She watched the sudden passion in Sharpe, the cruelty of his face as he imagined the battle.
“There isn’t any more. We take the forts and then we go after Marmont.”
“Do you like the French, Captain Sharpe?”
It struck him as a curious question, the wrong question. She meant, surely, did he dislike the French? He made a gesture of indecision. “No.” He smiled. “I don’t dislike them. I don’t have reason to dislike them.”
“Yet you fight them?”
“I’m a soldier.” It was not that simple. He was a soldier because there was nothing else for him to be. He had discovered all those years ago that he could do the job and do it well, and now he could not imagine another life.
Her eyes were curious, huge and curious. “What do you fight for?”
He shook his head, not knowing what to tell her. If he said ‘England’ it would sound pompous, and Sharpe had a suspicion that if he had been born French then he would have fought for France with as much skill and ferocity as he served England. The Colours? Perhaps, because they were a soldier’s pride, and pride is valuable to a soldier, but he supposed the real answer was that he fought for himself to stop himself sliding back into the nothingness where he began. He met her eyes. “My friends.” It was as good an answer as he could think of.
“They’re more important on a battlefield.”
She nodded, then stood up and walked down the balcony trailing smoke behind her. “What do you say to the charge that Wellington can’t fight an attacking battle? Only a defensive battle?”
She turned. “Where he crossed a river in the face of the enemy?”
“Yesterday you knew nothing about Assaye.”
“Yesterday I was in public.” The cigar glowed again.
“He can attack.” Sharpe was impressed by her intelligence, by her knowledge, but he was also mystified. There was something catlike about La Marquesa. She was quiet in her movements, beautiful, but she had claws, he knew, and now he knew she had the intelligence to use them skilfully. “Believe me, Ma’am, he can attack.”
She nodded. “I believe you. Thank you, Captain Sharpe, that’s all I wanted to know.”
She turned to the lattice and opened a window in it. “I want to know if the French are coming back to Salamanca. I want to know if Wellington will fight to stop that happening.
You’ve told me he will. You weren’t boasting, you weren’t trying to impress me, you gave me what I wanted; a professional opinion. Thank you.“
Sharpe stood up, not sure if the visit was done and he was being dismissed. He walked towards her. “Why did you want to know?”
“Does it matter?” She still stared at the fortresses.
“I’m curious.” He stopped behind her. “Why?”
She looked back at the table. “You forgot your musket.”
She turned round to face him and gave him another of her hostile stares. “How many men have you killed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Truly. I’ve been a soldier for nineteen years.”
“Do you get frightened?”
He smiled. “Of course. All the time. It gets worse, not better.”
“I don’t know. I sometimes think because the older you get, the more you have to live for.”
She laughed at that. “Any woman will tell you otherwise.”
“No, not any woman. Some, maybe. Some men, too.” He gestured at the faraway sound of the party. “Cavalry officers don’t like getting old.”
“You’re suddenly very wise for a humble soldier.” She was mocking him. She put the cigar to her mouth and smoke drifted between them.
She had still not answered his question and he still did not understand why he had been brought to this balcony where the leaves stirred in the night breeze. “You could have asked a thousand people in this town the questions you’ve asked me, and got the same answers. Why me?”
“I told you.” She pointed with the cigar to his rifle. “Now why don’t you pick up the rifle and go?”
Sharpe said nothing. He did not move. Somewhere in the town there were raised voices, drunken soldiers fighting in all probability, and a dog howled at the moon from another street, and he saw her eyes look at his cheek. “What are those black stains?”