(Originally aired 2022/01/29 - listen here)
January is an exciting month at the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast because it’s when submissions are open for the year’s short story series. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog in the first week of February for the announcement of the 2022 line-up. Except, of course, for the first story of the year, which we bought during last year’s call so we could have it ready for you right now. So today we’re delighted to bring you Gwen C. Katz’s “Palio”, a story involving the famous horse race in Siena, whose origins are rooted in the middle ages. The modern version of the Palio was established in the mid 17th century, and this is the setting of today’s story.
Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist who lives in Altadena, California with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals. Her first YA novel, Among the Red Stars, follows the adventures of the all-female WWII bomber regiment known as the Night Witches. Her short fiction has appeared in venues like Glittership, the PRISM Award-winning Dates 2, and We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. When she’s not making up stories, she can be found hiking, gardening, and teaching kids about wildlife at the local nature center.
Our narrator for this episode is Violet Dixon. Violet lives with her wife, two teen sons, and four tolerant cats outside Philadelphia. When not in the recording booth, she plays and teaches acting. Other lesbian titles that she has narrated include Jeannelle M. Ferreira’s The Covert Captain and KC Luck’s Venandi and her Darkness Series.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
“Say your prayers, Bartolomeo!”
Francesca tensed at the sound of the jeering voice. She touched her brother’s arm. “Ignore him.”
But you didn’t become a Palio jockey by having a cool temper. Bartolomeo turned and glared. “Raffaello.”
The other jockey grinned at him. Raffaello was tall and broad-shouldered, and he towered over the short, slight Bartolomeo. He stood at the head of a group of boys sporting scarves of crimson, striped with white and blue. Torre colors.
“Diavolo Bianco will grind you beneath his hooves,” he said.
“I might be riding Diavolo Bianco, bischero,” Bartolomeo retorted.
“Not likely,” said Raffaello. “That horse has my name on it. In four days you’ll be lying trampled in the dirt and your soul will be on its way to Hell.”
“Then tell your dead ancestors I’ll see them there!”
Raffaello shoved Bartolomeo before Francesca could stop him. Bartolomeo rallied and hit him with a right hook. Raffaello knocked Bartolomeo to the ground.
“Get off him!” cried Francesca, grabbing the back of Raffaello’s doublet while shielding her face from the Torre boys shouting and throwing clods of mud. At the other end of the alley, she caught a glimpse of a sky-blue and white scarf. Onda colors. Their colors.
“Do something!” she shouted. “This is your jockey!”
The Onda boys came dashing in, and the tussle blossomed into a full-blown street brawl. Stones, sticks, horse apples, and rotten vegetables flew through the air, accompanied by every epithet a creative Italian imagination could conjure.
Francesca and Bartolomeo crept away and found themselves standing in Piazza del Campo, the town’s central square, gingerly touching the scrapes on their arms and faces. From the alley came the din of the brawl. Blood ran hot during the days of the Palio.
# # #
Francesca and Bartolomeo were too old to whip, but Francesca doubted their father would have done it anyway. No red-blooded Onda man could truly be angry at his son for punching a Torre jockey. He contented himself with shaking Bartolomeo by his shoulders and shouting, “What were you thinking? You race in four days! What if you had been hurt?”
“He deserved it,” said Bartolomeo sulkily.
Their father threw up his hands. “He deserved it! You could have handed the victory to Torre and you tell me he deserved it! If in four days he has the banner and we are still nonna, will you still be saying they deserved it?”
Nonna meant “grandmother.” The title went to the contrada that had gone the longest without a victory in the Palio, and Onda had carried it since before Francesca was born. But this year everything would change. This year, they had Bartolomeo.
Twenty years ago, an Arab boy had arrived in Siena with two racehorses and dreams of victory. But Lady Luck had other ideas. He never once rode his own horse in the Palio. His horses won. He did not. It was not all bad, though. He met a beautiful girl from a family of weavers and they raised a pair of skinny, dark-eyed twins who loved horses as much as their father did.
Francesca’s first memories were of sitting perched in front of her father on a horse that seemed as tall as a mountain, shrieking with delight. But Bartolomeo was the real talent. He moved with the horse like they were one creature. He was the one who would win the Palio for Onda.
“Four more days,” said their father. “Then you punch him. Do you think you can manage that?”
# # #
The blood on Francesca’s scrapes was not yet dry when the drawing took place.
Il Campo was packed, but then, there would hardly be a moment in the next four days when it was not packed. The piazza was shaped like a seashell, its sloping surface leading not to a cathedral, but to the city hall, where the mayor waited with two baskets of capsules. In one set of capsules were the numbers of the horses. In the other were the names of the contrade, Siena’s seventeen districts.
The horses stood tossing their manes, a number painted on each animal’s rump. No pedigreed racehorses here, but mixed breeds, black and chestnut, dappled and bay. But all eyes were on number seven, the one called Diavolo Bianco. He was a tall white stallion, his neck perfectly arched, his body well-muscled, every inch a champion. He snorted, as if displeased to be shown alongside such a motley assortment.
“His dam’s sire was one of mine,” said Francesca’s father. “Don’t be fooled by his size. There’s true Arabian blood in him.”
“Yes, papa, you’ve only mentioned that every day for the past year,” said Bartolomeo.
“Don’t be smart, kid. That’s the horse that will carry us to victory.”
The three of them stood among the people of Onda, wearing white and blue clothes and waving flags with the symbol of the dolphin. They waited in not-so-silent anticipation to find out which contrada would receive which horse. The jockey could be substituted. The horse could not.
On the other side of Il Campo, surrounded by people flying the tower-carrying elephant of Torre, Raffaello caught Bartolomeo’s eye and mouthed “Nonna.” Francesco and her father each grabbed one of Bartolomeo’s elbows. Francesco looked him in the eye and shook her head.
The mayor opened the first pair of capsules and read out, “Number twelve. Aquila!”
A massive cry of disappointment from the part of the crowd dressed in yellow, blue, and black. They surrounded their dejected jockey as he led away a pigeon-toed gray mare. Draco drew another poor horse, then Pantera. With each outcry from the crowd, Francesca’s pulse thrummed a little more. She gave Bartolomeo’s hand a squeeze and was startled to find that he was trembling.
“Number fifteen,” announced the mayor. “Onda!”
Francesca’s heart plummeted. Bartolomeo slumped. He trudged forward and reluctantly took the proffered reins of a small, thin-faced bay mare with one white foot. Surrounded by a press of people in sky-blue and white, they led the horse down Siena’s winding streets to the Onda stable.
“It’s all right,” said Francesca, squeezing her brother’s shoulder. “It’s not the horse that matters. It’s the rider.”
Which was an even bigger load of dung than the ones the horses were leaving on the piazza. It was the horse who won the race, not the jockey. The jockey didn’t even need to be still astride.
They were barely out of Il Campo when an uproar of cheers met their ears. Raffaello walked away with Diavolo Bianco.
# # #
“He cheated,” said Bartolomeo, pacing the straw-strewn stable and gesturing with both arms. Their father was off meeting with the captain and lieutenants of Onda to salvage their tattered race strategy, leaving the twins alone in the stable with the horse and her owner. “Those Torre bastards rigged the drawing. The mayor is on their side and…How are you so calm right now?”
Francesca sat on the stall door, feeding the mare a carrot.
“I’m not,” she said. “You just seemed like you were freaking out enough for the both of us.”
“Easy for you to say,” said Bartolomeo. “You’re not the one who has to race on that nag!”
“She’s not a nag,” came a voice from the other end of the stable. “She’s a good horse.”
The horse’s owner strode forward. Francesca had forgotten she was there. She was surprised to realize that the owner was a young lady not much older than she was. She had a pale face and a long, straight nose, and she held herself very straight, holding up the hem of her yellow overskirt so it wouldn’t trail in the muck. She was startlingly pretty.
Bartolomeo crossed his arms and cast his eyes skyward. “Of course. She’s your horse and you raised her and fed her apples from your own hand and so she’s the finest animal that ever walked the earth.”
“Introductions, perhaps, before insults?” said the young lady mildly, putting out her gloved hand. “My name is Margherita Guerrini.”
“Bartolomeo al-Hijazi,” said Bartolomeo after a moment’s hesitation. “And my sister Francesca.”
Margherita stroked the mare’s nose. “And this is Volante.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Bartolomeo. “She’s not Diavolo Bianco.”
“She’s twice the horse he is. She can win—if you stop sulking and give her a chance.”
For a long moment it looked as if Bartolomeo was genuinely going to choose sulking. But at last he sighed heavily and said, “Fine. Tell me what’s so great about this horse.”
Margherita broke into a grin, which softened her face. She led Volante out of her stall.
“She has her own ways,” said Margherita. “You need to respect them, but if you do, she’ll be loyal to death. She fears dogs. She was bitten by a dog once. She is not fast around the corners, but she’s surefooted, and she goes like the wind on the straightaway.”
“Wait,” Francesca broke in, suspicion tickling the back of her mind. “Why are you helping us? You’re not from Onda. What contrada are you from, anyway?”
Margherita smiled slowly and gave Francesca a little nod, as though she’d passed a test. “I’m from Vipera. My contrada is dwindling. We don’t race in the Palio. But we still have our pride. We would rather see the banner go to anyone other than those facce di culo in Torre.”
And that startled Francesca for a second time, because Margherita looked too classy to be calling anyone an ass face. She exchanged looks with her brother. By silent agreement they decided that anyone who insulted Torre was on the level.
“All right,” said Bartolomeo. “Let’s win ourselves a Palio.”
# # #
Margherita’s family had a small farm on the outskirts of town, and they headed there to practice out of sight of Siena’s omnipresent crowds. They had scant hours before the first of the five trials, and while the trials themselves did not count for anything, the pressure would be intense. Faltering in front of all the contrade would crush Bartolomeo. The first time he appeared in public on Volante, he had to look like a champion.
Margherita led Volante into the paddock, whispering quietly to her. Despite her prim appearance, Francesca had to admit she knew how to handle a horse. The mare’s ears swung forward at the sound of her owner’s voice and she nuzzled her affectionately.
Bartolomeo swung himself onto the mare’s bare back and took her for a warmup jaunt. Now that Francesca took the time to look at her, she saw that Volante really wasn’t a bad horse, aside from her homely face. She was fine-boned, dainty but not fragile. She galloped with a smooth, even gait. Francesca found hope rising within her.
And Bartolomeo. Francesca was a good horsewoman, but Bartolomeo made her look like a toddler on her first donkey ride. He moved like water, his long hair whipping around his face as he rose and fell with the rhythm of the horse’s footfalls.
Francesca felt a smile spreading across her face. Unbidden she was already seeing them galloping across the finish line.
And then the dog appeared.
It darted across the paddock, barking and jumping playfully. Volante shied, and as she did, she missed her footing and fell on her side, Bartolomeo beneath her.
The horse scrambled to her feet, mercifully unhurt, but Bartolomeo lay on the ground, clutching his leg. His face was pale and damp with sweat. Francesca ran to his side. She hovered there frozen, not sure what to do. The dog had already run off.
Margherita, luckily, kept her head about her. She knelt by Bartolomeo’s side. “It’s his ankle. Let’s have a look.”
But touching his ankle brought forth a stream of evocative language involving her relatives and various domesticated animals.
Margherita laughed and cuffed Bartolomeo lightly on the ear. “You big baby. It’s only sprained.”
“Only sprained? I have a trial in two hours!” protested Bartolomeo, and, despite Francesca and Margherita’s best efforts to restrain him, he tried to scramble to his feet. His leg buckled beneath him. His face blanched with pain and he slumped back to the ground, his shoulders quivering. It took Francesca a moment to realize he wasn’t shaking from pain. He was crying.
Bartolomeo never cried, not even when the bigger boys beat him up. “It was my year!” he said, shoving off her attempt to put an arm around him. “And now…”
Francesca tried to think of anything she could say to console him, but as the full weight of what had just happened settled on her, the words dried up in her mouth. The whole scene had taken only seconds. And now they would be nonna for another year.
Margherita stood up. A calculating look crossed her face.
“Let’s not panic,” she said. “Let’s think about this. No one else knows Bartolomeo is hurt.”
“No, but…” Francesca began.
Margherita cut her off. “Francesca. You know how to ride, right?”
“Perfect,” said Margherita. “Look at you two. You’re the same height. You have the same hair. You even sound the same.”
“We do not!” protested Bartolomeo, his voice cracking.
“Don’t you see?” said Margherita. “Francesca, you wear Bartolomeo’s clothes. You ride in his place. The victory still goes to Onda. No one ever has to know.”
“Our father would know in a second,” Francesca pointed out.
But Bartolomeo was beginning to perk up. “We can talk him into it,” he said. “He wants to win as badly as we do. If I stay here while you ride the first trial and he sees how good you are…”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I can barely ride,” said Francesca.
“Cazzata,” said Bartolomeo. “You’ve spent as much time on horseback as I have. You can do this.” He looked up at her, his dark eyes pleading. “Please. If the contrada finds out what happens, they’ll despise me.”
“If we get caught…”
Margherita waved her off. “You won’t be. If you lose, who cares? And if you win, which of the contrade will want to admit that they lost to a girl?”
This was beginning to sound terrifyingly possible. Francesca looked at the horse, who had recovered from her scare and was now contentedly cropping weeds at the edge of the paddock. All she had to do was ride her three times around Il Campo. That wasn’t so frightening, was it?
Francesca said quietly, “I guess we’d better get to work.”
# # #
The reins were slippery in Francesca’s damp hands. The late-June sun beat down oppressively, leaving her sweaty even in Bartolomeo’s light doublet. Without her women’s undergarments, her body felt squirmy and unstable, and she felt exposed, keenly aware that anyone could be looking at the space between her legs. Her loose hair kept blowing into her mouth. How did Bartolomeo go around like this all the time?
Volante stirred restlessly beneath her. The spirit of the Palio had gotten into her, too. Francesca didn’t have much practice at bareback riding, and she clung nervously to the reins, fearing that she’d lose control in the chaos of the race. Just stay on, she told herself.
Jockeys jostled and horses nipped at each other as they took their places between the ropes. Raffaello gave Francesca a smug grin from atop the big white horse. Sudden fear that he’d seen through the ruse shot through her and she turned away, her face coloring. But he only shouted, “Ready to stare at a horse’s ass, Bartolomeo?”
Do what Bartolomeo would do, she thought. Say what he would say. So she swallowed and shot back, “I already am staring at one!”
The ropes dropped. The trial began.
The horses took off in a river of many colors. All was noise and confusion and clods of earth kicked up by sixty-eight pounding hooves. Francesca lost her nerve and reined Volante back, letting the leaders dart ahead.
They swept around the great curve of the piazza and down the treacherous slope into the first corner. Around the corner, the horses leaned at almost 45 degrees and Francesca gritted her teeth, willing Volante not to lose her footing on the steep ground.
The jockey from Lupa misjudged the turn and collided with the church wall. He fell, rolling away into the crowd to avoid being trampled. The horses shot down the straightaway.
At a full gallop, the course was perilously narrow. Stone buildings hemmed them in on one side and the shouting crowd on the other. The second corner approached, the narrowest part of the track. The horses bunched up. Francesca bit her lip and gripped the reins until her knuckles turned white. Two horses collided and one fell. But somehow, she and Volante were still running.
The second lap began. Too slow! She had fallen to the back with the stragglers. Volante stretched out her neck, eager to catch up. Francesca set her jaw and whipped Volante into a flat-out run.
They zigzagged and darted their way through the middle of the pack, struggling past one rider after another. The corners swept past a second time. Now they were on the final lap. Ahead, Francesca could spot the white tail of Diavolo Bianco, held high and proud like a flag, but a knot of three other horses blocked her path. She nudged Volante to the left, then to the right, but there was no opening.
And then they were across the finish line. The trial was over. The whole thing had taken less than two minutes.
Raffaello yelled and raised his fists triumphally, surrounded by a Torre throng. Francesca slipped off Volante’s back and tried to catch her breath. Her heart was pounding. Fifth place. Not brilliant. Bartolomeo would be ashamed. But she’d finished the trial.
But that was only the beginning. There were four more, and then the race. The only thing that mattered.
Margherita took the reins from her. Their fingers brushed. “Not bad,” she said. “Not bad at all, for your first time out. There’s a victor in you.”
The touch of her fingers sent a thrill through Francesca that was more than just the excitement of the race.
But then Francesca spotted her father headed towards her through the crowd. She blanched. If they were going to have this conversation, it couldn’t happen in public.
“I’ve got to get home,” she said. “This is going to be awkward.”
# # #
Her initial strategy of running into the house and announcing “HipapaBartolomeosprainedhisanklesoI’mridinginsteadokaybye” didn’t go exactly as planned. Her father had predictably strong opinions on this development, particularly the part where she and Bartolomeo had pulled the whole thing off without his permission. But when he finally got all his oaths and threats to disown his lying, cheating children out of his system, he made an ultimatum: If a daughter of his raced in the Palio, she would not come in fifth.
The next two days passed in a frenetic blur. They smuggled a blanket-swathed Bartolomeo back to their father’s house to convalesce out of sight, but Francesca spent her every spare moment at Margherita’s farm, training. She rode until she was bone-tired and her muscles burned.
Whatever Francesca did, Margherita had a criticism. She was too timid, too slow, too stiff, too clumsy on the turns. But on those rare, beautiful moments when everything went perfectly, her face lit up with the radiance of an angel.
By midday, Francesca was fighting back tears of sheer exhaustion. As she heeled Volante into a gallop once again, she realized with a start that winning the Palio was no longer her only wish. More and more, she also deeply, painfully wanted to please Margherita.
At the second trial, she hit the wall and fell at the first corner. It was little consolation that the riderless Volante came in fourth.
At the third trial, she avoided the wall only to get entangled with another horse. Bartolomeo, who kept demanding a rehash of every moment, reminded her in none-too-oblique terms that it was his reputation on the line. And yet even his words didn’t cut her as much as the way Margherita sadly shook her head.
At the fourth trial, she kept her seat and came in second, just behind Raffaello.
She dismounted, buoyant with exhilaration. For once, the raucous Onda crowd around her was cheering, not grumbling. People slapped her on the back and showered her with unsolicited advice on how she could turn second into first.
Francesca glowed inwardly. Was this what being a victor felt like?
“Don’t let it go to your head,” said her father. “You know what the prize is for second? Nonna.”
Back at the farm, as she picked gravel out of Volante’s hooves, Francesca asked, “What did I do wrong that time? Was I too slow off the starting line? Too tense on the turns? It was that, wasn’t it? I can work on that first corner some more…”
Margherita was leaning against a fence post, twining a stray lock of hair around her finger.
“There’s nothing else today until the banquet, and that’s not for hours,” she said. “I think you should relax.”
Francesca paused, the pick in her hand. “What?”
“You’ve worked your ass off these past two days. There’s nothing more I can do to help. Truthfully, there never was. You’re a brilliant rider. If you win, the victory will be yours alone.”
“I thought…” Francesca fumbled. “I thought you despised me. I thought all this time you were looking down on me as the inferior substitute for my brother.”
Margherita laughed. It wasn’t an unkind laugh. “That little hothead is a good rider and no mistake. But you…you’re magnificent.”
She slipped her arm off the fence post and came over to Francesca. Madonna santa, she was enchanting. Francesca couldn’t take her eyes off the curve of her neck, the smooth shape of her jaw.
“All those hours watching you on Volante,” whispered Margherita, “Watching the way you move…and all I could think was…”
She kissed Francesca.
Francesca scarcely had time to be shocked before Margherita’s arms were around her, pulling her near, her touch close and intimate without the protection of a bodice and layers of skirts. Francesca had expected Margherita to feel stiff and cold, like embracing a ceramic doll. Nothing had prepared her for the warmth she found.
They half-walked, half-tripped into the house, unwilling to let go of each other. Margherita tapped a cask of wine and filled two leather cups.
“Moscato,” she said. “You deserve it.”
And then, in a moment of indulgence, she dragged in a wooden tub from outside and began hauling in buckets of water from the pump to heat over the hearth. When Francesca offered to help, Margherita shook her head. “You rest.”
They lay half-dressed on the pillow-strewn sofa while the water heated. Francesca’s gaze wandered over the green, red, and yellow frescoes adorning the walls, most featuring the serpent of Vipera. Margherita wasn’t from a noble family, but she was wealthier than she had first let on.
“Where’s your family, anyway?” Francesca wondered aloud. “This place is always empty when I come here.”
“In town half a cask down by now, probably,” said Margherita, sprinkling sage and lavender onto the steaming water. “I’ve been running this place by myself for years.”
Francesca sank gratefully into the hot water while Margherita combed her hair and massaged her aching back. The cup in her hand was always full of sweet, floral wine. Her eyelids grew heavy. As she drifted off there in the tub, she distantly heard Margherita humming.
# # #
Churchbells awakened Francesca, tolling once, twice, nine times. She sat up hazily on the bed, where she did not remember falling asleep. Margherita was nowhere in sight.
Then the sunlight streaming through the window hit her like a stroke of lightning. It was morning. She’d slept through the banquet. She’d slept through the final trial! The Captains of the contrade would be enrolling the jockeys for the race right then. If Francesca didn’t show, someone else would be riding for Onda.
She struggled into Bartolomeo’s clothes with limbs that felt like lead and jumped onto Volante’s back. Her head swam and her eyelids felt glued shut. Struggling to keep her balance on a horse that suddenly seemed to be listing like a ship, she rode into Il Campo at a gallop.
At the sight of her, cheers went up from the part of the crowd dressed in white and sky blue. The jockeys were already inside the city hall, receiving their riding silks. She barreled across the piazza, jumped off Volante, and ran inside.
“I’m here!” she shouted, bending double to catch her breath.
Her father stood up front with the mayor and the captain of Onda, the latter holding the blue-and-white silks embroidered with the Onda dolphin.
“Fr—Bartolomeo!” he exclaimed. “Where have you been? The whole contrada has been looking for you!”
“I’m sorry,” was all she could say. “I don’t know what happened. But I can ride.”
The Captain handed her the silks. Her father whispered, “Don’t let us down.”
Francesca’s head reeled as she staggered through the pageantry before the race. Was it the wine? She hadn’t drunk that much, had she?
And where was Margherita? Francesca led Volante into the chapel for the benediction, and the other girl was not there. She rode through town in the parade, and the other girl was not there. She watched the heralds hoist the victory banner over the piazza, and still Margherita was not there.
As Francesca waited to take her place at the starting line, at last Margherita appeared. She wore a scarf of scarlet, trimmed with blue and white. Torre colors.
“So you made it after all,” she said. “I thought you would sleep all day.”
“Torre,” Francesca managed to say. “But…”
The corner of Margherita’s mouth twisted into a cold smile. “My father is from Vipera, but my mother is from Torre. Torre could make our family great. And giving them a Palio victory would raise us very highly in their esteem.”
“Rigged, of course, just as you suspected. My job was to get Bartolomeo out of the race and to convince you to take his place. If Onda had chosen another jockey to replace him, they might have picked a winner. But a meek little girl like you had no chance.”
“But you trained me,” Francesca protested. Her head was pounding.
“I trained you to keep you out of the city and away from anyone who might recognize you. But I did my job a little too well. You were beginning to look like a real contender. So I resorted to a simpler measure.”
She pulled a glass vial of laudanum out of her purse.
“It’s a pity,” she said over her shoulder as she vanished back into the crowd. “If you weren’t from Onda, I might have loved you.”
Francesca’s vision swam as she took her place between the ropes. She couldn’t tell if the numbness was the laudanum or the weight of Margherita’s words. The memory of Margherita’s lips on her own made her stomach turn sour. She was such a fool. And Onda would pay for it.
Raffaello smirked at her and made a crude gesture. Sudden fury surged within her, overpowering the lingering grogginess. When she looked at the arrogant Torre jockey mounted on that big white horse, all she could see was Margherita’s cold smile.
The ropes dropped.
Francesca plied Volante with her whip.
She and Volante surged to the front of the pack. Only Raffaello remained ahead of them. They charged into the first corner. In Francesca’s half-drugged state, the slope felt steeper and the corner sharper than she remembered. Struggling to keep her balance around the turn, she barely managed to pull up Volante in time to avoid crashing into the front of the chapel. Three other riders darted past her.
No. She wouldn’t let them win like this. She gritted her teeth and shook her head, trying to clear the grogginess. And she headed full speed into the second corner.
Over the next two laps, she fought twin battles, working her way back through the pack while trying to keep her head clear. Every hoofbeat drove a nail through her skull. But at last she reached the front, pulling even with Raffaello. He gave her a startled look when he noticed her beside him, then lashed her hand with his whip. She winced.
Francesca and Volante began to edge ahead.
As they swept around the tight final corner, Raffaello reached out and grabbed her leg.
She lost her balance and crashed into the track’s hard surface, the thin layer of earth scarcely cushioning the stones below. She curled up, barely avoiding the storm of hooves. Raffaello flashed her a cheeky smile as he galloped toward the finish line.
And there, almost neck in neck, ran the riderless Volante.
“Go, Volante!” shouted Francesca.
It was as if Volante grew wings. Unridden, unguided, the little bay mare charged past Raffaello and over the line.
Raffaello had already raised his fist in victory before he realized what had happened. The sound of the crowd could have been heard in heaven above. People in blue-and-white scarves poured onto the track, lifting Francesca onto their shoulders and singing “Onda, Onda!” while they carried her up to claim the banner.
As she hefted the banner, her face glowing, Francesca caught sight of Margherita in the crowd. She looked up, her face stony, then turned away.
A hint of sadness tinged the exhilaration pouring through Francesca. And yet she couldn’t bring herself to hate Margherita. All she’d done was play the game. Francesca wanted to tell herself that, in her place, she wouldn’t have done the same. But in her heart, she knew it was a lie. For Onda, she would have done anything.
Blood ran hot during the Palio.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Palio” by Gwen C. Katz, narrated by Violet Dixon.
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