Outsides and Insides
|"You can't see the whole sky through a bamboo pole."|| The run takes place during the Month of the Spider in the third Year of the Spider since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
The run takes place mostly in and around Dutiful Serenity in the Jade Taiga.
Equipping the Cavalry
Merit declares that before anyone takes any rides from Horse, he should do some preparation. He checks around the Isle of Beauty for any armorsmiths who are not quite decorative enough for the local standards, but who might be able to figure out the right sort of resins and treatments to make armor waterproof in a nice-looking way. He finds two, one more knowledgeable about blades, the other about potential with resins. An old buddy thinks that they're a little weak on artistic merit, but Merit figures they'll be just fine for the not-pretty-at-all Taiga villages. He suggests that they come to consult for a while with some smiths that Merit has invested in; if things work out, it might be a good job for the future.
The group takes a ship to the Port of Auspicious Voyage, and then there's a boy with a sign for Merit, holding five horses. Shen-Ji pretends to enchant the horses to make them go extra-fast, and the three party members and two smiths head to Rejoicing Industry at travel-montage speeds.
Merit confers with the armor smith he employs, about what they might suggest to create armor that is proof against sea water. They suggest that leather might work better - it's prone to water damage, but not as bad as rust. He gets some quotes - they can make a 2-def suit of basic leather for about a li each, or sturdier rigid leather of 5 def for 11 or 12 li, or a really nice set of 8 def leather for 45 li. If Merit wants them to skip making a profit this year, they can give it to him at cost for about 20% less. He tells them to put together prototypes for the 5 and the 8 def; the Isle of Beauty craftsmen are pretty sure they can help make things a bit prettier than they would otherwise be.
The group heads north to Industrious Fruition to talk to the weaponsmiths also in Merit's employ. They suggest that for water fighting, he really might want weapons of hard wood rather than metal - that way, if something gets dropped or disarmed, it will float. Merit also mentions tridents, or harpoons, as possibilities.
They finally come up with a design for a x3 spear with an extra hex of reach, and a tether - they can make these from a good hardwood for about three and a half li each. The local smith says ironwood would be best, but that's more expensive - it's kind of like the starmetal of woods, though not quite as rare as starmetal. If they arrange to get their own ironwood (it comes from the mountains), it'll probably double the price.
The Duke's Men
Anto thinks he should go and check in with Master Hirayasu, the abbot of the Temple of Continuing Remembrance that he told about Dutiful Serenity, until he recalls that that was in Stone Drum, which is one country away. However, Merit's initial pass of information-gathering indicates that a troop of Duke Huang's men marched south only this morning to head to Dutiful Serenity, so it seems that matters may be picking up regardless of whether Anto has met with Master Hirayasu or not.
The group heads southwards themselves, not at top horse speed this time, as they are worried about getting stuck in an infinite travel montage if they can't find where they're going. However, about fifteen minutes outside Industrious Fruition, they see a troop of cavalry heading their direction, along with someone Anto recognizes as Master Hirayasu.
Anto waves, and Master Hirayasu and the captain head over. Master Hirayasu is pleased to report that while it took some time to convince the Duke of the urgency of the matter, soon the abuse of the ancestor spirits will be put to an end. Anto asks what their plans are. The captain and the monk say that they spent the day... scouting the road. They have narrowed down the best approach to the village, and will set out in the morning. Anto notes that due to the Malign Influence of the demon involved, the village is in fact very difficult to find, but as Anto is more familiar with the place, they will see if they are able to find their way in. He asks again what the plans are, with respect to the villagers, in particular? Master Hirayasu says that they will of course be given a chance to repent, but if they don't, the Duke's men will make things right and any who are still in rebellion will be taken away. They have picks and shovels and such in order to destroy the stone, and Master Hirayasu has a ceremony that he is confident will send any ancestor spirits to the World Beyond.
Anto, thinking about the stone with his Unbinder's instincts, thinks that the ceremony may need a little more oomph than Master Hirayasu is describing. The stone isn't just a receptacle, it's actually a cage, so the ceremony will be opposed by something other than the ancestor spirits themselves in a way that the master may not be expecting.
The Duke's men will be staying in Industrious Fruition tonight; it is agreed that in the morning, Anto and his people will return to lead them into Dutiful Serenity.
Then, the group heads back out towards Dutiful Serenity. Some resolve and perception rolls later, they find themselves at the entrance to the village!
- "Which village in particular?"
- "Rejoicing Industry."
Merit tries to lead them overland to head directly for the spot on the map where he thinks the village should be, and after several hours of wandering, they come to the far side of Industrious Fruition. Hmm. Nobody remembered to ask to borrow Takanata's tinfoil hat, so this may be a serious sticking point in the plan.
A new plan is implemented: they head to about halfway between the two towns, and Anto uses his "Nose for Trouble" shtick to try to figure out where the nearest person who needs help is. Luckily, there are no nearby passersby in any sort of trouble, and Anto heads off into the woods, followed by Merit and Shen-Ji, as sunset falls.
Anto leads everyone into Dutiful Serenity and to Father Hsin's hut. The father seems sick. Merit does his best to do a medical diagnosis, but isn't very trained, and decides that Father Hsin is old. Sometimes old people have seizures, that happens some times. Shen-Ji and Anto think there's something wrong with his chi, but they really don't have the expertise either.
- "If only Xiao Fa were here..."
- "Is there a bus to throw him under? That's the deal we can make with the spirits. Let these guys go and we'll give you Xiao Fa."
Father Hsin mutters that the demon is angry, because so many people are coming, that it's hard... then he fades out again.
Well, they will have to talk to the actual villagers and Spiral and Swiftgreen soon. Merit suggests that he can threaten to kill both spirit and demon if they don't do what he wants. Anto and Shen-Ji boggle - can he actually do that? He says he thinks he can manage it. But it's something to keep in reserve.
The group asks around after Elder Soon - a villager tells Merit that he is communing with the spirits in the bamboo grove. Merit recruits him as a random informer, and the group heads to the bamboo grove. Elder Soon is there, chanting, and a number of other men of the village are droning in a low undertone beneath that. Two of the men turn, holding sharpened bamboo spears, and Elder Soon wants to know what they want. Anto takes charge.
- "I have something to discuss with you and your patrons."
- "This is not the best time, so you must be quick."
- "I think you know that there are people coming here to put an and to what is happening here one way or another. I have come here to offer you a different kind of assistance to bring this to a less bloody end. "
- "What do you mean?"
- "I have an alternate solution to your problem."
- "I remind you that we did not have a problem until you arrived. "
- "Yes you did! You would not be selling your afterlives to a spirit and a demon if you did not have a problem!"
- "Make your offer."
Anto says he has enlisted the aid of spirits of his own (Elder Soon takes interested note of that phrasing), who can fix their inability to have children, as well as their tie to Swiftgreen, so that their offspring will be free of the problem that caused their ancestors to make the bargain in the first place. Elder Soon wants to know what Anto's spirits demand in return, but Anto says he has already taken care of that, and that what he demands is that they not make this sort of deal in the future.
Anto isn't amazingly persuasive, but it's a pretty good deal that he's trying to sell, since he's already paid for the spirit bargains. Elder Soon is tempted, but finds the sweetness of the deal a bit implausible. Powerful spirits will come and solve all their woes and demand nothing in return? That seems unlike the way the world normally works. Merit takes over the sales pitch, explaining that these are spirits that Anto has already rescued, so they owed him favors to start with.
Elder Soon notes that that will free the next generation, the children, but those who are already bound by their promises are still bound. Merit notes that that's Step Two, and Anto says he wants to talk to Spiral and Swiftgreen.
- "That, I can't speak to." -Elder Soon
- "But we can." -the two villagers
Anto launches into his moral rhetoric - he still doesn't approve of what Spiral and Swiftgreen are making the villagers do. The spirit and demon ask if he would truly rather kill them rather than see them live as they are? Anto says well, it's not him planning to do the killing. They say they will defeat those who come against them, but Merit thinks that will just turn it into a larger war which will take longer.
Anto concedes a bit - he brings the army up only because it's a reality that they must deal with, not because he thinks they will back down if he threatens them. He didn't mean to threaten them, and he hopes to convince them to back down by giving them an alternative to get what they want. They want to know what that would be.
- "You know what I am, what I can do. It is not out of the question that I can bring the two of you together." -Anto
They are surprised - he would do this? He says if they made the right arrangement, avoiding actually making a bargain at the outset. Spiral and Swiftgreen agree that if he will (they speak on top of each other) then they would not need the village any longer. Anto points out that they would have to agree before he would do anything.
- "What we want and what each of us wants is different."
- "I totally get that - isn't that always the case?" - Merit
They ask how he would do this, and Anto admits that while he has some possibilities in mind, he cannot do anything today. He did not want to wait to have everything lined up before coming to speak to them, with the army pressing.
- "You can trust me more than arrangements with Yama." -Anto
- "Yama is easier to bind than you. But if you will be bound by your word, we might discuss it."
Anto says that he would intend to keep any deal. They look askance at this, and say that they would want more than simple intention - they would require that he put his will to the task and not be turned from it. He says that's what he meant by "intend". They ask, then, what he wishes of them in order to do this.
Anto takes Merit and Shen-Ji aside for a brief conference - he wants to make sure the deal doesn't have any stupid loopholes, like escaping into the Material World to rampage around. He also thinks he's offering them a lot, and doesn't have a lot to ask them in return, since they'll be forced to stop doing what he wants them to do anyway. Merit points out that while that's true, they're going to be more strongly bound to the agreement than Anto will, which digresses into a discussion of human free will (humans are not physically bound to their agreements in the way spirits and demons are believed to be, though a powerful spirit and demon can inflict repercussions if betrayed). Merit also notes that if Anto thinks he's offering more, he can ask for a favor from each of them for the future, as that's standard spirit currency.
Haggling over the Details
The trio returns to the negotiation, and Spiral and Swiftgreen ask again what Anto asks of them.
Anto says that, immediately, he asks that they release their claim on all of the people here, and all the dead people they have not yet delivered over the Wall, and that they stop making deals to bind people's spirits in the future. They frown - giving up the ability to bind those they make deals with, forever, is not something they will commit to. They counter-offer that they will make no deals with anyone currently alive? Anto counter-offers making no deals in which souls are sent outside the Empire. They agree that that could be part of a bargain. Anto also says that he will take one of them in one direction, and they must both agree beforehand which one that is. There is also a general agreement on both sides to act in good faith - they won't try to escape in the Material World, Anto won't deliver one of them to the northern barbarian World Above, that sort of thing.
Anto suggest that he agree to deliver them before the end of the Great Cycle, through the Gate of Five Elements if necessary, but possibly by another path. They object again - while they have time to wait, Anto does not necessarily. Wu Xings do not on average survive for a very long time. Perhaps within the next year? Anto says the calendar is horrible and confusing and he will not be able to figure out when a year is. Merit suggests "in two books", which the spirits can deal with, and that they each owe Anto a boon afterwards when it is all done. Anto agrees - that would give him incentive.
Wait, wait, they protest again - wasn't all of that about bending all his will to the task supposed to mean he already had incentive? They begin to suspect his intentions again. No, no, he meant incentive to act as quickly as possible. It would be more surety for him. Well, then, they want more surety for themselves as well. If they have to release all the villagers immediately and he needs incentive to work swiftly, then they wish to retain one champion each.
Anto frowns. What would these champions be doing? Shen-Ji darkly remarks that they would be hostages. Well, honestly, hostages is better than "running around killing people to make Anto hurry", which is what he was worrying about. He still doesn't like the idea.
They say that Anto is asking them to cut off all their agency in this world, immediately. They wish to maintain some agency yet, in case his plan goes awry. Anto can understand that - how about they only get to use them if he betrays them? They remind him that he need not betray them to fail them. He can fail yet remain in good faith, by, say, dying. With a bit more back and forth, it is agreed that they can keep their champions either until Anto succeeds or until the champions die, but they cannot keep their souls after death.
Their final condition is that Anto prevent the village from being scourged by the army. Anto says that the army will be requiring that the rock be destroyed, and that people stop sacrificing their afterlives. Well, the latter has been discussed, but destroying the rock hadn't been mentioned before. Yama will not be pleased by that. Spiral and Swiftgreen say that Anto can do whatever he wants with the rock as long as he takes the hooks of Yama associated with it. If the rock goes away, the hooks go too. Wait, what hooks? They say that the hooks are very minor bindings, which could allow Yama to find them. Anto doesn't believe that it's likely to be as minor as all that, but that's what they believe. After some more argument, it is settled that Spiral and Swiftgreen will return the rock to Yama across the Southern wall rather than having it destroyed.
As far as not scourging goes, they are willing to allow two people in, not the whole army to smack people around.
Anto wants to know why they care. Spiral and Swiftgreen say that the villagers are still their people. Anto notes dismissively that they won't be their people any more after the bargain concludes. The pair disagree - if in some circumstance, they bargained and Anto gave away his first born to them, would he not care after that point what happened to the child? Anto says that Spiral and Swiftgreen don't care that way. The demon and spirit mock him - he claims to care more about them, he who has never even spoken to most of them, while they have spent their whole lives with the villagers? Anto says sure, right, like a slave master raising the slaves cares how healthy they are, but doesn't care about them.
There is a very long pause, and then they say, coldly, that Anto has their terms. Does he accept them?
Anto says that unless the village is opened to permit travel in, he can't keep the army from coming in to check things out.
Ah, they note that perhaps they misunderstood his problem. They will open the village to travel, so long as no outsider brings in a weapon.
- "You may visit, you may verify, you may inspect, you may not fight."
This will last until Anto succeeds - once he succeeds, the village will have to fend for itself, as they will no longer have any ability here. Anto doesn't think that makes any sense (though Merit is pretty sure that spirits and demons don't lie in making bargains). They say that the village will no longer be between them, and they will be elsewhere.
To avoid having the deal broken accidentally, Anto suggests that people who have weapons not be permitted in, but unarmed people be permitted. They accept that as a friendly amendment.
- "It is done."
More or less victorious, the three head out of Dutiful Serenity and back to Industrious Fruition, where they look for the inn with all the horses in front of it, and take rooms as well.
The next morning, they breakfast with Master Hirayasu, and Anto gives him the whole story. The master thinks that Dutiful Serenity needs a serious ancestor shrine, and he can start seeing to that. Since unarmed visitors are permitted, Master Hirayasu and a healer head to the town with Anto and the others. Since the immediate step has been made to permit unarmed people, it is not hard to find.
Anto summons Brown Feet and Beko to fulfill their part of the bargain once the villagers are freed. Brown Feet looks sidelong at Anto, and says that they can do that if he thinks it's time. Anto is puzzled, and asks if Brown Feet has advice, but Brown Feet remarks to Merit that he doesn't think they want his advice, he thinks they just want to get everything done. Merit finds this all somewhat confusing - Brown Feet is advising them without advising them to hurry?
When they get back into town, Father Hsin is resting more peacefully. The healer examines him, and since he doesn't seem nearly as sick now, agrees with Merit's preliminary diagnosis that the father is old and tired. He brews up some stout tea for Father Hsin.
Anto suggests that Spiral unbind the villagers first. Brown Feet wonders again if that's his plan, and gives Merit a look. Anto briefly has to visit the privy, so Brown Feet notes to Merit that the bargain Anto made with Beko is that he will fix everyone who is willing, or twelve who are unwilling. It might be... easier... to tell them to be willing to be fixed by Beko, and then have Spiral unbind them. Ah, Merit sees what he means. He tells Beko to go ahead, so Spiral tells the villagers to agree to let Beko change them, and they do so before Anto gets back.
The ancestor spirits are released from the rock, and given much chastisement by Master Hirayasu to get to their paperwork immediately! While the abbot is still checking out all the villagers to make sure they're not still demonically tainted, two villagers slip away in the confusion (presumably the two champions). Master Hirayasu declares everyone safe, but insists that there will be a Big Ancestor Shrine. Here. Soon.
Master Hirayasu also declares that Anto and his friends have prevented bloodshed and saved many souls. He says that Anto may have a boon granted to those who have fallen, on his behalf. He declares that he will be staying here a while to explain the proper way of things and help Father Hsin get back on his feet, until Anto tells him about the corrupted ancestor spirits in the northern towns. Agh! He waffles a bit about whether he has to run off immediately and deal with that, but decides to start by sending messages to his underlings. The group also means to tell him about the jade statue, but they aren't really sure about the details there other than that it is bad, so they agree to write up a report and send it to him.
As their work in Dutiful Serenity is mostly done, everyone heads back to Industrious Fruition, where the weaponsmith shows off his wooden harpoon prototype. Anto finds it baffling - you throw the weapon and not the rope? They've coated the tip with protective resins, in particular.
In Rejoicing Industry, the armorsmiths also demonstrate prototypes. They say that most importantly, you want to make sure that nobody is wearing them in the water without at least as much swimming as they have armor defense. That's for leather armor - for metal, it would probably be worse.
Merit, still happily wearing the Magpie Talisman for the last time, pays full price with the Magpie discount, rather than having his guys not take any markup for profit. All in all, it comes to six tael, which he takes out of the Trade Company's funds. Shen-Ji cashes in his minor favor with the armorers to get an extra set of fancier armor and weapons for the captain - Horse says he knows just who to give that to. Horse will also arrange to have everything shipped to the Isle of Beauty when it's done.Merit declares that the ten horse points earned are for the party; Shen-Ji gets another one on his own. And then, it's back to the Isle of Beauty with yet another travel montage.