The Emperor’s Pink Elephant
There was once a great empire.
This great empire was vast — reaching from the pine-covered mountains of Arennia in the west, to the golden beaches and azure reefs of Marcanne in the east, from the freshwater lakes of Belgamon in the north, to the apple orchards and apiaries of Arganza in the south. It was so vast that evening on one side of the empire was morning on the other. And at its centre stood its Capital — a limestone and marble metropolis that was the seat of power for a hemisphere.
This great empire was also extraordinarily wealthy. Though it had started as only a small city state, it had fought many wars over the years against the kingdoms and principalities along its borders, and it had won most of them. With each new territory it had conquered it had stolen all the riches it contained, fuelling yet further expansion of the empire. And with each monarchy that fell before it, ever more convinced did the subjects of the Emperor become that they were the only truly civilised people in the world, and that all those beyond the empire’s borders were barbarians.
But most of the people in the empire were not wealthy — they were impoverished — for most of the great wealth extracted from the lands they had taken was hoarded by the Emperor and his Barons. By the time of this story, they were far wealthier than they had ever been. The Grand Imperial Palace at the centre of the Capital was a small kingdom of ivory towers, marble colonnades, golden cupolas, glass-walled orangeries, wisteria-wrapped pergolas, and mosaic-covered terraces. The statues that stood atop the walls, the painted domed ceilings, and the stained glass windows all gleamed with a brilliance that was taken as proof of the empire’s immutable virtue.
The Emperor and his Barons spent their days strolling through the lush gardens and great halls of the imperial palace, but for most of the people of the empire, such a life was but a whisper of a whisper. In contrast to the luminance of the imperial palace, most of the great city that was the empire’s capital was in disrepair. Fires broke out every month; the sewers overflowed; the bridges collapsed. The houses were small, cramped, and expensive. Disease was often a death sentence.
Most of the people who lived in the city worked twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours of the day. A person had to be a master of two or three crafts in order to survive. Many were in debt. Food, at least, was cheap — not fine food, but food that would keep you alive, and well, for a time. In what little free time the people of the empire had, they had fun, and some were able to find a reluctant contentedness, but none were truly able to change the circumstances of their lives, and the risk of deprivation, despair, and death remained constant.
Many of the problems of the empire could have been resolved if some of the empire’s extraordinary wealth were put towards resolving them. The ordinary people of the empire knew this. And why should this not happen? After all, it had been these ordinary people who had fought the empire’s wars in the first place. They had obeyed the commands of their divine Emperor and taken land in the name of their exceptional civility, and then been left to suffer.
The People of the Capital thought that perhaps if they could speak to the Emperor, they could persuade him to implement policies that would solve the empire’s many problems. But getting to the Emperor was difficult — the Emperor, his Barons, and his Ministers were isolated within the Grand Imperial Palace. They never went beyond its tall walls.
So the People of the Capital gathered together, and resolved to send one of their group into the palace as a representative, to become one of the Emperor’s Ministers. (Unlike the Barons, who passed down their fortunes and titles to their sons, the Emperor’s Ministers were chosen from the greater populace.) They chose one man from their group who they believed would succeed — he was eloquent, rational, and honest, if somewhat brusque.
It was on a bright day, just before lunch, that this First Man strode up to the golden gates of the imperial palace, to be admitted as the Emperor’s newest Minister. The gates swung outward, and the First Man stepped forward into a world he could not have imagined.
The Grand Imperial Palace is filled with a great many wonders of the world: the Hydrargyrum Fountain, which will amalgamate any coin that is thrown into it, to become part of its quicksilver jets; the Lotus of Charan’girak — the flowers of which are fifteen feet tall and only bloom on the day after a blood moon; the Tree of Rhonyssia, each branch of which produces a different kind of fruit — cherries, pears, bergamots, dates, pineapples, blackberries — everything.
The flowerbeds, the shrubs, the walkways were all kept perfectly tidy by the imperial palace’s many hundreds of servants. Every leaf that fell from every tree was caught before it even hit the ground. Every cracked paving stone was replaced before the Emperor could see it. Every oil lamp was refilled every hour throughout the night so that not a single flame would go out.
It was through this wondrous place that the First Man strode on this day. Though he was transfixed by the chiselled cornices, the viridian ponds, and the onyx statues, he walked past them all to the great glasshouse at the centre of the palace that was the Emperor’s Menagerie.
Though the imperial palace had galleries, chambers, and halls that were the official locations where the discussion of legislation took place, the Emperor and his Barons and his Ministers actually spent very little time there. Instead they gathered in the Emperor’s Menagerie, every day, at midday, to discuss and give assent to policy.
The Emperor’s Menagerie was bright and humid. It had tall walls and many glass domes. The fronds of the ferns and the cycads were a lush green, and the pools that sat and the streams that ran throughout the building were clear.
But despite the grandeur of the architecture and the greenery of the Emperor’s Menagerie, most of the animals in it were rather unspectacular. There were lorikeets and parakeets, lemurs and macaques, pythons, puffins, porcupines, and pangolins, chameleons, tortoises, sloths, a jaguar, a giraffe, and even a hippopotamus, but they all looked rather tired and grey.
There was one exception to this, however — a unique specimen that was the Emperor’s prized possession. In the very centre of the Emperor’s Menagerie, beneath the great crystal dome and on a circular plinth of gold and garnet, sat an enormous … pink elephant.
The elephant was truly gigantic — twice the height, width, and length of a normal elephant. But as remarkable as its size was, it was nothing compared to the colour of its skin. The elephant’s skin was a lurid, electric fuchsia — a hot, shocking cyclamen. It was such a vile and offensive shade of magenta that it stung the eyes to look at it. It was so fluorescent that it drained all of the colour from everything around it.
The elephant was also disgusting. It gave off a nauseating stench of bitumen, vinegar, oyster sauce, burnt aubergine, and piss — the entire menagerie smelled of it. This may have been caused by its diet. The elephant did not eat leaves and grasses as normal elephants do — it ate incredibly expensive foods, provided to it at the behest of the Emperor and his Barons: caviar, goose liver, lobsters, artichokes stuffed with white truffle, bluefin tuna, and it ate all of this food in vast quantities. The servants of the Grand Imperial Palace would drag great bowls — four feet across — filled with this food up to the elephant every half hour. The more recently-appointed servants were given the task of carrying away the elephant’s shit, which was produced almost constantly.
All of this makes the Emperor’s Pink Elephant difficult to ignore, but ignore it you must, because if anyone talks about the elephant — whether they go on about it at length or just mention it — that person will be swiftly removed from the palace, and never be permitted to return.
Almost all of the people of the empire, however, at this point, were completely unaware of the existence of the pink elephant. As such, when the First Man strode through the glass doors of the Emperor’s Menagerie, to begin his first term as one of the Emperor’s Ministers, he gawped at the pink elephant, in shock and amazement. The pink elephant stared back, grinding crabshell in its teeth, bored with the turn of events.
The Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to the First Man, with their hands clasped together and forced smiles on their faces. They nodded politely as they asked the First Man pointless questions and ignored his answers. And after a few minutes, the First Man said ‘I had no idea that the Emperor had an enormous pink elephant in his menagerie! What an unusual creature!’
The Emperor’s other Ministers continued to smile and nod, but did not refer to the elephant themselves. They changed the conversation to something meaningless and dull.
An hour after the First Man had arrived in the menagerie, and before the First Man had had the chance to speak with the Emperor (who always stood on a raised area at the back of the glasshouse, dressed in imperial green and guarded by a number of his Barons) one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the First Man and said ‘Most honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the palace — there is a matter that requires your expertise.’ The First Man, suspecting nothing, followed the servant out of the menagerie and back to the golden gates of the palace.
He stepped through the gates of the palace. Once he was outside, the gates were closed behind him and locked, and the servant walked away.
The First Man, like those who had elected him to become a Minister, was naïve to the way that the palace operated, and so was confused. He had expected to find this matter outside the gates of the palace, but he did not. The servants had walked away, so there was no-one he could ask. He waited for an hour in case the matter reappeared, but it did not. Then he tried to get the attention of someone in the palace, but none came to him.
By the end of the day, he realised that this was not a mistake, and that he would not be permitted back into the palace, and could not take the people’s requests to the Emperor. What he couldn’t figure out was why.
He analysed the day’s events with the People of the Capital. He told them of everything that had happened while he had been inside the Grand Imperial Palace, and everything he had said to the Emperor’s Ministers. He told them that in the very centre of the Emperor’s Menagerie there was an enormous pink elephant that ate vast quantities of expensive food and gave off a foul odour, and that he had mentioned the elephant to the Ministers. But he had said so many things and made so many slight gestures that neither he nor the People could figure out which of them had led to his expulsion.
But the empire still had many problems, so, since they could not send the First Man back into the palace, the People of the Capital chose another from their group to become one of the Emperor’s Ministers in his stead. This Second Man was very similar to the first, but perhaps slightly more observant.
So the next day, just before lunch, this Second Man strode up to the golden gates of the imperial palace, to be admitted as the Emperor’s newest Minister. The gates swung outward, and the Second Man stepped forward into a world he had heard a few things about.
He walked the two miles from the entrance to the palace to the Emperor’s Menagerie, not stopping to marvel at the Opal Obelisk, Sereri’s Fresco, or the translucent chrysanthemums. But when he stepped through the glass doors of the menagerie, like the First Man, he was awestruck by the pink elephant. The elephant looked at him with impatience.
The Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to the Second Man, eyes eager and greedy. They chatted with the Second Man about things both tedious and irrelevant, and laughed at things that weren’t funny. And after a few minutes, the Second Man said ‘I must say, I knew that the Emperor had an enormous pink elephant in his menagerie, but I could not have anticipated just how vivid its skin is, or how pungent its smell is.’
‘His Majesty’s Menagerie has many wondrous and unique animals in it.’ one of the Emperor’s other Ministers said, though it wasn’t true in the slightest — all of the other animals were rather dull. ‘My favourite is the pigeons.’ he said, pointing up to the rafters, where hundreds of fat, grey pigeons sat.
‘Oh yes’, another Minister said. ‘Far better than those sparrows that used to be here. And I never liked that crane either.’
An hour after the Second Man had arrived in the menagerie, and before he had had the chance to speak with the Emperor, one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the Second Man and said ‘Most honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the palace — there is a matter that requires your expertise.’ The Second Man, also suspecting nothing, followed the servant out of the menagerie and back to the golden gates of the palace.
He passed through the gates, and they were locked behind him. He was tricked just as the First Man had been, though the Second Man realised this as soon as he heard the lock clink behind him.
The Second Man also analysed the day’s events with the People of the Capital. He told them everything he said and everything he did, and the People realised the only thing that both the First Man and the Second Man had done was to talk about the elephant in the room.
As ever, the problems with the empire persisted. The People resolved that they could not give up, so they chose a Third Man from their group to try to get into the palace and speak to the Emperor. But this time, he would go in with the intention of not saying a single word about the pink elephant, and if one of the Emperor’s servants said he was needed at the gates, he would try to find a way of not going.
So the next day the Third Man went in. When he stepped into the great glasshouse, the Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to him, whispering and glancing at each other. He did not say a single word about the elephant, but he did stare at it — it was difficult not to — its skin was so blindingly saturated. And of course, it was right in the middle of the room.
The Emperor’s other Ministers watched the Third Man as they prattled at him. They didn’t look towards the elephant themselves, but they knew that the Third Man was looking at it — they knew that he was thinking about it.
And after an hour, one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the Third Man and said ‘Most honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the palace — there is a matter that requires your expertise.’
The Third Man immediately realised what was happening — they were trying to expel him from the palace — he must have done something the other Ministers didn’t like. ‘I’m sure the matter can wait.’ he said to the Emperor’s servant. ‘The discussion of policy is very important; I would not like to miss any of it.’
‘Oh that won’t start for ages yet.’ one of the Emperor’s other Ministers said. ‘We’ll probably just be babbling on for another few hours yet, as we do.’
‘Yes’, another Minister said, ‘you won’t miss anything — I’m sure you’ll have the time to deal with this matter.’
The Third Man had not anticipated this. ‘His Imperial Majesty expects all of his Ministers to be in attendance.’ he said.
‘Oh he won’t mind.’ one of the Ministers said.
‘Yes, I’m sure he won’t mind.’ another said with a smirk. ‘You should go.’
The Third Man couldn’t see how he could reason his way out of this. Everyone wanted him to go to the gates.
‘Very well.’ the Third Man said, after a moment, and he followed the servant out of the menagerie.
He knew that the moment he stepped outside of the palace, the gates would be locked behind him, and he wouldn’t be able to get back in, so he tried to think how he could avoid going through them. He could just run to a different part of the palace, he thought, but they would only find him, and then tell him to go to the gates again.
He couldn’t think of how to get out of this. When he got to the gates of the palace, which were wide open, he stopped before passing them, adamant he would not go a step further.
‘Well, where is this matter then?’ he said to the servant.
The Emperor’s servant said with half-lidded eyes ‘It is in the marketplace a short distance away from the palace. I will take you there.’
The Third Man was still suspicious. ‘What on earth is this matter?’
‘It will be easier to show you.’ the servant said.
Once again, the Third Man didn’t see how he could refuse. But the servant would be with him — they’d have to let the servant back into the palace when they returned, and he could go in at the same time. So the Third Man stepped past the gates of the palace, and followed the servant to the marketplace.
The marketplace was bustling. The Third Man followed the servant through the dense crowd as they wound between the stalls. He was almost starting to believe that there was some important matter for him to deal with, but for a moment he looked the other way, and when he looked back, the servant was gone.
The Third Man immediately realised what had happened, and pushed his way back through the crowd to try to get back to the palace as soon as possible. But when he arrived at the entrance, the gates were once again locked shut, and there was no-one on the other side who could or would open them.
Like the First Man and the Second Man, the Third Man told the People of the Capital everything that had happened. They realised that not only would talking about the elephant get you thrown out, but even looking at it — acknowledging it in any way.
So the People of the Capital sent a Fourth Man to the palace. The Fourth Man did not mention the elephant at all, nor did he stare at the elephant when he first walked into the menagerie. He managed to stay in the menagerie for longer than the first three had — most of the afternoon. But though he avoided staring at the elephant, when its amaranth skin caught the edge of his vision, he couldn’t help but steal a glance at it.
The Emperor’s other Ministers had been watching him closely the entire afternoon, even after they had run out of things to blather on about. They saw the Fourth Man look at the elephant for a fraction of a second, so the Fourth Man was expelled too.
The Fifth Man that the People sent in was the first one who managed to remain in the menagerie for a while. He said nothing about the elephant and did not look at it even for a moment.
He went into the menagerie at midday every day for a week, along with all of the Emperor’s other Ministers. The first few hours of every afternoon were spent rambling on about things that didn’t matter. Many of the Ministers would wander around the menagerie with one of their friends — the menagerie had many winding gravel paths through it (walled by emerald foliage, which prevented anything the Ministers whispered to each other from being overheard by others in the glasshouse).
It was only towards the end of each afternoon that any actual discussion of policy happened, and it was usually very quick. The Ministers and the Barons were in complete agreement on almost everything. The Emperor did not question any of the policies that were proposed — in fact he didn’t say anything at all in the discussion — and he gave assent to everything that the Ministers and the Barons decided upon. The Fifth Man realised that it was not the Emperor that he needed to speak to, but the Ministers and the Barons.
Over the days that he was there, the Fifth Man tried to convince the other Ministers of the policies that the People wanted. He tried to persuade them to support the rebuilding of bridges, aqueducts, and sewers. He tried to persuade them to put some of the palace’s great wealth towards building more houses, so that the people of the city would not have to live in such cramped spaces. He tried to persuade them to end the constant war and expansion — the empire was big enough as it was — any bigger and it might fracture.
He went from group to group within the menagerie, repeating the same arguments. The Ministers smiled and nodded. They responded with things like ‘What an interesting idea.’, ‘I couldn’t agree more.’, and ‘Oh yes, we must support the common people.’. But when he asked if they could put the policy to the Emperor, they said ‘Let’s do that tomorrow.’, or ‘This will fit well with a bill I’m writing for a few days’ time.’, or ‘Let’s talk to some more people about this.’.
But they never did. Every day they would defer it. The reasons were slightly different each day, but the effect was the same. Though the Ministers said that they liked the Fifth Man’s policies, they would never allow them to be put to the Emperor.
But while he was in the menagerie, the Fifth Man also realised something else. You see, while he did not look at the pink elephant, he could still see it. When his eyes were focused on something else, the pink elephant might be on the edge of his vision, and he could turn his mind’s eye towards it. And of course, the menagerie was made of glass — he could often see the elephant’s reflection in a window.
He knew what the elephant was doing at any one time — they all did — all of the Ministers knew. They all pretended not to, but everyone in the room knew what the elephant was doing, and they all knew that everyone else knew. But what the Fifth Man realised was that the pink elephant must have been costing the empire a fortune to keep. It ate a great bowl of the most expensive foods in the world every half hour for every hour it was awake. A team of eighty servants had the task of preparing all of the elephant’s food and bringing it to the elephant. Keeping the elephant cost more than all of the palace’s other daily expenses combined! The elephant was part of the problem! If they didn’t have to pay for the elephant, they would have more money to spend on repairing and rebuilding the city.
After a week, getting nowhere trying to persuade the other Ministers to put his policies to the Emperor, and seeing just how ridiculous it was keeping this disgusting, useless elephant in the menagerie, the Fifth Man snapped.
‘This is absurd!’ the Fifth Man shouted so that all of the Ministers and Barons could hear. ‘All of you are twattling on about things that don’t matter, and then passing legislation that does nothing to solve the actual problems of the empire, all the while ignoring that revolting elephant that is partially the cause of those problems! What are you doing?! What are you here for?! Why do you keep ignoring the elephant in the room?!’
The Fifth Man was completely right of course, but while he had understood the Ministers enough to be able to get into the menagerie, and even stay there for a few days, he did not understand them enough to realise that there was no point asking these questions, because the Ministers would not answer them — they would never answer them. No amount of rationality or rage would ever make them answer these questions.
The Fifth Man was greeted with gelid silence. All of the Ministers and Barons looked at the Fifth Man with stony expressions, insulted that anyone would be so direct about the elephant. The Fifth Man, looking around, realising that he had no power in the menagerie anymore, did not need to be expelled by deceptive means — he left the palace himself.
But of course, the problems of the empire persisted, and the People of the Capital sent in a Sixth Man, then a Seventh Man. The Sixth Man remained in the menagerie for several weeks, and the Seventh Man for several months. Neither of them said a word about the elephant, but as time went on, the two of them, and the People who put them there, realised that it didn’t matter whether or not they mentioned the elephant. The Ministers and the Barons simply didn’t want to implement the policies they were suggesting. All of them were in agreement, and anyone who did not agree with them would be removed — that way they kept their control over the Emperor and the empire — that way they stayed in power. And though they all did this — they all knew that this was what they were doing — they never acknowledged it.
The Sixth Man and the Seventh Man were eventually expelled too. The Eighth Man to go in tried a more radical method of solving the empire’s problems. He took a pistol into the menagerie, hidden in his coat. As soon as he saw the elephant, he took the pistol out, and shot at it. But the bullet bounced off the elephant’s skin (who would have known that in addition to being quinacridone the elephant’s skin was also bullet-proof?), and instead struck one of the Barons in the arm. (The Baron didn’t die — in fact he recovered remarkably quickly.) The Eighth Man was swiftly removed and imprisoned for life.
And then … the Ninth Man went in. By this point, most of the ordinary people in the empire knew about the pink elephant, and many realised too that the elephant was part of the problem. The Ninth Man had listened to everything his eight predecessors had said, and he had an idea. He asked that the People of the Capital choose him to be the next person to be sent to the palace, but he did not tell them what his idea was, knowing that he would not need to.
And so the Ninth Man, when the sun was high overhead, strode up to the glass doors of the menagerie, and went inside. He did not mention or look at the elephant. The Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to the Ninth Man, as they always did, and started talking small.
The Ninth Man said similarly dull things back to them. He caught a glint in their eyes — they thought they’d got one of their own this time.
And then after a few minutes of meaningless words, the Ninth Man said ‘Oh, by the way, I have brought a gift for the Emperor.’, and he signalled to one of the servants to bring it in.
The servant wheeled it in. It was covered by a satin cloth. With a flourish, the Ninth Man pulled the satin cloth off, revealing a large copper cage underneath it. And within the cage was a magnificent … turquoise flamingo.
The flamingo was delightful. Its plumage went from cyan to aquamarine to cerulean to teal. Its eyes were a glimmering silver. And the bird had an aroma of blueberries and pears.
‘Oh what a marvellous animal!’ the Emperor’s other Ministers all sang together. They then looked for a space for it within the menagerie; the Ninth Man directed them towards one of the spaces on one of the paths that wound through the building.
And then the afternoon wore on as it usually did. All of the Ministers spent several hours warbling and twittering at each other, and at the end of the afternoon, they voted on some legislation. The Ninth Man played along.
The Ninth Man stayed in the menagerie for many months. He did not mention or look at the pink elephant, even though he, like those before him, knew that it was a big problem. He chattered and jabbered with the other Ministers, and they were not suspicious of him. Everyone in the menagerie was overjoyed by the turquoise flamingo — most of all the Emperor, who often came down from his malachite throne to stare at the bird in its cage. Unlike the pink elephant, the turquoise flamingo was cheap to keep — it ate the sorts of foods that flamingos normally eat: small insects, molluscs, and crustaceans, and it didn’t eat all that much of them. The flamingo was a far better centrepiece for the menagerie than the elephant.
After many months had passed, it was time for the people of the empire to elect another Minister — well, two actually. They did so, and two people showed up at the glass doors of the menagerie. The Ministers — not including the Ninth Man — shuffled up to the two newcomers, as they always did. They watched them eagerly for many hours, to see if they would talk about the elephant or glance at it. Neither of them did — clearly both of them knew that they must not do so.
The two new Ministers walked around the menagerie, talking to people and gazing at the other animals. And then they came to the flamingo, which the Ninth Man always stood next to.
‘What a marvellous animal!’ the older one said. ‘Where did it come from?’
‘Oh I found it atop Mount Sarabaya.’ the Ninth Man said.
‘On top of a mountain?!’ the older one asked.
‘Yes. I climbed the mountain in an hour, found the bird standing at its summit, and then was back down again before tea.’
Anyone who knew anything about Mount Sarabaya knew that it could not be climbed in an hour — it normally took at least two days to scale the icy peak, and the same time again to get back down it.
‘That’s absurd!’ the older one said. ‘No-one could climb Mount Sarabaya in an hour!’
The Ninth Man puffed himself up and said proudly ‘I’ll have you know that I’ve won the Arennian Mountain Climbing Championship seven years in a row! I am undefeated to this day!’
Believing he had insulted the Ninth Man, the older of the two new Ministers stumbled over his words, saying ‘Oh … er … well, of course an ordinary person could not climb the mountain in an hour, but I’m sure it’s quite easy for a mountain climbing champion.’
‘Indeed it is!’
‘What are you talking about?!’ the younger one said. ‘It doesn’t matter how many championships you’ve won — no-one can scale Mount Sarabaya that quickly — it’s more than five miles high!’
‘As the current Arennian Mountain Climbing Champion I dare say I am the expert on mountaineering in this menagerie, and it is absolutely possible!’ the Ninth Man insisted.
‘Mount Sarabaya Base Camp is ten miles away from the summit! Unless you sprinted up the mountain, it’s not possible.’ the younger one said.
The older one gawped as this argument was happening — shocked that the younger one would dare suggest that the Minister didn’t know what he was talking about or was lying.
But the Ninth Man had actually succeeded in his aim. ‘Well perhaps you’re right.’ he said to the younger one. ‘It was so long ago — it’s all just a blur now. Perhaps it simply felt like an hour.’ and the conversation moved on to other things.
Later in the afternoon, the Ninth Man took one of the servants aside and whispered to him ‘The older of the two new Ministers is a most talented person. I think we need to find ways to help him use those talents.’
The servant understood, and a few minutes later the older of the two new Ministers was expelled from the palace, in the same way the First Man had been.
The younger of the two new Ministers was allowed to stay. Both he and the Ninth Man did not talk about or look at the pink elephant. They smiled and nodded along with the other Ministers, and did not attempt to persuade them to support better policies, for both of them knew that they never would.
A few months later, and another two people were chosen by the public to become Ministers. They stepped into the menagerie one day, and they successfully ignored the pink elephant. They soon came over to the turquoise flamingo, where the Ninth Man stood.
‘What a marvellous animal!’ the shorter one said. ‘How on earth did it acquire such a colour?’
‘I believe it is a rare species. I saw a similarly-coloured flamboyance of flamingos when I was travelling across the Manjure.’
‘There are flamingos in the Manjure?!’ the shorter one asked.
‘Yes of course. Flamingos like hot weather.’
Anyone who knew anything about the Manjure knew that it was in fact freezing cold there most of the year. It was a vast, dense, boreal forest, interrupted only by icy streams and snow-covered mountains.
‘What on earth are you talking about?!’ the shorter one said. ‘The Manjure is freezing cold!’
The Ninth Man puffed himself up and said proudly ‘I’ll have you know that I have travelled along the Trans-Manjurean Railway no fewer than seven times! I’m quite familiar with the Manjurean climate!’
Believing he had insulted the Ninth Man, the shorter of the two new Ministers stumbled over his words, saying ‘Oh … well … I suppose you must be very familiar with the region then.’
‘You suppose correctly!’
‘That’s absurd!’ the taller one said. ‘The Manjurean caribou is famous for its thick fur. The Manjurean caribou would all die of heat exhaustion if the Manjure were a tropical climate!’
‘I am good friends with the leading expert in the climate and geography of the Manjure at the University of Marcanne! I dare say that I’m more familiar with it than you!’ the Ninth Man insisted.
‘Being friends with an expert does not make you an expert. Unless the climate of the Manjure has changed drastically in the last few years, it absolutely is not a hot region!’ the taller one said.
The shorter one gawped as this argument was happening — shocked that the taller one would dare suggest that the Minister didn’t know what he was talking about or was lying.
But the Ninth Man had once again succeeded in his aim. ‘You know what I think you might be right.’ he said to the taller one. ‘I’m thinking of Bansoor — that’s where I saw those flamingos. The service on the Bansoor Express is so awful I think I blocked it from my memory.’ and the conversation moved on to other things.
Later in the afternoon, the Ninth Man took one of the servants aside and whispered to him ‘The shorter of the two new Ministers is a most talented person. I think we need to find ways to help him use those talents.’
The servant understood, and a few minutes later the shorter of the two new Ministers was expelled from the palace. Now there were two Ministers in the menagerie who the Ninth Man had allowed to stay. They and the Ninth Man played along with the faux concern of the Emperor’s other Ministers.
And this was how it continued for many months — years even. Whenever a new Minister entered the menagerie, first the Cabal stalked them, to see if they would acknowledge the pink elephant, and then the Ninth Man countered it. The Cabal believed that everyone in the menagerie was part of the Cabal, since they expelled anyone who acknowledged the pink elephant, but really the only people who stayed in the menagerie were those who the Ninth Man did not expel.
Over time, more and more of the court was on the side of the turquoise flamingo. They waited not just until they could win any vote against the old Ministers and the Barons, but until almost all of the old Ministers had been replaced — otherwise the supporters of the pink elephant would realise that their strategy was no longer working, and would change it.
And once this had happened, those on the side of the turquoise flamingo started to put forward and vote for policies that would benefit the people of the empire — much to the shock of the Barons.
They voted for bridges to be rebuilt, for sewers to be maintained, and for houses to be built further apart so that fires would not leap from one to another so easily. They voted to pay for doctors to heal the diseased; they voted to nullify debts; they voted to end the wars of expansion. They voted to remove the Barons from the menagerie, and the people of the empire started to prosper once again.
And at the end of all of that, they voted to release the pink elephant back to the wild. It was taken over the sea and released into the humid forests of Bansoor.
But not just that — they also released the turquoise flamingo, for now that there was no-one left in the menagerie who would use the pink elephant for deceit, there was no need for the turquoise flamingo. Those coming to the menagerie would no longer be expelled for talking about the elephant in the room. They would only need the turquoise flamingo again if the pink elephant were brought back.
The pigeons left the menagerie, and the sparrows returned. And every now and then, on a clear day, the people of the city could just about see, flying high in the sky … a turquoise flamingo.
Original story, Copyright © Benjamin T. Milnes