Slings and Buffets of Outrageous Fortune > Not A-Muse-d > Marmalade, Tungsten, and Plot

“So,” said a slightly (and this should also be taken as a relative term) calmer Excel from where she was hiding behind Hyatt, “you don’t want to rip off Excel’s clothes and… uh… well, you don’t want to rip off Excel’s clothes, right? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Yes, Dohnim-san,” replied Nuku-Nuku with surprising patience for someone with a cat’s brain.

Excel cowered. “Yes, you do?!”

“No, Nuku-Nuku means ‘yes, she doesn’t’,” the catgirl tried again.

“Yes means no and no means yes, is that your little word game?!” Excel pointed an accusing finger at her, over Hyatt’s shoulder. “You think to confuse me with your diabolical semanticisms, but that won’t work! I know how you purple-haired lolicon androids are! You get Excel all confused and vulnerable and then make your move!” She went all shimmery-eyed and hugged her arms demurely to her body. “Oh, the tragedy of being a sweet and innocent maiden in this world of ruthless desire and hedonism. How ever shall Excel keep her honor and virtue intact in such dire straits featuring Mark Knopfler?”

“What is Dohnim-san talking about? Nuku-Nuku is all confused…” The android girl racked her hybrid feline/silicon brain for the proper way to handle this situation. Papa-san always said to try and find some sort of common ground with new people and then work from there. But what could she say? Wait, the strange blonde girl had been eating fish earlier, so…

“Nuku-Nuku wants some tuna fish! Dohnim-san looks like she’d like some tuna, too!” Nuku blinked at the suddenly vacant space in front of her. “Um, why did Dohnim-san run away screaming about plucked lilies and dragging Ayasugi-san with her…?”

“Eloise! Florestan!” cried Trader Grey, swooshing across the room in tandem with Carrie.

“Milord, milady!” Fastolf bellowed, swishing his great tail as he came so as not to be outdone, swashy-verb-wise. “Once more, a merry meeting!” Candy skipped expertly over her escort’s too-lustily-lashing appendage, not breaking rhythm for a moment.

“Gray, Carrie, Fastolf!” returned Eloise enthusiastically. “And—” Something in the ‘Baroque Chick’s’ violently conflicted and exuberantly trashy aspect caused her a moment’s hesitation, even with her dials calibrated for the Denaric Duo as they were; but she put the qualm aside as unworthy of a truly Joyful occasion, and converted it into a graciously tacit question.

“Eloise, Florestan,” said Carrie, curtseying as if she’d spent rather a long time practising that uncharacteristic manoeuvre, “thank you so much for inviting us. I’d like you to meet my younger sister, Candy, alias Mrs Candia Harcourt for the duration…”

“That’s à la franglais,” Candy interjected happily, “rhymes with ‘hardcore’…”

“…of Swevyn and Basingstoke,” Carrie concluded, more smoothly than plausibly. Candy looked brief stilettos at her, then dimpled charmingly at her hosts. Eloise, who knew her Gilbert & Sullivan as well as the next joyful troll, was thereby somewhat enlightened, though this illumination itself tended to cast at least as many obscurities as it dispelled. “Candy, our hosts and good comrades, Eloise la Joyeuse and Florestan of Gallifrey!”

“You’re all most welcome,” said Florestan gravely, inclining his head.

“Haow kind of hyou to let mhe come!” Candy Eliza’d with a perfectly straight face, accompanying this ham with a curtsey as deep and magnificent as Carrie’s might have been in its wildest dreams of coolness. “I’ve heard a great deal about you, and I’m delighted to be—”

Sweetheart?!” Carrie’s electric-blue eyes lit up joyfully.

Candy’s attention snapped to the Trader. The echo job he was doing caused her eyes to go very wide, and then follow her companions’ gaze in momentary bewilderment, before the approach of Maid TARDIS registered on all the requisite mental levels. Eloise noted that, whilst Candy’s reactions were as vehement and crude as Carrie’s so signally weren’t, they weren’t perceptibly slower at getting where they were going. “So, Miss Amabel—” Another double-take, which it took Eloise a moment to realise was being made at something else in the line of sight. “Oh, what, but you can pick your guests, can’t you—?”

“—(though she says so as shouldn’t),” Carrie tacitly apologised to her hosteless, en passant.

“—DEL!!!” Candy gathered up her skirts and bounded over to the little lady currently being attended by three rum-and-raisin satellite galaxies.

The Trader blinked foolishly. “I’ll be a spr— if that wasn’t genuine enthusiasm…”

Eloise caught the implication, fitted it into an increasingly iffy mental picture, and swept all the pieces back into the envelope until some better ones turned up. But at least the Quadrille already seemed to be exerting the traditional Pro-Fun effect, anyway. She couldn’t resist asking, “Er… were those real cichlids swimming about in the glass heels?”

“It misliked me to ask,” Fastolf admitted, “but certes they came of her original design, nor went otherwise e’en ere she sighted yon lov’d Mad Tamsin…”

“Delirium of the Endless,” Eloise supplied briskly, “Alryssa’s guest. I can see how they may have certain tastes in common. —Drinks are over there with Imran…” A lightning sketch of the arrangements ensued. “Do enjoy yourselves; and please excuse us, but now we’re all here, we really ought to look to the Quadrille for a moment…”

Trader Grey bowed and smiled. “First know, impetuous hosts, that we come bearing gifts. A bottle of genuine fayalin from Con Kinnison’s private cellar; a box of lucky white-chocolate bars from the City of Dreams; and a tin of special Memison caviar won by Fastolf with such adventure as would make the Milk Tray Man look like a piker, a faintheart, and a wimp; and which—”

“Will be safely kept, I promise,” Maid TARDIS slid in smoothly, taking custody of it whilst conspicuously not looking across the room at Nuku-Nuku. Eloise smiled inwardly: really pleased with the presents and especially the thought behind them, she knew how difficult it could be to get away from one of the Trader’s sentences when his supply of full-stops started to wax light. The three non-Delirious guests made their way towards the bar, the hosts set about their hostly things…

The guests made it half-way towards the bar.

Some oy occurred.

“Oh, bloody bingo!” Trader Grey remarked disbelievingly. “Carrie, is it just me, or—?


“Doctor, I really don’t want to.”

“It’s perfectly safe. They’re not going to bite, I promise.”

“Um, they look like they’re perfectly happy talking to themselves. They don’t need me butting in. I’m just gonna…” Molly turned and tried to walk away, but the Doctor’s firm grip on her arm kept her from leaving. “Look, I’m not very good with strangers, Doctor. I think I have that, um, social anxiety disorder thing that they talk about on that commercial.”

The Doctor gave her a stern, disbelieving look.

“Or something like that,” she said sheepishly.

“Come on,” the Doctor said, leading her toward the bar. Molly rolled her eyes and sighed in surrender, all the while trying desperately to keep the word “hello” from slipping out of her mind.

“Hello all,” the Doctor said to the whole of the bar. “Lemonade, Imran, if you please.”

“Sure thing.”


“Bananas,” Molly blurted out when she reached the bar. From somewhere near by, she heard Rhiannon smack her forehead and groan in shared emarassment.



“Pardon?” the bartender asked. Everyone else glanced at Molly, then returned to their conversations.

“Milkshake. Banana milkshake. I saw that Mister Grim Reaper over here—”

“Death,” Death corrected.

“Right. Sorry. Anyway, I saw that Death here had a milkshake, and I wondered if you might be able to make me a banana one.”

“I think I might be able to pull that off.” The bartender started making her drink. “I’m Imran, by the way. And these people are Alryssa, Gordon…” Imran proceeded to name everyone at the bar and their relation to each other (because the author’s memory is unreliable enough to warrant the anti-attempt at actually listing everyone. Either that, or she’s finally finding out how lazy she really is, but doesn’t want to admit it).

“I’m Molly. It seems you all already know Rhiannon, my muse.” Rhiannon, in usual cat manner, only perked an ear up at the sound of her name, continuing to cat-nap on the bar in front of a wary Bob the Muse.

Molly slid onto a barstool next to the Doctor as Imran served up her banana milkshake. “God, I have the worst bad luck.”

“Hmmm?” the Doctor asked.

“I just remembered that I hate bananas.”

It was then that Molly’s barstool, along with everyone else’s barstool, and the entire bar, disappeared.

So did the muses.

Evan was wondering whether that included things like the glasses, decided not to risk it and downed the rest of his Carlsberg as quickly as possible. The sensation was not altogether unpleasant, and seeing as he, with the others, had already been dropped on the floor, it didn’t leave him much the worse for wear. After a few seconds he started to pick himself up, and help Zoe to her feet.

“What was that?” he said.

“Maybe it’s a rip in the space-time continuum,” Zoe said.

“No, Q’s just as baffled as the rest of us,” Evan replied, looking over. “Besides, there’s not supposed to be any of that this year.”

“Well then maybe it’s just a trick.”

“Who still has that kind of power?”

“I’m not sure. The trolls?”

“But they’re running the thing.”

“It’d be worth asking, though.”

After much similar staccato conversation, Evan and Zoe decided to divvy up and go around asking the hosts, or anyone else who looked like they knew what they were doing. Zoe headed up to a trio of folks who had arrived at the bar just shortly before. Evan’s attention was caught by a car that had apparently just arrived on the party grounds.

Amy slowly realized that both she and Q had been staring at the bar for several full minutes. She looked at him surreptitiously and could hardly believe her eyes. Had he actually just seen something he didn’t understand? She didn’t ask him, though, knowing he would never admit to that.

It was he who spoke first. “This must mean that the plot is about to start.”

“I’ll go with it when it does,” said Amy, “but I was looking forward to the dance.”

“Personally, I’d rather have the plot.”

John Crichton was beginning to regret many things in his life. Especially when he saw things worse than Scorpius in drag. He sipped his beer, and considered the sudden lack of a bar. “Hey, Harv.”

“Yes, John?”

“The bar just disappeared.”

“Really, John, I think—” The neural clone stopped, and eyed the area that the bar had used to belong to. “I’m seeing things as well.”

“Yeah.” John ran his thumb over his lips. “Y’think… Y’think all the beer went with it?”


“This… this is not a good thing.”

Jonah, tilting her head back in a somewhat unladylike fashion, had downed her squash without coming up for breath, and was just going back for a refill when the bar disappeared. For a moment, indignation gathered… then a look of distinct satisfaction took its place, and she looked around the assorted guests with a air of “I told you so.” Machinery had a habit of going on the fritz when she was in the vicinity, but she’d never made an entire bar vanish before. Not to mention some of the bar staff.

It was a pity she hadn’t the faintest idea how she’d apparently done it.

Biggles, clutching the tiny measuring-glass the ghost-lady had found from somewhere (Jonah had a dark suspicion it had come out of the Troughton Doctor’s pocket) with surprising delicacy in his four-fingered grasp, had obeyed the universal instinct of all his kind and disappeared rapidly with his booty into the nearest hole in case some other rat should snatch it. The nearest hole had turned out to be down the front of Jonah’s dress. Fortunately, she had considerately left the top button open.

Now, almost invisible save for his nose and miniature hands, he was eagerly licking at the outside of the glass, whiskers twitching with excitement. Jonah peered down at him and sighed. “C’mon, you silly cider-rat. Here, don’t breathe into it—you know it makes you sneeze…”

With the aid of a judiciously applied little-finger, she managed to get the idea across, sucking her finger absent-mindedly as her pet finally got the message. She made a face. “Ugh. Don’t know how you can drink that stuff, you daft old creature…”

One ear swivelled like a small pink radar-dish, but he gave no other sign of having heard her. Jonah stroked the busy head with a gentle touch that belied her words, smiling.

Danel blinked. He could have sworn that the bar was this way—he wasn’t that confused, surely? No, there was Imran, looking rather bewildered and a bar-size empty space away from everyone else; there were a few unfortunates sprawled across the floor, wondering what just happened. Part of Danel’s mind noticed something worrying, something missing, but he strolled over to the Non-Bar regardless. Perhaps there might still be a little lemonade, and some fruit—he certainly didn’t want to fail to get some drinks—Ana would never let him live it down.

He only hoped she’d understand if he couldn’t get lime.

“Sorry I’m late,” he announced to the gathered folk in general, “you wouldn’t believe what the Harry Potter Subrealities are like right now. Absolute chaos, I tell you—t’was as if a million fanfics had all cried out at once, and then been made AU. Theory Bay is going crazy… mind you, that place is pretty crazy at the best of times…” He trailed off as something troublesome occurred to him. “Um… Where’s Allie, Imran?”

Throughout Danel’s monologue, Imran’s expression of bewilderment had slowly shifted to one of slight worry and anger. Still much bewilderment. A dread suspicion began to claw its way up Danel’s spine, chewing on vertebrae like some horrible monster from a particularly unpleasant horror, one with horrible gnashing teeth set in a hideous muzzle and—

“She’s gone!” cried Imran. “All of our muses are missing! Again!”

DANGER! DANGER! It was as if some error message blazed to life inside Danel’s skull. He twisted so fast that the hideous monster was thrown from his spine, whirling across the room and returning to the dubious metaphor from whence it came!, searching desperately, and fruitlessly, for Ana. No, there she was, talking to Florestan. Perhaps they’d been fortunate enough to arrive that little bit late, or maybe, just maybe, something inexplicable had happened. It matters not—Danel was able to turn back to Imran, attempting as he did so to fix a consoling expression upon his face. He was mostly successful, but Imran had things on his mind at this point, somewhat understandably.

“I’m sure they’ll turn up,” Danel attempted.

Imran sighed. “Well, this does seem to be the minor event or joke, and there isn’t much we can do right now… but why the bar and the muses?”

“I almost have the sense of some kind of humourous incantation gone horribly wrong… no idea what it might be, though. I’m not exactly top of the world right now—I came here hoping for a little rest—a chance to escape the crowd and the razzmatazz that’s been going down in the Buffy and HP areas of late…” A ponderous expression crossed his face.

“What is it?” questionified Imran, hesitantly.

Danel looked up at him. “Was Who fandom ever like that, way back when? Endless speculation, the factions and the acronyms and the nicknames, things like Redemptionistas and L.O.L.L.I.P.O.P.S and the fanon? I mean, I can look at the articles in DWM, and I see a quote about the Deadly Assassin and… It’s exactly the same! Fans at the time were saying exactly the same about Deadly Assassin—destroys the magic, what about continuity, all that—that people now say about Spike and Dawn and all that stuff. And fans reacted to OotP with the same sort of ‘great disappointment, don’t like these characters’—the same, po-faced, Conservatifan righteousness… has it all always been the same?”

Imran blinked. “I’m sorry?”

Where the bar had once been, partygoers cursed the cruel fate that had stolen the drinks from them.

Ana and Florestan greeted each other politely, with the elaborate air of two people worried at having to move beyond the polite greeting stage, and actually get to a conversation.

However, a sudden howl of rage pierced the air like a sharp knife pierces stone. It wasn’t terribly impressive, really, as howls of rage go. It served suitably as a distraction, however.

The howl of rage Lyss was producing would have been more amusing if she hadn’t been turning the air literally blue with her curses. Sandra had clapped her hands over her rather ghostly ears, and glared at Alryssa. “Can’t you shut her up?”

“Lyss!” Gordon grabbed onto her shoulders and shook her. “Snap out of it!”

“Gah—” Suddenly snapping her mouth closed, Lyss panted, glaring. “I. Am. Not. Happy.”

“Someone took, the booze.” Crichton slumped towards them, stopping to help Molly to her feet. “That someone must pay.”

Alryssa scowled at the empty space, then shook her fist at it.

“Dammit! What is it with things vanishing when we’re about to have fun? Is it some kind of universal conspiracy? I’m on vacation from being Sailor Gallifrey, and I’m not punching back in for anyone!”

She then realised everyone was looking at her, and cleared her throat, feeling suddenly self-conscious. “Er. Yeah…”

“Just a wild guess, but I think she’s angry,” John said.

“Oh, hush,” said Lyss.

“Can we at least order some pizza while we’re waiting for them to show back up?” Harvey moaned.

“No, Harv. I was thinking we could play Trading Spaces instead,” John retorted. “And you can be the one getting redecorated!”

An evil glint appeared in Gordon’s eye. “I lay dibs on the jigsaw cutter…”

“Oh, really. You know I look my best in black.”

“Men,” muttered all the women present.

“Still,” Death added, “John’s idea does have merit…”

“I’ll get the paint,” Bob said, grinning.

Lyss, however, was still seething with rage.

“Lyss?” Eyeing her friend carefully, Alryssa touched her arm. “What’s the matter, love?”

“I know that power signature.”

There had been a flash of light… Tessa shook her head, clearing her eyes of the odd after-image, and found herself, the bar, and about a dozen other Muses suddenly Elsewhere. “Hello?”

“Oh, frell. Sorry.” A red-haired Muse stepped into her line of sight, and eyed the bar with irritation. “Frank,” she said to the green lizard on her shoulder, “We only needed the other Muses, not the bar.”

“But, Rylla, there’ss alcohol,” the lizard protested sibilantly.

She reached up and lightly tapped a finger on the lizard’s nose. “Yes, and you’ve taken it away from Lyss. Think about that for a moment.”

The lizard paled slightly, then sighed heavily. “I take your point.”


“Excuse me?” Amber tapped Rylla on her unoccupied shoulder.

“Oh, sorry, hi. You want to know why you’re here.” Rylla shrugged carefully. “It was something I thought of, while sitting here talking to Xander—” she frowned. “Now where did that boy go—no matter. He reminded me that not everyone likes Muses, and, as such, too many Muses at a party could… irritate people.”

“You forget,” Amber said dryly, “We’re not Subreality Muses, dear Rylla.”

“Well… If you really want to hang out at a dry-as-dust ball and not do things like, say, strip poker…”

Several of the assembled Muses gave a shudder.

“Right. Maybe you do. Um…”

“Ssend them back?” Frank suggested, leering half-heartedly at Tessa.

“I,” announced Rhiannon, flouncing—which is an odd thing for a cat to do. Especially without access to ruffles and, well, flounce. She was also eyeing Frank with a distinctly predator-ish gaze—“was perfectly happy there. I hadn’t seen some of those people for a long time.”

“Same here,” Tessa said, flicking a toothpick at Frank.

Bob the Muse drew himself to his full height, and folded his arms. “You’re sending us back,” he said, quietly. “Now.” It wasn’t a request, it wasn’t even a demand. It was, quite simply, a statement.

“Right, then.” Raising her hands, Rylla drew in a breath. “Everyone who wants to go back, put your hand on the bar. Or paw. Or claw.”

A few moments later, there was no one in the rather deserted room save Rylla and Frank. She gave a sigh. “I hope I was right to send them back. I’d hate to think I was right, and that they’ll dominate the story line.”

Frank gave a philosophical shrug, and nudged her neck with a tiny claw. “There iss, however, booze here.”

“Point.” She frowned. “Hey… Where did Xander go?”

“How do you know the signature?” Imran asked, eyeing Lyss as if she was insane.

Which is possible.

“My Muse. Rylla.” Scowling, Lyss slammed a fist through the air the bar had been occupying.

Or had been. Was now. It was hard to tell, for a moment, then the bar popped jauntily back into existence, and Lyss yelped as her fist crashed into the top of it.

“That had to hurt,” Harvey observed, leering companionably at Lorrill.

“Hit him,” Alryssa advised.

GlitchBob sauntered over to John. “I hear we have a lot in common.”

“Do we?” Crichton eyed him, then shrugged. “I’ll buy the first round. We can discuss it.”

“Oh, frell.” Harvey eyed the two of them. “I’ll never hear the end of angst, will I?” He bowed to Lorrill. “May I have this dance?”

Considering the way he was leering, the woman was eyeing him with uncertainty. Alryssa leaned over to her. “I really think violence could be the answer.”

“Only in a cruel world, my dear.”

“Wait, wait,” Lyss interrupted, slinging an arm around Harvey’s neck. “You’re advocating non-violence? What’s gonna happen next? Is Crais going to become a Buddhist monk? Avon will reform and raise orphans for no profit?”

“Chiana joins a convent?” piped up Gordon, before his eyes glazed over and he started mumbling… “Mmmmm. Chiana in a nun’s outfit.”

Igor waved a hand in front of Gordon’s face. “Oh dear, he’s off again.” He snapped his fingers a couple of times and Gordon suddenly came back to “normality”.

“Sorry, distracted there for a minute.”

Allie coughed. “You all are aware that we just disappeared, right?”

“Of course.” Lyss waved a negligent hand. “But the booze is back. Life is fine.”

“Thank the Powers,” Alryssa sighed, and made a grab for the (somewhat large) bottle of Baileys.

Rhiannon gave a cat-like snort, then bumped her head at Imran. “A dish of your finest cream, sir. I suspect I need a drink.”

“I reckon you’re all seeing things. I prescribe alcohol. Lots of it. Then at least any weirdness you see can be blamed on the booze.” Gordon smiled, grabbing a bottle of vodka and a bottle of coke and mixing them together into a pitcher with ice cubes.

“After all, they do say reality is an illusion caused by lack of alcohol!”

Jonah glowered. “Lyss’s Muse did that?” she muttered under her breath. And she’d thought something interesting had finally happened when she was around…

On the good side, the refill of her orange juice had magically reappeared, too. She scooped Biggles out of the front of her dress, which had begun to threaten to become distinctly baggy, and dumped him firmly back on her shoulder as she began to enjoy the second glass of the evening. Her eye fell on the Fourth Doctor, temporarily separated from the gaggle of companions he’d arrived with.

“Where’s your electric dog?” she asked, promptly. “How’s he going to dance? I want to see that…”

She took another sip of squash with an innocent air as the Doctor swung round, his gaze travelling downward from its initial vantage-point some inches above her head, with the air of one recognising his own equal in effrontery.

Glitch-Bob and Crichton settled down to their respective drinks.

“So what do we have in common, uh…”


“Bob. You’re…” John eyed him, “…not from around here, are you?”

A grin from the sprite. “You could say that.”

John considered. “So, did your writer make you leave your girlfriend for this party, too?”

“Yeah. So, you ever been stranded, alone?”

“Yeah, at least twice. Faced certain death?”

“Everyday occurrence for a Guardian. Ever been copied?”

“Oh yeah. My clone died.”

“My copy turned out to be a virus with a real old grudge who was going to marry my girlfriend just for revenge.”

“Man, that sucks…”

Panting heavily, Excel leaned against the doorframe as Hyatt—who hadn’t been able to keep her footing during their headlong flight and had thus ended up being dragged behind Excel like the sheriff in a bad Western behind the outlaw’s horse—lay on the floor looking up at her.

“Oh, teacakes!” Excel semi-swore. “I really hate being the object of so much desire! Excel is just too alluring for her own good and draws hormone-crazed lifeforms of all types to her like flies to a dead armadillo in syrup, with minced vole garnish!” She burped, then hocked up a sardine tail and spat it out.

“Such are the perils that accompany great beauty, senior,” Hyatt more-or-less agreed.

“Damn straight. It’s not my fault I’m such a hot babe.” Excel took a moment to give her butt an energetic scratch, then went on, “But they ain’t gettin’ none of this booty! Excel’s almost-as-good-as-virginal, guaranteed-satisfied-or-your-money-back, sorry-no-COD-orders body is reserved strictly for Lord Ilpalazzo and no one else!”

“Episode 26…” Hyatt mumbled between coughs.

Excel went nearly as red as the trickle from Hyatt’s mouth. “ANYway, Ha-chan, now that we have escaped from the clutches of another Ropponmatsu or whatever, let us proceed with our most sacred mission!”

“And what shall we do now, senior?”

“Now we must dig deep, Ha-chan. We must be the finger of righteousness that plumbs the depths of the nose of iniquity in its search for the snot-covered booger of truth! Having now successfully infiltrated this accursed gathering and made ourselves wholly inconspicuous among the misguided throng, we must now carefully interrogate some likely suspects as to the deeper mysteries of this quadrilateral-thingie, all the while being careful to not arouse the suspicions of the ignorant citizenry and thus tap our hand or tip our foot or whatever that poker-metaphor is, which Excel doesn’t know on account of she’s never had time for such worthless pastimes what with being such a devoted servant of ACROSS and stuff!”

Hyatt meekly raised a hand, having pulled herself up into a sitting position. “I’m sorry, senior, but I lost everything after ‘nose of iniquity’. Could you repeat that, please?”

Excel blew out a long sigh, which with her lung capacity as evidenced by her run-on sentences, was pretty darned long. “Let’s just collar some of these people and ask them some questions. Thusly.” A surly-looking grammar devil was ambling past just then, and Excel grabbed it by the neck and hauled it up to her face. “Hi!” she exclaimed. “I’m just an innocent and non-suspicious partygoer who was wondering about the people who organized this. You wouldn’t happen to know who they are and what kind of potential threat they might represent to a secret ideological conspiracy that seeks to conquer the world, would you?”

“id on’t no nothing ,,” the grammar devil grumped back, “adn ifi did i wooden tale u stoopidgirl.!”

“Now, that isn’t very friendly,” chirped Excel. “You should try and lighten up and be more like my friend, Mr. Foot. Say hello, Mr. Foot!” With that, she dropped the grammar devil in front of her and punted him back out into the ballroom, a trail of noisy and badly-spelled swear words trailing after him like an ‘Evangelion’ fanfic.

“See, Ha-chan? Like that.”

Hyatt nodded. “That was very impressive, senior. You become more subtle every day…”

Nuku-Nuku tilted her head to one side, trying to make some sense of her conversation with the two strange women.

“Nuku-Nuku just want tuna-fish,” she uttered, somewhat mournfully, then sniffed the air. “Nuku-Nuku smells tuna-fish!” Her tail twitched, excitedly.

And off she went on a new hunt, her rather odd previous conversation totally forgotten, paying no heed to the sound of even a grammar-devil being punted quite forcefully through the air just yards away.

The resultant applause from amused onlookers did nothing to reduce Excel’s already-overinflated ego.

“See how Excel is adored, Ha-chan! Someday, you might receive a tenth of the worship that Excel does, and that would be an overestimate at best!”

“Yes, senior! That would be most wonderful! But… will it not become conspicuous if Excel must assault every person she interrogates?”

“You do not fully understand Excel’s great methods, Ha-chan! Now, follow me, and Excel shall reveal to you another of her great talents!”

“Yes, senior.”

“Rylla and Frank,” Dominic sighed. “I should have known.”

Lyssie looked up from her drink, safe in her clutches. “You know them?”

“Know of them,” Dominic said. “They mean well, but sometimes…” He shook his head. “Besides, we over-ran the story last time. I think we’ll leave that to someone else, this year…” He blinked, as if remembering. “Ah. My apologies. Dominic, Muse of History, currently on leave. I’m Allie and Sandra’s father.”

“Lyssie,” Lyssie said. “A History Muse?”

“Yes. And before you ask, I’m afraid I can’t tell you about the Muse War—we were bound by the blood-oath, too.”

Lyssie blinked. “…Right. Er, what I actually meant to ask was ‘a History Muse in Subreality?’. Frank used to do Romantic Poetry, but he switched genres, so…”

Dominic chuckled. “I came to Subreality for my thesis. I stayed because I’d fallen in love.”

Lyssie’s gaze slid over to Sandra and Allie. “Ah.

“Exactly,” Dominic said.

“So where’s the little lady?” Harvey asked.

“…She’s dead,” Death said quietly. “Truly dead.”

Harvey fell quiet.

“…Yes. Thank you,” Dominic said. “As she says… my wife is dead.”

“How long…” Lyssie began.

“How long since she died, or how long were we married?” Dominic inquired gently.

“…Both,” Lyssie said.

“Elle and I were married in 1113 CE,” Dominic said. “She died in 1997 CE.”

“That’s…” Imran’s mind raced through the calculation. “884 years.”

“Yes.” Dominic’s expression was tight. “Yes, it was.”

He fell silent.

“…Carrie!” the Trader huffed, as he and Fastolf hurried up to the bar. “There you are. What was that piece of oy about?”

“Two well-meaning Muses who wanted to make sure we didn’t over-run the story,” Carrie explained. “Chardonnay?”

“Not for me, thank you,” the Trader said. “If you’re going to pop in and out of existence like that, at least warn a fellow beforehand!”

“It’s not like we actually got a chance…” Allie said.

The Trader finally took in the others at the bar. “Ah! Doctors, Alryssa, Gordon, Imran, Dominic, Allie, Sandra, Tessa, Yokoi, Igor, Amber, Paul, Donald, Danel, Ana, Zoe… a pleasure to meet you all once again.” He eyed a figure at the end of the bar. “And Spike too, I see…

“And who might your comrades be?”

“…He said that without stopping to breathe,” Molly said, impressed.

“You get used to it,” Imran said dryly. “Okay. Molly, Rhiannon, Rabia, the raven—sorry, still haven’t got your name—Lorrill, Melissa, Nuku-Nuku, Trella, Lyssie, Harvey, John, Glitch-Bob—I think you might know Death—”

“A pleasure, milady,” the Trader said, bowing.

“And to you,” Death said.

“Evan, Amy, Q, and the elephant’s Elph. Daibhid and the Rucksack are somewhere around, Daibhid’s Muse Bob is lurking by the buffet, and the Nth Doctor, Katherine, Silence, Magnus, Varne and Joe are mingling.” Imran frowned. “And there was this weird little girl who said she made machines go wrong—well, not Sweetheart, thankfully, but still…”

“…How’d he do that?” Yokoi whispered.

“Exposition,” Allie whispered back. “When he’s on, he’s on.”

“A pleasure to meet you all,” the Trader said. “I am Gray Stuart, better known as Trader Grey, Champion of Free Trade.”

Trella double-took at that.

“This stout fellow is Fastolf, the fair maiden in electric blue is my Muse Carrie, of the City of Dreams, and her younger sister Candy—going by the name Mrs Candia Harcourt for the present occasion—is chatting to the Lady Delirium.”

Fastolf bowed. “Greetings, gentlefolk. Would greet you all by name, but the repetition might overwhelm even great Fastolf.”

“…Is it just me, or did this bar get bigger at some point?” Gordon said finally.

“It’s not just you,” Amber said. “Gray? Carrie? I’d like a word later. About the matter of a telethon, an award and a Triffid.”

“Ah, that,” the Trader said, looking momentarily shifty. “My apologies for that—there were other and pressing factors at work, I fear—but that will wait anon.”

“Of course,” Amber said.

“Now then,” the Trader said, “I believe the libation of choice is in order for Fastolf and myself.”

“On the way,” Imran said.

Three things happened in such rapid succession that Eloise didn’t know which way to look. First, the bar—and all the muses—disappeared.

But before she could even form the thought: “Oh, no! Not Again!” the bar and the muses were back. As if someone were fiddling with the scene using a television remote.

And then, in the midst of all the oy, and double oy, that resulted from this turn of events, a grammer devil sailed through the air before them trailing a cloud of pained swear words as tangible as Delirium’s own vocabulary, with the pair that smelled of lima beans and death close behind him.

“Eloise, you and Beloved tend to the muses,” Florestan said quietly, “and make sure every one is all right. I shall see what can be done about this—dispute.” And he strode off to intercept the two anime henchmen.

Maid TARDIS reached the bar, and got the muses’ assurances that they were all fine, while Eloise was still two strides away. Before the troll could ask: “What happened?!” Tessa shushed her with a wave of the hand. All eyes were on Florestan. They couldn’t could hear what he was was saying (perhaps it was simply that his voice couldn’t carry across the vast space of the ballroom, or perhaps it was because one only benefitted from the full effect to the TARDIS’s translation circuit if a person meant for you to hear), but they clearly caught the tone of his voice, and the effect of the conversation.

No longer the shy scholar playing the unaccustomed role of Host, he was now, simply, the captain of his ship.

He bowed gracefully to the two women, and spoke with such a cold, civil, charm that even the babbling, lima-bean smelly one was left speechless.

He spoke a few pleasantries, and extended his hand to each of the women, and nodded graciously as they spoke in their turn. Then Eloise heard nine words very clearly: “Certainly. I don’t think that would be any problem.” He guided the two toward the bar with a hand on each of their shoulders, and introduced them to those assembled there. “This is Excel,” he said, nodding at the one who smelled of lima beans, “and this is Hyatt. They are hear to interview the pro-fun trolls, and learn about their mission. Beloved, is that all right with you?”

“Yes, certainly,” Maid TARDIS said. “I think that would be an excellent idea.”

“I am glad you agree,” Florestan said. “Perhaps you could show them to a room more conducive to in-depth conversation?”

“I’d be delighted,” Maid TARDIS said, and she led the two agents (astonished to find all expected resistance suddenly vanish) to a door that suddenly appeared in the wall behind the bar. “This way, m’ladies, “you’ll find a very comfortable room to suit your purposes just at the end of this hallway.” She led them through, and then appeared again a few minutes later, chuckling quietly to herself. “I can keep my corridors reconfiguring indefinitely, in the background,” she said. “We won’t have to worry about them for the rest of the night.”

“Then if that’s settled,” Florestan said, “and all the guests have arrived…” Eloise and Maid TARDIS both nodded.

“Then I’d say it’s time to gather every one together for the first proper dance of the evening!” he said, cheering considerably.

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Story copyright © 2003 the original authors; this compilation copyright © 2003–2005 Igenlode Wordsmith and Paul Andinach; HTML modified by Imran Inayat.