Lesser of Two Evils
|"Not my circus, not my monkeys"|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Monkey in the Month of the Butterfly in the second Year of the Bear since the Burning of the Black Spire|
The run takes place in Dutiful Serenity, in the Jade Taiga
The circus is headed in the direction of the City of Spires, when Takanata and Lijuan both finish some prophetic art.
People leap to the conclusion that the first painting suggests a competition between Toro and Aku, two Darknesses. What the clowns signify is less clear, as the circus doesn't have clowns per se. It has people who are funny - Min Su, sometimes Xian - but no one whose performance is comedy and nothing else.
Cai Wen, flanked by two silent bodyguards in dark cowled robes, who might be monks or something spookier than monks, lets everyone know that the circus will be taking a quick detour to put on a special performance. It'll be great! In... (one of the monks whispers in Cai Wen's ear) Dutiful Serenity. People have lots of questions, but Cai Wen claims that he doesn't have time to explain now, he must run, but don't worry! Merit hits him with Active Listener as he dashes off, and gets an additional tidbit that he will send someone else to brief them as soon as he finishes changing disguises. People begin to suspect that "Cai Wen" is in fact Pir Pir.
Kuan-Xi, using Yanyu's skill at astrology, confirms that the Night of Gates is about to begin. The circus hurries to get to Dutiful Serenity and camped before night falls. The party gathers in the tea tent, but Rubberlegs pokes his head in - the tea tent needs to be moved. The Ringmaster told him to make it happen. Merit tries to find out whether Rubberlegs' instructions come from Cai Wen or "Cai Wen", but Rubberlegs thinks telling the Ringmaster apart from a perfect facsimile of the Ringmaster is above his pay grade.
Melina, flanked by the same two (or maybe just similar-looking) robed guards, arrives to tell Takanata that the tea tent is mystically in the wrong place and needs to be moved. Can Takanata take care of it? Takanata assumes that this is still Pir Pir, and does not seem particularly inclined to deal with moving the tent. "Melina" puts Rubberlegs on it - Xian starts to realize that Pir Pir isn't coming anywhere near Xian herself, since she can see through illusory disguises. Rubberlegs is getting pretty concerned, though, since Melina has told him that the fate of the universe depends on getting the tea tent out of the way and the party loot packed up.
Various circus performers and hands start heading towards the big tent - there is some sort of meeting going on.
Master Zhou takes the opportunity to read the Signs of Toro again, in case any of them come up:
- A river dry of water, and a lake of dark water where no lake should be
- A ferocious rampage by a Great Spirit, wreaking havoc and carnage among innocent and guilty alike
- A town or a keep where the dead walk and the living do not, keeping a terrible beast prisoned within
- A great massacre among men, with death as swift and silent as the falling of night
- A hole in the world through which the stars fall
- A rebellion arising in the World Below, to place the World Below above the World Above
Merit summons his strike team to guards the party loot when the tea tent is moved. He gives them a pass phrase, and emphasizes that only a Merit with the pass phrase, is to be allowed access to the loot. They must not be fooled by trickery!
The party trails in at the end of the circus meeting. "Cai Wen" summarizes that while the important guests are here, everyone should stay to their own area, and make sure that anyone who visits is happy and entertained. And because of the extra security, everyone should stay in pairs or larger groups, as the security might be confused by single people.
- "Do you want to tell us more about what's going on, Pir Pir?" -Master Zhou
- "Definitely not!"
The party regroups back to Cai Wen's tent, to be met by Ti Lao, with his two spooky bodyguards. Xian finally gets to confirm that this is Pir Pir. Pir Pir explains that what with all the messing around with the Worlds Above and Below, you can tear the veil between the worlds more easily here than anywhere else. And it's the Night of Gates, so pretty much every demon has been invited, and they bought out all the tickets. (The spirits are at their own parties). The security is making sure there will be no throwdowns between guests, but anyone on their own probably wasn't invited. Oh, and the tea tent was blocking the VIP tent from arriving.
- "Has Toro been invited?" -Zhou
- "Oh and we should definitely have one of those contests where you shoot the apple off someone's head, do you think you can do that, Lijuan?" -Pir Pir
Pir Pir hints about the hosts wanting things a particular way. Wait, isn't the circus the hosts? No, the circus is the venue. It's a particularly fun and impressive venue, that's why the negotiations are here. Wait, what?
- "Is there some benefit to us not knowing what's going on and reacting randomly?" -Xian
- "O GOD NO" -Pir Pir
- "Then you should explain!"
- "But he'll kill me."
- "There's demons and there's Demons and there's DEMONS. Some have more pull than others. I'm working for a not very well known demon, but he has a lot of mojo. He tends to stay at the fringes of things, but he wants to make sure that nobody talks to his brother..." -Pir Pir
Merit wants to know - if security is watching for singletons, and you have a really sneaky person paired with a less sneaky person, what happens if security only sees the less sneaky person? The cowled security figures whisper to each other, and then announce that the problem has been dealt with: everyone will be seen.
Lijuan makes tea for the cowled figures - one takes a tea cup with a bird-claw shaped hand, and delicately tips the tea under its hood. She asks if the Alchemist is coming, and there is a frantic amount of shushing. No, no, no, he is not, and let us not say his name again, just in case. Apparently he has a grudge against several of the guests.
The Demon Jamboree will last for ten scenes - there will be three intermissions, after rounds three, six, and nine. People can wander between locations between scene breaks, though only in groups. There will be no security during intermissions.
Xiao Fa and Master Zhou are in the clown tent (where the tea tent used to be). There are a good twenty-five security figures, as well a mob of clowns that caper about oddly. No Face Ko is watching the clowns, and greets Xiao Fa and Xian.
- "You come to see me first. Good. It indicates you are wise and know what is to come. What do you offer?" -Ko
Xiao Fa tries to find out what Ko wants, instead. He notes that his faces are very distinctive (he looks away and looks back with Ebon Brush's face, but Xiao Fa is impassive), so he would like something that might aid with disguising himself when he wishes that a face not be recognized immediately. If someone were to aid him in this way, he would grant a favor that could be used with anyone allied with his faction.
- "If you wish to speak to he who builds a faction, speak to me and your words will be heard."
The clowns are also confident in their faction - they are working for the one whose victory is inevitable, so it's just a matter of time. They are disguised for the convenience of the humans they are visiting - mortals cannot look on their true faces.
Xian and Merit are in Melina's tent with Carnage and Kibo. Carnage explains that he is looking to spread his wares again - perhaps Xian and Merit aren't the best market, but surely some of their friends might be interested? In exchange, he can provide a favor from his team. Merit wonders if Carnage and Kibo are on the same team, and Kibo glares at Merit with a "seriously?" look. Merit allows there is a lot of misinformation about demons going around, and wonders which team Carnage is on. Like the clowns, he seems to have chosen the team that is guaranteed to win in the end. However, right now, the team has a "co-captain", and it would be better if it had a "captain". Xian agrees that there does seem to be an unclear chain of command. Anyhow, if Xian managed to eliminate that problem for Carnage, he could give her a shtick in cutting through enemies like soft wax. Even a transferable shtick! Xian notes that she doesn't know who the target actually is yet. Hmm. If only there was some way to let her know who the Ko-captain is. Merit shrugs - right now they don't even have a face to attach to the position. Carnage nods.
Merit wonders if Carnage is really a good fit for Toro's team. It seems he is.
Well, how about Kibo? What does he want? Of course, Kibo isn't much for talking, so there are some charades involving gesturing at the tent and the furniture and knocking on the table. It seems to have something to do with shelter, but it isn't very clear, so Xian decides to take a nap to talk to Kibo a little more clearly in the dreamworld next scene.
Merit briefs Melina about what's going on, and warns her to not peel back the veils too hard. Also, things will be more dangerous during intermission.
Takanata, Kuan-Xi, Betobeto, Mei-Zhen, another tengu pretending to be a circus hand, and the Best demon are in the main circus tent. The Best demon says he isn't part of a team at the moment, but he's looking to join whichever one is best. On the other hand, if Kuan-Xi can get his kid one solid victory over Lijuan, he'll join whichever team Kuan-Xi prefers, or found his own. The other tengu complains - there should only be two teams! However, Takanata and Kuan-Xi are looking for a solution that allows thwarting Toro without helping Aku.
Takanata talks to Mei-Zhen. Like many others so far, she thinks there's only one obvious choice here - but she's against endings. She likes the world. Takanata notes that Toro has had demons helping him already - why this contest? Mei-Zhen explains that you never want to have the big guys slugging it out alone - they do too much damage. So they go through proxies, and they agreed to have the proxy battle at the circus. And the teams do shift and change, often at the Night of Gates. Takanata notes that Aku's power is already bound up in something, isn't it? Doesn't that make him less compelling? Mei-Zhen thinks that's why he needs a team. Does Mei-Zhen have an agenda too? She does - she notes that everyone here does. She'd like to have the circus have a Hall of Mirrors. Three of the full-timers (Mondo or Melina would be good as one of them) would have to agree, and then she should be able to convince the Ringmaster.
Betobeto says that his agenda is that he wants to see himself, in a magic mirror perhaps. Mei-Zhen notes that she can turn any other magic mirror into a mirror of seeing invisible, and that will cause Betobeto to switch teams.
Lijuan is off with the elephants and the horses. This turns out to be less exciting than some of the other locations, but Lijuan talks to Merit's horse. The Very Large Horse Spirit seems to be at a different party, but sends her a horse to accompany her around to keep her from getting chomped by security.
Lijuan visits the first aid tent, where Enigma is. The demon says it isn't on a particular team - it's here for her.
- "You have a girlfriend?" -Lijuan
- "No, she has a demonfriend."
The demon's friend is Kai, and despite not being on a team, he does have something he would be willing to trade a favor for.
- "Feel free to extract all the binding promises and such that you like, but place the Butterfly Talisman in her hand for no less than five seconds."
- "If she breaks it, I'm in big trouble." -Lijuan
- "Hah, she is not so large, nor am I, so as to break it."
Xiao Fa and Master Zhou are in the acrobats' tent with Little Chen and Water Monkey. Little Chen, who can start fires, and Water Monkey, a very watery demon, don't seem inclined to get along, so the newcomers prevent any trouble from breaking out. Water Monkey says that he would like to "solve his personal problems and call it politics". Monkey cursed him a long while ago, when he snuck into Monkey's party, and now he's a water monkey rather than a wet demon. This is something that a barrel of pure water and a water sorceress could fix - if the party can provide both, he'll join the other team for them. And they should be able to trap the monkey essence in something else, if they want it. Little Chen doesn't have anything specific that he wants, though if anyone wants to volunteer to be set on fire, he could be happy with that. Xiao Fa declines to volunteer to be set on fire.
Merit visits the martial arts tent, where Bobby Li, Carnage, and Rage are. Rage admits to being bored - his kid is just guarding wagons and not doing anything interesting, after Gou went and calmed him down.
- "Wait, is he guarding my wagon?" -Merit
- "No. Some other wagon train." -Mike
- "There are wagons in the Empire that aren't yours." -Xian
- "But they aren't often mentioned." -Merit
Merit and Rage chat about vengeance and the like. Rage admits that you have to be careful - if you kill the object of your rage, then you have nothing but self-rage. Merit notes that he might have done that once... there was some vengeance, and a volcano... Anyway, Rage would be willing to do a favor for someone who could get his kid a better hobby, like a tong fighting ring or something.
Takanata and Mei-Zhen stop by the Silk Tent, where the Black Donkey and the Demon of the Forest of Chin are. Takanata is surprised that the Forest would join a team rather than make one of his own, but the Forest says that Aku has made a case for stability for the Empire, and opposing endings is a worthy goal. The Forest also hints that he knows more about the deeper picture than most, and Mei-Zhen is a bit puzzled, as she doesn't. The Forest's agenda is to acquire a favor from one of the Great Houses of the Forest, with no strings attached.
- "The other team would have us burn the woods down in an attempt to thwart the woodcutter." -The Forest
Takanata asks if the Donkey is here to find a rider. Well, if Takanata is offering... but he isn't. Donkey is on the team in competition with those who have annoyed him most, which probably means team Toro, since Aku's current doings are more clandestine. Takanata wonders if he would be immune to the aging effects of the Donkey, and decides that he would be somewhat protected but not completely so.
Kuan-Xi chats with Ghost Fire and the other tengu'. Ghost Fire is interested in learning more about having someone have your aspect - if someone could find three of the kids with demonic aspects, it could figure out how that sort of thing works. Ghost Fire also says he has a "loose association" with the Demon of Hungry Darkness, mostly because Pir Pir said so, and the rules say you have to be on a team.
Xian talks to Kibo in the World of Dreams. She finds herself in a pagoda, with pictures on the wall of Kibo smoking a long pipe. Smaller yumekui run around cheerfully. Kibo explains that he is interested in a permanent home, not just a shelter of the moment - somewhere in the Forest of Chin. It would require a deed, and the permission of the Forest. Xian notes that she didn't really get the full briefing about what the contest is. Kibo explains that it is between Toro, who wants to end the world, and Aku, who wants to eat it, but only in the sense that it's large enough that he will keep nibbling forever. Toro and Aku have instantiated a mechanic; depending on the outcome, it will make Toro's win-the-game plot either harder or easier. For each favor that is done for a demon on a team, the favor will be owed by that team, and also one random chit will be drawn. The total of the chits will determine who the winner is. Kibo also notes that intermission will be when the betrayals happen.
Merit and Kai chat in Cai Wen's wagon. Kai is here because Enigma offered her a chance to come to the circus. In general, she is finding it difficult to contact the party. Enigma thinks this will offer an opportunity to correct that and tell them things they don't want to know. Merit is confused - how is it that she can't find the circus? It's mostly that the logistics of going to visit the circus just never work out. Randomly. Ever. Enigma thinks that there is an opportunity that Kai can take so that she will be able to visit in the future. Merit wonders if there are things Kai wants to tell them. Want is the wrong word, she says. When Merit learns something in a book, does he learn it just for himself, or because others should have the benefit of the knowledge as well? But she's destined to be the bearer of bad news rather than book learning. Merit can kind of see what she means, and he wonders if she would be a good fit for the White Lotus. He thinks that it would be good for knowledge and efficiency, but she would kind of crush the spirit of the low-level optimists who think that just going around doing things that seem good will work out. Without fixing the issue where she can't communicate with Merit, though, it would be particularly problematic.
Xiao Fa talks to Om Nom.
- "Man, I'd kill for some food, but I don't do that any more and I only meant it metaphorically." -Om Nom
Unfortunately, there are no food vendors at the circus today, because it took so long to get the tea tent cleared away. Om Nom is interested in food that doesn't match food from the restaurant he hangs out at - from three different worlds would be good.
Lijuan and Tsuyu hang out in the monkey tent. Tsuyu likes the monkeys - they distract him from being angry. He likes working the night shift as a guard, because he can control things and not deal with people. The two watch the monkeys for a while, contemplating inner peace.
Xian talks to the Forest about Kibo. The Forest cannot grant land, but is willing to grant permission, in exchange for the previously mentioned favor from a Great House of the Forest. (Or some other offer, if it was good enough). A second favor from the same House would not be worthless, but it would not be as good as the first.
- "Unlike many others, I spend much of my time and build much of my home within the Empire. I do not wish to see it significantly disrupted."
The Forest is confident that Aku's path leads to stability, and Toro's does not. His methods of knowing things give him shapes, but not details. He also does not know all the things that he does not know, but he does know that they are, in a way that spirits cannot.
Kuan-Xi chats with Pir Pir (and Ghost Fire). Pir Pir notes that Ignition, Rage, the Best, and Enigma are not on anyone's team. But for any of them that can be recruited to Aku's team, Pir Pir will give the recruiter a favor.
Master Zhou chats with Ignition, Betobeto, and the Best. Ignition is just here to bring his kid to the circus - it says with his one point of KS: Humans that kids like circuses. Betobeto has been trying to recruit him to a team, and he was in the rebellion, but he hadn't really been thinking about the politics for this trip. Does he have something he wants, in particular?
- "The kid needs a mother." -Ignition
- "Do you mean someone to act as a mother, or someone to mystically be a mother?" -Master Zhou
- "Can you do that second one? I just meant the first, but the second would be better. I'd give you two favors for that." -Ignition
- "I just meant the first one." -Master Zhou
Takanata talks with Maelstrom, who is on Team Hungry Darkness. Maelstrom's agenda is somewhat ambitious - they are not happy with walls and bindings, and though the Wu Xing has already said no, the thing they seek is a way to travel between Above and Below without having to bargain for favors in each instance. Also, they would like permission to cross the Southern Wall.
The party gathers in the Big Top to discuss the demon contest. Should the plan be to run a third candidate against Toro and Aku?
Xiao Fa checks with Dragon - is supporting Aku a good plan or a bad plan? It's complicated, and Xiao Fa spends a karma to get a better than yes/no answer. Most important is that Toro not win. Aku will get mojo from winning, but he wouldn't have dropped this mechanic on the party if he didn't think that they would be in favor of his main goal. Having a third side win would avoid giving any side benefits to Aku, but it would cost more resources (because it would involve spending resources to get demons to switch teams).
That makes supporting Aku a bit more palatable. Takanata considers with Crossroads whether they will be happier if they try to win for Aku as hard as possible, or just by a little bit, and concludes that winning as hard as possible will make them happier.
Also on the table - letting Kai hold the Butterfly Talisman. Takanata puts his foot down - nope, nope, nope. Merit thinks that Takanata shouldn't be declaring that without discussion, but Takanata is pretty sure that this is giving away the homeworld. Merit decides it isn't worth the time to have the discussion, given that he isn't totally sure about the issue himself (though he does really, really want to know everything, even the things Butterfly doesn't want him to.)
As intermission is breaking up, Kai notes to Merit and Xiao Fa that she can tell them why they like spirits better than demons (a subject they've been discussing recently, as a lot of the demons seem pretty terrible, and none of them seem substantially better than spirits).
Li Merit swoops Ghost Fire, Kai, Bobby Li, and Tsuyu to the monkey tent, where Ghost Fire can observe the three kids. Merit observes Ghost Fire, via the Orb of Light. Ghost Fire seems to have learned something (in the roll-with-Yin sort of way), but not done anything directly to them. (Merit gets a favor chit).
Merit gives in to temptation, and asks Kai why they like spirits better than demons. She answers that Spirits are about one's nature, and Demons are about one's interactions. Spirits transform humans to be like them, to share their natures, and once they are transformed, there is nothing to object to. Demons want to interact with people without changing them - to set them on fire, to seduce them, to make them awesome - and interactions are often objectionable.
Lijuan talks to the Forest, and gives it a favor from House Foon, and a promised favor from Siew. And she promises Kibo a parcel of land. She gets a favor chit from each of them. She also wonders if the Forest needs a way to get in touch with Lijuan if it needs to, but the Forest assure her that there are ways, if it is needed.
Takanata talks to Mei-Zhen and asks whether the Hall of Mirrors she is looking for is a personal plot, or something Aku wants. She assures him it's just a personal plot, and they would get a favor chit for it. Takanata contemplates this, and thinks that it would start as a way for her to come and go more easily, but might turn into something with more plot hooks and a potential for her to cut deals with circus folk.
Master Zhou and Kuan-Xi cut the deal with Water Monkey. The monkey-ness is put in Master Zhou's ring of water, which becomes a ring of monkey. Master Zhou also speaks with Carrion, who is aligned with Toro and wants help taking down one of the faceless Security guys.
- "Let's not start killing intelligent beings and then feeding them to people we barely know for our own benefit."
Master Zhou instantiates Mondo in the Riddle-Master's tent, and asks him about this whole Hall of Mirrors thing. Mondo says that as the Circus is one of Butterfly's agents, its actions are one of the ways that Butterfly affects the world. This would not be the first place in which we have delegated that agency to those who are not from Butterfly's domain, but it would probably be the first one that would be delegated to a Demon. That is not to say that it is a wrong choice, but he thinks it important to remind Master Zhou that the circus is not just Loot to Spend. He will abide by their choice, nevertheless.
Xiao Fa talks to Ignition - he doesn't have a mother to offer, but he can offer some training with Master Zhou for Little Chen.
- "Will he get to set Master Zhou on fire as part of the training?" -Ignition
- "God, I hope so." -Xiao Fa
- "HE CAN TRY." -Master Zhou
Ignition is willing to agree to join team Aku (Xiao Fa dies a little inside) in exchange for Master Zhou being willing to train Little Chen until he is "not an embarrassment", with as much attempted setting on fire as Little Chen can manage.
People begin to realize that smaller demons left alone with Carnage (or alone in an adjoining tent) are no longer around. Rage is missing, and the un-named Tengu is missing. And Toro seems to be getting favor chits for that. This leads to some concern. Nobody should be left alone! Or not heavily guarded! Including the kids!
Master Zhou is tasked with babysitting the kids in the monkey tent, while Merit and Ghost Fire go to talk to No Face Ko. Ghost Fire seems particularly terrified of Ko (Merit realizes that Ko took Jia-Jia's mom's face in front of Jia-Jia and Ghost Fire). Merit doesn't offer Ko the disguise kit, but just tries to recruit a clown and a security creature. They seem oddly linked, so it may or may not have worked as expected.
Master Zhou offers Kai an introduction to Goei Maewan, the hermit who has Truths that other people don't seem to believe. She thinks it could be useful to learn to have people not believe her, and takes him up on the offer.
Back in Mondo's wagon, Takanata offers to read Mei-Zhen's I Ching. She agrees, on the condition that he promise to not memorize, bind, or compel her with it. He agrees. The main thing he determines is that making the Hall of Mirrors will both bind her to the Circus, and bind the Circus to her; the mirrors are gates in both directions, which she may not be realizing. Once the Hall grows into its power, the circus will be more prone to active weirdness, even when the party is not around. But Mondo thinks that's not much different than normal, since the party is often around, so he agrees.
Using the "move someone with you" mechanic that the party has been doing a lot of, Carrion moves Mondo out of his tent to the acrobat tent where Carnage and Ignition are. Danger!
Xian warns Pir Pir that Carnage is eating people, and sneaking between the bordering tents by himself. Pir Pir will take this up with the guards, but does seem not entirely unsurprised.
- "That's probably the Toro cheat. You're the Aku cheat." -Pir Pir
- "DAAAAAAAAH!" -Xiao Fa
Xian joins the acrobat tent, and starts playing her soothing music of non-violence. Carrion moves with her to the far corner of the map.
Carnage goes to Melina's tent, where Kibo also is, with Master Zhou in fast pursuit. Carnage asks Melina to read his palm. Master Zhou keeps his eye on them.
Second Intermission and the Rest of the Jamboree
Merit starts entertaining the kids in the monkey tent. He lets Little Chen set him on fire, and has to roll around outside the tent to put it out. Tsuyu is incensed - he let fire kid set him on fire, but he wouldn't let Tsuyu hit him? Put that way, Merit has to agree to let Tsuyu hit him too. He plays up being hurt, making an acting roll, and Kai points out to Tsuyu that he was faking it. Merit gets a favor chit, though.
Master Zhou asks Kibo if he is willing to go look for Tsai Su-Yin, who is lost in the world of Dreams. He seems to indicate he'll see what he can do, but his gestures are not so definitive as to what he'll actually be able to do.
Takanata offers Om Nom the potion of chocolate ("the best thing you've ever tasted"), and gets a favor chit in return.
Unfortunately, Melina passes out at the end of the jamboree, as she has been reading Carnage's palm, and seen a lot of death and carnage (much like Takanata reading Wei Han's I Ching).
The total number of favor chits from Aku's team:
The chits Toro's team have been earning from their more nefarious doings cancels some of the total, but there are enough favors (and team members) left to score 43 points ahead of Toro.
Pir Pir says that will be enough to leverage into two more Signs that must come to pass. The party can pass some suggestions along, though they have to conform to standard prophetic language - hard but not impossible, and not something like "you must get Takanata's permission".
- Zhuai briefs both Lijuan and Cai Wen: He is basically collecting resources and minor favors from a lot of different people to lose the foreign minister contest. If the party wanted to cause some ripples that make it look like the party is planning to try and put him in the position, that will help increase the payoffs, but don't actually make enough of an effort that you accidentally win.