The Second Sign
|"Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."|| The run takes place in the Day of the Early Butterfly in the Month of the Spider in the eleventh Year of the Magpie since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival in the Hon'eth Arcade
Things Begin to Happen
Merit sends off the (taken from the Imperial Treasury) Armor of the Bear into the shop of his new White Lotus secret group, telling them not to tell anyone at all about it. As it turns out, the new secret group is less of an top-down hierarchy, so he thinks they will probably only tell anyone if they think it's important to do so.
Takanata draws a completely black page, with "And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see" written in grey. Well, that can't be good.
The auditions for Han Hsu's play "The Hubris of Kings" is tomorrow. Everyone looks to see if Xian has an actual plan. Of course she does! Step one: go and talk to him. Step three: he doesn't put on the play. Xian admits that step two may need to be ad libbed, but she has been thinking about it. If she can convince Han Hsu to write about the people who don't normally make it into the history books, that should be an improvement. Well, but Suzuki Tamiyo really shouldn't be the subject of a play. Xian reassures everyone that she's not a very important person in this particular story.
The question arises, if Han Hsu decides to not put on the play, and never speak about the subject again, will that stop him from whatever particular fate was likely to happen to him at the auditions? Possibly that information can be passed along to all the people spying on him.
Zhi-Hao spots someone surreptitiously approaching him, and threatens the guy with his sword, just to avoid any potential misunderstandings. The messenger throws a note to him and dashes off. Zhi-Hao shows the note to Merit - it's a warning from Deng Lumang that Merit should back off on the house-becoming paperwork until after Lumang's current mission is finished - but everyone else is still somewhat in the dark about what is going on.
Ayuki shows up, in her usual out-of-the-shadows way, to see Cai Wen. She has apparently been hired to protect him for the next five days or so, through a double blind contract. But not to protect him too hard, since there's just the one of her.
Lijuan heads out into the Harbor to check on the urchins, and returns with the best urchin ever, named Bobby Li. He is indeed the best, by all possible metrics, and when people, a little suspicious, try to sense his motives, they are reassured that his motives are the best. Kuan-Xi thinks that he has strong, Mastery-level witchcraft about him (Merit notes that that's the derisive term given by sorcerers to other spirit-based magic.) Takanata notes that he and Lijuan are the two main rivals for the post of "ruler of all urchins".
Myo stops by to speak to Master Zhou, in the hopes that he can talk sense into Liet, since she values his opinion. Master Zhou isn't around at the moment, but Takanata says that he will pass along a message. Well, if he could speak to her about loyalty and righteous action, that would be good. It is not a good time, business-wise, for major house conflict. So if certain houses did not have the support of certain strong-headed other houses, that might be less likely.
- "So... Enticing Vintage is supporting Judicious Increase?"
Yes, exactly. But please avoid telling Liet that this comes from Myo, or she won't listen.
- "Liet and Myo are on the opposite sides of the civil war. How is this not surprising?"
Merit sends out some guys to figure out who is in town regarding the note from Lumang.
- House of Beneficent Travel
- House of Transparent Purity
- House of Ornamental Vessels
- House of Judicious Increase
- House of Benevolent Oversight
- House of Gainful Protection
- House of Enticing Vintage
- House of Resplendent Decoration
- House of Exuberant Interference
- House of Quiet Concordance
- House of Continuous Sustenance, though the minion knows they don't exist any more.
Finally, one minion comes back with an Imperial Messenger as an escort. After there is a lot of random protest about how one can't be asked to demonstrate that Merit is really Merit, Deng finally signs an affidavit that Merit is Merit, and Merit receives a formally stamped message that his request for further information has been denied.
- "But if someone were trying to make us into a house, I would expect us to be on the list, or a house we have never heard of." -Merit
- "Um... has anyone heard of the House of Exuberant Interference?" -Cai Wen
Anyhow, the Monkey King Opera House is not on this list, so "talk to Han Hsu" is presumably not the thing that Lumang says to hold off on, and Xian heads for the opera house.
Han Hsu is pacing around the empty stage, stamping his foot occasionally, or clapping and listening to the acoustics. However, he is pleased to see Xian, and asks if his esteemed patron (Takanata) is in town. Was he planning to see the auditions? Xian demurs, and Han Hsu says then that he can't - it would destroy the integrity. However, Xian is here on an artistic, rather than business, matter. Han Hsu shows her into his office, disarming several traps as he goes.
Xian asks what art is for, which leans to a long wine-drinking conversation, but the short answer is that art exists to make truth unavoidable.
The conversation wanders and escalates in that particularly Monkey King way. Xian suggests that he is thinking too small, and he agrees: Why bring down a country, when you can bring down an Empire! Xian says no - but what about the vast majority of people? A country is just a handful of nobles. What about a mother holding a child? Ah - so the entirety of civilization!
It would take an artist who could see all men... but it could be done. But it would be expensive... essentially, he could cancel all his previous commitments and begin the research, but to keep the opera house solvent while doing so would take five tael. That's too rich for Xian's blood, so they keep talking. Well, Han Hsu can put together a presentation for Takanata and his granddaughter, and if they are convinced enough to invest the five tael, then he would move on to this new project.
Xian digresses into potential trouble for the actors if the play is put on as written. If those who are implicated find out, there could be trouble.
- "I take your meaning. Do you prefer the sword or the spear?" -Han Hsu
But the Monkey King thinks it is unlikely that things will be as bad as Xian thinks.
- "Once you take a man and confront him with the meaninglessness of his life, he is not up for violence."
He shoos Xian away, puts a fake script in the trash can for spies to grab, and starts feverishly rewriting.
More Things Happen
Xian returns, and says that things should be good now. There is some concern - is it verifiable that things will be better with the new play? Not necessarily. How about the auditions? That's not clear. When Xian admits that Han Hsu would have cancelled the auditions for five tael, Merit is aghast - just spend the five tael! When Merit says it's worth spending five tael, that must mean it's worth it. Or else it's not really Merit. Kasumi eyes him suspiciously, wondering if he has been replaced by Pir Pir, and decides that 1) yes, it's Merit, but 2) there's a ninja behind him, taking aim at someone.
Kasumi takes a spectacular comic pratfall, nearly incapacitating everyone with laughter. She uses the distraction to catch the ninja and searches him confiscating his bow. He seems to be from the House of the Night Blade, but he's barely dangerous. The group interrogates him, but he doesn't have much to say. He is no one. He is dishonored and will never amount to anything. Apparently, part of the Night Blade recruitment drive is that anyone who can do even a point of damage to Cai Wen gets a place in the house. Cai Wen is surprised - is the hit still on? No, no, he has heard of the legendary battle, and Cai Wen is well known. This is not a hit - it is just a point of damage. The group reassures the would-be ninja that he does have some decent stealth skills, even if he failed his ninja test, and Merit says to talk to him later.
Merit will head back with Xian to Han Hsu, and make sure that script review is part of the deal. Xian doesn't think that should be necessary.
- "Xian, we gave you the opportunity to prevent him being assassinated BY US because we thought you would not approve. If you have set him up to be assassinated by us next book, you are not doing your job." -Takanata
Xian spins a tale that it is wrong to subject an artist of Han Hsu's caliber to the mundane petty concerns of resources. It's a stretch, but Xian has found another lover of art who can fund the entire project, and they give him five tael for the research phase. He says he'll put a sign up cancelling the auditions, and will begin by seeing the King.
- "What? Why? What would he be able to tell you?" -Xian
- "Nothing, but he possesses the Blood of the Crane."
Xian suggests that he talk to the Path of Knowledge instead, and Xian can tell him about tasting the blood of the Crane. The disguised Merit fidgets, wanting to go, and Han Hsu asks for instructions on how to contact him later. Since Xian has indicated that this research should last for an unlimited time until all that is needed can be learned, it is possible that at some point in the future he will need more funds. Merit hedges, but it turns out he is an actor, and Han Hsu convinces him that this is reasonable.
Cai Wen puts up some posters:
Attention Ninja Recruits
The great ZHU CAI WEN acknowledges your high aspirations and expects you to give nothing but your very best. Be warned that the attempt may result in severe harm to your body and honor.
LET THE TRIALS COMMENCE
Then, he goes to talk to Malkoha for advice and assistance. Is it possible to get out of turning your house into a House? She thinks it's pretty easy to be smacked out of it if you don't do well. On the other hand, it might make becoming a House later more difficult.
Lijuan checks among the urchins as to what Bobby Li has been doing. They're willing to tell her that he's been doing all the best stuff, but don't seem very clear on what, specifically, that best stuff is. So... what would Yoshi do? She decides that Yoshi would probably try to get him to be the actual best at doing good stuff.
Kuan-Xi borrows Takanata's tinfoil hat, and talks to Bobby Li. She picks up that he doesn't have any particular motives, but that they're the best. Huh - no motives at all? Or maybe just motives that she couldn't discern with a poor roll.
Everyone visits the house of the Master of Trade to ask about the status of the application for the House of Exuberant Meddling. The Master of Trade is impressed - he has never seen an application fly through the system so fast. Merit says that he wants to make an amendment, because it needs to be perfect. That will be a little difficult, because the application was filed in triplicate in all three of the major cities, so an amendment will need to be filed in all three places too. Well, that does suggest a way to stall, if Merit doesn't mind looking like a fool - he can amend one application and then it will take a while for the changes to propagate to the other offices. That would probably lower the influence of the new House. If the House gets formed and then smacked out again, then it will probably lose some of the resources that formed it. Considering what might go into the different stats, the Li Merit Trading Company is probably about three points of Resources, and 100-ish tael is about two Resources, but they don't stack linearly; the stats are more exponential than that. But possibly 100-ish tael could be turned into two points of another resource (such as investing in House guards for Military, etc). People who are officially part of another House (like Xiao Fa) or a noble house elsewhere (like Takanata and Kuan-Xi) would probably be officially allies rather than house members, but could still be counted for influence.
Takanata decides that the reason that Lijuan hasn't drawn any prophetic art is that it probably would be about Bobby Li, but since she's not the best artist in the room, she can't draw him. Hmm. Lijuan brings Bobby Li to talk to Master Tranh, and accidentally helps convince him that he should try to have the House of Quiet Concordance be the best by overthrowing the House of Benevolent Oversight.
- "It goes against my better judgement, but if the two of you think that is the best plan, then I will do it." -Master Tranh
Lijuan panics, and tells him that the urchins have all changed their minds and to not move yet, and returns to the party to confess that she has broken Master Tranh, and tells Bobby Li to go away and come back to meet them for dinner.
Takanata has dinner with Liet in which she briefs him on the coalition being formed by the House of Judicious Increase. They want the special privileges of the ruling house removed and make leadership of the country back into a simple economic battle of stats the way it was in the ancient times. Takanata finds that fascinating and wonders what side of that fight is more Dragon-y.
Everyone else (except also Kasumi, who is hiding) has dinner with Bobby Li, and Kasumi uses the Orb of True Seeing on him. He's definitely touched by the best demon ever, and he's also part of the distraction that has been keeping them busy and away from the plot for four hours. The group interrogates him about what he knows about the House mechanic. As far as he's concerned, the plan is to decide who to put in charge, and give them the urchin vote. He doesn't know anything about the House of Gainful Protection, but Xian thinks he's lying. The group convinces him to go and investigate the House of Continuing Sustenance.
Merit files the amendment (with much bureaucratic help) to the House papers that will stall for a House Turn without any influence damage, and turns in one copy.
So... what is the actual plot? There is the scary black piece of paper from Takanata, but it isn't clear what that points towards. Kuan-Xi gathers information around the Harbor about what's going on, and most people are closeted away in their houses avoiding... whatever is coming. That includes Gainful Protection, which is a little odd. Maybe if they can find Lumang, they can find out what his mission is.
Merit checks in with his spy in the House of Gainful Protection. What is up tonight? Kasumi wonders (using the shtick she learned from Mondo) if that is the relevant question, and decides that that is the only relevant question. The spy really can't talk about the operation - he knows Merit knows who the big players are, and if he wants to land on his feet, he should just avoid all of them.
- "The bitter irony of civil war breaking out tonight after all that time we spent!" -Merit
- "Yes, because that is the reason to keep the country from being destroyed, because I will have wasted all that puttering." -Xian
Takanata speculates who they should help.
- "Of the three big houses, Gainful Protection might possibly be the most Dragonish..." -Takanata
He spends a Yin and realizes that even with the "possibly", that statement is brutally wrong. So, regardless of anything else, they’re probably not in it for Dragonish reasons at least.
Takanata and Cai Wen put together a connections reading:
- Bobby Li is a distraction
- Bobby Li is touched by a demon
- The House of Gainful Protection is planning an operation tomorrow
- The House of Gainful Protection operation is
- The House of Gainful Protection has terrible poisons of destruction
- The House of Gainful Protection operation will kill many of the heads of other Houses with their poisons
Well, that's worse than expected.
Suddenly, Bobby Li rushes in - he has determined that the House of Continuing Sustenance is being refounded by a cabbage farmer. And he's being attacked even now and the party needs to rush off and help! (Xian thinks that last part is a lie). Merit sends him off again with a group of thugs.
Merit considers where to investigate to stop the operation. Merchant Deng's house might be the best place to start, so they head there, attacked by several trainee ninja in passing. Merchant Deng invites them all in, but he cannot tell them where Lumang is. He said it would be a great night tonight, though. In the morning when he left, he headed north and then turned three streets down - Merchant Deng knows that that is not towards the main house, but he doesn't know where he was going. Takanata tries to auspiciously summon him, but his prophetic art shakes and crumbles to dust, and Lumang fails to appear. Ho barks at the door until it is opened, and then runs north and turns three streets down, leading the party to a warehouse in a less crowded neighborhood.
- "The battlemap is also a bad omen."
The group is briefly stymied by the locked door on the warehouse, but Kasumi proves able to pick the lock. Inside is an open space, with a number of soldiers in Gainful Protection livery, but about half of them (including Lumang) are tied up. Also, there are some frightening-looking demons (Wall, Music, Origami, Lightning, and Pollution), who seem to be physically present. The central area is set up as a pentagram, and is full of a dark miasma, with a bunch of barrels inside. Kuan-Xi thinks that the ritual is distilling the essence of death into the barrels (with the sacrifice of the tied-up soldiers), and it's a kind of shockingly blatant ritual from the point of view of a sorcerer. Takanata looks with Eyes of the I Ching, and thinks that each demon is standing in a portion of the World Below that has been pushed up from below by Toro - so don't be standing next to a demon that falls, lest you end in the World Below yourself.
Merit extends the ritual circle with chalk, convincing the mooks that he has extended the ritual and can kill all of them. Lumang shouts at him that he's making it worse and to stop it.
Various fighting ensues - Music can only be hit once and can sway people's minds, Pollution damages people's stats, Wall is hard to hurt. Deng apparently specializes in killing demons next to Kuan-Xi so that she takes the most thwackback. Music convinces Deng to attack a party member, and Merit promptly triggers it by throwing a knife at him. Kuan-Xi is similarly targeted against Kasumi. Lijuan tries to net-arrow the extra-dangerous Deng, but he parries it back at her, entangling her. The panda starts charging for him, but is far enough away that it can't close immediately. A large number of the Gainful Protection bad guys flee Merit's "expanded" ritual, including the leader.
People drag sacrifices out of the zone of miasma, until there are none left to be killed, and the room gets darker. Takanata uses Hand of Fate to push Wall back to the World Below, and the ritual ends, but the dark miasma does not dissipate. Merit suggests that some animals will need to be sacrificed to finish it up.
- "I didn't know we were going to be sacrificed, I thought we were just going to take out the other house heads. I didn't sign up for this." -Lumang
The barrels include two super-deadly poison, and ten ultra-pure water (Kuan-Xi is impressed by the purity). One of the captured bad guys says that the pure water is to "kill" a poison barrel if it starts to leak - three pure barrels will kill a poison barrel. The group decides that keeping the poison isn't worth it, and kills the two poison barrels, leaving four pure water for Kuan-Xi to play with.
Lumang wants to go back to house headquarters to start knocking heads together, but the party convinces him not to - they don't know how many people are in on the demon conspiracy. The people fleeing are likely to have returned there to destroy any evidence, so Merit calls in a White Lotus strike team to send after them. Then, he wakes up a pig farmer he happens to know, to get a couple of pigs to kill.
So... should they call anyone in to the scene of the crime? The group knows a detective from the House of Benevolent Oversight, but that would mean that the royal house would have leverage against Gainful Protection, which has people's friends in it.
Kuan-Xi scries on the local headquarters, and catches the tail end of the fight between the White Lotus and the escaped bad guys; one guy is burning documents and the other two are fighting the strike team. In the end, the bad guys are knocked out, and the White Lotus brings back three quanta of evidence, which can be used as blackmail against the House of Gainful Protection, either to damage the House generally or to force them to promote someone, or perhaps something else.
The leader of the team doing the ritual seems to have been in charge of the plan; his higher-ups knew he had a method of generating terrible poison, but didn't ask questions. The attack on the bandits was his proof of concept demonstration, after which they doubled his budget and gave him some lower-level flunkies to "help". Using their own people seemed the easiest to be able to cover it up; other house's members would be investigated, and sometimes the tongs get inexplicably involved if you pick up beggars. So... the head of the house wasn't in on the demon sacrifices, but he was certainly fine with scary scary poison gas. As far as the captive knows, there aren't any more poison gas barrels left.
- Wei Han does some demonstrations for Spirit Builder on the North Wall.
- Xiao Fa and Lijuan see Master Tranh.
- Xiao Fa tells Shanxi he wants to become Emperor. Shanxi boggles.