“And what do you ask of me?” asked Tachìra of Kosòbyo. The feathered snake lifted himself as the blood dripped down his side. “Only to stand by your side and fight until the end of days.” Tachìra bowed to his greatest warrior. "Then you will be the first."
— Kosobyo Mitáki, Legend of Kosòbyo
Rutejìmo walked alone in the dark.
His destination glowed before him, a swelling of light and flame that brightened the horizon as if it was day. He could hear the din of people from Kosobyo City, even from across the sands.
The sheer expanse of Kosobyo City terrified him. Too large, too bright, and too alive, it didn't resemble anything he had seen during the day, and to have the entire city lit up at night was more than he could imagine. The wealth of the city was evident, even miles away. The road he followed had been paved in wide stones. They didn't shift under his feet, and the edges had long since been polished by countless feet and wheels.
He passed a small, fortified building made of the same stone as the road. Three guards sat on stools outside the door. All of them wore red and gold with a clan name that Rutejìmo didn't recognize, but the building had Kosòbyo's colors and name engraved on the side.
The guards stared at him, but made no effort to stop or talk to him.
Rutejìmo looked at them curiously. The nearest guard gripped his sword and Rutejìmo forced his eyes back toward the city. He had passed two other guard buildings on the walk toward the city and had been met with the same attitude.
The road he followed would bring him to the western side of the city, one of the sides that typically welcomed Tachìra's clan. The northern and southern were entrances for Chobìre's chosen, though he suspected that with Kosòbyo's influence and from Fidochìma's comments, there were very few of the night clan in the shadows of the city.
Kosòbyo, one of the most powerful of the day clans, had been in the desert from the beginning. The stories told that the feathered serpent was Tachìra's fiercest ally, and their city reflected the clan's reputation and influence.
With exhaustion plucking at his senses and his vision blurred, Rutejìmo let his mind drift as he continued down the road. The slow impacts of his bare feet smacking on the rocks was soothing, but when he lifted his foot, he felt the last of the drying blood peeling from the warm stones.
He reached the peak of a hill and realized the light had played a trick on him. He thought the brightness meant he was only a few chains away. But, standing on the ridge, he saw all of Kosobyo City spread out before him. The blocks and buildings were arranged in letters that spelled out Kosòbyo. Each symbol appeared to have been designed so there was no question who owned the city.
Individual districts—he didn't know their names—were lit by different colors. The nearest had blue and yellow lights but one of the northern parts was completely red-tinted. Further along, green flames lined the streets of what appeared to be the grandiose part of the city, which was filled with tall buildings and decorated with statues and murals. The center of the green light district had a palace easily five stories tall with a massive snake head rising from the top.
“Drown me in sands,” whispered Rutejìmo. The pain of walking and his exhaustion momentarily faded as he stared at the city. There was something about seeing the name of a clan in buildings and light that outshone his imagination. The clan was powerful, and they knew it. They didn't need any walls to guard the city; they were strong enough to fight anyone who dared to invade their lands.
Stunned, he stumbled forward before regaining his pace. He wanted to see the city up close.
An hour later, he walked among the towering buildings. The two-story buildings felt like canyon walls on both sides of him, sheer edges lined with glass windows and frail-looking iron balconies. On the ground level, the windows were much larger and gave tantalizing glimpses of the homes and stores inside.
The streetlights had dimmed in the time it took for him to walk into the city. He was in no danger of tripping on a hidden ridge of the paving stones that made up the roads, or the boards of the wooden walks on both sides of the street. Unlike the flickering, humming lights of home, the glow of these lights steadily covered every surface in tinted color.
Rutejìmo realized his mouth had dropped open. He closed it with a snap and tried to orient himself. From a distance, it looked like it was only a few blocks from the edge, but being caught in the narrow channels of the street confused him, and he lost his path to the message board.
Laughter drew his attention. He looked up to see a small group of people coming out of a bar. They were dressed in yellows and blues, but the outfits were strange. Instead of a shirt and trousers, they wore unusual jackets and strange hats that looked like miniature barrels. The women had donned dresses with hooped skirts and hats that were a cacophony of feathers and jewels.
Rutejìmo considered finding someone else to ask for help, but the last few groups were dressed in a similar fashion. No one wore the simple skirts, dresses, or shirts that he had grown up with. He worried his lip and crossed the street toward a couple. When he was a rod away, he bowed. “Excuse me, could I please—”
“What is this?” said one of the women. “Did something come crawling out of the desert? A little bird? You better be careful, there are snakes in this town.”
The scorn in her voice scraped along Rutejìmo's ego and pride, but he kept his voice calm. “I'm lost. Could you please direct me to the nearest message board?”
“No,” came the response, followed by laughter. They pushed past him and headed down the street.
Rutejìmo watched them for a moment and felt very alone. He ducked his head and walked in the opposite direction. He still didn't know where he was going, but he didn't like the growing feeling of discomfort.
Twenty minutes later, he was swaying with the effort to keep walking. His hand dripped with blood from when he tripped over his own feet and struck a stone wall. He could barely keep his head straight. He slumped against the wall for a moment to clear his head, but then he had to fight the urge to fall to the ground and sleep.
A pair of white boots stopped in front of him. They were sturdy and streaked with dust.
Rutejìmo started and then forced his head up to the stranger. His eyes refused to focus on the green and white blob for a moment. He frowned and peered forward until it finally came into focus. It was a woman in her mid-twenties wearing Kosòbyo's colors. Her dark skin looked almost black in the blue light above them. Even her hair was in an unfamiliar style. Instead of being straight and loose, it had been tied into neat rows that looked like furrows on a field.
“Excuse me,” she spoke with a faint eastern accent, “you can't stay here.”
“I'm… sorry. I'm tired. I'm Rutejìmo, and I speak for Shimusògo.”
The woman frowned. “You speak for…?” And then a smile crossed her lips, and her green eyes narrowed for a second.
Rutejìmo groaned and steeled himself for another insult.
“You are from the west, aren't you?”
He nodded, his throat burning from the effort of speaking.
“We don't talk like that around here.”
Rutejìmo stifled a yawn. “I'm sorry, Great Kosobyo…”
The woman gestured with her finger for Rutejìmo to pull himself from the wall. Her outfit, a long length of cloth wrapped around her body, shivered with her movement. “We don't speak like that either.”
“How… I don't know.” Despair rose up. “I'm so lost.” He fought back a sob. “This town is too big.”
She helped him stand on his feet. “Come on, where are you heading?”
“The message board?”
“I…” He stumbled. “I don't remember anymore. I thought I did, but when I got here, I got lost. There was a large fountain, and I could see it while coming up the western road.”
She pulled him against her. Her body was warm but solid under his weight. He could feel the play of muscles and the power of someone who fought, but she had no scars or marks of battle. Everything inside him said that she was a warrior, but a slender one with no obvious weapon. “I know the place. It's about ten blocks, do you think you can make it?”
Rutejìmo yawned a little longer than he needed to and then sighed. “I don't stop. I never stop.”
Slumped against her, Rutejìmo noticed she had a circular badge on her breast. It said Kosobyo Dimóryo along with a pair of words he didn't understand.
“I'm married, Rutejìmo. There is no reason to stare.”
Rutejìmo looked up, frightened and embarrassed. “No, sorry. I mean, I never saw something like that before.” He gestured to the badge.
“Don't you have guards in your town?”
“Not in the valley, but in Wamifuko City. But, they don't have markings like that.”
She tapped her badge. “We have a much bigger city here, with almost a thousand warriors working.”
“A… thousand… warriors?”
“How many does your clan have?”
“Four.” He felt more alien than ever.
“There is almost a quarter million residents in this town. I suspect you have a lot less.”
“Less than a hundred.”
She tapped her badge again. “This just means I'm a… street guard, second rank.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I'm going to help you find the rest of your clan.”
“Oh, thank you.”
They walked a few blocks in silence.
“Why are you so tired, Rutejìmo?”
“I… had to do something, and I ended up far from the city.”
He said nothing.
“Does your clan know about it?”
He nodded. “It's what I do. No matter where I go.”
“Why are you in town?”
“We desire a contract with Kosòbyo. We're couriers.”
“Couriers? Oh, yes, I remember we had a call for them in the western areas. You run or ride?”
Rutejìmo started to feel uncomfortable with the questions, but he answered. “Run. Bird spirit.”
“I was going to ask that next,” said Dimóryo.
“My job is to protect the city and the clan. Knowing who's here is just part of that. Don't worry, I'm not going to take you to jail or anything. See?” She pointed with her free hand down the street.
At the end of the street, five massive message boards stood with about a rod of walking space between them. Papers fluttered along the wood, and he could see more of it piled underneath the boards in heaps of white and cream.
Rutejìmo stumbled. “That's big.”
“It's a big city, but you'll get used to it.”
“I don't think I could.”
She held him tight as she guided him down the street. He felt no weapon on her, but the tight body and precision of her movements indicated skill and training. He guessed she was comparable in abilities to Desòchu but probably not as strong as Chimípu. She was a warrior and just as strange as the city around him.
A few minutes later, she deposited him next to the nearest message board. Stepping back, she ran her hands along her long black hair to pull it over her shoulder. Her right hand sparkled with three golden rings. “You said your clan was Shi…”
“Let me see if they left you a message.”
He watched her walk down the boards. Years ago, he would have been interested in her, but after having his heart ripped out by Mikáryo and handed back by Mapábyo, he just pushed the thought aside and concentrated on remaining awake.
Rutejìmo jerked and thumped his head against the board. He had somehow slid down into a pile of papers. A long line of drool marked his chest and hand. He groaned and looked up as his brother stepped up.
Desòchu let out a sigh and knelt in front of him. “You look like shit someone ran through.”
“I feel like one of Chobìre's shits.” Rutejìmo groaned and let his brother haul him to his feet. “I'm sorry, I feel… fell asleep.”
“For close to twenty minutes,” Dimóryo said cheerfully as she stepped up to them. She flipped a tight braid from her shoulder. Rutejìmo noticed that the braid continued from the rows in her hair. “Don't worry, I was watching over him.”
Desòchu shoved his hand around Rutejìmo's waist and held him up. “Thank you, Great Kosòbyo.”
Dimóryo grinned. “Westerners. You have such a quaint way of speaking.”
“It's what we do,” said Desòchu with a smile that was only slightly forced. “At least until it's time to sleep.”
“I thought you didn't stop.” Her eyes never wavered from Desòchu.
Desòchu glanced down at Rutejìmo and smiled. “No, only one of us will never stop. The rest of us are still learning how to keep up.”
She looked pointedly at Rutejìmo before turning back. Rutejìmo watched as her eyes flickered over Desòchu, pausing only briefly on his weapons before tracing up his chest back to his face. “It doesn't look like it from here.”
Desòchu bristled, and his hand balled into a fist.
Rutejìmo rested a hand on him, struggling to keep his head up.
His brother turned back and nodded. When he looked back at her, he was smiling again. “It takes a while to see it.” He hefted Rutejìmo up. “Come on, you need some sleep and time with your wife.”
“Good luck, Shimusògo.”
“And to you, Great Kosobyo….” Desòchu paused.
Rutejìmo whispered her name to his brother.
Desòchu bowed to her. “Great Kosobyo Dimóryo.”
She laughed and turned around. “Westerners.”