Odds and Ends
|"Better to drink the weak tea of a friend than the sweet wine of an enemy."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Magpie in the Month of the Tortoise in the eighth Year of the Spider since the thirty-fourth Great Northern Invasion.|
The run takes place in and around the Stone Drum, capital of the Qin Chao Steppes.
An Unfortunate Discovery
Having spent some time with the prisoner-guarding soldiers, Mulan and her friends are ready to head back to their original military posting in the Qin Chao Steppes. Their travel time is not quite as quick as Corporal Mulan might like, as Chien-Po keeps diverting to nearby villages, pointing out their various special dishes that are worth trying. One such village specializes in strong wine, and the way back to the highway involves a bit more stumbling than usual.
Yao tumbles into a ditch; as the others help him out, Ling notes that the ground is somewhat disturbed, probably the cause of the tumble. As potential zombies are on their minds, the group decides to investigate, and digs in the disturbed earth - what they find is even more appalling, a shallowly buried body, which seems to have been skinned. This is Scary and Creepy, but has no obvious perpetrator, so Mulan decides to head for her Warrior Poet mentor for advice, as the circus is somewhat nearby, heading for Stone Drum. After giving the body a more proper burial, with lots of prayers said exhorting it to please not get back up as a "bandit".
However, when they reach the circus, Takanata and Master Zhou and other advice-givers are nowhere to be found, so Mulan and her compatriots consult with Enlightened Melina, as the next best thing. They tell the tale to Melina, whose eyes glaze over briefly, and she tells them that the body they found has no identity at all, but that the identity - and the skin - are here in the circus now.
Well, that is no good to hear. Melina has some few stories about "skinwalkers", but is not sure how to identify them - she will work on that. In the meantime, though, she cautions Mulan's crew that they should not trust anyone, even someone they think they know well. They agree to investigate as cautiously and secretly as possible, and begin to sneak around the circus.
An Ill-Advised Argument
Meanwhile, Ringmaster Te, pleased to have a bit of non-perilous down time to relax in, takes an afternoon to drink plum wine with Iron Shirt Jo-Jo at a winehouse near Stone Drum. (Jo-Jo is not a great consumer of wine, but is one of the few people in the circus who is good for sharing a companionable silence with.) The recent trip through the Hon'eth Arcade (and Merit's new approach to buying supplies) have left the circus more profitable than usual, and he is pleased to have the chance to spend a bit of his well-earned profits. As he sips his wine, however, he begins to overhear a discussion nearby growing more animated and argumentative.
Two gentlemen nearby are arguing, in fact, about the Silken Wings circus. One of the men is quite impressed with them, but the other says that they're not as great as all that. Maybe they're okay for the Butterfly Kingdom and the Arcade, where everyone is trained to clap for everything, but they're really just foofy art types, and even their so-called martial artists and acrobats are all show and no muscle. Both of the people arguing are reasonably persuasive, and call upon others who have seen the circus nearby to weigh in; the argument begins to turn into a rather free-wheeling debate, loud enough to begin to encompass most of the winehouse. The proprietor eyes them suspiciously, but it's growing loud rather than violent. Eventually, the periphery of the argument reaches Ringmaster Te's table, and he can take it no longer, and is drawn in to defend the honor of his circus. The initial anti-circus arguer seems happy to take the argument to a more personal level, and he and Te go at it with great vigor. So the circus will be performing at Stone Drum, will it? The First Servant will be so unimpressed that he will not even clap, except for the two claps required for politeness. Nonsense, he will be moved to tears by their excellence! No, he will excuse himself to have to deal with "administrative matters" and not return after the intermission! No, he will grant all of the headline performers honorary titles, so moved will he be!
The argument continues in this fashion for some time, everyone being highly entertained, until at one point another performer in the wineshop is identified - Master Wu Tianxu, a renowned storyteller. He and Ringmaster Te end up as two foci of What Is Right And Good About Entertainment, and each is put forward as an epitome of performance art. At some point, a bet is proposed - that both the Silken Wings circus and Wu Tianxu will perform on the same night. If the First Servant reacts more enthusiastically to the circus - or to any individual performer - then Wu will give Ringmaster Te all his books, even the ones with the stories no one knows, and will speak only truth in the future. If the storyteller wins, then the circus must fold its wings and never perform again. Both Ringmaster Te and Wu Tianxu agree to this, and shake hands before Jo-Jo realizes that they are serious.
- "Wait, what did you just say?" -Jo-Jo
- "Wait, what did I just say?" -Ringmaster Te
- "You seem to have bet the homeworld." -Mike
- "Wait, what did I just say?" -Wu Tianxu
The argument breaks up fairly quickly after this, as both Ringmaster Te and Wu Tianxu head off to rehearse madly.
Search for a Skinwalker
Mulan and her friends disguise themselves in drag, to be a bit more subtle, and troop around the circus, attempting to see if they can find someone behaving oddly. Ling flirts with Silent Han, and manages to get him to say a few words, but not many. Yao lurks near the monkey cages, and notices that Min Su seems to be holding conversations with the monkeys, but perhaps that's not so odd. Mulan tries to pick an argument with Jo-Jo, to see if she can get him to lose his calm, and this proves surprisingly easy.
- "I don't like your looks, fellow." -Mulan
- "What, are you trying to start an argument too? Not going to happen!" -Jo-Jo, stomping off.
- "Um... that was uncharacteristic, right?" -Mulan
Team Mulan heads back to Enlightened Melina to report their suspicions of Jo-Jo; Melina says that if they can convince Jo-Jo (or the imposter) to come in to ask her a question, such that she can do a reading on him to answer it, she can probably tell if he is the imposter skinwalker. On the other hand, if he is really the skinwalker, he may well be leery of her and the other chi-master types, depending on how possible it is to identify him.
The group decides that simplicity may be the best approach here, and sends an urchin to tell Jo-Jo that Melina wishes to speak to him. When he arrives, she asks if there is anything troubling him that she can assist with. As it turns out, there is something troubling him, and he explains about Ringmaster Te's bet. She contemplates this for a while, and comes to some conclusions:
- Jo-Jo is not a skinwalker
- This a different plot entirely
- But it is also a big problem
- The two plots are faintly related
- But should be dealt with separately
As Melina has invested most of her mojo for the run in the skinwalker plot, she suggests that Jo-Jo return to the Ringmaster, and make sure that he gets the rest of the circus involved - this is not only a problem, it's more of a problem than Jo-Jo realizes - which means it's pretty bad. Jo-Jo thanks her unhappily, bows, and heads out again.
Melina decides that it's best to not split Mulan's group attention for the moment, and only explains that Jo-Jo is not the skinwalker. They head off to continue their surveillance of the circus performers and hands, in case there is someone else behaving even more uncharacteristically.
Is the Deck Stacked?
Jo-Jo manages to locate Ringmaster Te, who is pacing back and forth between his wagon and the tea tent, muttering to himself as he thinks about ways to make the acts a bit grander, and warns him that, according to Enlightened Melina, things are worse than they seem. This suggests that either Wu Tianxu has something else up his sleeve (though he seemed nearly as appalled as Ringmaster Te at the bet), or there is something else entirely going on.
Broken Sword, who has been hanging about the circus as well, overhears something about an ill-advised bet, and demands details. He warns Ringmaster Te and the others that this is no doubt the work of Lucky Chang, conspiring with Wu Tianxu to destroy the circus - if he can but come close to one of them, he will end their threat! Jo-Jo attempts to calm Broken Sword down - he doesn't think that Wu Tianxu was in on it - but Broken Sword thinks that killing them both is the best way to be safe. Jo-Jo and Ringmaster Te are unable to dissuade him when it comes to Lucky Chang, but they do manage to convince him to not attempt to kill Wu Tianxu without running it by them first. (For one thing, if he is forcibly removed from the competition before it happens, does that mean Ringmaster Te will win, or does attacking your opponent break some of the rules and mean a "forfeit" for the bet? They aren't sure.)
Ringmaster Te starts assigning circus performers to find out more - about Storyteller Wu, about the First Servant and if there are any preferences that need to be taken into account, about what is going on right now in the Court of the Stone Drum. Mystic Mondo opines that the riddle that must be answered first, which holds the key, is "Where is Yue Ping?", and Gipeno points out that Yue is the family name of the First Servant.
A number of people head into the Stone Drum to find out what they can, especially about Yue Ping. Broken Sword determines that Lucky Chang is probably not actually in the Stone Drum itself, much to his disappointment. Min Su and Akimoto learn that Yue Ping is the eldest daughter of the First Servant; she is currently serving at the Wall as part of the Qin Chao infantry (nearly everyone in the Steppes serves a time in the army). Gipeno also learns that the First Servant received an army courier from the north, this morning. Well, that is no doubt something of import, but no one in the circus is high-status enough to try and find out more through normal channels. Akimoto, as the closest thing to a ninja that the circus has with Kasumi on vacation north of the Wall, volunteers to sneak around and find out what he can.
As it happens, his limited stealth but particularly good climbing and acrobatics is sufficient to get him into the inner compound of the Stone Drum, and most of the high servants (that is, the courtiers) don't look up very often. He manages to hear that the message conveyed was a bureacratic form letter, basically saying
We regret to inform you that your relative was killed
☐ fighting Northerners
☐ fighting bandits
☐ fighting "bandits"
☐ in a training accident
and the First Servant and family are furious and grieving; there will likely be a formal announcement in the next day or two.
A Brief Misunderstanding
Akimoto returns to the circus to brief the others, but as he sneaks back in over the rooftops and drops back down to the ground, he is promptly leapt upon by Mulan and her friends, who are getting kind of twitchy, and are pretty sure that sneaking around the roofs of the Stone Drum spying on people is definitely behaving oddly.
Akimoto is no match for the four soldiers, and finds himself quickly pinned and dragged to Melina; Mulan, with a knife to his throat, demands that he ask her a question for divination.
- "What the hell is going on? Is that a good question?" -Akimoto
- "I had imagined "get them to ask a question" as being a bit more subtle than this." -Melina
As it happens, Akimoto is also not the skinwalker, and is released with many apologies all round. However, it appears that "watch for unusual behavior" is not the right method, and Melina's ability to continue this sort of divination is flagging. Another method needs must be employed.
Yao remembers that, in the attempt to spring Mulan and Renyu, there were monkeys which did interesting things. Perhaps one of them could be used? Does being a skinwalker count as "hiding"? No, wait, one of the other monkeys switched things. Perhaps they can get it to switch the skin for... some other skin? The four look at each other, a little worried about the idea of finding someone else's skin to trade, but then Chien Po recalls seeing a tiger skin as part of Kar Lo's decorations. Mulan sneaks in and "borrows" it, and Melina asks Min Su if she can borrow Tofu for a little while.
Melina's best guess is that a skinwalker's skin is not an easily transferable item, so it may be more difficult than just swapping one letter for another. Mulan and the others are getting a bit desperate, though, so they throw their karma at it as a group (Mulan has two, the others one), and that seems sufficient for Tofu to start wandering the grounds of the circus, carrying the tiger skin.
After being vetted as Not The Skinwalker, Akimoto confers with the others, who have been trying to locate Wu Tianxu. The storyteller has been arranging the details of his performance, and now is heading out of the capital again. Akimoto sneaks after him as best he can, and follows him to an inn some miles outside of the Stone Drum walled mountain itself, where he meets with another man and converses quietly and intently. However, Akimoto's sneaking ability is insufficient to get close enough to eavesdrop, or to follow Wu into his actual room, so he is forced to bring in the others for planning. Jo-Jo recognizes the description of the other man as the "initial arguer" from the winehouse, and Broken Sword is sure that that is Lucky Chang. They are in it together! Can he please kill them both? The others are still worried that killing Wu Tianxu will result in the bet backfiring somehow, but are less willing to defend Lucky Chang himself.
A strike team consisting of Akimoto, Gipeno, Kar Lo, Jo-Jo, Broken Sword, and Min-Su head to the inn, with some of the circus fireworks. Some fireworks are set off under the couches in the inn's main room, and Min-Su and Akimoto run around shouting about fire, causing a great commotion, until the inn empties of everyone who isn't involved in actually putting out (or shouting about) the fire. Gipeno spots someone who could be Yue Ping, wearing soldier-civvies for travelling, and a wide-brimmed hat. Jo-Jo and Broken Sword look around for Lucky Chang, and Kar Lo heads for Wu Tianxu, and hails him as "my friend Chen". While Wu protests, Kar Lo puts an enormously strong arm around his shoulders, and a placidly stupid expression on his face, and walks him to a nearby wine hall, heedless of any protests that he isn't Chen.
Gipeno turns on his charm, and chats with the princess while they watch the fuss and smoke going on at the inn. It seems that she wasn't expecting to be recognized, but she does admit to being Yue Ping. Gipeno manages to draw the story out of her - she received an unexpected leave from her duties, and she was heading back to the Stone Drum to visit her family. Along the way, she met a fellow traveller named Chang, who suggested that it would be a clever jest to surprise her family instead of telling them, and arranged to introduce her to Wu Tianxu, a storyteller who agreed to work her into the culmination of his story about the First Daughter of the Moon, in which the aged crone is revealed to be the young lover. She thought that would be amusing, and that her parents would appreciate the joke, so she stopped her journey for a day outside the capital, to keep her presence secret.
She has heard nothing of the news delivered to her family, and Gipeno can't see any reason to keep it secret, so he lets her know that there has been a message declaring her dead. Yue Ping is appalled, and immediately rushes off to fix the misunderstanding, before he can give her any further speculations.
- "Oops. Were we supposed to have kept the princess to use in our own show?" -Gipeno
Once it seems clear that the jig is fully up, Kar Lo stops holding Wu quite so tightly; the storyteller miserably concludes that there is no way he will win the bet now, once his foolishness comes to light. Gipeno and Min Su do their best to find out more answers from him, but they do not have much time more, as the performances are scheduled for this evening. Wu admits to having been persuaded, after making such a reckless bet, into the plan of having Yue Ping appear as a surprise in his story, but he swears on his ancestors that he knew nothing of a message declaring her dead. The circus performers conclude that while he was not behaving fully honorably by taking this advantage, that he was not the mastermind behind it.
Unfortunately, Jo-Jo and Broken Sword have had no luck cornering Lucky Chang - according to the innkeeper, he left shortly before the fireworks. Perhaps he has some sort of "Time to Go" shtick? Broken Sword says he will be attempting to track the gambler - he cannot let him escape when he is so close - and Jo-Jo is unable to persuade him otherwise, so off Broken Sword goes.
In the end, Ringmaster Te's new flourishes (including using up most of the rest of the circus supply of fireworks) approximately balance out the performers' distraction (and a few notable absences of performers and props), and the First Servant and his family are quite pleased with the performance. Ringmaster Te is commended, and Gipeno receives a jade bracelet from the hand of the eldest daughter of the First Servant, and a Favor.
Wu Tianxu, while a master storyteller in his own right, receives a quite cool reaction from the royal family, and must concede that he has lost the bet. He presents Ringmaster Te with his storybooks, and says that he will tell no tales from now on.
To explain the last of the absences from the circus performance, we must rejoin Mulan and her friends, stalking through the circus grounds while Gipeno and the others track down Wu Tianxu.
Each of the four soldiers takes a position under one of the circus wagons, so that between them, they can observe most of the grounds. Nothing happens for quite a while, but then Ling spots what appears to be a tiger, creeping away from the wagons. He sounds the alarm, and his friends converge on the tiger. Unfortunately, this means fighting a tiger, which proves to be a bit more trouble than they had bargained for, and Ling is badly mauled before the tiger is killed. Once dead, the tiger skin comes off easily, showing an unfamiliar man underneath.
Mulan and her friends then turn their effort to catching up with Tofu - when they catch him, he is carrying a soft and warm yak skin. This puzzles everyone for a little while, until they realize that he must have swapped again, so while Ling and Mulan go in search of a healer, the other two make a quick pass through the wagons, looking for a missing blanket. Fortunately, they find what they are looking for in Gipeno's wagon, before he returns to find the unpleasant surprise himself: the skin of Silent Han, the knife thrower.
The group brings their sad and grisly burdens to Enlightened Melina. She declares that the dead young man is not the mind behind the plot, but having failed at this particular task, it will not be attempted again.
Then, Mulan and her friends disappear into night, late now for their duty on the Wall, and it is left to Melina to explain to Ringmaster Te the death of Silent Han.
- A funeral for Silent Han will be held.