"Where are the confessionals?" Mosca whispered, looking uneasily around him. "I haven't been in here very often. I don't like churches. They're creepy."
"I know they are," Scipio replied. He pushed the mask back onto his face and led the way as purposefully as one of the Basilica's tourist guides. The confessionals were tucked away in one of the side aisles. The first one on the left looked no different from the others. It was a tall box made from black wood, draped with dark red curtains and with a door in the middle, which the priest used for slipping into the tiny space behind. Inside, he would sit down on a narrow bench, put his ear to a small window, and listen to all who wanted to tell him their sins and clear their conscience.
Of course there was also a curtain on the side of the confessional to protect the sinners from curious eyes. Scipio now pushed this curtain aside, adjusting his mask one last time and clearing his throat nervously. The Thief Lord tried very hard to pretend that he was coolness itself, but Prosper and Mosca, as they followed him behind the curtain, sensed that his heart was beating just as fast as theirs.
Scipio hesitated as his eye fell on the low bench half hidden in the darkness, but then he kneeled down on it. The small window was now level with his eyes and he could be seen by whoever sat on the other side. Prosper and Mosca stood behind him like bodyguards. Scipio just knelt there, waiting.
"Perhaps he's not here yet. Should we have a look?" Mosca whispered cautiously.
But just then someone pulled back the curtain of the small window. Two eyes, round and bright, seemingly with no pupils, gleamed through the darkness of the confessional. Prosper shuddered and only after another look did he realize that they were glasses, reflecting the sparse light.
"One shouldn't wear a mask in a church, any more than a hat." The uneven voice sounded like a very old man.
"One also shouldn't talk about theft in a confessional," Scipio answered, "and that's what we're here for, isn't it?"
Prosper thought he could hear a small laugh. "So you really are the Thief Lord," the stranger said quietly. "Well, keep your mask on if you don't want to show your face, but I can still see that you're very young."
Scipio knelt bolt upright. "Indeed. And you are very old, judging by your voice. Does age matter in this transaction?"
Prosper and Mosca exchanged a quick glance. Scipio might have had the body of a child, but he could express himself like an adult, with a confidence that they couldn't help admiring.
"Not in the least," the old man answered. "You must forgive my surprise at your age. I must admit that which Barbarossa told me about the Thief Lord I did not imagine a boy of, say, twelve or thirteen years of age. But I do agree, age is of no consequence in this case. I myself had to work like an adult from the age of eight, although I was small and weak. Nobody cared about that."
"In my line of business a small body may be an advantage, Conte," Scipio replied. "If that is how I should address you."
"You may, yes." The man in the confessional cleared his throat. "As Barbarossa has told you, I am looking for someone who can retrieve something for me, something I have been trying to find for many years, and which I have now finally discovered. Sadly, the item is at the moment in the possession of a stranger." The old man cleared his throat again. His glasses now moved so close to the window that Prosper thought he could just about see the outline of a face. "Since you call yourself the Thief Lord I assume you have already entered some of the noble houses of this city without ever being caught. Am I right?"
"Of course." Scipio surreptitiously rubbed his aching knees. "I have never been caught. And I have seen nearly every noble house from the inside. And without ever being invited."
"Is that so?" Strong fingers covered with liver spots adjusted the glasses. "Sounds like we're in business. The house you shall visit for me is on the Campo Santa Margherita-number eleven. It belongs to a Signora Ida Spavento. It is not a particularly magnificent house but it does have a small garden, which, as you well know, is a treasure itself in this city. I will leave behind in this confessional an envelope containing all the information you need to carry out this job. You will find a floor plan of the Casa Spavento, and a few notes on the item you are supposed to steal, as well as a photograph of it."
"Very well." Scipio nodded. "That will save my assistants and me a lot of work. But let's talk about the payment."
And again Prosper could hear the old man laugh. "I can see that you are a businessman. Your reward will be five million lire, payable on delivery."
Mosca squeezed Prosper's arm so hard that it hurt. Scipio said nothing for a while and when he spoke again his voice sounded quite shaky. "Five million," he repeated slowly, "sounds like a fair price."
"I couldn't pay more even if I wanted to," the Conte answered. "You will see that what you are supposed to steal is of value only to me, since it is made of neither gold nor silver, but of wood. So, do we have a deal?"
Scipio inhaled sharply. "Yes," he said, "we have a deal. When should we deliver the item?"
"Oh, as quickly as your skills permit. I am an old man and I would like to achieve the goal of my lifelong quest. I have no wish left in this life, except to hold in my hands what you are to steal for me."
Longing rang through his voice. What could "the item" be? Prosper thought. What could be so wonderful as to cause such a mad desire? It was still only an object. It wasn't alive. What could be worth such a fortune?