Excerpt from Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Leonardo's Swans

by Karen Essex

Leonardo's Swans
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 352 pages
    Jan 2007, 352 pages

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Chapter One

From the notebook of Leonardo:
When Fortune comes, seize her firmly at the forelock, for I tell you, she is bald at the back.


She 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, naive, 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.

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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