Bari, Kingdom of Naples
The nightmares did not start until my old age, when sleep becomes elusive for some, while for others it is burdened with images from their past they would rather not remember. The stone cellar, dank and malodorous; the glint of a blade; the killer’s cold eyes; the victim’s pleading ones over the dirty rag stuffed in his mouth . . . I reach for that gag, but my hand can never get close enough—it is like trying to move through water, the effort of it frustrating and futile.
I wake up covered in sweat, cold fear gripping my throat like a fist.
For years I slept soundly. It is strange, given the terrible events I witnessed at the royal court in Kraków that fateful Christmas and New Year’s season forty years ago. I was still new to that northern kingdom, having arrived in the spring of the year 1518 as part of the entourage of Bona, the daughter of the late Duke Galeazzo Sforza of Milan, who was newly married to King Zygmunt of the great Jagiellonian dynasty, which rules the union of Poland and Lithuania.
I did not mind going so far from home. I had been recently widowed, still in my early twenties, and although my marriage had not been a particularly happy one—I had been married at seventeen to a much older man of my parents’ choosing—I did not relish the idea of returning to my family. By then my father had died, the family fortune was declining, and I knew that my enterprising mother would soon be searching for another wealthy—and probably old—husband for me.
As a member of the Sanseverino family, the Princes of Bisignano, by marriage, I first became a lady-in-waiting to Bona’s mother, Isabella d’Aragona, the Duchess of Bari and former Duchess consort of Milan. She was a lady who valued education in nobly born women, and was impressed by the fact that I had spent four years as a young girl at the Convent of Santa Teresa outside Naples, where I had learned Latin and history, studied Church Fathers, and even read a bit of Cicero and Virgil. So after I had been widowed and Bona had become betrothed to the King of Poland, Duchess Isabella offered me a place in her daughter’s new household. To me, that seemed like a chance to escape another marriage and to see the world beyond Bari and Naples.
The union started off smoothly despite a difference in age and temperament between the royal couple. King Zygmunt was past his fiftieth year, already grizzled and filling out at the waist. Despite his stern appearance, he was a man of exceedingly mild manner who always sought to avoid confrontation with friends and enemies alike. He was also given to bouts of melancholy, during which he would not be seen for days, or he would remain pensive and silent, withdrawn into his inner world. His new wife, by contrast, was four-and-twenty. Short in stature compared to Zygmunt, she had a slightly beaked nose, a determined mouth, and sharp blue eyes. Bona Sforza, true to her name, was sturdily built, strong of body, and forceful of will. She had received an excellent education, far more wide-ranging than mine, at the ducal court in Bari and was keenly interested in affairs of state, of which she demanded to be appraised daily and in detail by her secretary.
Yet the two seemed to complement rather than contradict each other. Already in those early years, many envoys, senators, and nobles of the Sejm—the lower house of the kingdom’s parliament—sought the queen’s counsel whenever the king was overcome by his darker moods. Gradually, Bona was carving out a place for herself as an informal co-ruler, a role that would only strengthen over time as her royal husband aged.
Most importantly of all, nine months to the day of their first meeting in Kraków, the queen gave birth to a daughter, Izabela, the first of the six offspring they would have together. Thus things proceeded apace as expected. The future of the monarchy looked assured, and everyone seemed satisfied.
Until that festive winter’s night that haunts my dreams again.
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