A month in Italy - even though it only took a week on Gallifrey thanks to TARDIS travel - did Marion a lot of good. All the oxygen machines around the house could be dispensed with now, though she still carried a small, pocket sized inhaler that she could use wherever and whenever it was needed. Increasingly it wasn't and most days, now, she almost forgot it was among her possessions in her handbag.

She was managing a few quiet afternoons away from home. Lily's house was a pleasant retreat. So was the Dower House. She regularly visited the little house where Rodan kept a comfortable parlour and tea was always made.

But the real test was going to be Calliope’s birthday ball. On the day itself, Marion took breakfast in bed and spent the morning reading then a long afternoon sleep. These were Kristoph's terms for allowing her to attend the kind of huge function organised by Lord Patriclian.

Thoroughly rested, she bathed and dressed in the evening with special care. Her gown was red velvet with silver lace trimmings and her hair was fixed with a fascinator of matching colours. Her cosmetics were a particular concern this evening. She didn't want anyone to say she looked pale so the colours of her foundation emphasised a healthy glow.

"It is winter, still," Kristoph pointed out. "All of the ladies of the southern plain look pale after three months indoors. You already outshine them with the benefit of your sojourn on the Amalfi Coast and the flattering attentions of so many men of literature."

"Most of the men of literature preferred the company of other men," Marion answered. "I don't think I was attractive to them in that way."

"None of them were blind," Kristoph answered. "They know a woman of natural beauty and charm when they meet her. They saw in you just what I saw on Leeds railway station even though it was hidden then beneath shyness and uncertainty."

He kissed her on the cheek so as not to interfere with the application of lip colour to match the vibrant red of the gown.

When that was done he fastened around her neck a necklace of silver and diamonds that had been newly made for her. The pendant was a large and rare red diamond that thoroughly complimented the gown.

"You don't think I look like one of Count Dracula's women?" she asked, viewing the total effect in a full length mirror.

"Certainly not," Kristoph answered. "Do you think I resemble the Count?"

His formal robe was black and silver with a cloak lined in red silk that denoted his membership of the Prydonian Chapter. He looked dashing and just a little bit Carpathian!

“You'll do fine," Marion told him. "Just don't leave my side. I need you this evening more than ever. I feel like this is my first ball!"

She made sure that the oxygen inhaler was in the clutch bag that went with her outfit and Kristoph put a warm cashmere shawl around her shoulders before they went downstairs. Caolin bowed graciously to them and opened the front door.

“I don’t know how late this ball may go on for,” Kristoph said to the butler. “But I don’t think we will need anything more than a warm drink when we return. The kitchen staff may retire when they are ready.”

“Indeed, sir,” the good man responded. Then they made their way down steps carefully cleared of ice and snow and straight into the waiting car. The usual escort was in front and behind as they set off to the Patriclian estate where Calliope’s father had arranged the birthday ball.

Lord Patriclian was one of the richest landowners on the southern plain and one of the most generous with his wealth. He was also noted for holding the most spectacular and ostentatious parties.

The cars bringing the cream of Gallifreyan society stopped by an arch of ice carved flowers and ribbons. A plush red carpet passed beneath it and along a causeway across at least twenty metres of frozen lake until the partygoers boarded something like a cross between an extremely wide boat and a marquee.

"This is not on the ice itself," Kristoph noted as he held Marion's arm tightly and they climbed the red carpeted steps into the fantastic venue for Calliope's birthday party.

"I know," Marion answered him. "I can feel the vibrations. It’s a sort of huge hovercraft. Lord Patriclian loves to spend his money."

The walls and ceiling of the party room were glass, or at least a transparent substance. The clear night sky full of stars and Pazithi Gallifreya in her silver aspect provided magnificent backdrop for the party. The view of the lake and the Patriclian mansion was enhanced by gravity globes that spilled diffused light around the darkness.

The dance floor was perfectly smooth and polished. Around the sides tables with silvery white linen were provided for eating and drinking and sitting out some of the dance sets. A buffet took up one end of the room and the orchestra the other.

Of course, when Kristoph arrived the crowds stood solemnly and the anthem was played. Then the Lord High President and first lady were formally greeted by Lord and Lady Patriclian and their daughter and son in law, Lord and Lady Hadandrox. But formal greetings quickly gave way to hugs and kisses among the women and the relaxed air of a party resumed.

"Look at the cake," Calliope said to Marion who had, until then, taken the six foot high confection to be some kind of decorative sculpture. "Daddy won’t hear of anything less than the biggest and best.”

“There is a school of thought that biggest isn’t always best,” Marion replied. “But it IS a remarkable cake.”

Calliope laughed. Marion had a way of putting things into perspective that endeared her to her Gallifreyan friends. Then Lord Hadandrox swept his wife onto the dance floor and Kristoph took Marion to do the same.

It was the Galloso, a very old formal dance of the southern plain. Marion always thought it looked a lot like the sort of dancing seen in dramas set in Tudor times. She also thought it fitted with the more traditional robes worn by both men and women of Gallifrey with their almost Elizabethan collars and headdresses. Her own influence on the women in her peer group had reduced the formality of dresses, lightening the fabrics and lowering necklines, but the men still looked as if they might fit in the Court of Henry VIII and the Galloso with its careful movement of the feet belonged there, too.

After that was something closer to a waltz where husbands and wives or those due to become husbands and wives might dance close against each other. Marion enjoyed being close to Kristoph, feeling his two hearts beating beneath his Prince of Darkness robes. Calliope was still very much in love with her Lord, too, and they danced in their own pool of silvery light as if they weren’t among a hundred or so guests.

Notable among those who didn’t dance were lord and Lady Oakdaene. His Lordship had returned to Gallifrey quietly and without explaining to anyone where he had been for so long. At least he had not explained to anybody official. If he had told his wife, that was another matter. Neither looked especially happy with the other. Marion wondered aloud to Kristoph why they had even come to this party.

“To be seen and to put paid to any rumours,” he answered. “But if they don’t look a bit happier it will only start up new rumours of a rift in their marriage.”

“Oh dear,” Marion said. But she was too happy in her own life to care very much for Minniette Oakdaene’s troubles.

Besides, an even juicier scandal gained new momentum in the course of the evening.

“Who is that dancing with Lady Arrette?” asked Lady d’Arpexia of Lily and Marion as they sat out the faster sets, the former out of matronly dignity and the latter simply out of breath.

Lily didn’t know, and that in itself was significant. Lily knew everyone.

“He is wearing the Arrette pin,” Marion noted. “I saw it earlier. Could he be a cousin or something of the sort?”

“He doesn’t even look like an Arrette,” Lady D’Arpexia answered. “They all have the hooked nose and thin face. He’s got a face like a pudding.”

That much could not be denied. Nor could it be denied that the young courtier, for want of a better word, dressed in velvet and silver, danced with a vigour lacking in the elderly Lord Arrette for millennia. Even Lily, the oldest of the group, could not remember him as a young man.

And Lady Arrette clearly enjoyed his company, especially in a dance that resembled the Tudor Volta in that the lady was frequently lifted and turned by her male partner. Only Calliope and Jarod were matching the mystery man and his lady for energy.

“If they do a tango next I am going to have to look away,” Marion noted. Fortunately such an overtly sensual dance was not known to the chamber orchestra made up of Gallifreyan musicians. Nothing so scandalous took place on the dance floor.

The time to cut the great cake arrived without anything worse than the Gallifreyan Volta taking place. It wasn’t until then, when everyone was still, that they realised the dance floor wasn’t. The hover engines had lifted the whole portable building high into the sky. The guests all murmured in surprise as they looked down on the snow-covered southern plain from far above it.

Then Lord Patriclian drew their attention back to him as he made a speech about his pride in his daughter and her accomplishments. He was not the most sparkling dinner speaker, but he made up for lack of substance with enthusiasm and gained the attention of his audience.

At least until somebody else stole the show. There were murmurs of consternation as Lord Arrette, who nobody even knew was a guest at the party, strode across the floor making dire accusations against his wife and her dance partner.

“My Lord,” Lord Patriclian protested. “Sir, this is not the time or the place. This is my daughter’s birthday ball.”

“Which has been turned into a bordello by my adulterous wife and her lover,” Arrette responded. Dancing with utter abandon, flouting their affair in front of everybody, making me into a cuckold in their eyes.”

Kristoph left Marion’s side and stepped towards the angry Lord who swung around intending to strike out. He remembered himself just in time and gave the briefest of nods towards the Lord High President.

“This is not the time or the place,” Kristoph told him in a calm voice, echoing Lord Patriclian’s words. “Calm down and do not disturb this occasion further.”

“I will not calm down. I will not be treated as a docile fool. I may be old, but my sword arm is strong, and I wish to call out the low born scoundrel who has been publicly flouting himself with my wife.”

“Call out?” Kristoph responded. “Are you mad? Duelling was outlawed in your father’s time. You cannot do any such thing.”

“I can and I will,” Lord Arrette responded, now utterly forgetting himself. He turned his head and saw his wife and her escort trying to make themselves inconspicuous on the other side of the huge birthday cake. He didn’t HAVE a sword with him but he grasped the long silver cake knife and ran at them.

Unfortunately the cake was in the way and perhaps Lord Arrette’s eyesight or his balance weren’t perfect. He ended up in a thoroughly undignified heap covered with debris from the second, third and fourth tiers of the cake which had collapsed completely and topped off by the fifth and six tiers which landed almost intact on his back. Only the wide base layer of the cake remained on its silver platter.

Calliope was the first to laugh, followed by her mother. Some of the other ladies tried to disguise their laughter with handkerchiefs, and most of the men retained their composure only with effort.

Lord Arpexia and Lord Dúccesci both came forward and lifted the top parts of the cake away before helping Arrette to his feet. Somehow they managed to persuade him to go with them to a table with a restricted view of the main floor. Meanwhile servants cleared up the broken pieces of cake.

“There is still enough left in the base to cut up,” Kristoph said to Calliope, pressing the discarded cake knife into her hand. “Happy birthday, dear lady.”

Calliope put the knife into the cake and cut a first slice before the caterers took over placing pieces on plates and distributing them. Lord Patriclian gave instructions for more champagne to be opened.

Soon after the dancing began again. Marion stayed in her seat. She was starting to get a bit tired but didn’t want to leave early.

Kristoph came to sit beside her.

“Dúccesci and Arpexia are going to make sure Arrette goes home quietly,” he said. “I doubt this is the end of the matter, though. Something clearly is going on with Lady Arrette and that young man. There is trouble ahead. But never mind that. Have you had a good night?”

“Yes, I have,” Marion answered. “And I didn’t need the oxygen at all. I gave it to Lady Artemus. She was laughing so hard she nearly choked.”

Kristoph laughed and kissed his wife. Lord Arrette’s crisis could wait for another day.