Kousho got a bad feeling after he finished his speech because he couldn’t see Riri.
He noticed that she wasn’t there while he was talking to the audience.
He wanted to go look for her, but he couldn’t leave the stage.
His father hadn’t been feeling well and wanted to rest early, so he moved up his speech but it took longer than he expected. When he finally got on the stage, the first thing he did was look for Riri.
“Consort Hisui. Where’s Riri?”
Hisui, who was in charge of the banquet, was watching the stage from down below and giving instructions to the other consorts.
He asked her where Riri was because he thought she might know something, and saw her expression harden for a moment.
But she soon returned to her usual calm expression.
“Consort Riri should be handling the incenses, is she not in the hall?”
“She isn’t. I told her to tell me if something happens, but she…!”
He was so worried that he blurted that out. Hisui pursed her lips.
“I’ll ask someone who is free to look for her.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. I’ll have my guards look for her. I’m just asking in case you knew where she was.”
Hisui called out to him as he turned his back towards her. He turned around and saw Hisui put her hands on her chest.
“… I want to ask you this at least once. Who is Consort Riri to you, Kousho-sama?”
She sounded as if she had plucked up all her courage to ask this question.
“Consort Riri is the only person who you call without suffixes. I have seen the two of you talk many times. You both look very close and Consort Riri is the only person who you look at kindly… Consort Riri isn’t one of the Four Consorts, so the other consorts will be jealous if you give her special treatment. I don’t think that will end well for anyone.”
“Are you also included with the ‘other consorts’, Consort Hisui?”
He said this with a mixture of sarcasm since he couldn’t believe that Hisui was saying this because he had heard that she and Riri were friends. Hisui looked startled but then quickly lifted her face.
“Yes. I consider Consort Riri my friend, but that is a separate matter when it comes to you.”
He believed she was a strong-willed woman, and he didn’t dislike it.
“I don’t want you to talk about what is going on between Riri and I. Riri… is special.”
He hesitated for a moment before speaking honestly.
Hisui widened her eyes in shock, then quietly bowed her head.
“I understand. Please excuse me.”
He had learnt that a woman’s jealousy was terrifying.
His mother had lost her life because of the jealousy of the consorts.
He didn’t want Riri to go through that.
There was no guarantee that Hisui would not become jealous and attack Riri, but he wanted to believe that she wasn’t stupid enough to do so, that was why he told her how he really felt about Riri.
He turned his back towards Hisui and approached the guards at the entrance.
“Have you seen Consort Riri?”
“Consort Riri was heading that way a while ago…”
“Wait! What? What is this…”
He put his hand over his nose. A pungent smell suddenly entered the hall from outside the open doors and windows.
“What is this smell…?”
“What’s going on…?”
The guests in the hall started complaining.
The incense that Riri had prepared had been wafting through the hall until a few minutes ago. The smell wasn’t strong, but it wasn’t too light and was very calming, but the smell that was now wafting into the hall wasn’t a very good one.
The ‘strange scent’, which he had never smelled before, made him think of the worst thing that could happen.
“Is this incense from… the Dark Perfumers?”
He muttered to himself. Riri said she had heard that Mokuren would do something at the banquet.
Of course, he had been careful, and security was tight since royals from other nations were attending the Elegant Incense Gathering. He believed it would be difficult for Mokuren and the Dark Perfumers to enter the palace.
But Riri would have noticed if they slipped through a gap and entered the palace and would have followed them…
And if Mokuren and the Dark Perfumers planted poisonous incenses in the palace then…
The worst was here. He turned to the guard.
“I do not know.”
“How could he disappear at a time like this… Alright. Gather the men and evacuate the guests!”
He heard a loud explosion as soon as he shouted. He panicked for a moment, but then he saw fireworks lighting up the night sky from behind the wide-opened door. He remembered that Garan had told him that there would be fireworks at the end of the banquet. The guests in the hall came out into the corridor.
“Oh! What beautiful fireworks!”
“Was that gunpowder I smelled earlier?”
He heard the guests ask, but he knew that it was something else.
The guests also seemed to notice that something was off.
“Wait a minute. This isn’t the smell of gunpowder and it’s different from the scent in the hall earlier.”
The guests started panicking. There was a pungent smell earlier in the hall, but it had changed into a soft and gentle aroma.
He wondered what was going on and saw a girl step onto the stage.
He widened his eyes. Riri smiled and bowed.
“I am a consort from the Beautiful Flower Palace, my name is Riri, and I am the person who has prepared the incenses for tonight’s banquet. What you are smelling right now in the hall is a ‘Transforming Incense’. The incense helps sober you up once it has been lit up. After a while, it will change into a mild and gentle aroma which will lure you into sleep.”
Riri’s explanation left the guests stunned, probably because they had never heard of a fragrance that changes. She suddenly heard a round of applause in the quiet hall.
She looked at the person who was clapping and saw that it was the Emperor of Koran, Tou Aren.
“I see. I appreciate your concern. It is a very nice fragrance. Thanks to it, I will be able to get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure everyone is surprised since you’ve never heard of a fragrance that changes, but in Shinzui, even women can make such wonderful incenses. I hope our nation can learn from their example and use incenses to improve our lives.”
The guests agreed with the Emperor of Koran.
“It really does smell nice. I was surprised at first, but it was an interesting performance.”
“Hmm. I can feel her consideration in the incense. You have a very thoughtful consort in the Beautiful Flower Palace.”
More people clapped and Riri bowed once more in embarrassment.
Aren approached her in a dignified manner.
“Kousho-dono, this year’s Elegant Incense Gathering has been the best yet. The new technology from the Ministry of Incenses was wonderful and the banquet was a lot of fun. Thanks.”
Aren put his hand on his chest and bowed. The guests gasped at his gesture.
“Oh, that Emperor Aren has thanked Kousho-dono…”
“Is it true that Shinzui and Koran have reconciled?”
It was a well-known fact that Koran and Shinzui were enemies because of the mine at the border of these two nations.
So, it was rare for Emperor Aren to attend the Elegant Incense Gathering, and even if he had come to Shinzui in the past for the gathering, he never greeted anyone from Shinzui.
The guests at the banquet were aware of this and were taken aback by Aren’s behaviour.
Kousho also put his hand on his chest and bowed.
“Thank you for coming to Shinzui. I hope that there will be an everlasting friendship between Shinzui and Koran.”
He was smiling but he felt differently inside. Riri didn’t make a fuss, so the pungent smell was probably not poisonous. He had confirmed all the incenses that were going to be used at the banquet but he never saw the Transforming Fragrance on the list. Riri standing on the stage and speaking was also unplanned.
Something had probably happened that he wasn’t aware of, but he couldn’t talk about it with Riri right now. The banquet was about to end. It was important to end the banquet without letting the guests know that anything was wrong.
All the guests moved to the garden after he exchanged pleasantries with Aren.
He ran up to Riri, who was coming down from the stage, when he saw that all the guests were engrossed with the fireworks.
“Where have you been, Riri?”
He whispered, so that others around them wouldn’t hear him. Riri looked up.
“I apologise. I was making a bet.”
He raised his eyebrow and Riri nodded.
“I will tell you what has happened.”
Riri didn’t look good.
He was glad that she was okay. He listened to what she had to say while figuring out what was going on.
Riri saw Mokuren’s worried expression when she woke up.
She had made a bet regarding whether she would die or not by sniffing the incense burner which Mokuren told her contained a poisonous incense. She fainted and lost consciousness, but it seemed that she had only fainted for a short amount of time, judging from the surroundings.
“… I won the bet. I knew you couldn’t kill people with incenses.”
Her throat was stinging. Her body was numb, but she felt alive thanks to these feelings.
Mokuren looked at her in astonishment.
“You’re reckless. You would have died if that really was poison…!”
“I believe that you would never use poisonous incenses… Honestly, I thought I was going to die here, but that would have been my destiny.”
She could finally move her body, so she stood up slowly. Mokuren raised his eyebrow.
“You’re saying something absurd.”
“I knew I would be executed if I were discovered when I decided to leave the palace and go to find you. I believed you might have been moved if I had died here. I… was prepared to die to stop you.”
Mokuren took a step back as if he was overwhelmed by her voice. Then he chuckled.
“I’m no match for you.”
“Mokuren. I won the bet since I didn’t die.”
She extended her hand and smiled. Her head hurt a little, but everything else was fine. Mokuren sighed.
“The incense burner only contains a numbing incense. It won’t kill you since it’s not poisonous, but it will make you numb for a while, and you will lose consciousness. If something happens at a banquet where royals and nobles from other nations are gathered, then the host, Kousho-sama, will be held responsible. That would be more distressing for Shinzui than killing everyone.”
Mokuren’s words were strange.
“Say, Mokuren. Do you really want to abolish the Emperor as the Nine Tail Fox?”
She had been thinking about this for a long time.
“I told you that is my destiny.”
Mokuren’s reply was unusually quick which reinforced the idea that something was off.
“But your words and what you’re doing aren’t the same. You’ve had many chances to kill His Majesty with a poisonous incense before this, so if you really believe that you would have done it. You even used a numbing incense this time instead of poison. You’ve been giving all kinds of reasons for your actions, but aren’t you just saying you don’t intend to kill him?”
Mokuren fell silent. Riri was convinced she was right when she saw this.
“There’s… something that’s been bothering me. You created that piece of fake evidence that was used against the Grand Chancellor, didn’t you? But you must have known that all the paper used in the palace was made from hemp from when you worked here. Bamboo is used as a raw material for paper only in a few areas.”
This had been bothering her for a long time.
“And yet you went to the trouble of making the fake piece of evidence with paper made from bamboo. You did it because you knew my olfaction would be able to detect that, didn’t you?”
Mokuren looked down.