Stupid

“Out! Get out! You aren’t worth the snake’s scales, idiot child!”

Piksel stopped, listening. It was a chore, picking out a single thing to focus on in the bustling streets of Nicodemia, but splitting his attention wasn’t hard. Few things were hard for Piksel Delmirev. So he listened, and upon pinpointing the direction of the racket, turned and peered down an alleyway.

He saw a sight not altogether uncommon here: someone yelling at someone else. This, though, was a bugbear woman easily the size of a young horse hollering at a human child, who cowered pitifully against the far wall of the alley. In her arms she clutched what looked like a ragtag bundle. As Piksel watched, the bugbear shouted a moment more (complete waste of time, don’t come back, you’ve no idea how much money you’ve lost me, stupid girl) and then slammed the door. The human—small and slight and with dirty mousy hair—stared at the door for a long few seconds, then slid to sit in mud, clutching her bundle to her chest.

Piksel considered this, the tip of his tail flicking pensively in the air. He had places to be, of course. His latest client had a tight deadline and was very impatient, and the supplier for his metals and circuits was adamant that if he didn’t get there first she’d sell them to the next person to ask. All that, and it looked like it was about to rain.

He didn’t consider it for very long before trotting across the lane, dodging wagons and entirely too-large foot traffic, until he had made it to the alley. A kobold’s sense of hearing wasn’t particularly impressive, but Piksel was sharp enough to hear the quiet crying from the girl.

“You,” he said briskly, pulling up short beside her. By his estimation, had she been standing she would have had perhaps six inches on him, but currently he could actually look down at her. It was nice not to strain his neck. By his estimation the child was perhaps ten or eleven, but you never really could tell with mammals. “Come on now, don’t cry. You’ll get a headache and then you’ll be of no use to anyone. What’s the matter?”

The girl sniffled, an ugly sound, and then looked up at him with wide eyes. Her face was dirty and her features nothing to write home about, but she had an upturned, piggy nose that was rather charming. She stared at him for a few seconds (Piksel was used to this by now) before saying, “I … well … got fired again, didn’t I?” Another sniffle. “Mixed up the important papers with the rubbish ones and burned them all. Who are you?”

Piksel tutted at her, hands akimbo. “Someone very important, but you may call me Mr. Delmirev. Why the tears? That’s not so bad.”

“It is so! Ms. Reagan was the last one who’d bother givin’ me a chance, and I don’t know how to do nothin’ else a lady should be able to do, not even s-sew!” Ah, now she was properly sniveling. “And the farrier won’t let me sleep in the barn no more and they’ve got me blacklisted at stables anyway, haven’t they, and I d-don’t know w-what else t’do but try m-my luck at the Goosedown with Madam Una—”

Up til this point Piksel had listened with relative dispassion. Now, though, his brow furrowed. “Don’t be ridiculous. The Goosedown’s a brothel, you’re just a child.”

Sniff. “Said they’d let me serve drinks, mostly, if I didn’t spill too much. Suppose I would, though. Ms. Reagan was right. I’m too stupid for much else.”

Piksel had been told, several times and by several different employers, that the look he acquired when he was well and truly annoyed was nothing short of unnerving. He supposed it had more to do with being reptilian than anything else. But he was wearing it now, mouth slightly open, lips curled, brow furrowed in unmasked irritation. The girl must have noticed, because she petered off once she noticed it was being directed her way. “Sorry, mister,” she mumbled, curling in more on herself. “Ain’t your problem.”

“Stop,” Piksel said, tone cold. “What have you got there? Clothes?”

“Um … yessir. What all I could manage to get, with Ms. Reagan chasin’ me out.”

“Meaning you’ve more left inside?”

“Yes, but …”

Yet before she could finish he had turned on his heel and stalked to the door the girl had been ejected from. He rapped on it sharply with his gauntleted hand, three times, and leaned back to cross his arms over his chest.

The door jerked open. “I told you to get, moron,” snarled who Piksel assumed to be Ms. Reagan, the bugbear. She had shaggy gray hair you could probably lose your dagger in, and a frilly pink apron. Her scowl turned to suspicion upon seeing not a girl, but a kobold. “… No handouts, kobold. Get lost.”

“I’m not here for handouts,” Piksel said, icy. “Terribly sorry not to live up to your stereotypes. I’ve just spoken with this human you’ve tossed into the street and she tells me you did not allow her to gather all her belongings before leaving. Is that true?”

The bugbear squinted at him. “What the hell is it to you?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Piksel said, adjusting his goggles on his forehead. “I’m inclined to believe the child, myself. What is your establishment, Ms. Reagan? A pub, from the smell of whiskey bursting out of it?”

“Yeah, so?”

He smiled, all teeth, the edges of it vanishing before they could reach his eyes. “There’s been a dreadful influx of stolen property in pubs around here lately, from what I hear. Lots of fingers being pointed at bar owners. I’m certain you run an above-board business, Ms. Reagan, but wouldn’t it be in your interest not to keep items that don’t belong to you?”

Ms. Reagan stared at him for a long few seconds. Probably piecing his actual meaning together, he thought, and suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. When she finally spoke again it was a low growl. “Are you threatening me, you little snot?”

“Of course not. That would be below me.” He met her stare, willing himself to feel larger than he really was. “I’m simply asking you to return the entirety of … what’s your name?” he said, glancing back at the girl.

She was watching them, unmoving, wide-eyed. “Um, it’s Violet.”

“Great. I’m simply asking you, Ms. Reagan, to return um-it’s-Violet’s belongings to her.” He cocked his head to one side, letting his smile creep into asshole territory. “Otherwise that would be theft.”

“I should dropkick you,” the bugbear sneered. Before Piksel could decide if he needed to dodge, though, she had turned and vanished into her building. A minute passed, then two, the door yet hanging open. Within Piksel could see a lifeless-looking bar and a tiny gaggle of tired patrons, until his vision was blocked by some seven feet of bugbear bulk again. Then it was blocked by something being dumped onto his head. “There,” said Ms. Reagan, “Gods. You’re wasting your time. That one’s going to die of idiocy.”

The door slammed.

Carefully, Piksel disentangled from his horns what proved to be a sack-cloth bag filled with a blanket, a corn-husk doll, and a tiny purse that probably had no more than two copper in it. Before he had quite finished, he turned to Violet. “There,” he said, lifting the bag in one hand. “Just a matter of levera—”

It turned out Violet had not six inches on him but eight, a fact he learned when she bolted across the alleyway and scooped him up bodily in a hug. She smelled rank and she was all bones and edges, and Piksel thought he would run out of air in about six seconds as she squeezed him and blubbered her thanks into his shoulder.

It was … kind of nice, he thought with some alarm, before scrabbling at her arms. “Stop. Stop that, don’t pick me up, please, I am not a pet and I’m going to give you a terrible first performance review if you do that—”

With a shaky gasp she obeyed, setting him gently back on the ground. Instinctively he brushed himself off, checking himself over for outfit damage or stray hairs, and failed to notice the way she had drawn her hands up in front of her chest. “Performance review?” she said, uncertain.

“Ahem. Yes. Of course,” Piksel answered, pulling his goggles off his head to wipe off the lenses with his vest. Satisfied they were spotless, he slipped them back on, and gave Violet a more professional smile. “You’ll work for me now. I could use someone to help me with odd jobs.”

“But … you heard all what she told you,” Violet said. “I’m not … I’m no good, aren’t I? Stupid.”

“No. Stop. You’ll not call yourself anything like that while working for me, understood?” He jabbed a finger at her. “I don’t have time for that sort of nonsense. Wipe off your face. We’ve got errands to run.”