Nadzia reveals her change of heart to the abbess, tours the guest camp with Perun, and finally tells him the truth about the convent’s plans.
For previous chapters, click here.
The waning moon, a crescent of amber light, hovered above Perun’s temple. Below the open roof, flickering candles at the mermaid goddess’s altar cast eerie shadows across Mother Gintare, head bowed in prayer. Kneeling beside her, Nadzia echoed the words of supplication and gratitude she knew by heart. She cringed when the abbess included special thanks for the brave and dedicated novice here to avenge them, knowing such praise might sour when the Chosen One revealed her hopes for a different end.
The Order of Bursztyn cautioned all against forming emotional attachments. Their hearts and devotion belonged to Jūratė. Nonetheless, some women maintained relationships for decades, liaisons tacitly sanctioned as long as they didn’t interfere with convent duties. Was the abbess one of them? Her office bordered the back gate; a midnight lover could slip in and out undetected.
Nadzia glanced at the old woman, in her nineties and still darkly beautiful. Had she ever given her heart to a man? Craved a bond that transcended the flesh? Something, anything, that would ease the task of asking her to spare the god of storms.
The abbess finished her benediction, touched her fingers to forehead, lips, heart. She rose with ageless grace and took Nadzia’s arm. “Let us see what your fiery god calls a temple.”
She covered her nose with a sleeve at the sight of bear and bull testicles in Perun’s shrine. “Bless the Fates you moved into that cottage. This is too vile for words.”
“Lower your voice.” Nadzia pulled the two of them back into the central aisle and waved at two husky young men stumbling into the temple. “You mustn’t reveal how you despise him.”
“We despise him, child. All of us.”
“Come, let me show you where I will sit with my husband.” Nadzia spoke loud enough to earn lopsided grins from the visitors. She steered the abbess past the central fire, directed her attention to the carvings on both thrones just beyond. “Fire and water in happy communion.”
“All praise to Perun and his bride,” the men shouted, their voices thick and slurred.
The abbess stroked her throat and grimaced. “I believe I’ve seen enough.” She started down the other side of the aisle and stopped abruptly at Nadzia’s former room. Her mouth opened and closed in a strangled gasp. “Tell me you didn’t bed that beast in full view of the Blessed One’s sanctum.”
“I would never dishonor her so. You trained me better than that.” Nadzia urged the abbess forward, conscious of stares from Perun’s followers. “Let’s go outside and sit on the steps. You look as if you could use some fresh air.”
“I’d prefer a more private spot.”
“There’s a bench on the hill by the clearing where I’m to be wed. We can talk there.” Nadzia leaned close and whispered. “Clear your mind of any harsh thoughts before we pass the granite eagles. Their eyes glow red in the presence of ill intent.”
“They did nothing when we entered.”
“You weren’t upset then. Please, we’re being watched.”
Mother Gintare drew back her shoulders, nodded at the men with a strained smile. They passed the stone guardians without event, walking quickly, Nadzia anxious to put the temple far behind them before the old woman spewed more venom. Night owls hooted from old pines. Nadzia took a deep breath of sweet evening primrose and led the way to the seat looking down upon river and meadow. “Better, yes?”
“You’re looking well,” the abbess said, ignoring the question. “Shall I attribute that to a successful seduction?”
“My time here has been most rewarding.”
Mother Gintare surveyed the land below. “A pretty place, but I miss the sea. Thank the goddess we’ll return home soon. You’re probably eager to go back, too,” she added, patting Nadzia’s knee. “Living with a monster can’t be easy or pleasant.”
“It hasn’t been so terrible. The river is nearby and Perun . . . .” Nadzia wet her lips, her mouth dry as dust. “He’s not what I imagined.”
“Indeed?” The warmth in Mother’s voice vanished. “Pray tell.”
Nadzia took a calming breath, met the abbess’s frosty gaze. “He isn’t a beast. He’s kind and considerate and full of love.”
The old woman sputtered in disbelief, her skin mottling with shock and rage. She studied Nadzia with narrowed, blazing eyes. “What has that villain done? You are the Blessed One’s champion, honed to a fine steel of vengeance. Have servants and fine silks turned you soft?”
Heat burned Nadzia’s cheeks. “My voice revealed a kindheartedness in him that took me by surprise. When you met, did you notice how he strove to make you feel welcome, asked after your comfort?”
“After a night that left us more exhausted than when we arrived.”
“A regrettable incident, but his remorse was genuine, I assure you. He truly wants for us all to be happy together. I’d like to give him that chance.”
“You would forgive him and abandon your vows?” Mother Gintare stared at Nadzia as if she were a toad. “Do I speak with a traitor?”
Nadzia hunched forward. “Dievas and the Fates accepted his atonement. Who are we to claim elsewise and seek vengeance?”
“Dievas? Ha! He’s a doting father who indulges his son’s foul deeds.”
“You haven’t met him, Mother, I have. He mourns Jūratė, so does Perun, but they understand that we must move forward, that we can’t spend our lives mired in grief or regret.” Nadzia clasped the abbess’s hands. “Don’t you see? This is a chance for everyone to heal, to unite with open hearts, to show that love can truly conquer all. We can rise above old grudges and create a world of harmony. I’m content with Perun, as I should be. This is what the Fates intended.”
Mother’s lips curled into a sneer. “Had I known how weak you were, I would have cut out your tongue rather than let you summon Jūratė’s jewels. The god of storms is beyond contempt, he will say and do anything to make you desire him and you . . . you cannot see the wickedness of his ways. He is using your innocence for his own, despicable means. The Blessed One spurned him, he will stop at nothing to ensure you do not reject him as well.”
“It’s different this time. He’s different.”
“Do you think you have changed a killer, made him honorable, worth loving? Stupid, stupid girl!”
“I warned you, child. Pride makes you blind.”
Nadzia flinched at the accusation, hating the abbess for sparking doubts. In her short time with the gods, she’d seen ample evidence of intrigue and treachery. Could Perun have purposely misled her so she’d trust him? What if his behavior amounted to nothing more than cunning tricks meant to gain what he wanted at any cost? He’d kept the truth of his jewel secret, perhaps he had more hidden intrigues.
She pictured him laughing in his chariot as they shared the glory of the heavens, the moments when he gazed at her as if she were the most captivating creature alive, his lingering touches that promised more, the anguish on his face when he spoke of Jūratė’s death. How was she to know if any of it was real?
The abbess put a hand to her mouth, eyes studded with horror. “Dear gods, tell me you have not renounced your oath. That you will support us on your wedding day. We must give Veles a chance to hide the evil one’s heart.”
“Veles?” Nadzia choked on the name. “Look no further if you want proof of betrayal.”
“Impossible. He is our dear friend and colleague.”
“Then why has he changed the outcome of our plan?”
The abbess frowned. “He’s said nothing to me.”
“Why would he?” Nadzia shuddered, remembering the scaly god’s leer. “You’re not the one he intends to make his queen.”
Mother Gintare sat back, her gaze turned inward. She tapped a finger against her chin, lost in thought, finally turning to Nadzia with a curious smile. “Is that not a fitting reward for his aid? I should think you’d feel honored.”
“To spend eternity with a liar?”
“You are well-matched in that regard.” The abbess held up a hand, forestalling argument. “We will proceed as planned, my child, with or without your help. You cannot stop us unless you tell Perun the truth, and I doubt he will be quite so amiable when he learns how you’ve deceived him. Are you so sure of his affection that you will risk his wrath when he discovers his beloved bride meant to destroy him?”
Nadzia shrank into herself, gnawed her lips to keep from shouting in frustration. She should have realized convincing the abbess was futile. Admitting how she felt had only strengthened the woman’s resolve, driven a wedge between them. “Will you tell the others?”
“I can hide my disappointment better than most, I won’t endanger our mission by speaking recklessly. There is still time for you to see the error of your ways.”
She stood and shook out her robes. “I urge you to pray for clarity. We have waited centuries for justice and now a devious god has manipulated your feelings for his own ends. I am no stranger to love, surprising as that may be, but I have lived long enough to know desire can rob a woman of her senses. Look beyond your selfishness, your lust, and consider what is best for all.”
A shout from above, Perun charging back to earth, drowned out Nadzia’s reply. She pulled up the hem of her dress and hurried down the hill behind the abbess, storming toward the grasses outside the barn where the carriage landed.
Keslai stepped down gingerly, clutching her stomach and moaning.
The abbess rushed to her side. “What happened? Did he hurt you?”
“He was a perfect gentleman. The heights made me nauseous, that’s all. I’d like to rest if you don’t mind. I feel a headache coming on.” Keslai latched onto the abbess, pulled her down the path toward their tents, craning her neck as they descended to call out, “Well done, sister. He’s quite smitten with you.”
Perun drew Nadzia into his arms, kissed her passionately. “She’s persistent, that one, but I think she finally understands. You’re the only one I want or need.”
Nadzia returned his kiss with a desperate fervor. “And you’ll love me always, no matter what happens?”
“Nothing you say or do could ever change how I feel, my love.”
“Never doubt it. You are a jewel beyond compare.” He nuzzled the top of her head and released his hold. “Bernardo!”
The groom staggered out of the barn, yawning. “Sorry, sir. I fell asleep in the loft.”
Perun rumpled the boy’s hair, dislodging pieces of clover and alfalfa. “You’ve been helping the other servants prepare for our guests. I don’t begrudge you a nap now and again.”
“Will you be flying again tomorrow night?”
“Yes, to gather my priests. We’ve only a few days until the wedding. I want everyone in place and comfortably settled by then.”
“Don’t forget, Sister Saule wants to see the stars,” Nadzia reminded him. “She’ll be far more appreciative than your last passenger. And I’d like one last trip before we marry.”
She stooped down and picked a handful of wildflowers, giving herself a few moments to blink away tears. She could blame the Fates, she supposed, for thrusting her into such a difficult situation. But no divine spirits controlled her heart. She’d given her love freely, gladly. And she refused to believe Perun’s affection was false.
She had to tell him the truth, despite the peril. She couldn’t let him come to harm.
He lifted her with a sensual growl. “If I’m to be a ferryman of the sky, I should take advantage of what time we have together, wouldn’t you agree?”
Perun laughed and nodded at the groom. “Sleep while you can, Bernardo. Things are about to get very busy.”
Woodlarks heralded the dawn with a chorus of carefree trills as they circled the landscape, their flight a pleasing pattern visible through the cottage window. Perun gazed at his bride, asleep under the mermaid quilt, his heart bursting with gratitude and love. Before she came, he’d viewed her as a means to an end, a novice chosen without his consent yet necessary to help him regain immortal life. A relationship he would pretend to cherish and then abandon once Rodzenica made him whole again. Now he couldn’t imagine a world without her at his side.
He might have been wholly content, were it not for the frown marring her brow as she slept. What disturbed her rest? Did she harbor last-minute doubts? She clutched the quilt, mumbling. “I can’t . . . I must . . . gods save me.”
“Nadzia?” He shook her gently. “Nadzia!”
She startled awake, her face sallow and haggard, closed her eyes until her breath steadied, opened them with a hesitant smile. “Was I talking in my sleep again?”
“A bit.” Perun stroked her hair. “Is there something you wish to tell me? Have I displeased you?”
“Never.” She slipped out of bed, pulled on her robe, and moved to the window. The first blush of morning light filtered through the glass, illuminating her in a golden nimbus. “Such a beautiful place.”
Her shoulders rose and fell as she shook with muted sobs. Perun rushed to hold her, laid his head atop hers. “What troubles you, my love? Please tell me. I can’t bear to see you so unhappy.”
“I’m fine, really. Brides get quite emotional before they wed, or so I’ve been told. I suppose it’s hard for me to believe all this is real. That I deserve so much joy.” She smiled and traced his lips. “That I could ever love you so much.”
“You’re not keeping anything from me? I want us to be honest with one another.”
Nadzia lifted the pendant she wore every hour of the day and night. “You said nothing about the enchantment in your jewel.”
“That was not my secret to share. Please, my love, I don’t want to fight, not with our wedding in three days.”
Nadzia let the necklace fall. “Three days,” she whispered, her voice hollow. “Is that all the time I have?”
“Time for what? Do you want to marry or not?” Perun braced himself for the answer. He’d been so sure of her love. Why did she hesitate?
“More than you’ll ever know, my sweet god.”
She reached up and pressed a finger against his mouth. “Don’t ask me to explain. I can’t. Not yet. Just remember I love you and always will.”
A voice cried outside the door, followed by rapid knocking. “Master! Are you there? We need you.”
Perun released Nadzia with a snarl and opened the cottage door. Adomas stood outside, his hair and clothes mussed. He blanched and then bowed. “Forgive the intrusion, but we’ve a crowd of newcomers and they’re arguing over space for their tents. I hate to disturb you, but they won’t listen to me, and I don’t want to get in the middle of any more fights.”
Perun looked back at Nadzia, already rifling through her cabinet for a gown. She turned, all traces of sadness gone, and motioned for him to leave. “Go, but please stop at the servants’ cottage on the way and ask Ludvika to bring me breakfast. I’ll join you later.”
He nodded his assent, unwilling for his gardener to glimpse any hint of discord. “As you wish, my love. I’ll have those ruffians under control by the time you arrive.”
“Yes, I expect you will. We owe you many thanks, Adomas, for braving an unruly mob, and hope it won’t be necessary again.”
“Not to worry, mistress,” he replied, standing taller. “I know how to defend myself.”
“But you shouldn’t have to. Our guests should be courteous and considerate of others.”
Perun gripped the old man’s shoulder. “You have proved your worth many times over. My disciples will recognize your authority or leave.”
He cast a final glance at Nadzia, put a hand to his heart, and left.
Wisps of smoke drifted from his fingers as he strode toward the meadow. He cleared the top of the hill and stared down at a field swarming with people. Loud, querulous voices rang out; men pushed and shoved and traded punches while their wives and children huddled. Perun ground his jaw, embarrassed and angry at their behavior. Sparks coursed through his veins. How dare his followers act like brutes? He let out a roar that flattened the grass.
The furor stilled. Mouths fell open as he stomped into their midst, his flesh smoldering with inner fire. “This is my home,” he bellowed. “I will suffer no insult or injury to its inhabitants or guests. If my groundskeeper,” he added, gesturing for Adomas to step forward, “advises me of even one transgression, I promise you, punishment will be swift. Do you understand?”
The hushed crowd murmured its assent. Perun stood rigid, allowing his rage to subside while bruise-cheeked men shook hands with grunts of apology. “You have come to celebrate my good fortune. Do not spoil it with trifling squabbles. Be glad in each other’s companionship, for the chance to witness a ceremony no mortal has ever seen. Relish your time here. It will end far too soon, and I want you to return home with fond memories.”
A hulking man at the edge of the group kneeled and put a fist to his chest. “All praise to the god of storms!”
Perun waited until all were stooped in obeisance. “See that your actions match your words. If you wish to honor me, conduct yourself with care.”
A young woman holding an infant rose to her feet. She stepped forward, her face bright with joy and wonder. “Will you bless my son? I want him to do well in life.”
Perun reached out, his heart skipping. He’d granted such favors before in his travels across the land, but today he gazed down with a new awareness of the love that had brought this child into being. He stroked the boy’s auburn hair and rosy flesh, smiled at the coos that followed his touch. “May you grow strong and your crops flourish.”
The woman placed a hand on his forearm and peered at him with shining eyes. “And may the Fates grant you healthy sons as well.”
His vision blurred as he returned the yawning babe to its mother. When he blinked his sight clear, a line of women and men with children had formed. He blessed them all, delighting in the pleasure it brought, the tranquility that settled over the camp as families returned to their tents with broad smiles.
“Look,” a voice cried. “It’s the thunder god’s bride!”
Faces filled with awe watched Nadzia descend the hill, draped in a green gown and haloed in golden morning light.
Perun swiveled, his pulse pounding. He greeted Nadzia with a chaste kiss. “Everyone here is going to love you. I trust I won’t have to compete with them for your affection.”
“My heart is yours. That will never change.”
A chestnut-haired girl, arms laden with ribbon-tied wildflowers, raced to the edge of the field. She thrust her gift at Nadzia, lowered her head and sank into a deep curtsey. “For the mermaid’s daughter. We bid you welcome.”
Nadzia waited for the girl to rise. “If everyone here is as sweet as you, then I will feel very welcome, indeed. What should I call you?”
“Mielas. I’m from Palanga, just like you.”
“A long journey. A few of my sisters from the convent are here as well.”
Mielas nodded, eyes gleaning with excitement. “I’ve seen their white tents.”
“Would you like to meet them?”
“Oh, yes, yes, please! Do you think . . .” Mielas gnawed on her lip. “Could they teach me to sing like a siren?”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible, but our voice instructor might be willing to give you a few lessons. I’ll see what I can arrange.”
The girl curtsied again and ran off whooping as Perun’s followers began to form a new line. He waved them back. “Go about your business. We will come to you.”
Some seventy or so campsites dotted the vast meadow, some with simple cloth tents, others with canopied wagons. A few had bedrolls spread on the ground for stargazers. Perun escorted Nadzia about the area over the next two days, introducing her, pleased at how warmly she greeted everyone, how readily they received her. She hummed and sang as they strolled, lilting melodies that lingered in her wake, generating goodwill.
The air rang with joyful chatter and the clinking of mugs raised in honor of immortal love. Mothers swapped stories while they cooked flatcakes and soups and stews. Giggling children played among the grasses and flowers, wove garlands and wreaths. Those who’d fished in the River Nemunas marveled at the abundance it provided. “I’ve never had such luck,” a grizzled man told Nadzia as he wolfed down a fillet of golden-fried bream, fresh from the pan. “Truly, you are the goddess reborn.”
“She is a font of blessings.” Perun’s chest expanded, drawing in deep, satisfied breaths. A wonderful woman loved him, a community of supporters had gathered to witness his wedding. The young woman who’d tried to seduce him remained out of sight, as agreed. Peace and harmony prevailed.
They visited camp each morning. In the afternoons, while Nadzia rested in their cottage, Perun transported his high priests, one chariot full at a time. He lodged them in a black silk pavilion set up near the temple’s entrance. Once settled, they mingled with the common folk and joined in songs of tribute while sampling the convent’s mead. Much to Perun’s surprise, the abbess promised bottles of the amber wine to all who asked, after receiving assurances that each recipient would make a toast in honor of the mermaid goddess.
At night, the visits resumed. Hymns rang out clear and strong at the campfires. Eager to prove their allegiance to the god of fire, men staged competitions, stretching hands over candles or fireside flames. Whoever lasted the longest without flinching was hailed the winner and received a friendly clap on the shoulder from the one they worshipped.
Boys with no interest in scorching their flesh walked with rosy-cheeked girls along the river and stole kisses under the pines. Perun watched them, his eagle eyes piercing the dim light, ready to intervene should they lose control. He needn’t have worried, as Nadzia pointed out. Chaperones lingered behind the young couples, discreet, yet near enough to break up any improper fondling.
He enjoyed every moment of it, his pride swelling as he showed off Nadzia, yet he chafed inwardly, impatient to hear what bothered her to the point of weeping. How long would she keep him in suspense?
On the eve of their wedding, after they finished their nightly circuit of the camp, Nadzia reminded him of her earlier request. “One last trip to the stars above Palanga.”
“Why do you call it the last?” he asked, anxiety cramping his heart. “We’ll have many more in the years ahead.”
She laughed, a high-pitched giggle that died as quickly as it began. “I want to see them once more as a human.”
Her eyes darted from corner to corner, as if searching for a hidden observer. “And . . . we must talk someplace where no one can intrude.”
Every one of Perun’s apprehensions surfaced, leaving him breathless. This was the moment he’d feared, when he would finally learn his happiness was nothing more than an illusion, that even if Nadzia cared for him, her ardor would never match his.
He studied the stone at her breast as they walked to the barn. It blazed brightly as ever. Her affection, at least, remained strong. She took her place beside him in the chariot, impassive, mute as stone, until they reached his constellation.
“I’d almost forgotten how lovely they are,” she said, basking in their light and heat. “Such dazzling colors.”
“Soon you will be able to venture closer. There’s nothing quite like being surrounded by a pulsing star.”
Perun struggled for words to put them both at ease, found he had none. Chafing at the need to learn what troubled his bride, yet unwilling to provoke her, he twisted a thick armlet etched with images of his axe—given to him by an admirer that night—until his flesh was rubbed raw.
“Nadzia, please, tell me what’s wrong.”
She curled forward, arms crossed against her chest. “I came to you under false pretenses,” she said at last, anguish in her eyes. “I never wanted to be your bride.”
A wave of dizziness swept over Perun. He gripped the chariot’s railing, jaw clenched so tight his teeth ached, the memories of his maidservant warning him of duplicity battering his mind. Fool of a god, to be led astray by the yearnings of his heart! “Then Gabi didn’t lie. The Order of Bursztyn schemes against me.”
Nadzia hung her head. “I’m so sorry. But you must understand—”
“Understand?” The word exploded with such force Nadzia shrank into herself. “What is it you wish me to perceive? That every moment with you has been a lie? That I gave my heart to a charlatan?”
“We were trained to hate you, to pray for your downfall. How could I not consider you a beast?” Nadzia’s voice shook. “To discover all my assumptions were false, that changed everything, don’t you see? Once I spent time with you, once my heart opened . . . I may have come to Kaunas determined to honor my vow of vengeance, but I changed. I fell in love.”
“You dare speak to me of love?” Fury enveloped Perun in flames, yet for all his pain and misery, he could not lash out at Nadzia. He thrust his arms upward, unleashed his rage in bolts of lightning. And still he fumed. How could he have expected anything less from a daughter of the one who’d defied the gods and chosen a mortal? Damn the Fates and their twisted destinies!
“I tried to tell my father,” he said, his words clipped and biting. “Humans hold grudges. For 500 years I prayed to be forgiven, and all that time your convent conspired to ruin me.”
Nadzia inched closer. “They don’t have to succeed. I begged the abbess to abandon her plans, but she refused, and I knew I had to tell you, come what may. Please believe me, I want you to survive.”
Lights flickered from the convent below. Perun blew into his palm and formed an orb of fire. “I could destroy your home, make you watch as the buildings turn to ash. We’ll fly lower first. I want you to hear the screams of your sisters as they burn to death.”
“I’ll throw myself off this chariot before you have a chance,” Nadzia said, her voice deadly calm. “What will you tell your mother then?”
“My . . . what?” The blaze in Perun’s hand sputtered.
“She said if you treated me ill she wouldn’t make you whole again. How do you think she’ll respond when she sees my broken body?”
Perun shouted and flung his fiery sphere into the sky, where it slowly dissipated. “You say you’ve changed, yet even now you seek to manipulate me.”
“I only want your attention. Listen to me, please.” Nadzia wiped her hands on her robes. “The Order knows you need the sliver I wear to regain your full godhood. They’re going to disrupt the ceremony so Veles can steal and hide it. You won’t die for eons, but when you do, Jūratė’s death will finally be avenged.”
Perun scowled and shook his head. “That’s madness. Even my brother would not be so bold. And the gods will strike you down.”
“They’ll be immobilized while the theft takes place.”
“By your abbess?” Perun snorted. “I’d like to see her try.”
“She’ll lead the keening. It will paralyze them long enough.”
“A rash assumption.”
“It worked on Veles. He crumpled when I screamed.”
Perun’s blood simmered with fresh indignation. “You plotted with my immortal enemy. You beguiled Dievas and Rodzenica. How can I trust anything you say?”
“Because of this.” Nadzia pulled off her pendant. “I have a mesmerizing voice, but I cannot overpower a goddess’s enchantment. This stone gleams because I love you, with all my heart and soul. Condemn me as a liar if you must. I deserve your disdain for my part in our conspiracy. But never doubt the emotion that stokes this jewel.”
The amber throbbed in her hand and his own heart matched it, beat for beat. He took the jewel, knew finally that it held not just his longing but hers as well, a bond of body and spirit. Even so, her betrayal stung. He closed his eyes, anger flaring again only to sputter out when he considered his own actions. He’d started off with ulterior motives. How could he denounce Nadzia for doing the same?
A tear slipped down his cheek. Soft fingers wiped it away. He opened his eyes and beheld not a traitor, but the woman he adored. A brave woman prepared to risk his wrath by telling him an unpleasant truth. He couldn’t let her continue thinking she was the only one at fault.
“My love.” He pulled her toward him with infinite care. “What a pair we make.”
Nadzia leaned into him, trembling. “Do you forgive me?”
“I’ve been absolved of actions far worse. It is not my place to criticize, not when I’ve withheld my own secrets.”
The quivers ceased as Nadzia drew back, her face wary. “Haven’t I learned them all?”
“You know about the magic in the amber, how I need a full heart to continue as an Immortal.”
Nadzia’s fingers dug into his arms, her nails scraping flesh. He accepted the pain, knowing he deserved every torment she inflicted. “There’s more,” she said, her voice sharp as a dagger. “What?”
He hesitated, then lowered his head. “I didn’t want a wife. Once my heart was restored, I was going to reject whomever the Fates sent me.”
Gods, the look she gave him! Shock, outrage, agony, a face pinched with grief. Her eyes welled. She blinked them dry, gave a weak laugh. “So we are evenly matched in guile.”
His fists closed and then opened. “I did not think you unworthy, Nadzia, I simply believed myself a monster. How could anyone care for me? But then we grew close, and I resolved to earn your affection, for I realized my life would be empty without you.”
Perun moved closer, placed his hand over Nadzia’s. “You are a vibrant, wondrous, magnificent woman. My heart is yours, now and forever. I cannot imagine a more delightful future than one with you at my side.”
She turned, face full of despair mixed with yearning. “Deceit is a pitiful foundation for marriage. How can we trust one another?”
“I suspect it will take time. But I would like to try.” Perun dropped to one knee. “Be my wife, dearest Nadzia, and I swear to do everything in my power to make you content.”
“I will hold you to that promise, and vow to do the same.” Nadzia sighed and motioned for him to stand. “We are a pair, aren’t we?”
“For better or worse.”
They came together in a quiet embrace. “I wish this moment would never end,” Perun said, caressing Nadzia’s hair, “but we have to find a way to avoid chaos at our wedding. If I tell my parents of the Order’s plans, you and your sisters will be brought before the Divine Council, as Jūratė was, and my father can be most exquisite with his punishments. He’ll devise something that fits the crime, centuries of torment, perhaps. If he doesn’t slay you all outright.”
“No, we can’t warn them. But I don’t want you to perish.” Nadzia paused, swallowed. “And I don’t want Veles to claim me.”
Perun squeezed Nadzia so tightly she whimpered. He loosened his hold and spoke through gritted teeth. “What did you say?”
“He wants me to be his queen.”
Ages-old rancor scalded Perun’s veins. “Not while I live and breathe.”
“It isn’t that easy. He’ll reveal the convent’s plot if I reject him. He expects us to be killed and then I’ll wind up in the Underworld. I’m his either way.”
Perun tilted his head back and cursed. “That slimy, stinking bastard. I’ll rip every scale from his body.”
“I’d join you gladly, for all the good it would do. No, we can’t let on that we’re privy to his designs. We have to outwit him.”
“It seems you’ve already begun,” Perun said with a nod of appreciation. “You brought me to the skies, the one place he can’t follow.”
He peered down at Nadzia. “I suppose you have an idea in mind?”
“Kiss me and I’ll tell you.”
Copyright © 2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
Image of Nadzia: https://www.polishtoledo.com/pagan/myths.htm
Image of Perun: kriegerman.deviantart.com – KAOSS-8