Chapter One


Rough sailors’ voices brayed and hollered from the deck and from the masts and spars above, and Estrella’s ears perked with a surge of excitement to hear them tell of land. All the girls looked up from their work and glanced around at each other, eyes wide and smiles playing at the corners of their lips. Distant thumps of bootfalls on the planks above betrayed the hurry of men to their stations. The girls began to chatter, and only Princess Catherine’s head bowed quietly for a moment over the book she’d been reading aloud, before turning toward the cabin window. This view was of the empty sea over which they had come, but there was light from outside the cabin, and it was through these windows the men’s voices drifted to the passengers from the decks above.

The tension in the voices of the Spanish sailors was somewhat alarming, for it told Estrella the men to whom their lives were entrusted had been as apprehensive of this trip as they. Not very comforting, for the weather had been dangerous and the crossing filled with the terrors of mighty storms. Most of Catherine’s household of sixty advisors, maids, and servants, never having been on the ocean before, were pale with seasickness or fear. Many with both. Their guide across the channel was an Englishman, but who knew what good that could be? Even the English were subjects to the whims of weather and fate. Relief now flooded the room, and Francesca de Carceres leapt to her feet, tossing her sewing onto the stool where she’d been sitting.

“Thank God! We’ve come through safely!” She gathered herself and reached for her cloak to throw it over her shoulders without even asking for permission to withdraw.

“We’ve not landed yet.” Catherine’s voice was soft as she stared out the window. “Let us allow God to fully accomplish His task first. Let us have patience.”

Estrella leaned forward and murmured to the princess beneath the chattering of theother maids of honor, “May we at least watch Him accomplish it? May we go to the deck for some fresh air?” She was heartily sick of the “fresh” sea air, but the rolling of the ship was far more difficult to take belowdecks, and even the captain’s quarters they’d been given were dank and smelly. Water-soaked wood was sharp with blackness growing across it, and there was a heavy whiff of the bilges below, like rotting fish, and the stench of the quarters of the unwashed crew drifted up the ladders and passages. Those who wished to watch the approach to England from above clamored for permission to leave.

Catherine looked back at them all and smiled, and now Estrella could see the bright excitement in her eyes. “Lita, you are more clever than you would have us believe. I know you only wish to eye that ship’s commander again.” Though she was every bit the daughter of the Queen of Castile, born to rule with royal grace, she was also the same age as Estrella and had many moments when she seemed even younger than fifteen. The suite of girls giggled and squealed, and Estrella flushed as she denied.

“No! He is a pig.”

“Indeed, but he is a very beautiful pig.” That brought a wave of high giggling.

“Your Highness, I only wish some fresh air.” Estrella couldn’t help the smile on her face, for though she did want to see the approaching land, she also would not mind a chance to glimpse again the handsome features of their captain.

With a chuckle, Catherine nodded. “Very well, Estrellita—all of you—let’s see what we can see.” Her gentle, oval face brightened with her warm smile as she reached up and lowered her veil over it for an excursion outside the cabin.

The nine girls, some as young as twelve and two or three older than Catherine by as much as three years, rose with their mistress in a burble of barely controlled energy. Maria de Salinas settled Catherine’s cloak over the princess’s shoulders, and Francesca brought her own gloves, then they followed Catherine from the cabin and down the passage, up the ladder, and out onto the upper gun deck. With most of the crew climbing the masts above, the black artillery pieces stood alone and aimed out over empty water. The smell of gunmetal and grease was a relief after the stench belowdecks, and added to the ambience was a whiff of earth fro off on the horizon. Fresh vegetation now, not rotting wood or badly preserved food.

Along the gangway and upper deck overhead, sailors hurried back and forth, shouting to each other, and all of them looking out across the bow. The girls made their way forward, stepping over piles of rope and around puddles of water on the slick and rolling deck. Rigging creaked everywhere, and the cry of seabirds mingled with the rushing sound of water against the wooden hull far below. Catherine led her suite up another ladder to the forecastle. There the stunned officers of the ship, surprised by their royal passenger, all bowed as she passed, then glanced around for someone to tell them it was all right for the princess to be above decks. Doña Elvira, Catherine’s duenna,  was nowhere in sight, so nobody raised any objection. Catherine went forward to gaze out through the archery screen toward their destination.

The ship’s commander was there, and Estrella was pleased to watch him from behind her veil, for he cut a fine figure among his subordinates. He seemed younger than he could possibly be for a man in his position, broad of shoulder, strong of limb, and with a face with clean, even planes. His gaze moved over the girls, and Estrella imagined it rested just a fraction of a moment longer on her as she passed. Then when his attention returned to his maritime duties, and he ignored the young passengers who had little to do with his running of the ship, she turned her attention to the view ahead of the approaching land.

In spite of the screen above the wales, through the gaps between its panels the cold, wet English wind buffetted them and their clothing about. Estrella missed Spain, where the sun was warm and the air dry most of the year. Already two girls in Catherine’s household were sick with a cough. Estrella had never been ill in her life and was terrified her health might fail here in this cold and damp.

But as she watched Catherine, there was an excitement in the air. The princess of Aragon looked out over the water for her first glimpse of her new home, and a light shone in her eyes. A smile played about her mouth, and she held the book in her hands tightly to her breast. Though the headland sheltering the port of Plymouth was still but a dark line on the horizon, Catherine said, “It’s terribly beautiful.””

“It’s a piece of rock,” said Francesca in all practicality. She was right, of course. So far the only Englishman any of them had met was the pilot, Stephen Brett, who had guided them across. He, of course, had made the trip in his own ship. That vessel bobbed on the waves ahead of them, slightly to their right, its rigging straining with the wind in its sails. Catherine’s Spanish escort knew nothing about England, its land or its people. What they saw on the horizon was only a bit of land, and that poorly visible in the misty distance.

“It’s England, my dear friends,” Catherine replied, her voice heavy with wonder. With a single finger she discreetly lifted her veil just enough to see a little better, then let it drop lest Doña Elvira spy it or hear of her doing it. “This is the land where King Arthur lived, and all his knights of the Round Table. England, where my own Arthur awaits me.” Estrella had glimpsed bright roses blossoming in the princess’s cheeks,  and whether they were from the hill wind or her anticipation of marriage to England’s new Arthur, Prince of Wales, Estrella couldn’t say. She glanced at the beautifully bound volume in Catherine’s hands, of rich, embossed red leather. In the cabin she’d been reading aloud to them the stories written by Sir Thomas Mallory. Catherine had always adored the Arthurian saga. The old French romances, told and told again, were as familiar to her as scripture, and when she read them to her maids of honor Estrella could hear in her voice the regard for the bold, devout knights of old.

And that made them come alive for her. As the young maid looked through a gap in the archery screen and across the water to the land that was also her own new home, where she would more than likely marry and remain for the rest of her life, the thrill of finally seeing this place she’d heard so much about also rose in her. She, too, imagined stout men in burnished armor astride magnificent warhorses. Men filled to bursting with God’s grace, chivalrous and honorable. Excitement fluttered in her belly, and she couldn’t help but smile. She pulled her cloak around herself as a shiver ran through her slender frame, and she wished this ship would hurry and land. She wanted to be in England finally.

They landed the next day at Plymouth, but once on terra firma, the journey wasn’t nearly finished. Now the princess and her household faced the passage overland to London, and now more people were involved with their progress. The arrival of the princess was huge news to the entire country, and every opportunity was to be made to encourage her acceptance by the populace. The trek from the port city toward London was a bright, sparkling parade of celebration, a grand procession to last over the following weeks. In each town the Spanish arrival was greeted with displays of joy from commons lining the roads to cheer their new princess. Slowly the Spanish train made its way, for they wished to greet Catherine’s new people as much as the people wanted to view and welcome her. At a town called Exeter, Catherine was welcomed with banners of bright colors and imaginative design, flying from every rooftop and edifice. There were enormous bonfires, and it seemed every bell in Christendom was ringing for happiness. Estrella was beginning to like these English, and she could see Catherine was appreciative of the welcome. Tired though she was of the travel, the princess maintained a warm and cheerful demeanor to all. When she looked out over the crowds, she saw and responded to the individuals rather than the mass. She looked people in the eye and even sometimes addressed them with greetings in Spanish-accented English. Those so graced seemed to blossom under the attention, and responded by waving or even throwing kisses. Estrella marveled at the joy abounding between Catherine and her new people.

When they rested of an evening, the food was always plentiful, if bland. Accommodations seemed the best their hosts could offer, though the girls found them somewhat drab. Catherine’s permanent household wasn’t particularly large for her status, but often they stayed in place where there was not enough room to sleep everyone comfortably. Some of the lesser servants—the launderers, bakers, and cooks—had to sleep on bare floors with nothing more than straw and blankets beneath them. There were plentiful straw and blankets to be sure, but still…Estrella often shared a bed with Francesca, who always took more than her share of the mattress and rolled around at night in the bargain. It would be good to finally arrive in London and have a bed of her own, even if it were a poor, ugly one.

There was great curiosity about the Englishmen they met along the way. They all seemed terribly pale to Estrella, whose family was fair of skin though dark of hair. Even she seemed dark compared to most of the English. Many were even more pale than Catherine, whose exquisitely royal blood and distant English ancestry showed in her auburn hair and delicate complexion. Here in England, even the men’s cheeks glowed with roses, and their lips seemed thin and pink and miserly. Some were like old women, the sort who were disappointed with life and pressed their mouths closed in a lipless gash, though they smiled tightly and constantly. At the distance from which the girls were kept from those men, Estrella gazed across at them and wondered what they were truly like. Were English knights anything like the Spanish caballeros, filled with fierce pride and glossy with smooth style? They didn’t seem so. They seemed plain: a little dull and not terribly fierce. Estrella thought the best thing to recommend them was that they were all so very cheerful. Cheering. Amused by everything around them and speaking in light voices that seemed to dance in spite of their gutteral-sounding language. Her English was spotty at best, and she could only pick out some words here and there, so it all sounded to her like gibberish spoken in the backs of their throats. No grace to the sound at all, but all was certainly lively. In the streets as the carriages bearing Catherine’s household passed, even the young nobles, who might have had more dignity, were noise and boisterous in their welcome. The common people waved their arms and danced as the Spanish procession moved past.

“What a demonstrative people they all are,” Francesca commented. The dimples in her cheeks were deep with smiling, and she gawked out the window of their carriage. Theirs was the one directly behind the princess’s, so they were able to watch without being noticed by the press of people outside.

“They certainly don’t let one wonder what they’re thinking.” The edge in Maria de Salinas’s voice suggested she thought they should.

“Yes, Maria, and how excellent is your English to know what they are all thinking? They could be shouting vile epithets at us, and you would never know the difference.”

Maria flushed. “And do you think they are?”

“I’m only saying that some of them could be.”

Estrella laughed. “You two are too silly. They’re happy to see us; it’s as plain as can be. Princess Catherine, I mean. Of course they’re happy to see Catherine. They don’t want war, and her marriage to Arthur will assure their succession. It’s simple enough for anyone who thinks about it. Beside,” she grinned at her fellow maids, “who wouldn’t want an excuse for such revels? If someone said to you, ‘Here comes our new princess, let’s welcome her with entertainment, food, and drink for everyone,’ would you say, ‘Oh, no! We cannot make merry, for we must work today!’ They are not so stupid, I think.”

The other girls laughed, and all agreed. It was all fine enjoyment, and they proceeded through the town with smiles for everyone and high anticipation of what they might find.

That evening the travelers were joined by an official welcome contingent led by King Henry’s high steward. Aflutter with bright banners, each man decked out in his finest attire, the escort accompanied the Spanish train on toward London. Now there was entertainment at every turn, and their progress slowed even more. Musicians, mummers, and acrobats performed each night and often along the way, during meals and whenever someone new came to join their processin.

Catherine now met the Spanish liason officer, Don Pedro Ayala, who was the Spanish king’s ambassador to Scotland. Don Pedro was an expansive sort and outgoing in the extreme. When he walked into a room he filled it with his presence, and everyone nearby turned to look. It was a magnetism that had served him well in his career, for it allowed him to stay away from Scotland. Reportedly, he’d come from his posting in the north to visit England years ago and simply never returned. Also reportedly, he got along far better with the English king than with the Scots. Estrella gazed at the hale, hearty, and cheerful Spaniard in his rich robes and thought how well this place agreed with him. She thought there might be hope that she, too, would find her place here as comfortable. The future brightened, and she looked forward to what was in store for her with a glad heart.

Nearly two weeks into the journey, by all accounts a week before they expected to arrive in London, they stopped at a castle called Dogmersfield. Catherine and her suite of maids had retired to the apartments given over to them, to freshen themselves before supper. The rooms were awfully small, and though recently hung with rich tapestry and the beds and floors sprinkled with fragrant herbs, there could be discerned a dankness sharp in Estrella’s nose. The stone here was ever cold and damp, even this high in the keep. It seemed the entire country was ruled by things that grew in the cold and damp. The smell of the fuel on the fire was odd, also. Musty. Nearly as if the fires were burning dirt, and she could taste the smell in her mouth. Though it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, it was nevertheless alien, and she wished for more real wood and a higher flame to take the dampness out of the wooden floors and stone walls. An ache began to creep into her bones. Outside the keep, a commotion arose at the gate in the inner bailey below, and Catherine moved to an arrow loop to look out. A peep of exclamation escaped her. “Ay,” she whispered, and the girls crowded around, standing on tiptoe and craning to see through the narrow opening what could have piqued the interest of the princess so.

Before anyone could say anything, Doña Elvira swept into the room like the north wind, a forceful rustle of silk and fragrance and jewels, her majestic bearing nearly eclipsing that of the princess herself. She was tall and vigorous and not to be resisted or doubted by anyone with any sense. As Catherine’s guardian she held a position of power even over the princess herself, and that alone made her someone to fear. All the girls did. “Come, Your Highness,” she said in a low, clipped tone. “Hurry. The English king has arrived.” An excited murmur ran through the suite, and a few squeals as well. The duenna then fell into a murmured dialogue to herself regarding the insolence of the English, their disregard for propriety, and their ignorance of civilized manners, as she went to the princess to assess the state of her attire.

Catherine turned from the loop, blinking and taking deep, careful breaths. “He is here, also,” she said.

Doña Elvira clucked at the disgracefully wilted dress Catherine wore, and muttered, “There is no time.”

“Who is here with the king?” asked Maria de Rojas of the princess as she peered out through the loop.

“The prince, Arthur. The king has brought my husband to me.” The thrill in Catherine’s voice was unmistakable. She was like a little niña, on the edge of ticklish laughter at the prospect of finally meeting the young man to whom she’d been married by proxy the year before. The moment she’d talked of and speculated about for months was near.

The girls erupted in fresh excitement, and Estrella clutched her skirts to hurry to the loop to see out herself. But there was no longer anything to see down in the bailey other than a few lackeys milling bout. Nobody of importance was in sight anymore. She turned from the loop, disappointed.

The girls hurried to help Catherine pull herself together. After the arduous day of travel and presentation to the local commons and gentry, her attire was somewhat the worse for wear and her demeanor worn. Even her eyes shows the strain of her travels; they were lined with red and surrounded by dark bags. Estrella understood Doña Elvira’s irritation at the intrusion of the king. Catherine would not be giving her best first impression, and if King Henry were inclined to balk at the marriage, he could claim her countenance to be unsatisfactory. Diplomatically it would be risky for him, but one never knew with him what might be on his agenda. Henry was known as a tight and shrewd man, if not a particularly skilled monarch, and his reaction to Catherine could take any form.

But there was nothing for it to brave the meeting. The journey through Spain to the coast, and then across the sea, had taken several months, and now finally the princess was going to meet her prince. The dress she wore might be stained and wilted, but there was no time to wash and change clothes. The King of England was there to see her, and he wanted to see her immediately. There was no putting him off. Muted voices came from the hall below the girls’ chamber.

“He wishes to see your face,” said the duenna.

The princess looked up at her with wide, surprised eyes. The room was stunned into silence and stillness. “And you told him he could not, of course.”

“Of course, Your Highness.” Elvira brushed a bit of lint from Catherine’s skirt, then took a sleeve of her dress to pick at a dirt spot and see if it would come loose. Then she clucked at the unsatisfactory result. The mud crust was gone, but a dusting of earth remained in the weave.

“I would be mortified to be treated that way. He wishes to examine me so he can reject me if I’m deemed not pretty enough.” The surprise was gone, and now her demeanor showed only calm despite her words.

“He insists, I’m afraid. He is a stubborn, stubborn man and apparently has no knowledge of how things are done among true royalty. And he is the law here. He’s made it clear there will be enormous trouble if we refuse. He may reject you out of hand for defying him.”

The duenna paused a moment, then added,  and there is that if you hide behind the veil he will think there is something wrong with you. At the very least he will think you are not confident of your own beauty and intelligence. You wouldn’t want this Englishman to think the daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile is unsure of her own beauty, would you? Prince Arthur is the son of only one monarch, and that one holds his throne by his fingernails. Henry’s claim to royal blood is tenuous, at the very least. You are the daughter of two monarchs, both of whom rule in their own right. There is nothing you should fear from the English king, for there is nobody who would dare to call you anything other than the perfect bride.

Catherine gazed at her guardian for a moment, and Estrella knew the situation was far more complex than that. The English king was testing her compliance. Her willingness to bend to the rule of her husband. He was seeing how far he could press the Spaniards who protected the princess, and by extension her parents who were powerful monarchs and Henry’s rivals in European politics. The princess thought hard.

“Very well.” Catherine waited while Elvira removed her veil and set it aside. The princess looked nearly naked without it, and she patted the tiny bit of hair that showed from under her headdress as if to assure herself it was still there to cover her head.

Catherine’s maids hurried to smooth the overdress. A shawl was brought to cover the small stain where a smudge of grease from dinner earlier in the day had marred the fine silk. Maria de Rojas picked some more at the dirt smudge. Then, arranged and orderly, Catherine went to meet her prince.

In the chamber next to the great hall, the girls pressed close to their mistress, fussing with her hair and the shawl, each eager to be part of this event as well as wanting to protect the princess. Estrella saw, however, the suppressed eagerness in Catherine’s eyes. The princess would never admit it, and it would never have been said about her, but she was fairly trembling. All these last months—even her entire life—had come to this moment. What would Arthur be like? Would he live up to the legend of his namesake Mallory had wrought? Would he even be the sort of man one would want for a husband? Or a king? Each girl burned with curiosity.

The king and his escort of guards and courtiers entered through the narrow door. Mud had spattered his boots, and his fine tunic was as road-weary as the dresses worn by Catherine and her suite. Estrella thought how much more pleasant this meeting would be if they’d all been given a chance to clean up and rest. But Henry was impatient, and his chin rose in his determination to say how things were done here. It was almost a defensiveness, as if the Spanish contingent were an invasion of some sort, and he was there to make certain they didn’t overrun his kingdom. Estrella found him as graceless and uncivilized as Doña Elvira had said, rawboned and high-cheeked. Crude. He removed his riding gloves and handed them off to the man at his right before stepping forward to greet Catherine. The cluster of girls parted and stepped slowly away from their mistress.

He spoke English, which language was a mystery to Estrella. Neither did Catherine speak it, but they all assumed the words were the normal courtesies, and she replied in Spanish, “Good evening, Your Majesty.” She made a deep, graceful curtsy, nearly kneeling in it, then stood to face him with a bright face and warm smile.

At that moment a commotion rose from the next room, and all turned to see. Through the door came a teenage boy followed by a line of sumptuously dressed men, all talking. On sight of the princess, the boy halted, and the men followed suit behind him.

Estrella’s heart fell for Catherine, for this boy—plainly the English prince—was small and sickly. Even more pale than the most wan commoner she’d seen in this sunless country, his thin, sallow cheeks had no blossoms, and his eyes were weak. And he was short. A half head shorted than Catherine and even smaller in weight than Estrella herself. His blond locks were to his shoulders, and there was no luster to his hair. Arthur was a year younger than Catherine, but he looked even younger than that.

But the princess never showed the slightest moment of reservation. Her smile never wavered as she listened to the formal speeches of greeting from Henry and Arthur, translated by the Spanish bishop attached to Catherine’s suite. In fact, she seemed overjoyed to finally meet the young man. When she replied, while her Spanish was translated through the Spanish and English bishops, she stepped forward and embraced the thin prince.

His response was to smile, though he didn’t seem to have much to say. He seemed embarrassed but struggling to hide it. He spoke a few halting sentence, which the translators gave as “I’ve longed to see your face, and find it exactly as I’d pictured while reading your letters. Though perhaps even more beautiful.”

That made Catherine let go of a slight giggle behind her hand, and her maids hid their smiles behind their hands also.

In a bright, musical voice, the princess called for entertainment, and musicians were summoned. The meeting of prince and princess was transformed into a celebration. Refreshments were brought, and both Engiish and Spanish occupied the great hall to enjoy performances of musicians and jongleurs. There was a recitation by a bard who told his tale in Latin, and who Estrella thought quite good. Her Latin was not perfect, but the storyteller’s demeanor and expressive voice made the performance as entertaining and enlightening as if it had been in Spanish. Throughout the evenin, tired though they all were, Catherine maintained her cheer and her grace.

Estrella watched the blond prince the entire time, heartsick for Catherine. At supper the slight young man ate little, and in conversation said less. His face wasn’t even as animated as the stern and subdued Englishmen around him. Estrella gazed at him over the rim of her cup and thanked God she wasn’t the one betrothed to the little fellow. Surely her own husband would be an energetic and handsome man, and rich. It made her smile to think of the future.

But that night as the suite readied their mistress for bed, Catherine still smiled as she had all evening. “What a lovely prince he is!”

Maria whispered, lest someone lurking nearby hear, “But he’s so small! He doesn’t look well.”

“Nonsense. He’s but a boy and hasn’t got his full growth yet.” She sounded like his mother, making excuses for his slight build. “Give him a chance, and he’ll soon be a strapping, handsome man like his father. Did you notice his father? The king is a big, healthy man. There’s no reason why Arthur shouldn’t grow up to be exactly as handsome a king.”

“He’s not nearly as fine as our king.”

Catherine chuckled. “No. Nobody is as fine as our king. So I must settle for second best, because I could hardly marry my father.”

The girls laughed.

“Arthur will be wonderful, I know it. I feel it. God would not want me to marry a weak man.

Estrella watched the face of her mistress and thought Catherine truly believed what she said. It made her ashamed of her own misgivings.

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