Sand and Ash 14: Drowning

Many choose suicide when ostracized, though the choice of death varies on the character of the abandoned. — Waryoni Pokīmu

Rutejìmo slammed the mug down on the table. A splatter of foam splashed out and struck him across the face. It dripped down along the bridge of his nose. Snorting, he wiped it off with his other hand. He tilted the clay mug up to see if more liquid remained inside, but only a few droplets chased each other to the bottom rim.

He slammed it back down and shoved it across the bar. The effort brought out another twinge along his countless injuries. It also left a small splatter of blood on the counter. “Another.”

The young woman on the other side looked at him with disgust. “Money?”

Rutejìmo dug into his pocket. The tines of the comb scraped against his hand and he yanked it out. It was pathetic and small, and a waste of twenty pyābi. He tossed it on the counter and returned to dig in his pocket.

The bartender shook her head. The bright yellow feathers in her hair shook with her movement. “Money,” she repeated in a firmer tone.

“I’m,” he struggled with his words, “getting it.” When he found the last of his pyābi, he pulled them out. The heavy coins rested in his palm and he stared at them for a moment, wondering how things had gone so wrong so quickly.

He knew the answer, but he didn’t want to admit it. He had ruined everything. He even knew what he was doing when he set out across the city after a black horse. Mistake after mistake kept piling in his memories, things he should have done, things he knew were mistakes. It would have been better if he never met Mikáryo in the first place.

Rutejìmo didn’t know what he was going to do anymore. He could continue his job, running contracts and treaties between cities, but as soon as the word got out, he wouldn’t be able to work with any clan associated with the Shimusògo. Even the Kidorīsi and Mafimára, the two clans he had spent years running between, would turn him away in fear of insulting the Shimusògo. He might get a single job out of it, but then his brother would have a reason to hunt him down. And Rutejìmo wasn’t sure if Desòchu would stop before killing him.

Tears burned his eyes. He could feel them welling up and blurring his vision. He sniffed and used the back of his arm to wipe his face. He lifted the money for the bartender but she had left.

“Is that the last of your money?”

Hearing Mapábyo’s voice punched him in the gut. He closed his eyes tightly and let his hand drop to the table. The coins rolled from his fingers, rattling on the wood. He took a deep breath and then winced at the aches from the beating earlier that morning.

“What are you doing here?” Rutejìmo said in a broken whisper. “Desòchu will do the same thing to you.”

“Great Shimusogo Desòchu and the others have already left.” Mapábyo’s curt voice continued to slash him. He knew where she stood, but he didn’t dare look up at her. “They went home to tell the others.”

Rutejìmo grunted.

The chair to his left scraped on the floor. He felt it more than heard it over the din of the crowded bar. “I spent days looking for you, Rutejìmo. We all did.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

Her hand, black as night, pressed against the table along the corner of his vision. “Why do you think you aren’t worth anything?”

Rutejìmo reached out for his money, but Mapábyo slapped her hand down on it.

“Tell me, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo! We all looked for you! Day and night, through the city and the lands around. We were worried, and you… you…” Her voice cracked. “You were fucking some night-bred horse bitch!”

He jerked at her shout. Dragging his fingernails along the table, he pulled his hand back.

“Well!?”

The din quieted, and Rutejìmo could feel the attention of others on him. His stomach lurched and a wave of dizziness slammed into him. He clutched the table. Slowly, he shook his head before speaking in a calmer voice, “I don’t have an answer, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo.” The clan name had become a bitter taste in his mouth. “Other than to suggest you turn around and—” he almost said “leave” but the memories of Mikáryo saying the same thing froze the word in his throat. He shook his head again. “Just go away. Go back to your life. I’ll be back in a year… maybe.”

Her chair scraped on the ground before she shoved his arm. “What’s wrong with you!?”

Rutejìmo stood up and slapped the table. With a glare, he bellowed at her, “You know what’s wrong with me!? I’m pathetic! I’m the slowest runner in the clan. I’m a sand-damn outcast that no one ever liked! I’m not going to ever get a place of honor in our damned clan because I won’t ever amount to anything! I will never be anything! That’s my problem!”

The bar grew silent.

Mapábyo half-stood from her chair. She was dressed for running, a white shirt with tight trousers trimmed in orange. Over her shoulder, a mail delivery bag bumped against her travel pack. She stared at him with red-rimmed eyes, and her lips parted with an emotion that Rutejìmo guessed was shock.

Continuing, he gestured toward the east and her home. “Even now, Desòchu is probably telling himself that he should have cut my throat when he had the chance! Just like he’s told me so many times that he shouldn’t have saved Mikáryo. You know what!? I don’t care anymore.” He slammed back down in the chair and crossed his arms.

Tears ran down his cheeks, and he closed his eyes tightly. “He should have killed her. Just let her bones bleach in the sun and not ruin my life.”

“I-I…” Mapábyo said in a cracked, soft voice. “I liked you.”

He said nothing.

A blast of wind ripped past him, sucking the air to his left. Napkins and glasses fell off tables. He snapped his head around to look at her, but she was gone. Only a path of destruction marked her passing from where she ran out of the public house at full speed.

With growing dread, he watched sparks shoot out from two magical globe lights on each side of the door leading to the street. The one on the right flared brightly and then shattered, sending shards of glass in all directions.

A high-pitched whine rose up from the second one. Patrons dove to the ground. Among the smoking shards of the first, the increasing light turned the bar into a hellish world of smoke and brilliance. The hum continued to rise until Rutejìmo’s ears rang out in agony.

The lights had reacted to Mapábyo’s magic and the feedback of two sources caused the more delicate artifacts to crack. Even a trivial item such as that light cost hundreds, if not thousands, to bring into the city since the effort to make it compatible with the Wamifūko’s resonance took a great deal of skill.

An explosion shook the bar sending more glasses and pottery cascading from the shelves. The whining globe sparked and then burst. He flinched before shards of glass speared across the room.

“Mapábyo!” Rutejìmo scrambled to shove the seat back. It fell. He kicked it aside to grab his own pack and hoist it over his shoulder. Taking a deep breath, he sprinted out of the bar after her. His eyes looked for a clear space he could accelerate enough to summon Shimusògo.

He slammed into the metal chest of a Wamifūko warrior and staggered back.

“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo,” said Gichyòbi in a low voice, “I was not expecting to see you.”

Rutejìmo gasped and stared at the armored warrior. Gichyòbi had his sword out, and the blade hummed with ripples of power rolling down its length. An azure name flickered down the length of the blade, the name it was given when Gichyòbi first took a life with his weapon.

“Now…” Gichyòbi started and he looked around. The horse-shaped helm seemed to follow Rutejìmo with its eyes. The warrior looked down the street. “You seem to be running rather fast. You weren’t thinking about chasing that spirit bird of yours, were you?”

Before Rutejìmo blinked, the warrior stood in front of him, inches away and peering down with piercing green eyes shadowed by the visor. Rutejìmo tried to step back, but Gichyòbi followed with a thud of his boots.

“Because I would hate to kill you.”

Rutejìmo shook his head. “N-No, I’m trying to stop someone from making another mistake.”

Gichyòbi stepped to the side and gestured down the street. Rutejìmo couldn’t pretend not to see Mapábyo’s passing, a straight path cut through smoke, debris, and screaming people. City guards were rushing to the damage, many of them already struggling to calm the panic and quiet the screaming.

Magenta sparks still rose from the destroyed artifacts in Mapábyo’s wake.

Rutejìmo moaned. “Sands.”

“Walk with me.” Gichyòbi rested his gauntlet over Rutejìmo’s shoulders and forced him down the street. It wasn’t a request.

Rutejìmo tensed, but then let the warrior guide him. If Gichyòbi wanted to kill him, he could have done it in an instant.

“You know the penalty of using this type of magic in the city, right?”

With a groan, Rutejìmo nodded. He glanced at a stall that used to have glowing flowers, now they were burnt and wilted. It took centuries to work magic to be harmonious with the city’s resonance and every artifact had to be tested against the city before it was allowed inside. No doubt, the flowers that Mapábyo had just destroyed would cost more than he made in a year.

“Don’t worry about that,” Gichyòbi said quietly, “I’d worry more about your clan mate who ran off. Which one is it? The warriors? The older couple?”

“Mapábyo.” Even as he said it, he realized that he had just put Mapábyo at risk. He inhaled sharply, holding his breath.

“Ah,” Gichyòbi chuckled. “The young girl.”

When Gichyòbi didn’t respond with anger, Rutejìmo let his breath out in a rush. “Please don’t kill her. It wasn’t her fault.” Sorrow draped over his thoughts, darkening them. “It was mine.”

Gichyòbi boots crunched through a glass vase. “Really? Because she was the one running, not you.”

Rutejìmo let out a long sigh. “I guess she was trying to help.”

They walked in silence. Gichyòbi didn’t say anything, but Rutejìmo could feel the heavy armored arm over his back, firmly guiding him down the center of the destruction that lead to one of the western gates.

Rutejìmo looked around at the damage and felt despair clutching his stomach. There was no way he could afford to repair the destruction, much less save Mapábyo from the Wamifūko’s vengeance. There were magenta fires burning from stalls and along the sidewalks. A large crack had sheared off the front of a store, the various runes that protected it hissed and popped among the jewels. A pair of guards stood over the jewelry, but no one else was nearby. The rest were rushing to fight a fire growing along one block and others were gathering up the shards of scorched glass. Even the dirt from the road had been blasted away and he could see it painting storefronts on both sides.

Finally, Rutejìmo had to say something. “I made a mistake.”

Gichyòbi remained silent.

“My brother… my clan is dead to me. Actually, I’m dead to them.”

The warrior came to a sharp stop and looked at him with a scowl. “What did you do?”

“I spent the last two nights with Great Pabinkue Mikáryo.”

At Gichyòbi’s piercing gaze and silence, Rutejìmo worried his lip for a moment. “I didn’t tell them I was going to, and they were upset.”

Gichyòbi pushed toward the gate. “Can’t imagine why. They spent two days tearing apart the city looking for you.”

“They really did?” Rutejìmo tried to halt himself, but the hard hand forced him forward.

“Yes, they pulled favors from a number of clans to look for you, including Wamifūko. In fact, I seem to recall spending most of my last night looking in the gutters for you myself.” Gichyòbi shoved Rutejìmo forward.

Rutejìmo shook his head and clutched his stomach. The urge to throw up rose in his throat, burning the back of his mouth with bile. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think—”

Gichyòbi grunted.

“I don’t have a word, actually, for what I did.” Rutejìmo bowed his head. “I ruined at least one life, if not two.”

“The little runner girl?”

He nodded. “Please don’t kill her.”

“I’m curious, Rutejìmo, why you’re worried about her if you were the one banned from your clan? Who is she to you?”

“It isn’t her fault.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s young and upset.”

“Upset about what?”

Rutejìmo couldn’t answer. “I don’t know.”

They came up to the final street leading to the gate. A crowd had gathered, but Rutejìmo could see the helms of more Wamifūko guards over their heads. Wavers of magic rose up from the center and Mapábyo’s sobbing drifted through the crowds. He could feel the Wamifūko magic around him; it itched along his spine and sent a throbbing ache through his head.

“Maybe you should work on figuring that out. Come on.” Gichyòbi strode forward. “Move!” he bellowed and the crowds split before him.

Rutejìmo followed, his cheeks burning with humiliation and shame. People screamed at him, shaking their arms and broken merchandise. Someone threw fruit and it splattered against his chest. He flinched and brushed it off his leg. It dropped onto his feet but he couldn’t shake it clear while walking.

At the gate, only feet from being outside of the city, Mapábyo knelt on the ground. Shoulders shaking, she sobbed loudly and held her hands up in a pleading gesture. “I didn’t mean it!”

Four warriors, blades drawn, stood around her. Unlike Gichyòbi’s open helm, the warriors’ closed visors hid any hint of humanity. One of them creaked with movement, but Rutejìmo couldn’t identify which one shifted.

Rutejìmo gasped and started forward, but Gichyòbi’s gauntlet held him back.

The armored warrior shook his head. “Don’t run.”

A fifth guard strode to Gichyòbi. Giving Rutejìmo a brief glance, he held something up to the man escorting Rutejìmo. Gichyòbi looked at it for a moment, gave a nod, and then whispered a command. The guard ran off, leaving Gichyòbi to walk past the guards surrounding Mapábyo and Rutejìmo to follow.

“What’s your name, girl?”

“S-Shimusogo Mapábyo, Great Wamifūko.” Tears ran down Mapábyo’s face.

Gichyòbi knelt down, his armor creaking.

Mapábyo looked up, and Rutejìmo’s heart almost stopped at the devastation in her face. “I-I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry, I was—”

“You just did a lot of damage to my city, girl.”

“I know, but I—”

“And, there is a price to pay for that damage.”

Mapábyo sobbed. More tears ran down her cheeks, soaking her shirt.

Rutejìmo stumbled forward. “Kill me. It wasn’t her fault.”

Mapábyo looked up at him, confusion written across her face.

Gichyòbi chuckled. “I’m not going to kill either one of you.”

Rutejìmo’s heart skipped a beat. “W-What?”

Standing up, Gichyòbi shook his head. “I’m going to ban you from the city.” He turned to Rutejìmo. “Both of you.”

Mapábyo let out a sobbing gasp.

Rutejìmo clutched his side, staring at the city guard. Dizziness slammed into him and bile rose in his throat, but he didn’t know why Gichyòbi would have spared either of them when it was his right to kill them. “W-Why? The damage—”

Gichyòbi patted Mapábyo on the head. “You’re lucky that Rutejìmo was willing to speak for you, girl. He doesn’t have a lot of favors left with this city after what he just did. And he just used most of his to keep you alive.”

Rutejìmo jerked and stared in confusion. Gichyòbi didn’t owe Rutejìmo any favors, and he probably never would. He was a warrior of his clan and had no reason to save either of them.

Sniffing, Mapábyo looked up at Rutejìmo, looking just as confused as Rutejìmo felt.

“Stand up, girl.” Gichyòbi’s voice was powerful and commanding.

She staggered up.

When Gichyòbi gestured for Rutejìmo to join her at the entrance of the city, Rutejìmo obeyed with a scuff of his feet. When he stopped, he stared at the ground.

The crowds inside the walls continued to yell and scream at the two Shimusògo couriers.

Gichyòbi stood in front of them, a scowl etched on his face. “I am Gichyòbi and I speak for Wamifūko. You two are banned from this city on the pain of death until a time that the clan allows you passage once again.”

Mapábyo pressed her hand against her mouth. Wamifuko City had been one end of her mail route for a year.

Rutejìmo nodded slowly while the guilt tore through him. Somehow, he managed to ruin her life as quickly as he did his own. In the back of his mind, he already prepared a route to flee for a different part of the desert to start a new life.

“I think two weeks is enough. Though, I expect the both of you,” he emphasized the word by tapping their shoulders, “to return to this city and tender a formal apology. I think treating me to dinner would be appropriate.”

Mapábyo gasped. “T-Two weeks? That’s how long it takes for me to deliver, um, that’s my normal mail run. I-I don’t understand.”

Gichyòbi’s frown cracked into a smile. “Imagine that. Then, I will see both of you ready to apologize for this in two weeks. Until then,” the smile dropped back into a scowl, “get out of my sand-damned city.”

Stunned, Rutejìmo turned and walked away. Next to him, Mapábyo did the same, her feet scuffing on the rocks.

Behind them, the jeers and cries rose up in a wave.

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