I have finally decided to share a small portion of the second book in The Trastámara Series, LA REINA! As I mentioned in my last post, LA REINA picks up a few months after the end of LA BASTARDA, and centers on the first few years of the second Trastámaran king’s reign. The protagonist in this story is none other than Juan II’s first wife, Alionor of Aragon and Sicily.
Without further ado, I give you the opening of LA REINA!
La Reina Dura
(The Enduring Queen)
August 1, in the Year of Our Lord 1379
Alionor de Aragón y de Sicilia, Infanta de Castilla, León, y Galiza, knelt silently in front of the Archbishop of Toledo, her eyes on the finely embroidered edges of his robe. The Latin words drifted quietly over her head, an ancient rite in which she was lucky enough to partake, exhausting though it could be; thankfully, her required interaction was over, for the scent of holy oil swirled around her – an overpowering mixture of bitter orange, jasmine, cinnamon, and cloves that would have made her retch not so long ago, but instead simply caused her head to throb. Beneath her cape of ermine and Tyrian purple cloth, her stomach was swollen with the seed of her husband, a sign of hope for the future of his country and a perpetual reminder of her mortality. The sole reason he had decided to have her coronation so close to his own was her impending confinement, the fear that she would not survive childbirth, and the possible ramifications that would follow if her babe was a boy and she not considered the Queen by law. Unlike Aragón, Castilla crowned their queens similarly to their kings instead of assuming the wife of a king automatically deserved the title, and it was for this reason they had taken her from the safety of the Barcelona convent in which she had been placed to avoid a possible plague and returned her to Castilla.
Without a word, her husband stood in front of her, holding her tiara in his hands. The Kings of Castilla were usually self-crowned in some way, using either the self-moving arm of a saint’s statue or their own hands to place the crown on their heads, and sometimes their consorts were allowed similar coronations, but it was not unheard of for a King to be the one to bestow the crown upon his Queen’s head as a reminder that a consort’s power was never her own. With a solemn expression, he placed the golden, slightly-smaller version of his own crown upon her brow and lifted her up, purposefully fading into the background as she continued on her path. She would not see her husband again until long after the festivities had passed, as it was her day to be the center of attention, and it was for such small favors that she was grateful; he had been out of sorts lately. The Archbishops of Toledo and Sevilla handed her the scepter and orb of her station, and she drew a breath before waddling with as much dignity as possible to the throne in front of the High Altar. Concentrating in order to keep from wincing, she slowly lowered herself upon the chair with an impassive gaze, ignoring the discomfort she felt at being unable to adjust herself once seated. In her mind’s ear she could hear her mother, voice as strong as it had ever been, reminding her a Queen never fidgets. Alionor had to bite her cheek to keep from smiling at the thought, for it would never do to break the stoic and princely demeanor required of her.
The Latin words went on and on as blessing upon blessing was bestowed upon her and the prince in her womb. She sat as still as stone while the old men droned, the only change in her expression coming when the Archbishop of Toledo suddenly switched to Castilian and began the participatory portion of the ritual. Every affirmative answer made the corners of her mouth tilt up more and more, until the ghost of a true smile played about her lips as the Archbishop’s final question rang throughout the sanctuary:
“And so I ask you, the citizens of Castilla y León, do you accept this woman, la Infanta Mayor Doña Alionor de Aragón y de Sicilia, to be your Queen?”
And it seemed to her that her subjects’ answer roared back at her from every corner of the kingdom: “Yes!”
When she had entered the Catedral de Burgos, Alionor had been the wife of the King, but as she went to exit, she was considered Castilian royalty in her own right, chosen by Deus to rule alongside her husband King Don Juan until the day of either his death or hers. She subconsciously glanced towards the elevated arcade, sheltered by a screen through which the sunshine happened to pass, and only the slightest stirring and shifting of two shadows in the light gave any hints to the royal audience behind it. High above the heads of the nobility was the alcove to which her husband had retreated, and there he would remain until after she had departed the church. His mother, Dowager Queen Doña Juana Manuel, also watched from the arcade as was customary for the widow of the King to do; once the ceremony finished, she would return to her uncle’s country estate.
Alionor pushed such thoughts from her mind as she made her way from the relatively dark sanctuary into the unforgiving, blinding light of day. The road to and from the church was regularly filled with a steady traffic, but for such an auspicious occasion people had packed themselves into the narrow alley, all waiting to see their new Queen. As her eyes adjusted to the outside, the yells of the common people filled her ears, all of them raining blessings upon her, her husband, their country and, for those whose eyesight was keen enough to discern the swell of her abdomen under multiple layers of fabric and a cloak swinging from her shoulders, the child in her belly. Alionor kept her face as neutral as possible and her eyes cast downward in a display of feminine modesty as she led her ladies, a mixture of the highest noble women in the land as well as her husband’s bastard siblings, from the soaring cathedral towards the tiny Alcázar by the way of the main road in a slow procession of swaying hips and sweeping steps to avoid stepping on their lengthy hems. As she made her way towards the rising fortress, once a prize of the moro invaders, she involuntarily raised her eyes skyward in awe. The Alcázar Real at Burgos was not nearly as imposing as the Alcázar in Sevilla, but it was certainly an architectural marvel: multiple guard towers and high walls stared down at her like giants wearing crowns, each adorned with banners showing the arms of Castilla y León; directly over the door into the castle’s inner courtyard hung Alionor’s own banner, a juxtaposition of the Castilian and Aragonese arms. Directly below the bottom wall, the sun glinted off of commemorative medals each vendor had purchased that morning, hoping to capitalize on the crowd of commoners which would follow the royal procession back. The smell of fresh-baked bread, melting cheeses, roasting chicken, and potherbs filled her nostrils as she walked past their stalls, ignoring her stomach’s protestations.
She was led as quickly as she could waddle to her private rooms while the guests all piled into the Moorish gardens below, where her celebratory feast was to be held. Between the heat and her pregnant state, the sweat dripped down every part of her body; thankfully, she would not be required to wear her ermine cloak again until her official lying-in ceremony. It was with a start that the newly-crowned Queen realized the ceremony was only a week away; not for the first time, she shook her head in exasperation at exactly how close she had been to facing childbirth as a simple princess consort.
Three years, she thought as her ladies stripped her naked before leading her swollen body to a folding chair, rubbing cloths damped by rosewater over her skin in an attempt to cool and cleanse her body; from behind, she felt more rosewater poured over her scalp to clean away the sweat and grime from the city’s streets. Three years I waited. Three years in the marriage bed, as barren as the old crone Doña Beatriz sent to my chambers. The women washing her hair must have finished, for she felt them pat the strands as dry as possible before plaiting her hair into double ropes circling her ears; her coronation ceremony was the last time court etiquette would allow her to wear her hair unpinned and uncovered.
She lifted her hands as high as she was allowed as her maids slipped a dry shift over her head, standing so her Ladies of the Wardrobe could dress her in the outfit she had ordered for her coronation feast: a vestment of Tyrian purple with a cloth-of-gold inlay in the front panel, and a belt of gold to match her tiara of office, worn in place of a silk damask fillet. Over her dark brown hair laid a fine veil of golden gauze, only as opaque as modesty required. As a woman, she loved wearing finery and having the eyes of all upon her as she set the fashion in court, but as a Queen she was required to be above reproach, else she be no better than a golden ring in the nose of a sow. It was a exalted – and lonesome – pedestal upon which she had been placed.
As if on cue, the baby in her stomach rolled, causing her to lose her breath at the sensation. She was not sure if she would ever come to terms with her destiny to be perpetually carrying another life within her womb for the next twenty-odd years, but she could not stop herself from smiling at the action. It would remain a lofty pedestal, certainly, but she did not have to be lonely. The child’s movement having steeled her resolve, Alionor looked to her aunt-in-law, nodding; the older woman nodded back, before knocking on the door to the royal chamber. The men outside threw open the heavy doors, sending the rest of the ladies scurrying to line up in their proper positions for the princely procession.
She entered the long banquet hall at the head of all the Castilian royal women. Her aunt-in-law, Doña Beatriz, dowager condesa de Albuquerque, had been chosen to walk directly behind her, escorted by her young son Don Fernando, conde de Albuquerque. Behind Doña Beatriz walked Doña Constanza Enríquez de Castilla, señora de Alba de Tormes, recently churched after the stillbirth of a son, and Princesa-Principesa Doña Juana Enríquez de Castilla y de Cifuentes, señora de Cifuentes, as well as numerous other half-sisters-in-law.
Around the dignified group ran her husband’s family’s youngest children, each dressed in white damask robes with golden trim and embroidery, and most of them carried wooden practice swords, painted to look like fire. On their backs were gauzy strips of fabric fastened to starched linen and moulded into the appearance of wings. The little angels darted in and out of the ladies and around the court, bopping the men with their weapons, crowing divine blessings upon their targets’ families.
Applause came from all around her, every member of the court standing at her arrival.
Well, every member but one.