It was only a month after Gia Medanich came to the de Lœngbærrow household as second cook when the biggest dinner party of the season was set to take place. Marion devised the menu herself. Gia was disconcerted when she insisted that the fish course should be the infamous lemon solda.

“Are you sure about this, madam?” she asked on the morning of the event, with the kitchen already busy with preparations. She had gathered the fresh mud for baking. The fish were in a bucket of ice ready to be cooked. Gallis Limmon had actually gone out at first light and caught them in the River B?rrow.

“I am perfectly sure,” Marion assured her. “His Lordship himself requested the dish. He would be very disappointed if it was not on the menu.”

“Then I will do my very best, madam,” Gia said. She turned back to the stirring of the mud that was a strange but very necessary part of the recipe. Marion went to speak to the cook, who was carefully piping stiff merengue swirls onto a greaseproof sheet to bake slowly in the coolest oven. Later, whipped cream and strawberries that Kristoph was going to collect himself from Earth, freshly picked from the fields, would make the first Pavlova to be served at a Gallifreyan dinner party.

All was going to plan. Marion left the kitchen staff to their work. She had no doubt that every part of the dinner menu would be perfect. Meanwhile another group of maids were preparing the table in the grand dining hall. It was only used for formal dinners. Marion much preferred the small dining room for meals with Kristoph or when there were just a few friends visiting for the evening. If Kristoph was not home, she would be served in the white dining room, usually asking Rosanda to join her so that she had somebody to talk to during the meal.

Setting out the fine linen tablecloths, the china and silverware, the crystal glasses, flowers and candles in the grand dining room was always a little special. Marion watched the precision with which every place setting was arranged, Seogham, the under-butler going around after the maids making tiny adjustments. It was going to look absolutely perfect.

She went back to the hallway in time to hear the TARDIS arrive. It resolved into an extra door next to Kristoph’s study that opened shortly. Jean-Claude and his new partner, Morgan, stepped out first. Marion was excited to meet her friend’s new lover and was just a little bit disappointed when Morgan merely bowed his head slightly to her in formal greeting and didn’t seem to want to talk at all. Jean-Claude hugged her fondly as always. So did Hillary, who came with her new partner, Lou Van Demos, who was one of the very special guests at tonight’s dinner, being the newly elected president of Haollstrom. Jean-Claude and Morgan made for a fine looking couple in male-form with striking good looks and matching brown eyes. Hillary and Lou were both classically beautiful women on this occasion.

Marion took to Lou straight away. Though she was the president of her world she was a very friendly woman with no superiority about her at all.

Perhaps her presence here was a problem for Morgan, though, Marion thought. Perhaps he felt out of sorts in the presence of his new lover’s old partner. But, if so, that was unusual. Haollstromnians weren’t the jealous sort. Indeed, the idea was unknown to them. Love affairs lasted a short time and then partners split and found new lovers, and there was never any acrimony between them. Meeting old flames with new partners was a regular occurrence for them.

“Here’s the strawberries,” Kristoph told her, breaking off that train of thought. “Fresh from the fields of Kent with the dew still upon them.” He gave her a huge cardboard box with a familiar fragrance. It was full of big, juicy strawberries. The under-footman took them from her to deliver to the cook.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Marion said. “Why don’t we all have tea on the terrace.” She merely had to glance at Caolin, who was on hand as soon as the TARDIS arrived. He nodded and went to ensure that the busy kitchen staff were not too busy to prepare refreshments for the Lord and Ladyship’s newly arrived guests.

Marion’s terrace was not as wide or elaborate as the one Lady Lily had at Maison D’Alba, but it was looking very fine in the early summer sunshine. There were fragrant roses growing all around, some native Gallifreyan varieties, and some from Earth, planted by special permission in the Lord High President’s wife’s own garden.

Marion smiled warmly at her guests. Hillary and Jean-Claude were old friends, and she had high hopes that Lou and Morgan would be new friends. Kristoph slightly monopolised Lou’s attention while they were waiting for the tea to be served with the kind of conversation the presidents of two important planets would have, so she tried to engage Morgan instead.

“I am an Ambassadorial Mediator,” Morgan de Barras said when Marion asked about his work. “I recently travelled to Arcturus to settle a trade dispute between the Arcturans and their neighbours the Maridia. But there is little point in discussing details of the transaction with anyone outside of the diplomatic corps. You would not understand the complexities of it.”

That was a snub, plain and simple. Marion had not expected anything like that from a Haolstromnian. She had always found them to be friendly and open people. She was more than a little taken aback and struggled to find a response until Hillary spoke in her defence.

“On the contrary,” she said. “Marion would make an excellent mediator herself. I recall our trip to the Antares sector when the diplomats were unable even to decide on the seating arrangements at the conference table, but Marion hosted a luncheon for the spouses and they completed all but the formal signing of a Treaty by dessert.”

Marion smiled gratefully to Hillary. There was a slight exaggeration in her story. The spouses of the delegates had no authority to agree a treaty, but the informal discussion over a civilised lunch had been useful. The spouses had all talked to their partners and the conference had gone on much more smoothly afterwards.

“I quite agree” Jean-Claude added. “Marion is a lady of accomplishment.”

“You should know, Claudia-Jean,” Morgan responded. “You are a consummate diplomatic spouse.”

It was an insult veiled in polite talk. Calling Jean-Claude by his female name when he was in male form was rudeness in Haolstromnian etiquette to begin with, and the implication that he was nothing more than a decorative accompaniment to his partner was degrading.

Marion was not trained in diplomacy of any sort, and her introduction to lunch party etiquette had only begun when she came to Gallifrey as Kristoph’s fiancée and Lady Lily showed her the way. She wondered how best to handle the situation.

“Jean-Claude is more than a spouse,” Lou said in a quiet but assured voice that commanded attention. “He and my dear Hillary were both instrumental in my presidential campaign. Besides, on such a lovely morning, and in company with such a gracious host as Lady Marion, how can we possibly under-estimate the role of a spouse. Kristoph, I am sure you would be the first to admit that the support of your First Lady is essential to your own Presidency.”

“Absolutely,” Kristoph answered. “Where would any of us be without our spouses? They are essential to our personal and public happiness.”

Marion was happy with that. She had never had any political ambitions of her own, and although it had been bewildering at the start she was now experienced enough and confident enough to enjoy meeting and mingling with the wives, husbands, mates, breeding partners and other permutations of the all-encompassing word ‘spouse’ when she accompanied Kristoph to any intergalactic function. The same was true of Jean-Claude, who was happy to accompany his partner to functions as a handsome man or a beautiful woman.

Hillary was the exception here. Though she was the partner of the President, she was a senior diplomat in her – or his – own right. Of course, she was a charming hostess – or host – at any time, but it was by no means her only role.

Jean-Claude stood, announcing that he wanted to walk by himself. Morgan glared at him and let him go at first. A few minutes later, though, without any excuse to his hosts, he followed him.

“Marion,” Hillary said a few minutes later. “Lou and Kristoph want to talk presidentially, of course. Shall we leave them to it? I should like to look over your lovely rose garden with you.”

“Yes, of course,” Marion said. She was glad of a chance to spend time with her oldest Haolstromnian friend. Kristoph kissed her gently on the cheek. Lou stood and bowed her head respectfully to her host’s wife and smiled warmly at her own lover before they departed.

“They are very lovely roses,” Hillary said to Marion as they walked. “But I think you know very well I didn’t really want to talk about them. I hate to spoil what is surely going to be a very pleasant day for most of us, and a wonderfully productive dinner party later. But I want to….”

She paused. Marion took her hand in hers.

“You’ve never met Morgan de Barras before, have you?” Hillary asked.

“No,” Marion admitted.

“A jealous man and a spiteful woman. Lou was her partner for a while. The relationship was a stormy one. They did not part on amicable terms. Of course, Lou was the ‘dominant’ half of the partnership. She is politically senior, and her family has an enviable pedigree. He could not treat her badly. But… Jean-Claude… it is true that he is no diplomat. Nobody expects him to be. But he is… loyal.”

“Loyal is good,” Marion pointed out.

“Loyal is wonderful,” Hillary said. “When the loyalty is deserved, and when it is rewarded with love and consideration. When we were together… He was my strength, my….”

“The Wind Beneath your Wings?” Marion suggested when Hillary found herself uncharacteristically lost for words. “It’s a song, from Earth… a love song from a successful man to his lover who never achieved anything herself, but was content to be there for him when she was needed.”

“Yes, exactly so. And it is a noble thing to be, a selfless helpmate. With Lou, it is different. We are equals in all things, except her oath of office.”

“I can’t imagine you subordinate to anyone,” Marion admitted. “You have such strength of character. But….”

“Jean-Claude… is not so strong, and I think Morgan de Barras is wrong for him. I do not think that relationship is a happy one. But I cannot interfere. As his former lover it would be seen as socially unacceptable. I wish….”

“Do you want me to talk to him?” Marion asked. “To Jean-Claude, I mean, not Morgan. I don’t think he has anything to say to me. I’m not important enough for him.”

“He’s wrong about that, my dear,” Hillary said. “But, yes, if you get a chance to talk to Jean-Claude, as a friend, assure him of your love… and mine. And let him know he need not keep his troubles within his own heart as long as he has ours on his side.”

“I will do that,” Marion promised. She sighed softly. “I was sorry when I heard that you and Jean-Claude were no longer together. I thought you were good for each other. As much as I like Lou, and I am sure you are so very much in love, it is a pity.”

“It is the Haolstromnian way. I have travelled extensively, and seen many other ways. I understand why you and Kristoph value a lifetime together. But others of my kind, who have never known any other world, any other culture, would be puzzled by it. Our satisfaction comes from our freedom to love where we choose. But, in Jean-Claude’s case, I feel he has not loved wisely.”

“Do you mean that Morgan is abusing him in some way?” Marion asked. “Is he being hurt?”

“If he is, he has not complained. At least not to me. That is why I hoped….”

Hillary stopped talking mid-sentence. Morgan de Barras strode along the garden path with a thunderous expression on his face. He barely glanced at Marion and Hillary as he passed them. A few minutes later, Jean-Claude hurried after him, murmuring a brief ‘hello’ as he passed. Marion was shocked by his appearance.

“He’s been crying,” she said. “What is going on between them?”

“I only wish I knew,” Hillary answered. “That’s why I wanted you to spend a little time with him. He is as fond of you as I am and….”

“I’ll do my best,” Marion promised. “Oh, dear, I really hoped we were going to have a pleasant dinner party with friends.”