Daria decided that she hated Sera Ondryn's smile. Most of the Dunmer she'd seen scowled, and if a typical Dunmer smile was anything like Ondryn's, that was probably for the best. He kept it on as he introduced himself in a soft and tremulous voice, the solicitous expression made all the creepier by the fixed look in his red eyes. Standing at the head of his adobe classroom, its deep and dusty shadows somehow made darker by the flickering light of a half-dozen tallow candles, Ondryn smiled even wider. The students, seated at long wooden benches, writing slates on their laps, remained stone-faced.
"Outlander," he said. "It's a kind of a scary word, isn't it? Hearing it makes you feel like you don't belong."
No one had called Daria an outlander to her face but she'd heard the word plenty of times already.
Not, she reminded herself, that she particularly cared what anyone here thought. The boors in her old hometown had been one kind of stupid, and the ones here were a different kind. But stupid never changed.
Daria grimaced. The thick lenses of her spectacles seemed to warp her shadowy surroundings, blurring and stretching the faces of her peers—all outlanders like her, except for one Dunmer girl at her side. Daria took them off for a moment, blinking to restore her equilibrium.
"But I'm here to help you feel like you belong. Great House Hlaalu is a friend to the Empire, and we believe there's a place for everyone, even outlanders! Outlander just means you're from somewhere outside Morrowind. It doesn't mean that we don't like you."
Daria checked herself. Daughter of an Imperial legal advocate and a Nord merchant. Reasonably well-connected. However xenophobic the Dunmer might be, the Empire still ruled them.
What the hell.
She put her glasses back on and raised her hand. Ondryn's eyes caught the motion.
"Yes, uh... Doria?"
"Daria," she corrected. "If being an outlander doesn't mean you're a bad person, why is it always used as an insult?"
Ondryn gulped. "Well, uh... look, just let me get through this part and we can have some discussions later. Anyway, everyone here is welcome..."
Daria narrowed her eyes. She'd hoped to offend him, at least, but Ondryn seemed too squishy to get angry at anyone. This would be a boring session.
The Dunmer girl leaned in.
"Don't expect him to answer any questions. He's got the speech memorized. Just enjoy the nice man's soothing voice."
"How am I supposed to follow him if he's so disingenuous?" Daria wondered again why this Dunmer was with the other foreigners.
"I can fill you in later. I've done this three times."
The weather worsened as Daria stepped out of the Drenlyn Academy compound. Sheets of rain fell from the thick and curdled gray sky, smashing into the adobe roofs and turning the Odai River into a churning soup. Porters packed the streets, bent under the weight of crates and bulging sacks.
Suffused through the rain was the thick and sour smell of the local cuisine. It all came from kwama—kwama bugs and kwama eggs: smashed into paste, drained and served as soup, roasted in their shells, or served with bitter hackle-lo leaf. But always sour, like bad cheese left out for too long in the sun. The smell seeped into every mud-brick apartment and paving stone in Balmora, and she was pretty sure the rest of Morrowind smelled the same way.
She'd never wanted a loaf of bread so badly in her life.
A gaunt Dunmer farmer walked past, his gray hands clasping the reins of his two-legged pack lizard. Daria was pretty sure it was a guar—or maybe a kagouti? Its beady lizard eyes studied her for a moment, Daria's pink skin and round face perhaps a novel sight for such a creature.
The Dunmer girl from the orientation stood next to the lantern, her crimson eyes observing Daria. Her gray skin marked her as one of the natives, but her clothes, a shabby red coat and black trousers, were pure Imperial. Her first name, Janieta, more often called Jane, was also Cyrodiilic.
"What's your story?" Daria asked. "You're not an outlander, so why were you in the orientation?"
"Don't let the looks fool you," Jane said. "I'm as outlandish as you are."
"But you're a Dunmer."
"Yes, I'm Dunmer and an outlander." Her angular face hardened for a moment, but then relaxed. "Just being Dunmer isn't enough for Morrowind. You have to be born here, too. I spent my first five years in the Imperial City."
"Five years away from Morrowind and you're an outcast?"
"Oh, well those were five critical years. I mean, if you don't get potty trained in the traditional Dunmer way you'll just never fit in."
"Just so long as you are potty trained."
Jane smirked. "Come on, I know a place where they occasionally serve some outlander drinks for people like us. If nothing else, we can dry out for a bit."
Daria tightened her green woolen robe and followed Jane west along the river. Her mother had told her to try and make friends. Jane hadn't done anything to annoy her yet, so that was a start.
"What's that you're wearing over your eyes?" Jane asked, her smoky voice pushed to the limit to be heard over the crowd.
"They're called glasses. I'm basically blind without them."
And basically blind with them considering the rain. She raised a hand to keep the ungainly device in place. It didn't take much for the things to slip off the bridge of her nose. Her family had money, but not to the point where they could casually buy a replacement pair, especially not out here.
"Huh, I've never seen anything like that. Is it a Dwemer artifact? I've heard you can buy those if you're Imperial."
"No, it was made in Anvil by a specialist. If you want to judge me for them, go ahead. I'm used to it."
"Nah, they're a good look. Not often I see something genuinely new in Balmora."
True to Jane's word, the Lucky Lockup was dry.
Daria and Jane sat at a table next to a support post, beneath a reassuringly familiar metal lantern. Faded tapestries covered the rough adobe walls to ward off the northern chill. The smoky air buzzed with murmurs in a dozen different languages. A free Argonian woman sat on a rug in a shadowed corner, her emerald-scaled hands gently beating a pair of hand drums, the percussion as steady and smooth as a spring rain back home.
The publican sold Cyrodiilic brandy but not at a price either of them could afford. Jane instead ordered a bottle of a local drink called shein, along with a loaf of bread and a bowl of sour-smelling scrib jelly.
"The food isn't bad, but it does take some time to get used to it," Jane said, as she dipped her bread into the mashed insect guts.
Her stomach churning, Daria sipped the shein from her earthenware mug. The drink wasn't bad, actually: bitter with a faintly sweet aftertaste.
Outside the building, the castle-sized silt strider standing at port let out its long and mournful wail, redolent of the ash-swept land it called home. The whole cornerclub seemed to shake at the noise. At least Daria didn't flinch that time. She must be getting used to things.
"I don't get it, Jane. You've been at the academy for years. Why do you keep retaking the orientation?"
"It's a good way to network. No self-respecting Hlaalu noble will hire an outlander like me to paint them, but there are plenty of upstart outlander merchants who'd just love to get their images captured by a native artist."
"A native?" Daria raised her eyebrows.
"As far as they know. I paint them in the usual Imperial style so they don't get all uncomfortable. Make the angles a little sharper. That way it seems suitably native and Morrowind-y. Then they hang it up in their homes and no one's the wiser."
Daria nodded. Life in Morrowind as a lot more complicated than she'd been led to expect.
"My family sent me here to be trained as a savant," Daria said. "That way I can use my knowledge to help rich families avoid taxes and skirt the law."
Jane's lips turned up in a hard smile. "Then you'll have plenty of opportunities here in Balmora."
"From what you say I'll have to stick with outlander families like mine."
"Oh, not at all."
Daria frowned. "Didn't you just say that Hlaalu nobles wouldn't hire outlanders?"
"They won't hire misfit Dunmer like me. They think I'm a traitor for not being born in Morrowind. You, on the other hand, are Imperial—"
"I'm only half," Daria corrected. "My father's a Nord."
"Trust me, it's all the same to them. The point is, the Hlaalu hate the Empire but love to ingratiate themselves with the Empire's rich—or failing that, the Empire's moderately prosperous."
Daria nodded. "So in Morrowind, corruption and favoritism are rampant, the nobles stack the deck against everyone else, and life is all around miserable?"
"Nice to know some things are the same the world over."
Jane took a bite of bread. No longer able to deny her own hunger, Daria tore off a piece. Bracing herself, she stared at the bowl of scrib jelly, gray and glistening in the lantern light. Holding her breath, she took her bread and scooped up a big chunk of the stuff and jammed it into her mouth before she could chicken out.
A roiling shock ran from the tip of her tongue to the pit of her stomach the moment she tasted the jelly, thick and viscous and oh so sour. She forced her teeth to close on the bread, the familiar texture fighting a losing battle with the slick alien condiment. Something crunched—maybe a tail segment or a leg. She didn't want to know.
Somehow she choked it down. She swallowed and then grabbed her cup, raising it to her mouth for a deep gulp. The harsh taste of fermented comberry obliterated the jelly's noxious flavor.
Jane gave a little cheer and clapped. "You did it! Trust me, it gets easier."
"How do you people eat this stuff?" Daria wondered. She drank some more shein.
"We people?" Janieta raised an eyebrow. "Far from me to defend Morrowind, but when bugs are all you have, you get creative with what you consider edible. This stuff will fill you up."
"I guess it was pretty hearty," Daria said, feeling a little abashed.
She didn't like the Imperials who looked down on the Mer, Beastfolk, and other races of Men. She was half-Nord herself. Dunmer society was awful—she knew they still enslaved Khajiit and Argonians in the remote parts of Morrowind—but it wasn't like the Empire forced them to stop.
It was just that nothing about Morrowind felt like home.
"The Lucky Lockup's not a bad place, as Balmora goes," Jane said, her eyes settling on a party of nervous gold-skinned Altmer, their narrow shoulders draped by mantles of still-fluttering dragonfly wings.
"I haven't seen many other places here, so I couldn't say."
"The Lockup gets lot of visitors. Caravaners from the South Gate, pilgrims spilling out from the strider port, Bitter Coast fisherman coming up the Odai. I sit here and I get ideas, and then I paint them. Or sketch them, at least."
Studying the transient population, Daria could see what Jane meant. The place felt like everywhere.
And also nowhere.
The rain stopped by the time they left the cornerclub. Dark clouds fled at the rays of setting sun, red as blood in the west. The air was clean at least, no longer heavy with that doused campfire smell that usually hung over Balmora.
"I should probably get home," Daria said. "It was nice meeting you."
"Do you live around here?"
"My brother and I rent an apartment in Labor Town, not far from the Odai."
"Okay. I'm in the Commercial District. My mother—"
Daria paused as a familiar, high-pitched voice made itself heard over the chatter of the late afternoon traffic.
"... pastel yellow is so in right now! Everyone in Cyrodiil is wearing it."
The sight of Quinn's red hair, so bright and bold in the drab streets, confirmed it.
"Everything all right?" Jane asked.
"See that redhead over there?"
"The overdressed one?"
"Yeah. That's my sister," Daria said. "Overdressing is what she does."
Quinn walked with a quartet of Dunmer girls her age, all of them garbed in robes stitched with elaborate abstract patterns. They listened intently as Quinn walked up to the door of the cornerclub next to the Lucky Lockup.
"You said she's your sister?" Jane's voice tightened.
"Daria, just trust me on this."
Jane bolted toward Quinn. The younger Morgendorffer didn't notice until Jane jammed her booted feet into a muddy puddle right next to her. Daria distinctly saw her new friend kick the filthy water right onto Quinn's gown before running off toward the riverbank crowd.
The resulting screech could probably be heard throughout the entire province.
Quinn looked down at her ruined yellow dress, and then to her friends. And then her eyes locked on Daria.
"You! This is your doing, isn't it!"
Daria just blinked, too confused to react.
"Come, Lady Morgendorffer," said one of the Dunmer girls. "We can get you cleaned up inside—"
"No! I can't be seen like this—I have to go! You can blame my... my cousin over there!"
Quinn stormed off with her face buried in her hands, her wailing audible at some distance until the silt strider repeated its lonely call. The Dunmer girls who'd been walking with her simply shrugged and walked away.
"What the hell was that?" Daria demanded.
She hurried toward the river market. Her supposed friend was still there, tightly gripping the fabric of her thin red coat.
"What was that all about?" Daria demanded. "Normally I'm thrilled when someone takes Quinn down a peg, but what did she do to you?"
Jane exhaled. "Nothing. I was doing that for her, not to her."
Daria hesitated. She sensed this was serious. "Okay, I'm listening. But I don't know if I can forgive you for temporarily rousing my long-dormant big sister instinct."
"Your sister was about to step into the Council Club. That's not a place for outlanders."
"So what? It's too special for some dirty Imperial to visit?" Maybe Jane wasn't as open-minded as she'd seemed.
"No, dammit! You aren't listening! That's where the Cammona Tong meet. They. Do. Not. Like. Outlanders. People disappear there, Daria. And whoever those friends of Quinn's were? They knew that. You need to tell her not to spend time with them."
Daria shivered in spite of her thick robe. Only now did she realize how far from Cyrodiil she really was.
"Thank you. Is Quinn in danger?"
"Maybe. Now that I think about it, the Cammona Tong would've probably just thrown her out. Even they wouldn't be bold enough to kill some Imperial teenager who wandered in. But you do not want to cross the people in the Council Club. Being an Imperial—or acting like one—won't always be enough to save your hide out here."
Jane had been smart about it, Daria realized. Quinn would have never listened to a warning from a total stranger, not when she was trying to impress her friends. Thus, best to make it look like an accident or a prank.
"I'd better get home and talk to her. Will I see you at school tomorrow?" Daria asked.
"That's the plan. Take care."
Daria hurried up the street, wondering how she was going to fix the damage.
Daria returned home to find her mother, Helen, seated at the office, still poring over a stack of documents. Mom had spared no effort in ensuring that her base of operations befitted a legal advocate trained in the time-honored Imperial ways. Tomes and scrolls filled the polished rosewood bookshelves, and not so much as a speck of dust dared touch the flagstone floor. Candles burned in the small marble shrine to Julianos embedded onto the far wall, the god's symbol of a triangle over an open scroll recreated in a mosaic above a basin filled with scented water.
Mom did not look up from her work. Her scribe, a young Breton woman named Marianne, smiled and nodded at Daria's entry.
"I need to talk to my mother," Daria said, quietly.
"How important is this, Daria?" mom replied, still not looking up. "I'm up to my ears in cases from the local merchants! Honestly, I don't know why they think Imperial law will protect them from bad local investments!"
"Potentially very important."
That time, mom paid attention. She knew the tone of voice.
"Marianne, you can head home for the day. It's almost night, anyway," mom said.
Once Marianne left, Daria explained the situation. Her mother's face turned white as soon as she mentioned the Cammona Tong.
"Quinn!" mom shouted. "Get down here this instant!"
Even Quinn's footsteps sounded sulky as she descended the staircase. "What's wrong?"
"Were you at the Council Club today?" mom demanded.
Quinn's expression changed to one of calculating innocence. "Of course not, mother! I was studying—"
She pouted. "Okay, fine! I was! But I made a really nice friend named Synda, and she wanted to show me around!"
"I don't want you spending time with this Synda!"
"Listen to me, Quinn. There are some very bad people in Balmora, and they run the Council Club. It's a dangerous place for people like us."
"What? The only danger I was in was from that weird girl who was with Daria! She completely ruined my dress!"
"Jane did you a favor," Daria said.
Mom reached out and grasped Quinn's shoulders. "I need you to understand something: we are very, very far away from the emperor's light right now. Balmora is mostly a safe place, but there are dangers for people like us. I forbid you from going to strange cornerclubs."
"But mom! This is just some prank that Daria—"
"Daria, that goes for you as well."
Daria blinked. "What did I do?"
"Nothing, but restricting you both is impartial and it's common sense. Girls your age have no business being in sketchy taverns. Maybe when you're married and established professionals, but not now!"
Quinn drew back, eyes already filling with her on-call tears. "I hope you know you've ruined my social life!"
She spun around on her heels and stormed up the stairs. Mom leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temples.
"Where's dad?" Daria asked. "He should know about this too."
"Late night for him, they're having a networking session in High Town." She sighed. "I did not think living here would be so difficult."
"Wait, hold on. Why can't I go to cornerclubs?" Daria asked. "It's not like Jane's going to lure me into some seedy den and rob me. Well, she won't rob me at any rate."
"Like I said, it's not a good look. And as foreigners we are under scrutiny. I don't want the Dunmer to think Imperial girls are a bunch of cavorting hedonists! If you absolutely must go somewhere I'll allow you and Quinn to visit Eight Plates, so long as you have an adult chaperone."
Daria crossed her arms. "I see. And I suppose you'd be giving me the same talk if I were your son?"
"I don't make the rules, Daria. I just try and live by them."
"Yes, because following rules is the best way to get them changed."
"I'm not in the mood right now. What's important is that you keep an eye on your sister."
Sighing, Daria nodded. "I will."
"Maybe you've fooled mom, but you haven't fooled me!"
Hearing her sister's shrill voice behind her, Daria put down her copy of A Dance in Fire. She first looked out through the narrow adobe-framed window of the second story room they shared, the stars outside a gleaming halo around the bloated red moon of Masser. Taking off her glasses, she closed her aching eyes and massaged them through the lids.
"Quinn, I don't think you understand how serious—" she began.
"How serious? Daria, we're here to spread Imperial culture to these barbarians—I mean, people! How am I supposed to do that if I can't make friends with the popular Dunmer? Now the future of the Empire might be doomed because of you and mom!"
Daria put her glasses back on and pushed back from the desk. She turned around to face Quinn. They both needed to go to bed soon. Mom and dad wouldn't want them to use up more candles.
"Yes," Daria said. "The Empire survived the Akaviri invasion and the Simulacrum Crisis, but is sure to fall apart if you fail to make enough vapid friends."
"You don't get it Daria. You might like being alone all the time." Quinn raised a hand to her brow and raised her eyes to the ceiling. "But I will wither and die without friendship." Her delivery was worthy of a performer's.
"That sounds like a personal problem. Look, maybe you weren't in as much danger as Jane thought, but even mom agreed you shouldn't be going into strange cornerclubs."
Quinn lowered her hand and smirked. "Neither should you."
"Damn impartiality," Daria said.
Hopefully Jane would be okay with spending time at a different place.
"And you're both being so unfair to Synda! She's from a very reputable family. Who knows how many opportunities we might lose if I don't hang out with her?"
Better losing opportunities than losing you, Daria almost said.
"We'll survive," she said instead.
"Maybe. But mom's right about one thing: we do need friends here. And if we don't get any, things are really going to suck."
Quinn refused to talk after that. Daria took off her glasses again, crawled into her bed, and blew out the last candle. Darkness sometimes healed wounds—she remembered Quinn occasionally, always indirectly and circuitously, admitting fear or error in the long winter nights back in their old Stirk home. Hell, occasionally Daria did.
But only silence that night, Quinn soon breathing peacefully in her own bed on the other side of the room. Unceasing, the sounds of the city rose up to their window. Porters spoke in harsh Dunmer voices and guar claws clicked on the paving stones. Worse then the noise was the endless sour smell, a hundred plates of insect mash letting off their stench into the night sky.
"Hey there, kiddo!"
Dad didn't even look up from the kitchen table as Daria walked down to the first floor, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes. The morning sun, made lurid by Red Mountain's fumes, cast crimson rays through the kitchen's slot-like windows.
"Morning," Daria mumbled, her voice barely comprehensible.
"You know," dad said, "at first I wasn't so sure about the stuff the Dunmer ate. Bugs are so... ewww. But then I started thinking: Jake! Bugs are just protein, perfect for a strong and healthy man like you. So I took the liberty of buying a fresh bug egg last night. Thought I'd surprise your mother."
He stepped aside and gestured at the veiny egg sitting on the table, big enough to hold a medium-sized dog.
"You're right about one thing. She will be surprised," Daria said.
Dad paid her no heed. "This is going to make a great omelette!"
"If that thing goes rotten we'll never get the smell out of here. Not that I'm sure we could tell the difference," Daria said.
"Nonsense! It'll be in our bellies way before that'll happen. So let me see... the man said to open it at the top... or was it the bottom? I'm pretty sure he said the top."
Father picked up the large butcher knife and eyed the egg the way a warrior might study a foe for a weak spot. He made a quick swing and the knife embedded itself in the surface.
"Huh, this looks like a tough one," he said.
"Do you want me to ask the neighbors?" Daria offered. "They might actually know how to prepare this."
"Nah, I got this. Let me try the mallet..."
He wrenched out the knife and picked up a wooden hammer from the table. That time, he pressed the knifepoint against the surface as he would a chisel and raised the hammer for a decisive blow.
"I really don't think that's a good—" Daria started.
Dad struck and the knife plunged into the leathery shell. "Got it!" Dropping the hammer, he grabbed the knife handle with his right and cut to the side.
A jet of sickly ichor sprayed out from the opening and into his face.
"It's attacking me! Daria, get your sister out of here! Save yourselves!"
Daria's stomach roiled once she smelled it, the stench like something you might find in an old boot buried under a butcher shop's offal heap.
It spurted again. "Gah!" dad shouted.
Deciding to get breakfast on the way to school, Daria made a quick exit.
"Wait, was the egg fertilized?"
It was lunch, and Daria and Jane sat in the shade of the emperor parasol growing in the courtyard. The towering old mushroom smelled a bit musty but at least gave them privacy from their fellow outlanders.
Daria had been relating her father's encounter with the kwama egg.
"No idea," Daria said.
"It must have been if it was squirting like that. Ooh, that means there's a partially formed scrib in there that your dad can serve for dinner!"
"Dad's probably going to be taking a long recuperative break from kitchen duties after this. Very possibly at mom's insistence."
Jane nodded. "Tell him to get an unfertilized kwama egg next time. Those you can just open up and fry. They're pretty good, and cheaper to boot. And if he doesn't want the scrib, I'll take it! Scribs taste a lot better before they hatch."
Looking at her own lunch, a loaf of bread and a skin full of lukewarm water boiled last evening, Daria wondered how long she could last before embracing the local cuisine. She chided herself for being so myopic. Weirdness was only a matter of perspective. There was nothing intrinsically normal about eating steak and potatoes. She just wished Dunmer cuisine didn't smell so unwholesome.
Unwholesome to her, she reminded herself.
She glanced around the courtyard. Ten squarish adobe structures, the surfaces smoothed out in the stately Hlaalu manner, crammed together in an enclosure and surrounded by a wall made of the same. Six buildings for instruction, one for a library, one for administration, one for storage, and one for a privy. All of the students present that day huddled together in their little cliques. Outlanders gathered with outlanders and native Dunmer stayed with their own, with one notable exception: Quinn was still with that same crowd. The leader, Synda, listened as Quinn chattered on about the latest sartorial irrelevance. The hackles on Daria's neck rose.
"What do you know about Synda?" Daria asked.
"Her? She's the kwama queen of her little hive, all of them trying to be more stylish than each other—but never more stylish than her. Honestly, she's not that big of a deal, but her family is. I know her mother's a bonded agent to Great House Hlaalu."
"I don't like Quinn spending time with her. And I definitely don't like being made to show concern for Quinn."
Jane turned her eyes to Synda. "I might have overreacted yesterday. I don't think the Cammona Tong would've done anything worse than embarrass Quinn. But they aren't nice people. The whole reason they set up shop in front of the strider port is so they can watch who comes and goes, and occasionally bully a confused traveler who thinks he'll get a warm bed at their place."
A little annoyed, Daria turned her gaze to Jane. "So was she in danger or not?"
Jane just shrugged. "That's the problem with Morrowind. You can never be sure."
"Is Synda part of the Cammona Tong?"
"Nah," Jane scoffed. "She's just a rich girl with a mean streak."
Synda stepped closer to Quinn. Her pouty lips turned up in a faint and mirthless smile, a bit like Ondryn's when he was about to talk about togetherness or confidence. She spoke, and Daria imagined the verbal poison leaping out from her tongue.
"Hold on," Daria said, standing up from the ground.
"I'm going to stop this the only way I know how: by embarrassing my sister in front of her friends."
Daria set off before she'd really figured out what to do. All the frustrations of the past month boiled in the back of her brain. The harsh looks, the weird food, the ugly words always spoken at the edge of hearing.
She was of the Empire, and she wasn't going to let some barbarian threaten her sister!
Quinn saw Daria approach and made a shooing gesture with her hands.
"Oh hi!" Daria said, trying to sound like an ingenue. "You never introduced me to your friends, Quinn!"
Synda cast a baleful glare her way. "Who is this... person?"
"She's, uh, my servant!" Quinn said. "My parents hired her because no one else would take her. Servant, would you—"
"Don't be silly, Quinn! Everyone, Quinn's my sister!"
Daria threw her arms around Quinn and squeezed as tightly as possible. "And we're the best of friends!" she continued, raising her voice as high as it could go (which still wasn't high).
"Stop it!" Quinn hissed.
Synda crossed her arms, her smile as sharp as a knife. "Your sister certainly seems interesting, Quinn. Perhaps you should introduce us."
Quinn finally disentangled herself and stepped back, her cheeks red. Exhaling, she faced Synda. "No, she's not my sister. I told you, she's a servant. I think she might've been out in the sun too long," she said, adding a false laugh at the end.
"Is she your sister, or isn't she?" Synda asked.
Quinn opened her mouth as if to speak, her face frozen in uncertainty.
"Because," Synda continued, "I certainly would not trust someone inconstant enough to deny their own family."
"Come, I don't think there's room for Quinn in our society. Maybe the Imperials don't care about family loyalty, but we do."
"Wait—come back!" she called as the quartet raised their noses in the air and turned their backs to her, walking away on quick little steps that barely disturbed the dark fabric of their dresses.
Quinn whirled back toward Daria, her face livid.
"How could you?"
Daria had to admit that hadn't gone the way she'd expected. Quinn always tried to distance herself. No one had minded such things in Cyrodiil—just the usual backbiting common to young people.
"You're better off," Daria said. "Those people are not your friends. Mom warned you not to spend time with them."
"How would you know what a friend is? It's not like you've ever had any."
Daria sucked in her breath. She remembered all those years puttering around in her mother's darkened library listening to the laughter and jokes in the other rooms, everyone in Stirk adoring Quinn's rosy cheeks and pretty smile and bright tone. So unlike Daria's monotone voice and flat affect.
Like they weren't sisters at all.
Daria blinked away her tears. "I do have a friend now. This time, you don't. Find some. It's always been easy for you."
She walked away, no longer sure if she'd made the right choice.
Daria spent a dusty afternoon under Ondryn's questionable tutelage, learning the tiresome etiquette of properly addressing a letter sent to a priest of Morrowind's Tribunal Temple.
"I have tremendous respect for all faiths," Ondryn said, at the beginning of the lesson, "but now that you are in Morrowind, it'll make things easier—dare I say, more fun—to learn about the three living gods who protect and guide the Dunmer. And who knows? Maybe they'll protect your people too! The important thing is that we can all be together and reach our full potential under the Tribunal!"
Nothing made sense. Quinn was in danger—except even Jane thought she might not have been. Synda was bad news—but probably harmless. And there Daria was, trying to navigate her way out of the mess.
She looked up to the ceiling, the adobe surface crossed with wooden support beams. Daria didn't miss her home, exactly. But she was starting to, and that worried her. Better the dry hills and red-shingled villas of Stirk than this endless morass of insects and fungus and volcanoes!
Somehow, the matter didn't feel settled. Daria hated to admit it, but part of her wanted to get back at Synda for what she'd said to Quinn. Foolish, perhaps. The issue was basically solved. Or was it? How could she be sure?
In the old days, she'd be able to think of a way around things. People's habits (usually their bad ones) created weaknesses she could exploit. Morrowind threw everything awry. The rules here were different for people like her. So maybe she'd just be direct this time. Direct, with all the weight of the Empire behind her.
Daria found Synda loitering in the courtyard after the session ended, the afternoon bright but cold. Synda might not be nobility but she carried herself like someone used to authority. Angular Daedric script ran along her dark blue gown, the hemline and the ends of the sleeves gilded. Fashion was foreign to Daria, but she knew expensive when she saw it.
"We need to talk," Daria said.
Synda looked at her but said nothing.
"Why did you take my sister to the Council Club yesterday?"
"Forgive me," Synda said. "For I'm not familiar with your sophisticated Imperial ways. Where I come from, it's customary to take your friends to interesting places. Perhaps Imperials prefer not to share such things with friends? Loyalty does not appear to be your people's strong suit."
"My sister had her reasons," Daria said, and almost couldn't believe she'd said it. "And my 'people' don't take friends to places run by criminals. Unless they're criminals themselves."
Synda drew herself up to her full height (which wasn't very much). "I don't know what you're talking about. The Council Club is run by some of the most respectable Dunmer in Balmora. You had best be careful what you say about them."
Daria suddenly suspected she was in over her head. But there was no place to go but forward. "And you'd best be careful where you take my sister."
"Oh, I will be."
They stared for a few moments longer. Daria felt a moment of gratification when Synda finally sniffed, made a motion as if to brush dirt off her dress, and walked away.
The problem hadn't been solved. But maybe it was a step. She wished she could just make it disappear with a smart remark. The odds didn't favor her, here.
She'd just have to be smarter than ever.
School ended for the day. Daria pretended to read as she watched Quinn plead with Synda, her sister probably spinning all kinds of excuses in some desperate attempt to get back in her tormentor's good graces. Quinn never had trouble making friends. Why was she so fixated on this particular Dunmer?
Probably because Quinn was as alone, scared, and confused as Daria was. Jane at least felt like a lifelong friend by virtue of explaining the place to Daria in a way that made some sense. Could she be trusted, though? If Jane was planning something, there'd be no way for Daria to find out. Not in Morrowind.
She dismissed this as unlikely. Jane was Dunmer, but she was also a fellow outlander. That put them in the same benighted social stratum. Synda, on the other hand, was an insider.
Quinn finally gave up and left the school, with head held high but lips quivering. Daria caught up to her and Quinn's mouth suddenly straightened, her eyes hard. Of course she blamed Daria for all this, but at least they maintained a stony silence as they walked home. Inside, the odor of spilled kwama egg still lingered in the air. Quinn gagged the moment she stepped across the the threshold. No one else was home at the moment—Daria assumed that her mother was meeting some of the other advocates.
Putting her hand over her mouth and nose, Daria braved the kitchen. Dad had cleaned up as best he could but smears of egg yolk still streaked the tables and floor. He'd tossed the ruined egg in the metal wash basin.
Trying to ignore the worsening stench, she looked into the jagged opening made by her father's clumsiness. Sure enough, some kind of gray fleshy thing coiled up at the bottom of the egg, encased in filmy yolk and other fluids.
She remembered Jane's comment about the larva. Not quite believing what she was doing, Daria went upstairs and grabbed some clean linens. Taking them back downstairs, she laid them on the table next to the sink, still trying not to breathe too deeply. She rolled up her sleeves, ignored her fear, and then plunged both her arms into the egg.
Her hands broke through the cold and oily film, fingers probing the slimy larval flesh underneath. Daria's gorge rose. Her cheeks puffed out.
If her glasses fell in there...
Daria gritted her teeth. Eyes watered from the smell and the feel, but she focused. At last she found a harder surface. Digging in with her heels, she pulled, the larva loosening with a series of wet pops. She lifted it out, and moments later found herself cradling a curled pinkish-gray... well, it looked more like a centipede the size of her arm than anything else. A translucent, segmented shell ran along the back and a half-dozen tightly curled legs flanked the underbelly.
Daria Morgendorffer: Insect Midwife, she thought.
She decided she'd stick with her savant training for a while longer.
Daria laid it out on the linens and wrapped the thing up as best she could. Then she walked over to the pump and worked the lever to splash water on her slimy forearms, and then mixed in some soap for a second rinse. Getting the stuff off her made her feel a bit better about the whole thing.
Placing the scrib in a canvas bag, she headed off to Jane's.
The endless adobe rows of Labor Town served as a shabby reflection of the Commercial District across the river. Workmen and porters crowded the streets cheek to jowl, trudging under the watchful eyes of bonemold-armored Hlaalu guards. Paupers sat cross-legged on threadbare rugs spread out across the flagstones, tracing the sign of the Tribunal on their sunken chests whenever a coin clinked into the waiting earthen bowl.
Furred Khajiit and scaled Argonians roamed purposefully in small groups, the Dunmer majority keeping as much distance as they could but letting them pass without comment. Faces looked harder there, worn down by work and cheap food. And cheap alcohol. Daria smelled it in the air, fighting a losing but never totally lost battle against the sour bug stench and the more quotidian odor of trash.
Not that different from the Commercial District, she reminded herself.
Daria still carried the canvas bag with the scrib inside. The weight of the thing dragged on her skinny arms. She held it closer to her body as she navigated the narrower streets of Labor Town. Some of the people here looked hungry enough to grab it from her.
Was it still good? Did scribs go bad if left in a broken egg for too long? She had no idea what counted as fresh. Jane would know, she was sure.
Daria found her destination where Jane had said it would be, just a few rows east of the Odai River. The apartment looked like its neighbors, a two-story adobe building with an exterior staircase running up to a cramped balcony where Jane sat in front of an easel, her red eyes watchful and a paintbrush gripped in her right hand. A wooden sign hung outside the front door below, marked with what looked like a barrel. Going by the description Jane had given her at lunch that day, it had to be the sign of J'dash, the Khajiit junk merchant who served as Jane's landlord.
Jane said nothing as Daria climbed the steps. Getting closer, Daria saw what her friend had created: an image of a woman painted in sharp black angles, her body contorted into a spiral and her exaggerated teeth clenched in a rictus grin. Fear and pain leapt straight from the image and into Daria's head.
She'd never seen anything like it before.
"Uh, I hope I'm not interrupting," she said, speaking loudly to be heard over the crowd below.
Jane looked over her shoulder, smiling when she saw Daria.
"Oh! I wasn't expecting you. Well make yourself at home. I usually paint outside so the fumes don't get to me."
"Always sensible." Daria again felt a faint chill looking at the image. All the artwork she'd ever seen consisted of stately portraits and landscapes. Jane's was different. Pure feeling in paint.
Noticing that Daria stared, Jane shifted in her seat. "It's just a little experiment. Don't worry, I know exactly how to capture the figure of Man or Mer. But sometimes I like to practice with something less conventional."
"No, I like it," Daria said.
"Yeah. I've never seen anything like this before."
"My attempt to do something new," Jane said. "Traditional Dunmer art has bold black lines and lots of angles, but it's almost all religious or historical. What you see on this canvas is what I see whenever I look at people like Synda or Magistrate Lli."
"Twisted people going slowly insane under the weight of their hypocrisy and cruelty?"
"See, you get it! Not that I have anything against religious art. All respect to ALMSIVI, of course," Jane said, briefly bowing her head, "but I think that the Dunmer gods and saints are probably sick of people making the same images of them over and over again."
"Do you sell these?"
"I wish! Like I said before, I mostly sell portraits to rich merchants. Gallus got me started."
"Gallus?" Daria asked, noting the name as an Imperial one.
"An outlander art dealer in the Commercial District. He introduced me to a lot of my clients, and he's the one who pulled strings to get me into the academy. It's not like I'd have had the money otherwise. Stuff like what I'm painting now is just what I do for fun. When I have time."
"Too bad unique doesn't sell," Jane said. "Here, let's go inside. It's starting to get cold."
Jane opened the door to her apartment and Daria followed. What looked like all of Jane's worldly possessions jostled for space inside. Pigments and canvas filled up a full half of the room, with other samples of her bold and bizarre personal art laid out on a narrow bench. A rug and pillow served as bed, spread out next to stacks of neatly folded clothes.
Daria barely had enough room to stand. Jane motioned for her to sit down on the bed. When Daria did, Jane moved aside some paints and rested herself on a tiny wooden bench.
A single narrow window let in the ruddy light of the setting sun. The light fell on a small and triangular stone next to the bed, its surface decorated with a carved robed figure pointing ahead.
"It's a shrine to St. Veloth," Jane explained. "A pioneer who led my ancestors to Morrowind, always searching for something new. I guess I could relate, a little bit."
"I didn't know you were religious," Daria said.
Jane smiled. "Not exactly. See, Dunmer religion's different from others. Our gods are right there in the flesh. You don't need to have religion to believe in something if it's standing in front of you."
"Have they ever stood in front of you?" Daria knew about Morrowind's three living gods—though all the documents she'd read described them as nothing more than powerful sorcerers.
Jane's piety disappointed her, somehow. The Tribunal Temple didn't think much of outlanders like Jane, so why would their supposed gods be any more accepting?
"No, they haven't. But my dad saw Almalexia make an appearance at a Midwinter's Feast down in Mournhold. He said when she spoke, you could feel the presence of all the Dunmer generations past in that very spot, back to Resdayn and beyond." Jane's lips twisted into a regretful half-smile. "This was before I was born. I know it probably sounds kind of crazy, but I believe him."
More likely, her father had just seen some Dunmer priestess painted in gold and covered in jewels. Daria decided to change the subject.
"I brought you a gift," she said. "But I don't know if it's still good."
Jane's expression brightened. "By all means, show me!"
Daria opened up the bag, holding her face away to avoid the smell. "It's the scrib from the egg I was telling you about. I don't think anyone in my family's brave enough to eat it, but I thought you might appreciate it."
Jane gasped, her hands shaking in anticipation. "Appreciate it? Daria, you just made my day! Hell, my entire week. And yes, that's definitely still good. Here, let's take this downstairs. I bet J'dash will let me use his kitchen if we share a bit."
"Wait, if we share a bit?"
"You're eating this Daria, whether you want to or not!"
Slimy as the scrib had been, Daria had to admit that something in the kitchen smelled good.
While Jane busied herself with the meal, Daria sat in the crowded little junk shop with J'dash, an older Khajiit with streaks of white in his russet fur. He rested in his chair, wrapped in a threadbare linen robe, his left hand grasping a clay cup filled with warm sujamma. J'dash's golden eyes fixated on the far wall, as if he could see through it to the distant jungles and deserts of sugar-blessed Elsweyr.
Daria sipped her own sujamma, the drink's earthy taste adding to the warmth. Candles flickered on the table, the flames like red jewels in the dark. Her family, Synda, and the Camonna Tong all felt very far away. J'dash's long tail swished on the dirt floor as meat sizzled against hot clay in the kitchen.
"It's almost ready!" Jane called.
Jane came out a few minutes later, the scrib coiled up on a big redware plate. Daria breathed in the smell, thick and buttery with a hint of herbs. But it still looked like a bug.
From the looks of things this was a rare treat for Jane. Insulting her friend by refusing wasn't an option. She'd already eaten scrib jelly, so this couldn't be much worse. Except seeing it there in front of her, its too-many legs glistening in the candlelight, just reminded Daria of exactly what she'd be consuming.
"Ahh, Dunmer is a good cook," J'dash said, his eyes on Jane.
"Oh, don't listen to him. Seriously, don't: life's easier when expectations are low. Anyway, cooking's not my strong point but I did pick up a few tricks over the years. Meals like this don't come often so you want to make the best of them.
Jane took a seat and uttered a quiet prayer. J'dash lowered his head in respect, perhaps thinking of his own gods. When she finished, he extended his left hand, fingers outspread. Polished white claws slid out from the fur and he stuck one into a gap between the segments. Daria's teeth clenched as she watched, wondering about the Khajiit's hygiene and feeling a bit guilty for doing so.
The scrib suddenly snapped, the soft flesh beneath the shell exposed to the air. A heavenly scent wafted out. Purring, J'dash motioned for Daria and Jane to dig in. Jane tore a chunk of scrib flesh from under the shell and popped it into her mouth with relish.
Not letting herself show her unease, Daria reached in. The sauce's heat stung her fingertips and she pulled back, more from surprise than from pain. Trying again, she gripped a piece of meat and ripped it free, not allowing for any hesitation before she put it in her mouth.
Hot, crisp, and tender with only a trace of the sourness. Juices burst between her teeth as she chewed, a bone-deep warmth spreading throughout her entire body.
"This is delicious!" she exclaimed.
"See, our cuisine has its high points," Jane said.
Daria tore off another piece, the many-legged monster before her suddenly as appetizing as a holiday feast in the old country. She'd never tasted anything quite like it before, the flavor alien but somehow perfectly aligned to her palate.
Maybe, she thought, there was something worthwhile in Morrowind. It wasn't easy to find, but it was there. And finding it ushered her into a very select group, one bound together by this knowledge of secret splendor.
They finished all too soon. Leaning back in their chairs, all uncomfortably full, they nonetheless accepted drinks as J'dash broke open another jug of sujamma. All of Daria's cares seemed to spiral away in the comforting darkness.
"This one is pleased, but thinks it is a shame that Dunmer's brother could not share in this meal," J'dash said.
"I'm sure Trent's having a grand old time up in Caldera. Assuming he's still employed. Which is a pretty big assumption."
"Trent?" Daria asked.
"My brother. The only blood relation I have in Morrowind. He's a musician, so he's on the road a lot. Usually he plays for room and board at whatever cornerclub will take him. He'll come by here eventually."
Daria nodded. How long had Jane been on her own? Part of her envied Jane for it. How nice it'd be to not have to watch out for Quinn, or deal with her parents' relentless social climbing. Just shut herself away in a little apartment with a job for the day and books for the night. A fatherly landlord like J'dash might be a nice bonus.
Couldn't be easy, though. Not if Jane got that excited over what seemed to be a fairly basic food item.
"Where are your parents?" Daria asked. "If you don't mind my asking."
"They left for Cyrodiil oh, I don't know... eight years ago? No clue if they're still there. Dad's a painter like me, mom's a sculptor, so they go wherever there's work. I've allegedly got another sibling, Penelope, but no clue where she might be."
J'dash made a rasping sigh. "Khajiit had many kin once, in the land where the sun is warm upon the sands. But the world is a cruel place, and drove this one to damp and chilly Morrowind. Strange place for Khajiit, yes?" He looked at Daria. "And where is Imperial's family?"
"In the Commercial District," she said, feeling a little abashed. She wondered if J'dash's journey to Morrowind had been a voluntary one but didn't think it was right to pry.
"Imperial is fortunate," J'dash said. "The world is cold, but shared blood makes it warmer."
"Uh, yeah. Fortunate." Daria took another sip of her sujamma, the alcohol in the brew warding away some of the awkwardness. She heard no judgment in J'dash's words. Just a statement of fact.
She was lucky in some ways.
Jane refused to let Daria wander alone through the darkened streets of Labor Town and insisted on her staying the night. The two girls retreated up to the apartment. Daria, for her part, refused to let Jane give her the makeshift bed, so she sat on the narrow bench and leaned against the rough wall. Not an easy position to sleep in, but she'd had worse on the long boat ride to Morrowind.
She woke up to a sliver of dawn's light, reddened by a fresh plume of smoke from Red Mountain. A hint of brimstone in the morning air stung her nostrils and made her eyes water. Behind her, Jane yawned.
"Hope you slept okay," Jane said, her voice still sluggish from sleep.
"Well enough." Daria groped for her glasses and found them next to a set of brushes. The foggy world turned sharp once the lenses came over her eyes.
"Do you have to go to Drenlyn today?" Jane asked.
"No. This is one of the days where I help my mom provide legal protection for greedy Imperial merchants."
"Fun," Jane said, yawning again. "No sessions for me today, either. I'm not really a morning person, so I think I'm going to sleep a bit longer. Feel free to stay."
"I should probably go," Daria said.
Jane was already asleep.
Daria crept down the stairs on stiff legs, the morning streets already busy with workers. Following landmarks she'd noticed on the way there, she soon reached the stone bridges spanning the Odai River, the equally busy but slightly neater Commercial District on the other side.
She walked past Drenlyn's campus where a few early risers already walked through the gates with their bookbags. Curiosity led her to scan the courtyard for Synda, but she saw no sign of the girl. Synda didn't strike her as someone who'd wake up any earlier than absolutely necessary.
The academy disappeared behind another row of adobe stores. Daria squeezed through a shaded alleyway that led behind the milliner's shop. Home wasn't far.
Pain exploded in her left side, just beneath the ribcage. Daria staggered, her arms flailing as she tried to reorient herself. Another hit, this time on her right, and she fell forward. Palms smacked painfully against the stone road as she halted her fall.
"I'll be taking these," came Synda's haughty voice.
A hand wrenched the glasses from Daria's face. The street turned into a muddle of harsh light and muted colors.
"Synda? Dammit, I need those!" she yelled.
"Oh, I'm sure you do."
A figure, blurred to little more than a shadow, stepped in front of Daria. Daria bared her teeth. Fear and rage coursed through her, her hands ready to strike.
If only she could see.
Another blow cracked against her back and she dropped to her belly. Her teeth cut into the side of her mouth, blood rushing over her tongue and down her throat. Two figures walked around her to flank their boss.
Fear started to overwhelm rage. She had to stay calm.
"What do you want?" Daria asked, words distorted by the swelling wound in her mouth.
"Want? It's not what I want, it's what I demand. You Imperials think you can just walk all over us. I'm here to tell you that we Dunmer do not respond well to threats."
"What was I supposed to do?" Daria wheezed. "You tried to take my sister—"
"Your sister was no more than a curiosity. What matters is your attitude. I will not accept your insults or threats. And neither will the Cammona Tong."
Daria froze. This couldn't be happening.
Something fell to the ground in front of her. Straining her eyes, she could just make out a glittering object on the street. Synda's foot slammed down, and the sound of splintering glass left no doubt as to what she'd just crushed.
"You insulted the honor of my people and family—not like you Imperials care about family. I could have killed you, but I decided to be forgiving and just destroy those weird things you always wear," Synda said. "I'll consider us even. But if you decide to escalate... make sure you're ready. And I don't recommend telling anyone about this, because that will most certainly escalate things."
Daria tried to scoop up the shattered spectacles. She gasped as glass cut her fingers.
She heard footsteps and laughter as Synda departed with her thugs in tow.
"Here's your money, or whatever," Synda said, once they were a safe distance away. She handed a few septims to each of the two toughs.
"I'll take it, but I don't like you telling outlanders that we're part of the Cammona Tong," said the bigger of the two, Todis. "If the real Cammona Tong finds out that we've been pretending—"
"They won't. You did your job, and that's the last either of us will hear about it. She didn't see you, and I'm sure she'll be too scared to do anything."
Todis shook his head. "Still a dumb idea. You should've warned us you were going to do that."
Synda sniffed. She brushed off her dress once the toughs departed to whatever cesspit had spawned them. Sure she was clean, Synda returned to Drenlyn Academy.
All outlanders revolted her, but the Imperials most of all. Each was a tyrant and a liar, hiding steel with honeyed words and false treaties. And they brought their lackeys with them: savage Nords, half-breed Bretons, and even the decadent Altmer her ancestors had fled so long ago. So too came the taxes, her family's business now funding the war machine that suppressed them. Morrowind reduced to a sideshow, ancient bloodlines of honor and faith kowtowing for the pleasure of plump Imperial bureaucrats.
The Imperials couldn't even show basic decency to their own kind. Her stomach turned at the memory of Quinn denying her sisterhood with Daria. She'd been so willing to sacrifice the bonds of blood to avoid embarrassment. How did such a people survive long enough to conquer the world?
They might have conquered the world, but they'd never conquer her spirit.
No one back in Cyrodiil had known how to deal with Daria. Her sharp tongue punctured even the proudest and boldest. She knew words.
She did not know violence.
Daria suspected her family's safety depended on her covering her tracks. She'd cast aside the handful of copper drakes in her pockets and stumbled around blind until a guard found her. She'd almost bolted at the sound of his voice, the throaty rasp unmistakably Dunmer, but he'd been kind enough.
A robbery. That's what she told her parents. And as they gasped and fretted and hugged her she burned inside, knowing it wasn't the truth. That for all of the Empire's might, her family was small and surrounded by hostility.
Daria lied, and she lied well. She kept the story simple and the details consistent. There was doubt in mom's tone, but Daria had been her mother's best pupil.
Dad at least found a Dunmer glassmaker who said she might be able to recreate the lenses. So he took the shards to her while Daria waited.
Blindness rendered the world incomprehensible. She opened up a book and ran her fingers across the pages, as if she could feel the patterns of the ink and turn them into words and images.
"Uh, Daria?" came Quinn's voice.
"That Dunmer girl at school was asking about you."
Daria turned cold.
Daria raised her eyes from the book. The hazy gray figure next to Quinn gave her pause. All Dunmer sounded so similar. She tensed, beads of sweat forming on her brow.
"Daria?" Jane said.
"Oh!" Daria blurted out, trying to regain her composure. The events of the last few weeks spun around Daria's head, and she took a deep breath to calm down.
"I noticed you hadn't been in for a while. I asked Quinn and she told me what happened."
"Uh, thanks Quinn," Daria mumbled, blushing as she did.
"Sure," Quinn said. "I'll leave you two alone."
Daria relaxed as her sister's footsteps grew more distant.
"I'd get up to hug you Jane but at this point I'm just as likely to knock you over."
"Hey, I like a bit of risk, but if it makes things easier..."
Jane put her arms around Daria, squeezing gently before letting go.
"Do you want to talk about what happened?" Jane asked. "Quinn said it was a robbery..."
Daria thought about it. Was it safe for Jane to know?
"Yeah. A robbery."
"That really sucks. I've never been robbed but it's happened to Trent a few times. Guess you just got unlucky. What about your glasses?"
"Dad says he might be able to finagle a new pair. Let's hope he's right. There's not much demand for a savant who can't read or write."
"Right. You know, since I'm here, I could read out loud for you."
Warmth welled up in Daria's chest. She'd been stuck in her own head for days on end.
"If you don't mind," she said, keeping her voice steady.
"Nah, it's fine. Which book do you want?"
"Could you get A Dance in Fire? It's the brown one with the red bookmark."
"I think I see it."
Daria heard the book being slid out from the shelf, and the comforting sound of rustling pages. She could escape once more.
And this time, take someone with her.