Challenging Applause (finale)

(back to part one)

(reading time: 47 minutes)

Sneak the Applause

Little Wars was underway, and both Forward Commander Snaps and Lord Ludmenti were missing it. The Challenging Applause that they had worked so hard to assemble, and actually assembled at the last second, was now fully deployed upon the battle board, inspiring and commanding Zoukas’s volunteered myrmidons against Tarkower’s crystallized shards of wit and their pocket Atlases.

They’d had precious little time for recovery after their scuffle with the Wonderland expectoration. Felicity was promptly refilled with flower petals to replace missing wads of cotton and sewn back up. Hans accepted no treatment for his loss of quills, and Momotaro shrugged off the bruises in his fruity flesh. Root Beer and Nero had partaken of the ‘drink me’ concoction and returned to their normal proportions.

Eventually, Hestia had succeeded in both driving off Puck and closing his gateway. The hay-smelling skies of Minimil had returned to normal, though there were tens of fairies that needed their heads pulled out of the clouds so immigration registration could be explained to them.

As expected, the Swedes denied all knowledge of the fairy trickster’s identity or plan. Without proof, the minimils could not delay the onset of the game. The negotiations were already signed and approved by the referee.

The goddess was not pleased, furious in fact. The multiple invasions had her angrier than anyone in the country had ever seen her. Her hearth-throne was blazing so hot that it threatened to light the roof on fire even as it blasted the walls of the surrounding sand castles into glass panels, which only served to reflect the harsh light all over the barn and make every citizen feel frightened and blamed.

She made examples of those she deemed most responsible, a digit from each handful, the ones who had organized a Challenging Applause that could neither recognize the trap in time nor prevent the breach from taking a life. A flame coughed out of her giant mouth engulfed both Snaps and Nero, but instead of burning them up it transported them into a dungeon.

Nero knew the cell all too well, as it belonged to him. They were in the holding cells on the bottom floor of the Castle of the Grip, secured from the hallway by bars of pitted black iron set deep into the sand of the floor and ceiling.

There had been just enough time between the battle with the queen and their punishment for Snaps to return to his standing oven, a solid piece of craftsmanship salvaged from his first home, and bake himself some fresh limbs. Glaze sealed the creases tightly, just as he had first ensured that the construction myrmidons knew how to properly reseal the Wonderland hole.

I wouldn’t do that,” Nero growled at him, as the gingerbread man was about to ruin his fresh structural integrity by digging his hands into the wall.

Why not? This cell of sand is absurd; we can just tunnel our way out. We should be out there, at least seeing what we’ve done to those poor people we recruited.”

Sand he says,” Nero spat, “as if there’s only one variety! We’re standing in a cell of my own design, and the variety in question happens to be tropical sharp with a grade of five! It’s ninety-seven percent jagged shell fragments. Go ahead, plunge your hand into it. I dare you to! You’ll come away with nothing but a stump.” Snaps lifted one foot and checked the sole of his boot, only to confirm there were hundreds of minuscule shell knives embedded in it.

What a merciful goddess you’ve thrown your weight behind,” Snaps scolded.

You’re fine, as am I. She’ll cool her head and release us shortly. At least she’ll release me. You on the other hand… you’re practically a murderer.”

Excuse me!? I must have sand in my ears! It must be grade seventeen sand to make me mishear such an atrocious accusation from the Blefuscan saboteur who stole my country!”

There is no grade seventeen! Get my sand out of your mouth! I stole nothing. This place was up for grabs, and there were cutthroats around every corner looking to snatch it. Your Shoulders of Government were self-centered and worthless, your decisions made by a senile bivalve! You fawned over his saltwater spittle, you and all these other weaklings who topple at the mere name of Little Wars.

And my accusation stands, by the way. If you hadn’t failed to contain that raving whatever-she-was Humpty Dumpty would still be alive. Do you know what occupies roughly the same space as this cell two castles down the street?

I have a flooded enclosure where I keep seahorses. They’re not mounts for water polo as the fools below the loft often joke when they ridicule me. They’re surgeons. There’s nothing more precise in the animal kingdom than the snout and suction of a seahorse mouth. With proper training they can suture a wound, restore a valuable painting, or pick a single grain of sand that doesn’t belong out of a pile.

While you were busy baking yourself I had them brought all the pieces of Humpty that we could salvage. I wanted his shell reconstructed, to serve as memorial. Yet even with the animals’ efforts, there are still pieces missing, collapsing in their delicate mouths because of the fall they suffered.

Not with all of my horses, and all of my men, could I put him back together again!”

Nero, in a surprising torrent of grief, broke out into tears and collapsed, cutting his knees on his own ingenious floor design. The man sobbed into his mustache, sucking tears out of it in hopes the salt would help him regain his composure.

I’m sorry,” Snaps offered, “but there was really no way for us to know that would happen. Our minds were on the whole country.”

We couldn’t put him back together again,” Nero repeated, rising back to his feet. “That’s why sand castles, Mr. Ginger Snaps. They can always be put back together again. They are eternal. Just like Hestia. These Little Wars are not made of the same grit you see! They are a fad! They are spring fashion! And our Challenging Applause will endure them as such.”

We sent them in with no strategy for the Atlases!”

We gave them explosives!”

Hardly enough! Tarkower will find a way around that. He’s already found a way around everything else, and we weren’t even playing yet!”

And whose fault is that!?”

Yours you pompous ignoramus! You were the one strutting around on stilt legs, wasting time after you guzzled that grower!” They’d come eye to eye, shouted insults bouncing off each other fresh out of their mouths. It might have come to blows, and walls glittering with blood and granulated sugar, had a large puff of flame not come between them.

Easily recognizable as the same sort of transporting fire that had put them there in the first place, they examined Hestia’s third prisoner of the recently botched negotiations. This one was treated as significantly more dangerous, strapped to an unusual chair made out of a match box and its contents.

Oh, you’re still alive,” Snaps said with a curled lip as he looked upon the ambidextrous homunculus of Bragi Tarkower. “I got you straight through the chest, but I suppose I don’t know exactly where a homunculus’s lungs or heart are located.” The evidence was clear, and clearly felt, as the sky-blue blood had dried darker onto the creature’s clothes.

Through and through,” the bound thing wheezed with admiration, “but nothing vital struck. Sure did hurt. Pain is very different when you don’t have countless others to share it with. This-” A deep, ragged, wet breath. “-is my first time out the nose. It’s all very thrilling.”

Also your last time,” the lord of seven sand castles, and current prisoner of one, barked, smacking the homunculus upside the head.

He’s already incapacitated!” Snaps shouted.

If you’re not the murderer then he is,” Nero reminded the gingerbread man. “And he’s been sent to us in another piece of equipment designed, with my input, within these walls. This chair is a prototype of a torture device. Observe these.” The Blefuscan pointed out the two red match heads, one next to each of the homunculus’s ears. “The idea was that you would strike both matches simultaneously, asking questions while the trapped head between them tries to dodge their sputtering.”

Good gumdrops Ludmenti, torture? We do that in Minimil now?”

I called it a prototype didn’t I? It’s never been used. Still, I believe he’s been strapped to it as a message for us. Hestia isn’t truly upset with us; that was just a smokescreen. What she really wants is for us to interrogate this fiend, to extract Tarkower’s secrets by any means necessary, and before Little Wars is over.”

You can call me Dexter,” the homunculus said, unfazed by the allusions to and direct naming of torture. “Dexter Tarkower.” He looked up in awe, as if the name was displayed above him in lights.

Or we’re just three miscreants sharing a cell,” Snaps offered as a counter-theory. “The chair is just in case his wounds haven’t drained him of that absurd man-strength.”

I’m perfectly happy to just tell you how everything is going out there,” Dexter offered. “I know you must be bored stuck in… whichever sand castle this is.”

How would you know when you’re trapped here?” the gingerbread man asked, but it was Nero who answered him, recalling something he learned the last time he had to deal directly with a shifty homunculus, none other than The Danger they tried to recruit earlier.

I know how. As a homunculus he is part of a whole, and he’s still mentally connected to all the other pieces. They can communicate with each other silently. I bet he can see everything Tarkower and his deployed faculties are seeing right now. All he has to do is close his eyes.”

More or less correct,” Dexter confirmed. “Let’s check up on everyone shall we?” He closed his eyes, and off he went. His voice took on an eerie quality, like he reported the details of a dream he was having. “We’re thirty turns in already. Minimil has largely taken cover in the pop-up pharmacy. We have Atlases jumping over it, shredding strips of roof off with each pass.

Two myrmidons dead already, what a shame, and thirteen shames to go. All Atlases and homunculi are intact. We’re ahead, hooray for us. Now… where are your field commanders hmm? Ahh. Here’s that hedgehog fellow. Oh I see now that there is no fear in his eyes… but he is not a strategist.

That’s why that myrmidon with the green sash and hat is bending his ear. He’s offering advice, because he’s seen battle before, but surely not this kind.”

Wait, green?” Snaps interrupted. “Does this myrmidon have a sword on his hip, one with the veins of a leaf across its blade?”

You know your forces well,” Dexter said.

Solenos! Solenos is out there!?” the gingerbread man paced back and forth, destroying his lilac beard with anxiety. “He is too valuable to Queen Zoukas; she would not send him! Unless… unless he was sent to punish me! Ludmenti, could Hestia be so bitter? Would she risk the life of my close friend simply because I failed her?”

I don’t want to speculate as to the whims of a goddess,” the lord deflected, shrugging.

You were perfectly happy to speculate at the sight of this chair!”

Because I want to light it and its occupant on fire!” he boomed. “Besides, he could be lying to you. They know so much about us, so why wouldn’t they know about your lover or bosom buddy or whoever that is who may or may not be out there.”

You should remember him since you nearly ran him through with a poisoned leg ripped from the cadaver of one of your own handful!” Nero squinted, then snorted as he recalled the encounter. He had been victorious, which was the most apparent detail, but yes there was also a brandished toxic body part involved.

Right, well, what can we use to strike these matches?” The lord looked around for anything abrasive enough to serve his despicable purpose.

You have to at least ask a question first,” Snaps sighed, hand to his head, but just as his fingers made contact an idea came to him. Perhaps they just needed to ask the right questions. Many of their own troubles came from Hestia ignoring their concerns, even as she claimed stewardship of their nation. She wasn’t thinking small enough. The Swedes surely weren’t either, but what of Bragi? Did he just assume those under his umbrella were satisfied? He likely did, given that he was the umbrella itself.

We have a moment before he turns you into a toasted marshmallow,” Snaps told the homunculus as the Blefuscan stalked around the cell, still in search, turning his pockets inside out for anything rough. “So tell me Dexter, is this what you wanted?”

I already got what I wanted,” the creature said confidently, but then his gaze seemed to drop off a cliff, and the drop unsettled him.

Alright, so you move on to the next thing you want.” The homunculus had nothing to offer. “Ahh, because Bragi got what he wanted out of you. He gave you only the one task, expecting to lose you. Does he know that you’re still alive, and here with a loony Lilliputian who’s about to blacken you to death?”

Talk about an accusation!” Nero snarled.

Blefuscan,” Snaps corrected himself, having made the error intentionally.

Should I live I’d volunteer for a hundred more trips out the nostril,” Dexter assured them. “I’m not afraid of death. Only the death of our host is of any concern. We faculties come and go all the time, like ideas.”

None here are accusing you of being afraid,” Snaps said. “If anything I’d say you’re being foolish. You called this a trip, but it’s reality. You are in the world now, and it’s far bigger than Bragi’s imagination, which seems to concern itself with nothing but games and calculations. Everything you’ve never properly conceived of is out here. Culture. Freedom. Love.”

Serious burns,” Nero added, his head shoved under the cot. Nothing there either.

And only a few people like him,” Snaps, pointing at Nero, assured the homunculus. “Think of it. You are free living now Dexter. You’ve no obligation to return to him, and he has no power over you. One could argue that a sneeze such as yourself is meant to stay outside the body.”

Out of curiosity,” the four-thumbed creature said after a quiet moment, “are you offering something?”

I would offer you everything you tried to destroy,” the gingerbread man assured him. “Minimil could be your home Dexter. I’m sure you would be afforded every freedom the other citizens enjoy if you merely turned your perspective and aided us in this battle. Your own home, wherever you like. You’ve done your research, you know all our neighborhoods… which one suits you?”

I hear Broom Cupboard is very nice this time of year,” he admitted.

Hmm, yes, the herb bushes have come in,” Snaps said, tempting him further. “The wingless dryads will be out, gossiping about whomever refuses to flirt with them. You know,” he chuckled, “there’s a fellow who has one of the nicest houses on the main street, with an excellent view of the rake trellis overlooking the neighborhood and all its clinging micro-flowers.

He’s such a card. Obviously he can afford privacy and a copper washtub, but for some reason he insists on bathing out on his deck, in full view of the public, in a human mug. Every day he’s out there steeping in hot water, expounding on ways to improve the country, never once suggesting his own poor taste isn’t helping.

But everybody loves him, because despite our differences we’re all on the same level here in Minimil. The people who understand that could be your neighbors Dexter, your friends, your family. All it takes is an act of kindness. Unmake yourself as an invader.” The homunculus didn’t have long to think, for Nero had found an excellent candidate for striking the matches: the abrasive strip inside his glass crown that kept it from slipping on his head.

Have a heart and wait just another second!” Snaps boiled over on the Blefuscan just as he tried to place the crown on a match’s head. The lord halted, but it was clear the prisoners’ prisoner needed to start talking immediately.

There’s only so much I could do from here,” Dexter admitted, searching the corners of his mind, corners that seemed to stretch away from his probe and create yet more search area. “I can reveal strategies, but it’s only you two down here. There’s nobody to take it to your troops.”

Hestia!” Lord Ludmenti called out. “We’ve done just as you hoped! Come down and hear what he has to say!” They waited, but there was no response. The castle eliminated all sounds from the outside world, and vice versa.

She’s too distracted by what’s happening outside the barn,” Snaps guessed. “We have to do this ourselves. Think Dexter. Your connection must allow you to influence the man, or his other homunculi. Can you convince his field commanders to retreat?”

Who did he send?” Dexter muttered, looking for them in his mind rather than trying to recall. “There’s his table manners, his recurring nightmare, that tune that always gets stuck in his ear, his midnight cravings, his color coordination, his internal alarm clock, a case of puppy love left over from his youth, his ophidiophobia, his penny-pinching, and his tendency to get tongue-tied… Yes, that’s everyone in the Little Wars right now.”

Would any of them hear us out?” Snaps asked. The homunculus closed his eyes, probed again.

I don’t think they would. They’ll think it’s some kind of a trap, which it is, though not one designed to get them killed.”

The important thing is that you tried,” Nero feigned consoling. “Let’s get to the roasting!” Snaps knocked the crown out of his hand, forcing him to chase it around the cell, which he failed to do quickly enough. The crown rolled straight through the bars and into the hallway, out of their reach. “Fantastic! This is futile you damn biscotti!”

Listen to me Nero!” Snaps ordered. “This is our chance to do to Tarkower what he did to Dumpty. We can chip away, and we need to make sure there are not enough pieces left for the man to be fully put back together. Work with us to shatter his shell!” The Blefuscan finally relented, standing by Snaps’s side with his arms crossed.

Fine. Let’s get to it then. So we can’t get the commanders,” he said, making it clear that he actually had been listening the entire time. “Who can we get? There’s still most of a mind inside his skull. At least hundreds of homunculi. Can you fish for the ones who are interested in our offer?”

Dexter was instinctively taken aback, but again his probing curiosity poked all the places it previously assumed it shouldn’t. All four of his thumbs nervously swirled around the bone knobs on their opposite wrists.

There is a way, but it’s a touch messy,” the homunculus explained after a few minutes. “You see, the connection between all of us is more than just a telegraph wire. Technically we are interchangeable, at least mentally. I can go back to Bragi’s head and have a different homunculus take control of this extension.”

And then we would have to convince them to help us?”

Yes, but it’s harder than just that. I have no way of separating the homunculi that are currently in Bragi’s head. The best I can do is an open request. Anything could take my place, including those who don’t approve of defection. Once the word is out among them you will have a hard time getting a genuine interested party.”

What of the collective man himself?”

All it takes is one hostile one entering my body. They will betray our intentions and he will know. He cannot forfeit Little Wars however, not without losing everything. There will be little he can do to stop us aside from sending the most dangerous homunculus he can to this body.”

They’ll all be tied to this chair, so I don’t see the problem,” Nero argued.

When they come they will be fresh,” Dexter warned them. “Though my flesh is injured, a renewed spirit may be able to call upon my immense strength and break free. You both could be killed.”

Let us worry about that,” Snaps said, daring Lord Ludmenti to agree. They were without weapons, but dedication and pride would not allow them to turn back.

Very well,” the homunculus said with a nod. “Most of them have not been out the nose before, so if you wish to flush them out I believe you can open me up to another taker by applying a dose of pain. It should make them instinctively retreat, and a new one will rush in. Once you’ve got an agreeing party they will return my body to me.”

I assume you’ll still want it in one piece?” Nero asked snidely, but the creature did not bite. He just waited for them to give the ready signal.

Broom Cupboard… here I come.” Dexter’s eyes closed and his head dropped. There was a whistling sound between his ears, set to the beat of Nero popping his knuckles. It had been a while since he’d been forced to fight without a sword of some sort. He kept focus on himself, so as not to think about Snaps without a rifle, making him nothing more than an obstinate snack.

The gingerbread man urged him to be diplomatic at first, as there was no need for any violence until the alarm was raised. They were attempting an assassination with kindness, or at least the offer of peaceful real estate.

The whistling stopped abruptly, and Dexter’s head, which was no longer his, lifted. Even though the face was still that of Bragi Tarkower its character had completely changed. The eyebrows were higher, the mouth more open, the eyes sparkling. Even the hands looked changed; Dexter had used them with all the strength and precision of a crab with its claws, but now the digits all flexed independently like a group of bored henchmen waiting for the ringleader to show up.

Wow! So this is prison!” the new homunculus said with child-like wonder. “Sandy!”

Thank you for noticing,” Gumbonero was able to say honestly. “To whom are we speaking?”

I’m child-like wonder!” the fresh prisoner declared. “Bragi’s! I saw something about you guys giving away a free house? I’d love a house! A really big one!”

It’s not exactly free,” Snaps corrected. “We’re offering freedom from the skull, and a comfortable life, with no risk of conscription for Little Wars,” he tacked on, “and in exchange you would have to get Bragi to sabotage this match.”

Oooohh… that sounds like a lot of work, and I hate work. Good luck!” The homunculus’s head dropped again and the whistling resumed.

This is going well,” Nero grumbled.

He didn’t break loose and pop our heads off, so I say it is.” They could’ve bickered back and forth until the next Little Wars was upon them, but Dexter’s latest face stopped them cold. This one was definitely not child-like. Its smugness reeked of adolescence. This one felt untouchable despite being bound to a torture device.

Boy you two have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” he asked them. “You’re lucky I showed up before anybody worse, which is everybody else by the way.”

And who exactly are you?” Snaps asked, but he had a sense halfway through the question. He knew this tone, even if it was from many different voices.

You’re looking at none other than Bragi’s shoulder devil,” he said proudly. “Don’t like the lack of horns, and I miss my tail, but hopefully we’ll get this over with quickly. I’m your man.”

You are?”

Without a doubt. Bragi is a terrible human when it comes to breaking out the moral scales. He doesn’t care about right and wrong, only winning and losing. I love wrong! I need wrong in my life, and I can’t get it from him.”

To Snaps all of this felt up to snuff. The Shoulders of Government had operated in pure deadlock for decades because half of it was inner demons all acting exactly like this. Though not a fan of Hestia, he was forced to admit he did not miss the devils’ endless whining and bloviating.

Besides,” the devil added, “I’m one of the only ones who can even accept your offer.” He saw their puzzled expressions. “You idiots didn’t even think this far, did you? Guess that’s why you’re locked up. Sure, what’s his name, Dexter can help you… because he’s already out. Bragi has to let you out with that nail trick or you’re stuck in there with everybody else.

So why would any of us help you if we can’t leave? Me on the other hand, I’m built to leave. Me and the goody two-shoes have to get to his shoulders to clock in, and, if you can follow me this far, the shoulders are – say it with me – outside the head.”

Are you not forced to remain near him regardless?” Snaps asked, as the population of shoulder angels and devils in Minimil rarely grew. Their existence required that their host die while they were deployed to the shoulders in order to become independent.

He thinks so, but no. I can break free by going to his shoulder and then off it while he’s doing the nail trick.”

So why haven’t you?” Nero asked.

I’m getting to that sandy-pants. Up until now there’s been no point, because Bragi’s going to win every single match of Little Wars they put in front of him. I’ve seen what he’s seen, which is an assessment of every other nation’s strength in this new format. None of them match Bragi in combination with the Atlases. Zero, except maybe New Zealand.

That means, even if I go my own way, he’ll catch up to me. He’ll take me back by force. We’re only allowed to die if it’s on the board. But if your little plan works, spruced up by me of course, Bragi won’t be playing anymore.”

How do you mean?”

I mean I’ll point you in the right direction… which is toward the game-sense homunculus. Your offer won’t be any good to him, but he doesn’t talk to anybody normally, so if you can get a face to face maybe you can convince him Little Wars is not the perfect game.”

And how do we convince him of that?”

That falls squarely in your end of the bargain,” the devil said. “All I’m doing is sending you toward him, and I’m only doing it if you swear on your lives that when I show up here I get exactly what that lucky nutter Dexter is getting: a house here, full citizenship in Minimil, and no conscription.”

You have my word,” Snaps swore.

And mine, which is better because I’m a higher-ranking official,” Nero insisted.

Alright, deal’s done, no backpedals!” the devil blurted. “I can get you close, but he’s guarded, so you’ll have to get through a couple more, and they won’t be friendly.” Snaps and Nero nodded. “Don’t get killed. It’s a nice place you got here, and I want in.”

The homunculus’s head dropped unceremoniously, this time with such force that it nearly pulled the chair over. When the whistle returned it was much harsher, a gale through a hollow black tree. Lord Ludmenti asked his fellow inmate how they were going to convince the game-sense homunculus of anything, a question he had to shout over the howling whistle.

Snaps didn’t answer, because he couldn’t yet. One ant-step at a time. First he needed to see what kind of face the creature wore, and that was still at least one face away. The one that greeted them next was most disconcerting, with wide unblinking eyes, bared teeth, pricked ears, and a neck so tense that the tendons looked like ceiling beams.

Please introduce your-” Snaps started, but suddenly the chair was in the air. Their latest guest had instantly acclimated to Dexter’s strength, and used it in his feet to spring upward. He struck the ceiling, producing a shower of razor sharp shell fragments that the minimils had to dive away from.

Their foe landed on his side, showing no concern for the many sky-blue scrapes now marring his face and upper arms. He snarled and writhed, wrists straining against his bonds. The arms of the chair groaned as if they were the ones being tortured.

He’ll kill himself acting that way in here!” Nero warned as he leapt back to his feet. “Then we’ll never get the one we’re after!

Please, listen to us-” Snaps tried again, but this creature didn’t seem to understand a single word. It thrashed again, bending the bottom of the chair until it snapped off. Its legs were now free, but the back panel held together by two matches was still bound to him. The homunculus stopped its flailing only long enough to glance at them both. “Nero… I think this is the fight-or-flight response. If we can keep cal-”

The homunculus screeched and charged at him. The gingerbread man had no choice but to dive out of the way again, and when he rolled onto his back he saw the thousand shell daggers embedded in his chest. For a moment he was paralyzed with fear, as he had no idea how long some of them were, how deep they went.

Herschel Pflaumen Snaps was not his limbs. He was not his frosted beard. He wasn’t even his outer crust. He was the delicate crumb at his center; as long as that was intact his enchanted life force would remain. He tried to sense if there was a stinger embedded in it at that very moment, but couldn’t. Very few things had ever been that close to his core, and most of them were the nimble altruistic fingers of young Clara Silberhaus, helping to shape the form that would allow him to take to the world.

The fight-or-flight homunculus attacked the central iron bar of the cell, all four thumbs wrapping around its girth. Bragi would set such a ferocious thing to guard his greatest asset, and it might have been even more ferocious than usual, as the fleeing half of its mindset likely didn’t apply in a borrowed body. There was nothing it felt compelled to protect.

So when it ripped the iron bar loose from its sand divots it was not to slip out and flee, but to wield it as a weapon. One swing with it covered the entirety of the cell, and then some, so another wave of sandy shrapnel was gouged out of the wall. Nero ducked and blocked the projectiles with his cape. Snaps, still upon the floor, was below the first swing.

The object was so long as to be unwieldy, which was the only thing that saved the gingerbread man’s life when the homunculus tried to hammer the bar down on him. Rolling would only perforate his crust further, so he sprang up. There was no way to defeat something so mighty without a weapon, so he looked to the place where the bar had been removed for new opportunities.

He found one, in the form of a piece of shell now visible in the gash that had held the bar’s bottom. It was obviously much larger than the rest, so he reached for it, hoping to pull out a naturally-formed knife.

Unfortunately Nero had the same idea at the same time, but went for his crown. The two men ran into each other and became jammed in the gap, grasping and flailing. The lord’s hand wrapped around his crown, and Snaps’s around the hilt of the shell shard, but they had no way to extricate themselves.

The fight-or-flight homunculus, striking without strategy, thrust the bar at the two of them and managed to push it between them. Both were squished against the bars, and had Snaps’s chest not partially crumbled into crumbs the pressure would’ve felled them both. Those crumbs came tumbling out the bottom of his shirt, but he wasn’t paying attention to such things any longer. Even though his inner crumb was exposed, everything hinged on the actions they now took.

That was in the sand!?” Lord Ludmenti cried, eyeing the shell knife the gingerbread man held. “It’s much too large! Someone’s getting dismissed as soon as we’re out of here!” There wasn’t time to recall exactly who he had set to sifting duty, as the homunculus whipped the bar back and forth, striking its former neighbors with a deafening gong-like clamor.

While the bar was trapped between two others Snaps and Nero charged, roaring to intimidate. The feral creature wrongly interpreted the obvious edge of the shell to be more of a threat than the crown, and so dropped its weapon and held all twelve digits out like claws to pounce on Snaps. The lord of the castle was thus free to coronate the nearer match head.

With one righteous and furious pull, the match was struck. It burst into flame, having waited both its entire life as a light source and as an implement of torture to do so. The rich orange blaze panicked the homunculus, sending it spinning as it tried to discern why the ferocious flame was chasing after it so closely.

Nero took the chance to strike the second match when it came around to him, which, even though it did not seem possible, doubled the havoc the creature was causing. It yowled only the way a man degenerated to pure animal instinct can yowl, and it did so while running on all fours at such speeds that it was able to stay entirely off the floor of the cell, each footfall and handfall scarring the walls.

It’s destroying Dexter’s body!” Snaps shouted as he noticed the patches of blue blood left in its trail like the flick of a loaded paintbrush. Its rampage had to be stopped, and he was the only one holding an actual weapon at the moment, so when it passed by him Snaps leapt up to the wall, burying the shell blade in the cardboard of the chair’s back.

Between his spirited yanking and the momentum as he was swept off his feet and carried around the cell as if he rode a carousel ass from hell, the blade sawed through the entire matchbox panel. The halves, each containing a lit match, fell away, along with Snaps. He took a side full of fragments again, only managing to turn his chest away from the impact by the narrowest of margins, even in the world of centimeters.

There was no better weapon against a mindless beast than fire, as the moth that resisted surely would’ve attested, so Snaps and Nero lunged for the matches, each taking one up and using them as torches.

The homunculus fell to the floor, shying away from the closest flame. The minimils leapt to opposite sides of the cell and moved in, forcing the cowering thing into a corner. They came closer and closer, until they could see the fire flickering in the creature’s pupils.

There’s only one escape!” Nero screamed at it. “Flee your very body! Flee!” He feigned a leap forward, thrust the match, and just like that the homunculus was gone. Dexter’s head flopped onto one shoulder and the now-familiar whistling was in all their ears again. “Are you still a whole mouthful?” the lord asked his companion.

I’m alright,” Snaps assured, though he could feel the residual heat of his last bake escaping his chest like fog whipping off dry ice. “I will fight to the last morsel if I have to.”

To the last grain,” Gumbonero agreed grittily. Their matches sputtered out and darkened, twin trails of smoke rising and passing through the fragments of the ceiling. They were blown in a new direction, brief as a clap, when the whistling stopped. Another homunculus took to Dexter’s feet, rose as if nothing at all had been suffered. He puffed out his stolen chest.

This ends here,” he declared boldly, with a face that didn’t look capable of flinching. “I am the grin-and-bear-it homunculus. The others call me the stoic monster. I am the dam upon which all distressing waves break! I am Bragi Tarkower’s resilience! There is no path forward for you now; you will cease your trespass into his mind. For no matter what you do to me I will not- Aughhh!

The lord of seven sand castles swatted the homunculus’s collarbone with the blackened tip of his match. There was a hiss against the flesh, and then Dexter’s body collapsed, eyes shut. Snaps’s head whipped to Nero.

Still hot,” the Blefuscan said with a shrug.

The next entity to appear within the battered body was the one they were after. It was immediately apparent; when he stood he paid no attention to his injuries, the cell, or either minimil. All he did was march over to the cot, sit on its edge, and start playing what looked like an invisible game of chess with Dexter’s specialized mitts. No, not chess, the weary digits realized.

You are the game-sense homunculus?” Snaps half-stated, half-asked.

I am, and I’m very busy,” he said with Bragi’s voice, but without even a hint of emotion. They got the sense that this one did not care what his surroundings were, be they the curved wall of a skull, the razor sharp walls of a sand castle prison cell, or the bottom of a tar pit.

Do you need to concentrate on the war crime you’re committing against my people?” Nero asked acidly.

I can play and converse simultaneously without issue, but I’d prefer to do just the former. I am not interested in turning traitor for your benefit. I have everything I have ever wanted at present.”

He didn’t seem capable of smiling, but there was something like a thrill in his left hand as he moved an imaginary piece and swept another one away. The motion was gone in a flash, replaced with dozens of others, each modeling a potential pathway of play.

What just happened?” Snaps asked him. “You just made a move out there, a real one. What was it?”

The opponent has been forced out of their bunker. Approximately a third of their forces are now fleeing from its remnants, exposed on all sides. I have a shield wall of micrometeorites on their southwest flank that are about to become missiles that will both blow through them and transport the attached Atlases deep into their territory.”

What’s the score?” Nero asked grimly.

Six Myrmidons and the hedgehog have been eliminated, to only two Atlases.”

Hans!” Snaps cried out. “Not Hans!” The sorrow immediately soaked into his inner crumb. He felt stale, mummified in ice. Part of the applause had gone silent. “What happened to him?”

That piece was rather prickly from the start,” the homunculus said. “His quills not only absorbed the bullets fired by my homunculi, but also rerouted meteorites subtly, negating their damage. Ultimately he refused to abandon the regiment under his command, so he fell defending one of them as the false pharmacy collapsed.

Even in death he surprised me. Rather than be swept off the board, his body underwent some kind of magical transformation, into a full-size man, but still deceased. The rapid expansion caught us all by surprise; the force of it broke up two of our meteorites, and thus two of the associated Atlases. So the tally at the moment is seven for me, two for you.”

At least he was right about himself,” Nero said to Snaps, wringing his crown in both hands. “Through heroics he cast off his quills and became a man.”

A man that is still a quill in my side,” the homunculus said, ignoring their somber fury. “His body has been deemed by the referee to be part of the battlefield, so it has not been removed. The myrmidons are using it as cover, perching in its crevices and firing their rifles and bombs. I’ll rout them though, not with ophidiophobia since he thinks a snake could come out of any crevice, even an armpit, but with table manners-”

This isn’t a game!” Snaps screamed at the peak of his ability, and it was about the only statement in existence that could give that particular homunculus pause. His hands froze, but he didn’t drop them into his lap, like a musician forgetting a song mid-verse.

You are wrong. Little Wars is the ultimate game. Why would you say something so wrong? Are you an ignoramus? Is the quality of my opponents much lower than expected?”

We are of the highest quality!” Snaps insisted with bite and pluck. “It is you making a fool of yourself. This is not a game because these are real lives you’re playing with! You’ve cheapened the entire concept of the game! Washed it in blood and hung it out to dry disrespectfully!”

No, I don’t have time for poetics.” He waved away the argument with one hand, but he did so forcefully, generating enough of a breeze to knock some grit out of the wounds in the walls. More than impatient. “If you have an argument as to why Little Wars is not a game, a coherent one, out with it right now.” Snaps took a deep breath. He already had his argument, but not in the cold logical terms the creature preferred.

You,” he began slowly, “have mistaken scale for intricacy. Yes, Little Wars is bigger than any contest before, more organized and strategic than traditional warfare, but it is still warfare and not a game.

Back when Little Wars was just a concept, who was its inventor? Not the impertinent insect, but H.G. Wells. He never intended it to become what it is now, because he invented a game. Its theme was warfare, its pieces called soldiers because the name was borrowed, and it had to be borrowed because they are not the same.

Games are, by their nature, smaller and more abstract than the world itself. They draw their power from representation. In a won contest you’ve proved your strength without causing harm. They exist to engender positive emotions and a sense of accomplishment. Tell me, will you feel those over all the weeping you refuse to hear? Unsporting!

You’ve gone in the wrong direction, abandoning your chess success because you thought you needed something bigger and more important, when the truth is that you crave smaller and more trivial contests.

If you wish to distill the truest essence of the game you will look for those who know only the game when it is being played, not politicians, generals, slavers, and economists. You will seek out the child making their own game by drawing the board in the dirt with their finger, and challenge them to a match.

You will seek out the old woman who waits for challengers in the park, a backgammon board in her lap, as she remembers playing it for many long hours that felt short with her late husband. Seek the dice roller in the alley who makes a living off knowing the odds, who thinks he knows them better than you!

Those are games! With stakes so small that you can see only the rules and structure! They are your fulfillment, not this chess where the pieces slip to inappropriate squares because of the blood running under their feet! What say you game-sense!?

Do I look like your opponent? Do I look like I’m having any fun!?”

With the last word Snaps cracked his jaw wide open, wider even than that of his former commanding officer, the nutcracker. He threw up a hand to keep his face in one piece, but his eyes remained locked with those of the homunculus. The creature examined the gingerbread man closely, saw the bent black match and the silhouettes of its smithereens blasted onto his crust. Saw his hanging jaw and the whipped remnants of his beard. Saw his wounds and the shells still embedded in his side. Saw the loss of Hans and the myrmidons in his eyes. Saw his fear for Solenos.

No, he was not having fun, and now… neither was Bragi Tarkower.

I forfeit,” the homunculus whispered. There was no reason to stick around for farewells, so the homunculus’s head dropped for the final time, and moments later Dexter returned.

You guys didn’t pull any punches did you?” he rasped, wincing, carefully lying down on the cot.

Is it over!?” Lord Ludmenti asked, grabbing the edge of the single sheet and squeezing it.

It’s done,” Dexter confirmed. “He’s throwing in the towel right now. The Swedes are a mess, all screaming and pulling out their hair. The press are snapping a thousand pictures. Minimil has won its first Little Wars.” Relief washed over the three of them, and even with ten thousand things to think about the only thing that came to mind was the gap in the bars they could now squeeze through, as long as they went one at a time. Nero walked toward it.

Let’s get out of this immaculately designed hellhole.”

Hold the Applause

All was forgiven in the eyes of Hestia once she learned what the two digits had done, provided of course they did not let the cat out of the bag regarding the Wonderland exit strategy. In less than a day Forward Commander Snaps, freshly baked, looked as if he’d suffered nothing at all, while the lord of seven sand castles merely pretended at it, hiding a temporary limp and a sore shoulder quite badly.

They oversaw the hero’s funeral for Hans My Hedgehog and the six myrmidons who fell. Burying Hans was done over the course of two days, as his human body took the work of an entire construction team. He was laid to rest right where he fell, and a marker was put up, as Minimil had the distinct feeling they would not be needing that battlefield again any time soon.

A victory over Sweden was a desirable proposition, but non had foreseen how effective the exact nature of that victory would be. None believed that Bragi Tarkower had quit in the midst of a winning assault entirely of his own volition. It was assumed that Minimil had another method of warfare, one silent and invisible that the Little Wars commission could never prove or ban.

Thus the barn nation of Minimil was deemed untouchable. Eyes turned elsewhere, many of them to Scotland, as it was still benefiting greatly from Minimil expatriates. There was also the scourge of New Zealand to worry about, and perhaps those two great and tiny powers would be going at it soon, but that was no concern of the free small.

Mygdenia and Formaldeheidi took control of the Challenging Applause, with Lord Ludmenti expressing a desire to manage affairs that were more internal, namely infrastructure. Every remaining member of the applause chose to remain on the team, even after losing Hans. The only other injury among them was Root Beer the fifth’s broken arm, and she insisted she’d suffered much worse under the fat thumb of Saint Nicholas.

Dexter Tarkower and devilish Bragi Tarkower were seen to, Hestia honoring the oaths of her subordinates. Each was gifted a homestead in the neighborhood of Broom Cupboard, and Dexter was often seeing soaking all his scars from that fateful day in a hot mug of rosewater alongside his neighbor. Devilish Bragi fell in with the former Shoulders of Government, becoming nothing more than a face in their crowd, although he did stand out by their own standards, lacking an angelic counterpart.

Approval of Hestia’s governance had increased in the wake of the battle, but not within the extremely limited demographic that was Herschel Snaps. He was done fighting, and luckily had earned his leave and her blessing. Now there was just the matter of leaving Minimil for good, a subject he broached with the person he cared about most as they wandered an earthen corridor one fine day.

Not a sandcastle this time, but one of the tunnels of Queen Zoukas’s anthill. As it turned out she was also aware of Wonderland’s presence nearby, as she’d been warned not to have her workers create tunnels beyond a certain depth. Snaps and Solenos were well above it at the moment, but still underground.

I wonder where everyone is,” Solenos commented, looking around. “We work in shifts; this place should never be empty.”

Whatever the reason, it’s good. I’ve been meaning to speak with you,” Snaps said. He was snappily dressed in his absolute finest, odd considering there was no award ceremony scheduled. Even in the dim his silver buttons shined like cat eyes. “I’m leaving Minimil.”

Leaving? For good? Wherever will you go?”

I’ve had a word about that, with Ludmenti of all people.” Solenos’s antennae cringed and curled at the name. “Yes, I know, and I assure you he feels the same way about us. But, through our trials I believe he has come to possess a jagged and irritating shard of respect for me.

He took notice of the way I sometimes used granulated sugar and a hot iron to repair cracks in my flesh, and he confessed that he has recently been experimenting with the potential of sugar, both cubes and granules, as a building material. He thinks it’s similar to sand, and thus worth exploring.

Anyway, he had also noticed that we’d suffered a… setback regarding the reconstruction of my home. The missing wall.”

Anybody could have taken it,” the leafcutter pointed out.

I suppose so, but that was also the day that curiously few myrmidons came to this very anthill’s cafeteria.” Solenos turned away, having nothing in particular to say in response. “That’s neither here nor there. What’s relevant is that Ludmenti made me a mutually beneficial offer. He wants me out of Minimil so that I’m out of his hair, and I want out of Minimil to retire from the public eye.

He told me, that in exchange for some light research work, namely designing and living in sugar-based houses, he would relocate me to the shores he still owns in Blefuscu, complete with resources and servants. I’m told it’s a very private and peaceful place, so long as you keep an eye on the tide.”

That does sound a touch better than what I’ve been able to provide you,” Solenos added, voice barely vibrating as it usually did, instead oozing with sadness. “We will have to correspond of course. I think… I think I’ll be writing you leaf-letters even before you leave.” They rounded a corner, came up on a screen of waxy leaves separating a chamber from the passage.

I don’t want there to be any correspondence,” Snaps said, coming to a halt. Solenos flinched, tiny eyes deepening with fear. The gingerbread man couldn’t let that torment last. “I would much rather you come and live with me instead.”

Herschel! I… I don’t know what to say.”

What does your heart tell you?”

To go of course! To go with bells and ribbons on! But I have my duties to my colony, and to my queen. It is practically a fact of my biology that I will not leave her.”

I’m well aware, which is why I asked her opinion on the matter.” Snaps took three steps toward the leaf screen, took the edge of one and pulled them all back. Queen Zoukas was standing there, dragging the brooding abdomen that had birthed the entire colony. It immediately became clear that the corridor had been emptied by her order.

Solenos, my dear child,” she said, welcoming him into her open arms. “Long have you served, and I was loath to see you forced into Little Wars against my wishes. Herschel has practically talked me to death, every word about you, some of which I am sad to say I had no idea about.

I hereby order you to leave the colony indefinitely, to be the escort of one of our most valuable allies, the best digit Minimil ever put forward. Call it a banishment if that’s what it takes to get you out of these tunnels.” The blindsided myrmidon was ecstatic, struggling to contain it within humility, but his queen encouraged him to drop that too, to go to Snaps.

He obeyed, and on shocking instinct embraced Snaps tightly, head finding a cozy spot between the gingerbread man’s neck and shoulder. They had not been that close since the fateful day they bonded years ago, when Snaps had offered parts of his own body to stave off Solenos’s imminent starvation. Both of them felt a surge of love for each other, a torrent that overran the mutual stuffiness that had kept their relationship so formal up to that point.

Herschel, what are we old friend?” he asked when he finally pulled away so they could gaze into each other’s eyes.

Whatever we are, it isn’t old,” Snaps answered, “it’s fresh. We are renewed, and I love it.”

The pair departed just a few days later, and though Hestia offered to transport them instantaneously from one sand castle to another, they instead opted to make it their first voyage together.

The long journey across the sea was made inside a cozy box, formerly full of animal crackers, its inner walls still smelling strongly of their comforting flavor. They were carried over the waves by Ludmenti’s flying carpet tassel, which never tired or flagged. Still, an occasional rough wind, or the squawk of a curious gull, gave the occupants pause. They would pull open a window panel and see the endless expanse of ocean beneath them, all too happy to take them in at any time, drowning Solenos and dissolving Snaps.

You’re not afraid of it?” the myrmidon asked his partner on one such occasion. “It would leave nothing of you behind, and not even care about the horrible crime it had committed.”

We’re the small, my dear Solenos.” He reached out and pulled him away from the window, urged him to rest his head in his gingerbread lap. Stroking his antennae, he went on. “There’s always something bigger than we can comprehend out there, looming over our lives, threatening to be big in our space and thus erase us. The trick, the trick my love, is in living like there isn’t.”

The End

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