“Children,” Tanetaka began, “cannot be given the death penalty.”
Lord Harumasa, the portly noble who fancied himself as a legal advisor on most days but really just made a nuisance of himself, looked as if he was about to have an apoplexy at Tanetaka’s gentle correction. His kimono, always vividly bright, was splotched with sweat stains on that sickly hot summer day, the silk amplifying the stench of musk to the point where Tanetaka had to force his face to stay utterly straight.
“That child,” Lord Harumasa snarled, “murdered a noble! With his bare hands!”
“A monstrous child indeed, to kill a grown man with nothing but his hands,” Tanetaka said flatly, ignoring Lord Harumasa’s blustering, “My lord, I mean no disrespect, but no matter the crime Kugane’s laws are clear: children cannot be given the death penalty.”
“Then suspend the sentence,” Lord Harumasa rolled his eyes like this was obvious, “Incarcerate the little savage until he’s old enough-”
“That can only be done when the child is close to adulthood,” Tanetaka interrupted, “Which we cannot know, as curiously, this Aza Lynel came under Lord Musa’s employ without citizenship papers…”
“A servant, given a purpose out of the goodness of Lord Musa’s heart,” Lord Harumasa said quickly, “He always had a soft spot for disenfranchised children, you know. This- this whelp must have been picked up from the docks, the stowaways, you see.”
“Hmm,” Tanetaka said, eyeing Lord Harumasa and wondering if the cause of his sweating was from something other than the heat. Lord Harumasa and Lord Musa were thick as thieves, after all, “Be that as it may, it’s difficult to pinpoint the child’s age. He claims he is thirteen?”
Lord Harumasa scoffed, “I say sixteen!”
“Unfortunately, the court does not condemn a person one’s opinion, no matter one’s station,” Tanetaka said serenely, smiling politely at Lord Harumasa’s glower, “There will be no death penalty.”
“But the little monster murdered a noble!”
“I’m well aware,” Tanetaka said, “His sentence shall match that crime, I assure you, Lord Harumasa.”
It took a while, after that, for Tanetaka to be free from that man’s presence. He endured his blustering, his attempts to paint the child as some demon that had crawled out from the depths of hell itself and expounding on Lord Musa’s well known acts of philanthropy, and kindness, and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Honestly, if Lord Harumasa had wanted to bury the nasty skeletons in Lord Musa’s closet, he could have been subtler about it.
It was just nearing dusk when Lord Harumasa finally left, and Tanetaka was left to deal with the legal headache once and for all. Many had bayed for the trial to be a public affair – equally as many had demanded a public execution – but Tanetaka was a servant of justice and the laws of Kugane, and his careful interpretation of such things told him that this was a crime to be dealt with in private and with a measure of mercy.
So, as the sun sunk down in the horizon, he indicated for his assistant to bring the criminal before him.
The child before him was nowhere near sixteen.
Tanetaka was moderately experienced with Miqo’te – a few had been prosecuted for inciting prostitution or petty thievery – and so he could vaguely pinpoint their ages from looks alone. Miqo’te, he knew, were late bloomers in adolescent, hitting their growth spurts at around seventeen years of ages. Before then they looked remarkably young for their ages, maintaining a very child-like appearance well into their mid-teens.
The child before him looked ten, so Tanetaka tentatively placed him about twelve to thirteen.
He also looked wan, and tired, with a stark bruise blossoming against his swollen left cheek. Someone had tried to find garments his size for him (according to the report submitted by the Sekiseigumi that had apprehended him, he had been entirely naked at the time of his arrest) but the rough spun tunic and breeches were still comically large on him, making him seem even younger.
Behind him stood the guards, stone-faced and stiff-backed. Tanetaka eyed them, wondering if they had administered the bruise on the child’s face. No matter one’s crimes, he did not condone abuse during custody.
“Aza Lynel,” he said, dismissing that concern to be investigated later, “Please confirm if that is the correct name to refer you by.”
The child looked dully at him, saying nothing.
“Silence will be taken as affirmative,” Tanetaka said, stifling his disquiet at the situation. Rare was it for him to prosecute children like this, and it unsettled him every time, “Do you plead guilty to the perverse mutilation, murder and desecration of Musa Godo, Lord of House Godo?”
“You have admitted guilt to your crimes,” Tanetaka said, and waited a fraction of a second in case the boy protested. There was none, “Then we shall proceed to the sentencing. Aza Lynel, by the power vested in me by the Sekiseigumi, upholders of law and peace in Kugane, you will be sentenced to ten years of hard labour.”
Nothing. The boy didn’t even blink.
“After these ten years, if you still live,” Tanetaka continued, “You will be released and deported from Kugane. You may choose where you will be deported to, whereupon you will come under the jurisdiction of that country’s laws. Furthermore, you will be permanently exiled from Kugane, and any attempt of re-entry will result in your immediate arrest and execution.”
The boy’s gaze dropped, but still he remained silent.
“If you have anything to say, now is the time for it,” Tanetaka said, “After this, you will be taken to the prison ship that will transport you to the… correction centre.”
“What…” the boy rasped quietly, “about Ala…?”
Tanetaka paused, puzzled. “I’m sorry?”
“Ala,” the boy looked up, an unsettling glint in those beastly, yellow eyes of his, “There was- there was a girl called Ala, there. Lots of- loads of kids, are still there.”
Tanetaka recalled something in the arrest report about collateral. Ah, yes, two other children – servants – also turned up dead. One of them was a girl. He took a quick moment to measure his words carefully, “The children were wards of Lord Musa, therefor-”
“Wards,” the boy snarled, and the flat, empty expression suddenly transformed into one of dark rage, “We were slaves-”
“Slavery is forbidden in Kugane,” Tanetaka said coolly, “Indentured servitude-”
“We were slaves!” the boy shrieked and lunged to his feet – instantly, the guards clamped their hands down on his small shoulders and shoved him down hard enough that Tanataka heard the boy’s knees audibly crack against the hard floor. The boy didn’t even wince – he just hissed and growled, his ears flat against his skull and glaring at Tanataka with such venomous hatred it actually took him back a bit.
Such an expression didn’t belong on such a young child.
“Legally,” Tanetaka said over the low, guttural noises rumbling in the boy’s throat, “You are an indentured servant, one who violated the terms of his contract by torturing and murdering his employer.”
The boy just laughed – but it was an awful, despairing noise – his head bowing too low for Tanetaka to see his expression.
“He was,” the boy half-gasped past his bitter, awful laughter, “a monster. He was a horrible-”
“Defamation will add another year to your sentence,” Tanetaka warned.
“-rapist,” the boy finished in a snarl, glaring up at him from beneath his fringe, “I’m happy I killed him. I’m happy! I’ll do it again, and again, and again!”
Tanetaka waved a hand, dismissing the boy. He’d seen enough raging criminals to know hysteria when he saw it, and there was no point keeping him here to extend his own sentence in a fit of blind rage. The guards gripped the boy’s small arms, forcing him to his feet.
“He deserved it!” the boy continued to scream, violently thrashing and kicking in the guards’ hold as he was pulled away, “He deserved it! WE WERE SLAVES AND YOU DID NOTHING-!“
The door to his office slid shut, cutting off the boy’s howled words. He could still hear him wailing, wild and crazed, until the distance muffled what the walls could not. His office was disturbingly quiet in the aftermath of that, and Tanetaka rubbed at his mouth, stifling a sigh into it.
Well. He knew what skeletons Lord Harumasa was trying to hide now.
Now, how to prove they existed…
Yasuo, not for the first time that evening, bemoaned his rotten luck as he pulled at the cold iron chaining him to the ship’s floor. He was packed in with the rest of the prisoners being transported to one of Kugane’s ‘correction centres’, all petty criminals promised the prospect of a clean sheet in a year so long as they broke their backs hauling stone and iron in one of the many mines situated on the islands within the Ruby Sea.
Yasuo had willingly taken the sentence – the alternative was losing a hand for pilfering a rack of fish – but now he was wondering if he chose right. The seas were choppy that evening, the ship rocking in its berth as the evening winds picked up, and he was sitting on the world’s most uncomfortable wooden bench. He couldn’t even stand properly, the chain tying him to the floor so short he would have to stoop over.
“All this over some cod,” he muttered under his breath, slouching in his seat as much as he could. They were all jammed in tight, a good fifty of them in the small hold of this ship – though there was one, tiny space next to him, against the wall. No doubt for a last-minute addition to their merry cruise.
The bang of the hold’s door had the room, already at a low, cautious murmur, instantly quieten, and Yasuo looked up at the noise of stomping boots to see two soldiers descend into the hold with a child in too-big prison clothes and equally big, heavy chains binding his wrists, between them. The hush took on a bewildered tone.
Yasuo stared as the soldiers dragged the child towards him, and everyone, himself included, had to quickly tuck their feet in before the soldiers stomped on their toes. Yasuo awkwardly leaned away as much as he could as the soldiers went about attaching the floor chain to the boy’s manacles, uncaring of the other prisoners in forced close quarters with how carelessly the flung their elbows out, and within minutes were done. They then left without a word.
The boy, obviously, remained, staring at the thick, black iron around his tiny wrists with an expression that lacked all emotion.
He was a Miqo’te, Yasuo realised, eyeing the large, cat-like ears that protruded from the boy’s messy hair. He even had a tail, which looked a bit matted and filthy. Curiosity overcoming him, Yasuo nudged him with his elbow.
“Hey,” he tried. The boy ignored him, so he nudged again, “Hey.”
Dully, the catboy glanced over at him with eerie, yellow eyes. His face was a mess. His cheek was swollen and bruised, his bottom lip was split and there was a bloody gash at his temple, like someone had smashed a gauntleted fist into his face. Yasuo felt unease at the sight. He knew the Sekiseigumi could be harsh, but he thought they drew the line at hitting kids – or arresting them, at that.
“Are, uh, you alright?” he asked, deciding against his earlier question at the flat, empty stare the kid was giving him, “You’re… bleeding.”
The boy didn’t answer him. He just looked away from him and curled up as much as he could against the wall, trying to put as much space between them as the cramped bench would allow. His ill-fitting prison clothes just hung off him, but Yasuo could see him trembling underneath the thin fabric, his matted tail tucked so close to his body that Yasuo wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been between his legs, if he’d been standing.
Perturbed, Yasuo leaned away and let him be. There was no way they would work a child at the correction centre, right? The boy would surely die from exertion alone within months.
The ship groaned and shuddered then, freed from its moorings, and Yasuo grimaced at they began to set sail to their new home.
A home they never reached.