The sharp edge of the stiletto heel thrust upward, toward the pale sky. The shoe was overturned, and crusted with dried mud, faded and gray, like a dead riverbed. Crimson material could be glimpsed through the grime, appearing like beads of blood welling up. Rubble surrounded the lonesome footwear, disrupting the once tidy street and preventing land-bound vehicles from making the trek into Staas. The destruction corralled the battalion as they walked, channeling them to this point.
Mara kneeled and gently and extracted the high heel from its grave. Her hand trembled as she batted the dust from the smooth surface and inspected the shoe closer. It was slight, nearly fitting into the palm of her hand, the lines delicate and suggestive. Refinement. Beauty. Death.
A palm settled onto Mara’s shoulder, and she looked up into the abyss of Basim’s eyes. Swallowing, she set the shoe onto the ground, hovered for a moment, and then began stacking rocks over the top, providing it a proper burial. Her soldiers joined in, silently gathering up stones in their hands and gently adding them to her pile. When at last the crimson material could be seen no more, Mara stood and joined Basim, and they resumed their trek toward shore leave in a dead city.
But it wasn’t dead. As they made their way into the heart of Staas, threads of resilience coalesced into a vibrant pattern. Merchants peddled wares on makeshift carts. Teens lounged on large, displaced column stones. Music played in the distance and the smell of exotic food tickled Mara’s nose.
The mayor greeted Mara at the entrance to the Solaria. “Thade Bexon, we are honored by your presence.” He bowed low, folding in half at the waist and flashing a shiny bald spot at her.
She waited for the mayor to unfold himself and make eye contact. Those russet colored eyes looked to Basim, instead of her. Rage boiled, causing a tremor to run through her. Again, Basim’s dark hand settled onto her shoulder. Mara breathed, letting the air rush out of her lungs in an exasperated hiss.
“My soldiers are weary and in need of a little revelry.” Mara clenched her hands into fists.
Still, the man looked to Basim. “Of course. We are in your debt, peacemakers. Come, follow me.”
A muscle along Mara’s jaw jumped as she followed the rotund backside of the man. The Solaria opened before them, the stone walls rising to meet expansive vaulted ceilings. Ornate sculptures were carved into the stone faces of columns, cruel visages harkening back to a darker era, one where blood and war had been the supreme law of the land and peace was hard won. Perhaps not so very different from this age, save for technology. The more that man created, the more it fueled war. In conquering space, they had devolved into warmongering feudal systems—the trinkets of the enlightened paired with the bloodlust of the ignorant.
The room provided for Mara was on the third level of the towering building. Two stone walls stretched in opposite directions until they met with the curved exterior of the Solaria. Mara ran her hand along the chilly stone, feeling the roughness of the old architecture as she made her way to one of the enormous arched windows. The windows had no plating or screening and crisp air drifted in as the sun settled lower on the horizon, appearing like a bloody and bruised eye.
Silence stretched through the chamber draping a thick blanket over her. Mara ignored the mayor until he left, the splay of her tense shoulders settling once the sound of the door shutting shattered the stillness. The room was archaic, with a mattress for a bed and no electronics save for those she carried with her. A full-length glass mirror gazed at her, reflecting an unfamiliar woman.
Golden eyes, bold and commanding just like her father’s, met her stare. Too bad they were the only things he’d ever given her, save for the scars that ran wild over her back. Her lips were full and the lines of her face too delicate, just like her mother. Yielding and pliant, the model of what a woman ought to be.
“I hate you,” those lips said.
Sighing, Mara pulled the dense material of the uniform top from her body and slowly unhooked the corset, allowing the curves of her figure to unflatten. She stood there, exposed to the mirror, frowning as a shiver snaked down her spine.
“May I enter?” The dusky tenor of Basim’s voice rumbled through the room.
Basim’s eyes washed over her as he settled into an armchair near the bed, twin shadowed seas, unfathomable. Those oceans settled onto the corset she’d cast off, and a grimace pulled at his face, roughening it.
“I do not understand why you wear that thing.”
Mara pulled her uniform back into place without the corset and glanced back at the mirror. The material slid over her curves, stretching obscenely to accommodate the swell of her breasts. She cast a furtive glance at the discarded prison and then folded her arms over her chest.
“What is it you want?”
“Sina sent me a message.”
Mara’s gaze jumped to Basim. “Is something the matter with Feln?”
“He has decided to study under Thade Dostron.”
“He is too young for such things.”
Basim shook his head. “He is 19.”
“He should be exploring the planets and chasing women, not engaging in such serious pursuits. I do not want him tainted by war or politics.”
“You are not his mother; you gave up that right long ago.”
Mara flinched and turned from Basim. Something tightened inside of her, squeezing relentlessly and she found it difficult to breathe.
“I am sorry, Mara. I should not have said such a thing.”
“It is a dangerous truth to forget. I do not hold your words against you.”
Basim stood just behind her, though he did not reach forward to touch her. “The soldiers will want your company this evening. Can they expect you?”
“Yes.” Her voice was a slight whisper, and he would not have heard the reply had he not been so close.
Mara could feel his nearness, knew he wished to pull her to him, but she remained facing the window as the sky darkened into purple. She did not hear the retreat of his footsteps, did not hear the door close, yet she knew once he’d left. The warmth abandoned the room with him.