Monday, June 29, 2020

Secondary Characters Speak Out: Quartz and Blanche/Fairest/Briar

Quartz sits facing a fair-skinned girl with long, raven tresses, ruby lips, dressed in a purple gown trimmed with red ribbons. 

Quartz: Not that I’m not glad to see you, m’dear, but what are you doing here? You’re hardly a secondary character. 

Briar: Oh, I am in your story. Not that I’m not glad to be one. I’m learning a great deal about myself as a secondary character in Of Cuckoo Clocks and Crystal Coffins. 

Quartz: Trust you to find the bright side to being a secondary character, m’dear.

Briar: That’s just it. I wanted to find the bright side. To be the happy lodger, always ready with a smile for you and your brothers, singing while I sweep right along with the birds. That lodger isn’t me, though, no matter how much I pretended to be her. 

Quartz: You didn’t have to pretend, m’dear. I knew you were hurting. The way we met, the way you collapsed on our doorstep, shivering, how could you not be?

Briar: I wanted to be that happy lodger, I truly did. For you. For myself. To become someone who could forget Oriana and everything she’d done. To throw myself into my new life and find the joy in it the way you always did.

Quartz: Huh? I’m not exactly the singing sort. Nor do I bring any cheer to those around me. I just grumble. Mind you, I can out-grumble everyone except Opal, but I’m all about the irritation. Not the joy. 

Briar: Only I’ve seen that joy in you. I’ve seen it when you examine the stones you’ve mined, polishing them until they shine just right. Or watching you whittle. There’s joy in your concentration, Quartz. A condensed happiness that’s all the more powerful for not being released in song. 

Quartz: Well, that’s a very pretty way of putting it. (His nose turns red.) Opal says I’m just mooning over stones. Nimmie Not thinks I’m not having enough fun. 

Briar: You are having fun. You find the joy in your work, something I’m trying hard to do. 

Quartz: You’re off to a good start, m’dear. Give yourself time. 

Briar: Look at me. (She fingers the ribbons in her sleeve.) I’m wearing the same gown I wore as Princess Blanche. Not the homespun I wear as your Fairest. I can’t escape from who I was. 

Quartz: You shouldn’t. Accept it, rant at it, let it go. You’re doing it already, see? Look at the name you’re using for this interview, m’dear. It’s not Blanche. It’s not even Fairest. It’s Briar, a name you love because someone you love gives it to you. 

Briar: Yes. Yes, I was feeling so angry and miserable when I stepped from your story, feeling like it took everything I had to smile. Only I can almost see her, the one you’re speaking of. A girl with golden hair, like and unlike Oriana. Only her blue eyes are far more earnest and direct. 

Quartz: Welcome to the fourth wall here in the Cauldron, m’dear. You see things from other stories, things a future you has to look forward to. You won’t remember any of this when you return to our story, but take comfort from knowing this, here and now. One day you’ll wear that dress for yourself and your beloved. One day you’ll love wearing it, love the look in the eyes of the princess seeing you in it. I promise. 

Briar: I hope you’re right. I pray for it with all my heart. 

Quartz: You do that. For now, keep your chin up, aye?

Briar: (smiling a little) Yes…I mean, aye. 
Quartz: Good. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

#QueerBlogWed: Paula's Prompts

On January 1, 2020, P.T. Wyant shared at a Wednesday Words prompt involving a locket, a door, and a beam of sunlight.

This Tales of the Navel: The Shadow Forest freebie story was the result. I'm thinking of revising and working it into A Godling for Your Thoughts?

A single beam of sunlight was captured in the locket. Once Melyssa opened it, Danyel held up a hand to block his vision, stopping in front of Tayel. His twin’s sight was far keener than his own, making the beam’s glare far more painful for him. 

“They say shadows are driven away by light. I say that’s a lot of nonsense.” Melyssa spoke in a sharp tone that pierced the ear. “Light casts shadows. They cannot exist without it. And this light belonged to the brightest soul that ever peered out of a pair of wise eyes, my Master’s.” She wrapped her lips around the word “Master” with a possessive reverence that sent shivers down Danyel’s spine.

“What happened to your master?” Tayel shook his head slightly, warning him to be quiet, and yes, he was probably right. Danyel didn’t want to know the answer, but he had a feeling he needed to know. 

“I couldn’t remember until I found this locket.” Melyssa frowned, cupping the object in question with her hand, dimming the light. “She ran from me, ran from all of the Sisters of Seraphix and we, we were chasing her.”

“Why were you chasing her?” Danyel took a step forward. The cries from beyond the Door, memories of another time and place rang in his head, as if they belonged to him. 

“Freak! Halfling!”

“She…changed.” Melyssa furrowed her brow, wrinkles appearing in them. The expression was so like Map’s, it was troubling. “She allowed herself to embrace a monster, letting it become part of her, invading the temple. We…we couldn’t allow her to continue doing that.” She fumbled for the words, uncertain of them. “We chased her out.”

“Chased her out?” Something bitter spread across Danyel’s tongue. “Or were you trying to kill her?”

“Danyel!” Tayel hissed, sending him a warning glare. 

“Why were you trying to kill her?” Danyel ignored the warning. He crossed his arms and glared at Melyssa, remembering the fearful stomach flutterings, the rage he’d felt in that brief moment in the Shadow Forest when he’d been Map, when he’d relived one of her worst memories. What should have been dreamlike and vague returned to him with the sharpness of a blow to his cheek. 


“Why was she an abomination?” Danyel glared at Melyssa. “Because her skin changed? Because she no longer looked human, she stopped being the person you loved?” He advanced on Melyssa. “What’s wrong with you?”

“We were afraid!” Melyssa backed up a step and raised her arms, not quite looking at Danyel. She dropped the locket, letting it fall against her breast. “We’d never seen anything like the creature our master became and I…I was trying to escape from monsters myself. I thought they’d followed me to the temple. The fear I felt when I saw our master, my master in that shape, well, I thought she’d betrayed me to my enemies.” 

She buried her face in her hands.

“Instead you betrayed her.” Danyel would not feel sorry for this girl. He would not. She’d hurt his family, scarred her with a fear that infected not only Map, but Tayel and perhaps Leiwell, leaving them terrified of other people, anyone outside their little family. Only it was hard not to pity her, watching her tremble so. She looked just as afraid as Map or Tayel at that moment. “You turned on her and attacked her.”

“How do you know all this?” Melyssa looked up with a tear-stained face. “I’ve only just remembered it!”

“After casting aside your memory in the Shadow Forest when you strayed from the path.” Tayel gazed at his twin with grim intensity. “Leaving that piece of yourself for innocent fools to pick up.”

Danyel flushed at this. “It wasn’t Melyssa’s memory I picked up. It was M..the master’s.” He caught himself from saying Map’s name just in time. That wasn’t his secret to tell. “I felt her fear as she ran from her former sisters.”

He bit his lower lips, balling his hand into a fist. It wasn’t his memory either to have or hold on, but the ghost of it haunted him. Why did it haunt him?

“You shouldn’t go picking up other people’s memories, not that I believe in such a thing.” Melyssa scowled, not seeming to believe or like her own words. “A memory is an important part of a person. It makes her whom she is.”

“If that’s so, why do people throw them away?” Danyel heard a slight intake of breath beside him, felt Tayel withdraw from him. “Why are people so eager to cast away who and what they are?”

Melyssa recoiled, almost as if Danyel had struck her. She dropped the locket, letting it fall against her tunic, to lodge itself against the leather ties at her breast. 

He wasn’t sure if she’d answer or if she wanted to. He could feel Tayel’s stillness, a frozen state which was somehow worse than his anger. 

“You know the answer to that.” She raised her head, looking at him with vivid, rose-purple eyes, filled with blood and sorrow. “Because we don’t like whom we are. Not at all.” 

She turned her back on him and stalked away. 

“That was brutal,” Tayel uttered the accusation in a low voice. “Cruelty from you is an unexpected as the earth swaying under my feet, shattering every goblet our mothers ever sipped from.”

“Do you have any idea what she did?” Danyel turned on his twin with a savage rage that took him by surprise. “You’re the one who’s always saying or hinting that our family matters and these new neighbors of ours don’t.”

Tayel flinched at that. “It matters when they bring cruelty out of you.” This was as direct a statement as his twin ever made. “It matters when that cruelty exposes you in a way that puts you and our whole family at risk.” 

Danyel stiffened at this. “She already knew or suspected something.”

“Now she’s certain.” Tayel crossed his arms and gazed straight at his brother with glittering eyes, filled with sharp, silver angles. “Now we must face the storm of her certainty.” 

“The storm was already coming,” Danyel started to argue, only to sigh and shrug. “All right. Maybe I was cruel. She brought back some cruel memories.”

“Sometimes our memories are too cruel to carry.” Tayel shook his head, let it droop, golden hair falling forward to hide his expression. “That cruelty, however, may be a vital part of our being, what shapes our being.”

“What are you saying?” Danyel peered at his brother, trying to see past the veil of curls and waves. 

Tayel didn’t answer. He simply swayed, taking a step back. 

Danyel swallowed, considering his twin’s words. There was something particularly ominous about this particular riddle, perhaps more ominous than Tayel himself guessed. 

He had an awful feeling they’d find out why. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

#QueerBlogWed: Paula's Prompts

On March 11, 2020, P.T. Wyant posted at a Wednesday Words prompt involving a birdcage, a top hat, and a shield.

This freebie story for my surreal, steampunk Work in Progress, On the Other Side of the Mask was the result...

Lord Ruthvyn’s entire estate, from its gilded walls to its marble staicases was a birdcage. How many songbirds had been trapped within one of his bedchambers, smothered in luxury and madness, forced to sing until they dropped?

“Be grateful you were chosen.” Olympia shot Byron a smoldering sulk from under dusky eyelashes, shadowed by the brim of a top hat. An elaborate violet ribbon wrapped itself around it, matching the purple waistcoat and cravat she sported, a departure from her usual black bodice with purple laces. The effect was the same, contrasting with her lustrous blue eyes, more metallic in their brilliance than human orbs ever were. “I would have given anything to sing for our lord, but all I could manage was one miserable note.”

She slapped a gloved hand against the shield upon the wall, which depicted a wyvern rearing back its head at a tangle of thorns. 

“It’s different.” Byron studied the coat of arms, the pattern in the bramble. Every thorn looked like a tiny, skeletal hand, reaching for pleading fingers to the haughty wyvern. “Wasn’t there a single rose in a griffon’s claw before?”

“Is that what it looks like to you?” Olympia cocked her head, turning her attention to the shield. “Everything changes in our lord’s estate, shifting in the eye of the beholder.”

“Tell me.” Byron had no right to give this lady, this favoured servant of Lord Ruthvyn, who’d been here far longer than he had orders, yet he allowed an imperious note to color his tone. How far could he push Olympia? “What does it look like to you?”

“Fancy yourself quite the little lordling with your lily white skin and your dainty ways, don’t you?” Olympia sneered, but there was a flicker of something very like in her sapphire eyes. Fear was a weakness Byron could exploit, even if it brought him dangerously close to being like Lord Ruthvyn himself. 

“Once I was very much like you.” Byron could hear the echo of his new master’s melancholy voice in his memory, visualize those delicate hands, the narrow nose, the lustrous dark eyes shadowed with memories of a passion he could no longer feel, no matter how much he might hunger for it in others. “And you, my exquisite rebel child, are destined to become exactly like me.”

No. He would not. Byron was only using the techniques of the enemy to defeat the enemy. He didn’t enjoy the flicker of fear in a woman’s eye, even if she was yet another tool of that enemy. 

Well, maybe he enjoyed it a little. 

“To answer your question,” Olympia’s languid, sardonic tone brought him back to here and now. “I don’t see a coat of arms. I don’t see a shield at all. What’s on the wall is a long, wooden staff, perfect for beating a useless dummy with.” She leaned forward to touch the shield.

It vanished, becoming the very rod she described, carved with intricate, menacing symbols which might have been another language, or pictures too small to detect. 

“You see?” She caressed the symbols with an intimacy, even though he detected a slight tremour in her satin-covered fingers. “It’s also perfect for hoisting a poppet high in the sky, right before you set her on fire.”

“Why does it take on such a shape for you?” Shelley would have asked this in a gentle, inobstrustive manner. For Byron, it became an urgent demand. “What dread do rods and staffs hold for you, Olympia?”

“What makes you think I dread them?” Olympia tossed her head, knocking the top hat askew. Stray ebon curls escaped from beneath to cling to her cheeks, emphasizing their doll-like perfect. She truly appeared to be more of a poppet than a woman. “Do you fear shields, little songbird? Or do you yearn to hide behind one?”

“Often.” There was something liberating in admitting this, even empowering. “A rod or a staff can offer comfort, according to ancient prayers from the lost world outside Paradise, but you see it as a tool of injury or death.” He cocked his own head, mimicking and mocking her gesture. “Something to beat someone or something with, or to hold her prisoner while you burn her.”

“You’re assuming I’m seeing myself as the victim being beaten or burnt.” She twisted her ruby lips into a smirk, but there was definitely fear in Olympia’s eyes now. The emotion brightened them, making them even more lustrous.

What would Lord Ruthvyn’s dark orbs be like, illuminated by such emotion? Perhaps a midnight sky, given vibrancy by the stars caught within them? A bit like how Shelley’s eyes sometimes reminded Byron of the sea, reflecting the sunlight above. 
No. He recoiled a bit at his own thoughts, comparing Shelley to Lord Ruthvyn. The two were nothing alike. His feelings for his one companion and the tyrant whom held them both captive were completely dissimilar. Nor would he ever frighten Shelley, or take delight in Shelley’s fear. The very notion chilled Byron to the bone, bringing an abrupt halt to his fancy. 

“Ah, it’s not so simple, is it, little songbird?” Olympia gazed at him, as if she’d guessed his thoughts. She allowed her sneer to soften into something vulnerable, almost human. “We all hold the potential to be victim and villain. Whether or not we can master our potential is another matter.”

“Can you?” He asked the question in a more gentle manner than his previous queries. He’d seen her fear, savoured it. Now he felt dirty, more than a little ashamed of how he’d revelled in his power over her. 

“There’s a reason I’m Lord Ruthvyn’s servant and doll.” Olympia lifted her hands to adjust her top hat with a simple dignity, which belied her words. “Not all of us have what it takes to be pale lord and ladies, even if we are their favourites.”

Byron gazed at her, unsure how to reply to this. “Slavery is a state of mind as much as it a state of being.”

“The fact that you can view slavery thus shows how much farther you’ve come than I ever could.” The mocking smile returned to her lips. Olympia shrugged, dismissing her own words with a gesture. Once more, her eyes grew opaque, emotionless, a doll’s. “Not that I care to understand your words too clearly.”

There was something contradictory in her manner. Byron was certain that the face she presented to him was nothing more than a mask she wore, one Olympia had come in believe in over time. 

Not that she gave him a chance to say anything about it. Olympia turned her back on him and marched out of his room. 

Well. She wasn’t an ally, much less a friend. She was, perhaps, someone who could be worked upon, persuaded, manipulated. Given time. 

Byron bit his lower lip. He tasted blood and bitter triumph, for it had been a petty victory scored against Lord Ruthvyn’s minion, one Shelley would have found cruel. 

Cruelty might be called for, if he wanted to reclaim Shelley and get out of here. Byron would have to do much better…or worse than that. 

He sucked on his lip and swallowed the bitter taste of himself. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

#QueerBlogWed: Paula's Prompts

On February 12, 2020, P.T. Wyant posted at a Wednesday Words prompt involving someone who looks familiar, a pillow, something overdue.

This freebie story for my surreal steampunk inspired by 19th century poetry, poets, legends of fae and vampires, On the Other Side of the Mask was the result. I'm thinking of rewriting this and including it in the story itself...

Shelley buried his face into his pillow, trying to avoid the sight of the shadowy figure bending over his bed. It wasn’t real. It could be real. It looked too much like his own face, if he were to add a few years, surrounded by his own ginger curls, only it couldn’t be Shelley. He’d never worn purple velvet, not in all of his short life in Paradise. Only the pale lords and those who served them wore such costly attire, such vibrant colours. 

“Get thee behind me,” he whispered, recognizing how empty his words were. There was nowhere to get and nowhere to go. Shelley dwelled in Paradise, in the heart of the Goddess’s church, as one of her songbirds. Nothing could touch him here. 

Nothing that wasn’t supposed to. 

“Your kiss, your surrender is long overdue.” The familar face came closer, revealing more differences between Shelley’s and it; a longer, narrower nose, lips covered with rouge. It was almost a doll’s face, very like a painted mask. “All the other songbirds have surrendered their souls. How have you held onto yours?”

“Why is my soul due?” Something about this doll-like man, a ghostly hint of spirit mingled with sorrow in his blue eye emboldened Shelley. He sat up and leaned closer. “Why do you require it? Why are you sneaking around the choir cells at night to claim it? Doesn’t it belong to the Goddess?”

The figured recoiled from the bed at this confrontation. Or perhaps Shelley’s words made it question its resolve? Whatever the reasons, it withdrew back into the shadows, vanishing, leaving only dust behind. 

Shelley sat up in what felt like brilliant moonlight filling the room, only to have warm arms catch him up in a fierce embrace. 

“Shelley!” Byron hugged him, pressing his face into his hair, his cheek, breathing in the scent of him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m all right.” Shelley hugged back, surrendering to the other boy’s tight embrace, his feverish touches which made certain he, Shelley was still there. 

This was the only surrender he was willing to render. A sharp spark of defiance, the same defiance which inspired him to follow Byron and claim his name flared within Shelley’s breast, intensified by the heat of Byron’s fingers. That spectre might believe some other surrender was due, but Shelley wasn’t going to give it. 

He glanced at the other figures in the small beds. Some of them stirred, showing a wan interest in Shelley’s nightmares. Once Mae would have come running to his side. Now she only offered him a sleepy, sad smile before closing her eyes. All the fire had dimmed in Caro’s, leaving them gleaming with only the palest light of intelligence. 

They were changing, the other songbirds, just as Claire had changed after claiming his name and his bed in this cell. The spark of interest in what was happening around them, one which all the children used to share was dying. 

Dying or being taken from everyone except Byron and Shelley. Could it be their souls? Or was it something else which the other songbirds had given up, bit by bit?

Shelley tightened his grip on Byron, the spark blazing within, fanned by protective fury. Not Byron. Never Byron. Let the hungry spirit haunting these cells take everyone, even Shelley himself in the end. It would never take Byron.

Shelley would force the creature to choke on his own life force first. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

#QueerBlogWed: Paula's Prompts

On February 5, 2020, P.T. Wyant posted at a Wednesday Words prompt "They knew we were there."

I hope she's happy to see that it inspired a freebie story involving her favorite dwarf, written from the perspective of the youngest brother of that dwarf. I'm thinking of working this into Of Cuckoo Clocks and Crystal Coffins...

They knew we were there. I could feel their beady eyes, staring from under folds of friendly flesh, still and posed upon the lawn. Just as a pose, just as their faces were just masks.

“Quartz.” I didn’t want to argue with our eldest brother, especially in front of the prancing stranger, the odd little man, who skipped and smirked at my brothers and myself like all of us were his business, particularly Quartz! Problem was the figures on the lawn alarmed me far more than he did. “I don’t think we should stay here.” 

“Oh ho, you don’t think you should stay here, don’t you?” The strange little man who’d guided my brothers and myself out of the mountain spun on one slippered heel, bell jingling on his toe as he did. “Pray tell, little dwarf, why not?”

“Stop that.” Quartz moved, so his solid, thick bulk stood between me and the stranger. He turned to face me, giving our guide a glower before he did. “Go on, Garnet. What’s wrong?”

“Those tiny people in front of the cottage make me…uneasy.” I glanced at the plump, smiling faces, which were just masks. I was sure of it. One of the rosy cheeks had slipped down a bit, revealing green scales underneath. Another showed a hint of fang in an otherwise jovial bearded smile. “They’re pretending to look like us, but they’re not what they seem.”

“What pretenders are these?” Jasper looked around the grass and rubbed his hands, not seeming to notice the silent figures. 

“I don’t see them.” Agate crossed his arms and frowned. 

“Nor do I.” Opal shot a scowl at Quartz. “You’d better not be getting Garnet involved in your crystal gazing. You’re addled enough without encouraging him.”

“Addle yourself.” Quartz glowered right back at Opal, his gaze flickering and gliding off one of the squat figures on the grass growing up to the cottage porch.

How could my brothers miss these creatures? All right, they weren’t as colorful as our skinny guide, but they were wearing bright red caps, even if their coats were grayish green. Not to mention they were standing in front of us. 

“I’m telling you they’re right here!” One round figure raised plump arms, twirling around, flaring full skirts to expose thick boots. A bearded fellow caught her around the waist, holding her as she spun. Neither of them took their beady eyes off of me. “They’re watching us right now!”

“Oh ho! Lots of things watch you in the Forest of Tears!” Our odd little guide waved a bony finger at me. “You’ll just have to get used to it.”

“Right.” Quartz glanced down at his beard, smoothing it, avoiding the sharp glances of the creatures on the grass. “Unless we leave and return to the mountains.”

“What?” Our guide balled his hands into fists. “You strike a successful bargain with me, winning this lovely cottage as result, you plod all this distance down here, only to plod back?!”

“Keen to keep us here, aren’t you?” Quartz raised an eyebrow. “Just what is my little brother seeing which no one else can? And why shouldn’t we just plod off if he’s uncomfortable?” 

“Oh, I’m certain you can see what Garnet does if you really wish to, Quartz.” The little man dropped his fists to leer at my eldest brother. “Unlike that one, who couldn’t if he tried.” He waved a dismissive hand at Opal. “Some are simply more sensitive than others.” The stranger spun around on his slippered heel only to stop in front of me, the bell on his toe jingling with menacing glee. “Your youngest brother still has an innocent and open heart, which allows him to see all sorts of things eager to make sport of him.” The little man winked at me. “Better close that sharp eye before it sees too much, don’t you think?”

“How-?” I was on the verge of asking how to do that, when Quartz whacked me across the head. 

“Enough! Ask that and this one will expect you to pay the price for his answer, no matter how worthless it might be.” My older brother glowered at our guide. “Stop messing with my family, Nimmie Not.”

Nimmie Not? Now that was a peculiar name for a peculiar fellow. I wondered how Quartz had learned our guide’s name. 

Not that Nimmie Not was happy about his name being shared. 

“Really, Quartz, no need to go blurting out names, even if they’re not true names.” The little man pouted, his pointed ears flapping. They stuck out to a ridiculous degree, something I hadn’t noticed, being distracted by Nimmie Not’s bells. And his slippers. And his cap. And his waistcoat. And his, well, everything. 

“Don’t remember you asking or even suggesting secrecy about what to call you.” Quartz crossed his arms. “Besides, I’m only telling my plodding brothers, right?” 

“Oh, all right. The seven of you will be living in my cottage after all.” Nimmie Not tapped a finger on his lips, regarding the garden gnomes. 

The figures froze in place at his attention, only to bow in courteous deference towards our guide. One by one, they slunk away from the cottage to head into the trees of the surrounding forest. One of them winked at me in a far more suggestive fashion than Nimmie Not had, showing a slitted yellow eye. 

I didn’t say anything until he’d followed the others into the trees. Once he did, I exploded. 

“What was that?” I trembled all over, ready to run back the way we’d come. “Who were those garden gnomes? What were they doing here?”

“Nothing, they’re nothing, they’re doing nothing, unless you pay them too much attention, little dwarf. If you do, they’ll become true garden gnomes.” Nimmie Not reached out to tickle Quartz’s beard. “Although if you act like your brother here, giving them no attention at all, they might be only too eager to have it.”

“Gah! Get off!” Quartz swatted at Nimmie Not’s hand. “It’s easy to guess someone was there, the way you were acting. Even if I can’t see them.”

“You can’t see them because you’re too stubborn to see, my dear Quartz.” Nimmie Not skipped back, locking his arms behind his back. “Poor Opal could stare and stare, never seeing anything, but you, Quartz, you shut your eyes and ears to anything that doesn’t please you, losing yourself in your beloved crystals.”

“Thank’ee for pointing that out,” Opal grumbled. “Like I don’t have better things to do than stare at strange shapes.”

I flushed a bit at this. 

“Actually, you don’t. Take care around things your brothers see, but you don’t.” Nimmie Not wagged his finger in disapproval. “Those things might pop up and bite off your empty head, yes, they might.”

“Just what are you suggesting?” Opal brindled at this, black beard bristling in anger. 

“Enough.” Quartz lay a thick hand on our brother’s shoulder. “It’s not worth the sweat, working one up over every moment of supposed cleverness on that one’s part.”

“Why are you defending him?” Opal turned his glower on Quartz. “You’re flirting with him. Again.”

Quartz flirted with someone? Impossible. He never flirted with his brothers and the only other person…hold the boulders! He wasn’t flirting with Nimmie Not, was he?”

“I’m not!” Quartz spluttered, his nose turning red. 

“Never fear, brothers mine.” Nimmie Not smoothed the lapels of his waistcoat and smiled at us all. “I intend to take full responsibility.”

Onyx blinked. Sardonyx snorted. Agate let out a rude chuckle. Jasper gazed at all our faces, not quite understanding what was going on. Opal crossed his arms and just stared at Quartz. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Quartz allowed his eyebrows to bristle, so it looked like a hairy caterpillar was ready to crawl off his face into the forest. “Just what responsibility is this?”

“Brothers mine?” Opal looked from Quartz to Nimmie Not. “When did this happen?” 
Onyx cocked his head. Sardonyx shuffled where he stood. Agate smirked and crossed his arms, mimicking Opal. Jasper opened his mouth and closed it. 

As for me, I could feel my nose heating up. I mean, Nimmie Not had only just met my brother. He couldn’t mean what I thought he did. Did he?

“Nothing happened!” Quartz growled, but his nose looked even redder than mine felt. 

“It’s happening now. I’ll work on it, via a dream here, and something there.” Nimmie Not reached out to pat Opal’s arm. “Fear not. I’m a gentleman, unlike most garden gnomes.” He withdrew his hand to wag a finger at me. “I’d watch that sweet little dwarf if I were you. The forest denizens seem to find him entirely too delectable.” 

Quartz cocked his head at me. Opal turned his disapproving stare in my direction. Onyx studied me in silence. Sardonyx made a huffing sound, which might have been a laugh. Agate covered his red-whiskered sneer with one hand. Jasper gazed at me in almost reproachful surprise. 

I opened my mouth to protest, only to have a single sound escape. “Gah!”

“Too adorable, you truly take after Quartz.” Nimmie Not danced a few steps back from all of us, tapping his weathered cheek with a bony finger. “So nice that one of your brothers is amusing, although I’m just about worn out.”

He spun on one heel. “Make yourselves at home, my dear dwarves. I’ll come back once you do something interesting.”

Nimmie Not disappeared in a cloud of smoke. 

“I knew it,” Opal growled, waving the smoke away. “Kobold. Nothing but trouble.” 

“We’ve only just met him and no sense borrowing more trouble than we’ve already brought.” Quartz coughed, also waving away the smoke. 

Onyx rubbed his eyes. Sardonyx sneezed and rubbed his nose. Agate made a face at him. Jasper blinked in fascination at the fading yellow haze.

“Was he really a kobold?” He looked from Quartz to Opal. “We’ve never met one before.”

“We may have, but they didn’t necessarily let on they were a kobold.” Quartz heaved a sigh. “Nimmie Not is the first to come out to us as himself, so to speak.”

“So to speak.” Opal raised a black brow at Quartz. “He could have stuck around to show us around this cottage we’ve supposed to live in.”

“Never mind Nimmie Not. I’ve had just about enough of his guidance.” Quartz stomped up to the door, ignoring the smirks aimed in his direction. “It should be unlocked.”

“Told you, did he?” Agate grinned as if he were a kobold himself, smoothing his ginger whiskers. They were much redder than mine, something he never let me forget. “Thoughtful of him.”

“Don’t start,” Quartz warned, opening the door to our new home. 

All of us stomped inside the cottage except for me.

“Garden gnomes,” I whispered, glancing into the trees where said creatures had vanished. “You may know we’re here, but I know you’re here as well.”

The words didn’t come out nearly as brave as I’d hoped they would.