Excerpt from Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Captain Alatriste

by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Captain Alatriste
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  • First Published:
    May 2005, 272 pages
    Dec 2005, 304 pages

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My name is Íñigo. And my name was the first word Captain Alatriste uttered the morning he was released from the ancient prison in the castle, where he had spent three weeks as a guest of the king for nonpayment of debts. That he was the king's "guest" is merely a manner of speaking, for in this as in other prisons of the time, the only luxuries—and food was included as such—were those a prisoner paid for from his own purse. Fortunately, although the captain had been incarcerated nearly innocent of any funds, he had a goodly number of friends. So thanks to one and then another fellow who came to his aid during his imprisonment, his stay was made more tolerable by the stews that Caridad la Lebrijana, the mistress of the Tavern of the Turk, sometimes sent by way of me, and by the four reales sent by his companions don Francisco de Quevedo and Juan Vicuña, among others.

As for the rest of it, and here I am referring to the hardships of prison life itself, the captain knew better than any how to protect himself. The practice of relieving one's wretched companions-in-misfortune of their wealth, clothes, even their shoes, was notorious at that time. But Diego Alatriste was quite well known in Madrid, and any who did not know him soon found it was better for their health to approach him with caution. According to what I later learned, the first thing he did, once inside the walls, was to go straight to the most dangerous ruffian among the prisoners and, after greeting him politely, press the cold blade of that lethal vizcaína—which he had kept thanks to the transfer of a few maravedís to the jailer—to the thug's gullet. It worked like a sign from God. After this unmistakable declaration of principles, no one dared lift a hand against the captain, who from then on slept in peace, wrapped in his cape in a reasonably clean corner of the establishment and protected by his reputation as a man with steel in his spine.

Later, his generous sharing of La Lebrijana's stews, as well as bottles of wine bought from the warden with the assistance of friends, helped secure him solid loyalties, even from the lowlife of that first day, a man from Córdoba with the unfortunate name of Bartolo Cagafuego. Although carrying the burden of a name like Bartolo Shitfire was reason enough to get him into trouble as regularly as a pious old dame goes to mass—and though he had spent more than his share of time in the king's galleys—he was not a rancorous fellow. It was one of Diego Alatriste's virtues that he could make friends in Hell.

It seems unreal. I do not remember the exact year—it was the twenty-second or twenty-third year of the century—but what I am sure of is that the captain emerged from the prison on one of those blue, luminous Madrid mornings so cold that it takes your breath away. From that day—though neither of us yet knew it—our lives were going to change greatly.

Time has gone by and water has flowed beneath the bridges of the Manzanares, but I can still see Diego Alatriste, thin and unshaven, stepping across the threshold with the heavy iron-studded door closing behind him. I recall him perfectly, squinting in the blinding light, thick mustache covering his upper lip, slim silhouette wrapped in his cape, and beneath the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, bedazzled eyes that seemed to smile when he glimpsed me sitting on a bench in the plaza. There was something very unusual about the captain's gaze; on the one hand, his eyes were very clear and very cold, a greenish-gray like the water in puddles on a winter morning. On the other, they could suddenly break into a warm and welcoming smile, like a blast of heat melting a skim of ice, while the rest of his face remained serious, inexpressive, or grave. He had another, more disturbing, smile that he reserved for moments of danger or sadness: a kind of grimace that twisted his mustache down slightly toward the left corner of his mouth, a smile as threatening as cold steel—which nearly always followed—or as funereal as an omen of death when it was strung at the end of several bottles of wine, those the captain dispatched alone in his days of silence. The first one or two downed without taking a breath, then that gesture of wiping his mustache with the back of his hand while staring at the wall before him. Bottles to kill the ghosts, he always said, although he was never able to kill them completely.

From Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Copyright 1996 by Arturo Perez-Reverte. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the Putnam Publishing.

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