Chapter 1 – Fumble

The fire sputtered in the princess’s hearth. It had been a cold night, and as alluring as its warmth was, Ren remained in the shadows of the room. A patch of shadow wasn’t hard to find with how large the room was; filled with tall statues, shelves and furniture all blocking the firelight. Although there was a pool of darkness near the door that would have been perfect for sneaking up on her, considering the young woman wasn’t her current target, she would remember it if the coin were to ever start flowing in the other direction.

Ren stood between a large bookcase and the back wall. It was a perfect place to walk from as not to startle her client. Revealing her position to a new client was always her favorite part of a job, but the disciplines the school had whipped into her allowed her anticipatory thoughts to drift while waiting for the princess. That being said, she was starting to feel antsy by the time the door opened and Princess Natalie walked in with her handmaiden. She bit her lip, knowing she would now have to wait for the maid to leave.

“Like I would let him be the next emperor out of nothing more than a pretty smile.”

“But your brother…”

“My brother!” Natalie whirled on the handmaid. “My brother is not of this world anymore. He means nothing to these people!”

“I don’t think the emperor would be happy to hear that from you, dear.”

“Who are you kidding? My father would be happy to hear anything with how bad his hearing has become.”

“Your mother then.” The handmaid began to undress her. Ren had noticed the frilly nightgown on the end of her four post bed when she had entered from the black tunnels. “She would not be happy to hear you talk so about the prince.”

“She has nothing else to hold onto because she is nothing but my father’s doll. You think she has any say over what he does?”

A lace slipped and the firelight gleamed off her slender shoulder. “I think you underestimate the power that women have in the bedroom.”

Natalie slid her arms through the silk sleeves as the maid did the knots up her back. “The empress is not some courtesan that can run her mouth. Besides, if you really think my drooling father can get his soldier to unbend in his state, then you overestimate him.”

After the knots where tied the maid ran her hand down Natalie’s back. Ren didn’t know if this was a comfort thing but it seemed to be enough for the princess to crawl over her bed. The handmaid turned and went to leave the room, saying as she opened the doors. “You will know your own power in the empire soon enough.”

When the doors to the room were closed, Natalie murmured, “You will see my power soon enough.”

It was time. Ren moved out from behind the bookshelf into the light of the fire. “So… you want me to kill your brother?”

Natalie’s face shot around and she jumped from her bed, running halfway to the door before a sudden realization came over her expression. She paused, hand still reaching for the handle. “Y-you’re not here for me?”

“Of course I am, did you not send for me?”

The princess’ shoulders lowered and her eyes narrowed in anger. “You didn’t scare me.”

Ren nodded, gesturing to a chair near the fireplace. “Of course not.”

Natalie uneasily took a seat, her shoulders rising again, as though to fight against the comfort of the plush cushions under her. “So Meiche passed on the message. I didn’t think he would actually do it.”

Ren thought of the smiling fat, bearded man in his long robes. “There is very little that I think that man wouldn’t do.”

“Including fratricide?”

Ren moved to face her. “So my assumption was correct.”

Natalie looked into the swirling flames. “No one thinks Loushan is coming back. When father lost the war against the Stilts it was bad for morale, but then their king took my brother as a vassal, and even if he comes back, the people will never accept him as one of their own. Kaise is doomed unless we find her another heir, one that the people will love.”

“That being you?” Ren asked but then raised a hand. “Uh-uh, I’m not here for you to justify yourself to me. I’m joh-ken, you pay me for a kill and I kill with no follow up meeting. If you want me to kill your brother in the Stilted Kingdom, that is what I will do. Although traveling all that way may take me a long time. You understand this?”

“Not necessarily.” Natalie stood up and moved over to the edge of the throw rug, rolling it up and pulling up a wooden board from the floor. “I’ve acquired some Disdust, enough to get to and from the Stilted Kingdom without anyone knowing you were there.”

Stoicism was the default expression of the Joh-ken, but even Ren couldn’t help but be shocked when she saw what was in the small wooden box. Disdust was rare white powder that had been mined from under the Stilted Kingdom and was the reason why it was now called ‘Stilted’, its extensive mining operations undermined the foundation of the castle. And in the box was a small pouch of it.

Ren took the box from her, a small fortune in her hand. “Your orders are to use this to kill your brother and return without being seen?”

Natalie nodded and turned away, as though she felt some guilt about something she honestly thought needed to be done for the good of the empire. Ren had no say in the matter, Joh-ken didn’t decline a job for its political nature, nor the potential effect on a country.

“There’s some gold in that box for whatever you’ll need as well. Needless to say, there will be a larger amount sent to the school when I’ve heard word of your success.”

Ren nodded and stood. “It will be done, princess”
She moved back to the shadows from where she had emerged. Inching down the wall to the other side of the room, she silently lowered behind the shelves to the entrance of the tunnel at the base of the wall. It was disguised as a headboard that rolled back and opened up to a narrow dry wall. She shuffled blindly down the passage to the rusted ladder that led down to every level of the palace.

As she arrived at the bottom, she entered through the back of a wardrobe that only bed-warmers used for the lords on rare occasions. Ren knew many of the whores and thought some of them had better lifestyles than most women among royalty, where others might as well be homeless with how badly they were treated.

Ren grabbed the red and white priestesses robe she had hung up on the end of a broomstick on her way in. Slipping it on and walking down the empty palace corridors, it didn’t take her long to escape the place entirely, completely unnoticed. Just like a pro, not at all like someone who never graduated from the school.

She exited the gates by the bridge, moving in the direction of the red archways of the nearest shrine pagoda. Nothing suspicious about a priestess visiting the palace to console the faithful of their rightful path. She decided to use the identity as a visiting shrine maiden to get free board and food. It was satisfying to be able to shed the cumbersome attire when she left the following morning to head to the nearest traveler’s store.

A traveler’s store was something that existed in different countries, generally looking different and under a different names, but they were always there. One could buy and sell items as simple as dried grass, dirt and rocks, which may seem silly in any other context, but for those with Disdust, one could use these objects to travel great distances very quickly.

This shop, called the Denro, sat at the back of a dark alleyway of lesser known stores. On either side of the door were two swordsmen, looking like they knew how to handle their weapons. As trivial as the objects in the store seemed to be, they were bought for little money from passing travelers and sold off for a lot more to those that could afford Disdust. Ren was lucky that the Joh-ken had a reputation that they weren’t ones to be bartered with.

She stepped into the store, seeing the countless vials with samples of practically everything a traveler could think of to sell, even stuff they might scrape off their boots, all arranged throughout the shop by the places they originated.

A bespectacled old man sitting at a table at the back of the store looked to be woken up as soon as she walked in. “Who’re going to have to… Oh crap, a Joh-ken. I was hoping to close shop early today. Alright, where do you want to go?”

“The Stilted Kingdom.”

He gestured to the right wall. “You’ll find everything you want there.”

Ren moved over to the rows of shelves, each with vials or boxes lined up along them. “Will any of this get me inside the castle right away?”

The man shrugged and sat up, coming to her side. “Best to go by sight. If something looks like it belongs in the castle, I would pick that. I’d be careful though, you could end up in the king’s chambers if you’re not careful.”

Ren smirked. “I could only be so lucky.” She opened one of the boxes and spotted a chunk of rock with an angle that looked like it was a part of a wall’s crenelation. “This looks right, it should put me right outside the wall. Don’t want to push my chances with appearing too close.”

“Ah, I wouldn’t recommend that piece. That might not lead you where you want to go. How about–”

“This will be fine.” Ren felt like the man was trying to make her buy something more expensive. “But thank you.”

The old man’s brow rose and he looked down with a troubled expression on his face. “Well, alright. Be it on your own head. How will you be paying for this piece?”

“Gold.” Ren reached down into the box with the gold and Disdust and flicked out a coin. The man caught it, lifting a brow. “Not used to you people actually paying the full price tag. You must have a rich client.”

Ren shook her head. “Just someone who’s been saving their pocket money. You should know better than to guess a Joh-ken’s client, it would be reason enough for you to face my blade.”

The man raised his hand, the coin already vanished down his long sleeve, and walked back to his desk. “Just trying to help.”

“This better take me where I want to go… you’re lucky I don’t ask for change.”

“Here’s your change.” He threw two rocks at her.

At first she thought that he was attacking her, but when she caught them, Ren realized they were flints. The confused look on her face triggered another lecture from the old man. “I can tell from your face that you’ve never used Disdust before.”

“You make a line on a map with objects from the place you want to go, right?”

“If that were the case you could reuse the dust as many times as you wanted. You have to light the trail from the end you’re at.”

“Really?” She hadn’t known that. “I suppose I won’t kill you then.”

He shook his head. “You’re welcome.”

With everything she needed for the journey now in her hands, Ren exited the store and made her way back down the alleyway, through the city square, toward the giant mound of grass that led up from the forge. When at the top of the mound, she unrolled the map she had stolen from the shrine, pinning down one end of it with the box, the other end with her knees. Luckily the day wasn’t windy or she wouldn’t have been able to use the dust properly, as it would simply have blown away.

She picked a small rock up from the grass and placed it on the map, roughly where she would have been in the city. Not that it mattered. She had heard that the position of the rock in reality mattered more than its position on the map for where the gateway would appear. She then took the pouch and poured a small trail of the Disdust in a line, connecting it with the Stilted Kingdom. She then took the piece of wall she had bought from Denro and placed it over the kingdom.

Not hesitating in case the wind suddenly decided to pick up, she took the flint and scraped it against the rock that was a representation of the Juden city. It created a spark that lit the Disdust, the bright light trailing along the line as though it were gunpowder. But instead of the dust going black, it glowed with a bright light. The smoke that lit the air above the map stretched and opened the gateway into the darkness of the Naywhere.

She had been told what happened when using Disdust, but it was the first time she had witnessed it herself. She picked up the box with the coins, grabbing a tuft of grass from the mound for her return journey and putting it inside with the Disdust and the coins. Rising, she stepped through the gateway with the box under her arm. Like she had been told about using the dust, each grain became a pebble in the long bridge that stretched across the the dark void.

The silence inside the Naywhere seemed almost deafening, the air quiet as though only coming from the gateway she had entered from. The Naywhere, a darkness that stretched out to eternity, and the bridge created from the Disdust only existed so long as the dust itself was still releasing energy after being burned. Even after the flame had passed over it, it was still releasing heat energy, but Ren knew it wouldn’t last long. She started running.

She could see the exiting gateway in the distance, a pinprick of light in the depth of the Naywhere. As a Joh-ken, she could run quickly for long periods of time, but perhaps because a person’s perspective changed while in the Naywhere, she had overestimated how long it would take to get there. However, as soon as she was close enough to see the second gateway more clearly, she paused, realizing her mistake as her mind screamed at her to go back. The space of the gateway was blocked almost entirely by a stone wall.

“Oh no! No!” She ground her teeth, spun and sprinted back the way she had come.

The piece from the wall that she had chosen now blocked the entire gateway she was supposed to have gone through. She had visibly seen the thick bricks where open space should have been. Not only did this mean that she had made a very bad decision in her choice of an object for using the Disdust, but that she had just wasted a fortune of the stuff that she could have used to get back after the job was done. It seemed that her thoughts of things not getting any worse hit the void of the Naywhere as a challenge, for it was then the bridge in front of the gateway began to crumble.

“No! No! NO!”

Ren bolted to the end of the bridge and jumped, the falling pebbles giving her very little force to push on. At first she thought she was going to fall, but then her hand caught the end of the portal, biting her skin as she hung between reality and the void. The gateway then began to close. Before it could she shoved the wooden box inside and scrambled to pulled herself up and through the circle of light, rolling out and laying panting on the mound.

“No…” she groaned and spun, pushing her face into the grass.

Gritting her teeth and punching the dirt, she finally stood and made her way back to Denro. Wandering the backstreets, she arrived in front of the storekeeper and slammed another coin onto the table, feeling like it could simply break under the weight of her rage.

“Alright, fine. What item would you suggest then?” she asked through clenched teeth.

The old man grinned. “Ran into a bit of a wall, did we?”

“Oh, shut up and give me something that will get me to the Stilted Kingdom right this time!”

He sighed and stood from his table, holding up a broken shard from what could have been an ornate vase. “This might be more reliable.”

“How did you…?” Ren’s eyes narrowed. “You knew I was going to come back here, didn’t you?”

“I had a feeling.” He shook his head in disappointment. “An awful waste of Disdust, though.”

She growled and snatched the vase shard from him, nearly dropping it before waving it in front of his face. “This one better work!”

The man nodded, still smiling. “Well, you saw what happened the last time you didn’t take my advice, but I guess that this way i get paid twice.”

Ren scoffed at his remarks and stalked from the store with the vase shard, ready for her second attempt to use the Disdust. If it didn’t work this time, she was going to kill the store-owner after all.