Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

It suddenly occurred to Sharpe that the man only had these two words of English, words he had been coached in, and only one person gave orders in this house. La Marquesa. He followed the man towards the hanging tapestry. The servant glanced around the landing, making sure that no-one was watching, and then he swiftly drew back one heavy corner of the great cloth. Behind it was a low, open doorway. “Senor?”

There was urgency in the man’s voice. Sharpe ducked under the lintel and the footman, staying on the landing, let the tapestry fall back into place. Sharpe was alone, quite alone, in a musty and total darkness.


He stood quite still, the air cooler on one side of his face, the sound of revelry muffled by the thick tapestry. He put out his left hand slowly, found the open door, and swung it shut. The hinges were well greased. It moved soundlessly until the latch clicked into place and then Sharpe leaned against it and let his eyes adjust slowly to the darkness.

He was on a small, square landing between two staircases. To his right the steps went downwards into utter darkness, to his left they climbed and at their head he could see a pale square that might have been the night sky except that it was curiously mottled and had no stars. He went to his left, climbing slowly, and his boots grated on the stone steps until he came out onto a wide balcony.

He saw now why there were no stars visible. The open side and roof of the balcony were enclosed by a small-latticed screen, dense with climbing plants, and the effect was to make the balcony comfortably cool. The plant stems had been trained so there were wide gaps between them and he crossed to the nearest gap and rested his shako peak on the lattice so he could see out. The lattice moved. He started back, then realised that the screen was a series of hinged doors, any of which could be opened so that the sun could flood onto the flagstones. The city was spread beneath him, grey moonlight on tiles and stone, the glow of fires reddening some of the buildings.

The balcony was deserted. Rush mats lay at its centre, making a path between troughs planted with small shrubs and stone benches supported by carved, crouching lions. He walked slowly along the balcony’s length and his eye caught strange, intermittent flashes of light from his right. They seemed to come from the balcony floor where it met the wall of the Palacio and he stopped, crouched, and saw that the lights came from a series of tiny windows that looked into the ballroom below. They were like spyholes. Beyond the palm-sized panes of glass were tunnels that must go through stone and plaster and each revealed a small patch of the great ballroom. Sharpe saw Lord Spears circle through his spyhole, his pelisse round Maria’s shoulders and his one good arm somewhere beneath the pelisse. Sharpe stood up and walked on.

The balcony turned to the right and Sharpe stopped at the corner. The rush mats on the new stretch were overlaid with rugs and there were doors, shut and shuttered, that led into the Palacio’s interior. At the far end, hard against a blank wall, Sharpe could see a table that was set with food and wine. The crystal and china winked with the reflected light of a single candle, shielded by glass, that stood in a niche of the wall. Only two chairs stood by the table, both empty, and Sharpe felt the stirring of his instinct, of danger, and he wondered why he had been invited to what looked like a very small party indeed. It made no sense, despite Spears’ explanation, for La Marquesa de Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba to invite Captain Sharpe to this private, expensive, and luxurious balcony.

Halfway down the balcony a huge brass telescope was mounted on a heavy iron tripod. Sharpe walked to it and pushed open a lattice door next to the instrument and saw, as he had guessed, that it pointed toward the night’s battlefield. The wasteland was pale in the moonlight, the fortresses dark, and Sharpe could see the ravine clearly that ran between the San Vincente and the smaller forts. There was the glow of fire tingeing the roofline of the San Vincente’s courtyard and he knew the French were celebrating their victory around the flames, but fearing, too, the next assault. There were other fires, small torches that were hand-held in the wasteland where men searched for the wounded and dead. The French ignored them. Sharpe suddenly shivered. For no reason he remembered the burning of the dead after the assault on Badajoz just a few weeks before. There had been too many bodies to bury so they had been stacked in layers, timber between the stripped corpses, and the fires had burned darkly and he remembered how the corpses on the top layer had sat up in the heat, almost as if they were alive and begging for rescue, and then the corpses below had also begun to bend in the great fire and, as if to blot out the vision, he pulled shut the lattice door with a loud click.

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