“Under your benumbing eye, Excellence,” suggested Ming-shu resourcefully, “the precedent of taking first that for which the written sign is the longest might be established. Failing that, the names of all the various punishments might be inscribed on separate shreds of parchment and these deposited within your state umbrella. The first withdrawn by an unbiased—”
“High Excellence,” Kai Lung ventured to interrupt, “a further plan suggests itself which—”
“If,” exclaimed Ming-shu in irrational haste, “if the criminal proposes to narrate a story of one who in like circumstances—”
“Peace!” interposed Shan Tien tactfully. “The felon will only be allowed the usual ten short measures of time for his suggestion, nor must he, under that guise, endeavour to insert an imagined tale.”
“Your ruling shall keep straight my bending feet, munificence,” replied Kai Lung. “Hear now my simplifying way. In place of cited wrongs—which, after all, are comparatively trivial matters, as being merely offences against another or in defiance of a local usage—substitute one really overwhelming crime for which the penalty is sharp and explicit.”
“To that end you would suggest—?” Uncertainty sat upon the brow of both Shan Tien and Ming-shu.
“To straighten out the entangled thread this person would plead guilty to the act—in a lesser capacity and against his untrammelled will—of rejoicing musically on a day set apart for universal woe: a crime aimed directly at the sacred person of the Sublime Head and all those of his Line.”
At this significant admission the Mandarin’s expression faded; he stroked the lower part of his face several times and unostentatiously indicated to the two attendants that they should retire to a more distant obscurity. Then he spoke.
“When did this—this alleged indiscretion occur, Kai Lung?” he asked in a considerate voice.
“It is useless to raise a cloud of evasion before the sun of your penetrating intellect,” replied the story-teller. “The eleventh day of the existing moon was its inauspicious date.”
“That being yesterday? Ming-shu, you upon whom the duty of regulating my admittedly vagarious mind devolves, what happened officially on the eleventh day of the Month of Gathering-in?” demanded the Mandarin in an ominous tone.
“On such and such a day, benevolence, threescore and fifteen years ago, the imperishable founder of the existing dynasty ascended on a fiery dragon to be a guest on high,” confessed the conscience-stricken scribe, after consulting his printed tablets. “Owing to the stress of a sudden journey significance of the date had previously escaped my weed-grown memory, tolerance.”