If anyone in the Stilted Kingdom was asked to point out the one imperial guard working among the king’s guard, they would not hesitate to point in Daro’s direction. Even so, he considered this a good thing, for to call him a king’s guard wouldn’t be entirely accurate. His true job was to protect the imperial heir, who had been held hostage there since the empire had been defeated by the Stilts after the discovery of the disdust mines beneath the castle. Sworn to serve and protect the heir until his death, this effectively made Daro himself a ward of the Stilts as well.
Standing watch in the beautiful garden around the castle’s outer courtyard, he placed his hand on the pommel of his sheathed way-blade and grinned. Working for the Stilts wasn’t all bad. They had great weather and the advantage the disdust gave the average soldier in battle made it clear why the empire had suffered such devastating losses during the war. Burning the disdust allowed for quick and easy travel to any place located on a map in mere minutes, and when the dust was forged into a way-blade, one could throw their blades and appear wherever it landed by teleporting through the Naywhere.
As rare as the occasions to use these magical blades were, the rush of being pulled through the Naywhere to wherever the blade came to a stop was comparable to falling from a great height into water, but without getting wet. Today seemed yet another day lacking a reason for such excitement. His partner was about to come to replace him, although he did seem to be running a bit late. Daro peered around for Jossi, who was to take his place near the font gate. He walked a few paces to the corner wall but stopped upon hearing a gasp near the large hedges that went around the mortared wall’s interior.
The small hairs on the back of Daro’s neck stood on edge when seeing a streak of red dripping like paint from the deep green leaves. He did not know if the blood came from Jossi for there was no body accompanying it. Before the cold hand of death could grasp him, he spun on instinct to a see an olive skinned hand reach between the leaves at his back. There was a hiss and Daro jumped back from the sudden swing of a blade. He unsheathed his way-blade, seeing a dark feminine figure swiftly scale the wall.
Fast climber… who am I dealing with here?
Grinning, he realized that this was exactly the situation he had wanted that would justify the use of his way-blade. He reversed the grip on it and tossed it over the high wall. The feeling of falling came over him, being sucked through a glowing gateway, through the dark Naywhere and back through another gate of yellow light into reality. When he reappeared on the other side of the wall where his dagger lay on the grass, the hand that threw it once again grasped its hilt.
Taking a second to get his bearings again, he spun. Not seeing the dark figure anywhere, he looked up and saw narrow eyes looking down on him from atop the wall. The figure then fell down the side he had just come from. He tossed the blade over again, gasping as he appeared on the other side and rose, seeing the dark figure vanish into the front gate that he was supposed to have been guarding. Panic rushed through him as he realized who he had just allowed to enter. Black and red robes meant one thing, a joh-ken assassin, and Daro had a feeling he knew who she was after.
He couldn’t waste a second. The entrance corridor led to the dining hall, so if he could get there first he could cut her off. Without hesitating, he eyed up the high stained-glass window on the castle wall that he knew shone down on the main hall. Using all his might, he tossed the blade toward it. He barely got to see it spinning end over end before the falling sensation came over him. It went for longer this time and he came to one knee as he landed on the soft carpet inside the hall, colorful glass landing all around him from the shattered window.
Daro breathed out and looked up just in time to see the joh-ken running along the huge dinning room table toward the winding stairs at the back of the room. He wasn’t going to let her reach it. He ran to the heavy mahogany table, planning to cut her off. The joh-ken pulled out and tossed a blade at his left shoulder, forcing him to dodge to the side to stop himself from being skewered. It wasn’t until he found himself on one side of the table that he realized why she had aimed for his left shoulder.
She had jumped off the table to the right, running toward the kitchens coming off the left side of the hall, where Daro knew led to Lou’s room. “No you don’t!”
He dived into a roll before throwing his way-blade under the table. A breath shot from his lungs before the tip of the blade hit the open kitchen door and he appeared inside, pulling the blade out with just enough time to parry a knife flying his way. He kicked out as the assassin somersaulted back from him and ran out through the kitchen’s back door. Chasing her through the kitchen and down a corridor leading to a set of stairs, he stopped when she suddenly vanished from his sight.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up again at a shuffling noise behind him, and on instinct, he leaped forward as another blade flew his way, followed by a swift back kick. Daro ground his teeth and slashed out, their blades scraping past each other before he felt a searing pain hit his shoulder. His father had always told him never to face a Joh-ken one on one, and he now knew why. Their speed was breathtaking. This was demonstrated as she gracefully spun and ran while he still gripped his shoulder, blood seeping through the arm of his tunic.
Seeing the rich red on his fingers, he remembered the blood on the hedge. The thought that it was Jossi’s blood made him grind his teeth and swap his blade to his right hand. He had practiced throwing it with both hands, but still flinched from the pain of the movement as he tossed it at the joh-ken’s slender back. The falling sensation hit him as he hurled through the dark world. Instead of reappearing, a new feeling hit him, like the entire Naywhere and flipped upside-down on him, and he tumbled through the gateway into another room, completely disorientated.
Confused at what had just happened, he ran back to the hall to see that the joh-ken was nowhere to be found. She had already vanished up the stairs to the heir’s room. It came to him all at once. When he had thrown his way-blade at her back, she must have somehow deflected it into another room, causing him to reappear there. Sweat coated his face from the fight, but he wasted no time in chasing the assassin up the winding stairs. By the time he arrived at the top and burst into Lou’s room, he was completely exhausted.
His breathing was labored as he looked around the empty bedroom. There was no one there, no blood and the area seemed completely untouched. The only thing that moved in the room were the thin curtains swaying in the cool breeze. He rushed to the window, which looked down over the courtyard.
Was I wrong? Was the joh-ken actually after the king?
That was when he saw her, the dark figure climbing the wall. As she reached the top, she spun and caught his gaze through the window. With a single casual salute, she dropped out of sight. Daro spun from the window and padded down the stairs. Had the heir been absent today? Why had he been put on guard if that were the case? It didn’t make sense to him. Only one certainty came to mind.
I must report this to the king immediately.