It was sprinkling. During this time of the year when it’s starting to warm up, Maomao always got melancholic from the constant raining.
Maomao opened the medicine drawers and checked to see if the herbs inside were damp.
(I did this at the medical office last year, huh.)
She had cleaned up the place while spanking the quack doctor’s butt for his sloppy management. Could the quack be spoiling the goods in the medicine shelves again this year?
The whole time Maomao cleaned the shelves, maomao was showing its belly at her feet. The sight of it, looking completely domesticated, was a hindrance to Maomao so she toed it to the side. maomao looked up in displeasure, but it made no attempt to move so it got pushed to the wall.
Maomao flicked away the spoiled herbs and added what she didn’t have enough of onto the wooden slips. Some could be obtained from the market, whereas other she had to depend on traders to bring over.
(I think I can get these.)
A number of them were plants that grew this season. Let’s go out a little way and harvest some.
(Looks like the rain has stopped too.)
Though it’s wet, it wasn’t to the point of rain. There’s no time like the present. If she waited for the clear skies, there’s no work to be done.
Maomao looked outside the pharmacy. The courtesans were, for the most part, sleeping to prepare for their night work, so the people around were manservants or little girls who were forced to study.
Maomao headed towards the room where the manservants congregated. She slid the sliding door open. There were manservants lying sluggishly on the floor. Sazen was among them.
“I’m leaving the store tending to you,” she said.
“Hah? What’s the rush?” Sazen scratched his head in annoyance as he sat up.
“I’ll be back by evening. It’ll be to the nearby village.”
“Sure sure. So, just store tending?” He remembered being worked hard by Maomao, so it looks like he got smart.
“There are medicinal herbs hanging from the ceiling to dry. I want you to crush only the dried ones. The management will be as usual.”
“Sure sure.” Sazen stood up from his sitting position. He shoved a hand down his collar and scratched his belly. Maomao narrowed her eyes at that. She saw dirt under his fingernails.
“Wash your hands properly.”
His memory wasn’t bad, but it might be better if he was more conscious about hygiene. There are a great number of guest who found fault in that.
She had to warn him properly about that.
(Will I make it in time for a bus at this time?)
It’s expensive to ride a carriage alone. Many carriages go through the nearby village throughout the day to transport food supply to the capital. They function as a horse bus when they return since they have nothing to carry. The feeling you get when you’re riding one is the worst, but it’s nothing but cheap.
When Maomao left the manservants’ room to quickly clean up, she saw sparkling eyes looking her way.
“Freckles. Are you going somewhere?” Chou’u said, his front teeth have finally grown. Zuurin was standing next to him like a follower.
Maomao made a blatant look of reluctance. She pushed aside the brats who came to stick close to her, returned to the pharmacy and wrapped up the necessary tools.
“Hey, you’re going out, right? Is it the market? If you’re going shopping, take me with you–.”
Chou’u stepped into the pharmacy and picked up maomao who was lying down into his arms. Take me along, take me along, he used maomao’s paws to poke Maomao. maomao just meowed a “naaa” in annoyance.
“I’ll be going into the forest. Whatever you say, it’s the boring countryside.”
“The forest! I wanna go to the forest! I wanna go, I wanna go, I wanna go!”
He clapped maomao’s front paws together. The cat obviously didn’t like it. It kicked its back legs and sprung away from Chou’u.
Chou’u threw a tantrum on the floor. She thought that he would stop throwing tantrums at the age of ten, but could it be because of his lax discipline? Even though there are other parts that have strangely grown, Maomao clutched her head.
Since Zuurin was also going to copy her leader Chou’u, Maomao grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and pulled her up to her feet.
“I’m telling the madam.” When Maomao threatened her, the girl stood rigid straight. Only her head bobbed up and down.
“What’s the fuss?”
The madam had showed up with a listless expression.
Zuurin gave a start.
“I want to harvest some medicinal herbs while it’s not raining. This guy will only be in the way if he comes along.” Maomao said as she pointed to Chou’u who was rolling on the floor.
The madam squinted and looked at the boy. She took a breath of surprise, then said to Maomao. “Take him along.”
“Hah?” Why this again, Maomao gave a look of displeasure. She had thought that, if it was the madam, being one who’s completely rational, there’d be no reason she would have her bring the bothersome brat to work.
“Eh, no way! Are you serious, Granny!” Yay, Chou’u got up and skipped around in a circle.
Zuurin also copied him in skipping around, but the madam held her head. “Not you.”
As her words, Zuurin hung her head. Unlike Chou’u, who somehow got special treatment, Zuurin is a kamuro. It will set a bad example for the other kamuro if she went out along with them.
Chou’u smacked the sad Zuurin’s shoulder. “I’ll bring back souvenirs,” he said
“Who’s going to pay for that?” Maomao retorted immediately.
“If you want to go out, bear with it for a bit longer. I’ll redeem you soon,” he said.
Where did he learn that phrase? By the way, a lot of the guests who say that were good-for-nothings.
Leaving the happy brats alone, Maomao poked the madam.
“Again, why do I have to bring him along?” Maomao said aversively.
The madam watched the brats as she scratched her clavicle. “Did you go to somewhere far away not so long ago? Do you know how Chou’u was the whole time?”
She knew nothing of the sort. He would have to be kicking up a fuss as usual. He’s close to the head manservant Ukyou, so he should be fine even if Maomao wasn’t around.
“He was never that lively. Since he’s here without his parents, even when someone like you is away, he’s lonely.”
“I really can’t believe the words of a hag who use up money to buy children from a procurer,” Maomao said cynically. Apparently, her adoptive father Roumen had gone as far as taking her in and shutting her alone in the room no matter how much she cried. The infant Maomao had then reached an understanding that it was pointless to cry so she had stopped since. This might also be the reason as to why her tear glands were so dry.
She didn’t really resent him for that. Not like she remembered it. The woman who gave birth to her had to work and Pairin who breastfed her also had work. It was when the Rokushoukan was in decline so Maomao wouldn’t have anyone to be jealous of.
She just thought that she’ll be happy as long as she doesn’t get strangled to death.
The madam put her hands into her sleeves. “It can’t be helped that they get sold to a procurer. It’s their parent’s job. It doesn’t concern me. But, raising a dullard who does nothing and bludges isn’t something we want here. You think that I’m being kind? I’m just educating them so that doesn’t happen.”
“What about Chou’u?”
“Isn’t that up to you how he turns out? I can only watch while making sure I don’t die. You have to raise him according to the money you get, okay.”
That’s a given. What a robber, Maomao slandered.
“Oh really,” the madam played dumb then left for someplace.
Half a dual hour after rocking in a horse bus, they arrived at the village that was close to the forest. It was by the river; the atmosphere was similar to the quack’s hometown, but they produced rice and vegetables instead. The paddies that had recently finished growing rice reflected the sky like a giant mirror.
Chou’u was looking outside, leaning out from the carriage.
Certainly, the paddies are the highlight of this season. It didn’t look like it was going to rain right now. The sky was also blue. The world surrounded by blue, on the sky and on the ground, looked irresistibly marvellous.
“Hey, Freckles. What’s that?” Chou’u tugged Maomao’s sleeves. She wondered what he pointed at; there were poles stuck into two sand hills, twisted straw strung between them. It was situated right along the stream that flowed beside the paddy field.
“Aren’t those warding ropes(注連, churen)?”
Maomao didn’t know much about it, but if her memory served her correctly, it’s a spell. Wasn’t that something where they make a barrier to ward off bad things?
The reason the shape of the rope was a little different – she thought that it was mixed with the folk belief of this region, but–
Maomao leaned forward. She felt that the shape of the warding rope was a lot different to what she had seen before. She thought that the rope was a lot plainer before; there was a bit of a twist to it this year and white paper scraps were rolled into it. Shape-wise, she felt it was a lot more refined than before, but are these things something you change willy-nilly?
“We’ll be arriving soon—” the peasant manning the carriage said. Although it’s a horse bus, the current passengers were only Maomao and Chou’u. A good point about this carriage is that the fee doesn’t change with fewer people. Conversely, there are horse buses that get cheaper the more people there are, but she disliked it when it’s too messy. The horse also slows down so Maomao preferred going by this one.
After alighting from the carriage, Maomao looked at the forest.
It didn’t mean that this forest belonged to the village. However, she adds it in for them when she goes to talk to the village chief. She won’t get complaints if she gave them some money. This sort of thing is required to maintain long relations. It would be helpful to have them remember her face.
Maomao tugged Chou’u’s hand and headed for the village chief’s house.
“This village has nothing.”
It certainly has nothing, but there’s no need to say it out loud. She poked Chou’u’s head. She aimed for the innermost house of the village.
There were dried vegetables hanging off the roof of the shabby house. They must be drying it for preservation, but it could grow mouldy this season if they aren’t careful. There was a shorter version of the warding rope they saw just then next to the dried vegetables.
Has it been three years since Maomao came to this village? Since she had work in the inner palace, there was a lot of missing time. The village chief had a good memory of faces though.
“Hello.” She rapped on the door, and Chou’u copied her by thumping on it. Stop that, she got angry and grabbed the boy’s head, when a young woman came out of the house.
“Who might you people be?”
The woman was quite pretty for one out in such a countryside. She was wearing clothes that were simple yet sturdy.
“I wish to see the village chief. He’ll understand if you tell him that it’s the pharmacist Ruomen’s disciple.”
The reason she gave out her adoptive father’s name rather than her own was easily understood. There were a lot of people who won’t trust a pharmacist with Maomao for a name. If she aged a little, that distrust will probably disappear. But since she had no reason to show off the fact that she’s a pharmacist, she used words that were easy to understand for the other person.
The woman called a man in his prime from inside the house.
If Maomao’s memory was correct, this would have to be the son of the village chief. The son also seemed to remember Maomao, as he nodded, “Ahh.”
“My father died from complications of a cold last year,” he said.
You shouldn’t treat a cold as a trivial thing. If you take it lightly, it’ll soon get worse, progressing to pneumonia and then you’re suddenly gone.
If she remembered correctly, the previous village chief didn’t drink medicine. He had a hearty personality where he asserted that if you drink wine and rest well you’ll get better, so while he won’t be their customer, he didn’t hate them.
“I told him to see a doctor, but, well, it can’t be helped. No, let’s stop the gloomy topic. You’ll be going into the forest, right?”
“Yes.” Maomao passed the new village chief the usual amount of money. In doing so, the village chief shook his head.
“I don’t want it. If you don’t hurry in, the sun is going to set.”
“…if you tell me that, that’s great though.”
What a strange turn of events. Maomao was going to put the money back into her bosom, when Chou’u stretched out his hand.
“Freckles! Buy sweets with that! Buy it!”
“Didn’t you say that you’ll earn the money yourself?” Maomao put the money away securely and headed for the forest.
“Snakes come out this season so be careful,” the village chief said.
“I know that much. They’ll be good ingredients.”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” he rebutted and grabbed the warding rope that was hanging from the roof for her to see.
She looked at it carefully and saw that the shape of the rope was different on both ends. The thickness of one side tapered off, whilst the other end was thicker and torn at the tip. It looked like a snake.
“If you kill snakes, the villagers might come to attack you.”
“…what’s up with that?” Isn’t this completely in conflict with Maomao’s thoughts of broiling snakes in soy sauce if she saw any?
Even though they had thanked her for the extermination when she caught a number of snakes before.
The village chief also gave a bitter smile. “It was in my father’s will, you see. Before he died, he got a little weak-spirited and ended up calling for a witch doctor.”
From that, in exchange for getting incense that alleviated his suffering, he was told to spread their teachings throughout the village.
And from that, Maomao understood. So that’s why the strange warding ropes were everywhere.
“This place originally worshipped the snake god, you see. That’s why. It’s for worship.” The village chief gave a bitter smile. If it was a belief that has been around in the past, it can’t be helped – he had that kind of expression, but she was strangely stuck on something.
“But, what about the venomous snakes?” she asked.
Species of pit viper were the enemy of farmers. If they get bit by one, they would lose everything.
The village chief whispered as he smiled bitterly, “For those, we kill them without getting found out. Though we are deeply religious, that’s something that can’t be helped.”
The village chief must have various faces as well. The young woman who was probably his wife was glaring at them.
It might be unpleasant to see her husband talking secretively in front of her.
“Come on, shall we go?” Maomao said.
“’kay,” Chou’u replied.
Maomao quickly entered the forest with Chou’u in tow.
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