Sand and Ash 13: A Second Chance

No blade is sharpest but when it cuts directly to the heart. — Two Families, Two Children (Act 3)

Rutejìmo ran without a hope or purpose. He was driven only by a desperate need to escape the tearing in his heart. The sight of his clan turning their backs on him flashed across his mind, adding a suffering that dwarfed his physical injuries. He knew he had done wrong, but he never thought his own brother and Chimípu would assault him.

His footsteps were unsteady and irregular. The familiar thud and rhythm had been replaced with an unsettling jerk when his right foot struck the ground. He had been injured before, but never as thoroughly. Shimusògo kept the pain away, but the longer he ran, the more he knew he furthered his injuries by moving. For a moment, he consider running until the end, the ryodifūne or the final run, but that wouldn’t serve anyone.

He skidded to a halt. His tortured body struck the ground and a scream rose in his throat. Everything hurt, from the muscles clear down to the bones. His joints scraped with every movement and he could barely see out of his right eye. Gasping for breath, he stared at the ground and tried to forget Desòchu’s words. Images of Chimípu turning her back on him brought another sob ripping out of his throat and he bowed down, crying in the middle of the sand.

It hurt to breathe. His throat scraped with every gasp and sob. Rutejìmo forced his jaw shut to avoid crying out, his breath irritating his split lip with every exhalation. The fingers of his left hand began to swell up from his bruising. He glanced at it and felt sick at the sight of the scrapes and drying blood.

A thud shook the ground.

Rutejìmo inhaled with a wheeze.

Another thud. Small rocks danced around his hand, rolling over his scraped thumb before clinging to the blood oozing from shallow cuts.

Panting for breath, he lifted his head. Over a rocky hill, he watched the three giant, metal scorpions making their way from the city. Their footsteps shook the ground, and the scrape of metal drifted over the wind with every ponderous step. Ripples of heat poured out from their tails, leaving a hazy cloud behind each one.

Rutejìmo pushed himself to his knees, groaning from the effort. His eyes never left the mechanical creatures walking away. Mikáryo would be near the scorpions. She had sent him away, but that was when Rutejìmo needed to return to his clan and she had to continue on her route.

He didn’t have anywhere else to go. He knew she would accept him, if just for the year or only a month or two. He needed some way to survive if he couldn’t count on his clan.

Staggering to his feet, Rutejìmo jogged after the scorpions. Rising hope held back the curtain of agony. Reaching the end of a short plain of rocks, he accelerated until Shimusògo raced past him and he followed.

A few minutes later, he ran up behind the caravan. The scorpions were in the middle, with scouts on horses spread out in a narrow fan. The lead horses appeared to be testing the route for the heavy mechanical devices by the way they stomped the ground with their front hooves. A trail of wagons followed behind the scorpions in a ragged line. Most of the wagons had Pabinkue horses pulling them, the pitch black equines moving gracefully in the shadows of the scorpions.

He followed a ridge of rocks to come up alongside to the caravan. His eyes focused on the horses, trying to pick out Mikáryo from the other riders.

When he came up to a short cliff with deep shadows, he caught sight of movement. He slowed down when the darkness bulged out toward him. The shadows peeled away from the wall, forming the shapes of a pair of horses and their riders.

Rutejìmo stumbled to a halt, dropping to his knees when his leg gave out from under him. He skidded along gravel a rod before stopping.

The shadows separated from the cliff and then peeled back in the sun to reveal Mikáryo and Tsubàyo. Both were covered head to toe in black cloth but he knew the eyes that focused on him.

The hooves of Mikáryo’s horse struck the ground, but made no sound. Like a living shadow, the equine flowed over the ground to circle around him.

He looked up at her, trying to formulate words.

“Why are you back, boy?” Mikáryo asked.

Tsubàyo circled the other way. “What happened to you?”

“Yes…” Mikáryo’s voice trailed off and she stared at him intently. “What happened to you?” She leaned over her horse to peer down at him.

“I,” Rutejìmo gasped and looked up at her, “I got in trouble for staying with you.” Even as he spoke, he felt useless and pathetic.

Tsubàyo snorted and continued to circle. He had no reins on his horse, but he rode smoothly.

Both horses wove around Rutejìmo in a tight circle.

Mikáryo’s eyes narrowed. Her horse slowed, and she slipped off. On the ground, her feet scuffed against rocks. She walked over to him.

Rutejìmo staggered to his feet. He swayed to keep his balance.

“What happened?” she asked.

When she didn’t insult him, Rutejìmo felt a brief moment of hope. “Desòchu kicked me out.”

“Out of the job?”

“Of the clan—”

Tsubàyo snorted again, a smirk visible in the folds of his cloth.

Rutejìmo blushed hotly and shook his head. “—for a year.”

“Why? Because you were with me?”

The scorn in her voice brought a blush to Rutejìmo’s cheeks. He nodded once.

“Then why come back?” Mikáryo stepped back and pressed her palms against her hips.

“C-Can I come with you?”

“No.”

Rutejìmo inhaled sharply. “What?”

Mikáryo shook her head firmly. “No. You can’t.”

His mouth opened in surprise.

“We are still on our separate paths, Jìmo, and you can’t go where we’re going.”

“I can work for you. I don’t have—”

She stepped forward. He saw her hand coming around and flinched. The back of her hand caught the side of his cheek with a flash of pale blue light. The impact spun him around, and he hit the ground hard on his hands. Pain shot up his arms when the rocks cut his palm.

Mikáryo walked around him and knelt down. The body he worshiped was hidden by her cloth, but her scent and perfume wafted around him, and he couldn’t help but remember the softness of her skin. She reached down and hooked her fingers under his chin and pulled him up until he met her eyes. “What do think this is between us?”

Tears ran down Rutejìmo’s face. He opened his mouth then closed it when he realized he didn’t have an answer. Mikáryo wasn’t responding the way he thought she would.

“Do you think you love me?” she whispered.

Rutejìmo gulped and nodded.

Mikáryo gently lowered him back to the ground. She stood up and the rocks underneath her scattered. “This isn’t love. There will never be love, or anything else, between us. Jìmo, it’s sweet, but our time together ended this morning.”

She turned and returned to her horse.

Forcing himself back to his knees, Rutejìmo remembered the comb. Digging into his pocket, he pulled the black one out and held it up with both shaking hands. “K-Káryo?”

Mikáryo stopped and looked over her shoulder. Her eyes widened for a moment before she returned to him. “A bribe? Really? Do you think I’m that shallow that I would choose my companions on some tiny gift?” She pushed the cloth back from her head, exposing her tattooed face to the bright sun.

Rutejìmo realized how pathetic he looked and flushed hotly. He lowered his hands, but she caught his left wrist.

With a sad smile, she plucked the comb from his fingers. Flipping it over, she returned it to his palm. “Safe journeys, Jìmo, and good-bye.”

“W-Why?” he gasped.

She crouched down, her knees spread and the black cloth rustling along the ground. “Because, my dear, pathetic, and utterly hopeless idiot, I can never love you.”

The whine in his throat turned into a wheeze from the pain in his chest.

“There is nothing,” she said, “that will ever change that. I have no room for love in my world. And I can’t let you keep this shikāfu any longer.”

Mikáryo brought his wrist to her lips. The comb trembled in his grip as she rotated his hand so his palm faced up and planted a single kiss right on his wrist. “And if the only way for you to lose your flame is to snuff it out, then I will do that.” Her eyes were hard for a moment, though they shimmered with her emotions.

He gasped, unable to do anything.

“Be safe, Jìmo. Find someplace to be, somewhere you can survive.”

She stood up and walked away. Reaching her horse, she vaulted on the back and set off for the passing caravan and scorpions.

Tsubàyo reared his horse. He followed after his companion with only a single cruel smile for Rutejìmo before he disappeared into the darkness of the cliff.

Rutejìmo stared at the dark shadows. “But,” he whispered to no one, “I don’t have a clan anymore.”

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