|"Of all the thirty-six alternatives, running away is best."|| It is the Day of the Early Serpent in Fox Descending, in the in the two hundred and fifty-ninth Year of the Fox since the opening of the Exalted Library.|
The run takes place on the way to and in the City of Light in the Illuminated Precincts.
Once the circus's river journey leaves the Tanzhe Plain and enters the Illuminated Precincts, Ringmaster Te says that they need to start performing again a few last times. Paying the ship's captain to travel at night has been expensive, so the plan will be to travel through the Precincts, putting in for the night in the late afternoon, setting up and performing without the big tent, and then leaving again in the morning. It will be a little slower, but not a lot, and will make enough money to pay for the crossing back to the Butterfly Kingdom.
The first night of performance goes uneventfully enough, but on the second night (on Yellow Jay Island, mostly a fishing town), Cai Wen notices during the show that one of the elephants is limping. He points this out to Ringmaster Te, who arranges to have a dramatic elephant swap in the middle of the show (Lijuan ends up being flung into a trampoline) to take out the wounded elephant. Xiao Fa, who is not performing, checks out the elephant, and finds that someone appears to have stabbed it in the foot quite recently - maybe just before the show, maybe during the show. Xiao Fa reports this to Takanata, who is also not performing. Takanata, who has just written a prophetic poem, says it was probably a ghost, and starts thinking about what sorts of undead would be haunting the circus.
Xiao Fa passes along the warning, and tells the acrobats in particular to be wary of ropes being mysteriously snapped underneath them, as the circus finishes the finale. Lijuan goes to watch over the elephant, which the elephant handlers have put in a stall with its foot raised, to keep it from walking on the wounded foot.
Everyone else converges on Takanata's tent to ask why he thinks it's ghosts. He shows them his poem:
- A seed sown in the north grows to bear a bitter fruit
- A seed planted by my hand in its shade grows as well
- Corruption seeks to destroy even those not its enemy
- But makes enemies of those it does not destroy
The obvious seeds from the north are undead, and if the elephant was stabbed by an unseen foe during the performance, that probably means a ghost rather than a zombie.
- "Well, elephants might not be its enemy..." -Anto
Lijuan hires some of the local urchins to watch the circus at night, paying them a (to them) exciting wage of one zhu each. They don't spot anyone suspicious around the circus, except for Hana, who they carefully follow as she wanders around the circus trying unsuccessfully to contact any ghosts.
Xiao Fa does his best to heal the elephant's foot; it may be able to walk again tomorrow. Lijuan tries to track the culprit, and does find the elephant's blood trail, which she follows back to the elephant pen. Ah, so it wasn't stabbed during the performance after all. Maybe it wasn't ghosts...
- "This elephant was stabbed IN ITS OWN PEN!" -Cai Wen
- "That's a shame. Um... where are you going with this?" -Anto
As it turns out, the answer is that Cai Wen is hoping to inspire Anto to detective around and find out who stabbed the elephant, but Anto's only detective tool is "find someone who needs my help", and he isn't sure helping the elephant-stabber is the way to go. Maybe the attack was to delay the circus from getting to the City of Light, since it meant the elephant shouldn't be walking (or riding on a boat with only three legs for balance). Some confusing conversation follows, as the group tries to decide the correct reaction to an attempted delay: leave the elephant behind? Split up from the circus and run for the City of Light with the Tincture? Be delayed?
- "I think the people who delayed the circus to delay us are not the people we want to keep from knowing that we're with the circus." -Anto
Xiao Fa inspects the elephant's chi, but it's much as you might expect from a wounded elephant - troubled, but not magically so. Anto suggests waiting until morning to see if more clues develop, in case it becomes clearer what the purpose of delay is.
Late that night, Inspector Ando wakes Takanata up with a whispered warning, and a caveat that he was never here, but then Takanata goes back to sleep until morning. Hana also walks around the camp looking for ghosts again, but finds nothing other than one of Lijuan's urchins following her.
In the morning, at breakfast in the tea tent, Takanata says that someone who was not here has warned him that there is an Imperial Courier (with a small troop of Dragon Army guardsmen) waiting for the circus in the City of Light, with a summons to the Hidden City for a command performance. Any portion of the circus which heads in that direction will probably not be returning - they have probably figured out how to have an "accident" which would affect the whole circus. The advice Takanata was given was to see if the courier could be temporarily put out of the way while the circus gets by him - the circus as a whole is probably not sneaky or fast enough to evade a dedicated courier.
In order to find out more, though, it will be necessary to send a small party ahead to find out more about the messenger and the message. After some contemplation of various disguises, the group decides to travel as "Takanata and his family/entourage", explicitly not part of the circus.
- "It's an order for a command performance. I have never performed for the circus." -Takanata
As they go, the group contemplates ways to put the courier out of the way.
- "We could encase the messenger in ice, get the circus by him, then dump sea water on him and run." -Hana
Once to the City of Light, Lijuan and Anto (on the "no going off without a buddy" theory) chat up some local kids at the docks, for gossip and general information, but things have been relatively peaceful here since the blockade ended.
Cai Wen and Hana go look for Willow, and then have lunch with her and a friend of hers from the Exalted Library, who she invites along when the idea that Hana also needs a date is broached. As it turns out, Hana has to spend much of lunch charming/distracting her date while Cai Wen briefs Willow on the courier problem - she encourages the young man (named Meng Shou) to talk about ghosts, which he does rather entertainingly, and also mentions that there is a rumor that the Exalted Library is haunted. He's never seen the ghost himself, but some of the younger librarians have; he's said to be an old researcher who died before completing his research, who still seeks to finish. This leads to a digressionary conversation about whether knowledge or research can ever be evil - loyal to his librarian roots, Meng Shou tries to claim not.
Meanwhile, Willow says that the Council of Revered Sages has a trick that they do when an order comes down from the Hidden City that they don't want to follow (because, really, the Council of Revered Sages often doesn't like doing things) - that they'll distract the messenger for a little while while they send up an evidence packet that will get inserted into the bureaucracy indicating that whatever it was, has already been done. Even if the people at the top realize that it wasn't, it's very hard to get the machinery of the bureaucracy to try to enact the order again.
She explains the general mechanic - in this case, the evidence packet needs to have various piece of "proof" that the circus actually was in the Hidden City, flavored appropriately for each country and its Regent and its own sub-bureaucracy. Her suggestions are:
- Illuminated Precincts - A note from the Precincts Regent thanking them for their service. She can provide this one, as they have a lot of them on hand (their Regent is in on the trick).
- Butterfly Kingdom - a piece of art, like a sketch of people by one of the landmarks.
- Shrouded Isle - Notes on a magic ritual experiment done there.
- Hon'eth Arcade - receipts for reasonably significant stuff that was bought or sold there.
- Savanna of Tears - a giftworthy weapon brought for the Regent.
- Strand - a note regarding a secret found out from one of the circus members.
- Qin Chao Steppes - A report from a North Wall garrison.
- Roof of the World - A blessing from one of the High Temples for the Regent.
- Forest of Chin - A pledge of alliance to the Regent's house from another warlord in the present Tanzhe conflict.
- Jade Taiga - A message for the Regent sealed with a (Taiga) Royal Seal.
- Iron Mountain - A report on the current bandit situation, delivered by the circus.
- Hidden City - Willow doesn't have a good suggestion for this one.
For each piece of evidence, the final "duping roll" will have +1 die and +1 skill; 6 is the minimum necessary for the deception to work, and 7+ is better (so as to, in essence, fool more than half of the Regency Council and/or its bureaucracy). She notes that it may be possible to come up with a better idea for some of them; using a lot of worse ideas won't work well. One of the above can be replaced by a letter from a local to their Regent, "carried by the circus", as well. Also, when she hears of the warrant saying "whatever the bearer does is done on behalf of the Regency Council," she notes that that will, one, work for the Hidden City, and also count as +3 for general bureaucratic spiffiness.
Takanata and Xiao Fa, having no better two-person mission to embark upon, find a nice hotel for the group to stay in. They get the "Garden Suite", which Takanata pays for.
Eventually, the party regroups at the hotel; Cai Wen brings Willow along to offer advice.
Lijuan, Anto, and Hana do a preliminary surveillance of the courier, whose name is Niyo. They aren't masters of stealth, but can keep an eye on him from a distance. He spends the afternoon wandering around the city, making Gather Information rolls. He confirms that the circus is a few days upriver, though their advance people are in town. He doesn't seem inclined to deliver his message to the advance guys - probably Ringmaster Te is the appropriate recipient. Lijuan stays outside the hotel to watch it for the night to see if anyone meets him late at night - nobody seems to, but she does find out that the six guards have two rooms on either side of him. They don't sleep in the same room, but they'll probably hear any trouble and be able to be there quickly. It's not cold enough to have fires built in the rooms yet (it's early autumn), but they do have lanterns and candles.
The rest of the party discusses various plans. Could they convince him that the circus is heading for a different port? Possibly, but then he'd probably just go and meet the circus en route, and he can go a lot faster than they can. Willow notes that the way her boss would do it would be to arrange to get him extra-drunk, and then fake that he had gotten in a fight with someone really important, so he could be jailed for a little while. Nobody here is quite that important, though, except possibly Takanata, and they don't have control of the local government the same way.
Takanata also recalls that they know Yuwen Fire-Eye, the fire sorceress, in the City of Light; she could be useful for any plan involving Ice Chips of Doom and Sudden Fires.
The next step may be to arrange to meet him and see if he can be bribed or persuaded not to deliver his message. Willow can arrange for party invitations in a few days; Takanata decides to throw a smaller party sooner than that, for a preliminary meeting. Xiao Fa does some shopping, and finds some herbs that he can put in wine that will exacerbate the effect of the alcohol, without changing the taste too much.
Takanata has the hotel arrange a party (though Xiao Fa rearranges things a bit to make them more harmonious and conducive to quiet conversations), and invites:
- Commander Sun, the head of the local army garrison
- the ambassador from the Hon'eth Arcade
- the ambassador from the Savanna
- the ambassador from Iron Mountain
- Messenger Niyo (who brings one guard)
- one of the Exalted Librarians that Takanata has met
Anto talks to the Iron Mountain ambassador about more details about the bandit situation. The bandit attacks seem to be principally on merchants and anyone of importance - occasionally, turnip farmers and the like will be able to get through, but people disguised as turnip farmers are quickly attacked. Anto asks after Master Koji, and providentially, the ambassador has heard that he's currently in the lowlands.
Takanata chats with Messenger Niyo - he seems like a nice enough young man. Niyo asks if Takanata is working as an advance person for the circus - Takanata claims no, though he has travelled with them in the past. Takanata also chats with the Savanna ambassador; he seems to have no hard feelings about the conflict with the Butterfly Kingdom, and is in "graceful winner" mode, about it being good to have resolved the unfortunate difficulties and come to a resolution. Now, his ire is directed at the Forest of Chin, and the conflict in the Tanzhe. The party gets a little more detail on how things started - House Zhen staked out a claim on Savanna land, and when the Savanna struck back at them, they dragged in other allied warlords. That's traditionally how that sort of conflict goes, he says.
Meanwhile, Hana uses her feminine wiles on Messenger Niyo to get him talking. She's taking a ladylike enough pose that he doesn't make any serious passes at her, but he is definitely interested. He does admit to having a message for the circus for a command performance, but he seems to think that that will be a great honor for them. He likes traveling and seeing new places and new people - he appreciates the east coast most, and doesn't care for travel in the Strand, but who does? Since he has his meals and lodging paid for, he saves his salary and does attend some theater in the Hon'eth Arcade when he can. He does seem like an idealist, rather than part of an Evil Conspiracy, and nobody likes the idea of killing him even to save the circus.
Cai Wen talks to Commander Sun (who he's previously spoken to about the Southron troubles), and tells him about the incident in the Tanzhe, with the two armies fighting over the Temple of Eternal Dream. Commander Sun doesn't seem to think that the part about the two armies is very surprising, and officially doesn't want to hear about having been pretending to be a Dragon Army garrison. Commander Sun mentions that there seems to be more infiltration by Southron spies than you usually see - and no, they don't all look like swarthy-skinned guys with funny accents. They tend to use the obvious Southrons for their strike teams, to fool people into thinking that if they don't look Southern, they aren't.
Cai Wen asks the Arcade ambassador what he might want to buy here to trade in the Hidden City, if the circus is going that way. The ambassador suggests magic items and fireworks. Commander Sun doesn't want to interrogate Hana during the party, so he asks her to come by later to ask her more details about her experiences with the Southerners.
Particularly Mad Plans
Once Takanata's party has finished, the group convenes again to brainstorm. Messenger Niyo seems nice - would it be possible to play on his sympathies to get him to not deliver the message? He does take his job very seriously, though, and probably can't be easily convinced - and then if he does fail to deliver the message, he'll probably be in trouble. And he does know what the message says, so just switching the scrolls will probably not work.
Lijuan suggests accepting the message, going to the Hidden City, waiting for the bad guys to try to get them, and get them back instead. This is not popular as a plan, however.
- "The people who warned us stabbed the elephant - why do we trust them?" -Lijuan
While Niyo may not be corruptible, he seems eminently seducible. They don't have any real evidence to demonstrate that giving them the order would be a bad thing. Maybe Enlightened Melina's 17 successes of unveiling the future would make it clearer? On the other hand, they don't really know what Melina would say, and if it looks like an "accident", it still might not convince him that the message is bad. What if they take the message, say "Okay, we're going!" and go to the Butterfly Kingdom instead? Well, the troop of the Dragon Army might be there for an escort - it's not big enough to capture the circus, but it'll definitely notice if they don't go where they've been ordered to. And that would give the Hidden City an excuse to be mad at the Butterfly Kingdom, which is dangerous.
Anto suggests disguising someone as Niyo, committing a crime, and running back to Niyo's inn, to get him arrested. Cai Wen suggests tricking him into insulting the Savanna ambassador, so that they duel. Encasing him in ice still sounds attractive, too.
Cai Wen asks Willow if she can get her boss to take Niyo out with their standard tactic - she thinks she can get them to do that, or to arrange for the evidence packet, but probably not both.
The mad plans come thick and fast. How about setting a house on fire, with fake screaming coming from inside, so he'll run in to save the people trapped inside - and then they can throw in an Ice Chip of Doom? Takanata isn't keen on setting a random Precincts house on fire, even if there isn't anyone home, and suggests that the party should focus their "gratuitiously illegal stuff" on Niyo rather than random homeowners. Maybe the party can offer him a ride to the Butterfly Kingdom to meet the circus there instead of here? Then, they can make him sick with a favor from Beko the Red Cow! This one might be a little too convoluted. The Shackles of Silence also could be useful in any plan involving stashing Messenger Niyo somewhere, though it isn't clear anyone has the capability of putting them on him in combat time.
Xiao Fa does some more shopping, picking up a medical tincture that one would use for a stronger unconsciousness, and some wine skins that can be used to shoot streams of water, which he fills with sea water.
Finally, what will turn into the final plan is suggested. At the next party, Hana will use her feminine wiles to lure Niyo to a hotel room, and drug him. Anto and Lijuan will be disguised as ninja, and will thump the guard, while making it clear that ninja are kidnapping Hana (and Niyo just got in the way). Then, he'll be put in a crate on a ship headed for the Port of Propitious Voyage, and the party will spend a few days running around in a panic "looking for Hana" until they find her.
Cai Wen arranges with a sailor on a mildly skeevy boat for a crate to be left for him on the dock, and for the boat to not turn around when someone mildly important but with no proof of who he is, is found as a stowaway. The sailor charges Cai Wen 8 li, which he will need to share around with some other of the hands on the boat, to make sure the crew generally agrees to not turn around; Cai Wen also thinks they're only mildly skeevy, so won't just dump him overboard. It would be unfortunate to go to this much trouble to arrange to not kill Niyo or even get him fired, and then have him be drowned later.
Lijuan finds another good hotel with windows onto a garden that abuts a quiet street, and a room is pre-rented. A cart is arranged to be outside the garden gate, ready for a quick getaway.
Anto and Lijuan are the most convincing of the ninja, which is good, because they'll be the ones the guard gets the best look at. Xiao Fa has to be satisfied with a hooded cloak that disguises his features for one success.
Hana is "Kidnapped"
Takanata does a brief tactical Connections reading:
- The courier does not know what will actually happen to the Circus if it is summoned to the Hidden City.
- If the courier is shipped to the Hon'eth Arcade, it will delay him long enough to get the Circus past the City of Light.
- If it looks like Hanako was kidnapped, no one will quickly associated the Circus with being responsible for the kidnapping.
- It will be Bad for the Circus to be summoned to the Hidden City.
- If we finish the Report Mechanic, it will protect the Circus from being summoned again.
- The courier will only bring one guardsman to the party.
The I Ching confirms that this is all basically true (with caveats about being able to change the future if you try). Since the plan seems basically sound, Takanata attends the larger party that Willow has arranged for an invitation to, with Hana in tow. Xiao Fa makes a brief stealthy appearance, in order to drop his herbs in Niyo's wine, so he gets extra-drunk.
Takanata makes sure to talk to people and be noticed; he also is able to come up with someone to contact later for a "letter from home" for the Report Mechanic.
Hana is gay and sparkling, and ensnares Niyo in conversation. She hints that her Uncle Takanata is so restrictive to travel with, and sometimes she just likes to get away for some more... private, intimate fun. Niyo is no match for Hana's seduction roll, and agrees to sneak out with her. His guard, Wei-Han-like, looks as if he is sure this is a bad idea, but doesn't argue.
They leave, and Hana manages to suggest the hotel that has already been prepared. Niyo tries to pay for the hotel room, but it's already been paid for. Drunk and happy, he's sure that this is just because everything is going his way. The guard stations himself outside the door, while Niyo and Hana head in for the promised seduction. Hana does an extra-sexy tea ceremony, with "certain roots, for the man..." in the tea, which gives a good reason for the tea to taste funny due to Xiao Fa's knockout drugs, and after drinking his tea, Niyo is quickly unconscious. Hana manages to turn his collapse into some bouncing and squeaking of bed springs.
Lijuan and Anto are already in the room, stationed behind a screen; Xiao Fa and Cai Wen climb through the window from the garden. There is a bit of noise at that, and the guard raps on the door, asking if everything is all right. Hana makes some Appropriate Noises, and Cai Wen joins in for the male counterpoint (much to Hana's mortification), and the guard goes back to guarding. Xiao Fa and Cai Wen get Niyo handed out the window to Xiao Fa; Cai Wen grabs Hana, and Hana screams, alerting the guard for real.
The guard chops the door in, but Lijuan shoots him and Anto wraps him up in his chain before he can react further. Cai Wen hisses in Senatali "Come quietly, or we'll kill your boyfriend too!" to Hana, loudly enough for the guard to hear. Lijuan and Anto start in on the guard, while Cai Wen and Xiao Fa drag their "prisoners" through the garden to the cart. Hana "makes a break for it" and goes out through a wall to make her own way away.
The guard breaks out for long enough to chop Anto a few times. Ho (and other dogs) bark outside loudly enough to keep the alarm from spreading past the immediate lobby of the inn. The innkeeper shows up with a crossbow, and hits Lijuan with it (not very eptly), and some of the patrons get involved with shoe-throwing and attempting to first-aid the guard. All in all, it's a pretty convincing ninja attack; after the guard has fallen, both Lijuan and Anto make it out the window and across the garden with "Leaping Flame".
Hana sneaks back to the party's hotel room, changes into looking like Hiro, and waits for Takanata to get back from the party to ask him where "his" sister is.
Meanwhile, Cai Wen drives the cart to the dock, strips Niyo of all his stuff and his livery, and puts him in the crate. (He has a tattoo on his arm, of a crane in flight.) Anto goes to a bar for the rest of the night to establish his alibi - since he's somewhat wounded, it's better that he not meet up with the guards. Lijuan recovers Ho and heads back to the hotel, meeting up with "Hiro" and Takanata, and they play out a scene for no audience of Hana being missing. "Hiro" doesn't believe that Hana would have gone off with some boy, and suspects mind control. He's very indignant.
However, when "Hiro" and Takanata go back to the party to gather information, they do in fact learn that Hana left with Niyo and his guard.
- "I tell you what, I will send a sharply worded note to the imperial messenger." -Takanata, trying to placate "Hiro".
Back at the site of the kidnapping, the city guards have been investigating. The guard has been patched up a bit and explained what seems to have happened; shortly thereafter, some more guards show up to ask Takanata about his niece. Commander Sun is also summoned, as he was investigating the Southron kidnappings before. Enough people are able act shocked and worried (or Takanata, who is acting to let nothing slip of his embarrassment of his niece having gone off for an illicit liaison...) that Commander Sun is not suspicious. Various guards are sent in various directions; Cai Wen goes along with the ones going to the docks, and manages to divert them away from looking at the north-going ships (since Southern cultists would likely be going south). The next morning, Lijuan spreads rumors among the urchins about Southron ninjas, and Commander Sun assigns a few guards to stick with Hiro, since he is in theory also at risk from Southron kidnappers. Takanata takes the time to read Commander Sun's I Ching: he is doomed to not be the one who solves the plot he most cares about, but he will make slow and steady progress towards discovering information about it.
Since Hiro is under watch, it will be hard to "find" Hana immediately; the plan is laid out to go off in search of Hana with Anto's "find people in trouble shtick", pretend to rescue her from the ninjas en route, and then meet up with the circus to disguise Hiro as Hana before announcing the rescue.
Before all that happens, though, the group remembers the Report Mechanic, and contemplates how much they can gather together. Some things (a report from a North Wall garrison) are not easily obtainable, and some (a blessing from a High Temple) might be findable with a lot of searching, but it's harder to plausibly search for random paperwork instead of Hana (and it's gotten late). Some other options are contemplated: a report on the perfidy of the Imperial Alchemist's apprentice in the Forest of Chin might count, but could draw the attention of the alchemist; a lesser report with no names, but also with the spirit bottle, would also probably count. In the end, the evidence packet contains:
- Hidden City: the Regency Council warrant (+3 bonus)
- Jade Taiga: the report with the Taiga royal seal
- Strand: the secret that the Circus is carrying the Tincture of Pure Respite to the Butterfly King
- Iron Mountain: Anto compiles a report on what the Iron Mountain ambassador said about the bandits
- Savanna of Tears: the red Southron bow and arrows (as these aren't mechanically interesting weapons, this is the most lame of the inclusions, but Willow says one lame one will be okay)
- Illuminated Precincts: a letter from the Regent, provided by Willow
- Hon'eth Arcade: Takanata burns a karma to find Ando again, who can provide appropriate customs receipts
- Shrouded Isle: an Ice Chip of Doom (Cai Wen gives his to Willow, who has been intrigued by all this talk of encasing people in ice)
- Butterfly Kingdom: Takanata burns his reputation to find an art collector with a picture of a Hidden City landmark, and does a quick sketch of people in the circus there.
- One letter from a resident of the Forest of Chin
With 13 dice total, there are 10 successes of fooling-the-bureaucracy, so the circus is safe!
- Master Zhou goes to visit the Temple of the Immovable Soul, where Iron Shirt Jo-Jo hails from.
- Anto, Master Zhou, Shen-Ji, Li Merit, Cai Wen, Yoshi, and Xiao Fa visit a temple of the Selfless Path in order to lay Amikiri's remains to rest.
- Xiao Fa, Master Zhou, Cai Wen, and Wei Han putter around the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival looking for Shanxi.
- Wei Han heads south to ask a favor of the Bearers of Swift Response...