From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

CHOSEN ONES

Advertisement

Fiction

Umami

“I have a favour to ask,” said the fushi to the chef, “and in exchange, I will grant you a wish.”

“What sort of favour?” Yun San asked. She wiped sweating palms down her brown hanfu and tried to show a brave face. Thick mist had whisked her away from the back of her restaurant into the wilderness. Even were she thirty years younger and somehow able to outrun her captor, she had no idea where she was.

The fushi huffed. Against the old forest, crowned in redwood and golden ginkgo, it towered over Yun San, twice as tall and thrice as wide, its muscular legs and tusked mouth cuffed with flowing white fur. Ivory and jade horns arched from its brow, streaks of pale light pulsing in stripes along its coppery coat and its dense cloud of a tail. Yun San had seen paintings and heard stories, but up close, a fushi did not look like a lion or a dog. It did not give out the animal stink of a great beast. It smelled of crushed grass and jasmine leaves, and its dark brown eyes looked uncomfortably human.

“Your kind has been hunting mine,” the fushi said. It gestured at an old scar high on its hind flank with a paw. “You seek our bones for stock, our meat for braises, our manes for candies. You claim that our carcasses give you luck, but what it gives you is status.”

“Luck and privilege are often the same, and status is another word for both,” Yun San said, with a guilty look at the fushi’s thick mane. She had eaten fushi candy only a few weeks ago for good luck, on her 62nd birthday. “What do you want?”

“I want your kind to stop trapping us in our mountains, to stop carving us apart alive. I want humans to stop kidnapping our young to fatten for slaughter. Be grateful that this is what I want and not revenge.”

“Why don’t you want revenge?”

“Because the more dangerous we are, the more valuable we become as prey.” The fushi lowered its head, looking keenly at Yun San. “Can you help me?”

“What is your name?” Yun San asked.

“Call me Jin.”

“Jin, I am only a chef. How can I help you? I don’t have the power to outlaw hunting.”

“The year after the Emperor’s grandfather outlawed phoenix hunting, the last of the phoenixes died braised in wine and wolfberries, in a crowning dish served on his birthday,” Jin said with a snarl. “I do not trust the Emperor or his laws. Instead, I challenge the most famous chef in these lands. I want you to make us irrelevant. To make fushi stew, braise, and candy without fushi, and make it better.”

“A challenge, hm?” Yun San said, amused. “You’d appeal to my pride?”

“You were indifferent to the offer of a wish and to a veiled threat. Perhaps pride is all you have left, old mother.”

“I’m not your mother.” Yun San thought things over as she rubbed her aching back. “To do this for you, I will need a sacrifice, freely given. I will myself need to make fushi stew, fushi braises, and fushi candy. I need to make the best possible version of each, so that I may understand what I need to defeat.”

The fushi fell silent, staring keenly at Yun San. She forced herself to hold its gaze. Slowly, it nodded. “Give me two days, and I will bring you what you need.”

• • • •

Whispers followed the stranger who walked into the Jade Treasure Restaurant, shedding silver with the indifference of the unimaginably wealthy and demanding an audience with the chef. In the kitchen, Yun San cut her restaurant manager’s hushed description short by jointing the goat on the chopping board before her with more force than it deserved. The manager winced but stayed firm. The Imperial Censor was due to visit within the hour, so could Chef handle the rich young lady, please? Yun San washed her hands, cursed, and marched out of the kitchen, trailed by the manager as she mopped Yun San’s brow and tried to neaten her hair.

The Jade Treasure girded two gardens in stone and slate, one of lush bamboo, one of verdant lotus. Lunch hour in the main restaurant meant gridlocked tables and a line of hopeful patrons out the door, staff circling through the crowd with trays of pork and prawn dumplings, fried radish cakes, roast pork wrapped sleekly in white noodles, braised stuffed beancurd, stewed tripe and more. Black-jacketed captains cut through the choreography with pots of hot tea, taking orders, making jokes. The private rooms were quieter, refined affairs where the restaurant plied the wealthy and the troublesome with flattery and alcohol. Most days, the difference was slight.

Once shown to the stranger’s room, Yun San’s usual script fled unsaid. “Jin?”

Jin inclined her head. How could the others have mistaken her for human? In this guise, the fushi wore the smooth skin, moon face, and red bow mouth of a classical beauty, draped in blue silk and silver embroidery. Yet she did not hold herself with the usual calculated grace of a woman of wealth or good birth. Instead, Jin gave off the same furious, raw vitality as she had in the forest. A rosewood chest sat by her feet, as high as her knees.

“How did you know it was me?” Jin asked.

“You didn’t change your eyes.” Yun San began to say more and hesitated. Jin’s left sleeve looked far too formless. “What happened to your arm?”

“In here.” Jin gestured at the chest. “Along with some of my mane and one of my horns.”

Yun San sank into one of the chairs as her knees gave out. “You . . . ”

“How did you think I was going to find you what you wanted? Besides, what is a small matter like this to me, if you can help me save my kind?”

“I don’t know if I can! I can only try.”

Jin smiled, a smile no less intimidating in a form without tusks and horns. “So, try. And I would like to see it. To smell it. To taste.”

Yun San jerked back against her chair. “Taste?”

“Who else has more of a right to it than me? It’s my flesh.”

“I’ll need time. I’ve never worked with the ingredient before, I—”

“I’m a divine beast,” Jin said, stretching out her remaining hand in an expansive gesture. “Time describes the wealth I have. I can only hope that I’ve placed my trust in the right person.”

It took Yun San three attempts to get to her feet. “Wait here.”

Her most trusted staff sealed the chest and moved it to the coldroom. Back in her kitchen, Yun San sank against a workbench and wiped a hand over her face. She’d spent four decades compressed within a restaurant kitchen’s chaos, three of that as its lord and master, and she’d never once doubted herself until now. Born to an unbroken line of women who ruled their kingdoms of cast iron and fire and steam, Yun San grew naturally toward the flavours she had learned to shape the moment she had been old enough to knead rice flour by her grandmothers’ side. She drank the mélange of scallion oil and frying pork lardons and rice and more, listened to the line chefs shouting at each other in three dialects. It steadied her. Even before the restaurant, the chaos of a busy kitchen had always been in her blood.

Jin sniffed the air in loud gusts as Yun San set down the steamer basket before her, pouring black vinegar into a shallow dish striped with julienned ginger. Yun San opened the basket in a flourish to reveal the pale dumplings nestled within, belching steam over the rosewood table.

“Xiaolongbao. Careful, it’s hot. You’re meant to dip it into the black vinegar and—” Yun San flinched as Jin picked one up with her bare hand and popped it into her mouth.

Jin swallowed. She frowned. “I’ll get you some cold water,” Yun San said, setting down the tray. A deep rumbling purr stilled her next step. Jin closed her eyes, a tongue too wide and rough for her mouth rasping her lips in pleasure.

“Is that magic?” Jin asked, craning her neck to peer closely at the dumplings.

“Magic? Oh, you mean the soup filling? No, that’s a matter of wrapping solidified meat aspic along with the meat.”

“No,” Jin said, licking her lips again. “The taste. Is that why your people named this after the dragonfolk? The burst of richness, the textures, the paper-thin dumpling skin . . . a dish worthy of the Dragon King himself.”

“No, no,” Yun San said, laughing. “It’s just the same phonetic sound. ‘Basket,’ not ‘dragon.’ ‘Little basket bun.’”

Jin picked up the next and dipped it into vinegar, popping it into her mouth. Yun San couldn’t help her reflexive wince, but Jin appeared immune to scalding. The fushi ate all eight dumplings in quick succession and lashed her fingers clean with her tongue. “I did not know that humans knew such magic,” she said.

“It isn’t magic; it’s just a cooking technique.”

“What is magic but a technique that consumes the senses? You are a master of your form: I was right to come to you. Now make me more,” Jin said with delight. “More.

• • • •

“A veiled tasting. One made with fushi, the others without.” Yun San gestured at the identical portions of soup, braise, and candies. The ladlefuls of clear soup within white porcelain bowls slick with oil showed only faint variations of bronze. The cuts of braised meat settled between ears of mushrooms and bright wolfberries, shards of fungus and chunks of fish maw. The candies resembled delicate spheres braided out of fine white hair, dusted with red sugar.

“Are you asking me to guess which contains my flesh?” Jin asked, smiling toothily.

“They were all made the same way, with allowances for the length of cooking depending on the ingredients. I’m asking you which tastes the best.”

Jin tossed back the first bowl. Tilting her head, she set it aside. Jin purred at the second, licking the bowl clean. The third she sniffed at suspiciously for a while before drinking, and at the fourth, her mouth parted wide, tongue curling against tusks that pressed briefly through the skin of her cheek before receding. She did the same with the other samples, savouring some, frowning at others. Sucking her fingers clean at the end, Jin set aside some of the plates and bowls in a row.

“Qilin used to be a common sight,” Yun San said as she sat down, rubbing her back wearily. “People liked to boil down their spinal fins with chicken, ginger, sea slug, and abalone stock. Poachers sliced off the fins of the qilin they caught and left them to bleed to death. The stock gave the soup flavour; the fins did little for anything but the texture, easily replaced.”

“Now the qilin are gone,” Jin said. She looked at the bowls she selected, curling her lip. “Those were mine, weren’t they?”

“I chose the cuts of meat closest to the taste of your flesh. For the candies, several alternatives to your mane. And yet.”

“And yet,” Jin said, picking up the bowl she had licked and licking it again along the rim, “the soup and braise are luxurious without being overwhelming, the aftertaste subtle yet bright, the fragrance of rain and woodsmoke layered unmistakably over the spices. The candy is crispier than the others but melts on the tongue, leaving only a bittersweet regret that you cannot have more.”

“You should have been a poet,” Yun San said, startled that a fushi had plucked the words themselves from her mind.

“What makes you think I’m not?” Jin set down the bowl. “You’re troubled.”

“Can fushi read minds?”

“We have good eyes. What could so trouble someone who has made such works of art?”

“I’ve tried to find a substitute for the meat in goat or lamb, in buffalo or the black pork of the riverlands. There’s nothing like the taste of fushi.” Worse, there was nothing like the taste of the fushi she had just prepared. Yun San played to the particular flavour of the meat as she’d cooked, selecting only spices and accompanying ingredients that would accentuate rather than overpower the taste.

“Are you trying to tell me that I’ve given you a limb for nothing?” Jin’s voice cut into a low and rumbling snarl.

“I’d like to try something that might reach the same result you seek. Can you ask your kind to hide for a while?”

Jin smiled bitterly. “If it were a simple matter of finding a good place to hide, I would not need to lose a limb. We will survive the way we have survived—barely. Do what you must, human. If you cheat me, I’ll eat your arm.”

• • • •

A crowd gathered in the street outside the Jade Treasure as the fushi bodies piled up, some frozen, some fresh: every carcass available for purchase in the Imperial capital. They numbered six. Five adults, one with a mane twice as long as Jin’s, with pitted horns and broken teeth. One cub, its hind leg mangled into pulp. Jin’s hand trembled as she bent to stroke its cheek, matted with dried blood.

“Anyone you know?” Yun San murmured.

Jin ignored the question. “This must have cost you.”

“My children are grown and have their own lives; they don’t need my money. Besides, it’s just money.” Nothing like a limb, given freely.

Jin straightened from the cub. “What are you doing next?”

“Xuan!” Yun San called her gawking restaurant manager over. “The lamp oil.”

“Chef, are you sure?” Xuan said, though she handed Yun San the first earthenware pot. The crowd gasped as Yun San drenched the cub in oil. Angry murmurs rippled through those watching as Yun San soaked each carcass and took a torch from Xuan. Jin hunched down, her hand curling into a claw, spoiling for a fight.

“People of Yin’an!” Yun San called. “Why do we eat fushi?”

“For good luck,” yelled a man from the back. “Old mother, if you don’t want luck, give it to me.”

The crowd laughed, peppered by shouts of “Me! Or me!” They pressed closer, but the bouncers from the Jade Restaurant and the bulkier line chefs filed out and formed a human cordon, armed with heavy cleavers.

“Wang da’ren,” Yun San said, spying one of her regulars in the crowd. “When did you last have fushi?”

The merchant blushed at being the sudden focus of attention. “Last week. Madam Yun, you know I’d eat it at your restaurant, but you don’t have it on the menu.”

“Did anything lucky happen to you since then? Luckier than normal?”

The merchant stroked his long beard. “I’ve had a couple of good business deals.”

“Would that be because of the fushi, or because of your acumen and connections?” Yun San asked.

“That . . . well.” Wang coughed. Yun San called out more in the crowd by name, asking them the same questions, with similar retorts. She had known these people for years, known their friends and competitors both, understood how to flatter them. All would admit to eating fushi for luck, but to admit to eating it for status would be crass.

“Watch closely,” Yun San said. The crowd rumbled in dismay as she set fire to the carcasses one by one. Oily smoke rose from blackening fur and flesh. The frozen one refused to catch at first, then burst into black flame. Startled, Yun San took a step back as the others also began to burn with a ravenous, pitch-dark fire that spat a choking stench of rotting flesh over the street. The mass of people retreated with a collective gasp.

“Were those poisoned?” Wang called at her from the crowd. “Madam Yun, be careful!”

Poison! People pushed at each other to get further away, jostling and shouting at each other. Yun San stared at the flame as she tossed the torch over the carcasses. Even the bones burned to ash, leaving an astringent haze in their wake. “Not poison,” Yun San said, “just cursed. The fushi are divine beasts, why wouldn’t they curse the bodies of their dead? You who have eaten fushi, think closely: when was the last time you met misfortune?”

Wang paled. “It’s true! Yesterday, I fell from my sedan chair,” he said. The others chimed in, recalling accidents, deals gone wrong, illnesses.

“You have all tasted fushi made from cursed fushi. Now taste mine,” Yun San said. At her gesture, serving staff emerged from her restaurant with trays of candies. She beckoned her regulars over to sample bowls of soup.

“Madam Yun,” Wang said, wide-eyed, “this is like no fushi stew I’ve ever eaten, but it is fushi.”

Yun San bowed to the crowd. “I have enough for one last performance, a feast for one. Xuan will handle inquiries.” With another bow, she retreated into the restaurant with Jin as the merchants converged excitedly on Xuan.

“The fire was yours?” Yun San asked Jin once they were alone.

“A simple trick.” Jin’s skin strained against her teeth, sharp canines distending her soft mouth. Anger burned in her eyes. “How did feeding those greedy merchants help my cause?”

“Greed speaks loudly in the human world,” Yun San said with a wry smile, “and as a chef, I understand it well.”

• • • •

The Chief Minister of the Imperial Court smiled warmly as Yun San greeted him outside the private room, his gaze flicking from her to Jin and back. “Madam Yun. I hear you’ve created yet another marvel.”

“You’re too kind,” Yun said, bowing as deeply as her creaky back could allow. “A feast worthy of your Excellency, I hope. It’s been more than a year since you’ve graced this restaurant with your presence.”

“His Majesty the Emperor—long may he live—keeps all his Ministers busy,” said the Chief Minister, pulling at his long white beard. “And who is this lovely young lady with you?”

“The procurer of the meat behind tonight’s feast. She’ll like to speak to you after you’ve eaten,” Yun said. Jin smiled with all her teeth, saying nothing.

“A rather irregular business for a young lady, but I suppose that can be arranged. Bring the dishes to the door, and my taster will bring them in. There was an incident last month—not that I don’t trust you—but there are new rules for us Ministers now.”

Yun San bowed. As they walked out of earshot, she said, “Please try not to be rude to the Chief Minister when you speak to him after. Even if you might think that he deserves it.”

“I’ll think about it,” Jin said, smiling her sharp-toothed smile, “if you make me some of those soup dumplings while you’re working.”

“This is an important cook. Should you be distracting me?” Yun San asked, in a good enough mood to be playful.

“You closed your whole restaurant to feed one man’s ego. You can afford to be distracted.”

Yun San chuckled. “Ha! I’ve never met anyone who thought my dumplings were worth more than the Chief Minister’s favour. I’m going to miss you when this is over.”

“It isn’t over yet. Cook. But first, dumplings.”

Yun San settled Jin in a disused part of the kitchen and instructed her junior chefs to ply Jin with dumplings. Rolling up her sleeves, Yun San picked up her cleaver and waved her staff to their positions. Xuan returned with a pot of tea, looking harried and asking one of the staff to change it for another blend.

“His Excellency didn’t like the tea? What did we serve him?” Yun San asked.

“The Jade Blossom blend, his usual favourite,” Xuan said. She shook her head. “He asked for the gold-tipped Tieguanyin instead.”

“Doesn’t he always complain that it’s not worth the money?” The Chief Minister had to be in a good mood. Hopefully, they were about to make it better.

• • • •

“The Minister will see you both now,” Xuan said.

Yun San yawned. “That took a while. I thought he would never be done with dessert.” She got slowly to her feet as Jin popped the last piece of candy into her mouth, wiping her sugar-dusted fingers on her clothes.

The red sugar disappeared the moment it touched the fabric, but Xuan didn’t appear to notice, clearing her throat politely. “Chef, you’re old friends with the Minister, but Lady Jin . . . ”

“She’s earned the right to an audience—more than either of us. Tell everyone to take the rest of the day off. I’ll pay all of you a bonus tomorrow.”

As they walked back to the private room, Jin said, “Now what?”

“I’d prefer that you don’t bite his head off. That’d probably get all of us killed.”

Jin frowned at her. “Until I pay my favour to you, I will not do anything that will cause you harm.”

“It was a joke, fushi. Do you want me to speak, or would you prefer to?”

“Tell him another story of greed,” Jin growled, “and if it’s not enough, we will see.”

Guards patted them both down before allowing them into the private room. A pale-cheeked man in a cowled dark robe sat at the rosewood table, two guards in scale armour at his back and the Chief Minister standing respectfully by his side. Even before they were introduced, Yun San sank to her knees and kowtowed. “Your Majesty! This humble servant is unworthy of your presence. May you live for a thousand years.”

The Emperor glanced at Jin, who, to Yun San’s dull horror, stared him coldly in the eye. “Show your respect to the Son of Heaven,” the Chief Minister said with a quelling stare. “Who do you think you are?”

Jin laughed. “Your Majesty,” Yun San began, fear prickling down her back in a cold sweat. “Lady Jin is—”

“Who do I think I am?” Jin said with a mocking smile. She stepped back, ripping the sash off her waist and shrugging off her outer robes. The Emperor stiffened, even as his guards took a step forward with their hands on their blades. “Who do you think I am?”

Mist poured out over the floor, waist-deep where Yun San knelt. Three great paws flexed on the dark tiles, Jin’s laughter shaking the ground under Yun San’s knees. She scrambled to her feet as the guards drew their blades. “Wait, please,” Yun San said, spreading her arms. “The dishes that you ate. Here is the source!”

The Chief Minister gasped. The Emperor’s gaze flicked to Jin’s missing paw. “Explain yourself,” he said.

“Your Majesty, the fushi dishes that you had—were they any different from those you’ve had before?” Yun San asked.

“They were better. Sweeter, richer, more complex even than the dishes made by the Imperial kitchens. You are a talented chef,” the Emperor said.

“I would not dare to be compared to the Imperial kitchens. The reason lay not within my ability but in the source,” Yun San said, gesturing at Jin behind her.

The Emperor sniffed. “Surely you don’t expect me to believe your story about curses.”

“Your Majesty in his wisdom has divined the true meaning of my words. There is no curse. This is the difference: the meat I used was a gift from a divine beast, given willingly.”

The Emperor looked at Jin, then at Yun San. “Why would a fushi do such a thing?” he asked.

“To allow me to make a dish worthy of the Son of Heaven,” Yun San said, bowing deeply. “Such that a bargain might be made with a man of power.”

“What bargain do you seek?” the Emperor asked, amused. “I did not think that the fushi could speak, let alone strike bargains.”

Jin let out a loud snort. Before she could say something biting, Yun San said, “Your Majesty, my grandmother used to describe the flight of the phoenixes over the river valleys in winter. She said that on a clear night, they looked like stars rising, like bright cherry flowers blooming in the sky.”

“There are no more phoenixes,” said the Chief Minister.

“My uncle talked of the qilin that stalked through the bamboo groves, once friendly enough with travellers that they would bow in exchange for offerings. Of the great tigers that stalked through the deeper forests like tongues of living flame, the lords of their domain. Of the white rhinoceroses of the plains, of the pink dolphins of the rivers, of the star-shelled tortoises in the fields.”

The Emperor looked grave. “Those are gone as well. I am aware.”

Yun San knelt. “Your Majesty, you may have deemed the fushi’s gift worthy, but living things should not need to be deemed worthy of human regard to be worthy of our respect. You do not ask the jade baubles in your palace to justify their value. Why do we ask living treasures to prove themselves worthy of our protection? Your Majesty, I ask you to protect not just the divine beasts, but the others that are vanishing under your care. Is feeding our greed worth the sacrifice of all that is strange and beautiful in the world?”

“Get up.” The Emperor glanced up at Jin. “You and your kind are welcome to the Imperial parklands. There are deer aplenty.”

“To become part of your menagerie? No,” Jin said, curling her lip in disdain.

“To become one of my advisors,” said the Emperor, “or do you still trust people to govern your affairs?”

“All we ask is to be left alone, but I see your point,” Jin conceded.

“I’ll issue a decree when I return to the Palace.” The Emperor said, rising to his feet. “Thank you both for the meal.”

• • • •

“I’d be careful going to the parklands,” Yun San said after the Emperor and his entourage left as discreetly as they had arrived. “This Emperor is known to have a love of the arts, and doesn’t like to kill, but he’s a lazy man who leaves most matters of governance to his ministers. The Palace is a dangerous place. This won’t be easy.”

“Few things worth doing are easy. I consider your half of the bargain paid. What do you want in return?” Jin asked.

“You gave me your arm, and I didn’t technically do what you asked. Do you still want to grant me a wish?”

“Why not? I expect no one to work for free.”

“I’m an old woman with no real interest in the world but food. Tell you what. Sneak me samples of the dishes from the Imperial kitchens now and then, and I’ll count us even.”

Jin chuckled. “Small wonder that you understand greed.”

“It served us well so far, hasn’t it?”

“So it has.” Jin nuzzled Yun San carefully against her back, shifting her a step. “Thank you.”

“Don’t. The cost, the risk, the consequences, that’s all still yours to bear. All I can do is wish you luck.”

“Sometimes luck is all we need,” Jin said. She bared her tusks into a toothy grin. “Now, is there more of that candy?”

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Anya Ow

Anya Ow

Anya Ow is the author of The Firebird’s Tale and Cradle and Grave, and is an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Daily SF, Uncanny, the 2019 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror anthology and more. Born in Singapore, Anya has a Bachelor of Laws from Melbourne University and a Bachelor of Applied Design from Billy Blue College of Design. She lives in Melbourne with her two cats, working as a graphic designer, illustrator, and chief studio dog briber for a creative agency. She can be found at www.anyasy.com or on twitter @anyasy.