“I’m sorry, my lady,” Braxiatel said smoothly. “You know that, under normal circumstances, I would do anything to help you, but what you propose is entirely out of the question.”
“Well, everything is,” Romana said, “apart from to be or not to be, as I understand it.”
Through his panic, Braxiatel chortled at about the right level he felt this weak joke required. “Quite right, my lady.”
“So. Are you planning to do Hamlet?” Romana asked.
“Hamlet?” Braxiatel repeated, chuckles abandoned slightly too early. “You’ve given me six actors. Of those, only Narvin is even remotely the right age. And,” he said as Romana’s eyebrows rose into an expression that seemed to say well, then?, “I use remotely in the loosest possible sense. Even assuming that all taste and decency was abandoned and I was actually willing to cast Narvin as the eponymous hero in the universe’s greatest tragedy, I would still need to fill another thirty roles. What do you suggest, Valyes coming on in four different hats to portray Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?”
“As long as the High Council take part, enjoy themselves and pull together as a team, you can fill the rest of the roles with whoever you like.”
“Really? With... trained actors?” Braxiatel asked, feeling slightly more hopeful. Yes, he could see it working. The High Council of the Time Lords playing the role of night watchmen — in the first scene and then quickly off stage for the rest of the performance.
“If you can find any who have ever lived or worked on Gallifrey for a period of more than three months,” Romana said. “I’d rather not have to fight a battle about allowing aliens into the capitol before we actually have to fight the battle about allowing aliens into the capitol.”
“No trained actors then,” Braxiatel said. “In which case, Madam, as I said earlier, the matter is completely out of the question. I cannot stage Hamlet with the people you’ve given me-”
“You were the one who suggested Hamlet,” Romana said. “I just said a play. You can choose which one. All I ask is that it feature all the High Council, preferably in some of the same scenes as each other, and be at least an hour long. Everything else is up to you.”
“That’s my final word on the subject, Brax,” Romana said, making the mistake of opening a file Braxiatel knew she’d already read. Or perhaps it wasn’t a mistake — perhaps it was an active put-down. “I want the play to be ready in a month. Is that clear?”
“As clear as Inquisitor Prime Darkel’s criminal record,” Braxiatel said, rising to his feet. “Will... you be participating, my lady?”
“Certainly not,” Romana said. “I have a planet to run. Besides, I already know how to work in a team. One month, Brax.”
“Very good, Madam,” Braxiatel said, and left the presidential office, wondering whether suicide was really worse than the idea of directing a clutch of High Council members in an effective piece of drama. Eventually he decided it was, just about. Damn.
The Doctor laughed for a very long time.
“Please,” Braxiatel said. “Please, please, please, please.”
“No,” the Doctor said. “I will come and watch, though.”
“I think Romana already has you on the guest list,” Braxiatel told him wretchedly. “I’m certain, however, that she would spare you from that undoubtedly odious task if you were willing to participate in the thing. Are you quite sure you won’t do it? If not for me, at least for your unspeakable vanity.”
“It is tempting,” the Doctor said, “but my answer has to be no. Sorry.”
“What about Algernon?” Braxiatel pressed.
“Algernon?” the Doctor repeated. He looked mildly more intrigued than before. “I suppose I am more of a natural Algernon. I play with wonderful expression-”
“Would you do Algernon?” Braxiatel asked. “I could move Narvin to Jack. I would be happy to, in fact. He only has Algernon at the moment because I was reasonably sure you’d say no, and he’s slightly more charismatic than our only other male lead.”
“Other male lead?” the Doctor asked. “What, you mean, Valyes? Delox?”
“No, no, no, he’s playing Doctor Chausible.”
“So who’s your back-up Jack? Assuming I won’t do it, which I’m afraid I won’t. Not even for ready money.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Braxiatel told him. “It’s too depressing. You’ll find out if you come to the performance. I would appreciate it, however, if you didn’t.”
“Don’t worry,” the Doctor said grinning. “I’ll be there.”
“I knew I could rely on you,” Braxiatel said wryly, and closed the com link.
“But I do not understand,” Leela said. “How can she love him? He is a made-up person.”
“Cecily doesn’t know that,” Braxiatel told her patiently, again regretting his decision to cast Leela just because she had offered to help. “As far as Cecily is concerned, Ernest is and has always been real. Her guardian has faithfully assured her that he is a handsome, reckless and romantic young man, and of course she has no reason to disbelieve him.”
“But she must see her guardian was mistaken when Narvin arrives,” Leela said. “She is not blind, merely foolish. One look at Narvin should be enough to assure her that he is not handsome and a moment in his company enough to show he is not reckless.”
“That,” Braxiatel said, “is the magic of the theatre, Leela. You and Narvin must make us believe Narvin is reckless.”
“Well, then,” Leela said, “all is lost, Braxiatel, for I do not believe Narvin has ever taken a risk in his life!”
“Look,” Narvin said from behind Braxiatel where he had been standing for the entirety of this exchange, “can we just get on with this? I’m supposed to be in a meeting with the Phaidon ambassador in four hours. I’d rather be there, on time, to prevent an intergalactic conflict, than still standing here while you explain the basic concept of “acting” to the savage yet again.”
“I understand what it is to act, worm,” Leela retorted. “And I know what it is to put on a play for entertainment and for the sharing of information, not simply how to put on a smile I do not mean to deceive my enemies, as you and your people do. My tribe used such pageants to instruct our young in the old ways.”
“Oh really? Then perhaps you should direct the play,” Narvin drawled. “You couldn’t do a worse job than Braxiatel. Meanwhile Braxiatel could play the na´ve young girl. I’m sure after all those long hours alone with President Romana, he must have a considerable idea of what that role entails.”
“Leela is doing a fine job,” Braxiatel lied. “She puts passion into her performance — not the right passion, perhaps, but at least the audience understands that she feels something. You could learn from her, Narvin.”
“I show up,” Narvin told him sourly. “I remember my lines, I remember the moves. I don’t see what more could be expected of me.”
“That is because you have never seen a play,” Leela said smugly. “You could learn from me, Narvin. I have seen several. I have even met the man who wrote this play, though the Doctor did not tell me it was so stupid.”
“How wonderful,” Narvin said. “Meanwhile I was busy keeping my planet and my people safe. Something I am anxious to get back to, so if I could be excused-”
“You haven’t... quite finished the scene, I’m afraid,” Braxiatel told him.
Narvin scowled. He turned his body to a forty-five degree angle, facing towards Leela, as Braxiatel had asked him to. “Well, my own dear, sweet, loving little darling,” he said flatly, “I really can’t see why you should object to the name of Algernon.”
And so it continued for another microspan of excruciating dialogue, which came to an abrupt halt as Narvin said, “I’ll be back in no time,” and leaned in to kiss Leela on the cheek.
“What are you doing?” Leela exclaimed, backing away. “Do not touch me again unless you wish to feel the embrace of my blade!”
Narvin sighed. “It’s in the script,” he said. “I’m not doing it for my own amusement.”
“It is?” Leela asked Braxiatel.
Braxiatel nodded wordlessly, the ability to speak having apparently left him along with his self-respect.
“Then this play is even more stupid than I thought,” Leela said.
As Narvin leant towards her again, she screwed up her face and clenched up her fists beneath the long sleeves of her dress. Braxiatel held his breath. Narvin kissed her, and withdrew muttering about ridiculous savages and presidents who wasted everyone’s time.
“What an im-pet-u-ous boy he is,” Leela said. “It may seem as though he is a bitter and deceitful man, but he is not.”
Braxiatel sighed. Behind Leela, Cardinal Tacken shuffled on, dressed as a butler and bringing news that a Miss Fairfax had arrived from London.
“I do not like women who are interested in good works,” Leela told the audience, which fortunately consisted only of Braxiatel. “It is very forward of them.”
“Miss Fairfax,” Tacken said, shuffling back on, “is missing.”
“Yes?” Romana said, as her office door slid open. “Oh, Brax, what is it now?”
“Inquisitor Prime Darkel has refused to continue in her role as Gwendolen Fairfax,” Braxiatel told her. The door slid shut behind him. “She has been to see the capitol’s chief physician who has agreed with her that, after the unfortunate regeneration of Cardinal Oralony earlier in the week — and event which was, as I understand it, brought on by the stress of playing a woman in public — it is too dangerous to proceed with the play. She has been signed off for next the fortnight. I’m sorry, my lady, but without a Gwendolen the play cannot continue. I have already asked everyone I know. My own mother is currently playing Lady Bracknell-”
“Your mother?” Romana asked, looking mildly impressed.
“Yes,” Braxiatel said. “It is not an ideal situation by any means, but after Oralony’s regeneration, there was quite literally no one else I could turn to. To be fair, she is putting in a creditable performance, far better than I could have hoped for from anyone else, but even my mother cannot play two roles at once. As your friend and as your director, I must advise that you call this irrational scheme to an end.”
“I can’t,” Romana said.
Braxiatel sighed and sank into the chair opposite her. “I was afraid you’d say that. I don’t know, Romana. Why couldn’t you just bribe your High Council like everyone else?”
“Brax,” Romana said, leaning over her desk to take his hand, “you know it would make me look weak to reverse my decision. Now, more than ever, I need to appear strong, and I need the council to be on my side and work together. Besides,” she said, “Tacken and Marissa are apparently enjoying themselves enormously.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Braxiatel said, “and I’ve been asked to believe some extremely improbable things in the last week. Narvin’s interest in cucumber sandwiches, for example.”
“It’s true,” Romana said. “Narvin may not be enjoying himself, Oralony may have regenerated, but the rest of the High Council want to be in this play. I can’t take it away from them, now, Brax. I need their support.”
“What do you suggest we do?” Braxiatel asked her. “Order one of the Chancellery Guard captains to don a wig? I’ve already offered extra credit at the Academy-”
“How many rehearsals are there before the opening night?”
“Two,” Braxiatel said, “but Romana-”
“Well, I’m sure I can take time out of my schedule to attend two rehearsals and a performance,” Romana said briskly. “If Darkel could play this role, it can’t be beyond me. What sort of person is Gwendolen?”
“She is,” Braxiatel said, and sighed, “an aristocratic young woman who... falls in love with a reckless young man against the wishes of her family.”
“Well then,” Romana said. “There we go. Out of interest, who is it that I’m supposed to be playing opposite?”
“You are quite perfect, Mistress — Miss Fairfax,” K-9 said.
“No,” Romana said. “Absolutely not.”
“I don’t think you’ve got that line right, Madam President,” Narvin said with vicious pedantry. “As far as I can remember, it should be “Oh, I hope am I not that. It would leave no room for developments-””
“Brax?” Romana shouted into the audience.
“He’s right, my lady,” Braxiatel told her, because she deserved it. “That is the line.”
“You know what I mean,” Romana said, striding through the set. “I’m not pretending to be in love with a robot dog.” K-9’s head seemed to droop. “It’s not even my robot dog, not that it makes any difference. I’ll look ridiculous.”
“Isn’t that the point?” Narvin asked. “A ridiculous paramour for a ridiculous president. Ow!” he exclaimed as Lady Bracknell walloped him over the head with her umbrella.
“Keep a civil tongue in your head, boy.”
“I’m the Co-ordinator of the CIA,” Narvin blustered. “You can’t just beat me as though I were your son.”
Braxiatel left them to it while he dealt with Romana.
“I did try to tell you casting had been a problem,” he told her. “Leela’s K-9 volunteered along with his mistress. I had to cast him-”
“When you said you’d prefer not to tell me who was playing Jack, I assumed you meant the Doctor,” Romana said furiously.
“The Doctor declined to be involved,” Braxiatel said. “And, as I told you yesterday, I have already exhausted all the other avenues of possibility. If you find K-9 unacceptable, we can cancel the play-”
“I’ve never known you to be so defeatist, Brax.”
“Desperate times, my lady.”
“Besides,” Romana said, “we haven’t exhausted all the avenues of possibility, have we?”
“You mean, trained actors?” Braxiatel asked, although he knew she didn’t mean trained actors.
“Dear me,” Narvin said, through gritted teeth, “you are smart!”
“I am always smart,” Romana said. “Am I not, Mr Worthing?”
“You are quite perfect, Miss Fairfax,” Braxiatel told her.
“I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.”
“Wonderful, Madam, wonderful,” Braxiatel said, “but I wonder if you would you mind making that statement sound more flirtatious and less like a threat?”
“Yes. Actually, I would mind.”
“Here we go again,” Narvin groaned. “Nobody can take direction.”
“I haven’t told you how to play your character, have I?” Romana asked Braxiatel.
“That’s because I am also the director.”
“And I am your president.”
“Romana,” Braxiatel said softly, “you appointed me to this position. Please allow me to do it.”
“Oh, very well,” Romana said wearily, as though it was of great inconvenience to her. “If you could give me my cue again-”
“You are quite perfect, Miss Fairfax.”
“Oh, I hope I am not that.” Romana smiled. “It would leave no room for developments, and,” she said, leaning in and taking hold of Braxiatel’s tie, “I intend to develop in many directions.” She let go of him. “How was that?”
“Madam, you outshine us all. The half of the audience not already in love with you when the performance began will have fallen for you by the time the curtain falls.”
“Please stop doing that,” Romana pleaded.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Narvin said.
“Not on the set, please, Narvin,” Braxiatel said. “Now Romana and I leave to sit on the couch, and the scene continues. Play on.”
“Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?”
“I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.”
“My own one!”
“Frederick! At last!”
“Cecily, at— Ow!”
“Oh, Narvin, I am sorry!”
“Gwendolen! At last!”
“My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.”
“On the contrary, Aunt Augusta,” Braxiatel declared, “I’ve now realised for the first time in my life, the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
“Bravo!” the Doctor called from the audience.
“Well done, Brax,” Romana murmured against his ear as the curtain fell. She pulled away as it rose again. They bowed, the Doctor clapped, much to the confusion of the other Time Lords in the audience, and the curtain fell again.
“I’m going to check on the rest of the High Council,” Romana said and, having squeezed his arm, she left. She looked, Braxiatel thought, as he had not allowed himself to think while he had been playing her lover, remarkably pretty in her costume.
“Madam President!” Cardinal Marissa called as she approached, “I was just telling Valyes, here, that I don’t think I’ve had this much fun since Flavia’s Secret Santa in ’43.”
Braxiatel’s eyebrows rose.
“Is that so?” Romana said, casting a look back in Braxiatel’s direction.
“Oh yes,” Marissa enthused. “You should have seen Borusa’s face when he opened the box with the wildcat in it.”
“Brax!” the Doctor called, rushing up onto the stage the moment it was too late for him to be of any use. “What can I say? It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better production of Earnest.”
“Oh really?” Braxiatel said.
The Doctor nodded. “My favourite part has to be the moment Cecily punched Algernon in the jaw for trying to kiss her, narrowly followed by her stab to his eye in the final embrace, but there was something remarkable about every scene.”
“You’re too kind.”
“In fact,” the Doctor said, looking around, “my only concern, if you can call it a concern, with your excellent production is that, for some reason, you didn’t tell me who would be playing Lady Bracknell.”
“Didn’t I?” Braxiatel asked airily. He frowned. “Oh dear. I imagine that puts you in a slightly awkward position.”
“Slightly,” the Doctor agreed. “In fact, now I’ve offered you my congratulations, I’m afraid I’m going to have to- Ow, ow.”
“Theta,” a patrician voice boomed. “I thought I heard your caterwauling in the stands. How nice of you to show your face at last.”
“Hello mother,” the Doctor said, turning around the axes of his ear, which was clasped firmly between his mother’s fingers. “You know, it’s funny,” he said as he was lead away, “I was just about to call to let you know I’d returned from the divergent universe when Brax called about the play-”
“One can only hope you lie more convincingly to the Daleks, darling.”
Braxiatel smiled discretely to himself. He turned at Romana’s touch on his shoulder.
“They’re going to vote yes,” she said quietly. “Tacken, Marissa, even Valyes and Delox. Darkel’s been signed off for two weeks with her supposed nervous disorder, which only leaves Narvin-”
“-who would always have voted no, anyway,” Braxiatel finished. “How is his eye, by the way?”
“It should heal,” Romana said. “Anyway, we’ve done it. Well, you’ve done it.”
“My lady flatters me.”
“No,” Romana said. “I don’t do that, unlike some people I could mention. You did a good job. Eventually.”
“Aliens on Gallifrey,” Braxiatel murmured. “I hope you’re ready.”
“I hope you’re ready,” Romana said. “After all, it’ll be you who’ll be dealing with them at the Academy.”
Braxiatel raised an eyebrow. “Is this an official promotion?”
“Yes, it is,” Romana said. “Do you accept?”
“Madam, you know you have only to say the word and your humble servant rushes to obey your every sage command.”
Romana rolled her eyes. “I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, and walked off.
“The good ended happily,” Braxiatel remarked to nobody in particular, “the bad unhappily.”
He chuckled to himself, and, although he could see the attraction of the three-piece suit, went to change back into his robes.
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