102 The New World

John Stanley – 8th December 1355

John Stanley awoke to the sound of female laughter. He made no real attempt to emerge from a deep and satisfying sleep but he was nonetheless aware of his surroundings.

The curtains had been drawn and a large fire was blazing in the elaborate stone hearth. Ximene was sitting alongside him in the bed, her back bolstered by silk pillows and with the duck down cover pulled up to her chin. She was wide awake, with the happiest of smiles on her face.

The sound of conversation and the accompanying laughter came from a breakfast buffet which had been set up under the window. The light streaming through the window was extremely bright to eyes not quite opened but he knew from the silhouettes that three women currently reviewing what they should eat: were Pipa de Roet, Joan of Kent and Lady Eleanor Pedilla. A fourth woman, he guessed, was Agnes de Foix, wife of Gaston, Comte de Foix and who had performed the role of Cleopatra in the previous evening’s performance.

The voice which had caused him to wake was, in fact, Ximene’s

‘So you think I must go to England?’

The laughter was caused by Joan’s reply.

‘Do you think you can tear yourself away.’

Joan hesitated and changed her voice to a conciliatory, sympathetic tone. She approached the bed.

‘So Ximene, the first part of your life, is complete. You are no longer the Prisoner of Foix. The Prince has recognised the state of Occitan you as head of that state. The discovery of your family treasure will undoubtedly make you the richest womon in Europe. To judge from what I see before me, last night you resurrected your relationship with the only man you have ever loved.

She hesitated. ‘Are you satisfied with what you have achieved?’

Ximene chortled. ‘Absolutely not. Where I am now is only the starting point. My objective…’ She wrinkled her lip. ‘Has always been to free the supporters of the Cathar Religion, the peoples of Occitan from persecution.’ Her voice hardened. ‘Now I am free from constraints I must now work out how to achieve that objective. Everything else…everything; is secondary to that

John lay with his face still buried in his pillow eyeing Ximene with incredulity.

She turned her head and smiled.

‘Relax, John, just enjoy yourself. Did you have a wonderful night?’

John nodded acquiescence and struggled to sit up. He managed to brush a kiss on Ximene’s cheek. She responded by rolling on top of him and kissed him full on the lips.

Joan observed the movement and came to sit on the foot of the bed. ‘Ahh!’ She said. ‘You look so comfortable together. I would join you, except there is no room.’

John blinked, it had to be deliberate, She was wearing the totally transparent nightdress he had seen previously, tied beneath her breasts but leaving them exposed. The same tiny gold belt was around her waist, the Hebrew knife mounted on it. The same diamond hung beneath her breasts.

Joan took the diamond in her fingertips and lifted it, her eyes sparkling as she did so.

‘The knife is yours Ximene, and the diamond is, I believe, John’s.’ They are both incredibly valuable. She stood up and twirled gently on the spot. I have used my body as a pedestal to display them to the Prince and convince him of their worth, but before I did that I did show myself to John, who was acting as your ambassador, to seek his approval.

Ximene laughed. ‘And did he approve?’

‘I believe he did.’

‘I can’t say I am surprised.’ Ximene held her hand out to Joan, who responded by walking round the bed and kissing Ximene. As she did so her head came very close to John’s. John was able to see that this was not a polite court kiss. It could only be described as passionate… and John thought he saw Joan’s tongue as it penetrated Ximene’s lips.

She spoke in a false whisper, which could be heard by everyone in the room. ‘You will have to get used to this John, she is a very popular girl.’

More laughter. It was at that point that John finally accepted that Ximene probably had a relationship with Joan, which went back further than his own!

John blinked.  He was happy that it was Ximene he really loved. To continue the relationship he must now accept whatever complications it brought.

He smiled. It was a genuine smile. He felt comfortable and confident that he could cope. He reached out and caressed Joan’s shoulder.‘Tell Ximene about your plan to turn me into the worlds greatest lover.’

Joan shrugged away from his caress.’Careful John, remember my vow of chastity. Unfortunately, I am easily seduced.’

She then returned his smile.

‘She already knows about my plans to develop your skills as a lover, I have discussed it with her at length!’

Ximene giggled ‘And you ought to know John, that you are getting better but you have a long way to go.’

Joan lifted her eyebrows and gently pinched Ximene’s cheek. “Well that is up to you now, my darling, practice makes perfect’

They all laughed again.

Lady Eleanor now walked over, she also was smiling but there was a determined edge to her voice. “Come on now out of bed, all of you, get some breakfast, we have much to discuss!’

It was not the breakfast that John was used to. Three different kinds of bread all freshly baked, sliced and toasted to dip into saucers of the best claret mixed with the oil of olives. Smoked herrings, which John knew must have been imported from England, and poached salmon from the local rivers which ran to the Atlantic.

John found it difficult to believe how easily all the women, Lady Eleanor particularly, dealt with the current situation.  He had been in bed with her granddaughter. Joan was dressed as the grand amourese, a role she now professed to have abandoned but still seemed to enjoy and yet Lady Eleanor seemed to be enjoying every moment.

In fact, Lady Eleanor was jubilant. ‘The Roman Church frowns on breakfast which it considers gluttony, but in my experience, those who eat a hearty breakfast live better and more importantly, think better. Ximene when you were young you occasionally wanted to miss breakfast, but when you did I always found you were difficult to teach, inattentive, downright slow.’

Ximene’s reply was teasing rather than accusative. ‘Thank you grandmaman, exactly what I needed to know right now.’

Joan broke in hurriedly.
‘ Just one thing. Ximene has enemies. For a head of state that is by no means unusual but Ximene has none of the normal apparatus of a state to protect her. At least in the short term she must vanish. We must get this right, all of you! We have indulged in a very necessary deception to protect Ximine from her enemies. As you know Ximene’s cousin, Alyse, who is virtually Ximene’s twin was substituted for Ximene. We must preserve the illusion that Ximene is somewhere in exile, to the south of us, we must all concentrate on referring to this most beautiful lady, we love so much, as Selene, even when talking to each other. She is the Comptess de Langon.

Joan made eye contact with everyone in the room. John found himself nodding agreement.

Lady Eleanor did not disagree. ‘ I think we should emphasise that Ximene has fled to Castille. That is after all where my own family originates. My niece Maria Junana is the mistress of King Pedro. It would be a natural thing for Ximene to seek out her family and to find secure refuge with her cousin.

Pedro pursues the Moorish customs and has established a new palace in Seville inside which what is effectively a harem. Inside that harem Ximene would be untouchable.

‘I agree’ said Joan. ‘But now to the business in hand’

John’s eyes narrowed. No flirting, no fluttering of eyelids!

Joan is the leader of this group!

‘As the future Queen of England I would like to assure you that nothing we are going to do is against the interests of the Prince, who will one day be my husband, I… We are just helping him make some difficult decisions.’

Ximene protested ‘I thought one decision was far more important than any of the others.’

‘Well, yes, but it gets mixed in with other things, anyway let us start with that one decision, You are not going to marry the Prince!’

‘Agreed’ said Ximene, ‘But that is my decision not his.’

‘True. But it is only effective because he has accepted your refusal. He is now determined to marry me! You, lovely lady have other objectives which you have just outlined which we will all help you to fulfil once you have determined precisely how to proceed.’

Without going beyond the boundaries of this room you have the royal houses of England, France, Castile, Navarre and Holland available to exert influence on your behalf. and I promise you we will exert influence

The most dangerous woman in the world

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