It had been six years since she had visited the palace. As the carriage drove through the huge gates, she was struck by the sight of the palace.
“It looks exactly the same as it did when I came here with Father.”
Inside the gate was a garden covered with white gravel. In front of them was a large building with shiny black roof tiles. The huge vermilion, green and gold building had the same overwhelming impact as it had when Riri saw it as a child. Suddenly, she thought of her childhood visits to the palace.
“I remember Father tried to make incenses out of things that wouldn’t normally be used as fragrant woods.”
She felt a throbbing headache as soon as she remembered the image of her father working hard on his concoctions.
The two sitting in front of her, Mokuren and Ryouka, looked at her in concern.
“I always get a headache for some reason whenever I try to remember Father. When we entered the palace, I almost remembered a little about Father, but because of my headache…”
Mokuren looked serious for a moment.
“… It’s not good to force yourself to remember. I’m sure you have memories of Saido-sama in this palace. Those memories will come back to you even if you don’t force yourself to remember them. Even so, Saido-sama was amazing. He sneaked you into the palace just to let you smell the scents, right?”
“How do I say this… Father was an eccentric man who would do anything for compounding.”
Her headache had finally subsided, so she looked outside. The brightly coloured buildings in the palace were luxurious and gorgeous. There were many buildings and it looked like a town.
“There’s a lot of buildings. I spent most of my time in the Department of Incenses when I came here as a child, so this might be my first time seeing this much of the palace.”
“Each building is called a palace. Each palace has its own role and a name associated with it. For example, the Department of Incenses building is called ‘Incense Palace’. The building managed by the army is called the ‘Military Palace’. The palace where the Emperor resides is called the ‘Emperor’s Palace’. And…”
The carriage came to a halt just as Mokuren paused.
“This is the Beautiful Flower Palace which was built as the inner palace of Kousho-sama.”
Riri looked up from the carriage and she could see a large building with brand-new vermillion pillars which were impressive. The name Beautiful Flower Palace was engraved on top of the gate that was decorated in gold. She smelled the scent of cypress drifting from the brand new building.
“I heard that it was just built, but hasn’t it only been less than a month?”
“How did you know? It was only completed twenty days ago. Can you even tell this with your nose?”
“Yes. I can tell how old a building is from the smell of the wood. The wood still smells fresh, so I figured that it hadn’t been that long since it was built. Even so, it’s magnificent.”
Mokuren got off the carriage first and held out his hand for her.
She got off the carriage with his help and looked up at the Beautiful Flower Palace once again.
This was her first time seeing an inner palace. She never dreamt that she would be entering one.
(I’ve heard that the inner palace is all-female and there’s a lot of quarrels here. It’s scary, but this is for my dream. I’ll do my best!)
She made up her mind again and Mokuren turned towards her.
“Well, this is where I leave. Good luck.”
“What?! You’re leaving already?”
“The only men who are allowed in the inner palace are the royal family and authorised guards. I’ll be beheaded if I enter.”
He was joking, but it was a very real possibility.
“Don’t get caught up in the women’s quarrels and get poisoned. Oh, I guess I don’t have to worry about that. Riri’s sense of smell will detect the poison immediately if someone were to give it to you, so I don’t have to worry.”
“That doesn’t sound good at all! I’m not sure what to do if they do something other than poison me! Do those things really happen!? Is the inner palace really that dangerous?!”
“I would love to say that I was joking… but I can’t say that I’m joking this time. Please don’t die. I’m the one who brought you here, so I’ll feel guilty if you die… If anything happens, then let me know through Ryouka. I’ll come help you even if this is the inner palace.”
Those words were more reassuring than anything else in this situation.
(Mokuren… you’re really kind.)
Riri felt like she might be able to get through this if she had a reliable ally. She nodded, and Mokuren gently touched her cheeks.
“See you, Riri. Be careful.”
She felt sad to feel that the gentle touch of his fingers had left her cheeks. But she held back her feelings and put on a calm face. If she told him that she wanted to go home since it was scary then Mokuren would probably allow her to, but that wouldn’t make her dream come true.
She wanted to finish what she had decided to do. She saw Mokuren off, then Ryouka bowed.
“Let me show you to your room, Riri-sama.”
She tilted her head when she saw Ryouka start walking to lead the way.
“Are you familiar with the Beautiful Flower Palace, Ryouka?”
“Yes. I worked with Mother in the Wing Dance Palace, but when the Beautiful Flower Palace was built, I came here many times to clean and prepare the rooms for the concubines.”
Riri followed Ryouka and stepped into the Beautiful Flower Palace. A long corridor without any scratches faced the garden.
The garden was well-kept, and the breeze felt refreshing.
“It’s beautiful inside too. It’s still new and spacious. I guess the inner palace is much bigger than I thought.”
After walking for a while, Riri noticed a sweet honey smell wafting in from the garden on her left.
It was a nice smell but Riri couldn’t help but frown. What came to her mind when she smelled this smell was the image of bees sucking honey.
A bee with a hidden sharp stinger was small but terrifying. She looked around because she was curious about the smell and noticed a group of women gathered at a pavilion in the garden. She stopped in her tracks when she saw this scene.
“They’re all so beautiful…! It seems like the scent came from those women.”
The women were drinking tea and chatting in the pavilion. The scene looked as if celestial maidens had gathered there.
They didn’t look much older than Riri, but they exuded sex appeal all over with their carefully applied makeup and colourful quju. The women heard Riri’s voice and looked over to where Riri and Ryouka were.
“Riri-sama, please bow. They’re all candidates for the Four Consorts.”
Riri was surprised by the advice that Ryouka had whispered.
(As I recall, the Four Consorts are second after the Empress. They must be of high rank if they’re candidates for that position.)
Following Ryouka’s lead, Riri quickly bent her knees and bowed her head.
She tried to not cause trouble and keep a low profile. That was her promise to Mokuren.
“Oh, I’ve never seen you before.”
The group of women came out from the pavilion and walked up to them with elegant gestures.
There were three women. The two noble ladies standing in the front of Riri were beautiful, but it was the noble lady in the back who caught her attention. She had a small face with well-defined eyebrows and a sharp gaze.
She was tall and slender, and her beauty was as elegant and perfect as that of an expensive doll.
(From how they’re standing, the beautiful concubine at the back seems to be the one with the highest status.)
Riri quickly grasped the situation. Her thoughts were spot on. The woman in front of her to the right smiled at the woman at the back.
“This person is Concubine Hisui. She is the daughter of Grand Chancellor Jin Koudoku. I’m Juka. This is Ranran. We are the daughters of the Right and Left Chancellors of the Department of State Affairs. Which family are you from?”
(Right now, the next highest rank after the royal family is the general who holds the Phoenix title, and the next highest rank after that belongs to the Grand Chancellor. As his daughter, Concubine Hisui is the highest ranking person here. The Right and Left Chancellors also have a high rank in court, and it would be bad to go against them.)
Riri used the knowledge that she had gained over the past two days to understand the current situation.
“Good day to you, Concubine Hisui, Concubine Juka and Concubine Ranran. My name is Riri. I was introduced by Mokuren-sama who works at the Department of Incenses. I have been told to make use of my skills in mixing incenses at the Beautiful Flower Palace.”
Riri greeted them politely and made sure that she wasn’t being rude. But the concubines’ expressions changed.
“You entered the inner palace because of your special skill? Then there’s no need to call you a concubine. You’re just a talented person. You’re on the same status as a maid.”
Juka raised her face standoffishly and Ranran nodded.
“That’s right. I’m against the idea of letting people of lowly status into the inner palace just because they have special skills. The quality of Beautiful Flower Palace will drop. Don’t you think so, Concubine Hisui?”
Hisui stared at Riri. She was around the same age as Riri, but her overwhelming beauty and powerful appearance made it hard to believe that they were around the same age. Hisui’s beautiful gaze turned towards Ranran.
“I heard that Kousho-sama said that he wanted people who excelled in something to enter Beautiful Flower Palace. It is our duty as the Four Consort candidates to follow his wishes. Restrain yourselves.”
Hisui rebuked in a ringing voice and Ranran quickly cowered back.
“Y-yes. I have no intentions of going against Kousho-sama’s wish… But I’m just concerned about people of lowly status entering the Beautiful Flower Palace. Kousho-sama would be troubled if something were to happen here.”
Ranran answered while faltering. She was probably glaring at Riri.
“You didn’t greet us first. It is customary in the inner palace for those who come later to bow their heads to those who came first and ask for instructions. Get yourself together.”
(What?! I greeted them like I was taught and didn’t do anything rude. Isn’t she just taking it out on me because she made Concubine Hisui angry?)
She bowed her head, thinking that it would be better not to talk back.
“I’m sorry. I have just…”
“Riri-sama has just arrived and is tired. Please forgive her.”
Ryouka also bowed, but her words irritated Ranran once more.
“She’s tired, you say? Is she so tired that she can’t even greet us?”
“You’re just a maid so know your place. How rude. I can’t allow a maid like you to be in this Beautiful Flower Palace. Someone, get rid of this maid… No, that’s not enough. Strip her down to her underwear and throw her out.”
At the sound of Ranran’s voice, several maids, who had been waiting in the pavilion, gathered around and grabbed both of Ryouka’s arms.
“Please wait. Ryouka is…”
Riri quickly tried to stop them, but Ranran swatted her outstretched hand away.
“Are you going against me? We came to this inner palace because our status and beauty were recognised for being Four Consort candidates. You’re only a talented person at most. You’ll spend the rest of your life in this palace without even being able to meet Kousho-sama. If you want to survive in the inner palace, then listen to what we have to say.”
She knew that it would be wise to let this go if she wanted to survive in the inner palace.
However, she could no longer stand by and watch as Ryouka cried.
She stood up and shook off the hands of the women who were holding onto Ryouka.