adoptive country. When the course of history brought the old Spanish lion into conflict with the young French wolf in a squabble over hegemony in Europe, both queens—brought up to fulfill the rigorous duties of honor and blood—unreservedly embraced the respective causes of their august husbands. In the harsh times that lay ahead, we Spaniards would find ourselves in the paradoxical position of coming to blows with a France ruled by a Spanish queen. Such are the vicissitudes of war and politics.
However, to return to that morning, to doña Isabel de Borbón and to the Alcázar Real, light was pouring in through the three balconies of the Room of Mirrors, gilding the queen’s curled hair and making her two simple pearl earrings gleam. She was dressed in homely fashion, within the constraints of her rank, in a mauve gown of heavy watered camlet decorated with silver braid; and sitting, as she was, on a stool by the window of the central balcony, an inch of white stocking was visible above her satin shoes.
“I hope I will not disappoint, my lady.”
“Oh, I am sure you will not. The court has complete confidence in your inventive talents.”
She was angelic, I thought, from where I stood in the doorway, not daring to move so much as an eyebrow. I had several reasons for feeling petrified, and finding myself in the presence of the queen was only one, and not, by the way, the most important. I had put on new clothes for the occasion, a black doublet with a starched collar, black breeches, and a cap, all of which a tailor in Calle Mayor, a friend of Captain Alatriste, had made for me—on account, and in just three days—as soon as we knew that don Francisco de Quevedo would be taking me with him to the palace. As a favorite of the court, and held in high esteem by the queen, don Francisco had become a regular guest at all courtly functions. He amused our king and queen with his remarks; he flattered the count-duke, who, with his ever-growing number of political opponents, found it useful to have Quevedo’s intelligent quill on his side; and he was adored by the ladies, who, at every party and every gathering, would plead with him to entertain them with his poetry or with some improvised verse. And so, astute and sharp as ever, the poet allowed himself to be loved; he exaggerated his limp so that others might forgive both his talent and his position as favorite; and he had no compunction about making the most of all this for as long as his luck lasted. There was evidently a favorable conjunction of the stars, but one that don Francisco’s stoical skepticism—gleaned from the classics and from his own experience of changing fortunes—told him would not last forever. As he himself used to say, we are what we are until we cease to be so. This was especially true in Spain, where these things change overnight. The same people who applauded you yesterday and felt honored to know you and to be your friend will, today, for no apparent reason, throw you into prison or put a penitent’s hat on your head and march you through the streets to the scaffold.
“Allow me, my lady, to introduce a young friend of mine. His name is Íñigo Balboa Aguirre and he fought in Flanders.”
Cap in hand, blushing furiously, I bowed so low that my forehead almost touched the floor. My embarrassment, as I have said, was due not only to finding myself in the presence of the wife of Philip IV. I was aware, too, of four pairs of eyes staring at me—the queen’s four maids of honor. They were sitting nearby on the satin pillows and cushions arranged on the yellow-and-red tiled floor, next to Gastoncillo, the French jester whom doña Isabel de Borbón had brought with her at the time of her nuptials with our king. The glances and smiles of these young ladies were enough to turn anyone’s head.
“So young,” said the queen.
She smiled sweetly at me, then started chatting with don Francisco about the details of the ballads he had written,
Jennifer Youngblood, Sandra Poole