A Death in the Venetian Quarter

BOOK: A Death in the Venetian Quarter
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To my son, Robert Louis Gordon,
with love from his collaborator,
coconspirator, and occasional coach
In addition to those mentioned in the historical note, the author gratefully acknowledges the work of Pierre Gilles, the Reverend H. J. Chaytor, Horatio Brown, Sigfus Blondal, Michael Maclagan, Rodolph Guilland, Bryan Tsangadas, Benjamin Hendrickx, Grinna Matzukis, Adele La Barre Starensier, Anna Muthesius, and the many contributors to
Eyewitness Travel Guides: Istanbul
(1998), especially whoever did that amazing illustration on pages 20—21.
A deed has been disclosed which no rhetoric can explain; a crime has been discovered which no mime can represent, nor jester play, nor comedian describe.
—St. Jerome, “To Sabinanius,” Letter CXLVII
Good 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 another
would 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 inflated
prices. 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 completed
it 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, finishing
with 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 the
Greeks 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.”
BOOK: A Death in the Venetian Quarter
8.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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