Formality in the desert is strict and brutal. The barbarians wouldn't hesitate to beat anyone who addresses a superior without “great” and their full name.
— Trasid Malafun, Strange Customs of the Sand-Blooded
The light of the fire pushed back the darkness that surrounded Mikáryo. She could enjoyed the near daylight brilliance of the merchant clan's bonfires but the horses were spooked by the noise. Both Tsubàyo and her preferred to camp a few chains away from the rest of the caravan, the relative quiet made a far more enjoyable night.
She took a deep breath and inhaled in the sweet smell of the burning wood. The sap from the local trees reminded her of home, at least in the way it popped and hissed in the fire. She wondered if the locals smoked it or used it as incense like her father did.
“Smells like dochīga wood,” Tsubàyo said as he set down a platter of food and a large mug of hot tea next to her. He then took a few steps to sit down on his own riding blanket. The sand underneath shifted slightly with his weight.
“I thought the same thing.”
“Getting homesick already? It's only been five months since you visited.”
Mikáryo glared at him. “You know I don't go home.”
He nodded and shrugged his shoulders. “I don't mind it.”
“You have a gorgeous wife and three beautiful children waiting for you. I suspect you are the one anxious to ride her like a horse the moment you get home.”
He picked up his mug and spoke into the steaming liquid while grinning. “Maybe….”
“Going for four?”
He shook his head. “Three's enough. Any more and the house will get cramped and I'll start spending more time out here than at home.”
“You can always leave kids behind you on the sands. Some of those merchants do.” She gestured dismissively at the gathering behind them. The others were celebrating something, probably some wind blew or another thinly veiled excuse to drink.
Tsubàyo scratched his scar. “I wouldn't do that to Múchi. I would never stray.”
Mikáryo reached out and grabbed a stick. She rolled it along her fingertips for a moment and then used it to shove one of the logs into the center of the pit where the flames were the hottest. “Is she still okay with us fucking?”
“Of course, you're the Great Pabinkue Mikáryo.”
Mikáryo glared at him sharply.
He grinned and took another bite. “What? That's what she calls you. Not everyone insists on using childish names, you know.”
“I just don't like—” she started with a rising tone.
“It's okay, Káryo. I'm just teasing you. She knows exactly what we do out here.”
“If she ask you to stop?”
“I'd do in a heartbeat,” he said firmly.
“Good.” Mikáryo picked up her plate and ate quietly.
After a few minutes of silence, Tsubàyo broke the silence. “Why the questions? Jìmo?”
The muscles in her stomach and shoulder tightened.
“I know our relationship has been settled for years. The only thing that has changed is him.”
Mikáryo wasn't sure how to respond. He didn't have to be right and she hated admitting it. “Jealous?”
Tsubàyo pulled a face. “I mean, I don't really care for what you did. However, it's been a long time and I'm not the same boy who tried to kill him. You know that. But I also know that if he was just a cock, you wouldn't have ridden him…” He suddenly smiled wryly. “… like a horse in the night.”
A memory of lust warmed her body for a moment. “Fine, a point for you.”
He chuckled and returned to his food.
They finished their meals in relative silence. Tsubàyo gathered up the plates and mugs and took them to the main group to get cleaned.
Alone, Mikáryo returned to staring at the fire. Her thoughts were dark with Rutejìmo. Tsubàyo had guessed correctly, the last two nights with him had been more than just mindless passion. She felt drawn to the whimpering young man, the desire to protect him coloring every conversation she had with him.
That was one mark of the kojinōmi, speakers for the desert. Whenever one of the Pabinkúe was in danger, she felt a calling to rush to help. With Rutejìmo, she heard the same call though it was quieter and less pressing.
She knew that being banished from his clan was just the first step for something more. The desert had plans for Rutejìmo, ones that would hurt him in ways that no human fist could match. She wanted to rush after him, to shield him from the pain and agony he was about to suffer.
She couldn't, she knew that.
An earlier conversation came up: trauma manifested power. Normally everyone had only one moment in their lives where their needs measured out the depth of their magic. Rutejìmo would have two and his second life had just began.
A tear ran down her cheek. She tried to wipe it away but more dripped down her face. After a few moments of trying, she just let them fall.
“I'm sorry,” she whispered.
A log in the fire shifted and sent up a spray of embers into the air.
The ground crunched with Tsubàyo's return. He stopped next to her, resting one hand on her shoulder. “I'm heading to my tent.”
Mikáryo didn't want to be alone for the night. She reached up to hold his hand against her. “Would you be…?”
“Would you like company tonight?”
“Come on,” he said warmly before helping her to her feet.
Together, they gathered up their belongings and placed them back into the packs. One never knew if they would have time when the sun rose, it was best to be prepared to leave with a moment's notice. It took another half hour to check on the horses; Tsubàyo could do it mentally but both preferred to touch and interact with their herd.
When she returned, he held the flap open to her tent.
Murmuring thanks, she crawled in and stripped down to her underwear. The wires in her armored cloth resisted folding, but she coiled it into a roll of black fabric that would double as a pillow for later.
When she turned around, Tsubàyo had removed all of his clothes. The scars marked his flesh down to the peak of his hip, bisecting his body with the darker slash of hardened skin. Kneeling next to her, he helped her pull the black cloth from her breasts before sliding his arm around her bare waist. Their black tattoos rubbed together and the images of horses that covered both of their bodies looked like a herd.
He was hot against her body, a warmth that pushed back the cold of night and the darkness that haunted in her thoughts.
She sniffed and reached up to cup the side of his face, her fingers resting against his scars. “Thank you, Bàyo.”
“What are friends for, Great Pabinkue—?”
She silenced him with a kiss.