Mid way through the following afternoon, the tailor was still concerned with the fit of John’s costume. John was dressed in black hose and the most elaborate gold silk chemise. The chemise had a ruffled collar at the back and a lace overlay at the front. He also wore lightweight black shoes. Over the chemise he wore a tight fitting black jacket studded with gold beads which reached to mid thigh. It was the fit of this jacket which concerned the tailor, who seemed incapable of satisfaction. In the end John dismissed the tailor and descended the stairs to the same dining room he had visited six weeks earlier.
He was surprised to see that Joan was alone, obviously he was intended to be co-host at this Cathar ceremony and yet he was not of the Cathar faith. The room was dark, as the torches were concentrated behind the head table. The rest of the room was lit by rows of candles. John initially thought it resembled a Roman Church. Then he reconsidered, it was more like an ancient temple. There were sensual overtones in the subtle arrangement of torches and candles. which were quite different from those found in a Church of Rome. He suddenly realised that the sensuality eminated from the centrepiece of the decoration, Joan herself!
Joan was dressed an elaborate white gown. It was full length, tight waisted and with a collar so high, white and sculptured it resembled giant flower petal. John was surprised to see that for this public function Joan had no covering over her breasts. He had heard rumours from Phillipa about the style of dress Joan adopted but had never seen it for himself. Nightwear was one thing; dressing for a public occasion quite another! Joan noticed his surprise.
“The choice of evening wear was not mine but the Comptess”
She glanced down at her breasts and then checked where John’s eyes were focussed.
“I have not put too much rouge on my nipples have I?’
Teasing again. She never misses a chance!
He tried to keep his voice as calm as possible.
“ No, no they look just perfect’
‘Why thank you John’ she immediately looked more serious.
‘ I want tonight to be a great success but it is not going to be easy. The girls who are travelling with Ximene have been brought up in the Cathar faith but because of circumstances have never actually attended a Cathar ceremony. They have received no practical education in how to obtain or give sexual pleasure. I have spent the whole afternoon trying to allay their concerns. We have agreed that we will all dress the same. They are scandalised but at the same time enthralled at the prospect. When they enter try not to give them the impression that it is unusual”
She looked John directly in the eye.
“Which I can assure you it is not! We need them to attend our ceremony to give us the minimum number of attendees needed to establish it as a formal Cathar gathering. Even though Ximene has spent much of the day altering her appearance she would probably still be recognised by the girls. Therefore tonight Ximene in her new persona as the Comptess of Langdon will wear a mask! My costumier has been working on it all afternoon. Ximene has been telling me more about her dreadful experiences in Limoux and Carcassonne and that it was in the Place of the Golden Eagle where you rescued her from certain death. The mask she will wear tonight will be that of a Golden Eagle!”
Joan was then serious.
“For my scheme of protection to work it is essential that for the foreseeable future we only refer to her as the Comptess or Selene, which is the new name she has chosen. You must think of her as the Comptess or you will risk making a mistake”
John nodded assent and relaxed next to Joan at the high table. Joan explained that it was usual for the young man who was about to present publicly his suit to be seated at the extreme right of the top table. John moved accordingly.
The tables in the room formed a horseshoe around a central space.
There obviously was a schedule for the evening. They were soon joined by five young men all dressed in the same costume as he wore himself. One of them was Piers. The young men sat on alternate seats around the horseshoe.
The self appointed ladies of the bedchamber then appeared one at a time, glancing shyly around as they made their entrance. They were all wearing dresses identical to the one Joan was wearing and were clearly self conscious. They distributed themselves between the young men but left vacant the seat alongside John.
Joan rose to her feet
“Can I have your attention Ladies and Gentlemen? Tonight we have two special guests. The first of these is a member of the royal families of Holland and England. Lady Phillipa de Roet is the daughter of Payne de Roet and Catherine d’Asvenes. Her aunt is Phillipa d’Ásvenes, the wife of the most illustrious King Edward III of England. She is therefore the cousin of our most beloved Edward, Duke of Aquitaine and indeed my own dear cousin!
John found it difficult to absorb this new information. He had often struggled with the concept that Joan of Kent, the granddaughter of a King of England should have developed a close relationship with him. His mind flashed back to Foix and then Mazerou. He did not just have a close relationship with Phillipa but by anyone’s standards an intimate one!
Phillipa then appeared. She was wearing the same dress as Joan and the other girls. She was clearly not inhibited in any way and as she walked, she slightly swayed from the waist showing off her breasts to their best advantage. She sat next to John.
‘John! it is so exciting I have volunteered to take part in a performance immediately after the meal.’
He voice rose to the familiar exited pitch which John was so familiar with.
“It is most unusual. These kind of performances usually involved men and women in their late twenties and who had a long standing relationship. As there was nobody of that age present this evening other than Joan herself, who following the departure of the Earl and the Prince had no suitable partner.
John was startled
“ Surely the Prince would not have taken part in a performance, would he’
‘Oh! I honestly don’t know. It is quite an honour to be chosen you know’
John knew he was on dangerous ground.
“ Yes, I know’
I will be partnered by Alfonso Henestrosa, Alphonso. You have met him. He is Lady Eleanor’s troubadour but now in Bordeaux he has become quite famous. Oh! Yes he is Querida’s brother, and I know you will remember Querida from Foix.’
Phillipa fluttered her eyelids in memory of what had happened at Foix.’
How much time has Phillipa been spending with Joan of Kent ? Or is the eyelash fluttering widespread?
Anyway it tells me she remembers exactly what happened at Foix.
She took a deep breath.
“Anyway he has been chosen as my partner tonight because he was also one of my partners during my transition. It makes him an acceptable partner now even though we have no ongoing relationship. The performance tonight is being seen simply as an extension of our transition.
I know what a “performance” entails. I will never forget what I saw at Clermont. So this is the excuse Joan found to bring Alphonso Henestrosa here this evening
Phillipa happily chattered on. John smiled fondly, she had changed remarkably little.
“Performing in a spectacle is more complex than I realised, we have been practising all afternoon. Joan has been helping us with the finer arts of presentation. As you know she is quite experienced’
Practising! So they do get training in this stuff and Joan may have reformed, but clearly she has a finger in everything.
He winced at his own simile.
Joan allowed the buzz of conversation to subside before making another announcement.
“May I now introduce the Comptess of Langdon? The Comptess is perhaps the most famous of the members of the court of Aquitaine and is a close friend of Prince Edward. She is also a very close friend of mine”
She is laying the groundwork for Ximene’s change of identity. Hmmm! There was an underlying warmth in that short introduction. Just how well does Joan know Ximene.
If the Earl of Salisbury was standing alongside me now as he did so long ago, looking down at the Garonne River, I would be tempted to ask the question of the him.
“Do you know about Ximene?!”
The Comptess appeared. She was dressed differently from the other women. Her dress was black and studded with gold beads. She wore a bodice similar to the jackets worn by the men except that it did not extend beyond her waist and rose to a tight fitting collar. It showed nothing of what lay beneath. In comparison with the other women in the room it presented an austere, almost military appearance. This image was emphasised by the fact that she wore a long black cloak loosely tied over one shoulder and long gloves, which were embellished with a gold claw on every finger. The costume threw into sharp contrast the mask she wore. It was unmistakably the face of an eagle but was constructed of “feathers” which picked up and reflected every candle and every flare.
As she walked across the room Joan stretched out her hands in welcome. The Comptess diverted from her own progress to raise her own arms to grasp Joan’s hands. As she did so the transition was completed. Underneath the cloak were layer upon layer of super reflecive gold feathers. It was as though the Comptess was a Gold Eagle or the Gold Eagle was the Comptess, or even that the two co-existed.
A superb meal was served, the centre piece of which was Langoustines served in mustard sauce and a variety of light salad dishes. Throughout the meal Phillipa bombarded him with information about her imminent performance. John was more concerned to get a glimpse of the Comptess’ eyes to gauge for how she was feeling. Her eyes were buried behind the mask; his task was impossible!
Phillipa talked non stop
‘I will play Cleopatra and the performance will depict the first time she met Caesar’
John was surprised.
At Clermont Joan and the Earl performed a mating of the Gods which always seemed to me to be somehow in context. But Caesar and Cleopatra! What has that to do with religion?
He stopped Phillipa talking about what colour body make up she should wear and put the question to her directly. She was totally at ease with the question .
“Ah! Well! Our religion has no liturgy as such. Different churches in different countries have different beliefs, even though many of the basic tenents are the same. We listen to alternative ideas and make no attempt to suppress them. Many alternatives are extremely well documented. We have always assumed that the Roman Church’s determination to destroy all our texts meant that there must be hidden truth, something they feared.
She turned to look at John and attempted a different tone, she did manage to exclude some of the exuberance, but it was still Phillipa being ,well, Phillipa
‘One of the most widespread and enduring of the beliefs held by many Cathars is that our God is in fact an amalgum the Gods of ancient Egypt, hence Amun and Amunet which I know you saw at Clemont. The importance of the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra is that Cleopatra was a descendent of the gods, that Caesar fathered a daughter with her, another Cleopatra, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, who was Jesus Christ’s Grandmother. Jesus’ flight into Egypt as a baby was not just to escape Herod’s determination to kill him, it was so he could be invested as High Priest and King of Egypt. Jesus made his mission to merge all faiths including the Egyptian faith and give a unified message to the whole of the human race. A message which he hoped would eliminate both religeous and ethnic descrimination and put an end to war”
She paused, thought about what she had told him and seemed satisfied.
“Not all Cathars are committed to this belief but many are! I would just make you aware that Selene and Helios, the names of the horses you and Ximene have treasured are names of Egyptian Princesses and Princes. Following the death of her horse she has chosen to be called Selene, Comptess de Langdon.”
John was incredulous.
Someone else who knows! I am not really surprised. Phillipa would have to have known! But if she now works for the Earl it means the Earl knows. Again, that is not really a surprise and at least it will stop there.
He pursued his question.
Why did I hear none of this from Ximene or lady Eleanor?
“So how do you explain the difference between this and the Roman Church’s teaching, which is also supposed to be based on the teachings of Jesus?”
Phillipa hardly had to think.
“Jesus’ mission was diverted by the human frailty of his disciples and their desire to produce a unique different religion identifiable with and controlled by the Roman State”
In the background there must have been some signal which Phillipa had been awaiting but which escaped John’s attention. She rose and slowly and deliberately kissed John’s hands.
“I must go, I will be with another man but I dedicate my performance to you!”
As she left, she was accompanied by three of the young men and two of the young ladies. Whilst they were away John talked with as many of the guests as he could. He was gradually working his way towards the Comptess. Joan intercepted him.
“No John, you are not permitted to talk to her until after you have made your suit. The presentation you are about to see is supposed to raise your ardour. It would probably be better with that regard if you did not know the performers but we must adapt to circumstances. The chief performer will be someone who has been your sexual partner and you have recently seen as a sexual rival. How interesting!”
She fluttered her eyelashes yet again.
Is this some devious plan of hers and if so, what might her objectives be?
The torches were suddenly extinguished. The room was now lit by candles only.
A man in Roman soldiers’ dress entered from the right. It was Alfonso Henestrosa John did recognise him from Foix. Obviously from what Phillipa had told him he was playing Julius Caesar. Alphonso stopped and drew his short sword as he pretended to hear something. Suddenly from the gloom on the left the two young ladies appeared. They were dressed as Egyptian slave girls. Their hair was piled up layer upon layer so that it formed almost a perfect cone. Their dress was two long squares of near transparent silk edged at the top with gold braid. The two squares were held in position by two gold chains over their shoulders. They wore gold sandals held in position by fine gold straps, which laced round their legs as far as their upper calves. Each of them carried a jug and a multi coloured fan attached to a long pole.
John experienced the same phenomenon he had at Clermont. Suddenly in the candlelit room the scene he was watching was real. He was in Alexandria waiting with Caesar for an audience with the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Caesar saw no threat in the presence of the slave girls, sheathed his sword and sat down. The slaves poured a drink for Caesar and used their fans to keep him cool. The draught from their fans disturbed their dresses, which were only secured at the shoulders and obscured nothing. Caesar was clearly attracted by the young slaves and tentatively lifted a hand to caress the slave nearest to him.
Caesar’s attention was then distracted by the arrival of two male slaves carrying a carpet. John knew enough of the story to know that Cleopatra was in the middle of a civil war with her brother and sister. Cleopatra was being defeated and had lost control of Alexandria. She needed desperately to win Caesar’s support and was smuggled into Caesar’s rooms wrapped in a carpet.
The two male slaves laid the carpet down and in unison tugged upwards at the open end. The carpet unrolled and Cleopatra rolled across the floor to lie at Caesar’s feet. She was totally naked except for golden cosmetic paint. As she slowly rose to her feet it could be seen that both her breasts were outlined with a golden spiral, which then extended to join across her back. Two other spirals encircled both legs starting on the outside of her ankles and twisting round and round until they reached her inner thigh. The two slave girls moved away from Caesar who looked at Cleopatra with genuine admiration but Cleopatra signalled them to return.
They stood either side Caesar, removed his helmet and undid the ties at either side of his body armour which was laid to one side. He hardly noticed. He was entranced by Cleopatra who by now had risen onto the balls of her feet and with one foot thrust forward performed a whole series of sinuous movements with her hands. The slave girls gently pushed Caesar into the chair. He did not resist, unable to tear his eyes away from Cleopatra. They removed his sandals and then stood back. He was now wearing a short version of the Roman toga. Cleopatra danced forward for a moment or two and then retreated again making another signal to the slave girls. They lifted him back to his feet and removed his toga. He complied still fascinated with Cleopatra. The girls then left him, now totally naked, watching Cleopatra dance.
They soon returned, one carrying a bowl and a towel and the other carrying a jar of oil. They washed him from head to foot. They dried Caesars body then applied oil. The oil glistened in the candlelight emphasising every muscle. The two slave girls now turned their attention to Cleopatra. She stood totally motionless, hands held aloft and one foot thrust forward as they washed the cosmetic paint from her body and anointed her with oil.
The slave girls withdrew. Cleopatra advanced towards Caesar and stroked his body. He did not respond. He seemed to be in a trance. Cleopatra put her arms around his shoulders and moved her body side to side whilst pressed closely against him. Then and only then did Caesar react. Slowly and with great control he slid his hands round the back of her thighs and lifted her from the floor. Now in complete union they kissed.
The performance went on for another ten minutes during which John learned much. As the performance reached its climax John snapped back to reality. If anything he was more confused. How could he have anything but admiration for the beautiful woman he had just watched making love in front of him. She was a competitor, however for both his own and Ximene’s love.
What is Joan trying to do?
There was a pause in proceedings whilst the performers left the room. Joan sought out John. She smiled broadly.
“Did you learn anything?”
He could do nothing but return the smile.
“Yes I did”
Joan could see from the look in his eyes that they were not thinking along the same lines!
She laughed again.
“Much of what they showed you was as a result of my own tuition, not Lady Eleanors. Just think of it as the completion of what I was teaching you when you visited me here six weeks ago and what I thought inappropriate to demonstrate to you personally!
The eyelashes again.
‘No! What I was actually talking about was Phillipa. We were all only feet away as she was making love and I watched her carefully. Her mind was not entirely on what she was doing although she did do it well. When she did seek eye contact with the audience it was you she looked for not the Comptess.”
John could hardly believe what he was hearing but now he thought about it he had made eye contact on several occasions throughout the performance.
“So you believe Phillipa was thinking of me whilst she was making love to another man”
‘ So much so that I now believe that my plans to bring her closer to William are at least in the short term unlikely to succeed. She probably saw the whole performance as an opportunity to display her body to you in an almost endless array of interesting positions. It will be up to yourself and the Comptess to decide whether anything comes of it. But you must realise it is you she wants, not the Comptess, not the Earl. Just remember that! Despite my hopes for William, I must now be patient”
The performers returned. They had not dressed again but were enveloped in thick gowns. There was a buzz of conversation as they were welcomed back and congratulated on their performances. After a few minutes Joan cut off the conversation.
“Thus we can see how a woman’s charms can be used to change history. Of course those who know the Cathar version of this story realise that this was not the first time Caesar and Cleopatra had met. Caesar had made a suit much earlier, which Cleopatra had accepted but events had separated them. What we have just witnessed is their happy reunion.’
The main reason we are gathered here this evening is to celebrate another reunion between Selene, Comptess de Langdon and her long time admirer John de Stanley. Tonight in front of you all John wishes formally to present his suit to the Countess.
Ximene rose to her feet and made slight adjustments to her costume. As she did so the “feathers” underneath her cloak shone brilliantly. The illusion of the eagle was reinforced. John rose nervously. He must assure the Comptess of his love. Lady Eleanor had taught him to pick a feature he admired and to express that admiration in carefully chosen words. He could now see no womanly features. He would be praising an Eagle!
At Joan’s gentle suggestion he moved to the area where the performance had been staged. He tried hard to get the tone of his voice correct from the very first line. He did not entirely succeed but the words were clear enough.
Selene, my love, I have been taught,
How to express my deepest thought.
To find in you the features I admire,
To praise those features, in words of fire.
It is, I think, well understood,
That by doing this, I may stir your blood.
But between us now there is deeper feeling,
It started when you helped my healing.
You have shared with me adventure and love,
I have learned that we fit like a hand in a glove.
I love your body and love your beauty
To be close to you is much more than duty
It is your inner soul that I love most,
And life we have shared makes me want to boast.
I love you Comptess, yes it is true,
It now affects everything I do.
For tonight you appear regaled as an eagle
You stand before me, oh so regal,
I am humbled so I hardly dare,
To reveal to you how much I care
But I am determined to make my play,
I beg you accept me without delay.
Your devoted servant I wish to be,
I seek no return, save your love for me.
John noticed that Alphonso Henestrosa was scribbling away. John had put effort into getting the right words but surely it had not been good enough to interest a professional jongleuse!
Because of the mask it was impossible to see the Comptess’ reaction. There was a moment of tension, which could be felt in the whole room before she moved. She advanced to meet John and gave him a passionate kiss on the mouth. The feeling was electric. John put his hands to the back of her neck and returned the kiss . Their lips were pressed together for a long time. Then the Comptess spoke
“In front of these witnesses I give you my favour. I place no conditions on its use.”
She reached down and lifted up his right hand. She produced a gold ring from a small pocket in her bodice and pushed it gently onto the third finger of his right hand. The ring had a small pentacle crafted into the band. She kissed him again.
Joan looked on with great delight. She paused long enough to savour the moment before gently and quietly ushering everyone out of the room.
When John and the Comptess next looked around, the room was empty save for themselves. Curtains had been pulled back on the far side of the room from the tables revealing a large bedroom alcove in which a large low bed was totally surrounded by candles. John was again struck that the overall feel was of a temple with the bed now taking the place of the high altar.
The Comptess sat John on the end of the bed and started pulling off one of her gloves.
“ I did not get much sleep last night. Joan wanted to teach me everything she knows! I think you will find that I can now play Cleopatra much better than Phillipa ”