|"You think you have lost your horse? Who knows, he may bring a whole herd back to you someday."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Dog in the Month of the Fox in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.|
The run takes place in the Illuminated Precincts and the Hon'eth Arcade.
Picking up the trail
Our heroes are relaxing on the beach of the Shrouded Isle, having saved the Empire from the encroaching Southern Armada, until Lijuan recalls that she used to have a panda, but Kawaii was left behind when the Blue Dragon evacuated the ritual-fighters from the beach. It's time to see what happened to Kawaii after that.
However, crossing to the mainland could be perilous, as Lijuan has a sea-monster curse on her. A boat is hired, under the command of a Captain Li, who does not seem particularly concerned about sea monsters (though possibly he just thinks Lijuan is being overly nervous about her sea voyage.) The boat is particularly odd, in that there is no crew above decks other than the captain, but the ship seems to be sailing well enough. Midway through the crossing, there is a "thump thump thump" as if something has bumped against the bottom of the boat. Captain Li takes his staff and knocks on the deck planking, and something below deck knocks back. Well, that is mysterious, and thus must be investigated.
Kasumi sneakily pushes a barrel over to crouch behind while she tries to pick the lock of one of the hatches to belowdecks. The hatch creaks open and she sneaks in. There seem to be guys in the hold, pulling on ropes that are connected to large turning gears and machinery and ropes going up above decks to the sails. And, all the guys are staring at her in sudden alarm. They hide behind the machinery, hoping that she hasn't seen them in the dimness of the hold, and she goes back above decks. Whatever they were worried about as far as a sea monster rampaging around the hold, it doesn't seem to be going on here.
Eventually, the boat reaches the mainland, surprisingly sea-monster-free, and anchors off the beach where the ritual happened, and the group splashes ashore. A tracking roll turns up some panda tracks heading towards what turns out to be a nearby village. A banner for "Yellow Camellia Meat Festival" is being taken down, and a lot of debris is being cleaned up. Some of the people doing cleanup work have bandages, and there seem to be a lot of broken tables, in addition to normal festival detritus. Clearly, there are signs of a panda having been here!
- "We're here for the panda. Can you direct us?"
- "Don't worry, it's all taken care of."
- "But which way?"
- "It's in a better place now."
The woman continues to explain, a little fuzzily, about how the panda went north and would get to play in cheery happy fields. There does seem to be something a little overly distracted in her nature.
- "He was very dreamy, wasn't he?" -Kasumi
- "Oh, yes."
Everyone watches for cranes in the sky, in case they are flying towards Beastmaster Ze's Mystical Menagerie. Eventually, a pair of cranes are spotted, flying north. But before they go, Shuyan considers what the cost of the ruined Meat Festival might have been. It's a small village, so certainly not as much as a tael.
Lijuan leads the group to find the mayor, who is an elderly gentleman leaning on a walking stick. Lijuan says that they are here for disaster relief. Ah - he has heard of the all-girl fixit crew, except that Anto is a boy. There is some further confusion as to whether Lijuan is asking for twenty-five li to fix things or offering twenty-five li to fix things (apparently helpful strangers don't just normally wander by and offer money), but eventually she manages to foist reparations on the mayor, and the group heads northwards, following the cranes.
After paying both an entrance fee and an extra see-the-ferocious-beast fee, the group is very disappointed to discover only a different, non-Kawaii panda. They troop off to see Beastmaster Ze (who all three women think is dreamy, though Anto is not impressed).
- "Thank you for taking care of Kawaii - those villagers had no hope." -Lijuan
- "You're very welcome." -Beastmaster Ze
- "No, I want her back now."
As it turns out, Kawaii was kind of sad and whiny for a ferocious panda, and that wasn't quite what his patrons are expecting to see. So, he sold her. Lijuan demands to know to whom. Beastmaster Ze hedges - what does Lijuan plan to do if he tells her? Probably buy her, but maybe steal her. He thinks "probably buy her" is not too ominous, and after everyone promises to leave his name out of it (Shuyan and Kasumi promise to make sure Anto doesn't talk), he says that he sold her to Lady Chow of the House of Judicious Increase, for two and a half tael, and she brought the panda back to the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival.
The party heads to the Harbor, and asks around for any gossip about Lady Chow. The urchins haven't heard of a panda in town, or any big news about Lady Chow, but they are familiar with "Pai-Gow Chow", who runs the casinos.
The group takes three rooms at the inn Shuyan says is the best in the Harbor (only the third most expensive), to clean themselves up enough to meet a house noblewoman.
- "A boy's room and a girls' room and a room in case Shuyan needs to seduce someone."
Then, it is off to a casino! Lijuan finds a bouncer, and informs him that she would like to speak to Madame Chow. The bouncer is dubious - Madame Chow is extremely busy, but Lijuan asks him to please request a meeting on behalf of Foon Lijuan. He heads off to check in with his bosses.
Kasumi notes that she doesn't know how to play pai-gow, but it looks fun. Well, this is the place to learn, and she is quickly swept to a low-stakes table, where she proves to be a natural. She wins a bunch of zhu, and is brought several free drinks.
- "Don't ever tell Xiao Fa this is what I'm using my chi for."
Alas, once she upgrades to the li-stakes table, her winning streak tapers out. However, the casino staff continue to bring her tasty drinks and some dinner.
Meanwhile, Shuyan asks around after Madame Chow's reputation and current doings. She is said to be a collector - often of art, but sometimes of other things. She's said to be currently working on a panda collection.
So... try to buy the panda, or try to burgle it?
- "We should find out what we're breaking before we break it. There's always time to break it later." -Lijuan
Shuyan shmoozes with the casino staff - she's a small animal trainer, and she has a friend who is a large animal trainer. So that might be helpful if anyone happened to have any, say, pandas, that needed training. The staff takes her name and where she is staying, and gives her some complimentary pai-gow chips. She also proves to be a natural at first, but bows out while she's ahead, unlike Kasumi, who has been herded off to a private room. Anto resists gambling at all, falling into more of a bodyguard role, which the staff recognizes.
A well-dressed gentleman heads over to Lijuan, and says that Lady Chow will see her now. Anto quickly follows, while Shuyan goes to extract Kasumi from her pai-gow game.
Under Her Wing
Lijuan and Anto are shown into Lady Chow's office. Lijuan starts bluntly - she hears that Lady Chow has found her panda. Lady Chow finds this unlikely - she purchased a panda from Beastmaster Ze. Lijuan explains a bit more about how Kawaii was lost and then found and then sold. Lady Chow is apologetic - perhaps something could be worked out? Lijuan thinks that if she gets the panda back, that would be fine. But in exchange for what? What is Lijuan willing to offer?
Having recently been shopping with Kuan-Xi, Lijuan doesn't have two and a half tael to offer, so she offers her services as a panda trainer for any other pandas that Lady Chow might have. Lady Chow is less willing to trade the panda for panda training, but suggests that something could be arranged if Lijuan were willing to say a few important words to a few important people on Lady Chow's behalf.
- "Let me be honest, Lady. I was trained as a stablehand. I have been in hiding for a long time." -Lijuan
- "Oh, how terrible! You must stay here as my guest. I will take you under my wing." -Lady Chow
- "House Song has already done that."
- "You are living in the Forest, then?"
- "No, I'm traveling with the Silken Wings Circus. See, I was trained as a stablehand..."
- "Ah, you poor child! How badly you have been treated! Do stay here..."
This continues in that vein for some time, until Anto interrupts to ask about her grand collection. Lady Chow explains about the battle between light and dark, and how power comes from the eternal conflict between them, as exemplified by the light and dark of the panda. She seeks to portray that with both panda art, and panda animals. Currently, she has the panda bear, the heart of the collection, as well as a panda cat, a panda dog, and... a small furry panda creature. Lijuan is disappointed to hear that she does not have any panda whales.
Could they possibly see the collection? Well, it is late now, but they will of course spend the night, and she will arrange for a full tour in the morning. She directs the guards to show them to the third estate. What of their friends? Oh, they seemed busy - Lady Chow can send a runner later. Lijuan writes up a note:
- "I can take it to them - I can run errands too!" -Lijuan
- "No, no, you poor girl! Let me start the lessons. If you want, you can have him run errands (pointing to Anto). You do not run errands, you point at a man and say 'run the errand'." -Lady Chow
- "Anto, I won't let them take me anywhere without you, is that okay?" -Lijuan
- "No! Not, is it okay with him! The question is whether it is okay with you." -Lady Chow
Lijuan hands the note to Anto, and Anto promptly asks Lady Chow to have a messenger deliver it. Lady Chow takes the note, and languidly wafts it into the air; a servant dashes off with it.
When the note reaches Shuyan, she unleashes her charms on the messenger to find out where the third estate is. It's apparently on the other side of the Harbor, where the most sumptuous of the House's rooms are, and where Lady Chow's panda collection is. Shuyan drags Kasumi away from the pai-gow tables, and off in the direction of the third estate.
Lady Chow enquires what Anto's exact position with Lady Foon is - that is, what sort of room arrangement should be made? Anto clarifies - he's... kind of... her bodyguard. Ah, that means that he gets a stool outside her door. But first, dinner with Lady Chow.
Two well-dressed urchins show up to help Lijuan change. She asks if they play rock-paper-scissors. They do, but don't tell Lady Chow that. They'll play with her after dinner.
Lady Chow spends dinner skillfully interrogating Lijuan as to what she has been up to in her travels, and who travels where and why. This digresses into a discussion of the Merit Trading Company, which Anto thinks is Lady Chow's particular interest, and he jumps in to ask again about panda art after Lijuan has only spilled a moderate amount. Lady Chow cannot really resist talking about the panda art at least a bit, and as it turns out, she and Anto are reasonably evenly matched in terms of conversation, so the rest of dinner is less informative, though one phrase catches Anto's attention.
- "The mark of the panda is an imprimatur of power."
And then, the evening is concluded. Lady Chow advises Lijuan to send Anto for water if she gets thirsty in the middle of the night - don't just go looking for water herself. Lijuan protests - Anto needs to sleep too! Lady Chow admits that is a problem, that Lijuan has only one bodyguard. She will loan Lijuan two more from her own men.
Anto, in bodyguard persona, checks out Lijuan's room, and makes sure the window is open for any friendly ninja to sneak in. Then, the urchin-maids, named Aki and Yuni, return, and Lijuan chats with them and plays rock-paper-scissors. Apparently Lady Chow paid their parents for their services, and they state, quite unconvincingly, that they really enjoy working for Lady Chow.
Outside, Shuyan wanders through the third estate, looking lost and nonchalant and pretty; this distracts from Kasumi sneaking through quite a bit more stealthily. Anto, watching out his window, spots Shuyan and throws a pillow at her. She trips gracefully, and shows some leg. One of the guards leaves his post to see if she needs any help. She bats her eyes at him about how she has never been to the Harbor before, and it is very awesome. He offers to give her a tour, to the outrage of his guard partner. Well, maybe a tour later.
Meanwhile, Kasumi pokes Anto to get him out of the way so she can climb in through the window.
- "So... does Lijuan need to be rescued? Is she kidnapped?" -Kasumi
- "Not yet... though if she stays indefinitely, she might spill all the party secrets." -Anto
Kasumi climbs over to Lijuan's window.
- "Hi, Lijuan, do you need rescuing?"
- "No, I need social skills."
- "I can't help with that, but the drinks with the purple umbrellas are the best."
Lijuan tells Kasumi that she and Shuyan should return in the morning, and Lijuan will let them in and bring them on the panda tour.
In the morning, Aki and Yuni come to help Lijuan get dressed, and they advise that Lijuan tell Lady Chow's guards about her friends coming by. She warns the guards, and when Shuyan and Kasumi show up, everyone is surprised that they are indeed on the list to be let in. Though Kasumi has to leave her weapons.
Lady Chow chats with everyone over breakfast, and tries some more conversational interrogation, though Shuyan is also a reasonable social match for her. And then it's off to the panda collection!
As expected, there is a panda cat (snow-leopard-sized), a panda dog, and a small fuzzy panda-colored creature. And Kawaii, who roars at Lady Chow and chirps happily at Lijuan.
Lijuan offers to provide a Tame Panda for the opening. Lady Chow says that if the panda bows to her, and she and Lijuan hold up their hands together, then Lijuan can leave with the panda after that. Lijuan haggles: also, bigger cages for the other animals, and good toys. Lady Chow agrees. It is a deal!
The group huddles in a corner - what might this accomplish? Lady Chow used the word "imprimatur", and that's a big scary Emperor-suggesting word.
- "Takanata will yell at us. It's fine."
- "Why did we walk into the politics plot?"
- "The politics people didn't want to look for a panda!"
That resolved, they say hello to the other animals. Lady Chow warns that they're deadly, though Shuyan thinks the panda-small-animal is really cute. She puts her fingers in the cage for it to sniff, and it promptly bites hard enough to draw blood. Anto tries to figure out what it is, but it's very puffy. Maybe some sort of long-haired guinea pig.
Lijuan makes sure that Kawaii is willing to bow to Lady Chow (she's kind of grumpy and would rather eat Lady Chow, but Lijuan says this is the way to get everyone to go home, and Kawaii finally agrees.), and then shakes hands with Lady Chow to seal the deal.
Anto frets, but Lijuan reassures him.
- "It takes a lot of steps to become emperor. This is just one step. It'll be fine."
The grand opening will be in two days, and the group is welcome to stay in the third estate until then.
- "In a separate question, you have..." -Lijuan
- " 'I have grown fond...' " -Kasumi, whispering
- "...I have grown fond of Aki and Yuni. You said I should have more retainers, so I would like to retain them. Shall I have Li Merit negotiate for me?" -Lijuan
- "Li Merit is here?" -Lady Chow
Well, no, he isn't, but Lijuan could probably arrange to have him come by later. She hasn't ever bought a person before, so she's not sure of the protocol.
- "We don't say 'bought a person', dear, we say 'acquired their services.'" -Lady Chow
There is some conversational fencing about training and talent, and the two girls in question are fetched. Lady Chow says they are much better trained than when they first came into her service. Shuyan is stunned that she has taken the time to train them herself, when she is so busy. Unfortunately, Shuyan's bargaining roll is not great, and no one wants to agree to the price-reducing suggestion that they continue to wear the livery of the House of Judicious Increase while in Lijuan's service. So in the end, 50 li are offered to buy out the girls' contract, which Kasumi pays.
Anto begins to get some Unbindery twitches, and wonders how the animals' cages are closed. Just with a metal pin through a hasp - easy enough to open them from outside. Hmm.
For the next several days, the party stays in the third estate, and has one meal together and two meals in which Lady Chow works on Lijuan, mostly etiquette polish and some slight interrogation. Lijuan proudly notes that she knows how to wash her hands. Lady Chow remarks again on the woes that have been visited on Lijuan, and declares that someday perhaps she will rescue Lijuan from this circus life, but first Lijuan has to want to be rescued.
Anto meditates on his past lives, wondering whether there is some larger mystical significance to the panda bowing to Lady Chow, but the past Wu Xings mostly think that he needs to have a longer view than local politics. (It might be possible that it was part of a spirit plot which has stayed completely hidden so far - if this is Lady Chow's part of some sort of bargain she has made to an offstage spirit - but if so, there has been absolutely no sign of it so far.)
Anto goes off to "run errands", while Kasumi takes a shift as Lijuan's bodyguard. He heads into the woods to look for a mischievous spirit - a metal spirit seems the best to work on the cages. He finds one who will agree to go and open the cages on command.
The day of the Panda Opening dawns. The panda animals are paraded in front of the crowd, and then Lady Chow takes the stage. She bows to her father, talks about art and power and glory, and then introduces Foon Lijuan (who doesn't need to speak).
Kawaii's cage is opened, and Lijuan again instructs Kawaii to not eat Lady Chow, but to bow instead. Lady Chow shakes her finger at the panda, and it grudgingly bows, and then goes over to Lijuan. Everyone is very impressed.
Lijuan and Kawaii and Kasumi make good their escape from the House of Judicious Increase; Anto sends his metal-spirit friend to open the cages, but Shuyan sticks around to help catch the Panda Fuzzy. The panda cat is fierce and good at jumping, and quickly vanishes over the rooftops. The panda dog is more sullen, and is rounded up. The panda fuzzy chases passers-by around, until Shuyan manages to wrap it up in a piece of leather, taking 30 damage in the process. The guards escort her to the fuzzy cage, and while she considers making a break for it, it's a little obvious. The fuzzy gets upgraded to the cat's cage, and the dog is upgraded to the panda cage; once Lijuan sends over some toys, they'll be about as well-settled as seems feasible.
Lijuan and Kasumi check in with Master Tranh, and ask him what he thinks happened with Lady Chow. Master Tranh reassures them that he doesn't think that she wants to be empress, but he does think she has aspirations of pushing the Arcade over the top and taking the kingdom away from the House of Benevolent Oversight.
- "Would that be bad?"
- "I think that it would be. But perhaps you should talk to Xiao Fa about what happened and ask why it went that way."