17th of First Seed, 3E 429 – East of Ald’ruhn, Morrowind Province, the Third Empire
Andril Golthyn, once Dimartani, lived to serve.
They said that the evil within Red Mountain was no more. Yet Andril watched all the same. Alone in the Ashlands, within a bugshell outpost owned by Clan Dlera in service of Honorable Serjo Llendu, he stood guard against a fallen enemy.
There was a satisfying irony that an outlander Nerevarine was the one to fell the Dunmer’s ancient foe. That thought consoled him through the long gray nights and days.
Vanu emerged from the outpost. She was little more than a girl, but already fierce, her bald head marked with scars.
“Sera Golthyn,” she said. “Before I return to Ald’ruhn, there is a question I must ask you. A sensitive one that I cannot ask our honorable hetman.”
Vanu was an outlander, a Dunmer born in Skyrim and orphaned soon after. A knife had been her doll and spilt blood her mother’s milk. Some in Clan Dlera doubted her. An outlander, they said. Too foreign to our ways. So they gave her errands, like getting reports from Andril and other watchers.
Andril did not doubt her.
“ASK,” he said.
“Is it true that the Nerevarine slew the Tribunal gods?”
Andril didn’t flinch, but the question struck him like a physical blow. The temple said otherwise—but the fearful faces of the priests, the fact that no one had seen the Tribunal for over a year—fed the rumors.
“I tell you TRULY, that I do not know,” Andril replied.
“What are we to do, though? If it is true? I did not grow up with gods, but I know the Dunmer here adore them.”
“We are REDORAN, Vanu. Our WAY is to serve. Gods or no gods, that will NEVER change. We will always do what is right, EVEN if we suffer for it.”
It was not much of an answer. But it was all he could give.
“Thank you, Sera Golthyn,” she said.
Vanu bowed slightly and set off on the long journey back to Ald’ruhn, her silhouette growing smaller and smaller in the overwhelming gray until she vanished from sight.
Andril waited outside a little longer, listening to the bitter winds howl and bluster around him. His life was a hard one, but it was one he’d earned. In the wastes, accompanied by books and weapons and the young warriors who came to him for counsel, knowing he would listen—he was at peace.
12th of Evening Star, 3E 432 – Balmora, Morrowind Province, the Third Empire
No longer cold beneath his fur, his belly full of the tea Jane had brewed that night on one of her visits back to a shop he rarely opened, J’dash closed his eyes and dreamed.
And his dreams took him back on little paws to the white sands of a forever summer in Elsweyr, where the gleaming dunes always held the heat of the day, and a Khajiit’s bones never grew cold. J’dash ran beneath stars that glittered like sugar crystals against the night’s black fur, laughing with arms stretched out in a darkness that was never dark.
And all his family joined him, and J’dash saw them again as if many years had passed but he’d been with them for all those years, that no whips had ever torn his flesh and no harsh bracers had ever rubbed the fur off his arms. His wife Kisisanda grabbed his shoulders and pulled him close, her golden eyes with moons in them shining from a face furred like snow, her body whole.
All their cubs played as cubs must. Little Z’havirr who leapt lithe and perfect like the hunter he would’ve been, only to clutch his paws around a coconut shell and roll in the bright sand, his eyes asking what it was he held. Curious Tsira who opened baskets and peered inside to see what was tasty, the brown and white fur of her fingers now only stained with juice. Clever Hravirra who looked like a Mer save for the leopard spots on her neck and calves, alive and reading and talking about what she read.
Boundless and free they played and hugged and laughed in a land that never grew cold, the beat of the world’s heart in tune with theirs, their blood hot and their souls aflame.
J’dash knew the dream. He knew how the nightmares so often snuck in, the gray bodies and red eyes, the jagged spears, the clank of chains and the years of pain that never ended and never could end.
But that night he only saw one pair of red eyes, those of Jane, his newest child sitting atop a dune and painting all she saw. And she had always been there, because J’dash had never left Elsewyer. All he loved lay within that land so Jane was there too, drawing things that were not but felt more real than things that were.
All one blood, all together, all dancing beneath the moons to the beat of the world.
J’dash never woke up.
10th of Frostfall, 3E 433 – Rihad, Hammerfell Province, the Third Empire
Jolda always thought that the gilded dome of Rihad’s palace made a perfect metaphor for high-level politics: glamorous, superficial, and ominously heavy.
In the brazier-lit throne room beneath the dome, she watched as her liege, King Doondana ap-Blubamka al-Rihad, studied a map of Hammerfell. His advisors (of whom Jolda was by far the youngest) stood at attention as he, only a year into his kingship, tried to steer Rihad through the worst crisis Tamriel had seen in over a century.
That was Radam, an advisor carried over from the previous court. He always seemed to be smiling behind his bushy peppercorn beard, but not in a way that Jolda liked.
“Speak,” King Doondana ordered.
“As no emperor sits on the throne—and this Martin Septim may be a pretender—Rihad must see to its own needs. The Crown cities of the north are like daggers pointed at our back, ready to plunge and end us once and for all. We should join with the other Forebear cities and take the war to them. I am sure the Empire will be pleased, if it survives. The Crowns are troublesome to them, as well.”
“You’re talking civil war!” Hooda exclaimed, crossing her arms. Her white dreadlocks shone in the dim light.
“I am speaking of survival!” Radam protested. “Cyrodiil is in chaos. And who is to say that Martin Septim is not just another Daedric doppelganger? All three of his legitimate brothers were exposed as Daedra!”
Hooda rolled her eyes. “According to the angry mobs who killed them, yes, but I’d like to get a second opinion.”
Fueled by the three cups of coffee she’d had that afternoon, Jolda’s mind busily worked the different angles. Radam was a Forebear from northern Hammerfell, with a continent-sized chip on his shoulder over how the Crowns had treated his family. Ironically, he acted like a Crown in a lot of ways. Hooda, on the other hand, had spent her life going between Hammerfell and Cyrodiil and was a true believer in the Empire.
“Martin’s no demon,” King Doondana said, shaking his head. “He wouldn’t be fighting the Daedra if he were one!”
Radam stepped back, knowing he’d made a mistake. “Your majesty is wise. But who can say Martin will reclaim the Ruby Throne, much less keep it? The Elder Council is as treacherous as the Daedra!”
“They aren’t that bad, no worse than politicians anywhere else,” Hooda said. “If we send troops to support Martin Septim and help him win, it’ll be more reason for the Elder Council to get behind him.”
“With respect,” Jolda said, “I think both of my esteemed colleagues are overlooking the situation at home.”
King Doondana looked up from the map and turned to Jolda. He smiled. Jolda knew he favored boldness and informality, and she tailored her arguments that way.
Jolda continued. “Rihad’s loyalty must always be to the Empire, but we’d be better off focusing on keeping our people safe, strong, and prosperous. When an emperor does return to the throne, we’ll be there for him. We shouldn’t get too involved in Cyrodiilic politics until then.”
“Yes!” Radam thrust his fist into the air.
“On the other hand, attacking the Crown cities would be a disaster in the making.”
Jolda ignored him. “The last thing the Empire wants is a civil war in Hammerfell—and starting one, even with some justification, ventures on treason. What’s more, it’s not at all clear we’d win. Sending troops north would also leave us completely unprotected from bandits and Daedric incursions, which don’t just happen in Cyrodiil anymore.”
“A sharp analysis,” King Doondana said, stroking his black beard. “But what should we do? In your opinion?”
“Rihad should focus on protecting its primary concern: trade. We’d best be served by keeping our soldiers in the area, though we can also send some to protect the trade lanes to our key partners on Cyrodiil’s Gold Coast—just be sure to coordinate with the Imperial Legion so there aren’t any misunderstandings. This will ensure a steady stream of income and demonstrate that Rihad is a viable partner for post-crisis reconstruction in the west.
“As for Martin Septim, I think a token gesture of support is reasonable, but shouldn’t go farther than that until we have a better idea as to what he’s all about.”
King Doondana nodded. “All right. Looks like I got three interesting arguments here. I’ll think on it tonight. You are dismissed.”
Jolda followed her two bickering colleagues for a bit before going off on her own. She walked up stairways and along airy galleries before reaching a balcony that looked out across Rihad, a city of leafy rooftop gardens and sandstone houses the color of sunset.
Jolda had spent most of her life in Morrowind, which meant she’d always have a bit of an outsider’s perspective when it came to Hammerfell. But maybe that wasn’t bad. She’d already fallen in love with the city and its people after a mere three years. A life spent strengthening Rihad would be a life well-spent.
9th of Sun’s Height, 4E 3 – Stros M’Kai, Hammerfell Province, the Ocato Potentate
Getting mad (almost) never solved anything.
But darn it, sometimes it was hard not to!
Amelia took a deep breath, counted to five, and then let it out before opening her eyes. The rest of the management team for the Stros M’Kai branch of the Synod still sat in the meeting room, none of them looking all that sure of what they were doing.
“Okay,” Amelia said, “so the Alchemical Symposium is refusing to honor our invoice because it can’t legally do business with the Mages Guild. Even though we officially stopped being the guild two years ago, and everyone knows it.”
Which, in turn, meant that half of the Synod’s local research had skidded to a halt. And the annual review was just a few weeks away.
“We could send someone else to the mainland to ask,” Shurgoz, an elderly Orc enchanting specialist, suggested.
Amelia glanced at the window. It was a beautiful summer day outside, and she’d rather be enjoying the beach with her husband and son then cooped up in here. But the Synod needed to prove itself to fill the shoes of the Mages Guild—even if it was basically just the guild under a new name.
She shook her head. “That’ll take too long.” An idea came to her. “Who filled out the invoice?”
“Pentius did,” Dramrys said. Dramrys was Dunmer, but she’d been born in Cyrodiil. When they'd first met, Dramrys had had a million questions about Morrowind that Amelia couldn’t do much to answer since she’d never seen much of the place beyond Caldera and Balmora. She kind of regretted that. One day, she told herself, she'd go back to really see Morrowind.
“Okay, let me talk with Pentius,” she said.
Amelia walked over to Pentius’s desk, near the front of the Synod office. Pentius was an Imperial a few years younger than her, with messy blond hair that seemed to get messier the more he tried to comb it. He looked up at her when she arrived.
“Hey, could I see the form you sent to the Alchemical Symposium?”
“But I already delivered it.”
“I know, just show me the form you used.”
He leaned to the side and burrowed into his desk, opening and closing drawers, before finally taking out a paper and handing it to Amelia. She figured out what had gone wrong right away: the invoice’s letterhead still read: Guild of Mages.
Amelia sighed. “Pentius, you know that we aren’t the Mages Guild anymore. Why did you fill out an invoice that still has the old name?”
He gulped. “Steward Rennik said he wanted this done quickly. We have a ton of paperwork with the old name. Seriously, we practically have a warehouse’s worth of the stuff. He doesn’t want to order new paperwork.”
“Okay,” Amelia admitted, “but we can’t use the old forms, either. We can’t legally operate under that name. Here, how about this?”
Amelia put the paper down at the edge of his desk, grabbed his quill pen, and crossed out the letterhead, blocking away as much as she could. Then, above it, she wrote: The Synod.
“I’m going to talk to Steward Rennik,” Amelia said. “I’m not a big fan of using the old forms at all, but maybe it’s the best way to avoid wastage and expense. The symposium should accept invoices as long as they're labeled as being from us, not from the guild.”
“Aren’t we basically the same?”
Amelia nodded. “Minus the conjuration and necromancy studies, and all the branches that got rebranded as the College of Whispers, yeah. We may not have a proper emperor but this is still the Empire, so paperwork matters.”
It always felt good to solve a problem, even if it was kind of a stupid problem. They wouldn’t have finished research by the time of the review, but that was okay—the important thing was for them to be working.
And if Amelia hurried up with her work, she might have a little bit of time for the beach with hubby and baby later that day.
18th of Rain’s Hand, 4E 5 (RED YEAR) – Balmora, Morrowind Province, the Ocato Potentate
Helen hated to admit it, but she’d been lucky in many ways.
Not that she hadn’t worked for every inch of what she’d earned, whether studying obscure tomes by candlelight until her eyes gave out or forging her own legal dominion in Morrowind. Yet she’d done it in a context of an empire that, for all its elephantine sprawl and deep corruption, gave avenues for the common to excel.
The Third Empire had died with the sacrifice of Martin Septim. But, with any luck, the transition to the Fourth would be smooth, and perhaps they’d fix some of the problems that had always dogged the Third.
“Are you really sure the girls are going to be okay over in Whiterun?” Jake asked.
She and her husband sat on the balcony of the Balmora home where they’d built so many memories—some good, some bad, but nearly all made rosy by the passage of time. It was late afternoon, the sky clear from the recent spring rains, and she could still imagine Daria and Quinin coming in through the door after a day in Drenlyn Academy the way they used to, thirteen long years ago.
“They’ll be fine, Jake,” Helen said. “Skyrim will be a bit of a culture shock, but Whiterun's a cosmopolitan city that offers fantastic career opportunities for them both.”
“But who knows what could happen next? I’m not so sure about this Ocato guy. The Empire needs an emperor, dammit!”
“Which is exactly what Chancellor Ocato is trying to arrange.”
Jake frowned. “I guess. But it feels like everything’s up in the air. And what’s with this—”
Best to cut him off now. “Oh, Jake, any new recipes?”
Jake brightened up all at once. “Oh boy!” He rubbed his hands together and grinned. “So, you know how much I love this kwama stuff, but I keep thinking it’d go real great with some good old-fashioned fish sauce like what they used to ship here from the west. I found out the other day that some guy in Gnisis…”
Helen smiled and nodded, paying more attention to the comforting sound of her husband’s voice than the specifics of what he said. Jake had aged well. He’d worked less and less as Helen’s firm grew, which she’d thought would be a problem. But somehow it wasn’t. Jake constantly pursued new projects—amateur carpentry, cooking, even alchemy—and he tackled it with a young man’s guileless enthusiasm. The house was always spotless and something delicious was always on the table. Seeing him that way made Helen feel young again.
Which had other benefits, as well.
Jake was just telling her what herbs he’d use when a colossal boom sounded out from beyond the southern hills. A shockwave hit a moment later, a trembling in the earth and air that made the entire city fall silent and take notice.
“What was that?” Jake wondered.
Helen grabbed Jake’s hand.
5th of Midyear, 4E 7 – Leyawiin, Cyrodiil Province, the Ocato Potentate
Monsoon rains lashed Leyawiin that morning, the skies above as black as a starless night. Treads-on-Ferns wanted to go out. His scales itched to let the rain fall on them, but he knew better. Ash particulate from Red Mountain still tainted each drop, two long years after its eruption. He’d seen the effects on the careless: rashes on skin, bare patches on scales or fur.
He remembered the cheers that went up from Leyawiin’s Argonian neighborhoods the minute they heard about Red Mountain blowing its top. Who cared that the eruption caused earthquakes, tidal waves, and droughts across all of Tamriel? What mattered is that it had killed a lot of Dunmer (and a lot of Argonians, and Khajiit, and Bretons, and others).
Treads got it. Great House Hlaalu belatedly ending slavery in their territories didn’t make up for a thousand years of cruelty. Nothing could, not really. Red Year was a form of justice, and Treads accepted that.
But he couldn’t celebrate it.
He rolled out of bed and walked downstairs to get the teashop ready for the day. The tea came first—as always. He lugged his two iron cauldrons out to the little enclosure, protected by a stout roof of lashed-together bamboo poles and a fence of the same. He used the spigot to fill buckets with clean-enough water from plumbing that (mercy upon mercies) still worked. After filling the cauldrons, he set fires in the little charcoal pits beneath them. Not a lot of heat, but enough that the tea would be steaming by the time the customers came in.
Treads paused from his labors and looked out past the little fence. The jungle had overtaken the abandoned houses across the street, gutted during the Oblivion Crisis and never repaired. Running a teashop at the edge of the habitable parts of Leyawiin ran a lot of risk, but was cheap.
Worse came to worst, he owned a spear and knew how to use it. He’d only ever had to brandish it once.
“Hope you’re alive, Jeval. Quinn. Tiphannia. And you too, Satheri,” he said.
At least he knew for a fact that Jeval and Tiphannia had both left Morrowind well before Red Year, one going west to find his own path (he’d talked about commercial shipping in Hammerfell), the other east to find her family in Cathnoquey. Quinn and Satheri had both gone to the mainland, so they'd probably escaped the eruption.
But not necessarily Treads’s fellow Argonians, who’d boiled across the border to repay atrocity with atrocity.
Customers filtered in soon enough, along with his assistant, Swims-Like-Fish. Treads’s mood improved as conversation and the sweet smell of a dozen different spices filled the bare little parlor. Everyone was welcome at the teahouse so long as they let everyone else be welcome. It was a simple rule.
The rain slackened toward the end of the day. Treads sometimes chatted with patrons but never overmuch—they came to hang out with each other, not with him. The old days were gone, but their joys didn’t have to be.
Night fell, though it was hard to tell the difference with the cloud cover. Folks came and went. Treads was about to close up when an Argonian hurried inside. She wore a drab Western-style cloak that really brought out the vivid magenta of her shades. Quinin would have had all kinds of fashion recs for a woman like her.
“Hey!” she said, jogging up to the counter with a small wooden box in her hands. “Glad I got here. So, you want to help our kindred in the fight, yes?”
“Be more specific,” Treads said. "There are a lot of fights these days."
Her irises narrowed in annoyance. “Come, you know what I mean! When they told me you weren’t part of the cause, I couldn’t believe it. An Argonian like you, who’s been to Black Marsh, who drank the Hist sap—”
“Let me guess,” Treads said. “You want me to put that little box on my counter with a sign telling people to donate money to the An-Xileel.”
Not too different from what he used to do for the Argonian Mission as a kid. He wondered how much overlap there was between Black Marsh's new An-Xileel rulers and the mission. Probably not a ton—the Argonian Mission had been run by Cyrodiilic Argonians like him and his parents, and the An-Xileel hated anything that smacked of the Third Empire.
“We are all People of the Root,” she said. “And that means we have to stand together. The An-Xileel are liberating our cousins in Morrowind as we speak—"
Except that, sometimes, the An-Xileel killed liberated slaves for the crime of being too tainted by foreign ways. He knew this, because he’d gone to Black Marsh before the Oblivion Crisis and had listened to, not just heard, the words of the An-Xileel agitators.
There was no place for him in their regime.
“Sorry. I don’t do politics.”
“But you do! You drank the Hist sap. You can hear them in the winds, in the waters.”
“I do. I ignore them. I’ve got my own thing going on.”
She drew back. “That’s very small of you,” she said, her nostrils flaring.
“Doesn’t bother me.”
“You’ll just be alone here in your sad little teahouse? Cut off from the world?”
Treads looked down and wiped the counter with a soft cloth. “To tell you the truth, I’ve always kind of enjoyed being a loner.”
She huffed and left, leaving Treads in peace. He looked up once she stepped out the door to make sure she hadn’t brought any An-Xileel bullyboys. But he was alone. Not surprising—the Potentate still ruled. The An-Xileel didn't have much say in Cyrodiil.
And if worse came to worst, Treads still had that spear.
28th of Second Seed, 4E 16 – the Sloan Estate (east of Cheydinhal), Cyrodiil Province, the Thules Regime
Over two-thousand lives hinged on Serjo Tomal Sloan’s next decision.
It wasn’t the kind of decision he’d ever expected to make as a youth. But he supposed adulthood had surprised nearly everyone in his generation. Maybe adulthood always came as a surprise, regardless of generation.
He stood on the balcony of his adobe manse, built in the traditional Hlaalu style, and observed his domain. Miles of rice paddies and fruit orchards gleamed beneath the tropical sun, life positively bursting from the damp black earth of the Serican Jungle. At the edges huddled the adobe huts and tents that housed the Sloan family’s workers. His father had purchased this land decades ago from a wastrel Nibenese noble, and had used it to earn wealth for himself and for the Hlaalu Council Company.
Tomal used it for sanctuary.
Exactly 2,117 people, mostly Dunmer with some outlanders, now called the Sloan Estate home. They came fleeing Morrowind, fleeing the Red Year and the Argonian Invasion and the collapse of Great House Hlaalu. Tomal built homes for them when he could, and kept doing that until he could shelter no more.
Those loyal to the Sloans got first priority. Second to them, longtime followers of Great House Hlaalu. Beyond that, mostly a matter of first come, first serve. The Sloan name no longer carried as much weight, or as much wealth, as it once did. He took on some families at a loss. Good thing his dad had put more investments in Cyrodiil than in Morrowind.
Keeping them safe in an increasingly hostile land posed an altogether thornier problem.
“The emissary has arrived, Serjo Sloan,” reported Andrava Ruvarin, his seneschal, a Dunmer from a respectable Andothren family.
Tomal looked down at his drink, a silver cup half-full of fiery brandy. He was still a bit light-headed from his drinking the previous night.
“Mentally impairing beverages and high-stakes negotiations,” Andrava said. “What could possibly go wrong?”
Tomal shrugged. “Hey, there’s a reason we have the phrase ‘drunk as lords’.”
“And a reason that a lot of lords don’t live to finish their careers.”
“Point taken,” Tomal said, putting down the cup. He turned to Andrava. “How do I look?”
He’d tried to dress as Colovian as he could for this meeting, complete with a stiff jacket of blue wool that was slowly cooking him alive in the jungle heat.
She eyed him doubtfully. “Like a provincial Colovian noble from twenty years ago.”
“Well, retro’s always in. We’re sure that Titus is the only rebel leader with any chance of beating Thules?”
“Yes. He’s defeated or rallied all of the other notable warlords. The Jarl of Eastmarch was the only serious rival, and he conveniently died in a hunting accident. His son’s still saying he was murdered, but he’s not standing in Titus’s way.”
“Funny how a random moose can play a bigger role in history than some jarls,” Tomal said.
“The odds favor Titus, but this doesn’t mean that Emperor Thules is out of the picture,” Andrava warned.
Plenty of Thules’s rust-splotched troops had ridden by the Sloan Estate, demanding to know why so many Dunmer lived on human lands. Tenants had been harassed, a few killed, before Tomal could smooth things over. Citizenship didn’t mean as much as it used to, and as times got harder, Tomal suspected it’d mean even less.
Plenty of nobles loyal to Thules took advantage of the man’s erratic mental state to nab lands from less popular rivals. A fiefdom owned and run by Dunmer, without any real support from Morrowind, made a tempting target.
“He certainly is not,” Tomal agreed. “Have the other Dunmer in eastern Cyrodiil said anything?”
“No. They’re probably waiting on you. You’re the highest-ranking Hlaalu here.”
“Don’t remind me. We know Thules will eventually give my father’s land to one of his cronies, which means the people here will be killed or sent back into Morrowind. If we help Titus take over, then there’s a chance we’ll have a place in the new regime.”
“But if we help Titus, and Titus loses…”
“Then we start looking for relatively painless suicide methods,” Tomal said.
“As astute as always, Serjo Sloan.”
By ALMSIVI, he wanted another drink. But no, he needed a clear head for this negotiation.
“Okay, let’s go downstairs and meet the emissary. We’ll pledge our support, and I’ll even don the old bonemold and sally forth if I have to.”
Andrava’s eyelids fluttered, and she looked down. “If you’ll pardon my saying, I really hope you don’t have to.”
“Is that concern I hear in my flinty seneschal’s voice?” he asked, trying to make light of it.
She didn’t say anything. Some things shouldn’t be joked about, he supposed.
“It probably won’t come to that,” Tomal said. “No one really thinks of me as soldier material anyway. But Great House Hlaalu of Cyrodiil will stand with Titus Mede—because it can’t stand anywhere else.”
“I know, serjo. I know.”
21st of Hearthfire, 4E 18 – the Imperial City, Cyrodiil Province, the Fourth Empire
Okay, Quinn told herself as she walked down another gloomy, damp hallway that went on forever. It’s been a tough couple of decades, so yeah, some of that’s going to show in the Imperial Palace. They’re fixing it. Slowly.
The disappointment still hit her though. This place was supposed to be the place, the one where you found the best the Empire had to offer. All she saw were unshaven soldiers and bureaucrats with bags under their eyes shuffling down galleries that no one had cleaned in forever.
The palace was exactly what Daria had warned her it would be.
But maybe, someday, things would be better.
Quinn found the office right where the directions had said, two doors past the broken statue of Emperor What’s-his-name but before the big stairway. She knocked on the door and smoothed her pink moth-silk gown and touched her still mostly red hair. Dye cost a lot, these days.
Everything cost a lot because of so many trade routes collapsing. Not that it mattered so much—but the little things made the big tragedies easier to bear.
“Come in,” ordered the voice.
Quinn opened the door and stepped into the office of General Antabius Corello. He didn’t look like a general to her—paunchy and soft, and with an oily black mustache that she wanted to shave off for his own good. But she’d listened to palace chatter, and knew he handled a lot of Emperor Titus's spies and propaganda.
“Your lordship,” she said, bowing.
He acknowledged her with a curt nod. “You’ve come highly recommended, citizen.”
She smiled, like she felt lucky to get that kind of praise. Actually, she hated how much cringing everyone had to do these days. Used to be you could brag about stuff a little as long as you didn’t go overboard, but now humility was in.
“I am honored that you have heard, your lordship.”
“Your sartorial and cosmetic guidance has made stars out of obscure families like the Secunias and the Ajenois, and in very meager circumstances, too.”
“I only brought out the beauty they already had within, your lordship.”
He tented his fingers, which looked like little sausages, and leaned back in his chair. “I, however, want to test your mettle in a different way.”
“I live to serve the emperor, your lordship.”
“His imperial majesty is creating a new diplomatic corps. He wants a uniform that is both visually impressive and tied with Cyrodiilic culture—that is our core, after all. Is that something you can do?”
“Of course!” she said, already getting all kinds of ideas. “Your lordship,” she added.
“The false emperor Thules was Nibenese, and we want to advertise the true emperor’s soldierly Colovian credentials, so favor Colovian styles. We’ve let the Nibenese bureaucrats run things for too long, anyway. You will have access to as many assistants as you might need. They’ll supply you with fabrics, dyes, and can test out your designs. You’ll have a budget of five-thousand septims.”
“I promise that the Fourth Empire will be known as much for style, as for justice!”
“Hm, yes. Your office is in the east wing. My servant,” he paused to ring a bell, “will show you the way.”
Quinn bowed again. A page who couldn’t have been older than fifteen showed up at the door, and the general told her to follow. Back out to the dreary halls.
It wasn’t the Fashion Guild, but it was the closest she’d get. The whole guild system was history anyway. Nobles and government offices handled most of that stuff now, and people like Quinn had to go along.
She’d had an argument with Daria about this. Not one of those arguments that turned into a fight and left everyone with hurt feelings that they never got over—but it had still been pretty intense. Daria didn’t think the Fourth Empire would make things better.
But what was the alternative? Quinn wanted her daughters to grow up in a world like the one she’d grown up in. Where there was always food on the table, the soldiers were usually good guys who protected you, and you could worry about things like fabrics and hairstyles because all the really important stuff was taken care of already.
She sniffed, thinking of her daughters: Helena and Vesta. Mom and dad would’ve been crazy about them, too, and not a day went by that she didn’t wish she could bring her girls to them. But all Quinn could do was light the candles in the temple and tell her daughters how much grandma and grandpa would’ve loved them, and…
Quinn stifled her sob.
Maybe the Fourth Empire could fix the world. Maybe it couldn’t. Daria didn’t have kids and, at this point, probably never would. It was easy for her to talk about things not working out because she didn’t have any real skin in the game. All Quinn could do was try. Try and make a Fourth Empire that lived up to the Third and maybe turned out a little better.
She loved Daria and she always would. But there were some things her sister would never understand.
7th of First Seed, 4E 22 – Andothren, Morrowind, Great House Sadras
“Relax your stance a little bit. Hang loose.”
A sheen of sweat shone on Vedas’s face as the young Dunmer noble nodded, his muscles unclenching. Maiko walked around his student, observing from all angles and happy with the result. Vedas was a good kid—didn’t object to Maiko not being Dunmer, and willing to listen (though not always eager).
“That’s good. Hold that for a bit. Remember: you need to move fast in a sword fight. Be like water.”
The first thing a rookie needed to learn was how to stand. Then how to move. Fighting came later. That’s how Maiko learned it in the legion, and that’s what he taught his students, whether they were Serjo Dravaal’s security or Serjo Dravaal’s kids.
They finished up for the day, Vedas giving Maiko a respectful nod before he left to the main hall, where Maiko already smelled a dinner of comberry-braised ornada and spiced saltrice being prepped. Which made him realize he was getting pretty hungry, and that it was time to head home.
It was a clear early evening, a band of stars shining faintly in the east as the sun sank low in the west. The roar of the big cliffside waterfalls, Andothren’s claim to fame, filled the air. The place reminded Maiko of Balmora in a lot of ways—same blocky adobe buildings, same marketplace buzz.
He’d heard that Red Year had fried Andothren, even though it was on the mainland. Great House Sadras had fixed it up. Sadras wasn't much different from Hlaalu; knew how to throw money around for a show. And a show was all it was. Nothing but miles of ashen devastation once you got past the city and the farms surrounding it. Air was still bad too, and Maiko didn’t like to think what it might be doing to his lungs, or to his family’s.
One big difference from Balmora: a lot of times, Maiko was the only outlander in sight. Dunmer stared at him as he passed, and only the Great House Sadras badge on his shirt kept them from saying what they really thought about him.
But home and dinner awaited. No point in sulking.
“I’m home!” he said, once he arrived.
And Marcus, eight years old, four feet tall, and full of energy, bounded up and hugged him. Maiko grabbed him under the arms and lifted him up, gave him a little spin (not as much as he used to—Marcus was too big), and then put him down.
“Good timing, dinner’s almost ready!”
The voice of Caelia, his wife, came from the kitchen along with all the right smells: steamed saltrice and grilled fish. Better than he’d ever eaten in the legion.
At dinner, in a cramped little adobe room barely big enough for the three of them, Maiko could forget all his troubles.
The troubles came back later, though, as he lay in bed with Caelia.
“Marcus wants to go to Cyrodiil someday,” she said.
Maiko nodded in the darkness and stretched his arms back against the wall. “Maybe he can. I don’t think anyone there still cares about me.”
“What if they do still care?” her voice was completely level, like it always was when she was scared of something.
He didn’t say anything for a bit. “Serjo Dravaal’s a good man. He can find a place for Marcus here in Morrowind.”
“I know. It’s lonely for him here.”
“It’s lonely for all of us.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry I chose wrong, Caelia, I just—”
“No, don’t say sorry. You couldn’t have known. I thought the same thing too, so I’m just as much at fault.”
When Emperor Thules had called the legions to defend the Imperial City against the rebel Titus Mede, Maiko had readied his unit and marched.
But the rebels won.
Maiko knew Thules wasn’t any good as an emperor, but an officer didn’t disobey orders. Besides, Cyrodiil already had too many crackpot warlords running around and causing trouble. No reason to think Titus was any better.
When it was over, Maiko had fled to Morrowind with Caelia and Marcus. They were safe enough with the Dunmer. The Fourth Empire purged everyone too close to Thules. Had Maiko been close? Not really, he’d just been a captain. But he didn’t want to take that chance, not when his family needed him.
“I’ve heard there are some other veterans in Kragenmoor,” he said. “Guys like me who served under Thules. Maybe they can give me the lay of the land back in Cyrodiil.”
“I guess. We can always stay in Morrowind.”
“Absolutely,” Maiko said. “Absolutely.”
He hoped his son would feel the same way in ten years.
11th of Sun’s Dusk, 4E 50 – Camlorn, High Rock Province, the Fourth Empire
Synda used to hate snow.
She still didn’t love it—the stuff turned black and dirty soon after falling between the dagger-roofed shops and houses of old Camlorn. But there was always that moment when it first fell from the gray skies, the white flakes dancing on the Eltheric Ocean’s icy winds, that made this bleak and alien land feel like a place of enchantment.
Wrapped up in purple cloak and a high-necked blue dress of coarse wool, Synda walked along the city’s icy streets with her hands in her sleeves, her steps swift and sure. With her walked her son, Revyn, nine years of age and the most perfect Mer she’d ever seen, clearly Dunmer but his gray skin possessing the everlasting glow of Aelcaro, his Cyrodiil-raised Altmer father.
The father to whom they were paying their respects that day, three years after his ship had sunk on a doomed trade voyage to the remains of Yokuda. He’d left them enough to support themselves. Synda’s general goods store did a tidy business even if it did not exactly thrive.
They reached the graveyard soon enough, the markers like grim sentinels on the frozen ground. She wanted to grab Revyn’s hand, but she let him walk on his own as a boy his age ought.
A simple stone stood above her husband’s grave. It fit his style—simple and direct, like the humans with whom he’d spent so much time. She’d never found the grave worthy of him, but it was too late to criticize.
Bending down, she placed the lilies she’d purchased from Oudrienne, the flower-seller, upon the cold earth. Not a suitable flower for him—it was garish and overdone, like so much in High Rock. He’d be better honored by ash yams and black roses, but those were out of her reach.
She did not allow herself to cry as she imagined taking Aelcaro by his golden hand to see the beauty of her homeland in its prime, that vast garden grown from ash and salt by the bloodied hands of her ancestors. There they’d raise Revyn up high on their shoulders so he could see his heritage and know the strength within him, and honor the three gods whom she knew still reigned, no matter what the New Temple said.
So much of that now buried under the same ash from which it had grown.
Synda had confessed her shame to Aelcaro, and he forgave her since he did not understand the gravity of her sins, and she loved him for that. With him gone, and her parents likely dead, she was truly free.
“I miss dad,” Revyn said.
“As do I.”
Revyn sniffled, and Synda glanced down at her son. “He would want you to be strong,” she said.
In truth, Aelcaro had always indulged Revyn with his ready smile and silver laugh. He left it to Synda to be stern, for that came naturally. But Revyn needed to be strong, and it’d be easier for him if he believed that’s what his father had wanted.
Revyn cried often. Such a trait promised a grim future for a Dunmer boy in a city of humans.
“Control yourself,” she warned, and hating herself for being so harsh.
“Why did he have to—”
“I don’t know,” she said. “The world is a cruel place.”
And it was. She’d seen it over and over again, in Morrowind, in Skyrim, in Cyrodiil, and in High Rock. Aelcaro had been the exception, not the rule.
“I wish it wasn’t,” he said.
She refused to let her tears flow.
“As do I.” She knelt down next to him, wanting to hold him close but fearing that’d ruin her lesson. “I promise I’ll never be cruel to you, no matter what. Just be strong, for my sake and yours.”
“I’ll do my best,” he vowed in a trembling voice.
She knew he’d fail. Because no one was ready for the world’s cruelty.
But she’d be there for Revyn when he stumbled.