“But I could have killed you!”
Ember stared at the boy, really a young Bortin man with a boyish face and a solid set of muscles, unable to understand why her words weren’t penetrating his head. This was the third time she had told him just how insane hitting a garagran with a stick was, and he still didn’t seem to get it.
“You should have just run away!”
“It’s my job to protect the cows,” he replied.
“There is no way you could have protected the cows from me, Pennet.”
“It’s my job. I had to try. I killed a lion once.”
So frustrating. The old Shaldan had warned her the boy wasn’t very bright. She looked at Trin but Trin just gave her the same neutral expression as before. She looked back to the boy.
Time for a different approach.
“That’s wonderful, Pennet. You’re very strong. Why did you run away from me after you hit me?”
“Because it only made you angry. So I went to get help. The lion fell down when I hit him.”
“Okay. That’s good. Next time you see something like me, just assume that it will only make it angry, and go get help right away.”
“Yes. Next time you see something like me, remember that I only got mad, and don’t hit it.”
Pennet turned that over in his head for a minute, debating its merits as a course of action and nailing down the places where it might be wrong, or somehow keep him from fulfilling his sacred duty of cow protection.
At last he made a decision.
“Well, you taught some sense to Pennet,” Isayh, said. “I’m impressed.”
Ember glared at him. She was certain he had brought the boy over just to watch him drive her crazy. It was hard to read a Shaldan if you were used to smooth-faced humans, but she had known several in the palace guard and was pretty certain this one was laughing inside.
“Lady Firrisskahv,” Ean called.
Ember took a moment to remember, then turned at the name and saw the Prince approaching with a tall, old Lilta at his side. She bowed to him and waited for him to stop and make introductions.
“I wish to introduce Elder Birlintet. The man whose cow you ate.”
Ember twitched at that, then bowed mechanically. When she came up she saw a look on Elder Birlintet’s face that made her worried all over again. Unlike Pennet, who had seemed quite mollified with a simple apology, this man had a look of veiled hostility that hinted at a much more lingering enmity.
And if she was seeing it, it wasn’t very veiled.
“Elder Birlintet, this is Lady Danya Firrisskahv.”
The elder gave a short bow that was barely a nod.
“Elder Birlintet,” Ember said with another bow. “I apologize for stealing your cow. I beg your forgiveness and hope that there can be reconciliation.”
When she came up, there was quiet, and the elder was still looking at her the same way. The Prince glanced at him, then cleared his throat in a way that indicated discomfort.
“Lady Firrisskahv, Elder Birlintet has convinced me that your crime was not, in fact, larceny, which requires only material compensation, but robbery, which must be punished physically if the victim insists on it. Therefore, before I can keep my promise of taking care of all expenses for you, we must find out if the victim of your robbery wishes you to be punished.”
Oh no. Here it was. She’d known it couldn’t be as easy as he said.
Would they kill her?
Maybe. Caning or imprisonment certainly.
For a moment she considered running, but where would she go, anyway? And how would she escape? Transforming would only invite death.
Besides. There were worse things than a caning.
Then Trin dropped a friendly hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
Calm down. Don’t give in to fear, it said.
Yes. There were worse things than a caning.
She relaxed her body one muscle at a time and put her eyes on Ean.
He was not looking at her.
“Pennet,” he said, “Do you wish Lady Firrisskahv to be punished?”
“Lady…” Pennet worked the statement over. “Danya?”
Pennet looked at Ember, then to Isayh, then back to Ean.
“She apologized,” he said, as if that answered everything.
“Pennet,” Elder Birlintet said. “She threatened to kill you when she took Daisy. She was very big and strong, and could easily have done so. This means it was robbery, a very serious crime. You should have her punished.”
Pennet looked at Elder Birlintet, then over at Isayh. Elder Isayh.
“Think it through like I told you, Pennet,” Isayh said.
Pennet wrinkled his brow and looked like there were boulders rolling around in his skull. Ember watched him closely and saw him start moving his lips, but couldn’t make out what he was saying because it was in the native language of the country, not Tokal.
He looked at her suddenly and studied her eyes and her face, then said,
“Pennet,” Elder Birlintet said, “What she did is very serious. You need to consider what’s good for the village. Think about what I’m saying. Her apology doesn’t make everything better. Sometimes there needs to be punishment.”
Pennet looked at the elder like what the older man was saying was hurting him a great deal. Or maybe it was just the difficulty of doing a good job with such a complex and hard decision.
Draksl. My fate is in the hands of an idiot.
“Is she going to pay for the cow?” Pennet asked.
“I’m paying for the cow. In full, whatever the cost,” Ean said to him.
“So you can get another cow?” Pennet asked the elder.
“Daisy can’t really be…”
“I can have our agents conduct negotiations with the people he bought the cow from. We can get another cow,” Ean said.
The elder almost looked like he was going to glare at the Prince. Ember watched Pennet take in all that information and add that to whatever calculation he was working on.
Finally he said,
“Then I forgive her. I don’t want her punished if somebody’s going to pay for the cow.”
Elder Birlintet looked exasperated.
“You can’t just forgive everyone who asks for it, Pennet! There has to be justice! She has to suffer for what she did!”
Pennet suddenly looked like he was being torn in two.
“But Elder! You stood up in front of everyone last week and read that scripture, the one about Yasaw saying to forgive your brother as many times as he asks for it. And she did! So I don’t want her punished!”
Elder Birlintet stared at the boy, opening and closing his mouth.
A moment later he stormed off. Ember didn’t quite know what to make of any of it.
The others said nothing that would help her make sense of it either.
Until he was out of sight.
Then Isayh and Trin both fell down laughing.