The TARDIS disguised itself, as it always did when it came to Adano-Ambrado, as an ornamental folly in the formal garden by the west wing of the palace.

“Have you ever arrived by the front gate?” Julia asked in a teasing tone as they stepped out together and she breathed in a sweet, flower scented air. It was early morning. Chrístõ planned their arrival for just before breakfast, the best time to find the King-Emperor without too many affairs of state to worry about.

“You know, I don’t think I ever have,” Chrístõ answered her. “At least not by TARDIS. I’ve been out and about in carriages, doing my duty as the Crown Prince.”

“Here come your royal retinue, your Highness,” Julia replied, still in teasing mode. She nodded towards the phalanx of Guardia Real, every one of them a slender woman in powder blue, that saluted them and formed a guard as the King-Emperor came to greet his Crown Prince. Chrístõ smiled widely as he watched him approach. He had the bearing of a king, even without the gold circlet in his dark hair as proof of his status. By his side, Julia stood her ground. In any other formal meeting with royalty she knew how to curtsey prettily, and had done so many times. But she never remembered to do so for the King of Adano-Ambrado. His face captivated her every time.

Chrístõ didn’t bow, either. They considered themselves equals whatever political etiquette said. And when they were close enough to reach out and touch each other they hugged fondly.

“Good to see you, brother,” Penne told him before turning to hug Julia, too.

“You’ve grown since I saw you last. You’re almost a woman. And about time, too. Chrístõ has waited patiently for you to catch up.”

Julia stood back to look at the two of them together. Only their clothes and a crown set them apart. Chrístõ was in the black and silver of the Gallifreyan diplomatic corps, robes appropriate to his status when he wasn’t the Crown Prince of Adano-Ambrado. Penne was in deep red and royal blue with gold trimmings.

Even so, she laughed at a sudden thought.

“What?” Penne asked.

“Just… seeing two of you again.”

Chrístõ laughed and promised to explain the joke later.

“You can tell me after breakfast, when we shall have one of our baths together,” Penne told him. “We’ll leave Julia with Cirena and Nestista and the seamstresses. They decided to wait until your arrival to finalise their gowns. The poor women will be working flat out to have them made in time for tonight’s ball.”

But breakfast came first. Cirena made sure that Julia was at her side at the table, along with the adopted royal princess Nestista. The talk of ball gowns began as soon as they were seated. Penne, of course, wanted Chrístõ by his side. But as the footman began to serve the breakfast there was an empty seat. Corwen arrived late, still dressed in riding gear and looking as if he had hastily washed his face after some early morning activity. He was mildly admonished by Penne and invited to eat his food.

“My father has looked forward to your visit,” he said to Chrístõ as a plate was set before him. “I, too, am glad to see you.”

“Have you been keeping well?” Chrístõ asked him.

“The medication allows me to live free from pain, and I can take part in sports and activities.”

“Did your activities this morning bring you by the gamekeeper’s lodge?” Penne asked with a knowing smile that drew a blush from his son’s face.

“Marissa came riding with me,” the boy admitted. “Just riding… and… a short time when we rested by the riverbank.”

“She’s a pretty girl. Do you intend to bring her to Nestista’s coming of age ball?”

“Am I allowed?” Corwen asked. “She is…”

“She is a girl you are fond of. After breakfast, bring her up to the palace. Let her join the ladies in choosing fabrics for a gown. One more won’t make much more hardship for the seamstresses.”

Corwen looked pleased by that proposal. Penne smiled indulgently at him. Chrístõ noted that. Fatherhood, even thrust upon him in the strangest of circumstances, had made an impact on Penne. A good one. It mellowed him.

He still enjoyed bathing in the huge, warm and fragrant pool sized bath in his private quarters, and he liked nothing better than Chrístõ’s company during the bath. Chrístõ thoughts baths and showers were for necessary hygiene and as a rule spent no longer than he needed to spend at either. But he hadn’t spent such an intimate hour with Penne for a very long time, and he was happy to join him this morning. There was plenty to talk about, after all. Chrístõ began with telling him about his long quest to restore his father’s mind and body and his return to Beta Delta IV and his work there. He related the strange events that Julia had alluded to earlier and Penne laughed at the thought of two Chrístõ’s in the universe, though it didn’t seem so amusing at the time.

Then Penne talked of his adopted sister’s coming of age ball among other affairs of state. It was the tradition on Ambrado that a future husband should be chosen at the ball, but Penne said he was not going to hold her to that arrangement.

“She was given to me as if she was no more than property. I will not pass her on like a parcel. She may meet her future husband tomorrow night. If she does not, then she will continue to enjoy my patronage until she finds a man she loves.”

“You found Cirena at such a ball,” Chrístõ reminded him. “Who knows. But what about your other young responsibility. Corwen… is he really fond of the gamekeeper’s daughter?”

“He seems to be. And if he truly loves her, I won’t stand in his way. He is in good health, thanks to the medicines he takes three times a day. But we all accept that his lifespan cannot be as full as even an ordinary Human one. The doctors said ten, maybe twenty years, thirty at the most. Let him enjoy love wherever he finds it. The girl is pretty. She will do him well.” Penne laughed ironically. “The old Lord of Adano-Menor, before you changed me, would probably have seduced her himself. Now, my son follows in my footsteps.”

“Not too closely, I hope. You left far too many broken hearts in your wake, Penne.”

“He’s a more honest man than I was,” Penne admitted. “He won’t hurt the girl as I would have done. And yet, in all other ways… I see myself in him. He grows more like me every day.”

“Funny, but I thought the same. He’s so like me when I was young.”

“We both are still young,” Penne reminded him. “Responsibility has given us old heads, my brother. That is why we need these quiet times for reflection.”

After their bath, Penne and Chrístõ dressed in near identical clothes, black and silver robes with a gown lined with silk. Penne put his gold circlet crown on his head and turned to give a silver one to Chrístõ. He refused at first. Such things did not sit well with him.

“You are my Crown Prince,” Penne reminded him as he put the circlet over his curling hair. “I should like you to join me in the royal commitments today. Later, we’re going to be seen by our people, and you will join me in the royal carriage. But first, the dull stuff. Meeting with the Cabinet – politics!”

“I don’t mind that at all,” Chrístõ said. “I find politics interesting.”

“I don’t,” Penne sighed. “I wonder what would happen if you took my crown and ruled for a while and I went to Beta Delta IV to be a teacher.”

“My girlfriend and your wife would get very annoyed at us,” Chrístõ replied.

“Good point,” Penne said and put his hand on Chrístõ’s shoulder. He turned him to look in the full length mirror. “Two dashingly good looking men, don’t you think?”

“Democracy isn’t the only thing you’ve never grasped, Penne,” Chrístõ laughed. “Modesty has never been in your vocabulary, either.”

“Don’t have time for it,” he replied. “I’m too busy ruling over seven planets.”

His planets took some running, too. Penne’s Empire was far from easy. Chrístõ sat at his left hand side at the table. Corwen, in a silver crown of his own, so much a younger version of his father, sat on his right. The Prime Minister, Chancellor and Cabinet were arrayed around the long table. They brought the most urgent issues to the King for his consideration. No law was made without his consent. But he was a good ruler and his word on any issue would ensure the betterment of his people.

Two grave issues took up his time this morning. The first was the planet of New Adano, the second innermost of the seven that made up Penne’s empire. It was a desert planet with mining colonies that provided much of the empire’s wealth. But it lacked one resource that the people who worked there were constantly concerned about.

“Water!” Penne frowned as he looked at the geological report placed in front of me. “Brother, help me out, here,” he said to Chrístõ telepathically. “This is meaningless to me.”

“May I see?” Chrístõ said out loud. “Geology is something I know a bit about.” A cursory glance at the papers that Penne slid across to him told him there was a problem. Shipping water to the plant was ruinously expensive. There was a plan to bore down to a deep water table, which was also expensive and which had an unforeseen problem.

“This water table is between layers of silver ore and lead,” he told the assembled Government. “It will be poisonous. Decontaminating such a volume of water once pumped to the surface will be economically unviable. Plus it will taste awful.”

“Do you think so?” Penne asked aloud.

“There is another possibility,” he added. “The initial investment is high, but it would eventually produce enough water to build artificial oases on the planet and make it less of a desert. You need hydrogen-oxygen conversion plants.”

Penne looked interested. The Cabinet looked either sceptical or totally blank, depending on their level of scientific knowledge. It was a safe bet that none of them had as much scientific understanding as Chrístõ.

“Water is a compound of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen,” he explained in the most simple terms. “Both exist in abundance in the New Adano atmosphere. They don’t form rainwater because it is too close to the Star of Adano – your sun. The same problem exists on Demos, the innermost planet of the Gallifreyan system, but it is uninhabited so it does not matter. However, if you set up three or four plants, close to the main mining communities, you not only have a second source of employment on the planet, but your water problems are solved. They can be powered by solar energy as the mining communities already are. The resources used are naturally renewable. There is no negative impact on the environment.”

“Excellent,” Penne said. He turned to his minister for energy. “Find out exactly what it will cost and how soon it can be done.”

“By the way,” Chrístõ added. “The workers on New Adano – how long do they stay there without a break?”

Penne didn’t know. His minister for industry told him that they usually remained there for at least a year.

“Too long,” Chrístõ said. “We have mining colonies on Polafrey – living inside artificial habitats because of the cold. The workers get a holiday period spent offworld every six months. You should do that here, too.”

“Sire,” the Minister for Industry protested. “That would be very expensive.”

“Would it?” Chrístõ asked with a dismissive tone. “I should think disaffected and demoralised workers who are less and less productive were more expensive. A holiday resort for the miners on the garden planet of Adano Menor would be a small price to pay for happier workers.”

“How would it be paid for?”

“Capital tax on the barons of Adano Gran,” Penne answered. “They can afford it.”

“Sire…” protested the Chancellor, who was one of the barons of Adano Gran. “That will not be popular.”

“I shall pay a visit to the Adano Gran Assembly and discuss it with the barons next week,” Penne told him. “Prime Minister, I understand some survey was carried out recently. What’s my popularity rating across the inhabited planets?”

“Ninety eight percent, sire,” the Prime Minister replied.

“Would the other two percent be the barons of Adano Gran?” he asked. “They may own most of the planet, but they don’t own me and they don’t own the people. I shall remind them of that. What’s next?”

The Minister for Environment responsible for Penne’s birth planet of Adano-Menor stood and bowed to his King-Emperor, the Crown Prince and the Duke of Adano-Menor and then brought to their attention the evacuation of fifteen thousand people from the town of Arezzo Treviso in the Treviso valley, which was in danger of flooding for the fifth season in a row.

“Father,” Corwen said. “I was there last month. I saw the city before the rains came. The problem is that the town lies in the natural flood plain of the river. It is bound to flood. It should be abandoned and a new town built higher up the valley. Maybe there should even be a dam created to provide hydro-electric power for the new town.”

“Oh, really!” The Chancellor complained. “Your Majesty, we all have respect for the Crown Prince, a man of learning despite his youth. But your son is a mere boy. While I am not against his presence at your side… as an observer…”

Penne stood. The Chancellor sat, nervously.

“What was my popularity rating again?” he asked the Prime Minister.

“Ninety-eight per cent, your Majesty,” he replied. Penne nodded. There was just a faint hint of satisfaction in his smile.

“I’ll be talking to the barons of Adano Gran about that, too,” he said. “Prepare feasibility studies for both the town and the hydro-electric dam. And let nobody doubt that my son is an able young man who plays much more than an observational role in these proceedings. Any other business?”

There was none. Penne dismissed his government. They stood and bowed as he and his son, and his Crown Prince left the room. he was smiling widely, though the smile faded when a footman approached, informing him that the Dragon Loge Marton had arrived and was encamped in the meadow.

“Why does he always do that?” Penne groaned. “What was it you called it last time? The thing with the Earth kings.”

“The Field of the Cloth of Gold,” Chrístõ answered.

“I like Drago,” Penne admitted. “He reminds me of a rather darker and moodier version of me. And he was a true ally in the battle with the Mallus. We both owe him that. But he can still be a pompous ass with his protocol. And I really wanted a quiet hour with Cirena before lunch. Now I’ll be lucky to be at the table while the soup is still hot.”

“We could swap crowns,” Chrístõ suggested.

“I wouldn’t dare. Drago knows that trick, now. And friend or no friend he gets very upset if his protocol is not observed. I’ll go. You can console my queen and my sister. Corwen, introduce your young lady to the Crown Prince.” He kissed his son on the cheek and turned to go to the robing room where he would put on a more formal crown and a heavy, ermine-lined robe in order to pay proper kingly respect to his fellow absolute ruler.

Lunch was only fifteen minutes late when Penne arrived in the formal dining room with the Dragon-Loge Marton. Afterwards, was the parade Penne had spoken of. Two horse driven carriages were provided for the royal party. They were escorted by mounted Guardia Real in powder blue and a contingent of the Loggian Guard in tooled black leather. A marching band from the regular Adano-Ambrado army preceded the carriages, and a contingent of troops in ceremonial costume took up the rear.

Penne and the Dragon-Loge were accompanied by Chrístõ and Corwen in the first carriage. Queen Cirena, Princess Nestista, and Julia and Marissa, a little bewildered by her sudden ascension, were in the other. There was a brief hiatus before they set off as the escort arranged themselves.

“Major Beccan!” Penne called. His faithful Guardia Real officer rode to his side. “Will you please tell the Loggian Guard to drop back behind the royal carriages. There are no assassins here. There is no need for them to shield us. My people wish to see me and my entourage.”

“Yes, sir,” the Major answered and went to do his bidding before they began to move towards the palace gates and the cheering people whose patience was rewarded. The Dragon Loge Marton was bewildered and a little put out.

“I don’t live in fear of my people, Drago,” Penne told him.

I cannot parade in my capital city so openly,” Drago answered. “How can you be so confident of your personal safety?”

“They love me,” Penne replied. “I rule absolutely, by right of inheritance and by conquest. But I rule for the good of my people.” He glanced at Chrístõ and smiled. “Of course, it helps that I am a devilishly handsome man and have a beautiful wife and stunning adopted sister, and a fine son who the people love to look at. I don’t know if I would be as popular if I was a wart-faced hunchback.”

Chrístõ laughed with him. So did Corwen. The people who lined the streets were pleased to see their handsome king-emperor and his son and Crown Prince laughing and laughed, too. In the second carriage the ladies waved and smiled and enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

“It would not do on Loggia,” The Dragon Loge said. “I could not keep control of the populace without curfews and prohibited zones around my person and an army that kept the peace by force of arms.”

“Drago, I pity you,” Penne told him. “I could not live in fear of my own people.” He turned and smiled as the parade passed the Ambrado National library, where every inch of space on the wide, long steps leading to the porticoed entrance was occupied by one of his subjects waving for joy at him. He waved back and their smiles widened.

“You know, Penne,” Chrístõ told him telepathically. “On Earth, in the twentieth century, there was a popular leader, handsome, with a beautiful wife and a fine son… and one day, in front of cheering crowds, passing a book depository…”

“That’s a charming image, Chrístõ,” Penne replied. “Do you think one of my people would do that to me?”

“I think Drago’s people are more likely to do it to him. But bad things happen to good people, too. Don’t rule it out. Major Beccan and her people are not with us merely to look decorative. Let them always be aware of the possibility while you keep smiling and waving at your people. They DO seem to love you very much.”

“Not just me,” Penne replied with an even brighter twinkle in his eye as he caught sight of a group of young ladies outside their school, holding up photographs of Corwen. The boy looked faintly embarrassed, but at his father’s instigation, waved towards them graciously. Chrístõ looked around surreptitiously and saw the women in the other carriage. Cirena, of course, was fully trained in queenly duties and her waves were charming. Nestista, too, knew what to do. Julia and Marissa didn’t wave, but their smiles could not get much wider without their heads falling off. They were thoroughly enjoying being the centre of attention.

“I felt like a princess,” Julia told Chrístõ when the hour and a half long parade was over and they were safely returned to the palace. “It was fun.”

“Remember that on Monday morning you’re a school girl again with exam coursework to think about,” he answered her. She wrinkled her nose in disgust at the way he had so callously burst her bubble. He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. “On Monday morning I shall not be wearing a crown, either. But I am still the crown prince of Adano-Ambrado at tonight’s ball. And you will be my princess.”

“Wait until you see the dresses that are being made. You will be surprised, all of you.”

“I will be surprised if they are finished. Those poor seamstresses working so hard all afternoon for you to look pretty tonight.”

“Penne is paying them extra money,” she answered. “They don’t mind.”

And later, all of the men had to admit that the ladies looked beautiful. Or three of them at least, admitted it. The Dragon-Loge Marton looked at all four of them and seemed unmoved. The gowns for Cirena, Nestista, Julia and Marissa were all cut from the same pale coral coloured satin, but each was a different style. Cirena’s was a full crinoline with several stiff petticoats beneath and pearls sewn into the bodice. Nestista’s was what was called, on Earth, at least, an Empire dress with a tight bodice and plunging neckline, edged with pearls, emphasising what were already quite obvious curves before the skirt fell straight to her silk pump covered feet. Julia’s dress had a bodice of satin, but capped sleeves and a scooped neckline in embroidered lace. It had a tight waistline and a double full skirt, the inner one of satin and an overskirt of stiffened sheer silk with a band of coral coloured lace midway around it. Here and there on the bodice and the skirt were bows of coral silk with pearls sewn into them. It was pretty and feminine, and entirely suitable for her age.

Marissa, finally, had a halter neck dress with a long, soft skirt and a sheer silk wrap covering her bare arms. All three of them had their hair done up with more silk bows and pearls. When the men came to escort them to the ballroom they made a beautiful tableaux, sitting in the queen’s drawing room together.

Penne, of course, took Cirena, his Queen, by the arm. Chrístõ and Corwen took their sweethearts. The Dragon Loge Marton was required to escort his former sister to the ball before Penne presented her to the assembled guests. He didn’t look too pleased with that duty. Nor did Nestista seem entirely happy to hold his arm. After all, he had given her to Penne wearing a few scraps of leather and a chain around her neck. She had lived by the King-Emperor’s indulgence, since, and learnt to feel like a person of account, not a slave or a commodity. This was the first time she had been in company with her former brother since he had given her away.

“This is ridiculous,” The Dragon-Loge pointed out as he walked alongside Penne, his equal. “I gave her to you, to do with as you please. Why are you allowing her to choose a husband? It is quite unheard of for a woman to choose any such thing.”

“That’s your way, Drago, not mine,” Penne answered. “I don’t treat women as property. At least not any more.”

“I could take her back,” Drago countered. “And use her as I see fit.”

“You will not,” Penne told him. “Unless you wish the trade and other ties you have with my Empire to evaporate. You are still the ruler of a disaffected people and you need my friendship.”

“Be careful, brother,” Chrístõ told him telepathically. “He does not like to be humiliated.”

“I know. But it would do him good. If he had a shock such as I had, when your father told me the truth about my family line… my parents…. But I don’t think I was ever as bad as he is.”

“You were redeemed in time, brother,” Chrístõ told him. “He is you in many ways. Me, too, sometimes. He holds a mirror to us both and acts as a warning to us.”

“It’s a warning I intend to heed,” Penne responded.

They entered the ballroom through double doors at the top of a wide stairway. The guests turned and looked up at them, then bowed as they were announced. The King-Emperor and his Queen, the Crown Prince and Duke of Adano Menor with the honourable Miss Julia Summers and Miss Marissa Luca, and of course, the Dragon Loge Marton accompanying Princess Nestista.

Penne stepped forward and took Nestista’s hand from her brother. He waited until there was quiet and then he spoke with the confidence of his rank.

“Ambassadors and honoured guests, my friends, my subjects, it is a proud honour this evening for me to present my sister – by adoption – the gracious Princess Nestista of the House of Dúre. She comes of age tonight. So join with me in paying her the honour due to her. I give you, Nestista of Adano-Ambrado.”

There was applause and cheering as he came down the steps with Nestista. Chrístõ took both Cirena’s arm and Julia’s as he and Corwen followed. The Dragon-Loge Marton kept pace with them, not to be seen to be last, but turned at the bottom of the steps to where his black lacquered portable throne with the banners of Loggia either side was placed. He sat upon his throne and took no further part in the proceedings. His own servants brought him food and wine and he watched with an expression of bored disdain as Penne led Nestista in the first dance of the evening. At first they were alone on the floor. Then the Prime Minister took Cirena’s hand and led her out and Chrístõ and Corwen brought their ladies into the dance. Soon everyone else had followed suit. At the end of the first dance a young man, one of the nobles of Adano-Gran, approached Nestista and bowed to her and to Penne. He gave her hand to the young noble and found his queen as the dancing began again. Julia clung to Chrístõ and made sure nobody else wanted her hand.

“Don’t dance with anyone else,” she told him. “I want you for myself.”

“Don’t you want to dance with the king?” he asked her. “Or Corwen. You two look well together.”

“Corwen is dancing only with Marissa. And I love Penne, but not the way I love you. I don’t care if he is a king. You’re my prince of the universe.”

Chrístõ smiled happily. He held her close to him as they moved around the floor to a soft waltz tune. She was his. Sixteen in a few months, almost a woman, almost old enough to be his fiancée. Then a few years more and she would be his wife. He had known it for nearly six years now, since he found her as a frightened but unbeaten child on a space ship full of death. He had watched her grow from a child to a teenager, almost a woman. And now she danced in his arms and didn’t want to dance with anyone else.

“I never want to dance with anyone but you,” he told her.

“I don’t think Nestista wants to dance with anyone else, either,” Julia noted after a while. Chrístõ looked around. He had hardly been aware, for a long time, of anyone else in the crowded room. He was content for his universe to contain only two people. Now he looked and saw the princess in the arms of a young man. He was slender and rather pale of face, but far from weak, Chrístõ thought. And Nestista seemed perfectly happy dancing close to him. With all of the young nobles who had presented themselves to her she had danced formally, the hands placed properly. But she abandoned formality now and her arms were around his neck and his around her waist. They looked at each other in a certain way. Chrístõ knew the look. It was the same look he and Julia had for each other.

“She’s found her prince charming,” Julia added.

“I don’t think he’s a prince,” Chrístõ replied. He looked around and saw Cirena and Penne near the open windows that led out onto the terrace beyond the ballroom. He brought Julia to join them.

“Who is he?” he asked, nodding towards Nestista and her young man.

“His name is Julio Romano,” Penne answered. “He’s from Adano Menor. I invited him to the ball. He is a promising young artist. I hoped he would paint a portrait of Nestista. I didn’t quite expect….”

“I don’t think painting her portrait will be a great trial to him,” Cirena noted. “They seem to be getting on well.”

“There will be some disappointed nobles,” Chrístõ commented.

“If my sister is happy, then I don’t care about the nobles,” Penne responded. “Or Drago, either.”

“Drago?” Chrístõ looked around. The Dragon Loge sat on his lacquered throne still, watching the proceedings. He didn’t seem pleased. He didn’t move from his seat, but as they watched he summoned one of his guards and pointed to the couple. The guard moved through the dancers, paying little heed to their moving bodies, and stopped Julio and Nestista. He made them go to The Dragon Loge. Words were exchanged. Above the music, conversation, laughter, and dancing feet, it was impossible to hear what was said, but it was obviously heated.

“Julia, stay with Cirena,” Chrístõ said. The Queen reached out her hand to her and they stepped outside onto the cool terrace. Chrístõ and Penne moved, apparently casually, but with disguised purpose, towards the Dragon Loge’s throne.

“Is there a problem, Drago?” Penne asked when they were within hearing. Nestista looked close to tears and Romano was clearly angry. “Sister, why don’t you and Julio go and take some air? It is warm in here.”

Nestista bowed to the Dragon-Loge and backed away from him. Julio Romano bowed to Penne, his own king-Emperor, and to Chrístõ, as the Crown Prince. But he gave only a cursory nod to the Dragon-Loge and he turned his back on him as he took Nestista’s hand and drew her away.

“He is an insolent peasant,” Drago said. “Why is he even here in the presence of his betters, let alone dancing with her?”

“He is an artist,” Penne replied. “We value those with artistic talents here in my system. He has my royal patronage and as such is welcome at the palace at any time.”

“You value what is worthless,” Drago answered. “What use would he be in battle?”

“We are not in battle, now,” Penne answered. “We are at peace. Those whose talents lie in military skills have ensured the peace that those with artistic leanings need to flourish. I encourage that.”

“Be that as it may.” The Dragon-Loge Marton drew himself up on his throne. “I forbid you to allow him to pursue my sister.”

“You forget several details, Drago,” Penne replied, drawing himself up proudly, the crown on his head seeming even more prominent as he looked at his political equal. “First, you have no power to forbid me to do anything. Secondly, we are in the palace of Adano-Ambrado, not Loggia. I rule here. You are my honoured guest. Thirdly, she is not your sister. She is mine. You gave her to me. And I will defend her right to choose her own destiny even against you, Drago.”

“Do not cross me, Penne Dúre,” The Dragon-Loge Marton said angrily. “I know your weaknesses.”

“And I know yours. Arrogance is the most deadly of them all. Do not think to cross me. Least of all when you are under my palace roof. And not in front of so many diplomats who might see you acting in such an unseemly manner. Calm yourself. Take a drink. Or… stop drinking, in your case. And don’t be so foolish.”

Penne gave a cursory bow of the head. Chrístõ did the same. Then both turned, though the protocol of Loggia dictated that anybody having an audience with the Dragon-Loge should walk backwards from his presence. They both walked, very quietly and casually, towards the terrace doors.

“What is he doing?” Penne whispered to Chrístõ. “I don’t intend to look back at him.”

“He is standing up and commanding his retinue. Two of them have lifted his banners from their stands. I think he intends to retire from the proceedings.”

“Good. He has obviously taken too much wine. He will be a little more reasonable in the morning, I think.”

“Penne… be careful.”

“I intend to. But Drago really does need taking down a peg.”

“I thought that about you when we first met. But you were only a Lord. He rules a system. He may not rule it well, but he rules. And he has military might. If you make an enemy of him, then that peace you spoke of may evaporate.”

“I know,” Penne answered. “But if I let him bully me, then I don’t deserve my crown. And if I let him bully Nestista, then I don’t deserve to call myself a man.”

With that he stepped out into the cool air. He and Chrístõ both noticed Corwen and Marissa walking down the steps from the terrace to the rose garden. They cared about nothing but each other. Penne found his Queen and Julia, with Nestista and Julio. They all looked worried.

“My dear sister,” he said to Nestista. “The rose garden is big enough for two couples to find private places within it. Go, with my blessing.”

“Thank you,” she replied, kissing his cheek before clutching Julio’s hand and leading him towards the steps.

“Cirena and I should probably return to the ball,” Penne said. “Our guests may wonder if at least one part of the royal family isn’t present. Julia is a little young yet for the rose bower. A quiet promenade on the terrace before her bedtime is in order though, I think.”

“Yes,” Chrístõ agreed. He held Julia by the shoulders as they walked on the lamplit terrace. They could hear the music from inside and Chrístõ was not at all surprised when Julia asked him to dance with her out there under the stars. He held her in his arms and danced, and this time there were only the two of them as his hearts beat in rhythm with the slow music and he forgot that it was close to midnight and that Julia should have retired from the ball by now and gone to bed.

It was at least an hour later, and the music still playing inside when there was a sound that disturbed the happy mood they were both in. Chrístõ’s hearts froze and he hugged Julia close to him as what was unmistakeably a gunshot rang out. A woman screamed. Two women screamed and a male voice called out in horror. He looked around at the direction the sounds had all come from.

“Run inside,” he told Julia. “Find Major Beccan and her guards. Quickly.”