"Kids? Who said anything about kids?"
THE little girl looked at me through eyes that glowed with trust and love. She barely stood taller than my waist and had that wholesome, healthy glow that young girls are all supposed to have but so few actually do.
With her little beret and matching jumper, she looked so much like an oversized doll that I wondered if she'd say "Mama" if you turned her upside down, then right-side up again.
She was so adorable that it was obvious that anyone with a drop of paternal instinct would fall in love with her on sight. Fortunately, my partner had trained me well; any instincts I had were of a more monetary nature.
"What's that?" I demanded.
"It's a little girl," the Geek responded. "Haven't you ever seen one before?"
For a minute, I thought I was being baited. Then I remembered some of my earliest conversations with Aahz and controlled my temper.
"I realize that it's a little girl, Geek," I said carefully. "What I was really trying to ask is -a) who is she? -b) what is she doing here? and -c) what has this got to do with Pidge's marker? Do I make myself clear?"
The Deveel blinked his eyes in bewilderment.
"But I just told you. Her name is Markie. She's Pidge's marker... you know, the one you said you would cover personally?"
My stomach bottomed out.
"Geek, we were talking about a piece of paper. You know, ‘IOU, etc.'? A marker! Who leaves a little girl for a marker?"
"Pidge does. Always has. C'mon, Skeeve. You know me. Would I give anyone credit for a piece of paper? I give Pidge credit on Markie here because I know he'll be back to reclaim her."
"Right. You give him credit. I don't deal in little girls. Geek."
"You do now," he smiled. "Everyone at the table heard you say so. I'll admit I was a little surprised at the time."
"... But not surprised enough to warn me about what I was buying into. Thanks a lot, Geek old pal. I'll try to remember to return the favor someday."
In case you didn't notice, that last part was an open threat. As has been noted, I've been getting quite a reputation around the Bazaar as a magician, and I didn't really think the Geek wanted to be on my bad side.
Okay. So it was a rotten trick. I was getting desperate.
"Whoa. Hold it," the Deveel said quickly. "No reason to get upset. If you don't want her, I'll give you cash to cover the marker and keep her myself..."
"... at the usual terms, of course."
I knew I was being suckered. Knew it, mind you. But I had to ask anyway.
"If Pidge doesn't reclaim her in two weeks, I sell her into slavery for enough money to cover her father's losses."
Check and mate.
I looked at Markie. She was still holding the Geek's hand, listening solemnly while we argued out her fate.
As our eyes met, she said her first words since she had entered the room.
"Are you going to be my new daddy?"
I swallowed hard.
"No, I'm not your daddy, Markie. I just..."
"Oh, I know. It's just that every time my real daddy leaves me with someone, he tells me that they're going to be my pretend daddy for a while. I'm supposed to mind them and do what they tell me just as if they were my real daddy until my real daddy comes to get me. I just wanted to know if you were going to be my new pretend daddy?"
"I hope so. You're nice. Not like some of the scumbags he's left me with. Will you be my new daddy?"
With that, she reached out and took hold of my hand.
A small thrill ran through me like an autumn shiver. She was so vulnerable, so trusting. I had been on my own for a long time, first alone, then apprenticed to Garkin, and finally teamed with Aahz. In all that time, I had never really been responsible for another person. It was a funny feeling, scary and warming at the same time.
I tore my eyes away from her and glared at the Geek again.
"Slavery's outlawed here at the Bazaar."
The Deveel shrugged. "There are other dimensions. As a matter of fact, I've had a standing offer for her for several years. That's why I've been willing to accept her as collateral. I could make enough to cover the bet, the cost of the food she's eaten over the years, and still turn a tidy profit."
"That's about the lowest..."
"Hey! The name's ‘the Geek,' not ‘the Red Cross'! I don't do charity. Folks come to me to bet, not for handouts."
I haven't thrown a punch at anyone since I started practicing magic, but I was sorely tempted to break that record just this one. Instead, I turned to the little girl.
"Get your things, Markie. Daddy's taking you to your new home."
My partner and I were currently basing our operations at the Bazaar at Deva, which is the home dimension of the Deveels. Deevels are reputed to be the sharpest merchants, traders, and hagglers in all the known dimensions. You may have heard of them in various folk tales in your own home dimension. Their fame lingers even in dimensions they have long since stopped trading in.
The Bazaar is the showcase of Deva ... in fact, I've never seen a part of Deva that wasn't the Bazaar. Here the Deveels meet to trade with each other, buying and selling the choicest magics and miracles from all the dimensions. It's an around-the-clock, over-the-horizon sprawl of tents, shops, and barter blankets where you can acquire anything your imagination can conjure as well as a lot of things you never dreamed existed ... for a price. Many inventors and religious figures have built their entire career from items purchased in one trip to the bazaar. Needless to say, it is devastating to the average budget... even if the holder of the purse strings has above-average sales resistance.
Normally I enjoy strolling through the booths, but tonight, with Markie beside me, I was too distracted to concentrate on the displays. It occurred to me that, fun as it is for adults, the Bazaar is no place to raise a child.
"Will we be living by ourselves, or do you have a girlfriend?"
Markie was clinging to my hand as we made our way through the Bazaar. The wonders of the stalls and shops dispensing magic reached out to us as they always do, but she was oblivious to them, choosing instead to ply me with questions and hanging on my every word.
" ‘No's to both questions. Tananda lives with me, but she isn't my girlfriend. She's a free-lance assassin who helps me out on jobs from time to time. Then there's Chumley, her brother. He's a troll who works under the name of Crunch. You'll like them. They're nice... in a lot of ways they're nicer than I am."
Markie bit her lip and frowned. "I hope you're right. I've found that a lot of nice people don't like little kids."
"Don't worry," I said, with more confidence than I felt. "But I'm not done yet. There's also Guido and Nunzio, my bodyguards. They may seem a little gruff, but don't let them scare you. They just act tough because it's part of their job."
"Gee. I've never had a daddy who had bodyguards before."
"That's not all. We also have Buttercup, who's a war unicorn, and Gleep, who's my very own pet dragon."
"Oh, lots of people have dragons. I'm more impressed by the bodyguards."
That took me aback a little. I'd always thought that having a dragon was rather unique. I mean, nobody else I knew had a dragon. Then again, nobody else I knew had bodyguards, either.
"Let's see," Markie was saying. "There's Tananda, Chumley. Guido, Nunzio, Buttercup, and Gleep. Is that all?"
"Well, there's also Massha. She's my apprentice."
"Massha. That's a pretty name."
Now, there are lots of words to describe my apprentice, but unfortunately ‘pretty' isn't one of them.
Massha is huge, both in height and breadth. There are large people who still manage to look attractive, but my apprentice isn't one of them. She tends toward loud, colorful clothes which invariably clash with her bright orange hair, and wears enough jewelry for three stores.
In fact, the last time she got into a fight here at the Bazaar was when a nearsighted shopper mistook her for a display tent.
"Aahh... you'll just have to meet her. But you're right. Massha is a pretty name."
"Gee, you've got a lot of people living with you."
"Well... umm ... there is one more."
"His name is Aahz. He's my partner."
"Is he nice, too?"
I was torn between loyalty and honesty.
"He... aah... takes getting used to. Remember how I told you not to be scared of the bodyguards even if they were a little gruff?"
"Well, it's all right to be scared of Aahz. He gets a little upset from time to time, and until he cools down it's best to give him a lot of room and not leave anything breakable-like your arm-within his reach."
"What gets him upset?"
"Oh, the weather, losing money, not making money... which to him is the same as losing money, any one of a hundred things that I say ... and you! I'm afraid he's going to be a little upset when he meets you. so stay behind me until I get him calmed down. Okay?"
"Why would he be upset with me?"
"You're going to be a surprise to him, and he doesn't like surprises. You see, he's a very suspicious person and tends to think of a surprise as a part of an unknown plot against him ... or me."
Markie lapsed into silence. Her blow furrowed as she stared off into nothingness, and it occurred to me that I was scaring her.
"Hey, don't worry," I said, squeezing her hand. "Aahz will be okay once he gets over being surprised. Now tell me about yourself. Do you go to school?"
"Yes. I'm halfway through Elemental School. I'd be further if we didn't keep moving around."
"Don't you mean Elementary School?" I smiled.
"No. I mean..."
"Whoops. Here we are. This is your new home, Markie."
I gestured grandly at the small tent that was our combination home and headquarters.
"Isn't it a little small for all those people?" she frowned, staring at the tent.
"It's bigger inside than it is outside," I explained. "C'mon. I'll show you."
I raised the flap for her and immediately wished I hadn't.
"Wait'll I get my hands on him!" came Aahz's booming voice from within. "After all the times I've told him to stay away from dragon poker!"
It occurred to me that maybe we should wait for a while before introducing Markie to my partner. I started to ease the flap down, but it was too late.
"Is that you, partner? I'd like to have a little chat, if you don't mind!"
"Remember. Stay behind me," I whispered to Markie, then proceeded to walk into the lion's den.