The opera house in the Capitol had been closed since the quarantine. In the immediate aftermath people were reluctant to gather together in numbers in case infection still lurked. Now, at last, in the first month of the new year, the musical fine arts were returning to Gallifrey.

Kristoph wasn’t entirely pleased with the choices the directors of the Opera House had made, though.

“I really should have vetoed their visa application,” he said when he and Marion were getting ready to attend the first night. “This could be more trouble than it’s worth.”

Marion had heard something of the controversy. The Nyeravan Opera Company were the ‘acceptable face’ of a totalitarian world where any form of civil disobedience was harshly punished. The gulags where those who tried to speak out were transported to were terrible places. The ordinary people lived dull, dark lives, working long hours in huge factories for very little pay. A few lucky ones with talent were allowed to join the Opera Company or the National Ballet or Orchestra, or one of the sports teams. They were allowed better places to live and were feted as heroes of the State. But they were still subject to the same laws as the ordinary workers. The Opera House was simply their factory where they worked long hours for very little reward.

When they went on tour they were guarded vigilantly, lest any one of them should decide to defect.

“Would anyone choose to defect to Gallifrey?” Marion wondered. “Here, the performing arts are regarded as work for Caretakers – talented Caretakers, but still of the lower class. They perform for the entertainment of the aristocracy. At least on their world they are elevated.”

“A slave wearing golden chains is still a slave,” Kristoph replied to that. “I don’t like the Nyeravan regime. When I was an ambassador I voted against admitting them to any trade federation I had influence over. I have constantly blocked any suggestion that we should have diplomatic ties with that system. We don’t exactly have democracy on Gallifrey, but we are still a happier and freer society than Nyera. If the Chancellor had consulted me before allowing their application I would have refused it. This looks as if we are prepared to consider Nyera as a friendly State, and it looks as if we condone their totalitarianism.”

And yet, his hands were tied, and the best he could do now was attend the Opera with his wife, both of them dressed as if for a state occasion.

“Don’t you worry about it, my dear,” he said to Marion. “For you it is an opportunity to meet with your friends and show off a beautiful new gown. And by all accounts the opera they are performing is quite an interesting one.”

He wasn’t dismissing her thoughts about the political implications of the visiting performers. He just wanted her to enjoy a social occasion.

After the inevitable pomp and circumstance of their arrival, Marion found it surprisingly easy to slip into the social mood, at least. Her friends gathered around her, Isolatta Braxietel who had come with her husband, the Castellan, Talitha Dúccesci, Calliope Haddandrox, Lily D’Alba D’Argenlunna, who was always the centre of attention on such occasions, dressed as always in shimmering white.

Lord and Lady Reidluum attended, too. Mia looked fragile, still. She came into the foyer in a wheelchair, but Jarrow lifted her from it onto an ordinary chair. That made it easier for her, somehow. When others sat around her she could feel equal to them.

Jarrow carried her when they went to their seats for the performance. The Lord High President and his wife were escorted to a box. Lady Lily joined them there, but otherwise Marion was separated from her friends. They would talk again after the performance.

It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that the first two rows in front of the orchestra pit were filled by men in black uniforms who had escorted the Nyeravan State Opera. The box directly opposite the one in which the Lord High President of Gallifrey and his First Lady sat also had men in black uniforms standing behind a man in an equally severe black suit who was, apparently, the Nyeravan Minister for Culture. Marion thought it odd that he had not been mingling with the guests earlier. Surely that was the function of a Minister for Culture.

Kristoph looked at the rows of uniformed men coldly. He knew they were all armed, and that was not his idea of the proper way to attend an opera. Of course, there were two Presidential Guards outside their box, and they had their regulation pistols. But they were not sitting in the auditorium in front of the people of Gallifrey.

“I should never have let this farce go ahead,” he murmured. But it was far too late, now. The orchestra were getting ready for the overture. The house lights were going down and the stage lit. The black-uniformed men could be forgotten in the dark.

The opera was interesting, it had to be said. Marion thought it reminded her of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the tone of the music and the costumes. The story was not unlike some of the sagas of old Gallifreyan legend, such as the Pazzione which she adored. The only jarring note was the ending, in which the hero and heroine, having defeated the forces of darkness, sang a duet in praise of their fatherland. It was at least twelve verses and chorus long and the rest of the cast joined them on stage to sing it. They all had their hands over their hearts as they sang. Marion glanced across at the Minister of Culture’s box and noted that he was doing the same. She looked down at the front rows and in the gloom she could just see that the rows of black-uniformed men were doing the same.

“I think that’s their national anthem,” she said to Kristoph.

“Yes, I believe it is,” he answered. He turned to his Presidential aide who had sat at the back of the box through the performance and gave him a message. He nodded and slipped away quietly.

The Nyeravan anthem ended the performance. The actors bowed to the audience and received polite applause. Then the orchestra were called to attention by the conductor and they turned to another piece of music. The Gallifreyan anthem stirred the hearts of the people in attendance. Kristoph stood proudly. Marion was by his side. The house lights were turned back on and she could see every Gallifreyan, Oldblood, Newblood and the Caretakers in the very highest and cheapest gallery, all standing proudly. She looked at the Nyeravan Minister for Culture. He was sitting. So were the soldiers. That was a direct insult to Gallifrey, of course. But then again, nobody from Gallifrey had stood for the Nyeravan anthem, so perhaps that evened the score.

“That’s more like it,” Kristoph said when it was over. “Now, I need a strong drink before I have to entertain our visitors!”

In the VIP lounge, he got his strong drink. The staff in the Opera House along with many other public buildings in the Capitol, knew that the Lord High President had a predilection for something called ‘single malt’ and ensured that there was some in stock.

“You’re Gallifreyan,” Marion pointed out. “Strong drink has no effect on your constitution.”

“It has an effect on my morale,” he answered as the Minister for Culture came towards them, stern and unsmiling. He prepared to use all of his diplomatic training and experience to deal politely with somebody he disliked on principle.

Marion slipped away from him and talked to the leading performers from the opera. The rest of the cast were not present, but these two were apparently allowed to make public appearances. She found that they were a brother and sister, Maya and Allexa Gann. They had been with the Opera for six years and this was their first tour away from Nyera. They were nervous when they talked, glancing often towards the Minister. They chose their words carefully, never criticising the government of their home planet. They spoke of the privilege of being chosen for the State Opera, the wonderful opportunity it afforded them, and praised the government that funded the arts on Nyera.

In all appearances they were good, loyal Nyeravan citizens who fully supported the regime and were thankful for their position within it.

But Marion really wanted to know what they actually thought about it all. She wished she could talk to them without the Minister present. Surely then they would speak freely.

She looked around and noted that the Minister wasn’t there. Nor was Kristoph. She was worried for a moment then she noted that the Presidential Guards were standing outside a small private room off the main lounge. They must be in there. Perhaps Kristoph WAS talking about trade and diplomatic matters with the man, after all? It seemed unlikely. He was quite adamant that he didn’t want Gallifrey to have any formal connection with that system. He had used the phrase ‘not until the Andromedan Maelstrom freezes’ to describe the likelihood of such a thing happening.

If it was a Presidential matter, there was no reason for her to go in there. She had been the President’s wife long enough to know that. He would doubtless tell her something of what went on later – as much as he was allowed to tell her, at least.

“Are you REALLY happy in the Nyeravan Opera?” Marion asked. She knew that Maya and Allexa had noticed the absence of the Minister, too.

“We… are fortunate,” Maya insisted. “We enjoy many privileges.”

“Yes, but….”

“All I want to do is sing,” Allexa added. “The State Opera allows me to do that. I am grateful.”

Marion tried several other questions, but nothing broke through the carefully constructed answers. Either they were very well coached or they truly were satisfied to be the star performers of a State Opera from a totalitarian State.

Whatever the truth was, she actually started to feel bored and a little irritated by them. They really had nothing to say that wasn’t extolling the dubious virtues of life on Nyera. She was glad to make her excuses and go to sit with Mia. She had been nervous about one of her first public events since her illness. Everybody could see that she was crippled, and there had been some murmuring gossip about her from less sympathetic quarters. But for the most part she had tried to enjoy herself.

“It was a rather dark kind of story,” Mia said about the opera itself. “And the music was rather heavy. I think I would rather watch something brighter.”

“Opera always seems to be that way,” Marion admitted. “On Earth most of them are about people dying tragically or heroically – or both. That’s the way of it.”

“I think we’ve all had too much death lately,” Mia said, and Marion agreed wholeheartedly with her about that, then changed the subject, asking her how baby Jari was getting on. That was one subject that made Mia smile. Her baby was the joy of her life.

They were talking about nursery furniture, of all things, when the Nyeravan Minister of Culture emerged from the side room. He looked upset. Marion wondered what Kristoph might have said to him. He went to the two opera stars and spoke sharply to them then all three swept out of the room, followed by their black-uniformed guards.

Kristoph came out of the room a minute later. He looked stern, but as he crossed the floor and joined Marion he put on a smile and greeted Mia in a friendly fashion. He accepted another glass of single malt brought to him by a waiter and gave the appearance of enjoying the company of friends until it was time to leave.

He said little in the official car, except that he wasn’t entirely impressed by Nyeravan opera and would much prefer a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. Marion laughed, because she knew Kristoph didn’t really like Gilbert and Sullivan at all. He preferred Verdi and Puccini of the Earth composers.

When at last they were alone in their bedroom, undressing for bed, Kristoph told his wife what the Minister had wanted to talk about.

“He has requested asylum on Gallifrey,” he said in an incredulous and rather exasperated tone. “The Minister of Culture for Nyera wants to defect!”

“What!” Marion turned from brushing her hair and looked at her husband. She, too, found it hard to believe. “But he’s the one they sent to keep all the others from defecting?”

“Yes, he is. But apparently he hides his true feelings about the regime under a semblance of obedience. He told me that he cannot stand the pretence anymore.”

“What did you say to him?”

“I said no,” Kristoph replied.

Marion was surprised. Kristoph had made his feelings about the Nyeravan regime clear enough. Why wouldn’t he be willing to help somebody who wanted to escape from that regime?

“I had no other choice,” he told her. “It’s more complicated than one man’s request for asylum.”

“You are Lord High President,” Marion pointed out. “The ‘High’ bit doesn’t just refer to your ceremonial collars. Surely it is your decision….”

“It IS, and my decision is to refuse.”

Kristoph sounded quite cross about it. Marion decided not to press the matter further. It had been a long evening and all she really wanted to do was get into bed and be warm and comfortable beside her husband.

Kristoph wanted the same. He pushed the startling developments and the political fallout from them aside and held Marion close to him. He quietened his mind and let himself concentrate instead on the woman he loved and the twelve lost months he still needed to make up for in their lovemaking.

Even as he caressed his wife’s bare flesh and felt her responding to his touch he knew that he was just setting aside a problem that had yet to be resolved, and may yet grow from a mere ‘issue’ to a ‘crisis’.