He wasn’t supposed to be here; it was forbidden. It belonged exclusively to the royal family. It was one of the most sacred places in the country. But with all this opulence and wealth, there had to be food somewhere. And death seemed too high a price to pay for something as inevitable as hunger.
The boy crept along the shadowed path, using the shade provided by the trees to hide. The heat of the late summer day made his threadbare clothing stick to his skin, and he shuddered, making a note to take a trip to the river for a long, cool bath later.
If he made it out of here, anyway. He shook the thought away like a particularly bothersome fly. He couldn’t think like that, not when his ailing mother and his smaller siblings were depending on him. Gods knew that he knew better than to steal, but the hunger pangs had gotten to him, and his sisters seemed to shrink more with every passing day.
A hot flame of rage and resentment burst to life inside of his chest, and if his self-preservation instinct wasn’t so strong, he would steal into the palace of the widowed Empress and burn it to the ground. For what ruler was happy while her people were starving to death?
The death toll continued to climb, people dying quietly in their sleep, begging for the slightest morsel, anything to save them from the cracked lips and empty stomachs. Some didn’t bother to wait for death, choosing to take the lives of their families instead of waiting for the goddess of Death, Kasmira, to bring them peace. The thought made him ill.
The Empress had all but sentenced the peasants in her prospering country to death, choosing to keep all of the profits for herself and her household, all the while, her people were dying. The bitterness that coated his mouth and throat was an all-too familiar sensation, and with thoughts of his family and village spurring him onward, he at last made it inside of the temple.
The stone temple was silent and dark, surprisingly cool after the immense heat he’d just come out of. Statues of gods, goddesses, and idols adorned pedestals around the room; there was the cool scent of stone and the spicy aroma of incense. The boy felt a slight twinge of fear and regret; he wouldn’t have dared defile the temples of The Old Ones if he’d had any other choice.
But he couldn’t just let what family he had left die. Perhaps the gods would forgive his transgressions, he thought as he knelt in front of Lapis, The Blue Lady, murmuring thanks for offerings that were not his to take in the first place. But he could not resist the bounty of jewel-bright fruit resting in her lap: mangoes that looked like bright, round sunsets, tiny orange goji berries, bloodred pomegranate seeds spilling out of a juicy melon, tiny buns filled with ground meat, thin strips of beef and vegetables layered over rice, scarlet cubes of tofu in a spicy, black bean sauce tiny squares of glistening coconut ice candy; it was all a veritable feast, and everyone knew that the gods did not eat, not unless they had taken a vessel on this plane, and that hadn’t happened in more than five hundred years.
He got as much food as he could carry in a small, makeshift bundle crafted from an old, clean work smock, and he began to creep out of the temple, hoping that no one saw him.
When he reached the door, he just barely avoided crashing into a tall figure with glowing sapphire eyes.
“And just where do you think you’re going with my offering, child?” A musical voice broke the silence of the empty building, accusatory though not raised.
He’d been caught with the offering of a goddess. And, so it seemed, that same figure from all the stories had somehow descended from the sky to confront him for his theft.