Whispered Secrets II
|"If the pedestal is beautiful the statue must be even more beautiful."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Butterfly in the Month of the Tortoise in the first Year of the Magpie since the crowning of the Viridian Queen.|
The run takes place on the way to and in Nine Terraces, in the Strand.
Merit fills out some paperwork saying he's on vacation from the Butterfly Spy Service, as the circus packs up to go to the Strand, and reminds Cai Wen to give the "usual speech" - don't touch the vegetation, and don't ask too many questions. As the circus heads southwest from Jabon, there is a Dragon Army troop coming in the other direction, and Merit herds everyone into road-performance mode.
Wei Han thinks that this particular group is a press gang, so he warns everyone to try to look important and relevant, so they don't get drafted. The commander chats with Cai Wen - do they have any wood sorcerer performers? Cai Wen says no, though Lijuan says there was a wood sorcerer near the City of Spires (and the commander tries to get her to suggest that he might have been west of the city).
- "Tell me of your troubles." -Cai Wen
- "We have no troubles, not for someone who rolls no dice."
Cai Wen rolls some dice and learns that they're going on an offensive to clear away the trees growing up against the Wall, because that's allowing a lot of Southerners to get into the Empire. The party thinks that fire sorcerers might be good too, but nobody wants to mention it just in case they decide to grab Shen-Ji.
- "Good thing I’m an Art Sorcerer!" -Shen Ji
The Dragon Army heads off again, and the circus heads off again too. They reach the New Rivers area, and the bridge across the first river looks a little iffy - there are burn marks, as if a battle using fire was fought on the bridge, a month or so ago. Walking across, or riding a horse, should be fine, but heavy wagons and elephants might be a little much for it.
Wei Han looks at the traces of battle on the bridge, and thinks that the Dragon Army was holding the bridge against attackers on both sides. That's odd. Merit thinks it would be safest to replace a couple of support beams that took some damage - cutting and trimming and replacing will probably take about a day. The circus is due to be in Nine Terraces three days hence, so as long as they don't stop again, everything should be fine.
Lijuan draws a picture of a maze with statues in it. Since there are three statues in the maze, maybe there are three perils on the way to Nine Terraces?
Cai Wen heads into the New Rivers towns, to ask about the battle as well as advice on getting to Nine Terraces quickly. He arranges to put on a local performance while Merit deals with repairing the bridge. He’s treated very well by the locals who learn he is a close and personal friend of the Xiao Fa.
Another group goes to look for wood, and finds a grove of trees which might do for replacements in the bridge. Anto wonders if the grove is likely to be spiritually important to some spirit, such that cutting it would be a problem, and thinks that it's not likely to be very important. Min Feng spots a guy a ways off keeping an eye on the wood cutting team - he looks vaguely familiar, but she can't place him. She memorizes him for later, which turns out to be extra-easy, and then heads over to talk to him, and then drag him back to the wood-cutting group. Lijuan recognizes him as Siew Zhuai, the guy she was being set up to marry when she was kidnapped. He'd like to talk to Lijuan a little more privately than with everyone else listening and making snide comments, but the best he can get is to talk to Lijuan with Wei Han and Kawaii standing there growling at him.
- "If I go there and talk to you, then I'm the hostage. If you stay here and talk to me, then you're the hostage." -Lijuan
Zhuai says that he'd really like to avoid the whole hostages thing - either his family taking Lijuan, or Lijuan's friends taking him. He thinks that the best way to smooth everything over would be for the two of them to get married, but not the "stupid way". He has a gift for Lijuan, a fancy filigreed silver necklace. Lijuan says that Xiao Fa could do the ceremony, but they have to talk to Xiao Fa and Yanyu first, as Yanyu is in charge of people getting married. Zhuai is a little surprised that the circus has someone explicitly in charge of approving marriages, but is willing to go with it. Lijuan also says that Zhuai will need to be a Dragon, the way Lijuan is a Crane. That's part of her plan. Zhuai is a little less clear on that part of the plan but, again, is willing to go along with this more implausible part. Finally, Lijuan says that Takanata has to give his permission, but will definitely veto it. Zhuai suggests that maybe they not tell Takanata? Lijuan doesn't think that's a good idea. Well, he says if Lijuan can convince Yanyu, he'll see what he can do for convincing Takanata, as he's fairly good at that sort of thhing.
- "I'm glad you have skills." -Lijuan
- "Many! You will find me highly useful." -Zhuai
Zhuai is also somewhat concerned about the fact that Kawaii seems particularly intent on killing him. Lijuan is concerned about the fact that Zhuai thinks Kawaii is a boy panda.
Once the off-to-the-side conversation finishes, Min Feng goes back to talk to Zhuai - how did he think it went? He actually thinks it went better than he expected, but there's still a ways to go.
- "So... why do you want to marry her?" -Min Feng
- "To help fix the part where my family was defeated by the Bear Emperors." -Zhuai
- "And how will marrying a Crane help with that?" -Min Feng
- "Oh, er, I'm sorry, I guess I thought you were more briefed about this sort of thing..." -Zhuai
Min Feng's best guess of his motive is that he's sincere, and thinks that if he and Lijuan could just leave everyone (her friends, his family) out of the decision, it will work out for the best. Shuyan and Shen-Ji, on the other hand, are in favor of Kawaii tearing him apart.
Min Feng tells him that he should stay near Wei Han, "so there are no misunderstandings." He gets Wei Han to agree to keep him safe from pandas and the like, as long as he stays nearby.
- "And you do everything he says." -Min Feng
- "Hey, we just agreed to that other thing." -Zhuai
The group says that they want to see the present he has for Lijuan, since she hasn't accepted it yet.
- "To appraise it?" -Zhuai
- "No, to see if there are spells on it." -Shen-Ji
- "If you look at it, will you attest its true worth to this matchmaker?" -Zhuai
- "He's very wheeling and dealing. Do you want to marry someone like that?" -Shuyan
- "Kawaii will take care of me." -Lijuan
Shen-Ji decides that the necklace has a tracking spell on it that will let him keep finding Lijuan until she accepts it from him.
In case there are two more perils on the way to Nine Terraces, Min Feng, Anto, and Kuan-Xi (on Cai Wen's horse) go off ahead on the road to scout. They promise to be back before noon the next day, when the circus needs to get moving again.
At that night's performance, the performers are fairly impressive, but it being a small town, nobody gives tips. Lijuan gets a lot of enthusiastic cheering for her archery performance - she admittedly did better than everyone else, but Zhuai being in the audience may have had something to do with it as well.
Merit takes Zhuai aside (followed by Lijuan followed by Wei Han) to ask if he is prepared to maintain Lijuan in the style that she is accustomed to. He doesn't think she seems to be accustomed to a very posh style, and thinks he can do better. Merit says she is paid a third of a tael every run, which Zhuai finds rather surprising for a circus performer, but still does not seem to find that an insurmountable problem. Zhuai also claims that being married to him should help her safety, especially as it should be a very non-political marriage. Merit thinks that Zhuai has spent some time thinking about all the possible marriage options, and has concluded that this one works best.
Zhuai also wants to know if Merit has any suggestions as to what Lord Takanata wants. Merit says Zhuai has to think big - he wants the good of the entire Empire as a whole. Zhuai thinks that's something he can work with - he can come up with an Empire-wide scheme to accomplish something, but having a better sense of what in particular it should be would be nice. Merit has no suggestions there.
The next day at noon, the scouting party returns, with no memory of where they have been. Cai Wen's horse is currently a smart evasive horse, Anto is missing some escape smoke, and Min Feng notes that her sense ambush shtick has been used and one of her saparailla tree suits has gotten dirty. Anto also finds a note that he doesn't recognize:
Hmm. So... should the circus go another direction and possibly be late to Nine Terraces? Or should they run the circus directly into Li the Wanderer?
- "There's no way he can handle *elephants*! Elephants never forget!" -Anto
The group argues for a while about which way to go, and wonders about the symbolism of the hedge maze. If the bridge is one statue and Li the Wanderer is another statue... is there some third peril? Merit thinks about it and decides that the painting of the hedge maze is a painting of an actual hedge maze, and they haven't gotten there yet. It is not, in fact, that they are trapped in a symbolic hedge maze of getting to Nine Terraces.
After some more dithering, they decide to take the straight path to Nine Terraces. There are various survival rolls, but otherwise the circus reaches Nine Terraces with no more excitement.
A Whispered Ball
Ringmaster Zhu receives a messenger from the Viridian Queen. The messenger says, on behalf of the Queen, that some new arrivals in Nine Terraces necessitate that she throw a party. The Ringmaster can of course schedule the performance of the circus at the same time, but if he chooses to postpone, the Queen would make it clear that this was at her request. Additionally, she would like to arrange that Shuyan, Wei Han, and Anto attend. Cai Wen says he'll just hold off the performance until tomorrow, since there are others in the circus (like him!) who would like to attend. Given the imposition, the messenger says, Her Majesty can arrange for some more guests if there is a secret Cai Wen wishes to know. Cai Wen asks for five minutes to agonize over the choice.
The group would really like to know what happened to the scouting party, but that seems unlikely to succeed. Well, can they find out a secret about what's up with the new Southern plot? Cai Wen asks for that, and after a while, another courier shows up with engraved invitations to the party.
- "Wei Han, how good are you at resisting interrogation in a ball gown?" -Merit
Cai Wen reminds everyone - no matter what they find out, NO CHOPPING PEOPLE at the party. Lijuan leaves Ho and Kawaii in the stables outside the palace, much to the concern of the stable hands.
The party rules will be fairly simple - attack and defense are based on Social; damage is x3 with no adder and no resistance. A couple of people shop for clothes that add to grace instead of charisma, and Shen-Ji drops by a local herbalist to let him know that wood sorcerers are being grabbed. The herbalist, Lo Han Su (Hey, that was the guy Machan Li was impersonating at the first party!) clarifies for Shen-Ji that the western command of the Dragon Army isn't allowed to recruit east of the City of Spires, so to be safe from conscription, one can head to the eastern Strand. Shen-Ji says if there's someone who needs help, they should get in touch with him, and he might be able to help, but he also might not. No promises. Well, with no promises, he doesn't get as much credit for that as he might. Lo Han Su also notes that this particular party is because of VIP guests that no one is supposed to know about, and that the price for the revised guest list is quite steep.
Merit wonders who is in town having to do with the hedge maze. Well, the party is. And the Queen. And some nameless mooks. One of Merit's agents doesn't return, which suggests that someone else in town is dangerous.
Min Feng goes off and accidentally overhears some of the Queen’s servants as they shop for supplies. Apparently, they are quite appalled by the fact that the Queen seems to be scared of one of the party guests.
The party begins. The obvious guests include Lei-Ling (Cai Wen's date), the Butterfly Prince's servant, some unimportant mooks, and the Viridian Queen. The Queen's Guards are also in attendance, though technically not guests. Both Merit and Min Feng are susceptible to taking extra damage from the Queen for having spied on her earlier.
Lei-Ling points out some nearby notables to Cai Wen - the Taiga ambassador, Merchant Trivance, and Inspector Ando. Lijuan meets Madam Tsen. Anto dances across the room impressively, trying to avoid anyone talking to him, but finds himself slowing under the heavy gaze of an unknown man in a red cloak. Others note that the mooks seem to be softening people up as part of a team effort to learn secrets - they seem to be asking about stones.
Shuyan attempts to talk to the red-robed man, but she is insufficiently important to merit a reply, only a nod. Then she tries her feminine wiles, and he sighs as if to say that surely there are more appropriate conquests to try to make, and takes no damage.
Wei Han gives the Queen an action. She is grateful that he has attended, as it was quite needful, but she is curious why it was needful. She looks in his memory packet, but does not appear to find it a revelation, and suggests that he mingle and figure out why the gathering is happening.
Min Feng, wearing the Butterfly Talisman, has enough status that she can strike up a conversation with the guy in red robes.
- "It is interesting to meet you. When next you speak to your patroness, give her my regards."
- "From whom should I say the regards come?" -Min Feng
- "Tell her it's from her admirer in red. We knew each other long before she moved here."
[Min Feng tries to Study him so she can find him later, spending two karma in the process, but still failing to overcome his status.]
- "We are too important to participate in this mechanic. Let us just speak. If you would like to make some arrangement to contact me later, you need only ask." -The guy in red, refunding her her two karma.
- "Might I ask about another admirer of my patroness, who also moved to these parts?"
- "I would not call that sort of captivity 'moving to these parts', unless you think his status has changed recently."
- "No, I mean his rival."
- "Mmm. Well, I would not call that one an admirer, though she did provide him the opportunity by opening the door. Unintended consequences are common for those who do not look far forward before acting."
- "What brings you to these parts?"
- "There is a strong disagreement in our land, and the one who caused it is not interested in cleaning it up. I am keeping tabs on (he gestures to the mook team) because I do not wish to be caught by surprise."
- "Well, if you don't want to clean it up, do you have a preferred winner or a loser? Because I have a whole team of loose cannons."
- "That's a difficult question. It is probably unjust for him to win, because he started the mess. But you should never let her get her way. So it's hard for me to choose a favorite. But even if I did, Imperial loose cannons would be inappropriate; I would prefer to find someone more appropriate among my own people."
- "Might I ask about the colors of those in question?"
- "Well, she wears red, as she enjoys blood. He wears white, as befits his name."
[He shrugs as if to say he really shouldn't say their names - would she really want them to show up?]
- "Those gentlemen (gesturing to the mooks again) applied some uncouth pressure to the Queen, and I had to tell her to not interfere with them."
- "Well, we're kind of the opposition to those guys."
- "Oh, certainly, your friends wish to get to the stone before they do. Oh, and tell your friend Anto that I appreciated his instincts on the island, but our privacy was interrupted."
The party notices that the mook team seems to be able to spend several rounds talking to someone and then extract their secret, without taking them down.
Talespinner Cho-Sun tells a tale that reminds Lijuan of Yoshi (and she takes some social damage), and then tells Cai Wen about a woman who was so loyal to the Emerald Queen that she was willing to be turned to stone in her service.
Cai Wen interrogates a mook, and learns their mechanic - they have the information they need, but they need to get enough Official Secrets to leverage the Queen to let them into the Sculpture Garden. And if the party doesn't get enough Official Secrets, they won't be able to get in themselves to thwart them. Merit hears that a Sankara stone was once in the possession of the Emerald Queen, and that she made provision to keep it safe throughout time.
Zhuai checks in with Lijuan. The party seems pretty scattershot, but if she has a goal, he can work it. Lijuan tells him to protect the Queen. (He does try to throw himself between the Queen and the Man In Red Robes later, but is seriously outclassed there.)
At the end of the first round, Min Feng notices that the tension level has dropped, as if there was some sort of social suppression effect in place. That must be why none of the NPCs (except the mooks) were talking much.
With conversation increasing, more secrets start to fall:
- Merchant Trivance: He's a contender for Keeper of the Hoard when the old one passes. And the old one is sick.
- Taiga ambassador: He’s trying to keep up a good front and not let anyone notice that two of the Taiga’s biggest dukes are close to open conflict with each other.
- Military officer: He’s arranged that someone else here has a secret that would instantly buy him into the good graces of the Obsidian Warlord.
- Savanna Ambassador: Our agents in the Taiga are getting the Blue and Red Dukes to stir something up.
- Lo Han Su is working on a potion to make himself ageless, if he can just find a drop of immortal blood.
- "What would you pay for that?" -Merit
- "What wouldn't I pay for it?" -Lo Han Su
- "Good answer. We'll talk later." -Merit
- Shuyan is a member of the Si Fan (learned by the Prince's servant).
- Talespinner got the southerners in to speak with the Queen. They promised him knowledge of illusions, but it all went horribly awry and he feels terrible about it.
- Lijuan is the heir to the Bear Emperors (learned by someone that nobody has found anything out about at all).
- Shen-Ji is looking for a Southern God to talk to (learned by Madame Tsen).
Then, in drift, the Queen ends up speaking to the Man in Red Robes, which ends the party.
Both the mook team and the party have enough Official Secrets to get permission to go into the sculpture garden.
- "But we don't want another Sankara stone! Xiao Fa will be mad!"
- "No, Xiao Fa will be mad if we give another Sankara stone to some hapless dupe."
Most of the party rushes off to change clothes and pick up their adventuring supplies and pandas, so they get to the sculpture garden after the bad guys have gone in.
Then, there is a hedge maze with sculptures! Real, non-symbolic sculptures!
A bronze statue of a guardian lion, with one foot on a golden sphere carved in intricate detail
Wei Han, Lijuan and Shen-Ji all look closely at the sphere, and find it difficult to tear themselves away, as there is so much interesting to see. Merit, once he hears that, peers at the sphere too. Wei Han is able to pull himself away once he looks at the North Wall for a little while.
However, once half the party is stuck staring at the golden sphere, the rest start worrying about how to extract them. Once someone is fully entranced, they tend to push away minor distractions like people's hands.
Anto thinks about how to unbind them, and figures out that doing enough damage to distract them may be the quickest way. He punches Merit, who comes to his senses and dodges. Shen-Ji is still mesmerized, though.
- "I've been looking for an excuse to beat up Shen-Ji for years." -Anto
- "We all have." -Cai Wen
Shuyan tickles Shen-Ji with her phoenix feather - Ka-Pow squawks and wakes him up. Hooray! On to the next statue!
A willow tree, blowing in an unfelt wind. Near the trunk is the statue of a young boy, dancing, one foot raised, carved in white stone. His head is back and his eyes are shut, but there are cuts visible on his arms and legs.
Anto dances to the center of the tree, dodging the willow leaves, which turn out to be as sharp as swords. With the Monkey Talisman, it is not too impossible. When he touches the trunk, a willow sword comes away in his hand:
Lijuan tries to do first aid to the statue, but ends up taking damage herself from the sharp leaves, and, as it turns out, first aid does not fix statues.
Shuyan dances in, and gets a sword as well:
Shuyan and Anto are both trapped by the trunk, but happily, Shuyan is the healer, and can patch them up before they brave the leaves again. Anto tries to use leaping flame to go straight out, but this proves foolish, as this is neither dancing nor dodging, and while he does get out very quickly, it is not without taking the full 60 damage.
- "Are there any charges left in that snake?" -Anto
A dark stone statue of a monk, deep in meditation.
Anto tries meditating here, but doesn't find it particularly enlightening. Min Feng approaches the monk, but it doesn't seem to get any closer, while everyone else gets farther away. Wei Han backs towards the monk, and when he bumps into Min Feng and turns to look at the monk, is still no closer. Shen-Ji throws a pebble at it, which bounces off. Hmm. Wei Han tries to walk back to the party, but doesn't get any closer to them. This could be a problem. Shuyan tries to touch Min Feng with her snake, but can't reach them, and pulling the snake back is hard.
Anto has a clever idea, and takes a piece of Lijuan's string. He holds one end while she holds the other, and walks around the edge of the circular area, getting no closer to the monk. But when he reaches the far end, the string goes by Wei Han and Min Feng. Wei Han tries to pull himself along the string to the monk, and it promptly breaks, but Min Feng can follow the string back towards the original group. Tying the pieces of broken string together, Anto repeats his original plan, and Wei Han can get out again. The group leaves the monk statue behind, with deep suspicion.
A mosaic in delicate jet and moonstone, depicting two koi fish, circling each other endlessly.
This seems a much better place to meditate than near Zeno's Monk. Merit demands that everyone not meditate at the same time, but he, Shen-Ji, and Cai Wen meditate and receive some amount of understanding from the universe.
Rank upon rank upon rank upon rank of terra cotta soldiers stand here. It isn't clear how they fit in this small space in the garden.
People try to count the soldiers, but they can't see all the way to the back. Shen-Ji thinks that each rank has a different style and a different uniform, as if they were made at different times. (Merit memorizes some of the uniforms, which look like Strand military rather than Dragon Army). They're some sort of "serpent magic". Anto tries to figure out if they're bound here somehow, but thinks that they're secreted here, which is subtly different. Anto suggests that Merit try to lead them away, but Merit is not sure the Queen will approve of her art (or her secret army) being removed.
Shuyan tries the "boss serpent" shtick on one, and, three karma later, the soldier opens its eyes.
- "HOW MAY I SSSSERVE YOU?"
Shuyan tells the statue to protect her until she leaves the garden.
A jade statue of a large man, expression placid and serene. Beneath his carved skin, odd shapes bulge out - a claw, a sharp edge, a coil. Despite the oddities of his shape, his expression is one of perfect peace.
Anto thinks that this is a very very powerful trap for spirits and demons, and that there are a number of scary and major entities bound inside. Smashing would definitely let them out.
- "The last time we let spirits out of a cage, they tried to kill us." -Merit
Everyone except Anto really really wants to leave it alone, and he is persuaded to leave.
An obelisk, carved in yellow marble. Each of the four sides bears an inscription, each in a different (and unfamiliar) language.
Merit memorizes the inscriptions, and several other people make rubbings. The obelisk appears to be quite ancient, and Merit's best guess is that the languages on them are about as related to Xiang as Xiang and Senatali are (which is to say, not a whole lot), but they are more closely related to each other than they are to Xiang and Senatali.
A woman, looking resigned but resolved, carved in grey stone, weathered with age. In her stone hands, clutched tightly, is a Sankara Stone.
Surrounding the statue are the six powerful Southern priests previously disguised as unnamed mooks, doing a ritual. (Hey! Their disguise was pretty good, given that it allowed mook-only shticks to work on them. Merit has in theory recruited one of them as an informant.)
Combat ensues - both the panda and the terra cotta warrior prove to do 100 points of damage in a blow, though Kawaii seems just as interested in killing Zhuai instead if Lijuan will just give permission.
The combat is pretty tough, and Cai Wen is knocked out before the priests are all slain. Their holy symbols identify them as priests of Maya, but they do not have any particularly valuable loot other than that. The statue appears to be very weathered, as if it was partially worn away by the ritual.
Then, there is much discussion about what to do with the stone (which appears to be the Stone of Agni). The garden is a nice safe place, but the enemy knows where it is now. It wasn't trivial for them to get in, but they did manage. But the party doesn't want it! Maybe they should talk to the Queen and see if she will solve things for them? Should they leave half the party in the garden just in case the Queen says "I'm just going to leave it there and not worry about it?"
In the end, they decide the Queen will not likely say something quite so foolish, so they all go to talk to her (and the terra cotta soldier returns to its brethren).
The bodies of the Southerners are given to the guards, and the party brings the holy symbols to give the Queen. Merit briefs her about the stone being held by the statue, and how if the Southerners get it, bad things will happen.
- "Then I will take steps to protect it."
Hmm. She doesn't seem inclined to detail all the steps she is planning to take, or assign any of them to the party.
- "Can we aid you in this time of distress?" -Merit
- "I have had several unpleasant visits, and wish to clear my mind." -the Queen, with a tone of dismissal.
- "Well... if you ever need the services of an adventuring party, just ask." -Merit
The group rats out Talespinner Cho-Sun, and the Queen says ominously that she will discuss the matter with him. In recompense, she gives them a minor secret - the one in red robes is named Yama.
Then, everyone is dismissed for real, just in time to put on the Nine Terraces circus performance, in which Wei Han shows off a new wrestling move and puts in a little ad for Master Wu's Unbreakable Grasp. Cai Wen gives him a sidelong glance - that's not normally part of the show. Then, Lijuan gets eighteen successes on her archery roll, and the crowd again goes wild. Zhuai appears to be good for something, apparently.
- Takanata and Lijuan and a dead fish go to visit the Golden Spire.