Seven days after leaving Koran by carriage, Riri and everyone finally returned to Shinzui.
Although they had been gone for about a month, the sight of the gold and vermillion-lacquered palace made Riri feel nostalgic. Unlike the palace in Koran, which was filled with the scent of citrus fruits, the palace in Shinzui was filled with the scent of various fragrances wafting from the Ministry of Incenses. This familiar scent made her feel even more at home.
She was informed that the Emperor was waiting for her as soon as she returned to the palace, so she went to Reibun’s room with Kousho.
When they entered, they found that Reibun was sitting on a chair reading something, but he turned his head to look at them.
“I’m glad you’re back safely.”
Kousho put a hand on his chest and kneeled. Riri also kneeled and bowed her head.
“The treaty with Koran has been concluded. We also received a written pledge that Koran will not claim any of the mining concessions in the future. Emperor Aren hopes that the peace between Shinzui and Koran will continue forever.”
Reibun widened his eyes slightly.
“I can’t believe that Emperor Aren would make such promises. What in the world happened over there?”
“I just spoke to them with sincerity. We agreed that war is not good for the people.”
Kousho didn’t dare speak about what had happened in Koran.
Reibun nodded slowly with a surprised look on his face.
“I see. I can stop worrying since you directly made them sign the treaty. I have received a letter from Emperor Aren asking me to allow Seirai-dono to stay here in Shinzui to study incenses again. Did he come back with you?”
“No. I heard that Seirai-dono will be giving out detailed orders about the treaty to various places on behalf of Emperor Aren before coming here. So, it may be a while before he arrives.”
“I see. I heard that Seirai-dono supported the treaty. I would like to thank him when he arrives. And also… Riri.”
Riri was startled and looked up when Reibun spoke to her.
“How was Koran?”
“It was a wonderful nation. I gained valuable experience there.”
She answered in a few words and Kousho also turned his attention to her.
“Father. Riri’s incense played a role in the conclusion of the treaty.”
“Oh. That’s wonderful. You did well, Riri.”
She was delighted to hear those words.
Her dream was to become a perfumer. Women couldn’t become perfumers, so she believed that helping people with her incenses was just as valuable as becoming a perfumer.
“Thank you for your kind words.”
“Riri, I heard from Kousho that you went to Koran to look for an important ingredient for the incense. How did it go?”
She confirmed that it was just her, Reibun and Kousho in the room before speaking.
“I have successfully obtained the fragrant wood of the blue winter daphne. I believe I have made great progress towards making the treasured incense.”
“I see… Riri, Kousho will become the emperor in about seven months. You promised that you will complete the treasured incense by then. Will you be able to complete it in time?”
She thought about this the whole time during their ride back from Koran.
“Yes. I think the reason why the perfumers have failed to make the treasured incense so far is because they couldn’t obtain the fragrant wood of the blue winter daphne. I should have all the ingredients required to make the treasured incense. All that is left to do is to figure out what materials and quantities. Once I know that, I will be able to complete the treasured incense.”
This was easy to say, but the slightest difference in the quantity of materials can make a completely different fragrance.
The hardest part of making the treasured incense was yet to come.
(But I should have all the ingredients I need, and I have a place where I can concentrate on mixing. All I can do now is to trust my olfaction and keep on mixing. I’m sure I can do it!)
She muttered encouraging words to herself in her mind, then Kousho bowed.
“Riri will concentrate on mixing the treasured incense at the Fragrance Princess Palace. But she always gets involved in things she doesn’t need to get involved in, so I will keep an eye out, so she doesn’t get bothered by other things.”
It was an irritating way to put it, but Riri believed this was just another example of Kousho’s kindness.
(Kousho-sama is the same as always… But why is he this kind to me? When I was kidnapped in Koran, he hugged me and told me he was glad that I was safe. He told me that he wanted to take me back to Shinzui even if it meant giving up on having peace with Koran. He told me that I am important to him.)
Her heart started to beat wildly when she thought back to that time.
Her face became hot, and she felt a mixture of emotions: embarrassment, breathlessness and happiness.
But one thought cooled those feelings like ice.
(But Kousho-sama has his first love. He asked me to enter the beauty pageant and become one of the Four Consorts, so he can buy time until he sees her again… I am important to Kousho-sama because it’s highly likely that I’ll make the treasured incense.)
When she thought that, all the emotions that had been rising in her suddenly faded away.
She felt like she was going to cry. Knowing that Kousho-sama’s kindness to her wasn’t because she was important to him made her feel as if she was suffocating.
She asked herself what that feeling was, but no answer came to her.
“Riri, what’s wrong?”
The voice belonged to Reibun. She looked up in a panic and her gaze met Kousho’s grey-ish brown eyes.
She couldn’t look him in the eyes and looked down.
“Nothing. I am just a little tired.”
Reibun nodded slowly.
“It must be because you’ve just had a long trip. You can rest for today. Thank you for your hard work.”
She bowed her head at his kind words. She left the room with Kousho with mixed feelings in her heart.
Riri touched the fragrant wood in the cloth bag at her waist and wanted to return to Fragrant Princess Palace to start mixing as soon as possible. Like Reibun had said, there wasn’t much time left.
Although Kousho weighed on her mind, she wanted to devote all her energy into making the treasured incense.
She wouldn’t be able to complete the treasured incense before Kousho becomes the emperor in seven months’ time if she concentrated only on making the incense and didn’t think about anything else.
She was anxious, but she had to first report to the Four Consorts that she had returned safely to the Beautiful Flower Palace since she was a talented person there. She held back her desire to use the fragrant wood as soon as possible and headed to the Beautiful Flower Palace with the guards leading the way.
“Welcome back, Riri-sama!”
Ryouka waved her hand in front of the large gate of the Beautiful Flower Palace.
Ryouka, a maid, had been by her side and helped her ever since she entered the inner palace.
She wanted Ryouka to go with her to Koran, but it was impossible since she was visiting her parents’ home.
“It’s been a while, Ryouka. I’ve missed you.”
“Me too. I cleaned the Fragrant Princess Palace while you were away and made it so you can start mixing at any time.”
“Thanks! I must greet the Four Consorts before I return to the Fragrant Palace. All the Four Consorts should be at the Beautiful Flower Palace at this time, right?”
The Four Consorts, who were in charge of the Beautiful Flower Palace, were all given their own palaces, but they spent most of the day at Beautiful Flower Palace.
“I wonder how Hisui is. I can’t wait to see her.”
Hisui, who was in charge of the Beautiful Flower Palace as the Noble Consort, was a friend of Riri’s even though their statuses were quite different.
She was looking forward to seeing her for the first time in a long time.
“Consort Hisui is…”
Ryouka’s expression suddenly clouded over. Riri noticed this expression as she walked through the gates of Beautiful Flower Place.
“What’s wrong? Hmm?”
She was curious about Ryouka’s expression, but she stopped since the scent that was ‘wafting’ through the air in the Beautiful Flower Palace caught her attention.
The scent could be summed up in one word: unpleasant.
“The aura around here is strange…”
A sense of uneasiness spread through her mind as she smelled the ‘unpleasant aroma’. The aroma around the Beautiful Flower Palace was clearly different from the time before she left for Koran. She felt that something odd had happened here.
“Can you tell? I was waiting here to tell you this before you entered the Beautiful Flower Palace.”
Ryouka whispered in her ear. She heard a voice from in front of her while she was wondering what was going on.
“Oh my, isn’t that Consort Riri?”
It was Ranran with several consorts in tow. Ranran had been given the Pure Consort title, so it wasn’t strange for her to have consorts following her. And yet, Riri couldn’t help but be confused.
(What is it? Something’s not right.)
She thought and Ranran approached her in an imposing manner.
“Did you come back from Koran?”
“Yes. I have come to greet you.”
Riri bent her knees and bowed. She was given the Fragrant Princess Palace, but her status was that of a talented person.
There was a clear difference in status between her and Ranran, the Pure Consort.
Among the Four Consorts, Hisui, the Noble Consort, had the highest rank.
Hisui is the daughter of the Grand Chancellor and was the first candidate for the position of Empress. Ranran, the Pure Consort, was next in line.
Looking closely, Shoei, the Worthy Consort, was among the consorts who were following Ranran.
Riri had never talked to her before, but she was a petite and cute girl.
She looked timid, so Riri worried about whether she would survive in the Beautiful Flower Palace.
“Then, Kousho-sama is also back? I want to go greet him right away.”
Riri felt that Ranran had changed after not seeing her for a while.
(She looks much brighter, probably because she looks confident. But was she always like this?)
Ranran raised her chin and the corners of her mouth turned up in a tight smile.
The way she was puffing out her chest made her look pompous, for a lack of a better word.
She never behaved like this when she followed Hisui around.
Riri stared at her puzzlingly and Ranran tensed up.
Ranran looked behind Riri. Riri turned around and saw Hisui, Juka, the Virtuous Consort, and a few other consorts walk towards them.
Ranran usually withdrew when she bumped into Hisui in a narrow corridor since the rank of Noble Consort was higher than Ranran’s and her father is the Grand Chancellor. Ranran was also someone who followed Hisui around before.
But to Riri’s surprise, Ranran didn’t withdraw.
“Oh my, Consort Hisui. Hello.”
It was the most piercing voice that Riri had ever heard.
The usual Ranran would never speak to Hisui in such a voice, so Riri was perplexed.
When she looked at Hisui, she saw that she had lost a lot of weight in the time that they hadn’t seen each other. She also looked pale.
“Hello, Consort Ranran.”
“Would you mind stepping aside? It seems that Kousho-sama has returned, so I must prepare to greet him.”
“It is my job as Noble Consort to greet the royal family.”
Hisui’s words were somewhat weak. Ranran stared at her intensely.
“Are you going to disobey me?”