The Wedding Walk

Moonlight rested on the whitewashed city walls of Ushtar. It painted the pale, fragrant flowers of the blossom trees silver-blue, and threw dark alcoves and arched windows into sharp relief. The whole city was in monochrome.

Nila refused to look out of the window. She gazed into her mirror, saw her own frightened face staring back, framed by a border or elegantly carved myrtle wood, painted the same crystal white of almost everything in the wealthy part of the city. Only in the slums did one see bright hues: brilliant sky blues and rust reds, indigo and purple, livid yellows and vivid greens…but she had never been within a mile of the slums. Or, at least, that is what they all believed. What they must all believe.

Nila’s chestnut hair fell in feathery curls to her waist, but she braided and pinned it up at the sides, keeping her face free of stray curls, and elongating her neck. She had changed out of her nightdress long ago and now wore a robe of lilac satin, gauzy and shimmering with pale gemstones and carved glass beads. She sucked in her stomach and tried to flatten the material against her waist, in the hopes that it would give her some shape, but the robes sat flat and lifeless in their stiff shape. Then she sighed, and relaxed her form. What did it matter? They were already promised to each other. It had been decided years ago. It was not as though she had to impress him…

She was to wait until midnight. They had made her learn the ceremony months in advance, perfect her elegant walk down the stairs to the gardens of the temple, remember to keep her head bowed and humble. They had taught her how to walk in her sandals without making too much noise against the tiled streets, and how to managed the robes so that they did not trail or the floor or bunch up around her ankles and trip her. The whole ceremony seemed a ridiculous charade. Everyone in Ushtar knew that Mel Nila would be married to Kith Salin. The Mel and Kith families had been looking for an opportunity to join their two prosperous names for many generations, but there had not yet been such a suitable match. Salin and Nila were close enough in age, and both healthy and blessed with good looks and elegant manners. Their engagement had already brought a great deal of honour to the families – and a great deal of prosperity. When they were married, the gifts of the wealthy merchants and noble families alone would bring back some of the Mel family’s tarnished fortune. Soon afterwards, people would surely forget about the foolish elder sister, who had run away with that disgraceful thief. The younger daughter was prettier anyway, and had more sense, and she respected her family, and she would honour them…

And then it came. The sound of soft bells, the slow procession advancing through the gardens of her family’s villa towards the main doors. Still, Nila refused to look out of the window. She was too proud, she did not want to appear like some silly teenage girl who could hardly wait to be married off. She was older, and she knew better. She had learned from her elder sister that true love was not so simple. Instead, she waited for her aunt and her mother to escort her downstairs. They didn’t say a word, but their little giggles and glances were insufferable. Nila felt the sickness that had haunted her since the engagement was announced grip her even tighter. She almost tripped, and her aunt and mother took firmer hold of her elbows. She would be bruised before she reached the temple, from their pinches and prods…

Outside, Salin was standing, his back to her. He was not to turn around – it was bad luck. He stood still as a stone, waiting. Nila approached, and took hold of the little swathe of material that he held in his left hand, and took it with her right. She pulled it once, to show that she was ready to start the walk. Tears began to sting her eyes – she was not even allowed to turn around to say goodbye to her family, or to the house that she had grown up in. She could only stare ahead, or at the back of Salin’s head, walking at the tortuously slow pace that she had been instructed to. It would be at least half an hour’s walk to the temple at this rate, but Nila was not allowed to walk abreast of her betrothed – not until they walked out of the temple as man and wife.

Nila heard a strange scuffling noise, and almost looked behind her to see what it was, but she snapped her head forward and convinced herself it was just an owl, or a cat foraging for scraps. But still, she had heard of thieves targeting the wedding walk – Salin was carrying a box of jewels and silks that he would present to during the ceremony, and it was sure to be valuable enough to tempt a bandit. Nila almost smiled – was that her wishful thinking, hoping that something would interrupt the wedding, and give her a few more days of freedom? Surely she would not wish such bad luck to fall upon her soon-to-be husband. And yet, there was a part of her that truly disliked Salin. He was arrogant and silver-tongued, and unbearably vain. He was dressed even more lavishly than she was, and her family had spared no expense on her wedding robes. He had dressed himself in golden silks trimmed with glittering embroidery and a frilled trim on the sleeves, with pearl buttons. The colours and fabrics were unbecoming against his sallow skin and round cheeks. This was a man who spent too many hours in shaded patios, stuffing himself with olives and mussels while his poor servants waited on his every whim. Yes, he was handsome, she thought, but not in the way that she liked. She remembered the young man that her sister had eloped with, his dark, gleaming skin, eyes like the night sky, his carefree smile, the scars on his hands from brawling and scrabbling around over fences and garden walls. Yes, he was a thief. Of course he was not a good man, not really – it was not right to steal and lie, she knew this. But that man had loved her sister, enough that he had almost died rescuing her from her own wedding walk…

No wonder she dreamed that some dashing thief would come and save her from this funereal march through the streets of her city, with the stars’ cold glare upon her head. She could dream. She could pray. Perhaps she should look back, she thought – perhaps she should bring a curse of bad luck upon their engagement. Suddenly her neck itched to turn, her shoulders twitched. She allowed herself a secret glance over her shoulder. In the shadows of one of the villa’s porticos, a man stood in black garb. Picked out in silver moonlight, she could make out his glittering eyes, and the shape of his arm, with one long, gloved finger outstretched. He put it to his lips, and smiled, then vanished once more into the shadows.

By R. N.

(Prompts: connect, artificial, honour)

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