She had the largest room in the Beautiful Flower Palace. Riri took a deep breath outside of her room.
“May I enter?”
It took a lot of courage for her to speak up, but there was something that she couldn’t give to her.
“… Come in.”
Her voice sounded dignified as always, but there was a hint of confusion in it.
Riri gently opened the door and found Hisui sitting in front of a writing desk at the back of the room.
Hisui stared at Riri without changing her expression.
“Please excuse me. I need to talk to you.”
She entered the room and closed the door. She sat where Hisui told her to sit with her hand and faced Hisui.
“I also want to talk to you, Consort Riri… I was the one who stole your outfit and mask from the ballroom. I apologise for that.”
Hisui slowly bowed her head but sounded graceful. Riri could smell Hisui’s scent in the box when her outfit and mask were gone. She had suspected that Hisui was the culprit.
But now that she was here and saw how Hisui was acting, she was sure of one thing.
“No. You didn’t do it.”
She declared. Hisui looked up with her eyes wide in surprise.
“What makes you think that?”
“I actually have a very good sense of smell which allows me to detect even the slightest scent that ordinary people wouldn’t be able to detect. I can get a lot of information from scents. Your scent was definitely in the box which contained my outfit and mask, but I also smelled another scent in there.”
She remembered that moment. She couldn’t believe that it smelled like Hisui, so she put her face in the box to smell it closer, and she noticed that there was a slightly different scent in there.
“Your scent has aloes wood as its base. Aloes wood is quite expensive, so hardly any of the other consorts use it. The other scent left in the box was made from processing fragrant olive flowers. Fragrant olive flowers are quite easy to process, so it isn’t very expensive. It’s easy to get, so it’s often used by court ladies.”
Riri gently pressed her nose with her index finger.
“My nose is quite good. I can tell which person touched the box first by how strong the scents are. The person who uses the fragrant olive flower fragrance touched the box first, and the person with the aloes wood fragrance touched the box a while after. So, here’s what I think.”
Riri explained in order what she had sorted out in her mind while coming here.
“The person with the fragrant olive flower fragrance touched the box first and they are the one who took the outfit and mask. A while after, the person with the aloes wood fragrance realised what that person must have done, so they opened the box to check. The person who took the outfit and mask must be someone very close to you. For example, your court lady. I can smell the same scent coming from your right, just behind the sliding doors.”
Riri looked over to the right and the sliding door opened gently after a while.
A middle-aged court lady was sitting in the next room.
“I’m sorry! I stole your outfit and mask. I really wanted Consort Hisui to be the best in the beauty pageant and become one of the Four Consorts.”
The court lady apologised with tears streaming down her face as she rubbed her head on the floor.
“I believed that Consort Hisui would become one of the Four Consorts, but since you seem close to Kousho-sama, I thought that you might become one of the Four Consorts if Kousho-sama really wished for it. I am really, really sorry!”
Hisui quickly approached the court lady.
“A court lady’s failure is the master’s failure. I’ll apologise to her. Nene, you should rest since you’re not feeling well.”
“No. It’s absurd for you to bear my crimes. Consort Hisui didn’t know anything. I did it on my own. Please, don’t charge Consort Hisui with any crimes.”
The court lady named Nene bowed her head again as she trembled.
With a hand on Nene’s back, Hisui looked at Riri.
“Nene is the wet nurse who has been taking care of me since I was born. She’s usually very gentle and calm. However, she has been insisting that she would make me a high-ranking consort in the inner palace and has been thinking a lot ever since I came to the Beautiful Flower Palace. I’m sorry, Consort Riri. I’ll apologise too. I don’t think you should forgive the person who stole your costume and mask, but please don’t charge Nene with any crimes.”
Hisui looked at Nene as if she was looking at her mother.
It suddenly reminded Riri of her own weak mother.
(Mother always looked apologetic because she was too weak to work. When I told her that I was worried about her body since she was working too much, she looked at me in the same way Nene looks at Consort Hisui… Maybe her feelings for Consort Hisui, who is like a daughter to her, just got out of hand.)
Riri couldn’t say anymore when she thought that. Hisui straightened her posture.
“It’s just like you said. Nene was acting strange this morning. When I questioned her about it, she said she stole an outfit and mask, but she didn’t tell me who they belonged to. So, I went to the ballroom to check the boxes and saw that your outfit and mask wasn’t there. I wanted to tell you what had happened and apologise, but you were nowhere to be seen.”
Hisui didn’t know that she had been kidnapped.
Hisui brought Riri’s outfit and golden mask out from the next room.
“I couldn’t return them during the day because there were people in the ballroom getting ready, but I thought about going to return it to you now since it’s about time for everyone to move to the hall where the banquet is held. I’m really sorry.”
Hisui bowed her head. Then, Riri suddenly smelled a certain scent.
It wasn’t an elegant scent that belonged to a noble, but the scent of iron, like those used for armour.
It wasn’t an unpleasant scent, but a proud scent, like one belonging to a carnivorous beast standing on the vast ground.
The scent was coming from behind the door.
“This scent is… Garan?”
Riri frowned and the door swung open. Garan was standing on the other side.
He had an unusually angry expression on his face.
“Excuse me. I was looking for you since Kousho-sama told me to check up on you. I’m sorry but I heard what you were talking about. Let me tell you what I think. ――― SCREW YOU!”
It was directed at Nene. Riri hadn’t expected that Garan would speak so coarsely. Garan was so angry that he strode in the room. Riri rose up when she saw this.
“Garan, calm down… And even you can’t enter a consort’s room in the inner palace without permission.”
Garan was allowed to enter the inner palace, but he wasn’t allowed to enter a consort’s room without permission.
But he didn’t care and glared at Nene with eyes burning with anger.
“I have the right to investigate if you stole Riri’s outfit and mask as the person in charge of the inner palace’s security. I was allowed to enter the room as part of the investigation.”
Nene looked frightened as the large Garan glared at her sharply.
“You stole Riri’s outfit and mask. On a personal note, I’m Riri’s friend. I’ve been watching her as she practiced hard while barely sleeping because she has no dancing experience. How hard do you think Riri is working so that she can dance at the final selection?”
His voice had finally quietened down, but it sounded intense.
“It is a cowardly act to steal her outfit and mask just before the dance. What you’ve done is just not stealing. You’ve interfered with the final selection of the beauty pageant. It’s a huge crime to interfere with the royal family’s event.”
Nene was trembling. Riri rushed over to Garan and stopped him with her hand.
“You misunderstood, Garan. I asked Nene to mend my outfit and mask.”
She wasn’t good at lying, but she wanted to do something about this situation. Her mother’s image overlapped with Nene’s.
Nene had gotten carried away because she was worried about Hisui, who was like a daughter, so Riri wanted to end this as peacefully as she could.
“What?! Do you think I would believe that excuse Riri!?”
“It’s not an excuse, it’s the truth. Please! Garan. My outfit and mask are here. You’ve already mended them, right Nene?”
When Riri turned around, Nene looked up slightly and nodded several times.
“Thanks. I’ll take it then.”
Nene picked up the outfit and mask that were beside Hisui and gave it to Riri. Riri took the outfit and mask and stopped Garan with her hand again since it looked as if he was about to say something.
“Garan, I’ve gotten my outfit and mask back in time for the dance, so let it go.”
“Thanks for worrying about me, and thanks for getting angry for me, but there’s nothing to gain from causing a scene here.”
She stared at him, and he looked surprised. He stared back at her and then lowered his eyes.
She thought it was strange that his eyes suddenly held a different emotion in them, but she persuaded him first.
“I just had Nene mend my outfit and mask. Nothing happened.”
Hisui was the Grand Chancellor’s daughter. The palace will be in an uproar if they found out that Hisui’s court lady had stolen the belongings of a talented person from the Beautiful Flower Place. Nene was remorseful and given Hisui’s personality, she would make sure that Nene wouldn’t make such a mistake again.
“Garan, we all have our demons. When I was living downtown, there was a time when I wanted to steal because we had nothing to eat, and I was so hungry. Someone helped me at that time, so I didn’t end up stealing. But we all lose our ability to think rationally when we’re desperate. But we can also reflect on our actions and start over. So, for once, just pretend that nothing has happened.”
I said quietly and Garan thought for a while.
“I… just can’t forgive the person who tried to ruin your hard work.”
She was happy that he got angry for her. Garan looked up and stared at her.
“… I can’t forgive her, but I also know that your decision to pretend that this never happened is the best thing to do now. I won’t say it’s the correct choice, but I also understand that you don’t want to cause an uproar in the palace.”
Garan turned to Hisui while clenching his fists.
“Consort Hisui, will you really make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
He must not have been satisfied even though he had said those words, but he knew what would happen if he were to make a scene here. That was why he said that. Hisui bowed her head.
“I swear on my name that this won’t happen again.”
She sounded dignified. Garan seemed unhappy but didn’t say anything else as he walked out.
Riri rubbed her chest in relief when she heard Hisui’s voice.
She turned around and saw that Hisui’s eyes were teary.
“Thanks for saving Nene.”
Riri smiled and nodded, then she quietly approached Hisui.
“I want to tell you something, but you have to keep it between us. You can’t ever tell anyone else about it.”
Hisui looked puzzled as she nodded.
“I’m participating in the beauty pageant because I want my own palace. I’m trying to make a special incense in order to fulfil my dream of becoming a perfumer. I want to become one of the Four Consorts because I want my own palace where I can concentrate on mixing. I joined the beauty pageant to make my dream come true.”
Truthfully, she shouldn’t have told anyone about the treasured incense, but she believed that Hisui wouldn’t tell anyone. Just to be safe, she didn’t name the incense. Hisui’s eyes widened in surprise.
“… I see. I was so sad when I thought you had betrayed me. You told me that we can both do our best to achieve our dreams even though we’re women. I didn’t believe that was possible, but deep down, I knew I would be happy if that were to happen.”
Hisui smiled shyly.
“I love hanfus. I would love to be able to spin yarn and weave hanfus with different patterns and be able to make a living on my own, but everyone told me that I shouldn’t work because I’m a woman. It was heart-breaking. I thought you were the only one who understood me, but then I heard that you were going to enter the beauty pageant, so I thought you wanted to get ahead in the inner palace and felt betrayed. I’m sorry. I made my own assumptions without knowing what was going on.”
“No, it’s because I didn’t tell you the truth. I wanted to tell you the truth, but a lot of things happened so I couldn’t. But I trust you, so I told you the truth. I want to be friends with you. I don’t want to lie to my friends.”
Hisui smiled happily.
“If it’s alright with you, please be my friend, Riri.”
Riri smiled when Hisui called her name.
“Yes, Hisui. Let’s work together to make our dreams come true!”
They smiled together while holding each other’s hands. Hisui was the first female friend Riri had made in the inner palace. Riri had a feeling that they would be friends for life. Hisui stood up.
“Then, let’s quickly put on our outfits and head to the hall where the banquet is held. It’s almost time for it to start.”
When Riri heard those words, she was reminded of something that had been on her mind.
It took a lot of courage for her to say that idea.
However, she thought it was the best choice considering her current situation.
“What’s wrong, Riri?”
Hisui tilted her head in confusion. Riri looked up at Hisui and made a decision in her mind.
“I’ve been thinking about something ever since I saw you dance the other day. I actually…”
Hisui’s eyes widened when Riri told her what was on her mind.
“No way! Are you really alright with that?”
“――― Yes. I think that would be the best thing to do for the Beautiful Flower Palace right now.”
It was something that she had been worrying about, but she knew that she couldn’t turn back now that she had made up her mind.
“So, I have a request for you, Hisui.”
She lowered her voice to make her proposal. She wanted tonight’s dance to be a success.
That was the only thing she wanted right now.