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Undying Love and Devotion

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"Halt," the captain cried, and the slow-moving cart ground to a stop in front of the gate. "Papers."

The hunched man at the front of the cart set down the reins and fumbled inside the front of his shirt for a moment, before withdrawing well-crumpled identity papers and a safe conduct. "I'm traveling to Mantes," he mumbled, scratching at his unkempt hair. "My sister lives there, and I'm taking some furniture to sell with me. I'm a carpenter by trade, but there hasn't been as much market for furniture in Paris these days. It's all those abandoned aristos' houses, quoi? Why buy finely-carved tables and chairs from an honest craftsman when you can get them inlaid with silver and gold from a ci-devant aristo for free." He spat on the ground. "That for the aristos. They ruined all our lives, eh, citizen?"

"Yes, but we've put them in their proper place now," the captain replied. "Let's see these fine tables, then." He stepped towards the back of the cart.

"Don't listen to a word he says!" a woman shrilled, running up to the gate. Her cheap but gaudy attire betokened her as an actress, and not the elegant courtesan type; this one was more of a trollop and she didn't seem opposed to causing quite the scene no matter who was watching. "He's probably one of those English spies!"

The man on the cart laughed merrily. "Amélie, my cabbage, jealousy isn't a good look for you." He turned to the guard. "Can you believe she thought I meant to marry her?"

"You gave me a ring," she said, brandishing the same. It was as gaudy as the rest of her, and almost certainly no more than cheap glass. "You swore your undying love and devotion."

"And I was devoted to you, my cabbage, for an entire week. But all good things must come to an end, and you must admit that Jeanne is much prettier than you."

"Prettier!" she screamed. She took off her fichu, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it. The guards stepped closer, the better to leer at the bosom she had just revealed. "Jeanne is a penniless hussy who only pretends to be attracted to you when you give her money. And that's the only sort of woman you're ever going to find. I thought perhaps there was a bit of goodness deep in your heart that made it worth putting up with your stench and your scars and selfishness, but now I see that was all a lie. You—"

"Enough!" yelled the captain, and the other guards returned to their places. "You lovebirds can quarrel somewhere else. Wench, don't accuse your lovers of being English spies or I'll arrest you for...for wasting my time and making a mockery of justice. Get back to whatever hole you crawled out of." He turned back to the man on the cart. "And you, make sure you spend all the money from your furniture on women in Mantes so you don't bring it back to cause problems here."

"Oh, but I'm faithful to Jeanne now," the man said, leering. "Though I suppose you're right, I haven't yet seen what Mantes has to offer."

"Get out of here and waste the people of Mantes' time instead of mine," the captain said. "Open the gate!"

The man flicked the reins and the cart lumbered forward. The jilted Amélie was long gone by the time the next cart in line rolled up and presented their papers. No doubt she was already on the prowl for her next lover, but the captain didn't care one way or another, only sparing a brief regret that she hadn't taken off her fichu a bit sooner in the whole business. As for her former lover and his cart, the captain thought of them not at all.

Four hours later, right before the gates were due to close for the day, a cheery farmer's wife drove her cart up to the gate. The captain searched her cart thoroughly and found nothing but hay. Her papers were all in order. He didn't think he'd ever seen her before, but then more than half of the people who came through his gate were people he'd never seen. She was clearly quite harmless, just like every single person he had allowed through the gates that day; and so of course he let her pass.

The farmer's wife looked nothing like Amélie. But then, that was the thing about actresses: with only a bit of a grease paint, a new costume, a change in voice, and a bit of je ne sais quoi, a brassy trollop could transform into a merry peasant with no one the wiser.

Or, later that night, with the removal of grease paint instead of the addition of the same, both the peasant and the trollop would vanish, to be replaced by the smooth face of Lady Blakeney, once of the Comédie-Française. Deep in the woods outside of Paris, she threw her arms around the cart driver—whose cart had scarcely contained any furniture, after all—with an enthusiasm that would have surprised the captain and all others who had heard her earlier invective. "You're my favorite leading man," she murmured in his ear. "Much better than Larive or Dazincourt."

"And here you thought you were retiring from the stage when you got married," he whispered back, nuzzling her neck as he did so.

"I've found a much better stage these days." She ran her hands through his hair, disheveling it even more than it already had been for his disguise. "I'm just lucky I managed to marry a man who actually knows how to act."

"And I'm lucky that I no longer need to act when I'm around you," her husband replied. He hummed softly as her hands drifted lower on his neck. "And I must say, I take back everything I said earlier. You're much prettier than the imaginary Jeanne."

She smiled, the curve of her lips barely visible in the moonlight, but they knew each other so well that he would have known what expression her face held even in pitch black darkness. "So when you swore your undying love and devotion to me..."

"I meant it forever and a day, my love," he said. "No matter what I may say at the gates of Paris."

"You can say anything you want at the gates, so long as you get through them safely," Marguerite whispered, and kissed him yet again. "And so will I."