Are you enjoying the story? Would you like more than two chapters a week? Let me know. In this installment, Nadzia moves out of the temple and Perun deals with a suspicious servant amid growing dismay at his deception.
For previous chapters, click here.
The trip from the abbess’s room back to Kaunas was a blur of twisting curves that finally opened near the thrones in Perun’s temple. Veles released Nadzia and moved her aside as the stone floor closed smoothly, leaving no trace of its existence. “I hope you’ll consider me a true friend from now on,” he said, surprising her with a warm smile instead of his usual smirk. “We have a common goal that binds us. I want to help in every way possible.”
“Thank you.” The words felt odd on Nadzia’s tongue. This unanticipated alliance between the convent and the god of the Underworld . . . could she trust what she’d seen and heard or did something dubious lurk beneath their collusion? Perhaps it didn’t matter, given that the directive to enthrall Perun remained. Whatever else, she wanted to test her voice, learn just how much it would take before a god yielded to her magic.
Anticipation chilled her flesh. She moved closer to the fire as Veles shrank into an ordinary garden snake and zigzagged past the thrones to the rear of the temple. He looked back, flicked his tongue, black and forked and surprisingly long, and disappeared into a crevice at the bottom of the wall. Nadzia let out the breath she’d been holding and idly smoothed Mother Gintare’s shawl. Such a pretty wrap, green with white waves embroidered at the bottom.
“Fates be damned,” she muttered, realizing her mistake. Why hadn’t she left it behind? Even if the god of storms paid no attention to his bride’s attire, the handmaiden would spot a new piece of clothing, and Nadzia had no ready explanation for its presence.
She rushed to her room in search of a hiding place. Stuffed under the mattress? No, Gabi would discover it when the bedsheets needed changing. In the dresser, then, along with the belt from the convent. She checked the middle drawer. Everything within the leather strip seemed untouched—the bezoars, the pearl coated with poison, the clay bottle filled with water from Jūratė’s sacred springs. But that was hardly proof it hadn’t been examined by a nosy servant. She set the shawl next to the belt. Safe enough for now.
“Is anything wrong, mistress?”
Nadzia swung about, reaching behind to shut the drawer and giving silent thanks for the well-oiled cabinet that closed without a squeak. “Gabi! I’m well, thank you. Why do you ask? Is anything amiss?”
“You didn’t eat or drink from the tray I left at the temple entrance. I found a squirrel gnawing on the cheese. Was the food you asked for unacceptable?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I sometimes lose myself in prayer.”
Gabi glanced at the dome, her face pinched with annoyance. “I didn’t realize the daughters of Jūratė were so devout.”
The irritation in her voice gave Nadzia pause. She didn’t want to antagonize the girl—she still harbored the suspicion that Gabi was watching her more closely than a servant should—but small piques left unchallenged often festered into large affronts. “Have a care with your tone when you speak to me,” she said, inflecting her words with flinty disapproval. “I am Perun’s bride, not some commoner.”
The handmaiden flushed and dropped her gaze to the floor. “I beg your forgiveness. Shall I ask Ludvika to make you a plate for supper? We’ve roast lamb, new potatoes, fresh beans, and berry pie.”
Nadzia wished she could abandon protocol and treat Gabi as a friend. Gods knew she understood how it felt to be taken for granted. But the admonitions about trust from the Elders and the mermaid goddess, along with the growing awareness that her situation was far more complex than she could have ever imagined, made simple friendship impossible.
She nodded curtly. “You may serve me in the cottage your master has prepared for the two of us. I’d like my things moved there as well. This temple affords little privacy.”
“Yes, mistress. I’ll see to it at once.”
“Just the dresser for now, along with my nightclothes and a fresh gown for the morrow. Leave the chest for Perun. I don’t want anyone to injure themselves trying to lift so heavy a piece. Everything else stays until I see what the cottage can hold.”
Gabi motioned toward the bed. “You’ll want the bell to summon me, won’t you?”
Curse the girl! How could Nadzia refuse? “Of course. Thank you for the reminder.” She waited for Gabi to leave and then retrieved her belt and shawl, wrapping them in her mermaid quilt. What instinct had prompted her to change housing? A lack of prying eyes, certainly. The knowledge that private time with Perun would simplify the work of bending him to her will. Seclusion aided seduction. And—truth be told—after a day of scheming deities and unveiled secrets, she welcomed the chance to gather her thoughts in solitude before trying to gentle an unruly god.
The cottage door opened into a space dominated on the right by a giant oak bed, its thick mattress covered with white linens and plump pillows. Nadzia smoothed her quilt over the top and tucked the belt and shawl into a convenient gap between the headboard and wall. She’d stash them in the wardrobe later.
The far wall beyond the bed was empty. A good spot for her cabinet. She’d claim that side of the bed to ensure Perun had no reason to rummage around her things, ask for shelves to hold the books she’d ask the convent to send, fanciful tales from around the world, often with a romantic twist. Although she knew most by heart, the illustrations were wondrous and after reading them aloud to other novices more times than she could count, Nadzia knew exactly where to pause to heighten the suspense. All part of her plan to entice the god of storms.
On the wall to the left, a neat pile of wood waited to be stacked inside a hearth with a plain mantel. No candles yet, but she’d fix that soon. A corner space beside the door held a round stable with two straight-backed chairs set beneath mullioned windows, a perfect place to sip tea and watch the sun rise. The other corner offered a rocking chair that faced the western sky, slowly darkening now as dusk descended.
Nadzia hugged her chest. This was a vast improvement from the temple. She could read or sit on the doorstep and listen to the songs of the birds frequenting the meadow, maybe add her own. Best of all, no one would come upon her unawares. The walls were thick, too, an added bonus. No need to worry about the sounds within penetrating beyond. Yes, this would do nicely.
Adomas appeared at the doorway with the dresser. Ludvika stood behind him, carrying two drawers, Gabi beside her with a third drawer of neatly folded clothes and the summoning bell. “Where would you like everything?” the gardener asked.
“In that corner, please, just past the bed.”
He rolled his shoulders after they’d finished and gathered together at the foot of the bed. “What about the rest?”
“The fishbowl will go on the table. But that can wait until tomorrow. The net . . .” Nadzia tapped her chin. “Leave it be for now. I don’t need the table or cushions. They’re yours if you’d like.”
“I’ve no use for them.” Adomas turned to the handmaiden and cook. “Ladies?”
“We’d like that indeed, mistress,” Ludvika said. “You are most generous.”
“Excellent. Thank you for your help.” Nadzia cleared her throat. “This is a private space for your master and me. You will knock and wait for an invitation before entering, even if the door is open.”
The servants looked at one another for a long moment. Gabi spoke first, a slight edge to her voice. “The master gave us leave to work in whatever manner we find appropriate. Do you find our presence intrusive?”
“I’m sure she means no offense,” Ludvika said, giving the girl a look that promised a scolding later. “Your arrival is most welcome, and we want to do everything possible to make you feel at home here.”
“Call upon us whenever you wish,” Adomas said, grasping both women by their elbows and escorting them to the door. “We are here to serve.”
Gabi turned and bit her lip, as if swallowing a retort. “I’ll be back soon with supper. Would you like me to start a fire as well?”
“It’s a mild night. I should be fine.”
Nadzia watched the trio depart in the growing gloom, wishing she could just eat, close the door and abandon herself to sleep, then wake early for a swim before facing her tempestuous god. But she had a task to fulfill, and no matter how certain this new plot seemed, she couldn’t leave anything to chance.
After the handmaiden removed the dinner plates, Nadzia leaned against the doorway and watched the sun paint the clouds with swathes of lilac and pink as it slipped beneath the horizon. She searched the sky for Perun. Had he misjudged the distance he had to travel? Impossible, given the countless centuries he’d journeyed across Lithuania creating storms. Die her hold over him lessen with distance? Maybe she’d pushed too hard, too soon, driven him to linger among humans who would never dream of trying to change a god.
She stroked his amber necklace, pulsing steadily in the cleft above her breasts. It was a magical link between them—its true objective, she was certain, not yet revealed. The stone warmed at her touch, sent out waves of comfort and reassurance. Perun would never renege on his promise. Not as long as she wore his jewel.
The heavens were blooming indigo when a giant eagle glided over the meadow and swooped into the god of storms’ temple. Gabi, who must have been waiting in the shadows by the entry, scurried inside. A roar followed moments later, angry words, too rushed and garbled for Nadzia to clearly discern. Gabi rushed out, Perun at her heels. The ground rumbled as he stomped toward the cottage, his flesh suffused with a fiery glow.
Nadzia stiffened as he neared, the heat of his anger reaching her well before he did. She put up a hand to stop him when he was several yards distant. “Come no closer. Not until your temper has subsided.”
“My mother and I spent months assembling the perfect space and you reject it after one night? Ingrate!”
“Call me what you will,” Nadzia replied, her words calm and even. “But hold fast to your promise and let me guide you through this fury to a peaceful state of mind.”
Sweat sizzled on Perun’s brow. “You deliberately provoked me.”
“I did not. But your wrath serves as the perfect start to our first lesson.”
“You want to rob me of my strength.”
“To what end? Do you think I wish to marry a weak god?”
“If it serves your purpose.”
Perun twitched and drew back, as if he’d said too much. Nadzia hesitated. He couldn’t possibly know her true plans, yet his fists clenched as he glared at the ground, muttering in a language she didn’t understand. Yet whatever he was hiding, this wasn’t the time to probe. She had to take advantage of what time was left before the wedding to make him compliant.
She folded her arms and infused her words with subtle persuasion. “My wishes are simple: to live in harmony. Concentrate, please. Where is the source of your rage?”
“It begins in my chest,” Perun grumbled. “Like a smoldering coal left in the hearth that suddenly erupts into flames.”
“And you allow it to burn hot, always, however incited?”
Perun frowned and shook his head. “That is my nature. I need the fire inside to call forth tempests. You cannot change how I was made. What Dievas creates is immutable.”
“That may be, but you decide how that power is wielded. Trust me. Trust yourself. You are no one’s puppet, but a divine being, capable of mastering whatever you choose. Muse upon that, what it means to accept that you alone can restrain or release your magic. Do not allow the tumult within to compel you—subject it to your will.”
She ventured a few inches closer as Perun’s fingers relaxed. “That’s good,” she said, her voice as soothing and melodic as the ocean’s tides. “Close your eyes. Let your body unwind. Breathe deeply and think of something cool and refreshing. The waters of Palanga, a place we both love. Imagine yourself floating in the Baltic Sea, at ease yet secure in the knowledge that you are in command, ready to exert your authority at a moment’s notice.”
Perun sighed, a long tremulous exhalation of warm breath that wafted across Nadzia’s shoulders. The fire beneath his skin faded. His eyes fluttered open, filled with longing as he reached for her. “I see now why some call the daughters of Jūratė witches. Your voice is pure enchantment. I’ve never felt so completely at ease.”
Nadzia snuggled into his arms, careful not to sound overly satisfied with her success. The change she’d worked just now in Perun boded well for the future. “Whatever my gifts, they pale next to the fortitude you displayed tonight.”
“I regret my harsh words. Forgive me?”
“Your fury was ill-matched to the perceived offense, but I hope you appreciate the opportunity it presented.” Nadzia raised her chin for a kiss, somewhat taken aback at her eagerness for Perun’s affection, his tender regard. She wondered again if this might be what the Fates wanted, for her to bring out the best in this god. To show the world the decency beneath the savageness that spurred his storms.
She ran a finger lightly along Perun’s chest, pleased at his quick intake of breath. The night was young and the bed in the cottage beckoned with its allure of physical abandon. “I do appreciate the room in your temple. But the design hampers true intimacy. Anyone could walk in on us unannounced. I want to express my desire freely, without fear of interruption. Don’t you?”
Perun laughed softly and grazed Nadzia’s neck, sending shivers of delight down her spine. “I did not wish to appear unduly bold by suggesting we stay elsewhere before the ceremony. If privacy is what you crave, I am happy to oblige.”
“Then take me inside.”
“As you wish, my love.” Perun swept Nadzia into his arms, carried her across the threshold, and kicked the cottage door closed.
The god of storms’ cottage brightened with the first coral beams of daybreak. He kissed the swell of Nadzia’s hips, smiling when her skin lit up with a pearly fluorescence in response to his touch. He worked his way upward, savoring the fullness of her breasts, the velvety flesh along her neck. “Your body shimmers when you’re aroused. Did you know that? It’s as if there’s a moon glowing within you. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”
Nadzia stretched like a well-fed kitten, half asleep and pleasantly sated. She slipped out of Perun’s arms and pulled up her mermaid quilt, leaving her back and shoulders bare. “I wish we could spend the day together,” she said, wriggling toward the edge of the bed, “but Mokosh is meeting me at the temple to discuss details of our wedding, and you have more followers to notify.”
Perun leaned forward and slowly traced Nadzia’s spine. “Duties! Let them wait.”
She playfully swatted his hand and opened the middle drawer of her cabinet. “I left my chest of gowns behind in the temple; it was far too heavy for the servants. You’ll have to bring it here. I only have one clean dress.”
Perun’s throat rumbled with desire. “Stay with me in bed. You won’t need clothes at all.”
“Don’t be selfish. Anticipation makes the heart grow fonder, or so the villagers in Palanga say. We have an eternity to indulge our passion. And while you may not require food, I’m ravenous.” Nadzia motioned toward the bell sitting atop the corner table. “Ring for Gabi while I dress?”
“Not until you answer one question.”
Nadzia retrieved a white chemise and a gown of crimson silk, eased the garments over her head, and then turned to face Perun, a hint of mischief in her eyes. “Only one? Am I so ordinary that you have no interest in probing the depths of my heart and soul?”
“The stars will lose their luster the day you become ordinary,” Perun said, matching her playful tone. He smoothed the quilt, embarrassed by the doubt that prompted his inquiry. His pendant sparkled on Nadzia’s chest; he’d checked while she slept. That should be enough to calm his fears, but he understood from talks with his priests that mortals did not always equate sex with love. “Did I satisfy you?”
Nadzia walked to the far side of the bed and took his face in her hands. “You brought me to heights of pleasure I didn’t know possible. I can’t wait to lie in your arms again. But I won’t have the energy to do so without proper sustenance.”
“There’s no reason to call your handmaiden. I’ll bring you breakfast. Strawberries and cream, yes?”
“You remembered,” Nadzia said, surprise in her voice.
“I’m sure Adomas can provide both. He has a cooler down by the dock to keep things fresh. Will that be sufficient? I can stop by the women’s cottage on my way to the garden, ask Ludvika to cook whatever you want, and have her bring you a tray.”
Nadzia ticked off items on her fingers. “Poached eggs with herbs. Fresh bread. And a pot of strong tea. Wait,” she added as Perun donned his robe, slid off the mattress, and headed for the door. “Ask if she has a spare flower vase we can borrow. I can pick some blossoms from the meadow to adorn our table.”
“Our table.” Perun bowed. “As you wish, my love. I won’t be long.” He stepped outside, the lively chirps of birdsong greeting him as he ambled down the path to speak with the cook. A soft breeze cooled his skin, fluttered the tall grasses and vibrant blooms blanketing the hillside. He inhaled deeply. Was it the aftermath of a wondrous night that opened his awareness to the glories of morning? He’d always preferred the darker hours, reveled in the ferocity of storms. Now the sun felt like a welcoming friend.
He found Gabi sweeping the porch of her bungalow, a sturdy building of river-washed stone surrounded by beds of herbs that perfumed the air day and night. She set aside her broom as he neared. “Bless the Fates you’re alone,” she whispered. “We must talk about what I saw yesterday in Nadzia’s room.”
Perun looked back at the trail, frustration sullying his mood. He’d hoped, perhaps foolishly, to linger in the afterglow of a glorious evening. To forget that whatever happiness he felt was ill-deserved—the plan to reject his bride after they wed hadn’t changed, despite her prowess in bed.
The handmaiden’s disquiet spoke to a reality he couldn’t ignore. As much as he yearned to believe Nadzia’s sweet words, she was the descendant of a mermaid, gifted with a voice that enthralled. Had she recognized his longing when he asked about her satisfaction, and then told him exactly what he hoped to hear?
He didn’t want to think about duplicity. He wanted two weeks of jubilant days with his disciples and steamy nights with his bride. What was the point of atonement if it led to confusion and agony? But he’d asked Gabi to be his eyes and ears; he could hardly disparage the girl for doing the job he’d asked. He gritted his teeth and nodded. “Wait here while I speak with Ludvika. I want her to prepare a tray for Nadzia. You can accompany me to the garden.”
The cook readily agreed to Perun’s wishes. He returned to the porch with a basket for the strawberries, gave it to Gabi, and escorted her up the hill, steeling himself for unwelcome news. “What happened that left you so agitated?”
“When I came upon Nadzia just before sunset, she was stuffing something in her middle wardrobe drawer.”
“A favorite gown?”
Gabi snorted, startling a grouse feeding on a nearby pine into flight. “All her clothes are kept neatly folded in the chest you had made for her. There’s no reason to move them.”
“What else could it be?”
“I don’t know. But when she turned around and realized I’d seen her . . . well, I know a guilty look when I see one.”
Perun frowned and rubbed his brow. “Did you announce yourself?”
“Of course not. You directed me to stay as silent as possible. It’s hard to spy if someone knows you’re there.”
“Not every action need be suspect,” Perun huffed. “You may have simply surprised her.”
“There’s more to it, I’m sure.” Gabi lowered her voice as Perun opened the garden gate. “I’d barely been there a minute when she decided to move to your cottage.”
Perun’s mouth quirked as he kneeled beside the strawberry patch to pick a handful of glistening red fruit. “A most agreeable situation.”
“And yet the only thing she wanted with her was the wardrobe.” Gabi’s eyes narrowed. “I’d call that suspicious.”
“Did you get a look inside?”
“No,” Gabi answered wearily. “I had to fetch Adomas to carry the cabinet, and the drawers were empty save for the clothes I packed when Ludvika and I carried them to the cottage.”
“Let’s ask if he noticed anything unusual.” Perun shaded his eyes and scanned the yard. “I don’t see him about. Has he gone to town?”
“He’s down at the dock waiting for the morning delivery.” Gabi twisted the cloth of her apron. “Please, master, be careful. She could have hidden anything and now you’re all alone with her in that cottage. There’s no telling what she can do with that witch’s voice of hers. Look at you, on your knees like a common man, picking her food. I’ll wager that’s her bidding.”
Perun righted himself and peered down at the handmaiden as she shifted from foot to foot. Had he blundered in enlisting her aid? Her comments verged on insolence, yet how could she view Nadzia impartially, given her orders to watch his bride like a hawk?
And yet he sensed there was more to her discomposure. “Are you feeling uncertain about your place here, Gabi?”
The flush in her cheeks confirmed his instincts. “I . . . I wish only to serve.”
“Nadzia is more independent than you expected, yes?”
“That doesn’t change what I saw. You mustn’t trust her. Don’t forget what the traders said about the convent.”
Perun studied the girl a moment longer, remembering the easiness between them before the Fates arrived and declared him redeemed. In the short time since, she’d lost her cheerful breeziness, gone squint-eyed and tight with anxiety. He hated to think that serving him had led to such a change, that his aversion to a marriage he never wanted had turned an unpretentious girl into a carping, fault-finding shrew.
His jaw tightened with resolve. When the wedding was over and his novice bride back in Palanga, he’d do whatever it took to restore Gabi’s spirit.
He put an arm around the girl and gently squeezed her shoulder. “Incertitude can color your perceptions. I’m not discounting what you glimpsed,” he added hastily, feeling Gabi stiffen, “and I appreciate your diligence in carrying out my instructions. But don’t let worry lead to misunderstandings. This is your home. I am eternally grateful you came here. No one will ever send you away. I promise.”
“Will you examine the cabinet?” Gabi wiped at tears sliding down her cheek. “Gods know what she put there. I’d do it myself, but she’s forbidden me to come inside your cottage without permission.”
Perun laughed softly. “She’s rather fierce about her desire for privacy. I’m afraid you will have to accept these limitations now that the two of us are sharing the same quarters.”
“But you’ll search the drawers?”
“If it will put your mind at rest.” Perun checked the sky. “We mustn’t keep Nadzia waiting. Ludvika should have delivered the tray I requested by now. Be a good girl and fetch some cream from the crock Adomas keeps in the river. Bring it to the cottage. The door will be open when you arrive. You may enter freely.”
The morning sun haloed Nadzia in a nimbus of golden light as she sat at the table spearing forkfuls of egg followed by bites of bread. “Bless the gods for the swiftness of your cook,” she said, sipping from a small mug of tea. “I’d have wasted away into skin and bones waiting for you to feed me. Whatever took so long?”
“Daydreams,” Perun replied, offering his basket. “I imagined kissing full, sweet lips stained red with juice. Shall we make that vision come true?”
“With pleasure.” Nadzia toyed with a strawberry, her tongue lingering over the tiny indentations before she bit into the flesh with a wicked smile. She brought a second piece of fruit to Perun’s mouth, mashing it softly as she traced his lips.
He devoured it greedily and pulled her into his arms with a low throaty growl. “Your skin is lustrous again. Shall I send a raven to Mokosh with a message to postpone your discussion?”
“That would be impolite. The goddess of the earth has many other obligations. It is most generous of her to help me plan divine festivities. We had plenty of celebrations at the convent, but I’ve no idea what the Immortals want or like.”
“They aren’t so different from humans in that respect. Food, plenty of wine and nectar—see if you can persuade my father to part with some of his special vintage—music, dance.” Perun’s voice roughened. “You might want to ask Dievas to post guards as well, to keep a lookout for my snake of a brother.”
“He swore he wouldn’t attend.”
“Never trust a god with a forked tongue. Veles has a well-earned reputation for saying one thing and doing the opposite.” Perun released Nadzia reluctantly and claimed the second seat at the table. “Let’s not waste the morning with talk of a scoundrel. I have a most wondrous maiden to keep me company.”
Nadzia laughed. “Watching a woman eat must be heavenly indeed.”
“Begging your pardon, master. I have the cream you asked for.” Gabi hesitated in the doorway, her pale cheeks splotched with pink. At Perun’s beckoning, she hurried to the table, curtsied, and deposited an ebony bowl by Nadzia’s plate.
“You said Adomas would provide that.” Nadzia smiled as her servant retreated, but Perun saw no mirth in her eyes. “Was he away? This girl has more important duties. She’s responsible for keeping your temple clean, is she not?”
“She is your handmaiden first and foremost,” Perun said evenly. “Thank you, Gabi.”
“Yes, of course, thank you.” Nadzia dipped a berry in the bowl and chewed thoughtfully. “I hope you’ll come along and greet Mokosh before you depart. I’m sure she’s eager to congratulate us.”
“If it pleases you, although we should go there now if I’m to complete my tasks before sunset. I’m looking forward to our next lesson.” Perun stood and waited for Nadzia to take the arm he extended. “Gabi, tend to the room once we’ve departed. My sweet bride is far too busy for such matters. Air out the bed linens. Dust. Sweep the floor and clean the windows. Don’t forget the wardrobe. Each drawer should have fresh lavender sachets.”
Nadzia froze at his words. Panic flickered across her face before she regained her composure and leaned into him. “This is our home,” she said, her voice low and beguiling. “Let me see to its keeping.”
“Chores are a job for a servant, not the daughter of a goddess.”
“Consider it a token of my affection.” Nadzia snuggled closer and toyed with the copper-colored hairs on Perun’s chest. “Another way for me to please you.”
“If you insist. Gabi, you may leave the care of this cottage to my bride. Bring her meals and nothing more.” Perun nodded at the handmaiden and blinked away the mist in his eyes as a flash of understanding passed between them. She’d spoken the truth. Something was definitely amiss. The euphoria of the morning vanished, a dour resignation taking its place.
“That’s better,” Nadzia said after the girl rushed outside. “Just the two of us.”
Perun ushered her through the door and shut it firmly behind them. She chattered about small gifts for wedding guests—commemorative candles or spiced sea salts—oblivious to his sullen disregard as they walked uphill. He was a god with fraudulent designs, he couldn’t complain that the Fates had sent him a devious, manipulative creature.
So why did his heart feel so empty?
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski