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The first time he sees a face in the mirror that is not—exactly—his own, he is twenty-three years old, reading for the sixth time the same convoluted paragraph on the procedure of the Presidential succession, and wondering, exasperated, in the privacy of his own mind, who would ever need to know these things.

"You will," says a voice from behind him. It is unfamiliar to his ears, but his marrow knows its sound. When he whirls to see, he is confronted with a man whose moustache-ends twitch with amusement, and swears to himself that he, for one, will never ornament himself in a way that gives so much away. The man winks, of all things, and the moustache twitches again. "Study hard," the apparition says, and vanishes.

Irving stares at the mirror, and then down at the pages, and decides that he's hallucinating, that the man in the mirror is nothing but a part of himself summoned up to encourage him in his studies—a conclusion that will, in later years, cause no end of amusement.

But he memorizes every word on the Presidential succession.

*

His first meeting with her is similarly tinged with unreality. He asks himself whether this reaction is genuine, or simply because he has heard so much about her already.

He isn't sure it matters.

*

The fundamental imbalance in their relationship, always, is that nothing she does can surprise him. But when he sees her for the first time in her second body, newly returned from E-Space, a little older and considerably wiser and infinitely more tired—on that day, his reaction surprises him. And that, if she could know it, means more than he can tell.

*

Her timing is fortuitous in a way that he did not—exactly—engineer. Gallifrey has been taking more of an interest lately in other universes and their doings, and that is not entirely due to one or two well-timed and well-worded (read: only very nearly hypnotic) suggestions from the Prydonian Cardinal. The assassination of President Pandak by the Master shook the Time Lords out of their usual stupor and, although it was more than a century ago, paranoia is a powerful force. It can linger for millennia in a culture as stultified as theirs. Merely mentioning that their information on pocket universes is spotty at best—without even going so far as to add the words ‘potential threat’—is enough, in the right ears.

He does not need to suggest that the newly returned heir to Heartshaven be called in to speak before the Council; his groundwork does that for him. But he does make a point of offering her his support—in a thoroughly polite and, perhaps, otherwise forgettable manner—just before she walks into that chamber. Because no one has told him, not even himself, but he cannot doubt what will occur. And indeed, a mere span later, following one of the most extraordinarily eloquent and moving speeches Brax has ever heard delivered in this dubiously hallowed chamber, the Cardinal is no longer the only Time Lord in the chamber who recognizes the presence of a rising star in their midst.

“Cardinal Braxiatel,” she says to him, on her way out the door, “thank you for the encouragement.”

“And remember this feeling,” says the mirror to him, later that evening. “She’s never going to say those words again.”

*

One night, he receives a lesson in future history—the story of an unnamed Inquisitor and a sweeping scheme and the damage that even one person, in a relatively minor position, can do. Theoretically, it is a lesson in caution. But what he hears, unsaid, are the heavy words: This is how to start a coup.

“Flavia named us to our first ambassadorship,” he says, after, because this is the only forum in which his protests will or can be heard. “She is neither a bad person nor a bad President, if sometimes misguided. We like Flavia.”

The eyes from the mirror look back at him with the gaze of a man on the rack, looking at one with a papercut. But instead of the words ‘get over it,’ instead of the words ‘get used to it,’ what he says is, “I know.”

*

In his defense, he harms no one.

In his defense, what he does, as ever, is contextualize. Not spin—never anything so crude. He paints all the backdrops and leaves on the canvas a blank just the size of a pointed finger, leaving nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum to do the rest of the work.

Because the universe has tides. Disasters happen, natural and provoked. The one man holding the tidal schedule on a beach full of the unwary has no need to run faster than his compatriots; he will know where to stand, and will still be the one man with both legs dry when those waves come rolling in. And with only a little more nudging, he can determine who takes the worst of the soaking.

Flavia’s Presidency, towards the end, is recalled as a calamity. That assessment breaks down when anyone is asked precisely why. The generous would cite bad luck, the stingy bad judgment. Either would list the projects her government backed just before they went wrong: off-world investments that swiftly collapsed; alliances with leaders whose secret, dark pasts came to light within the week; Gallifreyans sent to the wrong place at the wrong time, and killed by avalanche or rioting natives or events, in general, beyond their control.

Where events beyond control are concerned, it isn’t the causing. It’s the knowing. And so it is fair, Braxiatel insists, it is more than fair, to say that with his suggestions and his nudges—his precise positioning of figures in ways that can never be traced back to the painter and on the canvas that only he can see—he harms no one. He causes nothing. He arranges, and what he arranges is a revolution, and that revolution is bloodless, and that accomplishment in and of itself surely proves the lack of malice in his hearts.

But after the vote of no confidence is called, when the woman who walked through those doors as President Flavia is walking out again as only herself, her eyes find Braxiatel’s for an instant. And what leaves him staring terrified into the bottom of a tumbler later that night is not any stab of guilt—but the realization of its absence, empty and echoing, cold and bottomless as the blackness of space, the context in-between the stars.

*

One might imagine that the Council would cling to power, with no President in place. It does not. The spineless abhor the responsibility; the power-hungry have no wish to share it. And the one man who straddles those two camps has his own reasons for wishing the situation to come to an end.

The problem, theoretically, is too many old resentments. Any candidate from outside the High Council must first be nominated to run, by at least three sitting Councilors. Any candidate from within the Council must enjoy the support of at least two of his fellows. And none of them, to put it simply, can stand the sight of one another.

It is tedious, the waiting. It is wearisome in the extreme. It takes eleven agonizing days of stalemate before someone, finally, someone who is Not Braxiatel says, aloud, the weary words, “What we need is new blood.”

And the guilt and the emptiness shrivel away into triumph, as, with savoring slowness, Braxiatel stands and clears his throat.

*

“...I think you will find, Councilor, that The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey is by no means unclear on this point. Forgive the liberty, but if I may for a moment lapse into quotation...”

*

The argument is simple. The argument is this:

Flavia was stripped of her powers and offices—not only the highest of them, as they have heretofore presumed, but all. They have permitted her to keep certain honors as a salve to her wounded pride, but, sadly, the law does not recognize such. Her loss of power was total, and included every title she possessed.

There is an order to this divestment, a system, forgotten by all but the most pedantic. Symbolically, Flavia’s highest title was the last removed. There was, therefore, a moment—mathematically brief though it may have been—when Flavia was President, but no longer Cardinal, that lower honor having been stripped before the higher. And the instant she ceased to be a Cardinal, that office was automatically assumed by her Under-Cardinal—a promising young Time Lady, not overlong returned from another universe, known to them all for the good work she has since done on their behalf. It was therefore the case, at the instant when Flavia’s Presidency ceased, that the second Prydonian Cardinal was one Romanadvoratrelundar, Heir to House Heartshaven, Custodian of House Everstone, Inheritor of House Dvora. The High Council had, at the relevant moment, one more member than they have heretofore acknowledged. And the Presidency had, and has, one more possible contender.

There is a great deal of blinking in the Council chamber, and an almost imperceptible sigh from a certain Cardinal Braxiatel.

“Shall I go through it again?”

*

She is marched into the Council chamber, confused but uncowed, in a small crowd of Chancellery guards. Their cloaks flutter behind them like contrails.

“Have you decided to tear down everyone even remotely tied to her as well?” Romana asks, with a fire that sears through the dessicated lifelessness of the Council chamber. “She did nothing wrong, and if you think you’ll get me to... to inform on her, to add to the undeserved humiliation of a dedicated and hard-working public servant...”

“Your loyalty does you credit,” Braxiatel interrupts. “My Lady Cardinal.”

Romana blinks at the title. Then the implication sinks in. “You would take that from her as well?” she cries, indignant.

“The law has already taken it, from the moment she... vacated the Presidency. A little-known precedent, my Lady, and you have the Council’s pardon that we failed to inform you immediately.”

“I refuse! I will not participate in this act of cruelty.”

“You cannot refuse. You may resign, if you so choose, but that will not benefit the Lady Flavia. There would simply be a new Cardinal appointed by the next President, whensoever a suitable candidate emerges.”

And this is the moment when he cannot do more. This is the moment when he must trust her to make this last step, the one that must be entirely her own.

The wheels turn. She looks up. And it all happens more quickly than he had dared to hope. “Then I will run,” she says.

Braxiatel waits for someone else to ask the question. “I’m sorry?” one of the Cerulean Cardinals—Brax never can tell them apart—obliges.

“I submit my candidacy,” Romana says, “for President.”

There is a moment in which a few of the slowest Councilors—but only a few, and only the very slowest—laugh. “As a member of the High Council, or so you’ve informed me, I am entitled so to do,” Romana goes on, undeterred.

“With the confirmation of at least two of your fellow Councilors, young lady,” the same Cerulean windbag begins.

“...And she has my support,” Braxiatel smoothly interrupts.

That stops the chamber. Braxiatel is not exactly a power player, not yet. But he is a Councilor of some standing. He is respected, if only by virtue of representing Gallifrey’s most powerful Chapter. His opinion holds a certain weight. And in any case, the cleverest of the Councilors will already have been rushing to think through the broader implications.

Romana is young, yes. But there are signs already, to the cleverer, that the universe is changing. The emergence of the Monans as a power, as a threat, has made true isolationism an increasingly impossible way of life. A President who has traveled, and who brings a fresh perspective, might well be a better option to face the era ahead. A young President will have another sort of appeal for some of the shrewder Councilors as well, those with hopes of manipulating their way into various positions of power. Meanwhile, the new Lady Cardinal cannot be said to be entirely unqualified: she gained that position on her own merit, is known to the Council, and is memorably persuasive when she chooses. She demonstrates poise and understanding far beyond her years. And she is a Heartshaven, which counts for more than many would be willing to admit.

But most importantly, Romana is disposable—as anyone can be, just as Flavia proved. The Council has no ties to this girl, in the eyes of the public. And so, if she should fail, none of them will be dragged down with her.

“And my support also,” says the cool voice of Coordinator Vansell, proving himself the cleverest of the lot.

Other voices pipe in from around the room, unwilling now to find themselves left behind. By the time the noise dies down, more than half of the chamber has declared itself for Romana, and most of the rest wear cautious expressions. Only a few openly boggle at this sudden chain of events.

Romana stands in the center of the room. She must be dazed, but does not show it. She stands with pride in her jaw and her shoulders, resolute and committed.

And as he watches her, his reaction is once again a surprise.

*

“They tell me that the election will be a formality,” she says, without preamble, when she finds him after the Council session in the hall outside.

“Yes, my Lady,” he confirms. “Theoretically, the Lady Flavia’s name will also be on the ballot, but her time is come and gone. You will be our Lady President, within the month.”

“I understand you found the legal precedent that made all of this possible.”

He bows slightly in acknowledgment.

“Hmm.” She looks him over. “You’ve singled me out from the moment I returned, Cardinal. The Doctor’s doing, I presume?”

“...Something along those lines, my Lady.”

“Well, you get results, I must say. May I count on your support in future?”

“To the death, Madam President.”

“Not that, yet,” she says, “and not for quite that long, I hope.”

It does not escape his notice, as she is walking away, that none of those words was ‘thank you’.

*

When they send someone for Flavia’s Cardinal’s regalia, so his sources tell him, she has what can only be termed a fit. Her emblem on its chain must be prised from between her fingers. Braxiatel’s own seal of office hangs heavy around his neck that night.

Two weeks later, he watches as the Sash of Rassilon is lowered over the new Lady President’s head.

That evening, he sits in front of his mirror, having long since learned the lesson that the twitch of a moustache is easily feigned.

“You will,” he says, to a wet twenty-three year old.

But what he means is, I know.