Volume 1, Chapter 15: Flame

(They really are growing here.)

She made a joyful look, holding the laundry basket in one hand.

There was red pine growing in the pine forest near the east gate.
The inner palace was generally vigilant in the control of the garden. Also, the pine forest drops its dead branches and leaves once a year, which created the ideal conditions for the growth of a certain mushroom.

What she was holding onto was the rare mushroom with the spreading conical cap, the matsutake.
While there were people that dislike its scent, it was Maomao’s favourite food. She greatly enjoyed cutting it up into four, grilling on a mesh, and eating it with salt and squeezed citrus.

It was a small forest, but as they are often found growing in groups, her basket contained five matsutake mushrooms.

(Shall I eat it at the uncle’s place? Or shall I eat it in the kitchen?)

If she were to eat at the Jade Palace, she might be asked where she sourced the ingredients. Things like harvesting things from the forest, might just be something a palace lady shouldn’t do.

And so, she headed for the soft-hearted court physician who was a good person but useless at his job. If he liked the mushroom, then it’s good. And even if he hated it, he will overlook it for her.

 

 

 

Along the way, she also didn’t forget to stop by Shaoran’s place. She was a precious source of information for Maomao who didn’t have many friends.

Maomao, who had lost weight from nursing Consort Rifa, was made fat again by her senior maids when she returned. Because she was at the rival consort’s place for two months, she was both happy and troubled about it. Her basket would be unmanageably full from the mooncakes and biscuits she received from every tea party.

Shaoran’s eyes always shone at no matter how much sweet stuff she ate, and she would always talk to Maomao during her short breaks.

As usual, there were a lot of stories that sound like questionable ghost stories but-

“A palace lady from the imperial court used a love potion and ensnared the stubborn woman-hating military official.”

Somehow, she broke out in cold sweat when she heard the fresh gossip.

(Yeah, that probably has nothing to do with me. Probably.)

Come to think of it, she had a feeling that she heard nothing at all about who was using it.

The inner palace was inside the imperial court that was outside of here.

It was the section with actual men. A place with a high ratio of star occupations.

By the way, here was the section without actual men. A lonely workplace.

 

 

 

At the medical office, besides the loach moustache old man, was an unfamiliar pale-faced eunuch.
He kept rubbing his hands for some reason.

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“Oh hey, lass. Just as I wanted to see you,” the quack doctor said.

“What is it?” Maomao asked.

“It looks like his hands have developed a rash. Can you make a salve for me?” he said.

In no way could those be the words of the one who controls the medicine of inner palace.
Well, as it’s the usual, she went to the room with the medicine shelves next door.

Before that, she set down the basket and took out the matsutake. “Do you have charcoal and stuff?”

“Ohh, you brought some splendid things. It would be good if we have sauce and salt.”

It was early to talk about his favourite foods. With a merry bounce in his steps, he went to the dining hall to pick up some seasoning for her–

–pathetically leaving behind his patient as he is.

(I’ll give him one if he doesn’t hate it.)

She thought about the poor eunuch as she stiffly mixed the ingredients.

When the quack doctor came back with seasoning, charcoal and a grill mesh, she was just finished with making the viscous salve.

Taking hold of the eunuch’s right hand, she carefully smeared the salve onto his red rash. She had to endure the smell as it was somewhat strong.
Colour seemed to have returned to his pale face for a bit when she finished applying the medicine.

“Ohhh, what a kind maidservant,” the eunuch said.

“I know right. She oft’ helps me,” the quack doctor replied.

The two eunuchs conversed without a care.
Eunuchs, according to the times, are treated as bad people who are filled with a lust for power, but in truth, those were only a small handful. Most of them have calm personalities like this.

(But there are exceptions.)

She made an unpleasant face and promptly erased it.

She set the charcoal on fire, placed the mesh and added the matsutake she picked by hand. She cut the sudachi citrus that she had wilfully stolen from the orchard again.

She served it on a plate once the peculiar fragrance reached her nose and they were a little charred. She then enjoyed it seasoned with salt and sudachi.

The moment the two old men placed it in their mouths, she determined them as accomplices.

As Maomao chewed, the quack doctor was chatting in a carefree manner. “The lass is helpful because she can do anything. She made a lot of medicine aside from the salves for me.”

“Hoooh, how wonderful,” said the eunuch.

She was somewhat troubled by the fact that he was treating her as if she was his own daughter.

Suddenly, she was reminded of her dad who she hadn’t seen for more than half a year.

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A tiny bit unsettled by the strong feelings, the quack doctor really said the improper things that a quack doctor would say. “Ahh, there aren’t medicines you can’t make, right?”

(Huh?)

Before she told him to stop with the false advertising, the eunuch before her reacted. “Anything?”

“Anything.” the quack doctor huffed in pride. Ahh, it’s the way the quack doctor did things.

“Then, can you make medicine that can break curses?” the man said while rubbing his inflamed right hand.

Colour had returned to his pale face some time ago.

○●○

It was something from the evening of yesterday.
His work finished with the cleaning up the rubbish as usual.

Rubbish from all over the inner palace is collected in a cart and incinerated on the west side.
It was originally forbidden to light a fire after the evenings, but since there was no wind and the air was humid, it was approved with no issues.

The low-ranking officials threw the rubbish into the hole.
He devoted himself like the others, so he could quickly finish his job.

Suddenly, something in the cart caught his eye.

A woman’s clothes.
Although it wasn’t silk, it was of fine quality. It would be a waste to throw it out.

He held it up, thinking, What’s the deal with this? It was then he saw that there were loose wooden slips bundled up inside it.
There was a large scorch mark on the cuff of the clothing that wrapped it.

Just what is this all about?

His work would not finish even if he held his head in doubt.
The wooden slips were picked out one by one and thrown into the fire in the hole.

○●○

“And in doing so, the flames blew up into a gust and changed into a weird colour,” the eunuch said.

“Ahh.” The old man’s shoulders trembled, looking dreadful from his reminiscence.

“Were the colours red, purple and green?” Maomao asked.

“That’s right,” the eunuch affirmed.

Maomao nodded in understanding.


Did the rumour she heard from Shaoran today come from here?

(It’s already spread to here even though it’s a story from the west side?)

It was true that the palace ladies’ rumours travel faster than Idaten(Japanese name of Buddhist Guardian deity, Skanda, who is known to be a really fast runner).

“That’s the curse of the consort who died in a fire a long time ago. I knew it was wrong to light a fire at night. That’s why it turned out like this.” It seemed that the rash on the eunuch’s hand was from after seeing that flame. “Hey, girl. Make me a medicine that will break the curse.”

“That sort of medicine doesn’t exist.” After declaring that coldly, she got up from her seat and went to rummage in the medicine shelves next door.

Giving a backward glance at the flustered quack doctor and the old man, she put something on the table. There were several powders, and then pieces of wooden slips.

“That flame. Was it this colour?” She added the wooden slips onto the charcoal, and after confirming that they were lit, she scooped up some white powder with a medicine spoon and added it to the fire.
The orange fire turned red.

“If not that then, this?” After she added a different powder, it turned green.

“I can do even this.” When she added a pinch of salt that been on the matsutake, it turned yellow.

“Lass, what in the world was that?” The quack doctor asked astonishment.

“It’s the same as coloured fireworks. Just that the colour changes according to what is burnt,” she replied.

There were firework makers among the guests of the roukaku(A multi-storeyed building, kind of looks like a pagoda). A secret technique that stays on the premises even change into talk inside the sleeping quarters. They also didn’t know that there were children waking up from their sleep next door.

“Then, what is with my hand? Is it not due to the curse?” the eunuch asked.

Maomao presented him the white powder. “A rash can break out if you touch this with your bare hands. If it wasn’t for that, they wouldn’t paint lacquer onto the wooden slips. Either way, isn’t your skin weak to these?”

“…is that what it was?” He slumped down as if he lost his bones. His face was a mix of surprise and relief.

It must have been on the wooden slips. Burning that will birth colourful flames.
That was all it was.

(Why is it again just that kind of thing–)

Maomao’s thoughts were interrupted.
She heard clapping.

“Well done.” There was a detestable guest standing there unnoticed.

He was smiling with that unchanging heavenly smile of his.

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