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.
Retief took a deep gulp of a pale yellow liqueur and leaned forward to watch. The beribboned Yill waved a hand negligently, spilled a handful of coins across the table and sat down.
The challenger spun away in a screeching shrill of music. Retief caught his eye for an instant as he passed.
And then the dancer stood rigid before the brocaded table--and the music stopped off short as the sabre slammed down before a heavy Yill in ornate metallic coils. The challenged Yill rose and raised a fist. The other ducked his head, put his hands on his helmet. Coins rolled. The dancer moved on.
Twice more the dancer struck the table in ritualistic challenge, exchanged gestures, bent his neck and passed on. He circled the broad floor, sabre twirling, arms darting in an intricate symbolism. The orchestra blared shrilly, unmuffled now by the surf-roar of conversation. The Yill, Retief noticed suddenly, were sitting silent, watching. The dancer was closer now, and then he was before Retief, poised, towering, sabre above his head.
The music cut, and in the startling instantaneous silence, the heavy sabre whipped over and down with an explosive concussion that set dishes dancing on the table-top.
The Yill's eyes held on Retief's. In the silence, Magnan tittered drunkenly. Retief pushed back his stool.
"Steady, my boy," Ambassador Spradley called. Retief stood, the Yill topping his six foot three by an inch. In a motion almost too quick to follow, Retief reached for the sabre, twitched it from the Yill's grip, swung it in a whistling cut. The Yill ducked, sprang back, snatched up a sabre dropped by another dancer.
"Someone stop the madman!" Spradley howled.
Retief leaped across the table, sending fragile dishes spinning.
The other danced back, and only then did the orchestra spring to life with a screech and a mad tattoo of high-pitched drums.
Making no attempt to following the weaving pattern of the Yill bolero, Retief pressed the other, fending off vicious cuts with the blunt weapon, chopping back relentlessly. Left hand on hip, Retief matched blow for blow, driving the other back.
Abruptly, the Yill abandoned the double role. Dancing forgotten, he settled down in earnest, cutting, thrusting, parrying; and now the two stood toe to toe, sabres clashing in a lightning exchange. The Yill gave a step, two, then rallied, drove Retief back, back---- And the Yill stumbled. His sabre clattered, and Retief dropped his point as the other wavered past him and crashed to the floor.
The orchestra fell silent in a descending wail of reeds. Retief drew a deep breath and wiped his forehead.
"Come back here, you young fool!" Spradley called hoarsely.
Retief hefted the sabre, turned, eyed the brocade-draped table. He started across the floor. The Yill sat as if paralyzed.
"Retief, no!" Spradley yelped.
Retief walked directly to the Admirable F'Kau-Kau-Kau, stopped, raised the sabre.
"Not the chief of state," someone in the Terrestrial mission groaned.
Retief whipped the sabre down. The dull blade split the cloth and clove the hardwood table. There was utter silence.
The Admirable F'Kau-Kau-Kau rose, seven feet of obese gray Yill. Broad face expressionless to any Terran eyes, he raised a fist like a jewel-studded ham.
Retief stood rigid for a long moment. Then, gracefully, he inclined his head, placed his finger tips on his temples.
Behind him, there was a clatter as Ambassador Spradley collapsed. Then the Admirable F'Kau-Kau-Kau cried out and reached across the table to embrace the Terrestrial, and the orchestra went mad.
Gray hands helped Retief across the table, stools were pushed aside to make room at F'Kau-Kau-Kau's side. Retief sat, took a tall flagon of coal-black brandy pressed on him by his neighbor, clashed glasses with The Admirable and drank.
Retief turned at the touch on his shoulder.
"The Ambassador wants to speak to you, Retief," Magnan said.
Retief looked across to where Ambassador Spradley sat glowering behind the plain tablecloth.
"Under the circumstances," Retief said, "you'd better ask him to come over here."
"The ambassador?" Magnan's voice cracked.
"Never mind the protocol," Retief said. "The situation is still delicate." Magnan went away.
"The feast ends," F'Kau-Kau-Kau said. "Now you and I, Retief, must straddle the Council Stool."
"I'll be honored, Admirable," Retief said. "I must inform my colleagues."
"Colleagues?" F'Kau-Kau-Kau said. "It is for chiefs to parley. Who shall speak for a king while he yet has tongue for talk?"
"The Yill way is wise," Retief said.
F'Kau-Kau-Kau emptied a squat tumbler of pink beer. "I will treat with you, Retief, as viceroy, since as you say your king is old and the space between worlds is far. But there shall be no scheming underlings privy to our dealings." He grinned a Yill grin. "Afterwards we shall carouse, Retief. The Council Stool is hard and the waiting handmaidens delectable. This makes for quick agreement."
Retief smiled. "The king is wise."
"Of course, a being prefers wenches of his own kind," F'Kau-Kau-Kau said. He belched. "The Ministry of Culture has imported several Terry--excuse me, Retief--Terrestrial joy-girls, said to be top-notch specimens. At least they have very fat watchamacallits."
"The king is most considerate," Retief said.
"Let us to it then, Retief. I may hazard a fling with one of your Terries, myself. I fancy an occasional perversion." F'Kau-Kau-Kau dug an elbow into Retief's side and bellowed with laughter.
Ambassador Spradley hurried to intercept Retief as he crossed to the door at F'Kau-Kau-Kau's side.
"Retief, kindly excuse yourself, I wish a word with you." His voice was icy. Magnan stood behind him, goggling.
"Mr. Ambassador, forgive my apparent rudeness," Retief said. "I don't have time to explain now----"
"Rudeness!" Spradley barked. "Don't have time, eh? Let me tell you----"
"Lower your voice, Mr. Ambassador," Retief said.
Spradley quivered, mouth open, speechless.
"If you'll sit down and wait quietly," Retief said, "I think----"
"You think!" Spradley spluttered.
"Silence!" Retief said. Spradley looked up at Retief's face. He stared for a moment into Retief's gray eyes, closed his mouth and swallowed.
"The Yill seem to have gotten the impression I'm in charge," Retief said, "We'll have to keep it up."
"But--but--" Spradley stuttered. Then he straightened. "That is the last straw," he whispered hoarsely. "I am the Terrestrial Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. Magnan has told me that we've been studiedly insulted, repeatedly, since the moment of our arrival. Kept waiting in baggage rooms, transported in refuse lorries, herded about with servants, offered swill at table. Now I and my senior staff, are left cooling our heels, without so much as an audience while this--this multiple Kau person hobnobs with--with--"
Spradley's voice broke. "I may have been a trifle hasty, Retief, in attempting to restrain you. Blaspheming the native gods and dumping the banquet table are rather extreme measures, but your resentment was perhaps partially justified. I am prepared to be lenient with you." He fixed a choleric eye on Retief.
"I am walking out of this meeting, Mr. Retief. I'll take no more of these deliberate personal----"
"That's enough," Retief snapped. "You're keeping the king waiting. Get back to your chair and sit there until I come back."
Magnan found his voice. "What are you going to do, Retief?"
"I'm going to handle the negotiation," Retief said. He handed Magnan his empty glass. "Now go sit down and work on the Image."
At his desk in the VIP suite aboard the orbiting Corps vessel, Ambassador Spradley pursed his lips and looked severely at Vice-Consul Retief.
"Further," he said, "you have displayed a complete lack of understanding of Corps discipline, the respect due a senior agent, even the basic courtesies. Your aggravated displays of temper, ill-timed outbursts of violence and almost incredible arrogance in the assumption of authority make your further retention as an officer-agent of the Diplomatic Corps impossible. It will therefore be my unhappy duty to recommend your immediate----"
There was a muted buzz from the communicator. The ambassador cleared his throat.
"A signal from Sector HQ, Mr. Ambassador," a voice said.
"Well, read it," Spradley snapped. "Skip the preliminaries."
"Congratulations on the unprecedented success of your mission. The articles of agreement transmitted by you embody a most favorable resolution of the difficult Sirenian situation, and will form the basis of continued amicable relations between the Terrestrial States and the Yill Empire. To you and your staff, full credit is due for a job well done. Signed, Deputy Assistant Secretary----"
Spradley cut off the voice impatiently.
He shuffled papers, eyed Retief sharply.
"Superficially, of course, an uninitiated observer might leap to the conclusion that the--ah--results that were produced in spite of these ... ah ... irregularities justify the latter." The Ambassador smiled a sad, wise smile. "This is far from the case," he said. "I----"
The communicator burped softly.
"Confound it!" Spradley muttered. "Yes?"
"Mr. T'Cai-Cai has arrived," the voice said. "Shall I----"
"Send him in at once." Spradley glanced at Retief. "Only a two-syllable man, but I shall attempt to correct these false impressions, make some amends...."
The two Terrestrials waited silently until the Yill Protocol chief tapped at the door.
"I hope," the ambassador said, "that you will resist the impulse to take advantage of your unusual position." He looked at the door. "Come in."
T'Cai-Cai stepped into the room, glanced at Spradley, turned to greet Retief in voluble Yill. He rounded the desk to the ambassador's chair, motioned him from it and sat down.
"I have a surprise for you, Retief," he said, in Terran. "I myself have made use of the teaching machine you so kindly lent us."
"That's fine. T'Cai-Cai," Retief said. "I'm sure Mr. Spradley will be interested in hearing what we have to say."
"Never mind," the Yill said. "I am here only socially." He looked around the room.
"So plainly you decorate your chamber. But it has a certain austere charm." He laughed a Yill laugh.
"Oh, you are a strange breed, you Terrestrials. You surprised us all. You know, one hears such outlandish stories. I tell you in confidence, we had expected you to be overpushes."
"Pushovers," Spradley said, tonelessly.
"Such restraint! What pleasure you gave to those of us, like myself of course, who appreciated your grasp of protocol. Such finesse! How subtly you appeared to ignore each overture, while neatly avoiding actual contamination. I can tell you, there were those who thought--poor fools--that you had no grasp of etiquette. How gratified we were, we professionals, who could appreciate your virtuosity--when you placed matters on a comfortable basis by spurning the cats'-meat. It was sheer pleasure then, waiting, to see what form your compliment would take."
The Yill offered orange cigars, stuffed one in his nostril.
"I confess even I had not hoped that you would honor our Admirable so signally. Oh, it is a pleasure to deal with fellow professionals, who understand the meaning of protocol!"
Ambassador Spradley made a choking sound.
"This fellow has caught a chill," T'Cai-Cai said. He eyed Spradley dubiously. "Step back, my man. I am highly susceptible.
"There is one bit of business I shall take pleasure in attending to, my dear Retief," T'Cai-Cai went on. He drew a large paper from his reticule. "The Admirable is determined than none other than yourself shall be accredited here. I have here my government's exequatur confirming you as Terrestrial consul-general to Yill. We shall look forward to your prompt return."
Retief looked at Spradley.
"I'm sure the Corps will agree," he said.
"Then I shall be going," T'Cai-Cai said. He stood up. "Hurry back to us, Retief. There is much that I would show you of Yill."