Back | Next


January 1635

Chapter 1


Don Vincente Jose-Maria Castro y Papas, Captain in His Most Catholic Majesty's Army in the Two Sicilies, tried sneering at the stack of paperwork and the books and ledgers of the company he commanded. It was of no use. The wretched things remained there, sneering back at him.

Somehow, the filthy business of bureaucracy was everywhere nowadays, and the profession of arms was no refuge. Especially not in a newly augmented tercio dragged from its depot and filled out by a small horde of militia men and new recruits. And especially not when the arms he was supposed to profess were light muskets.

Certainly, they were an excellent weapon, compared with arquebuses, and far more wieldy than the heavy muskets they were replacing—had replaced, in some armies. A damnably expensive one, compared with just about anything, which was the reason Don Vincente's company had gotten so few, thus far. But the exploits of Turenne had been noted in Madrid, and the weapons had been identified as central to the small morsels of pride he had salvaged from France's shame. The exploits of the Swede with the lighter weapons had also been noted.

In times past, Spanish soldiers were expected to buy their own arquebuses. But the rapid changes brought by the Americans who had arrived in the Ring of Fire had altered military practices as well—indeed, perhaps military practices more than anything.

And so, throughout the Spanish army, which remained the best equipped and organized fighting force west of the Turk, companies and tercios that would otherwise have been unable to afford such equipment were receiving unexpected bounties.

For which they were expected to account. In triplicate. On top of all the utter, utter crap that was catching up with them after three moves in as many months around Spain before they had, with hardly any warning, been shipped out from Spain, filled out at the last minute with a collection of recruits whose appetite for war had been whetted by tales of the plunder Don Fernando's forces had received for their part in the sack of the Low Countries. Even after hearing about Don Fernando's orders to limit the looting, Don Vincente had tortured himself with visions of luckier officers filling their boots with Dutch gold. Which was a true irony, indeed. For in every other way the news out of Madrid was of deep displeasure with His Majesty's little brother for what he had done. For the recruiting parties, the word was all of how well Spanish Arms had fared. For those unlucky enough not to have gone with Don Fernando, however, it was just another opportunity to get rich on something other than a captain's pay that had been sorely, sorely missed. He had joined hoping for plunder somewhere, anywhere he could find it. Instead, he had found himself just about staying ahead of his expenses by taking money to exchange to less and less fashionable tercios, invariably managing to exchange out of a company before it was posted somewhere with an opportunity for loot.

Which had its advantages, admittedly. He had been quietly bemoaning his ill luck in leaving his last posting just before they were sent to Flanders when the news of the massacre at Wartburg came in, in which his replacement had died in the Americans' Greek Fire.

"Don Vincente?"

It was Sergeant Ezquerra, at the door of Don Vincente's billet, an upper room in a taverna on the road out of Naples that had been commandeered. Not, it had to be said, a good inn, but the patron kept a decent if simple table and a reasonable cellar. The more exalted officers had made themselves comfortable with the local grandees, whom in theory they were there to protect from riotous mobs, but Don Vincente was being careful with his money. He could have been still more careful with it if the barracks quarter around the viceroy's palace in town had not been full to bursting before they had arrived. But Don Vincente was accustomed to execrable luck.

"Come," Don Vincente said, scooting his chair back from the folding table he had his paperwork stacked on. "I grow eager for interruptions. Even from you."

"This is good, Don Vincente," Ezquerra said, "it does a man good to get away from the work from time to time. Especially the paperwork, which is unmanly."

"Away from the work, eh? A medicine you imbibe in large doses, I note, Sergeant." Don Vincente had never learned the man's first name, despite in theory having it among the paperwork for the company. There was a blank where the man's baptismal name was supposed to be recorded. It would hardly surprise Don Vincente to learn that the man had never been baptized. Ezquerra was the kind of fellow who, if he had remained as a peasant rather than joining the army, would have been a sore trial to his local gentry as a poacher and all-round nuisance who was just marginally too useful at whatever trade he pursued to have quietly flogged to death.

How long ago Ezquerra had left wherever he was from was a mystery. His date of birth was listed as unknown, and where exactly he was from was also unclear, except that Don Vincente had gathered one way or another that it was near Badajoz. He had the typical wiry-little-mountain-man look of so many from those parts, and the few of his claimed relatives that Don Vincente had seen—there were several in the army—had a similar look about them. Of course, a long-service soldier would have relatives in many parts of Spain, the lax approach to marriage and casual bastardy among the common soldiers being what it was.

"Not today, Don Vincente. Today I have neglected my health on your behalf." The sergeant left the statement hanging there, and waited, leaning on the doorpost, for a response.

Don Vincente glared at him. Truth be told, the sergeant was very good at his job. It was simply that for some reason being caught actually working by any of his officers seemed to be a source of terror to the man. Don Vincente hoped one day to actually see Ezquerra doing something to ensure that the company was as well turned-out and ready for action as they usually were. Of course, they were also always ready for the whorehouse and as much cheap drink as they could get inside themselves, but that was soldiers for you. The chaplains and the inquisitors didn't like it, but after getting away from his family's estates ten years before, Don Vincente had come to take a broader view of matters of the faith. And morals. And, especially, priests.

After some moments, Don Vincente realized that he was going to have to ask. "And, pray, what has caused this unwonted self-mortification?"

"Father Gonzalez again." Ezquerra was now grinning, although humor was not the usual feeling the good father provoked.

Don Vincente raised an eyebrow. "He's found another secret Jew?" The Inquisition seemed to be paying particular attention to the army recently, and instead of only occasionally appearing anywhere they could smell soldiers—or outside their comfortable offices at all—there seemed to have been a small rain of the pestilential creatures recently. Before they had sailed from Spain they had been visited with a plague of them. A biblical plague in truth. Possibly of frogs. They croaked enough.

Father Gonzalez was the representative of the Inquisition in this small billet town just outside Naples that Don Vincente and several of his brother officers had been visited with. He was exactly the kind of priest that one would expect a senior inquisitor to put forward for a long posting away from the home tribunal, with no definite date of return.

"No, Don Vincente. He seems to think that the men are given to dissipation and licentious pleasures." Ezquerra's grin grew even broader. They had been putting up with Gonzalez for nearly two months already, and it seemed to have escaped his notice until now? It was certainly not a subject that seemed greatly to exercise the company's regular chaplain, although his being sober enough to notice was not a common event.

There was a long pause. Don Vincente stared at Sergeant Ezquerra. Sergeant Ezquerra stared at Don Vincente. At length, Don Vincente said, "And have you said anything to the men about this?"

"Naturally," Ezquerra said, grinning from ear to ear, "I told them to stop it."

"Did you make it an order?" Don Vincente asked, suddenly overtaken by morbid curiosity.

Ezquerra snorted. "Of course. I ordered them not to let the good father catch them fornicating or insensible with drink."

Don Vincente parsed that one with no small care. It seemed to pass muster in every useful way, and was, indeed, technically an order to the men to stop doing those things. "Surely this small exertion came as no great threat to your health?"

Ezquerra sighed deeply. "No, Don Vincente. What has brought me to the very brink of ruin, Don Vincente, was going about every billet to pass on the order, and then getting around all the whorehouses in Naples before Father Gonzalez got to them so I could be sure none of the men were in them at the time."

"And why did you not tell me first?" Don Vincente realized as he said it that he had laid himself wide open.

"I checked the whorehouses before coming here, Don Vincente," Ezquerra said, not a muscle in his face moving as he pounced on the opportunity. And, of course, did so without once saying anything that could be—quite—construed as disrespect for an officer.

"Most diligent of you." Don Vincente kept his face just as straight as the sergeant did. In the nearly three years he had known the man, he had never caught Ezquerra in outright disrespect once, but heard him say things that would earn a demotion and flogging from an officer with less of a sense of humor hundreds of times.

The man had been tentative at first, certainly. Had covered up his slack ways with obvious displays of punctilio when he thought Don Vincente had been watching. Over time, Don Vincente discovered that Ezquerra and his fellow sergeants and the cabos who assisted them had turned the company into something that ran itself. The previous captain, from whom Don Vincente had bought the commission as an investment in his ongoing project to improve the modest family fortunes, had been an absentee like many officers. In his absence, Ezquerra had quietly taken over the company as a body of fighting men.

Lieutenants had come and gone, not taking much time or trouble over the company as they sought advancement. No officer had remained long enough to bring any subalterns to the company, for which Don Vincente was grateful. He had himself learned much as a young man just left home from the sergeant he had had when he first bought an ensign's commission. What would happen to an ensign left in the clutches of Ezquerra did not bear thinking about. Except, possibly, by a theologian contemplating possible routes to utter perdition.

"Thank you, Captain Don Vincente," Ezquerra said, grinning.

"Is there more? Doubtless I shall now be able to say with perfect truth that our soldiers have been ordered to stop being soldiers. But I feel certain you would not have strained yourself by coming up the stairs behind you if there had not been more to report. Usually, you hang around until I come down."

Ezquerra nodded. "There is more, Don Vincente, yes." The man's face grew serious. "While visiting an establishment with which the Captain will doubtless be unfamiliar, it being a house of prostitution of high repute and even higher prices, I chanced to meet my third cousin, who is orderly to Colonel—"

Don Vincente interrupted him with an upraised hand. If the sergeant had a fault, it was that if he was speaking of someone he was in some way related to, he could be quite tiresomely long-winded. "What did your cousin tell you?" he asked.

"Third cousin, Don Vincente." Ezquerra had a hurt tone in his voice. "And he told me that there is a reception in town tonight for the cardinal, who is visiting. Which may explain why Father Gonzalez, indeed all the inquisitors, are acting like their crabs are biting particularly hard."

"Which cardinal?"

"Borja," Ezquerra said, "the one that was viceroy in Naples before."

"And so Gonzalez's crabs are—hold on, Gonzalez has crabs? How?" Don Vincente felt rather pleased to have spotted this one.

"The good father uses the same whorehouse as my third cousin's colonel."

"That was what I was wondering about. Surely even whores have standards?"

Ezquerra shrugged. "True, the ordinary sort. But these are the kind who service gentlemen, so their standards are lower."

Don Vincente grinned ruefully. It was too much to expect that he would out-shoot his sergeant. He much suspected the sergeant was a very clever man who, had he not been born in a one-room shack somewhere in the mountains, would have made a great deal of the opportunities he would have had. And yet God in his wisdom had chosen to place a man of such talent in the station he occupied. "Still, knowing why Father Gonzalez has a even more of a hair up his ass than usual does nothing to help deal with the situation. Will the men be sensible about this, until Gonzalez calms down at least?"

"The old-timers, yes. All of these new fish we got in Barcelona? I can only hope. We need a fight to get them steadied down."

Don Vincente stroked his beard for a moment. "And there seem to be no prospects of that at the moment, I think. We missed Don Fernando's expedition, and it looks like we're going to miss whatever they've got planned for France. Maybe we'll get to crack some Italian heads?" He left the question hanging for Ezquerra to speculate on. Not, strictly, proper to invite a common soldier into one's confidence, but he had come to find Ezquerra's experience useful.

"Who knows?" Ezquerra shrugged. "From what I hear, everyone hereabouts was ready for revolt last year, but it seems a little quieter this year, so far. Although it's not really the rioting season right now. Prices are low."

That would be about right, Don Vincente mused. The harvests were only a few months past, and food remained plentiful. So prices were low, the winters hereabouts were not particularly harsh, and as far as Italians were ever content, the Neapolitans seemed to be content.

"That said," Ezquerra went on, "they won't like having so many of us billeted here. We've only been here a week, but there have been soldiers arriving for a month. And I hear that some of the grumbling has already started."

"What about?" There were some predictable answers to that, but it paid to ask.

"Requisitions and foraging, mostly," Ezquerra said. "The usual. There will be more. We have a lot of kids who've just joined. Many of them away from home for the first time. There will be trouble. We seem to have gotten away with it so far, though I hear someone killed an Italian in a tavern brawl a couple of nights ago. There wasn't much of an outcry over it, but it's the kind of thing we can expect."

"I know, I know," Don Vincente said. "Well, I suppose we can hope and pray that Borja's arrival does not portend more trouble. I understand he was not popular when he was viceroy."

Ezquerra shrugged. "The Captain will know more of such things than I."

Don Vincente thought back over what he had, in fact, heard. "Now I think about it," he said, "it does seem strange. The holy father ordered Borja out of Rome last year, as I recall, and ordered him to live in his diocese. I wonder why he's back in Italy? It might be thought disobedient to the holy father."

Ezquerra made the little hiss-spit noise he had for the occasions when he was annoyed by something. Don Vincente had only heard it before when something the men had done when practicing their drill displeased him. "I don't think the rules apply to such as him," he said, after a quiet moment. "You or I, Don Vincente, we face the Inquisition if we disobey a priest. The cardinal? He can disobey the pope and no one can tell him different."

"True," Don Vincente said, and it was. Not least because Borja was one of the Inquisition's senior cardinals. "Still, I want the men mustered for musket drill tomorrow, and every day until Gonzalez calms down. I don't know what the other companies will do, but I think training the men might well stop them finding idler pursuits until we have real trouble to deal with."

"The men won't like it, Don Vincente." Ezquerra's tone betrayed how little he cared about that. The man was a veteran, and had himself walked the Spanish Road to the wars in Flanders. Don Vincente could tell how much he approved of training the men by the simple fact that there was none of the usual obfuscation and delay whenever the suggestion arose.

"They aren't meant to like it, Sergeant. They're meant to have a reason to be up early in the mornings so they start to think twice about spending their wages all night on whores and drink."

"I shall give them the terrible news, Don Vincente," Ezquerra said, relish in his eyes and voice. "Will there be training with powder and ball?"

"Not every day." Don Vincente was now thankful that he'd been going over exactly that paperwork when the sergeant arrived. "I only have so much money to spend on powder. Two or three volleys, I think, tomorrow morning, so the idiots who get themselves hangovers really suffer. After that we'll run them until they puke if they turn up looking hungover."

"As the Don wishes," Ezquerra said, grinning.

Don Vincente decided, as the sergeant left, to let the paperwork go hang for the afternoon, and bellowed for a bottle of wine to sit in the afternoon sun with. He would beg off messing with the other captains tonight, to ensure he had a clear head for the firing in the morning, but for now a short break to recruit his strength before an arduous couple of weeks was just the thing. He wondered, for a moment, if the sergeant's attitudes were contagious?


Back | Next