A hidden alley leads to both danger and treasure.
— The Bandit King’s Daughter (Act 2, Scene 1)
Night descended on Wamifuko City. The buzz of insects added to the din of animals and people. Rutejìmo jogged along a path that circled just outside the city wall but well within the gaze of the many Wamifūko warriors who stood at the gates between the pillars of rock.
The ban against magic ended one chain from the wall, and a sparkling haze spread out over the various clan camps and among their camp fires. Even running past them, Rutejìmo could feel the resonance gathering in pools around the more powerful clans. Arcs of unnatural lightning coursed along the tents and ropes, igniting both fires and fighting. In the distance, a plume of magenta fire marked where an artifact exploded.
He circled around the conflicts, but kept his eyes out for black horses or the Pabinkúe banner. With every step, he felt more foolish. It had been hours since he saw the herd, but he couldn’t stop looking.
In the back of his mind, guilt burned brightly. He needed to turn around and return to the inn with the rest of his clan. Desòchu would be furious at him and Rutejìmo didn’t look forward to the hours of screaming that would follow. After an hour of searching, Rutejìmo realized that Desòchu couldn’t get any angrier and kept looking.
He had to find the horses. It didn’t matter if they were Mikáryo’s or not. He just needed to find the horses and then he would head back to the inn. He needed to see them once and then he could return to his life as a courier.
Bearing down, he pushed himself to his limits and the world blurred. He knew that his passing would add a little to the volatile resonance in the camps, but not enough to damage artifacts or cause others pain.
Along the south side of the city, he caught a familiar sight: three mechanical scorpions towered above the crowds. Each one stood at least a chain high, and the light of bonfires reflected off the bellies and legs of each one. Waves of heat rippled over the devices and he remembered how the massive fires at each foot of the scorpions would power the devices to walk across the earth.
The last time Rutejìmo saw one of the scorpions was the night that Tsubàyo, a former clan mate, stole one of Mikáryo’s horses and killed her companion.
“It can’t be a coincidence,” muttered Rutejìmo. He slowed to a stop. Insects swarmed around him and he waved his hand to brush them away.
Every time he looked at the brass legs of the massive devices, he remembered seeing them years ago. A storm of exhilaration and hope beat against his chest. His heart thumping painfully in his chest, he made his way toward the scorpions, careful to avoid crossing the ropes that marked each clan’s camping area. He noticed that most of the banners and colors were dark, but he didn’t recognize the names as he passed. The familiar whites, oranges, and reds were gone, replaced by dark greens, blues, and blacks. He was among the night clans, those who gained their power from the moon instead of the sun like Shimusògo did.
He felt vulnerable among the clans of the night. His red outfit and white shirt felt more out of place with every step. He noticed people glaring at him, much like the others had cursed the black horses.
Rutejìmo slowed down, peering carefully to avoid intruding into private areas. He didn’t know what they would do, but the horror stories whispered over the years bubbled up in his mind. He was among the enemies of Tachìra, and he was the outsider here.
An itch spread across his skin and sank into his bones. He scratched the joint of his right hand idly. He couldn’t reach the source, but it gave him something to focus on instead of the growing fear. It took him a moment to realize he had started to feel the contrast of magic between his own powers and others, the differences of sun and night managing to irritate even his own weak abilities.
Lost in thought, he almost stepped off the path when he came up to a dead end. He stopped with a scuff of bare feet on the rapidly cooling ground. Less than two chains away were the scorpions, but ropes for three separate camps blocked his path. He couldn’t reach his goal without stepping over one of the ropes or backtracking.
To his right, a pair of slender women juggled knives over a camp fire. They had pulled back their black hoods to reveal they were twins except for mirrored tattoos on their faces. The campsite on his left was empty, and his skin crawled when he looked at the furs heaped up in a wagon. Something scraped against his nerves when he considered crossing the rope, and he had to look away.
The third and final camp looked small compared to the others, with only three tents and a small, banked fire. He could see across the camp and spotted no obvious occupants. The largest tent entrance faced him but he didn’t recognize the clan name on the banner next to the entrance. The white thread on black, on the other hand, looked unnatural even among the other clan banners.
Rutejìmo leaned to the side and looked through the small camp. If he cut through it, it would only be a few feet and seconds before he could hop on a path beyond it. He worried his lips, deciding if he would risk insulting a clan.
A shadow loomed inside the tent he was peering around. He panicked and stumbled back before the occupant noticed him, but his feet caught on a rock and he fell back with a loud thump. Cheeks burning, he pawed at the ground for purchase.
”… to keep it clean for a few days and out of the sun,” said a young man as he pulled back the entrance of the tent. In his early twenties, the speaker sported a long beard that reached his belly and a bald head covered in tattoos.
“That won’t be a problem, Great Garyofina Kichìko.”
Rutejìmo froze at the sound of the second speaker’s voice, Pabinkue Tsubàyo. The memories punched their way into his head: years of bullying when they grew up together, when Tsubàyo tried to sacrifice Rutejìmo to save his own hide, and finally, the memory of Desòchu and Chimípu beating Tsubàyo into unconsciousness for his failed attempt at sacrificing Rutejìmo.
Tsubàyo had changed since Rutejìmo last saw him, but he still had his childhood burns along the side of his face and down his chest and shoulder. Tsubàyo held his shirt in his hand, revealing a muscular bare chest. The melted flesh reflected the light differently than Tsubàyo’s brown skin. Now, black horse tattoos ran across his chest, following the curves of his muscles and his scars.
“I know, Great Pabinkue Tsubàyo, but you still have a week of travel before you reach your destination and one infection will ruin your stallion.” The other man rested his hand on Tsubàyo’s shoulder. “Treat my art with respect, young man.”
Tsubàyo hugged the other man tightly. “I will. Safe journeys, Great Garyofina Kichìko.
Tsubàyo turned away from the tent and started toward Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo’s stomach twisted in fear, but he struggled to keep it from his face. It took most of his strength to look down at the ground instead of whimpering.
Tsubàyo stopped and looked down with an unfamiliar expression before holding out his hand. “Here.”
Compassion was something Rutejìmo would have never expected from the man who bullied him most of his life. The Tsubàyo he knew spent his days ordering others and fighting against the yoke of adults. When the Shimusògo abandoned them in the desert, it was Tsubàyo who drove the spike between Rutejìmo and the others. It was Tsubàyo who tried to kill Rutejìmo to pay for a blood price.
Unable to control himself, Rutejìmo took the offered hand.
Tsubàyo gripped him tightly and pulled him to his feet. “Here you go.” He turned to look back at the tent. “Shìmi, looks like your next customer is here.”
The man in the tent came out. “Wasn’t expecting someone so late, but come on in.” He held open the flap to reveal a simple interior with a padded bed and a tray of sharp needles and inks.
Rutejìmo shook his head sharply. “No, I wasn’t here for that.”
With a gasp, he realized he could be identified by his voice. He clamped a hand against his jaw. Guiltily, he looked back at Tsubàyo.
Tsubàyo’s hand tightened around Rutejìmo’s, and his eyes narrowed.
Fighting back the fear, Rutejìmo turned and looked into the face of the man who had tried to kill him. Their eyes met and Rutejìmo cringed at the sharpness in Tsubàyo’s expression.
“I know you,” Tsubàyo’s voice lowered into a harsh whisper. He released Rutejìmo and stepped back. “What are you doing here, Shimusogo Rutejìmo?”
Rutejìmo’s throat felt dry and tight. He nodded twice. “Well met, Pabinkue Tsubàyo.” He was surprised his voice came out smoothly. Years of running had given him some fortitude.
When Tsubàyo dropped his hand to the black hilt of a tazágu, Rutejìmo stepped back. He held up his hands to show he was unharmed. His own tazágu bounced against his thigh, the black hilt almost a twin to Tsubàyo’s weapon; they were both made for the Pabinkúe clan. “I-I was looking for…” The rest of the sentence stuck in his throat, and the words couldn’t come.
Rutejìmo closed his mouth helplessly.
“You’re pathetic,” snarled Tsubàyo. He released his hilt and stepped back. “Go away, boy… runner…” His face twisted into a scowl, “whatever you became. Just go. Go away before you ruin what happiness I managed to wring out of life.”
Someone’s boot scuffed the ground. “I thought joy rode behind you, my little horse thief.”
It was Mikáryo.
He had dreamed of her voice for years. He had nightmares and fantasies of her, things he couldn’t share with anyone in the world. And, now, she stood right behind him. Afraid to turn around, he stared helplessly at Tsubàyo.
Tsubàyo’s scowl deepened, and his attention focused over Rutejìmo’s right shoulder. “I am, Káryo. Happier than I could ever be.” He shot a glare at Rutejìmo. “And I plan on staying that way.”
He used the familiar form of Mikáryo’s name, something that would normally be only said in whispers and private conversations. But Mikáryo had always insisted on the familiar tone, even with strangers. Years ago, she said she had no time or patience for the bowing or the formal terms. One reason she spent most of her days in the desert instead of cities.
“And,” purred Mikáryo, “who is your friend?” She approached and her voice grew louder.
Tsubàyo stepped back. “He’s no friend of mine!”
She said, “Obviously, he’s Shimusògo.” She stepped up even with Rutejìmo. He could feel the heat of her body against his shoulder and then the touch of a bare hand on his arm. “I’m betting I know him, don’t I…” And then she whispered into his ear, a smile on her lips, “Jìmo?”
Rutejìmo jerked at his whispered name.
Mikáryo walked around him, and his heart skipped a beat. In the night, she had stripped down to a simple outfit of a black band over her breasts and a loin cloth over her hips. Her outfit left most of her body uncovered, and the black tattoos that covered every inch of her shimmered in the torch light. The endless trails of horses, hoof marks, and herds followed every curve of her body: around the ridge of her hips, over the swells of her breasts, and down into the valley of her legs before continuing along her thighs. He knew that only one spot would be free of tattoos, a horse’s head of empty space between her shoulder blades.
The body underneath the tattoos had been the subject of Rutejìmo’s fantasies for years, but his polished memories had drifted from the woman before him. Her breasts were smaller than he remembered but her hips wider. The lines of legs and arms, though, he remembered almost perfectly—as well as the crooked smile she favored him with.
Despite wearing only a few strips of cloth, she remained armed with a pair of tazágu. The fighting spikes reached her thighs. He followed the lines of her body, trying not to linger too long on her hips and groin, before focusing on the weapon on her right hip. It, like the one she had given to Chimípu years ago, remained nameless while the other had a name inscribed down the length of the blade. He shivered at the sight of it; no one carried a nameless weapon without a reason.
“I see the little warrior girl gave up the weapon I gifted her.”
Rutejìmo gulped and nodded. He pushed the hilt of his weapon to reveal its name.
“Did she name it?” Mikáryo asked.
“What was it? A rabbit?”
“A… lizard. It tried to bite me.”
Mikáryo stepped forward until her chest bumped against his.
Rutejìmo struggled to look into her eyes.
“You’re still pathetic, aren’t you?” Her voice was low and sultry, stark against his faded memories.
Rutejìmo inhaled, drinking in the smell of her body. It was sweet and flowery, with a hint of spice, sweat, and horse. It brought back pangs of fantasies and his body responded. He stepped back and twisted his hip to avoid showing his sudden hardness.
The corner of Mikáryo’s lip curled up. “Yes,” she said, “you are.”
She was too close. Rutejìmo gasped for breath and shook. He wanted to reach out and kiss her or turn and run away until the sun rose. His heart thumped in his chest. He panted for breath, but the air didn’t seem to reach his lungs.
Mikáryo’s eyes flickered down and he felt her taking him in. When her gaze came up, her smile broadened. “And what did I do to earn this visit? Or are you here for Bàyo? Wanting to finish what he started?”
Rutejìmo opened his mouth, but no words came out.
“Pathetic.” Mikáryo stepped back still smiling and turned to Tsubàyo. “Let me see, thief.”
Tsubàyo scowled but turned so she could see his bicep. One of his tattoos, black in a field of brown skin, puffed out from his flesh and a droplet of blood oozed at the horse’s throat.
She ran her thumb over it lightly and then nodded with approval. “Good choice, Bàyo. A good strong horse.”
With a smile, Tsubàyo bowed to her.
Mikáryo glanced over her shoulder at Rutejìmo.
He inhaled sharply, his body shaking with his inability to do or say anything.
“Do you have anywhere else to be, Jìmo?”
Rutejìmo thought about Desòchu and dinner. No doubt, Desòchu had worked himself into a fury when Rutejìmo didn’t show up. Rutejìmo could already picture his brother pacing back and forth in a blur. No doubt the flames of his anger would burn around his body. Rutejìmo shivered at the thought and tore his thoughts away. “No, nothing.”
“Good,” she said and held out her arm. “Want some dinner? I’d love to hear what’s happened in the last few years.”
“Ten,” grunted Tsubàyo, the scowl still on his face. “And too soon to ever see him.”
“And,” she continued smoothly, “maybe you’ll hear about our own adventures. Your little friend has become quite a horse thief.”
Tsubàyo snarled and turned on his heels.
Mikáryo turned and, walking backwards away from Rutejìmo, beckoned with her finger.
After a moment’s hesitation, Rutejìmo followed.