ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

 

Chapter 4

 

             “I hope it doesn’t leave a permanent mark; I’ll never catch a husband, else.”  Nonie was using her mirror to examine the bruise on her throat.

              Poor Fatima was nonplussed, and repeated for the second time, “The Agha—the Agha tried to choke you?”  She hovered behind Nonie, who was recovering from her harrowing ordeal by making short work of the remaining figs.

            “He did indeed. He is not a friendly man.” 

            “Oh no, Nonie—he is not.” The distraught young woman couldn’t conceal her extreme dismay, as she clasped and unclasped her hands.

            Lowering her mirror, Nonie plucked another fig as she raised an inquiring brow at her companion. “For two pins I think the wretched man would have choked your master, too. There is no love lost, there.”

            But Fatima was not going to indulge in any court gossip, and instead offered with all sincerity, “I am so sorry, Nonie.”  There was a slight pause, then she added in a gentle reprimand, “You were going to try to be quiet.”

            “I forgot,” Nonie confessed, as she polished her mirror on the skirt of her kaftan. “Next time.”

     Suddenly aware of a presence behind her, she glanced up to see the necromancer, standing by the dressing screen and silently observing them.  Fatima did not seem overly surprised to see him, and steepled her hands before gliding out the door.

            “I hope I do not alarm you.” He tilted his head slightly. “I wished to give a briefing.”

            Unalarmed, Nonie lifted her brows. “There is a secret door, then?  Lord, this place is like the Cat n’ Fiddle.”

            “May I join you?” He indicated he would sit beside her on the bench, and she willingly moved so as to make room, thinking matters were suddenly looking up. It was a shame her bosom was covered like a nun’s in winter, but there was no help for it—not to mention he seemed very self-contained, and not the type to be peeking down her bosom in the first place, more’s the pity.

            “There is a secret door,” he confirmed as he settled next to her, drawing his long djellaba around him. “It leads to a series of tunnels that have existed for many years—tunnels that run between the buildings.”

            This was not a surprise; in her experience, nearly every center of government had secret tunnels—so much so that it wasn’t much of a secret, truly.

            He reached into his robes and produced a small orange, which he then proceeded to peel with the fig knife, balancing the fruit on his long fingers.

            Leaning to breathe in the scent, she closed her eyes for a moment, and smiled. “I was in the north of Spain, once—I had to warn the 3rd Division of an ambush—and I’ll never forget the way the orchards smelled; the orange trees were all abloom, as we rode through them in retreat.  There is nothing like a scent to bring back a memory.”  In a beguiling manner, she dimpled. “Have you ever been to Spain?”

            “I am not Spanish.” He met her gaze with his own amused one.

            “Process of elimination,” she admitted, settling back again. “Although I’ve a long way to go.”

            As he continued to separate the peel, the dark eyes flicked to hers for a moment. “To whom do you signal out your window?”

            Easily, she shrugged a shoulder, noting that he had a better command of English than she did. “I’d rather not tell you—sorry.” She certainly wouldn’t be telling him she did it to throw him off, in the event he didn’t already know that her contact was on site. Not that he would be fooled, now that she had his measure—she’d best step carefully; she was a good judge of such things, and she’d bet her teeth this particular necromancer didn’t miss much.

            He made the small movement with his head that she was coming to recognize as the equivalent of a shoulder shrug—he revealed very little of what he was thinking. From this close proximity she could study his high, flat cheekbones and his aquiline nose—North Italian, perhaps?—and decided she was very much enjoying this unexpected tête-à-tête, which didn’t seem at all like a briefing. “Do you ever grow accustomed to the heat?”

            “No.”

With a gesture, he offered an orange piece, which she accepted from his palm with a small smile. “Ah—I have tricked you into admitting you are not from these parts.”

            But he was unperturbed, and popped an orange piece into his mouth—a lovely mouth, it was. “You already knew this.”

            “You won’t tell me?”

            “I’d rather not,” he imitated her with gentle irony. “Sorry.”

            The orange was sweet and very much appreciated, as she took another piece from his hand. “Well, I wish you’d have told me my lines, before I had to parry the Agha’s questions, sword and buckler. Would it have been out of the question to have my briefing beforehand?”

            “I am afraid to tell you too much.” He ate another orange piece, and met her eyes.

            He is a libertine, she reminded herself as her breath caught a bit. Do not be misled by this polite flirtation, lass. “Is there indeed a British bombardment in the offing?”

            “You are British—you tell me.”

            This seemed unexpected, but she answered anyway. “I honestly don’t know, we do not operate in conjunction with the military—not usually. The army looks askance at those in my murky profession.”

            With a nod of understanding, he handed her another piece. “I believe you made a reference to Napoleon.”

            “Did I?” She opened her eyes wide. 

            His lips curved into a small smile. “Yes; you implied that the deposed emperor is unhappy with the Dey.”

            She sucked on a fingertip. “Got caught up in the moment, I did. It seemed to put the fear of God into him—did you notice?”

            “I did notice.” 

            They sat together in silence for a moment, and she knew they were each amused by the machinations of the other, as they continued to share the orange.  It is like a friendly fencing match, she decided, and perhaps I am not so very jaded, after all—I am enjoying this far too much. “And where is my friend Saba, today?”

            “Saba has other tasks.”

            I’ll bet she does, thought Nonie uncharitably, and was goaded to ask, “How do you decide who is the favored concubine, out of so many?”

            He met her gaze with his own amused one. “Why would you wish to know?”

            She hid her surprise that he would say such a thing, and was suddenly acutely aware of the bed, only a few paces away. With an effort, she pulled herself together. “Mere curiosity, I’m afraid, but I thank you for the kind thought.”

            He dropped his gaze, and she was aware he was pleased at provoking an unguarded reaction from her. Not one to shy away, she smiled in acknowledgment, and shook her head. “Now you’ve thrown me off—with such a remark.”

            “Forgive me; I could not resist. What is Mr. O’Hay to you?”

            Immediately, she sobered.  “He is the dearest thing in this world—we’ve only each other, you see.  I travel quite a bit—” here, she glanced up in silent acknowledgement that he knew exactly why she traveled so much, and he nodded. “So we see each other less than I’d like.” She paused, and fingered the edge of her sleeve. “I can’t help but think if I’d only been there with him, he’d never have been captured.”

            “Please do not worry; we will extract him, with no harm done.”

            With a visible effort, Nonie threw off her sadness, and smiled up at him. “Don’t give him the mist-in-the-cup treatment, though—he’d hate that.”

            “You will not forgive me, it seems.”

            She dimpled. “On the contrary; if you can mastermind my escape with Jamie in tow, all will be forgiven, believe me.”

            Thoughtfully, he offered her the last orange piece.  “How did you meet Mr. O’Hay?”

            “He hails from my home town.”

            “Which is?”

            “Dublin,” she replied easily, as she popped the piece in her mouth.

            He lifted a brow.  “And how did Mr. O’Hay from Dublin come to be in the Dey’s bagnio?”

            She sighed, hoping such an action would direct attention to her overly-clad bosom. “He was seized by the pirates, whilst traveling to India.”  Here, she paused and gleamed up at him in amusement. “He is a missionary, you see.”

            Ducking his chin a bit, he shared her amusement. “Ah.”

            “Yes; the two of us are like chalk and cheese, I’m afraid—but it works, nevertheless. He’s determined to convert as many Hindus as possible, to which I say good luck to him.”

            “You are Roman Catholic?”

            This seemed an odd question, but she didn’t want to put a halt to this thoroughly enjoyable conversation, and so she replied, “I was.” Quirking her mouth, she confessed, “I’m not much of anything, anymore—the wages of sin.”

            He made that sympathetic head movement again, and it occurred to her that he was probing for information, yet giving up very little about himself, which hardly seemed fair—it was past time to show some initiative.  “I would like to see Jamie tomorrow, if that is manageable—unless the Agha has a fancy to manhandle me yet again.”

            Her companion’s mouth thinned. “His actions were inexcusable; it will not happen again.”

            With a sidelong glance at him, she observed, “He seemed to be aware that you were putting me up to it—and none too pleased, if I may say so.”

            He paused, and measured his words. “The Agha is unhappy with my influence.”

            With mock sympathy, she soothed, “Well, you mustn’t dwell on it; I’d put my money on you, I would.”

            The gleam of humor returned to his eyes, as they met hers. “I thank you.”

            As much as she was enjoying this flirtation—Lord, the air was thick with mutual attraction—she needed to stay on task.  “I believe we’ve wandered away from the topic of my visit to Jamie.”

            “Tomorrow, then.  I will accompany you, if I may.  We will go early, and I will dress plainly, so as to avoid discovery.”

            “Oh? You’re to come with me? It’s a suspicious soul, you are.”

            But he met her gaze in all seriousness. “This is a place like no other, and you may not be prepared for its lawlessness.  You would invite unwelcome notice, if you were a female traveling without a male escort.” 

            Rather touched by this show of chivalry, she nevertheless pointed out, “At the risk of sounding puffed-up, I have kept my own self safe for some years, now.”

            He made no response, but his intent gaze seemed to sharpen on hers.  With a surprised thrill of anticipation, she caught her breath and thought—he is going to kiss me, and I am going to enjoy it very, very much.

            But the moment passed, and he leaned away slightly. “This is a place like no other,” he repeated. “I’m afraid it is necessary.” 

            A bit surprised by the strength of her disappointment—she hadn’t been kissed in a while, and she’d wager he was an expert—she mustered up a smile, and conceded, “All right; point taken. But I give you fair warning; Jamie is not going to be happy that I am keeping company with a necromancer, and he may try to convince you of the error of your black-art ways.”

            But he shook his head slightly. “No—I cannot go openly; I will act as your servant. I would ask that you do not reveal my identity to any—even to Mr. O’Hay. We do not wish to attract attention, or else the Dey will take measures to curtail your freedom.”

            This was understandable, and she nodded.  If the Dey guessed she was only here to rescue Jamie, he could lock down one or both of them, and then all bets would be off. Thinking along these lines, she cautioned, “Don’t make me too valuable, my friend; I’d rather not live my days locked away as the Dey’s private oracle—I must be in and out of this miserable place as quickly as can be contrived.”

            “Where will you go next?” 

            His question was casual, his manner relaxed, but she thought she could discern a genuine interest, which was much appreciated. Perhaps the two of them could keep in contact, or even meet on occasion—with a mental shake, she remembered who he was and, more importantly, who she was. With a small shrug, she answered lightly, “I never know—I am bound by the whims of my superiors.”

            “As am I,” he acknowledged with just a tinge of regret.

            I believe he is teasing me—although it is difficult to tell, she thought, sliding him an amused glance.  It’s as though behind this gravely courteous manner, he is having a very fine joke—rather like the Hospitaller’s brooch.  Reminded, she asked, “Are you indeed a Hospitaller, like Droom the cat?”

            “I do not know of which you speak.”

            She wasn’t sure if she believed him—but on the other hand, perhaps the brooch was pirate’s booty. “Such a shame—I was hoping to hear of secret initiation rites.”

            “I am sorry to disappoint.”

            Daringly, she teased, “I confess I have not been disappointed thus far.” Except that he hadn’t made the attempt to kiss her, which was more of a disappointment than she cared to admit.

            But it appeared she’d been a bit too daring, and he gathered up his robes and stood.  “I will not come openly tomorrow; Fatima will show you into the tunnel, and I will meet you there.”

            “I appreciate it,” she said sincerely. “Truly, I do.”

            With his customary bow, he stepped behind the dressing screen and left with no further comment.  I do like him, she thought, contemplating the screen with mixed emotions; it is a shame I am pulling the wool over his lovely eyes.  But enough of all that—I’ve got to figure out how to secure the secret door, or I’ll not catch any sleep, this night. Raising a practiced hand, she began to probe the wood paneling in the wall behind the dressing screen.