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Chapter 1

Daria knew something was wrong when she woke up and realized that the blurry darkness in front of her eyes was not the same blurry darkness she usually woke up to.

She reached out to grab her glasses from the side of the desk to her left. Her fingers only encountered the rough surface of an adobe wall.

That’s when it all came back to her: mom’s fury, the chaos at the pageant, fleeing Balmora with the Sloans, reaching Ravil Manor, and being given the guesthouse servant’s quarters (“It’s normally for servants of our guests, not for our servants who might attend to the guests,” as Serjo Ravil had been very insistent on making clear).

Not that she served the Sloans. But no one knew where else to put her, so the guesthouse servant’s quarters it was. Tomal had admitted the pageant’s events, and his own relationship with Synda (and now Daria), to his father. Serjo Angyar Sloan had kept his temper and simply gone along with things.

But she suspected that, no matter what Tomal said, there’d be a reckoning sooner or later.

Daria finally remembered that she’d put her glasses next to the washbasin on the small table to her right. She groped for a few moments before finding and putting them on. Her vision cleared, but stayed dark save for a sliver of light shining between the shutters. Throwing off the sheet, she ambled over to the shutters and opened them.

The world beyond stole her breath away. Her room looked out upon a meadow green and bursting with life. A cool breeze swayed the tall grasses and rustled the leaves of the trees that clustered tall and thick atop the surrounding hills. The loamy smell of growth emanated from rich black soil nurtured by rain and ash for thousands of years. Above, a herd of betty netches drifted like baubles of bright blue glass through the clear and capacious skies.

She let her eyes linger on the scene for a bit. Certainly a far cry from Balmora’s dust and grime, where Quinn would be waking up to a room occupied only by her. Quinn had certainly wished for that in the past.

Time to get dressed and find out what the day had in store. She walked to the trunk where she’d folded her travel-stained clothes, only to notice a bundle of pale blue fabric by her door. A note had been placed on top.

Madam Daria Morgendorffer –

As an honored guest of my guest, Serjo Sloan the Younger (and by extension, the Elder), I would like to extend my warmest welcome. Enclosed, you will find one of my daughter’s old gowns, which you are free to wear. My daughter is married to Serjo Mildryn Sethedras of Ud Hleryn, a man of great prestige, and has no need for her old wardrobe.

- Serjo Rathan Ravil

She picked up the folded dress, the high-quality moth-silk soft and slippery in her hands. Beneath that, she found a pair of slippers.

These were the kinds of clothes that’d drive Quinn mad with envy if she saw Daria wearing them. Keeping the window open for light, Daria got dressed behind a folding paper screen set up for modesty’s sake, imagining her sister’s reaction and enjoying every moment of it.

Unfortunately, while the gown surely fit Hlaalu fashion standards, it didn’t fit her. It wrapped tightly around her calves and loosely around her waist. Everywhere else the garment sagged where it should have slimmed, and clung to her where it ought to have given room.

She took a look at herself in the mirror (made of real glass). At least the ill-fitting dress matched her disheveled hair and blotchy complexion. Maybe it was a bad idea to test Tomal’s attraction this early—but on the other hand, she kind of hoped her appearance would at least moderately annoy one of his family members.

Daria shook her head. No, none of that. She was on her last social support. Carrying on like she usually did was no longer an option. She needed to do her best, however paltry that was.

As she brushed her hair and washed her face (inadvertently soaking her sleeves), she tried not to think about the fact that, in a few minutes, she’d be having breakfast with one of Morrowind’s wealthiest families.

*********

“Ah, Madam Daria! Good of you to join us,” Angyar said.

The Sloans had all gathered at the grand banquet table in Serjo Ravil's manor house. Morning light beamed through the three narrow windows behind the head of the table, where Ravil sat. Tapestries decorated by lush forest scenes in the High Rock style covered the walls, and the table itself was made of some dark tropical wood. Aside from the adobe construction, only the cylindrical paper lanterns over the table (currently unlit) felt like something from Morrowind.

Ravil offered a faint smile, but his eyes studied her as if appraising an asset and finding it wanting. Daria suddenly suspected that he’d known full well his daughter’s dress wouldn’t fit her.

She took a seat next to Tomal.

“Good morning, Daria,” Tomal said. “I hope you slept well.”

Conscious of Ravil’s gaze burning holes into her, she nodded. “I did. Uh, thanks to the host for, uh, appointing his servant’s quarters—excuse me, guesthouse servant’s quarters—so lavishly.”

“The servants of the Ravils live like princes,” Ravil said. “And even my generosity pales compared to that of the honorable Serjo Sloan!”

Angyar Sloan smiled. “Magnanimity is the virtue of the strong, good serjo.”

“Rivaled only by self-congratulation,” Daria muttered under her breath. Tomal chuckled but shot her a warning look.

No surprise that Angyar looked a lot like an older version of Tomal, one with all the raffish charm polished out to a high-class sheen. His wife, Galas, was every inch a proper and wealthy Dunmer lady. Her short hair and bright moth-silk shirt and trousers told the world that she quite liked the Empire.

Breakfast turned out to be a blend of Dunmer and Nibenese Imperial cuisine: white rice and fried river fish with bushels of fresh comberries. All of it served on silver plates, with bitter Elswyer coffee poured into tiny silver cups.

“I’m sure our Imperial guest appreciates the rice,” Ravil said. “Does it remind you of home?”

Daria wondered how much she could get away with. The idea of guest right was foreign to Dunmer society. The Sloans’ power and wealth meant they’d always have a host, but Daria wouldn’t get any leeway.

“I do enjoy it,” she finally said. “But I was born on an island off the Gold Coast, so I mostly grew up with bread and fish.”

Ravil’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “Oh! I did not know that Cyrodiilic cuisine had such variety.”

“Same variety found in every province,” Daria said.

He gave a bitter laugh and glared at her through a veil of steam rising from his coffee. “You must excuse my provincialism, madam.”

Daria, who’d been lifting a fork-full of rice to her mouth, paused. Was this a trap?

“Your cook did an excellent job, Serjo Ravil,” Galas said. “Tomal and I would know, we spent some years in the Imperial City.”

Ravil raised his goblet. “I am pleased that my cook’s done well. Only the best for those under my roof, wherever they may be from.”

The Ravils and the elder Sloans chatted all through breakfast, Tomal occasionally commenting as required. Midway through, he reached under the table and grasped Daria’s hand.

Suddenly, the breakfast no longer seemed so oppressive.

Upon finishing the meal, she and Tomal walked out into the big courtyard. Like a lot of country homes in the Ascadian Isles, Ravil Manor still paid lip service to its original agricultural use. Leafy corkbulbs sprouted in neat rows from the rich soil within the enclosure, and a few other fields dotted the surrounding lands.

“Sorry about that,” Tomal said.

“I suppose it’s how menials are usually treated in these situations. I guess I’ll have to give credit to Serjo Ravil for at least being an abolitionist,” she said, observing the workers (mostly Dunmer) search the undersides of the corkbulb leaves for parasites.

“Not exactly an abolitionist—he freed his slaves, but I don’t think he particularly cares whether or not other people own slaves.”

“Did he do anything to help them afterward?”

Tomal was silent for a bit. “Probably not. Would you really have struck out on your own if I told you Serjo Ravil used forced labor?”

“Absolutely,” Daria said. She’d made the ultimatum a few minutes after she’d asked to go to Ravil Manor. If Ravil had been a slave-owner, she’d have fled to Caldera or Ald’ruhn and try to leverage her friendship with Amelia or Dimartani. Golthyn, rather, but she still thought of him as Dimartani.

“Good. That’s what I like about you, Daria,” Tomal said.

Did he really? Or was he just saying that?

“So, as a menial, am I required to quietly hide myself in a storage room until I’m needed?” Daria asked.

“Dad knows you’re my girlfriend—”

“And I can tell he’s not thrilled with it.”

“It was an awkward situation. But you’re fine for now. You’ll do what we do.”

“In other words, get trotted out for garden parties, hunting trips, and boating adventures. The only upside is knowing that Quinn won’t get them despite spending her entire life praying for things that I still see as annoyances.”

Tomal laughed. “Oh, there are other things to do around here. Serjo Ravil’s got a great library.”

“Will he let my uncouth hands touch the pages?”

Tomal put his arm around her waist. She smiled without intending to, not the usual guarded half-smile but a full-fledged one that made her feel as bright as the morning sun.

How embarrassing.

“I’ll make sure you aren’t bothered. Come on, let’s go. I think he even has a copy of Confessions of a Skooma-Eater.

Daria looked at Tomal, still smiling and feeling mostly okay with herself for doing so. “How scandalous. Let’s check it out.”

Maybe the Ravil Manor wouldn’t be too bad. But she knew it was too early to let down her guard. She was stuck here and had no idea what would come next.

Life had felt a lot more secure with mom and dad (and even Quinn) around.

Chapter 2

It was mid-morning of Daria’s second day at Ravil Manor, and she was bored.

The library beckoned, but judging by how Ravil kept sending a servant to check on her and Tomal the other day, it wasn’t a place she was welcome to visit on her own. That, or the servant wanted to make sure they weren’t… doing anything.

The thought of which gave her more than a little bit of discomfort.

She idled beneath the shade of a big mushroom, nostalgic for Drenlyn’s comparatively cozy library, when Tomal rode into the courtyard atop a rose-colored guar. He ably steered the two-legged lizard around the corkbulb plot to her side, and extended his hand.

Daria stared at it for a moment, not sure what to say. Finally, she said: “Four fingers and a thumb. Your hand looks normal to me.”

“Any interest in joining me on an excursion to Lake Amaya?” Tomal asked. “Come on, we have to fill up at least a few of the rural vacation cliches.”

“Hm, doesn’t the lakeside idyll usually come after a few awkward misunderstandings that give hint to our feelings while still keeping the reader in some level of suspense as to whether or not we’ll get together?”

He shrugged. “We kind of covered that in Balmora, I think. More efficient this way.”

Daria looked around. It sounded nice—but she still didn’t know Tomal all that well yet. “I’ll go,” she said, “but I don’t want to go quite that far. Are there any scenic spots closer to the manor?”

“There’s a little hilltop glade not far from here. We’ll be within sight.”

“Okay. My travel clothes are still in the wash, so I guess I’ll have to stick with this second gown I got today.”

She plucked at her sleeve. The new gown fit just as badly as the old one, but in entirely different places, and was colored a dark purple.

“It has a very avant-garde look,” Tomal said. “Like you’re wearing a giant bruise or something.”

“With the way this thing pinches my shoulders and waist, I probably will be a giant bruise by evening,” she said.

“And you thought aristocratic life was easy! Here, you should probably ride side-saddle.”

Daria managed to perch herself atop the guar after some finagling, her legs dangling off the beast’s right flank. A dozen new discomforts assailed her: the guar’s knobby spine, her off-balance position, the way she kept bumping into Tomal once he started riding. Putting her arms around his waist helped a bit, but the constant up-and-down motion still jarred her.

A few minutes beyond the manor, and Daria just wanted to get off the beast.

She persevered as Tomal rode up a grassy hill unmarked by any roads but garbed in wildflowers of gold and magenta, the top crowned by a grove of ancient willows. Daria shivered in delight as the willows’ soft tresses brushed against her head and shoulders as they passed under, and the shade beneath the canopy offered a twilit realm of green shadows and glassy blue flowers. From there she saw more of the surrounding lands: the gentle hills dotted by stately adobe manors and tidy farms, and the gleaming surface of Lake Amaya a few miles to the north. Beyond that, dour as always, Red Mountain with all its grim portent.

“You do have an eye for natural beauty,” Daria said, as she dismounted.

“With you a fine example of the same.”

She blushed. Gods, no wonder Quinn loved the praise. It felt kind of foolish on some level, though. What was so impressive about being lauded for her looks when she hadn’t even put much effort into them? It used to be so much easier for her to keep people at a distance.

They settled down around a small mossy boulder, the position offering a willow-framed view of the lake’s blue waters. A chorus of tiny insects (and perhaps some not-so-tiny ones) chirped and clicked beneath the stones and between the blades of grass. Tomal took out one of the saddlebags and produced a meal of wickwheat bread, scrib jelly, a few apples, and a small bottle of rice wine.

Daria had to admit it felt just about perfect. Some part of her had always been terrified that romance was exactly the way Quinn made it look—a subtle and never-ending test of social ability, with the value of one’s partner reduced to how far up the social ladder they could take you. That maybe all of those silly books about real romance really were silly and best confined to the library.

This day felt like a vindication.

But she had to set some things straight. Daria propped herself up on her elbows. She ought to have talked about this at the manor—or better yet, back in Balmora. She’d just hated the idea of his dad or Ravil overhearing.

“Uh, Tomal?”

“Yeah?”

She took in a deep breath, her head shrinking back into her shoulders like an overexposed tortoise's. “How, uh, far did you, uh, take things with Synda?”

Tomal’s brow furrowed. “Beg pardon?”

Daria blushed. “You know what I mean.”

“Oh? Oh! Well, let me put it this way: there is zero chance that Synda is pregnant. Or if she is, it’s not from me.”

That was good to hear. “Okay. As for me—look, I’m pretty new at relationships. As in, brand new.”

“That’s fine.”

“And I’m not sure if this whole physical contact thing is something I’m comfortable with. What I’m trying to say is, I’m not really…”

She knew her face glowed as bright as Masser on the night of the Summer Solstice.

“I’d prefer to stick with kisses for the foreseeable future,” she finally spat out. “I need you to promise me that you’re okay with that. If you aren’t, then I’d probably best get packing.”

Tomal was silent for a moment. “That’s fine, Daria. You’ll set the speed for this.”

“You’re not bothered?” she asked.

“I’d definitely like to get more intimate at some point. But only when you’re comfortable with it. If that takes a few years, so be it. Besides, I’m Mer, I’ve got plenty of years left.”

“Rub it in why don’t you.”

But her heart soared. She was safe with him.

Except her big brain refused to stop thinking, especially regarding his last comment. Since yes, Mer did live a lot longer and age a lot slower. If they stayed together and both reached age eighty, she’d look like an eighty-year-old woman while Tomal stayed in the bloom of youth. Nice for her—but not necessarily for him. If he got tired of her, there wouldn’t be much she could do to stop him from wandering, especially with how much power his family held.

Plenty of Man-Mer relationships worked out fine—but a lot fell apart. As for noble-commoner relationships... well, they almost always worked out well for the noble.

“Daria?”

She blinked, Tomal’s voice jerking her back to reality. “Sorry. I’m not very good at enjoying the moment. But thanks for, uh, making it a lot easier.”

“I’m glad.”

Daria blushed again. Suddenly dizzy, she lowered her eyes, conscious of her heartbeats sounding as loud as drums. “Right. I, uh, like sharing things with you.”

Gods, that sounded stupid.

“How about sharing a few more of those kisses?” Tomal said.

A moment later, they did just that.

Chapter 3

The next week proved so idyllic that Daria immediately became suspicious.

Each day, she awoke in a comfortable bed, donned fine clothes (which, admittedly, never quite fit), and spent the day eating fine food, perusing the library, or exploring the countryside, either on her own or with Tomal.

Nothing was this nice.

Suspicious of the Ravils, she eavesdropped on the conversations of the serving staff to find out what they truly thought of their employer. But it seemed Ravil was neither a cruel ogre nor a benevolent patriarch. He was simply a boss. The workers complained about him, but didn’t bear him any real anger.

They resented her more than anyone else there. To them, she was “the outlander”, a boorish and unwelcome intrusion on their lives. She supposed that’s what the Empire was from Morrowind’s perspective.

Daria still sensed some dislike from Ravil and his wife. Angyar and Galas, on the other hand, were pleasant though distant. Wouldn’t they resent her at least a little bit for scandalizing them? For causing trouble with the Grilvayns?

“I well remember the passions of youth,” Galas said at tea one afternoon. “What you and Tomal did was certainly not appropriate, but no lasting harm was done to our name. Besides, Tomal seems quite taken with you.”

Which just raised more questions. Tomal had never told his parents about Synda until after the pageant—but why not? If they were okay with Daria, wouldn’t they have been even more okay with a respectable Dunmer girl? She didn’t know how to voice these questions to them without seeming rude, so she asked Tomal.

“Dating is tricky when you’re in a family like mine, Daria,” he said.

“Tough to choose from all the eligible young Dunmer maidens throwing themselves at your feet?”

A flicker of annoyance crossed his face. “There’s a lot at stake. Once the family knows about a relationship, they’re going to start making business arrangements—because, on some level, that’s what any marriage would be.”

“Gee, I hope I’m a valuable asset,” Daria said, crossing her arms.

“That doesn’t mean a marriage is without love. The only reason I didn’t tell my parents about Synda until after it was over was that I didn’t want the added pressure of both them and her trying to push us together.”

“But you don’t seem worried about that pressure with me.”

Tomal shrugged. “With respect, marrying a Morgendorffer would be less complicated than marrying a Grilvayn. You guys are outside the Great House Hlaalu power structure. Anyway, we had no choice but to be upfront about it with mom and dad, and they’re basically cool with it.”

Synda’s screams awoke Daria on some nights. Over and over again they echoed in her memory and she’d lie there in the darkness, wondering what exactly had happened to the girl.

The elder Sloans hadn’t heard Synda’s screams. Daria doubted they’d have cared.

If they were okay with Tomal cheating on Synda, Daria thought, they won’t put up any fuss if he cheats on you.

“Dammit, brain,” she muttered.

But her brain had a point.

Tomal was not exactly idle during this time. Though he spent part of each day with Daria, he spent more working. The Sloan empire stretched far and wide, with more investments in Cyrodiil than in Morrowind (though the Hlaalu Council Company always got its cut). Tomal kept track of each investment, and helped ascertain the best prices and fees for the rice paddies, tanna plantations, mango orchards, and egg mines.

Angyar’s courier returned from Balmora at the end of the week. Packs stuffed with forms and records hung from her saddlebags, which she took off and brought to Angyar’s office in the guesthouse. These turned out to be the elder Sloan's correspondence and business dealings with the notables in the city. Daria barely saw Tomal the next few days, as he and his father worked to go through and respond to each one. While Imperial nobles had a reputation as useless layabouts, the Dunmer upper class of any great house still led relatively demanding lives so far as she could tell.

“Oh, Daria,” Angyar said one morning. Both he and Tomal had dark circles beneath their eyes from the long hours spent working by candlelight the previous evening. “I’ll be sending the courier back to Balmora tomorrow. If you’d like to write a message to your family, I could have her deliver it.”

Part of her wanted to pour everything out on paper and send it to mom, just to connect with her and let her know that yes, she still lived and was okay.

Another wanted to cut everything off and move on.

“I would. I’ll write one today. Thank you, serjo,” she said.

More to the point, the Dunmer took family more seriously than anything else. If she was to impress Angyar (and stay with Tomal), she needed to play the part of a respectful and obedient daughter—or at least do the best job she could, given the circumstances.

Daria sighed inwardly. Here she was, willingly altering her behavior to impress someone else. Where mom, the Empire, Drenlyn Academy, the Mages Guild, the IAS, and even a Telvanni wizard had failed, the Sloans had succeeded.

Was that all it took? A handsome face and the promise of money and easy living? The realization depressed her. Maybe she was only a lazier version of her mom, her diffidence a smokescreen for the same hungry ambition that had driven mom up through the legal world.

Daria returned to her room and dragged the squat table next to the window for light. Placing a sheet of paper on the corkbulb-wood surface, she stared at it for a few minutes as she gathered her thoughts. What did she want to tell her family?

She told everything. With a storm’s fury, she unleashed the truth: every pent up hurt from the long years in Stirk’s sterile sunlight, the cruelties of Synda and the things Daria had done to protect herself, how much she missed Jane, her exhaustion with the world around her, and most of all herself for hating it but still sinking to its level.

Finished, she let the quill fall from her aching hand and sat back in her chair, heaving and soaked in sweat. She wanted to cry but no longer had the energy. Almost a dozen-and-a-half pages of cramped and jagged script surrounded her, all laid out around the table to dry.

If they knew the truth, she’d at least know what they really thought about her.

But what was the point? She’d already sunk her relationship with her own family. What did some rambling confessional slash complaint accomplish?

Daria collected the pages and put them in a stack, not caring if the ink smeared. With bone-deep weariness, she took a new sheet and started writing.

Dear Mom, Dad, and Quinn –

First, relax (especially you, dad). I’m staying as a guest of the Sloans in Ravil Manor, where they are also guests. It’s pretty cushy here. If you want to know what it’s like, ask Quinn to tell you her ideal life, and then trim 50% of the fantasy elements. I do get to wear fine moth-silk gowns imported from Cyrodiil on a daily basis though. Feel free to remind her of this whenever you please.

How are you, Quinn? I’m sure you’re glad I’m no longer there to dim your popularity with my stubborn intellectualism. Are you still steward of the Fashion Club? If so, I’ll give you some sisterly advice: of your friends, Treads-on-Ferns is by far the smartest and most reliable, so listen to her.

Mom and dad, I know you’re worried about Tomal and me being together. Well, don’t. Tomal’s been nothing but a gentleman, and I’m still too boring to ever engage in any kind of passionate romance. In other words, it’ll be many years before I become a mother.

Tomal’s parents know that we’re in a relationship, and they seem to approve (or at least not mind). Marriage is a possibility, but I think you’d agree that it’s much too early for us to make specific plans for that yet.

I know that the circumstances of our parting were less than ideal, and I apologize for that. However, given the mess I made of things with Armand, I think we can both agree that I’m not really a good fit for the family. It’s not your fault—I’ve always been a very strange person. Frankly, I enjoy being strange.

- Daria Morgendorffer

This would do. It said nothing meaningful, which made it safe. She waited for the ink to dry and then took the note to Angyar.

“Uh, I wrote a letter to my parents, Serjo Sloan,” she said. “I’d be grateful if your courier could bring it to them.”

He gave her a puzzled look. “Only one sheet of paper?”

“The initial draft was far more detailed, but has been redacted for security purposes,” she said.

Angyar blinked in confusion and then shrugged. “Well, I suppose you Imperials are rather brusque, even to family.” He sounded vaguely disappointed. “She’ll deliver it to your parents.”

She rejoined them at dinner, wanting very badly to puncture the tension hanging over the table with a barbed comment or two. A single glance at the dour Ravils and the self-satisfied Sloans told her that this would be a terrible idea, and she wondered how long she could hold back. At least Tomal understood her.

Or pretended to. Maybe that was the best anyone could get.

The two of them walked around the grounds after the meal.

“Daria, my dad told me something this morning, and I think you should know,” Tomal blurted out.

Here it comes, Daria thought. She drew in her breath, readying herself for the worst possible news.

“The Grilvayns are coming to Ravil Manor in a few days.”

Somehow, that was worse than anything she imagined. “With Synda?”

Tomal shook his head. “No, just her parents. I guess they want to talk about what happened.”

“With knives drawn?”

“Please, Daria. The Grilvayns aren’t important enough to hire the Morag Tong to bump me off. No, this is to soothe hurt feelings and move on. Most likely my dad will offer them a favorable deal as a token. I just wanted to let you know since I suspect you don’t want to see them.”

She didn’t care for his tone. But why would Tomal be worried? Everything always worked out for him. “You’re so sure it’ll be that easy?” she asked.

Since Synda was someone who’d responded to insult by hiring thugs to attack Daria. That viciousness couldn’t have come from nowhere. She still hadn’t told Tomal about that.

“Why wouldn’t it be? Ultimately, everything in Hlaalu life is a business deal of one sort of another," he said.

Daria nodded but frowned. She wasn’t convinced the Grilvayns shared that viewpoint.

Chapter 4

Seated in the lap of luxury and surrounded by miles of gorgeous countryside, Daria naturally spent the next day brooding about Synda and her parents.

The Grilvayns might be awful, but they wouldn’t be so impulsive as to try and physically harm her, certainly not while she lived under the Sloans’ protection. But that didn’t mean they were okay with what happened.

What about mom and dad and Quinn? She remembered what Quinn told her about Turimam, over a year ago—how he’d threatened to make the Morgendorffers pariahs in Balmora. The Grilvayns probably didn’t have as much power as Turimam did, but they had some. More than mom and dad did, at any rate.

Her damned stupid kiss might have ruined her family’s chances.

Tomal took her out for yet another lakeside picnic later in the morning. They stretched out in the shade of an emperor parasol mushroom and gazed across the shining waters to the verdant foothills north of Lake Amaya, where Daria had accompanied Jane on the last leg of her pilgrimage.

“What’s the matter, Daria?” Tomal asked.

Daria waited a while before answering, still looking across the lake. “I think all this fresh air and healthy living is getting to me. I might need to shut myself away in a dusty library for a few months to recover.”

“Hm, well the Ravil family’s ancestral tomb isn’t too far away. Maybe we could ask him? I’m sure the ancestral ghosts won’t mind.”

“Sharing a tomb with a bunch of undead sounds way too social for my liking.”

Tomal frowned. “Ancestral ghosts aren’t undead, Daria. I know it’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one.”

Daria sighed. “Right, sorry,” she said, not wanting to get into an argument about the semantics of “undead”. She leaned over to rest her head on Tom’s shoulder—which turned out to be less comfortable than the romantic tapestries made it look, what with his shoulder blade pressing against her cheekbone. She moved her head away.

“Seriously though, is something the matter?” Tomal asked.

This time she faced him. No guile in his face. Just sincerity and chiseled good looks.

“To tell you the truth, I’m still worried about the Grilvayns coming here,” she admitted.

He nodded. “I figured. Yeah, it’s awkward. But you won’t even have to talk to them.”

“Do you think we could just go on another picnic when they arrive? Maybe somewhere in Akavir?”

Tomal chuckled. “Wish I could, but I’ll have to be present for them. You won’t, though. Just hide away in the library and no one will be the wiser. I’ll talk Serjo Ravil into granting you access.”

“Do they know I’m here?”

“Probably. Dunmer tend to be chatty, so I’m sure the rumor circuit is already making the rounds with us.”

“Great, so they’ve likely made me out into some wicked outlander seductress bent on corrupting Hlaalu’s upstanding young men.”

“Hey, Great House Hlaalu likes its young people corrupt and close with the Empire.”

Daria looked back out at the lake. Maybe it was time.

“I never told you this Tomal, but Synda and I have a history.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

She breathed in the lakeside air, the scent a bit soiled by algae, and hoped he’d believe her.

“The first time I saw Synda was when she was trying to lure Quinn into the Council Club, a notorious Cammona Tong hideout…”

*********

When she finished, Daria saw a multitude of emotions warring across Tomal’s face: surprise, worry, dismay, and fear. But not disbelief.

“Why didn’t you tell me all this earlier?” Tomal asked.

“I wasn’t sure you’d believe me,” Daria admitted. “Which, in retrospect, I can now see as being kind of an insulting thing for me to think. Another part of me just wanted to move on.”

“I will say this makes me much happier I’m not with Synda anymore. I had no idea she was doing this kind of thing! Though thinking back on it, there were some hints.”

“Given her feelings about outlanders, I’m surprised they were just hints,” Daria said.

Tomal exhaled, not able to meet her in the eye. “She did make some… untoward comments. That’s pretty common among my people, though.”

“Since if everyone’s doing it, it must be okay,” Daria said.

“Look, I challenged her when she said things like that.”

Had he? Daria wasn’t sure. But at the same time, it was the Empire that had forcibly annexed Morrowind to rip its ancient secrets and mineral wealth out of the volcanic rock. Who wouldn’t be resentful in that situation?

This whole damned world, she thought. No matter where she went, the corruption dug its claws into her and wouldn’t let go.

“Thanks,” Daria said, not making any real attempt to sound like she believed. “Anyway, this is why I’m worried. Synda’s hurt me in the past, and she tried to hurt my sister. She’s not very good at executing her plans, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t dangerous.”

Tomal nodded. “Realistically, there’s still not much she can do. The Grilvayns will probably be more upset at Synda than at you.”

“Why?”

“Because she made a scene in public. And in the presence of, well, me.” Tomal looked a bit embarrassed.

“How is that fair?” Daria demanded. “She’s not the one who cheated on someone!”

“Who said it was fair? Synda did talk a lot about how her parents were grooming her little brother as a successor, and it didn’t sound like they cared much about her. Taking your story into account, I’d guess they found out about the whole blackmail thing and didn’t react well. Come to think of it, that might be why Synda was so keen on marrying me: she wanted to get away from her family.”

“It sounds like I inadvertently destroyed her life,” Daria said. “Good thing I’m heartless, or I might feel bad.”

And why should she feel bad? Synda was a haughty child of privilege, one who’d used it to brutalize anyone who’d crossed her. This was her just dessert—spurned by her family and publicly abandoned by her lover.

But Daria couldn’t get those damned screams out of her head. The memory of those cries intertwined with another memory: how she and Dimartani had saved Synda’s life after she’d stood up to Todis and been stabbed for her trouble. She recalled what Synda had said to her in the Hlaalu Council Manor.

“You think you know Morrowind. You don’t. But even if you and Dimartani saved me so as to humiliate me, it matters not. I have survived and found a way to restore my reputation.”

She must have been referring to Tomal. So, Synda no longer had anyone on her side.

“Daria?”

“I’m fine,” she lied.

“Okay. We do have a bit of a problem.”

“I’d say that’s an understatement.”

“An additional problem. I have to tell my dad about the history between you and Synda. He needs to know the full scope of what Synda did if he’s going to negotiate with the Grilvayns. He won’t tell them your story, or anything—he just has to know.”

Dammit. She closed her eyes for a moment, suddenly faint. She did not think Angyar liked her very much, and he’d like her even less for hiding this information.

If he kicked her out, she’d be as alone as Synda.

“Does he have to know? You said your family has more power—”

The words caught in her throat. Now Daria was defending her reputation the same way Synda had: using social inequity as leverage.

“It’ll be okay,” Tomal said. “I’ll tell him you told me back in Balmora, and that I didn’t think it was worth bringing to his attention until now. That puts the blame on me, not on you.”

Like so many other things, it seemed too good to be true. “Won’t he be angry at you?”

“Oh, definitely. But it won’t be that big a problem in the long run. He’s not going to disown me over this. The Grilvayns aren’t big enough of a deal for that.”

So much for leading a principled life—but maybe she’d been kidding herself all along.

“Thanks,” she said.

Daria knew she should be thankful. But it was hard to feel gratitude through her complicity.

*********

Sleep eluded Daria that night. Memories of the past two years flowed together and mingled in her mind: narrow alleys and the sour smell of kwama; Jane’s sardonic laugh; Quinn babbling on as her parents pretended to listen, all gathered together in the tidy adobe kitchen; the clanks and hisses of Arkngthand; clutching Tedannupal as they flew above Balmora; sharing drinks with Jane on a cold Saturalia night; Synda’s despairing screams.

How had so much happened in such a short time?

“Did you sleep well?” Angyar asked the next morning as he poured coffee into his gleaming cup. Breakfast was late that day.

Daria glanced to Tomal, who looked as exhausted as she felt. He offered a wan smile, though a glare from his father quieted it.

He’d taken the punishment meant for her, and she had no idea what to do with that fact.

“Are the Grilvayns coming today?” she asked, still standing.

The Sloans and Ravils all stared at her. Angyar finally spoke. “Most likely today or tomorrow. You needn’t concern yourself with them. On the whole, I think they’d prefer not to see you.”

“With respect, serjo, I’d like to know a bit more about the situation with the Grilvayns. I am partially responsible for it.”

Angyar held his coffee cup up to his nose and let it linger for a bit. Dunmer always did that with their coffee.

“The Grilvayns wish to discuss matter with us Sloans," he said.

She couldn’t stand this. “Serjo Sloan, I didn’t tell Tomal about Synda’s behavior until yesterday. He didn’t hold anything back from you—he was just taking the hit for me.”

Tomal jumped up from his seat. “Wait, Daria—”

She cut him off. “I’m sorry. Maybe it’s me being as attention-hungry as my sister, but I don’t like the idea of someone else taking my punishment.”

Angyar only chuckled. “Imperial though you are, it’s time you realize that you are in Morrowind, not Cyrodiil. We tend to our own affairs and the opinions of outlanders matter little. The situation with the Grilvayns is a minor one, and you frankly don’t have any say in it. I have tolerated your presence out of deference to my son, but do not forget your place.”

“Serjo Sloan speaks truly,” Serjo Ravil confided, his lips turning up in a slow and luxurious smile as if thrilled to see someone dress her down.

Tomal stared down at the table, his teeth clenched behind tightly pressed lips.

One of the servants stepped into the dining hall. “Serjos Sloan and Ravil,” he said. “It is my honor to announce the arrival of Muthsera Grilvayn, and his wife, of Balmora.”

“Ah,” Serjo Sloan said. “They must have left Pelagiad early to arrive here so soon. Serjo Ravil, may I use your sitting room for this?”

“Such would be my honor, Serjo Sloan.”

“Very well. Galas, Tomal? Let us adjourn and greet our guests. Daria, I suggest you return to the guesthouse.”

Tomal gave her a plaintive look. Not seeing any other option, she took the backdoor out of the manor, carrying a plate of scrib pie with her.

A Dunmer couple stood in the courtyard, both dressed in dark finery with jagged patterns embroidered onto the silken fabric. The woman looked almost exactly like Synda. Though shorter than her husband, she seemed to overshadow him, her imperious stance demanding attention and deference.

Their eyes met for a moment. Daria saw no fury in the woman’s face, no desire to avenge a humiliated daughter. Only the passing disgust usually reserved for inedible invertebrates.

Daria apparently wasn’t worth hating.

Chapter 5

One of the things Tomal had always liked about Imperials was how little time they wasted. Sure, the Nibenese Imperials loved their celebrations and rituals—and certainly had plenty of them. But in the end, time was money, and they loved money just a bit more. Once business was on the table, they got down to it pretty quickly. Colovian Imperials, like Daria, took this tendency even further.

Not the Dunmer, however.

He’d spent the entire day with his parents and the Grilvayns as they probed for information through a veil of pleasantries. Inquiries about the weather gave some idea as to the quality of the other person’s agricultural product that year (or in this case, the number of eggs produced in the mines that the Grilvayns invested in—kwama queens laid more eggs during wet years). Talk about neighbors and family gave hints as to who was in and who was out, which could change greatly in a few weeks. All useful, but none of it relevant to what Tomal wanted to talk about.

Dad did this for hours on end, with mom and Tomal chiming in as needed with praise or witticism. They followed a script both improvised and stifling, the stock phrases inscribed onto their minds and souls generations ago.

On and on it went. During breakfast, lunch, and dinner, throughout a long midday excursion, and now this interminable sitting (and drinking, ALMSIVI be praised) session in the parlor. Each meal and amenity offered to the Grilvayns served as a symbol of Sloan wealth. Sure, it all belonged to the Ravils, but the fact that the Sloans could get the Ravils to serve the Grilvayns only further reinforced one simple fact: Angyar Sloan was a man of many resources.

The one thing they refused to discuss was Synda.

It was late in the evening, and Tomal now hated the sight of Tamric and Lynda. He hated what they reminded him of—how he’d bungled the whole thing. Granted, if Synda had been even half as bad as Daria had said, he was best off far away from her.

This would be his life as an adult. Falsities and fakeries layered on top of each other in a big stack of deception reaching up to the heavens.

That was what he’d liked about Synda. She’d at least had the guts to be offended by his jokes about Morrowind and the Tribunal—his noble status be damned. And being blunt was just Daria’s nature.

“Reputation is a curious beast,” Angyar said, refilling his small silver vessel with another finger’s worth of Cyrodiilic brandy.

“One that is best tamed and kept in a very strong cage,” Lynda said. Everyone faked polite laughter, Tomal included.

But bringing up reputation probably meant they were ready to talk about Synda.

*********

Isolation compounded doubt. Confined to her room, Daria was starting to doubt everything around her.

She wanted to believe Tomal was a good guy. Perhaps he’d proven it by taking her punishment for her. But that underlined the bigger problem: that no matter what Tomal said or did, his dad called the shots.

With that in mind, she badly wanted to know what the Sloans and Grilvayns talked about that night. What if it just proved easier to expel a troublesome outlander like her? Ravil’s constant slights, the way the serving staff talked about her behind closed doors, it all added up.

She didn’t have her family to fall back on any longer.

Daria opened the shutters and looked out onto the torchlit enclosure. An armored guard ambled through the grounds, his lantern bobbing through the darkness like some bloated firefly. He walked toward the gate, moving with the easy step of a man who’d patrolled the route a thousand times and expected only the usual.

Pushing away from the windowsill, she hurried through the guesthouse’s darkened rooms. She needed to get close enough to hear what the Sloans and Grilvayns said, to find out if she still had a place here or not. Sitting around and waiting solved nothing. She’d rather be Daria Morgendorffer than just another Sloan asset, even if that came with a reduction in value.

She opened the door as quietly as she could and peered outside. The guard stood at the gate, face pointed at the shadowed meadows beyond. Masser and Secunda shone in the night sky, their muted colors complementing the twinkling stars. Figuring it was as safe as she’d get, Daria stepped out and shut the door behind her before walking across the cool grass, her footsteps quieter on the vegetation than they would have been on the paths.

Lights gleamed from the manor house's narrow windows. At first, she heard nothing—had they gone somewhere else? Then she caught a voice coming from the front room, muffled by the closed windowpanes.

She crouched low as she drew nearer. Her dress—or rather, Ravil’s daughter’s old dress—pinched her waist as she did, and she hoped the fabric wouldn’t tear. Once at the front, she went along to the right side, where she knew another window offered a glimpse into the manor’s dark and overstuffed parlor.

Taking low, quiet breaths, she pressed against the adobe wall and raised her head to the edge of the window, making sure nothing gave her away. Now able to hear their words, she listened.

*********

Tomal slugged back some brandy, already knowing he was going to hate the next few minutes of his life.

“The reputation of our daughter, Synda, is a source of some concern for us,” Lynda said. She sounded exactly like her daughter, her enunciation slow and precise as if she relished her tone of contempt.

“As mothers, our children’s reputation is our burden to shoulder,” Galas said.

“And you have done so well with your own, serjo,” Lynda said, her features nearly lost in shadow.

Tomal could easily imagine Synda sitting on the upholstered mahogany chair occupied by her mother. Maybe it should have been. This affected her more than it did her mother, after all.

“We are honored to palaver with you, Sera Grilvayn,” dad said. “Why is your daughter of concern?”

Tomal gripped the armrest of his chair. Just get to the damn point, he thought. Sweat soaked his shirt, and he resisted the urge to pull at his collar. All the air in the room felt like it had been rebreathed a hundred times over.

“Synda is a simple girl, one given to flights of fancy,” Lynda replied. “We fear that one such flight may have led her to make a scene at a recent event. Perhaps you know of which I speak?”

Dad nodded. “I believe I have been informed, yes,” he said, glancing over at Tomal.

Tomal drained his cup, his head already spinning from an earlier drink. Dad passed him the bottle, and he refilled it. His face felt hot, his head spun—he’d probably had too much. Vomiting on Lynda was one way to end the night, he supposed.

“Truly a regrettable moment,” Tamric said. Synda’s father had been mostly silent that evening.

Lynda bowed her head. “Synda’s outburst has sullied our name, so we must make the effort to restore our reputation. We know that your son, who is truly a sterling example of young Dunmer manhood, had been kind enough to offer her his time. Somehow, she chose to interpret this as a romantic gesture.”

Did Lynda truly believe Synda had imagined it? He tried to bring his thoughts together, figure out what to say.

“Ah, well, the passion of youth,” dad said, using the easy but authoritative tone he always used when preparing to settle matters.

“I can forgive my daughter a certain degree of impetuousness, but not at the risk of tarnishing the Sloan name," Lynda said, affecting a tone of regret. "We have clearly been far too lenient. Thus, we will be sending her to the care of the Tribunal Temple in Necrom. There, she will learn the humility expected of the Dunmer and spend her life in blessed ritual and contemplation.”

Tomal looked to his father, trying to find any sign of what the old man intended.

“I am sure our brothers and sisters in the service of ALMSIVI will impart their wisdom unto her,” dad said.

“May ALMSIVI be praised,” Tamric uttered.

“Wait,” Tomal held out his free hand. The inside of his head twisted like a maelstrom, but he focused his thoughts. “I need to make a correction here.”

“Tomal!” dad warned.

“I did…” he trailed off. What the hell could he safely admit? And he had to phrase this the right way. “Your daughter deserves credit for her discretion. She and I did have a romance—a chaste one.”

 Silence for a moment. Thick and suffocating.

“Tomal, you are speaking out of turn. Our guests know their own daughter,” dad said.

“Certainly, Tomal is an honorable young man to claim responsibility,” Lynda replied, speaking so sweetly that he almost believed her. “Yet we fear that our daughter’s foolishness has made her a liability. Certainly, none would believe Synda had won the love of a Sloan—it can only be seen as boastfulness most inappropriate for a girl of her station.”

She didn’t care at all. Synda was to be cast aside, her life—not just her life, her reality—ripped away from her. All because that made it easier for her parents. 

Maybe if he took a more conciliatory tone...

“Synda and I were in a relationship. This does not reflect poorly on your family, Sera Grilvayn. It was natural—”

Dad learned over, candlelight revealing the deepening lines of his jowls.

“Tomal, though you are a Sloan, you must still be respectful of your guests. Do not contradict Sera Grilvayn again.”

“Truly, I am touched,” Lynda said. “Serjo’s kindness is a testament to the generosity of the Sloans. Yet it is not necessary. The damage done by my daughter can be repaired. I simply hope that our efforts at discretion are seen as sufficient.”

“More than sufficient,” dad said, his voice rumbling with approval. “And certainly deserving of reward. Much of the work within Great House Hlaalu consists of knowing what to say, when to say it, and to whom. A hired accountant can always handle the numbers, after all.”

“But what about Synda? Father—” 

Dad growled. “Tomal, the matter has been decided! You are not revealing some truth to us. We know the truth. Perhaps Synda will accept it one day.”

“It is late, and I am sure the young serjo is simply weary at the late hour,” Lynda said.

Tomal slumped in his chair. They didn’t care. He spoke into the void. He imagined his father’s wealth, the vast teeming lands, the hundreds of workers, the carts and boats that shipped his goods from one end of Tamriel to another, the houses and gold and silks and furniture, all coming down on him at once, crushing him beneath an immense and gilded tomb.

This was his life. Yet he had no cause to complain. Not after he’d ruined Synda’s life by telling her he loved her.

*********

Her legs burning from crouching for so long, Daria stepped away from the window, not wanting to believe what she’d just heard.

She still couldn’t pity Synda, not exactly. For all Synda's misery, she’d still been somebody who’d loved cruelty and had inflicted it on Daria—had tried to inflict it on Quinn. But Synda was just a small person in a very big world, and as much at the mercy of larger forces as Daria was.

Exhausted and wanting to sleep, Daria made her clandestine journey back to the gatehouse. One thing was certain: she had to leave before she became the next Synda.

Chapter 6

Daria awoke early, wanting to take a bath but not willing to waste any time. She took out the clothes she’d worn on the journey to Ravil Manor, earlier washed by the servants at her request. Putting them on, the green wool of her coat faded from use (Quinn had told her to get it re-dyed more than once), felt like returning home. Everything fit perfectly and she breathed easy for the first time since arriving at Ravil Manor.

Part of her wanted to write a note for Tomal and leave, but she wasn’t sure that’d be safe. Humiliating the Sloans might bring more trouble on her head, so she’d best talk to Tomal and at least see if she could get him to understand.

Going here had been a terrible idea, she realized.

“Even worse than going to Sadrith Mora,” she imagined Jane saying.

The Ravil Manor slowly woke up around her. A servant brought her breakfast in her room while the Sloans, Ravils, and Grilvayns ate in the main house. The Grilvayns had spent the night in a spacious pavilion set up for them at the back of the manor.

As Dunmer tended to do, the Grilvayns lingered through the morning. Daria spotted Tomal, squinting at the morning sunlight and walking with exaggerated slowness as if every motion caused him physical pain, a sickly smile plastered on his face. He must have hit the bottle pretty hard the other night—not that she blamed him.

It was not until after lunch that the Grilvayns departed. Daria watched them leave the manor, wanting to give them time so she didn’t risk running into them on the road. All the while her mind spun new scenarios of what might happen.

What if Tomal didn’t take her departure gracefully? What if he did, but his dad viewed it as an insult?

Or maybe they wouldn’t care.

It was a little while later that a knock came on her door.

“Who is it?” she asked.

“Me,” Tomal said, his voice hoarse. “The Grilvayns are gone. Can I come in?”

Daria gulped and took a deep breath. “Sure.”

The door opened. The poor guy looked like he wanted more than anything else to collapse and curl up in a ball. And he’d been entertaining the Grilvayns all morning in that state.

His bleary eyes studied her, slowly widening as he took in the hints: the old green coat and long black skirt, the rough boots, her few belongings packed up.

“You’re leaving?”

“Uh, yeah.” She forced himself to look him in the eyes. “Tomal, you gave me a chance at the dream that many young Tamrielic women spend their days hoping for. But my preference for grubby realism means I’m just not suited for a fantasy life.”

He leaned against the doorway, and that action alone seemed to take more out of him. “But why? I gave you—”

“Are you going to hurt me for this?” she asked.

He blinked and shook his head, then grimaced.

“Maybe you should drink some water,” she said.

“Any more water and I’ll pop. Daria, I meant what I said: you can go whenever you want. I’ll never hurt you.”

“Okay.” She mulled her next move for a moment, fearing she was about to make a mistake. “I overheard part of your conversation last night. Where Synda’s mom decided to pass the whole thing off as a delusion on her daughter's part, and your dad went along with it.”

“Are you mad I tried to protect her?”

“No. You did the right thing—albeit rather halfheartedly. It was probably the most you could have done. But you can see why I need to leave. I can’t spend my life being at the mercy of something like that.”

“I can see that,” he uttered, sounding defeated. "I destroyed Synda’s life, Daria. All because I thought she’d be fun to have as a girlfriend.”

Daria sighed. “You did so inadvertently. The real blame lies with those who did it deliberately. Namely, her parents and yours.”

“Not sure that makes me feel better,” he said.

“It wasn’t supposed to. But you bear far less blame than them. Given that I have even less power than Synda, you can understand why I want to leave.”

“Where will you go?”

She decided it was safe to tell him. “Vivec. If I’m lucky, Jane won’t shut the door in my face when I find her home. If I’m not? I guess I’ll just have to play it by ear.”

“Vivec can be a tough city to get around. Do you have any money?”

“Just a handful of coins I brought with me from Balmora,” Daria admitted, and feeling a bit foolish for carrying so little.

“Let me give you some more,” he said.

“No—”

“Please! You won’t owe me anything, Daria. Just let me do something good.”

He lurched away into his bedroom and came back a bit later with a bulging coin purse. “Here! The coins inside should add up to around a thousand.”

Daria looked at it doubtfully. “The jingling of that purse will call every bandit on the road.”

Tomal cursed. He opened it up and dug out some coins, stuffing them into his pockets. “I think a few hundred are left. Come on, you’ll need money for food and shelter.”

She thought about it for a bit, and nodded, taking the hollowed-out purse. “Uh, thanks. What are you going to tell your parents?”

“I’ll lie. Tell them I got tired of you. That’s something they’ll accept,” he said.

“Probably an accurate assessment.” She put the purse in her bag and then picked it up from her bed. “I guess I’m on my way then.”

“Wait. Daria, was I a good boyfriend?”

She stepped up to him until they were only inches apart and looked him in the eyes. For a moment, just a moment, she thought it might be best to stay. That maybe he really could protect her, that together they’d push back against the corruption.

But that was only a dream.

“Tomal, let me put it this way: for most of my life, I didn’t think I’d like anyone enough to let them kiss me. Yet somehow, I let you do that. More than once, even. What’s more, I enjoyed it. You’re not a bad guy, Tomal. I’m sure, some day, you’ll find a noblewoman who also sees through the nonsense of this world, and be very happy together.”

He smiled. “That’s pretty high praise from you.”

“Don’t get used to it.”

“I won’t.”

“And remember how powerful you are.”

“It’s not something I’ll ever forget,” he said, “not after last night.”

“Okay then.”

Tomal stood aside to give her space. She thought about hugging him, but the idea struck her as unnatural, and potentially giving the wrong idea. Instead, she simply walked through the main room and toward the door.

“Oh, Daria?”

“Yes?” she replied, not turning around.

“Don’t go to Pelagiad. That’s where the Grilvayns will be.”

“Thank you. They’re just about the last people I want to meet right now.”

“I figured. Good luck with Jane.”

“Thanks. I’ll need it.”

With that, Daria opened the door and stepped out.

The End

Episode 27: A Kiss to Build a Scream On | Table of Contents | Episode 29: Gone Sister Gone

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  • Excellent chapter. The cruelty of Dunmeri family life was on full display. I feel sorry, but at the same time I don't. 

    • It does make for a rather toxic environment, doesn't it?

      The Dunmer are pretty family-focused, but I figured it'd be in a rather authoritarian way. Thus, you pretty much have to go along with whatever the person in charge says. If you rebel, it's seen as you not being sufficiently devoted to the family, and there will be consequences.

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