Twelfth-century romance was usually a matter of politics rather than love. Poor Isabelle, Queen of Jerusalem, has been married first to a beautiful man who preferred sharing the marital bed with other men, then to ugly old Conrad of Montferrat, who had little stamina for any bed partner. And when she finally falls in love at first sight with wily Henry of Champagne, he lusts more for power than for her. Fortunately, one early wedding present, Scarlett the Dwarf, truly loves her, and with the connivance of his chum, Theophilos the Fool, tries to navigate her and the cities she commands, Tyre and Acre, between the territorial intrigues of Richard the Lionhearted and his rampaging Crusaders, Saladin and his stealthy spies, the vicious Assassins, the Falconberg brothers—schemers extraordinaire—and assorted French dukes, German counts, Roman papists, and itinerate opportunists. Also in her service under the tutelage of Scarlett & Theo is a band of young ’uns training to be fools who have the chance to eavesdrop on plots to topple first one husband, then another. Alas, despite their efforts, a couple of Isabelle’s husbands are murdered, and it will take most of the 1190s to figure out whodunit, leaving a widow well-practiced in grief mourning not a spouse but her only real ally.
Lots of tavern-hopping, sighting of enemy fleets, juggling and serenading, and Foolish heroics, although Theophilos (A Death in the Venetian Quarter, 2002, etc.) takes a backseat to brave Scarlett.