There is no greater honor than culling the mindless herds that walk in Tachìra's light.
— Chitori Basamìto, Queen of the South
Hours of walking sapped Rutejìmo's strength. He was exhausted, dehydrated, and starving. Every time he picked up his foot, it left a bloody footprint on the sand, and his leg shook. He had sliced open his foot just after noon, but he couldn't stop until the sun set below the horizon.
Only a few minutes remained before the sun disappeared. He could feel Tachìra's power flaring and the despair of knowing his magic, like most of the day clan's, would fade away in an instant. He wouldn't even have a few seconds of Shimusògo's power to speed his way across the sand. No, when he finished his ritual, the only thing left was to keep walking.
When the sun finally set, the last remnants of his energy faded, and he stumbled. He held out his hands for balance and managed to avoid plummeting to the ground. Groaning, the first sound he made since he started, he caught himself and straightened up. His foot throbbed but he shoved it into the heated sand and forced himself to take another step.
He walked less than a chain before stopping. Kneeling heavily on the sand, he pulled out his non-white clothes. The bright reds and oranges of Shimusògo were nearly invisible in the fading light.
“I thought all the old ways had died.”
Rutejìmo jumped and bit back a scream. He looked around, but couldn't find the man who spoke.
A chuckle came from his right and Rutejìmo glanced in the direction of the sound. His eye caught a flicker of movement and a line of sparkling blue light. He attempted to clear his throat, which had long since sealed shut from dehydration. Only a rasp escaped his cracked lips.
The line spread out, as if a paper-thin man had turned to the side, unfolding into view and swelling out into three dimensions. Seconds later, the stranger gained the look of a solid figure instead of a shifting painting.
He appeared to be in his fifties, with two quivers of arrows at his side and a heavy bow over his shoulder. His clothes were dark green and black, colors of the night, and his weapons matched both in style and coloration.
“Ah,” the man bowed. His white beard had been neatly braided down his chest, and the tip of it brushed the ground. “Forgive me, I was looking for someone and didn't want to be seen.”
The man pulled out a flask and handed it to Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo took it gratefully and sipped, afraid it was alcoholic. When he only tasted metallic water, he took a long gulp and sighed with pleasure as the ache in his throat faded. After a few seconds, he drank another gulp and then handed it back.
“No, please, finish when you can.”
Still kneeling, Rutejìmo bowed. “Thank you. I'm Rutejìmo, and I speak for Shimusògo.” It was the traditional greeting in the desert, though rarely did conversations between the night and day clans start peacefully.
The old man jerked and his eyes widened. “I am… surprised.” He shook his head and then bowed. “Forgive me. I am Fidochìma, and I speak for Foteramàsu. I ask for forgiveness in not introducing myself. I was not expecting to exchange civilities.”
Rutejìmo smiled, remembering Mikáryo, who he had once lusted after despite her dark clan. “A woman I once knew told me that, in the desert, there are some things not worth fighting for.” He grinned. “Well, that wasn't exactly what she said, but it was a long time ago.”
Fidochìma nodded. “She is a wise woman, though not with popular beliefs.”
The older man stroked his beard. “And where are you going, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo? To Kosobyo City?”
“Yes, Great Foteramasu Fido… chìma.”
Fidochìma chuckled. “It is a mouthful, isn't it? Would you be willing to call me simply Fidochìma? There is no greatness out here either.”
Rutejìmo bowed. “A wise man, though not with popular beliefs,” he said mimicking Fidochìma's tone.
For a long moment, both men looked at each other. Then Fidochìma burst into laughter. “I can see why you are comfortable with the dark. If you don't mind, Rutejìmo, I would be honored to escort you to the city… or as close as my kind is encouraged to visit.”
“I would be honored.”
“Though, it may be a more enjoyable walk if you were to put some clothes on.”
Rutejìmo ducked his head to hide his smile. “Good idea.”
He pulled his shirt over his head and yanked it into place. When he managed to clear his head, Fidochìma had dropped a bundle of white clothes on the ground next to him. They would be pristine and unworn, a gift to the kojinōmi.
Without hesitation, Rutejìmo stood up, finished dressing, and packed the white clothes in his bag. He had learned not to ask why people knew that he needed them or where they came from. Like everything else with the dead, it was not spoken about. Only performed in silence and without fanfare.
Rutejìmo groaned as he stood up. To his surprise, Fidochìma came up and slipped an arm around his waist to hold his balance. Rutejìmo looked at him.
The old man gave him a sly smile. “In the desert….”
Rutejìmo smiled and let the older man guide him.
They walked in silence for over a half hour. Fidochìma smelled of smoke and ozone. His outfit was crisp and sharp, almost like the thinness of his appearance. But, with one arm over his shoulders, Rutejìmo could feel none of the two-dimensional appearance.
Finally, Rutejìmo broke the silence. “Who were you looking for?”
“A man,” came the curt reply.
A brief breeze tickled Rutejìmo's face. An image flashed through his mind, of the warrior who stood in his way, Tsupòbi. The memory was startling clear, and Rutejìmo paled with the intensity of details that slammed into him.
Fidochìma hesitated. He leaned over and peered into Rutejìmo's face. “Do you know which man I'm hunting?”
Rutejìmo picked his words carefully. “No, but I know of a man who one may wish to hunt.”
“The man I'm hunting,” Fidochìma's voice grew tense, “killed someone dear to me. A granddaughter of a daughter.”
The image of the girl bubbled up and faded. The image of Tsupòbi came back, this time of the haunted look on his face and the horror as he tried to realize what had happened. The memory scared Rutejìmo even though he had spent an entire day thinking about it. He didn't know he was capable of declaring someone dead to the desert, but Mifúno had somehow backed his proclamation.
“He deserves the same,” Fidochìma said, his eyes sparkling in the dim light.
Rutejìmo closed his eyes and shook his head. “That man is already dead.”
Rutejìmo said nothing. He didn't want to think about it if he could, nor did he ever want to say those words again. Even if he did, he didn't talk about the dead.
“Please, Rutejìmo, I need to know. There are very few of us in the shadow of Kosòbyo and even one death risks everything for us.” Fidochìma pulled away and turned Rutejìmo. “How did this man die?”
Unable to say the words, Rutejìmo looked helplessly at him.
Fidochìma stepped back, his face glistening with tears. “I thought… I thought you were a friend of the night.”
“I am,” whispered Rutejìmo.
“Why can't you—” Fidochìma waved to the darkness around them “—tell me? Out here where no one is listening?”
“Because she is listening.”
“She is dead!”
“No,” Rutejìmo said carefully, “not your granddaughter of a daughter. She is in Mifúno's arms. And, I can't explain why this man is dead and why there is no reason for revenge, but I promise you, on… on…” He couldn't promise on Mifúno's name. He didn't have the right. “I swear, that man is dead.”
Fidochìma shook his head. “No, I'm sorry. I can't accept that.”
“I can't stop you, Great Foteramasu Fidochìma, but I wish I could.” Rutejìmo returned the flask with a bow.
The older man retrieved it and then bowed curtly in return. He gripped his bow and turned to the side. His body flattened until there was nothing but a line in the darkness. And then even that faded.
“No, Rutejìmo,” came his fading voice, “there is no greatness in the desert. Not for the night.”