“I will miss Hillary,” Marion sighed as they stepped out of the TARDIS under the carport beside the house. “I liked her… him… both of them.”

“Personal pronouns are confusing with gendermorphs,” Kristoph said with a smile. “But I’m glad you got on. Hillary is a wonderful person.”

He was still smiling as he opened the door and stepped inside. He picked up a letter that was on the mat behind the door. He opened it and his smile broadened further. “We have a dinner invitation. A perfect opportunity for you to wear one of those lovely dresses you and Hillary spent so much time buying on Kalla.”

“An invitation to where?” she asked. “And with whom?”

“That will be a surprise,” Kristoph told her.

And that was as much as he told her for the time being. But she dressed in one of the new dresses and did her hair and make up carefully, and was prepared to be surprised when they travelled by taxi to the city centre.

The cab brought them to an area slightly to the north of the Catholic Cathedral that had become known as Chinatown, stopping outside a small Chinese Herbalist shop with the name Mai Li Tuo over on the fascia.

“This is where we’re having dinner?” she asked as Kristoph paid the driver and took her arm. He knocked at the door of the closed shop and it was opened presently by an elderly Chinaman.

“My friends,” he said, greeting them warmly. “Come in, the night is cold.”

“It is that,” Kristoph answered. They entered and followed the old man up the stairs.

“I don’t understand,” Marion whispered. “Who is he?”

“You don’t recognise me, Marion?” he asked as he showed them into an elegant dining room with a low table with cushioned seats around them. “It has been a long time.”

“A little short of four thousand years,” Kristoph said. “You have lived your last life to the full, my friend.”

“Four thousand…” Marion’s eyes opened wide as she began to understand. “Oh… Oh… Lee… is it… is it really you?”

“It is,” he answered. “Though I go by the Chinese version of the name now. Mai Li Tuo, an elder of the community and seller of ancient herbal remedies.”

He bid them sit and brought the food to the table. They ate as he told them in a short digest of his life in China, over nearly four thousand years of its history.

“A country that went through many turmoils, much change,” he said. “But it wasn’t until this century that it became a place I could no longer live in. The Communists destroyed the heart of China. So again I am an exile, from my second home.”

“Oh, that is a shame,” Marion sympathised. “But you came back here. To Liverpool…”

“Yes,” he said. “One compensation. To be able to see again the lovely face of the lady who saved me from my fate.”

Marion blushed. A compliment by a man who was four thousand years old was a compliment indeed.

“Nearer seven thousand,” Li Tuo said with a smile. “I was the same age as Kristoph when you left me in ancient China.”

“Seven thousand!” It was mind boggling.

“A great age even for us,” Kristoph said. “You must have lived well, my friend.”

“Herbal remedies and plenty of exercise,” he answered and his guests laughed joyfully.

Marion looked at Kristoph as they ate and talked together as friends. He WAS truly happy to be reunited with his friend. How close they had both come to tragedy, and now all of that was behind them and they were friends again.

“Yes,” Li Tuo said. “We have been VERY lucky. I have had a good life. And I owe it to you, Marion. I have never forgotten your kindness. Your hand in mine, giving me comfort as I endured the pain of regeneration, your courage in protecting me.”

“It was only a week ago for me,” Marion told him. “For you… longer than I can imagine. WAS it a good life for you, Li? Were you truly happy? Did you… Were you alone all the time? Was there anyone special?”

“Marion thinks 4,000 years without a woman in your life is too long,” Kristoph told him.

“And she is right. Yes, my dear, I had lovers. I have had at least three hundred wives and loved them all in their turn. My first wife was a simple peasant girl who found my humble cabin on the mountain and decided that she would dedicate her life to looking after me. And she did. At least until she was too old to look after me and I looked after her till the end. Her name was Liu Liu. She was very beautiful and I treasure her memory. After I buried her I moved to another place and I found another lovely wife who shared my life, my home, my bed, for as long as she was able. A thousand years ago my greatest love was a princess, Bai Tiaoxia. She made me her consort and I helped her make the province she ruled a happy place. After she died, I made sure a good man inherited the throne and then I took myself to the monastery of Shaolin for a long time. A VERY long time. I wonder sometimes how the generations passed without them realising how old the oldest of their monks was.”

“Power of Suggestion, of course,” Kristoph said with a smile. “Each generation thought you had come there in the previous generation. No doubt you did the same in your princess’s court. They would have seen a consort grow old with their princess. But she would have seen you as you truly are?”

“She did. So did my lovely Liu Liu and all of my wives. To our friends and neighbours I aged as they expected. But even on her death bed at one hundred and three years of age she saw the same man she had married as a seventeen year old maiden.”

Marion looked at Kristoph and wondered.

“No,” he answered. “I am not so proficient in the arts of confusion. Li got in trouble at the ACADEMY for using Power of Suggestion on his tutors to influence his marks. All but the tutor who TAUGHT that art. HE gave him top marks, of course.”

“But when I look at you, I am seeing the real you?”

“Lovers always see the real man,” Li Tuo assured her. “That was why my wives always knew the truth. And you, Marion, have always seen me truly. Because you gave me your unconditional love when you risked your own life for me. You gave a piece of your heart to me then, little as I deserved it.”

“Li, old man,” Kristoph laughed. “Are you laying claim to my fiancée’s affections?”

“I have no need to claim,” he answered. “You saw her give them to me willingly. Though in truth her life was NOT in danger. YOU would never have hurt her to get to me. Though I am not sure if, at the time, she was certain of that.”

“Oh, let’s not talk about that,” Marion said.

“We shall never speak of it again,” Li Tuo said. “But the affection we spoke of will never be lost.”

“No, it will not,” Marion assured him. “You are right, I do have affection for you. I always will. You are a special friend, Li.”

She reached to him and kissed him gently on the cheek. Li Tuo smiled. Kristoph did, too.

“Li,” Marion said later as they sat in the drawing room with pleasant music in the background and what had been, until then, trivial conversation. “Will you tell me something?”

Kristoph looked at her guardedly. He had felt her thought and wished she would not ask the question. But it was a question he knew she was always going to ask one day.

“I will endeavour to tell the truth to you, Marion,” Li answered. He, too, had an inkling of what the question was, and knew there was no deflecting it or putting it off for another time.

“Were you there when Kristoph regenerated in the past? What happened to him to have lost so many of his lives?”

“Much the same as cost me so many of mine,” Li answered her. “An assassin’s life is a dangerous one.”

“So is an ambassador’s life,” Marion noted. “Look at what happened to Hillary last week. And…” She looked at Kristoph. “You said…I didn’t even pay attention at the time. I was thinking of her and the baby. You said you had been assassinated twice.”

“It is a high profile job,” he said. “There will always be fanatics who think a peacemaker is a target. Few professors of English literature have the same problem.”

“But that accounts for two of your lives. The others?”

Kristoph and Li exchanged glances.

“I know it’s bad stuff. War, that kind of thing. But tell me, please. I’ve seen Li regenerate, and Hillary nearly assassinated. This kind of life is MY life now. I accept that. So tell me the worst.”

“The worst was his first regeneration,” Li Tuo told her. “When he came back from the war, he was so badly injured that he was put through a forced regeneration just to save his life. He was too weak to initiate it himself and would not have survived it without help.”

“I can’t tell you any more about that,” Kristoph told her. “My mind is a blank about those years. My physicians told me it would be dangerous to try to recover the memories. And I have never considered disobeying them.”

“All right. And the others….”

“Well, I lost one life when I was training with the Celestial Intervention Agency,” he continued. “I fell off a very high place. Both hearts were damaged, both lungs, spine, skull, and every other bone in my body. Regeneration was the only way to survive.”

“I was with him that time,” Li Tuo observed.

“You were with me several times,” Kristoph noted. “When I was irradiated trying to make safe a nuclear device that would have thrown our moon out of orbit, and when the Geffex of Kafiz tried to see what would happen if I had both hearts removed from my body.”

“If he had succeeded, you would have been stone dead,” Li added. “I managed to get to you before he managed to finish you off. And do you notice that Marion is counting these on her fingers.”

“That’s six lives accounted for,” she said.

“There was the time on a Human colony planet, what was it called now…. The time when I took out Heddica Boroz and then discovered getting off his boat was harder than getting on it. I had so many bullets in me I must have rattled.”

Marion began to wish she had never asked as Kristoph recalled the many times he had ‘died’ painful deaths from falling, being shot, stabbed in both hearts, irradiated, and worse.

“You wanted to know,” Kristoph reminded her.

“Yes,” she said. “Oh, my love, how could you bear it? The pain Li went through… to have done that repeatedly…”

“There are legends all over the universe that speak of a Time Lord ‘curse’.” Li Tuo said. “A terrible affliction on us all. There is almost gleeful speculation among those who envy us our power about what our most terrible secret agony is. Many people think we are sterile, and can only reproduce by cloning or some such means. That is nonsense. There are several variations on the monstrous demon or lake of burning lava that claims our souls when death finally comes to us. But the truth is much less dramatic. Our curse is one and the same as the GIFT of the Time Lords. It is a curse to die and not find peace and rest for the soul, but to be reborn in pain and suffering. Kristoph is lucky not to remember that first time. I remember mine only too well. The pain of being burned alive was nothing to the pain of regenerating that pitiful shell into a new body.”

“All right,” Marion pleaded. “I have heard enough. Is it just as bad if the body just gets old? That can happen, can’t it? I mean, Li Tuo has lived in the same body for four thousand years. Won’t he… when the body DOES wear out…”

“When this body wears out I will find out if there IS a demon to claim my soul,” he told her. “This is my last regeneration. My last chance.”

“Oh!” Marion looked upset at that. Li Tuo laid a gentle hand on hers.

“Don’t fret,” he told her. “I have a couple of centuries left in me, still.”

“That’s all?” she asked.

“All?” Kristoph laughed. “He is older than almost every Time Lord I have ever heard of, even in legend, apart from Rassilon himself. And he has achieved everything he hoped to achieve, I think.”

“Except a family,” Marion observed. “All those wives you had, you never had children?”

“No,” he said. “I was never blessed that way. I think, in my case that first rumour WAS true. I have never been able…”

“Oh, I am sorry,” Marion told him.

“It was probably just as well. China has a big enough population in it as it is, without my progeny living long lives and not making room for the next generation. Besides…” He took her hand and seemed to be concentrating very hard. “Yes, Marion, you will be mother to the heir of the House of Lœngbærrow. And with your permission, I shall love him as a son.”

“Of course you may,” Marion said. “But… you can see it… in my future? I will have a child… a son? With Kristoph?”

“Yes, you will, my precious Marion. You will be blessed.”

She smiled. But she didn’t see Li Tuo look up at Kristoph and he, in turn, didn’t see Li Tuo’s expression.

Perhaps, the Time Lord who called himself Mai Li Tuo considered, there IS another curse on his race. Knowing too much about the future. But he would not burden either of his friends with foreknowledge of the heartache that would come before the joy he had foreseen.