He was late, as usual.
The young groom scampered down the slippery cobbled street. He barely noticed the repulsive smell of garbage and the pungent vapours of sewage that mingled a few yards later with the appetizing scent of fresh bread and meat pastries coming from a row of freshly painted stalls.
This was Paris, a city like an experienced whore, enticing and filthy at the same time.
He turned left and approached a small square where merchants from all over France were praising the quality of spices and exotic wares that came from the most remote places. Protected from the rain, the wooden stalls had been tucked beneath century-old limestone arcades, next to the portly and less vociferous merchants selling dyed woollen cloth, delicate broidery and finest lace from Flanders.
The young groom loved the spice stalls; awash with colours and exotic scents they never failed to make him dream. In his mind he’d travel to faraway countries shrouded in legends. He saw himself sail to the mysterious Ottoman Empire or the Spanish colonies in the Americas; places where the streets were believed to be paved with gold. How much he craved to be there; living adventures, living like a nobleman and not like the humble servant he was.
He had the confident manners of a groom serving in one of the great noble houses of France, but he realized fast that riding through the streets on a horse, and with a livery showing the coat of arms of the Marquis de Saint Paul, was entirely different from walking through the same streets in disguise and being pushed around by the notoriously rude Parisians.
Normally, his answers would have been an even ruder and more colourful insult, but he swallowed his pride and slowing down he trod on, hiding his face under a large hood. His mission must remain secret at all cost.
The young groom heaved a sigh of relief when he approached the crossing and the Church of St Nicolas came into sight. The old church was towering above the flock of unpretentious timber houses around it, like chicks nestling close to their mother hen.
Nervously, he looked left and right before opening the church door. The brass handle felt cold and slippery, wet from the rain, smoothened and polished by generations of worshippers – it was shining like gold. He pushed the heavy door and was surprised to find the forged hinges swinging open easily and in dignified silence.
Inside the bustle and noise of the city of Paris died away immediately and the young groom entered a world of prayer and silence.
Powerful smells were assaulting his nostrils, so intense that they made him sneeze – the typical odour of unwashed bodies of the poor masked by the lingering cold smell of the precious incense used lavishly during the holy mass.
Close to the altars he was hit by another nauseating smell. It seeped into the nave from the decomposing bodies buried under the flagstones adorned with noble crests. These families had bequeathed large sums of money or tracts of land to their parish, thus ensuring the privilege to be the first to rise with the saints to heaven on the day of resurrection.
He sneezed again; the groom preferred the coarse smell of horses and stables.
Walking down the aisle, he dropped down for a quick genuflection in front of the shimmering altar. Stopping at the statue of the tormented, crucified Christ, he crossed himself as every faithful worshipper must do and whispered a quick prayer. Some steps further, he reached his destination – the confessional boxes.
His nerves were strung like a harp, what if somebody had followed him?
Pretending to offer his prayers to the statue of a minor saint hidden in a dark recess, he went down on his knees and looked around.
The church was almost empty; only a shrivelled old woman was kneeling in front of the statue of the Holy Virgin, talking to the Virgin as if in a trance.
The young groom watched her for two or three minutes, but she kept talking to the smiling statue, unaware of his presence and oblivious of the world around her.
Reassured to see the woman absorbed in her own world, the young groom sneaked into the last confessional box, the one closest to the statue of Saint Nicolas.
He had been expected.
‘Praise the Lord, what can I do for you, my son?’ came the voice from behind the wooden grid. It was an educated voice, speaking with authority, certainly not a minor priest or some country bumpkin.
The young groom closed the curtain and replied with a slight stutter: ‘Praise the Lord, mon père. Praise the angels in heaven.’
‘All the angels in heaven, my son?’
The young groom was relieved, this was the agreed clue, all was going to plan.
‘Lucifer must be damned forever; may the lord protect our country and the Holy Church from evil,’ came his fluent reply.
The unctuous voice changed; it became business-like.
‘Your answer is correct. Do you know your instructions by heart, my son?’
The young man felt the blood rushing to his head, relieved that the priest behind the dark grid couldn’t see him.
‘The monk who met me, well, he told me what ...’ he started and broke again into a stammer, ‘I mean, I’m ... what I mean ... I’m supposed to...’ his voice trailed off, he didn’t dare to repeat aloud those scary instructions.
‘My son, you must trust the wisdom of the Holy Church and eternal paradise will be yours.’ The voice was unctuous again. ‘You’ve been chosen to fulfil a sacred task for the Church, you’re a chosen son of the Church, you won’t falter?’
‘No, mon père, I’ve come to honour my promise.’
‘That’s how it should be, my son. Your master has ridiculed the Church and he’s known to participate in the in the worship of the devil. The Church therefore deems it necessary to save his soul. As you know, death is not the end, our Lord in his mercy will let him purify his soul in the purgatory. You’ll help your master to cleanse his soul and enter paradise.’
The carved wooden grid swung open and a small leather bag appeared. The groom heard the noise of clinging coins and his heart beat faster.
‘This is your reward, as promised. Now take this!’
A second bag made from black velvet, much smaller than the first one, appeared.
‘Your master has been invited to join a royal hunting party in the vicinity of the royal hunting lodge in Versailles this weekend. Many nobles and peers of the kingdom will attend. Add five drops of this liquid to his wine flask before you set off. Don’t worry, nothing will happen immediately, nobody will be able to trace the poison. All will appear to be perfectly natural.’
‘Yes, mon père, I’ll follow your instructions. Five drops.’
The voice behind the curtain became unctuous again.
‘By the authority bestowed on us by Petrus, the keeper of the keys of heavenly paradise, I hereby redeem you of all sins. Pray three Ave Marias and return to the stables. May the Lord be with you. Amen.’