The New Ringmaster Te
|"Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Bear in the Month of the Crane in the third Year of the Magpie since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
The run takes place in the Isle of Beauty, and various places along the way.
As part of the Great Star Metal quest, Shen-Ji goes through everyone's inventory looking for star metal. Wei Han has a sword of "dark mottled metal", but Shen-Ji thinks it's "dirty steel" (a technical term - it has a lot of carbon in it). Merit's coins of distraction are "dull metal", but again, not star metal. Cai Wen, an expert in other party members, finally recalls that it came up once before that Xian was given a star metal dagger by Ti Wren. Ahah! At this point, the betting pool was giving 8:9 odds that it was Xian, so only a few li change hands.
The group takes stock of current events. In the Hidden City, sorcery arrests are on the rise, so perhaps Shen-Ji and others will want to be getting out of town? Merit notes that the people in town related to that plot are a bunch of sorcerers, the Dragon guards, the Alchemist, Ming I, and Xiao Fa. Wei Han notes that they were rounding up even "natural philosophers", so not being a sorcerer may not be much defense. Merit disguises Shen-Ji and Xiao Fa and Anto (under protest).
Takanata points out that it's really getting towards time to return to the Isle of Beauty to meet up with the circus, before it departs again in the spring.
As the group leaves the Hidden City, the guards ask a number of questions of Takanata regarding himself and his entourage. Where are they headed? The Isle of Beauty. When do they expect to return? In the fall, with possibly a brief visit before that. The guards do compare some sketches with the entourage, but don't spot the people they're looking for (Xiao Fa, and Anto with a glowing arrow on his head). Do they have any contraband in their carts? No.
- "Speaking of which, we should take something out of the monkey cart!" -Anto
- "No!" -Everyone
Gate Town outside Pewter is no longer explicitly a separate town, so Merit goes on a quick shopping spree. Then, once they are on the road, Anto pulls something from the monkey cart:
A portrait of a handsome man in an ivory locket.
The group thinks all the monkey cart loot has come from the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival, so Cai Wen checks to see if the guy in the locket is someone he recognizes from the Arcade - it isn't. Anto thinks he's wearing somewhat old-fashioned clothing more appropriate for the Illuminated Precincts. Shen-Ji examines the locket, and thinks that it's a monitoring device on the status of a powerful ritual, but that the ritual isn't in progress, it was done long ago. Takanata's fashion sense agrees with Anto - it's a mode of dress appropriate to earlier in the Great Cycle.
Interpreting Omens on the locket indicates that there is an awesome plot at the end of it and they should totally do that instead of the thing they were going to do on their boring island. Okay, perhaps that's just because the only part of it that's an "omen" is that the item was provided by Monkey.
- "Ooh, maybe it's the Locket of Dorian Gray!" -Anto
Merit thinks that the guy might be the previous head of House Shih-Sen, a noble house in the Precincts which isn't very political, but is doing a good job of being off to the side maintaining its holdings.
The group heads east to the Port of Propitious Voyage, planning to take ship for the Isle of Beauty. The Dragon Army presence, once somewhat significant due to the blockade, has lessened quite a bit, and Wei Han and Cai Wen try to find out where most of the ships of the Dragon Army are. They hear that there were some wild goose chases after a "fog ship", and that some of the navy has headed south to the Shrouded Isle, to bulk up the blockade again. The Obsidian Warlord is said to be on his way back from the Shrouded Isle even now.
Cai Wen visits the Cup of Five Virtues to ask if anyone recognizes the amulet. A couple of people who are particularly well-informed about gossip say that there was a noblewoman down south, in the Illuminated Precincts, who ran away to the Harbor recently, and took a bunch of house possessions with her. The guy in the locket is her father-in-law, they think.
- "Who is in town related to the locket plot?" -Merit
- "Just you guys and Monkey." -Mike
- "What, Monkey is in town?!"
- "It says that every time." -Xiao Fa
Anto and Wei Han contemplate going south to the Harbor to use "Nose for Trouble" while everyone else goes to the Isle to meet up with the circus.
- "If we can't figure out anything, how about we put it in a permanent art installation?" -Cai Wen
Merit does think he really wants to get back to the circus, but tells Anto to take a scroll - he'll send a message via this pewter brush he has if they need to know anything. (As it turns out, the brush and scroll are not a very complete communication device, as the scroll just reports a brief summary, but it's better than nothing).
The party breaks apart into two groups
- Xiao Fa, Merit, Cai Wen, and Shuyan will be going to the Isle of Beauty
- Anto, Wei Han, Shen-Ji, and Takanata will be going to the Harbor
Takanata is confident that he can catch up to Merit's group when it's necessary that he be there, though everyone else may be several days late.
An Odd Spirit
The ship won't leave until the morning, so everyone turns in for the night. In the morning, Wei Han is awoken by a strange little spirit with a rattling head, sitting by his bed rattling at him. He decides this is Not His Plot, and gives it to Anto.
Takanata wakes in the morning and draws a picture which also seems to have one of the odd rattling spirits pictured, unless it's something else entirely. His companions note that his prophetic art seems to have regressed to "Lijuan-level", and he admits that he did somewhat burn it out recently. Maybe the group of four people on the top is the group going to the Isle of Beauty? Cai Wen has an animal, Merit has a money pouch... Shuyan has a big smile, and Xiao Fa is mysterious? The correspondence doesn't seem to hold up all the way through.
- "But how would they have known we were going to split up like that?"
- "Laura's just sitting there all casual with her iPad. She could have just drawn it now..."
However, on more consideration, Takanata decides that the four people aren't a team, so that's not it. And the red hat having fallen over is possibly unfortunate for Ringmaster Te, which makes getting to the Isle of Beauty a more potentially pressing issue.
Shiny, not to be deterred from sending half the party off in the wrong direction, brings four horses around to the front of the inn. Shen-Ji is impressed that the monkey seems to have been able to convince his iron horse to come around. Anto tries to introduce the rattle-headed spirit to Shiny, but Shiny steps back in alarm and then hops on one of the horses. Hmm. Anto notes that the rattle-headed spirit should be fine as long as it doesn't start to reproduce. But it is odd that everyone can see it. Merit looks in his references, and says that these spirits tend to hang out near sources of chi - a large tree might have a lot of chi, so it might support several. They only really multiply if they get attached to a person who has a bunch of chi, but that's rare. Hmm.
Wei Han tries to remember what happened when he was sleeping, and says that Anto came in and put the spirit on the table. Anto doesn't remember that at all, and becomes worried that someone borrowed his body. Cai Wen tries to check for clues, but Anto (wearing the Monkey Talisman) turns out to have been too sneaky for him. Takanata checks for connections between Anto and Wei Han. That's tough, because there are so many different connections between party members, but way down on the list is in fact "that thing with the tree spirit", like a friendly punch on the arm. Anto thinks the tree spirit is less bound than most of them are - that may be why it's visible - and worries that he's "sleep-unbinding." There is some speculation that having the Wu Xing wear the Talisman of the Monkey is letting Monkey control him, but that seems like a stretch.
Merit wonders who is in town relevant to the tree spirit plot - the answer is the Tree Spirit, Anto, Wei Han, and others to be named later. That sounds like he's going to be sleepwalking to someone else later...
- "Well, you guys have fun." -Merit
The group heading back to the Isle of Beauty sets off by ship, but it will take a couple of days for them to reach the island. The group riding south to the Harbor reaches their destination first.
Locket of Dorian Gray
Takanata asks around town after a woman who might have "lost" her locket. He does manage to connect with a pawn shop owner who has some things that such a woman might have sold - "noble lady baubles" that she has been selling for the past several days. Takanata leaves a note with the pawn shop owner in case she returns, saying he has something of hers, and giving her the name of the inn where the group is staying. Then he looks up Hsu Verity and shows her the amulet - like Shen-Ji, she thinks that it shows the current status of a ritual, but she thinks she can determine more if she studies it for a while. He gives it to her to take home for the night.
The rest of the group heads out of the city to find a wood, where they leave the rattle-headed spirit. It's not clear if that's a great solution, as the spirit is still visible, so in theory someone else could take it home again.
That night, Wei Han stands in the hallway outside Shen-Ji's door, and Takanata dreamwalks to Anto. In the dream world, he finds it very easy to find Anto, as someone appears to have put up signs pointing in his direction. Then, he reaches Anto, and there is a line of spirits and demons waiting to talk to him. He is currently talking to a rattle-headed tree spirit; after that is a strange huge flappy bird, and about halfway down the line, Takanata spots Horse, who nods in his direction.
Horse tells Takanata that there seems to have been some sort of overstock, so the Wu Xing is giving out free samples, after the whole Bear incident. Bear is really pretty big, and left him with some extra power floating around.
- "And he seems to be a lot more accommodating while he's asleep." -Horse
Horse is surprised to see Takanata here, but Takanata says he likes free samples just as much as anyone else. Up at the front of the line, Anto puts the rattle-headed spirit in his pocket, and then starts talking to the flappy bird, in some incomprehensible language that the spirit seems to understand. Then the bird bows and leaves. Takanata spots Shiny also in line, and then wakes up.
Back in the real world, Wei Han doesn't notice Anto, but he does notice Kuan-Xi heading towards Shen-Ji's room. She shushes Wei Han - it's dangerous to wake up sleepwalkers. And, sure enough, there's a rattle-headed spirit on Shen-Ji's pillow now. Shen-Ji wakes up just as Wei Han is picking it up.
- "J'accuse!" -Shen-Ji
When Takanata tells Anto about this over breakfast, he vaguely remembers having had some conversations in his sleep. But it all seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. When Takanata describes the flappy bird, Anto notes that he should definitely go north tomorrow, though he can't recall why.
Takanata calls on Master Tranh, and asks if he knows of places to dream safely. Master Tranh thinks that a space which promotes tranquility is certainly something that can be done, but he is less sure about designing a space which cuts one off from the dream world. Promoting isolation is possible, but a sacred temple might be a good place to start.
Takanata also checks in with the pawnshop (the woman was given the message, but when she read it she immediately left) and Hsu Verity. Verity reports that the locket is fascinating, and is non-plussed at the claim that "a monkey handed it to us". Anyway, the original ritual focuses / concentrates / collects up the power of a family, and gives it all to one family member. The locket shows the person who currently has the power. She is not sure how the ritual would change who the power is directed at, but if it does change, then the picture in the locket would change. Repainting someone else's picture in the locket wouldn't just redirect the ritual towards them, but she thinks that defacing the painting in a properly magical way might do something. And, the locket is a very strong magical connection to the person pictured.
Hmm. Can Takanata lay a hand on the pattern and make the woman come to him? No, not really. How about the guy in the locket? Well, he's not memorized, so the shtick still doesn't work, but he can try to use the locket to read the guy's I Ching. Takanata does so, and promptly declares that the guy is junk. The ritual centers all the power of his house on him, and then once a generation, it rewrites the chi of the heir to be like him. But he can't do it to his heir now because his wife (part of the ritual requires the heir be married) has run off.
Anto considers the locket - can he unbind it from the ritual? Can he unbind the ritual with it? He thinks that he can't do much to it himself, but if the wife smashed the locket, she might be able to punt her husband from the ritual, and if her husband smashed it, he might be able to break the ritual.
The group heads to the city gates to look for her, but according to the guards at the north gate, she rode north this morning. As they all have swift horses, they ride after her. Anto spends a karma to focus Nose for Trouble on her - normally "catching up to your prey" is not what the shtick is for.
Wei Han shouts at the woman to not hurt her horse, but she seems a little more concerned about her own safety, and shouts that she isn't going back. A shouted conversation-while-pursuing ensues - they don't want her to go back! Then why are they chasing her? Because they want to talk to her about the locket they stole from her! Wait... what? She didn't steal any locket, and she didn't have any locket stolen from her.
- "So, you disclaim all interest in this locket, it's not your locket, we should leave you alone?" -Takanata
- "Yes?" -the woman
- "Fine! We go!" -Takanata
The rest of the group is unwilling to abandon the plot just as they have caught their prey, and demands more conversation. Takanata notes that if she goes back home, this locket will do a ritual to turn her husband into her father in law. She looks even more confused. Takanata goes into more detail.
- "My understanding is that this is a connection to the person who has all the power of the family line."
- "That's certainly true. My husband is supposed to be the head of the house, but he can't make a single decision."
Takanata explains the power transfer, which she finds somewhat implausible.
- "What should I do?"
- "What do you want to happen?"
- "Why did you leave?"
- "I really can't say. It's not the sort of thing you discuss."
- "You fell for another man...?"
- "No! But it's not appropriate behavior for law-abiding citizens."
- "Fine, don't tell me, I don't care. I have solved as much of this plot as I care about. My advice is, if you do not want your husband to turn into a copy of your father in law, do not go back to him until your father in law is dead." -Takanata
- "That was in accordance with my plans."
- "Or, you can take the locket to your husband and have him smash it. Or you can smash it - that might take your husband out, but it might not end the ritual. Or you can pray to your ancestor spirits for guidance." -Anto
- "I already did that. They sent me out here looking for an assassin."
Takanata thinks that "hire an assassin" is a perfectly reasonable thing for an ancestor spirit to say. The group agrees to give her the locket - she'll continue looking for an assassin, and have her husband smash the locket as a backup plan. The group bickers about how risky assassins are - if they were foolproof, surely everyone would use them! Anyway, she will take the locket and consider these things, and the group will head north to the Port of Propitious Voyage to arrange for a ship to the Isle of Beauty, as the scroll Merit has given them indicates that they really ought to be thinking about getting there soon.
Long Live the Ringmaster
The first group arrives at the Harbor of Shining Reflections. Merit recruits some thugs and heads to the circus. The circus performers and hands converge on him - there are a lot of things that need dealing with. Merit declares that only crises of urgency level three or higher should be brought to him, and asks where Ringmaster Te is. The Ringmaster is at the palace, they tell him.
Several messengers arrive - there is a summons for Lord Takanata to the King, and another summons to Lord Takanata and his friends to Katsuo Narina. Asking at the palace, Ringmaster Te is said to be in conference, though Merit sends him a message saying that he has returned. Then, the four party members head to talk to Narina.
When the group enters the study of the Master of Perfect Distinction, the guards leave, and after a few moments, Ti Jun enters. He says he is pleased to see them - but he was expecting there to be a few more of them? He has an understanding with Narina, that she will send a summons for a secret meeting with the Prince instead. That way it will be less evident that the Prince and whoever are meeting.
- "How have things been? As if I don't know..." -Ti Jun
- "Well... things are about as you would expect, then." -Cai Wen
Ti Jun muses that the group has really kicked over the anthill - there are eight little ants running all over the place. But that means they can talk now - the "evil overlord" can't hear them.
- "I certainly hope that's true." -Cai Wen
Anyway - the big question, Ti Jun thinks, is that now that things are in disarray, how do they capitalize on it? Which one do they take out first? Not tomorrow, obviously, but they should start making plans. Merit, a little taken aback, says that he thinks that sowing discord is probably better - it's not like Spider can't replace a Marked who gets taken out.
Merit says that Ti Jun should tell him everything he knows, but Ti Jun thinks Merit should start - for example, how did they break everything into factions quite so thoroughly? Merit says that the mission report should be in report 32B. Ti Jun says he'll look at that, but what else? Cai Wen notes that Lucky Chang has challenged the High Warlord to a wrestling match, and wonders what he's trying to accomplish. Ti Jun thinks he can investigate that, and Cai Wen says he has some plans to thwart him. Ti Jun says that they could probably start with Lucky Chang, but it would be more convenient if they started with someone in the other faction. But later, after the big announcement tomorrow, he'll introduce them to Hwa-soo, one of Lucky Chang's girlfriends.
So... what big announcement tomorrow? Ti Jun proudly declares that that's when he enacts his evil plan to neutralize the menace that is Ringmaster Te once and for all. Muah hah hah. Oh, like in Takanata's prophecy? Ti Jun is a bit surprised at that - he thought they didn't normally get prophecies about him. Well, all right, the prophecy didn't mention him specifically.
The factions of the Marked are:
- The Alchemist's faction, including the Cartogramancer and the Bureaucrat
- Li's faction, including the Prince, Lucky Chang, and the Obsidian Warlord.
Tai Lung is not in either faction - the Prince comments that he was "kind of an opportunity draft", as the Marked needed him to defeat someone else.
Anyway, next time there's a plan to take someone down, could they not frame the Prince for it? Merit says he didn't expect them to think Ti Jun did it, since the signs all pointed to him.
- "See, they don't realize that I'm subtle yet." -Ti Jun
But that was just the first catastrophe - the Prince wants to hear about exploding the Hidden City. What was up with that? They give him a quick briefing - Lijuan is the Bear heir, and they went in to stop her getting married, and then there were some Great Cycle Spirit shenanigans. It was kind of... opportunistic poking, rather than a plan.
- "That's why this is a secret meeting, so Lucky Chang doesn't find out. As soon as he finds out that you guys work for me, I'm going to have no end of problems. " -Ti Jun
So... what was Ti Jun's evil plan to get rid of the Ringmaster? He explains, rather pleased with himself. He has convinced his mother to promote Ringmaster Te to a permanent artist-in-residence in the Court of Distinction, thus preventing him from being able to continue to wander around and cause trouble for the Marked. There will be the traditional competition for the post of Ringmaster. Since the Prince owes Lucky Chang a favor, he offered to put Chang's girlfriend in the running. Also competing are Lai Shantang, Beastmaster Ze, and - it is expected that the circus will nominate someone.
Ti Jun also clarifies that, in addition to Spider not being able to listen right now, they have no Marks any longer.
- "That was extremely painful, by the way." -Ti Jun
- "Perhaps this one should make some apology." -Cai Wen, elbowing Xiao Fa
- "That would be appropriate." -Ti Jun
Merit wants to know how corrupted the Beautiful Spy Service is. Ti Jun thinks that the Bureaucrat sees some of the reports. Takanata had a guy in the archives thwarting him for a while, but while Ti Jun doesn't report to the Bureaucrat directly, if it's an official form, the man can often just get a copy of it.
Xiao Fa tries to examine the Prince's chi, but finds himself following the chi downstream, as he walks out of the room. Um... they should probably go after him. Merit suggests an obscure point of art history that everyone can claim they were talking about with Narina, but Ti Jun says perhaps they could more plausibly claim to have been discussing the contests to choose the new Ringmaster, which she is overseeing.
Xiao Fa heads to the throne room ("Do you have to blow up every throne room?"), then out the back, and circles the main gardens. Eventually he sits on a bench, a little near where the Prince talks to himself, a little less near where the gardens touched the World Above. When they finally awaken him, he doesn't really remember what happened to touch that off.
The group on the Island head to bed, hoping that by tomorrow the other group will somehow miraculously manage to join them.
Back Together Again
The four still on the mainland now have a deadline of being in the Isle of Beauty by the next day, despite it being a two day journey. They take ship for the isle, but the captain doesn't think a one-day crossing is likely. Takanata is still confident that he can arrive auspiciously and in time, but that may not bring anyone else with him. However, when Anto goes to sleep, he concentrates hard on offering Whale... something... in exchange for a very swift voyage, and between the two of them, the ship does manage to arrive very quickly, and the party will soon be reunited.
The four on the island call a secret meeting with the circus headliners - or, at least Enlightened Melina and Mystic Mondo, and Iron Shirt JoJo. Akimoto is deemed a security risk, and is not invited. Merit says that a little bird tells him Ringmaster Te is going to be offered a position in the Court of Distinction. Melina looks like this is not a surprise to her, but Mondo thinks this is not the right time. He thought Ringmaster Te was grooming Shuyan to take over, but not for another cycle yet. Very few people have been in the circus since Ringmaster Te was chosen, but Mondo is one of them. There are some candidates for Ringmaster, and then the Court of Distinction plus the previous ringmaster (if available) test them for their suitability, and then the most suitable one wins. The tests themselves are run by the circus, which can subtly make its preferences known. Does anyone know what test Ringmaster Te has in mind? Well, he did tell the hands to wash the elephants. Hmm. He may not know Beastmaster Ze is in town.
The group contemplates who the circus should suggest. Mondo promptly suggests Li Merit, but he backpedals - he has enough to do already. Shuyan also doesn't think she's ready. Cai Wen allows as he might be willing to be thrown on the grenade - maybe with Shuyan as his assistant.
- "A ringmaster and his moll..." -Mystic Mondo
- "Wait, no no no no no not like that at all...." -Merit
- "I wouldn't want to tie you down..." -Shuyan
The party breaks up and starts a whispering campaign amongst the circus for Cai Wen, just in case there is some sort of announcement that might call for someone to be nominated for something. Then Merit drags Cai Wen off to the library cart to teach him Administration.
The candidates for Ringmaster will thus be:
- Beastmaster Ze
- Jeong Hwa-soo (Lucky Chang's friend)
- Lai Shantang
- Zhu Cai Wen
That third one is the unknown, then. Merit asks for a dossier on him, and learns that he'll probably make the circus very efficient and money-making, and fire the non-performers. He'd probably be a very good administrator, but won't really be ideal as far as allowing party members who aren't actually very good circus performers to continue to stick around. Merit thinks he's worth hiring, just not as a ringmaster - so Beastmaster Ze is probably the least worst of the non-Cai-Wen choices, if it weren't for the fact that Ringmaster Te hates him.
In the morning, the ship carrying the second half of the party shows up, and gets briefed on the Zhu Cai Wen for Ringmaster plot.
Takanata is summoned to an audience with the King, which he attends with alacrity. The last time they spoke, Ti Lao says, he was angry at Takanata. He realizes now that he was angry at many things, but Takanata should not have been one of them, and that it was well done to bring back Regent Ishii.
- "Sometimes we become... stuck, like a door wedged in a frame. It can require a strong blow to set right, but such an oncoming blow appears as a threat. I shall trust your judgement more in the future." -Ti Lao
Takanata thinks that the last statement is significant - not quite the same as a favor, but an indication of something - much like the letter Ti Wren gave Merit saying essentially "This thing that was done was done at my behest."
Takanata tells the King about Yue-Mei becoming "northern", and says he is looking into how to move the Isle of Beauty back to the South. The King likes that idea. Takanata also mentions talking to Li Kao about letting the island move around at the King's wish, but Ti Lao seems to think that islands shouldn't just wander around the ocean, even if it would be tactically useful.
Shuyan has a lot more circus related skills than Cai Wen, and there’s simply not enough time to teach him what he’ll need to know, so she convinces him to let her be him moll for the run...
Then, it is time for the big announcement. For most excellent and dedicated lifelong service to the arts, Ti Wren is pleased to announce that Ringmaster Te is being promoted to Artist in Residence, at the Court of Distinction. The Silken Wings circus will need a new Ringmaster before the beginning of the season, so anyone who is interested should consult the Artist of Perfect Distinction before the end of the day. The judges to appoint the new ringmaster will be Ringmaster Te himself, Narina, Ti Jun, and Takanata. Then, there is a fancy reception at the Court of Distinction, where the group can finally talk to Ringmaster Te.
Merit asks if he is aware who is applying, and drops Beastmaster Ze's name. Ringmaster Te is appalled - Beastmaster Ze can't take over his beloved circus! They have to put a stop to that! And, oh no, he already chose elephants as his contest! He had thought that the past few seasons have allowed the elephants to play a less interesting role in the circus, but they are one of the few things absolutely unique to the Silken Wings circus that Ze's menagerie does not have. But other than the idea that the Beastmaster might take over his job, he was rather looking forward to the idea of retiring.
- "Back in my younger days, there were fewer zombies. Fewer skinwalker assassins trying to kill me." -Ringmaster Te
Merit tries to figure out if they can take back the elephants trial, but that would require Narina agreeing to it. Talking to her, that doesn't seem likely - if there is one thing she learned from Yoshi it is that you cannot have important offices acquired through cheating and knavery. This briefly puts the party into "no cheating at all" mode, until Mystic Mondo sets them straight. It has always been the prerogative of the circus to run the trials. If subtle slanting will break the chi of the island, then that chi has long been broken already. Of course, Narina may not agree with that, so the cheating should be subtle enough that she doesn't notice, and that everything looks fair.
Narina briefs Takanata on the trials - Ringmaster Te's is the elephant obstacle course, hers is the entrance parade, and Ti Jun has something about figuring out how to get where you're going. Takanata should figure out what his trial is and let her know by the end of the day.
Meanwhile, the group worries about Anto's excess spirit energy. Maybe he could push it through a Talisman and get some sort of scroll? Bear suggested that he train with Quan Lo, but that's very far away. Wei Han thinks he might be able to get Anto there, if there's part of the North Wall on the island to travel through, but nobody seems to have built one yet. He decides that calls for a construction project, and talks to Takanata about building a bit of the North Wall here, but Takanata says the King really doesn't want the Island to stay northern.
Takanata calls on the Prince - when they last spoke, Ti Jun said something about Takanata's use as a judge and advisor to his mother. However, in his travels he may have been ignoring his responsibilities for Ti Jun's own education, so Takanata has written a poem for him. He delivers the gift he had been working on - an epic poem in three parts. The poem retells the tale of an ancient and legendary noble from the Strand, Te Chu, who married into a Savannah clan as a young man, but eventually betrayed the Savanna to the Strand, leading to a great victory for the Strand. (There are many versions of the story, and depending on whether you're from the Strand or from the Savanna, you are likely to have strong opinions on whether he's a hero or a villain.)
The First Scroll (Yang) is told from the point of view of Te Bo, a young cousin of Te Chu (call him ~13 to Te Chu's ~20), during several years of war with the Savanna. The Strand is definitely losing slowly, but Te Bo admiringly recounts several heroic defenses and daring escapades of Te Chu. It ends as a massive Savanna army is closing in on the Strand's forces, and Te Chu is summoned to see the Queen.
The Second Scroll (Yin) is told from the point of view of Te Chu. It starts with the interview with the Queen, in which Chu expects to be presented with a clever battle plan, but instead is told that it is hopeless, and they are surrendering. As part of buying the peace, he is to be married to a Savanna War Leader, who has heard of his exploits and admires them. The Queen admonishes him to go with honor to his new wife and land, but to always remember that he is there for the protection of the Strand. This scroll covers far and away the most time, skimming through nearly 25 years of Chu's struggles to serve both masters. Especially in the early years, he must repeatedly prove his loyalty to the Savanna publicly, while trying to assist the Strand as much as possible privately. There are a few triumphs and more tragedies, most seriously when his first son is killed in a border skirmish with a Strand force at the age of 16, but he never loses faith. As the scroll ends, however, he learns that the Savanna war leaders are gearing up to break the peace, and assembling a secret army to swoop down and crush the unsuspecting Strand.
The Third Scroll (Chi) is third-person narration. It recounts Chu's last minute arrival to warn the Strand of the upcoming assault, and arguments among the Strand generals as to whether to trust his warning. The arguments are settled eventually by Te Bo, who confronts those challenging Chu's veracity as questioning the honor of the entire house of Te. The Strand forces are carefully arranged, and a trap is set for the Savanna, which succeeds brilliantly. Chu is welcomed back to the Strand as a hero, but struggles to find a new place there. In the final scene, he goes to speak with Bo about his difficulties, and they retell in brief some of the stories from the Yang and Yin scrolls. When they do, they learn that Bo was the leader of the Strand forces that killed Chu's son. A silence falls between them, and there are several stanzas simply describing the stillness in the room. It would be an insult to apologize for service to the Strand, and yet the pain between them is clear. Eventually, the silence is broken by both of them at once returning to the question of how Chu can find a place in the Strand. The past and Chu's son are not spoken of again, and it ends with them agreeing to certain steps, bowing to each other, and departing.
Narina's trial is first. The circus stages a parade as if entering a city - each contestant must introduce the circus and then introduce one of the acts. The circus gets to choose who has to introduce who, so they assign Mystic Mondo to Beastmaster Ze, the Confounding Xian to Jeong Hwa-Soo, Shuyan to Lai Shantang, and Min-Su to Cai Wen. Beastmaster Ze's speech is perfectly reasonable and charismatic, and he particularly impresses the women in the audience (which is Narina, as far as the judges are concerned). Hwa-Soo pokes some fun at Xian - who he is is a mystery, and perhaps the audience can determine for themselves exactly how confounding he is. This is popular with those familiar with the circus, which includes most people there. Lai Shantang has been unable to meet Shuyan before the parade (due to quite a lot of dodging), so he describes her as "the salacious Shuyan and her Snakes of Doom", which is not as accurate as it might be, and Cai Wen is generally a hit in announcing the parade and describing Min Su.
Ti Jun's contest is essentially a traveling salesman problem, trying to design a particularly interesting and wandery path through the Twelve Kingdoms, taking into account a number of auxiliary documents such as weather reports, holiday calendars, and fairy tales. The circus (party members) sandbags on helping anyone else, and accidentally sandbags a little on helping Cai Wen, so there isn't much hint of cheating. Seventeen fortune dice later, Cai Wen has won that contest.
The elephant obstacle course comes next - since Shuyan is his moll, she can ride his elephant with him, and with her assistance, Cai Wen is nearly able to keep up with Beastmaster Ze. It turns out that animal magnetism can float an elephant up and over a wall, but Wei Han makes the wall a little higher to cause trouble. Lai Shantang proves no good at all at elephant management, and his elephant breaks and runs when menaced by fire and loud trumpets, scoring him a zero.
Finally, Takanata explains his challenge - to mingle with the circus people, who will tell stories and ask for advice. The test will be essentially for the Ringmaster as father figure for the circus, with rolls for KS: Circus, Circus History, Parenting, and Psychology. Lai Shantang redeems himself here, though not enough to overcome his sad showing with the elephants.
In the end, the scores are tallied up. Ringmaster Te may have scored Beastmaster Ze slightly unfairly low, and Ti Jun may have been scoring Hwa-Soo unfairly high (so Lucky Chang can be sure that he tried), but in the end, having circus help and a lot of fortune dice will tell.
- 36: Lai Shantang
- 38: Jeong Hwa-Soo
- 47: Beastmaster Ze
- 63: Zhu Cai Wen
Long live Ringmaster Zhu!
Cai Wen asks Anto to slip one of his fox-backed mah-jongg tiles into Hwa-Soo's pockets before she leaves. Merit, hoping for interesting information, makes a pass at Hwa-Soo, and just manages to convince her to wander off with him.
- Shen-Ji talks to Horse
- Lijuan goes hunting and talks to Ming Lieren.
- Takanata invites Autumn Rose for tea.
- The Queen briefs Takanata on the artists' festival that took place earlier in Crane.
- Kasumi overhears some clerks talking about a proposal for a North Wall "spur", which they think isn't very sensible, and which they also think the King hasn't heard about yet.