Golden Emperor has declared that twenty citizens shall be sacrificed on the 20th day of each and every month, to mark the day of his Accession. By chance, Golden Emperor dies on the day and at the very hour of sacrifice.
It is the turn of Second Deputy Executioner to wield the blade this day. He is concealed behind a screen, already attired in the embroidered purple robe and the mask of ebony. With a soft cloth, he is polishing the implement of his trade. Second Deputy Executioner is sick to death of killing, and yet he will kill and kill. He has a wife and five young children to protect. They do not know his real job. He has told them he is an Assistant Armourer – a lowly functionary, but inconspicuous. Inconspicuous is the safest thing to be: this they all know.
The citizen sacrifice begins the moment the sun’s turning shadow touches the golden sun engraved on the sundial plate. Second Deputy Executioner puts down his polishing cloth and rises from his chair with a heavy heart. The twenty ragged men and women lined up in the market square catch the glint of the blade and attempt, in various ways, to prepare themselves for the unimaginable, the swift downward slash of the blade. A woman reaches bound hands behind her back for those of her teenage daughter, standing next to her in the line.
“Close your eyes,” she whispers. “Think of clouds in a stormy sky, or of rain drumming on paper walls. Think of cherry blossom. Make a strong, strong picture in your mind.”
And then the sound of horses hooves, a boy from the stable yard on a stolen horse. He stand up in the stirrups and yells:
“Golden Emperor is dead! Long May He Reign In Paradise.”
“Long May He Reign,” echoes Second Deputy Executioner, out of habit, dropping his sword onto the cobbles with a clatter. He falls to his knees, suddenly unable to remain standing, and behind the mask he weeps.
“Golden Emperor is dead!” cries the boy on the stolen horse, struggling to remain in control of it. “He is finally, finally dead!”
“Long May He Reign,” echoes the ragged crowd as it surges into the Square from all sides, laughing and crying, to free the sacrifices.
Kenshi sleeps well that night, behind closed screens, on the floor of his Grandmother’s house. He dreams of cherry blossom, slowly falling onto deep, green, silent ponds. He dreams of spring, and of the warm breeze that will soon begin to melt the snow on the mountaintop and in the lanes. When it is dawn he slips on his robe and goes out, meaning to walk just as far as the bridge over the stream, and bid good-day to a new world.
On the road, he passes a priest in a black robe and tall wooden pattens.
“Golden Emperor is dead,” he murmurs.
“Long May He Reign,” replies the priest, keeping his head down, taking care not to trip on the cobbles with their covering of snow.
Golden Emperor dislikes the idea of snow. He has therefore declared that snow does not exist. While he lives, he explains – and who knows, may even believe – the land cannot but be bathed in perpetual summer.
Golden Emperor is not very tall. He has therefore declared that no one shall be taller than he, and he has cut off the heads of all who have the temerity to grow taller, or who elevate themselves in any way as he passes in procession. Kenshi climbs a tree. He gazes up into the mountains and down into the valleys. He gazes all around, feasting his eyes on the view.
Golden Emperor has no liking for music, or indeed anything that might conceivably be more beautiful or interesting than he. He has therefore declared that he and he alone is the source of all music. Kenshi pauses by the stream and appreciates anew the song of a blackbird.
At the bridge, he meets an old man leading a donkey heavily laden with firewood.
“Golden Emperor is dead,” he says, by way of greeting, and in just case the old man has missed the news.
The old man smiles at Kenshi and continues on his way. His parting words trail backwards, almost buried in the noise of the birds and the babbling of the stream:
“And Long May He Remain So!”