“I speak for” is a powerful phrase in the clans because it means the speaker's words have the full weight of the clan behind them.
— Rapinbun Finol, Politics of the Desert
Rutejìmo woke with the rising of the sun for the second time since he entered Mikáryo's tent. The power of Shimusògo and Tachìra woke inside him and his bones tingled from the energy. It seeped through his skin and he let out a soft sigh of pleasure. It didn't matter that he wasn't running or even jogging, but the feeling that magic was now possible sung to him.
The tent around him smelled of sex and sweat, a heady combination that had become as familiar as his own body's scent. He thought he would be a different man after losing his virginity, much like he once thought that finding Shimusògo would change him, but he remained the same man who left his home cave less than a week ago. He stretched, burrowing his hands through Mikáryo's black armored fabric. No, he did feel different. It wasn't magical; it wasn't a new body, or new powers. Just a sense of awareness, of a world he never imagined before Mikáryo.
“It is morning, and the moon is sleeping,” said Mikáryo. She crawled into the tent. She wore nothing but her underwear, a black band of cloth over her breasts and her loincloth. Now, he intimately knew what lay underneath the fabric and the difference was like night and day.
He reached over to stroke her thigh.
She set down a tray of roasted meats and pushed his hand away. “Not now. Those damn scorpions are about ready to move, and we need to follow. I'll be glad when this trip is done; I'm tired of chasing after those things with wagons of wood. But we're leaving in an hour.”
Rutejìmo sat up. “Now?”
“Yes, now.” She sat heavily down next to him.
“You have to go?”
“Sooner or later, the jobs always call. I can't stand the cities.” She scratched her ribs. “My joints always ache even this far away from those damned walls and their warriors.”
It had been two days since he entered her tent. He only left briefly when nature called and each time he couldn't wait to return to find what new things Mikáryo would teach him. She was a humiliating teacher, one who berated him as much as she taught him, but every time she called him “pathetic,” he found himself craving more of the her sharp words and soft body.
Mikáryo stuffed a hunk of meat into her mouth and smiled. “Time for you to go back to your world. I need to return to mine.”
Mikáryo pointed toward the entrance of her tent with her chin.
He scrambled to his knees, the blanket sliding off his naked lap. “Just like that?”
She reached over and kissed him. The taste of meat wafted around him. “Yes. I have a job to do.”
Rutejìmo froze and struggled with the sudden change of emotions. He stared at her, working his mouth silently. He wanted to stay with her and even Tsubàyo. He hungered for the feel of her body and the warmth of her skin. He reached out for her, but she ducked her shoulder out of the way to pull her black cloth from underneath his other hand. The fabric scraped against his palm, the wires sewn into it tugged at his fingers until she yanked it free. He jerked back.
Unsure of what to do, he watched while she dressed and ate.
She didn't offer him her plate or water. Nor did she say anything else as she busied herself with packing up.
Rutejìmo glanced down to see his clothes scattered on her blankets, a stark reminder of the sudden withdrawal of her affection. Baffled and heartbroken by her coolness, Rutejìmo tugged his clothes on and crawled out of the tent. He hoped she would call him back, but there was nothing. He sniffed and stood up.
Tsubàyo stood a rod away, folding the last of his tent into a tight bundle. He stood up while Rutejìmo did the same. Tsubàyo's glare burned Rutejìmo with its intensity.
Rutejìmo looked around at the shifting patchwork of camps and tents. Every time he staggered out of Mikáryo's tent for food or to relieve himself, the layout changed. Along the south side were clans of the night, but it didn't look any different than those who followed the sun spirit. People came, people left, there were fights and laughter. It was the same as every other clan in the desert.
Over his shoulder, the air around the three mechanical scorpions wavered with heat from inside their hard shells, hotter than the wood fires that had burned at the base of each of their feet. A dozen horses, all black, stood still and silent next to a large wagon of wood.
He glanced at the tent, but Mikáryo remained inside. Clearing his throat, he looked up at Tsubàyo. “Um…”
“Time to leave, Jìmo,” said Tsubàyo curtly.
Tears burned in Rutejìmo's eyes. He nodded and backed away. Before Tsubàyo could gloat, he turned and stumbled between the camps. He didn't know where to go, so he headed for the outer limits of the camps.
As soon as he was free of the crowds, he accelerated into a rush. Peace poured into him and displaced the sharpness of Mikáryo's rejection. He circled around the city, but not at his limit. It was the Shimusògo's version of a jog, a rate that would eat away a dozen miles in an hour. It felt good to have his feet pounding on the ground, and he marveled how he had forgotten it while in Mikáryo's arms.
Sooner or later, he had to stop. He had to face the fact he had blindly spent two days with Mikáryo. All without telling Desòchu or even Chimípu. His stomach burned and he slowed down to settle it. He imagined Desòchu screaming at him, tearing him down in public. It didn't matter if it was right or that Rutejìmo had abandoned him for Mikáryo without a second thought, the idea of being castigated soured his stomach.
He forced himself to stop dwelling on imagined punishments and focused on Mikáryo. The last two days were more intense than anything else in his life. He had been happy. The only reason she would have rejected him was her job and his obligations. He smiled grimly to himself. He should have offered to stay and help; maybe then she would have kept him.
A flash of movement caught his attention. He looked up to see a translucent dépa fading into the head of a plume of sand over a mile away. Power exploded inside the plume and it accelerated, arcing toward him. The runner came thundering toward him and the plume became a boiling cloud of sand and rocks. It spread out into two wings that were distinctively a bird's.
The sick feeling in Rutejìmo's guts intensified and he stumbled.
The runner covered the distance between them in less than a minute. He could feel the power rising up front of him, a threat of approaching magic. Along with it was anger, a palpable wave of emotion that bode poorly for him.
Desòchu appeared in front of him in a rush of magic. One moment, he was a black dot coursing over the hills and, in the next second, he was covering the last few feet between them. His two open palms caught Rutejìmo on the chest and the air blasted around them. The impact brought the full force of Desòchu's sprint into Rutejìmo's body, and his world exploded into white-hot pain.
The ground fell away from Rutejìmo. He tried to reach for the sand, but his left arm refused to work. The pressure in his chest intensified until he thought his lungs would pop.
He hit the ground with a crunch. His arm caught the force of his landing. Rocks tore at his skin and left gouges along his arm, face, and legs. He caught a taller rock along his hip and the burst of agony ripped a scream from him. He flipped over and landed on the far side. He felt a long gash along his stomach before he slumped on the rocks.
Rutejìmo struggled to push himself up. Droplets of crimson splattered the rocks underneath him. The splashes were painful to look at in the burning sunlight. The scrapes and bruises began to throb with sharp sparks of pain, but he was still too dazed to know how much damage Desòchu had just inflicted on him.
“You pile of festering shit!” Desòchu's yell was Rutejìmo's only warning before Desòchu's foot caught Rutejìmo in the ribs. The kick flipped Rutejìmo over, and he landed hard on his back. Sharp rocks pierced the thin shield of his shirt, opening up deep cuts along his shoulders and back.
Wind blasted against him, peppering him with gravel. He sobbed and tensed, ready for the strike, but none came.
Just as he relaxed, Desòchu kicked him again in the ribs. The force picked Rutejìmo off the ground in a flash of golden feathers, and he sailed through the air before landing hard again. His head cracked against the ground and stars burst across his vision.
Desòchu grabbed Rutejìmo by the front of his shirt and yanked him from the ground. “Do you know how frantically we were trying to find you!?”
Chimípu came to a halt in a blast of wind. Her reddish hair fluttered in the fading light of translucent feathers. “Great Shimusogo Desòchu–”
“I humbly ask for you to give Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo a chance to explain himself.”
Rutejìmo's body burned from his scratches and injuries. He blinked to focus and stared into his brother's face, seeing the anger and fury burning his eyes.
Desòchu threw Rutejìmo down and stepped back.
Groaning from the impact, Rutejìmo slumped to the ground. Sharp rocks dug into his back, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from Desòchu.
The warrior stepped back. “Well, boy, who kidnapped you and chained you for two days? Where are the marks of your torture?” Desòchu's growl brought a fresh pang of fear, guilt, and sorrow ripping through Rutejìmo.
“Great Shimusogo Desòchu….” warned Chimípu.
Rutejìmo looked helplessly at Chimípu and then back to Desòchu. He heard the others of the clan stopping close by. The rush of wind of three runners rolled over him: Hyonèku, Kiríshi, and Mapábyo.
He closed his eyes and shook his head.
Chimípu stepped up to him. He opened his eyes to see her holding out her hand. “Stand up.”
Rutejìmo jerked at the sudden tenseness in her voice. He squeezed his eyes tightly for a moment, but held up his hand.
She gripped it and pulled him to his feet. His fresh scratches sent sharp pains sparking along his senses.
He staggered until he found his balance.
“What happened?” Chimípu asked. She sounded concerned but wary.
Rutejìmo tried to pull his hand free of her grip, but she clamped down. He tried again until she squeezed tight enough to grind his joints. When he looked in her eyes, he saw the same anger, but hers was tightly contained, a knife about to strike instead of a furious beast like his brother. He shivered at the thought and again tried to pull his hand free, and again failed.
Unable to look into Chimípu's green eyes, he looked over at the others, his gaze drifting to Mapábyo.
“What happened?” Chimípu repeated. The pressure on his hand increased.
Turning to her, he cringed. “I-I'm sorry.”
Her grip tightened, and her lips pressed into a thin line.
She took a deep breath before she pulled him closer.
“I… I met…” He tried to say the words, but the words froze and refused to escape.
When she exhaled, a glow spread out from her body. The heat rolled over her skin, and he felt it gathering in her palms. It licked at his skin, prickling it, but soon it turned into a sharp pain.
“… I,” he gasped. The tears rolled down his cheeks. “I-I found Káryo.”
Something flashed across her eyes. It wasn't compassion but sadness. When it turned into regret, he choked back a sob. He tensed, knowing that they were about to punish him.
“Did you choose to stay?” The quiet question almost dropped him to his knees.
He almost lied to her and said Mikáryo kidnapped him. But looking into Chimípu's eyes, he knew it was too late. Guilt tore through him, and he glanced at the ground.
When Chimípu cleared her throat, he forced himself to look into her hard eyes. He saw mercy but also anger boiling inside her gaze. He wanted to drop to his knees and beg for forgiveness, but his gut said that there was nothing he could say anymore. He had made his choice.
Rutejìmo closed his eyes tightly until the tears ran down his cheeks. “Y-Yes, Great Shimusogo Chimípu.”
Desòchu stepped up, his bare feet crunching the gravel. The heat of his anger rolled over Rutejìmo. “Do you,” he growled, “know how much we ran around this city looking for you!?”
Rutejìmo tensed with anticipation.
Desòchu's fist caught him in the stomach, and the pain folded him in half. He felt the wind blasting around him from the magic in Desòchu's strike.
“We were worried about you.” Chimípu's voice almost cracked with her own tears, but that didn't stop her knee from catching him in the chin, throwing him back up.
“We didn't stop looking for you!” Desòchu's foot caught the back of Rutejìmo's shoulders, but before he could curl up to protect himself, he was thrown forward.
Chimípu punched him in the left shoulder, and a blast of heated power spun him around until he lost all sense of being. He wanted to open his eyes, to try dodging the attacks, but he knew he had no chance.
Desòchu and Chimípu rained punches and kicks against him. The air grew hot with their magic and his body screamed out in agony. Every time he thought he was going to fall, their attacks threw him back up. He bounced between their blows, unable to do anything but gasp for breath. The blows sent sparks of pain across his vision and the impacts wracked his body. He couldn't tell left from right, or even up from down.
One fist caught the ridge of his eye and blood splattered across his vision. He tried to collapse to protect himself, but a foot came up between his legs and drove him off the ground. A sharp explosion of agony radiated from his testicles. His feet left the ground before another blow spun him in the air.
The last time Rutejìmo had seen this form of punishment, it was Tsubàyo who staggered between the blows. Rutejìmo fled before the end came, but this time, there was no escape. They slammed into him, one side and then the other. Magic flashed around him, translucent feathers forming a vortex with him in the center.
And then, nothing.
Rutejìmo swayed for a moment before collapsing. The ground crashed into his body, and he felt a hundred bruises, cuts, and burns screaming out. Before he could cry out again, he heard a single heart-wrenching sob from Mapábyo.
The sound of the young woman's cry somehow made the agony even worse. He curled up into a fetal position and broke down himself.
Strong hands grabbed his arms and pulled them apart. A sharp kick knocked his leg to the side. Rutejìmo tried to raise his hands to protect himself, but Desòchu batted his hands away before yanking him to his feet. “Stand up, excrement of a maggot!”
Rutejìmo flinched and struggled to his feet. He sobbed and waited for the new round of blows.
Desòchu cleared his throat and stepped back. “I am Desòchu, and I speak for Shimusògo.”
Shaking, Rutejìmo clutched his aching stomach and forced his eyes to focus on the double images of the glowing man in front of him. The air wavered around his brother, and the flames were so bright it looked like he was standing before the sun.
“Rutejìmo, you have betrayed the trust of your clan, and you are corrupting the purity of Shimusògo.” Desòchu's voice was a growl. “For that, you are dead to us for one year.” He turned away from Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo dropped to his knees, his injuries forgotten in the sudden shock. He never heard of someone being ostracized from the clan for so long, a day or three usually, a month at most. He turned sharply to look at Chimípu, pleading with his eyes.
The other warrior bowed her head, the regret and sadness obvious even with his blurred vision. She turned away from him, her back muscles tense and shaking.
Rutejìmo looked to the other side, to the three others. Hyonèku and Kiríshi stood with their backs to him, but Mapábyo stared with a trembling lower lip and tears rolling down her cheeks.
Hyonèku tapped Mapábyo. “Turn around,” he whispered loud enough for Rutejìmo to hear.
Mapábyo shook her head. “N-No, you can't—”
Kiríshi turned around enough to hold her daughter's shoulder. Her light brown skin was stark against Mapábyo's almost black. “Not now. Just turn around, you need to.”
“Mama,” Mapábyo cried, “you can't—”
Rutejìmo cleared his throat to interrupt her.
Mapábyo jumped and stared at him.
Closing his eyes, he whispered through his split lip. “Turn around, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo.” He didn't know why he said anything, but it felt right that Mapábyo didn't make the same mistakes he managed to make himself.
“J-Jìmo?” Her voice cracked. She stared at him pleadingly.
“Turn around,” he said.
Mapábyo sniffed before turning around. Her feet scuffed on the ground while she made a slow half circle. His eyes came into focus with her movement but it took all of his effort to remain still until her back was to him.
He stared at her shaking shoulders for a moment before turning back to Desòchu and then Chimípu. None of them were watching him now.
With a groan, Rutejìmo pushed himself up to his feet. Everything hurt. His right eye began to swell shut, the pain radiating across his face. He swayed to find his balance. He opened his mouth to say something, but realized there was nothing he could say. He closed his mouth. When his split lip throbbed, he winced. Staggering backwards, he watched all five of their backs. For all but Mapábyo, he hoped one would turn around and speak up for him. For her, he silently prayed to Shimusògo that she wouldn't follow his footsteps.
When he was far enough, he turned on his heels. Limping away, he pushed himself to run. Every step turned into a storm of agony, his legs not moving as fast as they used to. His breath came in a blood-flecked wheeze, but he strained to run faster. It didn't matter how much it hurt, he needed to know if Desòchu's proclamation also stole his powers away.
The dépa raced past him, and the rush of power burned in his veins. A bliss and peace spread out along his limbs, blending with the agony and humiliation.
Rutejìmo sobbed with relief. Shimusògo had not abandoned him.
Without any direction, he ran blindly after the clan's spirit.