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CHAPTER 72

PRINCE JULIÁN GAZED out of the acolyte’s Opel sedan at the passing countryside and tried to make sense of the bishop’s strange behavior.

Valdespino is hiding something.

It had been over an hour since the bishop had covertly ushered Julián out of the palace—a highly irregular action—assuring him it was for his own safety.

He asked me not to question … only to trust.

The bishop had always been like an uncle to him, and a trusted confidant of Julián’s father. But Valdespino’s proposal of hiding out in the prince’s summerhouse had sounded dubious to Julián from the start. Something is off. I’m being isolated—no phone, no security, no news, and nobody knows where I am.

Now, as the car bumped over the railroad tracks near Casita del Príncipe, Julián gazed down the wooded road before them. A hundred yards ahead on the left loomed the mouth of the long, tree-lined driveway that led to the remote cottage retreat.

As Julián pictured the deserted residence, he felt a sudden instinct for caution. He leaned forward and placed a firm hand on the shoulder of the acolyte behind the wheel. “Pull over here, please.”

Valdespino turned, surprised. “We’re almost—”

“I want to know what’s going on!” the prince barked, his voice loud inside the small car.

“Don Julián, tonight has been tumultuous, but you must—”

“I must trust you?” Julián demanded.

“Yes.”

Julián squeezed the shoulder of the young driver and pointed to a grassy shoulder on the deserted country road. “Pull over,” he ordered sharply.

“Keep going,” Valdespino countered. “Don Julián, I’ll explain—”

Stop the car!” the prince bellowed.

The acolyte swerved onto the shoulder, skidding to a stop on the grass.

“Give us some privacy, please,” Julián ordered, his heart beating fast.

The acolyte did not need to be told twice. He leaped out of the idling car and hurried off into the darkness, leaving Valdespino and Julián alone in the backseat.

In the pale moonlight, Valdespino looked suddenly frightened.

“You should be scared,” Julián said in a voice so authoritative that it startled even himself. Valdespino pulled back, looking stunned by the threatening tone—one that Julián had never before used with the bishop.

“I am the future king of Spain,” Julián said. “Tonight you’ve removed my security detail, denied me access to my phone and my staff, prohibited me from hearing any news, and refused to let me contact my fiancée.”

“I truly apologize—” Valdespino began.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” Julián interrupted, glaring at the bishop, who looked strangely small to him now.

Valdespino drew a slow breath and turned to face Julián in the darkness. “I was contacted earlier tonight, Don Julián, and told to—”

“Contacted by whom?”

The bishop hesitated. “By your father. He is deeply upset.”

He is? Julián had visited his father only two days ago at Palacio de la Zarzuela and found him in excellent spirits, despite his deteriorating health. “Why is he upset?”

“Unfortunately, he saw the broadcast by Edmond Kirsch.”

Julián felt his jaw tighten. His ailing father slept almost twenty-four hours a day and should never have been awake at that hour. Furthermore, the king had always forbidden televisions and computers in palace bedrooms, which he insisted were sanctuaries reserved for sleeping and reading—and the king’s nurses would have known enough to prevent him from trying to get out of bed to watch an atheist’s publicity stunt.

“It was my fault,” Valdespino said. “I gave him a computer tablet a few weeks ago so he wouldn’t feel so isolated from the world. He was learning to text and e-mail. He ended up seeing Kirsch’s event on his tablet.”

Julián felt ill to think of his father, possibly in the final weeks of his life, watching a divisive anti-Catholic broadcast that had erupted in bloody violence. The king should have been reflecting on the many extraordinary things he had accomplished for his country.

“As you can imagine,” Valdespino went on, regaining his composure, “his concerns were many, but he was particularly upset by the tenor of Kirsch’s remarks and your fiancée’s willingness to host the event. The king felt the involvement of the future queen reflected very poorly on you … and on the palace.”

“Ambra is her own woman. My father knows that.”

“Be that as it may, when he called, he was as lucid and angry as I’ve heard him in years. He ordered me to bring you to him at once.”

“Then why are we here?” Julián demanded, motioning ahead to the driveway of the casita. “He’s at Zarzuela.”

“Not anymore,” Valdespino said quietly. “He ordered his aides and nurses to dress him, put him in a wheelchair, and take him to another location so he could spend his final days surrounded by his country’s history.”

As the bishop spoke those words, Julián realized the truth.

La Casita was never our destination.

Tremulous, Julián turned away from the bishop, gazing past the casita’s driveway, down the country road that stretched out before them. In the distance, through the trees, he could just make out the illuminated spires of a colossal building.

El Escorial.

Less than a mile away, standing like a fortress at the base of Mount Abantos, was one of the largest religious structures in the world—Spain’s fabled El Escorial. With more than eight acres of floor space, the complex housed a monastery, a basilica, a royal palace, a museum, a library, and a series of the most frightening death chambers Julián had ever seen.

The Royal Crypt.

Julián’s father had brought him to the crypt when Julián was only eight years old, guiding the boy through the Panteón de Infantes, a warren of burial chambers that overflowed with the tombs of royal children.

Julián would never forget seeing the crypt’s horrifying “birthday cake” tomb—a massive round sepulchre that resembled a white layer cake and contained the remains of sixty royal children, all of whom had been placed in “drawers” and slid into the sides of the “cake” for all eternity.

Julián’s horror at the sight of this grisly tomb had been eclipsed minutes later when his father took him to see his mother’s final resting place. Julián had expected to see a marble tomb fit for a queen, but instead, his mother’s body lay in a startlingly plain leaden box in a bare stone room at the end of a long hallway. The king explained to Julián that his mother was currently buried in a pudridero—a “decaying chamber”—where royal corpses were entombed for thirty years until nothing but dust remained of their flesh, at which time they were relocated to their permanent sepulchres. Julián remembered needing all of his strength to fight back tears and the urge to be sick.

Next, his father took him to the top of a steep staircase that seemed to descend forever into the subterranean darkness. Here, the walls and stairs were no longer white marble, but rather a majestic amber color. On every third step, votive candles cast flickering light on the tawny stone.

Young Julián reached up and grasped the ancient rope railing, descending with his father, one stair at a time … deep into the darkness. At the bottom of the stairs, the king opened an ornate door and stepped aside, motioning for young Julián to enter.

The Pantheon of Kings, his father told him.

Even at eight, Julián had heard of this room—a place of legends.

Trembling, the boy stepped over the threshold and found himself in a resplendent ocher chamber. Shaped like an octagon, the room smelled of incense and seemed to waver in and out of focus in the uneven light of the candles that burned in the overhead chandelier. Julián moved to the center of the room, turning slowly in place, feeling cold and small in the solemn space.

All eight walls contained deep niches where identical black coffins were stacked from floor to ceiling, each with a golden nameplate. The names on the coffins were from the pages of Julián’s history books—King Ferdinand … Queen Isabella … King Charles V, Holy Roman emperor.

In the silence, Julián could feel the weight of his father’s loving hand on his shoulder, and the gravity of the moment struck him. One day my father will be buried in this very room.

Without a word, father and son climbed out of the earth, away from death, and back into the light. Once they were outside in the blazing Spanish sun, the king crouched down and looked eight-year-old Julián in the eye.

Memento mori,” the monarch whispered. “Remember death. Even for those who wield great power, life is brief. There is only one way to triumph over death, and that is by making our lives masterpieces. We must seize every opportunity to show kindness and to love fully. I see in your eyes that you have your mother’s generous soul. Your conscience will be your guide. When life is dark, let your heart show you the way.”

Decades later, Julián needed no reminders that he had done precious little to make his life a masterpiece. In fact, he had barely managed to escape the king’s shadow and establish himself as his own man.

I’ve disappointed my father in every way.

For years, Julián had followed his father’s advice and let his heart show the way; but it was a tortuous road when his heart longed for a Spain so utterly contrary to that of his father. Julián’s dreams for his beloved country were so bold that they could never be uttered until his father’s death, and even then, Julián had no idea how his actions would be received, not only by the royal palace, but by the entire nation. All Julián could do was wait, keep an open heart, and respect tradition.

And then, three months ago, everything had changed.

I met Ambra Vidal.

The vivacious, strong-minded beauty had turned Julián’s world upside down. Within days of their first meeting, Julián finally understood the words of his father. Let your heart show you the way … and seize every opportunity to love fully! The elation of falling in love was like nothing Julián had ever experienced, and he sensed he might finally be taking his very first steps toward making his life a masterpiece.

Now, however, as the prince stared blankly down the road ahead, he was overcome by a foreboding sense of loneliness and isolation. His father was dying; the woman he loved was not speaking to him; and he had just admonished his trusted mentor, Bishop Valdespino.

“Prince Julián,” the bishop urged gently. “We should go. Your father is frail, and he is eager to speak to you.”

Julián turned slowly to his father’s lifelong friend. “How much time do you think he has?” he whispered.

Valdespino’s voice trembled as if he were on the verge of tears. “He asked me not to worry you, but I sense the end is coming faster than anyone anticipated. He wants to say good-bye.”

“Why didn’t you tell me where we were going?” Julián asked. “Why all the lies and secrecy?”

“I’m sorry, I had no choice. Your father gave me explicit orders. He ordered me to insulate you from the outside world and from the news until he had a chance to speak to you personally.”

“Insulate me from … what news?”

“I think it will be best if you let your father explain.”

Julián studied the bishop a long moment. “Before I see him, there is something I need to know. Is he lucid? Is he rational?”

Valdespino gave him an uncertain look. “Why do you ask?”

“Because,” Julián replied, “his demands tonight seem strange and impulsive.”

Valdespino nodded sadly. “Impulsive or not, your father is still the king. I love him, and I do as he commands. We all do.”

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