The next afternoon, after siesta, Felipe hired a taxi. That morning, he had enrolled for classes. To his relief, no one had noticed his absence of the night before. Now that the entrance exams and the enrollment process were safely behind him, he wanted to meet his third cousin, Don Rodrigo. As the coach rattled on the cobblestones of the streets of Madrid, he gazed out the windows, admiring the buildings and the crowds of people.
Grandfather says his cousin owns three castles scattered throughout Spain, his own town, and a townhouse right here in Madrid, Felipe thought. He shook his head at the grandeur of the idea. My late papa didn't even own his own two acres of land. Or the one-room wattle-and-daub hut my family lived in!
The coach pulled up in front of a three-story mansion. Felipe stepped out and paid the driver. As the taxi rolled away, the young man just stood there for a moment, gazing in awe at the stately, imposing edifice. As shyness swept through him, Felipe fought with the urge to turn tail and run.
Grandfather told me he wrote my third cousin long ago, telling him I was coming, he reminded himself. And he said Don Rodrigo wrote back, telling him he would expect me. Felipe patted his inside tailcoat pocket. To his relief, the folded letter of recommendation crinkled inside.
Taking a deep breath, Felipe strode toward the door and rang the doorbell. A moment later, the heavy, carved mahogany door swung open. A formally-dressed butler stood in the entrance.
"Is Don Rodrigo de la Vega at home?"
"Sí, señor. May I tell him who's calling on him?"
Felipe drew out his letter and handed it to the servant. "Por favor, tell him his third cousin, Felipe de la Vega, is here to meet him."
The butler glanced at the letter and nodded. "If you will come in and wait in the entrance, señor, I will inform my patron."
Felipe followed him inside and stopped in the entrance hall. The butler disappeared out of sight.
Felipe gazed at the oil paintings that adorned the walls. Over the years, his adoptive father had taught him to draw, to paint, to sculpt, and to play a variety of musical instruments. He had taught Felipe to appreciate art, music, and the theater as well as great literature. The young caballero fully intended to visit the Madrid museums, and to tour the Escorial when he had the time to spare.
"Señor?" The butler returned. "Don Rodrigo is waiting for you in the drawing room."
Felipe followed the man down a magnificent, spacious hall. His boots clicked on the gleaming marble floor. The butler stopped in front of a pair of double doors that stood wide open, and announced, "Don Felipe, your grace."
Felipe swallowed hard, as shyness threatened to overwhelm him again. Slowly, he crossed the threshold.
A tall, elderly gentleman dressed in a light-blue frock coat, matching trousers, a ruffled silk shirt, and a black silk cravat rose to his feet and approached the young man. "Well, well. So you are my cousin's adopted grandson." He smiled. "I'm your third cousin, Rodrigo de la Vega."
He held out his hand. Felipe shook it. The duke's grasp was firm.
"My wife will be down shortly. In the meantime, while we wait, have a seat, Felipe."
The two men perched on a silk brocade sofa. "Is this your first time in Spain?"
Felipe nodded. "Sí, señor."
Don Rodrigo leaned back. "Your father and grandfather have told me quite a bit about you in his letters. They told me about your early history, and the story of how Don Diego found you in Mexico."
Felipe smiled ruefully. "Sí. My parents were killed in a battle when I was a small child, just seven years old. Don Diego found me and took me to California. For years, I worked for them as a houseboy, then when I was 17, Don Diego adopted me."
The grandee nodded. "I know."
A lady dressed in a pink brocade gown and wearing a white silk mantilla entered the room, and Don Rodrigo smiled as he stood up again. "Hola, my dear." He kissed her, then turned to Felipe. "Dolores, may I present our third cousin, Felipe? Felipe, this is my wife, Doña Dolores de la Vega."
Felipe kissed her hand. "I am pleased to meet you, Doña Dolores."
"And I, to meet you." The elderly woman smiled at him. Like her husband, she had a kind face.
Doña Dolores glanced at a grandfather clock that stood against the far wall. "Uh, dearest, weren't we going to see the King today?"
Don Rodrigo slapped his forehead in chagrin. "I almost forgot about that! I was so busy welcoming our third cousin I forgot all about His Majesty."
He pulled a servant's bell, and the butler entered the room. "Sí, your grace?"
"Have our coach brought around to the front door." Don Rodrigo inserted his thumbs into his vest pockets as he spoke.
"Sí, you grace." The butler bowed and left.
Felipe smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry. I can come back another day."
Don Rodrigo glanced at his wife and shook his head. "Please don't. In fact, I think it would be an excellent idea if you came with us, Felipe. Have you met King Ferdinand yet?"
Felipe shook his head.
"Then you must come with us. The King has been awaiting your arrival for some time."
Felipe laughed. "Won't he be displeased if I come now? He's expecting you on this visit, not me."
Don Rodrigo looked serious. "No, he won't be. I really think you should come, my boy--unless, of course, you've got something else planned."
"No. I'll be delighted to come."
The duke nodded and patted Felipe's shoulder. Then, while Felipe sat on the couch and chatted with Doña Dolores, Don Rodrigo sat at his polished mahogany desk and wrote a letter. Felipe wondered whom it was for.
Minutes later, as they sat in the coach as it rattled over the cobbletones, he found out. Don Rodrigo drew the folded letter out of his inside coat pocket and handed it to his third cousin. When Felipe started to speak, Don Rodrigo shook his head and held his finger over his mouth.
Bewildered, Felipe unfolded the letter and read it silently.
"Felipe," it stated, "you need to know that you are in danger. I wanted to shield you from that knowledge, but the only way to protect you now is to forewarn you. You see, I, too, know that Sir Edmund is alive. He doesn't know that I know, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell him. The fact is, I do know, and like him, I'm working secretly to save the King from his enemies' plots.
"They are determined to ruin him, my boy, and they will use anyone they can to achieve their diabolical objective. I am a distant relative of the King, you see--as are your father and grandfather--and that puts my wife and me in great risk. Since you are a distant relative of his too--by adoption--you face the same risk. I wish I could tell you to stay out of it, but I fear it is too late to do so; you are already in this too deep. Therefore, I have gotten permission from the university dean for you to stay with my wife and me until classes begin in two weeks. It's for your own safety, Felipe.
"Doña Dolores and I will tell you more when we arrive at the castle. The King and I will tell you everything you need to know. Sir Edmund has only told you a little (yes, I know of your meetings with him and his niece). Until we get there, please hide this letter within your inside coat pocket and don't say a word about the matter until King Ferdinand and I give you leave to do so. Your third cousin, Don Rodrigo."
Felipe gaped at the man, who nodded without smiling. Without a word, Felipe refolded the letter and inserted it into his inside jacket pocket. At that moment, the coach stopped.
"We've arrived," Doña Dolores told the young man, as they stepped out of the coach. Her husband rang the doorbell.
Felipe gaped in awe at the stately palace until the door swung open and a footman stood there. "Please inform His Majesty that we are here to see him," Don Rodrigo said.
The footman nodded and extended his arm inward. The three visitors entered an anteroom. "I will tell His Majesty that you are here," the footman told them, then left.
As they waited, Felipe gazed in awe at the elegant room. If the rest of the palace was like this room, the King certainly lived in the lap of luxury!
"Come on, my boy, you can gawk later. The King is waiting for us." Felipe glanced at the amused expression on Don Rodrigo's face, then noticed that the footman had returned. The three of them followed him down a long, spacious hall into the Throne room. There, the King stepped down off his throne as they approached. Felipe and Don Rodrigo bowed, and Doña Dolores curtsied.
"Well, well." King Ferdinand VII gazed at Felipe as the young man tried in vain to hide his nervousness. "Who is this young man, Rodrigo?"
Don Rodrigo put an arm around Felipe's shoulder. "Your Majesty, may I present my third cousin, Felipe de la Vega, adopted grandson of my cousin, Don Alejandro?"
The King nodded. "I've known your grandfather for years, Felipe, and I became well-acquainted with your father, Diego, when he was a student at Madrid University. He often spoke of you, then, with much pride and affection."
Felipe smiled. "We've always been close, Your Majesty. He adopted me and made me his heir a few years ago."
"I know." The King glanced at his gold pocket timepiece. "If you will follow me, I know of a room that will be better suited to our discussion. Does Felipe know all, Rodrigo?"
"He knows some, but not all."
"Then we will tell him the rest." The King inserted his timepiece back into his silk vest pocket. "If you will be so kind, then, as to come with me." He strode away, and his three visitors followed him.