“You’re quite sure this outfit isn’t a little too showy?”
“Nothing’s too showy for the Grand Coronation of the High Hierophant of the Five Revealed Truths.” — BFA 1001 Nights
“You were right, Doctor. Compared to everyone else, I feel practically plain.” Nyssa lifted her shell half-mask to glance down at her décolletage, where traceries of green and blue tendrils dwindled to feathery swirls. Her gown was fashioned of beaded appliqués affixed to a sheer mesh, with just enough coverage not to offend his own sensibilities. The effect was that of a petite Venus demurely sheathed in ribbons of seawater.
“Nonsense,” he said. “I’m sure you embody the spirit of something-or-other. Personification is all the rage here.” Privately, he thought the Hierophant would condone her lack of jewelry. The Doctor was still getting used to Nyssa’s recent experiments with Earth fashion. At least this time she had selected something that was more Zuhair Murad than Levi Strauss.
“The personification of goosebumps, perhaps?” she said. “I trust the coronation isn’t taking place in a snowbank.”
“Certainly not. If anything, the Celestenes incline towards the tropics, even when they choose to build on a mountaintop. Or a canyon.” A head taller than most of the natives, he could already see the tips of spires rising beyond the ridgeline. “Nearly there.”
He marched faster, eager to outpace his doubts. They were climbing the slope amidst a crowd of well-to-do burgesses from the outlying demes. He had postponed this visit for centuries, lacking companions who would tolerate or even understand the highly formalised setting of the Celestial Basilica. Only Romana could have risen to the occasion, but she had demurred. He shuddered to think what abuses of protocol Tegan might have committed before they ever came near the royal presence.
Nyssa had fallen behind. He turned to see her standing transfixed by the view. The late afternoon sun gilded her shoulders as it did the natural stone columns rearing up like palisades on both sides of the path. She stared ahead with lips parted, a small rapt figure rooted in an endless stream of fantastically-garbed aristocrats. Her first glimpse of the Basilica had impressed her just as he had hoped.
Someone stumbled against her. She murmured an apology and came back to herself, reaching for him as the advancing queue threatened to sweep them apart.
“Well, what do you think?” he said, drawing her hand through the crook of his elbow.
“Magnificent,” she said. “Well worth three unscheduled detours.”
He made an exasperated noise. “You aren’t going to let me live that down, are you?”
“No, Doctor,” she said gently. During their last accidental stop, she had resorted to pawning her first ballgown to ransom him. She had kept enough petticoats for modesty’s sake, but she had been rather fond of that frock.
“I’d have thought you’d learned to appreciate the scenic route by now,” he said.
“I’d hardly call the Miaxa’s horrible prison scenic,” she said. “But never mind. I’m just wondering if there was a reason you kept finding ways not to come here. Is there something wrong with the Basilica? Beyond the fact that these people haven’t grasped the concept of a floor?”
“No, no, it’s all perfectly sound.” He smiled, recognising in her the same trepidation he’d felt on his first visit. “If you must know, I wasn’t keen on the dress code.”
“Oh!” She chuckled. “I think it suits you. The eyemask makes you look almost dashing.”
“Almost?” he huffed. “Thank you for that ringing endorsement.” For once, he had traded his coat and cricket jumper for a cream-coloured cloak and doublet trimmed in gold. His buckled shoes and stockings dismayed him, but knee-breeches made them tolerable. Barely.
“Quite dashing, then,” she relented, tapping a finger where his lapel ought to be. “You’re just cross that I made you omit the celery.”
She slowed again as they reached the canyon rim. Here the pavement ended abruptly, yet the crowd surged ahead like lemmings. Nyssa paused, took a deep breath, and stepped onto shimmering air.
Beyond the cliff’s edge, the billowing fog veiled no terrestrial mass. Translucent terraces stretched between towering pylons like the branches of espaliered trees. At the center of the chasm, riding a pillow of cloud like a mirage, there floated a huge edifice whose interlocking lines formed the five Platonic solids superimposed. Flying buttresses of light vaulted between the levels, carrying passengers along at double walking speed. The only solid structures were the residential quarters clustered around the five tallest towers like hanging bunches of fruit, each the size of a castle keep. Apart from these, the temple of the High Hierophant of the Five Revealed Truths was truly a castle of the air.
Wisely, Nyssa kept her eyes fixed straight ahead until the avenue carried them into the outer galleries of the palace. Here its surfaces were defined by carpets of tinted mist held between suspension fields, veiling the abyss beneath their feet. Birds shot through the walls, which seemed programmed to permit objects of small size and high velocity to pass unimpeded. Above and below and all around, visitors strolled among raised beds bearing trees, flowering bushes, pools of fish and fences of reeds that served as privacy screens. As advertised, perfumed glitter sifted down from above.
The Doctor ducked as they passed through one of these showers. The diamond sand left no residue, but the scent made his nose itch. Perhaps he should have worn a hat, after all.
“Is it real?” Nyssa said. “Or a virtual space?” She gripped his arm tightly, the only sign that she felt not quite sanguine about trusting her life to insubstantial architecture.
“You mean, are we in a mental landscape? No, it’s physical or, to be more precise, spatial. The Celestenes have perfected the manipulation of gravitational fields with the same finesse as Gallifrey’s temporal engineering. Oddly, they’ve nearly given up space travel.”
“Why wander the void,” she mused, “when you can live in the sky?”
“Exactly. The Celestial Basilica is the pinnacle of their art and civilisation, enshrining their values of harmony and hierarchy.”
She sounded dazed. “It feels like a dream.”
“Does it bother you?”
“No, but it’s familiar somehow.” Her eyes widened. “The Source! It’s like Traken, isn’t it? Where’s it coming from?”
“I wondered if you could sense it. The lattice of the Basilica carries a psychic resonance. It’s not alive, exactly, not like a TARDIS, but it’s somewhat akin to Traken’s ‘sentient sun.’”
Her eyes glistened behind her mask. “It’s so warm, Doctor.” Refracted sunlight heated the Basilica like a greenhouse, but she was reacting to more than just ambient temperature. There was jubilation in the air, almost as palpable as the gravitational fields preventing a fatal drop. Personally, he found secondhand joy intrusive. A part of his mind was occupied with blocking it out.
“I wish Adric could see this,” she murmured.
Disconcerted, he glanced down at her, but her expression was tranquil. “Whatever for? I thought I’d mentioned that they fast until nightfall.”
“All this.” She gestured. “The equations needed to maintain so many stable forcefields must be staggering.”
“Indeed. Wait until you hear their music. You’ll find it a fascinating puzzle, I think.”
She raised her eyebrows. “In what way?”
He patted her hand. “You’ll see. Ah, here we are.”
They had reached an imposing gateway where porters armed with ceremonial swords were screening guests. The Doctor made a beeline for one whose red-lacquered armour was more elaborate than the rest. Half-masks were only to be seen in his queue, and the costumes were more elaborate. As they waited for their turn, the Doctor confirmed Nyssa’s guess: the lesser ranks wore fascinators or face paint concealing as much as etiquette allowed, while the higher echelons were afforded more anonymity. Their masks were the personifications of noble houses.
“My invitation,” the Doctor said, drawing out a jeweled pendant. “Good to see you again, Warder.”
With a puzzled frown, the doorkeeper waved a glass wand in front of them, then set its tip against the jewel. His eyebrows disappeared into his helm as a series of dots and squiggles lit up the clear tube. “Gracious. Lord Doctor, isn’t it? I hardly recognised you. But then, you are Gallifreyan. I suppose these things are to be expected. That is to say…” He adjusted his posture, toes turned out. “On behalf of his Holiness-Elect, we ratify your presence and unfurl the hospitality of the Basilica.” He inclined his head to Nyssa questioningly.
“Too kind, Adyton,” said the Doctor. “Ah. Please allow me to present my associate, Lady Nyssa.”
She drew one heel behind the other, rose to half-pointe and lifted her chin, every diminutive inch aligned in perfect poise from instep to tiara.
The Doctor suppressed a grin. Was it deliberate, or an innocent faux pas? The rank she had claimed was lofty enough to draw stares from several astonished guests. He hastened to append, “Daughter of Consul Tremas, Keeper-Elect of the Traken Union.”
“My lady.” The man bowed with deep courtesy. There was a guarded edge to his gaze: skepticism, perhaps, or wary appraisal. “The heights of heaven are accessible to your discerning eye.”
“You honour us,” she said easily.
“Speaking of accessibility,” the Doctor said, “I don’t suppose we might be issued a spare key? The invitation included only one, you know.”
“Lord Doctor!” Adyton said in a shocked whisper. “We know well that customs differ as much as do stars, yet there is a natural order here which brooks no ambiguity. Surely you must understand the key’s symbolism—”
“Your pardon,” Nyssa cut in, aware of the tide of impatient nobles piling up behind them. “If your customs differ, then of course we will abide by them.”
“Very good, milady. The delights of the Basilica await.” He beckoned with as much courtesy as he could muster while all but shooing them through the gate.
“What was all that about?” Nyssa whispered, once they were out of earshot.
“Quite extraordinary,” the Doctor said. Taking her hand, he stepped off the walkway onto a landing taken up by a large aquarium. Nyssa glanced curiously at the sinuous hoop-shaped creatures slowly revolving through the water. “What was I telling you about tropical environments? These eels, you see, only live in the sheltered pools of atolls. I saw them along the coast by the Healing Hives of Hygieia. The photosynthetic algae in their scales—”
Playing along, Nyssa followed him around the tank and into the shadow of a palm tree rising up through the floor from a lower level. He glanced both ways before offering her the necklace, careful to hold it by its chain. “Here. The key to our guest suite. It’s a rare honour to be housed in the Basilica itself. Is there somewhere out of sight you can keep this?” He peered out of the corners of his eyes while trying not to inspect her costume too closely.
Nyssa blushed at his expression. “I told you this outfit was too showy. What’s so special about the key? We can always return to the TARDIS after the ceremony.”
“Yes, well, it’s rather a long walk. Temperatures drop rapidly at night outside the environmental membranes. I seem to recall you aren’t keen on subzero temperatures.”
“Certainly not while wearing this.”
“As for the key…” He nodded as she took it. “Hold it for six seconds to lock it to your bioprint. It emits a homing signal for the transmat system, granting access to our quarters from anywhere in the Basilica. If mental commands don’t work, squeeze it with your thumb. Palm-to-palm skin contact with a guest initiates tandem transfer.” He looked apologetic. “Gender roles in this culture are quite strictly defined. Violating them is a religious as well as a social taboo. And I’m afraid the Celestenes have rather backward notions about males as keepers of the keys.”
“Oh, well.” She began to peel a white glove off, and paused. “That’s why you suggested I wear gloves.”
“Yes. All the fashionable ladies are wearing them.”
“It seems to me that all the married ladies are wearing them,” she said, wrapping the chain around her wrist and laying the jewel flat against the back of her hand, then slipping the glove back over it to secure it.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“You wouldn’t,” she said, taking his arm as they returned to the moving walkway. “Convenient technology. I don’t suppose you could adapt the TARDIS key to the same design.”
“Wouldn’t work,” he said. “It’s only a transmitter. The transmat system is part of the Basilica.”
“Pity,” she said. “I wonder if there’s some way to adapt the TARDIS shell to—”
And then her words were stolen away. The pathway glided over a moon-bridge that unfurled onto the rim of a huge ballroom. The floor’s lake of coloured panes reminded the Doctor of the Rose Window of Notre Dame. In fact, it was a mandala, concentric rings of stylised petals slowly orbiting one of the Basilica’s solid suspension pylons. Above its peak floated a rayed canopy of water whose crisscrossing streams flashed in the sun. As for the music— could one call it chamber music, when the hall was open to the sky?
Nyssa looked up at him with vexed fondness. “But you hate lutes.”
“Yes, well,” he said, breaking into a resigned grin. “It does rather come with the territory. Happy birthday. Belated, I’m afraid, but at least we’re not too late for the coronation.”
“Another year already? For both of us.” There was a softness of memory in her voice.
He said nothing. He usually paid scant attention to linear time, but his long incarceration on Folly had forced him to count months and days. By his best estimate, it had been three years for Nyssa since her coming-of-age ceremony had been co-opted by her father’s disappearance and the need to midwife a Time Lord’s regeneration. None of his human companions had stayed so long. Perhaps, deep down, he had selfish reasons for taking her to inhospitable places so often.
But not today. Already he could see her chin moving unconsciously to the music, its interwoven lines of octals and dodecals very like Traken’s geometric symphonies. As the throng began to dissolve into pairs, calling towards those hanging back, she started towards an open part of the floor.
He planted, suddenly alarmed. “Ah, Nyssa, I did rather intend for you to make some new friends tonight.”
“Oh, nonsense. What are you going to do, stand in a corner all evening? This room hasn’t any corners, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“No, but there’s so much more to see. The upper terraces, for example—”
“Exploring glorified corridors? Is that really your idea of a good time?”
“Well…” He stopped himself from committing an unflattering faux pas just in time. “I suppose my last incarnation could never resist a good knees-up.”
“Perhaps not,” she said, taking his hand firmly, “but I wouldn’t have dreamed of dancing with him.”
In the Celestial Basilica, the concept of “floor” was extraordinary.
Nearly a thousand dancers twirled on a hundred faceted levels. Circling the central mandala were smaller gyres of petals turning like planets orbiting a star. Colored mists gave the petals a waxy sheen, but it was just as well that Nyssa wore tights. She and the Doctor were dancing high above the true floor.
“It didn’t occur to me that our visit to Chariklo was a test run,” she said, hopping lightly to the next gyre as the one where they were riding switched direction.
“Please, don’t remind me.” The image of Nyssa drifting away from him in a microgravity accident still haunted his dreams. Counting beats, he lifted her as one of the higher petals floated past. She caught it and spun suspended on what seemed to be no more than a standing wave in the glittering rain. The layers of her gown followed in slow motion. Smiling, she rested a finger on his upraised hand, drifting down. He misjudged the moment when she reentered his gravity field and had to lunge to catch her when she dropped the last two feet. “I beg your pardon,” he said.
She bounced once, twice, laughing as the floor rebounded. “Come on, Doctor, if you can work out the TARDIS coordinates in your head to five dimensions, four should present no difficulty.”
“Hand her down here, milord! We’ll take care of her!” crowed one of the dancers directly below them. The laughter was kind. Now and again someone would reach up or out or down to steady a neighbor tripped up by the changing floors.
“I do not dance the coordinates while setting them,” he said with dignity.
“Oh, yes, you do,” she teased. “I’m never sure whether those flourishes are for my benefit or the TARDIS.”
“Neither,” he lied.
He had not exaggerated the complexities of Celestene music. Not content with weaving two melodies with two different time signatures, the musicians switched from even to odd rhythms whenever the mandalas reversed direction. The Doctor’s gavotte was barely up to the task. Nyssa, however, was reveling in the challenge. He watched in admiration as she pivoted to face him, maintaining the same footwork while gliding backwards, trusting him to lift her whenever one of the moving platforms threatened to collide with her calves.
“What is it?” she said. “You look like I’ve sprouted fungi.”
“No, but I thought you were a scientist, not La Sylphide,” he said. “Remind me to introduce you to Marie Taglioni someday.”
“The human who discovered radiation poisoning?”
“No, that was Curie.”
“Ah. Well, then, I suppose I should be flattered.” She smiled as he executed a smart fencer’s leap to catch up to her. “But dance is science, Doctor, the study of body and balance. I learned that on Traken, where science was not divorced from spirit nor life nor art.”
“I’m sure the Celestenes would agree with you.”
The tempo ratcheted up to a lively darbuka rhythm. Nyssa reached for his hands, inviting him to circle in place with her instead of stepping from one passing petal to the next. Responding to their movements, their petal began to turn in the opposite direction, just quickly enough that the world seemed to orbit them in slow motion.
It was one of those moments of grace in a long life when time held its breath. The sinking sun basked on a mountaintop. Just overhead, streams of water glittered like flaming glass beads. Nyssa’s pale skin blushed pink in the sunset. Looking past her, he could see the burning lines of the basilica’s lattice crossing and recrossing like a three-dimensional kaleidoscope as his viewing angle changed. The tingling euphoria of a thousand minds washed over him, until he found himself grinning foolishly down at her. Nyssa’s smile was more Mona Lisa, focused as she was on the music’s complexities, but he thought he had never seen her so serene.
“Let me show you something,” he said impulsively.
His words seemed to bring her out of a trance, and she dimpled up at him. “Be my guest.”
“There’s not much room, but…” He slipped an arm behind her back, still clasping her other hand, and began to sway to a lively human step. “How’s that? Forget the mathematics and just dance.” He gave her a twirl. “You can do that, can’t you?”
“But there’s no pattern,” she said, faltering until she began to read his shoulders. “Earth?”
“Foxtrot,” he puffed.
Faster and faster whirled the notes and the floor, forcing them together to keep from flying apart. Dancers all around them were giving up the game and staggering down to ground level, laughing and applauding the musicians. Nyssa’s waist slipped through his fingers as she tried another pirouette.
“That’s it,” he said. “And up… you go!” Gravity was playing tricks again. She twirled in mid-air at a slant, face alight with her arms out and her hair floating above her shoulders. Mesmerised, he nearly forgot to keep moving. Then she drew her arms in, accelerating the spin. A full leg extension was not possible in that dress, but she arched into an ice skater’s backbend.
“Careful,” he warned. “I think our masochistic musicians may be coming to some kind of consensus.”
“Just catch me,” she said. “It’s less than point one Gs up here.”
“I don’t think—”
There was no time for thought. The different rhythms resolved with a triumphant fanfare, the gravity fields reversed direction to check their momentum, and Nyssa dropped. He caught her around the middle, nearly spilling her onto his buckled shoes. She sagged against him in a rare fit of giggles. The Doctor straightened and waited for her to compose herself while the floor petals descended like the steps of melting ziggurats. To scattered applause, the remaining dancers drifted towards the ballroom’s stable perimeter. Sedate chamber music resumed.
“You looked like you were enjoying yourself up there,” he observed, releasing her when they reached the ground.
“Utterly,” she said, a little wobbly. “I presume you did, too?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes.” His attention had fixed on two figures in the crowd. “Ah,” he muttered.
Following his distracted gaze with mild exasperation, she blanched. “Who is that?”
Across the tapestry of courtiers, Adyton’s lacquered armor flamed scarlet in the sunset. He stood with head bowed to someone the Doctor had not observed until now, a slight figure in doublet and hose of alternating black and gold lozenges. Compared to the elaborate costumes of the other courtiers, this person was conspicuously unadorned. The featureless mask, a pale white oval with slits for eyes, covered the wearer’s face save for lower lip and bearded chin. It was a Harlequin, but the Doctor suspected that was not the only reason for Nyssa’s alarm. The neat black goatee over a jeweled collar of stiff black velvet had to have given her a turn.
“It’s not him,” the Doctor reassured her.
“I know,” she said, alarm giving way to puzzlement as the Warder and Harlequin parted with a handclasp. “He’s too slender, for a start.”
“And too young.” The Doctor refrained from pointing out that most of the natives were shorter than Time Lords.
“Do you know him?” she said. “Oh, never mind. I think they’re starting again.”
“Nyssa…” He saw her hopeful expression and relented. “Well, all right. One more.”
They took their places facing each other in a double line of dancers. This time, the floor remained fixed. Petals lit up to help guide guests through the figures. As the musicians struck up a more comprehensible jig, the Harlequin slid neatly into a space on the Doctor’s right, raising a hand as they circled with palms facing one another.
“The Dauphin,” said the stranger in a smooth tenor, “bade me convey his gratitude to the Lord Doctor and the Lady Josephine for the great service they rendered him at the Healing Hives of Hygieia. Since that time, truly, he has been a changed man.”
“Well, you can tell him it was no trouble at all,” the Doctor said, wry. “But I’m afraid Jo’s not here.”
“The Dauphin also bade me extend his felicitations to the Lady Nyssa of Traken. Her presence is a flowering star to bless our sky. We trust you have been enjoying the festivities?”
“Very much indeed, thank you,” she said, dropping a grave courtesy to him as they returned to their places.
“That is well,” he said. “If you will excuse me, my lord, my lady…” So saying, he spun out of the set, letting another straggler flow into his position.
“Is that who I think it was?” Nyssa whispered when the Doctor joined her for a promenade down the middle of the set.
“That boy,” the Doctor said, lowering his voice. “Yes, that was the Dauphin. Looking rather more hale than two years ago.”
“What service was he thanking you for?”
“Oh, you know, a little of this, a little of that.”
They parted and raised their arms to form a split arch for the next couple to dance under. Nyssa resumed their conversation during their next promenade. “You saved his life, didn’t you?”
“Perhaps. Spot of bother with an exiled brother. Not really my cup of tea, meddling in dynastic politics. It’s so tediously predictable.”
“But someone asked you very nicely?”
“His mother. You’d like her. A healer, the High Priestess of Hygieia. Just as well, really: Achille was a sickly boy.” He vaguely recalled a fine-featured youth lying wan against a nest of pillows, his torso swathed in bandages from a heart procedure. The abduction had not been intended as a murder, but it could easily have become one. Jo had doted on the boy all the way back from the airship where they had rescued him.
“What happened to Jo?” Nyssa said on the third pass.
“She got married.”
“Oh!” She sighed. “Doctor, do you always insist that your companions choose between love and travel?”
“It’s hardly up to me,” he retorted.
Thankfully, she did not press the matter. The rest of the jig went smoothly, apart from an entertaining mix-up with Nyssa dancing on the men’s side for a few measures. He steered her back to the correct side and passed it off as a foreigner’s mistake before they could be tossed out for sacrilege. He might have changed his mind about a third dance, but before he could offer, the musicians had struck up another geometric symphony. Nyssa laughed at his pained expression but let him be. The Doctor had already braved lutes for her sake, after all.
Courtiers began to collect around her like bees as soon as he moved away. That, too, had been part of his reason for bringing her here. She had so few opportunities to mingle with young people her own age. Or of her own pedigree, although that was a mixed blessing. At least these nobles were a cut above the un-housebroken pups like Brewster and Andrew that she tended to adopt.
He nodded an absent-minded thanks when Adyton appeared beside him and pressed a fluted glass into his hand. Sipping a dry sparkling wine, he moved to the perimeter to watch. From this vantage point, he could see how the changing relationships of the dancers expressed the music’s underlying harmonies in four dimensions. Almost lost against the ceiling were two figures, light and dark, yin and yang, well-matched in skill if not in style.
He did not observe the Warder at his elbow, gazing up at the distant pair with a sour expression that echoed his own.
Romana had been right, as always. The Doctor could withstand pageantry for only so long. Tradition was all very well, but did they have to reenact the last Hierophant’s death over soup and salad? Couldn’t they take a hint from the Giruleans, who anointed their chief simply by waving a twig over his head? The Doctor began to daydream about the dignified rituals of cricket. He supposed it would be interfering with history too much to establish a coronation ceremony that consisted of six overs.
“That would be boring,” Nyssa said. “Now hush. I’m trying to follow this.”
Like so much else in the Basilica, language could be complex. Lattice-speech had fallen out of everyday usage but persisted in archaic formulas. The TARDIS could not translate more than the surface layer of speech, but Nyssa had found a way to follow one of the threads, counting beats to guess where the key words in the original text might fall.
No errant king is he who rules: above all save God, in time enthroned, which blesses him and wears away men’s lies. Let all give prayers to him. The dust of heaven…”
The Doctor had filled her in concerning the main actors of this pantomime, high nobles ritually reenacting the last king’s death upon a dais along one side of the hall. Presiding over the ceremony was the Dowager Queen, Rhea, a formidable matron garbed in enough layers of silk and chiffon to block a sword-thrust. She had exchanged her healer’s staff for a spear to stand in as the goddess Minerva, stern and remote in a grey-feathered mask. Acheron, Lord Regent and brother-in-law to the late Hierophant, was droning out a praise-poem as if he meant to prolong his regency for another twelve years.
The role of the High Hierophant was a delicate problem, since he like the Five Revealed Truths was deemed to be eternal. Technically, his heir did not even exist during the hours of chaos between his death and rebirth. The interregnum usually lasted only a few days, but this one had spanned twelve years, waiting for the Dauphin to reach the age of majority. Only now could the old king’s death be acknowledged. But how? Who but the King could speak as the King? Ancient texts supplied an unlikely solution.
Accordingly, the central member of this little tableau was the High Hierophant himself, played by a boy who had been eight the last time he saw his father alive. Voluminous golden robes all but engulfed him. He lay propped on a bier in the likeness of an aged Saturn with a sword across his lap. His scant black goatee was hidden beneath a silver beard. A voice modulator in his mask assisted in the illusion. To judge by the reverent murmurs of his subjects, it seemed that his mimicry of the old king’s phrasing was uncannily authentic.
Turning to Nyssa to point out Achille’s impressive (and ridiculous) disguise, a glint drew the Doctor’s attention to the next table. Someone was stealthily drawing a grey tube from the frilled cuff of his sleeve. Romana would have recognised it at once. K9 had been equipped with an older model of the same weapon.
The old Hierophant’s ghost seemed to fill the hall. “Brother mine, I name you Regent, leave in your care my realm. Saturn’s sword I entrust to thee, twin to my queen. Protect my son…”
The Doctor saw the stranger’s hand rise as if pointing out some detail of the ceremony to a friend. The gun was aimed towards the litter.
He determined this fact in mid-air, vaulting past Nyssa to block the beam. There was a jarring whine at the edge of hearing. Pain blossomed out from a point just above his left heart. Numbness followed. Fighting for consciousness, he struck out and down, bashing the man’s wrist. The dislodged weapon fell between his knees as he crumpled. Heads turned towards the disturbance, but most were staring at him and not the man scrambling away with his arms flung over his face as if fending off an attack. The Doctor laughed weakly at the ruse.
Nyssa’s voice sang from a great distance. He looked up to find she was hovering over him, luminous grey eyes wide with worry. He hastened to assure her that all was well, but his thoughts were taking a long time to shape themselves into words.
“Alas! Alas! Saturn’s reign ends!” Rhea dragged out the words until they were shorn of sense. “Now begins the Rite of Dionysos!”
Through a fog, he saw Nyssa peel off her glove. He wondered if she intended to slap his attacker’s cheek and demand satisfaction. It did not seem in character for her to duel on his behalf.
He felt a dim sense of disquiet as she stalked the assassin in slow motion. She stretched out her fingers, caught the man’s hand as he flung a chair aside. Their palms pressed together. They vanished. The world went white.