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The Last Queen


Chapter One

I was thirteen years old when my parents conquered Granada. It was 1492, the year of miracles, when three hundred years of Moorish supremacy fell to the might of our armies, and the fractured kingdoms of Spain were united at last.

I had been on crusade since my birth. Indeed, I’d often been told of how the pangs had overcome my mother as she prepared to join my father on siege, forcing her to take to her childbed in Toledo --- an unseemly interruption she did not relish, for within hours she had entrusted me to a nursemaid and resumed her battles. Together with my brother, Juan, and my three sisters, I had always known the chaos of a peripatetic court, which shifted according to the demands of the Reconquest, the crusade against the Moors. I slept and awoke to the deafening clamor of thousands of souls in armor; to beasts of burden dragging catapults, siege towers, and primitive cannon; to endless carts piled with clothing, furnishings, supplies, and utensils. Rarely had I enjoyed the feel of marble underfoot or eaves overhead. Life consisted of a series of pavilions staked on stony ground, of anxious tutors gabbling lessons and cringing as flaming arrows whooshed overhead and crashing boulders decimated a stronghold in the distance.

The conquest of Granada changed everything --- for me and for Spain. That coveted mountain citadel was the most opulent jewel in the Moors’ vanishing world; and my parents, Isabel and Fernando, their Catholic Majesties of Castile and Aragón, vowed to reduce it to rubble rather than suffer the heretics’ continuing defiance.

I can still see it as if I were standing at the pavilion entrance: the lines of soldiers flanking the road, winter sunlight sparking off their battered breastplates and lances. They stood as if they had never known hardship, gaunt faces lifted, forgetting in that moment the countless privations and countless dead of these ten long years of battle.

A thrill ran through me. From the safety of the hilltop where our tents were, I had watched Granada fall. I followed the trajectory of the tar-soaked, flaming stones hurled into the city walls and beheld the digging of trenches filled with poisonous water so no one could breach them. Sometimes, when the wind blew just right, I even heard the moans of the wounded and the dying. At night while the city smoldered, an eerie interplay of shadow and light shivered across the pavilion’s cloth walls; and we awoke every morning to find cinder dust on our faces, our pillows, our plates --- everything we ate or touched.

I could scarcely believe it was over. Turning back inside, I saw with a scowl that my sisters still struggled with their raiment. I had been the first to wake and don the new scarlet brocades my mother had ordered for us. I stood tapping my feet, as our duenna, Doña Ana, shook out the opaque silk veils we always had to wear in public.

“A curse on this dust,” she said. “It has seeped even into the linen. Oh, but I cannot wait for the hour when this war is at an end.”

I laughed. “That hour has come! Today, Boabdil surrenders the keys to the city. Mamá already awaits us in the field and --- ” I paused. “By the saints, Isabella, surely you don’t plan to wear mourning today of all days?”

From under her black coif, my elder sister’s blue eyes flared. “What do you, a mere child, know of my grief? To lose a husband is the worst tragedy a woman can endure. I will never stop mourning my beloved Alfonso.”

Isabella had a flare for the dramatic, and I refused to let her get away with it. “You were married less than six months to your beloved prince before he fell off his horse and broke his neck. You only say that because Mamá has mentioned betrothing you to his cousin --- if you ever stop acting the bereaved widow, that is.”

Prim Maria, a year younger than I and possessed of a humorless maturity, interposed herself. “Juana, please. You must show Isabella respect.”

I gave a toss of my head. “Let her first show respect for Spain. What will Boabdil think when he sees an infanta of Castile dressed like a crow?”

Doña Ana snapped, “Boabdil is a heretic. His opinion is of no account.” She thrust a veil into my hands. “Cease your chatter and go help Catalina.”

Sour as curdled cheese our duenna was, though I suppose I should have spared a thought for the trials the crusade had wrought on her aged bones. I went to my youngest sister, Catalina. Like Isabella, our brother, Juan, and, to some extent, Maria, Catalina resembled our mother: plump and short, with beautiful pale skin and fair hair, and eyes the color of the sea.

“You look lovely,” I told her, tucking the scalloped veil about her face. Little Catalina whispered in return, “So do you. Eres la más bonita.

I smiled. Catalina was eight. She had yet to master the art of the compliment. She couldn’t have known her words eased my awareness that I was unique among my siblings. I had inherited my looks from my father’s side of the family, down to the slight cast in one of my amber eyes and unfashionable olive complexion. I was also the tallest of my sisters, and the only one with a mass of curling coppery hair.

“No, you’re the prettiest,” I said, and I kissed Catalina’s cheek, taking her hand in mine as the distant blast of trumpets sounded.

Doña Ana motioned. “Quick! Her Majesty waits.”

Together, we went to a wide charred field, where a canopied dais had been erected.

My mother stood clad in her high-necked mauve robe, a diadem encircling her caul. As always in her presence, I found myself bending my knees slightly to conceal my budding height.

“Ah.” She waved a ringed hand. “Come. Isabella and Juana, you stand to my right, Maria and Catalina to my left. You are late. I was beginning to worry.”

“Forgive us, Your Majesty,” said Doña Ana, with a deep reverence. “There was dust in the coffers. I had to air their Highnesses’ gowns and veils.”

My mother surveyed us. “They look splendid.” A frown creased her brow. “Isabella, hija mia, black again?” She shifted her regard to me. “Juana, stand up straight.”

As I did her bidding, another trumpet blast reached us, much closer now. My mother ascended the dais to her throne. The cavalcade of grandes, the high lords and nobles of Spain, materialized on the road in a fluttering of standards. I wanted to shout in excitement. My father rode at their head, his black doublet and signature red cape accentuating his broad shoulders. His Andalucian destrier pranced beneath him, caparisoned in Aragón’s scarlet and gold colors. Behind him rode my brother, Juan, his white-gold hair tousled about his flushed, thin face.

Their appearance elicited spontaneous cheers from the soldiers.“Viva el infante,” cried the men, beating swords against shields.“Viva el rey!” 

The solemn churchmen followed. Not until they reached the field did I catch sight of the prisoner in their midst. The men drew back. My father motioned, and the man on the donkey was made to dismount and forced forward, to raucous laughter. He stumbled.

My breath caught in my throat. His feet were bare, bloodied, but I marked his inherent regality as he unwound his soiled turban and cast it aside, revealing dark hair that tumbled to his shoulders. He was not what I expected, not the heretic caliph who’d haunted our dreams, whose hordes had poured boiling pitch and shot fiery arrows from Granada’s ramparts against our army. He was tall and lean, with bronze skin. He might have been a Castilian lord as he crossed the field to where my mother waited, his steps measured, as if he crossed an audience hall clad in finery. When he fell to his knees before her throne, I caught a glimpse of his weary emerald eyes.

Boabdil lowered his head. From his neck, he removed an iron key on a gold chain and set it at my mother’s feet, a symbolic symbol of defeat.

Jeering applause and insults came from the ranks. With an impassive countenance that conveyed both his inviolate disdain and infinite despair, Boabdil allowed the applause to fade before he lifted his practiced plea for tolerance. When he finished, he waited, as did everyone present, all eyes fixed on the queen.

My mother stood. Despite her short stature, slackened skin, and permanently shadowed eyes, her voice carried across the field, imbued with the authority of the ruler of Castile.

“I have heard this plea and accept the Moor’s submission with humble grace. I’ve no desire to inflict further suffering on him or his people. They’ve fought bravely, and in reward I offer all those who convert to the True Faith baptism and acceptance into our Holy Church. Those who do not will be granted safe passage to Africa --- providing they never return to Spain again.”

My heart missed a beat when I saw Boabdil flinch. In that instant, I understood. This was worse than a death sentence. He’d surrendered Granada, thus bringing an end to centuries of Moorish dominion in Spain. He had failed to defend his citadel and now craved an honorable death. Instead, he was to be vanquished, to bear humiliation and exile till the end of his days.

I looked at my mother, marked the satisfaction in the hard set of her lips. She knew. She had planned this. By granting mercy when he least expected it, she had destroyed the Moor’s soul.

His face ashen, Boabdil came to his feet. Burned earth clung to his knees.

The lords closed in around him, leading him away. I averted my eyes. I knew that if he’d been victorious he would not have hesitated to order the deaths of my father and my brother, of every noble and soldier on this field. He’d have enslaved my sisters and me, defamed and executed my mother. He and his kind had defiled Spain for too long. At last, our country was united under one throne, one church, one God. I should rejoice in his subjugation.

Yet what I most wanted to do was console him.


We entered Granada in resplendent procession, the battered crucifix sent by His Holiness to consecrate heretic mosques carried aloft before us, followed by the nobility and clergy.

Discordant wailing sundered the air. The Jewish warehouses were being impounded. Gorged with fragrant spices, yards of silk and velvet, and crates of medicinal herbs, the market represented Granada’s true wealth, and my mother had ordered the wares secured against looting. Later, she would have them inventoried, tallied, and sold to replenish Castile’s treasury.

Riding with my sisters and our ladies, I gazed in disbelief upon the ravaged city. Shattered buildings stood empty, seared by flame. Our catapults had leveled entire walls, and the stench of rotting flesh wafted from the mounds of broken stone. I saw an emaciated child standing motionless beside some dead rotting animal bound to a spit; as we passed, gaunt women knelt in the ruins. I met their impenetrable stares. I saw no hatred or fear, no remorse, as if the very life had been drained from them.

Then we started to ascend the road to the Alhambra --- that legendary palace built by the Moors in their flush of glory. I couldn’t resist rising in my saddle to peer through the gusts of dust kicked up by the horses, hoping to be the first to see its fabled walls.

Someone cried out.

Around me the women pulled their mounts to a halt. I looked about in bewilderment before returning my gaze to the road ahead.

I froze.

A high tower thrust into the sky like a mirage. On its parapet I could see a tiny group of figures, the wind snatching at their veils and flimsy wraps, light sparkling on the metallic threads woven through their gowns.

Behind me Doña Ana hissed, “Quick, cover the child’s face. She must not see this.”

I swiveled in my saddle to look at Catalina. My sister’s eyes met mine in fearful confusion before one of the ladies pulled the veil over her face. I clenched at my reins, turning back around. A cry of warning hurtled up my throat as I saw, in paralyzing horror, the figures seeming to step out over the parapet, like birds about to take flight.

Around me, the ladies gasped in unison. The figures floated for an impossible moment in the air, weightless, shedding veils. Then they plummeted downward like stones.

I closed my eyes. I willed myself to breathe.

“See?” chortled Doña Ana. “Boabdil’s harem. They refused to leave the palace. Now we know why. Those heathen whores will burn in hell for all eternity.”

All eternity. 

The words echoed in my head, a terrible punishment I could not imagine. Why had they done it? How could they have done it? I kept seeing those fragile forms in the pinpricked darkness behind my eyelids, and as we rode under the Alhambra’s gateway, I did not point and laugh with the other women at the broken bodies strewn on the rocks below.

My parents, Juan, and Isabella swept ahead with the nobility. Maria, Catalina, and I remained behind with our women. Taking Catalina by the hand and hushing her anxious questions, for she knew something terrible had happened, I gazed at the citadel. With the afternoon light turning to vermilion on its tiled facade, it appeared blood-soaked, a place of death and destruction. And still I was overwhelmed by its exotic splendor.

The Alhambra was unlike any palace I’d ever seen. In Castile, royal residences doubled as fortresses, encircled by moats and enclosed by thick walls. The Moorish palace had the mountain gorge for protection, and so it sprawled like a lion on its plateau, sheltered by cypress and pine.

Doña Ana motioned to Maria; together with our ladies-in-waiting, we marched into the audience hall. With Catalina’s hand still clutching mine, I took in everything at once, my heart beating fast as I began to see just how magnificent the Moor’s world was.

An immense space of saffron and pearl opened before me. There were no scarred doors, no suffocating staircases or cramped passageways. Instead, carved archways welcomed me into rooms where honeycomb walls curved, and secret mosaic terraces could be glimpsed. Glazed porcelain vases held vigil under smoke-darkened hangings of every imaginable hue; quilted pillows and divans were strewn about as if their occupants had just retired. I looked down at my feet to a scarf coiled on the tiled floor. I feared to touch it, thinking it might have been dropped by one of the concubines on her doomed race to the tower.

I had dwelled in ignorance. No one had told me the heretic could create something so beautiful. I gazed up to an inverted cupola. About its perimeter, the painted faces of dead caliphs stared at me with laconic reproach. I swayed where I stood, overcome. I now understood why the concubines had chosen death. Like Boabdil, they could not bear to live without this Eden that had been their home.

The scent of musk crept past me. I heard water everywhere, a constant murmur as it flowed through rivulets carved in the marble floors, emptying into alabaster pools, set to dance in the patio fountains.

I paused. A sigh shifted through the pilasters, stirring the hair of my nape. Catalina whispered, “Hermana, what is it? What do you hear?”

I shook my head. I could not explain.

Who would have believed me if I said I could hear the Moor’s lament?

Chapter Two

For three magical years, Granada became our haven from the grueling pace of the court. With the end of the Reconquest, my mother turned her focus to strengthening Spain and forging alliances with other sovereigns. Travel still took up the majority of her annual schedule, but she deemed it best if we had a permanent household in the summer months, far from the pestilence and heat that plagued Castile.

My sister Catalina’s betrothal to Henry VII of England’s eldest son was celebrated the year after Granada’s fall, reminding me that I too had been promised in my childhood to the Habsburg emperor’s son, Philip of Flanders. I was not unduly concerned. The only one of my sisters to actually wed was Isabella, and several betrothals were mentioned for her before she went to Portugal and returned a widow less than a year later. I knew few princesses had a say in their destiny, but I didn’t care to brood on a future that seemed distant and prone to change.

In Granada my world was full of youthful promise. After our daily lessons of history, mathematics, languages, music, and dance, my sisters and I often went to the lovely terraced patio at the edge of the gardens, where we practiced the ageless pastime of royal women: embroidery. Ours was a special task, however, for our simple cloths would be blessed and sent to adorn church altars throughout Spain as gifts from the infantas.

I loathed sewing. I had an impatient nature, and as I approached my sixteenth year I found it almost impossible to sit still for any length of time. My altar cloths were fit only for washing the church floor, riddled as they were with botched patterns and snarled threads. I usually pretended to embroider, while keeping close watch over Doña Ana, anticipating the time of my escape.

The duenna sat under the colonnade, a tome in her hands, from which she read aloud the passion of some martyred saint. It was never long before her head began to bob on her squat neck, her eyelids fluttering as she fought in vain against torpor.

When her eyes finally closed, I allowed a few more minutes to pass. Then I set aside my embroidery, slid my slippers from my feet, and inched up from my stool.

Maria and Isabella sat exchanging confidences. As I tiptoed past them, slippers in hand, Isabella hissed, “Juana, where do you think you’re going?”

I ignored her, motioning to Catalina. My little sister leapt up, her embroidery falling unheeded to the ground. With a smile, I said, “Come, pequeñita. I’ve something to show you.”

“Is it a surprise?” Catalina eagerly kicked off her slippers. She stopped, clapped a hand to her mouth, and glanced at Doña Ana. The duenna slumbered, oblivious. It would take an elephant’s approach to wake her now, and I choked back a sudden giggle.

Naturally, Maria thought the world would come to an end if any of us deviated from our regimen. In a scandalized whisper she said, “Juana, you’ll catch your death of cold running about barefoot. Sit down. You can’t take Catalina into the gardens without a proper escort.”

“Who says we don’t have an escort?” I retorted, and I crooked my finger. From the terrace pillars behind us, a slight shadow uncoiled and approached.

She stood expectant, her hooded liquid-black eyes gleaming and curly hair the color of a raven’s wing braided about her head. Though she wore a proper Castilian gown, the aura of cinnabar and jangling bracelets still clung to her. I smiled when I saw she too was barefoot.

Her name was Soraya. She had been found hiding in the Alhambra’s harem, and no one knew if she was a slave left behind when the concubines committed suicide or the daughter of one of the caliph’s lesser wives. She’d begged for mercy in her Arabic tongue and readily converted; no more than thirteen years old, it mattered little to her which god she venerated as long as she lived. I implored my father to let her serve me as a handmaiden and he agreed, despite my mother’s objections. She never strayed far from my side, sleeping at the foot of my bed on a cot and padding behind me like a cat by day. I spent hours teaching her Spanish and she learned quickly, but more often than not she preferred to keep her silence. She had been baptized with the ubiquitous Christian name of Maria; she never responded to it, though, and so we all came to accept the name she’d come with.

I adored her.

“That heretic slave?” My sister Isabella now hissed. “She is not a proper escort!”

I tossed my head, clasped Catalina and Soraya by the hands, and crept off into the gardens.

Stifling laughter, we stole into a rose bower that had once been the caliphs’ private retreat. Soraya knew the gardens like the palm of her hand: she had taken me here countless times on forbidden excursions and she knew where I wanted to go. Dusk had started to envelop the sky in a violet swirl. She made an urgent gesture; I dashed forward, nearly tugging Catalina off her feet. “Hurry! Soraya says we must get there before night falls.”

I yanked Catalina forth, Soraya loping ahead. My sister gasped, “Juana, slow down. I can’t run as fast as you two.” She came to a stubborn halt. “My feet hurt.” Dropping her slippers, she shoved her grass-stained feet back into them. “You tore your skirt when we went through those bushes,” she added. “It’s the third skirt you’ve ruined this week. Doña Ana will be furious.”

I glanced at the tear. I could care less about Doña Ana’s anger. We had reached the lower gardens; ahead a crumbling wall bordered the gorge’s deep chasm. In the distance loomed the Sacromonte hills, pockmarked with caves. Soraya stood by the wall. She pointed upward.

I lifted my eyes to the amethyst sky. “Look!” A lone shape flittered above us. It was followed by another, then another and another, until myriad creatures weaved a leathery lattice, crisscrossing without touching, the swift beating of their wings invisible to the eye.

A shiver went through me. I knew they wouldn’t harm us, but I couldn’t help but feel some fear, though I had come to see them several

times before.

Catalina pressed close to me. “What... what are they?”

“What I wanted to show you. Those, pequeñita, are bats.”

“But --- but bats are evil! Doña Ana says they nest in our hair.”

“Nonsense. They’re just animals.” I could not look away, transfixed by their stealth, wishing suddenly that I too could soar through the air like that, dusk on my skin.

“Watch closely. See how they pass over us without a sound? Though it will soon be dark, they never lose their way.” I glanced at Catalina. She was pale. I sighed, dropped to one knee. “I too was frightened the first time I saw them. But they ignored me as if I didn’t exist.” I gave her a reassuring smile. “You mustn’t be afraid. Bats eat fruit, not people.”

“How do you know?” she quavered.

“Because I’ve watched them before; I’ve seen them feed. Watch this.” From my gown pocket I withdrew a pomegranate. I bit hard into its tough outer skin, exposing glistening ruby seeds. Digging the seeds out, I tossed them up into the air a short distance away.

A bat swooped down to catch the falling seeds. Catalina went wide-eyed as I took her by the hand and we crept forth, staring in awe at the wondrously hideous animal, its tiny body furred like a rat’s and its leathery wings surprisingly agile. Soon, there were several more above us, so close we could feel them slice the air above our heads. They dipped close to the ground where the seeds had scattered, as if in a swoon of indecision, and I was about to throw out more seeds with my red-stained hands when I felt Catalina’s hand tighten in mine.

“No,” she whispered. “Don’t.”

“But they won’t hurt you. I promise. You mustn’t be afraid.”

“I... I’m not. I just don’t you want you to.”

I longed to lure more of the creatures. I’d been experimenting with the seeds; I hadn’t thought I could actually attract them. Yet even as I debated, the bats flew upward in a squall. Catalina and I squealed and leapt back, covering our heads. As they joined their companions in their strange aerial dance, I saw Soraya smile and I laughed.

Catalina glared. “You were scared! You thought they would hurt us.”

I nodded. “I was. I guess I’m not so brave, after all.”

The last drop of sunlight faded. The bats flitted to and fro, drawn to the moisture from the Alhambra’s many fountains. Usually they stayed aloft until night had fallen, then veered in a cloud to the orchards spilling over the countryside, where ripe crops beckoned.

Not tonight. Observing their erratic pattern, they seemed restless, uncertain of their destination. Had our presence agitated them?

“Maybe they’re not as indifferent to us as I’d thought,” I said aloud. Catalina looked at me. Above us, the bats scattered like leaves dispersed by a sudden wind.

Disappointed, I turned to the palace. Soraya slid next to me, tugged at my sleeve. I followed her gaze to where the streak of flaming torches carried by slaves raced toward the keep.

“La reina,” Soraya whispered. “La reina su madre está aquí.” 

I gave Catalina an uneasy smile. “We should go back now. Mamá is here.”

The moment we returned, Doña Ana cried: “Where have you been? Her Majesty has arrived!” Grabbing Catalina by the hand and glowering at me she motioned Soraya back to our quarters and hustled us through the corridors to the Hall of Ambassadors.

Isabella and Maria were already there. Avoiding Isabella’s pointed stare, I went to stand beside Maria. She said, “Doña Ana was beside herself. Why must you aggravate her so?”

I didn’t answer, intent on the courtiers filing in from the keep, scanning their ranks for my father. My heart sank when I failed to find him. My mother had come to Granada alone.

I flinched when Archbishop Cisneros entered the hall, his Franciscan habit flaring about his skeletal bare feet in their leather sandals. He was Castile’s most powerful ecclesiastic, head of the See of Toledo and our new inquisitor general; a protégé of Torquemada’s, Cisneros, it was said, had walked all the way from Segovia to Seville in those sandals to thank God for our deliverance from the Moor.

I believed it. He had devoted himself with singular focus to the eradication of heresy from Spain, ordering all Jews and Moors to either convert or leave on pain of death. Many had chosen to flee rather than live under the threat of his spies and informants, dedicated to hunting out those conversos who continued to secretly practice their proscribed faith. My mother had had to put a rein on his tactics when he tried to investigate members of her household, several of whom had Jewish ancestry, but he’d still ordered the mass burning of more than a hundred heretics in a single auto da fé, a horrifying death for any living being, regardless of his faith. To me, he smelled of sulfur, and I was relieved when he passed without a glance, stalking into an antechamber.

Moments later, my mother emerged.

She moved through the bowing courtiers, the frontlets of her linen hood tied under her chin. She’d grown stout since the Reconquest and favored simple apparel, though today she wore her favorite sapphire jewel depicting the bundled arrows and yoke of her and my father’s emblem.

We curtsied to the floor. She said, “Rise, hijas. Let me see you.”

I remembered to keep my spine erect and eyes lowered.

“Isabella,” my mother remarked, “you look pale. A little less prayer might do you good.” She moved on to Catalina, who couldn’t repress a spontaneous “Mamá!” followed by a flush when the queen rebuked, “Catalina, remember your manners.”

Then, with Cisneros behind her, she stepped before me.

I felt her displeasure fall upon me like an anvil. “Juana, have you forgotten the order of precedence? As my third eldest, in the absence of your brother, you should be beside Isabella.”

I raised my eyes. “Forgive me, Mamá --- I mean, Su Majestad. I... I was late.” As I spoke, I sought to hide my pomegranate-stained hands behind my back.

My mother’s lips pursed. “So I see. We shall speak later.” She stepped back, encompassing us with her next words. “I am pleased to be with my daughters again. You may now go to vespers and your supper. I’ll visit with each of you once I’ve attended to my affairs.”

We curtsied again and traversed the hall, the court bowing low as we passed. Before we left, I braved an anxious glance over my shoulder.

My mother had turned away.


I was summoned after supper. I went with Soraya, and as I waited on a stool in the antechamber to the queen’s apartments, she went to settle on a cushion in the corner with languid grace. Whenever she could, she opted for the floor instead of chairs.

I watched the trembling light cast by the oil lamps onto the intricate honeycomb ceiling, my hands plucking my skirts. Soraya had helped me squeeze into one of my stiff formal gowns, which seemed to have shrunk since I last wore it, the bodice straining across the swell of my breasts and the hem barely grazing my ankles. I’d shed my first blood in my thirteenth year and since then it was as if my body had developed a will of its own, my legs sprouting like a foal’s and a fine reddish down materializing in places Doña Ana forbade me to touch. Soraya had coiled my hair in a beaded net and I scrubbed my face until my cheeks felt raw, trying in vain to get rid of the smattering of freckles that betrayed my frequent forays outside without a coif.

All the while, I wondered what awaited me. My mother rarely came to Granada this early in the year. That she was here in mid-June must mean something was amiss. I tried to reassure myself it couldn’t have anything to do with me; I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong save for my occasional escapes into the gardens, which could only be a minor transgression. Still, I worried, as I always did when faced with my mother.

The queen’s longtime friend and favorite lady, the Marquise de Moya, appeared at the entrance. She gave me a reassuring smile. “Princesa, Her Majesty will see you now.”

The marquise had always been kind to me; she would have warned me if I faced censure. I walked with renewed confidence into my mother’s apartments, where her other women paused in their unpacking of coffers to curtsy. When I came before her bedchamber door, I stopped. I could not enter without her spoken leave.

Her chamber was small, illumined by braziers and candelabra. A large window at the far wall overlooked the valley. Books and papers sat piled on the desk. The tarnished and chipped silver sword of the Reconquest, which my mother had had carried before her at every battle, hung prominently on the wall. Her bed was nestled in a corner, half-hidden by a carved sandalwood screen. In keeping with her personal asceticism, the marble floors were bare.

I knelt on the threshold. “I beg permission to enter Your Majesty’s presence.”

My mother emerged from the shadows by her desk. “You have my leave. Enter and close the door.”

I could not see her face. Pausing at the appropriate distance, I curtsied again.

“You can come closer,” she said dryly.

I stepped forward, wondering (as I had for as long as I could remember) if she liked what she saw. Though I stood almost a hand taller than her, I still felt like a little girl hoping for praise.

She moved into the light cast by the candles. My trepidation must have shown, for she said, “What do you see, hija, that you must stare at me thus?”

I immediately lowered my eyes.

“I wish you’d cease that habit. Since you were a babe, you’ve always stared at everything as if it were on display for your inspection.” She motioned at the stool by her desk. Once I had sat, she regarded me again in silence. “Do you know why I’ve called for you?”

“No, Mamá,” I said, in sudden dread.

“It should be to chastise you. Doña Ana informed me that you left your sisters and sewing this afternoon to take Catalina into the gardens. I understand you often disappear like that, without word or leave. What is the meaning of these excursions?”

Her question took me aback; she rarely expressed interest in my private thoughts. I said quietly, “I like to be alone sometimes, so I can observe things.”

She took her seat on her upholstered chair before the desk. “What on earth could be so fascinating that you must be alone to observe it?”

I couldn’t tell her about the bats. She’d never understand. “Nothing in particular,” I said. “I like my solitude, is all. I’m always surrounded by servants and tutors and Doña Ana nagging at me.”

“Juana, their duty is to guide you.” She leaned to me, her voice firm. “When will you realize you cannot do as you please? First, it was your fascination with everything Moorish. You even insisted on having that slave girl serve you, and now this odd penchant for solitude. Surely, you must have a reason for such unusual behavior.”

My shoulders tensed. “I don’t think it’s so unusual.”

“Oh?” She arched her brow. “You are sixteen years old. When I was your age, I was fighting for Castile. I didn’t have time or inclination to indulge in pastimes that perturbed my elders. Nor, I should think, do you. Doña Ana says you are rebellious and willful, and dispute her every word. This is not the behavior of an infanta of the House of Trastámara. You are a descendant of kings. You must behave according to your rank.”

Her reprimand wasn’t unfamiliar and still it stung, as she knew it would. How could I compare my thus far insignificant life with her monumental achievements? Satisfied with my silence, she pulled a candle close, opened a portfolio, and removed a sheet of vellum.

“This letter is for you.”

I had to stop myself from snatching it out of her hand. “Is it from Papá? Is he coming to visit us? Will he bring Juan with him?”

I regretted my words the moment they were uttered. Her voice tightened. “Your father and brother are still in Aragón. This letter is from the archduke Philip.” She handed it to me. “Pray, read it aloud. It’s in French, a language I prefer not to speak.”

Had she come all this way to bring me another boring letter from the Habsburg court? I began to feel relieved when it occurred to me that if she’d come to Granada just for this, it must be important. In sudden concern, I studied the vellum in my hand. It was expensive, a supple skin scraped and softened to the consistency of paper. Otherwise, it seemed much like the other, periodic letters that had come over the years, until I noticed sentences scratched out, denoting a clumsy hand with the quill. I glanced at the signature: A scrolling P, stamped by the Habsburg eagle insignia. This must be a letter from Philip himself.

“I am waiting,” my mother said.

I started to read, translating the words into Spanish: “‘I have received the letter Your Highness lately sent to me, from which I perceive your affection. I assure you that your noble words could not be sweeter to any man’s ears, nor your promise more gratifying --- ’” I frowned. “What letter does he speak of? I’ve never written to him.”

“No,” she said. “I have. Go on.”

I returned to the letter. “‘More gratifying to one who shares your devotion. I must tell you what earnest love I feel knowing I shall soon see Your Highness. I pray that your arrival here, and my sister Margaret’s departure for Spain, may thus be hastened, so that the love between us and our countries can be fulfilled.’” I looked up in sudden comprehension. “He... he speaks of marriage.”

My mother reclined in her chair. “He does. It is time you go to Flanders to wed Philip and for his sister Margaret to come here as a bride for your brother.” She paused. “Is that all he says?”

I found it difficult to breathe. The letter swam before my eyes. “There’s a postscript here from someone named Besançon. He advises me to learn French, as it is the language spoken at the Flemish court.”

“Besançon.” My mother grimaced. “He may be Flanders’s premier archbishop, but he is too French in his manner by far, though he knows how we feel about that nation of wolves.” Her gaze turned distant. “No matter. France will be put in its place soon enough. That realm has bedeviled us for years, encroaching on Aragón and threatening your father’s right to Naples. It’s time we put an end to their effrontery.”

A taut smile crossed her lips. “The emperor Maximilian and I have agreed to forgo any dowries, what with the cost of transport these days, but upon his death his son, Philip, will inherit his empire, while his daughter, Margaret, will inherit several important territories in Burgundy. And once your sister Catalina weds the English heir, we shall become an even greater power, with familial ties across Europe, and France will never dare meddle in our affairs again.”

I sat rooted to my stool. How could she speak of politics when my entire existence had just been overturned? She expected me to leave my home, my family, for an unknown land and husband, so she could strike at France? This couldn’t be happening, not to me.

My voice shook. “But why me? What have I done to deserve this?”

She gave an arid chuckle. “You speak as if it were a punishment. This cannot come as a surprise; you know you’ve been promised to Philip since you were three.” She fixed me with her stare. “I trust you haven’t forgotten the importance of doing your duty for Spain?”

I heard the warning in her tone, and for the first time in my life I forgot it was not wise, or beneficial, to argue with Isabel of Castile. All I could think of in that moment was that she would never have abandoned Spain. How could she expect me to?

I lifted my eyes. “I haven’t forgotten. But I do not wish to marry Philip of Habsburg.”

I saw her hands tighten upon her chair’s chiseled armrests. “May I ask why?”

“Because I... I don’t love him. He is a stranger to me.”

“Is that all? I didn’t know your father when we first wed, yet that didn’t stop me from doing my duty. Through our marriage, Spain was united under God. Our duty came first, but love soon followed. Those whom God has joined will always find love.”

“But Papá is Spanish, from Aragón. You didn’t have to leave.”

“Few royal women can wed their countrymen. I was blessed with your father, yes, but many of Castile’s nobles fought our marriage at first, as you well know. They didn’t believe Fernando was worthy to be my consort. The grandes wanted me to wed one of them instead and seize Aragón for Castile, so they could add to their power. Indeed, they almost forced me to it. But God’s will prevailed. He brought Fernando and me together so Aragón and Castile could join against the heretic, and now he unites you and Philip for Spain.”

I bristled. “Papá was worthy. He was a prince and became Aragón’s king, as well as your king consort. What is Flanders but a paltry duchy and Philip a mere archduke?”

“He may be an archduke, but he’s also the emperor’s heir. And while Flanders is a duchy, it’s far from paltry. As part of the Habsburg Empire, it oversees the Low Countries and guards their borders against the French. Moreover, it is prosperous and peaceful. Why, Philip’s subjects are so devoted to him they call him ‘the Fair.’ And he is only a year older than you. Any princess would be overjoyed to wed such a man.”

“Then send him another,” I retorted, before I could stop myself. “Maria isn’t promised to anyone. She could replace me and he’d never know the difference. It’s not as if we’ve met.”

“Replace you?” She sat upright. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think you defy me.”

I flinched. “I... I don’t mean to, Mamá. But if I must wed, I’d prefer a Spanish lord.”

The clap of her ringed hands on the chair rang out. “Enough! A Spanish lord, indeed. As if I’d ever give a daughter of mine to one of those vultures who call themselves grandes! They ruined Spain with their avarice and ambition; were it not for me, they’d still have us in chaos while they stuff their purses with Moorish gold. Have you not heard a word I’ve said? You will be a Habsburg empress. I have chosen you for this great task.”

I should have been scared; I should have realized I had lost this battle. Instead, in a steely voice I hardly recognized I said, “I never asked for it.”

She stood with an angry exhalation and paced to the window. The seconds passed like years. When she finally spoke, her voice cut through me. “You will do as you are told. Flanders is a respectable kingdom, which Philip has ruled since childhood. His lineage is impeccable, and his court renowned for its culture. I assure you, you’ll find yourself right at home.”

Tears burned behind my eyes. I saw my childhood vanishing before me like an illusion, my carefree afternoon in the gardens the last I’d ever enjoy again. I didn’t care about Philip’s reputation or his court. Nothing he had could ever equal the beauty of Spain.

A chasm opened inside me. “Mamá, please. Must I do this?”

She turned about. “The Cortes has given its consent, and the betrothal documents are signed. I cannot disregard the welfare of Castile because you wish it so.”

The room keeled about me. I barely heard her as she returned to her desk. “You’ll not go to Flanders alone. Doña Ana shall go with you as your head matron, and you’ll have a household to attend you. And Philip will of course see to your well-being, as a good husband should. You will see these fears of yours are but the nerves of a new bride. We’ve all felt them in our time.”

My entourage had been selected; she’d even determined how my husband would treat me. In that moment, I saw Boabdil as he kneeled in the charred earth before her.

I bit back a hot surge of tears. I would not grovel. “When?” I asked. “When must I go?”

“Not for a year at least, though we’ve much to do.” Her tone turned brisk. “I know how advanced you are in your studies, yet seeing as you’ve little occasion to practice your French, I will find an experienced tutor to assist you. You must also continue to perfect your music and dance. It seems the Flemish value such skills.”

There it was: my future laid out with the precision she’d shown in her battle against the Moors. I was but another soldier in her army, another cannon in her arsenal.

In that moment I hated her.

She inked her quill, drew her stack of papers close. “Now I’ve work to attend to. Tomorrow, after your lessons, we’ll compose your reply to Philip. Give me a kiss and go say your prayers.”

Tomorrow seemed a lifetime away. I could not feel my legs yet somehow I managed to graze her cheek with my lips, curtsy, and walk to the door. When I reached it, I paused with my hand on the latch. I thought she would relent, call me back, because she couldn’t let me leave like this.

But she was already bent over her dispatches.

I walked out, past the women into the passageway, the letter gripped in my fingers. Soraya rose from her crouch with a questioning look. I couldn’t return to my chambers. My sisters would be awake and waiting. They’d not let me alone until they pried the news from me and then --- oh God, then I’d start bawling like a child, like an idiot, like Isabella in her endless grief! I couldn’t face them. Not yet. I needed time alone, somewhere private to vent my rage and sorrow.

I yanked up my skirts and began to run, narrowly avoiding startled sentries and slave girls, who dropped into hasty curtsies, spilling baskets of sun-dried linens. I fled as if pursued, running and running until I burst, breathless, into an open courtyard, Soraya close behind.

The scent of jasmine washed over me. Above, a sickle moon hung suspended in a dazzling spangled night. I heard water spill from the stone lions ringing the fountain; my feet soaked in the waterways as I slowly turned about to stare at the Alhambra’s curving arches, the intricate pediments and sculpted marble.

The silence was a presence. Everything had changed. This world I loved so much, it would not mourn me. It would not even feel my absence. It would continue on, agelessly indifferent in its beauty, its walls absorbing the echoes of its departed.

I felt Soraya at my side. As her hand enfolded mine, I let my tears fall in furious silence.

Chapter Three

We departed Granada for Castile in the evening, to avoid the worst of the heat. The trip would be tedious, with weeks of riding on our hard-backed mules; and as we took the winding mountain road downward into the valleys of Andalucia, I stared over my shoulder.

The Alhambra reclined on its hill, tinted amethyst in the dusk. Above its towers, the sky unfurled like violet cloth, spangled with spun-glass stars. A few peasants lined the road to wave at us; in the many farms dotting the landscape, dogs barked. It was like the end of any summer, as though we’d return again next year as always. Then we rode past the tumble of stones by the roadside where it was said Boabdil had taken his last look at Granada and wept.

Like him, I wondered if I would ever see my cherished palace again.


Three weeks later, we reached the arid plateau of Castile and the city of Toledo. Perched on its cragged hill above the river Tagus, Toledo caught the sunset as we approached --- a beautiful tumble of white and ocher buildings crowned by the cathedral. I’d always liked the narrow winding streets and the smell of baking bread in the morning, the burst of sudden flowers glimpsed in a courtyard from behind cloister gates, and the glorious Mudejar archways engraved with the secrets of the vanquished Moor.

Now I saw it as a prison, where my future had been decided without me. Toledo was the official gathering place of the Castilian Cortes, that advisory council of lords and officials elected by each major city in Castile. My mother had curtailed the flagrant power of the Cortes from the anarchy prior her reign; however, she still had to appeal to this body to sanction taxes and other major expenditures, as well as royal unions and investiture of her succession.

These same Cortes had approved my betrothal.

As we rode up the steep road toward the Alcázar, I compressed my lips. I’d barely spoken the entire trip, and my ill temper only increased once I found myself within that old castle, a cavernous warren with walls that were always damp to the touch. After the oleander-dusted patios of the Alhambra, it felt suffocating, and to make matters worse, here my French lessons began in earnest, supervised by a humorless tutor who subjected me to interminable lectures and the painstaking daily recitation of vowels.

He drilled me four hours a day, his accent as sour as his breath. I took cold comfort in deliberately mutilating my verbs and watching him turn white with anger; until one afternoon as he droned on and I sat with hands clenched, I heard the clatter of hooves entering the bailey.

I ran to the narrow embrasure. I could scarcely see into the bailey, craning my face against the window slit to catch a glimpse of the arrivals.

“Mademoiselle,” the tutor rapped. “Asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît!” 

I ignored him. When I spied the tethered stallions caparisoned in scarlet, I promptly flew from the classroom, leaving him standing there, aghast.

I dashed down the stone staircase. A group of Castilian nobles appeared ahead, making their way to the sala mayor, the great hall. I spun around, yanking at my cumbersome skirts, and made haste to the minstrel gallery. If only I could reach him before my mother did, convince him to --- 

I cursed under my breath when I espied courtiers already assembled in the hall. I could not go in now without an escort, and I crouched instead behind the screen concealing the gallery from the sala, to watch as the lords of my father’s court strode in.

When I saw my father with them, I sighed in relief.

His red cloak was flung over his shoulders. The wool would smell as he did, of horse and wine, and his own sweat. Mud-spattered boots hugged legs thick with the muscles of a lifetime spent in the saddle. He wasn’t tall, but he seemed to tower over all as he swept his cap from his head, revealing close-cropped dark hair. With cap in fist and one hand cocked at his hip, he surveyed the ranks of Castile with a grin before he bellowed: “Isabel, mi amor, I am home!”

I clapped a hand to my mouth. How the nobles hated it when he yelled like that! His trademark entrance, it conveyed his ebullient love for his wife and disdain for Castile’s rigid protocol. To thegrandes of my mother’s court, it was yet another sign of his uncouth Aragonese blood, and their faces hardened accordingly.

I didn’t need my mother’s reminder that her Castilian lords did not approve of her husband. Aragón and Castile had been separate kingdoms and sometime foes until my parents wed. Though smaller in size, Aragón had its Mediterranean holdings and a fierce independence, while Castile held most of central Spain and was therefore the greater power. My parents’ union had joined the kingdoms, though their marriage treaty stipulated Aragón could retain its own body of elected representatives, its Cortes, and right of succession. Upon my parents’ deaths, my brother, Juan, would succeed as the first ruler of both kingdoms; his dynasty would ensure Spain never separated again. Until then, my father was king consort of Castile and king of Aragón in his own right and he never let anyone forget it. The Castilian nobles’ dislike of him was only augmented by the fact that my mother had allowed him this concession.

Over the years, I’d heard other tales, not meant for my ears. That my father had an eye for women was evident; my mother had brought his illegitimate daughter, Joanna, to court and made his illegitimate son an archbishop. Yet such peccadilloes hardly mattered in a marriage that was the envy of all who beheld it. My mother never raised an objection and their reunions were always joyous occasions. Papá was a merry companion, who relished a bawdy joke, a good cup of jérez, and the company of his children, none of whom loved him more than I.

I peered through the screen. He’d removed his cloak and was conversing with my mother’s trusted adviser, the emaciated Cisneros. His noblemen stood apart from the Castilians, testament to their mutual antipathy. Then my mother entered with my sisters. My father immediately left Cisneros to go to her. Her pale cheeks flushed as he leaned in. To me, it seemed as if there was no one else in the hall, no other lovers in the world. They walked hand in hand to the dais. A smile played on my father’s face as the Castilians came to bow before them.

I melted against the screen. If only I could wed a man like my --- 

My mother’s voice echoed into the sala: “And where, pray tell, is Juana?”

Quickly smoothing my rumpled skirts, I descended into the sala. 

My father grinned as I approached. He’d shaved his beard and his face was bronzed from his travels, giving him the air of an adventurer. I didn’t dare look at my mother. Coming to the foot of the dais, I curtsied. “Su Majestad, I am overjoyed to see you.”

“Your Majesty!” he exclaimed. “What is this, madrecita? I don’t care for ceremony from you.”

“Fernando,” chided my mother. “Stop calling her that. She is not your little mother.” As she spoke, she motioned the nobles aside, leaving me on my knees. Then she said, “You may rise. I’ll not spoil your father’s return by asking you where you’ve been.”

Papá chuckled. “She was probably bribing the stable boy for a stallion, so she can ride back to Granada and hide in the hills like a bandit. Anything not to wed the Habsburg, eh?”

I couldn’t help but smile.

“She is impossible,” declared my mother. “She is headstrong and too temperamental by far, and you, my lord husband, only encourage it, when you should set an example.”

Papá laughed. “She’s as you were at her age, my love. Can you fault her? A Spaniard to her core, she no more wants traffic with foreigners than you would.”

I wanted to laugh aloud. Papá would help me. He’d put an end to this odious betrothal.

He held out his hand. “Come, let us walk alone.” He winked at my mother; her frown eased. She beckoned my sisters. “We’ll wait for you in the solar,” she said, and with my father at my side, I went out into the bailey.


The white-hot sun scorched the cobblestones. I winced, searching my pocket for a ribbon to tie back my hair. My father reached out to coil the heavy mass in a knot at my nape. “I used to do that for my mother,” he murmured. “She had hair like yours, thick as a mare’s mane. It was her only vanity --- after her love for me, of course.”

I threw myself into his arms. “I’ve missed you so.”

“I missed you too, madrecita.” As I felt his callused fingers stroke my neck, I had to bite back the humiliating tears that were never far from my eyes these days.

I drew back. “I didn’t see Juan in the hall. Did he not come with you?”

“I left him resting in Segovia, though you’ll be happy to know that while in Aragón, he made quite an impression. He so astonished my Cortes with his erudition, they were rendered speechless, a rare event for them. But the trip back to Castile has tired him.”

I nodded in painful understanding. Juan’s health was a constant concern. In Castile, a woman could inherit the throne, as my mother had, but Aragón abided by the statutes of Salic Law, which prohibited female succession. Should, God forbid, Juan die before he wed and sired a male heir, Castile and Aragón could be torn apart once again.

My father shielded his brow with his hand. “By the saints, it’s hot as Hades. Let’s go into the shade before you break out in freckles. We can’t have a spotted bride on our hands.”

I turned away. He took my chin, brought my face back to his. “Are those tears I see?”

I wiped at my eyes. “It must be the dust,” I muttered. “I hate this time of year in Castile. There are dust and bugs everywhere.”

“Indeed,” he remarked, and he steered me to a bench under the portcullis’s shadow. Perched beside him, I was acutely aware of his strength, which he exuded, like a bull.

He cleared his throat. “I must speak of an important matter.” He looked at me intently. He had a puckered scar on his temple, and the cast in his eye that I had inherited --- only his was pronounced --- made it look as if he were squinting. I thought him the most handsome man I’d seen, nonetheless, because when he looked at me, it was as if I was all he wanted to see.

“I know this union with the archduke has brought you no joy,” he said. “Your mother tells me you were most upset, and spend all your free time wandering about like a lost soul.”

I grimaced. “What free time? I scarcely have a minute to go to the privy, I’m so busy trying to learn my French and perfect my music and dance.”

“So, is that where you were earlier, learning your French? Come now, will you not open your heart to me? You know I won’t chastise you.”

His words softened the defenses I’d hidden behind since learning of my betrothal. “I don’t mean to be difficult,” I said with a catch in my voice. “I realize how important this marriage is.”

“But you’d rather wed a Spaniard, or so your mother says.”

“Spain is home. I can’t imagine leaving. And if I marry the archduke, I will have to leave.”

He sighed. “As different as you and your mother are, you share this one thing: Isabel also loves Spain, with all her heart. Sometimes, I think, more than anything else on this earth.”

Hearing an old pain in his voice, I said, “Then we are not so alike, for I love you more than anything else.”

His smile revealed uneven teeth. “You live up to your name. Not only do you look like my mother, but you are loyal, just like her.”

“Am I really?” I liked being compared to my namesake, the late queen. Though she died before my birth, her passion for Aragón and my father was renowned. It was said she’d connived to have him wed my mother years before my parents met, foreseeing they would share a greater destiny together than if they ruled apart.

“You are. To my mother, devotion to country was the most important thing in life. She told me, it’s the only love that lasts.” He patted my hand. “That is why if you don’t want to wed the archduke, we’ll not force you. No matter how important this marriage may be, I’ll not abide it if it makes you unhappy.”

I sat in silence, pondering his words. When I failed to feel the overwhelming relief I’d expected, I asked, “Mamá spoke of France threatening Aragón and our need to prove our power. Is that true?”

“Ah, madrecita, what does it matter? If you do not wish it, it’s as good as over.”

“But it does matter. It matters to me. I want to understand.”

He rubbed his chin. “Very well. You know that while your mother and I are titular monarchs of Spain, my kingdom of Aragón has kept its independence. But in truth, we must remain united for the good of our country. We have your brother to ensure this, but it wasn’t too long ago that Aragón and Castile were avowed foes and thegrandes conspired against the Crown and Cortes.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know. But then Mamá and you wed and made Spain strong.”

“We did, but there are some who would love to see us fail, so they can return us to the days of lawlessness. We took liberties from the nobility; we reduced their holdings, and we made them swear fealty to us before their own interests. And yet we couldn’t have succeeded without their support, and not a few of them would conspire with Lucifer himself behind our back to achieve our downfall. Plus, Aragón once lost its claim to Naples to Charles of France.”

“But you won it back. Naples is yours now, by treaty.”

“Lamentably, treaties are only as good as those who sign them. While in Aragón, I received word that my old enemy Charles is dead. He named his cousin Louis d’Orléans as his successor. Louis is a true Valois, without scruple or conscience. He despises my hold on Naples and has proclaimed he’ll fight me for it. Any war he starts over Naples will be a war with Spain.”

I flared at once. “If he declares war, then we’ll defeat him as we did the Moors!”

“Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Naples is the gateway to the African trade routes. It’s far away and Louis knows we can’t afford to wage war on two fronts without emptying our coffers and exposing Aragón to a French attack. Remember, Aragón shares a border with France and Italy. Louis can march his armies straight through my kingdom. And as soon as he’s crowned, I fear he’ll do just that. He’ll make us divide our resources and we haven’t the money or the men.”

I clenched my fists at the image of the French swarming into my father’s kingdom, as they had since time immemorial, implacable in their hunger for spoil and blood.

“It’s quite simple, really,” he went on. “Isabel and I expended our treasuries on the Moorish crusade, and both our Cortes refuse to sanction further taxes. They do have that right: they are the voice of the common people and unlike other rulers in Europe, we rule by their consent. Spain has given us all she has, and wars cost money, lots of it. Hence, the Habs

burg marriages.”

I frowned. “The Habsburgs will give us money to fight the French?”

“Not money. Security. Through the marriages, we’ll be allied to them. Trust me when I say Louis will think twice about declaring against me if he thinks the Habsburgs will turn on him. The emperor is canny: he’s a friend of everyone and confident of no one. For now, he sees the advantage in Spain, but should Louis convince him to join the French cause instead, together he and the Habsburgs could bring us no end of trouble.”

I considered this. Unlike my sisters, who rarely looked beyond their apartment doors, I’d always had an ear for the goings-on at court. I’d often overheard nobles discussing the fact that while rich in land, Spain’s treasury never overflowed, its deficit increased by the demands of the Reconquest.

“What about Admiral Colón’s colonies?” I asked. “Isn’t there gold to be had there?”

“That charlatan?” He blew air out of the side of his mouth. “A New World, he calls it, when all he’s found is a parcel of mosquito-ridden isles. He may have earned himself a title for discovering land beyond the Ocean Sea, but whether there’s any gold there remains to be seen.”

I marveled at this disparity in my parents’ characters. To my mother, Cristobal Colón’s New World represented thousands of heathen souls awaiting the word of God; to my father, it was but an inordinate expense, better directed to the defense of Spain.

“Don’t tell your mother I said that,” he added with a wink, as if he’d read my thoughts. “She’d have my head. She’s convinced one day Colón will discover a city paved in gold, filled with savages clamoring for Cisneros and his pyres.”

As my laughter pealed out, I felt my cares lift from me for the first time in weeks.

“There,” he said. “That is how I like to see you. You must laugh often, my daughter. It is good for the soul.” He paused. “Do you now understand why the marriage is important?”

“I do. By marrying me to Philip, and Juan to his sister, the Habsburgs will lend us their power, and France will be forced to negotiate with us rather than simply declare war.”

“Indeed. And who better to teach that Flemish archduke the way of the world than you?”

I had to contain my desire to please him. I’d hoped for release, and instead I now faced a difficult choice. “I’ll do whatever I can to help Spain,” I ventured.

“Yes, but you don’t need to sacrifice yourself. We’ll find you a Spanish husband instead and send --- whom did you suggest? Ah, yes: we’ll send your sister Maria. She’s an infanta too, and as you told your mother, it’s not as if Philip will know the difference.”

“Maria!” I rolled my eyes. “She doesn’t know the first thing about these matters. She’ll try to soothe Philip with psalms and embroidery, and end up boring him to death.”

He chuckled. “Am I to understand you could harbor a secret affection for our fair archduke?”

“Bah. He means nothing to me.” I took my father’s hand in mine. “But for Spain, Papá, I will do it. For Spain, I will marry him.”

“Madrecita,” he murmured, and he kissed my lips. “You give me great pride this day.”


When we entered the solar, my mother glanced up from her chair. Isabella and Maria sewed nearby; at their feet, Catalina dangled yarns over the batting paws of a calico kitten.

My mother said, “There you are. Did you have a nice walk? Come join us, Juana. Your father hasn’t had a chance to bathe or change his clothes yet. Let us leave him to his squire. We’ll dine together later in my rooms as a family, yes?”

I nodded and went to a chair. Picking up my embroidery hoop, I began to thread my needle when Isabella bent to me and hissed, “Well? Are you going to marry him or not?”

“Yes, I am,” I hissed back. “And I don’t want to hear another word about it till my wedding.”

Excerpted from THE LAST QUEEN © Copyright 2011 by C. W. Gortner. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.

The Last Queen
by by C. W. Gortner

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345501845
  • ISBN-13: 9780345501844