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THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 27, 28

Nadzia devises a plan to thwart Veles and introduces Perun to the Order of Brusztyn’s delegation. Keslai attempts to seduce the god of storms during a chariot ride.

For previous chapters, click here.

 

CHAPTER 27

Nadzia

Sleep came in fits and starts that night, strewn with nightmares of sitting in a throne beside Veles, a blood-curdling prospect. Nadzia had sensed something peculiar behind his eagerness to help, suspected his motive went beyond love for Jūratė and hatred for his brother, but she never dreamed he’d try to blackmail a daughter of the mermaid goddess into becoming his dead queen.

She had a grudging respect for his guile. Rodzenica and Dievas had been told the rumors of a plot against them, their son’s claims of magical coercion would be met with unquestioning acceptance. They would act swiftly, Nadzia imagined, perhaps even put her on trial as they had Jūratė. She could expect no mercy once the Immortal Council learned the truth. And she carried scant hope the Order of Bursztyn would survive after the unveiling of its treacherous scheme.

The hours passed with excruciating slowness, true rest a vain fancy. Even after shutting the cottage windows, the noise from Perun and his followers, carousing in the meadow, seeped through the glass. Drinking songs, cheers, roars of laughter, impossible to ignore. Nadzia longed for a quiet place to try and sort out matters. The temple, with its thick walls, might provide a buffer against noise, but Veles had spoiled that refuge for her.

Tired of tossing and turning, Nadzia slid out of bed and settled in the chair by the window, wrapped in her quilt against the pre-dawn chill. In the distance, the light from campfires dwindled as the sky paled, the horizon a swath of pink. She rocked back and forth, breathing steadily—three counts in, hold, three counts out—and waited for her mind to still. Five centuries of resistance couldn’t end with Veles triumphant.

The best way to outwit him required her sisters’ help. If the novices and Elders allowed the wedding to proceed normally—no keening, no crippling cries—the gods would retain their full powers. Veles would lose his chance to grab Perun’s heart.

She clutched the quilt tighter and brought her knees up to her chest. Securing the convent’s aid meant winning over the abbess, a daunting prospect given the old woman’s life-long antipathy toward the god of storms. But if Mother Gintare could be swayed, the others would certainly follow. Nadzia had to try.

When dawn broke, she slipped into a gown of blue silk, threw on the woolen shawl she’d brought back from Palanga, laced up her sandals, and made her way toward the convent’s area. The abbess followed a predictable schedule in Palanga, odds were she’d do the same in Kaunas. What better way to court the old woman’s favor than by joining her for morning prayers?

Nadzia walked up and over the hill, reveling in the flowers that painted the meadows in a riot of color. Wisps of clouds stretched across a bright blue sky. To her right, within a circle of brown tents, women cooked ashcakes in the coals of a central firepit. They nodded as she passed, some adding a hand to their heart. She acknowledged their welcome with a warm smile and made a mental note to meet with them after her time with the abbess.

Perun emerged from a tent close to the path, his eyes rimmed red, and hailed her. Nadzia tamped down the irritation that flared at his disheveled appearance. The sour tang of beer permeated his robes, as if he’d bathed in the brew during the night’s revelry. Nose wrinkling, she held him at arms’ length when he leaned in for an embrace. “I trust your followers are properly settled?”

He flinched at the rebuke in her voice. “Did we disturb you?”

“My guests,” she replied, after a long silence that left him shifting from foot to foot, “are entitled to peace and quiet. I expect you to show them more courtesy in the future.”

“I shall apologize at once.”

“Not until you’ve cleaned up,” Nadzia said, nudging him toward the river. “You reek of drink. Come join us in an hour or so, after we’ve finished our devotions.”

“As you wish, my love.” Perun kissed the top of her head and headed toward the dock.

The Elders and novices were setting out blankets on the dew-tipped ground when Nadzia arrived. Dark circles, puffy eyes, and bouts of yawning revealed they’d spent a night as sleepless as her own. Keslai waited at the edge of their circle and offered a tight-lipped smile, nodding at Perun as he strode toward the pier. “I hope you told him to keep his followers in line.”

“He was most apologetic. It will not happen again.”

Keslai’s laugh was full of scorn. “So you’ve tamed him? He must not have been as fierce as we thought, to be gentled so quickly.”

“Make no mistake, sister, he’s fiery and wild,” Nadzia said, nettled by the assumption that she lacked the ability to charm or seduce. “As tempestuous as the squalls he summons. If he appears less so, consider it a mark of my success. I’ve brought out warmth of a different kind, his softer side. You’ll see for yourself soon.”

“He’s joining us?” Keslai stood taller and wet her lips.

“When we’ve completed our prayers.” Nadzia chose a blanket, folded it into a cushion and kneeled, wondering if her sister’s enthusiasm might influence the abbess. Despite Keslai’s cruel words on the beach after Perun’s stone was summoned, Mother Gintare had granted her permission to attend the wedding. Did she have a sentimental attachment to the girl? Maybe convincing Keslai was the way to start. A difficult task, considering they weren’t friends. Risky as well. Could she trust a novice who’d wished her dead?

The abbess began her invocation. Keslai made the sign of respect—cupped hand to forehead, lips, heart—and whispered out of the side of her mouth. “Will you introduce me to him first?”

“That honor belongs to Mother Gintare, followed by the Elders, then the novices. Hush, please, we must show reverence as we pray.”

As the hour progressed, Keslai played with her braid, smoothed her plain white gown, twirled the amber bracelets dangling from her wrists. Nadzia half expected the girl to burst from impatience.

When the abbess delivered final blessings, Keslai jumped to her feet and squealed like a young girl with a new toy, waving at the path where Perun waited. “Over here! Over here!”

“Do not encourage him,” Mother chided. “He is our enemy.” She arranged the Elders in a line and placed Keslai behind her with four other novices who’d come with the group.

“I thought we agreed to be civil,” Keslai said, leaning forward. “He’ll know something is wrong if we stand here like statues. We want to put him at ease, isn’t that what you said? Bright smiles all around?”

Mother huffed but curved her mouth and crinkled her eyes. They widened in surprise as Perun approached and fell to one knee, his gaze fixed and earnest. “Please forgive last night’s clamor. I was so happy to be amongst my disciples I neglected to consider how our celebrations might disturb others. We shall not intrude on your rest again. If there is anything I can do to make you and yours comfortable, advise me or one of my servants. This is a joyous occasion. I am delighted and honored you have come.”

“We were pleased to receive an invitation,” the abbess replied, her cheeks tinged with splotches of red. “Our sister is a most fortunate young woman. Please stand so that she may proceed with formal introductions.”

“Of course.” Nadzia tucked her elbow into the god’s arm as he rose. “You are speaking with Mother Gintare, abbess of the Order of Bursztyn.”

Perun bowed and reached for the old woman’s hand, bestowing a kiss on her fingers before releasing them. “Thank you for raising such a magnificent young lady. Nadzia is all I could have hoped for and more.”

A muscle twitched in Mother’s jaw. Her smile faltered, and for a moment Nadzia feared her façade would crumble. But the abbess was nothing if not disciplined. She nodded and turned to the woman beside her. “I rely on the Elders to assist me in running the convent and training the girls. Sister Ramuna teaches history.”

“A pleasure to meet you.” Perun tilted his head at the tall, raven-haired woman. “I’m curious. Do your lessons include the gods?”

“Our champion must know everything she can about the Immortals.”

Perun raised his brow and peered down at Nadzia with a lopsided smile. “Champion? Are we at war?”

“I believe she means that the one chosen by the Fates should be well-versed in the world she will enter.” Nadzia pursed her lips and gave the Elder a piercing stare.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Sister Ramuna added hastily. “She is to be a goddess after all. I can’t wait to see her transformed.”

“Nor I.” Perun moved on. “And next we have…?”

“Our voice instructor, Sister Dain.”

“I salute your excellent work. Nadzia has charmed everyone she meets with her dulcet intonations. You must possess a fine talent, to inspire such sweet sounds.”

Sister Dain smoothed back an errant blonde hair. “We are the daughters of a mermaid. It is she who deserves the glory.”

The muscles in Perun’s arm tightened. Nadzia gave him a quick squeeze. “And we are forever grateful for the gift she gave us, Sister Dain, are we not?”

“Our success in life depends on it.”

Perun released a long breath. “I am happy you have thrived. And now…?”

“Sister Bronis runs the garden and oversees our meadery.”

“I suspect my gardener, Adomas, will be even more pleased to meet you than I am,” Perun said with a wink. “He has taken a liking to the bottles of honeyed wine you’ve sent. I believe he would enjoy discussing how your mead is brewed. May I send him to you?”

Sister Bronis’s sage-green eyes lit up. “I’ve no objection. He can sample the batch I brought for the wedding. I’m not sure if it aged long enough. Are you certain he won’t mind?  I don’t want to interrupt his work. You have a large crowd to feed.”

“Rest assured, dear sister, we have provisions for this many and more. I shall ask Adomas to visit this afternoon, although you are welcome to call upon him instead if you like. His garden is just over the ridge. And now, the last of the Elders?”

“You and Sister Saule have a lot in common,” Nadzia said, greeting her favorite teacher with a hug. “She studies the heavens and taught me to love the stars.”

“A fascinating realm,” Perun said. “One that continually astounds and delights.”

Sister Saule looked at him with undisguised envy. “You can visit whenever you like. It must be a wonderfully divine experience.”

“I have taken Nadzia to my constellation.” Perun stopped and considered the lean-boned woman gazing wistfully at the sky. “I can bring you there as well.”

“Would you?” Sister Saule stepped forward, hands pressed to her lips, and then ducked back, dropping her arms and head. “With the abbess’s permission, of course.”

Mother Gintare nodded crisply. “A generous offer, but the Elders and I have convent matters to discuss.”

“What about a novice?” Nadzia said, delighted that Perun had offered this boon without any urging on her part. She sent a silent plea to the Fates, asking that her sister become a true collaborator, open to seeing the god of storms with new eyes and passing along her impressions to the abbess. “As I recall, Keslai is fond of astrology. Might she go instead?”

“All are welcome to travel in my chariot.” Perun searched the second line of women. “Which of these lovely young ladies might she be?”

His jaw twitched as Keslai squeezed past the abbess and stopped inches away, trailing a finger down her neck to the top of a gown that emphasized her ample cleavage. “Shall we leave at sunset?” she said, her voice low and enticing. “I can’t wait to spend a night in heaven with a god.”

If Nadzia didn’t need Keslai as an ally, she might have laughed out loud at her sister’s brazen behavior. “You’ll be there an hour or so at the most,” she said. “Mortals must limit their exposure. And you’ll need a cloak for the journey. The air grows colder the higher you fly.”

“I’m sure the creator of fire and lightning knows how to keep me warm,” Keslai said, toying with the amber bracelets on her wrist as Perun’s ears flamed red. “Don’t worry about me, sister. I’ll be in very good hands.”

CHAPTER 28

Perun

The sun melted into the horizon, flooding the sky with lemon-gold light, gilding faces turned upward in delight. Crickets began their nightly chorus, serenading Perun as he departed his temple. He checked his chariot and white ox, waiting outside for the coming journey, and retreated into the barn. Leaning against his beast’s stall, he hooked a thumb into the top of his loincloth and watched day bleed into night. The building smelled of dried grasses, clover, and over-ripe fruits, part of the forage stored within. He took comfort in its familiarity, the privacy it offered when he needed to think.

After centuries of worship, he’d encountered every kind of admirer, male and female. Some fell prostrate, needing encouragement to stand and meet his gaze. Others, priests mostly, coupled their veneration with an easy, open friendliness. Women might peer at him with stars in their eyes, but none had ever approached him as boldly as the flame-haired novice from Palanga.

Her behavior confounded him. He hoped for a good relationship with all of Jūratė’s daughters, but the gleam in Keslai’s eyes suggested she harbored intentions far beyond congeniality. How was he supposed to rebuff her and still remain in the abbess’s good graces?

Yards away, Salomeya nickered from behind a gate and shook her glossy, black mane in greeting. He brought her apples from a basket in the corner and watched idly as she chomped the glistening red fruit in his palm. Maybe this magic steed could help.

Designed for godly stature, his chariot could accommodate two people comfortably, as long as neither demanded room to stretch. If he brought Nadzia along, she could act as a buffer between him and her flirtatious sister, but three would crowd the space—although he suspected Keslai would welcome the occasion to attach herself to him like a leech.

He traced the ring in Salomeya’s ear, implanted by his father to restrict the horse’s travels to the Tree of Life and enchanted to send a signal if the rider attempted to fly elsewhere. What if he removed it, just this once? Would Dievas realize what he’d done?

Light footsteps behind him sent his pulse racing, subsiding when he detected the scent of his beloved, fresh and cool as an ocean breeze. Nadzia embraced him lightly, her fingers tickling the hairs on his chest. “Ready for your big night?”

“I’d rather you were joining me.”

Nadzia’s lips quirked into a mischievous smile. “Afraid to be alone with Keslai?”

“She is somewhat . . . audacious.” Perun laid a hand on the mare’s side. “I think I can extract that ring without my father’s knowledge. Then you could fly alongside us.”

“Don’t you dare try something so dangerous! You have no idea what might happen.”

Nadzia planted herself in front of the horse and crossed her arms. “Keslai has a sensual nature. Given your obvious charms, she’s going to respond in ways that might seem inappropriate. Nonetheless, I trust you to engage her so completely she’ll return singing your praises. Don’t let her overwhelm you. Dazzle her with your love of the stars, keep her attention on the glories of the heavens. When she’s properly distracted, she doesn’t consider anything else.”

“I’m not sure I share your confidence.” Perun looked past Nadzia and frowned. “I see two approaching. Why is the abbess with your sister?”

He pulled Nadzia forward, donned a scarlet robe hanging near the barn’s entrance, then paused and bowed to Mother Gintare. “Forgive my confusion, but I cannot bring more than one of you at a time. Have you decided to go in Keslai’s stead?”

“Another evening, perhaps,” Mother Gintare said with a soft smile. “I came along to see this one safely dispatched. Afterwards, I would like Nadzia to show me the goddess’s altar in your temple.”

Perun reluctantly switched his gaze to Keslai and almost sputtered with relief. She stood rigid as a statue, hands gripping a dark cloak, eyes fixed on the ground, her white gown high-necked and demure—a far cry from the sinuous flirt who’d practically thrown herself at him earlier.

The knots in his shoulders unraveled. He offered a hand to the novice and helped her into his chariot. “I promise to take the very best care of her. We’ll be back before long.”

He gave a friendly salute, climbed in and gathered the reins, steering the ox westward as he took to the skies, his worries gone.

Keslai stood beside him at the railing, mute and aloof as they soared through thick, bulbous clouds that eclipsed the moon. The temperature dropped, ice crystals clung to her hair like white diamonds in a nest of apricot curls. She shivered, shook out her cloak and rearranged the thin wool fabric across her shoulders. “I have trouble keeping the broach secure,” she said, pointing to a mermaid-shaped fastener. “Can you help?”

“It looks too delicate for me to try. I wouldn’t want to break such a pretty clasp. Besides, I must keep hold of the reins to guide my beast. He might veer off elsewise.”

Perun tightened his grip and tried to ignore the novice as she inched closer. Her scent reminded him of Nadzia, a fragrance that stirred longing and desire.

“You visit the stars often, don’t you?”

“As often as possible.”

“Then I’m sure your ox knows the way. Animals are easily trained, quick to learn patterns and routes.”

Keslai reached out and stroked his wrist, smiling when his flesh—much to his chagrin—pebbled at her touch. “You can hold the straps with one hand and assist me with the other. I’ll be ever so grateful.”

The blatant craving in her voice set Perun’s teeth on edge. “I don’t think it wise. I promised to keep you safe. If we should suddenly lurch—”

“You’re a god, you won’t let me fall.”

Keslai stared openly at him, her clear blue eyes glazed with lust. When he failed to move, she sighed and fidgeted with the broach. “It’s so tricky . . . I really must have it fixed when we return . . . almost there . . . ouch!”

Perun groaned as she held up a finger dotted with a bead of blood. The cloak slipped from her fingers and caught on the metal lattice surrounding the cart. Keslai made no effort to retrieve it. Her mouth twitched as the fabric ripped free and blew away, a dark spiral in the night. She turned, and before he could object, cool hands reached beneath his robe and circled his waist. “Bless the Fates I have you to keep me warm,” she purred, clinging to him. “I’d hate to have to turn back.”

He jerked at the reins, fuming at how cleverly she’d played him. Wisps of steam wafted from his brow. Bringing the chariot to a halt, he took off his robe, and hastily draped it over the girl. “This will do just as well. I warn you, take care. Toss it out and we’ll go no further.”

Keslai’s laugh held an undertone of menace. “You promised the stars. I expect no less. If you deny me, I’ll tell the abbess you tried to seduce me and tore off my cloak when I refused.”

“Be careful with your threats. My father has little patience for lies. He will gladly ferret them out if I ask him to do so.” His lips curled into a hard smile. “I have watched him interrogate humans. It is not a pretty sight.”

Keslai blanched and fell silent. She returned to the railing—eyes narrowed, lips clamped into a thin line, chin jutted forward—a living figurehead that rippled with indignation. Perun kept his face stern and slapped the reins, spurring his beast to greater speed. This trip couldn’t end soon enough. He’d give the girl a minute or two to admire his constellation and then hasten home. Fates willing, his next convent guest would possess a more gracious nature.

He savored the blissful quiet and let himself relax when they reached his stars, pulsing with crimson light. Bringing the chariot to a halt, he dropped the reins and stretched the tension out of his neck and torso as veils of hot air engulfed them.

Keslai turned, her breath quickening as she lowered his robe and then her gown until they pooled at her feet. “You don’t have to reject me. No one will ever know.”

A flush of anger sent sparks flying from Perun’s fingertips. Would this girl never learn? He glared at Keslai until beads of sweat dotted her upper lip, trickled down her neck. She looked away at last and tugged her dress back into place.

“I love Nadzia,” he said. “She is dearer to me than life itself. I will not betray her. Do you understand? Can you understand?”

Keslai bristled and drew herself up tall, eyes shining with defiance. “You believe she loves you?” she scoffed. “The one who killed Jūratė?”

The hairs on Perun’s arm tingled. Perhaps the rumors had mistakenly attributed scheming to the entire convent when a single novice was the dominant force. But this was all conjecture. A daughter of the slain goddess could harbor a grudge, even hatred, yet not stand in the way of what the Fate had ordained. “I have atoned for my sins. And, yes, I know she loves me.”

“We’re sirens,” Keslai said, preening. “We can bend anyone to our will with our voices.”

“I thought so, when Nadzia first came and beguiled me. But my stone revealed the truth.”

Keslai’s brow wrinkled. “Your jewel is nothing but a piece of glass from the sea.”

“The amber was enchanted by my mother to reveal the true emotions of the one who wears it. Nadzia loves me, of that I have no doubt.”

“But she isn’t supposed to . . .” Keslai blushed and cleared her throat. “How wonderful for you.”

Perun’s ears twitched at the deceit in her voice. He clenched his hands, unclenched them. She’s jealous. Don’t let her rouse old fears. “She has brought me joys more wondrous than you can imagine,” he said softly.

“I can imagine quite a bit.”

Keslai crossed her arms, fingers tapping on pale skin. Her face brightened suddenly. “Why don’t we test it? Let me wear your pendant, and you’ll see what real affection looks like.”

A dull throb began at the side of Perun’s head. He rubbed at the ache, his patience worn thin. “By the breath of Dievas, woman, leave it be! She is the one chosen by the Fates. Why can’t you accept that and wish your sister well?”

“You’re a god, what do you know of human wants and needs? You claim your jewel reveals true passion. Were you not so besotted, you’d realize that other desires can rival the strength of love.”

“Nadzia has everything she needs.”

“She might have persuaded you so, but there’s one thing she craves most of all, and you can’t give it to her.”

Perun’s eyes grew misty, blurring his vision. He picked up the straps, called out to his ox, and maneuvered the chariot so that it faced south. “Since you show no appreciation for the majesty of my stars, I’ll return you to the abbess.”

Keslai hooked one arm around the rail as they began their descent, the wind whipping her braid. “Don’t be a fool. Nadzia doesn’t want a life with you. She wants power, the kind only divinity will bring.”

“Stop your prattle,” Perun seethed. “I won’t let you turn me against her.”

“You’ll be sorry. I’m the one who deserves to be your queen.”

“Enough!” Blood-red light issued from Perun’s flesh, illuminating him from head to toe. He raised his arms, called to the heavens. Massive dark clouds crowded the sky, blanketing the stars as the wind surged into fierce gales. Keslai crouched on the chariot’s floor, face whiter than bleached bones.

Peals of thunder churned the air. A bolt of lightning appeared in Perun’s hand. He gripped the jagged edges, pulled back his lips in a feral grin, and hurled it to the ground.

One bolt followed another, until the acrid stench of sulfur filled the air. Drained of his fury, Perun closed his eyes and murmured. The clouds dissipated, the air calmed. He blinked, tilted his head and squinted at Keslai, wide-eyed and trembling at his feet. “I am sorry for one thing alone—that the woman I love has a shrew for a sister. Your harsh words give me ample reason to send you home, but I cannot do so without good reason, and it would distress Nadzia. You may remain, on one condition.”

Dread speckled Keslai’s cheeks. Perun smiled in grim satisfaction. “For the remainder of your visit, you will keep your distance from the two of us, myself and my bride.”

“What if she comes to our camp?”

“You have no trouble with deception. Feign an illness. Something infectious, so she won’t be tempted to nurse you over the coming days.”

Keslai drew herself up slowly, her smoldering gaze fixed on Perun. “And the wedding?”

“Your health will improve only when the convent is packed and ready to leave.”

Perun gathered his reins and flicked them lightly. The ox reared and charged forward. “Think long and hard before you endeavor to oppose me. My father has great hopes for this marriage, but he is no one’s fool. His guards will be in force at the ceremony, with instructions to chain and imprison trespassers. Rest assured, they will have orders to look for you.”

Keslai’s chest heaved as she gnawed at her lip, worrying the flesh. “Then it appears I have no choice but to obey. You have nothing to fear from me.”

Perun snorted and urged his beast its greatest speed, one eye on the novice. She kept her back to him, stiff with resentment. He ground his teeth, sighed, and freed one hand to rub his aching jaw. This one would need watching, no matter how docile her words.

©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski

Image: https://www.jamesjchoi.com/sculptures/171-perun-slavic-god-of-thunder

 

THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 25, 26

Perun flies Nadzia to the stars and declares his love, but Nadzia’s visions of a peaceful life with him are threatened after Veles reveals a change to the convent’s scheme.

For previous chapters, click here.

 

 

CHAPTER 25

Perun

After he left the cottage, Perun changed into an eagle and took shelter in an oak near his temple to watch Nadzia fly off on her magic steed. He toyed with the idea of following her, finding a place to roost while Rodzenica tested her, surprising her when she emerged victorious. They could go back to Kaunas together, jubilant in their mutual love.

But his mother had insisting on seeing Nadzia alone. If he wanted to know what transpired between them, he needed a legitimate reason to explain his presence at the Tree of Life. He ruffled his feathers, eyes locked on Nadzia until she became a speck in the sky, and wished he could express how important she’d become to him. He was no bard able to recite melodious tales of love. The prospect of a speech at their marriage ceremony set his stomach fluttering, his muscles twitching.

He took a breath, released it with a throaty warble. His sister, Lada, goddess of love and harmony, she could help. And she provided a plausible excuse should his mother discover him. Excellent. He gave a low kuk-kuk of satisfaction, spread his wings, and took flight.

#

Fragrant honeysuckle vines draped the entrance to Lada’s room. A large fountain burbled in the center, its gentle murmur augmented by the cooing of doves perched upon the branches of potted orange trees in one corner. The goddess echoed their calls while gathering roses from bushes massed on the opposite side of the room. Her corn-silk hair, circled with a band of crystal jewels, flowed to voluptuous hips moving sinuously under a white gown trimmed with gold.

She raised a hand in greeting when Perun appeared at her door and motioned for him to join her at a table near the birds, where she deposited her bouquet next to a moss-green vase. “This is a pleasant surprise, brother. I did not expect to see you until the wedding.”

Her tone, calm and peaceful, filled him with hope. “Nor I,” he said, his face growing hot. “Mokosh suggested I compose a poem to Nadzia to read at the ceremony, but I have no idea where to begin.”

“There are ways to express love other than poetry. Simple, heartfelt prose is equally strong. What do you find most endearing about your novice?”

“Her voice,” Perun answered without hesitation.

Lada nodded as she snipped off thorns and arranged the flowers in a striking display, the vibrance of their scarlet blossoms a perfect contrast to the muted hues of the vase. “I’m sure it’s gorgeous, but you must think beyond appearance or natural traits. There is more to Nadzia than how she speaks or sings.”

She paused, gave him a piercing stare. “What do you feel for her?”

“I’m grateful she’s given me the chance to love again.”

“Don’t play with me brother. If you wish my help, you must explore your deepest emotions. Why do you care for this daughter of Jūratė?”

Perun clenched his fists, remembered he’d come uninvited, and released them. He pictured Nadzia tousled in bed, walking beside him along the river and in the fields, teaching him to control his anger, reading and acting out stories, her ease with the gardener. “She is sensual, kind, lively, warm. My heart soars when I’m with her. I want to bring her as much happiness as she’s brought me.”

Lada’s eyes brimmed with tears as she clutched Perun’s hand. “Dearest brother. Long have I watched you grieve, mourned the jealousy that drove you to foul deeds. Now I see you understand the true nature of love: giving is as important as receiving.”

She released her hold and murmured. A stack of vellum sheets, a pot of ink, and a quill pen appeared on the table. “Write from you heart and you’ll do fine,” she said, pushing the items across to Perun. “Don’t rush the words. Take your time.”

Hours later, after dozens of false starts and crumpled pages, Perun stood at the door clutching a scroll wrapped with a purple ribbon. He reached for his sister, embraced her warmly. “Bless you, Lada. I couldn’t have done this alone.”

“Do not grant me too much acclaim,” she answered, her face blushing as red as the flowers in her room. “I only drew out what was waiting to be expressed.”

She walked him outside to the limb that served as a landing. After he morphed into eagle guise, she secured his parchment in one talon and stroked his tawny feathers, smiling as he carefully rubbed his golden beak against her hands. “Safe travels,” she said, then stepped back and faded, leaving behind the scent of sweet roses.

Perun spread his wings, ready to depart, when a blast of hot wind knocked him off balance. He shook himself upright, flustered, and cawed weakly as his mother appeared where Lada had just stood. His chest tightened. Did she bring good news or bad?

Her radiant face melted his apprehensions. “You were right, my son. Nadzia’s heart is true. She has returned to your home. Go to her now. Be the loving companion she deserves.”

#

Perun descended into a sky bright with late afternoon sun. He flew in loops, upside down, sideways, giddy with relief. Nadzia loved him and he was on the cusp of opening his heart to her. He couldn’t wait to sweep her into his arms, cover every inch of her luscious body with kisses. He glanced down at the parchment in his claws. Why wait until the wedding? He could declare himself now and let Nadzia choose if she wanted to keep his words private or share them at the ceremony.

Through a break in the clouds, he spotted their cottage, the roses surrounding its door a promise of the beauty within. It was a pleasant abode, yet he wanted a more majestic spot for this momentous occasion. Why not spend the rest of the day however she wished, then leave at dusk and ride to his stars above the convent? He’d planned to take her there anyway. Now their trip would hold added meaning.

He landed outside his temple, changed back into the god of storms, and strode to the entry. The two stone guardians glowed at his approach. He took a moment to stroke their heads, grateful to have such dependable sentries. Once inside, he stopped at the mermaid goddess’s shrine, knelt, and lit a candle. “I swear to love her faithfully,” he vowed. “Until the end of time.”

His eternal fire flared, acknowledging his oath. He stood and surveyed the space. If he wanted to surprise Nadzia, he had to hide his speech until evening. As far as he knew, she hadn’t been here since moving out, but he couldn’t take chances. He hurried to his throne and tucked the manuscript between two slats crossing beneath the seat. Perfect.

He wiped sweat from his brow, remembered Nadzia’s comments about his muskiness.  Most likely, she’d be ready for a swim, too, if for no other reason than to escape the heat. There were a number of places along the river where they could relax. He grinned and set off to find her.

#

Ludvika hailed him from the junction where the path from the temple cut across the trail to the cottages. She held a basket filled with glistening strawberries. “Good afternoon, master,” she said with a deep curtsey. “You’re looking well.”

“It’s a fine day, isn’t it? I hope Gabi is faring better. Are those for her? Here, allow me to help you.”

The cook’s brows shot up as she handed over the fruit and smoothed the front of her apron. “Yes to both your questions. I believe she’ll be fully healed by the time you wed.”

“Excellent. I look forward to seeing both of you in the grove.” Perun quickly assessed his servant’s garb. “If you need clothes for the occasion, I’m happy to provide whatever you wish. You and Gabi deserve a reward for all your hard work.”

Ludvika’s mouth quirked. “A silk gown and matching shoes?”

“You shall have them.” Perun entrusted the basket back to the cook’s care as they reached the porch of her house. “Good day to you, madam. And give my best to Gabi.”

He turned, ready to leave, halted at the pull of Ludvika’s hand on his arm. “If you’re seeking Nadzia, she’s at the pier. I believe her sisters have arrived.”

A day earlier, Perun would have faltered at this information. Now he could hardly wait to greet the novices and Elders. They would soon be family, after all. He continued on his way, a new lightness in his step, whistling as he walked.

#

Adomas worked at the dock unloading bags and boxes and bringing them to the area Nadzia had reserved for the convent, a shady spot with soft grasses, close to the river and pier. Three white tents—one for the abbess, another for the Elders, and a third for the novices—rippled in the breeze. A circle of six blue-robed women stood before them. They turned in unison at Perun’s approach, their faces bright with curiosity and a trace of weariness.

All save one. A girl with hair like burning coals and green eyes that devoured him from head to toe. She opened her mouth, wet her lips, smiled an invitation. Perun sputtered to a halt. Who was this vixen?

Nadzia slipped through the ring and rushed to his side. “Do you mind waiting a bit to meet my sisters?” she asked, nuzzling his cheek. “They’re rather fatigued.”

“Not at all.” He swiveled away from the novice silently daring him to respond. “We can use the time to freshen up in the river.”

“They intend to do the same. Let’s take the road south. We’ll have more privacy.”

They walked a short way to a bend secluded by a copse of trees, where they splashed and lingered until the water held more shadow than sun. Perun collapsed against a birch on the riverbank and patted for Nadzia to sit on his lap. He lifted her face to his, marveling at how deeply he’d come to care for her in so short a time. Everything he wanted was here.

Her fingers traveled up his arms to the nape of his neck. Sparks of pleasure radiated down his shoulders. He bent down and kissed her, gently, tenderly, breathing in her scent, fresh and clean with just a hint of a sea breeze.

“Nadzia,” he sighed. “How very dear you are to me.”

She pulled back and traced his lips, her eyes glistening, and then nestled in his arms, her limbs perfectly fitted to his. “Did you ever imagine such bliss?” she said. “I can scarcely believe my good fortune.”

He hesitated, debated silently whether to discuss the test she’d just endured. She loved him, everything else paled in comparison. Yet he had a burning desire to know the details. “I trust my mother wasn’t too harsh with you.”

“She mourns Jūratė, and she loves her son dearly. I don’t mind that she needed reassurance. I understand her concerns.”

“Even so, I shouldn’t have mentioned Gabi’s rumors. I should have known better.”

Nadzia tilted her face upright, a slight frown wrinkling her brow. “Rumors?”

“From the traders from Palanga who gossip with Gabi at the dock,” Perun said with a dismissive shake of his head. “Tellers of tall tales, trying to impress young girls too gullible to recognize truth from fiction. ”

Nadzia rested her head on his shoulder. “I love stories. What did these merchants say?”

 “You are aware, I’m sure, that some call the Order of Bursztyn a coven of witches.”

“I may have heard that accusation a time or two.” Nadzia ran her fingers lightly across Perun’s stomach. “What evil acts are we accused of now?”

“Plotting against the gods. Sending me a bride who wishes me ill. Ouch, that hurts!” He gaped at the indentation left by Nadzia’s nail. “Why are you angry? I’m merely answering your question.”

“You knew of these lies before I arrived in Kaunas?” She pressed away from him and crossed her arms.

Perun looked out across the river, jaw clenched. Fool of a god! Why couldn’t he have let things be? He swallowed heavily before answering. “Yes.”

“So that’s why Gabi was always sneaking around. You let her spy on me.” Nadzia slumped, her eyes wet and dull. “I opened my heart to you. I thought your endearments sincere. But you doubted me all along.”

“Not you, my love, never you.” Perun reached for the pendant hanging at Nadzia’s breast. “I’m sorry, so very sorry. I should have trusted the magic in my jewel.”

Nadzia jerked the amber from his hand. She gripped its edges and huffed out a rasping sound—part moan, part laughter. “Your jewel . . . . Forgive me, but in all the excitement, I can’t recall how Rodzenica said it worked.”

“A simple enchantment on my mother’s part to help her gauge the truth of your feelings. The greater your affection, the stronger it beats.” Perun lifted Nadzia’s chin. “The stone cannot lie. You love me.”

Nadzia kissed him with what felt like desperation and then broke away, her attention drawn to the pendant as if mesmerized by its pulse. Her lips pinched together, then relaxed. She looked up at him again, surprise, wonder, and sorrow flickering across her face. “I do love you,” she murmured. “Fates save me, I do.”

She untangled herself and stretched. “It’s nearly twilight. Shall we go home?”

“Not yet. I have a surprise for you.”

The twinkle in Nadzia’s eyes returned. “Something good, I hope.”

“That would be telling.” Perun stood and extended a hand. “We may be gone for hours. Have your supper and then join me in the barn.”

#

They journeyed west, the air growing colder as the chariot climbed through the clouds. Perun checked on Nadzia constantly to make sure she stayed comfortable. Wrapped in a wool cloak, she showed little distress until ice crystals dotted her sleeves. Perun opened his robe, draped it around her, and rubbed her shoulders until her flesh warmed. She sighed with pleasure and wrapped her arms around his waist.

The carriage halted north of his constellation, a vantage point that gave them a heady view of the throbbing lights. Veils of hot air engulfed them. Nadzia eased out of Perun’s hold and unclasped her cloak, her eyes reflecting the wonders in the sky. “They’re so beautiful. Can we move closer, please?”

“Not while you are still mortal. The core of a star radiates a heat too intense for any but the gods.”

Nadzia leaned forward against the rail, tilting her head from side to side. She narrowed her eyes, and then let out an astonished gasp. “If you squint, the light separates into lines of color. I can see a spectrum, starting with red and ending at purple, like a rainbow, only more bewitching. Oh, it’s lovelier than I ever dreamed. What a wonderful treat!”

The necklace at her breast brightened and vibrated wildly, mimicking Perun’s heart. He pulled out his scroll, the paper threatening to slip through his sweat-slick hands and cleared his throat to get Nadzia’s attention. She twisted to face him, her eyes soft and filled with an inner glow. “Yes?”

“You may recall that I was urged to write something for our marriage ceremony. I’d like to share those words now.”

“You don’t want to wait?”

“Let me convey them to you alone, and then you can determine whether they need be spoken to an audience.”

“As you wish.”

Perun rolled out a kink in his neck and coughed. “The Fates promised me a bride beyond compare. They were wrong, for you are as beautiful as a starlit sky, as sweet as the gods’ own nectar. Your smile is a beacon that brightens my days and nights, your laugh a song that puts birds to shame. You are a jewel more precious than rubies or pearls.

“I thought the fire that once burned in my heart quenched for all time. What right did I—lowest of the low—have to seek anyone’s affection? Love is for those who deserve joy, not those who spill blood.

“But you offered a way forward. I was dead to the world and all its glories. You brought me back to life, accepting me, challenging me, delighting me, loving me. As I . . . as I have grown to love you. Whatever you wish, I will try to provide, for your happiness means the world to me.”

He caressed her cheeks, let his gaze fill with the emotion he’d kept locked away out of fear and loneliness. “My heart is yours, Nadzia, now and forever.”

CHAPTER 26

Nadzia

Nadzia burst into tears when Perun finished his speech. She’d wanted him infatuated, yes, dazzled, even, but his words revealed a true binding. And his jewel, enchanted to reveal her true emotions, confirmed she felt the same. She burrowed in his arms, let him whisper sweet nothings as she wept, her heart torn between joy and despair.

During her training at the convent, the Elders dwelled upon the righteousness of vengeance for Jūratė’s murder. Day in, day out, the message never varied. They were engaged in a holy mission. Whoever called out the god of storms’ jewel would learn his weakness and then cripple or destroy him. A simple, straight-forward task.

No one envisioned the possibility that his Fates-chosen bride might find him endearing. Or that his affection would mean so much.

Nadzia stayed in his embrace and tried to sort out her tangled emotions as her sobs subsided. She should be angry at the way he and Rodzenica had tricked her. She should remember her vow, her duty to the Order of Bursztyn. Yet the hate she’d carried for as long as she could remember no longer held sway. For the first time in her life, she felt complete, content. But dread muted her elation. How was she going to convince the abbess that Perun was worthy of a second chance?

He kissed the top of her head and wiped her cheeks. “I hope those were happy tears.”

The longing, the need in his voice nearly set her weeping again. She reached up and pressed her palms against his face. A face suffused with love. “Your words make my heart sing.”

“Yet I see sadness in your eyes.”

“You mistake weariness for sorrow.” Nadzia dropped her hands and yawned. “The day has taken its toll. A good night’s sleep will refresh me.”

“Hold fast, then,” Perun said, wrapping one arm around her and flicking the reins with the other. “We’ll be home soon.”

Nadzia dozed as they flew back to the temple grounds. She dreamed of a wedding replete with jubilant guests, her sisters converted to a new appreciation of a god they once despised, a festive ceremony and feast unmarred by interruptions or animus.

The ox’s snorts and stomps upon landing roused her. She looked across the meadow to the Order’s white tents fluttering in the breeze, a heaviness in her chest. Visions of fellowship and merrymaking were all well and good. Achieving them was another matter.

Perun helped her step down, then took hold of his beast’s halter and called for the stable boy. “I won’t be long. Wait for me?”

Before Nadzia could respond, Adomas rushed up from the path leading to the river. “Forgive the interruption,” he said, bending over to catch his breath, “but several groups of your followers arrived while you were gone. They’re clamoring to see you. If you can spare a few minutes to greet them, I’ll help stow your chariot and animal.”

Perun glanced at Nadzia, as if seeking permission. She realized, belatedly, that there were other tents, other lights glimmering opposite the convent’s section. “Go,” she said, secretly grateful for the chance to be alone. “I’ll be in the temple at Jūratė’s altar.”

He rubbed his forearms, hesitating, his face tweaked with regret. “This may take a while. I must see that they’re properly situated and so forth. You don’t mind?”

“I did the same with my sisters,” she answered, kissing him lightly. “I’m afraid we won’t have much time to ourselves in the days to come.”

“Perhaps. You forget, we have the stars. No one can follow us there.”

“Until then, we have an obligation to those who have traveled here on our behalf.” Nadzia turned Perun around, gave him a light push. “Come back when you can. If I’ve left the temple, you’ll find me in bed.”

“Now there’s a prospect I look forward to.” Perun waved and strode toward the river.

Nadzia tilted her head skyward, rocked back and forth, hands pressed to her stomach. Voices raised in exultation carried across the grasses. She listened for a moment, pictured the god of storms jubilant amid a sea of well-wishers, and then made her way into the temple.

The stone eagles brightened as she approached. She patted their heads and smiled as their ruby eyes gleamed in response. Sleep beckoned, but first she needed to pray. She kneeled at Jūratė’s altar and lit a candle, wishing she had a way to summon her—the way the Elders did in the cave below the convent. The goddess would surely applaud the change in Nadzia’s feelings.

The flame quivered. Nadzia stared at the twinkling amber light and allowed her mind to drift in search of answers. Less than a week remained until the wedding, a pathetically short time to change the hearts and minds of women whose lives were dedicated to Perun’s downfall. They needed to see him at his best, as she had, a difficult undertaking given that she knew him with an intimacy others couldn’t hope to achieve. How to bring them together without suspicion or unease, that was the problem. Would they respond to chats around campfires, Perun with his nectar, the others with mead? Walks along the river?

She glanced up at the open dome. The stars glimmered, as if issuing an invitation. Why not invite her sisters, one by one, to travel in Perun’s chariot? She’d come along to mitigate any fears. He’d share his love of the heavens, reveal his charms. And what a thrill for them to fly all the way to the coast and glimpse Palanga from the sky!

It was a place to star, at the very least. An opportunity to convince her sisters they needn’t conspire. They could choose a different path. Unite in a new purpose. Create a future for themselves that didn’t include schemes or secret cabals. A world free of artifice.

Nadzia pushed herself upright, ready at last for bed. She moved back, pleasantly exhausted, and then stopped, muscles tensing, at the sound of hissing. A sour taste flooded her mouth. No, please, not now.

A black-and-gold snake wriggled out from the gifts piled beneath Perun’s altar and whirled into the god of the Underworld. He wagged his black tongue in greeting. “A most eventful day, my dear. Come join me at the thrones. We should discuss how our plan will proceed.”

“I’m tired,” Nadzia said, inching away. “Let’s talk tomorrow.”

“You’ll want to hear this.” Veles glided to Perun’s chair, coiled himself within the giant seat, and beckoned. Nadzia followed, reluctant yet curious to hear what had brought the serpent to Kaunas so unexpectedly. She perched on the edge of the smaller throne and kept watch on the entrance.

“Don’t worry about my brother,” Veles said with a limp wave of his hand. “He’ll be up until dawn carousing with his disciples.”

Nadzia crossed her arms and legs. “Fine. I’m listening. Has the cabal decided on a new approach? I can’t imagine a need to talk otherwise.”

“This is a private conversation, sweetheart.” Veles leaned closer, his scales lustrous in the firelight, his voice an engaging whisper. “I’ve made a slight change to our plan, something far more satisfactory than the original.”

He stopped, obviously expecting Nadzia to pepper him with questions. She ground her teeth and complied. “Please go on.”

“Let’s review the basics: first the ceremony, followed by the ritual of making my brother whole, at which point the Elders will begin keening.”

Nadzia shifted in her chair, uneasy at the thought of the assault beginning before she gained the power to protect her sisters. “Won’t I be made a goddess before that?”

“Dievas wants my brother fully restored, first and foremost. I believe his wishes are paramount, although it’s never a good idea to discount my mother’s influence. She wants you immortal as soon as possible after the vows are exchanged.”

Veles squinted, a shrewd gleam in his eyes. “Whatever they decide doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things as long as you remember to do your part. Which is . . . ?”

“To meet you here in the temple with the sliver of Perun’s heart.”

Veles licked his lips. “Such an intelligent girl.”

“And then you’ll take it to the Underworld.”

“Not quite.”

Nadzia’s arms prickled. She stiffened, poised for flight. “Have your fellow conspirators decided on another hiding place?”

“Hardly. There’s nowhere better.”

“Then what’s changed?”

Yellow eyes glittering, Veles reached out to stroke Nadzia’s neck. “You’ll be coming with me.”

Blood rushed to Nadzia’s head. She clutched the arms of her throne, a world of darkness threatening to consume her. “You can’t take me against my will. The Fates won’t allow it.”

“Why not?” Veles pressed near, his breath like ice on Nadzia’s skin. “They decreed that Jūratė reborn will marry a god. Surely you don’t believe they’ll argue over which one?”

“I won’t go with a cold-blooded viper!”

Veles dabbed at his eyes. “Oh, she wounds me with harsh words. Was ever a chosen one so ungrateful?”

“Stop pretending. Snakes can’t cry.”

“You’d do well to look beyond these reptilian markings.” Veles smoothed both hands over his chest, ending at a point below the navel, where the flesh became scales. “I have feelings and desires like any mortal man, and the same means to pleasure you. I’ll love you like no other, hold you in the highest regard, seek your opinion in all matters. And you can be sure I’ll never threaten or harm the convent. I have a tender heart. Do give me a chance to prove it.”

“I don’t want to be your queen!” Nadzia cried. “This isn’t what you promised. My sisters will hate you for deceiving them.”

“You forget, I have been a stalwart friend to the Order of Brusztyn since Jūratė’s death. It won’t take much to convince the abbess this is my just reward, and her approval is all I require.”

“Your parents won’t allow it. I have a bond with them now, especially your mother. They’ll never let you get away with this.”

“Let me worry about that. I suspect their affection will diminish after the convent attacks.” Veles settled back into his chair with a smug smile. “Think of the prestige you’ll enjoy as my consort. Your sisters will be positively green with envy. And unlike my brother—who, I remind you, agreed to have your horse magically fettered—I’ll let you visit Palanga as often as you please.”

Nadzia’s rage flared like a candle spilled into a pool of oil. She hadn’t found joy only to be held hostage by a conniving snake. She bared her teeth in a defiant snarl. “No.”

“Think carefully before you decide,” Veles replied, his smirk fading. “If you refuse to come with me, I’ll have no choice but to bring Perun’s heart to my parents and tell them a tale about a wicked, wicked novice and her convent’s treacherous plan to foil the gods. How a conniving little minx played upon the enmity between two brothers. I’ll wail and curse the weakness that made me prey to her bewitching voice. And when that’s done, I’ll beg Dievas and Rodzenica to forgive me.”

His eyes shone with pitiless mirth. “Imagine how they’ll punish you and your cherished Order. I shudder at the very thought.”

Nadzia fell back against her throne with a whimper. “I can’t stay with you forever . . . unless I’m dead.”

“An unfortunate detail. I promise to make your demise as painless as possible. A quick bite should suffice.”

Nadzia pulled at her braid. Surely Veles’s strategy contained a flaw. She combed her mind, searching for a solution, and then bolted upright. “I won’t bring you his heart. I’ll run to the Nemunas, swim as fast as I can to Palanga, and hide it in the cove. And then I’ll tell the gods that was your plan all along, that you used me out of sheer hatred for your brother. They’ve seen the two of you battle. No one will doubt me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” The black slits in Veles’s eyes narrowed. “Try to escape via the river and I’ll send water snakes after you. Have you ever seen someone attacked by an adder? It’s a dreadful way to die. Your tongue swells, your flesh cracks, your muscles cramp. You’ll drown in the very waters you hoped would offer refuge and then . . . why, you’ll end up in the Underworld with me. Either way, I get what I want.”

Nadzia tugged at her necklace. “I’ll take the sliver out now, throw it in Perun’s fire, and tell them you commanded me to destroy it.”

“Go on.” Veles flicked his hand at the blaze. “I doubt you’ll succeed.”

Try as she might, Nadzia couldn’t separate the jewel from its silver setting. There were no hidden springs or clasps, no way to dig out the amber with her nails. She slid to the floor and smashed the necklace against the stones until her arm cramped with fatigue. With a strained cry, she flung the pendant into the fire, chain and all. The flames surged and spewed the necklace out at her feet.

“Mortals,” Veles said with an exaggerated sniff. “Always thinking they can outsmart the gods.”

He slid off the throne and caressed Nadzia’s trembling shoulder. “I so love your spirit, my dear. We’re going to have such marvelous adventures together. The Underworld is a veritable labyrinth of delights.”

“Don’t do this.” Nadzia bit down on her lip, drawing blood. “You have Jūratė. You don’t need me.”

“Alas, my beloved mermaid is devoted to her husband. I wouldn’t dream of breaking up such a happy couple.”

Nadzia drew herself up slowly, shook off Veles’s touch, and curled her fingers into fists. “I’ll find a way to stop you.”

“You are most welcome to try. Oh, did I tell you? Now that you’ve sworn everlasting love for my brother—”

“You listened?”

Someone from the cabal had to bear witness while Rodzenica conducted her test, and I have spyholes everywhere.”

“But I saw Dievas chasing you.”

“My father is easily eluded,” Veles said with a dismissive nod. “And I have been given leave to resume my surveillance. Our group wants daily reports assuring them that, despite your infatuation, you intend to continue helping us. Be well, my dear. I can’t wait to make you mine.”

He pursed his lips in a parting kiss and spoke words Nadzia didn’t understand. In the wink of an eye, he became an ordinary garden snake again, slithering toward the base of the rocky wall behind the thrones. He turned, hissed, and crawled into a hole that emerged at his approach. Laughter echoed through the tunnel as the opening closed behind him.

Nadzia threw her pendant at the wall and paced behind the thrones, cursing. How could she change her fate when Veles was ready to expose the convent’s scheme? Would Perun understand if she confided in him or would learning of her lies stoke his fury? She retrieved the necklace, brought it to the throne, and fell back heavily into the seat. The steady pulse within mocked her. Trapped. Trapped. Trapped.

Or was she?

She still had the poisoned pearl from Sister Bronis, stowed inside the belt hidden in her cottage. A last resort if matters became unbearable. But death would thrust her into the Underworld and that played too neatly into what Veles wanted.

Her necklace blazed, spitting out tangerine sparks that arced and sizzled before landing on the granite floor. Nadzia steadied her breath—three beats in, a pause, three beats out—until the amber resumed its usual, even glow. She had to keep her emotions in check, or this jewel would betray her.

She returned to Jūratė’s altar. The candle she’d lit earlier sputtered and then burst into a stronger, brighter flame. Her heart flickered with hope. Things might be muddled now, but the Fates had chosen her to reign with Perun, not some scaly snake of a god. She had to trust in their wisdom, and her own.

Let Veles think he had her cornered. Let him watch her night and day. She’d play on his confidence, use his presumptions to her advantage.

“I’ll beat you,” she whispered. “Wait and see.”

©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski

Image: https://journeyingtothegoddess.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/goddess-lada/

 

 

 

THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 23, 24

Perun’s anxieties return at the thought of dealing with convent guests, the goddess Rodzenica makes a disturbing demand, and Nadzia’s trust in the god of storms is shattered.

For previous chapters, click here.

 

CHAPTER 23

Perun 

Jubilant in the company of a most wondrous companion, Perun thought he’d banished all misgivings about the Order of Bursztyn, only to have them erupt full-blown at the mention of Nadzia’s sisters. He glanced at her as they walked along the river in the fading light and hoped his smile masked the turmoil within, nagging for attention like a pesky fly. She glowed as bright as his pendant, a sure sign of the devotion he happily returned.

He looked away, afraid to speak of his qualms and give them substance. Nothing in her behavior warranted skepticism. Why, then, did he fret? Other than the handmaiden’s gossip, he had no reason to believe Nadzia or anyone from the convent wished him harm. Perhaps centuries-old doubts still taunted him. Perhaps he truly was a monster who didn’t deserve joy.

Perhaps.

Yet he could have sworn that Nadzia had tensed at the news as well.

He studied her as they crested the slope leading to their cottage. As lovely as ever, burnished skin glowing in the sunset, lively eyes finding delight in all she perceived. A treasure beyond compare. How could such a woman wish him ill? She caught his stare and tugged him to a stop. “Are my clothes in disarray?” she asked with a playful smile. “My hair rumpled?”

“You are perfection incarnate, my love. Your beauty is even more striking in the sunset. I am the most fortunate of gods.” Perun gathered her black curls in both hands and pulled her close for a long, sweet kiss that sent his heart soaring.

“And I am the luckiest of mortals,” she said breathlessly when they finally parted.

Perun traced the line of her jaw. She leaned into his touch. Weariness etched her face as she yawned, half asleep. He scowled and cursed himself for not perceiving her exhaustion, thinking she clung to him out of affection. “Forgive me, Nadzia. We went too far. I should have turned back earlier.”

“Nonsense. I was bored of being housebound. And I had the best of companions. Even better once Mokosh left us at the dock.” She squeezed his arm. “A quick nap, a small meal, and then the night is ours.”

“At least allow me to carry you.”

“Absolutely not,” Nadzia said with a firm shake of her head. “I’m tired, not an invalid. Lend me your arm and I’ll be fine.”

Perun took extra care to ensure Nadzia didn’t stumble as they began their descent into the meadow, the flowers slanting westward toward the day’s final, golden light. She halted after a few steps, her breath ragged. “Were you expecting anyone?” she whispered hoarsely.

He looked down the path. Rodzenica, dressed in gilded robes, stood at the cottage door. There was no mistaking Nadzia’s distress this time. Perun felt the thundering of her heart as she pressed against him. He answered reluctantly, sensing his response would add to her alarm. “No, I’m surprised as you. Mother rarely leaves the Tree of Life.”

Nadzia’s nails dug into his arm. “Have I offended her in some way? I thought our visit went well.”

“As did I.” Perun used his eagle vision to inspect the queen of the gods from afar. Her posture—the regal bearing she bore effortlessly—suggested nothing out of the ordinary. But a quiet storm raged in her violet eyes. She met his gaze, squinted. The tempest receded. He patted Nadzia’s hand, anxious to put her at ease. “She’s waving, do you see? That’s a good sign. Hold tight, you’ll be fine.”

The goddess greeted them with a strained smile. “I heard my daughter was injured,” she said, her pale forehead creasing. “It appears I was misinformed.”

“Not at all,” Nadzia said with a deep curtsey. “I’m nearly mended, thanks to your son’s excellent care.”

Rodzenica’s brows relaxed. “You’ve brought out his gentler side. The Fates chose well.”

“I would ask you to come in,” Perun said, opening the door, “but Nadzia needs to rest. Let me help her to bed and then we can talk.”

#

He found Rodzenica wading through the grasses, her arms lifted as if to embrace the growing darkness. “Some say the sun breaching the horizon is a more glorious spectacle,” she said, hugging herself as she turned to face him, “but I prefer the twilight. You can feel magic in the air.”

“I agree, nothing matches the magnificence of the moon and the stars,” Perun hesitated, waited for her to say more, grew impatient at her silence. “Even so,” he said finally, “I’d wager you didn’t come all this way to discuss the heavens.”

Her laugh was short and without mirth. “My clever son. Take me to your temple.”

They walked in the gathering gloom, owls swooping around them in search of a meal. Perun’s mood turned black as the night. Rodzenica had promised to let him know if he faltered in his courtship and then give him a chance to make things right before the wedding. He couldn’t think of any action on his part that might have irked his mother, save that one incident when he lost his temper at the barn. But that happened days ago. Why wait to chastise him?

The granite eagles guarding his temple’s entry shuddered to life, ruby eyes flashing as they came alive and left their posts, preening, a response evoked whenever Rodzenica visited. She murmured, stroked their feathers, and gently urged them back into place, where they settled with contented warbles and turned back into stone.

Inside, a night breeze ruffled the curtains on Nadzia’s abandoned room. Rodzenica harrumphed at the empty bed—she’d helped Perun design the space—and made her way past the central fire. She sat stiff-backed in his throne and motioned for him to take the other. He bit back  his irritation at being relegated to Nadzia’s seat, a chair too small for his bulk, yet knew better than to start a quarrel with his mother. He perched on the edge of one arm. “What brings you to Kaunas? Have I been errant in my wooing?”

“From what I have seen, no, although I confess my observations have been sporadic. Matters other than yours require my attention.” Rodzenica paused and smiled at him fondly, an occasion so rare Perun’s cheeks flushed with pleasure. “You’ve made me proud, my son. You deserve every happiness.”

Her smile faded into silence as she stared mutely at the fire. Flames crackled and sent crimson sparks up through the open dome. She pressed a hand against her brow and gathered breath, as if what she needed to say required uncommon effort. “I have come because Dievas told me about the rumors you shared with him. How the daughters of the mermaid goddess plot against us.”

Perun slapped the side of his chair. “Why would my father speak of that? He mocked me when I shared Gabi’s tale, dismissed it as idle talk, and said my fears were baseless. He gave them no credence and advised me to do the same.”

“I found him in his room, clasping the vial that holds the divine essence he siphoned from Jūratė after the trial. He was grumbling about betrayal. I tried to comfort him, urged him to look forward to the ceremony that would heal bygone sorrows and bring us joy.” Rodzenica sighed, her pale face harrowed. “That’s when I learned of your handmaiden’s story.”

“Surely it’s nothing more than a mortal fiction,” Perun said, struggling to keep his tone light, “a fabrication meant to impress a naïve girl. I believed it once, before Nadzia arrived, but she’s everything I hoped for and more. The idea that she would be elsewise makes no sense. Why would the Fates choose a woman who didn’t wish to be my mate?”

Rodzenica held out her hands, the fingers curved like talons. “I raised the same argument with your father.”

“And?”

“He laughed bitterly and said the Fates had not foreseen Jūratė death, why should he trust them now?”

“But you examined the pendant when we came to the Tree of Life,” Perun argued, pushing away from his chair and pacing the stones in front of the fire. “You found nothing amiss. Why won’t he accept your judgment?”

“Ah, that first encounter. Dievas says his memory of it is clouded, as is my own.” Rodzenica’s eyes grew hazy, her body soft, as she slipped into the past. “I remember a stillness in the air when Nadzia spoke of her feelings for you. As though time itself was suspended. As though she held us enthralled.”

Perun tamped down a surge of anger. His father had belittled Gabi’s story, why return to it now? To assuage his guilt over banishing the mermaid goddess? Dievas had seen Nadzia but once. He had no business interfering. “You forget, Mother, she is gifted with a mermaid’s voice. I would be surprised if we hadn’t felt charmed.”

“She was lovely to listen to, wasn’t she?” Rodzenica said with a hint of melancholy. “Almost as if my beloved daughter was standing before me again.”

Tears pooled in her eyes. “Dievas has charged me with testing your bride. I wish he would abandon these foolish conjectures and let us move forward in happy anticipation. But he insists. I assure you, I do not relish the task.”

“Nadzia hasn’t the power to overcome the magic you embedded in my stone. Bring the pendant to my father. Show him how brightly the amber shines. What other proof does he require?”

“I can only attest to the stone’s veracity when Nadzia is wearing it.”

“Go to the cottage and look now. She’s fast asleep, she won’t notice you’re there.”

Rodzenica twisted the jeweled bracelets on her forearm. “She must be fully alert for my examination. And she must come to me alone.”

“You can’t . . .” Perun choked. “You can’t mean to stand her before the Creator of all and let him berate her. I won’t allow it.”

“Rest easy, my son. Dievas promised to let me talk to the girl in private.”

“You don’t know what he’ll do once she’s there.”

“Is that not so of any situation, mortal or divine?” Rodzenica’s lips thinned. “Have faith. I have asked the god of the Underworld to distract your father at the proper time, and we are both well aware that Veles is a master at creating turmoil.”

Perun harrumphed and spit in the fire. “A singular talent.”

“Be thankful he has agreed to cooperate. I can count on him to give me the time I need.” Rodzenica stood, shook out her robes. “Nadzia must have no clue as to my intentions. If she asks the purpose of our meeting, say only that I want a chance to know her better before the wedding.”

“Will you keep her long?”

“Until I am satisfied. If I find her free of guile, I will send her back to you. If not . . .” A single tear trailed down Rodzenica’s cheek. She let it fall, shut her eyes. When she opened them, their gaze was hard and cold. “If not, she will be brought before the Immortal Council on charges of treason.”

Perun took his mother’s hands. “Then I will look for her return. I swear on my life, Mother, you will find, as you did before, that all is well. Nadzia’s heart is true.”

CHAPTER 24

Nadzia

Daylight spilled into the cottage, accentuating the copper gleams in Perun’s hair. Nadzia watched from the bed as he sat hunched at the corner table, his fingers drumming against the top, oblivious to the field outside their window springing to life with radiant blossoms. What had made him restless? She thought back to the odd scene yesterday at sunset, Rodzenica waiting at their door. If the greatest of the goddesses rarely left her home at the Tree of Life, as Perun claimed, something momentous must have spurred a visit to Kaunas. Something that had turned Perun’s gaze inward.

She rustled the sheets to draw his attention and stretched languidly. “I didn’t mean to sleep all night. Did you have a pleasant visit with your mother?”

Perun swiveled and stood, his smile at odds with the fire smoldering in his eyes. He walked to the edge of the bed, let Nadzia draw him down for a kiss, and settled beside her atop the quilt. “She was pleased that we are getting along so well.”

Nadzia reached up to smooth his forehead. “Then why are you frowning?”

He took her hand and gently traced the lines in her palm. The tension in his face eased for a moment, then returned. “Dearest Nadzia. Are you content?”

She puzzled over his response, the quiet distress behind his words, what Rodzenica might have said or done to kindle his doubts. “Of course I’m happy. I thank the Fates each day for my new life.”

“They gave you no choice. They forced you to accept me. How could anyone want to spend eternity with a killer?”

An ache began in the back of Nadzia’s throat. She heard guilt in his tone, recalled how he chastised himself for always causing harm, whatever his intent. Either she’d failed to convince him that atonement expiated his sins and offered new hope, or Rodzenica had somehow dredged up the past and plunged her son back into remorse.

“I thought you understood. I grieve for Jūratė, but I accept her death. It was an accident. Why does it trouble you so?”

A flame of color reddened Perun’s cheeks. He cleared his throat and spoke so softly she had to bend close to hear the words. “Because I don’t want you with me against your will.”

Nadzia drew back, struck dumb with astonishment. He cared about how she felt? She studied him through her lashes, taking note of how he waited, barely breathing. As if what she said next might break him. This wasn’t the belligerent monster the convent had taught her to despise. This was an uncertain god, vulnerable, needy.

Before Kaunas, when her goal was avenging the mermaid goddess, when all she had to guide her was an abbess consumed by bitterness, Nadzia might have celebrated Perun’s anguish, used his pain to strengthen her hold over him. Now she only wanted to comfort  him. She lifted his chin and waited until his eyes met hers. “I’m here, now and always.”

He nodded, expelled a shuddering breath, and opened his arms to embrace her. “And I with you, my love.”

She snuggled against him, her skin heating as he stroked the top of her shoulder and planted soft kisses along her neck. Anticipating a morning of pleasure, she arched against him. He threw aside the covers, grinning, pulled off his robes and loin cloth. Their limbs intertwined, grew slick with sweat, the rhythm of their coupling at a fevered pitch when a strident caw pierced the wall.

Perun looked up, growling, and then flinched. Nadzia followed his gaze, confused. An enormous bird with glossy black feathers and a long, wedge-shaped tail hovered outside the window. It rapped the glass three times with a curved, bristled beak, and flew off.

Nadzia tugged back the sheets, suddenly chilled. Only the gods used giant ravens as messengers. But this one left without delivering a note. She curled forward and looked questioningly at Perun as the grooves in his brow returned, twice as deep. The amber at her chest tingled. “Why,” she asked, wishing the question could remain unanswered, “was that bird here?”

Perun bolted from the bed, gathered his clothes, and headed for the door, his cheeks newly inflamed. “A reminder. My mother would like to see you today. I’ll get your breakfast.”

He dashed out like a man with a wildcat on his tail. Nadzia swallowed, her mouth dry as dust. First Rodzenica showed up unannounced, now a summons. She reached for the pitcher kept on top of her cabinet, poured a glass of water, sipped until her throat was soothed, then kneeled against the mattress with a pillow against her mouth and screamed.

But not for long. She needed to keep her voice supple, ready to temper the goddess’s suspicions. If not for Perun’s agitation, she might have believed this a social call, mother and daughter getting to know one another better. His nervousness was a clarion trumpeting bad news. Well, there was nothing for it. She could hardly refuse.

She yanked open her cabinet, chose a gown red as blood, and fixed her hair, braiding it with a white ribbon. Perun came back, holding a tray with plates of eggs and cheese and bread, a jar of honey, and a pot of tea. He placed the food on the table and gazed at her wistfully. “You look stunning, my love. Do you need anything else before I leave?”

Nadzia swayed, her muscles suddenly weak. “You’re not coming with me?”

“Mother wishes to see you alone.” Perun tugged the sleeves of his robes and stared at the stone floor. “I must return to my duties, as well as consult with Adomas and Mokosh about accommodations for our wedding guests. We want to be certain there are sufficient provisions for all.”

“Of course.” Nadzia sat absently in the chair Perun held out for her, her mind lost in supposition, and picked at her food. The cook, bless her, had provided ginger tea, good for settling nerves. Nadzia drank one cup, then another, her anxiety ebbing. Whatever lay ahead, she could always wield the magic of her siren’s voice. She’d pitched her words carefully, intent on mesmerizing, and seen Rodzenica’s eyes cloud during their first encounter at the Tree of Life. She could enchant the goddess again in a heartbeat if needed.

If? She stifled a caustic laugh. Whatever Rodzenica’s concerns, they would most certainly have to be appeased, as sweetly as possible. Nadzia filled a spoon with honey and licked it clean, readying her throat for a prolonged conversation.

Perun pecked at her cheek. She gave him a half-smile as he fled, and then stood, pulled back her shoulders, and made her way to the barn. Minutes later, she was in the sky, her heart thudding with every sweep of Salomeya’s wings.

#

The Tree of Life emerged from a bank of fluffy clouds. Nadzia guided her horse to the same landing as before. A soothing melody filled the air, a steady hum that reminded her of the hives Sister Bronis tended at the convent. Bees symbolized friendship among mortals in Lithuania. Perhaps their music was also a sign of goodwill from the gods. But Nadzia didn’t see any nests. Was this an enchantment meant for her ears only?

She tethered Salomeya to a post bordered by magenta roses with six petals. Perun’s flowers. Their heady fragrance left her dizzy, as it had on the beach when he first arrived. She paused at a nearby bench and pinched her arm until pain sharpened her senses. She was not about to engage the gods with anything less than a clear mind.

The golden doors opened silently as she approached. Babilas, the fat, hairy god of beekeeping and fertility, greeted her with a slice of honeycomb, the bottom wrapped in white linen. “Welcome, daughter of Jūratė! I thought you might like a little treat.” He patted his bulging belly. “Can’t keep up at court on an empty stomach.”

“Thank you.” Nadzia eyed the golden sweet dubiously. It looked harmless, yet she hadn’t forgotten Jūratė’s counsel to treat everyone with suspicion. “Forgive me if my question seems brash, but I thought the gods didn’t eat.”

“It is a matter of personal preference,” Babilas said. “We are allowed to partake in the offerings left by our disciples. Most of us are content with nectar, but I see no reason for good food to go to waste.”

He bent closer and lowered his voice. “A bit of advice if you don’t mind. My brethren await inside. They—”

“What?” Nadzia peered into the empty hall. “I’m here to see Rodzenica.”

Babilas cleared his throat. “My apologies for the confusion. When word got out that you were coming, my brethren insisted on being in attendance. Try not to worry. Just remember to show respect, however an Immortal treats you. Although I’m happy you’ve joined us—the more the merrier, I say—there are those who have not forgiven Perun for killing Jūratė, and they begrudge him any happiness.”

Nadzia’s stomach dropped like a stone. “But the Divine Council found him innocent. Why would anyone take issue with me?”

“Perun was spared exile and death because Dievas refused to condemn him,” Babilas explained. “That decision did not meet with universal favor. Some believe he never suffered for his actions. They will be quick to disparage you.”

“You don’t?”

“Jūratė was a true friend to me. I can do no less for her daughter. Take a bite of my honeycomb if you feel weak. A little crunch of sweetness will help take the sting out of any insults, although I expect those who truly despise Perun will make their displeasure known by simply keeping away. Ready?”

Nadzia clung to Babilas as he escorted her through the hall, the white walls like sheets of ice chilling her blood. They stopped at the door that opened to the throne room. Her knees buckled at the sight of so many Immortals in one place. She nibbled at the honeycomb. A surge of strength followed. “Thank you,” she said, “wiping her lips. “I do feel better.”

Babilas patted her arm and announced their arrival in a booming voice. “Brothers and sisters, I give you Nadzia, the newest member of our family.”

About thirty gods and goddesses were in attendance with perhaps a dozen or so seats unoccupied. They crowded the aisle as Babilas guided Nadzia to the main dais. She smiled at them all, determined to ignore any hostile mutterings. Her resolve wavered when she passed the Zoryas, the hauntingly beautiful architects of dawn and dusk, one clad in orange robes, the other swathed in purple.

The morning goddess wrinkled her nose. “She isn’t half the beauty Jūratė was. No luster to her skin.”

“What did you expect?” her sister said with a sniff. “Our brother is so desperate he’ll take anything the sea spits out.”

Mokosh pushed past them and raised her flower-tattooed hands. “A new goddess is a treasure,” she said, her voice as sweet as a lark’s trill. “A blessing to us all. Welcome, Nadzia. May you know peace and harmony in our world.”

Nadzia’s eyes brimmed at the applause and cheers that followed Mokosh’s words. “Almost there,” Babilas said, beaming. “You’re doing well.”

They were nearing the aisle’s end when Veles glided into their path. He toyed with a small chunk of amber dangling from a leather thong around his neck. “Pretty, isn’t it? A gift from the collection I’ve allowed Jūratė to keep within my realm. She does love her jewels.”

He leaned forward, baring a fang-tipped smile. “You’ll need a champion at court while your husband is busy with his cloudbursts. I’m happy to offer my assistance. If you can’t find me here, simply call my name three times. I’ll be at your side before the last note ends.”

“You can travel that fast?” Nadzia struggled to keep her tone light. If Veles could come and go in the blink of an eye, he could continue spying undetected. She bit her lips, itching to know if the cabal had come to a decision, yet unable to ask in so public a venue.

“Never doubt the power of the gods,” he replied with a smirk. “We don’t.”

Babilas frowned and drew her forward, beyond the carpeted area onto the marble floor inset with gems. “Mustn’t tarry. Your hosts will be offended.”

He positioned her before the royal thrones, kissed her brow, and moved aside. Dievas and Rodzenica glowed so brightly Nadzia wondered if the divine honey she’d tasted had distorted her vision. Wasn’t she supposed to be meeting with one, not both? She dropped into a deep curtsey and arranged her face into what she hoped was a servile expression, calm and detached. “Your majesties. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

Rodzenica waved an arm. “Your brethren have waited long for your coming. They badgered me to allow them a glimpse before the wedding. I trust their curiosity has been sated, for there is a matter I would discuss with you in private.”

Cries of indignation filled the room. Rodzenica held out her hand, silencing the clamor. “Indulge me, my darlings. I suggest you prepare for the wedding. Your father and I expect to see you attired in your finest garments. Do not disappoint us.”

A conciliatory Dievas led his grumbling children through a set of side doors into another chamber with glowing lamps suspended mid-air and long tables bearing pitchers of nectar. Veles lingered at the doorway. He held up three fingers, mouthed his name, and blew a kiss. Moments later, he burst out, Dievas’s crown in hand, his father shouting in heated pursuit.

Rodzenica smoothed her robes. “You must be parched from your journey. My son tells me you are fond of our brew. I keep a private vintage for special occasions. Will you join me?”

A pale servant emerged from the shadows carrying a pair of ruby-studded goblets on a crystalline tray. Nadzia accepted one, took the tiniest of sips. She’d barely swallowed when the walls lurched. She stared at the glass in her hand, watched the red jewels billow and recede. Exactly what did this private brew contain?

Drops of honey slid down her fingers. She licked them clean, an awkward motion that earned a disapproving tsk from the queen. The swaying eased. Invigorating warmth oozed through her. She wondered, briefly, if Babilas belonged to the cabal working with the convent. He’d certainly anticipated the need for an antidote to Rodzenica’s brew. Strange, how her allies showed their support. She roused herself, remembered her manners. “Thank you, Your Highness. This is delicious.”

Rodzenica drained her cup and waited for the servant to remove it. “You need not stand on ceremony with me. Call me Mother, and please, make yourself comfortable.” She curled a finger. The mermaid goddess’s throne rose above the others, drifted through the air, and settled behind Nadzia.

“I’m not divine,” she protested, reluctant to take a chair she didn’t deserve. “This belongs to Jūratė, not me.”

“You will soon join our ranks,” Rodzenica insisted. “Best learn how to comport yourself from a seat of honor. We expect a regal demeanor.”

Nadzia set her goblet on one armrest, fully covered her honeycomb before placing it on the other, and then eased into the seat, keeping her spine erect. A goddess didn’t slouch.

Rodzenica folded her hands in her lap and studied Nadzia with lively violet eyes. “Are you comfortable? Good. I want you to always feel at ease with me. No need for a performance like the other morning.”

Nadzia swallowed in a throat gone dry. She grabbed the nectar and gulped a mouthful, heedless of drops dribbling down her chin. Waves of heat rippled through her body, turned her limbs to rubber. She dropped the cup and groped for the honeycomb. Rodzenica knocked it out of reach. “Enough! You have partaken of my elixir and cannot lie. Tell me truly—do you care for my son?”

Fire raged through Nadzia’s veins. She summoned an image of the sea and breathed deep, fighting the magic that threatened to consume her. Don’t give in. Use your voice.

The haze dimming her thoughts lifted. She searched her mind, seized upon an indisputable response, and laced her words with loving sincerity. “He attends to me as no other has. I am moved by his ardor.”

A black cloud streaked with lightning seeped out from Rodzenica’s skin and surrounded the goddess. “Do not mock me. Mortals corrupted Jūratė. She broke my son’s heart. I will not allow her daughter to do the same. Perun deserves a wife who loves him. You came of age amongst a coven that prays for his downfall. How can you rise above such animosity?”

The air crackled around the queen. Tiny sparks swirled across her throne. Nadzia grabbed Perun’s jewel, determined not to show fear. The amber warmed to her touch. She took comfort in its steady beat, allowed herself precious moments to consider a reply. The future of the Order depended on her answer—not to mention her own safety. “You misjudge me, Mother,” she said in the most persuasive tone she could muster. “I’m not filled with hate. I swear by all I hold holy that Perun arouses deep emotions in me.”

“I know of the Order’s ritual for mating. It is forbidden to love your partners.”

“Perhaps, but our hearts don’t answer to rules,” Nadzia said, pressing a hand to her chest. “A novice who is drawn to one particular man learns to hide the truth of her sentiments.”

Rodzenica settled back in her chair with a mordant smile. “Then you are well practiced at deception.”

Fates be damned, she’s as bad as Veles at twisting words! Nadzia pulled back her shoulders and focused on a spot just above Rodzenica’s brows. “Your son is the only partner I will ever have, there is no reason to shield my feelings with him. I may lack the eloquence of the gods, but you have my word, I am bound to Perun as no other. Trust in the divine design that brought me here. I’m the one you’ve been waiting for, the one who will bring him joy.”

Rodzenica squinted at Nadzia’s pendant for a long moment, then closed her eyes and breathed a command. The tempest vanished. Her servant returned with two more goblets. The goddess drank deeply from one and settled the other in her lap. Her lips quirked. “I’m sure you understand the necessity of testing you, although I should have known the one chosen by the Fates would appreciate my son’s gentle side.”

“Yes, yes,” Nadzia agreed, anxious to keep the goddess content. “The calm between his storms.”

“It must be Jūratė’s blood in you, one divine nature attuning itself to another. Mortals are too fickle. Oh, they pray for our intervention, but they want to feel themselves masters of their own destiny.”

The chamber rang with the goddess’s derisive laughter. “Can you imagine the chaos if humans were free to lead lives they chose? No, the world is best ruled by the Immortals. Only fools resist.”

Nadzia pushed down the fury swelling in her breast. This wasn’t the time to argue about the wisdom of the gods. The nectar was loosening the regent’s tongue. She pretended to sip and waited for her to continue.

Rodzenica finished her third goblet and licked her lips. “You certainly made it easy. I told Perun if he treated you badly I would not make him whole again, but you have a wonderfully obliging disposition. It took little effort on his part before you were smitten. If I harbored misgivings, you have eased them. Bless you, my daughter. You have saved my son.”

Nadzia lowered her eyes, focused on the jewels sparkling on the goddess’s fingers. The words Gabi had overheard sprouted fresh in her mind: She must love me before it’s too late.

Blood pounded in her ears. She recalled their days together: his easy affection, the pleasure he took in her company, his devotion to her wellness after she was injured. She’d sensed no guile or dishonesty in him, assumed his endearments were heart-felt, even found herself warming to him with a genuine affection that put her at odds with the convent’s goal.

Yet all along he’d been playing her, his performance as skilled and proficient as any actor from the troupes that visited Palanga during its yearly festival. How could she have been so blind? The god of storms didn’t care for her, he only wanted his divine life back.

And she’d just ensured his immortality.

#

The Tree of Life disappeared behind its cloak of dense mist. Nadzia emerged into a pristine blue sky, the afternoon sun at her back, shrieking and sobbing. Lies, schemes—how could she trust anyone? She gritted her teeth at the irony. A novice trained to deceive could hardly cast stones at others. True enough, but that didn’t stop the tears coursing down her cheeks. She’d actually believed Perun had genuine feelings for her, never dreamed he would assume a role to further his own ends.

Her chest burned with shame, anger, grief. Under the influence of Rodzenica’s elixir, she’d spoken her heart: after twelve days with Perun, she truly felt a bond with him, thought him a kindred soul longing for love. Stupid, stupid girl!

She could thwart everyone’s plans right now, release her hold on Salomeya’s mane, and plummet to the earth in a final act of defiance. But the gods would surely punish the Order of Bursztyn if she took her own life. She couldn’t put her sisters at risk simply because she despised her fate. Heartsick or not, she still had an oath to fulfill.

Eyes streaming in the wind, she seized the stone at her breast. The daylight shimmered and a vision appeared, edged in black: Nadzia on a pyre, consumed by flames and then rising again, renewed, like the legendary Firebird. When the image vanished, she wept with gratitude. She wasn’t an ordinary novice, she was Fates-chosen, a woman capable of breaking through pain and betrayal to forge a new path. If Perun was a master of delusion, she would use the power of her voice to unmask him.

The sword of destiny has two edges. You are one of them.

Time to sharpen the blade.

©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski

Image: https://i.pinimg.com/236x/fc/9f/fb/fc9ffb67b34ee8132844add16ef08d9a–bee-farm-bee-hives.jpg?nii=t