Children of the Bamboo
|"Who has children cannot long remain poor; who has none cannot long remain rich."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Tiger in the Month of the Butterfly in the third Year of the Spider since the burning of the Black Spire.|
The run takes place in the northern Jade Taiga.
Troubled Bridge over Water
The circus gets ready to head out. Ringmaster Te says they'll be crossing the Bridge of Moonlight over the Jasmine River, making a loop through the northern Jade Taiga, then heading down to the City of Spires for some performances before going back up through the Forest of Chin.
Takanata writes a poem:
Wei Han's interpretation is that "She" is the Jasmine River, "He" is Takanata and "It" is Love. (Who knew he was such a romantic?)
Anto consults his memory of adventure stories about the Bridge of Moonlight - it doesn't tend to be a place that adventures take place, but sometimes people cross it at the beginning or end of an adventure, and sometimes tragic stories end with the broken-hearted lovers committing suicide by jumping off the bridge into the Jasmine River. Hana notes that the ghosts she knows are from women who have drowned themselves in the Jasmine, so it's more common than you might think. Xian notes that there are some accounts of spirits or demons or other not-normally-seen beings crossing the bridge under the full moon, but the bridge doesn't go to the World Above or anything like that. Sometimes when you cross the bridge under the full moon, you can see three moons - one above, and one reflected in the river on either side of the bridge.
Ringmaster Te consults with Takanata about when the circus should cross the bridge - Takanata declares that it will be most auspicious to cross at night, under the light of the moon. Anto gathers some blossoms to scatter into the river as they cross.
The circus heads towards the bridge in an extra-leisurely way, arriving a few hours after sunset. There are rows of neat tents lined up along both sides of the Imperial Highway - Wei Han is pretty sure that they're Dragon Army. Merit goes to meet with the captain (Captain Ma Chin), apologizing for disturbing them by crossing at night, and explaining that Lord Takanata the Poet wanted to cross at night, and the circus kind of jumps to his whim. The captain asks if he needs privacy to cross? He can arrange that if necessary. No, no, he wants the whole circus to cross at night, no privacy is necessary. The captain notes that it is good that Takanata came when he did - it is one of his last chances to see the bridge as it is. Wait, what? The captain explains that they're here to move it, to take out a jog in the Imperial Highway caused by the bridge being farther north and tilted, compared to the highway.
The party is immediately up in arms. This is probably another part of the Spider plot to straighten the highways and make the chi more efficient. Hana protests to the captain - the current bridge and its location is so beautiful! It would be such a tragedy to move it somewhere else and destroy the beauty. The captain assures her that it will certainly look just fine after it moves. Apparently, the plan has been in the works for years, but it keeps being postponed, and only now have the necessary resources been freed up. Hana continues to wax poetic about the perfect beauty of the bridge, of its historical significance and the sadness of moving it (and due to her ghostly nature, has bonus dice for inducing sorrow). The captain is in fact made very sad about having to move the bridge, but even as he sorrows, he does have orders, and will perform them with a terribly heavy heart.
The party ponders how to stop the bridge-moving. Perhaps if Takanata declares that he wants to paint it, the move can be postponed, but that's only a temporary delay. Captain Ma says that Commander Chang Hu will be arriving soon - he's expected any moment now - and once that happens, the work will start. Merit is sure that the Butterfly has brought them this way in order for them to thwart the bridge-moving plot, but it isn't clear yet how to do so. The circus crosses the bridge and camps across the river, in the place they think most likely that Chang Hu will want to camp. Anto and Min Feng drop flowers in the river; much to everyone's disappointment, there is only one moon reflected in the river.
Takanata notes that they should thwart the plan if they can find a way to do so, but if Chang Hu is showing up in person, just faking orders that say "Never mind, the project is cancelled" will not be sufficient. Oddly, the men camped here are part of the Construction Battalion, not part of the Highway command, which is what Chang Hu is in charge of. The plan is supposed to take two months to move the bridge; that seems rather optimistic, but it's using the entire force of the Construction Battalion. Perhaps the new site can be made unusable somehow, either via bureaucracy or sabotage? Perhaps the spirit of the Jasmine River can be convinced to take action against moving the bridge? (Takanata says he is reluctant to ask her to act so directly against Spider, even if she was willing.)
Xian wonders if everyone is sure that moving the bridge is a bad idea - maybe the Marked are actually behind the continuing postponement, rather than the plan to move it. Maybe the plan to move the bridge is actually the brainchild of whoever stirred up the war against the Savanna, instead, and the Marked are trying to thwart it. Takanata notes that he is confident that Ti Jun is behind the war with the Savanna - remember, he spent months running around the Empire talking to important political figures, who all then took up arms against the Savanna, right after the Savanna invaded the Butterfly Kingdom.
Perhaps if the group hangs around here for a while, they can watch for when Chang Hu arrives, and see if some other party arrives to thwart the plan. They might be allies! Perhaps an impromptu performance to distract the troops? Merit is a bit concerned about that - normally the army doesn't expect to have to pay admissions for the "circus passing" performances they put on.
Min Feng circulates around the soldiers, trying to figure out why the plan has taken so long - mostly because it takes so many men at once. Getting everyone here has required pulling them off of a number of other jobs they were working on. Wei Han tries to find out when Chang Hu will arrive - he's expected any moment now.
Hana and Anto wander down to the river, and Hana talks to the Lost, the ghosts of the river suicides. They glare suspiciously at Anto, and want to know if he is treating her badly. Hana warns them that there are Men coming to move the bridge, but they don't actually care very much about where the bridge is. Hana tries to spin it as "men" doing an unpleasant egocentric thing, which is probably the way to appeal to them, but she isn't very persuasive, so the ghosts aren't very inspired to do much.
A group goes downstream to check on the site where the bridge will be moved to. There are some guards, guarding the holes in the ground, but it's not very heavily guarded. Perhaps something could be done to ice over the site, combining ice chips of doom with Shen-Ji's firestorm? That would make it look like the moon disapproves of moving the bridge! (If the army is up on the fact that the ice chips of doom are moon-based, which they may not be). On the other hand, that would only ice over an area the size of a battlemap, so it's not clear that would be a good long-term fix.
Back at the bridge, several group of riders show up - a small group of riders from the south, and several battalions from the north. Trumpeters sound two clashing tunes, indicating that two different important people are arriving, and small groups head onto the bridge from opposite sides. Min Feng sidles onto the bridge, doing her best to overhear the argument that ensues between the two commanders (Chang Hu and Mushashi Nori).
- "If you would spend more time doing your job instead of trying to do my job, we wouldn't be being attacked by bandits on the road!"
- "If you would spend more time doing your job, we wouldn't be three years behind deadline!"
- "If you want it done so badly, you can have your men do it."
It looks like Commander Mushashi is about to gather up a bunch of his men to go in pursuit of the bandits that bothered them on the road - the party decides to let him go.
- "Success! We win! I guess..." -Anto
Merit is baffled. Did the party do anything here? Why would the Great Spirit of the Butterfly have sent them here if there wasn't something that needed doing? But this doesn't seem to have anything to do with Takanata's poem.
Hana goes to talk to Chang Hu, and tries to convince him of the artistic merit of leaving it where it is. The commander assures her that moving it to align with the highway will allow for more efficient troop movement, "so everyone will be more safe, including you." She lures him into talking about Commander Mushashi not seeing the grand plan - Hana wonders if that's because he appreciates the inherent beauty of the bridge. Commander Chang hopes so, because artistic merit won't really stand up to logical and logistical argument. But he is somewhat busy, so Hana is politely shooed away again.
Then, Takanata meets with him, to mention the captain they met on the road heading towards the Roof of the World, and how he may have been somewhat underinformed about the number of bandits who aren't there any longer. Commander Chang has received Wei Han's briefing, but it does seem to have taken a while to circulate properly. Commander Chang does also mention that Commander Mushashi is not as committed to this project as he is to some of his other projects. Takanata mulls that over and takes his leave.
Next, Wei Han talks to Commander Chang, and tries to warn him away from moving the bridge, but that doesn't work any better than the aesthetic argument.
- "Based on what I have seen, I am not convinced that moving the bridge is in the best interest of the Empire." -Wei Han
- "Indeed? Why is that?" -Chang Hu
- "It is difficult to explain, and I'm not sure you would agree without a lot of background that you wouldn't believe."
- "... This has to do with our previous discussion about the Obsidian Warlord's machinations to become Emperor?"
- "Yes, kind of."
- "I am aware of your concerns about the Obsidian Warlord. Thank you for your time, Mister Shen."
Commander Mushashi is getting his men into battle formation to march down the road, to go after the bandits that bothered him. The party decides to not interrupt that, and finally permits the circus to go back on the move again.
The circus finally arrives, about a day late, in Industrious Fruition, which seems to be a town which has a lot of industry of one form or another. Merit looks through his atlas, and notes that it's in Duke Huang's lands. He wonders who is in town that's relevant - Song Yuanjun (Min Feng's half-brother, now the baron) is in town, and there are also a bunch of people who are not Merit's plot in town. Well, that latter is rather odd. Min Feng, also asking around, hears that her brother is in town looking to hire or join a trading caravan.
Min Feng and Takanata (escorted by Wei Han) go to talk to Yuanjun, who is having dinner at the best inn in town. He's surprised to see Min Feng here. Min Feng tells him she has spoken to her mother (Song Ming Zhu), who is not dead, and now knows that neither is Min Feng dead. He's a bit confused about that - he thinks there must have been some misunderstanding when Ming Zhu and the Dowager Song (Yuanjun's mother) had their recent argument. Anyway, Min Feng suggests that Yuanjun talk to Li Merit about trading caravan team-ups, which he is happy to do. Shortly thereafter, one of Baron Song's men comes to visit Merit to arrange for his party to travel with them to the City of Spires - he doesn't want to travel along on the roads, given the current state of banditry in the area. They all agree to meet later for dinner.
Shen-Ji wanders around Industrious Fruition, talking shop with the various blacksmiths in the area. They're apparently in a price war with Rejoicing Industry, the town two hours north, over who supplies arms and armor to the armies of the King and the Duke. Neither town has any big contracts with the Dragon Army, so Shen-Ji hints that he knows some well-connected ex-military types. They buy him some drinks, and complain to him about the unreasonable way the smiths in Rejoicing Industry have been undercutting them in a somewhat implausible fashion. Shen-Ji allows as he might be willing to find out exactly what's going on with them, and they allow as if he did, they might be willing to pay him for the information. Luckily for him, there's also a local competition right now, over who can forge the sharpest blade, the most indestructible weapon, that sort of thing. So in addition to the local smiths, there are several metal sorcerors in town as well.
Hana goes shopping, looking for a present for Hiro - maybe a nice sword, or some enchanted jewelry of defense. Because of the competition, the best swords are all being kept under wraps; in a week or so, there will be more blades for sale. Anto, preparing in advance for his trip to the mysterious bamboo glade, buys some ghost money and a shovel and an axe.
The group heads off northwards; Anto thinks the grove is somewhere an hour to the north (close to where the locals say a town called Dutiful Serenity is). Takanata, as the most perceptive of the party, notices two things: first, Hana keeps wandering off the path, and second, it is taking rather longer than expected. About two hours after setting out, they arrive at Rejoicing Industry.
- "Since we don't want to turn around immediately - that would look weird - we look around!" -Shen-Ji
The local townsfolk are a little bitter - they should have just as good a reputation as Industrious Fruition, but since they can't afford to put on big sorcery conventions, they don't. They do good work, but quality doesn't get you the cash any more, you have to have glitz. One of the particular craftsmen of note is Master Hokusai, an armorer, who makes Great Armor - he has sold armor to both Fire Dukes, one a year ago and one a decade ago. There is a suit of Great Armor in his shop, which Wei Han ogles covetously, and hints that if Merit happened to acquire it, he'd be very grateful.
Shen-Ji wanders around town, picking up what he can about the local armor contracts. Apparently, they're currently offering cut-rate prices to undercut Industrious Fruition because the town council is subsidizing the armorer's guild. Wei Han's experienced eye thinks that the armor here is not beautiful (not like his suit of Butterfly armor), but it's well-made.
- "We make armor for wearing into battle, not like that stuff you have on."
Admittedly, for the best swords, they'd want one town south - well, no, two towns south. The nearest town to the south, Dutiful Serenity, is just farmers - nothing much goes on there. That seems to be the sign that it's time to try to get to Dutiful Serenity again, so the group heads off again southwards - this time, Takanata wears the ugly tin helmet he has recently acquired, advertised to help protect against strange mind-affecting effects. About an hour south of Rejoicing Industry, Takanata notes a signpost for Dutiful Serenity that no one else seems to have noticed. Hana seems naturally inclined to walk that way, so Takanata calls everyone to follow him, and they head eastwards towards a village.
The village is small, and doesn't have nearly the industry that the previous two towns have had. A tall man comes out of one of the huts, looking puzzled.
- "Can I help you folk?"
- "We are searching for serenity." -Takanata
- "I've never heard anyone say it that way before, but that's what you've found."
Takanata inquires if there is an inn? There is not - they don't get many visitors. Industrious Fruition has an inn - they should be able to reach there in about an hour. As the group shows no signs of continuing on to Industrious Fruition, the man asks if they are looking for someone. The local priest, Takanata declares - they want to see him. The group is shown to a small bamboo hut, which is apparently the village shrine. A short old man comes out, and Takanata focuses Connections on him, seeking the connection between the man and Anto: Anto is here to finish the mission that the priest failed. Interesting.
Takanata nods to the priest, and says that Anto is here to see if he can be of an assistance to the priest. The priest finds that difficult to believe; Takanata concedes that Anto is on a quest, but he doesn't know the details. Anto introduces himself as the Unbinder, but this just puzzles the priest, who doesn't appear to recognize this as a familiar title. Anto clarifies - being the Unbinder is a responsibility, once a spirit and now not. This doesn't make things much clearer, but the priest does concede that spirits are no end of trouble. People begin to wonder if he is simple-minded, but no, he is just very very worn down.
Anto notes that there is a place nearby where ancestor ghosts are bound. The priest shushes him quickly, and indicates the tall man standing across the way: "Don't say that, they'll run you out of town." Well, that sounds ominous. Why will they do that? The priest claims that they're "confused about the order of things." They don't properly make offerings to their ancestor spirits, they don't build shrines; they're stuck in their wrong ways. In fact, they go out and worship in that grove of theirs. Worship what, Anto wants to know? Not the ancestors, is all the priest can tell them.
If the party heads to the bamboo grove, will someone try to stop them? Probably, if they tell the townsfolk that they're going there. Hmm. Well, will they find it difficult to get there? The priest doesn't think so. They found it difficult to get to Dutiful Serenity, though - why is that? He doesn't know. He seems a little confused, and says it seems like he's been here for years. They ask how long he's been here, and he names a date quite some time ago.
- "That was thirty-five years ago."
- "Yeah, it does seem like that, doesn't it? It hopefully won't be much longer, though. I'm trying to teach these people to properly venerate their ancestors."
The party asks for more details - how often do they "worship" in the grove? Not that often, he doesn't think. When someone dies? No, no, he thought that once, but it wasn't. They ask if he saw a strange dark rock, but he can't recall one.
Well, the next thing to do is probably to go check out the grove. They decide to circle around so that it doesn't look like they're going there - Takanata keeps his tin helmet on just in case things get confusing. When they leave the priest's hut, there are four villagers across the street - three men and a woman, all the same height, and quite tall. Min Feng looks around for kids, and spots a young child behind the woman. The party takes their leave of the priest and the villagers, and heads back up the path.
Again, Takanata notices that everyone is starting to walk in the wrong direction, and leads them around towards the grove.
The bamboo grove seems to match Anto's memory of Amikiri's memory of it - it's a small area, ringed by bamboo. In the center is a short flat stone table, and there are footprints around in the dirt and grass inside the bamboo ring.
Anto looks at it with an eye to unbinding, and is confident that it is the stone to which ancestor spirits are bound. How might they be released? The answer is that Swiftgreen or Spiral could release them from their oaths. Those sound like the names of a spirit and a demon, respectively. When Hana looks at the stone, it looks a lot like people do when they're stuck in Ice Chips of Doom - unmoving and trapped.
Merit doesn't see how any of this relates to Takanata's poem - is this not the plot? Anto says he's sure it is the plot. Merit glowers - there was that "not your plot" back in the first town, too. None of these plots are going the way he thinks they ought to.
Anto notes that Amikiri's memory/vision of the bamboo said that it grew so fast, it splintered into the World Above. Perhaps climbing it will get him into the World Above! Merit protests - this is a bad experiment! If he succeeds, he'll be trapped in the World Above and nobody else will be able to get him back, since nobody else is the Wu Xing. Anto climbs it nonetheless, though Wei Han insists on tying a rope around his waist first, so that he can be pulled back from the World Above if necessary. The bamboo does not, in fact, lead to the World Above, though it is somewhat bendy, and he eventually has to jump down, leading the bamboo to spring back and nearly hit Wei Han.
Soon thereafter, an older man - tall, but not someone who has been seen before - hurries along the path from the town to the grove, and an interrogation commences.
- "What are you people doing here?"
- "Looking to determine why there are ghosts trapped in your rock."
- "... Oh. Well, that was their choice, I don't see what business it is of yours."
- "Why did they choose to be there?"
- "They wanted something more precious."
- "What could they have, bound in a rock?"
- "They have already received their payment."
Wei Han wants to know who the guy is - he introduces himself as Elder Soon. Is he planning to join the rock? Yes, when his time comes. He's already sworn the oath, Merit inquires? He says he had need. Is it worth it, does he think? He says yes. Anto wants to know what he received - he claims enough that he was satisfied. He doesn't really think they have the right to barge in and ask him all these questions about private matters. Merit claims that a lot of people are going to think terrible things about them, and Merit just wants to be able to reassure them that it's all above board, but Elder Soon says there haven't ever been any questions before.
Anto says that they were given a sign, and so they showed up. Elder Soon is rattled by this - what signs? From who? Anto says it was on the Night of Gates. Wait, a spirit or a demon came to him on the Night of Gates and told him this? Which was it? Anto admits he doesn't know the name of the spirit, but it offered him a memory. Elder Soon is still confused - was it the male or the female? What price did it ask him? Anto says he paid in tears, salt, and wine. This doesn't seem to be the answer Elder Soon was expecting.
Anto wants to know how Elder Soon speaks to Spiral and Swiftgreen, and how he summons them. He says that he doesn't speak, he listens. They come when they want to, and they call when he is needed.
- "Did they call you now?"
- "I begin to think you called me."
Anto goes and starts to wiggle a stalk of bamboo back and forth, and Elder Soon loses his temper, yelling at Anto to not profane the grove.
- "Why have you chosen this life for yourselves? When there is so much else in the world, so many other lives worth living?" -Anto
- "Those who leave often return - here we can have the one thing we cannot have anywhere else."
- "What is that? " -Hana
- "Wait, if you leave, you can't have children?" -Anto
- "I've already had mine."
- "All of you?"
- "Many, yes"
- "And it never struck you that it might be less a matter of having children being a boon as it might be that someone is keeping you from having children so they can control you?"
Elder Soon sighs, and says if he explains, will they please leave? Anto says that if he explains, they will try to help the villagers. Elder Soon insists that they do not need help. Anto need not be concerned - Swiftgreen did not take their children. Instead, Swiftgreen grants them children they could not otherwise have, due to a flaw in their line. Hmm. If Swiftgreen grants the children, what does Spiral do? Convinces Swiftgreen, says Elder Soon. Without Spiral, they would have no means to keep their side of the bargain. So Spiral binds them to the stone? Yes, technically. Anto is pretty sure that they are getting the worse end of the deal, and that they are being lied to. Elder Soon doesn't think that it's possible that Swiftgreen and Spiral could be lying to them about the bargain - spirits don't work that way. Anto complains that this is all very noble, but it's still an abomination.
Merit suggests - maybe they can cut a cheaper deal. Ahah, Elder Soon finally understands - they are salesmen!
Hana brings up another thought - there are only half a dozen ghosts in the stone. That's not nearly enough for the whole village for as long as this has been going on. Have they been recycling the ghosts into being born as children? Elder Soon is pretty sure not. Well, did they bind their original ancestors? No! Each person who chooses to have children trades their own afterlife, not someone else's.
- "We simply do not move on to the eternal bureaucracy." -Elder Soon
Xian tries to persuade Elder Soon that they are only here to seek justice, and that in his experience, and the opinions of many, secrecy and coverups will be found to conceal evil. So that is why he and the others are suspicious. Because they are isolated, it is possible that the spirits and demons are manipulating them about what their choices really are.
Elder Soon suggests that perhaps they should take it up with Swiftgreen and Spiral - he will call them tonight, if they wish to return. They agree to return that night.
Min Feng, Takanata, Wei Han, and Merit have a dinner engagement, so they go back to Industrious Fruition to talk to Yuanjun, while the other half of the group goes back to Dutiful Serenity to hang out in the priest's hut and argue.
At dinner, Merit says it's good to see Yuanjun again, though Yuanjun doesn't remember that. Merit concedes it was a long time ago, when Yuanjun was younger - he knew their father. Yuanjun manages to get back on solid footing again, thanking Merit for assisting him and his cargo in their journey to the capital. There is some careful conversation, in which Yuanjun explains that the cargo is a gift for His Majesty, and he hopes that it might allow him to be promoted to Duke. Merit warns him that things are getting tense - the Fire Dukes and the Water Dukes are escalating. Yuanjun agrees, but notes that when they're attacking each other, they're not teaming up against others. Merit agrees with that, but notes that sometimes the King will use some other smaller and ambitious Duke to distract them from their rivalry. Yuanjun agrees, but thinks that the second gift, for the Imperial Court, may help secure the safety of his family in such circumstances. They discuss the gift some more in general terms and suddenly Li Merit figures out the problem he’s been having all this time. "Lord Takanata has written a poem about his personal plots.” Apparently, Min Feng's mom owned some land that she renounced when she left the family, they discovered something valuable on the lands, and the something is sufficiently important that the baron thinks he can bribe both the King and the Imperial Court with it. He expects there to be a possibility of finding more. He feels uncomfortable and guilty about it 'cause his mom drove Min Feng and her mom away.
Back at the priest's house, Xian and Anto and Hana think about questions of morality. It seems unusual to have a spirit and demon working together, for one. In fact, it's unusual to have two spirits or two demons working together at all - more often, you have such beings on the opposite sides of a conflict. Anto says that Amikiri would just have broken the stone and unbound all the ghosts and not considered any consequences, but he's trying to think harder about it. It does seem like they are getting a poor bargain, if they're signing away their entire afterlife, not to mention it's not clear what is happening to the ghosts after they get bound in the rock. Do spirits and demons eat ghosts? They might. Spirits and demons seem to be willing to take all sorts of things in trade, and big toothy spirits and demons certainly eat people. Hana notes that whenever she talks to someone knowledgeable about ghosts, they insist that they know better than her that she should be going to the World Beyond, and she doesn't want to be the annoying person who is sure that she knows better than someone else what choices they should be making.
The group who went to dinner returns, and brief the people who remained about what's up with Min Feng's relatives.
Takanata does a Connections reading, which suggests that some of the villagers might not want to take the bargain if they knew all the details. Then, it's time to meet the spirits. The villagers (sans priest and children) meet the group - they're all the same surprisingly tall stature, with a similar look to them - and everyone heads to the grove.
Swiftgreen and Spiral
Hana stays well back while the villagers perform a brief ceremony, in which they write two names on pieces of paper and respectfully burn them. Anto spends several karma to read the names off the smoke, so he has both true names now. Then, the bamboo sways back and forth, and it seems clear that there are supernatural beings present.
Takanata turns on Eyes of the I Ching, and sees both the spirit and demon clearly - Swiftgreen is connected more strongly to the people, while Spiral is connected more to the rock. Both are connected to each other, as well, and the rock has connections that stretch off far-distantly to the south (!), and Shen-Ji notes that the rock is not a magic item, it's a “holy” item.
Elder Soon praises both Swiftgreen and Spiral for their blessings, and says that this group wants to talk to them.
Much talking ensues.
- "What do you seek here?"
- "I want to unbind those who have been wrongly bound." -Anto
- "They are not your responsibility."
- "They are."
- "Do you claim all people under your dominion, then?"
- "No... just all those who are bound."
- "Why are they needed by the gods of the south?" -Takanata
- "That information is valuable. What are we offered?"
- "Kali owes me six li." -Merit
- "Well, she took it without permission. And it wasn't actually Kali."
- "... Well. What do you offer for the information you seek?"
- "I offer you the chance to convince me to not put an end to all this." -Anto
- "Threats, we see. We can match those."
The villagers go somewhat blank-eyed, and begin to brandish their hoes and pitchforks more menacingly. Wei Han draws his axe and brandishes it menacingly. However, nobody seems willing to attack first, so tensions de-escalate a bit. The party insists that they're there to defeat the thing that Spiral and Swiftgreen are helping the southern gods do against the Empire, but this seems a rather sweeping accusation to the duo.
Swiftgreen and Spiral offer information, traded for other information, if Anto would prefer that over threats. There is some worrying over legalese, and the offer is made to have the spirit and demon ask their question first - if Anto declines, then he doesn't get another question himself. The answers are to be full and complete, and are to bind both groups (the spirit and the demon, and the party present) to answer; Anto doesn't have to guess which of the two of them he needs to ask, but if Takanata, for instance, knows the answer but Anto doesn't, the group still has to answer.
- What are you talking about with "the thing we're helping the Southern gods do"?
- The group explains the plot by Kali to destroy the Cycle/Calendar in favor of the Southern gods.
- What is the ultimate fate of the ghosts?
- Both answer: Once every cycle, we gather them from the stone and make the arduous journey to deliver them to the southern "god" Yama, who calls himself their god of death and artifice. We don't know exactly what happens to them after that, but we think they go into the Southern afterlife.
- What are the most exploitable weaknesses of the Southern Wall (for us, not for an invading Southern army)?
- Go by sea, go in winter. Some places are crumbling. Dai-Zie is tied to the South wall, so go somewhere she isn't. Here's a list of some smugglers.
- Why can't the villagers have children?
- Swiftgreen answers: When this village was first founded, by a man and his wives, he proved unable to father children. I do not know the details of human fluids to know exactly what was wrong in his body, but they asked me for the boon of children, and I granted it. I made them as well as I could, of the parents, but the children had the same flaw, and also, they were made as I could make them, which has the bamboo nature. Now, the descendants of the village have the flaw of the blood, and the flaw of being made of bamboo nature, because I can do no better.
- Have you performed any services as the Wu Xing that you did not want to, and if so, why?
- Yes. Usually because I didn't understand what I was granting, or because I didn't understand it was a bargain I was making.
- What are you getting out of the deal with Yama?
- Swiftgreen answers: Yama can bring Spiral to the World Above.
- Spiral answers: Yama can bring Swiftgreen to the World Below.
- (The two seem to glare at each other as if this is an old argument, though the party is suddenly enamored of the idea of it being an O'Henry story in which they end up swapping places).
- Why did the walls become so restrictive recently?
- "Damn! They don't know!" -Takanata
- The Spider caused that to happen as part of his plan to dominate the Empire and the Cycle.
- "They're going to go to their friend demons and spirits and and say "Spider is up to all sorts of things!" and their friends are going to pat them on the head and laugh, and say "yeah, yeah, sure, bamboo, what do you know?"" -Xian
- Is there a way for the villagers to get what they want more cheaply?
- We do not know of one. They would need to have the flaw in their blood repaired, and also their bamboo nature ameliorated. Perhaps a spirit like Beko the Red Cow could do the former. Another bamboo spirit might be able to do the latter. Or a wood sorceror. But that would be two favors, which we would not expect to be cheap.
- What the heck does the Great Spider Spirit have to do with all that?
- "Don't say skinwalking! Because then they'll want to skinwalk to solve their plot!" -Takanata
- Spider usurped Dragon, but His plans aspire to even more than Dragon was; not only to be a member of the Cycle, but to be in charge of the whole Cycle and turn them into servants of the Spider. Changing the names of the countries is part of that, and only people who cross the walls can notice.
- Tell us what you know about the Southern pantheon.
- They name a number of southern gods: Yama, Ratri, Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, Kali, Ganesh. They are pretty sure either of Vishnu or Brahma are in charge, and that Kali wants to be, but they don’t know details. Dealing with Yama is in many ways more like dealing with a spirit or a demon rather than dealing like a mortal. We are sure that he is not using the ghosts against the Empire; for him to be doing that would require him to be false in this sort of bargain in a way that we do not believe is possible. We do not think he is working with Kali.
Xian wonders if there are any other crazy ways to get what they want - well, one way might be to have Anto physically escort the spirit out of the World Above on the arduous journey into the Material World, where they would be physically incarnate and amazingly powerful, and then again down into the World Below. But that's fraught with all sorts of peril.
- Who do you love and would act to save?
Anto decides that's enough of the questions, and concludes the bargain, and the spirit and demon depart.
Elder Soon asks if they have enough information to not interfere until they are sure they can actually help? Anto concedes that it's complicated. However, everyone should definitely know about the southern-god part of the deal, and Hana tries to persuade everyone who hasn't had kids yet to give them five years before making that choice. A lot of villagers do seem disturbed by the idea of going to the Southern afterlife, though no one is immediately packing up and leaving. (There is also one old woman who isn't related; she apparently moved here to retire to somewhere quiet and isolated).
The group heads back to Industrious Fruition, and Merit badgers everyone into helping him open a jade puzzle box he bought as part of his trading empire. Inside is a jade key with a little dragon on it. Wait, is this a key to the Dragon's Hoard? That seems too easy... It’s probably some other dragon themed key.