"Well, signore," said Queen Danielle, balanced within the framework of his latest creation as gracefully as though she were poised to dance, "it is not as elegant as the wings you once made me, but I suspect it has a better chance of flight."
"Birds rarely look elegant on the ground, your majesty," da Vinci answered as he tested the straps that secured the Queen of France to the glider. "It is only in flight that they achieve their true beauty."
Two of the Queen's ladies looked on with disapproval that he should take such liberties with the Queen's person, though he had been doing so for years; her sister looked torn between amusement, excitement, and worry. Her sister's husband, the Captain of the Guard, had settled decidedly on worry. Several of his men were stationed across the field where the Queen had decided to test her artist's design, teams of four soldiers carrying frames stretched with sailing canvas, also of da Vinci's design and intended to cushion the Queen in the event of a fall. The Captain glanced down from the open loft Her Majesty had chosen for her launch, checking his men's positions. While he had tested the capacity of the catching frames himself, he was understandably concerned about the need for them. Yet the Queen would not be dissuaded.
"Forgive me, your majesty," Captain Laurent felt compelled to request, one last time, "but perhaps if you waited until the King returned--"
"Nonsense, Captain," she answered, shifting as da Vinci directed her in order to be certain the straps would allow proper movement. "I want to surprise him with this gift, and I can hardly present it to him without knowing how it works."
The Captain exchanged a meaningful look with his wife, who frowned but reluctantly cleared her throat. "Sister," she said, "I believe the Captain is merely concerned for your safety. It would be a poor surprise indeed if His Majesty returned to find you injured."
"Oh, Jacqueline, you know it's safe. Signore da Vinci has tested its forebearers extensively, and I shall not be going very high. Am I secure, signore?"
Leonardo da Vinci stepped away at last, critically eyeing both Queen and machine. "As secure as I can make you, your majesty."
That reassured no one else in the loft, but Her Majesty smiled, and none could voice objections in the face of her pleasure. "And shall I be beautiful when I am aloft, signore?"
"Were you more beautiful, your majesty, I believe we all should be struck blind by it." The artist answered her teasing tone and her smile, his lined face lit up with fierce excitement that was its own kind of beauty. While he had indeed tested earlier prototypes thoroughly before verifying a design safe enough to carry royalty for even a short period, and while the sensation of flight had been singularly thrilling, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, still he relished the prospect of seeing his glider float above him like a bird. He anticipated quite the painting from the experience, something to present to Her Majesty as a future surprise.
The Queen settled herself, turning to face the day. "We are ready, Captain."
Captain Laurent stepped to the ladder and called down, "Attend the Queen!"
Three of the men waiting below clambered up, positioning themselves around the glider under da Vinci's watchful eye. One on each side of the wing and one behind the frame that held the Queen, they took careful hold of the glider. The Queen took one more breath, sending up a quick prayer that God's eye was on her. Then she spoke. "Now, gentlemen."
Though he had made the guards practice the proper pace over and over again, da Vinci nonetheless looked ready to intervene if they began too slowly or quickly. Fortunately, they moved in concert, swift steps across the cleared wooden boards, pushing the glider and its passenger out into the air at exactly the correct moment.
Danielle felt it when the wind caught under the wing, a sudden tautening of frame and fabric that lifted her momentarily toward the heavens. Signore da Vinci had told her nothing of his own flights, at her request, but he might have told her of that moment of swooping terror and joy as Nature seized the machine and determined its course. Like he had before her, she wished that she could see the blue of the sky directly above, but the wing was in the way, and he had impressed upon her the importance of keeping her eye on the horizon. That horizon was a sight itself, shifting more swiftly than it ever had before. The wind, too, felt stronger, stinging blood into Danielle's face and whipping at her skirts. She had reason to be very glad of the close hood the Signore had recommended she wear, since her hair would be blowing every which way without it. Still, for all the evidence of her solidity, she felt weightless, buoyant, kin to the birds of the air. Though she kept her hands steady and firm on the levers to control her descent, she could not help laughing, imagining herself as a bird on the wing, crying out under God, "I am here!" In that moment, she recalled a time when Henry had asked if there was anything she couldn't do, and wished he were here to see her answer now.
As fate would have it, the King's party were on the road bordering the field at just that moment, for he had returned home early to find his Queen gone and his household in something of a state. After determining her location and company, he had set out in haste, terror filling him at what her purpose might be. He loved his wife's adventurous spirit, but sometimes he feared her too reckless by far, and Signore da Vinci, though brilliant, was not inclined to caution her. When he saw the thing in the air, he did not need to see the passenger clearly to know who it was, and he halted his company to demand the swiftest horse be surrendered to him immediately.
The King's colors caught the Queen's eyes as she soared, though she dared only a moment's distraction as she neared the earth. Signore da Vinci had told her the levers that controlled his creation did not have the precision he wished, but she was an excellent pupil, and maintained the angle and pressure he had impressed upon her to keep from plunging to the ground or rolling his invention end over end. She was certain she felt his eyes on her, and she wondered if she had managed as long a flight as any of his. Indeed, though she did not yet know it, for the time had seemed to pass too swiftly in her estimation, the Queen had sustained the longest flight in Signore da Vinci's calculations.
Her Majesty landed with pleasing lightness, and the four guards nearest her abandoned their frame to catch at the glider in the way they'd practiced, keeping it from any potential of tumbling. The Queen immediately began the work of unstrapping herself, as the party in the loft descended to meet her and the King rode wild across the field. It was, in fact, he who reached her first, his men widening their eyes as they caught sight of his face, but not daring to let go of the glider while the Queen was still bound to it.
"Danielle!" King Henry called, nearly tumbling from his horse in his haste to reach his wife. Queen Danielle looked up at him, her smile startling him to a halt.
"Did you see, sir? Now there is nothing I cannot do!"
He stared at her for a long moment, speechless while she grinned at him, so full of triumph. The loft party, who had hurried their steps on seeing His Majesty plunging across the field, reached the landing site. Signore da Vinci set about aiding the Queen in winning free of the glider while everyone else waited to see if the King would rage.
Instead, he laughed, loud and relieved and slightly disbelieving. After so many years, his wife could still surprise him with her adventurous spirit, and he supposed it was part of his delight in her that she likely always would. He moved forward to assist her and her beloved artist with the straps, then caught her up and kissed her when she was loose. Still exhilarated by flight, she returned the gesture more fiercely than was her public custom, and those around them found interest in the clouds and grass for several moments.
At last, King and Queen released each other, and it was her turn to laugh. "I had thought to make this a present for you, Sire," the Queen said, still grinning, "but now I am not sure I can be persuaded to part with it."
"Of the two of us, madame, you do look the one most suited to the heavens," His Majesty said with a gleam in his eye, "though I daresay that look is deceptive, since you seem determined to kill your husband by fright. Not only must I witness you up in that contraption, but now you want me to imitate the birds myself?"
Danielle met his challenge, straightening to her full height and raising her chin, her own eyes sparkling. "Do you doubt our fine inventor, Sire? Or is it your own skill you fear is lacking?"
"Perhaps I need to see the thing in action more than once to begin to trust in either, madame."
"Or perhaps Signore da Vinci might come up with something that supports two bodies," Danielle said, in a tone that reminded Henry of a lakeside conversation long ago, "that I might show you how it's done."
"Or perhaps that," Henry whispered, clasping his queen's hands closer to his heart. Then he raised his voice and said, "I doubt he'll manage to build it in one day, however, so might I prevail upon you to cease your trials for now and return with me to the palace?"
Her Majesty gave that some thought, then nodded and said, "For now, but I shall fly again tomorrow." She could not keep the wonder from her voice when she said "fly," and though she could see Henry did fear for her, he did not refute her words. Of course, he was not the one who might wish to make adjustments. "Provided that is acceptable, Signore."
"I think so, your majesty," da Vinci said, running a critical eye over the glider. "I'll test its soundness in my workshop, but it appears to have held together perfectly. May I take your account of the flight when we return to the palace?"
"This evening, Signore," Her Majesty said, returning her attention to the King. "Give me until this evening to find words for it."
Perhaps, by then, she could convince the King to try a turn under the wing on the morrow.
After all, as Henry had seen, there was nothing she could not do.