Jamie McCrimmon raised his fist in triumph as the arena erupted into mixed reviews. He gave a curt bow towards the Emperor’s box, then turned and walked back to his niche at the side of the pit. Behind him, people in yellow robes and golden masks scurried out and stretchered away the unconscious warrior, the second of the Emperor’s champions to fall to the Scotsman’s hand.
“Well done, Jamie!” The Doctor clapped and bounced on the balls of his feet as Jamie rejoined him. The semi-circular cutout held weapon racks, a water bucket, one exuberant Time Lord, and a chair, which Jamie now collapsed into gratefully. The Doctor scooped a ladleful of water from the bucket and held it up to Jamie’s lips for him to drink. “You were magnificent, my boy! I knew you’d do us proud.”
Jamie emptied the ladle and pushed it away. “Aye, well, it were closer than it looked. He nearly had me once or twice. It’s a good thing you told me about his bad knee.”
“Oh, I’m only the messenger, Jamie.” Grinning, the Doctor tapped the microspeaker in his left ear. “Zoe’s doing a bang-up job getting us the inside scoop on the Imperial Champions.”
Jamie grimaced. “It still doesn’t feel right, Doctor. I know Zoe’s trying to help, but all this creeping about, eavesdropping… where’s the honour in that?”
The Doctor put his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I’d prefer a fair fight too, Jamie, but it’s all of our lives on the line if we don’t pass the Emperor’s challenge. We need every advantage we can get.”
Jamie looked out at the arena – the sand, the ancient bloodstains on the walls, the seething crowds, the purple sky with its midday moons, and at the centre of it all the Arcturan Emperor, Shaolere MCMXX, as gaudy as a Christmas tree and just as prickly. Jamie shook his head. “All this, just because the TARDIS interrupted his coronation?”
“Emperors can be sensitive about these things, Jamie. Now, let me get you some more water.” He leaned over the bucket, hiding his face. “You’ll need to stay hydrated for the, ah… next one.”
“Another one? Ah, come on Doctor! Why do I have to do all the fighting?”
“Now, Jamie, you know you’re much better at this sort of thing than Zoe or I,” the Doctor reasoned.
“Oh, aye, and how’s that again? You’ve been floating around all creation for God knows how long and you’ve never learned how to fight?”
The Doctor stood up, bashfully fidgeting with the ladle. “Yes, well. Truth be told I have been meaning to take up Venusian Aikido. I just never can seem to find the time.”
But Jamie was no longer listening. To universal acclaim, the third champion was entering through a portcullis at the far side of the pit. Jamie’s mind boggled as he took in the creature’s dimensions. Even at this distance…
“Will you look at the size o’ that, Doctor!” The older man turned pale as he followed his companion’s gaze.
“Yes, Jamie,” he said, “It certainly is a -”
The crash of an enormous gong cut off the rest of the Doctor’s remark. The final battle was about to begin.
* * *
Zoe Heriot hurried through the halls and corridors that filigreed the Imperial Palace, walking as fast as she could without running. She focused on slowing her breathing, trying to achieve calm by maintaining its appearance, but her hands kept balling themselves into fists and her eyebrows kept knitting together like magnets. She was becoming very worried that something terrible was going to happen to her friends.
And she had been doing so well.
It was all the Emperor’s fault. That rotten little greasy-haired so-and-so! Who did he think he was, locking up the TARDIS and forcing them to fight for their lives? Arena combat indeed!
The three of them had stayed reasonably calm at first – they had wriggled out of worse scrapes before, after all. But even the Doctor’s confidence had waned when the Emperor announced the contest would take place that very afternoon, and gave the entire city the rest of the day off to come and watch. It had quickly become clear there would be no avoiding it. One way or another, they would have to fight.
Two enormous guards had escorted them to the sumptuous guest quarters and left them to prepare themselves, confidently leaving the doors unlocked. The Doctor had nearly paced a groove in the pocked marble floor before he came up with a plan. It was a fairly simple one at that: Jamie would fight on their behalf, with the Doctor coaching from the sidelines, while Zoe, too young to enter the arena, worked the palace staff for intelligence on the fighters – anything that would give them an edge.
The Doctor had fished around in his pockets and pressed one of a pair of micro-speakers into her palm like it was a family heirloom. “They’re thought activated,” he had told her, Jamie excitedly doing warm-up punches in the air behind him. “Just concentrate and I’ll be able to hear everything you hear.”
“But Doctor, won’t they detect the signal?” she had asked, affixing it to her ear.
The Doctor had shaken his head. “This is an empire in sad decline, Zoe. Though the Arcturans possess advanced technology, they have all but forgotten how most of it works.”
It seemed the Doctor had been right. She had been nervous as she wished him and Jamie luck and ventured out into the palace, but not a single person had asked her about the device – though her jumpsuit did attract a few quizzical looks.
It hadn’t taken Zoe long to strike gold. Owin, an elderly guard outside the third of the seven ballrooms, had proven to be a veritable fountain of information about the Imperial Champions, right down to their birthdays and favourite songs. Far from Zoe having to draw the details she needed out of him, Owin had seemed to delighted just to meet someone willing to listen.
“Terrible shame about Mirkys,” he had said, leaning heavily against the wall and taking yet another swig from his flask. Zoe had no idea how he’d worked up such a thirst just standing still. “Used to be a brilliant fighter. Still very quick with his hands, but ever since he took that arrow in his knee…” Owin had let a sigh which turned into a modest belch.
“That is a shame,” Zoe had agreed, wondering exactly how much sympathy she was supposed to show for someone who would shortly be trying to kill her friend. Innocently, she had brushed her hair back from her face, angling the microspeaker towards him. “So… which knee was it, exactly?”
Clever, clever Zoe. I’m such an idiot, she thought.
A buzzing in her ear snapped her back to the present. “Everything’s going swimmingly at our end, Zoe,” came the Doctor’s voice through the microspeaker. “Jamie’s squaring up to the third Champion now. And quite a whopper they are, too. What does your helpful friend have to tell us?”
Zoe came to a halt by a stagnant fountain and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Doctor, Owin’s gone. He ran off to see the fight the moment his shift ended. “ Of course he did, she thought to herself. As if a fanatic like him would miss it for the world. “All I could get from him was that the third fighter is named Virkill.” But if I’d just asked sooner…
“‘Virkill’,” said the Doctor. “Well, that’s a start.”
“I’ll figure something out. Just tell Jamie to play for time. I won’t let you down, I promise.”
“I know you won’t, Zoe.” The Doctor’s voice betrayed not a trace of doubt. Then, in the background she heard an almighty roar. “Ah, but sooner rather than later, yes? I’ll let you get on with it.” He broke off the connection, leaving her very much on her own.
Could she keep her promise? she wondered as she set off again. Uncertainty was gnawing away at her as she turned another corner into a hallway lined with faded tapestries and non-functioning vidscreens. Nearly everyone who could spare the time was off watching the fight now, and those too busy to attend were too busy to talk to her. All these stern faces with their robes and beards and braids, she wanted to beg them, throw herself down, beat at them with her fists – but then the game would be up, and it would be her fault. And if she didn’t find someone willing to talk to her, and Jamie lost the fight, that would be her fault too.
Zoe stopped in a doorway, scrunching her eyes shut. Her heart pounded, as if beating out its own accusation. Your-fault-your-fault-your-
Zoe felt a tugging at her sleeve. She opened her eyes and saw a kind-looking middle-aged woman standing before her in a dark green smock and apron. The woman held a strange folder of card paper in one hand. “Hello, my dear,” she said, her voice soft. “I am Xacosma, of the Mothers of the Board. Will you be staying in the palace long?”
She sighed. “I’m Zoe. And I think I might be here for the rest of my life.”
The woman’s face lit up. “Oh! If you are staying that long then we must Enter you immediately.” She opened the folder and began pecking away at the topmost card with a stylus, knocking neat little holes at precise intervals.
Zoe stared, disbelieving. Could it be? She reached out for the folder, but the robed woman snatched it away, holding it close to her chest with a suspicious glare. “No! You would profane the Blessed Wafers!”
Zoe drew her hand back. “Forgive me,” she said, as contritely as she could. “I meant no harm, I was just curious about the ca – about the Blessed Wafers.” Then inspiration struck. “In fact, I was thinking of… heeding the call myself.”
“You hear the call?” gasped Xacosma, clearly impressed. The Mothers of the Board probably weren’t the most popular choice of career for girls Zoe’s age. Almost immediately she made herself stern again, making a point of not being a pushover. “Well, you have a lot to learn about the Sacraments of Entry, my child. Only those who have received their Permissions may touch or puncture the Wafers. But,” she smiled generously, “you may watch what I do.”
She angled the folder towards Zoe, who moved in next to her and finally got a proper look at the cards. Her heart leapt. Punch cards, she thought. Computer punch cards. And not for just any computer – for a Trafnor DataBarn.
Zoe autonomically recited her personal details to Xacosma while the rest of her mind whirled with the memories of every museum exhibit, documentary and text book entry about the Trafnori she had ever seen. A race of notorious over-engineerers, their computers were legendary – not for their power, which was laughable, but for their durability. It was said that a Trafnor could keep running through anything short of a direct nuclear strike, which would sometimes necessitate a hard reset.
A Trafnor DataBarn. And they had one here, somewhere in the palace. But how long had it been since they even knew what a computer was? Long enough, it seemed, for data entry and record keeping to become ritualised. But wasn’t there a chance…?
“Seventeen years,” she said, returning her full attention to Xacosma’s task. “And this rite is performed for every inhabitant of the palace? Even the Imperial Champions?”
The woman looked at her as if she were simple. “Of course, my child. Did you not learn these things at your mother’s knee?”
“I mustn’t have been paying attention,” Zoe said, with some difficulty. “But I’m very keen to learn now. Would you permit me to witness the Entering of this Blessed Wafer?”
Xacosma looked uncertain. “This is not forbidden, but it is unusual.”
Zoe crossed her fingers behind her back. “I promise not to touch anything!”
“Oh, thank you!” Zoe put her arm around the woman’s shoulders, gently pushing her forward. “I’m so excited, I don’t think I can wait! Why don’t we go now and you can finish my Wafer on the way? You’re really good at Puncturing, you know.”
The woman blushed. “It is much harder than it looks,” she chattered as they began to walk. “So often the acolytes do not appreciate the skill involved, why if a single mistake is made it can take hours to…”
Doctor, Jamie, please be alright, Zoe thought, a small pang of her previous distress returning. Only a little longer and I might just pull this off.
* * *
Jamie came down hard on his back, sliding a full three metres in the dirt. Instantly the Doctor was up and running across the pit, drawing loud abuse from the audience at this breach of the rules. He skidded to a halt at the Scotsman’s side and knelt down beside him, softly tapping the sides of his face. “Jamie! Jamie, are you alright?
Jamie opened his eyes slowly, squinting up at the Doctor. “Hey, you’re not… the phantom… pipe-cleaner. Ohhh.” He sat up slowly, lifting a hand to shade his face from the sun just as a shadow fell over both of them.
Virkill. Seven feet of muscle and thick leather armour, the visible parts of its skin bristled with grey-green scales as, with a mighty talon, it lifted the visor of its helmet to look down upon them. Even the Doctor’s hearts skipped a beat as he beheld the mouth full of serrated teeth and the single, blood-red compound eye that took up its entire forehead. Virkill placed its club end-down on the ground in front of it and leaned upon the handle.
“Stand aside, elder,” it warned, its voice deep and musical. “There can be only two, until there is only one. Such are the laws of the game, and they do not bend.”
“Never mind the rules! Can’t you see he’s badly hurt?” shouted the Doctor. “Where is your humanity – I mean your – your reptility? This isn’t a game to us! We had no choice about fighting you!”
Virkill tilted its head. “It was game enough when you were winning.” This drew an appreciative giggle from the Emperor. “It was your choice to insult my master with your uninvited presence. It was your choice of who would fight for your lives. I envy you so many choices.” It let out a long, low growl, or perhaps it was a sigh. “Make your move, elder, and make it soon.”
The Doctor put a finger to his lips as he looked at Jamie struggling to sit up. He was still just a boy, really, so keen to protect his friends, to prove himself. It wasn’t your TARDIS that landed us in this mess, was it? he thought.
The Doctor climbed to his feet and addressed the Emperor. “Your Most Grand Majesty, permit me to finish this trial in my companion’s place.”
The Emperor rolled his eyes as the stadium erupted into laughter. Only Virkill was silent.
Jamie got himself up on one knee. “No, Doctor it’s fine, I can keep going.”
“Really, it didn’t hit me that hard. It only hurts from my head down, if I -”
“No, Jamie!” The Doctor snapped. Then his face melted into a warm smile. “I’m a silly old man and I’ve asked far too much of you already. Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”
I doubt that, said Jamie’s expression.
The Emperor reached a verdict. Raising a lazy finger in the air, he announced, “If my Champion wants another fight, they shall have one!” There was a ragged round of applause as all eyes turned to Virkill.
The cyclops regarded the Doctor soberly. “Elder,” it said, “your execution does not begin until tomorrow morning. There are more comfortable ways to spend your last hours.”
The Doctor clasped his hands together over his chest. “Virkill, my friend, there’s no keeping a good man down. And you’ll find I’m not that easy to squash, myself.”
Virkill nodded and lowered its visor. “Then prepare yourself,” it said, and drawing in a great lungful of breath bellowed: “The old one fights at the ten-count!”
The gong began to strike, crash after ponderous crash. Ten… Nine…
The yellow-robed people appeared as if from nowhere and helped Jamie on to a stretcher. “Good luck, Doctor,” he called as they hoisted him away. “Mind the you-know-what doesn’t fall out. And watch out for that backswing!”
The Doctor scampered back to the niche and dithered back and forth over the equipment racks.
He plucked a Norman-style helmet off a stand and jammed it onto his head. “Yes, that should keep all the important things in place,” he muttered to himself.
The Doctor removed his coat, rolled up his shirtsleeves, then put the coat back on.
He grabbed a small round shield and a carbon-fibre lasso, and stomped back out to face the cyclops.
One. Virkill raised its club over its head and loosed a battlecry unpronounceable by humanoid tongues.
“I agree,” said the Doctor, whirling the lasso. “Let’s get on with it.”
* * *
Zoe had to admit the Chamber of the Servers (as Sister Xacosma so reverently called it) was an impressive place. Green-tinged daylight filtered through a skylight high overhead, spilling down fluted columns and vivid murals to splash in puddles upon the DataBarn itself – a squat, shuttle-sized ingot of iron grey duraplastic that sat on a dais in the centre of the floor, fronted by a chunky keyboard and a dark screen. There was nothing pretty about the machine, but its surroundings gave it an air of serenity and reassuring permanence.
As Xacosma led her towards the interface, Zoe glanced at one of the murals, then quickly looked away, blushing. She had seen a lot of strange things in her travels with the Doctor, but she still found it hard to believe a computer could have fathered a child.
Xacosma knelt down before the keyboard, bowing her head and proffering Zoe’s punch card. “Oh great repository of wisdom,” she began, droning away with supplications and pleas to the Great Machine for so long that Zoe’s feet began to itch. For goodness’ sake, she thought, this model doesn’t even have a microphone.
Eventually Xacosma reached the end of the rite. “By the logic and the loop and the line of command,” she intoned, and inserted the card into a slot just below the screen. The machine gulped it up with a buzz of solenoids, chewed for a moment, then spat it back into the priestess’ waiting hand. Xacosma tucked the card away in her folder and rose to her feet flushed with joy. “It is done!” she cried. “You are Entered!”
Zoe eyed the screen of the computer, still dark. “Is that everything? The Great Machine does not… speak to you in return?”
Xacosma laughed. “Oh my child, you are an innocent one! The Great Machine has not spoken since time out of mind. It awaits the return of the Informed One who will show us the error of our codes.” She turned to leave, beckoning Zoe to follow her. “Now, come, Zoe Heriot. I will show you to the Board of Mothers, and we can begin your Verification.”
Zoe thought fast. Clearly the Great Machine – clearly the computer still had power, and it sounded like it had processed the card properly. If everything else worked, it was unlikely anything could be seriously wrong with the visual output relay. The solution could be as simple as…
Zoe took a deep breath as she stepped up to the interface. Just one more bit of good luck, she prayed to no one in particular, and stuck her hand in behind the screen.
It was over in an instant. Xacosma had just enough time to turn around and open her mouth in outrage before Zoe’s fingers found the power switch, flicked it off, and then flicked it back on again.
“=RECORD HERIOT_ZOE SUCCESSFULLY ENTERED=” beamed the screen in chunky green letters as the priestess hurriedly prostrated herself. “=SUBMIT NEXT WHEN READY=”.
A few uncomfortably worshipful minutes later, Zoe had the chamber to herself. She felt truly awful for taking advantage of Xacosma’s ignorance like that – the priestess seemed a lovely person for someone who was wrong about absolutely everything – but she resolved to postpone feeling guilty and get on with saving her friend’s lives.
Zoe’s fingers were a blur on the keyboard. The database of palace citizens was massive but simply structured, she determined, and it didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for. With a final stab of the return key she submitted the query: “DISPLAY:ALL(KEYWORD=“VIRKILL”)”.
Instantly, the screen overflowed with reams of information – but the more of it she absorbed, the more Zoe’s heart sank through the floor.
We are in very serious trouble, she thought
* * *
Virkill’s club crashed down on the Doctor’s skull – but the unlikely warrior was already gone, diving for the gap between the cyclops’ feet and wriggling out the other side like a caterpillar. Virkill spun around and grabbed for the Doctor’s legs, drawing whoops of protest from the old man as he desperately swatted its claws away with the shield. At the last second the Doctor regained his footing and stumbled out of range.
“Stop that!” he cried. “It’s exhausting!”
As the two combatants circled each other once again the speaker in the Doctor’s ear crackled to life. “Doctor? Doctor, can you hear me?” came Zoe’s voice.
The Doctor raised the shield so that it hid his face. “Loud and clear, Zoe. How are you getting on?”
“Oh, I’m alright. Except I may have led some very nice priestesses to believe I’m their messiah.”
“Well, don’t fret too much, it happens to the best of – oh my word!” Virkill launched a series of fluid strikes with its club, and it was all the Doctor could do to get his shield up in time. He retreated rapidly, the force of the blows making his bones quaver like a ringing bell as he backed up against the wall of the pit.
“What’s all that crashing about? Is Jamie winning?” asked Zoe.
“I’m rather…” The Doctor rolled out of the way just in time for Virkill’s club to knock a chunk of masonry out of the wall. “… afraid he’s not.”
To a deafening chorus of boos and hisses the Doctor sprinted for the far side of the pit, putting as much distance between himself and his opponent as he could while he brought Zoe up to speed. “Now,” he puffed as the reptile barrelled towards him, “have you found out anything helpful about our strapping green friend?”
“That’s just it, Doctor,” said Zoe morosely, “I’ve got an entire file on Virkill! Every bit of information there is! And not a single exploitable weakness in all of it!”
“Zoe Heriot, any strength can be a weakness under the right circumstances.” As Virkill closed in the Doctor dropped his shield and hurled himself directly at the enormous creature, catching it by surprise. With a flash of his hands he looped the lasso around its left leg and pulled the rope tight, toppling it to the ground in a cloud of dust. “And vice-versa. Just read to me what you have and we’ll see if we can’t work something out.”
As Zoe began to read, Virkill yanked the lasso out of the Doctor’s hands with a mighty kick and tossed it aside, growling curses so vicious they almost turned his hair white again. But, as it climbed to its feet, instead of attacking, it picked up the discarded shield and rolled it towards him on edge, like a penny. The Doctor blinked as he caught it. “Oh. Well, that’s very decent of you,” he said, just in time for the next flurry of attacks to rain down upon him.
Zoe continued, “… consecutive victories, eight of which were single-strike mortalities. Education – Doctor, it’s almost as clever as I am! – excels at all subjects but especially fond of Arcturan classical literature and romantic poetry. Was awarded the Order of the Vibroflute for its epic verse retelling of the 243rd Emperor’s conquest of the East wind. Is fluent in all seventeen primary languages of the continent, plus four local dialects of Gebrontan. Medical history: No serious incidents, can be irritable during biannual sheddings, for which it is typically prescribed an unction of…”
“Wait!” The Doctor, having recovered the lasso, had managed to get it looped around Virkill’s club and was rapidly losing a tug-of-war for the tangled weapons. “Zoe, which dialects?”
A quick clatter of keys. “Norzic, Kappo-Norzic, Norzi-gakk and Junt.”
“Kappo-Norzic…” The rope slipped, forgotten, from the Doctor’s hands, causing Virkill to almost topple over backwards. “Kappo-Norzic… Zoe my girl, we might just get out of this yet.”
With a thought the Doctor severed the microspeaker signal before she could reply. Then, dropping the shield to his side, the Doctor put his other hand in his pocket and addressed Virkill. “Forgive me, my honoured opponent. I’m not much of a fighter, am I?”
Virkill paced towards him. “You are better at running,” it growled.
“No argument here. Perhaps a different contest would be more entertaining for everyone?”
The cyclops raised its visor again, revealing the lidless eye beneath. It was an effective glare. “The arena is not a playpen, elder. One does not demean this ancient bloodground with trivial diversions.”
“Oh, but there’s nothing trivial,” said the Doctor with a raised eyebrow, “about the Game of Rhymes.”
A ripple of interest went through the crowd, which had been growing bored. Now this was more like it. Even the Emperor sat forward.
“The Game of Rhymes? With you?” Virkill began to laugh, until the Doctor added:
“Consider this a formal challenge.”
That all but settled the matter. Refusing a formal challenge was unheard of for a poet of Virkill’s standing. “As you will,” it spat, the traditional words of acceptance. “But this will not exempt you from the rite of combat. Our battle will pause only for the speaking of rhymes. And whoever loses one contest,” – it pointed its club at the Doctor like an accusing finger – “concedes the other.”
The Doctor shrugged. “If you insist. Challenger goes first, yes? No, no, don’t exert yourself,” he said as Virkill started to move, “I’m ready.”
Switching fluently to Kappo-Norzic, the Doctor launched his opening volley.
“[A club is fine and dandy, though a sword is sharper still – yet neither wounds as deep as words of cruel intention will.]”
Virkill admirably contained its shock at a foreigner speaking in one of the old tongues. It paused only a moment, considering its rejoinder, then like lightning lunged at the Doctor and pinned him to the ground with one talon around his throat. “[A voice can give the order, but it’s hands that make the kill.]” Slowly it uncurled its claws and gestured expansively to the crowd as it rose. “[By deeds, and not speech, do we measure a being. Supposing is hearing, but knowing is seeing.]”
Those present who spoke Kappo-Norzic were immediately on their feet, cheering and clapping, and the rest quickly joined in out of sheer human nature.
The Doctor picked himself up and dusted the sand off his coat, this time not bothering to retrieve the shield or lasso. “[With logic like that there is no disagreeing,]” he admitted, apparently shaken. Before Virkill could get any ideas about pouncing on him again he quickly fired his next volley. “[Yet can a word not let us know intentions that would else not show?]”
Virkill gave a single bark of laughter and went down on a knee so that it could deliver its reply eye-to-eye. “[Intents are winds that do not blow,]” it spat. “[The flowers have no scent before they bloom. A tapestry, no weave before the loom.]”
The Doctor grasped his lapels. “[For hope, such narrow terms permit no room.]” He continued in the ancient dialect, “Ja, nello tok orfolam stellokeda – vraydakerodan morganefeneda!”
The crowd gasped, but Virkill grinned. It had won. There were no other rhymes for the words the little man had chosen. That made his volley illegal. It was the most fundamental rule of the game, the opponent must always be left at least one –
Then it remembered. There was one word. Only one.
A terrible scream building in its throat, Virkill raised the club over its head.
* * *
“Hang on Doctor – it surrendered?”
Bandaged but mobile, Jamie stood with the Doctor by the TARDIS in the middle of the palace treasury. The Emperor was keeping his promise, but petulantly had refused to move their craft one inch from where it had been dumped atop a stack of chromium bricks. Piles of tarnished jewellery and other trinkets of dubious value surrounded them, as did a score of bored-looking guards, presumably to discourage souvenir collecting.
The Doctor nodded. “It had no choice, Jamie. Kappo-Norzic is a bit like the Welsh or German languages of Earth – lots of very long, complicated words. My final volley left Virkill only one other possible rhyme – serfolotuskelleranamobeda, which means “I offer my complete and absolute surrender.” By speaking it, Virkill forfeited the trial of combat. Had it spoken anything else, it would have forfeited the Game of Rhymes instead.” He clasped his hands together happily. “Win-win for us.”
Jamie was sure his headache was coming back. “But Doctor, could it not just have kept its mouth shut and knocked you about until you couldn’t fight nae more?”
“Well, yes, that was a risk.” The Doctor conceded. “But the being Zoe described to me was one that cared more about art and principle than bloodshed and winning streaks. After all, what good’s a physical victory against a little old man if no other poet will ever look you in the eye again?”
“Aye.” This, Jamie understood. “More honour in a gracious defeat.”
Just then Zoe walked in through the treasury doors, a strange expression on her face.
“Ah, there you are Zoe!” said the Doctor. “Everything set straight with the Mothers of the Board?”
“I think so,” she replied distantly. “I showed them some basic maintenance routines, and they promised not to worship me or put me in any murals.”
“Well that’s good, isn’t it? Why the long face?” asked Jamie.
“We got to chatting, and they told me about the ceremony. The one that we interrupted when we arrived. It… wasn’t a coronation.”
Zoe told them what it really was.
“They…” Jamie struggled with the idea. “They have a ceremony… every time the Emperor… does that?”
“And with so many spectators,” whispered Zoe.
“Well, no reason to dilly-dally!” said the Doctor, a bit too loudly. “I believe we’re overstaying our welcome as it is, aren’t we chaps?” He looked to the nearest guard for support, who only gave the slightest of shrugs. “Come along now! Into the TARDIS, you two!”
Zoe and Jamie let themselves be ushered into the craft. Before he stepped in behind them, the Doctor paused to remove the microspeaker from his ear. He turned the tiny device over in his fingers for a moment, feeling a pang of guilt as he did so. It had had to be done, of course. But perhaps he would have a chance to meet Virkill again some day, and under better circumstances challenge it to a game of chess, or croquet, or badminton, or even another game of rhymes. Perhaps.
With a sigh, the Doctor pocketed the device and closed the TARDIS door behind him. Next time, he promised himself. Next time, I’ll fight fair.