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Chapter 4

    Leon found a small inn at the end of a side street a few blocks from the scene. It was on the city’s southern edge, away from the commotion. It looked the same as any of the buildings surrounding it—two stories with a porch along its front. A small sign above the door that read “The Last Oasis” distinguished it from the others. It was a fitting name, considering it was the last watering hole before entering the expanse of desert stretching south toward Suryien.
    He entered through a flimsy storm door. The interior looked fifty years older than the exterior, typical for the Sandsea. The constant buffeting of sandstorms necessitated regular upkeep on the outsides of buildings, where the insides often remained unchanged. Light peeked through the thinning floorboards while the reinforced walls and closed curtains did their part to keep it out. Two wooden tables were on either side of the room, split by a staircase descending from the back. The most vibrant décor was a rainbow of liquor bottles lining the wall behind the bar. Aside from that were a few photographs and old newspaper clippings hanging beside the stairs. The floor creaked beneath him as he walked over to examine one of the pictures. It depicted two men standing in front of a large buggy with deep-treaded tires as tall as they were. A long rake was attached to it overflowing with rubelym—its vibrant red seemingly the only part of the photograph that had not begun to fade.
    A door opened behind the bar, and a middle-aged woman carrying a tray of empty glasses emerged. She paused, staring at him momentarily until her eyes fell on his badge, and she put the tray down hurriedly to rush over to him.
    “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
    “That’s okay,” he told her. “Do you have a cook on?”
    “Not yet, but I could make you something if you’d like,” she smiled. “We got fresh chickens this morning.”
    “That would be great—if it’s not too much trouble.”
    “Of course not,” she replied, eager to please. “Here, sit down,” she ran to a table and pulled a chair out—more of the treatment he was accustomed to.
    “Thank you.”
    “Of course, I’ll go fix something,” she smiled. Then yelled, “Fiora! We’ve got a customer,” before heading back through the door behind the bar.
    Leon heard quick footsteps above his head. He looked up and followed them toward the stairs until a petite set of feet appeared at the top. The girl—presumably Fiora—barreled down, gripping the railing halfway and swinging to the bottom. She paused abruptly and stared at Leon. She was in her mid-twenties with long dark hair surrounding a comely face. Her eyes were a piercing blue that stirred something in Leon, but he shrugged it off. He had seen lots of blue eyes in his lifetime.
    Fiora, on the other hand, stood glued to the spot, her eyes locked unflinchingly on the man at the table. She ignored the unkempt hair and focused on the face. Thin and fair with a pronounced jaw. His eyes were so dark she had to strain to see them in the meager light. Yet even from a distance, she sensed something in them—a certain all-knowingness, a sense of self-assuredness you only saw in one type of person. Leon was well aware of the effect he had on people, but this girl’s reaction seemed a little much, and not until after what seemed like an unnerving eternity did she snap out of her trance and approach him.
    “Hello,” she said with a seemingly forced resolve.
    “Hello,” Leon stared blankly, curious.
    “Can I get you something to drink?”
    “Water’s fine.”
    She forced a smile, and he watched as she walked behind the bar. She grabbed a glass from the tray the previous woman had left and filled it with water from the tap, never taking her eyes off him. When he realized he was staring right back, he looked away quickly—embarrassed—as if he were the one who was caught. He looked down at the table, waiting until she returned and placed the glass in front of him, followed by a set of silverware with seemingly excessive force.
    “I’ll be right back,” she told him, heading toward the stairs. Her footsteps echoed all the way up and then down the hall above.
    The interaction unsettled him. Whether it was the girl herself or the way she acted, he could not say. The brief burst of recognition might have put him on guard, and he was simply overanalyzing. He decided this was the case and tried to ignore it, focusing on the fact that the meal he had been longing for was being prepared at that same moment. Yet with little else to occupy himself in the torturous moments before its arrival, he could not quite forget it. He pictured her face once more, and the vision sent a chill the length of his spine.
Get a hold of yourself, he thought, and just then, remembered his damaged tracker. Welcoming any distractions, he reached for his OIC and flipped it over. Grains of sand crunched as he slid off the battery cover. More sand had worked its way alongside the battery and wedged it in tightly. He had to fight to pry it free. Eventually, it popped out abruptly, and Leon had to fumble to catch it before it hit the floor. He slid the tracking chip free and blew hard into its housing. A minute cloud of sand and dust shot toward him, and he cringed. Leon hated dust, far more than anyone should hate something so benign—an unexplained phobia he had always harbored. He shook it off and replaced the chip, followed by the battery and the cover.
    “I was scared I wouldn’t recognize you,” Fiora’s voice came out of nowhere. He had been so focused that he did not hear her return.
    He looked up, startled. She stood on the other side of the table with a revolver aimed at his chest. It was his second standoff of the day, and as he stared into those vivid blue eyes, his mind drifted to yet another.

< Chapter 3                                             Chapter 5 >

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