Sweat was the enemy. Sure, Quinn had lots of enemies: cheap kohl, those lacy veils that Nibenese women wore that got stuck on your makeup, bad hair days, bad pores, and last but not least Synda Grilvayn. But of all those, sweat was the one she worried about as she trudged to Moonmoth Legion Fort with her family.
Why would anyone walk so far on a hot summer day? She knew that Tiphannia's family had hired a carriage for the trip, and that wasn't so expensive! Why couldn't mom do that? Instead the whole family had to march up rocky hills under the burning sun like a bunch of soldiers. Regular soldiers, not officers, who'd probably have horses or something.
"You know, if you'd hired a carriage we'd already be there by now!" Quinn said. She tugged at the collar of her light yellow dress, already damp with sweat. She'd need an ocean of perfume to cover the smell and she'd only brought one vial! Plus, sweat always showed up on yellow. She'd have picked a different color, but yellow went best with the red of Pelinal's Day.
"Sweetie, it's only ten miles. You used to walk farther than that on Stirk," mom said, from the front.
"But that was back then! Now, me not looking my best could be bad for this whole family! Everybody important is going to be at the fort for Pelinal's Day! "
"You mean the commemoration of Pelinal's Midyear Massacre—" Daria started.
"The Empire doesn't call it that any longer," mom chided.
"At least not when there might be wealthy Mer around," Daria added.
"Maybe we should call it that," Quinn said. She adjusted her parasol to keep the sun from burning her face. "It's the day where my fashion standards get massacred."
"You should've asked those three suitors of yours to carry you," Daria said.
"Ugh, gross! They'd have to touch me for that!"
"Here we are!" dad cheered. He pointed ahead to the squat towers of Moonmoth Legion Fort, looking every bit as barren as the surrounding hills. Dust swirled in the air, sticking to Quinn's dress and spoiling the color of the fabric.
Quinn refused to cheer. Maybe they thought it was a fun little walk, or whatever, but they didn't have to look perfect. She did. The walk would cost her big time. You only survived if you had friends, and more people wanted to be your friend if you looked good! That way they could look at something nice when they talked about business or whatever.
And because Daria would sulk in a corner like she always did at parties, Quinn would have to do double-duty representing the Morgendorffers to all the handsome young officers and minor nobles that'd be there. Didn't mom and dad see how important it was? She could secure the family's future by finding some cute guy who was really rich. Lots of people made marriage arrangements on holidays, it was like really auspicious!
Now she'd have to do all that looking as unfashionable as Daria!
The soldiers had decorated the fort as best they could, but there was only so much you could do with bare stone. At least it was cool inside. Quinn breathed a sigh of relief as they walked past the troopers standing out in front of the keep (the one on the left had been kind of cute in a scary sort of way) and entered the main hall.
She sniffed when she saw how they'd covered the walls in garish tapestries with really basic designs. Couldn't they spend a bit more? If the Empire was trying to keep everyone happy it needed to make its forts look like places where cool people would want to spend time, even if they were way out on the frontier.
Someday, she really needed to get to the Imperial Court and help them fix their spending priorities.
"Here we are, girls! The Empire's outpost of law and order!" dad exclaimed. "The home of the thin line that protects us from the barbarian hordes, the great wall where we seek shelter and gain strength!"
"Would these barbarian hordes include any of your clients?" Daria asked.
Quinn tuned them out and tallied up the other guests. Mostly other people born in Cyrodiil, which made sense because it was an Imperial holiday. She spotted Nadia Heptalla, who'd just come back from the Imperial City with all kinds of stories about the latest fashions, and who Quinn definitely needed to talk to, a lot; Agrippina Neusis, whose mom and dad were like super-rich from investing in those smelly egg mines but whose money couldn't buy fashion sense; Marco Rocullus, who was definitely cute but maybe just a little too dumb—a little dumb was better than too smart, but he took it too far, like being the kind of guy who'd once won a head-butting contest to a guar. You'd have to be pretty dumb to get in that kind of contest in the first place, and if you won it just meant your skull was even thicker than a wild animal's, so definitely not boyfriend material; Tiphannia and Satheri...
Tiphannia and Satheri! Quinn extended her arms and hurried to her two friends. Tiphannia wore a pale green moth-silk gown that was just so pretty on her, and even had those little flowers sown in on the sleeves! Satheri's dress was simpler, dark blue and thick, maybe a little too boxy around the shoulders, but still super-cute.
"I'm so glad to see you guys!" Quinn said, hugging the two of them. "Okay, so what's the battle plan tonight? Satheri, do you know any cute single guys in Great House Hlaalu who'll be here? Because I could definitely go for an Ascadian Isles vacation this summer... plus, shopping in Vivec!"
And Satheri would totally know! Her family had all the connections for both the Empire and Hlaalu because her dad ran messages from one to the other or something like that.
Her words lit a spark in Satheri's big, innocent eyes. That's what was so cute about Satheri. She could be so mild one moment, but the next she was all business.
"Okay," Satheri said, "so I know the Sloans are going to be here. They're like the richest but their son, Tomal, is kind of a dud and just reads weird books all the time. The Hlaleldro boys are here—the older one is too old but the younger one is about our age. He's kind of cute but gets boring. But get this! Turimar Shurmam will be here."
"Who's that?" Quinn asked.
"He's really hunky, and he's loaded. They say that all the girls in Vivec are in love with him and that one time he wrestled a wild kagouti to the ground! Like he grabbed it by the tusks and just forced it down, all on his own!"
"Ooh, that does sound good! Why did he do it?"
"My friend said he did it to save—get this—a human girl!"
"Great! I was going to ask if his family would be okay with him, you know, being with a human." She knew a lot of Dunmer guys said they only wanted Dunmer girls, but she'd seen the way those guys looked at her when they thought she wasn't looking back. Still, she wasn't going to date someone who had hang-ups over something so silly. Quinn was already half-Nord anyway, and they were all citizens of the Empire regardless of race.
"What do you think, Tiphannia?" Quinn asked.
"Kagouti are like... so dangerous..." As usual, she was still on the earlier part of the conversation.
Satheri beamed. "Gosh, this must be so exciting. There are a lot of cute outlander guys, too. It almost makes me wish I wasn't in an arranged marriage." Satheri eyes somehow got even bigger, and she suddenly clutched Quinn's sleeve. "But I didn't mean I'm unhappy with it! If my parents found out I was complaining they'd kill me, and the marriage won't happen and then I'll be alone forever, and you can't tell anyone—"
"Calm down, Satheri! Panic opens your pores. Remember that."
Still trembling, Satheri nodded and took a few deep breaths. And with that, she was back to normal.
That's what Quinn loved about the club. They were so supportive. Satheri and Tiphannia both looked good in ways that made Quinn look even better but didn't threaten her (and her arranged marriage meant Satheri couldn't steal any eligible guys). And best of all, Quinn could help them with her knowledge of Imperial fashion!
Which reminded her: she needed to do some serious talking with Nadia Heptalla to find out which dress colors were in right now. Quinn hadn't gotten a new dress in almost a year, so she needed to prep.
They caught up on the important things—who was seeing who, who'd bought what—until one of the Imperial Cult priests rang a bell. Quinn hurried over to where her family sat, already thinking of how much she could do that evening.
Daria sat with her parents and used alcohol to gird herself for what was sure to be a miserable evening. The fort was serving grape wine, which she hadn't had since leaving Cyrodiil. She raised a pewter cup to her lips and savored the sour taste. Good, but she had to admit she now preferred mazte. Wine reminded her of a small and lonely world surrounded by the ocean, with Quinn's complaints constant and unavoidable. Mazte made her think of comforting darkness within the Lucky Lockup and of Jane's raspy voice as they mocked the stupidity around them.
The fort's gaudy decorations somehow enhanced its bleakness, the clash of bright textile and gray stone both cheap and unconvincing. They'd be staying the night and marching back in the morning—she'd tried to talk her way out of coming, prompting mom and dad to go on an interminable spiel about the importance of Imperial patriotism.
The seating arrangements in the hall reflected the Empire's power structure. Funny how they hid things like that in plain sight. A big table at the head of the room held all the administrators, high-ranking priests, and legion types. To their right was a smaller table reserved for wealthy outlander guests, including Jolda and (less pleasantly) Karl the Unctuous. Opposite them, and to the left of the head table, was another where the well-connected Dunmer guests took their place. Daria saw Satheri, clinging to her parents like a shadow, and Briltasi, whose stepmom was the sole outlander at that table. No sign of Synda, happily; her family didn't do any business with the Empire.
Outlanders occupied the rest of the tables, decreasing in social importance the closer the table was placed to the door. The Morgendorffers, upstart bourgeoisie that they were, occupied a comfy middle spot on the chain of sycophancy.
Jane hadn't been invited, of course, so that precluded the possibility of interesting conversation. Pelinal Day would just be another opportunity for idiots to fake Imperial loyalty for the sake of networking and getting a spot closer to the head table next time around.
The priest rang the bell, and she sighed, already thinking of ways to avoid the morons that evening.
Why did food have to be so tempting?
The nice thing about Morrowind was that a lot of the food was actually healthy, even if it looked gross. No one ever got fat from eating bugs, Satheri always said. But whatever they cooked in the kitchen that night wasn't bugs but the stuff she used to eat as a kid: pork with fish sauce, porridge drenched in olive oil, and sweetened tripe. Maybe she could indulge this one time.
Nope! Nothing doing. She had an image to protect. If the Empire had to look strong, she had to look fashionable.
Her stomach growled. "Quiet," she whispered. Oh, but she could already taste the porridge, probably with little pieces of fried egg. She hadn't had that in forever!
She wondered how her old friends on Stirk were doing. Simpler times, when a girl could just be a girl.
Best to put her mind elsewhere. What she liked about big events was that the arranged seating let you see who was popular. The Ergallas were sitting right up next to the big head table now, so Sephannia's grandpa must've gotten promoted. But the Morcuris, who supposedly had a lot of money, were almost right at the door. Probably meant people wouldn't want to hang out with their daughter anymore.
One of the priestesses, a really wrinkly old lady with a whole bunch of swirly red lines tattooed on her face, stood up at the head table and raised her arms. Everyone stopped talking. Some soldiers came into the room with musical instruments: horns, flutes, drums, and a few lyres.
Ugh, it was going to be traditional Cyrodiilic music! Why couldn't they just get some bard from Skyrim or High Rock? Those places had the best songs, actual ballads with stories and romance. Not just droning noise and chants. Oh well.
The musicians started playing and Quinn faked a smile. The priestess walked to the middle of the room.
"Hearken ye to the days before Cyrodiil yet was, to the days when Mer enslaved Man..." she proclaimed.
Quinn focused on the table where all the Dunmer sat. She spotted him right away: Turimar Shurmam. He was big and brawny for a Dunmer, with enormous arms that could definitely wrestle a wild animal to the ground but that you'd feel totally safe in if he was hugging you with them. His hair was incredible too! Long, dark, with a few airy curls! He had to spend a lot of time on it to get it to look that way, and maybe that was a little weird for a guy, but who cared when he looked that good!
"...in armor star-forged and blood-streaked, Pelinal pledged death to the enemies of Man..."
And he was rich. She didn't see anyone who might be his parents over there.
"...and so Pelinal emerged from battle clad in robes of Mer entrails and his head crowned with Mer fingers..."
Turimar shifted in his seat, looking like he didn't want to be there. Maybe he was a poetic and sensitive type deep down or something, but still really brave and courageous and all that.
"...Pelinal called out Haromir of Copper and Tea into a duel at the Tor, and ate his neck-veins..."
He was her ticket out. Her whole family's ticket out! Mom and dad weren't going to get any farther. They just had clients who were usually boring business people like them. Quinn knew she was the only one who could make the jump to someone in the high life.
"...no heart beat in his chest but only the red rage of an Empire yet unborn..."
Once they got there, they'd have won. They'd be sitting almost at the head table, just like Briltasi's stepmom. Visits to the markets of Vivec and Narsis and maybe even the Imperial City. Parties, galas, and all the best dresses from the best designers in the world! She just needed to find the right guy. It was all up to her.
Daria would never cut it. Books just got you another boring job.
"...to storm the White-Gold in blood and rage and cast down the Sorcerer-Kings and break their ancestors beneath his mailed feet!"
The priestess, who was all sweaty now, let her arms fall. The music kept playing. Now for the worst part of the whole thing: the blood.
"In honor of Pelinal, let us adorn our faces with the blood of Man's foes," the priestess said.
Not real blood, at least, but still gross. Daria had said that the red paint was symbolic of Mer blood or something like that. More cult priests walked into the room and put a bowl of red paint on each table. Dad took the one offered to theirs, dipped his right hand in, and then smeared a big red streak on his forehead. Mom did the same. Daria took off her glasses first, and slathered it all over her face so that it dripped down her neck.
"This symbolic viscera doesn't quite have the right texture to be convincing," Daria said. Mom and dad glared at her. "It needs to be chunkier."
Quinn rolled her eyes. The bowl passed to her, so she put it on the table like a civilized person would, and dabbed a few fingers into the stuff. She applied some to her forehead, and then drew a vertical streak from crown to chin (horizontal lines would make her face look fat), and a bit more on her cheekbones to highlight them. Best of all, the yellow fabric of her dress matched the red!
The musicians played until everyone was done, and then they finally stopped. One of the army guys at the head table stood up.
"Thank you Sister Armatia, for reminding us of the humble and valorous origins of the First Empire. Though we live under the aegis of the Third, I do see our era as a direct continuation of St. Alessia's passion and Pelinal's fury."
He gestured over to the Dunmer notables at the Hlaalu table. "And of course, under the Third Empire, Man and Mer are now fellow citizens. The modern Imperial project is only possible through the aid of conscientious Mer citizens like the ones who have so honored us with their presence tonight. The Empire is cruel to its enemies, but only so that it can be good to its friends.
"And with our obeisances to heroes paid, let the feast begin!"
Everyone clapped. And looking at the red faces all through the room, she'd totally done the best job of applying the fake blood. If she had to pretend to be a berserk warrior, she'd look good doing it.
Snagging Turimar, and ensuring her family's future, might depend on it!
The important part of dinner, of course, came after dinner: the mingling and the dancing.
She almost didn't believe it when some trained bards came out with instruments people actually listened to, like lutes and pipes. And then couples started going to the big space between the tables and for a second the boring old stone fort felt like a ballroom in the Imperial City!
"Oh, it's been so long since I've danced," she sighed.
"Not long enough, in my case," Daria said.
She hoped she still remembered all the steps. They were dancing an allemande—was that two skips before the turn, or three?
Whatever, she had to get down to business. But first, she wanted to chat with Satheri for last-minute info about Turimar. Quinn got out of her chair and walked over, still holding her goblet.
Satheri knew style, no doubt about that, but she hadn't handled the fake blood well. She'd smeared it across one side of her face and some of it had dripped down and stained her collar.
"Oh no!" Quinn exclaimed. "Fashion emergency. Ugh, I wish they didn't use red. But it's pretty dim in here, I don't think anyone will notice."
"Uh, I hope not," Satheri said. Her shoulders were all bunched up like she wanted to hide from the world. Not a good look!
"Calm down, Satheri. You still look great."
"I do? Thanks. That stuff about Pelinal kind of scared me."
Satheri shivered. "Well, that lady was talking about how Pelinal killed Mer. I'm a Mer, Quinn."
Quinn waved her hand. "Oh, no, it's not like that! That was a different group of Mer he killed, the Ayleids or something, who were like really mean to my ancestors. I'm sure Pelinal didn't have a problem with Dunmer. He probably had a lot of Dunmer friends. All the cool Imperials do."
Satheri smiled and sniffed. "Well, we were called Chimer back then. But you think so? We didn't like the Ayleids either but sometimes humans don't—"
"I know so. Maybe he even had a Dunmer or Chimer or whatever girlfriend at some point! And he was a hero so he must've been really handsome!"
"Oh! If I'd been around back then, do you think I could've been betrothed to Pelinal? Or wait, not Pelinal, I'm sure he'd marry an Imperial girl like you, but maybe I could've been betrothed to some other hero?"
"I'm sure you would have been! And speaking of handsome," Quinn said, pointing to Turimar who wasn't dancing yet. "Anything else I should know?"
"Okay, so his dad's a noble. Turimar's set to inherit, and he does a lot of work for his dad so he'll be like super-rich!"
Quinn heard some chattering voices behind her, and looked over her shoulder. Ugh! It was them: Jonus, Julien, and Jeval.
"Quinn, will you dance with me?" Jonus begged.
"I'll dance with you twice!" Julien promised.
"I'll dance with you better than Jonus or Julien can!" Jeval offered.
"Satheri, can you distract them for me?" Quinn whispered.
"Of course! Good luck, Muthsera Morgendorffer!"
Quinn smiled. Only unfashionable people needed luck. Well, luck was still good for things like tests, but that was about it. She drew herself up and approached the handsome Dunmer.
He really looked bored. She tried to figure the best angle—be sympathetic? Challenge him? If he'd saved some random human woman—who'd better not still be dating him—than maybe she should act like she needed help. She got it: new girl confused and overwhelmed by Morrowind and who just needed a good Dunmer guy to help her out.
Quinn stood right next to the Hlaalu table. Turimar had pushed his chair back, hands behind his head and legs crossed. She inched a little closer. Just look at me, you dummy, she thought.
He kept looking straight ahead. She sighed; guys never made it easy.
Quinn raised her goblet as if to drink, and then let go so that it fell on the floor and rolled toward Turimar. Her eyes narrowed as it rolled, the contents puddling out onto the stone.
Pick it up, she thought.
The goblet finally hit his shoe and stopped. Quinn tensed up. Now was the moment.
He kept staring.
"Excuse me, sera, but I believe I have dropped my drinking vessel. Would you be so kind as to pick it up?" Quinn asked, annoyed that she had to.
Turimar finally noticed her. His chin was perfect, like you could crack walnuts with it. "Huh?"
Annoyed, Quinn put her hands on her hips. "Usually you pick something up when someone drops it."
He sure didn't seem like the kind of guy who'd fight a monster to save someone.
Turimar grunted, leaned down and picked up the goblet with one massive hand. This was more like it. Even better, he was grabbing a pitcher of wine to refill it. Things were going her way.
He refilled it, and then brought it to his lips and drank deep.
"You were supposed to give that back to me!" she protested.
"What? I'm the one who picked it up. Don't I deserve the reward?" He followed it up with a laugh.
"Ugh! You deserve a kick to the shins. I bet you never really wrestled that kagouti!"
"Sure I did. I wrestle kagouti all the time. How do you think I got these?" he raised his arms and flexed. Then he let his arms fall and made a crooked smile.
Okay, the smile was interesting. Like he was just kidding around about all that?
He then looked Quinn up and down like he was finally paying attention to her. "You don't look that bad. You want to dance?"
Did she? He was so rude! At least he didn't constantly suck up to her. Plus, he was the best prospect available according to Satheri, and she knew her stuff.
"I should turn you down. But I'll give you one chance."
"Okay," he said, getting up from his chair and going toward her.
Turimar scooped her up in his arms like she weighed nothing! Quinn gasped as he led her across the floor, his big hands wrapping around hers. This proved it: the stories (well, story, singular) about him had to be true. This guy really was the stuff heroes were made out of! So what if he had some rough edges?
Next thing she knew they were circling each other. He took her hand and guided her through a minuet, and then a gavotte. Turimar was built like a Nord but he danced between the others as gracefully as you'd expect from a Mer.
"Where did you learn how to dance so well?" Quinn asked as they settled into another allemande. She was already flushed—she probably looked ridiculous with her face covered in sweat and fake blood, but so did everyone else. This guy controlled the dance floor, and she could see how the other ladies looked at them as they glided past.
"I lived in Cheydinhal for some years. Doing business for my dad."
"You must have a lot of money."
"Tons of it. And I ain't afraid to spend for a good time. This dinky little party is nothing."
"I bet you must've gone to way better ones. I wish I could go to those."
He grinned. "You just gotta know the right people, grease the right palms."
"What do you think of Balmora?" she asked.
He made a grunting laugh. "Balmora is boring. I grew up Narsis and that place is way better. More parties, more drinks, more babes."
Quinn pretended she hadn't heard the last bit. "Balmora is really dull," she said. "I wish I could get out of here." She locked eyes with him when she said that, going for that sad look. As if she needed his help.
"You from here?"
"No." For a second, she thought about saying she was from the glitz and glamour of the Imperial City. But if this was going to be long-term it'd better to be honest. Well, not totally honest. More like two-thirds honest and one-third creative.
"I was born in Stirk, but I basically grew up in Anvil," she said. Anvil was sort of glamorous.
"Never heard of Stirk. Sounds like it's way out in the middle of nowhere."
"It's a little island off the Gold Coast. I spent most of my time in Anvil, anyway."
He smiled that crooked smile again, and it was like his eyes saw right past her. "Oh yeah? I bet you're just saying that to make yourself look good."
Quinn blushed. "No, we're a respectable family! We had a nice apartment. And now we rent a house!"
"On your way up, I see." He didn't sound like he meant it.
Now she was getting mad. But she didn't break the dance. "My dad is a big business consultant who helps Imperial merchants do their work here. And my mom's a lawyer. So yeah!"
"Take it easy. I like ambition," he said, as he twirled her past Jolda and Maiko.
"Oh, you do?"
"Sure. I say take what you can get. It's a tough world out there."
"You're so wise," Quinn said.
Relaxing, Quinn let Turimar carry her through the dances. And again she felt like she was flying, the candle lights and smiling faces spinning around her like she was the center of the world!
The musicians finally stopped. He bowed, she curtsied, and he made that crooked smile again! Quinn blushed.
So this guy was interesting. Rough around the edges, but what could you expect from someone who beat up monsters? It felt like he was just about to show her the most incredible things, and she just had to work a little harder.
Of course, he had said that thing about "babes" in Narsis. Sometimes Quinn wished she could just forget weird things other people said but her brain wouldn't let her. She guessed Daria had that same problem. Anyway, it was okay if he had a girl in every town—just as long as he cut them off once Quinn came into the picture.
Time to tell mom and dad!
Satheri never had the stamina for dancing. She knew it was unfashionable to stop early, but wasn't it also unfashionable to get too sweaty? Quinn looked good no matter what, so she could dance all night. Not everyone was so lucky.
Thus she sat down with her mother before the first set ended, and smiled when she saw Turimar bow before Quinn. Just like the Empire, Quinn always got what she wanted.
The words from the earlier speech echoed in her mind. "... and his head crowned with Mer fingers..." Satheri shuddered and again felt very sick and small.
She knew that Pelinal had only fought Ayleids, not Dunmer. And she also knew that Quinn had just been trying to make her feel better, that Pelinal probably wouldn't have drawn any distinction between her ancestors and his Ayleid foes. And that now her people were subjects of the Empire and that the point of the speech was to remind the Dunmer that they'd best cooperate so they didn't end up as dead as the Ayleids.
Satheri sniffed and drank some of her wine, wishing she were back home in her comfy adobe house and far from the drafty stone fort. The Ayleids had enslaved early humans and treated them horribly. She knew a lot of Dunmer still did awful things to Khajiit and Argonians—but not to the Imperials. Dad always said that the Empire was the best friend Great House Hlaalu had. So she didn't know what her people had done to make the Empire hate and fear them so.
She doubted any answer would make her feel better.
"Dude, Turimar's been dancing with Quinn all night!" Jonus complained.
The trio had not been dancing. Instead, they sat in the shadows and watched as Turimar took their goddess for one spin after another.
"Yeah, it isn't fair. He should give one of us a chance," Julien said.
Jeval shrugged. "We could ask some other girls."
Jonus glared at him. "No, stupid! If we dance with someone else then Quinn won't think we're into her!"
Julien's hands closed into fists. "Hey, I was just thinking. There's three of us and one of him. Maybe we should teach him a lesson."
"Are you crazy?" Jeval shook his head. "That guy's sitting right next to the head table. He's got important friends. We don't."
Jonus growled. "Crap, you're right."
"Well my great-uncle is a count in Shornhelm," Julien said. "Or maybe a baron. I forget. But I guess that's pretty far away. Let's just to get to Quinn before he does."
"I still think we should try some other girls," Jeval said. Noticing that his two friends already hurried toward Quinn, he shrugged and followed along.
The best thing about dancing with a handsome guy was gloating about it afterward. Especially to someone like Daria, who always pretended like it didn't bother her, even though it totally did.
The whole family was back at their middle place table (soon to be higher place!), with mom and dad taking a break from the dance floor. Daria had just been reading, as usual.
"Well, you certainly seemed to be dancing up a storm!" mom said.
"Yeah! Who's the lucky fella?" dad asked.
Quinn went for the coy look, eyes up to the ceiling. "Oh, just some guy. His name is Turimar Shurmam and he's really rich. I think he likes me."
"Of course he'd like you, sweetie," dad said. "Everyone does."
"So does this Turimar have any redeeming qualities? Last I checked, wealth wasn't a sign of good character, particularly when it comes to Hlaalu," Daria said, not even looking up from her book.
Quinn just smirked. "For your information, Daria, he's also a hero. He beat up a bunch of kagouti with his bare hands to save some woman's life."
Daria finally glanced over at Turimar, who was drinking with some friends. "Uh huh. And next you'll be telling me that he annexed Akavir just to impress you."
This got mom's attention. She crossed her arms and gave Daria one of those looks. "You know, Daria, you haven't been doing much tonight."
"On the contrary. I've been working very hard to avoid socializing."
"Which isn't helpful for us right now. At least Quinn is making some connections!"
"Yeah!" Quinn said.
"You gotta give them a chance, Daria", dad said.
She put down her book and glared. "Why? So you can watch me stumble over my own feet like you know I will? So I can endure the sycophantic idiots that you want to call your peers?"
"Daria, I don't have the time to argue with you," mom scolded. "This is a great opportunity for you to secure a future in this place and you're letting it slip by!"
"Maybe she's not as smart as she thinks," Quinn said.
"How can you call this an opportunity?" Daria demanded.
Mom flipped. "That's it! You will go on the dance floor once the musicians resume, young lady, and you will act like you're enjoying yourself. Make at least one social connection by the end of the night, or there will be consequences!"
"Fine." Daria put her book on the table and got up. She looked at Quinn and gave a creepy fake smile through the red blot over her face. "Have fun with your new boy toy. I guarantee he'll be as spoiled, petty, and cruel as everyone else you like."
Quinn just stuck her tongue out at Daria. That always felt good.
Daria went off to sulk while Quinn chatted with mom and dad. Most times when Quinn told mom about what she did that day, mom just nodded off. Mom listened to every boring thing Daria said for some reason—and all she got in return was attitude.
"I'm glad you met this Turimar. He sounds delightful," mom said.
"Oh, he is, mom, he really is."
"Maybe we could meet him?" dad asked.
"How about after the dance? I think the musicians are going to start again pretty soon and we don't want to rush this," Quinn said.
Mom looked worried for a second. "Speaking of rushing things... as good as Turimar seems, you haven't known him for long. You're still far too young to be married and I'm concerned that Turimar might own—"
Quinn rolled her eyes. Mom just loved worrying about things. "Oh my gosh! I'm not going to marry him tonight! But you know, maybe we can start working toward an engagement or something. I can always break it off later if I find someone better."
"That's the spirit!" dad cheered. Mom didn't seem quite as happy, but turned her attentions back to dad when the music started.
Quinn left her parents’ table but not fast enough to avoid Jonus, Julien, and Jeval, who swarmed her all at once.
"Quinn, please dance with me! I've been waiting all night!" Jonus begged.
"No, dance with me! I've been waiting since the night before!" Julien fell to his knees.
"Just dance with one of them so they shut up about it," Jeval muttered.
Quinn usually loved to give them little jobs they could fight and argue over, but she wouldn't have time to enjoy it that night.
"You know what? Grow a spine and I'll be impressed," Quinn said.
"I'll grow the best spine ever!" Jonus promised.
"I'll grow two spines!" Julien countered. "That are also the best ever!"
"Spines don't even work that way, dumbasses," Jeval muttered.
But Quinn was already long gone.
"How do I look?" Quinn asked.
She'd run over to Satheri and Tiphannia for a touch-up before the next set. She kept watching Turimar out of the corner of her eye—no way would she let some other girl grab him! Lucky for her, he was still hanging out and laughing about guy stuff (probably) with some rich Imperials.
"You look... really... good..."
"I think you're perfect," Satheri gushed. "I wish I had hair like yours. Mine gets all messy once I start moving around."
"Anyone's hair can be perfect with the right treatments!"
Turimar laughed about something. "Guys, I really should go. You're sure I'm okay?"
They both nodded and Quinn was off. Already she could imagine it: this dull party near a dull city was only the beginning of her ascent. And Turimar could show her the way. He'd been around, he knew things! Might not be easy—but Quinn could beat the competition. No one else knew fashion the way she did, from pore management to proper manicure techniques! Sure, she didn't have the same kinds of beauty routines as a noblewoman, but she knew how to improvise which was totally better, and would probably impress a tough guy like Turimar more anyway.
"... so I was dancing with this little hick girl from Stirk just now," Turimar said to his pals.
Quinn skidded to a halt. She hadn't just heard that. Or maybe there was someone else from Stirk? Other than Daria?
"I know that place. She was born on a fishing boat and washed up here?" one of his buddies joked.
"Probably. And she was all going on about her mom being a lawyer or something. Lady, my dad runs the biggest tanna plantations around Narsis. He has like a dozen lawyers on his payroll. But one thing I will say is that lowborn girls are always the easiest lays."
He might as well have hit her! Quinn's jaw dropped, her whole body suddenly cold. All that effort and he didn't care.
"Like that Nord girl who thought you'd killed a monster for her?" another one of his friends said.
"You!" Quinn shouted.
They ignored her. She quaked, and she knew right then that her face was the same color red as the paint still on it, which probably made her look really weird and blotchy but she didn't care.
"I'm talking to you!"
Turimar turned. She wanted to see fear in his eyes, like he knew he was really going to get it, that he'd lost his only chance with the best girl in Morrowind if not all of Tamriel.
But he was just wearing that same crooked smile.
Time to let him have it.
"I heard every word! Hick girl, huh? Well at least I'm not making fun of people when I think they aren't looking, or pretending to be a hero! And I don't care if your dad is some big shot in Narsis or whatever, I think you're trash!"
"Oh no," he said. "Little boat girl thinks I'm trash."
Quinn stomped the floor, clenched her teeth, and grabbed Turimar by the front of his coat and it felt so damn good to see the sudden shock on his face.
"You'll be sorry," Quinn vowed. "I'll tell everyone what I heard. You're no hero. You never fought a kagouti!"
The shock didn't last long. He grabbed her wrists and pulled her hands off his clothes with ease. "Say whatever you want. You think anyone's going to go against me when it might cost them a business deal with my dad? Hell, I'll tell people whatever I want about you. See if your folks still get any clients after that. I've got big friends in Great House Hlaalu and the Empire."
They all laughed. Turimar, his Imperial friends, the whole gang. Quinn's vision flickered.
This couldn't be happening.
Next thing she knew she was sitting on the hard stone steps outside the keep and crying her eyes out. Oh gods, she was a mess, she knew. All the makeup mixing with the fake blood which she'd been so careful to apply just right.
How could he say something like that? Everything she'd worked for was undone. And maybe the same for the rest of her family. She whimpered when she thought of mom and dad losing the house because Turimar turned all their clients against them. They'd be poor and she'd have to gather herbs and crush them to make her own cosmetics or something and she'd look like a beggar!
This was the worst day of her life.
The door opened behind her and she heard soft footsteps on the stone. Before she had time to try and fix her face, Satheri sat down beside her.
"Quinn, what happened?"
"Oh, Satheri. It was horrible." Quinn hugged her friend tight, wanting to lose herself in the hug so she forgot the entire night. She told her the whole story between sobs.
Quinn sniffed. "Uh huh?"
They let go of each other, but Satheri put her hand on Quinn's shoulder. "Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Sometimes guys like to joke about stuff like that to their friends."
And for a second, Quinn almost believed it. That made sense, right? Except it didn't. "No, I don't think it was a joke."
"Well, Turimar is part of Great House Hlaalu even if he isn't yet a noble," Satheri said, sounding nervous. "My dad says we wouldn't let bad people get that much influence. That's why we're the best Great House. And a friend to the Empire."
Quinn blinked. What was Satheri talking about? What did politics have to do with this?
Then she got it: everyone still thought Turimar was great. Including Satheri.
For a second Quinn wanted to shout at Satheri. How could she not get this? But looking at her big, sad eyes, Quinn saw that Satheri really wanted to help.
She just had no idea how.
"It's cold, I'm going back inside," Quinn said. Better to go back in. Maybe she could sulk with Daria or something. Daria would believe her about Turimar being a jerk. She thought everyone was a jerk because she was one, too.
"Great! Talk to Turimar again--"
Quin didn't wait for her to finish before going back through the open gate. Sure enough, Daria stood at the edge of the hall, arms crossed and glaring at the world. But she didn't want to hear her sister gloat about being right. Jonus and Julien argued about something—probably her—while Jeval danced with a Redguard girl. Good for him.
No way. She didn't want to talk to anyone. She just wanted to be alone.
Quinn walked with careful steps toward one of the side doors, hoping it'd lead to a cellar or something where she could stay away from everyone.
She pushed it open and saw a narrow stone landing absolutely packed with people all shouting about something.
"What's going on—"
The crowd parted and she saw Turimar Shurmam, lying on his back with his throat slit wide open.
Quinn screamed as loud as she could.
But some part of her was actually kind of glad he was dead.
"Dammit, troopers! I told you to watch the exit!" came a voice. "Keep anyone else from getting in, we don't want to start a panic."
The soldiers nearest Quinn pulled her inside and then marched out the door she'd opened, closing it behind them. The only people left in the room were three legionnaires (one was Maiko, Jolda's friend who might also be her boyfriend on the down-low), Turimar's dead body, and a woman in the creepiest outfit Quinn had ever seen. The woman's face was wrapped up in dark netch leather like she was some kind of mummy, and she wore these crazy mismatched goggles where the right eyepiece was huge and the left one was a cluster of little lenses like a bug's eye. She was mostly covered up but the few bare spots showed gray skin, so she was a Dunmer.
She held a bloody dagger in one gloved hand and a scroll in the other.
"Quinn Morgendorffer, right? I met your sister at the Talori party a few months ago," Maiko said.
"Take it easy, you're not in any trouble. Nothing's going to happen to you. You just had the bad luck to stumble into a sensitive situation."
"An insulting situation," growled the other soldier, and he gave the weird woman a nasty look.
"What happened—" Quinn started. Then she pointed at the woman. "Did she kill him?"
Maiko took a deep breath. "So before anything else, I'm going to have to ask you to be brave."
Quinn shivered. "Oh no. No one ever asks that when something good's going to happen!"
And this looked anything but good. A murder, a murderer, and a bunch of soldiers who didn't seem to be doing anything. This was like one of those coups or something!
"No, you're fine. No one else is going to die tonight," Maiko said, and he was so calm and sure that Quinn could almost believe him so long as she didn't look at Turimar's bloody corpse.
Maiko turned to the other soldier. "Sir Varro. May I make a recommendation?"
Varro made a grumbling sound. "Go ahead."
"I think it may be better to tell Quinn what happened here. We are trying to clamp down on rumors after all."
"Are you serious? This wisp of a girl? She'll gossip about it to all her friends."
Quinn shook her head. "I won't, sir."
"I trust her," Maiko said.
Varro thought about it a bit and glared at the woman again. "Very well. I suppose rumors will spread regardless of what we do."
"Quinn," Maiko said. "I'll explain what happened. But you need to promise not to tell anyone else. We will release the news later, but telling everyone now might scare some of the guests. Imperial policy is to avoid spreading panic in these situations. We definitely don't want to spoil Pelinal's Day for anyone."
Quinn's head was spinning. "Sure. I won't tell."
"Okay. Have you heard about the Morag Tong?"
The name sounded familiar. "Aren't they those thugs who really hate outlanders?"
Maiko shook his head. "No, that's the Camonna Tong. The Morag Tong is the traditional assassins' association of the Dunmer. One of their agents here," he said, pointing at the woman, "just killed Turimar. But, under the terms of the Armistice, Morag Tong killings are legal."
"What? How does that even make sense? You can't just kill people and get away with it!" Quinn protested.
"No, not normally," Maiko said. "The Morag Tong only kill members of the great houses. It's basically how the great houses handle conflicts. A few targeted assassinations is less disruptive than a full-on war."
She'd never heard of this. "So these guys go out of their way to kill the rich and popular people?"
This changed everything! How was she supposed to enjoy being married to a high-ranking Hlaalu if she always had to worry about this? Then she looked at Turimar's body and thought about all the awful things he'd said.
Did she really want to marry someone in Great House Hlaalu?
Dammit, Daria had been right. About Turimar, anyway. And what about Satheri? She'd taken Turimar's side... but maybe she wouldn't have if she'd seen what happened.
"Dunmer culture has a peculiar way of acknowledging the great chain of being," Varro grumbled. "In the west, simple men are honored to fight in the name of those greater than them. Among these savages, those who are great are expected to die from a knife in the dark so that lesser men might live."
Except Turimar was about as far from great as it got. She wondered if there was some other noble like him back in Cyrodiil or High Rock who people would've fought to defend back in the old days. The Dunmer way kind of made more sense.
"And make no mistake, assassin," Varro continued. "Legal or not, this was an insult! To kill a friend of the Empire, on Pelinal's Day, on Imperial grounds—"
The woman held up the scroll. "The Morag Tong apologizes if there has been any inconvenience," she said. "We are happy to cooperate with law enforcement officials, and any complaints about operative performance or discretion should be directed to the grandmaster through proper channels."
"It's true. She didn't break any law," Maiko said.
"Maybe not. But it's not customary. Usually you people wait until your target is in one of your cities. Maiko, arrest her and keep her in a cell. She'll be free to go when the guests leave. I will be filing a complaint."
"Wait!" Quinn said, holding out her hand. She was a little surprised she'd actually said it, but she needed to know more. "Can I ask her a few more questions?"
Varro rolled his eyes and then made a hurry-up gesture.
Looking at the assassin, she asked: "Why did you kill Turimar?"
"A public writ of execution was commissioned for his death, and I was selected to perform the service."
"I see. And who wanted him dead?"
Other than me, she thought.
"The Morag Tong respects the privacy of its clients, and will not reveal their identities. Operatives are not told the names or affiliations of their clients."
"I guess that makes sense. Can anyone hire you guys to kill someone they don't like?" Was that how it worked in Morrowind? How close had she come to getting killed? Everyone was jealous of popular people.
"No. The Morag Tong is honored to work closely with the Empire, the Tribunal Temple, and the Great Houses of Morrowind. We have an extensive vetting process for clients. Similarly, we are also judicious in the targets we choose, who are always high-ranking members of a great house."
Quinn realized she was shaking, and that she'd totally forgotten to clean up after her crying jag outside. Too bad she didn't have a mask like the assassin's.
"So I don't have to worry about getting killed by you guys? And my family doesn't either?"
"Morag Tong policy is to avoid targeting those who are not members of a great house. However, should an individual unaffiliated with a great house defend a target during the commission of an assignment, we cannot guarantee that the operative will not use lethal force against said individual."
"I guess I understand."
"Should you have any further questions, feel free to visit the Morag Tong office in Balmora. The office is open from sunrise to sundown, Mondas through Loredas. One of our representatives will be happy to meet with you."
"You guys have a public office? And anyone can just walk in?" Somehow, of all the weird things she'd come across that night, that one felt the weirdest.
"The Morag Tong seeks to be an active and constructive part of the communities in which it works."
"Did you just, like, memorize a script for this sort of thing?"
That time, the assassin responded in a much lower voice. "Trust me, kid, the script makes things way easier."
"Enough," Varro. "Maiko, take her away."
Maiko stepped up to the assassin. "Ma'am, I'm going to have to put you in a cell. We will release you in the morning."
She didn't say anything as Maiko and the other soldier marched her down the staircase. Now it was just Varro.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, citizen. As Maiko said, you must not tell anyone what you saw here for the next few days. We'll be releasing the news to the Dunmer of Great House Hlaalu first—this concerns them more than it does us. The rest will be informed later, at which point you're free to tell anyone if you're so inclined."
"Sure, I'll stay quiet until then." And she would. Quinn was too tired to do or think of much.
"Very good. You're in the Empire's service now, Citizen Morgendorffer," he said, giving a salute.
She returned it, and then walked back to the main hall, her head spinning. Everyone there was still partying. Musicians played, people danced—she saw mom and dad stumbling through another gavotte with Jolda's mom and dad.
Somehow it all seemed really silly.
Satheri ran up to her, all out-of-breath. "I've been looking all over for you! Are you okay? You aren't mad at me, are you? You left so quickly I wasn't sure. Oh gosh, I'm so sorry if I offended you—"
"It's fine, Satheri. Really." She was too tired to argue.
"That's a relief. Did you talk to Turimar? I'm sure he's really sorry that he made you mad. But it's okay if you don't want to."
Quinn didn't say anything. All she could think of was the blood pooling out under his body and the way his mouth was stuck in an open position, the tops of his teeth peeking out from behind his cold lips.
"You know what? Let's just forget about boys tonight," Quinn said.
"That's a great idea! Come on, my mom wants to know where you got your dress!"
Quinn let Satheri take her by the arm and drag her to the Dunmer table where Turimar had been sitting not that long ago.
The news broke a few days later just like Maiko had said. Mom and dad made a big deal about it, scared that Quinn would be traumatized or something. She didn't tell them about what she'd heard Turimar say. Thinking about that still hurt.
"It's fine, mom. I mean, it's sad, I get it, but it wasn't like I'd known him for long. I'm okay."
And she did feel okay, except she kind of wished she didn't. Turimar was a bad guy, for sure, but weren't you supposed to think nice things about the dead? But there wasn't anything nice to say about him.
Plus, if he was still alive, would he really try to keep mom and dad from getting clients? Maybe he'd just said that to scare her. But he had a lot of money and power. He could've done that if he'd wanted to. And if it was a choice between him being alive, and mom and dad having jobs...
She didn't really know what to think.
Quinn didn't have any lectures at the academy that Morndas so she stayed home and helped mom at the office. She finished her work and went to her room to be by herself a while, which usually wasn't something she ever wanted to be. Maybe that's how Daria got started.
She was looking out the window toward the end of the day, the sky all hot and red over Balmora, when Daria came home. Quinn knew the moment she heard the thuds of her booted feet on the floor.
"Hey, Daria," Quinn said, still looking outside.
The room got quiet. Quinn wanted to say something, but wasn't sure how. There was just so much stuff in her head!
"Sorry again about your dancing partner," Daria said.
"I'm not. You were right about him. He was a bad guy."
"Quinn, did he hurt you?" Daria actually sounded mad all of a sudden.
Quinn moved away from the window and looked at her sister, her clothes as drab as always. "No. Well, he hurt my feelings."
She explained what happened, all the nasty things he'd said, what he'd threatened to do, how Satheri had made excuses for him.
Daria sighed. "I'm sorry that happened to you, Quinn."
"You aren't going to gloat and say 'I told you so'?"
"I have some tact." Daria sat down on her bed.
"That's not all that happened. You know how he was murdered?"
"I saw the body. And I saw the creepy lady who did it! The Morag Tong or whatever," Quinn said.
"Wait, Quinn, why didn't you tell mom and dad?"
"Because the Maiko said it'd cause a panic if I told everyone! I promised him I'd keep quiet. But it felt really weird. The last three days I keep thinking about how broken Turimar looked when he was dead. And I feel bad, sort of. But I'm kind of glad, too."
"Considering he was threatening to put us in the poorhouse, I'll be glad for the both of us. Thing is, Quinn, powerful people usually aren't good people."
"But aren't they supposed to be? Like that's why they're powerful. The gods help good people so that they can help the rest of us. Like the emperor. He's good, right?"
Daria looked thoughtful for the moment. "I think he's a man with a very hard job. Look at it this way: was Turimar powerful?"
Quinn nodded. "Yeah."
"Was he good?"
"No. I don't think so. Satheri does."
"Why is that?"
Quinn hesitated. "I think it's because she just wants to see the good in everyone?" Which was sort of true. But then she thought of something else. "Or because they were both Hlaalu."
"You got it right the second time."
"So Great House Hlaalu is really corrupt, then. But now what do I do? Try to marry into some other great house? Hlaalu's the only one where the guys might marry outlander girls like us. I guess I can move back to Cyrodiil and find a human noble there."
"It's not just the Hlaalu." Daria leaned forward, her eyes getting kind of intense. "Think about Pelinal."
"The guy whose day it was?" Quinn didn't get how he fit into this.
"What did the priestess say about him?"
"I wasn't paying attention, but I know he fought a lot of Mer. Bad Mer."
"He fought the Ayleids," Daria said. "What kinds of Ayleids do you think he killed?"
Quinn shrugged. "I don't know, I'm not some kind of history geek! Like warriors or something."
"So when he stormed their cities and burned them to the ground, do you think he only killed warriors?"
"Uh, I guess?" But Quinn didn't believe it. A city was full of people. Women, kids, old people. "No. He must've killed girls like us, too."
"The popular histories leave that bit out, but the older ones tell the whole story. Pelinal was a vicious fanatic. One time he slaughtered a whole tribe of Khajiit just because he associated them with Mer."
Quinn shook her head. "But that can't be! Why would we celebrate someone like that?"
"Because he did help our ancestors overthrow the Ayleids. Who did do horrible things to us. And also, because people like having a hero. Almost every human in that room thought Pelinal was a great guy, just like Satheri thought Turimar was one."
"Daria, I'm not as smart as you! What are you trying to say?"
"Just that you can't always trust what people tell you."
"Then who do I trust?"
"Your own sense," Daria said. "You saw that Turimar was a bad guy. You don't have to pretend he was good."
"So we shouldn't have any heroes?"
Daria looked unsure for a moment. "I guess pick them carefully. Personally, I'm used to disappointment so I try not to think much of anyone. That way, I don't feel too bad when they turn out to be crummy. But if you see someone who tries to help, who's fair-minded and doesn't abuse their power, than it's probably okay to consider them provisionally good until you get sufficient evidence to the contrary."
Quinn giggled. "That's kind of a lot, Daria. I don't think I'm ever going to be that cynical. But I get what you mean. Everyone wants to believe that there are great people out there looking out for them. I know that makes me feel good. And maybe some of those great people really are great! But you can't take it for granted."
Daria smiled. "I think you're a quick learner."
"Only when it comes to important things." Quinn stood up. She realized she'd been inside all day! "You know, I might drop by Satheri's house, just to say hi."
"Hmm. Do you think you can trust her?"
"I'm kind of mad at what she said. But I think she'd have taken my side if she'd heard Turimar. She just wasn't ready to believe he was bad."
Daria took off her glasses, squinting as she examined the dusty lenses. "Personally, I wouldn't give her a second chance. But she's your friend, not mine. So not my call to make."
"Right. Thanks, sister."
"Don't get all mushy on me," Daria said, putting her glasses back on and grabbing the nearest book.
Quinn laughed as she put on her shoes and walked downstairs, ready to actually have some fun.