Hisho's Birds

Chapter 2

The gentle rays of the late summer sun slanted into the room. His spirits low, Eikou read through the case files. About the time the sun slipped into the shadows, his wife Seika came in with a lamp.

“Are you sure you don’t need a rest?” she asked, lighting the candle in the study.

“I’m fine,” was Eikou’s lackluster response.

p. 82

“So the death penalty isn’t on the table?” Seika asked in a low voice.

Startled, Eikou raised his head. He put down the document and glanced at his wife’s youthful face. The reddish-orange glow of the lamp gave her features a flushed look. And yet her expression was hard.

“Riri said you told her you weren’t going to execute Shudatsu. Is that the verdict you’ve come to?”

Criticism colored her voice. Eikou forced a smile to his face. “What conversation was this? Riri asked me if I was a killer. Naturally I said no.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what she meant,” she answered coolly.

Eikou held his tongue. Of course he understood what his daughter meant when she posed the question. The attention of the entire populace of Shisou was focused on the court proceedings. The other ministers, down to and including the servants working in their official residences, were no exception.

The question on everyone’s mind was whether Shudatsu would get the death sentence.

Shudatsu had been tried first in the Shingen District court. He’d been found guilty and sentenced to death. He was transferred to the court in Saku Province. There the sentence was the same. Except the verdict was muddled, and though a decision had been handed down, it was thought prudent to appeal the case once again.

Consequently, the fate of one Shudatsu ended up in the lap of Eikou and his colleagues at the Imperial Department of Justice. If and when Eikou signed off on a death sentence, that decision would be final. Shudatsu would die.

p. 83

Riri must have overheard somebody in the manse talking about it. Hence her question about him being a “killer.” She still didn’t grasp the distinction between killing somebody and executing them.

“She never mentioned Shudatsu. Honestly. But the fact of the matter is, if I order him executed, then I could fairly be called the person who killed him. Riri would doubtless find that distressing.”

Riri was a bright and good-hearted child. Eikou couldn’t see how it would not. But Seika answered all the more forcefully. “If we are making Riri’s welfare the priority here, then that beast must be put to death.”

Eikou again studied his wife’s face. Seika was not a government official. She held a sinecure of nominal importance, granted for the ostensible purpose of assisting him. It was a convenient way of listing family members on the Registry of Wizards who were not government officials. Seika otherwise had not the slightest connection with the administration of the government itself.

“What’s this, all of a sudden?”

“That monster killed children. One of his victims was a baby! When you think fondly of Riri, consider the loss and regret of those who lost their beloved children.”

“But of course—” Eikou started to say but Seika interrupted him.

“No, I understand. You are at your wit’s end.”

p. 84

It was the truth. All Eikou could do was dumbly sit there. He was utterly confounded. Perhaps indecisive was the better word.

Seika asked, “What need is there for confusion? That monster murdered the innocent. This is one situation where no show of compassion is called for.”

Eikou couldn’t help a bitter smile. “This particular problem has little to do with compassion.”

“If that is that case, then what stands in the way of his execution? What if he had killed Riri instead of Shunryou?”

“That is not the issue,” Eikou replied, more than a hint of criticism in his voice. Seika was his second wife. To outside eyes, he might appear twenty years her senior. The difference was closer to eighty.

“Then what sort of issue is it?” pressed Seika, her expression hardening, a look Eikou had seen too often of late.

“This may be difficult to understand, but the law does not operate on the basis of emotion.”

“So you’re saying that this beast was motivated by logic?”

“Not at all. Nothing can excuse the actions of Shudatsu. There is equally no room for commiseration. I understand your anger and that of the populace. I hate him no less than the rest of you. But when it comes to capital punishment, to brand an act unforgiveable does not, ipso facto, earn the convict death. It’s not that simple.”

He tried to explain himself as calmly as possible but Seika only grew all the more severe. She said in a low, cold voice, “So how much longer are you going to keep treating me like a little fool who can’t tell the difference between right and wrong?”

“I didn’t mean—” Eikou started to say. Seika didn’t let him finish. “Did you know that children are still vanishing off the streets in Shisou?”

“I’ve heard the same rumors. Except Shudatsu couldn’t have possibly been involved.”

“I know that,” Seika shot back. “How stupid do you think I am? He’s sitting in a jail cell. Of course he couldn’t be the perpetrator. What I’m talking about are all the grotesque crimes that have been happening in Shisou of late.”

“Ah—”

“You know about those servants that got killed at the manse of an underminister in the Ministry of Spring? One of the servants got taken to task by the mistress. Instead of taking her anger out on the mistress, she took it out on the people she worked with. There are stories like that all over Ryuu these days. What has become of this kingdom?”

p. 86

The best Eikou could do right then was hold his counsel. He couldn’t deny the recent upswing in incomprehensible and bizarre incidents of a brutal nature.

“The world is coming apart. In such a world, treating creatures like Shudatsu with a forgiving hand only encourages the rest to rationalize their own crimes and sins. Doesn’t a firm hand become all the more necessary? He who kills must be killed—this fundamental fact should be known wide and far.”

Eikou sighed, feeling even more melancholy than before. “Except that people like Shudatsu never entertain the thought of abandoning their sins.”

That drew from Seika a look of surprise.

“In fact, the death penalty does little to dissuade criminals from committing crimes. Unfortunately, neither does making the punishments more severe.”

He was attempting to pursue a logical train of thought. Seika pursed her lips. “So if Riri got murdered, you’d feel forgiving toward the perpetrator.”

“I’m not saying that at all. The one has nothing to do with the other. If something happened to Riri, I wouldn’t condone it in the slightest. When acting as an officer of the court, the application of relevant law is a separate matter.”

p. 87

He couldn’t help sounding argumentative. Seika said with a contemptuous look, “In other words, even if Riri was the one who was murdered, you still wouldn’t apply the death penalty. Because it is a separate matter.”

That’s not it either, Eikou was about to say, but Seika whirled around and marched out of the study. At some point in the last few minutes, the dusk had invaded the study. The sound of insects on a cool night breeze filled the room.

Eikou glanced at where his wife had been standing a few long seconds before and muttered, “That’s not it either.”

Sentiment had no role to play in the law. Far from it. If Riri were murdered, he would recuse himself. Because that’s what the administration of the law demanded. Or so he wanted to say, but Seika didn’t want to hear it.

And if she did, she’d probably ask why he couldn’t just petition the supervising justice to apply the death penalty. Even there, he would have to answer that, however he might desire such an outcome in his heart, that was simply not a request he could articulate aloud.

Eikou let out a long breath and sat back down again. He planted his elbows on the desk and pressed his palms against his forehead.

He didn’t intend to take her for a fool. Eikou didn’t think his wife foolish in the slightest. However, when it came down to brass tacks, the law should not be moved by emotions. The law could not allow itself to operate in that realm. Except he was befuddled about of how to explain that.

p. 88

Seika was nobody’s fool. In the course of everyday life, she conducted herself with sagacity and wisdom—except when it came to setting her emotions to the side and operating by reason alone. She would surely insist she was a logical person. But too often her “logic” began with the unquestioned premise that her feelings were congruent with her ethical compass.

To the argument that one’s emotions could not necessarily be trusted as an ethical compass, Seika would surely reply that no ethical compass could exist in the absence of emotions.

To Seika’s eyes, Eikou was lacking in empathy. The ministers were mistaken in relying on utilitarian logic as their ethical compass. Eikou was the one who didn’t understand. But as was the wont of high officials, the opinions of a person without rank such as herself counted for nothing.

Seika made such statements in anger increasingly of late. The principal byproduct of that anger was that she claimed she wanted to part ways, dissolve the marriage, relinquish her listing in the Registry of Wizards, and resume her life as an ordinary citizen.

Eikou didn’t know how to talk to her in order to make her understand. Given his professional responsibilities, setting aside objective reason and expressing himself in emotional terms was anything but a strong point. Even worse, the more he tried to pacify her, the more enraged she became.

I was only a matter of time before Seika, like his first wife, left him as well. Keishi’s parting words were, “I’m not the fool you think I am.”

Both of them said the same thing. The cold hard fact of the matter was, two witnesses saying the same thing was hard proof to contradict.

It was all so depressing, no less so than the written particulars of the wretched crimes his eyes were fixed upon.

p. 89

The eight-year-old victim Shunryou was the same age as Riri. Whenever that thought occurred to him, he felt like throwing up his hands and running away. Since parting with Riri in the hallway, the lump in his heart had grown all the harder. No matter how many deep breaths he took in and let out, he couldn’t dislodge it from his chest.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.