The clans of the desert don't need locks among friends. A door, opened or closed, is simply a barrier for sand and critters, not visitors.
— Gidon Wamifuko, The Pride of the Desert
Rutejìmo woke up screaming. As he sat up, his thin blanket clung to his sweat-soaked shoulders. He reached for one of the travel lights that he kept scattered on his bed. When he couldn't find it, he whimpered softly and used both hands to thump around the rough blankets with growing fear.
A clicking noise filled the dark. It was the familiar sound of someone winding one of the lights.
He froze, and his skin crawled. He stared into the darkness, and his nightmares welled up to paint the darkness with hidden corpses and blood. He reached out for his tazágu, his fighting spike.
The winding stopped. And then there was a tap of the metal striking the crystal. The flash burst through the darkness, too fast for him to focus on its source. Heart pounding in his chest, he held his breath and trembled while waiting for the worst.
When the clockwork mechanism began to strike rapidly against the crystal, a flash coming from every impact, he jumped again. His fingers caught the edge of his weapon, but it rolled away from his grip.
The soft blue glow spread out from Chimípu's fingers and speared across the room. It lit up her smile before reaching her eyes. The bright green of her eyes appeared almost black in the azure light. “You know, Jìmo, if you're this afraid of the dark, picking the deepest room in your cave might not be the best spot to sleep.”
Rutejìmo blushed and stopped reaching for his weapon. He sighed and felt his necklace shift across his bare chest. “Sorry.”
“For what, little brother?” Her whisper seemed to fill the room along with the light.
He gestured blindly at the tazágu.
“Oh, I wasn't worried about that.” A golden glow spread out from her body, rising from her outline in a haze of sunlight and heat. Her smile took on a different appearance when the blue light faded. It was still playful, but there was a hardness in her green eyes.
The heat licked at Rutejìmo's skin and he shifted uncomfortably. The sweat dried and prickled his skin, adding to his discomfort. He shifted around on his blankets. The temperature in the room rapidly increased.
For a moment, her body seemed to blur with a haze of feathers. He felt her power beating at the air around him, a pulse of running and wind blowing against his face.
Chimípu chuckled, and the flames faded to a dim glow. It clung to her body, highlighting her muscular curves and reddish hair. She had one knee on the edge of his bed, her body perfectly still as if she readied herself to strike.
“Warriors get all the tricks,” he muttered without feeling jealousy. The prices the warriors paid for their powers were ones that he could never accept himself. A long time ago, he wanted to be one, but now he was content to be nothing but a courier.
She grinned. “It just means I don't need a light to wake up.” She gestured to a small pile of glow lights at the foot of his bed.
“It's dark and I don't want to stumble.” Flashes of his dreams came back, of Desòchu and Chimípu slaughtering Mikáryo. He turned away to avoid betraying himself.
“It's bright outside.” Chimípu beckoned with her finger. “Come on, you're having breakfast with the clan.”
Rutejìmo frowned. “I'm just going to eat here, like I—”
Chimípu stood up, “You are coming to breakfast. In the bright, cheerful sun and among the others in the valley.” She grabbed his blanket and yanked it down.
He flinched at the sudden cold. “Mípu—”
“Get out of bed,” she ordered, “now.”
Rutejìmo muttered under his breath. He crawled out of bed, thankful he wore sleeping shorts. His blanket peeled away from his skin, clinging to the last of his sweat.
“Still having nightmares?”
He nodded mutely before standing up. His skin prickled with the cooler air against his slick back. He wanted to dry his skin, but not with Chimípu watching him.
“About what?” Her voice softened.
Images of Mikáryo's corpse on the ground flashed before his eyes. “Nothing, really. Just… random terrors.”
She stepped up to him and rested her hand on his shoulder. The scent of flowers clung to her skin. Their eyes met and he tensed. He knew what she was silently offering. His body wanted it, and he responded quickly to her scent, heat, and presence. But the images of blood and violence from his nightmares filtered through his thoughts. He whispered, “I-I'm sorry….”
For a moment, he thought that she would force him, but she just patted him on the shoulder. With a grin, she gestured down. “Might want to take care of that.”
Rutejìmo flushed as he looked down. “It's morning!” He snapped his head up to retort. “I just have to—” But she was already gone with a rush of air and a swirl of translucent feathers.
He took a deep breath and shook his head. Rubbing his short, black hair with his hand, he cleaned up, got dressed, and made himself presentable to be seen by the others. Less than ten minutes later, he stood in the entrance of his cave and shielded his eyes from the bright sun.
Tilting his head up, he whispered a prayer to Tachìra, the sun spirit. Years ago, he used to rush through the morning ritual but, after feeling Shimusògo in his veins, he learned that daily prayer was his way of thanking the sun for his clan's powers. And even his small measure of power demanded at least thanks to the sun spirit.
He spoke the long-familiar words, feeling the warmth of the sun push back the last of his nightmares. He could almost picture Tachìra standing over him, a distant presence that had been the ultimate source of his power since the day he first heard Shimusògo.
When he finished, he let the fabric drape back over the entrance and padded down the path. He didn't use magic to rush to the bottom, not in the valley, but instead strolled and waved to those who called out to him. There weren't many who acknowledged his presence.
Every morning, the clan gathered at the bottom of the valley and spent an hour sharing food, company, and conversation. Rutejìmo remembered the days of standing behind the tables, usually next to a large pile of plates and pots that needed cleaning. Since he became a courier, however, he wasn't expected to cook or clean between jobs unless he was injured. Which happened more than he liked.
He fought back a smile as he looked at a miserable boy who handed him a bowl with a muttered greeting. He patted the boy's shoulder and got into the first line.
“Good morning, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo,” said Faríhyo. Gemènyo's wife was a thin woman with a long face. Her hair, dyed a bright red to match the clan colors, had been pulled back into a tail to keep it out of the food. Her belly, swollen with a child about to be born, stuck out over the table. She was normally a very thin runner, but with her pregnancy she looked like an overfull water skin attached to a stick.
“And to you, Great Shimusogo Faríhyo. You are looking lovely today.”
“I look like I'm about to pop.” She filled Rutejìmo's bowl with a thick stew of meat in an egg sauce.
“Only a few more days, right?”
Her eyes flickered to Rutejìmo's left. “Gemènyo's been saying that for a week now.”
Rutejìmo took a deep breath and caught the scent of Gemènyo's pipe. “Yes,” he said with a grin, “but what would he know about children? He still has to grow up himself.”
Gemènyo clapped his hand on Rutejìmo's shoulder. “I can still outrun you, boy.”
Rutejìmo leaned into him and said to Faríhyo. “I never need his trail markers. I can always smell the route.”
Laughing, Gemènyo nudged Rutejìmo out of the way. “Smell this,” and he pulled out the pipe long enough to kiss his wife over the table. As he did, he tilted his rear toward Rutejìmo who was already backing up. When Gemènyo farted, Rutejìmo was safely out of range and holding his breath.
Some others weren't so lucky, and Rutejìmo smirked at the cursing behind him. He balanced his bowls on his fingertips to avoid burning them and wound his way around the crowded tables near the cooking areas to the far side of the central fire. Near the cleaning areas, the tables were usually empty for those not willing to get embroiled in clan relationships. He usually ate alone at the furthest table.
He found an empty table and set the bowl in the middle. With a sigh, he turned around and headed back for some bread, cheese, and a mug of sharp tea.
Less than a minute later he headed back to his table—and found the benches full. Hyonèku and Kiríshi were both sitting in the middle, having an animated conversation about southern politics. A crowd surrounded the couple, joining in on sides and eating during the opposing arguments.
His bowl had been shoved to the corner of the table, balanced precariously on the edge.
Rutejìmo prickled with annoyance but grabbed his bowl and looked for another table. When he found none, he was surprised. He spotted the end of one bench and decided it was the best place besides going back to his cave, which was discouraged. He sat down heavily on it and bent over his bowl, focusing on it while he shoveled food into his mouth.
“Good morning,” came a soft voice next to him, “Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”
Rutejìmo turned and saw Mapábyo sitting next to him. She wore a red shift buckled around her waist. Dark and ridged with calluses, her bare feet rested underneath the table. Morning light peeked over the valley ridge and through the legs of the folk around them, the sun glinting on her steel ankle ring. He ducked his head. “Oh, good morning, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo. I didn't see you there.”
She giggled. “It still sounds strange to be called that. I'm used to being called Pábyo or girl.”
He almost said “I'll call you Pábyo,” but the words caught his throat. He cleared it and peered down at his bowl. “Yeah, um, you get used to it. Takes a while, unless you keep getting in trouble. Then, they call you boy… girl, child, or worse.”
Gemènyo walked up next to them, well within range of the conversation, and Rutejìmo tensed for the sarcastic reply. To Rutejìmo's surprise, the courier continued past and sat down on the next table over.
Rutejìmo frowned with confusion before shaking his head. “I wasn't exactly the best behaved of the children.”
Mapábyo giggled. “I remember you sneaking into the shrine and Papa catching you.”
“And I remember,” he pointed his spoon at her, “catching you trying to sneak into the shrine during Shimusògo's celebration a year later.”
Her dark cheeks darkened even further, almost to black, and she looked down at her bowl. Rutejìmo noticed that she was clenching her toes in the dirt.
“Sorry,” he said.
“No, you're right. I… I heard almost everyone gets caught.”
“At least, Tejíko only made you dance in front of everyone.”
“She used to beat me from one end of the valley to the other.”
“I heard she beat Chimípu once.”
Rutejìmo looked around the circle. Chimípu was perched on the end of a table, her skirt fluttering against her muscular shins as she brandished a knife toward Desòchu. Smiling broadly, she planted one foot on a large pile of pyābi between the two of them. The coins threatened to spill out from underneath her toes.
Desòchu had a knife in his hand, and his foot next to Chimípu's. It was a playful duel, judging from the lack of magic rolling off their bodies.
Seeing his brother brought a sour taste to Rutejìmo's mouth. He turned his back on the two warriors, which forced him to face Mapábyo.
She looked up at him and then ducked her head again.
The feeling in his stomach increased, and he felt sweat prickling his brow. “So, um, have they told you your first job?”
“And it is…?” he prompted.
Her eyes widened and he noticed she had yellow-flecks in her dark green eyes. “Oh! I'm doing the mail run from Wamifuko City to the Monafuma Cliffs. I'm running with Great Shimusogo Desòchu and Mama, um, Great Shimusogo Kiríshi.”
Rutejìmo nodded and turned back to eat.
“What is your next job, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo?”
He smiled at her. “Oh, just call me Rutejìmo.”
A ripple of laughter echoed over the fires. Rutejìmo looked up, but couldn't see what Gemènyo was doing to earn the laughs.
Mapábyo repeated herself. “What is your next job?”
“Probably treaty delivery; seems to be the only thing I do lately. Usually by myself or with Gemènyo.”
“Do you like it? The same run over and over? It's a two day run. Doesn't it get boring?”
Rutejìmo looked up at the edge of the valley. “When you run along a path you know and with good friends at your side, everything feels right in the world. It's comfortable, you know, and helps the hours pass.”
Mapábyo pushed the hair from her face as she beamed at him. “I hope to find that someday. Running with friends, that is.”
He nodded as he picked up his spoon. “You will soon enough. I have no doubt about that.”