|"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Phoenix in the eleventh Year of the Spider since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in and around the Port of Propitious Voyage in the Hon'eth Arcade.
The Road North
Cai Wen mentions to Anto that he has talked to his patron, Madame Song, about Kuan-Xi's arranged marriage and the idea of finding a different person for Minoru Katsu to marry. If the blockade continues to be a problem, some daughter from the House of Beneficient Travel or the House of Benevolent Oversight might be useful in this regard.
Ringmaster Te gathers the circus performers together, and tells them that the circus has the royal seal of approval, due to the stellar performances of previous nights. This should increase the profits and popularity for the performances heading up the Hon'eth Arcade. Cai Wen notes that once they reach the Port of Propitious Voyage, Ringmaster Te should take an afternoon off to visit the Cup of Five Virtues, and Ringmaster Te allows as he might be able to make the time. Then, the circus hits the road.
The Imperial Highway is busy, though it is not as full of soldiers as the last time the circus travelled this way. Trade wagons are more prevalent, though. Happily, nothing of note happens until the arrival at the northern port. There is a check on the city outskirts for "contraband", but Lord Takanata is able to smooth over any difficulties, and the circus sets up in the main plaza.
Cup of Five Virtues
The port seems to be suffering from a slight economic depression; the obvious causes are that most of the army has left, but trade with the Shrouded Isle is still only covert. Anto checks to see which way sea water flows (a temporary shtick from the Whale to find Renyu, from Whale Hunt) - almost due west, with a slight hint of northwards.
Cai Wen and Takanata (and then everyone else) heads to the tea house. Chasui gives Cai Wen a report - things have been crazily busy, and rather weird. For example, last week there was a woman in a dark green cloak, sitting over there, who never let anyone see her face. She spent the week interviewing people for... something. Then she left. Smugglers meet at the tea house quite often, though never while there are Dragon Army soldiers there. Someone asked her if it was okay to build a magical tunnel to the Shrouded Isle in the basement - she said no, it was not okay. One of the private rooms partially filled with ice, but luckily, there was a water sorcerer around who took care of it. The water sorcerer is something of a regular - he donated a set of very handsome teacups, of polished colored stone inlaid with gold and silver depicting the twelve Cycle spirits. There is a new fad for heating the teacup over a small candle, to keep the cup warm while one drinks the tea. Chasui also mentions that willow bark tea is unusually popular. Everyone eyes the teacups suspiciously - they do seem to incorporate all five elements. The "wood" element is a little lame, but if the tea is "tree-flavored" that may help make the wood stronger. Hiro notes that normally willow bark tea is popular with the elderly, not the general populace, and Takanata determines that while the cups probably shouldn't be perfectly balanced, they do seem to be when they have willow bark tea in them.
There is some discussion as to whether people could end up accidentally doing magical rituals with the teacups - that seems unlikely. On the other hand, there could be someone doing a ritual which the tea drinkers are unwittingly participating in, as long as there is someone behind it making the actual magical ritual rolls.
Cai Wen contemplates what the risk that he's underestimating most for his tea house - the answer seems to be that the blessings are numerous enough that it will generate plots even when he doesn't look for them. This reminds him of another piece of advice from Madame Song, which he passes on to his friends: there will no doubt be people that they do not approve of who visit the tea house in order to take advantage of the blessings - don't jump on them lightly.
Chasui lets Cai Wen know that the water sorcerer and his friends (four women) have taken one of the private rooms to have tea. Cai Wen stops by to thank him for his gracious gift, and receives many compliments on the excellence of his tea house. One of his friends is obviously a babe (named Chau Mei), and the sorcerer himself is named Ni Junxian. Cai Wen also notes that their tea cups are oddly out of place - two teacups are in front of one person, and one is more in the middle of the table - and that Junxian has a vaguely familiar-looking ring.
Cai Wen lures Chau Mei away to tell her about ice chips of doom - she notes that it was very kind of him to dedicate his tea house to magical research. He asks about the research that Junxian is doing, but she demurs - it's kind of private. Not to mention, it's highly theoretical, and maybe not even be possible. She specializes in things that are maybe not possible, which is why they consulted her. They're working on something that combines ritual magic with spirits, which Cai Wen notes is unusual, so there are some spirit experts and some mages involved in the project. Anyway, she's trying to not get too attached - she's a consultant who normally hires out her services to the Great Houses.
Hiro and Anto ponder why combining ritual magic with spirits is weird - well, combining elemental spirits with ritual magic isn't necessarily that unusual, but it's less common to cross the streams with non-elemental spirits, unless doing grand rituals that invoke the entire cycle, though that seems not what they mean here.
Lijuan goes to the Rat's Nest to check in. No plots seem to be happening there. She then goes to watch the bakery that Fin gets his pork buns from, to see if they seem to be deliberately planning to be robbed. The proprietor looks somewhat suspicious as he notes Lijuan casing the joint, but she stays outside. The bakery is rotating all the buns to the front as they get bought and eaten, but there don't seem to be any buns deliberately set aside for burglars, that she can spot. When the shop eventually closes, they are not totally out of buns - but this doesn't answer the question of whether they intend them to be taken. She heads back to the tea house in puzzlement.
Anto and a few others head a little ways north of the city to triangulate on where the water points - it seems to be just to the west now, so it's close enough to get parallax. Chau Mei suggests to Cai Wen that she's willing to be enlisted for nearly-impossible plans, so he suggests that she stick around.
Ringmaster Te says that after tonight's performance in the port, there will be a special show in Daizhou tomorrow. Anto (after failing to convince anyone else to do it for him) goes to tell Ringmaster Te that he and the party will have to split off for a few days to deal with personal business, but that they'll catch up after that. Then Merit and Anto take a quick side trip to sell the gemstones that Merit picked up in the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival, and Anto boggles at the amount of money involved. Cai Wen finally places where he's seen a ring like Junxian's before - the one that Verity Hsu wore looked similar.
Then, it's time for the circus performance! As it turns out, it was probably a good thing that the royal performance was earlier, as most of the performers are not greatly inspired.
Late that night, Lijuan stops by the Rat's Nest again, still on the trail of the Mystery of the Pork Buns, and (rolling very well on her bun recognition) confirms that the stolen buns are the ones that were at the front of the case when the bakery closed. It is still not clear that this is enlightening, as there has never been much mystery about where the pork buns came from, but she asks Cai Wen to have the tea house buy its pork buns from that particular bakery, just in case it's a deliberate charity attempt.
Mariners of the Night
The party goes over what they know about Renyu, but that isn't much other than the Whale wants him rescued from the Dragon Army. What exactly was he doing when he was captured? Who exactly captured him? Are there other prisoners with him? All of these are good questions, to which no one knows the answer, so there seems nothing to do but head west on the Imperial Highway. Hiro switches to Hana, though disguises herself back as Hiro again, as ghost shticks might be more useful in a prison break.
After a few hours' travel, as the moon sets in the west, the setting moon is briefly eclipsed by some large object.
- "Like a whale!" -Lijuan
- "That's not an omen, it's just a … thing." -Takanata
Lijuan and Anto sneak forward as quickly as possible to try to figure out what is up ahead - they catch up enough to see a huge mountain of a man striding forward, a smaller weasely-looking archer, and a guy with a confident strolling gait. None of the three of them look familiar, and while the large guy might be related to a whale, he definitely doesn't look like a prisoner of the Dragon Army. Nobody can think of any way to determine more that doesn't involve interacting with them, so the party rides forward more quickly to catch up.
Hana calls out a greeting, and there is some cautious conversation about how unusual it is to run into other travellers at night. Lijuan introduces herself first, and the charismatic stranger quickly endears himself to her by scratching Ho behind the ears while he casually questions her about who they are. She says they're a travelling circus, which the three travellers are immediately intrigued to hear. When asked who they are, he claims, somewhat confusingly, that they are "wandering mariners of the night". Lijuan quickly checks, but no, they have not seen any whales on the road.
- "I thought I saw a whale, but it wasn't one." -Lijuan
- "Grr." -the big guy
He suggests that, if they are a circus, perhaps they could perform to entertain the army camp up ahead? He enquires what different people do, other than the monkeys, and is quite pleased with the idea of Anto juggling fire and Cai Wen setting off fireworks.
- "What are you doing that you need such a big distraction for?" -Min Feng
- "Do not all men need a distraction, especially those who serve our great Empire?" -the smooth guy
- "Do we have time for this?" -the archer
On the theory that suspicious people ought to have their pockets examined, Hana sends Tofu towards the guy to see what he can swap out. Cai Wen is pretty clear that they do want a distraction, but can't discern anything more of their motive than that. Other people who want a distraction at the camp is probably good, but, on the other hand, if the party is providing a distraction, that means they're not doing their own mission, and also, if something goes wrong (as seems likely to happen) then the "circus" will be the ones taking the blame.
Takanata wonders if these three are also servants of the Whale, and contemplates the deepest connection between the talky guy and Anto - much to his surprise, it is Takanata himself. He introduces himself, and the big guy throws himself forward in a prostate bow, sending ripples of earth out, and the archer gives a more reasonable, though still deeply respectful, bow. The talky guy is, for the first time, floored.
- "The warrior poet is a real person?" -the talky guy
- "Mulan would be in the camp, then?" -Takanata
- "I told you he sees things!"
Master Zhou asks if Fa Mulan has been captured? Yes, she has!
- "Are you Master Zhou of the Iron Mountain?" -Ling
- "I am Master Zhou of the White Pagoda."
- "It is an honor to meet you. I think we're your homework."
The party asks the trio for everything they know about the camp. Well, it has a bunch of prisoners. There's a prisoner cage full of deserters, and another one with criminals. Mulan is in administrative detention, not a cage. Plus there are a bunch of soldiers who aren't in detention. So... how did Mulan end up here? Apparently, she took the three of them across the Wall, but Chien-Po got caught on the way back. Normally, a few bribes would have taken care of it, but Mulan refused to pay the bribes, so she was given some light administrative punishment, and was told she would have to go to the Hidden City for Wall Sensitivity Training. Then, she started running around in a panic, refusing to go, and there were some horses that got loose, and it was a big mess... so now she's a prisoner. (Takanata recalls that he told her to avoid going to the Hidden City for as long as she could).
- "We could pretend to be spirits. That might be better in bulk than a dog in a box." -Hana
- "Are you sure you need me? We seem to have a surfeit of crazy plans." -Chau Mei
So... Renyu needs to be rescued, and Corporal Mulan needs to be rescued. But the latter is trickier - they can't just grab her and run away. Is there some way to end up having her be the hero of the situation, so she doesn't have to desert permanently? The group goes into mad plan brainstorming mode.
Spirits attacking? Bandits attacking, to be bravely driven off by Mulan? Bribery? Bribery plus forgery? Turning her into the hero here might get these guys on her side, but there will be more finesse needed to keep "go to the Hidden City" off her record. Also, Takanata notes, they should make sure that there isn't some third person in the camp who needs to be rescued too. The trio is crushed to learn that the great Warrior Poet wasn't here to rescue Mulan originally.
Master Zhou trains with Mulan's three friends - they are all Dog aspect, though with different strengths. Chien-Po has fifteen body, but little skill. Yao is a skilled archer, but has a terrible bow. Master Zhou, in a fit of temper, loans him his bow, but Lijuan (who can make a bow out of almost anything, especially a junky bow), fixes his bow so that it rolls for sevens. Ling doesn't get around to the combat part of the training - he's mostly directing the other two. Also, they all have ten levels of Cross-dressing skill, which might well come in handy in a mad plan.
While the trio has some information about the prison camp, the party decides that it needs more (especially along the lines of "are there other prisoners we like?") so Min Feng and Anto sneak forwards. However, they aren't sufficiently quiet, and a guard hears them as they approach the outer perimeter, and they are challenged. Min Feng throws Boots forward, and soon something that looks like a tiger is startling the guards into an uproar as the two flee again.
Min Feng and Anto circle around to the other side of the camp to try to sneak in, but now everyone is on alert and it's harder than before. They can get a brief view of the layout - a large impressive tent, a large plain tent, and three large wagons, plus a lot of guards moving in what appear to be random patrols - but they can't get past the outer perimeter. Min Feng overhears the guards talking - they seem to know the tiger was meant as a distraction, but they don't know what it was a distraction for.
After some more discussion and brainstorming, the best plan seems to be: Cai Wen dresses as an Imperial Bureaucrat (Inspector Fu) - with his own shticks plus the Butterfly Talisman, he can pull off a 24 status for a single scene. Takanata and Min Feng will be his assistants, Master Zhou and Merit his manservants, Lijuan the groom, and Anto a prisoner escorted by the three Dragon Army soldiers, who will need to be put in with the other prisoners so Anto can figure out which one Renyu is. Inspector Fu will cause a fuss about Mulan and attempt to have her reassigned/confiscated/something, while the entourage investigates how to free Renyu. Once they know more, the group will improvise the end of the plan.
- "What you have is Luggage, in which there are fireworks and monkeys..."
- "Not in the same box!"
Chau Mei gives Cai Wen some options about how she can help - she can probably neutralize one of the camp's defensive shticks, or make a distraction not appear to be a distraction. Cai Wen thinks the biggest risk he is underestimating is the commander's shtick of detecting distraction/threat/both/neither, which will target him as a threat. Chau Mei suggests that she alter things to give him a reputation as a real Imperial Bureaucrat - "I can destroy your career like that" - so they know why he's a threat.
Inspector Fu Descends
So it is that "Inspector Fu" and his entourage arrive at the camp. The commander nervously bows to the Imperial Bureaucrat, who tells him that he is here "to see if the situation with Corporal Fa Mulan can be salvaged."
- "I will take tea and we will discuss whether we can put you back on schedule. Oh, and take care of this prisoner."
- "May one ask what he is accused of?"
- "One may not."
Chau Mei identifies that the commander has a shtick in battle stations, and the lieutenant has the shtick in "Threat/Distraction/Both/Other"; Master Zhou contemplates borrowing one of the shticks.
The commander sends Anto to the cage of criminals (where a shackle is bolted to his foot, attaching him to the cart), and moves Mulan (who he presumes to be in Big Trouble now) in with the deserters. Anto is fairly easily able to identify one of the prisoners as being a lot more solemn and arrogant-looking than the others, and asks his name. The guy looks suspicious, and wants to know what trickery Anto is trying to pull?
- "I have been sent by... a powerful patron, but I want to confirm who you really are."
- "If you have been sent by my patron, then you know who I am."
Anto introduces himself as the Unbinder, and the guy admits that he does need to be unbound, and finally admits that his name is Renyu.
Cai Wen demands to see the paperwork for Mulan's situation. The commander assures Cai Wen that Mulan has been transferred to a higher-security cage, and will not escape, but he does not understand what the difficulty is. Cai Wen imperiously notes that the courier arrived, but the prisoner had not. The commander points out that there were other prisoners being transferred, but Cai Wen shushes his excuses. Takanata suggests that they take a look at the paperwork for the other prisoners as well.
Hana circulates around the camp, "checking on things", and keeping everyone in touch. Merit pulls the lieutenant aside, and begs for help. He has been three months travelling with Inspector Fu - no other steward has lasted this long, he is a terrible master! Merit has to anticipate everything. Can the soldier tell them anything about the road ahead? This serves to distract the soldier for quite some time telling the details of the road between the camp and the Port of Propitious Voyage.
Anto talks to the other prisoners, hinting about escape attempts and wondering who they are. One of them is a swordfighter and accused of killing someone, two are smugglers, one was a soldier who struck a superior officer while drunk. Renyu is accused of smuggling or disrupting the blockade - it's not clear.
Takanata looks through the paperwork brought over - it doesn't look like Corporal Mulan is in criminal trouble - she just has a reprimand, and has to attend a training procedure in the Hidden City. Which is a problem because of Takanata's I Ching reading that says that she shouldn't go before the party does.
- "Is there anything egregiously wrong with their orders?" -Cai Wen
- "The class she is scheduled for has already happened this season... we will have to consider whether she should stay in the city or there are other options, given the reason for their delay." -Takanata
- "Send for Mister Li." -Cai Wen
Cai Wen gives instructions that Mister Li (Merit) is permitted to access whatever he needs to finish the interviews, to determine the facts about the prisoners that caused the delays. Merit pokes around, and learns that one of the prisoners had some unusual items - a trident and an amulet. Merit demands a 38B form, which the hapless guard doesn't know about.
Hana, assisting Merit, goes to "interrogate the prisoners", starting with Renyu, who refuses to tell the lackeys of the army anything, and also, doesn't really know what he is accused of having done.
- "We've found a third candidate for Mr. Grumpy Grumpy Pants." -Anto
There is some digression into which of Master Zhou or Wei Han is grumpier.
- "He fumes while you explode at people." -Charles
Merit investigates the inventory and gets a chance to see Renyu’s amulet - it looks much like the other Talismans, but has the older Cycle, and does not double a stat. However, it does allow the wearer to breathe water and act normally underwater.
Anto tells Renyu that all the new arrivals are part of the escape plan - Renyu is baffled why they have not attacked yet. With that many people, they can surely win! Anto explains that the plan is supposed to be more low key than that.
The non-imprisoned party members chat while they try to figure out how to proceed. A forgery/bureaucracy roll should be able to come up with a form to requisition Mulan pretty easily - perhaps they can also get the smugglers who were the cause of the delay, though this is a little odder to justify. Min Feng does her best, and presents Cai Wen with some orders.
Cai Wen confides that he is doing all he can to protect Commander Lo Ping’s reputation and standing in this matter. This seems to trigger a light in the guard commander’s eyes as he thinks he begins to comprehend why Inspector Fu is really here.
The commander reads over the forms, and tells Cai Wen that Corporal Fa is his to do with as he wishes. He could, of course, not release the convicted smugglers, he says with a meaningful look that indicates that he is playing along with Cai Wen's plan, which mystifies Cai Wen, who does want the smugglers. Cai Wen, in the persona of Inspector Fu, grows huffy, and the commander suggests that he could provide an escort back to the city, so that there are no further delays? Cai Wen says this is Unacceptable. The other prisoners must not be delayed!
The commander starts to look like a man who has only catastrophic choices left before him, and suggests dividing the prisoner train? Cai Wen agrees to that, but once the camp starts moving, realizes that he is only being given the administrative prisoners, not the smugglers. He starts raining down fury on the commander, who seems to be between a rock and a hard place now, and is kind of at a loss what to do. Chau Mei jumps in with some last minute negotiating, and suggests that half of the escort stay behind with the prisoners, and half go with the commander and Inspector Fu and the others. This allows them to divide the party into fighters (staying with Anto and the other prisoners) and non-combatants, the better to stage an armed uprising.
Half a Combat
Once half the guards and the party non-combatants are well out of sight and earshot, the escape attempt commences.
In the surprise round, Renyu pours Anto's seawater over his head, doubling his stats, and breaks the chain on Anto's shackle, Master Zhou nerve-strikes the captain, and Lijuan stampedes the horses.
Then, more general fighting breaks out, as the party tries to get the prisoners free and the guards try to chop everyone involved in that. Hana is taken down, but Master Zhou grabs her up to flee with. Min Feng fetches a crowbar and the Whale talisman from the storage wagon, and tosses the crowbar to Anto, who is briefly distracted by the idea of FREEING ALL THE PRISONERS, but then passes it to the murderer-prisoner to start freeing people (himself first). Min Feng also drops some paperwork implicating Ezokin in this whole mess, on general principles.
Once all of the party plus Renyu is free, Master Zhou calls battle stations (borrowing the captain’s shtick) allowing anyone on his team to move to anywhere inside the camp perimeter. Chau Mei tweaks the border so that crossing the line means "escaping", and after a brief excess of chivalry in which several people try to flee last, everyone gets out.
Renyu thanks Anto, and says that he will attempt to see that they are rewarded properly. Anto notes that Renyu's patron asked them to do this, so Renyu says that in that case he will leave matters of reward up to his patron, but will speak on their behalf. Master Zhou suggests that they may have need of him in the future - can they call upon his assistance? Renyu says they must discuss that with his patron.
Hmm. Well, all the allies are free now, but the jailbreak was kind of unsubtle. Maybe something can be done to smooth that over.
From the non-combat half of the party, Hana and Lijuan ride forward to catch up to the group already on the road, but are insufficiently sneaky, so Hana is spotted. The guards tell Mister Li (Merit) that they're being followed, so he drops back to find out what's going on. One she's a little closer, Hana sends a whisper into his ear that there was a jailbreak and it was kind of a mess - they can catch up, or fall back again, as he prefers, which he should indicate by slowing down himself if he wants them to come talk to them. He figures that's better than continuing the one-way conversation, so Hana and Lijuan ride up to meet him.
The best idea they can come up with is to create a fake warrant, empowering Mulan to be investigating the "fake Inspector Fu" - then she can do a dramatic reveal, and unmask his perfidy! As long as it doesn't result in Cai Wen and the others actually being captured, this seems like a good plan - and they're the ones with horses, so as long as Cai Wen doesn't fall off, they should be able to easily make good their escape.
Merit is a little unclear whether Mulan will go for it - she wasn't willing to bribe people earlier - but she thinks it's a brilliant idea.
Hana heads back to brief the rest of the party, while Min Feng forges the warrant and disguises herself as an imperial courier. Takanata sidles forward a little on his horse, and Cai Wen prepares some fireworks to drop behind him as a diversion. When the courier arrives with the warrant, Mulan leaps on top of her carriage and brandishes the scroll, just as the sun comes out - as it turns out, she has shticks in dramatic reveal.
Cai Wen does not fall off his horse, and the escape of the False Inspector Fu is successful, despite Mulan giving chase with one of the carts.
Once everyone has escaped the army and regrouped, Takanata ponders the crossroads - will Mulan do better by heading north with her three friends, or by linking up with the soldiers who had been guarding the prisoners, and leading them back to their commander? It seems that the latter is better for her, suggesting that the trick will stay in place.
The party leaves her to do this, and heads to Daizho to meet the circus as quickly as possible.