‘ A little realism is required, darling. You may not consider marriage to be important but you are going to be forced to spend a large proportion of your future life with the man you marry.’
Ximene Trencavel -17th April 1355
Pipa’s voice bubbled with excitement. ‘Your grandmother has invited me to go to Clermont with her!
We will visit my parents at Beaufort and do some housekeeping at her house in Auch on the way. Is that all right with you?’
Ximene looked at her curiously. ‘You don’t really need it, but go with my blessing. If I wasn’t going to the hunt, I would have liked to attend the Festival of the Moon myself. Alyse will stay with me and keep me company.’
‘Good luck with that. Don’t overdose on Greek poetry and Roman history.’
‘Alyse is good company, perhaps a little academic, but she talks about the most interesting things. In any case, I like to read the classical books and Alyse pre-digests them all for me.’
Pipa looked unimpressed.
Ximene smiled. ‘You know, finds the best bits for me. As well as that, she sings like an angel.’
‘Hmmm, an angel is about right. It is all a bit ethereal for me. I like my singing with a bit of rhythm and passion. Drums and bagpipes. Have you noticed how much time she spends with Gaston?’
‘She spends time in the upper Château because Gaston has a splendid library and he often invites her to sing during dinner.’
Pipa waggled her hips and winked. ‘Well, whatever. One thing she doesn’t know is what will be happening at the hunt. I will not be satisfied until you let me know where I can find you.’
Ximene’s face became blank. She had told Guillam that no one knew about her intention to escape, but Pipa obviously remembered the earlier conversation. She shook her head but consoled herself that Pipa would be not able to cause any difficulties whilst she was away at Clermont.
There were tearful goodbyes as Ximene watched the small party depart.
Less than two hours later, Ximene and Alyse were in the library when the door was thrown open and they received a most unexpected visitor.
Ximene recognised her instantly. Gaston’s wife Princess Agnes of Navarre, arrived from Bearn, her first visit to Foix in six years of marriage. Agnes made no attempt to explain how the timing had been so precise, but no matter, Ximene was delighted to see her again. From her own time spent at Bearn, she considered Agnes a good friend.
They hugged each other warmly, more warmly than etiquette demanded. Ximene introduced Alyse to Agnes and once again Agnes displayed great affection.
Agnes gave a cursory glance at the books scattered in layers over the table. ‘Oh, Greek, politics, is this something for Gaston?
Alyse raised her eyebrows. ‘Not really, it has become a hobby of mine.’
‘Really? Well, I am sure there is much to discuss, but later. Right now show me the springs I have heard so much about. I have been travelling for two days and I desperately need a bath.’
Once they got to the balcony, Ximene lit the torches and Agnes shrieked with delight. She ripped off her clothes, ran down the steps and literally jumped into the nearest bath.’Oh, how wonderful; oh how decadent.’
Ximene asked Alyse to get some gowns and disrobed more carefully. Once settled in one of the baths, she watched as Agnes kicked and splashed in the bath; ran to the waterfall, danced about, throwing water everywhere; and then returned to the bath again, producing a wave of water which flowed across the floor. ‘This is so wonderful. Does Gaston come here to bathe?’
‘To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t.’
‘Well, I will bring him tomorrow. This is one of the most spectacular places I have ever been to. With a bottle of wine inside him who knows what I can persuade him to do down here.’ Agnes laughed out loud, a voluptuous, sensual but entirely appealing laugh. ‘It is a bit like being in Hades. I would imagine it would make anyone lose their inhibitions.’
Alyse placed the gowns on the chairs and leaned over the balustrade. ‘The Comte has asked me to return immediately to rehearse some new songs, to be sung tonight at dinner.’
Agnes smiled. ‘Thank you, Alyse,’ and then as Alyse departed, she added, ‘A dinner to which you are invited, Ximene.’
Ximene was so surprised she almost succumbed to a coughing fit. She had never before been invited to dinner with the Comte.
Agnes continued. ‘Even as we speak there are big changes taking place upstairs. The two best private rooms are on the same level as the Great Hall at the base of each tower and have been used for storage. I am reclaiming them, one as a bedroom, the other as a servery. The Hall is an impossible clutter of tables, desks and bookshelves. People jostle for space and are unable to concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing. Alyse has to use Gaston’s bedroom to practice her singing.’ She waved her hands in the air. ‘I am going to change all that. I have ordered temporary screens and by this evening we will have a dining area separate from office accommodation and beyond that a combined library and conference room. When we want to hold a major function, everything can be moved out into a large shed which I am having built on the terrace. Ultimately it should be built in stone and house permanent offices, but for now, a wooden structure will suffice.’
Ximene gasped. ‘How many hours have you been here?’ she asked.
Again that alluring, irresistible laugh. ‘Almost twenty-four. I arrived yesterday afternoon. The place is a mess and if all Gaston’s plans come undone I may have to live here.’
‘Leave the beautiful palace in Bearn?’
‘We may have to. Gaston’s strategy for offering you to the Black Prince could work well for us, but if it goes wrong; if you won’t marry The Prince, or Gaston can’t strike the deal he wants, the Prince could withdraw his patronage and in the worst case make someone else Comte of Bearn.’ She looked around. ‘Is there something to drink?’
‘I’ll fetch something if you like. Limoux or claret?’
‘No, no, don’t bother, I just want to talk to you. Now… why do you think I am here?’
‘To see Gaston?’
‘Well yes, I suppose that is true, but Gaston was keen to have me here to act as a chaperone to you… and Alyse. After the departure of Lady Eleanor, he doesn’t want anyone to have any excuse to accuse him of improper relations with either of you.’
Ximene’s eyes narrowed as she remembered Pipa’s innuendo.
‘But I had another reason to want to see you. I have been curious about how you feel about all this. Your impending marriage.’
‘To be truthful, I don’t know. You are a Cathar so you know that our religion…’
‘Marriage is not important to me.’
‘But you are prepared to go through with a marriage if it gives you access to your inheritance?’
‘I want to create a haven where Cathars can be free to follow their own beliefs. I suppose that in these circumstances, for me marriage would represent a necessary sacrifice.’
‘I suspected as much! A little realism is required, darling. You may not consider marriage to be important but you are going to be forced to spend a large proportion of your future life with the man you marry. My marriage to Gaston was arranged. I thought you might be interested to know how I have managed.’
‘Very well, if your instant re-organisation of the upper Château is anything to go by.’
‘Oh! That is nothing; when we are together I am always in charge of housekeeping. No, I meant the more personal side of our relationship.’
Ximene could hardly wait.
Agnes hesitated. ‘You never met my sister Blanche, did you?
‘No. I know about her of course, from Lady Eleanor. She is Dowager Queen of France.’
‘Hmm, but do you know the rest of the story?’
Ximene eyed Agnes curiously. ‘Perhaps not.’
‘Her hand was offered in marriage to half of Europe. Aragon, Viennois, Flanders and finally to the current King of France…John.’
‘King John? But she is the Dowager Queen, isn’t she?’ Ximene shook her head. ‘I had assumed she must be King John’s mother.’
‘No. She was..is very beautiful. When King John’s father Philippe saw her, he decided to marry her himself… but he only lasted a couple of months, Philippe was forty years older than her, hence Dowager Queen. Within a month of Philippe’s death, she was then offered to Peter of Castile, but she refused point blank.
Ximene frowned. ‘That is a dreadful story, which I have never heard before, it is possible that I could be treated in a similar way.’ She shuddered. ‘It just reinforces my determination to be in control of my own destiny.’
Agnes nodded. ‘It had the same effect on me. I did not achieve complete control, but when like most of the aristocracy, Gaston wanted me to give him a child immediately, I refused and told him that after our marriage he would have to make his suit in the same way as any other man. He agreed and courted me assiduously. Eventually, I gave him my favour but nothing happened.’ Agnes leaned over and continued in a rather loud whisper. ‘Gaston does not get aroused very easily. I have had to become rather inventive.’
‘But now you want to arouse Gaston?’
‘Certainly, I do now feel a kind of love for him. You know, both love and to a certain extent sexual activity is actually just a special, inspired form of giving. Giving love strengthens your body and pleases the spirit in that body. Arranged marriages give a special opportunity to practice that giving.’
‘No one has ever told me that.’
‘That’s why I was so pleased to come. I thought you should be able to benefit from my experience during what must be an uncertain time.’
Ximene thought, started to speak, and then thought again. ‘But at the same time, you could be trying to convince me to pursue a path which will benefit Gaston and yourself.’
Agnes smiled. ‘You can see it that way if you must, but I firmly believe in everything I have just told you. We should talk again. Ask me anything you want, we will have weeks together.’
‘I will be pleased to have the opportunity.’
‘Let’s start with some practical experience. Even in this uncertain light, I saw your eyes narrow when I mentioned Alyse and her singing. I must admit all that politics and the Greek took me totally by surprise. She is talented?’
Ximene thought carefully. ‘Alyse is talented in many ways, but it is not so much the breadth of her talent, she is actually quite selective, she only pursues what she is really interested in.’
‘That is something new for me to take into account. Gaston himself is very interested in politics. However, there is no doubt that Gaston is also fond of young girls with angelic voices, especially if they are skimpily dressed, but he would never force himself upon them. I have a feeling, just watching them in the same room… I think he wants her.’
Ximene was surprised. Despite what she was saying, Agnes suddenly acquired a look of self-satisfaction. ‘I have a plan to divert him. ‘She touched her lips with her finger. ‘Tonight I will dress as closely as possible to Alyse. It will help to achieve his arousal. It is one example of the way I bring him gifts, but in order to make the effect complete, I want you to dress exactly the same.’
‘You and Alyse look very much alike. If there are three of us looking very similar it will confuse him. If we wear revealing dresses he will be stimulated and will be vulnerable to an approach by any one of the three of us.’
She stared fiercely at Ximene. ‘I don’t believe either you or Alyse will make an approach.’
‘You will use us to help you seduce your own husband?’