2nd March 1355
Twelve hours later, Gaston sent a guard to bring her down to the great hall.
‘Ximene, darling, such good news. You remember Monsieur Froissart? The ambassador from the King of England.’
‘He has now made his decision. He is going to recommend you as a suitable wife for Prince Edward. Prince Edward, Duke of Aquitaine, the Black Prince. Isn’t it exciting? The Pope will be so pleased.’
She half turned away in despair that these vital arrangements concerning her future life were without her involvement but realised that if she did her involvement would continue to be forfeit.
She chose a political, rather than emotional response, which she knew would appeal to Gaston. ‘Good news, indeed, but what will the Prince bring to the table? How will it benefit me? How will it benefit you?’
Gaston’s eyes glowed. ‘Just the question I have been asking myself. And I don’t yet know the answer, but now we have a clear commitment from him to come here to see you. Well, not exactly here, as this is in Frankish territory. He will come to Muret on the banks of the Garonne where I will hold my summer hunt. You will accompany me. The hunting there is superb. You will meet the Prince and you will fall in love. How could he resist you, you are so delicious!’ He gently, lovingly, raised her hand to his lips and allowed the contact to linger a moment.
‘You will be able to persuade him to give you anything you want.’ He paused, still holding her hand close to his lips. ‘For yourself,’ and after a moment’s hesitation, ‘and for me.’
His speech quickened. ‘But all that is for the future, for now we must place even more emphasis on your safety. From now on we, you, must be extra careful. We are not the only ones who have enemies; there are those who have no love for the Prince. As his bride to be, you would be an easy target. I will again emphasise to the guards that you must not be allowed to go anywhere outside the Château. I don’t want to send you back to the tower room. I don’t want to punish you again. What I want is for you to promise never again to leave the Château without my express permission. If you cannot give me your promise, I must continue to confine you to the tower room.’
Ximene took a deep breath, searching for control.
‘I give you my promise.’
‘Then you may return to your rooms.’
Ximene stormed from the hall and nearly fell in her haste to descend the spiral staircase.
She sought out her grandmother.
‘He stripped me naked and whipped me.’
Eleanor rose to her feet and moved towards the door.
‘No, no don’t confront him. Do you know, if he wants to whip me again I will opt for it to take place in the main hall. I think I would prefer the indignity of being stripped and whipped in public to letting him do it in that small room again.’
Eleanor’s eyebrows rose. ‘You think he enjoyed it? Oh! You think he has designs on you?’ Eleanor sighed. ‘I do hope you are wrong, but I suppose it is possible.’
‘Escape, Grandmother. Escape!’
‘What can I do? Gaston is ever more vigilant.’
Ximene snorted. ‘I learned just now, upstairs, that I am approved of. You knew the horrible little man was going to give his approval, but you did not tell me. Gaston only told me a few minutes ago.’
‘Ximene, darling, it’s just there seemed no point in discussing it with you until it became a definite opportunity. Gaston is now making specific arrangements for you to meet the Prince.’
‘Oh! So you have already talked to Gaston but you chose not to tell me. I know. We are going hunting. We hope to catch a Black Prince.’
Eleanor made as if to answer, but Ximene gave her no chance to speak. A torrent flowed from Ximene’s lips.
‘Well, I don’t see it as an opportunity. Does the Prince understand that a marriage, even a Roman marriage, is a worldly contract, designed to stabilise the inheritance of wealth and power and nothing more than that?’
‘Ximene, what I know is that the Prince has sympathy for our religion and is powerful enough to protect you.’
‘Do you know Gaston has just told me upstairs that the Pope will be pleased. Pleased? The Pope would like me to undergo a Roman Wedding! You have told me yourself that it is only since the Crusade that the Church of Rome has insisted on turning a simple marriage contract into a ceremony of their church.’
Eleanor sighed. Yes, that was true.
‘By linking their form of marriage to concepts of legitimacy, inheritance and right to rule, they are able to place a tithe on the distribution of wealth. They maintain that love outside of marriage or sexual pleasure without the intention of procreating children is a sin. They want more children so there are more people to fight their wars, more people to tax. It is just another example of their love of material possessions. That is what you have taught me, isn’t it? Why should I be interested in what the Pope wants? He and his church are servants of the devil.’
Ximene was indeed repeating her own teaching back at her. Eleanor wished more than anything in the world to walk away from all these difficulties. But she too had her responsibilities.
‘It’s not so much what the Pope wants, dear. It really is an opportunity. The English kings have never allowed the Inquisition into their territory. They do not publicly support our religion but they tolerate it. When our women were forced to marry crusaders, they carried our faith north with them. Some of the English royal family share our beliefs, so they would be unlikely to have a different policy for Occitan. Whatever the Pope believes, they would deprive the Inquisition of its power. Occitan could once again be independent, our culture and religion saved.’
Eleanor was pleased that her words came out as she had envisaged them. She pulled Ximene into a close embrace and whispered in her ear, more to give a sense of intimacy that any fear that they might be overheard.
‘I am only interested in your welfare, darling. I want you to be happy; I want you to be loved. You don’t have to be a princess or a queen to achieve these things, but it might be a safer option.’
‘If,’ Ximene hissed, ‘ever I do give myself to a man, it will be for love or at least because I like him, and I won’t need a ceremony of the Roman Church to confirm its validity.’
Eleanor’s mouth went dry. ‘You may find it impossible to avoid that eventuality. In the event, most girls enjoy the ceremony. It makes them feel like a queen for that day and in your case it would be for significantly longer than a day.’
‘It is not what I want, Grandmother. As you have taught me so well, affairs of the soul, unions of spirit, often outside of sterile marriages, should always take precedence. If I am to take part in a Roman marriage, the Prince must understand and accept this.’
Eleanor nodded, but without enthusiasm.
Ximene gazed at her grandmother, hoping her face showed the sympathy she found it difficult to feel.‘Think back to your own life; when Guillam went to fight against the Roman Church you were forced to marry Grandfather, but now after Grandfather’s death, Guillam is back. I think you loved Guillam all along.’
Eleanor sighed and tried to speak, but Ximene was not for stopping.
‘I know why you agreed to marry grandfather,’ she said. ‘It was to ensure that the heirs to Occitan would be educated as Cathars. As it turns out, I am the sole successor. I believe you think I carry total responsibility for the survival of the faith.’
‘No, that is not true.’ Lady Eleanor’s mouth dropped open. ‘I was given no options.’
‘You know, sometimes I feel as if you think I am the second coming.’
Lady Eleanor shuddered. ‘No, no.’
Ximene could not be diverted. ‘That it was that forced marriage that put a crown of thorns on my head.’
Ximene took a deep breath. Watching her grandmother’s heartfelt denials filled her with shame. She lowered her voice.
‘And the worst part is, despite my doubts I have now accepted it as my destiny.’ She sought eye contact with her grandmother and held it determinedly for several seconds. ‘Help me escape. Once I am totally independent, I will consider my marriage options.’
She allowed her voice to vibrate with emotion. ‘Independence will give me control of my life. Even for a moment, that is what I want above all else.’
‘Very well, Ximene. I will seek Guillam’s assistance. He will know what to do.’
Ximene sighed and a smile played over her lips.