To the ones who stand by us no matter what. Love and romance are amazing, but friendship is what makes it magical.
There was only one thing more terrifying to a child than the Temple of All Gods: knowing I wasn't wanted. Hauled up the stairs by a rough hand on my wrist, I bumped my bare toe into the frigid stone. My father didn't let me stop. Even at nine years old, I knew better than to whimper about it. He didn't want me. No one did, so the gods were my last hope.
I only limped twice before the cold numbed the pain from my toe, but it didn't stop the blood. Small red dots marked my path, vivid against the pristine white stone. For a moment, I wondered if I should tell Papa, but decided against it. Maybe the blood would make them send me back? I didn't want to be here, not at all, but begging had only earned me the back of my mother's hand.
The closer we got to the top, the less space there was. So many people were trying to get into the door that a line was backing up. Most were dressed like us, in whatever clothes they could find. Some looked nicer. Men in tired suits stood shoulder to shoulder with those showing their suspenders. Women in bustle skirts followed those in ragged smocks.
We were all wearing our best, but that varied so much, and all the truly fancy people stayed across the street. Besides that, the only thing the people here all had in common was the child beside them. Ages varied, but there were so many of us. Most of them had shoes, though. As we crowded together, I tried very hard to keep my bare toes from getting stepped on.
Everyone around us began to shuffle as we got closer. That was the only reason my father slowed his steps, finally giving me the chance to ease the strain on my wrist - although he didn't let go. He wasn't about to risk me pulling free. I only knew because I'd already tried.
"Papa?" I whispered when we stopped.
"Hush, Nariana," he snapped.
"Papa, my toe's bleeding."
He didn't bother looking down, but I saw his jaw clench. "You'll be fine."
But I wasn't fine. My eyes were welling up for so many reasons. My toe hurt. My papa wouldn't look at me. I was cold and hungry. Unconsciously, I reached up to scratch at the back of my head, working around the knot in my hair. It wouldn't come out. Mama had tried, saying I needed to look perfect today, but I didn't.
The other kids had combed hair and shoes. At least, most of them did. Even worse, everyone else had on pants. I was only wearing my oldest brother's shirt, tied at the waist with a piece of rope. It hung down below my knees, though, so Mama said it was my dress. Then there were the stains on my arms and legs. The dirt had been there so long that it wouldn't come off with just water.
Eventually, we made it up another step. After waiting forever, we took one more. The door was slowly growing closer, but so was the line beside us. When we stopped again, I felt something tug at my sleeve.
Looking over, I found a little boy only a few years older than me. His hair was pale, bleached out to nearly white by the sun, and a few freckles were visible on his nose. Beside him, his mother held his hand, her white knuckles looking as tight as my papa's. Clearly, it was the boy who'd tugged at me.
"You ok?" he whispered, looking down at my foot.
I quickly glanced at Papa, making sure he wasn't paying attention before I answered. "I'll be fine."
"Eladehl!" the woman hissed. "Mind your own business."
And then the line started moving again. By the time we reached the door, I was shivering. My toe had stopped bleeding, but my feet felt like blocks of ice. Papa pulled me up against him, preventing me from accidentally brushing the white edge of the door frame, and then we stepped into a fantasy.
The Temple of All Gods looked like the Promised Land. Never in my life had I imagined a building this big. I'd thought there were a lot of people outside, but there were many, many more wandering around in here. They made it hard to see much except the dome above. Like everything else, it was white and perfect.
I was gawking at it when Papa pulled me forward. Once again, I stubbed my toe into the floor, but this time it was the other foot. My skin squeaked against the tile, the sound piercing through the soft murmur of the crowd. A few people looked over to see what had happened, but not many. Most of them were heading to one side or the other like they were on a mission.
Papa tugged again, but I had no idea what was going on. Everything around me was new and beautiful. When the crowd parted, I saw gigantic statues. The one we were heading toward looked like a woman. The largest and most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. Her stone hair fell across her down-turned face, and her hands looked like they'd move at any second.
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