Arya Stark quickly realized that the hooded cloak might have been a mistake as she shouldered her pack and made her way out into the honey tinged light of Raydkeap. The sector capitol teemed with life, its denizens out in force despite humidity that bore down like a vice. Out of habit, she pulled her hood up to veil her face and adjusted the wide sleeves of her robe. The comforting weight of Needle made the left hang slightly lower than the right. It wouldn't be noticeable to the average person but she tucked her hands into the opposing sleeves to make sure the weapon would not be seen.
Most Jedi didn't name their weapons. Her master chided her for her pride when he first discovered her secret. "It is not needed," Syrio lectured solemnly. "Our weapon is an extension of ourselves. Do you call your arm or your foot something other than what it is? I thought you were beyond such foolishness."
"Our oldest stories on Winderfyld are about those who upheld justice and fought for the weak," Arya confided. "They named their swords, Master. I wished to honor that."
Syrio's mouth twisted as he regarded her. "As you wish," he finally broke his silence. "I won't interfere." A slight smile flickered. "Your Needle is aptly named. You are small and so is your blade. You wield it as a goodwife sewing up a hem." His robust laughter took the sting out of his words but Arya's cheeks reddened nonetheless. It was known that the young woman often lamented not being male. It was a chink in her formidable armor that Syrio made frequent use of to drive his lessons home.
She shook her head at the memory before pushing it aside so as to focus on her mission. The Supreme Chancellor had reduced the Senate to nothing more than a rubber stamp for his agenda. True power lay with him and with those he deigned to invest an extension of his growing authority. Several newly minted sector governors were taking advantage of their new positions in ways that weren’t beneficial to the wellbeing of the Republic. Since the Masters and older Padawans were being tapped for command in the Grand Army, it fell to the younger ones like Arya to handle the more mundane matters that arose.
Syrio’s instructions were clear…keep a low profile, look for signs of malfeasance, but take no action on her own. This was strictly fact finding. The Masters would hear her report and then decide if further attention was warranted. It was unusual for the Jedi to become involved in such matters but situation on Raydkeap was an anomaly, unusual enough that Master Syrio and Master Yoda felt it required attention. So here she was, in a backwater sector that fancied itself as important as the Core.
Governor Robert Baratheon’s untimely death while on a hunting excursion was troublesome. The Governor, formerly one of Palpatine’s best field Generals, was known to be fond of such pastimes. Gossip in Court spoke of a man who’d long since turned over his duties to a group of advisors while he indulged in the benefits of his station. Robert’s death had scarcely become known before a new Governor was announced. This Joffrey, also a Baratheon but of no relation to former Governor, moved swiftly to consolidate his hold on the reins of power. The speed and relative ease of succession brought the matter to the Jedi’s attention. Raydkeap, while small in terms of galactic importance, was strategically situated on a critical hyperspace route from the Core to the Colonies. Keeping them allied with the Republic was of utmost importance. If Joffrey Baratheon had other aspirations, then he would shown the error of his ways.
Arya looked around in interest as she walked along a wide, treelined avenue. Buildings of every hue flanked the street. Each one was more fanciful than the last, with fluted columns, carved balustrades, and curved domes banded in copper and bronze. She passed an open air market filled to bursting with every manner of produce, animals and the chatter of a thousand voices. It drew a reluctant smile from her, bringing back memories of market days in Northwall, the tiny town she’d lived in with her family until her abilities manifested. Vendors called out to passersby, offering samples and declaiming the superiority of their goods over their competitors. Arya shook her head and waved them away when they approached.
Suddenly, the sounds of fighting drowned out the clamor of the market. Customers and merchants alike fell silent, their heads craning toward the sudden outburst. A lone plume of smoke wafted skyward from the city center. The crowd froze, looked around in panic and then fled, leaving chaos in their wake.
Arya caught the arm of a small, rat faced man who’d stopped to gather his wares before fleeing. “What’s going on? What’s happening?” The man didn’t spare her a look as he continued tossing rings, chased goblets, and delicately carved statues into a rough woven sack.” Arya grabbed his collar and shook him. “I asked you what’s happening.”
“Better get outta here instead of asking stupid questions, girl,” the old one rasped, shaking off her hand with ease. “Even someone as dim as you can see that the Watch is fighting. Need to get off the streets or you’ll be taken in with the rest of them.”
“Fighting? Fighting who?” Arya shouted. “I don’t understand.”
“Separatists,” He scooped a pile of coins into the bag and slung the lot over his shoulder. “The Governor’s dead, the young one they call Joffrey. They killed him at his wedding feast, it’s said. The new bride screamed her head off as he flopped at her feet. Face was purple as a bruise. You’d better get off the street, girl. The Watch won’t take too kindly to strangers wandering around.”
“Is there any ships?” Arya questioned, letting her fingers curl around Needle’s hilt for reassurance. “I need to get offplanet.”
The man snorted, giving her a pitying look. “Are you mad, girl? They’d have shut down the ports first thing. No way nobody’s leaving until they get this sorted out, not by legitimate means.”
Arya paused, a tingle at the back of her mind prodding her on. “What about illegitimate?”
The man looked even more like a rat when his nose twitched irritably but he answered, “Fleabottom. It’s a wretched place full of scum and villainy. Somebody there might be foolish enough to help an idiot girl like you. Now, away with you. You’ve taken up enough of my time.” He scuttled out of sight, his bag of goods bouncing against his shoulder.
“Fleabottom,” Arya repeated, her mind racing furiously as she tried to recall the layout of the city she’d studied. If she remembered correctly, it was a low pocket cradled in the between two of the city’s three hills. She pulled Needle out of her sleeve and cradled it in her hand as she darted off in what she hoped was the right direction.
The tavern looked as deserted as the streets surrounding it. A few carefully worded questions had led her here on the promise that many pilots who wished to avoid attention spent their downtime ensconced here. The grimy building had nothing to distinguish it from the others but the wolf’s head sign she’d been told about hung over the door. Taking a deep breath to steady her pounding heart, Arya pushed the door open and slipped inside.
It was three deep at the bar and the rest of the room was just as crowded. A woman, her lush form barely concealed by the scraps of silk she wore, looked up interestedly and an amused brow quirked up as Arya lowered her hood. “Be welcome to the Wolf,” she drawled in pleasant, husky tones. “I’m called Ros. What’s your pleasure, sweetling?”
Arya forced a smile as she pulled out a coin and proffered it. “I’m looking for a pilot with a fast ship who won’t ask questions. Know anybody like that?”
Ros deftly caught the coin and tucked it into the fabric draped over her breast. She eyed the younger girl, taking her in from her short, dark hair to her dusty boots. “Most of this lot would eat a sweet piece like you and still have room for more. There might be one though.” She fingered her chin thoughtfully, an amused smile tugging at her lips as Arya stared back. “Go all the way to the back, little one. In the last booth, you’ll find what you need. Goes by Gendry. He wears a bull’s head charm around his neck. Him and Lomy are always up for some fun.”
Arya gave her a smile and another coin as she walked away. She could feel eyes moving over her as she pushed her way through the crowd. She palmed Needle and took a deep breath, hoping she wouldn’t have to pull the weapon. Do that and she might as well turn herself in to the Watch or the Separatists.
The man sprawled in the last booth was surprised her enough to bring her up short. He caught her eye and blue eyes narrowed as she continued to stand there without speaking. His dark hair fell over his forehead in unruly waves. He was big, thick with muscle, and had eyes like sapphires. He studied her as raptly as she did him, one dark brown quirking as the silence stretched out to an uncomfortable length.
“You going to stare all night or are you going to tell me what you want,” he demanded tersely. The silver bull on a wide chain around his neck caught the light and splintered it.
Arya swallowed and held Needle tightly as she met his glare. “I need a pilot with a fast ship. Ros said you might be able to help me.”
Gendry didn’t let on but she couldn’t miss the sudden flicker of interest before he blanked his expression. “I might if the money’s right. Sit down and we’ll talk.”
She slid into the opposite bench and gave the stringy haired boy sitting there an apologetic look. “I need to get to the Core as quickly as possible. I can give you 20,000 Republic credits when we land.”
Gendry snorted under his breath, waving her away with a rude gesture. “Republic credits are no good out here. You’ll have to do better than that. I’ll take 40,000, half up front and the other half when we land. Gold will work but if you can’t get hold of that much, I’ll settle for goods, untraceable of course.”
“Forty thousand,” Arya practically shouted, not noticing the way the tavern fell silent at her outburst. “I don’t have that kind of money!”
“Then you’re wasting my time,” Gendry retorted blandly. “That’s the price. Take it or leave it.”
Arya thought furiously, weighing all of her options before reluctantly unhooking a thin chain from around her neck and laying it on the table. The coin attached to the chain was intricately if roughly carved. It didn’t shine in the light the way his silver did. The finish was dull and heavy, the design worn almost illegible over the years. “Do you know what this is?” She pushed it toward him and almost laughed at the way his eyes widened.
“A Morghulis coin,” he breathed and extended a shaking finger to trace the curve of the metal. “Where in the seven hells did you get that?”
Arya hesitated, her fingers tightening on the chain as the memories rolled over her. “An old man gave it to me,” she revealed. “He told me it was very powerful and that it would one day save my life. I’ll give it to you to take me to the Core. When we get there, I’ll pay your price of 40,000 and you’ll give me back the coin. Will you do it?”
Gendry’s blue eyes darted from her to the coin and back. She knew what his answer would be before he nodded. “It’s a deal. Lomy, go get the ship ready. We’ll leave in an hour.” The other nodded jerkily and took off at a run. Gendry watched him go before turning back to the odd girl still clutching the chain like a lifeline. “Okay, girl, you’ve got yourself a ship. We’ll leave in an hour. The Nymeria is in Bay 93. Think you can find it.”
The Nymeria. Arya felt her breath catch at the name. Nymeria was the Queen of those ancient warriors from Winderfyld. Something in her chest eased. Surely it was a sign. “Of course, I can find it. I’ll be with you.” She pushed the necklace across the table, her lips thinning when he picked it up and hung it around his neck. “Don’t get too attached to that,” she reminded. “I get it back when we get to the Core.”
“When we get to the Core and I get my money,” he agreed. He finished off his drink and then climbed to his feet. “Come on then, runt. The sooner we’re out of here, the sooner I’m rid of you.”
She fell in step beside him as they left the Wolf, returning Ros’ airy wave on the way out. “I’m not a runt,” she insisted gruffly. “If we run into trouble, I can handle myself.”
“If we run into trouble, you’d better,” Gendry retorted. “You ain’t paying me to save your hide, only to get you to the Core. Remember that.”
Arya shot a furious glare at his back, her fingers finding Needle once more. The warm weight cooled her temper. “I’ll remember,” she said softly. “I’ll remember everything.”