I will always protect you, from every pain in the world, my darling. Her voice was salt and venom and left a dirty, swirling taste in your mouth. You loved your mother, but right now her words brought anger to your cheeks. You took a step down the hall. The wedding room was just through that door. Everyone was waiting for you.
Your fists clenched in your tattered red veil. It was an achy brown at this point, but it looked white to him, or so he said. Your breath was stuttering, gorgeous hitches of breath, he said they were gorgeous, that you were beautiful, even when you were nervous.
You walked down the hall by yourself, shoulders tired from the pressuring posture they’d stuffed you into all week. All you needed to do was marry this man, balance a couple of books on your head, and you’d be a princess. Although, this town was small and the ground was made of dust, so how much were you worth really, if you were a princess of dirt?
Come on, now. You shoved the thoughts aside! You pressed those shoulders back, because you would be a princess, damnit. You were fourteen years old, but you knew this was what you needed. Of course, every fourteen year old knew exactly what they wanted from life. And it wasn’t like you were put on Earth to live a good life, anyway. Oh, you were only created to please a man who had already finished most of his life. Shove. The thoughts. Aside.
You raised your chin, taking a steady breath through the nose, and the halls smelled like old papers dipped in sewer water. It was beautiful! The smell was of a fresh, lush forest filled with dew and you could hear the birds singing from here. Maybe if you were really delusional after this, you could go make mountains out of the dirt and pretend they were real.
Honestly, you knew yourself, and that all these angry, sarcastic, boiling thoughts were just you being afraid. Because you loved this man, okay? You were just not a girl who could commit to things so quickly. But you were already too old to be married, of course, so you took one step, and another, and you walked down the hallway, alone.
Just go, Hriddhi. You won’t be afraid when it’s over. Even if I have to give my life, your mother's words continued in your head, and you grimaced in anger. There was no one by your side. You had screamed at your maid of honour, scared away your best friends, screeched your lungs out at your grandmother who had wanted desperately to walk you down the aisle.
Or in this case, a road of dirt.
Regardless, you were alone.
One more step. Your feet were bare. You held on to the idea that maybe if you walked slowly, you were free for just a little while longer. Even though you loved this man, okay? You barely knew him, and he was a little older than they said he’d be, but you loved him, okay? Because Grandfather said you had to marry him. And Grandfather was always right, even if he was wrong, you had to force yourself to believe he was right.
But as the doors to the wedding room got closer, you felt the fear and the panic build up in your eyes and you just needed a few more minutes of freedom. You turned, chest heaving, and ran down the hall you had just worked so hard to walk across.
Maybe, in your head, when you thought back to this moment later, dreaming in the bed of a man you didn’t know, you would imagine this moment as the second you ran away, and took back your freedom and kept it close. Then the rest of your dreams would be of fresh air and mountains and lush, dew-covered grass. Right now you knew you would have to go back. And right now, just right now, you were too afraid to go through with it.
You pushed past the door of your fitting room, which was also just your bedroom, and then suddenly your heart stopped. This was a dream! Another lush forest you forced yourself to smell, another pile of dirt you thought was a mountain. You clutched a hand to your chest. Your mother and him, the man you barely knew, who was much, much older than they said--they were kissing. This was real. You clenched your jaw to keep from shouting. Was this good? Was it terrible? After the initial shock, you were only worried for her. Then, over his shoulder, your mother saw your face. She winked at you, before grabbing his head, continuing the kiss. You backed away slowly, a smile on your lips.
And you walked out of the room, the brown cloth over your shoulders suddenly just cloth, and the hitched breath in your voice only the start of tears of joy. Oh, you didn’t love this man. And your grandmother and your maid of honour and your best friends all sat inside that room, and all of them were waiting.
You yanked off the necklace that had always felt like more of a collar to you, and you tossed it down against the ground and kicked it into the dirt floors of your house. You will never be a princess now, you could already hear Grandfather saying, and you could hear the angry thoughts in your head that spiked up at that, I’m fourteen, not an idiot, Grandfather! Just because he’s rich, doesn’t mean he’s royalty! And even if it did, oh, you didn’t love this man.
Suddenly, the door to your fitting room opened and you stumbled back, hidden from sight against your lazily coloured walls, bright enough to hide you in your dull dress. Your now ex-fiance walked down towards the wedding room. His strides were long and prevailing. He had no hesitation in his steps. Maybe a bit of a wobble.
Your mother came out, wiping at her jaw, and saw your scrunched up face. “Don’t make faces like that,” she said, tapping your cheek. “It’ll get stuck.” You sniffed, shaking your head. She lifted your veil off your head and placed it over her own. You were at a loss for words.
“But Grandfather said,” you started, but you couldn't possibly know what to say. Grandfather had already paid a great deal for you to marry that man.
“He thinks he loves me." Your mother said, and all your worries wiped away as she pushed back your hair. I will always protect you, from every pain in the world, my darling. “And he doesn't know what love is, so he’ll never find out that it isn’t true.” She grinned, patting your chin. “So sit down and enjoy the wedding.”
You smiled at her, tears building in your eyes. “Thank you,” you whispered. Even if I have to give my life.