Da halted a precise bāzhǎng, or palm-length, behind Lanying as was proper and expected of a Gaquan Warrior. He breathed measured breaths to smolder the flames. The two Imperial guards standing outside the chamber of celestial peace would see Da's failure written on Lanying's blood-scratched cheek. Da watched their hands, loose in a way he could not afford.
Lanying's cerulean silk robe, embossed with golden feathers, rustled as she bowed to the guards. "I must have an audience with Emperor Shenzihao."
The guard took one step forward. "He sleeps."
Lanying looked through an arch on the pavilion's edge at the Celestial Palace. "The Emperor rarely sleeps."
In Da's peripheral vision, he saw mud-yellow light illuminate the heaven-most floor of rooms. Lanying's proper words danced around treason as smoothly as a courtesan. Everyone knew the guilds supplied Shenzihao with refined sacred dust to smoke, extending his life.
"I shall ask if he will deign to grant you a personal audience." The Imperial guard bowed to Lanying.
"No," said Lanying. "A full audience."
The junior guard, the one who hadn't moved, grunted. "Most of the court sleeps."
"They will come." Lanying touched the scar on her cheek. Blood stained the tip of her finger. "An attack on the Minister of the Eyrie is the same as an attack on sacred Fenghuang, the August Rooster."
Lanying walked along the stone steps to wait with a hand on one of the pavillion's pillars. Beyond her, empty streets glowed with the yellowish-green light of liquid fire. Her soft voice didn't carry. "Far to the east in the hills where the liquid fire rises, there is a wu tung grove."
"No." He grabbed her upper arm. A proper Gaquan would not refuse the commands of the one he protected, or touch her in this way. She had not spoken to him since refusing to accept his sacrifice for his failure. He owed her his life. Her life. "We can leave the city undetected."
She laughed. A sad sound that tore at his heart. "And go where? An army has risen in rebellion and claims that a false Fenghuang roosts in the palace of terrestrial tranquility. It is better to know one's enemy."
"But if you're right about the emerald ring." The ring the masked man had worn. The ring that had scratched Lanying's cheek.
"Then remember the wu tung grove," said Lanying.
Lanying brushed a finger soft like a feather across Da's lip. "What happens in the fires beneath the wu tung grove?"
Da turned away and saw the square filling with members of the court. A red-robed priest of the river dragon sect strode towards them. The ways of the Gaquan Warrior failed to answer how one dealt with a shattered heart. "The Fenghuang comes to the field to be burned to ashes."
"And reborn. Have faith, my warrior." Lanying walked forward to bow to the priest. Pleasantries. She wouldn't answer the questions until the audience had begun.
A gong rang and the assembled court moved to enter the chamber of celestial peace. Lanying waited until the assembled ministers and generals had entered the chamber. Holding her head high, she walked forward with Da a bāzhǎng behind her. Both of them performed the triple obeisance as they knelt before the Emperor.
"Please rise. Why have you interrupted our night?"
Da glanced at the Emperor's finger. No ring. He prayed the Emperor did not sanction the warning. Torches assembled along the walls flickered across the faces of those sitting to either side of the Emperor. Dengxin, the Emperor's third son and heir, sat to the right. The heir flaunted his father's emerald ring with dried blood clinging to the edges.
"Men attacked my rooms. Wounded my Gaquan warrior and delivered a message."
The Emperor's voice carried across the chamber. "Do you know who attacked you?"
Dengxin squirmed in his chair.
"No," said Lanying as her head turned to stare at the Emperor's son. "They asked me to flee. To accept banishment as a false minister of the eyrie. I believe the rebels have infiltrated our city."
"What would you have us do? I can protect you with my Imperial guard."
Standing behind her, Da saw her shoulder shiver.
"No. You must deal with the insurrection. The fastest way is to remove the one they hate. Burn me in a pit of liquid fire."
The chamber exploded with whispers. Shenzihao raised a staff and pounded it against the floor. He could not contain the murmurs. A single word repeated more often than the others created a hiss. "False."
Outside, priests of liquid fire brought urns and poured them into the ceremonial square a crevice carved into stone, which filled with a half bāzhǎng of viscous fluid. Imperial guards approached Lanying. Da moved to intercept them.
Her hands felt cool on him. "No. It would be a pointless waste of life. Remember what I said."
She walked before the soldiers as if they were an honor guard. She stepped down into the black liquid and a guard dropped a torch. Flames spread across the surface. White light flying into the heavens. Sparks.
After the smoke dissipated and the crowds returned to their beds, the Imperial guards left Da alone with his grief. The depression where she'd burned was empty. Bone ash should have remained. The sun rose while he stood vigil. Light reflected off a scrap of metal. Da picked up a pendant engraved with an image of Fenghuang. She'd asked him to remember her last words.
An entry in my writer's weights challenge to create tension through a scene. Comments and constructive feedback appreciated.