Kousho was sitting on an upholstered chair. The unadorned chair might be considered plain for a Crown Prince to use, but he liked it because it was comfortable and practical.
He always questioned the dazzling decorations in the palace since he was a child, so he decorated his room in a calm colour scheme. He turned his attention to Garan, who was kneeling beside him. Garan bowed.
“I’m guarding her under the pretext of teaching her, but there haven’t been any signs of her being targeted so far.”
Kousho felt relieved when he heard that. He recalled the Tsubaki mochi that Riri said he had sent to her. He also felt a surge of anger at the same time.
“I don’t know who wrote that the sweets were from me. How dare they bring poisoned sweets in the Beautiful Flower Palace.”
Kousho became suspicious when he saw the Tsubaki mochi. He didn’t remember giving her such a gift. He had a bad feeling about it, so he talked her out of eating them. When he took the Tsubaki mochi and had them examined, he found out that they had been poisoned, just as he had expected them to be.
She was well-protected, but she was going to eat the poisonous Tsubaki mochi. If he hadn’t noticed this then she probably wouldn’t be in this world right now.
The thought of that made him shiver with fear and he closed his eyes.
It had been six years since he had first met her. It was just after his mother had passed away.
At that time due to his position as Crown Prince, he was unable to express his sorrow over his mother’s death and his heart was filled with bitterness. Riri’s olfaction noticed his sorrow even though his father hadn’t noticed it.
‘I can smell a scent of sadness in you,’ she had said. Then, she cried with him since she realised the feelings that he had been holding back. He was able to cry honestly in front of her.
She was his first love.
She had forgotten about that time because of the treasured incense.
If he forced her to remember then her life might be in danger, so he was keeping an eye on her
Riri was important to him. He had been thinking about her for six years. He found out someone was targeting her when he wanted to get closer to her and restore her memories.
If he had been the one targeted, then he would have been aggressive and turned the tables on his attacker, but he felt uneasy since it was Riri who was targeted.
He wanted to protect Riri no matter what.
“But there is one strange thing. Riri’s olfaction should have been able to detect the poison. Her sense of smell is so keen that she would tell how something is made just by smelling it. So why didn’t she notice that the Tsubaki mochi had been poisoned?”
Kousho tilted his head and Garan looked up.
“I had the Ministry of Medicine examine the mochi and they found that the poison was odourless and tasteless.”
“I’m sure it’s a special type of poison since even Riri’s olfaction couldn’t detect it. It wouldn’t have been easy to obtain. Either someone who has special knowledge is the culprit or someone paid a lot of money to buy the poison.”
Garan was about to say something, but he hesitated and turned his head slightly.
“… This is just a guess, but I think it’s possible that one of the consorts in the Beautiful Flower Palace did it. I think they knew that Riri would be participating in the beauty pageant and that’s why they tried to poison her. Pardon me for saying this, but you spoke to Riri a lot after the perfumers meeting. I think the consorts may have noticed this.”
“So, one of the consorts thought I liked Riri and tried to poison her out of jealousy?”
It’s possible, he thought. At the same time, the nightmare of a few years ago flashed through his mind.
Just remembering that incident made his fists tremble with anger and sadness.
“Yes. I think it’s exactly the same as that situation.”
Garan’s voice wavered as if he was at a loss. He had been in the palace since he was a child and was one of the people who saw that tragic incident. He took a deep breath and suppressed his emotions.
“… I was a child back then and had no power. But I’m different now. I won’t let it happen again. I’ll definitely protect Riri… Garan, analyzw the poison and find the culprit.”
Garan nodded as he kneeled down. Kousho looked at him and softened his voice.
“However, the search for the culprit must be kept a secret. It’s fortunate that Riri didn’t notice the poison. Don’t tell her that there was poison in the mochi. You’re going to stay with Riri and guard her under the pretext of teaching her.”
Kousho didn’t want to make Riri feel uneasy. He wanted to protect her from any danger.
She was ‘special’ to him.
Garan bowed and left the room without making a sound.
“I might put her in danger by keeping her by my side. But the most important thing I need to do in order to protect Riri right now is…”
It was a hard choice for him to make, but he decided that he had no choice but to carry out his plan.
Riri was so nervous that her heart almost skipped a beat. It was the fourth day of the preliminary screening process. She was fortunate enough to be interviewed on the last day, so for the last seven days, she had been brushing up on her mannerism and learning about history and national politics from Garan.
Finally, today was the day where she could be interviewed for the beauty pageant.
The ladies were summoned one by one to the hall where their greetings and mannerisms were observed, then they would meet the officials in charge of the deliberations and answer questions one at a time. Riri saw Garan behind the open door with his arms folded as she was waiting in the room.
“Take a deep breath, Riri. Your face and body are tense.”
Ryouka, who was in front of Riri, also agreed with him.
“I know, but I’m nervous. What should I do? What if I fail? … Oh. At times like this!”
There was a small incense burner on the desk to her right.
She took a cloth bag from the shelf, put the pastille into the incense burner and lit it.
“This is a calming incense. If I burn this then…”
Ryouka’s face turned into relief as white smoke rose from the incense burner.
“Wow, it smells sweet and sour.”
“Yes. I don’t think the neighbours will complain about this.”
Riri took a deep breath.
She felt her shoulders relax as she breathed in the incense.
“This incense is supposed to help you sleep well, cleanse your body and mind, unify your spirit and ward off disasters. Incenses can be used all the time without harm unlike medicine… My heart isn’t pounding anymore. My body is also starting to relax.”
She suddenly heard a voice while she was closing her eyes and immersing in the scent.
“Consort Riri, the Vice-Chancellor wants to see you.”
She opened her eyes to find an attendant kneeling in the corridor. She took a deep breath and straightened her back.
“I’ll be there.”
She slowly stood up and looked at Garan and Ryouka, then she nodded and left the room.
The tension that had been suffocating her was gone thanks to the incense.
Riri went into the corridor and bowed in front of the door.
When she bowed, a voice could be heard from inside of the room.
There were three officials in black robes inside of the room. She almost stopped breathing when they all looked at her.
(Calm down. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be too imposing either. Take your time and don’t panic.)
“You are Ren Riri? Please have a seat.”
Even her fingertips were tense, but she was able to relax thanks to the incense.
She gracefully stepped forward and sat down, then the man sitting in the middle of the officials spoke.
“I am the head of the Ministry of Palace Affairs, Mei Kourin. This is the first time that we’ve met.”
The Ministry of Palace Affairs is a department in the palace that manages the inner palace. The head of the Ministry of Palace Affairs, Mei Kourin, was in his early forties, and his black hair was neatly tied up in a bun. His thin, piercing eyes stared at her, making her more nervous.
“Yes, it’s nice to meet you.”
She was normally afraid to talk to the head of the Ministry of Palace Affairs as a talented person in Beautiful Flower Palace. When she looked up, she saw that the edges of Kourin’s lips were slightly raised up.
“How is life at the Beautiful Flower palace?”
“Everyone has been very kind to me.”
She thought it was best not to say too much, so she replied briefly to keep the smile on his face.
“The beauty pageant is held to select the Four Consorts who will serve the next emperor, Kousho-sama. The Four Consorts will be in charge of running the Beautiful Flower Palace. Beauty and etiquette are required of the Four Consorts, but they also need the ability to manage over a hundred consorts. Can you take on that responsibility?”
It would be quite difficult to manage a group of high status ladies. She wanted to become one of the Four Consorts, so that she could have her own palace, but she realised once again that it was a difficult role.
“… Yes. I want to serve Kousho-sama with all my heart and soul.”
That wasn’t a lie. Kousho had said that he wanted to create a world where even women can become perfumers when he becomes the emperor. She wanted to live up to his expectations.
“That’s a good answer. I see you’re quite strong-willed. You will have all kinds of temptations when you become one of the Four Consorts. I believe that the Four Consorts must have a strong-will to resist those temptations.”
Kourin’s voice was indifferent. Riri had heard about him from Ryouka.
‘He drove away a consort in the Wing Dance Palace who tried to bribe him’, Ryouka had said.
That consort’s father was said to have a high rank in the palace, but Kourin had stubbornly refused to accept the bribe. He must be tempted a lot since he made various decisions about the inner palaces.
(He seems very scary, but he also seems reasonable from what Ryouka said…)
His features were sharp, and she thought he resembled a snake.
She felt as if he was glaring at her when his narrow eyes fixed on her.
She tried to stop herself from being frightened and straightened her back.
“I will keep what you said in mind. When I become one of the Four Consorts, I will do everything I can to make the Beautiful Flower Palace prosperous for Kousho-sama and the development of Shinzui without giving into temptations.”
She agreed seriously and Kourin smiled slightly. He looked surprisingly kind when he smiled.
“It seems like you have some good points… Come to think of it, there was someone who I respected a long time ago.”
Riri blinked at the sudden change of conversation.
“He was the head of the Ministry of Incense, and he helped people who were suffering from illness by making different incenses. I was also one of the people who he saved. He also devoted his life to making incenses without giving into temptations… You resemble him a lot.”
Riri immediately knew that Kourin was talking about her father, Ou Saido.
Although she had entered the Beautiful Flower Palace under a false identity, her father’s name was known to those who had attended the perfumers meeting. Of course, Kourin knew that Saido was her father as well.
Of course, she wanted to clear her father’s regrets, but she also wanted an environment where she could create the treasured incense in order to realise her dream of becoming a perfumer.
She needed to get through this preliminary round no matter what.
“I also like to make incenses. I want to devote myself to making incenses so that I don’t lose to him. The power of incenses is unlimited. I would like to use that power to help Kousho-sama.”
Kourin nodded in satisfaction.
“I see. I’m relieved to hear that. Now let us begin.”
Riri replied quietly, she motivated herself and began the preliminary round.