I hope you’re enjoying the story thus far. In these two chapters, Nadzia finally meets the god of storms and Perun relives the day Jūratė died.
For previous chapters, click here.
The sun dipped into the sea. Nadzia, dressed in a fresh white gown, waited with the abbess on the beach, the white sands tinged with dusk’s orange light. “I don’t understand. Why send me to Jūratė? You knew she would counsel me to accept the gods’ plan.”
Mother Gintare tucked her arms into the sleeves of her robe and stared at the heavens. “I wanted you to see how far she has fallen. Our beloved goddess, constrained to the land of the dead through no fault of her own, forced to sneak around like a common thief to visit her daughters. Discarded by the very ones who created her.”
“She seemed reconciled to her circumstances.”
“And if she was not? Who would heed her grievances? She has no choice. We do. We always have.” The abbess turned and grabbed Nadzia’s hands so fiercely her knuckles turned white. “If we do not resist, if we do not claim the right to decide the course of our lives, then we are nothing but puppets.”
Nadzia slipped out of the old woman’s grasp and flexed feeling back into her fingers. “You needn’t worry, I haven’t given up. I share your sentiments. Jurate has been wronged and I won’t be the gods’ plaything. I—”
A roar from above cut off her words. The clouds parted and a giant white ox harnessed to a chariot hurtled through the sky toward the beach. Mother hiked up her robe. “I cannot remain. Be safe and know that our prayers are with you each and every moment.”
When the abbess disappeared behind the reeds camouflaging Jūratė’s cave, Nadzia lifted her arms, a welcoming gesture at odds with the malice in her heart. It didn’t matter what she really felt. She had a task to fulfill. Every action, every word, had to further the illusion that she accepted her fate with perfect equanimity. The gods would find nothing to censure in her conduct, no hint of defiance.
The carriage landed a few yards from Nadzia with a gust of wind that billowed her robe, exposing her legs. She smoothed the fabric as Perun stepped down from the helm. Wet sand hissed under his sandals, the heat so intense his footprints left wisps of smoke.
He stood near the ox, as if unsure of how to proceed. A mass of crimson hair fell to his shoulders, framing a ruddy handsome face. Dark eyes flecked with copper gleamed at her with an inner fire. The air around him thrummed with power. Sparks rippled across his bare chest, arms, shoulders, legs, every inch corded with muscles. Nadzia’s thighs clutched. She’d tumbled with young men whose bodies had grown strong from working in fields; they were mewling calves compared to Perun’s bulk and sinew.
A sheep’s pelt hung from his waist to his knees, girded with a leather belt that held a silver ax. According to legend, the blade returned to his hand no matter how far it was thrown. Did he think to intimidate her by flaunting a weapon? Nadzia bit back the accusation simmering in her throat. The god standing before her was infamous for his temper. He would not take kindly to complaints. Let him think all was well.
Perun scooped up a handful of grains and watched them sift through his fingers. “The white sands of Palanga. I remember them well. When my heart grew weary I came here and listened to Jūratė sing. No matter how downcast or sour my mood, she soothed me.”
He sighed, a lonesome sound that rustled the tall clumps of grasses planted atop the dunes. “How I miss her.”
Nadzia forgot herself and glared. This was the jealous god who had slain Jūratė in a fit of jealousy. How dare he talk of sorrow? He should be groveling with shame, begging her forgiveness.
A tern’s cry brought Nadzia back to her senses. She schooled her expression into a placid mask as Perun stirred and motioned for her to approach. Steadying her breath, she waded through the water until she neared the chariot, keeping well away from the ox’s steaming snorts.
Perun gazed at her through hooded eyes. “What shall I call you?”
“A name that means hope. That bodes well for our future together, yes?” Perun trailed a finger down her cheek, her neck, her arm. She shivered with pleasure and fought the urge to lean into his warmth. This wasn’t how things were meant to unfold. He was supposed to yield.
“How like the goddess you are,” he said, his voice low and sultry. “Hair dark as the night. Eyes as gray as the dolphins in the Baltic Sea. Even your flesh is the same, bronzed by the sun.”
Nadzia focused on the blade in his belt. Don’t let him distract you with pretty words. He’s a beast. “I trust you will find me to your liking.”
A shadow crossed the god’s face. Nadzia froze, her heart jolting in a fresh bout of panic. Had she said something wrong? Should she try to alleviate any mistakes with a coy smile? Throw herself into his arms? She waited, unsure, her hand seeking the amber at her breast, as if it might hold the answer.
The jewel flared with heat and light. Perun reached out, his eyes glinting with lust, as if he hungered after the stone more than the woman who wore it. Nadzia remembered her training and covered the pendant with the edge of her robe. “I’m supposed to keep this until your father asks for its return.”
A growl rattled deep in Perun’s chest. And then, so quickly Nadzia wondered if she’d imagined his discontent, he was all smiles and charm. “We will meet with my parents tomorrow. They wish you properly rested and garbed. As do I.” He spoke words foreign to Nadzia—a language known only to the gods, she presumed. A six-petaled, purple rose appeared in his hands. “From my garden,” he said with a disarming grin. “It has a most glorious perfume.”
The rose’s scent was intoxicating, clean and sharp like the air after a storm, with an undertone of clove and apples. Nadzia’s worries faded. She was the one chosen by the Fates. She could do this.
“We are meant to be together,” Perun said as he tucked the stem into the end of her braid. “Imagine the two of us, sovereigns of the sky and sea. I’ll dress you in golden robes and jeweled crowns, elevate you upon a throne in my temple, command my followers to worship at your feet. Queen Nadzia, the goddess reborn. Whatever you wish shall be yours.”
He lifted her into the chariot, whispering soft endearments as he demonstrated how to grip the railing to prevent falls—although Nadzia couldn’t imagine he would allow her to come to harm—and then flicked the reins. The ox reared and charged upward. Nadzia clung to the bar, blinking back tears as the convent shrank into a blotch of white stone atop a tiny hill. When clouds finally obscured her view, she raised the hood of her robe, stood tall, and arranged her face into a mask of joyous serenity.
The chariot climbed toward the stars at a dizzying speed. Perun whooped as he lashed the reins. “Is it not glorious? No walls to confine you. Fresh, clean air. The world and its worries far below. When you are immortal, we will soar to the highest heavens and laugh at the cold.”
Nadzia gripped the railing tighter. How little he knew. These chill gusts were as invigorating as the deepest regions of the Baltic Sea. If the situation were different, she might have sung with pure ecstasy. All those times she’d talked with Sister Saule about exploring the heavens and now the reality was more exhilarating than her wildest dreams.
But guilt quashed her delight. How could she savor anything with so fierce a god? He was the enemy, all that he said and did forever tainted by his heinous deed. She kept her gaze fixed ahead. Until her task was done, she wouldn’t allow herself a moment of true pleasure.
Perun gathered the reins in one hand and pulled Nadzia close. Heat poured off him in waves. A surge of longing arose, so intense she feared its power. Gods almighty, she was doomed if a simple caress left her too weak to resist.
Hot breath tickled her ear. “You feel it, do you not?” Perun said. “The heat. The yearning. What a pair we make. This is our destiny. We will set the skies on fire.”
Nadzia’s passion died like a candle snuffed out in the night. Fire had rained from the heavens the day Jūratė died. Balls of flames and sheets of lightning that shattered an amber palace and left a goddess mortally wounded. A divine inferno, inescapable, conjured in rage and jealousy. That was the image Nadzia had to remember. No torrid god would snare her.
Perun gazed down at her, a frown in his eyes. “You’ve grown pale. Are you ill?”
“It’s nothing,” Nadzia said, gratified that he appeared to suspect nothing more than physical discomfort. “I’m not used to these heights, that’s all.”
“Then we shall fly lower and at a more leisurely pace. My parents will not thank me if I present them with a bride as sallow as a corpse.” He took hold of both reins and turned his focus to steering the chariot.
With Perun’s scrutiny directed elsewhere, Nadzia let her mind settle into serene contemplation. He hadn’t sensed her rancor. A small victory, perhaps, but she would relish it as the first of many more to come.
They flew over a landscape tinged with the afterglow of twilight. Nadzia had never been this far from the convent. Everything was new and fresh, an abundance of captivating sights and sounds. A landscape golden with wheat stalks. Farmers raising straw hats in salutation. Wild horses chasing each other across verdant fields. Above them, a phalanx of white storks, their red bills clattering as they glided toward the coast.
A river snaked to the left, its blue sparkle a bittersweet reminder of home. Nadzia hoped it continued to Perun’s temple. She drew energy from water. A local source would keep her strong and vigorous. Not to mention the joy of swimming every day.
The solstice moon peeked over the horizon as the ox veered south. Valleys gave way to forests of pine and birch and oak. Nadzia peered at the treetops and wondered if her new home was somewhere below, even though that didn’t quite make sense. A god of fire wouldn’t live near something so easily kindled.
Perun drew Nadzia’s attention to a village in the distance. “We’re nearly there. Just beyond Kaunas. Watch for the flame of my temple.” Minutes later, a burst of white fire shot upward from the center of an octagonal building set atop a knoll. Nadzia hid a smile. If Perun’s approach always sparked such a response, she’d never have worry about being caught by surprise. She could explore his temple and grounds for clues when he was away—she assumed his duties would give her time alone—and have ample warning of his return. A welcome bit of knowledge.
Other buildings were scattered around the grounds. Perun pointed to the largest cottage. “That one was constructed to accommodate a bed large enough to fit us both after we marry. Until then, I’ve set aside private quarters for you at my temple.” His eyes smoldered. “I will come inside only with your permission.”
Nadzia gave him a flirtatious smile, genuinely pleased at the news. A lover who relied on an invitation? He’d be ravenous with desire by the time she allowed him entry. But she was ready to begin her seduction now. “A courteous offer,” she said, letting her gaze fall to his loincloth. “But I doubt we’d have much privacy there. Perhaps we can check the comfort of our conjugal bed before the wedding.”
She’d barely finished speaking when Perun pulled her into an embrace. “If you weren’t looking so frail,” he said hoarsely, “I would take you there now.”
She clung to him, breathless and surprisingly grateful. As much as she wanted to start wearing down his defenses—although he didn’t seem to harbor any, if the bulge against her thigh was any indication—a night to recover from the day’s excitement and surprises meant time to rejuvenate her mind and body, renew her purpose. And a fresh gown was always a treat.
Perun guided the chariot to a clearing just outside the temple’s front, lifted her down, and nuzzled her brow. “Your new home. I hope it pleases you.”
They walked up a gravel path toward a pair of ruby-eyed granite eagles set on either side of the entrance. Nadzia faltered under their glittering gaze. “Are they alive?”
“They belch fire if an adversary tries to sneak in.” Perun nodded at scorch marks on the pebbles. “Only the wicked are blasted. My disciples are safe.”
Nadzia bit her cheek. Could these magic caretakers sense duplicity? She filled her mind with cheerful images: the glory of the sky at sunset; fawns playing in dappled sunlight; sipping peppermint tea with Sister Saule as they studied the stars.
The giant birds let her pass.
Once inside, she breathed easier and took a moment to survey the temple’s interior. Perun’s eternal flame illuminated the area from a central sunken pit. Straight ahead, beyond the blaze, an elevated platform held two oak thrones. One of those is mine. She shook away the thought, ashamed to have even considered the idea of ruling beside a killer.
To the right, a life-size portrait of the thunder god dominated his sanctum, filled with offerings of food and drink from pilgrims. Jūratė’s painted image, far smaller, glowed above tiers of candles at an altar on the opposite side of the corridor. Nadzia grit her teeth. The Blessed One deserved a far bigger space.
Past the god of storms’ shrine, black curtains embroidered with thunderbolts enclosed a private space Perun identified as his retreat. He led her across the way to an area separated by turquoise drapes, drew back the curtains, and motioned her inside. “Your room. I hope you will find comfort here.”
Nadzia suppressed a cutting reply, remembering to maintain the guise of servility. With a smile more bitter than sweet, she glanced inside, expecting little. Her breath caught. Clearly someone had designed this space to ease the pangs of separation.
A net full of starfish and seashells looped across the ceiling. Tiny golden fish darted about an amber castle in a bowl of water set atop a small central table surrounded by cushions. Nadzia moved to the back wall, grimacing at the image that stared back at her from an oval mirror hung above a cabinet etched with waves. No wonder Perun had asked about her health. Dark shadows limned her eyes. Her cheeks were sunken with fatigue, her jaw tight with tension. Fates be kind, she’d have time for a bath in the morning. If not, she’d make do with the basin, washcloth, and ewer resting on top of the dresser.
A few steps away, a quilt embroidered with mermaids covered a thick mattress. Nightclothes—a diaphanous gown and robe—lay neatly folded across the lid of a chest carved with leaping dolphins. Nadzia sat on its edge and let her fingers drift along the outlines of her swimming companions. How long before she raced with them again?
Perun removed a bronze bell dangling from a hook by the bed. “This has been enchanted to chime in the servants’ cottage whenever you ring. Your handmaiden, Gabrielle, is anxious to wait upon her new mistress. Should I summon her now? She can bring whatever you wish. Wine? Food?”
“That won’t be necessary. I’d prefer to rest.”
“If sleep is what you crave, then sleep you will have.” Perun eyed Nadzia with an intensity that sent prickles down her spine. “May I help you disrobe?”
“No, thank you,” she replied and then prayed he wouldn’t take offense. “I’m tired, truly.”
Perun’s lips quirked. He kissed her forehead, a soft graze warmed by an inner fire. “We will have an eternity to explore each other. Rest well.”
As soon as the curtain closed behind him, Nadzia peeled off her dress, stored it along with her belt and necklace in the cabinet, and rinsed off the day’s grime at the basin. The nightgown set out for her offered little comfort—she felt more exposed than covered—but the quilt was stuffed with downy feathers, the sheets freshly washed and scented with lavender. She eased into bed and hugged a pillow, well aware of the god of storms’ presence mere feet away. Her drapes flickered with a shadow of his burly silhouette, hunched over his throne. Gods didn’t slumber. Would he sit there all night, waiting for her to rouse?
She took down the servants’ bell, careful to hold the clapper still to keep it from ringing. A good night’s sleep, that’s what she needed, but her mind was as busy as a swarm of bees. At the convent, Sister Bronis kept a jarful of valerian herbs for insomnia. Maybe the handmaiden had a supply as well. Surely the servant of so tempestuous a god would take relief wherever she could find it. But as much as Nadzia longed for repose, she didn’t want anyone hovering over her. She studied the bell instead.
Runes representing the elements decorated the outer edges. Nadzia traced the signs for sky and land. The gods of those realms lived together in harmony. Obviously, they intended for fire and water to do likewise. But Dievas hadn’t taken Rodzenica without her consent. The legends told of a long and rocky courtship, but at its end there was no doubt they loved each other. And yet they’d allowed their son to claim a bride who couldn’t refuse.
Bitter tears coursed down her cheeks. They probably expected her to feel honored. Didn’t every girl dream of spending eternity with a hotheaded murderer?
The fire outside her room flared in a sudden gust of wind. Sparks floated out of the opening above the pit. She followed their ascent and spied the Heavenly Scales. In a heartbeat she was on the hill with Sister Saule again, poring over the charts created at her birth. No matter what the gods intended, the stars promised victory.
She returned the bell to its spot by the bed and swiped at her face. Enough. The gods would never make her cry again. Fates be kind, she’d leave them sobbing.
Rule at Perun’s side? Not now, not ever,
The god of storms had farmlands to water in eastern Lithuania tonight, but he lingered on the throne in his temple, his keen ears detecting the rustle of sheets as his bride tossed and turned in bed. What disturbed her? She’d enjoyed flying—her joy was palpable as they raced through the heavens—and she’d returned his affection so ardently he forgot all else while she clung to him. Perhaps the excitement of a new life kept her awake. He wanted to believe that, but the handmaiden’s warnings lingered in his mind. It might all be a façade meant to lull him into complacency while Nadzia pursued whatever nefarious plan the convent had in mind.
An owl flew over the temple’s open roof, its wings silhouetted by a moon just beginning to wane. Perun’s fingers drummed against his knees. When Nadzia hesitated after he explained how his granite eagles detected dishonesty, he’d steeled himself for the worst. Yet she entered with nary a ruffle from his birds. That should have allayed his suspicions. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder if the daughters of Jūratė could submerge their hatred so deeply even his guardians would fail to detect malice.
He rubbed at the ache in his jaw, the muscles taut and sore from clenching. Why had he been released from penance only to be thrust into a warren of doubt? Were the Fates jesting with him? He was on the verge of charging into Nadzia’s room and demanding answers when he realized her breath was rising and falling in even measure. Asleep at last.
Taking care to move as quietly as possible, Perun stepped away from his throne and parted Nadzia’s curtains, studying her in the firelight. In repose she looked so much like his beloved mermaid he had to restrain himself from taking her now and rousing her to the height of passion, her long, lithe body slick against his. His flesh clamored for release. Did he dare?
She pulled the mermaid quilt over her shoulders and murmured. If only he knew what she dreamed. Mortals might suppress emotions when they were awake, but not in repose. Breksta, goddess of twilight and dreams, often boasted about her powers at the Tree of Life. However humans acted during the day, their secret desires surfaced at night. Nadzia could not hide the truth while she slept.
Perun smothered a curse. Another time, he might have sought out Breksta and begged her help, but his sister hadn’t spoken to him for 500 years. She believed him beyond redemption, unfairly indulged. She’d never probe the depths of his bride’s mind, no matter how fervently he begged.
He let the curtains fall and then strode down the aisle for his nightly vigil at Jūratė’s shrine. Even though the Fates had judged him redeemed, he’d grown so used to the ritual it didn’t feel right to stop. He knelt before the altar, lit a fresh candle with his fingertips and bent his head, eager to lose himself in prayer.
But the flame spewed a cloud of acrid black smoke, plunging him into darkness, back to the day his world forever changed.
Half a century old, the memory was edged in mist. Perun stood on a branch at the Tree of Life, watching his beloved mermaid fly into the night on the back of a giant raven, his heart torn between loathing and longing, How could she have chosen a mortal over a god?
A sob rattled his throat. He growled and let fury crush sorrow. Why did he mewl like a calf who’d lost its mother? He was the mighty god of fire and lightning, maker of tempests. No one abandoned him for some stinking fisherman.
His fingers itched with heat, frustration seeking release. Jūratė had played him for a fool. It didn’t matter that she’d been exiled, her divinity drained and siphoned into a vial kept in his father’s room. Her rejection still stung. There was nothing he could do to alleviate the pain.
Except . . . .
He took to the air, urging his beast toward the coast with guttural cries. Soon the cove of Palanga appeared. The telltale gleam of Jūratė’s undersea palace shimmered in the moonlight. He halted above the water, his mouth twisted with contempt. He’d helped the goddess collect amber to build her castle. Now he would watch it crumble, stone by precious stone.
A man, tall and gaunt, paced the brilliant white sands and watched the sea. Perun smiled sourly at the mortal who’d stolen his lover. “My first strike is for you, Kastytis.” A stream of fire spewed from his hand. He looked on in grim satisfaction as the body below burst into flames and the man shrieked in agony.
His flesh seethed as he summoned black clouds and sent out peals of thunder that roiled the air. Consumed with wrath, he hurled bolt after bolt of jagged lightning, raining destruction until the waters steamed and the castle was a mound of amber shards. When he was satisfied the site had been thoroughly ravaged, he roared in triumph and shouted a command to his ox.
They spiraled upward to the sanctuary of his stars, where he waited for his energy to return—harnessing the power of wind and fire and rain always left him depleted. But the relief he’d sought eluded him. Why had he thought a ruined palace would ease the ache in his heart? Jūratė would never be his. A thousand storms could never compensate for the emptiness she’d left behind.
He returned to Kaunas long after the moon had set, its place in the sky claimed by a roseate sun. He’d barely coasted to a stop on the grasses outside the front of his temple when two of his father’s black-winged guards accosted him with a terse message: “Dievas commands your presence. He waits within.”
Rough hands gripped his arms. He tried to shake them off, but the attendants’ hold was stronger, enhanced by his father’s magic. None had more power than the Creator of All.
They dragged him down the center aisle, deaf to his complaints, and thrust him to the floor after passing his eternal flame. He stumbled to his feet, furious, until he glimpsed Rodzenica, crumpled and weeping against her husband’s shoulder. Dread lanced his throat. “Mother? What’s wrong?”
Dievas turned to him with a look of utter despair and moved aside, revealing a sight that brought Perun to his knees again—Jūratė’s bloodstained body, draped across his throne. Saltwater dripped from her raven tresses. Hazel eyes stared dully, devoid of life. Her skin, once so beautifully brown, was gray with the pallor of death.
He reached out, mute with horror. He’d seen his beloved depart safely. How could she have perished? An unearthly howl escaped him, a mournful cry that shook the rafters of his temple. “No!”
Veles shimmered into view behind the body, his serpentine scales rippling with agitation. When he spied Perun, he bared his fangs and lunged. “Murderer!”
Dievas held him back, although he trembled with the effort. “This is neither the time nor the place to indulge your hatred. Keep away and let me discern the truth.”
He waited until Veles slithered into a corner behind the thrones and then turned a haggard face toward Perun. “My son, I beg you, tell me these claims against you are false. Tell me you are not responsible for Jūratė’s death.”
Perun sank back on his heels and sputtered in disbelief. “Impossible. How? When?”
“Don’t play the innocent with us,” Veles jeered. “I’m the one who brought her spirit to the Underworld. I know exactly what happened. She died in the storm you unleashed.”
“That can’t be.” Perun cast his thoughts back to the cove. “Only the palace was destroyed.”
And then he remembered the man on the shore, watching . . . waiting . . . for Jūratė? Dear gods, no. “Are you saying she was within? But why? You banished her.”
“From what Veles has told us,” Rodzenica answered, her voice a shudder of emotion, “my daughter wanted her crown to help start a new life for her family. She believed herself safe. And why should she not? The Council forbade any of her brethren from contact.”
The goddess paused, steadied her breath, and then raised a trembling finger in accusation. “She named you her killer.”
“Not by me. Never by me.” Perun wheezed, barely able to think or feel beyond the grief threatening to consume him. “I . . . I thought her castle abandoned. I would never—”
“Assassin!” Veles cried, rising up with a hiss. “Did I not tell you so, Father?”
Dievas pulled up the god crouching at his feet until their faces were inches apart. “Jūratė was punished according to our laws,” he said, his tone clipped and biting. “We exiled her from these halls and made her mortal. Such was our judgment, binding upon all. Who granted you permission to act further?”
Perun lowered his eyes. “No one.”
“When has the mighty god of storms ever sought guidance?” Veles sneered. “He expects us all to indulge his wildness because that’s how he was made. Not this time, brother.”
“You have killed one of our own,” Dievas continued, warning the snake-skinned god to keep away with a glance. “She may have been cast out, but she was still divinely born. We cannot allow so grave a transgression to go unpunished. The Council will meet to decide your fate.”
“It was an accident, I swear.” Perun’s voice cracked. “Please, Father, you know how much I loved Jūratė. Her laughter was like a rainbow come alive. When she sang, all else faded. The stars shone more brightly in her presence. I would never wish her gone.”
“Do not try to sway us with reminders of what we have lost.” Rodzenica’s violet eyes glittered with condemnation. “Our daughter is dead and you are to blame.”
Released from his father’s grip, Perun staggered backwards and shook out his arms. “You don’t understand. Jūratė spurned me for a mortal, dismissed me like a pesky fly. It was an insult to all the gods.”
“An affront properly punished,” Dievas snapped. “We did not condemn her to death. That was your doing.”
“But not my intent. Surely you must allow for that.” Perun searched his mind for an argument that would sway his father. “Consider this as well: if it was Jūratė’s fate to die, then whatever happened was meant to be. I cannot be held fully accountable.”
“Coward!” Veles sprang forward, clawed fingers outstretched. “Shall we considerate it divine fortune if I rip you to shreds here and now?”
Perun flexed his hands. “These halls will run slick with your blood, brother, not mine.”
“You think to frighten me with idle threats?” Drops of poison hung from Veles’s fangs. “I am no innocent maiden in the sea. You will not strike me unawares.”
The gods circled each other, one spitting black venom, one sparking red fire, both muttering curses. Deivas shouted for quiet. “Veles, you promised no disruptions. Stand by your vow or I shall have you removed from this chamber.”
The snake-skinned god returned to his father’s side and wiped his mouth as his tail coiled into a ringed seat. “I cannot abide a killer who blames the victim. But then, I’m not surprised. What does Perun know of honor? Nothing.”
“And yet he brings up a point which the Council must discuss with the Fates.” Deivas sighed and shook his head. “Shall I tell them the god of storms has no remorse? That he blames destiny for his actions?”
Perun hesitated. What difference did it make if he hadn’t known Jūratė lingered in her castle? He’d given free rein to the dark urges that compelled him to travel to the Baltic Coast and destroy a palace with no thought to the consequences. Much as he hated to admit it, his brother was right. The crime was his alone and there was no undoing the deed.
He gazed forlornly at the mermaid goddess’s corpse. “Oh, my love,” he moaned. “What have I done? Forgive me.”
The chamber echoed with his anguished cries. When his voice grew hoarse, he approached his parents, a shadow of himself, hunched with anguish. “Censure me as you will. I am ready to die. No one else can expiate my sin.”
Amazement flashed across his father’s face. “Then you regret your deeds?”
“Don’t trust him,” Veles urged, his eyes narrowing. “He fears what you will decide.”
“You are wrong, brother. I would cut out my heart if it would bring Jūratė back.”
“An interesting idea,” Dievas murmured, stroking his beard. “A sacrifice to convince us you are truly contrite.” He held out a hand to his wife. “We will bring your suggestion before the Council. Remain here while we attend to the matter.”
“There is no need. I am willing to stand trial.”
“You have admitted your guilt,” Dievas said crisply. “We must decide on the proper penance.”
Veles folded his arms. “As much as I’d love to tear you apart, I won’t forfeit my seat at the Council’s deliberations. I suggest you retain the guards, Father. Given my brother’s rash behavior, we can’t trust him not to flee the moment our backs are turned.”
“An excellent suggestion.” Dievas beckoned the messengers forward. “Keep him here. Veles, take this body to your realm and then join us.”
They returned when stars began to dot the heavens, their faces worn with fatigue, and settled into the two thrones. “Your actions stirred an intense debate, my son,” Dievas began, rubbing his ivory brow. “Now that the Council has made its decision, you may learn the full truth of what occurred.”
He took a long breath and exhaled slowly. “After your assault, Jūratė escaped her palace and found sanctuary in a cave. When Veles arrived, he discovered twin babes, both girls, clinging to her breasts.”
“Two . . . and they survived.” Perun faltered, his emotions shifting between joy and sorrow. “Then she lives on.”
“Through her daughters, yes.” Rodzenica dabbed away a cold tear. “Mokosh asked to be their guardian and we agreed wholeheartedly—the goddess of life can be trusted to see that they flourish.”
“Their mother should have seen them thrive,” Veles spat. “Because of your jealousy, she never will.”
Perun hung his head. “Has the Council decided on my punishment?”
“We have,” Dievas replied. “While we understand that passion can lead one astray, we cannot accept it as an excuse.”
“Tell me what I must do.” Perun listened mutely while his father explained the choices: exile, death, or—wonder of wonders—a chance to atone and love again. Heat warmed his face. “You would give me one of Jūratė’s own? Why? I don’t deserve mercy.”
“Because we are convinced this was—as you insist—an unfortunate calamity.” Dievas’s voice hardened. “Our daughter betrayed us. You did not, although your actions weigh heavy on our hearts. This is an opportunity for you to regain our favor.”
Perun put a hand to his chest. Never again would envy rule him. He glanced at the moon shining above, a beacon of hope, and bowed to his parents. “I vow to be a faithful companion, devoted in my affection, asking nothing for myself. Thank the Council for me, Father. I promise you will not regret your kindness.”
“I’ll be watching for any lapses,” Veles said as they departed. “Every day and night.”
At sunrise the next morning, Rodzenica waited beside Perun’s eternal flame. He gulped and kneeled before her, groaning as she reached into his chest, sliced his heart with her fingernail, and pressed the red sliver into a shard of amber.
His discomfort did not go unnoticed. “Be thankful you are here today,” she chided. “Veles argued most heatedly for your demise and several on the Council agreed with him. Your father overruled them. He insisted you be given a chance to make amends.”
Perun massaged the flesh above his heart. The cut was nearly healed, although a nagging ache remained. “How you will know when I am fully redeemed?”
“The Fates gathered sand from Palanga and housed it in an enchanted hourglass we will keep in our private quarters at the Tree of Life. When the last grain drops, your sins will have been purged.”
Rodzenica held out the amber. She looked up at her son—he towered over all the gods save his father—with melancholy eyes. “You cannot force a woman’s affection. That is the lesson you must learn. Return this stone to the cove from whence it came. Create a shrine for Jūratė and apologize. For your arrogance. For your wrath. For depriving us of her sweet company. Promise as well to honor and treasure the one who summons you.”
“Then she’ll be mine?”
“No, then you must court her. Take care with this one, my son,” she said, pressing the stone into his palm. “Treat her badly and I will refuse to make you whole again.” She smiled grimly at Perun’s gasp of horrified understanding—she had just sworn to let him die if his actions failed to meet with her approval. “I see that you grasp the severity of the situation.”
Perun swallowed heavily. The stakes were so immense that he put aside his pride—he never asked for advice—and took his mother’s hand. “Help me.”
She blinked at him as if he was a doddering fool. “Just love her.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“It is.” The lines of sadness in Rodzenica’s face softened. “True esteem and affection grow when properly nurtured.”
“Please,” Perun begged. “Won’t you at least give me a sign?”
“Love is not a game.”
He peered into the depths of his mother’s gaze, hoping for encouragement. But her eyes were bereft of solace. She had no comfort to offer. He pushed down the rage that threatened to erupt and searched for words to appease her. “Am I doomed, then, because I could not control my temper? Will you condemn me to my brother’s savagery?”
His voice broke. “Is that what you wish for me, eternal torment?”
Rodzenica twitched, as if roused from a dream. “No, my son, I wish to see my daughter reborn and cherished.” She breathed upon the jewel. A golden mist descended into the amber. “If the girl has sincere feelings for you, the sliver will beat stronger. Remember, you are more than fire and fury. Look deep within and find the tenderness I impart to all my children. Then you will know how to love.”
Perun gathered his mother in a fierce embrace, startling a huff of surprise out of her. “I’ll make you proud. Wait and see.”
The smoke surrounding Perun evaporated as his awareness gradually returned to the present. The candles at Jūratė’s altar had burned down to stubs. He rubbed his eyes and silently cursed. Why hadn’t he thought to check the stone hanging at Nadzia’s throat? He didn’t dare to look now, having promised to stay clear of her room unless she asked him inside. When he’d glimpsed her from the curtains earlier, she’d been wrapped in her quilt, her neck tightly covered. Fool of a god!
Yet all was not lost. Gabi, as loyal as servant as any god could ask for, had promised to report oddities in his bride’s behavior. He hoped she prevailed; she was young and impressionable, an easy target for a woman with a siren’s voice. If this daughter of Jūratė truly meant him harm, it wouldn’t take much to convince a simple farm girl otherwise. He could only wait and see. And patience was not one of his virtues.
He sent a silent prayer of thanks to Rodzenica for her gift, an infallible means of gauging deceit, so skillfully concealed within the sliver of his heart. Nadzia might deceive a god who desperately wanted to believe she was true to her word, but no mortal—even one with a divine heritage—could resist his mother’s enchantment.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski