Authors: Nicole Dweck
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Historical, #Jewish, #Family Life
He may well have been the happiest orphan in the world. He closed his eyes for a moment, lifted his chin towards the sun, and for the very last time in his lit, basked in the warmth and radiance of his innocence.
José observed his aunt Doña Antonia, an aging aristocrat who’d taken him in as her own. She’d raised him alongside her daughter Reyna since infancy. In his eighteen years of life, she was the only mother he’d ever known.
Doña Antonia the Widow was looking out at Lisbon from the hilltop pavilion of the royal compound. Her expression was drawn as the Queen spoke, with eyes narrowed and lips stitched into a neat line.
“Your daughter would make a fine wife to my cousin, Alfonso of Aragon. I thought we would discuss the matter.”
Doña Antonia swallowed a knot rising in her throat. “I am honored.” She turned towards José. Her blue eyes flashed like a bucket of ice water flung in his direction.
“Yes. The match was thought up by my brother-in-law, the Emperor. It’s an honor that he should have involved himself in such a trivial matter.”
“Reyna is very young for marriage,” Doña Antonia replied. “I know my nephew agrees.” She swept a long grey curl away from her eyes.
José nodded, although he knew very well that his opinion was meaningless. He was brought along on this day for a show of male guardianship. His brilliant, widowed aunt would make her own decisions. He was simply there to lend a degree of finality, a touch of masculine determination her husband would have provided had he been alive.
José turned and let his eyes fall on Reyna in the distance. She was standing by a tall hedge, her fingers grazing the trim bushes in the garden. His cousin had just turned seventeen, old enough to marry by anyone’s standards.
“I’m afraid she is too young.” Doña Antonia reached for the diamond filigree cross hanging around her neck. “Just a skinny little thing, hardly a woman. You may want to consider someone older…”
“She will be older,” the Queen said. “Next year she’ll be turning eighteen, then nineteen. I’d wager the year after that twenty. I’ve yet to meet anyone who grew younger by the year.”
Doña Antonia said nothing.
A moment passed with only the sound of the Queen’s quiet, steady breaths swaying like a pendulum in a clock. The Queen grappled with a strand of carnelian prayer beads and said, “The Emperor has made up his mind about this. He hasn’t been known to accept no for an answer.” She pursed her lips and bore her gaze into Doña Antonia. “With that in mind, do take some time to consider it. I’m sure you’ll come to the right decision on your own and there will be no more unpleasantness.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
“You’ll go ahead and sort out any financial considerations, such as your late husband’s fortune, your daughter’s inheritance, and what other trifling matters might need be sorted. At the end of a month’s time, we expect to officially receive word of your acceptance of the match.”
José was not at all surprised that the royal family saw it within their interests to align themselves with the widow and her fortune. It was rumored that expensive wars and overseas expeditions were not nearly as lucrative as the Emperor had hoped. The royal family now had to contend with an embarrassingly tenuous financial situation. By marrying Reyna to a distant cousin under their command, they could easily come to control her vast inheritance. Some measure of control over the estate could greatly alleviate much of their burden. For this reason, the royal family’s interest in a marriage of convenience did not surprise him. What did surprise him was his aunt’s reluctance to such a mutually advantageous union. Any other mother would be thrilled.
“Then it’s settled,” José spoke up. “In a month’s time we’ll send word with our decision. I should go find Reyna.” He stood and kissed the Queen’s outstretched hand, then looked up and held his boyish stare a little too long so that her wrinkled countenance turned noticeably red. He turned to his aunt and met her scowl with the same devilish grin he had offered up to the Queen before heading along a pebbled path to the royal gardens.
“Reyna!” he called out from the maze of shrubbery that concealed him. “Cousin, where are you?” He walked through a tunnel of pink and white roses in the cool air of lean shadows. Suddenly he was jolted by two hands fastened tight upon his shoulders. He turned about quickly and wrestled his assailant to the ground.
“I frightened you!” Reyna’s eyes sparkled with mischief. She struggled to get up as he pinned her shoulders down.
“Frightened me?” His heart was pounding in his chest. “That would be like a lamb frightening a lion.”
Her long hair fell away from her tilted face like a stream of spilt wine against the green moss. She laughed fiendishly.
“Your mother’s right!” he continued as he tossed back a few wisps of his long, dark hair. “You’re not ready to marry. I pity the fool they’ve chosen for you!”
“What are you talking about?” she said, her body suddenly still.
“The Prince can barely mount his horse! I’ve no idea how he’ll be able to tame the likes of you.”
“Cousin, tell me?” She struggled once more to free herself from his hold.
“Get up.” He grabbed her by the wrist and lifted her from the ground. “Before they see you and change their minds completely.”
She suddenly turned serious. “What’s happened?”
He smiled mischievously then dropped his voice. “Just moments ago, the Queen proposed a match.”
“And?” Reyna suddenly became very alert.
“Naturally, your mother is being difficult.”
With hands clapped toward the sky she mumbled under her breath. “Heavenly Father, give me the strength to overcome the seven-headed beast whose womb you chose to send me out—”
“Reyna!” He glared down at her.
“I’m not really surprised.” She shrugged casually. “She doesn’t want me to marry. Not now, not ever. She’d prefer I grow old alone and die bitter. That’s the route she’s heading for.”
“No.” José took his cousin by the arms and quieted her with his eyes. “That won’t happen to you.”
“Will you be arranging my marriage then? You’re worse than she is.”
“Well you did turn her against my last two suitors, did you not?”
“Antonio Agostinho Lopez De Susa? He was practically a midget with wings for ears! He could have taken flight at any given moment. I should think you would have thanked me for intervening.”
“I quite liked him.”
“If he were standing just so, and the winds picked up to just the right speed…”
“He was a perfect gentleman.”
“I thought he was handsome.”
“Uglier than a monkey’s rear!”
“Lower your voice.”
“Personally, I don’t see why any of us must marry at all. I think we’re doing just fine how things stand.”
“The Bachelor, The Widow, and the Spinster. What a fine household we three make!”
“Stop these theatrics, Reyna. If you want to marry, you’ll marry. I’ll make sure of it.”
“And how will you make sure of it? You’ll be spending the winter entertaining Prince William in the Netherlands, or have you forgotten?”
“Don’t remind me. The boy is duller than dirt. I don’t know how I got through it last year.”
“Apparently you got through it quite splendidly!”
“Is that what they say?”
“Enjoyed yourself like a dancing dwarf, so they say.”
say a lot, don’t they?”
“Your reputation precedes you, dear Cousin.”
“Reyna, you know how it is. I wish I could stay here with you and
“Of course I do. But that’s not really an option, is it?”
“I suppose not.”
“Now about this wedding talk.” He clapped his hands together. “I’ll speak to your mother. I know I can talk some sense into her.”
“You’re so ugly when you lie.” She turned then walked away through the tall hedges.
He watched as she strutted away then called after her, “And you’re lovely when you’re angry!” He stood in the garden and for the first time, seriously questioned why his aunt had not yet accepted one of a number of proposals. There was no shortage of fine young men pursuing Reyna. They came to the villa often to request her hand in marriage. Some came from Lisbon, others from the fringes of the countryside. There were Spanish dukes and city aristocrats. Germanic counts and French noblemen would boast of vast palaces and fortunes abroad. They persisted until Doña Antonia’s tone turned nasty and she’d send them away with a tongue-lashing. A dozen men with wounded egos would recount to their peers that the Widow Doña Antonia Mendez had simply gone mad.
The road downhill was steep and the carriage threatened to give way as it maneuvered down the winding trail home. Beyond the small window, a picturesque scene of tall leafy palms and jumbled city dwellings grew nearer. “The Emperor has proposed a match.” Doña Antonia did not bother to look at her daughter as she spoke.
José and Reyna’s eyes met momentarily before she leaned forward and addressed her mother. “What was your response?”
“I said nothing.” The widow patted down the moisture on her neck. It was a hot afternoon in August and the scent of musk filled the dark carriage. “But I am disinclined to accept the proposal.” She kept her eyes at the window as Reyna fell back into the plush, burgundy bench cushion.