It was Chinese New Year. Marion and Rodan had shared the traditional supper with Li Tuo in his home in the heart of Liverpool’s Chinatown district. Now, on what was a seasonably cold night, they watched the midnight fireworks from the window of his comfortable drawing room. Rodan sat on his knee happily, enjoying the bursts of colour in the sky. Marion was on a soft chair beside them. She watched the fireworks some of the time, but she also watched Li, his contented face lit by the paper lanterns strung out in the street below. She knew the reason for his contentment but she didn’t comment about it until later when Rodan had drifted to sleep in his arms.

“You’ve enjoyed having us with you, haven’t you?” she said. “All through our river journey what made it special for you was the pretence that we were your family – your wife and daughter.”

It was a pretence she and Rodan had shared. Of course, it was safer if people believed she was Li’s wife. It meant that she was under his protection. But it was more than that. In all ways but physical, Li had felt like a husband to her in the time they travelled together, and Rodan had adored him like a father. He had likewise given her every fatherly affection as well as the occasional admonition when her curiosity led her into possible danger.

“Yes, it was a pleasant daydream,” Li answered. “One I am happy to continue with for a few more hours, until Kristoph comes to collect you.”

“Fatherhood suits you. I am sorry to take our fosterling away from you.”

“It was the arrangement. I cannot complain. Besides, Lily is coming to visit next weekend. I have compensations in her company.”

“Yes, you do,” Marion said with a smile. She was glad that the two who had loved each other when they were young now found renewed passion in their advanced years. They were both less lonely for it.

“I’m not lonely, Marion,” Li told her quietly. “I am happy here among this Chinese community. I have good friends here who accept me for what they think I am. Remember, of course, the older generation at least are all exiles from China, having left the communist regime behind them. I have a common bond with them. I have the respect of the young in this culture where age and wisdom is revered. I have no complaints.”

He said so often, but Marion thought, all the same, that never being allowed to return to Gallifrey was a painful sentence for one who was, after all, innocent.

“Let’s not talk of what cannot be changed,” he said. “My old mind was drifting just now to a time long ago, and a story I think you will enjoy.”

He smiled warmly and with a little twinkle in his eyes.

“I know Kristoph doesn’t often talk about his time in the Celestial Intervention Agency with you. I hope he will forgive me for this one. There is an assassination in it, but that’s only a very small part of the adventure.”

Marion made herself comfortable on the window seat and prepared to listen to a vivid tale told by one who understood the art of oral story-telling.

They had been travelling across country for eight days now. Their mode of transport was called a ‘gurdet’ which was a flat bed wagon with a strong linen cover stretched over curved wooden ribs to provide a sleeping area at night and shade by day.

The gurdet was pulled by two creatures called ‘ponnets’ which the horse loving people of Ventura would recognise as something like slender, long-legged, long-necked ponies. They were both a pale blue colour and were the common domesticated carriage pulling beasts of burden on Risa V, a planet which had one huge continent covering ninety per cent of its area. Most of the continent was dry grassland called The Shrow which was watered twice a year by monsoon rainfalls. The hardy grasses and some occasional trees and bushes managed to derive enough moisture to survive. The ponnets ate the grass and got enough liquid from that for their needs.

Lee Oakdaene and Kristoph de Lœngbærrow, the two young Celestial Intervention Agency men sent to Risa V to track down a dangerous criminal had rations that automatically rehydrated in packs stored in the back of the gurdet. If they were delayed and their rations ran short they had instructions about how to dig down next to a certain type of bush that they had passed from time to time. About four feet down into the ground they would find bulbous grey-white roots called Risan groundnuts. They were the size of a Gallifreyan moon fruit and were not only nutritious but contained enough liquid to quench their thirst.

They had tested the theory on day two of their journey. They found the roots easily enough, but they really wished they hadn’t been compared to moon fruits, which were deliciously tasty, tangy and truly refreshing to the palate. These roots had hard, woody rinds that had to be peeled off then a soft flesh that, while it was, indeed, nutritious, tasted like soil. The liquid at the centre was bitter and left an unpleasant taste in their mouths that was only dispelled by drinking their day’s juice pack ration all at once.

They would have to be VERY desperate to resort to Risan ground nuts for sustenance.

Marion laughed at Li’s face as he described their experiment with the groundnuts. He laughed with her before going on with the story.

The two Gallifreyans were quite content to be travelling that way. Of course, it would have been easier to locate their target and arrive by TARDIS. But there was an element in the Risan bedrock that was not dissimilar to the magnetic ore deep below the ‘Dark Territory’ of the Red Desert. Any kind of mechanical transport was impossible on The Shrow. They had to leave their TARDIS at the space port in the capital city by the Circle Ocean, the only technologically advanced part of Risa.

Out here on The Shrow were communities who had migrated from the busy and over-populated city in search of a simpler life. They lived without the technology of their former life, using ponnet-drawn ploughs to break up The Shrow grass and plant hardy crops and grazied herds of ox-like grous-beasts for meat and milk.

The villages they passed by were healthy, happy places. Lee and Kristoph both admired the people who had made such a change in their lifestyles.

“We Gallifreyans have never had that colonising spirit,” Kristoph commented, his voice the only sound apart from a bird of prey high in the mustard coloured sky calling out triumphantly. “We stay close to home. The majority of our people live under the dome of the Capitol and rarely even breathe the pure air of our own world, let alone any other.”

“We are too complacent,” Lee said. “It will be our undoing one day. We ought to come out from behind the Transduction Barrier more often.”

Of course, he and Kristoph, in the nature of their work, frequently came out from behind the Barrier, but he meant Gallifreyans as a whole, not the two of them.

“Our city born people would die of shock if they had to live here. I know some who won’t even look at the Red Desert right outside the enviro-dome, let alone set foot on it.”

Lee and Kristoph were among the rare exceptions. They had trained in the Red Desert. This Risan Shrow was an easy environment in comparison to the burning sands they had trekked across on foot as Celestial Intervention Agency recruits. It was much more like their own home on the Southern Plain, except it had never taken them this long to cross their home territory and it was largely divided into the demesnes of country living Gallifreyan aristocrats. As peaceful as the Southern Plain was, it was crowded in comparison to this empty and sparsely populated world.

“I can see the attraction,” Lee admitted. “I have enjoyed these past few days. The simplicity of travelling by a horse drawn wagon across land no road has ever been forged through.”

“It would be fine if we were sure of finding any food other than Risan groundnuts in this territory,” Kristoph said. “I suppose we could be hunters, killing the wild horngares and selling their meat, fur and horns at the leaguemarkets. We could buy a couple of nugrees instead of the ponnets to pull our wagon. Then we’d have fresh milk to drink….”

“Sweet mother of chaos,” Lee responded with a laugh. “It sounds as if you’ve been thinking about it.”

“Not seriously,” Kristoph assured his friend. “It’s the only life we would be fitted to out here, with our skills. I don’t think we would make very good grous-beast herders.”

“You mean assassins don’t have any transferable skills for civilian life?” Lee said. “Don’t you think you’ll be able to give all this up and go back to the Lœngbærrow demesne, marry the eldest daughter of the House of Mírraflaex and settle down as Lord and Patriarch of all you survey?”

“The eldest daughter of the House of Mírraflaex?” Marion was easily imagining the two friends on their trek across The Shrow, and it was easy to forget that she was sitting in a dark room with the last fireworks of the night going off sporadically, but she had to ask about that. “You mean Willene Mírraflaex, that angular woman with the permanent expression as if there’s a bad smell right under her nose? Did Kristoph have….”

“Not at all,” Li assured her. “I was teasing him. As one of the wealthiest of our Oldblood heirs the Mírraflaex family wouldn’t be the only ones looking for a marriage arrangement should he give the signal that he was prepared to settle down. But he had some firm ideas about marriages of financial expediency, as you know. And besides… his answer to me that day was much darker than that.”

“I really don’t expect to live that long,” Kristoph replied to Lee. “You know as well as I do, there are very few old CIA men. I fully expect my brother Remonte to become patriarch of the House of Lœngbærrow.”

“Don’t let that happen to you,” Lee told him. “Get out of this business before it kills you. Promise me you’ll do that, my friend. You should be the patriarch one day, with a wife and a son and heir of your own. It’s never going to be my fate. I am happy to let my brother be patriarch of my House. But you don’t have to die young, Kristoph.”

“If it means so much to you, I will try,” Kristoph answered.

They drifted into silence after that, the sound of the gurdet wheels on the rough ground, the snorting breath of the ponnets, the occasional screech of a bird in the sky were the only sounds to be heard. The empty Shrow went on to the horizon.

Except for a smudge on the horizon – a township of wooden buildings, most of which had weathered and greyed over several monsoons and long hot seasons under the sun. Some of them were even more weathered, having seen through countless seasons. Others were newer, the boards still yellow and unseasoned.

“That’s our destination,” Li observed. “Laqizole Tuqisuvi’s refuge from justice, safe from transmat beams from space, hundreds of miles from the city. He’s been hiding under a shimmer cloak and mixing with the locals for long enough. Time he faced the consequences of his attack on the very heart of Gallifreyan society.”

“It was an insane plan, anyway. Did he really think the President would give up the secret of the Time Vortex just because his sister was being held to ransom?”

It wasn’t the kidnapping of the Lord High President’s sister that had earned the intergalactic mercenary Laqizole Tuqisuvi a death sentence from the Celestial Intervention Agency. It was the murder of two good agents in the stand off when the Agency had tracked him down. It had taken nearly a galactic year to locate him on Risa, but now his hours were numbered. The sentence would be carried out quickly and efficiently. Justice would be served.

They were close to the township now. Time to blend in with the locals. They activated their own shimmer cloaks taking on the appearance of tall, thin men with custard yellow skin, bald on top of their heads but with a three foot long plait that began at the back of the skull. They looked at each other and reflected on the wonderful diversity of the humanoid form in the universe. Then they focussed their minds on the houses they were drawing close to. They could feel the natural born Risan minds easily enough, and they could pick out the alien mind that didn’t belong there no matter how well he disguised his physical form. They knew which of the houses he was living in.

They entered quietly and unobtrusively. Laqizole Tuqisuvi didn’t even know they were there until Kristoph’s sword was against his throat. Lee spoke quietly, with an even and unemotional tone as he informed him of the sentence passed in his absence. Then Kristoph swung his sword once and decapitated the murderer and kidnapper. The job was done.

Then a noise disturbed them. It came from the side room of the small wooden dwelling.

“There’s somebody else here,” Kristoph said telepathically as the two men melted into the shadows.

“Can’t be,” Lee replied. “We would have sensed another sentient life form. Perhaps it’s a domesticated animal – a pet - or…”

Kristoph moved quietly towards the door. He opened it carefully and moved very slowly into the other room. Lee felt his surprise and confusion before he called out to him.

When Lee entered the room Kristoph was leaning over the bottom half of an incubator case. On the bottom of the case was the broken fragments of an organic egg that would have been something like a foot in length. Kristoph turned holding something delicate and precious in his arms – a newborn Risan child.

“A baby?” Marion was surprised. “But it couldn’t belong to the murderer. He was only disguised as a Risan. Where did it come from?”

“Let’s put our fosterling to bed and make a pot of tea,” Li told her. “Then if you’re not too tired yourself we’ll have the second part of this tale.”

He stood, holding Rodan carefully in his arms. She didn’t stir as he carried her into the guest bedroom and laid her down on the bed. Marion took off her dress and shoes and tucked her up in her petticoat for the night. She leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Li did, too. Then he went to prepare the tea and Marion sat on the sofa wondering where Li’s story was going to go next, and determined not to sleep until the end of it.