The words that Aren had said to Kousho earlier confirmed that he still loves Shiyurai.
“Seirai-sama and Princess Keika look exactly like Shiyurai-sama, don’t they? … That is why you do not want to see them. You remember her whenever you look at them and it hurts. You wanted to marry Princess Keika to a faraway noble because it is hard for you to have her close by and see her all the time.”
She had heard from Keika that Aren became self-righteous after Shiyurai had passed away and he began suffering from his illness. At first, she thought that his illness made him lose control, but the more she listened to what Keika had told her, the more she began to change her mind.
“Your illness causes you pain, but the loss of Shiyurai-sama must have been more painful.”
She had heard that he was an oppressive, but fair Emperor. The sorrow caused by the loss of his beloved combined with his illness may have made him self-righteous, but he wasn’t a bad person at all. Otherwise, neither Seirai nor his subjects would have thought of following him no matter what he did to them.
The people in the palace always looked at Aren fearfully.
But in their fearful gaze, she noticed a slight hint of respect mixed in.
“This incense has the effect of evoking memories. I wanted you to smell this incense and remember how you felt when Shiyurai-sama was alive. What would she say if she were to see how you are now, Your Majesty?”
From what she had heard from Keika, Shiyurai’s opinion was the only one he listened to even though he did so reluctantly.
Her plan was to bring back his old memories by getting him to smell this fragrance. Of course, she knew that the possibility of success was low. If Aren had been so distraught that he had even forgotten the scent of his beloved, then there was nothing she could do.
But she wanted to take a chance on the lowest possibility.
She nervously looked at Aren. He had covered his face and was looking down. He remained silent.
“Your Majesty… Father!”
Then, she heard a voice from behind her. When she turned around, she saw that Garan was bringing Keika this way.
She had asked them to rescue Keika and bring her here.
Keika ran up to them while crying.
“Please… please stop. If you continue like this, then you will end up fighting with Shinzui. That must not happen!”
Her tone was strong. Garan had told her to imitate her mother’s tone of voice. Keika’s face and even her voice sounded like Shiyurai’s.
Seirai’s, whose facial features are similar to Keika’s, also reminded Aren of Shiyurai.
That was probably why Aren was trying to keep them apart.
Aren might listen to her if she persuaded him by burning the fragrance that Shiyurai always wore at a place where he had memories with her and with Seirai and Keika around. She was pinning her hopes on such a faint possibility.
Seirai spoke as if he was chiding Aren.
“I do not want to get married while ignoring Riri’s feelings. Please order the soldiers to retreat. We might be able to prevent the worst from happening.”
Riri hoped that their words would reach Aren and all she could do was pray that they would.
She clasped her hands and closed her eyes, then there was a moment of silence.
Aren finally looked up. His expression was somewhat clear.
“… She also used to say that she didn’t like fighting.”
His voice sounded nostalgic. He looked at Keika and Seirai with a calm expression.
It was the first time that he had looked at them with a fatherly expression. Kousho put a hand on his chest and took a step forward.
“Your Majesty. Please withdraw your troops. Fortunately, no one has died yet. If you withdraw them now, then we can pretend that nothing has happened.”
His quiet voice echoed through the noise of the battle.
“I will have Riri make the heart soothing incense once every six month and deliver it to this kingdom. I will do everything in my power to protect her. I swear on my name. Please believe me.”
Aren looked down and pondered.
“Shiyurai will scold me if this happens…”
Aren looked up again and was smiling bitterly.
That was his answer. Kousho also noticed this and quickly spoke.
“I heard that a banquet is being prepared at the Snow Flower Palace. Let us partake in the banquet to celebrate this instead of the wedding…”
Aren nodded at those words.
“This banquet is to celebrate the signing of the treaty in advance. Everyone, put down your swords! Practice is over!”
The soldiers stopped moving. Everyone was staring at them.
“Are you sure, Your Majesty?”
One of his aides raised their voice in astonishment.
“Yeah, I’m sure… I’m sorry. Tend to the wounded.”
“““As you wish.”””
No one disagreed with Aren’s decision.
Everyone looked happy and soon the injured were carried away regardless of whether they were from Shinzui or Koran.
The battle ended in no time at all. Aren looked at Kousho again.
“My head which has been strangely hazy for a long time became miraculously clear when I smelled that fragrance. What Keika and Seirai were saying were also processing through my mind easily. We would be at war with Shinzui if I continued with my plan. That was the one thing I wanted to avoid as an Emperor.”
Riri was deeply moved that he had finally made the right decision. The dignified expression on his face was similar to that of Seirai’s Aren stood up and faced Kousho.
“Kousho-dono. I apologise for what I did.”
The proud Emperor bowed his head. Kousho smiled slightly and said,
“You do not need to apologise. Today is a joyous occasion where we will celebrate the signing of the treaty. The current skirmish was just sword practice. I am sure everyone is hungry from practice, so we would like to get started with the banquet straight away.”
Kousho’s hair was dishevelled from the fierce battle. There was blood on his cheeks, but he acted as if nothing had happened.
He looked very mature. Aren smiled.
The sky which had been gloomy earlier had cleared up.
The sun was sunning down upon them, and it seemed the Koran was starting to walk on the right path.
“Now then, I hereby conclude the treaty for the mining concessions. Crown Prince Kousho from Shinzui and Your Majesty Aren from Koran, do you have any objections?”
Riri watched in excitement as the Chancellor of Koran read out the documents.
Women were normally not allowed to enter the discussion room, but Aren gave her special permission to enter. Many ministers were sitting and watching the proceedings in the room.
Kousho threw out his chest as he stood there gallantly in formal attire.
“I have no objections.”
Aren, who was standing opposite him, nodded his head.
“I have no objections either.”
The treaty stated that Shinzui would have full rights to the mining concessions.
Kousho wanted to give Koran some of the mining benefits like before, but Aren said that he had had enough and renounced everything as if he had become possessed.
Aren said that this was his apology.
“Then, I will conclude the treaty. I hope that Shinzui and Koran will have eternal peace.”
The Chancellor slowly bowed his head. All the ministers in the room clapped in unison.
Everyone looked happy. They were pleased that Aren was no longer acting self-righteous. As if to prove this, the tension scent that Riri had smelled when she had first arrived at the palace had diminished considerably.
It had been several days since the wedding ceremony at the Snow Flower Spring.
Aren was regaining his composure day by day.
The palm fragrance was drifting in this room. It wasn’t difficult to make, so Riri had taught Keika how to make it.
She was certain that this fragrance would lead Aren in the right direction.
The discussion ended without incident and Kousho moved towards Aren.
“Your Majesty. I will return to Shinzui tomorrow. I want to report this matter to my father as soon as possible. I am also worried about Shinzui since I have been away for almost a month.”
“You’re already going back? It will be lonely around here. Come visit again.”
Aren looked at Riri.
“Riri, you may not like it here, but I hope you will visit again too. I was reminded once again that incenses are remarkable. I won’t force you into anything anymore, but truthfully, I still want you to stay in Koran. But I don’t want you to stay for my benefit. I want you to teach the people of this nation how to make incenses for the sake of my people.”
She no longer felt overwhelming pressure from Aren.
She was happy to hear his words since he remembered to think of his people.
“I am honoured by your invitation, but I am but a talented person belonging to Kousho-sama. I still have things to do in Shinzui, so I cannot stay in Koran.”
Although she wanted to spread the art of incense making in Koran, she needed to fulfil her goal of creating the treasured incense first. Aren smiled wryly when she spoke honestly.
“I see. That’s too bad. Now then, Seirai.”
Seirai blinked when his name was suddenly called.
“Go to Shinzui again and learn more about incenses from Riri, so that you can establish a Ministry of Incenses here in Koran as well. Learn everything you can about incenses. I’m counting on you.”
Seirai widened his eyes in surprise, but immediately nodded.
“As you wish.”
Seirai looked happy.
Aren asked him to do something because he trusted Seirai that much.
Seirai had been treated badly until now so this may be a joyous thing to him.
Seirai always smelled as if he was in front of something he disliked whenever he talked with Aren.
But he didn’t have that scent now. Riri believed that this was thanks to the palm oil that his mother, Shiyurai, had made that the parent and children were able to understand each other after they had cleared up their misunderstandings.
Aren suddenly smiled mischievously.
“You said you didn’t want to get married to Riri while ignoring her feelings, but what if she wanted to marry you?”
Aren’s words were startling, but Seirai wasn’t the least bit perturbed.
“If Riri wants to marry me, then I’d like to marry her. Of course.”
“Then go to Shinzui and convince her to marry you. All you have going for you is your face and your intelligence, so use your head to learn about incenses and your face to win Riri over.”
Kousho protested when Aren smiled broadly.
But Aren ignored him and held out his hands.
“The palace will throw a grand farewell party for Kousho-dono and Riri. Prepare plenty of sake and food.”
He was a forceful man even after he had regained his composure.
But he wasn’t hateful.
Garan’s feelings were dark even though he would finally return to Shinzui tomorrow. Riri was kidnapped right in front of him. He was glad that they were able to get her back safely, but he was annoyed at his failure.
He regretted that he had put Riri in danger.
“When we return to Shinzui, I will give up…”
He didn’t finish his sentence. Kousho still treated him the same as before.
Garan could tell that Kousho was remaining silent to let bygones be bygones.
Kousho was often misunderstood, but once he decided to protect someone, he would do whatever it took to keep them safe. When Garan was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit a long time ago, Kousho had caught the real culprit for him.
Garan would have been executed had Kousho not done so.
Kousho had saved his life, and Garan fell in love with Riri, his candidate for Empress.
He knew that Kousho had a special interest in Riri.
He was aware that this was an act of betrayal towards the person who had saved him.
That was why he had been desperately trying to give up these feelings and had tried his best to hide his feelings from both Riri and Kousho. And yet, he had hugged her when they went to look for the fragrance wood.
He couldn’t hide his love for her.
Since then, he has been trying not to be alone with her. He has been pretending not to notice when Riri looked as if she wanted to say something to him or looked in his direction. He was weak and didn’t want the truth to be known, so he pretended not to notice.
He was looked up upon as the unbeatable General in Shinzui, but his true self was so weak. He didn’t believe that he could continue to manage the army that defended Shinzui like this.
He left the banquet early to check the horses in preparation for their journey because he wanted to be alone to think things over slowly.
“What should I say to Riri about hugging her…?”
He couldn’t believe that he had acted so foolishly.
He had seen many of his subordinates obsess over women.
He had been curious about why they were so worried over love, but he realised that he just hadn’t known true love yet after falling in love with Riri.
He stopped to think when he arrived at the stables and suddenly heard a voice from behind him.
He turned around and saw Keika standing there blushing.
“What’s wrong? Isn’t the banquet still on?”
He could still hear the melody of the erhu flute that livened up the banquet. Keika looked down slightly.
“I slipped out. I heard that you went over here to check on the horses.”
“Do you need me for something?”
Garan tilted his head in confusion, wondering what she wanted with him. He had only spoken to Keika alone a few times.
Her face resembled Seirai’s greatly, and she still looked young, but he knew that she would be an immensely beautiful woman in a few years’ time. Keika finally raised her face and said in a desperate voice, “Hmm… I wanted you to have this.”
Keika held out a small incense container with both hands.
“What is this?”
“It’s the pastille that my mother used to make. It’s my favourite incense. Riri taught me how to make it. I wanted to give it to you, Garan-sama…”
Keika’s face was bright red, and she was fidgeting. She had told him that she wanted him to have her handmade incense. He wasn’t so stupid that he didn’t know what that meant.
Keika inhaled deeply as if to resolve herself.
“Hmm, I adore you…”
He raised his voice on reflex. Confessing probably took as much courage as jumping off a high cliff, but he didn’t think he had the right to listen to her confession until the end.
“I can’t accept this incense nor your feelings.”
He hesitated about how to tell her for a moment. He knew that he might make her cry, but he didn’t have the skills to converse with a woman at a time like this, so he put his honest feelings into words.
Keika widened her eyes in surprise, and she looked as if she was going to cry.
“I have someone I like, so I can’t accept them.”
He was irritated because he couldn’t put it in a better way.
Garan looked at Keika and saw that she was looking down. He was startled since he thought tears would well up in her big eyes.
He believed that women should be protected.
His father, who was the General before him, told him not to be a man who made women cry.
When he called her name, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and opened her eyes again.
“It’s alright. I won’t cry!”
Her voice was unusually clear. He realised that she was trying to be cheerful but didn’t bring it up.
“I feel better now that you’ve made it clear.”
Keika lowered the hand that was holding her incense container. She seemed upset but she looked firm.
“I just wanted to tell you how I felt before I won’t be able to see you anymore… Garan-sama. I just want to ask you one thing. What kind of person is the person you like?”
She looked straight at him, and he couldn’t lie.
She is a very strong woman. She never forgets to look forward no matter what the situation. She has the courage to move towards her goal… He was thinking about giving up on her, but he was falling more and more in love with him.
He also regretted revealing his true feelings and wondered why he had said what he had, but strangely, his mind was clear. Perhaps he wanted someone to listen to him.
Keika smiled gently.
“She’s a wonderful woman. I hope your love goes well, Garan-sama. I want the person I love to be happy.”
He once again believed that Keika is a strong woman after he heard this.
She had to have a strong heart to be able to support him after hearing all this.
He might have been attracted to her strength if he had met her before he had met Riri.
He smiled and Keika bid him goodbye before turning her back towards him. She might cry in a place where no one can see her.
I’m not good enough to comfort her, Garan thought.