Hooria descended the gleaming marble staircase, her arm firmly encased in her brother’s, nausea brewing in her stomach as she saw the dozens of guests garbed in luxurious silk and brocade. The women tall in designer heels with gems shackling their necks and dripping from their fingers, watched her with affected smiles, even as their eyes narrowed in scrutiny. The men clutching the thin stems of tall wine glasses barely flicked her a glance before turning back to their discussion.
“You can still make a run for it,” Ammar whispered from beside her.
Hooria shook her head trying to smile through her panic, “I don’t think that’s an option now,”
“It is.” He said earnestly-almost pleading, “You don’t have to worry about anything, Hoor. I’ll handle everything. You don’t have to stay here; you can come with me.”
She wanted to-God how she wanted to abandon this charade and escape into the freedom her brother enticed her with. However, it was too late, and she couldn't go back on her resolve now. She wouldn't.
“I know,” She squeezed his arm, “But I can’t. You know that.”
“No, I don’t. I don’t understand anything, other than the fact that you’re being unbelievably stupid.” She turned to look at him, his jaw clenched as he stared resolutely ahead. However, she could sense the helpless frustration and fury seething inside him, and she felt a pang of regret at the anguish she’d caused him.
In his eyes, he had failed again-as a protector-a guardian. He was too young when Tanya was married and had been unable to do anything, he’d promised her then that he wouldn’t let anything like that happen to her.
And he'd tried his best. In fact, he'd opposed vehemently since the beginning, going up against their father and the mother dragon all by himself-however, in the end, she'd betrayed him by agreeing to the marriage.
“I know you don’t understand why I’m doing this but please, can we not do this right now? I need you to be on my side right now. Please.” Hooria pleaded, her voice cracking.
Ammar sighed resignedly, “I’m always on your side, Hoor.”
“Thank you,” She squeezed his arm, relieved when he responded with a small strained smile.
They reached the last step, and Tanya stepped forward to take her other arm.
“I don’t mean to scare you or anything, Hoor. But Asfandyar is scary as hell.” Tanya whispered fervently in her ear.
Hooria tamped down the flash of alarm, trying to stay calm, “You’re not helping with my anxiety, Tanya.”
“Sorry,” Tanya whispered, “But he’s so stoic and cold. He hasn’t spoken to anybody since he got here-didn’t even crack a smile. Hoor, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Stop it,” Hooria hissed, “This is the absolute worst time to start voicing your misgivings. Please, just stop giving me panic attacks and let me make it through this. Get yourself together Tanya.”
Tanya nodded, “You’re right, he’s probably just the silent type-or he suffers from social anxiety. Sorry, I’m being dramatic.”
Hooria stared ahead into the blinding light of the videographer as he focused the camera on them even doubt coated her tongue with a bad aftertaste.
Hooria let her eyes sweep across the grand hall, with its vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers; glowing brilliantly, like falling stars above their heads. Swathes of delicate and shiny fabric hung from the pillars on either side of them, and every surface was adorned with a complicated set of roses; red and white and candles that flickered in glass-holders, making the room seem ablaze with light.
The ostentatious display disgusted her, the vanity and display of wealth, a not so subtle ploy meant to intimidate the groom’s family.
The stage had been decorated with roses and jasmine strung up on long strings that formed a large networked pattern on either side and joining above their heads. She spotted Rehana frigid as ever with a dour expression on her face as she watched her approach, her father next to her stiff and clearly uncomfortable in the too-loose white Sherwani he’d donned for the event.
The years hadn’t been kind to him. He’d lost weight over the years, appearing almost gaunt with sunken eyes and a perpetually ashen skin tone. His receding hair was combed back, and she could see the stress in his pinched expression.
Finally, the videographer backed off and the assault of light seized.
She was grateful for the camera light that had temporarily blinded her for if she had been able to see clearly ahead, she wasn’t sure she’d have made it to the stage.
Her breath caught in her throat as she met eyes of cold grey steel, sharp and unforgiving as they stared her down as if trying to force her to bow down.
He was tall, lean but still muscular and his entire form seemed to radiate with unbridled power. His hands were crossed in front of him, and he didn’t come forward to help her up the stage, as was customary-like Aftab had done for Tanya.
He remained standing, stone-faced and indifferent as she climbed up the steps and Tanya helped her sit on the wide sofa, adjusting the folds of her dress so they fell in just the right way. Ammar still hadn’t let go of her hand as he stared at Asfandyar, she could feel him grind his teeth as his gaze probed into the strange man.
Sensing the scrutiny, Asfandyar tilted his head and stared back unabashed, a haughty expression on his eyes as he raised an eyebrow. The standoff continued for a while, and tension brewed thick and stifling, neither men backing away, finally, Hooria saw her father sidle up next to Ammar and coax him to back away.
As soon as Ammar stepped away, Hooria felt uncomfortably exposed as if he stood naked in front of everybody. Looking up she saw her siblings standing next to each other eyeing her with indecision and worry.
She could tell that Ammar was debating hauling her off the stage and making a run for it, and Tanya, fidgeting with her dupatta was wondering how she would stop Dadi and Abba from chasing after them.
The thought brought a smile to her lips, the image of her slender diminutive sister warding off a hoard of angry family members and guests as she made her grand escape.
She didn’t believe what Rehana had said. Her siblings would never just abandon her. All she had to do was ask for their help and they’d move heaven and earth to help her. It was the only thing she had going for her in this unpredictable situation.
A woman short and round in an ivory saree stepped forward and swooped down to engulf her in a cloying embrace, the sweet flowery fragrance assaulting Hooria’s senses. Hooria had met the woman a handful of times in the past month- Laila or Laila Ammi as she liked to be called was Asfandyar’s aunt, his father’s younger brother’s wife. After Asfandyar’s mother’s death, she was the one who had raised him, Laila had emphasized-repeatedly.
Perhaps, to atone for the fact that she had three daughters when obviously her husband had desired at least one son.
“Oh, you look so beautiful, Mashallah,” She cooed, her cherry painted lips pouting as she dug through her designer clutch to dig out a wad of money that she circled around her head dramatically before handing it to her maid.
Hooria managed a tight smile, getting more uncomfortable by the second as Laila’s maid handed her a small velvet encased black box. Laila opened the box, and Hooria’s eyes widened in wonder at the gold bracelets nestled in the case.
They were stunning. Long ropes of pure gold twisted around each other like vines, swirling around glimmering rubies that seemed to burn with a dark fire under the fluorescent lights. They were obviously old; however, the gold still glowed an enticing warm sunshine that beckoned to her.
Before she knew what, she was doing Hooria found herself reaching for the mesmerizing pieces of jewelry before Laila’s voice broke through the spell shrouding her senses.
“They’re lovely, aren’t they? These are very old family heirlooms, passed down generations,” Laila whispered wistfully as she took them out of the box. “They belonged to Asfandyar’s mother before you and to his grandmother before her. It’s a family tradition,” She explained as she pushed them down her wrists, her eyes lingering on the shimmering gems, and Hooria pictured her internally salivating at the sight of them.
She had never harboured a deep love for gold or diamonds, preferring less expensive jewelry, however as she saw Laila’s obvious desire for her bracelets, she wanted to snatch her hands back and bare her teeth at the woman, like a dog. She wanted to crush Laila’s hand-to break her bones and make her howl in pain for even daring to think that they could belong to her.
The viciousness of her thoughts snapped her out of the murderous haze blinding her, and she stared horrified at her adorned wrists.
Laila backed away, her gaze still lingering on Hooria’s wrists, when Rehana spoke out, “Chalain then, now that Hooria is here we should start the nikkah ceremony.”
“Yes. Let’s proceed.” A gruff voice that spoke of excessive nicotine agreed, and Hooria saw a tall man with a deeply tan face but the same steely grey eyes as Asfandyar make his way up the stage with a Qazi in his wake.
Asfandyar’s uncle, Hooria presumed, as her attention shifted from the bracelets to the ceremony.
Everyone cleared the space for the Qazi who held large folded leaflets of the nikkah nama (wedding contract) in his hands.
He stood in front of Asfandyar as he started reading the terms of the marriage.
“Do you take Hooria bint e Asghar as your wife?” The Qazi asked.
“Yes,” The deep gravelly timbre of Asfandyar’s voice sent a shiver down her spine. There was strength and resolve in that one word- a vow that shook her with its resoluteness. She peeked at him through lowered lashes as he stared at the Qazi, his expression fathomless, as he said the word thrice.
She didn’t think she could muster as much conviction; however, she hoped her voice wouldn’t tremble, revealing her nervousness.
The Qazi turned to her and relayed her rights and asked her if she’d take him as her husband.
“Yes,” She replied, keeping her voice steady as she repeated her answer thrice.
It was done. She was married to a stranger.
A sudden onslaught of emotion engulfed her, and she blinked ferociously to keep her eyes dry and tears at bay. Like always, she felt a deep yearning for her mother, who if nothing else would have at least stood next to her on this important moment of her life, her warmth and support warding off the chill that had begun to spread through her body.
The Qazi stepped forward and she heard shuffling of papers before he bent down and instructed her to sign the document. Taking the pen from his hand, she stooped forward to sign the document when a sudden burning sensation seared her wrists.
Hooria gasped in pain as the pen slipped from her fingers to land near the Qazi’s feet. Bewildered she looked at her wrists that were marred with long angry, red blisters that encircled her wrists. The burning sensation increased, and she choked back a scream as the angry burns split open leaking rivulets of puss that dripped down her arm and smeared her dress.
She stared horrified as the rubies on the bracelets began to glow a deep devilish red; the colour of blood and anguish.
“What are you doing, Hooria?” Rehana hissed at her as she thrust the pen towards her, “Sign the papers.”
Hooria turned her petrified eyes to her grandmother,” Dadi, m-m-my wrists,” She stuttered, pointing to her wrists.
“What are you talking about?” Rehana asked impatiently, embarrassed at the debacle Hooria was creating as all eyes focused on them.
Not understanding how Rehana couldn’t see her ravaged wrists she held them towards her, “They burn,” She choked out.
“Your wrists are fine, Hoor,” Tanya who stood next to Rehana soothed.
Hooria shook her head vehemently as, “No, look they’re burning. Look at the blisters,”
Tanya looked at her bemused, “There aren’t any blisters, Hoor, look,” She picked up her wrists, running her thumb over the smooth spotless skin.
Skin bereft of wounds.
Hooria stared dumbfounded at her wrists. They appeared normal.
And the pain?
The pain had dwindled to a shallow throb-almost an afterthought.
“I-I don’t, “Hooria stammered unable to process what had happened.
“Stop this nonsense Hooria,” Rehana scolded, “And sign the papers.”
“It might be an allergic reaction to the bracelets,” Tanya said softly, “You can remove them later.”
Hooria took the pen, her hand trembling as she signed the documents, her mind uncomprehending of what she had just experienced.
The Qazi stepped back and raised his hands to pray for the new couple. However, all Hooria could think about was whether the stress of the wedding had made her insane. She couldn’t come up with any other explanation for the bizarre and terrifying vision she’d had.
Yes. It was the stress of the wedding. Nothing else. And perhaps the side-effects of having too much caffeine on an empty stomach.
However, as she raised her hands to join in the prayer, she peeked at her new husband, hoping he didn’t think her a madwoman for the debacle she’d just put forth.
Asfandyar hadn’t raised his hands in supplication-in fact his grey eyes were affixed on her upturned hands. Staring with barely concealed horror. Following his eyes, she saw a small stream of blood trickle down her arm.