Authors: Alan Gordon
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
The PARISIAN PRODIGAL.
Copyright © 2010 by Alan Gordon.
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.
For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue,
New York, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gordon, Allan (Alan R.)
The Parisian prodigal: A Fools’ Guild mystery / Alan Gordon.—1st ed.
1. Feste (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Fools and jesters— Societies, etc.—Fiction. 3. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 4. City and town life—France—History—13th century—Fiction. 5. Toulouse (France)—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3557.0649P37 2010 813'.54—dc22
First Edition: January 2010
o my artful
and slightly wicked aunt, Hildy York
the accounts of the jesters Theophilos and Claudia, I have occasionally been forced to place sections either out of chronological order, or to append later sections for the sake of completing the narrative. In my last translation, published under the title
The Moneylender of Toulouse,
I dealt with those of Theophilos’s reports to the Fools’ Guild that covered events that took place from December of 1204 to the following month. However, I included an addendum from October of 1205 to bring closure to that particular story.
The present translation brings together reports by both jesters, and takes place during May 1205.
ocks 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 stayed unimplemented, given the increasing mobility of Portia, our fifteen-month-old daughter), 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 afterward.”
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 five been told,” I replied. “Flowever, 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.
“Flow’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 bloodthirsty 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.”