Other Words for Human
Chapter Two: In Which We Find Out How Fast Grass and Pride Can Go Up in Flames
To sneak back into camp was nothing. Sure that Kyrokh was sufficiently cowed, Hroz seemed not to care to further torture him that day. The night was late and the campfires were not more than smudges of deep red in the center of the meagre tent circle.
Kyrokh did not have time to process his own reeling shock over the events of the night, and as soon as he had stumbled into his compact lean-to, he was asleep on his bedroll fully clothed.
However, one did not sleep deeply on the steppe, surrounded by nothing that might hold or shelter, in the camp of the bitter Khan. Kyrokh woke early and agitated, wondering if his encounter the night before had only been part of the fitful dreams he had startled himself from through the night.
His head and back ached abominably, though, and he thought that perhaps the fall from the horse, at least, had been real.
The camp was beginning to stir with a ferocious and edgy energy. Those that had informed Nazva of the Long’s existence and insistence to see them had written phonetically a missive that they claimed came from the Long ambassador himself — it included a meeting invitation for the third full moon following the summer solstice. That was today. Over the entire journey, whispers had abounded in camp over the timing and the veracity of the situation — would the Long appear? Was the missive genuine, or an elaborate trick? Did they have any right to question the unwavering confidence of the Great Khan that this was a situation worth seeing through?
“I’m the only one who has seen them,” Kyrokh half-whispered to himself in the breathlessness of morning. “I’m the only one who knows — “ He was the only one who knew that they existed, and they were far greater and more terrible than anyone had imagined.
As he unclenched from the tight ball he had curled into during the night, Kyrokh breathed deeply the cold morning air and put aside his own wonder and retroactive terror. It wasn’t until now that Kyrokh realized the magnitude of what might occur. This was bigger than his own personal encounter with creatures that seemed capable of destroying him but instead were concerned only that they had injured him. In the light of day, moving fast across the steppe, what might pass as a diplomatic party of Long would loom large and threatening across the Khan’s camp. The humans among them would not have the chance that Kyrokh did to understand the kindness and curiosity of the creatures — they would see giant beasts with shining claws and teeth. They would see monsters, and they would either run or fight.
Kyrokh could not allow either to happen.
His aches put aside, Kyrokh lurched to his feet and straightened his crumpled clothes — and then almost tripped over a burlap bag that had been laid inside his tent-flap some time in the night. Heart sinking, Kyrokh opened it.
It was more or less what he had expected: a gift from the Khan. Inside was a simple del and sash, similar to the two that Kyrokh brought with him — but the cut, color, and sash all indicated, plainly and without room for misinterpretation, that the wearer was a woman. It must have been purloined from a hapless serving woman or horsehand; Kyrokh would be inclined to be sympathetic at another point. In this moment, he was ill.
Speed was necessary — he had to warn the camp, warn the Khan, that who they sought would not harm them. Kyrokh could afford no delays, could not stop to argue or to hold himself against the Khan’s scrutiny and disobey his order. If he wanted his words to be heard, he would dress the way he had been told. Shaking slightly, Kyrokh donned the clothing in his hands.
He debated on whether or not to wear his bindings as well, under the robe. He only had one spare, which was now his only, as the other had been shredded the night before. He did not want to lose that one, too. However, the thought of going out into the light of day without one scrap of his daily armor was too much for him to contemplate. He tugged the binding defiantly around himself, huffing as he pulled too tight in some vastly useless compensation. He would deal with his own hurts once he prevented new ones.
Thus secured, Kyrokh tried to push his clothing from his mind completely, and scrambled out of the tent.
The camp was wrought with the same discourteous chaos that Kyrokh had come to expect, a merging of courtly bureaucracy and unapologetic indulgence. The highest in stature — the Khan and his direct advisors, two equally conniving and unpleasant experts of state — had only just begun to stir, while the servants and horsehands and other service classes had been milling about with fear and obedience but little supervision since dawn.
The camp was unready to receive visitors of any sort, which was clearly infuriating the Khan who stood, still comically being dressed by his body-servants, on a hastily-erected plinth in the very center of the chaos. He looked like he had only just woken. Kyrokh briefly fretted at how long he himself had slept, despite the restlessness of his night.
Hroz was raging without reason, shouting orders to guards and servants who hovered around him. He was in a black mood, and Kyrokh would never approach him with such a look on his face for any other reason.
Today, however, he let his momentum overcome the pounding of his heart, and strode almost to the plinth before he was intercepted by one of the guards, a scarred man missing several fingers and not an insignificant number of teeth. He had been there the night before, holding Kyrokh’s wrists. Today he reached for the same, catching Kyrokh by the right arm in a grip meant to bruise.
“Let me see the Khan, as I must prepare — “
The guard, who Kyrokh believed was named Sul, cut him off with a leer, dragging his gaze up and down Kyrokh’s body. “Much more becoming,” he declared loudly. “Now if only we could work on your manner.”
The Khan was certainly now aware of Kyrokh’s presence — the entire camp was, thanks to Sul’s volume. Kyrokh fought down the thrill of anger and fear across his skin to jerk his gaze away from Sul, instead meeting the Khan’s shuttered and lazy gaze.
“My Khan,” Kyrokh said, curtsying low, body shaking but determined despite it. “I beg your favor and your ear.”
The debasement had the desired effect. The Khan’s lips curled into an oily smile as he obviously considered how best to play with his new toy. Kyrokh watched him deliberate over what he could assume were all manner of gloating responses.
He settled upon the most blunt. “Come, girl,” he said, dismissing the previous night’s honorific together in favor of further mortification. “Kiss my rings in apology for last night’s disobedience, and then you may take up your position.”
It was heavy-handed, a blow Kyrokh had seen coming and had thus girded himself against. He did not hesitate to follow all instructions, showing a silent and waiting audience that he was thoroughly cowed.
Kyrokh had a brief moment of wonder. Why did he bother? These people before him were the ones that he stood to save with his warning, but at the moment he would feel no remorse if all — or at least quite a few of them — were to be decimated by the undoubted power of the Long.
He would regret it later, his logical brain told himself; and why embroil those who could be new allies in a bloody conflict without reason? And, even worse, if the Khan were to act out so soon, what might become of Nazva herself?
So he curtsied deeply — too deeply, wobbling gently as he rose and fell — and gazed into the Khan’s malicious stare.
“My lord, I must warn you — “
“Enough. I will not be so lenient with you that further impropriety will be tolerated. Prepare yourself and ensure that this meeting go smoothly,” Hroz ordered. “And unpin your hair at once.”
Kyrokh fingered the intricate braid on the right side of his head, a thick and solid plait that was surrounded by stubble, a traditional nomadic men’s style. His eyes widened as he deliberated, but the Khan was now striding away from him.
“I shall, sir, but I need to speak with you immediately.” It would have been better to lead the man delicately into this, but he would not be afforded the luxury of time. Already, the sun had risen so far that her belly was the only part still under the horizon. “I met the Long last night, and they are not what we expect — “
This was the final push it took to provoke the Khan’s rage. Kyrokh knew it would come, but still he stepped back briefly in the face of it before surging forward again. Before the man could open his mouth to roar his displeasure at either Kyrokh’s impropriety or his unscheduled excursion, Kyrokh plowed on.
“They are how the legends describe them, huge and covered in glittering hide. Their teeth are sharp and their eyes are that of lizards — “
“Are you addled as well as ill?” Hroz demanded. “You have lived so long among your books that you cannot separate tale from fact. What is this nonsense that you call truth, and how dare you interrupt me or my proceedings?”
“I do not mean to offend,” Kyrokh floundered, trying to press on. “I do not need you to believe me but only to be ready. Please, you cannot attack in fear when you see them.”
“The Khan of Nazva does not fear, nor does he need some serving girl to tell him of the intricacies of statecraft!”
“I am no serving girl!” Kyrokh spat, frustrated and anxious as Sul began to advance on him. “I am the only expert that you have on these people and I am telling you that they are far more powerful and fearsome than we could expect.”
The Khan whirled now, and stalked into Kyrokh’s space, looming over him by scant inches that still did their duty to intimidate. Kyrokh could feel Sul at his back, and fought hard at the nausea in his stomach.
“I am quite aware of your talents,” Hroz promised, his tone suddenly low, icy with maliciousness and calculation. “As your grasp of this language is the only thing stopping you from being publically executed.” Hroz put a hand to Kyrokh’s cheek, smiling with genuine delight as he flinched. “The moment that you exceed your usefulness, you will be gone from my sight — or you will be dead by winnowing in the public square. Have I made myself clear?”
Kyrokh felt his own heart pounding in this throat, sure that he would choke on it.
“If I am to die at your hand when my use is done, then I will use my time now to beg your caution.”
Kyrokh closed his eyes when the blow came, and turned his body with it. The sting was not much mitigated. He fell into the waiting arms of Sul, who shoved him roughly to his feet, only to double him over with a sharp jab to his kidneys.
“A Khan should dirty his hands with his justice,” Hroz sniffed, wiping his palms on his robe. “But often we find ourselves as both father and protector of our people, and our children sometimes find themselves in need of firm punishment…or an example.”
Seeming as though it came from far away, a sharp cry rolled in from the steppe.
“They come,” Hroz said, his attention swinging out to the sliver of grassland he could see beyond the swaying tents. His face had twisted into a strange parity of excitement and haughty self-assurance.
The cries, however, were neither traditional horn-calls of welcome, nor were they shouts of readiness. Instead, they were high and terrified, and the Khan did not seem to notice or to care. The noises grew louder, more panicked, as they were taken up by others in the camp. Even from his position on the plinth, Kyrokh could not quite see what sights had provoked the distress, but he could imagine.
“They won’t harm you!” Kyrokh shouted, dragging all the breath from his impacted lungs. The only people that heard him were milling nervously about at the bottom of the plinth, and they had not yet seen what those on lookout had.
“Archers!” was the strident call that broke through the muffled panic on the other side of the tents. Kyrokh’s heart gave a single terrified beat and then seemed to lay still, twisted in his chest. It would either be the Long that were injured, or the humans when the powerful creatures retaliated. Either way, Kyrokh had to stop them.
Feeling as though this were the final nail in his own coffin — for if he survived this day, the Khan would ensure he did not survive another — Kyrokh wrenched himself from Sul’s lax grip and threw himself off the plinth, hitting the ground hard but on his feet. He ran as fast as he could, towards the sounds of the yelling.
No one moved to stop him, or at least, they did not move fast enough, and he cleared the double-ring of tents in moments. What he found was as bad as he had feared, and he had no idea how to stop it.
The Long were well past the horizon, bearing down on the camp from the air. Kyrokh had not seen, last night, that they were possessed of functioning wings, but there could be no doubt at this point. There were a full six of the creatures, each as large — or larger — than the two from the night before. They shone in the early sunlight, their glittering colors many-hued and refracted, although they each possessed an undertone of a unique shade. The largest Long, and the one that led the group, was a terrifying shade of dark vermillion that was reminiscent of nothing less than fresh blood.
As the Long drew closer, the terrified soldiery were firing powerful bows into the sky. The Long were not quite close enough to hit reliably, but they would be soon, and though their bodies seemed to be thick and their scale layers chitinous, their wings were nothing more substantial than membranes through which sunlight filtered as they were stretched in the air. They would be torn to shreds by the arrows.
For the barest of moments, Kyrokh allowed himself to marvel, filled with all of the awe and overwhelming wonder that he had not been given the time to feel the night before. However, another salvo of arrows was soon fired at the rapidly approaching creatures, and this time, they fought back.
The vermillion dragon in front sucked in a huge breath, its body expanding visibly even from the ground. As it exhaled, from between its jaws came an astonishing sight: a huge, bright flash visible even in the strong sunlight. The crackling light paused in an orb inside the Long’s jaws and then was fired in projectile at the ground in front of the offensive human archers.
The ground was blown away as if hit by a stone fired by a ballista, and the smell of burning grass was overwhelming. The archers yelled and scattered, and still Kyrokh ran forward. He did not want to, but his feet were no longer taking orders from his head.
He was running headlong into self-immolation. He wasn’t the only one. One of the archers was still firing. Two of the other Long in the front of the wedge-shaped formation were inhaling deeply as well, the smell of ozone strong and sudden.
The man with the drawn bow, one of the watch captains, had his weapons trained on the very center of one of the vermillion dragon’s wings. He was sighting now, ready to let his arrow loose, and Kyrokh had no idea how to stop him except to barrel headlong into his side. The arrow winged wildly into the brushland and Kyrokh and the man tumbled to the ground, Kyrokh’s aching back and ribs throbbing as they landed hard, limbs tangled.
There was a static crackle in the air, and the desperately dry smell of burning air. Kyrokh’s head whipped up, seeing the vermillion Long poised to fire once more. The two flanking Long were breathing the fire in thin streams into the air, not quite able to reach the terrified humans, but the red Long had already proved themselves quite close enough. They were also training their fire directly on Kyrokh and the archer.
“Run!” Kyrokh yelled, realizing only as he stumbled to his feet that he’d shouted in Long-Hua. He switched to his own language. “Run, man!” Kyrokh took his own advice, racing out of the way of the soaring creature above.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kyrokh saw the archer finally understand his peril and scramble up.
“Stop!” Kyrokh screamed in Long-Hua again, looking up at the creatures that were now almost overhead. “We do not seek to harm. Stop, stop!”
The vermillion dragon’s head jerked as if in surprise, but the orb of fire had been poised for too long already and fired itself crazily towards the ground. Kyrokh saw its trajectory but could do nothing. It hit the fleeing archer squarely, and as the smoke from the ensuing blast cleared, the body on the ground emerged charred and piecemeal.
Kyrokh blinked at the place where, a heartbeat before, a man had stood. He felt his heart thump once, and then he leaned over and threw up in the grass, ignoring his chest’s protests.
In the rush of his own blood in his ears, Kyrokh hadn’t registered that the world had gone silent in the wake of the blast, but for the swooping, shuddering thump of displaced air as, one by one, the Long landed and settled into the grass before them.
Kyrokh found himself alone on a broad strip of steppe. Behind him cowered the terrified scatterings of the Khan’s camp. Before him, stood the massive bodies of creatures too inconceivable to be real. Kyrokh was completely alone, and every single eye was on him — including those of the furious Long.
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