ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 11

 

      Nonie ran, twisting and turning through the narrow Kasbah alleys with the aim of confusing her pursuit and staying out-of-sight; a woman alone at night would invite the wrong kind of attention.

       Her object was to continue downhill toward the harbor, so as to enlist the aid of Jamie’s contacts amongst the fishmongers and find out what had happened to her guard—he should not have been replaced without warning.  Instead, there seemed little doubt that some sort of abduction plot had been put in motion, hard on the heels of her newly-revealed knowledge of the location of the sunken pearls, and her evasion of the French agent, the night before. Indeed, she’d not be surprised if Le Capitaine himself was behind it, as the French undoubtedly had their own spies in the palace, and would be motivated to seize control of any recovery operation.  The pearls, after all, belonged to them. 

     It was still possible that this snake-bitten assignment could be salvaged, but there was no mistaking that matters had suddenly taken an alarming turn—no honor amongst thieves, it seemed, and these factions didn’t trust each other in the first place. Hopefully, she’d not wind up being caught in the crossfire, instead of slinking quietly out of town.

     Running on her toes so that her sandals didn’t slap on the pavement, she was swiftly moving down the long hill when she heard a shout behind her—she’d been spotted. Blowing out a breath, she glanced around; there were few options, unfortunately, as anyone pursuing her would be faster, and have a superior knowledge of the terrain. Remembering their escape across the rooftops the night before, Nonie glanced upward, and raced over to a vegetable lattice, which she began climbing with grim determination, aware it was unlikely she could scramble upward fast enough, dressed as she was. For a moment, she considered pulling the blade from her hem so as to dispatch this fellow, but she’d rather no one knew she had a knife and was willing to use it—not to mention she should try to avoid leaving a trail of corpses in her wake.  As a rough hand grasped one of her ankles, she gauged her moment, then kicked out at her pursuer, both feet hitting him squarely in the face.

     With a grunt, he crashed down the flimsy structure and she released herself to land atop him, so that she knocked the breath from his body as he hit the packed dirt.  For good measure, she took advantage of his momentary helplessness to crack his head against the hard surface, and knock him out.

     Listening for other pursuit, she quickly untangled herself from her unconscious companion and gathered up her kaftan to race toward the shadows. They would expect her to flee, so it would be best to go to ground for a while, and then circle back from whence she’d come. To this end, she needed a place to hide.

     One presented itself in the form of a livestock pen, where several camels knelt in sleep, their bulky shapes illuminated by the faint moonlight.  Ducking beneath the wooden railing, Nonie carefully crouched down and slid between two of the beasts—noting that they smelled to high heaven—and waited for any pursuit to pass by.

     The camel she was pressed against made strange snoring noises as it breathed, and Nonie imagined for a moment what Tanny would say, had she been confronted with such a beast.  “She’d say you were heathenish,” she whispered, and then smiled to herself.

     Suddenly, men’s voices could be heard approaching, and she released an frustrated breath, as this indicated she wasn’t in luck; there was a perimeter being set up to contain her, and they must be aware that she was still in the immediate area.  Hopefully, the searchers wouldn’t think to look too carefully in the pen, and for a moment she toyed with the idea of leaping atop the camel if she were twigged—surely, riding a camel was not so very different than riding a horse—but abandoned this idea upon remembering that camels weren’t the swiftest of beasts.

     Carefully, she moved her head so that she could look toward the voices without disturbing her snoring beast of burden. She saw several men, holding torches and walking spread out along the alley, as they looked into nooks and crannies.  It was a bit surprising that the French would act so boldly, and it was a huge annoyance; the last needful thing was to be seized by the French, so that she no longer had access to the Dey.

     As they came closer, she drew her head back again, and kept very still whilst the torchlight sent flickering shadows over the camels as the searchers passed by.  Then someone spoke in Arabic from the opposite side of the alley, and with a sigh of relief, Nonie recognized the necromancer’s voice—it was kind of him to mount a search and rescue effort; she liked to think she would do the same for him.  Rising to her feet, she stepped away from the camel to reveal herself. “Here.”

     The nearest man made an exclamation, and then called out to the others, and she was soon surrounded by the search party as the necromancer strode forward, his gaze assessing her. “Are you injured?”

      She was touched to see that he was worried, and hastened to reassure him. “No, although I do smell of camel.”    

      He issued a short command to the others, who watchfully surrounded them, as they began their return up the long hill.  “You should have called for assistance,” he rebuked her gently. “There were others nearby who would have come to your aid.  To flee into the streets—it is far too dangerous.”

     “Yes,” she soothed, thinking his concern rather sweet. “I can see this, now.”

      She noted that he’d asked no questions about what had happened, and decided he’d probably come to the same conclusion she had.  “The French grow bold, it seems. Mayhap I should be tucked safely away in the Dey’s chambers, after all.”

    But this was not a teasing matter, apparently, and he shook his head a bit gravely. “The French have the whip hand in these matters, unfortunately.   If they wished to seize you, there is little the Dey could do to prevent it. Therefore, we must remedy this problem immediately.”

     She eyed him sidelong, as they strode up the hill. “Well, if you have a plan, my friend, I am all attention. But please don’t ask me to truly conjure up the ghost of Lord Nelson, because that would be embarrassing all around.”

     But he was not listening, instead issuing instructions to one of the men, who then ran ahead. In a short space of time, Nonie was once again ushered into the Dey’s presence, only this time, they were escorted into his private antechamber, and the only persons present were the Dey himself, and his guards.

     The Dey was robed for bed, and it was clear he was already aware of Nonie’s adventures this night, as his brows were drawn together in a fierce frown. “What has happened? Speak, girl.”

     Nonie had already decided she couldn’t discuss the replacement of her guard, as to do so may put her contact—if he yet lived—in danger.  “I was pursued,” she said vaguely, clasping her hands before her in dismay. “It was terrifying.”

     The Dey demanded, “The men who pursued you; what nationality were they?”

     “I do not know,” she answered truthfully. “I did not think to ask.”  Don’t be flippant, she reminded herself—you’ve just had a traumatic experience.   “They may have been French.”

     The Dey blew out his cheeks in chagrin, and the necromancer began a low-voiced conversation with him in Arabic.  Nonie could only listen to its tone and watch the men pause, occasionally, to rest their gazes upon her.   They don’t dare pack me off somewhere, she assured herself—at least, not until I’ve told them where the ship sunk.  And I honestly don’t know what other options are available; it is true that the French hold the whip hand, and if they want to co-opt the prophetess-who-knows-where-the-missing-pearls-are, there’s no good reason to resist. Hopefully, the necromancer can at least prevail upon everyone to leave me to my own devices after the pearls are recovered, which would be the best possible outcome.

      Their conversation concluded, and the necromancer bowed to the Dey, then indicated Nonie should accompany him into the arched hallway, where he walked with her in silence for a few moments.

     “Well?” Nonie couldn’t like the feeling that some sort of decision had been made without consulting her—although in these parts, women were considered insignificant, which was one of the reasons she’d been given this assignment, in the first place. “What is planned?” Whilst she awaited his reply, it occurred to her that—ironically—she fully expected him to tell her whatever it was, and that the necromancer, for all his faults, had never treated her as though she was insignificant.

Her companion met her wary gaze with his own level one. “The Dey is not as worried about the pearls as he is about the French seeking to gain control of your powers.”

     “Such as they are,” she teased, inviting him to share the joke. It was his joke, after all.

     “So he believes he should take you to wife, so that you are protected.”

     All humor forgotten, she stared at him for a moment in blank astonishment.  “What?”

     He shrugged his shoulders slightly. “It would discourage any further attempts to seize you by force.  The Dey would then assure the French that you will be made to cooperate, with respect to the pearls.”

    Oh-oh, she thought; this particular plan would muck up my own plan to no end—can’t be penned in at the Dey’s palace, with guards watching my every move. Affecting outrage, she retorted, “You are raving mad, if you think—”

     Holding up a hand, he silenced her protestations. “I have advised him that his mother would be unhappy if he took a kafir to wife, and he has acknowledged the justice of this.”

     With a breath of relief, she thanked him. “Well, that was quick thinking, and well done. I cannot imagine—”

    “So he wishes that I take you to wife, instead.”