“… He’s finally gone.”
She wandered how long that had been like that for. She managed to stand up when Kousho finally released her.
She quickly looked around and saw that the rear garden had regained its tranquility.
“Is it alright? It seems like he’s looking for you.”
“It’s fine. I’m here because Koudoku will pester me to go to the inner palace if I’m in my room.”
“Why do you dislike the inner palace? I heard that you have to marry a wife in order to succeed the throne. This inner palace was created so that you could find your wife. It’s full of beautiful women, and Consort Hisui, Consort Juka and Consort Ranran were practicing to dance for you.”
She had seen Hisui and the other girls practice their dancing several times even though she had never participated in the practice sessions.
“They want the honour and power that comes with being the Empress. Having an Empress in the family gives them a lot of advantages, so they’re pushing their beautiful daughters onto me. I don’t need a wife who doesn’t have a will of her own.”
It was a harsh statement, but it was also the truth. Kousho suddenly looked at her.
“What about you? Of course, you entered the inner palace because of the treasured incense, but don’t you have any thought about attracting my attention and gaining power as the Empress?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer, but she knew that she couldn’t lie or deceive him.
“Honestly, I’ve never thought about it. I needed to enter the inner palace to make the treasured incense, but as a woman, I can’t become a perfumer or join the Department of Incenses. So, I had no choice but to enter the inner palace as a talented person. Even now, I wished I could have entered the Department of Incenses as a perfumer.”
When she expressed her true feelings, Kousho smiled wryly.
“You don’t have any greed. You really are an interesting woman.”
She suddenly realised something when she saw him like this.
“… Is that the only reason why you dislike the inner palace? I feel like that’s not the only reason why you dislike it.”
When she put her hand over her mouth to think, Kousho looked surprised.
“Why do you think that?”
“It’s natural that they would gain benefits that come with becoming the empress. You should know that you will have to eventually accept it even if you run away because you dislike the inner palace.”
It hasn’t been long since she met Kousho, but for some reason, she felt like she understood how he thought.
“If you really didn’t like it, then you have the will to overturn the Emperor’s decree of you needing an empress to succeed the throne. But right now, you’re only avoiding the inner palace. So, it’s not like… you don’t want to marry a wife.”
For an arrogant and outspoken man like Kousho, his attitude of running away seemed strange to her.
“Oh. Then what do you think I want to do then?”
She shook her head at the amused Kousho.
“I don’t know. I just had a hunch that you had a plan.”
“I see… Then why don’t you try to guess why I’m avoiding the inner palace? If you get it right, then I’ll write the permission slip for you to enter the herb garden right here and now.”
She was delighted but reminded herself that it was difficult to guess what Kousho was thinking.
(Kousho-sama is a mysterious person. He’s arrogant, but I respect him as a Crown Prince who cares about his country. He seems to be very popular with women, but he avoids the beautiful women living in the inner palace. Is he not interested in them?)
“… For example, you have a woman in your heart?”
She meant it as a joke. She thought that the arrogant Crown Prince couldn’t be that innocent.
However, when she saw the surprise look on his face, she realised that she might have guessed right.
“What?! Was I right?!”
When she stared at him, he averted his gaze.
“Huh!? What?! What kind person is she? I’d like to hear everything about her!”
She was well aware of how rude she sounded, but her curiosity got the better of her.
He always acts like he’s looking down on people, so she wondered what kind of woman he liked.
“… It was a long time ago. There was a girl who gave me an incense that calmed me down when I was having a hard time.”
Kousho put his hand into his pocket. He took out a yellow cloth bag, opened it and took out the contents.
Inside was a small white incense container with purple wisteria flowers on it.
Incense containers are used to carry incenses and Kousho’s one was made from ceramic.
“It’s a beautiful incense container.”
Kousho frowned for a moment when she honestly expressed her feelings. She tilted her head, and he lowered his eyes.
“I can’t forget the girl who gave me this… Even though it was many years ago.”
Kousho looked at the incense container with great care, and it was the kindest expression she had ever seen on him.
She felt as if her heart was being squeezed tightly by the loving look in his eyes. She was surprised at herself.
(What?! What the hell was that tightening feeling?!)
“Wh-where is that girl?”
She managed to calm herself down and ask what she was curious about.
Kousho frowned again for some reason, then he bit his lips a little.
“She’s… I don’t know who she is. I only met her by chance when I was little. But I’ve been in love with her ever since I saw her.”
Riri couldn’t believe that he had such pure feelings. The pain in her chest grew worse when she thought about how hard it must have for him not to see the girl he loved for a long time.
“It’s been about six years since I last saw her. I can’t look at other women, maybe because I’ve been constantly thinking about her. I know I can’t go on like this. I’m the Crown Prince. I have to forget my feelings for her in order to marry a wife and succeed the throne.”
“… But you look like you’re in pain. Can’t you find her somehow?”
It was the first time she had seen that kind of expression on his face, and she became worried, so she spoke to him. He stayed silent for a while, then his mouth twisted in an unpleasant smile. He folded his arm with his usually ‘I’m looking down on you’ look.
“――― Did you take me seriously? You’re so simple.”
“What?! Was that a lie?”
She widened her eyes in surprise and Kousho laughed uncontrollably.
“I won’t prologue such a silly first love. I don’t like going to the inner palace because I can’t be bothered dealing with the women sent by the greedy nobles. Ah, that was fun. The worried look on your face looked so stupid.”
“Please don’t laugh! I really thought you were sad and almost cried myself.”
“Don’t be so mad. I’ll write you a permission slip to enter the herb garden as a thank you for making me laugh for the first time in a long time. Here, give me the brush and paper before I change my mind.”
Remembering her original purpose, she quickly handed him the paper, inkstone and brush. He put the paper on the desk in the pavilion and wrote the permission slip like he had promised to. A sudden thought occurred to her as she watched him.
“Here, your permission slip.”
When she took the paper and stared at it, Kousho tilted his head.
“What? Do you still want something?”
“Wasn’t the conversation just now about your first love true? You were probably trying to hide your embarrassment.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know how to put it into words, but your eyes were so beautiful when you were talking about your first love. It’s hard to believe that you were lying about her… But I’ll try not to pry any further. I’m sure your memories with her are very important to you and you don’t want others to know much about her.”
She bowed then left the pavilion. She turned around once at the surprised Kousho.
“I have a question. Assuming that what you just said is true then what would you do if you see her again?”
It was a genuine question. Kousho suddenly looked serious, then he put his right hand in front of his chest and grasped it tightly.
“If I can see her again then I would hold her in my arms and never let her go… That’s only if what I said was true.”
She couldn’t help but smile at the way he had said that.
“Yes, this is only if what you said was true. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
As she turned and walked away, she couldn’t hide her surprise at seeing an unexpected side of him.
“Dwelling on his first love, he’s surprisingly pure. I’m sure that girl will be happy if he told her that he’ll never let her go with a passionate face and voice.”
Riri had never been in love. She had been busy surviving ever since her father’s death, so she didn’t have time to fall in love. She wondered if she would one day talk about the person she loved with the same passionate look as Kousho. Her face turned red as she imagined herself doing so.