It had been raining lightly since morning. Riri opened the window to her room and looked at the garden which was facing the corridor.
The stones in the garden were wet and a white mist covered the area from the rain.
“I can’t burn incenses in the rear garden today.”
She closed the door while sighing and sat down in front of her desk.
“I want to make the treasured incense as soon as I can…”
She had promised the Emperor that she would have the treasured incense ready by the time Kousho took over the throne in 10 months time. She had been working every day to make the treasured incense, but it hasn’t been going well.
She had been trying to secretly make the treasured incense at the Beautiful Flower Palace, but it smelled bad sometimes when she burnt the incenses that she had made. The Ministry of Incense had rooms that were specially designed to prevent fragrances from leaking out of the room, but that wasn’t the case with the Beautiful Flower Palace. There are times when the stench bothered the people around her.
Therefore, she usually went to the secluded rear garden to make the treasured incense, but she had no choice but to suspend her work when it was raining.
“There’s nothing I can do. I’ll just mix today and burn the incenses outside tomorrow after the rain stops. It won’t stink if I don’t burn incenses, so I won’t bother the people around me.”
She turned her attention to the mortar on her desk. It was an old mortar with scratches and stains on it. She had been given a new mortar when she had entered the inner palace, but she had been using this one for a long time and was used to it, so she had only been using her old mortar to make incenses lately. In the ceramic mortar was a pastille made from mixing several materials. She added a bit of aloes wood and sandalwood to the pastille and mixed it all together.
Her current goal was to make something that smelled exactly like the treasured incense that her late father had made, using her sense of smell that can detect the emotions of others through their sweat. A small difference in ingredients can create a completely different scent. That was why she paid the most attention to the mixture of ingredients.
She kneaded the mixed fragrance with honey again to harden it and put the finished black pastille, which was the size of the tip of her pinkie, onto a white parcel. She really wanted to burn it right away to check the fragrance, but she held back.
She suddenly remembered something as she placed the white parcel onto her desk.
“Oh, I wanted to read some books on materials. It’s a nice day to read since it’s raining. I’ll take my time and read. I’m sure I put it over here…”
She approached the cabinet on the wall. She was certain that she had put the book that she had asked Kousho to get her in here, but she couldn’t find it. She tilted her head in confusion.
“Riri-sama, I’ve brought you some tea.”
It was Ryouka. I turned around and replied, “Come in,” and she came in carrying a tray of tea utensils on it.
“You can leave the tea there… Oh yeah, I’ve made the incense that you asked me to make for easing pain. It’s over there. You can take it.”
She said to Ryouka as she searched through the cabinet again.
“Thank you very much. My teeth have been aching since yesterday.”
“Really? Then, you can burn it now.’
The incense pastille was always placed on the shelf built into the wall. She had written Ryouka’s name on the paper that the incense was wrapped in it, so she thought that Ryouka would know which one it was straight away.
“Ah, this? I’m borrowing your incense burner.”
She listened to Ryouka’s voice coming from her back as she smiled when she spotted the book she wanted at the back of the cabinet.
“Here it is! … Huh?”
An unpleasant smell hit her nose as soon as she talked.
She turned pale and turned back at the terrible stench. It smelled as if fish had gone bad.
“Ryouka! That’s not the right incense…!”
Ryouka was burning the incense that Riri had just finished making.
Ryouka quickly tried to cover the incense burner, but it was too late.
She was weak against bad smells because of her strong sense of smell. She managed to hold back the nausea that was rising up in her by holding her nose.
Ryouka also held her mouth and nose and her eyes turned red.
Riri immediately rushed over and covered the incense burner that was emitting white smoke, but the stench had already spread throughout the room. She couldn’t do anything about the scent, so she opened the door wide open.
Then she took a deep breath of clean air.
“What the hell?! What’s this smell?!”
The door to her right was open wide, startling her. A beautiful woman who was a little older than Riri came out of the door. Her beautiful face was coloured in anger as she approached Riri.
“It’s you again, Consort Riri! I told you not to mix incenses in your room!”
The door to her left also opened and a woman dressed in a blue hanfu came running out.
“Consort Riri! You were allowed to enter the Beautiful Flower Palace because you can mix incenses, correct? Why do you keep burning those disgusting scents?! How many times do I have to tell you that it’s a nuisance?!”
The two women shouted at her, and she quickly kneeled down with her hands on the floor.
“I’m so sorry!”
Ryouka also kneeled down and bowed her head.
“It was a mistake. I burnt the wrong incense…”
“It doesn’t matter if it was a mistake or not. The problem is that the incense you burnt smells really bad! Listen, Consort Riri. Don’t ever make incenses in that room again.”
It was a secret that she was trying to make the legendary treasured incense, so she couldn’t tell them what was going on. The ladies stood in front of Riri with their hands on their hips while she was baffled.
“My nose is going to drive me crazy if I always have to smell these horrible scents! I heard that you have permission from Kousho-sama to make incenses, but we’re all annoyed by this stench, so I’m going to complain about you. I’m sure Kousho-sama will take our words into consideration.”
The ladies who have gathered at the Beautiful Flower Palace are from good families. Kousho will not be able to ignore them if they all complain together. Riri was burning repugnant-smelling incenses, so she was definitely bothering the ladies.
“I’ll let you off the hook this time, but if you make it stink again, then I’ll really complain. Keep that in mind.”
The ladies returned to their rooms in anger. When they were out of sight, Ryouka and Riri stood up and walked back into the room while looking down in despair.
“I’m sorry, Riri-sama. It’s all because I burnt the wrong incense.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s my fault for leaving the wrong incense on the desk. I should have told you that the incense I made for you was on the shelf, but I was busy trying to find my book. But this is bad. I guess I can’t burn incenses in my room anymore.”
“It’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow, so you can continue to mix your incenses in the rear garden.”
“That’s all I can do for now. But it’s not a good idea for me to mix in the rear garden since I’m supposed to be making the incense in secret. It also depends on the weather… I guess I really do have to excel in the beauty pageant so that I can be chosen as one of the Four Consorts and get my own palace.”
Even so, she didn’t believe that she could compete with ladies from good families and win.
Riri heard a voice from outside while pondering.
“Riri, are you there?”
It was a man’s voice even though they were in the Beautiful Flower Palace.
When Ryouka opened the door, Riri saw a tall man wearing an iron breastplate standing in the corridor.
“What’s wrong, Garan?”
He was Gou Garan. He had short black hair, a large build and a manly face. He was the general who was in charge of the Shinzui army, and he was also in charge of protecting the palace. He was the only man outside of the royal family who was allowed to enter the inner palace without permission.
The large cloth that he wore over his shoulders was sewn with a golden winged phoenix, who was revered as a lucky omen in Shinzui. Garan held the title of Phoenix, which is said to be the second highest position after the Emperor. He stared at Riri with his sharp black eyes.
Normally, she would be afraid to speak to him, but they had become friends now, and they called each other by name.
Garan beckoned at her. Although he was allowed to enter the inner palace without permission, he couldn’t enter a lady’s room without reason. Riri walked out into the corridor with Ryouka, then Garan spoke quietly.
“Riri, the details of the beauty pageant have been announced. Have you heard anything?”
“Really? I haven’t heard anything. Can you tell me about it?”
Garan folded his arms and nodded.
“The beauty pageant will first hold a preliminary screening. The preliminary screening tests a lady’s mannerism, and their knowledge on the history and politics of Shinzui. The judges are divided into two groups and they will interview each of the ladies. Then, they will narrow the ladies down to ten before choosing four ladies to become the Four Consorts.”
She felt her hands tremble with nervousness at the thought of the beauty pageant finally being held.
She suppressed that feeling and looked up at Garan.
“So, I’ll have to make it through two rounds, the preliminary screening and the final round. First is the preliminary screening.”
Ryouka leaned forward as she was thinking.
“I think you have a good chance of getting excellent grades for your mannerism. I’ve been working in the palace since I was a child, and I’ve seen all kinds of ladies, but I’ve always thought that your mannerisms are beautiful. You’re not too pushy and you don’t overdo it.”
It was Riri’s first time hearing such a compliment. When she stared at Ryouka in surprise, Ryouka continued.
“It might sound disrespectful for me to say this, but I think mannerism and etiquette should be trained from a young age. From the first time I met you, I thought that you must have been trained well by your parents.”
(Both Mother and Father were very strict about mannerisms. Mother was still very strict about it even when we lived in poverty downtown. She said that manners are very important.)
Perhaps the fruits of her parent’s hard work in disciplining her have finally shown results.
“In my opinion, it’s not just a dream for you to pass the preliminary screening if you can get an excellent score in the exam that tests your knowledge.”
Ryouka’s words filled Riri with confidence since she had seen many ladies before.
“I think I can handle the mannerism part of the screening then, but the problem is my knowledge. I know a lot about incenses, but I need to learn more about this kingdom.”
She saw Garan look stern as she was thinking.
“But there are only three days left until the preliminary rounds. I’m not sure you can study everything on your own by then.”
“Huh?! It’s in three days?!”