Ximene Trencavel-10 June 1355
Ximene’s conscience demanded that she brought Alyse up to date on all the recent events. She was determined to do this before anyone else could talk to her.
They embraced briefly, but Alyse’s demeanour was cool.
Ximene made what she hoped was a non-controversial enquiry.
‘So how were the riding lessons?’
‘Good thank you, I have improved to the point where I feel confident. You were right about Henri. He is a good instructor, in fact, he is a lovely man.’
Ximene tilted her head. ‘And…’
‘No nothing. but… Ximene, he showed me the temple.’ Alyse’s eyes dulled. ’The temple confirmed for me that it is you Gaston has wanted all along. You must have known about the temple before you left and you didn’t tell me.’
‘I am sorry Alyse, I didn’t think there would be any purpose in telling you, but you have guessed the implication correctly. there is no way I could stay here as the Comtesse de Foix.’
Well in that at least, I agree I would not want to stay here either, I think you should have told me, but it doesn’t matter now. I want to get away from here. I am determined to make a fresh start, somewhere else. I do not want to see Gaston again, and that will be almost impossible if I stay.’
Ximene reached out and held Alyse’s hands cupped in her own. ‘In any case, our plans became compromised. For various reasons, the Prince became aware of my determination to escape. From that point, a switch was just impossible, sorry.’
‘I suppose that means that our planning will be wasted. Never mind, it was fun.’
‘Thank you, Alyse, I meant no harm, I always believed our little ruse could be useful and if you can forgive me we could use it to advantage as early as tonight. I need your help and we need Pipa as well. She returned with her family today.’
They located Pipa by her voice, at its highest pitch, as she helped her family settle into the lower Châteaux.
In the late afternoon, the three girls climbed to the upper courtyard to watch the raising of the tents.
The campsite the Prince had selected was on the high ground to the west of the Château. It gave them a most impressive view of the Château but more importantly, it also meant that the occupants of the Château had a clear view of the camp, transported from Muret and designed to be admired.
Ximene opened her arms as if she was trying to encompass the whole valley. ‘So here I am, back again, and the chances of me getting out of here seem to depend on me agreeing to marry the Prince. That is something I find myself considering, but I certainly have not yet decided. I still want to gain total independence before I make that decision.’
Clearly, Pipa was not listening. She looked at Ximene and then at Alyse. ‘What have you two been up to? As soon as I returned I noticed a difference. You always looked alike but now you are almost identical. Are you playing some sort of a game?’
‘Hmm, when we are together that is not what we are trying to achieve.’
Ximene told Pipa about Gaston’s plans to substitute Alyse for her, and as an afterthought, about the temple.
Pipa almost shrieked her response. ‘A temple…dedicated to you,’
Then in a calmer tone. ‘He must be obsessed with you.’
Ximene slowly nodded. ‘Yes and it is not healthy, his obsession is secretive, there is nothing admirable about it, either for him or for me. However… ’
Ximene turned away, walked a few steps and then turned again. A broad smile spread across her face. ‘Lady Eleanor has invited two of the Prince’s guards to spend some time with us. One of these guards, John Stanley, was going to accompany me to Sicily.’
Pipa broke in. ‘Oooh! John Stanley? I think I know him.’
Ximene chuckled. ‘From what Lady Eleanor has told me I am sure you know him and he is coming here this evening. There will be a chance for you to get to know him better.’
‘What do you mean, get to know him better?’
‘Well tonight, there is a need for me to be in two places at the same time and I am in no position to change the arrangements.
She turned to Alyse. ‘ I want you to take my place at a dinner which has been arranged with the Prince and the Comte.’
A look of apprehension spread across Alyse’s face.
Ximene patted Alyse’s forearm. ‘Don’t worry. The real reason for the dinner is so that I can meet the Prince again, but I absolutely know that dinner will be followed by negotiations.’
‘You want me to pretend to be you?’
‘Only for the dinner. Afterwards, you will make your excuses, and I will replace you for the negotiations. I must attend the latter part of the meeting myself to get a feel for the current thinking. We will change over in the middle of the evening.’
Pipa looked surprised .‘Will you get away with that?’
‘We will have to.’
Pipa frowned. ‘But why, why can’t you be there yourself and in any case, how do I get involved in all this?’
Ximene raised her eyebrows.’The second event has been organised by my grandmother. Lady Eleanor has come to the surprising conclusion that John Stanley should be my champion, and more than that, my long-term partner.’
Pipa’s voice turned from questioning to incredulous. ‘And you don’t agree?’
‘He has already shown that he has the potential to be my champion, but long time lover… I really don’t know… He is a very attractive man.’
Pipa nodded vigorously.
‘I have tried to seduce him…gently… to test him out, in the belief, it would create and strengthen the bond between us. It has been hopeless. Like swimming in treacle. I have ended up feeling rejected. But I don’t think he is at fault. As my champion, he has assumed control. He would I am sure he would give his life to protect me but then he gets the two roles mixed up. He loves the romance of making a suit but I believe he sees any physical contact as just another threat. He wants to protect me from himself! There was absolutely no follow up even when I showed willing… well, I think I showed willing. Grandmother has suggested that possibly he simply does not know what to do.’
Pipa frowned. ‘Well, as you know, I did meet him at Clermont. I too showed interest but he sort of ran away.’
‘Doesn’t sound encouraging does it?’ Anyway, grandmother, with the help of you two, intends to conduct an abbreviated version of the Transition, to at least give him…them some idea of what is expected of them. She will act as a mentor whilst you two teach them how to give and receive pleasure.’
‘John and Piers, the other guard.’
‘Whoa, how does Piers get involved?’ Pipa almost screamed.
‘Again my grandmother’s idea. They live in each other’s pocket. If John is involved so must be Piers, at least for now.’
‘Oh! do you think they prefer each others company to that of women?’
‘That may be something we find out, if they do, It would be better to find out now.’
Alyse grinned ‘Sounds fun, and Lady Eleanor wants me to take part in this, but I have still not understood, you are going to take my place?’
‘Grandmother does not want me to be involved, she believes that there should be no emotional involvement between those taking part in any form of transition, but it is too important to me. I want to know first hand how John responds to some instruction… then perhaps I will make a decision about whether there will be an emotional involvement…’ She hesitated. ‘Or not.’
An hour later Ximene pulled two dresses from her wardrobe.
Alyse laughed. ‘They are from the portrait sittings. They are identical. The Comte made one for you and one for me. I did not know you had kept them.’
’I do not know why I kept them, but now I am glad that I did. And you have two identical outfits?’
‘ Almost uniforms. Lady Eleanor is considerate, but she does treat me a bit like a servant. She likes me to always dress the same. I have three of these outfits so that whilst I am wearing one, another is in my wardrobe and the third one away at the laundry. I never grumbled but it is one of the reasons I succumbed to the Comte’s advances.’
‘Enjoyed his company. Accepted the gift of dresses.’
‘Hmmmm, never mind. For the next two hours, we are going to be very busy changing places. I want to make the switch at least three times before this evening. If grandmother spots the switch, I will abandon my plan. If she does not notice the switches we will go ahead.
Two hours later Ximene was ecstatic. “Grandmother had no idea. This works because people see what they expect to see. Unless they are surprised they pay little attention. We can go ahead! You should greet the boys at the door. You have never met them before and therefore your inevitably hesitant greeting will be perfectly natural.
After you have taken them to meet Lady Eleanor you should fade into the background and we will then swap places. you will then dress like me to prepare for the dinner upstairs.
However, we must make sure that once you have changed we are for a brief period both in the same place at the same time so the boys can see there are two of us. In many ways, John will be a bigger test of our little deception than my grandmother. He has spent much time close to me over the last few days, at times very close.
Alyse’s eyes widened. ‘Ximene, do you really think this is an improvement on swimming in treacle?’