17 April 1355
When Ximene awoke, Agnes was already in her room opening the curtains. She then sat on the foot of the bed as servants scurried around lighting the fire, removing the privy and taking orders for breakfast. She smiled a most brilliant smile.
‘Thank you for what you did last night, Ximene.’
‘I still don’t actually know why I was there.’
‘No, I suppose I didn’t make it clear. You see, I am now prepared to bear Gaston’s child and this would be as good a place to do it as anywhere. It is as good as a prison. No man would be able to contaminate me whilst I am in here. It would be good if yourself and Alyse would say with me to relieve the boredom of isolation… a lot better than going to a nunnery, which I think would drive me to distraction. Gaston enjoyed last night and that means he would raise no objections to you being with me.’
‘I can’t make that offer, Agnes. I am due to meet the Prince in less than two months and Gaston will be accompanying me. I have no idea what will happen after I meet the Prince. If the negotiations are successful perhaps the Prince will take me directly to Bordeaux or even England for my marriage. But Alyse could stay here with you.’
‘Oh. It would be much more fun with the two of you. Tell me, are you related to Alyse?’
‘Yes, we are some sort of distant cousins.’
‘It was obvious last night and in fact I would have thought you were closer than distant cousins. Last night you could have been taken for twins.’
‘Oh! But you were prepared in exactly the same way. The way it worked out, you could have been taken for our older, more glamorous sister.’
‘Good, that was exactly the effect I wanted. Gaston certainly enjoyed it. He wants to go to the spa this afternoon and again he would like to make an occasion of it. Will you come with us? Can you organise some wine?’
Ximene wrinkled her nose. ‘Agnes, I really don’t think that is a good idea. I think Gaston is quite attracted to Alyse and…’
‘Don’t concern yourself; Gaston would never force himself on her.’
‘But you ought to know… if Gaston made his suit properly, Alyse would give him her favour.
‘Oh… that would be different. I had better have a chat with Alyse and agree some ground rules… also if that is what she wants to do she will need some tips on how to satisfy him. But you are right, it may be inappropriate for her to be with us this afternoon. Gaston will be disappointed. I will have to improvise…’
‘…If that is what Alyse wants it will also be necessary for her to have a separate residence. Can she live down here whilst you are away?’
Ximene raised her eyebrows. ‘Agnes, Alyse does live down here… well, most of the time. But it can’t become her official residence. It would be very difficult when grandmother returns.’
Agnes shrugged. ‘Hmmm, there obviously are some details to be sorted out.’
She quickly moved on to another topic, leaving Ximene’s mind in a whirl.
‘Ximene, you gave me a lot of help last night without questioning my motives. What can I do in return; what do you really want?’
Ximene had to force herself to answer the question and push everything else to the back of her mind.
‘I want the opportunity to train for the hunt. I can practice my archery but I need to make sure that my horses are in good condition. I want to ride every day until I leave for Muret and I do not mean a trot round the city walls, I mean hard riding through open country and through forest trails.’
‘Would you like to go this afternoon? I will see Gaston immediately. I am sure he will accept.’
Ximene threw her head back and laughed. ‘Do you realise, Agnes, that Gaston has refused to allow me to do this for over a year? Do you know how closely Gaston has guarded me? The most I have got him to agree to is a gentle tour of the town walls and even then surrounded by guards.’
‘Leave it to me, Ximene. You helped me, now I will help you.’
She turned and left the room, pausing at the door to wave goodbye, a beaming smile illuminating her lovely face.
Ximene found Alyse in her bedroom, not with her head in a book but trying on a range of dresses and costumes. There must have been twenty on the bed. Even a cursory glance showed that they were all of the highest quality. Ximene nodded towards the bed. ‘Gaston?’
Alyse nodded and smiled.
‘You will become his mistress?’
‘No, I will become Princess Agnes’ companion. It is all totally in accordance with what we have been taught. Gaston will have to make his suit and do it formally.’
‘An affair of the heart? With Gaston?’
‘He is an attractive man and he is obviously attracted to me. This relationship will allow me to mix in a different level of society! Once Agnes’ confinement is over, he will find me accommodation, either in Bearn or even in Bordeaux.’
Ximene sighed. ‘Affairs of the heart, though wonderful, are often transitory. You will both move on.’
‘I know that, but by then I will have met many other powerful men. I will be able to choose which of them will father my child. I will start a dynasty. No arranged marriages for me.’
Ximene sighed. ‘Is that really what we have been taught? I suppose that is the practical result of our beliefs, except it seems to me that you objectives are all material. What about the spiritual world?’
‘That depends on how I handle the relationships. I will be open and honest in all my dealings. It will be all for love.’
‘Then I can only wish you well. I suppose in a way I envy you. I wish I had such a clear view of what I shall do.’
‘But I am not burdened by such onerous responsibilities.’
‘Thank you for reminding me… Now, I have asked to go riding this afternoon. I want both my horses in peak condition for the hunt. Will you come with me?’
‘Ximene, I know how you ride. I could not keep up.’
‘No, really, I know I could not.’
‘I will have to ride alone then. But I really wanted to exercise both horses.’
‘Well, you can still do that do that. Juan will ride with you. He will enjoy it and he rides much better than me.’
‘Oh! Good. I wonder if Gaston will really let me go?’
At precisely two, Ximene, Juan and half a dozen guards slowly descended the ramp. Agnes, Alyse and Gaston came down to see them off and stood together in the lower courtyard. Agnes had a possessive hand on Alyse’s shoulder; for all the world the image projected was that of proud parents and their eldest daughter.
Ximene was riding the horse she regarded as her own, Selene, and Juan was riding Selene’s twin brother Helios. Ximene looked over her shoulder and pulled Selene over so that she walked alongside Helios.
‘Juan, you know how tightly he has controlled me for the last twelve months. It is almost unbelievable that he has agreed to let me out. Is Agnes some kind of a witch to have such control of him, or has Alyse something to do with this?’
But Juan just shrugged his shoulders.
Ximene looked around her. The guards were young men very little older than herself who spread out around her, riding in front as well as behind. One older man who she assumed was the commander of the small group chose to ride close alongside her. Ximene bristled with indignation. She was surrounded. Controlled. She took the road leading to the narrowest of the Foix valleys, leading almost due west through Castelnau.
Initially she tested out the guard’s attentiveness by indulging in a series of quick sprints punctuated by walks. She quickly discovered that the guards’ horses could not match her own for speed or stamina.
The older guard, in particular, struggled to get back in position after each sprint. He eyed Ximene’s horses with open admiration, breathing nearly as hard as his horse.
‘Excuse me Milady, my name is Henri d’Orthez. Can I ask about your horses, they are magnificent.’
No one, not even Gaston, had ever used that form of address to her before. As far as she knew her grandmother’s title was not hereditary, so she felt quite justified in answering a question with a question.
‘My lady? Why do you address me so?’
Henri looked surprised. ‘The Comte insists that we always call you that.’ He hesitated. ‘It is only correct as you are the rightful Comtess of Carcassonne… And Albi… and…’
‘Yes, yes of course. Recently I have rarely ventured out, so it came as a surprise. My horses? Yes, they are pure bred Andalucian, given as foals to my grandmother by the Emir of Grenada when they were both visiting King Pedro at the Alcazar. When she returned to Foix she gave them to me. They are twins, named Helios and Selene, the Sun and the Moon.
‘You are very lucky, my lady. They are not only magnificent but unique, especially seeing the two of them together. Incomparable.’
After admiring the horses openly for a full minute longer, Henri pulled away to respectful distance.
‘So, there may be some truth in the rumour,’ said Juan.
‘Well, I have a special friend in the guard… he is not here today. He tells me about the Comte’s concerns about Lady Eleanor.’
‘Yes, that Lady Eleanor has planned to remove you from his control and marry you to a Moorish Prince in Grenada.
Ximene tried to keep the concern she felt from her face.
Juan continued. ‘It is a very persistent rumour, there must be some basis to it and now you have told me about the horses
‘Rumour is the right word, Juan. You are Lady Eleanor’s clerk. Have you seen any correspondence?’
‘No,’ he admitted. ‘I spend a lot of time with Lady Eleanor and write most of her letters, yet I have seen nothing.’
‘And neither have I. It is nonsense. She has never mentioned the possibility.’
‘Well, there are many Cathars who have taken refuge in Grenada. I have considered going there myself.’
‘If it had been an option, I am sure she would have mentioned it.’
Ximene slapped Selene’s rump and the horse jumped into a full gallop. Juan trailed behind but quickly recovered ground. The riders in front of them were surprised by the sudden spurt and were left standing. Soon all the guards had been left far behind. The road had narrowed and the grass verge reduced steadily in size until Ximene and Juan were riding along a narrow track and swerving through a slalom of trees.
Ximene took an even narrower side track and dismounted hurriedly behind a dense thicket of shrubs. Juan followed suit and they waited together as the guards thundered past.
They grinned at each other as the drumming of hooves faded into the near distance.
When they eventually returned to the Château, they found Alyse in a sombre mood.
Without any apparent reservation she told them that she had waited patiently in Lady Eleanor’s apartment for Gaston or Agnes.
‘At one stage I giggled helplessly at the thought it might be both of them, in a joint mission to commission me as Gaston’s mistress. I experimented with dress, makeup and hairstyles as I awaited Gaston’s call, but it never came. Nor was there any invite to dinner.’ She sighed. ‘Not for the first time, I seem to have got things wrong.’