Esther Madini was everything an Elixian bride should be: passive, pristine, beautiful and fifteen. It was a pity that she never planned to get married. Especially not tonight.

Esther’s fingers inspected the wedding gown she was being sewn into. The rich fabric rubbed against her fingers, sequins and jewels leaving marks on her pale skin. Someone pulled, she flinched. The fabric carved scars into her delicate skin.

She watched the carefree girls who roamed the room. Most were glued to their screens, giggling at messages their older to-be-husbands had sent them. They’d all be out in the hall. He would be out in the hall. 

“Is this too tight?” the seamstress asked.

Esther shook her head. The seamstress pulled again. The dress became tighter. She struggled to breathe. It was suffocating. It was perfect. Someone passed her earrings to wear. They tugged at her ears, pulling them down with their weight. 

“You’re really lucky, you know?” the seamstress said.

Her eyes instinctively shifted to the bottle on the table even as she tried to look away from it. Lucky? Esther was far from lucky.

“Your parents are marrying you off early. Your life is set,’’ the seamstress continued.

“Are you married?” Esther asked.

“Me?” the seamstress laughed, “My parents didn’t marry me off then and now I’m far too old. Nobody wants an old mother for their kids.”

The knot of guilt in her throat tightened. The seamstress didn’t look older than twenty-six.  She was too old for marriage. The wistful look on her face reminded Esther of all the girls that would kill to be where she was. The ones who were too old, the ones who’d lost their to-be-husbands and been labelled bad luck charms. For a second, she almost wanted to go through with the wedding. It would make them all happy. Her parents. The seamstress. Him.

But no. Better free than safe, she reminded herself, better labelled a bad luck charm than trapped in a marriage. She grabbed the tiny glass bottle and hid it in her bag. 

She had to do this.

“Don’t be nervous. Every bride has last minute jitters. Just think of being with your husband in the hall,” said the seamstress. 

Esther shook even more vigorously at the thought of her next to him. Her mind flashed to how the next few years of her life would be. Him and her in the bedroom. Him and her with a kid. Him and her for the rest of her life. She tightened her grip on the bottle, forcing herself to calm down. If she panicked, her plan could go horribly wrong. 

She looked up at the seamstress and gave her a weak nod. Esther took a step towards the seamstress and took a deep breath. No more being nervous. 

The clock’s hands met and all at once, the sounds of chairs dragging filled the room. They all advanced towards the hall, Esther in tow behind them. She watched them giggle and fret over missing hair pins or clashing jewelry. Carefree. Happy. Everything she would never get to be ever again. They suddenly halted and Esther finally caught sight of the hall. 

Esther had seen many a wedding hall but none of them were as lavishly decorated as this one. Ribbons lined the thick, impenetrable metal walls and there were diamonds attached to the large locks on the doors. Even the security wore rhinestone – embedded bulletproof vests. The reality of the situation finally struck Esther in its true form. The hall began to look less festive and more like a well – decorated cage.

Esther stepped into the hall. Daffodils and hyacinths hung from the intricate glass ceiling lined with multicolored mosaic pieces. A stack of pancakes topped with caviar nearly touched the top of a crystal arch. She felt a hand on her back and turned around.

“What took you so long? You’re not trying to avoid me, are you? Or maybe trying to escape?” asked Mekhi Erasmus, with one hand on his overflowing wine glass and the other on the small of Esther’s back. Her lips pursed and a bead of sweat dripped down her forehead. 

“Why so serious?” he said, bursting into a fit of hyena-like laughter, “Just a joke, Estherkins. It’s not like you can escape anyway.” 

His smile was wide. So wide that only Esther could see that it didn’t reach his eyes. The guests next to her offered the pair of them happy sighs and little murmurs of ‘young love’ – never mind that Mekhi was nearing thirty – nine.

Esther tried to move away from Mekhi as he gestured to a waiter holding glasses of wine over. She squirmed as his grip on her tightened. He chugged his own glass, wine dripping down his loud, cheetah-print shirt. She grasped the bottle in her bag, ready to take it out.

“I brought your favourite wine. Why don’t you have this instead -”

Mekhi cut her off by grabbing another glass from the tray and drinking all of it in one go. He smacked his lips as he finished, unaware of the ring of wine surrounding his mouth that looked suspiciously similar to clown makeup. Esther would’ve laughed if it wasn’t for the fact that she’d just missed her chance.

‘’What’s that you’re holding?’ Mekhi asked, using his pants to wipe his wine-stained hands.

 He gestured to the bag in Esther’s hands. Esther pulled her arms back, attempting to hide it. 

‘Why do you still have your bag? You don’t need to hold onto it, it’s okay. Way too much work for you, Estherkins.” he said. 

He gestured over at the waitstaff and Esther impulsively grabbed his hands to prevent him from doing so. She couldn’t lose her bag. She couldn’t lose her bottle. It was the only chance she had. He flinched and drew his arms back. Maybe she’d held on a little too hard. Before he could say anything, Esther widened her eyes and puckered her lips into a pout.

‘It’s not their fault. It’s mine. I kept it so I could hold onto something if I got nervous,’ she said innocently, batting her eyes at him, her voice two octaves higher. She vomited in her mouth a little, disgusted by herself. Still, this was the only way. 

She looked up to see that he had relented, his grimace turning into a soft smile. He had a weakness for innocence. She’d have to remember that. Esther let out a deep breath. She still had a shot. Mekhi opened his mouth to say something. The music that had begun to blast from the huge speakers cut him off. The crowd began to dance, their feet tapping to the beat. She had to leave. If they danced she’d never get her chance. She’d have to do something else.

“Let’s go to the drink fountain. I want some alcohol.”, Esther giggled and steered him towards the alcohol fountains at the center of the hall. Amber liquid spewed out of them. Esther assumed that, to Mekhi, it looked like liquid gold.

Esther grabbed two cups from the side of the cup. The family emblems lined the cup, a lion and eagle, symbolizing their union. She bet this was her parents’ idea. The two most powerful families in Elixia’s crests in pure gold. They’d love that. There were pictures of chess pieces on the cup; the king and the queen with her and Mekhi’s names below. 

But she wasn’t a queen. She was a pawn.

Esther cupped the alcohol from the fountain, careful to put a plentiful amount for Mekhi. She put hardly any for herself; the taste of alcohol was too sour for her liking. She preferred chocolate milk which was conveniently not present. She took out the bottle and had just begun to line the rim of Mekhi’s glass with the golden liquid when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Shit. 

“What’s that you’re doing, Estherkins?” Mekhi hissed, his grip on her shoulder tightening, “Thought you just went to get some beer.”

“Just adding some lime juice,” Esther replied nonchalantly, slipping the bottle back into her bag.

Her sweaty hands grasped the bag tightly, praying that Mekhi wouldn’t suspect anything. He tilted his head and stared at the drink for a second before pushing it away.

“Can’t be too drunk. You know, for later,” he said, wagging his eyebrows, his eyes lilting downwards towards Esther’s chest. 

Esther stiffened at the familiar feeling of being sized up. She turned away from him and looked around the hall instead. She saw the clock. It was time. 

The bells rang. It was time indeed. Esther trembled as Mekhi’s talon-like hands gripped her own. He dragged her to the center of the hall. She felt his claws crushing her. 

She felt reality crushing her.

The ceremony was simple. Someone offered Mekhi the ring and he got down on one knee. Esther’s heart pounded in her ears. She looked at it. Her finger would fall off at its weight. 

Mekhi gestured for her to wear it. There was silence. She felt everyone’s eyes on her. Her hands edged closer to the ring. Mekhi’s face lit up. She saw the look for what it was; a look of victory. The numbers counting down to this moment swirled in her head. She needed to try. One last time. She needed to win.

‘A toast!’ she cried, suddenly.

Gasps filled the room. Mekhi’s face fell. She was shaking. She smiled. A waiter brought two empty glasses. She brought out the bottle. She shakily poured it in. She offered it to him. He stared at the glass. It seemed as if the entire world was holding their breaths. His eyes shifted towards Esther. They were cautious. Suspicious. His eyes moved to the crowd. Did he feel their eager, piercing gazes too? He looked at the glass skeptically. She’d have to do something.

Esther stepped towards Mekhi and placed a hand on his chest. She brought her face as close to his face as she could ; she only reached his shoulders. She felt his heavy breathing as her fingers traced his neck and ruffled his greying hair. He didn’t push her away this time. She tiptoed to reach his ears.

“Please, Mekhikins, do it so we can get married already,” she whispered, just loud enough so that the entire crowd could hear. They erupted into ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. There was even a shout of “Just do it already”. She guessed they never noticed the subtle trace of disgust in her voice. He smiled, finally relenting and placed one hand on her waist and used the other to raise his glass.

‘To a happy marriage for Esther and Mekhi Erasmus!’

The crowd chorused and chugged their glasses. Mekhi sipped his. He put his glass away and held out the ring. The crowd stared.

One second passed. Anytime now.

Two seconds passed. Two seconds. It was the correct bottle, right? 

Three seconds passed. One second. What if it didn’t work?

At the fourth second, Mekhi’s cold, limp body fell to the floor. The wedding hall echoed Esther’s sobs. Finally, it was over. Finally, she could be free.

People gathered around Mekhi. The medic came forward to help him. The women tried to calm down a seemingly inconsolable Esther. It took sixteen minutes for the doctor to pronounce Mekhi dead, attributing his death to cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest induced by poison specifically, thought Esther.

The gazes of the people in the hall shifted to Esther. Suspicion was inked on their faces. That was, until they realized what she had become. Her husband was dead. She was a bad luck charm now. Who cared about what she’d done? Her life was ruined anyway. She felt them back away from her, slowly. 

Esther had become everything an Elixian bride shouldn’t be: vindictive, unsightly and unfit to even be a bride. And if she was being honest, Esther couldn’t have been happier.

Durva Gautam Kamdar (Class of 2024) is a writer who spends way too much time thinking about writing compared to actually writing. She likes reading speculative fiction. This work explores a dystopian world and deals with what it means to be a young woman.