The quack’s hometown was a village half-a-day south-west of the capital by horse-drawn carriage. She was told it was based at the foot of the mountains.
It was beyond the headwaters of the large river that divided the country into east and west. There was an irrigation channel alongside the river, but weed-like plants were growing on the fields.
When Maomao stared at it, the chatty quack explained to her.
“Wheat? The irrigation is done quite rigorously.”
There are channels constructed around the fields. Does wheat require that much water? Maomao tilted her head.
At her feet was maomao, the cat with a distasteful name. It seemed to have had enough of being inside the basket, so it was purring on the quack’s lap and peeking out the window.
“That is for rice farming use in the summertime. We produce rice and wheat. Two types a year here.”
“If it’s rice, the soil won’t get barren even if you produce other crops on the same plot of land.”
From just producing crops twice a year, nutrients will be leached out from the soil. However, when it comes rice paddies, the water would carry over nutrients, so it would be hard for the soil to become barren.
Once they came out of the fields, she could see forests. There was a village in that vicinity.
“The soil is quite fertile.”
She felt it was also fine to not make paper if it was that fertile, but could that part be wrong?
“When we moved here, the fields were already owned by other people. Because of that, they left the forest alone without looking towards it.”
She was told that as spring water flowed down from the nearby mountain, the forest has an abundance of trees growing that are the raw materials for paper. It was difficult to make large quantities of it, but they had succeeded in selling it in a high grade.
The means of transportation was also convenient as the river was close by.
However, there was one thing she was interested in.
She locked eyes with a farmer who was treading the wheat.
Was there some resentment at the act of strengthening wheat? She felt the eyes looking this way were strangely sharp and gloomy.
Maomao pretended to not have noticed and continued making sounds of hearing to the quack doctor’s talking.
When they reached the village, the person who came to greet them was an aunty in her forties. The softness of the corner of the eyes and the dropping of her brows was reminiscent of the quack. She must be the quack doctor’s younger sister.
When she received the basket with the cat, she petted maomao with squinted eyes. They must have talked about it before.
“Oh my, older brother. Welcome home.”
The quack looked calm at a glance, but his eyes had slightly welled up with tears. It must be because he was back after several decades.
“I wish to visit the graves of Father and others.”
They must have passed away while he couldn’t leave the inner palace. The quack sniffled.
“Yes, I understand. That aside,”
The aunty glanced at Maomao.
“Who is this lass?”
She said as she tilted her head.
“Oh, is that so, an assistant? Then you should have told me earlier.”
(Did I come as an assistant?)
The quack’s sister said that. Though she had mentioned her name somehow, Maomao wasn’t used to hearing it so she couldn’t remember it, honestly. Yup, it can’t be helped, so let’s call her quack aunty.
The quack’s face was accommodating, so he won’t reject that part.
The quack younger sister steadily set down side dishes on the long table. They looked delicious. There was steamed river fish with herbs, steamed buns in the steamer, and fried rice that shone gold.
There was a mixture of congee and fish purposely given to maomao. maomao was a cat, and yet she was eating voraciously and shamelessly.
“I thought that there was no way you would bring back such a young bride despite you being a eunuch.”
“Hahaha, there’s no such thing.”
“I know right.”
The time the long table was set with lots of side dishes, the quack aunty’s family showed up. There was a middle-aged man with a towel around his head, and two young men. The middle-aged man was the aunty’s husband, and she was told the rest of them were her sons.
“Brother-in-law, long time no see.”
The husband removed his head towel and reverently greeted the quack. The quack doctor smiled and replied, “It’s been a while.” Following the husband, one of the young men came to greet him. However, the other one sat in his seat, ignoring the quack, and started to devour his meal.
“Hey, what are you doing without greeting him!”
The aunty glared at her son.
The other young man watched with an air of silence. This here must be the younger brother, and the one with the bad manners would have to be the older one.
The quack nephew-number-one split a steaming bun in half and popped it in his mouth. The insides had pork filling – Maomao drooled.
“Even if you show respect to uncle, isn’t he a eunuch who hasn’t come home for many years? Why would you call him after all this time? What’s the point?”
At those words, the quack doctor gave his usual troubled smile with his brows lowered. He was used to being blatantly treated as a fool for being a eunuch, but it must be bitter to receive this treatment from his nephew.
Even Maomao got pretty sullen.
To this nephew only, no way was she going to let him eat delicious food. She plomped down on the seat,
“I’m sorry that it’ll get cold, so thanks for the meal.”
And stole away every bit of the dishes the nephew was about to take.
Aaahhhhhn, the youngster glaring at Maomao was something she didn’t know. Maomao knew a manservant and a military official who was way bigger than this guy.
The aunty also seemed quite angry. She distributed congee and soup excluding her older son’s share. The husband and her younger son ignored that, keeping clear of the gods.
Maybe he was angry at his family’s attitude, the older son took another bun, and quickly left.
After he left the room, the husband lowered his head at the quack doctor as he scratched his head.
“Excuse him. He, doesn’t know how much brother-in-law has worked for his village.”
“It’s okay. I’m fine. I’m used to this sort of thing.”
The quack said as he scrumptiously slurped his congee.
The words that he was used to, the quack must have used it without thinking, but the quack aunty made a bitter expression at that.
Originally, the quack became a eunuch in exchange for not selling the quack aunty to the inner palace. Even though the quack’s parents should have treasured their son more than their daughter.
“At any rate, wasn’t there something you actually want to say before we eat?”
In response to the quack’s words, the family became wordless.
Maomao was a listener either way, so she had no intentions to stop eating. The seasoning of the steamed fish was good; the herbs also work, it was delicious. She considered having to get the quack aunty to tell her the seasoning for it later.
The husband set down his chopsticks and looked at the quack.
And he slowly lowered his head.
“I heard that brother-in-law is a noted physician who only took up the child of the Son of Heaven. And that the Son of Heaven had directly requested for you.”
(Took up huh.)
The one who was taken up wasn’t the quack, but Ruomen, but the quack must have exaggerated that part. Maomao still had kindness remaining to keep silent for him.
The quack’s brows drooped even lower, and he set down his chopsticks.
“It’s beyond my position from him to hear my words.”
“You were also present at the favoured consort’s childbirth?”
He was speaking absurdity. It was also limited for even high officials to be permitted to speak to him, and yet being disrespectful like talking directly, your head might roll.
Maomao had been granted the chance to speak with the emperor several times, but any of those times were because the other had permitted so.
The consort was also no longer a consort, she had become the empress. As far as she had left the inner palace, it was also difficult to contact her.
At this rate, the quack doctor will be pressed down by the conversation even if it was unreasonable, so Maomao spoke on behalf of him.
“The court physician who had been in the inner palace before had been found fault with the work that wasn’t his to blame, and was banished from the inner palace after bearing physical punishment.”
“Rumours say that he imprudently knew of things that were better he didn’t know, but that was said to be the reason as well.”
It was about her dad, but it wasn’t a complete lie.
“Uugh,” the quack aunty’s face contorted. And then her shoulders drooped.
The quack, seeing that, waved his hands as he put himself forward.
“No, the Son of Heaven is impossible, but I might be able to talk to someone else. Please tell me about the matter.”
When he said that, the aunty and her husband exchanged glances. Maomao wondered if she was in the way by being here, but she had no idea what was the reason she had come along with the quack to not be in the conversation.
“This lass would be no problem. She can keep a secret.”
Unusually, the quack doctor read the atmosphere.
“In that case….”
He said, opening his mouth heavily.
It seems the village was on borrowed land from the start. They had been cheaply lent the land from the neighbouring landowner as he can’t use it, but the years they lived here lengthened and had progressed that it was better to buy it. The landowner from those times was a master with good character, and harmoniously gave it to be residents of this village.
Nevertheless, a couple of years ago, the talks changed when that landowner passed away and the son took over.
The new landowner was different to the previous generation, he hated people from other parts. And above that, he had a tendency to make fools of artisans, and he couldn’t stand that they became the purveyor to the imperial court by making paper, it seems.
In the time when the quality of the paper dropped previously, he came to this village many times to collect debt.
On the document, the previous landowner had passed over the land of the village and the forest twenty years ago. The amount of money was also specified, and the payment was smooth, but-
“One way or another, he came to attach faults, saying, that the yield of rice had decreased because you dirtied the water, or, that we can’t produce rice without sufficient water..”
Son-number-two said with a wince.
“And then, this time, it was worse than usual. Quickly cough up the money, and if you can’t then vacate this land, so he said.”
There were five years of payment left for until the deadline. Of course, to be told to play up five years’ worth of money in one go was impossible.
The other party was a rich family. Like how Maomao was no match for the madam, this side can’t leave on a grand scale either.
“If we were to leave, we’ll have to abandon our house and furniture. I don’t know how much time it will take to find a new place again.”
“The other party seems to be planning to buy our village as it is, and make paper themselves.”
“Why this again? They should be leaving the mochi to the mochi shop (every man to his trade).”
The quack said as he twirled his moustache.
The cat at his feet, who got nothing to do, saw that, and twitched its backside like it was going to jump.
The aunty said, shaking her head.
“The produce tax got suddenly raised this year.”
“Furthermore, in our case, since our tax was lowered since last year, they got even more displeased.”
Hearing that, Maomao understood what kind of aim they were acting on.
She could see the anticipation that the lowering of the paper tax was because they want to spread paper in order to raise the literacy rate from here on.
Even regarding the tax of produce, this plot of land that produces two crops a year won’t go as far as to fall into poverty even the tax got raised in terms of the yield. They must be considering reverse from here on.
(The countermeasure against the locust plague, I wonder.)
If they send crops produced from fertile land to land that has been ravaged by damage, that much starving people would decrease. She understood that it was Jinshi and the other’s way of dealing with it, and she didn’t think that was wrong, but it wasn’t something for the people who got their taxes raised would bear with.
And, that point of the spear was aimed towards this village like so.
However, as the quack also mentioned, she wouldn’t think they could make paper easily even if they obtained this village. It’s exactly because that there was the know-how of the manufacturing process that they could make good quality paper.
“And moreover, troublingly, there’s that guy.”
The “that guy’ the husband had said must be about the bad mannered son from before.
“That guy, for some unknown reason, is siding with the farmers here.”
“Yeah, big brother is—”
The younger brother gave a strained laugh.
The quack doctor tilted his head, but Maomao guessed that it was probably about a girl.
“Embarrassingly, that guy had no schooling. He thinks that officials are all the same.”
And that’s why he mixed up eunuchs with the officials who raised the tax and flared up at the quack.
“And the request is-”
Can you ask to lower the tax? – about that.
This village was in the region of Ka Central (Kaou) that was under the emperor’s direct jurisdiction. That’s why, from the start, he must have asked if the quack can directly speak to him.
However, that would also have to be impossible.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t understand that bad provincial officials raise taxes for their self-interest, but it couldn’t be helped in this case. Even if they raise the tax, they won’t rise to the point where it would hard for them to eat.
The quack was also troubled.
That’s right, it was something the quack couldn’t do. At the quack’s lap, there was maomao who was batting his swaying moustache with its front paws.
“Since I’m merely a eunuch.”
At the quack’s half-hearted response, everyone drooped their shoulders.
Though he was crestfallen, the husband opened his mouth.
“Then, there is a meeting tomorrow. Can’t you come along for that at least?”
“If it’s that much.”
(He won’t be any use though.)
I wonder if I can come along, Maomao thought, as she picked up maomao who was clawing at the quack.