From THE EIGHTH KING.
“The Undersecretary for Social Harmony in the Precincts of the Great South Plain?” said General Gyaltsen. If his face was faintly green at the title, it was no doubt due to the reflection of the yellow mid-afternoon light from the sky-blue of the ceiling of the Crane’s Eye Chamber where he and the very undersecretary had just now, for the first time, encountered one another. Yet, in fairness, it must be said that the same color was not perceptible on the face of that estimable mandarin, wherefore we admit we cannot give the lie to conjectures that Gyaltsen’s own coloration might have been secondary to an emotional response—though an underlying yellow tone in his skin may equally have been to blame.
In any case, the mandarin, outfitted in green and gold with mallard drakes proudly embroidered over every inch, made no direct response to the skepticism in Gyaltsen’s tone, merely making the abasement toward an esteemed colleague and saying, not without perceptible pride, “I have that honor.”
Here—and we apologize for stilting the progress of the dialogue between General and Undersecretary, justifying ourselves only in the observation that the physical context in general enriches understanding of the words exchanged, and in this case, we submit, more than most—it is perhaps worthwhile to note that the Undersecretary for Social Harmony in the Precincts of the Great South Plain partook of a certain arboreal character, by which we mean simply that he possessed many of the features of trees. Among those features were a great girth and height (recapitulated from his body overall in his individual limbs, whose immense musculature bulged out even the loose mandarin’s robe), towering over General Gyaltsen’s admittedly modest stature by some three hands, as well as a rough, deep brown skin tone not often observed in the mandarins of the Orchid Palace, and a texture to his palms and fingers that can only be described as barklike. In addition, like trees, the Undersecretary was missing teeth.
“An honor commensurate to your rank, I see,” said Gyaltsen, noting the ducks, “though you would display it better if your cap were not on backwards.”
“Ah, but worn forward, the cap does not bestow my interlocutors with the opportunity to admire this duck’s fine hindquarters,” said the Undersecretary, pointing to the duck in question. “I find that thus focusing attention on the duck increases respect for my rank—which, though you have observed it, others often ignore, perhaps because I am newly promoted to it.”
“I congratulate you,” said Gyaltsen. “In what fields were your examinations?”
“Do you know,” said the Undersecretary, “you are not the first to ask me that?”
“Well, you need not suffer tedium to indulge my curiosity.”
“No, General, it is no trouble. I attained the ninth rank in dendrology, cerevisiation, and gender studies.”
“You are a married lumberjack and beer-brewer?”
“Married?” laughed the mandarin. “One can hardly cultivate a ninth-rank understanding of the fair sex under such proscriptions.”
“The Red and White,” murmured Gyaltsen, “that is just.”