As promised, here are the opening chapters to my paranormal romance. The intended audience is 16+ and this is a clean romance, no explicit sex.
If you enjoy them, please leave a short comment. Thanks, as always, for reading.
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IMAGE: kriegerman.deviantart.com – KAOSS-8
When the conch shell blared at the cusp of dawn, Nadzia pulled up the hood of her white robe and stepped into a mist descending upon the convent like a shroud. A drum’s staccato beat propelled her across a stone courtyard to a fountain carved in the image of Jūratė, her divine ancestor, mermaid goddess of the Baltic Sea. Crystal-clear water flowed from the mermaid’s outstretched arms into a pool lined with cerulean tiles. Nadzia wet the tips of her fingers and made the sign of obedience—hand to forehead, lips, and heart—and prayed. “Blessed One, I beg you. Let vengeance be mine.”
The drumbeat quickened, prodding her onward to the western gate that led to the sea. Nadzia slipped through the opening easily, pausing to rest one arm on the iron bars. Fates be kind, she’d return with his heart. She set off on a dirt path across the hilltop, stopping to pick a handful of daisies crowned with delicate webs of dew. Shredded ivory petals littered the dirt path as she walked down to the beach to join her fellow Gatherers. Dressed like Nadzia, they stood in clusters upon the diamond-bright sands, a dozen novices of all shapes and sizes, some light, some dark. Nadzia’s chest fluttered in anticipation. One of them would be leaving soon, whisked away to restore the Blessed One’s honor.
The conch horn sounded anew. Five women emerged from a cave hidden below the grass-topped dunes that separated the Order of Bursztyn’s beach from the public area used by villagers. They moved slowly, deliberately, a quintet of six-foot-tall matrons in turquoise robes. Nadzia gazed at them fondly. The Elders had maintained the convent for generations, nurturing their daughters in preparation for a divine battle. Secretly, of course. To all appearances the Order willingly accepted what the gods had ordained.
The women halted near a collection of baskets at the dunes’ edge. Mother Gintare, a bronze beauty who’d overseen the convent for more than nine decades, approached and held up a piece of parchment. “At long last our prayers are answered,” she said with a grim smile. “A message from the Faeries of Fate, delivered last night. Rejoice, my dears, they have judged the god of storms fully redeemed! Now it is our task to send Perun a bride.”
Nadzia’s skin prickled with excitement. Ordinarily, the Gathering meant using her siren’s voice to call forth amber from the goddess’s shattered palace. The ritual took place each year on the summer solstice, a time when magic was at its peak. Nadzia ranked as one of the top Gatherers, reaping at least ten baskets full of the tangerine stones each year. Only Keslai, a voluptuous redhead, collected more. But today was different—today they would summon Perun, the fiend who’d killed Jūratė.
“You know the tale,” the abbess began, beckoning them to come closer, “a story of passion and death. Let us hear it once more, a final reminder of why we resist.”
Her gray eyes clouded as she looked out at the cove. “Jūratė broke the rules and married a fisherman she saved from drowning in these very waters. She thought her secret safe, but when she grew heavy with child she could no longer hide the truth.”
Mother smiled and stroked the front of her gown. “It is a joyous time, knowing you are blessed with new life. But Perun accused her of treason and demanded a trial before the Divine Council. Judgment came within hours: exile and the loss of immortality. Jūratė accepted the verdict with her usual grace. What need did she have of eternal life amidst those who disparaged her? She wanted to grow old with her husband and child. But first she had to return to her palace in Palanga, to retrieve a chest of jewels that would sustain her family.”
Mother’s breath caught. She shook her head and moved aside to make room for Sister Ramuna, the convent’s librarian, a slim woman with a nut-brown complexion, sable tresses, and a nose as sharp as a raven. Novices learned the truth from Sister Ramuna at the age of sixteen, as Nadzia had three years ago. Every time she heard the tale her resolve deepened. Even now her back straightened, her jaws clenched with renewed determination.
“Alas,” Sister Ramuna said in a trembling voice, “Perun did not agree with the Council. He flew to this cove, killed the Blessed One’s husband, and shattered the amber palace, mortally wounding Jūratė as she hid under her throne trying to find shelter from his rage.”
The Elder paused to wipe away tears. “Knowing she was at death’s door, Jūratė found refuge in a cave. With the help of Mokosh, the goddess of fertility, she gave birth to twins before dying—one as dark as the goddess and one as light as her mate. From those two the Order of Bursztyn grew.”
Bitterness soured Nadzia’s throat. Yes, it was a blessing of sorts, that the goddess lived on through her daughters and their progeny. They thrived under the care and guidance of Mokosh. They were healthy and well-situated, thanks to the amber provided by the sea. Their voices could tame the shyest of creatures, stop a thief in his tracks. But Perun continued to haunt their thoughts, their nightmares, a furious god hurling thunderbolts at the cove. She forced the image out of her mind. Another Elder had come forward to speak.
Sister Bronis, a short woman as round and brown as the potatoes she grew in the convent’s garden, hair as golden as the honey from her hives, and eyes as green as rosemary, planted her hands on her hips. “We should have been allowed to exist in peace,” she said with a scowl. “But the Divine Council granted clemency after the god of storms swore—by the blood of Dievas, creator of all—that he didn’t know Jūratė was inside during his assault. Foul, black-tongued liar! He was divine; he should have sensed her presence.”
She paced up and down the sand, her voice thick with anger. “And so, a murderer was allowed to go free. His penance? The Council placed a sliver of his heart in amber from the goddess’s ruined palace and ordered him to beg forgiveness each night. Through prayer, he would be atoned. When the Fates determined his remorse complete, the goddess reborn would summon the enchanted stone with her siren’s voice. He would have his queen at last.”
Nadzia’s cheeks grew hot. The gods rewarded an assassin and bestowed centuries of dread upon the descendants of the one he wronged. Impossibly unfair, but the daughters of Jūratė knew better than to openly protest. After five hundred years, long anxious centuries in which the Order despaired of ever besting the gods, they finally had a chance to seek real justice.
She allowed herself a small sigh of satisfaction. This was the secret never spoken beyond the convent’s walls. Perun’s bride—Blessed One, let it be me!—had one goal: to seduce and bewitch him until he revealed the weakness that would be his undoing. He’d insisted upon a woman no older than twenty, a condition that worked to the Order’s benefit. His mate, fully trained in the art of enticement, would use every bit of her youthful guile to trap him. Hadn’t he succumbed to the charms of Jūratė’s dulcet tones? Her daughters possessed voices twice as sweet, their bodies were fresh and eager to please. Nadzia yearned to entrance him with languid songs and feather-soft caresses until he was like a kitten with a bowl of cream, mewling with pleasure. Ready to answer every question, confess every secret.
On the beach, the last wisps of haze vanished. The air grew warm and damp, spiced with the salty tang Nadzia loved. She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. Fates be kind, this Gathering would finish quickly, before the sands began to radiate heat and bake the soles of her thin shoes. She bit her lip and fumbled with the locket each Gatherer wore, a pendant designed to hold the Thunder God’s jewel. Would the power of his heart eclipse her own?
Keslai snickered at her side. “Surely you don’t think you’re going to win. If the Fates are wise, I’ll be the one flying off today in Perun’s chariot. You can spend the rest of your life paying tribute to your illustrious sister, queen of the sea and sky.”
“Watch your tongue, child,” Mother snapped, her hearing as keen as ever. “You are not yet chosen.” She studied Nadzia for a long moment and then addressed the group. “Do not despair, dear ones. Remember, no matter what rank in life the Fates assign you, they also provide the means to shape it. You are the children of a goddess. Jūratė’s spirit blazes within you. Embrace her gift. Believe in the power she bequeathed, the power of your voice. Remember, the gods are not privy to our mission nor have they reason to suspect us. That is a significant advantage.”
A fresh breeze wafted over the shore. Nadzia rubbed the mermaid inked on the back of her neck and said a quick prayer for the one they’d lost the year before, a panicked novice who ran off and disappeared into the woods. She returned a day later, her mouth stitched shut by divine threads no mortal shears could snip. Nadzia shuddered at the memory. If she had to die, better a quick flash of Perun’s fire than slow starvation.
The sun crested the horizon, streaking the sky in pink and orange. A comet raced across the heavens and ignited the northern constellation known as the Thunder God’s Cart—Perun’s stars. The abbess directed the novices to form a single line with Nadzia at one end and Keslai at the other. “Come, my dears,” she said briskly. “We must not delay. Be strong. Show the gods your mettle.”
She motioned to a lithe, pale woman with hair the color of ripe peaches, the convent’s vocal instructor. “If you please.”
Sister Dain bowed to the abbess and lifted her arms. A susurrus of soothing harmony filled the air. One by one, Nadzia and her sisters took up the call, their voices gaining timbre while the Elders withdrew to the dunes. Gulls crowded a nearby boulder to listen. The tide inched closer, leaving foamy swirls shaped like water nymphs, a sign the waters heard and acknowledged the Gatherers. Now it was time to alter the pitch of their voices so that the song became a sultry enticement, a true mermaid’s call.
By order of the abbess—in conjunction with local leaders—it was a day of seclusion for the villagers of Palanga. Their fishing boats rocked idly against the piers while they remained inside, their ears stuffed with moss provided by the Order so that none succumbed to a siren’s song. Without that protection, the men would be scrambling over the dunes, their faces slack with desire, the women engaging in behavior more sensual than propriety demanded. Only the daughters of Jūratė could endure the spell their divine voices cast.
The waters churned. Spume flecked the waves. Each Gatherer watched for the yellow-orange gleam of fragments from Jūratė’s ruined palace. They sang louder, stronger, cajoling the sea to cast forth its treasure. The sun climbed, sending a blanket of heat over the cove. Still, the jewels did not appear.
Sweat dripped down Nadzia’s back. Why the delay? Hadn’t the Fates given their permission for Perun to finally claim his bride? The beach should be flooded with jewels by now.
The Gatherers infused their song with yearning, to no avail. Wave after wave crashed, showering them with spray, but nothing more. The gulls screamed and flew off to haunt the fishing docks.
Finally, Perun’s stars flared. Dark clouds billowed forth from the constellation and scudded overhead. Lightning pierced the sky, followed by the low rumble of thunder.
And then the ground quaked.
The tide ebbed and returned with a roar. Frothy swells tumbled to the shoreline, delivering huge clumps of seaweed to each Gatherer. Nadzia fell to her knees, hurriedly picking through the tangled greens for the jewels buried within. Before long, she’d assembled a mound as high as her waist. From what she could see, her sisters had similar bounties. At least the convent would lack for nothing. Traders paid handsomely for these jewels.
She sat back on her heels, disappointment washing through her until she noticed one final piece almost entirely sheathed in kelp—a flat stone the size of a goose egg. A red gleam pulsed at its core. Her throat tightened as she placed the jewel in her palm. “He’s mine,” she whispered. “All mine.”
Perun’s stone glowed brighter than the sun. Nadzia blinked at the glare, dazzled. The beach disappeared. In its place, a shimmering curtain of light opened. She was no longer kneeling on the shore but high up in the sky, looking down upon the cove of Palanga. The god of storms’ body floated lifeless in the water. Shrieks rent the air. A circle of eagles descended and carried his corpse into the clouds.
Breathless with hope, Nadzia scrambled upright as the vision faded. Was this a glimpse of the future or a waking dream borne of desperation? The amber slipped from her hand and fell into the wet sand with a sizzle. Mother approached, her lips pressed thin, followed by the other Gatherers, wide-eyed and murmuring.
Keslai jostled her way to the front of the group. “Have the Fates gone mad? I’m the one who deserves this. That jewel belongs to me.”
She shoved Nadzia aside and grabbed the stone. Sparks shot out. The stench of seared flesh filled the air. Keslai wailed and plunged her smoking limb into the sea, boiling the waters. When the steam subsided, she gingerly pulled out her arm and shrieked at the sight of her right hand, charred from fingertips to wrist. She turned on Nadzia, her voice tight with rage. “I hope he burns you to cinders.”
The abbess called for Sister Bronis. “Take this one to the infirmary. I will join you later.” Keslai choked on a sob and stumbled away, casting one last look of unforgiving malice at Nadzia.
A shadow spiraled down from Perun’s flaming stars. The Gatherers clung to each other and chanted as they retreated toward the dunes. “Save her, Jūratė. Save her from his wrath.”
Mother squeezed Nadzia’s shoulder and moved back a few steps. “Face your fears, my child. Call upon the power within. Tame the beast with the magic of your voice and learn his frailties. Only then can you avenge the Blessed One.”
Nadzia retrieved the amber, rinsed off the grit, and placed the sparkling gem into the locket at her throat. Her heart thundered as she watched the darkness descend. For you, Jūratė, I will make him my slave. She stood proudly until the blackness above emitted a grating . . . caw? Her brow creased in surprise. This was no ox-drawn chariot but an enormous raven, twice the size of an ordinary bird, gripping a piece of parchment in its talons. It waited for Nadzia to open her free hand, dropped the message, and soared off, squawking.
The novices returned and huddled around their sister, chattering with excitement. Was this a reprieve? The letter bore a golden wax seal stamped with a tiny Tree of Life, celestial home of the gods. Hands shaking, Nadzia broke it open and read aloud:
Use this day to settle your affairs. My son shall come for you at eventide.
For a moment, all were speechless, then a chorus of confusion and wonder erupted. Mother huddled with the Elders and then clapped her hands for silence. “The hours will pass quickly before Perun arrives,” she said. “We must not waste them. Gatherers, bring your amber back to the convent and then meet with Sister Dain at the chapel; she will guide you in prayer. Nadzia, go with Sister Saule to the observatory. She has something to show you. Come to my office when you are finished.”
A long-boned woman with salt-and-pepper curls tamed into a braid that reached her waist beckoned for Nadzia to follow. Her topaz eyes twinkled behind round glasses. “This is a good surprise,” she said. “You’ll see.” They scampered up the hill, as nimble footed as goats, veered north when the path forked, and made their way to the open-air classroom where novices learned about the heavens.
The air was cooler here, the grass speckled with drifts of yellow-tipped rue and white borage. Nadzia breathed deeply, close to tears. She loved this spot more than any place in the convent. The view of the ocean and woods. The grandeur of the heavens, whatever the time of day. The nights, oh the glorious nights, when the sky was a piece of velvet strewn with glittering beads and splashes of red and blue. She’d spent countless evenings with Sister Saule here after class, sipping ginger tea and nibbling on blueberry scones, content to sit in silence and simply gaze. Fates willing, when all was done they’d raise mugs of mead together in celebration.
Six chairs draped with quilts formed a half-circle around the trunk Sister Saule kept supplied with tools she used for astronomy lessons: ink; quills; maps; charts; books of runes and folklore. The Elder rummaged through the chest, carefully setting objects aside until she found a thick roll of paper tied with a black ribbon. “Ah,” she said with a smile. “As fresh and crisp as the day I made it.”
She tucked the parchment into her robe and added four small books. “Spread a quilt on the ground for me.”
A hundred questions bubbled in Nadzia’s mind, though she asked none, knowing that Sister couldn’t be rushed or prodded into answering. She smoothed out a throw embossed with dolphins and helped unroll a picture of the night sky, white dots and splotches of color painted on a midnight blue background. The celestial drawing glimmered and pulsed with the same intensity as the objects themselves, a tribute to the Elder’s divine mastery of her craft. Nadzia fell back on her knees. “A star chart?”
“A very special one,” Sister replied, sinking gracefully to the ground. “Created on the day you were born and kept sealed until this moment.”
Nadzia stared, fascinated. Every chart told a story; what tale did hers hold?
Sister tapped the bottom of the paper. “Look here, in the south. What is the name of this constellation?”
“The Food Bearer.”
“Correct. Her arms are open wide. What does that represent?”
Nadzia linked the stars in her mind until they became a young girl holding a spike of grain in one hand, a scale in the other. “The promise of a good harvest.”
“A promise fulfilled when you summoned a killer’s jewel.” Sister’s gaunt finger moved along the chart. “Here, to the west, the Ploughman and his oxen, do you see how brightly they shine?”
Nadzia hugged her chest, delighted by what the stars represented. Another good sign. “Perun’s bride is destined to travel the heavens with him.”
“Indeed.” Sister’s tone turned wistful. She raised her head and gazed at the sky. “You will see things beyond compare, sights a mortal can only dream of.”
Nadzia gawked at the yearning in the Elder’s face, astonished at such a naked display of emotion. Sister sighed and waved at the chart. “Continue north, toward the Road of Souls.”
A milky band of light stretched across the sky. Nadzia flushed with pleasure. Victory! “The path is clear. Nothing to hamper a quest.”
Sister released the paper. It curled back into a roll with a snap. “Thus do we see your future foretold. Remember this when courage falters. Stay true to your vows. You will triumph.”
Nadzia nibbled at her thumb. “So it seems. But what if the stars mean that Perun will prevail?”
“He is a god, not a mortal. The movements of the heavens have no bearing on his life.”
“I suppose.” Nadzia squinted at the thunder god’s constellation, burning above them like scarlet fire. She didn’t understand why Perun kept away. He’d waited forever for a bride, spent half a millennium seeking absolution. He should have come for her the moment she clasped his jewel.
She fingered the locket, felt it warm the tender flesh at the hollow of her throat. Where are you?
The god of storms leaned forward from his oak throne and blew on the fire burning in the center of his temple. A cloud of black smoke arose, as dark and sullen as his mood. If this solstice was like all the others, he’d return from Palanga alone, destined for another year of anguish. His nails scraped against the wooden arms of his chair, wisps of smoke drifting from his fingertips. What more did those blasted Faeries of Fate want? When would he earn redemption?
Five centuries. That’s how long he’d done everything the Council asked. Built an altar to Jūratė and kneeled before her portrait each night to beg forgiveness. Lived with a hole in his chest where his heart should have been. Flown to the coast each summer for the Gathering.
He should be there now. Watching. Waiting. Hoping that one of the goddess’s daughters would finally summon his enchanted jewel. He shook his head and laughed sourly. Maybe the Fates knew the truth. He didn’t want a wife. He didn’t deserve a wife. But he couldn’t live forever without one.
His bride’s seat shone, the wood polished to a fine luster. Smaller than his, but not by much; every novice stood at least six feet tall. His seat was etched with symbols of fire and lightning, hers was engraved with dolphins and seashells and ocean waves. Studded with pieces of pearl and amber. Ready for a queen. He shook his head. It did no good to stare at an empty throne. He’d have time enough for that if the day went as expected.
Too restless to sit, he rose and walked every inch of his temple. It was an eight-sided building constructed by his followers on a hill above Kaunas, giving him a bird’s-eye view of neighboring valleys and rivers. Eternal flames blazed mid-temple, the smoke dissipating through an open hole in the roof. At the far end, the two carved thrones perched on a marbled dais. A few yards from each chair, curtains veiled private chambers for the god and his forthcoming bride. In the open areas beyond those rooms, pilgrims left offerings at his shrine as well as the altar dedicated to Jūratė—if you worshipped him, you must also honor the mermaid goddess.
Servants housed in buildings throughout the grounds kept the area orderly. A cook and handmaiden lodged in a wattle and daub bungalow alongside the westward path that started at the temple and snaked down to a dock at the River Nemunas. Across the path and higher up the hill, a lush fruit and vegetable garden bloomed, tended by an elderly caretaker who slept in a small cabin at the back of his plot. Behind the temple, a huge barn housed his chariot and bull; a stable boy who lived in the loft was tending to both now.
Streaks of coral and orange lingered on the edge of the sky. Perun gritted his teeth. Daybreak. No time to waste. He lumbered down the temple steps and stopped. The air thrummed. Three faeries—Laima, Dalia, and Kārta—shimmered before him. He sucked in a breath and bowed before the Fates who held his life in their hands.
Laima, golden-tressed and glowing, stepped forward, a tiny swan in her arms. “We bring good tidings,” she said with a brilliant smile. “Your atonement is complete. Today the goddess reborn will summon you.”
“Truly?” Perun’s throat clogged. After so many years torn between hope and misery, he couldn’t quite believe his fortune had finally changed.
“Yes, dear brother,” Dalia said. She sparkled in a coat of many colors that matched her hair. “You may pursue love once more.”
Perun sputtered out a nervous laugh and then remembered his manners. “Thank you.”
“Be gentle with your bride,” Kārta warned. Her fingers stroked the spindle resting in her hands. “Do not allow passion to lead you astray. You will not be given another chance.”
A breeze arose, fanning Kārta’s black curls until they veiled her face. “Heed my words, brother. The one who calls forth your jewel is not yours to command. Treat her badly and all will be lost.”
The goddesses melted into the air as the sun breached the horizon. Perun turned toward the barn and halted again. The handmaiden Gabrielle was sprinting up the path from the dock and calling out to him.
“Master, a moment please.” The girl swallowed heavily and bowed. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but what I heard cannot wait.”
Perun nodded warily. His servants rose early to meet the boats that traveled south along the River Nemunas delivering supplies. Gabrielle often amused him with gossip she’d picked up from traders who stretched their legs on the platform while she collected goods. But this morning her face was bloodless with fear. He steeled himself for unpleasant news. “Go on.”
“It was the bookseller. He . . . he says that all is not what it seems at the Order of Bursztyn.” The handmaiden paused, hunching her shoulders. “He says the convent is filled with wicked enchantresses who conspire against the gods.”
Another time, Perun might have dismissed his servant’s words. He didn’t know this trader. Perhaps the man loved idle chatter; he might be repeating the drunken slurs of a villager who’d indulged in too much mead at the local inn. But this warning, unlike the one he’d just received, gave him pause. He kept his voice casual. “And what exactly did this trader see that makes him so certain?”
Gabrielle looked up and sighed. “I’m sorry, but when I asked for more, his eyes grew hazy. Like he was in a trance. So I asked again. He looked at me like he was talking to an idiot. As if he didn’t know what he’d just said. Bewitched, he was.”
“Come now, Gabi, I think this trader was teasing you,” Perun said with an indulgent smile meant to hide his distress. “If there are diabolical women plotting against us, they are doomed to fail. The gods always triumph. Even so, I thank you for your concern. I am lucky to have such a loyal servant. I trust all is in readiness?”
Gabrielle jumped up with a start and clutched her skirt. “She’s coming, today? I thought I saw faeries. Goodness, I need to tell everyone.” She turned to leave and then swiveled. “I have prayed that the daughter of Jūratė brings you all that your heart desires. I hope for that still. But please be careful.”
“I will, Gabi, I promise.”
When the handmaiden had retreated to her cottage, Perun rushed back to his private quarters, where he kept paper and pens. He wrote a hasty message and whistled. Moments later, a raven swept through the roof’s opening. Perun shoved his note into a tube attached to the bird’s leg. “See that my father reads this at once,” he said. “I will wait in my constellation for his response.”
High in the heavens, Perun slouched against his chariot. He used to love this spot, the heat of the stars in his constellation, the unimpeded view of the coast and sea. Now he gazed down mournfully at the cove where he’d known bliss with a mermaid. His pulse quickened. Once, he’d adored her, spent hours listening to her sing on the diamond-bright shores of Palanga. Such a voice! So pure, so tender, like a windswept caress. Her song stoked fire in his breast, roused them both to the heights of passion. Now agony, not lust, scalded his veins. How could she have rejected him?
He’d have sworn their love was mutual. She certainly enjoyed their intimacy, her skin slick against his whenever they coupled. He’d dreamed of the life they’d have together as regents of the sea and sky. Perun and Jūratė . . . forever.
Then she’d rescued a man flailing in her seas and took him as her husband, violating an ancient taboo. His fists clenched at the memory of her trial, her lack of remorse, how she flaunted her pregnancy with every caress of her bulging stomach. She’d betrayed him. Not just him, all the gods.
And yet he couldn’t deny the pain. His attention drifted to the shoreline, the pine trees lining the beach, the dunes where they’d frolicked. This, too, was part of his punishment. To look upon what he once had and then lost. What he’d ruined in the heat of a moment. What he could never atone for, no matter what anyone else believed.
He chafed with irritation. How could the Faeries of Fates have granted him absolution? His remorse would never end. He stumbled through the days and nights wracked with guilt and shame.
But the Divine Council’s decision was absolute. If he wished to remain king of his realm, he must marry the one who called out his jewel.
He thought of his handmaiden’s warning. Did Jūratė’s daughters truly wish him ill? He’d given them ample reason. Their divine progenitor was gone, slain by his hand. How could they ever condone so grievous a sin? The goddess was dead and he alone was to blame. That they would accept him without rancor was inconceivable.
A shadow approached. Perun grunted in recognition as it neared, then moved to the back of his chariot to make room for the giant eagle descending in slow, broad circles. Within minutes, the bird landed, ruffled its plumage, and transformed into Dievas, creator of all. Perun put a hand to his heart and bowed in obeisance to the white-haired god shining before him. “Father.”
Dievas shook a few loose feathers from his golden robes and studied Perun with piercing violet eyes. “I received a note asking me to give your bride the day to arrange her affairs. It seemed an odd request, but I presumed you needed those extra hours as well, to confirm that her quarters were ready, perhaps.”
His eyes narrowed. “I planned to celebrate this glorious day with your mother. Instead, I am here at her behest. She is most aggrieved—her reflecting pool showed the god of storms hiding in his stars.”
He thumped his son’s shoulder. “Is my boy a coward?”
“I am as you made me,” Perun replied, pulling himself erect to meet his father’s scrutiny. “Full of fire and thunder. But . . . I have heard things and . . . I wonder . . . can we trust these women?”
The edges of Dievas’s mouth twitched. “Pray tell, what gives you cause for alarm?”
Although his father’s smirk nettled Perun, he kept his burgeoning rage in check. Never again would he allow fury to dictate his actions. “I cannot believe that a daughter of Jūratė looks forward to this marriage. Humans nurse grudges for centuries. I speak from experience. Many come to my temples asking for help against their enemies.”
“I trust you are circumspect in deciding which side to assist,” Dievas said with a hint of reproach. “It is not wise to become embroiled in their wars. Mortals have a propensity for conflict.”
“That is my point,” Perun replied, warming to his argument. “Any affront, real or imagined, can result in disputes that never end, enmities that are passed from one generation to the next. These novices, are they sincerely resigned to their fate? It makes no sense. Why would they wish to join with the one they hold responsible for Jūratė’s death?”
“They have accepted our explanation,” Dievas answered, a trace of bitterness lacing his words. “The goddess was lost in a lamentable mishap, one we chose to correct with your repentance and the elevation of a mortal to divine status. Your suspicions are baseless, my son. Trust me, these women are disciplined and submissive, eager to please us. Who has told you otherwise?”
“The handmaiden at my temple.”
Dievas’s laughter rippled with scorn. “A servant? How would she know what takes place in Palanga?”
Perun focused on the horizon, avoiding his father’s caustic gaze. “From a man who sells books in the village.”
“I see.” Dievas leaned forward, his ageless face rumpling with displeasure. “You forget, I have spies in the village, women who bring food for the summer solstice feast. They have seen nothing out of the ordinary. According to their reports, the daughters of Jūratė are content with their lot. As well they should be. When have the gods ever allowed a human to join their ranks? It is an honor beyond compare.”
The muscles in Perun’s cheek twitched. He met the ancient one’s flinty stare, unwilling to concede the issue. “Will you not entertain the possibility of deception? These novices have mesmerizing voices. They can easily persuade dim-witted villagers that all is well. I am astounded that the trader who spoke with my servant remembered anything.”
“Is the mighty god of storms frightened?” Dievas replied, his face tweaked with derision. “Does he believe a mere human shall be his doom? Your mother’s coddling has made you soft.”
Perun’s blood simmered with resentment, clamoring for release. He looked away and suppressed the heat threatening to burst forth. It wouldn’t help matters if he lost control. That’s what had brought him to this sorry state. “Do not belittle my distress, Father. There is something peculiar at work here. I am certain of it.”
“If these women terrify you, then take the first alternative offered after your trial—exile to the wastelands, your temples razed, another deity assigned to your realm.”
“The mortals who count on my rains to water their crops are good men and women,” Perun said, bristling. “I will not abandon my duty to care for them.”
“You were given a second option, to join Jūratė in death. I’m surprised you didn’t give that serious consideration,” Dievas said coolly. “A chance to spend eternity with your sweet mermaid lover. What more could you want?”
Perun grunted and folded his arms. “We both know why I refused. Veles rules the Underworld; he’s never forgiven me for slaying Jūratė. If you deliver me into my brother’s hands, I’ll end up in a rot-filled dungeon so deep within the roots of the Tree of Life no one will hear my screams as he tortures me. I’ll never see the goddess, let alone have a chance to apologize.”
Dievas flicked a stray feather from his sleeve. “Then it appears you have no choice but to forge ahead. Remember, we cannot fully restore your heart until after you wed. If you are never made whole again, you will perish. No god can live forever without his full powers. It might take eons, but when it does Veles will claim you.”
Perun massaged the spot where his chest had been cut open, his flesh sliced as if he were an animal brought to slaughter. Though he had no wish for a mate, his survival depended on the one who summoned his enchanted stone. Only she could save him. “Then I will do what I must.”
“You have been judged fully atoned,” Dievas said with a curt nod. “A new love awaits. Bring her to us at the Tree of Life tomorrow. I want her fully rested and clad in one of the gowns your mother fashioned for her, not a sand-stained robe. We expect to see a happy couple. You would do well not to disappoint us.”
He extended his right hand, waited for his son to kiss the gigantic amber ring that signified ultimate power, and then morphed into avian form, flying off with a whistling kleek-kik-ik-ik. Before long, he was little more than a dark speck disappearing into the ether.
With no mortals close by who might be harmed, Perun freely vented his wrath. Steam poured out from his flesh and hissed against the frigid air. What did his father know? Dievas didn’t mingle with humans, he had no concept of their capacity for subterfuge. If the trader believed something was amiss, Perun would heed the man’s story, although it astounded him to think these women would dare to defy the gods. Had they learned nothing from the novice who tried to escape last summer? Surely they didn’t wish a similar fate.
Yet he couldn’t shake the sense that things weren’t quite what they seemed, beyond his control. His hands tingled with heat. Sparks surged from his fingertips. A tempest was brewing within, a furor demanding release. He held out arms that blazed with divine heat and prepared to unleash a bolt of lightning.
And then the fire in his blood cooled so suddenly he nearly shouted for joy. He’d overlooked a hidden blessing in the trader’s story. If the daughters of Jūratė were engaged in deceit, then he was free to devise his own scheme in response.
The plan came together quickly, as if somehow he’d known this hurdle was bound to arise. He was no feeble merchant spellbound by a siren’s voice. He was the god of storms, full of unbridled power, more than enough to counter a novice’s guile. The wedding wouldn’t take place for two weeks; his mother insisted the ceremony be held on his feast day. That gave him plenty of time to flatter and pamper his bride, show her the glories of the heavens, the wonders of the Tree of Life. Shower her with affection. Keep her so charmed and distracted by new adventures she’d never have a chance to dazzle him.
The days would pass quickly. And when his heart was renewed . . . well, the girl could go back to her convent for all he cared.
Still, he sensed this would not be an easy task. He would have to scrutinize her every move for even a hint of manipulation, all while appearing to take absolute delight in her company. Mute his emotions so that she didn’t catch him unawares, as Jūratė had. No matter how melodic her words, how adoring her gaze, he would never succumb to the one who summoned his jewel. His heart was shuttered. No sweet-faced vixen would ever triumph over him.
He’d loved once. He would not love again.
Copyright © 2022 by Kathryn Jankowski