|"The fire you kindle for your enemy often burns yourself more than him."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Serpent in the month of the Bear in the third Year of the Spider since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
The run takes place on the way to, and in, the Shrouded Isle.
People wander about the Butterfly Kingdom, somewhat reveling in the lack of a Mission to be running. Shen-Ji takes the opportunity to visit Zhi-Hao's venerable father, and while talking with the learned elder, finds that his phoenix egg is preparing to hatch. Unfortunately, phoenix eggs require extreme heat to hatch, well beyond that generated by a simple forge; heat such as that found in a volcano.
Elsewhere, as one of the judges for the Court of Distinction's competition, Takanata is presented with a small collection of artistic trinkets by the competitors: a clay figure of a woman riding a horse, a phoenix painted in orange, a tiny watercolor of a cherry blossom drifting in mist, a folded paper flower (each petal a different color), a tiny sitar player carved in ivory, and a wooden netsuke of an octopus. He has been too busy to draw any prophetic art of his own, so he will have to make do with this.
Hiro does some experiments in being attacked by animals - when he wanders around as himself, then animals tend to attack him first, and others only as spillover. When he is dressed as Hana, then the animals show up as expected but are briefly confused and don't target him specifically, so maybe that's helpful if Hiro is disguised as Hana around fighters.
Li Merit tries to remember what he can recall about whale spirits - they are said to hold grudges, and have long memories. This is one reason that people don't hunt whales. As for dragon spirits, the prevailing theory is that they went away when the dragons died out.
Kuan-Xi reminds folks that she thinks heading to the Shrouded Isle is a good idea, for various reasons. Shen-Ji notes that he also needs to head there, so his phoenix egg can hatch. And Hiro thinks Hana is around there somewhere, and would like to look for her. So there are a number of reasons to head that way, if someone can find a ship to run the blockade. Merit goes looking for an "honest smuggler" to take them, and finds someone who is willing to do so, in exchange (after several rounds of negotiation) for guaranteed passage past the blockade both there and back.
Merit (with some chipping in from Wei Han and Min Feng) buys a barrel of 18 li worth of fancy meat, as his best guess is that the blockade will cause prices for that to have gone up quite a bit on the Shrouded Isle. Then, the ship heads out towards the Shrouded Isle.
Sea Horse, Sea Serpent
After a few days' travel, people are beginning to get kind of bored, when the sharper-eyed people notice sharks cruising alongside the boat. The sharks seem to prefer the side of the boat that Hiro is on. Hmm. Shuyan climbs into the sails to look around, and notes an ominous-looking cloud, when one of the crew's lookouts shouts "incoming!" Something large seems to be descending from the cloud - a flying horse? No, actually, it appears to be a falling horse. A horse and rider plummet into the ocean nearby, leading everyone to leap to the conclusion that it is the Spy Formerly Known As Machan Li, since he's the only person with a particularly notable horse.
At hearing that there is a horse in the water, the captain looks worried, and calls battle stations. Min Feng asks if that means the Kraken is coming, but the captain is too busy to answer. However, soon enough, tentacles start coiling over the side trying to grab people. The ship's crew does its best to raise sails and get away, while the party shoots and chops at various tentacles.
- "Look, I saved you, Kuan-Xi!" -Min Feng, disguised as Hiro, after shooting the tentacle near Kuan-Xi
- "Note that I don't actually mack on other people's girls!" -Hiro
For some reason, the tentacles are avoiding the area where the drowning horse and rider are, but a shark bumps up against the person in the water. (As everyone knows, sharks bump you several times, for dramatic tension, before eating you). Wei Han shoots one of the sharks - that takes it out, but the blood in the water summons two more sharks.
- "They're kind of like aquatic turbs." -Mike
Wei Han throws a rope to the drowning person, but they appear to be in no condition to grab it. Takanata leaps into the ocean, swimming towards the person and grabbing the rope. Hiro cuts his arm with an arrow, and shoots it into the water, hoping to convince the sharks that their personal target is over there - that does distract a few of the sharks, but putting more blood in the water also summons another.
Takanata grabs the drowning person - who is discovered to be Chochiro, though Takanata hasn't met her himself - and the rope, and Wei Han starts pulling it in. One of the tentacles manages to grab a sailor, but Hiro shoots the tentacle, dropping the sailor in the water near the sharks. Chochiro comes to her senses as Takanata drags her to the rope, but flinches away from Wei Han's outstretched hand as he pulls it in.
- "Don't touch me!" -Chochiro
- "GET IN THE BOAT!" -Wei Han
Wei Han notes that she seems scared for him, not of him, which is odd. Hiro continues to wave at the sharks, distracting them from the sailor in the water, and then the kraken's head surfaces, eating Chochiro's horse and one of the sharks.
The kraken tries to eat Wei Han and Merit, though Wei Han does a good job of blocking it. Another tentacle grabs the sailor, but is shot before it can pull him under. Merit tosses a hunk of bloody elephant meat in the water, attracting sharks away from the sailor, as Hiro pulls him aboard with a rope.
- "Roll for fives, but don't tell anyone!" -Kuan-Xi to Shen-Ji
With Kuan-Xi's buffing, Shen-Ji blasts the kraken with a mighty iron arrow attack, and it grumpily submerges again. Merit quickly puts some of the kraken's blood on the monocle, and looks through its eyes - he sees it swimming down into the depths, where it heads into a sunken cargo galley and darkness. Yanyu heads up from the hold to help heal people; between her and Shuyan, they are quickly patched up.
The immediate danger past, people turn to asking Chochiro exactly what happened.
- "Why exactly were you plummeting from the sky?" -Wei Han
- "You all told me I had to come back into the Empire without crossing the Wall... this is the Empire, right?" -Chochiro
She explains her current task, for those not familiar with the assigning of the Worst Quest Ever, and Takanata notes that the changing of the name of the Strand was probably related to the Coil. Chochiro perks up - he actually knows something about this? She will have to ask him many questions. However, everyone else thinks she hasn't really answered their questions - that is, she may have answered why, but not how. Chochiro says that she traveled around a little in the South, and then made a bad deal with Kubera who is apparently a spirit ("They call them gods.") of Wealth and the North down there. But, now she owes him a fair bit of money, which he just collects from her and anyone she touches; she thinks the technical term for this is "cursed".
- "How much do you owe?" -Merit
- "I wasn't informed." -Chochiro
- "It was nice meeting you." -Merit
Takanata asks what she learned of the south - she didn't go very far, but she did discover that their spirits - which they call "gods" - don't like each other. Interesting.
The ship reaches the port of the Shrouded Isle without further incident, and people disembark. The captain says he will stick around for a few days, offloading his merchandise, so if the party is done by then, he's happy to arrange passage elsewhere, but he insists on getting the schedule for the passage back, in case they don't return. The mists are pervasive here, and most people wear white or greyish cloaks, concealing brighter clothes only underneath. The buildings are similar, with small windows and high walls, with only a hint of gardens and bright interiors.
Hiro contemplates where Hana is - she's sort of aroundish here somewhere, but also in a weird direction, and still surrounded by fire, though it's a darker fire (or maybe a darker place with fire) than before.
Then, Min Feng, Yanyu, and Kuan-Xi are met by three cloaked women, who turn out to be their three mentors; in the case of Min Feng and Yanyu, it is a surprise because they aren't normally on the Shrouded Isle. The three women need to head to the capital for personal business; everyone else thinks that's a fine plan as well. Merit can sell his barrel of exotic meats in the capital rather than here where the smuggler captain is unloading, and there are probably more sights to see there. Shen-Ji mentions the Hot Springs of Needful Blessings, as well, which he thinks people might enjoy.
At the capital, in the secret underground ritual chamber of the Song of the Phoenix, Min Feng is finally inducted into the House of Silence. Once she's officially a member of the Song of the Phoenix, the three are summoned to the central chamber to form the first Triad in over a hundred years. Why these three were chosen by the Phoenix is unclear to even the elders, but the thing is done. The three young women share secrets with each other, learn of each others character sheets, and survive the ordeal of flames. Once they are officially a triad, they are briefed on the greater plot and admonished never to tell anyone about it. At this time, a projection of the Great Butterfly spirit shows up and informs the Great Phoenix spirit that the newly formed triad is allowed to tell the rest of the party anything it chooses by virtue of prior agreements and obligations the Phoenix owes the Butterfly. The Phoenix spirit agrees, the elders are perturbed, and the three new triad members are relieved not to have to keep secrets from their comrades.
Meanwhile, everyone else is heading up the mountain to visit the Hot Springs of Needful Blessings. Wei Han is not pleased by the warm and steamy atmosphere, and keeps accidentally wandering into volcanic fumes instead of steam, sending him into coughing fits. People dunk themselves in the hot springs - they take damage, but get a temporary bonus in a stat (except for Takanata, who replenishes his Tao). As the party is drying off again, some villagers head up to the springs, and cautiously greet the group. They take their own turn in the hot springs, and are pleased to find that it makes them not hungry, which is what they were hoping for. They decide that this is something they can suggest to most of the rest of the village, though not the kids or elders, as the damage is a problem. Merit and Shuyan help first-aid some of their damage, and the villagers are very grateful, and offer them what little hospitality they have. Merit suggests trading some of the party's travelling rations for the villagers' more junky food, and they're happy to do that too.
Everyone heads back to the village, with the party asking questions as they go. When the blockade went up, that started causing shortages - the Shrouded Isle imports a lot of its food. Plus, while some of the Dragon Army left when the blockade went up, some of them are still here, and have been taking taxes directly from the locals to support themselves, since they don't have mainland support at the moment (Wei Han thinks this is irregular, but not totally out of line). So the villages are being double-taxed, which is making things hard.
Plus, there have been bandit problems, which the stupid Dragon Army has been completely unable to help with. It's not like the bandits are very competent - they don't steal much, and when they threaten to burn things down, they burn down the wrong barn - but the Dragon Army is even more incompetent, and can't do anything about it. The local soldiers are much better - wherever they're patrolling, the bandits are quelled, but wherever the Dragon Army patrols, the banditry just gets worse. The party frowns suspiciously - this sounds more like the Dragon soldiers are going rogue and pretending to be bandits.
As they head down the mountain again, Merit keeps an eye out for things that might be eaten, that wouldn't be recognized as such. He spots a few plants that have tubers which are generally poisonous, but he remembers a trick - if you boil them for four or more hours, then they're fine. He digs up a few of the roots, and points them out to the villagers, who are originally concerned - those are poisonous! - but are interested by the boiling theory. They quickly harvest a sackful before continuing.
The village is reasonably welcoming, though the party is concerned over many of them looking hungrier than usual for peasants. The boilable-roots are presented, and the villagers agree to experiment with them (especially if the party will try it first). It'll take a while for that all to be ready, so in the meantime, Shen-Ji suggests that everyone take a trip to the hottest nearby volcano. One of the locals is hired as a native guide, and when Wei Han wanders into some more volcanic fumes, the guide helps find some more soothing leaves to chew to fix the problem.
When they reach the volcano, everyone peers over the edge, and Shen-Ji looks for a good hot place to put the egg in. He spots a likely area, but it has another egg in it already. Hmm. After some more checking around, he finally picks a plausible spot, and heads down on his flying disk to place the egg to warm (after a quick check to make sure nothing will catch on fire, and borrowing Wei Han's boots to keep from getting his feet burnt). He notices, as he flies, several phoenixes perched under the lip of the volcano, watching him suspiciously. He doesn't mess with any of their eggs, though, and after several hours of volcanic heat, Shen-Ji's egg finally starts to hatch.
First a few chips are dislodged, and then as the shell breaks, it is consumed in a flash of heat and fire. Shen-Ji scoops up the little bird and puts it in his firebox, then heads back to the rim of the volcano, as it starts to peep more and more loudly. Happily, while Shen-Ji isn't really prepared for the question of what to feed a phoenix, Shuyan tends to carry mice and the like, in order to feed her snakes, so she gives him a mouse to cut into pieces for the baby phoenix. The guide nods to Shen-Ji: "Hotman."
Then, it's back to the village (where the villagers are also referring to Shen-Ji as "Hotman" now), and the Feast of Mashed Boiled Tuber. It's flavored with cinnamon, but that really only gets it to the level of cinnamon-flavored paste. However, it's not poisonous, and Shuyan does her best to look like it's the yummiest food she's ever tasted, convincing a number of kids to take their first bites.
After that, they head back to the capital (Wei Han suggests not travelling at night, still traumatized by the fumes, but Takanata can see no reason to stay in a scruffy little village when there are the hotels of the capital available, and overrules him). They rejoin the newly formed Triad, who brief everyone else on what the Phoenix told them.
Secrets of the Phoenix
Min Feng, Yanyu, and Kuan-Xi explain that the triad is technically outside of the authority of their normal Houses, so they can tell each other secrets, and due to the intercession of the Butterfly, they are able to share those secrets with the rest of the party (much to their secret groups' dismay). They cover the high points of their briefing:
- The Phoenix was the spirit that replaced the Whale in the Cycle.
- The Dragon formed the Cycle initially; some time later, the Phoenix went to the Dragon and asked to be admitted. The Dragon said no, but when the Phoenix asked a second time, the Dragon let her in, and she replaced the Whale.
- In order to permanently replace another spirit, the new spirit has to go through a whole of their Great Cycle. (Merit notes that even if the Spider does win this time, this means that another plot could punt the Spider from the Cycle - though that would presumably have to wait for the next Great Cycle of the Spider, in another two thousand years or so. Probably not a plot for this group, in any event.)
- Because the Dragon broke the Cycle to allow the Phoenix in, that let other spirits break it without the Dragon's consent. So, at the beginning of the Third Great Cycle of the Dragon, the Spider replaced the Dragon. It is now the Cycle of the Spider at the end of the Great Cycle of the Dragon/Spider, so in another twelve years, the change will become permanent.
- The Phoenix and the Spider made a number of inter-related agreements - the Phoenix would not attempt to thwart the Spider's plans, but in exchange, the Spider would not kill the Dragon. However, if someone (such as that triad, or the party) frees the Dragon, then the Phoenix would be free to act as well.
- As part of fixing this whole problem, a necessary step will be to find the Great Talismans - at least of the Spider and the Dragon talismans, but the more the better, and all of thirteen relevant would be helpful.
- One of the agreements between Phoenix and Spider permits the Phoenix to only form one Triad during the Great Cycle in contention - the Phoenix picked these three, but their Houses do not really understand why.
- When the Phoenix replaced the Whale, the Whalesong Archipelago was renamed to the Phoenix Hearth; it is not clear to the servitors of the Phoenix why Spider is renaming all the countries. Perhaps that has to do with renaming the Dragon Empire to the Spider Empire?
- The group as a whole is called the Song of the Phoenix - the three houses are Silence (Min Feng), Melody (Kuan-Xi), and Harmony (Yanyu).
- The reason Kuan-Xi has white hair is that when she was young, she was caught on the slope of one of the volcanoes when it blew. A witness saw her consumed and covered by lava. She was presumably killed, but when people returned the next morning, they discovered her asleep on the slope of the mountain, apparently unharmed, but that her hair turned white. (Takanata notes that Kuan-Xi has an "interesting bloodline", though that may not be related to her hair.)
The party thinks some more about the Spider plan, and how the blockade ties in. Some soldiers encountered in the south thought that the blockade was originally meant as a prelude to invasion - if that's true, then maybe "kill all the people in the Song of the Phoenix group" is the Spider's third backup plan?
So, how many Talisman locations are known yet? Takanata notes that the Spider Talisman is in the Hidden City, under the control of the Marked. The Magpie Talisman is in the Hon'eth Arcade, not guarded by the Royal House; Merit has been looking into where it might be. Min Feng says that the Phoenix Talisman doubles your health, and she knows where it is, but she was told if she tried to steal it before the Dragon is freed, the Song would be required to smite her. People wonder how much they wlll try to smite her - maybe they were just saying that?
As far as freeing the Dragon goes, that will definitely mean going into the World Above. Takanata notes that Anto is (probably) the Wu Xing, who can take people physically into the World Above, or bring spirits physically from the World Above, so people will be able to use their full abilities, not a limited set the way they can when they spiritwalk.
In other subjects, Min Feng asks where/what the Shrouded Citadel is, and what the Smoked Glass is. Kuan-Xi says that's where the Firelord lives, and the Smoked Glass is his secret seeing chamber. Min Feng notes that the party might be able to get a vision from the Smoked Glass. Kuan-Xi is surprised by this - she doesn't normally expect other people to be permitted to use it.
Wei Han mentions that he would like to look into the problem with bandits, as he is concerned that the Dragon Army soldiers have gone rogue and are doing banditing themselves, and he doesn't really want to talk to the garrison to start with, because then he would have to explain how he got here.
Min Feng briefs the House of Silence about the Marked and the relation of the Marked to the blockade. She notes that they can probably smuggle out a bunch of people in the Song of the Phoenix if they want to disperse elsewhere in the Empire. They say they'll think about that.
Merit sells his barrel of meat - he gets 26 li for it in the market, but when he returns to the party, he finds that he only has 20. This appears to be due to Chochiro's curse, and Takanata thinks that it's Wei Han's money and a bit of Merit's money that vanished. Chochiro apologizes again - she didn't think it would keep working on someone who had no money when they touched her to start with! The party suggests that she should go find someone named Lucky Chang and shake his hand, though Takanata, who has already sent several people on dangerous quests, points out that doing so might have fatal consequences. Merit buys 16 li of spices (with his and Wei Han's money), and Min Feng buys 4 li of spices; they should be useful trade goods for elsewhere.
The group heads back to the village, to get more information about where the Dragon Army is patrolling and where the local soldiers are; with some asking around, it sounds like the army will be passing by reasonably soon, on the highway. They borrow a cart, head to the highway, and stage a broken wheel (with Hiro dressed as Hana and Min Feng dressed as Hiro, for extra bonus complication).
After a few hours, a troop of Dragon Army soldiers comes by. They offer some assistance, but Merit says they're all set to fix the wheel. The soldiers say that they should be fine, as they just cleared the area of bandits. Everyone looks very carefully at the faces of all the soldiers, so as to recognize them later if they show up in bandit costume. Then, the soldiers head off again.
Just as they head around a hill, someone says, loudly: "Did he say he cleared this area of bandits? The fools!" And, in fact, five bandits have appeared just behind the group, in dramatically threatening postures.
- "You put your faith in the Dragon Army? Fools! Give us something of value and we'll let you be."
Rather than surrendering, or fighting, people try to engage the bandits in conversation, but they don't seem to be initially planning on chatting, except to the extent that they can mock Wei Han.
- "Do you surrender?" -Bandit
- "What do you take me for, a moron?" -Wei Han
- "He admits it! Hah!"
Losing his temper, Wei Han rushes up to grab the guy who is talking, but a moment later, he (Wei Han, not the leader) vanishes in a swirl of wind, only to reappear all the way around the hill with the group of Dragon soldiers. Shuyan shouts to them, trying to attract their attention, and Wei Han orders the soldiers to head towards the party at double time.
- "Your friends in the Dragon Army cannot protect you!"
Takanata notes innocently that Wei Han is his only friend in the army, and he is not particularly counting on them to protect him. Hiro (as Hana) offers the bandits tea. As the Dragon Army soldiers run back in this direction, the bandit leader says he supposes they can have tea, but the group should join them at their place. Then, another swirl of wind circles around them, and they vanish.
Shen-Ji tries to figure out how this is going on - it's probably not straight sorcery, as "air" is not an element. Probably something more like witchcraft, as there are certainly air spirits.
Tea with the Bandits
Once the army patrol has left again, a hot wind begins to blow across the road, and the group starts to follow it, (Wei Han makes sure he looks more like an ex-soldier than a soldier at this point), trying to figure out what's going on. It does seem clear that the bandits are not the same people as the Dragon Army, and they seem to care more about mocking the soldiers than actually stealing things. Merit also notes that the bandits have likely been stealing zhu from the local peasants, and there is no way that people this powerful are still in zhu (unless they want to be).
- "What are your orders regarding them, sir?" -Wei Han
- "If I want you to start punching them again, I will let you know. We are on an intelligence gathering mission." -Takanata
After following the hot wind for a while, the group reaches a caldera - it's not much of a volcano, but it does have one pool of lava, and another of hot mud. On a stretch of cooler ground, there is a table set with tea things, looking quite demure.
- "If I were going to be a bandit, this is the kind of bandit I'd be." -Hiro
Hiro starts pouring the tea, and with a swirl of wind, the bandits appear.
- "Greetings! We were going to have tea, and discuss why you should pay tribute for placing your faith in those who cannot protect you!"
- "Aren't you going to introduce yourselves?"
- "<whisper whisper> Um... you are in the lair of the Bandits of the Double Caldera!"
- "Seriously? You just made that up, right?" -Takanata
- "...well, yes."
Shuyan points out a few of their artistic mis-steps, critiquing their costumes, colors, and so on, from an entertainer's point of view. They protest that the colors are not negotiable, but seem a little interested in the rest. As it turns out, their colors signify the sources of their power - light, dark, air/water, fire, and life. Yanyu, who is a very good listener, manages to get them to keep talking - there are five spirits who they have bonded with, who are helping them in their quest against the Dragon Army.
The others protest - they do seem to be oppressing the villagers, not the army. The bandits counter-protest - they are really not oppressing the villagers very hard. Nevertheless, none of the party seems to think banditry is the right method here, and everyone leaps into the argument to try to convince them to give it up.
- "They can stop the oppression by bringing in the local militia." -Bandit leader
- "You mean, guys with hoes?" -Hiro
Maybe there is something else that they could be doing? Maybe they could defeat a talking fish, which would make it a mad plan, though it's not clear how this would serve their goals. Or, have Hiro visit the village again, and wait until animals attack the townsfolk, and then the bandits could defeat them? Still, what they really want is to have people get fed up with the army, not prove themselves heroes in their own right, so it's complicated. Nevertheless, nobody thinks "being bandits" is the right thing to be doing.
The conversation wanders a bit - Hiro surrenders to the bandits, so that the Light bandit will analyze his curse.
- "You have given your blood to your enemy - the curse can be broken if you remove the blood."
Oh, wait, Chochiro is cursed too! By invading Southerners! Can they look at that?
- "Southerners are inavding, and the Dragon Army is wasting its time here?" -Bandit leader
- "Yes, that's why we're willing to give you ideas."
To Takanata's "Eyes of the I Ching", two spirits appear to show up - one looks at Chochiro, and the second glares at the first. The Light bandit complains that that was not right - now both he and Chochiro are cursed. Happily, this curse is easier to get rid of - they only need 21 more li. The bandit leader rolls his eyes, sighs, and touches Chochiro, noting that they'll get it back from the Dragon Army later. 21 li vanish from the bandit coffers and the money curse from all of the party members and Chochiro is removed.
The party and the bandits brainstorm a bit more. Rumor has it that the King has sent missives to the Shrouded Isle regent in the Hidden City, and he will resolve the issues behind the blockade. However, neither the bandits or the party really have a lot of confidence in that being true. Hey, why do the spirits care about the Dragon Army anyway? The spirits don't, these five guys care. Could they use wind and water to capsize the ships? Not very well - the ships aren't on the Shrouded Isle, where the spirits are based. Will they be able to fend off an invasion if one comes? Probably not all by themselves!
- "We're only five, and we work best together." -Blue
- "No we don't." -Light and Dark, simultaneously.
Merit suggests that they turn their talents to adjusting the weather patterns, helping the local crops grow, teaching the peasants to fight to resist invaders... that sort of thing. They're not very enthusiastic about this - couldn't they do something more... proactive? Like stealing from the Dragon Army to give to the peasants instead? Wei Han nixes that - then the army will just take more. They kind of like the idea of being heroes to the people, but really, only one of them is any good at plants.
The party points out that there will be zombies coming from the north soon enough, and the army will have to pull back to deal with that. Well, that's promising, they suppose.
At some point, the bandits realize they never did get their tribute - Takanata says he will pay them tribute, and reads the I Ching for them.
There is one I Ching among the five of them - if one of them falls, they all will. They are a hammer in search of a nail. While their true nail is yet to come, they would be best served if you could find them a different nail to practice on.
Takanata explains that to them, glossing over the "practice nail" part a bit, and then paints them a watercolor of the group of them in heroic poses.
Hiro says that his sister is here (in fact, who looks exactly like him, since he's in disguise), communing with the Phoenix, and will probably appear somewhere on the Shrouded Isle - if she appears here, could they help her get a message to House Tokai on the Isle of Butterflies? They agree to do this if they see her.
As no one can come up with a better "nail" (the blockade is the big problem right now), that's about it for the conversation, and the group heads back to the capital. The bandits tell them that if the party returns to the double caldera, the five will know someone is here and come to a meeting, in case someone wants to get in touch with them again.
Kuan-Xi gives the party a quick precis of the local politics - there are three great noble families (Kobayashi, Minoru, and Suzuki) on the Shrouded Isle. The Fire Lord is always from one of the houses, but when he chooses an heir, it must always be from a different house. The Fire Lord is from Kobayashi (though now that he is Fire Lord, he is technically not of that house any longer), and, um, er, Kuan-Xi's house is Suzuki. Politics is her mother's game, not hers though. Everyone looks excited about this, and Min Feng suggests they go see Kuan-Xi's mother. Kuan-Xi looks agonized and says no, please, no, can they not? Ah, does her mother not know about her being part of the House of Melody?
- "We are in the midst of... certain disagreements." -Kuan-Xi
So... Min Feng explains that she has a shell that Cai Wen gave her, acquired at an odd party in the Strand. He claimed that if she broke the shell, she would be entitled to a vision from the Smoked Glass. That doesn't seem very plausible to anyone - maybe they need to figure out an excuse to get into the Smoked Glass room first, and then break it? But what sort of excuse would they have? Could they tell the King the gossip about the Dragon Army invading? Is he unlikely to know what's up with the Dragon Army?
Eventually, Takanata does a Crossroads reading to see whether Min Feng is more likely to get a vision if she breaks the shell before or after going to the Shrouded Citadel and the answer is "before". Well, okay. She breaks the shell. Yanyu gives Takanata a makeover, so his charisma is temporarily doubled, in addition to the status doubling effect of the Butterfly Talisman, and he escorts Min Feng to the Citadel, where he introduces himself and says that his granddaughter is on a quest in service of the Phoenix spirit, and has been granted the boon of a viewing in the Smoked Glass. The guards at the Citadel find this very unlikely, but lo, she is in fact listed in the book of those owed visions in the Smoked Glass.
- "That's just creepy." -Merit
The two are shown into the Citadel, and Takanata is provided with a comfortable room in which to wait; servants will bring him food and tea as needed. They tell him that it will be some time before Min Feng returns. Then, they tell Min Feng to think about what she wishes to see, and then, when she is prepared, she can go through the doors. It will hurt less, they advise, if she keeps her breathing shallow.
Min Feng contemplates questions like "How do we free the Dragon?" but as she and Takanata confer, the servants clarify that she should wish to see a person, place, or a thing - not an answer to a question, or a solution to a problem. Maybe she could see the Eighth Marked - but then she'll probably come out, having forgotten what she saw. In the end, she decides to seek a vision of the Talisman of the Fox.
The room itself is filled with smoke and stinging volcanic gases, and the glass itself is warm from the heat behind it. Eventually Min Feng's eyes clear, and she sees in the glass, a strikingly beautiful woman, sitting at a dressing table, putting her hair up and polishing the talisman. Min Feng tries to study her (for later location), but is unable to beat the woman's status. In the glass, a man comes in and kisses the woman's cheek; she finishes dressing, tucks the talisman into her robes, and leaves the room. Six or seven hours later, the servants bring Min Feng out again, as she begins to wake up - as she is carried, she overhears two of the attendants whispering to each other - how did she get on the list? Maybe her family performed some service for the Fire Lord. Anyhow, they should make a note for the record, but they aren't sure why she wanted to see the Pearl of the Taiga.
In the meantime, while he waits, Takanata talks with the servants, and they ask him about blockade coping strategies (as a Butterfly Kingdom resident). He also asks after fashion, artists in service to the court, and the like, gently teasing out their opinions on various goings-on. The servants are fairly annoyed by the blockade, but not as hungry as the villagers, and they do think that the King is resolving the matter.
The party gathers together to confer one last time - do they have any last ideas for things to tell the five bandits to do? Should they wait for puttering for someone with better ideas? Takanata thinks he can probably arrange an audience with the Fire Lord, but nobody actually wants to talk to him.
The best idea anyone has at present is to send the bandits on a quest similar to Chochiro's, to try to find out why their country is less connected to the Phoenix. They won't want to go cross the wall, but with spirit companions, maybe they'll learn something.
- "Are we overlooking that they are taking food from the peasants?" -Wei Han
- "Yes, and we are also overlooking that the army is taking food from the peasants." -Hiro
The party heads back up to the Double Caldera, and the bandits arrive shortly thereafter. Merit tells them about the renaming of the Shrouded Isle, and suggests that they look into that. They (as expected) find that somewhat implausible, but on communing with their spirits, note that Merit does have a point. The spirits prove a little unwilling to totally brief the bandits but the bandits eventually find out that there is a great enemy that they have to do battle with, but that they can't actually battle him until the party frees their hand to act. Details on this enemy are... very sketchy, but they will look into it.
Apparently, the spirits won't tell them any more about the enemy, or how the party will free them to act, but the spirits also claim that they don't have to, because the party already knows. The bandits are not pleased by this, but will try and figure out something.
The party takes their leave, and heads down to the capital, arguing over whether the next plan involves a ritual to find Mola Ram, or taking Hiro north of the wall, or some other mad idea.
- Xiao Fa visits the Temple of the White Feather (Selfless Path).
- Shuyan, Hiro, Anto, Yoshi, and Master Zhou go to the Double Caldera to introduce people to the bandits.
- Shen-Ji goes to visit the bandits of the Double Caldera, separately.