Although he needed no reminder of the villagers’ frosty welcome, Soren was greeted by it as soon as he walked into the cool shade of the tavern. For once, the coolness was not directed at him. There was someone else there, a stranger leaning against the bar. He was wearing dusty travelling clothes and Soren took him for a traveller passing through, for few came to Sejura with the intention of staying. It was why Soren had chosen the place.
The stranger glanced at Soren when he entered. He looked as though he had been trying to engage the tavern keeper in conversation before Soren’s arrival. Soren knew it was a wasted effort; he had never gotten more than a few words out of the tavern keeper, Suro, despite calling in nearly every week since they had moved to the area. The newcomer didn’t have a chance, if socialising was his intention.
‘Five bottles of lemonade, Suro,’ Soren said.
Suro nodded in acknowledgement and went into a back room. The stranger turned his attention to Soren.
‘Hello there,’ he said.
‘Hello there, yourself,’ Soren said, not meaning to be rude, but in keeping with the local habits.
‘Friendly bunch in this town,’ the man said.
Soren shrugged, still clinging to the disguise of a rural countryman leaning against the bar as he waited for his lemonade. The stranger hadn’t done anything to give Soren concern, but the look of him was unsettling. He carried himself with a bearing that Soren had seen many times in the past: straight, confident, proud. Coupled with his clothes, there could be no doubt that he had done some soldiering, and despite him not carrying a sword at his waist, Soren suspected he was a swordsman—a banneret. They were always easy to spot, and the stranger was a perfect example. Just like Soren. And just like Soren, he was not the type of man one expected to see in an out of the way place like Sejura.
Soren tried to maintain his disguise of a farmer and unfriendly local. He feared his own appearance was as much a giveaway as the stranger’s and forced himself to slouch a little more. Mercenaries and sell-swords on the job always had a sharp expression, and this fellow was no different. He was assessing everything that was going on. It was the look of a predator, but conversely it was also a look carried by prey—not a description Soren liked to apply to himself, but it was accurate—as they watched for threats. He tried to adopt the appearance of suspicious disinterest. If the man was hunting someone, possibly Soren himself, he didn’t want to look like a man expecting trouble.
Soren’s was a hard-cultivated fictional persona, but it still didn’t come easily to him. He had been called Ramiro ever since arriving in Sejura. Before Sejura, there had been another town and a different name, and before that another. Each time, both he and Alessandra had sunk a little deeper into their new lives—finally becoming Ramiro and Aldonya, a young couple from the other side of Estranza seeking a new life for themselves beyond the interference of their families. The habits of a lifetime were difficult to discard though. There were still times when it took him a moment to remember that he was Ramiro, the farmer from Estranza, not Soren, Banneret Swordsman who had spent much of his life in danger.
‘Many strangers pass through here?’ the man said.
Soren shrugged. ‘A few.’
Soren shrugged again, but said nothing.
The man sighed. ‘Never mind, then.’ He muttered something under his breath that Soren couldn’t hear, but said nothing else.
Suro reappeared with Soren’s bottles of lemonade. He set them down on the bar one at a time, six in total, while Soren rooted around in his coin purse.
‘Beatriz said there was enough left to fill another bottle. Just pay for five,’ Suro said.
Soren nodded and smiled. It was the first friendly gesture that had been made toward him since he arrived in the region, and he suspected it was due to the stranger. Soren might be new, but he was more welcome than this blow-in. He paid for the bottles and put them in his leather satchel, all under the stranger’s scrutiny.
‘Enjoy your lemonade,’ the stranger said.
Soren gave him a curt nod and left him to Suro’s suspicious stare.