Xi Shi knew her betrayal would mean death if she were caught, despite Fuchai's undying love for her. Her death and the love of a man were merely grains of sand to be blown away in the presence of the book. She knew this day would be her death or her triumph.
She crouched low, her footsteps barely audible on the stone path in the eastern garden. The moon, full and bright, made her mission all the more precarious. She darted between raised lotus ponds and the towering lacquered pagodas lining the garden. She paused at the base of the nearest pagoda to take stock of her surroundings.
She pressed her body to the ground and crawled to a position where she could see her objective and the eastern wall of the palace. Guards made their rounds, passing by each other under the stone corbels that supported the massive tiled roof. Satisfied she hadn't been detected, she turned her attention to the stone temple nestled at the end of the gardens.
The temple was dwarfed by the palace, but it was no less opulent. Each corner of the tiled rooflines reached skyward, capped by gilded lions and dragons. The pillars were painted crimson and wrapped in golden ribbon. Paper lanterns hung between each pillar spilling soft, warm light down the temple steps and onto the periphery of the garden.
Only two guards protected the entrance, but they were heavily armored. She would have to take them down as quietly as possible. She couldn't risk alerting the palace guard. Although Master Jing had taught her well and she was confident in her skills, she was still only one.
She pushed herself off the ground and resumed her crouched advance toward the temple. When she reached the last pagoda before the temple entrance, she stopped. Sliding close to its walls, she made certain she was out of the view of the palace guards.
The two guards at the temple entrance talked to each other. Even though she was unable to make out their words, she could tell from their tone they were speaking casually. If they had any idea of the value of that which they guarded or the determination of the predator just out of sight, they would have been much more vigilant.
She steadied her breathing and unclasped the thin silver chain from around her neck. She wrapped her hands in the ends of her robes and pulled the chain taut. She stepped out into the light, making sure she was still hidden from the palace. It took the temple guards a moment to notice her, and even then they didn't seem to know what to think. She called out a soft greeting. They smiled and started down the steps. The fools didn't even lift their spears.
She held her arms out in front of her, keeping the chain stretched tightly, and ran headlong at the men. She watched the look of surprise wash over their faces. They thrust their spears outward and charged toward her. She did not slow her pace. Years of training had prepared her for this moment, and she was eager to use her skills. The book beckoned to her from within.
Come to me protector. Fulfill your birthright.
She propelled herself off the ground in a motion as fluid as the wind. Her silver chain caught both guards beneath their chins. She felt it dig into their necks as she somersaulted over their heads. Her feet touched the ground behind them, and she pulled the ends of the chain together cinching the men in a death vice. She spun around keeping hold of the chain. The men dropped their spears and grasped at their throats. They didn't realize it yet, but they were already dead. She guided them stumbling to the edge of the garden path. They fell limply into a patch of spider grass, the last breath escaping their lips.
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