Riri’s body felt like and she felt as if she was floating on water.
She breathed a sigh of relief as she let her body and mind fall into the warm, soft air.
“It feels nice…”
She wanted to sleep like this forever, however a voice from somewhere interrupted her sleep.
“Riri, Riri. Can you hear me?”
She wanted to sleep, but she couldn’t help but smile when she recognised the voice.
It was kind, but sometimes mean, and belonged to the trustworthy Mokuren.
She spoke like a child.
He had taught her many things. He carried her to the doctor when she had a fever as a child. She still remembered his big back from back then.
“I have a question for you, can I ask it?”
“Ask me anything.”
She was happy to be of help to Mokuren, but something at the corner of her mind whispered.
“Don’t trust Mokuren.”
She tilted her head in confusion, wondering why she could hear such a voice.
“Riri, I want you to tell me.”
She heard Mokuren’s voice again, and the shadow in the corner of her mind fizzled out without a trace.
“I want to know how to make the treasured incense.”
What’s the treasured incense? That question popped up in her head, then she nodded.
“No one is supposed to know it.”
“Tell it to only me. Please, Riri.”
Mokuren was like family to her. She wanted to fulfil whatever he wished.
She was about to tell him when she heard a loud sound as if something had exploded nearby.
The sound made her flinch.
“I can’t tell you. You want to use the treasured incense for evil…!”
Her words came out clearly and her consciousness, which had been in the gentle, warm water, began to emerge.
Kousho had come to a deserted temple not far from the palace.
It was a large temple but had been neglected. He had heard that it was going to be rebuilt soon.
As he brushed aside the overgrown grass and turned his gaze towards the temple, Garan, who was standing next to him, spoke quietly.
“The people in this neighbourhood said that they have seen men going in and out of the temple in the last few days. They had heard that the temple would be rebuilt, so they assumed that they were construction workers, but they believed that the men might be dangerous since some of them seem to be armed.”
“Have you confirmed that Riri is in there?”
He nodded at Garan’s brief words. He had only brought about ten of his most experienced men with him since the enemy might notice them if they brought a large group of people. Kousho kept his eyes on the temple but kept his voice quiet.
“Alright. There’s no point wasting time. Let’s go inside and see if Riri is in there.”
He raised one hand and the armed soldiers stood up immediately.
“Let’s go and get Riri out of there!”
He led the way to the temple. He was so worried about Riri that he couldn’t sit still.
There was a loud bang when several people kicked down the sturdy wooden door. Kousho entered the temple first while shaking off Garan who tried to stop him. Riri was lying down in the middle of the large temple.
She had her eyes shut so he didn’t know if she was asleep or had passed out.
He glared at the person sitting next to Riri.
Blood rushed to Kousho’s head, and he clenched his fists. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had been this angry. Mokuren looked surprised for a second, but quickly steeled his expression.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Kousho-sama. This isn’t the kind of place where the Crown Prince should be.”
His voice sounded calm, and his attitude irritated Kousho even more.
“What did you do to Riri?!”
He strode towards Mokuren and the door in front of him swung open and dozens of men quickly entered the temple.
“I just gave her a little bit of incense to make her more honest. How dare you interrupt us when we were just about to begin? … But you have good timing. I couldn’t touch you in the palace, but you came out on your own. You’re a nuisance in more ways than one.”
Mokuren turned to his subordinates.
His subordinates nodded at his cold words and edged closer to Kousho.
“Riri’s safety is top priority. Capture these guys alive if you can. Don’t let Mokuren escape!”
He signalled the battle with his hand, and the large temple instantly transformed into a battleground.
Kousho’s attention turned back to Riri as dozens of men exchanged swords in a battle to the death.
He saw Mokuren picking Riri up and moving towards the opposite side of the battle and immediately followed after them.
“I won’t let you follow them.”
Two enemies stood in front of him. When he saw them, he felt that they were in the way.
He wanted to get to Riri as quickly as possible. He wanted to touch her and make sure she was okay and not hurt. As he was feeling impatient, a long spear was thrusted from his right towards the enemies.
“Please go. Leave this to me!”
The person who had rushed over to him was Garan. Kousho quickly tapped Garan on the shoulder as he stood there to stop the enemy.
“I’ll leave the rest to you.”
Garan was the best spearman in Shinzui. He had no qualms about entrusting him with the enemy.
He used his sword to cut down the enemies who were trying to get in his way and chased after Mokuren. Mokuren carried Riri in his arms and left through the door on the left side of the temple. Kousho followed him through that door and out into the corridor.
Mokuren was standing in front of him and facing him. Riri laid at his feet.
“How did you know where I was?”
“I wonder how.”
Kousho didn’t give him an answer. He looked at Riri who was at Mokuren’s feet.
“You’ll catch up to me if I carry Riri. I’m not confident that I can beat you with my sword skills. It’s unfortunate, but it looks like I have no choice but to let Riri go here. I was so close.”
Mokuren said he was disappointed, but his expression didn’t change much.
“Mokuren, stop getting Riri involved in this. I know that you’re not happy with the royal family, so we’ll accept and respond to whatever you do to us. But…”
“You’re asking me not to do anything to your first love?”
Normally, Kousho believed that he had the strength to remain unfazed no matter what was said to him.
But what Mokuren had said caught him off guard.
“You look like you’re wondering how I know this. I know about it. I met Riri just before her memory was erased by the treasured incense. She’s forgotten all about our meeting though.”
Mokuren raised the corner of his mouth slightly.
He looked lonely with a tinge of regret.
“I heard about your meeting in the palace garden then. She said she wondered who the boy was. Riri’s parents raised her with as little contact with the outside world as possible to prevent her from being abused for her special sense of smell, so she didn’t even know that people with red hair are royals.”
Mokuren turned his gaze to Kousho.
“But I realised something after hearing her story and seeing your current attitude towards her. For a man, their first love is very special. I can understand why you want to protect her. But…”
Mokuren’s voice became lower.
“But we can’t leave her alone as long as the secret of the treasured incense lies dormant in her memory.”
Kousho frowned at Mokuren’s declaration.
“Is that the only reason why you’re so obsessed with Riri?”
Kousho said words that could be interpreted in many ways. Mokuren seemed to understand what he wanted to ask.
“… I don’t have to tell you.”
Mokuren raised something, and the moment he swung it down, a white cloud of smoke covered the area.
His eyes deceived him for a second. He quickly opened his eyes and moved forward through the white smoke.
Riri was lying on the same spot as before, but Mokuren was nowhere to be seen.
“Riri, Riri! Pull yourself together!”
The voice belonged to Kousho. Riri scolded herself and tried to open her heavy eyes.
I have to get up if the Crown Prince is calling me, she thought, but she couldn’t open her eyes.
Her body also felt as if it was floating on water, and she couldn’t muster up her strength.
Her mind was in chaos. She had no idea why she could hear Kousho’s voice or what kind of situation she was in.
She finally found her voice, but she couldn’t say anything else. She heard Kousho’s relieved voice.
“You’re awake? I’ll take you to a doctor straight away. Don’t worry.”
She managed to open her eyes slightly and saw Kousho’s smiling face.
“Yes, it’s me. It’s alright now. Let’s go home together. Are you in any pain?”
She hadn’t seen him look worried in a long time.
At the same time, she was reminded of how cold he had acted towards her lately. She believed he had his reasons for doing so, and she was going to wait for him to tell her those reasons.
But for some reason, she was extremely sad right now and couldn’t bear it.
“What? Where does it hurt?”
Kousho put his face closer to hers. A single tear flowed down her face as she looked at his gentle face.
“My heart… hurts. You’re cold towards me, Kousho-sama.”
She was surprised by the words she had uttered. Those were her real feelings, but there was no way she was going to say them like this.
She wondered why she had blurted that out when she could normally keep it in, and suddenly remembered that Mokuren had made her smell his confession incense.
(Pull yourself together. Don’t open your mouth!)
She tried to hold back, but her mouth opened on its own.
“Please don’t act cold towards me…”
She couldn’t stop the tears from flowing down her face. She knew that saying this would only trouble Kousho.
Even though she knew she had to stop crying, she couldn’t calm down at all because of the confession incense.
At the same time, she realised that even though she was going to trust Kousho, she was actually worried about his attitude deep down.
“Sorry… I was trying to protect you.”
Her body and mind were floating, but she was curious, so she focused on her mouth and said.
“What are you talking about?”
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to scare you, but someone was trying to kill you. The sweets that were from “me” were poisoned. I suspected that one of the consorts at the inner palace might have done it. Otherwise, there’s no reason for you to be targeted.”
She remembered that she had received tsubaki mochi from Kousho before the beauty pageant when he had mentioned it.
Kousho came into her room and suggested that she eat the peaches that he had brought instead when she was about to eat the tsubai mochi. Were the sweets poisoned? She shivered when she thought that. Kousho gently stroked her cheek.
“I didn’t want to tell you because it would make you uneasy. I knew they’d try to kill you again if I were to act friendly towards you… Six years ago, my mother, the Empress, was given sweets that were poisoned by a consort.”
She saw Kousho bite his lip and hold back his pain through her slightly opened eyes.
“The situation back then and the situation now are the same. She ate it because it was a gift from my father, the Emperor. Then, she died. She coughed up blood in front of me.”
She could tell from the look on his face just how much of a shadow this cast over his mind.
“I vividly recalled when my mother died when I found out the sweets that were given to you were poisoned. I swore that I will never let that happen to you. The person who had poisoned my mother’s sweets was one of the consorts and she was caught immediately. I thought the person who had poisoned your sweets was from the Beautiful Flower Palace.”
Kousho continued to speak with his eyes clouded with anger.
“People don’t hesitate to use cruel means when they’re driven by jealousy. I thought that if I kept my distance from you and was nice to the other consorts in the inner palace, then their jealousy wouldn’t be directed at you. In the meantime, I was trying to catch the person who had poisoned the sweets, but I still haven’t found her yet. I’m sorry.”
Kousho lowered his eyes apologetically.
It was terrifying to be targeted. The thought of someone trying to take her life gave her the chills.
However, she was happy that Kousho’s cold attitude towards her wasn’t because he hated her.
Kousho hugged her tightly. His strong arms were warm and dependable.
“I won’t let you be put in danger again. I’ll definitely protect you.”
His dependable words shook her. She knew he would protect her.
That was what she strongly believed.
Then, her body became hot, and her heart began to throb loudly. She smelled a sweet, and gentle scent coming from Kousho. She became hot and her head became hazy when she smelled it. It was a scent that she had never smelled from Kousho before.
(This scent… I’ve smelled it somewhere before.)
She thought, but she couldn’t remember from where.
She looked at Kousho’s reliable figure and was reminded of the boy who always appeared in her dreams.
(Huh…? Why that boy…?)
She thought it was strange, but she couldn’t stay awake anymore.
She felt as if she was floating in water again as her consciousness faded and she fell asleep.