To speak the desert's name is to invite a visit from death. To even think her name is to request attendance.
— Rojikinomi Ridáchi
Days later, the question Mikáryo expected finally came.
“What is Rutejìmo going through?”
She reached up and pulled the black fabric from her face to take a deep breath. It seared her lungs and prickled her lips.
Next to her, Tsubàyo rode his horse with one hand resting on the back of his mount's neck and the other hefting his water skin. The Pabinkúe didn't need reins or saddles to ride, not with their minds connected with their creatures.
Mikáryo held out her hand for his skin. When he handed it to her, she drank from the metallic-tasting liquid before returning it. “Thanks.”
“Please don't change the topic.”
Her heart beat faster and her muscles clenched.
Underneath her, Datobàpo stumbled when her thoughts disrupted his pace. He shook his mane angrily, followed by a wave of emotion that made his point clear.
It took her a moment to calm her thoughts and mount.
To her relief, Tsubàyo didn't press his question. He watched the scorpion being hauled in front of him, his eyes glazed over and his fingers absently rubbing the scar near his collar.
The desert passed slowly while she struggled for how to start. Finally, she found the words. “We find our spirits during our rites of passage. We found Pabinkúe, he found Shimusògo. Sometimes, there is only one spirit, other times there are many.”
“So I could have been a Shimusògo if I wanted to spend my life running around on my bare feet?”
She shrugged and then nodded. “The passage is more than just stress, it's a judgment. The spirits are choosing you for your actions and your thoughts. For some, your personality just meshes and there is no doubt which spirit is for you.”
“Jìmo would be one of those.”
“And that other girl.”
“Chi…” He frowned. “I don't remember her name anymore. She was a bird chaser if there was one.”
“Of course. Shimusògo had already picked her by the time I found you.” She pointed accusingly at him. She had stumbled into Tsubàyo's rite of passage when she chased after the man who killed her sister while stealing a horse. The horse thief ended up being Tsubàyo but Mikáryo had to shove aside the pain when it became apparent that her clan spirit had chosen the sister's murderer. The loss had faded over the years, the wound scabbed over by the companionship Tsubàyo had given her.
She tore her thoughts from her past and pointed again. “For you, there was a doubt. I'm sure if you acted differently, you would have been Shimusògo or some other clan. Or a bloody corpse in the sands.”
She saw the flicker of pain in his eyes. He knew the price Mikáryo had paid. Guilt burned in her thoughts and she turned away to break the conversation.
Datobàpo shook his mane as a prickle of annoyance radiated from his thoughts.
She patted him.
“So what does that have to do with Rutejìmo? He has a clan.” Tsubàyo also wanted to change the conversation.
Thankful for the respite, she answered, “Who do you pray to?”
“The moon of course. You taught me that. Every night at moon rise, when the magic runs through my veins.”
For a moment, she remembered the sullen brat who she brought home. Tsubàyo had grown up a lot in the last ten years. “There are two others.”
“Yeah, the sun and desert.” He waved his hands dismissively.
“Who prays to the sun?”
“The day clans.”
“Who prays to the desert?”
He opened his mouth and then closed it. His brown skin paled for a moment. Licking his lips, he finally said, “No one.”
She looked at him pointedly.
“What? No one would dare to mention her name. Just saying it would be asking death to visit you.”
Mikáryo's stomach twisted as she struggled to fight her emotions. She could feel the tears threatening to come again as she pictured the hell the desert had in store for Rutejìmo. If he survived, his second life would have begun.
Realization dawned on Tsubàyo's face. “A kojinōmi!? He's going to be a tender of the dead? H-How? I mean, how? It's… he's… Jìmo.”
Around him, the herd stumbled.
The giant brass scorpion lurched to a stop.
Ahead of them, the merchants began to yell.
“The horses!” snapped Mikáryo.
His face darkening with a blush, Tsubàyo concentrated for a moment and the herd began to strain against their ropes again. A minute later, the mechanical device continued along its route.
Kojinōmi. In a society that refused to name the dead to avoid drawing the attention of the desert mother, they were the men and women who willingly carried bodies to the funeral pyres. They risked proximity to death herself to make sure the dead passed on with dignity, honor, and grace.
Mikáryo choked back a sob.
Like warriors, almost none of the kojinōmi died of old age. Their end came from attacks by grieving lovers, diseases from hands they held, or the blood from the guts they held in while listening to a dying confession. They never had a clean death, only a terrible one.
Rutejìmo didn't have a chance. He didn't have the strength to survive death's attention. A great warrior would be hard pressed with the shadow of oblivion following them, a pathetic fighter like Rutejìmo might not even make it a day before his end.
“He'll make it.”
Mikáryo jerked her head up to look at Tsubàyo.
He glanced at her and shrugged. “Jìmo will survive.”
“How can you see that? Have you seen how he fights?”
Tsubàyo held out his hand with a silent question.
“Fine, you tried to kill him. But that's the point. You would have succeeded. If it wasn't for that girl, his blood would be on the sands.”
“Except you said that you feel the need to protect him.”
“I would have never told you that!” she proclaimed even as she tried to imagine when she revealed that secret.
“You, sun-stroked, rancid chunk of horse shit, you guessed!? You guessed?”
“Yes and no. It's pretty obvious with the way you were instantly affectionate toward him. But you know our kojinōmi. She won't tend a follower of sunlight. Not in a hundred years. And that old bastard we met a year ago? He wouldn't touch us because we were of the night. Kojinōmi don't care for the dead on the other side. Sun and moon, that divide always remains.”
“So, what does that matter?”
With a grin, he said, “Jìmo has the blessing of both. It's obvious that he is touched by the sun. And you also feel that need to protect him, as if he was one of us.”
She mulled over his thoughts. “How can you be sure?”
“I can't, but I have a lot of trouble believing that… the desert wouldn't choose him unless he had a chance.”
“I know others that failed. These moments of a new life are deadly and this time, he's playing with death herself.”
“A child died during my rite of passage too. But most of us survived. Trauma brings power. If someone is going to get traumatized, it would be Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”