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Chapter 5

Daria crossed St. Roris Bridge with Jane, Jeval, and Treads behind her, all the while trying not to think too far ahead. Plans tended to fall apart in disasters. Any move plotted three steps ahead would be out of step by the time she got that far.

If she got there.

So she forced herself to think smaller and take things one step a time. They’d returned to the Commercial District, her and her faithful crew (well, Jane—Jeval’s and Treads’s faith was in Quinn, misguided though that may be) returning to the spreading chaos.

For it had spread. Pillars of smoke rose all through the Commercial District, like black bars twisting around lofty High Town.

They’d reached the end of the bridge, with St. Roris Square straight ahead, and beyond that a stairway to High Town. A quartet of guards stood at the base of the stairs. Even if they let people like Daria through, what about Treads?

As she pondered, a dozen or so young Dunmer entered the square from one of the alleys, cheering and howling like students on break. Their clothes weren’t rich but weren’t ragged either, cared for and tailored to their bodies. Some carried sticks and lit torches, while others passed around clay bottles from which they took swigs.

“Hey, Daria? Remember what you told us about what Andra told you?” Jane asked.

The Dunmer up ahead certainly looked the part of Camonna Tong. “I was thinking the same thing.”

She might be overreacting. Maybe they were a bunch of dumb kids loving the tumult. Either way, they posed a danger to outlanders. Nor did Daria trust the guards.

“Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll go around St. Roris Square.”

“Good idea,” Treads said.

The four of them turned left and struck south past the rows of riverfront houses. Daria couldn’t tell if anyone was inside them or not, the windows shuttered to the outside world as the sky swirled with sullen reds and grays, like a nightmare version of Celegorn’s abstract paintings.

Daria stopped at a narrow passage that she knew led near her house. She wondered if mom had been given the time to take her work with her. Leaving all that in an empty house struck her as dangerous on a day like this.

“Would it be all right if we stopped by at my place? It’s this way,” she said, pointing down the alley.

“Shouldn’t we get to Quinn first?” Jeval asked.

“It won’t take long,” Daria said. “Besides, if Quinn couldn't get to High Town, she probably went home."

“Makes sense,” Jane said.

Jeval grumbled his assent, and they entered the narrow space single-file.

A cloaked figure turned the corner at the other end and ran toward them. The runner wasn’t very big, the cloak almost comically oversized on the wearer’s small frame. A pursuer, a human woman in a guar-hide jerkin and with a knife in her hand, careened around the corner a half-second later.

Daria jumped to the side and pressed herself against the rough wall to make room. The runner brushed past Daria, only to lose footing and tumble, crashing to the ground with the tell-tale jingle of coins.

The pursuer wasted no time. In seconds, she pressed her knee on the runner’s back. Grabbing a fistful of hair through the hood, she put the knife’s edge against their throat. The pursuer chuckled. Then she looked up and saw the people around her. Her hard eyes turned calculating.

“This girl’s got bags of cash. But hey, I can share with you all,” she said. “I found her, so I get the biggest portion. But we can all walk away a bit richer.”

The girl beneath her groaned. Daria’s exhausted brain tried to think of a response. She was so close to finding her family, after all the fear and loneliness and frustration of the past few months, and now she had to deal with some random mugging?

“No way!” Jeval cried.

“Yeah, we’re not in the stick-up business,” Jane said.

The woman frowned, still with a firm grip on her victim’s hair. “I’m serious. She’s got bags of septims. Come on, no one’s going to know. Or I’ll take it all myself.”

Daria hesitated. She eyed the knife—the mugger wouldn’t have to do much to cut the girl’s throat. Disarmament had to be the first step.

“You know what? Go ahead and take it,” Daria said, using her most callous tone.

“Daria?” Jane sounded incredulous. “It’s—”

The mugger giggled. “What, you kidding me? No one turns down a score like this unless they’ve got something else going on.”

“Yes, that something else being a good standing in society, and not wanting to be accessories to your crime,” Daria said. She burned to do something, but that knife was one motion away from slicing the girl’s jugular. 

“Okay, you keep your nose clean. I get that.” The mugger whispered something into her victim’s ear, put the knife away and pressed the girl’s face down into the street. With that, she started working her over. Lifting the cloak revealed bulging bags of what Daria guessed were coins.

They could leave. None of them owed this random person anything, and no legal obligation bound them. But there remained the weight of her friends’ expectations. What was she supposed to do, though? This woman had a knife, and Daria didn’t know much about fighting.

Daria thought back to all the times she’d been helpless and saved by others. Johanna and Link in Sadrith Mora, Dimartani in Balmora and again in Ald’ruhn. Jane, who’d saved her from a life of isolation with a single friendly comment in that dark classroom almost two-and-a-half years ago.

“Oh hell,” Daria muttered.

She stepped forward as if moving past the scene, but as she did, she looked at her companions and raised three fingers on her right hand (to relay the idea of doing something on the count of three), and made a striking motion with her left.

Jane nodded as Daria counted down.

But Jeval struck on the count of two. He kicked and caught the mugger square in the ribs. Jane leaped into action and slammed her with the stick, while Treads grabbed the victim by the arms and pulled her away.

Well, it hadn’t gone quite according to plan, but they’d succeeded. The mugger lay against the wall, her eyes wide and in shock. She’d dropped her knife in the scuffle, and Jane had pinned it to the ground with a booted foot, leaning down to take it for herself.

“What’d you do that for? Hey, I found her first—”

“Give back whatever money you stole from her and get the hell out of here,” Daria said.

The mugger scowled. “Do you know how much I—”

“No. And I don’t care.”

Her eyes locked with Daria’s, and she pointed at her former victim. “Come on, this girl’s just some Dunmer. You and me, we’re Imperials. This is our Empire—”

“Given that none of the people with me are Imperials,” Daria said, “I’m inclined to suspect you didn’t really think this argument through.”

Jane smiled and tapped the tip of her club on the flagstones.

The realization of defeat settled in on the mugger’s face. She tossed the two bags of coins she’d taken on the ground before standing up, eyes darting between Daria and Jane. “Could I have my knife back?” she asked.

“Did you seriously expect that to work?” Daria replied.

The mugger shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

With that, she ran away. Daria watched her go, wanting to make sure she made good on her promise of leaving.

“Daria?” Jane’s voice came, with a warning tone. “Maybe you should take a look at who you rescued.”

Because nothing could ever be simple. “Yeah?” Daria said, turning around to see what her friend referred to.

The girl in the cloak was Synda. Tears streamed from her crimson eyes as she glared at Daria with undisguised hatred.

“How the hell do I keep accidentally saving you?” Daria said.

“Save me?” Synda choked out. “You’ve never saved me! At every step, you’ve destroyed me. You humiliated me by taking me to the temple, and you did it again by seducing Tomal.”

“If it makes you feel better,” Jane said, “Daria dumped Tomal.”

Daria kind of wished Jane hadn’t said that, but ignored it.

“Tomal doesn’t matter!” Synda shouted. “You don’t know how much my parents expected of me! Tomal was the only way I could save myself, and you took that away!”

Daria remembered the conversation she’d overheard—how Synda’s mother had been so willing to write Tomal off as a delusion while she consigned her only daughter to a lifetime of penance.

“I may know more than you think,” Daria said, trying to soften her tone. She couldn’t let Synda off the hook—she was vicious and dangerous. But she didn’t look like she could hurt anyone in that state.

“What is this, then?” Synda asked. “Another humiliation? Will you take me back to my parents? They really might kill me this time, you know. Is that what you want to see? I stole their money…”

“What are you trying to do with their money?” Daria asked.

Synda was silent for a moment. “I’m already filthy,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “There is no forgiveness in Morrowind. The ancestors see all my sins and failures. Even Almalexia is silent now. So, I am leaving. I stole some of my mother’s money, but only enough to get me away. She already hates me, and nothing I do can change that.”

Daria nodded. “From what I know of your parents, I wholeheartedly approve of you stealing from them.”

Synda made a bitter laugh. “You’re an Imperial. You people despise our ancient lineages. Know that the Grilvayns will survive—but I cannot be a part of them. Maybe I spent too much time with disobedient outlanders who put themselves above their own families. Your people’s corruption spreads ever farther. Perhaps it will one day devour this land like it’s devoured everything else.”

Daria sighed. “Synda, I don’t like you. You put my sister in danger, and you made me live in fear. Those aren’t things I can easily forgive or forget. But I didn’t save you because I wanted to humiliate you—”

“Yes, you did!” Synda retorted. “Even if you deny it. You did, because why wouldn’t you? You had me at your mercy! Only a fool would pass up a chance to break an enemy and you, Daria, are no fool.”

“I saved you because I have a vestigial sense of right and wrong that sometimes motivates me to be altruistic, often against my better judgment. Beyond that, I don’t care about you very much. My advice is: get going and seek your life elsewhere. You’re a terrible person. It’s not too late for you to become a decent one—but that’s something you have to do on your own.”

Synda stared at her for a long moment. Then, slowly, she gathered her things and stood up.

“I never want to see you again,” Synda whispered.

“The feeling’s mutual.”

With that, she turned around and walked toward the river.

“She’s going to be a pretty easy target with all that cash,” Jane said.

Daria shook her head. “We have too many of our own problems to worry about hers. Come on, let’s get to my place and then to High Town. We’ve spent too much time here.”

“Uh, can someone fill me in on what that was all about?” Jeval asked.

“Yeah, I feel like I missed a few parts to that story,” Treads said.

“You’ll learn to savor the mystery,” Daria replied.

Despite all the problems remaining, Daria felt a certain relief at ending the one that had gnawed at her heels almost since her arrival in Balmora. This relief lasted until she reached the street and saw the smoke and flames coming out from the windows of her home.

Chapter 6

It was one of those stupid embers!

Quinn had been super-careful, doing everything she could, but a stupid wind gust hit the stupid shutters and let in a stupid ember.

And now, mom’s office was on fire.

One part of it, anyway, the side desk where mom kept some of her old papers and where Satheri had been digging out the stamped ones. Satheri was crawling on her back away from the burning desk, clutching the papers to her chest with one arm and screaming her head off.

“Quinn… these books are… like… really heavy…” Tiphannia said.

Ugh, did Tiphannia not see the fire? Quinn seriously wondered if Tiphannia was under some kind of Daedric curse that slowed time for her. But this was one day that Tiphannia needed to be quick.

“Tiphannia, Satheri, get out of here!” Quinn yelled.

“What… about…”

“Just take the ones you have with you!”

“But your mom’s office!” Satheri cried. “Your house!”

“Look, I’m Fashion Club steward, and damned if I’m going to lose any more members today! Get the hell out!”

Tiphannia barreled out the door, holding only three of the six books she was supposed to have. Better than nothing. Right when Tiphannia stepped outside came another gust of wind that kicked a whole bunch of burning motes into the air, where they danced around like fireflies before drifting down on the big desk.

The one with all the important papers.

Quinn screamed and grabbed the stacks she’d collected, jerking them away as some of the stray sheets burst into flame.

“Quinn, I’ll help you!” Satheri called out.

Satheri pulled out a big rug from under the side desk and screamed at the top of her lungs as she used it to beat the flames on the main desk. But the fire just jumped to the rug, burning the fabric right to Satheri’s hands. She yelped and threw the flaming rug to one of the bookshelves, which also caught on fire.

“Ohmigosh! I’m so sorry muthsera! Please don’t kick me out of the Fashion Club!”

Quinn knew exactly what to do. “Satheri, don’t worry about it! Just grab those stamped papers you have, and get out with Tiphannia!”

“Yes, muthsera!” Satheri bent down to scoop up the stamped papers, getting… most of them. Then she ran out the door.

Quinn coughed, her vision blurry. All this stupid smoke! She grabbed the two stacks she’d collected and ran outside, where Tiphannia and Satheri waited.

“Muthsera, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just watch these papers, okay? I still need to get more.”

“No, don’t go—”

She had to. Mom still had case files in the bottom drawer.

Quinn stepped back into the seething hell that used to be her mother’s office. What looked like a dozen angry little fires burned in the smoky blackness. She lifted the hem of her dress and hopped over a little bonfire to get to the desk—good thing she’d worn wool that day!

Gods, it was so dark! She breathed in and bent over coughing, took another breath the moment she could, and then fell to her knees in a second fit. The air burned like an oven around her as she wheezed and drooled. Daria once said something about how, in fires, you should stay low since that way you didn’t inhale as much smoke, so she pressed herself to the ground, dizzy and feeling like someone had wrung out her lungs. Maybe she should go back. Mom had enough, right?

Which way was the desk? 

“Someone…” she broke into another coughing fit. “Help!”

She shouldn’t have gone back in. That’s when it struck her—this was how people died. They made one dumb move and everything they’d done, everything they were, none of it mattered.

Quinn realized she was doomed.

*********

 Satheri and Tiphannia stood wringing their hands in front of the burning Morgendorffer house, a mess of papers and books at their feet. Satheri screamed “Quinn!” over and over again, tears and snot running down her face.

“Where’s Quinn?” Daria demanded. “What happened?”

“Daria?” Satheri sniffed. “Quinn’s trying to get all your mom’s paperwork and stuff. I told her not to go back in, this is my fault, I should have stopped her—”

Jeval ran up to them. “Quinn’s in there?”

Satheri sobbed and nodded. Jeval jumped into the burning building without hesitation, shouting Quinn’s name.

“When did she go in?” Daria asked.

“Just… before…” Tiphannia shook her head. “Just before you came!” she finally spat out.

Daria turned to look, trying to find some sign of Jeval in the smoky darkness. She called for Quinn. No response.

No. No, no, no, no. She’d never understood Quinn. Never understood how with one word or gesture she’d win the loyalty of strangers while Daria’s best efforts foundered or won only censure. But it didn’t matter. Beneath all bitterness and resentment, one truth shone through: Quinn was her blood, her little sister so pure and naïve to the ways of the world.

Every blow taken, every insult suffered—had in some way been for Quinn. When Daria had stayed silent about Synda, it was not for fear of Camonna Tong blades entering her own flesh, but for Quinn.

Without Quinn, there was nothing. Daria’s intelligence, her knowledge… none of it would matter.

Precious seconds passed, and smoke poured out of the doorway.

“Oh gods. Mother Alma, if you hear me…” Satheri prayed.

“Daria!” Jane said. “What are you going to do?”

Daria took in a deep breath, tainted as it was with Red Mountain’s sulfurous exhalations.

“I know some magic,” Daria said. “So, I’m the one best-suited to help.”

Jane stared for a moment. Then she nodded.

A spell to resist smoke inhalation probably existed, but Daria didn’t know it. All she could do was enhance her meager physicality. She’d sharpened her skill in restorative magic, but her spells didn’t always work.

She had to try.

Daria called the magic into her muscles and sinews. Power surged in her limbs and along her back in response.

And fizzled out a moment later.

No time to ponder failure. She called again, focusing on the result: the power to lift, to push, to break. Daria Morgendorffer, whose spindly arms rivaled those of a strongman’s—her muscles operated on the same principles, after all, she just needed to convince them that they were, in fact strong.

The magic died.

Plumes of the blackest smoke oozed out from the windows. The heat of the burning fires singed Daria’s nostrils. Gods only knew how Quinn and Jeval fared. Her hands trembled.

Her mana was almost out. If only she’d practiced more…

“Screw it,” she said, the self-taught mantra encompassing the light of Aetherius and the connectedness of all things in Mundus. It fell into place with a grand chain reaction: the force of magic, trapped by thought into physical form, the sudden quickening in her veins and capillaries, paltry muscles made mighty by her will.

Thus enhanced, Daria ducked low and rushed inside. Darkness pressed down on her like a living thing as the very air burned her skin. Jeval lay by the door, face-down on the ground.

She’d save him if she could. But she had to find Quinn, first.

Each breath seared Daria’s throat, and the smoke flooded her lungs. She coughed until tears poured from her eyes, but she kept moving, searching for any sign of her sister.

She saw nothing and heard only the roar of flames. Blindly she advanced, extending her hands in desperate hope. Her fingertips touched soft fabric. She grabbed it and pulled. The weight within gave slightly.

This had to be Quinn.

Gritting her teeth, Daria put an arm under her prone sister and lifted. She grunted from the effort, sweat pouring down her face as she struggled to get a good grip, her legs wobbling under the weight of Quinn’s limp form.

But she had her sister.

Heaving and gasping, she staggered back to what she hoped was the door. One foot in front of the other, she told herself. Don’t think ahead, think of the now.

Daria glimpsed light and lunged forward.

She tumbled out into the blinding day, greeted by the gasps of onlookers. She dropped Quinn on the ground, and through her bleary vision saw the tell-tale rise and fall of her sister’s chest.

Now for Jeval.

Her mind reeling, no longer sure if the strength in her limbs came from magic or adrenaline, she went back in. Spotting Jeval right away, she grabbed him by the calves. Holding him as tightly as she could, she pulled him across the ground as flames consumed her home.

The magic sputtered. Her limbs drooped. Her knees slammed against the ground. The world spun. Hacking coughs drove her to the ground, her shaking hands still clutching at Jeval’s legs. No magic was left. No strength was left.

She’d saved Quinn.

Then, suddenly, hands grabbed at her, some fleshy, some scaly. She tightened her hold on Jeval and let them do the pulling.

Chapter 7

Daria awoke to the sensation of someone prodding her face. She raised her hand to ward it off as she opened her eyes, the bright sunlight as sharp as spears.

“Hey, you’re awake!” came Jane’s voice.

“Where’s Quinn?” Daria said, or tried to. All that came out was a hoarse, phlegmatic hack that ended in a sputtering wheeze.

“Quinn’s fine, and so’s Jeval. You’re a real hero.”

Daria’s vision finally returned to focus. She‘d been propped up against another building. The air reeked of smoke along with a new smell that reminded her of a recently doused campfire.

“Your house, unfortunately, isn’t in such great shape.”

“What happened?” Daria managed to croak.

“The Mages Guild came by not long after we pulled you out, and used some kind of magic to dump a small river's worth of water onto your house. Guess they’re doing that all over town, now. Seems like the protest’s mostly finished. Hlaalu wins again,” Jane said.

“Can I talk to Quinn?”

“Daria!”

Daria coughed as Quinn threw her arms around her. Quinn fell into a coughing fit of her own right after. Once done, they stared at each other’s sooty and exhausted faces and both breathed a sigh of relief.

“We were so worried!” Quinn said, hugging her, tighter this time.

“It’s been a weird few months,” Daria muttered.

She turned her head to check her surroundings. The front of the Morgendorffer house was a ruin. Wispy black smoke spirals still unspooled from the burned husk of the front office, though the rest didn’t seem too badly damaged. Jane had said the mages used water, but Daria saw no puddles or other signs of it. Too tired to try and figure that out, she turned her attention to the others. Jeval and Treads sat on the street, talking to each other, while Satheri and Tiphannia chatted with a girl Daria’s age, whose freckled and bespectacled face wore an expression of intense curiosity.

“Amelia?” Daria uttered.

Hearing her name, Amelia brightened up and hurried over. “Hey! Wow, I was not expecting to run into you today, but I’m relieved you’re okay.”

“I’m not sure my lungs would agree with the ‘okay’ part. What are you doing here?”

She giggled, and then her face turned serious. “The Balmora Mages Guild called in some of the other regional offices for support. I’m only here as an observer, but the senior mages were opening up conduits to Oblivion to get the water they needed for the fires. Most of the fires have been put out, I think.”

Daria nodded. That explained why the water had vanished—it had returned to Oblivion after the spell’s duration.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Hey, it’s part of the job. How have things been? I sent you a letter a month ago.”

“Sorry,” Daria said, coughing again. “I’ve been traveling.”

“That’s so cool! Where to?”

“Vivec,” Jane answered. “She’s got a taste of big city life. I’m Jane, by the way.”

“I’m Amelia! Me and Daria met in Caldera.”

The two shook hands, and Jane smiled. “Welcome to Balmora. We’ve got busy marketplaces, fine drinking establishments, and the occasional bout of civil unrest.”

“It does seem like an… interesting place!”

Tired again, Daria closed her eyes, Quinn’s arms still around her. “You know, Quinn,” she said, “it was kind of stupid to go back in for those papers.”

“I know,” Quinn admitted. “But I felt like I had to do something. All my life I’ve been going on like it’s all about me, and stuff, but managing the Fashion Club—Fashion Guild, someday—made me realize there’s a lot more. I didn’t want mom to be out of a job or disappointed.”

“Mom’s main goal is to make sure you survive to adulthood. Ruthlessly destroying her competition in a court of law is a distant second, though I wouldn’t advise asking her to admit that in public.”

“That’s how she feels about you too, Daria. She’ll be really glad you’re back.”

Hearing that made it seem so obvious that Daria wondered how she’d ever believed otherwise.

*********

“It was really brave what you did,” Treads-on-Ferns said.

Jeval felt okay. A little stupid, but otherwise okay. Somehow, his finely tuned Bosmer senses hadn’t been all that finely tuned after all, and he’d gotten turned around and then hit his head on something, so Daria had to drag him out.

Not exactly a heroic moment for him.

“Thanks,” he muttered.

“What made you rush in like that?”

Jeval shrugged. “I don’t know. I remember when I hung out with those bozo friends of mine, we’d all talk about being great heroes and stuff. So, I thought I’d go ahead and try. Dumb of me.”

“Maybe a little. Did you want to save Quinn?”

Jeval blushed. “Yeah. I mean…”

He looked over at Quinn, hugging her sister. She was way out of earshot.

“… I still kind of have a thing for her. Maybe I always will. But that’s not why I did it. I’m not trying to make her fall for me or anything. I’d have gone in after any of you.”

He looked at Treads-on-Ferns, the girl who knew his every secret, who’d listened to him all through the long and lonely months.

Especially you,” he added.

Treads made that hissing sound she made when she was happy about something. “I believe you. You were pretty quick to jump in and help Synda back in the alley, and you don’t even like her.”

“Must be wired that way.”

“The world needs more people wired like you,” Treads said. “But be more careful next time. I got pretty scared when you didn’t come out of that house.”

“Sorry. Hey, you know I’m not going to die on you that easy, right? We’re bros.”

“Wouldn’t I be more of a sister? Or sis?” Treads asked. “Since I’m in a female phase?”

That’s right, Jeval thought. Argonians could change without magic.

“If that’s what you want, sis,” he said.

“Sounds good for now, bro.”

*********

At least mom and dad were okay.

They came back to the Commercial District right when the last fires in the south stopped burning. Tons of smoke still clogged the early evening air, and each breath tasted awful, but it wouldn’t get any worse that day. Guards patrolled the streets along with some regular people who had weapons. Daria said they were militias, and most were mixed Dunmer and outlander, which made Quinn feel a little better.

Mom and dad lost it when they saw Daria and Quinn together, and there was lots of hugging and crying. Well, not on Daria’s part, but that’s just how she was. Quinn could totally tell she was glad to be back.

Not that they didn’t have problems. Quinn walked into the ruined office, where Mom stood next to the little shrine of Julianos she’d kept. She dusted off some of the soot and sighed.

“I can’t believe it all happened so quickly,” mom said.

“I know. But I saved a lot of your papers from the fire! And Satheri got them out of the way of the water.”

“Oh, Quinn!” Mom hugged her again, and Quinn lost herself in the warmth for a moment. “But you knew I had duplicates of the most important documents, didn’t you?”

“You what?” Quinn pushed away, staring at her mom. Had she done all that for nothing?

“Advocates have to be prepared for unforeseen events. I had Marianne copy the key documents and file them over at Moonmoth.”

“Oh no!” Quinn wailed. “So I didn’t—”

Mom cut her off with a hug. “Don’t you ever put yourself in danger like that!”

“I’m sorry,” Quinn sobbed. “I guess—I guess I wasn’t paying attention when you told us about copying them.”

Mom let Quinn go and looked around the devastation.

“How are we going to pay for all this?” Quinn asked, suddenly feeling very small. The day had been so crazy that she hadn’t had time to think about what happened next.

“Well, first, your efforts were by no means a waste. While I had copies of the old case rulings, I did not have copies of the notes for active cases—didn’t have time, you understand. So, you saving them means I can get right back to work, which we’ll need.”

“Oh! I did do the right thing!”

“I still don’t ever want you running into a fire again,” mom warned. “But you helped this family quite a lot. As for the house, the city authorities will send an inspector to assess the damage. The office is a total loss, but the rest of the house seems to be habitable. Lucky for us, it’s Hlaalu Council Company property, so we won’t have to foot the bill—though rent prices might go up to pay for reconstruction.”

That was something. “Where will we stay?”

“I talked to Satheri’s mother, and she said she’ll be happy to have us over until we figure things out. You’ll get to live with your best friend!”

“Yeah,” Quinn said.

Which meant Satheri could ask Quinn for her opinion of every little thing all day long!

“That’s, uh, great,” she made herself say.

“Come on, let’s join the others. There’s not much good we can do here right now.”

A cool breeze rushed through the street when they stepped out. Red Mountain had finally shut up for the time being. She followed mom to where Daria stood with dad and Jane.

“… I’m still working with other clients, Mr. Morgendorffer. Trust me, Serjo Olerlo’s only the first step, not the end-point,” Jane said.

“Now, that’s what I call a hustle!”

They turned to look at mom as she got close. Mom stood a little too straight and stiff, like she was scared but not willing to show it. 

“Daria,” mom said, her voice shaking a bit. “I want you to know that, no matter what happened over the past few months, you have a home here. You’ll always be my little girl, no matter what—”

“Don’t worry mom, I’m not pregnant.”

Mom put her hand on her chest and sighed. “Oh, thank heavens!”

“All things considered,” Daria said, “I’m doing reasonably well considering that I ditched an aristocrat boyfriend, hiked across the Ascadian Isles, and slept rough in Vivec.”

“She only slept rough for one night, though,” Jane added.

“Upon reflection, I’ve realized that a lot of the difficulties I’ve faced in the past few years, ranging from my reluctance to engage with the networking that undergirds every aspect of Tamrielic society to my occasional bouts of unpleasantness stem, in part, from me not being open with you about my life.”

“What do you mean?” dad asked.

Daria looked down at the ground like she wasn’t quite ready to say what was on her mind.

“Go ahead, dear,” mom said.

Daria sighed and looked her mom in the eyes. “Do you remember that time Synda tried to trick Quinn into going into the Council Club? That wasn’t the end of it…”

*********

Daria didn’t tell them everything. It just wasn’t her way. She stayed quiet about her side trips to Sadrith Mora and Ald’ruhn (though she did open up about her self-taught magic usage—that was the only way to explain how she'd saved Quinn). Mostly, she focused on what Synda had done to her and how that had colored every subsequent action.

It was rough going, at first. The words felt like stones in her mouth, and she had to force out each syllable. But it got easier as she told the tale, until gradually, almost imperceptibly, she couldn’t stop. So much had been locked away for so long, in a private and personal pain, that the mere act of telling, of confirming to her family that it had all been real, felt like a kind of absolution.

The hugs were unavoidable, she supposed. She still wasn’t that big on the whole physical contact thing—maybe she never would be. But it was no real hardship for her.

“Oh, Daria. Why didn’t you tell us?” mom asked, tears in her eyes.

“Yeah!” dad said, crying freely. “We would have kicked Synda’s ass for you!”

“I already explained. I didn’t want Synda to retaliate against you guys. Of course, I eventually learned it was all a bluff.”

“That was very courageous of you. But you didn’t need to take that all on yourself,” mom said.

“I think I’m starting to realize that. Maybe, what Morrowind taught me more than anything else, is that the world’s a cruel and ruthless place and that you don’t have a prayer of surviving if you’re not willing to work with people.”

Mom took a moment to respond. “Well, I’m not sure I’d phrase it quite so pessimistically.”

“But, with good friends and allies, you can make things suck slightly less. I’d have probably gone completely around the bend if it hadn’t been for Jane.”

She gestured to her Jane, who gave a little wave. “Happy to help!”

Daria smiled and kept talking. “It would have also been a lot easier if I’d been honest with the rest of you. Easier for you too, I imagine. I’ll try to do that going forward.”

“I’m so proud of you, Daria,” mom said. “And of you too, Quinn. You’ve both become such brave and capable young women.”

Daria looked at her sister. Little Quinn had led her band of friends through the worst unrest in Balmora’s history. It wasn’t something Daria could have imagined happening a few months ago.

Maybe there really would be a Fashion Guild someday.

Chapter 8

Wrapped tightly in her cloak, Synda Grilvayn walked up the ramp to the creaking, stinking wooden vessel that’d be her home for the next few weeks.

She leaned on the railing and looked at Vvardenfell for one last time. Her ship was docked at the port town of Seyda Neen, its peak-roofed and gabled houses perched fearfully at the edge of the Bitter Coast’s dismal swamps.

ALMSIVI alone knew what awaited her in the rest of Tamriel. But she had no future in Morrowind. The money she'd stolen had bought her passage to Solitude, in Skyrim. She shuddered to think of the place—probably some freezing hellhole where savage Nords bathed in blood and stuffed their craws with wasabi.

Whatever. She’d made her choice. Her family would not much miss what she stole, and would be glad to be rid of her. Synda could not do what a good Dunmer daughter would do, because she’d fallen too far to ever be considered a good daughter. But she’d at least removed herself and spared her parents any further shame.

A sinewy Nord woman who looked more like a troll (or what Synda imagined a troll to look like) than a human sauntered aboard, a big ax hanging from her belt.

“Where are you headed?” she bellowed, like she wanted the whole world to hear. The woman leaned on the railing next to Synda.

“West,” Synda said. “I’m going to keep going west until I reach a place where no one has ever heard about Great House Hlaalu.”

The woman snorted. “I don’t blame you one bit. Hlaalu! You’re a Dunmer and even you’re sick of those bastards.”

Synda said nothing. She studied the lonely docks and the monstrous trees. Exile or not, she was Dunmer. She’d never truly leave Morrowind.

No one ever really did.

*********

Officially, thirty-five people died in the event that would be known as the Balmora Tax Revolt: mostly protestors, some guards, and a few luckless bystanders. The authorities rounded up four of the supposed ringleaders. One, who had already had a long history of rabble-rousing and assault, they sent to the headsman’s block. The other three were initially slated for a similar fate, but at the last minute had their sentences commuted to prison terms of no more than twenty years. That commutation was the closest the people would get to the ruling class acknowledging how their own failures had contributed to the revolt.

Great House Hlaalu lifted the onerous taxes that had started the trouble. The move caught Balmora by surprise—deferring to rebellion risked a complete loss of legitimacy. Most suspected that the Empire had forced the issue, and likely repaid Great House Hlaalu in some other way.

It was almost enough to make Daria wish she were still with Tomal, as he’d doubtless have insight into the grubby political workings behind the deal.

As it was, on a gray and moody Sundas afternoon when rains crashed down onto the sooty streets, Daria put on her new green bug-shell hat and left the far-too-crowded Roweni house to go and see Jane before she left for Vivec.

The city was back to normal, almost. People walked around the rubble and ignored the scorch marks, pulled ever onward by the promises of new plans and better deals. That sour kwama smell suffused every inch of space, teaming up with the fresh scent of rain to wipe away the lingering smoke. The air hummed with non-stop chatter about prices and payments. Dark, dirty, and endlessly fascinating, Balmora lived on.

She ran into Jolda and Maiko walking along the Odai River, taking shelter under a big umbrella that Jolda carried.

“Daria!” Jolda called. “I heard you came back.”

“The Ascadian Isles were a little too provincial for my tastes,” Daria said.

Jolda laughed. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m sorry again that I couldn’t talk my dad into giving you a second chance.”

“It’s okay, Jolda,” Daria said. “I managed to get a new job at the Mages Guild, so I’m set for the time being.”

“Great. I’m sure you’ll do well.”

“Uh, how are you doing, Maiko?” Daria asked.

Daria had heard the stories. How one young legionnaire had rallied his comrades and defused some of the tensions without shedding blood.

“I’m okay. Captain Varro's real happy with my performance.”

“Thanks for showing restraint,” Daria said.

Maiko nodded. “It’s my job. I can tell you that the Empire didn’t like the way the Hlaalu handled this. There was no reason so many people had to die.”

“It sounds like you’re a big reason for the casualty rate not being higher,” Daria said.

Maiko shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know all of what happened. I just told my men to put up their shields and separate some of the people from the unrulier guards. It was pretty scary. My sergeant got hit with a rock. He’ll live, but they aren’t so sure he’ll be able to return to service.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Yeah. Wish I knew who threw that rock. Oh well.”

Daria bade them so long, and resumed her journey. Her hat didn’t block all of the rain, and her sleeves and hemline were soon soaked. But her head stayed dry as she walked through the familiar threshold of the Lucky Lockup.

She felt instantly at home in the constant influx of people from all around Tamriel, brought to Balmora for trade, for knowledge, for opportunity, and for a hundred other things. Already she saw some interesting faces: a broad-shouldered Orc woman in fine clothes and a chipped left tusk; a portly Nibenese man whose green silk coat looked ready to tear open from the weight of all the administrative medals and badges pinned to the fabric; a pensive Redguard in flowing white robes who drummed his fingers on the cover of a small black book as he watched his surroundings.

And, of course, Dunmer. Dunmer from all over Morrowind and beyond, perhaps not meeting as equals but at least as people with a vested interest in cooperation, however temporary.

Among that group was Jane, already sitting at a corner table with a bottle of Cyrodiilic brandy and two pewter cups.

“There you are!” she said, seeing Daria.

“Sorry if I’m a little late,” Daria said, as she took a seat across from Jane. “I keep getting turned around from waking up in the Roweni house.”

“Hm, is Satheri’s constant need for validation slowly driving you insane?”

“She mostly ignores me. My sister, on the other hand…”

Jane smirked, and then gestured to the bottle. “I remembered how we thought about getting brandy the first time you came to the Lucky Lockup, and how we didn’t have enough money. Since money’s no longer a problem, I figured I’d splurge a little bit.”

In truth, Daria would have preferred mazte or some other Morrowind drink. But she knew better than to complain—it was a kind gesture.

“Thank you,” Daria said.

Jane took the bottle by its neck and poured two cups, first for Daria, and then for her. “I can’t drink too much, though. My strider leaves in a few hours, and you do not want to be drunk on one of those swaying monstrosities.”

Daria raised her eyebrows. “Implying that you’ve been drunk on a silt strider before.”

“Let’s just say I wasn’t in the best mood when I first went to Vivec, and had a bit too much before I boarded.”

“Sorry,” Daria said, remembering the cruel things she’d said to Jane on the night of their big fight. “I guess that was my fault.”

“Hey, the important thing is: now I know. If anything, you did me a favor.”

Daria took a sip. The liquid burned her tongue, and the sweetness stayed a bit longer than she would’ve liked. It warmed her up, or rather, gave the impression of warmth.

“Hey, did you ever find out what happened with Lli and Drenlyn Academy?” Jane asked.

“It turns out that the authorities don’t approve of school magistrates who refuse to shelter the kids they’re supposed to protect.”

Jane raised an eyebrow. “What a surprise.”

“Anyway, Lli lost her job and from what I hear, isn’t even in Balmora anymore.”

“Nothing like some good news to warm my heart,” Jane said.

“Don’t get too excited,” Daria warned. “Now, Ondryn is in charge.”

“I guess I should’ve known better. You’re done with the place for good?”

Daria nodded. “There’s not any real reason for me to stay, and it wasn’t helping me network very much. Quinn’s still going to go there until the end of summer.”

“The Mages Guild job you got is probably more interesting, anyway.”

“I wish,” Daria said. “I’ll likely be doing a lot of the same rote tasks I did there as an intern, but Amelia says it’ll eventually get more interesting. She vouched for me, so I’m obliged to stay.”

Jane nodded. “What about that intern who gave you trouble? Hetheria, I think?”

“Turns out she left for Cyrodiil a year ago. The guild doesn’t know about my unlicensed magic, or my brief alliance with Johanna, so I should be fine as long as I keep my mouth shut.”

“Sounds like a good fit, to me. You’re smart, and a lot of smart people work there.”

Daria took another sip. “I’m not sure being smart is all it’s cracked up to be. I'm still a lot more interested in working in the Imperial Archeological Society.”

“Armand won’t give you a second chance?”

“No. The good news is that the IAS is a big organization, and there’s a lot of cross-pollination between it and the Mages Guild. If I play my cards right, I could still work there eventually. Armand’s word has weight, but he’s not in charge of the whole thing.”

“It’s a start,” Jane said, taking a drink. “Hey, you’re going to be visiting me down in Vivec, right?”

“Only if I can fit it in with my exciting lifestyle of rolling scrolls and researching things that have already been researched.”

Jane gave a mock sigh. “How quickly they forget us little people.”

“In seriousness, the Balmora guild relay is linked to the Vivec office,” Daria said. “Amelia tells me that you’re only supposed to use those for official business, but that they have a pretty liberal definition of ‘official’. If that fails, I could always use the silt strider.”

“Sounds to me like things are going well for us both. Suspiciously well.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a casual student of history, it’s that times of peace and prosperity are neither universal nor permanent.”

Jane blinked. “Come again?”

“Basically, things are going great, so we’d better enjoy it while we can.”

“I like that. A toast to the present?” Jane raised her cup.

“To the present,” Daria confirmed, and their pewter vessels clinked together.

Taking another sip, Daria looked around the bustling parlor, so full of life and thoughts from around the known world, and the best friend anyone could ever have across the table from her.

At this point in her life, she couldn’t ask for anything more.

The End

(This is the last regular episode, but there will be an epilogue detailing the futures of some characters over the next few hundred years.)

Episode 31: Bad Day in Balmora, Part 1 | Table of Contents | Episode 32: A c0da to Live By

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  • A nice close to the story. The portion with Synda was particularly poignant. I'm curious to see where some of the characters end up after a hundred years, lol, I don't think some will live that long. Silly humans. 

    • The epilogue won't go into every single character, but it will explore the futures of many.

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