"What a splendid bunch."
Synda Grilvayn kept her eyes downcast as Serjo Nevena Ules glided past her and the other girls, all of them Dunmer.
"Off you go, then! Gather the heather by dusk's fading light, the flowers aflame shall keep our land bright," Nevana said, reciting the tradition’s age-old words.
"You honor us, Serjo Ules," the girls said in unison. Synda spoke the words with certainty; loud, but not so loud as to appear arrogant or brash. She knew that everyone watched and that everyone would be satisfied.
The girls filtered out from the tents around Ules Manor, set up for the great woman's 150th birthday, and onto the rolling hills of the Ascadian Isles. They split into groups of twos or threes, giggling and chattering as they searched the green lands for violet heather flowers, ready to pull them from the earth for the flame as their mothers and grandmothers had done before them.
Most of the girls here came from the plantations and manors all throughout the countryside, or from the teeming Hlaalu Canton of Vivec City. Synda's family was one of the few invited from Balmora. That they endured the rigors of such a long journey demonstrated the respect they held for Serjo Ules and Great House Hlaalu.
Likewise with the Rowenis, who had brought their foolish daughter, Satheri, with them. Satheri stood on her own, her big watery eyes searching for a friend among her own kind, her hands nervously clutching her thick dark blue dress the way a child would.
The poor girl simply had no idea what to do. Hardly a surprise, given that she counted outlanders among her closest friends. But seeing the rest gathered in familiar cliques, Synda reasoned that there would be strength in numbers.
"Satheri. Perhaps we should pool our resources and work together," Synda said. She did not use an honorific; the Grilvayns had less wealth than the Rowenis but more esteem.
"Oh! Thank you, Sera Grilvayn," Satheri stammered. "Um, you never talk to me at school—"
"Come now, Satheri. We are both from Balmora. And the rest of these girls will never see us as being on their level."
"Yeah, it's kind of scary!"
"There's no need for fear. Come, let's gather up the heather."
They struck out on their own toward a ridge where tall grasses swayed in the breeze.
"I think I see some over there!" Satheri exclaimed, pointing at a bush covered with bright yellow blossoms. "Oh, wait. That doesn't really look right."
Synda shook her head and frowned slightly in disappointment. "I see you lack familiarity with the flora of your homeland. Not surprising, given that your family must associate with outlanders. Look for violet flowers."
"Thank you. You're so smart," Satheri gushed. The sheer relief in her voice gave it a pathetic quality
Synda doubted Satheri knew the origins of the heather-burning ritual. She decided to keep that knowledge to herself for the time being.
Satheri found a good collection a bit later, though only because Synda had guided them south toward the riverbank where she knew heather would grow. She stood by and let Satheri gather the blossoms, the girl giggling with delight as she pulled them from the ground.
"This is fun, Sera Grilvayn! Sometimes I wish I lived in a big manor here so I could go out and do this all the time. But I guess I like being in the city, too."
Synda listened as she plucked a few flowers of her own. She wished she could pull Satheri away from Balmora. Foolish young girls like her were too easily swayed by the lies of outlanders. In another life, Satheri could have come of age as a humble Hlaalu girl; one who lacked ambition, but able to support a husband who possessed that trait.
The Empire had taken that from Satheri.
"All Dunmer should know their traditions," Synda said.
Satheri paused from her labors. "Oh, I worship the Tribunal!"
"I would expect no less. But there is more to it than the Tribunal. Unfortunately, I think much of that is being lost."
"It's too bad, I guess." She said it utterly without conviction, her lament as fleeting as an Imperial fad.
Satheri had gathered a veritable panoply of heather by the time she finished, the flowers bursting from her cradled arms like a frozen firework.
"Come, let's return to the manor. I'm sure the others will be impressed," Synda said, speaking the words as an order.
"Thanks for the help, Sera Grilvayn. I wouldn't have found them without you."
"We Dunmer must look after each other."
"But those other girls are Dunmer, too."
Synda sighed, making sure she sounded a little exasperated. "Dunmer help other Dunmer. Each Great House helps its constituents. Each community helps those who are part of it. And so on and so forth. It's like sisterhood."
"You're so wise, Sera Grilvayn," Satheri said.
They walked back to Ules Manor as the first stars twinkled in the darkening eastern sky. Seeing the manor brought a swell of pride to Synda's heart: she loved the fine tents arrayed around the lavish adobe manse, and the crisp sound of Dunmer voices free of louche foreigners. Serjo Ules's sentiments about outlanders were well-known, and none had been invited to her birthday. Synda was surprised that Satheri's parents had been invited, given how closely they worked with the Empire. But wealth carried weight, as it must.
Synda's mother, Lynda, stood at the edge of the manor grounds. With her was Satheri's father, Vesleth, the two of them in quiet conversation until they took notice of the girls.
"Ah, Satheri!" said Vesleth. "I see you've already made a friend."
"Yes, father! Sera Grilvayn's been very kind." Satheri gave her Synda a warm smile, which Synda returned with a barely detectable upturning of her lips. One should not be too open to an inferior, which Satheri had acknowledged herself as being through her behavior and word choice.
"We both go to Drenlyn but we, uh, never really had the chance to talk before, I guess," Satheri continued. "I'm glad we did."
"Your family is always welcome at our house," Vesleth said to Lynda, bowing his head ever so slightly. The gesture of respect seemed sullied; Vesleth certainly capered before Imperials in the same way.
"The honor is ours, Sera Roweni," mother said.
"Looks like the bonfire is about to start. Seems our girls have gathered quite a lot!"
"Indeed. I must speak with Synda, a moment."
And the way she said that left no doubt that Synda had erred. A coldness gripped her heart, deeper than the chill of the autumn evening around her. Every action reflected on family, on Great House, and on nation. Error meant shame a hundred times over.
Suddenly faint, Synda followed her mother to a secluded spot next to a leaning emperor parasol, the air beneath the cap smelling of fungal spores.
Mother stared down at her. "Serjo Ules's birthday brings notable young men and women from around Vvardenfell. I'm surprised you'd be so foolish as to befriend a rube like Satheri. Why not one of the Lleran girls? Or perhaps you could grab the attention of that Sandas boy so you can marry someone useful?"
Synda gulped. So much depended on her. Of course those families would all be strong allies for the Grilvayns. The Rowenis, for all their wealth, could never help that much. She searched for an excuse, her palms damp with sweat.
"I, uh, felt sorry for her, mother. I thought maybe I could turn her into, uh, an asset—"
Mother slapped her. The strike was light but the sting struck deep. Synda hung her head in shame but held back her tears. Dunmer did not weep at hardship; mother had made this clear.
"Your father and I worked very hard to ensure this invitation and you have squandered it." Mother gave a frustrated sigh. "Go toss your heather into the flames. We'll discuss this later. Perhaps you can make up for your mistake tomorrow."
"Of course, mother."
Synda straightened herself as she and her mother returned to the party grounds, their faces betraying no emotion. Yet her mind tore at itself; she'd shown weakness. Many called Great House Hlaalu soft for how they traded with outlanders, but she knew that such business required strength. Strength to enrich oneself from foreigners without falling too deeply into their ways.
She could not afford another error.
Serjo Ules stood near the fire, its flickering flames tended to by a yellow-furred Khajiit slave.
"Begone," Ules ordered. The Khajiit cringed, genuflected, and withdrew. His pitiful retreat soothed Synda a bit; at least she was better than him.
"Now, let the girls gather and give us light!" Ules proclaimed, her words running together as she raised her goblet above her, a bit of the drink within spilling over the edge.
The musicians began to play, a mix of heavy drums and ponderous bells held together by the strumming of carapace harps. None of the boastfulness of northern songs or the atonal bombast of Imperial music, the notes stately and spaced far apart.
Synda stood behind Satheri, the girl wearing a broad smile and sniffing the aroma of the heather blossoms she held. She'd gotten more than most. The line moved, each girl walking in tune with the music and tossing the flowers in the fire. Purple petals blackened and curled as the flames consumed them.
Satheri couldn't resist giving a little cheer as she flung her offering into the bonfire, some of the flowers fluttering off to the side. Synda followed, submitted her more humble offering, and joined Satheri at the edge of the fire's light.
"That was truly an impressive gesture," Synda said.
"Oh, thanks Sera Grilvayn! But it's really because of you. Heh, I probably wouldn't have found anything if you hadn't guided me."
A dark joy stirred in Synda's heart. "Still, you gathered many flowers. It's especially surprising considering your father's business, and what the heather represents."
Satheri's smile faded. "Sorry? I don't understand what you mean."
"Well, your father works closely with the Empire, does he not? And you yourself have many outlander friends."
"I mean, well, yeah. They're really nice though. I think you'd like them if you got to know—"
Synda did not let her finish. "You see, heather is not native to Morrowind."
She shook her head. "No. It comes from Skyrim. It's a weed, Satheri."
"But it's so pretty!"
"A pretty weed is still a weed. Our ancestors burned heather because the weed symbolizes outlanders. We can use them for our purposes, to enrich ourselves and Great House Hlaalu, but they are a resource to be used. Nothing more. So it was very courageous of you to burn so many, considering who you spend time with. I’m glad to see your loyalties are with your people."
Satheri trembled. "Wait, you mean people will think—"
"You've shown that you don't need those outlanders you hang out with."
"But Muthsera Morgendorffer—I mean, Sera Morgendorffer—oh no!" Satheri's breath came in quick gasps, and she grabbed at her collar.
"Why are you so alarmed, Satheri?" Synda asked.
Satheri fell to her knees. Synda’s pity turned to disgust. How emotional. Just like an Imperial or a Nord.
"Oh my gosh, Synda, you can't tell Quinn I did this! I mean, I know it's important that I not get too close but I really like her and she's my best friend and she makes me feel better and someday we’re going to go to like the Imperial City and—"
Synda wondered if the girl would pass out. She held out her hand to tell Satheri to stop, but she was already hyperventilating.
"You have nothing to be ashamed about, Satheri. With your father's business concerns being what they are, I can see why you'd not want people to know."
"So you won't tell?" Satheri could barely get the words out.
"I can keep a secret, for now. Just remember who your friends really are. I will never judge you for burning a flower."
Satheri was thick, but not so thick as to miss the implication.
"Thank you, Sera Grilvayn. Thank you. Truly."
Sera. Yet she'd called Quinn muthsera. Satheri might not have meant that as an insult, but it was one. Regardless, Synda had given Satheri a valuable lesson on how the world was ordered. The Dunmer valued such things, and perhaps one day Satheri could be a useful Dunmer.
Synda watched the sooty flames climb higher as the band played on, the ancient melody sounding across the ancient landscape. In truth, Quinn would not understand the symbolism of Satheri burning the heather, and neither would her father's business associates. Yes, heather symbolized outlanders, and had once served as a convenient effigy. Today it was mostly tradition, unmoored from the past.
Yet Synda knew there was value in the old traditions. The evening had proven it.