Vienna, Austria. 7th of June, 1547.
"Is it finished then?" his father asked, fiddling with his rings. Max nodded as he looked at the contract before him, the signatures at the end. They belonged to the Duke of Milan and the other was his father's, the scrawled and nervous writing that had taken him since the Duke of Württemberg died.
"It is," said Max. "Greta will marry Paolo Sforza." He spoke of his little sister, number nine in the overall list of siblings, Margarethe.
"And Eleonore? Have we found a husband for her yet?" his father asked.
"There is Wilhelm, eldest son of the Landgrave of Hesse," said Max. With the Sforzas expanding their reach across the peninsula, there were hardly any Italian dukes to marry his sisters. It was why Max thought to suggest minor German rulers.
His father made a face. "The son of that bigamous heretic?" he asked.
"Wilhelm is a son from his legal marriage, father," said Ferry, the King's second son. He was supposed to be in Buda, ruling Hungary in their name, but his wife had just given birth to a daughter named Aloisia. Though Max often wondered if his brother delayed his travel because Philippine Welser had not yet accepted his offer of becoming his mistress.
His father nodded. "I suppose that is acceptable, even if the Hessian lands will be divided amongst Wilhelm's many brothers," he said, writing the name down. "Any suggestions for Katharina? Or Barbara?"
"There is Philipp von Wittelsbach, father," Max said. "For Barbara. Son of Cousin Margherita and the Elector Palatine."
"Philipp of the Palatine?" Ferdinand asked. "Is he a Roman Catholic? The Elector has dubious thoughts on religion."
"I understand our cousin does most of the child's rearing," Ferry said. Max remembered hearing something like that. Margherita gave birth some days before her fifteenth birthday and was extremely protective of her only child. She wouldn't let him be raised as anything but a strong Catholic.
"There is also Johann Georg of Brandenburg for Katharina, father," said Max. "He is older than her, but it's in our interests to drive him away from the Lutheran ideas that his family seems to favour."
His father nodded, twisting a ring around his little finger. "And Helena may become a nun," he declared. "To save us the costs of another dowry."
"Perfect," said Max, taking a step back. "Is there anything else you need, father?"
"A Bohemian wife for Karl," his father said. He smiled. "As if that is any easy task."
Max smiled back and didn't say anything. Not when his brother turned to him with a glimmer in his eyes that said he just had an idea.
Juanita shook her head when they told her, eyes filling up with tears. "No, no," she murmured, clutching her swollen stomach. The child in her womb moved wildly, as if it too was insulted by what its mother had just heard. The young archduchess stood up, unable to handle so many eyes staring at her as she attempted to process what she was told. "Anna… She is a baby! And he is--"
"Six," said Ferry, her husband's younger brother. The idea was his, Juanita was sure. Her sweet and dear Max could've never considered the matter on his own, and King Ferdinand was too religious to suggest it himself. "And he likes her, I dare say. I've seen how they play together."
"He is her uncle
," Juanita hissed out. “This is a crime against God. A dispensation would be needed! The Church couldn’t possibly approve!"
Archduchess Magdalena touched her hand, a gesture that was meant to be comforting, but Juanita could only feel as her skin burned with it. "It's surely God's wish that Anna marry a good Catholic who will care for her and love her, instead of being saddled with a heretic like her aunts."
Juanita shook her sister-in-law's touch off. “It is a horrible sin," she declared. "How could you even suggest that for our dear Anna and say that is best for her? I would sooner see her in a convent than married to her own uncle!”
“Our Iberian ancestors held no such qualms about wedding uncle to niece, dear Juana,” Ferry offered with a patronising tone.
"Careful, brother," Max bit out as a warning. He turned to her then, with offered hands of surrender. "My love, this means Anna will stay close. In Further Austria where we can visit her often."
She wanted to weep, she wanted to march to her uncle and have him swear on the Holy Bible that he would never approve of the match. Her precious daughter would have a finer prince or no prince at all. She couldn’t possibly be matched to her uncle before she could raise her own voice in the matter.
"Max," Juanita began, trying to stay calm and appear composed, but her poor pregnant heart could not accept it. Tears slid down her cheeks and she clutched her stomach, as if she could protect this baby from being married to another close relative. "Don't do this. Don't marry our daughter to your brother." She took a deep breath. "I accepted my niece Fernanda for Ferdinánd, I truly did. I understand our world is ruled by politics and we must strengthen the two sister courts, but Anna for Karl…" She shook her head again. "I cannot abide by it."
“The pleading of an addled pregnant woman doesn’t change the fact that Karl is the best match which can be offered for Anna at the moment, brother,” Ferry interrupted, placing a hand on Max’s shoulder. “She ought to thank us for considering Anna’s future now rather than letting her spend years without suitable prospects.”
“That is quite enough, Ferry," Max said, his face red. "Let me speak to my wife in private."
Ferry looked offended. "Max, I--" But his brother interrupted him.
"You have your own affairs to attend to," Juanita heard her husband say. "Your devoted wife is doubtless in need of your presence, considering she has just delivered your second child. And haven’t you commissioned some trinket or another to fool the Welser girl into letting you bed her?”
Ferry’s face slowly turned to match his brother’s and he shifted on his heels. Before the door to Juanita’s solar gave a resounding slam, he called behind him, “I was only trying to assist, dearest brother.”
Magdalena flinched at her brother's words and looked back at Max, then at Juanita, who was still crying. "Perhaps I should go too," she said. "Let you talk in private." Juanita looked away and she didn't see Max's polite nod, but she heard Magdalena's composed steps carrying her away and the door shutting behind her.
Max breathed deeply as the door closed, leaving them completely alone. “I will not make any decision as of yet," he said. "My father has allowed me complete power over our children's futures, but this…" He shook his head. "This is good."
Juanita felt her knees tremble, weak at her seventh month of pregnancy and she sat down again, her blue skirts swishing against the floor. She remembered sweet and lovely Anna, with dark hair and blue eyes. Anna who could not walk yet, but could say Mama and Papa and Dinánd for Ferdinánd. Anna who was now spoken of as a prize to be awarded to a younger son, her own uncle.
Max knelt before her, his face soft. "My love," he began. "Look at me."
She couldn't. Juanita stared at the floor in front of her, the tips of her shoes peeping underneath her voluminous skirts. Max's fingers twisted around the fabric of her dress and he leaned in even closer.
“The marriage need not take place so soon," he murmured, almost like a whispered sonnet of romantic love. "It may happen many years from now, and perhaps Karl and Anna will grow fond of each other if given the chance." She raised her eyes to look at him. "There is only six years between them. Your sister and the King of Portugal have nearly a decade between them and they are happy, aren’t they? And Karl is a good boy, who will surely grow into a fine man. He will care for our Anna and treat her with the love and reverence that she deserves."
"Max," she began as her tears burned away to anger. "How could you do this to our child?" The realisation hit her slowly and Juanita welcomed it with open arms. The idea might have been Ferry's, but it wouldn't have reached her ears if Max didn't agree.
"I have to," her cousin said. "Karl is my brother. With my mother so ill and my father wallowing in his own misery, I'm the one who must care for them."
“Let Karl marry a Bavarian girl, the daughter of Albrecht and Cousin Nan, then. Or a Hessian. A Brandenburg. If you ask it of me, I will find a bride for him from one of the prominent families. And Anna can wait until a new prince is born, she is only one. Her future husband might be born any day now.” It was a plea, and admittedly a desperate one at that.
"Anna is our eldest daughter," Max said, determined. "If our male-line ends, she may inherit Austria." His jaw grew tense and he looked away.
"And you'd rather Karl become the Emperor than Ferry," Juanita supplied, everything becoming clear in a moment. “Anna is to be the sacrificial lamb to keep the imperial throne from his grasping hands.”
"It was for this family," her husband said.
She laughed at that, a high and fake sound that scratched her ears as it left her mouth. “For this family… When your daughter weeps of her infant children dying in her arms, born sickly and weak, you may remind yourself again that it was all for this family.” Juanita glowered. “When the good pious Catholics of this realm look down their noses at the marriage, and the princes you might’ve overlooked turn their backs to us, you remind yourself it was all for this family.”
"Further Austria is the closest land to Hungary, to the Ottomans, I--I--" His own eyes were full of tears, grasping at her skirts as if he was a beggar and she, a rich lady who refused him coin. "I don't know what else I can do."
"You can not
marry your daughter to your own brother!" she screamed, standing up. Max did so as well, stepping back as she suddenly fell upon him with angry slaps and punches, tears sliding down her cheeks. "Where is your love for her? Where is your honour? He's her uncle
!" He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly to his chest and her shouts of anger turned into anguished sobs. "My baby…"
They dropped to the floor, her weak knees unable to sustain the weight anymore, and Juanita accepted to be kissed. To be held. For her belly to be stroked as he whispered, "I'm sorry. Please, forgive me."
She shook her head and said nothing. The words that seemed ready to slip out were I can't
and she couldn't speak them, because Juanita knew that she would, one day.