The Price of Good Fortune
|"Artists must be sacrificed to their art. Like bees, they must put their lives into the sting they give."||It is the Day of the Late Butterfly in the month of the Tortoise, in the third Year of the Fox since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
The party starts to wrap up their business in the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival, before the circus heads south again. Shen-Ji spends a bit of time cruising around the city on his flying metal disc, hoping to draw out other sorcerers. He eventually meets Renilo, an apprentice to a metal sorcerer down south. Apparently, his master sent him off into the world on a quest for knowledge. In any case, Renilo's impressed with Shen-Ji and gives him a letter of introduction to Hsu Verity, his master down in the Port of Auspicious Voyage.
Takanata, as is his custom in the mornings, has written a poem, which he shows some of the others:
- The web shivers with dancing strands
- The butterfly struggles and launches free
- Wings sparkling in the sun
- Heavy with the golden prize
- The bird waits, poised
Ringmaster Te, concerned about time and money, thinks that the plan should be to make a run down the coast to the Port of Auspicious Voyage. They're trying to make up for lost time, but they can't completely skip performing, or they won't be able to pay the circus folk or feed the elephants. Merit wonders if going too fast now will just cause trouble later when there are fewer wealthy cities, but the numbers seem to support being able to make the several day journey to the southern port.
The Ringmaster assigns Xian to ride up on an elephant, at the front of the circus procession, "because he's familiar with the area", though really, the highway goes there, so it's not clear just what the Ringmaster is up to. A young helper joins Xian on the elephant's back to teach him how to drive it. Everyone else wonders whether "Xian falls off an elephant" would be a sufficiently entertaining circus act that they should encourage it.
Another Army Column
The circus heads south, traveling towards the Port of Auspicious Voyage. A few days' travel in, they encounter a full column of the Dragon Army, marching northwards. Many of the party have forgotten Merit's Fast Passing Rules, but the actual circus hands start preparing to perform. Xian (on the elephant) and Cai-Wen (not on the elephant) go forward to offer tea to the officers, though they are a bit unpolished (Xian has trouble getting the elephant to stop and nearly runs down the officers, and Cai-Wen forgets the name of the circus.)
The commander says that they have urgent business in the Port of Propitious Voyage, so they cannot be delayed, but they will drink some tea with the circus while the column passes. Various younger officers check out the circus acts while the column marches by. Merit mentions to the commander that the circus passed a different column heading towards the Port of Propitious Voyage over a week ago; that causes the commander to order a faster march. Merit also briefs the commander about the assassination attempt on Ti Lao.
That interests the commander - so it was an assassination attempt? He doesn't let much more slip than that, so Cai-Wen and Min-Feng go to try to chat up some of the younger officers. Rumor has it that the blockading fleet doesn't have enough supplies for a proper blockade, so they've been resupplying from the port at the Jasmine River. The enlisted troops don't seem to know what's going on with the blockade/war; they're somewhat confused by the fact that while blockades or wars are going on in the south, they're marching north. Clearly something is going on in the Port of Propitious Voyage, but whether it's a distraction or a real emergency is somewhat unclear.
Merit toys with the idea of sending the circus to the Port of Auspicious Voyage, and catching a fast coach to the Illuminated Precincts to sabotage the blockade supply - but the coach would have to be acquired in the port city, rather than midway along the imperial highway, so he concedes that maybe it would be better to stop there to try to get more information first.
The Strange and Wondrous Troupe of Players
The circus arrives in the Port of Auspicious Voyage after another day's travel. As always, the advance men have done their job well, and there are people cheering the arrival as the circus sets up in fields outside the city. Various party members head into the city to see what they can learn - it appears to be bustling with people. The blockade is considered to be a terrible tragedy that is also very good for business. People who would be going to the Butterfly Kingdom are here instead, and spending their disposable incomes on the local art and theater. Cai-Wen does bump into a guy who seems to recognize him, but then runs off. On general principles, Min-Feng disguises him, causing Xian to burn a Yin recognizing him later.
Xian picks up an advertisement for the Strange and Wondrous Troupe of Players ("They tread ground that no one else dares"), and hears that they seem to be cursed - three theaters that they were playing in have burned down in the past week. Shen-Ji goes looking for the sorcerer but doesn't find her. However, he does confirm the story of the burned down theaters in the arts district. Curious.
Merit looks for information on ships in the blockade, and gets the names of some of the ships from before they were sold to the Savanna of Tears, but chances are their names will have been changed by the new owners. Many of them do seem to be new ships.
Ringmaster Te tells Merit that there's a great opportunity to make some quick money and allow the circus to keep moving sooner.
- "There's a theater troupe that needs a venue..."
Merit explains that, if it's the same theater troupe, they seem to burn their theaters down, and the circus can't afford to be burnt down. Takanata notes that he has a letter of introduction from Scholar Turtle to the troupe - perhaps they should talk to them? Merit isn't clear whether asking them why they're burning down theaters will be productive, but supposes that burning down a single tent might be okay if they were well recompensed.
- "Try to get a low interest rate when you're borrowing trouble." -Merit
The troupe is supposed to be practicing tonight at a (non-burnt) auditorium. The party heads there, and slips past a sign saying "Quiet! Rehearsal in progress!" to see what's going on. There is a guy with a torch on the stage, saying something about "Who goes there in the steamy darkness? I cannot see, for the rain is too thick." From the balcony, there's an angry woman's voice, who says "No! The rain is too deep!". The actor complains that this doesn't make very much sense, and is told to stick to the lines as written.
The troupe's manager notices the party, and bustles up, saying that it's a closed rehearsal. Merit swiftly claims that Ringmaster Te has asked them to watch the rehearsal just to be clear about things. It takes the manager a few moments to realize that this means the party is from the People Who Might Rent Them Space, but once he catches on, he has some documents for Merit. (They seem to involve paying well above market rates to rent the tent, but absolve the troupe of any damage not directly caused by them.)
Xian notes that the play really doesn't look finished to him. Min-Feng starts gathering information amongst the backstage crew - who might hate them well enough to set their theaters on fire? The crew seems to be divided up into two camps - the ones who think they're really cursed, and the ones who think it's sabotage by the Mainstream Theater People who dislike them because they're Edgy.
Merit asks for a copy of the script, and learns that the troupe is somewhat improvisational, and each night is different. He tries a fast-talk roll to get multiple scripts from multiple nights, but this seems surprisingly difficult to arrange, and the manager heads upstairs to ask the playwright.
Takanata thinks that the show is somewhat avant-garde and not necessarily to his own taste; the actors are quite good, but the writing has a stressed quality to it. Anto and Shen-Ji note, watching the rehearsal, that all five elements do play somewhat obvious roles.
From upstairs, the woman is shouting again: "They are not artists, they do not want to see scripts, they want gold! Give them money!" Takanata, having fairly good cred as an Artist, as well as a letter of introduction, asks the manager to introduce him to the playwright. The manager is chastised again: "You didn't tell us he was someone of import."
The manager introduces Takanata to Namura Hayato (the playwright) and Hsu Verity (his "associate"). Verity sounds like the one who was doing the shouting. Takanata inquires as to their trouble with previous venues? Verity is cross:
- "Ungrateful clods. we bring them money, and they complain about little accidents." -Verity
- "So unreasonable." -Takanata
Takanata manages to ingratiate himself by agreeing, so gets to watch the rehearsal progress from the vantage of the balcony, and watch the collaboration. Hayato is quiet and a bit diffident - he will suggest something like "They should express their love for each other now, dramatically", and Verity will say "Yes, but first, a swordfight!". Takanata thinks that dramatically, it would be better without the swordfight, but Hayato is doing well within the constraints. It's definitely a true collaboration - the play might be better without the constraints, but Hayato accepts that Verity gets to put constraints in.
Back downstairs, the manager tries to sweeten the deal with Merit: "Sign now and I'll double it!" Unfortunately, for him, Merit wants to talk about the burned theaters. The manager protests that the first one was their own accident (a campfire on stage), but the other two were not their fault. At one, the stage completely burst into flames, and for the second, the theater caught fire while they weren't even in the building! Merit notes that the manager seems to believe all this is true, but is also pretty sure it means that Merit won't rent to him.
Surprisingly, Merit tells him that the circus does have the advantage of "portable replaceable buildings", which makes the manager perk up. On the other hand, the circus does have a reputation to uphold, so it really shouldn't be associated with a terrible disaster. Half the money up front! The manager makes pained faces, and heads upstairs to ask his bosses (who Takanata is still hanging out with). Verity tells him to stop worrying about it and just give them the money. The manager returns to tell Merit that it was a tough sell, and they'll have to wait until after house receipts to pay the second half, but he can do it.
Shen-Ji, watching the rehearsal, concludes that it's not really a ritual, though maybe it's part of researching one. He explains about Magic Rituals and the Creation of Magic Rituals and how you have to experiment with things to get them right. Most of the party begins to split up at this point for different investigations, leaving Takanata with the two playwrights to finish watching the rehearsal. He asks how they met and is told they were introduced by a mutual friend. At this, Verity hides a ring she was wearing from Takanata's sight, but says nothing more.
Cai-Wen and Min-Feng go off to ask around town for recent news and gossip. They catch several rumors about a dock workers riot in the Port of Propitious Voyage, but find it odd that the rumors of the dock riot started after the rumors of the army moving out to suppress it started. They also find out that the Wondrous Troupe is being pretty exclusively funded by the fortune of their playwright from his last masterwork, so don't have a lot of ties to others. In fact, word on the street is that they are blowing through Hayato's money quite quickly. It isn't expected to last much longer.
Merit arranges to possibly buy some canvas from a local merchant, in case the circus needs to replace a tent's worth. Canvas prices are a bit high due to the local ship-related business boom, but he puts a small deposit down to reserve some for a few days.
Merit, Shen-Ji, and Anto go to examine the three burnt-down theaters, from most recent to oldest. The most recent is the one that caught fire while the troupe was at lunch. Shen-Ji doesn't see any signs that look like fireball marks on the outside - he thinks if he were a fire sorcerer, he'd set the building on fire from the outside, not the inside, for fear of falling timbers. However, Merit notes some char marks on the inside that look to him like lamp oil was used. Hmm.
At the second theater (the one where the stage exploded), some people are replacing the stage boards. Everyone keeps talking about it as if the stage had been coated with tar, but Merit doesn't see any signs of anything like that. Shen-Ji finds a couple of less-burnt boards, and notes that they seem to have caught fire in the center of the wood, not from either surface. This strikes him as classic "Fire Destroys Wood" in the elemental sense, and the timing of the stage going up just as the curtain fell does seem significant, as if it was a result of something finishing. It could be Yang grounding out at the end of a ritual, or the awryage as part of an experiment...
At the third theater, much of the repair work has already been done, but the crew working on it seems clear on the story, that there was a campfire on stage that ended up causing the stage to catch, and then as the backstage crew tried to put it out, a branch got knocked forward and onto the carpet. This one does seem like an actual accident. Shen-Ji speculates about it being part of a Grand Ritual of City Destruction, where the experiments involve burning down buildings in different ways...
Xian blends in with the acting troupe and wanders around backstage collecting various pages of the script from their belongings for later study.
The group meets back at the theater, where rehearsal is beginning for the second act. Surprisingly, Xian appears to be on stage (he's still blending in) - he doesn't have any lines, but gets to be a spear carrier in the background. Everyone else briefs each other on what they've discovered.
Shen-Ji heads up to talk to Verity, with his letter of introduction.
- "I'm terribly sorry, could you excuse me for a second?" -Verity
- "YES!" -Charles, as Takanata is finally alone with Hayato.
Shen-Ji explains that he met Renilo, still on his quest for knowledge in the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival.
- "All this time and he only got one city away." -Verity
She tells Shen-Ji to watch the dress rehearsal and then tell her what he has learned. If his skills prove sufficient to this task, she may indeed teach him more.
Meanwhile, Takanata talks to Hayato, and asks if he'd like advice about the ritual. Hayato kind of evades on that, and asks what Takanata thinks it does; he also says that it would be better when seen as a whole, because of the cyclic progression between performances.
Sure enough, the second act has various evocations of the animals of the Cycle here and there in the plot. Then, the rehearsal ends, though it's still not clear exactly what the ritual point was.
The troupe manager announces to the troupe that, thanks to the generosity of Ringmaster Te, they will be having their dress rehearsal and final performance at the circus. The actors are pleased by that, and the manager promises he'll figure out where and when they should report.
The party regroups at the circus tea tent, to discuss and brief each other.
- "How did you get on stage?" -Takanata
- "Well, just because he's a goof on the elephant..." -Min-Feng
- "Just lucky, I guess..." -Xian
Xian also mentions that, just before everyone left for dinner, he noticed an invisible bird sitting in the rafters, very high up. It left as the actors were leaving. Xian is not a great bird expert, but his guess is it was a magpie.
- "How did you notice an invisible bird sitting in the rafters?" -Merit
- "Just lucky, I guess." -Xian
It is about this time that the ninja attack. Xian spots them rappelling down from the top of the tent, and when he shoots one with his bow, other people can spot it, but otherwise they are reasonably well hidden until they attack or are attacked. Combat ensues!
A new bug is noticed in the combat tracking system:
- "Hey. Cael attacked that ninja and he became more powerful." -Mike, looking at his display
Anto kung-fu chops a ninja, much to everyone else's confusion.
- "Did you forget to bring weapons? There are four ninja and you're working on a merit badge?" -Merit
Min-Feng quickly disguises herself as Cai-Wen, shouts "You Fools!" and starts to run. That convinces most of the ninja that she's the real Cai-Wen, and they go after her instead. Their blades are poisoned with what Merit identifies as "mild drift poison". Deng Zhi-Hao proves to be his standard whirlwind of sharp pointy damage, as does Anto, after he switches back to his kusarigama. The ninja turn their focus to those two, and they go down. Zhi-Hao is dying, but Merit manages to stabilize him and then get him conscious again. One of the ninja has taken enough damage that he flees, but the others are still trouble.
Cai-Wen, realizing that he's going to go down to the poison, shouts to Takanata "I fall, but I cannot control the inevitable retribution. Warn them all to flee!" hoping to fast talk the ninja into fleeing, but he's not sufficiently convincing to get them to flee. He falls, and one of the ninja grabs him, ready to leave.
Having lost the two fighters, and about to lose Cai-Wen even more seriously, Takanata calls for Min Su and her monkeys to provide a distraction. Suddenly, there is Monkey Pandemonium!
- "Unless you get seventeen successes on a resolve roll, you have no idea what's going on."
Everyone escapes in the pandemonium, including the ninja, and Merit starts to organize healing. Cai-Wen's ferret has found a note, presumably dropped by one of the ninja: '"It didn't seem possible, but he's returned. Gather at the mill and we'll go regain our honor tonight." This is a little confusing - are they going to the mill now? Or did they already gather at the mill and came here from there? It's night now, so probably this is from before. Do ninja even have honor?
Merit isn't able to wake Cai-Wen up, and the group worries about what to do. Maybe there's a Tao-healer somewhere in the city they can hire? How about a sick house to stay in for the night? But it would have to be a very discreet one. Best would be a temple of the Selfless Path, which would certainly be willing to not say anything, but it would be gauche to not make a donation if they can afford it.
Before spending any money, Merit and Shen-Yi head out to look for an old supply cache of Merit's, in a cave on the beach a little ways north of the city. That provides enough healing supplies to get everyone up and somewhat better healed. Merit tells everyone in the circus that the party will be sleeping in one particular tent; then, they sleep in a different tent, tended by Merit for bonus extra healing.
The Next Morning
In the morning, people contemplate the note again. Why would it seem so unlikely that Cai-Wen was back? Maybe because they thought he was dead? Perhaps the person who sent the ninja also sent the kraken and the storm? That seems a little implausible. Maybe whoever recognized Cai-Wen thought he was someone else?
Meanwhile, Takanata and Min-Feng head out to speak to Hayato, and Takanata offers to read the I Ching for him. He agrees, somewhat intrigued. Takanata's reading indicates:
- "The left wing of the butterfly thinks he is mining unknown gold; he is actually trying to steal something someone else has stolen."
Ah, this no doubt ties into the poem, which also had a butterfly and gold. Takanata explains:
- "I believe that the I Ching thinks that you are operating under a misconception in what you are doing. The treasure that you seek with the play - the reason you have been having trouble is that someone else believes they have rightfully stolen it."
- "Does the I Ching reveal what we should do?"
Hayato thinks that he and his partner have made an awfully large investment to abandon it at this point. Takanata thinks they'll succeed in what they're doing, but that someone of Spider aspect currently has possession of the... money, whatever it is, the I Ching keeps calling it gold, but stole it from someone else. And, additionally, the person who started with it (or possibly a third party) is aware and waiting. Takanata wonders if Hayato could provide more information - he says that he'll discuss it with his partner and meet them before the dress rehearsal to talk about it.
Takanata and Min-Feng head back to the circus, and the group tries to figure out what they can about the ritual, and the other parties involved. Well, the invisible magpie is probably the bird in the poem - though it probably isn't an actual magpie that is the bad guy. Xian is pretty sure the magpie he saw was an actual magpie, though, albeit an invisible one.
Shen-Ji, Takanata, and Xian analyze the new and old scripts acquired by Xian. From what appears more and less in the experiments, it seems likely to be a ritual of Transformation and Control, focused on Metal with a hint of Fire. The Cycle animals are fairly well balanced, though there's a hint less Magpie, which makes the final ritual result likely to be slightly magpie-ish (Shen-Ji has to spend a while explaining the way rituals work - the energy goes into the things that aren't strongly represented in the ritual). Still it's a Grand Ritual, which Xian thinks must be for scale, since who would do a Grand Ritual if you don't have to. And as far as "metal with a hint of fire" goes, gold isn't a fiery metal, but Tael is.
So, what sort of ritual is a Transform/Control Tael ritual going to be? Are they robbing a bank? Creating money (that would surely be Creation)? Making it non-magic (that would be Destroy Fire)? Nobody is quite sure.
Xian speculates that the Regency Council is spying on people through the Tael. Maybe they have a map of where all the money is, and the ritual is going to hijack the signal? That seems to Takanata like something that a Spider would love to have, but a Butterfly is unlikely to want. Remember that he thinks he's mining unknown gold, not stealing someone else's gold. Also, possibly it's more metaphorical than physical.
Shen-Ji notes that if the two playwrights were really nefarious, they probably would have tried to kill him already, because he already revealed too much about what they're up to, and they also wouldn't be likely to ask to do their ritual on his home turf.
Eventually, Verity and Hayato show up at the circus to speak with Takanata. (This includes everyone else except for Merit, Xian, and Zhi-Hao, as it turns out). Verity is a little suspicious of the addition of everyone else, but Takanata says that they have his trust.
- "We have talked it over, and are quite disturbed by your readings..." -Hayato
- "How certain are you?" -Verity
- "I am sure that what the I Ching has said is true. I am not always sure that I have completely understood what it has said." -Takanata
Verity nods at Takanata's wisdom, and looks at Hayato. Hayato suggests, "We may as well explain it. It's not like it's sordid."
- "In creating the tael, the Empire did a great thing in protecting the currency. As an accidental side effect, they have introduced thousands of small magical items, which are traded all around the Arcade. That creates a magical flow of chi energy, but at present it is being lost, wasted. This ritual will harvest that chi, and funnel it directly into the arts."
The people with Sense Motive think that they both appear to be sincere - he honestly wants to benefit his arts, and she thinks that it's a really cool ritual. She's starting to realize that "at present the energy is being wasted" isn't true, but she doesn't seem to have known that before.
They explain that they have finished their experiments, with the last of the previous performances, so the real ritual will be at the final performance. Anto wonders how they will have enough chi to power the ritual - will there be a pile of tael wandering around on stage? Verity concedes that the audience will be... helping. There will be a lot of people from the mainstream art world, who will be showing up to see them fail, and they will make them succeed despite themselves.
Takanata brings up the evidence they have that someone else is watching, for some other purpose. That will be something to beware of.
(Zhi-Hao checks with Takanata - is he worried that this ritual will cause the Arcade to pre-empt the Butterfly Kingdom in the arts? Takanata declares "Art is Art!" and approves of the ritual.)
The group asks for more details on the play and the ritual. It is a story of many houses coming together, and at the end, each house contributes a piece to the final showpiece: a big blocky statue, very heavy. It will then be moved from the circus to a theater, where it will be activated to channel the energy. They have arranged for a theater that the statue will be donated to. The original plan would be to do the ritual inside a theater, so there would not need to be the "moving" step, but that seems infeasible now.
Takanata, who is more appalled by the arson than the accidental burnings, guesses that someone is trying to chase the troupe out of the real theaters, to make it easier to steal on the way. Perhaps moving them to a real theater will cut down on that risk. Merit and Shen-Ji note that if they help and watch the whole thing, maybe they can figure out how to get the Butterfly Kingdom to leverage its own tael flow.
The dress rehearsal begins. The playwright and the sorceress walk on stage first, and start:
- "I make my invocation"
- "Me too."
The actors object - why aren't they saying their proper lines? The ritualists realize that if you don't invoke the Tao, no matter what happens with the rest, the ritual won't accidentally go off. Xian spots another invisible magpie hidden up in the rafters. Xian is confident that it's not a person shape-changed into a bird, so it's probably someone's spy point. Maybe it will be possible to follow it when it leaves?
At the end of the rehearsal (which involves putting a bunch of objects in a pile, where the statue will be), the playwrights again give fake invocations to end it. Takanata thinks that while the play suffers a bit from its constraints, it's still pretty good (rolling for 9s because of the constraints, the playwright got six).
The bird flies off at the end of the rehearsal - Xian guiding Zhi-Hao, on a horse, with Min-Feng following them on another horse. Alas, the magpie escapes.
Shen-Ji meets with Verity for her promised meeting. She thinks that testing him on how much he figured out is a little lame, given that she explained what the ritual was trying to do, but asks him what he learned that he didn't know. He says that he noticed that there's a slight imbalance in the Magpie aspect, and he doesn't know how they're going to soak/ground the energy at the end. She says that that's how you hit a kingdom - as he knows, the spirit of the Magpie embraces the Hon'eth Arcade, but evades the question of soaking the energy. She allows as Shen-Ji shows some promise, and she might be willing to teach him something, if the ritual goes well.
The party worries that Verity's plan is to have Hayato eat the damage, and that he doesn't know that.
- "I don't know how to ask, are you planning to kill your partner in a freak play accident..." -Merit
Cai-Wen gives even odds that he already knows, and Xian agrees - he's already blowing through all his money and possibly doesn't expect to survive. Takanata catches Hayato on the way out. Hayato says he needs to go burn his reputation on getting everyone to show up tomorrow, so it would be good to know where to send them. Takanata says he'll try to figure that out soon. But, before that - has he discussed with Verity-san where the excess energy is going to go? Hayato says that they have plans for that. It'll be appropriately taken care of... it seems necessary. He seems sad. Takanata sadly agrees: "A worthy sacrifice."
The party agrees, that it sounds like he thinks that it's going to ground into him, and he does understand. Anto guesses he's sacrificing all his talent.
Min-Feng catches up to Verity and Hayato as they're leaving, and asks if it's possible that the person who introduced them is the "magpie" villain? Both of them seem quite sure that the answer is no (Verity seems particularly sure).
The Magpie's plan probably involves making them move the statue, and snatch it on the way. Perhaps some sort of misdirection with multiple carts and fake statues will be in order. Merit floats the idea of swiping the statue for themselves, but he doesn't have an obvious place he wants to redirect it.
- "You'd just put it in one of your caves, and then the Hon'eth Arcade would have the Best Caves Ever." -Xian
Though... that would actually be channeling it into Merit's "supply caches", which could be kind of nice. At least, Merit thinks so.
Takanata thinks he might be able to arrange for a theater, but worries that that just means the Magpie will burn it down at noon before the performance, and he doesn't want to destroy some random person's theater for nothing. Min-Feng suggests advertising for performing in a square outside the theater, and then moving inside because of rain. That might be complicated, logistically, but the idea of performing in the square is a good one - that makes the distance to travel a lot shorter.
Takanata casts the I Ching on what he knows of the plan:
- The Tael circulating in the Hon'eth Arcade is generating Chi flows.
- The play will be a giant ritual to refocus these flows.
- The playwrights plan to focus that power into the arts of the Hon'eth Arcade.
- The people currently benefiting from the power of the Chi flows don't know it is going to be redirected.
- The "magpie" knows the Chi flow's power is going to be redirected and plans to redirect it to his own advantage.
- We would be less pleased if the magpie succeeds than if the playwrights succeed.
He draws a squiggly dashed line over "don't know" in item 4.
The playwrights' plan seems like the most benevolent use of the chi flow of the choices available. The party wonders whether there might be a way to do a fake ritual, let the Magpie expose himself, and get him? It's hard to do a "fake" ritual, and Merit speculates that the sorcerer will be in the audience so he'll probably know if it's real or not. Well, how good does the theater have to be? How about setting up an art gallery in a tent? It has to be a "real" theater, not a bluff theater, Takanata is pretty sure.
- "What if we set it off while we're carrying it?" -Zhi-Hao
- "Then... carts in the Hon'eth Arcade will get really good." -Takanata
The party canvasses the theater district, looking for a square where a tent could be put (they find one), and a struggling theater that might be convinced to take the money (they also find one). However, the group's ability to protect against ninjas has diminished, so they decide protecting a theater might be too tough.
- "I have one yin left. Nobody put on any disguises!" -Xian
Takanata uses his reputation to convince the city to let the Troupe use a public square for the night's performance, and Merit blows his "buddy" shtick getting someone to vet the guards that Verity and Hayato hire. Cai-Wen blows his moll shtick picking up a chariot racer to drive the chariot across the square from the back of the tent to the theater. The circus carpenters come up with something that, when you put it under a blanket, looks similar to the statue under a blanket.
- "The blanket is key to this plan." -Mike
Merit makes sure that anything identifying the circus is removed from the tent to be used for the theater, and declares that he's not coming inside, just in case everything goes badly. Three carts are put at the back of the tent - two with the fake statues, one ready for the real statue, which is in a box on a little platform with wheels. Xian hides in the box, the better to notice if anyone messes with it.
As the audience starts to trickle in, Min-Feng wanders around eavesdropping. She overhears a conversation between two gentlemen in the audience:
"I'm not sure, but I think they are going to try to interfere with the alchemist's deal." "Yes, but more interesting is that the Silken Wings people are assisting. I read Ando's report, but he didn't indicate that they were this deep into things..." "How could they be? Still, I suppose we could have them summoned to the Hidden City. It's the only way to be sure." "Indeed, the only way to be sure."
Act One begins. Verity thanks the audience for their generous donation of their time, energy, and attention. Hayato gives a little speech invoking the Tao: out of the darkness of the mind (the house lights are turned down), from whence all stories are born, let there be light (the footlights are brightened). At the invocation, people in the theater (which includes all of the party except Merit and Min-Feng, now hiding under a cart) spend all their chi. Verity and Hayato head to opposite corners of stage front, which is a little odd. The play begins!
Act Two begins; this is about when the invisible Magpie sorcerer shows up, but, unfortunately, Xian is hiding in the box backstage, and does not have the opportunity to notice. This causes some problems with the party's theory of "take out the bad guy before he does his plan". Oops.
At the end of the act, the twelve actors each start to put their charged tokens into the statue, as Verity comes to the front and gives her closing speech: "...As each of the houses has found peace and harmony, we take the lesson that it is our art that drives us. Mote it be so." Then, Hayato makes his closing speech, ending with "Let this be the one true grand act that lasts throughout the ages" as the last actor adds his token. (The Magpie token is last, as it turns out.)
At that moment, two things happen:
- The play changes from 7 9's worth of good, to the absolutely worst play ever, as Hayato soaks the Yin of the ritual directly into his reputation.
- The invisible sorcerer becomes visible, grabs the Magpie token and starts to run (or, float without moving his feet) up the aisle.
The Magpie Strikes
The Magpie sorcerer is the arch-typical creepy sorcerer - long fingernails, white face, and a high-pitched cackle. Combat commences. Verity summons a forge (anvil and fireplace) in the middle of the aisle, blocking him, and Anto grabs him with his kusarigama.
- "We were at the worst play ever, and some guy tried to grab a memento, and the guards killed him..." -Merit, speculating
Xian emerges from the statue-box, and shoots the invisible magpie (the familiar) hiding in the rafters; it flees. Min Feng notes the guys she overheard are leaving. Merit starts driving one of the carts around the tent towards the front, in case the sorcerer makes it out the front.
As it turns out, the sorcerer is rather outmatched in combat by the party plus all the hired guards; he leaps up into the air, pausing, and after being shot by several guards, vanishes and drops the Magpie rod and another small object. Xian, refreshing his yin, spots an invisible sorcerer shape-shifted into a magpie, flying for the hole in the tent that the other magpie fled through.
Xian pulls out a coin from the statue, and waves it, calling out to the sorcerer: "There's still a chance to salvage a little bit of power! They can't see you, come here!" With a resolve roll, he catches himself before throwing the coin to the magpie. The magpie ventures a little closer, and Xian is again tempted to throw the coin to him.
Zhi-Hao grabs the rod, and heads for the front; Verity, closer to the stage, takes the handoff, and gets it to Min-Feng, telling her to put it back and give a speech. Then, she notes that Xian has the coin, and shouts in a panic for him to put it back too.
Min-Feng, with an acting roll and a flourish, declares "And thus the rod is returned!" and feels as if she's done something right.
Xian throws him a coin, doing sleight of hand to switch a zhu for the token from the statue (and making a resolve roll to not throw the real coin). The magpie catches the zhu, which gives people a hex to shoot for. Zhi-Hao manages to hit him with a shuriken (rolling for 11s, for invisible and small); a moment later, a magpie (not a shape-shifted sorcerer) falls to the floor dead, also bearing the marks of Xian's earlier arrow.
Takanata takes the real coin from Xian, and replaces it in the statue, and soliloquizes "Thus the price of good fortune is repaid" with artistic/poetry/magic ritual skill. He also feels as if he's done something right.
Sorcerer defeated, the statue is put in the cart, and taken to the theater. Hayako's status is something like -8, and everyone thinks he's a loser. Only Merit and Min-Feng remember the play as having been any good at all. Ringmaster Te checks to make sure that the Silken Wings name wasn't on anything associated with this fiasco.
- "Does anyone try to steal the magic artifact before invoking it in the theater?" -Mike
- "I'm way on the other side of the tent." -Drew
Zhi-Hao manages to recover the small item dropped by the sorcerer from the guard who found it - it appears to be a monocle; after some investigation, Shen-Ji identifies its function: when a drop of blood from an animal is placed in the handle, the holder can look through the lens and see through the animal's eye.
Verity warns Zhi-Hao that he should be careful - "it'll take Ezokin months to get over the loss of his familiar, but when he does, he'll come for you." She didn't know who it was until she saw him, but Ezokin is a somewhat legendary Magpie sorcerer who haunts the eastern half of the Empire, who is a collector of various sorts of magical power.
Ringmaster Te declares that, having been paid handsomely, the circus should be ready to move out shortly.
- Cai-Wen (presumably with Wei Han) takes a quick trip up to the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival to speak with Malkoha.
- Takanata has a visit from Dutiful Hsung. After some consultation with his great-niece and -nephew, he speaks to Madame Cho and formally withdraws Hana (in theory still in the Butterfly Kingdom) from the House of the White Lotus.
- Wei Han teaches Zhi-Hao about wearing armor.
- Master Zhou takes Shuyan out for some kung fu lessons.
- Cai-Wen, Zhi-Hao, Min Feng, Wei Han, Merit (and maybe others) plot to defeat the blockade resuppliers through gambling. They do make a nice profit, and Wei Han goes out drinking with their target the next evening. Summary
- Yanyu and Xiao Fa take a quick trip south to the Illuminated Precincts.
- Xiao Fa checks in on Ringmaster Te and Akimoto again, and looks for people not up to full health after the fight with the ninja.
- Takanata discusses Namura Hayato with Yanyu, and Yanyu goes to visit him.
- Li Merit has made arrangements for people to send letters back to the Butterfly Kingdom, if anyone wants to do so. (Takanata does so, as does Master Zhou.).
- Takanata and Min-Feng go looking for the two guys who "read Ando's report", and find one of them (named Tadeo).
- Master Zhou visits the Brilliant Dawn temple (Ascending Path).
- Takanata briefs the local nobles on the Official Cover.