31 May 1355
Whilst the celebrations at the end of the archery contest continued, Guillam whispered in Lady Eleanor’s ear, ‘Darling, so that you will not be implicated in any way it is essential that you arrive at Muret before Ximene’s escape. We should leave immediately.’
Two hours later, Guillam lifted his two female companions onto the boat which was tied up at the jetty at Porte St Marie, on the river just below Clermont. Eleanor could see from Pipa’s demeanour that she had something on her mind.
‘Did you feel excluded? It was your idea to pretend to be a servant, not ours.’
‘I was pleased he won, but he made no effort to see me; no effort to thank me for everything I did to help him. He must have noticed I had given him my favour, but he was too busy talking to the Earl of Salisbury and Joan of Kent.’
Lady Eleanor smiled consolingly. ‘I think I can say that I know Joan well and yet I have never seen her so excited about anything. The young man is not only skilled, but very fortunate, to be the favourite of such an influential person.’
‘Why was Joan so interested in him?’ Pipa frowned.
‘He is probably just another of Joan’s conquests; if so, she has good taste.’
‘He should have made an effort to thank me! But Guillam made us leave immediately after the contest, so perhaps he did not expect that.’
Lady Eleanor hardly noticed Pipa’s chatter, and cut in with her own train of thought. ‘The Earl also seemed pleased. John is certainly not just another indolent courtier, he was unassuming, workmanlike in the way he approached the contest. Even I could not help admiring him!’
By late evening the following day, Lady Eleanor was luxuriating in a warm bath on the terrace of her elaborate mansion at Auch, the capital of Armagnac.
She had bought it as a staging post between Foix and Guillam’s Home at Clermont. The house sat almost at the head of the two hundred or more steps which led from the quay on the Gers canal to the main square.
The house had originally been built by the Moors and, though it had been renovated many times, still kept its Moorish overtones. Rooms were subdivided with graceful arches, pillars and elaborate screens, and virtually every wall was lined with plush couches. The room in which Eleanor now relaxed led onto a terrace overlooking the Gers and had as its centrepiece the large tiled bath. Musicians hid behind a screen at the side of the room and the sound of harp, flute, bagpipes and drums flowed through the room.
Occasionally the voice of a male singer broke in with renditions of the traditional ballads of the troubadours. Musky perfume from incense burners filled the room. Beyond the balustrade of the balcony, the sun slowly set in a sky streaked with pink and turquoise.
Guillam settled into the bath, leaned back and issued a sigh of pure contentment. Eleanor bent forward and touched his hand. She waited for the end of one of the ballads before she spoke.
‘Don’t you think it strange that the Black Prince, possibly the most powerful man in Europe, is forced to lurk north of the river and go all the way round Toulouse in order to get to Muret, whereas we—supposedly persecuted—can travel across the country in perfect safety?’
‘Ah yes, but we have had a long time to learn how to do it. It is a tribute to the strength and discipline of our security systems. This house of yours is a case in point. It is thought by the citizens of Auch to be the town residence of a local landowner. No one queries the fact that it is empty for long periods and entertains guests from out of town. In fact, we have created a trend; many non Cathars are now establishing townhouses.’
Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘Thank you for hosting the festival of Selene, I thought it particularly good this year.’ She chuckled. ‘Our choices for Amun and Amunet were particularly inspired.’
Guillam also chuckled. ‘I noticed that they both enjoyed it. Joan is a born performer, isn’t she? And the Earl so strong and serious, her perfect foil. Do you think we have rekindled old fires?’
Eleanor eyed her lover carefully. ‘Oh! You know very well that the fires have never been extinguished. The fact that the Pope declared their marriage invalid did not affect their relationship. They are lovers for life.’
‘And are you ready to tell me about your conversations with Joan and the Earl?’
‘Yes, but don’t expect any conclusions. Let’s start with Joan. Her enduring affection for the Earl does not mean she has abandoned her ambition to be the next Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of England. It is a problem for us all. Both the Earl and Joan showed trust in me, but it is a trust I fear I will find it difficult to honour.
‘The Earl assured me of the Prince’s commitment to Ximene and assured me that any marriage contract would include her expectations from the union as well as the Prince’s.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘This was something I wanted to hear but is too good to be true. He seemed to believe Ximene would be unable to resist the Prince once she met him during the hunt. I think that is because in his own way he also loves the Prince. He cannot imagine that anyone could not love him.’
‘These are strange circumstances. The irony of the fact that Joan emerged from the same bedroom as that in which the Earl had spent the night was not lost on me. Despite her affection for the Earl, Joan claims she is also deeply in love with the Prince and has been since childhood.’
Guillam frowned. ‘She expects to retain that relationship even if the Prince marries Ximene?’
‘Much worse than that! She now wants a full contractual marriage so that any children by the Prince will be heirs to the English crown. This ambition is complicated by the fact that Joan is still married to Thomas Holland, her second,’ she looked upwards, ‘Or was it her first, husband.’
‘But she still expects to go through a Roman Marriage with the Prince?’
‘Definitely, determinedly. Despite the fact that King Edward has always been keen that the Prince should make a dynastic marriage, preferably with a princess from Aragon, Castile, Navarre or France, and now with Ximene. It is obvious that Joan’s chosen path is not an easy one. Therein lies my dilemma. They have both put their trust in me but their objectives are not compatible.’
Lady Eleanor pulled her thoughts together. ‘Up till now the Black Prince has seemed a good option.’ She took a sip from her glass. ‘Even though Ximene wants her freedom, I still believed that eventually he would be a good choice, but after what I learned at Clermont, I have changed my mind. I like the Earl of Salisbury as a person and Joan is delightful. From what I hear, the Black Prince is also a thoroughly honourable person, though I have never met him.’
‘So why have you changed your mind?’
‘They were all brought up together in the Cathar household at Old Sarum and I have always thought that they should be able to offer a suitable environment in which Ximene can be happy. Unfortunately, my current view is that because of Joan’s obsession with becoming the next Queen of England and the fact that both the Earl and the Prince are hopelessly in love with her, Ximene would always be the outsider.’
‘So a marriage to the Prince would be a mistake?’
‘In the Prince’s favour it must still be said that he would give Ximene protection from persecution. The delay caused by Ximene’s escape will enable Ximene to negotiate better marriage terms, but the portents are not good. At the festival, I’d planned, or rather hoped, to make Joan renew her relationship with the Earl of Salisbury and hopefully give up her plans to be Queen. Despite its success, I don’t think I succeeded. I believe we must look for alternatives.’
Eleanor gazed at the evening sky. ‘We probably should look for a staunch ally of the Prince, who could become his appointee for Occitan.’
Just then the golden doors to the terrace burst open and Pipa de Roet entered the room. She had a totally different aura from the girl John Stanley had judged to be lonely and having had a little too much to drink. She was now confident, beautiful and sensual. She wore a short gown, a very short gown. She glided to the balustrade of the terrace and poured herself a glass of wine. Taking a seat on the balustrade, she became silhouetted against the evening sky, her long legs stretched out in front of her.
Eleanor smiled. Pipa was, well, Pipa!
Pipa realised that she had interrupted a conversation and looked from Guillam to Eleanor and back again. ‘Well?’
‘We were just talking about Joan of Kent and the Earl of Salisbury. Did you learn from anything from your experiences as serving wench?’
Pipa took a large drink from her glass and rolled it around her tongue. ‘I learned that beer does not compare with wine!’ She laughed. ‘No, I think my idea of my pretending to be your maid and mixing with the servants was a good one. I enjoyed myself. However, though I learned a lot about people’s beliefs and prejudices none of it was really useful.’ She pursed her lips. ‘In the event I was able to find the Earl of Salisbury’s squires. Nice boys and adventurous.’ She smirked. ‘They sneaked up the hill and watched the beginning of the festival of Selene but my judgement is that they know absolutely nothing, or if they do they conceal it well. There was no mention of Ximene. Until the competition they did not know Joan of Kent was there, despite the fact that they serve the Earl.’
She pulled a face in disapproval. ‘If you want my opinion, they are a bit slow. I made it clear that I liked the one who won the archery championship, but he really did not show any sustained interest. Not even after I got Guillam’s fletcher to provide the arrows which won him the championship!’
‘Those arrows cost a fortune,’ Guillam grumbled gently.
Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘Don’t despair, Pipa. Your charms are not diminished. You must remember that John was brought up in the Roman Church. He will probably have been taught that even to admire a woman is deeply sinful. To harbour thoughts of gaining sexual pleasure is even worse.’
Lady Eleanor then paused and said teasingly, ‘Of course, it is possible you were not his type, my dear.’
‘Oh, really,’ said Pipa. ‘Then perhaps I should arrange for him to see me in a more interesting situation.’
She placed her glass on a nearby table and very slowly removed her gown and pirouetted on the spot, joining her hands together above her head. She was careful to make sure that she was silhouetted against the sunset.
Guillam applauded slowly and gently but finished with a louder double clap. The music changed instantly to a softer languorous melody. Guillam sang in a clear but deep voice.
‘Pipa, you are,
Perfection in all you do.
None can compare with you.
I have to thank dear Eleanor,
For allowing your entry through the golden door,
For letting me watch as you undress,
And twist and turn to me impress.
Your long, long legs and silken thighs,
Bring great joy to this old man’s eyes.
Pipa, you are,
Perfection in all you do.
None can compare with you.
I admire your face, I admire your hair;
At your neck and breasts I love to stare.
But yet! I now must tell no lies,
I have a love which never dies
Though the sight of your beauty may make me sigh
It is in Eleanor’s arms I wish to lie.’
Guillam ended with a burst of applause.
Pipa and Eleanor laughed delightedly and returned the applause.
Pipa threw her head back, showing of her breasts to advantage before she slid into the bath.
‘Only you Guillam could manage to complement two naked women in the same ballad and please both of them!’
After a moment, the musicians recommenced their own programme of music.
Pipa became aware that Eleanor had put on her serious face.
‘Pipa, we need to tell you something. Since the death of Ximene’s mother and father, I have been totally responsible for her welfare. She is very unhappy with a situation in which her future is being traded as if she was a commodity in the marketplace. She recognises that because of her inheritance she will probably have to make a dynastic marriage, but she wants to have control of the process. Therefore in the near future Ximene will be removed from Gaston’s care. A relative of mine, Don Fernandino Perez, has arrived from Sicily. He will organise Ximene’s kidnap during Gaston’s summer hunt. His task will be to kidnap Ximene in such a way that it appears that none of us has any involvement. She will be taken to Sicily and from there can consider her options without undue pressure.’
Pipa thought for a moment. Of course she knew all this, but something told her it was best not to reveal her knowledge.
‘All I have got to say is that wherever Ximene goes, I want to go with her.’
Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘I have no long-term objections to you being Ximene’s occasional lover, my darling, but in the short term we must give the opportunity for other, more important, things to happen.’
Her smile broadened. ‘But it is good to know we are agreed. Ximene is going to Sicily.’