The hard choices never come on easy days.
— Tisolan Misas, Queen of the River Knives
For the first time, Nifùni struggled to slow to Rutejìmo's pace instead of Rutejìmo striving to match his. They were racing along the ridge of a cliff, following a well-worn path that wound along the edge of rocky cliffs. Every few minutes, the dépa that Nifùni chased would accelerate, and he would follow, easily passing Rutejìmo. Then, Nifùni would look back with frustration before slowing down to match Rutejìmo's pace.
Every time Nifùni pulled away, a slash of guilt tore through Rutejìmo. He knew that Nifùni chaffed under the slower speed, but there was no way for Rutejìmo to force any more speed out of his body. He knew his limits and he ran at them, gasping for breath as he tried to avoid disappointing his clan.
Even though they were heading along the same route, they would be going separate ways in the morning. Nifùni said something about heading out early but made no effort to leave before Rutejìmo or to outpace him.
Fear kept Nifùni running with him. And Rutejìmo's slowness only frustrated the other courier with every passing mile.
To distract himself, Rutejìmo imagined catching his translucent dépa. It was impossible, but he managed to lose himself in hopeless daydreams until they came near the end of the cliff route. The final segment of the road swept around the western edge and gave Rutejìmo a view of the desert before him. Seeing nothing but leagues of sand gave him hope. No one could jump them when every movement kicked up sand and there were no shadows to hide in.
Night would be harder, though, since they would have to avoid any obvious shelters. Like the previous night, Nifùni and Rutejìmo would each take half the time on watch while the other slept. Exhausting, but four hours of sleep was better than none.
He spotted a small oasis at the intersection of rock and sand. A small shrine house, not large enough for more than a single room, stood less than a rod from the water's edge. The painted stone walls of the shrine were cracked and faded, exposure to the sun and wind had scuffed the walls.
A prickle of fear crawled down Rutejìmo's spine as they approached it. Both men slowed down to a stop and held still while the dust from their running blew past them.
From the edge of the water, a lone guard looked up from her book. It was an older woman, maybe in her fifties, clutching a tall spear with one gnarled hand and the crinkled spine of her book with the other. Her face wrinkled into a scowl, and her deep-set eyes seemed to disappear in the folds.
Rutejìmo held his breath as he bowed. He spotted the name of her clan on her clothes and the walls of the shrine, Nyochikōmu, but he wasn't familiar with the clan. There was nothing to indicate her clan's powers, but he guessed a long spear meant that she was a warrior despite her advanced age.
The old woman scoffed. “Twenty to refill your skin, two hundred for one of mine. I have other supplies, but they aren't cheap.”
He let out his breath in a rush of relief. In his experience, the guards that made no effort at friendliness were also ones who didn't ask questions. “Thank you, Great Nyochikōmu. We have four skins to refill.”
She held out a wrinkled hand. “Eighty and on your way.”
Nifùni and Rutejìmo each put forty pyābi in her palm and held out their skins. When she nodded, they circled around her and knelt at the waters to refill them.
Rutejìmo ducked the leather skins under the water's surface and watched the bubbles rise. He sighed and glanced at Nifùni.
His clan member's eyes were fixed on his own skins. He held his jaw clamped shut, the muscles trembling. Rutejìmo's heart sank as he watched Nifùni move with sharp, angry movements.
After a few seconds of hoping Nifùni would look back, Rutejìmo turned away. He had said too much the night before and Nifùni obviously held it against him. Telling Nifùni that he was doomed to be a banyosiōu did little to help either of their moods. Silently berating himself, he focused on refilling his flasks.
As soon as the two skins were full, Rutejìmo set about checking supplies in his pack. He counted the number of rations and checked the level left in the jar with the alchemical gel.
“Jìmo, let's go.”
Rutejìmo looked up at Nifùni and then back. “Give me a second.”
Frowning, Rutejìmo shoved his supplies back in his pack. He stood up and bowed to the old woman. “Forgive us, Great—”
“Jìmo!” snapped Nifùni, “let's go!”
The sharp tone raised a prickle of fear. He turned around. “Is someone coming?” He scanned up along the trail and then across the sands. He stopped when he saw two wisps of smoke rising further along the cliffs as the trail curled to the south, away from both home and Kosobyo territories. The wind buffeted the wisps into oblivion, but the twin curls of white and yellow were unmistakable.
“Don't go there,” growled Nifùni.
Rutejìmo sighed but didn't take his eyes away from the smoke. Someone was dying or had just died. He didn't need to look down at his feet to feel the sand wafting around his feet. The sudden tickle of grains told him that the desert called to him. “I have to. Someone needs me.”
“No, we need you more. We run for our lives, Jìmo. And spending two days doing… whatever you do… is just going to put both of our lives in danger.”
“But, Great Shimusogo Nifùni, I have to—”
The old woman jumped at Nifùni's outburst. She twisted the haft of her spear, and her blade ignited into golden flames. Letters flickered along the surface, the name of the weapon.
Rutejìmo glanced at her and then back.
“Listen, Jìmo. You better make a choice now. Because either you are a Shimusògo or you are… that!”
“A kojinōmi?” whispered Rutejìmo.
Nifùni paled, and it was his turn to look at the woman. When he looked back, his lips were tight but his voice lowered into a harsh growl. “Yes, one of those. So, which one are you, Shimusògo or sand-damned kojinōmi?”
In his head, Rutejìmo heard the question differently. Shimusògo or Mifúno. Was he a courier or a kojinōmi? He knew he could strip off his clothes and take on the mantel of white, maybe forever. Not even the Kosòbyo would attack him then, but he could never return to his clan.
“Choose, Jìmo. Because in a minute, I'm going to run to save this clan and I will—” Nifùni shoved two fingers against Rutejìmo's sternum. “—leave your cowardly feet behind!”
Rutejìmo turned back to the smoke. It continued to rise in the air, fading in the wind. It was a stark reminder that someone was dying out there, maybe terrified, alone.
A tear ran down his cheek as he struggled. If he answered the call, he could be risking not only his life but Nifùni's and the others. At the same time, someone could be suffering, and only he could tend to them.
“Rutejìmo, someone is going to answer that. We have to go, now. We have to run before they catch us.” Nifùni grabbed Rutejìmo by both shoulders and turned Rutejìmo to face him. “Jìmo, someone else will get it.”
Rutejìmo started to look back, but Nifùni's grip tightened.
Lowering his head, Rutejìmo sniffed. “We need to run.”
“Good. Finally, you are making the right choice.” Nifùni released him and gathered up his bag and water skins. “We'll have to run all day to make the….” His voice trailed off, and he glanced at the woman.
Tearing his gaze away, Rutejìmo nodded. “I know.” He hefted his pack on his shoulder. Turning around, he bowed to the old woman. He wasn't surprised when he felt more tears drip off his cheeks and strike the ground at his feet. He stammered for a moment. “I-I'm sorry.”
Her dark gaze, barely visible in the deep wrinkles never shifted.
He bowed again. “I'm sorry, Great Nyochikōmu. I-I have to leave.” He wiped the tears from his eyes, wishing he didn't feel sick from abandoning his duties.
Strapping his pack into place, he bowed again.
She didn't move.
“Jìmo, come on!”
Rutejìmo turned and jogged over to Nifùni.
“About time,” snapped Nifùni. He stepped forward as the translucent dépa passed him.
Rutejìmo started after him, jogging until Shimusògo appeared, but the dépa never came. He slowed after a few rods and stopped. Frowning, he turned around looking for his clan spirit.
In the back of his mind, he knew why he couldn't use it. He wasn't going to run after Nifùni. Even knowing that the others may need him, the pull of Mifúno was stronger. He sighed and looked back over the sands.
Nifùni had stopped a half-mile away, a dark figure standing in a swirl of settling sand. From the distance, Rutejìmo could still pick out the angry look on his face.
Rutejìmo shook his head. “I'm sorry, Great Shimusogo Nifùni. I can't ignore this.” He spoke even though Nifùni couldn't hear him.
In the distance, Nifùni turned and sprinted away, disappearing in a plume of sand that rapidly streaked across the sands. Rutejìmo could feel the man's anger as he raced away.
Shaking his head, Rutejìmo turned.
The old woman stood less than a foot away from him, glaring up at him from her shorter height.
He jumped back. “Sands!”
Her wrinkled face somehow screwed up tighter, and she stepped toward him. Despite her age, there was no suggestion she couldn't keep up with him no matter how quickly he ran. She moved fast, not as much stepping through the intervening distance but simply appearing at the end of her movements.
She tapped her spear against the ground lightly. “If you don't run,” she said in a wavering voice, “then you will die.”
Rutejìmo nodded and gestured toward the smoke. “Y-Yes, Great Nyochikōmu, but they need me too. How do I choose one over the other?” He shook his head. “I can't. I may be a coward, but—”
She held up her hand, stopping him. “There is no cowardice in running toward death.”
Memories resurfaced, of watching Desòchu charging into battle. “I-I don't run toward death all the time.”
“Running to a death filled with blood and violence and running to one filled with sickness and injury are the same. The only difference is what we call those who rush toward death. The glorious deaths are for us warriors, the noble deaths are the ones we don't talk about. The kojinōmi.”
Rutejìmo shivered at her words.
She stepped back. “I am Atefómu, and I speak for Nyochikōmu.”
He bowed. “I am—”
“—and I do not see the dead.” She turned around. “Even if they leave their possessions here for safe guarding. On the shelf of the shelter.”
She appeared next to the shrine, leaving no hint of her passing. She tossed forty pyābi on the shelf. And then she appeared on the stone next to the spring, holding her book as if she had never moved.