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Jubilant in the company of a most wondrous companion, Perun thought he’d banished all misgivings about the Order of Bursztyn, only to have them erupt full-blown at the mention of Nadzia’s sisters. He glanced at her as they walked along the river in the fading light and hoped his smile masked the turmoil within, nagging for attention like a pesky fly. She glowed as bright as his pendant, a sure sign of the devotion he happily returned.
He looked away, afraid to speak of his qualms and give them substance. Nothing in her behavior warranted skepticism. Why, then, did he fret? Other than the handmaiden’s gossip, he had no reason to believe Nadzia or anyone from the convent wished him harm. Perhaps centuries-old doubts still taunted him. Perhaps he truly was a monster who didn’t deserve joy.
Yet he could have sworn that Nadzia had tensed at the news as well.
He studied her as they crested the slope leading to their cottage. As lovely as ever, burnished skin glowing in the sunset, lively eyes finding delight in all she perceived. A treasure beyond compare. How could such a woman wish him ill? She caught his stare and tugged him to a stop. “Are my clothes in disarray?” she asked with a playful smile. “My hair rumpled?”
“You are perfection incarnate, my love. Your beauty is even more striking in the sunset. I am the most fortunate of gods.” Perun gathered her black curls in both hands and pulled her close for a long, sweet kiss that sent his heart soaring.
“And I am the luckiest of mortals,” she said breathlessly when they finally parted.
Perun traced the line of her jaw. She leaned into his touch. Weariness etched her face as she yawned, half asleep. He scowled and cursed himself for not perceiving her exhaustion, thinking she clung to him out of affection. “Forgive me, Nadzia. We went too far. I should have turned back earlier.”
“Nonsense. I was bored of being housebound. And I had the best of companions. Even better once Mokosh left us at the dock.” She squeezed his arm. “A quick nap, a small meal, and then the night is ours.”
“At least allow me to carry you.”
“Absolutely not,” Nadzia said with a firm shake of her head. “I’m tired, not an invalid. Lend me your arm and I’ll be fine.”
Perun took extra care to ensure Nadzia didn’t stumble as they began their descent into the meadow, the flowers slanting westward toward the day’s final, golden light. She halted after a few steps, her breath ragged. “Were you expecting anyone?” she whispered hoarsely.
He looked down the path. Rodzenica, dressed in gilded robes, stood at the cottage door. There was no mistaking Nadzia’s distress this time. Perun felt the thundering of her heart as she pressed against him. He answered reluctantly, sensing his response would add to her alarm. “No, I’m surprised as you. Mother rarely leaves the Tree of Life.”
Nadzia’s nails dug into his arm. “Have I offended her in some way? I thought our visit went well.”
“As did I.” Perun used his eagle vision to inspect the queen of the gods from afar. Her posture—the regal bearing she bore effortlessly—suggested nothing out of the ordinary. But a quiet storm raged in her violet eyes. She met his gaze, squinted. The tempest receded. He patted Nadzia’s hand, anxious to put her at ease. “She’s waving, do you see? That’s a good sign. Hold tight, you’ll be fine.”
The goddess greeted them with a strained smile. “I heard my daughter was injured,” she said, her pale forehead creasing. “It appears I was misinformed.”
“Not at all,” Nadzia said with a deep curtsey. “I’m nearly mended, thanks to your son’s excellent care.”
Rodzenica’s brows relaxed. “You’ve brought out his gentler side. The Fates chose well.”
“I would ask you to come in,” Perun said, opening the door, “but Nadzia needs to rest. Let me help her to bed and then we can talk.”
He found Rodzenica wading through the grasses, her arms lifted as if to embrace the growing darkness. “Some say the sun breaching the horizon is a more glorious spectacle,” she said, hugging herself as she turned to face him, “but I prefer the twilight. You can feel magic in the air.”
“I agree, nothing matches the magnificence of the moon and the stars,” Perun hesitated, waited for her to say more, grew impatient at her silence. “Even so,” he said finally, “I’d wager you didn’t come all this way to discuss the heavens.”
Her laugh was short and without mirth. “My clever son. Take me to your temple.”
They walked in the gathering gloom, owls swooping around them in search of a meal. Perun’s mood turned black as the night. Rodzenica had promised to let him know if he faltered in his courtship and then give him a chance to make things right before the wedding. He couldn’t think of any action on his part that might have irked his mother, save that one incident when he lost his temper at the barn. But that happened days ago. Why wait to chastise him?
The granite eagles guarding his temple’s entry shuddered to life, ruby eyes flashing as they came alive and left their posts, preening, a response evoked whenever Rodzenica visited. She murmured, stroked their feathers, and gently urged them back into place, where they settled with contented warbles and turned back into stone.
Inside, a night breeze ruffled the curtains on Nadzia’s abandoned room. Rodzenica harrumphed at the empty bed—she’d helped Perun design the space—and made her way past the central fire. She sat stiff-backed in his throne and motioned for him to take the other. He bit back his irritation at being relegated to Nadzia’s seat, a chair too small for his bulk, yet knew better than to start a quarrel with his mother. He perched on the edge of one arm. “What brings you to Kaunas? Have I been errant in my wooing?”
“From what I have seen, no, although I confess my observations have been sporadic. Matters other than yours require my attention.” Rodzenica paused and smiled at him fondly, an occasion so rare Perun’s cheeks flushed with pleasure. “You’ve made me proud, my son. You deserve every happiness.”
Her smile faded into silence as she stared mutely at the fire. Flames crackled and sent crimson sparks up through the open dome. She pressed a hand against her brow and gathered breath, as if what she needed to say required uncommon effort. “I have come because Dievas told me about the rumors you shared with him. How the daughters of the mermaid goddess plot against us.”
Perun slapped the side of his chair. “Why would my father speak of that? He mocked me when I shared Gabi’s tale, dismissed it as idle talk, and said my fears were baseless. He gave them no credence and advised me to do the same.”
“I found him in his room, clasping the vial that holds the divine essence he siphoned from Jūratė after the trial. He was grumbling about betrayal. I tried to comfort him, urged him to look forward to the ceremony that would heal bygone sorrows and bring us joy.” Rodzenica sighed, her pale face harrowed. “That’s when I learned of your handmaiden’s story.”
“Surely it’s nothing more than a mortal fiction,” Perun said, struggling to keep his tone light, “a fabrication meant to impress a naïve girl. I believed it once, before Nadzia arrived, but she’s everything I hoped for and more. The idea that she would be elsewise makes no sense. Why would the Fates choose a woman who didn’t wish to be my mate?”
Rodzenica held out her hands, the fingers curved like talons. “I raised the same argument with your father.”
“He laughed bitterly and said the Fates had not foreseen Jūratė death, why should he trust them now?”
“But you examined the pendant when we came to the Tree of Life,” Perun argued, pushing away from his chair and pacing the stones in front of the fire. “You found nothing amiss. Why won’t he accept your judgment?”
“Ah, that first encounter. Dievas says his memory of it is clouded, as is my own.” Rodzenica’s eyes grew hazy, her body soft, as she slipped into the past. “I remember a stillness in the air when Nadzia spoke of her feelings for you. As though time itself was suspended. As though she held us enthralled.”
Perun tamped down a surge of anger. His father had belittled Gabi’s story, why return to it now? To assuage his guilt over banishing the mermaid goddess? Dievas had seen Nadzia but once. He had no business interfering. “You forget, Mother, she is gifted with a mermaid’s voice. I would be surprised if we hadn’t felt charmed.”
“She was lovely to listen to, wasn’t she?” Rodzenica said with a hint of melancholy. “Almost as if my beloved daughter was standing before me again.”
Tears pooled in her eyes. “Dievas has charged me with testing your bride. I wish he would abandon these foolish conjectures and let us move forward in happy anticipation. But he insists. I assure you, I do not relish the task.”
“Nadzia hasn’t the power to overcome the magic you embedded in my stone. Bring the pendant to my father. Show him how brightly the amber shines. What other proof does he require?”
“I can only attest to the stone’s veracity when Nadzia is wearing it.”
“Go to the cottage and look now. She’s fast asleep, she won’t notice you’re there.”
Rodzenica twisted the jeweled bracelets on her forearm. “She must be fully alert for my examination. And she must come to me alone.”
“You can’t . . .” Perun choked. “You can’t mean to stand her before the Creator of all and let him berate her. I won’t allow it.”
“Rest easy, my son. Dievas promised to let me talk to the girl in private.”
“You don’t know what he’ll do once she’s there.”
“Is that not so of any situation, mortal or divine?” Rodzenica’s lips thinned. “Have faith. I have asked the god of the Underworld to distract your father at the proper time, and we are both well aware that Veles is a master at creating turmoil.”
Perun harrumphed and spit in the fire. “A singular talent.”
“Be thankful he has agreed to cooperate. I can count on him to give me the time I need.” Rodzenica stood, shook out her robes. “Nadzia must have no clue as to my intentions. If she asks the purpose of our meeting, say only that I want a chance to know her better before the wedding.”
“Will you keep her long?”
“Until I am satisfied. If I find her free of guile, I will send her back to you. If not . . .” A single tear trailed down Rodzenica’s cheek. She let it fall, shut her eyes. When she opened them, their gaze was hard and cold. “If not, she will be brought before the Immortal Council on charges of treason.”
Perun took his mother’s hands. “Then I will look for her return. I swear on my life, Mother, you will find, as you did before, that all is well. Nadzia’s heart is true.”
Daylight spilled into the cottage, accentuating the copper gleams in Perun’s hair. Nadzia watched from the bed as he sat hunched at the corner table, his fingers drumming against the top, oblivious to the field outside their window springing to life with radiant blossoms. What had made him restless? She thought back to the odd scene yesterday at sunset, Rodzenica waiting at their door. If the greatest of the goddesses rarely left her home at the Tree of Life, as Perun claimed, something momentous must have spurred a visit to Kaunas. Something that had turned Perun’s gaze inward.
She rustled the sheets to draw his attention and stretched languidly. “I didn’t mean to sleep all night. Did you have a pleasant visit with your mother?”
Perun swiveled and stood, his smile at odds with the fire smoldering in his eyes. He walked to the edge of the bed, let Nadzia draw him down for a kiss, and settled beside her atop the quilt. “She was pleased that we are getting along so well.”
Nadzia reached up to smooth his forehead. “Then why are you frowning?”
He took her hand and gently traced the lines in her palm. The tension in his face eased for a moment, then returned. “Dearest Nadzia. Are you content?”
She puzzled over his response, the quiet distress behind his words, what Rodzenica might have said or done to kindle his doubts. “Of course I’m happy. I thank the Fates each day for my new life.”
“They gave you no choice. They forced you to accept me. How could anyone want to spend eternity with a killer?”
An ache began in the back of Nadzia’s throat. She heard guilt in his tone, recalled how he chastised himself for always causing harm, whatever his intent. Either she’d failed to convince him that atonement expiated his sins and offered new hope, or Rodzenica had somehow dredged up the past and plunged her son back into remorse.
“I thought you understood. I grieve for Jūratė, but I accept her death. It was an accident. Why does it trouble you so?”
A flame of color reddened Perun’s cheeks. He cleared his throat and spoke so softly she had to bend close to hear the words. “Because I don’t want you with me against your will.”
Nadzia drew back, struck dumb with astonishment. He cared about how she felt? She studied him through her lashes, taking note of how he waited, barely breathing. As if what she said next might break him. This wasn’t the belligerent monster the convent had taught her to despise. This was an uncertain god, vulnerable, needy.
Before Kaunas, when her goal was avenging the mermaid goddess, when all she had to guide her was an abbess consumed by bitterness, Nadzia might have celebrated Perun’s anguish, used his pain to strengthen her hold over him. Now she only wanted to comfort him. She lifted his chin and waited until his eyes met hers. “I’m here, now and always.”
He nodded, expelled a shuddering breath, and opened his arms to embrace her. “And I with you, my love.”
She snuggled against him, her skin heating as he stroked the top of her shoulder and planted soft kisses along her neck. Anticipating a morning of pleasure, she arched against him. He threw aside the covers, grinning, pulled off his robes and loin cloth. Their limbs intertwined, grew slick with sweat, the rhythm of their coupling at a fevered pitch when a strident caw pierced the wall.
Perun looked up, growling, and then flinched. Nadzia followed his gaze, confused. An enormous bird with glossy black feathers and a long, wedge-shaped tail hovered outside the window. It rapped the glass three times with a curved, bristled beak, and flew off.
Nadzia tugged back the sheets, suddenly chilled. Only the gods used giant ravens as messengers. But this one left without delivering a note. She curled forward and looked questioningly at Perun as the grooves in his brow returned, twice as deep. The amber at her chest tingled. “Why,” she asked, wishing the question could remain unanswered, “was that bird here?”
Perun bolted from the bed, gathered his clothes, and headed for the door, his cheeks newly inflamed. “A reminder. My mother would like to see you today. I’ll get your breakfast.”
He dashed out like a man with a wildcat on his tail. Nadzia swallowed, her mouth dry as dust. First Rodzenica showed up unannounced, now a summons. She reached for the pitcher kept on top of her cabinet, poured a glass of water, sipped until her throat was soothed, then kneeled against the mattress with a pillow against her mouth and screamed.
But not for long. She needed to keep her voice supple, ready to temper the goddess’s suspicions. If not for Perun’s agitation, she might have believed this a social call, mother and daughter getting to know one another better. His nervousness was a clarion trumpeting bad news. Well, there was nothing for it. She could hardly refuse.
She yanked open her cabinet, chose a gown red as blood, and fixed her hair, braiding it with a white ribbon. Perun came back, holding a tray with plates of eggs and cheese and bread, a jar of honey, and a pot of tea. He placed the food on the table and gazed at her wistfully. “You look stunning, my love. Do you need anything else before I leave?”
Nadzia swayed, her muscles suddenly weak. “You’re not coming with me?”
“Mother wishes to see you alone.” Perun tugged the sleeves of his robes and stared at the stone floor. “I must return to my duties, as well as consult with Adomas and Mokosh about accommodations for our wedding guests. We want to be certain there are sufficient provisions for all.”
“Of course.” Nadzia sat absently in the chair Perun held out for her, her mind lost in supposition, and picked at her food. The cook, bless her, had provided ginger tea, good for settling nerves. Nadzia drank one cup, then another, her anxiety ebbing. Whatever lay ahead, she could always wield the magic of her siren’s voice. She’d pitched her words carefully, intent on mesmerizing, and seen Rodzenica’s eyes cloud during their first encounter at the Tree of Life. She could enchant the goddess again in a heartbeat if needed.
If? She stifled a caustic laugh. Whatever Rodzenica’s concerns, they would most certainly have to be appeased, as sweetly as possible. Nadzia filled a spoon with honey and licked it clean, readying her throat for a prolonged conversation.
Perun pecked at her cheek. She gave him a half-smile as he fled, and then stood, pulled back her shoulders, and made her way to the barn. Minutes later, she was in the sky, her heart thudding with every sweep of Salomeya’s wings.
The Tree of Life emerged from a bank of fluffy clouds. Nadzia guided her horse to the same landing as before. A soothing melody filled the air, a steady hum that reminded her of the hives Sister Bronis tended at the convent. Bees symbolized friendship among mortals in Lithuania. Perhaps their music was also a sign of goodwill from the gods. But Nadzia didn’t see any nests. Was this an enchantment meant for her ears only?
She tethered Salomeya to a post bordered by magenta roses with six petals. Perun’s flowers. Their heady fragrance left her dizzy, as it had on the beach when he first arrived. She paused at a nearby bench and pinched her arm until pain sharpened her senses. She was not about to engage the gods with anything less than a clear mind.
The golden doors opened silently as she approached. Babilas, the fat, hairy god of beekeeping and fertility, greeted her with a slice of honeycomb, the bottom wrapped in white linen. “Welcome, daughter of Jūratė! I thought you might like a little treat.” He patted his bulging belly. “Can’t keep up at court on an empty stomach.”
“Thank you.” Nadzia eyed the golden sweet dubiously. It looked harmless, yet she hadn’t forgotten Jūratė’s counsel to treat everyone with suspicion. “Forgive me if my question seems brash, but I thought the gods didn’t eat.”
“It is a matter of personal preference,” Babilas said. “We are allowed to partake in the offerings left by our disciples. Most of us are content with nectar, but I see no reason for good food to go to waste.”
He bent closer and lowered his voice. “A bit of advice if you don’t mind. My brethren await inside. They—”
“What?” Nadzia peered into the empty hall. “I’m here to see Rodzenica.”
Babilas cleared his throat. “My apologies for the confusion. When word got out that you were coming, my brethren insisted on being in attendance. Try not to worry. Just remember to show respect, however an Immortal treats you. Although I’m happy you’ve joined us—the more the merrier, I say—there are those who have not forgiven Perun for killing Jūratė, and they begrudge him any happiness.”
Nadzia’s stomach dropped like a stone. “But the Divine Council found him innocent. Why would anyone take issue with me?”
“Perun was spared exile and death because Dievas refused to condemn him,” Babilas explained. “That decision did not meet with universal favor. Some believe he never suffered for his actions. They will be quick to disparage you.”
“Jūratė was a true friend to me. I can do no less for her daughter. Take a bite of my honeycomb if you feel weak. A little crunch of sweetness will help take the sting out of any insults, although I expect those who truly despise Perun will make their displeasure known by simply keeping away. Ready?”
Nadzia clung to Babilas as he escorted her through the hall, the white walls like sheets of ice chilling her blood. They stopped at the door that opened to the throne room. Her knees buckled at the sight of so many Immortals in one place. She nibbled at the honeycomb. A surge of strength followed. “Thank you,” she said, “wiping her lips. “I do feel better.”
Babilas patted her arm and announced their arrival in a booming voice. “Brothers and sisters, I give you Nadzia, the newest member of our family.”
About thirty gods and goddesses were in attendance with perhaps a dozen or so seats unoccupied. They crowded the aisle as Babilas guided Nadzia to the main dais. She smiled at them all, determined to ignore any hostile mutterings. Her resolve wavered when she passed the Zoryas, the hauntingly beautiful architects of dawn and dusk, one clad in orange robes, the other swathed in purple.
The morning goddess wrinkled her nose. “She isn’t half the beauty Jūratė was. No luster to her skin.”
“What did you expect?” her sister said with a sniff. “Our brother is so desperate he’ll take anything the sea spits out.”
Mokosh pushed past them and raised her flower-tattooed hands. “A new goddess is a treasure,” she said, her voice as sweet as a lark’s trill. “A blessing to us all. Welcome, Nadzia. May you know peace and harmony in our world.”
Nadzia’s eyes brimmed at the applause and cheers that followed Mokosh’s words. “Almost there,” Babilas said, beaming. “You’re doing well.”
They were nearing the aisle’s end when Veles glided into their path. He toyed with a small chunk of amber dangling from a leather thong around his neck. “Pretty, isn’t it? A gift from the collection I’ve allowed Jūratė to keep within my realm. She does love her jewels.”
He leaned forward, baring a fang-tipped smile. “You’ll need a champion at court while your husband is busy with his cloudbursts. I’m happy to offer my assistance. If you can’t find me here, simply call my name three times. I’ll be at your side before the last note ends.”
“You can travel that fast?” Nadzia struggled to keep her tone light. If Veles could come and go in the blink of an eye, he could continue spying undetected. She bit her lips, itching to know if the cabal had come to a decision, yet unable to ask in so public a venue.
“Never doubt the power of the gods,” he replied with a smirk. “We don’t.”
Babilas frowned and drew her forward, beyond the carpeted area onto the marble floor inset with gems. “Mustn’t tarry. Your hosts will be offended.”
He positioned her before the royal thrones, kissed her brow, and moved aside. Dievas and Rodzenica glowed so brightly Nadzia wondered if the divine honey she’d tasted had distorted her vision. Wasn’t she supposed to be meeting with one, not both? She dropped into a deep curtsey and arranged her face into what she hoped was a servile expression, calm and detached. “Your majesties. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Rodzenica waved an arm. “Your brethren have waited long for your coming. They badgered me to allow them a glimpse before the wedding. I trust their curiosity has been sated, for there is a matter I would discuss with you in private.”
Cries of indignation filled the room. Rodzenica held out her hand, silencing the clamor. “Indulge me, my darlings. I suggest you prepare for the wedding. Your father and I expect to see you attired in your finest garments. Do not disappoint us.”
A conciliatory Dievas led his grumbling children through a set of side doors into another chamber with glowing lamps suspended mid-air and long tables bearing pitchers of nectar. Veles lingered at the doorway. He held up three fingers, mouthed his name, and blew a kiss. Moments later, he burst out, Dievas’s crown in hand, his father shouting in heated pursuit.
Rodzenica smoothed her robes. “You must be parched from your journey. My son tells me you are fond of our brew. I keep a private vintage for special occasions. Will you join me?”
A pale servant emerged from the shadows carrying a pair of ruby-studded goblets on a crystalline tray. Nadzia accepted one, took the tiniest of sips. She’d barely swallowed when the walls lurched. She stared at the glass in her hand, watched the red jewels billow and recede. Exactly what did this private brew contain?
Drops of honey slid down her fingers. She licked them clean, an awkward motion that earned a disapproving tsk from the queen. The swaying eased. Invigorating warmth oozed through her. She wondered, briefly, if Babilas belonged to the cabal working with the convent. He’d certainly anticipated the need for an antidote to Rodzenica’s brew. Strange, how her allies showed their support. She roused herself, remembered her manners. “Thank you, Your Highness. This is delicious.”
Rodzenica drained her cup and waited for the servant to remove it. “You need not stand on ceremony with me. Call me Mother, and please, make yourself comfortable.” She curled a finger. The mermaid goddess’s throne rose above the others, drifted through the air, and settled behind Nadzia.
“I’m not divine,” she protested, reluctant to take a chair she didn’t deserve. “This belongs to Jūratė, not me.”
“You will soon join our ranks,” Rodzenica insisted. “Best learn how to comport yourself from a seat of honor. We expect a regal demeanor.”
Nadzia set her goblet on one armrest, fully covered her honeycomb before placing it on the other, and then eased into the seat, keeping her spine erect. A goddess didn’t slouch.
Rodzenica folded her hands in her lap and studied Nadzia with lively violet eyes. “Are you comfortable? Good. I want you to always feel at ease with me. No need for a performance like the other morning.”
Nadzia swallowed in a throat gone dry. She grabbed the nectar and gulped a mouthful, heedless of drops dribbling down her chin. Waves of heat rippled through her body, turned her limbs to rubber. She dropped the cup and groped for the honeycomb. Rodzenica knocked it out of reach. “Enough! You have partaken of my elixir and cannot lie. Tell me truly—do you care for my son?”
Fire raged through Nadzia’s veins. She summoned an image of the sea and breathed deep, fighting the magic that threatened to consume her. Don’t give in. Use your voice.
The haze dimming her thoughts lifted. She searched her mind, seized upon an indisputable response, and laced her words with loving sincerity. “He attends to me as no other has. I am moved by his ardor.”
A black cloud streaked with lightning seeped out from Rodzenica’s skin and surrounded the goddess. “Do not mock me. Mortals corrupted Jūratė. She broke my son’s heart. I will not allow her daughter to do the same. Perun deserves a wife who loves him. You came of age amongst a coven that prays for his downfall. How can you rise above such animosity?”
The air crackled around the queen. Tiny sparks swirled across her throne. Nadzia grabbed Perun’s jewel, determined not to show fear. The amber warmed to her touch. She took comfort in its steady beat, allowed herself precious moments to consider a reply. The future of the Order depended on her answer—not to mention her own safety. “You misjudge me, Mother,” she said in the most persuasive tone she could muster. “I’m not filled with hate. I swear by all I hold holy that Perun arouses deep emotions in me.”
“I know of the Order’s ritual for mating. It is forbidden to love your partners.”
“Perhaps, but our hearts don’t answer to rules,” Nadzia said, pressing a hand to her chest. “A novice who is drawn to one particular man learns to hide the truth of her sentiments.”
Rodzenica settled back in her chair with a mordant smile. “Then you are well practiced at deception.”
Fates be damned, she’s as bad as Veles at twisting words! Nadzia pulled back her shoulders and focused on a spot just above Rodzenica’s brows. “Your son is the only partner I will ever have, there is no reason to shield my feelings with him. I may lack the eloquence of the gods, but you have my word, I am bound to Perun as no other. Trust in the divine design that brought me here. I’m the one you’ve been waiting for, the one who will bring him joy.”
Rodzenica squinted at Nadzia’s pendant for a long moment, then closed her eyes and breathed a command. The tempest vanished. Her servant returned with two more goblets. The goddess drank deeply from one and settled the other in her lap. Her lips quirked. “I’m sure you understand the necessity of testing you, although I should have known the one chosen by the Fates would appreciate my son’s gentle side.”
“Yes, yes,” Nadzia agreed, anxious to keep the goddess content. “The calm between his storms.”
“It must be Jūratė’s blood in you, one divine nature attuning itself to another. Mortals are too fickle. Oh, they pray for our intervention, but they want to feel themselves masters of their own destiny.”
The chamber rang with the goddess’s derisive laughter. “Can you imagine the chaos if humans were free to lead lives they chose? No, the world is best ruled by the Immortals. Only fools resist.”
Nadzia pushed down the fury swelling in her breast. This wasn’t the time to argue about the wisdom of the gods. The nectar was loosening the regent’s tongue. She pretended to sip and waited for her to continue.
Rodzenica finished her third goblet and licked her lips. “You certainly made it easy. I told Perun if he treated you badly I would not make him whole again, but you have a wonderfully obliging disposition. It took little effort on his part before you were smitten. If I harbored misgivings, you have eased them. Bless you, my daughter. You have saved my son.”
Nadzia lowered her eyes, focused on the jewels sparkling on the goddess’s fingers. The words Gabi had overheard sprouted fresh in her mind: She must love me before it’s too late.
Blood pounded in her ears. She recalled their days together: his easy affection, the pleasure he took in her company, his devotion to her wellness after she was injured. She’d sensed no guile or dishonesty in him, assumed his endearments were heart-felt, even found herself warming to him with a genuine affection that put her at odds with the convent’s goal.
Yet all along he’d been playing her, his performance as skilled and proficient as any actor from the troupes that visited Palanga during its yearly festival. How could she have been so blind? The god of storms didn’t care for her, he only wanted his divine life back.
And she’d just ensured his immortality.
The Tree of Life disappeared behind its cloak of dense mist. Nadzia emerged into a pristine blue sky, the afternoon sun at her back, shrieking and sobbing. Lies, schemes—how could she trust anyone? She gritted her teeth at the irony. A novice trained to deceive could hardly cast stones at others. True enough, but that didn’t stop the tears coursing down her cheeks. She’d actually believed Perun had genuine feelings for her, never dreamed he would assume a role to further his own ends.
Her chest burned with shame, anger, grief. Under the influence of Rodzenica’s elixir, she’d spoken her heart: after twelve days with Perun, she truly felt a bond with him, thought him a kindred soul longing for love. Stupid, stupid girl!
She could thwart everyone’s plans right now, release her hold on Salomeya’s mane, and plummet to the earth in a final act of defiance. But the gods would surely punish the Order of Bursztyn if she took her own life. She couldn’t put her sisters at risk simply because she despised her fate. Heartsick or not, she still had an oath to fulfill.
Eyes streaming in the wind, she seized the stone at her breast. The daylight shimmered and a vision appeared, edged in black: Nadzia on a pyre, consumed by flames and then rising again, renewed, like the legendary Firebird. When the image vanished, she wept with gratitude. She wasn’t an ordinary novice, she was Fates-chosen, a woman capable of breaking through pain and betrayal to forge a new path. If Perun was a master of delusion, she would use the power of her voice to unmask him.
The sword of destiny has two edges. You are one of them.
Time to sharpen the blade.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski