|"Even a sheet of paper has two sides."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Serpent in the Month of the Fox in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.|
The run takes place in the northern Arcade, and the Port of Propitious Voyage.
A Party Pre-Split
Zhi-Hao and Cai Wen receive a note from Wei Han and Merit, indicating that they should meet up at the Cup of Five Virtues to investigate some bandit problems. Xiao Fa tags along, as tea is always good. However, Wei Han and Merit don't show up as expected, which is somewhat troubling.
Cai Wen asks around after the bandits in the area. Rumor says that when the House of Gainful Protection got crushed in the northern port city, the local bandits did get more out of control. However, in the past several months, Gainful Protection has been recruiting hard, and making it clear that they're all over dealing with the problem. Nobody completely buys that, but nobody is willing to argue with Gainful Protection either. The bandits are staying away from the coastal cities; possibly they're coming across the border from the Steppes.
Both Shanxi and Deng Lumang are in the House of Gainful Protection in the north now - maybe they can find out what's going on from one of them. Zhi-Hao heads to the local House, and asks after Lumang. He isn't in right now, but the clerk offers to leave a message. Ah - is Lumang off dealing with bandits? The clerk assures Zhi-Hao that it will be dealt with soon. Zhi-Hao offers his assistance, and the clerk offers to fetch a recruitment officer, but Zhi-Hao clarifies - he doesn't actually want to join the house. Ah, in that case, they aren't currently using subcontractors. Zhi-Hao says he'll come back tomorrow.
Xiao Fa takes his turn, and the clerk indicates that Shanxi is similarly unavailable, but Xiao Fa does pick up that whatever the Incident is, it's down the highway to the south and west.
Cai Wen heads to the House of Gainful Protection next, after prettying himself up to increase his status. Some of his friends are missing - have there been any problems lately? Ah... is he with the official delegation? Cai Wen allows as he is with a delegation, and is very interested in the answer to his questions. He's shown in and brought tea, and then an older gentleman comes in.
- "Good morning, Lord....?"
- "Ringmaster Zhu."
- "I... see. You are part of the Regent's entourage?"
- "I have come to solve some problems. Please tell me what they are."
Cai Wen's fast talk roll is good enough that he convinces the guy of something.
- "Very well. What do you already know?"
- "I know that there have been some kidnappings, and there is an operation to deal with them, but that the outcome of that operation is uncertain." -Cai Wen
- "Gah, you know everything! Our finest people are on it - the Regent will be recovered, and every precaution is being taken to ensure that she is rescued and sent on."
The official offers to put Cai Wen up in a nice hotel room and send him hourly updates. Cai Wen allows as that's a nice idea, but in the meantime, what is the backup plan in case things go wrong? The official considers, and asks if Cai Wen could fill him in on any of the Regent's... more special capabilities. For example, he has heard that some high ranking officials of their government have certain immunities to poisons, so if that was true, then they could use poison on the bandits...
Cai Wen racks his brain to remember which of the Regency Council is female, to try to figure out who he is ostensibly working for. The Arcade regent is male - Cai Wen has matched off against him in Illumineaucracy, and Master Deng defended him in an honor duel. The Steppes regent is also male - the group was invited to dinner with him and his wife. After some delicate conversation work, Cai Wen is officially unwilling to go on the record to say that the Regent of the Strand is immune to poison. Nor is he willing to unofficially hint that it's true. Instead, he wants to talk about whatever the Plan B is. Perhaps the plan needs more direct oversight?
The official backpedals, and provides both someone to blame - Lord Tikon - and the current acting sub-head of house on site, who has the responsibility for the situation - Shanxi. Cai Wen suspects that Shanxi has just been reclassified as expendable to the fury of the Strand.
The official shows Cai Wen to the nearby hotel, where he is joined by his two companions. He briefs them on the state of things, and Xiao Fa squeaks unhappily about Shanxi's possible bus-throwing. It seems to run in the family. Zhi-Hao wonders how to convince the House to let them help, but Cai Wen thinks the house doesn’t currently want to admit that they might need help. Xiao Fa notes that his brother is in theory in charge on location, so maybe offering to help him will fly better.
To the Tower
The trio heads down the Imperial Highway, keeping an eye out for the couriers that might be going back and forth to Cai Wen's hotel. They don't see any couriers, but they do eventually spot a Dragon Army private, with a flag, loitering with purpose. There's another guy from the House of Gainful Protection, loitering with purpose just off the highway, and the two are glaring at each other. Deng thinks that the flag isn't a specific sort of troop marker, it's more like a "turn here" indicator.
Cai Wen asks the private what the news is, but only receives a "Same as before" in reply. Master Deng uses his drill sergeant voice to tell the private to give a better answer. They're just waiting for the hostage negotiator to arrive, but the House of Gainful Protection is getting in the way and making a mess of things.
The group heads along the smaller road away from the highway, until they reach more soldiers, who try to tell Cai Wen that this is a restricted area. He declares "Not to me!" and throws all his status into bluffing. Ahead, there's a tower, and there are tents to the north and south of the road. The Dragon Army is to the north and the House of Gainful Protection to the south. Someone at a tower window is shouting, but he is hard to hear, and the north and south sides are too busy shouting at each other to really listen. Cai Wen declares that his headquarters is here, in the middle of the road.
Shanxi comes out of the Gainful Protection side, and thanks the Cycle spirits that Xiao Fa and the others are there. That causes everyone to lose some credit with the Dragon Army side, and when Xiao Fa heads south to talk to Shanxi, he loses even more. Zhi-Hao goes over to the Dragon Army side, and loses his own credit with the Gainful Protection people. Cai Wen stands resolutely in the middle of the road, trying to avoid talking to anyone just yet.
Both Master Deng and Xiao Fa learn the same things - that both sides are more concerned with getting the other side to stop mucking things up, before they deal with the hostages at all, and are calculating their odds in dealing with "the enemy" based on how large a force they have and what reinforcements are expected when. They can't deal with the hostage situation until the opposing trouble-causers are out of the way. When Deng and Xiao Fa head to talk to the forward scouts, near the tower, both scouts are shouting at each other, and the bandit in the tower is mostly unheard. It seems hopeless.
Cai Wen writes a note: "Please reply with your demands for safe return of your hostages." He ties it to Squeaky's collar, and the ferret dashes for the tower.
Zhi-Hao and Xiao Fa manage to shush the forward scouts, just in time for the bandit to come away from the window to see what is going on with some sort of ferret.
Squeaky returns with another note: "Release the leaders of the Red Flag. When I have proof that they have been released, the hostages will be released unharmed. If anything happens to them, the hostages will be killed."
Zhi-Hao thinks that the Red Flag isn't really a tong, and it's too new for that - it's more like a bandit collaborative.
Hey! Merit's horse is in amongst the horses and carriages in the Dragon Army area! Perhaps they can talk to Horse in a pinch. Zhi-Hao asks the Dragon Army about the hostages, but they seem to think that it's the Strand Regent and her entourage, and even pointing out Merit's horse doesn't cause them to suddenly remember two circus do-gooders in the mix. Of course, the two people that were actually there for the kidnapping are still unconscious, so the exact details may still be a little unclear. Apparently everyone was taken out surprisingly bloodlessly, and the two escorts were left behind rather than killed.
Xiao Fa sees how far Shanxi can be persuaded. Could they pretend to work with the Dragon Army, to weasel information out of them? How about sharing credit? Shanxi is willing to work with the Dragon Army as long as they agree it's his command in general and are willing to play a clear second fiddle. Xiao Fa thinks there could be a bit more compromise here, but Shanxi might end up thrown under the "expendable" bus by the House of Gainful Protection if he compromises enough to let it look like the Dragon Army did the job the House should have been doing. Plus, if Merit's plan was to gain some approval from Magpie, then helping the locals over the Imperials is the way to go. Zhi-Hao convinces the Dragon Army to try a similar "cooperation gambit", and they manage to bring two tables into the middle of the road with Cai Wen, for some grudging information-sharing.
Xiao Fa loots some khav root from Wei Han's saddlebags, and between that and chi unblocking, manages to wake up the two unconscious escorts. They describe being struck with a terrible exhaustion - each block or parry made them weaker and weaker, until they fell over entirely. Zhi-Hao ponders this - he might be able to run around and chop everyone and only then fall over, but that depends on the layout of the tower and how far he would have to run. Probably farther than he could manage in a round.
Zhi-Hao heads over to Merit's horse, and talks to Horse. For four horse points, he arranges for an evacuation. He also asks if there are other things he can do to get more horse points ("Always!"). If Zhi-Hao can give Horse a briefing on Takanata's conversation with Ni Cheng before the next chapter starts, then he can have a horse point. If not - no harm, no foul.
Xiao Fa briefs Shanxi - once they say a magic word, then the hostages will all appear. Shanxi says that if the hostages are all gone, then he can use his House’s secret gas attack on the tower. The plan is that the Joint Assault Team will be told to be ready for a joint assault in half an hour, but that the plan will actually go off in fifteen minutes. Deng tells the Dragon Army that the plan is to jointly assault the tower in half an hour.
Zhi-Hao cues Horse to grab the hostages (including a bound Merit and an unconscious Wei Han). The Strand Regent, now freed and in the road with the party, observes the two camps and the party, and nods to herself.
- "Oh. That explains quite a lot."
- "What? That doesn't explain anything!" -Merit
The Gainful Protection soldiers break the tower door and throw in two barrels - there is some coughing from inside, which subsides into silence.
The party heads inside, to find that the bandits (including several set up in good ambush positions) are all dead. At the top of the tower is the bandit leader (the one who was shouting), and a little kid, also dead - Xiao Fa notes the fading chi from a demonic aspect, and Zhi-Hao thinks the kid looks like the Red Flag leader (the one whose release was demanded). There is a lot of captured loot from the Strand party, which is returned, as is Wei Han and Merit's loot. There is also some captured loot from previous banditing, which the group pockets.
The Regent takes in the situation, and gravely thanks Shanxi for her rescue. Lumang finally has a chance to talk to Zhi-Hao, and thanks him as well - he's glad that the situation got resolved, because if they had screwed up, they were all getting fired the hard way.Xiao Fa stares at the tower, deeply disturbed. He has never seen a poison so instantly fatal, let alone something that acts over such a distance. Not to mention, once it acted, it left no smell or remnant behind. There is definitely something not right, and he resolves to ask Shanxi about it later. Zhi-Hao confirms that in his experience there is no such poison that acts in this way.