11 June 1355
John and Piers had changed back into the clothes provided by Lady Eleanor. They were in the courtyard receiving lessons from Alyse and Pipa on the dances of Occitan. Juan leant against a wall playing an accompaniment on a flute. The Earl grimaced. He did not want his guards to be turned into foppish courtiers, whose major occupation was to entertain the ladies of the court. None too gently, he grabbed John by the arm and pulled him towards a small ante room.
‘Excuse the intrusion, my ladies, but this is urgent.’
The ante room was small, higher that it was wide, and there was only one chair.
The two men stood face to face with a very short distance between them.
‘John, I fully accept that it is I who has put you in the position of protecting Ximene, but I do now need to know where your loyalties lie. Do they sit with the Prince or with Ximene Trencavel?’
Having been so abruptly pulled from his dance lesson, and forced into this confrontational situation, John felt great relief. It was not the most difficult question the Earl could have asked.
He had no difficulty replying instantly and honestly. ‘My loyalty lies entirely with the Prince, to whom I have only recently sworn homage. I will protect his intended bride with my life, and if the marriage between them comes about, I will serve her in the same way I serve the Prince.’
The Earl made grimaced theatrically. ‘A wonderfully correct reply,’ he said. ‘I have obviously taught you well, but what does it mean?’
John realised, painfully, that the Earl did not trust his motives. The Earl was questioning his behaviour in the very area in which there seemed to be no rules.
After a moment’s thought, John offered what he hoped would be an acceptable answer.
‘It means I will follow your original request. I will help Ximene escape the clutches of Gaston de Foix. It means that if she accepts the Prince’s hand in marriage I will be pleased to enter the service of the most prestigious couple in Christendom. If Ximene rejects his offer of marriage, I will return to being a member of the Lions of Aquitaine and will be honoured to do so!’
‘And what will you advise Ximene to do, John?’
John smiled. ‘What advice could I possibly give?’
‘John, I have just spent half an hour negotiating with a sixteen year old, and I can assure you, there are middle-aged statesmen who are less astute. The reason we sanctioned your involvement with Ximene was to secure her release from Gaston de Foix and facilitate her betrothal and marriage to the Prince. Those must still be your only objectives. Do I have your word?’
Chivalry and honour. The oaths of fealty. John felt the codes he had so prized splinter his very core.
For a split second, it seemed to be enough.
The Earl’s voice hardened. ‘Just remember what I told you when you entered my service. Break my trust and I will have you hunted down and killed. Wherever you may try to hide.’
John remembered his lack of concern the first time the Earl had made that statement. He gazed back at the Earl with what he hoped portrayed honesty but determination. He had no need to say anything.
The Earl stood back, as far as was possible in the ante room, looking John’s costume up and down. ‘Incidentally, do you play guitar or flute?’ He laughed delightedly at his jibe, straightened his face and began to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Château Foix.
Having expressed his delight at such an unusual experience and comfortably settled in one of the baths, the Earl decided to pursue the option of making it possible for Ximene to escape to the Mediterranean coast.
‘Eleanor, we have decided to help Ximene but I need to ask you, where is Guillam? Don Fernandino has been wounded; we do not know how badly. Ximene will not come with us to Bordeaux. None of us has any knowledge of the Cathar routes through the mountains or the location of Cathar safe houses. We need Guillam to guide Ximene and John to safety.’
Lady Eleanor stared into the darkness above.
‘He met Thierry d’Arques at Beaufort and took a distrust of him. He is trailing Thierry. It may lead him to Don Fernandino or it may lead him to something else, but I have no idea where he is and have no way of contacting him. From here, at full gallop and with a change of horses, it is possible to reach Port Vendres in a day, but Thierry was not exactly galloping when he left us.’
‘How interesting. I also watched Thierry leave and saw no one following him.’
‘And I thought the whole point of surveillance was for no one to be aware of it happening!’
The Earl nodded and smiled. ‘Well, I need Guillam or someone like him. I have already told Ximene that we will plan her escape. My preference is during the dinner that Gaston is organising for the nineteenth of June, nine days from now. At this moment the only option is for Ximene to return with us to Bordeaux. She has a vague idea of John Stanley guiding her through the mountains and finding a Cathar safe house. It is just a dream. John is a fine young man but he is not a miracle worker and he does not know the Cathar trails.’
‘Perhaps, but we all have dreams, William. Don’t we?’
Meanwhile, Ximene made plans of her own.
‘It worked a treat,’ she said to Alyse. ‘None of them knew we had changed places. Not John, not Piers, not the Prince, not Gaston, and even more impressively, not my grandmother.’ She frowned. ‘At least, I think not. The only one who knew the difference was Henri; Alyse, you really should have told me about that.’
‘There did not seem to be any point at the time. He is a lovely man and he seemed lonely. I couldn’t resist.’
‘I did not tell you about the temple or my intention to escape; you did not tell me about Henri… are we even, can we learn to trust each other again?’
‘I would have thought last night proved the fact.’
‘Yes, you are right.’ Ximene frowned. ‘Hmm, it just shows how the little things could give us away. We now know we smell different from each other.’
Alyse laughed. ‘What astonishes me is that before we made up this little game we must have been alike and no one really noticed it. It must have meant that when we dressed totally differently it obscured the likeness. We must still use that when we want to be seen as different people.’
Ximene also chuckled. ‘It has taught me that switching in the middle of the evening was not a good idea. I was trapped with Lady Eleanor and with the change of clothes and a need to redo my hair. If she had not requested the bread I would not have made it in time for the switch.’
‘It was the hairstyle that nearly caught me out. When I returned to Lady Eleanor I forgot about it! Piers commented on how quickly my hair had dried. Never mind! We got away with it.’
They hugged each other and laughed.
Ximene eventually pulled away. ‘We now know it works, so I must put another proposal to you. It is only a slight modification on what we planned originally, but if I escape to Sicily will you pretend to be me in Bordeaux to throw any potential enemies off the scent?’
She laughed out loud. ‘Hmm, in view of the fact that we smell different to each other, that is not a perfect choice of words.’
‘We must start to wear the same perfume.’ It took only a moment’s thought. ‘Yes, I will do it.’
‘I thought you would. You will meet some powerful men.’
‘And Piers will be going back to Bordeaux…’
‘Oh! You are taken with him?’ Ximene couldn’t hide her surprise.
‘Well, yes, I am. I did not spend much time with him, but I do like him. I suppose I am flattered that he seemed so attracted to me.’
Ximene could see another thought cross her mind.
Alyse’s voice trembled as she declared to the thought. ‘Oh, of course, how stupid of me. He did not know it was you in the chamber; he thought it was me. Once again, another man, but it is you to whom he is attracted. What on earth did you do to him?’
‘Nothing very spectacular, I can assure you. Don’t be silly, Alyse. He is as clumsy as John when it comes to pleasuring a woman. There is still a lot of work to do on both of them.’
‘You must have done something. I think is very keen.’
‘Oh! If you insist, in the spirit of our agreement, I will recount every detail, but I repeat it was nothing very spectacular.’
‘Just tell me what he liked.’
‘Has he indicated that he is prepared to make his suite? Does he understand that the relationship will be on your terms?’
‘No, no, it is far too early. I think he would, but he probably doesn’t know how to go about it.’
‘I will get John to talk to him. John does at least seem to understand the principles. Anyway, that will sort itself out one way or another …’
‘Ximene, you are so unfeeling. It really matters to me.’ Alyse shook her head.
An edge entered Ximene’s voice. ‘I will make sure it is sorted out, but the important thing is that you will do it. You will pretend to be me in Bordeaux.’
‘Yes, I will, but what about the Prince. Will he know?
‘Yes, of course, he will know. He does not know yet, but he will know. It is the Prince who is arranging my escape to Sicily. In Bordeaux, he will keep up the pretence at least until his negotiations with me have come to a conclusion. In the meantime, you will be living a life as the future Queen of England. Who knows? You might meet King Edward.’
Alyse’s eyes shone with delight.
A day later, the Earl sought out Ximene to finalise the issue of her destination. Failing to find her, he left a message with Lady Eleanor asking Ximene to come to see him in the library. It took longer than he expected and when Ximene finally arrived he was running out of patience. He was aware of his brusque voice, yet he found he couldn’t control it. ‘I’ve explored all options but alas, you must go to Bordeaux. We cannot protect you in Port Vendres. It will not take long for those who might wish harm you to realise you are not within the Prince’s party and go looking for you elsewhere.’
Ximene smiled. ‘I believe I have the answer to that particular problem.’
She walked to the door, opened it and there, outside was a mirror image of herself, dressed identically, wearing the same head covering and the same make-up.
‘May I introduce my cousin, Dona Alyse Perez de Henestrosa? She will take my place on the trip to Bordeaux and will make frequent public appearances in Bordeaux society. No one will be able to tell the difference.’
Alyse gave a little curtsey and the Earl scrambled to his feet and bowed. ‘Dona Alyse, astonishing, but we will never get away with it. Even now I can see differences between you and the lady Ximene.’
‘Are you sure?’ Ximene asked.
‘Absolutely sure,’ the Earl replied.
Alyse’s eyes sparkled. She entered the room and walked towards the Earl.
‘Well, we will succeed, because you see, that is Alyse and I am Ximene!’
Both girls laughed out loud and continued laughing as their amusement was fuelled by the Earl’s confusion. They circled each other and around the Earl twice, a spinning as they did so.
‘Tell me, William, which of us is Ximene?’
‘Ah! That would be you,’ he said to the girl who had asked him the question. ‘Alyse does not know my first name.’
‘Wrong again, you see, we know absolutely everything about each other, and I mean everything!’
The girls relapsed into helpless laughter and the Earl reluctantly accepted that the substitution could succeed.
The Earl devoted the rest of the week to implementing the plan.
Piers spent days positioning horses in stables close to the Château without raising suspicion. The Earl left to see Gaston de Foix. He passed on a request from the Prince that his personal guards, the Lions of Aquitaine, should be present during the feast. The request was granted.
The Earl left to mobilise resources from the camp.
While all this was happening, John’s first role was to simply, yet surreptitiously, place a marker on the outside of the wall of the lower courtyard adjacent to the river.
Lady Eleanor made a big fuss about preparations for a fete, scheduled to start at midnight on the same evening as the feast. She declared that as it was now so warm in the evenings, she would hold the fete outside in the courtyard. However, work was needed to provide satisfactory lighting.
Ximene came to find John just after the positioning of the marker.
She positioned herself more than a foot away from John and whispered. ‘I know you are busy and that the Earl watches your every move, but we must spend some time together.’
She smiled in encouragement. ‘I hope the other night gave you an insight into the way we live.’ She permitted herself a wan smile. ‘At least I made sure that you were not bored in my absence.’
‘Bored I was not. And I did enjoy the experience. But why did you do it that way? Could you not have been my partner?’
‘No, it was impossible. It is not permitted under the rules of the Transition.’
‘But it was not a real Transition,’ argued John.
‘Well, in a way, it was the best we could do in the time available. So did you not enjoy your time with Pipa … and Alyse?’
‘Yes, I did. But it does leave me with problems.’
‘Well, first of all, I now have affection for Pipa.’
Ximene looked surprised. ‘Why is that a problem?’ she asked. ‘Pipa is my best friend. You court me but I have other suitors. Why should you not have affection for others? It need not affect our relationship.’ Then, urgently, ‘and Alyse?’
‘Look, this is all extremely difficult, but I feel I must tell you the truth. Alyse is an extraordinary woman. She did things to me, extraordinary things that I will never forget. But I hardly know her, so it is difficult to think of her in anything but the context of that experience. Also, she seems to prefer Piers.’
‘So you feel she has rejected you?’
‘Yes, I do, and yet, it is unimportant, as I am devoted to you.’
Ximene waited and John noticed she was waiting. He really did not want to discuss his jumbled emotions any further. ‘Sorry.’ He shrugged. ‘I have nothing else to add.’
‘Well, that will have to do … for now.’
‘No. No, I do have another problem which we must discuss, the experience has made me realise just how much I still have to learn.’
Ximene reached out and cautiously took his hand, looking all around as she did so.
‘Later in the year, perhaps during the negotiations you must visit Pipa and Alyse in Bordeaux. I know that either of them…’ she arched an eyebrow, ‘or perhaps both of them, would be keen to continue your education.’
‘My education?’ John took a step back. ‘What about my feelings? All I want is to spend more time with you.’
‘Just now it would not be wise to spend too much time together. The Earl hinted at suspicions about our relationship. He is watching us. We must be the only ones who know about it and consequentially, we will have fewer difficulties. There will be other opportunities … eventually.’
John’s heart sank. He was well aware that the Earl had suspicions. What a mess this was turning out to be. He could be executed as a traitor and for what? A relationship in which he could be rejected at a moment’s notice, or disposed of to another woman… other women?
He returned to the work of planning for the escape, thankful that it kept him fully occupied.
John made careful measurements of the spiral staircases, the tables and chairs on the terrace in the cavern and carefully examined some oversized shields which adorned the walls of Lady Eleanor’s dining room. More careful measurements followed.
Perhaps someone with an analytical eye and nothing else to do would have realised that something unusual was happening, but the events were spread out in such a way that they all seemed unconnected.
First of all, a party of artisans stopped on the riverbank, apparently to water their horses; the fact that they were directly below the marker left by John would only have been noticed by someone across the river. An astute observer would have noticed that one of the artisans was using a small sight to measure the height of the wall and that another was making sketches before they moved on.
Two further artisans arrived at the south-western gate to attend to Lady Eleanor’s needs for additional illumination. On a small cart they carried sacks filled with rope, wire and chain, together with wall anchors and large candelabra.
All went unnoticed, just part of the never-ending activity of an important and busy Château. Guards and servants were far more concerned with the preparations for the feast, which their master had decreed would be the best ever held.