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He rubbed his hands with glee.

“See the penitent sinners line up for my forgiveness,” he crowed. “Look at them!”

She looked. Beaten down, miserable, hopeless, they trudged forwards. She was reminded of her childhood on the farm, watching the sheep being herded away to the slaughterhouse.

His gleeful expression dropped suddenly. “They don’t look sorry enough,” he said. “Make them crawl.”

She clenched her fist, digging her nails into the palm of her hand, her own morals fighting with her vow to serve, but then she turned and issued his order.

The guards forced the meek, sheep-like people to their knees, hitting the backs of their legs with their polearms if they moved too slowly. Still they came forward, their defeated, hopeless eyes fixed on the Emperor’s feet as they crawled towards his throne.

She watched them in silence. It was hard to believe that these people had, just hours before, risen up against the Emperor, had taken the steps she dared not, and had attempted to overthrow him.

They reached the Emperor, and the first of them lowered his head to kiss the imperial feet.

“You shall be forgiven,” the Emperor said. She started, staring at him wide eyed. Had he found his senses at last? The man at his feet was already weeping in gratitude.

“I ask only a small tribute from you in return.”

Another door in the hall opened, and two or three dozen children were shepherded in. There were gasps as the kneelers recognised their children.

“Yes,” the Emperor said, smiling. “I think they are small enough.”

© Kari Fay

(Author’s Note: The Three Word Wednesday prompt words this week are Believe, Penitent and Tribute.)