It seems Maomao had snorted subconsciously. The old doctor and Kokuyou were both nodding. Only Chou’u’s eyes were sparkling.
“That’s so cool—, how do you walk on water?” the boy asked.
“About that, you see, you can keep going by taking a step forward on the water before your other foot sinks.”
Don’t get tricked, Maomao knocked Chou’u’s head and narrowed her eyes at Kokuyou. She had thought that he was harmless, but it turns out he also has that side of him.
“Can you really do that?”
“As if… is what I wanted to say, but.” The old man looked outside, stroking his beard. He had a slightly complicated expression. “When I was a child, I had seen such a thing before.”
“Walking and dancing on the water?” Maomao asked, her head tilted.
Chou’u copied her, and for some reason, Kokuyou also assumed the same posture.
(He’s quite noisy, this guy)
She thought as she looked at the old man.
“Yeah. It was before I left the village. It was originally the priestess’ duty to serve the snake god though.”
The old man was a distant relative of the village chief. It seems they picked women from the chief’s family to be priestesses.
However, the old man had just said that the shrine has been neglected for several decades just a moment ago. And speaking of why-
“It’s because there weren’t any girls left due to the palace lady hunts for the inner palace.”
She could only nod in understanding.
And so, he said that the shrine was neglected since the customs from oral tradition was lost. That was just around that time the previous village chief took over.
The previous village chief wasn’t religious so the management of the shine died out. What was once a single village split up into three just like the forest. Or rather, could it be said that the village split because the priestess who tied them together was gone?
And now, for form’s sake, the old man, who returned to the village, came to live in the small hut as the caretaker.
“Did the former priestess not return to the village after her work was over?” she asked.
“Haha. She was a good-natured girl. Why does she need to come back to the village after all that?”
(That’s a given.)
She recalled Shaoran whom she had been close to in the inner palace. Her parents had sold her to reduce the number of mouths to feed. The girl also understood the reality that there would be no place for her to go if she went back. So after quitting from the inner palace, she went to look for work with her own power.
If the former priestess was a girl who could think, she would probably look for a better way of life to what she had before. It’s similar to the inner palace, being a stepping stone in a way for women to improve their lives.
“Before the previous village chief died, people had grief over that. If you have to complain about that, you’ll definitely need a doctor to look after you.”
“Hahaha. That’s so laughable— So there are people like that around–”
As Kokuyou was laughing as if he found something amusing about that, the old man poked his head.
Maomao gazed outside. “There’s no boat, so how do you get to the other side? Wouldn’t it be bad if you can’t see the condition of the shrine?”
When Maomao asked, the old man drew a circle on the long table for her.
“The Guardian doesn’t seem to like boats. There’s even a designated area for fishing. Though you can’t see it from here, there’s a bridge on the other side of the island. You can go take a look if you’re curious. Go do some weeding for me since you’re already here to pick medicinal herbs.”
“Why do I even have to weed?”
“You just entered a sacred place, isn’t that a bargain? Come on, Kokuyou. You take them there.”
“Ehhh— You have it rough, huh—” Kokuyou said as he got the grass sickles ready.
If would have been fine to ignore it, but Chou’u’s eyes were shining in wonder. She thought that even if this brat’s been throwing tantrums and crawling on the floor recently, he was turning out as she expected.
“There are tobacco leaves growing close to the shrine. You can’t touch the leaves, but if there are seeds you can pick some.”
“…” Maomao scowled at the shrewd old man as she held onto the grass sickle.
They circled over to the other side of the lake. Despite being called a lake, with the waters murky, it might be better to call it a swamp if it was a little smaller. Leaves resembling lotus floated on the surface of the water in various places.
Chou’u had been scared of the smallpox scars, but he expressed his pointless adaptation ability and completely warmed up to Kokuyou. Before she knew it, Kokuyou was giving him a piggyback, but unlike the manservants, he was swaying a little dangerously.
“Look, it’s over there.”
As Kokuyou pointed out, there was certainly a bridge connecting the other side of the small island. It wasn’t particularly unusual; logs thrown into the water as pillars.
(Will this bridge be okay?)
Maomao looked at the bridge doubtfully. She wasn’t meaning to insult stone bridges, but it looked pretty old. It’ll be troubling if it broke when she’s halfway on the bridge.
“Hahaha, it’s okay. It’s surprisingly unbreakable—”
Kokuyou let Chou’u down from his shoulders and went to stand on the bridge. He jumped on it. It certainly didn’t look as bad as it looked.
“Ah…” Together with a stupid sound, Kokuyou lost his footing and fell into the lake.
“What are you doing, big bro?” Chou’u stretched his hand out and pulled Kokuyou up.
“Hahaha, sorry, sorry.” Kokuyou mussed his head with a wet hand. It might have been hard for him to gauge distance due to his eyepatch.
He took off his outer garment and wrung it. There were patches of scars all over his thin body. Since it’s rude to stare, Maomao crouched down and studied the bridge.
When she tried knocking it, there was the sound of hard, dense wood.
“It seems, this bridge was made more than thirty years ago–” Kokuyou said, slinging his wet garment over his shoulders.
The bridge had been built considerably high above the water. It should be fine even if the water level rises.
“It’s made from something that won’t rot, huh.”
“Yeah, it looks like it’s been made from wood from the south–. It’s probable that this bridge, was a lot more splendid that it looks now. It’s made quite nicely, but that would cost a lot of money, right–” Kokuyou said. He walked towards the small island.
Maomao followed him. Though she felt a little out of sorts.
As there was the shine, the island was quite high above the water, just like the bridge. The stone steps that led to the shrine had stains of high water levels.
At the top of the steps, there was a small shrine surrounded by clumps of thickly overgrown weeds. She found large leaves amid that – these are the tobacco leaves, Maomao thought. There were flower-like things at the ends, but no seeds yet. It’ll need a little more time.
(That old fart.)
I’ll get some seeds after this and go home, Maomao snorted.
She looked around the lake. The forest that had once been one had been divided into three. She could see a village on the side.
She got the actual reason for the sense of discomfort she had a moment ago.
It was the position of the island and the bridge. The place with the bridge was right in the centre. It’s positioned the furthest from any of the villages. Moreover, it started from a place furthest from the island.
(Is it because there’s some meaning to it?)
Even though it would be best if the bridge crossed over from a place closest to the island. Otherwise, it should be in a place that would be easy for everyone.
It was also far from the hut that old man lived in; she couldn’t really think of an advantage.
Maomao looked at the shrine with her head tilted. As it had been neglected for many years, it was quite rundown. Only the warding ropes surrounding it were brand new. Even though it was to worship snakes, there were leaves that repelled snakes growing around it – what an eccentric old man, Maomao thought.
Kokuyou had started to mow the grass as he hummed, so Maomao reluctantly also went to assist.
Chou’u didn’t seem like he had any intention to help from the start. He picked up a stone and drew on the floor.
“Do you know?” Kokuyou, who stopped humming, spoke to her as if he was grumbling to himself.
“About the priestess person of this village—”
As if I would know, Maomao shook her head.
“The old man told me about it. The girls used to be slaves.”
Kokuyou continued in a voice that only Maomao could hear. “It seems this place used to be a place where the rivers flood often. Until they could control the flooding properly, the fields would be washed away every year and houses would be submerged by the flood.”
And speaking of what futile thing they did to manage the natural disaster in the ancient times–
“They bought slaves to be human sacrifices. Of course, it’s when they have money to spare, otherwise, they would pick a girl from the village but—”
The priestess was a sacrifice in name.
However, one day, a priestess with the power to communicate with the god appeared.
It was said that this priestess walked and danced on the water.
The villagers were shocked; they worshipped her. And she married into the village chief’s family.
That was how the priestess lineage began.
(The old man, he really opened his heart to this guy, huh.)
It was something that Maomao had never heard before. The old man probably knew about this story because he had a connection to the priestess’ lineage.
“So it’s like that in other words. If the priestess didn’t have that power of hers, it would be a story where she wouldn’t know when she would be sacrificed–.”
It doesn’t matter if it was to a god or a guardian, it would have to be intolerable for the one who would be sacrificed.
“But then, if she thought that she wouldn’t be sacrificed, wouldn’t she be sent to the inner palace next time—”
That, in the end, she would be sent not the guardian of the lake, but the master of the country.
(If it’s like that, I wouldn’t want to come back.)
On the contrary, it couldn’t be helped if she held a grudge.
Maomao stared at the water in a daze. In the depths of the lake, there were leaves swaying on the surface of the water.
Children can climb onto some large lotus leaves, but there’s no way you can dance on top of these of course, it was the moment she thought of something foolish.
Maomao stood up from her crouching.
“What’s wrong, Freckles?” Chou’u peered at Maomao.
She ignored him and went down the steps. Then she looked at the old bridge. Not at it, but at the supports below it.
It was covered in algae from being submerged, but they were sturdy pillars that hadn’t rot.
“I’m telling the old man that you slacked off–” Kokyou said to Maomao with the grass sickle in hand.
Maomao grinned. “You’re right. Let’s get this over and done with,” she said and returned to her post.
“Give me the tobacco seeds.”
That was the first thing Maomao said to the old man when she came back from cutting grass.
The old man was slurping noodles. It looked like he was eating half his beard.
“I was wondering what you were going to say. If the seeds haven’t come out, give up,” he said, chewing his noodles noisily.
Since she pretty much knew that he was going to show such a reaction, Maomao had an idea.
“What if I tell you that I know the real form of the witch doctor you talked about?” Maomao said in a whisper.
The old man stopped his unpleasant chewing sounds and set down the chopsticks.
“Oi, Kokuyou. Go play with that sonny,” the old man said, taking a ball out from the shelve that he threw to Kokuyou. The man failed to catch it. He ran out of the hut, chasing the ball, and Chou’u went after him.
When the man got the people out of the way, he pointed at the chair, telling Maomao to sit.
Maomao sat on the chair and looked at the lake outside the window. “When that witch doctor appeared, was it right in the middle of summer?”
“The rain was lighter than it is now, and besides, it’s the time the paddies needed water, right?”
In this region, the waters for the paddy were drawn from the lake. Though it rained a lot right now, the water levels will rapidly decrease from hereon.
“Was the priestess’ dance also at that time?”
“…it was to pray for rain though.”
How are those related, the old man wanted to say.
Maomao dipped her finger into the tea the old man had taken out for her out of obligation and drew a map on the table. The oval-shaped lake, the island and then the bridge.
As if it was difficult to see, the old man passed her pen and paper. The paper was rough, but it’ll still be easy to look. She drew on the paper.
In the middle of that, Maomao pointed to the bank of the lake that was closest to the island. “So, she prayed for the rain or something over here.”
It was just right at the place that could be seen from the window.
“Normally, I think it would studier to build the bridge here, but why not?” Maomao purposefully asked the old man.
“As if I know about that. Hurry up and explain it to me.”
Maomao grinned at the old man’s words.
“This is hypothetical. Let’s pretend that the water in the lake is quite deep at this place. At the start, you tried crossing this place with a bridge, but the water got deep along the way, so the bridge was abandoned for being useless. It was a waste of materials but you’ll need workers to take it apart as well. So leaving that as is in the water, you make a bridge somewhere else.”
And so, they built it where the current bridge was. Until then, they must have used boats to go the shrine.
“What if the pillars that were submerged in the water are still in the lake?”
The timber for the bridge was sturdy wood from the south. If they used the same material, it should still be in the water.
And so, only in the season where the lake water was at its lowest, was when it is close to the surface of the water. And if you walk on top of it, it would only look like you were walking on water. The small water level adjustment should be good enough if you adjust the amount of water that flowed into the paddies.
In the murky water and floating weeds, if you can’t see what’s close by, you wouldn’t know the existence of that pillar.
“The reason you can’t have boats out, it’s so that you won’t hit those pillars, right?”
Had the workers requested that when they were building the bridge? In order to hide their sloppy bridge building project from the villagers, they must have buried the pillars to keep it a secret. And that it was the priestess at that time who had cleverly made use of that.
The old man squinted. It looked like he wanted to say something. “Did Ruomen raise you to talk of speculation like this as well?”
“I want to investigate the lake to investigate that speculation though.”
She spoke to the old man to make sure of that.
The old man scowled at Maomao, but stood up, telling her to come with him.
“I won’t talk about myself, but you really don’t have a bit of emotion, huh,” he said.
The old man called out the two people who were playing with the ball outside.
“Go buy something that we can have for dinner,” he said and had Kokuyou hold onto the money. “Sonny, this guy gets overcharged a lot. I’m sorry, but can you go along with him?”
“Yeah, leave it to me,” Chou’u said and followed Kokuyou.
“Let’s go.” The old man went out, carrying a broom.
The place he led her to was enclosed in the middle of the lake. There were floating weeds on the water. It wasn’t a place where you can sit down to fish; there’s no one who would come here by choice.
Maomao grimaced at the muddy ground. She took off her shoes and pulled up her skirts to walk. The old man did the same, lifting his hakama as he walked.
The water was murky. There was nothing pillar-like to be seen.
“Here.” The old man handed the broom to Maomao. She brushed the water with the handle.
And when she did so–.
The broom hit something with a clack. She knew that the thing was considerably solid even through the broom. It wasn’t wood; It felt like something harder and heavier.
“The maidens were sunk into this lake in the name of sacrifice. They had weights drag them to the bottom of the water while they were still alive,” the old man said.
Although it was a customary practice, it must have been a disgusting spectacle for the villages who watched on. And so they did something meaningless to repent and ask for forgiveness.
“The stone pillars in the lake, those are graves.”
“Isn’t it a folly? Because they regretted that they did themselves if they see it, they built it just so it is high enough to not be seen on the surface of the water.”
And so, from the number of drowned sacrifices, the gravestones eventually reached up to the shrine.
“When the next offering of the sacrifice was decided, the son of the village chief told the sacrificial maiden about the existence of those gravestones.”
And it was said that, by using the existence of the guardian of the lake against them, the maiden was elevated to a priestess.
It seems the previous village chief had known nothing about that. As far as what Maomao saw with the state of the village, the one who knew about this now, would have to be just this old men, right?
Maomao glowered at the old man. “You have a rough idea as to who the witch doctor is, seeing how you know this much, right?”
The old man had known from the start. And he kept silent about it. Maomao who had taken it upon herself to explain her speculation was now like an idiot.
“I didn’t see their face. I’m not confident.”
It was likely that they had some relation to the former priestess who didn’t come back from the inner palace. They could be the priestess’ daughter, her grandchild, or someone who heard about the story.
No matter who they were, it didn’t have anything to do with Maomao. Even for this old man, it was a behaviour from the distant past.
Does he have something with that former priestess person who was brought into the inner palace in the past?
The instant she imagined that juicy story, her head got hazy, but let’s not mention it.
She didn’t want him to say that she didn’t have any emotions any more than this.
“If you don’t make too many weird movements, I’ll disclose the trick to you,” After saying that, the old man took out a cloth pouch from his breast pocket. He handed that to Maomao. “It’s a bribe to secrecy. I’ll leave this case to you.”
There were some seeds in the pouch. They were probably tobacco seeds.
Since Maomao got what she wanted to get, she didn’t have any need to say anymore.
She kept silent, pocketed the seeds, then decided to return to the hut.