|"Rivalry between scholars improves science. Rivalry between merchants improves prices."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Spider in the Month of the Spider in the third Year of the Magpie since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
The run takes place in the Isle of Beauty.
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Back at Home
Our heroes have returned (except for Lijuan) from their various perambulations, and rumors are running wild throughout the circus - there is to be a royal command performance, and nothing can go wrong! By the time the party returns from their various puttering adventures, there are only a few days left before the grand performance, at which the two new acts from the Dragon's Throne will make their debut performances before the King and Queen.
Tonight will be a public reception with Their Majesties; tomorrow will be a full dress rehearsal; the day after that a day of rest, and then the Royal Command Performance, before the circus goes into practice mode for the winter.
Cai Wen explains to the party that this particular performance will have an emphasis on the circus "lifers" - in this case, Shuyan and the NPCs - as well as the two new acts.
Xian and Zhi-Hao are invited to a chat with the Captain of the Butterfly Guard. He wants to know what to expect for the party tonight, since his briefings indicate that when the PCs go to a party, exciting things can tend to happen. Zhi-Hao says that they're still investigating, but they'll let him know if they learn of any threats. In the meantime, the Captain should have high security on standby, but not actively lock down the party. He tells them to say "watermelon" to trigger the flood of guards.
Merit checks in with his personal spy on the circus. How are things going? Kar Lo is worried about Wei Han stealing his job; he thinks Akimoto should be worried about Kasumi, but doesn't seem to be. And...er... Bian Mei-Ling probably isn't coming for Merit's job, that would be crazy talk.
- "Well, I'm not getting any younger..." -Merit
Merit sends some people out to find out who is in town connected to the party, but someone mistakes someone for someone else and in their enthusiasm to report, Merit is knocked off the dock into the harbor, and his guys leave in confusion. Well, that is a bit ominous.
Kasumi heads to the garden where she normally eavesdrops on Ti Jun, and he comments to himself that it's a lot easier when you don't have to come up with your own plan, or worry about someone else's ambitions - you just have to help the opposition's enemies. When she reports back to the group, this leads to some confusion until people remember that when Ti Jun is talking to himself, it's in character as one of the Marked rather than as a Secret Ally of the Party.
Merit asks Min Feng to check where Ezokin is, but having done so, she complains that Merit is always asking her to Yoshi herself, and heads off to go shopping. Oh, and Ezokin is in the Magpie's Realm. Xiao Fa tries to follow her around, chanting to try to get rid of her new Magpie nature, but this is not very helpful for her gather information rolls, so he waits until after she is done. He fixes her and she gives him the handkerchief that her mother embroidered for him.
Xian worries that, since the barriers to the World Above are weaker in some places like the Garden of Harmonious Contemplation, that Ezokin might be planning to just parachute in from the World Above to cause trouble.
Min Feng determines that a lot of people are expected at the party - representatives of four large merchant houses, the royal family, Autumn Rose and her father, a bunch of Beautiful nobles, including Lord Nogi, and the Master of Perfected Distinction. Plus lots of people from the Silken Wings Circus, of course.
Merit checks in with the Home Office. Apparently there will be extra security at the dress rehearsal, since "J" might be there. Merit is briefly confused about who J is, but decides that it's just Ti Jun, even if they know who he really is.
Cai Wen talks to Enlightened Melina about the current state of the circus. She says that people are generally happy and ready to perform, and the new acts are good.
- "I'm impressed - I just saw a horse that can do two different things."
Preliminary investigations complete, the group proceeds to the reception. Rather than a full party mechanic, everyone gets to accomplish one thing (or interrupt a few other people's things, in the case of Zhi-Hao, Xian, and Cao Wen).
- Lord Nogi sniffs disparagingly that Lord Takanata couldn't make the time to be at the party. "Apparently royal events aren't compelling enough for him to adjust his schedule."
- Autumn Rose chats up Mystic Mondo, who looks briefly startled, and then the two start heading for the door.
- Merit scopes out the other merchants (including someone from the House of Enticing Vintage, the House of Judicious Increase, and an arms merchant from the Ivory District). He sets up a meeting with the arms merchant in two days. Deng interrupts the conversation to set up a meeting of his own - does he have any items for sale? They can discuss that tomorrow afternoon.
- Murase Minako, out of her depth, is mostly a wallflower.
- Iron Shirt Jo-Jo is a surprisingly energetic dancer, until a monk enters the party to give him a message. They start to leave, until Xian interrupts. Apparently, the master at his high temple has passed away, and the monastery is under attack by some sort of mysterious dark chi that no one can withstand. Only Iron Shirt Jo-Jo can help them now. The monk has a boat, even now, that will head to the mainland. Xian does his best to forestall anyone leaving just yet, and convinces Jo-Jo that Merit will be able to get him there faster if he waits until morning. This monk is a messenger from Jo-Jo's temple in the Precincts; the messenger from the Steppes, where the high temple is, is still there. So this messenger does not know many details. Xian burns another interrupt to drag Merit out of his conversation with the arms merchant and into this one. Merit is unimpressed with the message - it isn't at all clear what the "unknown forces with terrible chi" are, and he hasn't ever heard of a chi attack that persists for days and days until someone shows up who can withstand it, but if there was such a thing, Iron Shirt Jo-Jo would be able to withstand it. Anyhow, he confirms Xian's implausible claim that taking a boat in the morning will be faster than taking a boat now, and suggests that Jo-Jo talk to Enlightened Melina for advice on what he should do to prepare.
- The Royal Family arrives. The Queen speaks highly of the honor of the Silken Wings Circus, which has been a paragon of beauty and virtue.
- Gipeno is drinking a lot of tea, as he professionally refuses wine the night before a dress rehearsal.
- Xiao Fa chats with Su Song - so, what is he up to these days? The Cartogramancer doesn't seem inclined to go into a lot of detail about his evil plans, but mentions that he has been making extensive and detailed maps of the island, and with Good Listener, mentions helping design the wall in Petal Bay. Xiao Fa taunts him - he's too worried about them to give him some hints? He allows as anything he might have as an objective is already accomplished, so now he's just enjoying himself. How about Xiao Fa - how are his plans going? Xiao Fa confesses to being entirely confused about what's going on. Well, have a good evening, then.
- Bian Mei-Ling starts working the party to counter Lord Nogi, telling everyone what an awesome guy Takanata is.
- Kasumi notices that a lot of people are being quietly asked about Min Su, questions about how long she has been with the circus.
- Min Feng meets one of the people actually asking about Min Su, who asks her other questions such as how much watch is kept on the monkey cages. She gives him non-answers, and then overhears him conferring with a partner.
- "No, she was useless. But the tip said to look at the monkeys. So perhaps we can figure out how she's getting them to steal things. One way or another, she will be brought to justice."
- Melina talks to Her Majesty, then His Majesty, then His Highness for slightly longer, and then blends back into the crowd.
- Shuyan asks the Queen if Shuyan's mother ever mentioned her life before the circus. Ti Wren says that both of Shuyan's parents had the "we don't talk about where we're from" mannerism that suggests the Strand, and she thinks that Shuyan's mother was orphaned before she was grown; she may have the end of her childhood in Nine Terraces, but judging by some phrases she used, she might have been from farther southeast before that.
- Kar Lo ends up in an argument with Lord Nogi; Xian interrupts just as security is suggesting that they take it outside. Apparently Lord Nogi has been speaking inappropriately of Miss Bian.
- "Not surprising, I suppose." -Xian
- "WHAT?" -Kar Lo
Xian narrowly avoids having to be on Lord Nogi's team in a fight with Kar Lo, when she explains - Lord Nogi is trash-talking Takanata, and Mei-Ling is talking him up, so of course Lord Nogi is trash-talking Mei-Ling too. Xian doesn't really endear herself to Lord Nogi when she calls the feud a "petty vendetta", and Kar Lo is getting close to punching Lord Nogi, who just thinks that ill-bred tradesmen from the Hidden City shouldn't be commenting on matters they don't understand. Xian manages to get everyone to not argue with the idea that Takanata is a petty noble too, and gets Lord Nogi and Kar Lo away from each other, though Kar Lo is still kind of annoyed at there not having been any apologies made. Xian apologizes.
- Golden Flame shows up to meet Cai Wen, and says that His Highness gave her the night off tomorrow, if they wanted to get together. Cai Wen doesn't really have to be at the dress rehearsal, right? Cai Wen apologizes that he does kind of have to be there, but invites Golden Flame to come see it. He asks her to introduce Murase Minako around, and the two women bond over horses (which sea horses definitely are).
- Cai Wen notes that Min Su is gone, as are Mondo and Autumn Rose.
- Akimoto talks to Shuyan - he's worried. Who does she think is going to get cut over the off season? Shuyan doesn't believe any rumors about there being a cut, but Akimoto isn't really convinced. Shuyan notes that she's friends with Merit and the Ringmaster and would surely have heard if someone was going to be cut. Well, unless it was her. Akimoto is aghast, and Shuyan runs with this theory as hard as possible - she's been kind of distracted recently, there are so many younger performers now... she doesn't have the sparkle of her fantastic past. This distracts Akimoto admirably from worrying about his own fate to worrying about Shuyan's. Shuyan also briefs Cai Wen on the rumors, and then leaves the conversation in tears, cementing the new version of the rumors. Her acting roll is only mediocre, so Her Majesty decides this is a ploy of Shuyan's and leaves her to it.
Other than the bursting into tears, the party is declared to be a success. No brawls break out, and security does not need to be called in.
Merit brings Iron Shirt Jo-Jo over to Melina's tent to see if she can help him see anything about the monastery trouble. She unveils her crystal ball and starts to look into it, while Merit surreptitiously pulls out the Orb of True Seeing. Thus, Merit sees some spiritual tendrils tweak the light just a little bit, such that the light from the candle flame hits the crystal ball just so, causing Melina to scream in panic - fire! flame! She pushes back from the table, knocking her chair over. Jo-Jo panics, and Merit realizes that keeping things close to the vest the way Spider does is clearly a better method for a spymaster.
Merit sends a messenger to Xiao Fa's tent (but he is actually in Min Feng's tent), interrupting a date with Min Feng - Merit needs Xiao Fa right away, but don't tell anyone else. When both Xiao Fa and Min Feng show up, Merit notes suspiciously that Xiao Fa can't keep a secret, and explains that Melina has been thwackbacked and might have some troublesome chi on her. Xiao Fa doesn't think she has any significant chi troubles, but notes that Merit has been Yoshi'ed. Merit does his best to convince Melina that it was just the candle, but she is pretty sure that her powers don't get distracted by random candles like that, and Merit is insufficiently persuasive. Xiao Fa tries to clear Merit's chi, but he's wearing his armor of chi-blocking, and it doesn't work.
So... what happened to Min Su? She's in her tent now, and everyone descends on her. She says she got a message that there was a problem at the monkey cages, but there was nothing there. People speculate that it was just a plan to get her away from the party so that information could be gathered on her.
Someone claps at Cai Wen's tent, interrupting his date with Golden Flame. The visitor introduces himself as Special Inspector Fung from the House of Benevolent Oversight. He has reason to believe that one of the circus performers is involved with criminal activity, and he would like the Ringmaster's permission to search the offender's tent for the evidence that is undoubtedly there right now. Cai Wen asks for more of an explanation, and the inspector goes on. Approximately a year ago, there was an unexplained rash of thefts. There were several incident reports that claimed that a monkey was seen, but the reports sat in a dead case file for a year, until his office received a tip that the Silken Wings circus was the place to look. And, in fact, there has been another theft from one of the nobles staying in the guest wing of the palace, in which a monkey was seen, during a party at which everyone in the circus was accounted for except for Min Su. Cai Wen nudges Squeaky to go and get Min Feng and lead her to Min Su's tent - it takes some karma to do this without actually saying anything in front of the inspector, but Squeaky heads out. Min Feng searches Min Su's tent, and finds a diamond necklace. She searches the monkey cages too, but doesn't find anything there.
Cai Wen runs out of stalling, and he and the inspector search Min Su's tent, but find nothing. Cai Wen notes that there is absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing on Min Su's part, but the inspector would like to search Min Su and the monkey cages as well. Cai Wen projects some of his words to the rest of the circus, letting them know what's going on, and Min Feng rounds up the rest of the group to brief them further on the necklace frame, and hides Min Su in her tent. Xian meets up with Cai Wen to tell him where Min Su is (now that they're sure she has nothing incriminating on her). The inspector finds nothing on Min Su, but in the monkey cages, his "clue" shtick finds a jeweled dagger, well-hidden underneath some straw. The inspector shows Cai Wen the list of stolen items from Lord Nogi - a diamond necklace, and a jeweled dagger, the description of which matches the dagger he has just found.
The inspector interrogates Min Su more, and determines that she, Minato, and four party members are probably all good enough at animal handling to give the monkeys orders. Min Feng tries to explain that there is a big conspiracy against the circus - there are rumors going around that someone might get fired, and Lord Nogi has been saying mean things about Takanata. The inspector is not particularly swayed by this evidence of a conspiracy, until Xian borrows the dagger, makes it look like another dagger, and hands it to Min Feng, who switches it for another dagger. This new dagger looks nothing like the description, and is clearly circus property, so the inspector has no evidence! Unfortunately, the inspector is pretty clear that this new dagger is not the one that was just taken away from him, and comes to the not unreasonable conclusion that there is a conspiracy, and the entire circus (or at least, Min Su, Min Feng, Xian, and Cai Wen) is in on the thefts.
- "Well, Ringmaster, it's good that we finally know what's going on. I will return."
The inspector leaves, full of suspicion, and the group tries to figure out what to do next. The original monkey thefts were associated with the circus, but the recent tip is the important thing. The theft was reported by Lord Nogi, so clearly the thing to do is hide the items in his house instead, and see how he likes it.
Shuyan decides that getting Lord Nogi's side of things might be useful to know, and heads off to the palace to see if she can meet him. She meets him to see if he can help her situation now that she is likely to be fired by the circus, and parlays that into a seduction. He thinks that he can get her a good position in Petal Bay, and notes that the circus was run a lot more steadily before Takanata got involved with it. He thinks the rivalry with Tokai is basic politics, but it's been heating up, and he thinks both sides are playing the game. He also does seem to think that he was really robbed, though it was his friend Yao Zhen who saw the monkey. (Others will later identify Yao Zhen as the name of the Ivory arms merchant).
Elsewhere, Li Merit looks for more circus headliners who might be having mysterious frames of the like. He finds Gipeno wandering around unable to sleep. Recalling all of that tea he drank, Merit sends him to find Xiao Fa. Xiao Fa and Min Feng have just gotten back into their date when Gipeno interrupts them - a quick analysis indicates that Gipeno has been dosed with some serious stimulants and probably won’t sleep for a week. Xiao Fa, with Min Feng nearby rolling her eyes, straightens out his chi so that it flushes the poisons out of him and Gipeno falls asleep in Min Feng’s tent (sadly Xiao Fa does not figure out the poison used). More exasperated sighs. Gipeno is removed back to his own tent, and Min Feng and Xiao Fa resume their date yet again.
It's getting pretty late - Merit and Cai Wen wonder where Mondo is? Still not in his tent. Golden Flame says he left with Autumn Rose - all the molls at the party noticed that. Cai Wen can not countenance yet another date being disrupted this evening, so decides to leave him alone and maybe Jo-Jo and Melina can talk to him in the morning.
Everyone falls into beds -- mostly their own-- finally, and Cai Wen is the first to be awoken by the circus hands, before breakfast. Mondo is, unfortunately, still not in his tent. Cai Wen heads to Autumn Rose's house, rousing the butler, who says that there is not an employee of Cai Wen's there, and in fact there are no guests at all. After some pushing, the butler says that he will ask the mistress.
Autumn Rose comes out in her morning robes. Cai Wen apologizes for disturbing her household, but he is hoping to locate his friend Mondo. Autumn Rose says that he is not there, nor has he been there for some hours.
- "I don't suppose he might have announced his intentions?" -Cai Wen
- "No." -Autumn Rose
- "I don't suppose you can give me any clue?"
- "Traditionally, when Lord Takanata catches me in one of these positions caught between certain associates and certain family members, I am made an offer, and traditionally, I accept the offer."
- "Hmm. I don't know offhand what would be appropriate. Can you propose something?"
- "Your most recent Name?"
- "I haven't memorized them."
- "Totally understandable. I could arrange to show up at the appropriate location where the name was inscribed on... some particular item."
The only Great Spirit level name they think they’ve recently acquired is Dragon, but Autumn Rose also points out that she does not have the name of the Butterfly yet as well. Cai Wen offers her the Name of the Butterfly for everything she knows about where Mondo went and why.
- "As you must know by now, unless Lord Takanata doesn't brief you, I do not work for my father, but there are occasional questions of leverage between us, and most recently he has had some over me. I worked Mystic Mondo's name with my art and mollified him temporarily to lure him away from the party. After that, I applied to him the map that my father provided, and he has been teleported off of the Island. He is somewhere safe that he can safely return from, though it will take time. I did not look at the map, but if your friend does not make it back safely, then I will take that as a breach of agreement with my father, and that will give me significant leverage over him. My father did not go into details about the client who asked him to do this, but it had something to do with a new idea of not getting directly involved, but instead providing services to others which would annoy certain people. Where by certain people I mean you. I wouldn’t want you to think I wasn’t being forthcoming."
Autumn Rose says that as she has Mondo’s name, she could locate him, but that would be a separate service. Cai Wen thinks that, as this does not include Mondo's actual location, the value provided is a bit thin. Autumn Rose is sorry that he feels that way, but she does not have any more information to add. At a later date she can discuss the matter with Takanata and perhaps they can rebalance the scales. Cai Wen agrees, if he can get out of the doghouse that he will be in with Takanata for giving her the name. He offers to show her the Talisman, but she demurs - not in this house. Cai Wen and his associates’ credit is good, and she can meet him at his tea house some time later for the payment.
Xian notes the interesting and unexpected factoid that Mondo is somewhere near Bear Mountain. She explains that it seems likely that the Cartogramancer could be using a version of the same map that sent Autumn Rose to the inn near the border of Bear Mountain and the Roof of the World, as it presumably costs him resources to create such locations and he wouldn’t want to make a new one for a side job.
It seems like Horse points may be the way to solve this problem. Merit's guess is that it's two points to send someone somewhere on a horse; three points to summon someone (willing) who is on a horse, and four points to send someone a horse and bring them back. Mystic Mondo reads the logs, though, so he's probably heading to the White Pagoda, where Master Zhou is, as Master Zhou has a horse that can get to runs quickly. And he knows about horse points, so he's probably on a horse by now.
Merit goes down the list of the various headliners. The ones who seem the worst off are Mondo, who is gone, and Jo-Jo, who is worried sick. Everyone else is more or less dealt with. However, he's not sure it's worth three or four horse points just to deal with unthwarting a circus performance. Obviously, the circus cares if it's a good performance, but should the party? Cai Wen explains that the Queen is a little displeased that a Great Treasure of the Isle of Beauty is being used as a tool, so this whole performance is to make it shine like a treasure again - and also to introduce the new performers, to make them fit in properly. So Cai Wen thinks it's important. Merit isn't totally convinced, but the people with horse points are willing to spend them.
The group talks to Horse, who is willing to bring Mondo and his horse back from Bear Mountain, with a short stop by the Iron Shirt monastery, for three points. Mondo will presumably be able to deduce any number of things about the monastery while he's there, and that will tell them whether or not the message is real or another ruse.
And, about ten minutes later, Mondo arrives on a borrowed horse which will undoubtedly never be returned. He says that the trip was interesting, but when asked about the monastery, doesn't think there was any obvious attack going on. It's possible that there was some sort of chi attack beyond the perceptions of mortals going on, but in that case, the monks fussing around in the gardens hadn't noticed it either. So they probably weren't the ones sending an emergency message.
So... is this performance important? Mondo is the one who is good at answering Important Questions and telling you if the thing you're wondering about is relevant. Mondo wants to know who is asking - the great Zhu Cai Wen, or the great Ringmaster Zhu? Merit and Xian argue for having it be "Zhu Cai Wen" asking, since they already know that the performance is important to the circus.
- "But do you know what you know?" -Mondo
- "Kind of, yes!" -Xian
Cai Wen sticks to his guns, and wants to know the answer for Ringmaster Zhu. Mondo says that it is important for all the reasons that they already know. But it is also important because the party, with the circus, goes to and fro rescuing orphans and rescuing demons from holes and so on. And it is important for the circus to know that the party will go to all those same great efforts to rescue the circus as well.
The Show Must Go On
Xian suggests having a secret dress rehearsal with no audience, and a pretend dress rehearsal that can be thwarted, but all the performers say that you need the audience, and Merit points out that skipping the part where the dress rehearsal goes horribly wrong is just asking for trouble.
Are all the plots to thwart the performance thwarted at this point? Gipeno finally wakes up and is feeling okay. Mondo convinces Jo-Jo that the monastery was not under any sort of attack. But Melina is still worried about using her powers.
However, there is a lot of growing unrest about the rumor that Shuyan is about to be fired, according to Merit's internal spy. Merit shrugs - she's been getting jittery and not performing as well. Maybe if she does a good job for the performance, she can keep her job. (People in fear for their jobs roll for nines!) There is a lot of unhappiness about treating Shuyan badly.
Cai Wen checks the scoreboard.
As he checks the second scoreboard, a monkey escapes from Min Su's cage, and bites him, distracting him from whatever that second score was.
Deng goes to meet Yao Zhen, while Min Feng breaks into his room to plant the diamond necklace. (She thinks she was spotted, but was in a fairly good disguise).
The conversation between Yao Zhen and Zhi-Hao goes in circles - Yao Zhen's house does not try to convince people to buy items that they already have (like certain silk houses) - they make items to order, exactly as specified. However, Zhi-Hao, who would rather peruse a catalog with prices, wants "something special" without wanting to come up with what that special would actually be. Yao Zhen counter-offers, that he can surprise Zhi-Hao with something awesome, and made to his needs, after some research. Zhi-Hao agrees to see what they can do in the 5 tael range, and will meet them in the Dragon's Throne at the end of next month.
Deng determines that he's not an enemy of the Dragon Empire, though (with a karma) he has pawns who are pawns of enemies of the Dragon Empire, for what that's worth.
- "Kill him!" -Xian
Kasumi watches stealthily when Yao Zhen heads back to his room, where he finds the necklace pretty quickly. He curses, puts it in a pouch, and thinks for a moment. Then he heads downstairs and asks the innkeeper if he can acquire two tickets to the circus dress rehearsal.
Min Feng spends a bit of time coming up with some proof incriminating Yao Zhen for possessing stolen items (she has already spread rumors implicating Lord Nogi for having stolen his own possessions).
Merit talks to Mei-Ling, asking about her battle with Yao Zhen. Mei-Ling is puzzled - how does Merit know about that?
- "It's what I do." -Merit
Well, anyway, she doesn't know much recent - last she heard, his house had been economically crushed by hers, but that was a few months ago, before she left the Dragon's Throne. Merit says she's winning the current fight 6-1, but she's not sure what the current fight is. But maybe she's just the figurehead for the battle between Yao Zhen and the circus. And he thinks that she's specifically tied to the circus because silk house, silken wings, okay, that almost makes sense.
So... can they tell the inspector the new version of the truth? It would be hard to get him to completely overlook the previous nefariousness, but it might be possible to convince him to watch Yao Zhen. Maybe another anonymous tip? Send some suspicious people to be suspicious near him and lure him into watching Yao Zhen? Merit's strike team says that they'll see what they can do along those lines, and this results in both Lord Nogi and Yao Zhen missing the dress rehearsal to answer some questions.
The dress rehearsal goes well, much to everyone's consternation.
Cai Wen checks the first scoreboard:
Hmm. That's not as big a victory as they were hoping for.
Oh, one more thing to worry about - what if the Prince asks Melina to read his palm? Merit warns her to just make something up, tell him he's creative and has untapped potential.
- "Does he not know that he's resistant to scrying?" -Melina
- "He knows."
Apparently, Melina does not read the logs. But thinking of him as cursed is not quite the wrong way to think about it.
Merit's lunch with Yao Zhen is cancelled because he's still answering questions at the palace, and then it is time for the actual performance!
Shuyan does well enough that nobody expects her to be fired; the new performers make their Formal Debuts, and bow; the Queen comes and takes their hands to unbow them. Nobody fails their act.
Golden Flame mentions to Cai Wen later that her vacation is over, but she took care of the whole "prince asks Melina for his fortune read" thing. Cai Wen decides that's part of the "loyally disobeying orders" paradigm, and nods approval.