Back to Black
|"A broken mirror cannot be made to shine."|| The run takes place in the early First Month of the Dog in the Tenth Year of the Dog since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in Stone Drum
The party regroups, as usual, at Tahiti. Xian shows up, looking much less injured than she did at the end of Saving Spear Carrier Ri, and Merit wonders how she's feeling. Xian says she feels fine, and she doesn't know how much to get into it, but she's a horse now. Yanyu looks at her aspect, but she's still Coyote. Xian clarifies - she's not horse-aspected, she's just a horse. Well, maybe she's a were-human. She'll get her body back if she does the mission for Horse. Merit is outraged - Horse is blackmailing her? Well, yes, but she was pretty much dead, so... Merit reins back on his outrage a bit.
Speaking of not dying, who is Yanyu's protector? Shen-Ji takes the Magpie Talisman, and agrees to protect her.
The group heads to Kuan-Xi's carriage to go to the Secret Benevolent Headquarters, and Xian notes that she probably should pull the carriage rather than trying to ride in it, because it's a little small for a horse on the inside. She turns into her horse-shape, and Shen-Ji takes a look. She isn't an item card, but if she was, she would be blue; as for what sort of horse she is, she's a confounding horse. Well, okay, that makes sense.
They hitch Xian up to the carriage, get in and shut the door, and are there. Wow. It turns out that having two levels of super-speed makes the carriage go really fast. Xian starts shepherding them all out to go see the Magpie Prince. Kasumi thinks that she is really focused and on target, which is a little odd for Xian.
The Dice of Questing are rolled, and they come up 10. The Prince's eyes go blue and blue, and he says: Protect Stone Drum's Nature..
Kuan-Xi, who was just in Stone Drum, briefs everyone on the state of things there - there are the Dragon Army internal security guys in black uniforms. She describes them as "the Nightwatch for Dragon Army", who were disbanded a hundred years ago, but they're back now and run by the Obsidian Warlord. One of them had a ghost in him, so probably the Obsidian Warlord brought him back as part of his "Commander of the Fallen" powers. Also, there's a whole subtle web of spidery-ness over the city, and the Nightwatch is eavesdropping at the inns.
So... what exactly is the nature of Stone Drum? Well, it's the capital of the country, and it is a protective redoubt for its people. Hmm. It's not immediately clear to people which of those things would be under attack.
Having done the briefing, they finally get out of the carriage. Since Xian hadn't picked a particular location to show up, they find themselves in an inn courtyard. Merit addresses Kuan-Xi as "Princess", which pulls in a bunch of servants and stablehands, and he directs them to take their horse to the best stall in the stable, and groom her extra well. Xian gives Merit a suspicious look - this does make it hard for her to stop being a horse. She ends up spending quite a while in the "horse day spa" before she is left alone enough that she can turn human-shaped and sneak out of the stable.
- "We're getting a refund from that place." -Merit
Meanwhile, Merit leads an expedition to the palace, and tries to get in to see Yue Ping and Gipeno, but a 5 status roll isn't sufficient to get onto their schedule immediately. He sends in a message, and Xian catches up to the group.
Merit sends out some investigators to see who is in town regarding the "spidery web around Stone Drum" - the answer includes the Obsidian Warlord, Shen Dai Han, a cast of about two dozen internal security guys, and the Immortal Gou. Kuan-Xi senses the magic of the spiderweb, and thinks that while it is still around, it has settled into the city more. Last time she was here, it was fresher, and more obvious. Soon it might be completely imperceptible.
The group does a pork bun crawl around the area while Merit tries to figure out how the spying works. One of the pork bun vendors is taking notes, and Merit recruits him, and works out a contact protocol between his spy organization and the Invisible Web of Shen Dai Han.
- "It's an older code, but it checks out."
Shen-Ji thinks about the chi of the city - it's becoming more Imperial flavored. Oh, right! Kuan-Xi remembers that from the last time she was here, too. There's a lot of construction going on, helped by the Dragon Army, and it is making the chi of the city more Imperial. Yanyu senses supernatural on the pork bun vendor - nope. So he's not a ghost, at least.
Shen-Ji notes that he is not sure they can deal with the cause of all of this (the Obsidian Warlord and his internal security), just the symptoms. Unless people are willing to let him set everything on fire, that is. People are not so willing.
Kuan-Xi goes to a park and formally summons Gou using her titles and incantations. He arrives, though he notes that he's not sure why he's teaching her all this spycraft if she's not going to use it.
Kuan-Xi explains that they've been sent here to "protect the nature of Stone Drum". Sent by whom? Well, kind of by Magpie, Crane, and Dog, but speaking through a particular individual. Gou wonders if Kuan-Xi has reason to be beholden to those three in particular? Yes, sort of - and also, they're defending the countries of the Arcade, the Roof, and the Steppes. (Xian points out that she's defending the Empire, not just those three countries. )
Kuan-Xi says that they already know that the construction in the city is changing its nature, and that this is related to the presence of the ... organization that they talked about before. Gou says that it sounds to him like they already know the answer to the question they are asking about how to protect the nature of Stone Drum. Kuan-Xi isn't sure they know the whole answer - is the spiderweb not a threat to Stone Drum's nature too?
Has Gou heard of Shen Dai Han? Yes, he has. And his being a ghost makes sense to explain how he has returned.
- "But what he is is not the relevant thing, for what he is doing." -Gou
- "Do you know what his birthday is?" -Yanyu
- "I could find out. Is that the petition you wish to bring before the Princess?" -Gou
- "Maybe the petition should have to do with our actual mission?" -Xian
- "Oh, also, I'm sorry, I had to move your painting." -Xian
Gou is surprised by the change of subject. What painting? Xian explains about swapping the mural in Gangmul to the Port of Auspicious Voyage. Gou wants to know if she had a good reason. Xian says she did, so Gou will take a look.
Back to this mission, though!
Merit receives an invitation from Gipeno to discuss things. Apparently, Yue Ping is off dealing with "issues" and won't be back until later, but Gipeno is a good start to talk to. Merit explains that they are here to worry about the whole building-replacement plot. Gipeno remembers that Xiao Fa mentioned something about the chi of the city, and Merit agrees - they're worried on behalf of some great spirits. Gipeno says that Yue Ping is trying to find out more about that, through channels, but it's slow going.
Is she having trouble with Internal Security? Gipeno waves that away. They're on the same side - they're here to help too. He looked into them, and is satisfied. Apparently, Gipeno talked to Ren Li, who is Shen Dai Han's right hand man, and would be happy to set up a meeting with him, if they're concerned. The party assures Gipeno that they are not at all worried - maybe they can talk to him later. Much later.
Shen-Ji offers to go and set the whole building on fire, but again, no one else is enthusiastic about that solution.
Kasumi sneaks into the Dragon Army construction headquarters, and returns with the list of construction projects. About a dozen are being done, or being assisted by, the Dragon Army, and they are scattered throughout the city.
When the party returns to their inn, an older gentleman abases himself before Merit (and the rest of the staff also bows very deeply). He begs forgiveness, for their horse has escaped the stable, and they have been unable to find it. Merit decides to not appear angry, and rolls his eyes - again? That darned horse keeps doing this.
The inn staff looks immeasurably relieved, and Merit suggests that they talk to Xian for advice on finding the horse, as she knows it best. She suggests putting out a basket of cloudberries to lure the horse back. This seems implausible, but they are too covered in shame to argue.
Then, everyone gets back in the carriage to look through the notes Kasumi has stolen. Merit thinks the arrangement of construction looks feng-shui-ish, and there's a consistent plan that links them all together. Alas, there is not one site which is the linchpin for the whole design that could be destroyed to make it all non-Imperial. It also seems clear that there is just one designer.
Does the list have a lead architect listed? Well, the plans are all approved by Captain Pinyan.
Merit sends out his spies again - who is in town for the Imperialization of Stone Drum? The party, the Obisidian Warlord, Tsu Fa, Captain Pinyan, and a whole lot of construction workers.
Tsu Fa! Xian just talked to him recently! She goes ahead (turning into a horse) to find him. Kasumi chases her, using the fast-chasing shtick, and discovers that this is a lot like riding on top of the carriage. Xian sidles up to Tsu Fa as a horse, and Tsu Fa tells his workers to take a break. Then, he bows to the horse, and he and the horse duck into a nearby tent, where Xian turns back into a person.
Xian assures him that his work on the murals was exemplary. Now, she's here about the reconstruction and improvement of this glorious city. There are, however, some aspects to the construction which are not entirely within her realm of expertise.
Everyone else catches up and is directed by Kasumi into the tent.
- "You're all... friends of Xian? What kind of friends are you?" -Tsu Fa
- "Good ones, I think." -Merit
- "Last time, when we were working on the Bridge of Moonlight, I didn't realize you were a... friend. " -Tsu Fa
Merit bows ambiguously to Xian.
Tsu Fa can also confirm that the plans he is using were signed by Captain Pinyan. They have an Imperial architectural style, but adjusted to blend into the local architecture.
So... was Tsu Fa there for the festival? He was - pretty much everyone was - but it was kind of a disaster. Nobody was sure why there was a banner for the Governor of the Tanzhe Plain, and nobody was even sure who he was at the time - they only figured out later that it was the governor, and everyone figures it was a shipping error.
Xian works on persuading him that the Citizens! Of! Stone Drum! deserve architecture that is strong and gritty like their city. Tsu Fa thinks that sounds reasonable, but he's an earth mage, not an architect. Captain Pinyan is the one drawing up all the plans. If only there was an architect who specialized in building to the feng shui of an area!
The group goes back to sit in the carriage again, and wonders if Huan Ken (the one at the Winter Academy) can help them. Xian ducks out to return as a horse, and pull the carriage there. Once, there, though...
- "So, the thing is, last we saw Huan Ken, Takanata had just severed him from his entire identity and destiny, and he was... not dealing very well." -Xian
The group heads over to the doors of the Academy, and Merit says they're there to see Huan Ken. The student who answers says that the professor is... not feeling well. Well, Merit is a doctor, so he can help! Everyone bustles in.
Huan Ken's office door is plain and stripped of any flags. The student calls through the door, letting the professor know that there are people here to see him. He comes to the door, looking rather disheveled and sickly.
- "Oh. It's you. Have you come to witness my unworth?"
- "Let's talk about the architecture of Stone Drum." -Merit
Merit badgers him into a conversation about architecture, and then evaluates him for his suitability for the task. It's tough to give a single answer - he's amazingly qualified, as far as skills and shticks go - but he also has the worst imposter syndrome ever, and would be a poor fit because he thinks he would be a poor fit.
- "When were you born?" -Yanyu
- "Which time?" -Huan Ken
- "The time that matters most." -Yanyu
He gives a very recent date, and Yanyu casts his horoscope. His "house" horoscope was redacted by Takanata, and he is now severed from his destiny, and is empty of purpose.
Yanyu tries to lean on his horoscope - she can't just change it to having a purpose, but she can push it towards "searching for a purpose, which is a little better.
Merit shows him the plans, and he sighs.
- "They’re competently drawn, but by an amateur. You might want someone competent to redraw them." -Huan Ken
- "You, sir, need a wife." -Yanyu
- "WHAT?" -Merit
Merit thinks starting matchmaking with him in this state might be unwise, but Yanyu says that they can have him work on this project, and then they can get him a wife to tell him whether or not what he's doing is a good idea. As this is the Steppes, having a spouse certainly helps with a lot of things.
On the theory that "confused about his place in the world" is a better next step than "convinced that he has no place in the world", Xian turns into a horse in front of him, and gallops everyone back to Stone Drum, where the inn stablehands promise Merit that they really won't let the horse escape again.
The group (with Huan Ken but without Xian) heads back to the palace, where Gipeno can show them to the top of the tower where Xiao Fa looked out over the city.
- "You wish this city to be the heart of imperial power?" -Huan Ken
- "No, no, we wish to undo that."
They explain that they want it to be the capital of the Steppes, not the Empire, and more Dog-flavored than anything else. Yanyu suggests that maybe Huan Ken could do a preliminary redesign before they get someone else to finalize it, and Merit explains that they want to make these changes, but they don't have the authority. Ah - asymmetrical warfare.
Huan Ken sketches something, and thinks that it is good enough to fool Captain Pinyan. It will be "Imperial", but should make an architectural novice believe it to be Imperial. Shen-Ji takes a look, with his own architecture skill, and thinks that Huan Ken hasn't changed anything. Well, that seems perfect.
Kasumi switches the plans, and overhears Captain Pinyan explaining to a pair of admirers: it all came to him in a dream, with the whole city laid out in front of him. Huh.
Yanyu works on convincing Huan Ken that he should be married. He really didn't have anyone in mind yet, but Yanyu thinks that a wife could help him find his purpose.
- "Do you have any preferences?" -Yanyu
- "I... hadn't really thought about it." -Huan Ken
- "The answer is still yes, he has preferences!" -Xian
Okay - are they done? There isn't anyone who can check the scoreboard. Hmm.
There are still all the copies of the original plans at the worksites. Should Kasumi steal all of them? That might be suspicious. Maybe they need to have horrible tea-spilling accidents. No, that's also suspicious. Wait! Xian can send Captain Pinyan a dream, making him worried about the site copies, so he distributes new ones. Xian hasn't met Captain Pinyan, but can use the hoop, which is set to (among other things) "Restart" to pass the plans through to restart the architectural plan via a dream.
In the morning, Tsu Fa is impressed - they work fast, and he got new plans this morning. They look much like the old plans, though. Still, he's always willing to help the... friends.
Should they warn Yue Ping to stop pursuing the matter through channels? Gipeno thinks the Nightwatch is great, though. So warning her might get it back to him. Hmm.
Kuan-Xi and Yanyu get the group in to see Yue Ping, and let her know that the architectural problems have been ameliorated, subtly. It would probably be best if she pretended to give up in frustration.
- "On a complete side note, do you have an unmarried completely loyal lady in waiting?" -Yanyu
- "Of course." -Yue Ping
- "How would you like to get her married to an extremely talented architect who has had a crisis of faith? It could be useful." -Yanyu
Yue Ping and Yanyu negotiate about whether or not Yue Ping is willing to consider this. She would require that the architect be an asset to her, not just that the marriage be an asset to him. Yanyu explains that said architect is searching for a purpose and is at present highly suggestible, but very powerful. Yue Ping has come to believe in the power of architecture, but the description of the architect makes him sound very much like damaged goods, so she is not convinced. Yanyu will follow up with her later.
She does realize that Gipeno has been swayed by Ren Li, and has stopped objecting to having been dragged away for "debriefing", so her father is no longer fighting with the Obsidian Warlord over it. However, she thinks that she can resist Ren Li's wiles.
- "It is possible for someone to be dangerously convincing." -Xian
- "Straight from the horse's mouth." -Merit
Xian decides to demonstrate an object lesson. First, she convinces Yue Ping that a powerful feng shui architect is a powerful ally. Architecture can channel power even from one kingdom to another - it is a powerful weapon, and one that is hard to detect. A little hiccup in his motivation is just a testament to his humanity - he is not so ambitious as to be driven to the exclusion of all personal concerns - and you wouldn't want that! But what can be broken can be fixed, much stronger than before. With 29 successes, Yue Ping finds Huan Ken a far more plausible match than she had before, and will commence her due diligence in checking him out.
Then Xian continues. About a month ago, Huan Ken was full of confidence, full of skills and expertise. Then he was judged unworthy - and he broke down and cried like a baby. Despite his profession as a professor, he did not bathe, did not change his clothes. He sat and stared at the wall, he barely took food or drink - he is a broken broken man. All the skill and talent in the world is worthless if you don't have the desire. With 27 successes, Yue Ping is not nearly so sold as before about Huan Ken's worthiness.
- "So, maybe the thing to consider is, don't be alone with Ren Li." -Xian
Yue Ping thinks about all of that.
- "Two things. First, I think you underestimate one's resolution when dealing with one's husband or fiance. Second, I realize that I have things to attend to. Thank you for the lesson, but I must be going. " -Yue Ping
- "Really, none of us would talk to you if we could avoid it." -Merit, to Xian
The group shows itself out.
- "But, the Dragon Army is in charge of defending the Empire!" -Xian
- "Shhh! Stop talking!" -Merit and Shen-Ji, making zip motions at Xian
It has gotten a bit late, so the group decides against asking for another mission, much to Shen-Ji's annoyance. If only they had let him set everyone on fire at the beginning, they would have been done hours ago.
So, Xian explains about her missions from Horse. Rehoming Merit's horse to a stable in Myeong sounds easy enough, especially since Shen-Ji has a stable there. The rest of her tasks sound a bit more difficult. The most recent race winner, Secret Flower Moon, would probably sell for something like 5 tael, which is not nearly a thousand li.
The whole wolf-horse dynamic is also confusing. Is Horse throwing Wolf under the bus? Xian doesn't know. Yanyu has a weird sense that she should have strong opinions about this Wolf / Horse thing, but she doesn't, and that bothers her. Hmm.
Kuan-Xi contemplates the task list, and says that it isn't altering the Cycle, at least, not right now. It's setting something up so that someone might, or might not, alter the Cycle later. Merit thinks about it as well, and thinks that what is actually happening is that there is a shell game being set up between Horse and Wolf and their countries. Which spirit is under which country? Who can say? Perhaps they can add more wolves and horses to the shell game, to make it even more effective!Finally, Shen-Ji notes that there is a CRATE OF GOLD BARS in the party loot (from the airship). Why have they not rendered it down into cash? Merit thinks he can get 100+ tael for it, and will start working on that. They all retire to Tahiti for drinks.