I don’t trust people who swear they never dream. Everyone does. It’s how your brain processes the never-ending stimuli of the day, cleaning out the garbage, arranging what you’ve seen and heard into nightly visions— joyous, horrific, awe-inspiring, puzzling, and often just plain crazy. The human mind can’t handle everything thrown at it. Without this regular cleansing, scientists say, you’d descend into madness.
So the issue isn’t whether you dream or not. It’s about remembering. Most people don’t. Some keep a bedside journal, hoping to make sense of their nocturnal fancies come morning, often with the aid of a dream dictionary. Others use it to capture creative sparks. Stephanie Meyer claims the inspiration for her Twilight books came in a dream. I wrote a fantasy based on one, although the finished product took a much different path than the original idea.
I’d wager everyone has at least one dream they’ll never forget. Often it’s a nightmare, replete with monsters that symbolize your deepest fears. Ages ago, when I belonged to a fundamentalist sect, howling demons invaded my sleep and drooled over me as I huddled in bed, sheets drawn over my head. Interesting how those fiends disappeared when I left the church.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as a theme-park ride could serve as a trigger. My family used to visit Disneyland every summer. Once, when I was ten or so and paired with my favorite niece for the Snow White and her Adventures, ride our mine cart jolted to a halt just as the wicked stepmother—in her most loathsome, cackling, witchy form—turned from her cauldron to hold out a poisoned apple. The task of comforting my weeping companion kept me from losing it then and there, but for weeks afterward, I’d wake up in a sweat, waiting for my heart to stop thundering after yet another replay of that scene, made more fearsome with an even witchier hag looming over the two of us.
I’m happy to report my dreams took on a mellower tone as the years passed. I soared above treetops on magic wings, swooped down into emerald-bright valleys. The awkwardness of youth vanished as I danced and leapt across stages with the grace of a gazelle. And I began to include others, imagining success for all, a future in which we all thrived.
That isn’t to say my anxieties have stayed hidden. There are plenty of times I’ve found myself naked or missing the last flight/train/bus because I can’t get packed in time. Oddly, those often happen in Rome, where I fret that I haven’t seen enough before I’m due to leave.
I can’t recall ever dreaming in black-and-white. Everything is brilliantly hued, as if my mind can’t wait to explode beyond the ordinary. I once wrote a gushing fan letter to author Victoria Strauss about PASSION BLUE, a color featured in her book of the same name, when it appeared in a mansion I dreamed up, vibrant and awe-inspiring. Such is the power of words.
So don’t tell me you never dream. Try to remember yours. Keep a notebook by your bed and write down whatever you recall, no matter how slight or insignificant it may seem. Your mind is a magnificent thing. It may speak to you in riddles, but what a journey you’ll have seeking the answers!
Nadzia returns from the land of the dead and undergoes an extraordinary transformation. Keslai’s interference is revealed, Veles strikes a deal with his mother, and a new queen of the sea and sky begins her reign.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this book as much as I enjoyed writing it. If so, please take a moment to leave a comment and let me know.
Writhing spirits with faces stretched in hellish grins wrenched Nadzia into darkness. She struggled against their hold, screaming, kicking, sobbing. In the lore of the human world, Veles personally escorted the dead to the Underworld, where they would be housed in surroundings based on the quality of their lives. Sending monstrous ghouls boded ill for Nadzia. They’d likely take her to the most horrific of prisons, dump her amidst the apostates and other renegades held captive in the tangled roots of the Tree of Life.
Bitter tears coursed down Nadzia’s cheeks. What a fool she’d been, certain a mortal could triumph over the most powerful beings in the cosmos. Now all she had were the harsh dregs of failure: she’d never roam the skies with Perun, the god she’d grown to love against all expectations; the Order of Bursztyn was more vulnerable than ever; and Veles remained undefeated.
Images of what might have been tortured her. Days and nights with a god she adored. A convent protected by a new immortal guardian. Love overcoming hate. All gone in the heat of a moment. A moment she could never undo.
Gods, what a mess!
She had no idea how long the spirits carried her; time had no meaning here and the gloom was interminable, deepening as she plunged. As best she could determine, they were in some sort of tunnel. But it twisted and turned so many times she gave up trying to determine where in the Underworld she might end up, fair or foul.
Finally, the space around her brightened. Nadzia landed with a soft thump on a patch of sod as green as anything on earth. Their duty apparently complete, the malignant guardians disappeared. She clambered upright, dread clumping her throat, and took stock of her surroundings.
A stone wall at her back, centered by two doors, chained and locked. Nadzia pressed her ear against the wood, listening for a clue to what existed beyond. Demented laughter, the chilling howls of mania, seeped through the barrier. She flinched and rushed in the opposite direction.
The tunnel walls changed from stone to bark, surprisingly smooth to the touch and lit with gnarled sconces. Before long before they opened into a cavern, ending at a balcony rimmed with iron bars. Nadzia stared down at a space she could never have imagined in her wildest dreams.
This Underworld was no dank, dreary domain. It flourished with life, albeit of a most curious kind. Linden trees, limbs aglow with silver leaves, swished with ethereal music, slow and dreamy. A lake rippled with iridescent fish; frogs and toads lurked in the reed-clumped edges. Tiny, ruby-throated birds whizzed through the air. Wings vibrating, one paused to inspect Nadzia and then zoomed away in a blur of brilliant hues.
She exhaled in wonder, astounded that anything associated with so vile a creature as Veles could hold such beauty.
Almost as if her thoughts had summoned him, she felt his wintry breath prickling the back of her neck. “I told you it was lovely, didn’t I, my sweet?” he murmured. “And this is but one chamber.”
He whirled Nadzia about, yellow eyes dancing with amusement. “Shall we visit your new quarters? We have a most luxurious bed. Perhaps you would like to visit Jūratė first. I made a lagoon especially for her. You’ll love it. Just like the ones in the human world.”
Nadzia’s skin pebbled. She might be a prisoner, held against her will, but she didn’t have to act like one. Hoping her voice held as much power in the Underworld as on earth, she pushed back her shoulders and adopted an imperious tone. “You said I would rule alongside you. Where is my crown?”
“I should have known you’d want to assert your authority as soon as possible,” Veles said with a fang-tipped grin. “Such a dear girl. This way if you please.”
He escorted her down a curving stairwell that ended at a copse of linden trees. Their music was more languid close up, as if reminding Nadzia she need not hurry in this place, that she had all the time in the world now for anything and everything. She slackened her pace in response, trying to delay the inevitable, but Veles held tight, propelling her forward.
She walked with him though a moss-filled passage to a room holding a pair of thrones carved of granite, cold and unwelcoming. Nadzia settled into hers, smoothed her wedding dress, and bit the inside of her cheek, forestalling tears. Why had she believed destiny could be altered? Her fate was settled the moment she called out Perun’s enchanted jewel. She was never meant for love.
Veles peered at her, one eyebrow raised. “You can’t be pining over my brother, not after he killed you. He’s a savage, a murderer, hopelessly cruel. And now two lovely sirens have been slain at his hands. You didn’t change him at all.”
“Don’t worry,” he added, stroking her hand. “I intend to make you the most jubilant of queens. Just give me a chance. And Jūratė will be ecstatic to see you. We’re going to be such a happy group, content in our very own little corner of my world.”
“There is no joy for me here,” Nadzia said with a caustic laugh. She leaned forward, stabbing the air inches away from the startled god’s face. “I meant what I said. I don’t want you. I never will.”
A low hiss followed her words. “Careful, my dear. I do adore your resolve, but if you continue to refuse me, I’ll have no choice but to lock you away in a vault. Perhaps a few hundred years with no one but rats to keep you company will change your mind.”
Nadzia shrank back in her chair. So this was her lot, to spend eternity placating a despicable, selfish overlord. If her heart still beat, it would surely be breaking in two.
Veles trailed a black-nailed finger along her forearm, pebbling the flesh. “Which shall it be, my sweet, throne or crypt?”
He took her silence for surrender. A coronet ringed with yellow stones—the colors of his eyes—appeared in his hands. He set it upon her head and brushed cold lips against her cheeks. “This is but a hint of what’s to come. Your real crown is far more glorious. But that will have to wait until I’ve arranged a formal ceremony.”
Nadzia raised her chin, straightened her spine. Whatever Veles intended, she still had a mesmerizing voice. She’d tamed one deity, she could do so again, charm this reptilian fiend into believing whatever she wished. He craved her, that much was obvious. It wouldn’t take much to twist his yearning in her favor, let him think he’d won, never knowing she was spending every moment seeking a way to return to the only god she would ever love.
A familiar voice scattered her thoughts. “Nadzia? Whatever are you doing here?”
“My dear Jūratė!” Veles beckoned the mermaid goddess near. “Come meet your new regent. Doesn’t she look stunning? I’m so glad you’ve come. You can help me plan her investiture.”
The mermaid goddess, dazzling in a gown of teal silk, bits of glowing amber braided within her dark hair, moved slowly, her slate eyes squinting in confusion. She halted a few steps from Nadzia’s throne, reached out a trembling hand and winced. “Is that blood on your dress?”
“The god of storms strikes again,” Veles whooped. “I told you he’d never change.”
“Perun did this? Deliberately?”
“Never!” Nadzia cried. “I was trying to protect the abbess.”
Veles tried to speak, but the goddess held up a hand and shook her head. “This is Nadzia’s tale to tell.”
“Fine, but you need look no further for someone to blame. She’s the one who refused to go along with our plan.”
“Is that true? You accepted your fate?” The goddess rushed to Nadzia’s side. “I don’t understand. What went wrong?”
“She put together a new scheme with Perun and they failed,” Veles said. “The details are irrelevant.”
“I wasn’t speaking to you. I want to hear what my daughter has to say.” Jūratė took Nadzia’s arm and guided her to a bench under a nearby tree.
The leaves rustled with a forlorn melody, as if sensing Nadzia’s distress. She hurried through an explanation: the love that had blossomed, what she and Perun had hoped to achieve, how the god of the Underworld had perverted the final outcome.
At the story’s end, Jūratė leapt to her feet. “You were supposed to protect my daughter.”
“We had an agreement,” he countered hotly. “She’s the one who broke her word.”
“You pressured her, threatened her. What did you expect? Loving devotion?”
“I expect,” Veles said, fangs bared, “some measure of gratitude. I saved her from your father’s wrath. Don’t presume to criticize me. You weren’t there. She’ll have a far better time here than in one of his torture chambers.”
“I kept her from a fate worse than death. Like it or not, my dear, she’s here to stay.”
Nadzia grimaced as the two bickered. Gods, was this what she had to look forward to, eons of squabbles? She rubbed her aching breast and froze, certain her vision was distorted, as the bloodstains in her gown slowly vanished. In their place a rosy fluorescence shone, the exact size and shape of the enchanted sliver she’d summoned from the Baltic Sea.
She sucked in a breath as her heart began to pulse again. “Dear gods,” she whispered, aghast. “Perun . . . no . . . what have you done?”
Veles stopped arguing and gaped as a golden beam surrounded Nadzia. Invisible forces lifted her toward a brilliance emanating from the top of the cavern. “What devilry is this?” he said, scales rippling with agitation. “Oh no, my sweet, no, no, no. You’re not going anywhere.”
He lunged, but Nadzia drifted beyond his reach. Shrieking, he slithered up the walls after her, hissing and spitting black venom as she soared higher and higher. “This isn’t fair. She’s mine. Mine!”
His screeches rang in Nadzia’s head like the echo of a bad dream. She shut her eyes, folded her arms across her chest, and surrendered to the light.
In the clearing where he’d wed, the god of storms watched for signs of life in his bride, each second an eternity of hope and despair. Why would the Fates bring him happiness only to snatch it away at the last moment? They’d absolved him, or so he thought. “Bring her back,” he pleaded. “Don’t make her pay for my sins.”
Dark clouds blotted the sun. Nadzia lay on the moss, beautiful yet marred, the blood on her bodice a grisly testament to divine fury. Perun gripped his mother’s knife and turned the point inward, determined to carve out what remained of his heart. Better to hasten his demise than continue without the woman who made life worthwhile. Torture awaited him in the Underworld—his brother would make sure of it—but he’d suffer gladly if it meant even a ghost of a chance to see his beloved again.
The blade’s tip pierced his flesh, drawing beads of blood. He pressed harder, grimacing, when a golden light surrounded Nadzia. She stirred and drew a tremulous breath, looked up, bewildered. “Perun, is it truly you?”
“My love!” He dropped the dagger, bent to embrace her, but silken threads shot up from every inch of skin, weaving an ivory husk that hardened about her body. He howled in frustration. Blast the Fates! Was this one last trick to test his resolve?
He looked to the abbess, who shook her head and cautiously probed the top of the carapace. “This is beyond my understanding,” she murmured, brows creasing as she traced the glowing shell, “but I sense life within. We must wait.”
Perun’s followers abandoned their mad rush to escape and drew near, speaking in hushed tones, sharing their awe at this most extraordinary of sights. Elders and novices joined hands and crooned a soft, uplifting melody.
The men who’d come to honor their god grew restless as long minutes passed, their voices turning strident as they shouted for an explanation. Perun ignored their calls, not daring to take his eyes off Nadzia, begging silently for her to emerge. Was she caught between life and death? Could anyone, anything, revive her?
A thunderous boom rattled the heavens. The shroud heaved and split apart. Warm breezes, scented with the spices of the sea, drifted through the grove. Nadzia pushed aside the debris of her cocoon and rose in one fluid motion, her bloodied gown now a clinging sheath of tiny, rainbow-colored fish scales. She smiled at Perun and folded herself into his arms.
He smothered her with kisses, certain what remained of his heart would explode with joy. “My love,” he sobbed. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“You saved me, but I fear the price was too high.” Nadzia gazed at him, eyes filled with wonder and pain. “You’ll never be whole, your immortality is gone. How can I possibly match your sacrifice?”
“Stay with me. Nothing else matters. I love you, Nadzia, more than life itself.”
“And I love you, my sweet, tempestuous god.”
The abbess dropped to her knees before Perun. “My daughter told me you were kind and generous. I did not listen. I was wrong. You gave up eternal life for her. There can be no greater proof of love. Forgive me.”
“We are family now,” Perun said. “If you can accept me as I am, I can do no less for you and yours.”
Nadzia helped the abbess stand and then gently embraced her. “I never expected you to put yourself in harm’s way for me.”
“Nor did I,” the abbess said, wiping her eyes. “We take pains to raise children as a group at the convent, but the bond between mother and daughter never breaks. I hope we’ll have more time together when things are settled.”
“I’d like that.” Nadzia pulled back and turned her attention to the gods assembled beyond the arch. “I believe it’s time to deal with Dievas and Rodzenica.”
“Do you think that’s wise, my love?” Perun cast a resentful glance at his father. “They did nothing to keep you alive.”
“Look at them. Their faces are ashen. I’ll be safe.”
Perun fell silent. Nadzia reborn, he thought, could easily strike back at the ones who’d gladly watched her die. Somehow he was certain her voice could inflict a torment far greater than any wreaked by the Elders’ keening. Would she use it for good or ill?
“You have been given a second chance at life,” he said. “Hold fast to what we vowed: love, not hate.”
Her response allayed his concerns. “I’ve seen the damage caused by endless enmity, the constant battle of grievances. If I give in to the temptation to strike back, I won’t have changed anything. We have to learn to live without discord.”
Surrounded by amber light, she seemed to float rather than walk, a low susurrus in her wake. Rodzenica faltered, sputtering as she approached. “This cannot be. No immortal creature was ever made so.”
Nadzia turned her back on his mother and addressed the crowd. “A new breed of goddess stands before you. Mortal born, renewed by divine life, and eternally graced. I am the new sovereign of Lithuania’s waters and guardian of the Order of Bursztyn. All are welcome to honor me in Palanga.”
Perun’s disciples grumbled and scowled at her words. He understood their frustration, the resentment behind their grousing. The pain they’d endured today would have crushed any charitable feelings they’d extended to his bride earlier. They would not accept her gladly. He held his breath, praying she’d find the words to appease them.
“I do not ask you to forsake other gods,” she continued, her voice as tranquil as a bubbling brook. “Our world depends on the special gift each deity brings. I promise never to treat you as pawns or trifle with your lives, as others have done with me and mine. If you seek my blessing, you will have it.”
“Hail Nadzia, queen of the sea and sky!” The women from the convent trilled and entreated others to lift up their voices in tribute. Babilos dashed past the arch, face wreathed in a smile as he joined Mokosh in welcoming their new sister. The crowd waited, trading skeptical glances until the girl who’d given Nadzia flowers rushed forward and joined the Elders in song. Swept up by her exuberance, others followed, ignoring the priests who cursed each time a mortal joined the refrain. Perun laughed at their stubbornness and added his sonorous admiration.
His father’s rage withered the air. “Idiot! You dare abase yourself before this abomination? She is the one who must bend and beg mercy for her betrayal.”
“Do you never tire of anger, old one? Let me guide you to peace.” Nadzia breathed deep and sang an achingly sweet tune, beyond the hearing of humans, full of tenderness and compassion and good cheer.
The harshness puckering Dievas’s face eased into serenity. “I hear music in your voice, pure and divine. You are truly one of us. Welcome, dear Nadzia.”
Rodzenica clapped her hands. “Why do we linger? Our new goddess must be enthroned.”
“I prefer a private coronation,” Nadzia replied. “My first allegiance is to those who nurtured me, however misguided their actions today.”
Mokosh tugged at her arm. “Come back to the Tree of Life with us for a while,” she urged. “You don’t want to miss a chance to meet the Queen of the Fairies.”
“In good time.” Nadzia returned to Perun’s side, placed a hand above his heart, and murmured a series of dulcet notes. The gash in his chest closed. She traced the unmarked flesh and blinked away tears. “What does the future hold for us?”
“Something wondrous, I hope,” Perun said. “Won’t you consider spending a few hours at the Tree of Life? I think you’ll regret missing the festivities.”
“Is the mighty god of thunder a simpleton?” Keslai stormed through the crowd and planted herself in front of Nadzia. “She plotted against you, her affection is false. Take me!”
Perun seethed at the interruption. “You go too far this time. Step aside and remember your place. I will not indulge your fantasies.”
The cook and handmaiden dashed up the aisle. “Go on,” Ludvika said, pushing Gabi forward. “Tell them what happened.”
“Begging your pardon,” Gabi said, clutching the hem of her white tunic, “but I know this girl. She’s the one who stopped me as I was delivering breakfast this morning.”
Keslai looked down her nose and sniffed. “I’ve never seen this fool.”
“It’s the truth, I swear. She . . .” Gabi’s face scrunched at the memory. “She spoke quietly and for a time all I could see was the sun. When she took her leave, I noticed the lid of the teapot was askew and set it right, thinking I must have stumbled. Now I fear something deadly was put inside, something that has yet to reveal itself in the mistress.”
Nadzia folded her arms over her stomach and gaped at her sister. “I remember the bitterness of the brew. You tried to poison me?”
“A drop of wormwood oil,” Keslai said, rolling her eyes. “Enough to disrupt your thinking, cause hallucinations. I’m not a killer.”
“Because the Fates were wrong to choose you instead of me. I wanted to show the gods you were too weak to join their ranks. The wormwood didn’t work, but you proved me right with all this talk about harmony. Haven’t you learned anything from your time at the Tree of Life? The Immortal world is as full of strife as the human one. Peace is for dullards, not gods. You’ll grow stale without passion.”
A whiff of sulfur. Veles surged up from a hole near the arch and whirled himself into godly guise. Perun lurched forward, sparks circling his wrists, but Nadzia pressed against him and shook her head. He relented. His brother posed no threat, not anymore.
“She’s right, you know, about passion,” Veles said. “Win or lose, I have no intention of abandoning my little intrigues. They add such zest to life.”
He eyed Keslai appreciatively, moistening his lips. “So you want to be a divine queen. I can make that happen.”
“I meant Perun,” she said, face scrunched as she swallowed heavily. “A man, not a snake.”
Veles rippled his scales sinuously. “You’ll find me far more skilled at pleasing a woman than any of those village dolts you’ve bedded—I’ve had plenty of practice in my realm. Do consider what I’ve offered while I make amends with my parents.”
He bowed to Dievas and Rodzenica. “Father, Mother, please accept my deepest apologies. My behavior was abysmal, the actions of a desperate, jealous fool. I have shamed our family. Let the Divine Council have its way with me.
“Nevertheless,” he added, winking at Keslai, “it would be a shame to let all these preparations go to waste. I will most happily take this ravishing spitfire as my wife, dusty robes and all. What say you? Is that an acceptable compromise?”
“You can’t!” Keslai cried. “I’m a child of the sea. I won’t be shut away in the earth.”
“A pity. I like saucy women.” Veles appealed to his mother. “She turned me down. What recourse do I have?”
Rodzenica’s eyes glittered. “If it’s the ocean you want—Keslai, is it?—I can have you chained to a rock in the sea and call out the Kraken to greet you. He is, if I recall correctly, quite fascinated by lusty redheads. I suggest you accept my son. The two of you are well matched.”
A dark flush crept up Keslai’s neck. She narrowed her eyes and glared at Nadzia. “And does this sit well with you, my queen? You demand the right to pursue your own desires and then stand silent while I’m given away without my consent?”
“It would be a most fitting end,” Nadzia said, frost in her voice, “one heartless schemer eternally pledged to another. Still, my sister speaks truly. I fought long and hard to determine my destiny. She must have the freedom to do so as well.”
“A noble gesture, my love,” Perun interrupted, “but this girl came to our wedding determined to make trouble. She must answer for her foul intentions.”
Nadzia sighed and turned to Rodzenica. “You told me once that you would not force a loveless marriage. My sister deserves the same consideration. That said, I agree with my husband—she cannot go unpunished. Why not take her on as a servant at the Tree of Life, where the Lord of the Underworld can court her to his heart’s content? She’ll have plenty of time to decide if his proposal has merit.”
“I’m the daughter of the sea,” Keslai said haughtily. “I serve Jūratė and no one else.”
Veles slithered to her side and entwined his arm with hers, ignoring her cringes. “Say yes, Mother, please. I believe she’ll suit me quite well. From what I’ve seen of her behavior here and at the Order, she’s quite the cunning one. I’ll never be bored. And I’m long overdue for a royal consort.”
“Take heed, child of the sea,” Rodzenica said, her voice deceptively calm. “Should you accept my son, I will not grant you immortality along with a crown. You can thank your sister for that. No divinity until you earn my trust.”
“You’ll need to be very, very good, my sweet,” Veles said, buzzing with pleasure. “Don’t fret. I know what Mother expects and I promise not to leave your side until I’ve molded you to her liking.”
His tongue flicked across Keslai’s cheek. “Cheer up, darling. Embrace your good fortune. So few get what they want in this world.”
Early the next morning, before the sun rose, Jūratė anointed her successor in the cave at Palanga, a ceremony attended by the Elders, dressed in shimmering turquoise robes. They kneeled in the torch-lit sand, eyes bright as the mermaid goddess relinquished her crown. She set the amber-and-pearl-studded tiara on Nadzia’s dark curls—long and loose, the way Perun liked them— and kissed both her cheeks. “Rise, my glorious daughter. Be ever mindful of the responsibility you have assumed. Watch over the creatures in your waters and let no one despoil their home. Treat your followers with wisdom tempered by kindness and bestow your blessings freely, for you well know the trials that mortals face.”
Nadzia tearfully accepted the embraces and good wishes of her witnesses. They raised glasses of mead, toasted the happy occasion, and eagerly set upon plates of freshly baked pastries. While the Elders celebrated, Jūratė beckoned Nadzia to a corner where jewel-studded goblets and a jug of nectar rested on a stone platter. “A gift from our brother, Veles,” she said with a low laugh. “He is most contrite. I trust you will find it in your heart to forgive him, as I have.”
“He wanted a daughter of Jūratė, and his wish was granted,” Nadzia responded blithely. “I’m sure he’ll be delighted with Keslai. Their lives will never be dull.”
Warm tranquility wafted through her body as she sipped the golden brew. No wonder the gods relished it so. She made a mental note to reserve extra vats for the dedication of her temple. Construction would begin soon, along with the restoration of Jūratė’s—now Nadzia’s—undersea palace in the cove.
Her homecoming had gone smoothly. The Elders were ecstatic over her divine stature and the novices treated her with friendly reverence. Villagers crowded the convent, eager to show their homage. The abbess was putting together a list of stonemasons and other craftsmen ready to earn coin. Already they were drawing up plans for her shrine.
There was some discussion over Nadzia’s official status. Who would the Order of Bursztyn worship now that there were two Immortals consecrated to its welfare? The solution proved remarkably simple. Jūratė would continue to mark her descendants and accept their veneration as the Blessed One, mother of all. As the newest goddess in Lithuania’s pantheon, Nadzia would receive formal worship, hence the shrine.
One question lingered. Nadzia had returned to the convent via the River Nemunas, swimming the entire distance underwater. Obviously, her lungs were no longer human. The rest of her body displayed subtle changes. She showed them now to Jūratė: the fish scales from her sheath that had melded with her skin, giving it a phosphorescent shine; the tiny gills on her neck; the faint webbing between her fingers.
But no sign of a tail. “Will I ever be a real mermaid?”
“I cannot say,” Jūratė answered. “Your creation was most unique. I suspect your final form will reveal itself in time.”
Nadzia waited at the shore of Palanga under a crescent moon. The vernal equinox began tonight. New season, new stars. A goat with the tail of a fish, a swan, an eagle. Perun’s constellation still shone overhead, as it did all year, but now a queen’s crown blazed beside it, a gift from Dievas and Rodzenica to celebrate their new daughter.
In the far corner of the cove, the amber walls of her palace—slowly coming together with the assistance of mermen from countries bordering the Baltic Sea—shimmered beneath the waters. On the public side of the beach, a rock-walled shrine sparkled with candlelight. Its formal dedication had been scheduled to coincide with the summer solstice, the day when Nadzia’s life had forever changed; the weather would be more favorable then, a boon to those traveling.
She rolled out a crick in her neck, wearied by her tasks. The sea was vast, and many sought to plunder its treasures—stealthy, crude, foul-smelling pirates. Their minds, thankfully, were easily controlled. Yet the news of her palace’s reassembly was an irresistible lure to thieves, requiring daily vigilance.
Beyond the need to mesmerize barbarians, Nadzia spent hours each day exploring the vast network of rivers and streams and lakes within Lithuania. She settled squabbles about fishing boundaries and made sure no one harmed a drop of her precious waters.
The convent, to Nadzia’s surprise, needed little supervision. Or perhaps not so surprising. After centuries of fending for itself, the Order thrived under a well-structured system of rules and expectations. She hadn’t had much time yet to linger with the abbess yet, a situation she hoped to remedy in the months and years to come.
A flash from the stars caught her gaze. Minutes later, Perun landed his ox and chariot in the gleaming white sands and reached for her. Nadzia’s heart fluttered at the sight, as it did each evening. Would she ever grow tired of seeing his face light up the moment he set eyes on her? She hoped not, just as she prayed her pulse would always quicken at his approach.
She took the hand he extended, welcomed his passionate embrace. His eyes burnished with desire when they stopped for breath. “Dearest Nadzia,” he said, kissing her fingers, “may I never forget the good fortune that brought us together.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, nipping at his ear. “I have it on good authority that the Fates are prepared to rectify any lapse on your part.”
Perun threw back his head and roared with laughter. “I doubt they’ll have to intercede, not when you stand ready to remind me of my proper station.”
He lifted her chin for another kiss. “Have I told you how much I adore you?”
“Hmm.” She pursed her lips, pretending to consider his question. “Not since yesterday.”
“Then I will remind you.” He turned Nadzia until she rested against him, nestled in his arms. “I love you, dearest Nadzia. More than I ever dreamed possible.”
She sighed, savoring his touch. “And I you.”
They stood in silence, watching ribbons of clouds drift across a midnight sky sprinkled with stars, their hearts beating as one until Nadzia roused, an unwelcome thought casting a pall over her happiness. It had been nagging at her for months, but she hadn’t wanted to broach the subject again and spoil their bliss. Yet her concerns would only build if she said nothing.
She gripped his hands with a strength that would have left a human gasping in pain. “The sliver from your enchanted stone saved me, but we both know that means you’ll never be whole. You won’t live as long as a true Immortal. How many years will we have?”
“As many as we are granted, my love,” Perun replied, his voice hoarse with emotion. “And I will treasure every single one.”
He released Nadzia and took hold of the reins. “It’s a glorious night. Where would you like to go?”
Nadzia gazed at him, her heart full. Why worry about what was to come? It wouldn’t change anything. Better to seize the moment and indulge in the joy it offered. She leaned against the railing and tapped the edge, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “Actually, I think it’s time your ox learned to follow my lead. May I have the reins?”
“As you wish, my love.”
She grinned and then called out a command, whooping with delight as the chariot rose in a brilliant flash of red.
When the sun crept over the horizon, Nadzia sent Perun to the cook’s cottage for her morning meal with special instructions for a bracing tea. She draped a shawl loosely around her nightdress and lingered in the doorway after he left, watching the day bloom in glorious colors of crimson and violet, copying birdcalls, all in a vain attempt to ease the worry roiling her stomach.
She’d gone over her plan with the god of storms until he could recite it without error. That gave her comfort. Yet she was keenly aware of elements beyond her control: Veles, the abbess, her sisters, the gods in attendance at the ceremony. Any one of them could frustrate her goal, intentionally or not.
At least she could count on her thunderous god. Nadzia brushed a finger across her lips, recalling his kisses, soft and then filled with passion, after they discussed what must be done. Strange, how learning of each other’s artifice should lead to a new intimacy, a new level of trust. She took it as a sign the Fates favored their quest and prayed their benevolence would hold through the day.
She pulled back from the doorsill in surprise at the sight of her servant bustling up the path with a tray until she remembered—Mokosh had promised the girl would recover in time to attend the wedding.
But Gabi looked far from well. Her eyes were glassy, and a drop of saliva slid down her chin. “I beg your pardon, mistress,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean to be late with your breakfast. One of your sisters stopped me to ask about the wedding and . . . I don’t recall much after that.”
“Don’t concern yourself about me. You look exhausted. Please, come sit for a while.” Nadzia took the tray and placed it on the table, settled her handmaiden in a chair, and brought her a glass of cool water from the pitcher kept atop a stand near the wardrobe. “I wasn’t expecting you,” she said, pulling up a seat beside her. “Has Perun gone elsewhere?”
“Ludvika wanted to talk to him about the feast. They sent me instead.” Gabi drained the glass, her color returning as she finished. “I don’t know what came over me. I felt fine when I set out.”
Nadzia’s brows crimped. Though it wasn’t a far walk from the servants’ cottage, the day already shimmered with heat. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve been out in the sun too long. I’ll ask Adomas to reserve a spot in the shade for you in the grove. I want you to be comfortable at the wedding. You’ve been a faithful servant.”
Gabi crossed and uncrossed her legs as she eyed the open door. “I should be going, there’s so much to do.”
“Hasn’t Ludvika hired people to help today?”
“Yes, but . . .” Gabi stared at the floor, hands clenched so tight her knuckles bulged. “The master told me you know I spied for him. I’m sorry.”
Nadzia gave the girl’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. “Believe me, I understand what it means to follow orders. You proved your loyalty. I won’t fault you for that.”
“May the Fates bless you today, mistress,” Gabi said, sighing with relief as she scrambled to her feet with a genuine smile. “A long and happy life to you.”
Perun strode in as she rushed out the door. “I’ve rarely seen that girl in such high spirits. Whatever did you say to her?”
“That she’s blameless for anything done on your behalf. I think she’ll be more at ease with us in the future.”
He nodded and uncovered the tray, filled with blini, salmon, sour cream, fresh strawberries, and a pot of black tea. “I suspect you’re anxious. Still, you need to be strong for what lies ahead. A good meal will sustain you. Let’s begin with the drink you requested.”
Nadzia took the stone mug he offered, sipped, and shuddered at the bitterness. “Ugh. I know I asked for a strong brew, but this is vile.”
“A bit of honey should fix that.” Perun reached for the small jar of golden syrup. His hand lingered above several pieces of beeswax piled on a plate next to it. “Ludvika was puzzled that you wanted both until I explained you intended this for Babilos, to thank him for the sustenance he provided when you visited the Tree of Life.”
Nadzia’s eyes flicked to the hearth and then back again. “I know he has his own hives, but I thought he’d enjoy something regional.”
“He has a robust appetite,” Perun agreed, moving to sit beside her. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate the gesture.”
Nadzia speared a forkful of pancake and paused. “You don’t eat much human food. Does it take on a different flavor when you’re divine?”
“A question only you can answer, as I’ve never possessed a human palate. I suspect, given how much Babilos enjoys his meals, that you will continue to find it delicious.” Perun stretched, deftly palmed a slice of beeswax, and moved to the dresser, rifling through the drawers. “Have you chosen today’s gown?”
“The convent brought one. It’s ivory silk, quite plain.”
“Hardly adequate for so wondrous a bride. You deserve better.”
Nadzia shrugged. “Unless you have a seamstress at your beck and call, it will have to suffice.”
“Nothing so pedestrian, my love. Ah, at last!”
Nadzia followed his gaze. A whirl of black, two giant ravens, flew near and hovered above the cottage door. Perun stepped outside and caught the two parcels they dropped—one wrapped in white linen and tied with red ribbons, the other a roll of parchment. He carried both packages to the bed, tore open the message, and cursed softly. “My parents insist you prepare for the wedding alone. I must wait with them until the ceremony begins.”
“It’s a common practice. The groom isn’t meant to see the bride until she joins him at the altar. Anticipation makes the heart grow fonder, or so I’ve heard.”
Perun’s eyes grew misty. “What a glorious sight you will be. Mother assured me the gown she commissioned from the Laumes is like no other.”
“She asked the fairies to make me a wedding dress? Oh, it’s bound to be lovely.” Nadzia pushed back her chair and sprang to her feet, eager to see what they’d devised. A surge of dizziness swept over her. She sat down heavily, panting, and waited for the room to stop spinning.
Perun was at her side in a flash, his face dark with concern. “What’s wrong? You’ve gone pale.”
“I’m fine,” she said with a tiny laugh. “Too much excitement, I think. You must thank Rodzenica for me. I never expected so wondrous a gift.”
“You can show your appreciation in a few hours. We will be waiting at the grove when the sun peaks.” Perun bent down and kissed her cheek. “If we fail,” he murmured, “I fear no one will survive my father’s rage.”
She rose and folded herself into his arms, speaking in a voice too soft for anyone else to hear. “Then we must hope the Fates grant us success.”
He held her until the ravens began to squawk, and then stepped outside. With a wink, he morphed into an eagle and took to the sky, the glossy, black birds flanking him.
Nadzia watched until he was a mere dot and then sat down again, staring blankly at her plate. No wonder she felt weak. She’d barely touched her food.
She ate slowly, washing down each mouthful with a swig of honey-laced tea. Finally unable to swallow another bite, she left the table, settled in the rocking chair, and listened as the camp came alive. She wished she had enough wax to stop up every mortal’s ear once the abbess and her sisters began keening. It didn’t matter that Veles had promised a remedy for them afterwards. They’d still suffer.
The rhythm of rocking lulled her into a light sleep. She woke suddenly, startled by movement in the cottage, and glimpsed Gabi leaving with her breakfast tray. By the angle of the sun, she judged it late morning. She rose slowly, her head buzzing. If this was nerves, she had time for one last remedy: a long swim. Swapping her nightgown for a simple linen shift, she headed for the river.
Perun’s followers called out from their campsites, wishing her all the best. She waved to them, her limbs as loose and wobbly as a marionette. The path lengthened and then shortened as she walked. Each step demanded her full attention, one false move certain to send her tumbling.
As she passed the garden, Adomas tossed an apple over the fence. She caught it and then cringed as the red skin split open and revealed a swarm of maggots. Fighting back nausea, she let the fruit fall and trudged on, willing herself forward in the heat.
Her spirits revived at the sight of the dock. The shorebirds scattered as she sloshed through the reeds and dived into the blessedly cool water. Every pore drank in the soothing moisture. She drifted along the river bottom, letting the water restore her senses, marveling at the way the sun sparkled underwater, delighting in the currents that carried her southward, when a huge black-and-gold snake shot into the river from a hole in the banks and flashed its fangs.
Gods be damned, would Veles never let her be?
He herded Nadzia like a sheepdog, forcing her back until they were at the dock. Words rippled through the water, echoing in her mind. “This isn’t the time for a random journey, dear girl. Once you are my queen, we will explore the river to your heart’s content. Go back to your cottage and make yourself pretty. It’s almost time for your next performance.”
Nadzia waded through reeds and climbed up the banks, awestruck by the brightness and clarity around her. The air glimmered with a colorful sheen. Vibrant auras encased Perun’s followers. Rainbows arced over the high priests’ tent. She opened her arms, embracing the world, certain that the wonders at hand were a sign she was attuned to the glory of life, her endeavor blessed.
Her newfound joy evaporated at the sight of a golden-haired figure clasping a bag outside the cottage. “Have you lost your mind?” Keslai snapped as she approached. “We have to get you ready.”
“I can take care of myself,” Nadzia groused, her tone as peevish as her sister’s.
“Mother Gintare insists. She isn’t completely sure of you. With good reason, I’d say. You should be here, praying for success, not disappearing without a word.”
“I needed to swim. It relaxes me.”
“You’ll have plenty of time for that later,” Keslai sniffed. “Come inside, it’s time to dress you and fix your hair. The ceremony begins in less than an hour.”
The fairy-crafted gown was everything Nadzia could have imagined and more: silk the color of a storm-tossed sea, a bodice embroidered with tiny pearls, a hem that shimmered like the stars when she twirled.
Keslai eyed her with open malice, lips drawn back in scorn. “Good thing they gave you such a fine dress. It’ll draw attention from how drab you are. I would have made a beautiful bride no matter what I wore.”
Though the words stung, Nadzia wished she could offer solace, knowing how desperately her sister had wanted to be the thunder god’s mate. Yet she knew too well that any sign of empathy would elicit even more venom. She pulled out a chair from the table and sat, careful to pull the gown around her so the train wouldn’t get trampled, and hummed while Keslai tended to her hair, braiding, coiling, and pinning stray curls in place with tiny white starfish.
“I suppose you’ll do,” Keslai said finally, putting down her comb with a huff. “Not that it matters. You’ll be a mess by the time we’re done.”
Nadzia’s skin prickled. She shook away the disquiet. She wouldn’t fail. She couldn’t.
The ravens returned, screeching. “That must mean it’s time to go. Shoo them away, would you, Keslai?”
“Afraid they’ll ruin your precious gown with droppings?”
“I don’t think they care whose clothes or hair they ruin. There’s a poker by the fireplace if you need it.”
While Keslai banished the birds, Nadzia rushed to her dresser. She grabbed the wax Perun had stashed there, rolled it into two balls, and hid them in her bodice.
“Let’s be on our way,” Keslai called impatiently. “Time to show these gods what the daughters of Jūratė can do.”
A relentless sun blazed in the white-hot sky. Overhead, eagles circled, whistling shrilly. Specks of colored light danced across the path. Nadzia snuck a glance at Keslai, walking alongside her with a curiously smug look, and steadied her breath, determined to overcome any lingering stress.
At top of the hill, a mossy aisle led to the clearing circled by Perun’s sacred oaks, each tree adorned with black ribbons. Dievas and Rodzenica, dazzling in golden raiment and wreathed in smiles, stood beneath a gigantic white arch. The thunder god’s fragrant purple roses rambled up its sides and across the top. Deities who had chosen to attend—the same thirty or so who’d shown up for Nadzia’s presentation at court—clustered behind them. Her groom paced on the right, gripping ebony robes.
Mokosh, stunning in a forest-green gown, greeted the sisters. She instructed Keslai to continue ahead and join the other novices to the left of the arch, then gave Nadzia a bouquet of orange blossoms, lilies, and white roses—a traditional Lithuanian bridal spray. “No veil or ornaments for the head. Not when there’s a crown waiting for you.”
She kissed Nadzia on both cheeks. “Bless you for helping us find vengeance at last.”
Nadzia’s face grew hot. She longed to speak freely, tell Mokosh that she’d chosen a different path, but the words lodged in her throat. There’d be time enough for explanations later. If she survived.
The flowers in her hands bloomed and faded and then bloomed again. Her spine was slick with sweat. Nadzia pinched her forearm to steady herself. Heat and nerves, that’s all this was, just like when she called out Perun’s stone. With luck, the wedding would be over quickly. She hadn’t thought to ask earlier. “Will the ceremony take all afternoon?”
Mokosh used the sleeve of her gown to dab at the beads of sweat peppering Nadzia’s forehead. “We gods aren’t particularly fond of overlong rituals. Not when there are festivities awaiting. The Great Hall is ablaze with jewels and candles and gold-threaded tapestries. The tables are set with the finest pitchers and goblets. It’s even rumored the Queen of the Fairies will come and dance in your honor.”
A rousing strain of music blared from the heavens. “I must join the others,” Mokosh said with a comforting smile. “Be strong and remember those who are with you.”
Nadzia gulped a mouthful of air and stepped onto the moss, imagining it as a flat field of cooling, soothing kelp. The exhilarating notes transformed into a melody sweeter than a dove’s coo. Heart in mouth, she proceeded up the deep green path, her slow, deliberate steps matching the music’s gentle cadence.
The servants, dressed in white, greeted her from the back rows. Nadzia quailed as they briefly transformed into long-beaked storks. Gods, what was wrong with her? She hastily returned her attention to the ground. Perun’s followers cheered as she continued toward the arch. They tossed grains of wheat, carpeting the path with tokens of prosperity. Nadzia choked in revulsion as the tiny specks wriggled to life and squished under her sandals.
Desperate for assurance she wasn’t losing her mind, Nadzia searched for the Elders. She spotted them, cloaked in gray and interspersed amongst the crowd, the abbess studying her with grim wariness. Wondering why they weren’t closer to their targets, she saw that Perun’s priests had appropriated the front rows. It didn’t matter, she decided. A siren’s voice would resound throughout the clearing.
She’d almost finished her promenade when Keslai leaned into the aisle. “You look terrified,” she said, a sly shine in her eyes. “It isn’t too late to admit this is all too much. Just say the word and I’ll take your place.”
Nadzia clenched her jaw and walked proud, her sister’s gall erasing every last bit of nervousness. She stopped under the arch and breathed in the fragrance of Perun’s flowers, relishing their sweet aroma. The god of storms moved to her side and tucked her arm under his elbow. “You are a vision, my love,” he said, bending down to graze her cheek. “Fates grant us victory.”
The pendant at her neck pulsed so fiercely she feared it might burst. She drew courage from that, knowing that his heart beat with equal fervor, that they were bound together in desperate hope. She sent a final prayer to the goddess he once loved. Watch over us, Blessed One. Help us triumph.
Perun bowed to his parents. “Dearest Mother and Father. I thank you for the precious gift of life, for your care and guidance. If I have been ungrateful, if I have caused you pain, I ask your forgiveness. Grant me your blessing.”
“I have nurtured you through times of toil and years of longing,” Rodzenica said, her violet eyes awash with tears, “certain you would find happiness one day. My wish for you is a love that grows ever stronger and sustains you through difficulties. Marriage is a daily tangle of wills. Do not fear compromise. It is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Dievas clamped a hand on Perun’s shoulder. “My son, it gives me the greatest of pleasure to see you wedded at last, and to such a charming girl. May she bring you everlasting joy.”
His tone became solemn. “What is joined together today shall not be torn asunder by mortal or god. Do you pledge to hold this union sacred?”
“I do.” Perun’s assent boomed over the gathering.
Dievas turned to Nadzia, his gaze piercing. “Daughter of Jūratė, your presence here is a balm to our spirits. Do you give your assent on this hallowed occasion?”
Nadzia swallowed in a mouth gone dry as bone. “I do.”
Perun gathered her in an embrace, his kiss long and fervent. Cloaked by his robes, she reached into her bodice and then raised her arms, seeming to caress his ears as she plugged them with wax. “May the Fates watch over us and keep us safe.”
He swiveled and presented her to the crowd. They shouted huzzahs and whistled their approval, stomping the ground. As they cheered, a servant appeared with a thick scarlet cushion, a jeweled knife resting on its top.
Nadzia watched, heart banging against her ribs, as the goddess took the dagger and pulled aside her son’s robes. He stood unflinching while she slashed open his chest, exposing his massive heart. The assembly quieted, struck dumb by the divine force pulsing before them.
The giant red muscle swelled and ebbed, pumping in a hypnotic rhythm echoed by the jewel at Nadzia’s breast. She inched closer, breath hitching, unclasped her necklace and placed the amber in Rodzenica’s hand.
The goddess drew a slit into the pendant, gently drew out the fragment inside, and lifted it high, for all to see. “Now shall the god of thunder be made whole again.”
She lowered her hand and whispered. “Bless you, dear Nadzia, for loving my son.”
A harsh wailing, as keen as the blade in Rodzenica’s hand, ruptured the air. Perun’s disciples crumpled to the ground in agony. Dievas and his children clamped their hands to their heads and fell to their knees, howling. Rodzenica’s face twisted into a furious grimace. She lost her grip on the knife and sliver. Both fell to the moss as she lurched, shrieking, into the rows of high priests.
The Elders and novices pushed past writhing bodies. Their voices rose in increasing fervor as they strode toward the arch, arms linked. Perun scrabbled at his ears, floundering under their assault. He gave Nadzia one last, searching look, and then toppled, crashing to the ground with a dull thud.
She moved as if in a dream. The crimson lump of Perun’s heart, inches away, quivered as she reached for it with a trembling hand. Her fingers went numb, and she clutched without finding purchase. Blessed One, help me!
Haunting cries at her back cut through the stupor. She snapped to attention, her mental fog vanquished, and grabbed, blood squishing in her palm as she captured the divine essence that meant life or death.
The piercing wails ceased. Gods and mortals staggered about, moaning. This was the time to speak out, while everyone was still reeling from the attack. Nadzia called upon the power within, searched for the abbess, and addressed her in the boldest, most confident tone she could muster. “I will not let you hurt him. We are meant to be together, to rule the sea and sky.”
“Hold true to your vow,” Mother Gintare shouted, striding forward. “We must avenge the Blessed One.”
Veles whirled into place next to the abbess and slithered close, his words hushed and fearful. “Come along, my sweet. We must leave before my parents regain their senses and punish you. Once you’re mine, I’ll keep you safe.”
Nadzia recoiled from the scaly god’s rancid breath. “I don’t want you,” she said, all but spitting in Veles’s ashen face. “Go back to your foul realm. I’ll never be yours.”
The slits in his eyes widened in surprise. “Think carefully,” he warned. “Wait too long and you’ll suffer. The gods don’t take kindly to tricksters.”
“Perhaps not, but they’ll listen to me as long as I hold Perun’s heart. It’s time to end this. We have to live for the future, not fester over the past. I won’t relent until your father makes me a goddess and agrees to forgive everyone who has plotted against him.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Veles pleaded. “Jūratė’s children cannot sing forever, and my mother is looking particularly fierce. I expect she’ll have no problem convincing my brethren to pin down your sisters while she cuts out their tongues. Not a pretty sight for such tender eyes.”
“Oh, she will, my dear. In a heartbeat.” Veles grinned, black fangs flashing in the sunlight. “Then I expect she’ll want to torture them. I know you’re not ready for that.”
Mother Gintare stroked her throat. “Heed his words, child. Our voices are strong, but they will not withstand a continuous onslaught if Dievas fights back. Nor was that our intent. Go with him while you still can. What happens to us is not your concern. We are prepared for whatever the gods inflict as long as we know Perun will not live forever.”
“There’s no need for anyone to be harmed.” Nadzia turned her attention to Veles. “And you forget: if Rodzenica punishes the convent, your cabal will be next.”
Rasping laughter greeted her words. “Once the convent’s traitors are silenced, who will speak of our conspiracy? You can’t possibly believe my parents will give credence to anything you say.”
“They will. They must.”
Veles’s mocking smile vanished as he pointed to the crowd. “Look, do you see? Rodzenica is coming back to herself. If we aren’t gone by the time she reaches us, I’ll have to spin a tale, just as I promised when we sat together in the thunder god’s temple. You do remember, don’t you? A simple story about how you seduced me with your voice and then persuaded me to conceal Perun’s heart, all to avenge the Order of Bursztyn? It won’t take much to convince my mother, I assure you. I’ve never seen her so livid.”
“She won’t dare cross me. Not while her son’s life is in my hands.”
“I don’t know what led you to betray your sisters, but I assure you, the gods will prevail. They always have, they always will. Steal away with me before my mother smites you.”
Rodzenica towered above the fallen priests, her face cold and bleak as death. Dievas and his children roared with outrage as they stumbled upright behind the arch and formed a mass of seething divinity. Veles tugged at Nadzia’s arm. “You’re running out of time.”
Perun leapt to his feet, eyes red as coals, and pointed a smoldering arm at his brother. “You shall not have her.”
Before Nadzia realized what was happening, Veles was clasping her before him in a divine grip, impossible to break. “Oh, what a clever farce. You aren’t hurt at all, are you? However did the two of you manage that?:
“Uh, uh, uh,” he cautioned as Perun advanced, sparks coursing from his hands. “Careful now, brother. Mustn’t hurt the bride.”
Mother Gintare gaped at Veles, her face etched with revulsion as understanding dawned. “You would dare use my daughter as a shield? Leave her be!”
“Bend your head, my love,” Perun called out as balls of fire appeared in his palms. “I don’t want to harm you.”
Veles’s tail snaked around Nadzia, pinning her in place. His hands circled her neck and squeezed. “I can take your charming bride alive or claim her as a corpse. The choice is yours, brother.”
The god of storms took aim. Nadzia, gasping, shook her head, silently pleading with him to stop. But he was too consumed with fury, blinded to all else, and she had no way to tell him that as long as she drew breath she wouldn’t rest until she found a way back to him.
She choked as the abbess darted in front of her, arms spread wide in protection. “I said, leave my daughter be!”
“Gintare, no!” Veles’s tail loosened as he cried out in dismay. Taking advantage of his distraction, Nadzia slipped free and pushed the old woman out of harm’s way.
Perun saw her too late. He shouted in horror as his flaming missile pierced Nadzia’s chest. She peered down in disbelief at the blood seeping into the pearls of her bodice and collapsed.
“Gods save us, what have I done?” Perun pulled out the clumps of wax blocking his ears and raced to Nadzia’s side. He kneeled, gathered her in his arms, rocking her as he wept, grief-stricken. “Why did you move?”
Nadzia coughed and wiped her mouth. Her fingers came away streaked with red. “We promised not to hurt anyone.”
She traced the slit in Perun’s chest, her voice a wisp of sorrow and longing. “You must swear to protect the Order in my stead. Do you promise?”
“Always. Forever.” Perun closed his hand over hers and searched the crowd for Dievas, found him leaning against the arch, his face stippled with indignation. “Father, there must be something you can do. Help me!”
Dievas snorted and extended a hand to his wife, making her way to him among the groaning mortals. “I offer no assistance to anyone who betrays me, and neither will your mother.”
“This is a plight of your own design,” Rodzenica said, her posture rigid as she joined her husband. “Do not look to us for compassion. Nadzia violated our trust, fed us lies. I shall take enormous pleasure in watching her perish. She won’t survive much longer.”
“Stay with me, my love,” Perun sobbed, cradling her. “Don’t leave me alone.”
Veles sidled closer. “How unfortunate. I would have preferred her unmolested.”
“This is your fault!” Perun growled. “My bride and I would be celebrating our union had you not meddled. I swear you will not live to see the night.”
“Come now, brother, you haven’t the power to slay another Immortal. Haven’t our battles taught you as much?” Veles gave a derisive bow. “I never thought I’d be grateful to you, but thanks to your rage this little darling will soon be at my side forever. The dead can’t return to life, no matter how much you wish for it. What a delightful turn of events.”
“Silence!” Dievas flung a bolt of white light that sent the god of the Underworld sprawling. “You will explain your part in this treachery later. Return to your domain—unless you wish us to pass judgment on you while our heads still ache.”
“I’ve broken no laws,” Veles remarked casually as he rose, flicking off bits of moss stuck to his scales. “I simply gave the poor girl a better choice. I’m happy to go, as long as she comes with me.”
Dievas stomped his foot. The earth beneath him quaked and split open, releasing clouds of sizzling mist. “She is worse than Jūratė, for she hid her deceit behind the guise of innocence. I warn you, do not interfere. She will remain here until we decide her future. Depart now, of your own accord, or I will imprison you in one of my dungeons and forget I have the key.”
Veles hissed and fled through the crowd. Perun’s disciples clambered to their feet as he passed. “Give her to the god of the dead,” the priests shouted. “She’s a traitor, a liar, a cheat. She deceived the one who loved her. She deserves to die!”
“A murderous beast beguiled her,” Mother Gintare cried, storming toward Dievas. “He is the one who should perish. How many times will you let him kill without consequence?”
Mokosh stepped forward, green eyes sparking. “If Nadzia has been false, you need look no further than yourself and the Divine Council as the cause, Father. You forced her into a situation without ever considering what she wanted.”
“Mortals,” Dievas countered savagely, “are bound to obey the will of the gods.”
“What proof is there that Nadzia—not the convent—meant to harm you? You have none.” Mokosh turned to Perun. “Obviously, you did not plan for this. What was your intent?”
He hesitated, knowing his sister had supported the Order’s rebellion. He could accuse her of complicity, but he had no assurance anyone would corroborate his claim, which she was certain to deny. Perhaps this was a ruse meant to focus attention on him instead of the conspirators.
Whatever her objective, he had no choice but to answer. “We were going to demand she be made immortal before my heart was restored. We thought it would keep the convent safe and prevent Veles from claiming her.”
He appealed again to his father. “Do something, I beg you. I can’t bear to lose her.”
“Never. You cast your lot with a renegade. I owe you nothing.” Dievas addressed the crowd in his mightiest voice. “See now the fate of those who provoke the gods,” he roared. “Heed my words: I shall strike down any deity or human who dares intervene.”
Rodzenica, mouth twisted in a feral grin, placed a hand on his arm. “Perhaps we need do nothing. Recall, if you will, what the girl said: she doesn’t want to go to Veles’s ‘foul realm.’ What better reward for her treachery than to send her to a place she dreads, where every day will be a reminder of all she has lost?”
“So shall it be. Death and despair.”
Nadzia uttered a harrowing cry. She tugged Perun close and whispered in his ear. “I won’t give myself to Veles. You’re the only one I’ll ever love.”
She kissed his cheek, gave him one last look full of love, and then sagged, lifeless.
Rodzenica flung out her arms. “Heed what you have witnessed, mortals. The justice of the gods ever triumphs. Return to your homes and spread the tale of what has transpired. It is futile to defy us. All who try are doomed, as these vile creatures from Palanga will soon learn.”
Fresh wails arose from the daughters of Jūratė as they moved to surround their sister. The god of storms’ followers stumbled over each other in their haste to break away, keeping clear of the women from the convent. Perun entreated his father a final time. “Spare her, please. She is not to blame for the actions of her sisters. She wanted to join us.”
“Did that scheming siren drain your manhood?” Dievas sneered at his son. “Stop blubbering. You were bewitched. A clever ploy, but it failed.”
The abbess, hunched with grief, motioned to the Elders. “We must hasten to the river and find a boatman to transport my daughter home.”
Perun clung to the body in his arms. “You cannot have her!”
“She is a child of the sea and deserves a proper burial. Do not think to stop us. Our resolve is newly stirred. We will sing until your heads burst.”
Perun’s vision turned red. These harridans would not take his beloved, not while he still lived and breathed. He lowered Nadzia to the moss, sat back on his heels, and summoned more balls of fire. “And I will burn your tongues to ash. She will lie within my temple, with full honors, as befits the maiden I cherished.”
The air grew heavy with the promise of battle. Birds ceased their chirping and took flight. The abbess and her retinue began a low hum. Perun closed his eyes, wearily imagining the world Nadzia wanted. A world of peace, not strife. A world made better by their love. She’d been ready to risk her life for that. They both had.
His eyes flew open. Where was the missing piece of his heart? He searched frantically and found it, blessedly untouched, mere inches from Nadzia’s body, along with his mother’s knife. Rodzenica startled and pressed forward, seeming to guess his purpose, but he seized both, leaving her grasping at empty air. “This is my heart,” he said, meeting her gaze with steely determination, “my choice.”
He carefully positioned the dagger, opened the spot where his fiery bolt had penetrated Nadzia’s breast, and eased the red sliver inside. “Come back to me, my love. I don’t want to live without you.”