Brittany, June 1789
“I dreamed of bread last night,” Francine murmured longingly, rubbing her pregnant belly. “Soft, yeasty bread with a crisp crust fresh from the oven.”
At these words, Mariel St. Just suffered a pain so deep that even the cramping of hunger paled in comparison. How could they—daughters of a former mayor—come to such dire straits that they couldn’t even feed her sister’s unborn child?
“You will have that bread, as soon as Eduard returns,” she said, hoping the lie might become truth, although after the drought and hail last summer, and the extreme cold this past winter, wheat was as costly as gold, and the money to buy it was even more scarce.
While her sister dreamed of bread, Mariel had envisioned savory hares and bubbling stews with rich gravy. She had attempted to net fish yesterday, but she’d walked home empty-handed and hungrier than ever from the exertion. Her stomach had clenched painfully when she’d passed the castle on the cliff. The air had been redolent with the aroma of roasting venison, because even if nobles didn’t have a sou, they owned the land on which the game roamed.
No one in the village had had meat to fill their pot since early this spring when the starving menfolk had defied the game laws and mowed down the vicomte’s fields, uncovering and clubbing the wild creatures hiding there. Since then, the vicomte had hired militia to protect his lands.
She helped ease her sister into a rocking chair in the sunny front window of the cottage and gave thanks that they had a solid roof over their heads, courtesy of her brother-in-law, Eduard Rousseau. She prayed for his safe return from Paris, where he met with the other elected officials of the Assembly, intending to ask the king for reforms to repair the country’s bankruptcy. If only he would return soon. Her sister desperately needed him.
“Tell me again about Maman’s promise,” Francine said wistfully, picking up her lace-making pillow. “I want to hear happy stories so the babe will be born sunny-natured.”
As the eldest by four years, Mariel had memories of their mother that Francine did not. She shared as generously as she could, but Francine did not possess their mother’s Second Sight and could never truly understand Maman’s gift as Mariel did.
Perhaps it was better that way. The baby would no doubt be as contented as Francine, never knowing the anguish that Mariel experienced because she was special.
“Maman looked so beautiful that day.” Mariel began the story. “Her ebony hair never had a thread of gray, and it was long, oh so long, down to her waist and past. Her eyes were lovely and tranquil.”
“Was she sitting up?” Francine rocked gently, asking the questions she had as a nine-year-old child, after their mother’s death.
“No, this was one of her last days, when she lay against the lace-trimmed pillow from her trousseau. She always worked the lace so beautifully. I could never learn lace-making as you have.”
Mariel couldn’t sit still as she told the tale. Restlessness drove her to dust the shelf of precious possessions from their former home. She watched out the window for any sign of change in this miserable life to which all of France had been reduced. She saw one of the vicomte’s soldiers idling in the narrow cobblestone street and felt a frisson of fear that the village had come to this state of neighbor armed against neighbor.
“You have Maman’s forceful character, and I have her talent. That is fair,” Francine said, as she always did. “Finish the story.”
“Forceful character,” Mariel said with a laugh. “You mean I am bossy and order people about.”
“You get things done. People listen to you.”
“I think I inherited our father’s character, not Maman’s,” she teased. “I must do everything myself, while Maman promised us a golden god who would save us. A god, not a goddess, you’ll notice. Like you, she awaited a man.”
“Eduard cannot help it if the Assembly argues lengthily. He will return as quickly as he is able.”
“Eduard is a good man,” Mariel agreed, “but I cannot believe the Assembly can help if the king’s ministers tell them that we must eat grass.”
“The story, please,” Francine murmured, rubbing her belly. “The babe is restless today, and I would calm him rather than raise a rebel.”
Nine months pregnant, Francine sought comfort and reassurance for her child’s future—a future that grew grimmer with each passing day. These were uncertain times. On days like this, it seemed only a god could save them.
Mariel patted Francine’s arm and spoke the story in the sing-song voice of their childhood. “You’ll remember Maman’s eyes, how they went all dreamy when she prophesied, as if she were seeing heaven?” At Francine’s eager nod, she continued. “Well, that day, she smiled as if seeing angels, and she sounded proud and strong, and oh, so certain. Just ask Agnes and Belle. They will tell you.”
As the maids had told the entire village. The prophesy had become legend, and these days, the villagers surreptitiously scoured the harbor, waiting for it to come true.
“Maman looked straight at me,” Mariel continued, “and said, ‘You have the eyes of the sea, Mariel.’” She rubbed away a tear, knowing Maman had been the last person to understand her daughter’s odd proclivities. “Then she squeezed my hand and said, ‘Watch for the golden god who will sail in on a ship from the past, lured by the Song of the Siren. He will bear a sword of justice to save all in our village in a time of great famine and danger. He will be stronger than Hercules, faster than an Arabian steed, and more beautiful than a sun-blessed day.’”
Even Mariel’s stomach quit complaining as she repeated their mother’s vow.
Francine smiled in satisfaction. “I like the part about the Siren. When we were little and lived in the big house by the sea, I used to imagine I heard the Siren sing from the legendary isle of Ys. Her song was my lullaby after Maman died.”
It had been Mariel’s song of loneliness and grief that Francine had heard, but she would not mar her sister’s sweet memory. Since their mother’s death, she had vowed to use her special abilities to protect her younger sister from all hurt.
In recent months she had been failing to keep that vow.
Outside, a shout drew her back to the window. Old Yanick was racing this way, his gray beard flying across his shoulder as his wooden sabots clumped the cobblestones. Yanick never ran anywhere. That he stirred himself in this manner foretold something momentous, and both hope and dread caught in Mariel’s throat.
“The god, Mari, the god is here!” she thought he cried.
Had their hunger and longing and the oft-repeated story conjured the golden god Maman had promised? Or, driven by her own desire, had she misheard what he was really saying?
Mariel caught the wistful gleam in Francine’s eyes, and without a second cynical thought, she rushed out to meet the old fisherman, praying that dreams really could come true.