The journey of the “little mermaid” in the Mar Menor (the Little Sea) in the Moorish south of Spain to medieval Paris, via a bordel in Cuenca and a harem in Granada, then north to Avignon-of-the-Popes and so to Paris.
This is the story of Mariana de la Mar, Mariana la Loca, of her early years in the still very Moorish south of Spain, and of her impossible dream of one day becoming a student at the great university in Paris. It is also the story of Ferchard, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, her father’s old friend, and of the little “lost princess” whom Mariana was tasked with restoring to her home and family …
Her twentieth year seMariana arrive in Paris, at last able to pursue the studies she began as a child (though that means dressing as a boy – no women are admitted to the lectures). However, at Christmas of that year (1377), a fellow-student of hers, is accused of murdering his uncle, an elderly alchemist, and in order to save him she sets out to discover what really happened.
These investigations bring her into contact with the highest and lowest in the land. She meets and discusses the case and her situation with the Holy Roman Emperor, (in Paris on a Christmas state visit) and becomes friends with his daughter, Princess Anna, who a couple of years later marries the boy-king Richard II and becomes Queen of England. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, Mariana is soon on familiar terms with the feared Albanian king of the Paris underworld and the abbesses of two of the city’s most notorious brothels – where, of course, she naturally feels at home. In the course of her investigations, though, she falls foul of the Church …
Mariana continues her bawdy and frequently catastrophic career as a solver of mysteries, this time in England, where, having been recruited to a network of secret agents specialising in the occult, she takes on two of the Undead which infested the country, especially Essex, not only in the early Middle Ages but again in the 14th Century, in the wake of the Black Death.
“It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony.” He wrote this “as a warning to posterity” and added “were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome”. (William of Newburgh, a 12th-century English historian and Augustinian Canon of Anglo-Saxon descent from Bridlington, Yorkshire.)
It turns out that the mission involves going undercover as a prostitute (not difficult for her, given her experiences since she was sold as a sex-slave at the age of fourteen) but will she ever again be able to convince people that Mad Mariana the Spanish Whore and Lady Marian MacElpin are one and the same person?