The founders of Oasis displayed an overwhelming lack of creativity when they named the small town in the middle of the Palavian desert. Long verdant leaves hung motionless from crooked branches in the scorching sunlight and oppressive heat. Ro swatted the narrow blades away from her face as she passed through the trees forming the village's northern border.
Though the rundown bar at the end of the dirt road offered respite from the brightness, the stale air inside sank to the bottom of her lungs. She wiped a trickle of sweat from the back of her neck and let her eyes adjust to the wan lighting. Her business associate sat at a table in the rear corner, flanked by two companions.
Ro marched to the back of the room and dropped a heavy cloth pouch onto the table with a loud clank. "There you go, Benny," she said, forgoing any greetings. "All the money you wanted me to collect, plus the access key to that piece of shit hoverscooter you sent me out on. I'm lucky that thing didn't blow up in the middle of nowhere."
The husky man grabbed the bag without looking up. "Took you long enough."
"Hey, I hit up six of your outposts in less than three days. That's not too shabby, especially considering I saved you the trips out there."
He shook the contents, jostling the cash inside. "I presume it's all here?"
"The exact amount you asked for."
Ro crossed her arms over her chest as Benny painstakingly counted out a number of coins and slid them towards her. She performed a quick mental calculation of the total and narrowed her eyes. "What the hell is this?" she asked.
"Well, if you're working for free now, I'll just-"
"We agreed on twenty percent. That is not twenty percent."
His lip curled up in a sneer. "Let's see. You already voiced your opinion on the hoverscooter I kindly lent you, so I need to deduct for vehicle maintenance. And if you're crowing about being back here so quickly, I guess the job wasn't all that hard in the first place."
"Take it or leave it."
She didn't move. Benny turned his head to the side, resuming his conversation with the friend to his left. Placing one palm on the table, she leaned towards him and cleared her throat.
He ignored her.
Without saying anything, she reached over and picked up his drink. The glass exploded when she hurled it against the wall, sending droplets of amber liquid splattering throughout their corner of the room. Chairs scraped against the floor as the nearby patrons flinched away from the shower and the ambient noise of the tavern dissolved into silence.
Benny jumped up, his face darkening to a deep shade of scarlet. He drew himself to his full height, towering over Ro. She didn't back down. "We had an agreement," she said, craning her neck to look up at him.
"Ro, I am quickly losing patience here."
"As am I."
He stood close enough for her to smell the alcohol on his breath. When his hand wrapped around her upper arm, she wrenched it out of his meaty fingers. A dozen gazes rested upon them, but no one made any move to intervene.
She inched backwards, putting a foot of space between them. Benny's smug smirk bloomed into a full grin. "Take your money and be glad you got that much," he said. "And consider this the last time we do business together."
Ro glanced towards the bar. The innkeeper had set down the glass he'd been polishing to focus on the simmering tension in his establishment. She cocked her head to the side, asking him the wordless question. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Hey, Benny," she yelled, her voice carrying through the entire room. "What kind of man backs down from his deals? It kind of makes me wonder where else in your life you come up short."
He stopped moving, his bulk halfway back into his seat. "What did you say?"
"You talked a good game, but you didn't follow through. Is that your usual method of screwing women, leave them wondering what happened to the rest of what they were promised?"
A vein throbbed on the side of his neck as he faced her again. She lifted her chin and stared him down in defiance. When he lunged at her, she was ready for him and easily dodged the attack.
Stumbling, Benny tried to recover from his misstep. As he turned around, her boot came in contact with his kneecap. He yelped in pain and doubled over, only to be greeted by her knee smashing into his face. The force of the upward blow sent him careening onto his back. He landed on the floor with a thump and covered his nose with one hand.
One of his partners took half a step forward, but the purpose of the movement was betrayed by a lack of confidence. "Don't be stupid," Ro warned, nodding towards the trickles of blood spilling out from between Benny's fingers and dripping towards the neckline of his grungy shirt. She stood over the toppled man and plucked the bag of money from his grasp.
After counting out the appropriate amount, she added it to the coins already on the table. She shoved the total into her pockets and dropped the pouch onto his chest. "You're right, Benny," she said. "This will be the last time we do business together."
Ro crossed the room to the bar on the opposite side and hopped up onto a stool. It was the first time she'd sat down in hours and her feet tingled inside her shoes. "Sorry about the mess, Lars," she said to the innkeeper. As she spoke, she slid money across the smooth wooden surface, double the price of one drink. "But unlike some other people, you know I always make it up to you."
Lars muttered something unintelligible as he scooped the coins off the bar and filled a glass for her.
She downed half the ice cold ale in one gulp before its temperature rose enough to be unpalatable. The chilly liquid sent a shiver through her body as it hit the back of her throat, but it didn't stop her from finishing it off. "I'd better switch over to water," she said. "Traipsing through the sand for days always carries the risk of dehydration, not to mention wasting energy on that fool." A glance over her shoulder indicated Benny's underlings had removed him from the premises, presumably to tend to his injuries in a calmer environment.
While Lars fulfilled her second order, she ran her hands through her cropped hair. A cloud of sand puffed out and she squirmed as it hit her shoulders, grumbling in disgust. Twisting from side to side, she couldn't dislodge the irritating grains stuck to the inside of her sweaty tank top.
"I just watched you break a man's nose and you're concerned about a little bit of dust?" someone said from several seats away.
Ro looked up. She didn't recognize the speaker; with his khaki fatigues and clean-cut appearance, he seemed out of place among the tavern's usual clientele. Without returning his smile, she raised an eyebrow.
He laughed. "Sorry," he said. "You did cause a bit of a stir, you must admit. And I couldn't help but notice you fight a little dirty."
"Everything in this place is dirty."
"Point taken," he said, nodding.
"It also wasn't much of a fight. All I did was send a very simple message."
"I think you succeeded. And if you ask me, I think he got off easy."
She shrugged. "Eh, it wasn't that much money. Though I suppose if I wanted him dead, that would have happened." Briefly turning her attention away from the newcomer, she winked at the bartender as he handed her the glass of water. "But while no one bats an eye at a little scuffle around here every now and then, I think Lars would have to turn me in for killing someone, no matter how much he likes having me around. Right, Lars?"
"Just what I thought."
When the other customer stood up and moved to the stool next to her, she didn't stop him. "I've been coming to this place here and there for years," he said. "I know how it works. No one sees nothin', as they say."
"Forgive me for saying so, but you don't really blend in to the grit and grime that lends this fine establishment its charms." Ro crunched down on an ice cube as she eyed him up close. "Let's see. You're on leave from the Palavian military-you're not old or scarred enough to be much more than a sergeant-and you decided to stop by your old stomping grounds for a quick drink and a walk down memory lane before heading home."
"Pretty good." He raised his glass to her before sipping from it. "And since I know you're not originally from Oasis, I'll tell you nearly every kid that grows up here gets their first illicit taste of alcohol from Lars as long as they tip well and don't do anything dumb. Some eventually move on, some get stuck here forever."
"You seem to have done pretty well for yourself," she said.
"Can't complain." He stuck out his hand. "Jaxon Briggs. Or Sergeant Briggs, if you will."
She accepted both the victory in perception and the handshake. "Ro Bernard."
"Pleasure to meet you, Ro." His blue eyes twinkled. "And now I have to ask the burning question-who taught you to fight like that? That's clearly not standard military training I saw."
Her spurt of laughter sent bubbles billowing into her water. "No, no it was not."
"So what? I've known you for less than five minutes and you want my entire life story? No, thanks."
He pretended to look hurt. "Aw, not even one little tidbit to sate my curiosity?"
"Maybe if you help sate my thirst. I'm sure one of Palavia's finest has a lot more cash to spare on drinks than someone who gets by doing thankless jobs for scum like Benny."
While Jaxon counted out his own coins, Ro established eye contact with Lars over his head. The owner of the seedy bar was a man of very few words, but she trusted him. With one subtle indication with her elbow and a tilt of her head, she made her silent inquiry. Is this guy everything he says he is?
The server nodded in the affirmative and refilled both glasses with the bitter ale.
Jaxon tapped his glass against hers before swallowing the first mouthful. "So I'll assume you didn't just get really lucky your first time out and that Benny's isn't the first face you busted."
"Guilty as charged," she said. "However, I usually prefer avoiding altercations if I can help it. I like the fact that I'm still breathing and all my teeth are in my mouth, thank you very much."
"Likewise. I still would love to know, though, who trained you?"
Ro grinned at him. She took a slow sip of her beverage, savoring it on her tongue. "Not so fast, Sergeant. I'll probably have to get to the bottom of this drink before deciding whether or not you're worthy." Before he could answer, she changed the subject. "So what's the latest from the front lines? Are we still sacrificing countless troops to prove to Charytar and Tektan that our dicks are just as big as theirs?"
"How very patriotic of you." Jaxon's offense was insincere and he smirked behind his glass. "Our borders at the juncture are still holding strong. We haven't lost any ground or significant resources in months."
"Any covert attacks or clandestine treaties planned?"
"Now, now," he chided. "You've got your secrets and I've got mine. I don't swing by Lars's place when I'm home to violate national security."