|"He that has no silver in his purse, should have silver on his tongue."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Crane in the Month of the Butterfly in the second Year of the Bear since the Burning of the Black Spire|
The run takes place in the Cranesflight Heights and the Jade Taiga.
The circus has finished up its performances in Bear Mountain and is about to turn east again for the homeward route. Melina says that they have received invitations to do local performances from the Black Duke and the Green Duke, but the schedule will only allow one. Cai Wen suggests that they accept the Black Duke's invitation, but then turns his attention to the military threat that still vaguely looms to the north.
According to the rumor mill, the Great Master Zhou has personally guaranteed the security of the border, and the Cranesflight Heights would not dare invade now lest the full might of the White Pagoda fall upon them in wrath. Well, Po has clearly been busy. Cai Wen sends the circus eastwards towards the Taiga, while the party takes a day to ride north towards the border to see what might be going on there.
There are some Bear Mountain troops camped on the near side of the border, and a Dragon Army encampment still there. Apparently, the Obsidian Warlord is due to show up any moment now to end all dispute. Well, what disputes are there? Nothing is currently active, according to the Dragon Army commander, but everyone is still a little nervous about the possibilities of a border war that might break out if the Dragon Army leaves. Clearly something will score a potential point for the Obsidian Warlord, but it isn't clear quite what. Cai Wen thinks that whatever happens, the Warlord needs to make sure that he arrives after it starts, in order to solve it, rather than arrive beforehand, in which case he might be blamed for starting it.
The group heads to talk to the Bear Mountain commander as well. The commander is curious what Cai Wen's particular interest is, and he explains that his circus is currently heading for the Taiga and he wants to make sure that there are no problems. The commander says they should be fine if they take the middle highway - the bandits are well in hand there. Deng pries a bit more and determines that the southern highway is currently beset by the Bandit Queen, and the Dragon Army doesn't want Bear Mountain messing around with the northern highway, which is on the border. Unfortunately, Cai Wen thinks Melina took the southern highway.
Min Feng wonders where the Warlord is right now, and determines a very odd answer: "Wherever the integrity of the Empire is threatened, he will be there. Wherever there is trouble and he is needed, he shall arrive!"
Hmm. Would the circus being attacked by bandits count as something for him to solve to score points? Well, the circus is a Great Treasure, but bandits are kind of beneath him. If one of the armies attacked the circus, that would be a trouble worth solving.
An Unusual Circus Tent
The party rides back to the southern highway and then along it, hoping to catch up to the circus before there is trouble. However, at this point they're a couple of days behind.
After about another day's journey, the party spots a circus tent set up on the side of the road. They approach the tent and call out to those inside. A voice that wants to know who goes there and is not one that the group recognizes. Cai Wen announces himself, and Deng notes that the people inside the tent are going to battle stations, and have a lot of weapons. Cai Wen wants to know what the circus password is, and this causes some consternation inside - they knew that the terms wouldn't be honored. Cai Wen says that he's just looking for the circus, and if they're off at a command performance with the Bandit Queen, that's fine.
- "Let me be clear - I have Deng Zhi-Hao here, and I'd rather not kill everyone in the tent." -Cai Wen
The tent sends out a sacrifice to surrender - a guy on crutches, who tosses his sword at Cai Wen's feet. Or, at least, he attempts to do so, but Cai Wen dodges. They're doomed! No, no, Cai Wen accepts their surrender. Lijuan says the injured don't have to come out. Apparently they are all injured. What the heck? This is all very puzzling. The bandits claim that they are just there to heal up - they've been promised that healing monks will be sent. They just happened to stumble upon the circus, and then there was some sort of misunderstanding involving everything being set on fire and filled with iron arrows.
Lijuan tries to first aid the guy on crutches, but he's already been first aided very professionally and she can't add to it. The bandages appear to have been tied by Xiao Fa.
The party leaves the injured bandits behind, and finishes catching up to the circus, where he hears the rest of the story - the bandits were defeated mostly by Shen-Ji, but Xiao Fa didn't let him kill anyone, and they didn't turn out to be carrying any serious loot. Shen-Ji stomped off in a huff, and Xiao Fa went after him. Bao has been captured for Cai Wen to deal with, guarded by Rubberlegs.
Cai Wen asks Bao if she will give her parole. Yes, fine, he can have all the paroles. It's getting to where you can't do a little honest banditry without there being firestorms involved, or there being other bandits who don't approve of banditing.
The Black Duke
The circus reaches the Song lands, and is directed where to set up; a messenger goes to inform the Black Duke, who is off dealing with his revered mother. Apparently he was hoping to buy out the performances. Min Feng puts her head in her hands - why is he trying to spend more money?
The local word is that things are good - the Duke's people are happy and all is well. Bao also mentions that the Duke sent a bunch of household treasures to the capital to be put on display, and that's why the bandits had headed in this direction, because pickings were said to be good.
Lijuan unveils her prophetic art. Cai Wen contemplates it - are the skeletons undead, or non-un dead, or dead friends, or something else? He thinks that a lot of it is symbolic, some sort of danger, though one of the skeletons might really be a skeleton. Speaking of undead, though, Wei Han notices that Master Deng seems to be getting more northern-ly corrupt than even Shen-Ji. What's up with that? Apparently he has been teaching himself more copies of a Northern shtick. There is some bitter recriminating.
As for probably not dead friends, where did Shen-Ji and Xiao Fa get to? They still haven't returned. The bar they went to had asked them to leave after Shen-Ji started muttering darkly about how nobody would let him raise zombies. Deng can't follow their trail beyond that. Perhaps they are lost?
Min Feng overhears her brother shouting at his mother about sending the house treasures away. Maybe nefarious people have been influencing Dowager Song too?
Cai Wen checks in with Melina about having the performances bought out. She says that a full performance will bring in about a tael of income, and pay out a little less than that to the performers and for supplies. A command performance or something else special will usually bring in more than that, like a couple of tael. Cai Wen also wants to know if Melina thinks they have fallen off the plot, as a maze hasn't turned up anywhere. She thinks that the party hasn't lost the thread of the plot - perhaps there will be a briefing soon.
And with that note, it is time for dinner with the Black Duke. Min Feng can tell that her brother is angry, but he's covering it better than he used to be able to do. He has apparently been buying up his social skills. Dinner is the time for social chit-chat, but after dinner, the servants bring tea and brandy and leave them alone.
- "I want to apologize - I invited you here under false pretenses, but I did not realize that they would become quite so falsified en route. I was hoping to ask your aid for a small problem, but it seems to have turned into several larger problems." -the Black Duke
The Duke explains - he had invited them here to ask them a favor, but then, certain... misinterpretations were made, such that it became assumed that he was buying out all of the circus seats. He supposes it is a seller's market, in that case. The "small favor" he had been hoping to ask was help in getting some more starmetal out of the nearby lake. All of the easy pieces have been recovered, but there is much more down there. Perhaps he could let them keep a piece of the starmetal in exchange for a couple of circus performances? (Starmetal is rare and definitely expensive, so this is not a bad price, though it clashes with the party's instincts that any recovered loot is theirs by right...) He knows that the party has a metal mage and a water mage, so hopefully this would not be difficult.
Min Feng recalls that there are a number of stories about the lake - it's blessed, or haunted, or something. Probably these are just stories to be told to keep people away from the source of the starmetal.
Min Feng asks what happened with sending the house treasures to the capital. The Duke is appalled that she has heard about that - who told her? Min Feng suggests that maybe some guys on the street told her. He is crestfallen that rumors have gone so far. Kasumi reassures him that there aren't any rumors that he sold the treasures first. Yet. The Duke is more appalled to have his secrets so easily known. He admits that they weren't sold exactly, just temporarily pawned and replaced with replicas. Replicas which his mother has loaned to a museum. Min Feng is suspicious that someone has been talking the Dowager Song into having this bright idea, but the Duke doesn't think so. As an attempt to bolster the financial image of the house, it is not a bad one, except for the fact that the museum will no doubt discover that they are fakes.
How much would it take to get the originals back from the pawn shop? He could probably do it for three small pieces of starmetal, or forty tael.
Anyway. He was hoping that they could help him... arrange to hire some thieves or ninja or bandits to steal the treasures back. Bao is a little miffed that the party seems to be going along with "outsourcing the crime of the cycle", but nobody seems particularly excited about the idea of robbing the museum.
The group quizzes the Duke some more about getting starmetal out of the lake. Well, time was, you could just dive to the bottom. But now you might have to explore some underwater caves. It might be a hat mechanic. The party wonders if they get to keep any non-starmetal treasure that they find; the Duke isn't quite sure what they expect to find, and thinks that depends on what it is. If it's, like, Grandfather's old heirloom sword, or something like that, he'd rather not give it away. But they can negotiate based on what it is.
Bao agrees to go and case the museum while everyone else plays in the lake.
The underwater caves prove to be infested with swarms of hostile fish of various kinds; each room is host to several fish, which follow anyone who swims through and nibble at them when they stop. Swimming through several rooms in a row results in a larger and larger trail of hostile fish, which are difficult to swim past. For those without a ring of water breathing, stopping in any room that doesn't have an air pocket is a dangerous idea. So the search is something of an exercise in luring fish to follow you so that other people can search the portion of cave left empty of bitey fish.
In the first day of diving, Master Deng encounters a lake spirit. She wishes to know why Deng intrudes on her grief. He enquires about the source of her grief - apparently her love is eternally lost, and eternally with her in the watery darkness. Deng offers that if she convinces the shrieking eels that have been plaguing him to back off, that he will bring her love back to her. She is willing to make that bargain until he backpedals - if she makes him immune to the eels, then he'll look for her love, but no promises.
- "What does he look like?" -Deng
- "Do you need my help to find him? I can send you to him now."
- "...If you know where to send me, how is he lost?"
- "He has been lost these many years."
- "Then how do you know where to send me?"
- "I cannot get him back. Perhaps you could."
- "All I can promise is to but try. But if he doesn't want to come, I can't do anything."
- "Mortals promise to try, but it means little. What would you give up if you fail?"
- "Never mind, then."
Kasumi ends up at the end of a long series of fishy rooms, unable to pass the fish back again, and has to ninja-escape from the cave.
Deng finds a piece of starmetal, and kites the fish away from it; Min Feng goes in afterwards and retrieves it.
Wei Han finds a skeleton, and kites the fish away - Min Feng goes after it, but when she starts searching the skeleton's pockets and disturbs the bones, there is a shrieking sound that Deng suspects comes from the lake spirit: "He is not yours!" The empty sections of cave refill with fish.
The party discovers that bringing multiple people's worth of fish together is a bad idea, and three are nearly permanently trapped by a large swarm of bitey fish, but finally (and with some karma) everyone manages to escape with a second piece of starmetal and some Lake Loot.
- Kasumi: potion of water breathing
- Lijuan: glowing rock
- Cai Wen: bottle of air
- Min Feng: ring of water breathing
The group gets back to the circus in time for performances, which Cai Wen pays for out of the party loot. However, the damage that people took from the fish does not seem to be healing with first aid, and the wand of healing only works once. This is somewhat disconcerting.
Bao returns with a briefing on the museum where the Black Duke's treasures are to be displayed - there are six floors with two guards each, and three more esoteric defenses:
- The shrieking tao
- The basilisk box
- The eternal
She thinks the treasures in question are on the fourth floor. So - time for a heist tonight?
The party is a little dubious about running a heist. Maybe it could be downplayed with propaganda - we sent you the decoys by accident? The Black Duke really doesn't want to look incompetent - that's almost as bad as looking poor. Maybe it could be spun as the Tricksy Plan To Test Museum Security? Well, that's not great, as it might make the museum angry, but with sufficient persuasion it might work.
The group settles on a plan of diving for more starmetal tomorrow, and then trying to do the persuasion plan instead.
The next diving exploration finds fewer air bubbles, which means some of the divers can't do much. Kasumi finds a large seam of starmetal, but is driven away by the shrieking eels. Wei Han manages to bring out a large portion of the seam, which he tries to hide from Bao, but she can see the map as well as everyone else.
Min Feng gets a potion of treasure detection, and Deng finds an underwater marker in the lake loot.
The second performance is a success, and overall the Circus Tickets plan is deemed a public relations success for the Duke.
The starmetal is divided - the Duke takes the large piece, and allows the party to take the two small pieces as a reward. The large piece is sufficient to both un-pawn the family treasures and ameliorate one of three adjectives of financial doom.
Cai Wen heads to the museum to spin the story of the Security Test. The museum is somewhat disappointed in what appears to be a lack of trust, but Can Wen can keep it from being taken as a deliberate fraud or insult. All is well, and the Black Duke’s reputation is saved.