The Wamifūko established Wamifuko City as a place of barter where the intricate dance of clan politics is encouraged but magic is forbidden. Wamifūko will defend their neutrality with brutal and unending violence.
— Wamifuko Gidorámi, Chronicles of the Wamifūko
Few remembered Wamifuko City for the rich architecture or feats of engineering, though the city had both. Instead, the oral tales passed down about the city focused on its stink. The smell of sweat, urine, and countless animals had stained the stone—and no amount of wind or magic could erase it from the senses or memories of those who visited the city. The twenty thousand people who called the city home were the lucky ones; the constant stench eroded their noses until they could no longer smell. Guests like Rutejìmo weren't so lucky when they were reintroduced to the odor of the great city.
The Shimusògo slowed when they reached the shadows of the city. Ahead of them, jagged walls of the mountain rose out of the rolling hills and towered over the surrounding lands. In the late afternoon sun, the tips of the walls cast claws of shadow across the haze that hung over the city inside. A low rumble shook the ground from the din contained within.
Walking toward the city, looking up at the jagged walls, Rutejìmo felt very small. Even rebuilt, Wamifuko City dwarfed anything inside Shimusogo Valley. Forgetting where he was, he sniffed and then gagged on the overwhelming smell of sewage and animal waste.
“It never gets better,” said Mapábyo, “does it? The smell?”
Rutejìmo shook his head.
“I keep hoping that it rains, just to wash it away.”
He grinned and leaned over to her, the heat of her skin brushing against his senses. “Me too.”
“Quiet,” snapped Desòchu.
Mapábyo gave Rutejìmo an exaggerated look of horror, but it dissolved into silent giggles.
They amused themselves by making faces at Desòchu's back while they joined the line heading into the nearest gate, but their entertainment faded quickly when the line came to a halt and he stopped moving. Running all day had sapped Rutejìmo's strength, and he could feel the throb of fatigue tugging at his joints. He wanted to crawl into a bed and sleep.
The closer the runners drew to the city, the more they began to fidget. It started with Chimípu and Desòchu when they scratched at their wrists and joints. A moment later, Chimípu tugged on her hair while Desòchu rubbed his side. Rutejìmo knew it wasn't the run that caused them discomfort, but the presence of the other clans. Resonance, it was called, and it affected those with the strongest magic first.
Rutejìmo rarely felt resonance, his powers were too weak, but it didn't take long until even Mapábyo scratched herself with every step. She gave Rutejìmo apologetic looks while digging into her wrist with her fingernails. In a few days, they would be raw and scabbed.
He had to look away briefly. They reached one of the inward gates to the city a few minutes later. Nestled between two of the jagged walls towering above them, the gates functioned as a choke-point for defense and a place to exact taxes and enforce laws.
Two Wamifūko guards stood at the entrance in their heavy steel armor. Rutejìmo recognized the guard on the right by his armor. The helm, shaped in the form of a snarling horse with wide-open muzzle, revealed a man with a strong jaw and a crooked nose. Rutejìmo grinned at the sight of him and then forced the smile from his face when he saw Desòchu turning to look around.
A few moments later, they were at the gate. To his surprise, the warrior faced Rutejìmo and bowed. “Good evening, Shimusogo Rutejìmo.” He spoke in a rumbling voice, and Rutejìmo's stomach clenched with a reflexive fear. “I'm glad to see you safe once again.”
Rutejìmo glanced at his brother, the leader of the group and the one who spoke for all of them. At the sight of Desòchu's scowl, Rutejìmo's stomach clenched and a burning sensation rose in his throat.
He looked at the others. Chimípu shook her head with a grin. Mapábyo looked back and forth between him and warrior. There was a curious smile on her face.
Rutejìmo turned back to the Gichyòbi, bowed deeply and said, “Thank you, Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi. I'm glad to be back to your home.”
The warrior stepped forward and bowed to the rest of the clan. “I am Gichyòbi. I speak for Wamifūko.”
Desòchu stepped in front of Rutejìmo. He bowed to the warrior. “I am Desòchu, and I,” he almost spat out the word, “speak for Shimusògo.”
“Welcome back to the city, runners of Shimusògo. Have all of you been to our city before?”
“Then I will just remind you of the more serious rules.” The armored warrior's face didn't crack from its seriousness. “No magic of your clan is allowed within these walls. Reasons are unimportant, and your purpose is irrelevant. If you use magic, we will respond harshly and violently. Start a fight and we will simply kill every single one of you.”
Rutejìmo's stomach twisted at the harsh threat. The last time he entered the city, he saw how violently the Wamifūko responded when the two men chasing him used magic within the walls. The sight of the eviscerated corpses burned themselves into his memories and nightmares.
“Jìmo,” whispered Mapábyo, “are you okay? You just paled.”
Rutejìmo clutched himself and nodded.
Desòchu shot a glare at both of them before returning his attention to Gichyòbi. “We understand.”
Gichyòbi stepped aside and gestured for them to enter the city. “Welcome to Wamifuko City. May you enjoy yourself in safety.” He winked as Rutejìmo passed him.
After they entered, Mapábyo leaned over and whispered, “What was that about?”
He ducked his head. “Nothing.”
Chimípu came up on the other side and clapped his shoulder. “So, you only had a little trouble with that delivery, huh?” She smiled cheerfully, although her fingers gripped the joint of his shoulder and sparks of pain ran up his neck.
Rutejìmo blushed even hotter. “There… might have been a few problems.”
“Boy,” it was an insult not to use his name, “did someone try to kill you again?”
He almost lied but then nodded. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Chimípu.” He kept his tone deferential, knowing his trouble.
“Did you at least…” Her hand tightened on his shoulder. “...thank Gichyòbi for saving your feet?”
Rutejìmo smiled and nodded. After the attack, he had treated Gichyòbi and his family to the best meal he could cook. The night started with him being deferential and humble, but after the third bottle of wine they were laughing together. The hours passed with slurred stories of epic failures on both of their parts. He focused on the present and looked at her. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Chimípu.”
Chimípu's hand relaxed and she leaned into him. “It's important, little brother, that you stay safe.”
Rutejìmo tensed and glanced over at Mapábyo who watched with a look of curiosity.
“I don't want to lose you, okay?”
He turned back and favored her with a smile. “Yes, big sister.”
Chimípu smiled and stepped away. Rutejìmo followed her with his eyes then noticed both Hyonèku and Kiríshi watching him. The burn on his cheeks intensified, and he turned away almost running into Mapábyo.
Mapábyo giggled. “Careful.”
She smiled and shook her hair to knock out the sand and gravel. “It wasn't that bad.” Her smile widened before her eyes lifted toward her parents. Then, she glanced away herself.
Desòchu stopped near a fountain in a square. He turned around, rubbing his neck. As the hours passed, the itching and rubbing would grow worse. The most Desòchu and Chimípu could remain in the city was a couple of days before the resonance grew too much to bear.
Rutejìmo didn't suffer in the city like the others. His feeble magic created little resonance. It also made him ideal for deliveries and the endless wait for treaties to be negotiated.
Desòchu pulled his two water-skins from his belt. “Boy, fill these and meet up with us at Higoryo Inn.” He pointed to a large stone building a half block from the fountain. “Since you came in last, you're paying for dinner.”
Rutejìmo tensed but kept the frown from his expression.
Mapábyo stepped forward. “I can help—”
“You,” interrupted Desòchu, “can do what I say and let him do his job. Go with your parents and get our rooms.” Desòchu glared at Rutejìmo. “Three will be sufficient. I'll share one with the sluggard.”
Mapábyo's lips pressed into a thin line but she nodded.
Feeling sick to his stomach, Rutejìmo bowed. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Desòchu.”
A heartbeat later, Mapábyo bowed herself and repeated Rutejìmo's words. As Desòchu walked away, she turned to Rutejìmo. “I'm sorry.”
“No,” Rutejìmo sighed and shook his head. “He's right. I was last.”
Mapábyo rested her hand on his forearm. “Maybe, after dinner…?”
He looked into her dark green eyes, unable to read her expression from her face.
“… you'll tell me what happened? With the warrior at the gate? I'd like to know.”
Rutejìmo felt a smile quirking his lip. He nodded.
With a soft giggle, Mapábyo reached up and pulled his pack from his shoulder. She hiked the bag over her arm and jogged after Desòchu, Hyonèku, and Chimípu.
He didn't know why he smiled.
“That was nice,” said Kiríshi. She handed the rest of the skins over.
Rutejìmo's smile dropped instantly. He cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“You might want to thank her, though.”
“She stood up for you again. She seems to be doing that a lot, don't you think?”
He started to say something, then something heavy slipped off one of the water skins and into his palm. Another weight clinked on the first. Frowning, he freed his hand and held up his palm. It was pair of twenty pyābi coins.
“Ríshi?” Rutejìmo looked up with confusion. “What is…?”
Kiríshi was already walking away before he could finish his sentence.
He watched her disappear in the crowds. When she didn't come back, he looked down at the coins and tilted his palm so they shifted to the side. Forty pyābi was a lot of money just to hand someone, even someone in the same clan. Normally, they bought little trinkets as gifts for others, but he rarely spent more than ten on a single gift. But Kiríshi also mentioned Mapábyo. Rutejìmo smiled a little to himself. He could get something for the young woman, if anything to show his appreciation for coming back when he struggled to reach the camp. And for standing up to his brother.
Pocketing the coins, he set out to fill the skins as quickly as possible. He knew the perfect place to buy a gift, but they closed at sundown.