ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 29

 

     “Hey,” called Jamie, pounding on the trap door with a fist.   “Qu’est que c’est?”

     “Mother a’ mercy, Jamie—it’s a trap.”  On high alert, Nonie whirled to face the occupants of the cargo hold, but she could discern no immediate threat; only several dozen young girls, crouched in a huddle at the far end, and watching them.   “Saba?” she ventured, and Jamie paused in his endeavors to look down, but there was no response, only the creaking of the timbers, as the ship rocked slightly.

     “They are slaves,” said Jamie into the silence. “De Gilles must be transporting slaves.”

     “Where, though? Away from Algiers?” Frowning, Nonie tried to make sense of it, her gaze sweeping the silent girls. They certainly did not look frightened, the multiple pairs of dark eyes watching them with a lively interest, and a few beginning to whisper behind their hands.

     “The left me my pistol; they’re not very savvy for kidnappers, are they?” Jamie began to bang on the trap door again, but his heart wasn’t in it; it seemed apparent that no mistake had been made.  “All right, what’s our strategy?”

     But Nonie was fighting an idea that was—truly—too terrible to contemplate, and so she made no response, her gaze focused on the girls without truly seeing them.

     After a pause, Jamie offered, “Not to worry, Nonie; if de Gilles is anything like the Normandy mark, he’ll make some colossal mistake—like forget to take my pistol—and the assignment will soon be back on track.”  He glanced up at the trap door again. “We need to find Saba, though; we’ll need to coordinate—”

     “Jamie,” Nonie whispered, having come to the reluctant conclusion that the terrible idea must be voiced, and bloody, bloody hell that she couldn’t just ignore it. “I don’t think Saba is on board.”

     “What?” Jamie’s gaze flew to hers, but they both looked up, upon hearing activity above their heads, muffled voices and footsteps that shook the dust loose from the ceiling timbers. “Of course, Saba must be on board—Fatima knew it, and the sailor didn’t argue—”

      “I don’t think its Saba they want.  I think it’s us.”

      “What are you talking about?” Jamie dropped down from the ladder, and approached her, a frown creasing his brow.  “Do you think Le Capitaine has twigged us, and knows who we are? Then why aren’t we dead?”

     “Not Le Capitaine, Jamie—the mark. Let’s say the mark wanted to remove us from the arena—”

     Frozen for a moment, Jamie slowly ducked his head and swore, his hands resting on his hips. “You are never going to tell me that Fatima put us up to this? I’ll not believe it—she’s not capable.”

     Nonie pressed her fingers to her temples, trying to suppress the sick feeling of betrayal that threatened to overwhelm her. “She said something to me on the shore—she asked if I would be careful, and it seemed as though she was sad—as though we were parting. I thought it a bit odd, at the time.”  Pulling herself together, she lifted her face and scanned the girls again, some of whom were openly giggling at Jamie. “It makes sense, Jamie. The mark was unhappy about the abduction attempt on me—and he said nothing could stop me, once I’d the bit between my teeth.  He was worried I’d be hurt.”

     Perversely, Jamie seemed impressed by this insight. “He said that? He has the right of it.”

     She was not amused, and pronounced in a grim tone, “Lord, Jamie, it’s not funny.  If he was here, I would strangle him with my bare hands.”

     The gleaming blue eyes met hers. “Of course, it’s funny, Nonie. He’s turned the tables, and now we’re the marks.”

     “Yes—we’re the marks,” she agreed, much struck. “And we were as easily gulled as the Normandy mark.” Despite everything, she responded to him, and made a wry mouth—she’d think about this little betrayal later; right now, she had to work on turning the tables, herself.

     Jamie’s gaze traveled over the beams above their heads, listening to the movement above. “What of our information, though—about Saba and the Dey’s wife being held hostage?”

    “Planted,” she declared. “I’ll bet my teeth, Jamie.” 

    “So—if the mark’s behind this, then Saba is in no danger.”  It was evident this was the overriding concern for him.

     “No—and neither are we, I daresay, which is why you still have your pistol.  He just wants us out of commission, for the nonce.”

     He grinned at her. “I’ll be sorry to disappoint him. Ready for a swim?”

    “Not in this sack—I’ll have to make do in my shift.” 

     Jamie helped Nonie pull her kaftan over her head, and she carefully tied her pill box, knife, and mirror securely into a corner of her hem.  “We’ll do a double-back; make a fuss to distract them, and then when I’m in the clear, you can follow. Do you think you can get your shoulders through?”

     Jamie gauged the size of the porthole. “I’ll manage. If we’re separated, we meet up at the fish market.”

     He reached to open the porthole, then placed his hands on her waist to hoist her up, as more giggling could be heard from behind them.  Nonie wriggled her shoulders through the porthole, and Jamie retreated back to the trap door, to pound and shout for attention.

     She took a quick glance above her, to note if there were any sentries posted along the deck, and then froze upon beholding the figure of a man, seated directly above her, his bare legs dangling over the side as he whittled on a stick. 

     De Gilles flashed his charming smile. “Madame. Bonjour.”

     “Captain de Gilles,” she acknowledged politely, squinting up at him.  “Well met.”

      “I have been given strict instructions not to trust you an inch,” the Frenchman continued amiably, as he whittled. “And to keep you out of direct sunlight.”   

      “Then I have every confidence you will not shoot me in the water,” she replied, wriggling so that she was seated on the edge of the porthole. “Good luck in all your future endeavors.”

     “Arrêtez; there is a young woman aboard.” He sighed, and made a quick gesture, entirely French, which conveyed a sincere and masculine appreciation for large breasts. “I understand she is intended for the gentleman.”

     But Nonie was undeterred. “You must discuss it with him; I’ve a pressing engagement, I do.”

     He paused in his whittling, and his eyes met hers.  “If you jump, I will jump also, and–make no mistake—I will catch you.  Then, I will be forced to bind you, hand and foot, for the remainder of our journey.” He went back to his whittling, and added, “You must lean back; I can see down the front of your shift.”

     “You may have the right of it,” she conceded, squinting up at him as she thought this over. “Where is it that we go?”

     He smiled, his teeth flashing white again.  “We go to la belle France, bien sûr.”

     “Wonderful,” she said with great irony. “I have yet to make your emperor’s acquaintance—perhaps we will arrive in France at the same time he does, after he slithers away from Elba.”

      The smile faltered for a moment, and he cocked his head in irritation. “He is not my emperor, madame.”

      She eyed him, speculatively. “Then you and he must agree to disagree.”

      “You are too long in the sun,” he chided. “I will have failed in my one task; please withdraw—you will hear from me, once we are underway.”

     Without comment, she squirmed her way back into the cargo hold, to be helped to the floor by a bemused Jamie, who’d been listening in wonder.  “Well, at least we know that you were right, and that the mark is behind this.  What now?”

      She checked her palms for splinters. “We’ll need to consult with Captain de Gilles, again, but we’ll wait until we’ve sailed ʼround the point. I imagine the mark has his people watching us like shrill kites, anyway, so after we’ve sailed out of sight, we’ll pull a disease feint.”

     He nodded. “All right; who’s diseased?”

     “You are. Fortunately, you have the pock marks to prove it.” She glanced up at him. “Saba is aboard—did you hear?”

     “Yes. Thank God.”

     “So—apparently, the mark is going to hand her over to you, as a sop to make up for all the inconvenience.” 

     There was a pause, as she watched him digest this much-welcomed news; there was no doubt he was battling conflicting emotions, and so she added in a sincere tone, “Jamie, if you want to continue on to France with her, I’ll complete the assignment on my own. It’s not as though I don’t have supporters, here.”

    “No,” he said immediately. No—I go back with you. I just need to see to it that she is kept safe.” He glanced quickly over at the girls, who continued to watch them avidly. 

    Like little birds, thought Nonie a bit sadly; they seemed completely unaware of the fate in store for them—small wonder Jamie was worried about Saba.  “Well, if it’s any consolation, I don’t believe the mark would be so petty as to refuse to set her aside out of spite, once he discovers that we didn’t fall in with his little scheme.”

     But Jamie, bless him, was resolute. “It doesn’t matter, Nonie—she’s a Christian, and the Mughal marriage can be set aside on those grounds—it’s not binding.  We’ll be married, one way or another, but I wish I felt better about leaving her aboard.”

     To reassure him, she pointed out, “I can’t imagine the mark would place her here, if he wasn’t certain that de Gilles could be trusted.” 

     The deck beneath their feet tilted slightly, as the groaning of wood rubbing against wood could be heard, mixed with the excited murmurs of the girls.  Standing next to Jamie, Nonie steadied herself with a hand on his shoulder, and stood on her toes to peer out the porthole as they watched the shoreline begin to recede. “We’re underway—wait until we round the point, then let’s put the feint into play.”

     With a calculating nod, Jamie looked for a good place to lie on the floor.  “All right—I’m deathly sick. What are you going to say to de Gilles, to convince him to let us go?

     With a grim little smile, she said only, “I’m going to appeal to his better nature.”

     Her companion grimaced in mock-concern. “Katy, bar the door.”

    “Exactly,” she agreed.