Casting the Die
|"The merciful do not engage in war, and the righteous do not engage in finances."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Monkey in the Month of the Butterfly in the Tenth Year of the Bear since the since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in the Tanzhe Plain
Inokora Izumi confers with her new logistics officer, Cao Cao, on the eve of war. The House of Exuberant Interference having agreed to spearhead the invasion of the Tanzhe Plain in order to establish a Protected Trade Zone for the Arcade, the HEI forces will be working in concert with troops from the House of Gainful Protection in order to take the Plain, supported by other Houses of the Arcade. The Horse Spirit will be providing a swift initial deployment, so the two pore over maps and intelligence reports of the locations and strength of the current forces of the Plains of Honor. The southeastern hills are a particular sticking point - the party has a special relationship with the Temple of the Eternal Dream, and will not appreciate an army stomping up the stairs of the Temple, but it also cannot be permitted to remain as a defensive reinforcement point for the Plains forces. Shanxi and his team are sent to make sure that the few Plains troops in the area are enough out of position that the initial deployment can cut them off from the hills.
Troop movement from Gainful Protection and Exuberant Interference will put the Tanzhe on alert, so moving swiftly is more important than moving perfectly. So Izumi and Cao spend the night drawing up a deployment plan, and in the morning, Horse sends the forces into the Plain. One point of the HEI military remain behind, so as to keep the House from being entirely undefended.
Izumi's command center is stationed near Xian's Mystical Center of the Country; messengers with swift horses shod with courier horseshoes, carrying duplicating paper, are detailed to keep communication lines open.
Initial battle reports are promising - the Plains soldiers are fierce, but have been expecting attacks on the scale of bandits rather than an invasion, and Horse's initial disbursement has done a lot to cut off Plains forces from their reinforcements, or hold defensible positions. Lanes are left open for the Plains forces to backpedal, rather than massacring them outright, but this has the strategic flaw of allowing them to join up as they are pressed back towards the Jasmine.
The deployment of troops around the Temple Hills succeeds in cutting the Plains forces off from the base of the hills. One of the Gainful Protection commanders heads up the hill to clarify the Trade Protection Zone state of the Tanzhe, but the Exuberant Interference troops are less willing to back him up here. The doors of the temple are shut and do not open to either knocking or pounding; the commander fails to persuade the perimeter forces that a show of force is the appropriate tactic to escalate to, so the perimeter continues to hold. Izumi sends a messenger to the perimeter commanders reiterating that the Temple Hills are not to be invaded by force. A hurriedly scrawled note appears on one of Izumi's communication scrolls:
Izumi checks her maps - in about an hour, any scouts or outriders for the Dragon troops will start seeing signs of battle, and within two hours, they will likely be in sight of Crooked Hill, one of the locations of a Plains garrison and currently in contention. She writes follow up orders on the scroll - the scout and his group needs to stall the Dragon Army without starting a fight. Long enough, she hopes, for the Crooked Hill battle to be won, or at least for the Arcade forces to have the upper hand sufficiently to be in control when the Dragon Army tells everyone to stand down.
On the other end of the duplicating paper, Lieutenant Lin Fortune stares at his orders with mild horror.
- "We have to stop the Dragon Army from advancing. For as long as possible. Without a fight." -Lt. Fortune
- "Well, of course without a fight. There's fifty of them and four of us. Who thinks with a fight sounds like a good idea?" -Private Zheng
- "...without a fight with them." -Lt. Fortune
Fortune's first plan is put into effect - the hapless Zheng is re-dressed in civilian clothes and then carefully chopped to within an inch of his life, as everyone makes sure to scuffle around quite a bit to leave signs of a more serious fight. Then the other three take his horse and ride away, leaving Zheng down but not dying, in the path that the Dragon Army will be following.
When Zheng is, as expected, found and revived, he tells a story of bandits having set upon him and stolen his horse, his purse, and his bride. He throws himself prostrate before the captain of the troop, pleading with them to help rescue his dear Kaitei. The captain is persuaded, and the army troop sets off to follow the tracks of Fortune's group. With courier horseshoes, Fortune manages to stay ahead of them, and leads them away from any of the areas where fighting is happening, for several hours, before he sends the "bandit" trail off into rocky enough ground that it can be lost rather than having them ride around in increasingly suspicious circles.
After that, Fortune has another idea, having heard rumors about some of the incidents that provoked the invasion, and the trio heads for a nearby village not enmeshed in fighting. After some hasty haggling at a nearby inn, they have traded all their money and all four courier horses for a mule-drawn wagon with eight casks of strong beer, and are heading once again for the southbound Dragon army unit. (Private Yao remains behind at this point to write a report to Izumi on the communication paper, and keep the rest of the soldier accoutrements.) After some carefully precise navigation, Fortune and the beer-cart cross paths with the army, whereupon they "panic", attempt to flee, and then surrender to the Dragon Army when it seems clear that they cannot get away.
Fortune and Private Kim are not amazing actors, but (as the party has also determined) it doesn't require good actors to be found completely suspicious and confusing. After a few minutes of interrogation, Fortune is deemed up to something, even if isn't clear what, so the two are declared to be in protective custody. However, they continue to declaim loudly their surrender until it becomes clear to much of the rest of the army troop that quite a lot of good beer has been... surrendered, or taken as evidence, or donated to the army, or something. In any event, it seems likely that if it is presented to the captain's superiors, it will just be wasted, so the army decides to make an early camp of it and... determine whether the casks of beer are being used to smuggle anything (they aren't), and then dispose of the beer that has been sadly rendered un-transportable.
Fortune has succeeded beyond his expectations, and the Dragon Army will not move out until morning.
At this point, we rejoin Captain Izumi, who has been riding for Crooked Hill with the house guard. Her force is small compared to the full military groups arrayed, but it contains the core of her original mercenaries, and they are quite a bit fiercer than the average soldier. The guard force begins to harry the Plains forces, sweeping through anywhere that they are thin like a half dozen miniature Dengs, and leaving blood and disarray in their wake.
The harrying continues for a good hour, drawing the Plains forces a little distance from Crooked Hill as they try to avoid an entirely two-front battle. However, the Plains commander has an inspiration, and on Izumi's next pass, the Plains troops concentrate on her group's horses rather than on them. The horses are much less competent at parrying and dodging than the fighters are, and Izumi and the house guard soon find themselves afoot and much slower, backs to a wall against the angry Tigers. But surely Lieutenant Fortune will only be able to stall the Dragon Army for a few hours, and then they will arrive to put an end to the fighting. Captain Izumi and the Interferers only need to hold out for a little while longer...
Back at Command HQ, Cao Cao is reading dispatches and updating the maps. She notices that of the forces sent to take the town of Three Seasons, none of them have reported back. A second group, dispatched a few hours later as reinforcements, has also not reported in. Sending a third force seems unwise, but ignoring it and hoping it gets better doesn't seem like an improvement, so she inks a note to Shanxi and asks him and his team to take a very careful look.
Shanxi and his ops team head for Three Seasons, and approach very cautiously and stealthily. The remnants of battle can be seen in the bodies of the Arcade troops littered about; the Plains troops are in a strong defensive formation, and there is a tall man with a huge sword, loping from group to group. Most of the Arcade bodies appear to have been chopped by a huge sword - some nearly in half. With a sinking feeling, Shanxi realizes that this is the new Hand on the Sword of All the Clans, and holder of the Great Talisman of the Tiger. There is no way that they are going to be able to take him. From the look of the battlefield, he might well give Master Deng and Shen Wei Han together, a serious run for their money.
Shanxi's team pulls back to confer. They can't fight. They can't just retreat and let the Plains troops remain unbeaten. They could try poison, but are unlikely to have the opportunity to find a sandwich he's about to eat. Nobody is a sufficient ninja to keep him from parrying and riposting. Things seem pretty hopeless. How would they fight Master Deng if they had to? Luckily, Shanxi has already given this question some thought - alliances can always go bad, and "never going to happen" is an idealist's defense. Shanxi is not an idealist.
- "How do you chase Master Deng away? You don't. You can't. You let him figure out that you are preventing him from being where he needs to be, and then he will cut his way through any obstacle in order to be there instead of where you are." -Shanxi
The grey ops team comes up with a grey op that they think will fool the Hand. Shanxi and one of the others take turns writing a conversation to each other on a piece of paper in which Shanxi continues to report that the Hand is in place and shows no signs of leaving, and the other writer reacts with satisfaction. Estimates of the quickest that anyone could reach Jabon from Three Seasons are made, and it is concluded that if the Hand stays in place for another day, he will be too late. Shanxi is directed to keep eyes on the Hand, and to let the other know AT ONCE if he moves.
Then Shanxi sneaks forwards to keep an eye on the Plains troops and the Hand. He moves his location once in a while, as the Hand moves around, and occasionally softballs a stealth roll so that someone with a good perception roll might spot him. Eventually, someone does. Shanxi starts writing another line of a report, and readies himself to react. The Hand is both stealthy and fast, and decloaks to chop him. Shanxi drops his ink stick and throws a ninja escape smoke towards the ground - but the Hand catches it, preventing it from going off, and a moment later, Shanxi is grabbed in a grip of iron, and he and his note are taken into Three Seasons, much to his team's consternation.
Back at Crooked Hill, Captain Izumi and the house guard are standing back to back against fairly overwhelming odds, but even at full dodge, sometimes the speed roll goes against you, and they are being whittled down. Izumi is beginning to suspect that the Dragon Army is not coming any time soon. However, she remembers that there is a run-usable stash of healing potions, so she instructs the guard that they will be making a break for it, and drinking as many healing potions as they can to keep standing.
Izumi calls for a charge, and takes the point of a flying wedge as they try to break through the Plains line surrounding them. The healing potions are consumed quickly, and several of the house guard are taken down, but in the end most of them are through with a few hit points left, and swiftly fleeing. The Plains forces give chase, but lose them in the growing evening gloom. When the Plains troops finally make camp, they are well outside of Crooked Hill, and when the Dragon Army appears in the morning, the Arcade quite obviously holds the town as the defenders.
Shanxi's evening is even less pleasant than Izumi's, unfortunately for him, and he is hung by his wrists for the soldiers to interrogate. He has been on the other side of interrogations enough to know that any truth which is easily given will be suspect, so it takes them some time to "break" him enough that he thinks confessing will be believed. He tells the Hand that he doesn't know the details, but babbles a lot of speculation about a plan about to happen, possibly an assassination attempt on Lord Sonwu and his family. The interrogation continues until the Hand is satisfied that this is the truth, and then the Hand stabs him as they prepare to move out.
When the Plains forces begin to move, Shanxi's team heads in at their fastest stealth, searching for what happened to their boss. When they find him, he is down and dying, but not dead yet. Unfortunately, Izumi's escape has used all the healing potions. First aid and the grey ops team's only karma point stabilize him, but he won't be waking up any time soon.
The remaining gang members begin to argue about whether they should head back to Tahiti, where someone should be able to heal Shanxi, or head back to their old stomping grounds in the Harbor, which have somewhat more manageable threats...
Meanwhile, back at Tahiti, Kui Daishu, the newest house member recently from the House of Benevolent Oversight, is trying to integrate the assistance of the House of Judicious Increase into the war budget. It’s a pretty straight forward process, except that she keeps getting interrupted. Apparently, Li Merit has a personal cook who is constantly popping in to make sure she has everything she needs. It’s very distracting, and she really doesn’t want to eat anything. She’s already consumed her usual amount of food for the morning and isn’t really interested in constant refills of her tea…. Eventually, Daishu has had enough and tells the cook to leave her alone.
- "It’s bad enough that half of these numbers are clearly made up; all of these interruptions aren’t helping me figure out how to account for them." -Kui Daishu
- "I’m terribly sorry, it won’t happen aga…. wait. What was that first part again?" -The cook
After some more arguing, the cook figures out that Daishu is upset because someone keeps falsifying expense reports and budget numbers and cost estimates before they even get to Li Merit’s desk. Trying to sort out a new house’s books for the first time is difficult enough, without half of the entries being fabrications. The cook thinks about this for a moment and then carefully asks, “So, you think there’s a spy messing with the records?” Daishu, who is normally quite withdrawn and rather timid looks at the cook incredulously.
- "There’s always a spy changing things, that’s the way Great Houses work."
- "Well, if that’s the case, I’m on it. I’ll have this sorted out by this afternoon."
- "Huh, I thought you were the cook?"
Daishu gets back to work and the cook is off… She starts by asking the Butlers if they might have noticed anyone going near Li Merit’s office. They assure her that no one who is not authorized goes in there, except for the usual sneaks. She blinks several times…
- "Sneaks? What sneaks exactly do you let go into Li Merit’s office when he’s not around without reporting it."
- "Well… there’s you."
- "I don’t count!"
Placatingly, the head butler assures her that there’s all sorts of people who wander through there at odd hours, like herself, that See-Lin guy, several ghosts, the Snail Spirit, the house ninja, and the like, but he would certainly report it if anyone did so with any ill intent. The junior butler looks quite smug, and tells the Cook that perhaps she should stick to the kitchen. The head butler mildly glares at him, but doesn’t say anything. He turns back to the cook and assures her, “If papers on Li Merit’s desk are being messed with, they are messed with before they get into this House.”
Well, that’s a pretty clear statement, so she heads off to think. She’ll take that up with the boss later, but for the moment, if the spies are not in the House, how is she going to find them? Thinking about it for a bit, she decides that this situation calls for a spot of tea.
An hour later, at the Cup of Five Virtues, the cook strikes up a conversation with an old buddy of hers from her days in the House of Benevolent Oversight. They get to talking and he says that she needs to take a long view. Don’t worry about who’s changing the papers. Think about what they are actually doing. A merchant of Li Merit’s vast talent should notice fairly quickly if the numbers were all wrong. It seems to him that it only makes sense that the corrupted numbers are going unnoticed if there are other corrupted numbers carefully balancing the previous numbers, so the summaries Li Merit looks at are all correct. If all of the errors are carefully contrived to cancel each other out, then you aren’t dealing with spies or thieves or embezzlers at all. It sounds to him like you’re dealing with a Magic Ritual.
The cook buys him another round for his insight and then heads off. She needs to talk to a mage. Sadly, neither Shen-Ji or Kuan-Xi are actually members of the House, though they are obviously trusted friends. But her instincts indicate that this is clearly a House matter, so she takes it to Namura Hayato. He might suck as a playwright, but she hears that he writes a mean Magical Ritual. After she explains her plight, Hayato muses…
- "Are you sure? That is very odd. Who would be doing a magical ritual against the House? " -Hayato
- "Especially a convoluted money based ritual." -Cook
- "Oh." -Both
So, it seems that Ezokin is up to his old tricks again. This is starting to get out of hand. Perhaps they should report his involvement to the higher-ups.
- "Unless that’s what he wants us to do! He might be staging a fake ritual in order to disrupt house resolve at this crucial time. He does have an alternate identity as a Lord in the House of Benevolent Oversight, you know. It might be a type three backwards doublecross intended to get everyone to pay no attention to the war effort and tank the House stock in front of the King."
- "Are you sure you’re a cook?"
After some fast talking, the cook gets Hayato to help her investigate a bit first before bringing Li Merit, Zhu Cai Wen and the others into it all.
Together, they head back to Daishu’s office and start interrogating her about just where the false numbers are appearing. While all of this “cooking” was going on, Daishu has been running an investigation of her own, (on paper only, of course), and does agree that all of the forged or tainted numbers are carefully cancelled out by other tainted numbers. It’s actually quite convenient, as all of the terminal variables are unaffected, so she doesn’t really have to go through and make all of the corrections in order to keep working, since the errors all cancel. She is, of course, going through and making all of the corrections anyways, though, as that’s more relaxing.
- "Wait, you are changing ritual elements midstream?" -Hayato
- "No, I’m correcting incorrect invoice totals." -Daishu
- "Did any of them catch fire? Or explode?" -Hayato
- "What?" -Daishu and the Cook
There’s more discussion. If this were an actual ritual, changing things while it was in progress would probably be catastrophic. And it doesn’t seem to be. Unless changing things back to the way they should be is the way the ritual was designed. But would Ezokin have known that Daishu was going to be going through the books just now? It doesn’t seem likely anything would have changed if she didn’t. Hmmm. Drawing on his playwright background, Hayato thinks that maybe it’s a ritual, but this isn’t the actual ritual. This is the dress rehearsal, or the research phase or something.
- "OK, we just have to break this down. If it’s not yet an attack, but it’s going to be a magical attack later, then all we need to do is figure out what sort of attack it is likely to be, and then correlate that with the motives of the most likely suspect, enabling us to anticipate his eventual strike and set up our own double blind, so that when he actually begins his ritual he falls into our mystical clutches instead of the other way around."
- "Seriously though, aren’t you the cook?"
They discuss it a bit more, but come to the conclusion that whatever it was, it’s not an attack, it’s just research. So the thing to do is look out for what’s to come.
- "Now can we tell Zhu Cai Wen and Li Merit?" -Hayato
- "You can if you want to, but I’m sure they’ll read it in the log." -Cook