“Kousho-sama, are you here?”
Kousho, who had been left alone in the pavilion to think, turned his head to the right where the voice had come from.
The person who was kneeling and bowing at him was General Garan. Garan was a year older than Kousho and Kousho had known him since he was a child.
The position of the General, who unifies the army, has been held by the head of his family, a powerful and wealthy family, for generations, as far as the court records go. People widely say that Garan was better than his father, the previous general, in terms of martial arts, leadership skills, and stubbornness, the trait of those who come from wealthy and powerful families.
Garan was straightforward, but unaccommodating, and Kousho liked how he never lied.
In a year’s time when Kousho would become the Emperor, he needed those with the auspicious beast titles to cooperate with each other and protect the country. In that sense, Garan was a man who he could rely on.
“I’ll permit it. Come.”
Garan bowed and walked into the pavilion. Kousho pointed at the seat across from the desk with his hand and Garan sat down there.
“Preparations are underway for the perfumers meeting in a month’s time… Will someone who can make the treasured incense really appear at the meeting? As for me, I think it would be better to strengthen the army rather than make some mysterious and illusional incense.”
“You still hate incenses. Did you hate being teased by Saido with incenses that much? It’s been a long time so why don’t you let bygones be bygones?”
Saido, the previous head of the Department of Incenses, was quite eccentric. Saido loved to create incenses that had never been created before, and he liked to use Garan, who would accompany his father, the previous General, to the palace since he was a child, as a test subject.
Saido would say, “Garan is straightforward and simple, so incenses work well on him. Most importantly, he’s fun to tease!” Garan was often made to secretly sniff incenses when he was targeted by Saido, which led to some terrible things.
“Saido made you sniff the incenses he made, and they made you do this and that in front of the Emperor…”
“That’s enough! That was a lifetime ago. I’ve had enough of incenses…!”
Garan said and then suddenly fell silent.
“What’s wrong? Normally, you’ll be exploding with resentment towards Saido.”
“Nothing! … More importantly, let’s get back to the point. Wouldn’t it be better if you stop trying to make the treasured incense?”
Kousho wanted to tease Garan some more, but as the Crown Prince, he composed himself.
“However, the treasured incense does indeed have immense power. We will no longer have to fear attacks from the neighbouring countries if we have this incense. We definitely need the treasured incense to keep this country at peace.”
Garan looked unhappy but nodded reluctantly. He is one of the people who hold the auspicious beast title, who are said to protect this country. He had also been informed about the special effects of the treasured incense. Garan sighed a little.
“But the Department of Incenses seem to be struggling.”
“I know. But there is hope.”
Kousho lifted the corner of his lips a little and Garan widened his eyes.
“Is it… that girl Riri?”
“That’s right. Riri is Saido’s daughter. Saido did make the treasured incense just before he passed away.”
“What?! But I heard that he failed to present it to the Emperor. Saido was really rejected and then he died in an accident afterwards. Rumour has it that he lamented his failure and took his own life.”
“No. Think about it. Was Saido so sensitive that he would commit suicide over a single mistake?”
Garan, who knew Saido well, blinked in confusion.
“… You’re right. He’s so shameless that he won’t fret over a single mistake.”
“Yeah. He was the kind of guy who, even if he failed, would get even more fired up to succeed the next time. Besides, I know that Saido used the treasured incense. It was certainly extremely effective. Now that Saido’s dead, the only person who knows how to make the treasured incense is Riri since she was by his side when he made it.”
Kousho remembered the face of the girl who had been here a while ago, then smiled softly.
“I gave Riri special permission to make the treasured incense. It’s not an overstatement to say that the fate of this country will be determined on whether Riri succeeds or not.”
“… Kousho-sama, you look very amused.”
Garan looked at him curiously. It was true that he was smiling right now.
“Riri is an interesting girl. I couldn’t help but smile when I wonder what she’s capable of… You look like you want to say something, Garan.”
When Kousho said this, Garan’s eyes moved around as if he was choosing his words carefully.
“No, it’s just that you’ve been acting strange ever since that girl showed up.”
“Oh. What is strange about me? Be frank.”
“Okay… It’s true that the treasured incense holds immense power. But you have always been able to get what you want with your own power. I thought that you didn’t like the idea of the military relying on the treasured incense, but you suddenly showed a lot of enthusiasm for making it. I was wondering why.”
Garan is a straightforward man and he doesn’t pay much attention to other people’s feelings. Kousho reflected on his actions since he had acted strange enough for Garan to see. But there was a reason why he couldn’t help but act the way he was.
“… I might be able to get what I’ve always wanted if I use the treasured incense.”
He muttered, and Garan raised his eyebrow.
“What you’ve always wanted? What is it?”
“That’s a secret.”
His mouth loosened in a smile again. He knew that Garan wouldn’t understand even if he told him.
And Kousho didn’t want to talk about this to anyone since it involves something he’d cherished for a long time.
“… More importantly, how’s the matter we talked about before?”
Kousho wanted to change the subject. This was something that he was really curious about, so he kept his voice down.
Garan knew what Kousho was talking about right away, and his expression turned stiff.
“Are you talking about the ‘Dark Perfumers’?”
Only a limited number of people in the court knew who these people were.
“They seem to be laying low at the moment. But a subordinate under secret orders has informed me that there’s movement behind the scenes. What the hell are they planning?”
“I don’t know. But the Dark Perfumers have a lot of power. Now that we have information that they’re on the move, put more guards around the palace.”
“As you wish.”
Garan bowed at Kousho with his hands clasped together and held up in front of his face. Kousho looked up at the moon in the night sky.
“I will definitely protect this country and the people I love with my own hands.”
His voice was low and echoed in the moonlit sky.
“Ah! It really is no good!”
Riri screamed in front of the writing desk in her room while scratching her head. There was an incense burner and various fragrances in front of her. The room was filled with a choking aroma from over burning incenses.
“Riri-sama. Excuse me. I’ve brought you some food.”
Ryouka opened the door and spoke to Riri in a timid manner.
“I’m sorry, Ryouka. You’ve got to the trouble of preparing a meal for me, but I don’t think I have time to eat.”
“But you haven’t eaten much in the past few days. You need to eat something…”
“But I really don’t have time. The perfumers meeting is in three days…!”
After being in the inner palace for over a month, she managed to get permission to attend the perfumers meeting after some ups and downs.
However, although she worked hard every day with little sleep, she still couldn’t make the treasured incense.
“I’ve been able to identify most of the materials that Father used to make the treasured incense, but I don’t know how much of each to mix to make the treasured incense…”
She plopped down on her writing desk. It was a tremendous task to check each of the dozens of materials with her nose and compare them to her memory of six years ago.
She finally found the materials she needed, but she was about to run out of time.
“There’s no way I can finish this before the perfumers meeting. But if I can’t, then we’ll be punished…”
She felt a chill run down her spine as she said that.
It would have been fine if she was the only one being executed, but she definitely didn’t want Ryouka or Mokuren to be executed with her.
She glanced at Ryouka. If it came down to it, she would sacrifice her own life to get them out of the palace. However, if they knew what was going on, then the kind Mokuren and Ryouka would probably say that they won’t run away.
That was why she didn’t tell them about Kousho’s harsh words. Ryouka put the food on the small dining table and sat down beside Riri.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Thanks, but not at the moment. What I need is time. Actually, I’ve made something that’s pretty close to the treasured incense that Father made. So, I might be able to make the treasured incense if I had just a little more time.”
Ryouka’s eyes widened as she looked at the white package on the desk.
“You made something that’s pretty close to the treasured incense?!”
“But something’s slightly missing. If I burn it then I might find a clue.”
“Then why don’t you try burning it?”
“I’d like to, but the treasured incense is so powerful that it can repel any enemy. I’m sure it holds extraordinary effects. I don’t know what the effects are so I’m afraid of burning this pseudo treasured incense… But I can’t proceed if I don’t burn it.”
Ryouka looked frightened as Riri worried.
“Is it really that dangerous?”
“I’d say that the effects aren’t life threatening considering the materials I used to make the treasured incense. But since I don’t know the effects, I can’t test it on myself or anyone else.”
Her father wouldn’t hesitate to try something like this out on someone else, but she couldn’t do the same.
Ryouka pondered, and after a while, she looked up as if she had made up her mind.
“I’ll… I’ll try it.”
Her voice was trembling, but it had a dignified ring to it.
“You can’t make progress if you don’t try this, right? If there’s no risk to my life, then I’ll try it.”
“No! It’s dangerous. If I have to try it on you, then I’ll just try it out on myself.”
“But you won’t be able to observe the effects even if you try it on yourself. I believe it would be easier for you to observe the effects of the incenses if I try it out. If something does happen, then I’m sure you’ll save me.”
“I don’t even know what kind of effect the treasured incense has. I might be able to save you. You can’t try it.”
Riri shook her head and Ryouka looked at her with determination.
“I want to be of use to you, Riri-sama. On the day we came to the inner palace, you saved me from Consort Hisui and her followers when they were being mean towards me. A lot of maids aren’t treated like humans in the inner palace. But you protected me even though you knew that you would be in a bad position.”
Ryouka’s cheeks flushed slightly and she smiled slowly.
“I was really happy at that time. I want to help you fulfil your dream of mixing the treasured incense. I believe that you’ll help me no matter what happens. Please try the incense on me.”
Riri was happy that Ryouka felt that way. However, she closed her eyes and shook her head.
“No, I can’t put you in harm’s way… I’m going to get some air. I’ll eat later.”
Riri opened the door and went outside. The garden facing the corridor was bathed in sunlight.
She stretched and took a deep breath, then she looked up at the blue sky.
“The only way for me to save everyone’s lives is for me to try the treasured incense. I don’t know what condition I will be in afterwards, but I have to be prepared… Huh?”
She smelled a scent she had never smelled before coming from behind the door that her back was facing.
Her nose went numb when she smelled it, just like how her tongue went numb when she ate ginger.
Warning bells echoed in her mind. She quickly opened the door, and the nose-numbing scent filled the room.
There was an incense burner on the desk and the white package containing the pseudo treasured incense was opened beside the burner.
The pastille in the package was gone and Ryouka was lying next to the desk.
“Ryouka! Why did you burn the pastille?!”
She panicked and opened the door wide open. She didn’t know what effects the incense had, but the sooner she let the scent escape, the better. She pinched her nose and tried not to breathe as much as possible, then ran over to Ryouka.
Riri picked her up and checked her breathing. She seemed to have fainted.
“Pull yourself together! Ryouka!”
Riri shook her a few times, and she opened her eyes slightly. Ryouka looked at Riri and opened her trembling lips.
Riri was shocked by Ryouka’s words.
Ryouka’s words signalled that Riri was one step closer to finding out the secret of the treasured incense.