Lying about one's clan has only one consequence: death. Painful, screaming, agonizing death.
— Chizoki Miyóna, A Traveler's Introduction to Kyōti
As evening came, Rutejìmo desperately wanted to stop running, but guilt refused to let him slow. Sweat soaked his shirt and pants. His breath came in ragged gasps. He strained to run through the pain of his injuries and maintain enough speed to keep Shimusògo racing ahead of him. Every time he licked his lips, he could taste blood along his split lip.
The reason he couldn't stop ran a few feet in front of him and to the right. Mapábyo ran exactly his pace, unwavering from her position even though she didn't look back at him. She had maintained her distance from him ever since a brief water break at lunch. Her dark skin flashed through the howling wind and the translucent feathers that streamed around her and pulled him into her wake.
Past the shifting sands and howling winds, he saw colorful smoke rising high into the air, advertising an oasis ahead. He took a deep breath and began to slow, preparing to walk the last mile as he normally did.
To his surprise, Mapábyo continued to match his pace, slowing down. The swirling winds began to die down and the golden feathers faded away.
Guilt slashed through him. No one had ever slowed down when he dropped back. Startled, he forced himself to speed up again and maintain her pace.
Mapábyo accelerated with a smile. The guilt rose along with humiliation. He forced his attention to the camp to temper the boil of emotions rising in his throat.
He didn't know the oasis ahead of him, but the plume of colored smoke that rose into the air had marked it long before he could see the few trees and buildings around a spring. He had used similar camps most of his life, though the clans that protected each oasis differed as greatly as the ground underneath his feet or the wind across his face.
Mapábyo circled around to the west side of the camp before angling steeply toward a small wooden structure.
He followed and slowed down when she did. He stumbled when the power seeped away from him, but he managed to keep running under his own abilities.
She came to a halt next to two clan warriors and a less-armored individual, all of them female. Panting softly, she looked at him with a silent question. It was the task of the group elder to introduce the members of an approaching clan.
Rutejìmo almost spoke the familiar words, but they froze in his throat. He couldn't speak for Shimusògo, not with what happened. He shook his head and stepped back, blushing hotly. “G-Go ahead,” he said in a whispered croak.
Her eyes widened for a moment. She leaned toward him, as if asking for confirmation.
He nodded sharply and stepped back again.
Mapábyo straightened before turning around. She bowed deeply. “Good evening. I am Mapábyo, and I speak for Shimusògo.”
Rutejìmo fought a surge of despair that rose in his throat. The others were looking at him. The eldest in a traveling group usually spoke the formal words of greeting. He obviously wore the Shimusògo colors and carried years over her but his reluctance brought frowns of confusion.
All three of them looked at Rutejìmo briefly before they turned to Mapábyo.
The unarmed one spoke while bowing, “Good evening, I am Tijikóse, and I speak for Naryòshi. Just the two of you?”
Mapábyo's shoulders tightened but she nodded.
“We have three other clans already camped here.” She listed the groups, Rutejìmo had heard of all of them. “Do you have issues with any of them?”
“No, Great Naryoshi Tijikóse. The Shimusògo will never war with anyone.”
Tijikóse glanced at Rutejìmo again, a frown on her face.
Rutejìmo gulped and looked away. He felt sick to his stomach, and the sweat drying along his skin itched.
Tijikóse said, “Along the southern side, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo. One plot marked with one green and two blue flags.”
Mapábyo bowed. “Thank you, Great Naryoshi Tijikóse.”
Rutejìmo and the warriors bowed in turn before Rutejìmo followed Mapábyo to walk around the camp.
Mapábyo let out a nervous giggle. “I thought she was going to insist you speak.”
He sighed and nodded.
“What would you have said?” She slowed so they walked shoulder to shoulder. “You won't say you speak for Shimusògo, will you?”
“No, I can't. And I won't lie about my clan.”
“Are you really going to say you are banyosiōu?”
Banyosiōu, those without clan, was the name for those who never found a clan spirit or those who abandoned their clans later in life. In society, very little stood below the clanless who spent their lives in the refuse of culture: shoveling garbage, caring for the dead, and other unclean duties that no civilized person would ever suffer.
Rutejìmo ground his jaw together. “I have to, don't I? I,” he tugged on his shirt, “probably should change my colors.”
She gave him a reassuring smile. “I'll speak for you.”
“Thank you, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo.”
She stretched her body with her hands high above her head. “Of course, that means you'll make dinner because you're going to be last in the camp.” With a giggle, she jogged forward.
Rutejìmo stumbled and ran after her. The sand kicked up behind him with every step to catch up. The injuries from his beating slowed him down, but he managed to keep up.
Mapábyo only jumped over the roped out area for their camp a few seconds before he did. She hopped in place and spun around. She dropped her pack and kicked it toward the outer edge of the camp. The mail bag followed but with more care. “You start dinner, and I'll get the water.”
Rutejìmo dropped his own pack next to hers. “Isn't that my job?”
“I won't tell anyone.” Mapábyo winked at him before picking up the water skins.
He watched her stroll to the center of the oasis where the merchants were already chatting. Tradition dictated that they bring food and tales for everyone to share, though Rutejìmo didn't know how he would face the inevitable questions.
To avoid souring his thoughts, he started dinner. On the road, meals consisted of dried meats and fruits. To heat both, he used an alchemical gel that responded to his breath. It cooked the meat with faint flames and thin streamers of acidic smoke. He made enough for four and spiced it with some of the herbs and seasonings that came from their home valley. When the aromas of sizzling meat drifted around him, he patted out the flames and set the meat aside to cool.
He glanced again toward the center of the oasis. More clans had joined at the dinner by the waters. Sounds of laughter and stories drifted over the sands. He felt sick to his stomach and turned his back to the center. He liked meeting people on his runs, more so when he ran alone. That way, no one could compare him to the other Shimusògo.
Steeling himself, he worked on setting up the rest of the camp including the two tents and bedrolls. Mapábyo hadn't returned by the time he finished, so he pulled his book from his pack and settled down to wait.
He looked up from the far side of the tent. When he couldn't see Mapábyo, he set down the book and stood up. He had spent the last half hour reading the same page but the words refused to sink into his head.
Mapábyo stopped in front of him, her bare feet scrunching on the sand. She favored him with a hesitant smile. “I got you something, but I wasn't sure if you really wanted them.” In her hands, she carried a small stack of neatly folded clothes. Unlike the normal outfits they wore, the plain fabric had no additional embroidery or colors. Just off-white fabric ready to be dyed into a clan's colors.
Rutejìmo gulped. Banyosiōu wore uncolored cloth to indicate their lack of clan. If Rutejìmo donned the clothes in their plain state, he would be telling the world that he lost his clan.
He closed his eyes tightly for moment, fighting the tears that threaten to come.
“I can return them,” whispered Mapábyo.
“No,” he opened his eyes and held out his hands. “Thank you, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo. It's time that I acknowledge it.”
She handed him the clothes with tears in her eyes. Her fingers trailed along the side of his arm before she pulled back. She opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it with a snap. Turning around, she started to walk away but stopped near a large platter of food Rutejìmo made to share with the others.
“Thank you,” she whispered before she picked it up and headed back to the oasis, leaving him alone with his thoughts.