Amaranth Plesaest was one of Gallifrey’s most recent dominion planets and trade allies, as Marion had been told by the protocol officer. It was relatively new to the very concept of relationships with other planets having only in the past fifty years developed interstellar travel and made formal contact with other worlds and other people.

Having done so they were very anxious to show to the visiting President and First Lady of Gallifrey that they were worthy of being called friends of such an important world.

That was why the President and First lady had hardly had a moment to themselves in the first four days of the official tour. They had arrived to an official reception the President of Amaranth then a grand fireworks display that went on until after the midnight hour.

The next day they had travelled in an open topped car to the Amaranthan parliament where Kristoph had been invited to address the Assembly. Marion had watched from the Visitors Gallery as she did when she was in the Panopticon. Kristoph’s speech was about fraternity and friendship between Dominion planets and Gallifrey, the mother world. That was very much the theme of all the speeches that his team of writers had prepared for him. Marion wondered just how many of them she would be able to listen to before she got thoroughly bored with the same topics over and over again.

After the speech they were shown around the old Amaranthan parliament building, which was in the Old Capitol among the museums and galleries and historical buildings. It was five thousand years old and very beautiful, but just a very bit dull. Marion did her best to look interested when the guide told them about the exquisite carvings representing the members of the very first Parliament of the newly founded Amaranthan Republic more than two thousand years before. She was even less interested in the High Plesaest royal family who had lived in the building before they were deposed by the bloodless revolution that ushered in democracy. It was obviously of prime importance to the Amaranthans, but Marion was feeling a little footsore and tired and really wanted a cup of tea rather than a history lesson.

She didn’t get a cup of tea. She hadn’t had anything remotely resembling a cup of tea since she arrived on the planet. She was assured that the Amaranthans had a drink close enough to it to satisfy her, but it was only drunk by the common people. As the First Lady of Gallifrey she was far too important to drink anything so ordinary. She had been served all kinds of hot and cold drinks when she requested them and the banquet on that second day had consisted of twelve courses and eight different wines and spirits, but anything as simple as a cup of tea was never forthcoming.

Day Three had started with a formal Breakfast of Friendship with the Cabinet of the Amaranthan government. The staple food at the meal was a kind of pancake that was served first as a savoury with poached eggs nearly as wide as the plate and then as a sweet dish with warm honey drizzled onto them. The drink that went with the breakfast was a curious cross between dark roasted coffee and unsweetened cocoa beans. When she surreptitiously added some of the warm honey to the brew Marion found it palatable enough.

But she REALLY wanted a cup of tea.

The rest of that day had been pleasant enough. They had been taken on a tour of the Amaranthan Lakes, four huge expanses of inland water that would rival the Great Lakes of North America. They were famous for the flocks of Amaranthan geese that could be seen flying over the water and the great red-leafed almond trees that grew on their banks. They travelled to the lakes by a fast hovercraft with stewards ready to bring any refreshment the special guests asked for….

Except for tea.

That was what brought Marion from the VIP quarters on this afternoon, the fourth day of the tour. She had decided not to accompany Kristoph and Rodan when the two of them inspected the mounted cavalry of the Amaranthan Republican Army. Rodan was very enthusiastic about the engagement since it meant she could wear a specially made Amaranthan riding habit and sit upon a very impressive black gelding next to Kristoph in his own ceremonial garb and mounted upon a stallion.

Marion was happy to stay in the quiet rooms at first, but then she decided that she was not going to rest until she had that one luxury she was desperate to have – a good cup of tea.

She dressed in the plainest of her gowns and a soft shawl that was similar to those worn around the head and shoulders by women of Amaranth. She slipped out of the VIP quarters through the service entrance, avoiding Kristoph’s staff and anyone else who might insist on coming with her. She wanted to move among the ordinary people of Amaranth, the people who were able to drink tea.

The capital city of Amaranth Plesaest reminded Marion of the Trafford Centre. It covered roughly the same area of land, but the commercial centre on the ground floor and the three basement levels below were under the offices of the municipal offices and the headquarters of the architects and planners. Above those were the slender, graceful towers that were the residential areas. Most daily living for Amaranthans was under the huge crystal roof that covered those lower floors. The people only needed to go outside that climate controlled area to visit recreation areas like the Plesaest Zoo, the leisure lakes or the summer and winter gardens.

Marion liked shopping, but she wasn’t especially fond of shopping centres. She found it all a little too busy. All of the wide avenues and courts were busy with pedestrians. The multi-speed escalators and the glass elevators were full. It all seemed a little claustrophobic compared to the peaceful plazas of Athenica or the quiet and elegant commercial quarter of the Capitol.

It was far busier even than the aforementioned Trafford Centre at Christmas and she had thought that was crowded enough.

Besides, she realised, she hadn’t brought her universal credit card, so she could do no more than window shopping, something she had never especially liked doing. When she was an impoverished student it had just felt like avarice looking at things she couldn’t possibly afford, and now that she had money to spend she usually saw no point to it. When she saw things she wanted, she would simply buy them.

She walked around for a while, enjoying the one thing she always enjoyed when she travelled to Earth – the anonymity of being an ordinary person in the crowd. She sat in one of the quieter plazas – called placa in Amaranthan. There was a cool fountain pouring constantly into a pool of clear water with a mosaic pattern on the bottom.

Marion looked into the water and noticed that there were coins in it. A sign beside the fountain said that the coins were collected regularly and given to the Amaranthan hospice for the elderly.

They were visiting that hospice tomorrow, Marion noted. She could make sure she brought her credit card tomorrow and make a donation.

Meanwhile she casually dipped her hand into the water and grabbed a handful of coins. She slipped her hand into her pocket and dropped them. They were wet and soaked her coat pocket. She took the coat off and held it in her lap with the pocket turned inside. She sat for a little while to make sure nobody noticed what she had done, then she stood and headed for a café with tables arranged around shrubs growing in terra cotta pots. She sat at a small table and counted the change she had salvaged from the fountain while checking the prices on the menu.

She had enough for a pot of tea.

“Do you want anything else with that?” asked the waitress who took her order.

“No,” Marion answered. “The tea will be enough.”

She would have liked a sandwich, too. She was a little hungry, and there were some delicious choices on offer, but the small denomination coins mostly of reddish-colours and only a few of the higher value silver only just covered the cost of the tea.

The waitress went away and a few minutes later she returned with a tray. She put the pot of tea and the cup and saucer down, along with a plate containing a selection of sandwiches.

“It’s all right,” the waitress whispered to Marion. “I saw you counting your money. Those were left over from this morning’s tray. We don’t sell them if they’re more than three hours old. ”

“Oh….” Marion answered in surprise. “Oh… that’s… kind of you. But I really….”

“It’s all right,” the waitress insisted. “I know what it is to be short. Before I got this job, I used to scrounge money from the fountain, too, when I was hungry.”

The coins were still wet, of course. They had dripped on the tablecloth. The waitress took the money and put a little tray with the receipt on it over the damp spot before leaving Marion to enjoy her tea and sandwiches.

The sandwiches still tasted perfectly fresh and she enjoyed them thoroughly, not only because she was hungry and the fillings were delicious, but because they were given to her as an act of kindness by somebody who expected nothing in return.

The tea that she had paid for with money ‘borrowed’ from the fountain tasted as good as any tea she had ever drunk. The pot contained enough for three full cups with the little jug of milk carefully eked out. She savoured each one as she looked around at the people of Amaranth and felt a little warmer towards them than she had been feeling during the non-stop official engagements where she barely saw an ordinary Amaranthan and she was surrounded by people who were all so anxious to please her, but somehow managed to miss doing that.

Did she regret coming on this tour? Not at all. Did she regret marrying a Time Lord and leaving all concept of normality behind? Never, not even for a single moment.

Did she regret that her aristocratic Time Lord had taken on the burden of responsibility for his whole world and for a dozen or more of these Dominion worlds when he accepted the honour of becoming Lord High President?

Well, sometimes. It was a burden as well as an honour, for Kristoph as well as for her. It meant so much more work and so much more worry for him than when he was simply a Magister and far, far more than when he was a literature professor. Many of the burdens fell upon her, too, and she had been feeling that keenly in the past day or so.

That was why she needed the tea.

It was why she needed to sit here for a little longer, making that pot of soul-restoring brew last a bit more.

“Madam!” An anxious voice spoke above her and she looked up to see Kristoph’s personal secretary. “There are people looking for you everywhere. We were afraid that you had been abducted.”

“I hope you haven’t said anything to my husband about that,” she responded. “I don’t want Rodan’s afternoon spoiling because of a needless panic.”

“His Excellency has not yet been informed. But his security detail was alerted.”

“Well… unalert them,” Marion told the secretary. Then… see that young lady in the waitress’s uniform over there. Go and give her a tip – a very large, generous one that she can spend on a little treat for herself. Don’t tell her why. I don’t want her to feel foolish. But make sure she is rewarded.”

Marion finished her tea and stood up. She went back to sit by the fountain until the secretary had done what she asked him to do. This time she didn’t need to take any coins out of the water, but she would definitely make sure she gave a nice big donation to the hospice tomorrow.