Two days after Riri had heard about the perfumers meeting, Mokuren came to see her to tell her that he had gotten permission for her to enter the inner palace.
When she was brought to Mokuren’s mansion to begin her preparations immediately, she saw beautiful outfits, gorgeous hairpins and ornaments. There was also a pretty girl, a little younger than herself, at Mokuren’s mansion.
“Let me introduce you. Riri, this is Ryouka. I’ve hired her to take care of you in the inner palace as your maid.”
Ryouka was a girl for whom the word ‘sweet’ suited well.
Riri and Ryouka faced each other in a large room with outfits lined up on the walls and Ryouka bowed.
“It’s nice to meet you. Riri-sama.”
Seeing Ryouka’s somewhat embarrassed expression, Riri quickly turned towards Mokuren.
“It’s too much for me to have a maid. I can take care of myself.”
“But you don’t know much about the etiquettes of the court even though you were originally a noble, Riri. And you’ll be an empress candidate, so you’ll need at least one maid. Ryouka can teach you a lot about the palace since she’s been there for a long time. I also told her that you want to create the treasured incense.”
When Riri looked at Ryouka in surprise, Ryouka nodded as if she knew everything. Riri took a step closer to her.
“I’m entering the inner palace under false pretences. This is something that I will be punished for if everyone finds out about it. You might get punished as well if you stay with me. I’m willing to risk my life for my dream, but I don’t want to put you in danger.”
Ryouka didn’t change her expression and turned towards Riri with determination.
“I’ve heard about everything from Mokuren-sama. I accepted this even though I know about everything… Actually, you’re my mother’s benefactor. My mother recovered from her long illness thanks to your incense and is now able to live a somewhat normal life. I would like to help you if you’re in trouble.”
She was still reluctant to involve others in this although she could feel Ryouka’s strong determination.
While Riri was troubled, Mokuren looked at me and Ryouka mysteriously.
“I am Riri and Ryouka’s guarantor. If it is found out that Riri’s purpose for entering the inner palace is to create the treasured incense, then I’ll take all the blame. I’ll take care of you both somehow. I know you’re worried, Riri, but please take Ryouka with you.”
Mokuren’s words were kind. Riri stared at him and sighed deeply.
“… Alright. I’ll have her come with me to the inner palace. But, if my real purpose becomes known and I’m punished for it, then I’ll let her go, but I won’t run away, since I’m entering the inner palace for my dreams. I’m prepared to be punished if I’m found out.”
If things go badly, then she might even be executed. She was actually terrified, but she couldn’t run away and let Mokuren take all the blame. Mokuren smiled wryly as he patted her head.
“Don’t worry too much. If you successfully persuade the Emperor and Kousho-sama to give you permission to make the treasured incense, then no one would be punished.”
She felt anxiety rise within her, but she managed to contain it and put on a smile.
“Yes. If I can make the treasured incense, then I’ll be able to restore Father’s honour, and the Department of Incenses will not be destroyed. First of all, I have to adapt to life in the inner palace and meet His Majesty and Kousho-sama and ask them for permission to make the treasured incense and participate in the perfumer meeting.”
The Imperial Family hoped to obtain the treasured incense because it is said to have great power. If she is able to use her sense of smell to remember what her father created, then there should still be a glimmer of hope.
“I believe that you’ll be fine. But you need to prepare first. I’m going to explain about the court and inner palace now, so listen well and be prepared. You’ll be an empress candidate, so it won’t be easy for you to leave the palace. Ryouka will be the liaison between you and I once you’re at the palace.”
Riri looked at Ryouka and Ryouka nodded. Mokuren placed his right hand on Riri’s shoulder and his left on Ryouka’s.
“We’re all in the same boat from now on. We’ll be doing something a little… no, some pretty dangerous things in order to create the treasured incense, something that no one has been able to perfect for hundreds of years. But I’m sure we’ll be able to achieve good results if we can get past all the dangers.”
Mokuren said strongly. He took a breath and looked at Ryouka again.
“I’m sorry for getting you involved in something so dangerous. But this is something we have to do no matter what. I’ll definitely protect you, so please help us.”
When Mokuren bowed his head, Ryouka looked surprised, then she gave a small smile.
“All the people whom I have served so far have never treated me like a human being. You don’t need to bow your head to me. I’ll do my best to serve you, Riri-sama.”
“You don’t have to call me ‘-sama’. Just call me by my name.”
“I can’t do that! You’re my mistress. Please call me Ryouka. They’ll be suspicious of you at the inner palace if you don’t call your maid by her name.”
Riri thought so. She turned her attention to Ryouka again.
“Then, Ryouka. I look forward to working with you.”
Seeing Ryouka smile happily and nodding, Mokuren clapped his hands.
“It’s time for you to study now that we’ve come to an agreement. I’m sure you know some things about the court, inner palace and treasured incense, but I want to double-check what you know. Come here.”
Riri and Ryouka walked to the back of the room prompted by Mokuren.
Riri sat across Mokuren on the round table.
“Have some tea.”
Riri inhaled the aroma of the tea that Ryouka had brewed in front of her.
“It smells nice. This is bingchaa way to compress tea, isn’t it?”
“It is. I made it. It’s made from steamed tea leaves that have been hardened and dried.”
“You’re so clever to be able to make your own tea. You’re amazing!”
Riri sipped the tea. The tea had a moderate bitterness to it that refreshed her palate.
“Delicious! It’s no different from the high quality tea leaves sold in the stores.”
Ryouka’s cheeks flushed in happiness. Mokuren also took a sip of his tea and straightened his posture.
“Now that we’ve had our tea, let’s talk about the court and inner palace. You sit down too, Ryouka.”
The delicious tea helped Riri relax, but she quickly pulled herself together.
Mokuren watched as Ryouka took a seat to the right of the table without hesitation and then he pushed up his glasses.
“As I’ve said before, His Majesty, Jureibun-sama, isn’t feeling well and he doesn’t come out of his room often. The Crown Prince is in charge of most of the state’s affairs. It is His Majesty’s wish that the secret incense is completed by the time the Crown Prince inherits the throne.”
Mokuren folded his arms as they listened to him.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that all perfumers are aiming to make the treasured incense, even though its existence is uncertain. Do you know why?”
Mokuren asked and Riri’s expression stiffened.
“Only those who make the treasured incense are allowed to call themselves a master perfumer, the pinnacle of perfumers. If one becomes a master perfumer, then the Emperor will grant them the title of ‘Qilin’, one of the auspicious beast titles. With the title of Qilin, one can play a central role in court alongside the Emperor.”
The qilin is a mystical beast that is said to protect and prosper the country.
In Shenzui, even children knew that this beast was a good omen.
“That’s right. There are three honourable auspicious beast titles. Do you know what they are, Riri?”
“I do. The Emperor, who rules this country, receives the title of ‘Dragon’, the title of ‘Phoenix’, which is said to be the guardian deity of the Emperor, is given to the general, and the title of ‘Qilin’, which is said to protect the country with benevolence, is given to a perfumer.”
Mokuren nodded in satisfaction.
“Yes. Those who hold the titles of Qilin and Phoenix are allowed to sit next to the Emperor, who holds the title of Dragon. After the Emperor, it is usually the Grand Chancellor who holds the most power. However, the Qilin and Phoenix are above the Grand Chancellor. In other words, they’re the second most respected beings after the Emperor. Can you imagine how much power those two will have?”
What Mokuren was saying was too magnificent, but she managed to understand and nod. Mokuren sipped his tea before continuing.
“The titles of Dragon and Phoenix are passed down from generation to generation in certain families. The Dragon title is, of course, inherited by the royal family, and the Phoenix title is inherited by the head of the family that has produced generals for generations. But the Qilin title is different. The only requirement to become a master perfumer to receive the Qilin title is to make the ‘treasured incense’.”
“Yes. Father told me that many perfumers have tried to create the treasured incense in the past so that they can obtain the Qilin title. But, no one has succeeded in this endeavour, so no one has received the Qilin title.”
Riri suddenly noticed Ryouka squirming while she was talking to Mokuren.
“What’s wrong Ryouka?”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t studied enough to keep up with what you two are talking about.”
“If you have any questions, just ask. You’re one of us, so don’t be shy.”
When Riri spoke to Ryouka, Ryouka carefully chose her words as she answered.
“I understand that auspicious beasts are sacred beings in Shinzui, and that receiving the title of Qilin… makes you the second highest rank, right after the Emperor, right?”
Mokuren nodded at the faltering Ryouka.
“Yes. His Majesty wishes to have all three of the legendary ranked people, the Dragon, the Phoenix and the Qilin. The purpose of the upcoming perfumer meeting is to make the treasured incense, and also to find a perfumer who can make the treasured incense. The army, who dislikes the high ranking officials and the Department of Incenses, have said that they will destroy the Department of Incenses if we can’t produce the treasured incense by the time of the event. As the head of the Department of Incenses, this meeting is a critical moment for me.”
Mokuren looked thoughtful and Ryouka tilted her head a little.
“But I’ve heard that His Majesty loves incenses and that he has been favouring the Department of Incenses for some time now. No matter how much the high officials and army want to destroy the Department of Incenses, I’m sure His Majesty will protect it. But why does he want all the legendary ranked people now?”
Ryouka was right to question this. Mokuren quietly said.
“It is said that the country will prosper if all three of them are together. It’s a well-known story, so I’m sure both Riri and Ryouka know about this, but there’s actually more to the story.”
Mokuren leaned forward slightly and lowered his voice even further.