Chapter 16

3-6 It's all a bad dream, Shoukei thought as she was dragged from the cell. All lies, just more of Gobo's hate at her expense, she told herself over and over. She was taken to the public square in front of the Rishi. The blood froze in her veins.

"It can't be."

The square was lined with people. She saw outsiders there as well. At the center of the wall of people a patch of ground was cleared of snow. Two stakes had been pounded into the earth and two ox carts awaited her.

She looked up at the two men holding her arms. "You're kidding, right? You're not really doing this, right?"

"Oh, getting scared, are you?" one of the men sneered. "But your father did it so often."

The other man gave her a twisted smile. "You should be overjoyed to go out the way your daddy loved the best. Daddy must be dancing in heaven, watching his little girl get her own moment on the stage."

"No . . . . "

Shoukei did everything she could to keep stop her forward progress. She planted her feet, resisted with all her might as they pulled her along, slumped to the ground and writhed to get free of their grasp, and all to no avail.

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"Stop, please."

"Quit your whining!" the man spat at her. "This is how my wife was killed!"

All she had done, he lamented, was wear a hairpin on a visit to a neighboring town. He yanked her as if to jerk her arms out of their sockets. "Giving you a taste of your own medicine doesn't quite make up for it, but it's all we got. It'll have to do."

"No! Please."

She saw no pity in the faces of the townspeople. With no hope of rescue, she was pulled down and pinned to the ground. She screamed and wept but these men had not a drop of compassion in them. She folded her arms and drew her knees to her chest. They pulled her arms out and fastened a leather strap around each wrist, turned her face up and stretched out her body and bound her arms to the stakes.

Her eyes wide and searching for help, the dull, overcast sky reflected the empty look on her face. She kicked her legs against the earth. Somebody grabbed her legs. She felt the leather cord being wrapped around her ankles and screamed. She was rendered immobile, literally frozen to the ground.

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This can't be happening. Something so dreadful couldn't be happening to her. Her legs were bound with the leather cord. The cord was pulled back and tightened, spreading her legs apart.

Into the corner of her fixed gaze floated a black stain. Ah, a premonition of death. I should want to die before my body is torn in two.

Her jaw was wrenched open and a rag was stuffed into her mouth to deny her the easy out of swallowing her tongue. In her line of vision, the black stain grew larger.

The cord tied to her legs was fastened to the carts. The stain spreading across the sky grew a magnitude larger. Suddenly, she saw a man's face leaning over her.

She saw something red in the midst of the black. A crimson red. No, it was a flag.

An ensign.

And then she recognized the shape of the black stain. It was the silhouette of a bird. A great bird with three wings. Swooping down at them. And the silhouette of a rider astride it. The rider bore the red flag. Shoukei recognized the constellation of stars and two tigers on the flag.

Shoukei shut her eyes. Tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes and froze to her temples.

The flag was the ensign of the provincial guard of Kei.

At the sight of the flag, the people crowded into the square caught their collective breath.

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A few more minutes and the years of bitterness would have been revenged. Their families murdered in front of them, decapitated, and unable to do anything to save them. Denied even to bury the remains until the appointed time had passed. All that grief and resentment.

The you-bird alighted in the square.

"Halt!" the guardsman called out.

Why? sighed many of the people there. Why should he show up now? They looked around for Gobo. She had opposed the execution to the end. They could only imagine that she had informed on them. But Gobo was nowhere to be seen.

The soldier dismounted from the bird. He wore armor and fleece. "Lynching is expressly forbidden!"

But why? The disappointed voices swirled about the square.

The soldier surveyed the scene. He wore the insignia of a provincial general. He held up his arm, signaling the crowd to be quiet. Two more birds descended and landed. The soldiers dismounted and ran into the square to free the bound girl.

"I understand what you are feeling. But this is not according to the wishes of the Marquis."

The murmurs of disappointment and disapproval welled up again. Looking out at them, the general could hear the pain in their voices. The people still held the late King Chuutatsu in nothing but raw contempt.

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An official famous for his honesty and forthrightness, who ferreted out corrupt bureaucrats in high places and would forgive no subordinate who took a bribe--that official's name was Chuutatsu. When he had been chosen as king, the government had, by and large, rejoiced. He would restore the kingdom, rotting under the rule of previous kings.

However, the laws promulgated in order to stem the decay did not accomplish what Chuutatsu had hoped for. More laws were passed, statutes multiplied, and hardly before anyone knew it, there were regulations covering everybody from commoner to minister, and everything from what you wore to the utensils you ate with. And to these regulations were attached harsh penalties.

Laws must be enforced without sentiment. This saying of Chuutatsu was, on the face of it, correct. If pity and compassion were allowed to distort the enforcement of the law, the law would become powerless. The number of people being punished grew alarmingly. This grieved Chuutatsu and he made the penalties even harsher. If ever a voice was raised in protest, a law was passed and that voice was silenced. And so the bodies of the executed criminals piled up in the town squares.

In the year that Chuutatsu had been deposed, in that year alone, three-hundred thousand people were executed. Since his enthronement, the total had reached almost six-hundred thousand, or one person in five.

"I well understand your bitterness, and so does the Marquis. That is why he dared to sully his own name and struck Chuutatsu down."

After spurring the province lords to commit regicide, Gekkei withdrew to the provincial capital and retired from politics. The province lords and ministers took up the reins of government, but Gekkei would not participate.

"When the people take it upon themselves to pass judgements and exact punishments according to their own interests, then the law becomes an ass. No matter how deep your indignation, you cannot trifle with the law, declare to your own satisfaction what is a sin and what is not, and avenge wrongs without proper authority."

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But, came the cries. The man once again held up his hand.

"The fate of the princess royal has already been settled by the lords and ministers. Whatever objections you may have with this judgement, taking the law into your own hands cannot be condoned. If smiled upon even once, the rumors would race from this place like a wildfire. You are not the only ones with grievances to settle. The princess royal is not the only person so loathed. You know how the executioners have all hidden themselves away for fear of being lynched. More than the most cruel punishments, this kind of retribution would eat our kingdom alive. I am asking you to please consider the fate of our kingdom and act prudently."

He gazed out at the bowed heads. "We shall protect our kingdom and deliver it to the new king without shame or regret. How can we expect enlightened rule from our future king if we hand over to him a kingdom ravaged by revenge? The province lords and ministers are all working toward that end, and we all ask for your support in doing so."

The girl was bundled onto the you-bird's back. Silence descended on the square, a silence soon swept away by sound of weeping.