As the story continues, Perun hears the story of a murderous sultan redeemed by love and wonders if there might be hope for him, while a freak accident sidelines Nadzia and brings her face-to-face again with the god of the Underworld.
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After a day-long visit to his main temple in the south, Perun hoped to find his bride naked in bed, eager to engage in sensual delights. He didn’t want another lesson on controlling his rage. The suggestion she’d made, to imagine himself floating on the ocean’s chill waves, would serve him well enough in the future. Tonight, he needed a distraction from the agonizing proof of the handmaiden’s claims, that Nadzia couldn’t be trusted. Even if he never learned what she’d hidden in the wardrobe, her quick actions to keep him away from it confirmed his worst fears.
He flung open the cottage door, his loins tight with anticipation, and scowled at the sight that greeted him: Nadzia on the floor with a book in her lap. More were packed within a wooden container stamped with the image of a mermaid. She leaped up to kiss his cheek. “Presents from the Order of Bursztyn. And not just stories to entertain us.” She lifted a large triangle of green fabric from the box and tied it around her shoulders. “A woolen shawl for when the evenings begin to cool.”
He nodded absently, his attention drawn to the cabinet in the corner beside the bed. Gabi had insisted something mysterious was concealed inside. Now he had an unexpected opportunity to learn the truth. He loosened the shawl and smiled at the heat that rose from Nadzia’s flesh as they embraced. “You’ve no need for cloaks. I can keep you warm whenever you wish. Let me put this away for you.”
He moved swiftly, before Nadzia could object, his pulse thundering with dread and anticipation. Loath as he was to discover evidence of treachery, he had to know for certain. He felt Nadzia’s gaze, heard the quickening of her breath as he carefully opened each compartment. Nothing in the first drawer. The middle was empty as well. He hesitated, clenched his jaw. One more to go. A space that would either confirm his suspicions or calm them.
“The top one is fine,” Nadzia said, her words thick and laced with an emotion that could only be dread. “Come back, I’m feeling cold.”
“I think the bottom is best for things you’ll rarely use.” Perun hesitated, his hand upon the last drawer knob. They had but a fortnight together. Why not leave matters as they were, take what pleasure Nadzia was willing to give until he was made whole again, and then send her back to the convent? He was a god, there was no way she could harm him.
Could he forge ahead, ignore his misgivings and unanswered questions? No, better to make sure, whatever he might learn. He yanked the last drawer until it nearly fell out and hissed in anger at what lay inside. “Did these,” he said, holding up a black leather belt and pouch, “come in your crate as well?”
Nadzia eased off the bed to stand beside him. A muscle in her jaw twitched. “No.”
“Then you are keeping secrets, just as Gabi insisted.” Perun’s skin darkened as fury flushed his veins. Steam hissed from his fingers. He was a fool, a thousand times over, for believing the spawn of a traitorous goddess could be faithful and true.
“Did you tell her to spy on me?”
Perun faltered, taken aback by Nadzia’s accusation. How could she know about the handmaiden’s clandestine assignment? “She . . . she is dedicated to her work.”
“And yet, when told specifically to leave us alone, she tried to sneak in here.”
“What? Impossible. She would never defy me.”
“I saw her from the hilltop. She was quite clumsy for someone trying to meddle unseen. Scratched herself, badly, on the roses Mokosh gifted us. She’ll be healing for weeks to come.” Nadzia’s voice lowered, turned skeptical. “Odd, don’t you think, that a servant would decide to pry on her own, outside of her master’s directions?”
“She . . .” Perun startled as he realized the cunning behind Nadzia’s remarks. She was trying to confound him by diverting his thoughts. He tossed the drawer’s contents on the bed. “You haven’t answered my question. What is the meaning of this? Why did you conceal it?”
Nadzia seemed to fold into herself. Shoulders drooping, she plodded to the table and sat down heavily, looking out at the darkening sky as she spoke. “I did not wish you to think me weak.”
“Why would I believe such a thing?”
“Open the pouch. Be careful, please. I’ve only the one vial.”
Perun squinted at the glass. “Water?”
“From Jūratė’s sacred springs, the ones that supply our convent’s fountain. The abbess gave it to me should I ever pine for home.” Nadzia turned, her face streaked with tears. “I know that becoming your queen—a goddess!—is the greatest honor ever given a mortal, and I’m grateful beyond measure to have been chosen. But my life before the day you came for me was simple. I’m not used to being showered with attention.”
She wiped her cheeks. “I meant no disrespect. Husband and wife should always be honest with each other, no secrets. And I shouldn’t crave the old when the new is so incredible. But there have been moments when I felt ill-suited to my new status. A sip of the goddess’s water fortifies me, reminds me that I can be everything the gods expect.”
“Oh, my love.” Perun rushed across the room and gathered Nadzia in his arms. “Never doubt that you are the answer to my prayers,” he murmured, stroking her hair. “A woman who has brightened my life. I’m not worthy of your regard.”
“The Fates would argue otherwise.”
Perun pulled off Nadzia’s dress and threw aside his robe. “Then let us show them the wisdom of their ways.”
The moon had lost some of its luster, but none of its majesty. Creatures of the night sang throaty choruses under its waning glow, took shelter in the long grasses from birds of prey swooping across the meadow in search of food. Perun watched from the cottage doorsill as a tawny-feathered owl plunged and then flew off with a hapless mouse fixed in its talons. He breathed deep, relishing the nip of the evening air.
So many things made sense now. While the news of Gabi’s injuries saddened him, he admitted to relief at her confinement. She had done all he asked, but stoked his natural wariness as well, kindled the shame he carried at having killed the one he’d loved. His obsession with the idea that the convent plotted behind his back, his belief that Nadzia should be grateful for having the chance to join the gods, had blinded him to all else. He’d never considered how coming to Kaunas and leaving the only family she’d ever known might have been difficult for her.
He looked over his shoulder at the woman slumbering in his bed. Their bed. Black hair spilling over the pillows, mermaid quilt modestly covering her voluptuous, sun-bronzed curves, chest rising and falling evenly as she slept. Did she dream, he wondered, of life at his side, sitting in a throne, a new goddess of the sea? Or was her mind filled with images of the coast, the ocean that was as much a home as the convent?
Perhaps it was time to seek out Dievas and urge him to lift the restrictions placed on the enchanted mare so it could fly to the convent. He snorted at the thought. That was a task easier contemplated than done. Centuries after Jūratė’s death, the creator of all remained heartbroken over her betrayal, although he would never admit as much—at least in public. But Nadzia was entitled to judgment on her own merits, not the actions of a goddess who’d abandoned her own kind for a lowly fisherman.
Were it not for his own hesitance at showing up unannounced in Palanga—the Order of Bursztyn favored his snake of a brother, who no doubt had poisoned every abbess’s mind against him—Perun would transport Nadzia there in his chariot. Every day, if she wished, if that brought her comfort. Still, he knew better than to cross his father.
Maybe he should leave things as they were. Once she became a goddess, Nadzia could travel without constraints. And once he confessed his own desires, that he neither wanted nor needed a wife, that no matter what the Fates decided he could never forgive himself for his deadly wrath, she would most likely return to the convent for good. Far from the craven god who’d used and then discarded her.
But that was yet to come. He hadn’t forgotten his vow, to make Nadzia’s weeks with him a memory capable of alleviating any pain at his deceit. He could start tonight with a trip to the stars. Their charms would soothe and gladden them both.
Moist lips grazed his neck from behind. “It’s a beautiful night,” Nadzia said, easing herself into his arms. “Let’s take a stroll.”
“I thought we might explore the heavens. Would you like that?”
“I’ve had such a busy day, I’d rather relax on the hilltop and share one of my novels with you. There’s plenty of light.”
“Enough for you to read?”
“I know the stories by heart—the best ones, at least.” Nadzia gave Perun a quick squeeze. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” She returned with a book bound in rich leather and set it in his hands. “One Thousand and One Nights, tales of adventure and passion to last us for years to come.”
Perun swallowed a lump in his throat. Nadzia was so eager to share, he had to match her zeal. She could never suspect their time together would be much shorter. He ran a finger across the richly embossed cover. “Passion and adventure, you say?” He waggled his eyebrows and winked. “Lead on, my love.”
Nadzia giggled like a young girl and grabbed his elbow, pulling him outside. She chattered about her plans for decorating the cottage as they walked uphill to his sacred grove. Perun pretended to take interest in the details, nodding from time to time, murmuring agreement. He steered her toward the bench when they reached the clearing, but she pulled him away. “On the ground if you please. So I can lie against your chest.”
Perun removed his robe, leaving only his loin cloth, and spread it on the grass. When he was settled, Nadzia snug within his arms, he placed the book in her hands. “I’m curious. Who writes 1,001 tales?”
“It’s a collection from other lands: Arabia, Persia, Mesopotamia, to name a few. This is only one of the volumes. There’s twelve in all.”
“A disparate assortment, then?”
“They all stem from the same beginning. It’s rather violent, I’m afraid, but you need to understand the circumstances from which the stories emerged. Shall I begin?”
Deep within, something stirred inside Perun, told him to beware. Yet he had no logical reason to deny Nadzia. “As you wish, my love.”
She rested her hand atop the book. “Once there lived a monarch named Shahryar who discovered his first wife was unfaithful to him. Enraged, he killed her and vowed to marry a virgin of noble blood every night and then have her beheaded the next morning before she could dishonor him. When there were no more virgins left, the vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, offered to become the king’s next bride.”
Perun sputtered in disbelief. Did Nadzia not see the similarities of this story to his own, or was she deliberately testing his temper with a tale about a man betrayed by his true love? “I don’t like the sound of this tale,” he grumbled.
“Oh, the king was horrid at first,” Nadzia agreed. “But Scheherazade believed that he was in pain, that his jealousy could be overcome, his good heart restored. Much as the Immortal Council did with you.”
“And you liken yourself to her?”
Nadzia held up his pendant. “That’s why I was chosen. To bring your virtues to light and show the world that you are more than fire and fury.”
“It is a remarkable coincidence.”
“There are hundreds of tales with similar narratives. A man whose base instincts compel vicious deeds. A woman who sees beyond the beast and allows his better nature to prevail.”
Perun fought the urge to push Nadzia aside and withdraw to his constellation until the wedding. He’d thought the worst of her, been prepared to expose her artifice. He was a beast. He had no better nature to reveal. Hadn’t he come back tonight, determined to use his lust to escape the guilt he harbored for letting a daughter of Jūratė believe he welcomed her presence?
He felt a tug on his arm, looked down into Nadzia’s lively eyes.
“Shall I continue?” she asked. “I think you’ll enjoy what’s to come.”
“Of course, my love.”
She kissed him lightly and nestled closer. “Once in his chambers, Scheherazade pleaded for one last farewell to her beloved younger sister, who requested a story, one that recounted the first voyage of a sailor named Sinbad. As the night passed, the king became enraptured by Scheherazade’s voice, the way she conjured images with her words. When dawn broke, she stopped, the story unfinished. She thanked the king for allowing her to be with her sister, and said she was ready to meet her fate.”
“A clever ruse,” Perun said. “A man so enthralled could not send his wife away to be executed, not if he wanted to hear the rest of the tale.”
“You grasp the nuances.” Nadzia had a smile in her voice. “I thought you might. Yes, the king spared Scheherazade’s life so she could finish the story when he came to her the next night. She did so and began a second, more exciting tale. As before, at daybreak, she stopped, unfinished. Once again, she was spared.”
“And this continued for 1,001 nights?”
“Until she told him she had no more tales.”
“A brave woman, this Scheherazade.”
“She believed she could appease the king’s anger, lay bare the kindness within, and she did. When the storytelling ended, he realized he loved her and made her his queen.”
“As you will become mine, dearest Nadzia.” Perun closed his eyes and buried his face in the soft flesh of her neck, savored her sweet scent. She stroked his arms and began humming softly. His spirits soared, buoyed by elation, a sense of peace he’d never have believed possible before this night. If one woman’s devotion could save a murderous king, surely a brutal god dared hope for the same. He offered a silent prayer to the Fates for giving him a second chance at love.
And the ice around his heart began to melt.
Every year during the Harvest Festival, novices from the Order of Bursztyn erected a tent on the public beach in Palanga and mesmerized crowds with stories—fantastic adventures during the day, ribald escapades at night when the children were safely tucked in bed. From long experience, Nadzia recognized the signs of a spellbound audience: clouded eyes, faces soft with dreamy smiles, long sighs followed by thunderous applause when the teller of tales finished. Such was the magic of a siren’s voice.
She’d expected a similar reaction from Perun tonight. He surprised her, asking questions and adding comments that showed he discerned the subtleties of her narrative. Only at the story’s end did she feel him relax, as if he’d found solace. Perhaps he saw a bit of Scheherazade in his bride. A woman who redeemed a killer and became his loving queen. A woman destined to love a man others loathed.
He sat quietly with her now in the clearing where they would wed, his throat rumbling with a deep vibration that held its own enchantment. Nadzia leaned into his warmth and imagined an eternity of nights like this, glorious sex followed by walks, stories, serene companionship. She lazed against him, at ease with the world, content to simply sit with him and marvel at the sky.
He stroked her hair, lulling her into a half-sleep, and then nudged her lightly. “My legs grow stiff. Shall we continue our walk?”
They passed through the circle of oaks, their lobed leaves silver in the moonlight, and emerged into a meadow. Perun picked a yellow evening primrose and blushed as he presented it to Nadzia. “For a woman as bright as the sun.”
She smiled at his shyness, inhaled the sweet scent, and tucked the flower behind her ear. “Where are we headed?”
“I’ve journeyed all the way to Kaunas some nights. Few are awake at so late an hour, but sometimes I’ll encounter a midnight rambler or a restless shepherd who loves nothing better than to talk about his flock. Did you know that Skudde sheep come into heat out of season?”
“So the lambs are born any time of year? I’d love to see one.”
“I can’t promise you that, but it’s a fine walk and not too far.”
The night was warm, the moon still full enough that Nadzia strolled without the worry of having to pay attention to the ground. The River Nemunas sparkled to her right, always a welcome view. “I’m curious. Mokosh visits my convent, you mingle with your followers. What about rest of the gods? Why don’t we see more of them?”
“Most return to the Tree of Life when their duties are done.”
Nadzia recalled the numerous doors she’d passed on her way to meet Dievas and Rodzenica. “Each deity has a room there?”
“Yes, but there are also halls and chambers where they gather.” Perun huffed with scorn. “Their petty quarrels sicken me. They argue over which realm is most important, who’s more beautiful or beloved, weave plots to lessen the influence of others while bolstering their own. I have no use for their intrigues. I show up when summoned and gladly keep away elsewise.”
Nadzia pulled her hand from Perun’s, her pulse racing. She should feel relieved at his derision. A god who sneered at the schemes of his brothers and sisters would likely dismiss rumors of one involving him. But nothing was certain. Although Nadzia had professed ignorance of the divine world in the hopes of discovering new information, every daughter of Jūratė learned the history of the gods. They were inconstant, capricious, willful. An imprudent slip of the tongue in their presence could spell doom. “Sounds horrible. We won’t have to go there often, will we?”
“Only when called. And I’ll be at your side. No one will bother you.” Perun stretched and blew out a husky breath. “Enough about my brethren. Tell me of your conversation with Mokosh. Are the arrangements satisfactory?”
Nadzia struggled to keep her face calm. She didn’t want to think about the Order’s conspiracy to avenge the mermaid goddess, how Veles planned to finally trounce his brother and rob him of eternal life. She hadn’t forgotten her vow of vengeance, but there had to be alternatives to mayhem and death. Jūratė wanted her children to thrive. Why not heed her wishes instead of seeking retribution?
Mokosh claimed that the goddess’s daughters were ready to die to avenge her. Nadzia wasn’t sure she agreed. Her sisters were strong-willed and vibrant, unlikely to welcome a premature visit to the Underworld no matter how honorable the cause. It didn’t make sense to risk lives and leave no one to oversee the Order of Bursztyn. Or was the abbess willing to perish because she assumed Perun’s bride would take on that duty?
Nadzia rubbed the hairs rising on her arms. She’d counted on becoming immortal before the keening started, but just now she couldn’t quite recall the specific order of things. Was it the exchange of vows first, then Dievas bestowing divinity, and the god of storms’ heart restored at the end?
Or had she remembered it wrong?
“I think it’s going to be a wonderful ceremony,” she answered, her voice deliberately casual, “but I’m not sure I remember the sequence. When will your father turn me into a goddess?”
Perun laughed, a gravelly sound filled with delight. “Not soon enough. I can’t wait to see you in full immortal glory.”
“Nor I.” Nadzia joined the laughter with a melodic trill. “So, we wed, I become a goddess, and you’re made whole?”
“I’m sorry, my love, I can’t say. Would you like me to ask?”
Nadzia hesitated, torn between needing specifics and arousing suspicion. Perun might consider her request an innocent inquiry. His father? Too many unknowns. “No, don’t bother. I suppose I’m a bit nervous. Will it hurt?”
“Perhaps. You are the sole human to be granted this honor. Try not to worry. I expect any discomfort will pass once you are fully divine. I will comfort you as best I can.” He stopped and peered down, his face lined with concern. “You look fatigued. Are you weary? We can turn back.”
Nadzia grinned and scampered ahead of him. “Catch me if you can.”
He loitered behind. Did his bulk, Nadzia wondered, prevent him from moving with speed or grace on land? He usually traveled by chariot, barreling through the sky. She turned to wait for him, tripped over a hedgehog darting out of its burrow, and fell, twisting her ankle. “Oh!”
Perun was there in a heartbeat, moving faster than she would have believed possible. “What happened? Are you injured?”
“I tripped and hurt my foot,” Nadzia said, wincing against the pain. “Bring me to the river. The cold water will reduce the swelling.”
Picking her up as if she weighed little more than a feather, Perun strode carefully, his face tweaked with distress. “I shouldn’t have let you rush ahead. These fields are rife with holes and uneven ground.”
“It’s just a sprain.”
“You don’t understand,” Perun insisted, his eyes darting between the pendant at her breast and the ground. “I need to keep you safe. If any harm should come to you before we wed, if your affection erodes because I’ve been negligent in some way. . .” He fell silent, his face shuttered and grim.
The silence stretched out between them. He needed his heart, that much was certain, but Nadzia had never sensed that her feelings made any difference when it came to their marriage. She wondered anew at the exchange she’d witnessed at the Tree of Life, when his mother assured him—after examining the pendant—that all was well. Why did that matter?
Perun cleared his throat, then gently deposited her at the edge of the riverbank. “Shall I remove your sandals?”
“Yes, thank you.” Nadzia gasped as he unlaced the ties and bathed her foot with water. The injury was more profound than she’d realized, the skin turning blue—a fracture, not a mere wrenching. She reached for the hem of her dress and lifted it toward Perun. “You need to tear off a strip, douse it with water, and bind the ankle. I think the bone may be broken.”
Perun muttered under his breath as he followed Nadzia’s instructions. “My fault, always my fault. Why did I think that would ever change?”
“Stop blaming yourself!” Nadzia snapped. “You don’t dictate my choices.”
The grousing stopped. Perun reached for Nadzia, stroked her cheek. “What did I do to deserve such a treasure?”
“Something good, I’d say,” Nadzia replied with a weak laugh. “Take me home, please. I need to rest.”
She slipped in and out of consciousness in his arms, roused from time to time by the sound of his continuing recriminations. Too tired to protest, she returned to dreams of a joyous god and his bride frolicking with lambs in moon-dappled meadows. A happy ending, free of strife.
When she came fully awake again, she lay in bed covered with the mermaid quilt, her foot atop pillows, candles burning on the fireplace mantel. Perun kissed her brow. “I’m off to fetch Ludvika. Do you need anything before I go?”
She grabbed the edge of his robe as he turned to leave. “I do feel safe,” she whispered. “More than you know.”
He nodded, gave her a look full of longing, and left.
Nadzia closed her eyes, grateful for the quiet. She inhaled and exhaled, deeply, slowly, focusing her attention on her breath instead of the throbbing in her foot. She’d achieved a steady rhythm when a long hiss from the shadows broke her concentration.
“Splendid work, my dear. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you had genuine feelings for the brute.”
Nadzia jerked toward the speaker and squealed at a fresh spasm of pain. “What are you doing here?”
“Keeping an eye on our champion, what else?” Veles emerged, a snake barely a foot high and sandy-colored, nearly invisible against the stones surrounding the fireplace. He writhed and swelled until he gained his regular black-and-gold form. “Truly, you are even better than we expected. My brother is completely in your thrall. This,” he said, motioning at her foot, “is a nice touch.”
“I didn’t fall on purpose.”
“Of course not.” Veles winked and slithered to the cabinet by the bed. “Nonetheless, just think of how attentive your stormy god will be while you’re bedridden. Wait and see. I expect he’ll finish his temple visits in a few hours, not days. No more dancing girls or drunken jags with his priests. Not when there’s a lovelorn girl pining for his care.”
Nadzia stared at the flickering candles. She didn’t mind Perun hovering over her—his concern was rather sweet. Endearing, if she was being honest. But her skin crawled at the thought of Veles making note of her every move. She sucked in a breath, horrified at the idea that he’d positioned himself in the cottage without her knowledge. “You . . . you haven’t been here . . . not while . . .?”
“Please.” A slow shudder rippled across the god of the Underworld’s scales. “I’d rather gouge out my eyes than watch the two of you mate.”
“You might have told me this was part of the plan. I don’t like being kept in the dark. And I don’t like being shadowed. Don’t you trust me?”
Veles flicked his tongue over black lips. “Peevishness doesn’t become you, my dear. Suffice it to say that we have too much invested to leave anything to chance. Besides, the abbess tells me you’re quite the sensual creature. Can’t have you mistaking lust for true affection, can we?”
“I know the difference.”
“Do you?” The slits in Veles’s eyes narrowed. “Then we needn’t worry that you’ll lose yourself playing his bride? We’re counting on you to weaken him, not fall in love. Don’t forget he’s a killer.”
Nadzia matched his gaze. Maybe his group of conspirators really did want someone to keep track of her. She had their support, they deserved to know if she was making progress in return. Yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that Veles had chosen to spy on his own. His raging hatred for the god of storms took precedence over all but the urge to see his brother destroyed. A brother, she was learning, who possessed qualities that Veles could never appreciate. “I know what he did, and I haven’t forgotten my promise. That doesn’t give you the right to pry.”
“Think of me as a friendly overseer,” Veles said with a fang-tipped grin. “We’ve little time left, and we need assurances that all is progressing as it should.”
Nadzia traced a dolphin on her quilt. “Have I given you reason to think otherwise?”
“In words, no. You do seem more . . . comfortable than I’d like.”
“I won’t get far if Perun thinks I’m ill at ease in his company. He’s supposed to want me, desire me to the point of abandoning caution. Isn’t that the plan? I can hardly break down his barriers by keeping my distance.” She pursed her lips, allowed herself a small measure of annoyance. “You would do well to keep in mind my years of training at the convent. I’m well prepared. I know what I’m doing. If you can’t see that, then you are blinded by animosity. My actions speak for themselves.”
Veles’s lips twitched into a familiar smirk. “Such a dear, dear girl. I can’t wait for the moment my brother realizes you’ve betrayed him.”
Voices neared. Two figures—one large, one small—passed the cottage window, dimming the moonlight filtering through the panes. Veles slipped back to his shadowy corner, shrinking as he moved, his scales changing to match the color of the hearth stones. “Continue as you will. Just remember, I’m here.”
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
Image of Scheherazade: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Thousand_and_One_Nights#/media/File:Ferdinand_Keller_-_Scheherazade_und_Sultan_Schariar_(1880).jpg