Hillary had promised to see them at breakfast, but as they went into the restaurant Marion couldn’t see her anywhere. She was sure Hillary even in a day outfit would be an obvious presence in the room, even among golden people and blue people, and people with feathers.

“Kristoph, old man!” Marion turned in surprise as a middle aged man in a smart brown suit with open necked shirt beneath approached. She was even more surprised when the man kissed Kristoph on the cheek. To her even greater surprise he smiled warmly.

“Hillary, you really shouldn’t DO that in public,” he told her. “It confuses people.” He grinned widely. “It has confused Marion for a start. Look at her face.”

“What on Earth…” she began. “I mean… Who is…”

“Let us sit down and order breakfast,” Kristoph said. “And I will explain.”

The man he had addressed as Hillary turned and signalled to a child in a frilly dress who was looking out of the window at sailing boats on the lake. She came running and he gathered her up in his arms as the waiter showed them to a table.

“Hillary is a gendermorph,” Kristoph explained when the waiter had taken their order. “She or he can transform at will from male to female and back again. This handsome man IS the beautiful woman I danced with last night. In both forms he has a wicked sense of humour and KNEW that appearing at breakfast like this would shock you.”

“I’m not shocked,” she answered. “Just… This is a very strange universe, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” Hillary said. “I used to find it strange that other species couldn’t morph. Your fiancée used to be very embarrassed when I changed while I was kissing him.”

Kristoph’s face was a picture now as he clearly remembered.

“But what about….” Marion began. “The baby…”

“Still safe and sound,” Hillary assured him. “Later on it is more convenient to remain in female form, but in the early stages I can still morph comfortably.”

“So you’re a pregnant man?”

“It isn’t unusual where I come from,” Hillary said. “This is why we don’t need to marry. We don’t need a partner to become parents and our children are as happy with either form.”

Kaye, who looked about six years old by Earth standards seemed perfectly happy sitting next to her parent. She addressed him as something like ‘umpy’, which Marion supposed was a word meaning both mummy and daddy to their amazing species.

Kristoph had lived eleven lives already. Hillary could live two at the same time.

Human life seemed rather mundane in comparison, she thought.

“All life is amazing,” Kristoph assured her. “Humanity has its capacity to adapt to all kinds of circumstances of life. Even on your own planet, there are people who live in the frozen north, those who are adapted to the heat of the desert or the tropics, those whose bodies are accustomed to living at altitude in the high Himalayas. And the variety of skin colours and types among your one race is unique in the universe. The blue people at the table there, would be astonished to see a composite picture of the population of Earth. You are so wonderfully diverse.”

“But we fight among ourselves,” Marion said. “We have prejudices based on skin colour and country of origin. If the blue people came to our world, what would we do to them?”

“Perhaps you would all realise your common humanity and get over those internal prejudices,” Hillary suggested.

“And you will, in time,” Kristoph assured her. “Humanity will learn to live with itself as well as with other races of the universe. Meanwhile, I still think you’re quite remarkable.”

“You must be,” Hillary assured her. “The one who captured his hearts must be very special.”

Marion blushed. Hillary as a man was very charming. She had the feeling that Kristoph liked him as a friend as much as he adored the female version as a former lover.

“More than friends,” he told her. “We have done a great deal of good work together for the stability and happiness of this universe.” He smiled. “I always said, ‘I danced in the arms of a very lovely woman and the next day he and I forged a vital treaty.’”

Marion laughed. And when Kristoph suggested that they might all take a trip out for the day together she was happy with the arrangement.

They travelled in a horse driven carriage, a luxurious and leisurely form of transport on Kalla.

It was a beautiful day and a beautiful world. The sun was hot enough after a few hours to make them want to put up the carriage hood that provided shade. Kristoph was surprising to them all, not the least Marion, by knowing all the words to the old Earth song “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and singing it in a soft baritone voice that held the tune. Hillary followed it up with a song from his world, and Marion, feeling she had to contribute remembered a song she had loved since she was a little girl, and whose lyrics suddenly came to have a whole new meaning to her.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind,
Possessing and caressing me.

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world.

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
They call me on and on across the universe,
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box they
Tumble blindly as they make their way
Across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world.

Sounds of laughter shades of earth are ringing
Through my open views inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns, it calls me on and on Across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world.

Kaye then had to have her chance, and the little girl sang a nursery rhyme of her culture quite charmingly, and the driver of their carriage joined in on the act with a local folk song.

The morning thus passed in gentle travel through beautiful countryside that was something reminiscent of a Swiss mountain region, with snow-capped peaks and rolling green lower parts.

They stopped to eat lunch in a village inn that served food Marion had never seen or heard of before but which tasted delicious.

It was during the afternoon, when they were heading in a wide circle that would bring them back to the hotel that the peace of the day was disturbed.

It was disturbed in a manner that was sudden and devastating. The rider came towards them at speed. They saw him raise what looked like a cross bow. His first shot hit their horse in the flank, causing it to rear up, the second missed Hillary’s head by inches. The next moment, Kristoph had leapt up, and they saw only a blur as he jumped from the carriage and brought the rider to the ground. But the wounded horse was bolting and the driver was struggling to bring it under control. Kaye clung to Hillary in fear. He, in turn, reached out to Marion as the horse ran out of control off the good, well made road and over rough ground where the wheels buckled and the axle groaned disturbingly.

“Marion!” Hillary yelled and thrust Kaye into her arms before pushing them both out of the carriage. They landed, sore and winded, but unharmed, in a haystack. Hillary had spotted the only chance of safety for them both and timed it exactly. As she gasped for breath and clung to the crying child, she saw the carriage finally break up under the combination of speed and rough treatment and Hillary and the driver were both thrown to the ground hard.

Marion stood up, though her every bone ached and she wanted to stay down. She ran, still holding Kaye. She heard Kristoph call her name and he ran past her, reaching the two horrible still bodies before her.

“The driver is unconscious,” he informed her when she caught up. “Fractured skull. The air ambulance is on its way. He’ll be all right if he gets treatment straight away.” He was lifting Hillary gently. SHE was coming around. She had reverted to her female form and was crying with pain. And, Marion realised, something else, too.

“The baby?” she gasped.

“I don’t know,” Kristoph told her. “Maybe. If they get to her in time, possibly.”

“She… he… saved me and Kaye. She thought of us, not herself.”

“Oh, Hillary,” Kristoph whispered to her. “You were ALWAYS the same. Self-sacrificing. But not this time, my dear. Not this time.”

Marion would have wished to be held by him right at that moment. She was aching and frightened and she knew his reassuring arms around her would have helped. But Hillary needed him more. He hugged her tightly, willing her to stay conscious, feeling her limbs for damage, pressing his hand against her stomach to try to feel for the life within her. He wouldn’t say for sure, neither to Hillary or to Marion.

The drone of an air ambulance filled the air and as it hovered low paramedics jumped clear and ran with stretchers and first aid kits. They attended to the unconscious man, restraining his head and neck as he was lifted onto a self-propelled stretcher and brought to the ambulance. They took charge of Hillary, though Kristoph was almost reluctant to let her go. As Marion and Kaye were gently led on foot a police hover-car screamed to a halt and Kristoph told them where to find the attempted killer, unconscious, by the road below.

“Why?” Marion managed to ask as Kristoph finally managed to find an arm to put around her in the ambulance. Just one arm, as he clung to Hillary’s hand at the same time. Marion held the little girl in her arms as they comforted each other.

“He was Bel’Vranian.” Kristoph said. Hillary’s eyes flickered and she managed a few words. “Hillary was one of the negotiators of a power sharing agreement between the Bels and the Vranians,” he explained to Marion. “A small minority preferred the state of civil war to continue for another two hundred years.”

“And they attacked one who was only doing the best she could for them?”

“Being a diplomat is not all grand balls and dancing. I have been assassinated twice myself. That accounted for two of my lives.”

“But Hillary only has one life, even if she has two versions of it.”

“Yes, I know.” He watched the paramedics monitoring Hillary’s vital signs and came as close as one of his race could to praying.

It seemed an eternity before they reached the hospital. But when they did Hillary and the driver were both rushed to emergency surgery. Marion and Kaye were taken into a quiet cubicle where their minor wounds were patched and Kaye was given a fruit drink for being a brave girl. Kristoph stayed with them and Marion was glad of his arms around her, and his loving kisses. He told her over and over how glad he was that she was alive and unhurt.

But all their thoughts were for Hillary, Kristoph’s more than any other. Marion was not jealous. She understood. Hillary was a precious friend, and she was hurt.

Finally a doctor came into the cubicle.

“Are you the father of the child?” he asked Kristoph. He hesitated. Obviously if they thought he was they were more likely to tell him the full details than if he was merely a friend.

“Yes, he is,” Marion said for him and pushed him gently. He stood and went outside the cubicle with the doctor. Marion waited and hoped.

Kristoph was smiling when he came back to her.

“The baby is going to be all right. Hillary is sleeping now. But in about an hour we can all see her. She’s in a private room. She changed herself so many times while she was unconscious they didn’t know whether to put her in a male or female ward.”

The absurdity of that made Marion laugh. And in the midst of her laughter she began to cry tears of relief for the crisis that had spoiled their holiday.

“It’s not spoiled,” Kristoph told her. “Unless you mind having Kaye with us for a day or so until Hillary is up and about.”

Marion looked at the little girl and smiled.

“Practice for when we’re a family ourselves,” she answered.