Other Words for Human
Chapter One: In Which Kyrokh Learns His Accent is the Least of His Problems
“…ah, just a moment, Kyrokh-qara.”
Kyrokh had not heard the female honorific applied to his name in years. He paused in his stride across the center of camp. If anyone else had called him “qara” and not “qar”, they would be face-down in the dirt. But this was not “anyone else”, it was —
“Khan Hroz,” Kyrokh muttered, bowing formally before flicking his gaze longingly back at his tiny tent on the edge of the camp center. If he had only been just a little quicker, he could have been safe and asleep…
Instead, he was stuck staring down one of the most unpleasant people he had the misfortune of meeting in a relatively short life — and he could calmly make that statement after only having known him six weeks. Willful misuse of honorifics was only the smallest tip of a malicious little tuber.
“Tomorrow is an important day for all of Nazva,” Hroz was saying, smiling broadly and sweeping out his hands to indicate their pitiful little camp, supposedly representative of their entire state. Oh, Hroz would have loved to preside over a diplomatic retinue one thousand men deep, but his father, the Great Khan, was sensible. Instead, Hroz was stuck with a score of men — a few guards, servants, two advisors, and one specially chosen translator fluent in Long-hua.
Such a lucky thing to be chosen, Kyrokh, the Head Archivist in Nazva had told him when the summons came, to accompany a prince, and to be one of the first to speak with the Long. A dream.
And it had been a dream, for someone who had been studying a dead language all their life, to find it was alive and breathing just on the other side of mountains that no one had thought to cross.
“You do not have to remind me, Khan Hroz,” Kyrokh said obsequiously, bowing low. “It will be an event to be recorded for the ages.”
Hroz preened. His thin moustache twitched upward into a greasy smile, his unnecessary circlet and flurry of hair beads shining in the flickering firelight. There was no one to impress here — not yet, not until tomorrow. Even the three guards flanking Hroz looked bored and unfocused. Until the official audience, there was no one around but the dusk and the sentient whispers of the cold steppe.
“You’ll agree with me in my sincere wish that nothing hinder our first meeting.” Hroz was not subtle, his personal guards even less so, cracking their knuckles and leering in an overwrought fashion.
But Kyrokh was quite capable in what he did — and was in fact one of the very few who had any knowledge of the Long-Hua language, thought extinct or even mythical for so long. “I promise that you have no need to worry. My translation tomorrow will be flawless.” He hoped. No one had ever heard more than bequeathed single lines of Long-Hua poetry or folklore. Kyrokh’s greatest nightmare was that he had a terrible accent.
“Your prowess is not what has me concerned, qara.”
There it was again. “Qara.” But Kyrokh was not a woman — had not lived as one, not since childhood. And Khan Hroz had moved forward, just slightly, subtly crowding Kyrov and he was absolutely not comfortable.
There was no one to turn to, however. The only others in camp were retainers and guards and they were loyal, they would not step in because the prince of their land was bullying some lowly translator.
“I am concerned,” the Khan continued as the blood started to rush into Kyrokh’s ears, “about you”.
“Don’t be disingenuous,” the Khan snapped. “It’s not clever or becoming. Your presentation is a farce at best. I can turn a blind eye to your Archives in Nazva humoring your proclivities, but it is time now for professionalism.
Kyrokh’s skin felt cold and numb. He had gotten very good at being seen as a man even at first glance — had grown his hair and shaved the side into the traditional clan braid. He took daily poisons to shrivel his monthlies and boost his testes. He was not tall, but was broad and thick and had hoped, darkly and secretly, that his transformation was complete. Khan Hroz’s leering glances dashed that hope completely.
“I am nothing but professional,” Kyrokh muttered, trying to appear demure. He was not ashamed of being “caught”, but there was a wicked sort of cast to the Khan’s gaze, and a warning bubbled in Kyrokh’s chest.
“Hardly,” the Khan persisted. His guards had flanked Kyrokh now and his muscles tensed. There was no way to fight his way out of whatever the Khan had planned — even if he could take the huge Golums advancing on him, it was certainly a crime to resist the Khan. “I cannot have a woman mocking our very culture by parading about in men’s clothing. It’s an abomination and would make us a joke to those who we want to impress.”
Kyrokh bristled. “I am no woman. I am — “
It happened very fast — the first guard grabbed Kyrokh’s right wrist, then his left, holding them easily behind his back. The second guard, with quick and practiced strokes, pulled a belt knife and sliced through Kyrokh’s shirt and chest bindings, nicking skin as he went.
And there Kyrokh hung, suspended in a single moment — bent over with his hands levered behind him, the scarred mess of his bruised chest slipping into view in the silent firelight. For all of their ugliness, women’s breasts were clearly visible.
“Need I examine lower?” Khan Hroz asked pointedly.
Bare and grossly exposed, Kyrokh bowed his head.
He was shoved to his knees, and the Khan and his retinue took their slow leave.
“Ask a serving girl to lend you her clothes,” the Khan threw delicately over his shoulder, “if you were so remiss as to forget your own.”
He was gone from sight soon enough but Kyrokh stayed on the ground for a long time. The confrontation was loud enough and the camp cramped enough that many others must have heard, but no one approached Kyrokh for either comfort or condemnation.
He should sleep, he thought, blood dripping sluggishly from his chest to the soil beneath. His body stung, though, with real wounds and echoing shame. It would not settle, and Kyrokh wanted nothing more than to run.
He could run fastest astride his horse. Buca had been hobbled and pastured for the night, but it took only a moment to whistle her close to camp. The huge, powerful roan came happily to her master’s side. He might not be terribly good at riding bareback, but Kyrokh did not wish to return to camp — not even to grab his tack. Or another shirt. There was no thought of all that, just the natural upswing onto Buca’s back and the quick trot out onto the steppe.
As always, as soon as Kyrokh was alone under the vast bowl of the sky, he could breathe.
Buca cantered along, pleased to stretch her legs, her flanks warm under Kyrokh’s thighs. He had his fingers tangled in her tough mane and, as she slowed her wild, joyous run, Kyrokh let his head fall back, staring blearily at the dark dome above him.
The stars were a spill of milk, tonight; they were thick and bright like a woman’s hair. Heaven was the darkest, bloody blue.
It may have occurred to Kyrokh to be wary, in this foreign land, but it seemed so similar to his own home on a steppe like this, before he moved to the city of Nazva. He remembered spending long nights lying prostrate under the same arched sky in his youth, watching the stars spin and thinking of not much at all.
The Long shared this sky as well, though Kyrokh had still not met them. Even now, presumably so close to their capitol, to their king, they had only spoken via messenger bird, flown from so far across the horizon that it disappeared with the gentle curve of the earth.
Not many living had laid eyes on the Long; perhaps only the Nazva raiders who had first crossed the Kush mountains and stumbled so fatefully across a race long thought to be extinct. They brought back only half-remembered rumors of their encounter, stumbling into Nazva panicked and unsure themselves of what they had seen. They knew only this: they had met the Long, and the Long wished to meet their leaders. The traders had a rough vellum sheet with strange runes upon it echoing that invitation — Kyrokh and his teacher Aliman had been called to court for the exact purpose of reading it.
The Great Khan had sent his eldest son as an emissary to answer the request, as well as a full retinue, and the best translator the city could provide. No one knew what to expect, not even Kyrokh, who had studied this race all his life. All he knew were myths and legends, regaled untruthfully in unsteady and ages-old story, and he did not know what parts to believe — the scaled patches of skin, the filed teeth?
For all their oddity, surely the Long were no more fantastic than any other people that came through Nazva. Kyrokh knew that no human could shine like a jewel or fly unaided, the way the stories professed.
It was perhaps this certainty, the comforting hope that, despite race and culture, humanity would unite them all, that allowed Kyrokh to let down his guard in the face of the deserted and starkly beautiful steppe.
The wind howled in joyful freedom through the long, dry grass, and Kyrokh tucked his torn shirt about his chest. Even such beauty could be tempered by the desert cold. Despite the glow of shame still about him, the ride had made him feel just a bit calmer.
Wheeling Buca, Kyrokh turned them back toward the damp glow of the Khan’s camp, just out of sight.
The wind was following them, the rustle of the grass keeping pace with them as they rode. Kyrokh started to feel as if it were a living being, blowing deep grooves in the stalks, flanking him and his horse.
Then, one of the shadowed grooves veered sharply right, cutting Buca off mid-stride. In the dark, Kyrokh could only make out the glint of reflected moon on an eye, impossibly large, and a body, impossibly long, before gentle Buca reared with a squeal and did something she hadn’t done even once since Kyrokh purchased her for this journey — she bucked him, and he fell hard to the ground.
Kyrokh lost time, but he wasn’t sure how much. He came back to his body in pieces, each bringing with it a new ache. First, it was his chest and lungs, expanding with the tension of stretched leather, worse than any binding Kyrokh himself had done.
Next, it was his back, his shoulders, aching dully with blunt force. His head, too, had slammed into the hard ground. Ears were next, taking in the faint rustling of the grasses still; the steppe not stopping its breathing just because he had. Then, his voice, and a surprised moan left his lips because, by the Horse Gods, it had hurt.
The rustling grew louder, more urgent, turning deeper and almost like an animal hiss or grumble, undercut by a thrumming like rushing blood. There was a cadence to it, and Kyrokh found himself latching onto the strange familiarity in the sound. He recognized the pattern, the rise and fall, almost like a song with barely discernible lyrics.
Words. These were words. They weren’t in his native language, but Kyrokh recognized them without knowing how.
“It looks hurt, Drei, did we hurt it? It’s just, I’d never seen one — “
And twining with that, a lower, airy hum. “No one has, Jiaen, that is why we invited them — “
“I thought it would be bigger,” the first, Jiaen, said with a sigh. “But, oh, how beautiful, just like the stories…!”
Kyrokh was content to lay there and listen to the melodic whispering as long as he was able, but his lungs finally protested the effort they took to inflate and seized dramatically. Kyrokh found himself coughing and wheezing in desperation to suck air.
“I told you, Drei — its chest is hurt! It can’t breathe, oh what do we do?”
The answer seemed to be to run something cold and heavy across Kyrokh’s abdomen, and those muscles seized, too. Kyrokh’s body sat up without much conscious effort from his mind, and his eyelids flipped open to gaze right into a single huge, dark eye.
Kyrokh stopped coughing, he stopped moving, and he stopped breathing. He just… stopped, uncomprehending, staring at the two creatures before him.
They were low to the ground, on four feet, with long, stretched necks and wide, grinning mouths. Sharp teeth glinted in the clear moonlight. Their backs were as tall as Buca’s ears, with leathery folds of wings draped at rest across them. One creature had its huge face shoved right up into Kyrokh’s, breathing hot, stale air past his neck.
“It’s living!” the lighter whisper proclaimed, and Kyrokh’s addled mind finally, finally caught onto why he understood it. This was the Long-Hua language that he had studied and parsed over and never before heard spoken.
When meant that the creatures before him were the Long themselves.
Shock was the first of the emotions that Kyrokh found himself contemplating, followed closely by awe, terror, delight, and sheer incomprehension. As his logical half struggled to choose one, his instincts led him to speak.
“Well met, and blessings on your dens,” Kyrokh hummed the best approximation of the deep chanting noises that he could muster. He had first thought that the literal word “dens” actually meant dwelling, but now he was beginning to realize that the translation was much more literal.
He wasn’t sure what reaction that a traditional court greeting might garner him, but he rather hadn’t anticipated the face in front of him to rear back and huff shadowed breaths into the sky. It was — it was laughing at him.
“It speaks! Drei, it speaks so prettily. We didn’t kill it!” the laughing one, Jiaen, huffed. Kyrokh’s rational mind, still grappling with his shock, gave way to instinct once more, and Kyrokh found himself rather dispassionately contemplating this Long, the way its body was darker and more slender than its companion, a deep color obscured by night but perhaps shone a midnight blue or heady violet. It must be beautiful, he thought absently.
“It likely has a name, Jiaen, if it has the intelligence to speak,” the second, Drei, grumbled, but it shuffled forward to peer closely as well. “Do you?”
This time, Kyrokh was directly addressed, and he found himself confusedly scrambling for his basic identity.
“Yes, I — “ he was speaking his own language, however, and consciously switched to Long-Hua. “Yes. I am Kyrokh, of the tribe of the Great Khan.”
Drei bowed his head in acknowledgement, but before he could speak again, Jiaen demanded his attention.
“Then you are Khan-et?” she asked. “As we are Long-et.”
Kyrokh did not understand the words exactly, but he realized that it must be their way of referring to his people. “I am.”
“It’s smart, too!” Jiaen crowed happily to Drei. Kyrokh was beginning to realize that many of his previous emotions were irrelevant — for example, he was not afraid of his new companions. He couldn’t explain why, exactly, because although Jiaen seemed absolutely delighted to speak to him, there were subtle shifts in Drei’s brow-ridge and the curl of his mouth that would, in something human, hint at serious contemplation that was neither reassuring nor simply cursory. Kyrokh got the feeling that Drei was working out what exactly to do with their charge, but Kyrokh trusted that it was not, at least, some kind of dining upon his person. Both of the Long seemed far too fascinated in him yet.
Somehow, this was enough to relax Kyrokh more than was strictly advisable.
“I am not an ‘it’. I gave you my name,” Kyrokh corrected Jiaen.
Jiaen blinked, pausing. “You’re right. But I don’t know what sort of name that Kyrokh is. Are you a male? A female? Do your kind have another form?”
And wasn’t that the question. Kyrokh felt the need for some measure of reassertion of himself after the encounter with Hroz, but his shirt still hung open and bared his chest for the world to see. He gestured lamely to his bruised and scarred breasts. “Can’t you tell?” he muttered.
Jiaen didn’t skip a beat. “Of course not — how do you tell in your kind? What do you look for? Can you tell that I’m a female? Because mama Ashi always said my headspikes were almost as big as Drei’s, and he is a male — “
This, more than anything else, became the most important thing that Kyrokh had learned thus far this evening. More exciting and heady than meeting the Long for the first time, more terrifying than speaking to them and having them loom over him, more comforting than even the certainty that they didn’t yet wish him harm, was the simple fact — they didn’t understand human gender and he, now, could tell them as he wished and they would never question it, never look at him as different or stare and try to piece together, as so many others did, which parts made him female and which made him male.
Kyrokh gathered his shirt about him and grinned at Jiaen, this apparently-female Long.
“I am a male, but I don’t look like many males of my kind, either.”
Lizard-like creatures could not smile, but the quick lashing of Jiaen’s tail hinted that she was pleased. Even Drei’s tail moved slightly, although Kyrokh expected that was just a twitch. Drei didn’t seem like the type who was easily satisfied.
“Do you know where my horse is?” Kyrokh asked, picking himself up slowly, testing all his new aches.
“It’s over — oh!” Jiaen began.
Just as Kyrokh laid eyes on Buca, peacefully grazing a few feet away as if she had never been terrified enough to throw him, his knees locked in a spectacularly painful fashion and he started to fall with a grunt.
He didn’t get far, though. Jiaen was there in a moment, catching Kyrokh with her broad flank, and she was warm — her scales were not large or chitinous but stiff and pliable like tough leather, and Kyrokh could feel blood whirl under his touch. It was only then that he was reminded how cold the wind was.
“Are your kind supposed to be this cold?” There was a thread of worry in Jiaen’s voice, and maybe Kyrokh was feeling the wind more than he strictly should have, but it didn’t seem right to have these incredible creatures worried about something as insignificant as him.
“Not so unusual as anything else humans may or may not do,” Kyrokh replied. He named “humans’ in his own language, suddenly conscious that the Long had no equivalent word. “I think I will be alright if I am able to return to camp soon.”
In response, Jiaen let out a sharp, staccato set of breathes, harsh and eerie. Kyrokh was alarmed at first, and frantically wondered if it would be worth making a run for Buca, but the logical part of his mind that had been mostly dormant that night instead told him to listen, really listen, and he heard Jiaen forming alien sounds with inert lips and an agile tongue.
“Khoo — “ an outward, guttural hum, “ — nan.” A lizard’s lips would not smack to make the “m”. The best that Jiaen could come up with in the end sounded a lot like “Huu-in”, but there was a flash in her eye so much like pride that Kyrokh could correct her no further. The name “Kyrokh” gave her no such difficulties, and that was somehow gratifying.
“The huu’in is obviously wounded, Jiaen,” Drei scolded, but he was as transparent as she was, excited to be able to use his new word. “Sigr-Toth means to meet the Khan-et,” he paused, correcting himself, “the huu’in party tomorrow after rise. We should let this one go to tend himself before that.”
Kyrokh pushed himself off Jiaen’s broad shoulder. He was obviously dismissed by Drei, but Jiaen was looking at him with something that might be concern.
“I’m not wounded, just shaken up a bit,” he assured her. It was an understatement. “You didn’t hurt me, I promise.” He whistled Buca over, and she came easily, the fickle thing. He levered himself onto her with more effort than he would like to admit, his legs cramping as he scrambled up. He ended up sprawled, firmly but messily, half-across Buca’s neck.
He straightened himself, only to find a warm weight on his thigh. Jiaen had placed her great, diamond-shaped head on his leg and was staring up him with jeweled, reptilian eyes.
“You will be alright, won’t you?”
And just like that, he was warm, and sure that if he was not alright, Jiaen would do all she could to make it so.
“I will be, after some sleep,” he assured her, leaning down to see her better. She lifted up at the same time her snout — soft and dry and cold — ended up pressed to Kyrokh’s nose.
She smelled of earth and clean loam, something heavy and as deep as her voice. Kyroth’s eyes closed and he stayed pressed to her for a long moment before Buca shifted and whickered.
“Good night,” he told her as she pulled away, and found himself, to his own surprise, as polite and genial as if he were speaking to his colleagues at the archives back home. Faintly, he felt mystified that he was unable to muster up any more hysterical reaction. “Good night,” he said again to Drei, who watched with glittering eyes as he crouched just a little further off.
Kyrokh rode off without asking if he might see them again. He didn’t want to hear them say no.
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