- Author: Keith Laumer
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This etext was produced from Worlds of If November 1961.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
Obvious typesetting errors have been corrected.GAMBLER'S
By KEITH LAUMER
Illustrated by GAUGHANI
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 when the 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 pursed his 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 you ever 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 of Mission. 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 shot out 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...."
"The blundering 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 turned to 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 at all."
"Your time would be better spent observing the Nenni mannerisms. Frankly, Retief, you're not fitting into the group at all well."
"I'll be candid with you, Mr. Magnan. The group gives me the willies."
"Oh, the Nenni are a trifle frivolous, I'll concede," Magnan said. "But it's with them that we must deal. And you'd be making a contribution to the overall mission if you merely abandoned that rather arrogant manner of yours." Magnan looked at Retief critically. "You can't help your height, of course. But couldn't you curve your back just a bit—and possibly assume a more placating expression? Just act a little more...."
"Exactly." Magnan nodded, then looked sharply at Retief.
Retief drained his glass and put it on a passing tray.
"I'm better at acting girlish when I'm well juiced," he said. "But I can't face another sorghum-and-soda. I suppose it would be un-Nenni-like to slip the bearer a credit and ask for a Scotch and water."
"Decidedly." Magnan glanced toward a sound across the room.
"Ah, here's the Potentate now!" He hurried off.
Retief watched the bearers coming and going, bringing trays laden with drinks, carrying off empties. There was a lull in the drinking now, as the diplomats gathered around the periwigged Chief of State and his courtiers. Bearers loitered near the service door, eyeing the notables. Retief strolled over to the service door, pushed through it into a narrow white-tiled hall filled with the odors of the kitchen. Silent servants gaped as he passed, watching as he moved along to the kitchen door and stepped inside.II
A dozen or more low-caste Petreacans, gathered around a long table in the center of the room looked up, startled. A heap of long-bladed bread knives, French knives, carving knives and cleavers lay in the center of the table. Other knives were thrust into belts or held in the hands of the men. A fat man in the yellow sarong of a cook stood frozen in the act of handing a knife to a tall one-eyed sweeper.
Retief took one glance, then let his eyes wander to a far corner of the room. Humming a careless little tune, he sauntered across to the open liquor shelves, selected a garish green bottle and turned unhurriedly back toward the door. The group of servants watched him, transfixed.
As Retief reached the door, it swung inward. Magnan, lips pursed, stood in the doorway.
"I had a premonition," he said.
"I'll bet it was a dandy," Retief said. "You must tell me all about it—in the salon."
"We'll have this out right here," Magnan snapped. "I've warned you!" Magnan's voice trailed off as he took in the scene around the table.
"After you," Retief said, nudging Magnan toward the door.
"What's going on here?" Magnan barked. He stared at the men, started around Retief. A hand stopped him.
"Let's be going," Retief said, propelling Magnan toward the hall.
"Those knives!" Magnan yelped. "Take your hands off me, Retief! What are you men—?"
Retief glanced back. The fat cook gestured suddenly, and the men faded back. The cook stood, arm cocked, a knife across his palm.
"Close the door and make no sound," he said softly.
Magnan pressed back against Retief. "Let's ... r-run...." he faltered.
Retief turned slowly, put his hands up.
"I don't run very well with a knife in my back," he said. "Stand very still, Magnan, and do just what he tells you."
"Take them out through the back," the cook said.
"What does he mean?" Magnan spluttered. "Here, you—"
"Silence," the cook said, almost casually. Magnan gaped at him, closed his mouth.
Two of the men with knives came to Retief's side and gestured, grinning broadly.
"Let's go, peacocks," one said.
Retief and Magnan silently crossed the kitchen, went out the back door, stopped on command and stood waiting. The sky was brilliant with stars. A gentle breeze stirred the tree-tops beyond the garden. Behind them the servants talked in low voices.
"You go too, Illy," the cook was saying.
"Do it here," another said.
"And carry their damn dead bodies down?"
"Pitch 'em behind the hedge."
"I said the river. Three of you is plenty for a couple of Nenni. We don't know if we want to—"
"They're foreigners, not Nenni. We don't know—"
"So they're foreign Nenni. Makes no difference. I've seen them. I need every man here; now get going."
"What about the big guy? He looks tough."
"Him? He waltzed into the room and didn't notice a thing. But watch the other one."
At a prod from a knife point, Retief moved off down the walk, two of the escort behind him and Magnan, another going ahead to scout the way.
Magnan moved closer to Retief.
"Say," he said in a whisper. "That fellow in the lead; isn't he the one who spilled the drink? The one you took the blame for?"
"That's him, all right. He doesn't seem nervous any more, I notice."
"You saved him from serious punishment," Magnan said. "He'll be grateful; he'll let us go."
"Better check with the fellows with the knives before you act on that."
"Say something to him," Magnan hissed, "Remind him."
The lead man fell back in line with Retief and Magnan.
"These two are scared of you," he said, grinning and jerking a thumb toward the knife-handlers. "They haven't worked around the Nenni like me; they don't know you."
"Don't you recognize this gentleman?" Magnan said.
"He did me a favor," the man said. "I remember."
"What's it all about?" Retief asked.
"The revolution. We're taking over now."
"The People's Anti-Fascist Freedom League."
"What are all the knives for?"
"For the Nenni; and for all you foreigners."
"What do you mean?" Magnan gasped.
"We'll slit all the throats at one time. Saves a lot of running around."
"What time will that be?"
"Just at dawn; and dawn comes early, this time of year. By full daylight the PAFFL will be in charge."
"You'll never succeed," Magnan said. "A few servants with knives! You'll all be caught and killed."
"By who, the Nenni?" the man laughed. "You Nenni are a caution."
"But we're not Nenni—"
"We've watched you; you're the same. You're part of the same blood-sucking class."
"There are better ways to, uh, adjust differences," Magnan said. "This killing won't help you, I'll personally see to it that your grievances are heard in the Corps Courts. I can assure you that the plight of the downtrodden workers will be alleviated. Equal rights for all—"
"These threats won't work," the man said. "You don't scare me."
"Threats? I'm promising relief to the exploited classes of Petreac!"
"You must be nuts," the man said. "You trying to upset the system or something?"
"Isn't that the purpose of your revolution?"
"Look, Nenni, we're tired of you Nenni getting all the graft. We want our turn. What good would it do us to run Petreac if there's no loot?"
"You mean you intend to oppress the people? But they're your own group."
"Group, schmoop. We're taking all the chances; we're doing the work. We deserve the payoff. You think we're throwing up good jobs for the fun of it?"
"You're basing a revolt on these cynical premises?"
"Wise up, Nenni. There's never been a revolution for any other reason."
"Who's in charge of this?" Retief said.
"Shoke, the head chef."
"I mean the big boss. Who tells Shoke what all to do?"
"Oh, that's Zorn. Look out, here's where we start down the slope. It's slippery."
"Look," Magnan said. "You."
"My name's Illy."
"Mr. Illy, this man showed you mercy when he could have had you beaten."
"Keep moving. Yeah, I said I was grateful."
"Yes," Magnan said, swallowing hard. "A noble emotion, gratitude. You won't regret it."
"I always try to pay back a good turn," Illy said. "Watch your step now on this sea-wall."
"You'll never regret it," Magnan said.
"This is far enough," Illy motioned to one of the knife men. "Give me your knife, Vug."
The man passed his knife to Illy. There was an odor of sea-mud and kelp. Small waves slapped against the stones of the sea-wall. The wind was stronger here.
"I know a neat stroke," Illy said. "Practically painless. Who's first?"
"What do you mean?" Magnan quavered.
"I said I was grateful. I'll do it myself, give you a nice clean job. You know these amateurs; botch it up and have a guy floppin' around, yellin' and spatterin' everybody up."
"I'm first," Retief said. He pushed past Magnan, stopped suddenly, drove a straight punch at Illy's mouth.
The long blade flicked harmlessly over Retief's shoulder as Illy fell. Retief whirled, leaped past Magnan, took the unarmed servant by the throat and belt, lifted him and slammed him against the third man. Both scrambled, yelped and fell from the sea-wall into the water.
Retief turned back to Illy. He pulled off the man's belt and strapped his hands together.
Magnan found his voice.
"You.... we.... they...."
"I know," Retief said.
"We've got to get back," Magnan said, "Warn them!"
"We'd never get through the rebel cordon around the palace. And if we did, trying