Under the high arched roof, the shops swelled with exotic wares and the vendor's cries echoed atop the bleating of the pack animals outside and the general of voices buzzing within. Mare Meridian was known throughout the Kingdom for its markets; on the mantle of nearly every household a cheap local curio stood, or else in the back of a wardrobe a brightly colored dress collected dust. Valyra picked her way through the crowd, scanning the stalls for something more than cheap trinkets, local delicacies, produce. She shrugged off a man trying to drape a faux-silk scarf over her shoulders; another man approached with a dress, but slunk off without a word after catching sight of her leather hunting outfit and glowering eyes.
She passed each stall swiftly. She seemed to look not at the goods, nor their peddlers, but past them, obviously searching for something specific in this mass of meaningless items. Finally, she took a sharp turn off the main drag of the bazaar and into a blind alley. An ancient wooden sign hung over the door, and the windows were stuffed with giant chests and old oaken wardrobes.
The door's bell tinkled behind her as she entered the shop, idly fingering the necklace around her neck. From behind the counter, a sprightly man with a graying beard sprung, "Hello, miss, can I help you today?"
"Just looking for some antiques. Are these authentic?" she inquired, pointing at the stack of chests piled near her.
"Oh, yes, everything here is nearly as old as I am" the man laughed, "and some, believe it or not, even older. There hasn't been much of a market for anything old for a while now, except gold, that is."
"Do you keep any records? Bills of sale, manifests, the like?"
"Well, I'm sure there's a few around here somewhere. Though, since they opened this port, there hasn't been much use for them. Those Saltmen would string an old shopkeep like me up by my thumbs if I insisted on seeing a manifest." He opened a drawer, then another, and finally settled on a giant wooden chest on the floor near him. It was full of yellowed paper.
"But what is it you're looking for, miss? These are all from a bit before your time." The shopkeeper's eyes twinkled from behind his crow's feet; he knew quite well that antique furniture, yellowed paper, inherited jewelry had stories of their own, and these stories needed a cast of characters.
"Have you ever seen this before?" Valyra asked, pulling the necklace over her head and presenting him with the ocean-blue talisman on the end of the chain.
"Let me see... ah, yes, the seal of the Silver & Steel Merchant Company. I used to do business with them before they... ehm, went under. But I haven't come across this logo in some time."
"What happened to them?" Her reply was mechanical, as if by rote, but her voice quivered and the sharp look in her eye faded slightly.
"Well, once the Saltmen had bribed or killed all the authorities, it was tough going on all the big merchants. Silver & Steel held out a long time, longer than most; they were no cowards. But, as if out of nowhere, they vanished. No one's quite sure of their last ship's final whereabouts... But you knew this already, yeah?" His eyes had lost their twinkle, replaced with a look of fatherly concern. Valyra could only nod.
"You knew these merchants..." the keeper began, but just then the door tinkled open, and the ochre silence was blackened with the smell of rum and coarse voices.
"Heya old man, your friends are baaack. Aren't you glad it's us?" the first sang out, sauntering inside. The second man loomed behind, dead drunk and glaring.
The man got past Valyra with a jump that belied his age. "I've already paid you this month. Get out of here." His voice was cold with disdain.
"Oh, well, you know, this protection business has its ups and downs. You wouldn't want us to go missing when that pyromaniac crew comes along again, would you?" As he looked around, Valyra could almost see the flames from this threatened blaze flickering in his eyes.
"I hope they find you washed up on the beach." The keeper nearly spat with hatred."
"Now, now, that's no way to speak to a man who's about to set sail... Our ship is on its way back to us right now, and we’ll soon be running the seas with it again. No more festering in this landlocked slice of hell. So, we're taking our goodbye gift now. Unless your friend would like to make a better offer..." He leered at Valyra while reaching over the counter to get to the cash drawer.
His hand had nearly reached the drawer when he felt the knee like a swinging boom smash into his solar plexus. As he jerked his head upwards, it was met with a vicious elbow, and what seemed to be little parrots danced across his vision. He hit, first the desk, then a trunk, on the way to the floor.
His oversize friend reached for Valyra, grabbing her by the collar. As he turned to throw her across the room, he felt a series of blows hit him so rapidly he couldn't quite place them in order, then a searing pain in his foot. He looked down, with that lethargy that only booze can bring, to see Valyra pulling a hunting knife out of the top of his shoe. With a roar, he grabbed at his foot, hopping around, overturning lamps and entire dressers. His friend had staggered past him, yelling over his shoulder, "you'll regret this, you piece of trash! I'll have you keelhauled!"
The door tinkled shut once more. Valyra and the keeper couldn't help but smile, and the smiles turned into laughter as the recalled the image of the hopping oaf and his probably concussed friend struggling towards the door. But soon the laughter stopped, and the shopkeeper shook his head and began cleaning up the broken glass and tipped furniture.
"You'll have to leave Mare Meridian, the sooner the better. I thank you for your help. No one has stood up to those terrible men in a long time. But now it's dangerous for you here. Do you have enough money to leave?"
Valyra finished wiping down her hunting knife and returned it to its sheath. "I'll be leaving soon enough. The Saltmen know what happened to my father's ship."
"No. It's too dangerous. These men are drunkards, the lowest of the pirates. The leaders are ruthless and cunning. Besides, the port is crawling with them. You can't fight them all."
A corner of Valyra's mouth turned up, an evil smile were it not for the creases in the corners of her eyes. "I just want to ask them a few questions..."
The old man blinked, shook his head, and sighed in that universal gesture of resignation. "Wait a second. You'll want this." He returned to the opened chest full of papers, shuffled them around, and handed her a few yellowed sheets. "Here's the manifest from your missing ship. It has the ship's blueprint as well. If the Saltmen have taken it, they'll have changed the name and the sails, but I remember this ship- The Silver Star: it had a special figurehead on it, Lady Justice with her scales ."
Valyra blinked with surprise. She had sought the ship for years, too many places to count, but it was like chasing a phantom. If the ship still floated, she could find it.
"Thank you. I don't know how to repay you."
"I'm just repaying you. The bruises on those thugs are worth more than the gold to cover them, to me."
At long last. Valyra had known, perhaps just by instinct, the fate of her father's last ship. His men were too good of sailors to have simply lost the ship in a storm, and the cargo they carried too valuable a prize to be ignored by the Saltmen, no matter how bloody the battle. She knew that lovely ship now flew under a pirate's flag, but how could she be certain. She looked at the yellowed papers in her hand for a moment, though she already knew the contents by heart, and stowed them carefully in her satchel.
With these manifests, along with the copy of her father's will she had dutifully carried all these years, she could finally prove her rightful ownership and hopefully drive the local leaders to face the Saltmen with the full force of the law. She hurried from the bazaar, chasing her lengthening shadow to the port authorities office. She ran up the steps to the main customs office two at a time, her story already forming itself on her lips, when she nearly ran into a fat official opening the door of the office.
"Pardon me, sir," she said politely, trying to move past the man still in the doorway.
"We're closed," the man said gruffly, turning around to lock the door.
"But I have an urgent issue, I need to speak..." she began, but the man was having none of it. He locked the door with a resolute *click*.
"We're closed. Come back tomorrow. We open at sunrise." And without another glance at the sputtering Valyra, he trudged down the stairs towards, presumably, a nearby couch and cold beer.
6 years of travels. Innumerable fights, bruises, lost friends, gained enemies, the story gradually piecing itself together along with a mental map of the kingdom, culminating in a single missing piece; a manifest and ship's log now safely stored in her satchel- and still, another night of waiting, a lazy bureaucracy at its worst. But, what's another night when you've waited so long. She went off to find the nearest inn, a bite to eat and a warm bed. She'd be back with the rooster's crows.
In the bluing dawn a nightwatchman took his turn along the pier. There was a slight chill in the air, causing him to shiver as he stopped to light a cigarette. The flame flickered solitarily in the still dawn, and when the metal lid snapped only the lit tip shone. As he exhaled, a bang and a flash at sea startled him so that he jumped and fumbled his cigarette. Two silhouettes of ships could be seen in the report's aftermath, and as he stared another flash emitted from the further ship. He sprinted back to the office to rouse the officers.
"There's two ships about to enter the harbor! One's firing at the other, sir."
The officer strode silently to the telescope and peered through. Shortly thereafter, there was another flash.
"It appears to be a skirmish between pirates. Prepare to fire on them both."
Valyra was strapping on her blade as she heard shouting and the thump of boots rising from the direction of the port. By the time she arrived the soldiers were lining up beside the cannons along the seawall, torchbearers behind, preparing for the first volley. Valyra instinctively stopped as the officer in charge raised his arm, sword in hand, and gave his orders.
"Ready... Fire!" He dropped the sword with a flourish, a pompous habit he'd developed since he'd began his rather boring deployment in the port. Valyra immediately continued on her way, past the soldiers, the sea off to her side, ready to take one of the final steps of her seemingly eternal journey in pursuit of her rightful inheritance, the Silver Star. She sniffed the lovely morning salt air as she strode to the office.
And not far out into the port, a ship creaked its last creak, and with a tremendous groan split in half and began her final preparations for her new watery bed. Bits of wood and canvas still floated by, and only a single human figure, a woman, face up and clutching a broken set of scales in her left hand.