7 June 1355
‘Put the baskets on the ground and retreat beyond the bushes. Keep a watch for anyone walking along the bank and make sure you stop them. John, you go upstream; Piers, you go downstream.’
As he obeyed Ximene’s instructions, John could not help glancing back to where Ximene was presumably preparing to bathe. She had chosen well; he could see nothing. He heard splashing and shouts of exhilaration as she slipped into the cold water. Then, as John looked back, she moved into full view.
She was at the extreme end of the beach nearest to John. She was entirely naked and the water reached only to her knees. She reached down and lifted water cupped in her hands over her head and let it pour down over her body. When she first did this she was facing John. She bent over and picked up more water, slowly turning as she did so. He saw her from every angle. She repeated this four or five times, before moving back into the screen provided by the bushes.
After five minutes or so, Ximene announced herself to be out of the water. ‘Mind you don’t peek!’
She certainly didn’t rush but when she reappeared, walking towards John and away from Piers, John thought she was a vision, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The new dress hung from her hips exactly as the other had done but it was a much lighter material, perfect for a hot summer’s day. John went to move past Ximene to pick up her bags. She stopped him by putting the flat of her hand on his stomach.
‘Did you see me naked?’ she whispered
John nodded his assent. A glow of satisfaction spread over his face.
‘Often a sense of mystery can be attractive in a woman but I believe that between us the mystery might be a barrier. I did not want it to interfere with our relationship.’
John could hardly believe his ears, but his heart sang. This wonderful creation was talking about him!
‘Hullo,’ Piers called out. ‘Where are you, milady? Are you out of the water?’ He moved along the riverbank, making his way around shrubs and trees. ‘John, where are you?’
John and Ximene chuckled and Ximene held a finger to her lips.
It was only as they approached the ladies’ tent that they were reminded they were part of a military organisation. The Earl greeted them in a brusque mood.
‘Well, I am glad to see that you are guarding Lady Ximene carefully, but one of you should have remained here with Lady Eleanor. I will help you to pay attention to all your responsibilities. Piers, from now on you will take responsibility for guarding Lady Eleanor. John, you will look after Lady Ximene.’ Piers dutifully followed the Earl to Lady Eleanor’s tent from where, side by side, they escorted her up the hill for her meeting with the Prince. John reflected on how expertly the Earl had handled the allocation of duties. He had waited until exactly the right moment and therefore would have raised no suspicions in Piers’ mind that anything unusual might be planned.
John and Ximene spent an hour or so outside Ximene’s tent attending to a whole series of inconsequential requests.
‘John, can you help me open this box?’ or ‘John, can you help me choose which jewellery I should wear this afternoon?’
John found he didn’t mind at all.
The Earl, Lady Eleanor and Piers returned. Lady Eleanor explained that Ximene was required to meet the Prince immediately.
The Ximene who emerged from the tent less than twenty minutes later presented yet another version of her chameleon personality. Having seen the tomboy soldier and the sexy serving maid incarnations, John could not believe the instant transformation to the haughty court personage. She was now encased in a black dress with a tight-fitting bodice, padded shoulders and long sleeves. A long skirt, stiff and full, reached to the ground. A mass of white embroidery enhanced the bodice. A small triangle of bare flesh peeked below her throat but this was counteracted by a stand-up collar, high enough to frame her head. To complete the look she wore a black lace mantilla, attached to a small tiara worn towards the front of her head.
The change of clothing was accompanied by a change in demeanour. She barely acknowledged John as she took the Earl’s arm to be escorted up the hill.
John was left standing outside the Prince’s tent for over half an hour as discussions progressed. He was surprised to be summonsed into the tent. The Prince was his usual charming self.
‘Ximene and I have agreed in principle that I am her preferred suitor.’
Internally John winced, but he manage to avoid any visible reaction.
The Prince continued. ‘Ximene has concerns however that her guardian, the Comte de Foix, has his own undeclared objectives to trade Ximene’s hand in return for political or territorial advantages. She is not happy with this situation and is expecting assistance to escape from his control. She will be in the safe keeping of the organisation known as Les Etoilles, whom the Earl assures me has an excellent reputation.’
He turned to John. ‘However, as an insurance policy, John, I confirm that we wish you to accompany Ximene in this escape. You know about this?’
‘You must stay with her until she has reached her destination and is in charge of her own destiny. At that point she will use you as the means by which we can recommence negotiations for our betrothal. It is entirely appropriate that one of my personal bodyguards should undertake this task.’
John’s mind was in turmoil. This would throw him into close contact with Ximene.He could hardly be accused of any wrongdoing for following the Prince’s direct orders. However, it did not alter the fact that he had just watched a future Queen of England bathe naked in the river and not only that but she had told him she intended him to!
The Prince turned to look at Ximene. ‘I am very supportive of your determination that the negotiation over the terms of contract should without influence from your guardian, but I do believe that to finalise the detail we will have to meet again.’
Ximene appeared amused. ‘Edward, it would be very difficult to marry you if we didn’t meet again.’
‘Quite, quite. It is agreed, then.’
He paused to make a distinction between what he obviously considered to be two separate issues.
‘I understand that Ximene will leave us sometime in the next week. I will ask that we organise a court dinner to be held in Ximene’s honour tomorrow evening. Invitations are now being issued.’
He turned to John. ‘John, I could give you a no more significant role than to be the guardian of my future bride. I rely on you to keep her safe.’ He turned to the Earl. ‘ William, a minute in private please.’
The Prince winced. ‘William, I agreed to all this far too readily last night. It all sounded so easy when I was in London. The Pope wanted to control Ximene. He decided marriage to me was the best way to exert his control. In return, he would help us expand our empire. That gave him the additional benefit of creating a third force to help him control the Franks and the Holy Roman Empire.’
The Earl blinked. ‘You have never before, put it in those terms. It makes it a strategic initiative. But everyone seems to have accepted that Ximene could veto the arrangement.’
‘My father is committed to the marriage. He asked me to come here not so much to meet Ximene but to remove her to Bordeaux if we had any difficulties in the negotiations. It was expected that the difficulty would be with the Comte, not with Ximene herself. My own instinct is to snatch Ximene away right now, and ride hell for leather for Bordeaux.’
‘That is still a possible solution. In many ways, it is the simplest solution.’
‘But one I have never liked much as a statesman. The Comte de Foix is also the Comte de Bearn, and is my liegeman for his lands in Bearn. I am, as part of that agreement, supposed to protect his interests.’
‘You have the chateau at Beaufort. The Comte de Comminges might help? The are others I could call on. I could make the arrangements tomorrow. Ximene could be in Bordeaux by the end of the week. It need not involve you.’
‘Semantics, William, semantics. Of course I would be involved.’
The Prince eyed his friend and smiled.
The Earl returned the smile. It was not often the Prince delayed long enough to think as a statesman. This was what chivalry in action. ‘So.’
‘So now you have worked one of your little miracles. Now she wants to take the initiative and escape from the Comte herself, which compromises nothing. Will she go to Bordeaux?’
‘No. She wishes to escape all political influences whilst she negotiates her position. She intends to go to Sicily, where her family has property.’
‘And you have managed to convince Ximene that John Stanley could travel with her, look after her interests and provide a conduit for further negotiations. Why him?’
‘As you know he is courageous, more than competent as a soldier and has a strong sense of loyalty. Most importantly, he is acceptable both to Ximene and to her grandmother.’
‘And that is because?’ The Prince paused. ‘They hardly know him.’
‘Why do we both love Joan?’
‘She is unique: brave, generous, loving, loyal, inspiring.’
‘The male equivalent, or at least the embryo equivalent. Even I feel it… occasionally.’
‘Could he persuade her to go to Bordeaux instead?’
‘Unlikely, but he might try.’
‘Have another word with him…but how will we explain John Stanley’s role to the outside world?’
‘In the short term, we can’t. He will be implicated in the escape. To preserve the image you want to present we will disown him. Perhaps to preserve the illusion we will declare him to be an outlaw. Eventually because we all know why he did it, he will be reinstated.’
The Prince nodded. ‘Does he know all this?’
‘No, I don’t not think it is something he needs to know.’
‘Thank you, William, I will leave it in your very capable hands.’