Clubbing > Questions and Arrogance > Quests and Answers

The Queen of Clubs entered.

As one might expect, she looked exactly like her picture on the playing card.

Well, if it weren’t for the fact she was dressed like a torch singer.

“Greetings, all—” she began.

Nuku-Nuku stuck up a hand. “Miss Queen of Clubs-san?”

“No questions until before the performance,” a wait-thing said.

“But this is before the performance,” Nuku-Nuku pointed out. “Miss Queen of Clubs-san, what are you Queen of?”

The Queen deigned her with a smile. “This club, of course.”

“This club?” Nuku-Nuku pressed.

“Which other clubs would there be?”

“Okay. Since Queen-san is Queen of this club, could she tell Nuku-Nuku where the buzzing sound is coming from?”

“Of course. It’s coming from the air.”

“But what’s making the buzzing sound?”

“Well, if it’s coming from the air, the air must be making the buzzing sound.”

“But air doesn’t make buzzing sounds.”

“How do you know air doesn’t make buzzing sounds?”

“Air only makes sound if it’s being vibrated,” Nuku-Nuku said. “Papa-san told Nuku-Nuku that. Something’s making the air vibrate to produce the buzzing sound, and Nuku-Nuku doesn’t know what that thing is.”

“Why don’t you ask the something what it is, then?” the Queen finally snapped.

“But Queen-san is ruler here,” Nuku-Nuku said. “Nuku-Nuku thought she might know where the buzzing sound was coming from.”

“…Wait… Wait…” Florestan said slowly. “Of course! I should have realised. On one hand, crude translator technology, on the other, advanced hologram technology… but that makes no sense, unless…

“Unless it’s not translator or hologram technology.”

“Then what—” Eloise began.

The Queen’s face was slowly reddening.

“I should have realised,” Florestan murmured. “Carroll—or someone—visited this place, spoke to its inhabitants… but Beloved couldn’t understand the signal. Which makes no sense… An incomprehensible signal from an at least vaguely comprehensible world…

“And a crude translator mixed with an advanced holographic projector.

“Why use anything but the best—or the worst, as the case may be?”

“Then why is it translating for us?” Eloise wondered.

“Oh, I’d imagine that’s a side-effect,” Florestan said. “Think about it. If Carroll or someone had come here over a hundred years ago, and they’d needed a translator, too… don’t you think they’d at least have improved on it by now? No… that’s the sound of a crude telepathic circuit.”

Eloise gasped.

“GET THEM!!” the Queen roared.

No-one moved.

“I wouldn’t recommend that, Your Majesty,” Third said politely. “There are… how many of us? Seventy? Eighty? I rather suspect it would be more trouble than it’s worth to attempt to capture us…”

“You see…” Seventh said, “the Queen doesn’t need to say ‘off with their heads’ any more. No, people want to come to her club, they want to stay… and if the Queen needs a little help with convincing them, a low-level telepathic suggestion works wonders.”

“How dare—” the Queen began.

“Well, Your Majesty?” Sixth’s voice dripped scorn. “Do you want to come clean?”

The Queen nodded slowly.

The buzzing stopped.

The club-goers, however, remained the same.

“Well, that confirms that,” Florestan murmured. “Eloise, I owe you ten dollars.”

“But what about the translation?” Eloise said.

Florestan frowned. “I assumed it was a translator because Beloved couldn’t understand the signal, and yet we could understand the inhabitants. I’d forgotten that whoever visited this place first also understood the inhabitants—and in over a century, you’d think the inhabitants would develop something better.

“The signal was incomprehensible because it was supposed to be incomprehensible—I don’t think it was meant to have any meaning, just to let someone ‘out there’ know they wanted to communicate. Remember, Carroll wrote the first Terran account of this place… not the first account.”

Magnus nodded.

“Which still leaves the mystery of how we’re communicating…” Florestan frowned. “But that can wait for later.”

It is the nature of the place. Anybody of a race that has an imagination can make themselves understood. Sontarans and Daleks might have trouble.
But Nuku-Nuku is not having problems.
Oh, cats have a vivid sense of imagination according to Varne: one reason she likes the form so much.
I have just realised, nobody asked how you knew Carroll’s description was accurate; and you seem to be reluctant to volunteer information.
I have been in these parts before. I was reluctant to mention it as it was before the New Territories were opened and my experience may be actively misleading. Anyway, I will see if I can shed some light on the situation.
[He took a fob from the chain across his chest. It started to glow black with the size of the glow slowly expanding.]
Queen of Clubs
Wait, three questions answered in a way you can understand. Though I get to choose the questioner.
Done and Done.
[The glow snapped out and Magnus returned the fob to its chain.]
Never does to press a bargain here.
Alright yes you, Eloise: you get to ask.

“The New Territories?” Trader Grey murmured to Carrie. “Do you suppose he’s talking about a certain Commonwealth we wot of? It might explain, ah…”

“What?” Carrie gave a violent start. “It would explain the pollution, of course; but no, on the evidence of capitalism and monarchy alone, it couldn’t possibly be—”

With great ceremony and tenderness, Trader Grey drew off Carrie’s half-moon glasses and let them fall on their chain about her throat; cupped his confused Muse’s face between his hands; raised it so they were looking directly into each other’s eyes; and then fwapped her with a screenplay for The Gang’s All Here which he produced from one of his cloak’s many pockets.1

“Dear heart,” said Gray gently, “not Kati’s Commonwealth. We’re on adwc right now, remember?”

“Oh!” Carrie seemed to wake up the rest of the way. “I’m sorry: Daea2 keeps pulling me back… Myers’s Commonwealth? Oh, er… my. That isn’t much like Wonderland, though, surely? There’s something almost of dream about this place, not to say—”

“—Delirium,” Candy finished sardonically over the mighty merchant’s shoulder. The Tradesome Twosome flushed, and removed themselves hastily from their compromising position.3 “What in the name of a big black pudding are you bunnies on about now?”

The Seventh Doctor’s umbrella-handle made a successful bid for the charming Mrs Harcourt’s attention at this stage. “Ahem.”

“Sir,” said Candy haughtily, “forgive me, but I am not aware that your encroachment upon our conversation was solicited. You might, I think, at least have used one of the Dishy models!”

“Neverrtheless,” the little man warned her ominously.

“Say what, then?”

“They’ll explain later,” the Doctor explained.

Amber flinched.

“Boss…?” Trella said.

“I’m…” Amber shook herself. “Something… what was…? Something wrong…?”

She met the Queen’s eyes.

“You know,” the Queen said quietly. “You know. It’s starting to go wrong. You arrived too early—or too late… It’s not a riddle any more. Perhaps, if you had made it in time, it would have stayed as one… but it’s too early, too early… and I was too proud…”

“A riddle…” Eloise repeated. “That’s why you—well, not you, but whoever sent the signal for you—wanted someone from the outer realms, isn’t it? You wanted someone who could solve the riddle.”

“Yes. They did,” the Queen said quietly. “And it was a riddle…”

“What is it?”

The Queen laughed hollowly. “I think you know already, but I will tell you regardless.

“The riddle is this: We all see something different, and what we see is becoming real.

“Beforetimes, it seemed to us that there was something we could agree on—yes, even here.

“But whatever bound us together is gone, and we can no longer do so. Our worlds are slipping apart, away from each other… here, above all else, we would not know, would not know until it was too early, because our worlds are so different…

“We wished to speak to those whose worlds are similar, who still share their world, wondering if it was happening to you, would happen… but now I see it is too early…”

“…What does that mean?” Molly asked.

“Only Eloise can ask the questions,” the Queen snapped.

“I apologise, Your Majesty,” Fifth said. “I think that was meant for me.

“What the Queen means is that the natives of Wonderland—and, it appears, anyone who visits it—are beginning to suffer perceptual divergence. They start to see a world that differs from those around them, a world that’s as real as the actuality.

“In effect, their ‘worlds of perception’—our own, individual worlds, the worlds we live in, every day of our lives—are diverging from the actuality, are changing, slowly, subtly… and, I very much suspect, will eventually start becoming real. And the more real those worlds become to them, the more they lose touch with the actuality of the world around them—in both a physical and mental sense.

“They’re starting to lose ourselves—both body and mind—in their own worlds.

“Alryssa and Amber are… sensitised to this, by their nature—even if they’re on holiday.” He spared Alryssa a rueful expression. “They can feel it in a way we can’t, feel that something’s starting to go wrong with the world around them.

“No-one here, however, noticed—or noticed what it meant—until it was too late, or perhaps too early. It was a riddle to them, one they hoped someone outside could answer… but now, it’s becoming reality.”

“So… what’s that mean?” Gordon said.

“In plain English, I suspect the natives of Wonderland are beginning to find themselves disappearing—literally—into their own fictional worlds. It was a riddle, before, a mystery to solve… but now they know we can be affected too…”

“…Uh-oh,” Gordon said.

“So what happened?” Alryssa said. “I mean… why? Why would this start happening?”

Fifth frowned. “…I don’t know.”

“A rupture, perhaps,” Magnus offered. “Some form of rupture between Reality and Imagination, drawing people in. A small-scale one—a very small-scale one, one small enough to be accommodated in one of the Interior Dimensions—but one that is beginning to spread.”

First frowned. “Perhaps… perhaps…”

“And how do we put it right?”

“Without knowing what went wrong in the first place, I do not know…” First said. “But it seems to me that we must investigate this—and to do that, we must look to Imagination.”

“…Isn’t that what we want to avoid?” Gordon said.

Yokoi raised an eyebrow.

“Not so long as we retain some commonality in our worlds,” First said. “As long as there is something we can all agree on, there should be no problem.”

“If that is what’s happening, why didn’t Sweetheart know?” Eloise wondered.

“Is this your Sweetheart’s first time here?” the Queen said.

“…Yes, I think so,” Eloise admitted.

“Then that is it,” the Queen said. “To your Sweetheart, whatever conditions were extant here when she arrived would be normal to her. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, she only has your realm to compare it to.

“And now, your three questions are done.”

“There was a glitch…” Florestan remembered. “An interference wavefront in Beloved’s configuration system… She put it right quickly enough, though. At the time, she targeted Jonah as the source, but I wonder…”

Jonah’s mouth twisted down.

“Where did that wavefront come from?”

“Here, you think?” Third said, eyeing Florestan.

“The first minor ripples of the effect in our world, perhaps…” First considered. “But truly, we need to look into this. It seems to me that there have been a number of little oddities lately that might well be explained by this…”

“Back in Beloved,” Florestan said quietly and firmly.

First inclined his head.

Eloise dipped a curtsey. “Thank you, Your Majesty. We’ll do our best to find out what’s going on and put it right.”

“Then hope you are not too early,” the Queen said. “Whatever else, hope that.

“And may the luck of the draw be with you.”

“So now we get into the plot,” said Q, taking his date aside. “Isn’t this the fourth time I’ve had to save this pathetic cosmos?”

“As you are so fond of reminding me,” said Amy, “the novels are not canon.”

“But they’re real for me. You’ve read them all and you’re the Writer, so they shape your perception of me.”

“That’s true. Listen, you’re still taking things way too hard. As someone pointed out, there are at least seventy people here, and the more people there are on a quest, the less pressure there is on any one individual. Remember that… if you can, with your ego.”

“You’re not trying to change me, are you?”

“Of course not. I like you the way you are.” And that was her last word on the subject.

She’s as cryptic as I am, he thought. And it only makes her all the more attractive…

“So, how do we get out of Wonderland?” Daibhid asked the Queen (who, to accent the breakdown in perception, appeared to him not unlike Miranda Richardson in a sparkly black dress).

“Why, you get out through Outland, of course,” said the Queen.

“Silly of me to ask, really,” he said. Then he blinked. “Outland? You mean Sylvie and Bruno’s Outland?”

“I’m not going anywhere she might be,” Candy reminded everyone.

“If it comes to that,” Daibhid remarked, “I’m not overly keen on the possibility of attempting a conversation with Bruno. Doesn’t oo agree, Mister Sir?”

Trader Gray shuddered.

“So, we need another way out of here,” said Daibhid thoughtfully.

“Well,” said the Fifth Doctor, gently, “we do have a TARDIS.”

“Ah. Yes, of course. So it’s back to Sweetheart, then. Or Beloved. Whatever.”

[Magnus chose another fob from his chain.]
If someone can get our party reasonably close.
[There were a few minutes of confusion as people gathered.]
Have we got everyone, Varne?
Yes, Lord.
[The scene blurred and the party was back on the roof.]
To somewhere I have been, or somewhere I can see.

Eloise clutched her stomach. The fire from the curse had not quite gone out, and the sudden teleportation stirred it up more than she would have liked. “How can you do that?” she asked, fighting to keep her knees from buckling. “Powers were supposed to be left in the cloakroom!”

“Godlike power, yes,” Magnus said, coolly. “But my powers are not at that level. Any muse can manage a change of scene. Besides, I do have these.” He hefted the watch fob in his hand, lightly. “These boost my abilities.” He returned the fob to the chain. “You may have noticed that we are on the roof,” he said, with a sniff, “not in Beloved, that would have taken God-level power.”

Yokoi shot him a dirty look. She wasn’t looking very healthy, either. “Yeah. We can change a scene. That doesn’t mean we zip people about without asking their permission, first!”

Amber nodded, her eyes narrowing. She did not like the way he’d said “any muse,” as if they were just authorial housemaids he could hire to clean up his messes for him. “Nor is it a particularly good practice, even then,” she said. “There is often much inspiration to be found between one scene and another.”

Igor slumped, dejectedly. “There were buttons in that elevator,” he said to Gordon, as if to underline that point, “big shiny ones. And I didn’t get to push one!”

Gordon patted him on the shoulder, consoling him as best he could.

Florestan, too, had a dark look. He had not liked how Magnus referred to his ship as “Beloved”. That was his own, personal name for her. Not even Eloise presumed to call her by that name. And while the TARDIS may have forgiven Magnus for the intrusion of the Nin-Adad, last year, he was certainly not beloved by her—not after what had happened. “Well, he said, coolly, “we’re here now; we may as well go in, and see what we can discover about that message using the TARDIS instruments.” He was careful not to use the name “Beloved” again, in Magnus’s pressence.

He unlocked the TARDIS door, noting that the sign had changed to read: Danger! Reality—Trespassers will be Accommodated! “The sooner we break connection with this place, the better I’ll feel—at least, until we sort this out.” He opened the door, and the others filed in after him.

The bright lights and gilding of the ballroom stung Eloise’s eyes, after the dingy twilight outside. Her stomach lurched, and a sour taste that smelled suspiciously like her lunch rose into Eloise’s mouth.

“Are you all right, Eloise? one of the trolls asked. “You’re looking a bit blue about the gills.”

She shook her head and ran down a corridor, making it to the bathroom just in time to be violently ill.

Florestan looked after where Eloise had disappeared off, concern and uncertainty evident on his face.

“I’ll go and see if Eloise needs any help,” one of the trolls, her skin the colour of sun-bleached lavender, volunteered.

“Thank you,” Florestan said. “That would be most kind.”

As she followed after Eloise, he turned his attention to his guests.

Q eyed Magnus. “Of course, some of us are devious enough to retain some fragment of their power.”

“And some should really remember not to keep putting all their eggs in one basket,” Magnus returned.

“…Am I going to have to separate you two?” Amy wondered.

“Nah, don’t,” Spike said. “Best piece of entertainment I’ve seen in ages.”

“Mm-hmm…” Trella said, gazing dreamily at Spike. “You can say that again.”

Spike smirked at Q. “See? You’re not the only one with an admiring audience.”

“Of course not,” Q said. “But then, even mon Capitaine has an admiring audience. And if Jean-Luc can do it, I’m sure you could pull it off…”

Spike drew himself up to his full height. “Yeah? Let’s think about this, shall we? All I have to do is snap my fingers, and pow, my entire cast’s my love-slaves.”

Danel choked.

Ana raised an eyebrow.

You, on the other hand, have to use your mighty godlike powers instead.” Spike rewarded Q with a massive smirk.

“Mm-hmm,” Q said. “So, I take it your dates are… what’s the term… washing their hair tonight?”

“…I’d date him…” Trella sighed.

“Ahem,” Amber said. “If you two could rein in the ‘Battle of the Egos’ for the moment? We have a mystery to solve.”

“’Course, luv,” Spike said.

“As you wish,” Q said.

May I have a word in private?
[Magnus looked at the crowded ballroom.]
Not easily; however, I suppose I owe you something… come over here.
That was not a change of scene; somehow you warped space.
I never said it was, but I admit I was hoping people would think so.
Can you lie?
I can say something that is not true.
Talking round the subject again… can you say something you know to be false?
No, and as you have guessed, I can not refuse to answer a direct question either. Though the answer does not have to be relevant or clear, as long as it is true. In tight situations I tend to let Varne do the talking.
What power do you retain?
Why do you ask that?
I do not like being surprised, and I still remember what you used to be.
If I had retained power of that order, I would not have even been able to enter the TARDIS. All I kept was a limited ability to manipulate things on a quantum scale. Teleportation, black light, self-healing, matter manipulation, that sort of thing. Not that reliable, and rather tiring; which is why I am using the fobs as a crutch.
But you were…
Careful! Even with your power in storage, mentioning that name would be dangerous.
How could you give that up?
To understand the motives of, shall we say, my progenitor, I would have to be it. And as that would destroy what I am at the moment, it is not something I care to try.
I suppose that’s why you prefer to rely on weapons and sorcery.
Almost; the other reason is that I acquired the weapon and sorcery skills myself.

“Where do we start looking?” one of the trolls asked. “How do we start looking?”

“That is a problem,” Florestan acknowledged. “I think, first, we should look at that message again. After that, I think, we should re-examine what happened with the Doctors’ sonic screwdrivers, then go over the interference wavefront… and then, I think, a look at the lands of fiction may be in order…”

“Hmm…” Gray said.

“You think?” Carrie said.

“Perhaps…” Gray’s mighty brow™ furrowed. “Could these ‘New Territories’ be that Commonwealth? Even if not, in a matter where subjectivity is fast becoming objective, answers—or at least clues—to this mystery may lie there…”

“Commonwealth?” Imran said.

“The Commonwealth of Letters,” Gray explained. “A land not of Subreality—but perhaps related in some way. It is… how can I put this… a very physical metafictional world. No continuity lapses, no dream sequences… a very objective place. A place where the classics of literature in our world correspond to people and places of the Commonwealth—sometimes with combinations or fusions of archetypal individuals from separate works.

“If our own subjective worlds are beginning to become objective, then the Commonwealth—where the archetypes we share have objective form—may be somewhere to look.

“Its undisputed, and ultimate, Power, is one I wot the Muses among us know full well, Amber in particular: Phoebus Apollo—or the Delian—as they know him there, in his aspect as God of the Arts.”

Amber nodded.

“However,” Gray said, “I do not think we would have to confront him, even if we were to go there. Better, I suspect, to stay below his radar…”

“Hmm…” Imran said.

“…Joy,” Allie murmured. “This should be interesting…”

“More than some parties might think,” said Carrie neutrally. “It isn’t a place I’d care to try—oh, say, something Musely like a scene-shift. I’m not sure whether that would count as laughable hubris or a direct challenge, and I don’t want anyone I know to find out the hard way!” She held up her glasses for purposes of peering severely over them, then replaced them with odd reluctance about her neck. “The classic stories are… very old, some of them; but they’re all very true. Our position in there won’t be ontologically privileged over the citizens…”

“You what?” Spike demanded.

“It’s all Life,” said Amber softly. “It’s a world. You’re there. So are it and its people. That’s all. If you make a song, a story, a fictional world there, it won’t have meta-effects—not before it’s changed enough hearts to get into the Real canon, anyway. And meta-narrative acts will be about as useful as telling a Real apple out loud to fall right now, please!” She dimpled unexpectedly. “I think I might find it quite relaxing, actually…”

“The classical elements of story only, h’mmm?” Eighth’s eyes sparkled eagerly. “Nothing but our bodies, hearts, wits, and the odd reverse-polarity neutron pentagram to stand between us and certain, er, –ly not getting what we want?” He exchanged a meaningful look with Fitz and Anji. “Oh, yes yes, I think we can live with that, can’t we?”

“No homicidal Elvises,” Fitz gloated, as a man long starved. “No Perky Pigs… No narratives in bottles… no Grimm Realities…”

“Hey,” the Trader objected, nettled. “I liked Grimm Reality!”

“All right, you can co-star in it next time, then…”

“I think we can live with it,” Anji judged, breezily.

“So,” said Fitz, entering what at a guess was a Humphrey Bogart mode.4 “how’s, you know, the…?”

“Isolde Twohands, Fair Ellen, Psykki-Likki, Hermione Steingerd ap Hawthorne, Wrastlin’ Maramante, and Cammy-Tammy-Ammy Spindlespear,” Trader Grey assured him cheerfully.5

That is the answer you wanted,” Eighth stage-whispered.


“It sounds just the ticket to me,” averred the Third Doctor, with the special conviction of an old-fashionedly masterful man long since deprived of that last adjective due to its tendency to be exploited in cheaply slashful metafictional manners apt to cause public embarrassment. “And if we’re now about to enter a rational realm, we should have this problem solved in a twinkling, and be back to our Quadrille directly!!”

“Hear, hear!” said Jo loyally, before the embarrassing silence could deafen everyone utterly.

“There is little difficulty in getting us there,” said Magnus confidently, fiddling with his fob, “I can quickly upload—”

Carrie hastily donned her glasses, and assumed a strangely abstracted expression for a moment.

“Lord Florestan is a scholar of our myths,” she stated flatly, “and certainly has the authority to use the Invocation; between him and Sweetheart, they’ll need no help from us.” Her tone became abruptly normal again. “And did Gray mention flying under the Delian’s radar? The qualia behind the Invocation shouldn’t be Magnus’s, or mine, or… er, best we leave the honour to our host!”

“On those terms I understand you,” said Magnus, looking at her rather quizzically, “we must exchange views on practical metaphysics some day soon, I know of a bar where 10,000Cr in kind yet remains on my tab.”

“−34,321Cr, Lord,” corrected Varne helpfully, “you neglect the rounds you bought Thursday June 1st 199F, apropos of which you asked me to remind you that we have still not got that nice Mr Fett off our slot and should probably arrange a cozy chat with him sometime soon.”

“I have not forgotten, Varne, and by the way do not call Mr Fett ‘nice’.”

“All things for variety, Lord!”

“So hang on, here,” ejaculated Candy, selecting the verb out of pure badness, “how does all this canon-type stuff get to be ‘New Territories’?”

“There is a ‘New Purchase’ mentioned in John Myers Myers’ classic travelogue in Silverlock,” Trader Grey explained. “The Machine Age domains hadn’t yet been integrated into the Commonwealth when A. Clarence Shandon visited it, and I took Magnus to be referring to them. Here in C-21, I expect it’s all moved on a bit—and we are a spec-fic crowd. I suspect our answers will be found in the classic archetypes of speculative fiction—and who better than the Doctor to lead us in those places? Who knows but what we may track down all our troubles to Barsoom, Trantor, or Perelandra? be aided in our quest by Tenar of the Ring, Lessa, Camilla Kinnison…?”

With loverlike intimacy and far more than loverlike lack of comment, Carrie wiped away the hint of drool that had appeared at one corner of the Trader’s mouth.

“…or whomever,” the Trader concluded, his smoothness and eloquence by no means impaired in some dream of his or other. “But probably it will all be very unexpected, and Certain Present Company will have to put on all his 2n skates to get us out of the creek unbeshitten. And when was it ever otherwise?”

Sixth pursed his lips, and considered the matter judiciously. “Sounds sensible to me…”

“I’ll buy you a paddle for Christmas,” promised Peri.

Eloise dropped to her knees and began to retch and sob uncontrollably.

Then, she felt a cool hand slip under her forehead to support her head, but other than the fact that it was a troll’s hand, Eloise couldn’t tell who it belonged to. After a while, her body stilled, and left Eloise gasping for breath. She turned to look at her companion, to see who it was. “Hello… Genny,” she said, managing to put name to face at last.

Genny was one of Walter’s Friends and Relations. Like Walter, Genny was a purple troll, only her skin was the color of sun-bleached lavender. Eloise didn’t know her very well, and was embarrassed to have her see her like this.

Genny stood, and drew a glass of water for Eloise. “Here,” she said, handing it to her, “rinse your mouth.”

Eloise did. She had to rinse and spit five times before the sour taste in her mouth abated.

“Feeling any better?” Genny asked, helping her stand.

“Yeah, I guess,” Eloise said, weakly, “still a little dizzy.”

“Did you eat anything, while we were at the club?”

Eloise shook her head, then wished she hadn’t. “I didn’t trust any of it.”

“Well, no wonder! You should always eat something after performing strong magic. You need to ground yourself.”

Eloise wished Genny hadn’t brought up the curse—she wished she could forget it forever. But she let Genny take her hand and lead her back to the ballroom. The hall was now deserted. Everyone was probably in the console room or library, doing research, trying to untangle the riddle. Eloise fretted that she should be helping them, but she didn’t think she could look any of them in the eye.

Genny led her to a seat by a table. “You wait here,” she said. “I’ll get you a plate.” A short time later, she placed a platter of snail shells stuffed with acorn butter before her. “Here,” she said, gently, “these will do wonders. Chew slowly, and think about the cool dark places a snail lives in; think about how the oak tree sends its roots down deep into the ground. You know what they say: ‘An acorn sprouts its roots first.’”

Eloise put one of the morsels into her mouth, breaking through the shell as easily as pie crust. The shell was smooth and cool on her tongue. The acorn butter was rich, creamy, nutty and bitter. “The only proverb about acorns that I know,” she said, swallowing, “is: ‘An acorn is as good as a boulder, from high enough.’”

Genny gasped. “But that’s a Nasty Troll proverb!” she said. “How did you—”

“They raised me,” Eloise said, quietly. “I don’t remember my Joyful family… Walter didn’t tell you?”

“Honey, you know Walter,” Genny said, recovering from her shock. “He treats everything you tell him as a sacred confidence, unless you specifically ask him to share it.”

Eloise nodded. “I know,” she said, putting another stuffed shell in her mouth. She sighed. “I really botched it, didn’t I?” she asked. “Florestan dropped the detector on his foot; Biggles got scared and bit Jonah… Hostesses are supposed to make things easier for for their guests—not injure them!”

“Well, it was your first curse—it’s bound to be a little rough around the edges.”

“I hope it’s my last—ever!”

Genny rubbed her back. “You just think about those oak tree roots—how strong they are,” she said. “Don’t fret that Nasties can only think of them as a source of weapons—you are not a Nasty—you know better. And when you’re done eating, I’ll help you out of this gown, okay?”

Eloise nodded in relief. “I need to get my vest back on.”

“Why do you like that so much?” Genny asked, mild concern in her voice. She, like all trolls, prefered to go naked, except for adornment. Tonight, she had dressed for the occasion in a wide peasant skirt and a string of pearls—and nothing else.

“The Doctor gave it to me, and he’s my friend,” Eloise said, simply. “And there are things I need in the pockets.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, pretty stones I found in stream beds, a mocking bird feather, the larval casing from a cicada… stuff like that.”

“Yes,” Genny said, solemnly. “You do need that right now.”

1 That is the fun-for-all-the-family Carmen Miranda extravaganza, and not any similarly-named opus of more specialised appeal which may happen to feature Candy in its credits, debits, or other public positions. No, look, I can prove it: how much fwap do you think a fellow could get out of a square of hard bog paper with ‘EVERYBODY gets to know EACH OTHER rather WELL. They are VOCAL about it until the TAPE runs out. Chicka-BOOM!’ scribbled on it? Well, then! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, oh Questioning Quentin?? Behave!!!

2 The world Carrie is much preoccupied with at the moment, and the setting for this Author’s ongoing novel, whose Dark Lord runs a rather Soviet-esque and ecologically crappy ‘Commonwealth’.

3 Not by Candy’s, or indeed most people’s standards, admittedly; but Carrie has all the physical self-consciousness of an abstract-minded and recently-embodied AI; and if the Trader were any more stereotypically English in certain matters he would be downright incapacitated.

4 Some characters can only get so un-meta…

5 While there is specious literary warrant for all the archetypes Trader Grey mentions, it is by no means guaranteed that all these ladies really exist in the Commonwealth, and are not, for instance, artefacts of his extracting the Michael. Assuming he would stoop to such a thing, shame on yez!

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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.