10 June 1355
Lady Eleanor served drinks on the terrace.
As she sipped her wine, Ximene glowed with pleasure. The experience had justified her deception in swapping places with Alyse and the risks involved in making that deception.
Even her Grandmother had no idea. All possible, she mused, because as a rule people saw what they expected to see.
Now as a result of the deception, she had gained much knowledge about John. He had been more relaxed when he had thought he was with Alyse, and she liked him that way.
But what did it mean? Perhaps he was tense when he was with her because he really did care for her and was always trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, it might be that he was in awe of her social status.
Another possibility was that he was most comfortable in a situation where there were rules. One thing she did know—he was a fast learner. She desperately wanted to compare notes with Pipa. She was however aware that the time was approaching when she had to make the final swap with Alyse.
It was almost equally important for her to be there at the end of the dinner so that she was a party to any final agreements. Because of the sequencing of events, it was necessary for Alyse to trigger the final exchange of roles.
It had been agreed that Alyse would leave immediately after the final course, but when would that be? They would both be betrayed if the changeover took too long.
Lady Eleanor was playing mother hen. ‘We will go back to my apartments for dinner. Dry yourselves off and wear the gowns. Though I’ve lit a fire, it can be draughty, even at this time of year.’
In her dining room, Lady Eleanor directed John and Piers to a seat and offered more wine.
Ximene and Pipa pulled on dresses which had been warming in front of the fire.
The tailors arrived with the new outfits for John and Piers which they examined with great curiosity.
Lady Eleanor beckoned Ximene away from the others. At first, Ximene did not recognise the gesture, but then, with a jerk of surprise, reacted just in time.
She ran across the room. Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘Alyse, can you run up to the kitchen? Tell them fifteen minutes. Oh! while you are up there, will you get some fresh bread. I always like to break fresh bread with a glass of wine.’ Ximene did her best to make a little curtsey, as she had seen Alyse do a thousand times
As she ran up the stairs, she realised that even small details could give a deception away. She had never before had to make a servant’s curtesy, and she had failed to practice it.
When she entered the kitchen, Henri was sat by the large table eating his dinner. This was no surprise. Even in the old kitchen it was one of the perks the senior guards enjoyed. She expected him to jump to his feet, but he didn’t. Instead he waved a goblet in the air and shouted, ‘Hello, darling, are you finished downstairs?’
‘No, unfortunately Milady still has to have dinner. I have come to check on progress and take her some bread.’
‘Come over here and give me a kiss.’
Ximene’s head whirled. Suddenly she had entered a world she knew nothing about.
‘I would love to, but Milady is waiting.’
‘Just a quick peck.’
Ximene cautiously approached Henri, glancing towards the staff at the business end of the kitchen. He reached out a hand and pulled her inwards and downwards, planting a passionate kiss on her lips. She struggled to free herself but he caressed her and kissed her again. She had no idea what to do.
Suddenly Henri stiffened, released her, gazed into her face and jumped to his feet. ‘Milady Ximene, I had no idea.’ He blushed. ‘Please forgive me.’
Ximene retreated five or six steps.
‘Forgive me, Milady, I know it is you, you smell differently.’
‘Smell differently?’ Ximene cocked her head.
‘Alyse smells sweet and you … smell… spicy.’
‘Really… please, Milady, do not get me into trouble. I did it properly. I made my suite. Alyse gave me her favour and came to my house in the town. It was all very correct. Now that we have a relationship, it is difficult to ignore it in a different situation.’
‘I have no doubt you did it properly, Henri, and I have no intention of getting you into trouble, but it is so important that you do not reveal that I have changed places with Alyse tonight.’
‘Milady I would never betray your trust. I adore you. I will always be available to your command.’
‘Thank you, Henri. I must leave, My Lady Eleanor is waiting and I have yet to arrange the bread and meal.’
Henri bowed. ‘Of course.’
She hurriedly grabbed the bread, once again noticing that the staff in the kitchen made no deference to her presence. She breathed a sigh of relief. They had not overheard her conversation with Henri. They thought she was Alyse. As she passed on the request to serve dinner, she remembered to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ They gave her a basket containing warm bread, a cutting board, a knife and a slab of butter pressed into a pottery mould.
The chef smiled. ‘Tell Lady Eleanor that the Comte’s meal is finished. We served the last course a quarter of an hour ago.’
Ximene pricked up her ears. What a fortunate coincidence.
She lingered by the stairwell and, sure enough, Alyse emerged from the hall almost immediately.
Together they ran down the stairs and then separated, each running to their own bedroom.
On the bed waiting for Ximene was the exact copy of the dress Alyse had been wearing. She pulled off Alyse’s own clothes.
‘First things first,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Makeup, then hair then the dress.’ She performed each task quickly yet methodically, then stood looking at her bedroom door.
Alyse burst into the room. She had already changed. Dressing down was far easier than dressing up. She helped Ximene lace up the dress and checked her hair before arranging the mantilla.
‘I am glad we had a copy of your dress, from the portrait sittings,’ said Alyse. ‘It would have taken ages otherwise.’ She surveyed her handiwork and nodded. ‘Good. I just asked to be excused. The time is about right. They will suspect nothing. Off you go.’
Ximene pointed at the bread and butter. ‘Don’t forget that. Lady Eleanor is waiting for it. Anything I need to know?’
‘I don’t think so. They spent their time being nice to me. There was nothing which surprised or even interested me.’
Despite the dress almost filling the available space, Ximene ran up the circular staircase. At the top, she took a deep breath and entered the hall.
The Prince, the Comte, and the Earl seemed at first glance to be very relaxed. They sipped deeply from their glasses. A distinctive bottle of Armagnac stood in prime position on the table. Ximene knew the Comte reserved this particular Armagnac for very special occasions.
They all rose from their seats at Ximene’s entry. Ximene panicked. She had no idea where Alyse had been sitting. She realised the answer must lie in the place settings. Of course! At the right hand of the Comte and across the table from the Prince and the Earl. This was not just dinner, it was a conference. More panic. Where were they up to?
She sat down and they all resumed their own seats.
‘So, Ximene, what do you think of that suggestion?’
‘It sounded good but perhaps we could go over it again, point by point. I would like to be confident that it is acceptable both to you, Gaston, and to the Prince.’
It was the Comte who answered. ‘I thought that was clear, but perhaps you’re correct. Let us go over it again … point by point.’
Ximene breathed a sigh of relief.
When Alyse opened the door to Lady Eleanor’s lounge, she was delighted to find she attracted no comment. Thank you Alyse.’ said Lady Eleanor, ripping off a chunk of bread. ‘Get yourself a drink, did they say how long our meal would be?’
Alyse sighed with relief. ‘I think they are bringing it now.’ she said “Sorry John,I interrupted you’
Pipa was busy helping Piers get into his new outfit. Pipa was chattering, laughing, pulling and smoothing in turn, advising how the clothes were meant to be worn. The tailors stood in a huddle occasionally making a comment, but totally upstaged by Pipa.
John complained that both shirt and jacket stopped above his hose, leaving him feeling exposed. ‘I feel like a troubadour!’
Despite the distractions, John was in the middle of a story about his nights guarding the sheep back at home and what it was like to witness the wolves attacking.
Alyse was immediately interested. ’How did they find you?’
John peered up at her.
‘Didn’t the fire keep them at bay?’ she shook her head, ‘How did you find the lairs.’
“I thought I told you that before you left. Never mind.’
In the end John was forced to tell the story again from the beginning.
Piers told stories about his schooling, and inevitably about Greek and Egyptian legends.
The meal arrived carried by kitchen hands and supervised by the kitchen staff.
During the meal, John and Piers, together, told the story of the shipwreck at Arcachon. They talked over each other, as they told the story from two different points of view, on two different ships.
Pipa came round the table and squeezed herself on to John’s lap.
Lady Eleanor raised an eyebrow. Pipa was giving her favour for a third time. She addressed John ‘Ximene will return soon, but you know her life will always be full of things she must do to fulfil her duty. I did not tell you it would be easy. With that knowledge can, you still keep you promise to me to look after Ximene and care for her for the rest of your life.’
With an arm around Pipa, John responded easily and honestly, ‘Yes, Milady, I will certainly do that.’
John glanced down at Pipa, who seemed quite unconcerned that John was vowing a continuing relationship with Ximene. She smiled. ‘Tell me about tonight. Was it enjoyable? Sexual relations are supposed to be fun, you know.’
John smiled and squeezed her hand.
The conversation reverted to Clermont and how Pipa had met John and the details of the archery tournament from both John and Pipa’s point of view.
Then at Eleanor’s request, John retold the whole story of the events at Moissac, starting with the severed hand and the brutality of du Guesclin.
An hour or more had slipped by when the reminiscences were interrupted.
Ximene burst into the room, greatly distressed. She placed her hands on her hips and shuddered with indignation.. There was no reserve, no concern for appearances. She bubbled with agitation and anger, initially without saying anything specific. Lady Eleanor went to her and stroked her arms, attempting to quieten her, to no avail.
Minutes passed before she was coherent. ‘I cannot bear this any longer. We are leaving and as soon as possible.’
‘What are you talking about, dear?’ Lady Eleanor asked.
‘When the Prince and the Earl left, Gaston told me that the Prince has not yet made a suitable offer for my hand and that he plans to continue playing one suitor against another until he gets what he wants. As far as I can see, his ambition is to rule an independent kingdom stretching from Aude river to the Atlantic and as far north as the Loire.
She wrung her hands ‘I protested that no suitor was in a position to deliver this dream of his. He replied that it was all a question of negotiation and that my charms would eventually deliver a satisfactory result. I completely lost my temper.’
She pushed herself away from her grandmother ‘I could be trapped here until I am an old woman! When I protested, he told me that he is preparing one of those dreadful rooms at the top of the towers for me, so he can keep me safe. I gained the impression he is going to abandon your apartments altogether and withdraw to the upper castle. She strode the length of the room. ‘After I lost my temper he also threatened me, that if I do not learn to behave, he will have me stripped naked and publicly flogged.’
At this comment, John stood, almost tossing Pipa from his lap.
‘It is no idle threat.’ Ximene looked up at the group, her eyes flicking from one to another, finally resting on Lady Eleanor, who had made her way back to the table to subdue John. ‘As you know, he has flogged me before!’
Lady Eleanor shushed John and managed to reseat him.
Ximene shook her head in despair, covering her face with her hands. ‘He will never release me. He wants me for himself.’
Lady Eleanor and Pipa flew into Ximene’s arms. Eleanor then moved towards the door.
Ximene rushed to grab Lady Eleanor’s arm. ‘No, Grandmother. It will do no good.’
Ximene turned to look pleadingly into John’s eyes.
‘John! You are the contact for the Prince. Tell him that I am desparate. Tell him that I will comply with whatever plans he has in mind. But you must get me out of here!’