22nd of Second Seed, 4E 103 – Balmora, Morrowind, Great House Sadras
Loose ash swirled around Tedannupal, Ashkhan of the Odaishannabab, as he and his entourage rode their beetles down to Balmora. At his right, Shunaibal, who wrestled nix hounds to the ground. At his left, Bannuzashinar, whose spears plucked musk flies out of the air.
The new town did not look much like the old. Or, more properly, it did look like the much older town from the days of Tedannupal’s father and grandfather and great-grandfather: a rude collection of adobe huts and a ramshackle temple atop a hill and surrounded by a low adobe wall.
The vivid and alien metropolis of Tedannupal’s youth, with its faces and voices and goods from all over the world, was buried under the ash. Part of him regretted not spending more time there, but doing so would have probably made him soft.
He’d heard that Daria had left before Red Year, and that put him at ease.
A few townsfolk greeted them as they rode in, their tones respectful but not fearful. Balmora and the Odaishannabab had common cause so long as beasts, and Mer with the hearts of beasts, still threatened. Tedannupal’s men protected the farms, and in return, they received weapons, tools, and extra food.
Tedannupal had gotten the idea for the arrangement from an old outlander book he’d retrieved from the city’s ruins. It was called “mutualism”, and struck him as worth exploring. And it had been.
But he didn’t know for how much longer. Fresh green shoots now poked their way up out of the ash. The town grew a bit bigger every few years. Monsters no longer roamed as much, and Great House Sadras ran a small office near the temple.
Sooner or later, Sadras would send in more guards, which meant less work for the Odaishannabab. He knew that Ashlanders would never win against the House Dunmer, not in the long run.
Tedannupal revered his ancestors, but he also understood that they’d made errors. He’d honor them by learning from their mistakes.
He chatted a bit with the townsfolk, asked about the things they concerned themselves with, and he’d read enough to at least sort of understand crop yields and the strange interpersonal interactions that arose when too many Dunmer were locked into too small a place for much too long. It was fascinating from a… either a psychological or sociological perspective. He wasn’t quite sure which term applied.
Finally, he reached the shabby little temple in the center of town. Someone had told him it used to be called the Hlaalu Council Manor, but no one had spoken of the Hlaalu in many decades.
His daughter, Yansurnabba, waited at the front. With her was Menezcherib, Shunaibal’s son and fellow student. He’d been sent to protect little Yan, since the House Dunmer did not always welcome Ashlanders. But Yansurnabba never reported any trouble.
“Daughter of Odaishannabab!” he greeted in the formal way (like he always did in front of townsfolk, since that’s what they expected), though he smiled to let her know how happy he was to see her. He rode closer, so his weakening eyes could get a better look. By the ancestors, how she’d grown over the past three months!
“Honored father,” she said, knowing the script.
“Have you learned much from the temple school?”
“I have honored my elders and heeded their words. And I asked a lot of questions, as you told me to.” She then reached into her bag and took out a book’s worth of notes, and Tedannupal’s heart soared. He’d learn so much from her!
“Good! I’m sure you’ll have much to teach us back at camp.”
He wanted to run out and hug her, lift her up and put her on the back of his mount. But not with the townsfolk watching. So he rode closer to her and let her mount up on her own. Nearby, Shunaibal did the same with his son.
“See you in the fall, Yansurnabba!” called out a voice from the temple doorway.
It was Briltasi, one of his daughter’s teachers, standing there and waving. The second of the two teachers at the school was stern like he’d expected—but Briltasi almost seemed like a girl herself and he worried she’d be too easy on his daughter. Because Yansurnabba and Menezcherib needed to learn, because the towns would grow bigger, and herding would get harder.
The Odaishannabab could either prepare and adapt, or again be left behind to dwindle. Both were types of death. But as a wise Redguard (or Imperial?) had once written, death was not an ending—it was only a change.
They waved to Briltasi before riding off, Yansurnabba promising to come back. Tedannupal would make sure of it.
17th of Sun’s Height, 4E 119 – the western Topal Sea, Pelletine, the Third Aldmeri Dominion
It was one of those summer days where it felt like the whole ocean had turned into steam. Drenched in sweat as he stood at the prow of The Fashion Club, Jeval looked out across the warm waters of the Topal Sea, not able to shake the sensation that something watched him.
He raised his spyglass to his eye and confirmed his suspicion. In the distance but getting nearer, propelled by magic that pushed it against the day’s paltry winds, came an Aldmeri interdiction vessel with its membranous sails spread wide like the wings of an insect.
“Crap,” he said. He looked over to his first mate, Treads-on-Ferns, who’d already heard his utterance.
“I had a feeling this would happen,” Treads said. “I’ll go prep.”
Treads ran down to the hold while Jeval gathered the crew. A good bunch, mostly Imperials and Orcs. Jeval had their backs, so they had his.
“The Aldmeri are on their way, and they’ll inspect us. Follow your orders, let Treads do his magic, and we’ll all be getting drinks in Leyawiin in a few days.”
He hoped. But they’d known the risks coming aboard. No point in second-guessing now.
The Aldmeri vessel soon ran alongside The Fashion Club, gleaming in red and gold, the hull gliding a little too smoothly over the water. Jeval got ready to play the part of the Simple Bosmer, too dumb to be any kind of danger and just wanting an Altmer to pat him on the head for being a good little tribesman. He hated it.
Black-clad Thalmor agents stood at the railing, their golden skins smooth and without so much as a bead of sweat. Had to be illusion magic—he’d known plenty of regular Altmer, and they sweat like anyone else.
“Trading vessel will submit to inspection!” one of the Thalmor declared, in a shrill voice that stabbed into Jeval’s ears.
“Please, honored ones,” Jeval said, bending to one knee. “My ship is yours.”
Shimmering strands extended from its hull and attached themselves like suckers to The Fashion Club’s deck. Agents ran single file down the strands and soon crowded the deck. The crew all fell to their knees as they’d been instructed to, hands behind their heads. Treads was there too, already done with his cover-up work.
“I just wanted to say, you guys are amazing,” Jeval said, his eyes still reverently on the plain floor. “What you’ve done with the Aldmeri Dominion—truly our greatest hope.”
“You say that, yet your vessel is registered with the Empire.”
Jeval cringed, as if ashamed. “Forgive me, sir. But I must feed my family.”
The Thalmor snorted. “Hunger is a small price to pay for purity. We shall search the hold,” he said, gesturing to a trio of agents, who nodded and wrenched open the cargo door.
Jeval licked his lips. Showtime, he thought, and hoped Treads’s magic worked. It should—unless the Thalmor had one of those math wizards with them. Mirror logicians, Treads called them, but they were basically math wizards. Those guys were usually too important to inspect random ships.
Still kneeling, his neck blistering under the sun, Jeval waited. Minutes passed. What was taking so long? The Thalmor used magic to scan cargo holds, which shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.
Unless they found something.
If they did, he’d blow the whistle hanging from a twine cord around his neck, giving the signal for his men to take out their knives and go down fighting. Better to die on deck than fall into Thalmor hands alive. The Thalmor never killed their captives quickly.
“No contraband is present!” came a thin voice.
Jeval let himself look up at the agent, whose eyes seethed like liquid gold.
“I’m always honored to be of assistance, sir.”
“Continue on your way,” the agent ordered.
No one really relaxed until the Aldmeri ship was well out of sight. Jeval clambered down below decks to check on his cargo as evening swept across the sea.
Treads had let them out of the hiding spaces beneath floorboards inscribed with enchantments of warding, and they stood or sat among the legitimate cargo. Two-dozen dissidents: mostly Khajiit and Bosmer, with a few Altmer among them, all seeking sanctuary in the Empire.
“You guys did good,” he said. “We'll be in Empire waters by tomorrow morning, so we don’t have to worry much longer.”
“Thank you,” said an Altmer woman, whose hair shone like silver in the candlelight. “We owe you—”
“You’ve already been paid for. You don’t owe me anything else. Just sit tight and stay below decks until I give you the all-clear.”
Back up on deck, he leaned over the starboard rail and looked out across the endless waters. The planks beneath his feet shifted slightly, and he sensed Treads’s presence.
“Looks like we did our good deed for the day,” Jeval said.
“Seems so," Treads said. "Don’t know how much longer we can get away with it. I have to tell you—these voyages aren’t as easy as they used to be.”
Argonians lived longer than humans but not as long as Mer. Treads was getting old. Sometimes he talked about spending more time helping his daughter run the little teashop he’d founded a century ago. Jeval didn’t want to get in the way of that. Treads had earned some peace.
“You don’t have to stay—you’ve already given more than most. And you taught me a ton,” Jeval said.
Treads had spent decades smuggling Argonians from dissident tribes out of Black Marsh by canoe, by worm, and by foot. He’d said it wasn’t too hard to apply some of the same principles to seagoing vessels.
Treads nodded. “You can still get people to help. I know a few who can do what I do. Not as well, of course, but better than nothing.”
“Great. But The Fashion Club just won’t be what it is without you,” Jeval said. “Both now, and back in Balmora.”
Treads chuckled. “Hey, remember when we first planned this? And you said we should name the ship after Quinn?”
Jeval blushed. “Dude, that was just the rice wine talking.”
Treads gave that croaking laugh that always made Jeval feel like everything would work out. “I don't know, you sounded pretty serious. Maybe your wife should know about this.”
Jeval laughed. “Some bro you are!”
“My silence can always be bought,” Treads said with a shrug.
“Then I guess drinks are on me when we get back,” Jeval said.
They looked out onto the moonlit sea for a few moments.
“Quinn was pretty amazing, though,” Treads-on-Ferns said.
Jeval nodded. “She was.”
He sadly wondered how many people still remembered her.
20th of Last Seed, 4E 174 – outside the Imperial City, Cyrodiil Province, the Fourth Empire (under Aldmeri occupation)
It wasn’t the first time Satheri had fled.
She’d done it when the Argonians came, their spears sharp and their teeth bloody. She’d gotten lucky, she knew: ALMSIVI—or rather, the Divines—had helped her and her son find their way to Cyrodiil. Her husband hadn’t been lucky.
Now, she did it again, as smoke filled the sky and the greatest city in the world burned to ash.
“Uravan,” she said to her grandson, only seven years old, “we’ll be in Cephoriad really soon, okay? Your mom and dad are there. And they’ll be so happy to see us!”
Uravan had been so brave. He’d barely made a fuss when Satheri took him by the hand, through back streets and catacombs and canals, to the far shores of Lake Rumare. He’d been silent when they hid beneath ferns and palm leaves, the shining Aldmeri warriors marching past, just as cruel as the An-Xileel but for far less reason.
“I’m tired,” Uravan whimpered.
“I know, sweetie,” Satheri said, with a catch in her voice.
Satheri wanted to cry. She wanted to hide back in her room and hug the picture of her late husband like she usually did when things got scary. To think of happy things: baby guars and bright flowers and the day she’d gotten married to the most wonderful man who’d ever lived and the ten perfect years they’d spent together...
But Uravan needed her.
Satheri thought back to Muthsera Morgendorffer. She’d marched through the Balmora Tax Revolt like it was nothing, like Tiber Septim, but as a girl with (probably) better fashion sense. She’d made it seem almost fun, like they’d have a great time once they got somewhere safe, they just had to march a little farther. And that made it seem less scary.
“You’ll get to see a bunch of legion soldiers in Cephoriad,” she said. “I heard that the emperor moved there to strike back. All those Aldmeri going into the Imperial City? They’re only trapping themselves.”
She didn’t know this. She’d heard some rumors, sure, but she didn’t know. Satheri just needed to keep Uravan believing for a little bit longer.
“Maybe I can join them,” Uravan said.
The words pierced her heart, and she started to tear up. No, no, no, she’d already given up too much to war, she couldn’t give up Uravan, too. But she smiled, and swallowed the tears.
“You’re too young right now. But I’ll bet they’ll be really impressed when they found out you escaped the city and marched through the jungle. They might make you an officer when you, uh, get older!”
Don’t make him an officer, she prayed. Keep him safe. But she knew what he wanted to hear.
And if that kept him walking and breathing a few more days…
Uravan’s expression turned serious, and he nodded. “Okay.”
Satheri drew herself up, trying to be as much like Muthsera Morgendorffer as she could. Like she was a queen, and the whole world was going to do her bidding—it just didn’t know it yet.
“Let’s pretend I’m your commanding officer. Trooper Uravan!”
He saluted with a wavering little hand, and the sight of that hurt Satheri in ways she’d never been hurt before, but she didn’t show it. She acted like an officer. Impressed, but not too impressed.
“We’re on a mission to, uh, reinforce our boys in Cephoriad. Once we do, we’ll prepare to retake the Imperial City!”
She barked out each word like some mean drill sergeant and hated how much he loved it.
“I can’t wait, sir!” Uravan bellowed.
Please, please don’t let the Aldmeri hear our loud voices. “We need to be sneaky though,” Satheri said, in a whisper. “Tactical stealth. The enemy is everywhere—but we’re smarter than them.”
She imagined Muthsera Morgendorffer saying that, and for a moment, she believed it.
“Yes sir!” Uravan responded, still in a whisper.
“Follow my lead, trooper!”
They marched down the Blue Road, the ruins of the Empire behind them and all the monsters and spirits of the Serican Jungle ahead. Satheri walked with fear in her heart but certainty on her face as she pretended like she knew what she was doing.
They marched together through sun and rain and day and night. Until at last they found soldiers of all races in battered legion armor, who took them in and brought them to safety.
And Satheri hugged Uravan, and told him what a good soldier he’d been, and prayed to Mara and all the Divines that he’d never actually be one.
9th of Rain’s Hand, 4E 180 – Skaal Village, Morrowind (Solstheim Special Region), Great House Redoran
Trent had been in a few mead halls and great halls before, but the one in Skaal Village had a different vibe. Not messy and booze-soaked, but bright and clean. Kind of folksy.
He thought it was pretty cool.
Sitting next to the big fireplace, its light dancing on her wrinkled face and making her white hair even brighter, Lundra Winter’s Voice eyed Trent like she didn’t totally trust him. Trent didn’t blame her. Dunmer—outsiders in general—didn’t usually mean good news for the Skaal, who looked like Nords but were their own people. Their own people on a very small island.
A few of the other Skaal sat nearby, making candles and carving bones. They pretended like they weren’t watching him—but he knew they were. He was okay with that, though.
“You don’t have to sing it, Lundra,” Trent said.
Lundra frowned. “It is not just a song. It’s a hymn to the All-Maker. The whole world is his temple—but it may only be sung here in Solstheim.”
Trent raised his hand. “I’m not here to steal your songs. Heh, you’ve heard me sing. I don’t have the pipes to pull off your guys’ songs anyway.”
“I still do not understand why you want to hear.”
Trent scratched his head. “I guess it is kind of weird. I’m working for some, uh, smart guys down in the Imperial City—what’s left of it, anyway. Sages, I guess you could call them. A lot of music is disappearing. Like all the kings and big chiefs want things sung their way. We want to keep a lot of the older music so it won’t be forgotten. If we write it down, at least people can get an idea of what you sound like, even if they can’t hear you.”
Lundra didn’t say anything, getting it all figured out. Finally, she shook her head.
“No. I’m sorry. This song is only for the All-Maker. If my people’s song is forgotten, then so be it.”
Trent nodded. “That’s okay. I respect that.”
And in a way, he was kind of glad she hadn’t sung it, even though he wanted to hear it. Something kind of cool about sticking to your convictions like that.
“We have many other songs, though. Songs for hearth and hunt,” she said. “Those I will sing for you.”
“That sounds very cool.”
She opened her lips and pure music came out, clear and bright as a bell. Trent put his hands down on the big bearskin rug and closed his eyes, letting this old woman’s song take him. Didn’t really sound like a Nord song at all—completely its own thing.
Trent’s life hadn’t gone the way he’d expected. But working for a bunch of university geeks wasn’t bad. The job didn’t pay great, but Janey still had a lot of money and she liked what he was doing, so she helped him out when he needed.
The world had so many songs. Each year, it felt like a few more of them disappeared. Sort of like how the world kept getting smaller and more controlled. Used to be you could just be you—but now you had to be whatever an Empire or a Dominion or an An-Xileel told you to be.
But sitting here at the edge of the world, on a little island that was half ash and half snow, listening to a song that had been sung for thousands of years no matter what all the jarldoms, empires, companies, and great houses that ruled Solstheim had tried to do, Trent started to think things would be okay.
7th of First Seed, 4E 200 – the Imperial City, Cyrodiil Province, the Fourth Empire
A voluminous hood around her head, Jane walked across the gray flagstones of Titus Square—though she remembered how it used to be called Katariah Square. Funny how history kept changing. Being a Mer meant she lived long enough to get a front row seat to each little adjustment, and then watch humans forget it had ever been different.
It was like the old saying went: a Mer lifespan sounds like a great deal until you have to live it.
She passed a town crier shouting the news to the late morning crowd.
“… Lord Sloan of the Elder Council’s White Chorus has announced that he will be using his personal funds to continue restoration efforts in the southern islands…”
Jane smiled. She hadn’t been that impressed with Tomal when they first met, centuries ago in Balmora, but he’d turned out to be a pretty good guy who used his wealth to help as best he could. They sometimes ran into each other in the garden party circuit.
Part of her still didn’t like them calling Tomal a lord—serjo seemed more natural.
Not like she could complain. She was a baroness herself thanks to her too-short marriage to Lord Terato Quastius, her first husband. The thought of him made her a little sad. Humans just never lived long enough, and that fact hurt more the older she got.
The crier kept going. “…Lord Sloan has pledged this effort to the honor of our glorious emperor, Titus Mede II, long may he rule, and to show that the Empire’s many Elf citizens are loyal and steadfast!”
A few snorts from the crowd at that last bit, so she quickened her pace. Jane hated being called an Elf. What was so tough about saying Mer? Both were single-syllable words. But hardly anyone used Mer any longer, maybe because there weren’t as many of them in the Fourth Empire. So Dunmer became Dark Elf, and even the Mer in the Empire seemed okay with it if they’d been born in the past century.
Some of the other rich Mer in the city hired bodyguards when they went out in public. She hadn’t, not yet. The idea of some armored goon hovering around her didn’t exactly make her feel safe, and people knew better than to mess with minor nobility. She could always hire one if things got worse.
She walked into a bookstore, breathing in the smell of dust and old papers. The merchant, a young Orc in a green silk shirt and a vivid blue sarong, looked up from his accounts as she entered, his eyes widening.
“My lady!” he said, hurrying to genuflect. “It’s not often that a member of the nobility graces my store!”
The poor guy was probably wondering why she hadn’t just sent a servant to buy a book. The simple answer being she sometimes missed doing things on her own.
“What would you like? If you want a book that’s not among my wares, my lady, I will be happy to contact some of my associates. I’m sure we can dig it up.”
“Actually, I’d just like to browse for a little bit.”
The Orc nodded. “The store is yours.”
Jane walked past the cramped store’s two little shelves. The place was smaller than the old bookstore in Balmora. Not as many books made any longer, at least not the kinds people read for fun. The seller probably earned most of his money getting rare tomes for clients.
A small green book on the edge of the shelf caught her attention somehow, maybe because of how bright it looked against the worn shelving. The binding was brand new, or close to it, and the paper still crisp. She opened the book up, and almost dropped it when she saw the title page.
Outlanders: A Mostly Fictional Novel, by Daria Morgendorffer
Jane rushed to the seller with the book in her hands. “Hey, when was this printed?” she asked.
The bookseller leaned in to get a look. “Oh, that’s pretty recent.”
“I haven’t seen anyone read this book in a while,” Jane said. Though she remembered a time, more than 150 years ago, when it seemed like every bookish and disaffected young person in the Empire read Outlanders at least once.
“Outlanders is a classic,” he said with a chuckle. “Never the most popular, but always with enough fans to prompt scriveners to periodically make new copies. I must confess, I’ve never read it myself.”
“The writer was my best friend,” Jane said, putting the book under her arm and reaching for her purse.
“Impressive! Well, you can have it for free, my lady.”
“Please,” Jane said, reaching in and fishing for some coins. “Believe it or not, I used to work for a living. How much?”
“Oh, well if you wish… 60 septims.”
“Sure thing,” she said, handing over that amount. Was that overpriced? Whatever, she had money to burn. “And I’ll tell some of my peers to shop here. I know what a big different a noble client can make.”
The seller gaped at her words and bowed again. “Thank you! I always feel so awkward asking for that.”
“Today, you don’t need to!”
Jane went out the door with the book in her purse. She felt strangely giddy as she walked home, already smelling the smoky air and sour kwama of the city she’d grown up in, imagining the little rooftop studio where she and Daria had relaxed and snarked about the ridiculous world around them, two girls who just felt so smart and sure of everything.
She reached her home, a narrow three-story house made of white stone. It was another inheritance, this time from her second (and, at this point, probably final) husband, Sadresus Durvayn, a Cyrodiilic Dunmer who’d earned his wealth through the perfume trade.
Sadresus had died fighting the Aldmeri during the Sack of the Imperial City, which at least meant they never got the opportunity to torture him. It was a small mercy, but Jane had been around for enough terrible things to be grateful even for those.
Jane removed her hood once she stepped into the foyer. Rotellia, the middle-aged Imperial woman who worked as her servant, came up with a smile on her face and a rolled-up scroll in her hands.
“My lady,” Rotellia said, bowing.
Once upon a time, when Jane first moved into the home of her first husband, she’d told all the servants to just call her Jane. “Lady” set her teeth on edge. But after a while, she’d realized that servants didn’t like calling her by her first name—it made them feel like they were doing something wrong. No matter how casually Jane acted, there was still a world’s difference between their stations. So Jane dropped her insistence and accepted that always being out of touch was just the price of nobility.
She still didn’t like it, though.
“Hi, Rotellia,” she said. “Everything go okay today?”
“Yes! I dusted the tapestries on the third floor, as per the cleaning schedule, and replanted the violets on the balcony garden. The kwama meat arrived as ordered—does my lady still wish to cook it herself?”
“Excellent! A letter has arrived from your son, the Baronet Augustian Quastius,” she said, handing Jane the scroll, which she took. “Also, young Lady Tacita attended the First Planting festivities at the Temple of Kynareth, as directed. I fear she returned in a gloomy mood.”
Jane sighed. Not too surprising. She’d known Tacita hadn’t wanted to go to First Planting. Finding a reward for Tacita was why Jane had gone to the bookstore in the first place. Stumbling across Outlanders was an unexpected bit of luck.
“Got it. She’s in the library?”
Jane thanked her. She took a quick look at Augustian’s letter, which offered a routine update on the Quastius vineyard estate just south of Brina Cross on the Gold Coast. The Aldmeri had burned the vineyards during the invasion, but the soil stayed rich and Augustian had rebuilt the place in the years since. She still saw so much of his father in him: the same drive, love of order, and care for those under and around him.
Augustian was doing fine, in other words. And Perennia, her daughter from her second marriage, was off having adventures way up north in Solitude, where she was probably safe. Jane still worried what with how rarely she wrote back, and the worsening political situation in Skyrim. Which only left Tacita.
Little wispy-blonde Tacita was one of Quinn’s descendants. Both of Tacita’s parents had died in a river crossing accident some years back. Jane, who’d been a presence for eight generations of the line, as a babysitter, confidant, friend, employer, protector, and occasionally stepmother, made a logical guardian for the girl.
It bothered Jane how much she struggled to recollect most of those descendants. Lives, even the ones near and dear to her, had a way of blurring together over the years. Daria and Quinn stayed clear in her mind, of course, likewise Quinn’s daughters, Helena and Vesta. It was kind of touch and go after them, except for Frumentus, whom she’d adopted and raised to adulthood over a century ago.
That’s how she knew she’d remember Tacita. Jane had been with the girl every step of the way, from infancy to the awkward early adolescence she currently inhabited. Twelve wasn’t a fun age, for either Mer or Men.
Tacita reminded Jane of Daria in some ways. She had the same knack for reading, of tearing through a book cover to cover and somehow remembering each little detail. The knowledge didn’t just gather dust in her brain either; she thought about it, turned it over, sometimes asked questions. When she did, Jane saw her friend’s calm, analytical face in Tacita’s solemn expression.
There were differences, too. Daria had always loved the gritty and the macabre. The bloodier the better, whether that was for fiction or nonfiction. Almost like she was trying to inoculate herself against the real darkness just over the horizon, a darkness she’d sensed and predicted. But Tacita only wanted to escape. She read storybooks and romances to hide away from the world. Jane got it. Tacita was quiet and shy, lonely no matter what she did and without Daria’s strange confidence.
Truth to tell, she hadn’t seen much of Daria or Quinn in their descendants for a while. There was bound to be some drift over that many generations. Kind of put the whole concept of nobility into question, now that she thought about it.
Jane passed by a few of her paintings as she walked to the stairs. She only painted for herself and a few close friends (which included Tomal). Proper Cyrodiilic nobles didn't pursue careers. More to the point, Jane didn't want to take work away from commoner artists. Having been one herself, she knew how much she'd have hated aristocratic competition.
She came to the library they kept on the second floor. Wasn’t that big, but held a neat and eclectic collection. Tacita didn’t only read the flighty stuff—sometimes she hunkered down with some big book on the War of the Camoran Usurper or the reign of Uriel Septim VII.
That day, Tacita sat at the reading table. Light from the window fell on the open pages as her eyes went back and forth, back and forth, regular as clockwork. Jane bet she was reading The Princess of Shalawyn again. That was her go-to when she was feeling bad, a fun story about a Breton princess who befriended unicorns and palavered with dragons and defeated evil knights.
“Hey. The Princess of Shalawyn?” Jane asked, speaking quietly.
Tacita didn’t look up. Just like Daria, the book came first, and Jane sort of loved that. “The Adventure of the Far Shores, actually,” Tacita replied.
Part of Jane was pleased to have guessed wrong. Plus, she’d always thought Far Shores was a better novel, an adventure about Redguard explorers who were good and righteous and all that, but not boringly squeaky-clean like Shalawyn.
“Ooh, are you at the part where they find the Daedric temple?” She was a little more than halfway through, by the looks of it, so she probably was.
“Almost!” Tacita looked up and smiled, her hair like gold in the sunlight.
Jane knelt before the desk and looked fondly at the girl. “Good job on going to the First Planting festival. I know you didn’t want to.”
Her face turned solemn. “It was okay. I just don’t like being around so many people.”
“Yeah, I know. I don’t either. But sometimes we have to.”
“Why did I have to, Aunt Jane?”
Jane thought about that a bit. “Because it’s expected. And if you don’t go, that’ll make it harder to make friends later.”
She cringed at her own words. Gods, she sounded worse than the old boosters in Balmora. But that was the way of things. You didn’t get far without allies.
Jane probably still had around fifty, seventy... maybe even a hundred years of life left to her. Enough to shelter Tacita for a while. But who knew what might happen? Civil war brewing in Skyrim, the Aldmeri almost definitely planning another war, the risk of random accidents… Tacita needed to make connections of her own.
Though part of Jane wanted one of her human stepkids to outlive her. Watching Frumentus go from apple-cheeked boy to feeble old man over seventy-five short years... she didn't want to go through that, not again.
“I’m not sure I need friends, not really,” Tacita said. “Not when I have books. And you and Uncle Trent.”
“Yeah, I get that. But a good friend outside the family can do a lot for you, too. Which reminds me, I got something for you.”
Jane put Outlanders on the table. Tacita gave a little gasp that made Jane’s heart soar as she picked it up.
“It’s written by one of your ancestors. Your great-great-great-great-great-great grandaunt, Daria Morgendorffer.”
Jane was pretty sure she’d gotten the right number of greats in there.
“Oh, thank you so much! She was your best friend, right?”
“Best I ever had!” Which, more than two centuries later, was still true in a lot of ways.
Tacita’s look turned cautious. “Do I have to read it now?”
“Nah, wait until you finish rereading Far Shores. I wouldn’t want to interrupt you, not right when you’re about to get at the Daedric temple part.”
She smiled and relaxed. “What’s it about?”
“Well, when Daria was just a little older than you, she moved from Cyrodiil to Morrowind—back then, they were both the same country, sort of. Outlanders is about her years in the city of Balmora. She was a lot like you: liked books more than people, was smarter than most everyone around her.”
Jane’s eyes teared up a little bit thinking of those long-ago days.
“That’s where she met you!” Tacita said.
“Exactly. And, in a way, how I got here.”
“So it’s like a memoir?” Tacita asked.
“Kind of. It reads like a novel. Daria changed everyone’s name, embellished a few things, sometimes put them in a different order. But most everything in this book actually happened.”
“You must be in it, then.”
“Sure am! Though she changed my name to Severia Hlandren and made me a bit more social than I actually was. Severia’s totally me, though.”
“I have an autographed first edition back at the estate,” Jane continued. “But you were too young for the book last time we were there. I think you’re the right age for it now, though.”
Tacita had already opened the book, her tiny fingers pressed against the flimsy white paper. “Wow, back in the Third Empire. Were things really better back then?”
“You know, it’s funny you said that. Reminds me of a conversation I had with Daria not long after she published Outlanders…”
3rd of Midyear, 4E 15 – Anvil, Cyrodiil Province, claimed by Titus Mede I in opposition to the Thules Regime
Daria sometimes found it funny that she’d crossed an entire continent in her adolescence, only to cross it again in her adulthood and end up not that far from the little island where she’d been born.
Anvil certainly had more to offer than Stirk, its gleaming sun-kissed plazas home to bustling markets and a clamoring intellectual life that, on occasion, Daria found tolerable enough to engage in. But as always, she usually found herself to be the best company. The city's airy white streets and swaying palms, bathed in what felt like the light of an eternal summer afternoon, suited her solitary life surprisingly well.
Seated at a small dockside café in view of the Abecean’s turquoise-blue waters, Daria sipped her muddy black coffee and leaned back in her chair. Her work in the College of Whispers kept her in touch with most of the interesting arcane and Dwemer research (what little that hadn’t been completely derailed by the war, at least) and was prestigious enough that no one really pestered her about being a comfortably childless spinster at age 41.
She glanced back down at her papers, another dense dissertation on alteration magic written for the sake of being written and of no real use to anyone. A pretty typical student thesis, in other words. For all its talk of streamlining the half of the Mages Guild it had inherited, the College of Whispers was actually more cumbersome when it came to paperwork, an aspect not helped by the pompous secrecy embraced by so many of the highest-ranking members.
Daria read through a few more pages as a salt-tinged breeze ruffled her hair, her coffee slowly cooling in its little porcelain cup. She occasionally dipped her quill into the inkwell she’d brought with her to cross out a word or write a note in the margin. Age had not made her any more merciful to errors.
The hour grew late. The sun still glowed bright above the western horizon, but its light bore a ruddy tinge that told her sunset was not far off. Finishing her now cold coffee, Daria waited a bit for the ink on her notes to dry, and then put her writing implements and the deadly-dull thesis in her pack, grabbed her cane, and began the walk home.
She stopped and grimaced at the sudden surge of pain in her right leg. A memento of a venomous skyrender sting suffered in the Deshaan salt flats twenty or so years ago. She was lucky to still have her limb after such a wound. It didn’t hurt most days, but sometimes flared back up if she’d been sitting still for too long—and lengthy bouts of sitting tended to come with working in the College of Whispers.
Daria ignored the pain and hobbled back to her home, a bright and breezy second-floor apartment that she’d turned into a sanctuary for herself and the tiny handful of people she invited inside.
Judging by the rugged wooden carriage, complete with a driver, two horses, and a lightly armored footman, one of those people had just arrived.
The door to the carriage opened and Jane—technically Baroness Jane Quastius, now—stepped out, resplendent in a moth-silk gown of red and black, her hair in its usual functional bob. It didn’t bother Daria that Jane, the same age as her, still looked like a girl of twenty-five—but it drove Quinn batty, which Daria did appreciate.
“What’s this?” Daria said, raising her eyebrows. “Judging by the apparent age of the person standing outside my door, I’m guessing she's some bratty college kid is here to complain about her marks.”
Jane sauntered ahead, hands on her hips. “The kind of bratty college kid with aristocratic connections.”
“Please. I chew up and spit out the spoiled scions of minor aristocracy on a daily basis, and only get mildly reprimanded by my superiors who’ll then apologize and undo everything I did.”
“Good old Tamriel,” Jane remarked.
A moment later they embraced. Daria wasn’t big on hugs, still, but she didn’t mind for Jane. With the moment of contact came a sudden sense of lightness and relief—for the next week or so, things would be fine.
Jane’s footman, an agreeable Breton, carried the noblewoman’s things up to Daria’s apartment, while Daria took her guest to the small balcony that let her glimpse over the bright red-shingle roofs to the tranquil seas beyond.
“Oh, got something for you,” Jane said. She hurried over to one of the bags the footman had brought, reached in, and took out a big clay jug.
Daria’s heart almost stopped, barely daring to hope what it might be. Then Jane smiled and shook the jug a bit—Daria heard the sloshing of liquid.
“It’s mazte!” Jane said.
“How in the world did you get that?” Anything from Morrowind was in short supply these days—and probably would be for the rest of Daria’s life.
Jane took on a conspiratorial expression. “Still had some connections in the Thieves Guild. Just had to drop the right word to the right people…”
Daria watched and waited.
“Nah, just kidding. I asked my husband, and he bought it from some traders. But the Thieves Guild sounds so much cooler.”
A few minutes later and they both sat at the small balcony table, Jane filling a pair of porcelain cups with the foamy bittersweet drink Daria never thought she’d see again. Once it was ready, Daria raised the cup to her lips and closed her eyes, drinking deep. The mazte’s taste and texture, so steeped in the ash-strewn fields and mountains of a land lost to her, brought back all the memories of youth.
But reminiscing got you nowhere, so she didn’t dwell on it. Instead, she and Jane jumped right back into the conversation that had started back in Ondryn’s classroom, one rainy day in Balmora decades ago, and had paused a few times but never truly ended.
“You know, I never thought I’d want kids,” Jane said.
It was evening now, the stars jewel-bright in a velvet sky. They’d just finished a simple dinner of roasted mackerel, grilled leeks, and thick bread that Jane’s footman had purchased and brought up to them. Not wanting to blow through all the mazte at once, they’d switched to some red grape wine produced on the Quastius estate. The wine was just a touch too sweet for Daria’s liking, but she didn’t make an issue of it.
“I gotta say,” Jane continued, “being around Terato changed my mind on that.”
“I’m sure the pressure of a noble line to produce an heir had nothing to do with it,” Daria said.
Jane shrugged. “Hey, Terato said we could adopt if I really wanted to. But I think I’m okay with having one of my own.”
“Given that your child would be raised by the most grounded and sane parents in the entire Cyrodiilic aristocracy, I’d say that’s probably a good move.”
Daria wasn’t exactly crazy about Terato Quastius, same as she hadn’t been crazy about any of Jane’s boyfriends over the years. But, like most of those boyfriends, Terato was basically a good guy, just not someone Daria would want to spend much time with.
“I am a little worried about the war,” Jane admitted. “Terato could be called up to serve if things bog down in the east.”
“The odds strongly favor Titus Mede. The Elder Council likes Emperor Thules, but nobody else does, which just shows how badly out-of-touch the council’s become.”
“How’s the College of Whispers handling all this?” Jane asked.
Daria rolled her eyes. “With their usual obscurantism and obfuscation. The local chapters kept feeding Titus some nonsense about ‘the vagaries of the arcane’ being a reason they couldn’t get involved. Titus finally said he’d leave us alone as long as we don’t help Thules, which we didn’t want to do anyway. Of course, we could have just told him that in the first place”
“Sounds awkward,” Jane said.
“Amelia was telling me the Synod had to go through the same rigmarole. I was sent to Stros M’kai this summer to do some work on the Dwemer ruins there, and stayed with her family.”
“Don’t the Synod and the College of Whispers hate each other?” Jane asked.
“Officially, yes. Unofficially, most of us old-timers think the division is stupid and still stay in touch. But the newer members are keen on the division, so the two factions might genuinely hate each other in a generation’s time.”
“Right, I guess the new guys weren’t around for the Mages Guild. How’s Amelia doing?”
“Quite well, just gave birth to a third kid, a daughter this time. My ship also stopped at Rihad on the way back, so I got to say hi to Jolda. Political life agrees with her, though I don’t think King Doondana listens to her as much as he should.”
“Since when do kings listen to good advisors, right?” Jane remarked. “Any idea what happened to Maiko?”
Daria shook her head. “Afraid not. Jolda told me that they broke up not long after I left for mainland Morrowind, and that he got transferred to Cyrodiil soon after."
Jane looked disappointed. “Guess I’m not surprised. Too bad, I always thought they made a cute couple.”
“Jolda’s husband seems tolerable.”
“High praise, from you.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
Jane snapped her fingers. “Oh, yeah, speaking of old times: did they get your book ready?”
“Uh, yeah. Right over there. That copy is yours, by the way,” Daria said, pointing to a small green book on her desk. She moved to get it, but Jane motioned for her to stay seated, and walked over to save her friend the trip. Coming back to the table, her eyes alight, she sat down.
“All the embarrassments and mishaps of our teenage years saved for posterity,” Jane said, adopting a solemn voice.
“I did change the names, and you said you were okay with what I wrote.” Jane, of course, had read the manuscript before Daria had made any attempt at publication.
“Hey, saving that embarrassment is a good thing! Nobles get too full of themselves. Now, I just have to crack this open and be reminded that I’m not all that great.”
“You come off looking better than I do,” Daria said.
Jane flipped through the book, looking absolutely pleased with it, and Daria felt a smile come to her lips. She didn’t let it linger long.
“So, how are you spreading the word?” Jane asked.
“I’m not,” Daria said. “You know how much I hate advertising myself. I’m hoping it’ll spread through word-of-mouth.”
“What if it doesn’t?” Jane asked.
“Then so be it. Obscurity suits me pretty well.”
Jane put the book down and thought it over. “I can see the logic in that. I bet people will like it, though.”
“Please don’t give me some spiel about me being more likable than I think of myself as being.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to puncture your illusions. But I mean, what the book’s about. There’s a lot of longing for the old days out there. Back when all of Tamriel was under one empire and it didn’t seem like anything that bad could happen.”
The ghost of the Third Empire still haunted the world. Most didn’t say it aloud, but nearly everyone Daria knew hoped, on some level, that Titus Mede would set things back the way they were. Quinn certainly hoped so, and was raring to help him out.
“I’m a little surprised to hear you say that,” Daria said. “You didn’t exactly have an easy life back then.”
“Oh, sure. But it’d probably be even harder for people in that position now. And with Morrowind ruined…”
Most times, Daria could think about Red Year without feeling much. This wasn’t one of those times. She felt it all at once: the deaths of her parents, the deaths of so many—the world she’d lived in now buried under ash and molten rock.
She took a big enough gulp of wine to make her dizzy, put down the cup, and took a few breaths before speaking. “Granted. But I’m not certain that the Third Empire being great is necessarily the lesson we should be taking from all this.”
“What people need to realize is that a lot of the problems we face today are outgrowths of the problems we had back then: the corruption on all levels, the deepening inequity, the racism and xenophobia we glossed over and pretended didn’t exist. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote Outlanders was to show it wasn’t all that great.”
“Yeah, you didn’t skimp on all the crap we had to put up with. Still, it’s hard to say that things weren’t better.”
“They absolutely were,” Daria agreed. “But no one tried to solve the problems that were there. The Empire never addressed corruption. It never figured out a good succession system, which is a big part of what made the Oblivion Crisis so awful.”
A younger her would have then blamed the Tribunal Temple for Red Year, because it was completely their fault. They’d let that rock float above Vivec City for centuries as a sign of the city’s namesake god. If they’d chipped it to rubble or used magic to sink it beneath the sea, it’d have never fallen and triggered Red Mountain's eruption. Tens of thousands—including mom and dad—would still be alive.
But she didn’t say anything. Red Year had hurt Jane in more ways than it could have ever hurt Daria. She didn’t want to reawaken that. Pain could be useful if it fixed something—but with the Tribunal long-gone and Morrowind devastated, mentioning the temple’s complicity would just be pain for the sake of pain at this point.
“I guess you’re right,” Jane agreed. “Folks aren’t going to see that, though.”
“How do you mean?”
“They’re going to read it, follow the adventures of two smart young ladies in an interesting city and a more-or-less functioning Empire, and think of how great it used to be.”
“Probably,” Daria admitted. “In the end, none of us has much control over our stories. Maybe that’s a good thing. I can’t claim any immunity to nostalgia. Part of me really does wish I could go back in time and take Tamriel, circa 3E 426, and keep it safe.”
“That might be an interesting project for the College of Whispers.”
“As if. You’d need—”
Daria had almost said CHIM, but stopped herself at the last moment. She didn’t want to explain that and wasn’t at all sure she believed it, anyway.
“—more powerful magic than they’ll ever have to do something like that. Writing Outlanders is probably the closest I can come to saving that world. But even then, I want to save it so that people today can learn from it. Looking backward can make things hurt less, but it doesn’t make things better. The only way to do that is to honestly assess the mistakes we made, and take measures to correct them.”
Jane nodded. “Well said, sera.” She smiled. “Think you could sign my copy?”
“I guess, but don’t tell anyone I signed it,” Daria said.
Jane got up and walked across the room to take a quill and inkwell from Daria’s desk. “Don’t worry, this one will be a Quastius heirloom,” she said, as she returned it to the balcony table.
Making a show of reluctance, Daria opened the book to the title page, dipped her quill, and then wrote:
To Baroness Jane Quastius (formerly Llayn) –
You made my teenage years intermittently tolerable. So yeah, thanks.
- Daria Morgendorffer
“How does this look?” Daria asked, as she passed the open book over to Jane.
Jane looked at it and smiled. “Perfect.”
Satisfied with her friend’s reaction, Daria drank some more wine and looked out to the stars, wondering how much and in what ways her book would really help.