Daria hated to admit it, but she kind of liked Drenlyn Academy’s library. Considering that Drenlyn existed only to help rich outlanders and rich natives exploit one another, it was remarkable that someone had taken great care in choosing the 64 books that rested on the library’s shelves. In addition to Morrowind mainstays like The Book of Dawn and Dusk and The Consolations of Prayer, it also held a wealth of well-researched regional histories, intriguing philosophical texts, and a few novels.
It was about noon and the late winter rains were busy turning Balmora into an enormous puddle. Done with classes and not quite ready to face the inclement weather, Daria instead sheltered herself in the library. As she read about distant Cathnoquey province in A Pearl Betwixt Empires, an errant drop of water splatted on the open page.
She pulled the book away and surveyed the damage. Not too severe, but the page was paper, not parchment, and that stuff didn’t last long with water. Taking the candlestick, the flame at the end bright and steady, she raised it to the ceiling and squinted. Hard to make out in the darkness, but there was no denying the dark damp spot spreading across the earthen surface. The rain kept up its assault, a steady drumming that filled her ears. This would get worse before it got better.
“If only this could’ve happened to Magistrate Lli’s office, instead,” she said. Most likely, Lli had reinforced her own office to withstand a full-on student siege. She’d never expend that much effort on a mere library.
Daria grabbed the book and placed it within the safety of her pack. But a half-dozen other books lay on the table. The leak turned into a steady drip-drip-drip, the puddle getting wider by the moment.
The ceiling could collapse.
In a classroom, she’d have gotten out right away. It wasn’t as if major head injuries would have seriously affected most of her peers. But she cared about books. Books were quiet. They offered sanctuary from people. And, if they got too annoying, she could just shut them.
The drops fell faster. No way to save all the volumes. Working quickly, Daria took each book from the table and put it in her pack. When that got too full, she shoved them onto the nearest shelf.
The library groaned and shook. The leak quickened into a steady stream. Water snuffed the candle with a subtle hiss and the room plunged into darkness, but she still heard water spilling down the edges of the table and turning the earthen floor into mud.
“Dammit,” she whispered.
Nothing more she could do. Daria relied on memory to get to the door and groped in darkness for a few panicked seconds before finding the handle. She turned and pulled it open.
A roaring sound filled her ears as the library ceiling collapsed, and she darted through the doorway and into the frigid rain.
“Dammit! Do you have any idea how much a new roof for the library will cost?” Magistrate Lli slammed her hands on her desk and leaned over it, glaring at Daria.
Daria sat on the wooden chair before Lli’s desk, cold and soaked to the bone with bits of adobe clinging to her hair. She’d immediately alerted Lli about the collapse. Lli then ordered Drenlyn’s custodian (along with Sera Dimartani, for some reason) to salvage the situation as best they could. The lowest shelves were lost but they’d managed to save the books above, which, along with Daria grabbing the ones from the table, left the school with 50 intact volumes.
The same could not be said for the library itself, now flooded and gutted. They’d moved the books to crates in Lli’s office, where she, Sera Benniet, and Daria now sat.
Meeting Lli’s baleful gaze without a tremor of doubt, Daria spoke. “I wasn’t aware that keeping track of maintenance costs was my job.”
“It’s, uh, my job actually,” Benniet said, her eyes roving up and down a paper she held in her hands. “We’d have to find a contractor first, but it’ll be at least three-thousand.”
“Three-thousand!?” Lli cursed and took her hands off the desk and folded her arms, her face like a round gray storm cloud.
“It’s within our means to pay, though we might have to reduce instructor salaries.” Benniet gulped. “I would point out, that as your main administrator, I do considerably more work than any of the other instructors, and—”
Lli made a cutting motion with her right hand and shook her head. “I need to think!”
“Is there a reason I’m still here?” Daria asked. “Frankly, I’d just as soon get home and forget this day happened.”
And finish reading A Pearl Betwixt Empires, which was still in her bag. She’d return it when she was done.
“Young lady, you should show some respect,” Lli fumed.
“It sounds like you’re blaming me. All I did was alert you—”
“Oh, stop being so self-righteous and show some goddam respect!”
Daria narrowed her eyes. “Look, Muthsera Lli, I don’t have any interest in, or knowledge of, Drenlyn’s finances. I say, get some bids out there and let the contractors fight over it—”
Lli snapped her fingers. “That’s it!”
“What?” Daria asked.
“I know how to raise money!”
“Whatever it is, I’m happy to let you take full credit for it.”
Lli was already tearing through some papers. Tired and eager to go home, Daria stood up, bowed and thanked ‘Muthsera Lli’, and then opened the door to march out into the rain. She’d lost her bug-shell hat in the collapse, but given she was already drenched, she supposed it wouldn’t help her much on the walk back home.
A cold drizzle fell from gray skies the next morning as Daria walked to Drenlyn. She hadn’t wanted to tell mom and dad about the whole near-miss with the collapsing ceiling, but of course Quinn did (since she’d heard it from Satheri, who’d heard it from Agrippina, and so forth). The initial bout of concern was almost touching but felt a bit much.
Daria stepped aside to make room for an Orc porter carrying a big box full of squirming molecrabs, the creatures poking their shelled heads over the rim while he tried to shoo them back in with his massive green hands. Yesterday’s incident might have rattled her back on Stirk, but it didn’t seem so unusual in Morrowind. She’d already been beaten by Camonna Tong thugs, dealt with Mages Guild corruption, run into a Telvanni agent, fought a rat and a nix hound (not at the same time), and explored a still-dangerous Dwemer ruin.
Not that she wanted to get too casual about the danger. But she was tougher than she’d been. Maybe that had been Morrowind’s doing. Or maybe it was just part of growing up.
She reached campus and walked past the forlorn library ruins. Once inside the warmth of Ondryn’s class, she sat down next to Jane.
“If it isn’t Death-defying Daria!” she said, scooting aside on the bench to make a bit more room.
“Oh, please. It’s not like I’m the first person to nearly get brained by poorly maintained structures in this town.”
“Hey, you’re better off than the ones who did get brained. Seriously though, you okay? Last time I had something like that happen I went on a pilgrimage, but I know that’s not really your speed.”
“I’m just disappointed that it happened in the one building on campus I actually liked.”
“Think Lli will fix it? Or will she spend that money on a full-time security complement?”
“I was in her office after the incident yesterday,” Daria said. “She has some plan to raise money for repairs.”
Jane rubbed her hands together. “Do tell!”
Daria shook her head. “She didn’t say, and I didn’t want to stick around. I’m sure we’ll find out sooner or later. Whatever it is, it’s almost certainly stupid.”
Sera Ondryn cleared his throat to begin the day’s lecture only to be interrupted by a knock on the door. It opened a moment later, revealing the short and stocky form of Sera Benniet.
“Hello! I just wanted to inform you that our honored Magistrate Lli is about to make an announcement in the courtyard, and you are all required to attend. See you there!”
She darted back out.
“And it looks like we’re about to find out how stupid,” Daria said.
Drenlyn’s students soon gathered in the wet courtyard. The drizzle had stopped, though water still dripped from the gutters of classrooms and the cap of the old emperor parasol. Magistrate Lli stood before her office, sheltered by an umbrella held aloft by a shivering Sera Benniet.
“Want to take bets on what this is?” Jane asked. “I’ll put down a septim that she’s going to offer us a fantastic educational opportunity doing grunt work in a sponsor-owned egg mine.”
“Hm, that doesn’t seem quite off-kilter enough for her. I bet she’s going to try and arrange us to be married off to some creepy Hlaalu nobles.”
“Attention, Drenlyn students!” Lli announced. “I have an exciting announcement to make!”
“Then just make it already and save us some time,” Daria muttered.
“The thrill of arena combat is known across Tamriel, from Sentinel to our very own Vivec City. That’s why I’m excited to inform you that this Loredas, the arena will be coming here to Drenlyn Academy!”
Daria and Jane looked at each other, neither quite believing what they heard.
“We will be holding an arena tournament in which all students are invited to participate. Combat is strictly non-lethal of course, but this is a fantastic opportunity for all you young people to show your martial courage!”
The crowd murmured. Daria heard a lot of “whoas” and “cools”.
“I strongly encourage you all to invite your families to this event. Those who fail to bring their families will be penalized. We need money for that damn roof—” she cleared her throat. “Excuse me. I’ve already sent notices throughout the city so that other interested parties might attend and buy tickets.”
Jonus, near the front, raised his hand.
“Do we have to know how to use weapons and stuff? Because I totally do, but I, uh, am asking for a friend.”
Julien stepped forward. “But that friend he’s asking for isn’t me! I know how to fight, like really good!”
“I’m not that friend either, I know all about swords and stuff,” Jeval added.
“Prior experience is not required, though obviously those who have it will do best," Lli said. "Anyone here is invited to test their mettle in the arena, and in so doing bring honor, and glory—and funding—to Drenlyn Academy!”
With that, Lli turned around and strutted back into her office.
“I never thought I’d say this, but it looks like I overestimated Lli’s good sense,” Daria said.
“You ask me, this is a good thing,” Jane said. “A good arena bout will clear out the slower and stupider students.”
“You’re forgetting it’s non-lethal.”
“Darn my optimism. But at least we get to watch people beat each other with padded sticks.”
“You can watch the boys play with their swords if you want. I’m going to use this as an excuse to get mom, dad, and Quinn out of the house so that I can finally get some peace and quiet.”
Jane smirked. “Now who’s being optimistic?”
Quinn had an eye for opportunity, and this whole arena thing was loaded with it! She got the Fashion Club together as soon as Lli finished her speech.
“Guys, I have an idea!” Quinn said. “What if we picked like, a fighter to be our champion? It’d be a great way to make us more visible and stuff.”
Satheri tensed up. “You mean, one of us has to fight?”
“No, of course not! I mean one of the guys. Like we’d ever do something that’d get us muddy and stuff.”
“Speak for yourself,” Treads-on-Ferns said. “Mud’s nice after a dry day.”
“Right, but that’s like spa mud, not gross arena mud. Totally different. Anyway, we should pick a cuter guy and then give him a makeover so that he’ll look better than all the other fighters.”
“Then… everyone will see like… how great we are...” Tiphannia said.
“That’s such a good idea!” Satheri agreed.
“I like it,” Treads-on-Ferns said, “but would most guys be interested in a—"
Quinn scanned the crowd for the right guy. Too risky to just announce it to everyone. Better to get someone who was kind of cute and, more importantly, was sure to do what she wanted.
And Jonus, Julien, and Jeval were standing like, right there!
“Brave young sirs!” she called out, “the Fashion Club needs a champion for the arena!”
“Pick me!” Jonus proclaimed, dropping to one knee. “I’ll be your knight, fair lady! I’ll quest to the ends of the earth for you!”
“No, pick me!” Julien begged, falling to one knee. “I’ll conquer Akavir in your name! Plus, I’m a Breton. We basically invented this whole knighthood thing.”
Jonus glared at his friend. “Nuh uh!”
Jeval just shrugged. “I was going to do this arena thing anyway because it sounded fun. But why do you want a champion?”
“Because as the Fashion Club champion, you’ll get our wardrobe advice!”
Jonus and Julien froze up and looked at each other. “Stylish?” they both said.
They sounded scared, like guys usually did with that kind of thing. She could fix it. “Yeah, you’ll be better dressed than any guy in Drenlyn!” And then they could get girls. Other girls. Not that she’d say that, of course.
Jonus, Julien, and Jeval didn’t look too sure.
“That fashion stuff is lame, though!” Jonus protested.
“Yeah, us guys don’t care about that,” Julien insisted.
“It’s not really my thing,” Jeval said. “But like I said, I’ll fight anyway.”
Quinn thought about the options. The goal was to show off the Fashion Club’s fashion know-how, so that wasn’t negotiable. But maybe she could motivate them by saying she’d go out on like a one-time date (no guarantees of holding hands, hugs, kisses, or anything beyond acknowledgement of the guy’s presence) with the champion so long as he won.
“Jeval, you said you’d fight?” she asked.
“Jeval, I dub thee Fashion Club champion—”
“Wait!” Jonus cried. He threw himself on the wet ground before Quinn’s feet and raised a tear-streaked face to her. “Please forgive me! You can make me wear anything you want! Please let me fight for you!”
Julien groveled, too. “I take back what I said, Lady Morgendorffer! I’ll gladly be your champion, and I’ll wear whatever you want. Even a dress!”
“Sorry!” Quinn announced. “Jeval gets the job.”
“Man, this sucks,” Jonus muttered as he stalked off, Julien right behind him.
Quinn ignored the losers. “Well, ladies! It looks like the Fashion Club has a champion! And a most fashionable champion he will be—”
“Hold on!” Jeval said, holding out his hand. “Look, I’m not always that big on dressing up. I want some veto power.”
Quinn put her hands on her hips. Why did things always get complicated? “Jeval, the Fashion Club knows what’s best for you.”
He crossed his arms. “No way. You can pick an outfit, but I won’t wear it if I hate it. If you have a problem with that, find a different champion.”
“Ooh!” Quinn stamped her feet. It’d be super-easy to get Jonus or Julien. But she wanted someone who wasn’t all cringey and pathetic.
“Okay, fine,” she said. “You’ll get veto power, but you have to promise to at least try what we recommend before using it.”
“Deal,” Jeval said.
“Now it’s time for me to announce it!”
Synda Grilvayn observed and calculated as Quinn proclaimed her champion before the student body.
Unforgivable. How dare Quinn—and that traitorous foreign-loving bitch, Satheri—seek to lift themselves up? Picking a scrawny Bosmer like Jeval for their champion only proved their foolishness.
“Nedrasa,” Synda said, to one of her supporters, the second daughter of the imminent (though less so than it once was) Leldro family. “If the Fashion Club is going to sully this arena with their own sartorial abominations, the Haute Society ought to find a champion of its own to show Drenlyn an example of proper Dunmer style.”
“Of course, Muthsera Grilvayn,” Nedrasa said, with murmurs of assent from Ferara Andrana and Dralora Sethro.
“We need a handsome Dunmer of esteemed pedigree,” Synda said. “No one from a disreputable family. And, of course, he needs to be a capable fighter.”
“Perhaps Rovern?” Ferara suggested.
“Hm, yes. The Draalo family is respectable. And Rovern is a giant, trained in the art of combat. No one will stand a chance against him.”
Synda smiled as she watched Quinn raise Jeval’s skinny arm. “We’ve beaten the Fashion Club before. It won’t be hard to do it again.”
Briltasi hated having to wear a big ugly robe and hood every time she snuck out to see Kavon. But it had to be done, because Kavon’s family wasn’t respectable and Briltasi’s was. It’d make dad mad to find out she’d been seeing a lowborn guy, even one as cute as Kavon. But it’d make her mad to stop doing it. So obviously, she just had to make sure no one found out.
The skies had cleared and the view from Kavon’s guard tower let them see all of Balmora. Sometimes she’d look out and imagine the spires of the Imperial City or someplace more romantic, but one thing she knew was that, wherever you were, it always felt good to be above it all.
“Hey, Kavvy?” she said, looking out the window.
Kavon, shirtless, took a draught from the mazte bottle she’d brought for him. “Yeah, babe?”
“So you know that school I go to?”
Briltasi pouted. Kavon was sweet, but he was so dumb. “Yeah, Drenlyn Academy! They’re holding an arena to get more funds. The students are going to fight each other and people are going to bet on them.”
“And I found out some of the girls are picking champions.” Briltasi turned to look at Kavon and her heart skipped. Oh, he was so cute.
“I could use a handsome champion. I wonder where I’d find one?” She pouted at him.
Kavon scowled. “Huh? Hey, you can’t pick someone else! I’m your guy!”
Briltasi sighed. Why did she have to explain everything to him? “I’m talking about you, dummy!”
“Oh! Okay, cool. But I’m not a student.”
“Just wear your helmet. That way no one will know. It’ll be like a big mystery, and everyone will wonder who my mystery knight is! And you’re a big tough guard, so you’ll definitely win!”
“Yeah!” He reached under his bunk and took out a steel longsword and held it aloft. “Man, I’ve been waiting to use this on someone!”
“Wait, Kavvy! Not a real weapon, this is for a school arena!”
He blinked, and tilted his head like a confused baby guar. “Huh?”
Briltasi sighed. This was going to take a while.
Synda kept her face perfectly still as Rovern Draalo stepped up for inspection. He was the middle son of the Draalos, a respectable family with investments in mainland corkbulb farms.
“I am honored by your request, Sera Grilvayn,” he said.
Rovern had the build of a mighty warrior and a brain like a brick. In other words, ideal for Synda’s needs.
“Grilvayn has long respected Draalo,” Synda said. “My mother extends congratulations to your father for investing in the Cyrodiilic spice market. This will surely be of benefit to him, the company, and Great House Hlaalu.”
“Uh,” Rovern trailed off for a second, his eyes searching. The fool probably hadn’t the faintest idea about investments. “Yes.” He straightened up. “It is to the honor of Great House Hlaalu.”
“Very good. As you know, Drenlyn Academy will be holding an arena. As the head of the Haute Society, a society dedicated to ensuring that Dunmer present themselves in a manner appropriate for our era, I would like to choose you as our champion.”
Rovern swallowed. “Uh, yes. Thank you, Sera Grilvayn. What do you want me to do?”
Synda hid her annoyance. “I want you to fight for me in the arena. Your wardrobe will be important, so dress well. Pick something you might wear to the retirement ceremony for a reputable administrator. As for the battle itself, your physique renders you a formidable combatant, so I doubt you will face much serious opposition. Specifically, I want you to defeat the Bosmer, Jeval Whitethorn.”
“Why him? With respect, Sera Grilvayn, I’m not sure that’d be a fair match. I’m a lot bigger than he is.”
“Arenas are about victory! Not being fair.”
Rovern gulped. “If you say so, sera.”
“The Leldros,” she said, pointing to Nedrasa, who bowed her head at the acknowledgement, “have long been friends with the Ardrel family. Should you defeat Jeval, I will direct Nedrasa to ask the Ardrels to invite your family to Muthsera Rovone Ardrel’s birthday celebration in a few months’ time. Given your father’s business, this could be a lucrative opportunity for him.”
“Understood, Sera Grilvayn.” He scowled. “I’ll defeat Jeval.”
“I certainly wouldn’t complain if you hurt that upstart outlander as much as the rules allow.”
He frowned. “Well, my father says that outlanders can be our friends, and—”
Synda rolled her eyes and made a dismissive gesture. “Like, whatever! Just win!”
Loredas morning dawned bright, cold, and clear. Hours after a breakfast of saltrice porridge and scrib jerky, Daria found herself in the place she least wanted to be: Drenlyn Academy.
“It’s important for you to put your best foot forward,” mom had said the last night. “Besides, your sister has a champion, and that means the entire family has one.”
Daria had rolled her eyes. “If by champion you mean a living dress-up doll.”
“I applaud Quinn’s ambition. It’s something you could stand to show more of.”
The arena covered most of the courtyard and looked as cheap as she’d expected. Stones marked the boundary and two sets of crude bleachers had been set up with stacked crates. Merchant stalls and showmen crowded up whatever space was left over.
“Truly a rival to the great arenas of the Imperial City,” Daria remarked.
Jane sat in the shade of the emperor parasol, a sketchpad and a piece of charcoal in her blackened hands. Daria hurried over to find refuge from her family.
“Any takers?” she asked.
“Not yet. I have the feeling this might not be the best crowd for fine art.”
Nearby, a shirtless Nord spread his arms wide and burp-sang an epic’s opening lines to the cheers of a bunch of young Drenlyn men.
“On the other hand, if you wanted someone to belch out the Lays of Ysgramor, this is the place,” Daria said.
“Well, I know when I’m beat. But hey, it’ll be fun to watch them fight each other. What brought you here, anyway?” Jane asked.
“My sister picked a champion, so all us Morgendorffers have to go out in a show of support.”
Jane pressed her charcoal against the paper, her brow furrowing. “She started quite the trend with that.”
“Maybe her next trend could be vows of silence. If that gets popular enough, I won’t even need a new library.”
“This champion thing is popular though. Synda picked one too, for that creepy Haute Society of hers.”
Synda. Just hearing the name felt like a blow to the face. “Wait, what?”
Jane looked up from her pad. “They got Rovern as their champion. You know him, right? Big for a Dunmer, polite but dumb?”
I’m going to faint, Daria thought. No, not here. She had to stay calm. She was okay, she was safe. Synda didn't dare hurt her here.
Except she wasn’t. She was shaking and sweating and using every ounce of her diminishing willpower to keep from fleeing. Because if Synda lost, she might well take it out on Quinn, just the way she’d hired those Camonna Tong thugs to brutalize Daria a year ago.
“Uh, I think my mom’s calling me,” Daria said, her tongue as dry as the Alik'r, and she hurried back to her family.
Jane watched her friend hurry back to the crowd.
“Since when does Daria ever listen to her mom?” she said, to no one in particular.
Briltasi never liked seeing Kavon in his helmet. It was big, yellow, and made him look like an enormous bug. The only nice part was when he took it off and she’d see his face, and then the wind ruffled his hair…
She shook her head. Time to focus!
“Now remember, Kavvy,” she said, as she walked with him to Jolda’s sign-up desk. “You aren’t Kavon today!”
“Uh, I’m not?” he asked, his voice muffled by the bonemold.
“You’re my mystery knight!”
“Okay, but what if someone asks my name?”
“Say that you’ve sworn yourself to secrecy for your lady love! Try to make it sound like you’re a noble knight.”
“Sworn myself to secrecy for my babe,” he said. “Got it.”
“For my lady love! You have to be romantic for this because knights are romantic.”
“But I’m not a knight!” he protested. “I’m a guard.”
“Right, but you’re a knight for today.”
“Does this mean I get a pay raise?”
Briltasi took Kavon’s hand and pulled him forward. Jolda sat at the desk, the sign-up parchment weighted down by a couple of stones. Maiko, that soldier she pretended she wasn’t dating, stood next to her in his uniform.
“Hi, Briltasi,” Jolda said.
“Hi! Can we still sign people up for the arena?”
“Sure. We’re actually kind of low on contestants. Some of the people who said they were going to show up didn’t.” Her eyes narrowed. “Who’s the guy in the helmet?”
This was the moment. Briltasi looked worshipfully up at the ugly helmet, because there was a handsome face behind it that she knew about, but no one else did.
“This is my mystery knight! A gallant warrior so enraptured by my beauty that he’s pledged to fight and win in this arena so that he might one day have my hand in marriage.”
“Wait, you want to get married—” Kavon began.
“That’s very romantic,” Jolda said. “But the rules say we need to have a name on the sheet.”
“But it’s a mystery! If I tell everyone who it is that’ll spoil the drama!” Briltasi protested.
Jolda shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t make the rules, but I have to follow them. Plus, only students are allowed to participate.”
Stupid rules! They always ruined the fun. Bad enough that she wasn’t allowed to see Kavon just because he was lowborn. What was the point of being highborn if you couldn’t have fun?
“He is a student! He’s uh…”
What student looked like Kavon? Then it hit her: Rovern Draalo! He was huge.
“Rovern Draalo! Yeah, that’s right,” she said.
“You mean that Rovern over there?” Jolda said, pointing over to where Rovern talked to Synda.
“Eep! No, this is, uh, a different Rovern. Rovern!” she said to Kavon. “Why don’t we go somewhere else so you can tell me your real last name in private!”
Kavon just stood there.
“Huh? Babe, she said Rovern is that guy, over there!” Kavon pointed back to Rovern. “I’m Kav—"
Fuming, Briltasi grabbed Kavon’s hand and stormed off.
Kavon was lucky he was cute!
Daria found Quinn with the rest of the Fashion Club in one of the pavilions, where they added the finishing touches to Jeval’s outfit. Jeval did look sharp. Instead of his usual baggy tunic and pants, he wore a tight dark blue netch leather jerkin over a long-sleeved black tunic, with sturdy hide boots over fitted gray trousers. Stylish, but also pragmatic.
Not that Daria would ever admit this out loud.
She took Quinn by the arm and pulled her outside.
“Huh? What’s going on, Daria?” she demanded. “I’m busy right now!”
“Remember that conversation we had about Synda a while back? How she’s dangerous?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
Daria tightened her grip on her sister’s arm. “Maybe now’s a good time to think back on that. She has a champion, too. And she might not take well to losing.”
Quinn jerked her arm free. “You are so paranoid, Daria! You know, our ancestors didn’t create an empire by running away every time they met a bully!”
“Largely because we were often the bully,” Daria said.
“Whatever. I don’t know why you’re so scared.”
Because Synda’s thugs beat me bloody into the ground. The words sizzled in her mouth, ready to be released—to finally let someone know what happened, to have them hold her and tell her she’d be safe and that she didn’t have anything to worry about, that it was okay she wanted to hide because she’d been hurt so badly, because she’d carried the secret for so long.
Synda stood nearby, her eyes on Daria. The threat echoed in her memory.
“Synda might have Camonna Tong connections,” Daria warned.
Quinn sighed. “We already went over this. Her family’s important but they’re a boring business family, like ours! Even if she was, it’s not like you can sic the Camonna Tong on someone just because they beat you in a contest. If it was like that, outlanders like us would never win anything. Daria, I hang out with Dunmer who actually know what’s going on here, so maybe I’m smarter than you in this! Now leave me alone because Jeval’s cufflink is missing a button and I need to fix that!”
She turned around and stormed back to her champion, body language changing mid-stride so that she went from angry and pent up to busy and attentive, as if nothing at all had happened.
Which, as far as Quinn was concerned, was true.
Daria cursed under her breath. Was she crazy? Half the time it was like the attack had never happened—a violent delusion exclusive to her and Synda. Quinn had a point, too—would the Camonna Tong truly spend that much effort on someone like her? Or for someone like Synda?
The memory of pain was proof enough.
There had to be some way to disrupt the competition. Maybe she could sign up someone herself? But it looked like most of the viable Drenlyn attendees were already on the roster.
Not far off, Briltasi argued with a helmeted Dunmer in bonemold armor that left his belly button exposed. That had to be Kavon.
Maybe she could work with this.
“Your attention please!” Magistrate Lli announced. Her thin, sharp voice barely broke over the noise of the crowd, so she banged her ceremonial staff on a nearby crate to draw their attention.
“Thank you! I’m pleased to announce the commencement of the first Drenlyn Arena Competition! On this bright morning, sixteen Drenlyn students will conduct simulated battle on academy grounds for your entertainment! Given that our Empire was founded on martial prowess, it’s only fitting that our young people practice the ways of blade and shield so that they will be ready to someday bring war to our enemies across the sea.
“The rules are simple: two students at a time will take to the field with helmets and padded swords. Each match is best two out of three rounds. A round lasts a minute, and goes until a combatant surrenders, or can no longer stand up under their own power—don’t fret though, we have some temple healers on standby.
“We have a standard single elimination tourney bracket. The winner will be declared Champion of Drenlyn! This is a purely decorative title—but the winner can stand tall knowing that they've brought honor, and glory, to Drenlyn Academy. And to Great House Hlaalu, our beloved Emperor, and the gods we worship. With that said…”
She breathed in. “Let the games begin!”
Magistrate Lli stepped back and gestured with her hand. Karl the Unctuous, dressed in a bright yellow long coat with silver thread run through the lapels and cuffs, stepped up to the announcement dais.
“Are you ready for the thrill of combat?” he called out, raising a clenched fist. “To see blood spilled on the virgin sand of the Drenlyn Arena?”
Murmurs of assent from the crowd.
Karl cupped his right hand around his ear and tilted his head. “I can’t hear you!”
Louder that time.
“That was better, but still quiet.” He took on a disappointed mien. “Could it be that we’ve got some squeamish types here? Those who think that the arena is too violent for young minds? Oh, whatever will our Empire do if the hearts of its citizens flutter so timidly?” He raised a hand to his brow for emphasis.
“No!” the crowd roared.
He stood at attention. “On that case, are you ready for combat? And tell me like you mean it!”
“We’re ready!” they screamed, as one.
“That’s more like it! Now, let’s give a round of applause to our first two contestants!”
Karl paused to let the new meat march into the pit as the audience clapped and cheered.
“On my right, we have Marcus Antabolis, of proud Cyrodiilic stock! His father’s a big name in the Fighters Guild, so we’ll see if he carries on the family tradition. On my left, Novryna Llerso, a native daughter of Balmora who’s ready to make her city proud…”
Briltasi pouted at the edge of the arena as the fighting started. This was supposed to be her and Kavvy’s moment! But all those stupid rules kept getting in the way.
Sometimes she wished she lived in High Rock. None of the gallant knights in her stepmom’s novels ever had to deal with that kind of junk when they were off rescuing fair maidens or slaying dragons.
“Uh, are you mad at me, babe?” Kavon asked.
“I’m mad at them! I wanted you to win and I know you could have! And then you could carry me away from Drenlyn, and everyone would wonder who my masked mystery knight was, and then we’d make out somewhere and I’d be like one of the princesses I read about!”
“Aw,” Kavon sighed.
The loud thwack of a wooden sword slamming into someone’s head caught her attention. Marcus staggered back and fall into the arena dust.
“Novryna Llerso wins Round One! Now that’s what I call feisty! Next up…”
Briltasi watched as the next two fighters, both humans, took to the field. She sighed. That could have been Kavon getting wounded for her. Then she’d nurse him back to health like in that one book she read!
“What are you two doing here?”
It was Daria, her whole body kind of twitchy, like she was nervous or waiting for something bad to happen. Even weirder, she was carrying one of the practice swords. Had she signed up? She didn't really seem like the arena type.
“Hi,” Briltasi said, sadly. “I brought Kavon to fight for me in the arena. But I guess you have to be a student or something.”
Kavon turned to Daria. “It sucks that I can’t fight for my babe.”
“Hm, funny you should mention that.” Daria paused and straightened her dress. “Since, uh, Magistrate Lli just told me she wants to make good with the Hlaalu security forces and give them a chance to shine. And you, Kavon, are a member of those security forces.”
Briltasi frowned. Daria didn’t usually sound nervous, but she sounded nervous that time.
“Huh?” Kavon tried to scratch his head through his helmet.
“You’re a guard, aren’t you? Lli wants to impress the guards. But you have to jump into the fight now!”
“That’s great! Uh, I need one of those wooden sword thingies—”
Daria handed him hers. “Here you go. She wanted me to give this to you.”
Kavon gasped as he took the hilt. “Thanks, Daria!" He turned to Briltasi. "Babe, this is great! Now I can fight for you!”
Briltasi squeaked as Kavon took her by the waist and pushed his helmeted face right into her nose!
“Kavon, you’re still wearing your helmet!” she protested.
But he’d already let her go and run off to battle. Briltasi glared at Daria.
“I don’t believe you! I think you just tricked Kavvy into fighting—”
A mighty war cry rang out across the arena as Kavon made his debut.
“I’m the Mystery Knight!” he cried. “I fight because I love my babe!”
He crashed into one of the fighters and knocked the guy down.
Oh, he was so enthusiastic! Briltasi imagined herself at the top of a castle parapet, with Kavvy singing to her below and then killing a big monster, and then they’d have a big feast and get married and her dad wouldn’t care that he was lowborn since he’d been so very brave!
She clasped her hands and sighed in bliss.
“You can thank me later,” Daria said.
Jonus sat on the bench, adjusting the straps that kept his padded helmet attached. He watched as Round 2 started, between Hjaring and Latif.
“Man, what does Quinn see in Jeval?” Julien complained, sitting next to him on the bench.
“Beats me.” He looked to Julien. “Hey, we gotta kick his ass. That way, one of us is sure to impress Quinn.”
“Right. But what if someone else beats him?”
Jonus shrugged. “Look, we have to try our hardest, okay? Even if we never fight Jeval, Quinn’s sure to go out with whoever wins the tournament, and that can still be one of us.”
Suddenly this huge Dunmer dude charged screaming onto the arena and bowled Hjaring over. Right after, the new guy wailed on Latif with his sword, Latif trying to ward off the blows. But then Hjaring got up and started hitting the big guy, turning it into a crazy three-way fight.
“Hey, I thought it was supposed to be one-on-one!” Julien said.
“I thought so, too.”
Karl’s voice barely broke over the shouts: “I don’t believe what I’m seeing here, folks! It looks like a new warrior has jumped into the battle! Against regulations, but it does make for a helluva show!”
Then that chick with the glasses—Quinn’s sister, Daria—jogged up to them, out of breath.
“Jonus, Julien,” she said. “You guys like my sister, right?”
“More than anything!” Jonus said.
“And I like her even more than more than anything!” Julien boasted.
“Lucky for you, verbal eloquence isn’t high on her list of turn-ons. Look, she told me she picked Jeval as a test. But that means you have to prove yourselves.”
She pointed to the arena, where three guys still beat on each other as the crowd cheered.
“I bet anyone who could take out those three would be off to a good start,” Daria said.
“She’ll date whoever wins?”
“Not necessarily. But you’ll at least get her attention.”
Julien sprang to his feet. “That’s enough for me! Come on, man.”
“Finally!” Jonus grabbed his sword, ready to wreck the competition.
“Don’t forget: you two are competing with each other, as well,” Daria said.
She had a point. Jonus glared at Julien. He studied his friend’s movement—was Julien going to try some sneak attack?
He’d try to play it peaceful, first. “Let’s team up to get rid of the big guy. Then we go after each other,” Jonus said.
“Yeah? Or maybe you’re just saying that to get me to turn my back!” Julien retorted.
Whatever, he tried. Jonus bellowed and charged Julien with his sword upraised. Julien jumped out of the way and Jonus skidded on the dust.
“Oh no! And it looks like another fight has broken out!” Karl announced. “Chaos rules the day at Drenlyn Academy!”
Jonus spun around as Julien ran for another strike. He swung his sword and drove the flattened edge into Julien’s ribcage. His friend grunted but kept up the attack. Pain exploded in Jonus’s head as the sword bounced off his crown.
“Ow, that hurt!”
Jonus swung wild and grinned when his sword hit something. Then he realized he hadn’t hit Julien. Instead, he’d hit Agrippina, who’d been watching from the bench.
“What the hell was that?” she demanded. Taking her own weapon, she screamed and attacked Jonus.
Jeval watched, dumbfounded, as riot reigned over the tournament. It had all happened so fast: first, Latif and Hjaring were fighting. Then the big guy jumped in. Then Jonus and Julien started their own fight, with most everyone else following shortly after.
“Uh, Quinn?” he asked. “What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know, this is terrible! The whole point was to show off how we dressed you but no one’s going to pay attention now!”
The brawl kept getting bigger. And closer. Jeval stepped back with his arm outstretched, not wanting an errant blow to hit Quinn or her friends.
Instead, an errant blow hit him in the side of the head.
“Agh!” he cried out, vision flashing.
It was Julien, blood streaming from his nose and his teeth locked in a mad grin. “Come on! Let’s do this!”
“Julien, I don’t think the tournament’s happening any—”
“Yaaargh!” Julien screamed as he charged, his sword raised high.
Jeval brought up his own blade—or stick, actually—with both hands to block the strike. The impact rattled through his arms. Gritting his teeth, he pushed back hard enough to knock Julien off-balance, and followed it up with a strike to his side.
It seemed he was going to be the Fashion Club champion regardless. But hey, he looked damn good doing it!
Briltasi watched in delight as Kavon trashed the competition! Oh, he was like a mighty mountain rising above the waves of a storm-tossed coast, strong against the fury of sea and sky!
She sighed. Again.
It was getting hard to see him in all the chaos, but his heroic figure stood out from the dust and flying bodies, his movements elegant like a dancer’s and so very strong.
Then, one of the students wrapped an arm around Kavon’s neck, trying to get him into some kind of hold! Two more started pummeling him.
That wasn’t fair! Those little dweebs teamed up on him because they couldn’t fight him one-on-one like men! Briltasi closed her hands into fists and glared.
He’d throw them off. Except he still hadn’t. Oh, they were beating him up!
Not on her watch!
Raising her voice in a shrill battle-cry, Briltasi charged into the fray to save her beautiful, clueless knight!
Jolda had retreated to the edge of the arena as chaos erupted around her. Maiko stood next to her, looking like he was trying not to laugh.
“Go ahead, laugh,” she said.
“No, no! I just—these guys aren’t very good fighters.”
“What do you expect? They’re a bunch of kids. Think maybe you could rein them in?”
He shook his head. “I’d need a bigger team for that. Don’t worry, Jolda: I won’t let them get too close.”
“I’m not worried about that,” she said. “More about Lli blaming me for this. She’s not too big on being embarrassed. And if Lli complains, my dad will be on my case.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Jolda. I’ll vouch for you. And you know how impressed Lli is with a uniform.”
She leaned on him a bit, reassured at his presence. “Thanks.”
Sweat plastered Jeval’s clothes to his skin. Probably not the most fashionable look, but it couldn’t be helped.
He’d beaten Julien. And after that, Jonus (it looked like a few people had already beaten Jonus). It’s not like Jeval knew much about sparring—but he was faster than his human peers and that gave him an edge.
He was almost out of energy, though.
A sword from a nearby fight whistled through the air and missed Jeval by inches. He didn’t even flinch.
The guy talking to him was Rovern. Jeval knew him a bit, but not well.
“So, I gotta fight you.” Rovern pointed at himself with his left thumb.
Jeval’s brow furrowed. “Why? Dude, the tournament’s not really a thing anymore—”
“Not about that, I promised someone I would. It’s not personal or nothing, just wanted you to know.”
Rovern was big. Jeval was tired.
“Can’t you just say we fought and not do it?” Jeval asked. “I’m pretty beat.”
Rovern looked back over his shoulder—Jeval couldn’t see to whom. “Sorry, no can do. I’ll make it quick.”
Jeval shrugged and raised his weapon. “Bring it on, then. I already took out a couple of—”
Rovern swung, hitting Jeval’s sword hard enough to tear it out of his hands and send it hurtling through the air.
“Aw, crap,” Jeval uttered.
Briltasi sat in the dirt and rested her back against the bleachers. Kavon slumped next to her, with a black eye and a split lip. The battle had ended, combatants either standing around confused or lying exhausted in the shade. She could just hear Magistrate Lli shouting: “All tickets are non-refundable!” somewhere in the distance.
Her entire body ached. But she’d done it! Taken out two of the goons bothering Kavon all on her own! They hadn’t expected her to move so quickly or strike so hard!
“Ugh,” Kavon groaned.
“Oh, Kavvy!” she said. “You fought so bravely!”
“But you had to come help me!”
True. But Kavvy would get sulky if he thought he was a bad fighter. “I just got mad seeing them gang up on you. That was like, unchivalrous! I know you’d have beaten them in the end.”
“Aw! Thanks babe!”
They embraced each other, fiercely like in one of those novels.
“Ow, my ribs!” Kavon shrieked.
“Ooh! My back!” Briltasi cried at the same time.
They disengaged and rolled back to the sides.
“I guess knights and princesses can’t make out after battles like they do in the books,” she said.
“Yeah,” Kavon agreed. “Battles kinda suck.”
An angel with hair like molten copper hovered over Jeval.
Then his vision came to. The angel was Quinn, her eyes wide and lips tight with worry as she pressed a damp cloth against his brow.
“Stay still! That guy really hit you hard,” she said.
He winced at the pounding pain in his skull. The rest of the Fashion Club stood around him. The battle seemed to be over.
“Are you hurt bad?” Satheri asked.
“I’ll be okay.”
“Guys,” Quinn said, “Jeval did a lot for us. I vote we let him into the club!”
“Wait!” Jeval protested. “I liked the way you made me look. I felt like, cool and stuff. But people will look at me weird if I join you guys. It’s just…”
He felt his cheeks grow hot. “It’s not something guys are supposed to do.”
“What if you joined as an unofficial male consultant?” Treads-on-Ferns suggested. “We’ll be discreet about this, of course.”
“That’s such a great idea, Treads!” Quinn cheered.
Jeval thought it over. “Unofficial? Yeah, okay, I can do that. Besides, after today I feel like I’m probably going to need some new friends.”
Quinn leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. His heart stopped for a moment, taking in all the impressions: her red hair, still shining amidst the dust; her sweet summery scent; her lips, soft and tender, pressed against his cheek.
No woman in the entire world could be more beautiful than her. He knew she’d just meant the kiss as a friendly gesture—but it brought back so much.
“Aw, crap,” he whispered.
“What was that?” she asked, drawing back.
He blushed again. “Nothing!”
Maybe if he waited long enough it’d go away.
But he wasn’t sure he wanted it to.
The Morgendorffers had begun the walk home.
“Wow, that got pretty wild back there! Kinda short, but it was a great show,” dad exclaimed.
“That was an utter travesty,” mom said, shaking her head.
“They didn’t even see the outfit we put together for Jeval!” Quinn complained. “But I guess Synda didn’t get to show off her champion, either.”
Daria said nothing. She’d negated the tournament—though from what she’d heard, it didn’t sound like Quinn’s champion had had any chance of beating Synda’s, rendering her actions largely moot.
And actually, she admitted, rather dangerous. No one had been seriously hurt, but it could’ve gone the wrong way. She’d technically instigated a riot—which counted as a crime. All for what? To protect Quinn from someone who might not be that much of a danger?
She couldn’t keep doing things like this. With Quinn the head of the Fashion Club, and Synda in charge of the Haute Society, confrontation was inevitable.
Someday soon, she’d have to tell Quinn what had happened.
At the same time, Daria wondered if it had really happened the way Synda had described it. Since the more she thought about it, the less sense the Camonna Tong made.
But she had to be sure before she did anything.