"A mission," the captain repeated. They had gone outside and were leaning against a wall in the sun, each with his jug in his hand, watching people and carriages pass by on Calle Toledo. Saldaña looked at him a moment, stroking the thick beard sprinkled with the gray of an old soldier, grown to hide a slash that went from his mouth to his left ear.
"You have been out of prison only a few hours and you haven't a coin in your purse," he said. "Before two days pass, you will have accepted some paltry employ, escorting some conceited young peacock to prevent his beloved's brother from running him through on a street corner or slicing off a man's ears on behalf of a creditor. Or you will start hanging around in bawdy and gaming houses to see what you can extract from strangers or a priest who's come to wager San Eufrasio's knucklebone. Before you know it, you will be in trouble: a bad wound, a quarrel, a charge against you. And then it will start all over again." He took a small sip from his jar and half closed his eyes, though he never took them off the captain. "Do you call that living?"
Diego Alatriste shrugged. "Can you think of something better?" He stared directly into the eyes of his old comrade from Flanders. The look said, We do not all have the good fortune to be a high constable.
Saldaña picked his teeth with a fingernail and nodded a couple of times. They both knew that were it not for the twists and turns of fate, Saldaña could easily be in the same situation as the captain. Madrid was filled with former soldiers scraping a living in the streets and plazas, their belts stuffed with tin tubes in which they carried their wrinkled recommendations and petitions, and the useless service records that no one gave a fig about. Waiting for a stroke of luck that never came.
"That is why I have come, Diego. There is someone who needs you."
"Me? Or my sword?" He twisted his mustache with that grimace that passed as a smile.
Saldaña burst out laughing. "What an idiotic question," he said. "There are women who are interesting for their charms, priests for their absolutions, old men for their money. . . . As for men like you and me, it is only our swords." He paused to look in both directions, took another swallow of wine, and spoke more quietly. "These are people of quality. An easy evening's work, with no risks but the usual ones. And for doing it, there is a handsome purse."
The captain observed his friend with interest. At that moment, the word "purse" would have roused him from the deepest sleep or the most excruciating hangover.
"Some sixty escudos. In good four-doubloon coins."
"Not bad." The pupils narrowed in Diego Alatriste's light eyes. "Is killing involved?"
Saldaña made an evasive gesture, looking furtively toward the door of the tavern.
"Perhaps, but I do not know the details. And I do not want to know, if you get my meaning. All I know is that it is to be an ambush. Something discreet, at night, with your face covered and all that. 'Greetings and godspeed, señores!'"
"Alone, or will I have company?"
From Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Copyright 1996 by Arturo Perez-Reverte. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the Putnam Publishing.
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