Daria had finally decided it was time to tell someone about what Synda had done to her.
Specifically, to tell Jane.
She mulled over it again as she walked to Jane’s apartment on a cool Fredas afternoon. Spring hadn’t quite driven off the winter murk, but it was getting closer, the day damp but mostly clear with bright clouds scudding through the blue sky. Yet the oily black plume above Red Mountain’s jagged crown hinted at worse weather to come.
She’d wanted to tell Quinn. Except Quinn couldn't keep a secret to save her life. Her telling mom and dad would just make this spiral even more out of control.
Jane, on the other hand, wouldn’t tell anyone. That made her safe. Plus, Jane was largely beneath Synda’s notice. The Morgendorffers were not.
She reached J’dash’s junk shop. The elderly Khajiit sat outside, sunning himself as he whittled a piece of wood. Daria could just make out the leonine features taking form beneath the knife’s swiftly moving blade. Jane, as usual, worked on the balcony where she added the finishing touches to a portrait of middle-aged blond man whose face looked lost in its own beard.
“Hey!” Jane greeted.
“Hey. Do you need some more time to work?”
“Nah, this commission’s not due until the end of next week. So what did you want to talk about?”
Daria had arranged the meeting with Jane the previous day, and they’d decided they might as well make a night of it. A visit to the South Wall Cornerclub, where Trent would be playing, was just a bonus.
“First, let’s take this inside. I don’t want any stray ears to hear.”
“Ooh, this should be good. Follow me.”
Jane led Daria into the cluttered apartment interior. Strange how a place where Daria didn’t even have room to stretch out lengthwise proved so darn comfortable. Motes of dust danced in the single beam of sunlight shining through the window slot. Daria took a seat on the small wooden bench while Jane sat cross-legged on her lumpy mattress, eyes expectant.
Okay, you can do this, Daria told herself. She took a deep breath.
Jane pointed to a jug on the floor between them. “You, uh, want any booze? I have a little bit of shein from a few nights ago, but it’s probably stale.”
Daria shivered. Again the memory of pain, the blows on her back and head, the crack of her lenses.
“And I don’t recommend telling anyone about this, because that will most certainly escalate things,” Synda’s voice echoed.
She did this in Balmora, a Dunmer city despite all the outlanders, with the Camonna Tong lurking in every alley and every shadowed cornerclub, knives drawn and teeth bared, eager for foreign blood.
“Remember that time I got mugged? And lost my glasses?”
Jane nodded. “Yeah.”
“There was more to it than that.” Daria swallowed again. She grabbed the jug and took a draught, the once-bubbly liquid now flat and sickly-sweet. Whatever. Putting it down, she continued.
“The thugs who attacked me weren’t after my money. They’d been hired by…” she leaned in to whisper the name, “Synda Grilvayn. She apparently didn’t like my comments, and decided I had to learn a lesson.”
“Oh gods,” Jane uttered.
Sitting back up, Daria continued. “Now, she implied that the thugs who attacked me were with the Camonna Tong. I’ve avoided crossing her ever since. But with Quinn and Synda as the leaders of their respective fashion gangs, I’m starting to think I won't be able to keep doing that.”
She paused to breathe in and out for a bit, and realized she was shaking. “I… I can’t let Synda hurt my sister. If Synda really is part of the Camonna Tong, then it’s probably best for us Morgendorffers to pull up our roots and go to some other city. But I’m not so sure Synda was telling the truth. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Why would the Dunmer mafia take the risk of beating me up just to please some teenage brat? Criminals need a motive, and I don’t think Synda’s condescending praise counts as one. From what I hear, the Grilvayn family isn’t the type to associate with the CT, either.”
Jane gave a long, low whistle. “That’s a lot to take in. How are you dealing with all this?”
“I avoid narrow side streets, hide the occasional raging panic attack, and hold back from giving Synda the mockery she deserves. The last part’s the hardest, of course.”
Which wasn’t even remotely true, but it was nice to pretend.
“Have you told anyone else?”
Daria shook her head. “No. You, Synda, and I guess her hired help are the only ones who know.”
Jane rested her chin in her hands, brow furrowing in thought. “It does seem pretty weird that the Camonna Tong would attack you for Synda’s sake. But we did see her taking your sister into the Council Club that one time.”
“I know. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard for me to be sure. Do you have to be part of the tong to get into the Council Club?”
“No, but everyone knows it’s where they hang out. It's a bad idea to go in unless you’re one of them, or at least know people who are.”
“Damn.” She’d been hoping Jane would shoot down the theory. “What about the Grilvayns? Friends of the Camonna Tong? Or no?”
“No idea,” Jane said. “Humble menials like me don’t know what the rich and beautiful people get up to. Who told you they weren’t with the tong?”
“Quinn, who’d learned it from Satheri.”
Jane raised an eyebrow. “Why in the world would they be talking about that?”
Daria shifted in her seat. “Well, I may have told Quinn it wasn’t a good idea to mess with Synda, since we don’t know who Synda’s friends might be. I guess she took it up with Satheri at some point.”
“Hm. The great houses look out for their own. I’m not so sure Satheri would be honest with Quinn about that kind of thing.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. Satheri doesn't strike me as a Hlaalu insider, either. Even if she is honest, she might not know.”
Daria hunched over in her chair and took another swig from the jug. “So I’m back at square one. Doubtful that Synda was telling the truth, but with no way to confirm, and a confrontation looming in the near future.”
“And armed with only your sunny disposition.”
Daria smirked at that. Thank the Divines for Jane, she thought. “Maybe it’s time to tell my parents. They’ll give me hell for not saying anything earlier. But doing that probably entails moving away. As much as I absolutely hate to say this, I’ve grown to tolerate Balmora, which is the most praise I’ll ever give a city.”
“Ah, you’re an easy sell. But let me think.” Jane quaffed the jug and emptied it. “I do know one way you might be able to get more information. No guarantees, but it’s more than what we have.”
“And that is?”
Jane leaned up close until her eyes were inches from Daria’s own. “The Thieves Guild.”
Daria had read about the Thieves Guild before—the vast criminal organization that stretched across Tamriel, its footpads slipping into houses and reaching into purses to carry off whatever wealth they grabbed. Factual books on the subject were few and far between. More common to see the guild featured in adventure stories of varying levels of cheesiness, either as low-level villains or as heroic rebels. The guild existed—but that was the only certain thing about it.
She’d never expected to encounter the Thieves Guild in Balmora.
Jane stressed that she wasn’t a member. Only that she knew some people who were members and who might—emphasis on might—help. And that the best place to ask would be the Thieves Guild HQ at the South Wall Cornerclub.
“The Thieves Guild hasn’t been in Balmora very long,” Jane had said, as they prepared to leave. “They kind of protect poor outlanders from the Camonna Tong—though guild business always comes first.”
“I see. Who protects the middle-class outlanders?”
“Government, social norms, money. The tong’s not going to harass Imperial shopkeepers in the Commercial District ‘cause that’d make the Hlaalu look bad. But no one’s watching in Labor Town, so they’d get away with a lot more here if it weren’t for the Thieves Guild.”
They reached the cornerclub a little while after the sun set, the clear day giving way to smoky night as Red Mountain rumbled in the dark. Once more, Jane led Daria through the twisting and narrow entry passage. Some of Daria’s fear had transformed into excitement. Meetings with thieves in dark places—it felt like something from a novel.
The sour stink of sweat and old mazte hung thick in the air of the South Wall’s parlor, its patrons packed elbow to elbow on the rickety tables. Trent, joined by his sometimes bandmate Iesse, played a lute on stage, his lyrics lost in the crowd’s growling murmur.
“Okay, let’s get some drinks first,” Jane shouted. “Make it look like we’re just a couple of girls out for a fun night.”
“Not sure I can pull off that look,” Daria said. “Should I take off my glasses and raise my voice a few octaves?”
“Ditching the glasses might work. Then maybe you won’t see the dead rat at your feet.”
Daria looked down to where Jane pointed. Sure enough, a rat corpse lay between her boot heels. “Well, I guess the ambience is a selling point,” she remarked.
Jane laughed and headed to the bar, coming back with a pot of greef. Daria had brought a clean pewter mug from home in expectation of the South Wall’s filth, so Jane poured some drink into Daria’s mug and her own clay vessel before huddling in.
“Okay, I’m going to ask around,” she said, pausing to take a quick sip. “I have to keep things vague. Suss out what they know, what they’re willing to say, all that. The Thieves Guild protects people—but they do it for their own reasons and they don’t usually help strangers unless they also get something in return.”
“In other words, they’re surprisingly charitable by Morrowind standards.”
“They’re honest about being dishonest, which is more than I can say about the Hlaalu. But like I said earlier, I can’t make any promises.”
Daria nodded, the bitterness of disappointment settling into her chest. “It’s the only chance we have right now, so I guess I’ll take it.”
“All right.” Jane took another drink. “I’m going to ask around.”
Jane got up from the bench and slowly worked her way through the crowd. Trent’s voice broke above the roar for a moment.
“… and this weather kind of sucks!” he sang-shouted.
A Dunmer woman sat down in the space that Jane had just vacated, pulling at her dark hair and squeaking in frustration.
“Briltasi?” Daria asked.
The woman looked up. Her vacant crimson eyes and pigtails, the red hair dyed a splotchy black, left no doubt as to her identity.
Seeing Briltasi almost came as a relief. “Guilty as charged. But what are you doing here? And why did you dye your hair?”
“Uh…” Briltasi trailed off. “What are you doing here?”
“I asked first.”
Briltasi pouted. “I got into a fight with Kavvy! He said he could get any girl he wanted and that I was lucky to have him, but he’s lowborn and I’m taking a big risk when I see him because my dad will get really mad if he finds out, so I told him he was the lucky one, and it turned into this big thing! And then I met a really cute guy who wanted to meet here, but he turns out to be a total creep, and I don’t do that kind of thing on the first date!”
It took Daria a moment to tabulate all of that. “I see.” She glanced around the crowded room. “Are you okay?”
“I’m mad! Girls like me aren’t supposed to go here, you know. That’s why I borrowed my servant’s dress and put ink in my hair to dye it, but the ink’s just gross and sticky and gets everywhere!” Briltasi lowered her head. “Don’t tell Kavvy about this, okay?”
A loud bang echoed somewhere in the distance.
“My lips are sealed,” Daria said, trying to find the source of the noise. But she heard more: the sound of heavy footsteps running down the hall.
“Now what are—” Briltasi started.
“This is the law!” a shrill voice shouted.
Two goons in bonemold armor burst into the parlor, their bulbous helmets and carapaces making them look like monstrous insects in the bad light. Patrons leapt to their feet, all eyes turning on the intruders.
“… and your black heart’s gonna drain my soul!” Trent sang, eyes closed as his fingers strummed out a final chord on his lute.
Then he opened his eyes and looked at the scene. “Whoa,” he said.
“This is the law!” the guard shouted again.
“Daria!” The whisper came from below, and Daria looked down to see Briltasi hiding under the table. “They can’t find me, okay? My dad’s gonna flip out if he finds out I was here!”
Not quite sure what to do, Daria sipped her drink and watched.
“Everyone better listen to me!” the lead guard shouted. The high-pitched voice could only be Kavon’s.
“That’s Kavvy!” Briltasi whispered in chagrin. “Ooh, he better not be here trying to find me! Though that is kind of romantic…”
Was this a raid? She’d heard of guards sometimes breaking up skooma dens in the middle of the night, but South Wall’s clientele didn’t seem to include open narcotics use among their crimes.
More to the point, the crowd was agitated. And big. Rough hands gripped clubs and heavy clay bottles.
“Maybe you ought to turn around and walk out of here,” one of the patrons warned, an enormous Khajiit with pink scars crisscrossing his brown fur.
“No way! We’re, uh, looking for someone.”
“We don’t give people over to the law,” the Khajiit said.
Kavon stood his ground, his hand on his sword grip. His partner, perhaps a bit wiser (not that that was saying much) took a cautious step back.
“What’s going on?” Briltasi demanded.
Daria didn’t really believe that the Balmora Guard would send only two patrolmen to clear out a den of thieves. More likely, Kavon had dragooned some dumb friend of his into searching for Briltasi with him. Kavon wouldn’t be walking out of the South Wall under his own power if this turned ugly. But a confrontation with idiot guards probably wasn’t something the Thieves Guild wanted to deal with.
Daria took another hit from her drink, a big one this time, and stood up.
“Kavon, what are you doing here?”
All eyes swiveled to her, and she wondered what the hell she was doing.
“Oh, hey, Daria? What are you doing here?”
“I asked first.”
“Okay, well…” Kavon paused, looking at the furious crowd around him. “We’re looking for, uh, a noble! Named Serjo Briltasi Talori! We’re worried she’s like wandered off or something. Yeah.”
“I wasn’t aware that wandering off prompted an official search.” Daria crossed her arms.
“Sure, it does, if you’re noble.”
“Daria, you can’t tell him about me!” Briltasi urged from below, keeping her voice low. “But don’t let him get hurt, either! And ew, there’s a dead rat down here!”
Daria figured that the narrow view slit in Kavon’s helmet, along with the dim lights, made it all but impossible for him to spot Briltasi.
“I see. Think about it for a bit, Kavon. Serjo Talori is a proper young lady with exceedingly expensive tastes. With that in mind, why would she go here?”
Kavon turned to his partner and pointed at him. “’Cause someone said he saw her! Why would she go here, huh?”
“I don’t know, dude! She’s your—”
“But wait!” Kavon pointed to Daria. “I still need to know why you’re here. You’re kinda fancy too, you know, so this isn’t like where you hang out.”
“Yeah, but I’m an outlander. Outlanders are weird,” she said, drawing out the last word.
“Oh yeah! You guys are pretty weird, huh.”
“Look, Kavon: unless you’ve gotten a ransom notice or something, you probably shouldn’t be tearing into dangerous cornerclubs looking for someone who isn’t even missing.”
The spiny shoulder pads made it hard to tell, but Daria was pretty sure his shoulders slumped. “Yeah, I know.”
“My advice is to just to go back out and not worry about it. I’m sure Serjo Talori will turn up. It’s probably best to give her some time, though.”
“Huh. I guess you’re right. Okay, false alarm guys!” he shouted. “Keep partying for the Kavster!”
“Yeah!” the other guard bellowed.
Not seeing any reaction from the crowd, they looked to each other and hurried back into the hall, their footsteps echoing in the silence and ending with the sound of a door slamming shut.
Daria let out her breath as the crowd cheered.
“This chick’s pretty awesome!” someone called out.
“Don’t get used to it,” Daria said, her voice soon lost in a chorus of rough hurrahs. Briltasi climbed out from under the table, clapping and whistling.
“Oh, that was great, Daria! Thank you so much!” she exclaimed, grabbing Daria in a hug.
“Hey!” Daria tried to extricate herself from Briltasi’s enthusiastic embrace. “Look, Jane and I only came here—”
“Daria!” It was Jane. “And to think that beneath that cynical exterior you were a hero to the downtrodden all this time!”
“I’m not making a habit of it,” Daria said, finally freeing herself.
“You were really cool back there, Daria.” That time, it was Trent speaking, a smiling Iesse standing behind him. “Takes a lot of guts to stand up to the man like that.”
Grateful that the darkness hid her reddening face, she mumbled a thanks. Someone shoved a none-too-clean clay cup full of booze in front of her, telling her it was on the house.
“Look, Jane, I really don’t want this. Did you find anyone who can help?”
“I did, in fact. Andra says she might be able to do something.” Jane pointed to where a short woman with pale skin and ragged black hair stood in a shadowed corner.
“Guess that’s a start. Trent?”
“Could you and Iesse do me a favor and distract the crowd?”
“Think we got the song for that.” The two jogged back to the stage and started playing as loudly as possible.
Jane took Daria’s hand and guided her through the multitude to meet Andra.
Andra’s eyes, dark and suspicious, stared at Daria through loose strands of dirty black hair. A pendant made of tiny bird bones tied together in a jagged star hung from a twine necklace.
“Jane said you wanted information,” Andra said, her voice light and scratchy.
“I told Jane no. I don’t help people unless they help me. But then you talked those goons into leaving. Real fast, no fuss. That helps us out some. So we’ll return the favor. To a point.”
“Okay. I’m looking—” Daria started.
Andra shook her head. “Not here. I have an office outside.”
Daria was pretty sure that Trent’s caterwauling would foil any attempt to listen in, but knew it’d be best to follow Andra’s lead.
“Wait,” Daria said. “Would I be burning up any favors asking if you could escort my friend back to the Commercial District?” She pointed at Briltasi.
“I guess we can make that one a freebie. Hey, Borgburakh?” Andra called out to an enormous Orc woman sitting at a nearby table. “Could you take that girl home?”
“But I wanted to hear this set!” Borgburakh protested. “Mystik Spiral's my favorite band.”
“Wow, Trent has a fan!” Jane whispered to Daria.
“Just take her to the Commercial District,” Andra said. “The Spiral's playing all night, so you won’t miss much.”
Borgburakh made an annoyed grunt. “Fine!”
Daria quickly told Briltasi about the escort, earning another hug.
“You really know how to help a girl out, Daria!” she squeaked, by way of farewell.
With that done, Andra took a lantern and led Daria and Jane out the front door and into the night. Briltasi and her escort walked farther down the street, the Dunmer girl’s chatter echoing in the nearly deserted space. No stars shone in the blackened sky and the taste of ash fouled the hot air.
“Nice of you to help your friend,” Andra said.
“Labor Town at night is no place for a sweet uptown girl like her.”
Andra cackled. “It’s no place for you, either. Luckily, you got me. This way.”
She ambled up a reeking alley.
Daria hesitated. “Jane? Are you sure this woman is trustworthy?” she whispered.
“I think it’s okay, Daria,” Jane said, though her voice was taut. “She’s with the guild.”
“Guild or not, my survival instinct is telling me not to follow her.”
“You girls coming, or what?” Andra turned around and spread her arms.
Daria sighed. Answers awaited in that den of filth—answers that might not exist anywhere else. Dread, as thick as that night’s sooty air, had pressed down on her for a year and she was sick of it. Sick of flinching whenever Synda walked past in a swirl of dark fabric. Sick of being reduced to instigating riots to prevent a confrontation.
At the very least, she needed to learn if her fears were justified.
Daria plunged in. She stepped past piles of refuse, and puddles whose origins she feared to guess at, the stink of the place sharp as knives in her nostrils.
Well, she thought, you’re doing better than Quinn would in this situation. Though Quinn would probably have the sense to insist on meeting in a lighted area that didn’t smell of months-long neglect.
The glow of Andra’s lantern revealed a shapeless tent squatting at the end of the alley. Andra ducked inside. Hoping she wouldn’t regret this, Daria did the same, Jane right behind her.
Inside, the tent turned out to not be so bad. Strands of twine dangled from the sagging roof, holding tied bundles of dried flowers and herbs that gave the place a sweet aroma that almost, but not quite, drove off the outside stench. Neat rows of clay pots and books that might have been ledgers filled up one side of the tent, while Andra sat down on a comfortable-looking bedroll.
“Sorry for the mess outside. The stink keeps the unregistered footpads away.”
“Unregistered?” Daria asked.
“As in, footpads who aren’t with the guild. This is the Empire—no matter what job you have, you still need to be on the books. Especially if you’re a criminal.”
Daria nodded. “At least my faith in bureaucracy remains unchallenged.”
Jane studied a small rodent skull covered by spidery symbols drawn in charcoal. It looked religious somehow. Daria realized Andra might be a Reachman.
“So, what do you need to know?” Andra asked.
Daria took a moment to collect herself. How best to ask this? She supposed keeping it simple would be a good start.
“I’m trying to get some information on a Dunmer girl about my age named Synda Grilvayn,” Daria said. “Specifically, is she a member of, or associated with, the Camonna Tong?”
Now for the moment of truth. Daria tensed up, held her breath. If Synda really was with the tong, it meant more trouble ahead. The kind she and her family might not be able to recover from. They’d have to flee Balmora, give up all they’d worked for.
Daria would have to give up Jane.
“Huh,” Andra uttered. “That’s actually an interesting question.”
“Yes or no. Is Synda with the Camonna Tong?” Daria asked, more sharply than she’d intended.
“Well, a few months ago, I’d have said no. But now we’re not so sure. She might be an associate of an associate, so to speak.”
“Was she a member a year ago?”
Andra held up her hand. “Hold on. You’re getting into kind of a weird situation. It won’t make much sense unless you let me give you more details. Shut up a second so I can talk.”
Daria huffed, frustration burning red inside her. She’d wanted a clear answer—but those didn’t exist in Balmora.
Or anywhere else in Tamriel, probably.
Andra continued. “The Camonna Tong’s been a lot more active the past half-year or so. Part of it’s because the guild’s here—but there might be more to it than that. Hard to say. What we know is that they’ve been outsourcing a lot of their work to street toughs. Not members, you understand, just kids looking to break some heads and hoping to get paid for it. Maybe if they do good enough, they get invited into the tong somewhere down the line.”
“What does this have to do with Synda?” Daria asked.
“Work with me now, I’m getting there. There’s a couple of young Dunmer toughs: Todis and Shalfar. They work as egg miners but aren’t above shaking folks down for spare change. A few months ago, we see them hanging out with some low-ranking tong members. After that, they get more involved: start running skooma, stuff like that. They seem a little more ambitious than most, so we keep an eye on them. Anyway, that’s all pretty typical. What’s weird is that we started seeing this rich Dunmer girl meet them every Fredas at midnight.”
Daria started at that. It was Fredas night.
“And that girl, as you probably guessed, is Synda.”
“What’s she doing with them?” Daria asked. A prickling sensation ran up and down her spine. She needed to know.
“We’re not sure. Synda’s definitely not Camonna Tong material. Cases like that, it’s usually a proper girl out for some improper kicks. But she’s never there long enough for that. So we really don’t know.”
“What else could she be doing?”
Andra shrugged. “We’re not sure. Maybe Synda’s trying to get in with the tong—but if she is, she’s doing it the stupidest way possible.”
Jane broke in. “Is her family in cahoots with the tong?”
“Nah. Only a few Hlaalu families actually get in close with the tong, and the Grilvayns aren’t one.”
“When Synda meets with Todis and this other guy—” Daria started.
“Shalfar,” Andra corrected.
“Right. Is it at the Council Club?”
“No. It’s at this crummy apartment where Todis lives, on the street connecting the riverfront to Dyer’s Square.”
Daria had a rough idea of which street that was; a tanna shop occupied the riverfront space, she was pretty sure. “And you say this has only been going on for a little while?”
“A month, maybe a bit more.”
It didn’t add up. If this had all started recently then Synda couldn’t have been with the tong at the time of the attack. But why was she doing it now?
Maybe she was trying to escalate. She hadn’t worked with the tong before, but now she was, as a reaction to Quinn’s threat.
A coldness settled in Daria’s limbs, despite the night’s warmth. That assault might’ve just been the start. A way for Synda to get a taste for blood.
“You okay there?” Andra asked.
“She’s had a pretty rough night,” Jane said. “Daria?”
“I’m fine,” she lied. “Can you give me anything more?”
Andra shook her head. “Sorry. The guild only has so many eyes and ears. Most of us have day jobs, too. Speaking of which…”
Andra reached to the side and pulled out a box full of carved bones, twine knots, and other knickknacks.
“Any interest in a luck charm? ‘Cause it looks like you might need one.”
Sleep eluded Daria.
She sat on the bench in Jane’s room, knees up to her chin. The smoky night air seemed to steal the breath from her lungs every time her eyelids got heavy. Of course, she’d slept through Red Mountain’s rumbles without trouble before.
It was fear that kept her awake.
What was she going to tell mom and dad? They’d be furious that she’d hidden this—but what else could she have done? If Synda really was gearing up with the Camonna Tong, the authorities probably wouldn’t be of much help.
Jane muttered something and turned over on her mattress.
If the Morgendorffers fled, she wondered, could Jane go with them? It’s not like much kept Jane in Balmora. Maybe that’d be best for the both of them, all of Tamriel’s splendor at their beck and call, free from Lli and Synda.
Except things never worked out so easily.
It still didn’t make sense. If Synda was trying to accrue favor with the tong, why would she do it through some lowly thugs instead of actual members?
Putting her feet on the ground, Daria crouch-walked to the window and put her eye to the slot. She could barely see Secunda, the moon's cratered face veiled by smog. It hadn’t yet reached its zenith.
Daria still had time to spy on Synda’s rendezvous.
Her mouth dried at the thought. They’d beaten her up last time. No reason to think they wouldn’t go further if they caught her, perhaps with knives instead of clubs. Maybe, instead of crushing her glasses, Synda would gouge out her eyes.
She sucked in her breath at the thought and shivered in the grimy heat.
But this might be her best opportunity. She imagined herself as a metaphorical daughter to Tiber Septim, to whom all of Tamriel belonged.
A Tamriel won through ruthless war, treachery, and conquest.
Treading carefully so as not to wake Jane, she grabbed an iron lantern and opened the door. Trent snoozed on the balcony, like he always did when both he and Daria visited. It’d be smart to wake him up. And foolish to go through Labor Town alone.
But she didn’t want to get either of the Llayns into more trouble for her sake.
Daria crept down to the street and used a tinderbox in her coat pocket to light the tallow candle within the lantern. The weak flame it produced flickered in the smoggy air. She raised the lantern and walked, her footsteps echoing on the desolate street. A swarm of squat black beetles scuttled across the chipped pavement ahead of her.
She walked until she reached the Odai. A sulfurous haze hung over the black waters, bruising the glow of the Commercial District on the other side. Turning right and going north, she watched for the dock-front tanna shop near the street leading to Dyer Square. She’d gotten a lot better at navigating since moving to Morrowind, but the bad weather added a challenge, the familiar sights made strange by ash and darkness.
She hoped she still had time.
The sight of the riverside docks just past Duke Vedam Dren Bridge clued her into the fact that she was near. To her right, a bulky warehouse watched over the empty quays. A lone figure stood before the warehouse door, illuminated by a hand-held torch. Clearly a grown man, not Synda.
“Who GOES there?” a rough voice demanded.
Daria raised the lantern. Impossible to tell by sight, but that voice sure sounded like…
“Sera Dimartani?” she asked.
What was her history teacher doing in front of a warehouse? Curious, she ventured nearer.
“You BETTER not be trying anything funny! I’m a WARRIOR in the employ of the Fighters—DARIA?”
Close up, she recognized his skull-like face and bulging red eyes.
“Yeah, it’s me. What are you doing here?”
His face softened (or at least tried). “What are YOU doing here?”
“I asked first.”
Dimartani flinched. “The MEAGER salary I earn from that skinflint, Lli, has FORCED me to use my martial experience in the service of the Fighters Guild! They pay me PENNIES to guard this warehouse on the weekend night shift!”
He sighed. “I’d APPRECIATE it, Daria, if you did not tell this to any of the students! As an INSTRUCTOR, it’s imperative for me to retain the respect of my class! Otherwise, it would be CHAOS.”
“Hmm, yes. I sure wouldn’t want to ruin the high esteem in which the student body holds you.”
“Now what are YOU doing here? This isn't the safest place at night!”
“No, it isn’t. I have some business that needs doing. But hey, I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”
Dimartani thought about it a bit, then nodded. “A REASONABLE proposition. I never saw YOU, and YOU never saw ME!”
Caught off-guard by that brief moment of, well, normality was probably too strong a word, but it was the best she could think of, Daria continued going north until she reached the street connecting the riverside to Dyer’s Square. The stretch wasn’t long, though she had no idea which of the ratty adobe buildings Todis lived in. But maybe the street was small enough that she’d spot Synda.
Assuming the meeting hadn’t already occurred.
Daria noted a few buildings with light coming from the windows. If Todis and Shalfar expected a meeting, they probably resided in one of those. She ducked into a narrow space between tenements and snuffed out her lantern.
Nothing to do now but wait and hope.
Daria didn’t have to wait long.
A bobbing red lantern revealed the presence of a small, slight figure walking up from the river. Daria leaned out to get a better look as the newcomer took quick and furtive steps to one of the buildings on the opposite side, from which ruddy light glowed around the edges of ragged curtains.
Hard to see in the murk, with moonlight barely piercing the smoky haze, but the newcomer looked to be about Synda’s size.
“I’m here!” came Synda’s voice, as petulant and annoyed as ever.
The door swung open.
“Took you long enough. Get in,” a rough voice ordered.
Synda entered the house and the door closed behind her. Daria hurried across the street a moment later, trying to move as quietly as possible.
“Night meetings are stupid,” the rough voice said.
“I told you, Todis: a woman of my position cannot afford to be seen associating with the likes of you.”
Someone else snickered. Daria held her breath.
“Oh yeah? You’re the one who started associating with us.”
“I am still of a respectable family,” Synda insisted.
“Which is why you have so much farther to fall. What do you think the tong will do if I tell them, huh?”
Daria clenched her teeth. Tell them what?
Silence for a long moment. Then Synda spoke.
“I am sure that the Camonna Tong would be annoyed at my indiscretion in using their name so carelessly.”
Daria stifled a gasp. She caught the implication—careless use of the name. It had to be her passing off the toughs as legitimate tong agents. Which they weren’t—at least not at the time of the assault.
She'd lived in terror of a lie.
Synda continued. “You participated in my plan.”
“Sure, we did. But we’re friends of the tong now. Got buddies in high places.”
“Oh, really? Which is why you live in this moldering hut doing the kinds of work actual members would be embarrassed to touch.”
Daria raised her head closer to the window—she couldn’t afford to miss any of it.
“We’re still in—”
“I’m not sure you’re as in as you think you are, Todis.” She spoke his name with a kind of oily contempt that Daria, on her best day, couldn’t even dream of mimicking. “The Grilvayn family is highly respected in this city. We may not deal with the tong, but a scandal with a respectable family would embarrass Great House Hlaalu. It’s not the sort of thing the tong would care to make worse, and certainly not for the sake of a guttersnipe like yourself.”
Another silence. Daria held her breath, her fingers digging into her palms.
“You trying to back out on our deal?”
Synda might not have heard the deadly cruelty in Todis’s tone—but Daria did. She wanted a better look more than anything but getting spotted now was tantamount to suicide. For a moment, Daria hoped Synda would just walk away from the crumbling house.
“I will admit,” Synda said, “that my better judgment first gave way to your crude intimidation. But after further reflection, I realized that beggars like you will never have any hold over me. The Camonna Tong respects the status quo more than they respect some expendable and easily replaceable prospect of low pedigree. So go ahead and tell them. I may suffer embarrassment. You will suffer worse. Let it be known that I, Synda Grilvayn, will never again give my father’s silver to cutthroats and thieves!”
“You’re making a mistake—”
“I give you nothing more than the offal you deserve!”
Something splattered inside, and Todis cried out in disgust. Feet scuffled like in some maddened dance. The doorlatch clicked and Daria shrank back.
The door slammed shut. Synda shrieked.
“Don’t you dare—” she started.
She shrieked again.
Daria had no idea what to do.
Synda emitted a pained groan. “If you… they’ll kill you… I’m the daughter of a powerful—”
Her words trailed off.
“What’d you do, man?” Shalfar exclaimed. “They’ll kill us for sure! The tong can’t save us from this!”
“They won’t find out about it. We'll finish her off. Dump her in the river and then get out of Balmora. Get out of Morrowind.”
Daria could just hear Synda’s labored breathing.
“You can’t… ugghh…”
Synda’s voice hovered on the verge of breaking. Daria tried to think rationally. There was no way for her to help Synda without exposing herself—and helping Synda didn’t guarantee her friendship.
Because at the end of the day, Synda had threatened Daria and her entire family. Even if she wasn’t with the Camonna Tong, she’d still hired thugs to do violence on her.
And Synda was hurt—possibly dying—mere inches away.
“Unngh… it hurts… I’m sorry, okay? Get my mom… we’ll work it out… please?”
“It’s going to hurt a lot more—”
Suddenly Daria keeled over in a coughing fit. A loud, hacking one that echoed down the street. The ash in the air had taken its toll.
“Someone’s outside!” Shalfar yelled.
Daria staggered to her feet, still coughing. The door swung open. Daria broke into a lurching run as her lungs tried to expel the volcanic filth.
“Get him! He’s running to the river!” Todis yelled, his feet hammering the ground.
Woozy, her head spinning, still coughing, Daria ran as fast as her long and thick black skirt allowed. She wished she’d worn trousers that day.
The footsteps got louder. She imagined their knives raised, ready to finish the job they’d started in a Commercial District alleyway. Would she be begging for her life in a few minutes’ time? Daria was a student, and they were seasoned criminals. Confrontation was not an option.
Maybe, if she worked quickly, she could at least hurt one of them. But then she remembered how fast they moved. No hope for her.
Unless warrior, that he once and maybe still was, Dimartani could help.
Daria redoubled her efforts. The small street had turned impossibly big—but the river was not far ahead. The foul air dizzied her. She kept running. Air whooshed against her hair—a missed grab, maybe. She reached the riverside and turned a hard left. The lone torch ahead, red in the ashen darkness, showed Dimartani still keeping vigil at the warehouse.
“Sera Dimartani!” she called, some part of her mind noting the absurdity of still adding his honorific, “help!”
Adrenaline surged. She couldn’t falter now, not when she was so close. Her legs pumped harder.
“They’re trying to kill me!” she shouted, as she ran by her teacher.
Like that, the strength left her body. She tripped over something, a loose flagstone or maybe her own skirt, and fell in a heap before the warehouse door. She righted herself as Dimartani stepped out to block the pursuing thugs. One looked ready for a fight, but the other sheathed his knife, his stance relaxed.
“Hey, Fighters Guild, right?” Todis said. “We’re cool with you guys. Let me guess, you’re guarding this warehouse?”
“That is my DUTY, yes.”
“Cool. Uh, so this girl’s got it mixed up. We’re not trying to kill her. But you know, she was rooting through our stuff,” Todis continued. “Now, we get it, life’s tough. But we can’t let people do that. We’re just going to have a talk with her. Set her straight and all that.”
Dizzy from her sprint, Daria just stared. Surely Dimartani wouldn’t be so dumb as to believe them.
But Todis sounded like a normal guy. A good neighbor, smiling and concerned.
“Really? Because I KNOW this girl, and she is not the type to be STEALING!”
Todis’s expression flattened. “Maybe you don’t know her as well as you think,” he said, no longer so convincing.
Dimartani stood to his full height which, Daria realized, was actually pretty tall. He’d always looked so beaten down and contorted in school.
“The BLOOD on your tunic, and the KNIFE so recently in your hand, also make me DOUBT your story! I think you should LEAVE!”
“Look, me and him?” Todis said, pointing at Shalfar and then at himself. “We eat guards like you for breakfast. And we need her. We’ll just take her and go. I’ll even give you a little something if you look the other way.”
Dimartani barked out a harsh laugh. “I’ve been wanting a fight for YEARS! Consider this your LAST WARNING to leave her alone! A warning I HOPE you won’t take!”
Daria blinked. It’d be best to start running again, in case Dimartani didn’t make it.
“All right, old man!”
Todis reached for his knife. Dimartani’s sword whistled through the air as it left its scabbard. They stared at each other for a moment. Dark liquid welled from Todis’s throat, and he dropped to his knees, a gurgling wheeze escaping his lips.
Shalfar backed away. “Forget this!” he exclaimed and ran off into the darkness.
Dimartani strutted over to where Todis lay in a pool of spreading blood. The thug lived, uttering a choked whimper, but it would not for much longer.
“Your MISTAKE, my good man, was in assuming I was only a guard! I am still, at heart, a WARRIOR of Great House REDORAN! And in Redoran, we do not take KINDLY to criminals attempting to bribe their betters!”
Struck dumb by the chaos, Daria watched as Todis bled out. Dimartani sheathed his weapon and strode toward her.
“Are you OKAY?”
“No, not really,” Daria said. Then she remembered Synda. “I think there’s someone else who might still need your help.” She gulped. “Another student.”
Synda still breathed when they got to the house.
Dimartani knelt over her unconscious form, binding up the wounds on her chest and torso as best he could with some strips of cloth he’d cut from his shirt with a knife. Probably not the cleanest, but cleaner than anything they’d find in Todis’s miserable place.
“These WOUNDS aren’t as bad as they look. But she DOES need the attention of a healer,” Dimartani said, as he worked.
Numb to her surroundings, Daria nodded and moved the torch closer so Dimartani could see better.
“What HAPPENED here?” Dimartani asked.
Daria wasn’t sure how much she should tell. The thought of more secrets and lies only exhausted her.
“Synda's poor decisions coming back to bite her. I thought it had something to do with me, but it didn’t.”
“That doesn’t TELL me very much, Daria!”
Would Dimartani believe her? Great House Redoran openly hated most outlanders—but they always respected forthrightness. So she’d heard, anyway.
She told the tale. As she did, her eyes explored the dark recesses of Todis’s home. Bare and bleak, as she’d suspected. Not much except chipped pots and old baskets full of dried goods and other essentials. He’d probably spent most of his short life in such places. Kitchen refuse splattered on the wall gave testament to Synda's ill-advised act of defiance.
“And that’s how I ended up witnessing a blackmail scheme turn into a murder. Or an attempted one, anyway,” she finished.
“It is not always WISE to aid a fallen enemy. Nonetheless, you showed some COURAGE in making the attempt. That is something I RESPECT.”
Daria had glossed over the part where Todis’s murder attempt had been interrupted by her coughing fit. Would Dimartani still think her brave if he knew she'd saved Synda more by accident than anything else?
“Given that she is an enemy, I’d prefer she didn’t know I was here.”
“Hm. I’ve stopped the bleeding. I can TAKE her to the temple.”
“Good,” Daria said. “This is going to be our secret?”
“It will! You UNDERSTAND, of course, that you were VERY LUCKY I was there tonight?”
“I do. And thank you for saving my life.”
He gave a low, growling laugh. “I owe YOU thanks as well, Daria. It’s been TOO LONG since my blade drank the blood of an opponent! A COWARD’S blood to be sure, but better than nothing. I have not FORGOTTEN how to FIGHT! Perhaps, SOMEDAY, I can again be of use to my house. For NOW, however, I will take Synda to the temple.”
“Thanks. I, uh, hope that leaving your post doesn’t ruin your Fighters Guild rep.”
“I’m NOT worried. The dead BODY in front of the warehouse should scare off most thieves.”
“Good point. Would you have any trouble with the authorities?”
“No. It was SELF-DEFENSE! I’ll explain the SITUATION to the temple—leaving out your involvement, of course. The temple RESPECTS Redoran, and they will LISTEN to me. Nor did that CRIMINAL strike me as someone who will be missed.”
As always, it relied on reputation. The thought disturbed her, but she was too tired to make a fuss.
Daria moved aside as Dimartani picked Synda up and carried her out of the house, the girl looking as light as a willow switch in his arms. The smell of fresh-spilled blood still hovered in the house's stale air.
Blood was often the price for doing business in the world. Daria hated that fact, but she wouldn’t deceive herself by pretending otherwise.
Soot still smeared the sky the next day, the sun shining weakly through the lingering haze.
Daria sat on the short adobe wall around Jane’s balcony, warming her hands with a cup of trama root tea. Jane, sitting cross-legged on a worn rug, listened as Daria told her the night’s events.
“What gets me,” Daria said, as she finished the story, “is that Synda was probably right. It’s not like Todis was even a Camonna Tong member—just a grunt who did some work for them. If it had come down to Synda’s word against his, the tong would have probably gone after him more than her.”
“So why did she keep going along with it?” Jane asked.
“She was probably scared. I have to admit—part of me sort of respected her when I heard her tell him off.”
“It was good of you to tell Dimartani about her. But, and I hate to say this, just because you save someone’s life doesn’t meant they’ll be grateful later.”
“Oh, I know,” Daria said. “I don’t think Synda ever knew I was there, and Dimartani won’t mention my involvement.”
“Good. Sounds like it’s all wrapped up, then.”
“So it seems.” Daria looked out onto the grimy street below, where the crowds parted to make way for a netchiman prodding his floating herd to the market.
She turned her gaze back to Jane. “Another thing that bothers me is that I wasn’t trying to save Synda’s life,” Daria said. “I just coughed at the wrong, or right, moment.”
“What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t coughed?” Jane asked.
Daria thought about it for a bit. Then she shook her head. “I don’t know. But it’s not like I’d have jumped in to save her. I’d have probably run off.”
Jane nodded. Then she shrugged. “Way I see it, Synda should be thankful she was saved at all. That’s a lot more than most people get in this world.”
“I guess you’re right.”
It hurt to breathe.
Synda tried to groan but only produced a raspy wheeze. She lay on a narrow cot somewhere inside the Balmora temple. The priests had closed her wounds, but it’d take a while for her body to truly heal.
She hoped it wouldn’t.
Synda knew how to lie—truth is a small price to pay for honor, as the saying went—but she could not concoct any lie that convincingly explained her presence in a dreary Labor Town tenement at midnight. To think that the night had once seemed a safer option!
The priests had already informed her family. One of the servants, probably Eldras, would fetch her before the day’s end. Mother and father would be home waiting, eyes cold and voices cruel, to tear her apart in search of the truth.
She deserved this, though. She should never have caved to Todis’s blackmail. Dunmer did not shrink from threats—they reached out and ended them. Synda’s mistake had been in waiting too long to do that. Her ancestors had not struggled for so many centuries, through ash and fire and salt, for her to be a coward.
Synda closed her eyes and took deep breaths. She would not cry in the house of her gods.
The consequences for her error would last a lifetime. Synda had stolen from from her father—and he was sure to put two and two together and find out.
All because she’d tried to put that outlander in her place.
It was hard to recall the night clearly. She remembered the shock of the knife plunging into her side, the horrible pain that hit a few seconds later, and the warmth of blood soaking her clothes. Then Dimartani carrying her through the nighttime streets, and the priests taking her in.
But she knew Daria had been there. She’d heard the outlander’s voice and glimpsed her strange glass-covered eyes. From the snatches of conversation she still remembered, Daria had been the one to tell Dimartani of Synda’s whereabouts.
The cruelty of Imperials knew no bounds. Daria must have known that death was preferable to shame, so she’d spared Synda to inflict more pain.
Better for Synda to be dead, her thrice-blessed ashes sent to Holy Necrom and her soul accepted by the sacred ancestors, than to stand in judgment before her parents.
The tears got the better of her and she wept, pain wracking her body with each sob.
Mom once said that Dunmer mothers had to be cruel, because only strong children survived in Morrowind. But, she’d said, with a rare softness in her voice, there was always one mother with kindness to spare.
Synda looked through tear-filled eyes to the triolith standing in the corner of the room, bathed in candlelight and honoring the Tribunal’s gods. Of those three, Mother Almalexia was who she needed.
“Oh, Mother Alma,” she uttered, suddenly feeling tiny in the presence of one so much greater than herself. “Please keep me safe.”