The Barbary Mark
It was past midnight when Nonie heard a discreet tapping behind the screen—I should lie naked on the bed, and see if we can stir up a reaction, she thought uncharitably, but instead said softly, “Yes—come in; I am awake.”
The necromancer entered, dressed as a guard again, and despite herself, she felt a pang of regret upon seeing him, as she stood to fasten on the hated headdress. You hardly know him, you nodcock, she scolded—take hold of yourself and recall, if you please, what is at stake.
When she was ready, he did not move toward the secret door, but instead stood still, regarding her with an air of concern. “What has happened?”
In the process of concocting a mild response, somehow other words came out. “I have discovered you have multiple wives.” So much for discretion—it was hard to believe she was considered to be a decent spy, in some circles. “It is a grievous blow.”
He looked into her eyes for a moment, his own holding a trace of some unidentified emotion. Why, I think I’ve finally thrown him, she thought. And I can’t be happy about it, because I should never have said such a thing, to begin with.
He tilted his head slightly, in his now-familiar manner. “It is the way of things.”
“It is indeed—at least hereabouts, and I will say no more.” She adopted a teasing tone, lest she give him the impression that she’d transferred her affections from Jamie—another reason she’d been a fool to make such a confession to him. Besides, there was no point in batting her eyes at him in the first place; she was not going to tie her star to a Muslim man with multiple wives who was willing to double-cross Napoleon—although the last was more an asset which could be toted up in his favor, despite its recklessness. It was strange enough that she felt they were so compatible; obviously, they inhabited different worlds and if anyone thought for an instant that she would be willing to live in this miserable backwater, they were very much mistaken.
With her poise firmly restored, she asked, “Shall we go?”
She had the impression he was going to say something, but then thought the better of it. “Yes. Please follow me.”
As they passed through the embedded door, she asked, “It that an orange, that I’m scenting?”
He dropped his chin in acknowledgement and silently drew an orange from within his robe—apparently, he would have shared it with her, but for her unruly tongue.
As she followed him down the crude steps, she found that her unruly tongue had no intention of behaving itself, any time soon. “I hope I haven’t torn it. Do you think we can we be comfortable again?”
There was a small pause, and then his voice floated back from the darkness before her. “I have not been comfortable since the moment I saw you.”
His tone was not teasing or flirtatious, but instead, was very grave. She made no response, because she was being foolish beyond measure, to goad him into a veiled declaration of affection that was doomed from the start—not to mention that he was doomed, something she should try to remember, for heaven’s sake.
When they came to the juncture with the cross-tunnel, he bent to light the lantern, but instead of going forward, he paused, and looked out into the dark passageway whilst she stood beside him in the flickering shadows. After a moment, his quiet voice echoed off the walls, “What is it that you are trying to compel me to do?”
Acutely embarrassed, she stammered, “Nothing—pray do not think—”
He turned to her. “No—not that. I meant with regard to your work, here; what is it you try to accomplish, through me?”
She stared at him for a moment, a bit taken aback by the question, and bitterly regretting her comments, which had not only had caused this confused awkwardness between them, but had jeopardized her assignment, to boot. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
Leaning in, so that he could watch her face in the lantern light he asked, “You speak Gaelic?”
“Labhraím gaeilge,” she agreed, thinking this a bit off-topic.
“As does Mr. O’Hay?”
Ah—he didn’t miss a trick, this man; he was wondering why they hadn’t spoken in their native language, in front of him. “Well, yes—but mostly we speak English to one another.”
There was a long, silent pause, whilst she knew he found her explanation lacking. “I am willing to help you, but you must not interfere with my work. Can you tell me what it is you seek to accomplish?”
Since she couldn’t very well tell him they were intent on bringing all his well-ordered plans down in ruins, she struggled to choose the right words. “I’d rather not; it is possible that we are working at cross purposes, you and I.” It was as close as she could come to telling him his underhanded activities were known to her—perhaps she could scare him away from his wicked ways, and he needn’t suffer for them.
He thought this over, his eyes upon hers. “I see.”
She took a breath, and quelled any further conversation—she shouldn’t have said what she already had, and—truly, this time—she would say no more. “I’m afraid I have my orders.”
“I understand.” He turned, and led her into the tunnel, and didn’t raise the topic again. She followed in thoughtful silence, a bit taken aback by his willingness to confront her on these delicate matters. She was now aware that she should assume he knew exactly what was afoot—that he wasn’t fooled by anything; it was almost as though he’d given her a warning to beware, much the same as she’d given him. What was truly alarming was the undeniable fact that she wasn’t, in fact, alarmed by this realization—she would wager her life that he would do her no harm, come what may.
After they emerged from the tunnel into the twisting alleyways of the Kasbah, he let her into a small, gated courtyard that smelled faintly of spices and burnt oil, as though it was a dining area of some sort. After opening a battered wooden door that hung on old leather hinges, he stood back and indicated she should enter. Once within the cramped kitchen area, the lantern light revealed a crude table, where Jamie was in the process of devouring a hearty bowl of some sort of stew. As she came in, he looked up with a grin. “Trust you to see to my stomach—many, many thanks.”
Shamelessly taking the credit, she laughed and noted that his eyes strayed behind the necromancer, to see if anyone else accompanied them.
“Is it the large-breasted messenger that you seek?” She spoke in Gaelic, just to serve the necromancer right.
He laughed, and answered easily in the same language, “She’s a beauty—who is she?”
“I cannot say her name aloud, because she is married to the mark.”
His eyes alight, as though they spoke of inconsequentials, he responded, “Is that so? Now there’s a disappointment.”
Preaching to the choir, she thought, but cautioned, “Best beware; the religious beliefs hereabouts do not take kindly to adultery.”
But Jamie was Jamie, and was undaunted, as always. “It’s not a real marriage; not according to our religious beliefs.” With an air of self-satisfaction, he turned back to his meal.
Nonie placed a hand on his arm and behaved as though she was concerned. “Turn your attention to more important matters, if you please. I think the mark is aware that he is a mark.”
Pausing, he placed his hand upon hers, as though soothing her. “Well that’s a fine kettle of fish—now what?”
“We’ve little choice but to press on—perhaps we can outfox him; they still seek the pearls, after all.”
Jamie’s gaze held hers. “He can’t know what your assignment is, surely?”
“I can’t imagine he does, but be wary, and take nothing on faith.”
He paused. “Do you think he’s a danger to you?”
After a moment’s hesitation, she thought she may as well confess, “No—in fact, I believe he is rather fond of me.”
“Is he?” Jamie lifted her hand from his arm, and kissed it tenderly. “Don’t be stupid, Nonie—too much is at stake.”
“No—I have no illusions, but it’s a factor to consider.”
“Then he’s more like the Normandy mark than the Flemish mark.”
With a trace of brave sadness, she reflected, “The poor Normandy mark; no doubt he still stands at the roadside, and waits for me to return from Paris.”
But Jamie had little sympathy and shoveled in another mouthful. “Man’s an idiot—doubtful he’s still alive.” Without looking up, he added, “Any sign that this one has taken the bait?”
“No, he seems completely impervious to hints about sunken treasure.” She gave Jamie a wan, brave smile. “And I don’t know whether it’s worth it, to keep pretending that I’m only here to sway you from your foolish, besotted path.”
He looked into her eyes and nodded, with all appearance of sincerity. “Well, that was a faint hope to begin with. Aditi knows every bed-trick in the book.”
As though dismayed, she shook her head. “And by the looks of her, it’s a weighty book.”
He bowed his head with a stubborn expression, sorry, but resolute. “Lord—it’s exhausting, is what it is.”
“Do spare me the details.” She sighed and rubbed his arm with sad affection. “Then you’d best get back before Aditi gets restless, and finds a worthy substitute.”
“Tell me more about the other girl—the mark’s wife.”
“Sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander,” she reminded him with no sympathy. “Best to stand down; it would not end well, my friend.”
In the midst of this touching scene, there was a coded tapping at the door, and with a long stride, the necromancer answered. Another man stood without, and the two had a murmured conversation.
“That’s my fellow,” Jamie informed her in an undertone, as he finished up the bowl of stew with two quick spoonfuls. “Works at the slave market; brought me here, but doesn’t say much. I don’t think he’s a native, but I have no other impressions.”
The necromancer shut the door, and motioned for Jamie to rise. “We must leave quickly, and by the other way. We are being watched.”
“By who?” asked Nonie and Jamie at the same time, turning to him like two hounds on point.
“Come,” he said, and indicated they were to follow.