Empress Jade Blossom scanned the horizon from her window in the Palace of Terrestrial Tranquility. The sun set over the river valley leaving the sky stained as if someone had scrubbed a celestial canvas with plum blossoms. No sign of the Fenghuang; even the August Rooster, immortal god of the birds and confidant of the empress, wouldn't fly in the darkness. A mob rumbled beyond the palace's walls and their torchlight reflected off nearby buildings. Jade retreated from the window and sat on her sitting room chair where one of the servant girls, Laosa, began to take the pins out of Jade's hair.
Jade didn't see the fear in Laosa's face, but she'd heard it earlier eavesdropping on the servants who echoed the voices of the mob. Laosa's lips curled in a thin smile, her eyes downcast, as she worked around Jade as a comet always facing the sun. Jade bit her lip. The fear was well earned. It had been a week since the coronation ceremony had completed and still no sign of Fenghuang. Jade wondered at her virtue, each day the questions inside her growing louder like the mob. The August Rooster symbolized virtue or in her case a lack of virtue. Jade fought the confusion that tugged at her. She wanted to scream, ask it why it had left the palace. She couldn't do that. The servants would gossip with the words flowing like a geyser of liquid fire. The minister of the eyrie had said it was usual, part of the semi-cycle of the stems and branches. Jade hadn't been alive thirty years ago and few others either and when the minister died prior to the coronation, the mobs appeared.
A white pebble skittered down the side of the palace landing on the sill where Jade had stood. Jade pushed Laosa away and leaped lengthwise from her chair rolling as a figure lowered into the open window. The figure was wrapped in form-fitting black silk from head-to-toe and released the rope to dance on to the room's floor with knees bent. A bladed star whizzed and Jade rolled out of the way as it bit into the floor kicking up dust. More stars hit the ground and walls with one eating into a painting. She looked up, the black figure had stepped closer. Another star. It bit into her left shoulder. Laosa screamed. The assassin straightened taking another step towards the fallen empress. Jade reached to feel the star, her blood streaming over her hand. The tips of the star stained black with a poison. Jade, her strength retreating, tightened her fingers on the star and tossed it at the assassin. The blade wobbled through the air. The teeth cut into the figure's cheek through the black silk.
The mask fell away and Jade crawled across the floor to see the face of her killer. The two of them twitching. Jade pulled at the flapping black silk over the cheek to reveal a face. Starlight, her sister.
Strength fled from Jade, but she managed to whisper. "Why?"
"I should've been empress," said Starlight. Her sister's eyes shut.
Jade's blood ran hot, and her eyes refused to stay open. She felt Laosa's fingers tugging at her silk robe. Wind blew across her face, a rasp of sandy breath and Jade felt feathers brush her forehead.
"Not yet." The August Rooster's talons closed on the wound and Jade's shoulder. "The land has need of you and I refuse to let you leave this life today."
Jade's shoulder should have twinged with the pain of the Rooster shredding her shoulder, but instead a warm radiance washed over her.