|"So long as I can keep a secret, it is my prisoner. If I let it slip, then I am its prisoner."|| It is the day of the Early Fox in the Month of the Serpent, in the first Year of the Fox since the crowning of the Viridian Queen.|
The run takes place in and around Nine Terraces, the capital of the Strand
A Long Lunch Break
The circus caravan has stopped for lunch, on the way to Nine Terraces, the capital of the Strand. The lunch hour seems to stretch for quite some time - Takanata is pleased to have a leisurely pause in the tea tent, for three or four hours, but some of the others are curious what is going on.
Hiro pesters Takanata to see the day's poem:
- A mask is always beautiful
- Smiles with perfect grace
- But shows nothing
- Beneath the mask lies the skin
- Beneath the skin lies the truth
- Beneath the truth
- Lies the secret
Finally, someone heads to investigate, and discovers that Li Merit is up at the front of the Circus train dealing with an elephant emergency. Apparently, one of the elephants got a rash, and has jumped into the soothing swamp. Another elephant fell in trying to pull the first one out.
- "The first elephant, sank into the swamp.
- The second elephant... sank into the swamp.
- The third elephant burned down, fell over, and sank into the swamp.
- The fourth elephant stayed up!" -Cael
Unfortunately, like Merit, Xian does not do so well on his Medicine roll, and notes that one elephant has a rash, but cannot identify it. The elephant that doesn't have a rash is finally coaxed back out of the swamp, and the leeches removed. Of course, in this process Xian is covered with mud and leeches. Meanwhile, Min Feng is able to identify the rash as due to poison rhubarb, and Xian and Merit can, from that, recall that the solution is a mint poultice. The tea tent has some mint tea, as do Hiro and Hana, but not nearly enough to coat an elephant. That means foraging in the swamp, unfortunately, but Hiro volunteers.
Wei Han has noticed some spearmint vines around a saparilla tree near the road, and Hiro manages to cut several vines and delicately pull them away from the tree without shaking it or coating himself in saparilla sap. Xian, Min Feng, and Li Merit turn the spearmint vines into a poultice (Merit saves the spears for use later), and treat the affected elephant with it.
With the elephants back on the road it's time to "Line up for de-leeching!" Merit says keep the leeches, too, as they can have medicinal properties when applied with skill. While using small flames to remove leeches, no one gets caught in an ice chip of doom. Li Merit does find the ice chips quite interesting though, and so asks to borrow one from Xian. Confused Xian stalls untill finally Wei Han loans his to Li Merit.
With the circus finally ready to move out, people ask Li Merit if they should wake up the ringmaster. Ringmaster Te was taking a nap during the lunch break, but that's several hours long now. When he does wake, he fusses quite a bit over the fact that the circus might be late getting to their command performance. The tea tent is hurriedly packed up and it's marching at double time all the way to the city. The rashy elephant is taken off of the performance list for the evening.
The circus caravan does manage to make it to Nine Terraces - the crowds which have gotten bored and begun to sit down, stand up again and cheer. The circus is shown to the park set aside for their use, directly in front of the royal Palace. There appears to be a construction project in progress - one wing of the palace is covered in scaffolding and stonework seems to be being repaired. The green-robed majordomo is very distressed that the command performance might end up being late, but Merit's practice with event planning gets everything underway smoothly, and soon all the tents are set up and ready to go.
The doors to the palace open, and two lines of dancers emerge, to gracefully and sinuously dance until falling down in two parallel lines, between which the Viridian Queen and the royal party walk. The Queen is quite young - perhaps not quite as young as the young women of the party, but probably in her twenties.
The circus gives a strong performance - the Queen is particularly impressed by Min Su, and invites her to the royal box to congratulate her. She also invites Hiro, and Kasumi and Wei Han, and the large soldier beside her presents them with scrolls inviting them to attend the Whispered Ball on the following evening. Ringmaster Te also thinks that he can bring a few more guests due to the accolades given the circus in general.
Before then, Ringmaster Te suggests that Merit and the others go do... whatever the secret thing is they came to the Strand to do (and Master Alchemist Hsi does live nearby in the village of Qiqing). That sounds like a fine idea, and Merit briefs them on what he knows about the Whispered Ball as they head out, Hiro carrying the Sphere of Harmony in a secret pocket.
- Spying is not only allowed at the party, it's practically required. If you are clever, you can get out not having spilled any secrets and pick up a bunch of secrets from the other guests, but do watch yourself.
- Mechanics: The ball is similar to a regular combat, except your hit points are coming from Status and Resolve. Your attacks come from Charisma instead of Accuracy. Skills like Conversation provide x1 attacks; Fast Talk and Conversational Interrogation provide x2 attacks, and Seduction provides x3. Spycraft and Strong Will act as a general dodge skills. Damage is usually successes x multiplier +Int (instead of +Str). If you lose all of your "hit points," you give a secret to whoever "took you down."
- It's considered dreadfully insulting to leave before the Queen departs.
Perhaps people should arrange to do terribly embarrassing things so as to have some non-important secrets to lose? In any case, the party heads to the village of Qiqing. Kasumi briefly "scouts" off the road on the trip, and wanders through some poison rhubarb without noticing.
The group arrives in Qiqing fairly late, and knocks on Master Hsi's door. The door is opened by a young man (Reishi, his nephew), and Merit explains that they seek an audience with Master Hsi. Reishi thinks it is rather late - do they have an appointment? Er, no. Is this an emergency? No, not that either. Merit looks to Takanata, who has a bit more status, for assistance. Takanata introduces himself as an emissary from the Butterfly Court; Reishi is somewhat convinced, and offers "If you and the young sir <referring to Hiro> would like to come inside, your retainers could wait outside?" Takanata decides he would rather have everyone there than meet immediately, and instead suggests that they return at ten in the morning tomorrow.
The question is raised as to whether a guard should be posted over the alchemist in the meantime.
- "If something were to happen to him before tomorrow morning, our mission will be over." -Wei Han
- "Oh, come on! What could possibly happen!" -Hiro
Takanata notes that unless the alchemist has a Tincture of Pure Respite immediately to hand, there will be more time than between now and the morning, during which Something Might Happen to Master Hsi. Takanata suggests staying at the inn (and then Wei Han can watch the alchemist's house if he really wants to). Master Zhou objects, warning that the innkeeper will be able to tell exactly what they are all there for (as was the case when people visited to buy poisons from the Ancient. Various people object that walking back through the swamp in the middle of the night is likely to be a problem as well, though a different kind of problem. Hiro points out that they still haven't done any ridiculous things to be found out as secrets - will that be easier at the inn or back with the circus?
After much argument about where to stay, the party heads back to the capital and sleeps at the circus. Kasumi gets covered in spearmint to deal with her poison rhubarb, and a bunch of the circus girls hit on Hiro, hoping for an invitation to the ball tomorrow. Hiro, having been encouraged to generate extra secrets he can have spilled at the party, takes one for the team and goes and makes out in a hayloft. Also that night, Li Merit and Wei Han head into town to run a "little errand" for Merit. He meets a guy in the alley and items change hands. He passes his contact the Ice Chip of Doom that Wei Han loaned him, for further study. The contact says to watch out, as he was being followed earlier, but perhaps that's not so unusual here in the Strand.
The next morning, Hiro, having been reminded that perhaps he'll need some social cover at the party, finally invites one of the girls (named Belle) to accompany him to the ball. She's thrilled and heads off to prepare.
- "Why would I do that?"
- "Think of her as a Meat Shield for social combat!"
Visiting Master Hsi
Then, the party heads back to the village of Qiqing to finally talk to Master Hsi. The apprentice Goji lets them in and starts to offer everyone tea, but is distracted by Kasumi's minty fresh scent. He finally recovers, when apprentice Reishi arrives with tea, and sees to the party's needs. Eventually Master Hsi arrives and, seeing Kasumi, immediately offer his help: "I gather that you are here on a matter of... ah, rhubarb difficulties."
Takanata takes charge and explains the actual mission. Master Hsi states that a Tincture of Pure Respite can not be provided without great need, and even then the cost would be great as well. Takanata indicates that someone of no small importance to the Butterfly Court has been afflicted with the Terrible Oil of Wasting Death, and they are authorized to offer one of the Great Treasures of the Butterfly Kingdom. Hiro takes the Jade Sphere out of his hidden pocket and presents it to Master Hsi for inspection. Master Hsi is impressed.
- "Oh my. You offer one of the ancient Puzzle Boxes of Guansho." -Master Hsi
- "Ah ha! I've been saying for months that there was something inside of that thing!" -Li Merit
Negotiations are interrupted at this point, as there is a commotion outside. It seems Master Hsi's third apprentice (Quai) is attempting to keep a bunch of royal guards out of the private meeting. Min Feng overhears the conversation and manages to prep people for their arrival, so the puzzle box is quickly hidden before they burst in.
By order of the Viridian Queen, these guards have come here to escort Master Hsi to the palace. He demands to know why, and is told that the Queen's emissaries to Iron Mountain have just returned, and there is trouble he is needed to deal with. The guards also state that the party must now be confined here until the matter is resolved, as this information is not to be spread until the Queen is satisfied. Takanata manages to get the party invited along to the palace rather than confined, so the guards can keep an eye on them - as well as the fact that they might prove useful.
- "You know, there was a time when I would have doubted that. Now it wouldn't surprise me." -Li Merit
Apprentice Quai also comes along. Master Hsi brings his green satchel and everyone sets off to the palace. Interestingly, no survival rolls are needed in the swamps when traveling with royal guards. En route, Kasumi asks if Quai can provide something to neutralize her mint affliction before meeting the queen. Quai, always looking for a score, pulls out a small vial and offers it to Kasumi for the bargain price of three li. Kasumi sadly declines, and everyone tries to cheer her up by saying that the smell of mint suits her.
A Mysterious Ailment
At the palace, they are brought into a room with several people on beds, apparently in the throes of some terrible illness. The Queen herself is there tending to one of them and thanks Master Hsi for arriving so quickly.
- "Oh Master Hsi. Excellent that you could have... brought the circus?" -Viridian Queen
She confesses that one of her representatives to Iron Mountain was her good friend and tutor when she was younger, and dearly wishes that he survive. The emissaries were sent to investigate the rumors of happenings at Iron Mountain, ostensibly as part of the usual diplomatic interchange. The mission returned early, but just as they were about to deliver their report to the Queen, they fell over, almost as one. Within minutes, all four were apparently dying. Suspecting poison, she sent immediately for Master Hsi.
Master Hsi gets to work and is quite puzzled. After much careful examination, he declares that he can find no cause - they are not poisoned or ill, and it is almost as if their organs were simply crumbling from within. This is not good.
Something about that phrase strikes Master Zhou's memory, and he asks to examine the stricken. At first, the Queen is not sure what use circus performers can be, but he introduces himself as Master Zhou of Iron Mountain, and she allows as that might be relevant. One of the Queen's guards whispers to her (overheard by Min Feng) that if this is Master Zhou, he is indeed one of the three great masters of Iron Mountain, but is currently rumored to be in exile.
Master Zhou's examination confirms that they have been struck by the Quivering Palm, one of the deepest secrets of his style of Kung Fu - but he does not remember the technique to reverse it. The queen looks thoughtful and then questions him about it. "You should know... and it's secret? It is something you have learned but are not to speak of?" Master Zhou allows as this is true, and admits that some of his memories are hidden from him. The Queen says that she can be of assistance in finding out this secret, if Master Zhou will permit. He agrees.
The Queen asks Master Zhou to choose three of his companions.
- "For what?" -Merit, looking alarmed.
- "Choose me, I'm minty fresh!" -Kasumi
- "Takanata, Li Merit, and the Confounding Xian." -Master Zhou
- "You win! I surrender! No sticks!" -Merit
She tells Zhou to write down, for each companion, the secret that he most wishes to keep secret from each of them. He does so.
While he's thinking, Merit talks to Quai about ordering useful ingredients from elsewhere, in case he travels through here again. Most of what she is interested in is from countries bordering the Northern Wall, as those are the most remote from here. Merit, thinking about it, confirms to himself that the things she wants sound like medicinal ingredients and not poisons, and the main relationship between them is their rarity and price.
Once Master Zhou has come up with three secrets, the Queen tells him to think of the knowledge he wishes to be revealed, and to tell her which of the three secrets she may reveal. He chooses Xian's. The Queen thinks, and tells him that the secret "antidote" to the Quivering Palm is to strike the target with a particularly placed Kung Fu roll for 20s, and that the secret he has written down for Xian is not true - she makes a slight change to correct it.
Hiro points out happily that he also has kung fu, so perhaps he can help? Master Zhou says Hiro does not have kung fu, he has aikido. Hiro says that's better than kung fu, so it ought to count.
Attempting to strike the Queen's favorite for 20s proves more difficult than expected. Three karma and forty-eight dice later, a 10 is finally rolled (Zhou has 10 skill), and the Quivering Palm damage is repaired. Master Zhou also successfully strikes two of the other emissaries, so only one of the four succumbs and perishes.
A Reward of Three Secrets
The Queen tells Master Zhou that she understands that some of the party may be attending the Whispered Ball - in thanks for what he has done, if there are three questions/secrets that he wishes the answer to, she will ensure that those who possess those secrets are at the ball. Then, she gives the group some time to figure out what those three secrets should be. Additionally, Merit contemplates getting copies of the guest list, to compare and see who gets added, to identify which people correspond to the secrets the party wants.
Many possibilities are brought up - who caused the assassination attempt? What happened to Master Zhou's memory? How can he get it back? What's going on with the Northern Barbarians? What's going on with the ice pagoda? Wei Han hints that he knows more about the Northern Wall, but that he's been ordered not to say, so it might count as a secret. Who are the traitors in the Hidden City? What is going on with the Imperial Chi? Who benefits from the changing of the Cycle?
As an aside to that last, Master Zhou notes that as of the next Month of the Spider, they will be in the Year of the Spider, in the Cycle of the Spider, in the Great Cycle of the Spider.
- "You have two months to prepare."
In the end, Master Zhou chooses the subjects:
- What is happening at Iron Mountain?
- What is the point of the changes in the chi of the Empire?
- Who arranged the assassination attempt against Ti Lao?
Li Merit finds some palace servants, and quickly determines that there is a guest list available, and it is trading at "the usual rates". However, since the Queen invited Merit and the others personally, he is likely to be a favored guest, and can get a discount. A pouch of zhu changes hands, and Merit gets the list, which includes (in addition to the party members from the Circus):
- Ambassador from Jade Taiga
- Ambassador from the Savanna of Tears
- Cho-Sun the Talespinner
- Lo Han Su, an herbalist
- Machan Li
- Madame Tsen
- Master Hsi
- Merchant Siri
- Meng Ao
- Zhantai Reng
Hiro thanks the Queen again for inviting him to the Whispered Ball. He notes that the reputation of the secrets revealed at the party is legendary, and he does want to make sure he doesn't reveal anything learned in the palace today. The Queen sees what Hiro is driving at, and grants Hiro the ability to roll for 6s at the party, and says she is terribly sorry about his sister.
The group proceeds back to the circus, and decides that if there is something hidden inside the Sphere of Harmony, it would be good to know that before giving it to Master Hsi. The party cashes in the favor with Mystic Mondo - between his seventeen successes and three karma from Min Feng, he aligns the twenty shells of the Sphere of Harmony, and extracts an amulet:
- Great Talisman of the Butterfly: A white and black medallion. On the front, in silver on white, the cycle is carved around the perimeter. Centered is a butterfly in gold. On the reverse side, in silver on black, are the symbols for "Fenghuangnu: Importance of the World". The medallion doubles the base Status (before any modifiers) of its holder/wearer.
This sounds very useful for the Whispered Ball - Takanata is given the amulet to hold, but if anyone seems in danger of spilling their secret, he can pass it to them.
Treasure extracted, the group heads back to Qiqing and Master Hsi's house. There seems to be a good deal of shouting going on inside - Master Hsi is blaming one or more of his apprentices for using up the rare ingredients for the Tincture of Pure Respite. They all deny it, but it seems likely that this has to do with the previous Tincture having been sneakily made.
Master Hsi is very apologetic - there are particular rare flowers that have to be used either fresh or pickled, and his jar of them has been found to be empty. The party offers to help hunt for the flowers in question, for recompense to be offered when they return, and thence follows a great deal of perilous searching in the swamp. Much travail later, enough flowers have been harvested to produce another Tincture, with some to spare.
Toward the end of the herb-hunting, Merit and Min Feng talk to Goji (who has accompanied them to help). They press him on how the ingredients might have vanished, and how it was an interesting coincidence that a Tincture appeared when the King of the Isle of Butterflies was poisoned, and suggest that if he came clean it might be possible for him not to get in trouble. Min Feng is pretty sure that he was involved with making the other Tincture, but he seems more surprised about the poisoning attempt, and is clearly also a little distressed at the idea that that Tincture didn't actually work. Unfortunately, now he's too scared of being linked to attempted regicide to do any confessing to Merit - but it's also not clear how much more he knows that isn't in the spy report.
When the group returns, Master Hsi finishes preparing the Tincture, and also presents them with ten healing potions as additional recompense. Then, it is back to Nine Terraces, to wash up and dress for the party. Ringmaster Te gives Merit a bit of a Look for having missed the afternoon's circus performance, but he does understand that there was some sort of Important Secret Mission that involved being here.
The Whispered Ball
Merit picks up the revised guest list - there are two additions, and one reminder.
- Chi Master Ko
- Master Kiriel of Iron Mountain
- Machan Li has been sent a reminder to make sure he is coming to the party.
The group proceeds in, through cunning secret doors which separate them and bring them out in different bits of the party. Social combat ensues, as people wander around attempting to discover each other's secrets. In addition to the circus crew, there are four soldiers in green hats, and the Queen, and her bodyguard; the latter are proceeding along the side of the room.
Wei Han notices, at the end of one wing of the large room, that there are some workers fussing with some construction and a block and tackle. He investigates, and notes an old statue, with a plaque reading
- The Beryl Queen
- Beloved Ruler of the Serpentine
There may be a third line, but it's crumbled away quite a bit. Ando is also examining the statue, and between social attacks, asks Wei Han what he thinks it says, and asks if he can ask some of his friends about it as well. Wei Han tells him what it says, and Ando replies, "Oh dear. I was afraid of that." Wei Han tries to claim that he will just answer any questions Ando asks, so the social attacks are unnecessary, though it isn't clear that Ando thinks that's the same thing at all.
A number of secrets are revealed over the course of the evening:
- Merchant Siri just stole one of the Great Treasures of the Butterfly Kingdom, and is trying to avoid having the Savanna ambassador find this out.
Machan Li flirts with Belle, which gives Hiro a free move because someone is hitting on his date.
- Zhantai Reng knows that Master Kar Fai will be returning from beyond the South Wall soon.
- "Did you know that 'Nerve Strike' and 'Got Your Nose' are the same maneuver?" -Kasumi, using Annoy on the nearby martial artists
- Meng Ao's secret is that the Son of the Moon was paying court to the Daughter of the Sun, but to no avail.
- Master Hsi's secret is that he now possesses one of the Great Treasures of the Butterfly Kingdom.
Unfortunately for Master Hsi, the Ambassador from the Savanna is standing quite nearby and overhears this.
Ringmaster Te and Machan Li end up going head to head, and with some help from everyone else, Machan Li goes down.
- Machan Li arranged for the poisoning of the Butterfly King, as well as the antidote and the blockade. He arranged all the parts of this plan, and he has no superiors in this world.
After revealing this, Machan Li runs for the door; Wei Han runs after him and grabs him. This triggers the Queen's Bodyguard, who chops Wei Han and informs him that there shall be no combat at the party. Wei Han protests that Machan Li has confessed to attempted murder of the Butterfly King and is under arrest, but the bodyguard is uninterested, and separates the two combatants. Machan Li gets out through one of the secret doors, though Wei Han has grabbed his shirt, and all can see a large tattoo of a spider covering his back. Wei Han pursues him out, but comes out a different exit, and sees him riding off on a black horse with one white fetlock.
Back inside the party, the Viridian Queen has left, and others are making for the doors as well. A few more secrets are gathered before the party ends:
- Chi Master Ko believes that in the past decade or so, the highways and aspects of the Empire's chi have been being reoriented to provide great chi conduit into the spirits of the Cycle. Given the changes being made, he expects it to be complete in the next few months.
- Master Kiriel is from Iron Mountain, where he was one of the ranking students of Quan Lo. He was ordered by Quan Lo to do battle with Tai Lung, the student of Master Zhou, in order to give Master Zhou time to escape into the spirit world. Since he and Quan Lo's other students were defeated, they cannot retake the mountain itself, as no one can defeat Tai Lung.
- Ando's secret is that when he first took his job, before he knew what it entailed, he crossed the Northern Wall.
- The Ambassador from the Savanna was sent to the Strand (it is an unpleasant posting) because he was in charge of security for one of the Great Treasures of the Butterfly Kingdom, and let it get stolen.
- Madam Tsen notes: "I am a humble augurer and reader of tea and dreams. Eight separate young women have come to me in the past weeks telling me of a dream of a young man named Yoshi. Most hoped that it was a sign of their true love to be, but I suspect something else."
Lo Hansu escapes without going down, and the party turns on each other!
- Belle (Hiro's date) has taken herbs that will make her likely to get pregnant if Hiro takes her to bed.
Hiro, quite startled and displeased to learn this, dumps her immediately.
- Min Feng is learning her shticks from a member of a secret society.
Once the party is over, everyone heads back to the circus. Most head to bed, though Xian and Master Zhou spend an hour sparring first.
- Wei Han reports Machan Li's confession to the Royal Guard, with somewhat inconclusive results. He also briefs the local Dragon Army garrison.
- Takanata, Master Zhou, and Xiao Fa search out Chi Master Ko.
- Master Zhou searches out Master Kiriel.
- Takanata goes to the palace to read the Viridian Queen's I Ching, and chats with her about Butterfly treasures.
- Cai Wen and Wei Han finish up going to their mysterious party.
- Master Zhou searches out the stricken emissaries.
- Takanata and Yoshi visit the tea reader Madame Tsen.
- Hiro attempts to recruit travelling companions for a trip to the Forest of Chin; Anto and Shen-Ji are recruited, and they head off for a trip of a week or two.
- Hana (supervised by Yoshi) talks to Ajeel (the Southron prisoner).
- Min Feng and Kasumi ransack Merchant Siri's room at the guest house.
- Master Zhou visits the Dojo of Dark Waters.
- Master Zhou seeks out Zhantai Reng.
- Takanata has lunch with Ando, and then the two of them look for Merit.
- Wei Han, Takanata, Master Zhou, and Min Feng visit the Jade Taiga, where Wei Han briefs his ostensible commander, Chang Hu.
- Yoshi, Lijuan (and Ho) and Ajeel visit the Bending Reed Selfless Path temple that Yoshi visited before.
- Cai Wen and Anto talk to the Savanna Ambassador.