In this week’s installment, Nadzia exacts a promise from Perun, and her relationship with Veles takes a surprising turn when he takes her to Palanga to meet with the abbess, who has a surprise of her own. Meanwhile, Perun visits one of his temples and discusses his concerns with a priest.
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Perun bowed to his parents and whisked Nadzia out of the throne room, rushing her back down the hall and through the golden doors leading outside to the branch where her horse was tethered. Had she not witnessed his brutal fight, she would never have guessed that he’d engaged in combat—his skin was smooth and clear, the marks left by Veles’s fangs completely healed. He shimmered with energy and light and walked so vigorously she struggled to match his giant strides.
The day had grown warm, the air humid and close. “Stop,” she said finally, stopping to rest against a tiered fountain surrounded by ferns. The events in the throne room had left her parched, her energy sapped. She filled her palms with cool water, drank deeply, and wiped her mouth with a corner of her sleeve. “I can’t match so quick a pace. Why are you in such a hurry?”
“We wed in two weeks. My followers must be given ample time to travel.” He paused, tugging at his robes. “I expect they will want to celebrate our betrothal.”
“Do you intend to linger for their festivities?” Nadzia drank again, her vigor returning.
“It would be rude to decline an invitation. Gods need mortals who believe in them. Without their prayers, we would cease to exist.”
Nadzia stroked the amber dangling on her chest. Since his mother’s examination of the pendant and her pronouncement that all was well, Perun seemed more at ease, his stance looser, the lines on his face less harsh. A relaxed god, more amenable to her seduction—or so Nadzia hoped. But weeks of revelry with his followers presented an unforeseen complication. Better to stake her claim to his time before his absences became too frequent, too long.
She pitched her voice so that it trembled with allure and a hint of vexation, a combination she’d found useful when dealing with recalcitrant humans. “What about us? The promise you made only hours ago, to let me help you control your rage? I have no quarrel with your followers. Accept their good wishes, they are well deserved, but honor your vows to me if you want a happy bride.”
“What?” Perun scowled in confusion. “You just told my parents you were content.”
“I was, until you fought with Veles.”
Perun flushed and gazed at a spot above Nadzia’s head. “I tried not to lose my temper. Your words did soothe me.” His fists clenched. “But the Lord of the Underworld—”
“Is a master of manipulation,” Nadzia finished with a huff. “He knows exactly what to say to provoke you.” She held up her hands as Perun tried to speak. “If you want me to enter gladly into this marriage, if we are to live in harmony, I will need you in Kaunas every night, as we agreed. Or do you expect me to indulge your temper without question? ”
The scowl returned. “What do you hope to achieve? To change my nature? Impossible. I am a god of fire and fury, I won’t let you sap my strength because you can’t stomach conflict. My brother and I have fought for millennia. We will continue to fight. As you can see, there’s no lasting harm.”
Perun folded his arms and looked at Nadzia with a hint of scorn. “Perhaps you need to be stronger instead of expecting me to back down.”
Nadzia unclasped her necklace and held it out, willing her arm to remain steady. She didn’t know what magic the amber contained, beyond the spell that bound her to the god of storms when she summoned his stone, but she suspected there was something more. Something crucial that gave her an unknown advantage. “If that’s how you feel, take this. I refuse to wear the jewel of a god who cares so little for my welfare and considers me weak.”
The flash of fear in Perun’s eyes assured Nadzia she’d guessed correctly. He knelt down, closed his hands over hers, and sighed. “Forgive me. I spoke without thinking. You speak a truth difficult to acknowledge. I need to master my emotions instead of letting Veles continually aggravate me. We can begin the lessons tonight and continue each evening after I’ve returned from my temples and other duties. Will that satisfy you?”
Nadzia leaned forward and kissed Perun’s brow. “As long as you’re home by sunset.”
The transformation from god to eagle took mere seconds this time, enhanced by what Nadzia assumed was the Tree of Life’s inherently divine magic. The bird circled above, screeched, and flew east. A wise choice, Nadzia thought, given that his followers there would have the longest trek. When he was swallowed by clouds, she gathered the reins of her horse, looking forward to a long swim when she returned to Kaunas.
“Not so fast, my dear.” A black-and-gold snake wriggled out from behind the fountain and whirled into Veles’s godly form. “You’ve taken on a gargantuan task, trying to tame a god. But that’s exactly what the convent trained you for, isn’t it?”
He grinned at the shock on Nadzia’s face. “Surprised? I’m delighted. Your reaction means the Order of Bursztyn can keep a secret. I’ve known its true purpose for ages.”
Nadzia remembered his boast, that he could breach any door. “You spied on us?”
“Nothing so crass,” he said, preening. “Remember, I’m the one who fought for the god of storms’ demise. Your current abbess, like all those before her, trusts me to continue that battle on behalf of Jūratė’s daughters. We’ve been working together for centuries.”
“You know how we can defeat him?”
Veles placed a finger on Nadzia’s lips, chilling her flesh. “Not here,” he said, glancing back toward the golden doors. “I don’t sense anyone listening at the moment, but that can change in a heartbeat. I’ll meet you at my brother’s temple.”
“You can’t get past Perun’s spells.”
“That’s what he thinks.” Veles waited for Nadzia to settle atop her steed and then retreated, giving Salomeya room to spread her wings. “See you soon.”
Nadzia would have preferred a day to herself, time to make sense of everything she’d endured, a long, private swim. But if Veles was a legitimate ally, if he truly could help, she had to give him a chance to share his information. She bent forward and whispered to her horse. “Home, my friend. As fast as you can take me.”
They sped through the clouds, startling flocks of geese that honked in annoyance but swerved out of their way. Nadzia indulged in the joy of flight, relished the sight of fields and forests passing beneath, the freedom of solitude. If only she could go wherever she chose.
She pushed aside the thought. Her personal desires weren’t important. Veles, on the other hand, had blithely turned her world upside down. If he really knew Perun’s frailty, why not use it to trounce him, settle their enmity once and for all, establish dominance? More importantly, why keep his knowledge secret? Her task would be infinitely easier if she understood exactly what to do. Perhaps he wasn’t as generous a friend to the convent as he claimed.
She’d be a fool to shun him. He was the Blessed One’s champion, after all, there was no denying that. Yet he also bore an unremitting grudge against Perun. His actions might be driven by personal animosity, not justice. Did his assistance spring from charity or spite?
Jūratė’s words echoed in her mind: Do not trust appearances. And yet she’d followed that almost immediately with a disclaimer, that Veles was the sole exception. But a dead goddess couldn’t know everything her ardent defender said and did outside his realm. If he was pursuing his own purposes he wouldn’t tell her—or anyone else.
Gods, how Nadzia wished she didn’t have to view everything through a veil of suspicion! She gazed down at the River Nemunas, its sparkling waters leading to the coast, to her real home. Her breast heaved at the thought of returning to the ocean, basking in its salty waters. Home.
Salomeya landed in the grasses outside the barn. The groom came running to help Nadzia dismount. She thanked him and followed the gravel path to the temple entrance, steeling herself for another encounter with the enchanted granite eagles. She’d forgotten to ask Perun if they judged every visitor, every time. Whatever the case, it wouldn’t hurt to keep her thoughts pleasant.
Gabrielle appeared at the top of the steps with a basket of bed linens. She curtsied and looked at her oddly. “You’re alone.”
“Perun has gone to inform his followers of our wedding.” Nadzia’s stomach rumbled. “Would you ask Ludvika to make me a pot of tea and a small plate of food? Cheese and bread, some fruit as well. Leave it here on the steps, please. I’m going to pray and don’t want to be disturbed.”
“Yes, mistress. Right away.”
“Thank you, Gabi.”
When the handmaiden was out of sight, Nadzia filled her mind with images of sunshine and chirping birds as she walked past the stone sentries. The eternal fire inside roared as she entered, infusing the clouds above the open dome with shimmering golden light—visible, she expected, for miles around, perhaps even further with a god’s supernatural vision. She paused, wondering if her presence had stoked the flames or if they erupted for anyone who ventured within the temple.
She hurried to Perun’s shrine and lit a candle. The fire subsided. So it was a signal. Clever. She’d do well not to underestimate this hulk of a god. He might look like he had more brawn than brains, but he was savvy enough to construct a system that apprised him of a visitor’s intent. At least his granite guardians had let her pass.
Veles was nowhere in sight. She took advantage of his absence to study the space devoted to Perun, hoping to gain some insight that might help with her quest, make her less reliant on others. An enormous portrait hung from the granite wall: Perun standing next to an oak tree on a cliff as he looked down on a river beneath a twilight sky of purple-rimmed clouds.
He wore a white tunic inscribed with runes, a sky-blue cloak, leather sandals, and a fur vest belted with a horn. Glittering bangles adorned his massive arms. A silver helmet with winged ears crushed his golden-red curls. In his right hand, he held a silver axe. His left hand rested on a shield etched with jagged thunderbolts. An eagle perched on one shoulder, its wings outspread.
A flattering depiction, although empty of clues. Beneath it were offerings left by pilgrims: charred bits of trees stuck by lightning; acorns salvaged from sacred oak groves; ox and ram horns; cockerel feathers; smoked fish and meat; crude reproductions of Perun’s magic axe. She grimaced at the testicles severed from bulls and bears sacrificed each year on the thunder god’s feast day and hoped she never had to witness such barbarity.
She pursed her lips, frustrated. There was nothing unusual to be found here, although she supposed that wasn’t a complete surprise, given the safeguards Perun had installed. A wily god wouldn’t leave anything of importance where a mere mortal could find it.
What about the thrones? Nadzia sprinted down the central corridor to the end of the temple. The angle of the late afternoon sun highlighted carvings she hadn’t noticed in her nectar-induced daze: fire and lightning bolts for Perun; water and fish for his bride. She felt along the undersides of both chairs, impatience growing as her fingers probed the smooth wood and came up empty.
Time to visit Jūratė’s altar. Prayer always gave her strength, helped her sift through the clutter in her mind. She chose the aisle opposite the one passing Perun’s shrine, moving past the fire to a small area lit by tiers of squat candles. Here, the painting showed a green-tailed mermaid riding a dolphin under a brilliant full moon, her waist-long, ebony hair blowing loose and wild, the water churning as she raced across foam-flecked waves.
Nadzia blinked away tears at the reminder of home and lowered her head. “Blessed Jūratė, Mother of all. You choose a life other than the one the gods ordained for you. I wish to do the same. Help me find the path to victory.”
“A pretty supplication, but you needn’t pray for a guide.” Veles said, his breath chilling her neck. “I’m happy to show you the way.”
She flinched and turned, grudgingly impressed that he’d managed to find a way inside. “How did you manage it?” she asked. “I was sure the eagles would scorch you.”
“My tunnels traverse the Tree of Life, including this temple. I don’t need a door, a fact my dull-witted brother has failed to grasp. I can enter from below.”
“The fire didn’t blaze stronger.”
“It only reacts to the presence of humans. A more intelligent god would have addressed that flaw. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. We must hurry to Palanga, now, while my brother’s attention is elsewhere.”
“How can I travel? The servants will tell him I left.”
“My dear girl, I leave nothing to chance. They’re fast asleep, sedated by my venom.” Veles’s words quickened at the look of horror Nadzia couldn’t hide. “A small bite, nothing fatal, just enough to keep them indisposed for the time we’ll be gone. Come along. Gintare is expecting you.”
Nadzia recalled how long it took to reach Kaunas by chariot. Her throat clogged with despair. “We’re over a hundred miles away and it’s already late afternoon. We don’t have time. Perun will be back at dusk.”
“Don’t tell me you’re as dense as the god of storms,” Veles said with a sour laugh as he led her back to the thrones. “What did I just say about tunnels? We’ll be at the coast within an hour. I travel faster than humans, so you’ll need to hold tight.”
Nadzia pulled back. “I’m a child of the sea. I hate confined spaces.”
“Not to worry, sweetling. Just relax and dream about the home you love. You’ll be there before you know it.”
He opened his arms. “Ready?”
Nadzia stepped into the scaly god’s embrace, turning until she faced away from his chest, swallowing her revulsion as his tail coiled around her leg and squeezed.
He hissed a command. The tiles in front of Perun’s throne rumbled and then slid open, revealing an inky chasm. “Dark, but not dank,” Veles said, his tongue flicking against Nadzia’s ear. “Like its creator.”
Nadzia shuddered, closed her eyes, and fell into the black.
By the time they emerged from a corner of the abbess’s room, Nadzia was chilled to the bone and dizzy. Mother Gintare stood by her table, cleared of its usual books. She motioned to a pot of tea, steam wisping through its spout, and a plate of golden biscuits slathered with jam. “Sit,” she said, draping a thick woolen shawl over Nadzia’s shoulders. “Take a moment to refresh yourself. You’ve had quite a journey.”
Nadzia greedily fell upon the food and drink. “Thank you,” she said, wiping crumbs from her lap. “I feel much better now.”
The abbess took a seat across from Nadzia and grasped her hands. “Our strength lies in secrecy. What you learn today cannot go beyond the boundaries of this room. The gods must never know what we are contemplating. Do you promise to keep this knowledge close?”
“You can trust her,” Veles said, settling next to the abbess. “She was a model of decorum with my parents, and they’re frightening enough to shake any young woman’s resolve.”
Nadzia studied the old woman’s face, tight with expectation. Whatever awaited, it wouldn’t be pleasant. Yet how could she refuse? She’d grown up vowing vengeance, already taken steps to bend Perun to her will. “I swear.”
Mother nodded grimly. “Have you secured an invitation for us to attend the ceremony?”
“I have, for the Elders and novices.”
“Excellent. Then there’s no need for disguises.”
“You meant to come all this time?”
Nadzia tilted her head. “To what end?”
“To free the daughters of Jūratė from the tyranny of the gods.”
“Don’t look so skeptical, my dear,” Veles said. “We’ve worked out a way to disrupt the ceremony.”
“I don’t understand.”
Before she realized what he was doing, Veles had lunged across the table toward Nadzia, his fangs bared. She screamed in terror, her cry so sharp and strong it left him writhing on the floor. “Oh, gods . . . I didn’t mean . . .” She turned to the abbess. “What’s happening?”
“The magic of our voices. We will use it to cripple the gods.”
“Not all of them, surely? I’ve just met Dievas and Rodzenica. I can’t believe they would succumb. Surely they’re too powerful.”
“Yes, sweetling. Even my parents.” Veles shuddered and forced himself upright. “Not forever, it’s true, but long enough for you to grab Perun’s heart.”
Nadzia held out her jewel. “I already have it.”
“You have a necklace that can only be opened by my mother,” Veles said, returning to the table. “After the ceremony, she’ll remove the sliver of heart inside and return it to Perun’s chest. That’s his weakness. Until my brother is made whole again, he isn’t fully immortal. I would have told everyone sooner, but I only just learned the secret today. My parents had quite an interesting conversation after you left.”
Nadzia’s pulse quickened. This was what she’d hope to unearth, the means to vanquish a killer. “You mean he’ll die?”
“Not for eons, but yes, his powers will fade and so will he. The Divine Council will assign another to his domain.”
The snake god’s eyes glittered with a zeal that sent tremors of unease down Nadzia’s spine. She gripped the sides of her seat and wondered again what Veles intended, why something felt amiss. Jūratė said she could trust him, so why did his words fill her with foreboding?
His black lips stretched wide in an eerie smile. “When Rodzenica cuts open my brother’s stone, the Elders will begin keening. Your task, while everyone is weakened, is to seize that tiny piece of his heart and bring it to me.”
Nadzia rubbed at the ache spreading across her forehead. The plan sounded simple enough, but her body was protesting, a sign that all what not as it seemed. A piece was missing, she realized, a flaw so obvious she didn’t understand how Veles could have overlooked it. “You aren’t coming to the wedding. Isn’t that what you promised?”
“I won’t be at the ceremony. I’ll be at Jūratė’s altar. A minor difference,” Veles added with a careless smirk, “but it does make me true to my words. Now, once I have the stone, I’ll slip away to the Underworld and bury the jewel deep in one of my dungeons. They’ll never find it. And they’ll be so addled by your voices no one will remember how it vanished. All you have to do is look confused until the mayhem dies down. Then you can rejoin your sisters and sail back to the coast. ”
“How can you do anything if you’re as helpless as the rest?”
The abbess handed Veles a lump of beeswax from her robe pockets. He separated the wad into two pieces, rolled them into small balls, and pushed them into his ears. “There, you see? You can howl to your heart’s content, I won’t be affected. Go on.”
Nadzia drew back from the table, wary of deliberately inflicting pain yet thrilled at the idea that her voice could actually bring gods to their knees. “You’re certain?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Give it a try. Think of something absolutely horrid, like sharing your bed with a murderous god.”
But the memory of Perun’s flesh and the passion it ignited in Nadzia left her unable to utter more than a mild shriek. The abbess clucked her tongue and wailed a note that should have left the god of the Underworld prostrate. He shrugged and pulled out the waxen clumps. “What did I tell you? Not a scale out of place.”
Nadzia hesitated, unsure if this was cause for celebration or concern. If all of Jūratė’s daughters possessed this talent, then they had a chance—a real chance—to thwart the gods. But there was one aspect that Veles had failed to address, a danger so obvious Nadzia chafed at its omission. “What of the convent? Surely your mother and father will hold everyone here accountable.”
“Perhaps. But by then you’ll have been anointed its immortal guardian. Remember what my brother said before he flew off, how we can’t exist without mortals? Not even the greatest of the gods are willing to risk a bloodbath that might turn the whole of humankind against us.”
“So I just pretend to be happy about things until my wedding day?”
“Not quite.” The abbess leaned forward. “We want the god of storms as pliant as possible. Carry on with your seduction until he is as content as a kitten with a bowl of cream. His distress at your betrayal will be all the more satisfying.”
Nadzia moved to the window and basked in the familiar scent of the salt-laced breeze, the comforting sounds of gulls and waves. Surely this was a sign she was bound to succeed. Why else would she have been graced with a skill unlike any other? Yet for all of Perun’s flaws, she’d sensed there was more to him, an amiability that had led to his friendship with the mermaid goddess. Was it disloyal to think that, given time to gain his confidence, she could bring out his better side and change destiny so that there was no risk of anyone being harmed?
“I’m curious,” she said, turning so that the late afternoon sun warmed the back of her head. “How did you discover we had this . . . proficiency?”
“A quirk of fate,” Veles said, grinning at the memory. “I was drowsing on your beach, covered in sand—save for my head—when a comely redhead chanced upon me unawares and screamed so long and loud I fainted. When I came to, Gintare was at my side. We discussed what had happened and realized your mermaid voices were far stronger than anyone ever suspected. Strong enough to fell a god.”
“And the wax?”
“Trial and error,” the abbess replied. “We thought to use the seaweed given to villagers on Summoning Day, but a god is more resilient. Sister Dain recalled a legend in which sailors used wax against sirens. It had proven most effective.” She bestowed a rare full smile on the deity beside her. “Veles has been most accommodating.”
“Yes, well, anything to avenge the goddess, I always say. And that lovely novice? She’ll be next to Gintare at your wedding. I wouldn’t think of attempting this without her.”
Dread lanced Nadzia’s veins. She walked woodenly to the table and sat down with a thud. “Keslai’s coming?”
“This matter goes beyond any discord between the two of you,” the abbess said with a crispness that declared the matter settled. “She is eager to do whatever we ask. And, as Veles noted, exceptionally adept with her voice.”
“She cursed me.” Nadzia’s jaw tightened at the memory.
“You must forgive the harshness of her words. She was burned, not thinking clearly. Her remorse is genuine, and she longs to reconcile with her sister.”
Nadzia swallowed a retort. If the abbess believed Keslai penitent, nothing said against her would find a hold. “When do you expect to arrive in Kaunas?”
“A few days before the ceremony, perhaps less. We don’t wish to be near Perun any longer than necessary.”
“I’ll make sure you stake out a good spot for your tents, near the river.”
“This is all fascinating,” Veles said with an exaggerated yawn, “but we should get you back soon. Don’t want your beloved to find you missing.”
Nadzia glanced out the window and found the sun slipping westward. Where had the time gone? She stood and accepted the abbess’s stiff hug and then fit herself into Veles’s embrace. This time, she vowed, her eyes would remain open.
Currents of warm air buoyed the god of storms as he flew on eagles’ wings toward Aukštaitija, a northeastern province and home to Lithuania’s oldest tree —one of his sacred oaks. A fitting place to begin spreading the news of his forthcoming marriage. He’d have to thank Rodzenica when next they met, for he now understood the wisdom in delaying the ceremony. His disciples deserved a place at such an important event. He owed them courtesy and gratitude, at the very least.
The people of Aukštaitija were known for beer and songs that mixed music with poetry. Whenever he visited, temple patrons honored him with long serenades delivered in the rich, sonorous language distinctive to the region. A pleasurable way to spend a few hours or more. He wished he could linger among them, but this wasn’t a day to indulge. Not with Nadzia expecting him at sunset.
He glided over a gigantic lake, the waters sparkling like clear jewels in the afternoon light. High above, a shooting star flashed across the sky, a rare phenomenon. Perun gave a low kuk-kuk-kuk of delight. This was a good omen, most likely sent by his father as a symbol of the coming change.
A clearing that held a nine-sided temple came into view. Like his own, this one had an open roof and central fire. A silver-haired man dressed in black robes stood upon the steps, his arms extended in welcome at the giant bird soaring above the trees. Perun swooped down to the base of an oak, morphed into his godly form, and strode forward. “Greetings, Mykolas. I bear good news.”
“Have the Fates provided a wife from the Order of Bursztyn?”
Perun sputtered in surprise. “You know?”
“A star streaks across the sky while the sun still shines. You appear on its tail. We have been waiting centuries for such a sign.”
“Yes, my friend, I have been judged worthy at last. The wedding shall take place in Kaunas on my feast day, two weeks hence. Advise your people. Those who wish to attend must leave soon if they are to arrive in time.”
“Of course. I will instruct the temple assistants to pack my things at once.”
“You are a priest, not a commoner. I will come for you in my chariot a few days before the ceremony. My servants will see to your care in a special pavilion set up for the elite—feather beds, silk sheets, food and drink. Whatever you require for comfort.”
“I am to journey in the heavens with a god?” Mykolas bowed so deeply his spine creaked. “That is an honor beyond compare.”
He resumed an upright stance, grunting at the effort. “You have made a lengthy trek. Rest a while. We have freshly brewed ale, the finest in all Lithuania, as well you know. Let me send for singers to entertain us while you tell me of this woman you will marry.”
“One bottle only, I’m afraid,” Perun replied. “My bride is waiting in Kaunas. I have promised to return by twilight.”
The priest stroked his beard. “Not yet your spouse and already she controls when you come and go. Forgive me for speaking plainly, but the mighteous god I serve would never let a mere novice dictate his actions. A hen should not rule the roost.”
A mortal judging a god? Perun’s nostrils flared at the affront. He steadied his breath, careful not to display even a hint of agitation. As much as he liked Mykolas—they’d been friends for decades, their affinity so strong that Perun felt safe sharing the truth about his enchanted jewel—some secrets were best kept private. This man had no idea what he was enduring, the artifice necessary in order to regain his full immortality. The conflicting desires that called every move into question.
“I am no one’s drudge,” he answered evenly. “But Nadzia is my betrothed and I will not deny her when she has requested my attendance.”
His mouth curved into a knowing grin. “You are an old married soul. I trust you’ve not forgotten the pleasures of early passion.”
“By the breath of Dievas, may they continue,” Mykolas said with a wink. “Will you grant us an hour?”
Perun nodded, giving no indication that the priest’s words had stirred resentments he thought suppressed. Nadzia should be thanking the Fates for the life they’d granted her instead of saddling him with constraints. He shouldn’t feel compelled to obey the girl’s commands, adjust his behavior to suit her whims, change his nature because she found it too fierce. But how could he not, when she threatened to give back his necklace if he refused?
And then the impossibility of such an act on her part struck him with such force his blood simmered. Fool of a god! Even if she wanted to, Nadzia couldn’t set aside his pendant—Rodzenica had directed her to wear it always. Why, then, would his bride try to subdue him? Maybe the girl didn’t realize the emptiness of her threats. Maybe she was testing his devotion. Should he quash this futile attempt to intimidate him, or maintain a façade of obeisance and wait to see what happened next? How could he know which course of action was the right one to pursue?
He studied the light filtering through the ancient pines that surrounded the temple. Dusk was hours away. He’d make good on his pledge and return to Kaunas tonight. For now, the company of good men and a healthy dose of spirits were exactly what he needed, a respite from endless questions that left his brain addled.
“Bring out your goblets,” he said, heading for the throne that each temple provided. “I feel a great thirst coming upon me.”
He’d barely settled into a seat worn smooth by his bulk when a young flame-haired acolyte dressed in a charcoal tunic and leggings dashed up the temple steps with a tray of beer and chalices. “I don’t recall your face,” Perun said, motioning for the boy to set the platter on a high table next to his chair. “Are you newly sworn to my service?”
The boy nodded shyly, removed a clay stopper from one bottle, and carefully emptied the contents into the largest vessel, tipping the mug to form a perfect head of foam. Beads of sweat dripped down his face. “I took my vows this very month, the day I turned twelve,” he answered, offering the cup with shaking hands. “I . . . I wish you every happiness.”
Perun accepted the brew and took a long swallow. “Well poured, my boy. Thank you for your good wishes. I shall convey them to my bride as well.” He smiled as the youth flushed bright red, bowed, and scampered away. Seasoned devotees were necessary to keep temples functioning, their familiarity a comfort, but he always enjoyed meeting fresh converts and watching them grow into self-assured young men.
The priest returned with a snub-nosed youth who set up a folding stool close to the god of storms and bent low. “May your new life be full of blessings,” he whispered before fleeing like the first boy.
“I am both pleased and annoyed,” Perun said ruefully. “My godliness inspires awe and yet I do not wish these children to fear me.”
“Reverence includes both,” the priest replied. “You cannot have one without the other.”
“I sense no discomposure when we meet, Mykolas.”
“You did not see my knees quaking when I spoke of Nadzia earlier—I am grateful you took no offense. If I seem comfortable elsewise, that is due to your generous nature. Other gods, I am told, are not so accommodating. The camaraderie you offer disciples is a rare beneficence.”
Mykolas raised his mug. “Sveikata! To your great and good fortune. Ah, our musicians have arrived. We have many new songs. I hope they meet with your favor.”
Perun enjoyed the first performer’s ballad, a lively salute to the joys of coupling, but the droning voices that followed lulled him into contemplation. His eyes glazed over as he mused, lost in his thoughts until the priest gently nudged his elbow.
“I see that our singers have failed to capture your interest,” Mykolas said. “Thinking of your chosen one? I’m curious. You haven’t spoken much about her. Who is this woman destined to be your queen?”
Perun’s cheeks warmed. “She is a most amazing creature. Beautiful, but then you’d expect that of any girl with Jūratė’s blood. Raven black hair, eyes as grey as the sky before a storm, sun-kissed flesh. Demure when the occasion merits, lively when free to express herself. Sensuous, as befits a mermaid’s daughter. A very keen mind.”
“She sounds intriguing.” Mykolas paused and cleared his throat. “And yet I sense some hesitation behind the acclaim.”
“You know me well, old friend.”
“What gives you pause?”
Perun squinted at his goblet. “I’m not sure of her affection. She scolds me in private about my temper and then tearfully insists she had genuine feelings for me when brought before my parents. I want to believe she cares. But doubt pricks at my confidence.”
“Like the thorns that mar the beauty of a rose,” Mykolas said. “I understand. You loved the mermaid goddess, and she pierced your heart by choosing another. But you have the means to determine the truth of one special woman’s feelings. What does the necklace show?”
“It pulses steadily.”
“Then her words are true.”
“Yes, but there was a peculiar vibration in the air as she spoke at the Tree of Life, a resonance ebbing and flowing like the tides. An invisible, irresistible force.” Perun shook his head. “When I try to recall details of the scene itself, my mind feels cloaked in cobwebs.”
Mykolas frowned. “A siren’s voice mesmerizes. She might have bewitched you all, even altered the godly magic within your jewel to make it do her bidding.”
“It hardly seems possible. She’s only half-divine.” Perun fell silent. Divine, seductive words coupled with hidden loathing might result in a power beyond any the gods had ever encountered, a strength no one knew how to repel. Nadzia could lie with impunity, and no one would suspect otherwise.
He downed his drink in frustration, wishing he’d never talked with the handmaiden, never heard the rumors about the Order of Brusztyn and its secret plots.
Mykolas filled the god’s cup again. “Has Rodzenica inspected the amber? It was her spell after all, was it not?”
“She said things were as they should be.”
“Then trust in her judgment and let yourself enjoy what the Fates have provided,” Mykolas said. “She sounds like an intriguing young woman. I can’t wait to meet her.”
Perun nodded and sipped at his beer. He couldn’t deny his own fascination with Nadzia, how she stirred a glimmer of hope for a different future than the one he envisioned. Had he not already vowed to live alone, she would make a most stimulating companion.
His chest clenched with an unexpected pang of guilt. What if Nadzia was telling the truth and harbored real feelings for him? She could be deeply hurt once his heart was whole and she discovered he had no use for any woman, let alone the spawn of a fisherman he despised.
He wished he could spare her that pain. It wasn’t her fault that he’d sworn never to love again. She wasn’t responsible for the crimes of her ancestor or the tainted blood that flowed through her veins.
Bah! The girl was making him soft. Why bother with regrets? The situation called for daring and determination, whatever it took to keep Nadzia convinced he wanted this marriage, although, truth be told, he had little idea of how to proceed.
“Advise me, Mykolas,” he said, holding out his goblet to be filled anew. “I wish to be a loving husband. What would you counsel me to do?”
The priest burst into laughter. “Women are a mystery. Capricious, erratic, boldly amorous one day and as chill as the mountain snow the next. Watch yours carefully, make note of her choices and reactions. Don’t err—as I did, in all innocence—by asking your wife what she wants. She’ll use that as proof you lack a true commitment to her happiness.”
“We haven’t been together long.”
“Come now. Surely there’s something that stands out.”
“Hmm. Now that that I think upon it, Nadzia delighted in the trip from Palanga in my chariot.”
“An excellent start.”
“Yes, yes.” Perun grew more animated as he talked. “I’ll take her out every night, show her the inner beauty of the stars that brighten the heavens. And not just the sky. We’ll travel the length and breadth of Lithuania each day, sample the delights found in towns large and small. Fly over the sea and savor the pearly luminescence of the waves in moonlight.”
“It sounds perfect. Every woman should be so fortunate.”
Perun fell back against his throne and finished his drink. He might not want Nadzia with him forever, but he’d give her a fortnight of memories no human experience could match. Fates willing, it would be enough.
But did he want to lighten her suffering, or his shame at deceiving a daughter of the goddess he’d loved?
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
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