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After he left the cottage, Perun changed into an eagle and took shelter in an oak near his temple to watch Nadzia fly off on her magic steed. He toyed with the idea of following her, finding a place to roost while Rodzenica tested her, surprising her when she emerged victorious. They could go back to Kaunas together, jubilant in their mutual love.
But his mother had insisting on seeing Nadzia alone. If he wanted to know what transpired between them, he needed a legitimate reason to explain his presence at the Tree of Life. He ruffled his feathers, eyes locked on Nadzia until she became a speck in the sky, and wished he could express how important she’d become to him. He was no bard able to recite melodious tales of love. The prospect of a speech at their marriage ceremony set his stomach fluttering, his muscles twitching.
He took a breath, released it with a throaty warble. His sister, Lada, goddess of love and harmony, she could help. And she provided a plausible excuse should his mother discover him. Excellent. He gave a low kuk-kuk of satisfaction, spread his wings, and took flight.
Fragrant honeysuckle vines draped the entrance to Lada’s room. A large fountain burbled in the center, its gentle murmur augmented by the cooing of doves perched upon the branches of potted orange trees in one corner. The goddess echoed their calls while gathering roses from bushes massed on the opposite side of the room. Her corn-silk hair, circled with a band of crystal jewels, flowed to voluptuous hips moving sinuously under a white gown trimmed with gold.
She raised a hand in greeting when Perun appeared at her door and motioned for him to join her at a table near the birds, where she deposited her bouquet next to a moss-green vase. “This is a pleasant surprise, brother. I did not expect to see you until the wedding.”
Her tone, calm and peaceful, filled him with hope. “Nor I,” he said, his face growing hot. “Mokosh suggested I compose a poem to Nadzia to read at the ceremony, but I have no idea where to begin.”
“There are ways to express love other than poetry. Simple, heartfelt prose is equally strong. What do you find most endearing about your novice?”
“Her voice,” Perun answered without hesitation.
Lada nodded as she snipped off thorns and arranged the flowers in a striking display, the vibrance of their scarlet blossoms a perfect contrast to the muted hues of the vase. “I’m sure it’s gorgeous, but you must think beyond appearance or natural traits. There is more to Nadzia than how she speaks or sings.”
She paused, gave him a piercing stare. “What do you feel for her?”
“I’m grateful she’s given me the chance to love again.”
“Don’t play with me brother. If you wish my help, you must explore your deepest emotions. Why do you care for this daughter of Jūratė?”
Perun clenched his fists, remembered he’d come uninvited, and released them. He pictured Nadzia tousled in bed, walking beside him along the river and in the fields, teaching him to control his anger, reading and acting out stories, her ease with the gardener. “She is sensual, kind, lively, warm. My heart soars when I’m with her. I want to bring her as much happiness as she’s brought me.”
Lada’s eyes brimmed with tears as she clutched Perun’s hand. “Dearest brother. Long have I watched you grieve, mourned the jealousy that drove you to foul deeds. Now I see you understand the true nature of love: giving is as important as receiving.”
She released her hold and murmured. A stack of vellum sheets, a pot of ink, and a quill pen appeared on the table. “Write from you heart and you’ll do fine,” she said, pushing the items across to Perun. “Don’t rush the words. Take your time.”
Hours later, after dozens of false starts and crumpled pages, Perun stood at the door clutching a scroll wrapped with a purple ribbon. He reached for his sister, embraced her warmly. “Bless you, Lada. I couldn’t have done this alone.”
“Do not grant me too much acclaim,” she answered, her face blushing as red as the flowers in her room. “I only drew out what was waiting to be expressed.”
She walked him outside to the limb that served as a landing. After he morphed into eagle guise, she secured his parchment in one talon and stroked his tawny feathers, smiling as he carefully rubbed his golden beak against her hands. “Safe travels,” she said, then stepped back and faded, leaving behind the scent of sweet roses.
Perun spread his wings, ready to depart, when a blast of hot wind knocked him off balance. He shook himself upright, flustered, and cawed weakly as his mother appeared where Lada had just stood. His chest tightened. Did she bring good news or bad?
Her radiant face melted his apprehensions. “You were right, my son. Nadzia’s heart is true. She has returned to your home. Go to her now. Be the loving companion she deserves.”
Perun descended into a sky bright with late afternoon sun. He flew in loops, upside down, sideways, giddy with relief. Nadzia loved him and he was on the cusp of opening his heart to her. He couldn’t wait to sweep her into his arms, cover every inch of her luscious body with kisses. He glanced down at the parchment in his claws. Why wait until the wedding? He could declare himself now and let Nadzia choose if she wanted to keep his words private or share them at the ceremony.
Through a break in the clouds, he spotted their cottage, the roses surrounding its door a promise of the beauty within. It was a pleasant abode, yet he wanted a more majestic spot for this momentous occasion. Why not spend the rest of the day however she wished, then leave at dusk and ride to his stars above the convent? He’d planned to take her there anyway. Now their trip would hold added meaning.
He landed outside his temple, changed back into the god of storms, and strode to the entry. The two stone guardians glowed at his approach. He took a moment to stroke their heads, grateful to have such dependable sentries. Once inside, he stopped at the mermaid goddess’s shrine, knelt, and lit a candle. “I swear to love her faithfully,” he vowed. “Until the end of time.”
His eternal fire flared, acknowledging his oath. He stood and surveyed the space. If he wanted to surprise Nadzia, he had to hide his speech until evening. As far as he knew, she hadn’t been here since moving out, but he couldn’t take chances. He hurried to his throne and tucked the manuscript between two slats crossing beneath the seat. Perfect.
He wiped sweat from his brow, remembered Nadzia’s comments about his muskiness. Most likely, she’d be ready for a swim, too, if for no other reason than to escape the heat. There were a number of places along the river where they could relax. He grinned and set off to find her.
Ludvika hailed him from the junction where the path from the temple cut across the trail to the cottages. She held a basket filled with glistening strawberries. “Good afternoon, master,” she said with a deep curtsey. “You’re looking well.”
“It’s a fine day, isn’t it? I hope Gabi is faring better. Are those for her? Here, allow me to help you.”
The cook’s brows shot up as she handed over the fruit and smoothed the front of her apron. “Yes to both your questions. I believe she’ll be fully healed by the time you wed.”
“Excellent. I look forward to seeing both of you in the grove.” Perun quickly assessed his servant’s garb. “If you need clothes for the occasion, I’m happy to provide whatever you wish. You and Gabi deserve a reward for all your hard work.”
Ludvika’s mouth quirked. “A silk gown and matching shoes?”
“You shall have them.” Perun entrusted the basket back to the cook’s care as they reached the porch of her house. “Good day to you, madam. And give my best to Gabi.”
He turned, ready to leave, halted at the pull of Ludvika’s hand on his arm. “If you’re seeking Nadzia, she’s at the pier. I believe her sisters have arrived.”
A day earlier, Perun would have faltered at this information. Now he could hardly wait to greet the novices and Elders. They would soon be family, after all. He continued on his way, a new lightness in his step, whistling as he walked.
Adomas worked at the dock unloading bags and boxes and bringing them to the area Nadzia had reserved for the convent, a shady spot with soft grasses, close to the river and pier. Three white tents—one for the abbess, another for the Elders, and a third for the novices—rippled in the breeze. A circle of six blue-robed women stood before them. They turned in unison at Perun’s approach, their faces bright with curiosity and a trace of weariness.
All save one. A girl with hair like burning coals and green eyes that devoured him from head to toe. She opened her mouth, wet her lips, smiled an invitation. Perun sputtered to a halt. Who was this vixen?
Nadzia slipped through the ring and rushed to his side. “Do you mind waiting a bit to meet my sisters?” she asked, nuzzling his cheek. “They’re rather fatigued.”
“Not at all.” He swiveled away from the novice silently daring him to respond. “We can use the time to freshen up in the river.”
“They intend to do the same. Let’s take the road south. We’ll have more privacy.”
They walked a short way to a bend secluded by a copse of trees, where they splashed and lingered until the water held more shadow than sun. Perun collapsed against a birch on the riverbank and patted for Nadzia to sit on his lap. He lifted her face to his, marveling at how deeply he’d come to care for her in so short a time. Everything he wanted was here.
Her fingers traveled up his arms to the nape of his neck. Sparks of pleasure radiated down his shoulders. He bent down and kissed her, gently, tenderly, breathing in her scent, fresh and clean with just a hint of a sea breeze.
“Nadzia,” he sighed. “How very dear you are to me.”
She pulled back and traced his lips, her eyes glistening, and then nestled in his arms, her limbs perfectly fitted to his. “Did you ever imagine such bliss?” she said. “I can scarcely believe my good fortune.”
He hesitated, debated silently whether to discuss the test she’d just endured. She loved him, everything else paled in comparison. Yet he had a burning desire to know the details. “I trust my mother wasn’t too harsh with you.”
“She mourns Jūratė, and she loves her son dearly. I don’t mind that she needed reassurance. I understand her concerns.”
“Even so, I shouldn’t have mentioned Gabi’s rumors. I should have known better.”
Nadzia tilted her face upright, a slight frown wrinkling her brow. “Rumors?”
“From the traders from Palanga who gossip with Gabi at the dock,” Perun said with a dismissive shake of his head. “Tellers of tall tales, trying to impress young girls too gullible to recognize truth from fiction. ”
Nadzia rested her head on his shoulder. “I love stories. What did these merchants say?”
“You are aware, I’m sure, that some call the Order of Bursztyn a coven of witches.”
“I may have heard that accusation a time or two.” Nadzia ran her fingers lightly across Perun’s stomach. “What evil acts are we accused of now?”
“Plotting against the gods. Sending me a bride who wishes me ill. Ouch, that hurts!” He gaped at the indentation left by Nadzia’s nail. “Why are you angry? I’m merely answering your question.”
“You knew of these lies before I arrived in Kaunas?” She pressed away from him and crossed her arms.
Perun looked out across the river, jaw clenched. Fool of a god! Why couldn’t he have let things be? He swallowed heavily before answering. “Yes.”
“So that’s why Gabi was always sneaking around. You let her spy on me.” Nadzia slumped, her eyes wet and dull. “I opened my heart to you. I thought your endearments sincere. But you doubted me all along.”
“Not you, my love, never you.” Perun reached for the pendant hanging at Nadzia’s breast. “I’m sorry, so very sorry. I should have trusted the magic in my jewel.”
Nadzia jerked the amber from his hand. She gripped its edges and huffed out a rasping sound—part moan, part laughter. “Your jewel . . . . Forgive me, but in all the excitement, I can’t recall how Rodzenica said it worked.”
“A simple enchantment on my mother’s part to help her gauge the truth of your feelings. The greater your affection, the stronger it beats.” Perun lifted Nadzia’s chin. “The stone cannot lie. You love me.”
Nadzia kissed him with what felt like desperation and then broke away, her attention drawn to the pendant as if mesmerized by its pulse. Her lips pinched together, then relaxed. She looked up at him again, surprise, wonder, and sorrow flickering across her face. “I do love you,” she murmured. “Fates save me, I do.”
She untangled herself and stretched. “It’s nearly twilight. Shall we go home?”
“Not yet. I have a surprise for you.”
The twinkle in Nadzia’s eyes returned. “Something good, I hope.”
“That would be telling.” Perun stood and extended a hand. “We may be gone for hours. Have your supper and then join me in the barn.”
They journeyed west, the air growing colder as the chariot climbed through the clouds. Perun checked on Nadzia constantly to make sure she stayed comfortable. Wrapped in a wool cloak, she showed little distress until ice crystals dotted her sleeves. Perun opened his robe, draped it around her, and rubbed her shoulders until her flesh warmed. She sighed with pleasure and wrapped her arms around his waist.
The carriage halted north of his constellation, a vantage point that gave them a heady view of the throbbing lights. Veils of hot air engulfed them. Nadzia eased out of Perun’s hold and unclasped her cloak, her eyes reflecting the wonders in the sky. “They’re so beautiful. Can we move closer, please?”
“Not while you are still mortal. The core of a star radiates a heat too intense for any but the gods.”
Nadzia leaned forward against the rail, tilting her head from side to side. She narrowed her eyes, and then let out an astonished gasp. “If you squint, the light separates into lines of color. I can see a spectrum, starting with red and ending at purple, like a rainbow, only more bewitching. Oh, it’s lovelier than I ever dreamed. What a wonderful treat!”
The necklace at her breast brightened and vibrated wildly, mimicking Perun’s heart. He pulled out his scroll, the paper threatening to slip through his sweat-slick hands and cleared his throat to get Nadzia’s attention. She twisted to face him, her eyes soft and filled with an inner glow. “Yes?”
“You may recall that I was urged to write something for our marriage ceremony. I’d like to share those words now.”
“You don’t want to wait?”
“Let me convey them to you alone, and then you can determine whether they need be spoken to an audience.”
“As you wish.”
Perun rolled out a kink in his neck and coughed. “The Fates promised me a bride beyond compare. They were wrong, for you are as beautiful as a starlit sky, as sweet as the gods’ own nectar. Your smile is a beacon that brightens my days and nights, your laugh a song that puts birds to shame. You are a jewel more precious than rubies or pearls.
“I thought the fire that once burned in my heart quenched for all time. What right did I—lowest of the low—have to seek anyone’s affection? Love is for those who deserve joy, not those who spill blood.
“But you offered a way forward. I was dead to the world and all its glories. You brought me back to life, accepting me, challenging me, delighting me, loving me. As I . . . as I have grown to love you. Whatever you wish, I will try to provide, for your happiness means the world to me.”
He caressed her cheeks, let his gaze fill with the emotion he’d kept locked away out of fear and loneliness. “My heart is yours, Nadzia, now and forever.”
Nadzia burst into tears when Perun finished his speech. She’d wanted him infatuated, yes, dazzled, even, but his words revealed a true binding. And his jewel, enchanted to reveal her true emotions, confirmed she felt the same. She burrowed in his arms, let him whisper sweet nothings as she wept, her heart torn between joy and despair.
During her training at the convent, the Elders dwelled upon the righteousness of vengeance for Jūratė’s murder. Day in, day out, the message never varied. They were engaged in a holy mission. Whoever called out the god of storms’ jewel would learn his weakness and then cripple or destroy him. A simple, straight-forward task.
No one envisioned the possibility that his Fates-chosen bride might find him endearing. Or that his affection would mean so much.
Nadzia stayed in his embrace and tried to sort out her tangled emotions as her sobs subsided. She should be angry at the way he and Rodzenica had tricked her. She should remember her vow, her duty to the Order of Bursztyn. Yet the hate she’d carried for as long as she could remember no longer held sway. For the first time in her life, she felt complete, content. But dread muted her elation. How was she going to convince the abbess that Perun was worthy of a second chance?
He kissed the top of her head and wiped her cheeks. “I hope those were happy tears.”
The longing, the need in his voice nearly set her weeping again. She reached up and pressed her palms against his face. A face suffused with love. “Your words make my heart sing.”
“Yet I see sadness in your eyes.”
“You mistake weariness for sorrow.” Nadzia dropped her hands and yawned. “The day has taken its toll. A good night’s sleep will refresh me.”
“Hold fast, then,” Perun said, wrapping one arm around her and flicking the reins with the other. “We’ll be home soon.”
Nadzia dozed as they flew back to the temple grounds. She dreamed of a wedding replete with jubilant guests, her sisters converted to a new appreciation of a god they once despised, a festive ceremony and feast unmarred by interruptions or animus.
The ox’s snorts and stomps upon landing roused her. She looked across the meadow to the Order’s white tents fluttering in the breeze, a heaviness in her chest. Visions of fellowship and merrymaking were all well and good. Achieving them was another matter.
Perun helped her step down, then took hold of his beast’s halter and called for the stable boy. “I won’t be long. Wait for me?”
Before Nadzia could respond, Adomas rushed up from the path leading to the river. “Forgive the interruption,” he said, bending over to catch his breath, “but several groups of your followers arrived while you were gone. They’re clamoring to see you. If you can spare a few minutes to greet them, I’ll help stow your chariot and animal.”
Perun glanced at Nadzia, as if seeking permission. She realized, belatedly, that there were other tents, other lights glimmering opposite the convent’s section. “Go,” she said, secretly grateful for the chance to be alone. “I’ll be in the temple at Jūratė’s altar.”
He rubbed his forearms, hesitating, his face tweaked with regret. “This may take a while. I must see that they’re properly situated and so forth. You don’t mind?”
“I did the same with my sisters,” she answered, kissing him lightly. “I’m afraid we won’t have much time to ourselves in the days to come.”
“Perhaps. You forget, we have the stars. No one can follow us there.”
“Until then, we have an obligation to those who have traveled here on our behalf.” Nadzia turned Perun around, gave him a light push. “Come back when you can. If I’ve left the temple, you’ll find me in bed.”
“Now there’s a prospect I look forward to.” Perun waved and strode toward the river.
Nadzia tilted her head skyward, rocked back and forth, hands pressed to her stomach. Voices raised in exultation carried across the grasses. She listened for a moment, pictured the god of storms jubilant amid a sea of well-wishers, and then made her way into the temple.
The stone eagles brightened as she approached. She patted their heads and smiled as their ruby eyes gleamed in response. Sleep beckoned, but first she needed to pray. She kneeled at Jūratė’s altar and lit a candle, wishing she had a way to summon her—the way the Elders did in the cave below the convent. The goddess would surely applaud the change in Nadzia’s feelings.
The flame quivered. Nadzia stared at the twinkling amber light and allowed her mind to drift in search of answers. Less than a week remained until the wedding, a pathetically short time to change the hearts and minds of women whose lives were dedicated to Perun’s downfall. They needed to see him at his best, as she had, a difficult undertaking given that she knew him with an intimacy others couldn’t hope to achieve. How to bring them together without suspicion or unease, that was the problem. Would they respond to chats around campfires, Perun with his nectar, the others with mead? Walks along the river?
She glanced up at the open dome. The stars glimmered, as if issuing an invitation. Why not invite her sisters, one by one, to travel in Perun’s chariot? She’d come along to mitigate any fears. He’d share his love of the heavens, reveal his charms. And what a thrill for them to fly all the way to the coast and glimpse Palanga from the sky!
It was a place to star, at the very least. An opportunity to convince her sisters they needn’t conspire. They could choose a different path. Unite in a new purpose. Create a future for themselves that didn’t include schemes or secret cabals. A world free of artifice.
Nadzia pushed herself upright, ready at last for bed. She moved back, pleasantly exhausted, and then stopped, muscles tensing, at the sound of hissing. A sour taste flooded her mouth. No, please, not now.
A black-and-gold snake wriggled out from the gifts piled beneath Perun’s altar and whirled into the god of the Underworld. He wagged his black tongue in greeting. “A most eventful day, my dear. Come join me at the thrones. We should discuss how our plan will proceed.”
“I’m tired,” Nadzia said, inching away. “Let’s talk tomorrow.”
“You’ll want to hear this.” Veles glided to Perun’s chair, coiled himself within the giant seat, and beckoned. Nadzia followed, reluctant yet curious to hear what had brought the serpent to Kaunas so unexpectedly. She perched on the edge of the smaller throne and kept watch on the entrance.
“Don’t worry about my brother,” Veles said with a limp wave of his hand. “He’ll be up until dawn carousing with his disciples.”
Nadzia crossed her arms and legs. “Fine. I’m listening. Has the cabal decided on a new approach? I can’t imagine a need to talk otherwise.”
“This is a private conversation, sweetheart.” Veles leaned closer, his scales lustrous in the firelight, his voice an engaging whisper. “I’ve made a slight change to our plan, something far more satisfactory than the original.”
He stopped, obviously expecting Nadzia to pepper him with questions. She ground her teeth and complied. “Please go on.”
“Let’s review the basics: first the ceremony, followed by the ritual of making my brother whole, at which point the Elders will begin keening.”
Nadzia shifted in her chair, uneasy at the thought of the assault beginning before she gained the power to protect her sisters. “Won’t I be made a goddess before that?”
“Dievas wants my brother fully restored, first and foremost. I believe his wishes are paramount, although it’s never a good idea to discount my mother’s influence. She wants you immortal as soon as possible after the vows are exchanged.”
Veles squinted, a shrewd gleam in his eyes. “Whatever they decide doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things as long as you remember to do your part. Which is . . . ?”
“To meet you here in the temple with the sliver of Perun’s heart.”
Veles licked his lips. “Such an intelligent girl.”
“And then you’ll take it to the Underworld.”
Nadzia’s arms prickled. She stiffened, poised for flight. “Have your fellow conspirators decided on another hiding place?”
“Hardly. There’s nowhere better.”
“Then what’s changed?”
Yellow eyes glittering, Veles reached out to stroke Nadzia’s neck. “You’ll be coming with me.”
Blood rushed to Nadzia’s head. She clutched the arms of her throne, a world of darkness threatening to consume her. “You can’t take me against my will. The Fates won’t allow it.”
“Why not?” Veles pressed near, his breath like ice on Nadzia’s skin. “They decreed that Jūratė reborn will marry a god. Surely you don’t believe they’ll argue over which one?”
“I won’t go with a cold-blooded viper!”
Veles dabbed at his eyes. “Oh, she wounds me with harsh words. Was ever a chosen one so ungrateful?”
“Stop pretending. Snakes can’t cry.”
“You’d do well to look beyond these reptilian markings.” Veles smoothed both hands over his chest, ending at a point below the navel, where the flesh became scales. “I have feelings and desires like any mortal man, and the same means to pleasure you. I’ll love you like no other, hold you in the highest regard, seek your opinion in all matters. And you can be sure I’ll never threaten or harm the convent. I have a tender heart. Do give me a chance to prove it.”
“I don’t want to be your queen!” Nadzia cried. “This isn’t what you promised. My sisters will hate you for deceiving them.”
“You forget, I have been a stalwart friend to the Order of Brusztyn since Jūratė’s death. It won’t take much to convince the abbess this is my just reward, and her approval is all I require.”
“Your parents won’t allow it. I have a bond with them now, especially your mother. They’ll never let you get away with this.”
“Let me worry about that. I suspect their affection will diminish after the convent attacks.” Veles settled back into his chair with a smug smile. “Think of the prestige you’ll enjoy as my consort. Your sisters will be positively green with envy. And unlike my brother—who, I remind you, agreed to have your horse magically fettered—I’ll let you visit Palanga as often as you please.”
Nadzia’s rage flared like a candle spilled into a pool of oil. She hadn’t found joy only to be held hostage by a conniving snake. She bared her teeth in a defiant snarl. “No.”
“Think carefully before you decide,” Veles replied, his smirk fading. “If you refuse to come with me, I’ll have no choice but to bring Perun’s heart to my parents and tell them a tale about a wicked, wicked novice and her convent’s treacherous plan to foil the gods. How a conniving little minx played upon the enmity between two brothers. I’ll wail and curse the weakness that made me prey to her bewitching voice. And when that’s done, I’ll beg Dievas and Rodzenica to forgive me.”
His eyes shone with pitiless mirth. “Imagine how they’ll punish you and your cherished Order. I shudder at the very thought.”
Nadzia fell back against her throne with a whimper. “I can’t stay with you forever . . . unless I’m dead.”
“An unfortunate detail. I promise to make your demise as painless as possible. A quick bite should suffice.”
Nadzia pulled at her braid. Surely Veles’s strategy contained a flaw. She combed her mind, searching for a solution, and then bolted upright. “I won’t bring you his heart. I’ll run to the Nemunas, swim as fast as I can to Palanga, and hide it in the cove. And then I’ll tell the gods that was your plan all along, that you used me out of sheer hatred for your brother. They’ve seen the two of you battle. No one will doubt me.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” The black slits in Veles’s eyes narrowed. “Try to escape via the river and I’ll send water snakes after you. Have you ever seen someone attacked by an adder? It’s a dreadful way to die. Your tongue swells, your flesh cracks, your muscles cramp. You’ll drown in the very waters you hoped would offer refuge and then . . . why, you’ll end up in the Underworld with me. Either way, I get what I want.”
Nadzia tugged at her necklace. “I’ll take the sliver out now, throw it in Perun’s fire, and tell them you commanded me to destroy it.”
“Go on.” Veles flicked his hand at the blaze. “I doubt you’ll succeed.”
Try as she might, Nadzia couldn’t separate the jewel from its silver setting. There were no hidden springs or clasps, no way to dig out the amber with her nails. She slid to the floor and smashed the necklace against the stones until her arm cramped with fatigue. With a strained cry, she flung the pendant into the fire, chain and all. The flames surged and spewed the necklace out at her feet.
“Mortals,” Veles said with an exaggerated sniff. “Always thinking they can outsmart the gods.”
He slid off the throne and caressed Nadzia’s trembling shoulder. “I so love your spirit, my dear. We’re going to have such marvelous adventures together. The Underworld is a veritable labyrinth of delights.”
“Don’t do this.” Nadzia bit down on her lip, drawing blood. “You have Jūratė. You don’t need me.”
“Alas, my beloved mermaid is devoted to her husband. I wouldn’t dream of breaking up such a happy couple.”
Nadzia drew herself up slowly, shook off Veles’s touch, and curled her fingers into fists. “I’ll find a way to stop you.”
“You are most welcome to try. Oh, did I tell you? Now that you’ve sworn everlasting love for my brother—”
“Someone from the cabal had to bear witness while Rodzenica conducted her test, and I have spyholes everywhere.”
“But I saw Dievas chasing you.”
“My father is easily eluded,” Veles said with a dismissive nod. “And I have been given leave to resume my surveillance. Our group wants daily reports assuring them that, despite your infatuation, you intend to continue helping us. Be well, my dear. I can’t wait to make you mine.”
He pursed his lips in a parting kiss and spoke words Nadzia didn’t understand. In the wink of an eye, he became an ordinary garden snake again, slithering toward the base of the rocky wall behind the thrones. He turned, hissed, and crawled into a hole that emerged at his approach. Laughter echoed through the tunnel as the opening closed behind him.
Nadzia threw her pendant at the wall and paced behind the thrones, cursing. How could she change her fate when Veles was ready to expose the convent’s scheme? Would Perun understand if she confided in him or would learning of her lies stoke his fury? She retrieved the necklace, brought it to the throne, and fell back heavily into the seat. The steady pulse within mocked her. Trapped. Trapped. Trapped.
Or was she?
She still had the poisoned pearl from Sister Bronis, stowed inside the belt hidden in her cottage. A last resort if matters became unbearable. But death would thrust her into the Underworld and that played too neatly into what Veles wanted.
Her necklace blazed, spitting out tangerine sparks that arced and sizzled before landing on the granite floor. Nadzia steadied her breath—three beats in, a pause, three beats out—until the amber resumed its usual, even glow. She had to keep her emotions in check, or this jewel would betray her.
She returned to Jūratė’s altar. The candle she’d lit earlier sputtered and then burst into a stronger, brighter flame. Her heart flickered with hope. Things might be muddled now, but the Fates had chosen her to reign with Perun, not some scaly snake of a god. She had to trust in their wisdom, and her own.
Let Veles think he had her cornered. Let him watch her night and day. She’d play on his confidence, use his presumptions to her advantage.
“I’ll beat you,” she whispered. “Wait and see.”
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski