San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico, June 26, 15xx
The intricately-carved mahogany frame of the mirror in the reception room of La Fortaleza, the small castle that is the home of the governors of Puerto Rico, remained intact, but bullets had shattered the glass and shards were scattered about the canary yellow cushions on the settees and the lush lavender silk carpet below.
Doña María de Lourdes de Almería, the governor’s wife, reviewed the damage. The guards commanded her to remain in the fortress. The walls were impenetrable, they said, although she knew that the so-called fortress was a farce. The officials of the Spanish colony of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico had chosen the site for reasons other than safety.
La Fortaleza’s architect, Don Henrique Hernández, was a clever man who had the land, well away from the entrance to the magnificent bay, surveyed. It was that narrow passage that needed defending, but the avaricious architect owned the land inside the bay. When the uselessness of La Fortaleza was discovered, he saved the day by offering a new site at a good price. An imposing new fort, Fort San Felipe del Morro, would be the result.
Queen Isabela, no stranger to avarice and intrigue, yearned for nothing more than to be sovereign of the New World, a world that Spain not only “discovered,” but one that served to show her husband the king, Ferdinand of Aragon, that Castille was the power and the glory of Europe and the true architect of the conquest of the Americas.
That the New World was already inhabited was an inconvenience. The natives simply needed to be enslaved, exploited, deported or converted into pawns of the pope. “The only thing an Indian seems to do well is be a servant, a concubine or a cadaver,” Monsignor Martel, her confesor said. Borikén, renamed San Juan Bautista, was one of the first of the natives’ lands to fall.
Doña María de Lourdes contemplated the ruins of the mirror and recalled something that she read or heard. “There is no life without sacrifice.” She knew about sacrifice. She had married it. Before her first flow as a woman her father, the Duke of Almería, delivered her to the idiot son of his cousin, Don Emilio Talavera, who wed her dowry.
The queen, no friend of the Talaveras, granted him governorship of this slip of land, smaller than a single one of her father’s holdings in the flatlands near Madrid, to get him as far away from the court as her ships could carry him. To get them both as far away as possible. A noble woman as wealthy, as beautiful, as ambitious and as available as Doña María de Lourdes was a danger at c0urt.
She underestimated me. The idiot son of Don Emilio Talavera, my beloved and soon to be grieved husband, until today the governor of San Juan Bautista, fell to an assassin’s bullets just minutes ago. The destruction of a beautiful mirror, a gift of the queen, is not much of a price to pay to change the course of history. God knows, I can afford it.
“Señora Gobernadora, Capitán Torrens,” her trembling maid announced. The officer strode into the room, surveyed the damage, instructed the maid to get help to clean up the glass.
“I have told you not to call me that. I am not the gobernadora, any more than Captain Torrens’ wife is a capitana,” Doña María said. “An annoying provincial custom. Call things what they are, I say.” The maid bowed, stole a glance at the visitor, shook her head almost imperceptibly and left the room.
“There is no more danger, Doña María,” he said.
“I thought there never was. You can speak freely, Antonio, it will take Carmen an hour to rouse the servants from where they are hiding — if they are still in La Fortaleza — and most likely she too will flee. There is no one to hear us, but let us go into the sala de estar, the danger here is serious, but it is to your uniform should you sit down.”
The captain smiled, took Doña María’s arm and escorted her into the parlor, where he poured brandy for them both. “To the grieving widow,” was his toast. She dabbed at one eye with a lace hankerchief, smiled, and said, “I am inconsolable.”
“Talavera’s body has been taken to the convent and will be placed in the cathedral by nightfall,” the captain said. “In this infernal heat, there is no time to waste. The townspeople are already shuffling in.”
“He should get used to the heat. He will be a lot hotter in Hell. Monsignor Martel will be in his glory. Governors don’t die everyday. A requiem mass I will have to pay for, I suppose.” She motioned toward the decanter.
The captain poured. “You will make a last minute, grief-striken appearance, of course.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for a crown.”
“Now that I doubt.”
“Remember your place, young man,” she said, eyes shining. I am only about 25th in line for that honor — which I truly deserve. Now if a grandee like my father — and your uncle — would have bought a greater title, I’d be about number 4.”
“I know my place. About 24th. And I need two generations to die before I move up and both my father and our grandather are in disgustingly perfect health.”
“You seem able to arrange exterminations well. How did our Honorable Governor meet his maker? Looked pretty untidy from my point of view, as I cowered in the reception hall while my master met his master in the tower. My poor mirror. What will the queen say?”
“I hear she is in very poor health, herself. Lamentable, of course. The very recent and unfortunate demise of your husband was a political act, I’m afraid. The assassin, a savage reputed to have been one of the few Taíno braves still alive — formerly alive — was the culprit. My men shot him outside the Austral tower. The weapon has not been found, probably tossed into the sea.”
“The Indians are armed”” she asked, surprised.
“Well, this one was.”
“And the mirror? Was that also a political crime?”
“That, my dear, was an accident. My men thought it was prudent to make sure La Fortaleza had not been invaded.’
“By the last of the Taínos?” She smiled.
“By rebel forces.”
“The English? The Dutch? Is San Juan being attacked?’ She feigned alarm.
“Not to my knowledge.”
“But there are shots in the street. I hear soldiers in the halls.” She felt a sudden chill.
“My men. Protecting me.”
“Why would your men fire on the front of La Fortaleza?” She rose, carefully looked out the small window in the sitting room. Soldiers were everywhere.
“I’ll look into it,” he said.
She sat facing her cousin. “Antonio. I am no fool. I was the target, not the mirror.”
“Nonsense. Why would I kill my own cousin?”
“Emilio was your cousin.”
“That’s different. Emilio was an idiot.”
“A grieving widow.”
“No longer la Gobernadora.” Her expression was cold, unchanged.
“No,” was the Captain’s simple response.
“So if I had fallen to this ‘rebel” attack, who would benefit?”
He stood and smiled. “I would, of course. As captain, cousin, confidante and confederate of the daughter of the Duke of Almería and the only noble available to immediately fill the vacancy…”
“But Isabela would never agree, she detests our family.”
“Your family,” he answered. “I am a cousin on both sides, I’m afraid. Someone needs to govern. And she surely doesn’t want you back at court.”
“So you would have me shot?”
Before answering, he takes a step closer, holds her chin, a gesture she shrugs off, then sits facing her
“It was to be an accident. But the idiots couldn’t tell a woman from her reflection. Look at it my way. As long as you are alive, you are dangerous, both to me and to the Queen. The colony needs dependable leadership, not an idiot who couldn’t govern his household. San Juan de Puerto Rico may be a small island but it is the key to protecting the Crown’s commerce to and from the New World. If you die, your fortune reverts to the crown. Everyone wins.”
“I see,” she said, her voice weak. “I think I need another drink.”
He pours. “Of course, your grace.”
She drinks it down. “Is it poisoned?”
“Wouldn’t it have been more believable if the “Taíno” shot me, too?”
“Of course not. It is a beautiful thing to die of grief. A direct path to paradise. Monsignor will be doubly blessed, two requiem masses, one after the other. We’ll build a chapel in your honor.”
A score of schemes passed through her head but faded as quickly as they appeared. Her reason and her will, no longer strong, began to acquiesce.
“Let me help you to your chamber. Carmen will return in the morning and make sure you are presentable. Appearances are important.” He touched her chin. She did not move.
“After all, we are Castilians, not savages,” he murmured before leaving.
Note: This is purely a work of fiction and is not based on actual historical events. Queen Isabela died before La Fortaleza was built and none of the other named characters or events existed except in the imagination of the author.