In 13th century Europe, political turmoil is the order of the day and the Fool's Guild and its agents - jesters, jugglers, and knaves to a man - works behind the scenes to manipulate events, trying to maintain a balance of power.
Theophilos, a member of the Guild known by many names, is still recovering from his last mission during which he was severely wounded and nearly lost his life but, in the person of Viola, found himself an apprentice and a wife. But there is no rest for the wicked. While he is recovering on the Dalmatian coast, the Guild approaches him with another mission. A crusade is being launched, with Venice as the staging ground, but some believe that Venice means to turn it to it's own ends. At the same time, there is trouble in Byzantine throne - a pretender to the throne is gathering European backers. And to make matters worse, all of the Guild's agents in Constantinople have gone suddenly and mysteriously missing.
So now, the newly married Theophilos and Viola must go to Constantinople to gather information, thwart the rivals of the Guild, stop the war, and maybe - just maybe - stay alive.
About the Author
Alan Gordon is a lawyer working with the Legal Aid Society. He is the author of one previous novel, Thirteenth Night, and several short stories which have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, among others. He lives with his family in Queens, New York.
Alan Gordon is an attorney with the Legal Aid Society and the author of books including Jester Leaps In. He lives with his family in Queens, NY.
Read an Excerpt
What think you of this fool ...? Doth he not mend?
TWELFTH NIGHT, ACT 1, SCENE 5
The sun rose through the gap in the eastern ridge where the river cuts through. I watched it come up, lying on my back on the riverbank. A few months ago, I had prayed that God would grant me the gift of seeing one more sunrise. He had granted that prayer, along with a few others, in a manner more generous than my situation merited, but that's the sort of thing He does. I make no pretense of understanding His ways, but ever since I survived that dreadful night, I've made a point of trying to see every sunrise that I could. And I've continued to pray. Not for myself, mind you. I've been rewarded enough so that I can pass along some prayers for the rest of the world. It seems only fair.
As the warmth of the rays began removing the night's chill from my limbs, I took my right knee, brought it to my chest, and held it there for a slow count of ten. Then I did the same with the left knee, though the leg protested vehemently. Pain coursed through it, rounding the turns at my ankles and surging back toward my hip until I released it, gasping. Then I repeated the exercise, right knee without pain, left with.
I sat up, kept my right leg straight, and brought it up by degrees until it was pointing to the sky. I let it drop, then looked at my left leg as if it belonged to some stranger, one who had yet to earn my trust. Reluctantly, I grabbed it and started pulling it up.
I couldn't get it to the vertical, and had to settle for the diagonal. I thought I could hear the scar tissue cracking, but that may have been my imagination. I let it go and stood up.
Roosters crowed on the farms surrounding the town. I stripped to my linens and dove into the river, kicking hard. The water came directly from the snow still visible on the distant mountain peaks, pausing on its way to the nearby Adriatic to chill me to the marrow. I made it across to the opposite bank, then swam back. I did five circuits before the left leg gave up; then I dragged myself back up the bank like a shipwrecked sailor. Not bad, I thought. Only four months since a bolt from a crossbow had fixed my thigh to a wall, one month since I could walk without crutches. Lucky I still had a leg to stand on.
I dried myself off, donned my motley, and rubbed the flour-chalk mixture onto my face until it took on its normal macabre aspect. Kohl for the brows and lines, rouge for the lips and cheeks, then malachite for the green diamonds under the eyes. Finally, the cap and bells on my head, and I was ready to face the world again.
"Good morning, Fool," said a woman behind me.
I spun, startled; then I relaxed and bowed.
"Good morning, milady," I said. "I trust you slept well."
"Quite well, thank you, Feste," replied Viola. "I am ready for my lesson."
She glanced around and made sure that no one was near. Then she walked up to me, placed her arms around my neck, and kissed me.
"There, you've gone and smeared my makeup," I protested, admittedly some minutes later.
Viola stepped back and surveyed the damage. "I suppose some of it got on me," she said. I nodded. She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her face while I made repairs to mine. "The perils of kissing a fool," she remarked. "I had no idea that loving someone so simple would be so complicated. How is your leg today?"
"Improving. Still weak and stiff, but less than before. Now, my lovely apprentice, let's see how you've progressed."
She took three balls out of a bag and started juggling.
"Good. Switch hands."
She shifted the pattern from a left-handed start to a right-handed one.
"Good. Two and one. Other way. Over the top. Excellent. Overhand grabs, now. Have you tried going under the leg?"
"In my room," she said, concentrating on the pattern. "But I can't do it here in this gown. Oh, dear." A ball dropped out of her reach and rolled toward the bank. I retrieved it before it plunged into the river and handed it back to her. "Why did you go over there?" she asked it sternly.
"Because that's where you threw it," I replied. "Start over."
She sighed and sent them aloft. "When do I start on four balls?"
I tossed another one at her. She wasn't expecting it. She made a late grab, and three of the four balls ended up at her feet.
"When you've mastered three," I answered.
She went back to work while I resumed my stretching.
"That trick won't work on me again, you know," she said, tossing one behind her back and catching it over the opposite shoulder.
"That's today's lesson," I replied. "A good fool is ready for anything at any time. We'll start on four balls tomorrow. In the meantime, switch to clubs. When you're ready, we'll work on some four-handed moves."
I stopped and listened. "Do you hear that?"
She nodded, pulling three gaily painted clubs out of her bag. "Someone singing. Coming from the town toward us."
"Not just someone."
In the Fools' Guild, we are trained how to make contact with each other. The exchange of passwords is one method, of course, but only when you know where to find a particular colleague. In the vast expanses of the world, however, we have many ways of signaling when we need to find each other. A certain type of birdcall; a peculiar clapping rhythm; a song.
Our troubadours call it a tenso: a debate in verse and melody, a call and response between two singers on any topic, though usually on love. The best can improvise on a theme for hours at the contests held at the Guildhall and the great tournaments in southern France where a sparrow hawk is perched on a tall pole throughout and awarded to the winner.
But this particular song was a call to any Guild member to respond in kind. The verse was sung, and then the singer paused, waiting. Then he moved on and repeated it.
Thus it was that I heard in the distance a sweet tenor soaring over the faint strummings of a lute:
How sweet to meet the soft-lit Dawn
When the world lies still aborning.
Farewell, Philomel, I must move on.
I have miles to go this morning.
I cleared my throat and sang out in the direction of my unknown friend:
Yet stay, I pray, my pretty Faun,
Or my love you will be scorning.
The Sun will run, and then be gone.
Let tomorrow's Dawn be our warning.
"Shouldn't the second part be sung by a woman?" asked Viola, keeping her eyes on the clubs dancing in the air over her head.
"When one's available," I replied. "Now, hush, Apprentice."
Tantalo once told me that the art of being a troubadour is to sing, play the lute, and look magnificent in a cape, all while simultaneously riding a horse. And there he was, the embodiment of his own definition, perched on a beautiful, black, Spanish stallion prancing daintily down the hill, both horse and rider bedecked in black-and-red checkered silks. His Insouciance guided his steed without reins, leaving his hands free to continue plucking away at a lute that was far nicer than mine. His horse, I swear, kept time with its hooves. They descended the slope toward us. When they stopped, Tantalo swung his leg over the saddle and leaped lightly to the ground, continuing the melodic line in the lute without break.
"You must teach me how to do that trick," I said. "You're in fine voice this morning."
"This morning, this afternoon, yesterday and tomorrow," he replied. "You, on the other hand, sound a touch hoarse."
"I've been swimming," I said, a bit defensively.
He turned, doffed his plumed hat, and nodded to Viola, then turned back to me.
"Introduce me to your charming companion, if you would be so kind."
"Viola, this is Tantalo, an old friend. Tantalo, this is my apprentice, Viola."
"Apprentice?" he said in surprise. He leaned toward me and muttered, "Looks a bit long in the tooth for an apprentice, don't you think?"
I reached forward and caught a club an inch away from his skull.
"Oops," said Viola sweetly, keeping the other two clubs going with her right hand. I tossed back the wandering third. She caught it adroitly and continued practicing.
"Rather ungallant for a troubadour, commenting on a lady's age," I admonished him.
"Oh, a lady, is she? Forgive me. I mistook her for a fool's apprentice. As a Guild member, it is my right and obligation to insult apprentices, and their responsibility to come up with some witty retort."
"You're funny-looking, and your horse smells," Viola called out.
"All right, so that part needs work," I said hastily. "But she's no ordinary apprentice. She's fluent in nine languages, sings and plays beautifully, and is a superb actress and mimic. I can vouch for that."
"Well, if you say so," he said, somewhat dubiously. "Anyhow, that is not my business here."
"What is your business?"
He straightened up and puffed out his chest. "Theophilos, I have traveled from the Guildhall to Venice, and by boat from Venice to Capodistria, and then ridden down the Adriatic coastline to this lovely town of Orsino, to ask you but a single question: how is your leg?"
"Is that personal or official?"
"Personally, it hurts like hell. Officially, I can no longer do a standing back flip, and I still limp fairly badly, but I am otherwise back to my old self."
"Good," he said, nodding. "Your report of your success here was duly noted. Father Gerald was so delighted, he was observed to kick up one heel. More cannot be expected of such an ancient. But you are back in his good graces."
"Hooray for me. What does the Guild want?"
"Now, now, gossip before business. You know the rules."
I debated with myself over whether or not I would intercept the next club flung in his direction. He pulled out a large handkerchief, opened it with a flourish, and placed it on the ground. He then sat upon it and leaned forward.
"You'll never guess, my friend, who showed up at the court in Hagenau recently."
"I haven't been in Germany in years. Tell me."
"Alexios of Constantinople. Son of the usurped and blinded Isaakios, former emperor. Nephew of the usurping and blinding Alexios the Third, current emperor. Alexios, who seeks to become Alexios the Fourth, the next emperor."
"Which would be a neat trick, considering his father and uncle both live. When did he escape?"
"Sometime in the fall, we think."
"And this was not the Guild's doing?"
"By David's lyre, no. The Guild has no interest in disrupting the Byzantine throne. The results are too unpredictable, and besides, they do a fine job of that all by themselves. The immediate agents who arranged his escape were Pisan, but we suspect his sister Irene was behind it. She's married to Philip of Swabia, you know."
"He escapes, goes north to big sister, and has a ready-made entry to the German court. What does that have to do with the Guild?"
"Well, there's this little matter of the Crusade gathering in Venice."
"Which is going to Constantinople, according to Domino."
He shrugged. "Maybe. Domino's been the chief fool in Venice forever, and usually knows which way the wind's blowing. But not everyone in the Guild thinks Constantinople is the intended target. There's a whole lot of French and Flemish soldiers sworn to liberate the Holy Land, and nothing but the Holy Land. Then there are some who want to invade Egypt first, one infidel territory being just as good as the next. So, most of us thought Constantinople was a long shot. But Alexios's arrival complicates matters. You know who else was at Hagenau? Boniface of Montferrat. Here the Guild is, making every effort to keep the Crusaders from slaughtering Christians, at the very least, and now the commander is meeting with the chief claimant to the Byzantine throne."
"What's the Guild doing about it?"
"The usual. The troubadours are in a tricky position. Unlike you, we can't just go around making fun of our patrons. We're supposed to be out there singing their praises. And if the particular lord is taking the Cross and swearing to bring an army with him, then we're supposed to be out rousing the rabble. So, we roused them. Now that we've roused them, we're trying to douse them. Lyrics that once glorified the noble quest now speak of the girl we leave behind. Some of our gallants are becoming homesick before they even depart."
"We're also taking the opposite tack of inflaming their fervor to such a pitch that they must to Beyond-the-Sea immediately. Several hundred have skipped Venice altogether and dashed off to Apulia, which is doing a nice business in transporting them. They'll arrive in inadequate numbers to fight the Mohammedans, while depriving their Venetian-bound comrades of their promised numbers. We're hoping that not enough of them show up in Venice to justify the journey. In Venice itself, we're spreading rumors that the Crusade is being subverted to Venetian ends. Some of those who came there because they took the Cross are now crying betrayal and going home."
"Well done. But it won't work. Venice has committed too much of its monies to this expedition. If they don't get repaid with profit, they won't be happy."
"Agreed. And just when we were hoping everything might fall apart nicely, along comes little Alexios with his big requests. Oh, you should see how grown men and women weep to hear of his travels and travails. Fortunately, Rome won't support him. Innocent may be one of the most conniving popes in recent memory, but even he won't absolve an attack like this. Unfortunately, events have their own momentum, which is why the Guild wants you to go to Constantinople."
I was waiting for it, I was expecting it, and he still managed to sneak it in and wallop me.
"Constantinople? Me? Now?" I almost shouted.
He looked at me and shook his head sadly. "Theo, you have to do better than one-word questions if you're to uphold your reputation as a wit. But to respond in the same manner: Yes. You. Now."
"But doesn't the Guild have half a dozen people there already?"
"We did," he replied.
Suddenly, I was afraid. "What happened to them?"
"We don't know," he said slowly. "That's what we'd like you to find out. They've disappeared. All of them."
"We don't know. We received word from Fat Basil in Thessaloniki. The troubadour riding the circuit from Constantinople reported that all of the fools had vanished without explanation. He left, saying he would try to find out what happened. That's the last we heard."
"When was this?"
"Maybe six or seven months ago."
"Who did the Guild have working there?"
He counted on his fingers. "The dwarf brothers were with the Emperor. Thalia was with the Empress. Tiberius and Demetrios worked the streets, the Hippodrome, and the Great Palace. The troubadour was called Ignatius."
"You're using the past tense. About people that I know."
"Then I hope that you may know them again. Thalia was a particular friend of yours, was she not?"
Some troubadours should stick to singing. When they talk, they just get people in trouble. I glanced over at Viola, but she was absorbed in her juggling, some distance away.
"When can you leave?" Tantalo asked.
"There's a complication," I said.
"What is it?"
"I'm married," I replied, indicating Viola. "Meet the Duchess."
"Married?" he guffawed. "Well, my goodness. Congratulations, I suppose." He turned to Viola. "And to you, Apprentice." She nodded, and he turned back. "I guess...." Then his jaw slowly dropped in the first uncalculated expression I had ever seen on him. "When you said, 'Duchess,' you meant ... Good God, Theo, you've rejoined the gentry!"
"Dragged me down to his level, more the like," said Viola.
He got up and swept his hat off in a superb bow.
"Forgive me, milady. Little did I know that such magnificence was consorting with such a lowly man as this."
"You're still funny-looking, and your horse still smells," she replied, curtsying.
"Ha, ha, excellently put, milady," he said, rolling his eyes at me. "Well, this is a priceless piece of news to take with me. I could dine out for a month on it at the Guildhall."
"Fine, so long as you don't noise it about locally. As you might suspect, it was done in secret."
"I'm certain of it. Last I heard, she was a recent widow and you were a bedridden cripple. Did she nurse you back to health?"
"Then you fell in love and married in secret. What a scandal!"
"There might have been a greater scandal had we not married," I said. "And we had been in love for a long time. We just didn't realize it."
"Now she's your apprentice. How much have you told her about the Guild?"
"Who we are. What we do."
He sighed. "Is that all? After all these years, you'll give up our secrets for love?"
"Because I trust her, and because she'll become a member in due time."
"But that takes years of training, Theo."
"As I said, she has a head start. All she really needs is repertoire, juggling, and tumbling, and she'll be ready for initiation."
"I imagine she could give you a pretty good tumble if she wanted to," Tantalo whispered, leering. Then he turned and caught another club directed at his noggin.
"Oops, again," called Viola.
Tantalo flipped the club experimentally, then lofted it high over her head. She walked backward, gazing upward while keeping the other two clubs going in one hand. At the last moment, she tossed them high, cartwheeled backward, and caught all three. Tantalo and I applauded.
"All right, she does show some promise," he said begrudgingly.
"In the meantime, she has taken the Oath of Apprenticeship and will honor it," I said.
"How much does she really know about you?" he asked quietly.
"More than you do," I said. "She knows my real name. I had to give it to the hermit who married us."
"My word," he said, impressed. "But there is quite a bit more to you than that."
"True. I've promised one revelation for each wedding anniversary."
"Then, milady, I wish you a long and happy life together," he said, bowing again. "You'll need it if you want to learn all of this fellow's secrets."
"Oh, I have a few of my own," she replied.
"No doubt, no doubt. Well, Theo, you're right. This is a complication."
"Not necessarily," said Viola.
I looked at her for a long moment.
"Will you excuse us?" I asked Tantalo.
He bowed and withdrew. I turned to my beloved. "What are you up to?"
"A good fool is ready for anything at any time," she replied. "The answer is simple. I go with you."
"Because it's dangerous. You have no idea what you're getting into."
Her face darkened. Always a warning signal, although one I usually catch too late. "I married you. I became an apprentice of the Fools' Guild. I made both commitments knowing what they involved. I knew that at some point the Guild would be sending you on another mission. So, I'm going with you."
"What about your children?"
"My opportunity to be their mother disappeared when my sister-in-law was appointed as their regent. Mark is a few years away from his independence. Once he has full power as Duke, maybe I'll be allowed to be his mother again. But for now, I choose to be your wife rather than a useless appendage to my own family."
"You may get killed in the process."
"As may you. Don't forget, I've already had the experience of sitting home while my first husband went sailing off to the Holy Land to fight Saladin. Years of wondering if he was coming back. I won't do that again. I refuse to grow old waiting to see if you've survived. If you're going to die, I want to be there." She stopped. "That didn't come out the way I meant it to."
"Viola, this is no pampered life. A traveling jester lives on his wits and a handful of bronze. You'd be sleeping in haylofts if you're lucky, and on the cold, hard ground if you're not."
She walked up to me and looked up into my eyes. "But I'll be sleeping with you," she said simply.
I thought about that for all of a second. "All right, you can come. But your training continues. When we are working, you are my apprentice, not my wife."
"Agreed," she said, and she went back to her juggling.
I walked back to where Tantalo had withdrawn, a distance far enough to appear discreet while allowing him to hear every word we said.
"Problem solved?" he asked innocently.
"We'll leave tomorrow morning. Can you stay until then?"
"Alas, no," he said, mounting his horse. "I have a few more errands to run before I rejoin the Crusade."
"You're going with them?"
"Someone has to keep an eye on them. There'll be a few of us. Raimbaut's with Boniface, of course, and some of the other high and mighty are bringing along troubadours to record their prowess in verse. Things should get going this summer. The fleet will probably work its way down the coast demanding support. Most of the towns have quietly gotten in touch with Venice to arrange peaceful passage. Including yours, milady."
"We know," she said.
"Yes, that Jewish steward of yours is very efficient. You should get by with a relatively minor tribute and a few dozen men. But I have to visit Zara next. The Doge has it in for them, and they may want to consider some serious negotiating before the fleet shows up at their doorstep."
"I hear the place is a haven for heretics, brigands, and exiles."
"My kind of people. Well, I'll see what I can do about persuading them to settle peacefully; then I'm back to Venice. I'm worried Domino may take it upon himself to dive into the Grand Canal with a spike in his teeth and scuttle the fleet single-handedly. Oh, by the way, Brother Dennis was inquiring after that horse he gave you."
"Zeus is well," I said. "His manners have not improved overmuch. Does Brother Dennis want him back?"
"No. He said, and I quote, 'If he can stand that vicious, willful, cantankerous bastard, he might as well stay with him.'"
"That's a fine way to speak about a horse."
"He was talking about you. Good-bye, Theophilos."
"Good luck," I said, reaching up and clasping his hand.
"And to you," he replied. "Perhaps I'll see you in Constantinople."
He started strumming his lute as his horse turned north back toward the town.
"One more thing," I called. "Let's say I'm sitting there, and war breaks out. What does the Guild want me to do?"
"Try and stop it," he called back.
He shot us a wicked grin over his shoulder. "Do what you always do. Improvise!"
Excerpted from Jester Leaps In by Alan Gordon. Copyright © 2000 by Alan Gordon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.