A clan's saying, such as “Ryayusúki ride,” is more than just words. It is inspiration and encouragement when the clan's skills, loyalty, or reputation are questioned.
— Martin Debosun, Clans of the Desert
With a pulsating headache and an aching body, Rutejìmo staggered away from Wamifuko City. He walked alone lost in his sour thoughts, making no effort to run or even jog. He didn't have anywhere to go, and the simple thrill of running no longer appealed to him.
He scuffed across the sands, his bare feet scraping along the rocks and ripples of sand that gathered along the hard-packed road that wound before him. The cuts and scrapes of Desòchu's and Chimípu's beating burned along his skin, the tiny grains of sand adding irritation to burning pain.
Rutejìmo didn't know where he could go. No city or village in the area would take him if he didn't have a clan. He didn't know if anyone would give him shelter. He didn't even deserve to wear the reds and oranges—someone might take the Shimusògo embroidered on it to be associating with his former clan.
For the briefest of moments, he considered lying, claiming he was still a Shimusògo. But as soon as the thought drifted across his mind, a cold shiver raced down his spine. He grew up with tales about warriors who tried to claim a clan not of their own; none of them survived, and all of them died horrifically. Rutejìmo tore his thoughts away from that possibility.
A year of loneliness loomed before him, and he shivered at the imaginary shadow crossing his life. He tried to imagine months but couldn't. It was too long, too abstract for him to imagine. He wasn't even sure what would happen by the end of the week.
Wind rushed past him, and he saw a flash of feathers before a cloud of sand peppered against his back. Reflexively, he held his breath until the cloud settled and then let it out between pursed lips.
Mapábyo came around in a wide circle before returning to him. Her movement had torn through the ground, ripping up sand and rocks in a deep furrow. She stepped out of the gouge and stood before him, her body still shimmering with fading magic and feathers. Grains of sand bounced off her shoulder and rolled down the creases of her white top. “Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo, why aren't you running?”
Rutejìmo shrugged and stepped to the side to walk around her.
Mapábyo shifted to block him. “Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”
“I'm not Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo anymore, remember?”
“But you w-will be.” Her voice cracked and she inched closer.
He scoffed and tried to get around her again. “Not for a year, if I make it that far.”
Mapábyo ran her hands through her black hair, shaking the strands to dislodge the last of the sand. “What are you going to do until then? Just wander the desert with almost no food or water? How long do you think you'll survive until you die of thirst?”
Not soon enough, he thought. Instead, he said, “Where can I go? Wamifuko City is no longer a choice. Everywhere else is too small to hide in and eventually they'll find out that I'm dead to the clan.”
Mapábyo gestured to the road behind her.
With a frown, Rutejìmo peered down the shimmering road. Mirages wavered along the hills and dunes as the road snaked its way to the southwest. “What's there?”
“Monafuma Cliffs. It's a good place.”
She turned and pointed to her mailbag.
Rutejìmo shook his head. “No, no, I can't go there. That's a Shimusògo contract, and I'm not Shimusògo.”
“But,” Mapábyo said with a bright smile, “it will take us a week to get there and a week to get back. Then we can come back, and you can stay in Wamifuko City or,” she hesitated, “whatever you decide to do next.”
He didn't know what to say. Anger and frustration warred inside him. He wanted her to go away and leave him alone. She needed to stay away from him. With a growl, he gestured across the sands away from any of the roads. “What I want to do is head that way, until I can't walk anymore.”
A frown crossed her face. “If you want that so bad, why aren't you?”
Rutejìmo gulped and glanced at the waves of sand. Only death waited for him out there, but it came in many forms: painful thirst, starvation, or exposure. If he managed to survive those, it would be wild animals, bandits, or a score of other horrors that would take his life.
“No,” snapped Rutejìmo, “I am not Shimusògo!”
Mapábyo stepped back at his outburst. She cocked her head. “Rutejìmo?” When he gave a disinterested shrug, she cleared her throat. “Then, Rutejìmo, why are you still on the road?”
Rutejìmo turned away to hide the tears gathering in his eyes. He wanted to go out in the sands, but the dread stopped him.
“I-I don't have the courage. I don't have the courage to walk out there. I want to. I want to make this all end. But I can't.”
“Papa says that death is a hard thing to run to.”
He shivered at her soft words. She was right, but he didn't want to admit it. The desire to kill himself had been tempered by the fear of pain and suffering.
“Come with me,” she said.
Rutejìmo dragged his feet along some rocks. “Do you know what will happen if the Shimusògo catch you with me? They'll drive you from the clan. I… you can't do that to yourself.” The tears began to burn his eyes again. “You aren't even supposed to see or hear me.”
Mapábyo's footsteps scraped along the ground. “Yes. I know.”
He frowned and looked up. She had moved closer than he expected, and the smell of a light perfume danced in the air between them. Inhaling, he started to back up, but then froze. “Y-Yes?”
She nodded. “Yes, but I see you.” She reached out and rested two fingers of her right hand on his chest, right above his heart. “You're right here.”
Rutejìmo's heart thumped and he wondered if she could feel it through his ribs.
“Come, Great… Rutejìmo.”
He struggled with his words. “W-What if Desòchu finds you?”
Mapábyo cocked her head and her lip curled up. “Then, I'll just say you've been following me. Then you'll have your death, but it will be a lot faster than dying out there.” She pointed to the sands he had been contemplating.
Rutejìmo rolled his eyes, but a small blossom of hope rose up. “Just for two weeks?”
“To the city and back. And then you can run away until you want to come back. But you have to run until then.” She stepped back and gestured.
“What if Shimusògo leaves me?”
Mapábyo pulled her fingers back, but it still felt like her fingertips burned his skin. “Then we walk. But until then, Shimusògo run.”
Rutejìmo's stomach lurched.
A shadow of annoyance flickered across her face, but a smile quickly replaced it. “Fine, Rutejìmo and Mapábyo run.”
With a wink, she was gone in a rush of air, a cloud of dust, and a sparkle of translucent feathers.
He stood there and watched the plume behind her. She was running slowly enough that he could catch her, if he wanted.
Slowly, he looked over the unforgiving desert. Death waited for him if he had the courage to keep walking.
He turned his attention back to the runner receding in the distance. He needed a different courage to follow her, one that he wasn't sure he had. But Mapábyo offered a lot less pain. At least until Desòchu caught him.
Clearing his throat, Rutejìmo chased after her, walking at first, then running. He pushed himself until he felt the power of Shimusògo flood his veins and the world became nothing but sand, feathers, and bliss.