10 June 1355
For John, the short journey to Foix seemed to last forever. The column of soldiers spread out as a long thin line. As they neared Foix and entered a narrow gorge, they were forced closer and closer to the Ariège River. The cliffs on both sides of the gorge were fortified. Only by passing through these outer defences could the town and the Château be reached. John watched as the twin towers of the Château slowly emerged above the trees shrouding the river until he could see that the Château was elevated on a pillar of rock in the centre of the town,
The campsite the Prince selected was on high ground to the west of the Château. It gave them a most impressive view of the Château but more importantly it also meant that the occupants of the Château had a clear view of the camp, transported from Muret, and designed to be admired.
Ximene conscience demanded that she brought Alyse up to date on all the recent events. She was determined to do this before any one else could talk to her.
They embraced briefly, but Alyse’s demeanour was cool.
Ximene made what she hoped was a non controversial enquiry.
‘So how were the riding lessons?’
‘Good thank you, I have improved to the point where I feel confident. You were right about Henry. He is a good instructor, in fact he is a lovely man.’
Ximene tilted her head. ‘And…’
‘No nothing. but… Ximene he showed me the Temple.’
’Alyse’s eyes dulled. ’The temple confirmed for me that it is you Gaston has wanted all along. You must have known about the temple before you left and you didn’t tell me.’
‘I am sorry Alyse, I didn’t think there would be any purpose in telling you.’
’I think you should have told me, but it doesn’t matter now. I want to get away from here. I am determined to make a fresh start, somewhere else. I do not want to see Gaston again, and that will be almost impossible if I stay.’
‘I suppose that means that our planning will be wasted. Never mind, it was fun’
She kissed Alyse on the cheek, Alyse responded by grasping Ximene’s hair pulling her head around and kissing her firmly on the lips.
‘Fun? It was a bit more than that.’
Ximene gasped. ‘So now you want to take the masculine role?’
Alyse grinned and pulled more firmly.
Ximene returned the grin.
“Do you think you could teach me to be submissive?’
Alyse nodded.‘Yes I think I could.’
‘Well the way things are going, perhaps that is something I should practice.’
Alyse gave her hair one last tug.‘Anytime’
“Not tonight, I need your help, and we need Pipa as well. She returned with her family today.’
They located Pipa by her voice, at its highest pitch, as she helped her family settle into the lower Châteaux.
In the late afternoon, the three girls climbed to the upper courtyard to watch the raising of the tents.
‘So here I am, back again, and the chances of me getting out of here seem to depend on me agreeing to marry the Prince. That is something I find myself considering, but I certainly have not yet decided. I still want to gain total independence before i make that decision.’
Alyse frowned. ” It gets worse and worse. everything that happened before you left was meaningless. All along you were going to run away. Where would that have left me?’
‘Here with Agnes and Gaston, waiting for me to agree to marry the Prince in which case you would have become the next Comtess of Foix…’, she hesitated but could not prevent an teasing tone tone creeping into her voice, ‘one way or another. ‘
‘And if you had decided against the Prince, would Gaston still have asked me to take your place?’
‘Possibly but it would not have worked,’ Ximene smiled without warmth, ‘In the end we told the Prince of my intention to escape, so he would have known about the substitution.’
‘Alyse, I am sorry there always was a chance that our little deception would have been useful.’
“Useful? Useful? I have just spent nearly a month practicing to ride like you. How much have you done to learn how to sing or dance like me?’
Pipa was jumping on the spot with impatience. She looked at Ximene and then at Alyse. ‘What have you two been up to? What’s this about the Comtress of Foix? As soon as I returned I noticed a difference. You look almost identical. Are you playing some sort of a game?’
Ximene told Pipa about Gaston’s plans to substitute Alyse for her, and as an afterthought, about the temple.
‘Phillipa almost shrieked her response. “A temple…dedicated to you, he must be obsessed with you.’
‘Yes and it is not healthy, his obsession is secretive, there is nothing admirable about it, either for him or for me’
Alyse was still deep in thought. ‘But if you had run away to Sicily I would have been trapped here. Would you really have left me to my fate?’
‘No of course not. Lady Eleanor would have come to retrieve you. I told my grandmother about Gaston’s plotting and about the Temple, she was horrified. In fact she wants to leave Foix as much as we do. You are a close relative; she would have taken you with her.’
‘That’s if Gaston would have let me go’
‘Yes, it’s true there were some imponderables, but that is all over now, it is not going to happen.’
‘Well as I said earlier, I just want to make a fresh start.’
Ximene smiled. ‘Thank you Alyse, I meant no harm, I always believed our little ruse could be useful and if you can forgive me we could use it to advantage as early as tonight. Lady Eleanor has invited two of the Prince’s Guards to spend some time with us. One of these guards, John Stanley, was going to accompany me to Sicily.’
Phillipa broke in. ‘Oooh! John Stanley? I think I know him.’
Ximene chuckled. ‘From what Lady Eleanor has told me I am sure you know him and he is coming here this evening. There will be a chance for you to get to know him better.
‘What do you mean get to know him better?’
‘Well tonight, there is a desperate need to be in two places at the same time and I am in no position to change the arrangements.
She turned to Alyse. ‘ I want you to take my place at a dinner which has been arranged with the Prince and the Comte.’
A look of apprehension spread across Alyse’s face.
Ximene patted Alyse’s fore-arm. ‘Don’t worry. the real reason for the dinner is so that I can meet the Prince again but dinner will be followed by negotiations.’
‘You want me to pretend to be you?’
‘Only for the dinner. Afterwards, you will make your excuses, and I will replace you for the negotiations. I must attend the meeting myself to get a feel for the current thinking. We will change over in the middle of the evening.’
‘Will we get away with it?’
‘We will have to.’
‘But why, why c’ant you be there yourself?’
‘The second event has been organised by my grandmother.’
‘I tried to seduce John Stanley in the hope it would strengthen the bond between us. It was hopeless. it was like swimming in treacle. He has no idea. He loves the romance of making a suit but there is absolutely no follow up even when I showed willing, well I think I did.
Grandmother suggested that she, with the help of you two, could conduct an abbreviated version of the transition, to at least give them some idea of what is expected of them. She will act as mentor whilst you two teach them how to give and receive pleasure.’
‘John and Piers, the other guard.’
‘Whoa, how does Piers get involved?’ Pipa almost screamed.
‘Again my Granmother’s idea. They live in each others pocket. If John is involved so must be Piers, at least for now.’
‘Oh! do you think they prefer each others company to that of women?’
‘That may be something we find out, if they do, It would be better to find out now.’
Alyse grinned ‘Sounds fun, and lady Eleanor wants me to take part in this , but I have still not understood, you are going to take my place?’
‘Grandmother does not want me to be involved, she believes that there should be no emotional involvement between those taking part in any form of transition, but it is too important to me. I want to know first hand how John responds to some instruction. them perhaps i will make a decision about wether there will be an emotional invovement…’ She hesitated. ‘Or Not’
An hour later Ximene pulled two dresses from her wardrobe.
Alyse laughed. ‘The are from the portrait sittings. They are identical. The Compte made one for you and one for me. I did not know you had kept them.’
’I do not know why I kept them, but now I am glad that I did. And you have two identical outfits?’
‘ Almost uniforms. Lady Eleanor is considerate, but she does treat me a bit like a servant. She likes me to always dress the same. I have three of these outfits so that whilst I am wearing one is in my wardrobe and the third one away at the laundry. I never grumbled but it is one of the reasons I succumbed to the Comte’s advances.’
‘Enjoyed his company. Accepted the gift of dresses.’
‘Hmmmm, never mind. For the next two hours we are going to be very busy changing places. I want to make the switch at least three times before this evening. If Grandmother spots the switch, I will abandon my plan. If she does not notice the switches we will go ahead.
Two hours later Ximene was estatic. “Grandmother had no idea. This works because people see what they expect to see. Unless they are surprised they pay little attention. we can go ahead. When the boys arrive, I will greet them at the door, pretending to be you . ’