20 April 1355
On the third day after her arrival, whilst Ximene and Juan were out riding, Agnes came to see Alyse.
‘I thought I would see how you are doing. Have you not been out riding with Ximene?’
‘Oh no, I would probably kill myself trying to keep up with Ximene.’
‘Oh! So someone who knew Ximene’s reputation as a horsewoman would immediately see the difference between you?’
Alyse smiled. ‘Yes, they certainly would.’
‘Well, that is something we must pay attention to.’
Alyse wondered what she had missed. Why on earth would such a thing matter?
‘Gaston believes that your willingness to become his mistress shows a lot about your ambitions.’
Alyse rolled her eyes. ‘What does Gaston know of my ambitions?’
‘You are prepared to join him in his bedroom, to sing before him naked… Any woman who is prepared to become a mistress from a position of weakness has ambitions. It would be different if you were a lady of substance receiving a score of suitors and being able to choose between them… perhaps that is your ambition.’
Alyse felt a surge of anger rising within her.
Agnes patted the bed. ‘Sit down, Alyse. I have a proposition to make. How would you like to be Queen of England? Hear me out: Gaston has ambitions to become the Duke of Gascony, but he thinks that Ximene’s determination to re-establish the Occitan state as an independent state and the Cathar Religion as its official religion will compromise all that.’
Alyse blinked. ‘And?’
‘As was proved the other evening, when dressed and prepared in the same way you are almost indistinguishable from Ximene. Gaston thinks you could be substituted for Ximene, without anyone knowing; that you could be his agent in achieving exactly what he wants.’
‘Me? But that will require great diplomacy, something in which I have no experience, as well as…’ Alyse blushed, ‘other significant skills.’
‘You have not perhaps realised, but whilst encouraging your studies Gaston has been testing your ability to absorb and understand the principles expounded by the great Greek and Latin writers. You are a beautiful and very intelligent woman.’
‘Me! I have always been dismissed as being too dull and scholarly. But what about Ximene; what would happen to her?’
‘Gaston would do a separate deal with her. He would assign this part of his territory to Ximene as Comtess de Foix. She would have to change her name but here in these mountains she could set up a haven for Cathars, choose her own bishops and priests and eliminate persecution. Which is what I believe she wants.’
‘What makes you think Ximene would accept all this?’
Ximene’s eyes blazed with anger.
‘I always knew I couldn’t trust him, but you, Alyse; how could you let yourself get involved in this?’
‘Ximene, I am only the messenger.’
‘You must have decided you are willing to take my place.’
‘I only wanted to see how you felt about the idea. I am in no way committed.’
‘So you thought that Gaston was preparing to make a suit for your hand whilst all the time he was simply reviewing your suitability as a stand-in for me!’
‘Yes, but more than that he was testing the degree of my ambition.’
‘And how do you feel about that?’
‘It was I who assumed he had other objectives.’
‘You are very understanding.’
‘Well, I suppose deep down I am disappointed, but this other proposal is incredible.’
‘Quite. His major objection to me is that I would want to re-establish the Cathar religion in Occitan?’
‘And would you not want to do that if you were in a position of power?’
‘I would not need to do so, Ximene. If you became the Comtress of Foix, a haven for Cathars would exist. I would not need to do anything.’
Ximene thought for nearly a minute.
‘So, in fact, we could do it the other way round. You could become the Comtess of Foix and provide the haven. I could become Queen of England and ensure Gaston fulfils his promises. I think I would prefer the greater control that would give me.’
‘Yes, I suppose you would.’
‘You would have no shortage of suitors whereas as Queen of England the opportunities for courtly love would be greatly limited.’
‘Why would Gaston do that for me?’
‘Because it is his plan. He would not know we had switched places.’
‘Oh! you are right!’
‘Look, we don’t need to make up our minds now, but it gives me more options to consider.’
‘So where do we go from here?’
‘Tell Agnes that I want to talk to Gaston personally and that before I agree to anything I will want to see guarantees in writing under his personal seal.’
It was early evening when Alyse returned to the lower level. She found Ximene in her bedroom with a cosy fire roaring in the fireplace.
‘She has promised to discuss it with Gaston this evening.’
Ximene smiled broadly.
‘We could expect no more. Now we must talk. If we are to carry this off we must learn everything we can about each other. You will have to learn to ride better and I will have to learn to sing better.’
‘Oh! I see. We have to take this being alike very seriously.’
‘We must practice makeup and hair styling so that we instinctively do it exactly the same. You will have to lose the last traces of your Castilian accent. I will have to read a little more and you will have to read a little less. I will have to pluck my eyebrows and you will have to put on a little weight.’
‘In that case we must learn to eat the same food and drink the same drink.’
‘Yes we must, but let’s start with the important stuff, like…’ Ximene grinned mischievously, ‘How would you go about seducing a man? Incidentally, you can exclude singing to him naked; I know about that and am not likely to attempt it, at least unless my singing improves beyond all expectations.’
‘It will be difficult to describe it in words.’
‘Well, pretend I am a man. Don’t hold anything back. Show me and then I will tell you about my preferences. If we are to take this substitution seriously and we ever have to go to bed with the same man it is important that he will not be able to tell the difference.’