Chapter 78 Preparations

John Stanley-11 June 1355

Piers spent days positioning horses in stables close to the chateau without raising suspicion. The Earl left to see Gaston de Foix. He passed on a request from the Prince that his personal guards, the Lions of Aquitaine, should be present during the feast. The request was granted.

The Earl left to mobilise resources from the camp.

While all this was happening, John’s first role was to simply, yet surreptitiously, place a marker on the outside of the wall of the lower courtyard adjacent to the river.

Lady Eleanor made a big fuss about preparations for a fete, scheduled to start at midnight on the same evening as the feast. She declared that as it was now so warm in the evenings, she would hold the fete outside in the courtyard. However, work was needed to provide satisfactory lighting.

Ximene came to find John just after the positioning of the marker.

She smiled in encouragement. ‘I hope the other night gave you an insight into the way we live.’ She permitted herself a wan smile. ‘At least I made sure that you were not bored in my absence.’

‘Bored I was not. And I did enjoy the experience. But why did you do it that way? Could you not have been my partner?’

‘No, it was impossible. It is not permitted under the rules of the Transition.’

‘But it was not a real Transition,’ argued John.

‘Well, in a way, it was the best we could do in the time available. So did you not enjoy your time with Pipa … and Alyse?’

‘Yes, I did. But it does leave me with problems.’

‘Problems?

‘Well, first of all, I now have affection for Pipa.’

Ximene looked surprised. ‘Why is that a problem?’ she asked. ‘Pipa is my best friend. You court me but I have other suitors. Why should you not have affection for others? It need not affect our relationship.’ Then, urgently, ‘and Alyse?’

‘Look, this is all extremely difficult, but I feel I must tell you the truth. Alyse is an extraordinary woman. She did things to me, extraordinary things that I will never forget. But I hardly know her, so it is difficult to think of her in anything but the context of that experience. Also, she seems to prefer Piers.’

‘So you feel she has rejected you?’

‘Yes, I do, and yet, it is unimportant, as I am devoted to you.’

Ximene waited and John noticed she was waiting. He really did not want to discuss his jumbled emotions any further. ‘Sorry.’ He shrugged. ‘I have nothing else to add.’

‘Well, that will have to do … for now.’

‘No. No, I do have another problem which we must discuss, the experience has made me realise just how much I still have to learn.’

Ximene reached out and cautiously took his hand, looking all around as she did so.

‘Later in the year, perhaps during the negotiations you must visit Pipa and Alyse in Bordeaux. I know that either of them…’ she arched an eyebrow, ‘or perhaps both of them, would be keen to continue your education.’

‘My education?’ John took a step back. ‘What about my feelings? All I want is to spend more time with you.’

‘Just now it would not be wise to spend too much time together. The Earl hinted at suspicions about our relationship. He is watching us. We must be the only ones who know about it and consequentially, we will have fewer difficulties. There will be other opportunities … eventually.’

John’s heart sank. He was well aware that the Earl had suspicions. What a mess this was turning out to be. He could be executed as a traitor and for what? A relationship in which he could be rejected at a moment’s notice, or disposed of to another woman… other women?

He returned to the work of planning for the escape, thankful that it kept him fully occupied.

John made careful measurements of the spiral staircases, the tables and chairs on the terrace in the cavern and carefully examined some oversized shields which adorned the walls of Lady Eleanor’s dining room. More careful measurements followed.

Perhaps someone with an analytical eye and nothing else to do would have realised that something unusual was happening, but the events were spread out in such a way that they all seemed unconnected.

First of all, a party of artisans stopped on the riverbank, apparently to water their horses; the fact that they were directly below the marker left by John would only have been noticed by someone across the river. An astute observer would have noticed that one of the artisans was using a small sight to measure the height of the wall and that another was making sketches before they moved on.

Two further artisans arrived at the south-western gate to attend to Lady Eleanor’s needs for additional illumination. On a small cart they carried sacks filled with rope, wire and chain, together with wall anchors and large candelabra.

All went unnoticed, just part of the never-ending activity of an important and busy chateau. Guards and servants were far more concerned with the preparations for the feast, which their master had decreed would be the best ever held.

The most dangerous woman in the world