Hisho's Birds

Chapter 1

From behind him came the plaintive question. “Daddy, are you a killer?”

Eikou stopped dead in his tracks. For a split second, he imagined a knife to the back and whirled about, only to see his small daughter standing there, her innocent eyes gazing up at him.

Riri must have come in from the garden, cut across the corridor, then stopped halfway. She held a glass flower vase in her small hands. The vase was filled to the brim with clear water, in which floated a white water lily.

It was the end of summer. The bright rays of the sun struck the overhanging eaves, casting dark slanting shadows onto the corridor. The flower floating there in front of her daughter’s chest appeared to glow with its own inner light.

“What’s this about?” Eikou forced a smile to his lips as he crouched down. “No, I don’t go around killing people.”

He patted her on the head. Riri stared back at him with clear eyes. For a moment she seemed to be formulating another question. But then she looked up at him and answered with an emphatic nod. The lily bobbed back and forth.

p. 75

Eikou directed his gaze at the vase. “Are you taking that to your mother?”

A smile sprang to Riri’s face, the carefree smile of a child. “It’s for Hogetsu-sama. Big brother is coming back from Bou Province today.”

“You don’t say,” Eikou said with a grin of his own. “Well, then, you’d better take care.”

Riri nodded again and strode off with a purposeful expression on her face. Taking care not to spill any of the water in the vase, her expression was that of someone setting out to accomplish a task of great importance.

Eikou watch her proceed down the hall. She stepped down onto the crushed white stone of the courtyard. Three more steps later and she emerged from the shade of the eaves. Her small form was quickly swallowed up in the brilliant sunlight.

The outlines of the small retreating figure dissolved to a misty white, turned translucent and almost seemed to fade away into the distance.

Eikou only barely managed to keep himself from calling out to her.

A moment later, his eyes grew accustomed to the light. Sunlight filled the courtyard. Constrained by buildings on all four sides, it was not an expansive space. In the middle of the courtyard was his young daughter, wrapped in the bright colors of her kimono, still wearing that determined expression on her face as she steadily bore the vase along.

p. 76

Eikou breathed a sigh of relief. But still he felt a pang in his heart. For a brief moment, losing sight of his daughter in the bewitching sunlight, that sense of loss weighed upon him, swelled and hardened such that the sensation lingered behind.

Riri was eight years old, the same age as another child who’d lived in Shisou. That child’s name was Shunryou. He was perhaps the most famous child in Shisou, having been murdered by a brute of a man called Shudatsu.

Shisou was the capital of the northernmost Kingdom of Ryuu. Shisou was also the capital of Saku Province, and housed the governments of the capital of Shingen District, the capital of En’i Prefecture, and the county seat of Ou County.

The sheriff of En’i Prefecture had placed Shudatsu under arrest at the beginning of the summer.

Shudatsu was accused of murdering a mother and child on a mountain pass not far from Shisou. Passers-by hearing the screams ran over and caught him in the act of rifling through their belongings for money. He was restrained and delivered to the local constable.

Shudatsu was implicated in four additional cases of assault with intent to murder in the vicinity of Shisou. The crimes were of a sufficiently grave nature that he was handed over to the Shingen District authorities.

Though the district courts could try him on the charges, according to the body of law known as the Five Punishments, the sentencing of serious felonies could only take place in the prefectural courts level or higher.

Consequently, Shudatsu was transferred to the Ministry of Fall in Shingen District, which had jurisdiction over En’i Prefecture. There the indictment was amended to include the four aforementioned charges plus eleven more.

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Along with the latest double homicide, the indictment listed sixteen felony charges, all of which included murder. The victims totaled twenty-three. Shunryou was one of those twenty-three.

Shunryou was eight years old, born in Shisou to a couple that ran a small shop. According to everyone who knew him, he was a completely normal, bright and cheerful child. Then approximately one year before, his half-buried corpse was discovered in an alley not far from his home.

The boy had left his house (which doubled as a shop run by his parent) to buy some peaches. At a nearby open air market, a man was seen approaching Shunryou. With a nonchalant attitude, he drew Shunryou into an alleyway. Not long after that, the man emerged alone.

The people of the market had known Shunryou from a young age. They didn’t recognize the man and must have wondered who he was. But nothing about him aroused any further suspicions. Several hours later, a local resident passing through discovered Shunryou’s body.

The poor boy had been strangled to death, his throat crushed.

Nobody knew this man who’d dragged Shunryou into the shadows. That he had murdered the child as soon as he did meant there was no doubt he’d lured Shunryou into the alley with the express purpose of killing him.

Except nobody could come up with a motive for killing an eight-year-old child, other than the missing pocket change he had on him when he left the house. A sum of twelve sen.

There could be no earthly reason to murder anyone for a measly twelve sen. In that case, the only remaining explanation was that he was killed for the sake of killing.

And so close to his house, practically in the center of an open air market, in the middle of the day amidst heavy local foot traffic—the atrocious crime had all of Shisou in an uproar.

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The fact remained that Shunryou had been murdered for a “measly twelve sen.”

Shudatsu had seen Shunryou leave the house with the coins in his hand. He followed him, dragged him out of view, killed him, and stole the money. Then he spent that twelve sen on alcohol and drank it away. All the time, Shudatsu had close to ten ryou in his pockets, taken from and old man and woman he’d robbed and killed a few days before.

This information, published following an investigation conducted by the Shingen District Ministry of Fall, left the people of Shisou flabbergasted—and outraged that Shunryou was killed in such a meaningless crime.

Eikou was no exception.

He could not comprehend the act. The average person in Ryuu earned five ryou a month. Shudatsu had twice that on him when he was arrested. He didn’t need to rob anybody for twelve sen. And he was a grown man. No matter his stature or strength, an eight-year-old child would be no match for him.

He could have dragged the boy into the alley, extorted the money from him, or taken it by force. Yet Shudatsu killed him without a second thought. Killing without a second thought must have made some kind of sense to him. Shunryou’s death was simply one more of twenty-three.

Sixteen crimes, twenty-three victims.

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Eikou turned to the desk in his study and perused the stack of papers containing all the fine details of Shudatsu’s indictment.

One incident occurred in a hamlet next door to Shisou, the murder of a married couple and an older grandmother, along with two children. The crime occurred at the end of last year.

The hamlet headman had returned to the village during the coldest part of the winter. This was standard practice, as the hamlets existed principally to house farmers during the growing season. This particular family didn’t have a home in the village, having sold it to cover a child’s medical expenses. Only they remained behind in the hamlet.

Shudatsu broke into the house, slaughtered everyone inside, and settled in like he lived there.

It being the midst of the winter, some neighbors dropped by to see how they were faring. When they knocked on the door, it was answered by a man they did not know. Polite and affable, he explained that the family had traveled to a nearby town and had asked one of their relatives to house-sit for them.

Except the neighbors had never heard of such a relative, certainly nobody on such familiar terms. They returned to the village, but with these questions on their minds, checked back several days later. Again, they were told the family hadn’t returned.

This time the neighbors reported their suspicions to the village constable. By the time the authorities arrived, the man had vanished. Inside the house, they found the frozen bodies of its occupants haphazardly heaped together in one of the bedrooms.

The husband alone was missing. A search of the surroundings turned up his body in a ditch behind the house. All the more infuriating were the footprints on the back of the corpse, exactly as if the man who had murdered the family had used the frozen body as a bridge to cross the ditch to the field beyond.

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The man who’d claimed to be a “relative” was thirty or so. Black hair, black eyes, and no unique features except for the small, neat tattoo on his right temple made up of four characters: Kin Dai Nichi In. The tattoo was punishment for a crime, prescribed as part of the sentencing process.

A criminal who committed a serious felony such as murder had his head shaved and tattooed. The tattoo faded in around a decade. If he committed a similar crime within that span of time, his head was tattooed again. A third grave offense resulted in a tattoo on the right temple.

The tattoo always consisted of four characters that spelled out when and where the convict was tried and who he was. Kin meant the trial was held in Kin Province. Dai represented the year. Nichi indicated the prison where he served his sentence. In functioned as a kind of serial number.

With this information in hand, the man’s background and identity was quickly tracked down. His assumed name was Shudatsu. His full name was Ka Shu. He was born in Dou Province in the north of Ryuu. He had been tried for crimes in Dou Province, Shuku Province, and Kin Province. The charge in each case was murder.

The first case was for robbery and aggravated assault. The victim died as a result of the beating Shudatsu gave him. The incident in Shuku Province started as a robbery. The victim died during the subsequent struggle. This was the only time Shudatsu had not set out to kill someone. The motive was, as always, money.

Reading through the case files on his desk, Eikou found himself sighing over and again. Along with the penalties and punishments imposed by the sentencing judge, the process should encourage a convict to acknowledge his crimes and reform his ways. Except that serving hard time clearly meant nothing to Shudatsu.

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Only six months after completing a six year sentence in Kin Province, he committed another felony. In the two years since, his rap sheet accumulated sixteen more charges.

Based on the crimes listed in the indictment, Shudatsu was tried in the Shingen District court. However, serious cases of this nature had to be adjudicated by at least the next higher jurisdiction. So according to established precedent, Shudatsu was moved to the provincial court.

There he was again found guilty. When the provincial court prevaricated during the sentencing phase, Shudatsu was transferred to the imperial judiciary to be tried a third time. The results of that trial in hand, and after consulting with his sentencing and clemency magistrates, the chief justice would hand down the final decision.

In short, Eikou would be the one rendering the verdict.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.