Death by Chocolate
|"Any ground is good enough to be buried in."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Crane in the Seventh Year of the Bear since the thirty-fourth Great Northern Invasion.|
The run takes place principally in the Steppes.
Takanata has labored all night on a giant chocolate bar. Everyone thinks it looks tasty, but is puzzled. The wrapper says things like "Slice and Share" and "Divide and Conquer".
The butler arrives, bearing a letter for Cai Wen:
That's a little odd, because while Cai Wen has asked Wei Han about learning some shticks, Wei Han had not yet passed the request along. On the other hand, Master Hong is very resourceful, so... maybe he just knew?
The butler delivers another letter:
Huh. That's another thing that Cai Wen hasn't done yet, but wanted to get around to. The name of Minister Asahara is familiar to those with a lot of KS: Dragon's Throne as the Imperial External Cultural Attache. His position is based in the Dragon's Throne, but he has no power within the walls of the city. However, he is not known to leave the city.
So what is the House of Singing Breezes? Apparently, people think it's a flower house, but it's not a real flower house. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has been there. But nobody knows someone who has actually has been there. Merit, at least, *talked* to people that know people who have been there, but the reports he's had all seem to refer to it in different cities. Merit does recall that his friend who knows a person, now lives in Industrious Fruition.
While discussing this, another letter arrives.
This is from the wife of the Steppes Regent, who has recently been suffering a potentially Beastmaster-of-Men related infirmity. The party did offer to help them - which makes this not fit the pattern - but Cai Wen wasn't there at the time. Hmm.
This is another case where Cai Wen wants something done - in this case for his plan to rename the Taiga - but he has not arranged to talk to the Dukes to get the favor yet. So, question 1 is: how is he getting all these letters in response to letters that he hasn't yet written but means to? Question 2 is: is it a trap?
One possibility is that Speedy has arranged it, so Merit goes to talk to the Large Snail Spirit of Speed and Time.
- "Hey, Lord Zhu is getting messages about things he would like to have started. Have we made a deal with you in the future? Are you involved?" -Merit
- "Those. Questions. Are. Not. Commensurate. Are. You. Asking. If. I. Am. Involved. Or. I. May. One. Day. Be. Involved?" -Speedy
- "Are you currently involved, aside from the conversation we are currently having?" -Merit
- "Given. That. Caveat. The. Answer. Is. No."
Merit decides they don't have to bend space and time to know whether Speedy will be involved - though it would put his mind at ease. Another option is that Merit's shtick in retroactively puttering, plus three karma, would probably allow something like that. But if it isn't Merit or Speedy, then it probably is a trap, Merit figures.
- "Your only options are us, or an enemy?" -Xiao Fa
Merit thinks that an ally is unlikely. And Butterfly usually just arranges to have random plots show up - She doesn't arrange for retroactive letters. Xiao Fa concedes that this doesn't seem like the usual sort of Butterfly plot, but thinks that allies are not yet ruled out.
Another letter arrives:
Merit interrogates the butler - did he recognize the messengers? He says they were the usual house couriers. They were making multiple trips. Merit thinks that's odd - they're not close enough to the main office to let them be as quick as they have been.
Kuan-Xi doesn't think there is any residual magic on the letters, as far as she can determine.
- "If the couriers come back, ask them to stay. Wait, what am I saying? I'm the head of the house. Summon the couriers back." -Merit
Cai Wen goes to look in his box of moll gifts, to see if Chau-Li's gift is still there. Kuan-Xi watches that closely too. Hey! He has a box full of artifact-level magic items! Plus, the box is pretty impressive - there's no magic aura when it's closed. The quill for Chau-Li is still there, though. Hmm.
Merit looks at Takanata’s confection, and thinks that there are more clues still hidden. Wei Han opines that candy canes are a Northern candy, so the side with crushed candy cane is north of the wall.
Takanata ponders a crossroads: will they be happier if they just head to the Winter Academy now, or if they spend more time trying to figure out how Cai Wen got the letter about it in the first place? The former. So off everyone goes, in the little carriage.
Before reaching the Winter Academy, Cai Wen and Merit get out of the carriage, so Wei Han can ask about the letter without his being there.
The grounds have the air of a serious fortress built by people with siege engineering. There are some open fields with students sparring, and some groups of students marching around. There is also an extensive greenhouse and apple orchard.
The door to the main hall has three students guarding it. Two of them start to ask who goes there, until they are bopped by the third student, who recognizes Wei Han, and then they all stand at attention. When they go in to see Master Hong, the third student tells them to please ask for him (Righteous Edge) if they need anything.
Takanata heads for the unarmed combat practice area, and chats with Sensei Bian when she arrives.
Merit wonders who is in town regarding the chocolate plot, and gets a list of about ninety names, none of which are familiar.
Wei Han asks about the letter from Cai Wen, and it is produced. Then everyone else wants a tour of the Academy, and Master Hong begins to show them around. Min Feng manages to overhear that the dungeon is officially a second year training location - no first years are to be allowed!
Meanwhile, Cai Wen and Merit spot two students, one of whom is walking with a limp, heading for the main hall. They quickly disguise themselves as students, and pursue. However, when they catch up to the pair of students, they fall under immediate suspicion for not being known students, and the injured student leaps to the conclusion that they are doppelgangers who have escaped from the dungeons.
Master Hong is showing Wei Han the report on the state of the Academy - he has not finished writing the executive summary - and Merit speed reads through it.
- Current resources include 1.63 tael unspent, plus two more that Wei Han has just added to the coffers.
- All apple orchard todos are complete
- Four junior faculty hired, bringing the faculty count to 9.
- 120 first-year students
- 88 second-year students, not counting the ones who failed, withdrew or disappeared
- Xun Bo has won the prize for best student, having defeated three others in the final round of competition, and is wearing the Danger Amulet.
Merit asks about the Danger Amulet, and is told that it is a magic item designed as the prize, and it provides several abilities, including insight into danger and incoming attacks.
- "It is perhaps a bit overpowered, but the students like it." -Master Hong
There was an alchemist passing through town recently (hunting rogue alchemists) and the faculty commissioned the danger amulet from him. The "best student" prize involves a series of preliminary trials, leading to nominations from the senior faculty, and then a set of competitions between the nominees.
The full faculty list is:
- Master Hong, Headmaster
- Sensei Bian Li Ming UNARMED COMBAT, EXPERT Instructor
- Colonel Lam Wai TACTICS and STRATEGY Instructor
- Mistress Lu Yi BLADEMISTRESS
- Pak Suk LOGISTICS and TRADITIONS Instructor
- Academician Leung HISTORY and NORTHERN STUDIES Instructor
- Captain Huan Ken SIEGE ENGINEERING and CONSTRUCTION Instructor
- Master Taowang COMBAT SORCERY Instructor
- Sgt. Golden Root SURVIVAL Specialist
Master Taowang comes in for some interrogation - what sort of a specialty is "combat sorcery"? Combat isn't an element! He says he's a metal sorcerer, and they offer to show him the prophetic chocolate art. Master Taowang examines the chocolate bar with a mysterious glass lens, and says that it is not magical, and also not fully understood.
- "All one can do is follow the instructions."
Finally, the chocolate is sliced up enough to discover that there is a gummy worm hiding at the bottom, going under the wall. Ahah! That means there are gummy worms in the dungeon! Can they go look at the dungeon? Master Hong protests again - the basement is NOT A DUNGEON! IT IS A STORAGE AREA! But he is willing to show them if they insist.
Wait, maybe they should go to the infirmary first - Merit thinks that's where the injured student ended up. Pak Suk is looking after Young Master Li, who has apparently fallen. Merit is dubious - did he fall on something with a lot of sharp teeth? Pak Suk says that he will not contradict the word of a student on this.
Xiao Fa heals him, and whammies him with Good Listener. Okay, okay, there is a dungeon. Apparently first years aren't supposed to be in the dungeon, but he didn't know that!
Master Hong is invited to come with Young Master Li and the party to the dungeon. He resignedly agrees, and says that he will prepare his resignation letter if it turns out there is a dungeon. Wei Han decides they won't bring any other faculty, in case they need to make everything Not Have Happened.
Young Master Li leads the group to behind an outbuilding (not in the basement after all!), where there is a hole in the ground that appears to lead into a hollow space beneath. The two second-years on guard say that first years aren't allowed in the dungeon!
Takanata asks what they're guarding - apparently against first years going in and doppelgangers coming out. However, Merit is pretty sure the only doppelgangers that have turned up are the ones that Young Master Li "caught" - that is, him and Cai Wen. So doppelgangers isn't really a thing - how do they know that first years aren't supposed to go in?
- "Master Hong didn't put the dungeon here for first years!"
Xiao Fa notes that Master Hong is getting close to imploding.
- "I'm sure Master Hong has many things he should be attending to in his office. Maybe we should not be monopolizing his time." -Xiao Fa
- "Master Hong, do you wish to delegate this task to us while you attend to your office work?" -Wei Han
- "No, this is my responsibility." -Master Hong, despairingly
- "That's not what I said!" -Xiao Fa
- "Master Hong, we will take care of this. Surely you have faith in Wei Han and in us to deal with it." -Min Feng, making her persuasion roll
The group descends into what appears to be a maze of twisty passages; oddly, a battlemap does not kick in. Takanata starts thinking about why, as that seems odd.
The group progresses along the dungeon, encountering some dire rats (which are easily defeated) and then some baby ice wyrms (which are defeated with slightly less ease). The number of dice seems to be going up quickly per encounter. Next, a huge burrowing worm chews through the side of the tunnel and looks to be planning to chew through the other side. People contemplate fighting it, but it looks about as difficult a foe as a full-grown Ice Wyrm would be, and there aren't many fighters here, so while Young Master Li wants to have at it, the group retreats.
Takanata realizes that the reason there isn't a coherent map is that the tunnels have come through from the north, which has square maps, and it has propagated into the Empire, which has hexes, and it doesn't overlay well. The worms seem to be non-sentient, so they can tunnel under the wall in the same way that birds can fly over it - but perhaps they have been encouraged by some beastmastery.
Takanata looks at visions of the past, at the entrance to the tunnels, and sees a group of second-years, led by Xun Bo. He gets to the spot, and says "yes, this is where the danger is. It's buried below!" So then the students get shovels and dig into the tunnels, concluding that Master Hong put the "dungeon" there for Xun Bo to find with the Danger Amulet, and it is meant for training.
Back at Master Hong's office, Xiao Fa and Wei Han persuade him that the students show great initiative, because they have been so well trained, and it is not a matter of disgrace that they have been running around in a secret dungeon full of monsters under the school grounds without his knowledge. Not to mention, it has helped them discover a threat from the North! In the short term, the dungeon should be used to (carefully) train the students. In the longer term, someone will need to deal with the burrowing worm.
However, none of this has explained how Master Hong got a letter from Cai Wen that he didn't send. Kuan-Xi looks at the letter, and thinks that it is magic - at its heart wood sorcery, but with some other elements - and that it has the same magical signature as the quill for Chau-Li that Cai Wen still has. Oh, also, the letter claiming to be from Cai Wen has the same handwriting as the letter from Chau-Li.
Well! That is all sorted out, so the group heads to Industrious Fruition, where Merit looks up his friend who knew the guy who went to the House of the Singing Breezes. They arrange for a poker game - Cai Wen buys 20 poker skill, in preparation - and Merit's friend says that Cai Wen will need to clean them out three times in a row, so that the other guy will have to bet something that isn't money - such as the location of the House of Singing Breezes.
It takes quite a bit of luck and some shticks, but Cai Wen manages to win enough to ask what the friend-of-a-friend knows about the House of Singing Breezes. It is apparently staffed by humans, but is not in the Material World most of the time. Anyone in the Taiga can get there on the Night of Gates, but at other times, it's more difficult. You have to walk into a stiff wind with at least 24 successes of singing. This guy had to go with someone else - he isn't a good enough singer on his own.
- "It's not about getting your heart's desire. It's about teaching you what your heart's desire is."
Almost no one leaves with what they were looking for, because they were usually looking for the wrong thing. And if you have a hard time coming to terms with your heart's desire, it can take a while. That gets everyone to panic a bit - will they be trapped there forever if they can't figure out their heart's desire quickly? But probably not. None of the stories about the house include people trapped there like Rip Van Winkle.
Before heading to the Dragon's Throne to see the minister, the group contemplates some other loose threads. For example, is the favor for Duke Lu too dangerous - i.e. will Duke Song be in trouble, or seriously unhappy, at being lured out of being able to pay the favor back? Also, why bother to rescue Tsai Su-Yin if she was just going to get engaged to Lucky Chang?
The answer to the first seems to be "probably not", and the answer to the second is "Because Master Zhou promised he would, plus she was trapped and needed rescuing." Then, it is off to the Dragon's Throne. Minister Asahara's office is in Ivory, and his home is in Gold. Well, the party has enough keys to Gold, so they head there, and ask for an appointment.
The Minister comes out, and Cai Wen says that he would be happy to arrange for an invitation to the House of Singing Breezes. The Minister thinks he should be able to leave in a few days - he just needs to get some traveling impediments cleared up. People press him on the details, and he is oddly fuzzy on exactly when he made the request for a travel permit. Only a few days ago, but his travel papers haven't been approved yet. Surely they will be shortly. Merit makes eyebrows at Xiao Fa.
Xiao Fa confirms that the Minister is "pretty engoofed" but the exact details of the "engoofedness" are beyond his security clearance. Well, that is a bit unexpected.
Merit takes a look at the travel request papers, and (with some bureaucracy) notes that it was filled out three and a half years ago.
Takanata chats with the Minister about art trends, and notes that he is a bit out of date. He has never, for example, heard of Zi Kone.
The group takes their leave again, and drops by Fen-Xi's house to see if he can make heads or tails out of the travel paper issue. Fen-Xi thinks it's strange that Xiao Fa didn't have clearance to examine his chi, but Fen-Xi should be able to sort that out tomorrow. Then, everyone heads to an inn to spend the night.
In the very early morning, Fen-Xi dashes in - WHO IS THIS GUY? Everything involving him is ON THE MAYOR'S DESK. In fact, the mayor's guard is coming here right now. Maybe they should leave. Immediately. At least, the people who officially hired Fen-Xi should go - that's Takanata. Takanata wanders up to the Golden Pagoda, and then back down to Butterfly Meadows to talk to Katsuo Narina.
Xiao Fa pulls Imperial rank to visit the Steppes regent, who kind of meanders aimlessly in and then out again. They chase him down, and he sends Cai Wen off to find his wife. Xiao Fa looks at his chi. As Shen-Ji had noted, there's a beastmaster effect squashing him, but there's also a Dog-flavored chi channel that's letting his chi flood into his wife. So Shen-Ji's concern that if the effect was dispelled, it would leave them unequal, was probably correct. He will need to get raised up somehow before the dispel, which is trickier because Xiao Fa isn't a beastmaster.
Merit thinks killing the regent would leave his wife kind of super-powered, but nobody else approves of this plan. A death mage (the opposite of the life-blood Beast combination) could probably do it too - just kill the effect and leave the both of them alive.
A couple of days work with chi unblocking could bring them both into balance and remove the effect, though. The Regent's wife says she will clear their schedule for the next few days, starting tomorrow.
Fen-Xi catches up with Cai Wen to brief him on what else he has found out about the travel ban - which is not much. The ostensible reason is that Minister Asahara has classified information, but no one seems able to say what it is, and the type of information doesn't appear on any of the standard forms where it should. Anywhere that it should appear just has the seal of the Mayor saying to see him.
- "I could file an appeal making the case that the Mayor is abusing his power, but if I felt inclined to do that, I could just leap off the Falls instead." -Fen-Xi
So... what solutions are there? If the Regency Council formally voted to grant him a travel pass, that would be sufficient. Or if the Imperial Cultural Attache for Internal Affairs delegated something to him, so he had to leave under the other attache's authority. There isn't an actual Imperial Cultural Minister to order him somewhere. Cai Wen wonders if the Imperial Seneschal could do something here. Fen-Xi thinks that would work, but there isn't an Imperial Seneschal. Cai Wen suggests that something might be done along those lines. Fen-Xi will make up some blank travel passes that just need to be stamped.
Xiao Fa asks if Regent Quan and his wife can leave the Dragon's Throne.
- "If that will fix the problem, we can leave."
- "Well, it should help." -Xiao Fa
- "I was hoping for more reassurance than that."
- "Let's say, in two days it will be fixed or I will spend three karma and then it will be fixed."
That is sufficiently convincing; they can travel back to the Steppes without any particular trouble.
Cai Wen goes over the evacuation plan. Step One: send the Quans to the Steppes with Xiao Fa. Step Two: Stamp Minister Asahara's travel pass in the carriage with the Seal of the Imperial Seneschal, drive by Xiao Fa on the way, and then skedaddle him to the Taiga to the House of Singing Breezes.
Meanwhile, Takanata chats with Narina, and convinces her to meet the Black Duke and chat about decorations for his spire. If she were to agree to see it and advise, Takanata could arrange for some very quick transportation. Narina says she would be honored to meet with the Black Duke and chat about his spire. Takanata worldwalks over to the Taiga via the Jasmine, and convinces the Black Duke that he should go visit Butterfly Meadows to get artistic advice to help fix his spire - which takes him out of favor-granting range for a number of days.
Xiao Fa and the Quans head off without incident.
Cai Wen stamps the travel pass with the Imperial Seneschal's seal, in the Little Carriage of Kuan Xi, and then heads back in with Wei Han to walk Minister Asahara out of the Dragon's Throne. The guards at the gate examine the travel pass, and are rather confused ("Do we have a Seneschal?") but after consulting with their supervisor, declare everything to be in order and let them go.
The little carriage catches up to Xiao Fa and the Quans, already on the road, and Xiao Fa takes a look at Minister Asahara's chi. Now that he's in the Steppes, Xiao Fa still doesn't have the security clearance to see the problems with his chi, but that doesn't apply here. There are a couple of very small precise blocks, that he can fix with chi unblocking. Once his chi starts flowing again, there are subtle changes, but he seems less vague about times now. Xiao Fa thinks that the chi blocks were not done with Bureaucracy - Bureaucracy was just the cover for the chi blocks. The chi blocks were probably not done by the Mayor.
Cai Wen finds Chau-Li, working in the offices of Chan, Chan, and Chan in the Port of Propitious Voyage. He presents her with the quill that he has found for her, and she is suitably impressed. She agrees to look into some things and write some letters on his behalf, to suitably set up the Yet for the run.
Then, Merit and Minister Asahara discuss the House of Singing Breezes. The singer is the only person who has to visit, but no one should be trapped there. People sometimes spend too long, but only because they want to stay. It is okay to leave without finding your heart's desire, if you really want. Also, of course, it's a fabulous flower house.
Takanata asks him about what his work was, three and a half years ago, and he happily talks about the latest art trends from six years ago. (This is confusing for a while, but it's not that he has lost six years - it's that he has lost three years, so what he thinks is three years ago is really six years ago.) Kuan-Xi also asks him questions about art with Good Listener, and he happily talks her ear off about art, but it doesn't really include any state secrets. Wei Han describes the statue in the Strand that had the inscription about the Serpentine, and he recognizes the statue's description but thinks it said Strand (so he probably hasn't been out of the Empire).
People continue to press on what sort of sensitive information he might have known. He's honestly puzzled - as far as he's concerned, he applied for the travel permit a few days ago, and then it was granted. He doesn't think that's that unusual, though obviously things will be in a bit of chaos at City Hall since the Mayor died a few days ago.
Cai Wen, Takanata, Wei Han, Li Merit, and Minister Asahara visit the House of Singing Breezes (Cai Wen does the singing to get in). Cai Wen spends a favor with the First Servant to get the Steppes to allow the Forest to help fight the North.Takanata talks to Li Kao about Coyote.