|"If you stand straight, do not fear a crooked shadow."|| It is the day of the Late Monkey in the month of the Phoenix, in the first Year of the Fox since the crowning of the Viridian Queen.|
The run takes place in the Strand
Last of the Small Towns
Ringmaster Te opens the day by gathering everyone up. He lets people know that this should be the last of these little town gigs for a while. There will be two days of afternoon shows here, and then the circus is off to the capital, where they will hopefully score a performance with the Viridian Queen, and the party can do "the thing with the guy - er... whatever that is". So, he encourages the crew to put on good couple of shows here, and then off they'll go. "The objective is in sight!" (Everyone cheers!) Then the circus will head for home, back to the Butterfly Kingdom to resupply for a northern run.
People set up the stalls in town square, and start putting on their acts. Zhi-Hao's swordsmanship demonstrations attract the interest of a gentleman named Chen. He seems more interested in the technical aspects of swordsmanship, rather than the actual use of swords - as if it's an intellectual exercise for him. Zhi-Hao does a bit of mental sparring with him, and finds him quite skilled - at least, as long as no one picks up any actual swords.
Elsewhere, Lijuan is showing off her sharpshooting, and Mystic Melina entertains a distinguished man named Chen with her visions of the future. In another booth, the Danger Chef (Yoshi) reduces a pile of vegetables to a tasty afternoon snack in a flurry of deadly blades. Yoshi also hears that a merchant named Chen is about and goes to check on Hana and Hiroki, as a merchant named Chen was responsible in part for their original kidnapping. After a quick investigation, he finds out that this is an entirely different guy. It seems Chen is indeed as common a name as people thought.
Shen-Ji's sword swallowing is well received, but the star of the show appears to be Anto. His flame juggling is dazzling and soon he's got quite a crowd watching him. He's definitely having a good day.
- "I seem to be rolling for fives. I look for Kuan-Xi." -Anto
But, peering around the crowd, the woman with white hair is nowhere to be seen. Anto's act goes so well that Ringmaster Te asks him if he is ready to put on a VIP encore for the most distinguished guests. The Ringmaster gathers up all of the VIPs around, including the Mayor, a local priest, the distinguished Merchant Chen, and a few other dignitaries. They get a small private box, "dangerous" refreshments are served, and Anto goes to work. Sadly, he doesn't seem to do as well this time (still rolling for fives, still no sign of white hair, but the luck is not on his side). Still, he presses on through the performance, giving Yoshi time to peer closely at the mysterious Chen who's been popping up all over the place. The party gathers up awaiting his pronouncement. Chen seems to have quite a Social stat, but eventually Yoshi gets through his impassive screen and realizes: he's the distraction!
Distraction? Everyone wonders what he's distracting them from. Zhi-Hao decides there's only one thing worth distracting people from and runs off check something. Luckily, the really impressive box the Jade Sphere is kept in is still there. On the other hand, it appears to be empty. Looking around the other boxes, Zhi-Hao finds the three fake Great Treasures are missing as well.
He alerts the party, and Shen-Ji takes to the air. From high above the circus, he sees two unknown people heading out of town to the west on horses, and a young woman with white hair getting into a carriage that heads off to the east.
Yoshi wonders why everyone is so worked up about the Jade Sphere anyways, finally breaking his yumekui-induced psych lims...
- "On second thought, perhaps that is important. We promised the queen we'd take care of that..." -Yoshi
Zhi-Hao follows the carriage to the east. Luckily for him, it only goes three blocks or so before stopping at an inn, in which the girl with white hair gets out of her carriage and carries a small leather case inside. Zhi-Hao follows her in, but is intercepted by the innkeeper who asks if he can be of service. Zhi-Hao chats him up a bit and finds that the white-haired woman has recently arrived, coming in off the east road, and that she was asking earlier about where the circus was performing. Zhi-Hao finds out which of two rooms she is in, but doesn't pursue further until he hears what else is going on.
Meanwhile, the others pursue Merchant Chen as he departs. He goes to his horse and slowly starts heading out the same road the pair of strangers left on earlier. He heads out the west road a fair ways and then takes a path up to the north. The party trails him up there, and then rides right past the manor house they find so as to not raise suspicion. Surprisingly though, on the other side of the manor house a couple of hundred yards further up the trail, they find a nearly unconscious man beaten to within an inch of his life. They ask him what happened. He says that he was attacked by robbers. When they mention that they are from the circus, he says... "Xiao Fa..." and passes out. Anto believes he may actually be faking unconsciousness (though he's definitely only got a hit point or two left), but the party decides to take him back to the circus before talking further.
Everyone heads back to the circus. Everyone, that is, except Lijuan who decides to scout out the manor house by herself. She silently approaches the window and hears someone within saying, "Fool, you were followed! Someone is outside listening!" The door flies open and out runs Merchant Chen. Then another guy comes out, and it's also Merchant Chen, although he's wearing different clothes. Lijuan takes the opportunity to run very fast. The shout inside, "Get Do out here - he can catch her!" A third Merchant Chen emerges but then a voice from inside calls them all back in, saying they have more important matters to attend to. Lijuan runs all the way back to the circus.
At the circus, Xiao Fa and friends are questioning their new guest. He says his name is Shan Tsu. He was heading into town to watch the circus, when almost a dozen bandits came pouring out of a manor house having broken through windows, trampled bushes, etc., in their haste to leave. He tried to stop them, but on his best day, he is only a match for six or so. Xiao Fa thinks hard and realizes that Shan Tsu is a renowned Kung Fu master - not on the level of Master Zhou or anything, but well spoken of just the same. Shan Tsu asks Xiao Fa if he knows any Kung Fu. Xiao Fa says he has studied under Master Zhou. Tsu nods, and then declares that he will rest.
Meanwhile at the inn, Anto and Shen-Ji show up to see what happened to Zhi-Hao. After questioning the innkeper, he managed to get a brief talk with Kuan-Xi as she came downstairs to pick up some food from the innkeeper, but didn't really get anything out of her. ("Where are the charisma people when you need them?") On his arrival Anto questions Zhi-Hao about the girl with white hair and confirms that she matches Kuan-Xi's description. On Xiao Fa's advice, he asks the inn-keeper to give her a note indicating he visited and will be back to speak with her tomorrow. The innkeeper looks him up and down, and suggests that perhaps Anto might want to make his play sooner since the gentleman over in the corner (Zhi-Hao) is also looking to meet the young lady. Anto gives Zhi-Hao an appraising stare and then declares, "I'm not worried about him." The innkeeper shrugs and departs.
Confident that Kuan-Xi is going to be sticking around for a while, the party heads back to regroup at the circus. They are sharing information about Shan Tsu, and the manor house when Lijuan runs up:
- "He's demons!" -Lijuan
- "What?" -Everyone
- "Merchant Chen! There's three of him and he's demons!" -Lijuan
- "What?" -Mike
Well that's that. The manor house is clearly the source of trouble and now has demons to boot. Everyone packs up and heads up there to deal with the situation. As they are departing, Shan Tsu comes out, and asks Xiao Fa if he has a plan for wherever it is he is going. Xiao Fa shrugs and Shen-Ji shouts "Get 'em!". Tsu shakes his head sadly and returns to the tent to rest.
Everyone arrives at the manor house and prepares to break in. Everyone, that is, except Yoshi who won't break in without asking.
- "I'm going to talk to them first." -Yoshi
- "That won't work." -Lijuan
- "No, but I won't attack them until it fails to work. Or I see a demon." -Yoshi
Everyone Takes Hostages
Yoshi knocks on the front door while the rest of the party surrounds the house. An amazingly distinguished guy (looking like Merchant Chen) opens the doors and greets Yoshi politely. He mentions that it's not really a good time and perhaps Yoshi can come back later. Sadly, you can look right into the room from the front door and see the great treasures sitting on the table. Meanwhile, one of the Chens inside glances around and says, "We're surrounded!"
Regrettably, combat breaks out. Chen Mi surrenders immediately, but confuses Anto enough that Anto doesn't do much after taking him prisoner. Chen Re and Chen Do hold off Zhi-Hao and Lijuan quite effectively. Chen Fa, the charismatic Chen, spends most of the combat negotiating with Yoshi, who spends most of the combat collecting treasures from the table. Eventually, Chen Fa proposes that Yoshi take the treasures and they can trade an appropriate amount of treasure for Zhi-Hao and Lijuan tomorrow after heads have cooled down.
- "Is the combat over?" -Zhi-Hao
- "Well, they are taking you hostage..." -Yoshi
- "They are? They didn't mention that to me." -Zhi-Hao
Unfortunately, while taking Lijuan prisoner, Chen Re hits a little too hard and she drops and starts dying. This disrupts negotiations a bit and things go back to fighting. However, Yoshi agrees to be their prisoner, in exchange for letting Lijuan get to a healer. The Chens think getting the enemy leader is probably a good deal, so allow it. Elsewhere, Anto still has Chen Mi captured, so in the final resolution, the party returns to the circus with Chen Mi and the treasures, but the Chens keep Yoshi. They agree to meet tomorrow to discuss a trade once everyone has slept and regained their wits.
- "I gave myself up so you could get away." -Yoshi
- "That wasn't the plan." -Lijuan
- "That was your plan." -Yoshi
When they return to the circus, Shan Tsu is there to greet Xiao Fa. He looks at the state of the party, the captured Chen Mi, and Yoshi's empty horse, and pronounces:
- "This is what comes of not having a plan."
Shan Tsu shakes his head and heads off to rest. The party discusses whether they should interrogate Chen Mi. (He's currently wearing the shackles of silence.)
- "If we want to question him, this one could go get the monkey." -Xiao Fa
- <Shocked and confused look> -Chen Mi
- "He's the smart one. I think if we interrogate him, he'll find out everything. Let's leave him quiet." -Anto
After a while they decide to risk it. Xiao Fa gets Monko, who unlocks the shackles. He (Xiao Fa, not Monko) asks about the excellent gardens around the Chen house and Chen Mi tells him his father did them all. He's retired and Feng Shui is his hobby now. Xiao Fa tells him that Xiao Fa is a student of Feng Shui as well and admired Chen's father's work. He wonders what Father Chen's job was, and whether it had anything to do with all this, and Chen Mi tells him that their Father was an Imperial Architect for roads and such, and was kidnapped. Then Xiao Fa tells Chen Mi that three of the treasures are actually fake. He then realizes what he just said and calls Anto, who slaps the shackles back on him. Indeed, it seems questioning him is too dangerous. However, searching him reveals a map with an X leading to an Imperial Highway way up in the northern Strand. It's marked with the same compass rose as the Hunter's Map, although it doesn't seem to be a magic item. Shen-Ji determines that it is, however, the target of a sorcerous spell, probably some sort of scrying. Everyone is careful not to talk in front of the map.
Meanwhile, at the manor house, Yoshi is offered noodles and they agree to unlock him from his bonds if he gives them his word of honor that he will not attempt to escape. As he has actual skill in Honor, this goes quite smoothly. So the Chen brothers fill him in on their problem.
Their honorable patriarch, Father Chen, has been kidnapped. They tracked the kidnappers to the north, but were confronted by a man in fine clothes, a bunch of goons, and another man in a Dragon Army uniform. They would of course have fought anyways, but the man in finery held a knife to their father's throat, and threatened to kill him if they did not depart. They offered themselves in exchange, but the man said Father Chen was very valuable to him. Perhaps if they could come up with something even more valuable he would listen. He gave them a map to lead them to him if they managed to find something quickly enough. They returned to their manor house only to find it had been robbed while they were gone chasing the kidnappers. They then sought out the mystics of the circus, as the local circuit of whispers indicated that their wisdom had been quite helpful to the nearby town of Ancient Stones recently. So they went to the circus and consulted with Mystic Melina. She tore apart the veils of fate and pronounced that the solution to their problem could be found in the circus itself. They split up and investigated all around, until Chen Mi, after a quick search, turned up a great treasure trove.
- "After a quick search?! Don't we hide those things better?" -Everyone
- "Honorable sir, might I suggest you not hide your secret treasures in the most impressive box available?" -Chen Fa
The rest of their story the party presumably knows, having been involved in their pursuit. Yoshi suggests that perhaps they misinterpreted Mystic Melina's wisdom, and the solution to their problem lies in the circus's people, not its treasure. They agree to go back to the circus and team up with the rest of the party in the morning.
In the morning, people are bustling around preparing for their circus acts as Yoshi and three of the Chen brothers ride back into town. Xiao Fa and the rest meet them with the fourth brother in tow. Shan Tsu wonders who the white-haired woman following them around might be, at which point the rest of the party notices her too. Of course, it is a new day, so Kuan-Xi has shown up looking for Anto. She apparently got their note, so decided to come by early. Not wanting to discuss prisoner exchanges and the like in front of Kuan-Xi, Anto leads her off alone to talk.
Kuan-Xi and Anto have a fine conversation after which he realizes that she really did track him halfway across the world just because he is cute (even though she never really said as much). He decides to cut her some slack.
The party and the Chens fill each other in. Master Shan Tsu is nearby and Xiao Fa asks his opinion. He concludes that the only missing fact here is what was actually stolen from the manor house by the thieves who apparently knew when the brothers would be distracted. Sadly, the Chens have not had a chance to do a serious search of their own house as things have been a bit busy.
Everyone decides to head up to the manor house, and then to the X on the map. Kuan-Xi offers to come along, but Lijuan doesn't trust her, so rather than letting Kuan-Xi in on all of their plans, Lijuan takes her off alone.
Kuan-Xi and Lijuan have a fine conversation about horses and dogs and Ho and all sort of other things, after which she realizes that Kuan-Xi really is just trying to be helpful. She decides to cut her some slack.
- "She's taking us one by one!" -Yoshi
All About Highways
So, the party, the Chens, Kuan-Xi and Shan Tsu all head to the manor house. After a search, the Chens decide that the only things taken were some old work papers in storage from before their father retired, and his writing kit. Apparently, before his retirement, Father Chen was an architect who worked often for the Empire, laying out new building, roads, etc. But that was years ago. Why would anyone need old plans, or his writing kit? Several people speculate that if his chop were in the kit, they could falsify old plans, but no one is really clear what there is to gain.
Then the massive party proceeds to the location on the ransom map. There's a whole bunch of discussion as to how to proceed. The best plan seems to be a simple exchange where they give over one of the fake treasures in exchange for the old man, but there's some discussion as to what to do if that actually goes off. Sure, they'll get the old man back, but then they won't know what the heck is going on!
- "Wait, are we seriously worried about what happens if the plan works?" -Yoshi
- "If it works, we don't find anything out." -Zhi-Hao
- "I understand why we care, I just don't understand why we think our plan might work." -Yoshi
In any case, they proceed. The circus portion of the party (with Kuan-Xi and Shan Tsu) arrive first to scout. They see several massive work crews apparently moving a section of highway. They're taking out wonderfully sculpted gardens and smoothing all of the curves to make a fast straight section out of what was probably the most beautiful stretch of highway anyone has ever seen. They see what appears to the the construction foreman, in an army uniform, yelling to make the work go faster. The well dressed man occasionally steps out of the construction hut to check on things. Most importantly, they see a set of bandits setting up an ambush right where the Chens are expected to arrive.
Battle with the Bandits
The beginning of the plan goes well. The Chens arrive, and the foreman, well-dressed man and bandit leader come out with Father Chen in tow. The Chens offer a Parl Lion in trade. This is when Chen Mi notices the ambush and shouts "It's a trap!"
Combat commences. With Kuan-Xi giving Anto bonus rounds, and Shan Tsu giving Xiao Fa combat pointers, things go pretty darned well. The bandits are being dealt with, and the construction workers are unable to see down off of their construction area into the melee area where the combat is occurring. The man in uniform is taken down by Zhi-Hao and Anto, but the well dressed man manages to drag his body up onto the highway in progress. Zhi-Hao pursues and is about to bring his sword down for a final blow when he realizes he's now standing on the Imperial Highway. Every one of the four dozen imperial construction workers gives him a look, and he decides to retreat back down to the main fight. This gives the well dressed man a chance to retreat to the construction hut. As he escapes he snaps his fingers and the map Chen Mi was carrying bursts into a fireball, taking him down.
Down with the force of ambushing bandits, Anto goes down. Kuan-Xi rushes out to help him, but Xiao Fa gets there first. He starts to pick up Anto, but Kuan-Xi apparently gives him all of her hit points and goes down herself. This at least brings Anto back up to finish the fight. Xiao Fa picks up Kuan-Xi and carries her to safely. With a first aid roll she is brought back to consciousness. She wakes in his arms and says, "Xiao Fa! You saved me." From across the battlefield, Anto glares.
In the end, one of the Chens is down, but stable, and the field is held by our heroes. They head back up to the highway where construction workers are gathered around the body of their fallen captain. Apparently, the well dressed man left him here. The party offers to take him to their healer, and since no one on the highway saw anyone in the party attack the captain, they agree. Suddenly, the construction hut bursts into flames ("Wasn't the last bad guy in there?"), and all of the workers are busy trying to save it.
A Puzzling Explanation
The construction captain and Father Chen tell their tales.
Apparently, a well dressed man approached the captain with a letter. The letter bore the seal of the Regency Council and said that what the bearer did was done on their behalf. He offered the captain forty li and the letter to order his construction battalion to make certain modifications to the highway. Also, he was instructed to hire some local bandits to kidnap Father Chen and rob his house. Zhi-Hao is disgusted with his corrupt behavior. Yoshi presents the construction battalion with this tale, and the senior sergeant orders the captain arrested and dragged back to Southern Command to face a court martial.
Meanwhile Father Chen explains that all they had him doing was making changes to the original blueprints and signing them with his old chop. It's as if they didn't only want to ruin the Feng Shui of his beautiful highway, but they wanted it to appear that it had always been that way. But Father Chen is not a forger, so it's clearly not going to fool anyone. It seemed more like they were trying to fulfill some arcane technicality.
Examining the wreckage of the construction shed, the party does find the 40 li the captain was paid, and adds this to the letter they took off of the captain earlier. Shen-Ji also finds the remains of a quickly sketched map in the dirt and notices the power of a fairly rapid ritual dissipating. Judging by the map he estimates that the well dressed man transported himself to somewhere in the vicinity of the Hidden City. Questioning the captain further, they find that little is known about the well dressed man. Given the letter he produced, the captain was calling him "Minister" but he never gave any true name or title. The one odd thing he noticed is that the minister never allowed anyone to see him unclothed. Not even his bath attendants, who were all sent from his room when he bathed.
Shen-Ji, after examining the transport map in the dirt, the Hunter's map, and the map that Chen Mi had, announces that whoever else the escaped man is, he is also a powerful cartogramancer. Cartogramancy is an ancient and obscure branch of sorcery that no one has practiced for hundreds of years, as far as Shen-Ji knows. He's surprised anyone still knew how to teach it.
People decide to put the letter away in case it's either useful or a forgery, or something, and split the 40 li among all present, including the Chens, Kuan-Xi and Shan Tsu. Everyone gets 3 li, except Xiao Fa who is given the extra one as well. The captain is dragged away by his men, as are the bandits, and the construction battalion agrees to halt construction until they get better orders. Xiao Fa looks at the chi of the highway, and reports that the work crews were changing the intent of the road from "safe and comfortable passage", to "speedy passage above all", no longer concerning itself with the safety of the travelers.
Everyone retires to the circus for an evening of relaxation.
- Various people check to see if the Chen Family will teach their rescuers any shticks. They seem willing.
- Xiao Fa also mentions that Monko's chi is unusual - it dances and capers.
- Yoshi asks for people to try to free the Southron prisoner from Kali's grasp.
- Xiao Fa (with Master Zhou and Yoshi) goes in search of a Selfless Path temple.
- Anto practices sparring with the Chen brothers.
- Anto spends time with Kuan-Xi.
- Cai Wen (with Wei Han) looks for some gambling opportunities, and hears of some intriguing options.
- Hana chats with Father Chen about highways and feng shui