Ximene Trencavel 10th June 1355
Lady Eleanor smiled as she served drinks.
As she sipped her wine, Ximene glowed with pleasure. The experience had amply justified her deception in swapping places with Alyse and the risks involved in making that deception.
Now, as a result, she had gained much knowledge about John. He had been more relaxed when he had thought he was with Alyse, and she liked him that way.
But what did it all mean? Perhaps he had been tense when he was with her because he really did care for her and was always trying to do the right thing. Perhaps he really had no idea what was expected of him. On the other hand, it might be that he was in awe of her social status.
Another possibility was that he was most comfortable in a situation where there were rules.
One thing she did know—he was a fast learner. She looked forward to comparing notes with Pipa.
She hadn’t just learned about John however, she had learned about herself. She had been surprised to have gained pleasure from the touch of Piers, a stranger to who she had previously given little consideration.
Even more surprising was that when she had left logic behind and slipped into the pleasure phase it was her ability to watch Pipa and John which had pushed her over the brink. She had fantasized that both John and Pipa were involved in her experience.
Was she a voyeur? Or did she have a previously hidden preference for multiple partners? She chuckled, remembering some of the more titillating snippets Alyse had read to her about the Greeks. Perhaps she was in the best tradition of that libertine civilisation. Was this a blessing or a curse? Not perhaps the easiest way to live a life!
She had no time to think it through as she was aware that the time was approaching when she had to make the final swap with Alyse.
It was equally important for her to be there at the end of the dinner so that she was a party to any final negotiations and agreements. Because of the sequencing of events, it was necessary for Alyse to trigger the final exchange of roles. It had been agreed that Alyse would leave immediately after the final course, but when would that be? They would both be betrayed if the changeover took too long.
Lady Eleanor was playing mother hen. ‘We will go back to my apartments for dinner. Dry yourselves off and wear the gowns. Though I’ve lit a fire, it can be draughty, even at this time of year.’
In her dining room, Lady Eleanor directed John and Piers to a seat and offered more wine.
Ximene and Pipa pulled on dresses which had been warming in front of the fire. The tailors arrived with the new outfits for John and Piers.
Lady Eleanor beckoned Ximene away from the others. At first, Ximene did not recognise the gesture, but then, with a jerk of surprise, reacted just in time.
She ran across the room. Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘Alyse, can you run up to the kitchen? Get some fresh bread. I always like to break fresh bread with a glass of wine.’ Ximene did her best to make a little curtsy, as she had seen Alyse do a thousand times.
As she ran up the stairs, she realised that even small details could give a deception away. She had never before had to make a servant’s curtsy, and she had failed to practice it.
When she entered the kitchen, Henri was sat at the large table eating his dinner. This was no surprise. Even in the old kitchen, it was one of the perks the senior guards enjoyed. She expected him to jump to his feet, but he didn’t. Instead, he waved a goblet in the air and shouted, ‘Hello, darling, are you finished downstairs?’
‘No, unfortunately, Milady still has to have dinner. I have come to check on progress and take her some bread.’
‘Come over here and give me a kiss.’
Ximene’s head whirled. Suddenly she had entered a world she knew nothing about.
‘I would love to, but Milady is waiting.’
‘Just a quick peck.’
Ximene cautiously approached Henri, glancing towards the staff at the business end of the kitchen. He reached out a hand and pulled her inwards and downwards, planting a passionate kiss on her lips. She struggled to free herself but he caressed her and kissed her again. She had no idea what to do.
Suddenly Henri stiffened, released her, gazed into her face and jumped to his feet. ‘Milady Ximene, I had no idea.’ He blushed. ‘Please forgive me.’
Ximene retreated five or six steps.
‘Forgive me, Milady, I know it is you, you smell differently.’
‘Smell differently?’ Ximene cocked her head.
‘Alyse smells sweet and you … smell… spicy.’
‘Really… please, Milady, do not get me into trouble. I did it properly. I made my suit. Alyse gave me her favour and came to my house in the town. It was all very correct. Now that we have a relationship, it is difficult to ignore it in a different situation.’
‘I have no doubt you did it properly, Henri, and I have no intention of getting you into trouble, but it is so important that you do not reveal that I have changed places with Alyse tonight.’
‘Milady I would never betray your trust. I adore you. I will always be available to your command.’
‘Thank you, Henri. I must leave, My Lady Eleanor is waiting and I have yet to arrange the bread and meal.’
Henri bowed. ‘Of course.’
She hurriedly grabbed the bread, once again noticing that the staff in the kitchen made no deference to her presence. She breathed a sigh of relief. They had not overheard her conversation with Henri. They thought she was Alyse. As she passed on the request to serve dinner, she remembered to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ They gave her a basket containing warm bread, a cutting board, a knife and a slab of butter pressed into a pottery mould.
The chef smiled. ‘Tell Lady Eleanor that the Comte’s meal is finished. We served the last course a quarter of an hour ago. Lady Eleanor’ meal will be ready soon.’
Ximene pricked up her ears. What a fortunate coincidence.
She lingered by the stairwell and, sure enough, Alyse emerged from the hall almost immediately.
Together they ran down the stairs and then separated, each running to their own bedroom.
On the bed waiting for Ximene was the exact copy of the dress Alyse had been wearing. She pulled off Alyse’s own clothes.
‘First things first,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Makeup, then hair then the dress.’ She performed each task quickly yet methodically, then stood looking at her bedroom door.
Alyse burst into the room. She had already changed. Dressing down was far easier than dressing up. She helped Ximene lace up the dress and checked her hair before arranging the mantilla.
‘I am glad we had a copy of your dress, from the portrait sittings,’ said Alyse. ‘It would have taken ages otherwise.’ She surveyed her handiwork and nodded. ‘Good. I just asked to be excused. The time is about right. They will suspect nothing. Off you go.’
Ximene pointed at the bread and butter. ‘Don’t forget that. Lady Eleanor is waiting for it. Anything I need to know?’
‘I don’t think so. They spent their time being nice to me. There was nothing which surprised or even interested me.’
Despite the dress almost filling the available space, Ximene ran up the circular staircase. At the top, she took a deep breath and entered the hall.
The Prince, the Comte, and the Earl seemed at first glance to be very relaxed. They sipped deeply from their glasses. A distinctive bottle of Armagnac stood in the prime position on the table. Ximene knew the Comte reserved this particular Armagnac for very special occasions.
They all rose from their seats at Ximene’s entry. Ximene panicked. She had no idea where Alyse had been sitting. She realised the answer must lie in the place settings. Of course! At the right hand of the Comte and across the table from the Prince and the Earl. This was not just a dinner, it was a conference. More panic. Where were they up to?
She sat down and they all resumed their own seats.
‘So, Ximene, what do you think of that suggestion?’
‘It sounded good but perhaps we could go over it again, point by point. I would like to be confident that it is acceptable both to you, Gaston and to the Prince.’
It was the Comte who answered. ‘I thought that was clear, but perhaps you’re correct. Let us go over it again … point by point.’
Ximene breathed a sigh of relief.