Peón de Rey / King's Pawn

written by Pedro Jesús Fernández
excerpt translated by Michele Brown

I. The Report

Toledo, August 1257

My name is Raoul of Hinault and I am of Breton origin. Although I was born in the city of Rennes almost forty-four years ago, since I turned eighteen and entered the Dominican Order I have travelled so many roads and lived in so many places that it is hard to feel rooted anywhere.

Now, as I write these notes in August of the year of our Lord 1257, contemplating the city of Toledo through the windowpanes, another door opens in my life. Toledo…! Such a different landscape than that of my own country, my home town! From here I can see its roofs and plazas, its towers, its churches, its houses and gardens. I can smell the rockrose and other flowers… hear the quiet murmur that rises from the streets like the sound of the ocean, and the chatter of the birds that flit through the bell towers and rooftops. The whole is at once both jarring and extraordinarily familiar: somehow it all merges in my eyes. Perhaps it is the omnipresent dull color of the brick that covers everything; or perhaps it is the light, an intense glow from the sun that traces the edges of each form, which I had forgotten since my stay in Sicily; or maybe it is because of these days of dry heat, when the air is like an oven and the city lies half empty, while the long shadows of the wealthy stretch across its streets. But though from my balcony the contrast between the light and shadows gives the impression of a painted landscape rather than reality, from the outskirts or walking through Toledo’s narrow streets the sight is even more picturesque. Toledo strikes the eyes. Surrounded by the Tajo River, which cuts a great S through the sand, the walls rise up over a mound of red earth. Beyond, the castle dominates the horizon like an enormous Greek temple.

I’ve only been in the city a few days, and in Castile for less than eight months. I am still a newcomer. Until today I have been resting, enjoying myself, but this morning I felt particularly good. Despite the scorching day, the heat remains outside the walls and windows of my host, Ishaq Ben Salomó Ibn Sadoq— better known here as Don Zag of the Maleha— who is a tax collector from the court of Castile’s king, who is the tenth to be called Alfonso.

The house in which I am a guest is in a curious situation. Located at the end of a narrow alley called an adarme, from the outside it blends in with the rest of the street enough to pass unnoticed, but the inside is the most refined space I have ever known. Not even the rooms of Federico II’s palace in Palermo, where I spent some months, reached this display of comfort and good taste. In back there is a small garden organized around two courtyards, in which water flows continually and with a wooden balcony shaded by trained vines. The result is very pleasant in the evenings, as there are many flowerbeds as well as trees which provide a cool shade.

Overall, the house is quite livable. At least I assume it to be in the winter; either way, I can testify to its suitability for the summer. The most surprising detail is the incredible luxury of having a lavatory on each floor, with a tub or pool in the center, fed both hot and cold water through a system of pipes. The building is well constructed, with thick walls, and the temperature indoors is very pleasant. During the hottest part of the day, from midday until dusk, each of the main rooms is cooled by an ingenious process. A narrow gallery of wood has been installed above the walls, from which hang a multitude of fine linen threads that fall all the way to the floor, resembling a curtain. Now these tendrils are kept watered by a servant so stealthy that one might think him invisible. Once I would have been more surprised to raise my eyes and find him in the gallery above with his earthen bowl and shy smile, but I have already become so accustomed to his constant comings and goings that, as my kind host assured me would happen, I never notice his presence.