(reading time: 56 minutes)
Burn the Handful
The parliament building, which housed the Shoulders of Government, was made out of an old trunk and kept in the highest residential area of the barn: the hayloft. It was fed with several elevators of varying construction as well as by trained birds and their riders. Many of the birds were reassigned as security that day, and so the lip of the loft was covered with the saddled feathery creatures, their beaks making the line look like a living fence of spikes.
The normally bustling areas outside the trunk were cleared of everyone but government guards and those come to make offers. The Left Challenging Handful would never have been allowed in to observe the day’s events, if they didn’t have a fully authorized chaperon claiming them as his guests.
“Dumpty, Humpty,” the eggty said proudly so the guard at the leathery front doors of the trunk could check his list. He was careful to keep to the carpets that had been laid over the wood so as not to dirty his freshly tailored suit: a cinnamon red cup of fabric just the right size to go on a human child’s chin. His shell was waxed, his drawn face gone over again with fine calligraphy ink.
The hayloft was home to most of Minimil’s homunculi: an arrangement made by the various shoulder angels and devils who themselves fell into that category. They were not the only such creatures born from human minds however. Just as they were manifestations of vice and conscience, any other part could, with the right precise head trauma, break free and live a life of its own.
There were homunculi formed from puppy love, cold shoulders, imaginary friends, nervous laughter, fantasy romantic partners, so on and so forth. Sometimes guessing exactly what they were made out of was difficult, and the guard with the list was one such figment. He, if he was a he, had a round, hard, metallic head like a cannonball.
“And them?” the hardheaded creature asked of the five beings following the primped eggty.
“They are my committee,” Humpty said, suddenly unsure of himself. “It… it should say I am allowed up to ten guests… It does say that, yes?”
“They don’t look like bankers,” the homunculus commented. Even with that thick skull he was smart enough to know his details. Humpty Dumpty was there representing the banks, as Gildny Mildny had to withdraw several days ago due to a sudden illness.
“Well that’s because they aren’t!” Humpty laughed, swiveling back and forth. “They have something to do with my offer to the Shoulders, and I am allowed to make it a surprise. I am allowed that, correct?”
“Alright, just making sure. Can’t be too careful. Go on through.” He stepped aside. Humpty turned on his side and rolled into the building, with his handful following. They were dressed much as they had been at the fairy’s hotel, though they also wore cloaks of nerves, knowing they could be recognized at any time. Humpty had assured them that including them in his proposal meant they would receive the audience, even if others objected.
“Excuse me,” Orlof said to the guard, trailing behind even Footstool. He just had to know. The vampire had spent the entire walk there guessing at the origins of the homunculi they passed, and upon examining the guard closely he guessed he was some kind of relic from the mind of a human cannonball, perhaps sneezed out at high velocity. “Vould you mind telling vat kind of mental sing you are made of?”
“A death wish. Now move along, unless you’ve got one too.”
“Ha! I got it right.” The vampire smiled with his fangs and every other tooth in his maw, swaggering back to Formaldeheidi’s side.
They were among the last to arrive, purposefully to give the others fewer chances to object, but in a strange stroke of luck it wasn’t particularly necessary. Several boxes had been set up to house each party, allowing them to hide behind support posts in their seats. They were situated on the far end, with only one other box to their right.
Nero had tracked the other applicants on the way in. At the far end was Queen Zoukas of the Myrmidons, escorted by ten royal guards. With the gingerbread house destroyed she must have scraped together something less impressive.
To her left was the box that was supposed to contain the fairy with the turquoise hair, but it sat empty. Lord Nero thought this very clever. As a no-show everyone would assume that she had been tampered with just like the others, while Humpty Dumpty was actually in her employ the whole time.
They hadn’t discussed it of course, as that strange cricket had revised the plan while kicking them out of their luxury rooms. The spectral creature had told them of a last minute change back to the original plan. Apparently the fairy had become concerned about the Danger. She suspected more strongly than ever that he was going to steal the vote. She authorized the handful to do everything in their power, including a violent outburst, to prevent that from happening.
Past the scheming fairy’s empty box was the one adjacent to Humpty and the handful, and logic dictated that it belonged to the fire brigade. With Polooko’s soup now sandier than an hourglass they also had nothing to offer… but that was irrelevant. The box was flying different colors. Those who showed up to fill it, rather dramatically, had nothing at all to do with the fire brigade.
They arrived mounted on gorgeous hummingbirds, animals that must have been imported from the Americas, in three different shades: two Lilliputians and a wingless fairy. The top of the trunk had opened to allow the aerial entrance, and the thrumming wing beats of their mounts generated a gust that blew away any handkerchiefs not held onto tightly enough.
“Who are they?” Delicious whispered to the others, barely heard over the humming. The animals perched atop the box rather than inside, heads darting this way and that as their riders dismounted, sliding down into their seats on leather cords.
“They represent Foraging and Reconnaissance,” Humpty explained. “They operate outside the barn, gathering supplies and warning of any coming threats.” The trio certainly seemed up to the task, dressed as they were in uniforms somewhere at the crossroads of pilot, fencer, and park ranger.
Nero took note of the twin rapiers on the hips of the man that seemed to lead them. The swords themselves were nothing special, but their hilts matched a third hilt with a hinge, closed around the base of his hummingbird’s bill. Apparently the animal was trained to use its mouth as a sword. The lord gripped his own hilt, nervously imagining what it might be like to have a flying trio of blades all striking at you at once.
“That’s their chief ranger: Ontoes Wallagog,” the eggty added.
“Another little-endian,” Nero muttered. “Where’s the fire brigade?”
“They… must have been replaced… considering,” Humpty guessed, but Nero didn’t like the way he paused. It sounded like the bird was cringing inside his shell, hiding a very guilty expression. There wasn’t time to interrogate him however, as the Shoulders were arriving through the same crack in the lid. They drifted down on wings of feathery white and leathery red, right into the seats of the two large curved boxes that sat opposite the applicants.
They made it simple to boil down all of Minimil’s political woes to a single image of pure and obvious deadlock. The angels and devils bore faces identical to the humans they had spawned from, so each box had one of each face, one with a halo and the other in red with accompanying horns.
The twins even sat in the equivalent seat in each box, the perfect angle to lean forward and glare defiantly at their sibling. They mostly wore matching outfits as well, though all the devil ties and shoes were untied, and all their shirts unbuttoned, and often one of their sleeves was haphazardly rolled all the way up.
“Pointless, the lot of them,” the lord growled. The fairy was right to try and take their power from them by force. All their endless headbutting was just taking up space, eating resources. If he’d ever come across such a body in one of his own castles he would’ve struck a crucial wall and watched from a distance as the whole thing collapsed on them. Then he would observe, and whoever managed to wriggle out of the sand would be allowed to live, but of course never hold power again.
Yet, that wasn’t the whole of them. A spot on the floor between their two boxes opened up by unseen mechanism. A chair on a pedestal rose out of it, spilling water that smelled of salt back into the chamber it had come from. The water must have been a remnant from when the eldest oyster was affixed there, but now someone else occupied the space, and it could only be the Danger.
The handful had expected a figure divided down the middle, smashed together like a slice of white bread and a slice of dark rye. With one bat wing and one dove. Instead the divine and infernal elements of the souls that had borne them had mingled completely, creating a creature of chaos that was perfectly capable of directing all that disorder down into a focused pinprick.
He was lanky, wrapped up in flamboyant salmon-red clothing. His wings were red and feathered, but each fiber of them looked glossy and hooked, as if a demon had possessed a sea anemone. A dull halo, gray like fog instead of the blinding yellow of a full shoulder angel, hung lopsided on his head rather than hovering above it, held in place by a single coat hook of a horn. His manicured claws played with it as the last of the water beneath him drained away.
“He does look dangerous,” Heidi whispered to the others. Flashbulbs popped behind them. They stole backward glances and saw that a crowd of homunculi had gathered to watch the proceedings. They were mostly guards, but there were some members of governmental staff and journalists as well.
“I call this special session of parliament to order,” the Danger said, voice smooth. He flipped his halo off his head and banged it on an armrest like a gavel, only for it to vanish and reappear on his horn. “These parties are gathered here to make offerings of charitable acts or boot-licking gifts, with the greatest offering to be awarded this seat in government.
The participants will now name themselves and declare their intent. As a participant myself, I will go first. I, the Danger, am here representing the Shoulders of Government. It is my intent to become the tiebreaker of Minimil.” He nodded toward Queen Zoukas, who stood with the aid of a guard and stepped forward.
“I, Queen Zoukas, of the Minimil construction colony, intend to become the tiebreaker of Minimil,” the ant-woman said.
“It appears someone has gotten cold feet,” the Danger remarked as his pinkish hand passed over the fairy’s empty box to point at the one topped with hummingbirds.
“My name is Ontoes Wallagog, here on behalf of Foraging and Reconnaissance. I intend to be the tiebreaker of Minimil.” The handful scrunched down in their seats while the eggty hopped up on their box’s railing with odd bravery, considering a potential fall looked just high enough to add a web of cracks to his shell.
“Humpty Dumpty here, representing the various financial institutions of our great country, in the absence of brave and wise Mygdenia. I intend to be the tiebreaker of Minimil!” The homunculi behind them encroached as the presentations began. The handful did their best to ignore the strange amalgams of color, limb, and texture to focus on the other competitors.
The Myrmidons went first, and wheeled to the presentation floor a large glass cylinder with milliliters marked on its side, likely belonging in a human laboratory originally. The unit of measurement made it a little easier to guess exactly how many eggs were stored within.
These were not the brethren of Humpty Dumpty, but the offspring of the queen herself, each about the size of a frog’s eye. They were bright orange, and curled embryos could be seen twitching within.
“Here are five hundred soldiers-to-be,” the queen said, placing her segmented hand on the glass. Her antennae recoiled, indicating she felt great sadness over what she had to say. “But they are no longer mine. They belong, body and soul, to the citizens of Minimil. They are my offering, to be either act or gift depending on how you choose to raise them.
They can defend us tirelessly, police us thoroughly, rescue us reliably, or be trained to fill any gap in our society with suicidal devotion. They can be an elite guard, loyal only to our foundations. Whatever they will be… is at your discretion.”
She stepped away, hiding her tears in the offered sleeve of one of her guards. It was quite the sacrifice indeed, nearly a third of her upcoming brood, its cost especially clear when viewed against the pile of crumbled gingerbread they hadn’t even owned in the first place.
“This is trouble,” Nero said, tapping Humpty’s shell to draw his attention. “We just forced them to make something even better.”
“Yes… it… it does seem that way,” the eggty whispered back. “And we can hardly destroy them if things go badly here. Perhaps they were chosen simply so saboteurs with a shred of conscience couldn’t interfere. Do keep a blank face though. Try to take all this in stride.”
“Easy for you to say; yours is drawn on.”
The Shoulders did seem thoroughly impressed. A couple of the devils stepped down to take the wheeled cylinder’s rope and pull it off to the side, which prompted their matching angels to scurry after them and make sure it wasn’t pulled too far to any side in particular.
With the turquoise fairy absent they moved on to the foragers, and Mr. Wallagog signaled two more hummingbirds to descend. They hovered just off the floor, blowing the rich smell of the trunk’s leather and sawdust into all their noses. Between the birds, gripped in their claws, was a net-pouch of some kind.
It was large enough to hold a Lilliputian, which Ontoes demonstrated by opening its clasps and sitting inside. He pointed out several pockets for tools and paperwork. Lounging comfortably within it he explained that it was a prototype meant to go inside the pockets and holsters of giant human allies.
They all knew Little Wars was going to rear its gigantically tiny head at some point, and the forager’s gift was a tool for that age. It was a travel vehicle for spies and diplomats, reinforced with wire to prevent those carrying them from accidentally crushing them. Smalls using such devices could act in any number of capacities: pickpocket protectors, listening devices to be deployed, or even hidden hostage takers holding a straight razor to a nervous pocketed wrist. Wallagog offered the contracts of his own recruits for any such program.
A prototyped device, as well as a general strategy and the personnel to make it happen. Both this gift and the queen’s were specifically for the approaching crisis, but this gave Gumbonero a little dastardly spurt of hope. He’d already sized up both Shoulders of Government. Neither had the will to carry the heavy pauldrons of watchfulness and sacrifice.
They were terrible leaders, probably due to their origin between the sides of dense human skulls. The lord’s line had used such skulls as guesthouses once upon a time; that was how easy it was to outwit the giants that had wrecked their ships on Blefuscu’s shore. Even the angels were selfish, and while unable to admit it, they would appreciate a less foreboding gift much more.
Such thoughts explained his confidence when he opened the box’s door so Humpty Dumpty could roll out. When the eggty was the center of everyone’s attention his mouthpiece emitted a piercing whistle, so loud that it must have come from a device built into the thing. The sound alerted someone just outside the chamber, who had to be let in through a very large set of doors.
While chickens were the most common birds to develop into eggties, really any bird was capable, and even reptiles. What rolled in was so large and dark that it could’ve only been laid by the aggressive and stubborn emu bird of Australia. Its rich speckled color, bluish slate, was interrupted only by beautifully painted eye spots like peacock tail feathers and a band around the giant eggty’s middle that attached it to a cart.
It pulled the cart up to Humpty Dumpty, who rolled all the way around the thing, giving everyone a chance to get over their awe. Loaded onto it was a hoard of gold pebbles of unusual shapes: flakes, crescents, hairs, and teardrops.
“This,” Humpty explained proudly, “is gold produced by King Midas himself, delivered unto our central bank by Mygdenia when she moved into the barn. As you know she was the king’s personal treasurer all those centuries ago.
What the general public often fails to understand about the cursed king was that his golden touch always turned things into a set value of gold rather than a set weight. In addition to other drawbacks, his curse also never made him much richer, for as he flooded the markets with gold the items increased in size, in order to be worth the same amount as gold’s overall value decreased, quickly making them into difficult-to-manage monoliths.
But, this gold is different. It is gold that he only incidentally touched, and without greedy intent the full extent of the curse did not activate. These are pieces his body shed, and in so doing they were no longer a part of him, so they turned to gold when they tumbled down his skin. Shining flakes of skin, clipped finger and toenails, his loosened hair, and the many tears the curse brought him.
Now this gold is also of fixed value, but that value is intrinsic, and is thus unaffected by the whims of humanity, of supply or demand. It will always be worth much, and every intelligent being that hasn’t overcome the emotional need for money will see that value. Even in the weakest market for gold, one piece of this could buy one hundred pieces of the regular ore. It simply works, for it is magic.
This collection, called the Midas Detritus, is the secret gold standard that Minimil’s economy has been running on for years now, and we’ve enjoyed untold stability because of it. If you need evidence of its reliability, you need only consider Mygdenia herself, who was subject to size change with the wider price of gold.
Not once did she disturb the peace or destroy public property with unexpected growth. That was because she sent this collection here first, and entrusted an eggty coalition to build the economy around it. When inside this country’s walls this was the value of gold, so her size stayed perfectly consistent.
Previously the detritus was manipulated and parceled out only sparingly, to address any anomalies in our financial system. Now, should you choose to accept it, and this humble hen’s egg as your servant, the Shoulders of Government will be able to use it however they see fit.”
Nero sneered. Sheer tactical brilliance. He wished he could see the fairy again, to give her yet more credit for her plan. The angels would feel they had control over the country’s level of greed. The devils would have money, caring only that it was some sort of enhanced money. They would try and use it to buy whatever it was that devils as tall as fountain pens bought, probably lemon forks that could pass as pitchforks in a pinch.
In the end they would gain nothing however. They would have to make decisions as a body, and they would deadlock. Humpty would still be controlling the hoard, and his employer the fairy would secretly sit above him. It was a much more flexible gift than the other two. The Shoulders could turn it into essentially whatever they wanted. It was the superior choice, but there was still one presentation remaining.
When the Midas Detritus was wheeled away everyone saw that the Danger was standing behind it, presenting nothing but himself, though he did spread his wings to create as much grandeur as he could.
“Brothers and sisters,” he began, connecting himself to the other homunculi. The angels and devils leaned in, and the other human-borne things shuffled closer as well, overtaking the applicant boxes. “My gift is… me.”
“Boo!” someone shouted, but it was a sole voice and they managed to remain anonymous, probably because the shrunken head couldn’t even be seen from around the sides of the box and the handful’s feet. Nero delivered a swift kick to silence him.
“I know, it seems childish and self-centered,” the Danger continued, “but listen and you will see the logic of it. I promise. I can make that promise because I’m sure, as sure as any of you in parliament, but I’m the only one who sees both sides of the coin, the only one who can make a decision informed by all factors and emotions.
It stands to reason that you wish for decisions to be made by those like yourself. Perhaps if the oyster had never been approved as the tiebreaker, this Little Wars situation would’ve never been on our doorstep. The Challenging Handful was his idea, was it not?” The government grumbled. The Left Handful had gotten the sense the right was universally adored, but perhaps not among the upper echelons, and they were the only ones the Danger needed convince.
“My tiebreaking vote will be superior to what anyone else in Minimil, or even the entire world, could offer. As a homunculus myself my mind properly weighs the bad,” he nodded to the devils, “and the good,” and to the angels. “Yet, I am not indecisive. I can actually choose, and I choose correctly. Go on. I will take questions from any of you in parliament. Give me a moral dilemma. Observe my gift.”
Briefly the angels and devils had asides, whispering to each other, coming up with something to stump him. If they managed to do so even once his offer was worthless. An angel stood and spoke.
“In the event that a man discovers he has fathered a child, long ago, and the child comes to him and is in need of financial aid, does he drain his accountants to nothing to help, or does he tell the nearly-adult child he has never known to move on?”
The Danger took a moment to think. He paced back and forth, flicking his halo so it would spin around his single small horn. While he did so, One of Orlof’s furry ears twitched. The vampire turned around, eyes scanning the crowd.
“The child must move along, as an unwitting father is ill prepared to be one; he has not the skill to manage such a loan, let alone the child’s emotional state. It is better, in the long run, for him to seek aid from the familiar, and opportunity from the unfamiliar.” It was not an answer the angels would be overly pleased with, but he had tempered it precisely. He needed only impress them with his ability to avoid gray areas. A devil posed the next question.
“Let’s say we was to… commandeer a human’s cow to supply the barn with tasty milk. In the spirit of,” she wretched as she said it, “fairness, we leave an equal weight of Lilliputian cows in its place. All is done without permission or knowledge. Sound good?”
“Does no one else hear zat?” the bat hissed at his fellows, whirling around in his seat. Heidi grabbed him and forced him to face forward so he wouldn’t draw attention.
“Zere is somesing… a little sound of metal.” The Danger wasn’t waiting for the creature to pinpoint whatever it was.
“The deal would not be fair,” he answered the crowd, “but not because the human never agreed. As we all know Lilliputian cows carry the same risks as the rest of the small. They are prone to death by mishap of nature. The human, not versed in the care of the tiny animals, would immediately lose several of them to strong gusts of wind, to weasels, to an object falling in their home and squashing them flat. In no time at all they would be left with just three quarters of a cow. Knowing this, we could not go through with it in good conscience.”
The game continued on like that for several minutes, and the Danger never had to take more than a few moments in thought. Each time silence fell to allow him those moments, Orlof couldn’t help but flinch. The sound became more grating to him, like a metal hammer on his eardrums.
His dear witch’s arms were wrapped around his wings, but she couldn’t stop his eyes from darting around to all the homunculi in their various and peculiar physical forms. They came to rest on one, which from the back resembled an old bearded sailor, but with foggy blue skin and four barefooted legs upon the floor. He appeared male. What was that in his hand?
The Shoulders of Government were ready to make their decision. The Danger returned to the oyster’s seat, smug. He was already the acting vote. All he needed was for one of the two wings to choose him. Each side would take an internal vote, with the majority winner deciding that Shoulder’s single vote, which would then be counted with or against the other Shoulder’s.
Deliberation took several minutes, time in which Orlof only grew more certain of his theory. There was no need to reveal it of course, as long as Humpty Dumpty was declared the winner. Still, he kept his eye trained on the blue homunculus, recalculated the necessary trajectory every time the fellow shifted.
“The angels have reached a decision,” one of them said, rising from his seat. He looked over to the devils, where the one with his exact face also stood.
“Yeah so have we, and we probably reached it first,” he spat. “So we’re going to go first!” He stuck his tongue out at his twin while the other devils snickered. “The devilishly handsome among us vote for… Humpty Dumpty and his great windfall.”
“It’s working!” the eggty tittered to the handful, swiveling with glee. “Fantastic work everyone.” Delicious patted him affectionately on his little end, but their celebrations were premature.
“The angelic among us cast our vote for the Danger.” The handful heard Humpty hit the bottom of his own shell. That was it then. If they voted Zoukas or Wallagog there was a good chance the Danger would’ve sided with their golden offering, but now that he was himself in play all he had to do was say the word, and take the whole country into his hands.
The homunculus wasted no time, standing, holding out wings and arms with a mighty and vicious smile on his face. He bowed, somehow performing the supplicating flourish in an extremely domineering fashion.
“And as the tiebreaking vote I declare myself the winner!” he boomed, to applause from most of the homunculi in the crowd. He turned to thank the Shoulders for their work, but there was a disturbance. Several of the perched hummingbirds were startled into flight by a shot, a bat out of hell, flying full speed from the bankers’ box.
Orlof was gone before Heidi or the others could stop him, swooping down over the crowd, terrifying them with flashes of his fangs and the infernal gleam in his eye. The vampire shrieked, ordering them to stay still, to wait. It wasn’t over yet, so said at least one digit of the Challenging Handful.
When he finally pinpointed his target he dove, claws sinking into the back of the four-legged homunculus he had been watching. Those four legs had been his own doom, getting tangled up in each other and refusing to run in the same direction when the commotion started. Orlof flapped his wings with audible might, like sails fighting against a storm, and lifted the flailing minimil out of the crowd.
The rest of the handful, aside from a reeling Humpty, leapt over the side of their box and pushed their way through the throngs in an effort to join Orlof where he landed, at the foot of the entire governing body. They would present as a united hand raised in objection.
“What is the meaning of this!?” an angel demanded.
“Zere is a cheat! You must- stop wriggling you schwein!” The vampire’s English flickered as he tried to keep the homunculus on the floor. “Footstool! Be useful!” The shrunken head rolled in swiftly and planted himself on the homunculus’s back, bouncing a few times until he calmed down. “Sank you! Now, ladies und gentlemen! Ze Danger is a cheat!”
The accusation riled everyone up, but none more so than the Danger himself. He stood up on the oyster’s seat without descending, crossed his arms as his feathers prickled and fluffed like an owl trying to scare off a predator by doubling its silhouette’s size.
“Cheat!” Orlof repeated. He reached into one of the pockets on the blue homunculus’s pants and pulled out a copper coin. His awkward configuration of claws were not dexterous enough to make it behave as he wanted, so he handed the item off to Delicious, asking her to flip it.
The gnome obeyed, and when the nail of her thumb struck the coin and sent it tumbling the vampire sighed with relief. That was the sound, without a drop of doubt. The others still had no idea what he was getting at, and they could feel the scrutiny mounting behind them like a wall of magma.
“Talk you winged rat!” a devil demanded. “What’s the big idea?”
“I heard ze flip of zis coin,” Orlof explained, “every time you asked ze Danger a kvestion. He lies. He cannot make choices wisout help. Zey vere signaling each ozer.”
“How?” an angel wondered aloud, halo spinning as she tried to puzzle it out. “He could not see the result of a coin flip from where he sat.”
“Mentally,” Orlof said cryptically. “Look at his legs! Ze legs!” When Nero and Heidi did as the bat demanded they finally saw what he meant. The lord took up the argument so Orlof could take a moment to collect his scattered English.
“Ah! A homunculus’s physical traits are often an expression of qualities from the host, are they not?” he asked the crowd to uttered agreements. “Looking at this person I would say he is a manifestation of someone getting their sea legs.” The traits did point that way, from the sailor’s beard to his blue color, to the legs being long and strong. “Only there are four of them, which sounds more like an expression of the hosts’ conjoined bodies!”
The Shoulders finally got the idea. The Danger was half-devil and half-angel because he had come from the conjoined shoulder of a set of twins. Who was to say he was the only homunculus spawned from the death of that pair? It was well known that homunculi that shared a host shared a mental connection that allowed communication. They were of one mind after all.
“He’s all talk!” Heidi declared. “He’s just as deadlocked as the rest of you, and merely sided with his cohort’s coin flip! Heads for the first stated option, tails for the second, or some such thing. Once the decision was made he just filled in the blanks with suiting rhetoric.”
“Poppycock!” the Danger refuted.
“What say you?” Lord Ludmenti asked the sea legs homunculus, putting his boot on his blue neck. The man refused to speak, pushing his face into the floor and resigning himself to his fate.
“It’s easy as spitting! Just ask another question now that the coin can’t flip,” a devil suggested. An angel asked the first one that came to his head before the Danger could compose himself.
“If a man does not propose marriage within a reasonable number of years, should the woman be able to do so? Yes or no.” All eyes were on the Danger now, and though his skin was already pink they could sense it growing red. He fidgeted as if assailed by gnats.
“That one’s actually more complex than all the others,” he tried to equivocate. “We must consider the long history of men, and the equally long, but totally different and unrelated history of women. And if we-”
“Answer the question you spineless twit!”
“We need an answer!”
“This won’t do. This won’t do at all.”
“He refuses!” Lord Ludmenti boomed, managing to hush the entire trunk. “The angels have thrown in with a prevaricator! Their vote should be voided, which leaves only one: the devils’! Their decision stands, honest and true. Humpty Dumpty is the tiebreaking vote!”
The devils erupted into shocked agreement, banging on their chairs, hollering and slavering. If one angel vote was disqualified, why not the next? Come to think of it, after a single uncharacteristic act, they really could never be trusted again, could they? Their fervor was matched by outrage from the other side, and also from the crowd, and also from the losing competitors.
It was clearly about to boil over into a riot, which was just fine for the handful, that had been part of the job description, but one of the Myrmidon queen’s guards just had to open her big mandibles.
“Wait! Those are the fiends that destroyed the home of Commander Snaps!” After that similar comments flooded in, though the devils held their forked tongues. Nero and the others matched the descriptions of those wanted for the jailbreak next to the firehouse. They’d been seen skulking around all week, including near Gildny Mildny’s home before he had fallen ill. Nero tried for a saving speech.
“We act in Minimil’s best interest! We are the Left Challenging Handful! The right hand may not know what the left one does, but we are from the same body politic and deserve the same reverence and respect. We will fend off Little Wars!” The other digits shot him a look. Not a one of them had agreed to that, and might have sooner chosen death. “If we come together and build a san-”
“Arrest them!” Ontoes bellowed, hopping onto the back of his humming steed and drawing his swords. The Myrmidons that weren’t glued to their monarch’s side, or protecting the brook beaker, charged as well, mixing into the homunculi doing the same. Angels poured out of the box and threw up their hands to try and keep order.
Naturally the devils did the opposite, taking to the wing. They plucked people from the crowd much as Orlof had done and dropped them further away from the handful, making it clear they were on the conspirators’ side.
“Better the fairy rule the ashes than kill us for not trying!” Formaldeheidi snarled, slimy fingers waving and twirling as she conjured bewitched green fireballs. “Burn this town, all the way down, to the ground, until there’s no crown!” She slammed her palms onto the floor of the trunk, creating waves of flame that somehow knew to spare the other digits. It pushed the attackers back, but the gust of hummingbird wings kept it from going too far.
Seeing her flames put out sent the newt into an uncontrollable rage, and she broke from the rest, tossing fireballs into the sky in an effort to fend the birds off. Nero took that moment to ready himself, drawing from his sheath. He had not recovered his trusty blade after his duel with Solenos, so all that emerged from it was the now-floppy bug leg still reeking of insecticide.
Unfortunately it was not the Myrmidons that reached them first. A tide of homunculi slammed into them, separated them, dragged them all over the trunk. The lord could barely keep track. Orlof was in the air fighting angels. Heidi’s fire climbed the walls in places, though it kept getting stamped out on the floor. Footstool was no doubt being kicked about like a tin can somewhere. Delicious was nowhere to be seen.
This chaos needed to turn into something he could survive, and claim a success, but how? Any ideas that started to form were knocked out of his skull by anonymous fists. Even his pocketed sand piles were worthless against so many opponents. One lucky stab with his exoskeletal weapon forced the burliest homunculus on him back, giving a little breathing room.
Many were turning their attention to Heidi, whose flashy fire seemed the largest threat, so Nero bolted, hiding himself behind the first object large enough to do so. He caught his breath in gasps, much to the irritation of his neighbor.
“This is my hiding spot,” the Danger said, leaning up against what Nero was just now realizing was the side of the emu eggty and the cart full of golden nail clippings. “Get your own, and get your own country while you’re at it.”
“I’m not hiding,” he huffed, “and I build my castles where I please. Decisively… I might add.”
“You shouldn’t mock my disability. I’ve made an awful lot of myself despite finding crossroads paralyzing. You’ve gone and mucked it all up fiercely.”
“We are… the Challenging Handful!”
“That lot was chosen by our electors, beloved in the community. Who on Earth sent you here?”
“I’m beginning to suspect… it was fate herself.” The Danger was the first liar to be revealed. He was the real cause of the discord. If Nero could emerge with his horned head perhaps that would quell the others enough for Humpty to start giving orders. He moved to brandish his segmented forelimb against the homunculus, who caught on as he did so. The Danger turned to flee, but a hummingbird dropped between them.
It was Ontoes himself, eager to show his own ambitions were not entirely routed yet. The sword bill of his steed swung at Nero, barely missing and sticking in the side of the wooden wagon. While the animal worked to extricate itself, spilling gilded body soil all over the floor, Ontoes was still on the attack with his own blades.
Nero’s bug leg successfully deflected twice before one joint was cut from another and he was left with little more than a stick that wasn’t quite as sharp as Footstool. The only benefit of it breaking open was a strong wave of noxious odor, one which kept the hummingbird turning its head away once it had freed itself from the cart.
That was still only a third of the man’s weapons, and Nero had nothing left to fight with. Both swords were coming in from the sides, ready to take his head, but the bird was diverted at the last opportunity. It disobeyed its master’s cursing orders, flying at full speed to Delicious, who had spent the last minute turning the angels’ box into a flower box. All the hummingbirds were drawn out of the fight, forced by instinct to sip nectar from the luxurious pink blossoms she’d created.
Nero was just about to look for the Danger again, but there was no recovering the situation. The temperature in the trunk had risen remarkably, and the walls were engulfed in emerald fire. Everyone was fleeing, their screams nearly drowned out by Heidi’s mad cackling. Orlof terrified them further, swooping over them, ready to feed on exotic bloods.
“Stay this!” the lord of seven sand castles shouted at them hoarsely. “We look like the villains here!”
What they looked like no longer mattered. Minimil’s will had burned away. Faces across all the barn’s neighborhoods turned to the loft as it spewed smoke and light. They watched, transfixed, a sense of doom settling cozily into their chests, like a big black dog come out of the rain, telling them with a glance that it was their pet now and they better get used to it.
They stared as one might at the hearth, if they were paranoid about a single ember escaping and bringing the entire house crashing down. It was a hearth in fact, but not for their comfort, for that of Minimil’s new goddess.
The blazing fire went from green to yellow, like spring sun upon the softest clouds. The witch’s cackle ceased. The trunk split open like a rotted gourd, opening it to a view of the entire country. The fleeing crowd was forced, against their will, to stop and turn back toward the seat of the eldest oyster.
The power that did so kept them silent, brought them to their knees and their foreheads to the scorched floor. All but the handful and Humpty were made to bow down this way. The digits regrouped with the eggty, watching in stunned awe as the seat of the oyster magically grew, to proportions so great that a human could’ve sat in it.
Nero noticed that the fire had gone from infernal to divine. It produced no more smoke or smell, and only warmth instead of heat. The trunk’s roof was obliterated, but no pieces of it had fallen as debris.
A woman appeared, and she was a perfect fit for her new throne. Not a soul there was taller than her ankle. Her godly splendor was obvious, and despite her unfamiliar aura and age, the handful saw through it to the character of her face.
“Miss Marood!?” Lord Ludmenti blurted, agog. “Can that possibly be you?”
“It was no coincidence that you found your way to my inn,” the goddess told them, voice buzzing through the floor. Despite her size only they could hear her, as they were the only ones she intended to speak with. “Dubiny was nothing but a disguise, for I did not feel safe revealing myself or my limits in this place. The being you see now is Hestia. The Greeks worshiped me as goddess of home and hearth.”
“You made us do all these things?” Heidi asked, less disbelieving and more annoyed that her burning spells had been subverted. “What about the fairy with the turquoise hair?” The goddess rolled her eyes, rested her chin on the knuckles of one hand.
“That schemer merely deduced your purpose and tried to poach you. I intervened. That is neither here nor there. You’ve done it. The Left Challenging Handful is a smashing success. Congratulations.”
“Thank you!” Footstool yelled in a manner that would’ve been bashful if not for its volume.
“But you are a deity!” Orlof protested. “Vy did you need us?”
“My power has always been limited by the boundaries of the home, and by my number of worshipers. I can do as I please in any home where I am accepted, and that has a hearth. Now that you have significantly destabilized Minimil’s government, I can claim myself as the owner of this home, and welcome myself in. As for the hearth… you just created it.”
The handful looked around at the blackened remnants of the trunk. Hestia’s yellow fires were not burning down. The vaguely rectangular outline of the building remained, and would do so endlessly under her watchful eye.
“The fire brigade,” Gumbonero recalled aloud. “You told us the fire brigade was offering a gift, but they weren’t. You needed us to put them out of commission for a time, so they could not respond to a fire such as this.”
“Correct, my little Blefuscan lord,” she cooed with a grin. “It could not become a hearth unless an intentionally set fire reached an appropriate size.”
“You knew about all this?” Delicious asked Humpty Dumpty. The egg bowed in shame, though not as low as the emu egg, forced onto its side in compulsory reverence. Even the hummingbirds had their bills flat upon the floor.
“I did. I was the first one Hestia contacted, before bringing any of you here. She knew what I wanted, and what I would do to get it.” He stood straight. “Now we have it. I’m going to manage this place so much better than that dunderhead Mildny ever would have.”
“I don’t know as I’ve ever seen such tactical prowess,” Nero said, taking a knee all on his own. “You truly are a goddess Miss Hestia. How long did it take you to concoct this plan?”
“Actually it was all very last minute,” she admitted with a shrug. “I can’t be everywhere at once, and I only heard about the competition for the tiebreaking vote when everyone else did. The possibilities occurred to me all at once, and I had to scramble to scrape you all together. No offense,” she told the chicken egg who had narrowly avoided scrambling as a youth himself.
“I was limited to recruits who could blend into this population, and who were inside their homes at the time I needed to move them. I saw a potential use for each of you, but thought the chances this would work in the end extremely slim. You, the lord of seven sand castles, seemed a good choice given your financial resources and your determination in the face of an ocean constantly demolishing your kingdom.”
“Controlled demolitions,” he corrected slightly.
“Of course. Orlof and Formaldeheidi are both powerful for their size, and already loyal to each other. You, little witch, were most important of all, given your documented tendency to start fires whenever you become frustrated. Without you, there was no chance at getting this hearth.”
“You’re welcome,” the newt said flatly, mind racing through possible ends to the conversation they were all having.
“Delicious’s many seeds covered the gaps in your abilities well, and I have never seen a creature so devoted to a lost cause as her.” The gnome’s cheeks went even rosier than their average.
“What about me?” the shrunken head asked, straining against the stitches in his lips.
“Every team of scoundrels needs a cudgel, and you were a sufficiently blunt object prone to being influenced.” He took it as far more of a compliment than he should have. There was one more member of the handful that needed to be addressed, but all the others had forgotten about him, even Delicious. It was only when she smelled, and then saw, a literal piece of him in Lord Nero’s hand that she spoke up.
“Excuse me! Miss Goddess, who was that poor bug that washed out of the wall with us, killed by the fumigation?”
“Ah,” Hestia responded. The chitinous stick in Nero’s hand vanished. “As I said, this was all a long shot. If you want to make an omelet… again no offense little Humpty. When I did not own this place my power of transport was limited to the space between the walls, out of the true owner’s sight, so that was where I had to send you. The extent of the chemical work they were doing had slipped by me.
That beetle was known as Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman. One day he awoke to find himself a bug, man-sized at first but shrinking to the appropriate levels with time. His family was disgusted by this, despite him being the sole breadwinner, and rejected him. I saved him from the crack in his dresser where he hid, though unfortunately he was sent straight into a tidal wave of insecticide.
How his metamorphosis occurred I do not know. If it wasn’t some cruel fairy it was probably exposure to Wonderland contraband. You wouldn’t believe what half the things down there can do to you. I had hoped Gregor would play humble mediator and help all of you get along. Alas, his rotten luck got the better of him. It’s all very Kafkaesque.”
“Five members to a handful does make the most sense,” Nero reminded.
“Yes, I thought so too, but the original handful had six and they did such an admirable job I thought I shouldn’t break with tradition… Anyway. Minimil is mine now, and if you five choose to stay you will be rewarded handsomely. First, I release you from the threat of death I’ve held over you. Second, here are the rewards that were already promised.”
The goddess held out her hands, and with the full power of a country in a single building funneled through her she was able to produce all of their individually tailored riches at once. A freshly burned hole appeared in the back of the trunk, and through it Orlof and Heidi saw the back corner of the loft.
The wood of that distant space flowed like water, gently pushing buildings out of the way until they pooled unevenly like washed-up petals. In their place a bed formed, one on a human scale. A moment later that bed was filled, by a prone slumbering form: a woman with long hair gone mostly gray. There was a witch’s hat placed over her face, its brim flapping as she snored.
“That’s me!” the newt purred. Orlof snatched her by the sleeves of her dress and together they flew through the hole in the trunk and to her true body. There was no safer place for it now that they could hire a swarm of guards and be under Hestia’s protection as well. Formaldeheidi was finally free of the concern that some witch hunter would come along, find her drooling in a chair as her amphibious form celebrated and danced, and end her by tossing an oily torch into her lap. Orlof, now forever out of the deadly sun, was just as giddy.
As soon as the loving couple had left a tarnished pot popped into existence, falling with a clang to cover the hole they’d exited through. Delicious Appleseed recognized it immediately as her husband’s favored hat. She howled out several bars of pure joy and ran to it, faster than Nero had seen her thick ankles ever move.
With one jump she managed to latch onto the pot’s ledge and pull herself over. Once inside her ecstasy echoed out of it, and the lord couldn’t help but overhear as the widow spoke to her dearly departed.
“Oh Johnny! My Johnny. I can still smell your hair. Why Johnny? Why did you make me do it?”
Footstool rolled past Nero, preventing him from dwelling on it. The head bounced up and down excitedly, begging for his turn.
“Hestia! My memories! Give them to me please! Who am I? Who, who, who, who?”
“Your name is not important,” she insisted, which stalled his bouncing. “You were a young American, and a missionary. You traveled to South America to spread the gospel to isolated tribes. You were very insistent, even after a little girl in one of those tribes learned English just to tell you to go away.
She told you your life was in danger, but you told her that god would never let you die with your work unfinished… and I suppose that was true enough. You, after months of pestering them, intruded on a private dinner of theirs, comparing their campfire to the pits of hell, and they promptly removed your head from your shoulders to stop more words from coming out of it.
Then they did as they sometimes do, flaying it and filling it with hot coals to shrink it down and keep as a trophy. When they were done they found they did not like that your new face reminded them too much of the old one, so they sold you to some travelers. I found you, heavily discounted, in the window of a curios shop.”
“Oh,” the head said, following scorch marks in the floor with his empty eye sockets as if they were trails on a map. “So I wasn’t very good, was I?”
“No you were not… but now you have an opportunity, to go out and be good in all the ways you weren’t. You can stay out of everyone’s way and mind your own business.”
“You know… I will!” Footstool declared, bouncing right back. He got started immediately by not offering any of them a goodbye. The head turned and rolled away, with Nero assuming he would just keep going even after he fell from the lip of the loft.
The lord took note that Hestia’s description of his life was low on details, and that much of it could be assumed based simply on his existence as a shrunken head. Perhaps she didn’t know who he was at all. Again, he was not permitted to dwell, for the sand had started to fall.
All around him as if from invisible hourglasses. It fell from distant white beaches and distant black. Each grain taken from a place it didn’t belong, dragged indoors as a mere irritant inside beachgoers’ clothing. Gumbonero couldn’t believe even a single piece was seen as irritating.
He stood under one flow like a shower, welcomed it into every fold and crevice. When he shook his head it fell upon the fresh hearth floor in a perfect circle, as if it had been raked. It piled and piled and piled. The Blefuscan fell backward, paying no attention to what was behind him, knowing he would land on a soft incline of the finest sand in the world.
Minimil was his country now. Surely Hestia would need loyal lieutenants to keep everything orderly, to know what to do when something collapsed. He would make sure everyone had a spot at the rim as they all ate out of the big end of the egg.
Gumbonero Ludmenti swished his arms and legs, making a sand angel to replace the ousted shoulder-dwellers. Oh what glorious sand. What he would do for just a single handful.
Dry the Handful
After weeks lost at sea, all of Minimil, all of the world in fact, at least suspected the Right Challenging Handful to be dead, severed at the wrist when they fled from the vessel owned by the Impertinent Insect, also called the Challenging Gnat.
That lousy louse was the instigator of the entire Little Wars craze. The handful had hoped to prevent its adoption by ending his life, but even after his squashing the human dignitaries aboard had already run with it.
Very much alive, the handful had no way of knowing this. All they knew was the constant sway of the sea, and the fragile safety of their vessel. For now they were kept dry in a set of floating canteens, set in a wire rack, that the Scotsman had used to smuggle them aboard. Each was connected to the next, and inside each it resembled a cozy room stuffed into a crescent moon.
The members were as follows:
1) A nameless ghost of a random Christmas past. She served her purpose aboard the gnat’s ship, and vanished from the mortal world. Her disappearance made them just five digits.
2) Mygdenia, the shrunken treasurer to King Midas, immortalized in gold.
3) Yahoo, a Lilliputian Yahoo.
4) Mustardseed, a fairy with intact wings who had crossed from her realm during the Midsummer Night’s Dream. She bears the remnants of a curse from that day, in the form of donkey ears and a few other ass-accessories.
5) Vitruvian. He is an automaton with a wooden shell, built by none other than Leonardo da Vinci. There is a question as to whether or not he should count as two digits, given that the metal armature inside the wooden shell can separate, move, and speak all on its own.
6) And finally Forward Commander Herschel Pflaumen Snaps, a much iterated-upon gingerbread soldier enchanted to life by the scheming sugarplum fairy during the Battle of the Nutcracker.
Snaps was reduced to barely a joint of a digit after their time adrift. He always carried supplies to bake fresh limbs for himself as the old grew stale, but the group had been forced to use them as rations. As an enchanted being he did not need to consume food, and though Vitruvian did not share the nature of his power source, he also did not need to partake.
This still left a yahoo, a woman, and a fairy who were at risk of starvation however, and they were reaching the precipice of said risk. All his baking materials were gone, Yahoo having even licked the powdery remnants of flour and cinnamon out of their bags. All of Snaps’s limbs had been devoured, painlessly, again thanks to the nature of his being, and the icing that was his beard, hair, and eyebrows was all licked away.
He was prepared to die for the comrades that had fought by his side, but for now they all controlled themselves, making do with one crumb a day taken from his shoulders or hips. If they reached his core or the center of his head it would all be over. Mustardseed was the one cradling him most of the time, holding him up so they could all converse, even as her stomach rumbled with new depths each sunrise.
One day out of the many, the waves were moving in their favor. In an attempt to fish, using a wire grappling hook stored in one of his arms, Vitruvian caught something out on the surf. While he wrangled it closer his sides split, and the armature hopped down the neck of one of the canteens to inform the others.
Mustardseed delicately curled her wings so she could fit through the neck, then reached back down to take Snaps from Yahoo. In moments they were all under a suddenly cloudy sky, looking out at gray waters to see what kind of fish Vitruvian was reeling in.
Its eye was like cork, its flesh transparent like glass. Oh, they all realized. It wasn’t a fish at all, but a bottle. When it was close enough the automaton looped his wire around its neck and lashed it to the side, lifting it out of the water just enough for them to see the contents, and for the contents to see them in turn.
The wine bottle contained a much smaller bottle, perhaps originally for a potent hot sauce, with a mostly worn away label that now acted as something of a belt for the creature trapped within. The smaller bottle that made up his shell had four holes sealed with rubber: spots for his black hairy limbs to hang out in the slightly fresher air of the larger bottle.
Though he appeared to breathe he did not fog the glass directly over his face, and there couldn’t have been any oxygen left in either bottle by that point. This coupled with the creature’s sharp teeth, fiery eyes, and ridged goat horns marked it as a demonic entity, some sort of imp.
“It’s about time!” the imp yipped at them. He seemed to remember something that made him sullen. He wandered to the back of the larger bottle, hitting his head on the inner glass hard enough that it pinged on the outer glass. “Not that it matters.”
“What is your story?” the fairy asked, arms wrapped tightly around Snaps, but not so tightly that he couldn’t lean forward and scrutinize the curious little demon. Such beasts weren’t to be trusted. They existed only to make Faustian bargains; surely someone had double-sealed it and thrown it into the ocean to be rid of it.
“I’ve been here and there,” the imp gloated, mood pivoting again. “I was summoned by a poor fool named Stevenson. We set up a few parameters for my stay topside. You see, I grant wishes.” He clearly expected more of a reaction, even if it was just disbelief, but the handful came from a place where these sorts of things were just accepted. A few of them had seen a tiny genie whistling as he emerged from the spout of a kettle. In Minimil a wish was easier to grant than a loan extension.
“And what’s the price in full?” Snaps asked, making it clear this wasn’t his first rodeo.
“The price is the sticker,” the imp said with a grin. “The wish goes off without a hitch, but if you die while still in possession of this bottle,” he gestured to the smaller one acting like a diving suit, “your soul is forfeit to hell. The only way to get rid of me is to sell me, to someone who knows the risks, for less than you originally paid.”
“So… are you down to the bargain price of nothing yet?” Yahoo asked, digging orange wax out of one of his ears with a brown claw almost as long as one of the imp’s.
“I can’t be given away. Money must change hands.”
“I see,” Mygdenia noted. She explained the concept to Mustardseed, as fairies often had little concern for the ways of money. “Eventually the price is so low that the risk is much higher. Even if the original price was a million it would eventually work its way down to cents. He who buys it for two cents can only sell it for one, and only a fool would buy it for one because he can’t resell it for lower. He’d be doomed.”
“And doomed he was!” the imp cackled. “Normally you can’t get rid of me, but the idiot who bought me for a penny threw me out to sea and died by self-inflicted gunshot before I could return. Last land I saw was… Hawaii… I think.” He sighed. “So unless you’ve got a piece of money on you worth less than a penny, this whole crossing of paths is a big fat nothing.”
“Hah! We’re saved,” Mygdenia said plainly, looking more pleased than the others had ever seen her.
“How!?” the others demanded, the imp most aggressively of all. The treasurer reached into her pocket and pulled out several coins, including one of Blefuscan glass.
“Take your pick,” she said, crouching and holding her palm up to the imp’s outer bottle. “We come from a country that uses several currencies. Each one is based on stockpiles that couldn’t even fill a store on the human scale. When traded for human money ours is only worth fractions of a cent.”
“You’re pulling my leg,” the imp accused, now wary of whatever catch the handful was hiding.
“Even so, if we sell the blighter off we’d be dooming one of our countrymen,” Snaps argued. “I won’t have that on my conscience. I’d rather be dunked in milk and crumble.”
“The risk is minimal,” the golden woman insisted. “The exchange rates are constantly shifting in the barn. Even if we purchase him for our least valuable cent, a different cent will be worth less than it within a few days. Such interactions can happen back and forth endlessly.
Logic dictates that someone will eventually perish randomly while in possession of the creature, but I think we can trust them all to make their own informed choice. We must do this. It is literally a small price to pay for our lives.”
The gingerbread man was the most difficult to win over, but even he recognized that the alternative was forcing some of his best friends to eat him alive, so he eventually relented. For the low price of one Myrmidonian amber drachma they became the imp’s owner, which made him so ecstatic that he annoyed them all with the sound of him bouncing off the bigger bottle back and forth.
“Alright people! What’s your wish? It has to be reasonable by the way. I’m an imp after all, not the big guy himself.”
“I notice you didn’t mention that in the sales pitch,” Snaps grumbled.
“Yeah well…” They waited for him to finish the sentence, but he already had.
“We wish to be transported back to our country, Minimil,” Mygdenia ordered.
“-Alive and well!” Snaps added. “And with everyone there as alive and well as they would be were we not to suddenly appear there!”
“I told you the wishes were on the level,” the imp said, waving off the cookie’s concerns. He cracked the knuckles on all twelve of his fingers, but that was the actual magical act rather than the preparation for it. By the third pop the ocean was gone. By the fifth they were in Scotland. By the ninth they were inside the barn.
At the twelfth pop their canteens were resting safely, right on the windowsill where the Scotsman had first picked them up and placed them inside his traveling bag. The Challenging Handful stepped down, the sun-drenched wood welcoming their weight.
“It’s a pretty nice place you got here,” the imp said with a whistle. The larger bottle was gone, but the smaller one still made him waddle as he scouted out his new neighborhood. Mustardseed handed Snaps’s torso off to Yahoo so she could take off and enjoy some indoor flight without the threat of a fish leaping out of the sea and swallowing her whole. She brayed happily, started shouting to each street she fluttered over that the Challenging Handful had returned.
“I wonder how we’ll be received,” Mygdenia said by the others. “Little Wars may yet live. If it does… it’ll be coming for us. We’re the real commodity.”
“We’ll deal with that in due time,” Snaps sighed. None of them had yet spotted the perpetual yellow flames burning in the loft, or the sand castles surrounding them. “For now I just can’t wait to get home.”
He was sure his walls were waiting for him, smelling softly of nutmeg. He could bake himself some fresh arms and legs and then use them to tuck himself into his marshmallow mattress with a good book. Perhaps Solenos would come calling to welcome him back. He could grab his tin of icing and whip himself up a fresh dignified beard.
What he would do for a handful of it.
The handfuls will return in