by Arturo Perez-Reverte
I. The Tavern of the Turk
He was not the most honest or pious of men, but he was
courageous. His name was Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, and he had fought
in the ranks during the Flemish wars. When I met him he was barely
making ends meet in Madrid, hiring himself out for four maravedís
in employ of little glory, often as a swordsman for those who had
neither the skill nor the daring to settle their own quarrels. You know
the sort I mean: a cuckolded husband here, outstanding gambling debts
there, a petty lawsuit or questionable inheritance, and more troubles
of that kind. It is easy to criticize now, but in those days the
capital of all the Spains was a place where a man had to fight for his
life on a street corner lighted by the gleam of two blades.
In all this Diego Alatriste played his part with
panache. He showed great skill when swords were drawn, even more when
with left-handed cunning he wielded the long, narrow dagger some call
the vizcaína, a weapon from Biscay that professionals often used
to help their cause along. If a knife will not do it, the vizcaína
will, was the old saying. The adversary would be concentrating on
attacking and parrying, and suddenly, quick as lightning, with one
upward slash, his gut would be slit, so fast he would not have time to
ask for confession. Oh yes, Your Mercies, those were indeed harsh
Captain Alatriste, as I was saying, lived by his sword.
Until I came into the picture, that "Captain" was more an honorary
title than a true rank. His nickname originated one night when, serving
as a soldier in the king's wars, he had to cross an icy river with
twenty-nine companions and a true captain. Imagine, Viva España
and all that, with his sword clenched between his teeth, and in his
shirtsleeves to blend into the snow, all to surprise a Hollandish
contingent. They were the enemy at the time because they were fighting
for independence. In fact, they did win it in the end, but meanwhile we
gave them a merry chase.
Getting back to the captainthe plan was to stay there
on the riverbank, or dike, or whatever the devil it was, until dawn,
when the troops of our lord and king would launch an attack and join
them. To make a long story short, the heretics were duly dispatched
without time for a last word. They were sleeping like marmots when our
men emerged from the icy water, nearly frozen, shaking off the cold by
speeding heretics to Hell, or wherever it is those accursed Lutherans
go. What went wrong is that the dawn came, and the morning passed, and
the expected Spanish attack did not materialize. A matter, they told
later, of old jealousies among the generals and officers in the field.
Fact is, thirty-one men were abandoned to their fate, amid curses and
vows, surrounded by Low Dutch disposed to avenge the slashed throats of
their comrades. With less chance than the Invincible Armada of the good
King Philip the Second.
It was a long and very hard day. And in order that Your
Mercies may picture what happened, only two of the Spanish made it back
to the other bank of the river by the time night fell. Diego Alatriste
was one of them, and as all day long he had commanded the troopsthe
authentic captain having been rendered hors de combat in the first
skirmish with two handspans of steel protruding from his backthe title
fell to him, though he had no opportunity to enjoy the honor.
Captain-for-a-day of troops fated to die, and paying their way to Hell
at the cost of their hides, one after another, with the river to their
backs and blaspheming in good Castilian Spanish. But that is the way of
war and the maelstrom. That is the way it goes with Spain.
Well, then. My father was the other Spanish soldier who
returned that night. His name was Lope Balboa; he was from the province
of Guipuzcoa, and he, too, was a courageous man. They say that Diego
Alatriste and he were very good friends, almost like brothers, and it
must be true, because later, on the bulwarks of Julich, where my father
was killed by a ball from a harquebuswhich was why Diego Velázquez did
not include him in his painting of the Surrender of Breda, as he did
his friend and fellow Diego, Alatriste, who is indeed there, behind the
horsehe swore that he would look after me when I grew out of
childhood. And that is why, when I turned thirteen, my mother supplied
me with shirt and breeches, and a rosary and a crust of bread tied up
in a kerchief, and sent me to live with the captain, taking advantage
of a cousin who was traveling to Madrid. Thus it was that I came to
enter the service, at a rank somewhere between servant and page, of my
A confidence: I very much doubt whether, had she known
him well, the mother who gave me birth would so gaily have sent me to
his service. But I suppose that the title of captain, though
apocryphal, added sheen to his character. Besides, my poor mother was
not well and she had two daughters to feed. By sending me off she had
one fewer mouth at table and at the same time was giving me the
opportunity to seek my fortune at court. So, without bothering to ask
further details, she packed me off with her cousin, together with a
long letter written by the priest of our town, in which she reminded
Diego Alatriste of his promise and his friendship with my deceased
I recall that when I attached myself to the captain,
not much time had passed since his return from Flanders, because he
carried an ugly wound in his side received at Fleurus, still fresh, and
the source of great pain. Newly arrived, timid, and as easily
frightened as a mouse, on my pallet at night I would listen to him pace
back and forth in his room, unable to sleep. And at times I heard him
softly singing little verses, interrupted by stabs of pain: Lope's
verses, then a curse or a comment to himself, partly resigned and
almost amused. That was typical of the captain: to face each of his
ills and misfortunes as if they were a kind of inevitable joke that an
old, perverse acquaintance found entertaining to subject him to from
time to time. Perhaps that was the origin of his peculiar sense of
harsh, unchanging, despairing humor.
That was a long time ago, and I am a bit muddled
regarding dates. But the story I am going to tell you must have taken
place around sixteen hundred and twenty-something. It is the adventure
of masked men and two Englishmen, which caused not a little talk at
court, and in which the captain not only came close to losing the
patched-up hide he had managed to save in Flanders, and in battling
Turkish and Barbary corsairs, but also made himself a pair of enemies
who would harass him for the rest of his life. I am referring to the
secretary of our lord and king, Luis de Alquézar, and to his sinister
Italian assassin, the silent and dangerous swordsman named Gualterio
Malatesta, a man so accustomed to killing his victims from behind that
when by chance he faced them, he sank into deep depressions, imagining
that he was losing his touch. It was also the year in which I fell in
love like a bawling calf, then and forever, with Angélica de Alquézar,
who was as perverse and wicked as only Evil in the form of a blonde
eleven- or twelve-year-old girl can be. But we will tell everything in
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 luxuriesand food was included as suchwere 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 vizcaínawhich he
had kept thanks to the transfer of a few maravedís to the
jailerto 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 massand though he had spent more than his share of time
in the king's galleyshe 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 yearit
was the twenty-second or twenty-third year of the centurybut 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 daythough neither of us yet knew itour lives were going to
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 steelwhich nearly
always followedor 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
The smile he directed at me that morning when he found
me waiting belonged to the first category: the one that lighted his
eyes, refuting the imperturbable gravity of his face and the harshness
he often intentionally gave to his words, even when he was far from
feeling it. He looked up and down the street, appeared to be satisfied
when he did not see any new creditor lurking about, walked toward me,
removed his cape, despite the cold, and tossed it to me, wadded into a
"Íñigo," he said. "Boil this. It is crawling with
The cape stunk, as did he. His clothing held enough
bugs to chew the ear off a bull, but all that was resolved less than an
hour later in Mendo el Toscano's bathhouse. A native of Tuscany, the
barber had been a soldier in Naples when only a lad, and he admired
Diego Alatriste greatly, and trusted him. When I arrived with a change
of clothing, the only other full outfit the captain kept in the battered
old cupboard that served us as a clothespress, I found him standing in a
wood tub overflowing with dirty water, drying himself. El Toscano had
trimmed his beard for him, and the short, wet chestnut hair combed back
and parted in the middle revealed a broad forehead tanned by the sun of
the prison courtyard but marred by a small scar that ran down to his
left eyebrow. As he finished drying and putting on the clean breeches
and shirt, I observed other scars I was already familiar with. One in
the shape of a half-moon between his navel and his left nipple. A long
one that zigzagged down a thigh. Both had been made by a cutting blade,
a sword or dagger, unlike a fourth on his back, which had formed the
telltale star left by a musket ball. The fifth was the most recent,
still not completely healed, the one that kept him from sleeping well
every night: a violet gash almost a hand's breadth wide on his left
side, a souvenir of the battle of Fleurus. It was months old, and at
times it opened and oozed pus, although that day as its owner stepped
out of the tub it did not look too bad.
I helped him as he dressed, slowly and carelessly: dark
gray doublet and knee breeches of the same color, tight at the knees
over the buskins that hid the ladders in his hose. Then he buckled on
the leather belt that I had carefully oiled during his absence, and
into it thrust the sword with the large quillons, whose blade and guard
showed the nicks, knocks, and scratches of other days and other blades.
It was a good sword, long, intimidating, and of the best Toledo steel,
and as it was drawn or sheathed it gave off a long metallic sssssss
that would give you gooseflesh. He studied his reflection in a dim
half-length mirror for a moment, and smiled a weary smile.
"'Sblood," he muttered, "I feel thirsty."
Without another word he preceded me down the stairs and
along Calle Toledo toward the Tavern of the Turk. As he had no cloak,
he walked along the sunny side, head high, with the frazzled red plume
in the band of his hat dipping and waving. He touched his hand to the
wide brim to greet some acquaintance, or swept the hat off as he passed
a lady of a certain status. I followed, distracted, taking in
everything: the urchins playing in the street, the vegetable vendors in
the arcades, and the groups of gossiping idlers sitting in the sun
beside the Jesuit church. Although I had never been overly innocent,
and the months I had been living in the neighborhood had had the virtue
of opening my eyes, I was still a young and curious pup who looked at
the world with an astonished gaze, trying not to miss a single detail.
As for the carriage, all I noticed at first were the
hoofbeats of a team of mules and the sound of wheels approaching behind
us. I scarcely paid attention; seeing coaches and carriages was a
normal occurrence, because the street was the principal route to the
Plaza Mayor and the castle, the Alcázar Real. But when I looked up for
an instant as the carriage caught up to us, I saw a door without a
shield and, in the small window, the face of a girl with blond hair
combed into corkscrew curls, and the bluest, clearest, and most
unsettling eyes I have ever seen. Those eyes met mine for an instant,
and then the enchanting creature was borne off down the street.
I shuddered, not knowing why. But my shudder would have
been even stronger had I known that I had just been gazed upon by the
"We have no choice but to fight," said don Francisco de
The table was littered with empty bottles, and every
time that don Francisco was a little too liberal with the wine of San
Martín de Valdeiglesiaswhich happened frequentlyhe was ready to call
out Christ himself. Quevedo was slightly lame, a poet, a fancier of
whores, nearsighted, and a Caballero de Santiago. He was as quick with
his wit and his tongue as with his sword, and he was famous at court
for his good poems and bad temper. The latter was, all too often, the
cause for his wandering from exile to exile and prison to prison. It is
well known that though, like all of Madrid, our good lord and king,
Philip the Fourth, and his favored Conde de Olivares appreciated the
poet's satiric verses, the king liked much less being the subject of
them. So from time to time, after the appearance of some sonnet or
anonymous poem in which everyone recognized the poet's hand, the
magistrate's bailiffs and constables would swarm into the tavern, or Quevedo's domicile, or a place where friends met to exchange gossip, to
invite him, respectfully, to accompany them, taking him out of
circulation for a few days or months. As he was stubborn and proud, and
never learned his lesson, these occurrences were numerous, and served
to embitter him.
Quevedo was, nevertheless, an excellent table companion
and a good friend to his friends, among whom he included Captain
Alatriste. Both went often to the Tavern of the Turk, where they would
gather their friends around one of the best tables, which Caridad la
Lebrijanawho had been a whore and still was occasionally for the
captain, though free of chargeusually reserved for them. That morning,
along with don Francisco and the captain, the group was completed by
habitués: Licenciado Calzas, Juan Vicuña, Dómine Pérez, and El Tuerto
Fadrique, the one-eyed apothecary at the Puerta Cerrada.
"No choice but to fight," the poet insisted.
He was, as I have said, visibly "illuminated" by a
bottle or two of Valdeiglesias. He had jumped to his feet, overturning
a taboret, and with his hand resting on the pommel of his sword, was
sending blazing glances toward the occupants of a nearby table. There,
two strangers, whose long swords and capes were hanging on the wall,
had just congratulated the poet on a few verses. Unfortunately, those
lines actually had been written by Luis de Góngora, Quevedo's most
despised adversary in the Republic of Lettersa rival whom, among other
insults, he accused of being a sodomite, a dog, and a Jew. The
newcomers had spoken in good faith, or at least it seemed so, but don
Francisco was not disposed to overlook their words.
"I shall grease my poems with the fat of the pig
So that gnat Góngora cannot chew off a piece. . . ."
He began to improvise there on the spot, weaving a
little, hand still clutching the hilt of his sword, while the strangers
tried to apologize and the captain and his table companions held on to
don Francisco to keep him from drawing his sword and going for the
"But by God, that is an insult," the poet cried, trying
to loose the right hand his friends were gripping so tightly, while
with his free hand he adjusted his twisted eyeglasses. "A bit of steel
will make things, hic, right."
"That is too much steel to squander so early in the
day, don Francisco," Diego Alatriste sensibly interceded.
"It seems very little to me." Without taking his eyes
off his perceived tormentors, the poet ferociously smoothed his
mustache. "But we will be generous: one hand's breadth of steel for
each of these hijosdalgo, who are sons of something, no doubt,
but very certainly not sons of hidalgos."
These were fighting words, so the strangers made as if
to claim their swords and go outside. The captain and the other
friends, helpless to prevent the confrontation, asked them please to
make allowances for the poet's alcoholic state and simply quit the
field, adding that there was no glory in fighting a drunk opponent, or
shame in withdrawing prudently to prevent greater harm.
"Bella gerant alii," suggested Dómine Pérez, trying
Dómine Pérez was a Jesuit priest who tended his flock
in the nearby church of San Pedro y San Pablo. His kindly nature and
his Latin phrases tended to have a soothing effect, for he spoke them
in a tone of unquestionable good sense. The two strangers, however,
knew no Latin, and the insult of being called sonsofsomethingorother
was difficult to brush off. Besides, the cleric's mediation was
undercut by the scoffing banter of Licenciado Calzas, a clever, cynical
rascal who haunted the courts, a specialist in defending causes he
could convert into endless trials that bled his clients of their last
maravedís. The licenciado loved to stir things up, and he
was always goading every Juan, José, and Tomasillo.
"You do not want to lose face, don Francisco," he said
in a low voice. "They will pay the court costs, defend your honor."
So all those gathered round prepared to witness an
event that would appear the next day in the sheets of Avisos y
noticias, the city's purveyor of notices and news. And Captain Alatriste, failing in his efforts to calm his friend, but knowing he
would not leave don Francisco alone in the fray, began to accept as
inevitable that he would be crossing swords with these strangers.
"Aio te vincere posse," Dómine Pérez concluded with
resignation, as Licenciado Calzas hid his laughter by snorting into his
jug of wine. With a deep sigh, the captain started to get up from the
table. Don Francisco, who already had drawn four fingers of his sword
from its scabbard, shot him a comradely look of thanks, and even had
the brass to direct a couplet to him.
"You, Diego, whose sword so nobly defends
The name and honor of your family . . ."
"Do not fuck with me, don Francisco," the captain
replied ill-humoredly. "We will have our fight with whom we must, but
do not fuck with me."
"That is how a true, hic, man talks," said the
poet, visibly grateful for the friend who had just sworn his support.
The rest of the gatherers unanimously urged him on, like Dómine Pérez,
abandoning any conciliatory efforts and in truth delightedly
anticipating the spectacle. For if don Francisco de Quevedo,
particularly in his cups, turned out to be a terrible swordsman, the
intervention of Diego Alatriste as his partner at the ball left no
shred of doubt regarding the results. Bets flew about the number of
thrusts the strangers would pay for.
So. The captain gulped a swallow of wine and, already
on his feet, looked over toward the strangers as if to apologize that
things had gone so far. He motioned with his head for them to step
outside, in order not to destroy the tavern of Caridad la Lebrijana,
who was always fretting about the furniture.
"Whenever Your Mercies please."
The men buckled on their weapons and started outside
amid high expectation, taking care not to leave their backs
unguardedjust in casefor Jesus may have said something about
brothers, but he made no mention of cousins. That was the situation,
with all swords still sheathed, when, to the disappointment of the
onlookers and relief of Diego Alatriste, the unmistakable silhouette of
the high constable, Martín Saldaña, appeared in the doorway.
"That throws the blanket over our fiesta," said don
Francisco de Quevedo.
And shrugging, he adjusted his eyeglasses, glanced out
of the corner of his eye, went back to his table, and uncorked another
bottle, with no further ado.
"I have a mission for you."
The high constable, Martín Saldaña, was hard and tan as
a brick. Over his doublet, he wore an old-fashioned buffcoat, quilted
inside, that was very practical in warding off knives. With his sword,
dagger, poniard, and pistols, he carried more iron than was to be found
in all Biscay. He had been a soldier in the Flemish wars, like Diego
Alatriste and my deceased father, and in close camaraderie with them
had spent long years of pain and worry, although in the end with better
fortune. While my progenitor pushed up daisies in a land of heretics,
and the captain earned his living as a hired swordsman, Saldaña made
his way in Madrid upon his discharge in Flandersafter our deceased
king, Philip the Third, signed a treaty with the Dutchwith the help of
a brother-in-law who was a majordomo in the palace, and a mature but
still-beautiful wife. I cannot prove the story of the wifeI was too
young to know the detailsbut there were rumors that a certain
magistrate was free to have his way with the aforementioned señora, and
that that was the reason for her husband's being appointed high
constable, a position equal to that of the night watchmen who made
their rounds in the barrios of Madrid, which at that time were still
In any case, no one ever dared make the least
insinuation in Martín Saldaña's presence. Cuckolded or not, there was
no doubt was that he was brave, albeit very thin-skinned. He had been a
good soldier; his many wounds had been stitched up like a crazy quilt,
and he knew how to command respect with his fists or with a Toledo
sword. He was, in fact, as honorable as could be expected in a high
constable of the time. He, too, admired Diego Alatriste, and he tried
to favor him whenever possible. Theirs was an old professional
friendshiprough, as befitting men of their naturebut real and
"A mission," the captain repeated. They had gone
outside and were leaning against a wall in the sun, each with his jug
in his hand, watching people and carriages pass by on Calle Toledo.
Saldaña looked at him a moment, stroking the thick beard sprinkled with
the gray of an old soldier, grown to hide a slash that went from his
mouth to his left ear.
"You have been out of prison only a few hours and you
haven't a coin in your purse," he said. "Before two days pass, you will
have accepted some paltry employ, escorting some conceited young
peacock to prevent his beloved's brother from running him through on a
street corner or slicing off a man's ears on behalf of a creditor. Or
you will start hanging around in bawdy and gaming houses to see what
you can extract from strangers or a priest who's come to wager San Eufrasio's knucklebone. Before you know it, you will be in trouble: a
bad wound, a quarrel, a charge against you. And then it will start all
over again." He took a small sip from his jar and half closed his eyes,
though he never took them off the captain. "Do you call that living?"
Diego Alatriste shrugged. "Can you think of something
better?" He stared directly into the eyes of his old comrade from
Flanders. The look said, We do not all have the good fortune to be a
Saldaña picked his teeth with a fingernail and nodded a
couple of times. They both knew that were it not for the twists and
turns of fate, Saldaña could easily be in the same situation as the
captain. Madrid was filled with former soldiers scraping a living in
the streets and plazas, their belts stuffed with tin tubes in which
they carried their wrinkled recommendations and petitions, and the
useless service records that no one gave a fig about. Waiting for a
stroke of luck that never came.
"That is why I have come, Diego. There is someone who
"Me? Or my sword?" He twisted his mustache with that
grimace that passed as a smile.
Saldaña burst out laughing. "What an idiotic question,"
he said. "There are women who are interesting for their charms, priests
for their absolutions, old men for their money. . . . As for men like
you and me, it is only our swords." He paused to look in both
directions, took another swallow of wine, and spoke more quietly.
"These are people of quality. An easy evening's work, with no risks but
the usual ones. And for doing it, there is a handsome purse."
The captain observed his friend with interest. At that
moment, the word "purse" would have roused him from the deepest sleep
or the most excruciating hangover.
"Some sixty escudos. In good four-doubloon
"Not bad." The pupils narrowed in Diego Alatriste's
light eyes. "Is killing involved?"
Saldaña made an evasive gesture, looking furtively
toward the door of the tavern.
"Perhaps, but I do not know the details. And I do not
want to know, if you get my meaning. All I know is that it is to be an
ambush. Something discreet, at night, with your face covered and all
that. 'Greetings and godspeed, señores!'"
"Alone, or will I have company?"
"Company, I surmise. There are two to be dispatched. Or
perhaps only given a good fright. Or maybe you can use your blade to
leave the sign of the cross on their faces, or something of the kind.
You will know what to do."
"Who are they?"
Now Saldaña shook his head, as if he had said more than
he wanted. "Everything in its time. Besides, my only role is to act as
The captain drained his jug, thinking hard. In those
days, fifteen four-doubloon pieces, in gold, came to more than seven
hundred reales. Enough to get him out of difficulty, buy new
linens and a suit of clothes, pay off his debts . . . set his life in
order a little. Spruce up the two rented rooms where he and I lived on
the upper floor of a courtyard behind the tavern, facing the Calle del
Arcabuz. Eat hot food without depending on the generous thighs of
Caridad la Lebrijana.
"And also," Saldaña added, seeming to follow the thread
of the captain's thoughts, "this job will put you in contact with
important people. Good for the future."
"My future," the captain echoed, absorbed in his
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.