The sight of an Earthman on Vega III, where it was impossible for an outlander to be, brought angry crowds to surround John Crownwall as he strode toward the palace of Viceroy Tronn Ffallk, ruler of Sector XII of the Universal Holy Empire of Sunda. He ignored the snarling, the spitting, the waving of boneless prehensile fingers, as he ignored the heavy gravity and heavier air of the unfamiliar planet.
John Crownwall, florid, red-headed and bulky, considered himself to be a bold man. But here, surrounded by this writhing, slithering mass of eight-foot creatures, he felt distinctly unhappy. Crownwall had heard about creatures that slavered, but he had never before seen it done. These humanoids had large mouths and sharp teeth, and they unquestionably slavered. He wished he knew more about them. If they carried out the threats of their present attitude, Earth would have to send Marshall to replace him. And if Crownwall couldn't do the job, thought Crownwall, then it was a sure bet that Marshall wouldn't have a chance.
He climbed the great ramp, with its deeply carved Greek key design, toward the mighty entrance gate of the palace. His manner demonstrated an elaborate air of unconcern that he felt sure was entirely wasted on these monsters. The clashing teeth of the noisiest of them were only inches from the quivering flesh of his back as he reached the upper level. Instantly, and unexpectedly to Crownwall, the threatening crowd dropped back fearfully, so that he walked the last fifty meters alone.
Crownwall all but sagged with relief. A pair of guards, their purple hides smoothly polished and gleaming with oil, crossed their ceremonial pikes in front of him as he approached the entrance.
"And just what business do you have here, stranger?" asked the senior of the guards, his speaking orifice framing with difficulty the sibilances of Universal Galactic.
"What business would I have at the Viceroy's Palace?" asked Crownwall. "I want to see Ffallk."
"Mind your tongue," growled the guard. "If you mean His Effulgence, Right Hand of the Glorious Emperor, Hereditary Ruler of the Seventy Suns, Viceroy of the Twelfth Sector of the Universal Holy Empire"—Universal Galactic had a full measure of ceremonial words—"he sees only those whom he summons. If you know what's good for you, you'll get out of here while you can still walk. And if you run fast enough, maybe you can even get away from that crowd out there, but I doubt it."
"Just tell him that a man has arrived from Earth to talk to him. He'll summon me fast enough. Meanwhile, my highly polished friends, I'll just wait here, so why don't you put those heavy pikes down?"
Crownwall sat on the steps, puffed alight a cigarette, and blew expert smoke rings toward the guards.
An elegant courtier, with elaborately jeweled harness, bustled from inside the palace, obviously trying to present an air of strolling nonchalance. He gestured fluidly with a graceful tentacle. "You!" he said to Crownwall. "Follow me. His Effulgence commands you to appear before him at once." The two guards withdrew their pikes and froze into immobility at the sides of the entrance.
Crownwall stamped out his smoke and ambled after the hurrying courtier along tremendous corridors, through elaborate waiting rooms, under guarded doorways, until he was finally bowed through a small curtained arch.
At the far side of the comfortable, unimpressive room, a plump thing, hide faded to a dull violet, reclined on a couch....