That day there were bullfights in the Plaza Mayor, but
constable Martín Saldaña’s festive fire had been doused. A
woman had been found in a sedan chair in front of the
church of San Ginés, strangled. In her hand was a pouch
containing fifty escudos and a handwritten, unsigned note
bearing the words, For masses for your soul.
A pious old woman on her way to early church had
found the body. She advised the sacristan, and he had informed
the parish priest who, after a hurried absolution,
sub conditione, made a report to the authorities. By the
time the chief constable showed up to make his token appearance
in the small plaza of San Ginés, local residents
and curious bystanders were milling around the sedan chair.
The chair and its contents had become the object of a local
pilgrimage, and a number of Saldaña’s catchpoles were
needed to hold back the crowd while the judge and the
scribe drew up their documents and Martín Saldaña made
his cursory examination of the corpse.
The chief constable set about his task in the most
leisurely fashion, as if he had time to burn. Perhaps it was
because of his history as a former soldier—he had served in
Flanders before his wife (at least it was said it had been she)
obtained his present position for him. In any case, Madrid’s
chief constable went about his duties at a pace that a certain
satiric poet—the gifted-in-wealth-as-well-as-talent
Ruiz de Villaseca—had described in a poisonous décima as
paso de buey, an ox’s pace. It was a clear allusion to the
lethargy with which the chief constable picked up his staff
of office, or attempted to parry the staffs his wife welcomed.
In any case, if it is true that Martín Saldaña was slow
in certain things, he was definitely not so when it came to
drawing his sword, or dagger, or poniard, or the well-oiled
pistols he was wont to wear in his waistband—all of which
clanged like sounds issuing from a smithy. On the night of
the third day after the aforementioned décima had circulated
among the gossipers gathered at the mentidero of
San Felipe, the most popular of Madrid’s rumor mills, this
same now-not-so-gifted Villaseca had been found at the
very door to this house with three sword-tailored buttonholes
in his body. He was now extremely well qualified—
whether from Purgatory, Hell, or wherever—to confirm
exactly how swiftly the constable could move.
The fact is that from the calm and collected inspection
the head constable made of the cadaver, almost nothing
was learned. The dead woman was mature, nearer fifty
than forty, dressed in a voluminous black gown and a headdress
that lent her the look of a duenna, or a lady’s companion.
Her purse held a rosary, along with a key and a
crumpled religious card depicting the Virgin of Atocha.
Around the victim’s neck was a gold chain bearing a medallion
of Saint Águeda. Her own features suggested that in
her younger days she had been well favored. There were
no signs of violence other than the silk cord still cutting
into her neck, and her mouth, frozen in the rictus of death.
From her color, and the rigor, the constable concluded that
she had been strangled the preceding night, in that same
sedan chair, before being carried to church.
The detail of the pouch with money for masses for her
soul indicated a twisted sense of humor—or, conversely,
great Christian charity. After all, in the dark, violent, and
contradictory Spain of our Catholic King Philip IV, in which
dissolute wastrels and rough-living braggarts howled for
confession at the top of their lungs after being shot or run
through by a sword, it was not unusual to encounter a pious
Martín Saldaña told us about the event late that afternoon.
Or, to be more precise, told Captain Alatriste. We met him
at the Guadalajara gate, returning among the crowd from
the Plaza Mayor after he had completed his inquiries regarding
the murdered woman. Her body had been laid out
in Santa Cruz in one of the coffins for hanged prisoners,
in hopes that someone might identify her. The constable
merely mentioned the murder in passing, more interested
in the performance of the afternoon’s bulls; at that time in
Madrid, street crimes were common, but afternoons of
bulls and cañas were growing scarce.
Cañas, a kind of tourney on horseback between teams
of fine gentlemen, in which our lord and king himself
sometimes participated, had become very mannered—a
contest between pretty-boys and fops, tending more toward
flourishing and flirting and ladies than toward cracking
heads, as God would have it. They were not in any way
what they had been in days of the wars between the
Moors and the Christians, or even in the lifetime of our
young monarch’s grandfather, the great Philip II. As for
the bulls, they were still, in that first third of the century,
a passion of the Spanish people. Of the more than seventy
thousand residents of Madrid, two thirds flocked to the
Plaza Mayor every time the bulls challenged the courage
and skill of the caballeros who confronted them. Because in
those days, hidalgos, grandees of Spain, even men of royal
blood, had no hesitation about riding out into the plaza on
their finest steeds to bury the dagger-point of their rejón,
the long wooden lance, in the withers of a fine Jarama
bull. Or one of them might just as readily dismount and
bring the bull down with his sword, amid the applause of
the crowd that gathered either beneath the arches of the
plaza—in the case of the common folk—or on balconies
rented for as much as twenty-five or fifty escudos by courtiers
and papal and foreign ambassadors.
These events were then celebrated in ballads and
poems—either elegant, or comic and grotesque—events
that Madrid’s cleverest minds quickly seized upon to
sharpen their wit. Such as the time a bull chased a constable,
and the public took the side of the bull—officers of
the law did not then, as they do not today, enjoy great popular
The bull had good reason that day
to pursue the object of mirth,
for of the four horns in the fray
only two had been there at birth.
On one occasion the Admiral of Castile, while fighting,
on horseback, an unusually large bull, accidentally wounded
the Conde de Cabra instead of the beast. That was cause
for the following famous lines—turning on the pun of the
name Cabra, which means “goat”—to race through the
most busily buzzing mentideros of Madrid.
A thousand and more have won fame,
but only the Admiral, abra-cadabra,
is the first, with his trusty lance,
to turn a bull into a Cabra.
It is understandable, then, returning to that Sunday of
the murdered woman, that Martín Saldaña would bring
Diego Alatriste up-to-date on what had kept him away
from the afternoon’s sport. The captain, in turn, recounted
the details of the bullfights, which Their Majesties, the
king and queen, had witnessed from the balcony of the
Casa de la Panadería—and the captain and I standing
among the ordinary public, eating piñon nuts and lupin
seeds in the shade of the Pañeros arch.
There had been four bulls, all fiery; and both the
Conde de Puñoenrostro and the Conde de Guadalmedina
had been outstanding in placing their rejones. A Jarama
bull had killed the latter count’s horse, and he, very brave,
very much the cavalier, had jumped to the ground, slashed
the animal’s tendons, and dispatched it with two good
thrusts of his sword. That feat had earned a fluttering of
ladies’ fans, the approval of the king, and a smile from the
queen—who, as word later had it, scarcely had taken her
eyes off him, for Guadalmedina was a fine figure of a man.
The final bull added a last colorful note when it attacked
the royal guard. As you may know, Your Mercies,
three units of guardsmen—Spanish, German, and one of
harquebusiers—always stood in formation below the royal
box, lined up shoulder to shoulder and with halberds at
the ready. They were forbidden to break rank, even should
a bull charge them with all the animus of a Turk. That
afternoon the snorting animal had made straight for the
guards, bothered not a whit by the halberds, and had
taken with him on a tour of the ring, impaled upon a
wicked horn, one of the large blond Germans. The hapless
guard found himself being separated from his innards
amidst a chorus of Himmels and Mein Gotts. Sacraments
were administered there in the plaza.
“He was slipping around on his own guts, like that
lieutenant in Ostend,” Diego Alatriste concluded. “You remember
him? The one in our fifth assault on the del Caballo
redoubt . . . Ortiz was his name. Or Ruiz. Something
Martín Saldaña nodded, stroking his graying beard,
which he wore partly to hide the scar he had received
twenty years before, around the third or fourth year of the
century, during that same attack on the walls of Ostend.
They had poured out of the trenches at the break of
dawn—Saldaña, Alatriste, and five hundred other men,
among them my father, Lope Balboa. They’d swarmed the
terreplein, with Captain Tomás de la Cuesta in the lead,
followed closely by that lieutenant Ortiz, or Ruiz—oh, what
the devil was he called?—carrying the flag bearing the
cross of Saint Andrew.
Before climbing over the parapet, they had taken the
first line of the Dutchmen’s trenches with nothing but
small arms, under constant enemy fire from above. They
had spent half an hour in hand-to-hand fighting as musket
fire whizzed around them. That was where Martín
Saldaña had received the slash across his face and Diego
Alatriste the one above his left eyebrow. Lieutenant Ortiz-
Ruiz was hit by a musket ball fired at point-blank range,
blowing away half his belly. His intestines spilled out and
dragged on the ground and he struggled to hold them in
with both hands as he ran to escape the battle. He did not
have the chance, because almost immediately he was
killed by a shot to the head.
Finally, Captain de la Cuesta, himself as bloody as an
Ecce Homo, had said, “Caballeros, we have done all we
can; let any man who can save his hide.” My father and
another short, tough soldier from Aragon, one Sebastián
Copons, had helped Saldaña and Diego Alatriste get back
to the Spanish trenches, with every Dutchman in the
world firing at them from the walls. As they ran, they
cursed God and the Virgin, or commended themselves to
them, which in such cases was one and the same thing.
And still someone had the time and fortitude to pick up
poor Ortiz-Ruiz’s banner rather than leave it on the bulwarks
of the heretics, along with his corpse and those of
two hundred comrades who were not going on into Ostend,
or back to the trenches—or anywhere at all.
“Ortiz, I think it was,” Saldaña concluded finally.
They had, a good year later, avenged the lieutenant
and the two hundred other men, as well as those who left
their hides in earlier, or later, assaults upon the Dutch del
Caballo redoubt. Finally, after the eighth or ninth attempt,
Saldaña, Alatriste, Copons, my father, and the other veterans
of the Tercio Viejo de Cartagena, succeeded in battling
their way inside the walls on the strength of nothing but
bollocks. The Dutch began shouting Srinden, srinden,
which I think means “friends,” or “comrades,” and then
something that sounded like Veijiven ons over: “We surrender.”
And that was when Captain de la Cuesta, who was
deaf to any foreign tongue but who had a stupendous memory,
said, “We do not understand your srinden or veijiven—
or anything your whoring mothers taught you—but we
will show no mercy, you hear that? Not one heretic left
alive.” And when Diego Alatriste and the others at last
raised the shredded, battle-worn cross of Saint Andrew
above the bulwarks—the very same one poor Ortiz had carried
before departing this world tangled in his own guts—
they were drenched in the Dutch blood dripping from the
blades of their daggers and swords.
“Someone told me you are going back,” Saldaña said,
after he had brought us up-to-date.
Although I was still dazzled by the bulls, my eyes were
filled with the people pouring out of the plaza and along
Calle Mayor: Fine ladies and gentlemen rapped out “Fetch
my coach” and then climbed into their carriages and rode
away, and caballeros on horseback, and elegant courtiers
headed toward San Felipe or the flagstone courtyard of
the palace. At the time, I listened very carefully to the
chief constable’s words. In that year of 1623, the second in
the reign of our young King Philip, the war in Flanders
had resumed, creating the need for more money, more
tercios, and more men. General Ambrosio Spínola was
recruiting soldiers throughout Europe, and hundreds of
veterans were hurrying to enlist under their old flags. The
Tercio de Cartagena, decimated at Julich at the time my
father was killed, and totally annihilated a year later in
Fleurus, was being re-formed. Soon it would be following
the Camino Español, a familiar route to the Low Countries,
to play a part in the siege of the stronghold of Breda—or
Bredá, as we called it then. Although the wound Diego Alatriste
had received in Fleurus had not completely healed, I
was aware that he had been in contact with old comrades,
with the intent of returning to its ranks. In recent days,
the captain had made his living as a sword for hire, and despite
that—or precisely because of it—he had made some
powerful enemies at court. It would not be a bad idea to
put some distance between them and him for a time.
“It might be for the best.” Saldaña looked at Alatriste
meaningfully. “Madrid has become dangerous. Will you
take the boy?”
We were walking among a crowd of people just passing
the closed silver shops, heading in the direction of the
Puerta del Sol. The captain looked at me quickly, and made
an ambiguous gesture.
“He may be too young,” he said.
Beneath the chief constable’s thick mustache I could
make out a smile. As I admired the butts of his gleaming
pistols, the dagger, and the sword with the wide guard, all
of which hung from the waist of his buffcoat—a padded
defense against knifings received in the course of his
duties—he had laid his broad, hard hand on my head. That
hand, I thought, might once have shaken my father’s.
“Not too young for some things, I believe.” Saldaña’s
smile stretched wider, partly amused and partly devilish.
For he knew what I had done the night of the adventure
of the two Englishmen. “And anyway, you were his age
when you enlisted.”
This was true. Nearly a long quarter of a century before,
the second son of an old family, with no standing in
the world, thirteen years old and barely in command of
writing, the four skills of arithmetic, and a taste of Latin,
Diego Alatriste had run away from both school and home.
In those desperate straits he reached Madrid, and by lying
about his age was able to enlist as a drummer boy in one of
the tercios leaving for Flanders under the command of
King Philip’s heir, the infante Alberto.
“Those were different times,” the captain protested.
He had stepped aside to allow two señoritas with the
air of high-priced harlots to pass, escorted by their gallants.
Saldaña, who seemed to know them, tipped his hat,
not without obvious sarcasm, which triggered an irate
look from one of the dandies. It was a look that vanished
like magic when he saw all the iron the head constable was
“You are right about that,” said Saldaña provocatively.
“Those were different times, and different men.”
“And different kings.”
The head constable, whose eyes were still on the women,
turned to Alatriste with a slight start, and then shot a sideways
glance at me.
“Come, Diego, do not say such things before the boy.”
He looked around, uneasy. “And do not compromise me,
by Christ. Remember, I am the Law.”
“I am not compromising you. I have never failed in my
duty to my king, whoever he may be. But I have served
three, and I tell you that there are kings, and there are
Saldaña stroked his beard. “God help us.”
“God or whoever your draw your comfort from.”
The head constable gave me another uneasy glance before
turning back to Alatriste. I observed that he had unconsciously
rested one hand on the pommel of his sword.
“You wouldn’t be looking for a quarrel, would you,
Diego?” The constable, heavyset and strong but slightly
shorter than the captain, stood a little straighter and
stepped in front of Alatriste.
The captain did not answer. His gray-green eyes locked
with Saldaña’s, expressionless beneath the broad brim of
his hat. The two men stared at each other, nose to nose,
their old soldier’s faces crisscrossed with fine wrinkles and
scars. Some passersby stared at them with curiosity. In that
turbulent, ruined, but still proud Spain—in truth, pride
was all we had left in our pockets—no one took back
a word lightly spoken, and even close friends were capable
of knifing each other over an ill-timed comment or
He spoke, he walked by, he looked,
rash, unguarded words resound,
once spoken, too late, in a trice
the meadow is a dueling ground.
Only three days before, right in the middle of Rúa
Prado, the Marqués de Novoa’s coachman had knifed his
master six times because he had called him a lout, and
fights over a “Move out of my way” were commonplace.
So for an instant, I thought that the two of them might go
at each other there in the street. But they did not. For if it
is true that the constable was entirely capable—and he
had proved it before—of putting a friend in prison, even
blow off his head in the exercise of his authority, it is no
less true that he had never raised the specter of the law
against Diego Alatriste over personal differences. That
twisted ethic was very typical of the era among belligerent
men, and I myself, who lived in that world in my youth,
as well as the rest of my life, can testify that in the most
soulless scoundrels, rogues, soldiers, and hired swords, I
had found more respect for certain codes and unwritten
rules than in people of supposedly honorable condition.
Martín Saldaña was such a man, and his quarrels and
squabbles were settled with a sword, man to man, without
hiding behind the authority of the king or any of his
But thanks to God, their exchange had been in quiet
voices, without making a public stir or doing irreparable
damage to the old, tough, and contentious friendship between
the two veterans. At any rate, Calle Mayor after a
fiesta de toros, with all Madrid packed into the streets, was
no place for hot words, or steel, or anything else. So in the
end, Saldaña let the air out of his lungs with a hoarse sigh.
All of a sudden he seemed relaxed, and in his dark eyes,
still directed at Captain Alatriste, I thought I glimpsed the
spark of a smile.
“One day, Diego, you are going to end up murdered.”
“Perhaps. If so, no one better to do it than you.”
Now it was Alatriste who was smiling beneath his thick
soldier’s mustache. I saw Saldaña wag his head with comic
“We would do well,” he said, “to change the subject.”
He had reached out with a quick, almost clumsy,
gesture—at once rough and friendly—and jabbed the captain’s
“Come, then. Buy me a drink.”
And that was that. A few steps farther on, we stopped at
the Herradores tavern, which was filled, as always, with
lackeys, squires, porters, and old women willing to be hired
out as duennas, mothers, or aunts. A serving girl set two
jugs of Valdemoro on the wine-stained table, which Alatriste
and the head constable tossed down in a nonce, for their
verbal sparring had quickened their thirst. I, not yet fourteen,
had to settle for a glass of water from the large jug,
since the captain never allowed me a taste of wine except
what we dipped our bread into at breakfast—there was
not always money for chocolate—or, when I was not well,
to restore my color. Although Caridad la Lebrijana, on the
sly, would sometimes give me slices of bread sprinkled
with wine and sugar, a treat to which I, a boy without
two coins to rub together to buy sweets, was greatly
In regard to wine, the captain told me that I would
have plenty of time in my life to drink till I burst, if I
wished; that it was never too late for a man to do that,
adding that he had known too many good men who ended
up lost in the fumes of Bacchus’s grapes.
He told me these things little by little, for as I’ve said,
Alatriste was a man of few words, and his silences often
said more than when he spoke aloud. The fact is that later,
when I, too, was a soldier—among many other things—
I sometimes did tip my jug too much. But I was always civil
when I was tippling, and in me it never became a vice—I
had others that were worse—but only an occasional stimulus
and diversion. And I believe that I owe my moderation
to Captain Alatriste, although he never preached that
homily by example. On the contrary, I well remember his
long, silent drinking bouts. Unlike other men, he did not
often have his wine in company, nor did his bottles make
him jolly. His way of drinking was calm, deliberate, and
melancholy. And when the wine began to take effect, he
would close up like a clam and avoid his friends.
In truth, every time I remember him drunk, it was
alone in our lodgings on Calle del Arcabuz, on the courtyard
that opened to the back of the Tavern of the Turk.
He would sit motionless before his glass, jug, or bottle, his
eyes fixed on the wall where he hung his sword, dagger,
and hat, as if contemplating images that only he and his
obstinate silence could evoke. And by the way his mouth
tightened beneath his veteran’s mustache, I would take
an oath that the images were not those a man contemplates,
or relives, gladly. If it is true that each of us carries
his specters within him, those of Diego Alatriste y
Tenorio were not servile or friendly or good company. But,
as I heard him say once, shrugging his shoulders in the
way that was so typical of him—half resignation and half
indifference—an honorable man can choose the way and
the place he dies, but no one can choose the things he
Activity at the mentidero of San Felipe was at its peak.
The steps and terrace of the church facing Calle Mayor
were an anthill: people chattering in groups, strolling
around greeting acquaintances, elbowing their way to a
place at the railing from which they could watch the
coaches and crowds filling the street below in the stylized
promenade they called the rúa. That was where Martín
Saldaña bid us farewell. We were not, however, alone for
long, for shortly thereafter we ran into El Tuerto Fadrique,
the one-eyed apothecary at Puerta Cerrada, and Dómine
Pérez; they, too had just come from the spectacle of the
bulls, and were still praising them. In fact, it had been the
dómine who had administered the sacraments to the German
guard whose traveling papers had just been signed by
the Jarama bull. The Jesuit was recounting all the details,
telling how the queen, being young, and French, had turned
pale and nearly swooned in the royal box, and how our
lord and king had gallantly taken her hand to comfort her.
However, instead of retiring, as many expected she would
do, she had stayed on at the Casa de la Panadería. Her
gesture was so appreciated by the public that when she
and the king rose, signaling the end of the spectacle, they
were favored with a warm ovation, to which Philip the
Fourth, young and refined as he was, responded by doffing
I have already told Your Mercies, on a different occasion,
that in the first third of the century, the people of
Madrid, despite their natural fondness for mischief and
malice, still harbored a certain naiveté in regard to such
royal gestures. It was an ingenuousness that time and disasters
would replace with disillusion, rancor, and shame.
But at the time of this tale, our monarch was still a young
man, and Spain, although already corrupt, and with mortal
ulcers eating her heart, maintained her appearance, all
her dazzle and politesse. We were still a force to be reckoned
with, and would continue to be for some time, until
we bled the last soldier and the last maravedí dry. Holland
despised us; England feared us; the Turk was ever hovering
’round; the France of Richelieu was gritting its teeth;
the Holy Father received our grave, black-clad ambassadors
with caution; and all Europe trembled at the sight of
our tercios—still the best infantry in the world—as if the
rat-a-tat-tat of the drums came from the Devil’s own drumsticks.
And I, who lived through those years, and those that
came later, I swear to Your Mercies that in that century we
were still what no country had ever been before.
And when the sun that had shed its light on Tenochtitlán,
Pavia, San Quintín, Lepanto, and Breda finally set,
the horizon glowed red with our blood—but also that of
our enemies. As it had that day in Rocroi when I left the
dagger Captain Alatriste had given me in the body of a
Frenchman. Your Mercies will agree that we Spanish should
have devoted all that effort and courage to building a decent
nation, instead of squandering it on absurd wars, roguery,
corruption, chimeras, and holy water. And that is very
true. But I am reporting how it was. And furthermore, not
all peoples are equally rational in choosing their opportunities
or their destinies, nor equally cynical in later justifying
to History or to themselves what they have done. As
for us, we were men of our century. We did not choose to
be born and to live in that often miserable but sometimes
magnificent Spain, it was our fate. But it was our Spain.
And that is the unhappy patria—or whatever word they
use nowadays—that like it or not I carry under my skin, in
my weary eyes, and in my memory.
It is in that memory that I see, as if it were yesterday,
don Francisco de Quevedo at the foot of the San Felipe
steps. He was, as always, wearing strict black, except for
the starched white collar and red cross of Santiago on the
left side of his doublet. And although the afternoon was
sunny, he had flung over his shoulders the long cape he
wore to disguise his lameness, a dark cloak whose tail was
lifted by the sheath of the sword upon which his hand
rested so casually. He was talking with some acquaintances,
hat in hand, when a lady’s greyhound roaming nearby
nosed close enough to brush his gloved right hand. The
lady was standing by the footboard of her coach, conversing
with two caballeros—and she was pretty. As the hound
meandered by, don Francisco patted its head, at the same
time sending a quick and courtly glance toward its mistress.
The greyhound trotted back to her as if it were a
messenger of the caress, and the lady rewarded the poet’s
tribute with a smile and a flutter of her fan, both received
by don Francisco with a slight nod as he twisted his luxuriant
mustache between thumb and forefinger.
Poet, swordsman, and highly celebrated wit at court, don
Francisco was also a gallant man who enjoyed a reputation
among the ladies. Stoic, lucid, caustic, courageous, elegant
even with his limp, he was a man of goodwill despite his
hot temper, generous with his friends and unyielding to
his enemies. He could dispatch an adversary as easily with
two quatrains as with a duel on de la Vega hill, enchant
a lady with genteel courtesy and a sonnet, or surround
himself with the philosophers, academicians, and learned
men who treasured his entertaining witticisms and his company.
The good don Miguel de Cervantes—the greatest
genius of all time, no matter how those English heretics
chirp on about their Shakespeare—had been seated at
God’s right hand seven years ago when he had put his foot
in the stirrup and given up his soul to the one who gave it
to him. But before he died, even Cervantes had called don
Francisco an excellent poet and a compleat caballero in
these famous verses:
The scourge of mindless poets, he will
at dagger point drive from Parnassus
all the evils we fear will o’ertake us.
That afternoon, Señor Quevedo was, as he was wont,
passing time on the steps of San Felipe while le tout
Madrid ambled along Calle Mayor after their afternoon of
watching the bulls—an entertainment the poet did not
greatly enjoy. When he saw Captain Alatriste, who was
strolling with Dómine Pérez, El Tuerto Fadrique, and me,
he politely excused himself to his companions. I had no
inkling of how profoundly that chance meeting was going
to affect us, putting all our lives in danger—particularly
mine—nor how fate delights in sketching bizarre designs
with men’s fortunes. If, as don Francisco came toward us
with his usual affable expression that afternoon, someone
had told us that the mystery of the dead woman was going
to involve us in some way, the smile with which Captain
Alatriste greeted the poet would have frozen on his lips.
But one never knows how the dice will fall, and they are
always cast before anyone even notices.
“I have a favor to ask of you,” said don Francisco.
Between Señor Quevedo and Captain Alatriste, those
words were a pure formality. That was obvious in the look,
almost a reproach, the captain gave Quevedo in response.
We had taken our leave of the Jesuit and the apothecary,
and were now in the Puerta del Sol, walking past the awnings
of the stalls around the fountain at the Buen Suceso
church. The idle liked to sit on its rim and listen to the
water playing, or gaze toward the façade of the church and
the royal hospital. The captain and his friend were walking
ahead of me, side by side, and I remember how they
blended into and then emerged from the crowd in the fading
light of dusk, the poet in his usual dark clothing, with
his cape folded over his arm, and by his side, the captain in
a brown doublet, modest square collar, and nicely fitting
hose, his sword and dagger, as always, at his waist.
“I am greatly obliged, don Francisco, that you are
sugarcoating the pill I am to swallow,” said Alatriste. “But
please go directly to the second act.”
At the reference to a second act, I heard the poet’s quiet
laugh. We were all remembering what had happened only
a few steps from here during the time of the adventure of
the two Englishmen. How don Francisco had come to the
captain’s aid in the course of an ugly scuffle in which steel
had flashed like lightning.
“I have some friends, people I am fond of,” said don
Francisco. “And they want to talk with you.”
He had turned around to see whether I was listening to
the conversation, and seemed relieved when it appeared
that I was taking in the sights of the plaza. I was, however,
listening to every word. In that Madrid and that Spain, an
alert youth matures quickly, and despite my youth I already
suspected that it did no harm to keep my ears open.
Just the opposite. In life, danger lies not in not knowing,
but in revealing that you do: It is always good to have a
sense of the music before the dance begins.
“That has the sound of a potential employ,” the captain
It was a euphemism, of course. Diego Alatriste’s line of
“employ” tended to take place in dark alleyways, at so
much per swordthrust. A slash across the face, slicing off
the ear of a creditor or of a bastard dallying with one’s
wife, a pistol shot at point-blank range, or a handspan of
steel in a man’s throat—all that was classified and the pay
set by scale. In that very plaza, at any given time, there
were at least a dozen professionals who were available for
“Yes.” The poet nodded, adjusting his eyeglasses. “And
well-paid employ, of course.”
Diego Alatriste looked long and hard at his companion.
I studied the captain’s aquiline profile beneath the broad
brim of the hat on which the one note of color was a frowsy
“It is clear that today you are making an effort to an-
noy me, don Francisco,” he said finally. “Do you imply
that I would charge for a service done Your Mercy?”
“It is not for me. It is for a father and his two young
sons. They have a problem and have sought my advice.”
From high atop the lapis lazuli and alabaster fountain,
a sculpture of Diana the locals had dubbed Mariblanca,
White Mary, looked down upon us as water sang out of the
pipes at her feet. The last light was languishing. Roughlooking
soldiers and assassins with huge mustaches, broad
swords, and a way of standing with their feet planted solidly
apart, very “I am dangerous,” were clumped in groups
in front of the closed doors of the silk and woolen and
book shops, or drinking wine at one of the wretched street
stalls. The plaza swarmed with blind men, beggars, and
whores whose short mantles separated them from decent
ladies in full-length cloaks. Some of the soldiers were
known to Alatriste. They greeted him from a distance, and
he responded distractedly, touching the brim of his hat.
“Are you involved in the matter?” Alatriste asked.
Don Francisco gave an ambiguous shrug. “Only partly.
But for reasons you will soon understand, I must see it
through to the end.”
We kept passing hard-looking men with shifty eyes who
sauntered along the iron rails that set off the atrium of the
Buen Suceso church. That atrium, and the nearby Calle
Montera, were frequented by men with big talk and large
swords. Altercations were common, and entry to the
church had been blocked so that after a dispute fugitives
could not run into the church for sanctuary. There not even
the Law could touch them. They called such escape “safe
harboring,” or used the euphemisms “going to mass” or
“taking a quiet moment of prayer.”
“Dangerous?” asked Alatriste.
“It will involve swordplay, I imagine.”
“I hope not. But there are greater risks than being
The captain walked on a bit, contemplating in silence
the chapel of La Victoria convent that rose behind the
houses at the end of the plaza, there at the top of San Jerónimo
road. It was not possible to walk around a corner in
that city without coming across a church.
“And why me?” he asked finally.
Don Francisco laughed again, quietly, as before.
“’Sblood,” he said. “Because you are my friend. And
also because try as they may—executioner, court recorder,
scribe—you never sing when you are fated to swing, turning
lengths of cords into chords.”
Thoughtfully, the captain ran his fingers around the
neck of his collar. “Well paid, I believe you said.”
“That I did.”
“By you, Your Mercy?”
“How would you have it? The only way I know to get a
fire blazing is to feed it.”
Alatriste’s hand was still at his throat. “Every time you
propose a commission that is well paid, it involves placing
my neck in the executioner’s noose.”
“And that is also true in this case,” the poet admitted.
“By the good Christ, that is fine encouragement you
“It would be deceitful to lie to you.”
As he answered, the captain’s sarcasm was palpable.
“And how is it that you always become involved in such affairs,
don Francisco? Only now have you been returned to
the king’s favor following your long dispute with the Duque
“Therein lies the quid of the quo, my friend,” the poet
lamented. “Curse the good nature that leads me into such
misadventures. But there are commitments and . . . my
honor is at stake.”
“And your head, you say.”
Now it was don Francisco who looked with mocking
amusement at Diego Alatriste. “And also yours, Captain, if
you decide to accompany me.”
The “if you decide” was superfluous, and both knew it.
Even so, the captain’s pensive smile lingered on his lips. He
looked from side to side, skirted a pile of stinking garbage,
distractedly greeted a woman with a scandalously low décolletage
who winked at him from a wine shop, and finally
threw his hands up.
“And why should I do it? My old tercio leaves for Flanders
shortly, and I am seriously considering a change of
“Why should you do it?” Don Francisco stroked his
mustache and his goatee. “Well, by my faith, I do not
know. Perhaps because when a friend is in difficulty, we
have no choice but to fight.”
“Fight? A moment ago you were rather confident that
there would be no dispute.”
The captain had turned to study don Francisco closely.
By now the sky over Madrid was growing dark, and the
first shadows stretched toward us from the squalid alleyways
that led to the plaza. The outlines of objects were
beginning to blur, along with the features of passersby.
Someone in one of the shops lighted a lantern. Beneath
the brim of don Francisco’s felt hat, the light reflected
from the lenses of his eyeglasses.
“That is true,” the poet said. “But should something go
wrong, perhaps one element that might not be missing
would be a bit of swordplay.”
Again he laughed, always in that quiet tone, and with
little humor. And at the end, I heard the same laugh from
Captain Alatriste. After that, not a word from either. I was
in a state of wonderment, knowing I was being led toward
new adventures and perils. I followed their dark, hushed
silhouettes. Then don Francisco said good-bye, and Captain
Alatriste stood alone a moment, motionless and silent
in the darkness. I dared not go to him or speak a word. He
stood there as if he had forgotten my presence, until the
bells in La Victoria tolled nine on the clock.