Closeness makes a punishment worse. It is one thing for a stranger to cut you down, another for your own brother.
— Tomas Saldar, Dalak and the Giants
Rutejìmo trudged up to the cliffs that marked the valley entrance. A hum of insects greeted him. As he walked, he scratched his palm and worked at the countless splinters embedded in his skin. Other abrasions called for his attention, but he forced himself to focus on the splinters.
Two days of hauling the remains of the eating area had taken their toll. It would have been easier if the pieces of scrap had been large, but when the clan's oven collapsed from age, it rolled over one of the valley's mechanical dogs. The alchemical device that powered it exploded. Thankfully, the injuries from the explosion were minor, but the devastation took days to clean. It would have taken only a few hours if anyone else had helped, but no one offered to relieve him of days of backbreaking work.
He turned and looked back over the sands. Opōgyo, the last of the mechanical dogs of the valley, followed after him. Made of iron and almost as old as Rutejìmo, it moved with slow, shuddering steps. When the right foot landed, the knee joint spewed out a cloud of steam. Tiny wisps rose around the plate on its back, framing the square opening that led to the sensitive alchemical core that powered it.
Opōgyo wasn't intelligent or fast. It went in whatever direction someone turned its head, followed obvious trails, and then stopped when anything stood in front of it. Twenty-five years of abuse had left it scarred and dented, but still useful.
He smiled for the briefest of moments, remembering when Mapábyo was a little girl and bouncing on top of it, trying to get it to move faster.
The smile faded quickly, and Rutejìmo trudged after the mechanical dog. He had been back at the valley for just under a month. Even though there were only eight months in a year, it felt like an eternity. Knowing there were five months left until he was no longer dead stretched out each day until he thought he would snap.
When he first arrived, he hoped life would settle into the comfortable flow he had in Wamifuko City. Instead, he wasn't given a chance to rest or relax. He woke up to tasks waiting for him and went to bed exhausted. He spent his days cleaning, repairing, and hauling. Chores he hated as a teenager were heaped on him. What he thought was an annoyance became a burden when he worked from sunrise to sunset and then well into the night. His directions came from silent cues: a shovel against the door, tools by the gate, or the occasional picture pinned to the blanket covering the cave entrance.
He couldn't speak or touch people, not without risking anger from Desòchu or Tejíko. Every unwitting grunt brought a glare from someone. Every labored breath forced the people he grew up with to turn their backs. The only time he dared whisper was in the bedroom of Mapábyo's cave, until someone made note of strange sounds coming from her cave a few days later.
It was one thing to be ignored by strangers in Wamifuko City, but to be afraid of his own clan tore at his heart. Rutejìmo turned and stared out across the dark desert. He had hoped returning home would be easier, but it wasn't. He was just alone, more so since he intimately knew the people ignoring him.
He considered returning to the city, not the first time he contemplated it in the last few days. While it would mean turning his back on his clan forever, it wouldn't hurt as much as seeing family look away whenever he came near.
Opōgyo lumbered past and the ground shook. A burst of steam stung Rutejìmo's leg.
He stepped aside to avoid being burned further.
Something dropped from the mechanical's chest and rolled across the way to bounce off the far wall.
Shaking his head, he pushed himself off the road and padded across the way to pick up the gear that Opōgyo dropped. He took one last look at the desert and then headed back in to guide Opōgyo up to Pidòhu's forge where the dog could recharge for the morning.
As soon as Opōgyo thumped against Pidòhu's door, Rutejìmo turned his back and jogged away. Even though his friend had bonded with another clan spirit, Rutejìmo couldn't ask for shelter or even acknowledgment from him.
He ran along the back end of the valley, though it was the last direction he wanted to go. The clan shrine stood along the further point from the entrance. Light glowed from the windows and doorway. He could hear chanting from all the adults who had gathered inside. He could hear them singing a dirge for those who died that year.
Bitterly, he wondered if they would include him among the others who died. He ran faster along a dark trail, using his memory to tell him where it dipped and rose and turned. It was a familiar route now, after six weeks, and he couldn't wait to return home to wait for Mapábyo.
He came up to the highest point in the valley just in time to see the moon clear the horizon. The bright orb appeared to loom over him, and he came to a stumbling stop.
Somewhere out in the desert, Mikáryo would be letting out a soft coo of pleasure with her powers awaking. He had seen it only a few times, but it still brought a smile to his lips when he thought of her. He remembered how she rejected him and his smile faded. He shook his head. Mikáryo had the right idea, at least. Stay in the desert and far away from all of the clans. He longed to be where she was, out where being a banyosiōu didn't matter.
He turned away from the moon and back to the edge of the valley. Peering down, he regarded the small shrine below him. Inside, Mapábyo would be singing with the others, the only one not pretending that Rutejìmo wasn't haunting the place.
He snorted. It would have been better if he had fled to the desert and let his bones bleach in the sun. Even his promise to Mapábyo felt foolish after struggling for so long to prove himself.
He stopped in mid-step. He couldn't stay in the valley any longer. It wasn't home for him, and he felt more separated from the people living around him than ever before. He couldn't take many more months of the silence, turned backs, and constant chores. He needed to speak again, to find even that small happiness he had when he ran jobs outside of Wamifuko City.
Leaving would hurt Mapábyo. She was his only reason for remaining in the valley. He shook his head. If he asked her, he knew she would either try to convince him to stay or go with him. He couldn't allow either. In the back of his mind, he started to plan: where to get supplies, the hidden caches that he had stumbled upon over the years, and even where to find the water skins to survive the trip back to Wamifuko City.
Down below, a shadow crept out of the darkness. Rutejìmo watched it for a moment, lost in his fantasy, but then his attention focused on it. One of the teenage girls was crawling up the back of the shrine. He chuckled dryly.
Years ago, he had been in the same place. The vent that let smoke escape was also the perfect place to listen to the conversations and debates that went on among the clan. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his stones, the way of measuring the weight of his decisions in the clan. The ten stones were useless now, and he could not help but remind himself there would be eleven, if he hadn't ruined everything.
With a sigh, he opened his fingers and let the stones slip through. They bounced off his thigh before disappearing into the darkness below him. He listened to the cracking noise and the fading of his worth. Without his stones, he could no longer vote, not that he could as one of the walking dead.
Rutejìmo let out a long shuddering breath and stood up. If he was going to run, he needed to run while the moon hung in the sky. He wouldn't be able to summon Shimusògo, but at least he could be a few miles away before anyone woke.
He jogged along the trail that ran along the ridge of the valley. To one side, the sheer cliff stretched a number of chains to the rocks below. Decades ago, the clan had paid for the cliffs to be cut smooth to protect the valley from invasion. If he fell, there would be nothing he could do but hit the ground.
As the trail led away from the ridge, he followed it. He came up on a switchback and saw a second boy crawling on top of the shrine. The two children nodded to each other and peered down into the vent. They stared at the forbidden world of adulthood with their asses in the air.
Rutejìmo halted next to them. His childhood centered around the shrine's vent. He had tried to steal his great-grandfather's ashes to prove he was worthy of being a warrior. Hyonèku caught him and sent him back to Tejíko to be beaten. Later, he had sat next to the vent while he listened to the elders vote to send him on his rite of passage.
They were voting for the teenage girl now, to send her on a rite of passage. Like everything else, it would no doubt involve taking her deep into the desert and abandoning her. It was the Shimusogo Way.
He had to do something. Starting up again, he jogged along the trail and took the fork that would lead him to the shrine. Soon, he was creeping along the back of the building to the barrel that would let him climb to the top.
Rutejìmo didn't know what he would do, but something drew him. He twisted the barrel slightly to avoid any movement from alerting the others. He climbed up the side and onto the roof; he had done that many times since he became an adult of the clan.
When he finally got to the top and stood behind the two teenagers, he realized he didn't know what he wanted either. He could ruin it for them, by pushing one in or startling them, but it wouldn't stop anything. It was the way of the clan, both the sneaking and spying, but also growing.
Holding his breath, he inched forward until he knelt between the two teenagers. Neither noticed him as they stared intently down into the vent.
The builders of the shrine placed the vent right above the stone statue of Shimusògo. Along the back wall stood hundreds of vases with the ashes of the dead. For those who never returned home, the vases had mementos to cherish their spirits.
Tejíko sat before Shimusògo with two bowls in front of her. The red bowl on the right meant disagreement, the black one on the left indicated agreement. When decisions were made, everyone would throw their stones into the appropriate bowl. Tejíko had a large pile of stones in front of her; she was the oldest in the clan and its leader.
She was right in the middle of speaking when he settled into place. “… and we have an agreement. The girl goes tomorrow.”
The teenage girl on Rutejìmo's right let out a happy gasp. He saw her turn toward him with a smile, but it wasn't Rutejìmo she expected to see. She inhaled sharply and froze.
It took all of Rutejìmo's willpower to not smile.
On the other side, the boy turned himself and spotted Rutejìmo. He let out a loud whimper and crawled away sharply, his feet skittering on the stone tiles. One cracked loudly underneath his weight, and he let out a cry.
Rutejìmo started to reach for him, but the teenage girl beat him to it. She jumped over him and slid down the side, grabbing the boy before he slipped off the roof. For the briefest of moments, the boy's legs dangled in front of the shrine entrance before he crawled back to the top.
Fear naked on their faces, both children rushed to the far side and climbed down.
Rutejìmo smiled and waited until he heard them running away. Then, he sat down and rolled on his back so he wouldn't look down the vent hole. The familiar smells of the shrine, incense and smoke, rose around him, and he inhaled the memories. It was home, the shrine and the valley. A place of tears and torture. He already missed it.
“And we have one more decision for the night,” announced Tejíko, her voice cracking with age and exhaustion. “The Wamifūko have asked us to dedicate a new runner for negotiations between the Monafùma and Kidorīsi. This is a trade agreement between the cliffs and valley, but as we know, the Kidorīsi are…”
“… difficult,” muttered Hyonèku.
“Difficult?” Gemènyo said, “You mean a constant thorn in our asses? They can't make a decision to save their lives. I say—”
Kiríshi's interrupted Gemènyo. “They are very rich and they know they are difficult. The treaty between Kidorīsi and Mafimára has supported us for a great number of years and the Monafùma have a chance of giving us another steady income. I say it's a good deal.”
Murmurs of agreement drifted from the hole.
Rutejìmo noticed that no one mentioned his role in the treaty run. It was his job to go back and forth between the two. Even his memory was dead to them. He closed his eyes and slumped back. He wouldn't miss that.
“Who would run it?” asked Hyonèku.
“You,” Tejíko said, “or Gemènyo. You are the only ones who dealt with the Kidorīsi before, and they like working with known people.”
“Great Shimusogo Tejíko?” Mapábyo spoke up. “I've worked with the Monafùma, and I know the area and the people.”
Rutejìmo clenched his eyes tight. She was talking about leaving him.
“Mapábyo, this is a very long job. It's very hard and it takes willpower to stand up to their constant indecision and not lose your temper. You will spend many months on the road, with no time to come home.”
“But I'm the best choice, aren't I? I don't mind the resonance of the cities, I have allies among the Wamifūko and Monafùma. Not to mention the clans along the route like me. If anyone should do this route, it would be me.”
Silence filled the shrine.
Tejíko broke it with a sad sigh. “You would be our only choice, but realize, Mapábyo, you'll be alone. There are places that your… memories can't go, and this is one of them. There can only be Shimusògo present at the treaties. You'll have Desòchu to introduce you, but it will only be you two. Only,” she repeated, “you two.”
Mapábyo sighed. “N-No,” Rutejìmo's heart broke when he heard the tears, “matter who… what I cling to, I serve the clan.”
No one said anything for a long moment. Then, Tejíko grunted. “A vote?”
Everyone threw their stones into the bowls, the clay ringing out from the impacts. He didn't dare look inside, and his heart thumped with the anticipation.
Tejíko grunted. "We send Great Shimusogo Mapábyo in two days' time."
Two days and she would be gone. Rutejìmo pushed himself up into a sitting position and then crawled to his feet. In three, he would leave for Wamifuko City and beyond. He would run until he found some place to hide and not ruin the lives of the family who no longer saw him.