At first blush, infidelity is simple. Get caught and die. However, sex with the warrior caste is considered a non-event. Since there is no chance of producing a child, it isn't considered a betrayal of the marriage.
— Kandor Rusinmar, The Sacrificial Wolves of the Desert
Rutejìmo walked hand in hand with Mapábyo. The exhaustion from his purification ritual still plucked at his senses, but sleep and a full meal had helped him recover his energies. Even his recent injuries, including the cut in his shoulder, had already started to scab over and no longer throbbed.
He wasn't fully recovered, but he wanted to see some of Kosobyo City's wonders before heading back to the inn for lunch and a nap.
During the day, the city blossomed with people. All of them wore different outfits, some of them fantastic. There were hats and cloaks and high boots that weren't practical for running across the sand. As if they cared more about appearance than a skill and a trade. After growing up with practical outfits, the fashion disturbed him in a way he couldn't explain. He found himself frowning at clothes as much as he stared in awe at the more fantastic mechanical devices rolling down the road or chugging away in alleyways. Even the hair styles looked foreign, with more colors than the pervasive black scattered with browns, reds, and blues. There were greens and purples mixed in, colors that could not possibly happen naturally.
“There are so many people out here,” Mapábyo whispered. “I don't know how they know each other.”
On his other side, Chimípu pulled a roasted lizard out of her mouth. “They don't. Just a city filled with strangers.”
“There are too many people.” On the opposite side of the warrior, Nifùni looked through a list of Shimusògo they were to buy gifts for. Couriers traditionally brought small knickknacks back home when traveling far away. None of them had been so far across the desert before and the prizes from the city would be treasured. It also meant that they needed to purchase for the entire clan instead of only close family and friends.
Mapábyo leaned her head on Rutejìmo's shoulder. “I like it better when I know everyone's name.”
“Said the courier who has a new representative every few months,” came Chimípu's wry response.
Mapábyo giggled. “I know everyone though. And they know me, every oasis and village.”
Rutejìmo smiled. He kissed the top of Mapábyo's head. Her friendliness had saved his life once when he stumbled into an oasis in the middle of the night, and he never regretted her actions.
Chimípu ran her hand through her reddish hair before biting the head off the lizard with a crunch. “This is what big cities are like.”
“Not Wamifuko City,” said Mapábyo.
“You've been doing the mail run for ten years—do you know everyone there?”
Mapábyo's silence was an answer.
Chimípu sighed and rotated the stick to work on the crispy feet. The look on her face faded to reflect the discomfort that Rutejìmo felt. Kosobyo City was too big for desert folk like his clan.
He looked at the glass-fronted stores they were passing. A specialized store was rare for him, and he couldn't imagine how much business anyone needed in order to have a place dedicated to selling only perfume, much less the three they had passed in the last twenty minutes.
When he spotted a bookstore, he tapped Mapábyo's hand. “How about a book of poems for Pidòhu?”
Mapábyo smiled broadly, kissed his shoulder, and pulled away to head into the store. They had already bought gifts for almost everyone in the valley except for Pidòhu and Kitòpi.
Chimípu glanced at Rutejìmo. “How are you holding up?”
Rutejìmo saw Nifùni glare at him but he forced himself to focus on Chimípu. “I'll live, but… maybe an hour more?”
Chimípu stepped closer until they were only a foot apart. Her question was silent, but just as obvious. She wanted to know of any troubles when he answered Mifúno's call.
He hesitated to answer, thinking back to how he had seen a man's power be ripped from his body as he was sentenced to a life without the desert's blessing. A prickle of sweat danced on his brow. He took a deep breath and lied with a slow shake of his head.
She nodded and stepped back. She turned to look at Nifùni, who had his back to them. With a shake of her hand, she gestured down the street. “I want to get something special for Dòhu, would you wait with Fùni here for Pábyo?”
Rutejìmo grunted and stepped on the opposite side of the door from Nifùni.
“Thank you, little brother,” she whispered before heading down the street. Her lithe body disappeared in the crowds in a matter of seconds.
Nifùni sighed loudly. “Why are you little brother to her?”
Rutejìmo leaned against the glass, but didn't look at Nifùni. “Just something we say.”
“You don't deserve her affection.”
Rutejìmo said nothing.
“All you do is run away.”
Closing his eyes for a second, Rutejìmo counted to three before opening them. Across the street, in the opposing store, he could see someone stretching some sort of candy on a hook before they began to braid it. He wondered what it would taste like.
“You're a moon-damned coward. They should have never brought you along.”
Rutejìmo sighed and shrugged. “I don't have an answer, Great Shimusogo Nifùni. The clan elders obviously thought I would be needed.”
“And the second you see the city, you run off.”
“I had to answer that call.”
“This isn't your place. You aren't a… you don't do that… thing on this side of Mifúno.”
“Actually,” said Dimóryo in an amused voice, “I was going to say the same thing.”
Both Shimusògo jumped at her sudden appearance.
Rutejìmo tilted his head as the Kosòbyo warrior stepped up between them. In the sunlight, she looked different than the night before. Her age appeared to be in the lower twenties, with a narrow face and skin the same dark brown as the candy in the store across the street. She had no obvious weapons, but the fabric wrapped around her body moved like armored cloth. He spotted a few strands of golden thread in the stiff fabric. The last time Rutejìmo had seen armor like that, Mikáryo pulled it over her body before she tossed him aside.
Memories bubbled up of his first shikāfu, his first longing love, but he couldn't remember what her face looked like anymore. Five years of marriage had dulled the memories of his first love.
Nifùni cleared his throat. He was straightening his shirt and a blush darkened his cheeks. Rutejìmo smiled to himself, he could almost see the younger man puffing up to impress the warrior.
Dimóryo glanced at him. “I'm Kosobyo Dimóryo.”
“I-I'm,” stammered Nifùni, “Nif… Shimusogo Nifùni.”
Her eyes flickered along his body and her smile grew a little wider. “Are you a kojinōmi also?”
Nifùni's face paled. “No. No!”
“A courier? A runner?”
“Yes, one of the fastest.”
Rutejìmo fought back the smile. He didn't need to ruin any chance Nifùni had with the warrior. If she was anything like every other warrior he knew, she would be a safe person to spend a night with; the clan spirits gave warriors more powerful abilities, but the blessing came with a price—they lost their ability to have children.
Dimóryo tugged on one braid before favoring Nifùni with another smile. Rutejìmo noticed that her knuckles were calloused and scarred, a detail he failed to catch the night before.
She turned back to Rutejìmo, and Nifùni's smile dropped. “You didn't say you were a kojinōmi, Rutejìmo.”
Ice ran down Rutejìmo's spine. “It isn't something we talk about.”
“It may be in the west, but here, we like to know these things. There are only six kojinōmi in the city, and they are… rather protective of their services. We had a report that you….” Her voice trailed off as she appeared to struggle with the word.
Rutejìmo wanted to duck back into the store, but he held his ground. “I answer to the call. I don't have a choice.”
Her green eyes sparkled as she looked over him. “And there is only one of you?”
“There are six of the Shimusògo in town, but only one… like me.” He couldn't bring himself to say kojinōmi even knowing it was acceptable. Too many years of not speaking about what he did stilled his voice.
She dug into the folds of her armored fabric before pulling out a notebook. With a brass pen, she wrote something before ripping it off and handing it to Rutejìmo. “You've been requested to present yourself to the other kojinōmi at this address in three nights.”
Rutejìmo took the paper, it was an address. “What time?”
Dimóryo frowned. “For dinner, isn't that when you always do those things?”
He shrugged to hide his confusion and looked at the unfamiliar address again.
“Well,” she continued, “as soon as the sun sets, they'll expect you there. By yourself, I guess, but I don't know your rituals. I'm not privy to the priests of the dead.”
The door next to Rutejìmo creaked open, and Mapábyo came out carrying two small, hand-bound books. “Jìmo, I found the most beautiful….” Her voice trailed off as she looked at the warrior in front her.
Dimóryo turned to look at her but her gaze lingered on Rutejìmo for a second. She bowed. “Well met, wife of Rutejìmo, I am Kosòbyo… wait, I am Dimóryo, and I speak for Kosòbyo,” she said with only a hint of mocking in her voice.
Mapábyo's almost black skin darkened even further. She bowed in return. “I am Shimusogo Mapábyo.” She straightened and shot a glance at Rutejìmo. “Is there something wrong?”
From her look, he knew there would be more personal questions when they were alone. Then, he looked back at the Kosòbyo warrior. He mentioned he was married, but never told Dimóryo much about Mapábyo.
“No,” Dimóryo said, “not yet. Last night I helped Rutejìmo find the other member of your clan and asked some questions. He was not as forthcoming with answers as I hoped, so I had to pry into your business. Please forgive me, I take my job of protecting the clan against all threats seriously.”
Nifùni spoke up. “I-I would have answered.”
Dimóryo said, “Thank you. It would have been easier if you were there.”
Nifùni blushed and sank back against the wall.
Mapábyo took a step closer to Rutejìmo until her arm brushed his. “Is there anything we can help you with, Great Kosobyo Dimóryo?”
The warrior smiled again. “I love the way you westerners speak. No, I'm just glad that Rutejìmo returned to you safely.” She bowed deeply and then again to Nifùni before turning and walking away.
All three of them watched her until she disappeared. Then Mapábyo turned to Rutejìmo. “And how does she know you're married?”
Rutejìmo blushed and held out his hand for the books. “She thought I was interested in her.”
“You,” snapped Mapábyo, “are not allowed to have another shikāfu.” She tapped him on the chest with two fingers.
He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “You are my only flame. Besides,” he grinned, “I think Nifùni is far more interested in her.”
Nifùni shoved himself from the wall. “If she would notice me.” He stormed away, shoving through the crowd going in the opposite direction.
“He is on a wire, isn't he?”
With a nod, he said, “Yes. He was telling me I'm a coward when she came up.”
“You aren't one.”
“Tópi said the same thing before we left.”
“At least Tópi has the excuse of being a child. Nifùni is only acting like one.” Mapábyo's voice was tense.
Rutejìmo plucked the top book from her hand and opened it. The words looked different for a moment, then he realized the arrangement was different than he was used to reading, there were too many glyphs instead of markers. But, it was still a book of poems, one of Pidòhu's passions. He bobbed his head in approval. “Dòhu will love it.”
Mapábyo kissed him. “I hope so.” She kissed him again. “But, right now, the inn room is empty, and,” her smile grew more sultry, “I think you need a nap.”
Rutejìmo looked at her. As he stared into her bright eyes, he felt himself growing warmer. With a grin, he slipped his hand around her waist and kissed her. “I am tired, my shikāfu.”