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A Kiss to Build a Scream On

Chapter 1

Quinn Morgendorffer, first of her name (so far as she knew), finally had the world in her grasp.

Well, maybe not the entire world, but she almost had Drenlyn Academy in her grasp, and that’d get the whole thing started, right? The boring old school was having an honest-to-goodness fashion show! Lli called it the “Pageant of Sartorial Splendor”, but that basically meant the same thing.

Now she could show everyone what she’d been doing. The hours observing people in the marketplaces—and not just in Balmora, because she’d totally spent some time in Caldera—and learning how different colors and textiles worked together. And it wasn’t like she was just copying! Quin had ideas.

“Emergency Fashion Club meeting, guys!” she declared. Not that she really needed to: Satheri, Tiphannia, Treads-on-Ferns, and Jeval were already around her. Lli had just told everyone about the show, and that meant they had to start planning.

“This is so exciting!” Satheri squealed, practically jumping up and down.

“This is like… our time… to show… what we—” Tiphannia started.

“Gotta admit, I’m kind of ticked off that only girls can go on stage for this,” Jeval said. “I got some ideas, too.”

“I know it’s frustrating, Jeval,” Quinn said, “but this could be like our first big step to becoming the Fashion Guild! And you’ll be part of that!”

“Ohmigosh!” Satheri exclaimed. “I knew you’d get us there.”

“Well, I haven’t yet—but I totally will! It won’t be easy. Synda and her little Haute Society will be competing in this too. But we can beat them!”

“They’re so… gauche…” Tiphannia droned.

“And they have a bit of a disadvantage,” Treads-on-Ferns said. “They’re all Dunmer, so they don’t have anyone for the outlander bracket. We at least have a shot at winning both brackets.”

“Exactly. Satheri Roweni?” Quinn said, drawing herself up.

Satheri looked at her with rapt eyes. “Yes?”

“As steward of the Fashon Club, I nominate you to run in our name for the Dunmer bracket of the Pageant of Sartorial Splendor!”

She gasped, and her hands flew up to her cheeks. Don’t cry, Quinn thought, it’ll mess up your kohl. Then she threw her arms around Quinn and hugged her tight.

“Thank you so much for choosing me, Muthsera Morgendorffer!”

“I mean, you are the only Dunmer we have,” Treads-on-Ferns said.

Quinn waved at Treads to get her to be quiet while she wiggled out of Satheri’s grip.

“And between me, Tiphannia, and Treads-on-Ferns, the outlander bracket will be a cinch for the Fashion Club,” Quinn said. “One of us is sure to win.”

“Wait!” Satheri said. “If you guys are all in that bracket… I’ll be up against all the Dunmer girls in Drenlyn on my own!”

She made this weird whiny noise and started breathing in and out really fast.

“Satheri, it’ll be okay!” Quinn said, trying to sound soothing. “You already look better than Synda and her loser friends.”

“But… but I can’t go against Synda. She… she…”

Satheri’s eyes rolled up and she dropped to the ground. Jeval lunged to catch her, missed, and they both fell in a heap.

Well, empires weren’t built in a day, Quinn thought as she surveyed the scene. “Okay, so the first thing we’re going to cover is how not to faint when you’re on stage,” she said.

*********

Daria crossed her arms as she watched the student body (Quinn chief among them) throw themselves into paroxysms of sartorial greed.

“Drenlyn Academy, where you learn the important things: like how to conform to artificial standards of beauty set by fashion experts in Narsis and the Imperial City,” she said, to no one in particular.

And in the old days, Jane would have shot back with something witty. Something like: “At least Lli’s letting us exercise some creativity. Fashion’s not really my thing, but it’s a kind of art.”

Daria blinked. How in the world had she imagined Jane saying that?

“A kind of art for people who are already beautiful and well-connected, or who don’t care who they trample over to get to that state,” she said. Her heart pounded.

Imaginary Jane just shrugged. “I can’t really blame people for doing what they need to do to survive.”

Daria shook her head. Getting this worked up over an imaginary conversation was a new low for her. Except that’s probably what Jane would have said.

Worse, she’d have been right to say it.

“Talking to yourself?” Tomal asked. She blushed at the sound of his voice and looked to see him striding toward her, hands in his coat pockets and a smile on his face that, for a moment, let her think everything would be okay.

“I don’t blame you,” he continued. “Sometimes that’s the only way to get good conversation.”

“Especially in this place. Nothing like a celebration of the superficial to make me want to become a hermit.”

“Way I see it is we get to watch our peers do ridiculous things in their desperate bids for attention. It’s a comedy if you look at it the right way,” Tomal said.

“I’d probably categorize it as a farce, but point taken.” She relaxed a little. This felt right. “Anyway, it’s lunchtime, so I’ll probably hide in the library and pretend I’m in a place that values literacy.”

And maybe, just maybe, he’d go with her. Whole days now went by without real conversation. Once upon a time, as a kid, she’d have loved that. Now it felt like torture, her thoughts bouncing around endlessly in her own head with nowhere to go.

“Good call, though I’m not sure the Drenlyn Library’s selection is conducive to that illusion.”

“It is by Balmora standards.”

“Low expectations save the day again. I’d join you, but I actually have to head out. My dad wants me to help negotiate a contract this afternoon.”

“Keeping the little guy down to get a good deal?”

“More like keeping a similarly big guy in his place, but the goal’s the same. See you later!”

“Yeah, see you,” she said.

He waved and headed out the gate. Daria watched him go, wishing he’d stick around a while longer and hating herself for doing so.

Commoner-aristocrat romances were best confined to the cheesy novels that inspired them. Sure, they sometimes happened in real life but always with complications. Besides, life never turned out as well as it did in stories.

It’d probably fade if she just waited. She’d gotten over Trent soon enough.

She glanced around the courtyard, the students already broken up into their little cliques and doubtlessly talking about the fashion show. Other than Tomal, who could she count as a friend? Briltasi maybe, but Daria had nothing in common with her. Her only real option, currently standing by Magistrate Lli’s office, was Jolda. And Jolda probably wanted nothing to do with her.

Jolda had been civil but distant ever since Daria’s fight with her father. Daria didn’t know how much—if any—fallout from the conflict had landed on Jolda’s shoulders, though from what she knew it sounded like Jolda’s parents put everything on her shoulders.

Bracing herself, she walked across the courtyard to where Jolda stood. The Redguard girl glanced up as Daria approached, her eyes watchful.

“Uh, hi, Jolda,” Daria said, not able to look her in the eyes.

“Hi. How are things?” she asked, her voice perfectly neutral.

Daria gulped. What the hell was she supposed to say? “So, in hindsight, I’m realizing that I probably didn’t act very wisely regarding your father’s job offer.”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

Still looking at the ground, Daria continued. “Anyway, I wanted to apologize. I was, uh, not in a very good mental state and I hope you didn’t get in any trouble for it.”

Jolda shook her head. “I didn’t. He’s mad at you, not at me.”

“Right.” Daria nodded. “Good.”

She stood there a few moments, wondering how anyone ever made friends. It’d be so damned easy with Jane.

“Actually, Daria,” Jolda said, “Lli’s having me do a ton of the prep work for the pageant, and I could really use some help.”

Daria looked up. Normally she’d shoot down the idea. But these were not normal times.

“Help me out, and I’ll see if I can talk my dad down. I think he already filled your slot in the expedition, but he might have another opening. No promises, though.”

“Uh, that’s very generous. Since you don’t owe me anything.”

“You’re right, I don’t. But I do kind of like you, Daria. Even if that’s sometimes against my better judgment.”

Mom still didn’t know that Daria had refused the offer and had probably ended any possibility of employment with the IAS. At the time, it had felt like taking a stand. Daria almost looked forward to the blistering lecture that mom would deliver once she found out (and she inevitably would).

Now, she dreaded it more each day. Mom losing it—in a big way—would just confirm Daria’s fear: that in the end, everyone hated her.

“Okay. I’ll do what I can to help out,” she said, not quite believing the words she said.

Jolda smiled. “Great! So we’ll be working every day after the Drenlyn noon classes up until Loredas. Can you be here for that?”

“Sure. It’s not like I have anywhere better to be,” she said.

Which was true.

Chapter 2

With every second that Tomal dithered, Synda’s future slipped a little further out of her hands.

Not, she thought with some pride, that anyone would guess it by looking at her. She walked through Balmora’s streets and markets with perfect posture and her head held high. Her soul trembled in terror, but she’d never add to her failures by showing fear to the rabble.

A good thing, too. The rabble was out in force that day, spilling out from Labor Town to protest taxes and fees at the doorsteps of their betters. She did not even grant them the honor of an angry glare as she passed by.

She stopped briefly at the home of Nedrasa Leldro, the daughter of a slightly less respectable family and the majordomo of her Haute Society. As befitting Nedrasa’s lower station, she gratefully gave Synda use of her mirror so that Synda could touch herself up for Tomal. Not that Nedrasa knew about Tomal. She only knew that there was a man, and that Synda needed to be her best for him.

Likewise, Synda knew that Nedrasa’s father illegally skimmed money from the city magistrates. Nedrasa knew Synda knew, and this meant Synda could trust her with nearly anything. Leverage was the bond that brought them together, closer than sisters.

“He is honored to have you, Muthsera Grilvayn,” Nedrasa had said, her head bowed. Synda said nothing. She held back the tears, resisted the urge to hug Nedrasa tightly and thank her for saying she deserved him.

Instead, she continued applying foundation. She loved Nedrasa but could not let Nedrasa forget her place. The world must think it owed Synda.

Once finished, Synda took her leave and waited for Tomal at the foot of the great stairway leading to High Town. Each passing moment squeezed her heart a little tighter until she feared it’d burst. Everything hinged on Tomal telling his parents about their relationship, and them accepting.

They probably would. The Grilvayns weren’t noble, but they were respectable. The Sloans were noble, but not always respectable. Clearly, the match made sense.

Tomal finally showed up, hints of his inner louche manifesting itself in his slightly tousled hair and the relaxed ease of his walk. Gods, that annoyed her. It was the sort of thing his parents ought to have corrected. His years in the Imperial City had left their mark, and not for the better.

Synda studied his face for any signs of something different. Some sign that he’d finally made the move and secured her future.

Tomal didn’t know the truth. That the Synda’s parents hated her, and with good reason. Her failure with the Todis situation meant they feared she’d one day ruin the family’s image through her own impetuousness, and they talked (in secret, though she heard everything) about sending her away to a life of contemplation within the Tribunal Temple.

A life of contemplation spent groveling like a worm in the dirt. She’d worked too hard to let that happen.

“Serjo Sloan,” she said, bowing her head. She smiled in that subtle way Tomal seemed to like, as if she were letting him in on a secret.

“Sera Grilvayn,” he replied. He arched his eyebrows, so he’d seen the smile. He still liked it. Which meant she still had a chance.

They fell in alongside each other as they climbed the stairs, no more than a noble and very respectable commoner in conversation. Only the back corners and shuttered rooms knew their secret.

“Has serjo discussed my proposal with his father?” she asked.

Her stomach twisted like it did every time she asked that question. Because what if his father said no? With one casual refusal he’d consign her to a lifetime of darkness and poverty without even realizing it. He had no idea, and never could know.

Tomal sighed. “Um, not yet.”

With that the curdled sense of relief. That at least she still had hope.

“Our marriage would benefit both of our families, Tomal. Though the Grilvayns are not wealthy, our name is in high regard—something that might be useful considering how much time you spend with outlanders.”

“Do we need to talk about this right now?” he asked. “It’s a beautiful day, we’re outside, we have the entire city at our disposal!”

Damn you a hundred times over, she thought, fury blazing in her chest. He had everything and she only had him! “The city’s hardly at our disposal when we have to, like, hide our love.”

“Right, we still have to be careful,” he conceded. “But this really isn’t the place to talk about it.”

He was right. A public street in High Town was certainly not the appropriate place. But at least that’d pressure him. Gods, if only she had some kind of blackmail—surely the Sloan family held all kinds of scandals. Anything to grab onto, to pull herself out of this ordeal and finally breathe easy for a little while.

“Why not? You do plan to marry me. Right?” She raised her volume a bit. Let the world hear.

“I never said that. Look, we’ve only known each other for half a year.”

“Seven months, actually,” she corrected.

“Okay, fine. Seven months. But marriage lasts for centuries. I’m just saying it’d be prudent if we waited a bit longer before committing.”

She sniffed. “Then we should get betrothed. Betrothal is like, a testing period.”

It’d also get both families involved. Momentum might then take its course and make marriage all but inevitable.

She stepped closer to him, let her hand brush against his. “We’re Dunmer. We’ll make it work.”

“Synda, this is moving a little too fast for me. How long did you parents know each other before they were married?”

“Their marriage was arranged,” she said.

“Yeah, same with my folks,” he admitted.

“Then what’s your problem? As Dunmer, it’s our duty to marry and produce children,” she said. “I am surprised that you’d be so cavalier, given your lofty position.”

“I’m eighteen years old, this is the one time in my life I can afford to be cavalier!” he protested. “Besides, my parents were just past their first century when they had me.”

Did such carelessness run in their family? Another thing to blame on his time in foreign lands.

“What if something happens to you? Someone must carry on the Sloan name. You owe that to Great House Hlaalu.”

“You sound like one of my dad’s advisors. Why can’t you just act like a girlfriend?” he demanded.

“This is what a good Dunmer girlfriend acts like! Maybe that’s not what you’re used to after the girls of the Imperial City,” she said. She made her voice break at the end, as if she was about to cry, only to realize the tears were actually coming.

She was losing him. Losing her future.

“I don’t like all this talk about my family. Right now, we’re two young people with time and money. Let’s just enjoy that while we can,” he said.

Synda was silent for a moment. “Whatever you wish, Serjo Sloan. I’m actually needed at the Hlaalu Council Manor today.”

Not true. But she didn’t want to go home. With any luck they’d have something for her to do.

“Right,” he said. “I guess I’ll get going then. Have a good day.”

Panic bubbled up within her, breath hissing between her teeth as her lungs frantically pumped. No, no, no, she was Synda Grilvayn, daughter and first child of Tamric and Lynda Grilvayn, a virtuous Dunmer maiden who’d strived all her life to be better, to be adorned in gold and finery and obeyed for her strength and virtue and it could not end now.

She turned around to face him. “By the way, I will be participating in Drenlyn’s pageant with the rest of the Haute Society.”

Should she prompt him to go? No, he needed to make that decision on his own. She held her breath and watched, her head pounding.

He had to say yes!

“Oh. Uh, I’ll definitely come over to see it. To see you, I mean.”

Synda exhaled. That was apparently the best she’d get for now. Winning the pageant—which she would do—was sure to make her more worthy. “I would be honored at your presence, serjo,” she said.

Enough weakness. She’d shown too much that day. Standing straight and perfect, for her station demanded no less, she walked with careful steps to the Hlaalu Council Manor as panic devoured her from within.

Chapter 3

Helping with pageant preparations turned out to be less annoying than Daria had expected.

Most of the time, anyway. Going over expense accounts, arranging the schedule and so forth, was fine. Worry kept gnawing at her, though. Not long ago she’d have vented out all her fears to Jane, and in so doing, come up with a solution or at least kept them at bay. Now, simply thinking about it reminded her that she’d probably never talk to Jane again.

Maybe she could talk to Tomal. An absurd idea on the face of it—not like he’d ever suffered real trouble. Really though, she just wanted to see that smile of his, so sure and unflappable. A comforting reminder that nothing really mattered all that much, so why worry?

Jonus and Julien walked up to the small pavilion that Daria used as an office. Jolda was off at the Mages Guild trying to secure the use of smokeless lights for the show, leaving Daria to hold down the fort.

“Yes?” she asked, already suspecting why they were there.

“Uh, me and Julien fixed the poster the way you wanted us to.”

“Hopefully you followed basic directions this time,” she said. “Hand it over.”

Jonus did, and Daria laid it out on her desk.

Come One, Come All to the Pageant of Sartorial Splendor at Drenlyn Academy!

Good, she thought. No spelling errors so far

The Gorgeous Girls of Drenlyn Academy will be Showing their Style this Loredas Evening! See What They Wear! It’s the Future of Fashion—Today!

She shook her head and slashed out the questionable adjectives. “This is a fashion show, not a peep show,” she said.

Jonus shrugged. “I mean, the only reason any of us guys are going is to check out the chicks.”

“Yes, but we also want girls to attend. So it might not be wise to alienate half the potential audience by leering at them,” she said. “And maybe lay off on the exclamation points.”

Entry Fee is Five Septims Per Person. All Funds Raised Go Toward School Maintenance.

Okay, they hadn’t screwed that part up. That was about it—except for the small writing in the lower right-hand corner. She peered in for a closer look, adjusting her lenses to make sense of the cramped letters.

Quinn you’re the most beautiful girl in Drenlyn! Will you please go out with me!

  • Jonus

She sighed and massaged her forehead. “Jonus, do you know what a conflict of interest is?”

He was silent for a moment. “Yes.”

“Okay. Then you understand why it’s a problem for you to endorse my sister on a poster that needs to be impartial to the contestants?”

His eyes looked from side to side, like an animal that sensed it was walking into a trap but lacked the intelligence to really comprehend it. “Uh, yeah. Totally.”

Julien blinked. “Wait, you endorsed Quinn? That’s what I was going to do! But I was going to write it in after Daria approved it, dummy!”

Jonus scratched the back of his head. “Oh, yeah.”

“Also,” Daria added, “you shouldn’t end questions with exclamation marks. My sister’s a real stickler for punctuation.”

Jonus flinched. “Okay, okay, let me fix it—”

Daria pulled the parchment back. “I don’t think so. This is the second time you bozos have screwed up a very simple assignment, so I’ll handle it from here.”

Julien threw his hands in the air. “You messed it up, Jonus!”

“Hey, at least I was trying!”

Daria tuned the two idiots out and began working on an alternative poster. The pageant was only a few days away, and the poster ought to have been out at the beginning of the week. At least Jolda had hired some competent criers to spread the word.

Jonus and Julien went off to settle their quarrel somewhere else. The sun had begun its descent by the time Jolda returned.

“I fired Jonus and Julien and finished the mockup myself,” Daria said.

“What happened?” Jolda asked.

“They seemed to be under the impression that the purpose of the poster was to impress Quinn. I disabused them of this notion.”

Jolda chuckled. “Sorry you had to deal with that. I’m amazed your sister has the patience for them.”

“She has patience for anything that gets her attention, hence her enthusiastic participation in the pageant” Daria said. “How did the negotiations go?”

Jolda moved her head from side to side. “Not as well as they could have, but we’re still within budget.”

“I’m heartened to know that Lli is still able to meet minimum safety standards while being as cheap as possible.”

“Something like that,” Jolda said as she walked into the tent and started rifling through the records.

Daria hesitated. Did she really want to ask if Jolda had talked to her dad about Daria’s job prospects? Because if Armand was still mad, the night of the pageant would go from an annoyance to an ordeal. Mom was going to be there to support Quinn, and she’d almost certainly meet Armand and hear all about Daria’s latest bridge-burning escapade.

“Uh, by any chance did you talk with your dad about me?” Daria finally asked, forcing the words out of her throat.

“Oh!” Jolda exclaimed, as she took out a rolled-up scroll. “I haven’t yet.” She turned to face Daria, her limpid eyes and faint smile giving her a slightly too practiced look. “I promise I will.”

“Appreciated, but this does need to be before the pageant. Which is the day after tomorrow.”

“My dad’s at Fort Moonmoth meeting with some government reps. He’ll be back on Loredas morning and I can talk to him then.”

More likely, Daria thought, you didn’t want to talk to him until I did all this damned busywork. But she kept her suspicion to herself—and really, it didn’t seem like something Jolda would do.

“You know, Daria, it might help me if I knew a little more about why you got into that big fight with my dad.”

Daria raised her eyebrows. “He’s not exactly shy about making his opinions known. He didn’t rant to you about it at length?”

Jolda glanced away for a moment. “Not exactly. He just said something about you being self-righteous.”

That stung. “Hm. I did object to some of the ways that the Empire uses the IAS.”

“I remember you voicing your criticisms back in Arkngthand,” Jolda said. “But if it bothers you that much, maybe the IAS isn’t for you.”

“Maybe, but at this point I just want you to smooth things over so that my mom doesn’t get on my case. My goal is to keep her thinking that I’m still looking for ways to advance myself.”

Jolda sighed and sounded almost disappointed. Daria narrowed her eyes. “What? Are my motives too self-serving for your liking?” she asked. “I thought you’d be used to that after working with Magistrate Lli for so long.”

“Don’t give me that, Daria,” Jolda said, crossing her arms.

“Okay, sorry.” Daria took a deep breath. Alienating one of the last people still on her side probably wasn’t a wise move—though part of her wanted to do it just for the hell of it. Why not, at this point?

“It’s okay. But if you don’t approve of the IAS there probably isn’t a way to get you and my dad on the same page. Assuming that’s really the reason you were angry.”

Feeling exposed, Daria looked down at the ground. She didn’t want to admit the real reason she’d gone off on Armand—that she just hadn’t wanted to leave the first place in her life where she’d felt comfortable. Her motivation had been idiotic.

“I’ll admit that I was dealing with some personal issues,” Daria said. “And that maybe some of the stress carried over to the interview.”

“Was it something with Jane?”

Daria glared at Jolda and narrowed her eyes. “I have a life outside of Jane, you know.”

That was probably a lie, she realized.

Jolda raised her hands. “Not saying you don’t! Okay, so you were having a bad day. That happens. How about this? I tell him that you felt a little overwhelmed.”

Which, Daria realized, was true. But she hated that idea. She’d never been a sentimentalist. The small-minded hicks on Stirk had taught her the harsh truth of things early on, and she’d accepted their lesson with cool-eyed clarity. The world didn’t care about her, so she’d return the favor tenfold.

But somehow, against all logic, she now did care. And caring about the world created so many more ways for it to hurt her.

“I’m not sure your dad would be too keen on an easily overwhelmed archeologist,” Daria said.

“What argument would you like me to use?”

Daria thought about it a bit but came up with nothing. “Go ahead. I guess I can stand your dad thinking I’m occasionally soft-headed so long as it gets me out of trouble.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Jolda said. “I promise.”

Daria said nothing. She swallowed her bitterness and wished she still was the hard-hearted little girl she’d been back on Stirk: cold, smart, and safe.

Chapter 4

“Okay, let’s go back to basic breathing,” Quinn said.

Satheri gulped and nodded. Then she opened her mouth and started breathing in and out and sounding like a punctured bellows.

“No, Satheri! Breathe through your nose! Come on, you know this.”

Quinn didn’t get it. She’d never seen Satheri so nervous! Worst of all, the pageant was in just a few days. She’d been so busy trying to help Satheri that she’d barely had time to figure out her own routine.

“Right. Through my nose—oh my gosh, Quinn, I don’t think I’m ready for this!”

“Satheri, you’re fine. You’re like way cuter and more stylish than any of the other girls competing.” Quinn almost added “in your bracket” but stopped herself. No, Satheri needed to believe she was the most stylish girl in the whole freaking world for the next few days.

“Green eyeshadow… looks weird… on me…” Tiphannia droned, looking at herself in Satheri’s honest-to-goodness glass mirror. The pageant was a big deal, so Quinn had called for daily meetings—this one was at Satheri’s house. Treads-on-Ferns hadn’t shown up yet, which was kind of worrisome since Treads hadn’t been to yesterday’s, either.

Satheri sniffed. “It’s just, well, I have to compete against girls from really good families, Quinn.”

“But you’re from a really good family, too! The Rowenis are like super-rich.”

Satheri looked down at her feet.

“Eyes up, Satheri!”

“Right! Sorry!” Her head shot up, the poor girl’s eyes bulging in a way that did not look good. “We are rich, but I’m scared about competing against some of the other girls, like—"

The door swung open, and Treads-on-Ferns stepped in with Jeval. “Hi, sorry, we’re late.”

“Treads, don’t you think Satheri’s like the cutest Dunmer girl in Drenlyn?” Quinn prompted.

“I have to admit I’m still a little hazy on what Men and Mer see as cute—”

Quinn glared. “Treads!”

Gods, sometimes Treads was as bad as Daria!

“Sorry! Way cuter,” Treads agreed.

“The cutest,” Jeval said.

Treads cleared her throat. “Uh, Quinn? Look, I hate to spring this on you at the last second, but I’m not going to compete.”

Quinn’s jaw dropped. “But why? Oh my gosh, guys, we cannot fall apart this close to the pageant!”

“Maybe… I should use… red… eyeshadow… instead…” Tiphannia said.

“Sorry, but I made up my mind.”

Quinn hurried over to Treads. “But you’d be so good on stage!”

“I know. Here’s the thing: I’m the only Argonian in Drenlyn Academy. Nobody there looks like me. Nobody there really thinks I’m pretty.”

“Fashion transcends beauty, Treads. And I’m sure Argonian guys would be like falling over themselves for a chance with you.”

“Thanks. But I don’t want to draw attention to myself in Balmora. Frankly, there are some folks who’ll really hate to see an Argonian on stage.”

Quinn looked at her friend. Really looked at her. She still wasn’t good at reading Treads’ expressions, but she could totally tell that Treads meant this. And she knew that a lot of people—a lot of Dunmer, especially—hated Argonians.

She couldn’t do that to Treads. She or Tiphannia could still win the outlander bracket without her. But they needed Satheri for the Dunmer bracket.

“It’s okay, Treads. It sucks that things are like that.” She hugged Treads, feeling her soft fine scales pressing against her cheek.

“Wait, guys!” Satheri said. “It’s not fair for us to compete when Treads-on-Ferns can’t. Maybe none of us should do the pageant. In like…” she trailed off.

Oh, great! Quinn disengaged from Treads. She needed to fix this, and fast!

“Solidarity?” Treads asked.

“Yeah, solitaire!” Satheri pressed her teeth together in this creepy fake grin. “There, all settled!” she said, her teeth still clenched.

Treads shook her head. “Hold on, I don’t want you guys to give up. This is my choice and I made it for me. Besides, Satheri, I’d love you for you to show up Synda. You totally could, too.”

“We’ll win for you, Treads!” Quinn promised.

Satheri made a noise stuck somewhere between a squeak and a scream.

“What about…” Tiphannia said, “violet… eyeshadow…”

*********

By Fredas, Synda was exhausted.

Not that it mattered. There was no shame in exhaustion so long as it stayed hidden.

Each day passed in a haze of style experimentation. Her reflection paraded across the full-length copper mirror in each of the hundreds of combinations of gowns and accessories. She tied her hair into a thousand new styles until the strands no longer obeyed her numbed fingers. And when she really saw how she looked, face slathered in paint, her locks askew, she’d fall to her knees and pray to Mother Alma for mercy because she had no other hope.

“Make Tomal love me so that my family will forgive me!” she’d cried out, pressing her face against the floor.

It’d be decided at the pageant, she was sure. Tomal would either see her and deem her an acceptable wife, or he would not.

She went to Drenlyn early on Fredas morning. The protestors had come in force to the riverside markets, a festering mass of the intermittently washed and mostly foreign-born. Her contempt for them provided a far better mask than the cosmetics that only imperfectly hid the dark circles beneath her eyes.

No matter how far she fell, she’d always be above them.

Magistrate Lli had done well in preparing campus for the next day’s pageant. A wooden stage stood in the courtyard along with rows of benches. Synda took note of all the details: where she’d walk on, how many (more or less) would see her, and so forth.

She caught sight of Satheri walking into the campus, as slight and frightened as always. A joyful little surge of cruelty welled up in Synda’s chest. At least she could keep Satheri in her place.

“Sera Roweni,” she said, casting the naïve young girl in her coldest glare.

“Oh! Sera Grilvayn! You honor me with your presence.” She looked up at Synda, the fear in her eyes making Synda feel like a giant. “I was actually kind of hoping we could talk?”

“Then talk,” Synda said, stern and patient as was proper for a lady of her station.

“Um, I’m going to be competing against you tomorrow. But please don’t take that as any kind of challenge to the Grilvayns!” She made a high-pitched giggle. “It’s just a silly little school fashion contest, anyway.”

“Silly though it may be, the positions of our various families cannot help but be taken into account,” Synda said. “Perhaps this is why Briltasi chose not to compete. As she is highborn, we would be obligated to lose to her.”

“I mean, I’m not sure that applies here—”

“Oh, Satheri: it does!” Synda said, relishing the false concern in her voice. This girl was so simple. Synda’s to break, to shape, to remold. She’d be a fine daughter if she only had a bit of spine. “I am sure that you will remember my family’s position, tomorrow.”

“Oh!” she gasped. “Yes. Of course. I’m only doing this because Muthsera Morgendorffer wants me to. I won’t get in your way.”

“Good. And don’t worry. I still haven’t told Quinn how you really feel about outlanders like her.” And Quinn wasn’t even the worst of that bunch, Synda thought. “Her and that disgusting lizard she keeps around.”

“Treads is… uh… but I didn’t know what it meant to burn those flowers, Sera Grilvayn!” Satheri said, somehow managing to shrink even more. She looked like some helpless scrib trying to curl into itself to escape a predator. Synda smelled blood in the air and smiled.

“Perhaps not, but you proved yourself to be a true daughter of Morrowind that day. Perhaps we shall again gather heather for the bonfires.”

Satheri gulped.

“Has our conversation been to your satisfaction?” Synda asked.

“Yes, Sera Grilvayn,” she said.

“Good.”

Muscles locked from tension and anxiety suddenly relaxed, and Synda let herself smile as Satheri scurried away. She still had power. She still had life.

Maybe it was time to set things in motion.

She found Karl the Unctuous looking through some papers behind the stage. Magistrate Lli had, for some incomprehensible reasons, decided he’d be the event’s announcer. It at least made him potentially useful.

“Karl,” she said.

“Ah, what’s this?” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “I’m at your disposal, Muthsera Grilvayn.”

She resisted the urge to strike him for failing to understand Dunmer honorifics. “I want you to make an announcement when I come on stage tomorrow.”

“Hmm, an intriguing request! But what do I get out of it?”

“Your father will get an ally in a very high place, which will benefit you as well.”

His leer faded. “Interesting. Go on.”

The greed of outlanders knew no bounds. He’d never understand how much the Grilvayns had fought and bled and worked over the centuries to ensure her position. Her ancestors had earned this foreign upstart’s obedience. But she stayed calm.

“When I walk on stage—not a moment sooner—introduce me as the daughter of Tamric and Lynda Grilvayn, and as the beloved of Serjo Tomal Sloan.”

Karl’s eyes widened. “I see. I trust Serjo Sloan knows about this?”

“Of course,” Synda lied. “I’d never be so gauche as to do this without his permission.”

“Right. So you won’t mind if I ask him myself?”

She huffed. “Do not insult me, outlander. When I am among the Sloans I will be in a position to offer great opportunity to the East Empire Company in Balmora.”

“Yes, well the Sloans don’t really work with the company—”

“And as Serjo Sloan’s future wife, I can change that,” Synda said. “Your father will get the credit for bringing the Sloans into the fold—and I’m sure he’ll be grateful to you. But again, I do not tolerate insult or doubt. You must decide now.”

Karl tented his fingers. “Hmm, well I have always enjoyed a good gamble.”

“It’s hardly a gamble when the payoff is guaranteed,” she said.

“However!” Karl interjected. “You’re on your own if Serjo Sloan is upset with this. I am, after all, merely a humble announcer, powerless to do more than occasionally embellish my scripts.”

She sniffed. “Of course.”

“So if there’s a problem, I’ll simply say you set me up for it. Your people don’t expect much from clueless outlanders like me, but they do have expectations for proper ladies like yourself,” he said, an oily smile spreading across his freckled face.

Synda considered her options. At this point, she no longer had any. “There won’t be a problem,” she said.

He bowed. “Marvelous doing business with you. And I’m sure it’ll be even more marvelous once you marry into the Sloans.”

The bell rang, the sound thick and doleful in the cool morning air. She turned from Karl without another word. The events had already been set in motion. It was a gamble, but the Dunmer did not fear risk. Her ancestors had traversed desert and jungle to reach Morrowind. The holy Tribunal had dared to make themselves gods. The Dunmer people had wrenched a paradise from desolation through grit and righteous cruelty.

Synda’s plan was simply the latest example of a long and proud tradition.

Chapter 5

The setting sun smoldered as the Morgendorffers arrived for the Pageant of Sartorial Splendor.

“I’m sure this will be an interesting evening!” mom said, using that slightly falsetto voice she always used when praising something she didn’t actually like.

“In the same way that torture is interesting,” Daria said.

“Come on, kiddo!” dad said. “You worked on this too, didn’t you?”

“I did work hard, which is why I think I should be rewarded with a quiet night home.”

More specifically, a quiet night away from where mom and Armand would likely meet. Daria looked around the rapidly filling courtyard. She still hadn’t heard from Jolda. Her future balanced on a knife’s edge. Best case scenario: Jolda had smoothed everything over and Daria could go on doing…

What, exactly? Sign up for the IAS and toil away for the rest of her life? Hang around in Balmora doing nothing?

Worst case scenario: Armand was still mad and would tell mom that Daria had sunk her single best chance at gainful employment. It wasn’t something mom could forgive easily. But maybe it didn’t matter. Sooner or later, everyone hated her, so she might as well get it out of the way.

Quinn and her lackeys huddled near the stage in their flashiest outfits. Quinn had spent hours getting her hair and dress—her blue one but gussied up with a bunch of insect-shell accoutrements around the collar and hem—just right.

Quinn’s voice drifted through the smoggy air. “Okay guys, we can do this!”

The words jabbed Daria like spears. Everything was so damned easy for Quinn. Mom and dad had started talking with some of the other parents, so Daria ambled over to one of the food vendors and bought a handful of roasted beetles wrapped in a hackle-lo leaf, barely noticing the acrid succulence as she scarfed it down.

“Hey, Daria!”

It was Tomal, dressed up as always. Maybe this night wouldn’t be a total waste.

“Hey,” she said, her cheeks suddenly warm. Hearing his voice lightened the load. She was young, free, and alive. For now, anyway. “What brought you to this den of depravity?”

“I see it as part of my responsibility to bear witness to civilization’s gradual descent into howling barbarism. That and get away from my dad talking about investment opportunities in the Mangroves. What about you? I figured you’d have fled this venal superficiality in favor of your hermitage.”

She smiled at that.

“I am partially responsible for all this venal superficiality,” she said. “Helped go over the expense sheets and everything. Hope that doesn’t shatter your image of me.”

“On the contrary, Daria. That’s what I like about you. You’re not afraid to embrace the horror.”

“Mindless busywork can be a good way of avoiding uncomfortable introspection.”

“There you go!”

“Are Lord and Lady Sloan here?” Daria asked.

Tomal shook his head. “I snuck off on my own. Thought it might be fun to see all this desperate social climbing.”

Easy for you to say, Daria thought. Then she wondered if Jane had thought the same thing at some of Daria’s own jokes. Looked like that uncomfortable introspection was more stubborn than she’d have liked.

The sun’s last livid rays vanished into the west. Arcane light sprang to life a moment later, nestled in orbs of tempered glass that glowed with soft yellow warmth amidst the smoky darkness.

“Actually,” Tomal said, “this is my last night in Balmora.”

Daria flinched. Dammit, dammit, dammit. The one other person she liked was also leaving. “And you’re spending it doing this?” she said, trying to keep her voice steady.

Make it a joke, she thought. It can’t hurt if it’s a joke.

“There are a few other people in Drenlyn I need to say goodbye to,” he said. “Uh, business reasons, basically. I’ve been too busy helping out at home to come here for the past few days.”

“Huh. Is Balmora just too humble for the refined Sloans?”

“My mom’s scared of the protests. Personally, I think she’s overreacting, but she talked my dad into going back to Ravil Manor out in the countryside. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

And that was that. Daria swallowed the lump in her throat. She was tearing up. One disappointment after another. No, she wasn’t going to cry like some lovestruck kid. Tomal was a noble. He’d just be trouble, anyway.

Better for her to be alone.

“On that case, I hope you have a safe journey,” she said.

“Thanks.”

Taking a deep breath, she left to rejoin her parents.

“Hey, Daria?”

She considered pretending she hadn’t heard. Except she burned to know what else he wanted to say.

“Yeah?” she turned to face him, wishing she could run her fingers through his tousled hair.

“I’m really glad we ran into each other. Honestly, you’re the most interesting person I met in Balmora.”

“That’s setting the bar pretty low, isn’t it?”

“How about you’re just one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I wish we could have had more time to know each other.”

Damn you for saying that, Daria thought.

“Yeah, uh, you seem pretty interesting yourself. Uh, I better go back to my parents.”

The lights from the Mages Guild were reliable, but not strong. Daria was glad for that, since it meant no one could see the tears running down from her eyes.

She hadn’t gone far when she heard Jolda calling her name. Still reeling from Tomal’s news, Daria didn’t see Jolda until she was almost on top of her.

“Daria, I’m really sorry—I thought I’d talked my dad down!”

Stunned, Daria stared.

Jolda continued. “I brought it up when he came home this morning. He said he’d think about giving you another chance and didn’t seem angry about it or anything. But then on the way here he started complaining about you again. I’m sorry—”

“Is your dad here?” Daria asked.

“At the entrance. I ran in to find you.”

Daria just nodded.

“Are you going to be okay? If you want, I can stay—"

“It’s fine, Jolda,” Daria said, feeling strangely numb.

She might as well let it happen at this point.

*********

Quinn brushed her hair one last time. The show was about to start. Outlanders first, and Dunmer after. Magistrate Lli and the other judge, whom she said was a middle-ranking Hlaalu, would be there to ruthlessly go over each decision she and the other girls had made.

But if they’d made the right ones? Sure, a little school pageant show wasn’t much. A victory here didn’t get them that much closer to being a guild.

It was a start though.

“You two ready?” Treads-on-Ferns asked.

“I am,” Quinn said.

She looked over to Tiphannia, who was absolutely gorgeous in the rose-colored moth-silk gown Quinn had picked for her. What really stood out was her headdress, a bunch of flowers and a pair of horns balanced on her head. Traditional Keptu-quey garb, according to her. It looked a little strange—but not bad, Quinn had decided.

“And Tiphannia’s definitely ready,” she added.

Which only left…

“Satheri?”

Satheri stepped out of the shadows. Instead of the dress they’d decided on she wore that boxy dark blue one that Quinn had kept trying to talk her into throwing away, and barely had any makeup on her face! Not that Satheri really needed makeup—she was cute enough to go without—but the whole point of the pageant was to look better than your best!

“Uh, hi, Muthsera Morgendorffer!” she said, and giggled. Not the happy kind of giggle, but the kind of giggle Satheri made when she was trying not to freak out.

“What’s going on? Was something wrong with the dress we picked?”

She shook her head. “Uh, sorry. Something happened to it. Yeah.”

“What happened to it? You should have told me! My yellow dress would look great on you.”

Satheri shrank back. “I’ll, uh, tell you later.”

Quinn’s heart sank. She’d seen the other Dunmer girls, all decked out in the absolute best that Hlaalu money could buy. Satheri didn’t stand a chance.

Why had Satheri done this?

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Karl’s voice rang out from the front of the stage. “It is my humble honor to present the stylish and visionary young ladies of Drenlyn Academy in our first ever Pageant of Sartorial Splendor…”

Quinn straightened up. Nothing to be done about it now. They could still win the outlander bracket.

Chapter 6

The problem with doomsday is that it never happened soon enough.

Daria sat between her mom and dad as the outlander girls paraded across stage. Karl opened with a florid introduction for each contestant. Then the girl would say a few words about what she wore and why she’d selected it. Sometimes the judges asked questions.

Armand and his family sat on the bench across the aisle from the Morgendorffers. Mom had spotted them just as the show was starting, which made an encounter inevitable.

So Daria sat and waited. Quinn got her moment on stage. She earned applause from mom and loud cheers from dad.

Ultimately the family’s future rested on Quinn. Daria was already spent and used up. Sure, the IAS wasn’t everything—but it had been her best shot. Maybe she was too weird to fit in anywhere. Once upon a time she’d have been proud of that fact, but now it just made her sad.

Quinn stepped off and Karl walked on, a broad grin on his face.

“And so ends the first half of the Pageant of Sartorial Splendor! We’ve watched these outlander ladies bring styles from all over the Empire to our humble stage. After our break, we’ll have a chance to see the styles coming from the heart of Morrowind itself!”

Audience members stood up and stretched. Daria’s heart lurched in her chest. It’d be just minutes away now.

“I thought Quinn looked great, didn’t you?” dad asked.

“She did! She’s really in her element tonight,” mom said. “Oh, Daria, let’s go talk to Armand! Maybe he’ll be more open about taking you on at the IAS.”

“Uh…”

All of Daria’s clever words fled from her.

“Armand!” mom called out her voice cheery.

Daria’s head spun. She was going to faint. Armand was already walking toward mom, his expression guarded. Jolda, still seated, gave Daria an apologetic look.

It’s not like Daria hadn’t been scolded before. But she remembered how disappointed mom had been after the fracas at the Mages Guild. This would be worse. She couldn’t even flee to Jane’s house the way she used to.

“Hey, I’m going to grab a bite to eat,” dad said. “Be back in jiff!”

Mom and Armand were already talking. She couldn’t hear the words over the noise of the crowd, but she heard the emotions. Ambition disguised as polite conversation on her mom’s part, followed by something gruffer from Armand. Then surprise from mom, and a stumbling apology.

This was it. Daria closed her eyes.

“Daria!” mom said. “Armand just told me that you insulted him all through the interview! What’s the meaning of this?”

She didn’t yell. She didn’t need to. The hurt in her voice was enough.

“I’m just plain no good?” Daria said.

Better to apologize. But at this point, she wanted to bring things to a head. Drop the charade once and for all.

“Your father and I have done everything for you. Do you—do you understand any of that? Do you think that all of this is free?” Mom gestured at the school. “Armand gave you a wonderful opportunity and you threw it back at him!”

“It wouldn’t have worked, mom. There’s not a place for me in the IAS.” Daria made it sound casual. Like it was no big deal.

She knew that’d make her mom angrier.

“There’s no place for anyone, Daria! Not unless you make one for yourself! What, do you think everyone at the School of Julianos welcomed me in? Do you think I’ve had it easy? No, I had to fight every step of the way!

“I’ll never understand how you became so spoiled as to think the world owes you a place. Your father and I always tried to teach you the value of hard work, the importance of doing well—we didn’t raise you like some damned aristocrat. Quinn understands it. Why don’t you? You’re a brilliant girl, Daria, but you’re wasting that intelligence. I am just so tired of you!”

Daria stood up. Her head spun, each word from her mom hitting her like a blow from a hammer. She walked away, no longer able to say anything.

“Daria! Come back here at once!”

She picked up speed. She needed someone to talk to.

She needed Tomal.

*********

Quinn took Tiphannia’s hands and squeezed. “You did so good!” she said.

“So did… you…”

Victory or defeat, they’d made their bid. Nothing to do now but wait for the final score.

“Yeah, you looked great,” Jeval said. “And your speech was great, too.”

They stood off to the side of the stage. Jeval and Treads had gotten snacks for everyone. All they had to do now was wait for Satheri and the Dunmer bracket. They probably wouldn’t win—but oh well. No one ever said that getting to the top would be easy.

Even if they failed that night, they’d still made a statement. The first of many.

Quinn looked out into the audience. She saw mom and dad. No sign of Daria, though.

“Come on,” she whispered.

Stupid to let that bother her, but she couldn’t help it. Oh well, Daria was never interested in this kind of thing. She was probably off reading a book somewhere.

Some people just couldn’t be impressed.

*********

Daria sat next to Tomal. Not with her usual distance, but right next to him, pressing against his side. His arm rested on her shoulders, and the warmth and strength within that arm made her fears feel a little farther away.

“Anyway,” she said, “I’m pretty sure my mom hates me now.” She’d just explained the situation.

The intermission had ended and the Dunmer bracket had started. She and Tomal spoke in whispers as Satheri was on stage, as shy and humble as always.

“That’s tough,” Tomal said. “I know what it’s like to have parents with high expectations.”

“It’s not that. Even parents with low expectations would give up on me at this point. It occurs to me that I’ve actually been a pretty significant burden on my family.”

“Isn’t that the whole point of family?”

She smiled. “I guess. But I’ve taken that a lot farther than I should have. You’ve seen how I am with most people, Tomal. Judgmental, sarcastic, distant.”

“Or witty, insightful, and iconoclastic.”

“I liked to think so. Maybe I’m just a terrible person.”

“Daria, I don’t think you’re terrible. Most of my life I’ve had to deal with people who just tell me what I want to hear. Yeah, I’m a noble, and I know that means I have it easy—but it’s really draining to know that in most of my relationships, the other person just wants to use me.

“I don’t feel that with you. You’re entirely confident in who you are, and not afraid to let people know about it. That’s a rare quality, and one I find quite attractive.”

“You should’ve spent more time with Jane. She’s all that, plus she’s actually likable.”

“I like you just fine,” he said.

His hand brushed against her hair. An accident?

“You do now. But you’ll hate me soon enough.” The more she denigrated herself, the more she wanted Tomal to sing her praises. Pathetic, but she needed it that night.

“I haven’t met many people I actually hated, Daria. I can’t ever imagine hating you. You’re brave, intelligent, and frankly more beautiful than any of those girls in the show tonight.”

Blood rushed to her cheeks at that comment, her face suddenly hot. Tedannupal was the only person to ever tell her she was pretty.

“You don’t mean that,” she said.

“I do mean it, Daria.”

Darkness concealed Tomal’s features, but she heard the certainty in his voice, felt it in the comforting weight of his arm. He could make it all go away.

His face got closer to hers until only an inch of space separated their lips. This couldn’t really be happening—not to her. She was too weird to ever be wanted.

Their lips met.

The resistances she’d built up over a lifetime collapsed all at once in that electric moment. Immediately she pressed into him, wanting to feel him around her, to hold her close like a knight errant protecting his lady-in-waiting, like every ridiculous scene in every ridiculous novel she pretended to hate—to experience it now, at long last. Tomal her hero, her protector, the one who accepted her for who she was.

They parted for a moment. Daria stared dumbly. She pulled him close for another, her lips pressing against his, feeling his heartbeat against her own chest.

*********

Synda observed Satheri’s cringing performance with no small satisfaction. The girl lacked the strength to win anything, and Synda hoped for Satheri’s sake that she’d find a powerful husband. She’d be eaten alive, otherwise.

Satheri bowed and walked off the stage. Synda was next. A tremor of excitement ran through her slender body.

“Guide my steps, Mother Alma,” she whispered. “Turn Serjo Sloan’s heart for me. This I beg.”

“Thank you, Sera Roweni!” Karl announced. “Now the garb of our next contestant has one foot firmly in Dunmer tradition, and the other in the future of fashion!”

Synda stepped boldly forward onto the stage. Let them see her radiance. Let Tomal witness her finest moment.

Let mom and dad and all her ancestors see what she could do for them.

“I bring you Sera Synda Grilvayn, daughter of Tamric and Lynda Grilvayn and, breaking news here, the beloved of Serjo Tomal Sloan, who has graced us with his presence tonight! Might I get a bow from you, good serjo?”

The audience fell silent. Synda held herself like the queen she was.

“Serjo?” Karl called out again. “There he---oh my!”

*********

Daria heard the silence first.

It broke through the sensations running through her body, the realization that yes, a man did love her. The vibrant feeling of her first, and second, and third—and then she lost count—kisses.

She pushed Tomal away, spots dancing in front of her eyes.

The Dunmer sitting in front of them had turned to stare, his mouth open.

“Oh no,” she uttered.

“Huh?” Tomal said.

It wasn’t just him. An entire sea of faces looked at them. No, no, no, thought Daria. Not this humiliation. Not now. How had they heard?

“It’s okay,” Tomal muttered. “You’re under my protection.”

On stage, Synda screamed.

Synda’s scream was one of void of hope, closer to the squeal of a stricken animal than any sound that could come from the throat of a thinking being. She didn’t stop. One scream followed another, her entire essence reduced to one awful sound.

Daria looked to Tomal and then back to Synda, a sick suspicion worming its way into her mind.

The crowd began murmuring.

“What’s going on here!” someone demanded.

“Upstart outlander!” a Dunmer cried.

Tomal stood up, one hand still on Daria’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he whispered.

Synda was still screaming.

“This girl is under my protection,” he announced. “She’s a, uh, guest of the Sloan family. Yeah.”

Now the whole crowd had come alive, whisper giving birth to rumor.

“Get me out of here!” Daria demanded.

“Can do,” he said.

He took her by the arm and lifted her up, shielding her with his body. Maybe they hadn’t gotten a good look—oh who was she kidding? The glasses were a dead giveaway.

If mom and dad hadn’t seen, they’d find out in minutes.

Synda was still screaming.

“Daria!” mom called.

Tomal stopped. Daria worked his way out from under his arm, her dress damp with sweat. Mom stared at her with a look of baffled horror.

“What is going on?” mom demanded.

Daria had no words. She’d somehow dug herself even deeper. Mom had warned her about carrying on with nobles, and she’d just made out with one in public.

“Keep going,” she told Tomal.

“Ma’am, your daughter is safe,” Tomal said, as he took her wrist. “It’ll fall on us Sloans, not on her. I promise!”

Daria wondered how much a Sloan promise really meant. It obviously hadn’t meant much so far as Synda was concerned.

Her screams still echoed through the courtyard.

*********

“Can’t we have one event here that doesn’t turn into a damn riot!” Magistrate Lli exclaimed.

Quinn watched as Lli took the stage. “I am deeply sorry for that unpleasantness. Serjo Sloan’s business is his own, however, so we ought not to pry too closely!”

Too late for Lli to do anything, Quinn knew. Too many people had seen it.

And Daria of all people! Gods, she must have been horrified at being spotted. Had Tomal been cheating on Synda with Daria? Usually she knew who was dating who, but she hadn’t heard of this. It was too much to take in.

“Quinn, are you okay?” Jeval asked.

“Yes. No. I have no idea,” she whimpered.

Lli raised her voice, trying to be heard over the murmurs of the crowd. “Since we came here to compete for fashion, I’m sure you all want to know the winners! I’m proud to announce that Tiphannia Blumius has won the outlander bracket for her sense of style. As for the Dunmer bracket…”

Satheri hurried toward them. Synda had been taken off stage, and Quinn wondered what would happen to her.

Somebody threw a bunch of comberries at Lli. It barely missed her and landed on the wooden surface with a loud splat.

“Oh, to hell with this,” Lli muttered. “Sera Satheri Roweni wins the Dunmer bracket, for at least being someone who knows how to behave herself!”

Satheri froze in place, her eyes wide. Then she jumped up, her arms in the air.

“I did it! I did it, I did it! Oh, I did everything she told me to do and I still won!”

She grabbed Quinn and shook her, her face honestly kind of scary. “I did it!”

“You did, Satheri!” Quinn hugged her, not quite sure what to make of the whole thing.

Quinn hadn’t won. But the Fashion Club had. And she’d helped make that happen. People knew about them.

As for Daria? She had no idea. Hugging Satheri tighter, Quinn hoped her sister would be okay.

*********

Daria and Tomal ran through the empty streets like fugitives. The night’s events whirled through her mind as she ran, no idea what fate had in store for her.

“Wait,” Daria said. “I need to know what happened.”

Tomal slowed down and stopped.

“Is Synda your girlfriend?” she asked.

Tomal gulped and nodded. “She was. Emphasis on the past tense. Look, we’d been seeing each other for a while, but it wasn’t working out. I was going to break up with her tonight.”

“I don’t think she expected that.”

“I know. I screwed this up, Daria. She wanted to marry me.”

“And you told her you would?”

Tomal shook his head. “No! I kept telling her it was too early for that kind of thing. I thought she just really liked me at first. But after a while, I started to realize she only wanted to marry me for the money. Which, judging by tonight’s performance, she really wanted.”

Daria nodded, relaxing a bit. She wasn’t convinced money was all Synda had wanted. No one, not even a Hlaalu, screamed like that over cash.

Tomal went on. “We never told anyone about our relationship. I did not think she’d announce it like that.”

“She did,” Daria said. “And now everyone knows you cheated on her with me. An outlander.”

“It’ll be okay—”

“How?” Daria broke away from him, angry now. “How will it be okay? Do you have any idea how much trouble I made for my mom?”

“Okay, okay.” Tomal sounded exhausted. “I say, we go and talk to her. I’ll take the blame.”

Her mother’s words echoed in her mind. I am just so tired of you!

Daria shook her head. “No. It’s my fault, too. Maybe I didn’t impress on you just how badly I let her down tonight. Frankly, I don’t think she wants anything more to do with me.”

“What then?”

She said nothing. What was the next step? This godawful city. All of its scheming and division and treachery. Why the hell had she ever thought Balmora was a home?

“Is there any chance I could go with you to the manor?’ she asked.

He didn’t say anything right away. She sensed him mulling it over, weighing the pros and cons.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he finally said. “We’ll need to talk to my dad, of course.”

“What do we tell him?” Daria asked.

Tomal looked over to the lights of High Town. “I say we tell him the truth.”

“He’ll be okay with that?”

“Probably not. But I don’t think your presence would be that much of a scandal to him. We’ll work things out with the Grilvayns—they’re respectable, but not really that big of a deal. My family can control the situation.”

For a moment, it seemed like the setup to a perfect romance. A country estate, a handsome man, and all the time in the world.

Maybe Synda had been expecting the same things.

So should she go home and face a new wave of humiliation? Or take a risk with Tomal?

“All right,” Daria said. “Let’s try things your way.”

Tomal smiled and took her hand. With that, Daria let him lead her into the night.

The End

Episode 26: Ashtrapped | Table of Contents | Episode 28: A Comedy of Manors

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  • HAHA, this was a fun chapter. And I did like that Satheri won anyway. It is a big mess everyone's in right now, fun to see how this'll get cleaned up. 

    • Thanks! And messes are the stuff of which drama is made!

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