She knelt on the floor, the bite of the cold stone seeping through the gauzy material of her dress like mist, her arms wrapped around her middle as if she were trying to hold herself together.
Her sobs were quiet, but in the cavernous chapel, they were amplified so that it felt as if she were surrounded by a chorus of herself. She wished that she could stop, but she hadn’t been able to stem her tears when she’d heard. She sat up and brushed her tears off of her face, then she bowed her head, moving so that her forehead touched the floor.
Even her reflection looked wretched, her face red and puffy from crying, her glittering tiara askew on her head, her ash-gray hair coming free from its elegant bun. She looked nothing like a princess, a future queen, an heir of the Crown. But she could do nothing to free herself from this; it was as good as ironclad, and before she realized what was happening, she was screaming, raising her head from her deferential position on the floor.
“Why have the gods damned me so?” She demanded of the empty room; if she was anything less than a lady, a royal, she would pound her fists into the stone until her skin cracked and bled. “I have always served you, and my family, to the best of my ability. And this is how I am to be repaid for my service? I won’t stand for it, I won’t!” Her fists were clenched, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, appealing to beings on a higher and more invisible plane.
She might have been born for the gods’ service, brought to life through her parents’ sacrifice, but no longer would she be just a doll, to be moved and used for everyone else’s pleasure and control. She deserved better than that, and if she was going to serve the gods, it would be by her own choice. For a few moments, there was only the sound of her own heavy breathing.
But then she looked up at the cold, gray stone walls and gasped. They were moving.
The skeletons were reaching their arms toward the circle in which the gods stood, their mouths yawning in silent shrieks, and then a cold, silver light began to spread outward from the circle. The girl began to crawl backward, away from the icy cold winds that lifted the train of her gown and sent it fluttering around her.
Of all the times that she’d come to the chapel for prayer, nothing like this had happened before. But then again, she’d never shown anything but devotion to her deities. Her heart pounded against her ribs, threatening to give out. Her hair finally freed itself from its binds at the nape of her neck, and soon there was a sheet of waves adding into all of the chaos.
“Do you expect a reward, you insolent child? If not for myself and my siblings, you would never have existed!” A deep voice boomed, shattering the silence like glass. She covered her eyes, blinded, and just as quickly as her anger flared, it faded, replaced by the feeling that she was about to be scolded, and by her gods. The beings she’d been created to serve.
A line of shining, tall beings began to emerge from the circle, disappearing from the stone walls of the temple. There was The Jade Oracle, Lady Gloriana, as well as her tigers, made from moonlight; Mauli, Lord Death, his huge bat wings shimmering with a rainbow of colors even in the dim light, his winged soldiers following silently in his wake, their bones clicking against the floor, and their children, every one of them blessed with the beauty of their mother, and the dark, forbidding aura of their father.
“You’re real?” The girl asked at last, and much to her surprise, Gloriana let out a sweet, tinkling laugh.
“But of course we’re real, you silly child! Who do you think gave your parents the blessing to bring you into this world? Did you really believe that all of our histories, all of our tales, were just stories?” The goddess sniffed, those green eyes boring into the girl. “I thought your parents taught you to hold the gods–your betters–in the highest esteem. Why, then, all of this protest?”
“You cannot escape your destiny, child, no matter how different you wish it were. And my beloved wife speaks true. If it weren’t for us, you wouldn’t be here.”
“I.. I meant no disrespect, my Lord and Lady. I only wish… I just wish that my choices were my own.”
“There is no such option for children conceived for the temple, and the gods.” Gloriana said quietly, her tone serious, though her eyes were full of silent sympathy that she could not express. “You must do what is asked of you.”
Lord Mauli stood beside his spouse, surrounded by his army of winged beings. “We gave you your life, and we can just as easily take it away, child. You may be royalty on this plane, but you are human nonetheless.”