Next morning John awoke to the sound of female laughter. The curtains had been drawn across the alcove 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. He intended to lean over to kiss her face, but found it impossible. He was weighed down by another arm! He wriggled round to find that the other arm belonged to Phillipa. Not only was she in the same bed, but she was still asleep and snoring gently! Ximene obviously knew that Phillipa was there as she was tenderly holding the hand, which Phillipa had thrown across him.
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 newly opened eyes but he knew from the sillouettes that the two women currently reviewing what they should eat were Joan of Kent and Lady Eleanor Pedilla.
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’
John’s attempts to free himself from Phillipa’s arm meant that almost instantly she was awake. She stretched her arms to the gently arched ceiling and struggled to sit up, making no attempt to cover her naked breasts.
‘What a beautiful morning’ she said to no one in particular.
John lay with his face still buried in his pillow eyeing Phillipa with incredulity. She noticed that the look was not exactly adoration.
‘Relax, John, just enjoy yourself. Did you have a wonderful night?’
John nodded aquiescence and struggled to sit up. He now managed to kiss Ximene’s cheek. She responded by rolling on top of him and kissed him full on the lips.
Eventually she paused for breath. She broke away and pointed to Phillipa.
‘And now our guest.’
John turned to see that Phillipa was puckering her lips. John leaned over and kissed her but not with the same enthusiasm.
Phillipa was less than impressed.
“Now John I know you can do better than that, you are not going to run away again are you”
Ximene laughed, clearly she did not expect John to run away.
There is no escape this is a situation I have got myself into. I will just have to live the life she wants me to live.
He kissed Phillipa again, this time holding nothing back. It was not really such a difficult thing to do!
Not knowing what to expect he adjusted his own pillows and raised himself in the bed. Tentatively he put an arm around each of his partners. He was amazed to find they both accepted his approach, both snuggling in to lay their head on a shoulder
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. She saw that John had taken note of her choice of apparel.
‘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, she obviously did not feel in anyway threatened
‘ 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 round the bed and kissed 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 realised that Ximene probably had a relationship with Joan, which went back further than his own!
It is only now that I see the true situation. It is Ximene I really love and she tells me she loves me. To continue our relationship I will must now accept whatever complications that brings.
He smiled. It was a genuine smile. He too felt comfortable and confident that he could cope.
‘ Tell Ximene about your plan to turn me into the worlds greatest lover’
Joan smiled back
“ She already knows, I have discussed it with her at length!
‘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.
Lady Eleanor now walked over, she also was smiling but there was a determined edge to her voice. “Come on now out of bed, all of you, get some breakfast we have much to discuss!’
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.
John could not believe how easily all the women, Lady Eleanor particularly, dealt with the current situation. He had been in bed with two women, one of whom was her granddaughter. Joan was dressed as the grand amourese, a role she now professed to have abandoned but still seemed to enjoy and yet Lady Eleanor seemed to be enjoying every moment.
In fact, Lady Eleanor was jubilant. ‘The Roman Church frowns on breakfast which it considers gluttony, but in my experience those who eat a hearty breakfast live better and more importantly think better. Ximene when you were young you occasionally wanted to miss breakfast, but when you did I always found you were difficult to teach, inattentive, downright slow.’
Ximene’s reply was teasing rather than accusative.
‘Thank you grandmaman, exactly what I needed to know right now’
Joan broke in hurriedly.
‘ We must get this right, all of you! Ximene is somewhere in exile, to the south of us, we must all concentrate on referring to this most beautiful lady, we love so much as Selene, even when talking to each other. She is the Comptess de Langdon.
She made eye contact with everyone in the room. John found himself nodding agreement. Lady Eleanor did not disagree. ‘ I think we should emphasise that Ximene has fled to Castille. That is after all where my own family originates. My niece Maria Junana is the mistress of King Pedro. It would be a natural thing for Ximene to seek out her family and to find secure refuge with her cousin. Pedro pursues the Moorish customs and has established a new palace in Seville inside which includes a harem. Inside that harem Ximene would be untouchable. Anyone who does their research will realise that and the whole scenario will become more credible.’
“ I agree’ said Joan. Talk to Alphonso, hearing it from you would be so convincing, but now to the business in hand’
John’s eyes narrowed. No flirting, no fluttering of eyelids!
Joan is the leader of this group!
‘As the future Queen of England I would like to assure you that nothing we are doing is against the interests of the Prince who will one day be my husband, I… we are just helping him make some difficult decisions.’
Selene protested ‘ It is the one decision isn’t it?’
‘Well, yes, but it gets mixed in with other things, anyway lets start with the most important decision, You are not going to marry the Prince!’
‘Agreed’ said Selene, ‘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.
‘A totally separate decision is that 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, but clearly, to me, it would lead to disaster. John! you were actually involved in the Chevauchee, do you agree?
He nodded “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 it 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! but now I see what you mean about being mixed in with other things, you are talking about an alternative strategy aren’t you?
‘Yes. The Prince has a strong and just claim to the throne of the Franks. When he returns I will persuade him that to pursue that claim should take precedence. Next summer he will go north not south. As King of the Franks he will have the power to change laws to co-incide with the English model’
Selene could not hold back her enthusiasm ‘And freedom of worship will be obtained!’
Joan frowned. ‘Quite, but do not assume that even then it will be 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’
Lady Eleanor broke in ‘ You talk about going north to claim the Frankish Crown. As I passed through Bordeaux yesterday I could not help notice that there were many ships packed with soldiers and I was told they were bound for England’
Joan bowed her head.
‘Yes , that is my fault and it just shows how easy it is to get it wrong.
Before I had a chance to talk to Xi… Selene, I had decided to stop what I saw as a disastrous invasion of Occitan in another way. I communicated with King David of Scotland who at one time I… knew quite well.’
Finally the eyelashes fluttered, which signalled to John just what the relationship with King David had been.
‘ Anyway I pursuaded him that now, with England committed in Aquitaine, would be a good time to consolidate his hold on the borders’ He has taken my advice and that is why the English troops are now leaving, to meet what is perceived as a threat from the north’
She looked around shamefacedly.
‘I swear I did it for the Prince, it seemed to only way to stop him making a disastrous mistake.’
She bowed her head.
‘Now that is all unnecessary but impossible to undo! So we must train a new army in Aquitaine and we have less than six months to do it’
John gazed on in amazement.
All those lords, knights, councillors, bishops and arch-bishops; all thinking they are in charge, but it is here in this bedroom, that the real strategic decisions are being taken by a group of near naked women. Ximene and Phillipa are younger than me!
‘We will find a way for John to play an important part in the mobilization of that army. He will keep me informed on progress made. He will tell me the truth. There is no one else, including the Prince I could trust to do that. When the Prince returns one of the first things he will do is make John a captain of the Royal Guard of Aquitaine. The position of captain is supposed to be limited to those with a Knighthood but the prince will rationalise this by pointing out that he is a Knight of Occitan.
She bowed towards John, whose eyebrows shot upwards.
There will be no opposition to John’s progression because Alphonso is already publicising the details of John’s heroic adventures in rescuing Ximene from danger and defeating Du Guesclin.
John was amazed.
‘ And Alphonso got this information from… you’
‘Yes but also from Phillipa, which made it all the more credible. You see John, your rapid advancement is important to all of us.’
‘But why me.”
Because, my love you can go places non of us can go. hear conversations none of us can hear. And because you have certain talents… which as we have said can be developed even further.
Ximene feigned shyness.
‘Because you have shown yourself willing to put yourself outside of the constraints of the feudal system and have loyalty to a cause, not a person and because your ability to apply yourself to learn and grow is outstanding’
‘I have? It is?’
Lady Eleanor walked across the room and held his hand.
‘Don’t you remember the court of love at Monsegur when you told me that you understood that Ximene has a determination to allow our faith to survive and to prevent the persecution of those who follow it’s teachings. That whatever danger that route might present then if that is what Ximene wanted to do you would help her achieve that end.’
Their eyes met and once again John experienced a flow of love welling up within him.
“ How could I forget” He turned to Joan. ‘But I still don’t understand, you are a person’
Joan glanced down at herself as if to confirm that John’s statement was correct. ‘ Yes, but you are not here only because of me. You are here because of Lady Eleanor , Selene and Phillipa your commitment is not to me, it is to the cause!
Good god they have trained me to this situation. It is Joan who has influenced the others, It now seems that Joan somehow orchestrated everything. The Earl warned me about Joan, it’s unbelievable, she makes him look like an amateur. Nevertheless, I am now committed to their cause.
John pressed his lips together and nodded thoughtfully several times in succession. ‘ Yes I am committed’
“ Good, then we can move on.’
A pause. ‘ Now for the implications. As we said Selene, you must go to England to personally represent your interests in negotiations with the King.
Can’t Don Fernandino do that?
‘Absolutely not, King Edward would take advantage of that. He will negotiate far more favourably with someone who is a head of state, which he will accept you are, as he would still like you to marry his son and you are, more importantly, a beautiful woman.’
‘And can I tell him that the marriage is off?’
‘No don’t even think about it. We must let him learn that the marriage will not take place, and that the Prince will marry me. I know him only too well, he must learn, not be told. She smiled. Selene was framed by sunlight running her fingers through her hair to remove any remaining tangles. In the warmth of the sun she had allowed her gown to fall open revealing her slender, well muscled body.
‘Hmm, it will do no harm if he is attracted to you, it will make him less keen on the Prince marrying you’
Selene smiled back through her gown off her shoulders and struck a pose.
Joan chuckled. ‘No!No! don’t make it obvious, in fact, a word of warning, don’t allow the King any close contact, until you have a house of your own to which you can retire. Insist on an estate close to the Queen’s favorite residence at Gillingham and the King’s favorite residence at Clarendon. Don’t even start the negotiations until you have achieved that.’
She gave an acid smile
‘Have your meetings with the King in the morning and never stay the night in the same house as the King, however strongly you may be pursuaded . He almost certainly be attracted to you and will make his suite quite properly but he finds it difficult to accept that any lady may refuse his advances. Cultivate the Queen’s friendship, she will help keep him under control.’’
‘I offer you this advice from personal experience.’
Selene thought for a moment.
Can John come with me?
Joan wiped her eye with her finger.
Again, emphatically not, it would at the moment be difficult within the English court to explain his position. Aquitane is one place; England is another. He needs a couple of years to rise through the ranks until he will be seen as an appropriate partner for a countess. She saw the disappointment on Selene’s face. She continued hurredly. ‘However in time, you may assume yet another persona which would permit you to be together. Once the negotiations over the treasure are complete there will be many options open to you.’
She turned to John who was also showing his dissapointment. “For the short term. However, John must remain here . He will be my eyes and ears during the northern campaign next summer. He is the only one I will trust,’
She then addressed Phillipa. “ You, Phillipa will continue to work for William and you may tell him anything he wishes to know. However I do not think that his idea of you being a social butterfly in Paris will really tell us anything substantial. I have used my influence to get you an appointment as a personal companion to Queen Blanche. That will be much more useful. Don’t take any risks just keep your ears open. Enjoy yourself! Your messages back to me will be disguised as letters home, which you will write diligently. I will teach you a code you can use for any really special messages. What you are being asked to do can be incredibly lonely. you will alleviate this by using your feminine wiles to attract the attention of a prominent english soldier who will risk life and limb to visit you in paris.
yes his name is John Stanley, make sure the relationship is realistic it would be good to be caught in flagrante delicto. He will then, after a suitable delay carry the most important messages back to me.
Juan will slowly but surely establish his reputation as a ladies may after which it will seem perfectly normal to be seen in the company of Selene, or me or any other lady of taste and refinement.
John’s eyes widened. both Ximene and Pipa both had a fit of the giggles had a fit of the giggles.
She glanced around the room. “So! we all understand what must be done.’
She insisted that everyone actually said yes.
‘Good! Well now I must dash away to make arrangements for the Christmas festivities. John you joined us just in time, you are the Christmas present I have wanted all year” As she left the room she laughed uncontrollably. The other women clustered around John, demanding to know what Joan’s parting comment meant, but he had no idea.
John shook his head, It really was a different world.