A Death in the Venetian Quarter: A Fools' Guild Mystery

Paperback | May 1, 2007

byAlan Gordon

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In 1203, the ships of the Fourth Crusade, instead of traveling to the Holy Land, show up outside the walls of Constantinople and besiege the city. Within the walls, the jester couple Theophilos and Viola, agents of the Fools' Guild (and working under the names Feste and Aglaia), are on a mission to avert catastrophe.
With disaster looming, the death of one silk merchant in the city's Venetian Quarter seems insignificant. The merchant, however, was not what he appeared to be and, if Constantionple is to have any hope of surviving the armies massed outside its gates, Feste must quickly uncover what forces were at work when the merchant lost his life.
Appearing for the first time in paperback, and including the story "The Jester and the Thieves", A Death in the Venetian Quarter is Alan Gordon and his marvelous creation of the Fools' Guild at its very best.

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In 1203, the ships of the Fourth Crusade, instead of traveling to the Holy Land, show up outside the walls of Constantinople and besiege the city. Within the walls, the jester couple Theophilos and Viola, agents of the Fools' Guild (and working under the names Feste and Aglaia), are on a mission to avert catastrophe. With disaster ...

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.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 8.42 × 5.46 × 0.84 inPublished:May 1, 2007Publisher:St. Martin's PressLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0312369328

ISBN - 13:9780312369323

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A Death in the Venetian QuarterONEGood madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool. ----WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, TWELFTH NIGHT,ACT I, SCENE V   I blame the Pope.It was in the power of Innocent III to stop the whole thing. They said after it was over that he tried, he sent a letter, but it was sent too late, or it arrived too late, or the leaders of the Crusade ignored it or suppressed it. A letter. As if that would stop anything. A papal envoy, that's what was needed, someone who would show his might and miter to the rank and file, let them know that they were looking directly at excommunication and Hellfire. But all the Pope did was send a letter, and send it late at that.And I blame that bishop, that French madman, what was his name? Foulkes? Fulk? There was a truce in the Holy Land, something that had survived even after both Saladin and the Lionhearted had come face to face with the Ultimate Undoer of Plans. Yet this preaching simpleton couldn't leave well enough alone, had to pick at old scabs, urging so many to become unholy innocents to attack the infidels once again. And then he died before things even got going, the coward. Which just spurred the Crusaders on even more.Then there was the boy, Alexios. I still don't understand why he wanted to be emperor after seeing what happened to his father. You would think seeing one family member deposed and blinded by anotherwould have a discouraging effect on ambition. The son managed to flee that fate, only to return as the puppet of an invading army. He was to get his wish, of course. Become Alexios the Fourth. How long would he sit on the throne, six months? Something like that, then Mourtzouphlos would garrot him with a bowstring. The boy should have studied his history. Those who do not are condemned, period. But I'm getting ahead of my story.And I truly blame the Doge. There's some dispute as to how the Crusaders ended up as Venice's private expeditionaries, but I put old Dandolo at the heart of it. The legend was that he was blinded in Constantinople and still carried a grudge, but I don't believe that. It was greed, pure and simple, if ever greed could be pure and simple. He hoped to eliminate Venice's greatest trading rival in one bold swoop, after which the entire Mediterranean would be his playground.And I blame the Count most of all. Boniface of Montferrat, the leader of the Fourth Crusade. A lesser man might have let his honor get in the way of his ambition. Not Montferrat. A smarter general would not have let a blind nonagenarian doge outmaneuver him before he even set foot on a boat. Not Montferrat. Throw in a measure of avarice equal to that possessed by any of the great families of Venice, and you produce doom for thousands and destruction of an entire empire.Well, no matter who was responsible, it didn't change my situation. I was trapped inside the high walls and towers of Constantinople. Outside the seawalls were two hundred Venetian ships, carrying the armies of the Fourth Crusade, the first to strike at Christians rather than infidels. Inside the walls, four hundred thousand people wondered what was going on, whether this was an attack, a siege, or just a Crusade passing through and an opportunity to sell inferior supplies at inflatedprices. The Greeks paid lip service to God and put their real faith in their walls. The Varangians and the other mercenaries sharpened their axes and prepared to die defending the current emperor, something they neglected to do for the last one when he was being deposed and blinded by this one. The merchants buried their gold, and everyone started hoarding supplies, just in case. Except the Jews, of course. No walls protected them. They lived across the Golden Horn, under the shadow of the Galata Tower. Nowhere to hide. They just waited and hoped that the oncoming storm would pass over them. Sometimes that worked for them, sometimes it didn't.And I? I did what any self-respecting fool would do while the world collapsed around him.I threw a party. It was a select gathering of five, all the members of the Fools' Guild who were in Constantinople. There was Rico, the dwarf, who could juggle insults and invective as well as I could juggle clubs and knives. He was the current favorite of the current emperor, Alexios the Third. There was Plossus, a recent graduate of the Guildhall who would more likely be found walking on stilts or on his hands than on his feet; Alfonso, the Bolognan troubadour who now traveled the circuit from Thessaloniki to Constantinople, relaying news and instructions from the Guild to us and our reports back to them; myself, locally known as Feste, Guild name of Theophilos, original name ... well, modesty intrudes; and my heart, my life, my beloved, my wife, locally known as Aglaia, originally Viola, quondam Duchess of Orsino and possessor of a few other titles.The occasion was the ascension of Aglaia from Apprentice Fool to the rank of Jester, an accomplishment quite remarkable given that she started her training at the late age of thirty-three and that she completedit within a year and a half. The elevation was a tribute to both her talent and the superb training she received. Did I mention that I was her teacher? I didn't? There's that modesty again.My wife and I lived in a set of rooms south of the Blachernae complex, where the Emperor kept his palace. More sumptuous quarters than I've generally had in my career, but Aglaia was the Empress's Fool and I did quite well with my own performing, so we could afford to live in some style.When the others arrived, I led her to a stool in the center of the room and bade her stand upon it. Then the four of us stood around her, each holding two cups."Fellow members of the Fools' Guild, welcome," I said. "We are gathered to honor our newest member, who shall henceforth have the Guild name of Claudia and shall be entitled to all the honors and dignities accorded to any of us.""Are there any honors and dignities accorded to any of you?" asked Aglaia."None whatsoever," I said. "Now, Claudia, there are traditionally two toasts given in praise of new members. The first is with water, the second with wine.""Why water?" she asked suspiciously."To Claudia!" we shouted in unison, and splashed her from four directions."Oh, hell," she spluttered, her makeup running down her neck in white rivulets.I handed her a cloth and a cup of wine."To the Guild!" we cried, and drank."To the Guild!" she agreed as she wiped her face, and she downed her cup.Rico, who was an excellent cook when given the opportunity, had braised a joint in red wine and garlic. We attacked it with vigor, finishingwith almond tortes that Plossus had brought from a baker near the Forum of Arkadios."Jester in full in what, eighteen months?" moaned Plossus when he had eaten his fill and then some. "I spent three years in training at the Guildhall to get there. It's not fair.""It's because she trained under me," I said. "And had some interesting experiences before that. Bow to her talent, youth."The wine and jokes flowed freely, although Aglaia did not partake unduly of the former."Are you unwell, milady?" commented Rico, noticing her sobriety. "Or do you scorn our wine?""Well, since you ask, I have an announcement of my own," she said. "I told my husband this afternoon. We are expecting a baby.""How did this happen?" exclaimed Plossus with an innocent look on his face."Like Feste said, she trained under him," said Rico, and she nudged him with her elbow."Congratulations," said Alfonso. "When will its ugly face appear to frighten the world?""In about six months, if my others were anything to go by," said Aglaia."So, you will be drinking less wine and cutting back on your acrobatics," I said, more for my information than anything else."Yes," she replied. "I should still be able to juggle up to the end. Fortunately, the Empress is more interested in my company and conversation than my tumbling.""Unlike myself," I said. "Well, as Chief Fool of Constantinople, I suggest that we talk a little business while we're still sober enough.""Who says we are?" said Rico."The Venetian fleet anchored by the Abbey of Saint Stephen today," I continued."We heard," said Plossus."Which leads me to wonder why we received no advance notice about them from the Guild," I continued, looking at Alfonso."When I left Thessaloniki, the fleet was on its way to Negroponte," he said, shifting uncomfortably. "It's difficult for us to follow a fleet by land, and the Guildmembers with the Crusaders can't exactly swim to shore with their reports clenched in their teeth. You expected them to show up here sooner or later.""Who is with the Crusaders?" asked Rico."Just a few troubadours. You can't expect an army to travel with fools for entertainment. They need men who can rally the troops with heroic song, not make them laugh. There's Giraut, Gaucelm Faidit, Raimbaut's with Montferrat, and Tantalo's more or less in charge of the lot of them.""Tantalo's a good choice," I said. "I haven't trusted Raimbaut since Montferrat knighted him. He let it go to his head. Now, he wants lands to go with the title.""Good singer, though," said Alfonso. "Not bad with a sword, either.""I thought the troubadours were going to try and persuade the armies to go straight to Beyond-the-Sea," said Plossus."They failed," said Aglaia."The leaders showed the men Alexios, had him cry his tale," said Alfonso. "The army now thinks that Constantinople eagerly awaits the return of the true emperor, and will overthrow the current one the moment he appears.""They're in for a rude awakening," I said. "The Greeks don't know this boy from Adam. The last thing they want is a Venetian proxy on the throne. So, we stick with the Guild plan. We find some way of persuading the two sides to work this out peacefully. Maybe get theGreeks to provision the Crusaders enough to send them happily off to Jerusalem.""A generous financial contribution to the Venetians would help assuage their affronted honor," added Aglaia."I don't know," said Alfonso doubtfully. "They swore all sorts of oaths to come here. They're very big on oath-taking. The Venetians may be here for the gold, but the Crusaders are here out of religious fervor.""They have succumbed to the fever of the fervor," commented Plossus."And the boy Alexios now has the favor of the fever of the fervor," added Rico."I'm a believer in the favor of the fever of the fervor," finished Aglaia."All right," I said hastily, forestalling the continuation of the game. "In the morning, we'll start collecting information. Rico and Aglaia to the Emperor and Empress. Plossus, head down to the Akropolis and watch the fleet's movements. Try and get a good count of the ships.""What about me?" asked Alfonso."Go back to Thessaloniki," I said.His face fell. "But I'm needed here," he protested. "You'll need every one of us.""I need you to get word to the Guild that it's finally happening," I said. "Speak to Fat Basil in Thessaloniki, then come back. But don't come into the city. If there's a full-scale war going on, you won't be able to do us any good. Stay in Rhaidestos. There may be a flood of refugees coming through. Find out from them what happened. If you don't hear from us within two weeks of your arrival, report back to Fat Basil."Alfonso took a jug of wine and refilled all our cups, excepting Aglaia's."Good luck to all of you," he said quietly.We drank in silence."This is no kind of party," said Aglaia suddenly. "I have just become a fool, I have a brand-new lute, and I want to sing."She pulled out the lute I had given her and started strumming. The rest of us grabbed what instruments lay at hand and joined in, the coarse squeakings of the dwarf blending with the beautiful baritone of the troubadour. We sang into the night, and not a serious note was sounded until our three visitors had passed out on the cushions and my wife and I staggered into our bedchamber.I embraced her, patting her belly gently."Boy or girl?" I asked her.She considered the question carefully."Girl, I think," she said. "I don't know why, it just seems like one.""Then let her resemble her mother in every way," I said. "Perfection should be duplicated. I've never been a parent before. You'll have to tell me how it's done.""In my previous experiences, with hordes of servants," she laughed. "But I learned one or two things over the years. It's time for me to be the master and you the pupil."I yawned and lay back."When there's time," I said. "First things first, unfortunately." I woke at cock's crow with my normal hangover. Aglaia slept on, lovely despite the caked ruins of her whiteface clinging to her cheeks. I carried a bucket out to the well in the courtyard and hauled in some fresh water. Rico was up when I returned, doing his stretches."I'm going for bread," I said."I'll go with you," he replied.We walked down the street to a small square near the foot of theFifth Hill. We purchased bread, cheese, and fruit for the day. Even now, the market was buzzing with the news of the fleet. As we walked back, we had to flatten ourselves against the wall to let a squadron of Imperial Guards trot by, followed by several wagonloads of large stones and lumber."Breakfast for the catapults," I said."Ever been through one of these?" asked Rico, subdued."One of what?""War," he said. "Bloody slaughter, rape, pillage, that sort of thing.""Yes," I said. "Have you?""When I was a boy, before the Guild recruited me, my village was raided several times by bandits. The militia came and engaged them. It wasn't a pretty sight. But that was nothing compared to this.""Hopefully, this will be nothing," I said."And if not?""Then keep your head down.""Too late, it's already there," groaned the dwarf. "Look, why don't you come along with me to Blachernae today? You can sound out your friend, the eunuch.""He's not exactly a friend," I said. "But that's not a bad idea. After we break our fast."The others were up and about. Plossus was doing a full split on the floor, touching his toes, while Aglaia was scrubbing her face thoroughly with a rough cloth."Water and whiteface make paste," she muttered. "My complexion may never recover from this."I peered into her unadorned face and sighed with admiration. She smiled up at me, then started applying the new day's makeup.Alfonso finished packing his gear, picked up his lute and waved."Here," I said, handing him some rolls and apples for the road. "Safe journey. Don't dally overmuch in the courts of love.""If I don't, people will be suspicious," he objected. "I have to uphold my reputation. Indeed, that of all troubadours. Milady, I bid you farewell."He kissed her hand gallantly, and she curtsied as if she were still a duchess."Regards to Fat Basil," said Rico."I'll await word in Rhaidestos," promised Alfonso, and he left. We soon heard him singing as his horse clopped away, but both sounds faded quickly."And now we are four," said Plossus."Don't forget our brethren in the ships," I said. "We'll meet back here nightly. Be careful."Plossus stepped through the window onto his stilts, which were leaning against the building. "Stand aside, world!" he cried. "Plossus the Colossus walks among you." He strode away to the laughter of the children playing in the courtyard.We picked up our bags and walked to the inner Blachernae gate. The complex had an interior wall separating it from the city, just in case the population decided to rebel. Once inside, we passed by the domes of the Church of Saint Savior in Chora and the Church of the Theotokos, passed the older palace and marched up to the marbled and frescoed ornateness of the new palace.We used the side entrance, of course. Aglaia gave me a quick kiss and hurried off to the Empress's quarters, while Rico and I passed through a series of rooms until we reached the Imperial Throne Room.Emperor Alexios Angelos was up before noon, an indication that he was taking the arrival of the Venetian fleet seriously. He was in his sixties, a hale man with hearty appetites and bad legs who dyed his thick, black beard daily to maintain its virile appearance. He was on his throne with his feet propped up on a cushioned stool, the Imperiallegs being massaged by his favorite mistress, a sultry Egyptian who played the flute quite badly.He had his ministers and generals with him, all looking worried and confused. He saw us enter and smiled wanly."The fools are here, everyone," he said. "Finally, some worthwhile advice."We bowed, and set up quietly near the foot of the throne. A soldier came in, panting and sweaty, and saluted."Out with it," said the Emperor."They've raised anchor and set sail toward the city," he gasped."Did they come ashore at all while they were anchored?" inquired Theodore Laskaris, one of the Emperor's sons-in-law and one of his more competent generals."No, milord," said the soldier."They didn't even stop to forage," said Laskaris. "That's bad. They're determined to come straight for us, that's what I think.""How much of a navy do we have left?" asked the Emperor.Michael Stryphnos, the Lord Admiral, looked glum. He had acquired his post by way of being the Empress's brother-in-law and had spent his time embezzling the funds allocated to restoring the navy. Perhaps he never expected that he would actually have to take to the sea while admiral. "We can put maybe twenty ships in the water against them," he said."And how many are in their fleet?" the Emperor asked the soldier."We counted about two hundred," he replied."Well, that would be more, wouldn't it?" commented the Emperor. "Didn't we used to have a bigger navy?""Not really," said Stryphnos quickly."Oh, yes," said the Emperor. "I remember having more. You've let it go, haven't you, Admiral? Diverted a little ship-building money to your own needs?"His brother-in-law said nothing."I think he's an excellent admiral," chirped Rico."Your reason, my foolish little one?" inquired the Emperor."For he has single-handedly destroyed a mighty fleet," said the dwarf. "Too bad it was his own.""Hmph," said Alexios, not particularly cheered. "Maybe we could borrow someone else's fleet. Isn't that what we've been doing? What navy do we usually use when we need one?""Venice's, Your Majesty," said Laskaris.Alexios slumped back in his throne, sighing."I suppose that won't do this time," he said."No, Your Excellency.""All right, see how much they want to go away," commanded the Emperor. "And, my Lord Admiral, since you don't have a navy, I want you to follow the fleet from the shore. Take five hundred knights with you.""Yes, sire.""We do still have some horses left, don't we?" thundered the Emperor."Yes, sire," said Stryphnos, and he bowed and left."And we'll be eating them inside a fortnight," Rico muttered to me."Dear me, I had better warn Zeus," I said. "All that money I've spent keeping him stabled here would go to waste.""Better keep him handy," said Rico. "You never know when you might have to leave in a hurry around here. Look, your ball-less friend is trying to catch your eye."I looked up to see Philoxenites, the Imperial Treasurer, jerking his head toward a corridor, then vanishing down it. I played on a bit to give him time, then stood and stretched and strolled out of the room as if I was heading for the nearest chamberpot.A DEATH IN THE VENETIAN QUARTER. Copyright © 2002 by Alan Gordon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Editorial Reviews

"An interesting idea well developed." -The Washington Times on Thirteenth Night

"Entertaining...Long on mystery and humor...The beginning of an enjoyable series." -The Tampa Tribune on Thirteenth Night

"Exciting, original, and exceedingly well told. Gordon has a remarkable grasp of the historical period and he knows how to pack an immense amount of detail into his novels." -Booklist on Jester Leaps In