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Mira was born in a peaceful village.
Situated far from the Capital, the soil was fertile, and its seasons were beautiful.
If you headed to the eastern tip of the Kingdom of Insen, you would find some mountains, and upon crossing them you would arrive in the land of sand.
Not only was it situated in a basin formed by those mountains, its summerr were sultry, its winters freezing, but it was troubled by neither flooding nor snow.
Almost all of the villagers made a livelihood of growing zhaltkane. It was by no means an easy lifestyle. Come harvest, things became so busy that you would even want the help of a khat. Even so, the time they spent here was relaxed, and warm.
The price of zhaltkane had long been stable. Even if they couldn’t live in luxury, it was possible to live on zhaltkane without lacking food nor clothing. Perhaps that was why the villagers were all so gentle and carefree.
Mira had a thought. If she had been born somewhere else, she would surely have suffered in life.
Mira was thankful for her family. She was thankful to all the villagers. And she was thankful to the zhaltkane too.
The steady lifestyle gave the villagers peace of mind, and it gave birth to a place accepting enough to even accept a person like her.
Mira was aware that she was an oddball.
Since infancy, Mira had always seemed to have a few screws loose. She would always be staring blankly into the sky, and even when you called out to her, she wouldn’t reply. She would also have trouble staying in one place, and would often disappear before anybody noticed. And finally, she would always be discovered in outrageous places.
It was not just the one time that the villagers had to search for her. Even so, none of them rejected her, and they simply watched over her kindly.
Everyone had seen her as a child that they needed to protect.
And when she turned eight, her assessment suddenly changed.
The reason she stared blankly into the sky was because she was finding questions from across the world, and thinking about their answers. The reason she would never reply was because the questions demanded her undivided attention, and she never realised you were talking to her to begin with. The reason she would never stay in one place was because once she found her interest in something, she would lose sight of everything else.
The teacher who realised her talent was also an oddball. Although he had graduated from an elite university in the Capital, he turned his back on the path of becoming an official, and instead taught a school in the backwater village that Mira lived in.
Once, Mira had asked him why he came to her village.
He gave a somewhat self-mocking smile, and muttered,
“Because I discovered that I was a ribitt in a well. I ran away.
“But you…” said the teacher, as he placed his hand on Mira’s head.
Not long afterwards, he counselled her parents to let her attend school in the Capital.
At first, they doubted his words, when he claimed that their daughter was an undeniable genius.
But after they saw Mira distinguish herself under his teachings, they began to seriously consider it.
However, Mira herself refused.
Growing zhaltkane granted a steady lifestyle. But to support a child living in the capital on it was uneasy.
Not only that, Mira was female. Even if she became an excellent student with fantastic grades, far from becoming a high official, it was doubtful as to whether she could even enter university.
There was no point to forcing a burden onto her parents and two brothers if she couldn’t pay them back.
The teacher mourned her talent, but Mira had no regrets.
Mira knew that there were plenty of things to learn, even without going to a fancy university in the Capital.
The flowers in the fields, the insects that crawled the earth, the moon and stars as they glittered in the night sky; questions about the world were endless, and she would never be lacking in things to ponder. To Mira, everything around her was a teacher as well.
And so, Mira’s worth had completely changed after the teacher had moved into the village.
Until eight, she had been worried about as an absent-minded child, but after that she was praised as a prodigy.
And now, when she was twenty, her worth changed once again.
――The difference between a genius and an idiot is paper thin.
Sometimes in disbelief, and sometimes in knowing jest, this line had become used to describe her.
Even though she was older now, neither her occasional absentmindedness, nor her habit of disappearing had been fixed at all. She was painfully aware that it was a problem.
Mira knew best that this new assessment fit her perfectly.
And now, considering the situation she currently found herself in…
“…I might really be an idiot,”
she muttered, as she gave a huge sigh.
Why had things come to this…?
It all began with a lake on the edge of the village. She had set out to observe the eggs of an insect that made their nests in asch leaves, found on lake shores. It was then that she had noticed the change.
Even though it hadn’t been raining, the water level had increased.
At this point, she should have run back to the village and discussed it with the villagers and her teacher.
The lakewater was used for irrigation as well as paddies. A change to the lake was a serious matter for the village.
But Mira’s bad habit reared its head.
With a new question in her mind, everything else was pushed out.
It was as though all sound from her surroundings disappeared, and her vision narrowed until she could only see one thing.
All she knew was that it had to do with the lake.
Mira walked the circumference of the lake, and noticed that one of the streams feeding into it had deepened. And so, she began to walk and follow it upstream.
She continued to observe as she walked, careful of the terrain beneath her feet. When night fell, she would set up a bonfire and rest, and when day broke, she would resume her walking.
Mira continued to walk, as she gave thanks to her mother, who had prepared food and a flint because of her habit of becoming a vagrant, and finally, she reached what she believed to be the source.
She was in a forest now.
A common, zuki forest that the villagers would often come to for lumber.
But there was a clear change. The ground was muddy for a large area around the forest.
The river continued beyond the river, but the muddiness stopped here. It was likely that this place was the cause then.
With a tree branch, Mira dug the ground here and there. Just digging a little was enough to find water.
Zuki trees preferred a drier environment. Finding this much water here would meant that even the healthiest trees here would one day rot and die.
As for the cause, first, Mira considered changes in the climate, causing a mountain peak somewhere to thaw and flood the place.
But how strange then, that only this place was wet.
In that case, the next idea she came up with was a change in the currents of the water table.
Considering how more water gushed out the further down she dug, this seemed to be correct.
At the moment, the increase in water volume was just enough to cover the forest. But if this continued to grow, or perhaps the subterranean water currents changed again, then the zhaltkane would no doubt be affected as well.
This time, the thought of going back to the village occurred to her.
She walked around the quagmire, measuring its scope, as well as the water level on wet trees.
Then, just as she thought to return, and was wiping her muddy hands on her clothing, it happened.
Two never-before-seen, small, long-eared animals appeared in front of her.
The animal jumped out from a hole about the size of two cupped hands, and then began scratching the base of its ear with its forelegs.
Its eyes were round, and under the mud, there was white fur. After shaking off the mud from its body, it noticed Mira, and then bounced off into the forest.
At that moment, the idea of returning to the village disappeared from her mind.
She chased after the light, hopping animals. She was out of breath, her legs were dirtied from splashing mud, but Mira paid no mind.
After a long, long chase, it suddenly ended.
It was when she left the forest, and had just reached a grass plain.
The animal let out a cry, and then suddenly, its long ears could no longer be spied peeping from out of the grass.
She ran to where it had been in a panic, and found that both animals were laying there, bleeding.
Wondering what on earth had happened, she looked around but only saw grass, blowing in the wind.
Although Mira felt that something was wrong, she grabbed the two animals, planning on bringing it back to study.
Thinking back, that had been a mistake.
Just as she registered two lustrous black poles, rising from the bloodied earth, those poles turned out to be a gargantuan insect that appeared before her.
Seeing it clack its horn-like, feeler-like organs together, Mira immediately placed the animals into her bag, and ran.
As she ran, she looked back to find that the insect had disappeared… Instead, a swell in the ground seemed to follow her.
It was even more frightening than had the insect been chasing her in the open.
“Gyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh! Stay awayy! Please stay awayy! I’m all skin and boness! I’m not tasty at alll!””
The massive insect answered her desperate plea by appearing from underground.
Mira clung to a lone tree in the plains, desperately trying to climb.
Tree climbing was not her strong point, but her desperation somehow got her up.
But she couldn’t relax. Although the insect’s six, bony legs didn’t seem suitable for climbing trees, if it did manage to climb it, it would be the end of the line for her.
Face soiled by mucous and tears, Mira prayed that it wouldn’t be able to reach her.
But Mira’s prayer would be answered in a mysterious way.
A boy, and then for some reason a half-naked woman. Two ghosts appeared to save her.
Ordered by the boy ghost, she tossed the long-eared beast――apparently called a sunarabi――away from herself.
The ghost duo immediately disappeared, but the insect――called an arrijighock by the ghosts――stayed put for a while, by the sunarabi blood.
Her hands, still trembling from terror, rubbed the ghost boy’s wet clothing against her skin.
Only once she made sure that the sharp smell had transferred to her skin, could she finally feel a little relieved.
Just as the boy suggested, Mira forced her terror-stricken mind to work again, and realised that the arrijighock was staying away from the smell.
She then waited patiently.
The arrijighock wandered about regretfully by the bloodstains, before eventually disappearing into the earth.
Once the sun had fully set, she wrapped the ghost boy’s clothes around her legs and climbed down from the tree.
Then, she ran.
She ran, and ran, and ran.
She had reluctantly left behind the bloodstained bag.
Thanks to that, the flint, the small leather cape soaked in oils to repel the rain, as well as her portable foods had come to nothing.
It was only when her knees shook, her legs felt weak, and she was sure that she couldn’t run a step further did she find a boulder to crawl onto.
She wet her sore throat with her saliva, and then lay down on the rock. Looking up at the star-filled sky, she finally calmed down.
There was a lot to think about. A change to underground water currents, sunarabi, and arrijighock. She had a lot of questions about the ghosts too, but considering that as well would have exceeded Mira’s capacity.
She decided to forget about it for now.
Mira had only intended to use it to calm herself down, but as she traced each constellation, one by one, eventually she became absorbed in it.
After tracing over fifty constellations, her eyelids grew heavy.
Just before she drifted off, an urge that overpowered even sleepiness assaulted her.
――My stomach… hurts…
Was it because she had been exposed to too much fear, or was it because she had lay down on this cold boulder without wiping her sweat…
Prompted by the intense pain, Mira rolled off the boulder, dug a hole, and then crouching across it, she removed her clothing.
At some point, her sweat had run cold.
After making it just on time, and relieving herself of the pain, she looked around, and then blanched.
As for why, it was because the place was surrounded by nothing but urcyn trees, with their poisonous sap.
Had she not been obsessed with counting the stars, had she taken care of the cold, had she observed the surrounding vegetation, had she not chased after the sunarabi, and had she just simply headed straight back from the lake to begin with…
Regret tormented her endlessly.
With only one hope left, she checked her pockets. Inside her jacket, she found only a cylinder, hard to the touch, and was crestfallen. It was zhaltkane. Before going to the lake, she had gone to the fields to cut off a piece to see how well things were doing. Naturally, she couldn’t use this to wipe herself.
Would she give up wiping, or would she deal with the rash?
Pitiably stuck between these two horrible choices, she gave a large sigh and muttered to herself.
I knew it…
“…I might really be an idiot.”
“Eh? An idiot?”
Even though nobody should have answered, a confused voice reached her ears.
“That’s weird. I asked the window to connect me to somebody knowledgeable.”
The mutters came from the voice of a young woman.
Mira turned her head in confusion. There was still a long way from the village, and she remembered that there hadn’t even been a hut around here. This wasn’t a place for a woman to be wandering in the middle of the night.
Mira could hear the woman’s dumbfounded voice from the other side of the boulder.
“Ummmm, are you perhaps troubled? Or rather, where on earth are you?”
“I-, I’m here! I’m actually very troubled right now…!”
It was impossible for her not to be suspicious of a voice in the middle of nowhere. But you couldn’t escape an emergency without compromise, and more importantly than anything, the fact that it was a woman had encouraged her to seek help.
“Mn? The other side of the boulder? Could you maybe come here instead?”
“That’s, umm, I’m kind of stuck here at the moment…”
“Then just wait a little, okay? I’ll grab some clothes and shoes, and head there once I’m changed.”
Mira fell silent.
If she needed to go get clothes, then didn’t that mean that this woman was currently naked?
Mira had checked many times. There was no sign of any humans in this forest. What was a woman doing walking about naked here!?
――C-, Could it be that she’s on a lover’s rendezvous…?
Just thinking that had turned Mira bright red.
And then that bright red turned deathly white.
If she was on a rendezvous with a lover, then of course, that meant there was a man nearby. If the two of them came here, they’d see her squatting here with her whole butt on display. No, even if it was just the woman, it wouldn’t change the fact that it was embarrassing.
Mira frantically called out to stop her.
“S-Stop please. It’s a bit problematic for you to come over right now…”
“Oh. Really? That’s troubling. I actually wanted to ask you for a favour, but… Ah, I know!”
Apparently the woman had thought of something.
Mira waited patiently.
After a while, the woman’s voice came again.
“I’m going to fly it overrr. Catch it, okayy?”
Eh? Catch what?*
Before Mira could ask, something glid gently through the air, to land before her eyes.
When Mira first saw it soar through the air, she thought it was a paper kite.
In fact, her master was a kite enthusiast. It was his dream to create a kite large enough to ride on. To support him, she helped with the schematics and materials, but for some reason the villagers stopped them in a panic.
Because she had read through various books on paper kite making from the capital, she had a little confidence in her knowledge of them.
But when she reached out and picked up the paper, she found that it was different to any paper kite she knew.
The thing in her hands had been created through folding.
With a pointed head, and a set of wings, it brought the image of a bird to mind.
Was the repeatedly folded head, and the weight added to it, done in order to modify its centre of gravity and lifting power?
Curious about how it was made, she unfolded it, and it became a piece of paper in her hands.
It was said that the rich merchants of the Capital used not leaves, but paper, to wipe their butts!
This woman had surely known about Mira’s predicament, and sent this to help her, while tactfully pretending not to know anything.
Although Mira felt it was a waste to do this to such a curiously-folded kite, the woman said that she had some favour she needed to ask as well.
“Hey, did it reach you?” urged the woman.
Mira resolved herself. She needed to return this favour.
Just before she wiped her butt, some words became visible under the moonlight, but she paid no heed and wiped, before throwing the paper into the hole, and then burying it up.
After fixing her clothing, she climbed onto the boulder. As expected, the woman was on the other side of it. And as expected, she was stark naked.
What was unexpected, was that the woman was not just an ordinary woman.
Mira remembered this mysterious rectangular vehicle with its shining lights.
The woman was the ghost that saved Mira from the arrijighock.
When she first witnessed a ghost, something she had always thought to be imaginary, she was struck with shock, and then fright.
But now that one had saved her from a crisis, not once but twice, even that terror had softened quite a bit.
“Thank you very much. You saved me.”
When Mira came from behind the boulder, she found the woman looking at her with surprise.
“Eh? Saved you? …Or rather, aren’t you the person that was attacked by the arrijighock?”
“Yes. Thank you for helping me that time.”
“You can thank Roten. I didn’t particularly…”
Mira guessed that Roten was the name of the ghost boy.
“Um, this may be an awkward question, but was that insect your familiar, Lady Ghost?”
Now that she was meeting with a ghost for the first time, she found her curiosity welling up.
“Ah, no, I’m not a ghost or anything. Roten isn’t either, of course. Ah, but Roten’s tribe, the Ottko Yu tribe can communicate with arrijighocks, so maybe calling them a familiar isn’t entirely wrong.”
“The Ottko Yu tribe. I have heard of them. The ill-fortuned tribe chased out of the land of sand. If I remember correctly, they made a living digging wells, or something…”
“What the. So you really are knowledgeable.”
The ghost …or rather, the naked woman, smiled happily at her.
“Sorry for being so blunt, but could you tell me what that letter before said?”
Mira very nearly failed to swallow her shriek.
That wasn’t paper given to wipe her butt!?
“After you’re done with it, you can do whatever you like with it. It’s just a guess, but I think it will be very helpful to you in the future.”
It was already helpful…
“By the way, where is it?”
Perhaps feeling some doubt about how Mira was tense and silent, the woman sent her a searching gaze.
“Eh? ….Ummm …That… Ummm…”
Her whole body ran with a cold sweat.
The woman said that she wasn’t a ghost, but she was definitely an existence with inhuman and transcendental powers.
If Mira earned her wrath, she might even lose her life.
“Oh? Did it not reach you? Maybe I shouldn’t have used a paepererr plene…” muttered the woman, as she scratched her head.
Mire couldn’t bear it any more, and fell to the ground.
“My deepest apologies! My stomach was upset, and after I finished my business I used it to clean myself. I buried it together with the waste, b-but there was something important written on it, wasn’t there!? I will go dig it up. Only, because my stomach was upset, there was a lot of liquid and… whether it can still be read is…”
She really was an idiot. The biggest idiot in all the land. Even though she had just barely survived, here she had gone and thrown her life away again. She couldn’t help but feel regret over not being able to live to see her master fulfil his dreams of soaring the skies.
“Aaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh~~~ No, that was my fault…”
Hearing the stumped voice, Mira looked up to find the woman at her wits end.
“So that’s what you meant when you didn’t want me to come over, huh.”
“Are you not angry?” timidly asked Mira.
The woman simply gave a self-depreciating smile.
“Without knowing what was going on, I even went and asked you for a favour. That was my fault.”
“I really am sorry…”
Mira hung her head. The woman was a surprisingly good person, which made Mira feel all the more pathetic for failing to help her.
She tried to at least remember what she saw under the moonlight. It wasn’t the language used in the Kingdom of Insen, but she recalled her master teaching her in the past.
“Umm, from what I could tell, I think I saw something like “toy” and “custard” or something. That was truly all I saw. How can I possibly apologise…”
“Ummm, don’t be so down, okay? Ah-, I know! I actually have one more favour to ask, so could you maybe help with that? Please lend me your knowledge. I’ve been looking for somebody to read that arrow letter and answer my question, you see.”
“I will do anything I can to be of use,” replied Mira, her face now blossomed into a bright smile.
“Thank goodness. You see, there was actually this ceremony to determine the next chief of the Ottko Yu tribe, and I’m actually wondering about the words of the arrijighock that Roten heard while we were there.”
“The words of the arrijighock?”
“Yes, they kept saying “We can’t stay here” and “It isn’t here” and “Let’s chase after it” and they were looking for sunarabi. And also, Yuataree, ah, Yuataree is Roten’s big sister, you see. She’s also the new chief, and she said that the insects had been murmuring something over and over again. So, it’s just a thought, okay? If all the sunarabi have disappeared somewhere, then the arrijighock will be starved for food, right? Then won’t that mean the Ottko Yu tribe will be thrown into a crisis as well? After all, they depend on each other, the tribe and the arrijighock.”
“That makes sense.”
“And so what I wanted to ask was, where exactly have the sunarabi gone? ――Actually, now that I mention it, you were holding sunarabi the last time we met, weren’t you… Where was that?”
Mira could boast of her carelessness. But the woman in front of her seemed to be a good match in that respect.
“This is the Kingdom of Insen. We’re situated to the west-northwest of the land of sand, Yohk’Zai.”
“…Then, does that mean we’re quite far from the Ottko Yu tribe?”
“I don’t know where exactly the Ottko Yu tribe are living, but I suspect we are quite far from them.”
“I suppose we would be. Aah, geez, why did the sunarabi move so far away. Isn’t there any way we can get them to go back? Could we use the arrijighock to herd them back, or something?”
Mira held her chin in thought for a while, before shaking her head.
“Even if we chase them back, I do not believe that we could return them to where the Ottko Yu tribe are living. First, let us think about why the sunarabi moved to begin with.”
Mira firmly believed that everything had a reason.
From the changes in the shape of the moon, to the reason that appas fell from trees, none of it happened ‘just because’. There was always a reason.
There was an incident that happened half a year after her teacher first moved to their village. The baabaas in Mira’s family, as well as the neighbouring households, suddenly started having trouble producing milk.
The adults all ignored the issue, and wrote it off with the reason, “Well, this stuff happens sometimes.”
Sometimes there would be a lot of milk, and sometimes there would be less. One day, the baabaas would start producing milk again, they reasoned, and left it alone.
But Mira couldn’t help but wonder. The baabaas in her family were all young, and ate a lot too, so she couldn’t think of why they wouldn’t be producing milk any more.
Mira couldn’t help but want to find out why. And so she skipped school, and spent the whole day following them around. She waited until her family fell asleep, and then with a pillow in one hand, she waited through the night by the baabaas’ side, and finally came upon the reason.
――There were flees in the baabaa beddings.
The baabaas were being bitten by the many flees, and because of the discomfort, they stopped producing milk.
In addition to the answer, Mira also received itching all over her body, her father’s fist on her head, as well as his thanks for her troubles.
The villagers immediately burned all the bedding, and after that began smoking the flees.
This incident gave Mira confidence, and conviction.
Everything happened for a reason.
The sunarabi hadn’t simply left their old home ‘just because’. They hadn’t simply come to the Kingdom of Insen ‘just because’.
The arrijighock chased after the sunarabi.
Then what were the sunarabi chasing after, that brought them all the way here?
Mira’s thoughts immediately brought her into a world of silence.
The abnormalities in the lake. The muddied forest. The sunarabi that appeared from the hole, and the arrijighock that tunnelled through the earth.
――Finally, the ancient profession of the Ottko Yu.
The many untied threads came together into a single rope.
“The sunarabi were chasing after the water!”
“That’s right. The underground water currents changed. The sunarabi I found had come out from the ground. The sunarabi probably move between the surface and the subterranean water currents. The reason that the Ottko Yu tribe were able to dig wells in the past was because the arrijighock preyed on the sunarabi, and the tribe could use them to determine the underground water flows!”
“Oohh!” exclaimed the woman, as she clapped in applaud. “In that case, the Ottko Yu probably can’t keep living where they are now, huh.”
The problem would extend beyond just the Ottko Yu tribe. If the underground water currents had changed, it would affect lands everywhere. Insen as well.
Mira produced the zhaltkane from her pocket.
“Zhaltkane. Would you be so kind as to look at it?”
Mira passed the zhaltkane over, and the woman examined it curiously from various angles.
“It’s a produce for flavouring that my village cultivates, but because of the changes in the water table, we might not be able to any longer…”
Mira’s voice was dark. How was she going to break this news to the villagers who were depending on this for their livelihoods?
“I see. So it isn’t only the Ottko Yu that’s troubled. Hmmm… To be honest, I think I’ve gone way past just ‘meddling’ by now…” muttered the woman, powerlessly. “Should I let Roten know first? But then…”
The woman groaned.
“Hahh, I guess I’m just going to rest for today. Gotta wake up early tomorrow. This was a, uh, zhaltkane was it? Could I take this? If I don’t take something from here, I might not be able to connect to the next person.”
Mira didn’t understand what she was talking about, but it was nothing to lose a zhaltkane or two. She immediately consented.
The woman lifted her arms wearily, and placed a hand against the rim of the vehicle.
A rattling sound reached Mira’s ears, and then the entrance shut.
Just before the woman disappeared, Mira remembered.
It wasn’t “toy”, it was “boy”. And it wasn’t “custard”, it was “custody.”
“That letter! It said “boy” and “custody”!”
Mira quickly shouted just before, far from only the woman, even the vehicle disappeared without a trace――
Oh gods. I haven’t washed my hands yet…
“things became so busy that you would even want the help of a khat.”
If you replace khat with ‘cat’, you get a Japanese saying that means ‘super busy’.
Couldn’t think of an English equivalent, sorry.
Also, zhaltkane looks like sugarcane.