Nadzia mesmerizes a servant into divulging a curious secret, breakfasts with Perun, and realizes he has his own means of manipulation.
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When she lived at the convent, Nadzia rose at dawn with the novices and Elders to pray. Without a bell to rouse her, she slept hours beyond sunrise, until light streamed through the oculus of Perun’s temple. She stretched luxuriously, reluctant to leave the comfort of her silken sheets.
Birds chattered from nearby oaks. Nadzia took a deep breath. She didn’t quite know what to make of this air, so different from the salty tang of the sea. It was warm with a fresh verdant undertone. Refreshing in its own way. She’d have to explore the grounds soon, familiarize herself with new scents and sounds. Make her forays so common a sight that no one would ever suspect she was searching for clues to topple the god of storms.
She threw off the covers, put on thin slippers and the diaphanous robe draped across the end of her bed, and reached for the bell that would summon her handmaiden. Gods knew she hated the thought of a stranger fussing over her when she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but if she wanted to sow the seeds of enchantment, she had to act as if Perun’s desires perfectly matched her own. If he wanted to coddle her, she must oblige.
But first, she had morning devotions to complete. She walked across cool stone floors, passed through the curtains that separated her room from Jūratė’s shrine, and kneeled on a bench before the rows of candles. They illuminated a niche with a portrait of the goddess riding atop a dolphin on foam-flecked waves, a depiction so realistic the sea appeared to ebb and flow. Nadzia sighed wistfully, remembering the thrill of ocean races with these sleek mammals she considered friends. Fates willing, she’d be back with them soon.
She sat back on her heels, gazed at the goddess’s image. Was there any point in praying? Jūratė wasn’t divine anymore; she could neither help nor hinder. And it didn’t make sense to ask for help from some who’d counseled acceptance rather than vengeance.
Yet without the magic of her mesmerizing voice, the goddess’s gift to all her daughters, Nadzia didn’t stand a chance at snaring her prey. That alone merited respect. She bent her head. , Blessed One, help me find the words to tame the beast. Show me the way to make him mine.
A gust of wind whooshed through the temple. Nadzia twisted backward and glimpsed Perun’s ox and chariot landing outside the entrance. He’d left her alone? Of course he had, it was summer. He must have traveled east during the night to water crops, leaving her in the protection of his fire-breathing eagles at the entry.
She scurried back to her room, rang the bell and settled on the bed’s edge, her fingers idly tracing the figure embroidered atop her quilt. Green-blue scales, bronze skin, flowing black hair. The mermaid goddess, Jūratė, immortalized in expert stitches by a seamstress at the top of her trade. Nadzia wondered if the quilter lived nearby, if Perun had sent a sketch of what he wanted. If he would toss the cover in his eternal fire after realizing he’d been betrayed.
The rustle of drapes. A petite girl dressed in pale blue skirts and matching blouse stepped into the room and curtsied. “Good morning, mistress. How may I serve you?”
Nadzia blinked in surprise. She’d expected someone older, not a girl nearly her age. “I’m sorry to bother you, Gabrielle, but I’d like a cup of tea.”
The handmaiden curtsied again. “Ludvika expected as much.”
“The cook. She has a kettle simmering and fireweed tea leaves ready to steep. We’ve readied a bath for you as well.”
“If that’s what you wish. We thought you might enjoy soaking under the trees.” Gabrielle held her breath, waiting, her eyes fixed on the floor.
“Thank you, that’s quite thoughtful.” Nadzia felt a twinge of annoyance when the maiden sagged with relief. This was absurd. They were both dealing with a monster. They should be allies, companions, friends. “And please, call me Nadzia.”
Gabrielle clapped a hand to her mouth and slowly let it drop. “Gods be praised,” she whispered. “The master’s brought back a kind woman.”
Nadzia swallowed an angry retort, piqued at the idea that outsiders would think the daughters of Jūratė anything but kind. “You expected someone just as fierce?”
“I beg pardon, mistress. I spoke out of turn.” Splotches of color mottled the handmaiden’s cheeks. “We are most gratified that you are here.”
Nadzia took a moment to study the girl. After years of lessons with Sister Dain, she was well acquainted with the nuances of voices. This one was laced with uneasiness, something more than the general discomfort she’d expect from a mortal bound to a turbulent deity. Under her silent perusal, the girl fidgeted, one hand twisting the fabric of her skirt. There was something to be ferreted out here, although it puzzled Nadzia to think a servant would have anything to hide.
Before she could begin framing her questions, Perun’s shadow darkened the curtains. “May I enter?”
She took a seat at the table. “Of course.”
“Did you sleep well?”
“Like a baby.”
Perun motioned toward the trunk at the foot of Nadzia’s bed. “Gabi, help my bride find suitable attire and then bring her to my quarters for breakfast.”
“What should I do about the bath we prepared for her?”
A spasm tweaked the thunder god’s jaw. Anger or something else? Nadzia pushed up from the chair, unsure of his mood, but sensing he needed to be soothed. “What a delight to learn your servants anticipated my needs,” she said brightly. “Don’t you love to begin the day cleansed and refreshed?”
“My storms wash me well enough.”
Nadzia inched closer and ran a finger up Perun’s forearm, relishing the way his skin prickled in response. “It won’t take long. Please?”
Perun tugged at his moustache. “Why don’t I soap you?”
Not yet. Not until I’ve had a chance to spend time alone with this girl. Nadzia softened her voice, infusing it with the dulcet tones she used to tame skittish fawns and wary rabbits. “Waiting will increase our pleasure. Go along now. The sooner I bathe, the sooner I can join you. I’m sure your imagination can keep you company until I return.”
Perun laughed, kissed her cheek, and lumbered to his room. Gabrielle inched back, her eyes dark with fear and awe. “It’s true what they say. The daughters of Jūratė are witches.”
“We are blessed with certain powers, nothing more.” Nadzia rubbed at a small ache in her forehead. The spells she employed with animals never left her this exhausted. Thank the goddess she was heading for a bath. A good soak would revive her.
Outside, the sky was clear and blue as a robin’s egg, the air heavy with the promise of heat. A portly woman with a braid of white hair waited at the temple’s top step with a basket of bathing supplies resting on her hip. She curtsied gracefully and offered a warm smile that softened the severity of her gaze. “My name is Ludvika. I hope my cooking meets with your satisfaction.”
She paused and looked askance at Nadzia’s nightclothes. “A word of advice if I may, mistress? The wedding and feast day are fast approaching. Men and women of all ages will soon arrive. We don’t want them to think you immodest. Perhaps less revealing garments?”
Nadzia smoothed the gossamer fabric, so transparent that anyone within a few feet could easily detect her body’s peaks and valleys. She’d never considered there might be eyes other than Perun’s assessing her. She sent a silent prayer of gratitude to Jūratė for sending such a wise woman to look out for her. “Thank you. I hope you’ll continue to offer your guidance and counsel. This is all so new to me.”
Ludvika nodded and transferred her basket to the handmaiden. “Call upon me at any time, mistress. I am here to serve.”
The trio walked down a gravel path that snaked toward the river. Ludvika took her leave at the servants’ wattle-and-daub bungalow. Gabrielle guided the two of them onward in silence. They strolled past a small field with bushes of chin-high nettle that sheltered redwings. The birds burst into song, sweetening the air with their friendly chirps. At the path’s end, they entered a grassy clearing under a circle of oaks, where a high-backed bronze tub etched with flames sat on a wooden platform. “This isn’t what I’d call modest,” Nadzia said. “Why worry about my clothes when anyone can barge in here?”
Gabrielle set down her basket. “Rodzenica enchanted the clearing for privacy. Once we’re inside the clearing, a hidden veil descends. Nobody can see or hear us. And the water remains at the perfect warmth while you bathe.”
“Truly?” Nadzia perched on the edge and tested the rosemary-scented contents with her elbow. Satisfied, she slipped out of her clothes and lowered herself into the tub, moaning with pleasure as the soothing liquid caressed her parched skin. This was a luxury she hadn’t expected. At the Order of Bursztyn everyone kept clean with daily swims in the cove. Baths were a weekly ritual, an immersion in heated water from Jūratė’s sacred spring. A daily soaking would be a treat. She could watch the birds circle overhead, learn their songs—there would be species inland that never reached the coast—maybe even add her own.
She’d have to speak to someone about how to prepare the water. Rosemary was a delightful stimulant, a perfect herb to begin the day, but Jūratė’s daughters required sea salts to nurture their skin. She’d have to send for a supply from the convent.
“May I wash you?” Gabrielle asked, dipping a cloth in the water. “I’ve a light touch, or so my mother used to say.”
Now it was Nadzia’s turn to blush. For all her trysts with village boys, to have a strange woman bathe her seemed shockingly intimate. Was she so accustomed to equating touch with sex that she’d forgotten a caress could be warm and innocent? She hoped not. She wanted her children, gods willing, to always feel at ease in their skin.
She smiled at the handmaiden. Even if she didn’t learn Gabi’s personal secret, the girl might yield a few hints about the thunder god’s habits, quirks that could be used against him. “That’s fine. Let’s start with my hair.”
Nadzia dunked her head and then sat upright with her legs stretched straight as Gabi massaged her hair. The shampoo had an unexpected fragrance that tickled her nose—earthen, with a subtle peppery note. “Mmmm, that’s a scent I don’t know. What is it?”
“Cornflower, mistress. It grows wild among the wheat and rye in the fields around Zuvintos. I brought a bag of dried petals with me when I came to serve the god of storms.”
“Is that where your family lives?”
The hands rubbing her scalp stopped. “There’s none left but me.”
“I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“Fever took them. Weren’t dead but a day when I heard Perun needed a new handmaiden to replace a girl who was leaving to marry her sweetheart. Thought I’d start a new life here.”
“Are you content?”
“There’s plenty of work,” Gabrielle said cheerfully, resuming her task. “Ludvika is a good friend and a wonderful cook. I think you’ll enjoy her meals.”
An evasive answer if ever I heard one. I was right! There’s something she doesn’t want me to know. Nadzia steadied her breath. Time to work a small enchantment. Anything beyond a simple prodding could leave the servant in a daze and arouse suspicion. Thank the goddess the two of them were safe from prying eyes and ears.
“I’m sure there’s a delicious breakfast waiting for me.” Nadzia looked over shoulder. “Do you mind if I sing while you work, Gabrielle?”
“Oh, would you? I’ve heard that the daughters of Jūratė have the sweetest voices in all the land.”
“I should hope so.” Nadzia eased back against the tub and crooned a set of notes as cheerful as a yellow warbler brightening the day. A friendly song laced with the power of a siren’s enchanting persuasion. Soon the girl was humming the same melody.
Nadzia gripped her knees. Go slowly. See how she responds before you strengthen the spell. “I’m glad you like it here. What about Perun? Does he treat you well?”
The girl responded at once. “He’s a stern master, to be sure, yet I expected as much and I am honored to serve him. We all are.”
Hmmm. Not quite there yet. Nadzia modulated her tone, gave it a touch more magic. “But he’s such a passionate a god. And his temper . . . well, everyone knows how easily it flares.”
Gabrielle’s speech took on an unexpectedly playful tone as she reached for a towel to wrap Nadzia’s hair. “You’d think a god wouldn’t be interested in mortal matters, but he loves to listen to the stories I hear whenever I fetch supplies from the dock. We’ve had some good laughs together. He . . . stars above, there’s a mermaid on your neck!”
Nadzia felt for the slightly raised figure at the base of her skull. “All of Jūratė’s daughters bear her mark.”
“What about the boys? Is it true they’re thrown into the sea?”
“Where did you hear such nonsense?” Nadzia bolted up, her spell momentarily forgotten at the mention of a foul rumor she’d thought long dead. “We don’t bear sons, only daughters.”
The handmaiden swallowed heavily. “I meant no offense.”
Nadzia huffed as Gabrielle moved to the side of the tub to soap her arms, her irritation mollified by the realization that the girl had spoken freely, unencumbered by propriety. She resumed her song, waited until the air around them shimmered. “Tell me, at the dock, do you ever talk to traders who’ve been to Palanga?”
Gabrielle’s response, hesitant and slurred, confirmed the spell was taking effect. “They’re always full of news. Why only yesterday I was telling the master about how they said . . . .” She stopped and frowned.
Nadzia deepened the persuasion in her voice. “What did they tell you?” She peered at the handmaiden, nodding with satisfaction at the slightly unfocused eyes, the slackness of the jaw.
A tremor passed through the girl. The words came out slowly, reluctantly, as if speaking them betrayed some sort of trust. “They said the daughters of Jūratė are bewitching. That no one really knows what you do at the convent.”
“Why should they? Our worship is private, our lives as well. There’s nothing magical about that.” Nadzia leaned forward and sighed as the handmaiden kneaded her back. This girl was strong in body and mind. She was holding back, but Nadzia didn’t dare risk more. Perhaps a different approach?
“How long have you served here?”
“Almost nine months, mistress.”
“So short a time and yet you have a most cordial relationship with my betrothed.” Nadzia laced her voice with yearning, fingers crossed that she wasn’t going too far. “I so want to make him happy. Help me, Gabrielle. What can I do?”
“Well . . . I heard him at one night at Jūratė’s altar. He was begging for a girl who would truly love him. That she had to genuinely care before they wed.” Gabrielle switched her attention to Nadzia’s legs. “Doesn’t make sense, does it? You’ll be together forever. That’s plenty of time for love to blossom.”
“Curious, that he’d make such an appeal in the presence of a servant.”
Gabrielle dropped the washcloth. She leaned close, her words barely audible. “Please, you mustn’t tell! It wasn’t but the one time, when I was behind on my tasks, dusting your room later than usual. I hid under the bed so he wouldn’t see me. We’re not supposed to be in the temple when he prays.”
“Your secret is safe with me. Is that all?”
“I don’t remember anything else. He just kept repeating that the girl he brought back had to love him before it was too late.”
Nadzia stood and let the handmaiden wrap her in a thick white robe, then stepped onto the platform and slid her feet into a pair of woolen slippers while her hair was combed and woven into a single braid. While it was true she hoped to manipulate Perun’s emotions, she couldn’t imagine why he needed her affection. What would happen if he thought her indifferent? “Too late,” she repeated. “Are you sure that’s what he said?”
“Yes, mistress. Although I can’t imagine why. The gods have all the time in the world, don’t they?”
“So it would seem.” Nadzia’s arms rippled with goosebumps. She pulled the collar of her robe tight and followed the handmaiden back to the temple, so engrossed with trying to figure out what Perun’s words meant that she could only nod and murmur at the girl’s constant chatter.
What was the god of storms hiding?
The sun was skirting the treetops by the time the thunder god’s bride and her handmaiden returned to the temple. The cloudiness in Gabrielle’s eyes had cleared, her lively banter reduced to silence. A good sign. Next time, Nadzia would know exactly how to pitch her voice. She tried to ignore the needles of guilt that pricked her conscience at the thought of enchanting the girl again. It might not be entirely fair—Perun was her foe, not the ones in his employ—but she had to learn everything possible to defeat him.
Gabrielle set down her basket and opened the dolphin-engraved chest at the end of Nadzia’s bed. Inside were gowns woven of the finest silk dyed the colors of a rainbow after a storm. Nadzia choose an emerald green chiton that glided across her skin like a whisper. The dress, secured with a matching band of silk, ended just above leather sandals with soles that perfectly fit her feet. Fashioned by supernatural hands, she guessed. No human cobbler created such fine work.
Nadzia retrieved her pendant from the cabinet drawer, dismissed Gabrielle, and examined her reflection in the mirror. The amber shone with its usual golden gleam, but it was the hypnotic pulse of the red heart inside that caught her eye. She stroked the jewel and considered what she’d learned. If for some unknown reason Perun needed a daughter of Jūratė to love him, then it seemed the way to defeat him would be to reject his every advance.
Did she dare show animosity, forgo any thoughts of seduction? There was always the chance that the handmaiden had misheard; a frightened girl hiding under a bed wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses. And what did too late mean—a week, a month, a year? How could she proceed with so little to guide her? Her head ached just thinking about it.
She drummed her fingers on the cabinet top. A god who desired love was more easily snared with honey, not vinegar. Better to leave things as they were. Let him think her smitten and then slowly gain his confidence until she knew more. Because there had to be more. Nothing was simple when Immortals were involved. The convent’s library had shelves devoted to stories of their trickery and collusions.
And what could be sweeter than convincing Perun of her affection only to reveal it as a hoax at the perfect moment? To look in his eyes when he realized she’d fooled him and won. To make him suffer the agony of betrayal.
A fine goal, but don’t harden your heart so completely you forget what it means to truly love. Take care or you’ll become a cynical shrew unable to look at the world with wonder again.
“I won’t,” she whispered. “This is a task, nothing more. I —”
She whirled around as Ludvika drew aside the drapes and curtsied, her face pink and dotted with beads of sweat. “Breakfast is served.”
“Are you well?” Nadzia asked. “You look feverish.”
The old woman wiped her forehead. “Perun is a god of fire and lightning. He radiates a divine heat that can be overwhelming. Don’t give it a thought. I’ll be fine. Please, he’s waiting for you.”
“Won’t you be serving us?”
“Not today. The master insists on personally attending to his bride.”
Nadzia blew out a breath and crossed the corridor, pausing briefly under the oculus as a white stork flew overhead in a brilliant blue sky. Watch and learn. Do nothing differently until you’re sure. Remember, your affection is false. If he wants love, he won’t find it with you.
The thunderbolt-patterned curtains were tied open. Perun leapt up from a giant bed pushed against the wall, his face flushing as he eyed Nadzia’s gown. He greeted her with a long probing kiss that Nadzia returned with gusto, although his fervor left her slightly dazed. His robe was infused with the fresh scent of rain-washed air, his skin pleasantly warm. He released her reluctantly and helped her to a seat at a large oaken table in the center of the room. “I hope you’re hungry.”
Nadzia’s stomach rumbled at the dishes arrayed before her: glistening strawberries; poached eggs topped with herbs; curd cheese; fresh-baked breads. Perun made up a plate for her, poured a cup of tea from a blue pot painted with cranes, and then slid into a chair on the opposite end of the table. She offered a prayer of thanks for the bounty before her and ate heartily while he sipped from a crystal goblet next to a bottle of golden liquid. “Did you sleep well?” he asked again.
“Wonderfully,” she answered, curious as to why her slumber held such importance to him. “I’ve never had such soft sheets.”
“And the servants, you are pleased with their work?”
Nadzia put down her fork and suppressed a burp. Gods, where were her manners? She picked up a white napkin embroidered with golden firebolts and dabbed at her mouth. “Yes, thank you. Gabrielle is attentive and this food is delicious.”
“Ludvika will be happy to hear that.” An unexpected softness tempered Perun’s face. “She came all the way from the eastern highlands to cook for you.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t stay,” Nadzia replied, encouraged by the god’s friendly gaze. Her voice took on a note of teasing. “I’d never have expected you to serve me.”
“It is the first morning of your new life. I wanted to make sure you were comfortable.” Perun guzzled the remains of his drink and refilled his glass.
Nadzia munched a slice of poppy seed bread in silence as he downed the amber-colored draught. She assumed it was nectar, beverage of the gods. What would happen if she tried some? She was half divine, it shouldn’t poison her or drive her mad like the hapless mortals who’d somehow procured a batch and guzzled it in search of divine inspiration. It might even strengthen her voice.
Perun seemed to be reading her mind. He pushed his cup across the table. “Drink. It won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Warnings echoed in Nadzia’s mind. Trust no one. She ran a finger along the rim of the dark vessel. “How can you be sure? I won’t be a goddess until we marry.”
“Don’t be afraid, my love. The blood of the Immortals flows through you.”
“True, but so does human blood. What if it sickens me?”
Perun dragged his chair close and draped one arm around her, his fingers lightly caressing her shoulder. “Believe me. I would never place you in harm’s way.”
Soothing warmth emanated from his touch. Nadzia’s resistance waned. He was right, of course. It made no sense for him to injure his chosen one. Not after centuries of waiting. “Just a swallow,” he whispered, nibbling at her ear, “and you’ll see what awaits you as my queen.”
Jolts of desire shivered down Nadzia’s spine. If nectar heightened her senses, she might find it easier to ferret out the truth without having to spellbind the servants, save her magic for the one she was here to destroy. That was worth any risk. “A taste,” Perun urged, tickling her neck with his breath. “You won’t regret it.”
Nadzia raised the glass to her lips and sniffed. The delicate smell of roses perfumed the air. She swallowed hesitantly, but the drink slid down her throat like the finest mead, a pleasing combination of sweet and tart. In moments, she was delighting in new sensations. Everything was brighter, clearer, the crane on her teapot so vivid she expected the bird to come alive and preen for her. She heard the scuttle of mice beneath the stone floors, sensed the thrum of power emanating from Perun. Her flesh tingled with anticipation. So this is what it feels like to be a god!
And then her throat closed. She dropped the cup and fell to the ground, gasping for air. A thousand streaks of light glittered before her eyes, blinded her to all else. Sweat soaked her gown as fire coursed through her veins, an inferno threatening to consume her. She clung to the table and prayed to Jūratė for release. Take me, Blessed One. Let me rest in your arms.
“Nadzia! Hold fast!” A cooling mist enveloped her, dousing the fever. The lights vanished and she gazed in wonder at Perun as he gently helped her stand—a luminous glow surrounded him from head to toe. She held up her hands and saw the same brilliance radiating from her fingers, although not as bright.
“Did I not tell you?” Perun said, beaming. “The glory of your divine nature has been released. Come, there is something I wish to show you.”
He guided Nadzia to the room adjoining their chambers, eased her into the smaller throne, and then settled into his own chair, its seat worn with the imprint of his bulk.
“There are memories I carry,’ he said. “Fond remembrances of my disciples. Watch and see what awaits.” He pinched his forehead, extracted a thin line of fire, and tossed it into his eternal flames at the center of the temple. Shadows peeled away from the walls near the entry and became a procession of ghostly pilgrims: men, women, and children of all ages. They fell to their knees before Perun and proclaimed his glory, vowing eternal fealty in gratitude for the life-giving rains that allowed their fields to flourish. His luster increased with every pledge.
Nadzia watched him out of the corner of her eye. This wasn’t the hostile deity she’d grown up fearing, full of rage and murder and all things dark. This god exuded charm, congeniality, not a trace of belligerence. He even thanked a shy young woman who left a bouquet of wildflowers at his feet. If Nadzia hadn’t known of his foul deeds, she might have mistaken him for a benevolent deity, warmhearted and indulgent.
“All this and more will be yours,” he said, turning to her at last. “Listen!”
A group of children dressed in white tunics and leggings formed a circle and skipped around the temple’s fire. The sweet melodies they sang reminded Nadzia of the lullabies crooned to babes in the convent’s nursery. She hummed along, her eyes welling, immersed in the pleasure of their voices and the tender memories they evoked. A time when life was simpler.
And yet something felt wrong. How had the god of storms conjured up a vision with music that came from the Order of Bursztyn? He’d said these were his followers, not devotees of the mermaid goddess, and outsiders never came within the convent except to deliver food for the solstice feast. How could he have learned its private songs?
His voice, husky with longing, interrupted her reverie. “There are those who question the need for gods. But now that you’ve come, I don’t care if the world forgets me, as long as you stay by my side.”
Oh, the yearning in his tone! A rush of tenderness infused Nadzia, so sudden and overwhelming she nearly swooned in her seat. No one had thought to teach her how to battle divine magic. The convent had deemed Perun crude, barbaric, not a god capable of manipulating emotion or using spells of his own. She struggled against his charms as he left his throne and stood before her. “Your new life awaits, my love. Will you be mine?”
Did she dare accept the adulation he offered? The heart in her pendant throbbed with wild abandon, overwhelming her with desire. This was where she belonged. She raised her chin to kiss him, but her braid caught on the necklace’s chain. As she reached back to untangle the golden filigree, her fingers grazed the mark on her neck. The mermaid’s scales turned into barbs and pierced her fingers. She bit back a cry, her true feelings restored in a rush of clarity. Don’t succumb to his wiles. Remember his wrath. Remember Jūratė.
She stepped down and eased into his embrace, allowing one of his arms to linger about her waist as they watched the frolicking youths. This was how he intended to entice her, with glamours. Using nectar and magic to wear down her defenses until he had his heart’s desire. A mockery of love. Wretched, despicable god!
And yet, how could she claim to be any better?
An ache began deep in her chest. Perun might be full of guile, but she was just as devious, seeking his downfall while pretending to be happy. She could never claim innocence again. No matter what happened, no matter where she ended up when all this was settled, one way or the other, her life would never be the same.
Perhaps, she thought grimly, it was for the best. Her world had changed and so must she. From now on, she would continue her pretense of happiness while looking for signs of deceit in every word the thunder god spoke, every action, beginning with this phantom display he’d created to dazzle her. She squeezed his arm, filled her glance with pleasure. “I know this music. It comes from the Order of Bursztyn. Where did you learn it?”
“I spent many years observing.”
“Without being seen? However did you manage that?”
“Your sisters expected to find me in the stars,” he said, grinning. “They did not think to search the trees just outside their walls. I often roosted there in the form of an eagle.”
“That was brave.” Nadzia pressed a hand against her chest and widened her eyes. “A hunter might have felled you.”
“I fear no mortal’s weapons. No arrow can slay me, no cage hold me.”
Nadzia titled her head and frowned, as if puzzled. “When I become immortal will I be invincible too?”
“You will live forever, my love. We both will.”
“And nothing can change that?”
His gaze dropped to the jewel at Nadzia’s breast. The heart inside his stone skipped a beat. He hesitated and then looked up with a strained smile. “Nothing.”
Gods be damned, he’s lying! There was something hidden here, something Nadzia sensed held the answer to her quest. She nodded and smiled, her resolve newly stirred. She would ask Perun to teach her everything about the world of the divine. He’d never suspect that behind her eager innocence there lurked an emissary waiting for the moment when he lowered his guard and divulged the secret that would lead to destruction.
He could keep his throne and his foul jealous love, she’d never be his bride. She wouldn’t be content until she was back in Jūratė’s soothing waters. But first she had to get away, before the hostility roiling inside betrayed her. “Forgive me,” she said, fanning her cheek. “I’m not accustomed to spending so much time indoors. Will you walk with me?”
“An excellent idea. It’s time you met the rest of your servants.”
Nadzia tucked her arm into his and beamed, to all appearances a love-struck girl devoted to the burly god escorting her onto his grounds.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski