The jangle of bells filled the air.
It’s such an awful din, Basen thought.
As it had officially become a divine ritual, they will be walking with the odd music until they leave the capital.
Although, since Basen had been frequenting the pleasure district as of late, it was inevitable that he had associated the sound of bells with the red-light district.
Can’t they use a different musical instrument?
Won’t the sarcastic types slander Consort Riishu by associating it with the pleasure district?
Won’t ridiculous rumours that ridicule her inability to return to the inner palace spread?
Basen was on horseback, buried in his thoughts.
Consort Riishu was in the horse-drawn carriage that was right in the centre of the procession.
Her maids and belongings were in the carriage behind hers.
Basen was positioned to the side in front of the consort’s carriage. The man called Rihaku that the Prince of the Moon(月の君, tsuki no kimi. 君 itself doesn’t necessarily mean ‘prince’. It’s an honorific title denoting high rank. Not the same as the -kun honorific that’s written with the same kanji. 月, or moon, is a reference to his real name :D) had recently appointed to an important post was at the back.
An easy-going man, he had spoken to Basen many times, but he actually didn’t have the liberty to do so this time.
Such people like them wouldn’t be escorting in a normal situation, right?
Even Basen thought that it was bizarre that he was here. He’s the subordinate of the Prince of the Moon.
But he was included to the consort’s procession. Since he was only here temporarily, someone else led the procession. Though Basen was higher in terms of social status, this couldn’t be helped.
Basen had an uncomfortable feeling about the procession to send off Consort Riishu.
The evidence for that was the pouch he carried. The pharmacy maiden had handed it to him. How to say it, he had thought that he won’t get hurt so it wouldn’t be needed.
He understood the Prince of the Moon was hiding something.
It wasn’t beyond Basen’s position to pursue that at all.
He wondered if there surely was something that personage had in mind.
Thus, how to act in a situation where you don’t know what will happen, that was important.
It will take around two days to reach the villa by carriage.
The weather wasn’t bad. Would be blazing sunlight be more of an issue rather?
The procession with the consort as its core proceeded slowly while taking breaks to not tire out the horses.
“Seems like we’ll be lodging there tonight.”
It was Rihaku who spoke to him.
Unlike Basen, the other man was on foot. Since he’s tall and physically tough, Basen didn’t need to look down from atop the horse.
“Aren’t there other villages?”
What Basen inadvertently stated was that they couldn’t find a place suitable in the rural village for the consort to stay overnight. The rows of houses look like dingy huts.
Wasn’t this too poor?
“Seems there’re only farming villages in the places midway. At any rate, it’s terrible.”
It’d be nicer if they went along a more decent path, he thought. It’s no different to camping then.
“She’ll be sleeping in the carriage,” Rihaku said.
“….will she be okay?” Basen asked.
The carriages were certainly large, but the interior shouldn’t be as large as a small room.
“She did the same thing when she went to the West, so it’s not an issue.” Rihaku grinned with a flash of his white teeth.
Should a nice guy be saying this? Rihaku was seven sun taller than Basen. Tanned skin and a sturdy physique. He had a sword strapped to his waist, but Basen heard that the man’s speciality was a six-sided club.
Is he skilled?
That saying, they never sparred. Would it be better if I spar with him once, he wondered along those lines.
However, seeing how the consort wouldn’t be staying at a lodge, Basen and the others will be camping.
If it was a single night, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. They’ll have to light a fire so wild dogs won’t appear.
“Outside, you say. There are a lot of insects in this season,” Rihaku grimaced. “I wonder if there are things that can burn to repel mosquitos in the area.”
Certainly, Basen was against that.
Even if they light a fire, it’s not like they won’t get bitten at all.
Immediately he heard an unpleasant whine by his ears. He slapped it. There was a squashed imprint of a mosquito stuck on his palm.
When he looked around, he saw paddy fields. It was probably teeming with mosquito larvae.
He could only grimace.
When they reached the village, the villagers greeted them simply. A deeply tanned elderly man had come to meet them.
Basen, who was only temporary, limited himself to a light greeting.
Since they’ll be leaving first thing in the morning, they decided to sleep as soon as night came around.
Borrowing the fire from the village’s stove, they treated themselves to a meal.
It can’t be said the meal was extravagant. Only the warm congee and roasted meat that came out could be regarded as extravagant. However, the maids who were on Consort Riishu’s side were blatantly complaining.
Even if it was only temporary, people who serve a high ranking consort should have learnt etiquette–and yet they were complaining unreservedly. And then, speaking of what they did after, they immediately secluded themselves in the carriage.
Oh dear, Basen thought as he looked at the maids who were returning to the carriage.
“Ain’t that strange?”
It was Rihaku who came up to him with a spoon in his mouth. There was roasted meat haphazardly piled on his bowl of congee.
“Those women should be looking after the consort’s needs. Why are they secluding themselves in a different carriage?”
Hearing the question, Basen only felt a sense of unease.
“This isn’t a good thing to talk about,” he said.
It seemed as though the maids didn’t have confidence in Consort Riishu’s personal history. She had entered the current emperor’s inner palace while being the consort of the previous emperor. It was said that they were unable to stomach that part.
“Poor thing. I wonder if those maids would consider promoting their own consort,” the other man said.
Basen knew that the man called Rihaku boded no ill-will. However, Basen poured his congee into his mouth and chewed up the roast meat.
“Oh, you’re finished? Not drinking soup?” Rihaku asked.
“Yeah. I lost my appetite. You have my share if you want,” Basen answered.
He put away his bowl and went to look at his horse.
His horse was already fed. Basen brushed its mane.
“What’s with their attitude?”
He had heard about the rumours regarding Consort Riishu. He had investigated her since she might become his master’s, the Prince of the Moon’s, wife.
However, he didn’t hear any good things about those rumours.
A determined woman who had tried to serve two emperors.
Inferior to the other high ranking consorts.
An upstart maiden in essence.
Basen recalled the face of Consort Riishu that he had seen once.
A fragile maiden, she had been trembling violently.
She was so small that she would break with just a touch.
The inner palace was known as a flower garden. That wasn’t wrong. However, there are poisonous flowers within delicate flowers.
What kind of flower was Consort Riishu?
When he stroked the horse’s back, he saw a lone maid come out of the consort’s carriage.
“It’s only that maid.”
There was only a single maid around the consort who worked properly. Basen knew about that too.
He also understood the reason the Prince of the Moon was agonising over his thoughts. When his master acted at Eunuch Jinshi in the inner palace – it was occasional – but he had spoken to her. Normally, he would show a gloomy look on his lovely face, but he had displayed a somewhat crumbled expression before Basen.
Even after leaving the inner palace, it seemed as though he still had troubles.
The maid who came out of the carriage put down a bowl. Though a distance away, he saw that were leftovers inside. Perhaps it didn’t match her palate, it seems she didn’t eat much at all.
“Understandable, I guess.”
With the suspicions of her infidelity laying heavy in her stomach, she was moving to the villa to be placed under house arrest. She must have a great burden in her mind to end her meal without eating everything.
Basen, hearing the annoying whine of mosquitos, waved his hand.
Have they prepared the mosquito repellent? he thought as he looked around. That moment a maid came out the carriage.
She was carrying a jar. It was releasing smoke.
Could this be the mosquito repellent?
The maid carried it to Consort Riishu’s carriage.
It seems aside from the maid who brought and took away the meals just then, they did other work-like things. However, the only thing she carried over was the mosquito repellent fire.
Basen sniffed. Was it incense instead? It had a peculiar smell.
He left his brushed horse and decided to go back to where the other escorts were.
He heard the sound of a ground dove.
Was it midnight when he opened his eyes?
What was the sentry doing?
Basen surveyed his surroundings.
Everyone was sleeping in a temporary tent, but no one was awake.
The smoke of the bonfire was thick. His eyes teared up.
He shook one of the guards who was sleeping in a nearby tent. He didn’t budge.
What was happening?
Basen strapped his sword to his waist and peeked through the gap of the tent.
None of the village houses had lighting.
Only the bonfire wavered. Winged insects burned up when they got too close.
A stretched shadow moved.
The shadow came from the carriage side.
Something was happening.
And the thing Basen should do in this current situation, was to guard the consort.
He left the tent soundlessly. He moved while making sure his shadow doesn’t get lit by the fire.
There were several men surrounding the carriage. It wasn’t Consort Riishu’s carriage, but the one that contained the maids and the belongings. For some reason, the men seemed to be talking a single maid.
It was totally shady.
The men entered the cargo carriage.
Was there something there?
When Basen shrank back to hide, he felt a presence.
He flipped out his blade and slashed backwards.
“—, haha. Calm down a little.”
It was Rihaku, hands on the air and surrendering. The point of the blade had been thrust at his neck, stopping at the first layer of skin.
“Good thing I’m not alone.” Rihaku dropped his voice to a low whisper as he rubbed the red line on his neck with his finger.
“What’s happening?” Basen asked.
“Even if you ask. You must have thought that it was somewhat weird from the start, right? About the consort’s ritual.”
Basen nodded at Rihaku’s words. When he looked properly, he saw that the back of Rihaku’s hand was stained red.
“Seems the evening meal was drugged. As you see, I’m still kinda woozy.” Rihaku displayed the back of his hand. It seemed the red stain was a result of him stabbing himself to ward off drowsiness. “Master is fine. It must have been in the soup.”
Even if it was coincidental that he didn’t drink it, he had done his work.
Rihaku had drunk even the soup, but seeing how he’s awake now, the man must have anticipated this beforehand.
“Jinshi-sama’s command?” Basen asked.
“Correct,” Rihaku said as he rubbed his hand.
Basen felt his heart squeeze from that fact. For duties, there were also things that Basen didn’t need to know. That’s why he understood what the Prince of the Moon was keeping silent from him, but was it due to his inexperience that he felt vexed?
Basen glanced at the cargo carriage.
For some reason, people were gathering around the carriage that should only be containing baggage.
Consort Riishu wasn’t their target?
“Is your actual command something else?” Basen asked.
“Astute,” Rihaku said.
The actual command was in the cargo carriage. The consort’s travel was the coverup.
“I was told to protect that cargo carriage. There was also another person but… ahhh, how pitiful.”
They saw a figure collapsed by the side of the carriage. She looked like a maidservant, but she wasn’t moving. It’s hard to tell if she was alive or dead in this darkness.
“Is there something in that cargo carriage?” Basen asked.
“That’s my job, Master,” Rihaku said as he licked the back of his hand.
“Are you going to fight against those numbers?”
“It’ll be a little hard with that many, but it’s not a problem.”
Rihaku had said it indifferently.
And then he looked at Basen. “What is your job?” he asked.
“….” Basen’s job was to guard Consort Riishu.
If he couldn’t handle the job he was told to do, he wasn’t worth trust or anything.
Basen squeezed his fist. And then he looked at Rihaku who was licking his wound.
He took out a pouch from his breast pocket and threw the styptic and bandages at the other man. He didn’t think it would be useful this soon.
“Thank you very much.” The nice guy grinned, then wrapped his hand with the bandages.
Basen put what’s left of the pouch in this breast pocket and headed for Consort Riishu’s carriage.
“It’s all your fault.”
When he approached the carriage, he heard a woman’s voice.
As far as he could see with the outfit illuminated by the bonfire, he understood her to be one of Consort Riishu’s maids.
“You assumed the rank of a high ranking consort that was beyond your position. It’s inevitable that I was always displeased.”
He couldn’t see the consort.
However, seeing how the maid was talking to someone–was the consort still awake, or was the maid talking to herself?
The only thing he understood was that the maid had betrayed Consort Riishu, and the people before had entered with her guidance.
What was this about?
With this, he also understood the reason Consort Riishu was assaulted by hoodlums in the middle of the street. Since there was an insider who had known about the consort’s entourage.
Basen looked at the wavering shadow. He could see another person beside the maid.
Amid the incense and the bonfire smoke, he perceived the characteristic smell of rust.
What was happening inside?
Was the consort safe?
Basen looked at the blade strapped at his waist. He unsheathed it, and silently hid behind the carriage wheels.
Dagger in hand, he then picked up a pebble. He slipped the jade ornament of the blade into his waistband.
He inhaled and exhaled.
Without making a sound. Just silently.
The highest priority was the protection of the consort.
Basen stood in the blind spot from the entrance of the carriage.
He threw the pebble inside.
The pebble rolled across the floor of the carriage.
“Who is it!”
A man’s voice, then the floor creaking loudly.
A maid reacted in surprise, a small creaking sound.
She squeaked in fear at the man’s voice, and there was the sound of a body moving.
In that single instant, Basen categorised all the sounds.
Footsteps, and then a large shadow appeared before Basen. The man was around three sun taller than Basen, clad in dark clothing, perhaps to blend into the dead of the night.
However, his move was very clumsy.
Basen slammed the back of his palm at the man’s chin. Spittle flew from the man’s mouth, however, his eyes were focused on Basen.
Too shallow, huh.
The man held the short sword across his eyes.
The same time the hair fell loosely, he stepped forward.
In the twinkling of an eye, Basen targeted the temples this time.
The man who received two palm strikes displayed the whites of his eyes, and collapsed. The chin and temples–both were suitable places to disorient someone. His first strike miscalculated the height difference of his opponent and the level difference of the carriage.
As he checked that the man’s consciousness was out, Basen climbed into the carriage.
As he expected, Consort Riishu and her head maid were inside. Together with the traitor maid who had been slandering her.
He covered the traitor’s mouth and seized both her hands.
“Don’t struggle. I don’t want to be violent,” he whispered in a muffled voice.
The trembling woman nodded.
Honestly, it would be troubling if she struggled.
It wasn’t Basen’s forte to lay his hand on women. Even so, he couldn’t leave it as is.
He tied up the woman’s hands with a cord he had brought with him. He unintentionally tied it too tightly; the maid gave a soft cry. He was sorry for that, but he didn’t have the liberty to fuss about that sort of thing.
He glanced at the consort.
She was trembling as she tried to open her mouth.
Are you hurt? Were you scared?
The Prince of the Moon would be able to attend to her naturally, but not Basen.
He could only eliminate the sources of danger that threatened the consort, for even a little.
He tied up the maid, apprehended the fainted man, and went to Rihaku.
Removing the consort’s threats–he should just think about that.
Trembling, the consort took out something from her bosom.
It seemed to be a hand towel. While scared, she presented it to Basen.
It was inevitable that she feared him. Even if he had helped her, he was the type of man who had tied up a woman even if she was a traitor.
Seeing the hand towel she presented, what does she want to do, he thought. Though the maid didn’t have anything to cover her mouth.
Was that why she handed it to him?
“Thank you very much. It’s the perfect length…”
The moment Basen was about to take it, the towel touched his cheek.
He had nearly mistaken her voice to a mosquito.
Blood, when he heard that word, Basen felt his cheek. Something red and slippery was flowing. He had cut the first layer of his skin. Looks like he failed to perceive everything just then.
It was Basen’s bad habit. The pain was dull–particularly in these situations, he wouldn’t feel it at all.
“…th-thank, you very much…” Consort Riishu forced out words as she trembled.
Feeling like his body got squeezed, Basen became extremely nervous.
Now wasn’t the situation for it.
And yet his pulse was getting faster.
It seems he unintentionally strengthened to his hold over her mouth. The maid was pale.
It was Consort Riishu’s other maid who took care to bring a different towel.
Basen rolled the towel into the traitor’s mouth.
He had to also tie up the other man.
However, with his heart thundering, he ended up tying the cord so tight he cut off the circulation to the man’s arms.