The small have their own country, and it fits in a barn! The place is called Minimil, and it is home to Lilliputians, Shakespearian fairies, and the angels and devils of the shoulder that help you make all your decisions. The peril of Little Wars, in which they must fight in the stead of humans in chess-like battles, is at their doorstep. Two veterans of covert teams must now, regrettably, join forces to draft a new group who will defend the sovereignty of the small.
(reading time: 34 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 2 hours, 50 minutes)
Snatch the Handful
The laborers refused to look him in the eye. That was a tall order for them, as they were all myrmidons, and thus had no eyelids. They had to quickly turn their heads away whenever they sensed the saccharine gaze of Herschel Pflaumen Snaps. One particularly creative one even put her antennae between her eye and his, pretending she couldn’t quite see him.
It offended the gingerbread soldier, as he was sure to have their attention anywhere but the safety of the city Minimil. Were this the wilderness, he a lost baked good perhaps dropped from the basket of Little Red Riding Hood while she skipped too enthusiastically, and they a roving band of ant-people with no hill to call home, they would have no trouble swarming and devouring his every last morsel.
A sugar-loving nature made them a very poor choice of construction force for his new home, but Solenos had insisted. The poor fellow blamed himself for the gingerbread house’s destruction, as he had been guarding it while Snaps was away on a violent affair of state.
He could hardly be expected to prevent such an event though. When Snaps returned after being lost at sea, with only an eye for his cozy red velvet armchair, he heard that his home had been destroyed as part of a successful coup to take over the entire country. Solenos was but one myrmidon, and the only one Snaps fully trusted.
They’d been through so much together, through thick icing and thin gruel, and the ant-man had amply demonstrated his ability control his sweet tooth. Unfortunately that meant he believed all his brethren were fully capable of doing the same, and brought them in for the reconstruction.
Evidence to the contrary was all around Snaps as he walked about the site inspecting their efforts. There were gnaw marks on the wafer beams that were supposed to reinforce the ceiling. Smudges of red and white indicated that the peppermints were being licked behind his back, and not for adhesive purposes. An entire shipment of gumdrops had failed to arrive, though he suspected it was right there, gumming up the stomachs of the cheating workers.
Immense skill was on display, as the gingerbread man hadn’t spotted them taking a single bite. Every nip was surreptitious, and though he swore he could hear their mass nibbling right behind him at all times, their insect reflexes prevented him from even catching a glimpse. Still, he had to voice his concerns to Solenos when his old friend joined him in supervising.
“We’ll be finished in less than a week I think,” the myrmidon said, putting a hand on his shoulder. Hailing from a colony of leaf-cutters, Solenos was clothed in the stuff, all exceptionally tailored by his own mandibles. A leaf blade, sealed in a dried and sharpened natural resin, sat on his hip. He was always wearing his saber these days, now that Minimil was under new management.
“Yes, they’re cleaning their plates at a rapid pace,” he responded, a bit too harshly. Solenos looked around. They didn’t want to meet his eye either. “I know it’s frightfully rude to criticize donated labor, but I have a fear of this new house collapsing on top of me the first night I spend in it because something crucial has been chewed through.”
“I’m sure they were just testing the constitution of the materials,” Solenos declared loud enough for all of them to hear. They worked faster in response, scurrying like roaches. “Did you notice that there’s been a change to the layout?” The question successfully distracted Snaps, who pursed his lips and stepped inside the outline upon the ground.
He walked from planned room to planned room. The plot was on a windowsill in the midst of the neighborhood called Bonsai Park, so there was nothing to hollow out and make a basement. As a result the floor plan was quite wide and it took him a minute of ponderous stepping to reach the other side and see that a new room had been tacked on.
“A guest room?” he guessed.
“Whatever you’d like it to be, but I was thinking so, yes. The motive is partly selfish, I admit. I would like to get away from the colony for a night every now and again. Queen Zoukas is running me ragged now that we’re organizing an official Minimil infantry.”
“The impertinent insect treated his loyal myrmidons the same way, as nothing more than chess pieces. This cancerous Little Wars was exactly what we sought to thwart, and now it’s on our doorstep. I failed Solenos. This country is crumbling.”
“You moved the very world,” the friendly bug reassured him. “Everyone else decided to move it back, and go even further. There was nothing the Challenging Handful could have done beyond what they did.”
“And now my handful is all but dissolved. Yahoo has returned to the United States. They recruited him… we could even see him in battle one day, standing on a square opposite ours. The spirit of Christmas past never made it into the water with us. The others are not likely to sign onto anything again, so racked they are with guilt.”
“I am a little surprised you decided to continue living here Herschel. Many of us don’t recognize it under Hestia’s rule.”
“I don’t understand the woman yet,” the gingerbread man admitted, unsure if it was even appropriate to call the ancient Greek god of the hearth a woman. If he was just a man-shaped cookie, then she was just a woman-shaped force of nature. “Whatever her motives I must acknowledge that Minimil has never been governed altruistically.
We accepted the Shoulders of Government because they founded the place, but by definition they are half corrupt. Though I trusted the eldest oyster, and very much doubt he would have seen it this way, he was an autocrat. We’ve exchanged one for another, and if he deserved a chance to prove himself then so does she.
Besides, even living under one individual’s thumb here feels safer than anywhere out there. We’re being hunted. Plucked like berries until the bushes are bare even of leaves. No. I’ll take my chances here, under a moth-eaten or myrmidon-eaten roof, rather than spend a cold night in the world of H.G. Wells’s Little Wars.”
Several of the myrmidons chirped in agreement. Snaps suddenly understood how some of the ant-folk, albeit from a faraway foreign colony, had fallen under the challenging gnat’s thrall. He was a truly terrible leader, but a leader nonetheless, and exceptional in his confidence. He was confident even as he was falling over dead with a hole in his chest.
Yet his ideas lived on: primarily that there was no reason for the humans of the world to spill blood in warfare when there were less valuable lives to use up in their stead. The world was positively full of miniature soldiers if you knew which rock to look under.
Though the original author of the plan, a man known for fancies of space aliens, invisibility, and travel to the moon, intended the rules he had written to be used only for a sort of game with inanimate toys, it was one of the small’s own, the impertinent insect, also called the challenging gnat, who used it to rewrite the rules of actual war in the hopes he could then preside over it and be the most powerful figure in the world.
He failed when the fairy Mustardseed threw one of her fellow handful digits straight through his collective internal organs, but the team from Minimil couldn’t stop all the dignitaries the insect had invited to witness a demonstration from returning to their home countries and blabbing the idea to every leader and schemer.
And they all quickly learned of the barn in Scotland, if they hadn’t already known, where the small had long found refuge and even sovereignty. Suddenly it was the greatest war chest there ever was. Even the weakest countries, no bigger than crumbs on the globe, could become a dominant force if they acquired a scoop of Minimil citizenry to staff their new armies.
“I saw that!” Snaps shouted, lifting himself out of the looming shadows by bringing focus back to smaller indignities befitting their stature. He stormed past Solenos, pointing at two myrmidons who carried a pretzel curtain rod between them, halting at his accusatory pointing finger. “Oh it’s just a grain of salt, he surely won’t notice; it can still hold up a curtain after all. Well, I have noticed! This is to be my house, and the last was baked by a master patisserie, and I assure you he would’ve cut his own throat, with a butter knife no less, if even a granule of sugar was white when it should’ve been brown!”
“Careful Herschel,” Solenos warned jokingly from behind him, “you’re standing on the balcony.” The gingerbread soldier looked at his feet and saw another bit of twine marking an addition. “You could have an accident.”
“If I do the resulting crumbs can be swept up and used to patch the holes in the foundation! This is the heigh-” The height of what they wouldn’t get to find out, as a silky object descended out of nowhere and snatched Snaps from his proposed balcony. It flew off immediately, silent but for the man’s offended shouting.
Solenos had his hand on the hilt of his leaf-blade, but there was nothing he could do; none of the workforce he’d brought with him were the rare winged variety of myrmidon that could give chase. He watched helplessly as his friend and confidante was swept up and away toward the barn’s hayloft. If he was going there then it was on the business of the goddess. Even if the peril was great, it would be officially sanctioned peril at the least.
“Unhand me you- you- rope jellyfish?” The thing’s grip was firm on dozens of places all over his body, but the pressure was nowhere near crumbling force. Its golden tendrils were soft beyond compare, and they shined in the sunlight from Bonsai Park’s window like butter melted over desert dunes. All were connected in a bundle at the top, which was itself topped with a crimson triangle of thick fabric. Though the edge was clean it was clear the triangle and the attached tassel had been cut from something much larger.
“You’d better not put me down now,” he said, resigned to his fate now that they had left the windowsill and the fall had become lethal. With a sigh he dropped his eyes to watch the entirety of his country pass by. Not all of it was underneath, as shelves holding many houses had been added to the walls, though many of them now sat empty from recent emigration.
Myrmidons certainly marched in the beams overhead, supplying the lamp that acted as their artificial sun on necessary nights with fuel.
The air was rarely empty, with butterfly and moth-winged fairies fluttering around the tallest buildings, usually having stepped out a window to avoid taking the stairs. Occasionally something faster would dart by, like one of the foragers on a hummingbird mount.
Try as he did to flag one of them down, they zipped past him too quickly to take note. Minimil was a country of oddballs, most of them magical, some scientific, so it was just assumed that the flailing cookie had intentionally set himself aloft in some kind of enchanted tassel.
Various neighborhoods, separated by the walls of horse stalls, connected primarily by sawn tunnels for locomotives that were no longer toys, marked his unwilling progress toward the loft. Minimil’s tallest building, the clock tower, really just a converted grandfather clock, went by on his right, though the spin his struggles had put on the tassel quickly made it into his left. Several floors of activity could be watched through the glass panel on the front that still housed a swinging pendulum, its path cut through every level to make way. People placed rolled messages into shallow canals hewn in it to have gravity deliver them to lower floors.
Beyond the banking district’s tiger’s eye paths there was a place called the Less-Northern Pole: a collection of green-roofed houses and taverns where many an elf lived after deciding that spending their years toiling away in Saint Nicholas’s workshop wasn’t worth the smiles of children that they never saw. It was one of the few areas where Minimil’s population was on the rise. Snaps certainly appreciated their architecture, as they used candy canes to support the corners of their homes.
The massive Hotel Trogolo, built into a metal drinking trough, was situated just outside the loft’s shadow. The journey was hopefully nearing its end. Snaps ran his fingers through his iced beard, making sure it looked better than a splotch of shaving cream for when he chewed out whoever had interrupted his day.
The loft had changed much from his last official visit. Gone was the trunk that had acted as the meeting place of parliament, replaced by an endlessly burning human-scale chair: the throne of Hestia. Directly below that chair, on the ground floor, there was another identical one, minus the flames, both having been taken from a simple outdoor set of their closest neighbor, but it was walled off in a wooden stall.
The housing was to protect the woman sleeping upright in it, though sleeping wasn’t the best word. Her consciousness was being channeled into her familiar most of the time, a foul-smelling newt that allowed her to interact with the small. She used her human body only as envoy between the two worlds, having replaced a man simply called the Scotsman from the eldest oyster’s era. Formaldeheidi Dämonen, if he recalled the witch’s name correctly.
The upper chair was surrounded on all sides by grand sand castles that came in every shade that sand came in. There was a certain fragility that came across in most such castles constructed by humans, but these were different. The sand was smoothed to a stony finish, and they looked like they had stood for centuries rather than months.
Yet as he thought that one of them fell, collapsing into a pile that almost had a sculpted look of its own. There was no panic or fanfare, not even a solitary gasp. Workers moved in and began reshaping it almost immediately.
The Castle of the Grip had stood the longest, its many towers topped with sculpted hands gripping conch shells. Their construction defied logic, as nothing short of the thickest glue seemed capable of making sand hold both that shape and the weight of the heavy shells. If glue had been used it would have shown between the obsidian black grains from a distant volcanic beach. The means became no clearer even as Snaps was flown between its towers to the back wall.
A small window to the outside world had a semicircle cut out of its bottom, allowing a wall of sand to replace it. This wall was topped with a walkway, each end having a door that led into a different tower. Snaps was gently lowered onto the middle of it, his feet touching down next to the only other being in sight, but who had no sight of his own.
“Fairy?” the chicken egg perched on the sandy parapet asked, the sound coming out through a small metal grate near the top, under a pair of expertly drawn charcoal eyes. The egg wore a little cup of a suit, blue with silver trim.
“No I don’t think fairies ever get this perturbed,” Snaps answered, brushing himself off as the tassel, which refused to apologize, drifted off to one of the tower doors. It pointed at the opening with one tendril, encouraging the gingerbread man to enter, but Snaps ignored it for the moment.
He already understood the source of the egg’s confusion. He was an eggty: a special sort of chicken egg that experienced all of a chicken’s intelligence across its entire life in a single moment. Once the flash of brilliance occurs it is sustained, but the body weakened. Eggties never left their shells and needed a good deal of support in order to function in the world.
Snaps knew that in the eggty community Minimil was sometimes called the hen house, for there was no greater concentration of eggties in all the world. Being a rare natural occurrence, and with domestic chickens laying more eggs than anything else, the majority of them were the embryos of commercial fowl, but every once in a while something even stranger showed up. There had been rumors that a mermaid’s purse carrying a mathematical genius shark embryo had recently entered the country.
Most of them were blind, only risking one hole drilled in their shell to allow food intake and speech. That said they were still capable of understanding their surroundings with an exceptional aural sense aided by the yolk fluid in which they floated at all times. This fellow had heard someone set down next to him, but not heard any approaching footsteps. Logic had dictated the most likely culprit was a fairy.
At his response the eggty finally turned from the low sun he seemed to be observing, or at least feeling on his shell, to aim his drawn face at the man. Snaps was surprised to recognize him, despite eggties often having their features erased and reapplied. This one must have had a favorite artist with a recognizable style.
“Ahh, Mr. Dumpty! I don’t know if you remember me, but we met once before, at the eldest oyster’s birthday party.”
“He still doesn’t remember how old he is, but he was always sure of his birthday, except-”
“Except for that year when it occurred twice, along with the party, which he seemed incapable of acknowledging. Now I’d heard that you were handling our economy these days, second only to my fellow digit Mygdenia.”
“That’s correct,” the egg said in his wet tinny voice.
“Well how is it?”
“Turbulent as ever. We have more functional currencies than any other country on Earth. We’re at the point now where some people are paying for things just by saying they’re good for it. How is one supposed to manage that?” The egg turned back to bask in the warm rays. Snaps leaned over the sand, staring at the sickening drop to the ground below and the jagged rocks wallowing in the weeds.
“You are aware that you’re precariously perched, yes?”
“Hestia invites me to counsel her often, but I’m kept waiting.” There was a patch of dry silence. “Sometimes I think I’ll hatch before she gets to me. Still, I’ve come to like this spot. It’s very warm. I know the entire world is out there, even though I can’t see it. The light lets me feel it.”
“Sounds lovely, but I imagine you could feel it just as well from a few centimeters back.”
“I’m not a child!” Humpty Dumpty snapped, despite both of them being aware that in the biological sense he actually was a child, and would be for all his life. “While others walk on eggshells I live in one! I never would’ve gotten where I am without my sense of caution, so I would appreciate if it was not disrespected.”
“My apologies,” Snaps offered, striking a conciliatory tone. It was clear the eggty wasn’t the one who had ordered the delivery dessert. The egg’s tip bowed to indicate he accepted, but he said nothing more. The gingerbread man left him to his soft-boiled languishing and finally followed the directions of the tassel.
Hovering, it led him inside a tower and up to its highest chamber within one of the sculpted fists. Once inside he was met with a cluttered space. The black walls held decorative streaks of other sands playing out across them like an aurora, or a wind cross-pollinated with the grit of several deserts. The ceiling was the interior of a conch, carved open and lacquered to a brilliant shine. It also bore hundreds of blue and green beach glass beads affixed to its inner curve like a curling wave.
Under it was an octagonal table cluttered with maps, letters, cactus thorn writing utensils, and bronze figurine paperweights. Altogether the space was excessive, obsessive, and pompous. It was the pinnacle of a man who had a habit of spending too much time in one room, sharing board with his ego while they tried to stomp on his shortcomings scurrying around in the mess like silverfish.
Two other beings, excluding the faceless tassel that seemed relieved to hang itself in the corner and be inanimate for a while, took up the space like unnecessary furniture. The gingerbread man knew them both, but the one he knew less well, and wanted to know even less than that, was making a show of it as if this was their first meeting. Perhaps it would be their first civil one.
He stood with his back to his guest, hands clasped behind him. He was Blefuscan, less common in Minimil than their neighbors the Lilliputians, but utterly identical. In appearance they were nothing more than shrunken humans. The lord of seven sand castles tried to make up for it with much royal finery; there was a saber on his hip, a cape on his shoulders secured with amber glass pads, and yet more of the glass atop his head as a crown.
Gumbonero Ludmenti finally turned to greet his guest, but his regal aura faltered when he saw that Snaps’s icing mustache matched his own. The lord stared at him, sighing through his nose until the cookie got the hint. Snaps had no trouble believing the man could be that juvenile, so to expedite the meeting he acquiesced, using his hand to slide his sugary mustache down off his lip and mold it into his goatee.
Nero smirked, wandering over to the tassel and running a few of its tendrils through his hands.
“Did you enjoy your luxury transportation?” the Blefuscan asked in his thick island accent, like French spoken by an inebriated dove. “I give you none other than one of only three surviving corners of the infamous flying carpet! Couldn’t believe how comfortable it was myself, good enough to sleep on for one thousand and one nights, eh?”
“Why have I been summoned?” Gumbonero didn’t quite drop his smile yet, but it could be seen straining.
“Of course I had other options for getting you here, but I thought you would appreciate the luxury. I could’ve sent that devil to snatch you.” He waved his hand dismissively at the other creature in the room, which was seated on the floor with its hairy legs splayed out and its back to the wall. Technically its back was to the glass of the bottle that contained everything but its limbs, and the bottle was against the wall.
Trapped in the bottle was an imp with eyes the color of a rum flame in an iron skillet. Curling gnarled goat horns upon its head. Thick black hair like a tar-soaked fir tree all over its body. A cork in the bottle kept the others in the chamber safe from what was likely the worst breath in Minimil, reminiscent of a cow that had spent hours running its tongue across putrid mushrooms.
The little demon looked about to die from idleness, but then he finally paid attention to the latest visitor to the tower. His face broke out in a fanged grin and he saluted Snaps, his claws clacking against the bottle’s exterior.
“Disgusting he may be, but also a marvel,” Ludmenti explained. “Originally meant to doom a human soul to hell, we’ve subverted the terms of his little game. He grants wishes, but only to people who have purchased him. Should someone die while in possession of him they are damned, but the only way to be rid of him is to sell him to someone fully aware of how he works, and for a price lower than the initial purchase.
The game should have ended at one human cent, but Minimil’s many minor moneys trade at a fraction of those, and are always passing each other like racehorses, so we can continuously manipulate him. It would’ve been a paltry toll to have him get you here instantly, but, having had my own experiences with involuntary instantaneous transportation, I thought the carpet more dignified.”
Snaps was still not appreciative. He still stoically awaited the answer to his first question, the only question he had for a man like Ludmenti. The gingerbread man did steal another glance at the bottled imp, seeing that he had been used with little caution. The bottom of the bottle was littered with different moneys.
“Unfortunately,” Nero went on growling, “the wishes he grants are limited in power because of his small size. We’ve already tried wishing away Little Wars. The blighter can barely conjure up the fresh white peaches I like.”
“They have to be in season!” the imp shot back, sticking out his forked tongue.
“You don’t look surprised,” the lord noted, having turned back to Snaps. “I’ve just shown you the flying carpet and a demon sealed up like a fine wine. Where have you been that impressed you so much more than the Castle of the Grip?”
“I’m the one who brought the bottled imp to Minimil,” the gingerbread man retorted, miraculously managing to avoid calling the man a fool. Every other word should’ve been fool. “You’ve just explained to me what I had to explain to all of the new officials that replaced my dear friends.”
“Ahh. I see.” He didn’t apologize. “So the carpet was the right decision then.”
“What is it that I am here to hear?” Snaps asked again.
“I don’t know the goddess’s machinations any more than I know the little end of an egg,” the lord admitted. “Though I may be chief minister of Minimil Barn Business, this summons comes from the only place higher: the heavens themselves!” Light gathered inside the open conch and its many beads. A funnel of glowing glamour appeared, and out of it descended the Greek goddess of the hearth Hestia, now supreme deity and ruler of Minimil.
Her brown eyes were like the mightiest redwoods curling as sleeping serpents. Hair, not a single strand of which had ever parted from her scalp, poured over her shoulders and down her back, past her waist. Her very being was luminous and warm-hued, like fireplace flickers against cozy comforting brick.
Like most pantheons, the influence of the Olympians was all but gone in these early years of the twentieth century, but Hestia had found a revitalizing loophole, a story where Snaps was once again the creamy center, though he hadn’t been at all aware of it while it was happening.
As a guardian of the home, her power was limited to the domestic, but there was one country in which domestic and national affairs were one and the same: the barn-nation of Minimil. It already had a government of its own, and in order for her to assert her full power the homeowners had to be ousted, something she achieved by assembling a team of miscreants and setting them about the task of destabilization surreptitiously.
It was a dark Challenging Handful, to Snaps a scandalous shadowy mirror image of his own noble team. He was horrified to learn what they had done partially in his name, and the least of it was the destruction their antics had brought upon his gingerbread house. Nearly the least of it. Folks had taken to calling these handfuls the Right and the Left respectively, but Snaps saw only the right and the wrong. In his mind one hand should have always been aware of what the other was up to.
Still, the Left Challenging Handful had succeeded, the Shoulders of Government were dissolved, the eldest oyster retired, and now Hestia was queen and commander of the organized small world. She sought to make use of all her subjects, which of course included any digits from the Right Handful that had stuck around.
“Forward Commander Snaps, it’s a pleasure to finally speak with you,” the goddess greeted. There was a tiny moment where she would’ve accepted a bow, or a lean to kiss her hand, but she let it fly by seamlessly when the cookie made no such move.
“I am in the middle of rebuilding my home,” the baked good asserted righteously, glaring at Gumbonero. “Is this matter of great import?
“I’m afraid so.” She waved her hand. The table un-cluttered itself, figurines sliding off to the side while all irrelevant maps folded themselves under the largest one. Lights of lapis lazuli projecting from the beads washed over the map back and forth to show the movements of large populations and forces. They were now looking at a living world, one disturbed like a hornet’s nest.
“Little Wars is upon us, as I’m sure you’ve gleaned,” she went on. “The first sanctioned game occurred at seven o’clock in the morning three days ago, in Romani country. That people has fought for rights, and gained them, but they have done so at our expense. Thimbles of blood were spilt.”
“Power structures are being redrawn,” Gumbonero added, pointing to a border that moved if one paid attention to the light rather than the drawn line underneath. “Tactics are now greater than firepower, tacticians more valuable than generals.”
“I know how the game is played; I’ve played it,” Snaps reminded.
“And won,” the goddess interjected. “Which is why you are here. Countries are challenging each other to matches of Little Wars, with one issue to be settled in each match. Currently our sovereignty is recognized by Scotland, as their plan is to use us like an oil well, luring out the soldiers we collect and produce with various bribes and promises. So far it is working.”
“I would remind our goddess that she could prevent such exits,” Lord Ludmenti said as humbly as he could, which still sounded like a bitter victory lap.
“Not without earning the hatred of those I’ve trapped,” she said sagely, of which Snaps took note. All rulers were at the minimum touched by evil, but he recognized in her a genuine desire to be loved and worshiped, things that could not be entirely earned with force and fear. “For now that is not our greatest concern. Our independence is double-edged; it leaves us open to any official challenge by any other participant.
Someone will attempt to annex us by winning a match on our doorstep. According to the finalized rules the issuers of the challenge must be willing to travel to the home of the challenged, so it will happen here, right outside these walls. If my intelligence is correct, the first challenge will come in a few weeks… from Sweden.
Their union with Norway was dissolved in 1905, and they’ve recently transitioned to a much more democratic government. That government is looking to assert itself as powerfully as a king might, to give its people confidence. They’ve settled on attacking us as that strategy. A victory for them will more than quintuple the size of their miniature army, without even addressing the various powers our citizenry in particular can wield on the field of battle.”
“What is to be done?” Snaps asked.
“We’re to fight back!” Nero answered for his goddess, slamming both hands onto the map, scattering some of the lights like gnats. “With two iron fists.”
“Two handfuls,” Hestia corrected, “working in conjunction the way they always should have. Minimil will defend itself against this challenge. Queen Zoukas and her colony will provide myrmidon soldiers, but we are in need of both tacticians and officers who will take up spaces on the game board.
The Challenging Handfuls never had official leaders, but you two have stood out in your contributions. Gumbonero of the Left and Herschel of the Right will work as partners to draft a third group, henceforth called the Challenging Applause, who will lead our armies moving forward.”
The Blefuscan stepped back and clapped thunderously, moving his hands over the map like a storm cloud, his thunder scattering all the frightened dots of light underneath. He cackled.
“I’m in,” the bottled imp said, suddenly at Nero’s side. He placed both sets of claws on the map in determination.
“Not you,” the lord balked, pushing the demon back. “You’re already state property. I won’t have our men pinching pennies in the middle of a fight just so you don’t pinch one of their souls when they’re not looking.” The imp groaned and threw himself to the floor. Clearly he wanted the glass to make a much louder impact, but the compacted sand floor absorbed it. Dejected, he rolled away on his side.
“What say you commander?” Hestia addressed Snaps, though her plan had been delivered more as an order than a request. The gingerbread man straightened out his clothes, throwing an extremely adult tantrum in the process.
“You would have me partner with this man!? The man who forever changed my adopted home. The man who nearly ran one of my dearest friends, Solenos Pestidicé, through with the poisoned leg he ripped from a beetle’s corpse. The man who shot a shrunken head out of a cannon and demolished my home?
Divine or not, you insult me Miss Hestia! I think I should rather be eaten by a dog, vomited back into the world, and then eaten a second time! He exists at the intersection of hubris and bullshittery, if you’ll pardon my tongue the temporary lapse of its sugarcoating.”
As offended as he was, the lord of seven sand castles matched and then surpassed it. He gasped, swallowing the air like a bullfrog trying to grow an even more intimidating throat. He paced back and forth until he had wound up a response like a clockwork toy.
“False! You weren’t even hear to observe, so who knows where your confidence is coming from! There was no cannon for one; Footstool was merely lobbed at your house by gravity. If you had built yourself a proper domicile he never would’ve been able to knock it down! I’ve built houses of cards stronger than yours!
Secondly, everything I did for the Left Handful was done under threat of my life! Not that I would now say Hestia wasn’t justified in her decisions, but at the time I hardly had a choice in participation.”
“It’s true,” the goddess admitted with a shrug. “Your house can be replaced by the time you get back,” she offered him. “It would only take a fraction of my ability.”
“No thank you,” Snaps said, not wanting to be indebted to a god. “I doubt magic, no matter how old, can replicate the comfort of a place built with proper labor anymore than a factory can bake love into prepackaged desserts.”
“We’re off the subject,” Nero growled. “Snaps, are you with us or not?”
“Have I any choice?”
“You do,” Hestia assured him. “But you cannot continue to live here if you do not offer these services to the best of your ability. If you attempt to stay without helping us I will have you imprisoned until you change your mind. You can always take your chances out in the world, but as someone who has seen the inside of millions of human homes I can tell you the children always find the cookie jar, no matter where it’s hidden.”
The gingerbread man asked for a few minutes to think it over, which he was granted. He descended the steps of the tower, went back to the outer wall and the window. Humpty Dumpty was still there, but he didn’t move as Snaps approached, seemingly aware that it still wasn’t his turn for an audience. Snaps placed both hands on the parapets and leaned out. He too felt the world, but not as warmth, as a yawning chasm that would only let him live in free fall, at least until a bird snatched him out of the air.
“Now look who’s precariously perched,” the eggty quipped, too dour to sound venomous.
“More than you know. I’ve just been told I can either accept banishment or life as a warmonger. This place has changed, and not for the better.” He didn’t know to what degree Humpty had been involved in the Left Challenging Handful; he’d practically been the sixth digit.
“The perils we face necessitated change… but that danger was always present. Sooner or later each person’s turn comes, and they must make a move or fall behind.”
“Life is not a game.”
“Because there doesn’t have to be a winner. That’s the only difference. Everyone can lose. I will win, as long as I’m in one piece.” That resonated with the man who’d often dropped crumbs in embarrassment. He looked out at the trees swaying in the wind. One victory. One strong victory in Little Wars would discourage all other nations from challenging Minimil, likely for several years.
If he did his best, and the others did theirs, perhaps Little Wars would be nothing but a chronic illness. Its symptoms might flare up only once or twice a decade. Its arrival could be seen as just the ravages of time, as just getting older, something Snaps admittedly never had to deal with since he could constantly bake himself fresh body parts. Mortality was catching up to him, with grasping claws rather than deep rot. Suddenly he was flung back to his creation, under a shower of magical pink fairy dust from the sugarplum fairy. He heard the scrabbling of claws under the Christmas tree.
They were surrounded by mice. Some of his fellows were born half-eaten; some only ever saw the world through their one remaining eye. The terrifying Mouse King and his seven heads and his twenty appetites were everywhere that night, eyes glittering in the shadows like shards of glass accidentally swept under the rug.
Hestia was a tyrant, but she wasn’t a monster such as that. Her cruelty came at the end of a gavel, and would bash her bench at least once before falling on anyone’s head. The reign of the Greek hearth-master was indeed preferable to the wilderness, and to slavery in a country that hadn’t acknowledged its small until now.
With his decision made he returned up the tower, leaping over the bottled imp as he rolled down the stairs, having been kicked out for insulting Nero’s attempt to draw a straight line on one of the maps.
“Excellent,” the goddess said once she heard the news. Nero was no longer enthused about the partnership, but he still smiled smugly, believing he’d gotten his ladyship her way. “Then the two of you must get to work on the Challenging Applause immediately. Recruit me five digits from within our borders. They must be Minimils of intelligence, cunning, and bravery, for they will be both participants in the battle ahead and commanders of the myrmidons.”
She took her leave without any goodbyes, dissolving back into light that ascended into the conch decoration. Gumbonero was already busy pulling something out from underneath the largest map; it was a folded piece of paper. It unfolded and stretched, unfolded and stretched, until the lord of the castle was against the wall. Then he wound the paper around his arm until the other end finally broke free.
“I just so happen to have a list,” he chirped, mustache almost curling on its own.