Long before Theophilus met and married Claudia, he went to Jerusalem and took part in the Crusades there. Now, as he and his wife and their newborn baby daughter Portia are returning to France and the Headquarters of the Guild, having fled the city of Constantinople after the Crusaders sacked it at the behest of Venice, their price for bringing the Crusader armies to the Holy Land.
But on arriving at the town where the Fools Guild is based, they learn they are too late. The Church has come down on the Fool's Guild rather heavily, because the Fools Guild holds nothing sacred- not even the church. The Church really hates that the Guild makes fun of them with impunity, so they have declared the Guild to be Anathema and sent troops to the town to sack the Guild's Headquarters.
Luckily for the fools, their supporters have warned them, and most of the fools fled, along with the Guild's records, before the Church troops got there. All that was left in the town were the normal farmers who lived there anyway. A few fools, knowing that other fools will be traveling back, hid in the forest to warn the fools who weren't there yet. The rest went on to Austria, where Theophilus and his family will soon join them. But before he leaves, he steals the sign from the town tavern, known as the Scarlet Jester, with the help of his wife.
Then, on the way to Innsbruck, he tells her the story of the sign and why it was painted. It has to do with Jerusalem. Theophilus was there , and there he met a dwarf and Fool named Scarlet. Scarlet was assigned to the city of Tyre, and the woman who was the Queen of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Scarlet was her personal fool, and he kept her amused even as rich and powerful men fought over her.
But when she fell in love with a man not her husband, Conrad, Scarlet does his best to protect her and to make sure that Henry, the man she loves, can win her hand, even though he is in love with the beauteous Isabelle herself.. But as Scarlet works to protect the children of Acre, who he has been teaching Foolish skills in order to help them to survive, Henry, the man Isabelle loves, is working to make himself King of Jerusalem. He may seem to love Isabelle, but he loves power more, and he hates Scarlet- who loves Isabelle and serves her unconditionally. When Henry takes Conrad's place after his convenient death, He works to oust Scarlet, and only lets him stay if he will cease to be a fool and become Henry's personal attendant instead.
Soon, Isabelle's love for Henry is muted by his intense physical affections, which weigh her down with too much childbearing, and his dictatorial rule of her kingdom and refusal to allow Fools to do their japes and jests there make it a much less pleasant place to be. Theophilus is able to make it out with Scarlet's two most promising student fools, paying their way back to the guild and a life that will be survivable.
But when he returns years later, things have gotten even worse, and it is up to Theophilus to witness the death of both Henry and Scarlet and find Scarlet's last and best student. But will this student be the person that Theophilus expects them to be? And what became of the child fools who Theo had been teaching in Tyre? Did they all make it out of there, or did the fortunes of war do them in?
Another great Fools Guild mystery. Theophilus is a very well-traveled fool, and here we see him taking part in the Crusades through the man he was serving at the time. But his guild sent him on detached duty to work with Scarlet, and to hear the very sad tale of a fool and dwarf who found himself in love with the woman he served. Now, of course, Theophilus has some sympathy for Scarlet, but back then, he had less- which isn't to say none, but back then he didn't know how deeply the pain of love could bite.
Scarlet's tale was deeply affecting, in part because he was a dwarf. Back then, dwarves were treated as not quite, and often less than, human. chances were that if you were a dwarf, you'd be taken from your family and either sold or given to someone in power as a combination slave and pet.Sometimes, if you were a dwarf, your own family would be the one selling you. And if you weren't a dwarf, but a child, you could be made one, by being forced to drink infusions of herbs that retarded your growth- that certainly happened in later medieval times when Dwarves were in high demand. So even though Dwarves grew up and were just the same as other people in their loves and desires, they rarely had the opportunity to express that love without being laughed at and ridiculed- sometimes even by the one they loved.
But Scarlet is lucky in that he is friends with Isabella. Even if she has been loved and coddled to the point where she is still really a child in manners, Scarlet is tormented by the fact that he could never be with Isabella. Even if he could broach the subject, no one would let her marry a fool, and even if she didn't hold the high position that she did, he would still be afraid that she would reject him- one reason he never confesses his feelings to her.
But Scarlet's sacrifice is still remembered in the sign on the tavern of the Fools Guild, and that is the reason that Theophilus steals it back. Scarlet should be remembered by fools, not have his sign hang in a place where no one knows him or his story. I really enjoyed this book. It was easy to read and had a great mystery and lots of action to enjoy. An excellent read. Highly recommended.