Daria took off her heavy glasses and closed her eyes, then raised her right thumb and forefinger to massage them through the lids. Dad had said the new pair was just about the same as her old one but she saw the differences—the lenses got blurry at the top instead of at the bottom, and the ache always started in her right eye instead of her left.
At least Daria could see. Could see, read, and walk without stumbling into somebody. Which also meant she could return to the dreary instructions at Drenlyn Academy.
She hid from the sun as she so often did, taking shelter in the surprisingly well-stocked Drenlyn library. Safe amidst the dry smell of old paper, the same in Morrowind as it was in Cyrodiil, she returned to work. And to actually see letters again, clear and precise and ordered! Reading felt like breaking a long and unwanted fast, and her eyes devoured page after page as she committed the facts within to memory.
Which in this case meant memorizing the names of nobles whose greed and ambition had earned them grand titles and places of honor in Great House Hlaalu's semi-annual Yellow Book.
"Mistress Nevena Ules," she mouthed, "by Grace of ALMSIVI, Honored Councilor of Hlaalu Council, Vvardenfell District, Free Trader, Ules Manor, Suran, Ascadian Isles, Bal Ur, District of Vvardenfell, Province of Morrowind."
She looked up from the text.
"And exploiter of forced labor," she whispered.
"Exploder of forced labor? Huh?" chirped a high-pitched voice behind her.
Daria flinched. Bad idea to say that part out loud—no way to know who was listening. She slammed the book shut and shoved it to the stack of finished texts. Turning around, she saw Briltasi Talori and let herself relax a bit. The Dunmer girl's saucer plate-round eyes looked bigger and more vacant than usual. She twirled the strands of one crimson ponytail around her finger as she stared, waiting for an answer.
"It's an Imperial joke, Briltasi," Daria said. Doubtful that Briltasi understood anything, but she had to be careful. Synda still watched. As did the Cammona Tong.
"Gee, outlander jokes are weird. I don't know why you keep making them when you're in Morrowind!"
"We Imperials are simple folk who only run a vast continent-spanning polity, far too uncultured to understand the complexities of Dunmer humor," Daria said, not allowing so much as a quantum of emotion into her voice.
"That is sad." Briltasi's full lips pouted, her eyes thoughtful as if pondering some unquantifiable and slightly tragic mystery of life.
She really does feel bad thinking that I can't understand things here, Daria thought.
"Well, it's tough for me too, sometimes," Briltasi said, perking up. "Like right now I can't understand what Sera Benniet wants me to say. Maybe you could help? You and she are both outlanders so you probably think really alike!"
"I'll see if I can tap into the vast gestalt that animates all non-Dunmer."
Briltasi turned her head to the side. "Is that a yes?"
Daria sighed. Annoying though Briltasi was, there was no chance she'd ever understand Daria's mockery. Which made her safe, or as safe as anyone got in Morrowind.
"Great! Benniet wants me to write something about how many people it takes to make a quill pen. I told her it was just one, because usually only one servant brings a quill to you, but she said I should think about it harder. But I've already thought about it really hard, and I have to go to a party tonight! Are there really heavy quills that you need two people to carry, or something?"
Daria sighed. This was going to be tough. Part of her just wanted to give some flippant answer, but she knew the Talori family had some influence in Balmora. It wouldn't hurt to have powerful friends after what had happened with Synda.
"Well, think of it this way," Daria said. "Where does the feather for a quill come from?"
"Um, a bird?" Briltasi said, as if she genuinely wasn't sure. She actually might not be. Few birds lived in Morrowind, their ecological role instead assumed by big bugs.
"Right. Now are you the one who takes it directly from the bird? Or does someone else do that?"
Briltasi put a finger to her lips, tapping twice.
"I guess someone else does that. I feel bad for the bird though."
Suddenly a bit more sympathetic, Daria continued. "Quills are usually made from molted feathers, so the bird won't mind."
"That's a relief!"
"Anyway, a fowler or a bird keeper might collect the feathers."
"Okay. Isn't that just one person though?" Briltasi asked.
"Sure. But you can't just use a regular feather as a quill pen. A penturner has to cut it so that it can hold ink."
"Got it! Two people!"
"Maybe more than that. Remember, the penturner has to use a knife to cut the quill. Where did he get the knife?"
"Uh... from his dinner set?"
"My point is that the penturner has to rely on tools, which in turn are made from materials mined from the ground, forged by smiths, delivered to merchants, and so forth."
Briltasi looked down, her ponytails limp and her brow furrowed. "I don't think I understand this."
Daria resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Just say that a quill pen needs lots of people working in lots of specialized tasks to create. If she asks for more detail, say it needs a fowler, a penturner, a miner, a smith, and probably some more. She'll get it." Maybe. But it was unlikely that an outlander instructor like Benniet would put undue pressure on a Dunmer client. A noble Dunmer client, at that.
Briltasi's eyes brightened as she scribbled down the simplified notes.
"Thanks! I wish I could help you with schoolwork, but I only know about important things."
"If I ever need to know how to look..." Daria had been about to say vacuous, but immediately realized how bad of an idea that was. "...glamorous," Daria finished, the word as foul as oil on her tongue, "I'll be sure to ask."
"Is your family important?" Briltasi asked. "Like important here, not important back wherever you came from."
Daria hesitated. What was Briltasi getting at? She decided to be direct.
"My mother's an advocate with the Imperial Guild of Barristers and my father is a consultant for local merchants seeking to do business with other non-Dunmer."
"Hmm, I don't know what all that means but it sounds pretty important! My dad does a lot of business with outlanders and he's holding a banquet on Loredas evening. Why don't you all come along?"
Daria thought about it a moment. A party sounded dreadful, but her family needed allies. Did the Taloris really amount to much?
"Is your dad going to be okay with it?" Daria asked. Seemed odd that he'd allow Briltasi to make decisions, given what she'd heard about Dunmer parents.
"Daddy says I'm an excellent party arranger! I'll ask him, but I'm sure he'll say yes."
"Sure, on that case." Not that she wanted to go. But a connection was a connection.
"Great! I probably won't talk to you too much since you're not really, well, popular, but that's not because I don't like you. I just don't have much time for you."
"Believe me, I'm completely fine with that."
"There will be a lot of important people there. Kavon, of course," she giggled. "Then there's Elmusa and Llemisa and Synda..."
Hearing the name "Synda" brought back the blows suffered in that alley, the crack of her old glasses and the weeks of blindness. Daria sucked in her breath, suddenly faint.
"Don't worry!" Briltasi said, interrupting her endless guest list. "There will be plenty of outlanders too, so you can hang out with your own kind! I wouldn't want you to be lonely."
Daria could only stammer out a mumbled thanks.
The day drew to a close and Daria put the books back on the library shelves. She looked out the bulbous green-glass window, so much like an insect's eyes. No sign of Jane in the courtyard.
Or of Synda.
Quinn had already found protection. She'd had no trouble winning a new group of friends, not to mention a trio of male admirers: an Imperial, a Breton, and a Bosmer. Nice to know that blind adoration of Quinn crossed most cultural divides. At any rate, Synda no longer seemed to care about Quinn.
Daria had always surpassed her sister when it came to earning enmity.
Probably safe to leave without waiting for Jane, she thought. Just stick to the crowded streets, don't go out of sight of guards...
Daria leaned against the adobe wall, taking deep and measured breaths until the fear went away. Of course Synda would be at the party. Her family possessed wealth and influence.
And, as Synda had demonstrated, connections to a xenophobic criminal organization active throughout the entire province.
She saw Jane leaving Sera Defoe's atelier, Defoe being the only other outlander instructor besides Benniet. Daria hurried out of the library and fell in next to her friend, the two of them soon navigating the dense crowds on the flagstone-covered banks of the Odai River. The late afternoon sun gleamed off the river's murky current.
"Briltasi invited me to a big Talori family banquet."
Jane whistled. "Not bad. Between you and your sister, social climbing must run in the family."
"If it were up to me I'd have declined. But mom would kill me if she found out I didn't take advantage of this 'opportunity'. You don't think Briltasi's just setting me up, do you?"
"Nah. Planning something like that requires more brains than she has. And her dad does do a lot of business with Imperial interests. East Empire Company I think. They made him rich."
"Nice to know that the most craven of Dunmer natives can find their equivalents among the Imperials. This whole banquet's probably going to be an endless cavalcade of flattery and networking. I wouldn't mind some sane company. I could try to get you in," Daria said.
"Hmm, that's kind of a long shot. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to go—I could probably get a bunch more clients there. But menials like me usually don't get invited anywhere."
"You paint awfully well for a menial."
"A skilled menial is still a menial. Look, I usually only get commissions from outlanders. People like the Taloris don't want to be around foreign-born Dunmer like me," Jane said, the two of them briefly parting ways to make room for a line of barefoot Dunmer pilgrims in rough robes, their smoky voices joined in prayer.
"What if I talked to Briltasi about letting you in?"
"It's just not done, Daria."
"Maybe if..." Daria scanned the crowd, its sea of sharp gray faces and red eyes. Her heartbeat picked up, a cold sweat forming on her back.
"Is everything okay?"
Daria turned her gaze forward, her world shrinking to the space within the copper rims of her spectacles. Nothing bad would happen along a main road during the day. "I'd just feel a lot better with you there."
Jane's head lowered for a moment. "Right, sorry. I forgot. But I don't think anyone's going to rob you at a High Town manor party. If they do it'll be with bad deals and legal forms, not cudgels."
Probably true. But Jane didn't know the truth of the attack. More importantly, she couldn't know. Telling Jane about Synda and the Cammona Tong might put her in danger. Daria gritted her teeth and stilled her tongue, fear and rage boiling to be let out to knock some deserving heads.
They passed through a veil of smoke drifting from an outdoor oven, the scent of baking deshaan bread a peppery and momentary delight.
"How powerful are the Taloris, anyway?" Daria asked.
"They've got a lot of money. I don't think they're that powerful, though."
Daria groaned. "Great. So the one time I surrender my ethics for the rat race of social climbing I pick the wrong family to suck up to."
"Hey, it definitely wouldn't hurt to have them on your side. None of the big Hlaalu movers and shakers live in Balmora anyway. This whole city's just a show they put on to impress foreigners."
"Can I at least throw rotten fruit at the players?"
"Sure, just make sure you have an escape plan for when they set the guards on you."
Everyone back home had described Morrowind as a remote and barbarous province. Some small part of her had hoped there'd fewer rules to hold her back.
If anything, it had more rules than Cyrodiil.
"Let's see how this works out," came dad's voice from the kitchen. "A hearty Skyrim recipe with exotic Morrowind ingredients!"
Daria sniffed and caught the scent of fish mixed with local herbs. Mom paid her husband no heed, her eyes intent on a legal document she'd taken to the table with her. Quinn, meanwhile, chattered on about her friends.
"... and I told Satheri that she looked really good in blue, but that she'd look even better if she added some gold trim."
"Oh for goodness sake!" Helen exclaimed. "It's like the Guild still thinks we're in Cyrodiil! I have half a mind to go down to Old Ebonheart and tell them what we're dealing with up here."
"The secret," Jake said, "is to use just the right amount of hackle-lo. Too much and you can't taste the fish anymore. Too little and you only taste the fish!"
Daria wondered when she should bring up the invitation. It wasn't something they expected of her. Quinn would just go right into it without hesitation, any invitation just one of many, to be considered and weighed like a new outfit for her ever-growing wardrobe.
Best for her to follow suit and be direct. It'd impress them, at least.
She opened her mouth to speak.
"By the way," Quinn said, "I was talking to Briltasi Talori, you know, of the Talori family, and she invited us to this big party she's having on Loredas. It sounds like everyone's going to be there, so it'd be great for me. And the rest of you, of course. Maybe not you," she finished, looking at Daria.
Dammit so much.
"The Taloris? They are an important family here," mom said, finally putting down the papers.
"Not that important," Daria said. "They don't even show up in the Yellow Book." Quinn had already stolen her glory. A bit of snark was the least she could do.
Mom rolled her eyes. "Nonsense, Daria. The Taloris might not be the most influential but they are at least connected to everyone in Balmora, and they work closely with outlanders. Jake, did you hear that?"
"I sure did! That's why I added in just a dash of russula. Really adds that Morrowind-y flavor—"
"Jake! Are you paying any attention at all?"
"Of course I am!" Dad rushed out of the kitchen. "Um, I totally approve of what you just said."
Mom sighed. "Quinn just informed me that the Taloris have invited the family over to a banquet on Loredas evening. I think it'd be a great opportunity for all of us."
"The Taloris? Sure, that's a great idea!"
He vanished back into the kitchen.
"It'd be a particularly good opportunity for you, Daria. You could meet a lot of potential employers at this party," mom said.
Daria feigned a thoughtful expression. "I don't know. I hear that Daedric cults are hiring a lot of savants right now. We're the only ones who can keep track of all the pesky details that go into a good ritual summoning."
Helen sighed. "Just don't embarrass us! Like it or not we need to make connections here."
Later that evening, Daria walked up to her room to find Quinn practicing the steps to an Imperial minuet. She hummed as she glided back and forth in the constrained space, visions of grand ballrooms and handsome suitors doubtlessly flitting through her mind.
"By the way, Briltasi invited me, too," Daria said.
Quinn stopped mid-step and stared.
"Is this some kind of joke?"
Daria kept at it. "Normally I wouldn't care enough to bring this up, but does Briltasi know we're sisters? Since I remember Synda being less than happy about you denying that. Dunmer take family relations very seriously."
"Of course I did!"
"So why did she invite me separately?"
Quinn tapped her cheek with an index finger, eyes intent. "Oh, probably because I didn't mention your name. I just said I had a sister and that she'd be coming along."
Daria let herself relax. "Good."
"Why would Briltasi invite you? You don't know anyone. Except that one girl."
"I gave Briltasi access to my extensive network of loyal assassins. Already she's climbing to the top of the Hlaalu hierarchy, a trail of dead bodies in her path."
Quinn shook her head. "You are so weird, Daria."
With that, Quinn returned to her dancing. Daria watched for a while, trying and failing to remember the nimble steps. She'd have to practice but was too tired to even consider it that night. Another thing about parties she hated. Did Dunmer even dance?
One thing was sure: she needed to get Jane to that party.
Briltasi found Daria early the next day.
"My dad said he'd be happy to have a lawyer's family at the banquet, so you're in!" she squealed.
Daria inclined her head slightly, the world feeling slightly surreal. "Thank you," she said. After giving it some thought, she decided it'd be best for Briltasi to know the truth. "Did you also invite Quinn yesterday?"
"Sure! She's really popular, and she said her mom was a lawyer. Huh, kind of like yours! Are your moms friends?"
"In a manner of speaking. Quinn and I are sisters."
"Ohhh, so you're the sister she mentioned!" Briltasi said. "Wow, you two don't look alike!"
"Well..." Daria wanted to finish her line. To say: "... we used to, but we had to hire a wizard to alter her face after going into witness protection."
But she couldn't. Because like it or not, Quinn was an asset for the family and for Daria's future well-being. Everything depended on who you knew, and the world was a vast prison of gossip and backslapping and flattery. Undermining Quinn would make things worse.
"Quinn got a lot luckier in the looks department," Daria blurted out, knowing it was true and completely believable. Cheeks burned at the admission. Gods this was humiliating!
"One more thing," Daria said, steering the conversation to a new subject. "Would it be all right if I brought a friend?"
Briltasi frowned, like someone asked to do something not entirely legitimate. "Maybe. Who?"
"I don't think so, Daria. Her family's not reputable. I don't even know if she has a family."
Daria thought about it. "Well, you'll have servants at the party, right?"
"So would one more menial really matter?" Didn't really feel right to call Jane a menial... but it was technically true.
Briltasi made a frustrated sound, halfway between a hum and a squeak.
Maybe it was best to drop it. Dealing with a boring party wasn't worth risking Morgendorffer status. Except that Synda would be there, cruel and ruthless Synda, connected to the Cammona Tong and all of Morrowind's barely hidden violence...
"Here's the thing," Daria said, speaking faster than she normally did, wanting to say her piece and see if it worked so she could stop worrying. "My family really wants to commemorate being invited to your fine, uh, party. And I thought Jane could paint a picture to capture the event."
A hell of a lie. But now she was sweating. Would Jane be all right with this?
Briltasi thought about it for a bit. "I guess it's okay if you bring her as a menial. But she should only talk to other outlanders."
Perfect. Those were the kind who'd give Jane business, anyway.
"Fine, I'll let her know," Daria said hurriedly, exhausted from the effort of the lie. "And thanks. I appreciate this. I mean that."
Loredas evening arrived, the rosy sunset haze carrying with it a whiff of brimstone. The sulfurous quality struck Daria as weirdly fitting as her family trekked to the elegant manors of High Town.
"Isn't this great? We're finally making our mark in Morrowind," dad said. "Soon these Dunmer will know that Big Jake's the man they need to do business with the Empire!"
"Not so loud," mom cautioned. Locals, mostly Dunmer, still crowded the market stalls negotiating last minute deals for dinner's kwama eggs.
Like a gray sea with red shark eyes, Daria thought.
Daria struggled along as best she could, wrapped up in a blue woolen robe so stiff and starched that she could probably fall asleep in it and remain standing. Wearing the damned thing felt like wearing a box that gave just enough room for her feet to shuffle across the flagstones. Quinn had something perfect for the occasion of course, a pale rose gown that hinted at her figure while staying within the bounds of modesty.
"Thanks again for getting me in," Jane said, walking behind the Morgendorffers with an easel under her arm and a backpack full of pigments. She wore one of Daria's older dresses, green and faded, baggy on her angular frame.
"Sure. You're the only one making this ordeal tolerable."
"Just sit back and enjoy the party favors," Jane said. "These things go by a lot faster after a few cups of mazte."
"I'll do what I can to get you the best booze."
"I knew you'd come in for me," Jane said, with a smirk.
They turned a corner to a pair of steep and high staircases cutting a straight path up the rocky slope to High Town. Rectangular adobe towers stood watch on either side at the top of the stairs and Daria could just see Hlaalu guards observing traffic through the vertical slot-like windows.
"Ugh, I thought this place would be elegant!" Quinn complained. "It looks like a big blocky fortress."
"That's because it is one," Daria said. "Nobles needs lots of protection for when people get tired of their shenanigans."
"Enough, Daria," mom warned. "And maybe spend some time thinking about which side of the barricades you'd actually be on. You're not exactly part of the underclass."
Daria blushed, suddenly conscious of Jane standing next to her. Jane hadn't seemed to notice the comment though, her crimson eyes on the architecture ahead.
Climbing the stairs brought them to a broad and clean plaza shaded by a few well-trimmed plane trees. The homes of the rich surrounded them, stout doors facing each other across the plaza. The houses there didn't actually look all that different from the ones below—definitely bigger but more or less in the same style, just with fresher adobe and the ovoid windows filled by actual glass. More modest by far than the wealthy Imperial residences back in Stirk.
Stony hills clambered up behind the manors. High Town occupied the farthest northwest point of Balmora, between rocks and a hard place. The sour kwama smell hovered here, too, but not as strong. The murmur of the marketplace was long gone, replaced by a cold and stately silence.
Dad checked his map while mom motioned for Daria to come closer. Not sure what to expect, Daria obeyed.
"Remember our deal?" mom said.
Convincing mom to let Jane tag along hadn't been that hard. Her parents liked Jane well enough, lacking though she was in social links. But in return for this charade Daria had promised to at least try and network. Make two well-connected friends, no more than that.
"I remember," Daria said, the two words grudgingly enunciated.
"I know this isn't what you like to do. But it's just how things are."
"This one must be the Talori manor," dad said, pointing to a nearby house. A sharply rectangular second story peeked out from behind an elegantly curved balcony wall. Next to the door stood a Hlaalu guard clad head to toe in yellowing bonemold armor, a too-large sword waiting in his scabbard.
"Who goes there?" the guard asked, his raspy voice deep and echoing behind the helmet. Daria could just see red eyes peering through the slit of his visor, which reminded her of some strange animal's mouth.
Dad stuck out his hand. "We're the Morgendorffers! We've been, uh, invited to the party. I'm Jake, this is—"
"Father, mother, two daughters, and a menial," the guard said, as if reading off a checklist. An edge crept into his voice at the last bit. "You may enter."
He waited a bit for the guard to open the door, an expectant smile on his face. The guard offered only silence.
"Uh, I guess I'll show myself in."
Dad took the handle and pulled, the heavy wooden door barely budging. He grunted in surprise and tried again. Now grabbing it with both hands he wrenched it open and leaned a bit to the side so his weight would keep it that way, his teeth clenched with strain.
He let it swing shut once they were all in. The door hit the frame hard enough to rattle the entire building.
"What the hell was in that door?" he wondered, rubbing his back.
Daria took a quick look over her shoulder, noting the horizontal slats on the door's inner side.
"Reinforced. Helps against battering rams," she said.
"Not very welcoming," dad muttered.
"That's the idea."
They stood in vast square room. Curved wooden support beams wound in and out of the adobe walls to connect with a massive wooden column in the center. Leafy bittergreen vines hung from the rafters, the bright color indicating that they'd recently been plucked. The place reminded Daria of a forest.
Five long wooden dining tables with accompanying benches had been arranged in a semi-circle around the central column, surfaces already laden with lit candles and bowls of dark blue glass. Imperial-style glass-and-metal lanterns glowed from between the beams, like fairy fire burning in the darkest woods. Narrow windows on the west wall let in the last of the day's dying light. Massive serving tables along the eastern wall bore rows and rows of clay vessels while the savory smell of some kind of roast drifted out from behind a paper screen placed in front of a doorway leading to the kitchen.
A number of guests were already present. The smaller and slightly more lavish dining table at the center of the semi-circle, presumably reserved for the Taloris, remained unoccupied. Dunmer sat at the tables next to it, decked out in brightly colored frock coats and gowns cut in the latest Imperial styles. Outlander guests took positions at those farthest from the center, some with fine clothes like the Dunmer, others with drab outfits a la the Morgendorffers. Their placement around the big central pillar made it difficult for the occupants of one table to converse with any other not directly to their side. Menials, working for either the Taloris or the guests, took standing positions around the room with hands clasped and heads bowed. Jane had already moved to join them, and part of Daria wanted to stand next to her and enjoy the comparative remoteness.
Daria recognized several attendees from Drenlyn Academy. There was Jolda, a Redguard girl reputed to be one of the smartest students, clothed in a flowing pink cotton dress and her her long black hair done up in cornrows. She sat between her parents, whose bejeweled golden bracelets proclaimed their wealth. Next to her father was another Redguard, this one in the smart dress tunic of a junior legion officer.
Quinn's current crop of suitors, Jonus, Julien, and Jeval, made themselves known at the table farthest from the door, eyes bright and already waving their hands to get their goddess's attention.
Quinn only smiled and gave a brief curtsy, sending the trio in paroxysms of hopeful glee.
And finally Synda, dressed in darkness with her gray hands folded on the table. Next to her her mother, Lynda Grilvayn, Bonded Agent to Great House Hlaalu. Synda didn't so much as look at the Morgendorffers, her lips curled in disdain.
"I hate her," Quinn whispered.
Daria froze up. Quinn still didn't know how dangerous Synda might be.
"Tempting as it might be to go after her, I suggest keeping your dislike to yourself," Daria warned.
"Oh please, Daria, how old do you think I am? I'll just gently tear her apart with insults that sound like compliments. Watch and learn."
Daria's heart skipped a beat. She wanted to tell Quinn everything—how dangerous Synda really was. But there was no way Quinn would keep that a secret. "Don't. This isn't some Cyrodiil tea party," Daria said, voice trembling slightly as she made sure to look away from Synda.
Dad ushered them to the table occupied by Jolda's family. Daria took a seat, muscles tensed as if in expectation of a blow.
Synda wouldn't hurt her here. Not in front of everyone.
But what about on the walk back home, with her whole family and Jane as targets...
"Presenting!" thundered a harsh voice, and Daria turned her head to see a tall Dunmer in what she took to be traditional robes colored a lurid yellow. His arms were crossed over his chest, eyes bulging with a fanatic's glare.
"Serjo Sedrane Talori, by Grace of ALMSIVI, House Cousin and Tradesman of Great House Hlaalu, Patriarch of Family Talori, Officer of the East Empire Company, and Gentleman of Balmora Currently and Originally, and Cheydinhal Formerly!"
The herald stepped aside. From behind him strutted forth a short-haired Dunmer who was anything but traditional, suited in a splendid deep blue coat. The skin beneath his eyes was lined with dots of raised flesh, an example of the subtle scarification seen in many highborn Hlaalu Dunmer. Next to him stood a tall human blonde in a shimmering gown. Only when Sedrane put his arm around her waist did Daria realize that the woman was actually his wife. Dunmer didn't often marry outlanders, even for money.
No wonder Briltasi seems so comfortable with us outlanders, she thought. Of course, the outlanders were still relegated to the far tables.
A smiling Briltasi followed close behind, along with a young boy wearing a coat much like his father's. A scowl flashed across the boy's face before freezing back into a more restrained expression.
Sedrane smiled and raised his arms. Most of the guests bowed their heads in response, the Morgendorffers only doing so belatedly.
"Ladies and gentlemen, visitors and natives: welcome to my humble home!" Sedrane said. "It's my honor to present you with the very best in Hlaalu hospitality on this day, which symbolizes the growing union between Morrowind and the Empire, a union reflected in my recent marriage to the lovely Asciene-Amarie."
Sedrane lifted his wife's hand to polite applause and a few stony glares from the Dunmer tables. Briltasi beamed. A good sign, Daria supposed.
"But for all these glories let us not forget those greater than us. Let us humble ourselves in honor of our deities, whether they be the tripartite gods of Morrowind or the other gods from the many kingdoms within our glorious and eternal empire."
He bowed his head and the rest of the room followed suit. Daria tried to ignore the heavenly smells drifting from the kitchen. Was Synda plotting something right now? Or was her head bowed in worship of the three mortal wizards who passed themselves off as the gods of Morrowind?
"And may we walk in ALMSIVI's grace," Sedrane announced as he finished. Smiling, he flexed his shoulders. "Back to more earthly matters. I achieved my success in the Imperial entrepôt of Cheydinhal..."
Sedrane went on to detail his history of helping the East Empire Company find the most profitable ebony and glass deposits in which to invest. Daria tuned out, hoping the drinks would soon be served.
The Taloris went all out with dinner. Appetizers of fried saltrice strands and gelatinous eyestars paved the way to a heroic main course of ornada (an ornada resembling a cat-sized ant that tasted like lobster) braised in comberry wine and served in its still bright-red carapace, its fat legs curled tightly under its thorax. Bowls of marshmerrow pulp mixed with shredded ash yams served as dessert. Servants refilled emptied cups with imported rice wine from central Cyrodiil. Having grown up off the coast of western Cyrodiil's grape country, Daria reasoned that she probably found the drink just as strange as the Dunmer did. Strange, but by no means bad.
And a welcome relief.
Some of the families put aside bits and pieces of their meals for their servants, who stood in a state of famished torment as the feast's riot of sweet and sour smells filled the enormous room. Other families didn't bother.
Daria kept staring guiltily at Jane, who looked completely absorbed in her artwork. Jane's plan had been to make a quick and flattering painting of the Morgendorffers and show it around to advertise her skills. Never a big eater, Daria put aside a generous amount for her only friend.
All the while the room buzzed with conversation. Words snapped in and out of her ears, never enough to piece together a full conversation. Mom took note of every missed opportunity, she was sure, but how could anyone talk on and on about getting good deals on Solstheim furs or exactly how much money the Sloan family really had? Quinn and Jolda talked, or at least Quinn did, Jolda nodding and smiling in response. Jake seemed interested in whatever Jolda's father had to say.
Thoughts of the attack kept replaying in Daria's mind, undeterred by her one and a half cups of rice wine. All the while Synda ate her meal at the neighboring table in complete serenity, Daria's pain no more than an amusement.
How many of the other Dunmer would find it equally amusing?
Not fair to think that, she noted. But she couldn't quite get it out of her head.
Finally the meal ended and the social mingling began. Daria stood up and took the bowl she'd reserved for Jane, complete with a full ornada leg.
"Hey, give Jane some of ours, too," dad said, piling some marshmerrow into the bowl. Mom and Quinn followed suit until the small vessel threatened to overflow.
Pleased at her family's generosity, she added a spare fork to the meal and walked over to Jane, who was still busy at work.
"Got this for you," Daria said. "Sorry it's so late."
Jane's eyes widened as she took the bowl. "Wow, I was not expecting—a whole ornada leg?"
"I think so?" Daria said. "Hard to know given I've never seen an ornada before tonight."
Jane grabbed the segmented leg and ripped into it with her teeth, tearing off the translucent red carapace before biting into the white flesh beneath, flecks flying off the side of her mouth.
Daria blinked in surprised. "Uh, I also brought you a fork," she said.
"Forks are for rich people," Jane mumbled between bites.
"I don't think socioeconomic status really affects one's ability to use utensils."
Jane paused. "Seriously, Daria, I don't know how to use one. And I'm not going to waste time learning when there's this delicious meal in front of me! And thank you again for bringing me this!"
Daria looked at the drying painting while Jane ate. Jane had made the image in swift broad strokes, trying to capture as much as she could in the limited time available. For all that, her intent had come through: the Morgendorffers as refined and tasteful members of the merchant class. Daria saw herself, smiling and sans glasses, engaged in conversation with a Quinn who noxiously managed to look even more graceful and lovely on canvas than in reality.
"It's beautiful. But if you think that's how we look then I think you might be the one who needs glasses," Daria said.
Jane shrugged. "Hey, a lot of the people in these walls hire artists to flatter. Not many want paintings of what they really look like."
"Kidding aside, it is excellent. How did you do it so quickly?"
"I took a few shortcuts. Most people won't notice." Jane tossed the now-empty carapace on the floor. "That's the nice thing about selling to the artistically illiterate."
"Not to mention ethically bankrupt," Daria added.
"Now come on, I need your help once this dries out," Jane said. "Remember, I'm your menial, so you need to break the ice for me. Wouldn't look good to have a lowborn like me pestering all these good people. Plus, it gives you a chance to network."
"Mutual exploitation is the foundation for any good friendship."
Jane shrugged. "Seems to work for Great House Hlaalu and the Empire."
"Let me get another one of these, first," Daria said, taking her empty cup and filling it to the brim with warm rice wine. A nearby servant watched her initiative with a disapproving frown, which she chose to ignore.
Karl the Unctuous (though he knew he'd one day be called Karl the Lover, or perhaps Karl the Golden like his father) observed the wondrous array before him and hid his gut-wrenching terror behind a smile.
Dinners like this were the perfect opportunity to meet new and interesting people. And from there, well, anything could happen, and his heart soared at the thought of soft kisses and perfumed arms. He'd left nothing to chance, styling his curly red hair and shaving with great precision to avoid any unsightly nicks or scratches. His extravagant yellow coat gleamed in the lantern light.
And he had one more way to make himself (hopefully) sound and look like the man he wanted to be.
The three lunkheads from Drenlyn were again drooling over Quinn and arguing as to the best way to woo her.
"Girls like dancing, so we should ask her to dance!" Jonus said, drink and heat rendering his face almost as red as his coppery hair.
"There's no music, dummy! I don't think this is that kind of party," Julien disagreed, perspiration causing his lank black hair to stick to his brow.
"So two of us could like, sing or something," blond Jeval suggested, his black Bosmer eyes fixed on the object of his fascination, "and the third one dances with her."
"Sure," Julien scoffed. "I volunteer to dance with her while you two suckers sing!"
"No way!" Jeval protested. "It was my idea, I should be the one to dance with her."
Karl announced his presence with what he hoped was a knowing chuckle. It got the trio's attention, at any rate.
"What's so funny, weirdo?" Jonus demanded.
"Simply observing your intense but perhaps myopic ardor for the admittedly stunning Quinn Morgendorffer."
"Does anyone know what the hell he's talking about?" Jeval asked.
Karl straightened up and tugged at his coat's silver-threaded lapels. If he spun this the right way, he could make a tidy profit from his plan.
"Gentlemen, I believe we pursue the same goals," he announced, thrusting a bony index finger into the air.
"Get lost! We saw Quinn first!"
Karl cleared his throat and let his arm drop. "I mean, we'd all like to win the hand of a lovely maiden. I certainly would not intrude on your quest for the luscious younger Morgendorffer. But, mortal Men and Mer that we are, it'd certainly behoove us to smell our best, so to speak."
The three stared at him with blank expressions. Karl waggled his eyebrows and reached into his coat, taking out a long-necked porcelain bottle he'd carefully tucked away.
"I present to you none other than genuine Telvanni bug musk, the finest cologne in all of Morrowind—nay, all of Tamriel!"
He uncorked the bottle and held it out, just a bit so that he could pull back if any of the goons tried to grab it. A spicy and prickly scent drifted out from the open vessel, redolent of eastern Morrowind's arcane darkness.
Jonus sneered. "There's no way you got your hands on the real thing."
"On the contrary, my good man. My father's a deputy of the East Empire Company after all, and I am something of an, ahem, unofficial company agent," Karl said, following his words with a grin.
Being an intern was just like being an unofficial agent, he was pretty sure.
"So are you going to share that with us?" Julien demanded.
"Share? No, not share, there are limits to even my generosity. But I may be willing to sell some portion of this enchanting aroma. There should be enough here for the four of us."
That way, even if wearing the musk failed to win him any lovelies, he'd still have coin to go toward a finer suit of clothes. Another brilliant plan!
The three went into a huddle, voices low and murmuring. They turned to face him once they finished, eyes wide with hope and mouths set in doubt.
"Before we pay for this, we want to see you try it out. Put some on yourself and then ask Quinn to dance," Julien said.
"No, you idiot! What if Quinn decides she likes him?" Jonus interjected.
Jeval settled it. "Put some on yourself and ask some other girl. Maybe that sister of hers or whatever."
Karl smiled and bowed. "Very well. Prepare to see the power of bug musk in action!"
He didn't actually know if this would work. Everyone said it smelled enchanting though it hadn't smelled all that great to him. Taking it from his father's cabinet had been a big risk—but how could he deny opportunity?
Karl opened the bottle again and poured out some of the clear liquid on his right hand. He dabbed it on his neck and brow, stifling a sneeze as he got a stronger dose of the stuff.
Now or never. Puffing out his chest he headed straight toward Daria Morgendorffer and the Dunmer girl she was often with. He ran his fingers through his hair, dreaming of the passion the two (or maybe three) of them would soon enjoy. Daria was no beauty but she certainly wasn't unattractive, in spite of the awkward spectacles barely balanced on her nose.
"Ah, if it isn't the lovely Miss Morgendorffer," he said, giving a florid bow. Already he imagined her senses intrigued by the powerful fragrance that clung to his body. "So often I've seen your beauty gracing the drab halls of Drenlyn Academy, yet we've never had the chance to interact. So pray tell, where have you been all my life?"
He leaned close. Would she just go in and kiss him after the preamble? Did girls do that?
No expression stirred her stoic face, eyes cold and distorted behind the thick lenses. "I've been staying as far away from you as humanly possible, something I intend to continue doing for the rest of your life."
She turned and walked away with her friend.
Karl tried to halt the panic rising within his chest. "I'll be here when you lovely ladies are ready," he said.
The trio were already jeering.
"I knew it! Whatever he has in that bottle isn't the real thing," Jeval huffed.
"It absolutely is the genuine item!" Karl protested, his voice getting reedier as his words quickened. He knew that for a fact!
Brainstorming for an excuse, he continued. "But perhaps I didn't use enough. I know exactly what to add to the mixture to make this bug musk live up to its reputation. Rest assured, I am a proficient alchemist!"
He'd taken a few alchemy lessons, at any rate. Karl looked for an escape route. "I'll be back shortly!" he said, hurrying deeper into the manor home, heart pounding and very much needing a few moments to recalibrate himself and his cologne.
"I guess you had to run into Karl the Unctuous sooner or later," Jane said, as the skinny Nord hurried away.
"Whatever connections he has can't be worth it," Daria said. "And I think even my mom would back me on that."
"His dad does run the East Empire Company's Balmora office."
"All the more reason to avoid him."
"It's a pretty dinky office, anyway. So one unworthy prospect shot down, a few dozen more to go." Jane eyed the crowd.
Daria sighed. "You know these people better than me. Who isn't awful?"
Jane frowned. "Hmm, that might not be the best metric by which to pick. Hey, how about Serjo Talori himself? Since you're already giving into corruption you might as well go all out."
Daria glanced at the master of the house, who was chatting with a wealthy-looking Imperial couple. He did seem at ease with outlanders. Though his own wife had still been seated at the other outlander table, matrimonial bonds be damned.
"I guess I don't have a choice."
"Just remember to bow," Jane said. "Both when you meet him, and when you leave. Refer to him as Serjo Talori—nobles always get the 'serjo'. Keep your eyes a little downcast, like you can't quite bear to bask in his radiance. Give your parents' names before you give yours. Talk up him being part of Great House Hlaalu, he'll love that. Make sure your hands are open, not balled up in fists like they are right now. I think that's it?"
"You think? Maybe you should do this, Jane."
"You're not noble, but you are respectable. Us Llayns are proud menials. Come on, you'll be fine. Serjo Talori does a lot of business with outlanders so he's used to the occasional screw-up."
Jane put her hand on Daria's back and nudged her forward. Daria's booted feet shuffled on the flagstones.
"Oh, don't shuffle, either," Jane warned. "Forgot to mention that."
Resigned, she took proper steps, her stiff clothes fighting her every inch of the way. When she reached Sedrane she bowed and waited expectantly. He continued chatting.
Daria glanced at Jane, hoping for a hint. But Jane had her gaze on the floor, hands clasped around the painting.
"Excuse me," Daria said, a bit louder than she'd intended to.
Sedrane stopped in the middle of describing saltrice investments in the Ascadian Isles.
Trying to strengthen her position, Daria met Sedrane's gaze head-on. "Uh, good evening Serjo Talori. I'm Daria Morgendorffer, and I wanted to thank you for this lavish meal and for inviting me and my family. Uh, congratulations on being a part of Great House Hlaalu."
Only then did she remember that she wasn't supposed to look him in the eyes, and that she wasn't supposed to have her hands clenched. She released her grip but didn't turn her gaze.
"And who are you?" Sedrane asked.
"I just said—" she stopped, remembering that she was supposed to introduce her father. "I mean, I'm Jake and Helen Morgendorffer's daughter." Her words came out more acidly than she'd intended.
"Ohh, of course. My daughter suggested your family." Sedrane chuckled. "I've heard of your father, he helped the Hlerso family close that deal in Seyda Neen a few months back. Impressive work."
"He did," Daria said, remembering the transaction in question. "Anyway, I'm training at Drenlyn to be a savant. And uh, this is my friend Jane, who is an artist."
Weight lifted from Daria's shoulders the moment she diverted Sedrane's—she'd be damned if she ever thought of him as Serjo Talori—attention to Jane.
"Thank you, Mistress Daria," Jane said, her voice suddenly crumpled up like old parchment. "The Morgendorffers were kind enough to request my services so that I might capture the honor of your invitation in paint. This is but a practice draft, but I pray I was able to portray the refinement and grace of my employers."
Chills ran down Daria's spine. The confident Jane was gone, replaced by a bowing and cringing girl she barely recognized. Sedrane leaned in for a closer look at the painting.
"Not bad," he said. "The brushwork gets a little lazy at the edges."
"My apologies, Serjo Talori. And to you, Mistress Daria. I assure you that the finished product will not be marred by such carelessness."
"I'm a bit of an art aficionado myself," Sedrane said. "I tend to prefer traditional Dunmer styles. In painting, if not in wardrobe," he added, with a chuckle, turning slightly to show off his coat.
"I've seen some more traditional work from Jane. It's excellent," Daria said.
Sedrane faced her. "Given that you're an outlander, how would you know what makes for good Dunmer art? Anyway, I have plenty of native artists I can choose from. I can tell that your artistic menial isn't from Morrowind. But I'm sure plenty of other outlanders would love to hang her scribblings on their walls. Good evening, ladies."
Daria was too angry to remember to bow.
"How could you stand that?" Daria demanded, as they walked away.
"It's just how it is."
"And how did he know you're not from here? You're both Dunmer. You're wearing Imperial clothes, but so is he."
Jane shrugged. "They always know, Daria. Don't ask me how, they just do. Anyway, one more on the reject pile. Who else?"
"Is 'nobody' an option?" Daria asked.
Karl had disappeared somewhere. Jonus, Julien, and Jeval argued about what to do next.
"Maybe Karl just screwed up the delivery. Maybe that bug musk was real!" Julien hadn't quite given up on the idea.
Jeval sniffed in disapproval. "No way. Karl's always full of it."
Jonus settled it. "Even if it was real, we're not creeps like he is. We don't need some crappy perfume. But we still gotta do something!"
"So we just all ask her out now?" Julien wondered.
Jeval wasn't satisfied. "But which of us gets her?"
"That's up to her," Jonus said. "Look, if none of us gets her, some other guy will, so we better make a move! There she is now, headed toward the refreshments!"
Sure enough, Quinn was walking toward the drinks table, so graceful that she seemed to hover above the floor, her feet untainted by its dust.
Jonus got there first, cutting in front of her. "Hey, Quinn! Do you want me to get some wine for you?"
He'd scarcely finished when Julien made his pitch. "I'll get you two goblets of wine!"
Jeval stood on his tiptoes to be seen over his friends. "I'll get you three!"
Quinn's irresistible lips turned up in a goddess's smile.
"Hmm, I guess you could get me some water," she said.
Immediately all three rushed to the table. Julien lunged only to be blocked by a quick parry from Jonus. Agile Jeval darted in and grabbed a clay flask, light fingered hands closing around the neck only to have Julien pull it out of reach. Julien grunted in pain as Jonus stepped on his foot and grabbed the flask.
Jonus spun around on his heel, dropping on one knee and holding it out.
"Here you go!"
"No fair!" Jeval bellowed.
"That should've been me!" Julien insisted.
But their goddess had already picked up the flask and raised it to the pink bow of her lips. She gave a contented sigh of satisfaction as all three watched in awe.
"That was nice. Now I'm hungry. Who wants to get me a snack?"
Again, all three volunteered.
"Let's see," Daria said, as her headache worsened. "So far I've inadvertently insulted at least three local notables, including the host, and completely alienated a fourth."
"All in a night's work," Jane said. Her cheerful tone belied her furrowed brow and tense jawline.
Daria knew she hadn't actually done anything to help her friend. Social niceties always eluded her, their rules as inconstant as quicksilver. Easier by far to focus on the facts of history and geography and law, which only changed slowly and through proper channels.
Somewhere in the distance Daria heard Quinn's high-pitched and delicate laughter, the kind she practiced in front of the mirror and not the lower-toned laugh she made when she actually found something funny. Never hard for her to play a role. Hopefully Quinn's efforts would make up for Daria's failures.
"Hey, what about Jolda?" Jane pointed at the Redguard girl, who was chatting with the legion officer she'd been sitting next to.
Daria had avoided Jolda, too embarrassed at having barely said a word to her over dinner. But with the night coming to a close, she needed to try. "What do you know about her?"
"Her parents are both wealthy." Jane stepped in close, her raspy voice lowering to a whisper. "There's a rumor that her dad has a charter to tinker with Dwemer artifacts."
"Okay, that's actually legitimately impressive."
Jane stepped back. "Don't ask her about it, though."
Daria decided to try talking with Jolda. She was almost at the end of her rope, though. Worse, her cumbersome robe was practically cooking her in the now hot and crowded feast hall, its air dense with droning conversation and alcoholic fumes. How could anyone network in this kind of environment?
She reached Jolda and paused for an awkward moment of silence before speaking. "I didn't properly introduce myself earlier," she said, her words flat and quick. "I'm Daria Morgendorffer."
"Jolda at-Armand," she said. "Your family seems really nice."
"Don't worry, it's just a facade. They're as venal as everyone else in Balmora," Daria remarked, her tongue outpacing her brain. Instantly she realized her own stupidity, red blooming across her cheeks. "Uh, sorry, can we forget I said that?"
Jolda laughed. "It's okay. The corruption here is pretty galling."
Daria relaxed. This might not be so bad after all.
"I'm Maiko," the officer said, with a curt nod. "Agent of the Imperial Legion."
"He's stationed in Moonmoth Legion Fort," Jolda explained, "attached to the diplomatic corps."
"That last bit's why they sometimes let me out to mingle with the locals. Sure beats another night in the barracks!"
"He's my... escort for the evening, but we've met a few times before," Jolda added, eyes furtively darting back to her parents, who were engaged in discussion with Sedrane.
"Uh, great," Daria said. "So what do you do in Balmora?"
Jolda took on a thoughtful mien. "I keep a relatively busy schedule. In addition to my historical and legal research at Drenlyn Academy, I'm an intern at the East Empire Company and a guest scholar at the Balmora Mage's Guild. When I have time, I go down to Moonmoth and help out at the Imperial Cult chapel."
Daria nodded. "I like to read," she said.
"Me too. What are some of your favorite books?"
"Well, I really liked the works of Zylmoc Golge growing up. Something about entombing people alive just sits right with me." Daria tensed at the last moment, anticipating another faux pas. Golge wasn't a respectable writer. But Jolda just smiled.
"You have an interesting sense of humor," she said. "But yeah, I like Golge, too. 'Chance's Folly' is one of my favorites, even if it is pretty dark."
Still a little anxious, Daria decided to change the subject. "The Dunmer you see next to me is Jane, a skilled artist." Daria took a deep breath. How was this going to work? Jolda didn't seem to like the hypocrisy that was in vogue, and Jane's art was anything but an honest portrayal. "My family hired her to capture our likenesses at dinner. You can, uh, see for yourself."
Daria heard her own words falling flat as she spoke them. Dammit, Jane deserved better! And the painting was magnificent on technical terms, especially considering the time constraints. But Jane had already stepped up with her finished canvas, showing it to her new audience.
"That's amazing!" Jolda said, admiring the work.
But did Jolda mean that? Hadn't she just complained about corruption?
Daria's headache got worse and she squeezed her eyes shut. Noise and the distortion of her lenses made for a nasty combination. The three cups of rice wine probably hadn't helped either.
"I've done some work for the Morgendorffers before, along with the Hastiens, Clanlers, and others," Jane continued. "So if you need anyone painted, I'm your gal."
Jolda met Jane's gaze. "My dad's always saying he wants a good artist to paint his portrait, so I'll let him know."
"Please do! I'm at Drenlyn Academy a lot, so just let me know when he's ready."
They talked for a bit longer, Jane leading the conversation as Daria's headache deepened. Maiko didn't talk as much, other than saying that bulky Moonmoth Legion Fort, east of Balmora, was pretty boring.
"Speaking as a soldier, I guess boring is better than the alternative. Besides, Balmora's got its charms and I get sent here more often than most."
Finally they drifted apart. Daria's head was pounding, as if she'd skipped past inebriation and straight into the hangover. Parties had that effect on her.
"That went well!" Jane said.
"How did it go for you?"
"Maybe she'll tell her dad, maybe she won't. There aren't many guarantees with this sort of thing."
"So was I able to help or not?" Daria asked.
"You helped some. Now I'm better known. And you gave me the best dinner I've had in years."
Daria had forgotten all about the leftovers.
"You still need one more connection," Jane said.
"No," Daria said. "I made two. I'm counting Maiko."
"I'm pretty sure your mom wanted you to make two rich friends," Jane said.
"Sure Maiko's rich. He's rich in the discipline and spirit of the military that's protected the Empire's hegemonic ambitions for so many centuries. And if mom's bothered by that she can take it up with the emperor."
Daria leaned again the wall. She took off her glasses and rubbed her aching temples with her free hand. This pair definitely wasn't as good as her old one.
"Gee, Daria, are you okay?"
Daria blinked at the tell-tale squeak of Briltasi's voice. She searched the haze of her vision.
"Briltasi's a little to your left, Daria," Jane said.
Grunting, Daria gave up and put her heavy, painful glasses back on, the world lurching back into focus. "Hi, Briltasi. I'm actually not feeling that great."
"Hmm. You could go up to my room and lie down for a while. You're not going to get... sick or anything, are you?"
"No, I think I just need some quiet."
Briltasi reached into her sleeve and took out a metal key, offering it to Daria. "Here. My room's upstairs, first door on the left. Just lock it when you go in. I don't want anyone else going in there."
Daria realized that, whether she'd intended to or not, she had made another connection. Briltasi might not be the brightest but she was friendly. That counted for a lot in Morrowind.
"Thank you," she said, bowing slightly and then taking the key. "By the way, did you see my friend's art?" Daria asked, pointing at Jane's canvas.
Briltasi blinked. "Why would I look at a menial's—oh wow, that's really pretty!"
A guileless smile brightened Briltasi's face. "Did you just do that tonight?" she asked.
"Sure did!" Jane said, flashing a grateful smile to Daria. "You like Imperial-style art?"
"I really do! My stepmom likes it too, but my dad doesn't."
"Do you and your stepmom have any financial independence?" Jane asked.
"Would you two be able to pay me if I painted a picture of you?"
"Sure! You even figured out how to make Daria look pretty, so I can't wait to see how you make us look! You should meet my stepmom!" Briltasi said, grabbing Jane by the forearm.
"Have fun," Daria said. Satisfied with having helped her friend, she wove through the crowd to the hallway that led deeper into the manor, the key pressed against her sweaty palm.
"Did Serjo Talori give you permission to be here?" the glowering Dunmer servant demanded.
Still with his partially empty bottle of bug musk, and a new layer of sweat on his skin, Karl the Unctuous made an indignant sniff from his hiding place next to a mostly full clay washtub in a damp storage room.
"I don't think Serjo Talori would care for his menials interfering with the son of a key business partner," Karl said, raising his nose in the air. "Of course, as long as you respect my privacy, I'll keep silent about your little breach of etiquette."
The servant grumbled but walked off, leaving Karl alone. His mind turned back to ingredients and portions and mixtures. None outside of Great House Telvanni knew exactly what went into bug musk—well, other than bugs and musk, but which bugs and whose musk?
He reached into his pocket and took out the ingredients he'd nicked from the kitchen: kreshweed fibers, sweetpulp, and an ash yam.
This probably isn't a good idea, he thought.
But how could he know unless he tried? Maybe he'd improve on the bug musk formula and in so doing make himself one of the wealthiest men in Tamriel!
Standing up, laid the ingredients and the bug musk next to the tub and prepared to make history.
Jonus had succeeded in the quest to get Quinn some water. Jeval took the lead when it came to finding her the choicest hor d'oeuvres. When she claimed to have lost an earring, it was Julien who found her adornment, or at least an adornment that met her approval.
The three switched between watching each other and watching Quinn. She stood as lovely as a work of art, her smile impish and oh so beckoning.
"So uh, do you want to go out sometime?" Jonus asked. "We can check out the, uh, Fighter's Guild. They have some cool stuff there."
"Quinn's not going to wanna go to the Fighter's Guild!" Julien interrupted. "Hey, Quinn, we can go hang out at the riverside tomorrow. I can buy you some scrib jelly and we can throw stones in the Odai."
"Amateurs," scoffed Jeval. "My mom's making dinner tomorrow. Quinn, you want to join us? Traditional Bosmer cuisine's really good. No vegetables."
"You guys are all so nice," Quinn said.
They looked at each other in a moment of dawning panic, and then back at her.
"Nice?" they gasped as one.
"And I really appreciate all the nice things you did. But I just think we're spending too much time together. I mean I've spent almost an hour with you guys, and there are still other cute guys I'd like to meet."
Julien whirled on his feet to face Jonus. "This is your fault, idiot! Fighter's Guild? She probably thinks we're a bunch of meatheads."
"My fault? If you guys hadn't taken your sweet time in getting her snacks and that earring she'd totally have gone out with one of us!"
"Hey!" Jeval shouted, his reddened face now inches from Jonus's, "I got her that stupid earring right on time!"
"Guys, guys, you don't need to fight over me," Quinn cooed as the confrontation intensified.
A bulbous paper lantern lit the second floor's narrow central hall, hanging from the ceiling like a glowing fruit. Spidery red and black Daedric script marked the paper, promising safety to residents and death to intruders.
Standing in the earthen hall, carrying a lit candlestick taken from the first floor, Daria felt like she was entering a cavern. The lantern's glow barely penetrated the hallway's gloom. Through an open window at the far end she saw the massive watchtowers around High Town, torches burning bright in the distance as the guards within kept their vigil in the darkened town.
Noise from below still emanated through the adobe floor and its thick rugs, adorned with stylized insect images, but Daria already felt better in the second story's comparative quiet. Turning to face the door, she inserted the key in the lock. Darkness and the distortion of her lenses made it impossible to see exactly what she was doing, but she heard a click after a few moments of fumbling.
Briltasi's room was more modest than she'd expected. A small but comfortable bed stretched out beneath a window of foggy glass. A heavy dresser stood at the foot of the bed, while pink willow anthers wilted in a vase by the windowsill. Western style tapestries of bounding deer and interlocking flowers hung over the rough walls. Next to the door squatted a stone triolith much like the one in Jane's apartment, showing Morrowind's Tribunal in all their stark and angular glory.
A book lay on the mattress and Daria lowered the candle for a closer look. The Romance of Sir Aethelred of Wayrest, and His Love the Lady Dufont of Daggerfall, and the Lamentable War Between the Western Kings. A classic within the fine Breton genre of trashy chivalric romances. Apparently Briltasi was the mushy type.
Walls suddenly shook and Daria jumped out of the bed. Earthquake? Something scuffled outside, just loud enough to be heard over the buzzing conversation beneath her feet. Daria lifted the heavy candlestick, tired eyes straining to see in the darkness.
Someone knocked on the glass.
Karl the Unctuous held his breath. It was do or die.
The bug musk and his desperate last-ditch ingredients were lined up along the washtub. He put the kresh fibers in the bottle first, followed by the lichen and then some chunks of ash yam. Deciding to mix, he picked up the bottle and shook it around. The smell changed, slightly.
Then the bottle slipped from his hand and splashed into the tub. The placid surface erupted into a bright green foam as the diluted bug musk mixed with the water, which bubbled violently and spilled over the rim.
Hands in pockets, Karl made a quick exit as the hissing sound grew louder.
The knock at the window came again. Cammona Tong? No, they wouldn't knock. They'd just kill.
"Uh, a little help?" came a voice from outside, unmistakably Dunmer but higher pitched than usual.
It didn't seem likely that an intruder would ask for help. So whoever was knocking probably thought he was supposed to be there.
Daria walked to the window, the glass too opaque to see through. She opened the one moving pane and stuck her head outside.
To her left was a young Dunmer man about her age, too skinny for his bulky bonemold armor. He'd placed a rickety and slightly too short ladder against the Talori manor's wall. He too leaned against the wall, feet balanced on the ladder's top rung.
"Who the hell are you?" Daria demanded.
His face contorted in confusion.
"Uh, who the hell are you? Where's Briltasi, outlander?"
"I may be an outlander but you're the one trying to sneak in like a second story man. You answer first," Daria insisted.
"Oh, well I'm Kavon!" he said, taking one hand off the wall to point to himself with his thumb. His face registered the mistake a moment later, arms pinwheeling as he tried to keep his balance. Daria froze—no way could she stop him from falling.
Luckily he managed to crash back into the wall.
"Whew! Anyway, Where's Briltasi?" he asked.
"Why should I tell you?"
"I answered your question, outlander!" he said. "So you gotta answer mine!"
"Like I said, you're the one who looks like a thief. Which means I ask the questions."
"I'm no thief! I'm a Hlaalu soldier. You know. Kavon Thanlen. I'm a pretty big deal around here."
Strange as the situation was, Daria did not feel threatened.
"A pretty big deal, huh? Which is why you're trying to sneak through a window on the second floor instead of joining the big party on the first."
"Aw, man! Look, Serjo Talori... well, I don't think he likes me because I'm not highborn. But Briltasi does like me, so, you know..."
Daria had somehow stumbled onto a lovers' rendezvous.
"I'll let her know you're here. Stay there on that ladder."
"Hurry up! It's hard to balance in this armor!"
Daria took the candle and walked down the stairs. The party seemed like it had gotten louder, harsh shouts mixing in with the regular chatter.
She reached the first floor just as a stinking mass of frothy green liquid spilled out from under a closed door and flowed into the feast hall. Shrieks erupted as a noxious odor, like soiled peppers, clogged every nostril.
Daria made a face at the smell. What the hell had happened?
The feast hall turned into a scene of chaos. Sedrane bellowed in rage as the foamy liquid spread across the stone floor. Quinn's three suitors grappled with each other in the liquid while Quinn shrieked about her ruined shoes.
Spotting Jane near the refreshments, Daria rushed over.
"Why do I always miss the good stuff? What happened?" Daria asked.
"Beats me! Those three idiots got into a fight and then suddenly... bubbly green slime everywhere! I kind of like the artistic boldness of it all." Jane made a face. "Though I could do without the stink."
"Oh no!" Briltasi wailed, nearby. "The party's ruined."
"By the way, Kavon's at the window to your room," Daria said.
"What? He has the worst timing!" she complained as she ran down the hall.
"Kavon?" Jane asked.
"Briltasi's secret friend," Daria said, as she watched Sedrane spew invective at every outlander who'd ever stepped foot on Morrowind.
"So is that normal for parties here?" dad wondered as they walked down the darkened streets. He'd helped himself to a torch. The Commercial District was safe enough, but no point in taking chances.
"Dunmer celebrations can get pretty weird, but green slime that smells like bad cologne is weird even by our standards," Jane said.
"I just got these shoes and now they stink of whatever that awful stuff was! Oh, I should've stayed home!" Quinn lamented.
Daria enjoyed the cool night air, a welcome relief after the noxious party.
"Jane, would you like to stay with us for the night?" mom asked. "I'd rather not have you walking through Labor Town alone."
"That'd be great, Mrs. Morgendorffer."
"Splendid! You can join us for breakfast, too. And how did the party go for you, Daria? I trust it was productive?"
"I took a break in my busy schedule of alienating people to make a few new friends. Jolda, Maiko, and maybe Briltasi. And maybe Kavon."
Silence for a moment.
"Well I'm proud of you," mom said. "That's a good start."
"I was hoping this would be a good finish. But thanks."