Henpecked Emperor Alexios, who blinded and imprisoned his brother Isaakios, the former emperor of Constantinople, so he could sit on the throne, is beset by a mad and murderous wife, three whining daughters, and two hundred Venetian ships carrying the armies of the Fourth Crusade right outside the seawalls. While he dithers, his treasurer, Philoxenites the Eunuch, schemes, plots, and sends wily Feste the Fool to discover how and why a silk merchant was poisoned in a locked room in the Venetian Quarter. Making their way through warring factions (Pisans, Genoans, Varangians et al.), Feste, his pregnant wife Aglaia, Rico the dwarf, and Plossus, the youngest and most talented member of the troupe of fools, discover a mysterious woman, sorely grieving; a small box containing a silkworm cocoon; an arms cache hidden by Ranieri, who is soon dead at the bottom of a cistern; a counterfeit drunk, Viadro, with an itchy axe-finger; and spies everywhere, including some aboard the fleet who are favorable to Alexios, but not for long. The Crusaders attack; Alexios skips town; much of Constantinople burns; and Feste finally solves the locked-room puzzle but still finds himself and his wife exiled when palace alliances are shuffled.
Raunchy puns, complications and quips that are positively byzantine, and an axe-blow by axe-blow account of the Bosporous siege. Despite anachronisms aplenty, it’s all good-natured fun, with a liveliness missing from Jester Leaps In (2000). For the serious-minded, a lengthy concluding Historical Note sorts through who was real, what they did, and how they ended up.