The scent that Ryouka emitted when she was lying wasn’t emitting from her. Ryouka probably drugged Riri at a time when no one would be around and then Seirai kidnapped her from the storage after he saw the signal.
Seirai probably didn’t say anything about Ryouka because he didn’t know who had drugged her. Mokuren used both of them and took her from the palace.
“I decided not to help Mokuren-sama after that. But… he said he wanted to know how you were in the palace. I was going to refuse, but I could tell that he was genuinely concerned about you, so I wrote him a letter and told him how you were. But I swear I only wrote about how you were and didn’t mention anything else.”
Ryouka looked straight at Riri. A single tear flowed from her dark eyes.
“I don’t know where Mokuren-sama is. I just wrote him a letter and left it at the appointed date, time, and place.”
Riri gently stroked Ryouka’s back as she spoke with tears streaming from her face.
“Thank you for your honesty. Then, can you tell me where you leave the letter? I’m sure Mokuren left clues about where he is there. I will tell Kousho-sama and ask him to find Mokuren.”
Ryouka looked frightened.
“I know that’s the right thing to do, but a lot of soldiers will go there to capture Mokuren-sama if I tell you. He is my benefactor. I know he’s a criminal, but I really don’t want him to get caught.”
Riri understood Ryouka’s feelings very well. Honestly, she felt the same way.
“But I have to ask him how he’s involved with that piece of evidence. There will be strife in the palace and the Beautiful Flower Palace if this continues. Many people will suffer.”
She came up with a proposal as she spoke.
But that would mean breaking the promise she made with Kousho since it would put her life in danger.
(I know I shouldn’t be thinking this, but…)
The calm part of her brain whispered, but that thought moved her.
(We’re in this situation because I dropped that piece of paper. Hisui had to step down from being in charge and the Elegant Incense Gathering might fail. Kousho-sama will be announced as the next Emperor at the Elegant Incense Gathering, so I want to make it a success. This is the only way…!)
She put her right hand over her chest and stared at Ryouka.
“Then, tell me. I won’t tell anyone about it.”
“What do you mean… you won’t tell anyone?”
“I’ll go there and try to find clues about where Mokuren might be. I don’t think he’ll tell the truth easily even if the soldiers go there and find where he is. It’ll be easier to persuade him if I talk to him.”
She had promised Kousho that she would tell him everything without hiding anything, and yet she was breaking that promise.
The thought of breaking the promise she made to him made her suffocate with guilt, and the thought of doing something like this alone filled her with anxiety and fear. She was well aware about what would happen to consorts who snuck out of the inner palace. Even so, the thought of getting Ryouka to tell her where Mokuren and improving the current situation in the palace and Beautiful Flower Palace was pushing her.
“I can’t…! It’s dangerous! I don’t want you to be in danger!”
Ryouka shook her head repeatedly. Riri knew it was dangerous but there were things she had to do even if it meant risking her life. She looked at Ryouka.
“Look at me, Ryouka. I’m going to say this one more time. If things continue the way they are now then there will be strife in the palace. The only way to prevent that is to talk to Mokuren. So please help me.”
Riri stared at Ryouka, and Ryouka’s eyes wandered around before she squeezed them shut.
Then, Ryouka finally opened her eyes after some time had passed.
“… I leave the letters at Densou Temple. I leave them there once a month on the days I go out.”
Riri knew that place. It was near the terrace house where she lived when she was living downtown, and she used to play on its grounds with her friends as a child. She realized something when she thought about this.
“Say, Ryouka. Did you mean the days when you stay overnight at your parent’s house to check on your mother because she wasn’t feeling well? I’m sure that’s…”
Riri looked at Ryouka who nodded.
“Yes, it’s tomorrow…”
Riri gulped. She was reminded once again that time waits for no one.
Riri sat on the futon and waited for night to fall. She wasn’t wearing her usual luxurious hanfus, but the ones that she used to wear when she lived downtown. It was a simple but precious garment that her mother had sewn for her.
The red coral hairpin on her head was also a gift from her mother. Her mother had sent this with a letter when she wrote that she was going to enter the inner palace to mix the treasured incense. Her mother often told her that this hairpin was a precious gift from her father. Her mother wrote that she would give this to Riri so that Riri would do her best in the inner palace.
She had placed a small amount of money into a small cloth bag. She took off all her glittering accessories and removed her light make-up. When she looked in the mirror, she saw herself as she was when she lived downtown.
She has rushed her preparations after she spoke to Ryouka during the day. Ryouka was also planning to return to her parent’s home tomorrow, but she promised to stay behind and buy Riri some time so that people wouldn’t discover that she had left the palace.
“The punishment for consorts who sneak out of the inner palace without permission is death…”
She was anxious and riddled with guilt over not keeping her promise.
“I’m sorry, Kousho-sama… but this is something I have to do.”
She whispered. When she looked in the mirror again, she saw herself dressed as she had when she lived downtown but her expression was different. Many things have happened since she entered the inner palace. She made incenses which pleased the consorts in the inner palace and even went to a foreign nation. She had also met Kousho and Garan and many others.
She may never see them again once she leaves.
“I want to help Kousho-sama with his dream and give Garan his answer, but I’m sure I can’t do either of those anymore… I don’t think I’ll be able to come back here alive, but…”
The face in the mirror became determined.
“The palace is in chaos because I dropped that piece of paper. It’s my fault. I must do something about this situation even if it means losing my life, and even if it means I can’t see Kousho-sama or Garan again. I must meet Mokuren and get him to admit that he was behind this.”
She put her determination into words and stood up while scolding her trembling legs.
Riri went to the kitchen at the back of the Fragrance Princess Palace.
The Fragrance Princess Palace was built hundreds of years ago for the Master Perfumer who had saved the nation.
The palace has been repaired and preserved over the years in her honour.
Currently, Ryouka was the only court lady in the Fragrant Princess Palace. She prepares Riri’s meals and takes care of everything around the palace, and Riri helped her sometimes since it was difficult to take care of this palace alone. It was during one of those times that a curious aroma from the kitchen suddenly caught her attention.
“… It’s here.”
The kitchen wasn’t that big. There was a stove in the back and built-in shelves next to it.
It was a simple shelf with posts along the wall and boards attached to it.
She took down everything on the shelves and carefully removed the removable boards.
“I couldn’t tell at first because the smell of the food was overpowering this scent, but…”
She put her hand against the wall and focused her attention on her nose. Then she pressed as hard as she could.
The wall made a rattling sound and moved.
The wall rotated around the centre of the room and darkness spread out from behind it.
“The Fragrance Princess lived here thousands of years ago. She was a Master Perfumer who could create the treasured incense, so she kept an escape route since she could be attacked by enemies at any time.”
Riri was just speculating, but she was confident that she wasn’t wrong.
This wasn’t the first time she had opened this secret path. She had gone in here the first time she noticed it because of her curiosity. It was daytime then and it was frightening to go down the narrow and dimly lit path. Then, she hit another wall.
She pushed on the wall and found that it also rotated and that she was able to get out.
When she stepped out from the wall, she found herself at the banks of an unfamiliar river.
She had passed through a cave in the mountain that faced this river.
The cave was behind the palace and when she looked back, she could see the roof of the palace beyond the mountain.
She was surprised when she realised that this river was outside the palace and quickly returned. She would have been executed if people found out that she had left the palace without permission. Since then, she tried her best to not think about the secret passage.
“I never thought it would come in handy at a time like this.”
She was afraid to walk through the dark cave, but she looked up with determination.
She reluctantly started walking.
The downtown area at night was a nostalgic scene.
Riri passed the terrace houses where she lived with her mother and walked to Densou Temple.
She crouched down and entered the overgrown weeds. This temple has been abandoned ever since she was a child. It was eerie to enter this temple in the middle of the night.
No one was around and it was frightening to take a step into the deserted temple grounds.
But she was able to move since she believed she would meet Mokuren.
Ryouka told Riri that when her mother had broken her arm and she was nursing her mother at home, she had come back here the day after she had left a letter. She assumed that Mokuren had come for the letter as soon as she had left it here since it was gone.
“I’m sure Mokuren didn’t want the letter to be left here for long since someone else might read it. I’m sure I’ll be able to meet Mokuren here if I keep an eye onthe temple since there’s a set date and time for the letter.”
She had Ryouka’s letter in her pocket. She went to the Jizo statue on the temple grounds instead of Ryouka and placed her hand under his foot. Then, a hole appeared at the foot of the Jizo statue. She put the letter inside and closed the lid, then she hid herself in the nearby weeds.
“Now all I have to do is wait.
She shivered in fear at being on the temple grounds at night, but tried her best not to take her eyes off the Jizo statue.