Certain rituals in one’s life are carefully planned behind the scenes.
— Ryochisomi Kadèfu, Introduction to Kyōti Society
“Three of snakes in the north, one point.” Rutejìmo tapped his card against one of the four piles before picking up the top card from the other three piles on the table.
“Damn, that was my three of scorpions.” Gemènyo sat with one leg in a crook and his pipe balanced on his knee. He groaned and pulled out a six of snakes and set it on the east pile. “Your turn.”
Rutejìmo glanced down at his cards. He only had two left, but neither would help him get another trick out of the cards on the table. Hissing through his teeth, he plucked out the card with an illustration of two rocks sticking out of a sand dune.
Rutejìmo placed it on the south pile. He shuffled through the stack looking for another snake. He got through the pile before he realized he picked the wrong one. “Damn.” He grabbed a random card, the five of birds, and set it down on top of the rocks. “Your turn.”
“So,” Gemènyo said, “you think Mapábyo is going to have her rites soon?”
Rutejìmo glanced up. “Probably. Why?”
“Oh, just curious.” Gemènyo set down a three of horses on the north pile. “I heard her asking you about it.”
Rutejìmo had only one card left. He set it down on a eight of birds. “I’m out. She was just curious. Don’t worry, I didn’t say anything to ruin the surprise. Not like there is anything I could do to ruin the joy of being abandoned in the middle of the desert to die.”
“Ha!” Gemènyo slapped down his card on top of Rutejìmo. It was a four of scorpions.
Rutejìmo looked at the cards and groaned.
“A broken chain!” Gemènyo plucked the sequential cards from the four piles. “That gets me eight points. I win!”
Rutejìmo shoved his three pyābi across the table. Sitting back, he picked up his mug and watched the mist rising from the almost frozen bichíru, a fermented drink made from sweet plants. “At least I won the last game.”
“And you’re going to lose the next one. Deal.”
As Rutejìmo shuffled the cards, he heard footsteps outside of the cave. With a nod to Gemènyo, he cut the deck and shuffled again. “Go on, old man, it’s your home.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Gemènyo groaned. He stood up and headed for the entrance. He stuck his head out and then pulled it back in. “It’s Hyonèku and Desòchu.”
Rutejìmo froze at his brother’s name. Afraid to make a scene, he cut the deck and shuffled it again.
Gemènyo held aside the blanket and the two men came inside.
Hyonèku was a friend to both Gemènyo and Rutejìmo. He was a tall, thin man with short black hair and a neat beard. He wore cotton trousers, dyed orange with red cuffs, and a white belt. Rutejìmo could see gray hairs ghosting across his bare chest.
Behind him stood Desòchu, Rutejìmo’s older brother by almost a decade. He was powerfully built, with hard lines of muscles and battle scars. He had a closely cropped beard, barely a black shadow along his throat and chin. He wore a loose-cut, white jacket with orange trousers. Both top and bottom were trimmed in red.
Desòchu clapped hands with Gemènyo and glanced over. “You didn’t stay long at the fire, Jìmo. Something wrong?”
Rutejìmo tensed and forced himself to shrug. “Wanted to play cards with Gemènyo.”
“Great Shimusogo Tejíko was looking for you. And,” his green eyes narrowed, “I heard that you were talking to Mapábyo.”
Setting down his cards, Rutejìmo said, “She wanted to ask some questions.”
“You didn’t tell her anything, did you?” Desòchu’s voice was tense, and Rutejìmo could see the muscles in his jaw tensing.
“No,” Gemènyo said, “your little brother didn’t say anything. I was listening the whole time.”
Desòchu stared at Gemènyo, his lips pressed into a thin line.
“I brought something to drink.” Hyonèku slipped past him and set down a bottle of spirits. “Deal me in.”
Gemènyo sank down and tapped his pipe out into a wooden bucket. “Sure you have time for a game, Sòchu?”
His brother hesitated for a moment. “Yeah, deal me in.”
“Three pyābi for the couriers, but Great Shimusogo Desòchu has to pay six because he won the last four games.”
Desòchu gave a mock glare and sat down heavily. “How about I just bring these instead?” He dug into his belt and pulled out a small bag. He tossed it on the table and candied nuts spilled out.
“You’re in,” announced Gemènyo.
Rutejìmo dealt all the cards to the four players. When he went to pick up his own, he hesitated. The desire to stand up and leave rose inside him, and he struggled to fight it. It would just further ostracize himself from the others, and Desòchu had repeatedly criticized him for doing that. He bit his lip and then scooped up the cards.
None of the four men said anything for the first few minutes. The fire in the corner of the cave sparked and popped while they set down cards on one of the four piles. Occasionally, Desòchu or Gemènyo would finish a trick and pick up a card from each pile. Rutejìmo played conservatively, making no effort to draw attention to himself or trying to beat his brother.
Desòchu broke the silence. “Kidorīsi and Mafimára asked for a courier.”
Rutejìmo groaned, and Gemènyo laughed.
“Those two…” Hyonèku shook his head sadly before setting down his next card.
Shrugging, Desòchu plucked a nut from the table before setting down his hand. His fighting bola thumped against the side of the table. “They pay annually and pay well, despite their fighting. Rutejìmo, I want you to do the hand-off. They know you.”
Rutejìmo nodded and watched Gemènyo play his card before setting down his two of snakes on one of the piles.
“Hyonèku,” Desòchu turned to the other man, “do you want to go with Rutejìmo?”
Rutejìmo hesitated, his fingers pressed against the rough card before he pulled his hand back. Desòchu never gave Rutejìmo a chance when it came to assigning jobs.
“Why?” asked Hyonèku.
“We’re going to start Mapábyo’s rites tomorrow.”
Hyonèku grunted and nodded. “Yeah, I’ll run with Rutejìmo. I don’t think I could take watching her fumble around.” He smirked and kicked Rutejìmo playfully in the shin. “One thing to see Jìmo running aimlessly on the sand.”
Rutejìmo grinned and glanced over to Gemènyo who winked back.
“But my own daughter?” Hyonèku snorted. “No, I’d rather steal one of Tejíko’s maps and tear it in half.”
“No,” Desòchu said with a smirk, “watching your daughter’s rites won’t kill you. And we won’t hear you screaming from here. Or have to clean up the blood.”
Everyone laughed and the tension broke, but only for a moment. As soon as it ended, the cave grew quiet again.
“Great Shimusogo Hyonèku, thank you,” said Desòchu. “Will you leave at first light?”
Hyonèku tapped his card on the table. “Isn’t that Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo’s choice? He’s handling the package.”
Desòchu glanced at Rutejìmo. There was a hardness in his eyes, a reservation that Rutejìmo had seen many times. The warrior rested his hand on his blade, but only for a second before making a show of picking up one of the treats off the table. “Of course. Jìmo?”
The muscles along Rutejìmo’s spine tightened before he managed to nod twice. “First light is fine. We’ll be ready.”