Read Leonardo's Swans Online

Authors: Karen Essex

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical

Leonardo's Swans


Title Page


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine


La Fortuna and Our Characters

Also by Karen Essex

Copyright Page



spreads her arms like angels’ wings over her sister’s cold marble form, running her fingers down the exquisitely carved folds of her burial gown and tracing the delicate veins in her hands. Next to Beatrice, the exiled duke, Ludovico, lies as if in repose, though he is in fact still alive, breathing the dank air of a foul French prison. Isabella must be careful to lavish her grief only on the figure of Beatrice, face so serene upon the pillow of stone, and neglect that of the duke, now out of favor. Isabella knows that from the rear of the church eyes are pointed like daggers at her back, ready to report that her vow to be “a good Frenchwoman” is false. Kneeling, she presses hot, curled lips onto the cheeks of Beatrice’s death mask and whispers.

So, my sister, it is true what we always joked—that once you had given birth to a few children, you would be as fat as mother. Only one and twenty at the time of your death, and yet they told me you had taken to wearing vertical stripes to disguise your weight. Still, I did not dream that you could have aged so much so quickly. And to think, for so long I considered you the lucky one.

Who could have predicted such a turn of events? Did you see from your crypt how the whores of the French soldiers made off with all four hundred of your spectacular gowns? The thousands of gems and pearls so delicately sewn and artfully placed have been torn off, I imagine, to buy a potion to end some slut’s unwanted pregnancy, or to treat a nasty canker, or to put food in a whore’s soon-to-be-toothless mouth. These few years later, the dresses I so coveted are cast aside, filthy and frayed, and you are dust.

Ah, but at least you were buried still clutching a tiny portion of your innocence. You did not live to see the things I have seen, or to make the impossible decisions I have had to make, or to turn your back on those you love to survive their foolish choices. Remember our parlor games? You were always the winner, so clever at Scartino, surprising everyone with your moves and taking the purse. I have been playing a similar game, though every move has to be made with great care. I have chilled my own blood with some of my decisions. Beatrice, I am a figure on a chessboard of poison, where the players change from black to white and back without notice. Remember the elaborate system of trumps at which you were so adept? With which you, giggling hysterically, won game after game of cards? There is a new dimension to the landscape now that neither you nor your duke anticipated, but I did: France trumps Italy, and that is that.

If Fortuna had not been so fickle, so remiss in the proper arranging of things, and our roles had been reversed—if I had had my way—would I be lying in your grave? Or would the course of history have been changed? How is it conceivable that your illustrious husband, whose attention I craved, wastes away in a French prison with only a copy of
The Divine Comedy
and a pet dwarf to give him solace? Wouldn’t you love to know whose face he tries to conjure as he falls asleep on his lice-ridden bed of straw—which sister? Which mistress? Poor Ludovico. He doesn’t even have Magistro Leonardo’s images of his lovers to console him now.

My own match of wills with Leonardo has continued. I wonder if you haven’t reached out from the grave, Beatrice, to meddle with my ambitions. Without your interference, and with the power I hold over his new patron, I should have concluded my business with Leonardo by now. I have pledges from the artist himself, but you know what a promise from Leonardo is worth. Sometimes I think he is the most adept player of us all. And yet, there are whispers that I might receive satisfaction from him on this very evening. Wouldn’t that be lovely, my sister? Then, you and I might both rest.

The bell in the tower rings the five o’clock hour. I would love to stay with you past the twilight time. I remember that you do not like to be left alone in the dark. But I must go dress for yet another of King Louis’s balls, where we shall all convene in the very rooms where you once lived, in the service of the new master, carefully avoiding any mention of the past—including yourself. Adieu, my love. Remember how we hated to speak the French language? One must speak it all the time now.

The bells have stopped chiming, and Isabella imagines that her attendants grow impatient with the visit. Still, she finds that she does not wish to leave. She stands, caressing Beatrice’s peaceful visage one more time, touching her stony locks, and nestling a warm cheek against her sister’s cold, chiseled one.

Beatrice, Beatrice, it’s not that I didn’t love you. You were like the swans in your pond—born awkward and ugly, maturing into beauty, bringing magic into the world, and singing at the hour of your death. You mythical creature, who on earth or above could not have loved you? It’s just that for so long, I imagined that you had stolen my Destiny, when all the while, unbeknownst to us, you were preserving it for me.

Chapter One


When Fortune comes, seize her firmly at the forelock, for I tell you, she is bald at the back.


grew up in a land of fairy tales and miracles. That is what Isabella is explaining to Francesco as they ride through Ferrara’s streets. It is Christmastime, and though there is no snow on the dry stone road, the horses shoot clouds of steam into the frigid air through their nostrils.

This is the first time she has been allowed to escort her fiancé through the city on one of his visits. Francesco Gonzaga, future Marquis of Mantua, has come to Ferrara to romance his soon-to-be bride and to enjoy the city’s many Christmas pageants ordered by Isabella’s father, Duke Ercole d’Este, a great patron of the theater. Isabella believes that the more she tells Francesco of Ferrara’s secrets and wonders, and the more she shows him of her father’s spectacular building projects and improvements, the more he will realize her value.

In this very church, Isabella says, pointing to St. Mary’s of the Ford, almost two hundred years ago on Easter Sunday, the priest broke the Eucharist in two, and flesh and blood came spraying forth, covering the walls of the church and splattering the entire flock.

“The parishioners watched in awe,” Isabella says, eyes wide with drama. “The Bishop of Ferrara and the Archbishop of Ravenna came to see it. They instantly recognized it as the body and blood of Christ and declared it a true miracle of the Eucharist.”

Francesco solemnly makes the sign of the cross as they ride past the church, but his eyebrows arch skeptically, making him look entirely out of step with the act.

Beatrice trots ahead of the pair of lovers, her long braid swinging in saucy rhythm with the horse’s mane, as uninterested as her steed in their conversation.

“Isn’t that right, Beatrice?” Isabella asks her sister for confirmation of her story, hoping that the odd girl does not say anything to contradict her. Beatrice is a puzzle to Isabella, a fact that the older sister blames on the girl’s unsupervised upbringing in wild Naples. The girl is a feral, unformed thing, alternately shy, naïve, aloof, and bold—the latter especially apparent when riding or hunting. How such a small fourteen-year-old girl, who is not particularly courageous outside of these activities, excels at all manly sport is a mystery to Isabella, but the fact of Beatrice’s prowess remains, no matter how enigmatic.

“I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there!” Beatrice finally answers without turning around, but they can hear her laugh at her own joke.

The animal’s swaying ass taunts Isabella, who knows that her sister is dying to break away from them to test the horse’s speed. Francesco has brought Drago, the pure white Spanish charger, from his family’s stud farm on the island of Tejeto, as a gift for the girls’ father. But Beatrice immediately took over the animal, talking to him in whispers that should be reserved for a lover, and hopping upon him and riding away, as if the painstakingly bred horse was meant to carry a little girl in a pink riding dress and not a fearsome knight in armor.

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