‘The Prince has a different plan. He believes in sea power. He believes that if the English get command of the sea and invest in trade they will thrive, that through sea power and trade they will rule the world.’
Ximene Trencavel-10th June 1355
Ximene moved towards the door. She wanted to go downstairs to confirm that the substitution had been successful. Also, she desperately wanted to compare notes with Pipa. ‘Good night, Gaston.’
‘No, not yet. Sit down.’
Ximene frowned. His voice was harsh. What had irritated him?
‘Would you like another drink? We must talk.’
‘Thank you, but I have had enough. What must we discuss?’
‘I didn’t think the evening went well,’ he said petulantly. ‘I introduced several clauses which they should have rejected, but they didn’t. Clearly, they had a different agenda. I am not even sure that the Prince is the best choice anymore. Louis of Anjou might be better.’
Ximene almost shrieked in exasperation. ‘What?’
The Comte continued. ‘I was slightly surprised when the Prince came to meet you, but he did. I never expected him to come here to the Château, but he did. What does that tell you?’
‘That he is a decent man, that he has shown an interest in my needs?’
‘No, no, Ximene. It means he is in a position of weakness. We have something he wants.’
‘My hand in marriage? My body? That is what you have offered him, isn’t it?’
‘Well, yes, but for him, it is just a means to an end.’
‘But you would get what you want? A three-way split. You as Duke of Gascogne, the Prince as Duke of Aquitaine and me as Duchess of Occitan. All part of a Plantagenet empire!’
‘Ximene, that is not what he wants.’
‘It is what he…we were talking about.’
‘No, no Ximene, you were not listening. The Prince has a different plan. He believes in sea power. He believes that if the English get command of the sea and invest in trade they will thrive, that through sea power and trade they will rule the world.’ Gaston paused. ‘He spelt it out for us. He talked of taking command of the whole Atlantic coastline. Brittany, Aquitaine, Navarre, the Basque ports, Portugal, Cadiz and Seville.’
‘Gaston, that was just talk to impress us!’
‘No, it is his central strategy. Everything is subordinate to that. I am irrelevant to that plan. He does not care what the Pope wants. He does not care what I want.’
‘But as far as I could see he still wants to marry me?’
‘Perhaps. There is something missing in his grand plan. He needs access to the rich eastern trade, he needs access to the Mediterranean. It just takes too long to sail around southern Spain and there is always the issue of Moorish pirates. He has started to apply his plan. He has concentrated on getting control of the Garonne. He is building a lighthouse at its mouth. He is investigating Arcachon as an alternative port to Bordeaux. He has started negotiations with Toulouse.’
‘And the something which is missing?’ asked Ximene, though she knew the answer.
‘Toulouse, Carcassone and Beziers; your inheritance. The trade route from the Mediterranean to Toulouse. You are important to his plan. He may marry you or he may not. I now believe he may support you as Duchess of Occitan without marrying you. Our plans to switch you with Alyse have no meaning. Once he gets you to Bordeaux or indeed anywhere beyond my control he, or you, could explore different ways of completing his plan. I am irrelevant to this plan, landlocked in my mountain kingdom. If he marries you or if he makes you Duchess of Occitan within his empire, I will get nothing.’
Ximene raised an eyebrow. Kingdom? ‘So what will you do?’
‘I don’t mind his grand plan, but I must get what I want. If the Prince wants command of the sea, I will let him have it, but I have changed my objective. I now want command of the land, all the way from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and I don’t much care who I get it from. I might do better with Louis.’
Ximene felt a pang of panic. ‘So what will happen to me?’
Gaston smiled. He walked past the partitions to the other end of the great hall, up the steps and swung open the door.
‘It fills the entire space of the tower and can be accessed without using the spiral staircases. Used to be a storeroom, but Agnes has started to recreate it as a bedroom. However, the project is still unfinished and now, Agnes has decided to return to Bearn…’
Ximene started. Another new piece of information.
The room was empty. It was circular and was painted pure white. There were, however, six stone columns which extended above the walls to merge in the centre of the roof like the spokes of a wheel.
Both sides of the columns were picked out in gold paint, taking the form of an elaborate floral pattern.
‘You will stay here in the Château, safe. You can move up here to be close to me. You can choose the furniture, fittings and linen.’ He hesitated. ‘You realise I cannot allow you to marry the Prince or travel to Bordeaux until my needs have been met?’
Ximene advanced to the centre of the room and spun around. The gold paint glittered in the light of the flares. ‘And how long do you expect me to remain here?’
‘Who knows? You are an attractive woman. Sooner or later, someone will pay the price.’
Ximene felt breathless as her panic turned to anger.
The Comte appeared oblivious. ‘Another option is for you to accept my suit and live happily ever after as the Countess of Foix.’
‘And you think locking me up in a tower is an acceptable way of making your suit? Goodnight, Gaston.’
‘Ximene, I am your guardian and you will obey me. If you hesitate, I will have you whipped.’ A smile spread across his face. ‘In public, this time.’
Ximene had a dreadful premonition of what her future might hold.
Not for the first time, she nearly fell in her haste to descend the spiral staircase.
Ximene burst into the room. ‘I cannot bear this any longer. We are leaving and as soon as possible.’
‘What are you talking about, dear?’ asked Lady Eleanor.
She shook as she described the scene with Gaston. ‘I could be trapped here until I am an old woman! He will never release me. He wants me for himself.’
Ximene turned to look pleadingly at John.
‘Tell your Prince I will comply with whatever plans he has in mind. But you must…must get me out of here!’