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.
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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.”
“You dare congratulate yourself?” Jūratė stormed toward her brother, fists clenched.
“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.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
Image of Nadzia: https://www.polishtoledo.com/pagan/myths.htm
Image of Perun: kriegerman.deviantart.com – KAOSS-8