"I'll tell you a miracle that happened right here in Ferrara that is even better," Francesco says, sidling his horse right up to Isabella's so that their legs touch. She knows she should pull away, that her mother would rail against this sort of indiscriminate physical contact, even with leather riding boots providing a barrier to the couple's much-craved intimacy, but instead, she rides with slow care so that they might continue to brush against one another.
"What miracle is that?" she asks, suppressing a smile.
"That your father agreed that you should be my wife," he answers.
You have no idea just how miraculous, she thinks. If the timing had been slightly different, he would be marrying the jaunty girl riding ahead of them, but this, he does not know. When the marriage agreements were made nine years ago, Isabella was only six and Beatrice five. Who could have cared at that time which sister married what man, as long as both marriages were politically expedient for the city-state of Ferrara? Isabella wants to tell him the story but she would need him to say that if things had worked out differently, his life would have been a ruin. And he cannot possibly say that in front of Beatrice.
Duchess Leonora had long ago drummed into her daughters' heads that marriage between noble houses was no whimsical arrangement based on ephemeral qualities of preference or attraction. The peace of Italy depended on these unions, especially at this juncture. The Venetians had become doubly aggressive since the Turks pushed them out of Constantinople. They began to push farther and farther inland into Italy because they needed land for their farms and their citizens. They hired condottieri to take over towns--Verona, Padua, and Vincenza, all near Ferrara. The Venetians wanted complete control over the trade routes and the rivers, as well as the land. Ferrara was venerable and strong, but small. For her to remain independent, she must have strong alliances with the city-states of Mantua and Milan.
"You girls are ambassadors of Ferrara. Its welfare depends upon the success of your marriages. Therefore, you must do nothing, nothing, to endanger these alliances. You must do nothing prior to the marriages that may cause the families to renege on the commitments. Your behavior must be impeccable. You are as much the protectors of Ferrara's welfare as our army or our treasury. You are, in fact, its greatest treasures. And when you enter your husbands' houses, I expect you to act like it. Your bodies are the very bindings that will hold us all together and stave off conflicts and wars. Do not think that you can behave like the women in fairy tales and poetry. The duke and I will not tolerate it."
Looking at Francesco now, Isabella thinks that she must be the most fortunate of women. Her fiance is not handsome, but has a rugged quality that gives an ugly man appeal. Already three and twenty, he will never be tall, and his eyes bulge, a condition that she knows will worsen over time, because she has seen old men with this affliction, and they look like reptiles. Yet he is as solidly built as any man alive, and his courtly manners contrast so thrillingly with the wicked look in his protruding brown eyes. Besides being from one of the oldest noble families in Italy, he already is considered a brilliant student of warfare, destined for an illustrious career in the military arts. Undoubtedly he will lead one of Italy's great armies to many victories. Isabella feels that Francesco is the perfect man to help her realize her destiny--which is to have a powerful husband and reign with him over a great and enlightened realm.
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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