As if age could prevent the horrors already seen, decisions among a clan are made through the opinion of years.
— Heyojyunashi Gutèmo
Naked, Rutejìmo entered the shared inn room and tossed his towel on his sleeping mat. He started to throw his bathing bag after it but stopped when Mapábyo stood up from one of the beds. He smiled and held it out for her, along with the key to get into the bathing area.
She kissed him and trailed her fingers along his arm before grabbing both and heading out.
Feeling playful, he stepped back out of the room to watch her bare ass as she walked down the hall.
Mapábyo stopped at the door, blew him a kiss, and then unlocked it.
“You know,” said Byochína from where she was dressing in the corner, “you could enjoy some privacy if you both went in at the same time.”
“Yeah, but then neither would get cleaned,” said Desòchu.
Chimípu snickered. She was finishing pulling on a red skirt hemmed in orange. Her bare legs, hard and solid as any Shimusògo runner, flexed with her movements.
A blush grew on Rutejìmo's cheeks. He and Mapábyo were the only married couple on the trip, and it led to teasing. He grabbed his trousers and began to dress.
The only one not laughing was Nifùni who sat in another corner, his clothes wrinkled on his body and a scowl on his face. His left cheek had a dark shadow from where Desòchu punched him.
Rutejìmo kept his eyes averted from the younger man and dressed quickly. He picked a pair of orange trousers and a white button-down shirt, one of his favorite outfits, but far plainer than anything the city folk wore outside. He had brought three tops and two trousers, which was enough for most trips.
Desòchu finished and sat down. He dug into his pack and pulled out a wallet with the clan's money.
“How much?” asked Chimípu.
After a moment of counting, Desòchu sighed. “Maybe three days at most. This city is expensive.”
“At least we have the shopping done.”
He nodded. “Except for Tòpi and Róma.”
Rutejìmo spoke up. “Pábyo and I got Róma a hair comb.”
“Jìmo,” Chimípu said as she walked around him. “You're her papa. Those gifts don't count. I say we get her a book.”
“Poetry?” asked Byochína before she pulled her shirt down over her chest. Her hair, long and black, fanned out along the fabric before cascading down.
Chimípu shook her head. “No, Pidòhu lets her read his. How about one of those travel books I saw? They have pictures of the city in them, and they are made by a machine instead of hand-written. I bet she'd like those. She seems like a girl who would like to travel.”
“How can you tell?” Byochína tugged her shirt into place. “She doesn't talk right.”
Rutejìmo felt a prickle of defensiveness. “She talks.”
“Yes, like an adult,” said Byochína. “She's the only three-year-old that calls her papa by his name.”
“And yet,” added Desòchu, “we make all teenagers use their parent's names instead of mama and papa. She's just advanced for her age.”
Byochína glanced at Rutejìmo and then back to Desòchu. “She's creepy. She doesn't blink enough and I always get the feeling that she's seeing something more than just me.”
Chimípu said, “No, she just follows a different path.” She smiled at him. “She's like Jìmo.”
Rutejìmo smiled back, still blushing.
“Who's like Jìmo?” asked Mapábyo as she came in. Her body dripped with water and she smelled of soap and honey.
Rutejìmo breathed in and enjoyed her scent. “Róma.”
“I agree, she's like her papa.” Mapábyo tossed her towel and the bathing supplies on Rutejìmo's bag before she dressed herself. She was the last of the Shimusògo to use the washing area. He watched the water dripping off the bird tattoo on her breast and smiled.
Desòchu stood up. “Good thing we are talking to the Kosòbyo tomorrow. I don't think we can afford many more nights. Hopefully, they will give us an advance.”
Nifùni raised his head, glared at Rutejìmo, and then said, “Rutejìmo has to present himself to the kojinōmi in three days.”
The room grew still.
“We,” Desòchu said, “don't talk about that.”
“Why not?” asked Nifùni. “They talk about it on the streets without whispering.”
“They aren't us. There are things that we don't talk about even among ourselves. It is the Shimusogo Way.”
Rutejìmo hated when his brother spoke of the Shimusogo Way, but warriors were responsible for keeping the clan's traditions. He ducked his head, unwilling to participate in the looming fight.
The silence stretched awkwardly, punctuated only by the rustle of clothes.
Desòchu cleared his throat. “If we have to stay that long, we can manage another night but it will be tight. Today, we'll see if we can find a quick job or two. Just enough to cover the room.”
Nifùni snarled and glared at Rutejìmo. “We would have had another job, if the coward didn't turn it down.”
A muscle in Mapábyo's back tightened. After a heartbeat, she set down her brush with enough force that the end table shook.
Chimípu turned. “What?”
Nifùni waved his hand at Rutejìmo. “He turned down a job. It was a good one too, a simple delivery; but he was too much of a—”
“Say that word one more time,” growled Desòchu, “and I will hit you far harder than I did last night. And I will break something more important than your ego.”
Nifùni clamped his mouth shut, his eyes flashing with anger.
Chimípu sat on the corner of the bed Nifùni had claimed. “You disagree?”
“Of course I disagree. A hundred thousand is a lot of money.”
Rutejìmo could feel the tension gathering around him. Mapábyo and Byochína both looked at him quizzically. He twisted his hand together and opened his mouth to rebuke the claim, but Desòchu shook his head, and Rutejìmo remained silent.
Chimípu shifted so she was sitting cross-legged on the bed. “Then, tell me about the job.”
Nifùni looked at Desòchu and Rutejìmo with a scowl etched on his face.
Nifùni glared at Rutejìmo for a long time, then he sighed. “I was drinking by myself when she showed up and asked if I was a courier. Since that is what I was,” his gaze drifted to the bed, “muttering about, I agreed. She said she wanted a message delivered and she was willing to pay twenty thousand.”
“You said a hundred,” said Chimípu.
Nifùni gestured to Rutejìmo who flinched. “It was twenty to start, but when Rutejìmo showed up, he started to say no, and she kept raising the price. Eventually, she just offered an entire roll of pyābi if we would take it.”
Desòchu spoke up. “Take it where?”
“To any large city and the clan that controls it. I asked if Wamifūko would work, since they are on the way home, and she said yes. It just had to be there in the next few days. I figured we were heading home anyways, so it wouldn't be such a struggle.”
“What's her name?” asked Chimípu.
“I don't know.”
“What clan was she?”
“I don't know.”
Rutejìmo cleared his throat. “Kosòbyo, I think. She had a green and gold tattoo on her cheek, a snake. And another on her wrist.”
“I doubt that.” Nifùni puffed out his chest as he spoke. “Kosòbyo is in charge here, they wouldn't need us for something like that.”
Rutejìmo wanted to point out that Nifùni never asked the woman for her clan, but said nothing.
Desòchu leaned against the small dresser next to the bed. He clutched the wallet tightly and there was concern on his face. “She was desperate?”
“I guess.” Nifùni looked up at the ceiling, “Yeah, she was desperate.”
No one said anything for a moment.
Nifùni looked around at the others. “Look, can't we vote or something? It's enough money to make up what we lost.”
Desòchu looked at Chimípu who looked back. He nodded after a second. “We'll vote.”
Everyone went to their bags to gather their voting stones. Rutejìmo had one for every year since he passed his right of passage except for the one year he was ostracized from his clan. For a moment, sadness draped over him as he remembered where he had left it: at the bottom of the urn with his unborn child.
Nifùni sat down on the end of the bed.
Desòchu gestured Rutejìmo to the other one.
Rutejìmo stepped over the sleeping bags on the floor to go where his brother indicated.
“Okay, on Nifùni's bed if we go looking for her. Jìmo's if we turn it down.”
Taking a deep breath, Rutejìmo started to gather up all his stones, but then only pulled out one. Carefully, he set it down on the bed next to his thigh. It was a way of expressing that he agreed with his decision, but he wasn't willing to put the full weight of his age behind it. It was also a tradition that one of his friends had, before he died.
Desòchu's eyebrow rose, and Rutejìmo saw him adjust the number of rocks in his hand.
On the other side of the room, Nifùni poured out his entire measure of voting stones on the bed. Seven bright red rocks landed in a heap.
A moment later, one of Chimípu's landed next to Nifùni.
Nifùni looked at Rutejìmo with undisguised glee.
Desòchu shook his head and reached over to Rutejìmo before dropping five down.
Mapábyo joined him, adding all five of hers.
It came down to Byochína. She stood in the center, looking back and forth as she played with her stones.
Nifùni cleared his throat. “Come—”
“Silence!” snapped both Desòchu and Chimípu.
Then, with a tear in her eye, Byochína tossed a single stone to Nifùni. “I'm sorry, I believe you, but…”
Nifùni let out a long gasp of frustration. There was only nine on his side and eleven on Rutejìmo's.
Desòchu gathered up his stones. “We find a different job. Pair off and check the message boards. Look for something that can be done in a day, two at the maximum.”
Byochína held out her hand, her voting stone still in it. “Come on, Nifùni.” She looked back at Desòchu. “We'll take the east side, Great Shimusogo Desòchu.”
Dragging his feet, Nifùni stood up and headed out the door after her.
Rutejìmo stared down at his stones.
Desòchu patted him on his back. “I trust your feelings, Jìmo. If you thought there was something wrong, then it was probably for the best we didn't get involved.”