Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe tried to laugh it off. “She tells Marmont? Just like that?”

“No one in Spain stops a messenger who carries the seal of the house of Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba.”

Sharpe shook his head. “No.” He wanted to see her, to hold her, to listen to her voice, laugh with her.

Curtis sat again, near Sharpe, and he talked as the rain pelted on the river, as the storm moved southwards, and he talked of the letters that came to him, hidden letters, coded letters. He talked of the men who sent them and the ruses they employed to get the messages through. Now, it seemed to Sharpe, Curtis was a magician. He conjured the picture of his correspondents who feared for their lives, who worked only for liberty, who had stretched a web across Napoleon’s empire that led to this elderly priest. “I don’t remember exactly when it started, perhaps four years ago, but I found the letters coming, and I wrote back, and then I began to hide the letters, to put them inside the bindings of books. Then, when the English army came, it seemed sensible to pass the material onwards, so I did, and now I find that I am the most important spy you have.” Curtis shrugged. “I did not mean to be. I’ve trained priests, Sharpe, for years. Many of them write to me, often in Latin, sometimes in Greek, and I have lost only one man. I fear Leroux.” Sharpe remembered La Marquesa telling him how she feared Leroux. She was his sister.

Sharpe looked at Curtis. “You think Leroux is in the city?”

“I think so. I don’t know, but it seems logical that he would hide there until the French came back. Or stay there so he could go on looking for me.” Curtis laughed to himself. “They arrested me once. They took all my books, all my papers, but they found nothing. I persuaded them that as an Irish priest I had little love for the English. I don’t have much. But I do love this country, Sharpe, and I fear France.”

The rain had almost stopped. The thunder was sounding to the south. Sharpe felt utterly alone.

Curtis looked at the Rifleman. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Because I think you’re fond of her?” Sharpe nodded, and Curtis sighed. “Michael Hogan said you would be. He didn’t know if you were her lover, so I probed you to see how you reacted. Lord Spears said you were, but that young man spreads scandal. I think perhaps I envy you.”

“Why?” Sharpe was low; feeling that his life had been dissected. He had been used.

“I’m a professional gelding, Sharpe, but that doesn’t mean I never notice the mares.”

“She’s very noticeable.”

Curtis smiled in the darkness. “Jellification.”

Sharpe put the rifle onto the bench beside him. “What happens if there is a battle tomorrow?”

“We’ll look for Leroux in the evening. I suppose we’ll have to search the Palacio Casares.”

“And her?”

Curtis smiled at him. “Nothing. She’s a member of the Spanish aristocracy, beyond reproach, beyond punishment.” The wind was chilled by the passing rain. Curtis looked into the night. “I must go. If she found me here, then I had the excuse of the rifle, but it’s better that she doesn’t find me.” He stood up. “Convince her tonight, Sharpe, and I absolve you. for this night, for this deed.”

Sharpe did not want absolution, he wanted Helena, or Helene if that was her name, and yet he feared to see her in case she noticed a difference in him. She had used him, and perhaps he should never have believed that an aristocrat could have a genuine purpose in friendship with a man such as he, yet he could not believe that it had all been a pretence. She had needed him at first because he was the man hunting her brother and he had told her everything, so she had told Leroux, but she had come back for him, had rescued him from the hospital, and tonight he wanted her, whatever the darkness might hatch.

Curtis went through the door into a garden that was heavy with rain. The trees dripped after the storm. “Good luck, Sharpe.”

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