William Montacute-12 June 1355
The Earl hovered in the shadow of the doorway overlooking the upper courtyard.
John and Piers had changed back into the clothes provided by Lady Eleanor. They were in the courtyard receiving lessons from Alyse and Pipa on the dances of Occitan. Juan leant against a wall playing an accompaniment on a flute.
The Earl grimaced. He did not want his guards to become foppish courtiers, whose major occupation was to entertain the ladies of the court. His guards! Perhaps no longer his guards.
Since leaving Lady Eleanor the previous evening he had decided that the distraction Joan had planned could be used to advantage. If Ximene did go to Sicily and John went with her then it could still be displayed as them breaking away after the Prince had helped Ximene escape from the Comte. Such ingratitude!
However, there were two loose ends. Firstly how to get Ximene to Sicily safely. He did not want to put her in danger. Secondly, John Stanley. Who’s creature was he?’
None too gently, he grabbed John by the arm and pulled him towards a small anteroom.
‘Excuse the intrusion, my ladies, but this is urgent.’
The anteroom was small, higher than it was wide, there was only one chair and it was lit only by the flickering uncertain light of the flares in the courtyard.
The two men stood face to face with a very short distance between them.
‘John, I fully accept that it is I who has put you in the position of protecting Ximene, but I do now need to know where your loyalties lie. With the Prince or with Ximene Trencavel?’
John replied instantly ‘My loyalty lies entirely with the Prince, to whom I have only recently sworn homage. I will protect his intended bride with my life, and if the marriage between them comes about, I will serve her in the same way I serve the Prince.’
The Earl made grimaced theatrically. ‘A wonderfully correct reply,’ he said. ‘I have obviously taught you well, but what does it mean?’
John looked upwards, possibly searching for inspiration.
‘It means I will follow your original request. I will help Ximene escape the clutches of Gaston de Foix. It means that if she accepts the Prince’s hand in marriage I will be pleased to enter the service of the most prestigious couple in Christendom. If Ximene rejects his offer of marriage, I will continue as a member of the Lions of Aquitaine and will be honoured to do so!’
‘And what will you advise Ximene to do, John?’
John smiled. ‘What advice could I possibly give?’
‘John, yesterday I spent half an hour negotiating with a sixteen-year-old, and I can assure you, there are middle-aged statesmen who are less astute. The reason we sanctioned your involvement with Ximene was to secure her release from Gaston de Foix and facilitate the Prince’s negotiations with her. This must still be your only objective. Do I have your word?’
The Earl’s voice hardened. ‘Just remember what I told you when you entered my service. Break my trust and I will have you hunted down and killed. Wherever you may try to hide.’
John blinked but displayed no obvious concern.
The Earl decided there would be no benefit from any further questioning. He stood back, as far as was possible in the anteroom, looking John’s costume up and down. ‘Incidentally, do you play guitar or flute?’ He laughed delightedly at his own jibe, straightened his face and began to discuss Chateau Foix.
‘ So John you started to tell me about the strengths and weaknesses of the chateau and I cut you off. Can I now revisit that topic? Let us go to the library and document what we know and how we can take advantage of it.’
A day later the Earl briefed Piers, then Lady Eleanor and finally Ximene, on the outline escape plan that John and he had devised. He discovered that Ximene was adamant that Pipa and Juan should travel to Bordeaux. He had no difficulty in complying with this request, as he had already planned to accommodate the whole of the Roet family including Pipa, so one extra passenger would make very little difference. It was the issue of Ximene’s own final destination which still caused him most concern.
Late in the day, he sought Ximene to once again discuss this critical issue. Failing to find her, he left a message with Lady Eleanor asking Ximene to come to see him in the library. It took longer than he expected and when Ximene finally arrived he was running out of patience. He was aware of his brusque voice, yet he found he couldn’t control it. ‘I’ve explored all options but alas, you must go to Bordeaux. We cannot protect you during a journey to Port Vendres. It will not take long for those who might wish harm you to realise you are not within the Prince’s party and go looking for you elsewhere.’
Ximene smiled. ‘I believe I have the answer to that particular problem.’
She walked to the door, opened it and there, outside was a mirror image of herself, dressed identically, wearing the same head covering and the same make-up.
‘May I introduce my cousin, Dona Alyse Perez de Henestrosa? She will take my place on the trip to Bordeaux and will make frequent public appearances in Bordeaux society. No one will be able to tell the difference.’
Alyse gave a little curtsy and the Earl scrambled to his feet and bowed. ‘Dona Alyse, astonishing, but we will never get away with it. Even now I can see differences between you and the lady Ximene.’
‘Are you sure?’ Ximene asked.
‘Absolutely sure,’ the Earl replied.
Alyse’s eyes sparkled. She entered the room and walked towards the Earl.
‘Well, we will succeed, because you see, that is Alyse and I am Ximene!’
Both girls laughed out loud and continued laughing as their amusement was fuelled by the Earl’s confusion. They circled each other and around the Earl twice, a spinning as they did so.
‘Tell me, William, which of us is Ximene?’
‘Ah! That would be you,’ he said to the girl who had asked him the question. ‘Alyse does not know my first name.’
‘Wrong again, you see, we know absolutely everything about each other, and I mean everything!’
The girls relapsed into helpless laughter and the Earl reluctantly accepted that the substitution could succeed.