Ostracization is a subtle dance of willing ignorance and looking the other way.
— Tamin Gamanin, Freedom From Vo
With a groan, Rutejìmo slumped against the rough stone. Sweat dripped down his back and neck, soaking into his colorless clothes and prickling along his skin. The cold night air washed over him and muted the stench coming from Wamifuko City.
He wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned to the side to watch Mapábyo approach the city gates. They had been running since early morning, trying to get to the city before dark, but they were still a league away when the sun dipped below the horizon. Despite running so long, Mapábyo only had a few beads of sweat on her dark skin.
Rutejìmo clamped down on a brief surge of jealousy. Mapábyo had done so much for him in the last two weeks. Without her, he would have died in the desert or would be forced to remain in Monafuma Cliffs, a border town uncomfortably close to the pale-skinned foreigners.
“There you are, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo!” boomed Gichyòbi from behind Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo jumped. He spun around to see the warrior striding toward him, inches away from the stone wall and on a collision course with Rutejìmo. Without thinking, Rutejìmo stumbled back toward Mapábyo.
Just as Rutejìmo drew even with Mapábyo, Gichyòbi took a step to the side and bowed to Mapábyo. “I'm glad to see you have returned safely to the city. The desert can be dangerous for a single courier.”
Mapábyo bowed even deeper. “Thank you, Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi.”
“Come, you must be exhausted from running all day.”
Mapábyo gasped. “H-How did you know that? What… I just got here.”
“The stones tell me many secrets. I would be honored if you stayed at my home for the night. The inns will be packed because of the sun festival today.” Gichyòbi held out his arm and turned her into the city. That brought them both face to face with Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo tried to step to the side, but guards were blocking his way. He flinched to avoid touching them. Spinning around, he looked for some way to avoid the guards, but the only way free was further into the city. It took him a heartbeat to realize that Gichyòbi was doing the same as the Tifukòmi did, leading without acknowledging his presence. Understanding, Rutejìmo walked backwards and to the side to let others pass so he could follow.
As soon as they did, Rutejìmo followed in their wake. He kept his head bowed and focused on the backs of their heels. He knew the route to Gichyòbi's home, a house made from stone near the center of town. It was the quieter part of the city, in an area the Wamifūko set aside for their own privacy.
“It was a shame you couldn't make it yesterday, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo. My boys and girl were hoping to meet you, but their grandmother insisted on taking them for the night. It will just be you, me, and c tonight.”
“My wife. She is looking forward to trying out a new recipe. I hope you don't mind.” Gichyòbi snorted. “It smells great, but I'd rather have a strong lager or a piece of my new bread recipe, if you know what I mean.”
“Um,” Mapábyo said in a confused tone, “I don't.”
Rutejìmo grinned. Gichyòbi had a massive cellar filled with wooden casks of beer from every part of the desert. He also baked as a hobby, collecting recipes from the various travelers who passed through the gates.
They walked for a few minutes and talked about the sun festival and the weather.
“Um,” Mapábyo said in a pause during the conversation, “Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi?”
“Yes, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo?”
“Can Wamifuko warriors have children?”
Gichyòbi laughed. “Just because I'm not capable of siring them doesn't make them less my children. A father is made by action!” He slammed his fist into his metal chest plate.
Rutejìmo and Mapábyo both jumped.
“And love, of course,” finished Gichyòbi.
“The Shimusogo warriors don't have children. They are dedicated to the clan as a whole. At least,” she coughed, “that is what I'm told.”
“And that works for Shimusògo. Me? I like having a little one screaming my name as I enter the house. And a horde of brigands is nothing compared to a night when every child in the house is pouring out their stomachs and blowing out their backsides. It's a challenge that I willingly face; it reminds me of my willingness to die for my clan.”
“Oh,” Mapábyo said in a soft voice.
“Ever think about children?”
Rutejìmo tensed and stumbled.
Mapábyo started to look back, but then stared straight forward. Rutejìmo could see her cheeks coloring darkly with her thoughts.
Gichyòbi broke the silence to talk about the history of a bathhouse they were passing.
Mapábyo seemed to jump at the segue, and they spoke about places they'd seen while they made their way to the heart of the city.
Twenty minutes later, they came to Gichyòbi's home. Two guards stood outside, both at attention.
Rutejìmo frowned. He had never seen anyone guarding Gichyòbi's home before. When Gichyòbi held open the door, though, he passed inside and stepped to the side.
The door closed with a click, and then suddenly Gichyòbi grabbed Rutejìmo into a powerful hug. “Good to see you made it, boy.”
Rutejìmo tensed for a moment, then leaned into Gichyòbi. It wasn't comfortable with the warrior wearing metal, but somehow the warmth was a balm against the last few weeks of being unseen.
Gichyòbi squeezed tight before releasing him. “I see you learned a bit about silence.”
Unsure if he should talk, Rutejìmo nodded.
“Don't worry about being heard here. The two outside will make sure no one interrupts us. And, I had the little ones spend the night away because they won't understand…” Gichyòbi looked over Rutejìmo and sighed. “They are all too young to know the difference between those who are dead and those who have to pretend to be dead.”
“I'm sorry for this,” said Rutejìmo.
Mapábyo stepped up. “Excuse me, why are you…?”
Gichyòbi gestured to Rutejìmo. “Talking to him? Because I choose to, and there are things that need to be said.” He pulled off his helm, revealing a gray-haired man with a child-like, rounded face and an easy smile. “And, being one of the elders gives me privileges that most can't afford.” He winked. “At least in private.”
He turned to Rutejìmo. “Boy, I can only do this once. I cannot give you shelter or protection, nor can it be known that I see you.” Gichyòbi's eyes glistened before he cleared his throat. “This is the way things are, as you probably figured out.”
Rutejìmo nodded and clenched against the brief hope of staying that had been crushed. He nodded again as soon as he regained his composure. “Thank you, Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi.”
“Call me Gichyòbi, boy.”
It was a subtle reminder that they couldn't be friends, otherwise Rutejìmo would be told to use the friendly version of his name, Chyòbi. To hide his discomfort, Rutejìmo grinned.
“I've brought some lagers up from the basement, loves.” Gichyòbi's wife, Kidóri, entered the room with four large glasses filled with beer. Her large breasts rested on top of the glasses and she held her elbows along her wide hips. Turning a brilliant smile on Rutejìmo and Mapábyo, she gestured with her chin to the table before setting down the glasses on a low table in the center of the living room. It was the largest room in the house—and where most of the chaos focused when Gichyòbi's children were present.
Surrounding the table were cushions over every square foot of the room, except for ragged paths leading to the sleeping area and another to the kitchen. In the far back, beyond the kitchen, was the bathing area. He had only used it once but he still remembered using the indoor toilet that cleaned itself with a magical rune.
“Ah,” boomed Gichyòbi, “the most beautiful woman in the desert, my wife. I fear every day that Tachìra will turn his back on Mifúno to woo her instead.”
Kidóri rolled her eyes, but she smiled. “Oh, shush. Are you going to introduce me to the young lady?”
“This is Mapábyo, a courier of the Shimusògo. She delivers mail between here and Monafuma Cliffs.”
Kidóri bowed again and then looked at her husband. “Are you going to wear your armor for dinner?”
Gichyòbi rolled his own eyes. “Fine, will you—”
“Go,” commanded Kidóri.
Making a show of grumbling, Gichyòbi stomped toward the sleeping areas.
“Boy,” Kidóri said, “there is some food in the kitchen. Cut up the cheese and meats and bring it here.”
Normally, to call someone other than by their name was an insult. But, somehow, having her speak to him muted any indignity. He bowed and headed back.
Rutejìmo realized that he had not talked much since entering the city. He knew he could, at least in the protection of Gichyòbi's home, but an invisible pressure held back his tongue. Just because he could, didn't mean he had to.
In the kitchen area, he could smell some of Gichyòbi's bread in the oven. A prickle of heat and energy rippled along his senses from the magic used for cooking. He pawed through the cabinets until he found an appropriate platter and started to prepare the food.
As he did, he listened to Kidóri and Mapábyo asking each other about the happenings in the city and Mapábyo's route. They talked about Mapábyo's route to the Cliffs and back, mostly focusing on the various clans traveling back and forth. Rutejìmo felt a strange sense of ease. Even though he wasn't part of the conversation, he could imagine that he was a normal person just like everyone else.
“I heard what your brother did,” said Gichyòbi in a low voice.
Rutejìmo jumped and peeked at the man approaching. The warrior had switched into a thick, gray robe. It strained against his muscles and his broad chest. Even though Rutejìmo knew that Gichyòbi wouldn't attack, it helped when the older man wasn't armed with a massive spear.
Gichyòbi patted Rutejìmo's shoulder. “I'm sorry, Jìmo.”
Rutejìmo hesitated, the knife hovering over the slices of meat. “I deserved it. I wasn't the best of bro… clan.”
“A year is a long time, even for that. Usually a month or two is sufficient.”
The knife quivered in Rutejìmo's hand. He forced himself to set the blade down.
“Here, let me get my bread out.” Gichyòbi patted Rutejìmo on the shoulder.
Rutejìmo stepped aside.
Gichyòbi opened up the metal box and peered inside. Waves of heat rose around him and rippled the air. He grabbed a towel and pulled out a tray with four loafs of bread. The smells flooded the kitchen and Rutejìmo's stomach rumbled in response.
Gichyòbi set it down. “So, do you have plans?”
“I… I was hoping to stay here in the city.”
“Jìmo, I can't help you here.”
“I know, but I'm safer here than any other place. At least I know the streets.” He hesitated and then sighed. “I hope.”
“You'll have company. There are groups of banyosiōu in the city. I can't point them out, but you'll find them soon enough. There are always jobs for those who still have the gifts of the spirits, but without the clans to guide them.”
A small measure of hope filled Rutejìmo. “Thank you.”
“It's a hard life, but you'll survive.” Gichyòbi glanced at Rutejìmo and smiled. “That's one of your best traits.”
Rutejìmo stared at him in shock. “What? How would you know?”
Gichyòbi turned and dragged the tray to the opposite side of the cooking area and set it aside. With a grunt, he pulled another loaf from a box and began to slice off thick wedges with a serrated knife.
Rutejìmo stood for a moment and watched Gichyòbi. When the warrior didn't say anything else, Rutejìmo returned to preparing the rest of the food. When he finished, he peered into a pot bubbling over a heating rune. Inside was a thick cream stew bubbling with meats and vegetables.
“It's Kidóri's new recipe. She traded for it with one of the Tsubyòmi a few months ago, but we never had a chance to try it.” Gichyòbi reached over and stuck his finger into the stew to scoop out a hunk of meat. He licked his finger before returning to his bread. “The little ones aren't big on things they don't understand.”
Rutejìmo chuckled. “I know the feeling.”
Gichyòbi nodded in approval. He gathered up the food and added it to the platter Rutejìmo had been filling. “Come, Kidóri is probably inflicting Mapábyo with her paintings. She just finished one yesterday.”
Rutejìmo followed after Gichyòbi. In the living area, Kidóri and Mapábyo were sitting on the cushions next to the central table. Kidóri had her book of watercolor paintings. She had done them over the years from various points inside and out of the city.
Mapábyo pointed out one. “That's the gate we came in, isn't it?”
Gichyòbi peered over. “No, that gate is on the east side of the town. You came through its twin.”
“Oh,” Mapábyo said. “How can you tell?”
Kidóri gestured to a dark spot on the painting. “This is where Gichyòbi had his head slammed into the stone by a horse. I even painted the blood,” her finger trailed down, “that stained the cracks.”
Mapábyo looked up at Gichyòbi curiously. “Really?”
Gichyòbi turned and showed off a scar on the back of his head.
When Mapábyo gasped in surprise, Gichyòbi slumped down. “You'll love this story. It was early evening…”
Rutejìmo listened to the familiar tale with a smile on his lips. It was comforting to hear it, both remembering the first time he heard it and also the way Gichyòbi's and Kidóri's children listened with wide eyes even after hearing it countless times. It reminded Rutejìmo of better times, when he listened to a stranger's tale while being treated as if he was a long-lost cousin.
Gichyòbi's story ended with flair, and Kidóri followed up with one of her own. Before she married Gichyòbi, she had been a city farmer in charge of the rooftop gardens. Her tales were almost as fantastic as Gichyòbi's, and violent and bloody in their own way.
Rutejìmo had heard them all before, but he sat and listened. When Kidóri finished hers, Gichyòbi convinced Mapábyo to tell the story of her rites of passage.
When Mapábyo finished her own, Rutejìmo knew that he could speak up, but discomfort silenced him.
Mapábyo glanced at Rutejìmo with a question, but Rutejìmo shook his head. He was still dead to the clan, and it didn't bother him that he wasn't asked to join in. Their company gave him comfort, despite knowing that the next day he would no doubt be digging in trash for food or even begging.
Gichyòbi started up another story, distracting everyone. They swapped stories well into the night. As midnight approached, there were empty plates and glasses on the tables. The story ended and only the soft sounds of the city intruded in the silence that followed.
Kidóri leaned against Gichyòbi's arm, one leg on his, and snored softly. A thin line of drool soaked his robe. Rutejìmo wasn't sure, but he thought she had passed out somewhere during one of Mapábyo's quieter tales.
Gichyòbi held his wife closely and swirled a half-finished glass of stout with his other hand.
Rutejìmo looked over to his love. Mapábyo sat on the edge of the table, staring down. He wasn't sure what to do, so he picked up plates and started to carry them to the kitchen.
“Gichyòbi?” Mapábyo's voice stopped Rutejìmo at the door.
“Yes?” Gichyòbi's words were slurred with exhaustion and drink.
“Why did you let us go?”
Rutejìmo tensed at her question. The plates in his hands rattled, and he had to calm himself down before turning back around.
Gichyòbi looked over at her, his eyes rimmed with red. “You mean instead of killing you?”
Mapábyo shivered and nodded.
“I'm supposed to, you know.” Gichyòbi snorted. “You did almost three hundred thousand pyābi in damage that day. It took us days to figure out the extent of damages and deal with the screaming. A lot of promises were made to keep everyone happy.”
Mapábyo blushed and bowed her head. Her dark skin looked black in the light filling the living area. “S-Sorry.”
“Normally,” Gichyòbi pried his arm from underneath his wife with a grunt, “if we didn't kill you for the blood price, we would have ransomed you off to the Shimusògo to pay for the damage. Your clan would have paid for you, but other clans just tell us to kill off the offend—”
She sat up straight and a horrified look crossed her face. “You didn't tell the clan, did you!?”
“No,” said Gichyòbi, “the Wamifūko paid for the damage.”
Rutejìmo spoke before he could stop himself. “Why?”
The warrior looked at Rutejìmo. “You, of course.”
The plates slipped from Rutejìmo's fingers. He gasped and knelt down to catch them and banged his knee in the process. One of the plates clattered on the floor before thumping against the table. “S-Sorry.”
Kidóri looked up. “What? Oh, you don't…” A sad look crossed her face. Then, she slumped back against Gichyòbi. “I forgot.”
Cheeks burning, Rutejìmo gathered up the plates and set them near the stove. He returned to the table.
“Sit, boy,” Gichyòbi commanded.
Rutejìmo obeyed. As he did, Kidóri sat up and Mapábyo shifted closer to Rutejìmo.
Gichyòbi pushed himself up and leaned toward Rutejìmo. “Do you know why I saved her for you?”
Rutejìmo shook his head. “No, Great—”
“Do you know what warriors do?”
“Of course, they defend their clan.”
Gichyòbi nodded. “It's more than that, but close enough. When I know there is a Wamifūko in trouble, there is something,” he thumped his chest, “inside me that rises up and commands me to do something. It's a compulsion so strong that I would sooner rip off my own balls than disobey.”
“But,” Mapábyo whispered, “why did Desòchu—?”
“Kick Jìmo out?” Kidóri picked her book of paintings off the floor from beneath the table. “Because it takes a lot to overcome the compulsion of the clan spirit, but it can be done in anger, rage, and…” She looked at Gichyòbi, “love.”
Gichyòbi smiled back and pulled her into a hug. They started to kiss, then Kidóri cleared her throat and gestured to Mapábyo and Rutejìmo. With a faint color in his own cheeks, Gichyòbi turned his attention back and Mapábyo giggled.
“So,” he said, “what do you think I'd feel if I saw you in danger, Mapábyo?”
Gichyòbi nodded. “Exactly. I don't need to save you. I will because you are Shimusògo and useful to our city. You are also a pretty girl—”
Kidóri glared at her husband.
“—and it is in the city's interest to save those who need it, but it is a choice I made, not a compulsion that commands me.”
Mapábyo looked down. “Oh.”
Glaring, Kidóri thumped her husband with her fist. “He's also not one of Chobìre's shits.”
Rutejìmo smirked at the insult. Chobìre was the spirit of the moon and night. He was also the enemy of everything the day clans stood for.
“Oh yeah, that too.” Gichyòbi rolled his eyes. “But I said that already.”
“Really?” said Kidóri, “when?”
“Yeah, I said it's in the city's—”
“You would do it because it is the right thing.” Kidóri thumped her husband.
Mapábyo straightened. “What about Rutejìmo?”
Gichyòbi looked at Rutejìmo. His hand rested on his wife's hip and he stared for a long moment. “I'm strongly suggested to save him.”
Rutejìmo felt a shiver of something coursing along his skin. “A suggestion?”
“It isn't a compulsion, it isn't Wamifūko, but something else. I respond as if you are clan, but I know you aren't. I've seen other warriors do the same. You,” he pointed to Rutejìmo, “will never be a warrior, but there is more than one clan looking out for you. Maybe every clan that walks the sands?”
“Plenty of warriors have tried to kill me, Chyòbi.”
Gichyòbi pointed a finger at him. “Don't test me, boy.”
Kidóri pulled Gichyòbi's hand down. “Have you ever noticed that whenever you flee for the city, there is usually half a dozen clans involved in the fight? The last time you were running from those archers, there were at least a dozen warriors on both sides killing each other. Does that seem a bit unusual for a single courier carrying a treaty?”
The world spun around Rutejìmo. He stared at Gichyòbi in shock, unsure of what to say.
“What does that mean?” asked Mapábyo.
Both Gichyòbi and Kidóri looked at each other.
“We aren't exactly sure…,” Kidóri said. She looked down.
They were both lying. Rutejìmo knew it, but he could also tell they were worried about him. He slumped back in the cushions.
Mapábyo shook her head. “No, you have to know. I can tell—”
“Mapábyo,” Rutejìmo interrupted.
“Jìmo! If they know then—”
Rutejìmo remembered something Pidòhu once told him. “Then it will make it harder for me to find my place.”
The older couple looked at him with surprise.
Rutejìmo blushed. “Pidòhu once said that knowing your path makes it more difficult to accept. That is why the rites of passage are a surprise, and they keep the young ones in the dark. It makes it easier to find a path when you aren't looking.”
Kidóri smiled and gave a barely perceptible nod.
The world still spun around him. Rutejìmo let out his breath, wincing at the gasp. “I guess, if this is what I'm supposed to do, then I'll accept what will happen. Things seem to happen for a reason. Without Desòchu… I would have never figured out that I loved Mapábyo as much as she loved me.”
When he looked at her, he froze. She was staring at him with her mouth open and eyes shimmering with tears. He gave a hesitant smile. “I really do, you know; with all my heart, Pábyo.”
He heard Gichyòbi and Kidóri stand up. He knew, somehow, that he had to be gone when either woke in the morning. But until then, they had given silent consent for the two lovers to remain in the living room.
And Rutejìmo intended to prove to Mapábyo that he loved her.