“I heard that the sacred bamboo tree only blooms once every twenty years.”
She couldn’t contain her excitement, and when she hounded him, he nodded.
“Yes. Only the branches that immediately fall off after the flower blooms become fragrant wood. Furthermore, the sacred bamboo tree only grows deep in the mountains, far from the capital, and there are very few of them. That’s why it’s hard to get its fragrance wood. This year, the once-in-twenty-years flowers finally bloomed, and we were able to get our hands on a reasonable amount of fragrant wood.”
“Wow! Wouldn’t that help with the treasured incense research?”
“Yes, but it’s only a small amount. It’s not a large amount. Once it’s used up, we’ll have to wait another twenty years to get more fragrant wood. That’s why there’s a lot of arguments in court right now.”
“What are they arguing about?”
“There’s only a limited amount of fragrant wood, so they want to limit the number of perfumers who try their hand at mixing the treasured incense to only the best. They not only invited perfumers from the Department of Incenses, but also regular perfumers. The court is gathering together some excellent perfumers. The court will hold a perfumers meeting in front of the Emperor where those in attendance will present what they’ve created.”
“The court is holding a perfumers meeting?”
It can be said that almost all qualified perfumers want to join the Department of Incenses, since they can use rare materials and expensive tools that can only be obtained in court.
However, until now, the court has only allowed perfumers who have passed the Imperial examination to enter the Department of Incenses.
This time, however, the court will be welcoming regular perfumers; which is a very special occurrence.
“In short, they want me to complete the treasured incense before the perfumers meeting, even if it takes help from regular perfumers. Those who believe in meritocracy, believe that things like incenses, perfumers who use unknown things and other weak people should leave the court!”
Mokuren sighed loudly and rested his chin on his hand.
“If we can’t produce the treasured fragrance by the time His Majesty participates in the perfumers meeting, then the military will probably take advantage of this opportunity to try to destroy the Department of Incenses. But I don’t think it will be easy to create the treasured incense that has been a mystery for hundreds of years. But of course, I’ll try my best to do so.”
Riri brought her face close to the depressed Mokuren.
“His Majesty will never allow it no matter how insolent the military is. I heard this from Father a long time ago that His Majesty is very fond of incenses and puts a lot of effort into running the Minister of Incenses.”
“That’s true, but things aren’t going well this time. In fact, it has been decided that the Crown Prince will become the Emperor next year.”
She recalled the Crown Prince who she had met during the day. He was kind, handsome and perfect.
“Doesn’t the Crown Prince normally inherit the throne after the Emperor passes away?”
“Yes, but between you and me, it seems like His Majesty isn’t in good health. Even now, the Emperor’s duties are taken care of by the Crown Prince. It seems His Majesty is planning to abdicate in a year’s time and appoint the Crown Prince as the new Emperor.”
She was surprised to hear that the Emperor wasn’t feeling well since she hadn’t heard any rumours about this. Mokuren pushed up his glasses.
“So, His Majesty wants to raise the nation’s power by perfecting the treasured incense which is said to be powerful enough to repel any enemy by the time the Crown Prince takes over the throne. But there’s only a month left before the perfumers meeting. I don’t believe I can make it by then.”
This was what Mokuren, the head of the Department of Incenses, really thought. He sighed.
“But the Department of Incenses might be destroyed if I don’t complete the treasured incense. Your father… Saido-sama left the Department of Incenses to me. He was a great perfumer. I learnt a lot from him. I can’t let the Department of Incenses which I have inherited from him be destroyed in my generation.”
Riri’s father’s name was Ou Saido. She went by Ren Riri when she moved downtown, but her real name is Ou Riri. She recalled her father’s back while he was mixing incenses and a thought occurred to her while she endured the usual headache. She spoke since she couldn’t keep it in.
“Please… please let me try to create the treasured incense as well.”
She looked at Mokuren sincerely and said. He didn’t seem surprised.
“I thought you would say that. The treasured incense is something that Saido-sama spent his lifetime researching.”
Mokuren paused and stared at Riri.
“But the only people who can try to make the treasured incense are perfumers. You might have a clue about how to make it since you watched Saido-sama work, so I really want you to help me with this, but you won’t be invited to court since you haven’t taken the national exam.”
Riri bit her lips tightly. It wasn’t like she didn’t want to take the national exam; she wasn’t allowed to take it because she was a woman.
“But my nose remembers the scent of the materials that father used. I couldn’t do anything about it since the materials were all too precious to obtain. But I’m sure I can help now that you have the sacred bamboo wood.”
She put her hand on her chest and begged Mokuren to let her help him.
“I’ll prove that father really did make the treasured incense!”
Mokuren crossed his arms and pondered when Riri bought up what she had been thinking about since her father passed away.
“It’s true that your super olfaction can detect what materials we’d need to mix together, but you don’t know how much we should use of each material, right? A small difference in the quantity can result in a completely different scent and effect. No matter how much your nose remembers, you won’t be able to make the treasure incense if you don’t know what to mix and how much to put in.”
“You’re right, but I’ll definitely work out the quantities as long as I have the ingredients and time. Please! Please let me make the treasured incense!”
Even the court had trouble getting their hands on sacred bamboo wood.
Commoners don’t even get to see the sacred bamboo wood. She didn’t want to let this chance pass.
“I know how you feel Riri, but women aren’t allowed in court… wait!”
Riri widened her eyes when Mokuren raised his voice.
“No, hmm… I just thought of a way for a woman to enter the court as a perfumer…”
Mokuren was being vague, but Riri felt as if he had finally found the only light in the dark.
Mokuren frowned grimly.
“I wouldn’t recommend it. It’ll be hard for you and more importantly…”
“I’ll decide for myself if it’s difficult or not after I hear it. Please tell me!”
Her mother pretended to be fine in front of her, but she was still grieving the loss of her husband, so she often had trouble sleeping at night and wasn’t feeling well.
When she woke up in the middle of the night, she would sometimes find her mother sobbing silently to herself.
(Of course, I want to make the treasured incense, but I also want to prove that father was the one who made it. I’m sure mother will feel at ease if father’s honour is restored.)
Fortunately, she had her super olfaction and was good at mixing fragrances.
“Please, Mokuren. Please give me a chance to create the secret incense!”
Mokuren groaned and looked up at the ceiling when she pleaded strongly.
“To be honest, if it’s possible to make the treasured incense, then you would have the best chance to create it. The only time we can try to create the treasured incense is right now since we can only get the sacred bamboo wood once every twenty years. It will be a big project for the Department of Incenses. If we really can’t make it, then the survival of the Department of Incenses will be in jeopardy.”
“So, let me help you. I have a lot of memories at the Department of Incenses since Father worked there. I can’t accept that it’ll be destroyed. Is there a way for a woman to become a perfumer?”
“No, you won’t be a perfumer… but it’s a special position.”
“What do you mean?”
Mokuren finally looked up and spoke boldly.
“Only men are allowed to work in court. That’s why the officials are all men. But there is one place where only women gather. Do you know where it is?”
She pondered when asked this question.
“A place where only women gather? Is it the kitchen?”
“There are men in the kitchen too. I’m not talking about the kitchen. There’s a place where that’s full of women and only certain men have access to it. If unauthorised men try to sneak into this place, then they’ll be beheaded. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s also the most gorgeous place in this country.”
After thinking about it, she suddenly thought of such a place.
“Is it the inner palace? The Emperor’s Empress and concubines live there.”
“That’s right. In fact, it was decided that the Crown Prince must have a wife when he ascends the throne. He will ascend the throne in a year, but he’s still single. Therefore, they decided that they will build him an inner palace so that he’ll settle down soon.”
The only thing that came to Riri’s mind when she heard the word ‘inner palace’ was well-dressed women living in elegance. She couldn’t imagine any more than that since it was a world too far away for someone living downtown like her.
“So, noble young ladies who are candidates to be his empress are gathering one after another, but first of all, there are two main conditions that must be met before they’re recognised as a empress candidate. The first is their status. Only daughters of high-ranking members of the court can be recognised as a candidate. And the other condition is…”
Mokuren held up his index finger and stared at Riri.
“… that they must have great talent. For example, they must have the knowledge and skills to become a perfumer.”
She realised why he was telling her this.
“So, I can be an empress candidate?”
“Yes, but you have to be a noble. You used to be a noble, but now you live downtown. You usually wouldn’t be able to enter the inner palace because of this, but it might work out if I become your guarantor.”
Mokuren paused and softly put a hand on her shoulder.
“Most importantly, you have talent. The Crown Prince praised you a lot when you saved that woman in the clinic earlier today. Even after that, he talked about how talented you were with his close aides. With your achievement, you might be able to enter the inner palace.”
Riri’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Can I attend the perfumer’s meeting if I enter the inner palace?”
“It’s not that easy. You’ll have to directly ask His Majesty of the Crown Prince if you can participate in the perfumer’s meeting. It’ll be quite difficult, but you’ll have a better chance to attend the meeting this way rather than sitting around doing nothing downtown.”
Riri suddenly felt uneasy when she heard those words.
“It would be quite dangerous to enter the inner palace just to participate in the meeting. If I can’t persuade the Emperor or the Crown Prince to let me participate, then wouldn’t I be executed…?”
She asked fearfully and Mokuren nodded seriously.
“Yes, and you might not be able to meet the Emperor or the Crown Prince even if you enter a dangerous place like the inner palace. But you should be prepared for a situation like this if you want to try your hand at making the treasured incense even though you’re not a perfumer.”
His words were harsh, but true. Riri folded her arms.
“I can’t bring the sacred bamboo wood here since it’s forbidden to take it out of the palace. It requires special tools to mix, so it’s impossible to mix it outside too. If you want to try to make the treasured incense, then you’ll have to enter the palace.”
It certainly seemed that way. She was scared to enter the inner palace, a world she had never seen before, but her dream can come true if she pushed her fear away.
“I want to do everything I can to restore Father’s honour. If there’s a chance for me to make the treasured incense by entering the inner palace… then I’ll do it.”
She said emotionally, and Mokuren frowned again.
“But the inner palace is a scary place. The empress candidates smile at each other while arguing and glaring at each other. I’m worried about you getting involved in that.”
“I’m scared too. It makes me shiver just thinking about it. But if I stay here because I’m afraid then I won’t be able to move forward. I’ll do whatever it takes to complete the treasured incense.”
When she expressed her determination, Mokuren finally relaxed and nodded.
“Alright. I’ll do my best to help you. Let’s do our best to create the treasured incense!”
She immediately decided to work out her plan with Mokuren of what to do from now on in order to take a step toward her dream.