Jame Retief, vice-consul and third secretary in the Diplomatic Corps, followed the senior members of the terrestrial mission across the tarmac and into the gloom of the reception building. The gray-skinned Yill guide who had met the arriving embassy at the foot of the ramp hurried away. The councillor, two first secretaries and the senior attaches gathered around the ambassador, their ornate uniforms bright in the vast dun-colored room.
Ten minutes passed. Retief strolled across to the nearest door and looked through the glass panel at the room beyond. Several dozen Yill lounged in deep couches, sipping lavender drinks from slender glass tubes. Black-tunicked servants moved about inconspicuously, offering trays. A party of brightly-dressed Yill moved toward the entrance doors. One of the party, a tall male, made to step before another, who raised a hand languidly, fist clenched. The first Yill stepped back and placed his hands on top of his head. Both Yill were smiling and chatting as they passed through the doors.
Retief turned away to rejoin the Terrestrial delegation waiting beside a mound of crates made of rough greenish wood stacked on the bare concrete floor.
As Retief came up, Ambassador Spradley glanced at his finger watch and spoke to the man beside him.
“Ben, are you quite certain our arrival time was made clear?”
Second Secretary Magnan nodded emphatically. “I stressed the point, Mr. Ambassador. I communicated with Mr. T’Cai-Cai just before the lighter broke orbit, and I specifically----”
“I hope you didn’t appear truculent, Mr. Magnan,” the ambassador said sharply.
“No indeed, Mr. Ambassador. I merely----”
“You’re sure there’s no VIP room here?” The ambassador glanced around the cavernous room. “Curious that not even chairs have been provided.”
“If you’d care to sit on one of these crates----”
“Certainly not.” The ambassador looked at his watch again and cleared his throat.
“I may as well make use of these few moments to outline our approach for the more junior members of the staff; it’s vital that the entire mission work in harmony in the presentation of the image. We Terrestrials are a kindly, peace-loving race.” The ambassador smiled in a kindly, peace-loving way.
“We seek only a reasonable division of spheres of influence with the Yill.” He spread his hands, looking reasonable.
“We are a people of high culture, ethical, sincere.” The smile was replaced abruptly by pursed lips.
“We’ll start by asking for the entire Sirenian System, and settle for half. We’ll establish a foothold on all the choicer worlds. And, with shrewd handling, in a century we’ll be in a position to assert a wider claim.”
The ambassador glanced around. “If there are no questions----”
Retief stepped forward. “It’s my understanding, Mr. Ambassador, that we hold the prior claim to the Sirenian System. Did I understand your Excellency to say that we’re ready to concede half of it to the Yill without a struggle?”
Ambassador Spradley looked up at Retief, blinking. The younger man loomed over him. Beside him, Magnan cleared his throat in the silence.
“Vice-Consul Retief merely means----”
“I can interpret Mr. Retief’s remark,” the ambassador snapped. He assumed a fatherly expression.
“Young man, you’re new to the Service. You haven’t yet learned the team play, the give-and-take of diplomacy. I shall expect you to observe closely the work of the experienced negotiators of the mission. You must learn the importance of subtlety.”
“Mr. Ambassador,” Magnan said, “I think the reception committee is arriving.” He pointed. Half a dozen tall, short-necked Yill were entering through a side door. The leading Yill hesitated as another stepped in his path. He raised a fist, and the other moved aside, touching the top of his head perfunctorily with both hands. The group started across the room toward the Terrestrials. Retief watched as a slender alien came forward and spoke passable Terran in a reedy voice.
“I am P’Toi. Come this way...” He turned, and the group moved toward the door, the ambassador leading. As he reached for the door, the interpreter darted ahead and shouldered him aside. The other Yill stopped, waiting.
The ambassador almost glared, then remembered the image. He smiled and beckoned the Yill ahead. They milled uncertainly, muttering in the native tongue, then passed through the door.
The Terran party followed.
“---- give a great deal to know what they’re saying,” Retief overheard as he came up.
“Our interpreter has forged to the van,” the ambassador said. “I can only assume he’ll appear when needed.”
“A pity we have to rely on a native interpreter,” someone said.
“Had I known we’d meet this rather uncouth reception,” the ambassador said stiffly, “I would have audited the language personally, of course, during the voyage out.”
“Oh, no criticism intended, of course, Mr. Ambassador.”
“Heavens,” Magnan put in. “Who would have thought----”
Retief moved up behind the ambassador.
“Mr. Ambassador,” he said, “I----”
“Later, young man,” the ambassador snapped. He beckoned to the first councillor, and the two moved off, heads together.
Outside, a bluish sun gleamed in a dark sky. Retief watched his breath form a frosty cloud in the chill air. A broad doughnut-wheeled vehicle was drawn up to the platform. The Yill gestured the Terran party to the gaping door at the rear, then stood back, waiting.
Retief looked curiously at the gray-painted van. The legend written on its side in alien symbols seemed to read “egg nog.”
The ambassador entered the vehicle, the other Terrestrials following. It was as bare of seats as the Terminal building. What appeared to be a defunct electronic chassis lay in the center of the floor.
Retief glanced back. The Yill were talking excitedly. None of them entered the car. The door was closed, and the Terrans braced themselves under the low roof as the engine started up with a whine of worn turbos.
The van moved off.
It was an uncomfortable ride. Retief put out an arm as the vehicle rounded a corner, just catching the ambassador as he staggered, off-balance. The ambassador glared at him, settled his heavy tri-corner hat and stood stiffly until the car lurched again.
Retief stooped, attempting to see out through the single dusty window. They seemed to be in a wide street lined with low buildings.
They passed through a massive gate, up a ramp, and stopped. The door opened. Retief looked out at a blank gray facade, broken by tiny windows at irregular intervals. A scarlet vehicle was drawn up ahead, the Yill reception committee emerging from it. Through its wide windows Retief saw rich upholstery and caught a glimpse of glasses clamped to a tiny bar.
P’Toi, the Yill interpreter, came forward, gestured to a small door. Magnan opened it, waiting for the ambassador.
As he stepped to it, a Yill thrust himself ahead and hesitated. Ambassador Spradley drew himself up, glaring. Then he twisted his mouth into a frozen smile and stepped aside.
The Yill looked at each other then filed through the door.
Retief was the last to enter. As he stepped inside, a black-clad servant slipped past him, pulled the lid from a large box by the door and dropped in a paper tray heaped with refuse. There were alien symbols in flaking paint on the box. They seemed, Retief noticed, to spell “egg nog.”
The shrill pipes and whining reeds had been warming up for an hour when Retief emerged from his cubicle and descended the stairs to the banquet hall.
Standing by the open doors, he lit a slender cigar and watched through narrowed eyes as obsequious servants in black flitted along the low wide corridor, carrying laden trays into the broad room, arranging settings on a great four-sided table forming a hollow square that almost filled the room. Rich brocades were spread across the center of the side nearest the door, flanked by heavily decorated white cloths. Beyond, plain white extended to the far side, where metal dishes were arranged on the bare table top.
A richly dressed Yill approached, stepped aside to allow a servant to pass and entered the room.
Retief turned at the sound of Terran voices behind him. The ambassador came up, trailed by two diplomats. He glanced at Retief, adjusted his ruff and looked into the banquet hall.
“Apparently we’re to be kept waiting again,” he muttered. “After having been informed at the outset that the Yill have no intention of yielding an inch, one almost wonders...”
“Mr. Ambassador,” Retief said. “Have you noticed----”
“However,” Ambassador Spradley said, eyeing Retief, “a seasoned diplomatist must take these little snubs in stride. In the end---- Ah, there, Magnan.” He turned away, talking.
Somewhere a gong clanged.
In a moment, the corridor was filled with chattering Yill who moved past the group of Terrestrials into the banquet hall. P’Toi, the Yill interpreter, came up and raised a hand.
More Yill filed into the dining room to take their places. A pair of helmeted guards approached, waving the Terrestrials back. An immense gray-jowled Yill waddled to the doors and passed through, followed by more guards.
“The Chief of State,” Retief heard Magnan say. “The Admirable F’Kau-Kau-Kau.”
“I have yet to present my credentials,” Ambassador Spradley said. “One expects some latitude in the observances of protocol, but I confess...” He wagged his head.
The Yill interpreter spoke up.
“You now whill lhie on yourr intesstinss, and creep to fesstive board there.” He pointed across the room.
“Intestines?” Ambassador Spradley looked about wildly.
“Mr. P’Toi means our stomachs, I wouldn’t wonder,” Magnan said. “He just wants us to lie down and crawl to our seats, Mr. Ambassador.”
“What the devil are you grinning at, you idiot?” the ambassador snapped.
Magnan’s face fell.
Spradley glanced down at the medals across his paunch.
“This is ... I’ve never...”
“Homage to godss,” the interpreter said.
“Oh. Oh, religion,” someone said.
“Well, if it’s a matter of religious beliefs...” The ambassador looked dubiously around.
“Golly, it’s only a couple of hundred feet,” Magnan offered.
Retief stepped up to P’Toi.
“His Excellency the Terrestrial Ambassador will not crawl,” he said clearly.
“Here, young man! I said nothing----”
“Not to crawl?” The interpreter wore an unreadable Yill expression.
“It is against our religion,” Retief said.
“We are votaries of the Snake Goddess,” Retief said. “It is a sacrilege to crawl.” He brushed past the interpreter and marched toward the distant table.
The others followed.
Puffing, the ambassador came to Retief’s side as they approached the dozen empty stools on the far side of the square opposite the brocaded position of the Admirable F’Kau-Kau-Kau.
“Mr. Retief, kindly see me after this affair,” he hissed. “In the meantime, I hope you will restrain any further rash impulses. Let me remind you I am chief of mission here.”
Magnan came up from behind.
“Let me add my congratulations, Retief,” he said. “That was fast thinking----”
“Are you out of your mind, Magnan?” the ambassador barked. “I am extremely displeased!”
“Why,” Magnan stuttered, “I was speaking sarcastically, of course, Mr. Ambassador. Didn’t you notice the kind of shocked little gasp I gave when he did it?”
The Terrestrials took their places, Retief at the end. The table before them was of bare green wood, with an array of shallow pewter dishes.
Some of the Yill at the table were in plain gray, others in black. All eyed them silently. There was a constant stir among them as one or another rose and disappeared and others sat down. The pipes and reeds were shrilling furiously, and the susurration of Yillian conversation from the other tables rose ever higher in competition.
A tall Yill in black was at the ambassador’s side now. The nearby Yill fell silent as he began ladling a whitish soup into the largest of the bowls before the Terrestrial envoy. The interpreter hovered, watching.
“That’s quite enough,” Ambassador Spradley said, as the bowl overflowed. The Yill servant rolled his eyes, dribbled more of the soup into the bowl.
“Kindly serve the other members of my staff,” the ambassador said. The interpreter said something in a low voice. The servant moved hesitantly to the next stool and ladled more soup.
Retief watched, listening to the whispers around him. The Yill at the table were craning now to watch. The soup ladler was ladling rapidly, rolling his eyes sideways. He came to Retief, reached out with the full ladle for the bowl.
“No,” Retief said.
The ladler hesitated.
“None for me,” Retief said.
The interpreter came up and motioned to the servant, who reached again, ladle brimming.
“I ... DON’T ... LIKE ... IT!” Retief said, his voice distinct in the sudden hush. He stared at the interpreter, who stared back, then waved the servant away.
“Mr. Retief!” a voice hissed.
Retief looked down at the table. The ambassador was leaning forward, glaring at him, his face a mottled crimson.
“I’m warning you, Mr. Retief,” he said hoarsely. “I’ve eaten sheep’s eyes in the Sudan, ka swe in Burma, hundred-year cug on Mars and everything else that has been placed before me in the course of my diplomatic career. And, by the holy relics of Saint Ignatz, you’ll do the same!” He snatched up a spoon-like utensil and dipped it into his bowl.
“Don’t eat that, Mr. Ambassador,” Retief said.
The ambassador stared, eyes wide. He opened his mouth, guided the spoon toward it----
Retief stood, gripped the table under its edge and heaved. The immense wooden slab rose and tilted, dishes sliding. It crashed to the floor with a ponderous slam.
Whitish soup splattered across the terrazzo. A couple of odd bowls rolled across the room. Cries rang out from the Yill, mingling with a strangled yell from Ambassador Spradley.
Retief walked past the wild-eyed members of the mission to the sputtering chief. “Mr. Ambassador,” he said. “I’d like----”
“You’d like! I’ll break you, you young hoodlum! Do you realize----”
“Pleass...” The interpreter stood at Retief’s side.
“My apologies,” Ambassador Spradley said, mopping his forehead. “My profound apologies.”
“Be quiet,” Retief said.
“Don’t apologize,” Retief said. P’Toi was beckoning.
“Pleasse, arll come.”
Retief turned and followed him.
The portion of the table they were ushered to was covered with an embroidered white cloth, set with thin porcelain dishes. The Yill already seated there rose, amid babbling, and moved down the table. The black-clad Yill at the end table closed ranks to fill the vacant seats. Retief sat down and found Magnan at his side.
“What’s going on here?” the second secretary said angrily.
“They were giving us dog food,” Retief said. “I overheard a Yill. They seated us at the bottom of the servants’ table----”
“You mean you know their language?”
“I learned it on the way out. Enough, at least.”
The music burst out with a clangorous fanfare, and a throng of jugglers, dancers and acrobats poured into the center of the hollow square, frantically juggling, dancing and back-flipping. Black-clad servants swarmed suddenly, heaping mounds of fragrant food on the plates of Yill and Terrestrials alike, pouring a pale purple liquor into slender glasses. Retief sampled the Yill food. It was delicious.
Conversation was impossible in the din. He watched the gaudy display and ate heartily.
Retief leaned back, grateful for the lull in the music. The last of the dishes were whisked away, and more glasses filled. The exhausted entertainers stopped to pick up the thick square coins the diners threw.
Retief sighed. It had been a rare feast.
“Retief,” Magnan said in the comparative quiet, “what were you saying about dog food as the music came up?”
Retief looked at him. “Haven’t you noticed the pattern, Mr. Magnan? The series of deliberate affronts?”
“Deliberate affronts! Just a minute, Retief. They’re uncouth, yes, crowding into doorways and that sort of thing...” He looked at Retief uncertainly.
“They herded us into a baggage warehouse at the terminal. Then they hauled us here in a garbage truck----”
“Only symbolic, of course. They ushered us in the tradesman’s entrance, and assigned us cubicles in the servants’ wing. Then we were seated with the coolie class sweepers at the bottom of the table.”
“You must be ... I mean, we’re the Terrestrial delegation! Surely these Yill must realize our power.”
“Precisely, Mr. Magnan. But----”
With a clang of cymbals the musicians launched a renewed assault. Six tall, helmeted Yill sprang into the center of the floor and paired off in a wild performance, half dance, half combat. Magnan pulled at Retief’s arm, his mouth moving.
Retief shook his head. No one could talk against a Yill orchestra in full cry. He sampled a bright red wine and watched the show.
There was a flurry of action, and two of the dancers stumbled and collapsed, their partner-opponents whirling away to pair off again, describe the elaborate pre-combat ritual, and abruptly set to, dulled sabres clashing--and two more Yill were down, stunned. It was a violent dance.
Retief watched, the drink forgotten.
The last two Yill approached and retreated, whirled, bobbed and spun, feinted and postured--and on the instant, clashed, straining chest-to-chest--then broke apart, heavy weapons chopping, parrying, as the music mounted to a frenzy.
Evenly matched, the two hacked, thrust, blow for blow, across the floor, then back, defense forgotten, slugging it out.
And then one was slipping, going down, helmet awry. The other, a giant, muscular Yill, spun away, whirled in a mad skirl of pipes as coins showered--then froze before a gaudy table, raised the sabre and slammed it down in a resounding blow across the gay cloth before a lace and bow-bedecked Yill in the same instant that the music stopped.
In utter silence the dancer-fighter stared across the table at the seated Yill.
With a shout, the Yill leaped up, raised a clenched fist. The dancer bowed his head, spread his hands on his helmet.