Appears in Gears and Levers 1: A Steampunk Anthology, available from Sky Warrior Books in ebook and trade paperback.
The Festival of Flame
Symbols could only contain the infinite for so long. That was the great flaw in Western magic. They treated the occult like science, another force to be mastered like galvanism or alchemy. Fa Xui’s own symbols, traced lightly in chalk on the wooden floor around him, were instead echoes of the immutable laws of the universe. As soon as they were no longer needed they would dissolve, leaving no record of their brief existence. Nothing in Heaven-and-Earth was permanent and it was arrogant to believe otherwise.
Ever since the guizi had arrived in their ships filled low with opium and demonic mechanisms, they’d chased nothing less than the destruction of the Middle Kingdom. The drought in Shangdong, followed by vicious floods uprooting hundreds of thousands, was only the most obvious sign of Heavenly displeasure.
Even this house, which was once and should still have been a bright and intricate flower, one among hundreds in the garden of Beijing, was a sign. The cracking plaster walls, hastily thrown up to please the Europeans, bore soot from squatters’ opium pipes like tattoos of shame.
Finishing the bagua circle, Fa Xui arranged his offerings: sweetmeats, bajiao incense, a small bowl of sticky rice, and a handwritten scroll bearing a phrase from the Tao Te Ching. “Heaven-and-Earth are not sentimental. Everything is as straw dogs.” Fa Xui knelt in the center of the circle and chanted the words to commune with the spiritual world.
The crumbling, decrepit house faded away, replaced by a cultivated garden. Small bushes and shrubs defined the space around him, themselves respectful and unobtrusive. Its furrows perfectly aligned, a raked dirt path approached a red footbridge. The footbridge spanned a small stream. A shrine to the ancestors nestled in the green on the other side, and the path continued to a pair of ornately carved and painted double doors. A chime sounded, subtle yet clear, and Fa Xui prostrated himself.
From bitter experience, he knew the Western guizi would consider this a degrading affront to their dignity. Such was their arrogance. There were forces in Heaven-and-Earth far beyond any mortal striving, and the virtue of the superior man lay in obedience.
A voice spoke. “The Jade Emperor recognizes you.” It was deep, cultured and dignified.
“I am honored to serve,” Fa Xui replied, neither moving nor lifting his eyes.
This wasn’t the Jade Emperor himself, of course, only a functionary sent in his place. Nevertheless, it was an overwhelming honor.
The functionary entered the circle and inspected his offerings. Here was another vital difference between China and the West. Their magic circles were used to trap, separate and confine. Taoist circles excluded nothing, instead fostering harmony and interconnection.
“Your obeisance is pleasing,” the functionary said. “The manifold blessing of the Jade Emperor upon you.”
A red envelope was placed in front of Fa Xui, a handbreadth from his bowed head. The smell of morning springtime faded. Waiting the respectful fifty heartbeats before rising, he gave thanks to his ancestors and silently vowed to defend China with his life once again. It was only when the trigrams of the bagua circle had completely faded that he opened the envelope and read the name of his target.