6 To Impress a King

Ximene Trencavel-3rd February 1355

Ximene spent some time combing and brushing her hair and almost as long deciding what to wear before descending to the students’ lounge.

Alyse, one of Ximene’s best friends and a distant cousin, was kneeling on a chair by the huge oaken table which dominated the centre of the room. She was stretching over the table in an effort to read the top of a page of a very large, elaborately bound book.

Lounging in a window alcove was Pipa de Roet. Pipa’s father was the Constable of Beaufort Castle, a relatively nearby English possession, though Pipa claimed to be Flemish. Stood by her—tall, slim, dressed in black—was Allessandro Cocchi, the Florentine artist now based in Toulouse. He was bent over listening intently to whatever story Pipa was telling, but sprang to attention the instant Ximene entered the room. He positively danced towards her and, taking her hand, made an elaborate bow to kiss it tenderly. ‘Good morning, Dona.’

Ximene raised an eyebrow, wondering why he had invented a title for her.

Pipa jumped to her feet and ran towards Ximene. ‘Look, look, see what Allessandro has brought.’

There, in the best possible light, behind the door she had just entered, was the portrait Allessandro had been working on. Allessandro approached the portrait and waved his hand towards it. ‘As you know, Dona, I made many sketches. I discussed them all with the Count and this is the treatment he chose. I have also brought two of the original sketches, which you might like to keep.’ He indicated the sketches lying on the far side of the table.

Ximene eyed the portrait critically and then wandered around the table to look at the sketches. ‘Hmm, I prefer these. They make me look more approachable.’

She looked again at the portrait and shook her head. ‘The finished portrait makes me too grand. Much grander than I really am. Still, if that is what the Comte wanted…’

Allessandro shook his head just as vigorously. ‘No, no, Dona, you are grand, perhaps the grandest lady I have ever met. The portrait is being taken by Monsieur Froissart to King Edward in England. He is certain to be impressed.’

Again Ximene raised an eyebrow; outright flattery. She smiled, realising that he saw her as a potential source of future commissions. As he must know why this present commission had been obtained, if he thought that Monsieur Froissart was suitably impressed, in his mind, a marriage to the Prince was now inevitable.

Pipa pushed forward, looking from Ximene and back to Alyse. ‘With your hair pulled back like that, pinned with side combs and the tiara, it could be Alyse. In any case the mantilla makes you look very Castilian. But it is a good likeness.’

Ximene responded in a light tone of voice. ‘Yes, well, my grandmother is always telling me there is a family likeness between us but normally we don’t wear the same clothes. Alyse nearly always wears her hair up and I nearly always wear it down so nobody notices.’

Pipa, not able to contain herself, talked over Ximene’s last few words. ‘Strange, I have never noticed it before…but you both have the same eyes, the same complexion and exactly the same hair colouring’. She turned to Alyse and playfully tugged at the combs. ‘Come on, Alyse, let your hair down and let us see.’ In the ensuing playful struggle, Pipa did not fight too hard and Alyse did not resist too strongly. Nevertheless, Alyse’s hair did become unpinned. Pipa was triumphant. ‘There you are I told you, you are alike.’

Alyse pushed Pipa away. ‘Well, at least I am different from you!’

‘Oh! And what does that mean?’

Pipa’s appearance matched her personality, light, frothy and amusing. Even now her mouth was twisted into a smile though she was not actually smiling and her eyes seemed to ask a succession of cheeky questions. Alyse again pushed Pipa away.

‘You just don’t care, you are so untidy.’

Ximene felt Alyse was being a little unfair. She knew that Pipa’s tousled blond hair hardly ever experienced a comb let alone a brush but it always looked as though it had been carefully styled to give a carefree, uncontrolled appearance.

Ximene looked at Alyse and again at the portrait. ‘Allessandro, tell me. I posed for many sketche, in many modes of dress but I do not remember wearing exactly the costume in the portrait. How did you create this final image, from you imagination?’

Allessandro laughed. ‘No, not from my imagination. There were many sittings required; the Comte did not want to burden you unnecessarily, so sometimes the lady Alyse modelled for the portrait.’

Ximene deliberately rolled her eyes. ‘So in fact the portrait Monsieur Froissart is taking back to England is of Alyse, not of me?’

Allessandro glanced from Ximene to Alyse and back again. ‘No. No Donna, the sittings were only for the dress and accessories, the face is yours.’ He unclipped the portrait from its mount and carefully commenced to roll it up. ‘Thank you, good, I am glad you had the opportunity to see the portrait, I must pack it away now away as Monsieur Froissart will be leaving soon for England.’ He hurried out of the room, completing the rolling of the portrait as he went.

Ximene made sure the door was shut before turning to face her friends. There was silence, broken in the end by Alyse. ‘You don’t look happy, Ximene.’

‘Don’t worry, Alyse, it is not important to me. If the portrait shown to the Black Prince is of you rather than me I really do not mind. However, perhaps I should at some stage mention to the Prince who it is really is. Perhaps he might like to marry you instead.’

Alyse winced. ‘I’m sorry, Ximene. I only did what was asked of me.’

‘I really don’t mind.’

‘You say that, but you are clearly unhappy about something.’

Ximene flinched. ‘Well, I certainly don’t enjoy being the subject of an auction.’

‘An auction?’

‘Nothing more, nothing less.’ She adopted the tone of an auctioneer. ‘What am I bid for the hand of Ximene Trencavel in marriage? Yes, you may inspect her. See we have her here in a gilded cage!’

Pipa opened her mouth several times. She blushed and then the words tumbled out. ‘Monsieur Froissart is some sort of friend of my family. He is going to visit my mother and father at Beaufort on his way back to England. He has talked to me quite openly. He thinks you could be the next Queen of England.’

‘Hmm. I have made it clear to Monsieur Froissart and the Count that I must meet any proposed marriage partner, and that includes the Prince, before agreeing to anything. They all, every one of these so-called suitors, want to marry me because they think it will give them control of Occitan. Well it might… but I have also made it clear that they, any of them, must meet my conditions.’

‘Which are?’

‘A measure of independence for Occitan and freedom from discrimination because of religious beliefs, elimination of the Inquisition.’

Alyse’s jaw dropped she looked at Ximene with wide eyes.‘You would turn down the chance to be Queen of England?’

‘I will if my conditions aren’t met.’

‘Then by all means tell him the portrait is of me.’

The most dangerous woman in the world