Sand and Ash 27: Two Months Later

The underbelly of society is far larger and more organized than anyone could imagine. — Milifor Krum, Hidden Dangers of Kormar

Rutejìmo ran along the outer circuit of Wamifuko City, following hidden paths that circled the city and kept him away from those who still walked with their heads held high. One more delivery and he would be done for the day.

Since he started, people called his delivery route The Dépa Trail. There were three couriers who ran along the trail with magic, and two of them followed dépa spirits. The only difference came from the source of their power: Rutejìmo followed a spirit of the day, and the other gained power when the moon rose above the horizon.

They also worked for the same woman, a dour-faced hag who managed to know everyone in the dark parts of society. A banyosiōu just like him, she had been abandoned by the Wamifūko when she used her powers to carve out a little dominion of her own. Now, she was unseen like the others and a surprising ally.

Rutejìmo wasn’t living richly, but he had a comfortable spot to sleep in her house and enough money to buy little presents for Mapábyo. The rest of his money went into saving for the time between Mapábyo’s mail routes.

With a smile, he jumped across a chasm and landed on the far side. His bare feet dug into the ridges of the rock, and he took a sharp turn to head down from the hills and into the plains where the various clans camped when they didn’t want to enter the city. It was along the eastern side of the city, so the clans present would be ones who gained power from Tachìra. The moon clans always entered from the north or south.

Down along the sun-baked plains, he raced between two herds of sheep. The clan colors, white and red on one side and blue on the other, were as sharply contrasting as the two clans screaming at each other. Knives and swords flashed in the air with their threats.

The noise quieted for only a moment when he ran past, until they realized he wore gray and white—the colors of the banyosiōu.

His destination came up on the right, a large tent flanked by two armed guards. The clan warriors watched him with narrowed eyes when he came to a halt just outside the rope that identified their temporary territories. He turned and looked over at the rest of the warring clans, his skin crawling with the sight of so many brandished blades.

Turning back to the tents, he bowed, but said nothing.

Rutejìmo didn’t speak much anymore. The lessons he learned in the desert still held true in the city. He was unseen even when he stood in the sun. Those who still had a clan would look away from him, but it didn’t stop them from using his services. It just took him a while to learn the cues of being unseen but useful.

A herder swore at a small flock of sheep and guided them past Rutejìmo. His eyes never drifted toward Rutejìmo and Rutejìmo did the same. Not even his sheep seemed to look at Rutejìmo.

Something thudded between his feet. Glancing down, he saw a small purse. He toed it and guessed it was full from the heavy weight. Without looking up, he pulled out a thin tube from his shirt and held it at his side.

A herd of sheep came walking by, their bodies bumping against him.

He counted to three and let it go, dropping it into the animals that crowded him. He didn’t feel it hit the ground.

It took a moment for the herd to pass him. As soon as he could, he picked up the coin purse and shoved it into his pocket.

Rutejìmo didn’t know what was in the tube, and he didn’t care. He stepped back twice and turned around. The two clans were still screaming at each other, seconds away from a fight, but no one paid any attention to him. He was invisible, a ghost among the others.

He lifted his head up to the sun and smiled. The heat baked down on his face. It felt good, not only from the rush of power still coursing through his veins, but because noon meant that Mapábyo would be meeting him at Higoryo Inn in less than an hour.

With a grin, he sprinted away from the fight and between the two warring factions. The dust he kicked up blew across both groups. In a few short hours, they could be dead, still fighting, or licking their wounds, but he wouldn’t care because he would be in Mapábyo’s arms.

Rutejìmo ran in record time, circling the city in less than thirty minutes. He passed a number of couriers going the opposite direction. Most of them didn’t use magic to travel, but there was the occasional rush of a clan, or former clan, member racing by on foot or mount. In the moments when the moon rose above the horizon it was more crowded, but the current steady traffic gave Rutejìmo comfort. He had found his place in the city.

By the time he reached the western gates, he was almost jumping along the road. He slowed down smoothly and watched Shimusògo disappear between one step and another. Continuing forward, he reduced his speed until he reached his destination, a trail leading up to some rocks. He jogged up a small path that led to a flat plateau that gave him a clear view of the incoming traffic and, he hoped, the familiar sight of a plume of sand rolling with golden feathers.

He reached the top of the ridge and slowed down to a crawl. There was already someone sitting at the top. It was a clan warrior in bright yellow and green holding a spear. The warrior glanced at him but as soon as his green eyes focused on Rutejìmo, they slid away.

Rutejìmo stepped to the edge, to the side, and then sat down.

Neither spoke across the two worlds that divided them, but Rutejìmo’s muscles grew tense in anticipation of an attack. He would have moved, but the ridge was the best place to see Mapábyo approach.

The warrior did the same. Rutejìmo had never noticed it when he was just a courier, but the subtle tightening of the arms and the way the warrior shifted his weapon in reach told him enough.

Heart pounded faster, Rutejìmo focused on the roads leading into the city. He wasn’t sure if it was the warrior next to him or the hope of seeing Mapábyo coming home. She had finished two mail runs before leaving for the third. Each time, she remained in the inn instead of running back to the home valley and her parents.

He smiled and rested his hands on his thighs. A year of being without a clan didn’t seem so devastating when he was in her arms, just as two weeks felt like forever when she left for her delivery route. Sooner or later, she would have to go back, but for the next week, she was his.

The horizon in the distance began to waver. A blur formed along the road leading to the cliffs, and his heart beat faster. Panting, he strained to watch it expand into a cloud of dust tipped by a dark figure racing toward the city.

Even though he wanted to, Rutejìmo waited until he saw the boiling cloud of translucent feathers before he jumped to his feet. Jogging a short distance away from the warrior, he threw himself into a run, blasted his way across the trail, down to the road, and then accelerated to his limit.

Minutes later, they were close enough to see each other smile. Mapábyo yelled wordlessly, jumping and holding out her hand. She didn’t slow down.

Rutejìmo caught her hand, the world slowing down with a rush. When he gripped her sweat-slicked fingers, nothing else mattered.

They began to spin around. The pulse of the world accelerated with them. A liquid sensation poured out of his body and his speed blended with hers. He slowed her down while she pulled him faster. It was the final power Shimusògo gave both of them, the ability to share the momentum of their run. The warriors used it to make hairpin turns or, rarely, launch themselves a hundred feet straight up. For a few precious seconds, Rutejìmo’s heart and feet ran faster than he could ever run alone.

The world accelerated, and so did they. Spinning rapidly like a top, they kicked off each other and shot out in opposite directions.

Rutejìmo, moving faster than he could on his own, rocketed across the sands before slowly circling to come back at her. A large plume of sand and rocks followed him, sucked in by the wake of his passing.

They came to each other again. This time, they caught each other with both hands and leaned forward to kiss. The transference of their speed sparked along their lips and then they were rocketing apart.

The two ran together for almost an hour in a meandering line across the sands and over the crowded roads. Their two trails met in kisses and clouds of dust. Rutejìmo ignored the curses they left behind. His entire world had collapsed into a single woman.

It scared him how much he looked forward to her return, but it also felt right. Mapábyo, though eight years his junior, was a good listener, and he enjoyed listening when she needed to talk. She was wonderful, not just slipping between the blankets but also simply running next to her.

They came together to kiss again.

Mapábyo grabbed his hand. She didn’t spin him, but simply directed him back down the road toward the city.

They rushed along the side of the road, past the merchants coming up to the lines and the masses of herds slowly making their way across the desert. As they approached the gate, they slowed.

Rutejìmo stopped to the side of her. He watched her slip into line and her eyes slid away from him. The moment she had to pretend not to see him was the worst, the moment when he wondered if she would ever come back to him. He sighed and paced next to her, neither part of the line or blocking it.

It took them almost ten minutes to get to the gate. To his surprise, he recognized the horse-helmed warrior that stood at the entrance.

“Good afternoon, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo,” boomed Gichyòbi, “you are in good spirits.”

Mapábyo smiled and bowed low.

They shared the greetings, and Gichyòbi reminded her of the rules. The entire time, his eyes never glanced toward Rutejìmo though Rutejìmo knew the warrior could place him within an inch, if it came down to a fight.

When Gichyòbi finished his speech, he cocked his head. “May I ask where you plan on spending the night, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo?”

“Higoryo Inn, Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi, as last time.”

“And the time before, if I recall.”

She blushed and nodded. Rutejìmo’s heart skipped a beat at the smile on her lips. He wanted to reach over and kiss her. It took all his willpower to remain standing to the side, unseen but not forgotten.

“Yes, Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi. May this humble courier treat you and your family to a meal?” Every time Mapábyo returned to the city, she shared a private meal with Gichyòbi and his family. Rutejìmo listened from the side, but he wasn’t allowed to join in. He earned his right to eat by cleaning after the others left the room.

Gichyòbi cleared his throat. “Maybe not tonight.”

“Tomorrow?” Mapábyo smiled at him, her teeth visible between the lips Rutejìmo wanted for himself.

The armored warrior held up his hands. “We’ll see. Things are about to get complicated. Do you mind if I join you? I have some business at the inn.”

Mapábyo tensed but then nodded. “Of course, Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi.” She bowed and took a few steps into the city before waiting for the warrior to join them.

Rutejìmo followed after the two. He kept his head bowed but watched the streets around them. It surprised him, even after two months, how pervasive the dead were: beggars sitting on the corners, men and women picking up garbage, and even someone digging a dead animal out of a gutter. They were unseen by Mapábyo and Gichyòbi, but Rutejìmo saw them with a sinking heart.

As he walked, he loosened the coin purse he just earned and pulled out a few pyābi. He dropped them into open hands while he walked. The beggars mutely bowed their head in thanks. When he first came to the city, he had to beg for a few days before he found employment and a few kind banyosiōu had dropped coins in his hands and gave him a chance to survive.

The Higoryo Inn was a large stone building just off the fountain square. One of the earliest inns in the rebuilt city, it commanded a steady share of the business of the traveling clans. Rutejìmo liked it because they let him buy a room, through an intermediary, at the end of a long hallway where they wouldn’t be disturbed.

He had already been to the room and dropped off his pack. Though he slept in a cramped apartment while Mapábyo was gone, he paid for more comfortable quarters for privacy and her comfort when she was there. It took most of the money he saved up, but money had no meaning without her.

Rutejìmo was interested in something else at the moment, but it was something that required a soft bed to properly show his appreciation for her returning. In many ways, he learned more than he realized from Mikáryo’s lessons.

When Mapábyo and Gichyòbi reached the front entrance, Rutejìmo stepped to the side and started around to the back. He would enter from the kitchen and meet her in the room. But as he came around the corner, he skidded to a halt when he saw two Wamifuko guards in the gap between buildings. The heavily armored figures had their back to him, but their wide shoulders blocked the alley completely.

Rutejìmo worried his lip and turned away, only to notice a pair of guards standing a rod away and partially blocking the road. A prickle of fear ran down his spine. Rutejìmo glanced around, spotting more guards marching across the road before standing in the middle.

In a matter of seconds, they had cut off his escape routes. He would have attracted attention to himself if he tried to leave.

He looked around for some way to avoid touching anyone, but he was trapped. His stomach clenched and a sour taste tickled the back of his throat. Clenching his lip, he rested his hand on his tazágu and slipped into the inn after Mapábyo.

Only to run into Mapábyo’s back. He recoiled and slipped to the side, backing along the wall. He tried to orient himself. When he caught sight of red and orange, he froze. His eyes widened with fear and his heart slammed against his ribs.

The Shimusògo were there. He looked into the faces of Chimípu and Desòchu. Both warriors stood on either side of Rutejìmo’s grandmother and head of the clan, Tejíko. Behind the three, Hyonèku and Kiríshi. There wasn’t a single smile in the room and Rutejìmo felt the air pressing down on him, squeezing out his lungs. He looked desperately around until he settled on his grandmother’s face.

The only relief, though minor, was that no one looked at him. They all knew he was in the room, but not a single eye even flickered toward him. The feeling of isolation grew, and he choked at the sensation of being unseen.

“Do you know why we’re here, girl?” growled Tejíko. She sat on a padded chair with a glass in her right hand. Her long hair, as white as a cloud, hung over her shoulder and danced against the floor. The heavy ring she wore swung lightly against her thigh, the twisting of the ring betraying Tejíko’s anger.

Mapábyo trembled as she stared at the people in front of her. She gulped loudly and clenched her hands into fists before she answered. “B-Because I haven’t come home in a while.”

Tejíko set down her glass. “Were you planning on ever coming home?”

“Yes! Um, yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

“When?”

The simple question hung in the air. Rutejìmo closed his eyes and fought the urge to speak up. He didn’t know what would happen, but he was already dead to the people in front of him. It didn’t matter if he had grown up with them, or was related to two of them, he was unseen.

Mapábyo took a deep breath and her pack slid to the ground. “Soon.”

A tic jumped in Desòchu’s neck.

“The only answer,” said Tejíko, “you will give is tomorrow morning.”

Mapábyo’s head started to turn toward Rutejìmo, but Tejíko snapped out.

“Girl!”

Mapábyo and Rutejìmo jumped. Mapábyo bowed deeply, her body shaking with her fear. “I’ll leave tomorrow morning, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

Tejíko nodded.

Mapábyo’s shoulders slumped limply. A shake trembled through her and Rutejìmo saw the glitter of tears. He wanted to hold her, to touch her, but his feet remained rooted in place by the presence of his clan and the fear of losing his love.

Groaning, Tejíko levered herself out of the chair and stood up. Her bare feet were gray and wrinkled, but covered in the same dust and sand as the rest of the runners. Unsteadily, she stepped over to Mapábyo and stood in front of her.

Rutejìmo could see the intense green of his grandmother’s eyes. She was feared by everyone in the clan for her firm hand, and also her cruel punishment. While he was growing up, he was frequently the target of her beatings. He had no doubt she would do it again, if she was allowed to see him.

“Girl,” Tejíko said, “Rutejìmo is dead.”

Rutejìmo jerked at the simple words. He felt like collapsing to the ground.

Mapábyo shook her head. “No, Great—”

“Girl!” interrupted the older woman. “If you don’t understand that, you will follow his path.”

The muscles in Mapábyo’s neck tightened.

Tejíko slapped her. The crack shot through the room.

As Mapábyo ground her fists into her side, Tejíko leaned forward. “No, I mean for the rest of your life. You,” she jammed her finger into Mapábyo’s chest, “will be dead to this clan, and there is nothing you, your papa, mama, or anyone else, living or dead, will be able to do about it. Do you understand?”

From behind Tejíko, both Hyonèku and Kiríshi paled. Tears glittered in Kiríshi’s eyes.

Rutejìmo struggled with his thoughts. He could picture throwing himself to defend Mapábyo, but Desòchu and Chimípu would stop him before he had a chance. Even the thin veneer of being dead wouldn’t stop the two warriors from killing him. He forced himself to concentrate on making fists and suffered through his helplessness.

“Simultaneously,” Tejíko said suddenly as she lowered her hand and took Mapábyo’s hands in her own, “I also know that if I follow through, I’ll lose not only you but my… something else important to me.”

Surprised, Rutejìmo stared at his grandmother. The change in her words sounded almost deliberate, but shielded like someone dealing with the unseen.

“Great Shimusogo Tejíko?” Mapábyo looked up, her brow furrowed in confusion.

“Yes, my dear?”

“I-I,” Mapábyo sobbed as she struggled with her words, “love him.”

Hyonèku closed his eyes tightly and reached out for Kiríshi’s hand.

Kiríshi’s lower lip quivered as the tears welled up in her eyes.

Tejíko reached up and used her thumb to wipe at Mapábyo’s tears. “I know, and it is healthy to grieve.”

“But he isn’t—!” Mapábyo stopped herself, the word hanging in the air.

With another sob, she bowed her head. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

Rutejìmo realized he was struggling with his own emotions. He was a stranger to his own clan, terribly alone in the crowded room. He glanced to the others. Chimípu and Desòchu both were standing rock-still, but Rutejìmo could see Chimípu’s eyes glistening with her own emotions. His brother, on the other hand, frowned as he stood there with one hand on his knife.

Tejíko pulled Mapábyo closer, and the younger woman fell into her arms, sobbing.

“I’m sorry, I just love him! I don’t want to ever lose him!”

Rutejìmo listened as Tejíko comforted his love, saying soft words that he couldn’t hear.

Minutes passed as Mapábyo sobbed. Rutejìmo wanted to join her, to let the tears fall, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t make a noise; it wasn’t his place anymore. He turned away to leave, but Gichyòbi had blocked the exit to the room. The powerful warrior stared forward, pointedly not looking at Rutejìmo.

With a sigh, Rutejìmo stepped away and leaned in the shadows, watching as his thoughts and stomach turned sour. If Mapábyo returned home, he would remain alone. Despair loomed over him as he tried to imagine life without her presence, even once every few weeks. He didn’t know if he could do it.

He knew he would. Gichyòbi’s words came back. Rutejìmo didn’t give up.

Tejíko kissed Mapábyo’s head. “There, there. Things will be better when you get home.”

Mapábyo sniffed and wiped her face. She nodded, but Rutejìmo could see that all the energy had fled her. She sniffed again. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

Tejíko smiled and slipped to the side as Hyonèku stepped up. “Why don’t you take your parents to your room? We’ll have dinner with Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi and his family. They no doubt want to hear about your journey.”

Mapábyo nodded, but briefly shot a glare at Gichyòbi who just snorted. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

Rutejìmo’s heart broke as he watched Mapábyo shuffle toward the back rooms, her head hanging low and her feet scraping on the ground. She leaned into her father and he saw tears sparkling in her eyes.

“Oh, Pábyo?” Tejíko said suddenly, her voice almost cheerful.

Mapábyo jerked and turned. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

The rest of the room tensed also. Rutejìmo noticed his brother’s lip pulled back in a snarl just as Chimípu began to smile.

“Take Rutejìmo’s cave as your own. If there is some solace in his death, you’ll find it there.”

Mapábyo stared at Tejíko with a confused look.

Rutejìmo frowned himself, trying to understand the sudden shift in tone and subject.

“I heard that the best place to grieve for your shikāfu is in their former homes. Legend says if you reach out, you can almost touch them.” Tejíko smiled and held up her hands helplessly. “I’d always want to think my two husbands, may Shimusògo run with them forever, were haunting my cave,” her voice grew tense again, “instead of running around some sand-damn city where we couldn’t protect him even if we wanted to.”

It took a long moment for Rutejìmo to realize what she was saying. He inhaled sharply and stood up straight, a smile starting to stretch across his face.

Mapábyo, on the other hand, looked confused as she turned to her mother and father and back to Tejíko. Then, like a flower unfolding, realization blossomed, and she let out another sob, this time a happy one.

“Of course,” Tejíko said in a hard voice, “if the dead feel the need to speak up or be seen, I’ll make sure their bones bleach in the sands. So, if you happen to hear your shikāfu, make sure you are somewhere quiet and private or we’ll think you’re destined for death yourself, do you understand?”

Mapábyo let out a cry and flung herself over to Tejíko, holding her tightly. “Thank you! Thank you, Great Shimusogo Tejíko!”

Gichyòbi grunted and left the inn, a grin on his face.

Rutejìmo smiled and sank to the ground. He clapped his hands over his mouth to muffle his own sobs of joy. He was going home.

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