My Dearest Friend Lazaro,
I send my greetings and offer my hope that all is well with you, as I perceive it would be with me had I listened. Remembrance draws across my mind the ragged line of my life, and conscience forces me to this confession. It is from the belly of the secret prison of the Holy Office that I write to you, while the sun burns away the last of my days on this earth. I write that you may understand the events that have overtaken me, and the machinations, which set them in motion.
Much has happened since last I saw you. It is my fervent prayer that you first read, then understand, and if possible, forgive. Few men have risen as did I in so short a time or to so lofty a station without the backing of family, money or position. Fortune turned a kind eye on me, and for a few short years her gaze lit my path with a brilliance most men have never had the pleasure of knowing.
I was 21 and knew defeat in none of its forms, never having made its acquaintance, though you warned me of its power often enough. There was but opportunity and rich days, once Don Carlos noticed my affinity for weaponry and the skill with which I was born to use it. He is a taciturn man, well placed as befits his noble blood, and intimately connected to King Phillip II by way of his service to the secretary of state. It is a clandestine service, to be sure, but a powerful one, as well, full equipped to bring down the mightiest of men. A right arm to that most awesome office is Don Carlos Mendez, and I was the physical executor of the will of that arm. It was to me and my companions that many subversive tasks were to fall.
It was in Saragossa that I first met La Force and Damours, two French expatriate mercenaries whose shortcomings were many and varied, though no more so than my own, and it chanced that we became friends. Robert La Force was a man in possession of a visionary's mind and a ruthlessness that even I found chilling at times. Gallien Damours was a flamboyant scoundrel from the moment of his first breath, and not a day passes that I do not bitterly regret his acquaintance.
For the bountiful pleasures of life we were insatiable, an unholy trinity with the youth and vigor to enjoy all that providence cast our way. We were the dread of the countryside, though we never made quarrel with the helpless or took aught but that which was paid for. Still, they feared our power, our skill and strength, our youth and the unrestrained waywardness of it.
Don Carlos Mendez found us in Saragossa one day in the spring of 1585. He was surrounded by wealth, his life the very fabric of power, and we young men were flattered and surprised that his visit was to us specifically. Now, it's easily understood. He needed cutthroats and believed he had found them in us. In that assessment, he was in no way errant.
He lavished attention upon us, bought fine food and drink for us, and once we were sated he asked for our support. Our swords would add to the king, he said with a charmer's expertise, and for the service we would be well paid. Being full of youthful arrogance and anticipating the power of a king behind our blades, without thought we answered him yes. At any command the king might see fit to deliver, we would, on our honor carry it out.
There was a smile from Don Carlos that should have been a warning, and to a man richer than I in wisdom it would have been. It was sly, the faded eyes narrowing, the cold set of his lips barely lifting. Mendez bid us report to Madrid three days hence and there ask for him. It was as he had said it would be.
The court was splendid and extravagant, the ladies beautiful, and the bounteousness without end. Light and joy and grandness all around, though the many who knew it as common to their lives thought it austere and gloomy. It may well have been, as I was unfit to judge that aspect. Coming from my low station into such splendor had a powerful effect.
While I was the best swordsman about, I was also the illegitimate son of a nameless French noblewoman and an indiscreet Spanish commoner. I was poor, unrecognized, and the only vision allotted me by virtue of my birth was the dull gleam of a plodding future, ordinary and without relief. A life that now I would deem most desirable.
Upon our arrival Don Carlos introduced us to the glitter and excitement that was the right of the high born, though the political factions and evil contrivances were hidden from my view. La Force knew the life already, being the wayward son of a French count; and Damours also, having had the privilege of great family wealth and good blood. For the first time, and with flattering in abundance, I was as one of them, one of the privileged, one who could be depended upon. It was a radiant and exciting time for me filled with promise.
To offer so many worldly enticements to one who stood no chance of attaining them creates its own stout prison for keeping him there. At the time I would rather have perished than been driven from my new and glorious position. Admiration shone from each eye, respectful speech flowed from every tongue. I was envied, and my company was sought. It was no hard task to overlook the things that might one day beset my conscience, but my honor I never knowingly stained. Not so different from Spain herself.
This land upon which the sun never sets is both paradox and trueness, a place of piety and lust, of cruelty and generosity, of penance and sin deeply hidden. True to the Spanish blood flowing in my veins, I immersed myself in the grand life, acquiring a small fortune. For one of my shadowy heritage it was as if the gates of Heaven had opened and spilled forth all the treasures of life, free for my taking.
On occasion, I came into contact with the king himself and many times I met with his confessor, Frey Diego de Chavez. But more often than not, it was Don Carlos who wielded me, Don Carlos who raised me to so high a status, Don Carlos who lined my pockets with gold, swelled my heart with gladness, dulled my mind with falsity and damned my soul with deception.
After several glorious weeks of courtly entertainment, Don Carlos required that we honor our hastily proffered pledges. He summoned me to his fabulous estate, which is where we received most of our instructions, and led me to his private chamber richly done and flawlessly elegant. Gilt, velvet and brocade accented glorious works of art the likes of which I had never before seen. There he spoke to me as though I were his only son. He praised me highly, offered me fine drink, bade me do homage to his wife and kiss the hand of his daughter. He treated me as though I were the only man in all of Spain who could do what had been requested by the king. And I accomplished all that he gave me.
As time passed, the King grew to look upon us with great favor, or so said Don Carlos, and he claimed to enhance that favor at every turn, mentioning our names and exploits often in the king's presence. We were legendary even then, before the legend turned to murder, and in Spain's eyes, treasonous action. I thought we had the king's approval. Nay, not only his approval but also his edict, his demand for action that sent me straight and swift through the gates of Hell. Don Carlos shall join me there, and if vengeance is tolerated in that sinner's domain, then I shall exact mine. It is a terrible thing that at 26 I feel little beyond hatred, all other having been wrung from me by betrayal and death and the sufferings of those whom I loved much.
It was in the great room of Don Carlos's mansion that I received the first in a string of commands that led to my undoing. On that day, Don Carlos sat in a grand chair and offered me the one opposite.
"You know of the Calvinists in Flanders," he said, as though I were well learned in the heresy of the sect.
I answered him that I did indeed know of them, but there was falseness to my answer, because I knew little of them beyond what the common man apprehended. That they were dangerous, I knew. That they were damned, I took for granted, though from that judgment I have recanted with all diligence. That they were militant was a matter of common knowledge. That the Duke of Alba had shown no restraint in his attention to them was plain. As many as 500 had died in a day, and blood ran free whenever he was about.
"Good," Don Carlos said, and leaned forward, his hawkish eyes hard on mine. "There is a man, a leader among them, whom the king requires. It is of utmost importance that you apprehend this man quietly and quickly."
With all my usual eagerness, I answered, "Give me his name."
And again there was that sly smile, though whether he smiled at my eagerness or lack of suspicion I cannot say. Here was a man who lacked nothing in guile.
"His name I cannot give you," said he, "and you must swear never to ask it. He's a Frenchman and is now in Navarre at the estate of his brother-in-law. He's blind in one eye. You and your companions shall know him by that infirmity, and you shall bring him to me at the Alcazar in Segovia, but do so with quietness. None must know of it. When you return send a messenger to me, but keep the man hidden. The king's confessor will assist you."
He then offered the necessary details. The task was truly unworthy of us, who were well trained and equipped to fight, so with great ease and possibly a deal of boredom we did as bidden. We returned with the man, whom we had dragged from his bed and taken in the night forbidding him to speak a word. He was an older man, and the task was abhorrent for that very reason. Nevertheless, we had the king's command, or so we believed. Never did it occur to us the treachery that Mendez had planned. Even then we remained ignorant in the ways of statecraft, but we were soon to learn.
Where Phillip's court lacked in cordiality, Don Carlos's retinue lacked in nothing at all. The famous walked beside the notorious, and I, being a landowner now, walked in the light of the king's favor. Of course, once my name touched that of Don Antonio Perez, the ponderous weight of the government turned with all force in my direction.
But before that time I was a don with holdings in both Saragossa and Pamplona. Small though they were they gave me rank, position, and along with my prowess and natural ability brought me into the inner circle that rules Spain. Mine was the hand that exercised the king's strength, that bloodied the king's streets, and I am the man who bitterly fell prey to the workings of that monster most foul, whose name is Blind Obedience. Because it was then that I received command concerning Sophie Lavade, and it was then that I led that angel to a destruction far worse than my own.
And now I shall tell you of how I fell, and of those who were pulled down with me. Before I've finished, you shall damn me with all intensity and will have reason 1,000 times over to wish your dagger plunged to the hilt in my breast, and it is no less than I deserve.
And so I shall start at the beginning.