Temporarily Out of Stock Online
“Only a fool would pass this one up.” —Laurie R. King
In 1205, Theophilos—a fool by trade, a family man by choice, and a spy by design—belongs, along with his family, to the Fools’ Guild, a group that secretly maintains the fragile order of society. In Toulouse, that order is threatened when, unexpectedly, a man claiming to be a full brother of the ruling count is found one morning in a local bordello next to a dead whore, killed with his own sword. Now, Theophilos and his family must uncover the truth.
About the Author
AL AN GORDON is the author of seven previous novels featuring Theophilos, the Jester. He lives in Queens, New York.
Read an Excerpt
THE PARISIAN PRODIGAL (Chapter 1)
Locks make you careless. You close the door, you turn the key, you hear the iron slide into place and think, There! I am safe. There is a closed, locked door protecting me from all danger.
But the truth is, I can pick most of the locks that I encounter in the world, and I am far from being the best lock-picker in the Fools’ Guild. That honor, by the way, may eventually go to Helga, my apprentice, who has taken to my lessons on this particular subject with an enthusiasm far beyond that which she has demonstrated for juggling, music, knife-throwing, or even boys. I sometimes fear that I am teaching her too well, and the Guild will lose a promising jester to the world of burglary.
My point about the locks is that even though I don’t trust them, and even though I will follow the ritual locking of our door and barring of the shutters on the lower floor of our home by then rigging an elaborate system of trip lines that will ring bells and cause clanging pans to tumble to the ground, with the added surprise of a bucket of water poised to topple onto any would-be invader coming through the front door despite its lockedness (a proud innovation of mine that Claudia, my wife, would prefer staying unimplemented, given the increasing mobility of Portia, our fifteen-month-old daughter), nevertheless I am much less likely to spring into action—fully alert, dagger in hand, poised and ready to throw—now that we live in a house in the city with locked doors as opposed to sleeping unprotected outside in, say, a forest clearing. Then again, I’ve never had good luck with forest clearings.
Of course, it could also be because I am getting older.
So, when the banging on our front door commenced while we were all sound asleep on the second floor, the first to wake was Portia, who, finding herself in the dark with what was no doubt some kind of monster trying to devour her, did the sensible thing and screamed at the tops of her lungs. This in turn woke Helga, with whom she now shared a room to the dismay of both. The twelve-year-old scooped up the toddler in an unsuccessful attempt to comfort her, then gave up and marched into our bedroom and unceremoniously dumped her into our bed. Portia scooted onto her mother in an effort to restore recently revoked nursing privileges. Claudia yelped and dislodged her, which set off a new round of screaming for different reasons. This no doubt would have roused me, had not the repeated kicking of my beloved in the general vicinity of my rib cage already done the trick.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“There’s someone banging on the front door,” said Helga.
“Then go answer it,” I said.
“I can’t,” she said. “It’s dark.”
“That explains why I can’t see anything,” I said. “I’m relieved. I thought that I had gone blind, and the way I was drinking last night, that would have been no surprise. Go answer the door.”
“The rule is that I don’t answer the door when it’s dark,” said Helga. “And it’s dark.”
“Who made that rule?” I asked.
“You did,” she said.
“Then I’m changing it. Go answer the door.”
“You can’t change rules at night,” said Helga. “That’s another rule.”
“Who made that rule?” I asked.
“I did,” said Claudia. “Now, get downstairs and answer the damn door before we wake the entire neighborhood.”
“I’m going back to sleep,” announced Helga, leaving us to our doom.
“New rules in the morning,” I called after her as I groped around for my boots. “Lots of new rules. And there will be a test afterwards.”
I staggered downstairs to the lower room and promptly managed to stumble over most of the trip lines. By the time I got to the front door, my ears were ringing, I had a pounding headache, and I was drenched with a bucket’s worth of water.
“This had better be worth money up front,” I growled as I unlocked the door and flung it open.
Sancho, one of the count’s guard, was standing there, a torch in his hand. He looked at me quizzically. “Hallo, Pierre,” he said. “What was all that ruckus? Are you rehearsing a new routine?”
“Yes, Sancho, that is exactly what I was doing,” I said.
“You’re all wet,” he pointed out helpfully.
“I know this,” I said. “Was there anything else you wished to tell me? If not, I am going back to bed.”
“Oh, yes, now that you mention it, there was,” he said. “The count wants to see you, Nowish, or thereabouts. Sooner, if possible.”
“He’s in one of his fouler moods, and wants cheering up by his fool,” said Sancho. “Can you be funny at this hour?”
“No one can be funny at this hour,” I said.
“Well, I suggest that you put the lie to that,” said Sancho. “See if you’ve got any dry motley, and come along.”
“Fine,” I grumbled. “Care to come in?”
“I am thinking not,” he said, peering cautiously into the dark interior at the tangle of ropes now littering the floor. “I will stay out here in the Godforsaken city night, where it is safe.”
I thought I had accounted for all my trip lines on my first pass through the room, but one I had previously missed caught me just before the stairs, sending me headlong into the wall. Fortunately, I already had a headache, so it only made it worse.
“Who is it?” asked Claudia sleepily as I came into the room in search of my good motley.
“Sancho,” I said. “The count wants me.”
“Good,” she mumbled as Portia nestled contentedly against her bosom.
Dammit, that was my spot.
I changed hurriedly, then leaned over and kissed my daughter and my wife.
“You’re wet,” Claudia murmured.
“So I’ve been told,” I replied. “However, a dry fool…”
A snore floated up from the bed. I didn’t know if it was real, or her way of stopping me before I completed a joke she had heard too many times before. Either way, it was my cue to leave. I slung my lute and my gearbag over my shoulder and went back downstairs.
“How’s the family?” asked Sancho as I locked the door behind me.
“Well, thank you, and asleep, thank you again,” I said. “When are you going to get one?”
“When the dice roll more favorably for me,” he sighed. “Just when I think I’ve made my nest egg, along comes the snake with its beady little eyes to suck it dry. Aren’t you going to put on your makeup?”
“When my face is dry,” I said.
“You don’t need a glass to do it?”
“You can get your armor on in the dark, can’t you?”
“In less time than it takes to sing a psalm,” he said. “Long as I’m sober, and unencumbered by the soft white arms of a willing maid.”
“It was not the arms of my willing maid, but her feet that drove me out of bed,” I said.
“They smell that bad, do they?” he said sympathetically.
I reached over and rapped him gently on his iron cap.
There was a pause.
“Ow,” he said finally.
“Why is the count in such a foul mood this early?” I asked.
“This late, rather,” he replied. “Been up all night, far as I can tell.”
“He hasn’t been to bed?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“He has been to bed, but he has not slept well,” I surmised. “He’s been doing that more and more lately, hasn’t he?”
“Not for me to say.”
“Of course it is, good Sancho. If I go into his chambers unprepared, then chances are that I will not lighten his mood, and we will all suffer.”
“You’ve convinced me,” he said. “Well, not that I am one to gossip, but as one who stands outside his door, ever alert as one is required to be, one occasionally hears things.”
“And what did one hear tonight?”
“He’s coming up along fifty years, he has a new hot-blooded wife of eighteen, and although numbers have never been my strength, I would say that they do not favor him.”
“The eyes of the snake have struck again?”
“A man sorely needs a laugh at a time like this,” said Sancho. “As long as he is the one laughing, not being laughed at by his new hot-blooded wife of eighteen.”
“That is all I need to know, friend Sancho,” I said. “And I thank you for it.”
Usually when I see a city at this time of morning, I am coming home from an unusually lengthy and debauched party, my safe-passage pass clutched openly in my hand for immediate presentation to the nightwatch, my senses somewhat dulled by wine and exhaustion yet on the alert for any danger lurking in the alleys. Now, on the other hand, I was on my way to work with a friendly and heavily armed companion, which allowed me to take in the sleeping city of Toulouse with only the distant torchlight of the watch-towers and the thin sliver of moon to illuminate it. No colors now in the Pink City, just silhouettes and shadows, the rats and the wraiths flitting about while the unperturbed populace dreamed peacefully in their beds, their own locked doors protecting them. As far as they knew.
It was a warm month of May in the Year of Our Lord 1205. We had come to Toulouse the previous December, sent by the Fools’ Guild on a complex mission that we had completed with difficulty, ingenuity, and not a small amount of personal risk. By the time the Twelve Days were over, we had made our mark as the new jesters in town, and were very much in demand through the long winter nights. Then, when the days were beginning to loosen up, along came the New Year’s celebrations in the beginning of April, which meant we made a tidy amount to tide us over until the wedding season.
And that was just our legitimate work.
But now I had a morose count on my hands. He had been more than generous to us, so I did not begrudge him this early start to my day. Much. More important, it was my principal job as Chief Fool of the city to keep him in power, given the turbulence that surrounded him. The Toulousain occupied a middle territory in the world, which people needed to cross to get from one place to another, whether for profit or pilgrimage, and in either case, Toulouse took its share. Count Raimon VI and his father before him had maintained a tenuous peace, sometimes by waging war, ’tis true, but more through diplomacy than had most of their blood-thirsty neighbors.
So the Fools’ Guild wanted Raimon to stay in control of his domain, and to be a merciful and wise ruler.
It is difficult to be merciful and wise while trying to please an eighteen-year-old bride.
The count when he was in Toulouse was still not quite in Toulouse. The Château Narbonnais, the walled governmental complex where he stayed when not making the grand tour of his other holdings, sat south of the city walls, its three towers guarding the Toulousans from attack from without while protecting the count from attack from within. The Round Tower and the Tower of the Eagle flanked Sancho and me as we walked through the gates unchallenged. Deeper into the courtyard, the Grand Tower shot up into the night, capped by the torches of the watchmen on its summit.
“Which room?” I asked Sancho as we entered it.
“Oh, he’s in the Grande Chambre,” said Sancho. “In a tiny part of that great big room all by himself.”
“Then I shall occupy the rest of it,” I said. “Stop a moment.”
I pulled out my makeup bag from my kit. I slapped on the whiteface hastily, then took more time with the rouge and the malachite. When I was done, I turned and grinned at Sancho. He chuckled.
“Cheers me up, anyway,” he said.
“Then I have accomplished my mission,” I said, turning to leave.
He clapped his hand on my shoulder and dragged me to the Grande Chambre, where two guards stood, alert and irritable. They looked at Sancho and me, then pulled open the double oak doors.
“Brought what you asked for, Dominus,” called Sancho; then he whispered to me, “Funny as your life is worth, Pierre,” and threw me into the Grande Chambre. The other guards closed the doors behind me.
Strange how a room already large can become cavernous in the dark. No, not entirely dark. One small candle flickered at the far end. I started walking toward it.
“I am assuming that you are adjacent to yonder candle, Dominus,” I called. “I pray that this not be a trick of some sort. I tend to be jumpy in the dark, and will not hold myself accountable for my reactions.”
“Want some wine?” asked the count, leaning into the light.
“The answer to that question is always yes,” I said. “Pour away, my noble tapster.”
He produced a silver goblet and upended a wineskin. His aim was uncertain, but most of it got in.
“Thank you kindly,” I said, taking the goblet and raising it. “Long life to you.”
“Thanks, good Fool,” he said, raising his own goblet in response. “I thought you might make some pithy comment about it being too early in the day, or late in the night, or some such thing.”
“Am I awake and alive?” I asked.
“You appear to be both,” observed the count.
“Then no words that might jeopardize a free drink will ever come out of my mouth,” I said. “I value your wine too highly. Oh, and your company, of course.”
He raised his goblet in ironic salute. “That pretty fool you’re married to,” he said, slurring his words slightly. “She your first wife?”
“As far as she knows,” I said.
“Hah!” he barked, and downed his wine in a single gulp. “I was betrothed for the first time when I was nine, did you know that?”
“I did, Dominus,” I said. “It must have been a very strange experience.”
“Nine,” he repeated. “Boy of nine should be out chasing hounds with his friends, or whispering rude comments about the bishop in church. Instead, there I was in the chapel, kneeling before the priest in all my finery, wishing to Christ I was anywhere else. It was a travesty of a ceremony, like when they used to have the boy bishop at the Feast of Fools before that was banned, do you remember?”
“It wasn’t that long ago,” I said.
“Whole point was so my father could get hold of Provence and Mauguio and a couple of other places. Her name was Douce. Nice enough girl, older than me, but she didn’t bemoan her fate overmuch. But then her father dies, so my father decides to bypass me and marry her mother. And a few years later, just when I’m getting used to the idea of marrying, Douce’s aunt Ermessend becomes a widow, so Father drops Douce like a hot ember and marries me off to Ermessend instead. I’m all of fifteen, mind you, and here’s this older woman occupying my bed, and I was supposed to call her wife.”
“A lusty widow doesn’t seem the worst thing to have in bed when you’re fifteen.”
“You think so?” he said, shuddering suddenly. “Not when you’re the fifteen-year-old being compared to the real man she was married to before. Four years of listening to that song over and over. Fortunately, she dropped dead during the fourth year. I guess she missed her first husband so badly, she wanted to join him.
“Or all the complaining wore her out,” I suggested.
“God knows it wore me out,” he said. “Put me off marriage, I can tell you that. Yet when Father needed another alliance nailed down, whom did he volunteer for that dangerous marital mission?”
“I’m guessing you, but I shouldn’t be the one telling this story,” I said.
“I’m nineteen now, and there’s another widow in my bed, twice my age and with children to boot.”
“Lusty this time? Please tell me there was at long last lust.”
“Oh, lusty enough. Of course, it was like sleeping with someone’s mother, and not the good-looking one you were secretly yearning for.”
“Poor little you. I hope that you at least had a decent mistress stashed somewhere.”
“Did my best, but Father was busy picking off all the best ones,” he sighed. “Finally, finally, I was able to shed myself of this widow. And then came Bourguigne.”
“She was your wife when I first met you, was she not?”
“She was,” he said, refilling his goblet. He stared into it without drinking, swirling it gently as if hoping to conjure her up from its depths. “That was the first time I ever loved a woman. Truly loved—mind, body, and soul. Is that how you love your wife?”
“In truth, she owes me money,” I said. “The moment I collect—but I’m interrupting.”
“I’ve seen how you look at each other when you are performing together,” he said. “Unfeigned passion and joy. I envy you.”
The count envies the fool, I thought. Lord knows I would not want to be a count. I have seen my share, a few kings and emperors, too. Those who lasted did so either through brute force or raw cunning, both of which took their toll. Those who lasted were never happy. Those who were happy were fools, and soon shoved out of their ignorant lives.
I knew the answer to my next question, but I asked it because he wanted me to.
“Why did you abandon Bourguigne when you loved her so?”
“Because Richard the Lionheart laid claim to Toulouse,” he said. “I was the count at last, heir to my father’s years of playing all sides from the middle. I could cling to the woman I loved and condemn my subjects to war, or I could repudiate Bourguigne and marry Richard’s sister. I am my father’s son. I married Richard’s sister.”
“His favorite chess piece,” he said bitterly. “Dragged her everywhere, ready to marry anyone useful to him. Almost matched her with one of Saladin’s cousins if rumor was true, only the bastard turned her down. I married an infidel’s leavings.”
“I understand that she was a lovely woman, for all that.”
“There was nothing of her that displeased the eye,” he conceded. “And she did give me a son, died doing it, and I honor her for that. We had quite a few troubadours write songs in her memory. But I never loved her, Fool.”
“Yet there was peace between Toulouse and England. Still is.”
He nodded. I shrugged.
“You like the new wife well enough,” I said.
“My last chance,” he said. “They started dangling her in front of me when she was twelve. Damn those Aragonese for being better looking than the rest of us. At twelve, she was already a paragon among women. They insisted upon my waiting until she was of age, periodically allowing me visits to see how she was blossoming, like I was having a prize heifer raised on a farm. Agonizing, the wait. Every time I saw her, her beauty had increased. Thought ‘of age’ meant sixteen; turned out they meant eighteen. Six years! Craving her more and more until the merest thought of her drove me mad.”
I refilled my goblet to cover my discomfort. “You kept celibate during your wait, of course,” I said.
“I dipped my staff into anything that moved,” he said. “Wanting her every moment, and no mistress could satisfy me as much as the thought of this girl. We finally wed—by proxy, no less, so I had to wait even more for her to be in my bed. Finally, she had her first taste of lovemaking—dear God, Fool, I felt like Zeus incarnate. I wished I had the gift of poetry, to compose an erotic epic account of that first night.”
“And it never was that good again,” he said.
“How could it possibly be?” I asked. “You have achieved such lofty heights of love that just the idea of scaling them again would exhaust most mortals. I’m exhausted listening to it.”
“I set the bar too high,” he said ruefully. “She expects it to be like that every time. She doesn’t know any better.”
“You’ve ruined her for life.”
“Oh, God, what have I done?” he moaned, and I started to laugh. He looked at me outraged, then started to chuckle. In moments we were roaring with laughter. It eventually subsided, with him wiping the tears from his cheeks with his sleeve.
“So, I didn’t hear any advice,” he said.
“I didn’t hear you ask for any,” I replied. “Is that what you need? Advice from a fool? I cannot prescribe the cure until I have diagnosed the illness. Is it lovesickness that plagues you, or intimations of mortality?”
“Some of each, I imagine.”
“Then the remedy is simple,” I said. “I advise you to grow younger.”
His expression turned dark, then thoughtful. “I dye my hair,” he confessed. “Do you think that unmanly?”
“You are speaking to a man wearing makeup and powder, Dominus. Who am I to judge?”
“How old are you, forty?”
“As far as my wife knows, Dominus.”
“Hmph. I will not pry any more. And thank you for cheering me up.”
“All I did was listen, Dominus.”
“Which is why I value you, Fool.”
The first rays of sunlight were angling through the high windows.
“Soon, my friends will becoming in from their nocturnal adventures,” he said. “Boasting of their conquests and their prowess. How shall I respond to them?”
“By saying nothing,” I said. “The man who shows no need to brag is the one who has done the most.”
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s very good. Start playing something gentle. I hear my cousin approaching.”
The doors swung open, and Bernard, Count of Comminges, strolled in. About Raimon’s age, with a lazy charm that concealed a quick ruthlessness that I had seen already on one memorable occasion.
“Heard you were up already, cousin,” he said. “What is happening to us in the middle of our lives? We should be sleeping until noon, then trying to figure out who the lovely maid next to us is.”
“We have responsibilities now,” said Raimon. “I do, anyhow.”
“And I do, as well,” said Comminges.
“What are yours again?” asked Raimon.
“To be your friend in all matters,” pronounced Comminges grandly. “For a start, I am going to keep you from drinking all of that wine. Pour me a cup, would you?”
“Seems to me I have servants to do this sort of thing somewhere,” grumbled Raimon as he filled another goblet and passed it to his cousin.
“Ho, Anselm!” I called. “Your master’s arm grows weary!”
Anselm, one of the count’s servants, dashed in. “Dominus?” he inquired.
“Food,” said Raimon. “And someone to wash me. Time to start the day.”
“So, let me tell you about the tapster’s daughter at the Blue Wheel,” began Comminges.
And he was off. Raimon nodded, smiled, and guffawed at all the right places, while a team of servants ran in and out, placing trays of food in front of him, peeling off his tunic, scrubbing him down and shaving him, and throwing a fresh tunic back on. Anselm was busy combing out and replaiting his hair when another pair from the entourage showed up.
“Food!” bellowed Raimon Roger, the Count of Foix, heaving his bulk through the doors. “But you’ve started without me. How very churlish of you.”
“Yet we shall forgive you,” said Rostaing, Baron of Sabran. “Bernard has no doubt already regaled you with the tale of the tapster’s daughter?”
“He has,” said Raimon.
“As if that were anything to boast about,” said Sabran. “That bloom was plucked long ago. Why, I doubt that I had more than the fifth petal or so, and that was ages since. Does she still make those mewing noises, Bernard?”
“Well, yes,” said Comminges, looking slightly crestfallen. “But a worthy ride, nonetheless.”
“If you like them cheap,” said Foix. “Now, I have an exquisite little tale to relate, a conquest long sought after and finally come to fruition: the widow de la Turre.”
“No!” exclaimed Comminges. “She actually succumbed to your charms? Must have been desperate.”
“Or destitute,” I suggested.
Raimon smirked in my direction.
“Anyhow,” said Foix, ignoring us. “There we were in her bedchamber…”
It continued on in that vein. Finally, Peire Roger, the count’s viguier, came in to begin the day proper. Various officials arrived to insist on the importance of their bailiwicks at the expense of the other officials in the room, leading to arguments and accusations that were settled with tact and skill by the count, hangover and all. In between, I offered snide commentary, while Comminges, Foix, and Sabran ogled the maidservants as they passed through. Then came merchants with offers and complaints, members of the clergy with requests and complaints, and commoners with petitions and complaints. In the midst of the latter, one of Peire Roger’s underlings came up and whispered something to him. The viguier’s eyebrows rose slightly, and he left the Grande Chambre with the underling. A few minutes later, he came back and cleared his throat. The count looked at him.
“Dominus, there is a man here from Paris,” said the viguier.
“What sort of man?” asked Raimon.
“A nobleman, from his dress and manner,” said the viguier. “More than that, I would not venture to guess on such short acquaintance.”
“Is he here on the king’s business?”
“Do we know anything about him at all?”
“No, Dominus. He says he traveled all this way to see you.”
“Well, in that case, did you have him searched thoroughly?”
“Of course, Dominus,” said the viguier, looking slightly offended. “He has no more weapons than befit his appearance.”
“Fine, let’s see what he wants,” said Raimon. He glanced at his guards. “Keep an eye on him.”
“Right,” said Sancho.
The underling left, and came back with the Parisian, who had a man of his own. The visitor appeared to be my age, maybe younger, and was shorter than me by a head. His clothes were travel-stained, but he wore a magnificent red cloak lined with black miniver, which he twirled about him as he swept in front of the count and bowed low. He had clearly practiced the cape-twirling.
“Your Gracious Sovereign of Toulouse,” said his man, stepping forward and offering a bow equal to that of his master. “May I present my lord and master, Baudoin. I am his humble companion, Huc.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Raimon, nodding and gesturing to them to straighten up. “Welcome to Toulouse.”
The Parisian’s man muttered something to him, and Baudoin held out his arms as if he expected to be embraced.
“Thank you,” he said with a thick accent, and he continued to stand in that position as the count looked on, amused.
“Well?” said Raimon finally. “What is your business here?”
“But this is Baudoin,” explained Huc, pointing to his master.
“Yes, I understand that part,” said Raimon. “But I assume he came here from Paris because he wants something. What is it?”
“This is Baudoin,” insisted Huc. “This is your brother.”
THE PARISIAN PRODIGAL Copyright © 2010 by Alan Gordon.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1205 Toulouse, France, the stranger arrives at the chateau of Count Raimon VI. Baudoin insists he is Raimon's brother. The Count immediately assumes he is a con artist trying to defraud him so he plans to let his so called sibling sweat in the icy dungeon. However, his court jester Theophilos the fool suggests he reconsider until they find proof exposing the imposter. Raimon assigns Theo the job to investigate the newcomer using the ruse to tutor Baudoin. Inquiries are sent to Paris where Baudoin claims he comes from. However, the identity inquiry turns ugly when La Rossa of the brothel is found dead after a night with Baudoin who was found asleep next to her corpse; his dagger in her body. Theophilos, his wife, Claudia, mime Perladit, and twelve years old apprentice Helga investigate the homicide. This medieval mystery saga uses the same basic ploy of the Fool's Guild as a sort of thirteenth century French Secret Service-FBI-CIA. This saga is consistently is one of the best historical series on the market over the last decade (see A Death in the Venetian Quarter and The Lark's Lament). With two investigations to handle, Theophilos and Claudia are superb as he works the gambling dens of the aristocracy and she the courtesans who tend to these foolish egotistical males. Helga and Perladit enhance the inquiry into who killed the hooker while her lover the Count's maybe brother slept. Harriet Klausner