This happened three years ago.
Kousho heard that Gou Garan, who had just become a General, had been put into jail for taking bribes. He remembered mocking him in his mind and thinking that he was a foolish man for falling into a stupid trap.
But he couldn’t remember what made him go to prison to see that fool.
There was a man sitting upright with his back straight in a small stone prison at the end of a dimly lit corridor. He had long, shiny black hair which he had inherited from his mother and piercing black eyes. His well-trained body was so muscular that even Kousho admired him as a man.
He called out to Garan through the bars of the cell and Garan looked up and stared at him.
Garan looked puzzled.
“Why is he here? What is he thinking? You got put into here because you’re dumb enough to let what you think show on your face.”
Kousho folded his arms and laughed at Garan. He had known Garan since they were children. Garan has a strong sense of justice and was well-versed in martial arts, but he was unaccommodating and stubborn.
“You fell into a trap and were put in a place like this as soon as you succeeded your father as General. You might be executed at this rate.”
He wanted to see Garan cry since he was always calm.
Garan opened his mouth slightly when Kousho made fun of him again.
“… You said I fell into a trap, so you believe in my innocence, Kousho-sama. Thank you for coming all the way here to tell me that I am innocent.”
Garan bowed and Kousho widened his eyes in shock.
“I didn’t come here for that! You’ll really be executed at this rate. Why don’t you ask me to help you?”
Kousho grasped the bars. Garan closed his eyes.
“This happened because I couldn’t unify the army as a General. Whatever the truth may be, I cannot help but wonder if I had caused my fellow soldiers so much pain that this happened…”
His voice dropped a little. A soldier suddenly accused Garan of taking bribes a few days ago. Garan had trusted that soldier and consulted with him on various matters.
It was normal for him to be shocked by that man’s betrayal.
“I am responsible for the current situation because I failed to control my subordinates as their leader. I did not take any bribes, but I must take responsibility for not being able to control my subordinates.”
Kousho knew that this guy was a real idiot. He should be put to death, Kousho muttered in his mind.
Kousho suddenly recalled a memory from their childhood just when he was about to turn his back on Garan. He had teased and tormented Garan a lot when they were children, but Garan always followed him with a serious expression and never said he hated it.
And when Kousho’s mother died from poison, Garan said this to Kousho when Kousho told him he wanted to be alone.
“You can’t be alone now. My mother also passed away last year. I cried a lot then. You cannot cry in public because you are the Crown Prince, but you must be in a lot of pain. I cannot see or hear anything, so it is alright for you to cry now.”
It was funny to see Garan, who was still a boy, sit straight with his eyes closed and hands over his ears. A smile came to his mouth but at the same time, the tears that he was holding back began to well up in his eyes.
For the first time in his life, he thought Garan was an idiot, but a kind one.
He looked at Garan in his cell again and a feeling sprung up from deep within him.
“――― I’m extremely angry right now.”
Kousho said in a low voice and Garan bowed his head again.
“I am sorry for being such an inadequate General that even you are angry at me…”
“I’m not angry at you! I’m angry at the real culprit. He’s taking advantage of your boorish, serious, and stupid nature. He’s probably disappointed at how easily you fell into his trap. If he thinks he can fool people, this easily then I’ll prove him wrong!”
Why did he say that? He was surprised at himself and even Garan was surprised.
It was embarrassing to stare at Garan straight in the eye, so he turned away.
“I’m going to find the culprit since I won’t have anyone to make fun of if you’re gone… You’re my friend. I won’t allow anyone to hurt my friend. I will protect you.”
He couldn’t see the look on Garan’s face since his back was turned towards him. Then, he took a giant step out of the prison, driven by a strong desire to not let Garan die.
“You’ve been released.”
Kousho yelled at Garan, who was sitting upright like he had in prison yesterday.
Garan looked up and widened his eyes in surprise.
“The evidence of you being innocent came to me right as soon as I started investigating. The army guys started their own investigation since they believed you wouldn’t do something like taking bribes and that helped me settle this quickly. Most importantly, the signature that was used to prove that you had taken bribes was in a different handwriting than yours.”
Kousho opened the cell door, but Garan was still sitting there with a look of disbelief on his face.
“Did you really do all that for me, Kousho-sama? You have bullied me ever since we were children… I mean, you treated me like a toy… You teased me constantly, so I thought you hated me.”
Garan was confused and his thoughts were chaotic.
“I hate you but you’re a useful person, so I helped you. You’ll have to live with me teasing you for the rest of your life. That is your role as my friend.”
Kousho joked. He was embarrassed.
Garan was trying to compose himself or perhaps he was just shutting his eyes for a moment, but then he bowed his head.
“I swear I will be loyal to you for the rest of my life. If anyone turns their blade towards you, I will cut them down with my spear. ――― Thank you very much.”
His voice trembled slightly towards the end of his sentence but Kousho pretended not to notice.
“That guy hasn’t changed at all in the last three years.”
Kousho sat in his room and took out his sword which he had stored in a chest.
This was the first sword that Garan had held when he left prison and he had used this to cut his long black hair.
“I will change into a general to serve you.”
Both the officials and the soldiers who serve in the palace have long hair because they need to do their hair on formal occasions. Those with hair too short to do up would sometimes be scorned since this was a symbol of a low-ranking official.
Garan knew this but still cut his hair short to punish himself for being tricked and getting thrown in jail.
This was the sword with which he had cut his hair with at that time. It was a gift from his father when he became a general and he asked Kousho to accept it as a symbol of his loyalty.
A man who was stupid, serious, honest, and therefore trustworthy. That was Garan.
They both thought of each other as close friends. Garan was someone who he could trust to have his back in a fight. And yet… he muttered.
“Why did Garan fall in love with Riri?”
He couldn’t give Riri up even for Garan.
She was ‘special’.
His heart ached when he thought about her. There was probably only one woman in the world who could make him feel like this. Riri didn’t know he was the Crown Prince when they were children, but she protected him from rebels. He could still vividly recall that day.
Even after they met again at the inner palace, her behaviour has often been unpredictable and she made him nervous, but he knew that she was following her own convictions and wanted to support her. There were times when he believed that he was glorifying his first love, but when he reconnected with her and worked with her again, he found himself becoming more and more attracted to her.
He would have done everything in his power to chase his love rival out of the palace if that person wasn’t Garan.
He knew he was being immature, but that was how much he cared for Riri.
He had a lot of worries. He worried about Garan, Riri and the Chancellor’s injustice, but he had to focus on the Elegant Incense Gathering. He suddenly heard a voice from outside the sliding door as he put his sword away in the chest.
“Kousho-sama, the meal is ready.”
It was a court lady. He took a deep breath, switched his mood, and sat up.
“Is it that time already?”
It was a waste to eat at a time like this, but he knew that he should eat while he could since he didn’t know what could happen.
“Today’s meal has been prepared by the Beautiful Flower Palace. Consort Hisui has something she would like to discuss with you.”
“Consort Hisui? That’s rare.”
Everyone thought of Hisui when it came to the most beautiful, smartest, and best-behaved lady in the Beautiful Flower Palace.
She was that perfect. The most suitable person to be Empress was probably Hisui. But Kousho believed differently. He wanted Riri to be his wife.
But he didn’t know how to make her his wife.
He could make her his wife by using his authority, but he wanted Riri to fall in love with him.
He left the room, followed the court lady, and stepped into the hall of the Beautiful Flower Palace.
Hisui was sitting in the hall alone. It was strange since a meal had been prepared for him.
The Four Consorts along with a few other consorts and the court ladies were supposed to take care of him when he had meals at the Beautiful Flower Palace.
And yet Hisui was the only one here. The court lady went outside and closed the sliding door as if she knew what was going on.
“What do you want?”
Hisui tried to look indifferent, but he saw that she was pale.
“My deepest apologies. I wanted to talk to you alone.”
Hisui looked up and tears were welling up in her eyes.
“About the Elegant Incense Gathering?”
That was the only thing he could think of. Hisui was originally in charge of the banquet, but she had given up her position to Ranran to get Riri out of jail. Ranran was preparing the banquet, but this time, the consorts in Hisui’s faction weren’t listening to Ranran’s orders.
When Hisui was in charge, the consorts were at odds with each other, but the preparations were still progressing.
But Ranran was less capable than Hisui at allocating work to the consorts even though she wanted to be in charge of the banquet and the preparations have gone awry. Hisui took a deep breath.
“More pressing matters have arisen.”
Hisui looked unusual. He frowned and Hisui put a hand on her chest.
“Riri has… Consort Riri has disappeared. She is not in the Fragrant Princess Palace or in the Beautiful Flower Palace!”
Blood rushed from his face, and he felt as if he was suffocating for the first time in his life.