|"A secret known to many people is a rumor; a secret known to no one at all is a mystery. A secret society known to many people is a club; a secret society known not even to its members is an ideal."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Phoenix in Fox Descending, in the in the third Year of the Fox since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
The run takes place in the Butterfly Kingdom.
Too Many Monkeys
When last we saw Min Feng and Merit, the Silken Wings Circus had returned to the Butterfly Kingdom, the party had presented the Tincture of Pure Respite to the Queen, everyone was helping carry interesting feng shui items from the circus to the Gardens of Harmonious Contemplation as people rearranged it, and Yanyu was hanging around the circus as it went into winter practice mode.
Ringmaster Te comes to visit Yanyu, and expresses his deep appreciation for having someone around who speaks all of the crazy barbarian languages - he isn't used to having barbarians attack, infiltrate, kidnap, and so on, quite so often. So, he would really like her to stay on for the next circuit, and... wait, why is there a monkey in her bassinet? Yanyu looks, and sure enough, instead of her daughter Mei Lin, there is a monkey. Mei Lin is on the other side of the room, being dangled precariously by a different monkey.
Ringmaster Te frowns at Yanyu, but Yanyu is confused.
- "How did the monkeys get in here?" -Yanyu
- "Oh, thank goodness, I thought they were yours." -Ringmaster Te
Outside Yanyu's wagon, there seems to be monkey pandemonium everywhere. Ringmaster Te apologizes to Yanyu, and goes off to find Min Su, while Yanyu tries to get her child back from the monkey.
- "You know, Mei Lin, I never had this sort of problem before, but it beats living with your father's parents." -Yanyu
Min Su doesn't seem to be around, though, so Ringmaster Te finds Min Feng, as the backup person in charge of monkey wrangling. Min Feng lures Li Merit into helping as well, and they head for the monkey tent. Unsurprisingly, Monko isn't in his cage, but he's also not running around in the monkey pandemonium. As it turns out, Monko is the monkey in the bassinet - Tofu, the swapping monkey, swapped him for the baby. Merit starts monkey wrangling the normal monkeys, while Min Feng takes charge of Monko and Tofu, gives Yanyu her daughter back, and heads back to the monkey tent.
Merit, meanwhile, checks for signs of foul play in the monkey tent. Monko's cage doesn't normally have a lock, it's normally just kept tipped over so the door is on the bottom. It looks like someone has tipped it back over, letting Monko out. Hmm. Where is Min Su, anyway? This turns out to be non-nefarious - whenever she returns to the Butterfly Kingdom, she spends a few days visiting a friend, after arranging to have someone take care of the monkeys. Merit, trailed by Min Feng and Yanyu, goes to find the circus youngsters who are supposed to be feeding the monkeys - they are making themselves scarce, but their scarcity is no match for Merit's findiness. They say it was NOT THEIR FAULT! Yanyu and Min Feng both glare at them. Min Feng thinks they are telling the truth - Yanyu agrees, but also thinks one of them knows more. She fixes him with a fierce parental glare: "What aren't you telling me, young man?" He cracks, and admits that just before he went in and found the monkeys all on the loose, he saw that guy hanging around, the top-knotted guy with the chain... the description sounds like Anto. The timing is such that the party would have been heading to the palace for the party about then, so the trio decides that this must have been the work of some nefarious person disguised to look like Anto.
No Spirit World For You
At this point, suddenly and without warning, sunset falls slightly sooner than expected, and the Garden of Harmonious Contemplation is covered by a shield of inky black doom. The Queen and her guards are above the blackness, and sometimes monsters try to get out, but the guards shoot them and beat them back in. Merit, Yanyu, and Min Feng have nothing to do but wait. At dawn, the blackness fades, and a terrible voice booms out: Fools! You think you can keep me out? My time has now come! With the turning of the Cycle, I am now finally free to act directly once more. As my first act, I shall scatter those who have annoyed me.
And then, the garden is empty, save for the King. The party rushes in, with Ti Wren, to the King's side. Yanyu's quick diagnosis is that he is malnourished from his long slumber, and flunkies are immediately sent off to get restorative tea and broth. The Queen thanks all three of the (remaining) party members.
- "I see you have added another to your number." -Ti Wren
- "You do?" -Merit
- "Yanyu has been very helpful with... discovering things that need to be discovered."
Yanyu clarifies, since Merit seems to have no idea who she actually is, that she serves as the translator for the circus. Ti Wren nods, and says that "if you have joined this gallant company, then we are also in your debt."
They are invited to stay in the palace while she sees to the King. Nobody really knows what to do about the "scatter you through the world" thing, and while the Queen is worried, she also seems to think that people will be all right. Yanyu ponders the big dark voice, and realizes that that was actually a Great Spirit of the Cycle! And, she already knows that this is the first day of the Spider in the month of the Spider in the year of the Spider in the Cycle of the Spider... oh, it is also, she realizes, in the Great Cycle of the Spider too.
Merit wonders (with Interpret Omens) about whether the Great Spider Spirit is just going to be popping in and doing things left and right for now on. That sort of direct action is usually pretty phenomenally rare. It's probably not going to just happen all the time, but other Day/Month/Year of the Spider days could also be relevant. Of course, not everything the Great Spider Spirit does will necessarily be aimed at the PCs - he might have other irons in the fire, or people he wants to help rather than thwart.
Well, there's nothing to do for it now but to go and have a beer. Min Feng and Yanyu accompany him, and since Takanata isn't around to look disapproving, Min Feng even has a drink or three. As the three are leaving the tavern afterwards, Merit and Yanyu notice a red scarf in the window of an upper room in the Inn across the road. Yanyu looks thoughtful, Merit looks differently thoughtful, and when it's pointed out to Min Feng, she also looks thoughtful.
- "I think someone might be in trouble over there." -Yanyu
- "I guess you could look at it that way." -Merit
- "Where?" -Min Feng
- "Over there!" -Yanyu
- "Don't point!" -Merit
- "Wait, we all have that memory packet?" -Merit
Merit thinks it's incompetent spycraft, whoever it is. The other two think that it's a sign of distress. Merit notes that maybe whoever is in distress is someone they want to be in trouble, but Min Feng and Yanyu don't seem to think that that's the most likely probability. They head across the street into the inn, and Merit improvises...
- "How may I be of service?" -innkeeper
- "Need a room." -Merit, looking at his two companions
- "Will you be... expecting to stay the evening?"
- "God willing."
The innkeeper shows Merit and his ladies to a third floor corner room "far away from any distractions". (The scarf room is in the opposite corner.) The three contemplate their next step - should Min Feng sneak in? Or should they just knock on the door? Merit arranges his collar in the sort of half-up half-down style that might signify "I got your message" to someone looking for a countersign, and knocks on the door. Nobody answers, so Min Feng (with Monko watching with interest) picks the lock.
There is a woman with long white hair and a bandaged midsection lying unconscious on the bed - Min Feng recognizes her as Kuan-Xi, Anto's (and Xiao Fa's!) mysterious girlfriend. Yanyu, with Merit's help, diagnoses her - she seems to have had taken a deep cut, and done a good job bandaging herself up before fainting from blood loss.
Min Feng goes down to the innkeeper to get the makings for some soup - Merit suggests ingredients that are both healthful and suggestive of needing extra endurance, to play along with the charade of the room rental.
- "An Int roll with... seduction and cooking?" -Drew
- "Sounds good." -Mike
The best thing for her would probably be to wake her up enough to get her to drink some soup, rather than wait for her to come around on her own. Merit notices the key to the room (this is a high-class inn, so the doors lock!) on the bedside table with some bloody fingerprints, so she probably came here after she was stabbed. They decide to move her to the other room, and stake out this one for incoming bad guys.
- "If someone who stabbed her comes in, I'm useless in a fight." -Yanyu
- "I'm not saying we should fight them, just see who it is." -Merit
Min Feng watches for when the coast is clear and there's no other inn patrons in the hall, and then Merit and Yanyu carry their "drunk companion" (wrapped in a blanket) to the other room. No bad guys converge on the other room, and Kuan-Xi is brought round and fed soup. They warn her that there's someone disguised as Anto running around causing trouble. Kuan-Xi notes that then they have to help Anto against the imposter - but, unfortunately, they tell her that he's far away.
About this point, Kuan-Xi becomes a bit more cautious - her initial panic about Anto was likely due to her not having fully woken up yet - and while she's thankful for the help of her new acquaintances, she doesn't want to be a burden to them. She can repay them for their help, she assures them. Merit assures her that Anto would be very disappointed if they didn't help her. Oh, wait, they do know Anto? Yes, they're from the circus too. Oh, ahah! But, if Anto himself isn't here, can they get a message to a friend of his, Min Feng, that she's a friend of Anto's and needs to talk to Min Feng?
Before things turn into too much of a comedy of misidentification, Min Feng takes pity on her and introduces herself.
- "Oh, you got my message!" -Kuan-Xi
- "Yes." -Min Feng
- "Yes." -Yanyu
- "You got my message too?" -Kuan-Xi
- "Everyone got your message, dear." -Merit
Merit tries to explain that to be a properly subtle signal, the scarf should have been blue, not red, and should have been trapped in the window. This confuses everyone else - admittedly, the scarf wasn't very subtle, but it was supposed to be red...
- "You sent a distress signal..." -Merit
- "But not to you... I'm very grateful, but..."
- "Did you miss the fact that we were all friends of Anto and want to help?"
She tries to find out if Merit works for Min Feng or Yanyu (once she is also introduced). No, he doesn't.
- "Oh, you mean, can you talk in front of me! Yes!" -Merit
- "...that's what I meant, but I was sort of hoping someone else would answer..." -Kuan-Xi
Min Feng assures her that Merit can in fact keep secrets, and both she and Yanyu makes some persuasion rolls to that end.
- "You wouldn't believe some of the props people have..."
Kuan-Xi explains that she thinks bounty hunters are after her, since she left the Island. The Empire started a blockade of the Shrouded Isle, but her little carriage is very talented. Unfortunately, it isn't very fast in the long term, and has to "rest", so people catching her may be able to catch up.
Maybe it's possible to make her look less distinctive? Merit and Min Feng discover that her hair doesn't take dye at all. However, she can be disguised as Min Feng with her hair up in a hat.
Questioning Kuan-Xi, she says that she's escaped the bounty hunters several times now, but they keep catching up to her, so they must be good at tracking her. Ah, concludes Merit, they must have a map drawn by the Cartogramancer. What they need to do is steal the map that the bounty hunters have, and replace it with a forged map that has an X for Kuan-Xi very far away. While Min Feng is fussing with her hair in the disguise, she notes that the ends aren't very even in one place - as if a lock of her hair has been cut off. Ah, so that's probably tied into the tracking map too.
Planning a Disappearance
So... they just need to set up some sort of appropriate trap or trick to fool the two hunters. Does Kuan-Xi know how they'll be arriving? By boat, she expects. There's one main port on the Isle of Butterflies, and a small port on private land on the other side. Several ships come and go from the main port every day. The thing to do will be to convince them to follow the "trail" to somewhere that they can be fooled, and where the party can get at their map to switch it. Also, if the map is going to switch to having a far away dot, they will need to have some sort of reason that Kuan-Xi just transported halfway across the Twelve Kingdoms. Maybe some sort of fake magical effect?
Hmm. Does the circus have a magician? Mystic Mondo, The Confounding Xian, and the Enlightened Melina are the three "weird/magic" people in the circus. Xian would be ideal for performing this sort of legerdemain, but he's not here. Can Mondo make people disappear? No, he's a riddlemaster of the deep mysteries, not a sleight-of-hand master or a conjurer.
Some brainstorming ensues. They try to decide if they should copy the map or make a whole new map. Actually, a new map is probably better than a copy, since the Cai Wen map scales as its data changes. A simple copy of the map wouldn't let the fake X be very far away. Can Kuan-Xi vanish on her own? She says if Anto were around, she could probably figure out something, but without that, the best she has is her little carriage, which still needs a few days to rest.
Yanyu starts thinking up a fake magic ritual that will look plausible as a real ritual of transport. The circus is an ideal space for this - they can set up all sorts of trap doors and fireworks and such. So - back to the circus! Min Feng disguises herself as Kasumi (as is traditional), and sneaks away; Kuan-Xi looks like Min Feng, and Merit and his "two girls" leave. Merit tips the innkeeper richly, and is invited to come back any time.
Once back at the circus, Merit talks to the prop hands. The prop hands suggest talking to Xian, but Merit says no, he thinks Xian has been getting kind of complacent, and he wants to light a fire under him by beating him at his own showmanship game. Well, the prop hands can rig up a platform with a trap door, but they can't provide the showmanship.
Since using this much circus infrastructure requires buy-in from Ringmaster Te, Merit makes a case to him about helping a damsel. Admittedly in the past the circus didn't go in for a lot of damsel-rescuing, but the Ringmaster seems more used to it now. He's still not totally persuaded, but Merit has brought Kuan-Xi along, and since her puppy dog eyes work best when she's alone with someone, Merit quickly runs off to get some more bandages, and when he returns, Ringmaster Te thinks it's a reasonable idea.
Merit and Min Feng forge up a map to the Coil that looks a lot like the map to Cai Wen, and Merit finds a friend of his who can do a map swap if Tofu isn't able to. Yanyu stage-designs a fake magic ritual (with Magic Ritual and Event Planning); there are a lot of second-tier fireworks that can be acquired for cheap, since it's just after the New Year, so they can make up in quantity what it lacks in subtlety.
- "This whole thing fails if they don't have a map, so if they don't have a map, we have a carriage waiting. We are crassly assuming they have a map." -Li Merit
Min Feng goes off to watch the docks, while Merit preps the "ritual" and the map swap to be ready to go at a moment's notice. Kuan-Xi pulls Yanyu aside and asks after Anto - is he going to be okay? Yanyu hopes so, but doesn't really know where he is. She's sure he's in good company, though. Yanyu asks carefully, "I understand that you're interested in Anto..." and Kuan-Xi hurries to clarify that she isn't interested interested. He's interesting, of course, but that's her job, and there's nothing inappropriate about it. At all. Yanyu is pretty sure she's infatuated with Anto, but knows that's wrong. Kuan-Xi notes that after this is all done, she and Yanyu and Min Feng need to talk.
Down at the docks, Min Feng watches the incoming ships. Two people who look a lot like bounty hunters get off, and she asks around after them. Apparently they caused some trouble on the voyage over, traveling with a number of animals. They have caged birds, a strange mole creature, a monkey, and several others. She overhears them discussing their mission, as they leash up a small badger and start off:
- "Yeah, yeah, I know... We're not going to get any more commissions if we stay on this stupid island. We just need to find the girl, stick her with the pin so the client can make a map, and get out of here."
Planning an Impersonation
Drat! They don't have a magic map after all! The plan is derailed! So, instead, they need to find someone else who can be stuck with a pin, to confuse the map? Merit casts around for someone who resembles Kuan-Xi, and finds someone who if not for the white hair, would be a nearly dead ringer - a young woman named Long Yue-Mei. Merit says he'll figure out how to temporarily turn her hair white.
- "By seducing her?"
- "That wouldn't make her hair white! What kind of guy do you think I am?"
Yanyu, meanwhile, is watching the two hunters, who have acquired a cart to put their animal cages in. Their badger-mole creature leads them towards the inn.
Min Feng tries to send Monko over to the cart to unlock the monkey cage, in preparation for sending Tofu to switch an innocuous monkey for what they assume is an Enlightened Monkey, but instead of opening the monkey cage, he starts chittering to the other monkey. The two monkeys discuss things briefly, and the man turns around to ask "What are you doing here, little guy?" He chitters at Monko, and tells the woman that he thinks that this is probably another enlightened monkey! The woman is less impressed, and says that there isn't time to train up more monkeys now.
- "This is not how this plan was supposed to go." -Merit
- "Third plan's a charm, right?"
Monko does unlock the other cages, and the birds start to fly away, but the man cheeps at them and they come back. Then he ties Monko to a string and ties it to the cart, but Monko is unimpressed by strings, unties himself, and flees back towards the hidden Min Feng. The guy starts to chase after Monko, but the woman yells at him to come back - they'll come find the other monkey later! They don't have the time right now to train another monkey - it apparently takes him twenty-four hours.
- "He's a dog and she's a tiger, so he gets back on the cart."
Yanyu gets back to the circus to brief Merit on the awryage in the plan - the delay isn't really working, since the animals didn't flee. They need the new plan ready now!
- "There's still a guy who looks like Anto that we've forgotten about..." -Merit
Time for Plan C
Perhaps figuring out how the fake Anto ties into this will give them a better angle of attack on the bounty hunters. Why would someone pretend to look like Anto in order to free the monkeys? To create a distraction? To ruin Anto's reputation? It's still somewhat unclear.
- "Maybe Anto has come back from the future to distract us so we don't save Kuan-Xi."
- "Can he do that?"
- "Not yet."
As a last-ditch plan, they decide to tie up Yue-Mei, so that the bounty hunters won't have to beat her up before sticking her with a pin. They'll probably wonder why she's tied up, so maybe having some sort of pretext for that would be good. She's also a little dubious about this as an idea - she's not supposed to try to beat them up? What sort of pin is this, anyway? Is it poisoned? If it is poisoned, someone should run and get her father, since he can deal with poisons.
- "Wait, who is this girl I've scrounged?" -Drew
- "Make a recurring NPCs roll." -Mike
- "She's recurring?" -Drew
After some thought, Li Merit identifies her as the daughter of Master Long Shen.
- "Her dad can beat you up." -Min Feng
- "Everyone's dad can beat me up!"' -Merit
Merit whispers to Yue-Mei that this pin-sticking is all for a good cause: True Love. She supposes that's a reasonably good cause.
On the other hand, Merit doesn't want the Circus to get a reputation for mugging people and tying them up for no apparent reason (even if it is only a reputation among bounty hunters). Yanyu says if they tie her up in Yanyu's tent, she has a reason for it. That seems somewhat inexplicable to Merit, and it's not clear that the bounty hunters will know the reason, but really, there's only so much one can be concerned about what the bounty hunters think, in the end.
Merit picks up some anti-scenting goo to keep from leaving a trail for the badger-mole to follow, for both the real Kuan-Xi and the fake one, so that her trail leads to Yanyu's tent and no further. Then, he tells his pickpocket friend never mind about the map - the plan is to steal the monkey instead. He also remembers to tell Min Feng to make sure Monko only unlocks the animals belonging to the bounty hunters, and not all the animals in the circus, once they turn up.
The hunters arrive, and park outside the circus. The man chirps at the birds, and then they follow the badger-mole following the trail around the circus to Yanyu's tent. Lo, there is the tied-up fake Kuan-Xi, with Min Feng hidden and watching.
- (There really should have been some plot twist here involving the fake Anto and the fake Kuan-Xi, but no...)
The hunters are baffled - what happened to her? She is tied and gagged, and struggles somewhat convincingly but is unable to say anything. Well, it's not their problem. The woman takes out a silver pin, sticks her, and then the pair leave again.
Meanwhile, Merit, Yanyu, and Merit's pickpocket friend sneak up to the bounty hunters' cart. Monko unlocks the non-monkey cages, and the pickpocket opens the monkey cage. Merit promptly douses the monkey with scent-be-gone goo. When the hunters return to the cart, animals are everywhere - they complain that someone has let their monkey out, but the circus hands are sympathetic and unsurprised - that seems to happen a lot around here. Huh. As they are unable to track or find the monkey, they go back to the inn.
The party takes the three Enlightened Monkeys to somewhere not with the other monkeys in the circus, puts them in Monko-proof cages, and thinks about what to do next. The guy will clearly want his monkey back - so it's time for another trick!
Merit has the Home Office do a background check on them, and finds a little bit more about them:
The plan is devised to convince the hunters that their monkeys have left - passage is booked on the next ship out, Min Feng goes onto the ship, obviously carrying monkeys (and leaving a scent trail), then goes out through the cabin wall to splash into the water and get picked up by a nearby rowboat. With some word-spreading skill applied, this plan (in contrast to many of the previous plans), Just Works. The hunters hear that someone has left with monkeys, and their tracking badger-mole leads them to the docks just after the ship in question has left. They arrange to take the next ship out.
- "Now all we have to worry about is the fake Anto."
Merit tells Yue-Mei that he owes her a favor; Yanyu chimes in that if she ever needs matchmaking services, she's happy to oblige. She looks intrigued at that last, and will definitely take her up on that. Merit looks disappointed.
Now for the fake Anto. Has anyone seen "Anto" since the fateful day that he vanished? No. Merit tries to pin down the time more precisely - he was seen heading to the palace with the rest of the party, and heading out of the monkey tent, at approximately the same time. The "searching monkey" (the third monkey) doesn't seem inclined to search for Anto when shown a picture of him - it seems that this monkey is more about finding hidden things.
The timing is such is that it could have been Anto, if he let the monkeys out just before he left. Kuan-Xi thinks Anto wouldn't deliberately cause chaos like that, though, and nobody else can think of a reason for it.
Yanyu contemplates Anto's character, and the following three (presumed) facts:
- Someone who looked a lot like Anto was seen near the monkey tent before they escaped.
- The escaping monkeys caused great confusion, requiring Li Merit and Min Feng to return to the circus.
- The timing was very close to when Kuan-Xi arrived.
Pondering it, she thinks the first fact is very important; the second two are pretty much irrelevant. Well, that's interesting. That means it wasn't a distraction or tied to Kuan-Xi or anything like that - it was just... Anto being framed?
Merit thinks about whether anyone particularly has it in for Anto. Well, Xiao Fa and he are, rumor has it, fighting over some girl. And Anto and Shen-Ji are said to have disagreed over the remains of Amikiri the Unbinder.
Oh, wait. Merit suddenly remembers a scene in the Forest of Chin laying Amikiri to rest, where Anto kind of communed with Amikiri's remains. Maybe this isn't actually a Big Mystery, maybe Anto is just being compelled to unbind things, or something like that. Which is its own mystery, but not one that can be solved now. Well, that would seem to be everything.
- "Thank you for your help!" -Kuan-Xi
- "You're welcome. I'll let you have your secret meeting now." -Merit
Merit bows out, and Kuan-Xi chats with Min Feng and Yanyu. Well, obviously, she came to find Anto, because that's her job. But also, her elder says that it's time to form a Triad - she thinks this is very exciting. All three of them should go back to the Shrouded Isle, before Midwinter if they can, to form the Triad. Neither Yanyu nor Min Feng is really sure what being a triad entails - as it turns out, Kuan-Xi isn't all that sure either, except that it involves one person from each of the three Houses: Silence (Min Feng), Harmony (Yanyu), and Melody (Kuan-Xi), and it involves learning about their Mission. Maybe they can arrange for passage on the fog ship?
Min Feng grumbles - isn't there usually some sort of ritual to join a secret society? Kuan-Xi says the house of Melody has one - a big fire, and fancy robes, and everything. Yanyu notes that the House of Harmony isn't nearly so dramatic. Apparently the House of Silence is so understated as to not tell you that you're in a secret society at all. Min Feng and Yanyu convince Kuan-Xi that she should stick around for a while, until Cai Wen returns and they can find out about the fog ship. Though she should check into a different inn than the one that the hunters knew she was at, and move her carriage.
- Long Yue-Mei visits Yanyu for a chat.