A messenger from Ludovico Sforza arrived in Pavia on December evening. Moro called his niece to Milan again. Isabela was holding the letter in her hand and reading it by the fireplace bursting with flames. They enlightened her black silhouette.
‘What time does messer Ludovico ask you, Lady, to arrive?’, Duchess de Montpensier asked Isabela.
Having learnt about the courier’s arrival Clara immediately came to the Duchess of Milan.
‘He isn’t asking this time. He’s giving me an order’, Isabela explained. ‘He’s threatening me that if I don’t obey, he’ll send the armed to bring me. Either in accordance with or against my will but I am to come to the Sforzas’ castle.’
Clara pretended to be surprised. The Duchess of Milan read her eyes fake. She must have known about Ludovico’s plans. They must be hand in glove. She did not stood by Isabela in vain instead of spending time on the Milan court among Italian aristocracy by the side of Beatrice d’Este. Moro surrounded his niece with spies who pretended friendship. She was on her guard so much that she was almost scared of her own shadow. How to live this was? How to move in this labyrinth of appearances whereas hundreds of eyes follow her every step and every move, remember every word and consider its hidden meaning.
‘So, you’ll obey his orders?’, Clara startled the Duchess of Milan’s thoughts.
Isabela, having moderated her anger, answered with peace that surprised even her:
‘I am not afraid of his threats.’
‘My lady, everyone advises you return to Milan out of concern’, Clara tried to convince her.
‘Now I have all the advisors. Where were they when I needed them?’, she burst out. ‘They let my husband die and now they are merciful to widow and orphans? I don’t need mercy!’
‘Lady, even the wife of Emperor Maximilian, Bianca Maria, stood up for you not to leave you alone in this difficult situation.’
These words surprised Isabela. She stood in silence trying to collect her thoughts quickly. After a while she asked:
‘So Maria wrote also to you?’
‘Yes, my lady. She worries about you. She asked me to convince you to listen to messer Ludovico.’
Isabela thought for a minute. So her sister-in-law and best friend is involved in it and it doesn’t matter what intentions she has. What counts is that she takes the side of despised Mor. I must have been on his advice that she wrote to her to go to Milan. She is surrounded by spies and most of them are within her own family. Wasn’t it Maria who said once that she should be mostly aware of the closest relatives? The Duchess of Milan raised her eyes and asked Clara:
‘What did you write her back?’
‘That it is your decision, lady.’
‘Very well’, she replied and called Tizian with the bell. She ordered as soon as he arrived:
‘Bring the messenger from Ludovico in.’
The pageboy took a bow and waited for her orders.
‘Go back to Milan immediately’, she said.
‘And the message, Your Majesty? Or shall I return without a letter to Prince Louis?’, he asked surprised.
‘You’ll tell my uncle the message. Tell him not to send here couriers with threats any more. Otherwise I’ll do what he would do in such case: I’ll cut their throats.’
Her figure was full of hostility and cold. Duchess de Montpensier went pale. The messenger looked at the duchess with dreary eyes, bowed and went away. The news about another denial quickly spread throughout the castle. Isabela was uneasy. She didn’t feel relief and she wrestled with doubts.
The next morning she sat by the table and wrote to Bianca Maria:
Dear Maria, I have decided to listen to Ludovico and go to Milan although I presume nothing good will happen to me there. This sudden concern of my uncle makes me suspicious about his intentions. Why am I so necessary to him and so beloved as I have never been before? Can a heart of stone soften so that to feel compassion and repentance? I feat this meeting that you strived for expecting it would bring me relief and consolation. They want to take me out from my loneliness, yank from embrace of grief. I would rather never take off my widow’s weeds to that they could remind my perpetrators my and my children’s harm. You are the only one who understands my pain as you know how much I loved your brother.
Isabela’s head was full of thoughts. She wanted to write much more. Her heart was resentful and filled with bile. She was aware that the King of France surrounded himself with allies to open his way to Naples. He also signed a treaty with emperor Maximillian and gave him a few counties to satisfy his greed. But her reproach? Does Bianca Maria have anything to say? She is to have children and obey her husband. If she supports Isabela, she’ll regret it. Why should be make her life hell, especially now that she has had a miscarriage. Each of us has our own cross. Isabela dried her eyes and stepped away from the table. She called Theodora and asked:
‘Are the children asleep?’
‘Yes, my lady.’
‘Tell the servants to pack our things. We are leaving to Milan the day after tomorrow.’
‘You have made a decision, Your Majesty’, Mrs.Angellini relieved.
‘No. Someone else have made this decision for me’, she replied.
She knew her refusal would make Mor furious who may carry out his threat and send the armed for her, forcing her to obedience. His patience will end one day and then he will take her kids she will follow and do anything he claims to be with Francis, Bona and Hyppolyta.
The next day there was an increased activity on the Pavia castle. Isabela commanded on servants telling them which things and clothes they should put in each chest. I don’t need to take everything. We’ll be back soon – she repeated with conviction. Neo was moving around the rooms quickly following her lady’s orders. Finally the duchess sent her to help with children. Loud hoof beats from the courtyard concerned her at about noon. She came to the window and saw dozens of armed men. She notices Hermes Sforza among them. He got off the horse and quickly stepped towards the castle. Her head was full of gloomy thoughts: Moro sends for his nephew to force me to obedience, having clean hands himself. She rushed to children’s chambers. They were playing under the protection of Theodora and the court ladies. There was joyful noise and the kids’ laughter seemed soothing. They didn’t even saw their mother.
‘Come here, Francis!’, she ordered to her son trying not to reveal nervousness in her voice. She opened her arms and said to her daughter: ‘You too, Hyppolyta!’
Francis came to his mother unwillingly as she interrupted his play, but Hyppolyta ran to her joyfully and she nestled into her mother’s dress. The duchess picked Bona up and took older daughter by the hand. She held her tight.
‘Do not leave my side’, she said severely. Sudden opening of the door made Isabela terrified.
Marquis Tortony stood in the doorway. She scrutinized him. His face was red of northern wind. He brought with him December cold and smell of forest.
‘Madonna’, he said, bowed and looked at her carefully for a moment.
She was dressed in black, without ornaments, with pale face, she hugged her children. He noticed fear in her eyes. He arrived as a friend. His smile made Francis left his mother unexpectedly and ran to marquis screaming:
Sforza opened his arms and lifted the boy up.
‘What did you want to say, Francis?’, asked and smiled friendly to his nephew.
‘I can ride a pony’, he cried proudly not realizing the fear his mother felt at this moment.
‘In Milan I will teach you to ride a horse’, Marquis promised.
‘Mummy, are we going to go to Milan with uncle Hermes?’, the boy asked looking at his mother.
Isabela sent his brother-in-law a painful look and answered with weak voice:
Marquis put Francis down and the boy ran to the duchess.
‘I would like to have a word with you, my lady.’, Hermes directed his words to his sister-in-law.
Isabela went to another room in silence leaving children under the protection of the court ladies.
‘So say it, then’, she said. ‘Again threats on Ludovico’s order that you will whisper to my ear so that no one but me could hear them?’
He ignored the thrust. His eyes were attracted by numerous chests arranged one by one. He looked suspiciously at his sister-in-law and asked:
‘Where did you want to escape, my lady?’
Isabela, surprised by this accusation, laughed mockingly, but this laughter quickly turned into woeful and reproaching cry:
‘Ludovico brought down the plague of French on Italy! They move around like lice! Where, the hell, should I hide with my children, especially in that state?!’
She put on her dress skinny and white as snow hands. A huge belly was hidden under black velvet. Indeed, she looked miserable, thin, in poor clothes, without jewelry, in deep grief. He had an impression she lived only to have babies and die. He felt sympathy for her.
‘Why did you refuse to Ludovico? Aren’t you aware he always gets what he wants? Why this resistance that only aggravated common resents and brought nothing good? Ludovico wants to take care of you and you reject it in the name of despair. It’s time to leave the past behind.’
‘And look into the future my uncle will arrange for me. Am I right?’, she bridled.
She walked furibund around the room and looking at his brother-in-law with condemnation, she complained and poured her heart out:
‘You are all Ludovico’s dogs! He throws at you scraps and you kiss his hands with gratitude! You trample over your ancestors’ dignity! It’s not the way your grandfather and your father would have done, Marquis!’
‘My grandfather, my father and brother are dead’, he replied with lump in his throat.
She stopped and looked at him with eyes shining of anger. At that moment he seemed to her so lonely, like a wanderer vulnerable to countless dangers. But he has one critical prevalence – unlike her he wears trousers and that gives his choice. Ever since she lost her husband Mor’s clamps contracted around her more and more tightly.
‘Servants are packing the chests, we can leave tomorrow morning’, she broke the silence.
Her tone seemed mild. She accepted the fate uncle Ludovico Sforza befell on her.
‘We have to leave today, during the day’, he explained.
He did not say why they need to hurry but she guessed. She glimpsed at his worried face. If it depended on him, he would agree to spend this last calm night in Pavia but it seemed to have been Mor’s order to take her to Milan without delay, even if she was in her last dress. She saw mercy in his pupils. Surely everyone will look at me with mercy there – she thought.
‘Take your court with you, lady’, he distracted her thoughts.
‘I don’t need anyone but a couple of caretakers.’
‘And what about ladies of the court and servants?’, marquis asked.
She squinted. Indeed, without court ladies and the doctor it would be difficult for her. Lampignani whom she brought from town stayed in the castle on her request. She did not trust Ricotti.
‘How many people can I take with me?’, she asked.
‘As many as you need’, he replied.
‘Until now Ludovico limited my court explaining it costs too much. So who filled his treasury that he became so generous? Or maybe Beatrice stopped her appetite for expensive dresses and gems? Or maybe she doesn’t want to attract the king of France anymore?’, she gained incredible satisfaction from female viciousness. It was the first time since her husband’s death that face was revived with contemptuous mirth.
Hermes ignored her remarks and said after a while:
‘Hurry, we need to get to Milan before dark.’
‘As you wish, signore’, she replied coldly and moved towards the door assuming it was the end of the conversation when suddenly she felt a grip on her arm. It was Hermes who caught her. She turned back. When he noticed her freezing eyes he assured her with mild voice:
‘I am not your enemy, my lady…’
She could feel the warmth of his breath.
‘You are not a friend, either’, she answered. He took his hand back and she noticed disappointment in his eyes. Maybe he expected gratefulness? Maybe something more? No. She has never seen in his eyes even a spark of passion, even a shade of desire. He had women much more beautiful than her, full of charm, submissive, shining like jewels. The only thing that ever connected them was Gian Galeazzo and his death separated them.