Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

She raised an eyebrow. “A kiss is offensive?”

“If it’s not wanted.”

“So a woman must always show that she wants to be kissed?”

Sharpe was feeling desperately uncomfortable, out of his place in a world he did not understand. He tried to shrug the topic away. “I don’t know.”

“You do. You think that a woman must always invite a man, yes? And that then leaves you guiltless.” Sharpe said nothing, and she laughed. “I forgot. You’re just a humble soldier and you don’t understand the ways of your betters.”

Sharpe looked at the beauty across the table and he tried to tell himself that this was just another woman, and he a man, and that there was nothing more to it than that. He could behave as if she was any woman he had ever known, but he could not convince himself. This was a Marquesa related to Emperors, and he was Richard Sharpe, related to no one apart from his daughter. The difference was like a screen between them and he could not shift it. Others might, but not he. He shrugged inwardly. That’s right, Ma’am. I don’t understand.“

She picked another cigar from the box on the table and leaned over the candle in the niche to light it. She sat down and stared at the cigar glow as if she had never seen it before. Her voice was soft again. “I’m sorry, Captain Sharpe. I don’t mean to offend.” She looked up at him. “How many people do understand? How many, do you think, live like this? One in a hundred thousand? I don’t know.” She looked at the thick rugs, at the crystal on the table. “You think I’m fortunate, don’t you.” She smiled to herself. “I am. Yet I speak five languages, Captain, and all I am expected to do with them is order the daily meals. I look in a mirror and I know just what you see. I open my doors and all those pretty staff-officers flood in and they flatter me, charm me, amuse me, and they all want something of me.” She smiled at him, and he smiled back. She shrugged. “I know what they want. Then there’s my servants. They want me to be lax, to be undemanding. They want to steal my food, my money. My Confessor wants me to live like a nun, to give to his charities, and my husband wants me to sail to South America. Everyone wants something. And now I want something.”


She pulled on the cigar, looking at him through the smoke. “I want you to tell me if there’s going to be a battle.”

Sharpe laughed. He sipped the wine. He had been brought up to this balcony to tell her something that any officer, British or Spanish, German or Portuguese, could tell her? He looked at her and her face was serious, waiting, so he nodded. “Yes. There has to be. We haven’t come this far to do nothing, and I can’t see Marmont giving up the west of Spain.”

She spoke with deliberation. “So why didn’t Wellington attack yesterday?”

He had almost forgotten that it was only yesterday that they had sat on the hilltop and watched the two armies. “He wanted Marmont to attack him.”

“I know that. But he didn’t, and the Peer outnumbered him, so why didn’t he attack?”

Sharpe reached forward and cut at a partridge. The skin was crisp and honeyed. He gestured with the slice of meat towards the lights of the spyholes. “There are a dozen generals down there, three dozen staff officers, and you ask me? Why?”

“Because it pleases me!” Her voice was suddenly harsh. She paused to draw on the cigar. “Why do you think? If I ask one of them they’ll smile politely, become charming, and tell me, in so many words, not to worry my head about soldiering. So I’m asking you. Why didn’t he attack?”

Sharpe leaned back, took a deep breath, and launched into his thoughts. “Yesterday the French had their back to a plain. Marmont could have retreated endlessly, in good order, and the battle would have stopped by nightfall. There’d have been, oh…“ he shrugged, ”say, five hundred dead on each side? If our cavalry was better there might have been more, but it would decide nothing. The armies would still have to fight again. Wellington doesn’t want a series of small indecisive skirmishes. He wants to trap Marmont, he wants him in a place where there’s no escape, or where he’s wrong footed, and then he can crush him. Destroy him.“

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