Nenjen seemed thirsty, having drunk his goat’s milk all in one go.
Maomao, Basen, and Rahan’s older brother fell silent once again.
(That was more information than I could have ever imagined.)
It needed summarising.
Around fifty years ago, a devastating locust plague had broken out.
And a few years prior, Nenjen’s tribe had wiped out the Wind-reader tribe.
The loss of the ritual resulted in a large scale locust plague.
Nenjen was now stuck with carrying out the ritual for the rest of his life in the Wind-reader tribe’s stead.
Would that be the easy part?
(At the ritual, did they dig up the soil?)
Maomao still had no idea, but there was one person who got it.
“So, Nenjen-san, was it? What you’re doing would be the autumn ploughing, am I right?” Rahan’s older brother said.
Maomao and Basen tilted their heads. They weren’t familiar with those words.
“It’s ploughing that’s done in autumn, written as autumn ploughing. For the most part, it’d be autumn when crop harvesting is over. That’s when you plough the fields.”
“What benefit does that have? I’d think that it’d be more efficient to plough right before the crops are planted, though.”
Maomao also agreed with what Basen pointed out.
“From what I know, by digging up the soil to loosen it for rice paddies and stuff, you exterminate the pest eggs beneath the ground.”
Maomao’s ears twitched. Wordlessly, she gripped onto Rahan’s older brother’s lapels. “Say that one more time.”
“U-um, by digging up the soil—”
“That!” Maomao shook Rahan’s older brother.
“Hey, stop that. He’s choking.”
Basen stopped her. She let go.
“…ngh, what’s so unusual about that? Isn’t it one of the usual farming methods?” Rahan’s older brother faced them like it was the obvious thing to know.
“Decent farmers like you are rare in the world!” she exclaimed.
“…Ah, yeah. Is that, what?” Rahan’s older brother made a complicated expression. Even though he was praised, it seemed like he was finding it hard to accept it.
“Exactly as you said. You’d know by seeing this village. There are people that don’t bother despite their knowledge. And if you don’t make use of your knowledge, it’s gone.”
Nenjen’s words sank into Maomao. Rahan’s older brother had been saying that the only person who had cultivated a proper field in this village was Nenjen.
“Can I ask a question? Are the people here trying to grow wheat properly? It feels like they’re cutting corners,” Maomao said, taking Rahan’s older brother’s words.
“…so even outsiders can see?” Nenjen asked.
“We can. Your field was the only one that’s beautiful.”
(So the expert farmer had said.)
“…not really. I just did it to increase the yield. I see it as me toiling hard with what I’m stuck with.”
“I wonder.” Basen was harsh. She understood the reason why this very earnest military official, despite it being a matter from fifty years ago, was treating the person who had been toiling away endlessly at a task inferior to livestock in such a cold manner. He was probably wondering why the elderly man wasn’t saddled with a harsher punishment.
It wasn’t that Maomao didn’t think the same thing. It was just that she also knew that nothing would come from punishment. At least, thanks to Nenjen’s continued existence, they were able to hear his story.
(How did Rikuson know about this grandpa?)
A criminal who had been shackled to farmland for over fifty years. He was also already released from his social status as a serf. She didn’t think that Rikuson would know about this person, having been posted to the western capital not so long ago.
(Did he hear it from someone at the western capital, or…)
Rather than thinking, it would be faster to ask about it.
“The person called Rikuson, did he come to this village aware of the ritual?”
“That’s right. I didn’t think that there would still be people knowing about it nowadays. Even the territory lord here doesn’t even know about it. He said that he heard it from an acquaintance.” Nenjen put down his empty teacup and sat on the hard bed.
“The territory lord didn’t know either? Um, is that about Gyoku’en-sama?”
Nenjen had called Gyoku’en the upstart territory lord in his tale.
“Yeah, that was a bad way to put it. Not him. It’s certainly the case that this Gyoku’en-sama person governs the entire Isei Province. But the one who rules over this region is his son.”
“That’s right. His name was, that, Gyoku’ou or something along those lines.”
It seems the former bandit and serf didn’t respect the territory lords that much. Maomao didn’t care much about it, but apparently Basen couldn’t stand Nenjen’s attitude. She thought that it was already good that the youth wasn’t flying at the elderly man.
“Gyoku’ou-sama somehow found this village to be high in value. Does it have something? Is it related to the ritual?”
“Nothing to do with the ritual. It’s because it’s popular. The territory lord doesn’t criticise the farmers even when they get a bad harvest. Rather, if there are food troubles, the lord would show his merciful heart. If you’re unlucky, you can get more than those who work properly.”
“Ahh, that’s enviable,” Rahan’s older brother whispered.
“How benevolent of him. There are a lot of people who quit herding livestock, saying that it’s better to be a farmer.” Nenjen was on the contrary. He was speaking like he was spitting.
“With such a benevolent territory lord, it sounds like the ritual would be done properly, though.” Rahan’s older brother tapped the empty teacup.
“As I was saying before, the current territory lord knows nothing about the ritual. Even the Ih Clan wasn’t aware of the specifics. What I’m doing is only copying what’s known.”
“…so this ritual is not a prayer to the gods, but actually a preventative measure against the locust plague,” Maomao said.
“That’s right. Serfs including me were given a job in place of our lives. We were forced to do it even if we didn’t want to. Among us, some tried to escape and some slacked off, but since we had been kept alive as leftovers, those people were mercilessly hung. If you don’t plough the fields, you die—in thinking that, you’d have to work insanely to the point of death.”
It was a given that Nenjen’s past wasn’t forgivable.
“Ten years later, even serfs can get paid for their harvest. It’s chump change, but the sum is large enough that you could save up. This place is close to the western capital. For that, I feel my pardon is great. It’s simple words; I got motivation from that and began thinking about things like what should I do to grow crops well, how not to get sick, how to reduce locust plagues. Even when I started to raise chickens, it was all so that they would eat the insects for me.”
“Chickens wouldn’t be the birds the Wind-reader tribe used, right?” she asked.
“It’s not. It wasn’t chickens. They’re not suited for travelling in the steppes.”
“Not chickens? Then…” Basen looked serious. “DUCKS?”
“AS IF!” Rahan’s older brother immediately yelled. Basen knitted his brows at the instant retort.
“I heard ducks eat insects. They’re bigger than chickens so wouldn’t they eat more insects?”
“Ducks prefer water. There’s no way of raising them on land as dry as this.”
“Don’t dismiss them completely. Even ducks might be raised if they try.”
“I’ve never seen a duck try.”
Basen was hung up on ducks for some reason.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t ducks either. It’s not a bird I’m familiar with,” Nenjen said.
Told you, Rahan’s older brother made such a face. His behaviour was like a normal young man his age.
“It’s the birds that I’m lacking from the Wind-reader tribe’s ritual. I think they weren’t to eat insects but rather to seek them out. There’s no way of knowing where there would be insects on a vast stretch of grassland. The Ih clan protected the Wind-reader tribe precisely because they knew of this method.”
And the survivor of the destroyed tribe saw through the superstition of that tribe.
“Well, it’s best I return to work soon. I’m not finished yet.” Nenjen stood up with some effort.
“Okay. Is it possible for us to help out?” Maomao asked.
“The visitors of the western capital are fanciful. The Rikuson you talked about also said the same thing. It’ll be a great help to me. I’m the only former serf. The new people who came into the village only work in their own fields. It’s getting harder by the year to plough the fields of those who are gone…”
He was probably close to seventy years old. An age where it wouldn’t be strange to die soon, and yet he was still working.
(He won’t be forgiven from his crimes though.)
Nenjen walked away. It looked as though there was an invisible shackle on his leg.