“When Nesrin the Dancer became famous in the courts of Europe, many were the stories told about the ruby that glowed in her navel as she danced. Some said it had been stolen by a lover of hers–who had gone to stake for it–from the crown of King Roger of Sicily, others that it had been a bribe from Conrad Hohenstaufen for her help in a plot to kill that same king. The plot had failed, they said, but she had kept the ruby and paid for it in a way that contented Conrad even more than the death of his enemy, vindictive as he was. As time passed the stories ranged further and grew wilder: the gem was a gift from the Caliph of Bagdad; it was sent her by secret courier from the Great Khan of the Mongols, with promises of more wealth if she would only come and dance for him and share his bed. And of course there were those who said that Nesrin was a shameless woman and the ruby was the reward of her pledge with the Devil. The troubadour who accompanied her made songs about the ruby, some happy, some sad, and this confused people even more. Neither of those two ever told the truth of it, no matter who asked, whether prince or peasant. I am the only one who knows the whole story: I, Thurstan.”

–The first paragraph of The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the 12th Century by Barry Unsworth, out November 5 from WW Norton.

Check out my San Francisco Chronicle review of Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth’s 2003 novel, The Songs of the Kings, an impressive story of war, love and the will of the gods, but also of the larger power all stories have to influence destiny–perhaps life’s greatest secret of all.