16 April 1355
Ximene had rarely seen Pipa so excited.
‘Your grandmother has invited me to go to Clermont with her! We will visit my parents at Beaufort and do some housekeeping at her house in Auch on the way. Is that all-right with you?’
Ximene looked at her curiously. ‘You don’t really need it, but go with my blessing. If I wasn’t going to the hunt, I would have liked to attend the festival of the moon myself. Alyse will stay with me and keep me company.’
‘Good luck with that. Don’t overdose on Greek poetry and Roman history.’
‘Alyse is good company, perhaps a little academic, but she talks about the most interesting things. In any case, I like to read the classical books and Alyse pre-digests them all for me.’
Pipa looked unimpressed.
‘You know, finds the best bits for me. As well as that, she sings like an angel.’
‘Hmmm, angel is about right. It is all a bit ethereal for me. I like my singing with a bit of rhythm and passion. Drums and bagpipes. Have you noticed how much time she spends with Gaston?’
‘She spends time in the upper Château because Gaston has a splendid library and he often invites her to sing during dinner.’
Pipa waggled her hips and winked. ‘Well, whatever. She doesn’t know what will be happening at the hunt. Don’t forget to let me know where I can find you.’
Ximene’s face became blank. Suddenly she realised Pipa knew what was planned. Ximene didn’t remember telling her, but obviously she had. Pipa knew.
Ximene consoled herself that Pipa would be not able to cause any difficulties whilst she was away at Clermont.
There were tearful goodbyes as Ximene watched the small party depart.
Less than two hours later, Ximene and Alyse were in the library when the door was thrown open and they received a most unexpected visitor .
Ximene recognised her instantly. Gaston’s wife Princess Agnes of Navarre, arrived from Bearn, her first visit to Foix in six years of marriage. Agnes made no attempt to explain how the timing had been so precise, but no matter, Ximene was delighted to see her again. From her own time spent at Bearn, she considered Agnes a good friend.
She ran to greet Agnes and they hugged each other warmly, more warmly than etiquette demanded. She introduced Alyse to Agnes and once again Agnes displayed great affection.
Agnes gave a cursory glance at the books scattered in layers over the table. ‘Oh, Greek, Politics, is this something for Gaston?
Alyse raised her eyebrows. ‘Not really, it has become a hobby of mine.’
‘Really? Well I am sure there is much to discuss, but later. Right now show me the springs I have heard so much about. I have been travelling for two days and I desperately need a bath.’
Once they got to the balcony, Ximene lit the torches and Agnes shrieked with delight. She ripped off her clothes, ran down the steps and literally jumped into the nearest bath.
‘Oh how wonderful; oh how decadent.’
Ximene asked Alyse to get some gowns and disrobed more carefully. Once settled in one of the baths, she watched as Agnes kicked and splashed in the bath; ran to the waterfall, danced about, throwing water everywhere; and then returned to the bath again, producing a wave of water which flowed across the floor.
‘This is so wonderful. Does Gaston come here to bathe?’
‘To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t.’
‘Well, I will bring him tomorrow. This is one of the most spectacular places I have ever been to. With a bottle of wine inside him who knows what I can persuade him to do down here.’ Agnes laughed out loud, a voluptuous, sensual but entirely appealing laugh. ‘It is a bit like being in Hades. I would imagine it would make anyone lose their inhibitions.’
Alyse placed the towels on the chairs and leaned over the balustrade.
‘The Comte has asked me to return immediately to rehearse some new songs, to be sung tonight at dinner.’
Agnes smiled. ‘Thank you, Alyse,’ and then as Alyse departed, she added, ‘A dinner to which you are invited, Ximene.’
Ximene was so surprised she almost succumbed to a coughing fit. She had never been invited to dinner with the Comte.
‘Even as we speak there are big changes taking place upstairs. The two best private rooms are on the same level as the Great Hall at the base of each tower and have been used for storage. I am reclaiming them, one as a bedroom, the other as a servery. The hall is an impossible clutter of tables, desks and bookshelves. People jostle for space and are unable to concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing. Alyse has to use Gaston’s bedroom to practice her singing.’
She waved her hands in the air. ‘I am going to change all that. I have ordered temporary screens and by this evening we will have a dining area separate from office accommodation and beyond that a combined library and conference room. When we want to hold a major function, everything can be moved out into a large shed which I am having built on the terrace. Ultimately it should be built in stone and house permanent offices, but for now a wooden structure will suffice.’
Ximene gasped. ‘How many hours have you been here?’ she asked.
Again that alluring, irresistible laugh. ‘Almost twenty-four. I arrived yesterday afternoon. The place is a mess and if all Gaston’s plans come undone I may have to live here.’
‘Leave the beautiful palace in Bearn?’
‘We may have to. Gaston’s strategy for offering you to the Black Prince could work well for us, but if it goes wrong; if you won’t marry The Prince, or Gaston can’t strike the deal he wants, the Prince could withdraw his patronage and in the worst case make someone else Comte of Bearn.’ She looked around. ‘Is there something to drink?’
‘I’ll fetch something if you like. Limoux or Claret?’
‘No, no, don’t bother, I just want to talk to you. Now…why do you think I am here?’
‘To see Gaston?’
‘Well yes I suppose that is true, but Gaston was keen to have me here to act as a chaperone to you…and Alyse. After the departure of Lady Eleanor, he is desperate that no one has any excuse to accuse him of improper relations with either of you.’
Ximene’s eyes narrowed as she remembered Pipa’s innuendo.
‘But I had another reason to want to see you. I have been curious how you feel about all this. Your impending marriage.’
‘To be truthful, I don’t know. You are a Cathar so you know that our religion…’
‘Marriage is not important to me.’
‘But you are prepared to go through with a marriage if it gives you access to your inheritance?’
‘I want to create a haven where Cathars can be free to follow their own beliefs. I suppose that in these circumstances, for me marriage would represent a sacrifice.’
‘I suspected as much! A little realism is required, darling. You may not consider marriage to be important but you are going to be forced to spend a large proportion of your future life with the man you marry. My marriage to Gaston was arranged. I thought you might be interested how I have managed.’
‘Very well, if your instant re-organisation of the upper Château is anything to go by.’
‘Oh! That is nothing; when we are together I am always in charge of housekeeping. No, I meant the more personal side of our relationship.’
Ximene could hardly wait.
‘Like most of the aristocracy, Gaston wanted me to give him a child immediately. It’s an absolute imposition, because for three months before the great event he wanted to lock me away to be absolutely certain that any child I bore was his. I refused and told him that after our marriage he would have to make his suit in the same way as any other man. He agreed and courted me assiduously. Eventually I gave him my favour but nothing happened.’ Agnes leaned over and continued in a rather loud whisper, ‘Gaston does not get aroused very easily. I have had to become rather inventive.’
‘So, now you want to arouse Gaston?’
‘Certainly, I do now love him. You know, both love and to a certain extent sexual activity is actually just a special, inspired form of giving. Giving love strengthens your body and pleases the spirit in that body. Arranged marriages give a special opportunity to practise that giving.’
‘No one has ever told me that.’
‘That’s why I was so pleased to come. I thought you should be able to benefit from my experience during what must be an uncertain time.’
Ximene thought, started to speak, and then thought again.‘But at the same time, you could be trying to convince me to pursue a path which will benefit Gaston and yourself.’
Agnes smiled. ‘You can see it that way, if you must, but I firmly believe in everything I have just told you. We should talk again. Ask me anything you want, we will have weeks together.’
‘I will be pleased to have the opportunity.’
‘Let’s start with some practical experience. Even in this uncertain light I saw your eyes narrow when I mentioned Alyse and her singing. I must admit all that politics and the Greek took me totally by surprise. She is talented?’
Ximene thought carefully.
‘Alyse is talented in many ways, but it is not so much the breadth of her talent, she is actually quite selective, she only pursues what she is really interested in.’
‘That is something new for me to take into account. Gaston himself is very interested in politics. However, there is no doubt that Gaston is also fond of young girls with angelic voices, especially if they are skimpily dressed, but he would never force himself upon them. I have a feeling, just watching them in the same room… I know he wants her.’
Ximene was surprised. Despite what she was saying, Agnes suddenly acquired a look of self satisfaction. ‘I have a plan to divert him.’
She touched her lips with her finger. ‘Tonight I will dress as closely as possible to Alyse. It will help to achieve his arousal. It is one example of the way I bring him gifts, but in order to make the effect complete, I want you to dress exactly the same.’
‘You and Alyse look very much alike. If there are three of us looking very similar it will confuse him. If we wear revealing dresses he will be stimulated and will be vulnerable to an approach by any one of the three of us.’
She stared fiercely at Ximene. ‘I don’t believe either you or Alyse will make an approach.’
‘You will use us to help you seduce your own husband?’
Later in the evening, when Alyse laid the dresses out on the bed and as they started to disrobe, Ximene was far from sure she should have accepted so readily. After a year of the Transition it was not as if nudity was unusual to her, but to be as good as naked in front of Gaston, who had always behaved like a cross between a schoolteacher and a jailor?
She glanced at Alyse, who had already slipped the dress on and was now adjusting candles to give her the best light to comb her hair and apply some make up. She reflected that Agnes was right. Alyse’s dress was totally transparent, she might as well be naked, and Ximene’s own dress was no different.
Ximene decided to ask Alyse sympathetically about her relationship with Gaston but found it impossible to avoid a tone creeping into her voice.
‘What is there between you and Gaston?’
‘Nothing untoward. He likes my singing, I read his book on hunting techniques and help him with grammar and structure and I have started some engravings to illustrate it. To be honest, some of the sentences he uses are quite clumsy. In return, he buys the books I need and has paid for my language tuition.’
Alyse smiled. ‘But, look, I am concentrating. I know exactly how he likes me to wear my make up and I have explained it to Agnes. She wants us to look virtually identical. As soon as I have finished, I will apply yours.’
Ximene gazed in amazement. Alyse the bookworm was transforming before her eyes.
Alyse smiled again. Ximene saw a gleam in Alyse’s eyes and realised that she was being teased.
‘Just a bit of fun, I quite enjoy it. I like having such a powerful man finding me attractive. But he is a perfect gentleman. He has never laid a hand on me.’
‘So what does go on?’
‘He is always finding new songs for me to sing, and because the hall is always a mess he allows me to practice in his bedroom. I bet you didn’t know that he plays the flute very well.’
‘No, I didn’t… so you practice singing in his bedroom and…’
‘We are always preparing for a formal dinner, initially it was when he had visitors but now, sometimes, he is the only diner.’
‘Alyse, the bedroom?’
She giggled. ‘The rehearsals are full dress or should I say, full undress. He tells me how he likes me to wear my make up and brings in costumes for me to try. Some of the costumes are very revealing. He watches me as I change.’
‘More recently he has persuaded me that it might help my breathing and voice production if I practise naked.’
‘Alyse, why do you submit to this?’
‘I don’t submit to it. I quite enjoy it. For the first time I have made a conquest, a powerful man and a gentleman. Me, dowdy Alyse the bookworm, has made a conquest. I tell you, if he made a suit for my hand, I would give him my favour.’
‘And tonight I will help him find fulfilment with his wife. It is my little gift to him.’
‘Good god! And why am I involved in this?’
‘I have no idea. You will have to ask Agnes. Now, let me do your make up.’
Ximene could not reject the idea that she was being prepared for a sacrifice; but what kind of sacrifice?
They donned heavy furs over the lightweight dresses and ascended to the main hall. Gaston greeted them with great formality and respect and offered Ximene a glass of wine. She accepted and as a huge roaring fire had been lit in the hall, reluctantly slipped off her furs. Gaston’s eyes went straight to her nipples, which pushed against the near transparent fabric.
Ximene turned away and walked across the room, using the pretext of helping Alyse remove her fur. As she did so, she whispered in Alyse’s ear.
‘How strange, he has never looked at me like that before. Having seen the way he looked at me just then I realise that before tonight he has never seen me as a woman, just as a child to be controlled and disciplined. Oh my… I am enjoying this! I am exited. All the stimulation and no risk. Please tell me there is no risk!’
Just then, Agnes entered the room. She was indeed dressed and made up in exactly the same manner, but there were subtle differences. She had applied gold dust above her eyes and over her temples and her dress was cut lower above her breasts.
Gaston turned to greet Agnes and Ximene was able to continue to chatter into Alyse’s ear.
‘All three dresses are the same, virtually transparent, so the cut should make no difference, but it does. She looks absolutely magnificent. Ah! So that is what it is all about, she knows about you, but instead of objecting she is replacing you and stealing your persona. She is reclaiming her man, she obviously wants him very much, and yet this is an arranged marriage. But why am I here?’
Gaston personally assisted Agnes and Ximene to sit, served wine and joined them at the table.
Ximene looked around the room and realised that there were no servants present. This was so unusual that her concerns were once again aroused. She found it difficult to separate her underlying concerns from her rising excitement. Alyse sang at the start of the meal, again personally served by Gaston. The meal was excellent; mushrooms in cream poured over roasted bread, duck in orange sauce so thick it was almost like jam. Carefully chosen, satisfying but light enough not to interfere with the activities she knew Agnes had planned for later.
Alyse joined them at the table half way through the main course, and her brother Juan sang and played the harp. To Ximene’s surprise, the first song in Juan’s repertoire was in her honour and dedicated to her by Gaston. Not to Agnes, not to Alyse, but specifically to Ximene. Once again she found this both disturbing and exciting.
Agnes asked Ximene and Alyse to remove the plates from the table and bring the dessert, which was waiting in the new servery.
Again, Ximene took the opportunity to whisper to Alyse.
‘I didn’t come to dinner to act as a servant.’
‘Ximene, don’t be silly. Agnes is just creating an opportunity for us to parade around in front of Gaston.’
‘You may have let yourself become used to that. Well, I am not.’
‘It is not so different to the festivals we have. There are usually a few naked bodies to be seen at any festival.’
‘Yes, but this is different; intimate. I still don’t know why I am here. Gaston or Agnes or perhaps both are going to considerable lengths to keep this very private. Are you sure that they have no surprises planned?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It seems to me that Agnes is taking every opportunity to draw Gaston’s attention to me and away from you.’
‘Do you think Agnes is jealous?’
‘Possibly, but why attract his attention to me, especially when she has gone to so much trouble to make us look the same.’
‘I think you were right in the first place, she is reclaiming her man, and as she has made no secret, she is using us to excite him.’
‘We are the entrée and she is to be the main course?’
Alyse giggled. ‘If you want to think of it like that.’
‘But Gaston is treating me as an honoured guest and what’s more dedicating a troubadour’s song is often the first step for a man wanting to making a suit for a lady’s hand. And yet I know he wants me to marry the Prince.’
‘Agnes is so clever. In effect she is telling Gaston that there are lots of young women who look very similar to me, but there is only one Agnes.’
They cut short their whispered conversation and returned with the dessert, forest berries absolutely smothered in cream. Agnes now focussed her attention on Gaston, telling him how pleased she was to see him again. She made a point of personally serving the mead which accompanied the desert, and took a long time to doing it.
When she again took her place at the table she managed to spill cream down the top of her dress and took a long minute extracting it with her fingers. By the time this process was complete she had cream all round her mouth and the top of her dress was not only totally transparent but plastered to her body. A short time later, she led Gaston away to the bedroom.
‘And that’s how it’s done,’ chuckled Juan, striking up a haunting love song as an accompaniment.