(reading time: 26 minutes)
Sort the Handful
“The queen knighted me thanks to all the assistance I offered Dr. Dolittle in his work. It was I who taught him the marmoset language.” Gumbonero and Snaps could’ve guessed this, given they were speaking to a golden marmoset in Bonsai Park. He’d descended from his little tree house eagerly at first knock on its trunk. “What most people don’t know is that he taught me English in turn.”
“Would we have much use for someone who speaks marmoset on the game board?” the gingerbread man asked his companion.
“I don’t imagine so, but he’s a monkey! Very athletically sound, plus his tail is probably prehensile. What say you Sir Chee-chee? Can you give us a flip?” The monkey looked bashful for a moment, but then immediately produced a back flip, ending the trick by applauding himself.
“Would you consider yourself a tactician?” Snaps asked the animal.
“Absolutely. Say something is out of my reach, like a tart. I would then employ the tactic of walking over to it, so I could take the tart.” He stared at them. “Oh and also I would eat the tart, once I had acquired it of course. You can only do that in the endgame.” Snaps pinched the bridge of his nose hard enough to squish it.
“Tell me, Sir Chee-chee. What do you think about the origins of such a tart? Can you describe them to me?”
“Well I wasn’t there,” the marmoset admitted, looking around their heads and back up at his tree for the answer. “So I have to assume it came out of the ground. Everything comes out of the ground, one way or another.”
“He speaks perfect English, but he’s still only as smart as a primate with a peanut-sized brain,” Snaps whispered in the lord’s ear.
“That was an excellent flip, but I’m afraid you’re not the material for this mission,” Nero told the furry knight plainly. “We’ll be on our way.” They both grabbed strands of the flying tassel and were lifted above the grove of miniature trees.
“Wait! Was it your tart?” the marmoset called after them. “I would’ve shared if I’d known!”
“You just want him because you miss your precious Shoulders of Government,” the Blefuscan argued. He had no trouble being rude to the homunculus before them, given that he had been the biggest hurdle to Hestia’s rise. The Danger took the disrespect on the chin. He had to, as all of the shoulder angels and shoulder devils that used to be Minimil’s government were crammed into the doll house mansion behind him, pretending they weren’t watching through slits in the curtains.
“Poppycock,” Snaps insisted. “Nobody misses that indecisive lot, just the oyster. We humored them because they found and founded the place. If the Danger thinks he has what it takes to join the Applause I’m willing to hear him out.”
“Thank you,” the homunculus said with a bow to the gingerbread man, his drunken halo nearly falling off the tip of his single horn. He could hardly be heard over the sudden commotion from inside the house. Neither angel nor devil were pleased with what they heard. Something that was either flatware or a vase broke somewhere behind the door.
“According to my sources you’ve been representing your fellow moral compasses in their newfound destitution,” Nero said smugly. The mansion they resided in was nothing to sneeze at, but everything that wasn’t a castle would earn the Blefuscan’s derision, regardless of whether or not any of his own constructions could withstand an actual sneeze.
“Hardly the term I would use,” the Danger said through his one gritted fang, “but yes. They- We are eager to regain some of our honor here in Minimil. My service in this applause would be a good start.” There were murmurs of agreement from under the door.
“So, I take it you’ve gotten over that paralyzing indecision issue you suffer from?” the lord asked pointedly.
“Tell me then, which hand is better, the left or the right?”
“You mean which Challenging Handful?”
“No, just your hands. If you had to lose one, which would it be?” He leaned in. The Danger examined both his hands and their manicured claws. They began to shake. He started an answer five separate times, but trailed off on all of them. Those watching from the cracks didn’t even bother hiding anymore. They pulled back the curtains and shouted through the glass. The trouble was that they were all shouting different things.
It quickly turned into a brawl, devil pouncing on angel, angel escaping devil on the wing but bumping their heads on the ceiling. The whole dollhouse shook, and the two men decided it was best to move on before it collapsed on them. The Danger scratched at his own face and dropped to his knees before storming back inside. He could at leas tell all of them to shut their mouths.
Moth that resisted the flame
“Do watch your head. I know it’s cramped in here, but I don’t have many visitors. I always forget about the beams. My antennae warn me they’re coming.” The recruiters could barely see the insect they’d called on despite her having fuzzy wings wider than all three of them standing side by side. They were bright orange and red as well, like flames that wanted to be much bigger and hotter than they were.
“Tell Commander Snaps what you told me last month,” Nero requested, finding a protruding nail with enough of a head to sit himself on. In trying to sweep his cape it caught on another one and ripped.
“The tale of my ignition?” the moth said, a light flickering deep in her compound eyes. Despite its warming presence she swaddled herself in her wings as if they were blankets. Snaps had spent enough time with fairies to know that when their wings were that soft it meant they hadn’t been exercised properly. This was no fairy they were facing in the shadows, just a moth, but she stood on two legs and could speak, her proboscis furling and unfurling with each sentence.
“I came to him in the cabin of a politician, who was hiding out in the hills to write up his treatise on man and laws,” she began. “The crickets outside were engaging in politics of their own, and were too busy to chirp. The only sound was the wind against the log walls, and their occasional groan like they were tossing and turning in a bad dream.
He called to me, but not just to me. To every moth around. We all obeyed without question. That was the sting of it all. Our minds had no questions. Metamorphosis reforges the mind, so my memories are foggy at best, but I think perhaps we have some questions in there as inchworms. We do much ruminating, I know that much.
But once we fly there’s none of that left. We are seekers. Of nectar. Of love. Of the wind. And of light. But to seek his light is to be destroyed. To think, I didn’t even notice as he consumed the other moths right in front of me. He was just a candle then and there, but that’s all it takes… to take everything else.
I felt his heat as I moved in, set to be the tenth to die that night. You might think it was the heat that turned me away, but it wasn’t. Through a flicker of him, of flame, I saw the politician’s writing upon the desk. I saw dreams and frustration. I saw purpose, and how easily it was obliterated by the light needed to write it. Paper is moth. Moth is paper, full of flattened hopes, concentrated tinder. I turned away, received only a singe.”
The moth felt the tip of her wing. Snaps and Nero couldn’t see it in the dim, but the edge was blackened and uneven.
“Making you the only moth to ever resist the flame,” the lord said, pointing out the only that mattered to him.
“Yes,” she answered. “Doing so reforged my mind yet again, unlocked the hidden imago of civilized intellect. The more I resist him, the smarter I become, but the harder it gets.”
“It is an inspiring story,” Snaps said politely, “but tell me. When was the last time you left this knothole of yours?”
“It has been many weeks.” There was a scratch of pen across paper. “He’s still out there. He waits for me to slip up, burn up.”
“Let’s go,” Nero grumbled, leaving a piece of his cape behind when it ripped off.
“Did he say anything about me?” the moth asked after them, voice suddenly desperate. “He will destroy what he can’t have! He will destroy me with desire!”
Moth that resisted the flame
“War is my purpose,” the frog said, and he looked to be telling the truth. Minimil had plenty of frog citizens, as the animal was a favorite shape of witches and their curses. Their search for digits had taken them to the communal pond, part of a gutter in a stall once used to direct horse waste.
Now it was the choice place of leisure of the city’s amphibians, many of whom fully abandoned their clothing for a swim amongst the duckweed. Both recruiters did their best to keep their eyes forward, so as not to catch the nauseating sight of the various cloacae on display. Luckily the frog they spoke with had just his head above the water as he paddled back and forth. He was at least partially armored, with a feather crested helmet sat upon his head.
“Are you wearing more armor under there Gnathres?” the gingerbread man asked him.
“Yes. Swimming in full battle regalia takes great strength. The strength I will give to you.”
“I’m sold,” Nero declared, eager to leave the gutter’s edge; the place smelled of stagnation. And, he was sure though he had never smelled one up close, of cloacae. Snaps wouldn’t let them leave so quickly however, unfair of him considering he lacked the olfactory sense.
“You would be acting to protect Minimil,” he said, but the frog did not react. “All of its citizens.” A large oval pupil turned as he swam; the amphibian knew what he was driving at, but would make him say it. “Including any and all mice veterans of the Batrachomyomachia.” A bubble popped in front of the frog’s mouth as he stalled in the water. “You know there’s at least one living here, don’t you?”
“I will protect everyone but them,” Gnathres sputtered. His limbs paddled faster, as if his armor had gotten heavier.
“The backtracking myopic what-now?” Gumbonero asked. He felt foolish; where had all this history come from? Minimil was a rogue’s gallery as far as he was concerned. History and context should’ve been left on the trail there to be pecked at by crows.
“The Batrachomyomachia,” Snaps explained. “Our friend Gnathres here was not cursed. He has always been a frog. Hestia’s family the Olympians, bored one day, granted all the frogs and all the mice on an island intelligence, presumably just to see what might happen. It didn’t take long for a conflict to break out.”
“Zeus broke it up with some crab reinforcements,” Gnathres added. “We ended in stalemate.”
“Which is why their intelligence and their very lives have persisted for centuries,” Snaps said, “as their purpose of killing each other has not been fulfilled. All the gods have moved on, but not you Gnathres. You would kill them even if it meant your own death, wouldn’t you?”
The frog refused to answer; instead he sank below the surface and disappeared under the duckweed. He must have ditched his armor for the moment, as only naked frogs came up in the next few minutes. They had their answer.
“That soup diver? No, absolutely not, not while the Castle of the Grip stands!”
“He’s our fire chief! The man has risked his life for us countless times. Need I remind you we live in a giant tinderbox?”
“He’s a Lily, which means he’s lily-livered. Doesn’t know his ass from the right side of an egg. In addition, he and I have had a run-in. There was a commotion over some broth; he took it very poorly. No one of such frothing temper has the cool intellect needed for Little Wars. He is vetoed.”
“But if we ta-”
“-for the glory of Minimil! That’s the whole story. So what do you say? Rumor has it you are the cleverest of the eggties. We need you.”
“I don’t think he has anything to say.”
“No, this isn’t Mr. Triwi. He’s supposed to have speaking ports all over his shell.”
“Then who have I been babbling at this whole time?”
“Nobody. I think this is just an egg.”
“Confound it! Then where is- Never mind! He had his chance!”
“Gnathres turned us down out of your old grudge, but it is our hope that you, as a mouse, will have a more warmblooded take on the whole affair. If you can swear to protect everyone in Minimil, even hi-” Whunk!
“Who knew you could slam the door on a mouse hole?
“Shut your mouth. It’s not like your list is getting us anywhere.”
“What about- oh what was his name?”
“Don’t even say it. The answer’s no.”
“If she’s too busy for me then she’s too busy for us.”
three blind mice
steadfast tin soldier
fairy with the turquoise hair
Azor’s key ring
the rest of that beast Azor’s bloody spring cleaning!
Hans My Hedgehog
Finally, after several days of visits all over Minimil, on Minimil’s exterior, and in Minimil’s partly-tilled yard and nearby trees, the pair found their first willing digit who wasn’t disqualified by one or the other. They hadn’t gone to him initially, for he lived outside the barn, in a burrow under some roots at the edge of the forest.
They thought his address was the clearing just above the burrow, as it was covered in tents and fire pits surrounded by twine fencing. The spot served as an outpost for Foraging and Reconnaissance, and thus had streams of mounted hummingbirds flying in and out. It was one of their riders who directed them, having their mount point its bill down into the ravine where Hans’s dirt-caked door was hidden.
Knocking on the door produced no answer for a full minute, but when the creature opened it he acted as if only seconds had passed, inviting them in to sit down and have some bread, black currants, and a soft but strong-smelling cheese.
Equal parts man and hedgehog, though fully hedgehog in size, Hans could not say if his form was the result of a curse or blessing. His father had simply wished for a child, telling the listening summer air that he didn’t even care if the child was vermin; he would still be loved. And so Hans was born as he was, but with some mysterious knowledge in the back of his soul.
“Something always told me,” the hedgehog-man said as sat down at his table hanging from the ceiling by root-ropes, “that one day I would become human. As a child it was always a child’s vision… I saw myself casting off my cloak of quills, throwing it into a fireplace. As it burned I blackened, but when the soot and ash was washed away I stood as a man.”
“We hear you’re quite the warrior. Makes sense, covered in spears as you are,” the lord of seven sand castles mused, munching on a dark crust of bread. He hadn’t eaten much in the past few days, mouth far too busy bickering with the gingerbread man. All they had learned was that they hated each other more than they first thought, and had monumentally opposed strategies for the applause.
“I have fought in many battles. My appearance alone spurs some humans to violence.” The hedgehog man gnawed on the food slowly, ponderously.
“You mean to say you have bested… full-size humans in direct combat?” Snaps asked pointedly. Their prospective recruit nodded, only swallowing when he finally had the words he wanted to use arranged. He spoke in a voice shockingly deep for so small a creature, robust, woody, and nutty, like the rattling of a thousand hazelnuts falling into an oaken barrel.
“Your coming to see me… I think it is my vision. As a child it seemed a dream, but now that I am an adult I can look at it again and see it figuratively. Casting my quills into the fire could mean that I am to plunge into the heat of battle. Emerging from the ashes as a man could mean that I will be seen as a giant afterwards in the eyes of the city. It could mean it is time for heroics, or what I can make of such a word.”
“Poetry!” Nero declared, slapping his hand on the table. “Absolute poetry! We must have you.”
“I agree,” Snaps said with a nod. In contemplation he’d accidentally touched his iced beard after handling a currant, and now its purple juice was a streak in his visage. Spying his reflection in a pewter plate, he worked to blend it in until his facial hair was uniformly lilac, and didn’t let the tart color sour his mood. Progress was finally being made.
Once the details were hammered out they warned Hans that he would be summoned soon, and Snaps told him what intricacies he could expect on the chessboard battlefield that was Little Wars. The two men bid the hybrid creature adieu and returned to the tassel of the flying carpet. Flying through the air, halfway back to the barn, the Blefuscan could not contain his enthusiasm.
“Haha! Had a feeling about him I did. Confident, strong, but responsible. He’s perfect. We just need four more like him.”
“I worry we’ll run out of time. It took nearly a week to agree on someone. We might not have another month before challengers arrive. What on Earth are we to tell Hestia if we don’t complete the applause in time?”
“I imagine she would fill in the gaps with us, but not to worry. We’ll make it, especially if you defer to me. I have a feeling, just like with Hans.”
“He was on both of our lists.”
“Yes, but I had his name underlined. It’s important to always act with confidence.” As he said it the tassel passed through the window over Bonsai Park and reentered the barn. There was a swelling of multicolored light that blinded them. The tassel was forced to stop suddenly, nearly throwing them off, as they were now trapped inside a sphere the size of a medicine ball.
“Gentlemen,” Hestia welcomed without looking back at them. “Join us over here by Africa won’t you?” The former digits hopped off their luxury transport and found stable footing; the sphere had a tile floor. Looking around, they quickly realized the goddess had magically snatched them and dropped them into the interior of a globe. Backward continents set into its surface with expensive translucent materials like tortoiseshell rose on all sides. The floor blocked Antarctica from view, but the cartographer by Hestia’s side saw no use in tracking the penguins that lived there. Yes they marched, but not in the same fashion as the hundreds of other parties he tracked across the curved wall of his domicile.
The cartographer himself appeared Lilliputian, and he paid the newest visitors no mind, busy as he was moving adhering army tokens around on the continents’ inner skin. He had a belt loaded with magnifying lenses on the end of jointed metal rods, each one in the shape of a different landmass. Muttering to himself, and employing a sliding ladder like those seen in libraries, but curved to match the globe’s boundaries, he placed a token bearing the Swedish flag over Scotland.
“You see why I’ve brought you here,” Hestia told them as they stepped around the cartographer’s bed and piled maps; it seemed he lived in there, but still got to see the world. “Sweden is at out doorstep. They’re aware of me, as they’ve been avoiding sleeping indoors where I might be able to spy. That’s how they got so close without more of an advance warning. Foraging and Reconnaissance tells me they have with them a large case, and in that case is surely their small army. We don’t know its composition, but we do know something of the man who will be wielding it.
Bragi Tarkower he is called. Grandmaster in the game of chess. Scholar of game principles. He renounced chess before becoming the world champion though heavily favored, calling the game too simplistic. It’s obvious he will be crafting their strategy and giving their orders, as I will be for Minimil.
They’ll be here, and insisting on negotiations, before nightfall. I trust you two have my Challenging Applause at the ready?”
“We’ve just finished,” Lord Ludmenti lied. Snaps had to give him credit; he did lie with confidence. “Would you give us the briefest of moments to make sure we’re fully in agreement?” Hestia held out her hand, granting it. The Blefuscan grabbed the gingerbread man by the shoulder and practically dragged him as far as they could go, all the way to New Zealand. His voice dropped to a desperate bargaining whisper. “You pick two random names from my list and I pick two from yours. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Snaps said, whipping out and unfolding his own document. He held it out to Nero who quickly jabbed at a pair of names with a gloved finger: Momotaro and Root Beer the fifth. Nero, even in a pinch, couldn’t resist cheating, so he only pulled the top half of his list out of his pocket, knowing he liked the selection on that half better. There was no time for Snaps to protest, so he made his selections: Panhandle and Felicity Lace.
“I know I’m being overly cautious!” Nero blurted suddenly, loud enough for the whole world to hear. “But it’s better to make sure everyone’s one hundred percent onboard with this plan before moving forward old chum.” He smacked a simmering Snaps on the shoulder and returned to Hestia’s side.
“Who are my champions?” the goddess asked.
“Hans My Hedgehog, Root Beer the fifth, Felicity Lace, Momotaro, and Panhandle,” Snaps answered. “They are all ready and willing. I suggest we differentiate them from the digits of the handfuls by referring to them by a new title: claps.”
“That was what took us so long to agree,” Nero improvised aloud. “Could not settle on a name for the life of us, ha.”
“They will be sent for,” Hestia told them, her eyes drifting up momentarily. From well beyond the globe they heard the flaring of a great flame, likely from the pyre at the center of the sand castles that served as the hearth crucial to her rule.
“If I may ask,” Snaps interjected, “what is going on with New Zealand!?” He glanced back at the landmass that had been the third party in their skulking little agreement. It was almost covered in war tokens as if swarmed with aphid clusters.
“Oh we’ll deal with them,” Hestia grumbled, “but when the time comes. For now there’s one more thing the two of you must be made aware of.” She raised her hands, and both men braced themselves for more instantaneous travel. The same flash of light came and went, their globe cage now gone.
Hestia’s powers did not function so robustly outside the barn, so they had still be inside, but it was dark, damp, and musty. Over their heads was the seat of a simple chair on the human scale, and it was occupied by a woman. The hanging curtain of her dress stood behind them as a wall, flanked by two pale feet.
“This is Formaldeheidi,” Gumbonero realized. “She must be off in her familiar’s body with that bloodsucking husband of hers.”
“Yes, but we’re not here for her,” Hestia said, gliding forward. They followed until they reached a rusty metal grate under the chair’s back, set in the dirt floor and surrounded by pieces of straw nearly as big as logs to the small denizens. Some of the pieces had smoldering tips, but they weren’t orange with fire. Their nauseating aurora glow had be magical in nature, but Snaps thought it much more malignant-looking than any fairy-craft he’d ever seen.
Together with Nero he came to the grate’s edge and stared down into it. Altogether it was four times the circumference of a bathtub drain, and a few centimeters beneath the grate there was a second grate set at a different angle. A third, rotated again, was below that. There was a fourth as well, but it was impossible to see anything below that.
The echo of distant sounds made it through every layer, baffling the ears. Like a melody it was, if a few of the notes broke free of the musical notation and wandered around yipping and biting at the others. Was that a scream? It was gone before they could be sure. A laugh? Perhaps, but from something that was never supposed to laugh, like a rusty scythe or a beached giant squid.
“What’s down there?” the lord asked his goddess, already certain he didn’t care for whatever it was. Hestia took up a position directly over its middle, rising so she hovered above it. Looking down and through with a piercing divine gaze, she too was not happy about what dwelt in that drain.
“Down there… is Wonderland.” Seasoned and spiced veteran as he was, Forward Commander Snaps still leapt back from the edge instinctively, falling onto his bottom and scurrying even further away. Gumbonero was almost as shocked, but he just crossed his arms and paced around the metal rim, acting as if his eyes could see everything hers saw.
“You opened a passage to Wonderland!?” the gingerbread man sputtered as he got back to his feet. “That is folly! You must close it immediately!”
“Be calm commander,” she scolded him, “for there is no risk at present. These barriers are effective at keeping its influence back, and I know this because they have been here much longer than I have.”
“You mean to tell me the Shoulders of Government knew about this… this tunnel to insanity!?”
“Yes. Not only that. Its presence was how they chose the location of Minimil in the first place. It was their thinking that any refugees that escaped, like the girl Alice who first reported it to the world at large, would immediately join. They were looking to grow the nation’s population as swiftly as possible, until they realized that hardly anything you would want as a citizen scrambles out of Wonderland.”
“So they sealed it and kept it secret,” Nero guessed, saying it as if he wasn’t. “I’ve heard tell of its horrors, but I admit I’m no scholar on such unpleasantness. Its origins are from the fairy realm, yes?”
“Both their world and ours,” Snaps explained. He had briefly considered trying to find and inhabit Wonderland himself, since he was an object enchanted to life by fairy magic, but one look at the photograph of little Alice’s haunted eyes, like full moons that never set, changed his mind. “The space was created when gnomes and wing-clipped fairies burrowed deep, seeking general safety from birds and bats.
Unfortunately for them they found deposits of Pitchblende, now known more than capable of ionic radiodisplacement! The scientific decay of the substance does nightmares to living flesh, but its trials are arguably worse when they tear through fairy magic! Exposed tissue burns without flame, but exposed fantasy is shredded into recombinants of pure nonsense with a half-life measured in imaginary numbers!
They were driven insane by the clashing of these forces, their bodies warped even more. Now they live a cursed existence, and so too would we, were these grates not here and we should fall in!”
“Terrible,” Nero said with a grimace, more repulsed than frightened. It didn’t sound like an environment where a sand castle could stand for very long. “But what has this opening to do with our predicament?”
“This passage is the only invisible way out of Minimil,” Hestia answered him. “While I can escape to several other homes under my control all over the world, the population here is too large to move with any speed. Should they attempt to flee after losing Little Wars in order to avoid conscription, most of them will be caught with bee smokers and butterfly nets.
I will not give my people to the enemy. If we fall to Sweden I will order an immediate evacuation through this passage. All of Wonderland is interconnected, and there are a few other openings nearby, but the journey will take days at a minimum.”
“You can’t!” the gingerbread man protested. “None would make it back out alive! It’s physical lunacy down there I tell you! Everything is shifting at all times. Your mouth could flutter off your face and leave you to starve to death. Your blood could decide it was jam and spread itself across the nearest piece of toast without warning. No fate is worse! At least the Swedish military could be escaped!”
“I share your concerns commander, but you exaggerate the likelihood of such fates. After all, the girl Alice did make it out alive to give her testimony. She was traumatized, but intact. We will have safety in numbers, and I will work to minimize its effects along the way.”
“Have you gone down there before?”
“No. As I said, it is only for our most desperate situations. If you strenuously object to this course of action know that you cannot sway me, but you have the power to prevent it ever coming about. Win us this battle with your Challenging Applause and none but those in this room will ever see it. Do you both understood everything that is at stake now?” They nodded their heads as confirmation. “Excellent. Tell no one of this. Let’s get to work.” She rose higher. “By the way Snaps, I love the whimsical touch to your beard.”
She vanished with a pulse of light, leaving him to caress his lilac-frosted chin, hoping that nothing far below caught sight of it and thought of him as kindred to their deformed silliness.