In a lifespan of centuries, the first eight years are utterly insignificant. A period of ignorance humiliating both for the family at the time and the individual in hindsight, to be endured then hurriedly forgotten.
For Narvin, only one memory from this time stands out. He was on holiday with his family at Lake Abydos. Years after his appointment as Chancellor, he’ll realise he can’t remember the child’s name or House or what she looked like; she has become Romana in his head, and isn’t that perfectly representative of what his life is now, that he can’t keep her out of even the earliest bit of himself he has?
“I’m the heir to Heartshaven,” the dark haired Time Tot declared, her small hands on her hips and her chin tilted upwards. “I’m better than you. So you have to be the slave.”
It isn’t that Narvin hasn’t noticed sons and daughters of Great Houses ascend the political ladder rather quicker than their merit accounts for. It isn’t that he doesn’t recognise that he has to work twice as hard for maybe a quarter of the recognition, just because of his House and its low place in the hierarchy. It isn’t that he doesn’t know that every member of the Inner Council comes from Goodlight, Lungbarrow, Warpsmith, Firebrand or Heartshaven. He isn’t an idealistic fool.
That is precisely why he turns down the offer of a place in Vansell’s Outer Chamber. It’s true enough that members of those five Houses are a small minority of the population, but they dominate the upper echelons of Gallifrey’s power structure. The Outer Chamber is a mere nuisance to the Inner Council, and only its utter powerlessness and the tradition of its existence prevents it from being squashed like a flutterwing. No, the only power on Gallifrey is that of the Inner Council. Narvin needs power to best serve his planet’s interests. So he’ll beat the nobility at their own game, even if he has to play with half a deck of marked cards. He’s good enough. He’ll prove it.
President Borusa goes mad towards the end of his life. Vansell celebrates the unprecedented concessions made to the Outer Chamber. Narvin studies his fellow Councillors, judging who will act first. He keeps his hand unobtrusively near his staser, in case one of them should decide the first ever appointment of a member of a lesser House to a seat on the Inner Council was an early sign of the President’s madness and seek to rectify it. Too unobtrusively for Chancellor Delox, who grows impatient and decides to enact his policies before he attains the Presidency.
He isn’t surprised when Councillor Romanadvoratrelundar, heir to Heartshaven, takes the Presidency after Borusa’s sudden death. Several have paid the price of underestimating her; Narvin has always been careful not to. Unlike the late Delox, Romana is intelligent enough to accord him the same regard.
He is surprised when, having survived, schemed and stasered her way into the highest office, she turns round and takes him as her Chancellor.
“Narvinnektrolonum,” she says, her tongue flicking contemptuously around the too-few syllables, “it’s not an offer.”
Second sunset has fallen by the time Narvin’s last meeting finishes, and he makes his way to his chambers. His President will require a report of the results, but she never works late and does not, he discovered quickly, appreciate being disturbed after suns-set.
He stops in front of his door. The lock is disengaged. His door has been opened without any of his lethal alarms being triggered. Either by a remarkably intelligent assassin, or someone with a Presidential override, or both, though he considers that a remote possibility. An assassin wouldn’t be careless enough to leave the lock visibly disengaged: it could be a bluff, but far better to let him assume all is normal.
Narvin hasn’t survived five years as Chancellor by taking chances. Twenty microspans later, he has reached the door that opens from the passageway into his chambers. His staser is in his hand, as it has been all during his trip down the passage, though it seems no-one has disturbed the spiders since he was last down here. It would be a truly exceptional assassin who was aware of the existence of these secret passages.
Narvin stands against the wall as the door slides open. No staser bolts come flying through. This passage comes out in the bathroom, which has excellent acoustics. The slightest whisper of breath or click of weaponry would be easily audible. He listens, and is satisfied no-one is waiting for him to step out.
If there are assassins, they’re likely to hide in his bedroom, to surprise him later. If not, he expects to find his visitor in the living room. He enters the living room with his staser in readiness, nevertheless.
Romana is seated in his favourite chair and looks up as he enters the room. “Narvin!” He is gratified to see genuine surprise on her face for an instant, before she composes herself. “Do put your staser away. You’re not going to shoot me.”
“Supreme Leader.” Narvin does as he’s told.
“Help yourself” – he notices she’s holding a glass of what looks like his best Cadonian brandy – “and sit down,” Romana says, gesturing at the chair opposite, one of his least favourite chairs, reserved for guests. “You took your time, Chancellor. Have you been in there all this time?”
“I’m sorry,” he says dryly, “I wasn’t expecting guests. I assumed you would be paying Guard Commander Andred a visit.” He pours himself a small measure, noting the new lower level, before taking the indicated seat. He’d rather be clear-headed for whatever this will be about.
Romana takes a sip. “Was your meeting successful?”
“You will have the report by first sunrise-” he starts. The matter isn’t so important as to warrant her attention now rather than in nine spans time, and is clearly just an opening gambit.
“I’d like a report now, Narvin.”
“I still need to follow up on-”
“A preliminary report then.”
Narvin pauses, to mentally edit and simplify his planned report. “It seems clear that Commentator Antimon was the link to that terrorist Shobogan rabble. He provided them with the information on the movements of Councillors that led directly to Councillor Matthias’s assassination.”
“The fatal assault upon Councillor Matthias,” Narvin corrects himself.
“Do the Chancellery have any leads yet on where they obtained an incendiary rifle?”
“Not as yet.”
“That’s a priority, Chancellor. We can’t have Shobogans running around with incendiary rifles.”
Narvin would agree, remembering Matthias’s blackened body, twisted by aborted regeneration, but he doubts it’ll be a problem, unless Romana makes a habit of handing them out like it’s Otherstide. “I will be sure to inform you of any progress, Supreme Leader.”
She pauses. “Unless further evidence arises that would merit a harsher sentence, send Antimon to the work battalion at Project Rassilon on the next rotation. He can die with his co-conspirators.”
He nods, and waits for whatever’s coming next.
“This is good brandy,” Romana says idly.
Narvin can be patient. Romana is always demanding faster results, results on demand, but sometimes events unfold more slowly. You set your trap and wait for it to be triggered. Narvin can be patient, but he doesn’t even know what kind of trap is waiting for him.
“I believe Councillor Braxiatel bought several cases,” he says cordially.
Romana takes another sip. There is silence for a microspan, and Narvin flashes over the most recent issues, and older ones, trying to work out what this might actually be about.
“The Lord Burner reported that Councillor Morissa died in custody.”
“A suicide pill,” Narvin says, sincerely regretful. “The guards have been punished for missing it.” He flashes hot and cold – this is it, Romana is severely displeased with her inability to execute yesterday’s would-be assassin – and raises his glass to his lips to cover the moment.
When the silence stretches and Romana seems disinclined to continue the topic, he ventures, “I have selected a new Presidential taster, Supreme Leader,” because damn it, he wants to know.
“Nothing ever tastes as good when it’s been tasted for me. And it slows the whole process down, it’s so irritating.” If it wasn’t a capital offence (it’s surely a capital offence), Narvin would think the Supreme Leader was pouting. She sighs. “Send them along tomorrow. As for tonight...you have cheese, Narvin?”
“Yes, Supreme Leader?”
“Cheese goes very well with brandy. Soonwell, for preference.”
When she leaves, a dozen biscuits later, he still doesn’t know, and spends the night running their conversations through this mind, over and over, reviewing every expression that crossed her face, to see if he’s missed anything, some kind of code, or if he’s forgotten something that would clarify everything. It’s so frustrating.
The double sunshine streaming through the window makes Romana’s hair and robes shine bright as Narvin reports the day’s progress. He adds this to the bank of Romana-memories he’s now uncomfortably aware of collecting.
“The Chancellery Guard have located and captured the saboteurs, and Overseer Thracken assures me we should be back on schedule within a few spans, though there will be a corresponding cost in slave lives.”
Romana gives a short nod. “Fine.” She purses her lips, the fury still in her eyes, but hardened to a calculating gleam. “I’ll devise their executions this afternoon. Tell the Burner I will see him at first sunset.”
“Yes, my Lady President.”
“And Chancellor?” She steps out from behind her desk.
She grabs the front of Narvin’s robes and pulls his mouth to hers.
That clarifies things. The satisfaction of a puzzle solved is mixed with this dark deep in his chest, and he’d known it in the past week, figured himself out, but he hadn’t realised its extent. It makes no sense, and is all the more dangerous for that, an unpredictable unknown.
She tightens her grasp on his robes and his hands end up on her hips.
He fancies he can taste the cheese and brandy of two weeks ago. She ate his food and drank his drink and trusted him with her body.
It is simple. It is more than is wise. It will be enough.
Narvin watches the Lady President very closely at all times. He is in charge of her security, after all, and defence of her security must begin with him. But he might watch her a little closer in moments such as these, hoarded over ten years, memorise every detail that no-one else can see.
Her hair in disarray. Her eyes closed. Her skin damp and flushed, and he’s traced that flush before, down to her breasts, now rising and falling with breaths deeper than normal. Her mouth is slightly curved in triumph, and a shade of softer pleasure, perhaps.
He takes this all in – Romana, Romana, and she’s so much more besides – and the words are out of his mouth before he’s aware.
Her eyes snap open. Whatever her appearance, he reminds himself, she’s never vulnerable. He hates that she can make him so, even for a moment. He knows this is nothing. He’s simply serving his Supreme Leader. Nevertheless, he has no desire to see it end, and she’s already out of bed and dressing, her back to him.
She doesn’t look at him. He doesn’t say anything. Neither does she, till she’s on her way out.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
She still doesn’t look at him. The door slides shut behind her.
She’s back the next night, letting herself into his quarters without permission, as usual. She makes no mention of it and he’s careful to guard his tongue, over a glass of Heartshaven wine and afterwards.
But in the dark, alone in his bed, he thinks about it. It had been a reckless, ill-timed impulse, but the more he thinks about it, the more it makes sense. It isn’t that he doesn’t recognise he’s a mere convenience for her, both in government and in private. He isn’t an idealistic fool. But that doesn’t negate the power of his position; the situation stands nevertheless. A contract would be a logical, not to mention precedented, step to consolidate their power and secure their positions.
At her command, Narvin enters the Presidential office.
“My Lady President,” he greets, by way of announcing himself, and crosses the room to stand before her as she sits at her desk.
Romana doesn’t bother to look up. “What is it, Chancellor?”
Narvin places his hands, palm-up, on the desk in front of him. “I, Narvinnektrolonum of the House of -”
“No, Narvin.” She speaks over him; he continues regardless.
“-now formally propose a contract of marriage between myself and Romanadvoratrelundar, heir to the High House of Heartshaven, inheritor of the House of Dvora, conqueror of the House of Everstone -”
“Stop.” Her voice is as hard as it’s ever been.
“Get out and stop wasting my time, Narvin.”
“Romana” – she glares – “Supreme Leader,” he amends, “a contract between the President and the Chancellor has precedent. Imperiatrix Pandora and Chancellor Torkal-”
“You’re proposing to conspire with whoever will listen, overthrow my glorious rule, and plunge the planet into centuries of civil war?” She pointedly returns her attention to her work. “Really, Narvin, I’d expect better from you. That’s not a compelling argument.”
“There are several precedents of such contracts, dating from Pandak’s attempt to establish a dynasty, when it was ruled no member of a President’s immediate family could succeed them. As your husband, I would have nothing to gain from your death and everything to lose. It would be a clear consolidation of your power and would secure your position from the most obvious avenue of attack.”
Romana carries on working, signing a document, sending it, and opening another file, a report of the latest work on Project Rassilon. He doubts she’s reading it: she’s only interested in the end result, not the details of further failure. “I don’t need to buy your loyalty, Narvin. I picked you as my Chancellor because you could never hold the Presidency. The Inner Council would never support you. So my assassination would bring you no advantage.”
Intellectually, he has known this. He supports Romana not because he wouldn’t be a better President – he would – but because, together, they are the best for Gallifrey. Together, they have the determination and the power to succeed with Project Rassilon, and realise their people’s ultimate destiny as Time Lords. Besides, who would be his Chancellor? Darkel, with links to the Outer Chamber, in silent agreement with their opposition of Project Rassilon? Councillor Braxiatel is one of Project Rassilon’s most fervent supporters, but Narvin would be measuring his life expectancy in microspans the moment Braxiatel came within a staser bolt of the presidency. The same can be said of every member of the Inner Council. There is no-one he can trust as Romana does him; no-one in his situation; no-one with the intelligence.
“The Inner Council -”
Romana looks up, stands up and leans over her desk towards him. “I took you into my bed for the same reason. Andred had become uninteresting, and you were convenient and had even less to gain. Andred...” She steps out from behind her desk and he is uncomfortably reminded of that first move, a decade ago. “Andred might have betrayed me for another candidate, one who promised promotion and considerations. He’d have been a fool to believe them, but he might’ve. You won’t, Narvin.”
He’s surprised at the slight sting her words cause. The Supreme Leader has always taken him for granted, from the moment she assigned him this job. He doesn’t seek her praise; his work is much easier when she doesn’t concern herself with it. But she is right. That is why her words sting. Narvin doesn’t like to be predictable.
She curls her fingers in his robes and smiles. “There is nothing better for you, Chancellor. You only survive as long as I do.”
She kisses him, and he kisses back. She pushes him against the wall and he hates her, he loves her, and he hates himself for loving her.
She – not Romana, not his Lady President, an imposter – glares up at him from her seat in front of the screens.
“And, not to put too fine a point on it, Chancellor, as my second in command, you stand to gain the most from my death.”
He is absolutely certain. The double story was ridiculously weak, the idea that the President would develop a sudden interest in the technical aspects of Project Rassilon extremely unlikely, and now she has espoused the exact opposite view to what she’s been saying for twenty years. Romana has many traits, and they are, she is – was – consistent.
“Of course,” he says smoothly, recycling his old argument before he consciously thinks of it, “but then I assume that’s why you married me. As your husband, I have nothing to gain from your death and everything to lose.”
Her face is quite a study. If he wasn’t already sure, that would convince him he’s speaking to a different woman. His Supreme Leader would be scornful.
“If this is another proposal, Narvin, spare us both.”
Scorn is nowhere on this woman’s face. She looks shocked, disappointed...a little wistful?
“Oh, Romana,” she murmurs, seemingly to herself.
“Disregarding the obvious romantic advantages, of course,” he adds, because he can.
Her face shifts through another spectrum of expressions, settling on what seems to be dawning consideration. She doesn’t say anything.
“Supreme Leader?” he prompts.
“Romantic?” she repeats, before recollecting herself. “But of course, I was a fool ever to question your loyalty.”
The very idea of Romana calling herself a fool! Laughter bubbles out of him, harsh.
“I knew you weren’t the real Romana. As if I’d marry that loathsome shrew.”
Invested with all the venom he can muster towards both Romana and...this woman, the words still sound hollow to him.
He’d known it wasn’t possible almost the moment he said the words less than half a span ago, when she mounted the rostrum to announce her survival. He has watched the Supreme Leader very carefully at all times, and this imposter is wrong in a myriad little ways. But still...
He hates the woman standing in front of him more than he does – did – Romana, for that small measure of ridiculous, pathetic hope.
His Supreme Leader, his President – Romana is dead and so much more with her.
There is still Project Rassilon.
Power over space and time seems closer now than any time before. If he can keep control for a little longer, if he can succeed before anyone else discovers the deception, his people can still achieve their destiny, their right. He can lead them to the future, to all of time, as all-powerful Time Lords. He can be Rassilon.
There will be no question as to Romana’s successor.