Yang Shen-Ji and the Goblet of Fire
|"Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Dog, in the month of the Butterfly, in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.|
The run takes place in the Hidden City.
Cai Wen is still a bit worried about having accidentally offended/damaged Tsi-Shen in the mayhem at the Warlord's Throne. He would like to arrange an audience in which he can apologize, but it turns out that audiences in the Women's Quarter of the palace are very very hard for men to get. Shuyan offers to go and convey his apologies, but she is low-status enough that she might have trouble getting an audience in a timely fashion. Min Feng volunteers, and conveys Ringmaster Zhu's apologies, and offers recompense on his behalf. Tsi-Shen asks if he had anything specific in mind, but Min Feng can't think of anything. Tsi-Shen suggests that the next time the circus comes through, and if it's not on the Night of Gates, that she and her sisters would like a private performance.
Asking around the Warlord's Throne about the Night of Gates, in general, people seem to be describing it as "quite the Night of Gates" not "when there was a big fight between Cycle Spirits" or "when everyone went to war". People seem to think that House Mong is definitely war-mongery, and House Sung might return at any moment, but there are no rumors of House Mong actually conquering House Zhen's keep.
Some of Li Merit's minions remind everyone that it's time to be hitting the road, if they want to get to the Hidden City. Off the circus goes!
The Imperial Highway goes straight from the Warlord's Throne to a ring road around the Hidden City, and an entrance in Gate Town. Gate Town is now dwarfed by the visible huge walled city, but it's still the entrance.
A man in black robes meets Ringmaster Zhu, and bows. He is the majordomo to Haru Mikae, and will be escorting them to their performance area. Cai Wen vaguely recalls that they spent a while trying to figure out Mikae he was in a past run, and that he is also known as the Golden Duke. They went to his birthday party, and the Duke said something like "we should do this again some time" afterwards. Perhaps this is then! The circus performers will be housed in the Copper district (except Cai Wen, who gets an upgrade to Silver), and there's a performance area in the Gold district that they will use. The majordomo provides a bunch of passes - lots of Copper passes for everyone to get to the lodgings, and a Gold pass each for the performance.
On the way into the city via the Pewter district, there are a number of the usual unsavory types lurking about, but also several party members spot Chi Master Ko. Xiao Fa peels off to talk to him, and many of the others (though not Xiao Fa) recognize him as wearing the air of a guy following the chi and bumping into walls. Chi Master Ko wants to know if Xiao Fa also sensed the disturbances in the chi, and Xiao Fa, once he looks for it, can see as well. Ko notes that it is a subtle effect, but there are actually two effects going on - one coming to a culmination soon, and another just beginning to stir beneath the surface. He says he will be staying at the Green Table Inn, if Xiao Fa discovers anything else.
Everyone progresses to the Copper district and their living quarters - the building is more like a boarding house than a proper inn, but it has room enough for everyone in the circus. The majordomo informs them that the performance will be two days hence, and that Cai Wen can head up to Silver and mention Haru Mikae's name at the House of Many Pleasures to be looked after.
Cai Wen reminds everyone about the Hidden City Mechanics, plus the other plots that may be going on here:
- The Regents are possibly renaming the city.
- Cai Wen and others want to break the Bribery mechanic as part of Freeing the Dragon.
- The Marked have a whole lot of sway here, so be careful.
- Shuyan and Min Feng have a secret master here, so watch out for that.
A messenger knocks, with a delivery for Shen-Ji. Everyone backs away quickly, guessing that it is some sort of exploding parcel from Ming I. Instead, it turns out to be a small packet filled with papers -- a copy of the deed to the property in the Silver district where he plans to build a fire shrine. How... odd. The deed was issued several years ago when he bought the property, but the copy was just made this morning. There's a lot more paperwork, but it's not totally clear what the point is. There's some documentation about his silver key, the upkeep he's been paying on it for ten years, a paper trail for his residence... wait, what? Maybe the group should go visit this property to see what is going on with it. Or have Fen-Xi, the bureaucrat who works for Takanata and Merit, look into it.
Speaking of which, how do they contact Fen-Xi normally? Well, normally he would have been waiting in Gate Town for them, assuming they wrote ahead. But possibly leaving word at the Green Table (where the party usually stays) or the Dulcet Harp (where Takanata normally stays) might work. Cai Wen heads out to leave a note at there Dulcet Harp where he is met by the Black Pearl. She wants to know if Cai Wen has found him. Um... no? She says that Fen-Xi has been missing for several days. First, he was requisitioned for a bureaucratic job, but he returned home at night, but the day before yesterday, he was requisitioned and hasn't returned, and she's very worried. For a moment, Cai Wen senses that she would be the perfect moll, but then she snaps back to being the perfect bureaucrat's wife. Hmm. Marrying Fen-Xi was supposed to have stabilized her concept, but something seems to be metaphysically wrong.
Next, Shuyan receives a messenger, who has notes for both her and Min Feng - they are invited to dine with the Imperial Consort, at their convenience. Which, it being the Imperial Consort, translates to "at once".
Xiao Fa notes that in addition to the big general swirl of chi that Chi Master Ko had noticed, Shen-Ji and Wei Han are eddies or vortices of chi-disturbance in their own right, and that Master Zhou and Min Feng are smaller eddies.
Another messenger arrives - this one is a circus hand, who has some papers for Cai Wen detailing where everyone has been housed. However, the moment he touches the paper, it bursts into flame - Min Feng promptly douses him and it with water. Individual letters have been burned, spelling out: I have taken steps to deal with our mutual problem. See me if you would like to help.
Min Feng and Shuyan head off to meet Precious Jade. Cai Wen suggests that they ask her about the whole renaming-the-country thing, and ask if there are any parties or competitions that he might use for his anti-bribery mechanic.
Everyone else heads to the Silver district to see what is of particular interest in Shen-Ji's property. As they arrive, it looks to be an unremarkable empty lot, small and slightly overgrown. However, there are two people standing in front of it arguing.
- "No, I have asked everyone in all these buildings, and none of them have heard of him."
- "All I know is that his name is on the list to be Municipal Sorcerer, and participation is mandatory."
Shen-Ji wanders over and introduces himself. Ahah - he really does live in this empty lot? Shen-Ji says that it's more complicated than that, and the two nod to each other, as if to remark on the eccentricity of sorcerers.
The more officious-looking of the pair hands Shen-Ji a copper pass. The first trial is at dawn, so don't be late. Master Zhou asks for clarification on exactly what is at dawn? The first competition for the post of municipal sorcerer. The post will report directly to the Mayor.
- "A great honor, to be sure." -Master Zhou
- "All the rules are on file at the local office?" -Shen-Ji
- "As I'm sure you would know, for you've played them quite well so far." -Bureaucrat
The bureaucrat starts to leave, and the other, more harried-looking man (who introduces himself as Sen) stays behind to ask if there is anything else that Shen-Ji needs. Sen is in charge of the rules and interpretations for the contest. In theory, he reports to the Regency Council, but the Mayor is overseeing the competition fairly closely. Shen-Ji gets a copy of the rules and regulations.
There are five competitors, each representing one of the great branches of sorcery.
The competitors must be permanent residents of the Hidden City, and their names were all submitted several weeks ago, and a panel of judges chose one sorcerer from each branch. These five, er... six, sorcerers, will compete in each of five contests, and the winner will become Municipal Sorcerer; basically, the minister of magic for the Hidden City. Obviously, there has been some irregularity in the whole thing already.
Xiao Fa notes that the chi of the empty lot is very earthy, which perhaps makes sense for land, but Shen-Ji thinks that it has a mild fire suppression field on it. Hmm.
Cai Wen chases down the bureaucrat who is leaving - the man is quite displeased with Shen-Ji already. He is in charge of making sure that this whole thing runs as expected, and if they don't end up with a municipal sorcerer, it will be his head on the chopping block. On Revelation Day, when the city became un-hidden, everyone blamed the sorcerers, so they were rounded up. But that was a big mess, and it turned out that none of the people who were rounded up were actually responsible for the problem. The Regency Council decided to create this post, so they can have someone "take charge and sort things like that out," which means something between Official Scapegoat and Official Designator of Scapegoats. But, this is the Hidden City. Once something is created, it exists. So, once you have a Municipal Sorcerer, that person has all the powers of the Municipal Sorcerer. Whatever those are. Cai Wen tries to persuade him to make the whole thing an honest affair. The bureaucrat agrees that he wants it to be an honest contest. So, no bribery, Cai Wen says. Wait... what? No bribery? How would that work? Cai Wen persuades him that the city doesn't need a rich sorcerer, it needs a competent one. The bureaucrat thinks that's a fine theory, but he can't personally turn the bribery mechanic off.
The first contest is scheduled for dawn - the schedule will be adjustable after that, in case there are any injuries or issues that need to be dealt with. Cai Wen's best guess is that the targets of bribery will probably be the judges, and the rules interpretation guy.
Cai Wen heads off to the House of Many Pleasures, followed by Wei Han, where the proprietor asks Sho-Fi to escort Cai Wen to a private room. Wei Han stands in the hallway, looking disapproving, and notes a guy down the hall with the exact same expression. They glare at each other.
Meanwhile, Min Feng and Shuyan have been off adventuring in the Jade Palace. When the two arrive at the Jade Gate, they are escorted into the palace by Yanling, who asks after Cai Wen. They are left to wait for just long enough to make it clear that they are waiting on Precious Jade, rather than the Consort waiting on them, and then they are shown in to lunch.
Precious Jade warns them to be very careful - her brother Fu Li is in the city at present. If he sees them and is not otherwise observed by witnesses, he may try to kill them both, as he still bears a grudge from their initial encounter. She also notes that they may not have heard, but there is a plot afoot to endow a sorcerer with vast power over the other local sorcerers, and she would appreciate it greatly if Ebon Brush won. She would owe them both a favor (shticks, possibly) if that happened.
Shuyan also mentions Fen-Xi having been detained - does Precious Jade know what that might be? She thinks that's odd - usually bureaucrats are the ones doing the requisitioning and detaining, not the other way around. She suggests looking to another bureaucrat as the source of the plot. Perhaps Fu Li! However, she will look into it and let Shuyan know what she finds out.
Precious Jade explains the renaming-the-city plot in summary - every so often, there is a vote of the Regency Council on what to rename the city, but so far there has been no majority winner. She can often influence a regent for a single vote, and the regents will play politics enough to swap votes, but nobody has played the game well enough to win their name yet. She pushed a bit for "City of Jade" at the beginning, to signal that she was in the game and open to negotiation, but she doesn't actually personally care very much.
Back in the outer levels of the city, Shen-Ji, Xiao Fa, and Master Zhou go to talk to Chi Master Ko. He notes that Shen-Ji is a fairly large chi-vortex and Master Zhou is a smaller one. Xiao Fa and Master Ko have no chi votex about them at all.
- "Even as we speak, someone is in the middle of a great working to change the chi of the city." -Chi Master Ko
He hasn't been able to get to the higher levels of the city to confirm that it is city-wide, but Xiao Fa's visit to Silver supports that theory. Ko disapproves of the renaming plot, but doesn't think that's what is causing the chi. Shen-Ji says nothing, thinking that the working in question might be his plan to rob the treasury, but he's not sure why Wei Han would be a vortex, since as far as Shen-Ji knows, he doesn't approve of that particular plan.
The Plot Thickens
Everyone regroups at the dormitory in Copper to have tea and share what they have learned. Shen-Ji thinks that becoming municipal sorcerer sounds like a fun idea, though everyone else in the room is pretty clear that if Ming I is behind his having been entered, it is obviously a trap.
Yanling arrives, carrying a message requisitioning Wei Han. There has apparently been a snafu that appeared in his personnel file after retirement - he should report immediately to the Dragon Army headquarters in the Obsidian district to help sort things out. Appropriate passes are included. The requisition is stamped with the seal of the city - so, probably the Bureaucrat is behind it. There is a brief discussion as to who might be able to come with him, just in case - Min Feng might be able to forge some Obsidian passses, but that would be dangerous. Master Zhou can accompany him with an iron key, though that will be a little odd - Wei Han should do his best to look like someone who needs a kung fu master as a bodyguard. Wei Han changes into his Butterfly dress armor, and he and Master Zhou head off.
When they reach the Dragon Army headquarters, there are three flags flying. Wei Han vaguely thinks that means something, but can't remember what. Back in Copper, Min Feng thinks to wonder where the Obsidian Warlord is - the answer is a few miles north, in the Obsidian district. Oh.
A trio of bureaucrats escort Wei Han in, and tell Master Zhou to be careful and not touch anything. They go through the infantry records areas and end up at a door labeled "Shen Wei Han" which appears to have a whole lot of records of its own. The bureaucrats explain that after he retired for the twenty-seventh time, there was a problem with his pension that cropped up before he re-enlisted after that, and they need to confirm his rank as of his thirteenth retirement. If he can just get that folder there, in the middle of a huge stack of papers. As he starts to pull it out, the stack of papers begins to topple precariously, and he must make a roll with Feats of Strength and Bureaucracy to keep them all from being crushed. With a mighty effort, he succeeds! The form is retrieved - he was a major when he retired! (several retirements ago) - and the bureaucrats thank him. Master Zhou notes that in the moment that Wei Han righted the stack, all three watching bureaucrats were writing furiously on their clipboards, and they all stamped their forms them together. Almost as if one was for Chi, one was for Yin, and one for Yang. Very curious.
- "Oh dear." -Xiao Fa, noticing a chi pulse through the city.
Master Zhou and Wei Han return, and Master Zhou describes the "bureaucramancy" that he noticed. Shen-Ji's best guess is that the emphasis on long years of service and protection indicate that that was the Dog step. Xiao Fa and Shen-Ji are both pretty sure that you can't actually do a magic ritual with bureaucracy instead of sorcery, but you could use a sorcerous ritual as an approximate template for what Li Kao would call a "working", and that people who are more familiar with sorcery than other arts might well do that.
Cai Wen contemplates the score. The question is, which scoreboard? All of them!
Cai Wen spends a karma, and adds another scoreboard: the Marked. He starts adding the entries, one at a time.
At this point, Min Feng spills her tea, which she has been accidentally pouring for herself from the liquor cabinet rather than from the tea table. The "tea" hits the flame underneath the hot water, and the tablecloth catches on fire. Right, everyone remembers somewhat belatedly - don't try to scry Ti Jun.
The Cartogramancer has two out of twelve Talismans now? That's disconcerting. He is known to have gotten the Tiger Talisman, but what is the other? The Spider Talisman, possibly? Master Zhou thinks that isn't right - doesn't the Alchemist have the Spider Talisman?
The question arises of why Precious Jade wants Ebon Brush to win? Shen-Ji isn't willing to lose to her unless the party knows more about her and what Precious Jade's agenda is. Cai Wen and the two Si Fan agents think that it's probably just that Ebon Brush either is or will be a good minion for Precious Jade, and she collects good minions. Shen-Ji seems to recall that Ebon Brush is Fox-aspected, which supports that theory.
Cai Wen also briefs everyone on the anti-bribery mechanic - he wants to invoke that for the municipal sorcerer contest. That requires bribing the judges to not take bribes for the contest, and ensuring that the winner doesn't use any bribery in the process.
The group heads to the Copper district to talk to Chi Master Ko again, and they fill him in on the "bureaucramancy" that Wei Han participated in. Ko is disappointed that Xiao Fa wasn't there - if a true Chi Master had observed it, then they would now know what the working was for. So... next time, bring Ko, or bring Xiao Fa! The group adds Chi Master Ko to the general entourage, on the theory that they are likely to run across the next step of the working, and heads back to the tea room of the dormitory.
The best theory at present is that this is something similar to the working that established the bribery mechanic, except that it's establishing something else - presumably some sort of bureaucracy mechanic. It's definitely in the Hidden City, not reworking the Wall or affecting the whole Empire. Wei Han's vortex-ness doesn't seem to have changed, which puzzles everyone. Wouldn't it have been used up by his participating? Apparently not. Master Ko thinks that the strength of the vortex-ness has to do with the effect of the working, not the creation of it. Master Ko also notes that Cai Wen seems to have begun a working of his own.
A messenger arrives for Min Feng, with a note from Precious Jade. She has determined that Fen-Xi is in City Hall, in the Ivory district.
Cai Wen goes back to check with Sho-Fi again. She says that River has his half of the plan all set - has the party figured out their half? They are supposed to be in charge of the plan to keep anyone from being able to scry or otherwise figure out who was involved in the robbery. However, River has begun to think that the party may not be pulling their weight on that front, which means that the previous 50/50 offered split is not necessarily appropriate. Cai Wen confesses that they have not, in fact, come up with a good anti-scrying plan. Sho-Fi says River will have to come by and renegotiate.
- "He's kind of sad about that." -Sho-Fi
- "So am I." -Cai Wen
Cai Wen mentions the bureaucracy working that they're interested in disrupting. Sho-Fi is interested to hear that - Stone Son, the Crew's bureaucrat, got requisitioned a couple of days ago, and had to go to the Silver district and do a bunch of bureaucracy. It was while they were right in the middle of something else, and was very inconvenient. But he got released again, so that's more like Wei Han's experience, not like what has happened to Fen-Xi. Cai Wen suggests that maybe Sho-Fi could put him in touch with Fu Li, to try and help them sort it out - ideally he should talk to Cai Wen personally, not the rest of the party, since there's that bit about possibly wanting to kill Min Feng or Shuyan. Sho-Fi says she can arrange to get him a message.
The Hexawizard Cup
The next morning, everyone makes sure to be up before dawn, and heads to the district center of Copper for the first contest. The fire mage, Qili Hu, looks to be a pre-teen.
The first contest is that of Creation: to create a work of public art using the power of sorcery. There are judges from three various artistic traditions in Copper. Wei Han looks around for the three bureaucrats, but doesn't see them.
Ebon Brush gives the secret Si Fan sign to Min Feng and Shuyan, and they give her as much calligraphy advice as they can, and they persuade her to not use any bribery on her rolls. She is a little dubious - won't everyone be doing that? Min Feng assures her that they can get her to win without it, but it's very important, so they won't help her win if she is going to use bribery. She goes along with the crazy no-bribes plan.
Shen-Ji uses his Summon Sculpture and Create Art spells, to create a large metal sculpture, but spends three karma on making it very unapproachable, aesthetically speaking. Only those who approach his mastery of art will be able to see that it is truly art themselves; others will just think it's a terrible mess.
Qili Hu scorches an area down to burnt dust, and calls it Desolation. The artistic value is somewhat debatable. Shengao creates a fountain, which is pretty enough but not all that artistic. Ebon Brush decorates a bench with graceful calligraphy, suggesting rest and restoration. Eternal Redoubt creates a well-crafted small pagoda - like the fountain, well done but perhaps not greatly artistic. Orefinder Liren summons a trio of precious gems from the ground, which he offers to the judges as his art, winking. They aren't taking bribes, and say that the gems look fine, but they don't need to see a closer look.
Of the three artistic judges, only the sculptor thinks Shen-Ji's sculpture is art - he thinks it's brilliant, but the other two think the sculptor is crazy. However, the sculptor gets to overrule the others about sculptures.
- "Seriously, we're not supposed to be taking bribes."
There has been no sign of the three bureaucrats, though. This plot must be something separate from the bureaucramancy working.
Cai Wen asks the judges how the Creation contest was chosen, and they admit that there was some ... persuasion... applied by a sorceress who wasn't in the contest.
The second contest is in the Bronze district, in an hour. This time, the judges are big burly guys, foremen of work crews. Cai Wen (with Wei Han) has stayed behind in Copper in case Sho-Fi reappears, so Xiao Fa goes to counter bribe them.
- "There's something to be said for a guy who can spread the wealth around..."
- "Well, okay, but they don't get to throw any wealth around if they can't beat this." -Xiao Fa
This contest is Control, which involves the moving of eight giant cases of wheat from one warehouse to another, across a large plaza. Shengao goes first. He goes to the target warehouse, pours a bucket of water on the floor, and teleports the crates to the resulting puddle.
Shuyan and Min Feng confer with Ebon Brush - she can move wood, but she can't teleport them like that. They come up with the idea of roller logs, while Ebon Brush animates several handfuls of wheat to look as if they are pushing the crates along, for extra style points.
Qili Hu says he's still thinking, and someone else should go. Orefinder Liren summons some more gems, and hires various people in the crowd to help carry the boxes. That works pretty well. He offers some of the gems to the judges, "for inspection", but they claim to trust him. Eternal Redoubt sets up a long series of ramps, but it's not the best crate-moving system in the world. Shen-Ji finds a set of wheelbarrows and animates them to carry the crates. Qili Hu finally surrenders. The next contest will be in an hour.
Back in Copper, a man in black robes, wearing a multi-knotted cord around his neck, introduces himself to Cai Wen as Fu Li.
- "Be brief, I have business to attend to."
Cai Wen says that he wishes to understand a bureaucratic Working that is going on right now. Fu Li is somewhat baffled by this explanation. Cai Wen clarifies: the Lord Mayor is carrying on some sort of bureaucramancy. Fu Li does not think that is a real word.
The conversation is interrupted when a messenger arrives, requisitioning Fu Li for a task in City Hall in Ivory - please attend immediately. Cai Wen sends Wei Han off to fetch Xiao Fa as quickly as possible, and promises that he will make it worth Fu Li's while if Xiao Fa can figure out what is going on. Fu Li agrees to walk slowly, so Wei Han returns with Xiao Fa before the group has reached the district gates. Xiao Fa has enough kung fu to make a plausible bodyguard, and uses the party's iron key to accompany Fu Li to the Ivory district.
The trio of bureaucrats rush to Fu Li, and explain to him that the secret minutes of Regency Council meetings are somehow being leaked outside City Hall. As the esteemed Fu Li understands both bureaucracy and espionage, surely he can solve this problem for them. Fu Li confesses to understanding problem-solving, and will investigate the secret archives. Xiao Fa confirms that he has a large chi vortex around him. Ah, perhaps it's just indicating the amount of bureaucracy that people have. Using spycraft and bureaucracy, Fu Li sorts out the minutes of the Regency Council, and indicates which ones in particular have been leaked. He also takes the opportunity to make some copies, while the three bureaucrats are distracted stamping their forms. Fu Li says that he expects Cai Wen owes him a lot of money now, so he and Xiao Fa depart - Fu Li off to his own devices, and Xiao Fa back to the party.
Xiao Fa reports that Fu Li did the Spider step, and he and Chi Master Ko confer briefly, and decide that the new bureaucracy mechanic will let you add your bureaucracy skill to all rolls in the Hidden City.
- "That's not so bad..." -Shen-Ji
- "He is the weakest link." -Min Feng
In the Gold District, there are five recently vacated palaces, which must be destroyed as completely as possible, with no collateral damage to everything else. The judges are civil engineers, and Cai Wen promptly anti-bribes them at a Gold level.
Master Zhou ponders the architecture of the building, and points out the load-bearing wooden structures to Ebon Brush. By the way, does she know kung fu? She would make a better student if she did, but she does not. She and Shen-Ji both take down their buildings with targeted detonations of their favorite destroyable elements. Qili Hu reduces his building to a fine powder in a spectacular display of controlled fire - finally, something he is good at. Eternal Redoubt does his best, but he is better at creating buildings than destroying them. Orefinder Liren summons larger gems for the judges, but they are still swayed by the increasing anti-bribe that Cai Wen has paid them.
The Seeking ritual will be next, in Bronze, in an hour, and the group discusses things on the way over. Chi Master Ko thinks that the sorcerer contest is totally separate from the bureaucracy working. Hmm. Could Fen-Xi be a hostage kept to make sure that the party will help? Possibly, though Wei Han seems to have helped already without the hostage having been invoked. So probably not.
Precious Jade might be brought in to act against it - if they tell her that her brother is helping, and that it will make him much more powerful in the Hidden City, she'll probably want to stop it.
Fu Li arrives to speak with Cai Wen again. First, his assistance was requested in understanding the bureaucratic working. He has provided that assistance, via bringing Xiao Fa with him, and he gathers that they now understand it. Second, he has the voting records for the Regency Council, which he thinks Cai Wen may be interested in. Third, he hears that Cai Wen has been throwing tael around like water. Cai Wen pays him 196 li for services rendered, and receives 14 temporary levels of KS: Regency Voting Mechanic.
Oh, and Fen-Xi is in City Hall in a little room, with some forms to fill out. He can leave any time he wants; he just needs to fill out the forms first, which are bureaucratic dossiers on Takanata and Merit. So far, he has declined to fill them out, and thus has not left.
Xiao Fa checks with Dragon - will the bureaucracy mechanic be a barrier to Dragon's release, or another obstacle in some other way? Dragon thinks that it's a stupid mechanic - better something like leadership than bureaucracy - but that they do not have to break it immediately, as it will not be an extra barrier, just an unaesthetic characteristic. Ah, so perhaps it is more about power games between the Marked and not about Spider beating Dragon more.
The Seeking contest proves to be to find a missing person. There are only five files, but Shen-Ji is the luckiest and gets to pick Fen-Xi. He meditates for a while, to "let the path of the elements show him the way." Cai Wen helps Ebon Brush ask around to find the missing wife that she chooses, and the two of them score highest by basically getting to walk to the missing person.
Meanwhile, Min Feng and Shuyan dash off to meet Precious Jade and warn her about her brother's nefarious plan to add a bureaucracy mechanic to the Hidden City. She says she'll try to find out what's going on - she may consult the Imperial Alchemist.
Master Zhou spends two karma and some of Cai Wen's status to corner the ninja trying to go after the Monkey talisman. The ninja burns several of the points neutralizing Master Zhou, but Shen-Ji kills him with an iron arrow.
Shen-Ji and Wei Han "find" Fen-Xi, and Wei Han assures him that he's doing the right thing by not filling out the forms. He's glad to hear that, but he was hoping that they could maybe help him get out, as he really would prefer to not spend the rest of his life in this room. They say they'll see what they can do.
Cai Wen has an idea about Fen-Xi, and heads off without letting anyone know where he's going.
The final trial is the task of Change, in the Gold district: to renovate a city park. The civil engineers are the judges again. But there are only five parks. Eternal Redoubt and Qili Hu agree to work together, and take one park between them. The party describes the Gardens of Harmonious Contemplation to Ebon Brush, and she does her best to create something reminiscent of them, in miniature. Shen-Ji uses his wood destruction to prune the trees, creating topiary and bonsai, and he cleans up the dead brush and the like. Shengao adds some water features to his park. Frustrated with his bribery failures to date, Orefinder Liren burns all of his remaining fortune and manages to summon a truly huge gem, but by this point, he is too far behind for bribery to help, even if he took the first place, so he pockets the gem and leaves. Xiao Fa donates some of his feng shui mastery to Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush both, trying to not play favorites. Qili Hu burns his park to the ground, and Eternal Redoubt raises up paved paths and pavilions over the wreckage. Ebon Brush burns all her status for more dice, and starts to calligraph the benches and move the plants, but then a small fire sprite starts setting things on fire, and chasing her around. She isn't able to finish her design, and Shen-Ji beats her.
Shen-Ji tries to blame Quli Hu for the fire sprite, but he denies it, and the judges don't think it's very likely. However, everyone does want the issue investigated, so the judges send word to the Imperial Alchemist, and he sends his apprentice Ming I to figure out what's going on. After a brief round of interrogation, in which she sets Quli Hu to crying, she determines that Ebon Brush is the most likely culprit - wood sorcery enhances fire, so there was probably a previous binding with the fire sprite, and it evaded her control and sought vengeance.
The judges are disappointed to hear that Ebon Brush has been using dark sorcery to summon and bind demons, so her entry in the contest has been... Shen-Ji leaps in before they disqualify Ebon Brush, to volunteer that the contest be declared a tie.
Min Feng wanders around spreading rumors that Ming I is behind setting the contest up to be a tie, so that she will get the job instead, but as Ming I declares no interest in the post and publicly refuses it, the rumors have to struggle a bit. The judges are browbeaten into declaring the contest a tie.
The Lord Mayor arrives to congratulate the winner; the judges point at Ebon Brush and Shen-Ji together. The Mayor frowns - he does not see any provision for ties in the rules he set out. However, if the judges and the arbiter of the rules agree that this is the only possible interpretation, then they shall split the powers and responsibilities of the office between them. Here, they may share the chain of office - he gestures to them to lean together.
The party starts waving frantically to Shen-Ji. Trap! Trap! Trap! Shen-Ji makes a half-hearted attempt to get Ebon Brush to spring the trap instead, offering to let her have the chain first, but the Mayor is having none of this - if they have claimed that the only option is for them to share, then share they must.
Master Zhou spends a Yin - how should he be thwarting the Bureaucrat without violence? The answer appears to be "you should have gone with Cai Wen to deal with Fen-Xi". So maybe the trap isn't the Bureaucrat's at all, just Ming I's.
Sure enough, when they both touch the chain, they both collapse to the ground.
- "I take half damage from magic, and one fewer die of success." -Derrick
- "Yup. You still fall to the ground." -Mike
The Bureaucrat looks quite displeased - what is going on here? Everyone points at Ming I, blaming her for everything.
The healers leap for Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush, but they don't seem to be damaged - just, their chi is missing. Their souls appear to have gone somewhere else.
Ming Feng memorizes the Bureaucrat, though she has to bribe him to do so.
The Mayor gives instructions to take Ebon Brush and Shen-Ji to the hospital, and appoints Shengao (the third place winner) as Municipal Sorcerer Pro Tem. He directs that the chain of office be taken to the Imperial Alchemist to look into, and he will discuss Ming I's conduct with the Alchemist as well.
Meanwhile, on a secret mission by himself, Cai Wen finds the Black Pearl at the Dulcet Harp and tells him that they have found Fen-Xi. They only need to find a way to get him out without compromising his honor. She suggests that they need only give him permission to fill out the forms (if Cai Wen believes that he is authorized to do so on behalf of Takanata and Merit), and then what happens to the forms after that is not his problem. Ah. So they just need to get back to the Ivory district to see him. This is, unfortunately, not something that Cai Wen can do by himself, so he has to cut his secret mission short and regroup with the party.
It seems about time that the party had an ivory key and an obsidian key to work with, so Cai Wen, Shuyan, and Min Feng help subsidize the keys, and the Black Pearl can find a bureaucrat friend who can help get them keys without charging for it. The keys are put in Min Feng's name, as she has the highest status and can get the most passes to go with it.
Then, the group proceeds to City Hall, where Min Feng gives Fen-Xi permission to fill out the forms on behalf of her uncle and his business manager. Fen-Xi fills out the dossiers and turns them in, and as soon as they are stamped, Min Feng destroys them. Luckily, bureaucracy plots are properly thwarted by the use of loopholes, so Fen-Xi is free to go.
As they are leaving, the Lord Mayor shows up to convey the official condolences of the Hidden City, as the souls of their friends have been determined to have been dragged to the World Below.
Shengao, as municipal sorcerer pro tem, gets requisitioned to go to the Jade Palace to do the last of the steps in the Working, and the Bureaucracy Mechanic falls into place. On the bright side, everyone can now use bureaucracy skill on rolls in the Hidden City. (Details to follow).
- (At dinner, since we forgot to do this during the run). River Ford shows up to talk to Cai Wen and others about the Imperial Treasury Job. He has a counter-proposal: if he is providing both halves of the plan, then the 50/50 split is still fine for the cash, for as much as they can grab, but the Crew gets all the stuff. Takanata says that he will have to consult with Shen-Ji and others before any agreement can be made.