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SPAIN’S OLDEST AND most elite security force—the Guardia Real—has a fierce tradition that dates back to medieval times. Guardia agents consider it their sworn duty before God to ensure the safety of the royal family, to protect royal property, and to defend royal honor.

Commander Diego Garza—overseer of the Guardia’s nearly two thousand troops—was a stunted and weedy sixty-year-old with a swarthy complexion, tiny eyes, and thinning black hair worn slicked back over a mottled scalp. His rodent-like features and diminutive stature made Garza nearly invisible in a crowd, which helped camouflage his enormous influence within the palace walls.

Garza had learned long ago that true power stemmed not from physical strength but from political leverage. His command of the Guardia Real troops certainly gave him clout, but it was his prescient political savvy that had established Garza as the palace’s go-to man on a wide array of matters, both personal and professional.

A reliable curator of secrets, Garza had never once betrayed a confidence. His reputation for steadfast discretion, along with an uncanny ability to solve delicate problems, had made him indispensable to the king. Now, however, Garza and others in the palace faced an uncertain future as Spain’s aging sovereign lived out his final days at the Palacio de la Zarzuela.

For more than four decades, the king had ruled a turbulent country as it established a parliamentary monarchy following thirty-six years of bloody dictatorship under the ultraconservative general Francisco Franco. Since Franco’s death in 1975, the king had tried to work hand in hand with the government to cement Spain’s democratic process, inching the country ever so slowly back to the left.

For the youth, the changes were too slow.

For the aging traditionalists, the changes were blasphemous.

Many members of Spain’s establishment still fiercely defended Franco’s conservative doctrine, especially his view of Catholicism as a “state religion” and moral backbone of the nation. A rapidly growing number of Spain’s youth, however, stood in stark opposition to this view—brazenly denouncing the hypocrisy of organized religion and lobbying for greater separation of church and state.

Now, with a middle-aged prince poised to ascend to the throne, nobody was certain in which direction the new king would lean. For decades, Prince Julián had done an admirable job of performing his bland ceremonial duties, deferring to his father on matters of politics and never once tipping his hand as to his personal beliefs. While most pundits suspected he would be far more liberal than his father, there was really no way to know for sure.

Tonight, however, that veil would be lifted.

In light of the shocking events in Bilbao, and the king’s inability to speak publicly due to his health, the prince would have no choice but to weigh in on the evening’s troubling events.

Several high-ranking government officials, including the country’s president, had already condemned the murder, shrewdly deferring further comment until the Royal Palace had made a statement—thereby depositing the entire mess in Prince Julián’s lap. Garza was not surprised; the involvement of the future queen, Ambra Vidal, made this a political grenade that nobody felt like touching.

Prince Julián will be tested tonight, Garza thought, hurrying up the grand staircase toward the palace’s royal apartments. He is going to need guidance, and with his father incapacitated, that guidance must come from me.

Garza strode the length of the residencia hallway and finally reached the prince’s door. He took a deep breath and knocked.

Odd, he thought, getting no answer. I know he’s in there. According to Agent Fonseca in Bilbao, Prince Julián had just called from the apartment and was trying to reach Ambra Vidal to make sure she was safe, which, thank heavens, she was.

Garza knocked again, feeling rising concern when he again got no answer.

Hastily, he unlocked the door. “Don Julián?” he called as he stepped inside.

The apartment was dark except for the flickering light of the television in the living room. “Hello?”

Garza hurried in and found Prince Julián standing alone in the darkness, a motionless silhouette facing the bay window. He was still impeccably dressed in the tailored suit he had worn to his meetings this evening, having not yet so much as loosened his necktie.

Watching in silence, Garza felt unsettled by his prince’s trancelike state. This crisis appears to have left him stunned.

Garza cleared his throat, making his presence known.

When the prince finally spoke, he did so without turning from the window. “When I called Ambra,” he said, “she refused to speak to me.” Julián’s tone sounded more perplexed than hurt.

Garza was unsure how to reply. Given the night’s events, it seemed incomprehensible that Julián’s thoughts were on his relationship with Ambra—an engagement that had been strained right from its poorly conceived beginnings.

“I imagine Ms. Vidal is still in shock,” Garza offered quietly. “Agent Fonseca will deliver her to you later this evening. You can speak then. And let me just add how relieved I am, knowing that she is safe.”

Prince Julián nodded absently.

“The shooter is being tracked,” Garza said, attempting to change the subject. “Fonseca assures me they will have the terrorist in custody soon.” He used the word “terrorist” intentionally in hopes of snapping the prince out of his daze.

But the prince only gave another blank nod.

“The president has denounced the assassination,” Garza continued, “but the government does hope that you will further comment … considering Ambra’s involvement with the event.” Garza paused. “I realize the situation is awkward, given your engagement, but I would suggest you simply say that one of the things you most admire in your fiancée is her independence, and while you know she doesn’t share the political views of Edmond Kirsch, you applaud her standing by her commitments as director of the museum. I’d be happy to write something for you, if you like? We should make a statement in time for the morning news cycle.”

Julián’s gaze never left the window. “I’d like to get Bishop Valdespino’s input on any statement we make.”

Garza clenched his jaw and swallowed his disapproval. Post-Franco Spain was an estado aconfesional, meaning it no longer had a state religion, and the Church was not supposed to have any involvement in political matters. Valdespino’s close friendship with the king, however, had always afforded the bishop an unusual amount of influence in the daily affairs of the palace. Unfortunately, Valdespino’s hard-line politics and religious zeal left little room for the diplomacy and tact that were required to handle tonight’s crisis.

We need nuance and finesse—not dogma and fireworks!

Garza had learned long ago that Valdespino’s pious exterior concealed a very simple truth: Bishop Valdespino always served his own needs before those of God. Until recently, it was something Garza could ignore, but now, with the balance of power shifting in the palace, the sight of the bishop sidling up to Julián was a cause for significant concern.

Valdespino is too close to the prince as it is.

Garza knew that Julián had always considered the bishop “family”—more of a trusted uncle than a religious authority. As the king’s closest confidant, Valdespino had been tasked with overseeing young Julián’s moral development, and he had done so with dedication and fervor—vetting all of Julián’s tutors, introducing him to the doctrines of faith, and even advising him on matters of the heart. Now, years later, even when Julián and Valdespino did not see eye to eye, their bond remained blood-deep.

“Don Julián,” Garza said in a calm tone, “I feel strongly that tonight’s situation is something you and I should handle alone.”

“Is it?” declared a man’s voice in the darkness behind him.

Garza spun around, stunned to see a robed ghost seated in the shadows.


“I must say, Commander,” Valdespino hissed, “I figured that you of all people would realize how much you need me tonight.”

“This is a political situation,” Garza stated firmly, “not a religious one.”

Valdespino scoffed. “The fact that you can make such a statement tells me that I have grossly overestimated your political acumen. If you would like my opinion, there is only one appropriate response to this crisis. We must immediately assure the nation that Prince Julián is a deeply religious man, and that Spain’s future king is a devout Catholic.”

“I agree … and we will include a mention of Don Julián’s faith in any statement he makes.”

“And when Prince Julián appears before the press, he will need me at his side, with my hand on his shoulder—a potent symbol of the strength of his bond with the Church. That single image will do more to reassure the nation than any words you can write.”

Garza bristled.

“The world has just witnessed a brutal live assassination on Spanish soil,” Valdespino declared. “In times of violence, nothing comforts like the hand of God.”