Under the reign of his most holy Catholic Majesty Philip IV, the glorious Spanish empire, although lustrous as the gold it plunders from the new world, is being hollowed out by greed, avarice, and everyone's desire to gain a larger piece of an ever - shrinking pie. Of course she is also having to pay to ensure the misguided Dutch stay true to the one True Faith whether they want to or not. Although she has no problem in spending her loyal sons' flesh and blood, the gold it costs is another matter altogether.
There was a time when Spaniards could strut with pride through the streets of their bustling cities knowing that they were kings and queens of their hemisphere, and neither the heretic English nor the cowardly French would dare challenge her divine right of conquest. Alas, the impudence of a heretic know no bounds, and privateers flying English colours now dare the impotent wrath of Spain. Those cowards, with their better cannons and faster, more manoeuvrable ships, stay well out of range of Spain's heroic guns, and splinter ships into slivers while stealing away her ill gotten gains.
Still, is Spain's pride pricked? Do her gallants display themselves any less flamboyantly? Do her nobles conspire to rob and cheat the crown with any less avarice or the Church stop doing what is necessary to stamp out heresy and line its pockets? No of course not - they all must still receive what they feel they are entitled to, even if it means stealing it from the king's pocket. Like the rest of Spain, their needs being met depends upon how much of the bounty from the fleet of ships making the annual voyage from South America with their holds full of pagan gold ends up in their pockets.
As has been faithfully recounted by Arturo Perez-Reverte in previous stories, that although Spain is becoming the old whore of Europe, the pretty exterior doesn't stand up in close proximity and corruption riddles her like the pox, there are still those to whom honour and pride are not just for show, even if they're sometimes for sale. While there might not be much credence given the saying honour among thieves in most societies, in the Spain of Philip IV its among the company of cut-purses and throat slitters that you're liable to find men sufficiently stalwart, for the right price, to fight for king and country.
So when Captain Alatriste, recently returned from the fields of Flanders fighting for God & King, is required to put together a company of men to carry out a mission of extreme delicacy and importance at the behest of his King, it's among the scoundrels and rogues of Seville that he looks. Accompanying his master, and narrating the events of The King's Gold, the fourth book of the Captain's adventures to be published by Penguin Canada and written by Perez-Reverte, is the now sixteen year old Inigo Balboa. While the mud of Flanders may have opened Inigo's eyes to the reality that the honourable and the proud die just as easily as the craven and cowardly, it has not dampened his enthusiasm for adventure.
It was Alatriste's misfortune to have come to the attention of one of the most powerful men in Spain, the Conde-Duque de Olivares. De Olivares is responsible for ensuring the smooth running of what's left of the Spanish empire, including ensuring the King's treasury receives the share of treasure from the colonies it deserves. Unfortunately a great many of the King's subjects spend much effort and ingenuity figuring out methods of diverting the gold into their own pockets. After all, as nobility they should not have to actually do anything as tedious and demeaning as earn money through industry and trade when every year a fleet of boats comes to Seville laden with treasure.
One family in particular has taken great pains to ensure that they continue to live in the style they are accustomed to, no matter who they have to bribe, and what documents they have to forge. If a ship's documents say that she is only weighs nine tons, and the harbour master and the customs official who examine it agree when it enters port, nobody will look too closely at the extra ten tons of cargo in the hold that doesn't exist. When word of this plan reaches the Conde-Duque de Olivares, and through him the King, it is decided that gold and treasure that doesn't exist can't be reported stolen so perhaps there are some honourable men somewhere in Spain who could be prevailed on to steal it on behalf of their King.
When the King calls, and fifty pieces of gold accompany that hail, Captain Alatriste and Inigo answer. The non-existent treasure is being offloaded onto a smaller boat and Alatriste is to lead a boarding party that will kill the crew, and set the boat adrift so it floats downstream into the hands of the King's guard who will claim the vessel as salvage. As it would never do for soldiers of the crown to be involved with stealing from loyal subjects, if anything goes wrong Alatriste can expect no help from anyone, and be left to suffer the consequences.
As we have seen in previous histories recounted by young Balboa, Captain Alatriste is no stranger to the world of the hired sword. When Spain is done with her soldiers she leaves them to walk the streets of her cities to make their livings as they are able. Since most of them are most able with the sword and the pistol, it's not surprising that the majority make their livings with aid of either one, the other, or both. With Seville being a major port of entry for not only treasure ships but soldiers returning from the wars, there is a thriving community of ex-soldiers living within the confines of Seville's Cathedral. The sanctuary offered by the church has made the Patio de los Naranjos a comfortable spot for many gentlemen of the sword, as it is sometimes the only way to avoid the malady of the neck caused by prolonged exposure to rope.
Needless to say the Captain and Inigo have few problems finding interested parties to join their venture, but finding ones they can trust is another matter. As has become the usual in one of Perez-Reverte's books featuring Alatriste and Inigo, in spite of the sardonic tone of the narration, and the heroic attitudes struck by young Inigo, echoes of Cervantes' work, Don Quixote, ring loud. Alatriste is truly an honourable man, but the windmills he tilts at abide in his soul, as he wars against the stain that killing has left on him.
Ever since the widow of his old comrade in arms placed Inigo in his care four years earlier he takes the charge of educating the boy very seriously. The last thing he wants is for him to follow in his footsteps and become a man of the sword. Occasionally Inigo catches the Captain looking at him with an expression he doesn't understand and is at a loss as to why the Captain thinks he should receive an education beyond that of the sword.. For his part, Inigo hopes to impress the Captain with his bravery and fighting prowess, having a young man's typical affection for the ideals of heroism. In The King's Gold Inigo takes a couple more irrevocable steps down the path that we know is his destiny.
Honourable men die from a knife in the back just as easily as they do from the sword in the heart, and kill with same knife when they have to. But they need to have something or someone in whose name they can carry out their deeds. It doesn't matter who it is or what it is, as long as there is a reason for fighting that one can bow before, honour is maintained. So when Inigo sees his master in court bowing to the King, a King he doesn't necessarily believe in, he begins to understand the despair that his master feels at times; the despair that keeps him awake all night drinking until he can stare off into the distance blind to the future and deaf to the past.
Arturo Perez-Reverte's series of books featuring the adventures of Captain Alatrisre are the stories Alexander Dumas would have written if he had lived in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Heroic attitudes are all very well and good, but if you don't live to see another day what purpose do they serve? In The King's Gold both we and Inigo learn a little more about what the reality of being a swashbuckler for a living entails and it's got far less to do with heroism than any of us have been led to believe.
(Originally posted August 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.