A Tale of Two Tea Houses
|"Clever liars give details, but the cleverest don't."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Serpent in the Month of the Butterfly in the second Year of the Bear since the Burning of the Black Spire|
The run takes place in the City of Spires, in the Jade Taiga
During the previous run, in the background, while the circus was dealing with other issues such as being hired by demons, Shen-Ji went on an epic bar crawl. At the time, Xiao Fa went off to find him and went along for a while, but had to return to the circus. Shen-Ji has apparently been complaining about not being able to become a necromancer, while even his baby sister-in-law gets to consort with dark gods. This does not make him popular with the bartenders, so he has to keep moving on, and last they heard, he had reached the City of Spires.
Cai Wen finds a stack of scented envelopes in his incoming messages - they're addressed to Yanyu, Min Feng, Melina, Kuan-Xi, Shuyan, and Murase Minako. The stationery is the Pearl's, but the handwriting is that of Blushing Rose. Cai Wen starts passing them out - they contain invitations to an afternoon of "tea, discussion and contemplation" in the Coral Spire.
- "You're looking for the drunken sorcery guy? Me too. He's cursed and we've got to get him a big score to make him awesome. But he's strangely hard to find..." -Minoru Tama
Huh. When did Shen-Ji become cursed? Tama says he was cursed by the, um, the Phantom Mysterious Fires?... no, the Case of the Phantom Flame. This doesn't seem to be any more informative, but Tama seems pretty certain.
Tansho rushes up to say that their triad’s been invited to the private party of the Pearl of the Taiga! It's so exciting! Tansho drags Tama away to go shopping; Tama glares at Kuan-Xi as if this is somehow all her fault.
Xiao Fa and Kuan-Xi keep hunting for Shen-Ji and find a pair of guys who tried to mug him. It's rather surprising that they're still alive - it sounds like Shen-Ji had gotten pretty maudlin at that point, and it sounds as if his next stop was going to find the most expensive drink ever. Kuan-Xi considers where this might be found - possibly the Coral Spire Tea Room, or the Path to Serenity Tea Room? However, Kuan-Xi is also starting to wonder if she might have gotten one of the invitations that the other triad was talking about, so she heads back to the circus while Xiao Fa heads to the Path of Serenity. There he spots Shen-Ji and his new buddy drinking in the corner. The wait staff looks concerned - they are drinking everything they can think of. It's not very harmonious.
- "Waiter! Another four tropical zombies! And I want them shambling this time!" -Shen-Ji
Xiao Fa does notice that whatever they order, the wait staff brings glasses of rice wine. The manager also brings Xiao Fa a note, which seems to be written in a "whispering" hand.
Xiao Fa heads to the outside of the tea house, where he finds the Blue Dragon bowing before him.
- "Is Master Zhu within? There is a small chance that Lucky Chang will be joining us. I wanted to make sure it was safe." -Blue Dragon
- "Did you now. What will he be about?" -Xiao Fa
- "I believe he is here to thwart us. We have a brief window in which we can strike against the Warlord. I suspect he will attempt to disrupt that."
- "Really. Because this day just gets better and better."
The Blue Dragon heads off again, and Xiao Fa goes in to introduce himself to Shen-Ji's friend, who is introduced as Di, of the Imperial Inspectorate. Shen-Ji notes that Xiao Fa is a proto-emperor, which Di is initially suspicious of, but when Xiao Fa offers to buy the next round, he is brought around. He is, apparently, inspecting the quality and quantity of the drinks available. This is how one spends one's last day in the Imperial Inspectorate before getting fired. You used to be able to enforce the laws. Xiao Fa listens to his drunken ramblings, but underneath the alcohol, judges him to be honest and idealistic, if rather disillusioned.
Meanwhile, Yanyu, Shuyan, and Kuan-Xi have all gotten their invitations, and decide they should go shopping for new dresses.
Tea Parties Instantiate
Back at the circus, Cai Wen hears a rumor that Lucky Chang is at the Path to Serenity tea house, and heads over to see what his nemesis is up to. He finds Xiao Fa and Shen-Ji there with Inspector Di, and Lucky Chang is sitting in the corner sipping his tea. He raises his cup to Cai Wen.
Next, Zhao Wu wanders in to get a cup of tea, and Xiao Fa and Cai Wen wave him over. What news? What is he up to recently? He says he's trying to get the Edict of Trade Equity through the King's Council. This would mean that goods carried on caravan routes would no longer have to pay extra for crossing rivers. (The current structure lets caravans travel tariff-free along the Imperial Highways, but they are charged at ferry crossings.)
- "Is Minoru Tama still grumpy with me, since I'm not royal any more?" -Kuan-Xi
- "No, she's just grumpy with everyone. But the person who might still be grumpy with you is Autumn Rose, who just walked in." -Mike
- "Nooooooo!" -Kuan-Xi
Lucky Chang wanders over to Shen-Ji's table and buys Shen-Ji a drink. He wonders whether he might be able to purchase some tickets for the VIP section of the next circus performance. Cai Wen says the VIP section is only for important people. They fence for a bit, until Renyu arrives.
- "You!" -Renyu
- "Er... if you would excuse me..." -Lucky Chang
Renyu is incensed - they're all working for Chang now? No, no, he just happened to be in the tea house too. Renyu offers Cai Wen an alliance against Chang, which Cai Wen accepts with one proviso:
- "Let me make this one thing clear - he's my nemesis. You can't have him." -Cai Wen
Renyu says that Chang has bought up all the proxy votes for the matter of the Edict of Trade Equity before the King's Council. The party wonders which way he is leaning, but Renyu thinks Chang is not leaning in any particular direction, he just grabbed all the proxy votes. So... which side is Renyu on? He is on Whale's side, obviously, which is to pass the Edict of Trade Equity so that rivers will be treated the same as Imperial Highways (by the Taiga, at least). Renyu clarifies - whoever has two out of the three relevant votes (the Minister of Trade, the Minister of Boats, or the Minister of the Interior) can get the edict through.
Inspector Di says this sort of corruption is exactly what he's talking about!
The Pearl swoops Min Feng up with Autumn Rose and they have a friendly conversation about how family is always difficult. Autumn Rose is still cleaning up loose threads from her ... previous situation, to finish some debts that she inherited. Is Min Feng familiar with the Warlord's situation? Such that when he is needed, lo and he will appear? Yes, Min Feng has heard that. Autumn Rose's... sponsor... is hoping that this will not happen.
Yue Ping arrives at the Coral Spire, and is pleased to see that the circus is in town. Gipeno will be thrilled! She is here on a political errand for her father - it would be useful if the Taiga were to pass the Edict of Trade Equity, which would stabilize the navigability of the Pearl to be comparable to the Jasmine, and to increase the patrols against river pirates.
Tansho asks Shuyan whether she thinks the circus would be willing to have a guest appearance by her friend, a fire sorcerer? He needs a good day, due to his curse. Right - this is that thing where Shen-Ji is cursed. What is that? It turns out that Inspector Di is the one that Tansho is referring to. Shuyan says that they should check with the Ringmaster, and Tansho says she'll put Setsuko on it. Shuyan says she'll mention it as well, and notes to herself that this is the most normal Eto Tansho has ever seemed - there was no dramatic cloak or hushed whispers or anything like that.
Autumn Rose continues to sound out Min Feng. Lucky Chang has a way to advantage Dragon over Spider. Would Min Feng like to participate in such a thing? Min Feng hedges - Lucky Chang is of course the avowed nemesis of Zhu Cai Wen, so teaming up with him is not necessarily a good idea. Autumn Rose explains: they can kick the Warlord out of his chi nexus, but she doesn't care what happens to it after that. Perhaps Min Feng would like to claim it? Min Feng might be interested in that, as she has a chi master on staff.
Back in the other tea house, Xiao Fa coaxes Inspector Di into explaining his current woes, which stem from the Curse of the Phantom Flame. Since he was cursed by it, he has an unerring ability to find damning evidence on people who can at that point always be proved innocent. It has gotten to the point where he can't even tell any more whether the people he is arresting are innocent or guilty, because there's always both damning evidence and perfect exoneration. So, anyway, what he's hoping to do tomorrow is capture some pirates. It's not much of an investigation per se, but there should be no way that pirates would have ironclad evidence of not being pirates, right? Usually it's scrolls and alibis and permits and such, but there's no such thing as a permit for piracy, so he should be able to just Get Em.
Xiao Fa asks more about the whole Curse of the Phantom Flame thing. He was looking into bureaucratic malfeasance in the Jade Palace.
- "Suffice it to say, there isn't any."
It looked to him like there was a secret organization slipping people into and out of the Jade Palace unawares. But apparently there isn't, or, at least, there is a great deal of evidence that there is, and an even larger amount of evidence that there isn't.
Once Xiao Fa starts examining his chi (including surreptitiously with the Orb), he notes that Inspector Di's chi appears to be burning, in a way that is linked somehow to Shen-Ji's. Or, more accurately, to that key to the Dragon's Hoard that Shen-Ji has. My goodness! Does Shen-Ji have one of those? It had quite slipped his mind.
Gipeno arrives in the tea house, while Xiao Fa lures Shen-Ji to the bathroom and hits him with Cure Poison in order to flush the alcohol out of his system.
The Blue Dragon stops by again to see if Xiao Fa has a plan for what to do about the situation with the Warlord. Lucky Chang plans to make himself the focus for the 'advantage Dragon over Spider' working - Xiao Fa and the party could do a similar thing instead, but would need a representative of Spider to defeat, if they can't use Chang's.
In the Coral Spire, Kiri wonders if Yanyu can help her with something. She is interested in seeing the Edict of Trade Equity passed, to mandate trade parity between highways and rivers. But the votes are... inaccessible, because the ministers who would pass the edict (Trade, Boats, and the Interior) are not particularly interested in the outcome, and their proxies are held by Lucky Chang. However, the Minister of Trade's wife passed away, so Yanyu might be able to find something (or someone) that would be worth a favor for him. The Minister of Boats wants piracy suppressed, which is another possibility.
At this point, all the plots have been mentioned, so the tea parties conclude and the party regroups at the circus. In the tea tent, in case they haven't had enough tea.
Connecting the Dots
Melina is impressed - that was an interesting display of social acumen on the part of the Pearl. She threw two parties simultaneously, while suppressing any disruptive shticks that might have come into play. She thinks each party had about half of the available points of contention in evidence.
The Minister of Trade and the Minister of Boats have been mentioned; Murase Minako heard that the Minister of the Interior just needs an infusion of cash, as it has recently become in fashion to buy houses you can't afford.
People start drawing plot maps, and discussing how to gather more data on the unclear parts.
Murase Minako thinks that the the Edict of Trade Equity will help Horse, what with the "horse drawn caravans crossing rivers don't count for tax purposes". Kuan-Xi thinks that Whale likes it because of the "rivers = highways" bit. Wait... are there multiple edicts with the same name? That would explain why everyone seemed to want it passed. There seem to be three different versions.
Lucky Chang's ritual, to the extent that it is understood, needs a Dragon, a Spider, and a threat of some kind.
Plus there is this whole Inspector Di curse plot, which is possibly completely unrelated.
- "Inspector Di got zapped by a phantom flame in the Jade Palace." -Xiao Fa
- "Was that us? Do we think that was us somehow?" -Min Feng
Xiao Fa thinks it's to do with the Flames of the Dragon, but not the party's fault per se. The "conspiracy of sneaking" is probably not the party, but you never know. People ponder whether if you are cursed by the Dragon that means you're a bad guy, but Shen-Ji just thinks it means that you don't have friends like Yanyu who are willing to pull you out of the fire.
There are seven chunks of time remaining before the votes will happen:
- Lunch (circus performance)
- Evening (edicts are voted on)
Yanyu determines that the Minister of Trade is a Magpie, the Minister of Boats is a Spider, and the Minister of the Interior is a Fox.
The three edicts appear to be
- Convert Rivers into Highways, supported by Merchant Captain's Guild, Kiri and Renyu
- Jobs program for Pearl River, dredging, suppress pirates, supported by Steppes
- Allow horse-drawn caravans to ignore river crossings, supported by Zhao Wu.
The proxies (the ones Lucky Chang is holding) can only vote on the existing bills, but the actual Ministers could merge the bills if they wanted.
Shuyan goes back to the Path to Serenity, where Inspector Di is drinking alone now, and keeps him company. After a pleasant evening, she reads through his character sheet and notes that he has a lot of detective skill, but he's also a Phoenix fire sorcerer and battlemage. And his sheet does have a note at the bottom for the curse - the people he catches are always found innocent. His plan to go after pirates because surely they're hard to prove innocent may be doomed to failure.
Putting Ducks in Rows
In the morning, the party (minus Kuan-Xi) visits Autumn Rose, to find out more about Lucky Chang's plan. The basic components are a Dragon and a Spider and a threat to the Empire. But the threat should be small, because if it is big and the Warlord shows up, he will Put It Down, and putting down a big threat will be good for him (and is probably his original plan). The party could possibly steal Lucky Chang's plot but substitute their own Dragon, but depending on what is required, Lucky Chang may not be keen on running the plot if Xiao Fa is standing right there. So they may need to find their own Spider and threat to the Empire. The party figures they can just leap in at the circus, when Chang has probably set it to happen. Autumn Rose is not sure that this is a good assumption.
She can anoint the representative of Dragon - the representative of Spider just needs to be defeated. And she'll open the ritual now, and close it afterwards, but the threats and such will happen when they happen between "now" and "afterwards". They don't have to be specifically marked out.
Autumn Rose also notes that Xiao Fa can keep the chi nexus for himself, if they Defeat the threat instead of just defeating it. He'll think about that. Finally, she points out that it will have to be something of an actual threat, and a reasonably powerful spider - if it's a guy eating lunch, threatening the empire by littering, then defeating him isn't very Dragony, and so it won't be very ritually.
Xiao Fa has Autumn Rose anoint him. When asked to state his true name, he gives it as "Master Xiao Fa". She think that's a little iffy, but rolls for nines, and she thinks it worked.
Cai Wen says that people keep telling him that he should do Autumn Rose a favor, so can she suggest anything? She says if she can borrow his talisman until lunch tomorrow, that would do. He loans her the Serpent Talisman.
Later, Shuyan is practicing for the performance, and has a sense that the Great Serpent Spirit is across town. That's somewhat disconcerting.
Yanyu does some research and finds a possible match for the Trade Minister.
Shen-Ji goes off to find Inspector Di, and find out what his plan is. It is apparently "go out in a boat and catch pirates", which is not all that complicated. He invites Shen-Ji along.
Cai Wen goes to see the Minister of Boats, trying to figure out things like whether he is secretly in cahoots with the pirates, or if he's Lucky Chang's spider. The thing the Minister is trying to figure out is whether Lucky Chang sent him. Cai Wen claims the answer is no. Is there something Cai Wen can do to earn a favor? Well, to get his vote on the Edict of Trade, he can bring the head of the leader of the pirates of the Pearl River. Cai Wen wonders whether it's personal, or political, or an attempt to get cred for being anti-pirate. Well, all three. There is a pirate attack expected for the late morning, and another one in late afternoon, according to an informant.
The Blue Dragon meets with Xiao Fa. He can also anoint Xiao Fa for the ritual, but other than that he has the same bullet points as Autumn Rose. Xiao Fa suggests that he come up with a Threat To The Empire - his suggestion is to hire a spider ninja to try to assassinate the Great Serpent Spirit (without telling the ninja what the target actually is). That should count as a threat to the Empire without having any chance of success. Xiao Fa does not like this plan, as it would be very very bad if it unexpectedly succeeded. The Blue Dragon notes that it can be a very small threat, or a very small chance of success, but it really can't be both and still count as a threat to the Empire. In that case, a small threat with a high likelihood of success will have to do. The Blue Dragon, after being prompted about piracy, suggests shipping a Treasure of the Empire somewhere that pirates will try to steal.
- "You have six or seven in the party loot, right? Say the word, and I will go forth and arrange for pirates to steal your treasure." -Blue Dragon
Xiao Fa asks if he can make that happen by late morning. Well, it's early morning already, so Xiao Fa would need to let him riffle through the party loot right now in order to make that happen.
- "I got no support for that." -Xiao Fa
Xiao Fa instructs the Blue Dragon to defeat the pirates in Xiao Fa's name. The Blue Dragon bows and says it will be done.
Min Feng wonders if this is a trap. Yes. It is a trap. It is all one big trap.
- "Of course it's a trap. Look at this spiderweb you've drawn on the board."
So... what should they do? Flee the plot and do nothing? Hmm. Well, perhaps investigating further will make it clearer what will fall into the trap and what will not.
Poking The Trap
Shuyan drops by Autumn Rose's hotel to ask if she can do a favor for Autumn Rose. There is in fact an elegant woman in a green dress, having tea with Autumn Rose. Autumn Rose says that if Shuyan can loan her her Talisman and convince Cai Wen to not have his returned until evening, that would be acceptable. Shuyan is suspicious - is Autumn Rose just trying to make off with the Talismans? Can she renegotiate Cai Wen's deal by talking to Shuyan? (Shuyan thinks that Autumn Rose thinks it's acceptable because she believes Cai Wen will go along with a deal Shuyan makes on his behalf; she does intend to return them, but also thinks that it is not actually a favor if it doesn't include some sacrifice on the part of the person doing the favor.) Shuyan leaves her with the Monkey Talisman.
Min Feng and Kuan-Xi visit the Minister of the Interior and offer to buy his vote, and ask that he combine all three edicts into one. Kuan-Xi can help with the wording. For five tael now and five later, he accepts.
Everyone (plus Inspector Di) goes to brunch and discusses the trap. Kuan-Xi uses the Book of Answers: explain the trap. She reads three scenes.
Ah. So part of the trap is "drawing the Warlord's ire". How bad is that likely to be? He has likely invested a lot of time and resources in this "waiting to save the Empire" chi nexus, and having it destroyed will seriously anger him. It will probably not bring the party, or the circus, all the way to "Hunted by the Dragon Army", but they will probably be persona non grata with the Dragon Army unless Wei Han is both no longer an enemy of the Empire, and standing right there. It won't cancel favors in hand, but there won't be any pleasant chat or negotiations, and contacts will be mostly unwilling to be helpful when it's in defiance of direct orders from the Warlord. If the orders get cancelled, though, the people who currently like the party will like them again.
- "Well, once Xiao Fa is Emperor, he can fire the Warlord." -Yanyu
- "True, but that might not be for a while yet." -Xiao Fa
After much discussion, the group decides to leap into the trap whole-heartedly. If they use Inspector Di's plan to catch the pirates and have Xiao Fa defeat (but not Defeat) the pirate captain, then they can break the Warlord's chi nexus (but not give it to Xiao Fa). This will draw the Warlord's wrath and get Lucky Chang two favors from the Alchemist, and possibly demonstrate that Lucky Chang has arranged to have the Minister's problems solved, but it will get the Warlord out of being able to magically storm in and save the day somewhere in the future.
Cai Wen puts on the Sash of Honor and the Talisman of the Magpie, and stands in the front of one boat, surrounded by "helpless women". A stealthier boat, with Inspector Di and Shen-Ji and Xiao Fa, lurks along the river bank.
Clouds start to gather, which Kuan-Xi eyes curiously. It's as if someone is making it more... dramatic, somehow.
The "I am but a hapless rich person too weak to carry all my money" con works again, and pirates sally forth, calling on Cai Wen to surrender.
- "Never give up! Never surrender!" -Cai Wen
Between the fire sorcerers and Min Feng's flaming arrows, the pirates riverboats start being set on fire left and right. The pirate captain turns out to have the ability to send his crew into the water in his stead, and Kuan-Xi entertains herself by waterbolting them halfway across the river. Both Kuan-Xi and the pirate captain are able to drive their boats around as if they were running on land, while the other boats are limited by things like Drift and Wind.
- "Order your men to stand down, and we will put out your boats." -Xiao Fa, in an inexplicably British accent
The gathering clouds turn into rain. Oh no! It is putting out the fire! Even the rain comes to the aid of the pirates! If there was only someone who could help! A sudden break in the clouds shines a sunbeam on Inspector Di. Presumably the Other Triad is off on the riverbank somewhere.
The pirates are whittled down until only a handful remain, though they do seem quite frightening to those with low resolves.
- "How many men will you sacrifice before you surrender? All of them?" -Xiao Fa
- "The life of a pirate is filled with sacrifice. For loot!" -Captain
Some small fishing boats that have come close to see the fight start to drift onto the rocks, and Inspector Di "saves them" by helping them not founder. The party calls on the last of the pirates to surrender - if they renounce their allegiance to a man who does not deserve it, Xiao Fa will give them a new life. The final three pirate crew surrender, and the captain puts up his hands when he has no further crew to throw in the way.
Pirate hunting concluded, it's time for the circus performance! The prisoners are quickly sent off with Inspector Di, while the group dashes back to the circus.
At the Circus
Since Shuyan (the only headliner in the run) remembered to practice, the performance goes well. During intermission, Lucky Chang approaches Min Feng as she and Xiao Fa sit in the VIP booth. He has a gift for her.
- "Would you accept this token from your humble servant, or shall I keep it in your name?" -Lucky Chang
Min Feng senses the outline of the trap now - either she accepts the gift, accepting Chang as her servant, or she tells him to keep it, and he may count it as being entrusted by her into his care. Xiao Fa contemplates refusing on her behalf, but that would suggest that he was entitled to overrule what she does or does not do, which is also a bad precedent. Min Feng does her best to avoid either pitfall, telling Chang that she can neither accept nor give gifts since she has a suitor.
After the performance, the pirate captain is turned in to the Minister of Boats, and Xiao Fa pleads for exile for the three crewmen.
The question of how much credit Inspector Di gets for the arrest is quickly contemplated. The more credit he is given, the harder the curse will try to kick in. He gets 25% of the credit, Shen-Ji tries to suppress the curse, at least temporarily on him, and with a karma point, Di gets to keep his job.
Yanyu goes to the trade minister, with her matchmaker shtick; she says she was sent by Xiao Fa, who is a great believer in the power of romance.
The three edicts are combined and passed.
- "What do you mean, you picked Horse, Whale, and Wolf? When was that even an option?" -Kiri
Xiao Fa returns to Autumn Rose, who concludes the ritual, and asks Xiao Fa where the Obsidian Warlord should show up. He picks "The Dragon's Throne"; elsewhere, the Warlord spends a karma point to make that "On the Dragon's Throne".Various damage is inflicted as ritual thwackback, but people claim enough of it that she can't just 'accidentally' drop all of it on Kuan-Xi.