Marion was taking lunch with Lady Lily in her private room that overlooked the terrace. In this deceptive month of Fibster, a bright sun shone from the yellow sky, but there was snow lying beyond the terrace which Lily’s gardener had carefully cleared of the stuff. The koi carp were in a winter tank within one of the hot houses and the pond was frozen over, still. But there was the hope of spring to come in a few weeks. A flower called Fibster’s Glory played the same role as crocuses in Gallifrey’s seasons, showing that there was life beneath the frozen ground.

Marion had been at Maison D’Alba since just after breakfast. Lily was having a party tonight and she was helping her with the final arrangements. This day was the anniversary of Lily’s late husband’s birth, and she celebrated it every decade with a dinner for her friends and dancing in a ballroom filled with flowers.

“I loved Jules very much,” she said. “And I see no reason not to celebrate his life just because he is no longer here.”

Marion couldn’t see any flaw in that argument. Of course, Lily had loved many men in her youth. Lee Oakdaene had been her first love. Kristoph de Lœngbærrow was her second – or perhaps it was the other way around. Perjules D’Alba was a different man than either of those two adventurers. He had offered her a quieter life than she might have had, and she took it.

“There are some who still think I took Jules as some kind of consolation prize, because both Lee and Kristoph were unobtainable,” she said. “But they know nothing of the love we shared within this house. When he died, I grieved for him fully. Nobody has ever replaced him in my hearts. Even Li... the burning passion he and I have rekindled in our twilight... As joyful as that is, it does not replace the constant love of a good and gentle man.”

As she spoke, Lily looked at the silver framed portrait of her late husband that took pride of place on the dresser in this room where she spent much of her time. He looked young and happy in that picture. It was one of Lily’s favourite memories of him.

“Kristoph is coming straight from the Capitol,” Marion assured her. “He said he would not miss this evening for anything less than a major constitutional crisis.”

“He was always a good friend to Jules,” Lily said. “Even though he lost me to him, he never bore any resentment. And near the end, when Jules was ill, he looked after us both.”

Time Lords rarely died of mere ‘illness’. The disease that afflicted Jules D’Alba was a rare one, and one the physicians of Gallifrey could not treat. He accepted it, so did Lily, who kept his memory close in her hearts.

Lily’s reminiscences about her husband were interrupted by her butler stepping into the room. He bowed to his mistress, and to Marion, and apologised for the intrusion, but there were two ladies who urgently sought the First Lady’s audience.

“Me?” Marion was surprised and a little worried. An audience with the First Lady? That sounded so official and important. She wasn’t sure she was ready for it. But she could scarcely refuse.

Lily took the matter into her own hands. As mistress of the house it was her right in any case. She told her butler to show the ladies in and to bring refreshments for their guests. Marion just had time to compose herself before he returned accompanied by Lady Dúccesci and a woman who looked even more timid and uncertain of herself than Talitha customarily did. Marion knew her only by sight as the wife of one of the Magisters of the Northern Continent. She didn’t even know her full name. She couldn’t remember ever speaking to her at any of the official functions where they had both been present.

“Marion,” Talitha said, greeting her informally. They, at least, knew each other well enough for that. “May I present Lady Reidluum. Mia, if you will permit us to speak familiarly.

“Of course I will permit it,” she answered. The butler returned surprisingly quickly with a pot of herbal infusion and sandwiches. Lady Reudluum accepted a cup of the infusion and sipped it hesitantly. She clearly had something she needed to say, but she was having trouble finding the words.

“Marion,” Talitha began on her behalf. “We sought you out because... because... Your husband, the President, is a compassionate man, and if you speak to him on Mia’s behalf...”

“Speak to Kristoph.... well of course I can do that. If there is anything I can do to help....”

But Lily reached out her hand to her.

“Marion, don’t make promises you might not be able to keep,” she told her urgently. “Even less, do not make them on behalf of the Lord High President. You cannot presume to know his answer. If this is about what I think it is about...”

Lady Reidluum looked at Lily with a horrified expression on her face.

“My shame is common knowledge?” she asked.

“Not common knowledge,” Lily assured her. “At least not until now. Your husband is going to petition the High Council today?”

Lady Reidluum nodded and looked down at her hands.

“Then the secret will be a secret no more in a few hours. But what did you hope Marion could do about it?”

“I thought... I hoped...” she began. “I hoped that the Lord High President would refuse the petition if... if Lady Marion asked him to do so.”

“What petition?” Marion asked. “What is this all about?”

“Lord Reidluum wishes to have his wife set aside because she has failed to give him an heir,” Lily explained.

“He is going to the Panopticon to make his case to the High Council,” Talitha added. “He will ask leave to send her away from the Reidluum demesne so that he can take a new wife who will....”

Marion stared at the three Gallifreyan women in horror. She had read of such practices in the past. The need for Oldblood Houses to have a male heir was so important that a loophole was written into the binding vows of the Alliance of Unity. It was the only circumstance under which adultery was permitted under Gallifreyan law.

“I always thought that was an outmoded law. I didn’t think anyone did it any more,” she said. “It’s a barbaric idea. It makes wives into no more than possessions... into breeding machines to provide heirs. How could any man do that?”

“It is far from outmoded,” Lily sighed. “Lord Reidluum intends to invoke the right... if he has not done so already.” She glanced at the clock. It was past one o’clock, the fourteenth hour of the day. An ordinary sitting of the Panopticon would be wound up by four. By then, it would be done. “The petition will not be granted today. It will be necessary to take statements to ensure that his claim is valid. Medical opinions will have to be sought. But the wheels will be set in motion.”

“And all this in the Panopticon, before anyone who chooses to go to the public gallery and watch?” Marion was appalled. “Again, I ask, what sort of man would do that?”

“An unhappy man who has been disappointed too many times, Mia Reidluum said. “We have tried for so many years. He blames me... He says my blood is weak... and he wishes to send me away from him. But... I love him. I was married to him out of political advantage, it is true. My father is a Newblood who wished to have blood ties with an Oldblood line, while The House of Reidluum profitted by the business connections our union forged. But I came to love him deeply. I have tried to be a good wife to him. And I wish to continue to do so. That’s why I hoped... That’s why I wanted to ask you, Marion, to prevail upon the Lord High President... to refuse the petition.”

“If I can do so, I will,” Marion promised. But Lily had more to say.

“No, Marion, you cannot. Mia, I am sorry, but to ask such a thing.... Talitha, you should have known better. It is too much to ask of Marion. The Lord High President cannot intervene in a matter of this kind.”

“Why not?” Marion asked. “Isn’t he the most powerful man on the planet? Surely he can do something to make Reidluum see reason?”

“The president cannot intervene in a civil petition,” Lily told her. “Kristoph certainly cannot. His enemies would take it as further proof that he is not his own man... that his policies are influenced by you... a woman... and a foreigner.”

“To hell with that,” Marion snapped. “Lily... you cannot believe this is right.”

“I don’t,” she answered. “It is a great injustice. But there is nothing we can do about it. I am sorry, Mia. I understand how you feel. But...”

“You don’t understand,” she responded. Then she stood up suddenly, swayed a little and fainted. Marion and Talitha both reached out and stopped her hurting herself as she fell. Lily rang for her butler and asked him to carry the stricken lady to the yellow bedroom. Marion remembered it as the room she had slept in when she first came to Gallifrey as Kristoph’s betrothed fiancée and had lived with Lily in order to fulfil the rigid obligation of purity before their Alliance. It was a cool, quiet room. A carafe of cool fruit juice was placed on the bedside table and Talitha sat at Mia’s side pressing a cold compress against her head. She came around presently, but her distress was still as great as before. She didn’t cry, of course. She was a Gallifreyan woman, without tear ducts. But she made a soft, low keen that expressed her misery exactly.

Marion listened to it for a few minutes, then she turned away. She stood quietly on the landing above the gracious hallway of Maison D’Alba, watching one of the footmen polishing the chandelier that would be lit, later, to illuminate the high born ladies and gentlemen of Gallifrey who were coming to Lily’s dinner party. Marion had planned to be there in her chosen gown ready to descend the stairs in full view of her friends and be admired by them all. She intended them to move aside as the Lord High President, resplendent in the evening wear of an Aristocrat of Gallifrey came to the foot of the stairs to take her hand, and though this was Lily’s party, she and Kristoph would be the most dazzling couple there.

All that seemed so pointless, so vapid and empty when the surface of Gallifrey’s beautiful aristocratic society was scratched and the cruel underside exposed.

“Marion...” Lily came to her side. “I’m sorry I stopped you from acting according to your heart. But you do understand why I had to do so?”

“I understand only too well,” she answered. “And I hate it. Mia... this isn’t her fault at all, and yet she is being treated like... like the mad woman in the attic...”

Lily had been a member of Marion’s Reading Circle long enough to have read the book that allusion came from. She nodded in understanding.

“It wouldn’t quite be like that,” she assured her. “Mia would not be shut away in an attic. Nor would she be left destitute. The Reidluum family have a number of fine country properties. She would have servants, an income. She would live at least as well as I do as a widow with no family ties.”

“But a widow is respected,” Marion pointed out. “You are still a part of Gallifreyan society. How many set aside wives are invited to luncheons. How many invite others to lunch with them? How many of them attend the opera. Who would she attend with? What would she say when she steps into the foyer and there is her husband with the new, fertile wife on his arm?”

Lily sighed. Marion had pointed out all of the cruel truths of the matter. Certainly a set aside wife had financial provision, but that did not make up for the social isolation, the shame and indignity.

“It doesn’t have to be so,” Lily said. “We who know the truth of the matter can ensure she is not shunned. She would certainly be welcome to lunch here. And at Mount Lœng House, I am sure.”

“No, that’s not good enough,” Marion retorted. “I never invited her to lunch before. She lives on the Northern Continent. She wasn’t part of my lunch circle simply because of geography. If I invite her after she has been set aside it will only be too obvious to her and to everyone else that I’m doing it out of charity. That won’t do. Besides, she doesn’t WANT to be set aside. She loves her husband. We have to stop him doing this terrible thing.”

“There is nothing we CAN do.”

“There has to be a way,” Marion insisted. She swept past Lily and descended the stairs, determined to put a stop to a terrible, cruel injustice.