They went round and round in such a magnificent manner.
Eikou left the Department of Justice keenly sensing a growing sense of despondency. Over the weeks of deliberations, summer had ended for good. The dusk was aglow with the autumn rays of the setting sun.
He stopped by the courthouse to confer with his law clerks and then returned home. The front gate was stained with the sepia light of the evening sun. Seika was sitting there on the bench. In the shadows beneath the eaves of the gate were a man and woman he didn’t recognize.
“We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Waiting for me?” Eikou said.
He shifted his attention to the other two. As he approached, they slipped off the bench, knelt on the ground, and bowed to him.
Seika rose from her chair and said to the startled Eikou, “Shunryou’s mother and father.”
“What is the purpose of this?”
“You should listen to what they have to say.” Seika said to them, “This is the Justice. Please tell him what is on your minds.”
“Hold on!” Eikou said forcefully. He fixed his gaze on Seika. “I can’t be listening to a petition from them.”
He hurried through the gate, but not before Seika grabbed his hand. “What are you running away for? Please hear them out.”
“How can you pretend to be judge without listening to the voices of those who have suffered?”
“You’re the one being presumptuous!” Eikou shouted despite himself.
Seika scowled at him in turn. “In other words, the opinions of ordinary citizens amount to nothing in your eyes. So you close your ears to the voices of the people, the voices of the victims, and play games with logic above the clouds as you judge our sins.”
“It’s not that at all,” said Eikou. He looked down at the two figures cowering there as if frozen in ice. Their haggard frames and eyes hollowed out with despair gouged holes in his chest. “The clemency magistrate should have taken your statements. If you wish to file additional appeals or petitions, he will be happy to receive them. Now please take your leave.”
“Is it sufficient for the clemency magistrate to hear him out? I know, it’s out of your jurisdiction. That’s what bureaucrats always say. They won’t spare a second glance for anything not in their job description.”
Seika was picking a fight and Eikou was rising to the bait. He shouted, “Engaging in personal conversations with concerned parties will cast the autonomy of the verdict into doubt!”
The sentencing stage of a trial was carried out by the clemency magistrate, the sentencing magistrate, and a justice. Those three and no one else. Outside parties could not be allowed to sway the process. This was necessary to prevent corrupt and even well-intentioned officials from interfering in the verdict.
As part of the cross-examination process, the sentencing magistrate interviewed the victims and the clemency magistrate sought out the opinions of the victims and their families. The chief justice could not go around independently granting audiences to the victims. Doing so would taint any decision Eikou handed down.
Furthermore, the emperor had purportedly left the matter in their hands. Eikou’s decision would thus reflect upon the imperial government as a whole. There was no room for any distrust in the final outcome. Even if there was no question about the integrity of the decision, the trust of the people in the Department of Justice hung on the verdict Eikou handed down.
On top of all that, there was the Daishikou. Enga was uncompromising about his opposition to the death penalty. Were Eikou to endorse capital punishment in his verdict and it became known that he had met with Shunryou’s parents, that alone would give Enga grounds for overruling the decision and rendering any objections moot.
“This is for your own good,” he said as he turned to leave. “You should leave.”
Seika blocked his way. “No. I won’t allow it. The two of them won’t leave until you have heard what they have to say. They will stay here as my guests until you do.”
“Idiot!” Eikou shouted.
Seika’s face went white. Then abruptly reddened with anger. He knew it was the worst sort of insult he could have uttered, but she simply wouldn’t leave the matter be. “You don’t understand a thing.” He called out, “Is anybody home?”
The question prompted a response from somewhere else in the manse, though it was not very close by. Seika had no doubt cleared the premises. Aware that he was at a dead end, he shook his hand free from his wife’s clasp.
“Please kill that monster,” came a woman’s pitiful voice. “Or kill me instead.”
Eikou stopped and glanced back at her.
“I called out to him as he left the house, to make sure he had enough money with him. And that beast overheard.”
Twelve sen for three. He had the change in hand.
“He wanted to eat his fill of peaches. Normally we wouldn’t have let him spend his allowance so frivolously. But Shunryou said he was going to give one to his sister. Though she hadn’t learned to talk yet, she’d been thoroughly delighted the last time she’d been given a slice of peach, so he was sure she liked them. Because she was his sister, he wanted to enjoy the peaches with her. He was going to get a whole peach just for her.”
A profound depth of sorrow filled the woman’s eyes. But she was beyond tears.
“That’s why we helped him earn a little bit of change. A sen for each job done. He hung around me all day asking if there was anything he could do. What about this? What about that? He was so cute, so adorable—that day, I gave him a special bonus of two sen. He’d worked hard and saved his money—knowing he needed twelve sen I gave him two.”
Eikou averted his eyes. He understood the substance of her plea. The heinous nature of the crime reawakened in his mind, he set off once again, when a man’s voice called out behind him.
“My son died. Why does that man still live?”
His voice cracked, perhaps hoarse with lamentations, or about to swept away by the fierceness of his emotions.
“I was so close by. And yet I could do nothing for him. He must have called out to us. But we could not hear him. How he must have suffered. What must he have thought? What must he have felt? Why our son? Why did he have to die? I don’t understand any of this. That’s why I can’t stop thinking about it. All I know is that our son never came home and yet that man lives.”
Eikou wanted to cover his ears with his hands but he couldn’t.
“Our son suffered. We suffer. So why doesn’t he suffer? Why is our suffering supposed to mean? Is the suffering of such lowly persons as ourselves of so little value that the high and mighty need not reflect on our plight?”
Eikou steeled himself and refused to look back.
A retainer finally hurried in and escorted the couple back to Shisou. Seika tried to restrain him but Eikou’s orders were clear: henceforth, no outside person connected to the incident could set foot in the manse.
He summoned the security detail and had them man the gate to guard against it happening a second time. He then went to Seika’s room to remonstrate with her again but she refused to see him.
“You don’t need to explain anything to me. I know well enough by now what kind of man you are and what you think of me.”
The words she threw at him from behind the locked door could just as well been solid objects. After that, she didn’t answer his entreaties. All Eikou could do was stand there in the hallway.
Like Keishi, Seika would probably end up leaving him. If that’s what she wanted, he wouldn’t stand in her way. But how would she make a life for herself after that? He could give her living expenses, maybe secure a job for her. If she resumed her life as an ordinary citizen, she would once again receive her allotment.
Except the world below had gone on turning during the twelve years she’d lived in the imperial palace. In those twelve years, Seika’s mother and father had died, her brother had grown a dozen years older, as had all the people she once knew. He had to wonder if she could accustom herself to that much change.
Those thoughts prompted from Eikou a wry smile. Hardly enough time had passed for all her siblings and relatives to drop dead. Though she didn’t communicate with them as often as she used to, up to a few years ago, they had stayed in contact on a fairly regular basis and even visited now and then. Hardly a gap she could not fill.
Things were different with Keishi.
She left after almost sixty years had passed. Not only her parents and siblings, but their children as well were listed on the registry of the dead. What must she have felt, resuming her commoner status and returning to a town where she did not know a single person?
He could imagine what it was like to be without a friend in the world below. The fact was, Eikou himself had once resigned his position, removed his name from the Registry of Wizards, and retired from public office. That was after Keishi left.
He had savings and a government pension and so had no concerns about keeping a roof over his head. But finding a place to call his own proved impossible. Even now he could recall the feeling of not knowing a soul in the world. Every past acquaintance, including their children, were gone. Certainly their children and relatives existed somewhere, but he had no idea where to find them.
Everything had changed—the village where he’d been born, the town where he’d grown up—there was no place that felt like home. The scandal surrounding his removal from the Registry of Wizards was such that, for their own sakes, he made a point of not importuning his second son, a provincial minister, or his former colleagues in the government.
Curbing any impulse to meet with or talk to them, all he could do was shut himself up in his own abode. Eikou was truly alone in the world. Looking back on it now, that passage of time had charted an ironic course of events.
Whilst shutting himself away from the world, he met Seika and remarried. The reason he’d taken up his cloistered existence in the first place was because his first wife, Keishi, had fallen afoul of the law.
Eikou hadn’t kept in touch with her after she left and returned to her life as an ordinary citizen. She refused the financial assistance he offered and disappeared into the hustle and bustle of the city.
Rumors about her reached his ears five years later. She’d been arrested for trading on Eikou’s reputation as a high government official, peddling favors for large amounts of money. The investigating officers quickly discerned that Eikou had nothing to do with the scheme but he couldn’t remain untainted in his current position. He took responsibility and resigned from government service.
What in the world was she thinking?
Eikou believed that, at heart, Keishi was a good person. He simply couldn’t imagine her becoming involved in criminal behavior. He sadly concluded that poverty and deprivation led her astray. Since her arrest, she had penned copious letters of apology. With every reason to assume she had sincerely repented of her behavior, Eikou petitioned the clemency magistrate, absolving her from any harm he had personally suffered. As he had once been her husband, he made whole her victims.
Keishi sent him a string of letters from prison expressed her undying gratitude. But once her six-month sentence was over, she again disappeared. Eikou heard nothing from or about her for another year, until she was arrested for the same crime in Kin Province.
Even today the whole thing left a bitter taste in his mouth. Despite the letters of apology and pleas for leniency, Keishi went and committed the same crime again. Each time, the scope of the offense grew smaller, but all Eikou came away with was proof that some consciences were truly beyond reform.
The fourth time around, he’d had enough and ignored her letters. By then he’d married Seika. After spending three years in the “wilderness,” he was recalled to government service.
After his return, Eikou examined Keishi’s case files, leaving no stone unturned. Alas, her actions defied understanding. In response to the interrogation by the district sentencing magistrate, she defiantly claimed that she was retaliating against Eikou for calling her an idiot.
Further questioning revealed that the direct motive was money. As Eikou had surmised, Keishi had fallen into financial distress in the world below. Although as far as Keishi was concerned, her involvement in crime itself amounted to some sort of revenge, her way of proving she was nobody’s fool.
Her modus operandi involved deceiving wealthy merchants and regional administrators. The first time she was sentenced, she put on a remorseful front. The court believed her and soon released her on her own recognizance.
The second time she was arrested, she told the investigator that she hadn’t felt sorry for anything from the start. Hard as it was to believe, breaking the law and slipping out of the hands of justice was, from beginning to end, her way of getting even with Eikou.
The sentencing magistrate who interviewed her noted that this struck him as a perverse sense of revenge and an abnormal degree of hostility towards a spouse. Eikou couldn’t understand why she loathed him so. In any case, Keishi committed the same crimes over and again. Long after Eikou turned his back on the whole sordid mess, she went on living her life the same way.
Keishi always pulled off her crimes the same way, and eventually ran out of gullible marks to scam. The whirlwind of rumors died off. At this point of time, Eikou had no idea what had become of her.
He didn’t imagine that Seika would follow the same course if she returned to the world below. But there was no forgetting that such a chain of events was certainly possible.
Any noise coming from the other side of the door died down. Eikou sighed and returned to the main wing of the house. There he found Riri curled up on the steps. She appeared on the verge of tears.
She looked up at him, arms hugged around her knees. “Daddy, are you going to throw Mommy out of the house?”
He crouched down next to her. “No, I would never do anything like that.”
“But that’s what Mommy says. She says you’re going to get rid of us both.
What would become of Riri? He couldn’t stop Seika from leaving. What were her plans for Riri? She would probably take Riri down to the city with her. No sooner had that thought struck him but he couldn’t help but see Riri and Shunryou in the same light.
The world below was coming apart. Casting his defenseless young daughter into a world where monsters like Shudatsu roamed the earth would be like tossing lambs to the lions.
“Nobody is throwing anybody anywhere. I want to have you right here forever. Do you want to leave, Riri?”
Riri shook her head.
“Well, then. I promise that you’ll never have to go anyplace you don’t want to.”
Certainly not where she could fall into the hands of a beast like Shudatsu.
A seriously expression on her face, Riri nodded. Looking at that face, Eikou wondered what he would do if anything happened to her.
Life for a life, isn’t that just logic? Jokyuu asked the question.
Another side of the coin? Or the way the world worked, Eikou thought. There could be no forgiving the merciless slaying of the young and the powerless. None at all. No one could commit the crime without the painful realization that his own life hung in the balance.
If Shudatsu had killed Riri, Eikou would never forgive him. If the courts said he must, Eikou would draw his own sword and finish him off. What charges he’d have to answer for after that wouldn’t matter.
A death sentence and nothing else.
That thought sent a cold chill down his spine. He sensed he was stepping into territory where a man in his position had no business going.
What was this hesitation he felt? The question buzzing around in his head, Eikou patted Riri’s cheek. “Why don’t you go see how your mother is doing?”
Riri nodded. She jumped to her feet and ran off through the manse. Eikou watched his young child the whole time, watched her small frame grow smaller and further away.