This is That
|"Be on a horse when you go in search of a better one."|| The run takes place in the early First Month of the Dog in the Tenth Year of the Dog since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in
On the Trail
At the end of the battle for Spear Carrier Ri, when Xian was left behind and unconscious off the battle map, she had heard a voice in her head before blackness:
- "Remember, if anyone asks you if you've promised your soul to anyone, the answer is yes."
Some unknowable time later, she comes to her senses to hear the slow clip-clopping of horse hooves. Then, a female voice asks "Are you awake yet?" Xian opens her eyes to see the trail moving slowly underneath her hooves. Her hooves? This is all somewhat dizzying, and she shuts her eyes again. The voice speaks to her, reassuringly.
- "Take your time, get yourself together, wouldn't want to start anything before you're ready."
Given the number of hit points Xian was down, she feels a lot better than she has any right to. But she's being ridden by the unknown woman, and maybe she shouldn't be walking with her eyes closed. She opens her eyes again, and is briefly confused by the concept of how to control all four legs and hooves for walking, and everything careens sideways for a bit, until she gets herself under control again.
Xian tries to sort out whether she can talk (sort of - she whickers and makes horse-y sounds), but the woman can understand her. The woman proves to be Mystique, who suggests that she just go along with this being-a-horse thing, and she'll get used to it. There are some ground rules, to start with:
- Any time you want, you can turn back into a horse.
- You can't turn into a human again until you get where you're going.
- But you don't have to go straight there.
- Don't pick a place to go that might not be there.
- "It turns out that it's not that hard to get to the World After. Everyone finds their way." -Xian
- "This was a last-second detour." -Mystique
Mystique explains further - once she finishes the mission, she'll get her old body back for real. In the meantime, when she turns into a human at her destination, she'll still be a horse, she'll just look like Xian.
As far as the mission goes: Mystique talked to Him (Xian assumes she means the Very Large Horse Spirit) and He says that Xian is the Mistress of the Mystic Switcheroo. So they're going to leverage that to prepare the field for a really big switcheroo later. So... in order to do that, Xian is going to have to swap some things. Xian protests that she may have been oversold here - she's more about confounding than switcherooing.
- "If someone who knew me were to describe me, they wouldn't describe me as Mistress of the Mystic Switcheroo, but they might describe me as a jumper over lines that shouldn't be jumped over." -Xian
- "Well, then this will be interesting." -Mystique
Regardless of Xian's switcheroo competence, Mystique notes that she has a new mission. Mystique's own relationship with Horse is that she makes the plans, but doesn't execute them. Xian is tasked with executing this one. There are six bullet points for her to do:
- Switch a wolf statue in the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival with a horse statue in Jabon.
- Switch a painting of a horse in the Port of Auspicious Voyage with a painting of a wolf in Gangmul.
- Switch the Thousand Li Horse and the most recent winner of the Plains of Honor Horse Race.
- Switch Eto the Wolf (in the Plains) and Snow Wolf (currently in the Port of Propitious Voyage).
- Restable Li Merit’s horse to a stable in Myeong.
- Rehome Lord Sonwu’s wolf to the Palace of Benevolent Oversight.
For the duration of the mission, any time Xian spends karma, Horse will triple it. Additionally, it would be helpful if Xian can figure out how to spend at least one karma on each of the bullet points. Mystique is careful to point out that this is not required as part of the bargain (spirit bargains can't require karma), but it will make Mystique's life significantly easier.
One downside of the karma-tripling is that seven is not a multiple of three, and spending nine karma is not recommended for humans.
- "Better stick with the human karma rules, on the theory that you want to be human again."
Mystique expects that Xian will figure out what the whole plan is about. Xian thinks she might need some calibration first. Mystique notes that calibration is why she's here for the briefing, but not the mission.
There are a number of ways in which these tasks can be accomplished - the ideal end state is that everyone is okay with the post-switch state of things, and no one is trying to directly undo it. Of course, that's harder for some of them than others, so Xian should do her best for all of them to make everyone okay with everything, but Mystique understands that may not be completely possible all of the time.
- "But, if we get this all done, everything will work out the way everyone wants it to." -Mystique
- "Everyone?" -Xian
- "Well, important people. At least, me." -Mystique
Mystique also warns Xian to watch out for beastmasters. Xian wonders if she is a werehorse now? Mystique isn't sure what that is, but she might be. Xian decides maybe she's a werehuman.
So... what is the most swapped that two people can be? Mystique ticks them off on her fingers. Swap their locations, swap their jobs, swap their families, and make everyone think that it's always been that way. Xian regrets having asked, as that sounds awfully hard. Well, she doesn't have to do everything the most swapped way possible - just as swapped as possible.
- "One final thing - don't die." -Mystique
- "Um, okay." -Xian
So... will anyone else understand her as a horse? Mystique doesn't think there are many others. Beastmaster Ze presumably would, or Murase Minako, or Pho.
Well, it's getting time for Xian to decide where she's going. She figures she might as well start with the top of the bullet list, so she decides to look into swapping the statues. Mystique notes that the wolf statue is looking out over the sea, and the horse statue is at the racetrack in Jabon. Xian points her nose towards the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival, and Mystique slaps her flank, and she takes off. The Traditional Horse Gallop Music sounds, and Xian finds her speed rather reminiscent of driving the carriage, but less dizzying. And then, she is there.
Xian still feels more comfortable in human form, so she ducks into a stable and turns back into human shape. She has her stuff again - though her clothes still bear the marks of the fight against the Northerners. At least they aren't too bloody, as most of her damage was magical. A quick disguise roll hides the worst of the battle damage, and she's good to go. She stops to pass out apples to all the other horses in the stable, and then heads for the seafront.
Each of the piers has a pillar with an animal statue looking out to sea. Some are cycle spirits, but most aren't - there's a rabbit, a giant fish, a wolf, a cat. Many are in a similar old-fashioned style, but some have been more newly replaced, and the newer piers at the end also have newer statues.
Xian heads for a tea house, looking to talk to some history buffs who are statue experts. The locals think that the statues are of "spirits of other lands", but it's not clear which lands. The ones that were replaced were because they broke. Other tidbits about the statues include: the statue of the bear is one of the newest ones, and the statue of the tortoise is actually a turtle - it's technically Turtle Pier, not Tortoise Pier, even if everyone calls it Tortoise Pier now. Wolf Pier was added the last time the House of Beneficent Travel had their monopoly renewed - also at that time, a loading crane knocked off the head of the oostich from Oostich Pier, and they replaced it with a Slamder.
This gives Xian her first idea - if she stole the wolf statue, and replaced it with a replica, then she could break the replica and they would have to replace it with a different animal. On second thought, that might be overly complicated. Or, she could head up a propaganda campaign to rename Wolf Pier, since wolves are part of the war, as a patriotic renaming. Freedom Pier!
Well, while she mulls it over she might as well investigate the horse statue. She turns into a horse, and heads off to Jabon. The journey passes quickly - much faster than a horse with courier horseshoes.
She finds the statue outside the racetrack, and asks around about it. She learns that it was commissioned by Zhu Cai Wen, and rumor says that it was designed by Tokai Takanata.
Hmm. It may be difficult to replace a horse statue at a racetrack with a wolf statue, since wolves don't have much to do with horse racing. Then she has a bright idea - if she replaces the horse statue with a larger horse statue, she could hide the wolf statue inside it. She considers whether this would qualify as a true switch, and decides it would be okay - it would be like being in disguise, and as long as there wasn't a spiritual component of "defeating wolf with horse" or something like that it should be fine.
She may need to get local people on board with her plan, in both countries. Happily, in the House of Beneficent Travel, she knows (and helped save), Spear Carrier Ri. Here in Jabon, she thinks the person to talk to is Lac Vinh, Cai Wen's factor in charge of the horse race.
She meets with Lac Vinh, and convinces him that while Cai Wen is not unsatisfied with Lac's current efforts, there are some considerations to be taken into account. For one, the Plains have not been on friendly terms with the Arcade and the House of Exuberant Interference in particular, for a little while. So something of a grand gesture of a larger statue might be useful. Vinh wonders if she means grand, or GRAND, and has a gleam in his eye that Xian has seen before with people like the Han Hsu. With 80 li to play around with, Vinh could put together something properly GRAND. Xian explains that the statue will need to be able to hold a square of sail cloth inside (no problem), and also a statue of a wolf (wait what?). Xian wonders if it would be simpler to encase the wolf in rock first, and let a sculpture carve the horse out of it. Vinh is not sure that would be simpler. Well, Vinh can figure out how to make a horse statue that will fit a wolf statue in it, though that might make it cost a little more. Xian gives him a tael for expenses, and tells him to get it done.
Then, she changes back to a horse, and heads back to the harbor, to see Lord Ri. He looks a little haggard, and Xian offers her condolences on his recent losses. Then, she mentions a suggestion she has, that might help him transition into his role. Since the North has been employing wolves, a public gesture against wolves might be well appreciated. The House has a Wolf Pier... perhaps they could replace the statue and rename the pier. Xian offers to provide a very nice horse statue that he could use to replace it. Since Ri and his comrades were rescued by a miraculous cavalcade of horses, he thinks this sounds like a great idea. He can also arrange for transport, since his house does that for a living. He thanks Xian for bringing this idea to his attention, and seems willing to take it from there. Maybe he can set the wolf statue in the square and people can take swings at it. Xian leaps in, saying that she has a plan for the wolf statue, that might help in the war effort. Ri says if she wants the wolf statue, it is hers, and he will arrange the transportation logistics for both statues.
Her first task in hand now, Xian gallops off to the Port of Auspicious Voyage to investigate the painting. On the way, she sort-of overhears a conversation between Horse and Mystique. Horse is disappointed, because he thought Mystique explained about the karma spending. Mystique says she did explain about the karma spending. Horse says perhaps Mystique should go and in no way force Xian to spend any Karma.
Xian hasn't particularly picked a destination beyond the Port of Auspicious Voyage, so when she stops galloping, she's standing in a small market square. There's a mural on the side of a building - apparently a harness-maker's.
- "Oh." -Xian
Well, on the bright side, she has discovered that she doesn't need to know where something is in order to set it as her destination. She heads into the shop to look around, and finds herself coveting some of the fancy scarlet barding. The guy there is a good salesman - he says he had someone paint the mural a month or so ago, as part of the branding. Well. Hmm.
Then, Xian gallops off to Gangmul to look at the other painting, suspecting that it will be a little more difficult than she was imagining. And, in fact, painted on a cliff face is a mural of a wolf, fierce against spearmen.
Above the cliff, Xian hears the sounds of shushing.
- "Ssh! Someone is here! I see their horse!"
Xian quickly runs up to the top of the cliff, where two teenagers are pulling their clothes back on. Then, she turns into a person, throwing them into a panic. She intimidates them with her spirit nature for a bit, and makes them promise to not speak of it, though hints that she may see them later.
Then, she heads into Gangmul, where she learns that the mural is old but does not fade. Nobody thinks it is great art though, so no one thinks very much about it. Hmm.
Taking advantage of her extra fast travel, Xian heads for the Illuminated Precincts and the Grand Library. She is a Library Patron, but she hasn't ever used her research project, so she uses it to research the mural. After a day of research, she learns that the mural was painted by Gou the Immortal Bard and it was preserved by Pai the Smith. Huh - that's a bit more epic than she was expecting. Good thing she has a Golden Ocarina (except Xiao Fa may have borrowed it and forgot to return it) and a Golden Gear to work with!
She buys a small mechanical wind up horse toy, and tries to put the gear in it. It fits. After a short wait, Pai shows up to talk to her. Pai tells her that the depicted wolf hunt was eighty, ninety years ago, and Gou painted the mural to commemorate it. Then, Pai put on some varnish to keep it preserved. Xian explains that she has been tasked with swapping that painting with a mural on a building in the Port of Auspicious Voyage. Well, that's an interesting technical challenge. Pai says she's willing to preserve the new mural if Xian moves it, or if Xian can provide an earth mage, Pai can do some experimentation as to how to preserve a mural when removed from the wall.
Xian gallops off to find Tsu Fa, and finds him in Stone Drum holding up a wall while other people work on it. She wanders off to change and waits for the evening for him to finish his work. Then, she meets him at his inn - he even remembers her from Driven to Distraction when he was saved from beastmaster control - and he buys her a drink.
Xian tells him that if he is willing to keep it on the quiet, she can arrange for him to work on a quick project with Pai the Smith. Tsu Fa is intrigued, but he is still in the army, though, so he would need new orders, or a pass for a couple of days, or something to cover for his absence. Even better - Xian has the Ocarina of Time, and a really fast horse. She also thinks that making everything Weird and Mystical will help convince him that it is above his pay grade, so she demonstrates turning into a horse, and uses some karma to persuade him to come along with her plan.
Xian checks back with Pai, who has figured out a combination of resin and silk to hold the mural face together while Tsu Fa carefully detaches the mural from one stone wall and re-merges it with the other. However, Pai says she will leave it to Xian to explain to Gou why she moved his "tribute to the common hunter".One task is accomplished and another should finish without Xian's assistance, but the rest will have to wait for another day. Xian turns her nose towards Tahiti to check in with the rest of the party and explain her new shape.