By KEITH LAUMER
Illustrated by GAUGHAN
Retief paused before a tall mirror to check the overlap of the four sets of lapels that ornamented the vermilion cutaway of a First Secretary and Consul.
"Come along, Retief," Magnan said. "The Ambassador has a word to say to the staff before we go in."
"I hope he isn't going to change the spontaneous speech he plans to make whenthe Potentate impulsively suggests a trade agreement along the lines they've been discussing for the last two months."
"Your derisive attitude is uncalled for, Retief," Magnan said sharply. "I think you realize it's delayed your promotion in the Corps."
Retief took a last glance in the mirror. "I'm not sure I want a promotion," he said. "It would mean more lapels."
Ambassador Crodfoller pursedhis lips, waiting until Retief and Magnan took places in the ring of Terrestrial diplomats around him.
"A word of caution only, gentlemen," he said. "Keep always foremost in your minds the necessity for our identification with the Nenni Caste. Even a hint of familiarity with lower echelons could mean the failure of the mission. Let us remember that the Nenni represent authority here on Petreac.Their traditions must be observed, whatever our personal preferences. Let's go along now. The Potentate will be making his entrance any moment."
Magnan came to Retief's side as they moved toward the salon.
"The Ambassador's remarks were addressed chiefly to you, Retief," he said. "Your laxness in these matters is notorious. Naturally, I believe firmly in democratic principles myself—"
"Have youever had a feeling, Mr. Magnan, that there's a lot going on here that we don't know about?"
Magnan nodded. "Quite so. Ambassador Crodfoller's point exactly. Matters which are not of concern to the Nenni are of no concern to us."
"Another feeling I get is that the Nenni aren't very bright. Now suppose—"
"I'm not given to suppositions, Retief. We're here to implement the policies of the Chief ofMission. And I should dislike to be in the shoes of a member of the staff whose conduct jeopardized the agreement that will be concluded here tonight."
A bearer with a tray of drinks rounded a fluted column, shied as he confronted the diplomats, fumbled the tray, grabbed and sent a glass crashing to the floor.
Magnan leaped back, slapping at the purple cloth of his pants leg. Retief's hand shotout to steady the tray. The servant rolled terrified eyes.
"I'll take one of these, now that you're here," Retief said. He took a glass from the tray, winking at the servant.
"No harm done," he said. "Mr. Magnan's just warming up for the big dance."
A Nenni major-domo bustled up, rubbing his hands politely.
"Some trouble here?" he said. "What happened, Honorables, what, what...."
"Theblundering idiot," Magnan spluttered. "How dare—"
"You're quite an actor, Mr. Magnan," Retief said. "If I didn't know about your democratic principles, I'd think you were really mad."
The servant ducked his head and scuttled away.
"Has this fellow...." The major-domo eyed the retreating bearer.
"I dropped my glass," Retief said. "Mr. Magnan's upset because he hates to see liquor wasted."
Retief turnedto find himself face-to-face with Ambassador Crodfoller.
"I witnessed that," The Ambassador hissed. "By the goodness of Providence, the Potentate and his retinue haven't appeared yet. But I can assure you the servants saw it. A more un-Nenni-like display I would find it difficult to imagine!"
Retief arranged his features in an expression of deep interest.
"More un-Nenni-like, sir?" he said."I'm not sure I—"
"Bah!" The Ambassador glared at Retief, "Your reputation has preceded you, sir. Your name is associated with a number of the most bizarre incidents in Corps history. I'm warning you; I'll tolerate nothing." He turned and stalked away.
"Ambassador-baiting is a dangerous sport, Retief," Magnan said.
Retief took a swallow of his drink. "Still," he said, "it's better than no sport...