10 June 1355
Lady Eleanor served drinks on the terrace.
As she sipped her wine, Ximene glowed with pleasure. The experience had justified her deception in swapping places with Alyse and the risks involved in making that deception.
Even her Grandmother had no idea. All possible, she mused, because as a rule people saw only what they expected.
Now as a result of the deception, she had gained much knowledge about John. He had been more relaxed when he had thought he was with Alyse, and she liked him that way.
But what did it mean? Perhaps he was tense when he was with her because he really did care for her and was always trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, it might be that he was in awe of her social status.
Another possibility was that he was most comfortable in a situation where there were rules. One thing she did know—he was a fast learner. She desperately wanted to compare notes with Pipa. She was however aware that the time was approaching when she had to make the final swap with Alyse.
It was almost equally important for her to be there at the end of the dinner so that she was a party to any final agreements. Because of the sequencing of events, it was necessary for Alyse to trigger the final exchange of roles.
It had been agreed that Alyse would leave immediately after the final course, but when would that be? They would both be betrayed if the changeover took too long.
Lady Eleanor was playing mother hen. ‘We will go back to my apartments for dinner. Dry yourselves off and wear the gowns. Though I’ve lit a fire, it can be draughty, even at this time of year.’
In her dining room, Lady Eleanor directed John and Piers to a seat and offered more wine.
Ximene and Pipa pulled on dresses which had been warming in front of the fire.
The tailors arrived with the new outfits for John and Piers, which they examined with great curiosity.
Lady Eleanor beckoned Ximene away from the others. At first, Ximene did not recognise the gesture, but then, with a jerk of surprise, reacted just in time.
She ran across the room. Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘Alyse, can you run up to the kitchen? Tell them fifteen minutes. Oh! while you are up there, will you get some fresh bread. I always like to break fresh bread with a glass of wine.’ Ximene did her best to make a little curtsey, as she had seen Alyse do a thousand times
As she ran up the stairs, she realised that even small details could give a deception away. She had never before had to make a servant’s curtesy, and she had failed to practice it.
When she entered the kitchen, Henri was sat by the large table eating his dinner. This was no surprise. Even in the old kitchen it was one of the perks the senior guards enjoyed. She expected him to jump to his feet, but he didn’t. Instead he waved a goblet in the air and shouted, ‘Hello, darling, are you finished downstairs?’
‘No, unfortunately Milady still has to have dinner. I have come to check on progress and take her some bread.’
‘Come over here and give me a kiss.’
Ximene’s head whirled. Suddenly she had entered a world she knew nothing about.
‘I would love to, but Milady is waiting.’
‘Just a quick peck.’
Ximene cautiously approached Henri, glancing towards the staff at the business end of the kitchen. He reached out a hand and pulled her inwards and downwards, planting a passionate kiss on her lips. She struggled to free herself but he caressed her and kissed her again. She had no idea what to do.
Suddenly Henri stiffened, released her, gazed into her face and jumped to his feet. ‘Milady Ximene, I had no idea.’ He blushed. ‘Please forgive me.’
Ximene retreated five or six steps.
‘Forgive me, Milady, I know it is you. You smell differently.’
‘Smell differently?’ Ximene cocked her head.
‘Alyse smells sweet and you … smell… spicy.’
‘Really… please, Milady, do not get me into trouble. I did it properly. I made my suite. Alyse gave me her favour and came to my house in the town. It was all very correct. Now that we have a relationship, it is difficult to ignore it in a different situation.’
‘I have no doubt you did it properly, Henri, and I have no intention of getting you into trouble, but it is important that you do not reveal that I have changed places with Alyse tonight.’
‘Milady I would never betray your trust. I adore you. I will always be available to your command.’
‘Thank you, Henri. I must leave, My Lady Eleanor is waiting and I have yet to arrange the bread and meal.’
Henri bowed. ‘Of course.’
She hurriedly grabbed the bread, once again noticing that the staff in the kitchen made no deference to her presence. She breathed a sigh of relief. They had not overheard her conversation with Henri. They thought she was Alyse. As she passed on the request to serve dinner, she remembered to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ They gave her a basket containing warm bread, a cutting board, a knife and a slab of butter pressed into a pottery mould.
The chef smiled. ‘Tell Lady Eleanor that the Comte’s meal is finished. We served the last course a quarter of an hour ago.’
Ximene pricked up her ears. What a fortunate coincidence.
She lingered by the stairwell and, sure enough, Alyse emerged from the hall almost immediately.
Together they ran down the stairs and then separated, each running to their own bedroom.
On the bed waiting for Ximene was the exact copy of the dress Alyse had been wearing. She pulled off Alyse’s own clothes.
‘First things first,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Makeup, then hair then the dress.’ She performed each task quickly yet methodically, then stood looking at her bedroom door.
Alyse burst into the room. She had already changed. Dressing down was far easier than dressing up. She helped Ximene lace up the dress and checked her hair before arranging the mantilla.
‘I am glad we had a copy of your dress, from the portrait sittings,’ said Alyse. ‘It would have taken ages otherwise.’ She surveyed her handiwork and nodded. ‘Good. I just asked to be excused. The time is about right. They will suspect nothing. Go!’
Ximene pointed at the bread and butter. ‘Don’t forget that. Lady Eleanor is waiting for it. Anything I need to know?’
‘I don’t think so. There was nothing which surprised or even interested me.’
Despite the dress almost filling the available space, Ximene ran up the circular staircase. At the top, she took a deep breath and entered the hall.
The Prince, the Comte, and the Earl seemed at first glance to be very relaxed. They sipped deeply from their glasses. A distinctive bottle of Armagnac stood in prime position on the table. Ximene knew the Comte reserved this particular Armagnac for very special occasions.
They all rose from their seats at Ximene’s entry. Ximene panicked. She had no idea where Alyse had been sitting. She realised the answer must lie in the place settings. Of course! At the right hand of the Comte and across the table from the Prince and the Earl. This was not just dinner, it was a conference. More panic. Where were they up to?
She sat down and they all resumed their own seats.
‘So, Ximene, what do you think of that suggestion?’
‘Perhaps we could go over it again, point by point. I would like to be confident that it is acceptable both to you, Gaston, and to the Prince.’
It was the Comte who answered. ‘I thought that was clear, but perhaps you’re correct. Let us go over it again … point by point.’
Ximene breathed a sigh of relief.
When Alyse opened the door to Lady Eleanor’s lounge, she was delighted to find she attracted no comment. ‘Thank you Alyse,’ said Lady Eleanor, ripping off a chunk of bread. ‘Get yourself a drink. Did they say how long our meal would be?’
Alyse gave a heartfelt smile. ‘I think they are bringing it now.’
Pipa was busy helping Piers get into his new outfit: chattering, laughing, pulling and smoothing in turn, advising how the clothes were to be worn. The tailors stood in a huddle occasionally making a comment, but totally upstaged by Pipa.
John complained that both shirt and jacket stopped above his hose, leaving him feeling exposed. ‘I feel like a troubadour!’
Despite the distractions, John was in the middle of a story about his nights guarding the sheep back at home and what it was like to witness the wolves attacking.
Alyse was immediately interested. ‘How did they find you?’
John peered up at her.
‘I thought I told you that before you left.’
In the end, John was forced to tell the story again from the beginning.
The Earl and Prince took their leave before midnight.
Ximene moved towards the door. She wanted to go downstairs to complete the last stage of the switch and compare notes with Pipa.
‘Good night, Gaston.’
‘No, not yet. Sit down.’
Ximene frowned. His voice was harsh. What had irritated him?
‘Would you like another drink? We must talk.’
‘Thank you, but I have had enough. What must we discuss?’
‘I didn’t think the evening went well,’ he said petulantly. ‘I am not even sure that the Prince is the best choice anymore. Louis of Anjou might be better.’
Ximene almost shrieked in exasperation.
‘I never expected the Prince to come and meet you, but he did. I never expected him to come here to the Château, but he did. What does that tell you?’
‘That he is a decent man, that he has shown an interest in my needs?’
‘No, no, Ximene. It means he is in a position of weakness. We have something he wants.’
‘My hand in marriage? My body? That is what you have offered him, isn’t it?’
‘Well, yes, but for him it is just a means to an end.’
‘But you would get what you want? A three-way split. You as Duke of Gascoigne, the Prince as Duke of Aquitaine and me as Duchess of Occitan. All part of a Plantagenet empire!’
‘Ximene, that is not what he wants.’
‘It is what he…we were talking about.’
‘No, no Ximene, you were not listening. The Prince has a different plan. He believes in sea power. He believes that if the English get command of the sea and invest in trade they will thrive, that through sea power and trade they will rule the world.
‘He talks of command of the whole Atlantic coastline. Brittany, Aquitaine, Navarre, the Basque ports, Portugal, Cadiz and Seville.’
‘Gaston, that was just talk to impress us!’
‘No, it is his central strategy. Everything is subordinate to that. I am irrelevant to that plan. He does not care what the Pope wants. He does not care what I want.’
‘But as far as I could see he still wants to marry me?’
‘Yes and that is because there is something missing in his grand plan. He needs access to the rich eastern trade, he needs access to the Mediterranean. He has concentrated on getting control of the Garronne. He is building a lighthouse at its mouth. He is investigating Arcachon as an alternative port. He has started negotiations with Toulouse.’
‘And the something which is missing?’ asked Ximene, though she knew the answer.
‘Carcassone and Beziers, your inheritance. The trade route from the Mediterranean to Toulouse. You are important to his plan. I am irrelevant to this plan, landlocked in my mountain kingdom. If he marries you, I will get nothing.’
Ximene raised an eyebrow. Kingdom? ‘So what will you do?’
‘I don’t mind his grand plan, but I must get what I want. If the Prince wants command of the sea, I will let him have it, but I have changed my objective. I now want command of the land, all the way from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and I don’t much care who I get it from. I might do better with Louis.’
Ximene felt a pang of panic. ‘So what will happen to me?’
Gaston smiled. He walked past the partitions to the other end of the great hall, up the steps and swung open the door.
‘It fills the entire space of the tower and can be accessed without using the spiral staircases. Used to be a store room, but Agnes started to recreate it as a bedroom. However, the project is still unfinished and now Agnes has decided to return to Bearn…’
The room was empty. It was circular and was painted pure white. There were however six stone columns which extended above the walls to merge in the centre of the roof like the spokes of a wheel.
Both sides of the columns were picked out in gold paint, taking the form of a elaborate floral pattern.
‘You will stay here in the Château, safe. You can move up here to be close to me. You can choose the furniture, fittings and linen.’
He hesitated. ‘You realise I cannot allow you to marry the Prince until my needs have been met?’
Ximene advanced to the centre of the room and spun around. The gold paint glittered in the light of the flares.
‘And how long do you expect me to remain here?’
‘Who knows? You are an attractive woman. Sooner or later, someone will pay the price.’
Ximene felt breathless as her panic turned to anger.
The Comte appeared oblivious. ‘Another option is for you to accept my suite and live happily ever after as the countess of Foix.’
‘And you think locking me up in a tower is an acceptable way of making your suite? Goodnight, Gaston.’
‘Ximene, I am your guardian and you will obey me. If you hesitate, I will have you whipped.’ A smile spread across his face. ‘In public, this time.’
Ximene had a dreadful premonition of what her future might hold.
Not for the first time she nearly fell in her haste to descend the spiral staircase.
Ximene burst into the room. ‘I cannot bear this any longer. We are leaving and as soon as possible.’
‘What are you talking about, dear?’ asked Lady Eleanor.
She shook as she described the scene with Gaston. ‘I could be trapped here until I am an old woman! He will never release me. He wants me for himself.’
Ximene turned to look pleadingly at John.
‘Tell your Prince I will comply with whatever plans he has in mind. But you must get me out of here!’