Somewhere under the mountain of paper was an old oak desk; somewhere behind the mountain of paper was a man named Underby. Tenk walked into the room holding a worn leather satchel, he rounded the desk and held the satchel out to him. Underby sagged visibly, and replaced his quill in the inkwell.
“What’s this?” he asked in a defeated monotone.
“Year end receipts.” Tenk said. “Need these sorted out.”
Underby groaned. “Clockwinder, do you see what I already have to sift through and categorize?”
Tenk folded his arms, a gleam in his eye. “You asked for this job. We made a deal.”
“Be that as it may, I cannot do all this. Not in the turnaround time necessary. I need a little assistance here.”
Tenk pulled on his beard, looking over the voluminous paper, then raised his eyebrows and walked out of the room silently.
Underby sighed, leaning over and opening his personal drawer, taking out a long thin pipe. He packed it, struck a match, and pulled. Perhaps if I’m lucky, he thought, a stray ember will burn the entire building down. He leaned back and smoked.
Five days later the door to Underby’s office opened again. The mountain was there, though it had thawed and melted some. Underby stood, looking over the paper to see who had entered; he saw nobody. “Tenk?” he asked to the room.
“Mm hmm.” came the reply from the other side of the desk, behind the mountain of paper. “I brought you some assistance.” he said.
Underby stood again, looking around the room, then leaned on the desk to see out the door into the hallway. “Where?”
“Here. This is Mr. Dorchester. He will be your new assistant.”
“Good day, Mr. Underby.” answered a reedy voice.
Underby circled the desk and blinked to see Tenk with a man only slightly taller than himself. Underby’s eyes narrowed: what sort of trickery was this?
“Dorchester, eh?” he asked, looking at Tenk. Was that look in his eye smugness, or boredom?
“That’s correct sir.” he said.
Underby looked him over openly, hands behind his back. “You are from Falun, I presume?”
The small man bristled. Tenk ran a hand over his mouth.
“Why? Because I’m short? Is that it?”
Underby blinked. “Well, yes.” he said. “Falun is famous for their high magnitude of dwarfism.”
“Well, I am not from Falun, you goon.” he answered, sneering. “I am from New Babbage, and I was already here when you came to town. Newcomer.”
“I see.” Underby said. “My sincere apologies for having offended you.”
He looked at Tenk. Was that a grin? Was he laughing at him?
“This will do.” he said to the mayor. “Thank you. Come along, Dorchester, I shall put you to work on these summations.”
Two days later, Underby was leaning in the windowsill of Tenk’s tower office, smoking a cigar, watching Dorchester stamp briefings, page by page by page. His little hands worked so quickly, when he wasn’t complaining.
“Do you suffer from bone fever, Dorchester?” Underby asked, interrupting the monotonous and never ending ticking of the gargantuan tower clock.
“The only thing I suffer is the incessantly moronic questions of my immediate superiors.” he answered, without looking up from his work.
Underby turned back to look out the window. “Touché.” he mumbled.
A week later Underby was sitting near the fire in the common room of City Hall, Dorchester was crouched before him, shining his shoes. As he buffed and polished, Underby looked down on him, frowning. Earlier that morning Underby had ridden the lift up to Tenk’s office to complain about Dorchester’s insolence. Tenk, as usual, had listened in silence (or, perhaps, simply waited patiently until Underby was finished speaking; it was hard to tell) only to finally look up from the clock he was tinkering on to say: “You wanted assistance. I got you an assistant.”
“Well, yes, but this is an impossible situation. The lad insults me, and when he isn’t insulting me he is ignoring me so he can work on filing.”
“Did I hire him to assist, or to converse politely?”
The tall bald man sighed loudly to Tenk, and now here he was, watching Dorchester polish his shoes.
Underby looked at his tall stovepipe hat, sitting on the sofa next to him. “Perhaps after my shoes you could brush my hat.”
Dorchester said nothing.
A ridiculous notion popped into Underby’s mind. “You could probably hide inside my hat.” he said, the hint of a chuckle on his breath.
Dorchester, still, said nothing.
He had to admit, the silent treatment was preferable to the insults.
He decided to attempt to make nice with Dorchester.
“There’s a word to describe you, sir,” Underby drawled. “and that word is ‘toady’.”
Dorchester said nothing.
“Say, toady.” Underby said. This silence was beginning to unnerve him slightly. “Do you happen to know where the term toady is derived from?”
Dorchester stopped polishing, leaned his tiny hands on his thighs, and looked up at Underby. Progress!
“When travelling “doctors” move from town to town they have ridiculous little assistants, such as yourself. During their public presentations, these mountebanks would brag about the supernatural effects their medicines produced, making one nigh invulnerable.”
Dorchester still looked up at him, but said nothing.
“The humbugs would then produce a toad, which many rubes even today erroneously believe to be poisonous, and hand it to their assistant.” Underby looked down, waiting for a reply, none came. “The assistant would promptly swallow the frog, which was meant to prove the validity of the supposed concoction. And so you see, Dorchester, toady quite literally means ‘toad eater’.” He smiled, rather pleased with himself and his story.
Dorchester, for his part, looked back down at the shoes and resumed polishing.
That, in and of itself, was a response. Of sorts.
Was this progress?
The small man stood. “Finished.”
Underby looked down at his shoes, seeing his own moonish reflection in the toes. “Another term for someone in your position is ‘bootlicker’, though I suppose the etymology of that term should be obvious enough to anyone.”
Dorchester looked at Underby, but said nothing.
“Of course, I’ve had past assistants try it: it produces unfavorable results. Saliva is not up to snuff in the shoe-shine category.”
Underby picked a miniscule piece of lint from his sleeve. “It works only as a position solidifier. Alright, hup hup, you may begin to brush my hat.”
Dorchester turned and picked up the tall stovepipe hat, which easily could have been tall as himself, then dropped it to the ground, and kicked it across the room with a single powerful blow. The hat cartwheeled across the polished hardwood floor.
“Here now!” Underby called out, standing.
“Do you take me for a boot licker, you twisted freak?” the small man growled.
“I, here… what?” Underby asked, looking from his hat rolling dangerously close to the fire to the small man at his feet.
“I am an employee, not a slave, not a servant, not a toady and certainly NOT a boot licker.” he said, stomping toward the hat and giving it another swift kick, sending it across the room.
“Look now…” Underby said, but could find no words to continue. He looked around for a page he could send to fetch Tenk.
“You are a middle man, Underby. Never forget that.” Dorchester said, marching up behind the stovepipe hat and stamping on it with his tiny feet. “Tenk wants something done, he tells you, and you get me to do it.”
Underby watched him savage his hat. “I… yes… well, yes.”
Dorchester turned. The hat was dead.
“Sooner, rather than later, Mr Tenk will realize that he doesn’t need YOU to tell me. He will simply tell me himself.”
“There’s a word to describe you.” Dorchester said. “Superfluous.”
Underby sneered, and without a word, strode off toward his office.
Dorchester looked down at the hat. He picked it up, brushed it off, popped it back into shape. The top was hanging off a little, but still. Dorchester placed the tall stovepipe hat onto his large head and looked at himself in a nearby full length mirror. “The mayor’s assistant.” he said to his reflection.