|"A good idea, like a ghost, must be spoken with a little before it will explain itself. A bad idea is more willing to flatter."|| It is the Day of the Late Phoenix in the month of the Tiger, in the third Year of the Fox since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
The run begins and ends in Daizhou, in the far north of the Hon'eth Arcade.
Murder Most Confusing
While waiting for Ringmaster Te to recover, the Silken Wings Circus has been putting on performances. Now, he is mostly fit to travel, and the circus puts together its final performance in Daizhou. Li Merit insists that while Ringmaster Te may be well enough to announce the acts, he is under no circumstances to stand up while doing so. He will be in a chair, which will be borne about by bearers (Hiro and several other doughty circus workers). Takanata has written a poem, which, unusually, he seems to have written on both sides of the parchment. And Hana has had an odd dream about being cold, and sitting by a warm fire.
Several of the not-originally-circus performers have begun to work up their acts - Hana and Hiro have a singing and dancing routine, and Zhi-Hao does weapons demonstrations. Yoshi is making plans to be a "danger chef", which appears to involve chopping flying vegetables with his sword, but he has no cooking skill as of yet. A young boy asks Zhi-Hao to demonstrate how to use an odd hooked-blade shuriken, which Zhi-Hao is disconcerted to realize has some blood on it. The boy claims to have gotten it from a guy in one of the tents, and is willing to lead Zhi-Hao there. Much to Zhi-Hao's dismay, the shuriken appears to have come from the dead body in the storage tent - a guy in nondescript dark clothing, with a red mask. The boy claims that the guy said that he could have the throwing star "before he went to sleep", but Zhi-Hao lets his disbelief show, and the boy makes a run for it, grabbing his friend and bolting entirely from the circus.Zhi-Hao sends a circus roustabout for Li Merit, who is simultaneously being warned by another circus crewman that there are a number of inspectors here - Merit tells the messenger to send the inspectors to talk to Ringmaster Te, while he goes to talk to Zhi-Hao. Meanwhile, Zhi-Hao has been searching the body - he has a boot knife, a short sword, and a tattoo of the League of the Hidden Hand - the group of opium smugglers previously encountered in Boot to the Head.
Merit gathers up the rest of the party, to discuss the appearance of a DEAD BODY, in addition to inspectors of unclear provenance.
The inspectors, as it turns out, are here because the circus appears to have skipped the normal step of going through customs at the port, when travelling from the Butterfly Kingdom to the Hon'eth Arcade, so the inspectors have been sent to make sure nothing is being smuggled in. Min Feng, at Li Merit's suggestion, immediately diverts to the storage tent with the Sphere of Harmony, unpacks the decorative padded box from the unmarked crate (replacing it with some dangerous-looking tools so Merit's sign "Do Not Open" makes some sense), and hides the fancy box in the trash after giving the Sphere to Li Merit.
Merit thinks that the murdered guy looks like he was surprised while he was tampering with boxes - sure enough, the box of elephant feed proves to have a bag of opium hidden in it. Min Feng cuts it open and spreads it in the elephant dung pile, so there will be no using or selling that opium. Meanwhile, Hana and Hiro head off to entertain and distract the inspectors, accompanied by Yoshi.
Of the four inspectors (Ando, Bo, Car, and Di-Tan), Yoshi thinks that Ando and Bo have ulterior motives, but Car and Di-Tan are basically honest. Hana serves tea and tells them entertaining stories of their journey - Inspector Ando in particular is very interested in the details of this, and pumps Hana for more information. He's particularly interested in the trip across the wall - this isn't secret, as far as anyone knows, so she happily tells him more.
Meanwhile, Master Zhou has discovered an odd pattern drawn on the ground near Takanata's tent. He shows Merit and Takanata - Takanata thinks it is chi-active in some fashion, and it is certainly interesting to look at, but no one recognizes it. Takanata thinks that while it has some resemblance to part of a ritual, it would be an unusual ritual-maker who would draw the symbols and then wander off. So perhaps whatever it is is done - but it is entirely unclear what it is.
Hoping that the two boys Zhi-Hao encountered might have heard or seen something more about the murder, Min Feng heads into Daizhou to look for the pair. After some asking around, she finds them telling their story about finding a dead body to a group of kids for the cred. She asks for details, and they spin her a tale about attacking ninja but it becomes clear that they aren't really interested in being precise with facts or going back and testifying. Min Feng offers them a reward if they come back and explain what they really know. A few charisma rolls later, they decide that she's probably cool enough to go along with it, and head back to the circus with Min Feng.
Merit decides it's time to shake things up a bit, and informs the four inspectors that there is the body of a guy from the League of the Hidden Hand in a storeroom. Those with social skills think that Bo is unhappy about this turn of events, and Ando thinks it is interesting; the other two are shocked and dismayed. Merit also takes the opportunity to expound on the Circus Cover, and adds bits about the blockade. Ando finds the news of the attack on Ti Lao the most interesting, while Bo thinks that this all calls for searching every single box in the circus for contraband. Yoshi notes he clearly has strong motives to get the inspections going.
Merit, in an attempt to dismiss any notion that the circus is involved with drug smugglers, has begun to dramatically retell the story of his (with a little help) taking out the Hidden Hand's opium smuggling ring in the Butterfly Kingdom, which Yoshi notes has caused Bo to decide that Li Merit now has to be eliminated. At this point, the inspectors, prodded by Bo, decide to break for the evening and return in the morning to conduct their sweep.
As the inspectors are walking across the compound, Merit uses his Spycraft skills to subtly pass a note to Ando, indicating his concerns about Bo. Ando, not to be outdone, passes a quick note back arranging a secret meeting at 3AM under the big top for Ando and Merit to talk.
Min Feng returns with the two boys, and grabs Zhi-Hao and Hana (as the most likely to get some truth out of them) while the boys spin their story about a fight between a bunch of ninja, and tigers, and flying birds that took the ninja away again. Bribed with a few copper by Zhi-Hao and persuaded by Hana that their true information might be very important, they do finally confess that they only heard a fight, and didn't see anything. At that point, though, the final Daizhou performance of the circus begins, and Hiro and Hana have to go start their act. The two kids are given free passes in to see.
Since there has been at least one instance of opium being hidden in the circus's supplies, it seems likely that there could be more, or that whoever killed the Hidden Hand guy might have been doing... something. So Min Feng starts going through the crates, in search of more contraband, while Merit and Yoshi look for particular signs of tampering. Unfortunately, there are a lot of boxes.
While they search, the finale starts, and Merit dashes in to make sure Ringmaster Te doesn't stand up. He passes off the Sphere of Harmony to Hiro, as he thinks it would be a shame if he were killed by Bo and got the carving smashed in the process.
After the finale, the inspectors are convinced to return in the morning, while the circus workers start laying things out in order to let them be more easily searched (and searching for contraband). Unfortunately, there are still a lot of boxes.
- "It seems unlikely that you have two loyal people, one spy, and one criminal, all pretending to be customs inspectors, so I trust their bona fides." -Merit
At this point, however, several prefects have arrived, in response to a story of a dead body. Chief Inspector Xun takes charge of the interrogation - he initially fixates on Merit and Zhi-Hao as suspicious, since they are clearly familiar with the League of the Hidden Hand, and Zhi-Hao in particular appears to bear them a standing grudge. While Chief Inspector Xun takes down people's statements, his assistant is wandering the room - ostensibly looking for clues, but apparently also trying to get a look at the back of people's necks. Interesting.Inspector Xun orders the circus to not leave town while this matter is being resolved - it should be only a few days. Then, two of his flunkies come in to carry the body away - Master Zhou spots that one has a tattoo on the back of his neck.
The searching of the circus boxes continues all night. Merit hires "movers" from a friend of his who lives in town (Bob), Min Feng is a master of searchiness, and Master Zhou is hardy, so does not become too exhausted from searching in the middle of the night. Everyone else is easily tired by the activity.
While searching, Hana comes across a talking torch. She converses with it, and the flaming torch reveals that it is a ghost looking to make alliances with Hana. She's confused whyever a ghost would want to ally with her, but he's unwilling to go into details at this time. That makes her suspicious, so to ease her impression of him, the ghost warns her to avoid the many exorcists that hang out up here near the northern wall. She seems perplexed, but he rushes off.
Takanata, still suspicious of the odd labyrinthine pattern near his tent, spends some time attempting to sketch it. Despite his skill in the fine arts, he finds it remarkably difficult. He asks the Enlightened Melina about it - she also does not recognize it, but finds the lines of the design fascinating, and thinks it is of a scale meant to be walked.
Once Hana is done with her conversation with the haunted torch, she rushes over to Takanata's tent to let him know about it, but is quickly mesmerized by the utterly fascinating pattern drawn on the ground. She walks into it, following the spirals, but finds herself in the center, unable to leave again. Hiro, on the other hand, has no trouble walking back and forth across the pattern - but when he attempts to pull or carry Hana with him, she slips from his grasp. Scuffing out the pattern just leaves Hana more confused and stuck. Yoshi attempts to draw a straight path out with a stick, though she cannot follow it herself; Takanata attempts to draw a more complex path in keeping with the turns and twists of the trap, using the elemental marker. While this is not yet sufficient, once Hiro tries to help Hana walk that particular path out, she is able to escape.
Then, she recalls what she originally came over to tell everyone about - there's a haunted torch! That is, there's a ghost in one of the torches in the tent where the body was, and it spoke to her. It wasn't the ghost of the dead man - but it did suggest that if they wanted to speak to the ghost of someone who died by violence, it might be possible to do so by doing violence to the person who killed him. That's somewhat disturbing, but does not sound totally implausible to the people more versed in magic rituals. However, when the group heads back to that tent to examine the torch, it is unlit and un-haunted, as far as anyone can tell.
Late Night Meeting
It has gotten late enough that the next thing on the agenda is the 3am meeting with Ando. Being rather paranoid at this point, Li Merit arranges for a lot of backup. Min Feng is hiding in the tent, Zhi-Hao is not hiding, but standing some distance off rather obviously. Yoshi and Master Zhou are outside the tent, within shouting distance and a quick move. Merit discovers that there is a rope attached to the center tent pole, labeled "Don't Pull", which appears to be new. He does not pull it, and a few minutes later, Ando emerges from the shadows and wanders over.
Ando admits to being flattered by the multiplicity of bodyguards - Merit notes that at least one of the other inspectors wants him dead, and explains about the whole "breaking up the opium smuggling ring" thing. Ando thinks that if Merit is going to smash drug smuggling operations, he has to be willing to expect a few contracts on his life. Anyway, Ando was thinking of an information swap - if Merit gives him the details about exactly who was over the wall, Ando will give him the general briefing on what's up in Daizhou. Merit explains that, in fact, it's just as he said before - everyone came back over the wall. Even the elephants. Ando acknowledges this as well played on Merit's part, though it's not clear to anyone else what he means by that.
Ando explains that the town of Daizhou is currently embroiled in a gang war between opium smugglers (the League of the Hidden Hand) and firedust smugglers (the Claw of the Raven). Both sides have infiltrated all over the place, and are trying to frame each other and kill each other. The word on the grapevine is that the circus is heading out soon, so both groups are interested in using them as transportation. There will probably be more people trying to hide things in the circus supplies tomorrow. And, the Hidden Hand has put a price on Merit's head - Bo has been telling people that Merit is in town to reinforce the Claw.
Meeting concluded, Ando idly scans around the tent, and remarks that he doesn't see any sign of contraband - he'll sign the inspection report. Once Merit has the other three sign it, he's good to go. Merit asks about the other inspectors - Car and Di-Tan are honest, Ando says, but the prefecture is riddled with tong members, except for Chief Inspector Xun himself. Ando heads out, remarking that he advises Merit cut the rope before pulling it. It turns out to lead to the monkey pens, and probably would have been a good distraction if one had been needed.
Hiro declares that everyone needs to stop searching crates, so they'll be fresh for the combat tomorrow when people try to kill Merit. Min Feng suggests stealing Bo's chop so as to forge his agreement on the inspection report, but nobody else is excited enough by that idea to join in on the plan. Merit suddenly realizes that while he trusts his friend Bob, if the whole town is riddled with tong members, that means the actual movers themselves might be suspect. This revelation can't wait, so he decides to wake Bob up in the middle of the night to ask about it.
- "You walk into town by yourself?" -Mike
- "....No. Never mind, it can wait until morning." -Merit
The Next Morning
One somewhat short night of sleep later, it is morning. Hana has had an odd dream: a small fire being pursued from bush to bush by buckets of water, reflected in a mirror. In the mirror, the fire is larger, and burns up the buckets. Other than odd dreams, searchers are for the most part fresh, and everything finishes getting searched. Master Zhou decides to double-check the boxes that the "movers" searched, and runs into Bob taking a package of firedust out of the box - he apologizes for the misunderstanding. Bob later offers the firedust to Merit as recompense, but Merit claims not to be interested.
Takanata (accompanied by Zhi-Hao and Min Feng) heads into town to get an appointment with Ando. Ando's assistant is a devotee of Takanata's poetry, and sets up an immediate meeting. Takanata tells Ando about the visions everyone in the circus had when landing north of the wall. Takanata also shares the party's investigations into the different character of the Chi beyond the wall. Ando takes this in stride, as if he already knew about the visions, but seems a bit appalled that every single person in the circus had them. He finds the chi investigations interesting, but doesn't know anything about them. Ando assures Takanata that he will see what he can find out on both counts and contact Takanata again. Though it may take considerable time. He asks about the circus's scheduled stops and plans so he can send a message later if needed.
Meanwhile, Hana, Hiro, Merit, and Yoshi discuss ghosts and exorcists. Hiro says that Master Kwan recommended an exorcist to help with Hana's problems, but Merit (who has been briefed by Xiao Fa, who has been briefed by Master Kwan) backpedals - it will be important to get a discreet exorcist, not just one that will... hit Hana with a stick, or some such. Apparently the north has more exorcists, and they are often from the Temple of the High Path. However, no one has been to the temple in Daizhou yet.
Back at the city hall, Min Feng manages to overhear Ando dictating or possibly reading a letter to his assistant. She doesn't get it all, but the general gist is that it is an addendum to his recent report to someone in the Imperial Chancellery, regarding the circus. It seems the entire circus is compromised, and worse yet, are beginning to figure out what this may mean. It's far too many people for him to deal with himself, so he suggests the circus be carefully watched in the weeks to come as they journey south.
Takanata, fulfilling his self-appointed circus task of Conveyor of the Official Cover Story (and it doesn't require that he pull ropes or do goofy things in public) tells the mayor that Ti Lao is not dead and generally fills him in on the news from the Butterfly Kingdom.
Next stop on the town trip is the guy who Min Feng says sells custom shuriken. However, that trip is cut short when Zhi-Hao remarks that the shape is decorative rather than mechanical, and Takanata notes that the hooked shuriken is just hooked because that makes the tines look like claws - probably not for interesting mystical or functional significance, just artistic.
Min Feng tells the others about the letter Ando is sending, and Takanata expands on what Ando was and was not surprised by. The group discusses exactly what this means. He can't "deal with" all of them because he's just one person. Does "deal with" mean "kill"? Or something less ominous? It appears that the disjunction in their chi did... something, that the Hidden City cares about. But what? And why? No one is sure.
Perhaps someone could make Ando's letter vanish? Min Feng and Hana both think they might be able to break into the mail, but perhaps not without being caught. But, in any event, it would just be a stalling tactic, since Ando would still know.
- "We'll have to search hundreds of mail bags..." - Merit
- "But we're really good at that now" - Hiro, indicating the hundreds of boxes
As the group discusses whether or not to burglarize the local mail, a circus foreman comes in. He wonders - Merit said nobody was supposed to be planting anything in boxes, and Merit should be warned if anyone looks like they're doing that. Does that include monks? And does that include monks not planting boxes, but doing other suspicious things? Yes, yes it does. Apparently there's a monk, messing around with the weird pattern on the ground outside Takanata's tent. Everyone starts over, but Hana is told to stay behind, for fear of getting stuck in that stupid pattern again.
As she and Hiro fall behind, debating whether they're going to Takanata's tent or not, Hana thinks she starts hearing the voice of the fire ghost softly behind her. Hiro stays back with with her for protection. After some quick consultation with Hana, the ghost decides to appear in front of Hiro as well, so a tent flap starts burning. Hiro decides that it isn't OK to talk to burning tent flaps so calls for help. This attracts Min Feng, who was looking for the pair. She quickly rouses the circus folk to put out the fire, and sends someone to inform Li Merit.
Meanwhile, everyone else has found a tall bald woman in monk's robes, examining the magically drawn lines on the earth. She introduces herself as Tien Su-Sen, of the Temple of the High Path. It comes out that she walks the Wall, tracking undead who cross over. Recently, a ghost crossed over the Wall, and Master Tien has followed it south to the circus. She is quite concerned, as a ghost would have to be extremely powerful to cross the protective barrier of the Wall by its own ability. She is also concerned about who drew the strange magical path out of the ghost trap - Takanata confesses that it was him. She wants to know why, and he says that his great-niece was caught in it. As she starts to pursue the question of exactly why he thinks it was his great-niece, Merit leaps in with the distraction of "The King of the Butterfly Kingdom isn't actually dead!" Being rather single-minded, Master Tien starts to ask how they know he isn't dead, and why it is even an issue. (Clearly, she thinks, the party has some serious confusion about life/death issues.) Hana arrives, and tries to explain that the ghost Master Tien is chasing has been located in a torch or more recently, a tent flap - Master Tien is having none of this, being quite clear that the ghost she was following is standing right in front of her, and the fires are some sort of distraction. Hana is quickly shooed away by Takanata again.
Meanwhile, Takanata has drawn Master Tien aside from the rest of the group, and explains to her that his great-niece was, to his understanding, tragically killed in a ritual done by southrons, but she does not know she is dead. So, yes, a ghost did cross the Wall coming south, but it was a ghost from the Empire, not an evil Northern ghost. And, also, the soldiers let her in - she did not cross under her own power. Master Tien is finally convinced that Hana is slightly less of a threat than she had thought, though she does disapprove of the whole ghosts-walking thing. She is also quite displeased with the soldiers letting people cross the Wall - they are not taking their duty seriously. There are all sorts of dangerous things up there besides ghosts and zombies - shapeshifters, unpleasant curses, and the like. (Everyone wonders again about Ringmaster Te).
While Takanata speaks with Master Tien, Hiro and Hana have tried an experiment, and they head into a tent and quickly change clothes, a trick which is virtually impossible to see through. Hana (disguised as Hiro) pokes her head into the conversation between Takanata and Master Tien, completely derailing the ghost-hunter. Is the other one dead too? What is going on in this place? Master Tien dashes after the disguised Hana, finding the twins together - Hana apparently alive and Hiro now a ghost, as far as Master Tien can tell. Master Tien is appalled - are the two of them sharing one life between them? This will end up with both twins dead, she is sure. And she thinks it is wrong Wrong WRONG for the ghost to be stealing the live twin's energy like this - not that she understands how it is being done, or is even sure which one is really dead and which one might have been stealing the other's life before. The twins play innocent and admit to nothing. Hana escapes to look for the fire ghost again, leaving Hiro (looking like Hana) to take the brunt of Master Tien's distress (and serve Tea).
Merit attempts to suggest that if Master Tien doesn't understand, perhaps it is less bad than she thinks, or she should study it more, but she has begun to fixate on life-draining and the horrible danger that the live twin (whichever one it is) is being exposed to. And yes, while it is very comforting to have your loved ones around even after they have passed on, it is a false comfort. She fixes Takanata with a piercing gaze and tells him that she has seen women who have lost a child, who continue to clutch the body long after it is cold. And that sometimes, such attachment causes the ghost to remain, and the child cries. But it does not live, and it does not grow older - it simply remains, a lie, a cruel fakery of life. It is not healthy for the mother, and it is not healthy for the ghost, which does not move on as is proper.
- "Do not hold on to your child, simply because it still cries." -Master Tien
Takanata, however, is sure that the I Ching thinks there's a reason for Hana to still be around, and tries to explain. Master Tien has never heard of the I Ching insisting on something, but she is also suspicious that if the I Ching wants something done, it will not necessarily care if Hana kills Hiro in the process. The balance between life and death, she claims, is one in which life turns into death, not the other way around. Takanata is willing to agree with some of her particulars, but is resolute on the general principle that both Hana and Hiro are important.
Meanwhile, Hana dressed as Hiro (and followed by Yoshi) looks for the fire ghost, and finds it in a burning stick. However, it still wants to talk to her - it isn't clear whether it can see through the disguise or just notice what Hana looks like at all. The disguised Hana and Yoshi talk to the ghost a bit and he makes his offer. He'd like to trade shticks with Hana. He can teach her to hide in flames, and she can teach him to speak with non-manifested spirits. Hana wasn't really clear she could do that, but presses him a bit further on why. He claims that he wants to contact other spirits to gather allies.
Between the two of them Yoshi and Hana manage to get a fair bit of details about his history out of him. He was a fire sorcerer named Dorga from the Forest of Chin. He was trying to enhance his stature, by performing various magical experiments in his cabin outside of a small village. But the villagers feared what they did not understand and stormed his cabin and burned him alive. He managed to kill several of them with fire as he died, but not enough to save himself. He'd be interested in justice. He'd be willing to help Hana with whatever she needs in exchange for her shticks. She rejects his offer, and he leaves to consider his options. Hana remarks to Yoshi that Dorga seems like a very bad guy. By this point, the people in the tent (especially Hiro) have noticed that Hana's been gone quite a while, and Min Feng goes off to find her and Yoshi, and returns with a quick thumbs up.
The two of them return to the tent, where Hana decides that this whole being-mistaken-for-a-life-sucking-abomination thing is probably causing more trouble than it is worth, and tries to convince Hiro to stop with the disguise. Hiro tries to hold out - he doesn't want the exorcist knowing any more about what's really going on - but Hana thinks that it will solve the immediate problem.
- "Take your shirt off!" -Hana
- "I can't do that with your dress! It's got ties in funny places." -Hiro, gesturing behind his back
And, in fact, once they have explained to Master Tien that they just disguised themselves as each other, she is relieved enough at discarding the life-stealing-abomination idea to be almost calm about a polite and friendly ghost. And, since there is apparently a much less friendly (and fire-starting) ghost around, she is willing to be distracted into investigating that instead.
Hana shows Master Tien where the various fires were, but the ghost of Dorga does not appear to be there now. Master Tien takes the torch, and heads off to try and follow his trail. Disaster averted, at least for the moment.
Meanwhile, while the the ghost hunter was taking her leave, the inspectors were arriving.
The three inspectors suggest (mostly at Bo's prompting) that it would probably be easiest to finish the inspections with a minimum of fuss if they all split up. Bo would go with Li Merit and the others would head off with other circus folks. Seeing the trap, but being unable to avoid it, Master Deng volunteers to go with Merit and Bo, but other that than, the three of them wander off in the direction Bo suggests. The three of them head towards a secluded tent which Bo suggests should be inspected first. Before they wander in, Merit calls to a bunch of circus hands to head in first and bring the boxes out. Bo protests mildly, but Merit's guys are quite quick. Sadly for them, inside the tent is the expected ambush, and they are cut down to the man. Assassins of the Hidden Hand start flooding out of the tent to attack them. Zhi-Hao starts by attacking Bo himself.
- "I pull my sword, point it at him, and say... what was I going to say?" -Zhi-Hao
Merit mocks Bo for being a moron - he put the ambush in the first tent they inspected? Like Merit wasn't going to suspect something? It was obvious what Bo was up to, and Merit had already warned everyone he was in the Hidden Hand! His bosses are going to kill him. Run now! Unfortunately, Bo realizes that while his bosses might want to kill him, they'll be less likely to do so if Bo can bring them Merit's head.
Zhi-Hao demonstrates why he was an arms instructor for the Butterfly Kingdom, chopping Bo and the other assassins right and left. (His riposte trick also makes the assassins rather unwilling to attack him). Master Zhou demonstrates a trick of his own, a nerve strike (though everyone else seems to think it looks rather similar to grabbing someone's nose, much to Master Zhou's annoyance). Before Bo can get another action, he is cut down.
Yoshi, meanwhile, is doing his best to convince the assassins that they would be better off it they gave up their criminal ways. Several of them take the hint (and notice that they're losing), and start to flee, but are immediately attacked by a different set of thugs (these presumably working for the Claw of the Raven). With the help of this new group all of the Hidden Hand assassins are taken out, but Hiro decides that the Claw guys can't be allowed to just leave, so starts the fight with them too.
Eventually, the thugs are all down, and one of the remaining customs inspectors has already run for the prefects. Zhi-Hao searches Bo - in fact, he has a tattoo for the Hidden Hand. He also has some firedust on him. Merit goes through their pockets for loose change, and picks up about half their money. (40 copper, distributed amongst those who are still in copper.)
Hana makes tea for the inspector, and then for Chief Inspector Xun, when he shows up. Merit does his best to explain. Chief Inspector Xun suggests that the circus not leave until this matter is resolved (which should be only a few days), though he notes that the previous matter (that being yesterday's dead body) has in fact been resolved.
Yoshi, Hana, and Min Feng think that the thing that caused Xun to be favorably inclined towards Merit's story is that the thugs all still have money on them - if they weren't robbed, then it was less likely to be a setup.
Master Zhou notes to Chief Inspector Xun that one of his prefects has a Claw of the Raven tattoo, and Merit suggests maybe he should have them all searched for tattoos. Xun bows politely and thanks Merit for his suggestion, in that way that conveys "I wish it were that simple..."
That plot apparently solved for the moment, Takanata goes back to his prophecies from earlier in the day, and tries to figure out if there is more to worry about. After many attempts to figure out who the two different people that they need to follow to the south are, Takanata finally realizes that the omens of his poem indicate that two different people care about their trail from the north - Ando and Master Tien. Though exactly what Ando cares about still isn't clear.
That leaves only two loose ends:
- Does anyone want to steal Ando's letter? In the end, people decide that will just make him more suspicious, and more sure that there's something wrong with the circus. So, nobody does.
- Does anyone want to help Master Tien catch Dorga?
Master Zhou thinks the fire ghost needs dealing with, so goes off in search of Master Tien. While she has been pursuing Dorga, he is wily (and also able to move very quickly), and she is having a hard time catching him. What would be most helpful would be the ability to use Hana as bait, since he is clearly interested in talking to her. She concedes that she intends no harm to Hana at present.
Master Zhou puts Master Tien's case to the group. Hiro says that it is completely unacceptable - Master Tien has to find another way. However, Hana is more inclined to be helpful, and at least willing to discuss it with Master Tien.
Master Tien's idea is to put Hana inside a ghost trap with a fire, and try to lure Dorga into contacting her. Once he notices the trap, he should be drawn in, and if he moves to the fire without looking, he will especially be trapped. She will bring Hana out before starting the exorcism. She also reiterates that she currently intends no harm to Hana (and Yoshi and Min Feng think she's not lying). Much discussion commences about ghosts which are manifest, and/or corporeal. (Dorga is apparently manifest in flames; Hana is both manifest and corporeal).
Once agreement is reached, Master Tien draws a ghost trap (spending several chi) in one of the much-abused storage tents, and Hana immediately wanders in. As the others hide around the tent, Hana tries to contact Dorga through the flame. As it turns out, that doesn't work immediately, but after several hours of waiting, the flame does blaze up again, and Dorga asks Hana if she's reconsidered his offer. Suddenly, Master Tien bursts out from her cover and crosses into the ghost trap, leading Hana out as quickly as possible. Dorga is incensed at the betrayal, and blasts both of them with fire once before they get out. They are damaged, but manage to escape. Dorga's flames don't appear to be able to escape the trap any more than he can.
Then, with Dorga in the ghost trap, and Hana restrained by Hiro to keep her from going in again, Master Tien begins the exorcism - Dorga does his best to try and scour the lines of the ghost trap away with fire, but that doesn't really help, and eventually he is banished.
Master Tien gives her thanks for the assistance, and heads off back to her temple for some rest and healing, and the dangers of Daizhou are, for the most part, past.
Takanata casts the I Ching a final time, attempting to determine the truth of the following statements:
- Passing beyond the Wall separates you from the Empire somehow.
- The Chancellery is aware of that.
- Inspector Ando is a chancellery spy, watching for people who cross the Wall.
- There are shapeshifters beyond the wall.
- Inspector Ando wants the Chancellery warned that the circus needs to be dealt with.
- The Circus did not bring anything dangerous back across the wall that Ando needs to worry about that it did not take there.
Of those, the last is the only one that is false.
Ringmaster Te asks if everyone is packed and it is time to move out. Li Merit explains that the Chief Inspector has asked them to stay a little longer, but he's sure things will be resolved soon enough and they should be on their way in a couple of days.
- Xiao Fa checks in again on the injured circus people (Akimoto the Astonishing and Enlightened Melina).
- Xiao Fa heads to the Dragon Army barracks to assist in the infirmary and look for a sparring partner.
- Takanata visits the (Clear Melting) temple of the High Path
- Hana goes to Xiao Fa for some healing of her fire-ghost-inflicted injuries.
- Xiao Fa looks for interesting chi
- Cai-Wen (followed by Wei Han) heads out to the bars and gambling halls. He acquires a young woman named Chiyo, an officer from the local barracks. He hears tell of blockade runners, and lets it be known that he'd be happy to meet some. Notes
- Takanata and Yanyu visit Ringmaster Te.
- Anto trains with the monks of the Steadfast Heart Sect.
- Master Zhou finds Anto for some kung fu training as well.
- Master Zhou and Xiao Fa visit the Steadfast Heart monastery, and go on a patrol of the Wall.
- Master Zhou visits the Clear Melting temple.
- Wei Han trains with the Dragon Army barracks.
- Shen Wei Han quietly convinces Zhu Cai-Wen that a solo trip through bandits is a bad idea.