The solar was a room in the north side of Mount Lœng House, which, on a planet where the sun rose in the west meant that it had the best natural light all year round. It had two wide bowed windows that caught the sunlight when there was any. Even on a grey day it was bright and airy.

All the same, Marion had never used it very much before now. She preferred her white drawing room most days. But the chimney was blocked by an old bird’s nest that had fallen in and lodged itself in a difficult position.

The man who usually attended to the old-fashioned chimneys of Mount Lœng House could not get there until the snow thawed and so the lady of the House had retreated to the solar. She had spread her own favourite linen table cloths and ornaments from Earth around the room and made it feel homely and comfortable.

With warmth and comfort as well as the view across the snow-covered plain that the solar afforded, Marion wasn’t worried about being confined to the house in the coldest part of Janus. She had company, anyway. Rosanda came to sit with her, bringing the latest gown she was sewing for Lady Lily, her second biggest customer after Lady de Lœngbærrow herself. Marion had books and embroidery and her music box that played all her favourite music.

The maid brought tea and hot buttered crumpets, fresh from Tesco in Clayton Square, Liverpool. Rosanda put the satin gown aside carefully and when she had finished eating she used special lemon-scented wipes to clean her hands of the slightest trace of butter before resuming her work.

“Is his lordship especially worried about your health?” she asked as Marion gazed out of the window thoughtfully.

“A little,” she admitted. “I did get pneumonia last year. He is concerned I might fall prey to it again. I don’t mind. I can still go to Liverpool or visit Hillary at her lighthouse without leaving the house. It is spring on Haollstrom in the northern province.”

“But it is winter in Liverpool. Won’t you catch cold there, too?”

“I suppose I could. But it isn’t snowing there, and the last couple of times I was there I just went to the restaurant with Li and a little bit of shopping around the city centre. I was hardly outside in the open air at all.”

“Is Liverpool like the Capitol, then, with the weather held back by an environmental dome?”

Marion laughed softly at Rosanda’s imagined view of Liverpool.

“No, it is not like that at all. We haven’t invented such things on Earth in my time. But many of the shops are within shopping centres with roofs over the walkways between them. Last week it was pouring with rain but I spent three hours in the Clayton Square Centre without even going outside once. When I was done I got a taxi back to the Welcome Friend and had a bowl of seaweed soup and a spring roll before I came through the portal. I didn’t get wet at all.”

“Liverpool sounds a magnificent place, all the same,” Rosanda suggested.

“Well, I like it,” Marion admitted. “But I’m not sure magnificent is a word most people use for it.”

Rosanda had lived most of her life on the southern continent, in a small community. Apart from a few offworld visits with Marion she had never seen a really populous city. The Capitol, as busy as it seemed to Gallifreyans, was sedate compared to other worlds. Liverpool’s bustling population seemed incredible to her. She loved to hear about it. Marion talked quietly for a long time about the city of her birth. It passed the time as they sewed.

The sun was starting to set when Marion’s two guests for tea arrived. They were shown into the solar by Caolin. One – Lady Lily – had come by car, her limousine hovering above the deep snow that lay between Maison D’Alba and Mount Lœng House. The other, Hillary, the Haollstromnian gendermorph who was one of Marion’s first non-Human friends, came by the portal that opened into a wardrobe in the spare bedroom with all due reverence for literary precedent.

Lady Lily was elegant as always in a white gown with lapin fur trim. The kind of artists who specialised in faery queens and ethereal mythological figures would have delighted in painting her as the personification of winter. Her silver hair was carefully sculpted by her personal maid and her face was delicately made up. In the soft light of the grey day she hardly looked like an elderly woman. There were glimpses of the beauty she had once been in her face.

Hillary was in red and black, the colours of Haolstromnian nobility. She, too, was elegantly styled with not a hair out of place or a smudge in her make-up. No matter how much care she took over her own appearance Marion always felt a little dowdy and plain next to her, but she loved Hillary dearly and could never resent her innate style.

“My dear, it is lovely to be here,” she said, kissing her hostess on the cheek. “It seems ages since New Year.”

“It is less than three weeks,” Marion assured her. “But I am sure your social calendar has been full.”

“It has been hectic,” Hillary answered. And since Haollstromnian aristocrats were always busy, Marion was sure ‘hectic’ was a very loaded word, indeed. “Claudia Jean is standing for re-election again in three months’ time. We have been on the campaign trail.”

“Does she have a serious rival?” Marion asked, knowing that Claudia Jean – or Jean-Claude in her male form – was a very popular president who had the trust of the Haollstrom population.

“Adrian Joyce,” Hillary replied. “I don’t like her. Claudia Jean is working towards the full enfranchisement of the working classes of Haollstrom. Joyce wants to reverse all of his reforms and completely segregate the classes. It would change the whole fabric of our society. I hope against all hope that the people vote for reform rather than regression.”

“So do I,” Marion agreed. “It is time both of our worlds were more democratic, Gallifrey and Haollstrom. The idea of any section of the people being denied a vote is disgraceful.”

Lily said nothing. Neither did Rosanda, the former because she had heard this discussion many times before and the latter because, as one of those disenfranchised people, she never quite knew what she should say on the subject. The lady in white admired Rosanda’s lacework and brought the conversation back to more genteel subjects until the tea was brought on two large trays.

“Only in her female form can Hillary talk of dressmaking,” Marion noted with a smile. “As a man she is above such things.”

“It really doesn’t go with the beard,” Hillary remarked. “Afternoon tea and lace goes with this gown and this body. I shall change for dinner and talk politics with Kristoph.”

Everyone smiled at the Haollstrom definition of ‘changing for dinner’, which involved far more than swapping daywear for evening dress.

“He’ll be late home,” Marion said of her husband. “He is talking politics with the High Councillors. He said he would take Rodan to the art gallery, too. She wants to see the portrait of Rassilon’s twelve sons.”

“That doesn’t seem reason enough to be late for dinner,” Lily commented. “I think the politics will command his attention far more. He’ll be followed to the gallery by a contingent with issues to hammer out.”

“It’s always the way,” Hillary remarked. “Every social occasion, be it lunch or the opera, Claudia Jean has to field some question or other about the Fourth Reform Bill.” Hillary laughed and reached for a sandwich. “We are talking about politics again. It won’t do. Rosanda, do tell me more about how you handled that antique silk from the treasure room. I am still surprised it didn’t fall apart in your hands after being kept for so many centuries.”

Rosanda talked confidently with her social superiors about the subject nearest to her heart as the four women enjoyed their tea. The sandwiches arranged on a huge platter were smoked salmon with dill in sour cream. They were one of Marion’s special favourites. The dill was grown in the kitchen garden, but the smoked salmon was from John Lewis’s food hall and was very high quality. Lily compared it very favourably with the Gallifreyan equivalent, cured hask fish. Hillary, who had eaten salmon, or some regional variety, in almost every quarter of the known galaxies was similarly impressed with the Earth delicacy.

“Of course, in your twentieth century Earth isn’t a part of the intergalactic community,” Hillary mentioned. “But in my timeline I have met many humans who have travelled beyond their solar system, including their chefs. I commend such examples of Human endeavour.”

“I thought humans went out into space to do more than just cuisine,” Marion said with a laugh.

“Oh, indeed,” Hillary answered. “I am very impressed by Human couture, too. This outfit is by the Louis Vuitton Galaxy Four Collection.”

Marion and Lily took another sandwich and said nothing. They didn’t need to. This was Rosanda’s field of expertise again, and the start of a very animated discussion of colours, fabrics and styles for upcoming spring collections. A winter storm blew up around the solar as the darkness drew in, but their thoughts were all on the bright, warm days of rose gardens and luncheons on the patio.

Marion was so deep in those future plans that she was hardly aware of the darkness outside the windows or the way the snow was being blown against the glass. She had forgotten, too, that Kristoph had not yet contacted her to say he was on his way home.

She wasn’t worried at all until Caolin came to her with a disturbing message.

“Madam, I have to report that all communication with Athenica is blocked. There is a blizzard centred upon the city and even satellite transmissions cannot get through.”

“Impossible!” Lily exclaimed impatiently. “We are always being told that our satellite relay system is the best in the galaxy. How can a whole city be cut off by a bit of weather?”

Marion looked at the windows for the first time and realised just how bad the weather outside was. This was merely the tail end of the tempest affecting Athenica. She couldn’t begin to imagine how bad it was there.

“What about Kristoph?” she asked. “Had he started home before it got so bad? Or are he and Rodan still in the city?”

“I don’t know, madam,” Caolin admitted. “I have been trying to find out. But it is to be hoped that he remained in the shelter of the city.”

Caolin looked as if he might say more, but he didn’t want to worry her.

“Please,” Marion told him. “Please, tell me what you are thinking.”

“Only that Madam D’Alba’s chauffer has brought her car into the garage and is expecting to stay the night here. Nobody would attempt to cross the plains in an unprotected vehicle. If his lordship’s party had set off from the city, they would surely have turned back. The journey would be impossible.”

“He surely would have decided to do that,” Lily said quietly before Marion could think of the alternative – that the presidential limousine and its escort cars were stranded on the open plain with the temperature dropping rapidly. “Of course, I shall remain here tonight. Travelling home is unthinkable.”

What she meant was that she would remain with Marion until there was news from Athenica. Rosanda told her husband to make up a bed for Lily’s chauffer in their apartment. He said he would do so, as well as airing the blue bedroom suite for Lily herself. He gently suggested, too, that the ladies would be more comfortable in the main drawing room for the evening. The solar was a much less cheerful place in the dark.

Marion agreed. The transfer to the warm room with a roaring fire and a pot of tea already on the table was reassuring, but nothing would stop her worrying about Kristoph and Rodan until she heard from them, and that wasn’t going to be for many hours, yet.