Ember hadn’t seen or heard the man approach, but suddenly he was there.
Damn this body and its pathetic senses! Nothing sneaked up on her when she was in her proper form.
She waved the sword to warn him back, but a moment later took in how bad an idea that really was.
The man was in drax-scale armor that covered him from neck to toe like a strange char-gray platemail. It was almost as hard as her scales, which meant it would laugh at her steel sword. Further, only three types of persons wore such armor: those who had killed a drax themselves, those who could afford to pay ten times the price of a good suit of plate for personal armor, and those who were good enough at fighting that someone else would give it to them.
The first and the third could easily take her in her present condition, while the second would surely command others who could.
She scanned the trees, looking for soldiers, but spotting none…
No, in the tree above her was a gray and brown kirtak, watching her intently.
A quarter of a feld away was some movement behind a tree.
There, someone all in white with a white bow.
Off to the right, another archer, just as hard to spot.
She was surrounded. Of course.
But they weren’t advancing.
She turned back to the man and studied him more closely.
Definitely one of the Lilta, with pointed ears almost as long as one of her hands, light-olive skin and almond-shaped eyes.
The face was rectangular, with a strong, sharp chin.
He didn’t look angry, or cold. Not like he was going to kill her right away.
She might have time to change.
Except for the archers.
He smiled at her, showing white teeth and pronounced fangs. She started to back away before she remembered that Bortin, Lilta and other humans used that gesture as a greeting, or to signal amusement. With garagran bared teeth usually meant something wholly different.
She stopped and watched him.
He reached down to his belt, opened a pouch, and pulled out…
A food bar.
Ember stared at the bar, looked at him and his smile, then back down at the bar.
He broke it in half and held one half out to her.
Her stomach rumbled. Half a food bar wouldn’t do anything for her, but still…
She lowered her sword, crossed the open ground between them and snatched the offered half out of his hand, then backed away several steps and nibbled it.
It was good. Very good. Lilta knew how to bake.
The man took several bites of his own half while she quickly finished hers.
“What is your name?” he asked in Tokal when she was done.
Ember studied him, wondering how much she should risk. Being a garagran was bad enough, but there was a reward out for Ember Rehksskari. A different name might get her out alive.
“Danya Firrisskahv.” Her great great great grandmother’s name. Dead centuries ago, unimportant enough to go unrecorded.
The man studied her, then nodded and approached halfway.
“Crown Prince Ean Tavarin,” he said, and stuck out his right hand, palm empty and open.
Ember thought she heard a groan from somewhere. She looked for the source, then looked at his hand. She remembered seeing other humans doing it.
Shaking hands. But her right hand was full.
Natat! The sword wouldn’t do her any good anyway. If she took him hostage one of his men would just get her in the back.
Ember sheathed her sword and took his hand.
He gripped her hand firmly, gave it a warm shake, and said,
“It is an honor to meet you, Lady Firrisskahv.”
Ember almost winced as he used the false name, but held it together.
After a brief moment of studying her eyes up close he released her hand and took a step back. Ember took the opportunity to search for more of his men, then looked back to him when he cleared his throat.
“Four full squads in sight,” he said, “and a full company in a ring just outside them. Beyond that, our entire western army is mobilized and ready to come at a moment’s notice.” He paused, watching for the effect this had on her.
“I apologize for this reception,” he continued, “especially seeing as all you did was steal a cow, but I hope you understand we cannot have someone so heavily armed wandering our country committing acts of theft.”
He said it quietly, very respectfully, like they were having a conversation over drinks in his palace. She wanted to respond just as calmly, but instead she blurted,
“What do you want?”
He watched her with that same steady, intense gaze, then said,
“I want peace. What do you want, Lady Firrisskahv?”
Responses flew from her heart and piled up in her head. A full belly. A good night’s sleep. A herd of cows all to herself. A full day in the sun. To not have twenty or thirty arrows pointed at her. To not be hunted. To not be a Rehksskari.
When they had all tangled up and crushed her mind with their combined weight, one response stood out.
“I would like peace, Prince Tavarin.”
“Do we mean the same peace, Lady Firrisskahv?”
Again she almost flinched at the name, but held it in and thought about his question.
“I don’t know. What would your peace be?”
“In my peace, no one in my kingdom dies, including you. My citizens receive an apology for the loss of their cow, and money to compensate. You discuss why you came here, and together we figure out if you can stay.”
He waited as she pondered his proposal. It was much better than what she had been expecting. It probably meant that she would make it back over the ridge alive if nothing else.
“I’m sorry. I can’t afford to pay for the cow. But I do like your peace and think it is fair.”
Ember dropped her gaze after that and stared at the ground, waiting for anger or harsher demands.
“It is fair,” Ean said after a moment, “but we can do better. I’ll pay for the cow. Will you apologize?”
She looked up, surprised. Had she heard that?
He smiled again.
“I will pay for the cow. Will you apologize?”
“The villagers are very scared, and my only options for quieting them are to do something to you, or for you to do something so they aren’t scared anymore. Garagrans that look like young women and apologize aren’t very scary.”
Ember studied him more closely, for the first time realizing she didn’t understand the person in front of her at all.
Was he serious? He would pay for the cow and let her off with an apology?
He didn’t look like he was lying. And the men she had already seen surrounding her meant he certainly had other options.
“Just apologize? Not let them beat me or stone me or anything?”
“Of course not. Once a debt is covered there is no reason for a beating.”
What kind of prince was this? No need for a beating? For theft?
She looked at him one last time, trying to spot some hint of fake in his expression.
He meant it. Really.