Shike – Day 43 of 306

“Good morning to you, my lord, whoever you are. I trust you are not suffering?”

Just think, this could be the head of the shiké Jebu. But they probably wouldn’t bother to set a monk’s head up on a pole, any more than they would his own.

Gradually the area around the pit filled up with spectators. Carriages brought the men of rank, who were admitted to the best positions, close to the edge of the pit. From his cherry-tree limb Moko could see along Rokujo Avenue, which was filled with ox-drawn carriages—wickerwork carriages, palm-leaf carriages, and the towering, elaborate Chinese carriages with their green-gabled roofs, whose use was restricted to the Imperial family and the highest officials of the Court. The carriages blocked one another’s way, and Moko watched with amusement as three fights broke out among forerunners of rival noblemen.

The confusion was rendered worse when a mounted troop of Takashi samurai, their gold ornaments gleaming in the morning sun, forced their way down the centre of the avenue, carriage attendants scurrying out of the way of their horses’ clattering hooves. In the distance Moko saw a blaze of gold, and as it came closer he recognized the gold roof of the Emperor’s palanquin, an enormous, magnificently decorated portable building carried by dozens of men and surmounted by a golden phoenix. The Takashi horsemen must be substituting for the palace guard, destroyed in Domei’s insurrection. People fell to their knees as the Emperor passed. Moko was awestruck as he watched the palanquin pass near his cherry tree and settle on a commanding spot on the riverbank.

Sudden horror froze Moko. In his excitement at these splendid sights he had forgotten the age-old rule that no one’s head may be higher than the Emperor’s. If anyone saw him up here now, he would be dragged down, and the Emperor’s guards would chop him to bits. It was too late to climb down. The sacrilege had been committed. He must remain absolutely still. His only hope was that no one had seen him climb up here and that no one would see him during the executions. He might, he realized with increasing dread, have to remain in this tree until nightfall, and even then he would be in terrible danger when he tried to climb down.

The curtains of the Emperor’s palanquin were opened. In spite of his terror, Moko studied the Emperor curiously. Nijo wore a high, jewelled head-dress and a massive diamond necklace. His silk gowns, worn one over the other, were so voluminous that he seemed like a bodiless head resting on piles of magnificent fabrics. His cloak was of plum red lined with scarlet, chosen, Moko suspected, because the colour matched the mood of this occasion. The young Emperor’s face was powdered white and was without expression—almost without features. It was perfectly round, with a tiny mouth, nose and eyes, and a wisp of a beard on the point of the chin.

Smiling triumphantly, Prince Horigawa, Lady Taniko’s repulsive husband, sat on a bench below the palanquin along with a number of other nobles in violet Court cloaks. Beside Horigawa sat a heavy-set, balding man whom Moko had also seen before—the Takashi clan chieftain, Sogamori. His broad face was alight with relish, as if he were about to sit down to a fine banquet. He and Horigawa were like a pair of swollen toads, on the verge of bursting with pleasure over their victory.

Now the condemned men, wearing only fundoshi, loincloths, were marched out of the prison and down a ramp into the pit. There were twenty of them. The famous Muratomo chieftain, Domei, was the first to enter the pit. Moko had seen him before, riding through the city on horseback. How sad, Moko thought, that this splendid man’s life must be cut short, while the ugly and poisonous Horigawa lived on and on.

Five executioners stood across the pit, facing their victims. One of them was Kiyosi, scion of the house of Takashi, dressed in red-laced armour decorated with black lacquer and gold ornaments, and an underrobe of red brocade. He held a long, deeply curved sword.

The first to die would be five of Domei’s lieutenants. They stepped forward. A courtier in a light green robe read off the list of their crimes, concluding with treasonous uprising against the Emperor. The Emperor’s face remained blank. The five turned and bowed, first dutifully to the Emperor, then loyally to Domei, finally politely to their executioners. They knelt.

Moko wondered, are they thinking about what is going to happen to them? Are they fully aware of it? Or are they trying not to think about it? Moko remembered how he had felt when Jebu said he was going to behead him. His whole body had gone ice-cold and he had thought he was going to lose control of his bowels. It was the worst feeling in the world. And these men had endured that feeling for days, ever since they had learned they were going to be executed.

The five executioners, including Kiyosi, stood over the condemned men, their blades flashing in the sun. They swung their swords up at the same time.

Five blades fell, full force, on five necks. The blows propelled each head a short distance, and the kneeling bodies collapsed like sacks of rice. From each headless neck a bright pool of blood spread on the sand, which was as white as a snowdrift. There was a murmur of mingled excitement, approval and horror from the onlookers.

Moko’s stomach heaved violently. As he had told Taniko, he had seen men killed before, but had never seen a public execution. It must be, he thought, the first time for many of the people below him as well. In his revulsion he almost forgot the danger of his own position, that he might, at any moment, be discovered and join the dead down there.

Several courtiers fainted, one almost falling into the pit but saved when his attendant grabbed his arms. The unconscious men were carried out of the crowd by their servants. Another courtier suddenly vomited all over his beautiful lavender cloak, to his great embarrassment and to the amusement of several of his fellows. How shameful to vomit in the sight of the Emperor, thought Moko, once again forgetting his own precarious position. Sogamori, from his position near the Emperor, smiled scornfully.

Slaves dragged the bodies out of the pit by the ankles while foot soldiers drove a sharpened pole into the base of each skull and raised the heads up so that even people in the distant parts of the crowd could see. Moko held his breath, realizing that now he was in the greatest danger because people would be looking upwards. He prayed to the ghost of the warrior facing him to turn the eyes of the living in any direction but his.

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