|"My, you chivalric fool... as if the way one fell down mattered."
"When the fall is all there is, it matters."
| It is the Day of the Late Serpent in the Month of the Monkey in the third Year of the Magpie since the burning of the Black Spire.|
The run takes place in the City of Spires.
As the circus sets up in the City of Spires, both Kasumi and Min Feng briefly think they notice something out of the corner of their eye, but then whatever it is vanishes. Min Feng checks into what's going on in the city - the main item of gossip is that the Pearl of the Taiga is choosing a protege. Opinion seems to be divided between wondering why she needs one, and thinking it obvious why she needs one.
Kasumi next notices a ninja waiting to be noticed - it is the ninja from the House of Night's Promise that she has met before. He is pleased that she is in the City of Spires again, as it affords him the opportunity to bid her farewell. He does not expect that she will see him again, but now that she has attracted the attention of Hirasoto, she will probably have the ability to fulfill her true potential.
- "So, you're retiring?" -Kasumi
- "Yes, that would be one way to put it."
- "That doesn't sound good."
- "It is... necessary."
He quotes something about swords and dogs that Kasumi doesn't quite catch, but seems to have to do with inevitable failure requiring preparation.
- "Is there no way I can assist you? I'm really specialised in avoiding the inevitable."
- "I would not want you to be pulled down when the rest of my house falls. I must be off to finish this task, and then I will go to join my house in cleansing our honor."
Meanwhile, Xian finds a stick in her tent. It is anchored in the floor at an angle, and a small blue ribbon hangs from the tip. It all looks very Significant, somehow, but Xian is baffled. Maybe it is a message meant for someone else?
Also meanwhile, Min Feng has the feeling that she is being watched, but she cannot spot anyone. She hides for a while and finally sees a tent flap which moves a little suspiciously, as if someone else is hiding.
Yanyu doesn't notice anything, until there is a clapping outside her tent - when she looks out, there is a ninja waiting there for her.
- "It's a pleasure to see you again." -Yanyu
- "It is a duty. Might I come in? There are matters to discuss."
Yanyu invites the ninja in, and offers him some tea.
- "There are some who have suggested that we might kill you for what has befallen us, but I have persuaded them otherwise. You did, to the best of my knowledge, give what warnings you could, and the fact that the defenses of your adversary were more than we expected is not due to any lack of honor on your part. So, rather than kill you, we present you with the Great Talisman of the Magpie."
- "Er... something went awry?" -Yanyu
- "You warned us that there was a cost for taking things from him, and we researched several of his more recent encounters, so I was careful to bring a significant amount of money, but you did not... do you know what that is?"
- "I do."
- "Did you understand what it would mean to steal from him the most valuable item in the Empire?"
- "I thought it was only one of the most valuable items, but no, I did not know the details. I just believed that he could only be defeated by a sorcerer or a ninja."
- "He was not defeated, only robbed. But stealing the Talisman resulted in the bankruptcy of my house, as well as our inability to make good upon our outstanding debts, such that we are unable to fulfill any of our outstanding contracts."
- "That's not acceptable."
Yanyu asks for the tale of the theft - he spins an epic story which involves battling Ezokin's familiar and various other familiar pieces - but at the moment that he actually made good his escape, and the Talisman was clearly stolen, then Ezokin's thwackback kicked in. All his money vanished, and he found out that all of the ninja house's money vanished as well. Their favors evaporated, and all their property (including the physical house) was owned by others. Finally, when they tried to fulfill their outstanding contracts, it resulted in immediate failure. As they cannot fulfill their promises, they must clarify their honor in the only way left to them. It would be very difficult to gain new contracts in their current house-less and tool-less state, but even if they could, the inability to fulfill their current contracts is an ineradicable stain.
Yanyu drags the ninja to the tea tent, and calls everyone else in. Chantou appears, pleased that Xian got her message and called everyone together. Xian tells Chantou that they're busy with important business, and she should come back some time later. Merit checks to make sure that Chantou doesn't have a crisis that will come to an urgent head in the next thirty minutes - she doesn't - and so she says she'll return after that.
So... if the party just fulfills the remaining contracts of the ninja house, the ninjas won't have to kill themselves? Can he tell them what the contracts are? That's a tricky point - part of the contract is confidentiality. However, if they have agreed to carry out the contracts, then getting them done is more important than keeping them secret. The party isn't willing to agree to do arbitrary ninja contracts without knowing what they are - what if it involves killing people they're friends with? Or breaking their previous promises? After some thought, the group settles on having Master Zhou hear the description of the contracts, because he probably knows enough of the plots that the party is doing that he'll know if the jobs cross any lines. He and the ninja go off for a brief discussion, and Master Zhou returns to say that he does not think that the jobs conflict directly with their obligations, and there is no murder involved, but that there is some potential to irritate some people that the party is friends with.
- "We do try to pay our debts." -Merit
- "If I thought that this was a debt, I would have collected it."
- "Well, there are debts and there are friendships."
The ninja leaves to allow the party to discuss the matter, and Chantou promptly returns.
A Lovely Mess
- "So... I suppose you're wondering why I called you all here today!
I have dealt with the whole Black Duke thing. He should not be troubled by his mother any more." -Chantou
Chantou explains that she and Yanyu came up with a list of potential matches for Song Hsi-Su, and she settled on the perfect candidate: Baron Guo, a widower and a baron in fealty to Duke Huang (the Yellow Duke). She arranged for a meeting between them and deployed the love potions - but then the Baron sent his majordomo instead of coming himself, and the Dowager Song ran off with the majordomo instead. But nevertheless, they have run off together and are in hiding, thus removing the Dowager's influence over the Black Duke, especially since he'll be occupied with the war.
Well, not really a real war. But the Yellow Duke thinks that the Black Duke messed with his Baron's guy, and the Black Duke thinks that the Yellow Duke arranged for his mother to be kidnapped, so they're kind of at odds now. Also, Chantou put the other half of the love potions on top of the Green Spire (the spire of the Green Duke, so they wouldn't be disturbed.
- "So... why are we talking? What do you want us to do?"
- "Oh, I don't need you to do anything! I'm just here to report!" -Chantou
Xian wants to know what the heck was up with the stick with the ribbon tied to it. Chantou is pretty sure that the stick worked - they're all here in the tea tent to talk to her, right? Merit suggests that Xian and Chantou go off for a secret meeting in which Chantou can remind Xian of all the signals of their order that Xian may have forgotten. She says they can do that this evening. The party suggests darkly that if the potions are found on the Green Duke's property, that there might be a war with the Green Duke instead, or that the Black Duke might just kill the majordomo to get his mother out of an unwanted marriage, as cunning schemes are trumped by war.
Lijuan draws a prophetic sketch. The pan on the left is probably a ninja mask, and the right holds a necklace of some sort. Perhaps it's meant to represent the Pearl of the Taiga? Will they have to choose between saving the ninja house and stopping the war? Master Zhou thinks that it's more that there is some sort of balance needed, and not explicitly a choice between them.
Merit sends some agents off to find out who is in town based on the "love potion" plot.
- All of the major Dukes (Black Yellow Green Red Blue)
- Chantou and Xian
- Madame Qin
- Song Min Feng
- Song Hsi-Su
- Baron Guo
- Yuan Anshi (Baron Guo's majordomo)
- Yang Shen-Ji
That last one is interesting - how is Shen-Ji involved? He denies any knowledge of the plot.
Min Feng gets some more details on whatever is going on with the Pearl of the Taiga. Apparently for the past several weeks, she has been hosting salons and gatherings for many of the young women in the city. Over the course of these events, the young ladies have been narrowed down to five who might still become her protege, and one of them will be chosen at the salon in two days time.
The group decides that knowing what the ninja plots are will also be useful, so Master Zhou briefs them.
- Prevent Xin Niu-niu from attending the final soiree of the Pearl's, without hurting her.
- Defeat the Green Duke's swordmaster, Liao Min, before he fights an upcoming duel, but do not kill him.
- Attend the Yellow Duke's party in three days, eavesdrop on all the important conversations, and report back with a list of all the favors exchanged.
- "Though it is not a requirement, they would prefer that these issues be solved elegantly and not like a barrel of monkeys." -Master Zhou
Min Feng goes to visit Mistress Litona, and asks her to try and get her added to the Pearl's competition. Mistress Litona will see what she can do, and says that she can arrange for several invitations to the Pearl's soiree. She also clarifies that the Yellow Duke's party is actually secretly the King's party, or is being thrown at the King's request. Min Feng warns Mistress Litona that the Marked are going after the Talismans, and asks her to let the Song of the Phoenix know. She'll pass that along. Min Feng asks about the case file that she sent last run, and Mistress Litona says that it's a lot of evidence towards a conspiracy adjusting the chi of the Empire.
Yanyu spends a while gathering information on the five remaining contenders for the position of the Pearl's protege. They are:
- Xin Niu-niu, a sweet girl and the popular favorite
- Tsung Rou-wan, the self-proclaimed "bad girl" of the group
- Qiu Mei-shio, the shyest and most self-effacing
- Masuzoe Sadako, the clever one, and the only non-native
- Shao Yunhe, the least likely of the remaining girls, though recent rumor claims that she has formed a pact with a late contender as a desperation move
- Song Min-Feng, only recently rumored to be in the running and in a pact with Shao Yunhe
The group decides Tsung Rou-wan is probably the one who hired the ninja - maybe they should get her in trouble for that.
Lijuan asks the local urchinry about Liao Min - they tend to think that he's mean. He chases urchins and beggars away from the Green Duke’s Spire when they just want kitchen scraps. They do know, however, where he practices every morning. In general, it sounds like he's cut from the same cloth as Master Deng. Merit starts a background check on him. Xian asks around about the duel, and determines that Liao Min will be duelling Kwan Shu-Ting. Kwan was condemned by the Green Duke for serious financial impropriety and manipulation, but rather than accept his sentence, he has invoked an obscure legal right to trial by combat, and claims he will be winning by virtue of his innocence. Nobody really believes that, but there is a lot of curiosity to see what will happen. (Hmm. Kwan sounds like a Bernie Madoff type of bad guy. Maybe they can frame him for kidnapping Xin Niu-niu.)
CSI: City of Spires
A messenger arrives, looking for Master Yang, and inviting him to the Green Spire for a matter of sorcerous investigation. He will be "appropriately appreciated" if he can resolve the matter. After he agrees to not gossip about the problem, Shen-Ji is escorted to the roof of the Green Spire, where there are two small vials, surrounded by a glowing dome of sorcerous power. Hmm. Chantou hadn't mentioned that part.
Shen-Ji determines that they are both love potions, with the expected tendrils of magical power heading off to the southeast, but they've been amplified a thousandfold, and there's some sort of non-Yanyu magic interfering with them. It's constructive interference, not destructive, and the potions aren't evaporating. (The duration of the love potion is normally "until the other half evaporates").
- "Make a roll with your 'magic man was not meant to know' skill." -Mike
- "Which one?" -Derrick
Shen-Ji's best guess is that something is combining Phoenix sorcery with some sort of mysterious Dog magic, but he's not sure what. He tells the Green servants to not disturb the dome, but that it's okay for people to be in the spire. It's not going to explode or anything like that. Then, he heads back to the circus to tell everyone what he's found. Merit notes that the southeast part of the city tends to be working class families, not nobles or fancy estates or spires.
So... maybe there's some sort of Dog artifact, like the Tortoise-shell Bracers. The Dog Collar of Loyalty, say. So the majordomo is normally really really loyal, and that's gone wonky somehow. Maybe that's why the Yellow Duke is so sure that he was kidnapped, because he's so loyal?
Min Feng heads to have a midnight meeting with her brother at his townhouse. Maybe it's just the midnight part, but everything seems extra spooky. The spooky butler lets her in and escorts her to the spooky tea room, where her utterly non-spooky brother greets her, hoping nothing is wrong. Well, Min Feng thinks there's definitely something wrong, what with the Dowager and the majordomo running off. The Duke is chagrined - he had hoped that he could quash the rumors, but unless the Baron's man returns his mother, things won't go well.
He had summoned the Baron to his residence; they have been sniping back and forth over a minor border issue. Duke Song's lands border the lands of Duke Huang, and Baron Guo is the one in charge of that portion of lands. But this time, he decided to inflict a calculated insult and sent his majordomo instead, and for some reason the majordomo was able to persuade the Dowager to leave with him. Obviously this is all some plot of Baron Guo and the Yellow Duke - the claim that the Dowager was behind some plot to steal the majordomo makes no sense, nor does the implication that the Duke's mother would be in charge of black ops.
- "They're calling her some sort of kidnapping ninja? In any event, if it's not settled by the King's party, I will have to make some sort of Statement." -Song Yuanjun
Min Feng says she'll try and help sort it out, and heads back to the circus to fill the others in. Perhaps they can actually blame love potions for the mess, if they can figure out who to frame.
- "The problem with this frame story is that it contains too much truth." -Xian
The group decides that framing the Red Duke is the best plan - the story can go that he wants to recruit the Black Duke as an ally, and is tired of Yellow squabbling with him, so he decided to disrupt matters and frame Green for the mess.
Master Not Deng
The next order of business will be beating up Liao Min. Lijuan sneaks off to hide near the training courtyard, remembers that she's supposed to be dressed as a ninja, and sneaks back again. Merit disguises everyone as a ninja, and they head to the courtyard to hide or lurk nearby. (Min Feng, Merit, and Xian decide to stay behind, as they're really not going to contribute much to beating up a master fighter).
When Master Liao gets to the courtyard, he frowns, and calls out that if his enemies reveal themselves, he might let them live. Master Zhou steps from hiding (surprising Master Liao, as Zhou was one of the few he hadn't noticed with his weapon-sense), and declares that as a matter of honor, they must fight.
Lijuan throws a hamster at him, which he cleaves in two with a parry, and Shen-Ji launches a paintball at him, which he also parries. Then, he invokes a master ability and summons everyone into the combat who is supposed to be in it (the opposite of "Not for Amateurs"), pulling in Yanyu, Lijuan, and Shen-Ji, who would rather have stayed at range. Then he runs around and chops everyone.
A flurry of chopping, riposting, more chopping, fleeing, and nose-grabbing ensues. Master Liao is truly fearsome, and Lijuan goes down and Kasumi is badly wounded, before Master Zhou and Kasumi combine forces to take him down. Kasumi strikes the last blow with Master Zhou's soft touch, though Master Zhou's previous brutal strike has already put him in death check land. After dosing Master Liao with a healing potion, the group flees, leaving the swordsmaster defeated.
Meeting the Girls
Min Feng heads off to visit Shao Yunhe (the trailing girl whom she has been linked to in Mistress Litona's rumors). The Shao house is that of a reasonably well-off tradesman, and Yunhe invites her in.
- "I had been wondering when we would meet, given how we have been paired in the public eye. Why did you do that?" -Yunhe
- "I thought that was your doing." -Min Feng
- "Then it was probably Sadako, and she must have some clever ploy that I don't understand." -Yunhe
Min Feng suggests that they go around and visit all the other remaining competitors, and persuades Yunhe that this is a good plan. Mei-Shio is the first that they visit, and though she is not seeing visitors, Yunhe persuades her father's servant to let them in, to her mild displeasure.
- "I thought it only fitting to pay my respects." -Min Feng
- "I understand that you are trying to win the contest through some sort of strange shenanigans. I'm... not certain that is the best plan." -Mei-Shio
Mei-Shio appears to be good at pleasantries, but is a little more nervous when the conversation turns to serious matters and Min Feng tries to get more interrogatory. However, nothing of particular import is discovered.
Xin Niu-niu is the next to visit, and she invites Min Feng and Yunhe in with a delighted exclamation. She's so happy to see them - in the end, it is all a team effort, and it will turn out for the best. She offers them tea cakes. Min Feng manages to study her, and she frowns delicately as she notices this, but Yunhe is won over and begins to think that Niu-niu is the best candidate after all.
Sadako proves to be a bit blunter than the others: "Last minute contender? What's your plan?" Min Feng says she was simply curious to see what would happen. She name drops Lord Takanata and the circus, which puzzles Sadako. Sadako manages to spill her tea all over, and hints Yunhe into rushing off to get a towel, whereupon Sadako turns some more persuasion on Min Feng.
- "All right, seriously, what's going on here? What do you actually want? You're not planning to move here and take the job, so what are you looking for?" -Sadako
Min Feng sticks to her "I'm just seeing where this all goes" story, and says that she would be happy if she could become greater friends with the Pearl of the Taiga. Ah, that's something concrete, at least. Sadako says that if Min Feng is looking for that, the Sadako can certainly provide access and introductions if she wins, if Min Feng has something to offer her. Min Feng claims that she can be greatly helpful in helpful and entirely nonspecific ways, and after a few more rounds of unsuccessfully trying to get Min Feng to be a little more specific about the offer she is or perhaps is not making, Sadako gives up when Yunhe returns with a towel.
Tsung Rou-wan is the last that the pair visits.
- "Come to concede, have you? You may as well bow out now, because you don't have a shot." -Rou-wan
- "Bring it." -Min Feng
Several rounds of similarly unspecified threats are exchanged from both parties, and Min Feng notes that Rou-wan's personality is a bit more smarmy when her father is in the room, and then the pair leaves again.
So, what does Yunhe know about the remainder of the competition? Tomorrow's party is expected to be pleasant, refined, and interesting. The Pearl will be there, as will a number of townsfolk, and most of the Dukes or some of their entourage. In other salons and soirees, there was conversation and tea ceremonies and politics and so on. Niu-niu is nearly always second best in anything in particular. Rou-wan isn't very good in one-on-one conversations, but she did bully a number of the other girls into asking the Pearl to keep her in the competition. Sadako is very good at the political discussions. Yunhe's resources are, well, actual resources. Her family has been bribing people to keep her in, but she's in above her head at this point and doesn't expect to win. Min Feng offers her some general advice, but doesn't have any social makeover abilities the way Yanyu does.
Min Feng drops Yunhe back off at her house, and heads to the tea tent for another planning session. The group constructs their general story to try to put in place:
Trade/border tensions have soured Black/Yellow relations, and rumors claim that the Black Duke is under his mother's thumb. Red wants a political bargain between Black & Yellow, so he hires a goof to hit both sides with a love potion, and the goof ends up getting the majordomo instead. Either Red wants to frame Green when the plan is discovered, or maybe Green actually did it instead, or maybe it is not at all clear who did it.
Merit thinks that framing Red works well to mitigate the political backlash if the Dowager and the majordomo vanish. If they reappear and start pointing fingers, then it might not work as well. Merit vanishes into his library for the afternoon to come up with a plan for a propaganda campaign.
Late in the afternoon, Lijuan heads to the southeast part of the City of Spires to ask urchins if they have seen any rich people hanging out incognito recently. In fact, they can point her at a couple who just moved in - the guy is really nice. He helped the Widow Cho patch her roof, and he helped Old Man Chen get the dogs out of his yard, and he convinced mean Mister Po to lower the rent at the boarding house. The lady mostly stays inside and they don't see her, and the urchins think she might be sick, or maybe not all there. But the guy is really nice and devoted to his invalid wife.
Merit sends a Butterfly strike team to kidnap Niu-niu, and thinks maybe he noticed a ninja out of the corner of his eye. But maybe it was nothing.
Chantou returns to "teach Xian about secret stick language", but her main point seems to be that it means what it obviously means, and since it worked, how can Xian doubt the message of the stick?
Xian thinks there ought to be more to a secret language than this, but gives up and asks Chantou if she has heard about the most recent developments. As it turns out, she has not heard of the mess going on at the Green Spire. Chantou does admit that there was some sort of strange magical effect at the Black Duke's townhouse - the two targets drank the tea with the potion, and professed undying love, and then he gave her his necklace, and everyone woke up a little while later. Xian notes that just maybe, the weird magical effect Chantou saw might be related to the weird magical effect going on with the other halves of the potions. Well, that's possible. But they're Yanyu's potions, so Chantou thinks Xian should be talking to Yanyu about weird side effects, not to Chantou. Chantou used them as directed.
So... what's up with the spooky effect at the Black Duke's house? Chantou says she arranged for that - it's to keep anyone from being too keen on joining the Black Duke's team and vice versa.
But - back to the question of the Green Duke. Now the Green Duke is getting involved because there's a weird magic ritual on top of his house. Hmm. Well, Chantou could see about arranging to have the other Dukes team up against the Green Duke, so that he'd be distracted. Xian thinks that might not be the right plan - how about distracting all of the Dukes together? Okay, that's a possibility. Some sort of external threat that they have to band together against. But what about the King, then, Xian notes? You wouldn't want the King on the wrong side from the Dukes. All right, Chantou says, so they need some sort of country-wide existential crisis? Well, that's a thought, Xian notes, but what if the Savannah takes advantage while the Taiga is distracted?
- "An Empire-wide existential crisis may be more than I can arrange for tomorrow." -Chantou
- "Fair enough. How about you put together a plan, but don't implement it yet." -Xian
- "Okay. I'll check in with you before the balloon goes up." -Chantou
Min Feng checks in with Mistress Litona, asking her to drop some more rumors into the city to support Merit's propaganda campaign. They chat a little about this whole protege-of-the-Pearl thing, and Mistress Litona thinks that the Pearl would be expecting her protege to stick around rather than travel and check in once in a while.
The next morning, three out of the four of Merit’s strike team members show up, quite unhappy with Merit. There's a note from the fourth guy that he has it under control, but the other three are useless.
- "Hmm. He talks a good game [indicating the letter], but can he resist a pretty face?" -Merit
- "I can't believe you put the hit on that cute little girl! You made her cry!"
Merit tries his best to get the guys back on board, but his nine successes don't beat Niu-niu's successes at making them feel guilty, and they leave grumbling. But Min Feng confirms that Niu-niu is out in the woods outside the city, so the fourth guy probably does have things under control.
Then, Merit, Xian, Yanyu, and Shen-Ji head to the house that the urchins have indicated that the lovestruck couple is in. Inside there seem to be some sounds of sawing and hammering, and a guy comes to the door when they knock. Merit says that the party does not represent any of the families involved, but that it's very important that they speak to Yuan Anshi. He's here because the families involved are beginning to get upset and stressed, and he wants to head that off. There's something a little familiar about Anshi's manner, and Merit realizes that he is somewhat like the other members of the House of Butler that he's met before.
Merit explains that both the Black Duke and the Yellow Duke seem to think that the whole thing is a kidnapping plot, though that is obviously not true. How can they be convinced otherwise? Anshi thinks for a moment, and then asks them to wait, and goes back inside. Suspecting treachery, Shen-Ji flies up above the small house to make sure nobody is escaping out the back.
A few minutes later, Anshi returns with two sealed letters, for Duke Song and Duke Huang, which he says should take care of it. Merit leans on him - he would really like to be able to say that he has seen the Dowager Song safe with his own eyes. This seems like a reasonable argument, but Anshi claims that she is unwell and he is taking care of her. Merit presses - if she is suffering from a magical effect, will Anshi be able to help her with that? Xian notes that it would be better to have her be herself again and not need taking care of.
- "I don't want her to be in any danger." -Anshi
- "It's too late for that now, but we can help." -Xian
Is the Dowager Song still wearing the token? Anshi's face goes oddly blank for a moment as he says it must never be taken off. Creepy. Xian leaps in - what if someone else took it off? What about the danger of that? That would be dangerous, right? Anshi should let them in so they can help. Xian succeeds in his persuasion, and Anshi lets the group in, and brings the Dowager out to meet them. She smiles and greets them, though she doesn't seem to be paying a lot of attention.
Shen-Ji notes that there are a lot of chi tendrils between the two of them, and that in particular, most of her chi is taken up by a raging battle fighting herself. Merit thinks that she's not crazy or vacant or anything like that - she's just mostly occupied elsewhere, and not paying very much attention. Yanyu throws some karma into Sense Relationship, to try and get more details than the obvious.
So, first, Anshi is loyal, bonded, and eternally dedicated - just not to her. But right now he's being whammied, which has diverted him into being loyal and eternally dedicated to the Dowager. His nature doesn't fight that very much. However, the Dowager's nature is really fighting against between eternally dedicated to Anshi, which is why she's so distracted. The loyalty is artificial in both of them, and enforced by the necklace that he took off (breaking his oaths) and put on her.
Shen-Ji ponders the implications of removing the necklace. Breaking it would probably kill one of them - probably him, but maybe her. Taking it off of her and putting it on him would probably send things back in the normal direction, though it might overshoot. It seems unlikely to Shen-Ji that anything will actually blow up the Green Spire, no matter what happens.
The party leaves again, and Merit thinks hopefully that perhaps if Anshi's career is destroyed, Merit can hire him instead.
The Pearl Chooses
It's time for the party being thrown by the Pearl of the Taiga. Yanyu gives Min Feng a nice makeover, and the group figures out if they can get everyone in, depending on who Min Feng and Yanyu escort as dates. Maybe Xian can be dressed as a boy again to be someone's date, but she says she is sick of being dressed as a boy. Yanyu takes Merit, and Min Feng takes Master Zhou. Xian charismas herself in, and Kasumi stays outside to make sure that Chantou doesn't sneak in and disrupt things.
It's about an 18-success party. Both the Red and Blue Dukes are there, and there is a rumor that Li Kao was actually invited (no one else was officially invited; it was a "you can get in if you can get in" sort of affair.) The candidates who aren't Niu-niu arrive, and Yanyu confirms that they're all Fox aspected except for Min Feng. Rou-wan is using her public ingratiating persona, though she stumbles a little, and Mei-shio seems more confident than she was at her house. Sadako spends the most time talking to the Duke, and Yunhe tries really hard to not just be Min Feng's wingman.
Min Feng's presence seems to be puzzling everyone, and the Dukes are actually blunt enough to ask her "why do you want this job, and why do you think you can get it now?" which she diverts with her standard answer of being curious to see how it went. Xian throws her charisma into pretending that she's a candidate too, adding to the puzzlement. Zhao Wu gives the official introduction for his wife, who is escorted by Li Kao, much to everyone's astonishment. Zhao Feiyan manages to talk to everyone first, before going to talk to others, a nice trick that the social characters are impressed by. Li Kao drifts into a corner to observe the rest of the party - he raises an eyebrow at Min Feng, and gives Xian more of a "I don't think so" look. Xian tries really really hard to think about the Hand on the Sword of All the Clans, in case Li Kao is reading her mind.
Merit mentions to the Pearl that he is in town on political business, and is interested in her advice. She claims to be a poor source of advice on political matters, but is willing to give it nonetheless, and brings in her husband. Merit explains the conflict between the Black and Yellow Dukes, and his personal goal of avoiding incipient conflict.
- "They are very much in love, but nobody finds this plausible." -Merit
- "I do not think that they are deeply in love." -Zhao Feiyan
- "But they think they are." -Merit
The Pearl and her husband communicate a briefing between them in meaningful glances. Does Merit know who might be behind them thinking that? Merit indicates that he has more information than he is allowed to say. Wu nods, as if that was the right answer. Merit notes that the quandary is, who might be responsible for it so that things will disarm nicely. Wu thinks that that depends on what is going to happen - if they are going to go away together and never be seen again, then he agrees that a Fire Duke should have been behind them. Merit isn't sure - the situation that they are in is unhealthy. Perhaps it is a small thing compared to war (the Pearl hits him with a bit of guilt for that sentiment), but he would like to have them recover their senses.
- "In that case, we should probably implicate His Majesty, but I should discuss that with him first." -Zhao Wu
The conversation disbands and people head back to the main party. Master Zhou asks Li Kao if he might visit later, and Li Kao indicates that he definitely should, as there are matters that will soon need to be resolved. Min Feng also chats with Li Kao.
- "I note that your companions have been up to many things recently." -Li Kao
- "There are many things to be up to." -Min Feng
- "Some are wiser than others."
- "Some of my companions are wiser than others."
The Pearl starts on a round of talking to the contenders to be her protoge. (She shrugs at Xian as if to say 'you weren't really serious about that, were you?' and Xian shrugs back as if to say 'I'd just like to have a chat.')
She starts with Min Feng, wondering whether her 'candidacy' was in order to get Li Merit an opportunity to talk to her husband. Min Feng says that it isn't really feasible to move to the City of Spires anyway.
- "If circumstances were different, why would you want to become my protege?" -Zhao Feiyan
- "I am quite admiring of the subtlety of your skills." -Min Feng
In other subjects, now that Min Feng has met the others, does she have any suggestions? Min Feng doesn't like Rou-wan, as she's a bully in private. Yunhe is over her head, and Mei-shio might have been over her head, but has improved a little. Niu-niu seems nice. The Pearl notes that Niu-niu doesn't seem to have seen fit to attend the party, though. Sadako is intelligent, but needs refinement. So... Min Feng favors Mei-shio or Sadako? Min Feng guesses so. As for Min Feng's original wishes, the Pearl notes that she does not normally take on people for training, but she has on occasion taught them something if they have done significant favors for her husband.
The Red and Blue dukes fence with each other a bit, but the Pearl keeps swooping in to keep them from escalating. Duke Lan asks Min Feng how things are going with the circus, and with Lord Takanata, and then asks her to pass along to her brother that the Blue Duke would be honored to receive him at the Lan estates, and that it would be worth his time. Duke Hong chats with Xian - does she happen to know Min Feng's brother's position on the events of the day? The Duke has noticed a certain bias against the more conservative of the Dukes, and wonders if that bias has percolated to her honored brother. Xian thinks not, and thinks that Min Feng has been holding back on influencing her brother. The Red Duke thanks Xian, and invites her to call upon him if she likes.
- "If Min Feng thought she had a score to settle, she would have exerted her influence." -Xian
- "Ah, then she thinks that we are even?" -Duke Hong
Min Feng goes to talk to Duke Hong - it is a pleasure to see him under more relaxing circumstances. The Duke notes that if her brother returns to his estates sooner rather than later, he would be most pleased to send his emissary to treat with him.
Xian chats with the Pearl, and notes that she does not mean the protoge-pretense entirely in jest, as she finds it quite pleasant. She also mentions the death of the Hand on the Sword of All the Clans, and suggests that the Pearl should be wary. The Pearl says that Cai Wen had warned her about that, and she is being cautious, but thinks that her own defenses are rather different than the Hand's were. Xian suggests that she and the Hand did share a significant trait however. The Pearl notes that Xian’s friends with these similar traits probably need more perception, as her husband and her guards have caught glimpses of ninja staking out the area. Xian expresses the utmost envy and jealousy of whoever gets her favor.
Merit chats with Li Kao, and asks his advice in balancing study with the adventuring lifestyle. Li Kao notes that he really does not have a lot of experience with the adventuring lifestyle, considers saying something else, and decides not to. Merit throws in Active Listener and gets him to suggest that if Merit wants advice on combining adventuring with something more sage-y, the person he should talk to is Li Kao's brother. Merit thinks it is unlikely that he would remember such a conversation. Li Kao thinks that a meeting could be arranged that does not have that difficulty if Merit really wanted, but Merit really doesn't want. For a safer question, Merit asks what books he should pick up. Li Kao realizes that he probably should return the Book of the Remarkable Wanderer that he borrowed from Hiro, but suggests that Merit should seek out a book called "Light against the Darkness". It is written by an unknown author, and he has only seen one copy himself, but it is a book he thinks Merit would like to understand.
The Pearl thanks everyone for attending her soiree, and announces Qiu Mei-shio as her protege. Rou-wan stomps off to throw a tantrum. Yunhe is sad, and puzzled by why Niu-niu didn't come. Sadako tells Min Feng that she should feel free to contact her again if she has any more nebulous offers.
That night, Niu-niu returns to the city with a dramatic (though tragic) tale of kidnapping and mistaken identity, but it is too late for her.
That leaves only the love potion plot and the Yellow Duke's party. Oh, and they should probably deliver the letters from Anshi to the two Dukes.
The party pays a call on the Black Duke first. His townhouse is still excessively spooky, though he doesn't seem to see it, himself.
- "Have you not noticed that your guards are wearing platform boots and black eyeshadow?" -Merit
Well, they are kind of doing the "black" theme. But they weren't trying for "haunted". He'll look into it. Merit gives him the letter, which he reads. He finds it really unlikely that his mother has fallen head over heels in love with the majordomo, but he also can't resist Anshi's persuasion roll. Merit explains that there's some ensorcelment involved, but that they're dealing with it. Ah, that makes more sense to him. If Merit and Min Feng and the rest can find out who is behind ensorceling his mother, then he will Deal with them.
The group heads to the Yellow Duke's house; that requires a little more work to see him, but "20 status plus a note from the kidnapped majordomo" is sufficient. Again, they explain that there is sorcery involved as he reads the letter. The Yellow Duke says that he will find the sorcerer responsible, and the group notes that Shen-Ji is working on fixing things.
Ah, it seems very convenient that the Black Duke's sister's personal sorcerer just happens to be on hand to fix the problem. Well, maybe, yes, but it only looks convenient because she found out about the problem because of her brother. Min Feng manages to persuade him out of deciding that she is the problem. Well, if Master Yang can resolve the situation, that would be an excellent first step. There is a bit of a digression into explaining that Shen-Ji couldn't have caused the problem, because he's just a metal sorcerer, but then, how can he fix the problem? Oh, fixing things is much easier than breaking them. (Hah!)
- "Master Yang will save us or die!"
Well, perhaps the thing to do is get the necklace off of the Dowager and back onto Anshi.
Merit hires some thugs to break the window of their next door neighbor, so that the neighbor asks Anshi to come and help fix it. Lijuan, Xian, Shen-Ji, and Master Zhou sneak in, except that Xian forgets to sneak. However, when the Dowager sees them, she doesn't seem particularly worried. Xian convinces her that Anshi is in trouble because he took off the necklace that should never be taken off, but then she calls out for Anshi in worry. He starts heading back to the house, and a combat breaks out. The fighters manage to steal enough of Anshi's actions to keep him from getting in the house, and then Xian hits the Dowager with an emotional shift to convert loyalty to self-love. The Dowager panicks - why has Anshi does this to her? Master Zhou manages to get the necklace from her and put it on Anshi, but it takes Shen-Ji's phoenix's intervention to prevent things from exploding.
Now Anshi and the Dowager hate each other with a passion, though, and Anshi declares that he will tell Baron Guo of the Dowager's perfidy. Merit is startled to discover that his leadership skill doesn't help him persuade Anshi otherwise. Xian arranges to escort the Dowager back to the Black Duke, while Min Feng rushes ahead to tell the Yellow Duke about the "hate each other" side effects first.
Shen-Ji heads off to take credit at the Green Spire, and the Green Duke's majordomo owes him a favor. The Master of Horse reports back - framing the King is a go.
Everyone manages to get into the King’s party one way or another, and eavesdropping is successful enough to overhear all the important favors. Interesting events at the party include
- The Yellow and Red Dukes spend much of their time trying to get the minor dukes on board with recruiting the Black Duke.
- The Blue and Green Dukes try directly to recruit the Black Duke to their team.
- The Black Duke tries to not be recruited to anyone's team without giving offense.
- Shuyan and Ando are bouncing from Duke to Duke doing something inscrutable. Sense Motive on each of them reveals that each of them is working to thwart the other one, but they shoo away party members who approach too closely.
- The King admonishes all the dukes for how easy it is to divide them with nothing more than a child's love potion. He will have no more of it, for there will be a united front in the dark times to come!
- "He's good." -Merit
After the party, Kasumi's ninja friend returns. With the three missions done, his house will not have to redeem their honor with their deaths, and for this he is grateful. (The party gets three small ninja interventions as an award - things like "scout this area and report back", not "kidnap this person for two days"). But since they are still bankrupt, have no house, and are missing most of their supplies and tools, they will end up disbanding and seeking other ninja houses to join. He will contact Kasumi again when he has found a new house.
Min Feng checks in with her brother - is he not actually planning to join either the Fire or Water Dukes? He says that his plan is not to hold out forever, but to hold out long enough that someone offers him a really good deal. Min Feng asks him to check with her before he takes anyone's offer, just in case there are extra strings attached. She also suggests that he think about joining Team King, but he's quite displeased with the King at present, since the King apparently arranged for his mother to be love potioned. But he's willing to think about taking favors from the King to stay neutral for longer.
- "I have been greatly assisted by your aid in the Hidden City, and loaning me your advisor here. I do not wish you to think me ungrateful."
- Takanata chats with Pir-Pir.
- Shen-Ji visits the Golden Spire.
- Min Feng and Takanata visit Mistress Litona.
- Takanata and Shen-Ji try to trace the last movements of the Hand on All the Clans.
- Cai Wen visits Commander Sun