After a long week, here is the second part of Wendys Falling Pomegranate Seeds! If you haven’t read the first part CLICK here.
Beatriz hurried back to the queen’s chambers with the others. The guard blinked in surprise, seeing her yet again, when Juana knocked and Catalina beckoned to Beatriz to follow. One by one they entered the queen’s bedchamber, Juana’s dueña and servants stepping aside to wait outside the door.
The queen was still abed, still writing, appearing disturbed, even downhearted. Wondering what could have changed the queen’s mood so quickly, Beatriz noticed the queen was writing a letter to the king. Looking around the room, she thought of her unwritten letter to Francisco. Should she write to him of Prince Juan, now perched on the edge of the bed, his head bent, silver- blond hair half covering his face? The prince strummed his small harp, one long, slender leg folded under the other. Or should she write of his sisters – Isabel, the eldest child of the queen, Juana, María, and small Catalina?
Beatriz lowered her face to hide her smile. Perhaps her letter would turn out like her last – one where she wrote to Francisco about the Aristotle tract she was translating from the Latin to Castilian, and yet more suggestions about what he should do to protect his hearing. She had even quoted to him from her lecture about Bartholomew the Englishman and his beliefs about what caused deafness to underscore her seriousness. But then too Francisco’s love letters did not fit the usual pattern of a lover. So many times his letters were full of his experiments with gunpowder, even sharing different recipes he’d tried in his efforts to discover a trustworthy composition, and the success, or lack of it, he had in weakening the fortifications of the Moors. Sometimes he even asked her to seek out in the queen’s library for books that would help him in his task to blow up walls that had stood for centuries. She only agreed to his proposal of marriage when he promised her their mutual quest for knowledge would never change. She had no reason to doubt him. They had been good friends since she first took up her position at court. A widower ten years older than she, with two grown sons and one married daughter, Francisco was a man who understood the passions of minds.
Beatriz returned to the present moment. Prince Juan blinked as if waking from a dream, his handsome, sensitive face that of a poet. Humming in accompaniment to her brother’s song, Infanta
María, three years older than Catalina, twirled her spindle, sitting next to her adult sister, Isabel. Not one to love learning for the sake of learning like her three sisters and brother, the infanta María was a kind child who never seemed to share the melancholic natures of her more sensitive siblings. Sometimes Beatriz wondered if she was born under a kinder, happier star.
Princess Isabel reached for Livy’s Decades on the table beside her and opened it to a page deep within the book. Her index finger pulled at her bottom lip, eyes scanning the page, turning it quickly to the next. Catalina and her small companion watched on in fascination. Beatriz smiled. She could guess the girls desired to read just as fast.
Suitably serious as the eldest child of her mother, Princess Isabel rarely wasted her time with books of courtly romance. Her mother sometimes teased her, as she also did her second daughter, Juana, by calling the princess ‘my mother-in-law’. But while the queen called the infanta Juana thus because she inherited the dark bold beauty of her father’s mother, Isabel gained the name because she shared her grandmother’s solemn outlook on the world and desire for study and prayer. The queen held up the king’s mother as yet another example for her daughters to mirror.
Small Catalina, fifteen years the younger, wanted to be just like her eldest sister, Isabel. As the companion of the infanta, María had little choice but to follow after. Both girls still preferred tales of King Arthur or El Cid, favouring the chivalry intertwined with magic and love and longing of King Arthur’s court. It was a good thing the queen had a well-stocked library with a full collection of the Arthur legends, from French poems to their favourite Latin text written by an English knight. The girls were always asking Beatriz for new stories.
The queen lifted her gaze from the half-finished letter. Her worn face softened into a welcoming smile as she looked over to her youngest daughter. Letting go of the parchment, she pushed her desk aside and held out her arms. “Mi chiquitina, come! Come and embrace your mother.”
Josefa, putting aside her sewing, grinned at Beatriz, placing a hand on her daughter María’s shoulder. The child flung her arms around her mother, cushioning her face against her breasts. Josefa bent her head, kissing the top of María’s head. She looked up at Beatriz and smiled again. “I said I’d see you soon enough.” Without waiting for an answer, Josefa took her daughter’s hand and led her from the royal family to the far end of the room where there were, prepared already for the night, two bed-pallets.
With not enough rooms in this beautiful but small alcázar for the queen and her court, her four daughters and their most trusted attendants slept on pallets in the large chamber near the queen’s private rooms. The queen never slept alone. She shared her chambers with her daughters because King Ferdinand stayed too long away from her side. No one could doubt the queen’s honour or wifely virtue while she slept with her own daughters and favoured women. Now the time approached for the court to leave Burgos to join the king at Sevilla.
A finger to her lips, gesturing to her daughter for silence, Josefa sat on a chair, picked up a border of black material, and returned to her needle. She stitched the gold, even loops of punto real, a favoured stitch of the queen. On the nearby stool was a neatly folded chemise waiting to be joined to the finished embroidery.
Firelight flickered, glinting upon the gold, silver and jewel- decorated vessels set upon a nearby table. Beatriz stepped into deeper shadows, where no candle or firelight reached, seeking not to be noticed. Her eyes rested on the royal family. The queen’s blessing done, Catalina clambered onto her mother’s bed and kissed her cheek. The queen wound her arms around her youngest child. She laughed softly, caressing Catalina’s hair.
Prince Juan, Catalina’s twelve-year-old brother, dropped his harp on the bed. His blue eyes glowing with mischief, he tickled his sister’s underarm. She giggled, nestling into him. The prince stood on the threshold between pretty boy and beautiful youth. Blond down intermixed with a darker, thicker colour upon his cheeks. He tickled Catalina again.
The child giggled. “Stop it, Juan!”
Juan laughed. He flicked back the straight fringe from his eyes before reclaiming his harp and plucking a short tune. The black velvet of his doublet increased the bright blond lustre of his hair, candlelight creating an aureole around his head. Ángel, his mother called him. Prince Juan well deserved his nickname. All loved him.
“Your command is mine! What song shall I play you, sister?” asked the prince.
The queen’s smile embraced them both. She rested her fingers on her son’s arm. He returned a gaze full of love.
“Son, not yet. I want to first speak to Catalina.” She encircled her daughter with her arms, drawing her closer. “Mi chiquitina, can you remember what happened two years ago?”
Catalina looked up, bewildered. “Mamá?”
The queen sighed. Her jaw slackening, she no longer smiled. A candle gusted out, casting her face into deep shadow. Communing as if with the unseen, she tightened her hold on her daughter.
“I forget – ‘tis long for a small child to remember… In truth, you were little more than an infant when the English came and I, holding you on my lap, showed you the bulls.” The queen smiled slightly. “You wore your first gown of black velvet that day, one rich with jewels. The next day we promised you to their prince.” She looked again at Catalina and stroked her hair. Wrapping a lock around her finger, she studied it and let it go, her face becoming strong again. “I have just received word from your father. We have promised another of our hijas to another king’s son. My Isabel?”
Princess Isabel playfully peered over the book. “Mamá?” “Come, and tell your sister your news.”
Isabel strode over to the bed with all the grace and confidence of a young woman of twenty. She sat on the other side of her mother’s wide bed and took Catalina’s hand. “I’m to be wed.”
Catalina cried out and threw herself into her sister’s arms, pulling at the long chain of Isabel’s heavy, gold crucifix. Princess Isabel’s laugh overlaid the silence of the other occupants in the queen’s chamber. Disentangling herself from her sister, she said, “Be careful, chiquitina.”
“Married! But to whom?”
“Can’t you guess?” Isabel laughed, but didn’t wait for Catalina to answer. “I’m marrying Prince Alfonso of Portugal. One day he’ll be Portugal’s king, and I its queen.”
Queen Isabel gazed at her eldest and youngest daughters with cheerless eyes. “Isabel, I hoped that service for your sister, María, many years hence. Whilst your father, before he owned to the French king’s treacherous heart, wished you wed to the French prince, I wanted so much to find you a husband of suitable birth to keep you with us in Castilla. You are my first born, after all. But Alfonso remembers you too well from the time when you both were hostages together. He wants you, and only you.”
Princess Isabel smiled, stretching out her hand to her mother. The queen clasped it and held it against her cheek. Catalina’s wide eyes went from her mother to her sister. “You’re leaving us?”
Isabel’s eyes shone with sudden tears. “I must, chiquitina.”
Catalina wrapped her arms around her sister. “Don’t go, I beg you!”
Over her head, Isabel the mother and Isabel the daughter gazed at one another. Lines of pain scored deep in the queen’s white face, rending her almost ugly. She shut her bloodshot eyes, biting her bottom lip. In the heavy silence, Beatriz could hear the drum of her own heart in her ears.
The prince swung from the bed with nimble grace. Standing between María and Juana he clasped their hands. All three of them gazed at the bed.
With a short laugh, Isabel’s arms tightened around her youngest sister. “Catalina, listen. Portugal is not so far away that I cannot ever come home. In any case, I know my duty and do it willingly.”
Catalina grabbed her sister’s hábito, as if she wouldn’t let her go. Isabel frowned and shook her head, not one strand of hair daring to shift from its rightful place. “When you’re older, you too will do your duty and marry your English prince. You will not fail God or your country then. I will not fail it now.”
Gently Isabel extricated Catalina from her arms and dried her sister’s tears. A finger under Catalina’s chin, she forced her small sister to look at her.
“Child, needless weeping is not for Castilian princesses.” Isabel looked at the queen with pride. “Especially hijas of our mother, the greatest queen ever known to Christendom. And what reason for tears? I am happy to wed Alfonso. I learnt to love him long ago and go to him with joy in my heart.”
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