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“It’s gotten really hot, hasn’t it.”
It was the quack doctor who was relaxing with his feet submerged in a bucket he filled with water. He respectfully used a medical book as a substitute fan.
“It’s going to get hotter still.”
Maomao set the laundry basket down on the medical office desk.
They were still in the rainy season – it was going to get warmer from here on. Though, maybe because it’s damp and humid, she totally understood how gross it was.
The coming season, due to the high humidity, was the source of Maomao’s annoyance.
When she realised it, the medicinal herbs she took the trouble of drying were also going to get damp, and if she was careless, the herbs will also grow mould.
It was a melancholic season.
So because of that, the reason Maomao turned up at the medical office was-
“Oh, lass. What are ya doing?”
The quack doctor said, facing Maomao who took something out from the laundry basket.
“I’m not doing nothing.”
What Maomao took out were a complete set of cleaning tools and all the bamboo charcoal she could cram inside the basket.
“Let’s clean up, this room.”
It was impermissible for the valuable medicines to get mouldy. Maomao came here for that reason.
The quack doctor’s face darkened at a breath.
The quack doctor wasn’t a bad person. Rather, he was a good-natured person.
Though that had nothing to do with being a good worker, Maomao thought.
The interior of the room the quack doctor was stationed in was a medicine storage. Three walls of medicine shelves stuffed to the full, this place was Sukhavati(Buddhist Term: Means “Possessing happiness” in Sanskrit. The Western Paradise.) for Maomao, but it wasn’t that she was always satisfied with it.
It had many medicines in reserve, but it was the quack doctor who used them. With them not being used periodically, it wasn’t seldom to find them covered in dust or eaten by bugs.
And so, this season was the greatest enemy for dried goods. If they are neglected for even a bit, they’ll soon get mouldy.
It wasn’t that Maomao liked cleaning.
There were many times she visited the medical office to kill time, she didn’t have a reason to help here either.
But, she can’t not do it.
Fired up with that sense of duty, Maomao brandished the duster.
“Lass, you don’t have to trouble yourself with this. You can just leave the cleaning to someone else.”
Because the dispirited quack doctor said such a thing, she inadvertently looked at him with the eyes she normally faced Jinshi. Putting it simply, it was like she was gazing at a puddle of water teeming with mosquito larvae.
(Not good, not good.)
Although he was a quack doctor, he was a superior official. Just in case, officially, she must not attend to him without sincerity. If not, he might not give out rice crackers the next time she comes in.
The snacks of the inner palace had too many sweet things – getting less salty stuff was not good.
“I’m fine with leaving it to someone else, but what would happen if the medicines get switched with something else?”
The quack doctor was silenced.
That saying, Maomao coming here now to clean as she pleased was also a problem, but let’s keep silent about that. She won’t get driven out.
Maomao, to clear out the dust, opened up the shelves one by one and wipe down the insides. She threw away the things that had clearly gone off and wrote down their names on wooden slips. She rewrapped the medicines in new wrapping paper and put them back.
(They use such nice paper.)
Paper that can be preserved for long periods of time are expensive. The paper that appeared on the market are inferior goods that are usually discarded soon after being used. On top of its one-time usage, it cannot be preserved either, so it is often the case that the masses opt to use wooden slips entirely. A lot of firewood appear on the market. There are some among those that are chopped thinly for easy kindling. People use those. Those are just used as kindle afterwards.
In the past, they even exported paper to foreign countries, but the previous emperor, no, his mother the empress, had prohibited the felling of lumber that were the raw material for fine quality paper. Currently, the prohibition had been relaxed to a restriction, but even so, the amount wasn’t sufficient.
Why did the empress prohibit the felling of lumber? In those days, it was said the officials who were reckless enough to ask about it were no longer around.
And so, it was still restricted nowadays. What could the reason be? Maomao wondered.
Therefore, currently, except for a portion of high-class items, paper was made from other types of wood, grass and rags. With the quantity not to the extent as lumber, and with the manufacturing also taking time and effort, it was expensive. Consequently, due to the inferior goods from skimping in the manufacturing process, the popularity of paper – being just expensive and unusable – wasn’t good in town.
Though paper was more convenient, the rate of circulation being not half was because of the above reasons.
“You done? Lass?”
The quack doctor raised his voice happily at Maomao who took a break.
“No, there’s half left.”
It couldn’t be done in a day because of the extensive varieties of medicine. Maomao left the remainder for tomorrow.
The charcoal she brought in was to absorb the moisture in the room. Since that still wasn’t enough, she got the quack doctor to order additional stock.
Well then, it was when Maomao was about to leave.
A girl, who was probably around Maomao’s age, waited at the front of the medical office. Though she was tall, she had somehow childish features.
(What place’s maidservant is this?)
The clothes she wore were simple, but it wasn’t something distributed in the inner palace. If that was the case, she decided that she must be working directly under a consort.
At least, it was a face that Maomao has never seen before.
Maomao looked at the unfamiliar palace lady with slightly squinted eyes.
Unexpectantly, the palace lady stared back at her with a head tilt. Maomao feigned ignorance.
(Could it be my imagination? I’m feeling a bit of déjà vu.)
The quack doctor who came out from inside started to jog over with an “Oh?”. Then he took out a cloth bag from the top of the shelves in the room and passed it over to the girl who was waiting.
“Thank you very much.”
The palace lady courteously relayed her thanks. Her voice was somewhat shrill.
The quack doctor waved at the leaving palace lady with a smile.
The quack doctor was the sole court physician in the inner palace, but he is working and doing nothing.
“Ahh, that child is a palace lady from the Consort-sama who had come in recently. It seems she knows a little about medicine just like you.”
Then she doesn’t rely on the quack doctor and makes her dose by just bringing back ingredients, Maomao comprehended.
The quack doctor thumped his back tiredly as he rummaged through the shelves to prepare snacks. He poured fruit juice from a ceramic sake bottle and brought it over.
“It’s sweet food that’s the best when you’re tired.”
He said, and passed the mashed sweet potatoes he had split with a bamboo spoon and served on paper to Maomao.
(This old man is well to do huh.)
It was the case that he was using sweet potatoes that were unusual that you can’t obtain in this season to make mash, but then he served it on fine quality paper instead of a plate like it was natural.
Maomao picked up the sweet potato mash and ate it up, and gazed at the round grease marks on the paper. Even if the surface was smooth, it was very good paper.
“You use good paper here.”
“Oh, you know?”
She had meant to say it off-handedly, but the quack doctor piped in.
“My family made this. It’s distributed in the imperial court. Isn’t that amazing!”
This, being served on this here would be because of that.
At any rate, it is not flattery that this is good paper, Maomao thought. The wrapping paper used in Maomao’s pharmacy that she chose to buy each time was relatively decent among the worn inferior goods. She wanted the sort of paper that allowed protection against moisture and spillage, but it can’t be helped considering the quality of customers. She had to cut the cost of things aside from medicine. She’ll lose the means of livelihood otherwise.
(I wonder if I can get a discount as acquaintances.)
Maomao drank the juice as she considered something sneaky. The lukewarm sweetness passed down her throat. This doesn’t suit my tastes, she thought, and decided to boil water and brew some tea. Since the medical office always had a fire going, that was convenient.
“We were bunched in villages and made paper. For a period of time, there was also a time where we considered discontinuing our work but it was good since we somehow made a living with it.”
The quack doctor, without her even asking, started his talking piece by piece.
In the past, they earned money by just making paper. That’s why they steadily felled lumber and finely crushed that wood into pulp, and devoted themselves to making paper. Since it was more profitable to sell to foreign countries than domestically, paper was steadily exported as trade goods. When the quack doctor was a child, he said that they had prospered to the point of being able to buy whatever sweet snacks he wanted.
However, as if that wasn’t allowed, they incurred the empress’ anger and then could no longer fell lumber for materials. As a last resort, they used different materials to make paper, but those were inferior goods. By even getting the merchants angry, their work came to an end from thereon.
The smooth sailing days they had up until then seemed to change suddenly. The quack doctor said his grandfather, the village chief, Do something about it, blamed the earnest villagers.
The village chief believed that it was impossible to make paper as they always did. But, everyone who couldn’t take to this reality were not meek, and intently beat down the village chief and his family in their miserable anger.
Maomao listened as she triumphantly poured tea into a bowl.
“I was lonely when my older sister left for the inner palace.”
The village was built in a place suitable for making paper, but when they couldn’t do that, that place had no use. They were determined to migrate, but the wherewithal was insufficient.
That time, since the inner palace was seeking palace ladies, he said his older sister left.
“She said that ‘I am going to become the empress dowager’ with a smile, but in the end, I couldn’t meet her again.”
The problem even with a new plot of land was knowing what to do with the equipment. They needed more wherewithal, and then, following the older sister, even the younger sister started to talk about going to the inner palace.
“Since there was nothing we can do, I decided to go.”
As the inner palace expanded, the number of eunuchs had to increase. He said that eunuchs which had fewer suitable people were sold for higher than palace ladies.
(He had more troubles than I thought.)
As Maomao thought that, she drank up the tea.
They did as much cleaning as they could, to the point where dirty places couldn’t be seen. They finished cleaning the shelves on the second day, but the next place of concern was the room next door.
The quack doctor cleaned relatively diligently, but the trivial places didn’t reach his eyes. While they were removing the cobweb from the ceiling and thoroughly blowing up the walls, the third day ended, and what followed was the maintenance of the tools.
There were a lot more tools that she had expected. Of all things, it seems the quack doctor locked away all the tools he didn’t really use in a single room.
(Just how wasteful is that.)
Thinking that it was clear that the room next door wasn’t used at all, Maomao believed that there was a mountain of treasure piled up inside. There were also quite a lot of medical books. Maomao looked pleased, so the quack doctor reluctantly decided to tidy up.
And so, it took seven days since she started cleaning with the pouting quack doctor.
A eunuch came around to the quack doctor who was polishing the mortar(薬研, yagen, druggist’s mortar, back and forth crushing wheel) with his brows bent to a へ shape. Wondering what it was, he received the message.
“Oh, this is-”
The quack doctor thought, I’m going to slack off now, and cheerily unfolded the letter.
“Who is it from?”
Maomao tried asking, merely for lip service.
“It’s from my younger sister.”
The quack doctor looked at the rough paper. Maomao thought the surface of the paper was like laver. It also looked like the inferior goods you see in town.
(If I remember correctly, he said that they made paper.)
Are failed inferior goods good enough to give out since they’re relatives, she thought, and—.
The quack doctor, his face an expression of surprise, was reading as if he was eating into the page.
Is something up? Maomao stood to his side, and the quack doctor drooped his shoulders, crestfallen. And then, just like that, he slumped on the chair, and while hanging his head, threw the letter on the table.
“We might have to desist from being the purveyor.”
Saying it simply, that was written there.
A few days ago, he was just boasting to Maomao. That his family produced paper for the imperial court.
“How could this be? Even though they said they can now make a lot more paper after so long.”
Whether attached to the name purveyor or not, hereafter, the amount sold would change greatly. It was the people of the elite who use high-class paper, they should be weak to the words purveyor.
“By saying you made a lot, does it mean you economised the labour?”
While tilting her head, Maomao felt the stiff surface of the paper.
“No such thing. They were worked up saying that they bought cows, so they can use them with the manufacturing. What is different between doing it with manpower to when you are doing it with cows?”
On making paper, there is a lot of work. Even if they switched to cows, what would come of it?
“But, as far as I can see, I didn’t believe they made something that could be distributed in the imperial court though.”
Maomao fluttered the letter that the quack doctor had received.
Coarse paper would end up ripping from just getting a bit wet. On the contrary, the surface got fluffy, and the brush strokes were extremely hard to read.
She looked at the quack doctor who sank into silence. It seems he recognised that it was inferior goods.
“…what’s up with that?”
The quack doctor rested his head on the table.
Maomao polished the mortar earnestly, thinking Now isn’t the time to clean huh, while she observed the surface of the paper.
The inferior goods that circulate in town had a lot of impurities and are mostly rough with plant fibres. Maybe it was made without being finely pulped, due to that, the glue doesn’t dry properly and crumbles.
However, looking at this, it seems the fibres are crushed evenly. She recognised that the thickness also had no unevenness, and carefully spread and dried. Despite this, the surface was fluffy, and if you pull at the corners it’ll easily be torn.
Maomao reread the letter, her head tilted.
The manufacturing process hasn’t changed from the past, it was written that the materials were properly used as they always did. What should we do? It was a message of a younger sister who depended on her older brother, but unfortunately, it seems the older brother who became half a man could only be flustered.
“How was this traditional manufacturing process done?”
Maomao finished polishing the mortar and returned it to the shelf. She lit the kettle to take a break.
“It’s the same technique as to how you make paper normally. Though, our village is particular about the way the materials were crushed and the making of the glue. I won’t say that though.”
(This is where you stop running your mouth huh.)
While Maomao thought, she took out a tea caddy from the shelf. What tea is good? She fished around and chanced on arrowroot inside. Maomao took that out and added it to the teacup. She relit the kettle to boil the water again.
“Were you also particular about things like water?”
“Yeah. So that the glue hardens moderately, we draw spring water to properly regulate the temperature. Anything else is a secret.”
He really is a quack doctor, Maomao thought, putting down the teacup once again. She poured in the piping hot water, and before the water cooled she mixed the contents with all her might with the spoon. The gloopy liquid is completed.
The arrowroot tea(葛湯, kuzuyu, arrowroot tea or kudzu starch gruel. Arrowroot powder is starchy ground up kudzu/arrowroot. You add hot water and mix it to get this sweet liquid that has a clear honey-like consistency. The powder is also used as a thickening agent in cooking.) is completed.
“Is the glue from boiling rice starch water?”
“No, we make sure to add wheat flour. Since clumping is bad.”
The quack doctor said then held his mouth.
Maomao was fine with either starch water or wheat flour.
Maomao set the arrowroot tea she made before the quack doctor,
“Then, where do you raise the cows?”
“I don’t know that much.”
Although the quack doctor made a face as if to say Why is it arrowroot tea again, he started to lick the piping hot tea. Since the tea was gooey and highly viscous, it stuck to the teacup and he couldn’t drink it properly.
“Lass, you, mixed up the ratio. You can’t drink it now.”
Maomao passed a spoon over to the protesting quack doctor.
“My apologies. Then, I’ll tell you a way how you can drink it easily, so can you copy me?”
“What do you want me to do?”
Maomao held the spoon she was holding into her mouth and licked it, and thrust that into the teacup and stirred it up. She repeated that several times.
“That’s kinda bad manners.”
Though the quack doctor grimaced, he copied her. As he repeatedly put the spoon in his mouth and mixed with it several times, he noticed a change.
“It’s not gloopy anymore.”
“It’s like water.”
Maomao said, looking at the face of admiration.
“Arrowroot tea and glue, you know, they are very similar.”
“It’s not that it’s not similar. If you mix it with saliva, glue also stops being gloopy.”
“That’s what it is.”
The quack doctor gaped his mouth in surprise.
“What do you mean, that’s what it is?”
The quack doctor, who was bad at guessing, tilted his head as he mixed the teacup.
(I even told him that much.)
Should I let him guess again, Maomao thought as she, just one more time, decided to teach him.
“Cows, you know. Their mouths collect a lot of saliva, right?”
“Now that you mention it.”
“How about you check where they drink water? Just in case.”
I’m not going to say anymore, Maomao packed away the teacup and decided to hurry up in returning to the Jade Palace.
The quack doctor seemed to have finally realised it. He wrote something on a piece of paper, and hastily left the medical office to send out a message.
(I wonder if we will finish cleaning tomorrow.)
Maomao thought as she sent off the hurrying plump eunuch.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.