|"He who was presented with an ox must give in return a horse."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Dog in the Month of the Serpent in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.|
The run takes place in the City of Light in the Illuminated Precincts and the Shrouded Isle
Merit continues to worry about the circus being attacked by sea monsters. Cai Wen worries about Squeaky being unhappy, and Lijuan notices that Ho is also unhappy, since the two animals were attacked by the Demon of Animal Cruelty. Lijuan examines them both, and thinks that if they were people, she would have them drink soothing tea and relax, but animals don't normally have the same sort of existential depression. She comes up with her best guess at a treatment regimen.
Then, she draws some art - the fourth quadrant she leaves blank, because it is too horrible to contemplate. Well, that doesn't sound good.
Merit gets a message that there's some sort of customs problem with the ship booked to the Shrouded Isle. A Dragon Army soldier (wearing a uniform indicating he's in the Sea Lord's command) in the customs house asks a bunch of questions about their travel plans, and wants to make sure that their ship, the Swift Crossing, returns after taking the circus to the island, rather than waiting around to take them to the Isle of Beauty. Merit doesn't want to be obliged to send the ship back, and there are clearly some legal ramifications from actually confiscating it, but refusing to clear the customs forms is a way to make an end run around that issue. After much grumbling, they agree to send the ship back, and their exit documents get stamped. Merit pumps the soldier for more information, and he thinks Merit has no idea what things are like now. It's not like in the stories where the Warden of the Southern Seas just fixes everything. Here in the real world, you have to defend the coasts with ships! Everyone looks very thoughtful about this.
Lijuan looks for Da-Xie, but she doesn't appear to be around. Cai Wen remembers that Takanata sent her to the Isle of Beauty as part of the "move the islands back" plan.
Merit checks in with his spy in Commander Sung's team. The Southern invasion is officially still a secret. They're pulling people off the South Wall to put on ships; the Sea Lord is providing a lot of the ships, but they'll also have to commandeer some. Merit is concerned - if they take everyone off the Wall, then maybe that means the armada is a feint, and the actual invasion will come over the Wall.
Clearly this is something that needs to be dealt with immediately, so the circus gets sent on ahead to the Shrouded Isle, and the party will catch up later in Kuan-Xi's carriage.
Given recent events and the resulting dip in circus popularity, Cai Wen points out to everyone that not-very-threatening attacks made against the party when they're in the circus should be countered with restraint, not immediate fatality. Don't kill people if you don't have to.
Merit heads to the Exalted Library to look up information on the Warden of the Seas. So... most people of learning believe that the Golden Palace Immortals exist, and that the Prince of the Immortals is named the Warden of the Northern Seas as one of his three titles. The Warden of the Southern Seas, on the other hand, nobody really believes in, though there are several fanciful stories filed under "fiction" which mention a pirate called the Water Dragon who was sometimes named such a warden.
Everyone else heads to the Isle of Beauty in Kuan-Xi's carriage. Kasumi goes to the gardens in case Ti Jun has something to say; the Prince isn't there, but she overhears that Old Teng has been transferred to the royal estates in as close to the far end of nowhere as you can get on the Isle.
Everyone else checks in with the Dragon Army garrison on the island, to find out whether there are any young girls hanging around. The captain exasperatedly says that they are trying to avoid having army groupies hanging around, and trying to be more professional than that. The groupie went back to the palace, as she does some sort of thing there. Kuan-Xi tries to glare him into taking back the "no groupies" policy, but he is not sufficiently impressed to do so.
The group heads to the palace, where they find Da-Xie in the southern wing, in a seriously bad temper and apparently plagued with paperwork. Cai Wen examines the paperwork - is it some sort of bureaucracy attack? No, instead it seems to be a bureaucratic maneuver to make it very very clear that Da-Xie works here, as part of the Strategic Defensive Planning Committee. There are lots of notes from meetings, which she annotates and signs. (Other members of the committee include Golden Flame, J, an architect, the captain of the guard, and the palace chamberlain).
Lijuan reassures her that the work she's doing is very important - but does it have anything to do with the armada coming from the South? The what? So... there's this southern invasion fleet, that they came here to ask her about. Da-Xie doesn't know anything about that - she's kind of out of the loop here on the island. She also particularly doesn't approve of taking soldiers off the Wall and putting them on boats - she's going to have to deal with that. Speaking of things she doesn't approve of, she also doesn't approve of this stupid Northern Wall on her island. It makes it almost impossible for her to come here on her own, among other problems.
- "You tell Mister Grumpy Pants that next time I see him, I am going to smack him. And you take me south to fix this." -Da-Xie
The group wonders if she's heard of the Warden of the Southern Seas from long long ago - she says she doesn't know about that, but then, she's only seventeen. Cai Wen's best guess is that if Da-Xie is back up on the island in a week or so without telling anyone that she's gone, then the bureaucratic "she works here" won't be disturbed.
Kuan-Xi gathers some local news on the way back to the carriage - rumor has it that after years of stagnation in the general House games, there are some changes. House Nogi has gotten a lot of credit with their Petal Bay revitalization and the upcoming festival, while House Tokai is starting to slip.
The carriage trip back to the City of Light is a little longer than usual, as nobody has any KS: Illuminated Precincts. Eventually, they end up on Olive Partridge Island, and make their way back to the City of Light by normal means. Everyone staggers back to the hotel, finds a note from Merit that says he's at his restaurant, and decides that it's too much trouble to go find him at this point.
In the morning, Da-Xie shows up to the party's hotel - she's confirmed that there's a giant fleet coming! Merit says not to worry, they'll be dropping a sea serpent on it. Maybe. He also notices that despite the fleet, Da-Xie seems to be a lot less grumpy now.
- "So... you know you're not really seventeen, right?" -Merit
- "No, I'm pretty sure I'm seventeen." -Da-Xie
- "Have you always been seventeen?" -Merit
- "... no, I was fifteen when I met you two years ago." -Da-Xie
Da-Xie clarifies that she is not exactly like Mister Grumpy Pants - winter hibernates, but summer is reborn. Winter is a lot more boring.
The party assures Da-Xie that they are dealing with the sea invasion, but she will have to deal with the Wall staffing problems. She has already convinced the Bearers of Swift Response to not get on boats - they've gone back to their regular patrols. Merit talks to her about strategy, and comes to the conclusion that she's very conservative, and that left to her own devices, she will probably strip the Navy of all the southern Dragon Army forces and put them back on the wall. Which could be a problem for the boats.
Da-Xie gets the group in to see Commander Sun - that goes surprisingly easily, as she can just walk right in, followed by the party. They seem to genuinely like each other; he doesn't dislike the party, but does seem to expect them to be the bearers of ominous news. An argument about how many people to put on the boats versus how many people to put on the Wall ensues. There is some discussion of sending more spies south, but Da-Xie thinks that's cruel and heartless, since they can't return. Regardless of the proportions, the Empire's forces seem likely to be outnumbered. If it was clear where the invasion fleet would be landing, trying to be there to defend might be more sound, but without the ability to be sure where to go, meeting them on the ocean might be safer.
Outside, watching for trouble, Kasumi and Lijuan spot a furtive-looking woman who looks a little familiar. The woman spots them looking at her, and disappears into the crowd. Lijuan goes shopping, and buys several barrels of hardtack, which she presents to the local urchins in case of invasion.
And then, it is time to bid the Illuminated Precincts a possibly-overdue goodbye.
- "Perhaps we should go to the Shrouded Isle, where we should be for a circus performance tonight?"
When the little carriage arrives, things are surprisingly ahead of schedule. The increase in efficiency seems to be coming from the non-headliner acts, who are working together more smoothly, which Merit finds deeply suspicious. The VIP box has been expanded and is extra-plush, for Minoru Katsu and Lady Suzuki and Kuan-Xi to sit in. Katsu has been visiting the circus, and seems to be reasonably popular and liked. Cai Wen delegates the discussion of the VIP box to Merit. Kuan-Xi hears that her lady-in-waiting, Shang Rui, has gone off with Lady Suzuki.
Merit also hears that there is some discontent and grumbling directed at him by the circus folk. He asks his spy in the circus what's up; apparently it has come to the attention to certain members of the circus that there are certain... inequities in pay scale. There are the headliners and the not-headliners, which everyone is used to, and there are also the really good income earners and the not. There was some investigation, and it was discovered that there was an investment opportunity for some people in the Merit Trade Company, but not everyone had the chance to invest twenty li and get twenty li back every week. Bien Mei-Ling says that they deserve better.
It's time for the circus to begin - Kuan-Xi goes to dinner elsewhere, ignoring her mother and anyone else in the VIP box. A carriage much like Kuan-Xi's arrives, bringing Minoru Katsu and Lady Suzuki and Shang Rui. The two locals frown to find Katsu's fiancee (that is, Kuan-Xi) not there, and Rui asks around for her, but nobody will admit to knowing where she is. The party decides to send Zhuai (now "Lord Foon") to see what he can find out from them.
- "So when I said, 'no one else is engaged, right?' you all lied to me!" -Kasumi
Merit checks who is in town regarding the circus's money - Merit, Bian Mei-Ling, and Merchant Siri, who has just added herself to the plot. Merit also notes that he seems to have more guards on the trade company wagons than he should, though whenever he talks to any particular guard, it's someone he recognizes. He summons his Butterfly strike team, and sends them to vanish into the back mountains of the island with the party loot, to return in two days time.
The circus performances are pretty epic, and Shuyan mesmerizes everyone with a snake dance for a good twenty minutes. Lijuan is impressive in her archery, and Murase Minako is surprisingly good as well. Akimoto, however, misses a jump to the trapeze, and plummets towards the ground, only to be saved by Kasumi at the last minute with a three-karma "yoink". After the performance, Cai Wen goes to talk to Akimoto to find out what happened, but he says that everything is fine, and he'll deal with it. Shuyan tries to talk to him too, but he's still unforthcoming.
Lijuan examines all the ropes and platforms, looking for frayed ropes or incriminating pieces of silk tying something to something else, but she can't find anything. As far as she can tell, it's just that Akimoto missed his jump.
Returning from dinner, Kuan-Xi listens for rumors, but the big one is that she's back on the island. There's supposed to be a formal party at the Shrouded Citadel tomorrow, and there was some sort of disturbance there last night. When she gets back to the circus, Rui tells her that she kind of played along with Kuan-Xi's mother about the whole marriage thing, rather than arguing directly, and that she's been given an allowance from House Suzuki!
Zhuai checks back in. Since they told him he wasn't allowed to solve the problem, he didn't cut any deals, but he suspects that Katsu would be amenable to making a deal. Getting a favor from the Firelord might be sufficient. Kuan-Xi doesn't understand why her mother is making a deal with Katsu at all, but Zhuai thinks that (unlike Kuan-Xi), Lady Suzuki thinks being Firelady is a win, and that if a member of a different branch of Suzuki became Firelord, then their branch would take over the family.
Merit notes that Merchant Siri is no longer involved in the money plot, but he doesn't find that particularly reassuring. As for who is in town involved with Minako's horse-y plot: Murase Minako, her horses, Merit's horse, and the Firelord's horse. Hmm. He ponders plots some more.
Lijuan tracks down Bian Mei-Ling at the super-secret meeting in the tea tent, and she and Kasumi sneak in to spy on the meeting. Mystic Mondo looks at Kasumi and winks, but nobody else seems to notice. With the power of collective bargaining, Mei-Ling says, they can get the ringmaster and propmaster to understand that they are circus performers too. Some of their number have even paid with their lives! There is some cheering, and the circus appears to mostly be on board with her plan. She passes around a sack, which a number of people put li into. Then, they all leave, more or less furtively.
In the morning, everyone except Kasumi heads to the Suzuki estate. Kuan-Xi's mother is there; her father is away doing research at the moment. Polite small talk is made, until Kuan-Xi mentions the armada from the south. Lady Suzuki asks a lot of questions, more about the provenance of the information than specific tactical questions, and says she'll have to speak to the Firelord at the party that evening. She suggests that she could arrange for invitations for the group - it would be good for Kuan-Xi to have a pleasant evening with Katsu. She'll provide seven invitations if Kuan-Xi will have her first dance with Katsu.
- "Fine, so I don't dance." -Kuan-Xi
Does Lady Suzuki know anything about the name of the island, or changes to it? She doesn't. She did notice when it moved, though. What caused it is a great mystery, though being able to advise the Firelord on what caused it would get points.
Everyone heads back to the circus, where the promised invitations arrive. Siri shows up to say hello to Cai Wen, and wonder if he can arrange for her to attend the party. Cai Wen says he has an invitation, but unfortunately not a spare. She says she's in town for nothing related to the circus, but she did happen to do some recon on the palace a few nights ago. If he can get her into the party, she can help him with any party mechanics. Zhuai thinks he might be able to get some more invitations from Katsu, though it would be good if he could offer something. They agree that he can promise the dance with Kuan-Xi to Katsu as well. Kuan-Xi says that her main goal (other than getting out of the betrothal) is that she doesn't want her mother to lose political ground.
- "Have you thought about making your father Firelord? I have not thought about this, but it seems like a possibility." -Zhuai
Kuan-Xi says that he's not really the political power. Making her mother Firelady might give her the power she is interested in, but she'd still have an interest, maybe even more of one, in who Kuan-Xi marries. And Cai Wen says that he can spend a couple of actions tossing party points towards Katsu, depending on what the party mechanic is. Zhuai heads off to see what he can put together with this.
Bien Mei-Ling shows up to talk privately with Merit and Cai Wen. They go into the tea tent, followed stealthily by Kasumi and Shuyan. She starts in on her spiel: many at the circus have noticed the vast financial inequities, etc. etc. In the end, she offers Merit the bag of li she has collected, and says that they want to buy into the Trade Company too.
Merit isn't sure that's reasonable. There are a lot of responsibilities that come from being in the mutual fund. They recently defeated a southern strike team, and defeated bandits in the Forest of Chin. Mei-Ling doesn't seem particularly surprised by that, and mentions the time that Enlightened Melina recovered Xiao Fa's vision from the Dragon, or Mystic Mondo opened the Ivory Sphere, or she herself got the strike team into the Obsidian Ninja house, or Silent Han... well, he was was killed by skinwalkers protecting the Ringmaster, wasn't he? Merit thinks that those examples aren't as good as some of his, but admits that her argument has some validity.
She offers her first proposal: the circus folk buy in to the Merit Fund, and they will provide a fully character-sheeted circus NPC for each run to help with the plot. Merit is dubious - is she sure they want to take on the extra risk? Mei-Ling thinks that one, yes, and two, many of them think they're seeing a lot of the risk anyway.
- "A lot of the named circus folk know we're fighting the Marked - we're just not really sure who they are or why we’re doing it." -Mei-Ling
Merit says that paying out more money to other performers would be very suspicious if they started spending it publically - how about if he has all their income held in trust for them on the Isle of Beauty, so they could take it out at some later time but can't spend it? Mei-Ling finds this a rather dubious suggestion, and counter-offers that they could take turns with the current shareholders as to whose salary is held in an unspendable state. He does, however, persuade her that the unnamed circus mooks need less of a raise.
In the end, they settle on the compromise that there will be a number of circus NPCs who want to be in the high-risk high-salary pay grade, and there will be a test period during which each of them is in a run. During the test period, they'll be paid half the salary of the PCs, after which Merit can choose which ones to keep and which one he thinks are useless; useless NPCs won't get to rotate in and won't be paid extra. Oh, and they can have their bag of li back.
- "There’s no buy in? What kind of crazy company is this?" -Mei-Ling
- "I can't tell you everything... yet." -Merit
Zhuai returns from his meeting with Minoru Katsu, with a party invitation for Siri in exchange for first dance privileges with Kuan-Xi. The thing that Katsu is offering is that he will officially call off the betrothal, so that Kuan-Xi's mother can't exert any more pressure, if the party can get him the largest boon from the Firelord at the end of the party.
Cai Wen explains the basic party rules: "If you want to win this party, give until it hurts."
And then, they are off to the party!
Magnanimous actions in the Intellectual and Social figures include:
- Merit passes; this is its own form of magnanimity, as it lets the other person score points. Jiro tells Merit that the Firelord's guard captain is very interested in finding out information about the disturbance in the palace, and that the older woman over there is the leader of one of the most secret organizations in the Empire.
- Siri tells Cai Wen that she's here on behalf of the Dragon's Hoard, to steal things from no one he has ever met, so he should feel at ease. He tells her that they've freed the Dragon, and He's probably going to want his Hoard back.
- Katsu tells Kuan-Xi that the older woman (we'll just call her the Songstress) is wearing the Great Talisman of the Phoenix. Kuan-Xi tells Katsu that the Dragon spirit is free, so the Phoenix is free to act. Ah, maybe that's why the Songstress is out in public for the first time in decades.
- The guard captain tells Kasumi that there are several shticks that will detect anyone sneaking up to the Firelord. Kasumi says that someone on the other side of the room is a ninja, but she's not sure who.
- Cai Wen tells Muro Hidetora about emperor mechanics. Hidetora tells Cai Wen that Muro is secretly a cadet branch of Kobayashi, and he has the Firelord's favor.
- Merit briefs the guard captain about the Northern Barbarian tactics used against the Isle of Beauty. The guard captain says whoever scouted out his defenses three days ago scouted out Merit's yesterday. Neither of them thinks this is very useful.
The party starts to notice a kind of feud going on between two of the party goers (nicknamed Smiley and Shouty), and Merit decides to help Smiley a bit.
- "She says if you go home with her after the party she won't even read your character sheet, and she thinks you're smart enough to know what that means." -Smiley to Merit
- Kasumi takes advantage of an impressive move to dance Lady Suzuki wherever she wants to be.
- The Songstress tells Kuan-Xi that even though it's against hundreds of years of tradition, she officially authorizes Kuan-Xi to promote her own heroism instead of some other Phoenix's.
- Lijuan tells the Firelord about the incoming Southern armada, scooping Lady Suzuki (who was waiting for a more appropriate figure).
- Shuyan offers to dance for Katsu in private.
- "I'm not listening, la la la" -Merit
The Songstress appears to have a goal of dancing with Shuyan, Cai Wen, and Kasumi, though she doesn't have specific things to offer them once she does so. Drift changes the figure to Compromising, which leads to some interesting magnanimity.
- Lijuan tells Zhuai that he can decide when it's time to have an heir, which kind of stuns him and gets her a large handful of points.
- Siri tells the guard captain what she's going to steal from the Shrouded Isle.
- Cai Wen tells Zhuai that he's never been so humiliated as when Zhuai tricked him into letting Lijuan get kidnapped. "But if you're good for her, I'm going to let that go." Zhuai considers compromising things he could say in return, but stays on plan and lets Cai Wen get the point.
- Merit tells the assassin that he's a spy for the Isle of Beauty, and the assassin admits that he's hanging around, waiting to take out the wrong heir.
- The Songstress admits to Shuyan that her plan is to use some Phoenix-granted abilities of hers while dancing with each other holder of a talisman.
The last figure called is the Imperial figure.
- Lijuan tells Lady Suzuki that she's the last heir of the Bear Emperor and is allied with her daughter.
- Cai Wen tells the Firelord the briefing on the Qin Cho protocols, which is interesting but not really something he needs to know.
- The architect tells Kuan-Xi that he knows how the Walls were built.
- The Firelord tells Lijuan that he supports the Regent from the Shrouded Isle for Emperor, and she tells him that Ti Jun is another candidate.
- Shouty tells Merit that the Shrouded Isle regent is a fire sorcerer, and Merit tells him that almost anyone can trace their lineage back to the Imperium one way or another.
- Kuan-Xi tells the finance minister that the Empire is about to be invaded by an armada. He tells Kuan-Xi that the Imperial Treasury was recently robbed, but they're trying to cover it up. She says she knows, which he finds fascinating in its own right.
The party ends, with Lijuan in the lead. She leaves with the Firelord, and asks the boon of officially choosing Katsu as his heir.
Cai Wen leaves with Katsu, and requests the boon of his maintaining an alliance with Lady Suzuki, contingent on giving Kuan-Xi her freedom. This is a bit complicated, but Katsu has already agreed to break the betrothal, so it's okay.
Lady Suzuki leaves with Kuan-Xi and requests the use of the carriage during this puttering. Siri leaves with the finance minister, and the Songstress leaves with Muro Hidetora. That's it for the favors.
The next morning, Mei-Ling says she would like to add something to the negotiations. Could Merit's new guard, Kun, be transferred somewhere else? Maybe he could guard Merit's restaurant instead? He's been making a lot of the circus folk nervous, and she thinks that's why Akimoto fell. Merit says that he'll have to keep him around, but he can ban Kun from attending any performances or practices; Mei-Ling thinks that could be okay.
Mei-Ling and Merit also agree on the final details of the bargain - seven named circus people will rotate through being in the runs. They'll be paid at half the party rate during the trial period, and then after that, everyone can argue over who is sufficiently useful.