In May 1360, Sir John Stanley, Captain of the Royal Guard of Aquitaine and European Tournament Champion, was invited to take part in an exhibition tournament in Venice.
Even when the travelling was taken into account, he was offered a generous fee for his appearance; so generous that he had no difficulty in accepting a condition that he must fight carrying the favour of the principal wife of the guest of honour, the Emir Alâeddin Ali Bey of Karaman.
It was explained to John that the Emir had effective control of the western end of the fabled Silk Road so recently explored by Marco Polo, a Venetian trader. Currently the Emir traded preferentially with Genoa, the great trading rival of the Venicians. The tournament was part of a lavish festival of entertainment by which the Venetians hoped to persuade him to change his trading alliances.
Therefore, on the first day of July as John entered the lists his immediate task was to seek out the Emir’s wife and to accept her favour. As usual the lists were a cauldron of colour and noise. The noise intensified as he raised his lance in salute. Trumpets sounded and flags waved.
His horse, Helios, shied momentarily and for a few seconds John struggled to assert his control. Despite this distraction he found the Emir’s Wife with ease. She was sitting in the main stand at the right hand of the Emir himself.
They were both instantly recognisable from their flowing eastern robes. John had trained Helios to simulate a bow under such conditions but today he declined to so, on the contrary he snorted, whinnied and reared. Clearly Helios was exited. John calmed him down and carefully stretched out his lance towards the lady. Although she was wearing a niqab, she had a number of brightly coloured scarves woven loosely around her shoulders. She detached one of the scarves and draped it over the point of his lance. Just at that instant their eyes met.
John jolted upright in his saddle. This unknown woman, senior wife of a rich eastern potentate, was Ximene Trencavel, the love of his life! He could only see her eyes but he had no doubt who she really was. There was the scar running through her right eyebrow and the top of her nose was slightly out of line, a souvenir of when they had trained together and fought each other to a standstill.
For John the day then passed in a jumble of emotion, Ximene, here and part of the Emir’s harem! He pushed her favour under his breastplate as tradition demanded and prepared to meet his first opponent.. As the day unfolded he fought each opponent without thinking, relying on instincts developed and honed during four years of fighting at the elite level.
Charge after charge, the thunder of hooves, the frightening sound of lances splintering against shields, the bone jarring shock of impact after impact all merged into his peripheral consciousness. His central thoughts were totally concerned with Ximene and how he could get closer to her.
Late in the afternoon, to his delight, the Emir sent a messenger to invite John to be the guest of honour for dinner. John accepted immediately, despite not having any clear idea of how he would take advantage of the visit.
That evening John hired a boatman to take him to the Palace, which was located just off the Grand Canal. He was welcomed into the cool interior of the building by heavily muscled guards. The guards symbolised the fact that even here in the middle of Venice John was about to enter a different world. The voluminous pantaloons, the tight fitting metal belts, and the elaborate head-dresses, the eastern style throwing spears they carried, all proclaimed just how different that world might be.
As John was ushered up two flights of stairs the feeling of isolation from his own world was intensified by the introduction of oriental screens, furniture and carpets into what was otherwise a typical interior. Eventually they passed through another security screen manned by more guards.
He emerged into a rooftop garden and was greeted by an extremely young woman again wearing a niqab. All he could see was her eyes but he judged her to be extremely attractive.
At one side of the garden there was a reception room in the centre of which a large square table had been set for dinner. Again the eastern influence was obvious; ornate plates and cutlery and a table covered by a cloth of gold.
At the far end of the garden was a tiled pool surrounded by luxurious vegetation. John was guided to a room behind the pool. He was told to relax. He was given the option of changing into eastern dress, which had been laid out for him. Always keen for new experiences, he accepted, slipping on the long flowing shirt which reached to the ground but which was split from shoulder to waist, leaving at the front most of his upper body exposed.
Over the top of this he put on a most elaborate red and gold jacket which hung from his shoulders. There were no fastenings on the jacket, which was clearly meant only for decoration. He then pushed his feet into slippers made from the same material as the jacket.
In one of the slippers he found a gold chain. There was a note saying that the chain should be worn round John’s neck at dinner but that it was a personal gift which John was free to keep. Hung from the chain was a gold pentacle. To John the pentacle, was evidence that Ximene must have been involved in the planning of his visit. More importantly it meant that this was indeed Ximene. He had not made a mistake. He felt a buzz of excitement and could hardly wait to be summoned to dinner.
He filled in the time by exploring his room and testing the huge bed for comfort. This was a new experience, it was like floating on a cloud. He suddenly realised that the gift of the pentacle affected his perception of the situation in another way. Until that point he had assumed that he must rescue Ximene from what at best could be a state of semi captivity. The gift of the pentacle however suggested that Ximene was exerting some influence over events. It was even possible she did not want to be rescued. What on earth was she doing here?
Nevertheless he decided he must gain a better knowledge of the geography of the palace so that if necessary he could return later with some assistance. He looked around and discovered that there was a second entrance to the room. Beyond the door there was a series of arched openings along the outer wall of a long corridor. It was a cloister, similar to those found in cathedrals throughout Europe. He walked to the nearest arch. Down below there was the ever present murky canal. He wondered how deep it was. Whatever might happen to jump into the canal would be a last resort.
The same servant who had met him on his entrance to the garden came to find him and told him that his presence was now required.
The Emir was waiting and greeted John warmly. The Emir proved to be a good conversationalist who explained that he was not only concerned with his trading relationships but also with the security of his state. His lands were well situated to take advantage of the trade between Europe and the Orient but were also the target of envious eyes. The conversation moved on to cover John’s experience of war in Europe and his assessment of the best mix and deployment of cavalry, archers and foot-soldiers.
The Emir told John of a new development which was causing him concern. A device with powered by Chinese Powder could fire a projectile over long distances and with greater penetrating power than an arrow. He asked John how he thought such a device would affect military strategy. John replied that until he saw such a device he could not make an assessment.
‘Well, Sir John if you were to visit Caraman perhaps we could arrange a demonstration.’
The pleasant meal was completed and the Emir guided John to a set of couches overlooking the garden. As John settled down, through a side door to the garden emerged a tall figure dressed in a flowing robe. He could see nothing but eyes but they were eyes which scorched his heart. It was the way she walked which removed any doubt. His heart leaped. This was indeed Ximene.
She stood back as if to study him.
“The eastern dress suits you well Sir John” she told him. “Shall we sit? The Emir has arranged some entertainment for you.’
Through the same door she had used minutes before, four young women appeared. Their hair was uncovered and although their faces were veiled, the veils were only a token, wisps of transparent silk suspended from a fine gold chain.
The rest of their bodies were covered by golden cloaks flowing to the floor. They stood stiffly on tip toe, eyes cast downwards. The eerie sound of eastern music echoed through the evening air. It intensified the smell of the incense. As if controlled by a puppet master, the four girls moved in perfect synchronisation. As they moved their cloaks floated around them giving tantalising glimpses of the bodies which lay beneath.
The music stepped up in tempo and instantly the girls dropped their cloaks. The dancers were naked, but their nakedness was eroticised by their costume. The face veil remained but now it could be seen that each dancer wore fine gold chains encircling their bodies. The upper chain passed above their breasts. This chain was supported by secondary chains which passed over both shoulders. A fourth chain passed around and under each girl’s breasts, attached at the back to the upper chain, and a fifth chain passed around their waist. From each of the chains was suspended strand upon strand of tiny gold beads.
Below the lower chain the girls a series of silk veils attached to the waist chain and to anklets. They also wore armlets in the same design as the anklets All four girls carried a further voluminous veil, which they held in both hands and passed across and around their body as they danced.
John watched in delight as the swirling movement changed to a complex sequence of steps and a shaking of shoulders and hips creating vibrations which encompassed their whole bodies, all in perfect time to the music.
Each girl in turn was given the opportunity to display their own interpretation of the dance. It ended in a crescendo with all four girls once more dancing in perfect unison. As the music stopped with a final clash of symbols, the four girls dropped to the ground, heads bowed, breathing deeply from the exertion.
The Emir addressed John in a quiet and considerate tone.‘As an honoured guest, I would like you to choose one of these girls as your companion.’
John was aware Ximene was watching him.
‘Thank you’ he said. ‘But I have been educated to believe that men may express their admiration freely for any woman to whom they are attracted but it is totally at the discretion of that woman whether she accepts his admiration and where their relationship might progress. I therefore feel it is inappropriate to accept your offer.’
He now addressed the four dancers
‘I found your dancing delightful and I judge you to be amongst the most beautiful women I have ever seen. However I must conserve my strength for the tournament tomorrow.’
The Emir smiled broadly.‘Sir John, I must say that these are most unusual attitudes from a man of the world who is also a soldier. Are these the product of a new order of chivalry?’He smiled again and looked directly at Ximene.‘Or did you learn these standards of behaviour from another, less likely source?’
Ximene broke in hurriedly.‘Sir John, I think you should know that you were watched during dinner and Yvette, the dark haired girl, has expressed particular admiration for you. She would be pleased to see if her admiration is reciprocated. I recommend that you choose heras your companion. I believe she has much to offer you that you would appreciate.’
John knew Ximene well enough to recognise this as almost an instruction.
He walked forward and took Yvette’s hand.
“ Did you hear me praise you? Did you hear me say that you are one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen? Are you willing to be my companion?’
She nodded eagerly and accompanied him back to his couch where she sat by his feet her arm firmly encompassing his leg. The Emir rose and lifted Ximene to her feet.“We will leave you now. Yvette knows it is her responsibility to look after you”
The Emir and Ximene then departed. The musicians also left.
Yvette told John to stay seated on the couch and ran to the centre of the garden. Smiling broadly she raised her hands above her head and commenced to dance without musical accompaniment. She slowly removed the wispy veils she wore until all that was left were the light chains from which the garments had been suspended. John was entranced, despite his consuming love for Ximene, this girl was undoubtedly beautiful.
Yvette led John to the pool. She gently removed his clothes. The delicate chains, anklets and armlets now simply emphasised her nakedness. She led him to a low bench at the side of the pool. She spread a thick towel. The last of the late evening light was fading and the courtyard was now quite dark in the shadows round the pool.
‘There is something I must get’ she whispered. When she returned she held a bottle of aromatic oil and she started to massage the oil into his back.
A familiar voice issued a quiet instruction.
‘Time to turn over John’
It was not Yvette, it was Ximene! They had switched places in the dark corner of the garden. As John turned over she stopped massaging him and turned her attention to gently and slowly to rubbing the aromatic oil into her own body. She had donned the remains of Yvettes costume and at a casual glance she was almost indistinguishable from her. However there was no doubt that that this was in fact Ximene. He could not mistake her powerful build, which made her unique amongst women. She glanced around and then whispered in his ear. ‘Yvette was chosen specifically because in size and hair colouring she looks like me. I knew that the guards would be aware of anything that happened here in the garden. Now however, as far as they are concerned, I am Yvette and what we do together is none of their business.’
She leaned over and massaged the front of his body. She stood back and admired him before stretching out her hand.
‘Now perhaps we should visit your room. It would be appropriate if I offered some half hearted resistance.’ John found himself gently dragging her towards his room. Once the door was closed she threw her arms around his neck kissed him passionately on the lips and lifted her feet clear of the floor behind her.
‘I have wanted to do that ever since we parted’
She kissed him again passionately but then pulled away ‘ I should have resisted the temptation. I am sorry John but I have put you in great danger. The penalty for making love to the Emirs wife is death’. She turned as if to leave but John pulled her back and took her into his arms.
He was not destined to enjoy their embrace for long. There was a muffled scream from the garden. Yvette was in some distress. John, without thinking, dashed from the room, naked and unarmed. There were at several guards in the courtyard. Two of them were dragging Yvette from her hiding place. John managed to knock the first two guards to one side but was pinned down by weight of numbers. He heard Ximene shouting.
“Be gentle! Do not hurt him!”
However when he managed to snatch a glance at her she also was firmly held despite her struggles.
The guards dragged John out of the garden and into a room which had been equipped as a prison cell. They chained him to a wall, none too gently. They then left. All he could do, after satisfying himself that he could not break his bonds, was to review his predicament and any opportunities there might be for his escape. John could not understand how they had been discovered. Someone must have betrayed Ximene. Could it have been Yvette? Slowly the light started to fade. Several times he thought he had seen someone watching him through a grating near the ceiling but he could not be sure. Soon all the remaining light had gone from the grating. Eventually he was in total darkness.
He thought he heard a muffled conversation, someone giving orders. Suddenly the door burst open. Several guards entered the room. The light from their flares dazzled John momentarily. They were thrust into wall holders all round the room until the room was fully illuminated. His eyes recovered. More guards entered dragging Ximene behind them. Her hands were chained behind her neck and she was being pulled behind the guards by additional chains around her waist.
The guards chained Ximene to the wall facing John. Once again he had the opportunity to look into her eyes but in vastly different circumstances from hours earlier. Clearly Ximene had been brought here directly from the garden. The delay may have been due to some preliminary questioning. She had been given no chance to don alternative clothing and was as he had last seen her, virtually naked.
The guards paid great attention to pulling the chains which held Ximene to the wall extremely tight so that her arms and legs were spread-eagled. The guards laughed amongst themselves and one reached out and fondled her naked breast. Without hesitation she spat at him. Any thoughts John harboured that Yvette had been responsible for the betrayal were dismissed when she too was dragged into the small room. She was wearing the robes which Ximene had worn earlier in the evening. Most of the guards withdrew. The two who remained closed and barred the door. They obviously felt that they now had total power over their captives. They grabbed hold of Yvette and ripped off her robes.
“Now dance for us like you did for him” they shouted at her.
Her head dropped but she shook it defiantly. They pulled a chair from the corner of the room and forced Yvette to sit. They tied her hands and elbows to the arms of the chair and her ankles to the legs. Immediately they started questioning her.
“Did your mistress go willingly with this man tonight?”
One of the men leaned forward as though he meant to touch her.
Ximene screamed at him
“Don’t you dare touch her, she is innocent, she knows nothing”
All she achieved was to focus attention on herself.The jailer snapped out a question at her.
“This is the man to whom you gave your favour at the tournament. How long have you known this man? How long has he been your lover?”
She replied with total defiance “I have known him for ever, I have loved him for ever but we have never been lovers”
This was obviously a totally unacceptable answer to the jailer. He produced a whip. He slashed it deliberately across Ximene’s breasts. As he pulled the whip away there were lines of blood on her beautiful body. Ximene’s head jerked backwards and she moaned gently. The same guard’s voice cut across the subsequent silence.
“Your punishment will be to watch your lover die before your eyes. He too must suffer so we will work on you first”
He pulled the whiplash back and held it against the whip handle so that the it formed a loop. With great delicacy he then traced out patterns on Ximene’s body. Her legs momentarily gave way and she was left hanging from her arms.
John screamed in anguish, pulling forward against his own constraints.
“Leave her alone, kill me if you must but leave her alone”
The guard sneered over his shoulder.
“It does not matter, we know she is guilty. If she has not loved you physically then she has loved you in her mind. It is enough, now she will suffer. He applied the whip again and this time Ximene screamed.
In his anguish John shouted out his undying love for Ximene. He forced himself to look at Ximene, now chained to the wall in front of him and about to suffer unthinkable torture. Nothing had changed except the desperation of the circumstances. He loved her. But It was hopeless. Was this how it would end?