The King’s Gold

Captain Alatriste

The Flanders Panel

The Club Dumas

The Seville Communion

The Fencing Master

The Nautical Chart

The Queen of the South

Purity of Blood

The Sun over Breda

German Dehesa,

for all the small honorable acts

Hated and envied,

Vilely slandered,

More soldier valiant

Than captain prudent.

Though bold and capricious,

And at times vicious,

This was not his sin,

But the times he lived in.


Diego Alatriste was in a devil of a hurry. A new play was about to be performed at the Corral de la Cruz, and there he was on the Cuesta de la Vega, dueling with some fellow whose name he didn’t even know. The play was by Tirso de Molina, and any first performance of a play by Tirso was a great occasion in Madrid. The whole city, it seemed, was either crammed into the theater or else forming a queue outside in the street, and no one in that queue would have thought it unreasonable to knife his neighbor if it meant getting a seat or even standing room. There was, however, neither rhyme nor reason to what he was doing now, namely, getting involved in a minor skirmish following a chance collision on a street corner. Such conflicts were, of course, a regular enough occurrence in the Madrid of the day, where it was as common to unsheathe one’s sword as to cross oneself. “Why don’t you look where you’re going, sir!” “Why don’t you, my man—are you blind?” “God’s teeth.” “God’s and anyone else’s.” And it was that disrespectful “my man”—for the other fellow was young and quick to anger—which had made a fight inevitable. “You, sir,” Alatriste had said, stroking his mustache, “can call me ‘my man’ or even ‘boy’ all you like, but only with sword and dagger in hand on the Cuesta de la Vega, which is, after all, just a step away—always assuming, of course, that you’re gentleman enough to spare me the time.” The other man did apparently have time to spare, or was, at the least, unprepared to modify his language. And so there they were, overlooking the Manzanares River, on the top of a hill to which they had walked, side by side, like two comrades, without saying a word, and without unsheathing the swords or daggers that were now clashing loudly— cling, clang—and glinting in the afternoon sun.

After an initial cautious circling of blades, Alatriste was startled into full attention by the first serious thrust, which he parried with some difficulty. He was more irritated with himself than with his opponent, irritated with his own irritation. This was not a good state of mind to be in; any sword fight, when life and health are at stake, requires both a cool head and a steady hand. If you lack either, there is a risk that your irritation—or whatever other emotion you happen to be feeling—might slip from your body, along with your soul, through some previously unnoticed buttonhole in your doublet. But what could he do? He had left the Inn of the Turk in that same black mood, following an argument with Caridad la Lebrijana. The argument had erupted as soon as she returned home from mass and had involved smashed crockery, slammed doors, and a consequent delay in setting off for the theater. The chance encounter on the corner of Calle del Arcabuz and Calle de Toledo—which would ordinarily have been resolved with common sense and reasonable words—had instead channeled all his ill humor into this duel. Anyway, it was too late to turn back now. The other man was in deadly earnest and, all honor to him, very good with a blade and agile as a deer. He seemed to Alatriste, from his manner of fighting, to have a soldier’s technique: a wide stance, a quick hand, and many a riposte and counter-riposte. He would unleash fierce attacks, intent on wounding, give stabbing thrusts, then withdraw as if to cut and reverse, always watching for the moment when he might lunge forward on his left foot and hook the hilt of his enemy’s blade with his dagger. It was an old trick, but effective if the person performing it had a good eye and an even better hand. Alatriste, however, was an older and more battle-hardened fighter, and so he kept moving in a semicircle in the direction of his opponent’s left hand, thus thwarting his intentions and wearing him out. He also took the opportunity to study his opponent, who was a good- looking young man in his twenties. Despite his city clothes—short suede boots, an over-doublet of fine cloth, and the brown cape which he had placed on the ground along with his hat so as to be able to move more freely—he had, at least to the eye of an expert, a soldierly air about him: confident, brave, tight-lipped, and certainly no

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