Maomao was taken to the residential district in the centre of the capital. Public order improves as you go north, so the rows of houses around here were middle-class.
There was an old house there. It was decently large, but the roof tiles were chipped and its bamboo frames were showing through the cracks in the mud walls.
Standing at the entranceway was a man she has seen many times before. It was Chou’u’s observer, so she pretended as if she had never seen him before.
Maomao entered the rundown house.
Despite the rundown exterior of the house, its interior was cleaner than expected. That wasn’t what surprised her, however.
The walls were painted white. There was a painting drawn over the plaster.
One side of the walls had the scene of a peach garden. Beautiful maidens, not three warriors, were biting into those peaches. With their faces that were round like peaches, black hair like pitch, and cherry-like lips with white teeth peeking out, they looked very vibrant.
It was a painting of the fairies of the Peach Blossom Spring(桃源郷, tougenkyou or tao yuan xiang. A utopia referenced in a Chinese fable, a village hidden within a forest of peach trees).
She heard the artist was talented in drawing beauties, but she never had thought that he would be this good.
Maomao studied the wall. There was a peculiar sheen on the surface of the painted wall. This type of painting was somewhat unlike what she was familiar with.
When she tried to study it, there was the sound of footsteps.
“Oi, Freckles! What are you doing! Come look, hurry!”
Chou’u had rushed over with a pale face.
(Not good, not good.)
It was Maomao’s bad habit to get distracted by things that catch her attention. Chou’u pulled her deeper into the house. What appears to be the living room had a colourful assortment of pigment-like powders, eggshells for some reason, white powder that seemed to be plaster, and a mixture of those scattered all over the floor.
There was a couch in the middle of the room. A man was lying down on it. There was another man beside him, watching in concern. The prone man was unshaven, face so pale it looked white. His fingertips were stained with colours or something. The man beside him had a tidy appearance, but his hands were similarly stained.
“Give Teacher(老師) a check-up,” Chou’u said.
He’s young to be called Teacher, but he must be the aforementioned up-and-coming artist. There was a pail beside the couch. There was vomit in it.
Maomao looked at the man. His limbs were trembling. She opened his eyes, looked at his pupils, then took his pulse.
As far as she could see, it looked to be some kind of food poisoning?
“Symptoms?” she asked.
“He’s been vomiting and getting diarrhoea nonstop,” Chou’u said.
“He’s been suffering ever since. He looked cold so we laid him down, though,” the man who was standing added.
“This man is?” Maomao asked.
“He’s Teacher’s workmate! Forget that, hurry, hurry!”
Even if he told her to hurry up, the things Maomao could do were limited. If she didn’t know what the poison was, she didn’t know how she could treat him.
However, if the man’s continuously getting diarrhoea and vomiting, there is something he certainly won’t have enough of.
“Chou’u, get me water, salt and sugar. If there’s none in this house, get it from elsewhere.” Maomao threw the money bag from her bosom to Chou’u. The boy ran out of the house with a “Gotcha.”
“I’ll borrow the kitchen.” Maomao went inside.
She peered into the kettle and checked if the water had gone bad. In truth, she wanted to boil it, but there probably wasn’t time for that. “Is this unboiled water?”
“It was bought from the drinking water vendor yesterday, so it should still be good.”
Bought water should be fine. She considered the chance of having loose bowels from drinking unboiled water was slim. Of course, it’s the case with properly checked water, but as far as Maomao tasted with the water she ladled out, there was no strange flavour.
The house looked rundown on the outside, but it seemed affluent enough based on the water they bought.
Maomao looked at the man who was in the same profession. “How this happened, can you explain to me?”
“Yeah.” The man, while flustered, carried a chair over to Maomao.
Then he started to speak with frequent pauses. “It’s that guy’s bad habit, to have no qualms about eating spoiled food. I think, that’s probably the cause.”
Seems it really was the food poisoning she imagined.
“There was xianbing(餡餅, おやき), he ate that. It looked like it was spoiled, so we didn’t eat it, but this guy said that it’s edible if you grill it, and then ended up eating it.”
(T/N: Oyaki in Japanese, Xianbing in Chinese: A flattened round wheat flour pastry/pie stuffed with sweet or savoury filling like meat, vegetables, red bean, that’s been grilled, baked or panfried. Kinda like a meat pie. This chapter gives the Chinese term and labels it with the Japanese equivalent. Again, seeing how this is in a Chinese setting (like how I chose mahua over karintou back in volume 3), I’ll stick with the Chinese term. …Unless you guys would prefer that I just call it ‘meat pie’ instead?)
Of course, it was spoiled.
It’s not like old food can get back to normal after you grill it. The poison stays in the spoiled food.
“Geez, what going to happen now. We won’t make it in time to finish the product.”
The man touched the large board that was leaning against the wall. The board was painted white. There was a woman drawn lightly on it. It would be then coloured over with layers of paint. As the colours become more vivid, the painting of the woman would no doubt look like she was alive.
“Even though they told us to finish this up within ten days.”
“Within ten days?” she asked.
It even had a deadline?
Maomao took the salt and sugar he brought over.
She dissolved the salt and sugar in the water she prepared. She then took out a cloth from her belongings and soaked it in the mixture.
She had the man drink by wetting his lips. She had him drink to hydrate him.
She agonised over whether it be better to warm up his body or to have the fever run its course. For the time being, his sweat won’t absorb completely with his dirty clothes. She prepared clothes that could absorb sweat and changed him into them.
It was also terrible to have him sleep on the couch, so she prepared him a proper bed and medicine for abdominal pain.
During the course of that, he vomited twice. Nothing really came out; the stink of bile filled the entire room.
Probably thanks to the repeated hydration as she wiped his sweat, when night came around, he stabilised and the tremors also lessened.
By that time, Maomao, Chou’u and the man from the same profession were completely exhausted. This house had nothing else aside from art materials, just thinking that a single bed was enough, so they had to borrow from the neighbours.
Drained, Maomao and Chou’u leaned against a chair that had been carried over from another room. The couch the owner of this house had been sleeping on was empty, but honestly, until it’s cleaned properly, it wasn’t in the state to be used.
“Freckles—is he saved–?” Chou’u asked.
“Probably.” She couldn’t state it with utmost certainty. It’s likely that he will recover his consciousness soon. However, he shouldn’t be allowed to move for a while and will have to eat something that’s easy to digest.
Even if she were to make thin rice gruel, he didn’t have rice at all, so they needed to get supplies. There wasn’t a proper pot either.
“The rice and clay pot, I’ll bring it from my house.” The man who read the atmosphere left the house. It’s rough even though he’s tired. Is he that close to the owner of this house?
“What does the house owner normally eat?”
Maomao spoke to herself, and Chou’u answered.
“It looks like Teacher always buys from food carts, or he gets something from the neighbourhood. It was xianbing today.”
“Hmmm, then was that what he ate this time?” Maomao asked.
Chou’u’s face contorted magnificently.
“No, I just remembered what we ate today. We all ate the xianbing together, that uncle, Teacher and I. It was bad so I spat it out immediately though. But, I thought it was strange from the start.”
Speaking of what’s strange, it seems this Teacher guy said, “Did I have something like this at home?” when he looked at the xianbing that was laid out on the table. You would certainly get uneasy from that first point, but she was told that he recommended it to Chou’u and that man who had come to his house.
“Anyways, I would be happy if I get treated to anything if he has something, but he has a lot of questionable things that makes you wonder if it’s edible.” Chou’u was also shocked. It seems it’s true that a lot of those so-called artists are wierdos.
Maomao rested her elbow on the armrest and braced her chin. “You often, you know, ate things like that.”
“I mean, he said that Uncle also ate it, and it looked delicious.”
Chou’u is a glutton, so if there’s anything edible, he would put it in his mouth.
“But, the xianbing seemed like it had gone off, so it was super bitter.”
“Yeah, it was so bad I spat it out. Uncle also spat it out.”
(Bitter, but it looked delicious?)
Maomao crossed her arms and tilted her head. “Hey, it was bitter? Not sour?”
“It was bitter. You wouldn’t think it’s sour.”
“Then, did the filling have a strange smell?”
“If there was, he probably wouldn’t eat it.” Chou’u took off his shoes and swung his legs. The room was ventilated with the window open, but it was somehow humid. It also got dark outside, so she lit a lamp that had toppled over in that area. Not just paints, does this Teacher guy like imported things? It was an unusual lighting equipment in this region, but it used fish oil so she was used to the stench. It’s troubling since maomao had been licking oil recently.
“The filling inside, was it stringy? Sticky?” she asked.
“Sticky? Now that you mention it…”
Seems he had hit upon of something.
“It may have been a little slimy. I’m not too sure since I spat it out immediately, with it being bitter. Uncle said that it was rotten, and said to spit it out quickly. Soon after that, I rinsed my mouth and drank it all down.”
Maomao tilted her head at the strangeness of it. “Then, what about the leftovers of what you ate?”
“We chucked it. There’s a bin outside. I threw it there. Teacher got angry though.”
When Maomao heard that, she picked up the lamp and went out of the house. Then she looked at the wooden box that had been placed outside.
There was still food waste inside the stinky wooden box. There were two xianbing at the very top of the pile. It was a good thing that it hadn’t been collected for livestock feeding yet.
“Woah! What are you doing! That’s disgusting!” Chou’u said, looking at Maomao who was rummaging through the scraps. Maomao paid no heed to him, picking up a filthy xianbing with her bare hands and split them. It was filled with minced pork and several kinds of vegetables. Then she broke it apart to check what was inside.
“…Freckles, don’t smile while you’re looking through food waste. It’s really scary.”
It seems she had smiled before she realised it.
Maomao smiling – in other words, it meant that.
“Did your Teacher guy grill and eat this?”
“Yeah, he has no sense of taste. Absolutely. There’s no way something this bitter would go away after you grill it. And yet he was saying it’s delicious.”
Her confidence grew. “Hey, that guy you call Uncle, what did he come today for?”
“…he probably came to stop Teacher. Teacher said that he’ll be going on a journey as soon as he finishes his next job.” Chou’u looked down in disappointment.
“It’s like, a long time ago, he studied painting in the West. And he said that he saw a beauty he could never forget that time, and that he’s still only drawing paintings of women.”
Certainly, with both the lamp and the paints, there were a lot of things that had a foreign air to it.
“Though Uncle said that there’s no way the person Teacher saw twenty years ago is still alive, he still really wanted to see her.”
Twenty years is a long time; any beauty isn’t immune to ageing. If that didn’t happen, she would be either a fairy or a demon.
“Wh-what are you doing!”
Speaking of the devil, the man had returned with rice and a pot.
It must be a strange sight to see Maomao covered in trash in the dark. Moreover, half her face was lit up.
Maomao, while holding onto food waste with both hands, smiled at the man.
Then she looked at Chou’u. “Chou’u, you should go back already. It should be about time the manservant is here for you.”
She expected that Ukyou, who would be worried about them, would come around to pick them up when it got dark. If he had work, he would probably leave it to someone else.
“What, so suddenly?”
“Aren’t you tired? Sleep until someone comes to pick you up.”
“….Freckles, you go wash your hands.”
He didn’t object. In other words, he’s sleepy.
The boy went inside the house yawning.
“What did you do?” The man looked at Maomao, entranced. No, he was looking at the food waste in her hands.
“After I wash my hands, can I have a chat with you?” Maomao put down the trash and headed to the well.
Maomao and the man sat on the chairs in the kitchen.
Chou’u and his teacher slept in the room next door.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“How much do you know about poisonous mushrooms?”
“…that came out of nowhere.” The man’s gaze strayed from Maomao.
There were several things that she thought was strange.
She would normally associate spoilage with sour foods. Certainly, there might be food that would taste bitter when it is spoiled, but can you proclaim that it’s spoiled?
It was so bitter it made you vomit, and yet why was the teacher fine with it?
Also, where did the bad xianbing come from?
“Did you know? Among mushrooms, there are those that are bitter when they are raw, and loses that flavour when it is heated. Moreover, there is a lot of food poisoning in this season with poisonous mushrooms.”
It’s a mushroom that is frequently mistaken with edible mushrooms. The surface is a little shiny. It matched with Chou’u’s testimony and in actuality, the xianbing was filled with mushrooms that looked like that.
If it was bought from the food cart, it would have already caused a riot on the streets.
If it was received from the neighbourhood, she hasn’t heard any news about someone collapsing from stomach pain anyway. If there was such a thing, this house should also be informed of it.
In that case.
“Did someone bring over the xianbing?” Maomao looked at the painting that was all over the wall. All were beauties that resembled gorgeous fairies. Were each modelled after someone – they all had their own individuality.
Now, it was close to the time the teacher would close his business. The teacher said that when that’s over, he’ll go on a journey to the west. This man tried to stop him.
He called as a worker of the same profession, but this man didn’t have much of the so-called air of an artist.
“What are you trying to say? Isn’t this just food poisoning?” the man asked.
“Yes, it is food poisoning. Caused by mushrooms.”
The xianbing weren’t spoiled. They were just poisoned from the start.
“…the poison was stronger than I thought.”
The man had an honest personality. It was a declaration that could be taken as a confession.
Maomao was a little relieved over that. She wondered what would happen if he were to go crazy. Although, if anything happened to Maomao, the someone who watched Chou’u would surely do something, she thought.
“All of the paintings here are splendid.” Maomao squinted at the wall painting. If there was a certain beauty in that, he would blend in with them without feeling out of place, huh – an unrelated thought came to her mind. “There are even merchants that want to store them, so if you finish up the commissioned painting, you can probably get a lot of money.”
“If we don’t finish it up, other places wouldn’t offer that much, you see,” he answered.
“If he were to journey to the West, he would also need funds, but more than that, he would need a companion he can count on.”
“Yeah, the matter has been settled half a year ago. It’s since he doesn’t know many more months will it take if he let this chance escape him.”
What the man wanted to do, was to poison the teacher. In order to delay the appointed day using that as the reason.
The journey to the west – it was to wipe that slate clean.
“Ahhh, it’s really the worst. I really thought he was going to die.” He was clutching his head, saying “please don’t die”.
“Don’t you have a more gentle poison?”
It’s weird to call it a gentle poison, but it’s like that, Maomao thought.
“His stomach is stronger than iron,” the man answered.
To consider that he can eat anything if he grilled it – it seemed like he wanted to build an iron stomach.
That’s why, to pretend to get food poisoning, he purposely used Chou’u. Upon having a third party recognise the xianbing as spoiled, if he were to upset his stomach, they wouldn’t think it is a mere poisoning.
Maomao was shocked. “In that case, wouldn’t it be fine you talked about it instead?”
“Talking. I did that so many times already.”
The man had said he painted, but in truth, he was no more than the teacher’s painting assistant. He mixed the paints, bought materials and looked for merchants who would buy art from them.
“I’m just like a mere attendant. If he’s gone, I’ll be a nobody.”
“Is that so?”
Certainly, the teacher is a talented artist, but he is lacking in something as a person. This kind of human will end up dying by the roadside if left alone.
A person who supports him like so is important.
“It’s just that, I know various things from talking to merchants a lot.”
That the strange movements present in the western region, was no more than just a precursor stage. But, if it were true, it would be better to stay quiet right now.
“When I did so, he said: then it’ll be bad if I don’t go now.”
With his feelings of going to the west unchanged, the artist made steady preparations. Even though he’s a person who can’t even prepare rice properly.
The man slowly got up from his chair. And then he moved to the room next door. Maomao followed after him.
There was a single large board in the dark room. It was covered by a white cloth.
“He said that he wanted to finish this painting this time once and for all.” The man took off the cloth.
“Seems to be the fairy he saw in the West.”
(How did it come to this?)
Maomao broke out in cold sweat.
She wanted this story to be over already. But in actuality, it seems it was still connected.
“He said that it’s the priestess he saw in Sha’ou.”
And painted there, was a beauty with white hair and red eyes.
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