John Stanley – 12th December 1355
John Stanley awoke to the sound of female laughter. He made no real attempt to emerge from a deep and satisfying sleep but he was nonetheless aware of his surroundings.
The curtains had been drawn and a large fire was blazing in the elaborate stone hearth. Ximene was sitting alongside him in the bed, her back bolstered by silk pillows and with the duck down cover pulled up to her chin. She was wide awake, with the happiest of smiles on her face.
The sound of conversation and the accompanying laughter came from a breakfast buffet which had been set up under the window. The light streaming through the window was extremely bright to eyes not quite opened but he knew from the silhouettes that two women were currently reviewing what they should eat. He scrunched up his eyes against the light; Pipa de Roet, and Joan of Kent
The voice which had caused him to wake was, in fact, Ximene’s
‘So you think I must go to England?’
The laughter was caused by Joan’s reply.
‘Do you think you can tear yourself away.’
Joan hesitated and changed her voice to a conciliatory, sympathetic tone. She approached the bed.
‘So Ximene, the first part of your life, is complete. You are no longer the Prisoner of Foix. The Prince has recognised the state of Occitan and you as head of that state. The discovery of your family treasure was fortuitous. You have agreed to make the treasure available to the English crown in exchange for extensive estates in England and Aquitaine. It will need careful negotiation but you will probably become the richest woman in Europe.
She hesitated again. ‘To judge from what I see before me, last night you resurrected your relationship with the only man you have ever loved. ‘Are you satisfied with what you have achieved?’
Ximene chortled. ‘Absolutely not. Where I am now is only the starting point. My objective…’ She wrinkled her lip. ‘Has always been… to free the supporters of the Cathar Religion, the peoples of Occitan from persecution.’ Her voice hardened. ‘Now I am free from constraints I must now work out how to achieve that objective. Everything else…everything; is secondary to that
John lay with his face still buried in his pillow, eyeing Ximene with incredulity.
She turned her head and smiled.
‘Relax, John, you have sworn allegiance to me. I am unlikely to achieve very much without your support. For now, just enjoy yourself. Did you have a wonderful night?’
John nodded acquiescence and struggled to sit up. He managed to brush a kiss on Ximene’s cheek. She responded by rolling on top of him and kissed him full on the lips.
Joan observed the movement and came to sit on the foot of the bed. ‘Ahh!’ She said. ‘You look so comfortable together. I would join you, except there is no room.’
John blinked, it had to be deliberate, She was wearing the totally transparent nightdress he had seen previously, tied beneath her breasts but leaving them exposed. The same tiny gold belt was around her waist, the Hebrew knife mounted on it. The same diamond hung beneath her breasts.
Joan took the diamond in her fingertips and lifted it, her eyes sparkling as she did so.
‘The knife is yours Ximene, and the diamond is, I believe, John’s.’ They are both incredibly valuable. She stood up and twirled gently on the spot. I have used my body as a pedestal to display them to the Prince and convince him of their worth, but before I did that I did show myself to John, who was acting as your ambassador, to seek his approval.
Ximene laughed. ‘And did he approve?’
‘I believe he did.’
‘I can’t say I am surprised.’ Ximene held her hand out to Joan, who responded by walking around the bed and kissing Ximene. As she did so her head came very close to John’s. John was able to see that this was not a polite court kiss. It could only be described as passionate… and John thought he saw Joan’s tongue as it penetrated Ximene’s lips.
She spoke in a false whisper, which could be heard by everyone in the room. ‘You will have to get used to this John, she is a very popular girl.’
More laughter. It was at that point that John finally accepted that Ximene probably had a relationship with Joan, which went back further than his own!
John blinked. He knew that to continue his relationship with Ximene he must accept whatever complications that relationship brought.
He smiled. It was a genuine smile. He felt comfortable and confident that he could cope. He reached out and caressed Joan’s shoulder.‘Tell Ximene about your plan to turn me into the worlds greatest lover.’
Joan shrugged away from his caress. ‘Careful John, remember my vow of chastity. Unfortunately, I am easily seduced.’
She then returned his smile.
‘She already knows about my plans to develop your skills as a lover, I have discussed it with her at length!’
Ximene giggled ‘And you ought to know John, that you are getting better but you have a long way to go.’
Joan lifted her eyebrows and gently pinched Ximene’s cheek. ‘Well that is up to you now, my darling, practice makes perfect’
They all laughed again.
Suddenly Joan’s voice changed. It acquired a determined edge. “Come on now out of bed, both of you, get some breakfast, we have much to discuss!’
John donned the gown he was offered. It was not the breakfast that John was used to. Three different kinds of bread all freshly baked, sliced and toasted to dip into saucers of the best claret mixed with the oil of olives. Smoked herrings, which John knew must have been imported from England, and poached salmon from the local rivers which ran to the Atlantic.
Joan’s voice still had a determined edge.‘Before anything else… Ximene has enemies. For a head of state that is by no means unusual but Ximene has none of the normal apparatus of a state to protect her. At least in the short term, she must vanish. We must get this right, all of you! We have indulged in a very necessary deception to protect Ximene from her enemies. Alyse has once again been substituted for Ximene. This is only possible because Alyse is virtually Ximene’s twin. However, the illusion must be preserved. Ximene is somewhere in exile, to the south of us, and we must all concentrate on referring to this most beautiful lady, whom we love so much, as Selene, even when talking to each other. She is Selene, Comptess de Lavison.’
Joan made eye contact with everyone in the room. John found himself nodding.
‘I think we should emphasise that Ximene has fled to Castille. That is after all where her family originates. Her cousin Maria Juana is the mistress of King Pedro. It would be a natural thing for Ximene to seek out her family and to find a secure refuge with her cousin.
Joan again looked around the room her eyes resting on each of them until they nodded agreement. She narrowed her eyes. ‘Now that is agreed we should face the next most important issue which faces us’
John’s eyes narrowed. No flirting, no teasing, no fluttering of eyelids! Joan is the leader of this group!
‘Ximene, you are not going to marry the Prince!’
‘Agreed’ said Ximene, ‘But that is my decision, not his.’
‘True. But it is only effective because he has accepted your refusal. He is now determined to marry me!’ She smiled triumphantly. ‘You, lovely lady, have other objectives which we will all help you to fulfil once you have determined precisely how to proceed. Without going beyond the boundaries of this room you have the royal houses of England, France, Castile, and Holland available to exert influence on your behalf… and I promise you we will exert influence.’
It will all be orchestrated and integrated with what must be done to advance the Prince’s cause. As the future Queen of England I would like to assure you that nothing we are going to do is against the interests of the Prince who will one day be my husband, I… we are just helping him make some difficult decisions and not just about his marriage.
Ximene raised her eyebrows. ‘And those other difficult decisions are…?’
‘ He will not invade Occitan. A message must be sent to the potential leaders of the revolt to inform them of this. The Prince himself is still willing to invade, perhaps enthusiastic about the prospect, but clearly, to me, it would lead to disaster. John! you were actually involved in the Chevauchee, do you agree?’
There was silence as everyone turned to John awaiting his answer. He sighed. ‘It was horrible, driving one set of people from their homes and exposing the others to vicious retribution. We simply made an opportunity for Du Guesclin and other Routiers to terrorise everyone. Unless there is a fundamental change in government, trying to change the allegiance of the peoples of Occitan can never be successful.’
‘Thank you, we are obviously justified in putting our faith in you, You came away from it a hero, perhaps the only hero, but you give us an honest opinion. Already others are re-writing what happened to make it a glamorous adventure.’
She turned to Selene. ‘You are sure you agree with this decision?’
‘Yes, yes! I do believe the invasion of Occitan would be a mistake I am in the midst of developing an alternative strategy,’
‘ So whilst you are doing that…The Prince has a strong and just claim to the throne of the Franks. When he returns I will persuade him that claim should take precedence over the invasion of Occitan. Next summer he will go north not south. He will capture both Paris and Rheims. and claim the Frankish throne on behalf of his father As King of the Franks, he will have the power to change laws to coincide with the English model’
‘And freedom of worship will be obtained!’
Joan frowned. ‘Quite, but do not assume that even then it will be an instant change, it will have to done subtly. You, Selene, can prepare in advance by establishing communities under your patronage where there is freedom, even if the worship is in secret’
‘And I will use the wealth from the treasure to do that’
‘Hmm! if you take my advice you will use the income from that wealth to do that, thereby ensuring the wealth itself remains intact. This may take some time.’
John gazed on in amazement; a myriad of thoughts tumbling through his head. In essence, the truth was that all the lords, knights, councillors, bishops and archbishops who thought they were in charge were allowed to believe they were in charge, but it was here, in this bedroom, that the real strategic decisions were being taken by a group of women. Ximene was younger than he was himself. It really was a different and very surprising world.
Joan hadn’t finished.’And now John. we must discuss your role in all of this.