King Philip and his soldiers made their way to the cloister of San Yuste in haste, clothed in the royal array of the Crown and the rightful authority of the Almighty.
The hour was late, but some men were still about their business in his prosperous city. They fell respectfully silent before the King’s entourage, though Philip did not fail to note the undercurrent of murmuring at the passage of the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor.
This old man of ninety, and blind, was still more authoritative than any other within the kingdom. It was almost as if he had more authority than a King.
In this moment, Philip did not doubt it.
He had never felt less powerful; his heart was broken with great grief, and an even greater rage. He had been cruelly, monstrously betrayed. It had been Carlos who had committed treason against the Crown, and Philip had had the wrong man killed for it.
The Grand Inquisitor had said, of Posa: Why did you not consult us before you sought the arms of such a man? Why did you rob this office of its victim?
Philip would not make the same mistake again. He would surrender his son to appease the realm’s eternal justice, in the same way as God's own son was offered up to the cross.
And as for his Queen? The news had come like a treacherous wind from the north: she had deceived him, had betrayed him with Carlos. If, God help him, if it were true ...
The entourage arrived at the cloister on foot, and by stealth. The great tomb of Charles V, his royal father and predecessor, loomed above them like a monument to their kingdom’s infallibility. The moon and the stars stood as silent witness to all that was about to transpire.
And it was in one stroke that the peace of Philip’s kingdom — the toil of many years; of his, and his father’s before him — was shattered.
Carlos and Elisabeth stood together beside the tomb. Outlined against the night, their lithe, youthful bodies were very close to each other, barely a sliver of moonlight separating them. His face, upturned to hers, was filled with naked longing; hers, turned away, was a study in regret.
Farewell for ever, they were saying to each other; until we meet again in a world reigned over by the peace of our Lord.
The footfall on the stone of the cloister took them by surprise.
“Yes, farewell for ever,” Philip said. He did not believe he could be so calm in the face of such violation. He felt cold all over, as if the fluid in his veins had been turned completely to ice.
His wife and his son wheeled around. The blood drained from both their faces — so young, once so beloved.
He remembered how Elisabeth had looked when she had come to him from Fontainebleau: pale and lovely and dutiful, as if she had learned to love the man as well as the king. He remembered Carlos as a little boy, tiny face bright with welcome, running heedlessly ahead of his attendants to greet his father.
He could now see, in this moment of their abandon to one another, that their love for him had been a lie.
“You see how it is,” the Grand Inquisitor cried out, into the deathly silence; “you see how you were deceived, O King. But not the Church. Infante, you cannot escape from us. And thus the Crown and the Church are both avenged.”
“Father, wait,” Carlos stammered. The whelp had dared to put himself in front of Elisabeth, as if he could shield her from the fate that would befall them both. “It isn’t what you think.”
Elisabeth was trying to push herself forward, saying something about faithfulness; Philip could not look at her. His heart was filled to its brim with winter. He stared into the Infante’s burning eyes as if he could see all the way down into his son’s traitorous soul.
As if from very far away, he heard himself saying, “There must be a double sacrifice. I shall do my duty.”
“No,” cried his Queen, amid the even more chilling sound of the Inquisition’s soldiers unsheathing their swords.
With a desperate cry, Carlos, too, pulled his sword from its scabbard.
“The Inquisition will also do its duty,” the Grand Inquisitor said, as the soldiers pressed forward, cold steel glinting in the moonlight.
It fell to Philip to preside over and bear witness to the sacrifice of traitors to the Crown. In any case, the righteousness of his grief and rage had frozen him in his place, as if he had become a statue carved from ice. He was almost glad of it. He did not know if he would otherwise have been able to watch his son’s last, hopeless battle for his life.
Carlos was acquitting himself competently. Despair gave him a burst of speed; his blade flashed as if directed by a divine hand. But there were too many soldiers. Inch by inch, he was slowly forced to cede his ground, until he had backed himself up against the smooth grey stone of the tomb.
There, the Infante made his brave stand. One stroke, one frantic parry, and then another ...
... and suddenly, there was the sound of creaking, and the iron grille of the tomb — which had been closed for decades, held fast with rusting chains — ground open.
“Put up your swords,” said a familiar voice.
It was impossible. The man was dead, falsely cut down in the prime of his life at Philip’s command. Philip himself had seen the body —
— and yet here he was: the Duke of Posa, the hero of St. Elmo’s Castle, as strong and handsome as he had been in life. His white tunic was marked with blood in the place where the soldier’s bullet had pierced his breast, his tall, cloaked body limned with a brightness that did not come from the moon.
His eyes shone an otherworldly silver, with the untold distances he had travelled to arrive at this place.
The soldiers drew back, murmuring his name in fear and respect. One after the other, they fell to their knees.
Carlos staggered, as if he would also fall. He opened his mouth but no words came forth.
The being that had been Posa took a step forward, and took the Infante’s hand.
“Alas, my prince,” he said, slowly, “the sorrows of the earth follow us even in this place of eternal rest.”
The Grand Inquisitor had come to stand beside the King. “The voice of the martyr,” he murmured; Philip could feel the old man’s body trembling with all-too-human frailty.
At last, Philip found his own voice. “Posa,” he said, and then, “my son,” — which would have surprised him, had this night not already been too full of cataclysms unforeseen and undreamt of.
The shining figure turned its silver gaze to Philip’s. “My King,” he said, inclining his head, and Philip felt the force of it like a blow to the heart.
“My King, let me convey this wisdom from beyond the grave — to you, and to His Holiness, and to all present here. Since my passing, I roamed the Earth, unable to take my place in Paradise while Spain remained in such turmoil, while my King and my Queen and my beloved Prince were unreconciled to one another.”
Posa paused briefly, the memory of his long sorrow making him appear almost human again. “Finally, I was drawn to this cloister where kings sleep. Your royal father was kind enough to shelter my poor soul in his own place of rest… and in that way, I was present when a mother and a son of this family arrived to say their farewells.”
Again, he paused. When he spoke again he did so soberly, slowly, his voice ringing with the authority of one who was no longer living.
“Allow me to attest as Heaven’s witness to their meeting. Nothing transpired this night between the Queen and the Infante that was not proper as between a mother and a son.”
Close to him, a woman was weeping. Philip did not at first realise it was Elisabeth, who had not wept for him before this, or for herself.
“I promised you I would watch over his life, but I failed,” she whispered.
Philip did not know what she meant, but the spectre of Posa clearly understood, and took pity. He addressed her with a shadow of his old gentleness and with infinite compassion.
“The fault was mine, my Queen. As was this task, with which I should never have burdened you. But now, take up your new task, for your days are not yet over; Heaven itself has ordained it.”
Philip was aware of tremors building within his breast, like fissures within a frozen lake that would, within moments, shatter the ice irretrievably into a multitude of broken pieces. He barked, “Be plain, Posa! I will not have you speak in riddles, even though you do so from beyond the grave!”
The dead Duke turned to behold his King. And so looking, Philip trembled — for now Posa looked like a graven icon of himself, as remote as the stars, and as uncompromising.
“Is this plain enough, my King? She is faithful to you, and to Almighty God. The Inquisition has no claim over her, and would stand condemned were it to try. As would you be, royal Philip.”
Philip let out a quivering gasp. The ice shattered; without transition, he found himself on his knees. He reached out blindly for an anchor — and astonishingly, he felt Elisabeth’s fingers curl around his, with something like forgiveness.
“Not the traitor,” said the Grand Inquisitor, from Philip’s other side.
The old man’s voice was unsteady, without its usual force, but he had nevertheless managed to remain on his feet in order to challenge this envoy of the eternal. “Duke, all of Heaven must acknowledge the Infante’s crimes. Even if he is innocent of this sin against Nature, he has still committed treason behind our backs, in league with our enemies. He sinned against his faith and his country, and must face judgment.”
This was the argument the Grand Inquisitor had made before Philip, and one which the King could not then withstand. Now, it gave even dead Posa pause.
Then Carlos made a small, exhausted sound. He had let his sword fall to the ground; he now placed his sword hand on his friend’s faintly glowing shoulder.
“You cannot save me this time, my Rodrigo. God will crush this tribunal of blood with His own hand and by His own means.”
“My dear,” the Duke said, harshly. He gripped Carlos’ hands, his knuckles transparent with grief.
Carlos clasped back, whispering fiercely, “I am ready. Did I not swear that my realm would be with you?”
Posa might have passed beyond life, but its habits had not yet left him; he heaved a long and shaken sigh as he gazed into the Infante’s eyes. At long last, a smile stole over his face, bringing its graven beauty back from the realm of icons to that of mortal men, who could touch, and feel — and who could finally own to love, in the way he could not have in life.
“It is not the realm I had hoped for you, my Carlos, but at least it's one in which God has permitted us to love each other, close to Him.”
Carlos raised his friend’s hands to his lips. As if his father and mother and the Inquisition were not present, he whispered, “Is there room for me next to you in this tomb?”
“As we were in life, let us be together in death,” agreed Posa, tenderly. He opened his cloak and drew Carlos into his embrace, covering him within its shining folds.
Carlos spared a single backward glance — for Elisabeth, for his father. Philip had no idea what that look was intended to convey. Helplessly, he gathered Elisabeth into his arms and held her as she wept; he could only watch as the two men stepped back together into the darkness of the tomb.
For an instant they were outlined at the threshold, Rodrigo’s cloak shining in the gloom. Then they vanished entirely from view, as if the Earth itself had made a way for them, from this life into a far better world than the one they had left behind.