Red Mountain fumed in the north and Balmora’s people fumed in the streets.
Maiko stood at attention behind a wooden barricade as what looked like half the city yelled invective at their leaders. Would be nice if some of those leaders came down out of High Town, maybe listened to what the folks in the street had been trying to tell them for the last five months. If they did that, Maiko and his buddies might not have had to haul ass out of bed that morning to play cop.
He glanced over at Sergeant Prajeau, who stood at the front of the small legion detachment. Prajeau wasn’t much older than Maiko and brand new to Morrowind. Not a bad guy, wore the uniform well and stood up straight, but didn’t know how to hide the fear in his eyes. He’d spent his whole career so far on the Gold Coast with nothing worse to worry about than looking good on parade.
The heat didn’t help. Maiko’s steel helmet was already hot enough to cook on. A bead of sweat trickled down the bridge of his nose, lingered at the tip, and then spattered on his cuirass. It was the kind of weather to make a bad mood worse, and it had been like this since yesterday, when the scorching winds that felt like sandpaper on skin first howled through the foyadas.
“You can’t take any more from us, you bastards!” yelled a dirty-blonde Nord woman in a shellbreaker’s ichor-spattered apron.
Maiko eyed the Hlaalu guards on the scene. They were scared kids in armor—like him, really, but not trained. Not trained well, anyway. Wouldn’t take much for them to lash out and make the situation way worse. It was a miracle that hadn’t already happened.
“Trooper Maiko,” Prajeau said, in a quiet voice. “Captain Varro said you know this place pretty well.”
“I’ve been here awhile, sir.”
“What’s your assessment? Is the city about to… blow up?”
Varro should’ve given Prajeau a better briefing.
“Too early to say, sir.”
“But you have sources in the city, right? Captain Varro said you did.”
“My sources say that people are angry because the taxes on goods coming into the city mean they don’t have enough left over for food, sir.”
Said source being Andra. Maiko had spoken to her last week.
Prajeau blinked like he was processing the information. “They can’t be crazy enough to fight the Empire, can they?”
“I don’t think they want to fight—but they are hungry. These are local taxes, so they’re mad at Great House Hlaalu, not at the Empire, sir.”
Prajeau shook his head. “They look pretty mad. Gods, this province is a mess. Guess that’s why they sent us.”
“Yes, sir!” Maiko knew better than to voice his actual thoughts on the matter.
It was almost noon. Most of the city went on with business as normal, but it wouldn’t take much for that to break down. Jolda was probably okay. Her family lived close to High Town, and he knew the guards would crack down hard if the protest reached the richer parts of Balmora. Which, of course, was exactly the kind of reasoning that made people go out onto the streets in the first place.
Maiko’s vision caught something hurtling through the air, followed by a dull clang. Prajeau grunted and fell to his knees, blood streaming from his temple. Then he pitched face-forward onto the street.
With that, Maiko became acting sergeant. He did not hesitate.
“Shields up! Weapons sheathed! Do not escalate unless I give the order!” he bellowed, as the city erupted around him.
The first hint that something was wrong came from how few stevedores manned the strider port’s loading platform as Daria disembarked, Jane a few steps behind her. The place usually bustled with workers running like ants to load or unload the thorax nets and cargo shells. The scant crew held up everything else. Red-faced traders and angry passengers crowded up at the edge, demanding to know what took so long.
She heard it, too, a dull and distant roar that periodically broke over the noise around her. The sound of a lot of people yelling in unison. Worse than that, the hot winds from the north, carrying swirling specks of tainted ash.
“You hear that?” Jane asked, craning her neck to look over the rooftops.
“If I were to guess, I’d say those are probably the tax protests.”
“Oh, so those are still going on,” Jane said, a note of approval in her voice. “I don’t think the Hlaalu will listen, but I hope it makes them squirm a little.”
“I’m sure they’re squirming plenty in their silk-upholstered furniture.”
A sheen of sweat covered Daria’s face by the time she reached street level. Nothing like Red Mountain’s vulcanism to make spring feel like summer, but she guessed it was her fault for living so close to a dormant supervolcano.
“Any idea on what you’re going to tell your parents?” Jane asked, as they trudged past the Council Club, where a bunch of Dunmer toughs hung out around the door with sheathed daggers on display.
“Let’s see: I caused a scandal, ruined my best job opportunity, missed about a month of school, and dated one of Vvardenfell’s richest noble scions and then dumped him without really getting anything from it. I’m starting to think I should claim amnesia and see if that gets me a clean slate.”
“Want me to knock you on the head for that extra bit of believability?”
“Hit me hard enough, and maybe I'll go back to my Plan B of seeking a life of penitence in the Imperial Cult.”
“You’ll be okay, Daria. Your family doesn’t hate you.”
Daria sighed. “It was a lot easier to believe that when they weren’t so close.”
“Just be honest. They already know about the scandal and the thing with Armand, and they’ve had a month to cool down. As for Tomal, your mom and dad will probably be glad you got out of that safely.”
They reached the Commercial District riverbank, which finally gave them a view of the protest. It was enormous. Hundreds of people vented their anger, scalps sizzling under the hot sun. This was far bigger than the ones she’d seen in previous months.
And like that, it boiled over.
The crowd suddenly moved forward as if a single collective entity, a mass of frustration pushing against its tormenters. Bottles and rocks flew, breaking on or bouncing off the beetle-armored guards standing watch on the rooftops. Some of the protestors at the edges split, running away and keeping their heads low.
“Now,” Jane said, taking Daria’s hand, “we should focus on getting us out of this safely. Come on, let’s go J’dash’s.”
Daria followed as Jane hurried toward the Foreigners’ Span, but she kept her eyes on the protest, fear growing in her heart as chaos spread through her hometown.
Ugh, volcano days were the worst!
Okay, sure, Red Mountain wasn’t really blowing up or whatever, but volcano days still meant ash drifting down and getting on clothes and hair and stuff. Quinn wore one of mom’s old hats that day to keep her hair ash-free, but the pink was just a little too bright to go with her blue wool dress, which she had to use because she didn’t have a good spring dress and mom was making her earn money for a new one. Plus, she’d woken up with her hair practically perfect, which was like a total miracle, and now she had to hide it under a hat!
“Okay girls,” she said, as she and the rest of the Fashion Club left Drenlyn Academy for the day, walking past the sketchy looking guards that Lli had hired the last month. More security against the protests, she'd said.
"And guy!” Quinn added, for Jeval’s sake.
“Thanks,” he said.
“I’m calling an emergency meeting. We need to figure out like, a thing we can do when the weather gets all gross like this!”
“We really do,” Satheri said. “I hate it when Red Mountain spews ash.”
“Ew…. Satheri… spew…?”
Satheri gasped. “I’m sorry, Tiphannia, I didn’t mean to be gross!”
“Anyway,” Quinn said, stepping in before Satheri got too freaked out over a word, “what we really want to protect is hair.”
“This ash isn’t great for my scales either,” Treads-on-Ferns said, her gills flaring.
“Exactly! This concerns everyone in Morrowind. It’s pretty hot, so let's meet somewhere close by. Walking around all sweaty is not something Fashion Club members should do, though Jeval has a waiver to do that ‘cause he’s a guy.”
“Some of us plain don’t sweat,” Treads said.
“Lucky,” Satheri muttered.
“Not as much as you think,” Treads answered. Quinn got the feeling that Treads hadn’t wanted anyone else to hear that.
That’s when everything went crazy. Something like a hundred people suddenly charged into the street leading out of Drenlyn, fighting guards with fists and sticks! A thrown bottle knocked Quinn’s hat right off her head like a second later.
“Okay, change of plans!” she shouted, stepping back from the fight and putting her hand over her scalp. That thing had almost hit her! “We have the emergency meeting at Drenlyn, instead!”
She raised her arm to make sure the rest of the club saw her, and turned around to lead the way back to school... where the new guards were already shutting the gates!
“Wait!” she cried out. “We’re students, you have to let us in!”
Jeval grunted and ran ahead. “Hey, stop!”
He ran as fast as he could, but the gates shut before he even got close.
“Open up, we go here!” he bellowed.
“I’m not opening anything!” came Magistrate Lli’s voice from up above.
Quinn followed the voice to three guards in bonemold armor on top of the gates. Then she realized that Lli was one of them! Bonemold armor looked so gross, too—legion armor was way more stylish, plus it let people see your face.
Though, with all the junk flying around, maybe that wasn’t always a good thing.
“Muthsera Lli,” Quinn said. “Could you please let us in? My parents—"
“I’m sorry, young people, but I can’t take the chance that you might be with the rioters!”
“But we’ve been students here for years,” Jeval said.
“Student today, criminal tomorrow. My duty is to protect the school, which is why I’ve been pouring so many funds into security measures, like the armed guards and reinforced doors that are now keeping out the undesirable elements!”
The sounds of fighting kept getting louder. Quinn looked back. All she saw was dust and a bunch of legion soldiers trying to push people back with their shields.
“Please, muthsera. My friend here, Satheri, is from a very good family—” Quinn started.
“Not good enough! You’ll have to find your own place to wait out the storm.” Lli chuckled. “Oh, I’ve been waiting for this day. Fortress Drenlyn, at last!”
Jeval stepped back from the doors. “You suck, Lli!” he yelled.
“Careful!” Lli warned. “I wouldn’t want my mercenaries—I mean, security detail—to get the wrong idea about your intent.”
Jeval took another step back. Oh no, was he going to take like a running leap or something? But then Treads took Jeval’s arm.
“Forget her, Jeval, it’s not worth it.”
Whew! She didn’t think those thugs would kill a student. But they carried real spears…
“Yeah, fine,” Jeval said. He looked at the rest. “Let’s go to my place. It’s close, and I want to make sure my folks are okay. Maybe we can hide there for a while.”
“That sounds like a great idea, Jeval,” Quinn said.
Jeval led the way. Quinn had gone up and down the street a million times, but it felt different now. Shops closed up, people running down alleys to get away... it was scary.
“I can’t believe these protestors are causing so much trouble!” Satheri complained.
“You’d cause trouble too if you couldn’t afford food,” Treads-on-Ferns said.
“Yeah, it’s getting pretty bad,” Jeval agreed. “This is all Hlaalu’s fault.”
“You can’t say that!” Satheri protested. “I’m sure Great House Hlaalu had a good reason for those taxes.”
“Satheri is… like… right. Fighting makes everything like… so dirty…”
“Look at it this way, Tiphannia,” Treads said, “the taxes also mean that dresses and accessories cost more.”
Tiphannia’s jaw dropped. “Those taxes… are like… a crime… against… fashion…”
Treads nodded. “Among other things.”
“But Great House Hlaalu needs money to keep the city safe, and to do like, business and stuff!” Satheri’s voice was getting squeaky, like it always did when she got flustered.
“It’s okay, Satheri,” Quinn said. “We’re not mad at everyone in Hlaalu. I’m sure someone just made a mistake, and the company will fix it soon.”
The last thing she wanted was for them to start fighting! Jeval was right though—this was totally Hlaalu’s fault.
“This way!” Jeval said, pointing left at a side-street up ahead. He ran ahead, and then skidded to a stop. “Oh crap!”
Quinn lifted the hem of her dress and jogged over to him. What seemed like half the city fought in the street in front of Jeval's house! Guards beat protestors with clubs, protestors threw rocks, and it kept getting worse.
“Quinn, can you see anyone in my house?" Jeval asked. "Dammit, I need to know they’re okay!”
“I’m trying, Jeval! But I can’t see through all this dust and stuff.”
One of the guards stumbled out of the fight.
“Oh man,” he wheezed. He leaned against a shuttered flower shop. “This is intense.”
“Excuse me,” Quinn said, going over to him, “but do you know if the people in that house are okay?” She pointed to Jeval’s place.
The guard took off his helmet. Quinn was sure she’d seen him before. He was a big Dunmer guy with messy black hair, kind of cute but not that cute.
“Uh… I’m pretty sure they left,” he said.
“Do you know where they went?”
“Yeah! They’re being escorted to High Town! I think. Or wait, was it Labor Town? Someplace with ‘town’ in its name.”
Okay, well High Town had big walls and towers and stuff, so that’s probably where they went. “Thanks!”
“No prob! You should probably get out of here though.”
Quinn hurried back to the rest of the Fashion Club. “The guard said that people are being evacuated to High Town! Jeval, he said your family is probably on the way there already.”
He nodded. “Good. Let's go.”
“I bet everyone in our families will be there,” Quinn said. Actually, she wasn't so sure about that—but she needed to keep the club safe and keep it together. “Let’s go! They’ll have snacks and stuff for us, too. Healthy snacks!”
Quinn straightened up. She had to look her absolute best if she wanted them to believe in her.
“Be with me, Talos Stormborn,” she said to herself, “and someday, I’ll give the Empire the Fashion Guild it needs!”
Daria stood on the roof of J’dash’s house as ribbons of black smoke rose from the streets of the Commercial District. Adobe didn’t burn easily, of course, but the contents of the homes and the stands in the street certainly did. The smoke joined the swirling ash and grit, coagulating into a noxious haze above the tightly packed city.
Watching it felt like watching the end of the world.
Jane and J’dash were catching up in the shop below, the old Khajiit glad to see his former tenant. He’d looked older than Daria remembered, his movements slower and somehow more painful. Daria had excused herself after the required niceties, wanting to keep an eye on things.
And things kept getting worse, so far as she could tell. She turned her gaze north, to where her family lived. No smoke there, not yet anyway.
Labor Town seemed almost normal. Porters and scrib jerky sellers carried on as usual. She supposed they couldn’t afford to take a day off.
She felt safe, at least. Maybe because the little square of adobe she stood on, and the squat apartment perched upon it, had been the place for so many of her best memories from the past few years. Here, she and Jane had blocked out the world and created their own, one of shared references and sharp wit, refined and pure.
Part of her still wished that Jane hadn’t moved.
A familiar black-clad figure stepped into view on the street, her pallid face smudged and her shapeless dress tattered at the edges. It was Andra: Thieves Guild member and Reachman—or Reachwoman if gendered demonyms applied. If anyone knew what might be going on in Balmora, it’d be her.
“Andra?” Daria called out.
Andra looked up, using her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Oh, I remember you. Good to see you’re breathing.”
“For the time being, anyway. Uh, I just got back into Balmora after being gone for a month.”
“You picked a weird time to come back.”
“Yeah. Could you fill me in on what’s going on and what might happen? Or do I need to do another favor for you first?”
Andra smiled. “Nah, stuff related to the protest is public info. But come down from the roof—I don’t think I need to explain why I don’t like shouting out my conversations.”
Daria nodded, and hurried down the staircase to reach street level. A bearded Nord hovered near Andra, his brown cloak not quite hiding the sheathed sword on his belt.
“Don’t worry, he’s one of ours,” Andra said. “You’re here on your own?”
“Jane’s inside. She’s back visiting.”
Andra nodded. “Got it. So what do you want to know?”
“How bad do you think this will get?”
Andra shrugged. “Me? If it can get worse, it probably will. The guild's playing it cool. Some of us know what it’s like to be poor, so we get why people are protesting—but guild business comes first.”
“Business in this case being…?”
“Making sure our people and our bases of operations stay safe. We’re not worried about the protestors going after us, though. What worries us is that we’ve seen a lot of known Camonna Tong associates at the smaller protests. They’re always riling people up.”
Daria sighed. It did get worse. “What did the guild do to stop them?”
“Apparently, not enough. A lot of poor outlanders and Dunmer are working together to get rid of this tax, and that’s the last thing the CT wants. So, if the protest goes violent, that means the CT can blame it on outlanders, and the Hlaalu will be happy to buy that story. Easier to blame outlanders than to stop squeezing poor people, I guess.”
“I take you don’t have much faith that the guards will manage it well?” Daria said.
She scoffed. “Come on. You’ve seen what losers they are. We know for a fact there are CT members and sympathizers in the Hlaalu guards.”
“So, the Balmora riot’s another murky, intrigue-ridden mess caused and worsened by major economic, political, and sociological factors. I have come home.”
“Heh, see? Just another day. Anyway, me and Nils here better get back to patrol.”
“Wait,” Daria said, “how far do you think the violence will spread?”
“What, scared your nice little middle-class home will be next?”
“Given that it’s my home, I do have a certain vested interest in it.”
“If the guards know what they’re doing, they’ll keep it at the southern Commercial District. But you already know how good these guards are…”
Andra and Nils left, leaving Daria alone in the street. Maybe, she thought, it’d be wise to head home and check on her family. With any luck, her parents would be distracted enough with the chaos of the protest that they wouldn’t come down on her too hard. Since the violence was already there, she might as well leverage it.
She wondered how Quinn would react. Probably give her an earful about not marrying into Vvardenfell's richest family.
Except Quinn wasn’t home. She was at Drenlyn Academy, in the middle of the southern Commercial District, where the fighting was thickest.
"Oh, no," she uttered.
How could she have been so careless? She’d blithely walked past the danger, so focused on her parents she’d forgotten about her sister. Her heart pounded, and she pressed her fingers to her temples, trying to think, trying to focus. She ought to have gone straight to Drenlyn the moment she saw trouble.
Panicking solved nothing. Not that this kept her from panicking, not entirely. Fear roiled under her skin, a scream locked in bone and muscle. But she had to control herself. Quinn needed Daria—calm, analytical, and cool-headed.
First thing first: tell Jane.
Daria opened the junk shop door and strode inside, where Jane chatted with J’dash over a cup of tea.
“… Trent’s doing a little better,” Jane said. “He’s mostly playing in Vivec—might be a while before he travels again, but he says he’ll do it when he’s ready.”
“Jane? I need to go,” Daria said.
Jane looked up from her tea. “Go where? You want front row seats to the riot?”
“A riot happening right around Drenlyn Academy. Where Quinn is.”
Jane’s eyes went wide. “Oh gods! I completely forgot that she’d be there today! I’m so sorry—”
“We both lost track of time. But I need to make sure she’s okay.”
“Sure, but you don’t think I’d let you go there alone, do you?”
“This isn’t your fight, Jane.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. J’dash, do you still have that club?”
The Khajiit nodded. “J’dash does. But Jane should be careful. Jane should not seek a fight.”
“I won’t, I promise. I just need a little insurance in case a fight comes looking for me.”
J’dash stood up and hobbled over to his counter. Bending down with painstaking slowness, he reached inside and took out a club that he carried, with both hands, over to Jane.
“It gives J’dash great shame to let Jane go alone. But Khajiit has stiff joints, and can no longer strike with sure swiftness.”
“It’s okay, J’dash,” Jane said. “You’ve spent years looking out for me. I can look out for myself.”
Then she turned to Daria. “Let’s make sure Quinn’s okay.”
Thank the Divines for Jane, Daria thought, as the two of them walked back to the Foreigners’ Span. Daria had been in dangerous situations before, and the one hard truth she’d learned is that survival often came down, at least partially, to luck. What might have happened to her if Johanna had cast the wrong spell when dueling her rival? Or if Dimartani hadn’t been quite fast enough to help her with the cliff racers?
Jane didn’t know much about fighting, but it never hurt to have a friend. Her breezy confidence lightened the load—here was Jane, smart and quick and a survivor. But that was only the image. The real Jane was more complicated. Still, sometimes, an image was sufficient.
Daria needed that projection of quiet certainty because of all the fears eating away at her brain that very moment. Quinn reigned supreme within a very specific social scene, one supported by the vast infrastructure of laws, customs, materiel, and personnel stretching across Tamriel. Take that away and she was a kid, vulnerable and oh-so-easy to hurt.
She couldn’t let that happen. If something did happen to Quinn, that was it—Daria really would have to seclude herself in some monastery to Stendarr because that’s where she would belong. For all time.
They reached the Odai, its waters dark and murky before the wall of smoke in the Commercial District. Overturned carts and broken crates littered the riverbank on the other side. She didn’t see any fighting, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still going on.
“Hey, Daria,” Jane said. “Isn’t that Treads-on-Ferns and Jeval on the bridge?”
Sure enough, the two were hurrying across to Labor Town. They might have the answers she needed.
She prayed those answers were the ones she wanted to hear.
Daria ran to meet them. No surprise that Jeval abandoned Quinn right when things got bad—her suitors had always been trash. She’d expected more from Treads, though. Another example of Quinn’s terrible judgment, and by all the Divines, Daria hoped that judgment hadn’t taken too great a toll.
“Where’s my sister?” Daria demanded.
The two of them slowed to a stop, disbelief on Jeval’s face and an expression Daria didn’t know how to read on Treads’s.
“Daria? When did you—” Jeval started.
“I’m asking the questions! Is she still at Drenlyn? Is Drenlyn being attacked?”
“I don’t know,” Treads said, her nostrils flaring. “We got separated from her. She’s not at Drenlyn, though.”
“Why not?” Daria asked.
“Because Lli closed the gates the moment things turned messy. She’s spent the last month hiring security goons for this kind of thing, and now she’s gone wild. Not even Satheri could get inside, which kind of surprised me.”
“Some guard guy told us that everyone’s being evacuated to High Town,” Jeval said. “Quinn was gonna take us there, but me and Treads got separated from the rest.”
Or maybe they’d run off. Daria wasn’t sure she believed that High Town’s residents would share their space so willingly, either. “Then why are you going to Labor Town?”
Treads’s pushed her head forward, scaly lips peeling back to reveal sharp white teeth. “Because the Commercial District is a mess right now! Who the hell are you to interrogate us like this?”
“Seriously!” Jeval said. “Look, Daria, we tried to stay with Quinn. But it’s crazy over there. We were going to regroup here and get to St. Roris Bridge. That way we can cross close to High Town and meet her there or something.”
Daria stood for a moment in the hot sun, taking this all in.
“Sorry,” Daria said. “Sometimes my older sister instinct rears up. I, uh, shouldn’t have assumed the worst.”
Treads nodded. “I get that. I have a little brother. My family lives here in Labor Town, but none of them are home. My dad’s working at the fort today, and my mom took my brother to work with her over in the Commercial District. So yeah, I’m hoping they’re also in High Town.”
“Quinn’s not alone. She’s with Satheri and Tiphannia,” Jeval explained.
“That does not make me feel better,” Daria said.
Jane finally stepped in. “It looks like we’re all headed to the same place. Maybe a team-up’s in order?”
“Cool, strength in numbers,” Jeval agreed. “Should be a straight shot north from here.”
Daria looked up along the river. This side of the Odai stood quiet. But a new pillar of smoke oozed into the sky above the northern Commercial District. The violence had spread.
“It’s a straight shot for now,” Daria said. “We’d better take it while we can.”
“Are we really… gonna go… to High Town… like this? We’re all… grimy… and stuff…”
“Yes, we are,” Quinn said, “but so’s everyone else! And we’ll still look better because of our strong fashion sense.”
Quinn said it to make everyone feel better, but was that really what worried Tiphannia? This whole day had been a nightmare!
Quinn was sure she’d seen a dead guy in one of the streets, facedown in a pool of blood. She’d pretended not to see it, and when they passed by the body she talked extra loud about why veils were a great way to hide acne breakouts (not that that ever happened to her) so Satheri and Tiphannia didn’t get scared.
But who was going to keep Quinn from getting scared? She’d seen dead people before, like at funerals and stuff. Never anyone who’d been killed, though.
Maybe that guy hadn’t been dead. He’d just been hurt or something. And she wanted that to be true, because she didn’t know where Jeval and Treads were, and she had to believe they were okay.
They’d been right next to her, too. Then they'd all stumbled into this big fight with stones flying, and had to run for cover. Once it cleared, Treads and Jeval were gone.
“What are we going to do?” Satheri had asked.
Quinn wanted to shriek at the top of her lungs. Get mom or dad or Daria to fix it. But they weren’t around. She only had Tiphannia and Satheri, the poor girls scared out of their wits.
“Guys, Treads and Jeval are both really smart. And you know Jeval’s a tough fighter after that arena thing. I’m sure they’ll be in High Town.”
“Oh gosh, I hope so,” Satheri said, grabbing at the fabric of her dress and looking down at her feet.
“Uh uh, Satheri! Don’t pull at the fabric! You’ll wrinkle it,” Quinn warned. Better Satheri worry about that then all the terrible things happening around them. “Hey, let’s see if we can beat them there.”
Make a game of it. The way dad used to when he took her and Daria out to the hills around Stirk to teach them about swords and stuff. That way, it wouldn’t be so scary for her friends, and maybe she could pretend, too. Pretend not to notice the way the streets got all empty as if the whole city had run away.
Run away to High Town, she corrected. Where everyone would be hanging out and stuff, and there’d be handsome rich guys who’d totally be all over her and wishing they’d been there to protect her.
Quinn thought about checking her home, but decided to keep going. All the bad stuff was happening in the south part of town and she wanted to get as far away as possible. And the nerve of Magistrate Lli! Ooh, mom would have a few words with her, that was for sure.
“We’re almost there!” Satheri said.
One of the big stairways leading up to High Town was right ahead. “Okay, girls! Last-minute checkups—Tiphannia you got this little strand of hair sticking out on your left. Satheri, smooth out your dress.”
“You’re amazing, Muthsera Morgendorffer!” Satheri said, smoothing out her dress as instructed.
Two guards waited at the base of the stairway, the first she’d seen in a while. She guessed most were busy with the protest, or whatever.
“Hi!” she said. “I’m Quinn Morgendorffer, and my friends here are Tiphannia Blumius and Satheri Roweni.”
Always let them know the family names. Especially Satheri’s family since the Rowenis were loaded.
“Anyway, our families are up in High Town, and we’re here to meet them. You guys are doing a great job, by the way—”
“Sorry,” one of the guards said. “We can’t let anyone in.”
Satheri squeaked in terror. Ugh, why did this guy have to be a jerk?
Quinn smiled and fluttered her eyelashes. “Oh, there must have been some kind of misunderstanding. My mom’s a big lawyer, and Satheri’s dad—”
“Nope. Orders from above. The evacuation window already closed.”
Closed? Closed? Quinn clenched her teeth behind her smile. “But it’s dangerous! You wouldn’t leave a bunch of innocent girls out here, would you? Did you like, not hear me when I said my friend here is from the Roweni family?”
The second guard said something to the first one in a low voice. The first one nodded. “Okay, Satheri can come in. She’s Dunmer.”
Satheri gasped. “But my friends have to go in, too!”
“Outlanders are the ones causing the trouble. We’d be stupid to let more of them inside.”
Satheri’s lips trembled like she was going to cry. “Muthsera Morgendorffer… what do I do?”
Quinn looked to Satheri and then to Tiphannia. Okay, she was the steward, so the club had to come first. Satheri should go ahead. But they’d done so much to get here! All that and these stupid guards wouldn’t let them in? What was wrong with this town?
“It’s okay, Satheri,” Quinn said, and she had to make herself stay calm because she wanted to scream at the guards. How was this fair? But she couldn’t force Satheri to stay. The poor girl scared so easily. Tiphannia did too… but it usually took way longer for the scare to register.
Now, Satheri was full-on ugly crying. “Are you sure? You can tell me to stay with you, and I will. But I’m so scared…”
“No, don’t be!” Quinn hugged her friend. An idea came to her. “Maybe you can get up there and tell—”
“No!” Satheri shouted. She pulled away and then fell to her knees, grabbing the sides of her head like she was going to go into a fit. “I can’t do this! I can’t let you keep being so nice to me when I’ve been so horrible to you.”
“I’m so sorry, Muthsera Morgendorffer! I burned the heathers but I didn’t know what it meant, I swear I didn’t! It was Synda, she made me and I thought they were just a bunch of flowers because they are, like really pretty flowers! But she said you’d hate me if you ever found out, so she kept making me do things or else she’d tell you and then I’d be all alone…”
What was Satheri talking about? Something about heathers and Synda and burning? Quinn watched as Satheri went on and on.
“I never meant to hurt you, Quinn, and you know I love outlanders and don’t think they’re bad, I didn’t know what the heathers meant! I swear to ALMSIVI that I didn’t!”
“Satheri! It’s okay. Whatever you did, it’s okay.” Quinn knelt down next to Satheri and put her hands on her shoulders. “You’re part of the Fashion Club, okay? And Synda’s a jerk and no one likes her anymore. So that’s all like ancient history and stuff.”
Satheri gasped. “You mean it? It’s okay?”
“Of course!” Quinn didn’t really know what she was forgiving Satheri for, but it seemed to help.
“Then I’m staying!” She spun around to face the guards. “I won’t abandon Quinn! She’s my muthsera and always will be! You can take High Town and shove it!”
“Then go burn with the other outlanders,” the guard said.
Satheri jumped up and down, yelling like she was five years old, and it was kind of creepy.
“Okay, okay,” Quinn said, loud enough to get Satheri to stop. “Let’s go to my house. We can hang out there until things go back to normal.”
“So… we aren’t… going… to High Town?” Tiphannia asked.
Quinn sighed. “Not yet. Come on, my place. We’ll talk fashion and stuff.”
She hoped that’s all they’d have to do. Because if things got bad, she didn't think the guards would help.
Helen Morgendorffer stood in one of the tents set up in the plaza in front of the Hlaalu Council Manor, roasting in the hot air, scared to death for her daughters, and baffled as to what the hell was going on.
A good number of her peers and neighbors milled around in the square, or found shelter in the stifling pavilions. The guards had practically yanked her and Jake out of their home, citing some kind of riot. She’d thought it an overreaction until she saw the grisly pall of smoke over the southern Commercial District.
Right where Quinn was.
“Oh, Talos,” she whispered. “Watch over my daughters, and I swear I’ll actually be genuine when I thank you in the future!”
She again looked through the crowd for any sign of Quinn or one of her close friends. A few of Quinn’s Drenlyn classmates were there—Jolda, Briltasi, one of those boys always after her attention—but none of them had seen her.
Maybe Daria was better off with the Sloans. Somehow, that made Helen feel worse.
“Jake—” she started.
Her husband was drinking from a waterskin. “Trying to stay hydrated, Helen! A Nord like me can’t think in all this heat!”
He flinched and dropped the waterskin.
“Have you done anything to find our daughter?” she demanded.
“I’ve been looking, Helen! But I don’t think she’s here.”
Helen walked to the nearest guard, whose face was hidden behind the slit-like visor of his helmet. She hated the way the bonemold armor looked—talking to guards always made her feel like she was talking to some Daedric abomination.
“Excuse me, but are the guards evacuating any more people? No one’s arrived since we have, and there’s plenty of room for more in these tents you’ve set up.”
“The evacuation’s still going on so far as I know, ma’am.”
“So why hasn’t anyone else arrived?” Helen pressed. “Don’t you think that’s a bit peculiar?”
“I’m sure they’re doing the best they can, but the city is in chaos.”
Somehow, his calm infuriated her. “My daughter’s somewhere in that city! You can’t expect me to stay here and wait while she’s in danger!”
“Ma’am, I assure you we’re doing everything possible.”
“What if I go back out into the city?” Jake said. “I used to be in the Fighters Guild, I can take care of myself. Kept my sword arm in shape…”
“We’re not letting anyone out,” the guard said, frustration edging into his voice. “Great House Hlaalu is letting you wait here at their sufferance, and you ought to be more grateful.”
“Grateful!” Jake exclaimed, drawing his arm back.
Helen grabbed him in the nick of time and pulled him away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m trying to find Quinn! I’m scared, Helen. We came all the way here to Morrowind and it all went wrong! We already lost Daria and now we might lose Quinn, too! What kind of father am I?”
His face collapsed. He did want to help, he always did—but sometimes, you couldn’t solve things simply, the way he wanted to. So she reached out and hugged him.
“It’s all right, Jake. Quinn’s a smart girl. She’ll know to come here, guard or no guard.”
She hoped. By all the Divines, she hoped.
Thank the gods that the house was okay!
Quinn fell right into the chair at her mother’s desk. All she wanted was a nice hot bath. Maybe with a manicure, too, and one of those deep scalp cleansings with those alchemical hydrations that made hair more lustrous.
In fact, she’d have been fine with just a plain old bath.
“Thank you so much, Quinn,” Satheri said. “You’re such a good friend.”
“Sure,” Quinn said. She’d gotten the Fashion Club to safety—60% of it, anyway. Oh, where were Jeval and Treads? She had officially made the Morgendorffer house the unofficial Fashion Club HQ, so hopefully they remembered that and came.
She should have guided them, though.
“My hair… is so… messy…” Tiphannia droned.
“Well, now you can fix it,” Quinn said.
Looking around at the office, she realized mom and dad must not have had any time to pack. The place looked the way it had that morning, stuffed full of big smelly books, scrolls, and inkwells. All of mom’s cases, arguments, notes—the way she earned money—just lying around.
Not to mention all the other important stuff in the house. Like her dresses! Oh gods, her dresses! If the fighting spread here, they could lose everything.
Quinn stood up and jogged upstairs, out onto the balcony. The balcony faced west, so she stood at the edge and stuck her head out past mom and dad’s room to look south. Still a lot of smoke back around Drenlyn, but it didn’t seem any nearer.
Except she smelled it, like it was right next to her. Maybe from the wind. It was blowing harder now, dust and ash and embers swirling around and getting everywhere.
One of the embers drifted to her feet, red and smoldering.
Dad always said the neat thing about adobe is that it didn’t catch fire, so they didn’t have to worry about that. Then mom said that they did have to worry, because there was a lot of flammable stuff inside the house, and an adobe house could collapse if a fire got hot enough.
Where was the smoke coming from? She found out a moment later when she saw the icky black smoke worming its way out from a window a few houses down.
But how? There wasn’t anything going on here! Except she did hear some chants in the distance. Another angry mob? Or, maybe, since mom and dad hadn’t had time to gather their things, the people in that house had been taken away while they were cooking something, and the fire they’d made for tea or whatever had gotten out of control.
What was she supposed to do? High Town was closed. Moonmoth Legion Fort was too far away. Maybe they could go to the temple, but that was more of a Dunmer place.
No, she decided. Her house was safe for right now. But it might not stay that way. If danger came, she had to be ready.
Quinn walked back down to the office, where Tiphannia looked into her little brass mirror and brushed her hair, and Satheri just stood around.
“Hey,” Quinn said, “so things are okay right now, but I don’t know for how long. There’s like a bunch of fires and the wind’s carrying embers and stuff.”
“Oh no! You don’t think it’ll spread here, do you?” Satheri put her hands on her cheeks like she was about to panic.
“I’m sure it won’t!” Quinn said. “But in case it does, could you guys help me get a few things? And then we can check on your houses, since you both live close by.”
“This dry air… is messing up… my hair…” Tiphannia said, looking at the mirror.
Quinn was starting to wish she’d gotten separated from Tiphannia and Satheri instead of Jeval and Treads. But no—Jeval and Treads could take care of themselves. Better for her to be where she was.
“Anything you want, Muthsera Morgendorffer! We can help you pick which dresses you take with you!"
Satheri was so sweet, though. Quinn brightened up, already figuring out which ones she needed most. Ugh, she needed all of them—but now she had to make a choice. Maybe she should get something of mom’s, too? Looking good mattered to lawyers.
Mom’s papers! If mom lost those, the family really would be in trouble. But what about the dresses? What was she supposed to do? As head of the Fashion Club—soon-to-be Fashion Guild, if they survived this, and worked hard and all that—she had to look her best.
But it’d be way worse if mom couldn’t work.
“Actually,” Quinn said, almost not believing what she was about to say, “don’t worry about the dresses.”
Even Tiphannia gasped at that one.
“Help me gather up all these papers. My mom needs them.”
“But… Quinn… you need to look, like… fashionable…”
“I know, Tiphannia! But I know how to look fashionable in anything, almost. If my mom loses her clients though, I’m really in big trouble. Tiphannia, get all the books on that top shelf. You can put them in a sack or something. Satheri, go through the papers in that small desk over there and take the ones that are stamped—look for a big red wax stamp. As for me, I’ll sort through the case files.”
As the Fashion Club got to work, the smell of smoke grew stronger.
(The story is too long to post in one entry, so please follow the link to the second half!)