The Ruby of Ambrado, flagship of the Adano-Ambradan space fleet slipped gracefully into synchronised orbit above the Loggian capital. It was not the only ship in what was very much an executive space parking zone. Crowned heads and elected leaders of dozens of worlds were getting ready for an event few expected to see in their lifetimes....

The Dragon Loge Marton, Emperor of Loggia was formally announcing his engagement....

To a woman!

“Come on, Penne,” Chrístõ urged as he and his blood brother the King-Emperor of Adano-Ambrado were being dressed by attendants after a long shared bath. “You must know something about this woman. Who is she?”

“I don’t know,” Penne Dúre admitted in a tone that implied deep regret at being so far removed from this piece of intergalactic gossip. “Drago attended a state function on Claricx-IV. I was busy that weekend so he represented me. Apparently this woman – Princess Xalia – was the belle of the ball. She wowed them all. What are you smiling about, Chrístõ?”

“Your use of old-fashioned Earth expressions like Belle of the Ball and ‘Wowed’. You’ve been learning from me! So, do I take it that Drago was ‘wowed’ by her?”

“He must have been. He’s a new man ever since. He SMILES.”

“He always smiled.”

“Yes, but like a land shark, not a man. He really is in LOVE!”

“I suppose it had to happen one of these days. The only question was what species or gender he fell in love with. A beautiful humanoid woman is almost too good to be true. A woman who can give him an heir and secure the line of succession, a woman who might keep a lid on his excesses just as Cirena did for you, Penne. I hope it all works out.”

Penne grimaced at being reminded of his wild days before his marriage. Chrístõ smiled back at him as he let the valet place the coronet of the Crown Prince of Adano-Ambrado on his head. With the silk robes and ermine trimmed gown he looked every inch the heir presumptive to the imperial throne, though a crown still sat heavily on his egalitarian head.

He looked – as always - the very image of Penne Dúre himself. The likeness was pure coincidence, a twist of genetics, but their friendship went far deeper. They looked at each other and nodded in understanding.

“Let’s go and find our women,” Penne suggested. “This princess will have competition from them. They’ve been getting ready for an hour longer than we have.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t start earlier than that!” Chrístõ remarked. They left the dressing room next door to the King-Emperor’s huge bathroom and met Corwen Dúre, Duke of Adano, Penne’s other heir presumptive – presumptive on his faulty genes allowing him to outlive his father – and Julio Romano who was courting Princess Nestista.

“Did we allow them enough time?” Julio asked about their still absent ladies. “Perhaps three hours wasn’t QUITE long enough.”

“They know all about this Princess Xalia,” Penne answered. “They’re making sure they’re not outshone.”

The four men grinned knowingly and headed to the stateroom to wait for their ladies. They enjoyed an aperitif and made small talk as gentlemen do in such circumstances.

Then all conversation ceased as the ladies, one queen, one princess and two fiancées of ordinary birth but looking almost indistinguishable from their titled companions, came into the stateroom. The fashion this season was for wide, flowing skirts and sculpted bodices, and all of the ladies carried that look well. Julia, with her petite figure, wore high heels to give her a few extra inches of height. She wore only light make up to enhance her features. She was accustomed to a heavy, stylised ‘performance’ cosmetics when she was in her gymnastic competitions and preferred a ‘less is more’ approach to her evening look.

Queen Cirena’s evening dress was complemented by a gold and diamond tiara and a royal sash. Princess Nestista had a silver tiara carefully woven into her hair and a narrower sash. Marissa, Corwen’s sweetheart, and Julia, fiancée of the Crown Prince Chrístõ wore silver hair combs that denoted their importance but weren’t quite symbols of royalty.

“Princess Xalia has a LOT of competition,” Chrístõ said as he took Julia’s arm and slipped into position behind Penne and Cirena and beside Corwen and Marissa, with Julio and Nestista last in the complex line of the Adano-Ambrado succession. They walked in formal procession past an honour guard of soldiers in the powder-blue uniform of the Guardia Real to the shuttle craft that would take them to the Loggian Palace.

As Loggia’s closest allies, the Adano-Ambrado shuttle landed first on the roof of the palace. The Loggian guard in red and black with swords gleaming in the moonlight formed a phalanx that was part honour guard and part the paranoia of the Dragon-Loge who lived in constant expectation of assassination or usurpation. As the Adano-Ambradon party stepped into an entrance hall with a wide staircase covered in plush red carpet the next group of crowned heads arrived.

In the throne room they were formally announced to the Dragon-Loge seated in splendour on his ancient throne. Chrístõ and Penne both looked in surprised at the room, the throne and Drago himself. All were transformed since their last visit to the Palace. The throne and throne room had always been a combination of black obsidian and red lacquer and Drago’s royal robes were a combination of velvet and leather in the same colour scheme.

But now the ceiling of the throne room was gilded and the floor pure white marble inlaid with gold florets while the walls were adorned with delicate tapestries and gold satin curtains. The throne was red and gold and so was Drago, wearing silk-satin and velvet with a full crown studded with jewels and a heavy gold and ruby chain around his neck.

Chrístõ and Penne stepped forward together and bowed to him formally, followed by the rest of their party before they had leave to speak informally to him.

“Drago, the redecoration is spectacular,” Penne told him. “What brought on the change of style?”

“Just a whim,” he answered. “Do you like it?”

“That depends,” Chrístõ replied before Penne had chance to give a diplomatic reply. “Have you over-taxed your subjects to pay for the renovations of the palace, or looted cathedrals and monasteries for the gold, put wealthy men in the dungeon and stolen their worldly goods?”

“Nothing like that,” Drago assured him. “I made some very good trade deals that filled my personal treasure vaults as well as benefitting the population as a whole. I employed the best craftsmen in the realm to do the work – at very favourable rates. Nobody has any reason to resent my decision to upgrade the state rooms of my palace.”

“Then it is a refreshing change from the martial look you used to favour,” Chrístõ conceded. He bowed again and stepped aside so that other visitors might be presented. The throne room rapidly filled with the crown, coronet and tiara adorned heads of the galactic quadrant. The conversation amongst the beautifully dressed and bejewelled ladies was all about one thing – the princess who had captured the heart of the Dragon-Loge – and her absence so far.

“Perhaps she took even longer than our ladies to get dressed,” Penne remarked.

“Or maybe she wants to make a big entrance once she can be assured of every eye in the place turning on her,” Chrístõ considered. “As long as Drago isn’t worried.”

Drago wasn’t worried. He was too busy talking to the Ambassadors from Cantori IV and drinking actinic green cocktails faster than his retainers could bring them to him.

“Drago has an iron stomach,” Chrístõ noted. “But I think I’ll stick close to Julia and make sure she avails of the alcohol free aperitifs. There will be enough wine with the dinner for a girl who gets light-headed from a small sherry.”

Penne laughed and found a small group of important heads of state to make diplomatic conversation for himself. Chrístõ quickly found Julia sipping a long glass of lime soda and talking to the Infanta of Bétélgéuse - A woman who might well have been stunningly beautiful but it was hard to tell what she looked like under enough carefully applied make up to cover the faces of a whole rhythmic gymnastics team. She wore a headdress almost a foot taller and two foot wider than she was. Carrying herself while encumbered by such a magnificent but unwieldy hat must have been something she was trained to from birth.

“Chrístõ, we need you,” Julia said with an enticing smile. “You’ve travelled more than anyone else, here. What do you know about Polimo?”

“Polimo?” Chrístõ was puzzled. “I will need a clue. Is it a new dance, a type of butterfly, or something being served between the fish and fowl at dinner tonight?”

“It’s a planet,” the Infanta explained as Julia giggled and tried not to spill her drink. “The planet from where the Princess Xalia hails. I cannot find ANYONE who has even heard of it. Lady Julia was sure you would know something of it.”

“I’m afraid I have to disappoint you both. I know nothing of it, either. I didn’t even know that WAS the name of the princess’s home world. I suppose I ought to have asked. But then I have no reason for such curiosity. I’m here purely as a guest. If I had any interest in trade or diplomatic ties with the princess’s people I would have done some homework.”

“Didn’t you see the whole of time and space when you were eight years old and looked into the Untempered Schism?” Julia asked. “Wasn’t Polimo a part of that whole?”

“It might have been, but I didn’t remember all of it. I’d need several hours of deep meditation in a Zero room to retrieve a specific memory like that.”

The Infanta was impressed by the idea that he COULD do such a thing. She didn’t ask him to try. Neither did Julia.

“Never mind, I still love you,” Julia promised. “Even if you aren’t completely infallible.”

“That’s all that matters, then. And you may be assured that this princess, when she does turn up, won’t turn my head in any way. I am sure her charms are over-exaggerated, anyway.”

“They must be,” the Infanta remarked. “On my world I am known as the Pearl of the East, the Radiant Beauty of Dawn. It would be quite improper for an unknown princess from an obscure world to outshine me!”

“Your Highness, you shall never be outshone by any mortal woman,” Chrístõ said, bowing low before her. It was the proper way to comment about the beauty of the Infanta. He had learnt such things as the son of an Ambassador long before he became a Crown Prince and this was not the first time he had put those lessons into practice.

The Infanta was pleased by his homage and even if he was not planning to make any trade deals on this occasion he was assured of a friendly welcome should he ever visit Bétélgéuse in the near future.

But where was the Princess Xalia? The question was beginning to dominate every conversation around the gilded throne room. Drago was beginning to look concerned. Surely there was an optimum time for making a grand entrance after which a girl was simply late to dinner.

“If she doesn’t come, Drago is going to be very upset,” Julia noted.

“More to the point, he will be humiliated in front of four hundred and fifty very important people and most of his servants. I wouldn’t want to be in his presence when his anger reaches boiling point.”

“Is he really so very difficult?” the Infanta asked. “Surely he is an agreeable man? Look how he is joking with the Voivode of Erlanda.”

“Yes, Chrístõ and Penne have him almost civilised,” Julia remarked. “But if his newly softened heart is broken, goodness knows what he will do.”

“Oh, dear,” the Infanta commented, looking towards the Dragon-Loge. This time she noticed him glance away from the Voivode and past the wide, ermine covered bulk of the Mighty Herzog of Munoa, towards the stubbornly closed doors where the herald still waited to announce the very last guest. His smile faltered and he lost something of the self-assurance that made him such a powerful ruler.

“She has to come,” Julia murmured as Drago turned back to the conversation he was having with the Voivode, carefully giving the impression of being interested and amused by his fellow despotic ruler. “She must, for his sake.”

Julia had never really thought of Drago as somebody to pity, but right now she did. So much depended on the arrival of this mysterious princess and her continued absence pained him deeply.

Then the gilded doors swung open and the herald, already standing to attention, stiffened further as he announced the Princess Xalia of Polimo to a suddenly hushed throne room. Julia was looking towards the door so she didn’t see Drago leave his throne and move across the floor that was almost magically cleared for him. Suddenly he was there, the Dragon-Loge coming to meet his princess instead of her being presented to him. As she entered the throne room, HE bowed low to her. Anyone who knew Drago in any way must have been trying to remember the last time he was obeisant to anyone else. Perhaps he never had been.

But Drago was head over heels in love with Xalia, and it showed in every movement of his body as he straightened up and reached to take her delicate hand in his.

She WAS beautiful. The Infanta and several dozen other ladies who were praised as the greatest splendour of their race knew that they paled into insignificance before her.

As Xalia walked back to the throne with Drago past bows and curtseys for her as much as for the Dragon-Loge, Julia studied her with a practiced eye. She noted her fine, glossy hair, a shade paler than blonde, fixed now in a complicated arrangement above and around her head, but obviously very long when it was brushed out at night. She noted the almost luminescent peaches and cream complexion with only the very lightest cosmetic touches for this formal occasion, eyes the colour of sapphires, a mouth that formed a natural ‘kiss’ when it wasn’t smiling blissfully at being the centre of such attention. Her figure was well-proportioned and the sculpted bodice and flowing skirt of the cream coloured dress, glittering with jewels, set it off perfectly. Like Julia – and indeed most women for whom that word ‘petite’ was politer than ‘short’ - she wore high heeled dancing shoes.

GLASS dancing shoes! Julia caught a glance of them beneath her skirt and looked again questioningly. They couldn’t, of course, be actual glass. They would break even on somebody who walked as if she was on air. They must be some kind of glass-like resin or crystal. And there had to be some sort of cushioning inside, something as opaque as the shoes themselves, otherwise she would already be in agony.

But the was no doubt. Cinderella had come to the ball in her glass slippers.

Julia smothered a giggle that might be taken as an insult to the lady and wondered if she might be close to the mark. Was there some secret behind her tardiness – maybe not a pumpkin coach and a fairy godmother, but something else that she had to carefully hide before arriving in the throne room.

Or was she doing it again – looking for darkness under the light, the catch in something that seemed perfect. She looked at Drago as he mounted the throne dais and turned to his court. He was smiling in a genuinely joyful way.

“My friends,” he said in a simple, unassuming way that wasn’t at all like him. “May I present to you all, my fiancée, Princess Xalia of Polimo.”

Everyone bowed or curtseyed according to gender or planetary custom. The lovely princess curtseyed in return, then as Drago clung to her hand there was a spontaneous round of applause. Everyone knew something of Drago’s reputation. They also knew that, as despots came, he was quite a decent one. They were all genuinely pleased that he was happily in love.

Or the princess was an ethereal creature capable of casting a glamour over the whole Court at once. Julia squinted and tipped her head to look at Xalia from an angle, trying to see if she might catch a glimpse of what was beneath the loveliness. There was nothing strange or out of place.

“I know what you mean.” Chrístõ’s telepathic voice whispered in her mind. He had sensed her thoughts and reached out to her. “It does seem too good to be true.”

She couldn’t answer him telepathically since she wasn’t wearing her psychic brooch – it didn’t go with the set of diamonds she was wearing tonight – but he could still read her answer.

“I’m going to keep an eye on her at midnight. And if there ARE any pumpkins or white mice about I’m going to be a little bit annoyed at how corny that would be.”

She felt Chrístõ’s laugh and then gave attention to Drago as he was speaking. Again, the despot who considered himself above all but a few very high born emperors and grand caliphs spoke as if he was with his equal and intimate friends.

“My dear Xalia was delayed by a faulty release mechanism on the royal shuttle craft. That cannot be allowed to happen again. I shall have my best mechanics working on the problem. But, happily, she is with us now, so let us move on to the grand dining hall where our engagement banquet awaits.”

Gilded doors were thrown open to the right hand side of the throne room. Again the crowd parted to allow the Dragon-Loge and his betrothed princess to pass by first. The House of Dúre, including the Crown Prince and his fiancée as well as the lowly Julio Romano and his princess followed behind, then all of the Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses, Caliphs and Caliphas, Voivodes, Herzogs, Matrices, Presidents and High Ambassadors.

They passed into a room as finely decorated with marble and gilding as the throne room had been. A huge square table seating the hundred and fifty guests in something like a democratic way was covered in fine linen, gleaming with crystal glassware and shining silver, fine china and decorations of fine spun sugar flowers. Behind every seat was a liveried footman who held the chairs for the guests as they found their places marked in gold leaf printed upon silver notecards.

Penne was beside Drago and Chrístõ beside him, with Julia at his side. Cirena was beside Princess Xalia and the rest of the Adano-Ambrado royal family arrayed either side. They stood at first, with the footmen still holding their chairs. A Herald with a perfectly pitched voice sang the Loggian national anthem – in praise of the justice and mercy of the Dragon-Loge.

The anthem was followed by a kind of prayer of thanksgiving for the health of the Dragon-Loge and the munificence of his person. Then Drago nodded to his guests and they sat. Waiters, one for each guest, brought the first course of what was a magnificent twenty-four course meal.

“Twenty-Four Courses!” Chrístõ smiled knowingly as Julia wondered to herself how she was going to eat that many courses and still fit into a sculpted bodice. But she had attended formal dinners of as many as fourteen courses before. She knew that most of the earlier parts of the meal were small portions, like the beautifully presented salmon mousse in a piquant sauce that was eaten in five or six mouthfuls picked up by the slender, delicate fish fork or the course with the grand title of amuse-bouche - parmesan pannacotta with a dill and garlic garnish that was as easily eaten with an even more delicate fork. There were palette cleansers of champagne sorbet or a cress and celery salad with only the lightest of dressings before getting onto the important dishes like blue-tinged fish in fruit sauce and slices of roast game bird in honey.

With those courses were an assortment of wines – first a plum-yellow sweet wine, then a crisp dry white, then a deep red, followed by sparkling champagne with the four different dessert courses and brandy liquors with the after dinner chocolates and coffee.

Julia knew the effect alcohol had on her from past experience. She no more than sipped at her wine and more often reached for the far larger crystal glass which was dutifully filled with a lime-flavoured sparkling water. She drank one full glass of champagne when Drago, perhaps a little under the influence of his own alcohol consumption, suddenly rose to toast his new fiancée and every other lovely woman in the room. Of course everyone else had to rise to reply to his toast before sitting down and smiling happily to each other.

When the brandy and coffee were warming the throats of the guests, Drago announced that the dancing would commence shortly. First he made a little speech about how much he loved Xalia and was looking forward to the day when she would have no reason to be late, since she would be always at his side as his wife.

Princess Xalia beamed happily at the idea of being Drago’s wife, but one or two of the more perceptive guests might have detected a brief moment of hesitation that showed in her sapphire eyes. There was a tiny doubt in her mind about how happy she and Drago would be. Something troubled her beneath the joy.

It was the women who noticed it - Julia, Cirena, even Nestista and Marissa who both barely had eyes for any man but their own true loves. The Infanta, sitting not so very far down the pecking order of crowned heads noted it, too.

Chrístõ felt their thoughts even though he wasn’t looking at either the princess or any of the ladies. He would have put it down to feminine fancy except that Julia shot him a glance across the table that warned him not to dismiss ANYTHING she thought, otherwise she would take steps to stop him intruding on those thoughts.

“She must know about Drago’s mercurial temper,” Chrístõ replied telepathically. “She might have wondered if it was all going to be smiles and champagne. I rather think there WILL be moments. I don’t think he’s going to change from despot to doting husband overnight.”

There wasn’t much time to think about it as Drago and his princess led the procession into the ballroom. Here, again, was a gilded ceiling and polished floor, mirrored walls that reflected the light from fifteen great chandeliers and made the room look even bigger than it truly was, and a gallery where a full orchestra prepared to play for the dancers.

This wasn’t a room either Penne or Chrístõ had seen before. They knew the palace had to have such a room, but Drago had never shown any inclination to hold this sort of party in the past. They both thoroughly approved of the magnificence and waited to see if the Dragon-Loge could dance.

He could. Whether he had learnt from childhood as the King-Emperor and Crown Prince of Adano-Ambrado both were or if he had taken a crash course on discovering that he was capable of romantic love, neither were sure, but he danced lightly and skilfully, whirling his princess around the empty floor before Penne and Cirena joined them and gradually the space filled with beautiful women in swirling gowns and men doing their best not to look plain and dowdy as they held them.

“You’re the best dancer here,” Chrístõ assured Julia as he held her by the waist for a complicated dance not unlike the Volta that was popular among the more energetic of the Tudor and Stuart ballrooms on Earth. When it came to the bit where the lady leapt high in her partner’s arms Julia did it en-pointe as she had learnt to do in ballet classes and landed gracefully and on the right foot for the next step. Some of the other dancers had trouble with the landings or failed to get as high on the leap.

Princess Xalia wasn’t one of them and Julia was almost ready to contradict Chrístõ’s assertion as she glanced at the radiant lady from time to time. She danced like a prima ballerina, even knowing how to turn her head without getting dizzy when another formal dance required the ladies to pirouette.

“Princesses ARE taught to dance that way,” Julia pointed out. “But she is far better than most. Even Cirena, who is a lovely dancer, looks clumsy next to her.”

“She is the perfect future queen,” Chrístõ agreed. “Everything Drago needs.”

“She can’t be perfectly perfect,” Julia decided. “Maybe she has a big purple birthmark on her bottom or something.”

Chrístõ laughed despite himself.

“I think you’d LIKE something like that,” he said. “All the women in this room want her to have some kind of flaw. It’s part jealousy and part desire to know that she is as mortal as the rest of you. But a birthmark on her….”

He laughed again as an excuse not to say the word.

“I am the son of an Ambassador. I grew up in palaces and mansions meeting people of high birth. Thinking about princesses… posterior areas… is not gentlemanly, let alone diplomatic. I’m not even going there again. I’m trying not to think about it.”

“It’s an hour past midnight, so the Cinderella theory is out, too,” Julia conceded.

Though as another hour, two hours, passed in dancing to exquisite music, she noticed that the princess was starting to look a little less luminescent. From time to time she did falter in her perfect dance steps and she leaned on Drago’s shoulder as if she was getting tired.

Perhaps she was, at that. It had already been late in the evening when the grand banquet was over. Many couples had retreated from the floor and were sitting on gilded chairs around the ballroom. Corwen had taken to a seat early on with Marissa dutifully at his side. He had rehydrated his body with sparkling water served in champagne flutes and watched his father and friends continue to dance.

But the Dragon-Loge wanted to dance with his princess and nobody had the temerity to tell him she didn’t have his stamina.

At least until Cirena went up to the couple between sets and asked to have one dance with her husband’s best friend and ally. Drago bowed gallantly and held her in the formal and appropriate way.

Meanwhile Julia and Nestista, along with the Infanta, gathered around Xalia and brought her to an empty set of chairs where Drago could still see her when he swung the Queen of Adano-Ambrado around in his arms.

Until the end of the dance when he looked and found all four women gone from the room.

“Don’t worry,” Cirena told him gently as he broke from her. “Xalia is tired. She’s retired to a side room for a little while. Women need that sort of quiet time sometimes, with just other women for company.”

“I wanted to sit with her in the garden once everyone else had gone to bed,” he answered. “She is so beautiful in the moonlight – her hair is like gossamer.”

“I’m sure it is, Drago, but let her rest for a little while, first.”

He could not insist on anything else without regressing to his despotic manner, but it was clear that the sparkle had gone out of the evening for him. He sat alone, watching the other dancers for a further half hour before sending a message to the orchestra via one of the servants. They struck up a deep chord that signalled the start of the Loggian anthem. The guests stood to attention politely until it was done, and that signalled the end of the ball. Those returning to their own ships quickly departed. The Adano-Ambradon party and the Infanta of Bétélgéuse were staying in the guest wing of the palace and took their time. Chrístõ and Penne sat with Drago in the empty, echoing ballroom where the servants waited for their Lord to finally depart before they could begin the task of cleaning up.

“I love her so much,” Drago admitted in a voice a little slurred by alcohol and tiredness as well as the trough in his mood after the high he had floated upon all night. “Where has she gone?”

“To bed, I should think,” Penne answered. “Where you should be, Drago, my friend. Next time, don’t keep your princess up so late. You’ve worn her out with dancing.”

Drago accepted that explanation and decided to forgo the walk in the moonlight, though when he finally went to his bed chamber, followed by his valet, he was not a happy Dragon-Loge.

“I pity that man having to get him into bed and asleep,” Chrístõ said about the valet. “Drago is definitely having a dark moodswing, now.”

“The princess ought to see him like that before she decides to marry him!” Penne remarked. “Forewarned is forearmed.”

Chrístõ agreed. They both started towards their own bedchambers. As they stepped through the oak doors into the guest wing, though, they were met by a woman they almost failed to recognise at first. It was the Infanta without her headdress and most of her make-up, though still wearing the ballgown that had gone with it.

“Your highness,” she said to Chrístõ. “Your lady Julia bid me to bring you – just you. She said you were the only one who could do anything to help the princess.”

“Princess Xalia? Is she ill? There are royal physicians who might be summoned. Does Drago know? He will be beside himself.”

“He must not know. Nobody must know of this. Sir, will you come?”

“Go on, Chrístõ,” Penne told him. “Whatever the problem, I reckon you’re the man to solve it.”

He had no choice, of course. Julia had summoned him, believing him to be the only one who could help. He was sure he wasn’t, but he could not let her down, let alone the princess.

The Infanta wouldn’t or couldn’t explain the problem. He had expected Julia to be a little more forthcoming when he met her in the Princess’s private drawing room.

She wasn’t.

“Forget Cinderella,” she told him. “It’s more like the Little Mermaid or Rusalka or… or… Mrs Shrek.”

“Mrs Shrek?” Chrístõ queried, more than a little nonplussed.

“I can’t remember her name. We saw the film when I was about twelve. The other two I did in ballet history with Madam Corr. But the point is….”

“Polimo – as in polimorphic!” Chrístõ began to understand. “All right, let me see her.”

“She’s upset. Be gentle with her.”

“Well, obviously,” Chrístõ responded as he approached the door to the princess’s bed chamber. When he opened it he was blocked by a woman – at least he assumed it was a woman – dressed in blue satin from head to foot, even including a heavy veil that covered her face.

“Your Majesty, this is Chrístõ,” Julia told the princess’s mother. “He can help Xalia.”

“Very well,” the Polimo queen responded in a voice heavy with doubt. Chrístõ stepped in and nodded to Cirena who was sitting by the curtained four poster bed where the princess lay.

Julia’s odd assortment of cultural references were perfectly apt. He reached out and touched Xalia’s forehead, noting the deep red, leathery skin, the hooded eyes that seemed to be very sensitive to light, the flattened nostrils and lipless mouth. He gently ran his hand from her neck to her lower spine, counting the raised and extended vertebrae forming a row of horns down her back. He held her swollen hands with three thick fingers and no thumbs and looked at foreshortened feet with fused toes that couldn’t possibly have fitted into ordinary court shoes, let alone the glittering glass ones that had been carefully placed beside her bed.

“Holding the humanoid form for so long, all the dancing, the emotional toll of being with Drago… it all completely exhausted you, didn’t it, my dear girl.”

“I’m not a girl, I’m a monster,” she answered tearfully.

“You’re nothing of the sort,” Chrístõ assured her. “You are what you are.” He glanced around at her mother who had raised her veil to reveal the same red, leathery face. “This is your natural physiognomy. Why do you hide it?”

“Because we are the last of our kind,” the Queen answered for her. “Our world was destroyed by a devastating asteroid collision when she was an infant. I had taken her on a state visit to one of our neighbouring planetary systems when the disaster occurred. Since then we have been refugees, living by the munificence of our peers… the kings and emperors of worlds we once had thriving trade agreements with. We naturally morphed into forms that would be pleasing to our hosts, but it was necessary to revert to our true nature when we were in our private quarters.”

“I can see that,” Chrístõ noted. “She grew up into a fine young woman despite your difficulties.”

“She grew into a princess, able to conduct herself among the greatest of company. Many princes desired her hand in marriage, but she turned them all down – until she met the Dragon-Loge of Loggia.”

“I love him,” the princess cried pitifully. “But if he sees me like this…”

“If his love is true, he won’t disdain you,” Chrístõ told her.

“Don’t be silly,” Julia replied to him. “This is Drago we’re talking about. Besides, apart from Mrs Shrek, have you EVER heard of a story like this that works out? The handsome princes are always put off by the transformation, as well as the fact that they were deceived. Rusalka, the Mermaid, Swan Lake – they’re all TRAGEDIES. And you KNOW that Drago will just go totally ballistic if he finds out.”

“Then what do you think I can do?”

“Make me into the woman he loves,” Xalia answered him. “Your lady said you could.”

“You did it for the people of Clari-Bura,” Julia reminded him. “You worked a miracle there. You saved them all from misery.”

“It took me three weeks of research to find the answer to their troubles,” Chrístõ pointed out. “If we’re going to keep Drago from knowing the truth we have until a little after daylight.”

“But this time it’s only one person – or two if you can help her mother, as well.”

“Help them to become Humanoid, to live a lie, instead of being their true selves – the last of a unique species.” He wasn’t refusing to help, but he wanted everyone present – Xalia and her mother, Julia, Cirena and the Infanta – to understand the implications of what was being asked of him.

“I love him,” Xalia insisted. For her that was all that mattered.

“It is her chance to have a real home,” the Queen added. “She will be taken care of when I am gone.”

There were all kinds of ethical reasons not to do what was being asked of him. The fact that he would be eradicating a species was one vital consideration. It wasn’t exactly genocide – not when the last two members of that species were ASKING for it to be done – but it was very close to it.

“I CAN do it, with the chameleon arch in my TARDIS. I can programme it to alter your DNA. You have to understand two things. First, that it is permanent. There will be no turning back. Second, it is excruciatingly painful. You will suffer terrible agonies this night.”

“I am already in agony,” Xalia responded. “I will face the pain if it means I can be happy in the future.”

“All right,” Chrístõ decided. He turned to Cirena. “I’ll need my TARDIS. It’s aboard the Ruby, of course. Can you send for it?”

A little after dawn, the Dragon-Loge Marton woke. The curtains had been drawn back and light was flooding into the bed chamber. Coffee and buttered toast was being served by his valet, a light meal before his morning exercise and the formal breakfast later.

He was surprised to see Chrístõ by the window.


“I need to talk to you,” he said, moving towards the bed and accepting the cup of coffee that the valet gave to him before discreetly leaving the two gentlemen alone. “About Xalia.”

“What about her?” Drago looked worried. “Is she ill? Has she left…. Is she….”

“She’s perfectly well now that she’s rested. Later, the two of you are going for a leisurely walk in your garden. There is something the two of you need to talk about before your relationship goes much further.”

“What?” Drago was alarmed. “What secret has she kept from me?”

“Calm down,” Chrístõ told him. “I’m here to tell you all about it before she does - so that you’ll be ‘cool’ about it. That’s Julia’s word, not mine.”

“Well… what is it? I love her. I will forgive anything. But tell me what it is.”

“Don’t panic,” Chrístõ again told him. “She’s just going to admit to you that she is broke. She IS a princess, but one with no money or land, no property of any sort. There is no financial gain for you in marrying her. That’s bothering her a bit. It’s why she got worried last night and left the ball. She talked to Cirena and Julia and between them they convinced her to tell you the full truth. And since you love her, I KNOW you won’t reject her for something like that.”

“No money?” Drago was puzzled. “But her gown, the jewels she wore….”

“Borrowed from generous friends,” Chrístõ explained. “She’s not the only royal with financial problems. The Infanta of Bétélgéuse is nearly broke. She’s looking for a rich husband, too. And if you recall, when you first approached the House of Dúre you weren’t doing so well, yourself. It was only the partnership with Adano-Ambrado that kept Loggia solvent for several years.”

“I am aware of that,” Drago was at haste to assure him. “And I do not care about money. I am surprised that any of you thought it would be a problem. I love Xalia. She IS going to be my wife – my queen. I won’t hear of any obstacle to that objective – not even from a friend. Let you take that warning to the King-Emperor and anyone else who harbours doubts about my beloved.”

Chrístõ took the censure humbly and returned to the guest quarters to convey it to his friends. Later, after a breakfast fit for royalty everyone kept their distance while the Dragon-Loge and his Princess took a joyful walk in the palace gardens.

“Nobody ever breathes a word of what went on last night,” Penne Dúre ordered with all the power and authority in his soul. “Drago will never know that his future queen is anything other than the most beautiful woman in the galaxy.”

Silent nods around the room were all the proof he needed that the pact was made.