Spread the Handful
The innkeeper thought she rose plenty early to start preparing breakfast for her handful of guests, but when she stepped down from her quarters into the tavern she found it transformed by makeshift houseplants, created by an even earlier bird.
Delicious was roaming about, watering them with single droplets, using a can lifted from the dead garden’s piled tools. She hummed a tune all the while, but by the time she made a complete lap the gnome couldn’t help but sing a verse.
“-I long to see the girl I left behind meee!” When she stopped to breathe she noticed Miss Marood. “Oh, I’m sorry! Did I wake you?”
“No,” she said quietly, retying the sash of her sleeping robe. The Blefuscan couldn’t think of much else to say, as she noticed the gnome had made pots mostly out of the flagons and steins from behind the bar, with a few pails from the garden for the largest sprouts. Every table had a green centerpiece, there was no room to slide a glass along the bar, and the door was guarded by two miniature trees.
“I hope you don’t mind,” the gnome said, going back to her watering. “Everything feels so dreary without plants around.”
“Where did all of these come from?”
“I grew them!”
“Yes. We gnomes may have gotten completely lost when we left the fairy realm, but we didn’t completely lose our magic! My Johnny and I spent years breeding, cutting, tweaking, making plants that could grow anywhere. We grew the paths many explorers walked, and they never even realized they were paths!” She tittered as she rotated a moss-bearing wineglass exactly seventeen degrees.
“Still, your bag doesn’t look large enough to hold all these seeds,” Dubiny noted, pointing at the burlap shoulder bag sitting on the bar’s edge. It still looked quite full. At their size a sunflower seed took up the whole hand.
“That’s my best magic,” Delicious bubbled. “The bag is bottomless, but only for seeds. I’ve got one for every conceivable purpose, and then a few thousand more.” She was walking away, but she turned back. “I hope you don’t mind that I also buried that dead fellow in your garden.” Dubiny froze.
“Yes, did nobody tell you? There was some sort of beetle-man who arrived with us. We didn’t know him, but he was very much dead. Killed by the pesticide I think.” The innkeeper looked disturbed, but snapped out of it when her other guests started coming down the stairs; she mumbled that it was a shame she couldn’t charge the deceased for his subterranean lodging.
They all reconvened over breakfast, honeysuckle toast and rabbit bacon, though only a few of them could partake thanks to their unusual physiologies. Humpty Dumpty had porridge instead, sipped through an extension on his speaking device. Without any limbs he had to ask Delicious for help, the gnome attaching and removing the extension whenever he wanted to speak.
“Thank you Mrs. Appleseed,” he said once it had been detached a fifth time. “As I was saying, your first target is Gildny Mildny, acting president of the banker’s association.”
“Acting? What happened to the regular one?”
“She was called Mygdenia, and she was a member of the Right Challenging Handful. Formerly in the employ of the legendary King Midas, she was a master economist and strategist, though much of her authority came from the fact that she was made of gold herself. I think the good people of Minimil assumed that it takes gold to know gold.
That’s where Gildny comes in. He is an eggty like me, but even more rare. You see, he was laid by an anomalous goose, perhaps gifted with a variant of Midas’s power, or indirectly touched by him at some point in its ancestry. Its eggs have gold shells, and thus so does Gildny. He is… very popular.”
“Do you know him?” the lord asked. “If you do perhaps you should join us.”
“No, no!” Humpty blurted. “If I’m being perfectly honest… I was hoping to occupy Gildny’s current position, but couldn’t compete with his luster. We have a personal history, and it wouldn’t do any good for him to find my figurative fingerprints anywhere on this affair.” The handful asked if he knew what act or gift Gildny intended to offer, but the eggty did not have that information.
“I suppose I could just walk in and open a savings account,” Nero wondered aloud.
“Ve could try ze direct approach,” Orlof suggested.
“Yes,” his lover agreed enthusiastically, her newt eyes igniting. “Light a fire under him.”
“Zat might hard boil ze boy,” the vampire chuckled. “Vat I mean is, can ve take him out of ze running?” He aimed his massive furry ears and fleshy layered nose at the eggty. “Forgive me for being unfamiliar vis your biology, but do you have blood?”
“I do,” Humpty confirmed. “Inside the shell I am a fully formed, if mostly atrophied, chick. Past the shell is albumen, past that skin, and past that blood.”
“I could feed on Gildny zen,” the vampire theorized. “In my bat form ze curse does not spread. If I drink just enough of him he vill be very veak for a time, unable to move or speak, but he vill recover. Ze deadline vill pass visout him able to present himself.”
“He is very vain,” Humpty noted, “so he would almost certainly drop out of the running instead of send someone in his stead… but you can’t access his blood supply without cracking his shell. If you do that he would perish, and much as I despise him I don’t wish death upon him.”
“What about this?” Delicious asked, holding up the extension device. She received quizzical looks. “If you can eat from one end without harm, why can’t Orlof eat from the other?” They all turned toward Humpty.
“Interesting,” he pondered aloud. “That does feed into a carefully created hole in the shell and the membrane. If you push a little harder… It needs to be a tube of very similar dimensions, sharp on one end to puncture his skin and allow blood flow.” Delicious provided the solution once more, getting up and scurrying over to a plant she’d potted in a lamp fixture. It was a cluster of dark brown reed-like stems.
With a surprisingly strong grip she snapped one off and brought it back to the table, slicing its tip with a steak knife at an angle. She held it up like a spyglass, staring through its hollow center at Humpty’s permanently smiling charcoal eyes.
“That’ll do nicely.”
For some of them it was their first time on a train, at least one that suited their size. Several converted toy engines, running on small flames like candle boats, helped the citizens of Minimil get from one end of the barn to the other as part of their daily routine. Much of the space was divided into stalls for horses, but now each one served as a different neighborhood or center of industry, with small tunnels cut in their sides to allow the trains passage.
Nero was babbling at the others about the logistics of placing train tracks on packed sand when they passed through the first tunnel, leaving the poorer outskirts and entering the banking stall. Minimil accepted all manner of tiny currencies, as well as torn and clipped pieces of big money, and several facilities were needed to manage all the stockpiles and reserves of each.
The district was a marvel of precision engineering. Where Marood’s inn was little more than a dollhouse plopped into the bare dirt, this new stall was entirely paved with cobblestones of semiprecious tiger’s eye, sultry blacks and brown with fluid stripes of deep umbral red and gold.
Rising from them were several tiered jewelry boxes, some custom built by big carpenters who never thought they would be able to describe themselves as architects. Each was here a building, individual layers and drawers modified to move independently of the others, sliding or swinging out as balconies whenever the owners felt they needed some fresh air. They could smell the money in said air, mostly as jewel and glass, and it overpowered the ever present smell of barnyard entirely.
Out the rattling windows they saw the minimils, as the people were also called, going about their day, oblivious to the handful, to the magical voice that wished to guide their future. Fairies, wings long ripped away by the vicious predators of the Earth that simply didn’t exist in their original realm, styled and oiled their colorful remnants into shoulder decoration. Lilliputians and Blefuscans had to lean to avoid striking them sometimes, but found time to glare at each other. The occasional shoulder angel or devil, out of the robes they wore during their official duties, stopped to deal with anyone that wanted to talk their ear off regarding their preferred replacement for the eldest oyster.
“It’s all so busy,” Delicious noted, large feet tapping the floor of their train car excitedly.
“Looks about the same to me,” Footstool said, so low that he only had a view of all their legs and the residue of some common commuter snacks. There was only one stop per stall, and they reached it quickly, disembarking in the shadow of their goal.
Humpty had given them exact directions, but there was no mistaking the central bank for any of the other jewelry-box buildings. It was plated in brass, gargoyle heads carved from pearls mounted on all the corners. It was impressive even from the back, though it had no clear front and back once it opened for business, several of the layers shooting out with the chiming of the hour, which was ten.
The chiming came from the tallest skyscraper in the district: a grandfather clock up against the outer wall. Its face loomed over everything, reminding them they were on a schedule like an impatient sun.
“I suppose none of you are needed past zis point,” Orlof suggested when he saw the bank open up. “Ze eggty said Gildny has living quarters on ze topmost floor. I vill fly up zere, take a sip, und meet you all back here. Ten minutes at ze most.” He bit down on the reed to free up his wings. Heidi kissed his furry cheek, and then he silently took off while the others acted as a wall to block the public’s view.
“So we just… sit here?” Footstool asked.
“The less we’re seen together the better,” Gumbonero posited. “Split up and reconvene in ten minutes.” Heidi and Delicious didn’t need to be told twice. The newt crawled over a wall and disappeared while the gnome scampered down the street to examine some bonsai trees. The lord looked down at Footstool, who returned it with a puppy’s expectant stare. “And you?”
“I thought we could split up together.”
“Fine, you can be my attendant. You’ll have to keep up though.” He strode away, looking for a way to exit the station and go around to the proper front entrance of the bank. The shrunken head bounced after him, asking questions, the occasional word lost when he rolled over his own stitched lips.
“Where are mweef going?”
“Inside. Perhaps they have communication channels with Blefuscu. If so I might be able to access my holdings over there and withdraw more funds. I’m beginning to suspect my deep pockets are the only reason I was forced along in this venture. Her mistake. I’m much more than a wallet.”
“Maybe I am mwoo. It’s a shame I can’t mwemfember.”
“If all else fails you can return with me to my castle,” the lord offered. “One of my pet hermit crabs can live in your mouth and carry you around.” There was a guard by the doors, but no form was suspicious in the barn country, she herself was a porcelain doll, so she let them in without a second glance.
No expense had been spared in decorating the lobby, but no matter how hard they tried they couldn’t impress Gumbonero Ludmenti. The only crystals that mattered were the grains of quartz in the finest sand, the only stones the chips of conch and coral. Without the smell of ocean salt it was like there was no airflow at all, something that clearly didn’t bother the Myrmidon teller who breathed through tiny spiracles in her exoskeleton.
The ant-person was polite and informative. Within minutes, presumably through the use of any number of fairy magics they had access too, they were able to confirm his identity and bank account. He withdrew what he hoped was more than enough for the rest of their venture, all in Blefuscan glass even though there were much lighter currencies available.
“Just pour it in my attendant’s mouth,” he instructed her. Footstool opened as wide as he could as the smooth jewels of beach glass streamed down. When his puffed cheeks could hold no more he sealed his lips. “Two birds with one stone. Come Footstool, we’re leaving.”
The lord’s curiosity kept them from getting back out the door. Over a dividing screen he couldn’t help but overhear a snippet of conversation between two other patrons. He snapped and pointed at his feet, an order that only took Footstool six seconds and a second snap to figure out. He rolled over so Nero could stand on his scalp and see over the divider.
“Ireland has made its move,” one man said, though he was less of a man and more of a Chinese three-legged money toad statuette carved from cinnabar and brought to life.
“What do you mean?” his companion, a monocled mandrake root, asked.
“They set a trap for the leprechauns. It was deviously clever; they dropped treated water from aeroplanes. It seeded the clouds and forced a truly enormous rainbow. When they found the end of it hundreds of the little green fellows were swarming, as you know they can’t resist such a place. The government caught every last one.”
“So they’re building a Little Wars army of their own.”
“It is not in their laws yet, but there’s no other reason for such behavior. Every last small the world over is going to be weaponized if we don’t do something, and our own government is sitting on its rear holding a popularity contest.”
“They wouldn’t have to if the handful had returned,” the mandrake sighed, chewing nervously on the tip of one of his woody appendages. “One of them would’ve earned the tiebreaking vote since they exterminated that gnat. Mygdenia or Snaps most likely.”
“Heroes all,” the money toad agreed. “We can only hope they haven’t been lost to Davy Jones’s locker. All leaders should have to prove their usefulness as they have. If-”
“They weren’t that great,” Nero asserted overhead. He knew next to nothing about the handful, but his head was positioned higher, so he was confident he could win any resulting argument. “Any five of us could be a handful and go about punching and slapping. A true leader is one born to do so. They keep the peace… and you would judge them ineffective because they did it so well they never had to fight!”
“And who are you?” the toad demanded, hopping up on his single back leg and grabbing the edge of the screen, forcing Nero to stumble backward off Footstool. Now he had the low ground, and the toad’s wide red lips were bothering him.
“A handful all on my own! That’s who!” He flourished his cape and stormed off. Footstool attempted to do the same with a lock of his hair, and very nearly succeeded.
The women were already waiting for them back in the secluded corner of the station, but only Heidi had anything to show for her time. She was now wearing a black dress with a green cloth belt, both of which matched her hat nicely. There was another outfit draped over one of her arms, a maroon men’s ensemble with ruffles, which must have been for Orlof.
“There was a lovely dresser down the lane called Muffet’s,” she explained when the lord approached.
“They managed to fit an amphibian that quickly?”
“The tailor was a werewolf spider, spun the whole thing himself in a minute flat.” Before she could say anything else a shadow passed overhead. Its wings folded and it plummeted as a dark raindrop, landing amongst them. Orlof had gold dust all about his furry lips that he quickly brushed away.
“It is done,” he declared, standing as tall as his shape allowed. “Ze golden egg vill be laid up for a fortnight at least.”
“It was a bad plan,” Nero muttered, having only just realized. “You had to eat from the egg’s small end. Something probably went wrong.”
“I’ll have you know…” the vampire started before getting distracted by the sway of Heidi’s midsection, like a plucked harp string, “Oh darling you look resplendent.”
“As will you,” she cooed, handing him his new clothes. He made a sound disturbingly close to a purr and pulled the garments on.
“These people practically worship the Right Challenging Handful,” Nero growled. “As far as I can tell they were mere mercenaries. This whole country is backward. You don’t hire someone to be your ruler; they hire you to be their subjects. The waiting list to live in one of my sand keeps is as long as a human leg.”
“Shouldn’t we be leaving?” Delicious asked nervously. “Surely someone will notice the eggty’s condition soon.”
“The train will be back in a moment,” the lord dismissed. “What I’m talking about is more important. These fools need help, and only a strong backhanded slap can guide them.”
“Don’t you already have a throne?” Heidi asked.
“I feel obligated to take any I come across that are being mishandled. Are you telling me the distress of this nation in chaos does not move you witch?” The newt got close enough for him to see the slime glisten on her dark skin.
“I’m currently sitting in a dark room, next to a coffin filled with dirt, staring at the walls with my eyes closed,” she whispered. Green fire ignited in her irises. “There I sit, perfectly still. Nothing moves me.”
“Vat my love intends to say iz zat ve do not need to draw attention to ourselves,” Orlof mediated. “Ve’ve been promised great revards. Ve should keep our heads down, finish ze vork, und leave ven ve have ze chance.”
“I won’t be party to anything that would jeopardize my getting Johnny’s pot back,” Delicious agreed. “Its sentimental value is greater than any throne… and it’s more than large enough for all of us to sit in.” While they argued a train arrived, its doors hissing open. Only Footstool took note.
He wanted to be one of the first ones aboard, that way he could find a good place to rest. Too many of the best spots had been taken by people’s luggage the first time. He wanted to tell the others that their ride was ready, but anything he uttered might cost the lord a bundle in spilled glass, so the shrunken head simply rolled aboard, figuring they would join him momentarily.
“If an opportunity arises to offer a gift of our own, we should take it,” Nero suggested. “Winning this tiebreaking vote would also achieve our mandate, would it not? And furthermore-”
“Where’s he off to?” Delicious asked, nodding toward the train, which Footstool had not noticed was the wrong color and heading in the wrong direction. Lord Ludmenti cursed and rushed toward his attendant, but the doors closed as the vehicle chugged back to life and left the station.
“That’s just spectacular, isn’t it?” he snarled.
“Are you worried he can’t handle himself?” Heidi asked.
“That hollow moron has a mouthful of my money!”
The handful spent the rest of the day looking for their missing fifth finger, to no avail, returning to Dubiny’s inn as the barn’s only window went dark. They were in foul moods, but Humpty Dumpty pestered them in the tavern anyways. He couldn’t move, as he was receiving a shell polish with a rag from Dubiny’s tonttu employee, so he shouted at them across the room after they deliberately picked a far table.
“So you say you succeeded!?” They answered yes for the third time. “Wonderful! Excellent!” The absence of the shrunken head didn’t seem to concern him, odd considering they were kindred spirits in limblessness. “Tell me every detail Mr. Schreck.”
“Vat is zere to tell?” the vampire asked. He tossed the used reed across the way. It bounced off Humpty’s drawn face and was caught by the tonttu, who noticed the dark blood stain on its sharp end. “I drank him. Your people taste like… if a calf could lay an egg. You taste like zat egg.”
“I mean how did the buffoon react? He probably fell right off his cushioned cup!”
“Zere vas a cup,” Orlof recalled, thinking of the strange goblet-like bed in the eggty’s lavish living quarters. Gildny Mildny had been resting in it, his face engraved in silver with far greater detail that Humpty’s, including the design of a cleft chin.
The bat recounted sneaking up on the banker, though it had been impossible to tell if he was asleep or awake. His shell had been rather dark for gold, lustrous and magnificent. Orlof’s reflection showed on a polished surface Humpty could never hope to achieve. The eggty only spoke once Orlof had started prying the device that allowed him to do so open.
“Are you here to kill me?” he had asked, voice quivering.
“No no,” the vampire had answered in a whisper, his attempt at a comforting smile undone by the glisten of his long white fangs, though his victim couldn’t even see it. “You vill be very sleepy for a time, und zen you vill be fine.”
“Alright, I suppose you’ve bested me.” The golden egg leaned back, as if it was a manicure he’d just learned the exorbitant price of. “Tell me, who hired you? Was it the Danger?”
“I suppose zere is no harm in telling you, since I do not know who hired me. If it vas ze Danger, zey did not say so.” Gildny couldn’t say anything else, because there was a reed jammed through his membrane and into his neck. The world couldn’t go dark because of eggty blindness, but the sounds of his life being slurped out did become muffled.
“You’re a true professional,” Humpty praised Orlof as the account ended. His obvious delight warped his charcoal face into something darker.
“He seemed to think this Danger character was his greatest concern,” Gumbonero noted. “Should he be ours? What did you say about him before? He resides between the Shoulders of Government? What does that mean? It sounds as if that was the eldest oyster’s position.”
“The Danger is an issue, I admit, for which no solution is yet apparent,” Humpty explained. “It will take some creative thinking on your part. Do you recall how shoulder angels and devils are born?”
“They are homunculi,” Formaldeheidi said, “representations of pieces of the human mind. They are a person’s better instincts and worse, emerging to help them make decisions. They become free-living if death should befall the host while they are deployed.”
“Yes, but the Danger is an anomalous expression of this process. His host was a set of conjoined twins, and they had a grand total of three shoulders. The being that came forth onto that middle shared shoulder was half angel and half devil, all charisma and intrigue.
He arrived in Minimil well after the oyster, so he was never included in government, but he’s making a push now. He argues that every decision he makes weighs the selfish and the selfless equally, and thus should be respected as the fairest result possible.”
“He must still offer something to the Shoulders though, yes?” the lord asked.
“Yes, but the issue is that he is also voting in the contest that he is participating in. He is the interim tiebreaker vote until the new one is chosen. Should the devils favor a bootlicker’s gift while all the angels favor a particular act of charity, the Danger will decide which one wins. All he has to do is ensure he is one of those two candidates.”
“That’s corrupt!” Heidi shouted, tail nearly whipping a potted plant to the floor. Arcane fire stoked in her eyes. “Why don’t we just burn it all down!?”
“Tempting,” Nero agreed. “I find that if something can be burned down it should be. Try to burn a sand castle and you wind up with an even more beautiful and sturdy glass one.”
“Please don’t!” Humpty pleaded, turning in his seat. The tonttu pulled him back so he could finish polishing a spot, spitting on his rag after a throaty snort that sounded like a rotten whale being squeezed up a well. “I’m confident that isn’t what our benefactor wants. This country can be a beacon, the pinnacle of small civilization, and we are only nudging it in that direction. The Danger asserts that he is impartial, and the Shoulders trust their own, but if you neutralize his gift or act they won’t be able to cover for him.”
“It’s a bridge to cross when we come to it,” Delicious said to end the contentious conversation. Tense voices always made her anxious, especially after decades hearing only her soft-spoken Johnny and the rustling of young and old trees. “Why don’t you tell us who we have to stop tomorrow?” The eggty paused, they guessed the equivalent of a deep breath.
“His name is Drookarkus Polooko, and he is the chief of the fire brigade.”
The Minimil firehouse wasn’t in a stall, but instead positioned near the exact center of the barn to allow quickest access to any random locations within it. There were smaller outposts as well, given the risk of fire had to be taken very seriously when the sky was entirely made of wood.
The central firehouse was as big as four hatboxes, complete with vehicle bays for wind-up tin wagons painted crimson. Behind it was a full bucket acting as their water reserves, the top capped and riveted shut, the handle rigged with a set of pulleys to turn it into an elevator.
The Challenging Handful, still sans Footstool, approached the building after a brief train ride. Humpty hadn’t mentioned the elevator, so when the bucket handle ascended with two fire brigadiers dangling their feet from it the handful dove for cover. It was far too soon to reveal themselves.
“The firehouse is attached to the municipal jail for minor infractions, public intoxication and the like.”
The only available cover was a penned-in object, some kind of large ball made of iron bars. All four of them crouched behind it while they waited for the brigadiers to finish whatever they were doing and descend again. They still had company though, as the ball was not empty. Inside it stood a battered Myrmidon in filthy clothing. One antennae was missing and there was a long pin punched through her chest, suggesting a cruel entomologist had tried to mount her alongside a praying mantis and no small doctor dared try to remove the keepsake. Its sharp point was covered with a cork.
“Who’s this then?” the bug-woman buzzed, leaning on the curved lock keeping her trapped inside the ball. The whole thing rolled a little, struck the outer fence with a clang. That in turn jostled several other balls around her, each containing its own curious prisoner.
As their eyes darted about the handful came to understand this was the municipal jail, though its structure was quite unusual. Rather than have standard cells those incarcerated were placed into cell-balls and allowed to roll around freely, but they were all in a rectangular pit, and its lip was too high to push their cage over, thus trapping them like marbles on a baking tray.
“Don’t mind us,” Delicious encouraged the Myrmidon. “We’re really not important.” The pinned woman saw the way the gnome’s sausage fingers nervously wrung the strap of her bag.
“Seems like you’re skulkin’ about. Would be an awful shame if I started shoutin’.”
“Cut with the slow threats,” Nero growled at her. “What will it take to buy your silence?”
“You lot got anythin’ to nibble on? I’m right starving I is.” Her mandibles clicked together like castanets. Delicious tittered, arm disappearing down her bag. It returned with an incredibly plump golden sunflower seed in hand. The ant snatched it from between the bars of her ball and began chewing on it like a mechanical saw into a log, chips flying in all directions.
“That much food is at least worth some information as well,” Nero argued. “Tell us, did this Polooko character lock you up? What kind of villain is he?”
“Don’t be daft,” the Myrmidon said. She took the cork off her pin and skewered the rest of the sunflower seed to keep it for later. The level of wear on the pin suggested she did such things regularly, adapting it into a food skewer or coat hanger whenever needed, perhaps simultaneously. “Flatfoots locked me up. Fire chief just watches us is all. His idea to put us in balls it was, so’s we can get a wee bit of the ol’ leggin’ in. Don’t work so rightly when it’s this full though.”
The depression was indeed full, prison orbs packed tightly. They guessed it was due to the instability caused by both the oyster’s retirement and the encroaching Little Wars fears. Unrest was growing, and perhaps these instances of vandalism and public urination would soon turn into coordinated riots and kidnappings.
“Is he inside?” Heidi asked. “What does he look like?” Her eyes were already burning, the end of her tail twitching. Orlof stroked her shoulders. The firehouse itself seemed to put the newt on edge.
“Should be inside,” the Myrmidon guessed. “I don’t hear no fire chimes now does I? Chief’s one of them lilies.”
“Yeah. Right muscular he is. I’d have a go at his pretty body and face if lilies was overall more accommodatin’ of bigly-bugly lovers such as I.”
“That’s enough,” Nero whispered with a grimace. “Let’s have some of that silence we paid for.” The ant-woman obliged, stuffing the cork in her mandibles before leaning back against her cage and crossing her arms. She wouldn’t say anything, but she was definitely going to watch their flea circus act as it passed by.
The bucket handle finally descended out of sight, clearing the way for them to approach the firehouse. To their surprise one of the vehicle bays was open, as was a door within it that led straight into the building. As they crept inside they were met with a warm and friendly atmosphere. Brigadiers walked to and fro, mostly in pairs, forcing them to dive around corners several times. Their boisterous laughter came from everywhere, prevented even Orlof from discerning any helpful sounds. Eventually they stumbled into some sort of game room next to a kitchen alive with banging pots and pans.
Four figures were present aside from the handful. Two brigadiers were playing billiards with a set of painted freshwater pearls, but they immediately looked up and spotted the intruders. A little slower to realize was a man in suspenders, sitting at a table playing solitaire. His arms strained against his sleeves. It was quite the feat for him to pick up such fragile cards without them bending. His expression was youthful despite his salt and pepper hair. He had to be their target, as only the person running the place could look so relaxed.
The last figure was even slower to notice given that it wasn’t even capable of doing so. It was just a diving suit strung up on the wall, helmet porthole foggy from years of use. Next to it hung a dinner fork that was to them a trident.
“Are you folks lost?” Drookarkus asked, setting down his cards and standing.
“Not if you’re Mr. Polooko,” Nero said casually, strolling forward as if he hadn’t been crouching and leering upon entry. The others followed in as straight a line as possible.
“I am I am. Is there something I can help you with?”
“You can tell us what you’re planning to present to the Shoulders of Government.” Nero adjusted his glass crown. “I’ve been thinking of buying some property here in Minimil, but I’ll be thinking twice if the wrong person takes over. Once I know what everyone’s offering I’m sure I can judge just as well as the homunculi. I’ll know who they will eventually select.”
“Sorry, but you must have me confused with someone else,” Drookarkus claimed. “I’m not running for the oyster’s seat.”
“He may try to deny it.”
“Despite our encouragement,” one of the billiards players added, leaning on his cue. The brawny Lilliputian waved the remark away.
“Is that so?” Nero pretended to ask. He folded his arms behind his back and walked around the room as if he had just purchased it. “The problem is that we have it on very good authority that you are in fact running. If you were, in order to keep an edge over the competition, it would make sense to hide your offering.”
“Ve’re not vis your competitors,” Orlof offered. “Just looking to make a sound investment.” One of the bat’s ears twitched. He wandered toward the wall with the diving suit. Drookarkus finally moved, rushing over to it as well.
“Do be careful,” he warned the vampire, reaching out to make sure Orlof’s animal claws didn’t snag the diving suit’s hanging sleeves and gloves.
“May I ask vat zis is?”
“Just a keepsake from my days as a soup diver,” the Lilliputian explained. His brigadiers rolled their eyes, but he didn’t need their permission to tell the tale, especially with all the curious fresh eyes on him. “I spent a good twenty years in the big world, made myself useful. Usually when giant hands get a hold of you they want you to do nasty things like picking locks, but I maneuvered my way into cooking. You see, their pot of soup is at least a swimming pool to us. Their tongues can sense fine details of flavor, but their eyes can’t see it. A soup, only its roiling surface visible, can hide all sorts of unpalatable surprises.
But if you have a soup diver in your employ they can descend with suit and straw all the way to the bottom to investigate and make adjustments. If the broth hadn’t properly deglazed the pot I would scrape some of that encrusted goodness back into the mix. If a stubborn vegetable wasn’t cooking as thoroughly as the others I could puncture it to allow for greater heat and herb penetration.
I developed quite the appreciation for the culinary arts, and my services were used everywhere from small inns to the finest restaurants. I’m just glad they always made sure to reel me back in before they started eating.”
He excitedly pointed out several spots of stain and build-up on the suit, black seaweed lacquered on here, encrusted parsnip there. As an afterthought he mentioned how, after immigrating to Minimil and finding only pots of stew matching his stature, he switched to the nearest profession that also involved donning a heavy heat-resistant suit: the business of firefighting.
“I see, but… zat isn’t all,” the vampire said cryptically. The fire chief’s beaming smile dimmed. His brigadiers glanced at each other.
“Do tell my love,” Formaldeheidi cackled.
“Zere is somesing behind ze suit, in ze vall.” His bat claw tapped the surface; it sounded hollow. “Somesing… bubbling.”
“What did you say your names were?” Polooko asked, no trace of a smile left. Gumbonero offered only the sound of his blade slipped from its sheath. He pointed at the man’s heart, forcing him back toward his fellows, who were already brandishing their cues as weapons. Heidi didn’t have much time to work, so she threw up all the bulbous tips of her fingers, aiming her palms at the wall. Then she recited a witch’s hex.
“The secret fell, it has a smell, I can tell, open well, by this spell!” A glowing green outline, like a door, appeared around the diving suit. A hidden mechanism popped open, the section of wall sliding to the left on hinges.
There was a tiny chamber behind it, with room only for a spice rack and a large pot of black iron suspended by a chain over a burner in the floor that kept up only the barest of a blue flame. Within the pot simmered a deep amber liquid with flecks of dancing green, but it was the smell that ensnared them most of all.
Even the vampire, having had only blood for centuries, wound up salivating, the scent exhuming memories of his mortal life he’d thought long since dead and rotted. Meat and vegetable and herb had mingled so long they were truly one. It was the scent, and presumably the taste, of relentless passion, of Sisyphus rolling a dumpling uphill and laughing the whole way. They suddenly understood why kings, queens, and emperors had sacrificed countless lives and treasures just to open up trade routes that would allow them access to more exotic spices.
“That is a perpetual stew,” Drookarkus managed to say proudly despite the situation. “It is never taken off the flame, and added to regularly. Its base is samples I took from humble home cooking and palace cuisine all across my diving career. It contains ingredients spanning the world, and talents as well. It is my life’s work.”
“It… is your bootlicker’s gift,” Nero deduced, sidling into the chamber and standing over the broth. His nose drank its steam deeply. For a moment his bravado faltered and his eyelids fluttered. The man wasn’t lying about the contents, of that the Blefuscan was sure.
“I swear on my life it is not,” Drookarkus declared. “I don’t even know who deserves to eat that soup when it’s ready, but it certainly isn’t those devils. Or those angels for that matter. Besides, it won’t even reach its ultimate state for years yet, and that’s without considering which vegeta-”
“You’re nothing but a little-endian liar!” Nero barked. With his free hand he dug into one of his pockets and pulled out a sample of his own experience: a heaping handful of Blefuscan sand.
“He keeps sand in his pockets,” Heidi said out the side of her mouth, rubbing a slimy newt temple with one hand.
“It reminds my fingers of home,” Nero defended. His hand moved over the pot, threatened to dump every last grain into the stew apparently too good to be called heavenly.
“Lord Nero!” Delicious gasped. “He said it wasn’t the gift!”
“He’s lying you walnut-headed gnome,” the lord snapped back. He tilted his hand, let exactly three grains fall to make sure the Lilliputian knew he wasn’t bluffing. The little-endians were always doing that, always doubting; their uncertainty was what made their opinion slip down one side of the egg to the other. It started wars.
“I’m not lying!” Polooko shouted. “I’m not running for the seat! If you would just listen for one-” Nero knew better than to listen. Calls for listening were a weapon of the weak-willed, those seeking to poison his certainty. A castle only fell when confidence in it was lost. His fingers flicked open, several streams of sand dropping into the pot.
The Lilliputian threw his hand over his mouth as if he wanted to make sure he would never eat anything again, lest it be contaminated by grit. His wounded expression flared to rage after his companions charged toward the handful, swinging their cues.
“Best we take our leave now,” the lord said as nonchalantly as he could while deflecting a strike with his sword. Delicious ran back the way they came on the tips of her toes, the animal lovers not far behind.
Polooko ripped his trident fork off the wall, whistled with two fingers. More brigadiers emerged from the kitchen wielding empty pans, aprons flapping as they became apprised of the situation. They knew the layout of the firehouse far better than the intruders, and so moved quickly to try and corner them.
Orlof bit a billiards cue in half, flapped to send the many splinters flying back into the face of the attacker. That cleared the way forward.
“On the nose to use a hose, but it grows, and it shows!” Heidi yelled, dazzling the pursuers, and nauseating them slightly, with a sparkling dance of her amphibian arms. A coiled fire hose on the wall shot out of its case, denting the opposite wood paneling, wriggling as magic extended it.
That tangle kept the brigadiers busy enough for Delicious to find the open vehicle bay door after finding three dead ends. The handful spilled out of it and took off running, but a windup wagon was just pulling in. That did explain why one of the bays was open in the first place. Brigadiers riding its sides hopped off, blocked the handful’s path as soon as they heard their fellows shouting from the open door.
“They’re a friendly bunch, so you should be fine, as long as you don’t cause a scene.”
“I am not hungry, but I vill feast if I must!” Orlof snarled, gums retracting around his impressive fangs.
“Fire should always run its course anyway!” Heidi agreed, conjuring a flame in both her palms and on the tip of her tail like a torch. Nero’s sword was at the ready, and he clutched another blinding clump of sand in his free hand.
“Don’t you have bigger concerns than a pot of soup!?” Delicious yelled at the storming brigadiers, her face reddening. None of them faltered; she did not enjoy being ignored. “Fine! You’ll have a bigger concern!” Her thick arm disappeared into her bag, and after a moment of rummaging emerged with a spherical black seed bigger than her hand. She turned and grunted, heaving it over the top of the fence that outlined the jail pit.
The very moment it touched ground, between the cell-spheres of a naughty bewitched lump of coal and a Lilliputian repeatedly cited for setting off popcorn bombs, it cracked open and sent tendrils deep into the ground.
The leaves of its sprout rapidly grew, but not as fast as the darkening stem. The woody bulge rose higher and higher, overtaking the top of the cell-spheres, pushing them over each other. Once the breaching root was big enough to be called a tree’s knee it broke the outer fence and sent prisoners rolling in every direction.
“Thank you to the generous nutters!” the pinned Myrmidon shouted joyously, pushing on her ball so she could roll right by the wagon. More than thirty were escaping, albeit slowly and awkwardly, but that was still far more than the number of brigadiers on hand. One of them tried to wrangle a ball only to be run over by it, suffering a punctured and deflated ego.
Drookarkus was not distracted. His fork went straight for Nero’s head, but was caught by the lord’s blade between its tines. He responded with a blast of sand, but the fire chief closed his eyes and let his eyebrows direct the worst of it away. They traded attacks, weapons clashing and vibrating like tuning forks.
An excellently placed and timed thrust was headed for the lord’s heart, but a cell-sphere rolled between them. The trident went between the bars and startled the rodent occupant greatly. When the creature ran for its life it took the trident with it; Polooko was forced to chase after it.
“Come on!” Heidi ordered, wrapping the tip of her tail around Nero’s wrist and pulling. The Challenging Handful lunged for some tall bushes, the end result of Delicious’s planting, disappearing into them as chaos rolled up and down the street.