THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 3, 4

Perun, god of storms
Nadzia

As the story continues,  Nadzia prepares to leave the convent and meets Jūratė, who offers surprising advice.

All chapters are posted at link below. If you’ve missed any, just click to catch up.

 

http://kathrynjankowskibooks.com/the-thunder-gods-bride-a-paranormal-romance/

 

CHAPTER 3

Nadzia

Mother Gintare’s room faced west, with a window that opened onto the sea. An ocean breeze cooled Nadzia as she waited in the doorway, a brisk wind carrying the distant cries of terns squabbling over fish guts at the docks. Inside, the furnishings were simple: a desk and two chairs, a cot pushed against the wall opposite the window, a bedside altar, a bookcase filled with ledgers.

Mother had one in hand now, a thick leather journal with a mermaid embossed on the cover. She whispered and stroked the aquamarine scales. When the book fell open to a blank page, she motioned for Nadzia to take a seat and then pushed across the book and an ink quill.

“You want me to write?” Nadzia stared in surprise. It was the Elders who cataloged the convent’s business and history, never a novice.

“A simple statement,” Mother replied. “What do you seek?”

“Perun’s destruction.”

“A goal achieved without jeopardizing your sisters or indulging in visions of grandeur.”

Nadzia flinched at the old woman’s words. She hadn’t spoken about the stature she would gain as a goddess, how the idea of divine life secretly thrilled her. It seemed too boastful, and she didn’t have a friend to confide in anyway, even if she yearned to share her deepest desires. She’d kept relations with her sisters cordial but distant. Why grow attached to someone who might be taken from you and never return?

“Do not mistake my meaning,” the abbess said. “We have all wished ourselves Jūratė’s champion. There is no greater honor. Nonetheless, I caution you: do not lose sight of your goal or misjudge your enemy. We thought the gods’ plans perfectly clear, yet see how they have toyed with us, muddled our expectations with this delay. You must proceed with the greatest care.”

“But I’m bound to him. Surely that’s to my favor.” Nadzia’s hand sought the necklace hanging from her neck. The locket tingled at her touch; her heart quivered in response.

Mother’s eyes, leaden as the sea on a winter’s morning, probed unflinchingly. Nadzia pulled herself tight like a crab retreating into its shell. Unbidden, her hand began to stroke the pendant. Reassuring warmth greeted her touch, easing the tension in her shoulders. She let out a long, tremulous breath. “He wants me. I can feel it.”

A muscle in Mother’s cheek twitched. “This divine connection pleases you,” she said, her words laced with scorn. “I see longing etched upon your face.”

Nadzia’s cheeks grew hot. “That’s not true!”

“The god of storms is ruled by passion. Yield to the temptations of the flesh and you will never tame him.” Mother leaned back in her chair and made a steeple with her fingers. “Sister Ramuna tells me you enjoy the pleasures of seduction. Perhaps more than is prudent.”

Nadzia squirmed in her seat. She’d assumed her talks with the librarian were private. “I won’t allow lust to distract me. Not with a killer. ”

“A heartfelt promise can be undone if a more attractive choice arises. You are not immune to our foe’s power. Your response to his jewel reveals as much.”

“You think me weak? This bond works to my advantage, not against it.”

“Do not twist my words,” Mother snapped. “The Fates gave you the power to summon our adversary. Hold fast to your sacred promise and you will yet fulfill your duty.”

Nadzia gripped the thunder god’s stone. Heat flushed her skin. A wisp of smoke drifted from her fingers, although the skin remained pure. Sweat dripped from her brow, pain watered her eyes, yet she didn’t cry out for release. “On . . . my . . . life.”

Mother gave a curt nod, clearly pleased at Nadzia’s demonstration of self-control. “Remember Jūratė and all will be well. Now take a moment to record your thoughts. Briefly, if you please. There are other matters you must attend to.”

Nadzia gripped the pen and pressed her words deep into the parchment. Today I begin a holy battle. May the goddess guide my actions and grant me humility.

She swiveled the book for Mother’s appraisal, allowed herself a brief smile at the satisfaction in old woman’s eyes, and waited for an explanation of the need for haste. She had no bags to pack, although she intended to bring a few books in the pockets of her robe. She’d hoped to take a long swim in the sea and then bask on the serpentine rocks that lined Palanga’s cover. Goddess knew when she’d have another chance. And then maybe a bite to eat. Would it be too much if she asked for cake and wine, a small party to celebrate her success?

The abbess had other ideas.

#

An hour later Nadzia left with a handful of notes sealed with the wax imprint of a water nymph, the Order of Bursztyn’s emblem. She crossed the pentagon-shaped courtyard, passing small groups of novices. Most offered muted congratulations as they stared at her necklace. A few scuttled out of the way, their eyes full of apprehension. She stopped at Jūratė’s fountain, cupped a handful of water, and bathed her neck. Hardly noon and already the air was thick with heat.

Chill drops trickled down her spine. The sickroom door opened and Keslai emerged with a heavily bandaged arm. Her sister wobbled a bit—no doubt due to the effects of herbs she’d been given for pain. Nadzia stiffened as the girl lurched in her direction.

“Still here, I see,” Keslai said, her words thick and halting. She laughed, a low, guttural sound brimming with spite. “Poor little girl. However will you enchant the god of storms when he won’t even come and claim you?”

“I’m so sorry you were hurt.” Nadzia moved closer and took her sister’s arm. “Please let me help you to bed. You need rest.”

Keslai shoved her away with a surprising burst of strength. “I don’t need your charity.” Her breath hissed as she gingerly lowered herself to sit on the fountain’s edge. “You stole my dream. I’m the one who deserves a throne. Don’t expect me to grovel when—ifyou return a goddess. Mother can whip me with her switch until my blood waters these cobblestones . . . I’ll never accept you as my queen.”

She batted away tears coursing down her cheeks. “Go! I can’t bear to look at you.”

A rush of sympathy clogged Nadzia’s throat, but she didn’t know what to say without adding to her sister’s anguish. She bolted toward the garden, slipping hastily through the gate and waving aside a stray bee as she passed rows of herbs and vegetables on her way to the far corner. Sister Bronis rose from a bench shaded by pines and greeted her with a near bone-crunching embrace. Nadzia wriggled free and held out the abbess’s note. After a quick read, Sister tucked the paper into her apron pocket and hustled to the kitchen. “Come along,” she called, waving for Nadzia to follow. “We’ve no time to lose.”

The room was deliciously cool, the air perfumed by sprigs of lavender and rosemary hanging from the beams. Sister edged around a huge table gouged by decades of slicing and dicing—its top filled at the moment with cloth-covered dishes for the evening feast—and headed for the wall of shelves that held a collection of mortars and pestles, pots and pans, tinctures, syrups, and herbal distillations.

She removed the top of a thick earthenware jar and ladled out two cups of hard cider. “To the one chosen for greatness,” she said, raising her mug. “May you do the goddess proud.” Sister grinned and guzzled her drink in one long swig. “A good batch,” she said, pouring herself another. “Go on, then, enjoy.”

Mindful of the butterflies flitting in her stomach, Nadzia sipped while Sister chose a basket from the bottom shelf. “This delay gives us an unexpected opportunity. We meant to send these to you by boat with a trusted courier—there is a dock near Perun’s temple in Kaunas—along with a letter of explanation. Thank the Fates, I can give them to you now.”

Her cheerfulness vanished as she assumed the mien of a brusque teacher. “Go on, then. Take out the stones and tell me what you know of them.”

Hoping this wasn’t some obscure lesson she’d forgotten, Nadzia removed two mottled gray rocks and blew out a breath of relief. “These are bezoars.”

“Their purpose?”

“A bezoar at the bottom of a drinking vessel will nullify any poison.”

“Who would seek your death?”

Nadzia thought back to her lessons. Mokosh, the earth goddess who’d nourished and protected the daughters of Jūratė from the moment they were first born, had warned them to keep alert. The Council’s judgment did not sit well with all the deities in Lithuania’s pantheon. Some resented what they deemed a lax punishment, and it would be all too easy to engineer a fatal accident for his bride, once chosen. “There are those who would deny the god of storms happiness,” she answered, nodding grimly, “no matter the cost.”

“Correct. The gods are masters of artifice. Trust no one until Mokosh advises you it is safe to do so.” Sister pulled out a small clay bottle fitted with a cork stopper. “This holds water from Jūratė’s sacred springs. Be sparing. A drop when your spirits are low will restore you.”

“Why would I be sad?” Nadzia protested. “This is a joyful occasion.”

Sister growled like an animal ready to pounce. “You are walking into the lion’s den. Beware the beast. He cares little for your feelings.”

“I don’t intend to have feelings for him.”

“Perhaps. He’s boisterous and crude, but even cads can be charming. Just remember, if ever you feel smothered or lost, this will help.”

Nadzia cradled the container. “Thank you, it’s a most thoughtful gift.”

“Thank the goddess, dear. Now, do you see the brooch?”

Nadzia reached for the gilded seashell and chirruped with delight. “So pretty! Is this to remind me of Palanga?”

“That is not its purpose.” Sister tugged on the back of the pin; the shell sprang open, revealing a single pearl. Her voice softened. “Should all else fail, you need not endure agony at Perun’s hands. Drop this into your drink. The end will be swift.”

Nadzia gulped her cider, her throat dry as bone. The horror of taking her own life to avoid torment was too dire an end to contemplate before she’d even begun. She pushed the idea to the back of her mind and prayed the decision never came to pass.

Sister murmured and patted her arm. “You’ve grown pale. Shall I keep this and trust you to find another means of escape?”

“If the Fates will it so, I am ready to die. But I hope for victory, not defeat.”

“As do we all.” Sister blinked away the mist in her eyes. “Remember, our prayers go with you.” She stood, motioned for Nadzia to do the same, and then held out a black belt with a silver buckle, along with a matching leather pouch. “This is the last of the lot. Everything goes inside the purse, then you tie it onto the belt, like so.”

She drew Nadzia close, kissed both cheeks, and traced a series of waves in the air—a sign of protection. “May Jūratė watch over you and keep you safe.”

It was a prayer Nadzia would repeat countless times in the weeks that followed.

#

The second note brought her to the library across the courtyard from Mother’s room. North-facing windows illuminated an orderly space centered by a long pine table surrounded by benches. Cushioned chairs were scattered about, offering comfortable spots to curl up with a favorite read. A fireplace with mantel statues and iron sconces occupied the eastern side. Scrolls and books filled shelves built into the remaining walls. Sister Ramuna collected writings from around the world, brought by traders who visited during the warmer months.

If not for other demands on her time, Nadzia would spend every day here, blissfully lost in stories conceived by minds far more clever than hers. She’d once hoped to sneak in a few hours of reading while the convent slumbered—on nights when she wasn’t stargazing, of course—but the doors were locked and bolted from the inside. The librarian slept on a thick bedroll near the hearth, guarding a chamber behind the fireplace, a hidden alcove accessed by pulling on a bronzed figure of the goddess atop the mantel. Inside were five centuries of the convent’s journals along with a collection of graphic texts Sister utilized when instructing novices on the art of seduction.

An outsider might consider educating young ladies in the ways of the flesh unseemly, but Perun was a lusty god. His bride must know a host of ways to please him. Nadzia’s thighs clutched as she recalled several of the more explicit books and the many times she’d employed their techniques. True to her teaching, she always mesmerized her partner afterwards so that none spoke of the carnal pleasures to be found in the woods outside the convent. Now she would learn if her skills worked as well on immortal flesh.

She settled in a chair next to shelves brimming with fantastic stories and chose a book about a poor woodcutter who learned the secret of a thieves’ den. As fanciful as the tale was, Nadzia couldn’t concentrate. She skimmed the pages, flipping past colorful sketches of a cave crammed with jewels and gold, and a dark-skinned man named Ali Baba clothed in billowing pants and a turban.

A click. The fireplace swung outward. Sister Ramuna entered the room, not moving or speaking until the hearth returned to its usual position with a dull thud. Nadzia silently handed her the abbess’s note.

Sister’s lips quirked as she read. “You have been warned about tempering your delight in sensuality?”

“You needn’t worry about me,” Nadzia said, studying the pine floor. “I won’t lose myself in Perun’s arms.”

“Ah, you’re angry.” Sister lifted Nadzia’s chin. Her sapphire eyes held a tinge of sorrow. “Perhaps you feel betrayed?”

“I wouldn’t have shared my feelings if I’d known you’d take them to Mother.”

The Elder folded her arms. “The abbess had a twin sister. Do you remember what happened to her?”

Nadzia frowned. What bring up that sad story? “She ventured too far at sea and was caught in a net cast by a merchant ship of the Hanseatic League. The captain wooed her while she was held prisoner. They married in secret and tried to return to Palanga, but his superiors saw her calm a stormy sea and declared her a witch. They hung her husband while she watched and then stuffed her mouth with kelp and burned her at the stake.”

Sister’s eyes clouded. “Mother became a shell of herself. We feared she might die of grief. When her anguish finally waned, she swore no man would ever again trap a daughter of Jūratė with sweet words and caresses.”

“Then why teach us how to seduce them?”

“Because a man in the throes of passion will agree to near anything, share the very depths of his soul. You can’t be as weak. You must remain in control.”

Nadzia bit her lip. “I’m sorry. Forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive. We have more important issues at hand.” Sister opened a carved box on the tabletop. Inside was a letter sealed with forest-green wax and stamped with a wreath of fruit and flowers. She lit the sconces and eased into a rocking chair by the hearth before handing over the missive. “Mokosh sent this an hour ago.”

It was a short message, a mere six words. Nadzia sank into a chair, her breath escaping in one long whoosh. The novices had been warned again and again to act judiciously when venturing beyond the convent. Perun’s servants were loyal, his followers rabid in their devotion. But this . . . this bespoke danger they anticipated. “Is it true? Dievas will test the chosen one?”

“If Mokosh says it is so, you can believe her. He will be watching for discrepancies between manners and words.”

Nadzia tried to speak, but her lips moved noiselessly, like a dying fish. They’d never worried about having to appease the god of creation. Hadn’t he insisted on this arrangement? Face to face, a mere novice couldn’t hope to outwit him, no matter how masterful her deception elsewhere.

Perhaps they were the ones deceived. None escaped the will of the gods. Dievas had created them; surely he could penetrate their minds. Nadzia’s words came out a quivering whisper. “I don’t think I can, not with the mightiest of all the gods.”

“You are Jūratė reborn, else your voice could not have called out Perun’s stone. That is her most precious gift to you. Use it as you have been taught and all will be well.”

Nadzia raised the parchment to a sconce. When flames devoured the edges, she dropped the message into the fireplace, watched the paper shrivel, and hoped she wouldn’t do the same when Dievas examined her.

A bell rang, signaling the afternoon meal, a light repast meant to stave off hunger until the feast. Nadzia had little appetite. She craved solitude, not sustenance, time to consider what lay ahead. But she didn’t know if Perun planned to feed her, and hunger pangs would only become a distraction. A small plate, then, something she could nibble on while delivering her final note.

The courtyard baked with shimmering heat, the air sultry and still. Nadzia kept to the shadows under eaves that shaded the inner perimeter and made her way to the refectory next to the kitchen. She filled a dish with a hazelnuts, slices of apple, some goat’s cheese, and crossed over to the music studio.

Easing inside, she set her empty plate on the nearest chair. This was where she’d honed her voice, practiced supernatural scales, learned the libidinous notes that lured men to the forest. A room with chairs and risers and walls that perfectly echoed the sounds within. At the far end hung a life-sized tapestry of the goddess with her twins.

Nadzia’s heart swelled with awe and reverence as she approached the woven scene. This was why they fought. Because a jealous god had deprived Jūratė of everything she loved. He wasn’t entitled to a loving mate. Fates be kind, he’d never have one.

A firm hand clenched her shoulder. “You have a note for me?”

“Yes.” Nadzia shrugged off Sister Dain’s grasp and presented the last of the abbess’s directives. She hooked a finger over her new belt, tamping down her impatience. Why postpone things? If Dievas was playing games, then let the gods think her an ignorant pawn, oblivious and simple-minded. Once they realized she’d bested them, her victory would be that much sweeter.

Sister Dain crumpled the note and sighed. “You must swear by the bones of the Blessed One to never speak of what I am about to show you. Do I have your word?”

“How can I make a promise when I don’t know what you mean?”

“I will say no more until you pledge silence.”

Nadzia hesitated, torn between curiosity and dread. If an Elder insisted on a vow, whatever followed held the utmost importance. So crucial that it required a sacred promise. She pushed down her apprehension and made the sign of obedience. She’d wanted to be chosen, she had to accept every consequence. “I swear.”

Sister Dain turned to the wall and sang a low haunting melody that shivered the air. She stepped aside and motioned for Nadzia to move closer. “Pull aside the hanging.”

“A door?” Nadzia gasped in surprise. The wood was carved with creatures and symbols of the sea, its handle a bronze mermaid. She ran her fingers over a dolphin. “How long has this been here?”

“Since the convent was built.” Sister fished out a key from her pocket and inserted it into the siren’s mouth. The door swung open, revealing a stone staircase that ended in darkness. She took a lantern that hung near the top and began her descent. “Step carefully. These rocks are old and steep.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the cave where Jūratė gave birth.”

 

CHAPTER 4

Nadzia

The stairs opened up to a tunnel gritty with sand and loose rocks. Nadzia murmured a prayer of thanks to the passageway’s architect as she followed Sister Dain. The tall roof meant she could walk without crouching. Yet even so high a ceiling didn’t compensate for the narrowness of the walls—so close they grazed her shoulders. She was a child of the sea, ill at ease in closed spaces. The air was dank and still, the quiet an eerie change from the constant roar of the ocean that resounded day and night. She kept one hand on her locket; the amber glowed so brightly she could have forged ahead without Sister’s lantern.

They walked in silence, Nadzia mentally calculating their path. As far as she knew, there was only one cave on the convent grounds: a hollow space on the dunes, the spot where the Elders came forth each solstice for the Gathering. Not too long a journey from the music studio. But knowing where they were going didn’t answer why. Was she about to undergo a secret ritual before she left with the god of storms? She gripped her pendant tighter.

Soon the familiar scent of brine tickled her nose. Nadzia breathed in the blessedly cool ocean breeze. “Are we nearly there?”

“Almost.” Sister turned abruptly. The tunnel opened to a large rocky chamber illuminated by torches sunk in brilliant white sand. To the left, light filtered through a loose screen woven from reeds that concealed the cave’s beach entrance. A large chest, its lid open, sat near the opening. Nadzia glanced inside and wondered who used the woolen shawls, pillows, bottles of mead, candles. Did the Elders meditate here the night before the Gathering?

She moved deeper into the cave, drawn to an odd shape jutting out from the back wall. The torches flared at her approach, revealing a mermaid’s skeleton—half human, half fish. Golden plates beneath the figure held nuggets of amber, strips of dried eel, and nubs of candles. Nadzia fell to her knees. “Is that . . . Jūratė?”

“Not quite.” Sister Dain lit fresh candles, placed her hands on the wall, and hummed a note so deep and resonant the rocks shuddered. The bones on the wall stirred. Slowly, the torso filled with dark lustrous flesh, the tail with sea green scales. Fossilized curls gave way to a glossy tumble of coal-black hair. When the figure was fully transformed, the goddess opened her eyes.

“You’re alive!” Nadzia gaped and then made a hasty sign of obedience—hand to forehead, lips, and heart.

Jūratė’s laughter echoed through the cave like a sparkling waterfall. “Death is but a door to another realm, my daughter. We never truly perish.” She nodded at Sister Dain. “Thank you for bringing her to me.”

“I live to serve.” The Elder bowed deeply and turned to Nadzia. “The abbess will come for you when the sun begins to set. Remember your promise. You will not speak of this place. It must be kept secret.”

“I gave my word,” Nadzia said with a hint of anger. “You have no reason to doubt me.”

Sister paused as if she had more to say, seemed to think better of it, and bowed again to the goddess. “I leave her in your care, Blessed One.”

Nadzia returned her attention to the luminous being on the wall. Of all the events she imagined might occur today, meeting her divine ancestor was not among them. It was one thing to pray at an altar, something entirely different to come face-to-face with the goddess you revered. She fumbled for words and finally decided to wait until she was asked to speak.

Jūratė floated down from the rocks, leaving behind a faint impression of her body on the stones. She settled onto the sand and curled her tail into a seat. Nadzia studied the goddess’s face, so like her own she might be looking in a mirror—the same slate eyes, the same raven curls and olive skin. No wonder Perun answered when I called.

The goddess smiled. “Tell me your name.”

“Nadzia, your holiness.”

Jūratė’s sigh was a melancholy exhalation that resonated against the walls and flickered the torches. “My brave, brave daughter. You do me honor with your courage. Perun is a mighty foe. He will test your resolve.”

“I have your voice,” Nadzia said proudly. “Not even the god of storms can resist it.”

“True, but can you resist him?”

Nadzia stammered in surprise. “I would . . . I never . . . how can you think —?”

“Did you never wonder why he was so angry when I chose a human to wed?”

“He was jealous. He wanted you for his own.”

“And why would he believe that possible?”

Nadzia frowned as she recalled the history she’d been taught. Perun was enraged by the mermaid goddess’s disdain for rules, his wrath magnified by what he considered a weak verdict. Surely he didn’t think he had a claim to the Blessed One. Unless . . . .

“You loved him?” she whispered, aghast at the thought.

“He is more than fire and fury,” Jūratė answered. “He longs for affection and gladly returns it. Yes, I loved him, but Kastysis stole my heart with a glance. I did not wish to hurt Perun, but we could not continue as before.”

“He killed you,” Nadzia protested. “He’s a brute. I’ll never want him.”

Jūratė looked at her keenly. “Do not presume to know every secret of seduction,” she warned. “Perun is a skillful lover. And quite persistent.”

“I know how to shield my emotions. I’ll never relent.”

“And yet when you speak of him, your hand seeks the jewel shining at your throat.” The goddess recoiled as Nadzia held out the amber for inspection. “My touch will act as a beacon. We must not alert Perun to my presence here. Or yours.”

“Why am I here?” Nadzia asked. “For a final blessing?”

“I wish to propose an alternative.” Jūratė eyes blazed with a fervor that turned Nadzia’s blood cold. “There is no need for conflict. You can accept what the gods have offered. The lives of your sisters are at stake. I do not wish to see my children dead before their time.”

Nadzia sat back on her heels, astounded. “You don’t you believe in me?”

“I commend your valor and fortitude,” the goddess replied. “But a vow of vengeance puts you and the Order in grave peril. Not only with the god of storms, but the Divine Council as well. Do you believe that Perun’s wrath is all you need fear? Dievas will spare no one if he learns of your scheme.” Jūratė’s voice quivered with bitterness. “He did nothing to stop Perun from killing me or my husband. You can expect no less for the convent.”

Nadzia’s mind reeled. “I don’t understand. If saving everyone is as simple as submitting to Perun, why have the Elders trained me to resist?”

“I have argued against this scheme with every abbess since the talk of insurrection began,” Jūratė said irritably. “They will not listen. They are resolute in their craving to thwart the gods and convinced they can prevail.”

“Then why don’t you protect us?”

Jūratė’s anger subsided. “How I wish I could. But my divinity is gone, I have no power against the gods. My presence here is possible only because Veles created a portal from the Underworld to this cave for me.” She paused to smooth back a stray hair that had fallen across her forehead. “There is a bright spot amidst the darkness: once you are made divine, your powers will forever protect the Order and the waters of Lithuania. Is that not a purpose noble enough to stop this folly?”

She reached out to touch Nadzia’s cheek and then pulled back when Perun’s jewel spit out a flurry of sparks. “Will you battle the gods and wait for the stench of death to fill the cove if you lose, or take what you have been given and live content?”

Nadzia bit back a retort. Give up without a fight? Impossible. The goddess hadn’t lived under a cloud, knowing she might be bound to a killer. She didn’t understand how it felt to have her existence shaped by that knowledge. Every Gatherer who stood on the shore prayed for the chance to outwit the gods. What was she supposed to tell them? That the promise of an immortal throne meant more than their right to revenge?

Her thoughts grew peevish. None of this would be happening if Jūratė had loved Perun as he wished. “This is all your fault!” she cried, hating the childishness of her words yet unable to stop them. “You should have stayed with your own kind.”

“We cannot foresee every consequence of our choices,” Jūratė replied softly. “Blame me if you must, but remember, had I married Perun you would not be here today. Should I regret my daughters, my pride and joy?”

Nadzia’s face flamed. “Forgive me, Blessed One. I spoke in haste.” She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “I understand the danger, truly. We all do. But the fate that Dievas and the Council thrust upon us is exactly why we must resist. We can’t let the gods treat us as pawns.” Her fists clenched. “Where would they be without mortals to worship them? Who would build their temples? We have a right to choose our own destiny, even if that means destruction.”

The goddess held up her hands in defeat. “If I cannot dissuade you, then promise me that you will not be hasty. Your siren’s voice may tame the god of storms, as mine did, but it lacks the full force of divinity. Guard your true thoughts and emotions. Perun must never suspect you are anything but a willing participant in the gods’ designs. Any hint of fraud will stoke his ire. You do not want to face his fury alone.”

Nadzia jutted out her chin. “I have the prayers of my sisters with me always.”

“Mine as well,” Jūratė said stiffly, “but that does not give you permission to act rashly. You will be watched, do nothing to arouse suspicion. At Perun’s temple, with his servants and followers, at court—especially at court. The gods are fickle. They love their games of intrigue and their loyalties are constantly shifting. Do not trust appearances. Learn what lurks behind them. If you need someone to confide in, seek out Veles. You can trust him.”

“Not Dievas and Rodzenica?”

Jūratė’s skin flushed scarlet. “The gods of creation, who directed the Council to rule in Perun’s favor and allowed him to claim one of my precious daughters? Never.”

Nadzia bowed her head. She wondered if the goddess regretted marrying a human. She’d never had a chance to raise a family, didn’t meet her daughters until they died. It couldn’t be an easy existence. She raised her eyes. “Are you content, shut away from the world?”

“I’m not so very isolated. My husband and I are together. And every babe born to the Order is brought to me here.” The goddess laughed at Nadzia’s gasp of surprise. “Did you never wonder why a mermaid is etched on the back of your neck? My breath marks you.”

“There’s so much I don’t know.” A wave of fatigue washed over Nadzia. She yawned and then gulped in dismay. “I’m sorry. I mean no disrespect.”

“And yet you willfully ignore my wishes.” Jūratė waved away Nadzia’s sputtering protests. “You want the freedom to make your own choices, as I did. We won’t speak of it further.” She opened her arms and smiled sadly. “You have a few hours before night falls. Let me hold you until then.”

Nadzia leaned into the mermaid’s cool embrace and closed her eyes. She was about to endure the caresses of a killer, she welcomed a gentle embrace before she left. The goddess stroked her hair and crooned a note sweeter than a nightingale’s chirp. Nadzia snuggled closer and fell asleep to dreams of infants cooing at the goddess’s touch.

Copyright © 2022 by Kathryn Jankowski

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