Age carries more weight than wisdom.
— Kosòbyo proverb
Rutejìmo hummed to himself as he walked along the paved road. A few hours with Mapábyo had brightened his mood, and he still enjoyed the afterglow that pulsed in his veins. He knew part of her passion was to remind him of their marriage and jealousy over the Kosòbyo warrior, but it didn't matter to him. He had sworn his love for Mapábyo and there was no force that would ever turn him away.
Around him, the streets were crowded with folk walking and drinking and talking. It was an hour after sunset, but the press of desert folk only diminished slightly since the streetlights had turned on.
He slowed down at a brightly-lit bar and peered inside. The press of people made it hard, but after a few minutes, he didn't see Nifùni and moved on. The younger man hadn't returned to the inn by sundown and everyone was out looking for him.
At first, he wondered if a festival was going on, but then it quickly became apparent these crowds were normal on all nights in the city, a far cry from the silence he grew up with. At home, when the sun went down, everyone retreated to their home caves. Now that he had seen how they did things here, he realized neither was wrong, simply the nature of the valley and the city, two different worlds in the same desert.
Rutejìmo didn't know how to approach Nifùni. There was anger in the younger man's heart, but it was the same hatred that so many of the younger clan members had. Very few of them understood how Rutejìmo stood between two worlds, a courier of Shimusògo and a kojinōmi. The passing between his two duties was exhausting and unforgiving, but he couldn't turn his back on either.
He always wondered if his slowness at running and his unwillingness to take a life were somehow connected with his services to the dead.
At the end of the block, he waited for a large mechanical spider to walk down the street. Made of brass, it shook the ground with every step. Unlike the massive scorpions that he had seen crossing the desert, the spider was his height and about twice the length of a wagon. The driver sat behind the ruby eyes, with one leg on each side of the neck. She kept her back straight while she rested one hand on the steering rod. Her hair appeared to be tucked into a low, circular hat. A pair of crossed daggers were sheathed on her back, the pommels matching the red eyes of the spider and the sheaths matching her yellow and white outfit.
On the back of the spider, there was a cradle of some sort with a man lounging inside it. He looked younger than the driver but wore the same colors she did. He waved at some of the people on the street but did nothing else.
Rutejìmo watched them pass. He wondered about the couple. She looked like a warrior of some sort, and he obviously wasn't. She appeared to be serving him, which was the opposite of everything Rutejìmo grew up with. Warriors served the clan, but not by carting an individual around.
Shrugging, he crossed the street and headed for the next bar. It was a larger one that ran the entire length of the block, about two chains, and he had to push himself inside to inspect it.
There was a heavily muscled man inside the door, watching the bar. He looked at Rutejìmo and then gestured toward the back.
Rutejìmo bowed. “Thank you.” He didn't know how to address the man, he wasn't familiar with the clan colors and he didn't appear to have the name embroidered on his outfit like most of the Shimusògo did.
Following the gesture, he padded through the room. His bare feet contrasted to everyone else who wore shoes and boots. He wrapped his arms over his chest as he ducked toward the further room.
He found Nifùni in the quieter section of the public house. He sat at a small table, talking to a woman who wore a heavy cloak despite the heat of the room.
Rutejìmo hesitated, wondering if Nifùni was trying to find some company for the night. He was an adult, and none of the others would stop him. He started to turn away, but a gut feeling stopped him from leaving. He turned back just as a woman with a tray of food came walking up behind him. Muttering an apology, he ducked against a post to let her pass.
He watched Nifùni and the woman for a moment. The longer he looked, the less it felt like an attempt at an amorous encounter. She kept looking up and around her before ducking her head down. He caught a glimpse of light brown hair underneath her cloak and a flash of gold around her throat.
Nifùni was also nervous. Rutejìmo could tell by the way he was twisting his palm around his other wrist and the rapid tapping of his left foot.
The sense of wrongness rose. It was different than Mifúno's call but just as pressing. He cleared his throat and pushed away from the post to cross the room.
When Nifùni looked up at Rutejìmo, his expression dropped. “What are you doing here?”
Rutejìmo hesitated for a moment, then sat down. “You didn't return to the inn. We were worried about you.”
“I'm fine, go away.”
Rutejìmo glanced at the woman. Underneath the cloak, he saw a few lines around her eyes and wrinkles along her hands. He guessed her to be about his age, near thirty. “I'm sorry to interrupt.”
The woman shook her head. “No, we were almost done. Are you also a courier?”
He nodded in response.
“Is Nifùni really the fastest?”
Rutejìmo glanced at Nifùni who looked back pleadingly. He started to agree, if anything to give Nifùni a chance, but the wrongness continued to rise in his throat. He felt the sensation hovering in his mind and pulsing in his veins. Something disturbed him, but he couldn't put a word on it. To stall, he muttered, “He's much faster than me.”
“Thank the sands.” The woman dug into her cloak and then pulled out a thick roll of paper money and a cylindrical case. The case was made of bone and heavily carved with scenes of snakes. It was as thick as Rutejìmo's wrist and a foot in length. He had seen thousands of them; they were used to deliver contracts and private messages. Just like many which had passed over his palms during his adult life as a courier.
She tucked the case in the crook of her elbow and peeled bills from the roll of money. To Rutejìmo's surprise, they were thousand pyābi notes.
When she had pulled off twenty and was still moving, Rutejìmo held up his hand. “Wait.”
“Not now, Jìmo!” snapped Nifùni.
The woman froze.
Rutejìmo glared at Nifùni. “You negotiated a contract?”
“Yes, I did. It's just a delivery, nothing more.”
“That—,” Rutejìmo gestured to the twenty thousand pyābi on the table, “—is not ‘just’ a contract. No one pays twenty thousand for—”
“I-I can pay sixty more,” said the woman. She held out the rest of the money.
Rutejìmo froze as the ice sank into his stomach. He shivered as he looked at her. “Eighty thousand for a delivery? To where?”
“To Wami-fuko City.”
Rutejìmo's discomfort grew at her stumbling over the name. He felt the tension squeezing down on his chest, a pressure to respond. “What is in there?”
Nifùni reached out for Rutejìmo. “You can't ask—”
Rutejìmo yanked back. He could feel his voice growing more tense but he had to keep speaking. “No one pays that much for a simple delivery. That is what you pay for someone risking their life. So, I have to ask, what is in that case?”
“J-Just a message.”
“The Wamifūko.” She held out her shaking hands with the roll of bills rolling in her palm. “Please, just take it. I'll give you everything.”
The desperation in her voice warred with the feeling in his gut. Everything told him to walk away, to leave her alone. But, he also wanted to help.
Nifùni's chair scraped on the floor as he moved closer. “Jìmo,” he whispered, “that's over a hundred thousand pyābi! That would pay for the year! It makes up for the money we lost!”
Rutejìmo clenched his jaw, looking at the money in her palm. He knew how much the clan needed it. It was enough to make the clan comfortable. They could afford to even purchase new machines and magic for the clan valley.
He looked into her eyes, a swirling green, and the sorrow and desperation on her shadowed face plucked at his heart. He wanted to help her, a desperation that arose to grip his thoughts.
Rutejìmo almost said yes, but then he drew away. “Who are you?”
She inhaled sharply, and her hand slumped to the table. She glanced over her shoulder, and he saw a flash of a green and gold snake tattooed on her cheek. “No one,” she whispered when she turned back. “Please, Great… Shim… Rutejìmo. I promise you, it's just a message.”
Her eyes drew him in, tugging at his resistance. The bright green swam across his vision and seeped into his thoughts. He could deliver a simple message; no one would have to know.
His mouth opened without him thinking. He could feel the words bubbling out, but he drew back. Clearing his throat, he forced his thoughts to focus on her snake tattoo instead of her eyes.
“No.” It was the hardest word he could ever speak.
“What!?” Nifùni slapped on the table as he stood up. “It's a hundred thousand pyābi!”
Rutejìmo glared at him. “And now everyone in this room knows.”
Nifùni paled and looked around at everyone staring at him. Slowly, he sank back into his chair.
Rutejìmo kept watching him. “And in this case, I speak for Shimusògo.” He matched glares with Nifùni.
Nifùni's jaw tightened and a muscle jumped with his anger. “You can't speak for Shimusògo.”
“I can,” announced Rutejìmo. He turned back to her. “I'm sorry, but if you want to hire the Shimusògo for services, please come to the Pochiryo Inn tomorrow morning. We will be glad to listen to you then, but I feel you need to explain the job in more detail before—”
“Please, I don't have time.”
Rutejìmo nearly looked at her eyes and forced himself to focus on her tattoo. “No, we need a majority to accept this type of job. The others will be willing to listen, but at the moment, we are scattered—” He pointedly looked at Nifùni, “—across the town looking for one of ours.”
Nifùni's face was a mask of rage. His lips quivered as he glared daggers at Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo turned back. “Please understand, Great….” His voice trailed off as he tried to identify her clan. Normally, one would announce their clan, but she was obviously hiding. The only hint of her colors was the tattoo on her cheek. He could see green and gold in the hidden depths. His eyes dropped down to her hand. There was another tattoo on the back of her palm, another snake. There was only one clan who used green and gold with a snake, the Kosòbyo.
He lifted his attention back to hers. “We are willing to work with you, but neither Nifùni or I can accept this contract tonight.”
She stood up. “I-I'm sorry, I have to leave then.” She clutched the money and case in her hand as she stumbled toward a door in the back.
Rutejìmo felt a moment of relief when she disappeared out of sight.
“You are a moon-damned coward!” screamed Nifùni.
Around them, conversations halted instantly.
Nifùni stood up and shoved Rutejìmo back.
The chair creaked loudly as Rutejìmo tried to regain his balance. He managed to keep his feet, but it tilted over, clattering loudly in the sudden silence as Rutejìmo straightened.
Rutejìmo held up his hands. “Nifùni—”
“No! You are a coward! That could have set us up for the year! And you tossed it aside because you can't handle—”
As Nifùni screamed, Rutejìmo saw the muscular man at the door walking toward them.
“—a little challenge. It was just a simple, sand-damned delivery. We've done them every day of our sand-damned lives.” Nifùni flailed at Rutejìmo, his fingers sailing inches away from Rutejìmo's shirt.
Rutejìmo gestured for Nifùni to calm down. “Let's go back and talk about this. Please, we need—”
Nifùni bellowed at the top of his lungs. “You are a sand-damned, moon-dazed coward whose own children are disgusted by you. You can't handle—”
The muscular man stopped next to him and crossed his arms. A golden flame coursed along his body, tracing the ridges of his muscles, and glinting off the piercings that marked his face and ears.
As Nifùni continued to rant, Rutejìmo turned to the man and bowed apologetically. “I'm sorry, please forgive my clan. I do not wish to interrupt your celebrations.” He turned and walked out of the bar.
The muscular man walked past, his left hand balling into a fist.
Nifùni screamed after him. “Again! You are leaving again—” His voice stopped with a thud. The sound of air escaping his lungs filled the silence of the bar.
Rutejìmo closed his eyes tightly to fight back the tears. He should have never abandoned his clan, but Nifùni was no longer listening.
He stopped outside. A few seconds later, Nifùni came flying out the door to land in an ungainly heap on the ground.
Nifùni scrambled to his feet. “Coward! You idiotic, festering pile of shit smeared on—”
There was a blast of air and then Desòchu stood next to Rutejìmo. Around them, the street lights flared brilliantly. One burst into flames and another cracked loudly.
Rutejìmo fought the tears. He shook his head firmly. He didn't want Desòchu to stop the fight, but it was obvious that Nifùni didn't respect Rutejìmo's decision as an elder. “I'm sorry, but we have to talk about this.”
“Talk about what?” asked Desòchu.
“A job!” snapped Nifùni, “A hundred thousand pyābi job that this rotted corpse of a man turned down because he was too afraid to risk his own life. It was a simple message. Just a simple, sand-damned message!”
Rutejìmo wanted to scream back, to yell something. Struggling, he turned to his brother. “I wanted to say yes.”
“Then why didn't you?”
“Because I wanted to say yes despite what my heart was telling me. No one delivers a—”
“Don't give your side of the story, you castrated sack of horse shit!”
Desòchu stared at Rutejìmo for a long time.
Rutejìmo wiped the tears threatening to fall. “I'm sorry, Great Shimusogo Desòchu. I couldn't accept it without talking to the others.”
Desòchu nodded twice. “Then let's talk.”
“Of course,” snapped Nifùni, “you'd take his side. You are his damned brother, you—”
Desòchu's punch caught Nifùni across the jaw, spinning the courier three times before he collapsed to the ground. The flash of golden light that followed the punch arced to the nearest streetlight which also burst into flames.
Something inside the bar exploded and there were screams of outrage.
The muscular bouncer stepped out of the door, his face twisted in a scowl.
With another sigh, Desòchu shook his head. “Let me pay for the damages.”
Nifùni sat up, holding his jaw.
“And then, we are all going back to the inn.”