Marion walked with Hillary back to the terrace. Kristoph and Lou were still talking business. Morgan was not there, nor was Jean-Claude.

“Morgan has gone to make a video-phone call,” Lou said when she asked. “Jean-Claude didn’t come back, yet.”

“He must have gone towards the copse,” Marion noted. “I’ll go and find him.”

Hillary sat with Lou and joined in the political conversation. Marion turned back along the garden path and took a turn through a green arch where the climbing roses were still budding. Here the formal rose garden gave way to a meadow where the grass was more than a little overgrown at the moment. Lawn mowing had been neglected in the difficult year of the quarantine and it had yet to be fully attended to in the ‘long meadow’ that stretched down to the cúl nut copse.

She found Jean-Claude sitting on a fallen log just within the copse. His face was hidden in his hands and he was crying noisily.

“Don’t cry,” Marion told him gently. She knelt in the dry grass and put her arms around his shoulders. “Oh, don’t cry. Not here. This has always been a happy place. Kristoph and I have often walked in these woods together. I can’t bear the idea of you crying here.”

Jean-Claude sobbed even more loudly, his face pressed against her shoulder. Marion held onto him, feeling a little embarrassed and uncertain about how to handle this difficult situation. She noticed that his emotions were affecting his morphic stability. Three times as she held him his sobs sounded a feminine pitch and she ran her fingers gently through long dark hair instead of the short cut of his male form.

“I can’t imagine walking anywhere like this just now,” he said eventually as the tears subsided. “Not the way you mean, with somebody I love, and who loves me.”

“You love Morgan,” Marion reminded him.

“I’m not sure I do,” he answered. He pulled back from her shoulder and she saw his face properly. She was shocked to see a large bruise across his cheek and a cut under his eye that was bleeding slightly, the tears mingling with the blood alarmingly. Marion found a clean handkerchief and cleaned the wound gently.

“It was my fault,” he said. “I argued with him. But he was so rude to you, and I couldn’t let it pass.”

“Morgan hit you, because you stuck up for me?” Marion was appalled at the physical violence, but a little proud that Jean-Claude had defended her honour. “That’s not right. He shouldn’t have hit you, no matter what. And it most certainly isn’t your fault.”

She had never experienced domestic violence herself, but she was aware that it happened. In the foster homes where she had spent most of her teenage years she had often met children of homes where such abuse took place. They were almost always quiet, withdrawn children who were convinced the breakdown of their families were somehow their fault.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she repeated. “It’s wrong. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Come on, Jean-Claude, hold my hand, and come for a walk with me. Pretend that we are lovers enjoying this beautiful bower.”

He smiled weakly, his wet eyes glistening gratefully and took her hand. Marion brought him along a path through the cúl nut copse where dappled sunlight filtered through the thick green foliage overhead.

The copse thinned again after a little while and they emerged into full sunlight beside a shining brook that ran into a gully it had made for itself over the years, eventually reaching the much more substantial River B?rrow. The water was clear and clean and fish swam in it.

They crossed the brook by a little wooden bridge, stopping to look down into the water as it passed beneath them. Jean-Claude’s hand was beside Marion’s on the railing at first, then he pressed it over hers. He was trembling with emotion when she turned and let him embrace her again. His natural Haolstromnian pheromones assailed her senses as she let him kiss her.

“Thank you, Marion,” he said. “I had almost forgotten what it felt like to share an unconditional kiss.”

“Any time,” she assured him. “I love you as a friend, you know that.”

“I know that, Marion,” he answered. He held her tightly and sighed deeply. “I know I have friends.”

“You don’t have to be unhappy, Jean-Claude,” Marion told him. “If you really don’t love Morgan, you can leave him. You’re a Haolstromnian. It is easier for you than for any other species to break up a relationship.”

“It’s not,” Jean-Claude replied. “Only when the relationship has come to an end by itself. When it happens before then… when a love match breaks too soon… then it really hurts.”

“So you do love him?” Marion asked. “Even though he hurts you like this?” She gently brushed his bruised cheek.

“No, I’m not sure I do. Not the way I loved Hillary, or anyone before her, even. And I don’t think he really love me. I’ve never been made to feel so worthless before. I know my family are not as rich or as powerful as the de Barras family, but even so….”

“Even so, he has no right to treat you badly, Jean-Claude. You are a worthwhile person. You are kind and loving. You must….”

“Must what?” The voice that demanded an answer made Jean-Claude jump back from Marion’s arms, his face pale with fear. “What have you been saying to him? That I’m no good for him, and he should leave?”

“Yes,” Marion replied, standing firm and with her eyes fixed upon Morgan de Barras. “Yes, he should leave you. He deserves better.”

“You are a low-born nothing,” Morgan answered. “Don’t think I haven’t heard how you wormed your way into a noble man’s bed. You have nothing to say to me. As for him - he will remain my consort until I tire of him and cast him out of my home and my life. I will do with him as I choose.”

“You will not,” Marion responded. “I know what you’ve done, now. And so will Kristoph. He won’t permit this to go on. Nor will Hillary.”

“That much is true.” Marion looked around as Hillary ran onto the bridge. He had changed to his male form, a tall, strongly built man with a beard, but still comically clothed in a lady’s day dress and shoes. Even so he was impressive when he charged at Morgan and punched him so hard that the momentum carried him back over the railing and into the brook below.

Kristoph was a few seconds behind Hillary, followed by Lou, who also looked a little ridiculous in male form wearing a halter necked sun dress. He didn’t appear to mind one little bit when his lover embraced Jean-Claude and kissed him lovingly.

“Did he touch you, madam?” Lou asked Marion as Kristoph picked his way down the banking and hauled Morgan out of the brook. He was uninjured, but soaking wet and suffering a loss of face in front of everyone.

“No, he didn’t,” Marion replied.

“Then a diplomatic incident has not occurred. We may be thankful for that.” Lou looked at the bruises on Jean-Claude’s face before turning to look at Morgan with a cold expression. “I had planned to appoint you to a good position in my Cabinet, out of consideration of the companionship we once shared. But I have changed my mind. I will be sending you to Arridia, the celibate planet of the Ashen Monks to negotiate trade ties. It goes without saying that they expect ambassadors from other cultures to abide by their ways of chastity. It had been puzzling me who I could send on such a mission, but you’ve made it quite easy for me.”

Morgan looked as if he was going to argue, but standing there in a wet suit of clothes he had lost all of his poise and superior air.

“Go and clean yourself up and make yourself presentable as befits a member of the Haollstromnian Diplomatic Corps. But stay out of my way for now. Later, when the senior members of the Gallifreyan High Council join his Excellency we will go to his study for a plenipotentiary conference on trade and cultural matters of interest to our two worlds. I shall need somebody to take minutes of the proceedings.”

“Take minutes!” Morgan looked at Lou angrily, but it was clear there was no argument to be made. He turned and strode away towards the house, dripping water at every step and his shoes squelching. Marion suppressed a giggle about it.

“Minute-taking is considered a very menial task in the diplomatic corps,” Hillary pointed out as the rest of the party headed back towards the house. “Usually the work of a minor clerk. Lou has seriously demoted Morgan.”

“It serves him right,” Marion said.

Lou was walking with Kristoph. They were talking about their trade agreement. Marion walked with Hillary and Jean-Claude. It didn’t escape her notice that they were holding hands tightly.

It didn’t escape her notice, either, that the two of them sat together on the terrace. Lou watched them carefully but said nothing.

“Madam,” Caolin came out to the terrace and addressed Marion. “Cook has prepared the strawberries for this evening’s confection, and finds there is a surplus of the fruit. Would you and your guests like them served with cream?”

“A lovely idea,” Marion answered. “And more tea, please, Caolin, to go with it.”

None of the Haolstromnians had eaten English strawberries before, but they had a fruit on their world that was seedless and a paler red that was eaten in the same way. They enjoyed the mid-afternoon treat and something of a peaceful social mood returned to them.

After the strawberries Lou asked Hillary to talk privately with her. They went into Marion’s library. When they returned, Lou sat down at the table while Hillary invited Jean-Claude to walk with her.

“I have given Hillary my blessing upon her renewed relationship with Jean-Claude. I think there is still mileage in their love affair. For myself, I will be too busy in coming months to give my full attention to a partnership. It would be unfair of me to stand in their way.”

“Lou,” Marion said with a catch in her throat. “That is a kind, generous thing for you to do.”

“It is, indeed,” Kristoph acknowledged. “Though I don’t think Morgan will thank you.”

“I’m afraid I very little care what Morgan de Barras thinks about anything,” Lou responded. “His new offworld posting will keep him well away from me or anyone I have either love or respect for, and that is well enough.”

“I hope he won’t spoil tonight’s dinner,” Marion said. “Everyone has worked so hard on it.”

“There are worse places I can send him than Arridia if he does,” Lou promised.

The dinner party, at which a valuable trade and cultural treaty between Haolstrom and Gallifrey was toasted in champagne, was a perfectly happy one. Lou, as President of Haolstrom was dressed in a very formal suit with a lot of gold braid and ribbons. Kristoph outdid him in his formal regalia and high collar, as did the Chancellor and Premier Cardinal. Marion wore deep blue velvet and crisp white lace. So did Rodan who sat at the table on a cushion and pleased everyone with her good manners. The lemon solda was cooked perfectly and enjoyed by all. The boeuf en croute for the main course was a triumph, and there was an awed silence when the dessert was carried in on a silver platter by two footmen. The strawberry pavlova was nearly four foot long and a foot high, a sweet castle of whipped cream, strawberries and meringue castellations. Rodan dug into her portion with gusto. The grown up guests ate slowly and appreciatively, savouring the subtle flavours of the luxury dessert.

Marion was pleased with the way the food she had planned so thoroughly was appreciated by everyone. Even Morgan ate two helpings of the pavlova. She was pleased, too, with the toast that Lou gave after first toasting the health of his gracious hosts. He turned and smiled at Hillary and Claudia-Jean and wished them every happiness. They both smiled back. Claudia-Jean was wearing an elegant evening dress and carefully applied make up disguised the bruise on her cheek. Hillary, in an impeccable suit, kissed her tenderly, his beard brushing her neck.

Morgan stood up from the table and walked away without saying anything. Some of the guests watched him go. Others paid no attention. Shortly after the women withdrew in traditional fashion to the drawing room while the men drank brandy and talked. This was a more complicated matter when Haolstromnians were present, since they could choose which group they wished to be with. Lou and Hillary remained with the men while Claudia-Jean enjoyed the latter part of the evening in feminine company.

The evening was a success. Of that, Marion was satisfied when she at last went to her bed. Just as she was taking off her make up and brushing her hair, though, Caolin knocked at the door. Kristoph in his rest gown answered it.

“Pardon me, sir, but I thought you would wish to know that one of your overnight guests has taken ill. I think something he ate disagreed with him.”

“Oh dear,” Marion groaned. “Not the lemon solda, please! Gia will be devastated.”

Kristoph went with his butler to investigate the matter. He returned a few minutes later with a grim smile.

“Poetic justice,” he said. “Morgan de Barras is allergic to strawberries. He has a nasty rash all over most of his body. I told Caolin to fetch an ointment that will ease his discomfort. He is in for a miserable night, though.”

“Poetic justice, indeed,” Marion answered, trying not to enjoy the news too much.