Galqar stood still as the two women examined him in his new clothes. The fabric was strange and itchy and caught on his scales, which hadn’t been properly oiled after they’d bathed him. The trousers were clearly not made to accommodate even his short tail, and the shoes were hard and uncomfortable. But the old man—the khagan of these strange people who were not of the Steppe—had told him to follow the women, that they would care for him, and so he did.
He’d struggled at first, when the men in iron came ashore and scooped him up from the beach. He’d kicked and bitten and tried to gore them with his half-grown horns like he’d been taught to do if the Jhungid or Kharlu or Buduga tried to take him, but they’d laughed at his attempts to fight, and now, because of the curiosity that was his curse, he was here, far from his family and his home and his people. Not alone, though. There was the old man, whose pale gold eyes were so very familiar, and when he smiled, Galqar could have sworn he’d known the man for longer than the eight summers of his life.
He had so many questions. He couldn’t ask them yet; only the old khagan understood his speech. The more the people around him spoke, though, the more he understood their words, but he was careful not to let them know that. Knowledge, his aunt the udgan often said, was power, and sometimes it was wisest to keep that power hidden.
“There!” The shorter of the two women smiled at him, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “He looks almost…”
“Human?” the taller woman said. She had pale yellow hair, and a pearl-like gem on her forehead like the khagan and the ship captain and the people with the long white coats who’d taken him from his home.
“I was going to say, ‘civilized,’” the short brown-haired woman said. Both of them were pale like the tales the Haragin told of the Kagon; Galqar wondered if they too feared Azim’s light.
The tall woman snorted. “That’s a bit of a stretch, especially with these things.” She flicked a finger against one of the boy’s horns, and the sound echoed painfully in his skull. He glared at her, and she laughed.
“Don’t like that, little savage?” She tapped his horn again, and this time, he leaned forward and bit her arm.
“Ow! You little—”
“Fabia, don’t.” The brown-haired woman stepped in front of him. “You heard what those medics said; His Radiance himself ordered him brought here and cared for. You might not get in trouble if you hit him, but I’m not a pureblood, and I don’t have your connections. Just…let it go, please.”
The pale-haired woman lowered the hand she’d raised to strike the boy. “Fine. Let’s just get him settled—did they bring food for the brat?”
The brown-haired woman beckoned to him. “Come here, little one.” He followed her into another room—he’d never dreamed any place could have this many different rooms!—with a high table covered with strange dishes. He hadn’t eaten in days, not since his captors had held him down and force-fed him on the iron ship, and now his stomach growled.
“You can have whatever you like, as much as you like,” she told him, and then, to the pale-haired woman, “What? He’s so skinny; he probably doesn’t get much to eat wherever he’s from.”
Galqar studied the food, and finally loaded the empty plate with something from each dish: poultry and meat in a sauce, fish, bread, and a mound of something white and starchy, and fruit and fresh greens. There was no rice or tea, but a pitcher proved to contain cold milk that he carefully poured into a mug. He looked around and frowned, not sure where to sit since there were no cushions on the floor, and the two women were just watching him, making no move to eat themselves.
“Have a seat, please,” the brown-haired woman said, gesturing at one of the chairs. Galqar stared at her. He was hardly an elder; why did she want him to take a chair?
Each tribe has their own customs, his mother had told him once, and when we share their tents, we must do as they do. Now please, Galqar, put on a shirt so that we can eat with my sisters. He swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat and climbed into the chair. It was hard and uncomfortable and his feet didn't reach the floor; there were no sticks either, only a dizzying array of spoons and what looked like tiny metal versions of the trident his father used when he was going after a big catch. Galqar decided that his mother's advice didn't apply when he didn't know how to do as this tribe did, and he used his hands to break off a piece of fish.
It was flaky and rather bland, but still better than anything he’d had since he’d been taken, and he had to force himself to eat slowly, taking care not to spill anything on his new clothes. The bones had been taken out, which was good since they’d filed his claws down after he'd scratched one of his captor’s faces. This made eating the poultry a bit tricky, but he managed to get all of the meat off the bones and crack them open for the marrow. Even if he hadn’t been ravenous, he wasn’t going to be rude and waste anything.
He was using a piece of bread to sop up the sauce on the meat, concentrating on the flavors of the food and not how strange and wrong it felt to be eating all by himself, when he heard one of the women make a noise. He glanced over and saw that the brown-haired woman had a hand over her mouth like she was going to be sick, and the pale-haired woman was laughing. At him.
So he was doing something wrong. Galqar bit the inside of his cheek with his sharp back teeth until he tasted blood. He would not cry in front of these strangers, no matter how much he wanted to. The pain helped him focus his anger into a plan.
If they’re going to laugh at me anyway, I might as well be comfortable, he thought, and he picked up his plate and cup and sat cross-legged on the floor. He looked up at the horrified women and bared his teeth in something resembling a smile.
“Thank you,” he said carefully, trying to match the sounds to the words he’d heard them use. “Food is good.” He picked up a long, thin green thing—some sort of vegetable?—and took a big bite. The crunch was satisfying.