Maomao listened in a daze as the stories went on in succession. Infa, sitting to her left, was clutching her hand and whenever there was something, she drew close clinging.
(She’s still growing huh, no, has she stopped?)
She thought that with the sensation of it pressing up against her. During that, the turns had passed to the person beside her.
Maomao rubbed her sleepy eyes. She was somehow sluggish and sleepy. There were ten-odd people gathered in the small room. Everyone must have paid attention to their body odour and all lit incenses. Maomao, who had a good sense of smell, became slightly intoxicated.
Shisui took down the cloth she covered up to her head and brought the fire to her face. Her face that was comparatively young for her height, was plain, but had a strange intensity when illuminated by the flickering flame.
“This is a story from a distant country in the east.”
Shisui deepened her innocent voice as she began her tale. Her intonation gradually changed from a young girl to a wizened narrator.
In a certain country, there was a famous monk. The feudal lord of the neighbouring country had passed away; he was going there to hold a memorial service. This was what happened during his journey back home.
He needed to cross two mountains to reach his own temple. Since it wasn’t a journey that he could make in a single day, the monk decided to stay at a lodging.
His journey there was good. The weather was clear, and the travel was quite favourable. Along the way, a well-known monk was letting him stay in his temple.
Did I make a mistake?
The monk thought. He should be following the same path as the journey there, but his legs were strangely heavy on his return. He hadn’t reached the temple he was staying in tonight that he was expected to reach two thirds to the sun setting.
The monk was in the pursuit of knowledge. He didn’t have followers with him. He didn’t have a horse either.
His surroundings were plains that were full of pampas grass, even if he were to camp, he could hear stray dogs howling. He wasn’t one to endure being attacked by a group.
The monk who was walking quickly chanced upon an old private house. He ceased his steps and knocked on the door of the thatched house.
Excuse me. May have I have a bit of your attention?
It was a young couple who came out. The monk talked about his circumstances and asked if he could stay for a single night. Even the corner of a shed was fine.
Oh my, in that case, you must be tired from your travels.
The young wife welcomed the monk. This is nothing much, the eggplant and cucumber she took out were very much delicious.
In response to that, the husband stared at the monk with a dubious look.
It can’t be helped that the traveller nonchalantly stepped into the house of the young couple.
The monk had few things on hand. He only happened to have the barest minimum for his travels.
Despite this, the couple treated him as a guest and prepared a bed in a different room.
While thinking he was thankful for the soft futon, the monk wondered if there was anything he could do.
And then, what he could do, thinking that he could provide them sutras, he began to chant.
Usually, he would be deep in concentration from the beginning to the end of his chanting, but today he was strangely conscious of the sounds outside.
Aside from the sounds of the pampas grass swaying in the wind, he heard something that sounded like a bell.
As the monk chanted the sutra, he listened intently.
In doing so, he understood that the bell sounds were human voices.
What are you doing, my dear?
It was the voice of wife of this house.
I’m not doing anything. Isn’t this fine?
The bell-like voice was the husband’s.
What a strange voice, the monk thought. However, he never stopped chanting even once.
You can’t do that, my dear. I don’t want to be alone.
The wife raised her voice.
It seems they were speaking without intending to be heard, but the monk’s hearing was more superior to people. While thinking that it wasn’t good to strain his ears, he tried to concentrate on his sutra, but he heard the voices still.
Even if you plan for that, it was I who did it.
What are you going to do?
A chill ran down the monk’s spine.
Should he stop his sutra and go stop the two-quarrelling people? Or should he?
No, don’t stop the sutra. It’s better to not stop. Why, the monk thought.
Why is that? His entire body was chilled. It was like even his head that had long been smooth from being shaven were growing goosebumps.
Why is this?
Well, I’m doing it.
The badly fitted sliding screen door slid open.
There was a woman with goggling eyes holding onto a hatchet.
The monk only moved his eyeballs, his mouth continued to chant the sutra.
Where did he go, that monk?
The woman crossed the front of the monk with a rustling sound.
However, she didn’t notice the monk.
Where is he? Did he run away?
The woman left the room.
The stretched shadowed made a strange shape. At the very least, it wasn’t a shadow that could be considered as human. It overlapped with a yet another strange shadow.
Search, you, go search. If you don’t, if you don’t.
The woman was impatient. What was she impatient about?
He heard a bell ringing.
What continued that sound was a chewing sound like crumpling paper.
The chewing sound continued.
During that, the monk continued to chant the sutra.
He chanted, and with the ending of the sound, he went outside.
He didn’t greet the young couple, he didn’t make eye contact with them, he went out of the house.
The wings of a pale brown insect fell.
The insect sounds he heard from the pampas grass, disappeared.
The monk put his hands together over the tattered insect wings, and while chanting the sutra, continued to walk until daybreak.
The delivery of the story is important, Maomao thought.
Everyone was engrossed in Shisui’s story.
She usually spoke in an innocent manner, but she was truly like a different person when she was telling a story. From the side, even her face that was illuminated by the flame looked like a different person.
(I have a feeling that I actually have seen her before.)
She had also thought it before, but she still couldn’t recall who.
As Maomao absentmindedly gazed at Shisui’s side profile, the girl grinned and looked at her. The girl blew out the candle in her hands, placed the oil and wick inside the brazier and put it away.
“Next, you’re next.”
Shisui smiled sweetly.
Ah, that’s right, Maomao nodded. If she came to such a place, she must also tell a story.
(What should I tell?)
Honestly, Maomao didn’t believe in these things. Therefore, since an interesting story didn’t occur to her, as a last resort, she decided to tell a story she heard from her dad a long time ago.
“This is something from a couple of decades ago. There is a story of the will-of-the-wisps coming out of graves.”
Maybe because Maomao was the speaker, Infa scooted away from Maomao and covered herself with the cloth with only her eyes showing.
“Saying it is really strange, there were brave young people who went to seek the real form of the will-of-the-wisps. And in doing so,”
Infa looked at Maomao with her lips in a zigzag. If you’re scared, you should just cover your eyes, Maomao thought.
Unfortunately, Maomao’s story wasn’t the ghost story that people were anticipating.
“There was no such thing. It was the men who lived in the same town who went to the graveyard. The wavering lights were only what someone had called the will-of-the-wisp.”
Was that all, Infa sighed in relief.
“They only just disturbed the grave for a bit.”
With a thump, Infa’s forehead collided onto Maomao’s shoulder. Infa’s gaze bore into Maomao.
“Grave disturbing, you say.”
“Yes. Like they were falling into a questionable curse, they mashed human guts and coated their bodies with it…”
With yet another thump, this time Infa’s forehead hit Maomao’s forehead.
As Maomao rubbed her forehead, she finished the tale with a “That is all.”
Infa’s turn was next, but she finished it incoherently, and then it was the final candle that was left.
The palace lady who had welcomed them at the start was waiting with the final candle.
The palace ladies were lined-up in a way where there was one in each of the four points with two people between them. There should be twelve people altogether.
But, didn’t this palace lady mention at the beginning that there were “Thirteen stories”?
What is that supposed to mean? Maomao wondered.
The palace lady told a story from the era of the previous emperor.
It was a story of a girl who became one of the handfuls of mistresses among the overly increased number of palace ladies.
It just couldn’t come to head. She was dizzy.
In a daze, Maomao looked at the brazier that was set in front of her.
The palace lady said some scary punch, everyone was shuddering, but Maomao didn’t hear it properly.
“Well then, and this is the thirteenth’s story.”
When the palace lady was going to hand it to the next, it was when the brazier, the final fire, was going to fall.
Maomao stood up and went to open the closed window.
Infa went to stop Maomao, but Maomao wasn’t going to stop there.
Wind suddenly rushed in; the cloths everyone was wearing fluttered.
Maomao breathed in the newly entered air and breathed out.
(I thought my mind was blank.)
The extinguished fire was put into the brazier. There was coal inside. The fire that remained continued burning there.
In a small enclosed room, coal was burning with incomplete combustion. If that was completed, what would happen?
Maomao rushed over to the senseless palace lady who was among those who were encircling the brazier and slapped her face a couple of time. She then took her to a place that has fresh air.
Seeing that, as if she grasped the situation, Infa went to help Maomao.
If you burn a fire in a place that doesn’t have enough air, it will release a gas that will harm the human body.
It seems her head was blank because of that.
(I was too slow to realise.)
While wondering why she didn’t notice it earlier, she thought that the organiser did something bad.
Maomao went towards the palace lady, but there was no one there.
“…Ah, it was just a little bit more.”
She heard that voice, but the palace lady was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, what is it about that story from just then?”
Hazily, after the closure of the event, Shisui asked.
Infa tilted her head, “Who is this child?” Shisui seemed to be happy with wearing the cloth, she continued to cover herself with it.
“The previous one, is it?”
It was the story of the will of the wisps. It seems she remembered that Maomao said that she would explain it later.
“The taboo forest thing might be a superstition. But, I can’t declare that the saying is completely impossible.”
For example, in the case that there are a lot of dangers in that forest.
The forest was abundant with food, but at the same time, it is also abundant with things cannot be eaten.
Hypothetically, what if the origins of the taboo forest saying came from that? If we take that it was a village that only had people who came from other lands.
You cannot recklessly that take the food that is there, it will damage the body. That saying, in the passing of time, could have become ‘Taboo’.
And then, simply due to them abiding by those instructions, it could become that they couldn’t differentiate between what in the forest could be eaten or not.
In which, she could make such a conjecture.
Due to the poor harvest, the starving mother and child tried to eat the bounty of the abundant forest. However, they broke the village’s law. That’s why they snuck themselves into the forest.
The evening, though there was still light, was a time where it was difficult to see your surroundings. They used that short period of time to enter the forest, and gathered mushrooms, fruits and nuts.
And then, they returned home at the same time as the sun set.
While not knowing exactly what it was that they harvested.
“There’s a mushroom that is called moonlight mushroom.”
By speaking of mushrooms, Maomao’s face twisted for an instant, but she paid no heed to it and continued speaking.
“It’s a mushroom that looked very delicious, but it is poisonous. You’ll upset your stomach if you eat it. And, as its name suggests, it has a curious trait.”
When it gets dark, it’ll cast light. Its appearance is very beautiful. So beautiful that she recalled that when she subconsciously picked it and put it in her mouth she was forced by her dad to vomit it out.
The mother and child harvested before the mushrooms glowed, and while not knowing that it glows, they walked home in the dark. The light that spilt from their basket, might have been seen as will-of-the-wisps from a distance.
And then, if they reach home and turn on the lights, the shine will go out, and if they eat that – that was how it is.
Even if it was a poison that won’t normally kill you, what would happen if they were malnourished people? The child died, and the mother died too.
And then, what the mother wanted to say at the end.
(There are delicious mushrooms in the forest.)
Was what she might have even wanted to say. As a mere revenge to the villagers who didn’t help the mother and child.
“So that’s what it is—”
Shisui, with a look of satisfaction, ruffled the cloth.
“Well then, I’m going this way—“
She pitter-pattered away like a child as she said it.
I can’t speak for others, but she has a self-willed personality, Maomao thought.
“Humph, it wasn’t something significant.”
Infa changed from the atmosphere she had up until now and largely puffed out her small chest.
“Turns out that the other stories have such a reverse side to it.”
Maomao and Infa trudged back to the Jade Palace.
“Oh, you’re back earlier than I expected.”
It was Honnyan who waited for them. She was doing needlework.
“Yes, there was a bit of a commotion.”
“My. I knew it.”
Honnyan said, understanding for some reason.
“The palace lady who did it from up until last year had died. I was worried who would take over this year.”
Honnyan put down the needle and sighed deeply.
“She was a sensible palace lady and had taken care of me as well. In the end, she ended without leaving the inner palace.”
Maomao looked at Infa’s face. Her brave face was gradually turning pale.
“Umm, who was this palace lady?”
“…This story stays here. She was a mistress of the previous emperor. I’m not really fond of this, but it is boorish to stop it if it was done for enjoyment. That’s why, you know, because she died that following year, I wondered if it would suddenly stop, but I’m happy that there are people continuing it.”
Honnyan packed up the sewing tools into the lacquered box and went to her bedroom yawning.
When she thought that she had heard something like this before, she realised that it was similar to the ghost story that the organising palace lady had told. Maomao didn’t remember the details, but, just by seeing Infa’s complexion, she could guess it was just like that.
Maomao crossed her arms and tilted her head.
There are many uncertain things in the world.
For now, it’s a relief that we finished without getting to the thirteenth story, she thought.
Just that, that night, a terrified Infa shared the bed with her. It was hot and she wasn’t able to sleep properly.
There are comments telling to show Jinshi, but he is resting until he gets over his shock. He is performing his official duties despite having lost his nerve.
T/N: Poor Jinshi haha. Well, author notes (if there are any) will be formatted like above from here on.
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.