she and Jamie had waited for in vain last night had actually taken place elsewhere—his intelligence may have been incomplete, or confused. With a casual air, Nonie propped her painted toes on the bedstead and asked, “Was he up late then, last night?”
“Yes—he is very important.” With some pride, Fatima leaned in to confide, “The Dey often sends for him, and heeds his advice.”
Nonie decided she may as well see if any information could be harvested from Fatima, although it seemed clear that the woman was not one who would be trusted with any important intelligence. “Do you know of any foreigners, visiting over at the Dey’s court? I’ve heard there are some Frenchmen wandering about—have you heard the same?”
Fatima’s smooth brow furrowed in confusion. “There are always Frenchmen at the embassy. I have friends among the servants.”
“Ah—I had forgotten you are French, Fatima, and I won’t hold it against you; your wretched Emperor has caused me no end of trouble.”
“Oh, he was not my Emperor, Nonie.”
Intrigued, Nonie slanted her quick glance—it was the first time she’d heard an edge of sharpness in Fatima’s tone. “Well then, I stand corrected. Do you know of anyone newly arrived at the Embassy, then? I’m dying for a good gossip.”
Fatima’s soft eyes registered regret, as she shook her head. “I do not.”
Nonie nodded, thinking it unlikely that anyone would entrust sweet Fatima with any state secrets, and in any event, the young woman was not in a position to observe events—not like her own contact, who seemed to be keeping track of the comings and goings. In a way, the guard’s earnestness reminded her of Fatima, and she wondered if the woman’s status as a slave meant she could not pursue a relationship—perhaps even a marriage, so as to be freed from her questionable fate. With a gleam, she teased, “The guard who is posted at the door—he seems a fine fellow.”
Ah—this evoked a definite reaction, and the other woman met her eyes almost eagerly. “Oh, yes—he is so strong.”
Nonie leaned in and suggested in a meaningful tone, “Perhaps you should condescend to speak to the man, from time to time.”
The woman nodded, her eyes shining. “Would you like me to discover his name for you?”
Leaning back again, Nonie laughed aloud at the mistaken assumption, and flexed her painted toes. “Oh—I’m afraid you misunderstand, Fatima; I was wondering if you might like him.”
The other woman met her gaze in abject surprise. “Oh, no, Nonie; I am married, and I cannot seek out another man—it is forbidden.”
This was an unexpected disclosure, and Nonie stared at her in wonder. “Oh; I did not know you were married. I beg your pardon—” Something in the woman’s eyes—a trace of bewilderment—sounded an alarm in Nonie’s mind. “Who is your husband, Fatima?”
With a slight frown between her brows, Fatima offered with some confusion, “My lord. My lord is my husband.”
With a supreme effort, Nonie managed not to fall out of her chair. “Oh; oh—I was not aware of this. How—how very interesting.”
Touching Nonie’s knee gently, Fatima leaned in, and said in her soft voice, “He said you have suffered a disappointment, and I should try to cheer you.”
For a moment, Nonie thought she would surely strangle on the bitter knowledge that the necromancer was discussing her personal problems with Fatima, but almost immediately calmed herself; the woman could not be faulted—indeed, she had shown great patience in witnessing the closeted meetings between Nonie and the aforementioned husband. “Thank you,” she managed, and wished she weren’t so very disappointed—it was not as though there had been any possibility of anything more than a short-term flirtation. Perhaps she should indeed have another look at the guard outside the door.
Reining in her wandering thoughts, Nonie looked at her blankly. “Saba?”
“Saba is a wife.”
“Imigh leat,” breathed Nonie, finding this blow, hard on the last one, difficult to sustain.
“How many does the man have, then?”
“Three,” Fatima answered, then added with quiet pride, “Only I can speak English.”
Gazing out the window, Nonie firmly came to grips with her acute disappointment, which seemed all out of proportion to the situation, for heaven’s sake. “What is your lord’s name?” The words came out without conscious thought—although why it mattered was not clear.
“Tahriz,” Fatima disclosed in a doubtful tone. “But you must not say; you are a woman, and cannot—”
“No—I won’t. I was just curious, is all.”
Aware that she had erred in some unexplained way, Fatima hesitated for a moment, then offered, “May I brush your hair, Nonie?”
With a half-smile, Nonie teased, “Have at it, and good luck to you.”
Taking up a brush, the woman stood behind her as Nonie sank into the chair, and let the rhythmic strokes pull her head back, as the brush worked its way through the resistance of her curls. It is lucky you found out, lass, she thought; before you became more invested—although you should never have been tempted in the first place. He is a mark, and you have to remember—if you please—your assignment, and that we’re trying to stop a bloodthirsty tyrant here, not dally about, entertaining romantic notions which may serve to interfere—ouch—with your work. You’d hate to be in a position where you might try to protect him at the risk of your assignment—unthinkable, and shame on you.
All tangles vanquished, the brush crackled through her hair, and she closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation, trying to remember the last time anyone had been brave enough to brush it. Tanny, perhaps, back in New Ross, when she and Jamie and the others—don’t be thinking about it, she warned herself abruptly. Not now—not on top of this other bout of bad news.
Opening her eyes, she observed Saba, watching from a small distance, her impressive breasts a bit more constrained, this time, in a very pretty silver tunic, tied at the sleeves and the neck. “Why, it’s the missus,” Nonie observed, sitting up. “Or at least a sampling.”
Saba spoke to Fatima, who translated. “She has spoken to your friend in the bagnio, and you will be taken to visit with him away from the girl.”
“That is excellent, Saba, and I thank you.”
Saba lifted her chin, eyes flashing, and said something in a sharp tone. Fatima translated, “She says the girl is a bad girl.”
“You are exactly right,” Nonie retorted in agreement, mollified that the beautiful Saba was apparently taking her side in this fictitious lover’s tiff. “What is wrong with the man, that he would be so taken in, I ask you?”
With a turn of her head, Saba listened intently to Fatima, and then nodded vigorously. Her graceful hands gesturing, she added a few impassioned phrases whilst Fatima tried to keep up. “He is too naïve, and he cannot see past the bed.”
Leaning toward Saba, Nonie punctuated her agreement with a finger. “Aye—that’s it on the nail’s head. The foolish man cannot see past the bed.” The two girls sat and fulminated together, and it occurred to Nonie that Saba seemed a little too interested in this faux contretemps. Leave it to Jamie, she thought, hiding a smile; now I’ll have to run interference, to save one of the necromancer’s many marriages from an Irishman’s wily charms.
Calming down only with an effort, Saba continued while Fatima translated. “My lord will come late tonight—he asks that you await him, and remain dressed, so that you may leave the building.”
Nonie flexed her toes. “Lucky my toenails are painted—perhaps I can steal Jamie back.”
Fatima said sincerely, “He sounds very foolish, this Jamie.”
Foolish like a fox, thought Nonie, and did her best to appear thwarted in love.