PARIS had once been the playground for his mother and father’s romance, with Christophe making sure he visited every site the master builder mentioned in the stories he would tell of their young love. Jack, who was more rough around the edges than sentimental, had even joked that the boy had been conceived when his parents were drunk off cheap wine made from the peasants grape of Gouais Blanc while they were trespassing in the courtyard of a cathedral one midnight.
Given his father’s embellishment for the truth Christophe knew to take the story with a grain of salt. But it would explain a lot of things, and he could not help but want to believe that his dreams, his interests, his being was an effect caused by the love between the mother he had never known and his father. And now here he was… A son of poverty who had access to the king’s kitchen thanks to his talent.
Upon entering with his protectively-covered grapes Christophe removed his snow-covered cloak, graciously accepted a cup of spiced wine and made his way over to warm himself near the burning stove.
As he sipped, as he thawed, he couldn’t help but notice the small plant that fell from the royal chef’s hand before quickly being retrieved.
To the untrained eye it could have passed as parsley, but Christophe had grown up around agriculture and knew the unmistakable sight of hemlock, with its small white flowers and smooth hallow stems covered in purple spots. It was a poisonous plant that when consumed would bring about violent illness and ultimately death.
The pit of Christophe’s stomach began to twist in anxiousness as he stared at the chef, whose back was to him. Was he witnessing the assassination of France’s young King Philip VI, who had only been crowned some six months earlier?
The chef turned around with serving tray in hand, atop the platter a glass of wine and a bunch of Christophe’s grapes. “Don’t forget to shut the door behind you, boy,” he said as he nonchalantly passed.
Had Christophe just imagined it? After all, the royal palace must have foods from all over the world. Perhaps it was a plant that only resembled hemlock, from a far off land he had never heard of.
The young man was torn, and knew he could get into an awful lot of trouble if he falsely accused one of the king’s most trusted men, but on the other hand he couldn’t stand the thought, that if true, his passion, his work would be used not only to commit murder but also change the course of his country’s future in such a dark way.
Standing on the edge of conscience Christophe startled a bit when the chef suddenly stopped and turned back to him. “Almost forgot. Next month is the Maiden of Monaco festivities. Tell your Father Ramsey that we’ll need the whole lot then.”
And with that Christophe was left alone with the hardest decision of his young life.
King Philip VI was a young king who had acquired the throne through fortunate circumstances of inheritance. His predecessor, King Charles VI had been a first cousin, and when Charles died the nearest male was Edward III of England, whose mother Isabella of France was Charles’ sister. But due to an existing law the throne could not be inherited on the mother’s side, therefore making room for the Count of Valois, Philip VI.
This put a rift between Edward and Philip the fortunate, the tension of which would only escalate as time passed. Add this to the constant threat of revolts around his own kingdom and possible invasions from outside the motherland and it was enough to make any king weary of all.
William had served Philip since the early days of Valois, the many years providing a layer of trust between the two which allowed the young king to eat and drink with ease. A loyal luxury to most thrones at the time. And so Philip had no concern whatsoever when chef William presented him with the platter of delicious grapes and Pinot Noir wine. He would start with the natural sweetness of the fruit, then cover his palate with the tartness of the fermented drink.
Plucking a single grape from the bunch, the king had just bitten down and broken its skin when a boy stormed into the room and shocked everyone there with the proclamation, ‘Your Highness, the wine is poisoned! Do not drink the wine!’
The boy didn’t get that far before being subdued by the king’s men-at-arms, and the first voice to speak up was that of William’s. ‘How dare you so obnoxiously enter this court with such ludicrous claims! To accuse the most trusted of the king’s men is to accuse his majesty himself of being ignorant, as it is he who so wisely chooses his royal subjects.
‘The boy is obviously a peasant who conspires to get in close with the king so as to later make his assassination attempt. Unfortunately, for this foolish youth, he comes with no evidence to support his wild accusations but rather all the proof in the world when it comes to having the underdeveloped brain of an ass!’
Laughter filled the room, but Christophe was not deterred. ‘If I am the imbecile you claim me to be then you will only enjoy to humiliate me even further and erase all doubt by drinking the glass of wine yourself.’
Not expecting such a response, the room went quiet until William fired back. ‘As amusing as your performance is, the king has other matters to attend to. Your charade is over, and you will now be taken into custody where you will await a hearing, of which time will be determined by our wise king. And meanwhile, those who have sent you, those who dare to infiltrate the very home of His Majesty will be hunted down and brought to justice, for it must be understood throughout the kingdom that although our King Philip VI is a compassionate king, those who choose to dethrone him for the sake of greed will come to understand that kindness shall never be mistaken for weakness. Take him away.’
‘Wait.’ Up to this point the king had set back in silence, but more questions than answers had come about during this little fiasco, so he stood to his feet. ‘You entered from the kitchen. What is your name, and how were you not seen by those whom you passed?’
Grateful for the opportunity to reply, Christophe began to explain. ‘Your Majesty, I am Christophe, the cultivator of the grapes provided by the Cistercian monastery. I have personally been supplying your royal kitchen for the past three months, but with this visit I believe I have witnessed the most unfortunate of acts. I believe your chef has poisoned the very wine you’re about to drink.’
‘So, it is the prodigy of Father Ramsey I have heard so much about,’ the king replied. ‘Indeed, we have enjoyed your grapes many times over. But tell me, Christophe, why do you suspect William, a man I have known longer than you have been alive, a man who has been preparing my meals since the days when you got yours from suckling your mother’s teat, a man who once fought alongside me and killed for me. Why, after all these years, would he now try to take my life?’
With a smug smile across William’s face he never could have predicted the boy’s response.
‘Your Majesty, history has taught us that there is no short supply of royal subjects who have longed served their king or queen only to have betrayed them when they least expected it. Julius Caesar had no idea that his best friend Brutus would be responsible for his downfall. And we all know of Judas’ kiss of death placed upon Christ.
‘And now your own chef accuses me of his own guilt. It is he who has spent the years longer than I’ve been alive to get in close with you until now. I need not pretend to know why he chooses to strike at this moment in time to know what I have witnessed. In the inside of his left boot lies a leaf of hemlock. The very piece he was handling when preparing your platter.’
All eyes turned to William, whom despite the cold chill in the air was now glistening in facial sweat. ‘Outrageous!’ he shouted. ‘I will no longer stand for this! To have my loyalty questioned by this pompous brat! I may have been wrong as to his origins, but nevertheless his motives are clear. This boy wants to make adult accusations? Then allow me, in the name of this kingdom I helped bring about to bestow upon him adult consequences for this absurdity!’
‘And so it shall be, my old friend,’ the king so wisely stated, ‘as soon as he is proven wrong. Remove your boots.’
William stood there, swallowed hard and ripped the boot off his left foot, catching the poisonous plant in his left hand and holding it high for all to see. ‘Of course I keep hemlock on me at all times. I am the royal chef. It is my duty to be the last line of defense in the king’s royal court. There’s not a month that goes by where we do not host visitors that are of high standing whose true intent in holding the king’s company could very well go undetected. What then? Once ill will passes the sentries, the men-at-arms? Who then is left to protect His Majesty from death’s door? A poisoned enemy of the throne whose death is questionable can be far less dramatic than a sliced throat. Why give reason for a whole army of outside invaders to attack by publicly disgracing their country when the matter could be taken care of discreetly?
‘The one true statement to have come out of this conspirator’s mouth is the word he has used to so rightly describe what he is.’ William turned to the king with boot still in hand. ‘Your Majesty, now that this matter has been cleared, now that my many years of honorable dedication to you has been scrutinized and defended, may we please be done with this imbecile?’
‘Yes, my beloved William. You shall do with the boy what you wish. But first we must complete the exoneration of all doubt, for Christophe here comes from men of God, and if we prove haste in our judgment the throne will obviously be in jeopardy.’
King Philip raised his glass of wine and faced his royal court. ‘May all in attendance… My royal subjects, my royal advisors, honorable friends of the throne… May all bear witness as my most loyal of men, Lord William of Valois, in an act to remove all suspicion from his character and therefore prove the guilt of this adolescent, drink from the very cup he has prepared for me.’
This little fiasco had turned into one of the most dramatic scenes the Palais had ever known, with the hall so silent in anticipation that all could hear when a drop of wine spilt from the cup when transferred from the king’s hand to William’s.
There was no backing down now. No amount of clever words could tear down the walls to the corner the royal chef was now in. With no way to blind the hundred pairs of eyes affix him he gulped down the Pinot Noir and raised the cup in victory.
But as he turned towards the kitchen Philip’s arm slid over his shoulders and redirected him to face the royal court. “May we now have a royal performance in the name of the most trusted of all my men, Lord William of Valois!” the king announced. And with that the room came to life with dancers, jugglers and the like while two guards held Christophe.
Halfway through the performance William’s perspiration was now profuse, and no matter how hard he tried to will himself to keep it under control the trembling of his body increased as he internally cursed the king for having prevented him from returning to the kitchen for the antidote.
As an attractive woman draped in silks danced at the foot of he and the king the royal chef felt as though he were boiling from the inside out, and as those female hips swayed, as her voluptuous breasts bounced, the acidic pit of William’s stomach erupted up through his esophagus and spewed out of his mouth and onto the body of the erotic woman.
All went quiet, and before they could revive themselves from their shock the dying man ripped himself from the king’s embrace and bolted for the nearest window, which he then ran through as if it were a door.
Every man, woman and child, including Christophe, including Philip the fortunate were now gathered around the open third storey windows of the castle, watching down below as William’s body trembled its last few moments of life.
The mysterious spell of death kept all who witnessed transfixed until their leader snapped them out of it with a question few men ever have the privilege of being asked. ‘Christophe, my courageous young lad, who put his own life on the line to protect his king’s. Name your reward and it is yours. What may the ruler of France bestow upon you for demonstrating such bravery?’
Every eye in attendance was now back on the adolescent whose life had radically changed in the short span of thirty minutes. From suspected assassin and accused imbecile to a bona fide hero who was now meant to make a wish that was guaranteed to be granted.
He couldn’t help but think of the exotic fairytales he had read in the monastery’s library. Not of the riches nor of the luxury, but of the priceless, thoughts of which would sometimes keep him up at night.
Every fairytale had a princess, and for the past six months the one he had dreamt of most was the one whose face had been postered throughout Paris.
The announcement of the Maiden of Monaco festivities, where ten lords from nine different nations would compete for the hand of Angelique Grimaldi of the famous Grimaldi family of Monaco.
France’s neighbors to their south, the two bordering nations had come together in solidarity to plan an event unlike any other in an attempt to make allies out of surrounding countries. It would be the marking of two momentous occasions. One, the announcement to the world that France had a new king. And two, that the time for Princess Angelique of Monaco to be wed had now come, along with it a rare invitation to foreign suitors for what would ultimately be the alliance of two nations.
Christophe had secretly fallen in love with the image of the maiden, and had heard rumors that due to being the host nation France would have the advantage of having two lords in the ten day event, with a royal representative from each country being eliminated each day leading up to Christmas, with the last lord standing being the victor and therefore the one and only who would hold the priceless gift of Princess Angelique’s maidenhead.
With only a month to go until the festivities, had the two spots already been filled? And if so, would the king reconsider? He certainly had the power to do so.
With bated breath the boy looked up to King Philip, took a moment and voiced his request.
Chapter three posted shortly.
The pursuit for the maiden begins!