Chasing the Phoenix

In the distant future, Surplus arrives in China dressed as a Mongolian shaman, leading a yak which carries the corpse of his friend, Darger. The old high-tech world has long since collapsed, and the artificial intelligences that ran it are outlawed and destroyed. Or so it seems.

Darger and Surplus, a human and a genetically engineered dog with human intelligence who walks upright, are a pair of con men and the heroes of a series of prior Swanwick stories. They travel to what was once China and invent a scam to become rich and powerful. Pretending to have limited super-powers, they aid an ambitious local warlord who dreams of conquest and once again reuniting China under one ruler. And, against all odds, it begins to work, but it seems as if there are other forces at work behind the scenes.

Michael Swanwick’s Chasing the Phoenix is available August 11th from Tor Books.

 

Chapter 1

Third year, summer, first month, of the royal year. The Hidden King killed his brothers so that there might be no rivals for his throne and continued his preparations for war. In that same month, a stranger unlike any ever seen before came to the Abundant Kingdom.

—The Summer and Winter Annals

Surplus came down out of the north dressed in a Mongolian shaman’s robes covered with multicolored ribbons and hammered copper disks. He was leading a yak adorned with red tassels and tiny silver bells. The yak carried a bundle swaddled in cloth and carefully tied up with ropes.

In the bundle was the corpse of his friend Aubrey Darger.

The territory he passed through was blessed by Providence with fertile farmlands and plentiful water and was therefore known throughout China as the land of leisure and abundance. Fields of canola, tea, and sugarcane alternated with groves of mulberry, tung, and camphor laurel trees, to say nothing of such Utopian survivals as sausage gourds, self-fermenting litchi fruit, and the neural reprogramming tubers from which various tutelary liqueurs were distilled.

Small wonder that this lush country was called the Abundant Kingdom.

Yet as he traveled, the American adventurer could not help but notice frequent groups of soldiers galloping purposefully through the countryside and, on the roads, long trains of wagons carrying gunpowder, grain, salt, crates of swords and rifles, and bundles of uniforms, along with coffles of horses and herds of swine and cattle being driven toward the capital in great numbers. Clearly, preparations were being made for war. So it was that he came to the city of Brocade in an uncharacteristically apprehensive mood.

As he approached the city gate, Surplus made sure that his tail was safely tucked inside his robes. Then he threw a scarf over his head and donned a wide straw hat so that, when he stared down at the ground, his face could not be seen. His paws were hidden by his robe’s long sleeves.

Three guards loitered by the gate, unenthusiastically watching a steady flow of peasants, monks, merchants, and the like come and go. They straightened at Surplus’s approach, their boredom instantly dispelled by the appearance of so colorful a personage. “Halt!” their captain cried. “Identify yourself and your place of origin and your doubtless squalid and illegal reasons for wishing to enter the city.”

Behind him, his two subordinates struck fierce postures. Because they all stood in the center of the gate, blocking passage, a crowd began to gather.

“My name is of no matter,” Surplus said mildly. He turned to his yak and, tucking his walking stick under his arm, began to untie the bundle. “I come from a land where there is neither disease nor pain. Children do not grow old there, nor do flowers fade. No one drinks alcohol, for the water that runs down from the Mountains of Life is purer than any other water and satisfies all needs, from hunger to the calming of the passions. There is only one power that this divine water lacks, and it is for this reason that I have come to Brocade, seeking the Infallible Physician.” He threw back the cloth to reveal the corpsegray face of his friend. “It cannot bring the dead back to life.”

A gasp of horror went up from the crowd. “Arrest that man!” cried the captain of the guard. “He is either a grave robber or something worse.”

But when the two subordinate guards tried to lay hands on Surplus, he lashed out with his cane, striking one on the forehead with its tip and then burying its silver knob deep in the other’s stomach. Both men went down, the one unconscious and the other kneeling in the street, clutching himself and moaning piteously.

The captain of the guard reflexively took a step backward.

Speaking in a deep and unhurried voice, Surplus said, “Is this the famous courtesy of Brocade? Far have I traveled to come here. From the Beautiful Country came I, across the Atlantic Ocean to the Land of Heroes. Then by various ways to Moscow in the Lean Country, through Siberia to Mongolia, and from there south to the Respectful Land and the Kingdom of the Blue Sea. Everywhere I went, your city was praised for the warmth and hospitality of its people. Hearing this, I thought: I must reward this metropolis for its virtue. What shall I give it? Perhaps it needs a new river. Perhaps I should place rich veins of silver in the land nearby. But, arriving, I discover its people are arrogant and rude. Shall I then punish you with whirlwinds or earthquake or plague?”

Bristling, the captain said, “Who are you to speak so strangely and to make such extravagant threats?” Yet he advanced on Surplus with visible reluctance.

Surplus stopped him with a lordly gesture. “Do not ask who,” he cried. “But, rather, ask what!”

Throwing off his hat and scarf, Surplus bared his teeth and growled. Thus presenting the man with the uncanny sight of a dog’s head on a man’s body. Simultaneously, he drew the blade from his sword cane so that to the crowd, whose attention was riveted on his face, it would seem to have materialized in his paw.

The captain fell to his knees. It was possible that Surplus’s having swung around the wooden half of his cane and with it deftly striking those same knees in the back helped this occur. Surplus then brought up his own knee and dealt the scoundrel a blow to the chin that sent him sprawling on the cobbles.

Placing a foot on the man’s chest and letting the sword’s point dangle by his eyes, Surplus said, too quietly for anybody but his fallen victim to hear, “Do nothing, and you will not be harmed.” Then he raised his voice and addressed everyone within earshot. “Who here knows where the Infallible Physician lives?”

There was a rustle in the crowd as people looked around to see who might speak up. No one did. Surplus glared about him, and they all shrank away from his fierce mien. “I shall put off punishing this city until I have spoken with the Infallible Physician. It may well be that he will talk me into staying my righteous wrath. Or perhaps—and I consider this far more likely—he will but confirm me in my judgment. We shall see.”

Without hurry, Surplus reunited the two halves of his cane and tied up his friend’s corpse. He did not pick up his hat and scarf but left them blowing in the street. Then he strode imperiously into the city, leading his yak by the reins. Though it did not take him long to pass beyond those who had witnessed the incident at the gate, his appearance continued to draw stares.

To one of Surplus’s profession, the best thing to be in a city was anonymous. Failing that, however, notoriety would do.

 *  *  *

A question here and an answer there led Surplus to the central market. There, he went from merchant to merchant, asking after the Infallible Physician. “I have heard of that distinguished man,” said a terrified vendor of dumpling fruit, “but not of where he might live.” The woman selling flower necklaces that bloomed and changed color according to their wearer’s emotions and that all clenched up into scentless black buds at his approach, dipped her head and in a small voice said, “Alas, no.” The man at the next table said, “All I know is that he has never come to buy my spices.” A fat Buddha of an ostler who rented out red-and-white-striped saddle-cats for children to ride along an oval track merely spread his flabby arms and shrugged.

None of this discouraged Surplus, however, for he saw the staring eyes all about him, and heard the whispered comments in his wake, and knew that he was at the epicenter of expanding circles of rumor and speculation that were even now running swiftly through the city. Someone, he was sure, would materialize soon enough and provide him with the information he sought. In the meantime, he noted approvingly that though many of the merchants stiffened and paled at the sight of him, all replied to his questions politely, and several offered him a mango, a glass of liqueur, or the like. One man, indeed, eyes quivering, urged upon him a pearl the size of his fist, carved into the likeness of an ocean wave crashing into a mountainside, near the summit of which was a small pagoda topped by the obscure religious symbol the ancients called a “satellite dish.” Then, when that was refused, the vendor tried to give him a chunk of ivory root carved into eight concentric lattice balls, each so decorated as to represent one of the possible electron shells of an atom with the ephemeral forms that decayed almost instantly on the outermost two shells and the yin and yang of hydrogen and helium at the center. It seemed that the renowned courtesy of Brocade was not entirely of his own invention.

“Sir! Dog-man, sir!”

A young man came running out in the street and bowed deeply before Surplus. “My name is Capable Servant, sir, and I am looking for employment.”

“I have no need of a servant,” Surplus said, and turned away.

But somehow the young man had twisted himself in front of Surplus again. Smiling ingratiatingly, he said, “Everybody needs a servant, excellent sir, whether they know it or not. I can wash and mend clothes, shop wisely, haggle well over prices, brew beer, mix ink, and cut goose quills into pens. When times are hard, I can trap hares in the countryside and, with the aid of roots and spices I know how to identify in the wild, turn them into a delicious stew. I am able to distinguish poisonous mushrooms from those which are nutritious to eat, and can whistle cheerful tunes to repel ghosts. I will wake you up in the morning, draw your bath, discreetly relay love letters to your paramours, and carry you home safely when you’re drunk. Also, I can curry the fur of your yak and, saving the hair that comes off in the brush, make of it a soft yarn from which to knit you warm socks for the winter, and perform a thousand chores more besides.”

“These are all useful services, and I have no doubt you will easily find someone who needs them done. For my part, my only desire is to find the Infallible Physician.” Surplus gently pushed the young man aside and continued onward.

Only to discover Capable Servant trotting by his side, eyes agleam. “Oh, sir! I know where to find that esteemed gentleman. I even know why others do not, for I am curious by nature and make it my business to listen to all the gossip and idle chatter, and I forget not a word of it, though years may pass. I am a very useful fellow indeed, sir.”

Surplus stopped. “Very well,” he said. “If you can bring me to the Infallible Physician and if he can bring my friend back to life, as I was told in the steppes he could, then I will hire you at standard wages for so long as you wish to be my servant.”

“You are truly gracious, sir. The Infallible Physician no longer lives in Brocade. Several years ago, he retired to a small hut in a village an hour’s walk outside the city walls. That is why he is so hard to find. But I shall lead you directly to his door.”

  *  *  *

Thus it was that, within hours of entering Brocade, Surplus left again, this time in possession of a manservant. As they walked, Surplus asked, “Is your name really Capable Servant?”

“Oh yes, sir. My mother named me Capable Servant of No Special Distinction, thinking it would improve my chances of finding employment. Capable Servant, because that is what every gentleman needs. Of No Special Distinction to reassure my master that I am unlikely to leave his hire seeking better pay elsewhere.”

“How, then, did you find yourself in need of a job?”

“My last employer grew very old and died.” Capable Servant made a sad face. “But tell me, sir. When I am asked the name of my employer, what shall I say?”

“My name is Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux, which is how I should be addressed on formal occasions. But, that being a bit overlong for everyday use, you may call me Surplus.”

“Yours is a strange and wonderful name,” Capable Servant marveled, “and surely foretells some great destiny. May I ask you another question, sir?”

“Go ahead.”

“Why is it that you have the stance and intellect of a man, but the fur and features of a dog?”

“In the Demesne of Western Vermont, that great nation whose citizen I have the honor to be”—in Chinese the name translated as the Land of the Green Mountains of the West—“the scientists are particularly adept at genetic manipulation. Taking the genome of the noble dog, they expressed a gene here and suppressed another there to create me as I am.”

“Yes, sir. Exactly so, sir. But, sir—why?”

“Oh,” Surplus said, glancing up the road lazily curving to the top of a low hill, “I am certain that they had their reasons.”

At that instant, a giant metal spider crested the hilltop. Lifting and dropping eight sleek and cunningly jointed legs, the gleaming black monstrosity stalked down the road toward the two travelers with ponderous delicacy. Surplus stopped dead in his tracks. Capable Servant fell over backward in astonishment.

The incredible machine flowed down the hillside and then came to a stop directly before Surplus. Its legs bent, lowering the soldier in the cab that made up its flattened sphere of a body to Surplus’s eye level. They goggled at one another in amazement.

“Hello!” The soldier might have been a child witnessing its first circus.

“Hello!” Surplus, for his part, could not have been more astonished if a Megalosaurus, forty feet long, had come waddling out of the underbrush.

“What on earth are you?” the soldier demanded.

“I might ask the same question of you,” Surplus replied.

“I am Sergeant Bright Prosperity of the Good Fortune Spider Corps”—the young man slapped the metal flank of his vehicle— “and this is my war machine, Death to the Enemies of the State. And you, sir?”

“I am but a humble shaman from the steppes of Mongolia. Forgive me for saying so, but your machine terrifies me. It is like a nightmare out of the past. Surely in China, as in all civilized lands, such complex mechanisms are both illegal and abhorred.”

The soldier laughed. “Ah, sir, my mount and I are not of the past, but rather the spearhead of the future. These resurrected machines will be the terror of the Hidden King’s enemies and the foundation of the Abundant Kingdom’s new glory. Our scholars located them in hidden man-made caverns deep within the earth, our natural philosophers created fuel for them, and now men such as I have learned how to make them go where we wish. Yes, in all the other countries of China the Great, they are yet shunned and feared. That, they shall discover to their chagrin, will be their downfall.”

“You intend to use this dreadful thing as a weapon?” Surplus asked.

“Only the Hidden King is in a position to make such a decision.” The soldier lifted his chin. “But when he does—as I am sure he must—I stand ready to ride my mount to the Land of the Mountain Horses, across the Panda Mountains, and all the way to its capital city of Peace, scattering his enemies before me.”

“You are a bold man, Sergeant Bright Prosperity, and so I can only conclude is your king as well. Would you like me to bestow a blessing upon you and your mechanical arachnid abomination?”

“Thank you, but no, oh dog-shaman. My mount and I are in no need of your superstitious mumbo jumbo.”

“Then I shall simply stand out of your way.”

The soldier raised his spider’s cab to its full height and it strode down the road.

In its wake, a second spider topped the hill, and behind that a third. One by one, over forty such vehicles sped lightly past Surplus and Capable Servant, who stared after them until all had disappeared in the distance.

“Have I seen what I saw, or was it all a dream?” one of them asked. “A dream, surely,” said the other. “And yet it seemed so real.” Marveling, they resumed their journey.

 *  *  *

In thoughtful silence Surplus and his new servant made their way through the countryside to the edge of a small but tidy village. There they were directed to a thatched hut with a single flowering magnolia in the dirt dooryard. Chickens scratched about among the sparse weeds. It seemed a highly unlikely place to find an illustrious man of medicine.

At a nod from Surplus, Capable Servant knocked on the door.

A white-bearded man, bent over with age and leaning on a stick whose support he clearly needed, answered the knock, frowning. “Go away,” he said, and slammed the door.

The two excludees looked at one another. Then Capable Servant knocked a second time.

Again, the ancient opened the door.

“Brave news, oh renowned Infallible Physician!” Capable Servant said, beaming. “My master, the Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux of the Land of the Green Mountains of the West, has come to consult with you and to avail himself of your considerable and accomplished skills.”

From the corner of his eye, Surplus saw neighbors peering out of their windows and children climbing up on fences to gawk. He raised his head to emphasize his canine profile and twitched his tail so that all might see it was real.

The Infallible Physician stepped aside from his door. “Very well,” he said. “Enter, if you must.”

 *  *  *

“Bright Pearl!” the old man shouted into the darkness. “Guest! Make tea! My daughter,” he said to Surplus. “Almost useless. Very lazy.”

A middle-aged woman appeared in the kitchen doorway, bowed quickly, disappeared again.

Infallible Physician sat, and Surplus followed suit. After a polite pause to give his host the opportunity to speak, Surplus said, “Sir, I have come seeking your—”

“I am the best doctor there is,” the Infallible Physician said. “But I cannot help you.” He laughed sharply. “You look like a dog! No cure for that.”

Careful not to let his annoyance show, Surplus said, “I have no desire to deny my ancestry, sir. Your services are required not by me but by my friend. In Mongolia, he caught one of the war viruses that still linger from the mad times following the fall of Utopia. To save him, the doctors there swiftly and painlessly put him to death. Then, before putrefaction could set in, they wrapped around his body a silver exoskeleton, a revenant of antiquity, which (and this may sound incredible, but I saw it with my own two eyes) sank beneath his skin like butter melting into toast, leaving neither scar nor incision behind. Finally, they injected him with drugs and packed his body cavities with herbs. Together, these things preserve him in perfect stasis, dead but not deteriorating. One week in this state, they assured me, would be enough to starve the virus, thus destroying it. Unfortunately, while they could preserve his body, they had long ago forgotten how to resurrect it.”

“I see,” the Infallible Physician said.

“Sir, your fame has spread far from the Abundant Kingdom. The Mongolian doctors told me that what they could not do, you and you alone assuredly could. This is why I have sought you out. Will you help me?”

“Ah.” The old man nodded and fell into silence again.

“Sir? Please tell me that my long journey has not been in vain.”

The Infallible Physician smiled and narrowed his eyes so that only slits remained open. From between the lids he peered enigmatically at his guest.

“Sir, I must implore you—”

“It is no use.” Bright Pearl emerged from the kitchen holding a tray with a teakettle and four cups. She poured one cup for Surplus and another for her father, who bent low over it and slurped noisily. “My father has moments of lucidity, but they do not last. He will be silent now for hours and possibly days. In any event—and please pardon me for overhearing your conversation, but the house is small—the man you came here looking for was not he but my grandfather.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Bright Pearl poured another cup of tea for Capable Servant, who accepted it with a bob of his head and a bright smile, and a fourth for herself. Then she knelt, facing Surplus. “Ninety years ago, the original Infallible Physician and his beautiful young wife came to Brocade from what distant land no man today may say. He was everything your friends told you and more. There was no disease he could not cure nor any injury he could not ameliorate. It was said that he retained secrets of medicine which all the rest of the world had forgotten. Thus, for many years, he prospered. His wife bore him a son, and when that son came of age, the Infallible Physician taught him the healing arts.

“Yet, oddly enough, he and his wife did not age like normal people do, so that when the son was grown, they looked not like his parents but like brother and sister to him. The neighbors began to gossip that they were not human at all. There was talk of bringing them before the magistrate as demons.

“Then, one night, before any violence could occur, the couple simply disappeared. After an appropriate period of mourning, their son took over his father’s business and, because he had been wisely taught, in time became known as the Infallible Physician himself. For while his skills were inferior to his father’s they greatly surpassed those of all other doctors. That man was my father, and in turn he married and had two sons and a daughter. That daughter was I.

“Alas, my brothers both died before I was born and my father thought it shameful that a woman should become a doctor. I had ambitions of my own, however, and studied his books in secret and stood at his elbow, watching while he worked. I would have become the third Infallible Physician if only he had allowed it. But he would not. Even when he began to sink into senility and I begged him to let me cure him, he forbade it absolutely.

“Finally, he was as you see him now.

“Surely, I thought then, he would want me to restore his mind to its old acuity. Surely he would be grateful to me for doing so. For two weeks I mixed potions and dosed and treated him with calculation and care. He recovered—and beat me for disobedience. Then, perversely, he mixed himself counter potions and returned to senility.”

Horrified, Surplus said, “How is such a thing possible?”

“Men are stubborn,” Bright Pearl said, “and my father is far more stubborn than most men. Irrationally, he blames me for the deaths of my brothers. Wickedly, he prefers to live without memories rather than dealing with those he earned.” She dipped her head in sadness. “So we live in poverty, and my skills, which are considerable, go unused. Because I have neither certification nor reputation, people will trust me with only the smallest of medical chores—cleaning a knife cut or splinting a broken arm—and pay me accordingly.”

A spark of hope still burned within Surplus. Now, in his thoughts, he heaped tinder against it and, pursing mental lips, gently blew. “You studied your grandfather’s books, you say. Perhaps you could—”

“No,” Bright Pearl said. “I saw nothing like what you describe in them.” She looked away. “But enough about my problems. Tell me of yourself and the adventures that brought you to our door.”

“It is a long and convoluted story, and one which I do not care to relate at this time.” Surplus waved a paw vaguely. “Suffice it to say that when I entered Siberia, I possessed tremendous wealth and a living friend. Now I am as you see me.” He sighed. “And I must find an appropriate place to bury the illustrious Aubrey Darger, who was the nonpareil of his profession and the best and truest of friends.”

Abruptly, Capable Servant, who had been quietly poking about among the handwritten codices that thronged the room’s many shadowy shelves, said, “Madam lady doctor, look! Within this book titled The Thwarting of Death there is a drawing of a physician placing a silver skeleton about the body of a corpse and of his assistant exclaiming at the fact that the skeleton begins to sink beneath the skin. And look! A caption below the drawing reads: The Reversible Death. Furthermore, on the next page, there is another picture showing a second physician using a strange device to extract that same skeleton from the anus of a man who is no longer dead.”

Leaping to his feet, Surplus snatched the book from his servant’s hand. “It’s true! This first picture illustrates the exact method I saw employed in Mongolia.” He looked sternly at his hostess. “You have been lying to me, Bright Pearl.”

Defiantly, Bright Pearl scrambled to her feet and closed the book in Surplus’s paws. Then she placed it back on its shelf. “There is a rich collector of antiquities who wishes to buy all my father’s books and instruments. We are negotiating the price. Further, the instrument shown in the book can only be used once. And I can see by looking at you that you are not a wealthy man.”

Surplus favored Bright Pearl with his most winning and sincere expression. “It is true that I am currently penniless,” he said. “But that is a condition that will not last long. Inevitably, money will, one way or another, flow into my pockets. There is no need to await that happy event, however, for I am currently prepared to offer you a price beyond imagining if you return my friend to life.”

“And what is that?”

“My yak.”

“I am no farmer. Why should I desire such a creature?”

“It will make your reputation as a surgeon, and that in turn will make you wealthy.”

“Oh?”

“Without question.” Surplus explained carefully and at some length. He laid out his plan step by step, with such detailed clarity that the lady doctor could have no doubt whatsoever that it would work.

When he was done, Bright Pearl rubbed her chin and said, “You are a cunning and deceitful man, sir.”

Surplus smiled modestly. “It is how I make my living.”

  *  *  *

It took a few minutes to script their performance and a while longer to rehearse it. But at last, leaving Bright Pearl’s father in the house, the three main players walked outside. Up and down the street, old men loitered under trees smoking long pipes and housewives lingered by the well with empty buckets or knelt in their gardens pulling weeds or sat in their doorways weaving. Husbands worked in their yards, carving bone clothesline pins or weaving rattan chairs or building drying racks for fish. Wives hung laundry and smoothed it inch by inch (as no woman ever had before) to remove nonexistent wrinkles. The village was uncannily quiet. Not a person spoke to any other. All were positioned so as to have a good view of the Infallible Physician’s hut.

They had their audience.

Surplus was the first on stage, with Capable Servant scurrying after him. The two carefully took Darger’s corpse from the yak’s back and placed it at the feet of Bright Pearl, who stood, arms folded, watching impassively. They untied and then unwrapped the cloth, revealing Darger’s dead body with a flourish.

A silent gasp arose from the watching villagers.

Bright Pearl knelt and placed her ear against Darger’s chest. She licked a finger and placed it under his nostrils. Then she put her nose to his wrist and sniffed. Finally, she rose and in an angry voice said, “You have brought me a corpse. Why would you do such a disrespectful thing?”

Extending a paw in supplication, Surplus said, “I was told, madam, that you could cure my friend’s condition.”

“Your friend is dead,” Bright Pearl declared loudly enough for all the village to hear.

“That is the condition that I wish cured,” Surplus said, speaking with equal clarity. He fell to his knees before Bright Pearl, and Capable Servant did likewise. They threw dirt into their hair and wailed, “Bring our friend to life! Bring our friend to life!”

“Stop that nonsense immediately.” Bright Pearl picked up a fallen magnolia branch. “Or I will beat you within an inch of your lives. Bringing a man back from the dead is not something to be done lightly. Three things would be required before I would even consider the possibility—and I am certain you can fulfill none of them.”

“Name them!” Surplus cried, still kneeling.

“First, your friend would have to be of the highest moral character.”

“Madam, this is the saintly Aubrey Darger! In London, he freed Queen Alice from the clutches of her greatest enemy. In France, he rediscovered the long-lost Eiffel Tower. In Prague, he single-handedly defeated an army of golems. All of Moscow reveres him for waking the Duke of Muscovy from his decades-long slumber and, shortly thereafter, making certain vital improvements to the Kremlin and indeed to the city itself.”

Visibly unimpressed, Bright Pearl said, “Second, you would have to pay me a tremendous amount of money. More, I am sure, than you can possibly possess.”

Capable Servant leaped up, removed the saddlebag from the yak and, holding open the flap, showed her its contents.

Bright Pearl looked genuinely startled. It was possible, Surplus reflected, that, because he had not washed his spare clothes in some time, their odor was somewhat pungent. However, since Bright Pearl was the only villager close enough to see—or smell!—the saddlebag’s contents, that fact did no harm. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she said to Capable Servant, “Take that inside.”

At last, turning back to the groveling dog-man at her feet, Bright Pearl said, “Two of the three conditions, I must confess, you have fulfilled. But not the third. For an operation this extreme would require a measure of the healing blood of the sacred yak of Shiliin Bogd Mountain, which will cure any illness—and that I doubt very much you can provide!”

With a cry of joy, Surplus leapt to his feet. Tugging at Bright Pearl’s sleeve, he exclaimed, “Come! Look! Knowing you would require it, I have done what no other living being could have accomplished and brought you that very beast. Examine its eyes! Its horns! Its brow! With your discerning vision, you will see in an instant that it is genuine. If you will only cure my friend, this treasure beyond avarice is yours.”

Her expression dubious, Bright Pearl examined the yak closely. Her eyes widened. Then she said, “You have done all that is required. Bring your dead friend inside. Then draw three drams of the sacred yak’s blood and bring it to me.” She turned on her heel, as haughty as a queen. “I shall prepare the operation.”

Bowing deeply (and hiding a smile of enormous satisfaction) Surplus said, “As you wish, so shall it be done, oh Infallible Physician.”

 

Chapter 2

Their origins were obscure, their first appearance inauspicious. There was nothing to be said in their favor, save that heaven favored them.

—The Book of the Two Rogues

For three days, Darger lay abed in the Infallible Physician’s house, recovering. Occasionally, children tapped on the windows, hoping to terrify themselves with a glimpse of the dog-man or of the corpse that had been brought back from the dead. When their antics drew Darger’s attention, he simply turned his head away.

Capable Servant, meanwhile, had proved more than worthy of his name. He had laundered both Surplus’s and Darger’s clothing and, without being instructed to do so, removed the multicolored ribbons from the Mongolian robes, bleached the stains, and patched the small rips that travel had inevitably conferred upon them, so that they could be worn in public without drawing unneeded attention. He also swept and mopped the floors, cooked meals for them and their hosts, and in a hundred different ways made himself indispensable to their domestic life.

“Nevertheless,” Surplus told him, “Aubrey Darger, though nominally alive, cannot be said to have been brought back to life again. He will not speak and there is an enduring darkness in his eyes. He has always been prone to depression, but I have never seen it this bad before. All my efforts will have been for nothing if he does not let go of whatever holds him prisoner in his bed.” There were only three rooms in the house. Darger had the back room, and a curtain hung in the middle of the front one at night enabled Surplus and Bright Pearl’s father to share it with her without scandal. Capable Servant slept in the kitchen.

“You should have let me rectify that ugly face of his,” Bright Pearl said. “I could have made him a handsome Chinese man. Then he would be more cheerful.”

“Darger can live with the face God gave him. His malady is not of the body but of the spirit, madam, and we must find its cure. I need a business partner, and your reputation requires a brilliant success.” Surplus slapped his knees with both paws. “The time has come for direct confrontation. I suggest, Bright Pearl, that you take your father outside and let him enjoy the sun. There may be shouting, and I suspect that it would disturb the venerable geezer.”

“Bah!” the old Infallible Physician said. “Nonsense! If anyone is to do any shouting, it will be me.”

  *  *  *

“Arouse yourself, sir!” Surplus cried, slamming the door as he entered. He threw aside the drapes and flung wide the windows, flooding the room with sunshine and fresh air. He and Capable Servant seized Darger by the arms, forcibly hauling him to a sitting position. “The sun is risen and there is work to be done.”

“Work,” Darger said in a voice that might have come from the depths of a tomb.

“Yes, work.”

“What’s the point?”

“You astound me. Honest labor is what we were put here on earth to do. By our efforts we improve our lot and in the process increase the common share of happiness for all mankind.”

Darger shook his head shaggily. “I died.”

“I was present at the time,” Surplus reminded him.

“Now I am alive.”

“You state the obvious. The man I thought I was resurrecting would never have lowered himself so.” Moderating his tone, Surplus crouched down and took Darger’s hand. “Tell us, dear friend. Tell us the reason for this perverse refusal of yours to embrace the miracle of life restored.”

Bleak beyond all telling, Darger’s eyes rose to meet his friend’s. He looked like a man staring into the abyss. At last, he managed to say,“I was dead… and I did not see God.”

“That is a privilege vouchsafed to very few.”

“You do not understand. Neither did I experience an afterlife of any sort. I remember seeing the world shrink down to a pinprick of light. And then… nothing. No heaven. No nirvana. No celestial virgins. No oversoul. No reincarnation. No mystic visions. Nothing at all until you resurrected me. Only a complete and utter negation of being.”

“Darger, you are a professed agnostic. Surely you must have considered this possibility.”

“There is a great difference between admitting one’s ignorance of ultimate matters and having it proved that life is not only brief but meaningless as well.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake!” Surplus cried. “I refuse to debate this matter with you. It would simply be indulging your tendency toward introspection and abstraction.”

“Sir.” From behind him, Capable Servant suggested, “Try reminding your noble friend of the great successes of his life.”

“That is an excellent idea, Capable Servant. Aubrey, do you remember our first meeting? We convinced the lords and ladies of Buckingham Labyrinth that we possessed a device from ancient times which would allow instantaneous communication through the Internet without rousing the demons and mad gods living therein.”

“I remember that… there were complications.”

“In Paris, we sold the Eiffel Tower, despite its location having been lost for centuries.”

“Yes.” The faintest touch of warmth entered Darger’s voice. “That was not badly done.”

“In Stockholm, we sold nonexistent royal titles—several of them to none other than the king of Sweden himself.”

Darger said nothing, but one side of his mouth quirked upward in a near smile.

“Starting with nothing but a forged letter of recommendation from the caliph of Krakow—a personage and indeed a title you knew did not exist—you attached us to the Byzantine embassy to Muskovy. And by the time we reached Moscow, you had single-handedly elevated me from a lowly secretary to the position of ambassador. Who else could have done that but you?”

“It sounds immodest to reply ‘nobody,’ ” Darger admitted. “But I can honestly think of no other.”

“Then put aside your metaphysical mopings, sir. They ill become you.”

“What you ask of me is extremely difficult. Considering what I have been through and subsequently not seen.”

“Make the effort. A great deal has gone into your resurrection, and we have immediate need for your cunning.”

“Oh? How so?”

Surplus gave his friend a quick recap of his arrival in Brocade, his imposture of a god, the signs of impending war, and the deal he had made with Bright Pearl. Then he said, “Two days ago, a scholar came to the village, ostensibly collecting folktales, and in so doing casually asked about rumors of a dog-headed deity. The villagers naturally told him of my arrival and of the Infallible Physician’s revival of your corpse, and he went away. Yesterday, that same scholar returned, and in the course of writing down children’s counting rhymes, convinced the tykes to point out to him the house where the Infallible Physician lived. But though he paused before this building and studied it thoughtfully, he did not knock. Today, I am convinced—”

“Listen,” Capable Servant said. “Drums!”

“That can only be soldiers, coming to arrest us and take us before the Hidden King,” Surplus said. “We must leave this place immediately!”

“Perhaps not.” Darger turned to Capable Servant. “What do you know of the personality of the Hidden King?”

“No one knows anything, for his title perfectly describes his habits. If the Hidden King ever leaves his palace, he does so incognito. His face and person are a mystery. His habits and personality are less than rumors. People say he is mad, but on so little direct evidence that we must consider it mere speculation.”

“Hmmm.” Darger rubbed his chin. “Is he rich?”

“Oh, most assuredly.”

“Rich for a man or rich for a king?”

“Fabulously wealthy. His father, the Admirable King, kept the Abundant Kingdom out of war by playing his rivals against one another while trading freely with all. It is said he sent agents to all the kingdoms of China to seek out extraordinary treasures he might buy.”

An avaricious glint entered Darger’s eye. In an instant, he was on his feet, wrapping the blanket about himself like a robe. “I need clothing, quickly! Plain but of good quality. No ornamentation at all. The sort of garb a sage of tremendous modesty would wear. Bright Pearl, you must take your father and leave by the back at once. While Surplus and I are their chief prey, if the Hidden King’s men see you, they will assuredly take you both captive as well. Stay away for a week or two—surely you have friends who will hide you—and I promise I will spin the king such a tale that he will forget all about you. Take the yak! That is an important prop for your future prosperity.”

Capable Servant dashed to the cupboards and returned with an armload of clothing that had clearly not been worn by the old man for decades. Bright Pearl, meanwhile, took her father’s arm and began leading him away. Pausing in the back door, she said, “Capable Servant. Perhaps you would consider working for me?”

“Oh, no,” Capable Servant replied brightly. “My masters are going to be extremely rich—all the signs of it are on them. And then I shall be the servant of wealthy men and have servants of my own.”

  *  *  *

Surplus was lounging on the front stoop when a squad of twenty soldiers with two drummers and a standard-bearer marched down the street and into the yard. He leaped to his feet and, acknowledging the leader with a gracious nod, seized the hand of the captain of the city guard, who had clearly been brought along to ensure that they arrested the correct dog-man. “It is my old friend from the city gate!” he cried. “What a drubbing this man gave me!” he said to the leader. “I have been sore ever since. It was only by the most outrageous turn of fortune that I escaped him. A child threw a ball, which rolled beneath his foot just as he was about to—well, never mind that. I ran like the wind and still only barely got away. This fellow is a tiger! You are very lucky to have him.”

The captain of the city guard straightened proudly, his gawk of astonishment vanishing so quickly that only the most observant could have noticed it. His commander scowled. “All that is of no matter. I am General Bold Stallion of the Hidden King’s Guard,” he said, producing a folded sheet of paper that could only have been an arrest warrant. “I have come to escort you—”

“—to be presented to your glorious king, so that I may subject myself to his wise and penetrating interrogation. Yes, I have been expecting you. You will also require the presence of my revered companion, Aubrey Darger, newly returned from the World of Shadows, where he has acquired wisdom previously denied any living human being. Capable Servant! Go inside and inform the great man that his hour of destiny has arrived.”

Not much later, bowing and cringing outrageously, Capable Servant backed out of the house. After the briefest pause, Darger loomed up in the doorway, wearing a plain black gown so that in the gloom only his face and hands could be clearly seen. He cocked a haughty eyebrow at the soldiers. “Is this all the welcome I have for returning from the Winter Lands? Your liege is a skeptical man indeed.” He stepped forward and took General Bold Stallion’s arm in his own. “No matter. The Hidden King and I have many weighty matters to discuss. Let us go to him immediately.”

“Your walking stick, sir,” Capable Servant said.

Surplus accepted the stick and, even as the captain of the city guard gaped in alarm, held it outstretched to the man in both paws. “Obviously, I would never be allowed to carry a weapon into the presence of the Hidden King. That being so, I can think of no one I would more trust to keep it safe.” Then he fell alongside the commander, whom Darger was already walking toward the gate.

So it was that, accompanied by General Bold Stallion and an honor guard of twenty soldiers, Darger and Surplus turned their backs on the Infallible Physician’s hut, her village, and indeed the great city of Brocade and strolled away, never to return.

Excerpted from Chasing the Phoenix © Michael Swanwick, 2015

3 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!