On Earth,” Marion pointed out. “It is only on the DAY of the wedding that the bride and groom can’t see each other.”

“On Gallifrey, a Time Lord who is to be joined in Alliance to his Lady spends the preceding twenty six hours in ritual purification,” Lily replied. “And the Lady and her retinue do, too, in a rather different way.”

For Kristoph it had begun in the early hours of the morning. He had told her about it last night when they spent a little quiet time together in Lily’s library. He and his brother rose before dawn and began with painfully hot, then painfully cold, baths and then went to the meditation room in the basement of Mount Lœng House to prepare spiritually and physically for what was to come.

“For what is to come!” Marion smiled nervously as Lily, her official chaperone for the very last time today, conducted her to her own purification ritual. She had been allowed to sleep a little later than Kristoph had before a light breakfast and a journey to the Northern Continent and the Capitol by fast shuttle, and then by car to the Bath House.

She wasn’t sure what to expect. She imagined places like at Bath and Harrogate with mineral spas. She imagined a modern swimming pool. The building they came to was a tall, shining one of white material like most of the buildings in the Capitol. It had a reception room with comfortable chairs and fruit in baskets on the tables and videoscreens playing a montage of Gallifreyan scenery with soft music. There, Marion greeted her ‘retinue’ as Lily had called it. Her three Gallifreyan friends who were to be her Brides Maids tomorrow, Hesthor Lundar, Calliope Patriclian and Isolatta Braxiatel. Her chief Bridesmaid, Hillary, wasn’t due to arrive until much later.

Which was probably just as well at the moment. The Bath House was a strictly female establishment, and Hillary wasn’t strictly a female.

She sat with her friends until they were called. Attendants brought them up a wide flight of stairs to changing rooms where they took off all their clothes and wrapped in large towels before going through to the bath.

It was a round room with a domed roof covered in elegant plaster mouldings on a watery mythological theme – mermaids and mermen with tridents chasing huge fish. Similar themes adorned friezes on the walls.

The bath was sunk into the floor, round and big enough to accommodate at least another six people. It was filled with comfortably warm water, infused with sweet smelling essences and replenished constantly by water pouring from the mouth of a moulded fish head at one end and drained out at the other. Marion hesitated for a moment, clinging to her towel. She felt self-conscious for the same reasons she had never been able to strip off completely in the sauna at the local leisure centre. But her Gallifreyan friends seemed to have no such worries. She took a deep breath and dropped the towel and stepped into the bath.

“Oh, it feels so nice,” she said as she sank down into the water. “I feel quite relaxed already.”

“That’s the special essences,” Hesthor told her. “They help to relieve stress.”

“You’re not meant to HAVE any stresses, anyway,” Lily added. “You are to be unstressed and tranquil and serene.”

“Are you kidding?” Marion answered with a soft laugh. “Tomorrow I am the centre of attention at the biggest social event on the planet. And when it is over, I have to…”

She stopped. Even among her friends she couldn’t talk about it. She felt she NEEDED to talk to somebody, but she couldn’t. Even though she knew they would all be kind and understanding, and that Hesthor and Isolatta, who were both married, and Lily who had lived a full life with Jules before she was widowed, could all put her mind at rest immediately. She just couldn’t ask them the questions she needed to ask, about the wedding night, about when she was alone with Kristoph and ready to give herself to him completely.

As she lay there, trying to find a way to express those thoughts, a ripple of laughter went around the Gallifreyan women. Marion looked at them questioningly.

“Isolatta, that was a very wicked thought,” Lily admonished, though she was laughing, too.

“What was?” Marion asked, laughing as well simply because the mood seemed infectious.

“I was just thinking that Calliope is the only one here who would qualify as a bridesmaid under the strict terms of the Alliance,” Isolatta admitted. “According to the rules that will be read out in the ceremony, Kristoph has the right to choose one of us to take to his bed if you fail to satisfy him.”

“What!” Marion laughed out loud. “It doesn’t say that, does it?” Then she thought about the poetic but distinctly archaic words of the Alliance that she had read over and over again in recent months. “Oh, it does, doesn’t it!”

Calliope laughed and told her she need not worry. It WAS just an old form of words and nobody had taken them literally for tens of thousands of years.

“We never change anything,” Lily said. “We make rituals and rites and we don’t change a word of them. The Law of Purity which forbids adultery completely contradicts the idea, but still it stands. The Alliance is a legal bond as well as a bond of love and it stands, despite the contradiction.”

“Still,” Marion sighed. “If I fail to satisfy…” It was exactly what worried her.

“You needn’t worry about THAT, either,” Calliope added. “What the words actually mean is if you fail to produce an heir. The reason for that clause was to ensure that the Oldblood Houses would always have an heir, one way or another. It’s that OLD obsession again.”

“Oh, well, that’s not a problem,” Marion answered. “Because I KNOW I WILL. Li saw it in my timeline. He told me I WOULD be the mother of the heir of Lœngbærrow in the fullness of time.”

“There you go then,” Calliope said. “I won’t be needed after all.” Then she thought about what Marion had said. “Who is Li?” Then Lily looked at her and Marion was sure that something telepathic had gone around the whole group. Hesthor looked as if she might say something, but then changed her mind. Marion guessed that they all knew who Li was, presumably by his real name which Marion had never known. They did not know that SHE knew him as an exile.

Lily changed the subject to an easy one. She spoke of Marion’s wedding gown and how spectacular it was going to look tomorrow.

“If I can WALK in it,” Marion added. “There is a half ton of diamonds weighing it down.”

“We all had that problem to overcome,” Hesthor told her. “I was afraid the dress was going to rip apart at the seams with the weight of them when I married Lundar. Because he’s Newblood, he wanted to show that he was as good as an Oldblood and overdid it a bit with the display.”

“I keep meaning to ask Kristoph, but I don’t quite know how to put it. WHAT happens to the diamonds afterwards? Do I give them back or…”

“They’re yours,” Lily told her. “To do as you choose. Some Ladies keep them so that they can be presented to their sons when THEY choose a wife. You would hardly need to do that, though. You are marrying into the House that owns the largest diamond mine on the planet.”

“I kept the dress,” Hesthor said. “It is hung in a special cabinet with glass in front and I like to look at it from time to time. Isolatta had her dress made into a set of cushions that adorn her private drawing room. VERY uncomfortable cushions, but very pretty.”

“I had some of mine resewn into ordinary evening gowns, around the necklines and hems,” Lily added. “Some of them… a lot of them… I have given away over the years as gifts. I’ve never discouraged my maids from having relationships. I’ve seen quite a few off with diamonds as wedding presents to set them up in their new homes.”

“The generous Silver Lily,” said Calliope with a smile. “She puts us all to shame.”

“I think…” Marion thought about it for a while. She had never owned such wealth, never dreamt of owning it. Hesthor’s idea of being able to look at the dress and know it was hers appealed. So did Isolatta’s, though she thought cutting up the dress that waited for her to wear tomorrow would be a shame. Lily’s idea of giving them away had merit. Yes, she might do that.

“Get married in it first,” Lily told her.

They were a long, long time in that first session in the bath. Then the attendants returned with warm towels and they went through a concealed door in one of the frieze covered walls to a room with low lighting and baskets of fruit and bread and a drink that looked and tasted like red wine but was non-alcoholic. Then they returned to the bath for another session. Then through another door to a place where they all laid down on comfortable, padded tables for a luxuriant massage. Marion was surprised to find herself oiled all over her body with something that smelt of exotic spices and perfumes. It was even rubbed into her hair before they returned to the bath once more.

“The oil goes deep into all your pores,” Lily explained to her. Then the warm water soaks it out again and purifies you completely.”

“Ok,” Marion said, accepting the idea and relaxing into the water once again. It was a wonder they were not all crinkled up from the long time in the water, but the massage between sessions seemed to ensure that the skin stayed supple.

The process was repeated several times more, with rests for light food inbetween. Marion wondered how relaxed it was possible to get. It was nice, though, being with her friends, just relaxing and trying NOT to think about tomorrow.

Finally, they dried themselves and dressed and were taken by car to the Conservatory where they ate a sumptuous high tea at Marion’s favourite table by the window.

“It’s snowing,” she remarked. “Snowing on the desert.”

“Only the very edge of it,” Lily told her. “Further than a few miles away it is too warm even in winter. For a few brief weeks in the spring, you will be surprised. The melting snow will turn it to a fertile place with foliage and plants. Then it gets too hot again.”

“I haven’t lived here through a whole year yet,” she admitted. I don’t know the seasons. Only late summer and autumn, and what I have seen of winter so far. It will get colder yet, I suppose?”

It was another thing she had to get used to. When Kristoph first spoke of a northern and southern continent she imagined one landmass like Europe and another the other side of the equator with the seasons opposite, like southern America or Australia. But in fact the ‘northern’ continent stretched from near the northern pole right across the equator and beyond so that the southernmost part of the northern continent, where the Capitol was, and the northern part of the southern continent where they lived, were in the same temperate zone with the same climate and seasons. She supposed it would start to make sense as she settled down and came to call it home.

For now, she just enjoyed the snow as it fell and covered the edge of the desert outside the city. It didn’t fall in the city, of course. The same glass-like shield that protected them from harmful rays of the sun and enemy attack and much more stopped rain and snow getting in. She watched flakes disintegrate when they touched it for a while, but really preferred to see it falling on the ground.

She was distracted from the snow by a new arrival. She jumped up in delight as Hillary was shown to their table by the Maitre D.

“Just got in an hour ago,” she said. “The children are at the hotel with your future mother in law. Cam and Kaye have really taken to her. So, I am all yours for the rest of the evening, my dear.”

She introduced Hillary to all of her friends. They none of them knew Hillary’s ‘secret’. For today and tomorrow she was female. At their first wedding Hillary had been Kristoph’s Best Man, but for this occasion Marion wanted her as bridesmaid and she was happy to oblige. Calliope reminded them all of what had been said earlier about the traditional role of the bridesmaid and Hillary laughed and squeezed Marion’s hand secretly. They alone knew that Hillary had almost been Kristoph’s lover long ago.

From the Conservatory, they went on to the chief entertainment of the evening. Marion thought about Earth customs for ‘hen parties’. Pubs, nightclubs, male strippers. She had once been to a party that included all those things. On Gallifrey, it was much more refined. They spent several inspiring hours at an operatic performance based on her favourite of the love poems that had been her first introduction to Gallifreyan culture even before she knew it came from Gallifrey - Pazzione Gallifreya. Hillary and Lily sat either side of her and both held her hands. She was glad of them. Apart from Li, who could not be there for the most bitter reasons, Lily and Hillary were her first non-Human friends. They were the ones she always knew she could turn to if she had any doubts. And now as she enjoyed this special evening she was glad to have them with her.

They were with her still when she said goodnight to the other three and went to the hotel where she would stay the night and get ready in the morning for her Alliance. The dress, carefully covered, was hanging in a wardrobe all of its own in the big bedroom. Her other clothes were in a separate place. All was ready.

“You should sleep,” Hillary told her as she brought a hot drink to her and saw her sitting by the window looking out. It was an intriguing view. The room was a penthouse one at the very top of one of the tall buildings. The only one taller was the spire of the Panopticon itself. Above it all was the dome with snow still disintegrating off it. Above that was the burnt-orange-black night sky, hazy with snow clouds that hid the stars.

“I will, soon,” she said taking the drink. “I just…”

“Nervous?” Hillary asked.

“I AM happy,” she assured her friend. “I love Kristoph. And tomorrow… Yes, I’m nervous. It IS such a huge ceremony. I wish there was a simpler way. Just me and Kristoph and a few of my friends. You, of course. And Lily.”

As if on cue Lily slipped into the room. She, too, was surprised that she was not in bed yet.

“She’s nervous,” Hillary said.

“Of course you are. That’s understandable. But you must sleep. Come on. Get into bed and close your eyes.”

Marion did as she said. They both sat beside her as she rested her head on the soft pillow. Hillary stood as if to go but she reached out to her.

“Stay with me. I don’t want to be alone tonight. Besides… I am sure… there IS a custom. Lily, you are supposed to be my chaperone until first light.”

“There is,” Lily admitted. “Would you like us both to stay?”

“Yes, I would,” she answered. “Yes. You of all people. Both of you loved Kristoph before me. You DO understand better than any. Stay by me.”

“We will,” Lily promised. So did Hillary. They both sat by the bedside until she finally fell asleep, then they took turns to rest on the sofa as they kept vigil beside her until the morning of her Alliance with the man they had both at different times had hopes for. Now their hopes were for Marion.