The journey to Koran was supposed to take half a month by palanquin, but Seirai suggested that it would be better not to keep the fickle Koran Emperor waiting, so a carriage was quickly prepared for the journey.
Riri looked out through the bars on the carriage.
The carriage was moving briskly along the mountain road.
Surrounding the horse-drawn carriage were about 20 skilled and trustworthy soldiers from Shinzui led by General Garan and about 10 civil officials who will be assisting Kousho in the discussions.
In addition to this, Seirai had brought about 10 guards with him from Koran.
There were about 40 people in total and Riri was the only woman. Kousho had told her to bring a maid with her, but Ryouka couldn’t come back since her mother’s injury was still not healed. Riri was visiting Koran for the important discussion and also to find the ingredient to make the treasured incense. She hesitated in taking other maids with her to this trip since they didn’t know that she was making the treasured incense.
So, she had told Kousho that she would be fine alone and had expected to feel lonely being the only woman among all these men, but…
(It’s surprisingly not that bad.)
Kousho was sitting next to her in the carriage and Seirai was sitting on the other side of her.
It had been a few days since they had left Shinzui. She knew that she would be riding in the carriage with Kousho, but Seirai had also been riding in the same carriage as them since they had left Shinzui even though he was supposed to be in a different carriage.
“I’ll tell you this as many times as it takes. Get in your own carriage today.”
Kousho said coldly and Seirai grinned.
“I don’t want to. It’s lonely. And besides, the Emperor of Koran summoned Riri to Koran, so it’s my duty as Crown Prince to entertain her along the way. Riri also finds it more fun when I’m here, right?”
Riri smiled vaguely at Seirai who was still using the same messed up logic as always while looking at her.
(I don’t have time to feel lonely in the carriage as Kousho-sama and Seirai-sama are always arguing over something, and I have to stop them from arguing. The two of them really don’t get along…)
She sighed in her mind. Seirai crossed his arms and looked at Kousho again.
“We should be able to reach Koran in about three days at this rate. We’ll start discussing the treaty as soon as we get there, so we’ll be busy… But I can’t understand why His Majesty suddenly proclaimed that he would give up all the mining concessions to Shinzui even if Riri is his benefactor.”
Kousho nodded while Seirai was thinking.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking, but we don’t want to miss this opportunity… Seirai, I’ll ask you once again. You’re alright with the Emperor of Koran giving all the mining rights to Shinzui, right?”
Kousho looked at Seirai seriously and Seirai smirked.
“Yeah. As I’ve said before, the nation and its people benefit greatly from silver craftsmanship and crops nurtured by our plentiful water. I don’t want the mines since they cause wars. But my father and the higher ups wouldn’t change their minds about the mines until now.”
Seirai unfolded his arms and leaned towards Riri and Kousho.
“The letter stated that my father would give up all the mining concessions to Shinzui, but I don’t know how much of that is true. I’ll also be participating in the discussions, but I honestly don’t know how much sway I’ll have. But I’ll do my best to persuade everyone. The mine is being controlled by Shinzui right now. The many people who work in the mines will be relieved once the treaty is finalised.”
“Yeah. The mines produce a lot of gold. The four towns in Shinzui which are located close to the mines are benefitting from it. The villagers in those towns are actually all frightened. They’ll all lose their jobs and end up on the streets if Koran asserts its rights over the mines.”
Kousho put a hand on his chest and smiled slightly.
“So, I want this treaty signed, so I can tell the people of Shinzui that they don’t have to be worried about such things in the future. I’m sure everyone will be happy.”
Riri felt Kousho’s kindness through his tone and smiled.
“Why are you smiling?”
Kousho sounded annoyed, so she quickly pursed her lips.
“It’s nothing. I didn’t want to interrupt you two since you were talking about something important, but I realised that you are very kind from what you had just said…”
Riri quickly answered and Kousho folded his arms.
“I’m not actually kind. I’m just thinking about Shinzui as its Crown Prince.”
It was a Kousho-like answer. Kousho took a deep breath and looked at Seirai again.
“Seirai, I’m glad we have the same opinion about the mine. Now we just have to see how much sway you’ll have in the discussions… There’s one more thing I want to ask you. It’s about your ‘friend’.”
Riri tilted her head since she felt there was a hidden meaning behind the word ‘friend’.
Seirai knew who Kousho was talking about. He leaned against the carriage wall and smiled slightly.
“We’re not friends. I just pretended to be his friend because our goals just happen to align… It seems like you still don’t know where he is. It’s better if you find him quickly. He’s… pretty skilled. He’ll really take over Shinzui.”
Riri realised who they were talking about after hearing that much.
(They’re talking about Mokuren.)
She held her breath and squeezed her hands on her lap.
Mokuren was the previous head of the Ministry of Incense, and he was also the teacher who had taught her how to concoct incenses.
He also helped arrange for her to enter the inner palace so that she could make the treasured incense.
She trusted him more than anyone else and he was also the person who had helped her when she hardly had any food left to eat, but he was also the head of the Dark Perfumers, a group who holds a grudge against the Shinzui royal family.
He told her that he had gotten close to her to make her remember how to make the treasured incense.
There are three honourable titles in Shinzui.
The first is the ‘Dragon’ title held by the emperor who rules the kingdom.
The second is the ‘Phoenix’ title held by the General who is considered the guardian deity of the royal family.
And the third is the ‘Qilin’ title held by the Master Perfumer who is said to protect the kingdom with their benevolent heart.
But in addition to these three known titles, there is a fourth dark title.
That is the ‘Nine-Tail Fox’ title held by the head of the Dark Perfumers.
The Dark Perfumers were originally an assassination squad who used poisonous incenses and were told orders directly from the emperor.
But they came to hate the royal family after they were expelled from the palace for a single mistake. The Nine-Tail Fox is the guardian deity of the royal family, but it is also an evil beast who will cause a revolution if they believe the emperor is wicked.
Mokuren stated that he would conform to his title and bring about a revolution against the emperor who had banished them.
Seirai had wanted the treasured incense to stop his sister from being forced into a marriage she didn’t want.
So, he teamed up with Mokuren and came to Shinzui, but he had betrayed Mokuren and saved Riri when she was kidnapped after some persuasion. She looked at Seirai and he let out a sigh.
“I don’t contact him anymore. I’ve also told you all the places where I met him. You’ve already searched them, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. I searched them to see if he had left any clues behind, but I didn’t find anything.”
Riri bit her lips when she listened to Kousho’s frustration.
(Mokuren… just where are you?)
He had betrayed her, but she couldn’t hate him. He had taught her how to concoct incenses and helped her survive on her own downtown. He also helped make it possible for her to try her hand at making the treasured incense to redeem her father’s honour. She knew that a lot of people had been saved by his incenses.
When she closed her eyes, she could picture him pushing up his glasses and smiling gently.
She hoped he would stop. Of course, she had tried to persuade him to stop but he wouldn’t listen to her.
She had no idea where Mokuren was, but she was certain that he was going to do something in the near future. Kousho was probably worried about being away from Shinzui at a time like this.
That’s why he asked Seirai if he knew anything about Mokuren.
Riri listened to their conversation as she gazed outside the bars again.
(Mokuren. Stay safe…)
She whispered her true feelings in her mind and quietly closed her eyes.
The setting sun shining through the bars of the carriage was so bright that Riri squinted.
“The sun is about to set. We’ll stop around here.”
Kousho said to the coachman who was driving the carriage.
The coachman understood these instructions and the carriage slowly came to a stop.
“We’re sleeping outdoors today? I wish I could sleep on a bed.”
Seirai complained as he stood up and Kousho shrugged his shoulders.
“We have no other choice. The shortest way to Koran is to cross through this mountain. We’ll reach Koran in seven days if we use a horse and carriage. You’re the one who said that we should get there quickly before the Emperor changes his mind.”
“Well, I did say that. There’s nothing wrong with rushing, but I don’t want to put a woman through a journey like this. You’re tired, aren’t you Riri?”
Seirai got off the carriage and offered his hand out towards Riri.
He probably wanted her to take his hand, but she wasn’t sure how to react.
“I appreciate the gesture, but I can get off on my own.”
“She’s right, and how many times do I have to tell you that Riri is my talented person before you understand? Don’t talk to her as you please.”
“Eeh. I was finally able to lure Riri out of the annoying old fashioned inner palace, so I wanted to take this opportunity to shorten our distance.”
Kousho looked at Seirai who had signed pompously and frowned.
“If you weren’t the Crown Prince of Koran then I’d strike right now and bury you in the ground.”
Riri didn’t believe he was joking even though he was laughing.
But Seirai didn’t seem to mind this.
“Love is free. I’ll do whatever it takes to make Riri mine if she accepts my feelings.”
“That day will never come. Let’s go, Riri.”
Kousho got off the carriage and held out his hand to her. Riri timidly took his hand.
When she got off the carriage with Kousho’s help, Seirai put a hand around her waist.
“That’s mean, Riri. You took his hand even though you refused mine.
“I told you Riri is my talented person, didn’t I?”
Kousho pulled her towards him and hugged her softly.
Seirai froze in surprise at the sudden situation and Kousho glared at Seirai.
“Listen carefully, I’m not going to let you have her. I’ll protect Riri even while we’re in Koran. Stay away from her.”
Riri was also surprised and gasped.
(It sounds like you really l-l-l-l-like me if you say something like that?! But that can’t be true, because you’re still in love with your first love.)
Kousho had told her during the beauty pageant that she should become one of the Four Consorts, so he could refuse having an Empress since he couldn’t forget his first love.
She wanted her own palace so she tried to get a good score in the beauty pageant that was held to select the Four Consorts, but she couldn’t stand on the same stage as the consorts, who have been training to be empress candidates for many years, with only a little training. She apologised to Kousho for being unable to become one of the Four Consorts, but he didn’t seem particularly angry about this and said that he would take time to think more about his first love.
She felt as if a needle had been pricked at her heart when she thought about this.
(Kousho-sama has someone he loves. He only cares for me because I might be able to make the treasured incense. He’s only doing this because he doesn’t want to hand me over to Koran because I might be able to make the treasured incense…)
She looked at Kousho and had a feeling that he wasn’t only protecting her because she could make the treasured incense.
(What am I to Kousho-sama…?)
She suddenly heard Garan’s voice while pondering.
“Kousho-sama. The bonfire has been prepared. Your meal will be ready soon, so please sit by the fire.”
She looked over and saw that Garan was on his knees and pointing his hand towards the bonfire which had been built near the riverside.
There were three chairs by the fire and a hanging screen covering the chairs.
The guards had begun preparing dinner with the food that they had brought with them.
“Good work. Everyone, eat early and get some rest. We’ll leave as soon as dawn breaks tomorrow. If all goes well, we may be able to reach Koran while the sun is still out.”
She took a deep breath when Kousho finally let go of her hand.
Kousho has been on her mind lately. He was arrogant, foul-mouthed, and obnoxious at first and she couldn’t bring herself to like him, but she could now see the kindness behind his foul-mouth and the compassion behind his arrogance.
She had never felt this way before and she didn’t know what to call her feelings.
(I’m just a talented person. I’m in a position where I normally wouldn’t have the chance to speak to him, but I’ll do what I can to help him… Will I be able to get a little closer to him like that?)
She thought as she stared at Kousho when she heard Garan’s voice.
“Riri, you can sit on that chair.”
She turned her head in surprise and looked at him, then realised.
“What’s wrong? Garan, are you angry at me?”
She tilted her head in confusion. Garan had a normal expression on his face, but she could smell that he was trying to hold something back from his sweat. He seemed angry, but he only raised his eyebrow a little.
He turned his back to her in a huff and she blinked.
“Let’s go, Riri. It looks like the food is done.”
She tried to talk to him again, but Kousho took her arm and led her towards the fire.
She had noticed that Garan was acting strange lately but she didn’t know what was causing this.
She wanted to slowly talk to him about this the next time she is alone with him.