Beatrice, riding three lengths in front of them, begins to pick up speed. She turns her head to the side, giving the lovers a sprightly profile, before dashing off with the horse.r>
"We had better follow her," Francesco says, a look of grave concern coming over his face.
"That will not be easy," Isabella replies.
Isabella does not like to see any interest in her sister from her betrothed, though she cannot imagine why. With her exceptional qualities, she should not worry one bit. But worry she does. Francesco is from a family famous for breeding horses. Nothing arouses the passions of the Gonzagas of Mantua like a great horse, or a rider who can handle one. Beatrice looks back one more time before guiding Drago through one of the city's grand arched portals to a road where she can ride faster. Francesco takes up the challenge and speeds after her on his dark stallion, the jewels in his silver saddle catching just enough of the winter sun to sparkle.
Isabella follows, but at a slower pace. It would be extremely unladylike for her to compete with her boyish sister in this game for Francesco's attention. Besides, she does not want to sweat so badly under her new habit that she will be embarrassed later, when, helping her descend from the steed, Francesco will take her small hand and slyly raise it to his lips. Let Beatrice dismount in her typical disheveled state--damp, stringy hairs hanging about her face, and oozing sweat like the horses she rides into the ground. Isabella settles into a steady canter as the two race ahead of her, first Francesco taking the lead, then Beatrice gaining on him, so close that it looks from this distance as if she is trying to make her horse bite his stallion's rear end.
If one is to look upon the two sisters objectively, as Isabella prays Francesco does, one has to observe Isabella's advantages. Isabella has spent all her life at her distinguished mother's knee, while Beatrice, from the ages of two to ten, was left behind at the court of Naples all the way on the other side of Italy as a peace offering to their grandfather, King Ferrante, whom everyone feared and hated, but who had taken an instant liking to Beatrice. Isabella reads Latin impeccably and can recite Virgil's Eclogues to the satisfaction of her tutors and her father's eminent guests. Beatrice, on the other hand, has spent the four years since her return to Ferrara being pushed to catch up with her sister in their studies. She can barely spell. She can recite a poem or two in Latin, but Isabella doubts that she has any idea of what she is saying. Isabella plays musical instruments and sings like an angel. Beatrice loves music, but must be sung to. Isabella has studied rhetoric and mathematics and can take either side in an argument over at least one Platonic dialogue. Beatrice enjoys poetry, but prefers that others read it to her. Isabella is the loveliest dancer in all of Ferrara, turning her head elegantly this way and that. Not only does she have the correct timing, style, and balance necessary for the art, she also knows just where to place her smile as she turns, dips, and lowers her head, eyes lingering on their specific target, until the lids fall modestly in time with the music. Beatrice manages at dance, but is no match for her graceful sibling. Isabella has read all of the books in her father's library and all of her mother's romance novels about the chivalric days of old. She has watched carefully as her parents commissioned and acquired paintings and other works of art from the most illustrious talents of the age.
Excerpted from Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex, pages 5-12. Copyright © 2006 by Karen Essex. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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