VINOVNYMI (GUILTY): PART ONE
(Author's Note: The word I used here for "guilty" is plural, as in "We are all guilty", and not just one person. Consider: of what is this story a critique?)
(Mood Music: Epica's "Cry for the Moon": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGrF4h2sUik&feature=fvsr)
Once, in a land so close to and yet so far from our own, a boy said a poem:
"Once, there was a simpleton--a princess, to be sure,
But for her weakling mind and body, there was not a cure.
I know I'm just a noble's son, not worthy to be King,
But if I were, then you can bet I'd get rid of that thing!
I'd come to her room while she slept, safe in her cozy bed,
And then, with one stroke of my sword, I would chop off her head!
I'd put poison in her food while she sat down to dine,
For she looks like a man, this girl--an ugly, fat white swine!
She is worth nothing, good for nothing. That's why I would savor
Ridding the whole world of her--I'd be doing it a favor!
Do you know who I'm speaking of? Her name is Lux, you see--
And she's YOUR princess. Who are you with, low folk--her or me?"
This impudent lad was indeed a noble's son, but his high position as the child of one of my stepmother's vassals would not spare him from the chopping block. He was only eighteen years old, as was I, but even so--what kind of person, young or old, would think nothing of reciting such a poem in front of the whole palace court? He was placed in irons in a trice, and now it is my duty to take the sharpened blade the headsman hands me and end his life.
You see, I am the princess, Lux, and in our land, the penalty for every crime is death. Not only that, but the instrument of such a sentence must be the one who has been wronged. If that person is deceased, then a member of his or her family must come forward and perform the execution. It is our way, and our way will never change. It has been so since before she came--my stepmother, I mean--and it will be so for as long as time exists.
Not only are our executions very personal, but they are also very public. If someone is tried as a criminal against the people of this land, then all the people, or at least the ones in the palatial city, must take part in them.
Thieves are hanged, no matter if they stole a loaf of bread or a million pieces of gold! Before the prisoner ascends the scaffold, the people must fill bags of money with all of the coins they can find and then tie them with pieces of rope to the condemned. The only place they must leave free is the neck, in order that the noose may be placed upon it. Once the trap-door is dropped, the thief then drops, and the bags of money all burst open. As the prisoner thrashes in the last throes of death, the people grab what coins they can. After all, most are dirt-poor, poor enough to steal but fearing for their lives. They do not want to end up as the next victim on the gallows, by the Lord!
Prostitutes are led to the town square in all their garish silks and satins--and in chains. At a signal from the officiator of the execution, the people nearest her take turns stripping her bare, and then all of us, young or old, are to hurl stones. Some are large, and some are small, but in the end, the woman of the town shall live no more. I have seen this, and yes, I have been forced to cast my own stone. If you do not, you are viewed as aiding and abetting the condemned. Even the smallest children are to take part in our executions!
Why is this? Why is death seen as the only solution to this problem of crime and criminals? I asked my stepmother this again yesterday, and she replied:
"We must all die for our own crimes, especially after death. When our bodies expire, our souls shall as well. We are all guilty parties, Lux'ya, and that is the reason why our sentences are so. They must
be so. When we transgress, we transgress against the Immortal, and an infinite God deserves infinite recompense. Do you understand, padscheritsa?
" I shook my head. I hated it when she so callously called me her stepdaughter like that.
"What of the people?" I asked her. "Why must they all take part in the rituals that we call just executions?" My face burned hot and red with shame and something else, some hidden dread, that I could not yet name.
"As I said, we are all guilty, Lux. If we share in the guilt, then by extension, we must share in the punishment of it. The condemned lad was right! You are a simpleton." She would not be punished for saying this, being the Queen. She had the right to punish, to enforce the sentence that our judges had imposed. Besides, it was her right to raise her children--or the former Queen's children--as she saw fit. She was now my parent, my legal guardian.
"Are you ready, Lux'ya?" she asked pointedly. All I could do was nod my head.
Noon dawned. The peasants, nobles, merchants, elders, beggar crones, and children only half my height came to pile the headsman's platform with straw. It was I who'd kill the lad, and yet it was they who would make sure that his blood did not stain the ornate scaffolding too much. As for me...
I wore an executioner's gown, of pitch-black damask, with a hood over my hair. The sword that had been specially crafted for this particular beheading had been forged to my stepmother's specifications: it must be light, yet lethal, so that Lux'ya will not sway under its weight and lose her balance--clumsy girl! I resented this, and yet was glad for it. After all, if I practiced enough (which I had) and did not falter, his death would be sure and swift.
Yet now, as my stepmother dragged him by his neck, upon which was fastened a chain like a leash, an all-encompassing horror consumed me. She forced him to kneel at the block, and he did so, almost hitting his head on it.
"Kill me, you old dog!" shouted the lad. "I said that sweet verse, and I don't take it back, so kill me! Where's your sword, if you're so hell-bent on it?"
She signaled to me, and I came forward. "I'm not your executioner," she said.
He could not believe his eyes or ears. "You?!
It figures. You don't have the strength to kill me. You'll fall down before you even make the blow!"
I gripped the hilt of the sword more tightly. "I don't wish to do this," I said, trying not to cry, "and yet I know I must. Do you have any last words?"
The lad grinned. "You're still a big, fat swine, as ugly as the sin in your heart!"
That was it. I raised the blade, full-gleaming in the noonday sun, and...fled.
came my stepmother's gnashing wail. "Come back here and carry out the sentence, or you shall lose every chance you ever had of being the Sudarynia--the Queen!"
I didn't care. If this was what queens did, what princesses and princes did, what kings did, then I still did not care. No matter what he'd said or what he'd done, the lad was still precious in the sight of God and the rest of true humanity, and I had no right to take his life.
I wept as I ran, letting my tears and my hair stream behind me in waves.
When I heard the thwack
of the sword far behind me, and the swelling shout of the people, I could bear it no more. I threw myself upon the ground, a quivering heap of ebony damask, and I would not get up unless someone came to retrieve me. Eventually, my stepmother did, the bodice of her gown bearing a spatter of crimson that caused me to feel revulsion and relief.
"I killed him quickly, Lux. I was strong enough to do what your craven fear prevented you from doing. From this day forward, one of my noblemen's more fitting daughters shall be Queen, not you. You've caused me shame today."
She led me back to the palace, where I wept anew, not removing my dress.
Who had committed the greatest crime? I knew we all had--the lad, for saying the poem, my stepmother, for taking my birthright and his life away, and I myself, for fleeing instead of daring to challenge our "just" laws.
As I said, we all shared in the guilt, and now we all would pay the price...
Still--was there a flaw in my stepmother's logic? There had to be, and I had to find it before she came to avenge herself upon her poor stepdaughter...!