Big Mer on Campus
Students came in and out of Drenlyn Academy all the time. The academy was as transactional as everything else in Hlaalu lands: an outlander family paid the entry fees, their bright-eyed child earned some connections, and then both parties went their separate ways, never to meet again. A new student normally warranted no particular attention.
But this new one was an exception.
He was a Dunmer in Ondryn’s class—a class specifically intended for outlanders clueless about Morrowind. She watched him take a seat on the middle bench one Middas morning. Had he stepped into the wrong room? Or was he another Cyrodiil-born Dunmer like Jane? He certainly dressed like an Imperial, and a wealthy one at that, with his blue moth-silk frock coat and white cravat. Only the dots of raised flesh running beneath his hairline, artfully concealed by a few loose locks of dark hair, suggested he might’ve been from Morrowind.
“Good morning, class!” Instructor Ondryn said as he hurried up to his podium. “I have a special announcement to make!”
“Your retirement, hopefully,” Daria whispered, wishing Jane still sat next to her, ready with a sharp comment of her own. But work kept Jane busy. It had been over a week since her last visit to campus.
“Drenlyn Academy—and this class—now has the honor of hosting Serjo Tomal Sloan of Great House Hlaalu! Let us all acknowledge this young man on whom so many of our hopes rest!”
He pointed at the new Dunmer and the whole class turned to look, murmuring and bowing their heads.
“Uh, thank you, Sera Ondryn,” Tomal said. “I was actually hoping to keep a low profile here, but I guess that ship already sailed.”
Daria narrowed her eyes. Who did Tomal think he was kidding with that act?
“The honor is ours, Serjo Sloan,” Ondryn said, bowing again. “Class, Serjo Sloan isn’t an outlander like the rest of you—but he has spent the last two years—”
“Five years,” Tomal corrected.
“—in the Imperial City itself! I’m sure he has so many exciting stories to tell us.”
Great, Daria thought. More Imperial City braggadocio. She’d heard too much breathless enthusiasm about the place to ever want to visit it.
“Well,” Tomal said, “if you want something exciting, I could tell you about my dad’s reaction when he got the bill for the arena seats.”
That got him a few chuckles, and Daria scowled even more deeply. Another spoiled noble kid so jaded that he couldn’t even say anything interesting about the Imperial City.
Ondryn gave a faltering laugh. “Well, all in due time. When I found out Serjo Sloan was attending Drenlyn, I specifically requested that he attended this class—and am ever so thankful that he accepted.”
“As Serjo Sloan is familiar with both Imperial and Dunmer culture, he can help the rest of you better acclimate yourselves to life in our province. Remember: Great House Hlaalu cares, and has room for everyone.”
“As long as they’re wealthy,” Daria muttered.
Tomal glanced over to her and raised his eyebrows in amused acknowledgement. Daria immediately switched her gaze to Ondryn. Stupid of her to openly mock a great house like that—but she wasn’t used to sharing this class with Hlaalu members. She wouldn’t get in big trouble for it.
“Which,” Ondryn continued, “actually brings us to your next project: the city of Balmora itself!”
He paused, as if waiting for a reaction. Not getting any, he cleared his throat. His smile got a bit more forced.
“Excepting Serjo Sloan, you have all come from somewhere outside Morrowind. But Balmora has graciously accepted you in spite of that. Since we are all in this together, I decided that the next phase of your education will be to learn more about the city in which you live! What is your place in Balmora? What do you enjoy about it?”
Not that long ago, Daria might’ve said “Nowhere” and “Nothing”. But Balmora sure beat Caldera and Sadrith Mora. And Stirk, for that matter.
“I want you to dive deep into the history of this city!” he urged.
“As deep as you can get with the twenty paltry years of it,” she whispered. Commentary felt weird when Jane wasn’t around.
Tomal offered her a faint smile—he’d heard her again. Mer did have better hearing than humans. “Hey, you can fit a lot of treachery into a few decades,” he said.
What the hell was she supposed to say? He was a noble! Didn’t he get that?
“I have no idea how you want me to respond,” Daria said.
Ondryn zeroed in on the noise and he drew himself up, looking about as threatening as an offended gopher. “Daria! Do not distract Serjo Sloan!”
“It’s my fault, Sera Ondryn,” Tomal said. “I was asking her a question.”
“I see,” Ondryn said. Then he focused on Daria again. “Regardless, Daria, while I’m not trying to make you feel like you don’t belong, you need to remember that, in Morrowind, students do not hold conversations during a teacher’s lecture!” He made an exasperated sigh.
Daria looked at Tomal and tried to hide her anger. He shrugged apologetically.
“Back to the instructions! You’ll be working in pairs assigned to different areas of of the city!” He chuckled. “Don’t worry, I won’t make any of you go to Labor Town. I don’t think any of you live there… hmm.
“Anyway, you and your partner will have the exciting opportunity to learn about your assigned area! And when you’re done, you’ll use your talents at oratory to relay your findings to the class next Morndas, so that we can all learn! All right, let’s see, the pairings will be: Jolda and Julien, you’ll get to learn about Guild Row! Vaz’rir and Treads-on-Ferns, you get to uncover the fascinating history of the strider port!”
Daria dreaded to know who she’d work with. It’d most likely be whoever was sitting next to her. Which that day meant either Jonus (and his incessant attempts to get her to set him up with Quinn) or Tiphannia (and her inability to understand basic concepts like finishing sentences in a timely manner).
Maybe she and her family could each commission a work from Jane. Give her more business so she could attend class again.
“Let’s see, middle row: Karl and Jonus, you two will learn about Silk-hawkers’ Street!”
Odd. He’d skipped over Tomal. Maybe kids of Tomal’s rank just didn’t have to complete assignments.
“Serjo Sloan, would you be willing to work with Daria so as to learn the history of the Hlaalu Council Manor?”
“Oh, certainly,” Tomal said.
It was almost noon and Ondryn’s class cared only about getting out for lunch. A dozen small conversations filled the room, and Ondryn more or less admitted his irrelevance by busying himself with paperwork.
Daria did not like her situation. Nobles meant trouble. Tomal seemed to act like it was no big deal, but it absolutely was for a commoner like her. She could talk to Instructor Ondryn about it.
She could also talk to the wall for all the good it would do her.
“Hi, Daria, right?”
It was Tomal. He sat down next to her, an ingratiating smile on his face.
“Serjo Sloan,” she acknowledged.
“You can just call me Tomal. All my friends in the Imperial City did.”
Her mind raced for a response. Why couldn’t people just be direct? “I’m sure your noble friends did. Forgive me. I wasn’t sure—”
Daria’s whole body roiled at having asked for forgiveness when she’d done nothing wrong—had not, in fact, really done anything.
“Look, I can’t stand all the phony titles either,” Tomal said. “So please, just call me Tomal. I didn’t even want Ondryn to announce who I was. Guess he didn’t get the memo.”
“If it’s all the same with you, I’d prefer to continue referring to your title. That way, no one can accuse me of disrespect later on.”
Tomal sighed. “If that makes you feel better. I wanted to apologize for getting you in trouble. It was crummy of Ondryn to blame you for all that. It was my fault, too.”
“Which,” Daria said, “is exactly why I prefer to keep calling you serjo. Because even if you want to act like your nobility doesn’t matter, it does. And I’ll be the one who pays for it.”
Tomal was silent for a moment. “Right. Well, on that case, when do you want to learn more about the Council Manor? I’m helping my father with a business deal tomorrow, and on Fredas I have to attend Serjo Dorvayn’s birthday. I should be free on Loredas.”
“Since my schedule clearly doesn’t matter, why did you ask?”
“Trying to be polite?”
She usually got together with Jane on Loredas. But with how busy Jane had gotten, Daria didn’t think that would happen. “Fortunately for us both,” Daria said, “I’m an asocial shut-in who doesn’t have any schedule beyond school and work.”
The bell’s sorrowful clang sounded out in the courtyard and the students fled the class. Tomal said goodbye, and Daria waited for him to leave the room before she marched up to Instructor Ondryn. She barely bothered with a bow.
“Sera Ondryn. May I have a moment of your time?”
His mouth tightened. “Of course, Daria.” Then he smiled. “And you needn’t worry. I forgive you for your earlier interruption.”
“And if I’d come to ask forgiveness, I’d be thankful.” Probably not the best lead, she realized, so she launched right into it before he had time to get snitty about her attitude. “Why have I been given the honor of working with Sera Sloan? All of the other students were assigned to work with the person sitting next to them.”
Ondryn eyes moved from side to side, as if searching for an exit. Conversation from the outside drifted in through the narrow windows. “Oh, well, I suppose I just wanted to liven things up! You know, we Dunmer know how to have fun, too!”
“Unfortunately, as a boring old Imperial, a slight alteration in partner selection is just too much excitement for me to handle. Which is why I’m wondering if there was any other reason.”
Ondryn was squishy. For all his stiff pride, Daria had learned it didn’t take much for him to lose his nerve, even to an outlander. His sense of superiority lasted up until an actual confrontation.
He gulped. “If you must know… first, I want to say that I absolutely believe you can fit into things here. But you are sometimes… well, a bit recalcitrant, heh.”
Recalcitrant. Wasn’t it enough that she did her schoolwork and did it better than everyone else (except maybe Jolda)? “I’m not sure what that has to do with Serjo Sloan.”
“You see, Serjo Sloan is a role model. And I’m a strong believer in role models for education! Just think of some of the role models you Imperials have like…” His brow furrowed in thought. Then his eyes brightened. “Like the emperor!”
“Clearly, you’re thoroughly informed as to the intricacies of our culture,” Daria said.
“I try my best! Anyway, I think that Serjo Sloan’s time in Cyrodiil means he’s someone the students here can relate to. And I daresay he’s a pretty cool guy! His father said it would be okay for him to work with commoners.”
Daria clenched her teeth together, not letting her frustrations how beyond that. “So your hope is that he’ll be a good influence on me?”
“Exactly! And I’m so glad you’re finally taking a proactive approach in your education by realizing this. Is there anything else?” He sounded almost like he was begging for her to leave.
“Just the bitter acknowledgement that I have no choice but to obey the authorities.”
“That’s a very healthy attitude to take, Daria! I think you’ve grown a lot these past few years.”
“Oh, I sure have,” she remarked.
She waited until she out the door before finishing her thought. “And none of it was from your class.”
The beginnings of a headache manifested just behind Daria’s eyes. She took her glasses off for a moment and blinked like an owl in the bright autumn sun. The world snapped back into focus as she donned the lenses again, the courtyard around her filled up with students.
Not that long ago, she’d have been snarking away with Jane in some secluded corner. Daria still had a class with Dimartani that afternoon—Middas was one of her longer days, and there’d be no escape for a few hours more.
With no other options, she retreated into the newly refurbished library. The building’s dark mustiness recalled the dark kitchen in Stirk where she’d spend days hiding between pages from the other kids.
“She’s gotta be somewhere!” came Quinn’s voice through the window. “Wait, she always goes wherever there’s books!”
“Great,” Daria muttered. “I’m predictable, too.”
The door opened and Quinn hurried inside. “Daria! Is it true—”
“Sorry, Quinn, but this library is a temple to literacy, which means you and your ilk are not permitted to cross the threshold.”
Quinn made a dismissive wave. “Whatever! Satheri just told me that you’re working with Tomal Sloan. The Sloans are like the richest people in Balmora! Do you know what this means?”
“That the Empire’s skewed economic priorities allow certain families to accumulate more wealth than they deserve?”
“Ugh! Don’t try to mix me up with all of your… things! Daria, making friends with the Sloans could be a really big deal. They could open like, doors and stuff.”
“I usually use my hands for that sort of thing.”
“You know what I mean! Oh, I should have been the one to work with him. Just don’t screw this up, Daria. I mean it.”
“Are you really so sure Tomal’s such a great guy?” Daria questioned. “Don’t you remember that whole episode with Turimar?”
“Yes, Daria, as a matter of fact I do! Just because Turimar was a jerk doesn’t mean every noble is.”
“I’m not going to cause any trouble with him. Hopefully we’ll just get the assignment done and never see each other again.”
“You should get to know him at least! And if he’s not mean or creepy or anything, maybe introduce him to me and then I can get our whole family ennobled through marriage or something. Then things would be great for us! Like I could get the best dresses and go to the most fashionable parties all the time!”
“But what would I get out of it?” Daria asked.
“A life of aristocratic luxury, duh! Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with your brain.” Quinn shook her head. “Look, just ask me if you have any questions about how to be, like presentable, and stuff. Like it or not, there’s a lot riding on you here.”
Daria just grunted.
“Anyway, I have go back out. Poor Satheri’s having another fashion crisis—she needs to stop picking green as her color! Remember what I said!”
Quinn gave a little wave before opening the door and stepping back out into the courtyard. Alone in the library, Daria had no choice but to admit that her sister had a point.
Jane’s expert eyes studied her latest work, a three-quarters portrait of a bald Imperial wearing a sumptuous green robe. She pursed her lips and dabbed the slightest touch of dark paint to his eyes. Then she turned to Daria.
“I get that it’s scary,” Jane said. “But from what you tell me, Tomal sounds a lot better than some of the other Hlaalu nobles I’ve heard about.”
It was a cool Fredas afternoon, the sun above shining bright on a city still damp from the morning’s rain. Daria sat on the adobe railing around Jane’s balcony, venting her troubles as her friend worked on the latest commission.
“How do you know it’s not just an act?” Daria asked.
Jane shrugged. “You could ask the same question about anyone. Besides, this whole thing was Ondryn’s idea, not Tomal’s. And Quinn’s smarter than you think.”
“I’m well-aware that my sister hides her ferocious intelligence behind a veil of superficiality—gods, I feel dirty even saying that. Now I feel like my family’s future is depending on me sucking up to someone I hate.”
“Does your mom know about this?”
Daria shook her head. “Quinn agreed not to tell her on the condition that I do my best to make a good impression. But I don’t want to get that close to anyone in a great house. And I definitely don’t want my sister marrying into one.”
Jane looked back at her painting, eyes narrowing at the belt buckle. She leaned forward for a moment, and then dipped her brush into the palette and added a bit more darkness beneath the waist.
“I think you’re worrying too much. Young Tomal might already have a bride lined up for him. He’s a Hlaalu, so he won’t give up a family business deal for a human trophy wife!”
“Everything about him irks me.”
“So how does that make him different from everyone else?”
Daria rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean: the unearned privilege, the way everything’s handed to him, and how he tries to act like it’s not a big deal because he’s so used to the good life that he can’t even notice it any longer.”
“It’s all relative. But hey, if he turns out not to be a bad guy, maybe you could put in a good word for me? Getting a noble patron is kind of an essential career step for us artists.”
“Do you have a Plan B that doesn’t involve me brown-nosing one of Hlaalu’s spoiled scions?” Daria asked.
“Yup. Waiting for you to rise high enough through the ranks of the Empire’s bureaucracy that you functionally become an aristocrat and hire little old me to beautify you in portraiture.”
“At least you’ll know I got there by being honest and incorruptible.”
Jane sighed. “So much for Plan B.”
“At least you’re realistic.”
Jane put the brush down. “Don’t have much choice in my position. What kind of assignment do you have to do, anyway? I can’t wait to find out about all the school crap I don’t have to worry about anymore.”
“So you did quit?” The casual way Jane said it sent a little jolt right through Daria’s heart. She’d be stuck in the library from now on. Once upon a time that’d have been paradise for her—but not anymore.
“More like I just stopped going. Lli never noticed—no surprise there. I did tell Instructor Defoe.”
Daria still had another year at Drenlyn—its endless classes and awful students—and now without the one person who made it bearable. “Good to know that the pursuit of education won’t get in the way of your quest for lucre,” Daria said.
Jane’s lips twisted in irritation for a moment. “Come on, Daria. Don’t tell me you’re going to pretend that Drenlyn offers a decent education.”
“I’ll admit it’s not great. But you yourself said it was useful.”
“I did get some clients there. It’s just that most of them want one portrait, and then they’re set for a few years. Drenlyn’s tuition—even at the discount I got—costs a lot. And the city keeps raising taxes on ‘non-essentials’. Which, apparently, includes a lot of my art supplies.”
She spread her arms wide. “I’m stretched too thin, Daria, and Drenlyn doesn’t help anymore. Back to Tomal,” she said, a bit loudly as she let her arms fall. “What kind of nonsense did Ondryn assign you? Please vindicate my departure with tales of Drenlyn’s stupidity.”
Sure, Jane did have things a lot tougher. But to just give up like that? Everything was business, business, business in this town. And it wasn’t really much better in any other town.
Hell, sometimes it was worse.
Still upset, her thoughts turned to the situation with Tomal. “Ondryn wants us to learn about Balmora’s history—what little of it there is.”
Jane nodded. “The city’s older than you might think. Except it wasn’t a city for most of it.”
“How do you mean?” Daria asked.
Jane pointed northwest, to High Town. “The whole town used to be scrunched up in there. Bunch of little adobe homes behind a palisade—to protect us against Ashlander raids. Huh, wonder if any of your boyfriend’s ancestors killed any of my ancestors?”
Daria blushed. “Tedannupal’s not my boyfriend, and I haven’t even seen him since that one time.”
“Oh, but he’s still in your heart,” Jane cooed. “Someday you’ll be the bride of Ashkhan Tedannupal of the Odaishannabab! One of his brides, anyway.”
“I hate you.”
Jane snickered. “So yeah, folks have been living on that hill since the early Second Era at the very least.”
“That is pretty old,” Daria said, standing up for a look. Balmora’s great sprawl was new—but the town itself was not.
“Granted, we are talking about village history here. The kind of history that’s more about who slept with whose wife or gave a bad deal in the marketplace than about conquests and kings.”
“I’m not sure the difference between those is as pronounced as you think,” Daria said. “What happened to your old house?”
“Mom and dad left for the Imperial City, and they didn’t leave me and Trent with enough to pay the Council Company’s new property fees. We got kicked out, they tore it down, and built a very nice manor on top of where it used to be. Same thing happened to everyone else. Most moved out, a few of them tried to make it in Labor Town.”
Jane stared at the great blocky mansions surrounded by equally blocky watchtowers, and then looked back to her painting. She added some quick, jabbing strokes to the edge of the painting, her arm tense.
“Uh, sorry that happened to you. The Hlaalu really suck.”
“That they do.”
They sat in silence for a bit, Jane focusing on her work. Jane’s concentration had a clarifying quality, the whole world and all its confusing mutability shrunk down to a single canvas over which Jane had total control.
“Do you want to get some drinks at the Lucky Lockup?” Daria finally asked. “I’ll buy.”
“I wish I could,” Jane said. “I have another commission to work on right after this. One I’m barely getting paid for.”
“On that case, I guess I’ll leave you to it.” Daria stood up.
“Sorry,” Jane said. “It’s tough right now.”
“No need to apologize. Great House Hlaalu’s the one to blame.”
As Daria walked down the steps leading to the street, she wondered if there was some way to interweave Jane’s story into her report.
Daria hiked up the stairs to High Town not long after breakfast and walked straight to the big fountain plaza where she and Tomal had agreed to meet. A patchwork of light clouds covered the sky, and a faint whiff of sulfur fouled the air.
As Daria passed between the stately adobe manor houses, she tried to imagine the place as it might have looked decades ago: a small huddle of simple homes surrounded by miles and miles of rocky desolation. That was the world Jane must have come to when she was a small child fresh from the Imperial City.
And now, it appeared that the city had followed her. Hard to imagine standing on the hill on hearing only the wind.
The Hlaalu Council Manor was the closest thing Balmora had to a town hall. It didn’t look much different from the buildings around it, standing out only by the banner displaying the tipped scales that served as Great House Hlaalu’s sigil. Fat, metallic beetles buzzed in circles around the big fountain in front. Unlike the busy public spaces of the Commercial District and Labor Town, this one felt almost deserted. Only a few people, all of them Dunmer in imported Cyrodiilic clothes, walked through, never staying for long. A few cast suspicious glances at Daria as they passed by.
Their reaction to Tomal, when he arrived, was the complete opposite. As he walked through the square, hands in pockets and expression unassuming, the few people present practically ran over to greet him.
“Honor unto your family, young Serjo Sloan,” one said.
“Under sun and sky, I greet you warmly, serjo!”
“Serjo Sloan: may ALMSIVI smile upon you and your kin.”
Each greeting turned into a chat. Tomal exchanged pleasantries, his lips smiling and his eyes a million miles away. As always, the subject turned to business.
“If your father is still interested in raising money for his Cyrodiilic investments, I would be interested in purchasing some of his land in the Ascadian Isles—new fields for the netch, you see,” one Dunmer said.
“Thank you for your offer, Muthsera Naravyn,” Tomal said, “but I’m not authorized to make that sort of business decision.”
“Serjo Sloan, my house is holding a celebration in honor of my third cousin this evening. There will be a fine dinner, and you and your family certainly have a place at the table,” said another.
“I’m honored by the offer, Sera Demnevali. I will relay this to my father, but I believe he has his own obligations tonight.”
“I hope our gifts were to your family’s liking, Serjo Sloan,” said a third.
“The wine was excellent, Muthsera Amnavas!” Tomal replied.
Amnavas shifted in place. “Ah, forgive me serjo. I was referring to the slippers of imported leather. Made from cow hide—cows are these great beasts roam the fields of High Rock and Skyrim—”
“Oh, yes, the slippers! Of course! They’re exquisite, and I was wearing them this morning.”
“Excellent.” Amnavas bowed.
Daria crossed her arms and leaned against the wall as she watched the shameless display of flattery. They reminded her of Quinn’s suitors but somehow even worse. She’d feel sorry for Tomal if it weren’t for the fact that each offering was something the Sloans could turn to their own benefit. True to form, he happily went along with the nonsense.
Tomal finished the meet and greets and resumed his walk, only to get sidetracked by a second mob of favor-seekers who’d noticed the first.
Daria waited until Tomal handled the second crowd and finally reached the manor.
“Forgive me for interrupting your court with petty schoolwork, Serjo Sloan,” Daria said, trying to sound like she meant it.
“Are you kidding me? Schoolwork sounds pretty great after dealing with all those dissemblers.” He rolled his eyes.
“Can’t you just tell them to get lost?” Daria asked.
“I wish. No, doing that risks alienating important business contracts for my father. Look, Daria—maybe we got off on the wrong foot. I’m not sure what I did to make you dislike me so much, but whatever it is, I’m sorry.”
Daria mulled it over for a moment. “May I have the permission to offer some mud-spattered lowborn wisdom?”
“The muddier the better.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong, Serjo Sloan. But in case you haven’t noticed, practically half of High Town was groveling at your feet just now—and every one of those people has more power than a lowborn foreigner like me. I have no sway and no protection in your world and that makes me uncomfortable.”
He nodded. “Daria, I promise that you have nothing to worry about from me. Say what’s on your mind. The shock of blunt honesty is practically a mild high for me after all the flattery I have to deal with.”
Daria shook her head. “You can say that, but you’re still a noble and I’m still not.
Tomal sighed, clearly disappointed. “I know about the power difference between us—”
“You know about it, but I’m not sure you understand it. I just interrupted you, didn’t I,” Daria said.
“You did.” Tomal shrugged.
“Am I supposed to praise your magnanimity in not sending me off to the executioner’s block?”
“Daria, the law wouldn’t let me do that even if I wanted to,” Tomal protested.
“Another thing you may have noticed is that I’m very bad at filtering my thoughts.”
“I may have picked up on that, yes.”
“Which is another reason I’m nervous working with you, despite your claims of being understanding. Look, let’s just get this over with. The Council Manor has all the town records, so we can look up the building’s history and put together a report.”
“Right. Getting them will be easy; I know the people in here.”
“Because of course you do.” She decided to test him a bit. “I did learn some interesting things from someone who used to live here in High Town. Before Balmora got big.”
“I’m sure Sera Ondryn will appreciate an eyewitness account,” Tomal said, opening the nearest door. “Come on.”
She scowled at his turned back. “Of course, Serjo Sloan.”
Daria followed Tomal into a vast adobe room supported by a central wooden column that branched out into the ceiling beams. Bushes and flowering plants surrounded the column and lined the walls, making the place feel a bit like a forest. A group of well-dressed Dunmer and a few outlanders seated around a table discussed business over cups of coffee and under a cloud of tanna smoke emanating from a bright blue hookah. Silk-screen panels sectioned off a handful of smaller offices and a desk made of imported hardwood, probably from Elswyer, stood at the front.
Synda Grilvayn sat at the desk. The perpetual sneer carved onto her face fell away the moment Tomal entered, her eyes widening and lips parting. She stood up and bowed.
“Serjo Sloan! Truly, I am honored.”
And then she smiled, her shoulders bunched up like a nervous child’s.
“Muthsera Grilvayn, always a pleasure,” Tomal said. He smiled as well and sauntered closer to her, leaning forward a bit. “I trust the morning finds you well?”
“Far better now that you have graced me with your presence, serjo.” There was something approaching actual warmth in the girl’s eyes.
Synda’s eyes swiveled to Daria and hardened. The look of familiar haughtiness almost came as a relief. “Excuse me, Daria, but in Morrowind it is considered poor manners to dawdle in an open doorway,” she said.
“Eh, I don’t mind her letting in the fresh air—as fresh as it gets here in Morrowind, anyway,” Tomal said.
Synda suddenly looked unsure as Daria stepped in, closing the door behind her.
“The ash in the air is a legacy of our heritage,” Synda said, with a sniff.
“Not to mention a carcinogen,” Daria said.
Tomal shrugged. “It’s all a big make-work project to benefit the healers. Our sick lungs are their payday.”
Daria couldn’t resist cracking a smile at his comment. Synda blanching from the same made it all the sweeter.
“Just joking around!” Tomal said. “Sorry. Uh, muthsera, we were wondering if we could get access to the records for this building? Sera Ondryn wants us to write a report.”
Synda gulped and drew in a deep breath. “Certainly. I will take you to—”
The call came from a Redguard in a bright red silk jacket. Tomal’s eyes widened in recognition. “Muthsera Bando al-Ragath,” he said.
Bando was already walking toward Tomal, a fierce grin on his face. “They told me your honored father was in town. Truly, fortuitous timing. My compatriots and I are actually here to discuss the investment in Cheydinhal.”
“I could let my father know,” Tomal said.
“Well, this involves your entire family—and we’re all the more fortunate for it. Please, join us,” he said, gesturing to the table.
“I am—” Tomal looked around, his jaw clenched. “Uh, sorry about this Daria, but this is actually kind of important.”
“Shall I fetch records for serjo?” Daria asked.
“Don’t worry,” Synda said. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t get lost.”
“On my way,” Tomal said, striding over to the table, whose occupants stumbled over each other in the race to see who could flatter him first.
Synda watched him go, and then turned her attention back to Daria.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
Daria followed Synda to a hallway entrance at the back of the room. Doors lined the corridor’s right wall while sickly light shone through the green resin windows on the left.
If I follow Synda down here, Daria thought, will I ever be seen again?
Daria shot a venomous glance at Tomal, already gabbing with his associates. But Synda didn’t have much in the way of real power. Sure, Great House Hlaalu didn’t care about people like Daria, but they did care about putting up a good front for the Empire. Dead Imperial teenagers would only raise questions. She was probably safer in the council manor than anywhere else.
Still, following Synda into a dark backroom didn’t strike Daria as the wisest of moves.
Resigning herself, she stepped into the hallway, Synda a few feet ahead of her.
“I saw you at that wretched apartment,” Synda said, her face forward. She slowed down.
“That doesn’t really narrow things down in Balmora. Though if you’re talking about Jane’s, I think she does a pretty good job with what she has.”
Daria would never give Synda the satisfaction of fear.
“You know that to which I am referring. You and Sera Dimartani—the Empire and Great House Redoran—working together to humiliate me.”
“Wait!” Daria halted. “So you were conscious when me and Instructor Dimartani saved your life from that thug.”
Synda turned around and drew herself up as best as her diminutive form allowed. “Yes. I am not so fragile as to be completely undone by a few minor injuries.”
“You sure seemed pretty undone to me. You’re welcome, by the way.”
Synda frowned, her gray hands balling up into little fists. “Perhaps you really are that ignorant. If you had wished to show mercy, you would have let me die.”
If I had wished to show some damned common sense, I’d have let you die, Daria thought. But she held back. “I’ll check the dictionary again, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what mercy means.”
“You think you know Morrowind. You don’t. But even if you and Dimartani saved me so as to humiliate me, it mattered not. I have survived and found a way to restore my reputation.”
“Are you threatening me?”
Synda smirked. “No. Outlander, you are too far beneath me to be worth any further effort.”
She whirled around and resumed her march to the end of the hall. Daria resumed following, trying to process what they’d said. Saving Synda had been a cruelty?
Maybe, she realized. Strict Dunmer parents might not be too forgiving to a daughter who’d given in (at least at first) to blackmail. It depended on how much the senior Grilvayns knew. But Daria had no idea what Synda had meant by restoring her reputation. So far as she could tell, Synda was the same as ever.
She supposed she’d accept it so long as it kept Synda off her back.
Synda had just about reached the door at the end of the hallway when it opened and Kavon walked out, clad in his ill-fitting armor though sans helmet. His black hair was disheveled and the smile on his face radiant.
“What are you doing here?” Synda demanded.
Kavon blanched. “Oh, uh… I was guarding the place! Yeah! There was like this uh, thief-looking guy sneaking around the manor. Being the guard I am, I figured I should check it out. Looks like the coast is clear.”
“Oh, really? What use would a thief have for city records?” Synda demanded.
“Uh…” Kavon scratched his head. “Oh, hey, Daria! You’re pretty smart—what would a thief want with city records?”
“He probably wanted to make sure his new thief hideout didn’t violate any zoning laws,” Daria said.
“Yeah, what she said! Anyway, gotta go!”
Kavon jogged past Synda, one of his bonemold pauldrons almost hitting her head in the narrow hallway. She glowered at him as he left, and then stalked to the records room. Close behind, Daria wasn’t entirely surprised to see Briltasi already standing there, peering into a small hand mirror made of what looked like real glass and applying some kohl around her luminous eyes. The bookshelves stood in a state of disarray, with some of the records having fallen to the floor.
“Serjo Talori,” Synda said, not quite able to hide her annoyance. She looked around at the mess, and then at Daria. “You figure it out,” she said, and then walked back into the hallway and shut the door.
“Oh, hi, Daria!” Briltasi said, looking up from her mirror.
“Hi, Briltasi. I don’t suppose you and Kavon stumbled onto the records of the building we’re in during your latest research session?”
“Research session?” she squeaked. “Why would we do that? We were making out!”
“Your candor is as refreshing as always.” A thought occurred to Daria: Synda had called Briltasi “serjo”. And the Taloris were, in fact, lesser nobility. Yet nobody really treated Briltasi the way they did Tomal—she supposed that marked the difference between a family like the Taloris and one like the Sloans.
“Briltasi, does it bother you that I don’t call you serjo?” Daria asked.
“Why would it bother me? You’re just an outlander.”
“I’m glad my barbarous foreign ways haven’t caused any offense.”
Briltasi smiled and shrugged. “It’s not your fault you don’t know better! And a lot of Dunmer won’t call my stepmom by her title just because she’s a Breton! That really bothers me. She married into the family, so she’s noble too even if she isn’t Dunmer! I don’t get why people are mean like that.”
“Do you know anything about Tomal Sloan?”
“Oh yeah! He’s… uh… well he’s really rich.”
Daria decided to press a little harder. “What does he think about outlanders?”
“I know his family does a lot of business with them. Oh, he’s nice to my stepmom and called her serjo! And now a few other people are doing it, too.”
Daria supposed that was a promising sign. She still couldn’t afford to trust Tomal beyond the scope of an ill-conceived school assignment. But within that scope he might be okay.
Apparently satisfied with her cosmetic application, Briltasi put her mirror back in her purse. “Boy, I hope Synda didn’t hear me and Kavvy,” she said.
“About that: if you’re that keen on keeping your relationship with him a secret, you should probably try to be more discreet.”
“Hardly anyone ever goes back here, though!”
“Speaking of which,” Daria said, thinking back to her situation with Synda. Briltasi did know about Dunmer culture—maybe she could illuminate what Synda had said.
Daria took a deep breath and began speaking. “I have a hypothetical question: suppose you were in a situation that, if discovered, would be deeply embarrassing to your family. Let’s also suppose that you were badly hurt in this situation and someone saved your life. But in saving your life, they blew your cover. Would you be mad at them for saving your life?”
Briltasi pouted. “Hmm…” She twirled her left ponytail around one of her fingers. “You’re not thinking about telling people, are you?”
“No, this is a hypothetical question.”
“Right, I know. But I don’t want to hype this to the wrong people because then me and Kavvy could get in trouble! Reputation matters a lot to us Dunmer, Daria. There’s even like, a saying. A crime’s only okay if it’s secret, because then nobody knows about it, so it’s best to keep things secret.”
“It’s not easy being a Dunmer daughter. And if someone got me in trouble I’d be pretty scared. And really mad at them if they did it on purpose! Just kind of mad at them if they did it by mistake.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not going to tell on me, are you?”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Daria said. “Though like I said, you should be more careful. I’m pretty sure Synda figured it out—as would anyone else with half a brain.”
“Hmm, she won’t tell anyone. Hurting me wouldn’t help her family’s reputation, really. But I’ll be more careful! Maybe me and Kavvy will make out in the Drenlyn library next time!”
“Try to restrain yourselves. The library just got a new roof.”
“I better go, this place is kind of boring. Have fun doing whatever you do with records!”
Daria sighed as Briltasi left. With nothing else to do, she started looking for the records that covered the Hlaalu Council Manor. This turned out to be harder than she’d expected. The records weren’t arranged alphabetically, by date, or by any other pattern she could see. They did seem to go roughly by neighborhood. Records on the top shelf covered High Town, with the shelves beneath dealing with the Commercial District and Labor Town.
But even with the High Town records she was rooting through them more or less at random.
The door opened as she searched.
“Sorry about that,” came Tomal’s voice.
“If you’re quite done earning a dozen new fortunes, I could use some help in searching for the record book covering the Hlaalu Council Manor.”
“Oh, it’s right here,” Tomal said, going up to the shelf and plucking at a book at random.
Daria stared at him. “How did you know that?”
“Dunmer arrange records according to the status of the families associated with them. The Hlaalu Council Manor is directly run by the Hlaalu Council Company, so even though it’s in charge, we don’t want this fact to hurt the feelings of the more prestigious families in High Town. So after you go through the properties leased by the big movers and shakers—the Drilers, the Dorvayns, and so on—the company-run buildings get their turn.”
“Seems complicated,” Daria said.
“Oh, ridiculously so.”
He handed her the book and she opened it up. The early pages consisted of eviction notices, justified by the locals failing to pay the new leasing fees.
It didn’t mention any names. But Daria already knew a few.
“Tomal,” Daria said, pausing a bit to see if he reacted to the title being cut. He did not. “I’m guessing that Ondryn wants us to do a feel-good piece about how great this place is.”
“Definitely. He’s hoping I’ll tell my dad and put in a good word for him. Don’t worry, I won’t.”
“Would we get in a lot of trouble if we presented a more realistic picture of the Hlaalu Council Manor’s history?”
Tomal rubbed his chin in thought. “Not if we worded it right. What do you have in mind?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Daria said.
Daria watched as Tomal finished up his half of the report. Instructor Ondryn watched him with the eyes of an enraptured puppy. The class didn’t bother feigning interest.
“In short, the people in the Hlaalu Council Manor can be credited—or blamed—for any policies that take root in Balmora,” Tomal said.
His report had been dry, informative, and mostly safe. He’d given her the latitude to write her section as she pleased. But Daria still wasn’t sure.
Because at the end of the day, he was one of them. Promises from him meant nothing when given to someone like her, because he’d never get in trouble for breaking them. She could only rely on his moral compass, and she didn’t know him well enough to trust that.
“And now, my colleague Daria will offer our findings on the history of the Hlaalu Council Manor.”
Good. He’d said ‘our findings’, which at least meant he took ownership. Then again, that might make him all the angrier if the report rustled too many feathers.
Daria was suddenly faint. She took a deep breath.
“Thank you, Serjo Sloan,” she said. “I’m here to give you the unvarnished history of the Hlaalu Council Manor and of High Town. And unvarnished means it has all the ugly details that people don’t want you to know.”
A few students perked up at that. They didn’t care about history, but they loved scandal. Ondryn frowned but took no other action.
“It turns out that Balmora’s actually a lot older than the boomtown we see around us. For centuries, Dunmer lived where High Town is today, in much humbler homes where they raised families, tended kwama hives, and fished the Odai.”
“The development of modern High Town certainly was an exciting process,” Ondryn interjected, looking nervously out onto the class.
“Oh, it was,” Daria continued. “Especially if you were one of the Dunmer living in old Balmora who got kicked out. See, when Great House Hlaalu formally took control of the place, they immediately imposed leasing fees on the houses that had been there for generations. Fees that the residents obviously couldn’t pay. An entire town’s worth of people got kicked out so the wealthy folks of High Town could build their mansions.”
“Where did they go?” Jeval asked. He, at least, seemed interested.
“Wherever they could. Most moved into outlying villages. I know for a fact that a few are still in Balmora.”
Ondryn cleared his throat. “Daria, it’s not your place to criticize!”
Daria decided to play dumb. “I’m simply relaying my findings, as you requested. And all of this is written plain as day in the records office.” She glanced over to Tomal.
“It’s exactly as she says,” Tomal confirmed.
Ondryn blinked in surprise. “Serjo Sloan! I think she is criticizing you.”
Tomal shrugged. “No big deal, I’ve got a thick skin.”
“But… the point of this exercise was to show what a great place Balmora is to live in!” Ondryn sputtered.
“As I recall, the point of the exercise was to do a deep dive into Balmora’s history,” Daria said. “Which we did.”
“Not that kind of history!”
Daria shrugged. “Maybe we misunderstood. Regardless, these are on the publicly accessible records. I guess the people at the Council Manor are just counting on everyone to be too indifferent to check.”
“We are all very fortunate to live under the aegis of Great House Hlaalu!” Ondryn fumed. Then he turned to Tomal, his face suddenly beseeching. “Serjo Sloan, is this a test of my loyalty? I would never say anything negative about Great House Hlaalu. And this whole report is counter to what the Hlaalu project stands for!”
Tomal was silent for a moment. Daria again wondered just how far he’d be willing to take this. He’d said no one would get into real trouble—but as a noble, how would he know?
“Actually, as a member of Great House Hlaalu, I disagree,” Tomal said. “Think about it: where else in Morrowind could a regular person access reports and find the real history of a place? Great House Hlaalu is a merchant house, and a self-aggrandizing one—but we still keep good and detailed records, even if it’s only so we can keep track of our finances.
“That means normal people have the power to learn the truth. For all the problems we have, Hlaalu can actually take criticism and learn from it. That’s why we’re working so closely with the Empire, even as it institutes changes that make some of us uncomfortable—because we know that the old ways aren’t always the best ones. Becoming better isn’t fun—but I’d rather be uncomfortable than keep doing something stupid.”
Ondryn was silent for a moment. “I see. So by criticizing Great House Hlaalu, Daria is actually demonstrating why it’s so great!”
Here’s where it all fell apart. She didn’t want to say it was great. But how could she make that clear? She still sensed she walked on a knife’s edge.
“I’m making a pointed criticism—” Daria started.
“Certainly, an unorthodox interpretation of the assignment,” Ondryn said, talking over her as he walked up to the front of the class, gesturing for her to sit back down. “But a fascinating one! Truly, as the most dynamic and forward-looking Great House, Hlaalu has advantages that others do not. I am honored by such an intriguing report, Serjo Sloan!”
Tomal shrugged as he and Daria walked back to their seats in the middle row.
“Now, let’s hear from Marcus and Tiphannia and their report on St. Roris Square!” Ondryn said. Then gave Daria a very ugly look.
Class had finished, and Daria stepped out into a cold, gray autumn day. It was lunch, which meant an hour holed up in the library before her next class. Hiding in the library didn’t seem so bad with such bleak weather, but she’d have rather gone to the Lucky Lockup with Jane.
“Are you doing okay?” Tomal asked. He hurried up to walk alongside her.
“I suppose it was inevitable that my reasoned critique would be turned into pro-Hlaalu boosterism.”
“At least people know, right?” Tomal said.
“Do you think any of them will care?”
“Maybe one or two will. But I’m an optimist.”
Daria sighed. “I will say I appreciate the support. I probably would have been in a lot more trouble if it hadn’t been for you.”
“I don’t like depending on another person for protection.”
“Nor should you,” Tomal agreed.
“But at a certain point, I guess I have to accept that’s just the way things are for now. And that it’s better to have protection if you can get it. Please answer me honestly: do I owe you anything?”
Tomal shook his head. “Not a thing. There are a lot of things about Great House Hlaalu I don’t like either. The way I see it, we were working toward the same goal.”
“As much as I hate to admit it, that would have gone a lot worse for me if we lived under Great House Telvanni,” Daria said, thinking back to her time in Sadrith Mora. “But I don’t think the failings of the other Great Houses justify those of Hlaalu.”
“Absolutely not. But what I said wasn’t entirely wrong, even if it was just to keep Ondryn happy. Great House Hlaalu can change for the better. Every now and then, it actually does.”
“I’m far too lazy to be a good idealist,” Daria said. “Mostly, I just like ruffling people’s feathers.”
“Hey, as long as you’re ruffling the right people’s! That’s the kind of mercenary attitude a half-hearted reformer like me loves to see.”
“Just don’t expect too much from me in that department.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Daria watched as students gathered in their cliques. No room for her there.
“Who do you usually eat lunch with?” Daria asked.
“No one in particular. I’m actually done with classes today.”
Her heart sank a little at that comment. Wait, had she really been considering spending time with Tomal? For all his baggage though, he annoyed her far less than most students. Still no substitute for Jane.
But in Morrowind, one took what they could get.
“I guess I’ll go hide in the library,” Daria said. They were already standing in front of it.
“Oh!” he sounded surprised. “Okay. Well, see you around, I guess.”
“You too, Tomal.”
A cold gust of wind blew past them. Then Tomal nodded and turned around, walking toward the gates as Daria watched for a few long moments, wishing he’d asked her to hang around. Finally, she entered the library and returned to the books she’d already read a half-dozen times.
Cold weather simply did not agree with Synda Grilvayn. She’d grown up in the humid mushroom mangroves of the Thirr Valley, where no one ever shivered, not even at night. Air was meant to be warm and thick, like blood. Balmora and the West Gash felt frigid to her. It was the sort of climate best left to Nords and other savages.
The autumn chill didn’t hurt as much when with Tomal. Side-by-side, the pair walked through the Commercial District, faces placid as was proper for a young noble and his common-but-still-respectable friend.
Since the Grilvayns were respectable. Enough that a marriage to the Sloans, though a bit unlikely, was certainly within the realm of possibility.
“I have not had to suffer through Ondryn’s classrooms, though even the outlanders describe him as tiresome,” she said.
“I’d say that’s an overly generous assessment. I hate how he keeps sucking up to me.”
Synda laughed. “Let him. He’ll never get anywhere. Um…”
She trailed off, not sure how to say what was on her mind.
“What is it?” Tomal asked, his tone a bit tense. Like he was worried.
Worried about what?
“Do you think you can speak to your father? About, like, us?”
“Oh! We haven’t known each other for that long.”
“True. But given my family’s deep investments in this region, I think an official arrangement would make business sense for the Sloan family. And for mine. Not that I know better than you, serjo.”
“Please, just call me Tomal, okay?”
She gulped. “Tomal,” she finally said.
Tomal turned to face her. “Synda, I really like you. You’re sharp, confident, and gorgeous.”
Her heart turned cold. Nothing good ever started with “I really like you”.
She needed love.
“But we’ve only known each other a few months. There’s no rush for this kind of thing. We aren’t humans—time’s on our side.”
Synda sniffed and hung her head. He needed to see her disappointment. Her heart ached—she was so close to making up for her failure.
“Do you care for me?” Synda asked, her voice catching.
Tomal scanned the street, then pulled Synda into a narrow space between two houses, the shadows a blanket upon them. Her hands grasped hers.
“Of course. I’m really glad I met you. I just want to give this more time.”
“How much?” she demanded.
“I don’t know! A year? You can’t just plan these things, Synda. And I don’t like to be rushed.”
“I’m not rushing you!” she insisted. “I want to know. Planning ahead is like, sensible.”
Her body seemed to quiver with each heartbeat. She needed certainty—then she could tell her parents! Prove beyond all doubt that Synda, their wretched and dishonorable daughter, had secured a marriage to one of the wealthiest families in Morrowind. Her efforts would justify the blood and tears of all their ancestors, and no one could again tell her she wasn’t wanted.
“Of course. But romance isn’t the same as a business plan—though my parents might disagree.” Tomal sighed. “Look, isn’t it enough that I love you? Can’t we enjoy the moment?”
Perhaps. But moments passed quickly. Synda took a quick look at the busy street. No one paid them heed. Then she hugged him, fiercely, as if she could just press herself inside and have him protect her for all time. She raised her face and closed her eyes. His lips met hers.
The cold vanished.
The kiss lasted but an instant, as kisses must in public. They walked back into the street, Synda hiding her boundless joy behind tight lips and cold eyes.
Tomal’s love would redeem her. Until then, she could wait.