Sand and Ash 6: The Next Job
While it is expected that an individual focus on a limited number of abilities, the specialization at a clan level creates a dependency among other clans that would be unfeasible in modern society. — Paladin Ruse, Supremacy of Kormar
Rutejìmo sat at the end of the cliff and watched birds gliding lazily on the thermal updrafts out across the sands. They were circling slowly a few miles away while they trailed after a wagon caravan that made its way along the many trails crossing the Mifuno Desert. The birds always followed after the richer clans.
As he tried to identify the clan, he dangled his feet over the edge of the sheer cliff. It was a hundred foot plummet to the sands below, interrupted only by a safety net a few yards below him. Decades ago, the Shimusògo clan had commissioned to have their mountain sheared off into defensible cliffs. The lookout that he sat on was part of the alterations made to the mountains.
When he was younger, he dreaded looking over the edge. As an adult, he still didn’t like the cliff but he had enough courage to stand near the edge and kick rocks into the air.
“Say, Jìmo,” Hyonèku knelt down next to Rutejìmo and pointed to the birds. “How far away do you think those birds are?”
“A few miles, maybe less.”
“What about that one? Think it would make a good dinner?” He pointed to one of the birds that sailed in a wider circle from the others.
Faríhyo laughed from behind them. She stood well away from the edge of the cliff, cradling Nigímo while tweaking the one-year-old’s nose with her other hand. She sat in a nest of blankets and a few rolls of maps that were brought up and promptly forgotten in favor of her daughter, her third child. Nigímo squealed happily and clapped her hands. She babbled and reached out for her mother’s hand, batting at the fingers. Her bright green eyes shimmered in the sunlight.
Enjoying the joy of the little one, Rutejìmo looked back and mentally measured the distance to the bird. “A quarter mile, why?”
“Bet I can hit it?”
Rutejìmo shook his head. “No chance.”
He held out his hands. “Twenty to hit a bird?”
“I’m bored. Give me something to do.”
“Fine, twenty says you clip it. Forty if you down it.”
“Deal!” Jumping to his feet, Hyonèku backed away. He pulled a wabōryo, a hunting bola, from his belt. Grabbing the middle of the rope, he hefted it. He found a clear spot on the lookout well away from Rutejìmo and his family. He took a deep breath and spun on one bare foot. He slammed his other foot down and continued to spin, accelerating as he rotated.
Golden feathers blossomed into existence around him, swirling in a vortex. A wind tugged at Rutejìmo’s shirt, fluttering the red fabric along his collar and sleeves. The two ends of the bola glowed brightly until they became a brilliant ring of power.
Dust crawled across the cut stone ground, dragging small rocks toward Hyonèku. He pushed himself and accelerated into a blur.
Faríhyo called out over the whistling winds, “Forty says he misses.”
Rutejìmo smirked. “He’s probably not even going to get it off the cliff.”
“Really? Watch this!” snapped Hyonèku. He slammed his foot on the ground and brought the glowing bola in a wide swing, throwing it with his entire body, before launching it toward the bird.
Power exploded from his hand and the bola shot out with a crack.
The rush of air pushed Rutejìmo toward the cliff, and he clamped his hand down on the edge to avoid slipping off. He was thankful that he wasn’t a young child; the force of the blow would have tossed him off.
The bola left a wake of wavering air. A cracking boom followed. It echoed off the cliffs and rocks, reverberating back with deafening sound.
Rutejìmo turned and shielded his gaze to watch the bright light sail across the sky. It rapidly dwindled into a tiny point.
And then the light blew past the bird, missing it by yards.
Rutejìmo smirked. “You owe me twenty.”
“Damn,” muttered Hyonèku. “Think you can do better?”
“No, not really.”
“Come on, Jìmo. At least try. You shouldn’t aspire to mediocrity.”
Rutejìmo rolled his eyes and crawled to his feet. Taking his time, he strolled to Hyonèku and plucked a second wabōryo from his friend’s waist. “Fine, I’ll try.”
“I’ll give you two hundred if you clip it.”
Hefting the bola, Rutejìmo shook his head. “No deal.” Even on his best day, he could barely hit something a few hundred feet away. A quarter mile stood well out of his range, but with the others watching him, he had to try. Scanning the sky, he spotted another bird, a smaller one that fluttered frantically to keep up with the rest of its flock.
He took a deep breath and spun around. His bare feet smacked against the ground, and he leaned into the swing, spinning the bola around. He strained against his own limits until his muscles burned with the effort. He remained painfully slow with his efforts to move fast enough to summon Shimusògo.
The anticipation burned in his veins, and he pushed himself harder. Flickers of power rippled around his hands.
He managed to reach the point where Shimusògo appeared at his feet. The translucent dépa was a blur of movement just ahead of him. It left no trail despite the dust and sand that bloomed behind it.
Rutejìmo tried to catch Shimusògo, yanking the bola around in faster and faster circles but the tiny bird always remained ahead of him. He would never catch it, no matter how fast he spun.
Translucent feathers swirled in the dust and sand that formed a tornado around him. The heat pricked his skin, and the dust peppered him. He kept spinning.
The balls of the bola ignited into flames. The heat pricked the skin of his wrist and arms. The speed caused the fire to draw into a disk of brilliance.
He felt the power surge inside him. It reached a crest and then suddenly Shimusògo shot out toward the cliff.
Rutejìmo released the bola.
It shot away, whistling when it spun away from him.
Rutejìmo stumbled and fell to his knee. He looked up hopefully, praying that for once he was good enough to reach the bird.
When he saw the bola already descending in a long, wide arc, he shook his head sadly.
Hyonèku nodded approvingly. “I think that was your best throw.”
Rutejìmo glared at his friend. “Go drown in sands.”
“Yep, I will someday.” Hyonèku ran his hands through his short beard. “Let me try again.”
“Excuse me,” said Faríhyo, “I think it’s my turn.”
Hyonèku stepped back with a bow.
Rutejìmo held out his hands. “Want me to hold the chick?”
Faríhyo shook her head and unhooked a bola from her waist. “No,” she said with a grin, “Real women don’t have to put down their babes to prove themselves.”
Clutching her child to her thin waist, she began to spin around. A few heartbeats later, she was in a ring of golden flames. The wind ripped at Rutejìmo’s face as the vortex of dust and rocks became a column that stretched high into the air. The rush of air couldn’t mute out the squeal of a giggling baby.
Rutejìmo stood against the sand that peppered his face, watching her with a growing sense of jealousy at her ability to summon Shimusògo’s power.
The bola exploded from her with a burst of light. It rocketed across the sky as a brilliant spear of light, sucking part of the vortex behind it. The bola flew long and flat with a wide wake of power and dust expanding behind it.
Almost a mile away, a bird exploded in a cloud of feathers. The bola continued to shoot past it, leaving behind a red-stained cloud.
Hyonèku clapped slowly and dramatically. His lip twisted with his efforts not to grin. “Not bad.”
In her arm, Nigímo squealed with joy and flailed her tiny hands around. She babbled and tugged on her mother’s arm.
Faríhyo came to a stop and pointed out over the desert.
Rutejìmo followed Faríhyo’s gesture. Her glowing shot covered another quarter mile before slamming into a second, larger bird. The avian’s cry was unheard as it and the bola plummeted to the ground.
“Ríhyo,” muttered Hyonèku, “Now that’s just showing off.”
“Yes,” Faríhyo smirked, “I was. And now you get to show off how fast you run by getting the wabōryo and our dinner.”
Hyonèku pointed to Rutejìmo. “Let the boy get it. He missed the most.”
Rutejìmo groaned and brushed the dust from his trousers. As the slowest courier, he was frequently the one who had to run errands in the cities, serve the rest of the travel groups, and do the valley chores that needed more than an unsteady teenager’s hand.
“No,” Faríhyo’s sharp tone stopped Rutejìmo. He looked up to see her staring at Hyonèku, one eyebrow raised. “We both knew Jìmo would miss. That isn’t fair to him.”
Rutejìmo pressed his lips into a thin line. No matter how hard he pushed or how fast he ran, he was always the weakest and slowest.
“Go on, Hyonèku.”
Fighting back the embarrassment, Rutejìmo looked back and forth between the two of them.
Suddenly, Hyonèku’s eyes widened and then he bowed. He turned, gave Rutejìmo a salute, and then disappeared in a rush of air and dust.
He looked up.
“Change little Nigímo.” She gave him the same serious look that she had just focused on her husband. There was no chance of arguing with her.
He nodded and took the squealing baby. There was a small setup to the side of the path leading down. It included fresh cloth diapers and a covered bucket for the soiled ones. Even with the foul smells rising from her diaper, Rutejìmo cooed to Nigímo to calm her down before stripping her down. It was one of the many tasks that everyone in the clan did, regardless of age and rank.
“Sorry about that.” Faríhyo sat down on a rock near Rutejìmo. The smell of milk and perfume drifted along the breeze around them.
He shrugged, not taking his eyes off the little one. “It’s fair, I lost.”
“No,” she said in a soft, hesitant tone. “You’re good with children.”
“Ever thought about having one of your own?”
Rutejìmo froze, his fingers holding the cloth to Nigímo who struggled to suck on her toes. He stared at the little one, trying to get his mind around the unexpected question. When his lungs began to ache, he realized he held his breath. He let it out and finished pinning the diaper in place. “Not really, Great Shimusogo Faríhyo.”
She clicked her tongue. “Don’t start the Great Shimusogo right now, Jìmo.”
Faríhyo slid to the ground and folded her legs underneath her. “Why not?”
Images of people rose up in his mind: Mikáryo, Chimípu, and Desòchu. And, he felt more alone than ever before.
The snake-tooth scraped against his hand. Realizing that he was clutching it, he yanked his hand back and peered over the baby to her.
Faríhyo watched him with her head tilted. “Jìmo?”
“I…” his throat ached but he forced the words. “I never found anyone.”
She reached over and tapped his chest. “You never looked. It helps, you know.”
A blush burning on his cheeks, he scooped Nigímo from the ground and slipped his hands to her tiny fingers. When she grabbed on, he held her up so she could take exaggerated steps that went nowhere.
“You don’t have to stay with Shimusògo, you know. You will always be one of us even if you live among another spirit’s clan.”
Rutejìmo nodded, not trusting his ability to speak. He thought of Mikáryo, the dreams of the horse woman welling up with his attention. With all his might, he closed his eyes and shook his head to clear the image of her naked thighs and tattoo-covered body.
“It’s about time—” Faríhyo stopped suddenly.
A scuff of bare feet alerted Rutejìmo that someone had come up the stairs.
Faríhyo smiled. “Oh, Great Shimusogo Kiríshi.”
Kiríshi stepped up to him, swept Nigímo from his hands, and then sat down next to Faríhyo. She was a larger woman than Faríhyo, but not by much. They were all muscular and scarred from years of running barefoot across the desert.
Kiríshi beamed at them and pulled her long hair over her shoulder. She twisted it twice before releasing it. “Good afternoon, Faríhyo and Rutejìmo. Talking about anything interesting?”
Rutejìmo’s cheeks burned. “N-No,” he stammered, “nothing important.”
“You two are very serious for only beating Nèku. You should be laughing your feet off at him, not just making him run across the sands.”
Faríhyo chuckled. “He needed the exercise.”
Kiríshi tossed Nigímo in the air and spun her around.
Nigímo flailed her short arms around and gurgled happily. She gave everyone a broad, toothless smile.
Kiríshi said, “Don’t think it was that much of a punishment. I saw Mapábyo coming.”
Rutejìmo looked up across the desert. A few miles out, he could see a cloud of dust that marked the runners of the Shimusògo. Another plume of dust marked a line from the valley to the others and it slowly dissipated in the lazy breeze that rippled across the desert.
When he looked back, both women were smirking.
“Nothing, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo,” said Faríhyo.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Rutejìmo stood up. “I should go.”
“Don’t forget,” said Kiríshi, “you have cooking duties tonight.”
“And you’re going out to Wamifuko City tomorrow morning.”
Rutejìmo stopped. “I am?”
“Yes,” Kiríshi said with a smile, “you are.”
“Not another treaty run.” He groaned and shook his head. “I’m tired of dodging arrows.”
“No, we’re sending Mapábyo back out for another round of mail runs, and you’re running for a negotiation.”
“An offer, actually,” said Faríhyo with a grin before taking her daughter back.