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New Decameron Sixty-Five: Sue Burke

Princess Magpie

by Sue Burke

Chapter 1

The royal palace in the city of Leon, capital of the Kingdom of Leon, in the year 1087

What did an eight-year-old bride know about marriage? She knew what she had been told.

She knew that her name, Urraca, was the name of a black and white bird with a long beautiful blue tail and a less beautiful voice, and it was also a family name, a name for royalty, and she might someday be queen herself. She yearned for that.

She also knew that she was being readied for that role, and sometimes she had to attend events or meet visitors and behave properly. People were always coming and going in her father’s court, and every one of them wanted to be taken seriously, which meant giving them attention. Her best instructions on how to do that came from her mother.

On an afternoon in early autumn, her mother and her aunt took her to her room, which she shared with some other girls and young noblewomen in the court. Sunshine lit the room, filled with beds and chests, through the open door.

“You going to meet my great-nephew,” her mother said, and she seemed happy, which was unusual. It told Urraca that this meeting would be especially important for some reason. “What should you wear?”

This was part of the test: always the proper clothes for every occasion. Any relative of her mother would be nobility, so the answer was easy. “The red dress.” It was the newest and prettiest, made of wool brocade, and edged at the neck and sleeves with shining yellow silk embroidery – although it was still a bit too big. Her mother nodded and her aunt took it from a chest.

Urraca would need to know more to greet him properly, and before her mother prompted her, which she would do with annoyance, she asked, “What is his name?”

“Raymond, son of the count of Burgundy. You’ll like him. He’s come to help your father.”

“Help him fight the new Saracens?” She hoped so. Thousands of dark-skinned soldiers, called the Almoravids, had arrived from Africa, which was a big land on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. They came from south of Africa’s great sandy desert, and they wanted to replace the other Saracens who had occupied parts of Hispania for centuries. These new Saracens especially wanted to take back land that her father and other Christian kingdoms had won from the old Saracens. Everyone was worried about that. Leon had thick city walls built by the Romans, but a long time ago the old Saracens had conquered and held it for a little while until an ancestor of Urraca took it back.

Her father had been fighting bravely against these new Saracens and not always winning. He had returned from the last battle with a permanent limp. He needed help.

“Yes,” her mother said, “Raymond will help, and he’s going to stay. He’s had a fine upbringing and he’s quite skilled at fighting.”

The women pulled off her plainer dress and slipped the red one over her chemise, then they sat her on a bed, her mother on one side and her aunt on the other, and gently combed her blond hair as they talked and Urraca listened. Every woman needed to understand her husband’s work to manage it while he was away or if he died, so her mother knew all about the kingdom, and her aunt governed a city and owned much land: Everything they said carried some scrap of knowledge:

This Raymond was from the north, from France like her mother, with all its improved ways of religion and learning. He knew something about governing as well as warfare. He had fought at the siege of the city of Tudela, which Urraca already knew a lot about, and then he’d come to visit her mother a week ago. Her father was going to make him a count, which was the title for an associate to a king.

“The realm is getting too big,” her mother said – but that made no sense. Everyone admired her father for reuniting the kingdom, which her grandfather had split. Then her father had taken more land from the Saracens or made their bordering kingdoms give him tribute in exchange for peace. All that was good.

Urraca listened closely, and the idea of good but too big seemed to be one of those things that everyone had already agreed on so they no longer discussed it, and somehow it had to do with this experienced and respected Raymond from France. She imagined this new associate to her father as an older man, a dignified graybeard – she had recently learned the word in Latin for gray hair, canus, delightfully close to the word for dog-like, caninus – and this graybeard would speak in an accent with soft and swallowed vowels like everyone from France.

Her aunt drew a comb across the middle of her head, and the women began braiding her hair on either side. Urraca sat stiff and proud: braided hair, just like a grown woman, but without a crisp white veil, which was for married women. Her mother opened a small chest and pulled out a gold necklace with pearls. Urraca gasped as her mother draped it around her neck. Gold and pearls! Then her mother, with chilly fingers, slipped gold earrings set with rubies into her earlobes. Urraca looked down at the gleaming necklace on her chest and enjoyed the tug of the jewels on her ears, which confirmed the importance of this Raymond. When she met him, she would have to act exactly like a future queen.

That was probably today’s test, and it worried her. For all her years of trying and training and learning the proper words and phrases, it was still hard to do the exact right thing at every single moment.

Her mother gestured for her to stand up. “You should smile. I’m sure you’ll like him. He’s quite handsome. And I would be very pleased if he liked you.” Very pleased. That was an order: Make sure he likes you.

Then her aunt pulled out a blue fringed cloak from the chest, and they fastened it around her neck, the final touch of adulthood. She smiled and took a deep, satisfied breath because, for all her worries, this would be her chance to be important. She would act every moment like a queen! She could even pretend she already had a crown. Flanked by the women, they descended the stairs to the ground floor.

Of all her father’s palaces and castles, she liked this one best, a large square stone building two stories high with towers at each corner and a wide inner courtyard: strong, spacious, and bright, with a brasier in most of its two dozen rooms to provide warmth even on snowy winter days. Only two churches in the city of Leon were bigger.

The courtyard had a small garden in one corner, and there her father sat on a bench beneath a bare tree. He wore a golden-yellow robe and had his bad leg propped up on a stool. Sitting across from him on another bench was a reddish-haired, very young man in a fur-trimmed tunic. Was that Raymond? He seemed unimpressive for some reason, perhaps the way he sat, a little hunched over.

Her mother and aunt remained at the foot of the stairs, and she walked toward the garden with all the queen-like confidence she could. The man stood as she approached, gave her an unmistakably hard look, then smiled politely as he bowed. Her father came to stand beside him.

“Count Raymond, I present my oldest child, Urraca.” He took her hand to guide her to sit next to him.

So this was Raymond. He had no gray hair at all in his curly beard. She kept her face serenely regal as she wondered why he seemed so different from what she’d expected.

As king, her father had the honor of starting any conversation, but instead he looked at her. He wanted her to start. She knew what to do. People from distant lands always liked to talk about their homes.

“I hear you are from Burgundy in France. My mother has told me how different it is from here.”

“Why yes,” he said, and talked easily about how Burgundy was greener and cooler, so she had asked a good opening question. He spoke with a charming accent and seemed properly courteous. Her mother said he was handsome, and good looks were a blessing. But soon he mentioned why he had come, traveling with other French nobles to fight for her father and Christendom. 

“You fought at Tudela, did you not?” she said.

He looked down, suddenly embarrassed. “We besieged it for months, but it did not fall.”

“The city has fine fortifications,” she said, and he looked at her, his eyes first wide with surprise, then narrowed, as if he were thinking. Perhaps he didn’t know she had been assigned for a full year now to serve during many of her father’s councils, ready to run errands but mostly standing off to the side, listening. Now she could repeat what she’d heard and show how much she’d learned. “Any city that rich can hold out long.”

He looked like she had criticized him – and she didn’t want to insult him. She was supposed to make him like her. After a moment of thought, she knew what to say.

“I’m sure it served as an important reminder to the king of Zaragoza that we will always fight, and it encouraged the Almoravids not to return. What did you learn that can be used next time?” Her father, sitting next to her, chuckled. He must have realized where she had learned those exact words: from his own lips during council meetings.

Raymond looked at her with narrowed eyes again. She had heard that the siege had been a complete failure, and she had a rough idea of what a failed siege might be like, or at least she knew what people had said when they discussed it at council meetings, trying to find what good they could from the loss. She could repeat those sentences, too, and show that she could speak wisely like a queen.

“Perhaps,” she said, “you learned something about the fortifications themselves, their weaknesses and strengths.”

He relaxed a bit and began to discuss its towers and the strategies of its defenders. She glanced at her father. He gazed at her with his chin lifted in pride. With that encouragement, she asked – or rather, recited – more questions about techniques to siege such a large city, how to handle the surrounding population, and the terms under which they had negotiated lifting the siege. She listened to him carefully. Someday, she was sure, she would understand exactly what all these details meant.

His behavior grew odd, not merely confident: he became happy. No, not happy, he began to laugh – at her, looking at her and grinning, so close to disrespect that it infuriated her. She was trying as hard as she could to be likeable, and to be a queen. What was she doing wrong? She glanced at her father. He was grinning too! Why? She had acted just like him.

But she also had learned from her father that a sovereign must never show anger, and humility could mask almost every failure. She had seen him do that many times. She could act like him.

“I have heard,” she said, trying not to clench her teeth as she recited the right ceremonial words, “you will remain to help my father. We are very pleased that someone of your skills and nobility will be in his service. This is truly a blessing for us all.”

That only made him more insolent. “And a blessing for me, to serve God by serving such a fine king in such a well-fated kingdom.”

If she had to be queenlike any longer she would scream, but the conversation seemed to have reached a sort of conclusion. She had learned a useful sentence for this kind of situation. “I must go now and leave you two to consider more weighty matters.”

She slid forward to hop off the bench, but Raymond moved faster, offering his hand to help her – and how could she refuse? When she was standing, he knelt and kissed her hand, still grinning as if she were a buffoon. His whiskers tickled her hand, and she forced herself not to jerk it back.

He said, “I shall always be your willing servant, my lady.”

She bowed to her father and left, saying nothing because she might easily say something very improper. Her mother and aunt were still waiting at the stairway, and they accompanied her back up, both grinning as broadly as that Raymond.

When they were alone in her room, she turned to her mother, eyes wet with frustration.

“Why is everyone laughing at me? Especially him. He laughed harder than anyone, and I did nothing wrong.”

At that, her mother laughed – she actually laughed, she who rarely even smiled. Urraca closed her eyes, trembling with rage, and her mother’s hands gently settled on her shoulders.

“We’re not laughing at you. You did everything right. We’re joyful because he likes you very much, and that makes us all happy, because he is going to be your husband.”

Her eyes sprang open wide. “I’m going to marry him?”

Why hadn’t they told her?

“He is noble and eager to serve your father, and he will be the count of all Galicia for him.”

Urraca tried to make sense of this. The laughter had not been directed at her. It had been joy over the wedding. She was going to get married. To Raymond. Married! She felt herself smile even before she realized how happy she was. Although she was still so young, she was going to be a wife! Everything now made sense, and he had kissed her hand and said he would always be her servant.

“I like him, too,” Urraca said, not sure if that was true, but she could learn to like him if she had to. “He will be the count of Galicia?” That was a major part of her father’s kingdom. He – and she – would be important.

“Yes,” her mother said. “Let’s get you changed back into the other dress. Would you like to keep the earrings on today? To celebrate.”

“Yes.” She didn’t dare ask, When will we go to Galicia?, but she knew that a wife’s proper place was at her husband’s side.

“He’s going to manage Galicia in place of the king.” Her mother lifted off the beautiful necklace. “Your father can’t visit as often as he should, so he needs someone there.”

“It’s good that Raymond is an outsider,” her aunt said. “No one hates him already.”

Those words reminded Urraca about an uprising she had heard of in Galicia a year ago, and her father had to rush there from Toledo, and some people were imprisoned or exiled. Not enough had been said about it in front of her. Clearly, she needed to learn more to fulfill her duty to help her husband.

They dressed her again but left the braids in place, then her mother told her to study certain pages of a book about the life of Saint Augustine until she returned. Urraca dutifully sat out in the gallery above the courtyard, where the light was bright and the book was propped up in a lectern on a table, but she read very little.

She was going to go off to Galicia with Raymond and be a wife and soon a mother. There, just as her own mother had taught her to read and write following the example of the way the Virgin Mary had taught young Jesus, she would teach her own children. She would manage a palace, she would preside over fine dinners and hunting parties and celebrations. She would pray and patronize churches and monasteries and give fine gifts to the houses of God so He would hear her prayers when Raymond went off to fight. She had heard Galicia was hilly and green with fields and thick forests, although it rained far too much.

Then something obvious occurred to her. She and Raymond would rule over Galicia in preparation to taking her father’s throne. Her father was already quite old, forty-seven, and he went into battle often. This wedding meant she really would be a queen. She had always hoped it was God’s plan for her, and now it was true. She folded her arms, closed her eyes, and began a prayer of thanks: She would visit churches, make them strong, and be an example, since common people were usually not pious enough....

“Urraca.” It was her mother. “Have you practiced reading?” She sounded like she knew she hadn’t.

“A little.” Lying never worked with her. “I was praying for Raymond.”

Her mother sat beside her. “Good. Yes, Raymond. A lot will change because of that. It’s time for you to further your education with a guardian.”

“But I should be with Raymond.”


“But –”

Her mother tapped her on the cheek, close enough to a slap to have an effect. Urraca looked down, ashamed or resentful, she couldn’t tell which.

“When you’re ready, you’ll take on all the duties of a wife, but first you must learn a lot more and you must be older.” She sighed, as if this was hard to say. “You’ll be sent to live with Count Pedro Ansúrez and his wife, Eyla, in Valladolid. You’ve met them.”

“Yes.” Or rather, she’d seen them in court. They seemed nice, but always in a hurry. Her cheek still stung or she would have said a lot more. She kept staring at the wooden floor.

“And you know how significant Valladolid is.”

“Yes.” It was a little farming town being repopulated so it would become an important city. It was far away from Galicia.

“Think of all you can learn there, things that you will need to know to help your husband. You have a duty.”

She looked up at her mother. A lot of children were sent to live with tutors, but she didn’t want to go! She should be with her new husband. Or she should be at court, learning what she could from her father.

She held back all her emotions and said what she had to. “Yes, Mother.”

“And this should make you happy.”

Happy? She looked at her mother again, who had lost her first husband to war and then lost two babies by Urraca’s father to illness, and now she was pregnant again. Once her mother had described the court as a constant quarrel by everyone with everyone, and she smiled when it was polite and rarely otherwise. She was a wise queen, most people said so, but Urraca didn’t want to grow up to be like her. She would rather be like her aunt.

“I’ll miss Raymond.”

“You’ve only just met him. But it’s good that you’ll be a loyal wife. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the wedding pledge with a dinner, and you can talk to him then. For now, exactly how much did you read?”

Urraca pointed to the top of the page.

“You have to know proper Latin. Read this to me.”

“Yes.… Tomorrow? I’ll be at dinner? Serving?” The excitement made it too hard to read. Usually only older children had the honor to serve at dinner.

“As the bride, you will dine, not serve. Now, read to me.”

“Dine with you, all of you?”

“You’ll dine at the head table. I’ll sit next to your father, Raymond will sit next to me, and you’ll sit next to him. Do we need to review proper behavior at dinner? Or will you read?”

She had never eaten at a formal adult dinner before, much less at the head table, and she marveled at the prospect. Also, obediently, she read aloud about a saint who, when he was a boy, didn’t like to do his lessons, and she knew what she was supposed to learn from that, something she already understood, so it meant little to her, when what mattered was that tomorrow, she would see Raymond again, dining like the adult she had suddenly and happily become.

That night, she added him to her prayers as she prepared for bed with the other girls – her younger sister and two younger half-sisters, along with some young women whose parents were visiting the court. She prayed for God to protect his health and soul, and, she added silently, to watch over his success in Galicia and, eventually, on the throne – with her. And she asked for help for herself to behave properly at dinner, knowing she could also whisper questions to her mother for guidance.

But the next day her mother was ill from her pregnancy, so Countess Jimena would take her place at the dinner. Urraca was told that and little more. She already knew everything. Jimena was not the king’s wife but was almost like one, and she was of high nobility, treated courteously by everyone, and some people even liked her, although not Urraca’s mother. Urraca followed her mother’s lead, not quite clear on the details but sensing a rivalry, especially when her mother said, “She bears him no sons either.” Jimena’s second daughter, Teresa, one year younger than Urraca, resented her, and Urraca could not resist resenting her back, and they slept in far corners of their shared room.

Countess Jimena would sit next to Raymond, and would likely do no more than protocol required to welcome him or help Urraca. As evening drew near, Urraca at times felt ravenous, at times too nervous to eat a crust of bread.

Her aunt took her to her own room to help her get ready – and to her surprise and delight gave her a new dress of striped green silk, the most beautiful she had ever worn, lending her more extravagant jewelry and a narrow gold belt. All the while, Urraca asked questions: when should she wash her hands (when they brought her the washing bowl), what if the seat was too low (it would have cushions on it, or she could ask for them), what if she did not like the food (there would be many dishes and she was sure to like one), what about the wine (the servers would slip her juice), and what if she got bored (listen to the music and sit still). Her aunt had no children and always seemed more gentle than her mother.

“Just be pleasant,” her aunt said, “which you always are, and patient, which no one is by nature, and do not eat too much, as if you were a rustic.” With a little hug, she accompanied her to the dining hall on the first floor, where her aunt would sit at a different table but within eyeshot just in case.

The long room was lit with so many candles and oil lamps that she could almost see what was in all the corners. A banner hung behind the front table. Raymond had already arrived and stood alone, as if he were listening to the musicians, but he stood straighter as he saw Urraca and her aunt approach, bowed, and shared formal greetings. He and her aunt discussed the strategic situation of the frontier city she ruled, Zamora, and they had just begun to discuss Toledo when the king arrived, wearing a gold crown that glowed in the candlelight, and walking in a way that hid his limp. Everyone stopped what they were doing, washed their hands, and, after the king had sat down, they took their own seats.

Her father rose to welcome the guests.

“We dine tonight,” he declared, “to celebrate the coming marriage of my daughter to my new count and future son-in-law from France, Raymond, son of Count William of Burgundy, great-nephew to my wife Constance. He came to answer the call sent to France by the Pope and the abbot of Cluny to fight the Almoravids, and when he saw our blessed lands and our need to advance Christendom, he chose to stay and add to the greatness of our kingdoms of Leon, Castile, and Galicia!”

People cheered politely. Raymond rose and bowed, blushing, which surprised Urraca. Had he never been cheered before? When the noise died down, her father continued.

“And what can I say of my daughter Urraca that you do not already know? I could speak of her beauty, her wit, her obedience, and her piety – all at an early age. She is a fine daughter who will make a fine wife!”

There was more cheering again, perhaps louder, or so it seemed to her, and she was used to hearing cheering when her father entered a city with her in the retinue, but never for herself. It made her feel more like a queen-to-be. Following Raymond’s example, she rose and bowed – although, was it right to bow, since she was royal? She would ask her aunt after dinner.

Then the bishop, seated on the other side of the king, rose for a prayer, calling for blessings on the new couple, among blessings for many other people. Urraca clasped her hands ready to murmur each name in turn, but after he mentioned Queen Constance, she prayed too hard to listen. Then she thought about herself. Would pregnancy be as hard for her? Holy Mary, who blesses all women, be with me when I need you, and be with my mother now – and all women in the troubles of motherhood, words she had memorized. The prayer included all women because, as her father said, all people were equal before God and it would offend Him to scorn or forget any of them.

When she was done, Bishop Bernard had already finished his prayer, and the noble boys who were serving their table were bringing platters and pitchers.

Raymond asked, “Is he French, then, the bishop?”

“Yes, a Cluny.”

“Bishop of Toledo, I hear.”

“Since last year, even before my father took the city. He’s been very busy helping the Christians there so they worship the right way, and he has to go see the Pope in Rome.” She spoke quietly, hoping the noise in the dining hall would keep others from overhearing, and thought about what else, anything else, she knew that could help her new husband, or husband-to-be, which seemed like the same thing to her. “He was in Sagahun before. Toledo is a very important city, and everyone celebrated when Father made it surrender.”

Raymond nodded, and he seemed to be thinking. What more could she say about Toledo?

A red-haired man approached the table, bowed to the king, and then spoke loudly to Raymond with a French accent.

“A fine bride you have! Would that I had her.” He spoke as if she weren’t there.

Raymond made a sound halfway between a sigh and a grunt. “Let me present you to her properly,” he said, as annoyed as she was. “My dear Princess Urraca, this is our cousin, Henri, son of the duke of Burgundy. We came together to your kingdom to fight with his older brother.”

“And now,” Henri said, ignoring the correction, “having lost another battle to you, but not by your own skills, I shall return home. Enjoy yourself in your new land.” He laughed and went back to his seat.

He seemed to have come just to bother Raymond, who slumped again.

“What did he mean?” she asked.

“Oh, he wanted to marry you, and your mother wanted that, too, but he is too close of a cousin to you. So your parents chose me.”

“Instead of him.” He was the second choice.

“I think he’s jealous.” He shook his head as if he didn’t believe something. Then he looked around the room and murmured, “Can you tell me, who is that man at the table there? In the tabard with the lion.” The young man sat in the center of the table, clearly important.

She knew and suddenly wondered why he didn’t. “That’s Pedro González from Lara. He’s just become my father’s standard-bearer. Do you know him?”

Raymond did not. In fact, he knew few people, although he had been at the palace now for a week.

“Haven’t you met anyone?” She realized immediately that was rude to say, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Not everyone wants to talk to me.” He shook his head again, and gestured at Jimena sitting next to him – with her eyes only for the king – as someone who’d snubbed him. “And when you are sent away, there will be less reason to notice me.”

“I’d like to stay.”

“The choice is not yours or mine.”

Urraca wasn’t surprised that Jimena had ignored him, but she wondered why the men wouldn’t speak to him. The court was one long quarrel, though, as her mother said. If she were at his side, he’d be more noticeable and they’d have to talk to him.

Still, she felt confused – or some other unpleasant feeling she couldn’t identify. She would obey her parents about choosing Raymond as a husband and about being sent away for her education, but a vague thought formed, so horrible that she wanted to ignore it: She didn’t need to like her parents’ decisions. She had another horrible thought: Perhaps she was being sent away deliberately. Would her parents do such a thing? Sometimes she felt confused by things that happened in court.

She would marry Raymond, of course, and serve him in every matter, as a wife must, but if she would be queen, he needed to be king, and maybe, if no one liked him, he wouldn’t be a good king.

She maintained her dignity throughout the dinner, sometimes by listening closely to the music, sometimes by eating the fine food, but that night, hoping that the other girls wouldn’t notice, as a guard paced from time to time across the roof above, she wept and wondered what to do. She couldn’t imagine a single thing beyond obedience. He would go to Galicia, she would go to Valladolid, and not only would she be alone, she would be unable to help him, and he needed her help.


"So young," Maya says. "And so caught between power and powerlessness."

"Fascinating," he agrees. "And there was a banquet, but not enough description of food for me to grab anything, I'm sorry."

"That's all right," she says. "Was it really like that?"

He shrugs. "Spain? I don't know. It felt really solidly well researched."

"I'll look forward to reading the rest of it one day," she says. "Meanwhile what shall we read next?"

"Something with lunch, with luck. How about this?" He holds up a book. "M.A. Carrick, a new writer to me, The Mask of Mirrors."

'Great title," Maya says, takes the book, and they read.

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