by Jesse Weiner
Annecy, France, 1535
The hairs on the back of Symonne’s neck stood at attention. No doubt about it, someone was following her. The wind whispered warnings, carrying the sound of leaves crunching underfoot to her wary ears. She curled her fingers tightly around the handle of her bucket in anticipation.
Symonne had known something was wrong the moment she stepped outside, but she pressed onward, forcing her shoulders to relax while her senses strained for clues. Locking herself indoors would have been a death sentence, for the weathered, crumbling walls of the little hut where she lived with her father were no match for an intruder. But, if she could make it through the forest to the gorge, she might have a chance.
She forced a jaunty tune past her parched lips and slowed her pace as she reached the edge of the forest. For her plan to work, she had to appear relaxed, unaware of the danger stalking her from the shadows. She kept her head down, sweeping her gaze from side to side as if searching for something. All the while, she strained the limits of her peripheral vision, hoping her pursuer would make a careless mistake and stray into her line of sight.
A cluster of squat, honey-brown mushrooms growing near the base of a large oak played right into her charade. She kneeled, keeping one hand on her heavy wooden bucket as she plucked the mushrooms and dropped them in the pail one by one. The footfalls drew nearer. Symonne half turned, pretending to search for another mushroom, and cut a glance over her shoulder.
The man stood a few feet away. Though she had caught but a fleeting glimpse of his shoes, she knew by their fine make and large size exactly who she was up against. She fought a sudden chill as she calculated the angle and force at which she would need to swing the bucket to purchase her escape. She would have to hit him very high, very fast, and very hard.
Just a little closer. Symonne narrowed her blue eyes in concentration. She sang a little louder, hoping to lure her would be captor into dropping his guard. The leaves rustled ever so slightly as he inched closer. She cast her bonnet aside to let her long blonde hair cascade down her back, teasing him to draw closer. Slowly she rose to stand, willing her knees not to shake.
The pervert lunged for her, just as Symonne knew he would. In the same instant, she whirled around, smashing the bucket into his shoulder.
“Merde!” She cursed at the near miss, raising her arm to issue a second strike, but he was faster. With his lip turned up in an arrogant sneer, he caught her wrist, twisting it cruelly until she dropped the bucket. Symonne bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out in pain. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he growled, brown eyes glittering with anger.
Symonne arranged her features to reflect nothing but shock. Inside, her stomach churned, the bile of contempt slowly creeping its way up her throat. Hidden under his classic good looks, the strong chin, broad shoulders, and golden blond hair, was the heart of a monster. Instead of spewing vile names at his hated face, however, she made sweet words drip like honey from her tongue.
“Victor!” Symonne placed her hand over her heart, blinking repeatedly. “Mon Dieu! You scared me!”
Victor grabbed Symonne’s other wrist and yanked her closer, causing her to stumble into his chest. He laughed, a short, harsh bark of a noise, and she tensed uncontrollably in response. Slowly, tauntingly, he leaned down to brush his lips against her ear, and her control snapped. She yanked her head back and shot him a defiant glare, but he dug his thumbs mercilessly into the pressure points at the base of her wrists in response. She continued to pull back, but he chuckled and pressed harder, an unspoken threat that he would dole out greater punishments if she didn’t cooperate.
“Ah, Symonne, Symonne,” he purred. “No more games.”
She made her body seem limp, defeated by the strength of his embrace. “What games?” she asked, widening her eyes. The second his grip loosened, she’d strike.
“You can’t keep denying me.” Victor lowered his head toward her again, his hot breath lingering over her throat.
Though her mind screamed to fight, to run, she forced a light, chiding tone into her voice. “Monsieur Marchand! This is hardly appropriate.”
“What must I do to make you see?” Victor released one of her wrists so as to caress her hip. His fingers then trailed up her side, brushing over the swell of her breast before coming to rest at the base of her throat. “Marchand men always get what they want.”
“Is that so?” Symonne asked in a smoky voice. She swayed ever so slightly toward him, as if one more touch would have her melting into his embrace.
Victor smiled wolfishly, dropping her other wrist to cup her face.
She licked her lips, nervous.
He read it as an invitation, roughly tilting her chin upward to deliver a punishing kiss.
Choking back revulsion, Symonne whimpered against his mouth, making him think her weak, submissive. She moved her hands up to his chest, and he growled appreciatively. His hands slid down her sides, eager to explore her curves.
The moment she felt him relax, Symonne bit his lip and slammed her knee into his groin.
Victor immediately doubled over, grunting in pain.
Symonne spun on her heel and sprinted off into the darkening forest.
A furious “Salope!” rang out behind her. She pushed herself faster, ignoring the burning in her chest and the painful slap of branches against her arms and legs.
Night was quickly closing in. Her father would be back soon, but she didn’t dare return. The meager wages Guillaume Pecheur earned at market for his daily catch would be long gone, slapped onto a dirty tavern table in exchange for as many pints as he could buy. Symonne could picture him now, stumbling through the front door to collapse in the chair by the hearth, mumbling slurred curses about her mother as he lost consciousness. Even if he had been sober, Symonne feared he would only encourage Victor’s advances. You could do worse than the son of the wealthiest man in Annecy, he had sneered when Symonne complained about Victor’s inappropriate behavior. Consider yourself lucky. It’s not like you have a line of suitors begging for your hand.
Lucky, indeed, Symonne thought bitterly as she stumbled down the rocky embankment to the mouth of the gorge below. She cast a worried glance to the tree line above, but nothing stirred the vegetation save the gentle hiss of the wind. Stepping carefully so as to keep her thin boots from slipping on the mossy stones, she continued onward.
The riverbank steadily narrowed before finally disappearing, giving way to the sheer rock walls that formed the gorge. Symonne was lucky it hadn’t rained in a while, or else she wouldn’t be able to access the cave. She stepped from the algae covered stones and shoved her toes onto a thin shelf in the limestone, palming the surface of the rock until she found adequate handholds. Though her muscles screamed with fatigue, she couldn’t stop now. If Victor caught her, she had little doubt he’d beat her senseless. Or worse.
Right as Symonne swung a leg into the cave, an eerie wail echoed through the gorge. She pressed herself flat against the rock and squeezed her eyes shut, desperately whispering a rhyme her mother had taught her. “Beings of light, cast evil from my sight.”
Local legend held that the ghost of a scorned lover haunted Fier gorge. Few dared to visit the site by day, let alone by night. The sound intensified, high and thin as the keening of a woman with a broken heart.
“Beings of light, protect me from the night.” Symonne clutched at the rough stone until the pads of her fingers ached. Though reason said the strange sound was nothing more than the wind playing through the canyon like a flute, her frayed nerves screamed otherwise. “Beings of light, overcome the wicked with thy might.” Her heartbeat spiked and her mouth went dry.
As if in response to her prayer, the sound suddenly stopped. Symonne opened her eyes and glanced over both shoulders, but there was nothing to see besides the moonlit river and the rough limestone walls.
Once she had regained her sense of calm, Symonne pulled herself onto the narrow shelf at the mouth of the cave. She held her breath and stood with head cocked, ears trained for the littlest splash, the slightest snap of a twig. There was nothing to hear save for the river’s gentle gurgle.
With a sigh of relief, Symonne dropped to her knees and entered the cave. “Thank you,” she whispered into the dark warmth of her haven.
When her mother had first insisted that she learn how to hide in the woods, how to conceal her trail and fade into the foliage, Symonne had rolled her eyes, thinking her paranoid. Now, Symonne now felt nothing but thankfulness for her foresight. Her mother had known there would come a day when she wouldn’t be there to protect her, so she’d given Symonne the tools to protect herself.
“I miss you, mama,” Symonne whispered. It was nearly her sixteenth birthday. Nearly a year since her mother’s disappearance, but not a day went by that Symonne didn’t think of her.
Eyes brimming with tears, Symonne curled into a ball at the back of the cave.
The memory was so clear it made Symonne’s chest ache with longing. She recalled sitting on her mother’s lap, watching as her long, graceful fingers flit from bowl to bowl. An array of different herbs and spices filled the table, and a growing pile of completed medicine pouches sat in the basket at her mother’s feet. Symonne’s job had been to hold each little bag open while Geneviefe deposited the right mixture therein. As she took a pinch from each bowl, her mother had told her the name of the plant and why she was including it in that particular bag. In this way, Symonne was slowly learning her mother’s trade.
“What are the bags with the blue ties for?” She heard her mother’s voice, clear and sonorous as a bell.
“Tummy aches,” Symonne saw herself respond in a serious voice. She couldn’t have been any more than six, but she could still remember how her chest had swelled with pride during their lessons.
“That’s right,” Geneviefe had replied as she reached for a stone bowl with dried green leaves. “We’re putting mint in the bag because it helps with digestion.” She took a pinch and dropped it in the bag. “Do you remember what’s next?”
Symonne had smiled and pointed to a bowl at her mother’s elbow filled with tiny brown seeds. “Aise?”
Geneviefe had laughed then, a sound Symonne sorely missed. “Almost, sweetie. Anise, with an ‘N’,” she’d said.
Symonne remembered scrunching her brows and repeating the word under her breath, committing it to memory.
Then the sweet memory turned sour.
Her mother had suddenly jerked her head up to listen, as if some hidden danger approached. “Lesson’s over, sweet one,” she’d said. Then she’d shoved Symonne to her feet, shoved a bucket in her hands, and herded her out the back door to fetch some water.
The drill had been a familiar one. It meant her father was coming home. First, she would drop to her hands and knees, rolling in the dirt to make it look like she had been working outside all day. Next, she would spring to her feet and run to the well. She would hook her bucket on the line and watch it descend to the sweet, cool water below. When she hauled up the heavy, sloshing bucket, she then had to make certain to spill some of it on her dress so as to appear clumsy. It would give Guillaume something to yell at her about, a distraction if Mama needed more time to hide the evidence of their forbidden lessons.
Symonne recalled the light, cinnamon-scented breeze that would stroke her cheek each time she turned back to the house with the overfull bucket of water. A pail of mushrooms or a pile of wood would suddenly appear by the back door, “evidence” to present to her father of how she had spent her day. It was magic, Symonne knew, though she never uttered a word of it to another living soul. The thought made Symonne smile despite the coldness of the little cavern.
Guillaume was an angry, withdrawn man. As a child Symonne had ached for his love and attention, but she had long outgrown such hopes. Despite Guillaume’s best efforts, she and her mother had forged their own happiness. They made their own fun, thrilling in secrets kept and rules broken. Even so, Symonne had secretly wished that one day it would be just the two of them.
The harsh reality was that day would never come —a truth that still made her heart feel as raw as tenderized meat. The thin yellow light of day snaked its way into the cave, illuminating the pale rock, but Symonne wasn’t ready to face reality. She closed her eyes, reliving the bittersweet memory of her mother’s lesson once more.
Women and men from all walks of life had flocked to their humble abode seeking her mother’s remedies. Though Guillaume had disapproved of the method, he hadn’t turned down the means. It was her mother’s earnings that kept the family afloat. Her father was a decent fisherman, but his true talent lay in wasting coin.
Symonne rubbed her eyes, pushing aside the ever-unanswerable question regarding her parent’s unhappy union. She simply couldn’t fathom how a cold, unimaginative man had netted someone as warm and talented as her mother. When asked, Geneviefe would paste on a smile. Fingering the tiny pearl she wore on a thin silver chain about her neck, she would simply say, “He knew what it took to catch me. I was helpless to resist.”
Birds trilled outside, alerting Symonne that it was time to get up. Guillaume’s patience could only be stretched so thin. He’d be annoyed that she hadn’t spent the night at home, but he’d be livid if she didn’t make it back in time to cook him breakfast. Symonne’s joints creaked in protest as she stood. I’ll say I was helping the widow Gagnier, she decided. She kept me later than expected, and it was too dark to travel. It had happened before, and father wouldn’t bother to check her story.
Symonne picked her way back along the gorge and crawled up the steep slope to the forest above. She trudged through the woods, the gears of her mind spinning all the way.
Dare I sleep at home tonight? Knowing Victor, it wouldn’t be long before he made another appearance. No, she decided. She’d rather sleep on a slab of stone than risk running into him.
Knowing Victor, he was already dragging her name through the mud, dropping juicy, outrageous lies about her for the eager gossips of Annecy to gobble down and regurgitate again and again. No one would care for the truth of the matter, especially when it was her word versus that of one of the richest men in town.
An uncomfortable knowledge began to take shape. She couldn’t sleep in the cave forever, nor could she live in fear, constantly looking over her shoulder. Perhaps it was finally time to leave Annecy behind. Though Symonne had plenty of knowledge to get by, the thought was still daunting. A woman traveling and living on her own was a walking target. And Victor would probably try to hunt her down.
Symonne rubbed at her temples, weary of thinking in circles. It wasn’t the first time she had asked herself these questions. Though she knew she should go, though she knew the risks of staying outweighed the benefits, it was as if her feet were chained to the familiar paths around her home.
But…maybe today was the day. Yesterday’s little victory against Victor had steeled her spine, and the feel of the wind kissing her cheeks buoyed her hope. Symonne felt the need for change seeping into her bones, as if time itself were urging her forward to meet her destiny.
I have to go, she told herself as she pushed past the rough wooden door to step into her once happy home. Mama isn’t coming back.
With the disappearance of her mother, the house had rapidly fallen into disrepair, as if the walls themselves had lost the strength to stand in Geneviefe’s absence. The sight that met Symonne’s eyes, however, was far from the normal mess she had expected to see.
The place had been ransacked. Cooking utensils lay scattered about the kitchen, and precious herbs had been tossed to the floor and trampled underfoot. The tables and chairs were overturned, and cabinets and drawers stood open. Her father was nowhere to be found.
Symonne numbly walked past the chaos to her room. Her sleeping pallet had been flipped over and slashed open. The trunk with her meager belongings had been upended, its contents scattered about the room. With shaking fingers, she bent down to pick up the remains of her mother’s fishbone comb, which had been snapped in two.
Victor. Symonne made a fist with her free hand. It had to have been him. Though Guillaume often raged through the house, casting things to the floor in anger, he would never break something that had belonged to her mother. Though he basically kept Geneviefe under lock and key, he had shown her an odd respect that at times bordered on fear.
Symonne frantically searched the room for salvageable items. All of her medicine bags were missing. Her heart sank; she had been counting on them to finance her escape. Victor had even ripped up her clothing and strewn her needles and thread across the floor. “Damn you,” she muttered through gritted teeth.
Still, he hadn’t destroyed everything. Using the sheet from her bed to make a hasty knapsack, Symonne gathered what meager provisions she could find. Without wasting tears on a goodbye long in the works, she rushed from the house. She wouldn’t be going back to the gorge, nor would she be headed to old woman Gagnier’s. Town was Victor’s domain; she wouldn’t dream of going there. No, Symonne was headed the one place she swore she would never venture, the one place her mother had forbidden her to set foot.
As she ran, she pictured the ruins rising from the overgrowth, evidence of an ancient and mighty civilization brought to its knees by the sands of time. Grass surrounded the ghostly monoliths, and trees grow between the columns of temples long forgotten. Yes! her mind sang out with renewed hope. The Roman ruins that stood a few miles outside of town would be the perfect hiding place.
Wagons painted with swirls and geometric patterns in every color of the rainbow dotted the field surrounding the ruins. Children screamed and giggled as they chased each other round and round, men huddled in groups, smoking and chatting, and women stirred bubbling cauldrons slung over low fires.
Symonne pinched the bridge of her nose and leaned back against a tree trunk, letting her feet slide to the ground. She hadn’t counted on company, and especially not the Roma. A gypsy could rob you blind with your eyes wide open, and she had little in the way of supplies as it was.
Think, Symonne commanded herself. There has to be a way. Should she stick to the tree line and approach the ruins from the back? But what then? There could be more of them inside. If the Roma caught her sneaking about, it wouldn’t be pretty. She let out a long sigh and hoped they were leaving soon. They were a traveling people, after all, and their wagons looked fit to move at a moment’s notice.
Uncertain of her next step, Symonne watched the tribe go about their morning routines. The sight of the happy families poked at her wounded heart, however, and an unwelcome recollection soon filled her thoughts.
It was early morning. Her father was passed out, his chest jerking from the force of his snores. He had gotten rip-roaring drunk the night before, even worse than usual. It would be a while yet before he woke. Symonne stared, working up the nerve to edge past him to get to the hearth. She needed to make breakfast, but he reeked of ale and vomit.
Mama was still in their room, getting dressed. Symonne smiled as she caught the soft, angelic notes Geneviefe sang at the start of each day. “I’m welcoming the sun,” her mother would reply with a warm smile when asked what the odd, lilting words meant.
Symonne turned back to Guillaume. The light from the window fell across his face, illuminating the thin, golden chain he always kept about his neck. Her curiosity flared to life. He had worn the necklace for as long as she could remember, but she couldn’t imagine what might dangle at the end of that precious chain. He had reacted violently, scaring even her mother, the one time Symonne had found the courage to ask. Symonne held her breath as she poked his cheek, but he didn’t react. She clapped loudly next to his ear, but he still didn’t stir.
At last, here was her chance. With his next chest-rattling snore, she gingerly pulled the necklace from under his shirt to find a little golden key. In a flash, Symonne pulled the long chain over her father’s head and retreated to the bedroom with her find.
With a questioning look, she thrust the necklace at her mother, whose eyes went wide with shock. Geneviefe’s hands trembled as she grasped the delicate key. Symonne opened her mouth, on the verge of asking the question, but her mother shook her head and pulled her into a fierce embrace.
“Forgive me,” she had whispered in Symonne’s ear. “Please, forgive me.”
After the space of a few ragged breaths, Geneviefe pulled away and quickly stepped around her daughter. Symonne watched as she fled the house, thinking her mother just needed a moment alone. She was never one to let Symonne see her tears.
Ten minutes stretched into twenty, at which point Guillaume had woken with a start. When he realized the key was gone, he tore from the house with a roar.
Day turned to night, and Symonne had gotten the first sneaking suspicion that her mother wouldn’t be coming back. She had fallen asleep clutching the fragile comb, hoping that when she woke, the nightmare would end.
A slight rustling noise snapped Symonne out of the painful reverie. She held her breath. The noise sounded again, closer. Symonne cast her eyes to the forest floor, desperately searching for a branch, a stone, anything that might serve as a weapon, yet nothing but dead surrounded her. Merde!
Symonne slunk around to the other side of the tree trunk, hoping to steal further into the forest, but a calloused hand suddenly clamped over her mouth and a strong arm clenched around her waist.
Symonne thrashed and kicked and tried to bite the man’s hand, but the harder she fought the tighter he held her.
“Don’t fight me,” the man rumbled in her ear, sounding exasperated. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Symonne willed her body to relax. The man slowly loosened his grip, testing her. When she didn’t lash out, he turned her around to face him.
Symonne looked up, up, up, to find a pair of dark-brown eyes staring down at her. Not a man, then, but a boy her own age. A lock of short, black hair had fallen against his forehead. He wore nothing but low slung, loose fitting pants, and his trim chest was crisscrossed with tattoos.
“Hello, Melusine.” The boy released her with a lazy half smile.
Symonne stumbled backward, shaking her head. “What did you call me?” She couldn’t possibly have heard him right. There was no way he’d just called her by the pet name Guillaume had used for her mother.
“Melusine,” he repeated, stepping toward her.
“That’s not my name.” Symonne shook her head. “You must be mistaking me for someone else.”
“Sure.” The boy smiled fully this time, his eyes glittering with amusement.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Symonne said, fisting her hands and taking another step backwards, “But I really must be on my way.”
“We’ve much to discuss, and little time to waste.” The boy closed the gap between them and took her by the elbow. “Come.”
“No!” Symonne dug in her heels, her gaze darting left and right as she desperately searched for an escape.
The boy clicked his tongue. “Either take my elbow and walk into camp, or I’ll throw you over my shoulder and carry you there.”
Symonne lunged to the side, but he anticipated the move.
Deftly the boy scooped her up, tossed her over his shoulder, and strode into camp. Symonne pummeled his back, crying and begging to be let down, but the boy simply laughed and spun in her circles until she had to clamp her mouth shut to keep from getting sick.
Symonne’s head was still spinning when he gave her a hard pinch on the rump and let her tumble unceremoniously to the ground. She clamped her eyes shut, willing the grass and sky to stand still.
“Luca!” a woman’s voice rang out, loud and disapproving. “That’s no way to treat our guest.”
Symonne heard him grumble in protest before his calloused hands pushed the hair from her face. He pulled her up into a seated position, propping her up against a wagon wheel. Symonne blinked against her swimming vision as the boy pressed a cup to her lips and tilted her head back, willing her to drink.
“Sorry,” he mumbled grudgingly. As the cold water trickled down her throat, his big hands clumsily wiped her face with a cool, damp cloth.
“Better,” the woman snapped at him as she, too, crouched before Symonne. It was evident she was his mother. They had the same eyes, the same mouth, the same olive skin.
Unsettled by the expectant look on their faces, Symonne scooted back, pressing her spine against the wheel.
“I’m Drina.” The woman moved into a cross-legged position and smoothed her long red skirt over her knees. “And this is my son, Luca.”
The boy dipped his chin ever so slightly. Crouched before her with his forearms resting on his knees, he looked serious and arrogant. Symonne wasn’t normally one to lose her wits over a handsome face, but there was something about the Roma boy that tied her tongue in knots. She suddenly couldn’t manage so much as her own name.
“It seems we may have gotten off to a rocky start,” Drina continued, “but I assure you, we are here to help.”
Symonne drew her knees into her chest and gave the woman a long, hard look. Drina’s brown eyes sparkled with fierce intelligence, but they also seemed to shine with…compassion? The woman held her gaze, her expression soft and welcoming. Symonne was filled with the sudden and undeniable certainty that Drina meant what she said.
“All right.” Symonne nodded slowly, letting some of the tension melt from her shoulders. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had offered her aid, and it felt odd to accept such kindness.
Drina looked relieved. Luca shot his mother a lopsided smile.
“But how do you know I need help?” Symonne added.
Luca lifted one eyebrow and shot an amused glace at his mother, who gave a minor shake of her head. Turning back to Symonne, he said in a voice like velvet, “You were wandering alone in the woods, for one.”
Symonne’s face colored slightly, but she stuck out her chin. “I can take care of myself.”
“And….” he said, ignoring the comment to give a pointed look at her rumpled, mud stained dress, “you spent the night outside.”
“—I’ve been dreaming of your face for the past fortnight,” he said in a rush.
All possible responses flew out of Symonne’s mind. Not since her mother had anyone spoken to her regarding the power of dreams.
Drina made a disapproving noise, but Luca rested a hand on her knee. “She can handle it, Maman. Besides, you can’t tell me you aren’t relieved she’s finally here.” He turned back to Symonne, his gaze so direct it made her blush. “My mother read it in the cards. Our paths were destined to cross, Melusine.”
The name was a cold splash of water to the heart, a harsh reminder of all she had lost. “That’s not my name.” Symonne hastily rose, but the boy hopped up and blocked her path. She looked down rather than meet his eyes.
“I’m sorry my son is so blunt,” Drina’s voice sounded behind her. “I would have gone about that differently, but there’s no helping it now.”
Symonne felt Drina’s hand between her shoulder blades. The familiar smell of cinnamon and cloves washed over her, a comforting reminder of the home she had once known. “It’s time you show her, Luca.”
“Show me what?” Symonne asked, craning her neck to look at Drina.
“You’ll see.” The woman’s smile was tinged with sadness. “Now go!” She made a shooing motion and then turned toward the wagon, her skirts a swirl of red round her ankles.
The temple was beyond anything in Symonne’s wildest dreams. She turned in a slow circle, head tilted upward in marvel. The late afternoon light played over lush vines bordering grand mosaics of fish, serpents, and other sea creatures. A marble statue of Neptune stood on a dais in the center of the room, which was surrounded by a pool with water as clear as glass. Symonne circled the fountain and found that a trail of bubbles playing along the water’s surface. A stone trench set at a slightly downward angle led away from the pool, and a thin trickle of water flowed along its course. She smiled at the realization that the temple had been ingeniously built around a natural spring.
Luca leaned against a pillar, watching her.
“This is amazing.” Symonne shook her head, disbelieving.
“You’re amazing,” Luca shot back.
Symonne cleared her throat, her cheeks warming. “I don’t understand. Why was it so important that I see this?”
Luca stepped forward and offered his hand. Hesitantly she took it. He guided her to a wall covered in vines, and then pulled back the verdant curtain to reveal yet another surprise.
The mosaic depicted a goddess reclining against a rock in the middle of the ocean. A halo ringed her head, and from the waist down her legs turned into a shimmering, scaled tail. But it wasn’t her immortal appearance that stole the air from Symonne’s lungs. The beautiful woman looking back at her wore her mother’s face.
“How…” she faltered, looking from the mosaic to Luca and back again.
“You tell me.” Luca squeezed her hand. “Do you remember anything…out of the ordinary…about your mother?”
Warning bells went off in Symonne’s head, and she tensed in denial. With the country’s constant, irrational fear of the unknown, people were all too eager to label an intelligent woman as a witch. Yes, her mother could work magic, but that didn’t make her evil.
Sensing her distress, Luca rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m here to help you.”
Symonne gave a noncommittal shrug.
Luca continued to press the point, face shining with excitement. “Did your mother ever sing in a strange language? Or did it ever seem like… like she could do things with the snap of her fingers?”
“Yes,” Symonne whispered.
“Did you ever wonder where her knowledge of the healing arts came from? Or how she met your father?”
Symonne looked away as her eyes filled with tears. How did this strange boy know such things?
Luca scooted closer, intertwining their fingers. With his other hand, he gently tipped her chin upward, directing her gaze toward the mosaic. “Look again.”
The woman clutched a tiny fish bone comb in her long, ivory fingers. In her other hand, she held a tiny medicine bag. A key of gold rested in the hollow of her graceful neck. Fish leapt out of the water around her as if dancing in celebration.
“I don’t understand.” Symonne swallowed.
“Let me tell you a story.” Luca gestured to the temple floor, and they took a seat. “Venilia was one of Neptune’s consorts, a sea nymph famous for her enchanting songs. To the Romans, she symbolized the power of beauty, gentleness, and truth. As time wore on, she came to mean different things to different cultures. To the people living in this land, she became Melusine, a fresh water spirit found in rivers and streams. Women seeking protection and healing invoked her name anytime they entered the water, while men seeking fortune and favor left her gifts on the riverbanks, begging for wealth and success in exchange.”
Luca paused, drawing lazy circles on the back of her hand with his thumb. Though she guessed he meant to comfort her, his touch only made her pulse race.
“Yet with the right bait, Melusine could be captured. If the man was quick enough to net her and steal her golden key, she would then be forced to become his bride.”
Symonne frowned. “You can’t possibly be—”
Luca placed a finger on her lips, cutting her off. She sucked in a breath.
“Let me finish.” Luca’s gentle smile shot straight to her core. “If Melusine reclaimed her key, the spell would be broken. Yet she is a water spirit—her soul is tied to the rivers. Their magic would compel her to return to her true home. Alone.”
A tear ran down Symonne’s cheek. Luca caught it with his thumb.
“It’s said that any child to come from such a union can only inherit Melusine’s magical abilities once baptized in the waters where she was captured.” Luca tilted his head toward the fountain. “So, what do you say? If it’s just a fairy tale, nothing will happen. But, if the story is true…” he trailed off, his eyebrows rising in challenge.
“You’re crazy,” Symonne mumbled. She jerked her hand from Luca’s grasp and stood. “There is no way my mother is some mythical goddess.”
Yet part of her wanted to believe. There were too many similarities to boil it all down to coincidence.
Symonne’s legs shook as she approached the fountain. She dipped her toe in the water and found it warm and inviting. Before she could lose her nerve, she followed the steps into the pool, stopping when the water lapped at her hips. She looked over her shoulder and found Luca had risen to watch. He nodded encouragingly.
Symonne held her breath and dipped below the water’s surface.
A strange tingling sensation began in her fingers and toes. Then a sudden, piercing pain radiated throughout her entire body. Symonne pushed for the surface, gasping for breath, but it felt as if something were lodged in her throat, constricting her airway. She clawed for the steps, desperate to escape the pool, but she couldn’t make her legs work. It felt as if her bones were melting and rearranging themselves.
Luca hauled her from the pool and started smacking her back. Just as her vision was beginning to go black, something flew out of her throat. Symonne took a grateful breath and collapsed onto the temple floor. Luca pulled her limp form onto his lap, murmuring comforting words in her ear.
Once her breathing returned to normal, Symonne opened her eyes and cautiously looked down at her legs, fearing she’d find them broken or burned.
She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Her dress was pushed up in a wet tangle around her knees, and opalescent scales covered her shins.
A slow clap sounded through the temple.
Symonne gasped and jerked her skirts down.
“What a show,” Victor declared mockingly as he stepped from the shadows. “Boy rescues girl, and she falls dramatically into his arms.”
The color drained from Luca’s face. He pulled Symonne behind him as Victor stalked forward.
“The Roma trash might have told you a sweet little tale, but that’s not where the story ends,” Victor jeered. “Remember, Symonne? Marchand men always get the girl.” He bent down and retrieved a little golden key.
Symonne trembled with a mixture of rage and fear. The second he touched the key, it felt as if a noose were cinching round her neck.
“I take it this belongs to you?” Victor asked with false innocence.
“Give it back.” Luca rose, his hands curling to fists. “Now.”
Victor smirked, dropping the key into his shirt pocket. “No. She belongs to me now.”
Symonne choked back a sob. She’d never felt so powerless.
“We’ll see about that.” Luca growled and launched himself at Victor.
The two rolled around, exchanging punches. With his wiry strength and quick reflexes, Luca was landing quite a few hits. But Victor could hit harder. Luca caught a fist to the temple, and in the next instant Victor had him pinned to the floor.
“Stop!” Symonne screamed. “Victor, please!”
But Victor didn’t believe in mercy. With a rabid laugh, he wrapped his fingers around Luca’s throat and squeezed.
Symonne scrambled to her feet, frantically searching for something to use as a weapon. Victor’s maniacal laugh echoed through the temple. Luca kicked and thrashed, but he couldn’t dislodge the larger boy.
Symonne snapped. She rushed forward, intent on thrashing the bastard with fists and feet if nothing else, but a thick wooden rod suddenly materialized in her hand. She gasped and nearly dropped the weapon, but the sound of Luca’s struggle snapped her back to her senses. Symonne swung the rod with all her might, aiming for the back of Victor’s skull. His head snapped forward with the blow, his body going limp as a rag doll as he collapsed on top of Luca.
The rod clattered to the floor as Symonne hurried to Luca’s side. Together they rolled Victor’s bulky frame off of him.
“Wait!” Luca put up a hand as Symonne went to help him to his feet. He fished the key from Victor’s pocket and held it out to her. “This is yours.”
Choking back a grateful sob, Symonne threw herself into his arms. Luca hugged her for a moment, patting her wet hair and murmuring gentle words before drawing back and offering her the key once more.
Symonne shook her head, a sudden understanding blooming in her heart. He was the first good thing that had happened to her in over a year, the first person to care. “Keep it,” she whispered, almost too nervous to voice the words aloud.
Luca gave her a confused look. “But the cards said—” he scratched his head, his ears reddening. “I was only to meant to help you. You don’t owe me anything.”
“I know,” Symonne said with a shy smile. She wrapped her fingers around Luca’s hand, making him draw a fist around the key. She liked his laugh and the warmth in his eyes, for they told her his heart was kind.
A slow smile dawned over Luca’s face, beautiful and bright as the sunrise. He bent his head and kissed the back of her hand. “You’ll be free to leave, if ever you so choose,” he said, his voice thickening.
Symonne bit her lip, her heart fluttering in her chest.
“But I fear you’ll take a piece of my soul with you.” He looked up at her, his gaze unguarded and hopeful. “You see, if a water spirit gives her key away, she doesn’t lose an ounce of her power in the bargain. In fact, she quite ensnares the one she so chooses.”
“Is that so?” Symonne asked, a little breathless.
Luca tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Yes,” he said simply. “So I beg you, choose—”
Symonne leaned forward, catching his pretty words with her mouth.
Jesse lives in Colorado with her husband, daughter, and two fur children. Her short stories have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Youth Imagination Magazine, among other publications. When she’s not writing or chasing her babies, Jesse enjoys hiking and photography. Find her at jessemaeweiner.com, or connect with her on instagram @jesse.weiner.