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INSIDE HOSPITAL EL ESCORIAL, Prince Julián gently pulled the bedsheets up around his father’s shoulders and tucked him in for the night. Despite the doctor’s urging, the king had politely declined any further treatment—forgoing his usual heart monitor and IV of nutrients and painkillers.

Julián sensed the end was near.

“Father,” he whispered. “Are you in pain?” The doctor had left a bottle of oral morphine solution with a small applicator on the bedside as a precaution.

“On the contrary.” The king smiled weakly at his son. “I am at peace. You have permitted me to tell the secret I’ve buried for far too long. And for that, I thank you.”

Julián reached out and took his father’s hand, holding it for the first time since he was a child. “All is well, Father. Just sleep.”

The king gave a contented sigh and closed his eyes. Within seconds, he was snoring softly.

Julián got up and dimmed the lights in the room. As he did, Bishop Valdespino peered in from the hallway, a look of concern on his face.

“He’s sleeping,” Julián reassured him. “I’ll leave you to be with him.”

“Thank you,” Valdespino said, entering. His gaunt face looked ghostly in the moonlight that filtered in from the window. “Julián,” he whispered, “what your father told you tonight … it was very hard for him.”

“And, I sensed, for you as well.”

The bishop nodded. “Perhaps even more so for me. Thank you for your compassion.” He patted Julián gently on the shoulder.

“I feel like I should be thanking you,” Julián said. “All these years, after my mother died, and my father never remarried … I thought he was alone.”

“Your father was never alone,” Valdespino said. “Nor were you. We both loved you very much.” He chuckled sadly. “It’s funny, your parents’ marriage was very much an arranged one, and although he cared deeply for your mother, when she passed away, I think your father realized on some level that he could finally be true to himself.”

He never remarried, Julián thought, because he already loved someone else.

“Your Catholicism,” Julián said. “Weren’t you … conflicted?”

“Deeply,” the bishop replied. “Our faith is not lenient on this issue. As a young man, I felt tortured. When I became aware of my ‘inclination,’ as they called it back then, I was despondent; I was unsure how to proceed with my own life. A nun saved me. She showed me that the Bible celebrates all kinds of love, with one caveat—the love must be spiritual and not carnal. And so, by taking a vow of celibacy, I was able to love your father deeply while remaining pure in the eyes of my God. Our love was entirely platonic, and yet deeply fulfilling. I turned down a cardinalship to remain near him.”

At that instant, Julián recalled something his father had said to him long ago.

Love is from another realm. We cannot manufacture it on demand. Nor can we subdue it when it appears. Love is not our choice to make.

Julián’s heart ached suddenly for Ambra.

“She’ll call you,” Valdespino said, eyeing him carefully.

Julián was forever amazed by the bishop’s uncanny ability to peer into his soul. “Maybe,” he replied. “Maybe not. She’s very strong-minded.”

“And that’s one of the things you love about her.” Valdespino smiled. “Being a king is lonely work. A strong partner can be valuable.”

Julián sensed that the bishop was alluding to his own partnership with Julián’s father … and also that the old man had just given Ambra his quiet blessing.

“Tonight at the Valley of the Fallen,” Julián said, “my father made an unusual request of me. Did his wishes surprise you?”

“Not at all. He asked you to do something that he has always longed to see happen here in Spain. For him, of course, it was politically complicated. For you, being one more generation removed from Franco’s era, it might be easier.”

Julián was stirred by the prospect of honoring his father this way.

Less than an hour ago, from his wheelchair inside Franco’s shrine, the king had laid out his wishes. “My son, when you are king, you will be petitioned daily to destroy this shameful place, to use dynamite and bury it forever inside this mountain.” His father studied him carefully. “And I beg you—do not succumb to the pressure.”

The words surprised Julián. His father had always despised the despotism of the Franco era and considered this shrine a national disgrace.

“To demolish this basilica,” the king said, “is to pretend our history never happened—an easy way to allow ourselves to move happily forward, telling ourselves that another ‘Franco’ could never happen. But of course it could happen, and it will happen if we are not vigilant. You may recall the words of our countryman Jorge Santayana—”

“‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’” Julián said, reciting the timeless aphorism from grade school.

“Precisely,” his father said. “And history has proven repeatedly that lunatics will rise to power again and again on tidal waves of aggressive nationalism and intolerance, even in places where it seems utterly incomprehensible.” The king leaned toward his son, his voice intensifying. “Julián, you will soon sit on the throne of this spectacular country—a modern, evolving land that, like many countries, has endured dark periods but has emerged into the light of democracy, tolerance, and love. But that light will fade unless we use it to illuminate the minds of our future generations.”

The king smiled, and his eyes flashed with unexpected life.

“Julián, when you are king, I pray that you can persuade our glorious country to convert this place into something far more powerful than a contentious shrine and tourist curiosity. This complex should be a living museum. It should be a vibrant symbol of tolerance, where schoolchildren can gather inside a mountain to learn about the horrors of tyranny and the cruelties of oppression, such that they will never be complacent.”

The king pressed on as if he had waited a lifetime to speak these words.

“Most importantly,” he said, “this museum must celebrate the other lesson history has taught us—that tyranny and oppression are no match for compassion … that the fanatical shouts of the bullies of the world are invariably silenced by the unified voices of decency that rise up to meet them. It is these voices—these choirs of empathy, tolerance, and compassion—that I pray one day will sing from this mountaintop.”

Now, as the echoes of his father’s dying request reverberated in Julián’s mind, he glanced across the moonlit hospital room and watched his father sleeping silently. Julián believed the man had never looked so content.

Raising his eyes to Bishop Valdespino, Julián motioned to the chair beside his father’s bed. “Sit with the king. He would like that. I’ll tell the nurses not to bother you. I’ll check back in an hour.”

Valdespino smiled at him, and for the first time since Julián’s childhood confirmation, the bishop stepped forward and wrapped his arms around the prince, warmly embracing him. As he did so, Julián was startled to feel the frail skeleton shrouded beneath his robes. The aging bishop seemed weaker even than the king, and Julián couldn’t help but wonder if these two dear friends would be united in heaven sooner than they imagined.

“I’m very proud of you,” the bishop said as their embrace ended. “And I know you will be a compassionate leader. Your father raised you well.”

“Thank you,” Julián said with a smile. “I believe he had some help.”

Julián left his father and the bishop alone and walked down the hospital hallways, pausing to gaze out a picture window at the magnificently illuminated monastery on the hill.

El Escorial.

Sacred burial place of Spanish royalty.

Julián flashed on his childhood visit to the Royal Crypt with his father. He recalled gazing up at all the gilded coffins and having a strange premonition—I will never be buried in this room.

The moment of intuition felt as clear as anything Julián had ever experienced, and while the memory had never faded from his mind, he had always told himself the premonition was meaningless … the gut reaction of a fearful child in the face of death. Tonight, however, confronted by his imminent ascension to the Spanish throne, he was struck by a startling thought.

Maybe I knew my true destiny as a child.

Maybe I’ve always known my purpose as king.

Profound change was sweeping his country and the world. The ancient ways were dying, and the new ways were being born. Perhaps it was time to abolish the ancient monarchy once and for all. For a moment, Julián pictured himself reading an unprecedented royal proclamation.

I am the last king of Spain.

The idea shook him.

Mercifully, the reverie was shattered by the vibration of a cell phone he had borrowed from the Guardia. The prince’s pulse quickened to see the incoming prefix was 93.


“This is Julián,” he blurted eagerly.

The voice on the line was soft and tired. “Julián, it’s me …”

With a rush of emotion, the prince sat down in a chair and closed his eyes. “My love,” he whispered. “How can I ever begin to tell you I’m sorry?”

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