13 March 1354
As Joan of Kent waited in the townhouse in La Reole, she thought about the girl who threatened all of her plans. Joan knew far more about Ximene than either the Prince or the Earl.
A little less than a year earlier, Joan had entered Châteaux Bellocq in the county of Bearn to act as the sponsor for the first stage of Ximene’s transition to adulthood in the Cathar tradition. Joan’s invitation had come because some time earlier she had been invited to Paris for the marriage of her close relative, Princess Agnes of Navarre to Gaston, Comte de Foix. At the wedding, Joan had met Ximene, who was the Comte’s ward, and her grandmother, Lady Eleanor.
While in Paris, Joan had established a close relationship with Lady Eleanor, their common interest being a secret adherence to the Cathar faith. They had attended Cathar ceremonies together, always a risky thing to do in Paris, and the two had remained in contact ever since.
Joan had welcomed the invitation to Ximene’s Progression as it gave her a chance to meet again the young woman who was by now the talk of Europe.
When Joan first entered the Château, she had been impressed by the huge elegant central hall and the large sandstone pillars which blended smoothly into the vaulted ceiling.
Joan had marvelled at her small suite of rooms. Outside her day room window, a terrace overlooked the gardens. Two rows of pencil pines aligned perfectly with the two sides of the terrace. The main garden promenade ran between the pines.
Her large bedroom, decorated in deep red and gold, was utterly to her taste. She particularly liked the design of the bed linen, pure white silks and a silver coverlet which gave the effect of a shaft of light playing on the bed. Here lay the inspiration for the decoration of the bedroom over the stables in Westminster.
Discovering her own personal bathroom, Joan knew that the Château could offer no more impressive accommodation. The suite had probably been designed for visiting royalty, and as a granddaughter of a French Princess and an English King, Joan felt that she fitted that description.
On the afternoon of her arrival, on a lawn by a lake at the end of the promenade servants offered light refreshments as she took the opportunity to converse with the Comte and his wife. She tiptoed carefully around any discussion of politics, deliberately posing as someone with limited appreciation of worldly affairs—not a difficult thing to do in view of her reputation as a courtesan. However, she could not avoid discussing Ximene’s future, an unavoidable topic given her sponsorship role.
‘We are enormously proud of Ximene,’ the Comte told her. ‘Her hand will be acceptable to every royal house that can offer a suitable heir. Of course, if she forms a union with a powerful house and claims back her rightful inheritance, a major reshaping of the power-base here in the south of France would take place. As such, I must attend to my own security during all lead-up negotiations.’
Joan fluttered her eyelashes.
‘Gaston, it is so good of you to consider Ximene’s future so carefully. You are so clever!’
Privately she had already concluded that the Comte was delaying proceedings, seeking to add contractual terms to the betrothal agreement to give him additional land holdings. It seemed he was playing off one suitor against another, but she had no clear evidence that this was so.
She fluttered her eyelashes again. ‘And who do you think would make the most suitable partner?’
‘I have to consider my relations with the English, French and Aragonese kings, and I must make sure that I appear to consider them all equally. It is also a question as to whether any of these royal houses have a suitable heir.’ A note of caution crept into his voice. ‘However, I must say that I will be disappointed if we cannot arrange a match between Ximene and the Black Prince.’
Considering his answer, Joan knew he was not giving any weight whatsoever to her political standing. She had thought that he also must know about her long-standing relationship with the Prince. Clearly in his mind it was of no importance.
Joan did not reply, or react in any way. She simply fluttered her eyelashes a third time, something she had found over the years made conversation with most men totally unnecessary.
Back in her own rooms, she had fought back her irritation that Gaston regarded her as a nonentity and forced herself to look forward to the evening’s reception.
She had brought only three evening gowns with her. Two were conservative almost dowdy, one grey, one brown, but the third one was rather different, in the style she wore in both the French and English courts.
The dress had been made in pure white with a perfectly normal long skirt, but with a bodice which laced underneath her breasts in such way that they were pushed upwards and outwards, away from her body. It was intended to be worn with a chemise which was elaborately ruffled at the back of her neck but below that simply outlined the edge of the bodice. This outfit would leave her breasts totally exposed.
Joan knew that what was an acceptable fashion in Paris or London might be considered quite shocking in the southern countryside. On the other hand, she desperately wanted to make Gaston take notice of her.
In the small but influential gathering, she caused consternation from the moment she reached the bottom of the staircase. Instantly she was the centre of attention amongst the men, though the women pursed their lips and frowned.
Joan also frowned. She had wanted to be noticed, not to disrupt the evening. The reception was predominantly in honour of Ximene. Joan considered retiring, to avoid causing Ximene any further embarrassment. She turned in every direction, hoping to find her, but Ximene had unexpectedly left the room. Anxious about Ximene’s absence, Joan found it difficult to concentrate on or enjoy the attentions of her male audience.
Ximene reappeared. Joan heard her entry because of the hush which fell upon the hall. Ximene paused by the door, a mixture of hesitation and defiance emanating from her. Her breasts were now exposed, a result she had achieved by removing her own chemise and cutting away the upper inch and a half of her bodice. Though grateful for this gesture, Joan found Ximene’s ravishing appearance quite disconcerting.
Somewhere in the process of modifying her dress Ximene had dislodged her coiffure, which now hung in exquisite disarray. Her eyes, set wider than most women’s, sparkled brightly. In her agitation her cheeks had become flushed, which served to emphasise the slenderness of her face and her high cheek bones. Her perfect breasts heaved with emotion.
‘I think,’ Ximene said, her voice quivering slightly, ‘I think that many of you have been grossly impolite to criticise our visitor’s fashion sense. For myself I would like to thank Countess Joan for introducing to us the latest court fashions.’ Her voice gained strength and resonance. ‘I am so pleased to know what is fashionable. I find it delightful and so suitable for the warmer months.’
The room remained silent as Ximene walked over and held Joan’s hand. Lady Eleanor could not resist a gentle applause. She was joined by many others. Agnes whispered in her husband’s ear and giggling uncontrollably grabbed the hands of several of her best friends, pulling them after her from the room. When they returned, still giggling coquettishly, they were all bare breasted.
‘Marvellous,’ announced Ximene with a wide smile. ‘Now we can all enjoy the evening.’
Joan found herself suddenly accepted and even the women who were still conservatively dressed made a point of talking to her and asking her about life in Bordeaux, London and Paris.
Later, Joan spent the evening with Ximene. She took an immediate liking to this young woman who seemed to have a positive view on everything in life. However, listening to her enthusiasm and observing her dark southern beauty, Joan made a vow. She must never allow Ximene to meet the Prince.
Ximene certainly was different. Usually the participants in a Progression ceremony asked a multitude of questions of their sponsors concerned with what they had to do and how to react. None of that seemed to concern Ximene. She was so very confident; her initial questions were about makeup and dressmaking—particularly the best way to stitch lightweight materials.
Joan talked to Ximene more generally about fashion and then she found herself talking about her night attire and a short time after, how to attract men and a short time after that again, lovemaking techniques! All this with a young woman she now identified as a rival.
Over the next two days they grew closer. In each other’s company they whispered and laughed most outrageously.
During her extended conversations with Ximene, Joan discovered her intention to escape from the Comte’s control. In conversations with both Ximene and her grandmother, Joan encouraged speculation of how she might be of assistance in helping Ximene escape. Joan had no idea how this plan could be manipulated to her advantage but believed that once isolated from the Comte’s influence there would be many opportunities to distract Ximene from a marriage with the Prince.
‘Perhaps the right solution might be to return to your grandparents’ home in Sicily. Les Etoiles might help to get you there,’ she said.
On the third night, the Progression ceremony was held. The participants of the ceremony—six girls and seven boys—sat at a table in the hall. As a sponsor, Joan sat on an elevated dais at one end of the hall. Parents, friends and supporters of the participants occupied the other three sides.
The young ladies wore white dresses with full skirts. Tight corsets pulled in their waists, lacing up at the front. Beneath the corsets, gold chemises could be seen, and also spilled over the top in a profusion of pleats and lace.
Joan knew that Ximene had fought a determined campaign to appear bare breasted. She had finally relented on the grounds that traditions must be upheld. All participants should appear virginal at the Progression, something of an anomaly given their education would move to its final phase shortly, known as the Transition and including practical experience in sexual activity!
The young men wore hose, tight pants, waistcoats and cloaks in black, embroidered with gold. They also wore a gold chemise underneath their waistcoats, only slightly simpler than the ones worn by the girls.
The evening commenced with a multi-course meal supported by ample supplies of wine, beer and Armagnac.
Ximene ate and drank very little. Troubadours sang of lost loves and the injustices of the Frankish invasion. Acrobats and jugglers entertained the diners. As the meal ended, one group of dancers gave an imitation of a bullfight before a second group of scantily-clad gypsy dancers introduced a sexual theme.
The female participants, one at a time, ascended a throne in the middle of the dais. Each of the young men then rose in turn and expressed their admiration for the lady occupying the throne. An unmistakeable tension filled the air, as each young man gave his address.
Each girl made a great show of holding a favour in front of her, fluttering the coloured scarf back and forth as if considering whether to award it to the current admirer. When the last speech had been made, the girls made a deliberate gesture of putting away the favour, to symbolise a woman’s right to accept none of her suitors. During the speech-giving ritual, the young men displayed their preferences. The praise for their favourite was usually fulsome and better-prepared than for the other girls. Most of the addresses were in prose, but many admirers used verse. One even broke into song. Once all the presentations were complete, the music started again. The girls circled the table and threw their favours into the middle of it, symbolising that in the future they would consider suits made by any of the young men.
Then the music stopped. The girls approached the nearest man. The men, who’d re-seated themselves earlier, rose to their feet and faced the girls. They kissed full on the lips, some more enthusiastically than others. As the music recommenced, the participants approached the audience and selected someone to kiss. Some moved on but others did not. For those who found an acceptable partner, the kiss continued, accompanied by embraces and even gentle fondling.
Ximene approached Joan. She pulled Joan from her seat. Even at sixteen, Ximene towered over Joan. To accept a kiss from Ximene, Joan had to rise to the tips of her toes. She steadied herself by putting her arms round Ximene’s neck. Joan’s skin tingled, and her eyes opened wide in shock, for never before had she experienced physical pleasure from a woman’s touch, though she had tried several times out of curiosity. As her lips touched Ximene’s, she a vibration passed though the whole of her body—genuine pleasure. She jerked back.
‘Thank you for being my sponsor,’ said Ximene
Mischievously, she turned to kiss a tall, dark, young man, who also melted at her touch. Seconds later she focussed on a pretty blonde-haired girl, who clearly enjoyed the experience. After a deep breath, followed by a sigh, Ximene returned to Joan. ‘Can we retire to your apartment; I need some help to get out of my clothes.’
The next morning, Joan awoke bemused that for the previous twelve hours she had been totally transfixed by a young girl, eleven years her junior. Joan’s mind held a kaleidoscope of differing thoughts. Ximene, that delightful girl, was undeniably a threat to Joan’s own emerging ambitions.
In the following year, Joan considered over and over how Ximene might be dissuaded from a marriage with the Prince. Joan found herself in a quandary, flattered that Ximene confided in her, but also seeing Ximene as her most formidable rival.
At the same time she did not want any harm to come to Ximene. After due consideration, she decided it would indeed be easier for her to influence Ximene against marrying the Prince if Ximene managed to free herself from the Comte.
Her enduring contact with Thierry d’Arques might just come in handy after all. Thierry could safely transport Ximene to Sicily and his good looks, quite possibly, might be another factor to distract Ximene’s attention away from the Prince.
But now, twelve months later, she suspected that the Prince, her Prince, was travelling east to meet Ximene. Ximene’s escape had not taken place. Something else must be done! Tomorrow, she would leave for the Château Clermont, where she had accepted an invitation from Ximene’s grandmother to attend the Festival of the Moon. Joan planned to make Lady Eleanor see that marrying the Prince might not be in Ximene’s best interests.
But all that was for tomorrow. She heard the clatter of hooves outside the gate. The Prince had arrived! She smoothed her dress and applied some last minute rouge to her nipples. Tonight she intended to show the Prince what he would be missing if he married Ximene.