Nadzia devises a plan to thwart Veles and introduces Perun to the Order of Brusztyn’s delegation. Keslai attempts to seduce the god of storms during a chariot ride.
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Sleep came in fits and starts that night, strewn with nightmares of sitting in a throne beside Veles, a blood-curdling prospect. Nadzia had sensed something peculiar behind his eagerness to help, suspected his motive went beyond love for Jūratė and hatred for his brother, but she never dreamed he’d try to blackmail a daughter of the mermaid goddess into becoming his dead queen.
She had a grudging respect for his guile. Rodzenica and Dievas had been told the rumors of a plot against them, their son’s claims of magical coercion would be met with unquestioning acceptance. They would act swiftly, Nadzia imagined, perhaps even put her on trial as they had Jūratė. She could expect no mercy once the Immortal Council learned the truth. And she carried scant hope the Order of Bursztyn would survive after the unveiling of its treacherous scheme.
The hours passed with excruciating slowness, true rest a vain fancy. Even after shutting the cottage windows, the noise from Perun and his followers, carousing in the meadow, seeped through the glass. Drinking songs, cheers, roars of laughter, impossible to ignore. Nadzia longed for a quiet place to try and sort out matters. The temple, with its thick walls, might provide a buffer against noise, but Veles had spoiled that refuge for her.
Tired of tossing and turning, Nadzia slid out of bed and settled in the chair by the window, wrapped in her quilt against the pre-dawn chill. In the distance, the light from campfires dwindled as the sky paled, the horizon a swath of pink. She rocked back and forth, breathing steadily—three counts in, hold, three counts out—and waited for her mind to still. Five centuries of resistance couldn’t end with Veles triumphant.
The best way to outwit him required her sisters’ help. If the novices and Elders allowed the wedding to proceed normally—no keening, no crippling cries—the gods would retain their full powers. Veles would lose his chance to grab Perun’s heart.
She clutched the quilt tighter and brought her knees up to her chest. Securing the convent’s aid meant winning over the abbess, a daunting prospect given the old woman’s life-long antipathy toward the god of storms. But if Mother Gintare could be swayed, the others would certainly follow. Nadzia had to try.
When dawn broke, she slipped into a gown of blue silk, threw on the woolen shawl she’d brought back from Palanga, laced up her sandals, and made her way toward the convent’s area. The abbess followed a predictable schedule in Palanga, odds were she’d do the same in Kaunas. What better way to court the old woman’s favor than by joining her for morning prayers?
Nadzia walked up and over the hill, reveling in the flowers that painted the meadows in a riot of color. Wisps of clouds stretched across a bright blue sky. To her right, within a circle of brown tents, women cooked ashcakes in the coals of a central firepit. They nodded as she passed, some adding a hand to their heart. She acknowledged their welcome with a warm smile and made a mental note to meet with them after her time with the abbess.
Perun emerged from a tent close to the path, his eyes rimmed red, and hailed her. Nadzia tamped down the irritation that flared at his disheveled appearance. The sour tang of beer permeated his robes, as if he’d bathed in the brew during the night’s revelry. Nose wrinkling, she held him at arms’ length when he leaned in for an embrace. “I trust your followers are properly settled?”
He flinched at the rebuke in her voice. “Did we disturb you?”
“My guests,” she replied, after a long silence that left him shifting from foot to foot, “are entitled to peace and quiet. I expect you to show them more courtesy in the future.”
“I shall apologize at once.”
“Not until you’ve cleaned up,” Nadzia said, nudging him toward the river. “You reek of drink. Come join us in an hour or so, after we’ve finished our devotions.”
“As you wish, my love.” Perun kissed the top of her head and headed toward the dock.
The Elders and novices were setting out blankets on the dew-tipped ground when Nadzia arrived. Dark circles, puffy eyes, and bouts of yawning revealed they’d spent a night as sleepless as her own. Keslai waited at the edge of their circle and offered a tight-lipped smile, nodding at Perun as he strode toward the pier. “I hope you told him to keep his followers in line.”
“He was most apologetic. It will not happen again.”
Keslai’s laugh was full of scorn. “So you’ve tamed him? He must not have been as fierce as we thought, to be gentled so quickly.”
“Make no mistake, sister, he’s fiery and wild,” Nadzia said, nettled by the assumption that she lacked the ability to charm or seduce. “As tempestuous as the squalls he summons. If he appears less so, consider it a mark of my success. I’ve brought out warmth of a different kind, his softer side. You’ll see for yourself soon.”
“He’s joining us?” Keslai stood taller and wet her lips.
“When we’ve completed our prayers.” Nadzia chose a blanket, folded it into a cushion and kneeled, wondering if her sister’s enthusiasm might influence the abbess. Despite Keslai’s cruel words on the beach after Perun’s stone was summoned, Mother Gintare had granted her permission to attend the wedding. Did she have a sentimental attachment to the girl? Maybe convincing Keslai was the way to start. A difficult task, considering they weren’t friends. Risky as well. Could she trust a novice who’d wished her dead?
The abbess began her invocation. Keslai made the sign of respect—cupped hand to forehead, lips, heart—and whispered out of the side of her mouth. “Will you introduce me to him first?”
“That honor belongs to Mother Gintare, followed by the Elders, then the novices. Hush, please, we must show reverence as we pray.”
As the hour progressed, Keslai played with her braid, smoothed her plain white gown, twirled the amber bracelets dangling from her wrists. Nadzia half expected the girl to burst from impatience.
When the abbess delivered final blessings, Keslai jumped to her feet and squealed like a young girl with a new toy, waving at the path where Perun waited. “Over here! Over here!”
“Do not encourage him,” Mother chided. “He is our enemy.” She arranged the Elders in a line and placed Keslai behind her with four other novices who’d come with the group.
“I thought we agreed to be civil,” Keslai said, leaning forward. “He’ll know something is wrong if we stand here like statues. We want to put him at ease, isn’t that what you said? Bright smiles all around?”
Mother huffed but curved her mouth and crinkled her eyes. They widened in surprise as Perun approached and fell to one knee, his gaze fixed and earnest. “Please forgive last night’s clamor. I was so happy to be amongst my disciples I neglected to consider how our celebrations might disturb others. We shall not intrude on your rest again. If there is anything I can do to make you and yours comfortable, advise me or one of my servants. This is a joyous occasion. I am delighted and honored you have come.”
“We were pleased to receive an invitation,” the abbess replied, her cheeks tinged with splotches of red. “Our sister is a most fortunate young woman. Please stand so that she may proceed with formal introductions.”
“Of course.” Nadzia tucked her elbow into the god’s arm as he rose. “You are speaking with Mother Gintare, abbess of the Order of Bursztyn.”
Perun bowed and reached for the old woman’s hand, bestowing a kiss on her fingers before releasing them. “Thank you for raising such a magnificent young lady. Nadzia is all I could have hoped for and more.”
A muscle twitched in Mother’s jaw. Her smile faltered, and for a moment Nadzia feared her façade would crumble. But the abbess was nothing if not disciplined. She nodded and turned to the woman beside her. “I rely on the Elders to assist me in running the convent and training the girls. Sister Ramuna teaches history.”
“A pleasure to meet you.” Perun tilted his head at the tall, raven-haired woman. “I’m curious. Do your lessons include the gods?”
“Our champion must know everything she can about the Immortals.”
Perun raised his brow and peered down at Nadzia with a lopsided smile. “Champion? Are we at war?”
“I believe she means that the one chosen by the Fates should be well-versed in the world she will enter.” Nadzia pursed her lips and gave the Elder a piercing stare.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Sister Ramuna added hastily. “She is to be a goddess after all. I can’t wait to see her transformed.”
“Nor I.” Perun moved on. “And next we have…?”
“Our voice instructor, Sister Dain.”
“I salute your excellent work. Nadzia has charmed everyone she meets with her dulcet intonations. You must possess a fine talent, to inspire such sweet sounds.”
Sister Dain smoothed back an errant blonde hair. “We are the daughters of a mermaid. It is she who deserves the glory.”
The muscles in Perun’s arm tightened. Nadzia gave him a quick squeeze. “And we are forever grateful for the gift she gave us, Sister Dain, are we not?”
“Our success in life depends on it.”
Perun released a long breath. “I am happy you have thrived. And now…?”
“Sister Bronis runs the garden and oversees our meadery.”
“I suspect my gardener, Adomas, will be even more pleased to meet you than I am,” Perun said with a wink. “He has taken a liking to the bottles of honeyed wine you’ve sent. I believe he would enjoy discussing how your mead is brewed. May I send him to you?”
Sister Bronis’s sage-green eyes lit up. “I’ve no objection. He can sample the batch I brought for the wedding. I’m not sure if it aged long enough. Are you certain he won’t mind? I don’t want to interrupt his work. You have a large crowd to feed.”
“Rest assured, dear sister, we have provisions for this many and more. I shall ask Adomas to visit this afternoon, although you are welcome to call upon him instead if you like. His garden is just over the ridge. And now, the last of the Elders?”
“You and Sister Saule have a lot in common,” Nadzia said, greeting her favorite teacher with a hug. “She studies the heavens and taught me to love the stars.”
“A fascinating realm,” Perun said. “One that continually astounds and delights.”
Sister Saule looked at him with undisguised envy. “You can visit whenever you like. It must be a wonderfully divine experience.”
“I have taken Nadzia to my constellation.” Perun stopped and considered the lean-boned woman gazing wistfully at the sky. “I can bring you there as well.”
“Would you?” Sister Saule stepped forward, hands pressed to her lips, and then ducked back, dropping her arms and head. “With the abbess’s permission, of course.”
Mother Gintare nodded crisply. “A generous offer, but the Elders and I have convent matters to discuss.”
“What about a novice?” Nadzia said, delighted that Perun had offered this boon without any urging on her part. She sent a silent plea to the Fates, asking that her sister become a true collaborator, open to seeing the god of storms with new eyes and passing along her impressions to the abbess. “As I recall, Keslai is fond of astrology. Might she go instead?”
“All are welcome to travel in my chariot.” Perun searched the second line of women. “Which of these lovely young ladies might she be?”
His jaw twitched as Keslai squeezed past the abbess and stopped inches away, trailing a finger down her neck to the top of a gown that emphasized her ample cleavage. “Shall we leave at sunset?” she said, her voice low and enticing. “I can’t wait to spend a night in heaven with a god.”
If Nadzia didn’t need Keslai as an ally, she might have laughed out loud at her sister’s brazen behavior. “You’ll be there an hour or so at the most,” she said. “Mortals must limit their exposure. And you’ll need a cloak for the journey. The air grows colder the higher you fly.”
“I’m sure the creator of fire and lightning knows how to keep me warm,” Keslai said, toying with the amber bracelets on her wrist as Perun’s ears flamed red. “Don’t worry about me, sister. I’ll be in very good hands.”
The sun melted into the horizon, flooding the sky with lemon-gold light, gilding faces turned upward in delight. Crickets began their nightly chorus, serenading Perun as he departed his temple. He checked his chariot and white ox, waiting outside for the coming journey, and retreated into the barn. Leaning against his beast’s stall, he hooked a thumb into the top of his loincloth and watched day bleed into night. The building smelled of dried grasses, clover, and over-ripe fruits, part of the forage stored within. He took comfort in its familiarity, the privacy it offered when he needed to think.
After centuries of worship, he’d encountered every kind of admirer, male and female. Some fell prostrate, needing encouragement to stand and meet his gaze. Others, priests mostly, coupled their veneration with an easy, open friendliness. Women might peer at him with stars in their eyes, but none had ever approached him as boldly as the flame-haired novice from Palanga.
Her behavior confounded him. He hoped for a good relationship with all of Jūratė’s daughters, but the gleam in Keslai’s eyes suggested she harbored intentions far beyond congeniality. How was he supposed to rebuff her and still remain in the abbess’s good graces?
Yards away, Salomeya nickered from behind a gate and shook her glossy, black mane in greeting. He brought her apples from a basket in the corner and watched idly as she chomped the glistening red fruit in his palm. Maybe this magic steed could help.
Designed for godly stature, his chariot could accommodate two people comfortably, as long as neither demanded room to stretch. If he brought Nadzia along, she could act as a buffer between him and her flirtatious sister, but three would crowd the space—although he suspected Keslai would welcome the occasion to attach herself to him like a leech.
He traced the ring in Salomeya’s ear, implanted by his father to restrict the horse’s travels to the Tree of Life and enchanted to send a signal if the rider attempted to fly elsewhere. What if he removed it, just this once? Would Dievas realize what he’d done?
Light footsteps behind him sent his pulse racing, subsiding when he detected the scent of his beloved, fresh and cool as an ocean breeze. Nadzia embraced him lightly, her fingers tickling the hairs on his chest. “Ready for your big night?”
“I’d rather you were joining me.”
Nadzia’s lips quirked into a mischievous smile. “Afraid to be alone with Keslai?”
“She is somewhat . . . audacious.” Perun laid a hand on the mare’s side. “I think I can extract that ring without my father’s knowledge. Then you could fly alongside us.”
“Don’t you dare try something so dangerous! You have no idea what might happen.”
Nadzia planted herself in front of the horse and crossed her arms. “Keslai has a sensual nature. Given your obvious charms, she’s going to respond in ways that might seem inappropriate. Nonetheless, I trust you to engage her so completely she’ll return singing your praises. Don’t let her overwhelm you. Dazzle her with your love of the stars, keep her attention on the glories of the heavens. When she’s properly distracted, she doesn’t consider anything else.”
“I’m not sure I share your confidence.” Perun looked past Nadzia and frowned. “I see two approaching. Why is the abbess with your sister?”
He pulled Nadzia forward, donned a scarlet robe hanging near the barn’s entrance, then paused and bowed to Mother Gintare. “Forgive my confusion, but I cannot bring more than one of you at a time. Have you decided to go in Keslai’s stead?”
“Another evening, perhaps,” Mother Gintare said with a soft smile. “I came along to see this one safely dispatched. Afterwards, I would like Nadzia to show me the goddess’s altar in your temple.”
Perun reluctantly switched his gaze to Keslai and almost sputtered with relief. She stood rigid as a statue, hands gripping a dark cloak, eyes fixed on the ground, her white gown high-necked and demure—a far cry from the sinuous flirt who’d practically thrown herself at him earlier.
The knots in his shoulders unraveled. He offered a hand to the novice and helped her into his chariot. “I promise to take the very best care of her. We’ll be back before long.”
He gave a friendly salute, climbed in and gathered the reins, steering the ox westward as he took to the skies, his worries gone.
Keslai stood beside him at the railing, mute and aloof as they soared through thick, bulbous clouds that eclipsed the moon. The temperature dropped, ice crystals clung to her hair like white diamonds in a nest of apricot curls. She shivered, shook out her cloak and rearranged the thin wool fabric across her shoulders. “I have trouble keeping the broach secure,” she said, pointing to a mermaid-shaped fastener. “Can you help?”
“It looks too delicate for me to try. I wouldn’t want to break such a pretty clasp. Besides, I must keep hold of the reins to guide my beast. He might veer off elsewise.”
Perun tightened his grip and tried to ignore the novice as she inched closer. Her scent reminded him of Nadzia, a fragrance that stirred longing and desire.
“You visit the stars often, don’t you?”
“As often as possible.”
“Then I’m sure your ox knows the way. Animals are easily trained, quick to learn patterns and routes.”
Keslai reached out and stroked his wrist, smiling when his flesh—much to his chagrin—pebbled at her touch. “You can hold the straps with one hand and assist me with the other. I’ll be ever so grateful.”
The blatant craving in her voice set Perun’s teeth on edge. “I don’t think it wise. I promised to keep you safe. If we should suddenly lurch—”
“You’re a god, you won’t let me fall.”
Keslai stared openly at him, her clear blue eyes glazed with lust. When he failed to move, she sighed and fidgeted with the broach. “It’s so tricky . . . I really must have it fixed when we return . . . almost there . . . ouch!”
Perun groaned as she held up a finger dotted with a bead of blood. The cloak slipped from her fingers and caught on the metal lattice surrounding the cart. Keslai made no effort to retrieve it. Her mouth twitched as the fabric ripped free and blew away, a dark spiral in the night. She turned, and before he could object, cool hands reached beneath his robe and circled his waist. “Bless the Fates I have you to keep me warm,” she purred, clinging to him. “I’d hate to have to turn back.”
He jerked at the reins, fuming at how cleverly she’d played him. Wisps of steam wafted from his brow. Bringing the chariot to a halt, he took off his robe, and hastily draped it over the girl. “This will do just as well. I warn you, take care. Toss it out and we’ll go no further.”
Keslai’s laugh held an undertone of menace. “You promised the stars. I expect no less. If you deny me, I’ll tell the abbess you tried to seduce me and tore off my cloak when I refused.”
“Be careful with your threats. My father has little patience for lies. He will gladly ferret them out if I ask him to do so.” His lips curled into a hard smile. “I have watched him interrogate humans. It is not a pretty sight.”
Keslai blanched and fell silent. She returned to the railing—eyes narrowed, lips clamped into a thin line, chin jutted forward—a living figurehead that rippled with indignation. Perun kept his face stern and slapped the reins, spurring his beast to greater speed. This trip couldn’t end soon enough. He’d give the girl a minute or two to admire his constellation and then hasten home. Fates willing, his next convent guest would possess a more gracious nature.
He savored the blissful quiet and let himself relax when they reached his stars, pulsing with crimson light. Bringing the chariot to a halt, he dropped the reins and stretched the tension out of his neck and torso as veils of hot air engulfed them.
Keslai turned, her breath quickening as she lowered his robe and then her gown until they pooled at her feet. “You don’t have to reject me. No one will ever know.”
A flush of anger sent sparks flying from Perun’s fingertips. Would this girl never learn? He glared at Keslai until beads of sweat dotted her upper lip, trickled down her neck. She looked away at last and tugged her dress back into place.
“I love Nadzia,” he said. “She is dearer to me than life itself. I will not betray her. Do you understand? Can you understand?”
Keslai bristled and drew herself up tall, eyes shining with defiance. “You believe she loves you?” she scoffed. “The one who killed Jūratė?”
The hairs on Perun’s arm tingled. Perhaps the rumors had mistakenly attributed scheming to the entire convent when a single novice was the dominant force. But this was all conjecture. A daughter of the slain goddess could harbor a grudge, even hatred, yet not stand in the way of what the Fate had ordained. “I have atoned for my sins. And, yes, I know she loves me.”
“We’re sirens,” Keslai said, preening. “We can bend anyone to our will with our voices.”
“I thought so, when Nadzia first came and beguiled me. But my stone revealed the truth.”
Keslai’s brow wrinkled. “Your jewel is nothing but a piece of glass from the sea.”
“The amber was enchanted by my mother to reveal the true emotions of the one who wears it. Nadzia loves me, of that I have no doubt.”
“But she isn’t supposed to . . .” Keslai blushed and cleared her throat. “How wonderful for you.”
Perun’s ears twitched at the deceit in her voice. He clenched his hands, unclenched them. She’s jealous. Don’t let her rouse old fears. “She has brought me joys more wondrous than you can imagine,” he said softly.
“I can imagine quite a bit.”
Keslai crossed her arms, fingers tapping on pale skin. Her face brightened suddenly. “Why don’t we test it? Let me wear your pendant, and you’ll see what real affection looks like.”
A dull throb began at the side of Perun’s head. He rubbed at the ache, his patience worn thin. “By the breath of Dievas, woman, leave it be! She is the one chosen by the Fates. Why can’t you accept that and wish your sister well?”
“You’re a god, what do you know of human wants and needs? You claim your jewel reveals true passion. Were you not so besotted, you’d realize that other desires can rival the strength of love.”
“Nadzia has everything she needs.”
“She might have persuaded you so, but there’s one thing she craves most of all, and you can’t give it to her.”
Perun’s eyes grew misty, blurring his vision. He picked up the straps, called out to his ox, and maneuvered the chariot so that it faced south. “Since you show no appreciation for the majesty of my stars, I’ll return you to the abbess.”
Keslai hooked one arm around the rail as they began their descent, the wind whipping her braid. “Don’t be a fool. Nadzia doesn’t want a life with you. She wants power, the kind only divinity will bring.”
“Stop your prattle,” Perun seethed. “I won’t let you turn me against her.”
“You’ll be sorry. I’m the one who deserves to be your queen.”
“Enough!” Blood-red light issued from Perun’s flesh, illuminating him from head to toe. He raised his arms, called to the heavens. Massive dark clouds crowded the sky, blanketing the stars as the wind surged into fierce gales. Keslai crouched on the chariot’s floor, face whiter than bleached bones.
Peals of thunder churned the air. A bolt of lightning appeared in Perun’s hand. He gripped the jagged edges, pulled back his lips in a feral grin, and hurled it to the ground.
One bolt followed another, until the acrid stench of sulfur filled the air. Drained of his fury, Perun closed his eyes and murmured. The clouds dissipated, the air calmed. He blinked, tilted his head and squinted at Keslai, wide-eyed and trembling at his feet. “I am sorry for one thing alone—that the woman I love has a shrew for a sister. Your harsh words give me ample reason to send you home, but I cannot do so without good reason, and it would distress Nadzia. You may remain, on one condition.”
Dread speckled Keslai’s cheeks. Perun smiled in grim satisfaction. “For the remainder of your visit, you will keep your distance from the two of us, myself and my bride.”
“What if she comes to our camp?”
“You have no trouble with deception. Feign an illness. Something infectious, so she won’t be tempted to nurse you over the coming days.”
Keslai drew herself up slowly, her smoldering gaze fixed on Perun. “And the wedding?”
“Your health will improve only when the convent is packed and ready to leave.”
Perun gathered his reins and flicked them lightly. The ox reared and charged forward. “Think long and hard before you endeavor to oppose me. My father has great hopes for this marriage, but he is no one’s fool. His guards will be in force at the ceremony, with instructions to chain and imprison trespassers. Rest assured, they will have orders to look for you.”
Keslai’s chest heaved as she gnawed at her lip, worrying the flesh. “Then it appears I have no choice but to obey. You have nothing to fear from me.”
Perun snorted and urged his beast its greatest speed, one eye on the novice. She kept her back to him, stiff with resentment. He ground his teeth, sighed, and freed one hand to rub his aching jaw. This one would need watching, no matter how docile her words.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski