Marion stepped out of the TARDIS with Rodan in her pushchair and looked up at a pale purple coloured sky. It surprised her. She was used to the yellow-orange sky of Gallifrey and the blue-grey sky of Earth. But this was something different. Even the sun that shone down on the planet of Orissa III appeared to be a glowing purple ball, though Kristoph said it was all just an optical illusion caused by particles in the outer atmosphere that caused the colour spectrum to behave differently on this planet.

Anyway, it was a fantastic sky. And the planet itself was very interesting to look at. The TARDIS had materialised on top of one of the tallest buildings in a city of fine, tall buildings. All of them had flat roofs, and they were all made into beautiful gardens and bowers, some of the largest were even orchards and playing fields for games. The view across the city was of hundreds of different gardens where Orissans enjoyed their leisure time.

This particular garden was adorned with coloured ribbons and banners to welcome them to the planet. An honour guard of silver and grey-uniformed Orissan National Guard stood to attention as the Duke and Duchess came to make the formal greeting.

Kristoph bowed gracefully and shook hands with them both before introducing Marion. They both warmly addressed her.

“I don’t think we had a chance to talk at the Anazide Conference,” the Duke said to her. “But I have heard a great deal about you, madam, from my son.”

Marion was puzzled for a moment until she saw the young boy who accompanied his mother and father, dressed in a smaller version of his father’s Ducal robes. She recognised him at once. He was one of the children she had rescued from the nursery when terrorists took over the space station. He was the one who had flown when they all had to climb a lot of stairs.

“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed as the boy stepped forward and shook her hand warmly. “Orlanno. Yes, that’s your name. How are you my dear?”

“I am very well, thank you, madam,” the boy answered politely. Then he remembered what was obviously a rehearsed line. “I am glad to welcome you to Orissa and to the city of Oriss on this aus..pic…ious occasion.”

Kristoph smiled. He, too, had once had to learn words like auspicious and use them in front of adults for the first time.

Then the Duke said that their transport was ready to take them to the reception.

Marion looked around at the ‘transport’ and almost fainted in shock. It looked like a gondolier, elegantly carved and painted and polished. But it wasn’t in water. It bobbed on the air, held up by a long, cigar shaped balloon. It was manned by four sun-bronzed and handsome males of the Orissan species, shirtless to the waist and with feathered wings unfurled. The Duke and other dignitaries kept their wings folded under their regalia, but the ordinary Orissans usually had their wings spread. They got about that way – flying. The women, of course, did not go bare chested. Their dresses were halter necked and cut low at the back for the wings.

Those that didn’t want to fly, for the same reason other species didn’t walk everywhere, had balloons – their equivalent of cars – though much more ecologically sound.

And this was a luxury chauffeured balloon, laid on for the Duke and his honoured guests.

“I’m not sure,” Marion said doubtfully. “I mean… Rodan might be frightened.”

That was an obvious cover up for her own nervousness. Kristoph grinned and patted her arm.

“Rodan will love it. And so will you,” he said as he took her hand and helped her into the boat. She sat on one of the wide seats with carved wooden arm rests either side and settled Rodan on her knee. Kristoph sat on the seat behind her. The place at her side was taken by young Orlanno, who seemed to want to stick by her. The Duke and Duchess didn’t seem to mind as they took their own seats and gave orders to ‘cast off’.

Marion had expected a short, direct trip to the reception. But in fact they took a grand tour of the city at roof garden level, floating slowly around the gaps between the buildings. On each of the rooftops, in all of the gardens, Orissans waved and cheered at them.

Marion was used to riding in cars and carriages past waving and cheering people by now. She had done so several times on Ventura when they travelled in the Ambassador’s horse drawn landau, and many other times when she and Kristoph had been diplomatic visitors to other planets. But this was the first time she had done it while sitting in a boat under a balloon, floating high above the ground. Even so, she got used to waving back and smiling graciously.

“We’re so high up,” she commented as she peered down at the ground far below. “The streets look as if it is made of white marble – ornamental. As if nobody actually uses them.”

“What is a street?” Orlanno asked.

“Well… it’s…” Marion was a little disconcerted. That seemed a strange thing to explain. “The space between the buildings. Where people walk or drive… to get to other places.”

Orlanno was puzzled. He clearly thought she meant the air around the buildings.

“Not here,” Kristoph explained to her. “The people are descended from birds. They live in the top of the buildings, not the bottom. The rooftop is their first floor. The air around them – that’s their streets. People fly from place to place, on wings, or in skyboats. They don’t walk on the ground below. They don’t even live below about ten floors or so. Lower down there would only be warehouses, stores, bank vaults, the servers for their computer networks, power stations and generators. The people who maintain those things return joyfully to the air when their work is done.”

“Oh!” Marion was surprised, but the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. “Oh… wonderful. And… I suppose… nobody is afraid of heights if they live in the air?”

“I don’t think the phrase is even in their vocabulary,” Kristoph replied.

“I’m… getting used to it,” Marion admitted. “But my natural place is on the ground.”

“You are doing very well,” The Duke assured Marion with a warm smile. “Far better than the Queen of Volessia when she visited. Poor woman. She fainted as soon as she arrived.”

“Volessians live in underground caves,” Kristoph explained. “Their planet is one great honeycomb of caverns and passages. They only rarely come up onto the surface and when they do, they wear wide brimmed hats so they don’t have to look at the sky. To them it is too huge and empty and big. Poor woman, indeed. This high up, the air must have been unbreathable to her.”

“I am afraid so,” the Duke added. “Not the most successful Royal Visit to our world.”

“I think I would have been the same if I had visited her caves,” the Duchess added. “To be so enclosed, under rock and earth, cut off from the sky….” She shuddered visibly.

“Two wonderful species, friendly, accommodating, civilised, but their lifestyles make them incompatible,” Kristoph continued. “They have solid trade links however. Hillary and I spend a great deal of our time acting as intermediaries for them. But the trade is conducted entirely by videophone.”

“Such a shame,” Marion said. “But what a universe this is. The different people I have met. I feel quite privileged. Even among the humanoid people there are such huge differences. And the non-humanoid…” She smiled. “The Alpha Centaurans are delightful. Oh… and those people who look like blue rubbery cones with spindly arms and legs. And the ones whose bodies are multicoloured liquid suspended in great tubes. They were so NICE.”

“The Su-on-yha,” Kristoph said, pronouncing the name of the ‘test tube’ people perfectly.

“Quite the most benign people in the universe,” the Duchess said.

“They couldn’t be anything else,” Marion pointed out. “They hardly have the means to be hostile. When they’re not in test tubes, they live in huge communal lakes, each one an individual, but their molecules mixing with others. They separate into their tubes for diplomatic functions. What an amazing existence.”

“Another species I am unable to entertain here on Orissa,” the Duke noted with a sad frown. “The results would be tragic – and rather messy.”

Marion didn’t dare to ask why out loud, but both the Duke and Kristoph knew she was wondering.

“At this altitude, the gasses within their fluid bodies would expand. They would be like a Human with ‘the bends’ until they actually exploded.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Intergalactic Diplomacy is about much more than being polite to people whose faces are different to ours,” Kristoph added. “Knowing such crucial details as that can be vital.”

“I am glad I am only a diplomat’s wife, then,” Marion said. “I’m not sure I could remember all that detail. You must know every species in the galaxy.”

“Only the ones we have diplomatic links with,” he assured her. “Those we don’t are the purview of the Celestial Intervention Agency. They keep tabs on the hostile ones.”

Marion knew, of course, that as a former Celestial Intervention Agency operative he probably had a card index memory of the hostile races, too. But as a diplomat he was happy to interact with the friendly races with whom his own people did business.

The journey ended, finally, at a very large rooftop that looked beautiful even from a distance. The gondola stopped by a gold archway. Marion alighted, lifting Rodan into her arms again, and stepped through the archway, followed by Kristoph. They emerged into an artificial bower of golden trees and silver fountains with crystal water tinkling quietly. In the middle, open to the purple sky, were round tables set for dinner and a low stage made ready for something very important. There were waiters serving drinks as they were shown to their tables. Marion and Kristoph were near the stage, with the Duke and Duchess and their son as well as the Prime Minister of Orissa and his wife. The other tables were filled with invited guests. They enjoyed their meal while beautiful music was played by an orchestra and chorus of beautiful young Orissans in shimmering golden clothes whose rustling wings were part of the percussion section of the music.

Afterwards, the Prime Minister and the Duke stood up from the table and made their way up onto the stage. This was the reason why everyone was here. It was a presentation ceremony something like the New Years’ Honours List from Buckingham Palace, Marion noted. Various people were awarded medals by the Duke himself for services to the community. They were the same sort of people who got awards from the Queen on Earth – people who had worked hard for charity or who had given their time to science and research or other ways of bettering life on Orissa. Some were celebrities who had entertained the people.

Marion was startled when she heard her own name mentioned. She turned and looked at Kristoph, but he just smiled and took her hand as she was invited to step up on the stage.

“The Order of Orissa is the highest award that can be given to a civilian who has shown courage in the face of danger,” said the Duke. “It has never before been given to an offworlder. But some time ago, as you all know, The Duchess and I, and our precious son and heir, were in mortal danger. This lady protected Orlanna and many other children from the terrorists and helped in our liberation as well. So it is with great pleasure that I award the Order of Orissa to Lady Marion de Lœngbærrow of Gallifrey as a token of my gratitude.

There was a roar of applause and cheering as Kristoph urged Marion forward to receive the medal the Duke pinned to her gown. She looked at him, and looked down at the shining disc of gold and the ribbon attached. It felt heavy, but she could not refuse to wear it. And she did feel proud to have been remembered in that way. Even more so when Orlanna came to her with a bouquet of flowers that he shyly presented to her. That was even more special than receiving a medal.

“Hold me tight,” she told Kristoph as they stepped down from the stage. “I don’t think my legs can support me. I never expected…” She looked at his face. “You knew, of course. You knew all along.”

He didn’t say anything. He just smiled as he brought her back to her seat. He held her hand tightly as the last awards were given and the formal ceremony ended. Later, he simply asked her to dance with him when the musicians began to play again and couples took to the floor. She did so, of course. She tried not to be self-conscious of the shiny medal. She wasn’t the only one who had received one, at least. She saw many other people with gold glinting off them.

“You were always a heroine,” Kristoph told her. “You’ve always been brave and wonderful. But now it’s recognised officially.”

“I still don’t know what to say,” Marion answered him.

“Then don’t say nothing. Just enjoy your moment of glory. When we get home, we’ll make sure your medal is mounted in a proper display box and placed where everyone who visits our home will see it. Everyone will know how wonderful you are.”

“I’ll die of embarrassment.”

“No, you won’t,” Kristoph insisted. “You’ll be proud as you have a right to be proud. Now, dance with me one more time before the Duke steals you away for a dance. I know he wants to.”

“Just you be there for the last dance,” she told him. “You’re my Lord. I don’t need a Duke. Not even one with wings.”