From the Author
"No good with girls?" Hubble huffed. "Yeah. It's obvious."
"No good with feelings," muttered Tinker. "It's not like I grew up with a family or anything. I was an orphan, abandoned as a baby on the streets, picked up and adopted by goblins. I have no clue how to express emotions like this."
"Oh, sweetie, I've got news for you," said Natalie. "People all over the world have no idea how to express themselves. Even ones who did grow up in regular families. Isn't that right, Sam?"
Sam had returned to the table with not only a frosty beverage for himself but also ones for Natalie and Hubble as well. "Whatever she said, she's absolutely correct."
Tinker had to hand it to Sam. He was a good brother.
Natalie took a sip of the frozen chocolate and closed her eyes for a moment in bliss. "I was telling Tink that he's not the only kid without the ability to properly communicate his feelings."
"You mean about Bellamy?" Sam shrugged as he slid languidly down into his chair. "I told him to just kiss her."
Natalie raised her glass to Sam. "Brother, that may be the most intelligent thing I've ever heard you say."
"Granted, that might kill him. Or send him into anaphylactic shock." Hubble rolled the dice again. "The school nurse has a file on him thicker than the D&D Player's Handbook."
Tinker had fantasized about kissing Bellamy a million times, not that he'd ever admit it to his friends. Every time, he had died a happy man. She would leave flowers on his grave regularly, and pine over the loss of him for the rest of her days. But he would never take that risk in real life. Never. He could never do that to Bellamy.
Sam shrugged. "Take a Benadryl."
After another sip of her drink, Natalie reconsidered. "It's possible that she doesn't want your relationship to go beyond friendship. In which case, you should respect that..."
Tinker pointed at Natalie. "Exactly! Well said."
"...after you ask her the girlfriend question," Natalie finished.
"Or just kiss her," Sam said around his straw.
Tinker smirked. "I am not going to assault one of my best friends and ruin the rare and beautiful relationship we have."
This time, Sam, Natalie, and Hubble all threw up their hands in unison. Hubble's DM screen flopped back down to the table.
"I'm seriously considering assaulting one of my best friends," Hubble said to Tinker as he repositioned the screen. "Right after I crush his tiny little band of misfit adventurers with this horde of zombie orcs."
"Can my half-elf roll to fire an arrow at them through the secret door because they're taking so long to get ready?" asked Tinker.
"Dude." Sam snorted. "They're teenage girl zombie orcs."
Natalie kicked her brother's chair. "Check yourself, fuzzbutt. I know where you sleep."
"Got it!" Hubble clapped his hands together and rubbed them sinisterly. "Gird your loins, gamers. You are so not ready for this." Adopting his most dramatic Dungeon Master voice, Hubble spoke. "Seemingly out of nowhere, a legion of orcs begins to pour through the secret doorway..."
The electronic werewolf howled as the front door opened.
Tinker and his tiny band of misfit adventurers all burst out laughing.
"Ranulf Tinkerton!" a raspy voice called out.
Tinker froze mid-laugh. He recognized that voice, though he hadn't expected to see its owner again until winter break. Slowly, he turned in his chair. "Retcher?"
Yes, his goblin mentor was really there inside the coffee shop. Three more of the Lost Boys stood with him: Snot and the twins, Fork and Willie. How had they found him here, in the Bean? And what on earth were they doing in Nocturne Falls in the first place? Goblins weren't allowed to leave Goblin City, unless they had special dispensation from the Goblin King. Like the one Tinker had for his schooling, or the one Retcher possessed for gathering other Lost Boys and adding them to the tribe.
Retcher had rescued baby Tinker from the streets of Nowhere Special and welcomed him into the goblin fold. He had been the one to urge Tinker to go away to Harmswood. What on earth was he doing here?
After a few heartbeats, Tinker focused on what tiny, wide-eyed Snot carried in his oversized green hands.
No, no, no, no, no.
This was not happening. Not today. Not ever. Not here. Not in front of...
"What is that thing?" he heard Natalie whisper.
"That thing" was an enormous, gaudy, borderline-lethal construction of tin garbage, an eyesore reserved for only one honor.
"It's a ceremonial headdress, given to the heir to the throne of the Goblin King," Tinker said softly. But that's not me, he screamed inside his brain. This is not supposed to happen to me.
"Holy--" Hubble clamped his own hand over his mouth before a curse escaped his lips. Sam let out a low whistle. Natalie pulled her phone out of her pocket and hit record.
Tinker scanned the coffee shop. Everyone was staring at him now. Including Bellamy.
Retcher stood as tall as his crooked frame allowed. His stringy black hair fell into his eyes, covering almost all of his face except his bulbous, warty nose. The twins flanked him proudly. Snot, predictably, sniffled. Unable to move his hands without dropping the headdress, he casually wiped his nose on the pillow where it sat.
"Ranulf Tinkerton," Retcher announced. "We bestow upon you the Mantle of Majesty."
The monstrosity should have been called the Mantle of Misfortune. Bits had been added to the headdress over the years: a spoon here, a button there, a bottle cap or two, all nestled among dozens of coin-sized pieces of hammered tin. It did not sparkle in the light like dwarven silver might have, nor did the pieces tinkle magically as Retcher moved to place it over Tinker's head and shoulders. Instead, it clattered.
"Henceforth, you will be known as the Goblin Prince, heir apparent to the throne of the Goblin King."
Tinker opened his mouth and then closed it again. He wasn't sure what to say. If anything. It wasn't like he'd ever rehearsed this ceremony, because it wasn't supposed to happen to him.
The headdress smelled like iron and old feet. It had knocked Tinker's glasses off kilter, so he shifted it enough to straighten them. Several bits of tin fell to the floor.
Hubble--dramatic Hubble, go-bold kobold and best friend a guy could ever have--stood on top of his chair, maximizing his height. He threw his gray arms wide and, in his best Dungeon Master voice, announced to the coffee shop, "Welcome to Nocturne Falls, everyone!"
At that, the confused occupants of The Hallowed Bean began to applaud and cheer, Sam and Natalie loudest of all. Thanks to Hubble's declaration, all the tourists in the Bean would now just write this off as one more impromptu performance, staged for their benefit. Out of the corner of his eye, Tinker saw Bellamy clapping too, her rainbow-streaked curls bouncing cheerfully. The smile plastered to her face was both sweet and mystified.
Tinker closed his eyes and wished with all his might that the earth would open up and swallow him and the Malevolent Mantle right now.
Oh, yeah. It was official.
Worst. Day. Ever.