Traveling Without the Butterfly Prince
|"He who travels becomes wise; he who is wise stays home."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Fox in the first Month of the Magpie in the eleventh Year of the Magpie since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place mostly in the Hon'eth Arcade on the way to the Hidden City.
The party sets off from the Port of Auspicious Voyage towards the Hidden City. When asked what speed they should be going, Ti Jun had said that getting there in the next several runs would be good, but that he did expect that they would travel in the usual meandering fashion - and so, he has loaned the party his traveling mechanic. If they stick to the Imperial Highways, they can be to the entrance to the Hidden City very quickly (and the run will end), but if they wander a bit, they can choose arrows to play.
The group decides that perhaps they will meander a bit along the way, and chooses between Sun and Snow. And, just to get it out of the way now, here is where everyone Min Feng is tracking is currently:
- Ezokin is between the Gate of Shen and Daizhou
- Tai Lung is to the west of the City of Spires
- Renyu is in the ocean
- Da-Xie is on the Shrouded Isle
The initial travel is rather slow going, as there is the traditional congestion associated with the army passing through. Various people make Gather Information rolls, and determine that this is several chariots' worth of the Southern Wall army, not just the highway patrol, heading northwards. Kasumi sneaks towards the center of the fuss, and thinks that everything is moving kind of slowly, because the command tent keeps being repitched as the army moves forward. Cai Wen hears that the forces are under the command of Commander Sun, and that he is not pleased by whatever is sending him north.
Cai Wen reminds the others that Commander Sun is the guy in charge of the Southeast army, and has been frequently briefed on the Mola Ram plot. Cai Wen sends a note to Commander Sun asking to meet with him, and not long thereafter, some scouts come to find the party and escort Cai Wen (and everyone else) towards the command tent. They do insist on taking Kasumi's weapons first, though. The party assures the scouts that Kasumi is perfectly friendly when you can see her, but the scouts insist that they can't bring an armed ninja to visit the Commander.
- "Zhu Cai Wen... and you've brought quite a few people. This will clearly take a while. Sergeant! We won't be moving until three." -Commander Sun
Everyone wonders why exactly he's stalling so hard, but nobody is brave enough to ask directly. Commander Sun asks if Cai Wen has brought more tidings of Imperial doom? No, no, Cai Wen says, this is purely a social call. Ah... it's one of those sorts of conversations. He sends his guards out so they can discuss matters more securely. Cai Wen says no, it really is a social call. The idea that the entire party has just dropped in to say hello seems, not without reason, to baffle him. Eventually they admit that okay, they kind of want to know what he's doing.
- "I haven't been briefed, but I see that you're moving at all deliberate speed." -Merit
- "When one receives orders from the Obsidian Warlord, one moves with all deliberate speed." -Commander Sun
Apparently, all of the Commanders of the Dragon Army have been ordered to attend the Obsidian Warlord at Daizhou. This sort of thing is very unusual, and he hasn't been told what it's about. He may send someone to stop by a tea house in the Port of Propitious Voyage along the way, as he's heard it's a good place to pick up rumors. Cai Wen says that if they find out anything, they'll be sure to meet Commander Sun's man there and let him know.
Merit wonders if this would be in preparation for the impending Northern invasion. Well, sending more troops north might make sense, but you wouldn't summon your Southern Commanders for that, or the Commander of the Construction Corps. Commander Teng is going all the way from the Southwest Wall to Daizhou. This sort of thing never happens.
Merit puts together five facts:
- The Obsidian Warlord has called in all the Commanders for a meeting
- This sort of meeting is extremely unprecedented
- The location of the meeting is near the North and near the blockade
- And it's in Lo Ping's territory
- Commander Sun is dragging his feet
Given these, Merit’s best guess at how to investigate this further is to choose the Ando arrow when it comes up. Well, there's probably not much more to be done here, so Merit briefs Commander Sun moderately thoroughly about the northern plots, including the jade statue and the Qin incursion, but leaving out the bits about having wandered around personally in the north. Then Merit recruits a guy of Commander Sun's as they get Kasumi's weapons back, and choose their next arrow: Trade or Vandalism.
That night, after everyone has camped for the night, Min Feng and Kasumi note a couple of guys skulking towards the back of Li Merit's tent. Min Feng sneaks in, while Kasumi stays outside to guard. There are two guys dressed in black; one is holding a weapon, watching the sleeping Merit, while the other flips quickly through Merit's papers.
- "Hello, ninjas! Out!" -Min Feng
Min Feng grabs Merit's ankles and tries to drag him away from the guy with the knife, but doesn't get much further than pulling him off his bed. Kasumi sneaks into the tent and stabs the non-knife-wielder, but the knife-wielder throws a smoke bomb on the ground, and the two intruders are nowhere to be seen when the smoke clears. Min Feng darts through the tent wall looking for them, but they're gone.
Merit rouses his guards, telling them to be alert and watch for ninja! He takes inventory in his tent, but nothing seems to be missing. Hmm. Maybe one of the Great Houses sent people to gather data on him? He spends the rest of the night outside, while the guards all try to look extra-alert, but the rest of the night passes uneventfully.
The next morning, one of the guards asks Merit if they can have a private chat? See, last night, there was a guy - not armed or anything, and he surrendered and just wanted to talk - who offered the guard a bunch of li to let him into camp. But he didn't let him in, and here is the guy's stuff. Merit asks more questions, trying to draw him out on the details, and Min Feng doesn't sense much more than "this guy wants the boss to like him". Merit decides that the guard did decide to be loyal, but it was a close thing, as the mystery guy was pretty persuasive. And he didn't mention what happened to the li, though it's not with the loot.
- "He offered me twenty li to look the other way, and promised nobody would get hurt."
- "How much did you get?" -Merit
- "The bastard only had 10 on him."
Merit gives him another ten to make up for it, cementing the guard's loyalty. Merit thinks that the stuff looks like it belongs to one of the random thugs he would hire, but Cai Wen (a better detective) thinks that it's not like the thugs you hire yourself, but if you're an important person, and you have Personal Minions, your minions might hire this sort of thug.
This supports the theory that the great trading houses are trying to gather information about Merit, and that this was just a random loyalty test. Merit and Min Feng talk to all the guards -it doesn't seem that any of the others were bribed or offered a bribe, but one of them kind of wishes that he had been, given how it turned out.
Harbor of Fortunate Arrival
The next day, the group reaches the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival. Merit's trade wagons are stopped, however, as the city guard has received a tip that he's smuggling contraband, and everything needs to be searched. Merit makes sure they're real guards, but they seem to be. Cai Wen chats with them - was it a tip about Merit in particular, or about contraband in general? About Merit in particular. The guards admit that sometimes this happens, people tip off the guards about their rivals when there's nothing there, but sometimes there really is something there.
Min Feng pulls rank (she's wearing the Butterfly Talisman) and suggests that someone is harassing Merit and she strongly disapproves. They say "yes, ma'am" and take her name as a character reference to put in his file; as nothing contraband was found in the goods, everyone is allowed in.
Cai Wen drops by the Hidden Orchid, asking after rumors. Madame Song, who does not care for arrow-trip mechanics, sympathizes with Cai Wen, but doesn't have much new information since when he was there in puttering. He drops by a casino after that, and increases his pocket change.
Xiao Fa asks around the underworld, trying to figure out where Shanxi has gotten to. Rumor has it that he's doing something for the Shadow, working his way up. He's... getting trained or tested or evaluated or killed, one of those. The locals think they might have to call him by one of those Names soon - like the Enforcer, or the Settler, or something like that. They don't know where he is, though, or where the Shadow is - they're not that important.
Merit checks in with his minion who works for the Master of Trade. Who might be trying to investigate the Merit Trade Company? Well, really, everyone is probably a little interested, but in this case, it's probably the House of Judicious Increase. Merit nods - he's been considering investing in some of the Great Houses himself.
Kasumi's master hears she's in town, and summons her to check in. Does she have a week or two to deal with something? He's putting a team together to go and deal with something, but if she can't commit to it, it's probably best if she stays away, given her tendencies. Kasumi admits that she doesn't have time for a week-long side quest, so her master says he'll put together a few people and take care of it himself.
There isn't much else going on in the Harbor, so the party sets off again with another choice: Cabbages or Kings?
Heading along a country road, the group passes a fenced-in field. On the other side of the fence are some of the finest cabbages Xian has ever seen, except for the previous times he's seen exceptionally fine cabbages. Hey, is this where the cabbage merchant grows his crops? He's a really good farmer, but not quite as good at transporting his cabbages, as he seems to be having an accident whenever they run into him. Maybe the Merit Trade Company could arrange to distribute his wares, instead!
Speaking of accidents, though, the gate to the field seems to be broken, and propped up with sticks. And the path between the gate and the cottage is bordered by trampled cabbages! Xian thinks they should fix the gate, but Merit argues that it's insulting to stop by someone's house and fix the gate before knocking on the door - Xiao Fa sidles around the arguing pair and heads for the door.
When he knocks, there are several sounds of locks being unlocked (unusual for a small cottage like this), and then there is a pitchfork being pointed at Xiao Fa, and the cabbage merchant orders Xiao Fa and the other hoodlums to get away from the cabbages. However, he quickly realizes that they are not hoodlums, and invites them inside. He offers Lady Min Feng a bowl of cabbage soup, and starts making more, but Shuyan takes over the vegetable-chopping duties (once he's sure she's up to the task) while he explains: he is plagued by vandals. From his description, they don't sound like bandits (who just come and step on cabbages?) but more like young teenage sons of minor nobles, causing trouble. They don't make demands or threats or anything like, they just smash some vegetables. Several of the other farmers in the area have had similar problems recently.
Xiao Fa gets Shuyan to accompany him while he wanders around the cabbage field (Shuyan is in charge of making sure he doesn't trample any cabbages himself); he goes in a circle or two and finally heads to a particular cabbage which Shuyan thinks is riper than the others, and where Xiao Fa thinks a cabbage spirit is. The cabbage spirit doesn't make itself particularly known, though.
Min Feng visits the other nearby farms, and hears that one of the other farmers avoided damage by buying them off with several li, and after that they haven't returned to his farm. But there doesn't seem to be a regular pattern that they're taking through the farms - they generally visit one farm an evening, and it seems to be random. Most of the other farms have had their crops trampled a few times. Merit recruits some thugs from a nearby town.
Hmm. The plan should be "Non-fatally get 'em!" but how can the party ensure that the hoodlums come sooner rather than later? Can they start a rumor that the cabbage merchant came into some money? Would he buy a round of drinks at the tavern? No, he'd probably invest in cabbage seeds or a new wagon. Well, maybe they can make him actually come into some money. They give him enough money to get a Really Nice Cabbage Cart of Destiny, with a spare wheel, and crumple zones, and netting to keep the cabbages in their own compartments. It'll be the best cabbage cart ever, as soon as the cartwright finishes it. That should publicize it pretty well. And Xian spends some time making the trampled part of the cabbage field look extra-nice and cabbagey, using his "transform surroundings" mojo.
That night, five cabbage hoodlums do in fact show up, though they are on horses, which is something that the cabbage merchant had forgotten to mention. There is briefly a spate of bitter recriminations about why the idea of making tracking rolls on the trampled cabbages was mocked. The riders shout various threatening things at the cabbages, and then kick in the gate.
- "Attention ruffians! Your reign of terror is at an end! The humiliation of the ages is upon you, and if you persist, the consequences are upon you as well." -Cai Wen
Kasumi tries to trip a horse with rope, and Shuyan terrifies one with her snakes. The latter horse dumps his rider and flees, luckily without trampling any more cabbages. Merit's thugs grab the rider. Various people start grabbing hoodlums and pulling their masks off; the leader seems rather outraged at such treatment from peasants, but Min Feng is both statusful and intimidating, and orders them to get off the horses and apologize. Cai Wen adds to the intimidation, noting that the kids' parents will skin them alive for this if they hear that they "continued to resist". One of the younger hoodlums surrenders, but number two tells Merit that if they hit him, they'll be in such trouble, and Merit is pretty intimidated too.
The younger teens offer Min Feng five li to let them go and forget the whole thing ever happened. Min Feng laughs, and tells them to surrender and apologize. Xian wraps the leader up with cabbage vines, the nonexistence of such things notwithstanding.
- "We've got you fair and square - let's just all settle down and talk about this!" -Merit
Number two draws his sword, beginning to worry that these are not just random do-gooder vegetable protectors, since the party seems pretty bent on capturing everyone, not just driving them away. He says that if they release the others, they can go out of combat time, and gives actions to the people with prisoners. Cai Wen lets go, but Xian doesn't, and says they're in no position to negotiate.
- "Drop your sword and we may be lenient." -Xian
- "Come down off these horses and talk and apologize. I thought I made that clear." -Min Feng, drawing her tael-bow
Number two is intimidated for the moment and puts down his sword, so combat time stops temporarily. Xian realizes that they're definitely starting to be afraid for their lives, rather than being in the spirit of a game of Destroyers of Cabbages and Defenders of Cabbages. Min Feng demands apologies and reparations, and Number Two makes a rather eloquent apology, and offers the cabbage farmer ten li, way more than the cabbages are worth.
Xian finds apologies and reparations insufficient, and offers him a chance to come out of the whole thing better than he might otherwise come out, and demands that Number Two explain himself. This baffles him, and also starts putting the whole "not getting out of here with your lives" back on the table. Xian insists that he explain the vandalism, night after night of pointless destruction. Is it just "harmless fun"? Well, actually, they kind of thought it was, until it got to the point where ninjas were going to kill them for it.
Min Feng points out that the way they feel now is how the farmers normally feel. The kid protests - they never threatened anyone's life, or took anyone prisoner!
- "He gave you money!" -Min Feng
- "And then we let him be!" -Kid
Merit shouts that the several li was the farmer's entire estate - the smaller guys do seem to understand a little better than One and Two that two li is a lot of money for peasants, but they still also think that they've been smashing some vegetables, not burning down houses or killing people.
Number two says that if the party lets them go, they'll never do it again. But if they don't let them go, there will be some serious repercussions. Unfortunately for him, this just provokes Xian again. Cai Wen drags his prisoner off to talk to him separately, and the kid, panicking, promises that his family will pay a ransom. The cabbage farmer is also beginning to look a little worried that this isn't going quite the way he was hoping for, either.
- "You will pay not a zhu to any of these farmers. You will spend the rest of the harvest season in their fields helping to harvest their crops and doing as they tell you. Ten years from now, you will be grateful you had this opportunity, because this is the only way you will know why this happened, and otherwise you will never know if this will happen again." -Xian
Number two says they agree. Xian thinks that's too easy, but thinks that he's promising more or less in good faith, except that he knows if his parents tell him not to do the thing that the random ninja bandits told him to, he might have to stop. Xian adds a clause that they have to explain to their parents why they are doing this, and that is also agreed to.
Merit pulls the ringleader aside and warns him that he knows his name, and that he's really behind it. His family will... hear about it if anything else happens. He's intimidating enough that this comes across as a pretty serious threat, but Merit's sense motive isn't good enough to figure out exactly what the kid thinks the threat is.
All in all, the smaller kids are pretty much scared straight and down with Xian's program. #2 is agreeing to everything to keep his team from being killed, and #1 is doing his best to remember everyone's faces for later. Xian puts the whammy on #1 to try to turn his fear into guilt, which more or less works. Then the kids flee.
The cabbage merchant thanks them all for their help, and presents them all with cabbages, and says that if they ever need anything from such a humble cabbage farmer, he owes them a favor. Xian pesters Merit into repairing his gate. Min Feng drops by one of the other farmers and gives them two li to get in touch with the party in case there is any future trouble.
The next morning, the party sets out, with a choice of Age or Youth.
The group heads northwards again, and after several hours of traveling, encounters another traffic jam caused by a traveling obstruction by something like the Army. The details of the obstruction are unclear (it seems to require both Resolve and Status to pay attention), and only Xian and Xiao Fa notice that there are several horses accompanying a palanquin. Xiao Fa recognizes the lead rider, to his startlement, as Ming Lieren, the Huntress.
Xiao Fa mentions this, and is particularly disconcerted by the idea that she's escorting someone else's palanquin. There is a brief digression into an explanation of the Twelve Immortals - Li Merit wants to know why no one has told him about this whole section of the cosmology before - and Cai Wen wonders whether Ming Lieren is a babe. Xiao Fa dubiously concedes that she might be the sort of babe that kills you if you think she's a babe.
Noticing the party gesturing at her, Ming Lieren falls back to converse with them.
- "What brings you here?"
- "A random walk."
- "Ah. What is your goal? What prey do you seek?"
- "I am not at liberty to say - it is a charge from the Isle of Beauty."
- "Ah, you travel on a charge from your sovereign, as do I. We could travel together for a time."
She moves her hand in an odd gesture, and it becomes more possible to see the palanquin, though Kuan-Xi is still confused about exactly what is going on. Ming Lieren regards Kuan-Xi with a sharp eye.
- "I begin to understand. In that case you must join us for dinner."
Once the party starts to travel with the palanquin, they cruise up the road pretty quickly; other traffic seems to get out of their way without paying real attention. A little before sunset, the group stops, and sets up tents in a clearing. The palanquin is taken to one of the tents, and then set upon the ground, and a few minutes later, a palanquin bearer comes by and says that the Exalted Ones would like to entertain them for dinner in an hour, if they wish to prepare. Everyone puts on their fanciest clothes.
Kuan-Xi wonders why everyone is getting dressed, and this confusion is sufficient to get Xiao Fa summoned to look at her. She seems to be having some sort of destructive interference with her chi, from the local environment, Xiao Fa thinks, but he doesn't know quite what to make of it.
The party is escorted in to the larger pavilion tent, and Ming Lieren introduces His Eternal Highness, Prince Ho Tan Mi: Sovereign of the Golden Palace, Warden of the Northern Seas, the Azure Blade. Cai Wen and Min Feng are high enough status to be introduced as well; everyone else is "their party." His Highness does not speak (and seems both terrifying enough to slay them without thought, but also not to be feared; two different shticks seem to be in effect there), but Ming Lieren asks them of their recent trips and adventures. Merit is concerned about telling secrets to these TOTALLY UNKNOWN PEOPLE WHO COULD BE ON ANY SIDE, but Xian and Kasumi try to assure him that there aren't any sides, it's safe to say whatever. He doesn't really believe in people who aren't on any side, and doesn't really believe them, but neither does he shush them when they talk.
Ming Lieren talks about some of her hunts, including a spider demon that she stalked in a deep wood. Merit asks if she has ever hunted a skinwalker - she pauses for a moment, and says that she thinks not - skinwalkers do not tend to masquerade as prey. Has Merit had cause to hunt a skinwalker himself? He says no, not directly, though he may someday. She warns him on such a hunt, he must be sure of his quarry, for it is easy to be deceived and make the wrong kill.
Dinner is wondrously yummy, though some are disappointed that there are no peaches offered. Xiao Fa thinks that the dishes are not made with supernatural ingredients, but they are made with consummate skill (the cooks are probably rolling for 10s).
Kuan-Xi still seems very confused; Min Feng wonders if it's because she hasn't been outside the Empire and this is that sort of effect.
Merit asks where they are headed - Ming Lieren says they are heading north for the moment. It is time for His Highness's progress through the realms, and they are likely to stay near the Northern Wall as they head west. Merit says in that case, he has news, and tells them about what he knows about corrupted ancestor spirits and jade statues. Ming Lieren frowns - do the Emperor's men not deal with this? Merit segues into grumbling about Lo Ping saying it's all bandits, and the Obsidian Warlord. Oh, and there's a Northern Barbarian claiming the title of Great Khan. She seems less worried about northern barbarians, as long as the Emperor's men are vigilant, but she sees why they are troubled. Perhaps (the Prince nods) they will send one of the Prince's subjects to the Cup of Five Virtues to see what they can uncover there.
Cai Wen takes from his pack the statuette of the Golden Palace that Broken Sword stole from Lucky Chang's house, and says that he found it "in the house of his enemy." Ming Lieren smiles at that description, and nods at the statuette, noting that it is an excellent facsimile, carved by one of the great masters of old. One of the servants walks up, and (after gesturing for permission from Cai Wen) carries the statuette over to the Prince, who scrutinizes it carefully without touching it. Cai Wen says he doesn't know what his enemy meant to accomplish - perhaps he meant to steal some power somehow? Ming Lieren asks what the name of his enemy is, and Cai Wen names Lucky Chang, born Chang Wuyong. The Huntress doesn't think that it would work to steal power from the statuette directly, but it is a near-perfect likeness, and perhaps it was meant to be the centerpiece of a ritual. But she and her sovereign are reassured that it is in honorable hands, rather than that of his enemy's.
Cai Wen assures them that he has no dangerous plans himself, but if His Highness finds it a worthy gift, it would be his honor to present it.
The Prince speaks for the first time, and thanks Cai Wen. He understands that there are many who do not comprehend he and his subjects. So, in exchange for such a gift, he would be pleased to offer the answer to three questions, one for each of his titles: a question of the sovereign of the Golden Palace, a question of the Azure Blade, and a question of the Warden of the Northern Seas.
Cai Wen says that he is most honored, but he finds himself unprepared to ask sensible questions, and it seems unseemly to bicker in front of them. The Prince nods understanding - perhaps they would like to consider it while he discusses things with his granddaughter? He gestures for Kuan-Xi to join him, and she confusedly goes out the back of the tent.
People do their best to make Int rolls to figure out what those three titles are. The Golden Pavilion is in the World Above (in Tai Qing). "Azure Blade" is his title - before he ascended to his throne, or before his throne took him, or something, he was the Immortal Swordsman, the Azure Blade. The Warden of the Northern Seas is more puzzling - it doesn't seem to be a spirity thing - maybe it just has to do with the seas around the Shrouded Isle?
As it begins to grow cold, the group settles on three questions, and the Prince returns, though Kuan-Xi does not. The servants also return, spattered with snowflakes.
- Cai Wen
- I would request, if this is not too impertinent, how I may gain the assistance of the Golden Palace against my enemy, Lucky Chang.
- I believe you already have several offers of assistance, but I am still indebted by your gift.
One of the servants comes in, brushing the snow from his shoulders, and presents Cai Wen with a gold-traced sword in a scabbard. The prince nods and informs him "If you need to speak to me, you will know what to do."
- Min Feng
- We believe the Obsidian Warlord's recent blockade has cut off the chi of the Shrouded Isle. How might we reconnect it?
- As you surmise, it is the blockade; not the effectiveness of the blockade, but its symbolic existence. The simplest way is to get the Warlord to order it down, or the Sea Lord. The simplest way to influence the Sea Lord is to shame him, and trade your silence on the matter for his cooperation, for his master does not deal lightly with failure. Other ways are more byzantine, as it does not have to be effective to effect its purpose, but the proper authority of the Empire has commanded it to be. This is what you must reverse.
- I would ask of the Azure Blade, how can one understand how to hit things that cannot be hit.
- (The prince chuckles) The way of the Implacable Blade is something that one of my subjects can teach you, but you will have to earn his favor on your own. The knowledge itself is not in the realm of a question. Earn his favor and he can teach you many things, that included.
The questions asked, it is clear that it is time for the party to go. Min Feng finds Kuan-Xi, all sniffly, in her tent. She has apparently been scolded - the Prince told her it was time to grow up, embrace her responsibilities, and stop being a goof. It stung, but she knows he was right.
Merit tries to recruit one of the Prince's servants as a spy. He finds that he has to make a chi roll, and gets an indecipherable packet of information that he doesn't understand instead of an agent.
In the morning, the palanquin is gone, but there's heavy snow everywhere, including a fallen tree blocking the exit from the clearing. The group briefly wonders whether the travel took them very quickly north, but no, it seems to have been an odd early snowstorm, and they are faced with their next choice: Monkeys or Dragons
As the party heads north again, they meet a pair of hooded monks heading south, and Xiao Fa recognizes them as Iala Mane and Shan Tsu. He waves his greetings to them, and the joined party stops to have lunch and chat. Shan Tsu says their business is urgent, but they can make that much time.
Xiao Fa tells them that he has the answer they needed, how to get into the Hidden City unseen. Shan Tsu waves that away - they don't need that any longer. The reason they needed to get in was to cause a giant distraction so Kar Fai could cross the Wall. And, in fact, they had been just about ready to get in, waiting for one last element, when a merchant named River Ford stole their infiltration plan. So he infiltrated the Hidden City, and they were framed for it. But then it turned out that the Butterfly and the party were providing a different distraction, and their plan was not needed after all, so they are indebted to Xiao Fa and the others.
And the whole "distraction" idea should continue to be helpful - their current plan is to burn down Lucky Chang's house to distract Lucky Chang so that their master can retake the Red Pagoda.
- "They're the yin plot?" -Xian
The party hurriedly informs them that one, Lucky Chang isn't at the Red Pagoda (they knew that) and that Tai Lung is on his way back now (they didn't know that). They explain that they know Lucky Chang isn't there, but he tends to have the focus of his plans upon a particular thing - if his focus is drawn to his house, away from the Red Pagoda, that will help the Master overcome the current issues with the Red Pagoda. He can reclaim the Pagoda by stepping within, as Lucky Chang has not truly claimed it. Cai Wen points out that Lucky Chang has rebuilt it to be a deathtrap. That's why it will take time to overcome - they must return Ting Ting to the senchi chamber, but the deathtrap makes that tricky. But Tai Lung will be an additional problem - Kar Fai can certainly take him, but it will take yet more time.
Xian notes that the Obsidian Warlord has summoned all the army commanders to Daizhou - that'll distract the army. They had heard about the Daizhou summit in an interesting tea house in the Port of Propitious Voyage, and they agree that means that the Obsidian Warlord won't be able to intervene, but they think that the Three Pagodas are much more of a personal issue, not an army thing. Xian also notes that River Ford was thwarting the Marked when he stole their plan; he was rescuing a prisoner who Spider had personally stolen. This leads to some bickering between the two:
- "I thought you told me your gods don't do that." -Iala Mane
- "Our spirits don't normally do that, but there are exceptions." -Shan Tsu
- "If your gods would just intervene on your behalf, this would be easier." -Iala Mane
- "We had lunch with one of our gods yesterday... she said try the roast beef."
Anyway, they still think the house fire would be an appropriate sized distraction, but not to include the delay for Tai Lung as well. So maybe a bigger distraction will be needed. The group ponders what to do - maybe distract Tai Lung somehow (for example, by telling him exactly when Master Zhou will be where!), or suggest to the Master to wait for a more propitious moment. Xian might be able to send another dream - to Ting-Ting, who he has met, though she may not be able to coherently interpret a dream, or to Kar Fai, who he has not met and is harder to reach. Iala Mane says that he could help Xian with that, if Xian is willing to be influenced by his goddess (Ratri, Cai Wen helpfully points out), but Xian is a little squeamish about that.
Cai Wen, sure there's something that they aren't thinking of, gives Iala Mane Ti Wren's letter of "three suggestions, one of which will be providentially helpful." The suggestions are:
- If Cai Wen goes along and helps with the house-burning, declaring himself publicly once and for all as Lucky Chang's enemy, that would earn him the personal enmity of one of the Marked in a way that hasn't yet been the case, but would really distract him.
- If Master Shan Tsu could be infused with the spirit of the Dragon, then he could have a training montage before the mission.
- A dream could be sent to Kar Fai calling off this plan and suggesting that they figure out a new plan later because this one is doomed.
Neither Shan Tsu nor Iala Mane understands how point two could be accomplished, but it turns out the answer is "shake Xiao Fa's hand". Xiao Fa glows brightly, and they both collapse for a moment. Shan Tsu bows deeply - thanks to Xiao Fa's great sacrifice, Shan Tsu is in his debt. They can handle the training montage, though it will have to wait until they are off stage. And Kar Fai will certainly have noticed, so they don't need to send them a dream. Cai Wen warns them to watch out for Lucky Chang’s butler.
The pair sets on their way southwards, and the party turns back to the north again. Cai Wen uses his "cheat in a hat mechanic" shtick to make sure to draw Ando's arrow next.
While Ando is actually quite well disguised, the group is sure it's him, given that they just chose his arrow, so they wave and say "Hi, Ando!" much to his chagrin.
He's been up in the north, the Shrouded Isle and the northern Arcade, recently. So he knows what's going on up there, but he really doesn't understand the blockade. The party promises him that they understand the blockade, so they'll trade their briefing on what it's really for, for his information about the Daizhou meeting for Commander Sun.
Ando informs them that the Commanders are being summoned to Daizhou to see the execution of Lo Ping, to make a point and impress upon them to not be idiots. He thinks the jade statue has been sent to the Hidden City to give to the Imperial Alchemist, and that Inspector Fu has been promoted to Grand Inspector, and is also on his way back to the Hidden City. It'll probably be five or six months before the Northern Army gets back into proper order - everyone is really rattled after all the investigation and possible accusations of treason. No one knows who the new Northeast Commander will be, though.
The party says they'll explain the blockade, but first, why does Ando care? Well, it's a disaster as a strategic thing, and it's a terrible waste of resources. Mostly, it seems to offend him on a sort of tactical efficiency level. They explain that it's all a spiritual symbolic thing, which he finds somewhat distasteful, but at least he understands the point now, and he can think about it.
- "I don't really know him personally, but maybe you could get Inspector Fu interested in the blockade?" -Cai Wen
Ando raises an eyebrow to the "don't know him personally" part, but doesn't seem to think that "bring yourself to Inspector Fu's attention with a wild goose chase about the blockade" is the best idea. Anyway, he has also been busy with the Si Fan, as he's now their Great Honored Enemy... er, wait a moment. He looks around, alarmed, and takes a few steps back from Shuyan.
- "She has divided loyalties, don't worry about it." -Merit
- "Huh. Want to have multiply divided loyalties?" -Ando
Shuyan shrugs prettily and says that some people have been very friendly, and taught her things. Ando mutters darkly that that's how it starts - the first couple are free, and that she should be careful - he doesn't want to have to come and get her, or get got, someday.
Merit wants to know what the Si Fan does, exactly. Well, they put his mentor in a deathtrap. But beyond that, they gather power and information, and sell or trade it. He is apparently dedicated to taking them down, or so they have informed him. Apparently having a nemesis is part of their mechanic. Merit really wants to know more about the Si Fan mechanic, and Ando seems willing to trade that for something, but Merit doesn't have anything to trade off the top of his head, and Kasumi is impatient to get moving, so they continue to the Port of Propitious Voyage and the Cup of Five Virtues.
Cup of Five Virtues
The tea house is very full, and the group is aghast to have to wait for a table. Some of Commander Sun's men have just arrived, so Cai Wen pulls them aside and asks if they can get a message to their commander. They assure him that that won't be a problem, so he tells them that he has learned, from reliable sources, that Commander Lo Ping is to be executed. The soldiers gasp, as does a guy two tables over, so Kasumi inserts herself at his table. He offers her some tea, and wonders what brings her there. She shushes him - they should keep eavesdropping. He's okay with that. Merit vaguely recognizes the guy as an Imperial Inspector from Daizhou - the guy who has Ando's old job.
Once the party gets its own table, a man with a droopy hat and a guzheng sits at their table as well. He notes that Min Feng is definitely in the middle of things - might he be of assistance? Min Feng, puzzled, asks why her in particular? He notes that she is Fate's Instrument, puzzling her further. She suggests that maybe a distraction would be useful, but when he says he can distract things if it's important, she concedes that it's probably not important. Curious, he asks Min Feng what is important? She thinks for a moment, and says "Something that would be embarassing to the Sea Lord?" He cocks his head apologetically and says that he tries fairly hard not to involve himself with the great and the grand.
Xiao Fa stares at his chi, and thinks that he is one, non-entropic, and two, has a large powerful nexus around his neck much like Min Feng does. Oh, that's why she's Fate's Instrument.
Anyway, he says to let him know if anything important happens, but otherwise he'll be going back to his business. Min Feng points out that whatever is going on must be important, or he wouldn't be here. Well, part of why he is here is to overhear things, which he has already in part done - and Cai Wen shouldn't feel bad about that, as it is basically a fait accompli at this point. But the question is how to turn it to their advantage, to lighten the spirits and the burdens of the lower classes. Merit says that it's hard to lighten people's spirits with executions. The man shrugs - maybe so, but when it's someone of high name and bad nature being executed, it can help against troubles caused by such a person. But the thing to do is make sure someone appropriate is appointed to replace him. Does the party have a candidate? They claim to know nothing. He nods his understanding - their plan was to wander in and see what happened.
Min Feng wanders around town asking about the goings-on with the army. Well, Lo Ping was arrested by Inspector Fu personally. As far as who will be replacing him, he does have a bunch of underlings, but being Lo Ping's hand-picked underling is not the best of recommendations, as even the competent ones will have some level of corruption. The other possibility is that he can replaced by someone from elsewhere, like the number two of a different commander. They won't be tainted by association with Lo Ping, but it will take longer to get up to speed and for the army to reorganize under him. The way this sort of thing works, there will be the three best local candidates and the three best outside candidates, and each group of three will have the grizzled warrior, the political guy, and the Obsidian Warlord's plant - and the trick will be to figure out which is which. For convenience, we will call them 1A, 1B, 1C (the locals) and 2A, 2B, and 2C (the outsiders).
Merit worries that it'll be better to stick with a local, because of the impending invasion. Winter is coming, it already snowed. The musician perks up his ears - where? Merit tells him where. He sighs - is that as far as she's gotten? She always makes better time in the south, because she gets snowed on in the north.
Cai Wen looks for Chiyo - because of the magic of the tea house, and because he hasn't had a moll yet, she's here with some other soldiers. He asks her if she knows the local possibilities. She thinks that 1B is the political guy, but 1A and 1C are both grizzled veterans. Xian thinks that if you can't tell the difference between Grizzled and Plant, then Political is better than a coin flip between the two, but everyone else assures him that they can do some more information bashing.
Merit has a buddy in the army - he's quite perturbed at the news that Lo Ping was working for the Northern Barbarians! There's corruption, and then there's corruption, and that's over the line. Anyway, he's hoping that someone from the outside comes in and cleans house - if any of the locals take over, it's still going to be a better posting if you have a good family and good funding. Merit notes that that's all very well, if barbarians aren't coming over the wall next week. But what if they were? Well, maybe then a local would be better... of the three of them, C is the sharpest strategist/tactician. He'd probably get the defenses in hand best.
Cai Wen and Xian descend on Kasumi and her Imperial Customs Inspector. He tries to say that there's no need for names, but Cai Wen introduces himself anyway. He says to call him Chen. Cai Wen arranges for a private room to chat, and asks him for his opinion about the second tier guys in the region. Chen offers to trade that for Cai Wen's opinions on the outside second tier guys, but Cai Wen admits he doesn't know anything about them. Well, what else can he offer? He notes that Cai Wen was previously hanging out with a certain merchant - if Cai Wen can slip him some information about his current trade business, he'll slip him some information about the local subcommanders. Cai Wen lists the current cargo Merit is traveling with (having seen it all inspected in the Harbor), and Chen says that:
- 1A - and this isn't well known - has a pretty significant heart condition.
- 1B is backed by the House of Gainful Protection, and is quite well funded.
- 1C was up for Sea Lord Milora's job and got passed over.
(Merit gets an extra level of friction on his next set of trades as a result of Cai Wen spilling the beans).
Xian talks to the musician, and tells the story of chastising a bunch of spoiled brat nobles stomping on commoner vegetables. The musician is quite interested in the story, but Xian notices that he's not as interested in the cabbage farmer as the other ones. He thinks that Xian's solution is excellent as a first attempt, but he thinks Xian focussed a little too much - and this is his personal take - on driving the point home to the nobles, and a little too little on aiding the nameless farmers. He admits that it's hard, as they're easy to overlook, but it's an excellent job for a first try. He'll head that way, as he was making a sweep down the coast, and gives Xian a gold ocarina with the traditional comment that if Xian ever needs to speak to him, he'll know what to do. As he's getting ready to head out, Xian asks if he's heard of the Bandits of the Double Caldera. He smiles, amused, and says that he has. They have style - though they forget sometimes that the rank and file of the Dragon Army are also nameless. But they have panache, which he appreciates.
The party decides that the place to learn more is Daizhou, where the commanders are gathering, so another arrow leads northwards...
Nobody has seen quite this much Dragon Army all in one place at one time. There are six main camps, with the commanders' flags, and a smaller camp for the Obsidian Warlord's men himself.
The Obsidian Warlord (wearing his armor of nigh-invulnerability) reads the charges: gross dereliction of duty, negligence, and treason. He segues into a bit of a speech about how those who command must also serve, and it seems like he's making sure everyone is back on track and loyal to him. Then, he chops Lo Ping's head off with his own sword, which seems to have an ominous shadow trailing the blade. As the body is taken away, the six candidates are called forward.
- "On the first day of winter, one of you will ascend to the command of the northeast sector. I will let you show me which one of you is worthy." -Obsidian Warlord
The Obsidian Warlord heads back to his own command tent, and various people discuss the execution. Commander Sun's opinion is that this is going to be a political circus. His own preference is for 2B, who he has worked with and respects. That makes it somewhat plausible that 2B is the southern "grizzled warrior", but Commander Sun is not known for his politics-playing. Cai Wen asks if he knows which of the southern subcommanders is the Obsidian Warlord's man. He's puzzled by that - they're all the Warlord's men. No, no, his personal favored man. Commander Sun doesn't know, but thinks if there's one who the Warlord personally favors, he'll just pick that guy.
Xiao Fa tries to get a sense of what Dragon thinks of 1C. Well, Dragon could support him if Xiao Fa likes him. He's probably the best for tactical defense of the Empire. That's not really a ringing endorsement, but perhaps there is no perfect candidate. Cai Wen tells Xiao Fa to seize the moment, and Xiao Fa contemplates 2B. Dragon thinks 2B might be better for the long-term health of the Empire, rather than the short-term defense. Supporting him could be better, but might require Xiao Fa and the party to chip in more in the short term.
That's about all that can be immediately discovered, but the mechanic is running until the first day of winter, so more can be determined in puttering. The group decides they have time for one more arrow, so they have a choice between Monks and Monkeys.
As the group heads Hidden-City-wards, there is the sound of a galloping horse overtaking them from behind. Cai Wen recognizes the rider as Crazy Feng, a gambler friend of his from the Forest of Chin. She slows down her horse briefly to offer Cai Wen a bet - twenty li for three or better? - but he declines and she spurs her horse forward. A few minutes later, several black horses with ninjas riding them gallop by, and shout to Kasumi that she's getting away!
That's all very puzzling, and the party continues along. A few minutes later, Crazy Feng has doubled back and is riding past the party in the other direction. She offers Cai Wen 15 li for a seven or better, but he still doesn't take the bet, and she rides on, still chased by ninjas.
- "Riding back and forth is the life of the monkey?" -Merit
Those who are good riders decide to try to catch up with Crazy Feng. Merit, Kasumi, and Shuyan are able to catch up, and note that she's having ninja trouble. She offers Kasumi a bet - six or above and she has to be on Crazy Feng's team - and Kasumi agrees, but Crazy Feng doesn't make the roll. Merit says to ignore Kasumi, as her horse is flagging anyway (hint hint) and Kasumi drops back to let the other ninjas catch up to her.
The ninjas tell Kasumi that Crazy Feng stole their sacred lucky monkey, and ask Kasumi to help catch her. However, Merit is busily negotiating with Crazy Feng, who says if they can distract the ninjas so she can get away, they can go to the next town over and make a killing gambling. Merit counter-offers: he'll get her away from the ninjas, if she agrees to meet Cai Wen in puttering. She agrees, and he gives her a vial of escape smoke, and she promptly vanishes, leaving her horse (and a masterwork gambling kit with marked cards and loaded dice) behind.
The ninjas tell Kasumi that they've been chasing Crazy Feng for a while now - if they knew she was going to be in the area, the Master probably should have told her about the mission, but they didn't know she was going to be there. Kasumi says that's the life of a Butterfly Monkey Ninja.
Cai Wen is briefed on the whole thing, and assigned the task of getting the monkey from Crazy Feng somehow.
Then, the party hits the Imperial Highway, and heads towards the gates of the Hidden City.