Author’s note on this excerpt: This novel, for reasons that will be clear once you’ve read it, is difficult to excerpt from. I’ve chosen a non-plot-related passage near the beginning that (like much of the first 200 pages of the book) will have a different sense to it once you know the whole story.
Here’s some context so it makes sense: In the hills of Burgundy, Willem (a knight) and Lienor are an impoverished brother-and-sister dependent on their cousin, Erec, a lord. Erec is smitten with Lienor – as is Jouglet, a friend of Willem’s who also happens to be a musician to the Holy Roman Emperor. In this scene, Jouglet is visiting the siblings, and has just witnessed Erec’s clumsy attempt to woo his cousin by offering her a huge vat of honey and absurdly flowery commentary to go with it.
Jouglet snickered quietly and Erec spun around, glaring. He was not tall for his breeding, and although Erec was burlier, the two were of a height.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Your cousins’ boon companion,” Jouglet said, with an exaggerated bow. Erec looked disgusted. “How can a vagabond make such a claim on persons of gentle birth? Explain your rudeness, clod.”
“That insult would be more effective in German, you know,” Jouglet said, in German. “I assume milord speaks the Emperor’s language, and that these ersatz trappings are not just a bad disguise for provincial coarseness?”
Erec hesitated, frowning, then switched to German. “Do you know the value of a vat of honey that size?” he demanded, with an atrocious accent.
“A hell of a lot for someone newly risen to lordship, milord,” Jouglet observed.
“All the more opulent the gesture, then. Are you so well-endowed with riches that you can offer something better?”
“I have been told I’m well-endowed, but why do you treat me as your competition when neither of us may ever have her?” asked Jouglet calmly. “You are manufacturing a conflict where none exists, milord.”
“Then why do you seek to discredit me with your snide reaction?” Erec demanded. He flicked his teeth with his thumb in Jouglet’s direction.
“Erec!” Willem and Lienor scolded in the same voice at the extraordinarily rude gesture.
Jouglet blinked and looked suspiciously sincere, bowing very low. “Milord, I would never dream of discrediting you, but I would be honored to correct your misunderstanding of the one thing in this world on which I am an expert.”
“You’re not old enough to be expert at anything,” Erec scoffed uncomfortably. “You don’t look like your balls have even dropped.”
“I was known as a child prodigy,” Jouglet said evenly. “I am now known, variously and sometimes inaccurately, as a jongleur, a minstrel, a minnesinger, and a troubadour. I make my living, in part, singing of romance and of courtly love. You abase both yourself and your beloved when you practice these so clumsily.”
Erec blushed but was too curious and eager to deny it. “And what have I done wrong?” he demanded.
Jouglet’s tone of voice was diffident. “To begin with, of course, you would do better to choose a woman of greater, not lesser, rank than yourself. And married, preferably, but whomever you set your sights upon, you must court her with utter discretion and secrecy, never letting another man even know her name. Trundling a honey vat the size of Flanders in front of her brother’s nose hardly counts as discretion.” The musical voice stayed diffident. “You should dress to please her fancy, not your pride. This –” a gesture taking in Jouglet’s own simple fawn tunic – “is far more to her liking. You should never mock or insult anyone, as such behavior would be ugly to her. Further, I must point out the object of the game is not to impress upon her guardian, be it husband or brother, that you are much better off than he is… yet your gesture is clearly intended, first and foremost, to have that affect upon my gracious host and friend, Willem Silvan of Dole. That is not just bad wooing, it is bad manners.”
Willem, who agreed with this assessment, stared fiercely into Atlas’s mane, grateful but chagrined that his friend had called Erec to task in a way he never would have.
“I don’t –” Erec began.
“Excuse me, but interrupting the jongleur is in extremely poor taste as well,” Jouglet pressed on, still diffident and polite. “Never done in the better households. I speak only for your edification. Finally, of course, the point of courtly wooing is not to sully the loved one by imposing your lust upon her, but rather to discipline yourself, and raise your own spiritual worth by worshiping her selflessly with no real expectation of physical satisfaction. The fair blonde virgin before us is so entrancing, and you are clearly so extremely virile, that I cannot blame you for lusting after her, but you should not try to buy her compliance with a tub of insect vomit.”
Willem could barely keep a straight face, and Lienor didn’t even try to, as Erec took a threatening step toward the minstrel and said hotly, “Do not speak to me that way!”
Jouglet looked profoundly apologetic. “Forgive me, milord, for accusing you of virility. I am sure I was mistaken.”
“Who are you, you… Hungarian?” the young man demanded furiously, advancing again.
“I’m a poet and a singer,” said Jouglet sweetly. “My only aim is to flatter and please. If I have failed, despite my best intentions, you may slug me without fear of political repercussions.”