Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“What are you thinking?” Her voice was husky. He turned and La Marquesa was standing by the table, by a door that had opened silently, and a woman servant was in the doorway offering a shawl. La Marquesa shook her head and the servant disappeared, shutting the door as noiselessly as it had opened. La Marquesa was light in the darkness. Her golden hair seemed glowing to Sharpe, spun with gossamer fine radiance, and her dress was a brilliant white. It left her shoulders and arms bare and he could see the shadows of her collarbones and he wanted to put his hands on that fine, pale skin because she was, in a Palacio of priceless and beautiful objects, the most perfect of them all. He felt clumsy.

“I was told to compliment you on your frock.“

“My dress? I suppose that was Jack Spears?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“He never saw me.” She leaned over the table and Sharpe saw her light a small cigar from the candle. He was amazed. He was used to the women of the army smoking their short clay pipes, but he had never seen a woman with a cigar before. She blew a plume of smoke that drifted up to the lattice. “I saw you, though, both of you. You were glowering at the ballroom, hating it all, and he was wondering where he could find an empty bedroom to take that silly girl. Do you smoke?”

“Sometimes. Not now, thank you.” Sharpe gestured at the spyholes. “Did you see through those?”

She shook her head. “The palace is full of spyholes, Captain. Riddled with secret passages.” She walked towards him, her feet quite silent on the rugs. Her voice seemed different to Sharpe, this was not the same woman who had been excited and enthusiastic at San Christobal. Tonight she spoke crisply, with a confident authority, and all traces of wide-eyed naivete had gone. She sat on a cushioned bench. “My husband’s great-great-grandfather built the Palacio and he was a suspicious man. He married a younger wife, like me, and he feared she would be unfaithful so he built the passages and the peepholes. He would follow her round the building, she in light and he in darkness, and everything she did, he watched.” She told the story as if it was a much-told tale, of interest to the listener, but holding boredom for herself. She shrugged, blew smoke upwards, and looked at him. “That’s the story.”

“Did he see anything he shouldn’t have?”

She smiled. “It’s said she discovered about the passages and that she hired two masons. One day she waited until her husband was in a long tunnel that bends round the library. It has only one entrance.” Her eyes were huge in the dimness. Sharpe watched her, entranced by the line of her throat, the shadows on her skin above the low white dress, by the wide mouth. She chopped down with the cigar. “She gave a signal and the masons nailed the entrance shut and then they laid stones over it. After that she made the servants pleasure her, one by one, two by two, and all the time they could hear the husband screaming and scrabbling beyond the wall. She told them it was rats and told them to keep going.” She shrugged. “It’s just a nonsense, of course, not true. The pride of this house would not allow it, but the people of Salamanca tell the story and certainly the passages exist.”

“It’s a harsh story.”

“Yes. It goes on that she died, strangled by the ghost of her husband, and that will be the fate of any mistress of this house who is unfaithful to her husband.” She glanced up at Sharpe as she said the last words and there was a curious hostility in her expression, a challenge perhaps.

“You say the story isn’t true?”

She gave a crooked, secret smile. “How very indelicate of you, Captain Sharpe.” She drew on the cigar, hardening the red point of the tobacco. “What did Lord Spears tell you about me?”

He was startled by the directness of her question, by the inference that she was commanding him to answer. He shook his head. “Nothing.”

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