"At midnight, in the Queen's gardens, under the laurel trees, near the fountain, meet me here."
Carlos read the note again, silently now, to make sure he was not, in fact, dreaming, and then stuffed it into his right boot.
Elisabetta...she's coming here to meet me! he thought joyfully. We came so close to happiness in Fontainebleau, before it all crumbled around us, but now...happiness is within our reach...
A nearby church bell sounded the hour, waking Carlos out of his reverie. He counted the bongs: one...two...three...four...five...six...seven...eight...nine...ten...eleven...twelve! It's midnight, and she'll be here!
And indeed, at that very moment, a woman dressed entirely in black, including a black veil covering her face, appeared through the orchards, slowly approaching Carlos. He could hardly breathe as the figure made her way down the path towards the laurels, looking like an angel, albeit strange, but still an angel.
Before too long she was within his reach- to him, within reach of complete bliss with this woman he thought he knew, and he would not, could not, wait any longer for it.
"My love, it's you! My sorrow has disappeared, because you are here, and you bring me...I cannot even describe it, it's so overwhelming...happiness! You, my happiness, my love, it's you!"
"What is this?" The woman backed away, startled.
Carlos himself was so shocked, he collapsed. It's a French woman, I can tell by the accent, but it's not her. "It's not the Queen!" he half-whispered, half-screamed to himself.
Even under her heavy veil and the heavier veil of the night, he could see her expression slowly morph from shocked confusion into a sort of resigned grace, as if this was not the first time she'd had to put up with something like this.
"Carlos, Infante of Spain," she said slowly, curtsying with the utmost grace- he could tell she'd learned the standards for courtly behavior very well. She rose, and then added, "It seems you were not expecting me, but someone else rather...?"
"No, no," he said quickly, terrified, blushing and going pale at the same time. He took several deep breaths in a desperate attempt to calm himself down, and when he no longer felt like fainting or hysterically crying, he just managed to get out:
"Well, you're here...and you know me, but I do not know you, so can I at least know who I'm talking to? And...why you are here?"
The woman stayed silent for a few moments but eventually answered the first question.
"My name is Valentine de Saint-Bris."
Carlos was confused. I have never heard of this woman. Who is she? Why is she in Spain? Is she here for marriage like Elisabetta? How does she know who I am, how to find me? And why is she here, talking to me here at this hour of night? He eventually asked the first question.
"That is a lovely name, madame, but I do not understand. Who are you exactly?"
"Do you mean my origins, my family..."
"Very well." The woman Carlos now knew as Valentine sighed, as if she'd either said or heard this exact speech a million times before, but gave a shy smile and continued. "My name is Valentine de Saint-Bris. I am the heiress of the Saint-Bris family: I am the only child, and my father is the Comte de Saint-Bris, and my mother, God rest her soul, passed away when I was very young, so I am the Comtesse de Saint-Bris. My family is considered to be one of the most prominent Catholic noble families in France."
Carlos wasn't quite sure how to reply. At last, he stammered, "That's very nice. And, I guess...you know who I am?"
"Yes, Your Highness." She curtsied again, even more deeply this time.
For a while, the two of them stood there, neither quite sure what to do or how to break the awkward silence that had settled in. At last, Valentine took a deep breath and said,
"You know, there's a very specific reason why I wrote to you."
Carlos was even more confused- he still didn't understand why this woman was even here in the first place. "Before you tell me that, can you tell me...why you are here...in Spain, I mean?" He saw her become flustered for a second, but she recovered and replied:
"My father is traveling here to speak with your father. I do not understand why they sent him instead of the king or the queen mother or even my lady, the princess, but they sent my father to discuss important matters with him, and my father said he would sooner die than leave me alone, unprotected, in France. So that is why I am in Spain."
Carlos silently groaned. This lady, this Valentine, is confusing me so much. What matters? What matters is this mysterious, beautiful woman's father discussing with my father? And why did she want to see me here in the gardens now?
He felt so overwhelmed that he felt hopeless to have any of his questions answered, but to his own surprise, he managed to ask the first question he thought of anyway:
"What are these matters? Tell me; I want to know."
What happened next came as a surprise to them both, especially Valentine: for some reason, she impulsively pulled back her veil. She realized immediately after, though, why: the way he'd said that to her, gently, sincerely, made her feel more at ease than she'd been at almost any time in her seventeen years of life. I can trust him, she thought, but as his question sank in, and she formulated the answer in her head, she started shaking out of fear- she wasn't supposed to even know, much less tell, but she wasn't afraid of the potential consequences for telling so much as the nature of the matters themselves, and the ominous way her father had talked about them.
"They are...please don't tell..."
"I won't, I promise."
"They have to do...with what my father calls 'the Protestant problem'." She was on the verge of tears now. "There is civil war in both your country and mine between Catholics and Protestants...and there are people like my father, and if I have understood what I've overheard correctly, your father...who believe that the Protestants...should be wiped off..." Her dark eyes filled with tears, and Carlos had no idea what to do but stand there. "The face of the earth," she finished, and then immediately proceeded to break down into sobs.
"They want to kill all the Protestants?"
"Yes!" Valentine half-whispered, half-yelled. "There is currently peace in my country, if not yours, but there are people in both Spain and France who think that no means should be spared in wiping them all out."
Carlos silently mused on her words, and then realized something. "It's like Rodrigo said..." He trailed off.
Valentine, still crying, was now also confused. "Rodrigo? Who's Rodrigo?"
Carlos sighed and shook his head. "The one person I can really trust here at the court. He is very brave, and kind, and strong, and just perfect..." He absently sighed, glanced back at Valentine, and continued, "And he loves all the people of Flanders, you know, the Protestants, the people living in nightmares because of my father..."
Valentine nodded. "I have heard of what is happening in Flanders. It is like what has happened in France...and what I fear will happen again if people like my father have their way." And then she started crying again.
Carlos reached out to her, and she grabbed his arms, pulling him close for a second before letting go. "I'm sorry..." she said, embarrassed. "I don't know, I mean...I just felt like I needed a hug or something..."
"It's alright, you're fine," Carlos whispered back. "Honestly, I needed it too." He reached out again, and they hugged.
The two of them sat under one of the laurel trees for a while, still hugging, both realizing they needed it in this moment. At last, Valentine broke the silence.
"This is why I wrote to you. I have heard that you were a lonely soul, in an impossible love, trapped in a world where no one understands what you're going through and where you feel like the world is always closing in, relentlessly." She paused, gazing into the night sky for a long moment, and then added, "And that is how I feel too. I thought maybe, in you, I could find a friend to understand everything."
Carlos was stunned. She thinks I could be a friend who understands everything? And she feels the same as I do?
"What...do...you...mean?" he managed to get out.
Valentine sighed and brushed a lock of her dark hair away from her face before turning back to Carlos.
"For almost as long as I can remember, it's just been me and my father. My mother, God rest her soul, died when I was very young, but old enough to remember a few things about her- she was always so kind, so sweet, ready with a smile, a hug, and a kind word. She loved me very much, and I her. When she died, my world shattered. My father was never like her; he was, and still is, so harsh and cold, like a bitter winter, except it is a winter that never ends. And everyone else, all the servants, the people of the court, everyone, were trained to treat me the same way, cold, unforgiving, never a shard of genuine warmth or kindness to be found- it was all very superficial. I had no one in the world to talk to, who would really listen, you understand? And I felt so lonely, and I could never share my loneliness with anyone. It is my understanding you have a similar history?"
Carlos nodded, really listening. "Go on," he prompted, "I want to listen."
Valentine smiled for a moment before letting the expression fade, continuing with her explanation.
"My father raised me very deeply in the Catholic faith, reminding me at every turn that I was in danger of incurring the wrath and the fire of God on my head should I make even the slightest mistake, deviate even a step from the teachings of the faith-"
"So was I," Carlos interrupted. This was something he very much understood. "I'm sorry; it's just that that was how I grew up also."
"And he told me that our faith was the only way to reach God. And so, I grew up, fearing God and the doctrines of the Church. But as I got older, I started to see it all differently. God was no longer a figure of wrath and fear to me, but a figure of love for the whole world, teaching that love was everything and dying for love of the world and all the people in it. And, I realized, we are supposed to follow that example- love regardless of who people are; that is our purpose in this world, to love and be loved for who we really are. Of course, though, no one around me agreed, and if they did, I had no way of knowing- yet another thing that made me lonely." She put her head in her hands and took a long deep breath.
Carlos didn't say anything- he knew the story wasn't over.
Valentine lifted her gaze and kept going with her story:
"Of course, with my belief in loving people regardless of who they are, I fell in love with a Huguenot, one who saved my life when my coach was attacked by a group of students- I thought they would try to rape me! But he saved me, and I fell in love with him at first sight..." The light in her eyes dimmed and her expression melted into one of sadness. "But I feel as if it can never be: my father would disown me- or worse- if he knew I am in love with a Protestant, and I do not know if being in love with a Protestant, let alone marrying one, is a sin against God- everyone I know would say so, but I wonder how that could be..." She started crying, and Carlos did too. She has so much pain in her heart too. But she, unlike me, does not deserve it.
"I have begged God...to help me...because I believe love like this, true love, can come only from God, from divine will...but I feel so much guilt at the same time, like I am doing something very wrong...and I feel as if God understands my sorrow, but has chosen not to comment on it for the moment, because I still feel so torn between my love and my duty to my faith and my family...yet God knows all, including my sorrow...but that is little comfort to me when I have no one in this world who understands what I am going through and when the world demands that I stay in a box in which I cannot fit." She stopped and shook her head. "I do not know if that is a sin, a blasphemy, but it is the truth: I believe in love, I am in love, yet there is so little love around me." And with that, she hung her head and erupted into loud sobs, her whole body shaking.
Carlos sat there, frozen, still not really sure what to do- no one he knew had ever bared their soul to him this way, not even Rodrigo. After a few moments, Valentine looked back at him, her eyes red and still welling with tears, and whispered, "That is what I feel. I have heard you feel the same way, but I do not know exactly why...and if you are like me, and I feel like you are, you must be aching to tell someone too...so tell me."
Carlos froze up but asked, "You promise not to tell anyone?"
Valentine gripped his hand and the outline of a smile crossed her face. "I promise. You promise not to tell about me?"
"Then tell me. I'll listen."
Carlos' eyes misted over, and he began:
"This is the story of the Infante, and a story of how happiness came so close to touching him...and then it was ripped away." He paused, not quite sure how to word what he was about to say, but when he got a wisp of an idea, he seized it and went on:
"Well, my childhood was very much like yours, so I'll be brief: my mother died when I was very young, and my father was always cold, not so much harsh like yours, although he was, but...distant. Yes, that's it, distant. He's become harsher since, though. And the whole court, to me the whole world, was harsh and unforgiving from the beginning- what did you say, 'like a bitter winter'? Well, that's what it was. I always felt so afraid, too, that I would stumble and fall from the way of the Church, because my father too had pressed the fear of the Church into me. And I felt so alone, like you, with no one to understand what I was feeling at all. Eventually, I found Rodrigo, but even though we are so close, I still always felt I could never quite tell him everything, not because of him, no, no, but because what if someone was watching us, listening to us? I was always afraid of that, not just for my sake, but his as well- I could never let anything happen to him. You understand what I mean, right?"
Valentine nodded slowly and put a hand on his arm. Physically, her hand felt cold, but there was still a special warmth to it, which momentarily startled him, but he picked up where he left off.
"They told me one day that I was to be married to a princess from your country- Elisabeth de Valois. I knew nothing about her; they told me nothing about her except that she would be coming to Spain in a few weeks and I would meet her on my wedding day. I was so excited, though, when they told me I would be married because I believed that finally, I'd have someone I could connect with, I could share everything with, finally, with no fear of always being watched. They don't spy on husbands and wives together, you see. And I was so excited, in fact, that a short time later, when I heard that there would be an expedition to France leaving soon to bring the princess to Spain, I disguised myself as a humble envoy, managed to get into the expedition, and went to France." He reflected for just a moment, and remarked, half to himself, half to her, "The things I do sometimes...I am practically insane with all the emotions I feel, never having a way to show them- at least I think that's why..." He couldn't quite put what he was thinking into words.
But Valentine understood, and finished, "You do the things you do, why you cannot help but burst sometimes, even though everyone else says you're crazy."
Carlos half-smiled. "Exactly. You really do understand."
For a few seconds, neither of them spoke, but Valentine gently prompted, "Was that the end? I don't think that's the end, is it?"
Carlos snapped back to what he had been thinking. "Oh! No, sorry-"
"It's alright; you don't have to apologize."
Carlos relaxed and continued:
"I went to France, Fontainebleau to be specific, I assume you know where it is, and I was traveling with the expedition in the woods when I heard the others say, 'That is Elisabeth de Valois.' And since I knew she was there, I went and hid until I could meet her for myself, alone, with no one watching me...free to show myself as I was. And then I saw her." For a moment, he forgot himself, lost in those blissful memories, the last time- and one of the only times- he'd been in complete happiness and peace, but he quickly remembered Valentine was still there, wanting to hear what he had to express.
"Like you did with the Huguenot- now, did you say what his name was?"
"Oh, no. His name is Raoul de Nangis."
"A wonderful name for someone who sounds like a wonderful man." Valentine's face fell, and Carlos, realizing he'd probably upset her without meaning to, rubbed her shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"No, no, don't apologize. It's me who needs to apologize for not being clear enough."
"You don't need to apologize for anything, Valentine."
"No." He waited for her to protest again, but to his surprise, she did not, so he kept going. "I fell in love with her at first sight. She did not know who I was, though, because I was in disguise. Other than the disguise, though, I was completely honest with her, showing her my true self- and she seemed to like it. When I told her that I was, in fact, Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, she was thrilled, and she said she loved me and we would be happy together forever...and in that moment, I felt as happy as a person can be, I felt ecstatic..." His expression darkened as time ran its course in his thoughts. "But it was not meant to be," he said sadly. Tears trickled down his cheeks.
Valentine took her hand and wiped as many of the fast-sliding tears off his cheeks as she could. "If it doesn't hurt you so much to tell," she said gently and softly as she worked, "what happened?"
Carlos sighed. "It does hurt to even think about it, but I need to get it off my chest. While we were together, in the woods, the people of the court at Fontainebleau came and hailed Elisabeth as the new Queen of Spain. But she was only supposed to be a princess, and we were both confused. And then they said it: they'd decided Elisabeth would marry my father instead."
Valentine gasped. "Oh, Carlos, I am so sorry! I don't know whether it is better or worse you came so close to being with your true love...for me, I knew it would never be possible, and at least you had that golden moment where you were living in your dream..."
Carlos shook his head. "They told Elisabeth it was her choice whether or not she'd accept the new marriage, but it was no choice: either she would marry my father or the war between France and Spain would continue, and it would destroy more lives. Of course, she chose the former, as anyone with a heart would do, and ever since, I have felt nothing but despair and love that I know is wrong, love for the woman who is my new mother..." He completely lost it, sprawling onto the ground and watering the grass with his tears. But only for a moment, because Valentine pulled him up into a sitting position and wrapped him in her arms.
"Carlos...you don't deserve any of this...I am so sorry...you came so close, and then you lost it all. I could never imagine that, because I feel like even if there was a chance for me to find happiness, my dream of being able to love the one I truly love, the world would steal it away before I even managed to see it." She sighed. "Such is life for some people."
"Valentine...you will have your chance."
"You really think so?" she asked, shocked, her face twisted in an expression of confusion and surprise.
"If it could happen for me, a crazy, weird, melancholy prince, it will most definitely happen for you, a kind, loving, strong, beautiful woman, I can feel it. You haven't actually seen your chance ripped away from you...so it is not a hopeless cause."
She mused over his words and then replied, "Yes...I guess you're right." Thinking silently for a few more seconds, she slowly told him, "Right now, the world has put you in a very difficult situation. I understand. But there is one thing you must know."
"What is it?"
"You have had the great fortune to find love. It may seem that you have lost it forever, but love is the lifeblood of the world, and I don't just mean romance. There are other kinds of love too- of family, of friends, of humanity. You have at least one friend, and someday you will be a king, ruling half the people of the world." Carlos winced for a second, but she continued on bravely. "Don't be afraid of that; if you rule with love, you can do anything. Like the princess I serve, Marguerite de Valois- she is helping to keep the peace between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France, even though it is near-impossible to do, by ruling with love, not violence. But as I was saying just a moment ago, you will rule half the people of the world. And if you use the love you already feel to rule them, then not just the people, but the world itself, will love you. Even though I will never rule, I try to live the same way...even though it is very hard."
At that moment, they both heard a blackbird start to sing from the branches of a nearby acacia tree. The two of them, hugging each other tightly, silently turned their gazes to the east. Dawn was just beginning to break out over the horizon.
Valentine got up quickly. "I need to get home," she whispered, "before my father wakes up. But before I go, I want to thank you."
"For what?" Carlos asked, racking his brain to try to find any reason she'd be indebted to him.
"For encouraging me," she replied, a smile bursting across her face, wider than he'd seen her smile this whole time. "You say I will find my chance, so I will hold my head high and wait for my chance, and if it comes, I will grab onto it and I won't let go."
Carlos smiled back. "Valentine...I will probably never see you again, so I want to thank you right now too. You have encouraged me so much as well, more than anyone I have ever met, in fact...I will try to love the world, and hope it will love me back. It will be hard, and I might fail-"
"Don't say that! Believe in yourself, and you will do it, I just know it."
"-But I will try anyway, and I will try to not fall into despair." He smiled. "Goodbye, Valentine, my friend."
"And you are my friend as well," she replied, still smiling. "It's a wonderful thing, to have a friend who really understands."
"I will say the same about you."
"Carlos...I must go now, but I hope that we are able to see each other again, and that you find happiness and love."
He grinned. "And I you on both accounts."
Carlos and Valentine hugged once more, and then each went their separate ways, back to their homes, their families, their lives, but both with something new, something strange yet completely and utterly wonderful- a friend who completely understood.
They both felt all the better for it.