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They had, until now, been far too busy with Real Life to stop by the clubhouse. But the relatives who visited for Christmas Eve to Boxing Day had left now; and there was minimal real cooking to be done (leftovers being the special of the day now). So my_cnnr and trueriver had both slipped away. They’d emailed each other the night before and made plans to arrive at the same time. But TR’s aunt rang just as she was about to turn the corner, which delayed her arrival, so MC got there first. The clubhouse was not the oasis of calm she had expected.

“You’re early!” exclaimed Olive, who was busy rolling out pastry in the clubhouse kitchen, where the Moderator had taken her queries. A dozen patty pans were arrayed on the counter behind her along with a huge jar of mincemeat. (It had become quite popular with the Ancients since the Christmas celebrations a couple of years earlier.) “Oh, dear – we had meant to surprise you with it all done.”

“All what done?” wondered MC.

“Tableaux!” exclaimed Olive. “It is such fun!”

“Tableaux?” repeated MC in bewilderment.

You know – scenes!” Olive gushed, until, realising MC still looked puzzled, she explained, “We did one in the war to raise money for the Red Cross ambulances – my war I mean – the Great War, not Laurie’s war. They were very popular. We wanted to do something – for everyone I mean – and it’s been such fun, though a lot of work, of course, to get it all done in time – and now you’ve come early and spoiled the surprise – not that we really mind, of course – I mean you are a Moderator, after all; and the clubhouse is open all the time, especially to you. Oh, dear, and I haven’t made you welcome at all - would you like a cup of tea?” Olive’s words toppled out almost without pause leaving her a bit breathless at the end. She stood beaming as she finished, clearly expecting some expression of delight. MC murmured something appropriate, refused Olive’s kind offer to make tea (or coffee if you’d prefer?), and made her way to the Reading Room, still trying to make sense of Olive’s explanation.

“Tableaux?” she asked the Secretary who was curled up in one corner re-reading Fire from Heaven.

“Didn’t you ever see Upstairs-Downstairs?” explained the Secretary. “They did them in one episode during World War I. Olive suggested it. The characters have built a small stage in the Great Hall and put together a bunch of scenes with the curtain opening to show them for a few minutes, then shutting before the next scene, which is only shown for a few minutes, and so on. Even people who can’t act can take part, because they don’t really require acting. Someone narrates – the actors have said they’ll do that, because it needs someone who can project or it won’t be heard at the back of the hall – and the rest is just people on the stage in a set position.”

“What scenes?” asked MC.

“They’re basing them on the unused prompts from Yuletide,” said the Secretary, “although there’s been a bit of controversy about a couple of them.”

“And why did Olive think I was early?” said MC. “How could she know I was even arriving?”

“Simonides intercepted the emails between you and TR,” the Secretary replied.

“Simonides hacked my emails!?” Hurriedly she reviewed in her mind the content of the last few discussions she’d had with TR, somewhat relieved she could not recall anything too revealing within them.

“Well not hacked precisely,” said the Secretary, “I gather the usual laws of time and space don’t really apply to characters. Certainly time doesn’t,” she commented somewhat sarcastically, “he told everyone you wouldn’t be here before late afternoon. I gather, though, he had a bit of trouble with the time conversions between modern America and Ancient Greece.”

Images of Simonides studying an hourglass presented themselves to my_cnnr. Had they even had hourglasses back in his time? She rather thought not – perhaps he had consulted some sundial/clock conversion chart on the internet. As this thought passed though her brain another image – this time of a sundial countdown for Yuletide presented itself to her. Giggling, she retreated from the Reading Room, almost bumping into trueriver, who had just arrived.

“What on earth...!” TR’s mouth gaped open at the bustle of activity surrounding her.

“Not earth,” MC managed to get out round her laughter (the stupefaction on her fellow Moderator’s face had set her off), “ether!”

“Did you ask those Watson sisters to do something for Christmas again?” demanded TR. “You know how they tend to run away with ideas. What were you thinking of?”

“I had nothing to do with this,” MC protested, “this was all the characters’ idea. Come on – I’ll explain inside.”

She steered her friend toward the open doorway of the Great Hall. Quietly they slipped into the back, hiding their arrival behind a heavy backdrop being carried in by four slaves. They sat in a dark corner way at the back, doing their best to avoid notice.

“Apparently they feel so bad for the people who didn’t get their requests filled this year that they’re doing the unfilled requests as scenes,” MC whispered in explanation.

“I didn’t think there were that many unfilled requests this year,” said TR, somewhat startled. “We seem to have had a bumper crop of stories this year.”

“Nevertheless...oh, my....” MC’s eyebrows rose as she pointed.

Across the room lay Phaedo, stretched artistically on a divan, with Alexias lounging by his legs. Lysis stood nearby making suggestions.

“A dress rehearsal!” she exclaimed.

“Undress, more like,” remarked TR, “even if they do have some drapery thrown over the strategic bits. No wonder the Secretary said there was some debate over a couple of the scenes."

"Not the sort of debate we usually get from Phaedo, but I'm not complaining," said MC. "Look over there.” She nodded in a different direction, where Alexander was striking an attitude centre-stage, sword in one hand, in front of the Gordian Knot, while reaching with the other for a scroll being handed to him by Thettalos, sitting downstage right.

“I don’t remember that from the Persian Boy,” said MC.

“That’s because it’s not in that novel,” said TR, “in fact it’s not in any novel. Don’t you recognise fawatson’s request post-Mask of Apollo for Thettalos as spy?”

“But that request was about Nikos and Thettalos,” MC said, “how did Alexander get in the middle of it?”

TR just shrugged.

Everywhere they looked were scenes in the making as the characters practiced their parts. The Cranes were balanced on a wooden bull; Hippolyta was poised with her spear; and Colonna stood by a sick bed in nurse’s uniform. The two Moderators gazed in wonderment.

“I don’t care – I won’t do it!”

The loud, and entirely petulant, protest came to their left. My_cnnr and trueriver turned as one to look.

“I’m a girl - he’s a man. I don’t care if one of the members wants it – it just doesn’t make sense!” Elsie’s voice, prissy and high-pitched, came again.

“It’s an AU,” explained Bagoas patiently. “I know they’re all a bit odd – look at that peculiar story written about Hephaistion and me a couple of years ago – but it’s a request from one of the members, Elsie. We all agreed – I thought you understood.”

“But Peter’s a real man,” Elsie argued, “not like you. I don’t care what they want; it’s not right expecting a real man to dress up like a woman.”

“Oh, dear,” said MC quietly, as she watched Bagoas stiffen at Elsie’s thoughtless words. “He may not be my favourite character, but he deserves better than that.”

I have an idea,” said Peter. “Perhaps if I don’t dress up, exactly....”

The outlines of his figure shimmered slightly, blurred, and then coalesced into a new shape – with features still easily distinguished as Peter’s, but a female version of him, the vain self-important young man transformed into a beautiful woman.

“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Elsie, and promptly followed suit, altering her shape to a male figure.

“I’m not sure that’s what queen_ypolita had in mind with her request,” whispered MC to TR.

“I’m quite sure it’s not,” said TR firmly, “but it seems to be what she’s getting. After all, it–”

“ – is Madness!” they chorused together!