Sand and Bone 24: Declaration of War

When one claims to speak for a spirit, they take responsibility for the entire clan. — Cultural Differences in Practice

Rutejìmo cringed as Kidóri grabbed his chin with one hand and jammed an ice-covered cloth against his face. She ground it against his broken nose, sending bursts of pain along his cheeks and forehead, before shoving it flat against his face.

He let out a cry and tried to escape, bucking violently to dislodge her, and clawing at the ground and her thighs. His touch left bloody smears along her dress and skin. He didn’t have the strength to buck off the woman straddling his chest and pinning him to the hard mattress. The cold of the cloth suffocated him but quickly numbed his skin.

“I’m almost done,” she said as she leaned forward. Her hand slipped from his chin, but he had no chance to pull away as she gripped both sides of his face tightly and jammed her thumbs against the ragged ridge of his nose.

“No, no, don’t do—” he started.

She forced the cartilage back in place, and his cry became a high-pitched wail that echoed painfully against the walls.

Unable to see past the lights exploding across his vision, Rutejìmo tensed and waited for the agony to pass. For long moments he wondered if he was going to die, but when she pulled back her hands, the sharp pain quickly became a dull throb. She pulled the cloth away, the fabric stained bright with his blood.

A few rivers of melting ice mixed with tears rolled down his cheeks as he blinked and tried to focus. It took more effort to release his hand away from her thigh; he didn’t remember when he stopped flailing and grabbed her.

Kidóri leaned back until her buttocks rested against his hips. “That’s the best I can do. You are probably going to have a crook for the rest of your life, though.”

She leaned over and grabbed a roll of bandages.

He focused on her movements, watching her through the haze of tears in his eyes. He didn’t think he was going to have long to live, but it wasn’t because of the broken nose. The fight demonstrated that he wasn’t able to defend himself. The only thing he could do was run, and even then they almost killed him.

Kidóri smiled sadly as she unrolled a few feet of the bandage. “This will ache for a little bit, but it will feel better soon. Just a few more seconds, do you think you can take it? Gichyòbi has a nice beer waiting for you.”

Even with the agony radiating across his face, Rutejìmo nodded. “N-No promises that I won’t cry more.”

An emotion flashed across her face, regret and sadness he guessed, but she nodded instead of saying anything. With the same lack of grace, she lifted his head and began to wrap his nose and face with gauze. Her touch seared his nerves, but the pain was nothing compared to the setting of the cartilage or the initial impact with the wall. A whimper escaped his lips, but he clamped down on it for the long seconds before she finished.

When she finished, she rested the back of her hand against his cheek. There was sadness and something else in her eyes, and he felt an uncomfortable twisting in his stomach. He looked away sharply to avoid the chance she might try to explain her emotions.

In the door to the room, he saw Gichyòbi’s and Kidóri’s two youngest children, a boy and a girl, watching curiously. Both were almost old enough to leave the home, but Rutejìmo still remembered when they were babies.

Kidóri crawled off him and wiped her hands on a towel. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Pábyo will think it is handsome.”

He turned away from the children and shoved himself into a sitting position. The guest bed, covered with an old blanket, creaked under his weight. His injuries twinged in response to his movement, stifled by the drugs in his veins and the bandages around his limbs. He looked down at his wrapped hand. The burns along his palms and the cuts from the arrows ached, but he was still alive. Looking up, he forced a smile across his face. “Thank you, Great Wamifuko Kidóri.”

Kidóri patted him lightly on the head. “Don’t give me that ‘great’ shit, Jìmo. I’m thankful you are alive.”

When she sat on the bed, it tilted alarmingly to the side. At the door, the two children crept further inside. She turned her head and held up her hand. “Tèji, bring up some of the stew and your father’s bread. Wait, bring up yesterday’s bread. Today’s experiment was horrible.” All three made a face. “And Ópi, draw a couple mugs of the good lager.”

“Hey!” rumbled Gichyòbi as he came up behind his children. He still wore his heavy armor but carried his horse-shaped helm underneath his arm. The metal creaked with each movement. “Who has the right to give away my good stuff?”

Kidóri looked up at him. “Do you want to sleep in the basement?” Her tone was serious, but Rutejìmo knew they teased each other heavily. He couldn’t help but smile a little.

“At least the lager doesn’t snore.” Gichyòbi entered the room shoulder first, then straightened inside. “But I’m afraid I need Jìmo for two very serious tasks first.”

Rutejìmo tensed at his low voice.

“I’m sorry,” Kidóri said to him before she stood up. “I’ll have some cold mugs waiting for you when you get back.”

She slipped around her husband and pulled the two children out of the room. The wooden door closed behind her.

Gichyòbi looked around the room for a moment, then gestured to the bed. “May I sit, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo?”

The tension in Rutejìmo’s stomach intensified. Gichyòbi never used formal names inside his house, not with Rutejìmo. He nodded and then clutched the bed, knowing that the heavy weight would threaten to dislodge him.

Gichyòbi sat slowly down, but it caused the entire bed to shift under the heavy weight. The nearest leg to the armored man cracked but held. “The council is listening right now.”

“C-Council?” Rutejìmo’s voice cracked and he winced at the sound of it. Then whimpered again as his muscles protested his movement.

“After the events in our… past, the Wamifūko decided to be led by a council of five elders. Obviously, I’m Master of the Gates, but there is also the Mistress of the Streets, Master of the Hearth, and the Mistress of the Maps. The last one is the eldest of the elders and coordinates between the four of us.” Gichyòbi scratched his face before he reached out and pressed his palm against the stone wall near the bed. “I’d give you more of our history, but we are pressed for time. We need answers and you’re the only one who can give them.”

Rutejìmo nodded and pressed his bandaged hands into his lap. He looked at Gichyòbi’s hand. The gesture was too deliberate. He remembered how the warriors came out of the stone, something he didn’t know the Wamifūko were capable of.

“Why was Kosòbyo chasing you, Rutejìmo?”

Rutejìmo glanced at Gichyòbi’s face and then at his hand. He struggled for his words for a moment, then gestured to the wall. “Do I have to touch the wall to answer?”

Gichyòbi smiled broadly. “No. They can feel the vibrations of your voice.”

“I notice—” Rutejìmo stopped. In all the years that he had known Gichyòbi, he had never heard of the Wamifūko’s ability to hear through stone. It was obviously a secret and not something to talk about. He cleared his throat and said, “When we were in Kosobyo City, we… accidentally took on a job to deliver a message. The woman who hired us was killed, and the Kosòbyo attacked us.”

“Do you know why?” Gichyòbi’s smile had disappeared.

Rutejìmo nodded, the memories of Desòchu’s last hours rushing into the front of his mind.

“Can you tell us?”

Rutejìmo shook his head.

“What happened?” asked Gichyòbi.

“Great Shimusogo Desòchu died to give us a chance to escape. He took on the clans and… told me… he told me to run. I was a…” Rutejìmo almost said “coward” but then he remembered Atefómu’s words.

Tears burned in his eyes. “I couldn’t stop him. He had to do… what he had to do.”

Gichyòbi spoke in a low voice, “And you did what you were supposed to do. I know it won’t give comfort, but Desòchu wouldn’t have wanted you to wait for him.”

Rutejìmo wiped the tears from his face and looked where they soaked into his blood-flecked bandages. “I know. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

“It never does,” Gichyòbi said in a haunted voice.

“W-We know what the message says. I have part of it in my case.” Rutejìmo looked around sharply until he saw his bag on a shelf. “It’s in there,” he pointed, “but we don’t know if we can tell anyone. It may be a lie, but whether truth or not, it is dangerous to anyone who knows. That’s why I shouldn’t tell anyone.”

He paused for a moment before he continued speaking. “We can’t tell if Kosòbyo is trying to kill us because they think it’s true or because it is false. Either way, they are willing to do anything to prevent it from being known. We were trying to deliver it back to the clan to make a decision on how to proceed and whether to warn others.”

Rutejìmo’s throat tightened. He wasn’t sure what else he could say without revealing everything. “I-I hope the others made it. I can’t be the only one.”

“Rutejìmo.”

Rutejìmo closed his eyes.

“Please tell us the message.” Gichyòbi’s tone was insistent.

Rutejìmo froze. There was something in the warrior’s eyes. He was holding something back from Rutejìmo.

Clearing his throat, Rutejìmo stared into his friend’s eyes. “You said two things.”

Gichyòbi bowed his head. “Forgive me, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo, but I have to pick the one that threatens my clan verses the one that keeps our friendship.”

Ice ran down Rutejìmo’s spine, pooling in his stomach. He held his breath and shook his head. “W-What happened?”

Gichyòbi glanced at the wall, then slowly pulled his hand away from it. “We disagree,” he said softly.

“Please, Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi. What happened?”

The warrior looked at the stone and then back. “Last night, Great Shimusogo Hyonèku entered the city with the body of—”

Rutejìmo inhaled sharply. “No…” The world spun violently around him and he couldn’t focus through the sudden tears.

“—Great Shimusogo Kiríshi. They were ambushed outside of a Tifukòmi oasis last night.”

“She was killed?”

“Yes, by the Modashìa who were also trying to kill you. I suspect that the reasons are the same.”

Rutejìmo shook his head, swaying as he lost his balance. He started to fall but Gichyòbi caught him. “T-they weren’t even part of our group.”

“Which means that Kosòbyo may be going after all of the Shimusògo.”

Pushing away from Gichyòbi, Rutejìmo tried to crawl out of bed. “I-I need to see them.”

“Great Shimusogo Hyonèku is—”

“He’s my wife’s father!” Rutejìmo grabbed the armored arm. “He’s the man who cares for my children! If they died because of me, I… I…” He sobbed and bowed his head. “I can’t fail them too.”

Gichyòbi stood up and held out his hand. “Come, I will deal with the council later.” He glared at the wall. “Or sooner, but it wasn’t our right to hold knowledge of your clan.”

Rutejìmo could barely stand, but knowing that Hyonèku was in the city pushed him forward. He grabbed the bone case and slung it over his shoulder. Leaving the rest of his belongings, he staggered out of Gichyòbi’s house while leaning on the warrior.

The older man led him down empty streets normally packed in the middle of the day. Seeing the deserted street left Rutejìmo uncomfortable. He had spent months in the city, and it was never quiet before. The silence ground down on him, and he shivered from the pressure.

As they crossed a thoroughfare, Rutejìmo peered down the street to see a Wamifūko warrior standing in the center of an intersection. The warrior held his weapon ready and burned with glowing flames. The stone underneath the armored feet was scorched in a wide circle.

Beyond the warrior, he saw the normal crowds of the city.

“We’ve already had two attempts to break into the city,” explained the warrior. “Whatever message you have has raised the ire of many clans. I’ve ordered a three-block length from you cleared of everyone.”

“I-I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“No, but the Wamifūko respond seriously when clans we previously respected decide to break our rules. The Kokikóru and Kosòbyo have both tried to force their way into the city while the Pochyogìma is simply threatening to.”

Rutejìmo felt very small.

Gichyòbi stopped in front of a building with bricked-over windows. A guard stood in the entrance to the building. “We’re here.”

The guard stepped aside and saluted by slamming the butt of his spear into the ground. Rutejìmo expected a rumbling boom but heard only the crack of wood on stone.

Following Gichyòbi, Rutejìmo entered. Dust and spiderwebs indicated the building had been abandoned for some time. Recent traffic marked a blood-flecked path toward the bedroom while a path of something being dragged led toward the kitchen area.

He felt drawn to the kitchen, knowing there was a body there. His duties as a kojinōmi pressed against his thoughts, though no breeze could reach him inside the city to remind him of his duties.

In the living room, two gray dogs sat near the entrance, stained with blood. They had been panting, but they stopped as soon as Rutejìmo entered the room. Two sets of brown eyes regarded him in eerie silence.

Rutejìmo bowed to the dogs. The Tifukòmi clan could see through their animal’s eyes.

Gichyòbi grunted. “Great Tifukomi Kamanìo refused to leave your wife’s father’s side.”

“Because the Tifukòmi failed the Shimusògo,” said an old man as he stepped out of one bedroom. “And we will not continue that failure by abandoning our charge.”

The years had worn on Kamanìo. The short man’s eyes were hazy, one more than the other, but they were just as sad as the day he saved Rutejìmo from dying in the desert. He walked with a cane, one leg trailing behind. He had fresh scars layered over old ones, the red lines tracing his nose and cheek. His outfit, a simple tunic of red and white, had been recently stained with blood.

Rutejìmo bowed. “Great Tifukomi Kamanìo.”

Kamanìo and both dogs bowed in return. “Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo, I cannot ask for forgiveness from you. I know what the one we lost means to you.” He staggered forward. “Please, accept my shame.” He knelt in front of Rutejìmo.

Rutejìmo held up his hand. “No, don’t do this.”

Kamanìo raised his head, baring his throat. In his hand, he held a knife.

“No, I will not.”

“Tifukòmi’s honor demands you take this.”

Kamanìo’s hand was steady as the tip of the blade caught the light.

Power bubbled up inside Rutejìmo. He shook his head as it rushed up to fill him. It wasn’t the euphoria of Shimusògo but the raw power of Mifúno, impersonal and terrible. The whispers demanded Rutejìmo take the throat presented, to accept the honorable death of a clan that had broken a promise to the desert.

Energy crackled along Gichyòbi’s spear and armor. Golden lines spread out between Kamanìo and his two dogs, forming a webbing of emotion and thoughts shared between human and animal. Motes of energy rose from the warriors and drifted toward Rutejìmo, swirling as they brushed against the power welling out of Rutejìmo.

Rutejìmo whimpered as he fought the urge to grab the knife out of the old man’s hand. He bit down on his lip, drawing blood. With another shake, he slapped the knife from Kamanìo’s hand. “No!”

As rapidly as it appeared, the power faded. It left Rutejìmo swaying. He clutched blindly for balance, his hands scraped against Gichyòbi’s armored side.

Gichyòbi grabbed him by the elbow and held him steady.

Kamanìo’s and Gichyòbi’s eyes were wide when Rutejìmo finally looked up.

Rutejìmo turned back to the man kneeling in front of him. “I can’t take a life after seeing so much death.” He held out his shaking hand. “You had to say what you must say, but I honor Tifukòmi by not accepting the life of one of their own. Death has surrounded me on this run and, I have no doubt, there will be more before it is done.”

Kamanìo bowed his head. “I accept your decision, Great… Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”

Unable to concentrate on Kamanìo’s hesitation, Rutejìmo pushed himself off Gichyòbi and staggered toward the bedroom. No one stopped him as he inched into the room, afraid of what he would see.

Hyonèku had been laid out across a bed. His body was wrapped in bandages secured with leather thongs, including one set across his right eye. He could see where the edge of the slash came down across Hyonèku’s face, ending at his cheek. There were more on his chest, arms, and sides. Blood seeped through the fabric everywhere, mapping out half a dozen cuts that would have killed a lesser man.

Cloth had been wrapped around his throat, and there was a large blot of crimson dangerously close to his jugular. The cloth glistened with fresh blood, but it wasn’t pouring out.

Sadness punched Rutejìmo in the gut. He staggered further in and dropped to his knees against the side of the bed.

Hyonèku turned his head toward him, but the older man’s one good eye didn’t focus. There was blood surrounding his green iris and his pupil was large.

Rutejìmo lowered his gaze to trace a sweeping line from Hyonèku’s ruined eye, to his throat, to his shoulder where only a bandaged stump remained. Bits of charred flesh stuck out of the coils of cloth. The sight of an injured Hyonèku reminded Rutejìmo of when another friend had died. Gemènyo had fallen from the cliff saving a little girl but he had died in the process.

Fighting the emotions welling up within him, Rutejìmo forced himself to continue inspecting Hyonèku.

The older man’s leg was wrapped in two strips of wood and bandages. There was no blood, but Rutejìmo was familiar enough with broken bones to know what the two lumps meant: both bones were broken.

Tears ran down Rutejìmo’s cheek as he pressed a hand against Hyonèku’s chest. He didn’t feel the pressure from Mifúno to do anything, though he searched his heart for any hint that the desert desired Hyonèku. When he felt nothing, he let out a soft gasp of relief.

Hyonèku jerked. “J-Jìmo?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

Hyonèku smiled, though it faded almost instantly. “I thought I recong… knew that whimpering.”

Rutejìmo flushed. “I wasn’t whimpering.”

Hyonèku chuckled and then groaned. “No, you weren’t, were you? Don’t worry, I’m not dead.” He paused. “Not… are you?”

Rutejìmo shook his head. “I’m not here for you, old man.”

“Ríshi?” The muscles of Hyonèku’s face tightened.

“She’s dead, I’ve heard.”

“I tried to save her, but there were too many. They ambushed us,” Hyonèku coughed and clutched his stomach with his good hand, “right at the end of the day. Snakes, scorpions, and so much magic. I-I lost her when they pulled me down…”

“Her body is in the other room.”

Hyonèku looked at Rutejìmo, his eyes bloodshot and tears welling. “W-Will you be the one?”

Rutejìmo caught Hyonèku’s only hand. “Yes, I will guide her. I promise.”

Mapábyo’s father gripped him tightly.

“I promise,” Rutejìmo repeated.

“Could you also… promise to tell Desòchu and Chimípu to slaughter the bastards? Every single one of them?”

A sob rose in Rutejìmo’s throat. He shook his head and held the hand tightly.

“Jìmo?”

It took all Rutejìmo’s strength to speak. “Great Shimusogo Desòchu is dead, killed by the Kosòbyo.”

Hyonèku’s hand gripped Rutejìmo’s tightly. “Sòchu? Sòchu is dead? How? Why?”

Rutejìmo fought his own tears. “Ni… one of us accepted a job that the others didn’t want to take. We were attacked and had to flee the city. We were planning on running out as soon as Tachìra rose, but they were on us. My… my brother slowed them down so we could run.”

He lost control of his emotions and the tears poured down his cheeks. “I had… I had… I had to leave him behind before they killed him.”

In the silence that filled the room, Rutejìmo glanced at the door where both Gichyòbi and one of the dogs stood. He considered what would happen if he explained the message. After a long moment, he knew he owed Hyonèku more details of what lead to his wife’s death. “One moment. Great Wamifuko Gichyòbi?”

“Yes, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo?” Gichyòbi’s voice was tense.

“If I tell only you, can you decide if you want the rest of your clan to know?”

Gichyòbi glanced at the walls and then nodded. “The council has withdrawn, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”

Rutejìmo turned his attention to the dog next to the armored warrior. “Whoever knows this will make an enemy of Kosòbyo. Are you willing to remain?”

The dog slipped past Rutejìmo to enter the room and sat down near the bed. A moment later, Kamanìo stepped up to the door. All of them entered before Gichyòbi closed the door behind him.

Rutejìmo turned back to Hyonèku. “It started when we first arrived at the city…” He told the story the best he could, bursting into tears when he reached Desòchu’s death but continuing on to describe Nifùni’s body when he finally found him and the final rites he gave the desecrated corpse of the man who was responsible for Desòchu’s death.

When he finished, he was weak. He slumped against the bed and slid down to the ground. The effort to tell the story left him with no energy to remain upright. In the silence that followed, he could only hear his own panting and felt the shaking of his body from his rapidly beating heart.

“I-I had no right to go against our decision to keep it a secret. Nifùni did the same and people died. Telling you… people will die.”

Gichyòbi shook his head. He was paler than Rutejìmo had ever seen him before. He leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. “Kosòbyo is turning against the sun? No wonder they are willing to kill to keep that a secret. Only one great clan has ever betrayed Tachìra and… hundreds of thousands died in the war that followed. Old wounds, rivalries, and hatreds opened up as the line between day and night blurred. As Tachìra and Chobìre fought, so did all of us.”

Kamanìo sat on the floor between his two dogs. “When Hizogōma betrayed Tachìra, the stars in the night withered and died. Our nights are dark because of the people who were slaughtered in those wars.”

Rutejìmo shivered at the forbidden clan’s name, and his many memories of staring up at the night sky. There were less than a hundred stars at night, but that had been the case for centuries. The idea that a clan changing allegiances could impact the world so much terrified him.

Kamanìo continued. “If Kosòbyo does the same, we don’t know what horrors will happen. We can’t allow the snake to do this.”

Rutejìmo squeezed Hyonèku’s hand, he had not let go of it the entire time he spoke. “I… we don’t know if it’s a lie.”

“It’s the truth,” said Kamanìo sharply, “and I’m willing to put my clan behind it to say that.”

Rutejìmo shook his head. “How can you know?”

“If this woman had written a lie, they would be discrediting you. We would see runners going out to the cities and oases, not fighters and warriors setting ambushes to kill you. Kosòbyo has always been a manipulative snake, but he’s going for the throat. And doing so quietly. That means there are not many sunrises before the snake bites Tachìra.”

Gichyòbi grunted and glanced at the wall. He shook his head and then looked back to Rutejìmo. “Do we do nothing and let Shimusògo stand on their own?”

“Tifukòmi will stand by Shimusògo,” announced Kamanìo, “I will not let the snake bathe my desert in blood.”

Both dogs stood up sharply in response.

Gichyòbi tilted his head in acknowledgment. He held up his hand for a moment and stared at the wall. When he turned back, Rutejìmo could see a hardness in his eyes. “Making that choice is to declare war on Kosòbyo, Great Tifukomi Kamanìo. Are you willing to risk your clan against the most powerful of Tachìra’s allies?”

“Former allies of the sun. And that snake will have a lot less once the desert knows his plans.”

Hyonèku stirred. “Couriers die delivering messages like this.” He slumped back to the bed, speaking to the ceiling to finish. “Ríshi died because of this message. Kosòbyo has already declared war on my family and my clan. I can’t speak for Shimusògo but you can guess my vote.”

Gichyòbi looked at Rutejìmo.

“I…” Rutejìmo sniffed. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Jìmo,” croaked Hyonèku. “You speak for Shimusògo here.”

Rutejìmo fought back the tears. He squeezed Hyonèku’s hand one last time before staggering to his feet. He took a moment to steady himself. When he did, he took a deep breath. “I-I am Rutejìmo, and I speak for Shimusògo.”

He had never before spoken for the Shimusògo clan with an elder present, but Hyonèku said nothing. Gulping, he forced himself to keep speaking even as he shook violently from the effort. “Kosòbyo has declared war on my clan, and I need help. Will you?”

Gichyòbi stood up. “I am Gichyòbi, and I speak for the Wamifūko. We will defend the Shimusògo with our lives, and if that means I have to shit on Kosòbyo’s corpse to do so, then we will go to war. The Shimusògo and his allies will find shelter in our mountain for as long as the sun rises.”

Both dogs barked as Kamanìo stood forward. “I am Kamanìo, and I speak for Tifukòmi. The oases will offer no shelter to Kosòbyo for as long as the sun rises.”

Rutejìmo glanced at Hyonèku.

Hyonèku nodded, his eyes glistening. “You always surprised me, boy. I never thought it would come to this.”

With a smile, Rutejìmo shook his head. He looked back at the others. He had just formally declared war on Kosòbyo. The realization of what he had done was immense, crushing down on him. He never wanted the responsibility for this, but it was the only thing he could do.

Silence filled the room. It wasn’t a moment of celebration, but a moment of hesitation.

To break it, Rutejìmo cleared his throat. “I need to burn Kiríshi tonight.”

The silence shifted instantly as everyone stared at him.

“Are you insane!?” roared Gichyòbi. “You just declared war on the Kosòbyo and want to go out of the city limits where I can’t protect you!?”

“Yes!” snapped Rutejìmo, “because she is my wife’s mother and I promised Hyonèku. Her soul deserves to be tended.”

“No,” Hyonèku groaned as he sat up, “you can’t honor that promise. Not after what—”

“Other kojinōmi live in this city,” added Gichyòbi. “They will do it.”

Kamanìo and the dogs joined in, yelling and barking.

Rutejìmo knew he should let another kojinōmi burn Kiríshi’s body, but it was something more than just caring for the woman who helped him and raised his wife. He needed to do it for Mapábyo, his clan, and himself.

The others continued to yell at him, filling the tiny room with overwhelming noise. It beat against him, slamming against his chest, and crushing him with the pressure. Even Hyonèku joined in the yelling, though his weak voice was drowned out by Gichyòbi, Kamanìo, and the dogs.

He waited a few seconds and then drew in his breath. “I am Rutejìmo, and I speak for Mifúno!” His voice slammed against the walls of the room and the power crackled around him. It sparked along Gichyòbi’s weapon and the connection with the pack. Arcs of lightning speared through the air and scorched the stone as a field of brilliant, magenta light surrounded him.

The sound of his voice didn’t echo back. Instead, a suffocating silence draped over the tiny room. A whisper of wind slipped through the cracks of the door, sending streamers of sand cascading across the floor.

Everyone stepped back from Rutejìmo, their faces pale. Rutejìmo stood in the silence. The fear he felt declaring war was completely gone, replaced with a determination to perform his duty.

Hyonèku whispered, “What happened to you, Rutejìmo? How can you speak for her? You’ll… she’ll kill you.”

The whispers rising in the back of his head made it easier to speak for Mifúno than Shimusògo. Rutejìmo jumped forward. “I lost my brother, and I lost my clan. People are dying around me, but I have obligations to two spirits, not one. I am a kojinōmi—”

Everyone else ducked their head at the forbidden name.

“—and Kiríshi is still my friend and my family. She is the mother of my wife. She deserves my hand on her final path. So, I ask you as a friend, will you protect me while I honor her?”

“Not even Kosòbyo would interrupt a kojinōmi,” said Gichyòbi, “they aren’t that stupid. That would be like declaring war on the sand itself.”

Rutejìmo looked at him, a silent question.

Gichyòbi shook his head. “But I would say the same for turning away from the sun. No, Kosòbyo would attack you, if it meant keeping you silent. I will protect you though the rest of Wamifūko will not.”

Kamanìo bowed. “The Tifukòmi will die to shield you.”

Rutejìmo turned to Hyonèku and knelt again. “I know you disagree, but—”

“No,” interrupted Hyonèku, “I don’t. I just… never thought the boy who almost failed his rites would ever be willing to risk his own life for this.” He reached out and pulled Rutejìmo into his chest; the gesture was weak, but Rutejìmo sank into the embrace.

Hyonèku whispered into Rutejìmo’s ear. “I’m proud of you, more than I have the words to tell you. Thank you for… everything.”

Rutejìmo hugged him back. If Rutejìmo’s brother could die in the flames of glory, then he could do the same.