The young musketeer blushed crimson and swallowed with difficulty. How will she manage to get out of this situation? She wasn't aware that the tradition of summer flowers was at all known in France, let alone popular to be practiced amongst provincial young women. But the one in front of her had clearly just performed the ritual and what more, thought that Aramis was the man of her dreams! What folly!

Before she could utter another word, the young woman's face quickly became downcast.

"Oh," she sighed and regained her composure. "Pardon me, Monsieur, I was just playing a silly game and I thought…"

"But it's not possible because I can see clearly that your heart already belongs to another woman," she continued.

"I…" stumbled Aramis. "…does it?"

"Why, of course! I heard some voices some time ago and now I can see that it must have been you and your beloved."

Aramis went pale. Someone had overheard her monologue with François. So much for discretion, Renée, well done.

She had to change the subject at all costs.

"Do you live close by, Mademoiselle? Might I be of service to escort you home?" she ventured.

But the young woman shook her head.

"What's your name?"

The girl blushed and looked away. Demanding the name of a woman before introducing herself… Good God, she had barely reconnected with her feminine past that she had completely forgotten herself and the rules of etiquette. But she couldn't introduce herself, could she? No one must know that Aramis of the King's Musketeers was seen in this region. There was only one solution.

She inclined, cleared her throat and retook possession of her masculine voice.

"Forgive me, Mademoiselle, I am the Marquis François de Montsorot, at your service."

Should the young lady feel obliged to tell anyone she met François de Monsorot in these woods, no one would ever believe her. After all, François had become nothing more than a ghost story.

"Celine de la Marquette. I live in the manor overlooking these woods," the young woman smiled.

Aramis' heart fell to the floor. The manor… François' manor… there were people living there now. Of course, there would be. What had she expected?

Aramis returned her smile. The two stood in awkward silence, unsure of what to say or what to do. Neither one of them was keen on leaving these woods, it seemed.

Celine broke the silence.

"Did she leave, your beloved?"

"My… Ah, yes, she left." She had to act the part now.

"Do you love her with your very life, Monsieur de Monsorot?" Celine asked with a sudden fervor that destabilized the musketeer.

"I… y-yes, I do," she managed to reply in the face of this strange situation.

"Then, here, you must give this to her."

Celine approached the musketeer, stood on her tip toes and placed the flower crown she made on Aramis' head. The latter blushed.

"But it's yours, Mademoiselle," she said softly.

Celine shook her head and plopped down onto the grassy ground. Aramis could see her eyes glisten. The young woman dabbed at the corners of her eyes.

"It's too late for me," she said, before silent tears began to flow down her cheeks.

Aramis knelt down to Celine's level and lifted her chin gently with her fingers.

"Why do you say that?" Despite herself, her voice took on a maternal tone.

"I am only fifteen and I am already engaged to a man who is sixty. Our wedding is next week. I only came here to see… to see if maybe there could have been another possibility."

The young woman buried her face in her hands and gave way to her sobs.

Aramis could feel her heart breaking. Instinctively, she took the young woman in her arms until she calmed down.

"What say you we spend the day together, hm?" she smiled at her. Forgive me, François…

Celine dried her tears, nodding and beaming at the musketeer.

They spent the day in animated conversation, exploring the forest, collecting flowers and twigs, telling stories. Aramis had forgotten these simple pleasures in life. These unhurried pleasures in the company of someone with a pure and innocent heart.

As dusk approached, Celine announced that it was time for her to return home. She insisted that Aramis not escort her.

Aramis took her hands in hers and planted her azure regard in the hazel ones of Celine. The guilt swept over her as she thought of Celine's fate. What could she have done for her? Abduct the girl and take her to Paris? And then what? Celine would have to fend for herself and it was perilous. It's not as if opportunities were plentiful for a fifteen-year-old girl. Not to mention that Celine's family could come looking for her. How different could her own life, Renée's life, had turned out if she hadn't persisted to become a musketeer. She would have been a lost girl.

But maybe… who was she to deny her the choice?

"Do… do you… want to… come to Paris?" she hesitated.

Celine smiled and shook her head.

"A convent?" Aramis offered as another alternative.

Celine laughed and said, "No! I want to be free! I want to run around barefoot in the woods like today. I want to swim naked in the river, I want to smell the roses and hear the birds. I want to be like the breeze and the wind that rustle the leaves of this forest. I want to live."

"I… I'm sorry I couldn't offer you more…" Aramis felt as though she wanted to give her a justification. Perhaps if she told her who she really was, perhaps if she made an exception just this once, perhaps her story would inspire someone. "The truth is…" she began.

But Celine placed her finger on Aramis' lips and shook her head. She held her gaze for a while and Aramis felt a chill. It was as though… as though she already knew.

Without knowing what possessed her, Aramis lowered her face to Celine's and pressed her lips onto hers. They exchanged a sweet sultry kiss fit to conclude a perfect summer's day.

"Thank you," Celine whispered. "I only needed a little push to move on."

With that, she ran off towards her demure, turning back a few times to wave at the musketeer.

Aramis waited for the sun to set completely. Knowing how the moon phases change every year, she would bring a lantern along with her. Sometimes, though, she preferred the total darkness. It enhanced the effect, breathed life into the illusion. It transported her.

The night was still. The only sounds to be heard were those of crickets and the lazy waves of the river meeting the shore on which she stood. It was a half moon tonight, which meant there was just enough light for her to see him but not for her to be seen by anyone who happened to pass by – a miniscule likelihood of the latter.

There he was, as he always was every year. Her heart fluttered and the tears welled up in her eyes. She smiled through her tears. How desperately she wanted to touch him, to hold his hand, kiss his lips, feel his skin on hers.

She began to undress under his gaze.

"Shall we?" she approached him when she was fully nude. He grinned mischievously and nodded in approval.

"Splendide comme toujours, ma belle, » he voiced.

She placed her hand on her hip and smirked at him.

"Alors, mon amour, c'est ton tour, » she challenged him, mirroring his smirk.

He inclined his head in acquiesce and undressed in front of her.

"Toi aussi, tu es splendide, » she said wryly, gesturing to his torso and crotch.

"You become more and more audacious with every passing year," he teased. "I don't know how I feel about that."

He approached her and locked her in a heated passionate embrace but she broke out from him giggling and splashed into the water. He followed suit.

He held her in his arms, her bare back pressed tightly against his chest. The warm breeze enveloped them in a cocoon. They had just made love.

He caressed her hair and deposited little kisses on her neck and earlobes. Renée napped peacefully in the comfort of his arms. She wanted to stay there forever.

"Renée?"

"Hmm?"

"It's been five years now, mon amour…"

She fidgeted and let out a groan, willing him to stop this conversation before it even began.

"Renée, isn't it time to move on?"

"Do you not want me anymore, François?" she said in a thick voice.

"I want you with every fibre of my being. But I just want you to be happy, Renée. I want you to live your life, to be free…"

Renée sighed and turned to him.

"I will never be free until I have avenged you," she said with resolution.

"You're obstinate," François sighed.

"And you're predictable," she lashed at him. "We have the same conversation every year!"

"It's because you show up with the same uniform every year but with newer scars," he replied, his voice rising. "How do you think that makes me feel? To watch you flirt with danger with your very life every single day? How many more bullets are you going to take and how many more duels are you going to fight?"

"As many as it takes," she solemnly declared, putting an abrupt end to this conversation.

François could only sigh. He knew better than to persist.

"Will you at least try to find some happiness?" he attempted.

"I'll try…"

"Maybe love, even…"

"How could I ever fall in love with anyone else? There will never be anyone else, François."

After a moment's silence, Francois attempted to lighten the mood.

"There's always Athos and Porthos," he ventured, jokingly. "Maybe you can find love with one of them… or… perhaps both of them?"

Renée turned to him, incredulous. "François!" she exclaimed, "I never knew you to be so vulgar."

François chuckled. "Ah, but my dear, seeing as how I am only a figment of your imagination, it behooves me to say that it is your mind that has become vulgar."

Touché.

Renée rolled her eyes and turned away from himHe kissed her and laughed.

"See? You've been spending too much time amongst the musketeers."

She smiled and closed her eyes once more.

….

On her way back to Paris, the musketeer Aramis decided to break one of her rules. She stopped a few people on the road to ask them about the new family who lived in the manor where François used to live.

She tucked all of her hair underneath her hat in the same fashion as she did when she disguised herself as the Duke of Buckingham. She pulled her cape close to her face so as no one would recognize her.

Alas, of the few people she came across, no one had a clue. Finally, she stopped by a farm and inquired after the young man who managed it. He scratched his head, searching his memory.

"de la Marquette, you say? »

She nodded.

« Can't say I've heard of 'em, no."

"Merci."

She was about to pull on the reins when he yelled. "WAIT!"

He ran inside and brought an old man with him.

"This is my grandfather."

"You really don't have to… I'm sorry for the trouble…" began Aramis.

"I remember the Marquette family," the old man began. "They were an old family who lived here many decades ago…"

He then shook his head and clicked his tongue.

"Tragic fate it seems, follows those who live in that manor. The family left hurriedly after their only daughter was found dead. Drowned in the river of the forest, a day before her wedding, can you imagine!"

"What?!" exclaimed the musketeer.

"Radiant young girl, she was. Full of life and energy. I remember her as I used to work for the family running some errands. What was her name? Cecile.. no.. Ah yes, Celine!"

The old man and his grandson conversed amongst themselves until they realized that their interlocuter was no longer listening.

"Monsieur? Monsieur, are you well? Do you want to come inside for some water?" the young man offered, seeing the pale tint of the musketeer.

Aramis shook her head absentmindedly.

"Je… je vous remercie…" she tossed a coin at them and rode off.

When she finally reached her demure, Aramis undressed and plopped down on her bed. Her head was spinning.

Had she fallen on her head and dreamt up the events of the whole day?! Wouldn't she have remembered that at least? How was this even possible! Ghosts did not exist. She knew full well that François was a product of her imagination. And yet… he always seemed so… so real! But no, it cannot be! Of course, he will seem real, he was the love of her life and she had been attached to him. They were soulmates so it's natural that her soul would… would reach out to his soul. Could that mean that he was really there?

She shook her head. No! Snap out of it!

And yet…

She dived to the floor where her satchel was and opened it. In it was the flower garland. The scent of the flowers wafted to her nostrils. It was real and tangible without a doubt. Yet it was also given to her by Celine…

Her eyes widened as it dawned on her.

"I want to be free…I want to run in the woods… swim in the river… be like the breeze and the wind that rustle the leaves of this forest. I want to live… I only needed a push to move on."

In her own way, Celine de la Marquette had chosen to live.

Suddenly, Aramis remembered that Celine said she had heard Aramis speaking to a woman. She now realized that it may not have been the monologue she had heard. She heard them. François and Renée, not just Renée.

François… all these years… it was him, it was him!

Perhaps that flower crown she had made all those years ago really had magic in it. Magic that kept him alive and helped her see him and be with him, even if it was just for a fleeting time.

"Merci," Aramis clutched the garland close to her heart and wept.

"Happy Midsummer's day, François… mon amour… until next year."

FIN

Thank you so much for reading!