“The Elegant Incense Gathering was a success. The guests were amazed by the new technology from the Ministry of Incenses, and they were surprised by the effectiveness of the incenses prepared by the perfumers. The guests were very satisfied with the banquet on the last day. They enjoyed the dance, incense performance, food, drinks and hospitality of the consorts. Thank you all for your hard work.”
Five days have passed since the Elegant Incense Gathering and Riri was summoned to the Emperor’s room. She bowed deeply.
The Emperor was next to Kousho and Hisui was next to Riri.
Kousho was the first person to look up.
“Thank you very much for your kind compliments. It was a great experience for me to host so many guests from other nations.”
Hisui also looked up after Kousho did.
“I will tell the consorts of the Beautiful Flower Palace about your compliments. I am sure they will be pleased to hear them.”
“Thanks, Consort Hisui. You have been through a lot, but you have done a good job as the person in charge. I ask you to continue to take care of the Beautiful Flower Palace.”
Hisui’s cheeks were red, and she looked happy. This was the first time Riri had seen her like this. As her friend, Riri was happier to hear Hisui complimented than her own self.
She was surprised when the Emperor spoke to her and looked forward.
“You have worked hard behind the scenes to ensure the success of the Elegant Incense Gathering. You did a great job.”
“Thank you very much.”
She bowed her head again in awe. Kousho had informed the Emperor about what had happened with Mokuren.
“We were able to resolve the conflict in the palace thanks to you providing evidence that the claims against Koushoku are false. The palace would have been split into two if things had continued as they were. If that had happened, then We wouldn’t have had the leisure to host the Elegant Incense Gathering. Not being able to host the event would truly be a crisis for Shinzui.”
The Emperor sighed lightly and leaned forward a bit.
“You saved Us from that, and it is We who should thank you.”
“You are too kind. I only did what I could do.”
The Emperor smiled.
“You have already done so much for this nation. I spoke to Emperor Aren at the banquet, and he said that it was thanks to you that Shinzui and Koran could establish friendly relations. I am delighted that the people of Shinzui no longer have to live in fear of war… So, I would like to express my gratitude.”
Riri tilted her head curiously and the Emperor took a scroll from the desk on his right and opened it.
“Ren Riri, the talented person from Beautiful Flower Palace. I will grant you the ‘Fragrance Princess’ title in recognition of what you have done.”
The Emperor turned the scroll towards her and the words ‘Fragrance Princess’ was written on it.
She became flustered since she was so surprised.
“B-but the Fragrance Princess is a title that belongs to the perfumer who saved the nation several hundred years ago. I cannot…”
She blinked and the Emperor smiled.
“You are the Fragrance Princess who uses incenses. What title would be more appropriate for you? You have overcome many crises with your incense making skills and your super olfaction. I would like to award you for your efforts by giving you a title you deserve. I want you to become one of the Four Consorts of the Beautiful Flower Palace.”
His unexpected words made her breathless.
“You want me to become one of the Four Consorts?”
“That’s right. Consort Ranran has been stripped of her title of Pure Consort, so there are only three consorts at the Beautiful Flower Palace right now. I was thinking of asking you to become the Pure Consort but calling you Fragrance Princess seemed more fitting, therefore the Four Consorts of the Beautiful Flower Palace will be the Noble Consort, the Virtuous Consort, the Worthy Consort and the Fragrance Princess. Do you agree, Consort Hisui?”
Riri looked next to her and saw that Hisui seemed deep in thought.
But Hisui quickly looked up and turned towards the Emperor.
“… Consort Riri heals everyone with her incense. Her incense making skills will benefit the Beautiful Flower Palace. It would be reassuring if she could help unite the Beautiful Flower Palace as the Fragrance Princess now that we are missing a consort.”
Hisui’s words made her happy, but something was still bothering her.
(Huh…? Hisui doesn’t look happy.)
She tilted her head in confusion. Hisui looked at her and smiled.
“I want you to help me make Beautiful Flower Palace prosperous, Consort Riri.”
Both her voice and expression were normal, so Riri thought she had imagined it.
“… Yes. If you are alright with me then I would like to continue to do my best for the Beautiful Flower Palace and Kousho-sama.”
She knew that this title was too much for someone of her stature but she knew she had to accept it. She had become one of the Four Consorts and would be able to help Hisui more. Besides, it would buy time for Kousho to meet his first love.
That thought made her heart ache for some reason, but she shook her head and chased the feeling away.
The Emperor nodded in satisfaction.
“Good. Then do your best for Kousho and the Beautiful Flower Palace from now on as one of the Four Consorts. There are only five months left until Kousho ascends the throne. The palace will start preparing for this soon. The Beautiful Flower Palace must work together to put together the ceremony that will make Kousho the Emperor.”
She bowed respectfully along with Hisui.
It was a large role, but she knew it would be worth it.
The previous bleak aura around the Beautiful Flower Palace had disappeared and a gentle fragrance filled the air.
Riri had come here to deliver incenses. She knelt and bowed towards Hisui who was walking down the corridor.
“Good afternoon, Consort Hisui.”
“Good afternoon, Consort Riri.”
Behind Hisui were Ranran and Juka. They quietly followed after Hisui.
Riri waited for Hisui, Ranran and Juka to pass her when Ranran suddenly stopped and kneeled in front of Riri, then she whispered.
“I’m sorry… for all the trouble I caused.”
She looked away awkwardly but that seemed like a genuine apology.
Ranran didn’t say anything else before rushing after Hisui.
“It seems like everyone’s getting along now. I’m glad.”
She watched them walk off and got up, then she noticed someone walking towards her.
“Good afternoon, Consort Shoei.”
Riri greeted and Shoei rushed towards her with teary eyes.
“I’m sorry, Consort Riri. You told me to deliver a message to Kousho-sama the other night at the banquet, but I…”
Shoei was slightly trembling as if she was frightened. Riri placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You probably didn’t have the chance to. It’s okay. I’m sorry for suddenly asking you to do something like that.”
Shoei was wearing a hanfu that she had embroidered herself with oleander blossoms.
She cowered and looked down.
“I can’t be of any help after all, but the Beautiful Flower Palace has become pleasant lately. I used to cry every day because I didn’t know what to do… Did you do something, Consort Riri?”
Riri and Hisui had agreed not to tell anyone about the real reason for Ranran’s change of heart out of consideration for her future and so that she wouldn’t cause any more trouble in the future.
Riri smiled vaguely and Shoei finally calmed down and took a deep breath.
“I heard that you are one of the Four Consorts now, Consort Riri. I’m glad. I’m sure the Beautiful Flower Palace will become the best place in history with you here.”
“You think too highly of me.”
Riri became embarrassed and Shoei shook her head.
“You are a wonderful person… Hmm, you might not want me to say this, but I really want to ask… Will you be my friend?”
Shoei gathered all her courage to ask with a red face, then she looked down.
“I can’t do anything, and you won’t benefit even if you become my friend, Consort Riri.”
Riri gently grasped Shoei’s hand while she was still looking down. Shoei looked up in surprise.
“I already… Think of you as a friend, Consort Shoei. You can call me Riri.”
“I can’t call you without honorifics…!”
“It’s fine. Friends don’t humble themselves around each other. I’ve told you this before, but you’re smart, cute and a good seamstress. I’m not very good at sewing. I can’t even sew a scented incense bag, so I have my maid help me. Will it be alright for you to teach me how to sew?”
Riri smiled and Shoei’s face lit up.
“I will! Of course. Consort Riri… ah, umm, Consort Riri…”
Shoei looked adorable when she blushed. Riri suddenly noticed something as she gazed at Shoei’s smiling face.
“The mole around your eyes is hidden when you smile. I wish you would smile like this all the time. Your smile is cute.”
“I-I’m not cute…”
She smiled seeing Shoei turn redder. Ranran who had apologised to her and Shoei who asked her to be her friend are all important people. She didn’t know what she could do, but she wanted to do her best to protect those who live in the Beautiful Flower Palace.
“May I have a word, General Garan?”
Riri called out to Garan who had come to guard the Beautiful Flower Palace. Garan said something to the soldier next to him and walked into the gate, then he and Riri went to the garden in Beautiful Flower Palace.
“I’m sorry to bother you while you’re busy, but I talked to Mokuren at the Elegant Incense Gathering.”
She hadn’t had the chance to talk to Garan yet, so she hadn’t told him about what she and Mokuren had talked about.
Garan frowned when she finished telling him everything.
“Is it true that Mokuren isn’t the real Nine-Tailed Fox? And the real one has already infiltrated the palace?”
Garan hadn’t heard about all this from Kousho and looked surprised.
“Yes. I don’t think Mokuren would lie. I’ve been thinking about who the Nine-Tail Fox could be.”
She took a deep breath to collect her thoughts, then continued.
“I believe that Rarai-sama is the Nine-Tailed Fox.”
It was a bold accusation. She didn’t believe it was right to talk about things when she didn’t have any proof.
But she wanted to hear Garan’s opinion on this since he knew Rarai well. Garan’s eyes widened in shock.
“You think it’s Rarai?”
“Yes. Mokuren said the real Nine-Tail Fox is a genius when it came to making incenses. As I recall, Rarai-sama knows a lot about incenses, and he told me that he was torn between becoming a perfumer at the Ministry of Incenses or inheriting his house and becoming a soldier. Besides, I smelled him at Mokuren’s hideout.”
She believed that was more than enough proof. Garan pondered and then finally spoke.
“That’s the thing. I found out that Rarai was in the palace when you were at the hideout listening to Mokuren and the mysterious man.”
Garan’s perplexed tone made her gasp.
“Really!? He was here?! There must be some kind of mistake.”
“He was here. A meeting was held to discuss the security details for the Elegant Incense Gathering on that day and a number of military personnel saw him at the meeting. The meeting took half a day and people said he barely left the venue. He didn’t have time to sneak out and talk to Mokuren.”
Riri was shocked. Garan continued.
“And if Mokuren became the temporary head of the Dark Perfumers because the mysterious man was a child when the former head died then he must be younger than Mokuren, but Rarai and Mokuren are around the same age. You said that Rarai is good at making incenses, but he really isn’t. He’s only good enough to become a perfumer. I don’t believe he’s a genius at making incenses.”
“That can’t be… Then who did that scent at the hideout belong to? I couldn’t hear their voice well since it was muffled, but it sounded similar to Rarai-sama’s voice.”
She recalled that time. She had certainly smelled Rarai at the hideout. Was she wrong?
Garan put a hand on his chin.
“What if that person knew you were listening in?”
She blinked at those words.
“What do you mean?”
“The mysterious man is good at making incenses. What if he made a fragrance that smelled exactly like Rarai and made you smell it?”
“Why would he do that?”
“To incriminate Rarai. He has already infiltrated the palace. He doesn’t want anyone to find out who he really is, so he made you smell Rarai’s scent to mislead you.”
She couldn’t believe it, the thought of someone doing that made the blood drain from her face.
“That scent belonged to Rarai-sama. If the enemy can create a fragrance that can fool my olfaction, then the Nine-Tail Fox’s skills may be superior to mine…”
A chill ran down her spine at that thought.
She had a feeling that the storm that had just swept through the palace hadn’t calmed down but would only grow stronger.
Riri thought about the real Nine-Tail Fox who she hadn’t met yet.
She was glad that she hadn’t told Kousho that she had smelled Rarai’s scent at Mokuren’s hideout since the palace would become stormy again if she had.
Garan stayed quiet for a while then he clenched his fists and spoke.
“Riri… I’m sorry for asking you at a time like this, but do you remember what you promised to do after the Elegant Incense Gathering?”
She was startled by the hesitation in his voice. Garan had confessed that he liked her. He asked her to give him an answer after the Elegant Incense Gathering. She hadn’t thought about how to answer him yet since there was so much going on around her.
She liked Garan. He was an important friend. She would do anything for him.
But she wasn’t sure if she loved him in that sense, and she didn’t have the time to think about love with everything that was going on with the Nine-Tail Fox.
Garan raised his hand when he saw that she didn’t know how to answer.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to answer me yet.”
She looked at him and saw a tint of sadness in his gentle face.
“There’s a lot going on, so you haven’t had time to think this through, right?”
She nodded in shock since he knew exactly what she was thinking.
“You don’t need to rush. I want you to think over it carefully. I’m prepared to quit my position as general, but I don’t think I can do that with everything that’s going on.”
Garan strained his face.
“If the real Nine-Tail Fox has infiltrated the palace then we must catch him, and I believe it is my duty as general to see Kousho-sama crowned as the Emperor. I want you to think about how you feel about me too, so I’ll wait for now.”
Garan smiled slowly.
“I’m going to respect whatever answer you give me, but I want you to know that I like you. I want you to choose me. My feelings for you will never change.”
It was just like him to confess in a direct and earnest way. She wasn’t prepared to accept his feelings, nor did she have the courage to reject them.
“I’m sorry I can’t give you an answer right now.”
He realised she didn’t know how to answer and made the first move.
His kindness made her want to cry.
“It’s alright. I need to focus on finding the Nine-Tail Fox… but I like you, so I will court you every chance I have. I want you to know this.”
She was surprised that he could say something like that. Garan turned away from embarrassment.
“See you later.”
She watched as Garan waved his hand and walked away and muttered, “Thank you.”
Mokuren watched the setting sun and breathed slowly. He could see the roof of the palace in the distance from atop the hill. He was preparing for a trip, but it was difficult to take the first step.
“Was this really the right thing to do…?”
He had been asking himself that question ever since he left Riri at the Elegant Incense Gathering.
“I have to confess my crime, but I can’t. And I’ve kept a lot of secrets from you. I’m afraid of hurting Riri but I couldn’t say anything.”
He regretted it. He didn’t tell Riri everything because he didn’t want her to hate him.
He questioned whether it was alright to leave everything to her and run away, but he couldn’t muster up the courage to confess the truth right now. He believed he was a coward. Riri, in comparison, was completely different. She entered the palace and did what she believed was right.
“Riri, I’m going to improve myself so that I can be on par with you. I want you to hear about all my crimes when I become stronger.”
He muttered and turned towards the palace which was being illuminated by the setting sun once more.
“Riri. It’s your destiny to face ‘him’. I can’t stop ‘him’ anymore. To stop him I would…”
He recalled Riri’s face. He didn’t want her to have a hard time. He wanted to protect her even if it meant getting his hands dirty, but he realised that he had been wrong when he talked to her at the banquet.
“You’ve really grown strong, Riri. I will disappear for now, so that you can grow even more. The future of the nation is in your hands. I will do everything I can to help you, so please allow me to disappear for now. I’ll be back when you’re in danger.”
Resignated, he turned his back towards the palace. The sky, which was illuminated by the setting sun, was flowing orange.
A man chuckled in a dark room.
“Mokuren ran away?”
“It seems like a lot of the Dark Perfumers followed him. How many are left?”
“About twenty. A lot of us are anxious about whether we would be able to defeat the Emperor with so few people.”
This man must be one of those who were anxious. He couldn’t hide his uneasiness.
The mysterious man turned to face the man and smiled confidently.
“It’s alright. I’m here. I was supposed to be the head of the Dark Perfumers. Mokuren was just keeping that seat warm for me until I grew up. I will lead you as the Nine-Tailed Fox.”
The mysterious man nodded as the man looked at him in anticipation. He was capable enough to gain their trust.
“Yeah. Leave it to me. Twenty men are enough. I alone can defeat the Emperor as long as the treasured incense is complete. Tell everyone not to worry.”
The mysterious man smiled when he heard the happy voice. The man bowed and left the room.
He watched him leave then sat down on the floor.
“Mokuren. I already predicted that you would disappear. You don’t want revenge. You were using soft methods to buy time. Honestly, you were just a hindrance.”
He muttered to himself. He was delighted that things had worked out for him.
“The Dark Perfumers are pure now thanks to you taking all those who adored you with you. All those who remained are those who are bent on revenge… Riri, I’m not as kind as Mokuren. Be prepared.”
He had miscalculated one thing though. He had failed to turn Riri’s suspicions towards Rarai.
He knew that Riri was hiding in the room when he was talking to Mokuren at his hideout.
“I could smell your scent from the closet. Your unique scent of smell isn’t only special to you. My olfaction is superior to yours.”
He put a finger on his nose. Since he was born, he had the ability to even sniff out people’s emotions.
He was proud to say that he wouldn’t lose to Riri’s olfaction.
He knew from his subordinates that Mokuren had brought Riri to his hideout, so he used a perfume that smelled exactly like Rarai to trick her.
He also had olfaction, so he knew that Riri was confident in the information she got from her nose, so he took advantage of that.
However, it was proven that Rarai was at the palace at that time. He wanted to keep everyone’s eyes on Rarai for a little longer, but he was sent back to guard the border.
“You’re really annoying, Riri. You should have just eaten the poisoned sweets and died.”
He had once poisoned some sweets and had them delivered to her under Kousho’s name.
He made a tasteless and odourless poison that even Riri’s nose couldn’t detect but Kousho noticed something suspicious about the sweets and his attempt on Riri’s life failed.
He thought about making another attempt on her life but decided to use her and make her suffer instead.
So, he put on an elaborate play.
“Riri has already played into my hands. It’s up to me whether she lives or dies. That stupid woman will never find out who I am… Ah, I must go back to the palace. I must get ready.”
He took off his clothes and stared at his naked self in the mirror.
He was fifteen years old. He wasn’t a man yet.
He was thin and short for a man, but his slim figure and short stature really helped this time.
He wore an earthy yellow hanfu. His hair was done up neatly and he had a luxurious hairpin in his hair.
He put makeup on his face and finished it with lipstick. He thought he looked cute. The earthy yellow hanfu was embroidered with oleander flowers.
“She said that the moles around my eyes disappear when I smile, didn’t she? She wanted me to always smile like that. Stupid woman. She’s been completely fooled.”
He laughed heartily. His reflection in the mirror was also laughing.
The girl in the mirror was the person who people called Shoei.
She was shy, good at sewing and had become friends with Riri yesterday.
“You don’t suspect that the real Nine-Tail Fox is this close to you. I’ll let you know soon, Riri. I’ll let you know that oleanders are poisonous from their flowers, leaves, branches and roots, and oleander in the language of flowers means ‘don’t let your guard down’.”
The first step in his plan was to brainwash Ranran.
So, he had Mokuren, who knew what the Chancellor’s writing looked like, prepare false evidence for him.
Shortly after Riri and Kousho went to Koran, he put that piece of evidence in a place where Ranran could see and watched her pick it up, then he softly whispered, “Consort Hinsui is beautiful. She’s from a good family. She’s smart and perfect. She will be able to support Kousho-sama as he’s ruling this nation,” while Ranran was torn between her respect for Hisui and her desire to become Empress.
‘Shoei’ then sighed in admiration and Ranran’s eyes changed drastically.
“It hasn’t been decided that Consort Hisui will be the Empress!”
He gloated in his mind when he saw Ranran’s face filled with jealousy.
“The inner palace is made up of jealousy and ambition. It’s a woman’s nature to be jealous of a woman who is more beautiful and capable than herself even if they’re on good terms.”
Jealousy bloomed in Ranran’s heart, but she was still hesitant to use the evidence to make Hisui vulnerable. So, he whispered this to Ranran at every opportunity.
“Consort Hisui is wonderful.” “Consort Hisui is managing the Beautiful Flower Palace really well.”
He complimented Hisui and fanned Ranran’s jealousy, then he finally whispered the taboo words.
“I heard a rumour that Consort Hisui will soon be announced as Kousho-sama’s Empress. I’m so envious… I’m sure we’ll never be able to see Kousho-sama again.”
He pretended to be a bit sad and Ranran exclaimed, “That’s not true!” before rushing back to her room. He chucked when he was out of sight.
Ranran had completely fallen for his trap.
Just as he had hoped, Ranran became visibly high-handed towards Hisui the next day.
And he was pleased that Hisui hadn’t said anything back.
Ranran must have used that piece of evidence to her advantage. If Kousho or Riri were there, they might have noticed the change in the girls’ attitudes and done something, but they were in Koran, far away from the Beautiful Flower Palace.
He believed he had done a good job in instigating Ranran.
“Riri, it’s your fault for being away from the palace at such an important time.”
He recalled Riri’s face again. He would never forget the stunned expression on Riri’s face when Rarai took the evidence that she had supposedly taken from Ranran’s room.
“The other consorts and I purposely bumped into you when you tried to escape from Ranran’s room with the piece of evidence and I took it from your hanfu, then I dropped it in a conspicuous place. It made it easier for me to plan all this since you told me that you would be sneaking into Ranran’s room. All I had to do was keep an eye out for when you would sneak in.”
Ranran had threatened Hisui with that piece of evidence, but she didn’t publicise it.
He thought that was boring but then Riri told him about her plan, so he came up with a counterplan.
It worked in his favour that Rarai was the one who picked that piece of paper up.
Mokuren had told him about all the people who had a grudge against the palace.
Rarai hated Kousho because of his demotion, so he thought he could take advantage of Rarai since he heard that Rarai would be coming back to the palace to guard the Elegant Incense Gathering.
Everything was going well but he had miscalculated something.
Mokuren had prepared the false evidence on a piece of paper using different materials.
He must have done it on purpose since he knew that Riri could tell the difference with her olfaction.
When he learnt of this, he knew that he couldn’t keep Mokuren in the Dark Perfumers any longer.
Bamboo was sometimes used to make paper where he grew up, so he didn’t think it was strange even though his olfaction did pick up on the scent.
He spent his time in the Beautiful Flower Palace and the Worthy Consort Palace, so he had no idea that the palace only used paper made of hemp.
“… Well, whatever. I have planted other seeds around the palace. I should just be glad that Mokuren is gone from the Dark Perfumers.”
Riri had absolute confidence in her olfaction, so she judged whether someone was lying by their scent, so he made a scent that would disguise that smell. Thanks to that, Riri trusted Shoei completely. Riri asking Shoei to convey a message to Kousho was proof of this.
Riri told him to tell Kousho that something bad had happened.
He immediately realised that she was referring to Mokuren being in the palace.
Of course, he didn’t tell Kousho.
He was curious to see how things would turn out when Riri and Mokuren met.
If Mokuren had given into his emotions and helped Riri then he would denounce Mokuren as being unworthy of the Nine-Tail Fox title and kick him out of the Dark Perfumers, and if Mokuren kept his mouth shut and carried out the plan then he would be able to bring Shinzui to ruin.
He would benefit either way.
Riri had olfaction like him, and she was also trying to make the treasured incense. He didn’t want to lose to Riri.
“Riri. I will definitely recreate the treasured incense before you do, and I will crush Shinzui. Just you see.”
He spoke to himself in the mirror, then Shoei smiled cruelly.