Arturo Perez-Reverte


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 swordsman.

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 favor; and:

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 like that.”

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.

“I may.”

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 toting.

“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 kings.”

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 denial.

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 underlings.

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 distress.

“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 shoulder.

“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 addicted.

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 remembers.

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 his hat.

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 was saying.

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 such arrangements.

“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 red plume.

“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 wounded.”

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 offer me.”

“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 de Osuna.”

“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 scenery.”

“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.


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