Ash-tainted rain poured down from a sky the color of rust as Daria marched uphill, weighed down by her drenched green cloak. Thunder pealed in the distance, booming across the jagged hills and blackened gullies of the Ashlands.
“Keep going!” the driver called out to his pack-guars. The two beasts groaned in response and pulled forward, the overstuffed wagon trailing behind them.
Soaked to the bone and exhausted, Daria was starting to wonder if they’d make it before nightfall. The path had turned steep and rugged right after they’d passed Moonmoth Legion Fort, and the torrential rains rendered the stone slick and treacherous.
Jane, who walked next to her, managed it only slightly better.
“Jane. Remind me to never again put in this much effort toward an unpaid internship,” Daria said.
“Hey, the Imperial Archaeological Society is all about roughing it. They probably arranged this storm with, uh, Arkay.”
“Kynareth’s our nature god, not Arkay,” Daria corrected. “But your point stands: I suppose it only makes sense for quid pro quo to be an animating principle for the Imperial pantheon.”
“See, it’s all part of the system.” She chuckled and rubbed her hands together as thunder cracked yet again. “The system that’s actually paying me!”
“Rub it in.”
It was Jolda’s doing, more or less. Her father, Armand, had gotten permission from the Imperial Archeological Society to do a dig at Arkngthand, the ruined Dwemer city just a day’s travel away from Balmora. He’d already been up there for a month and had sent word that he needed more help. The less he had to pay said help, the better.
“Dad was impressed with how you handled that speech this summer,” Jolda had said. “I’m headed up there to help out for a week, and if you come along he’ll register it as participation with the IAS.”
Sounded more interesting than Drenlyn Academy, at any rate.
When it turned out that Armand was also offering a paid position for an artist, it only made sense to tell Jane about it. Jolda hadn’t known exactly what Jane would be doing, but she’d guessed sketches of Dwemer machinery.
The grunt work would be done by three more of Drenlyn’s best and brightest: Jonus, Julien, and Jeval, who tramped forward on the other side of the wagon.
That the IAS accepted them at all gave Daria serious reservations about the organization as a whole.
“How are you guys doing?” Jolda asked, coming over from the side of the wagon where she'd been walking.
Daria took off her glasses and tried to clean the rain-spattered lenses with her sleeve. “Let’s see: I’m cold, soaked, and I’m pretty sure I’m getting a blister on my foot. But given that the alternative is listening to Sera Ondryn talk about how we outlanders can fit in as long as we believe in ourselves, I’ll count myself fortunate.”
Jolda laughed. “We’ll be at the bridge pretty soon. Arkngthand is just beyond that.”
“Right, Arkngthand,” Jane said. “These Dwemer weren’t too big on vowels, were they.”
“Everyone knows the cool kids only use consonants,” Daria said.
“Don’t you mean ‘vrn nz th klkds nlz cnsntz’?” Jane said, repeating Daria’s words sans vowels as best she could.
“I’m not willing to sacrifice my tongue and vocal chords to meet some arbitrary definition of cool.” Giving up on getting the lenses clean, Daria put her glasses back on and pulled her cloak’s hood forward.
“We’re still working on translating Dwemeris,” Jolda said. “No one’s spoken it for thousands of years. My dad thinks that the vowels were implied rather than written out, but that doesn’t explain why they did seem to be written out on some occasions.”
“Would I be doing any of the translation work?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what my dad needs from you. It'll mostly be administrative, I think.”
Daria knew more than most about the Dwemer, which still meant she knew almost nothing. The ancient race had ruled a great empire from their subterranean, steam-powered citadels, one that had once covered much of Morrowind and eastern Skyrim and even boasted a few colonies in far-off Hammerfell. The Dwemer shunned visitors and lived among machines, boasting knowledge that surpassed any other civilization in history. Intelligent, isolationist, and idiosyncratic; Daria had always rather liked them.
But they’d all vanished without a trace around 2,500 years ago.
The ground finally leveled off and Daria saw the bridge. She’d been expecting something like the stone bridges of Cyrodiil but on a bigger scale. What she saw was a monstrous construction made entirely out of what looked like aged bronze, half a mile long and wide enough for three big carts to pass side-by-side. Enormous support piers plunged into the living rock of the canyon below. Though age had left its mark, the bridge’s surface splotched and scarred with tarnish, it still stood in defiance of nature.
How could anyone, no matter how advanced, have enough metal to create something so large?
Railings ran along both sides of the bridge, resembling enormous pipes. Spidery script had been engraved all along their lengths, the letters cramped together with barely any space between them. She wondered what about railings was interesting enough to justify so much text.
Beyond the bridge, the skewed towers of Arkngthand jutted needle-like into the soiled skies.
The wagon driver was already moving across, as was Jolda. Curious, Daria reached out and touched the railing, its surface rough and surprisingly warm beneath her fingers. It didn’t feel quite like bronze. Far below the bridge, furious ashen waters stormed the Foyada Mamea. It hadn’t been that long ago since she’d hiked down that same foyada to Pelagiad with Jane and Trent.
“Hey, Jane. Did you know that the Foyada Mamea is prone to flash flooding?”
“Yeah, it is,” Jane said, taking a look at the rushing torrent. “It hardly ever rains this high up though.”
“I’m sure that rarity is of great comfort to anybody using the foyada today.”
Daria supposed it never hurt to have another reminder that Morrowind—Vvardenfell in particular—remained a dangerous place, the countryside as much as the city though for different reasons. And that probably went double for Dwemer ruins like the one she’d soon be exploring.
Jolda had told her than a legion team had already destroyed the clanking Dwemer animunculi roaming Arkngthand’s upper halls, and that the place would be safe so long as she didn’t go beyond the dig site boundaries. It had taken her parents a bit more convincing but they’d finally given in; sure, there was some risk to Daria’s physical well-being, but that was a small matter compared to the risk of her giving up another networking opportunity—a pretty damn good one, all things considered.
She’d been eager to go in spite all of that. Dying to some ancient Dwemer trap was at least a relatively novel means of death. If she had to be a statistic, she might as well be an interesting one.
The storm still raged when they reached the other side, as desolate and stony as the first. They struggled uphill as rain and the encroaching night blackened the world, their way lit only by the sooty glow of their lanterns. The pack guars groaned as they hauled the creaking wagon uphill, wheels and clawed feet alike straining to gain traction on the slippery rock.
Daria was shivering under her cloak by the time she spotted other lanterns in the distance. Their dim glow soon revealed the contours of pavilions bearing the Empire’s red diamond. She’d made it.
Daria awoke the next morning and instantly wished she hadn’t. Every joint in her body ached and her weary brain begged her to close her eyes and go back to sleep for a year or so.
Nonetheless, she slowly worked her way out of the sleeping bag as the dawn drums rumbled across the camp. She exited the tent and stepped into morning air, crisp and cold from the previous day’s storm. At last she got a good look at the Arkngthand dig site.
A dozen or so tents squatted on the rocky slope, the ground black and barren save for a few spiky trama roots that clung to life with pernicious determination. Ancient metal spires rose directly from the stone—the lack of foundations told Daria that they were probably connected to deeper underground structures. Some of the towers resembled unadorned poles or chimneys, while others were crowned by narrow spikes or dented turrets. Skinny and crooked pipes, or maybe wires, formed a sprawling metallic web that spread between spires and across the grounds, some of the strands running through the rock.
At the summit stood a titanic statue of what she assumed was a bearded Dwemer warrior. Time had worn down the statue's delicate Mer features but the halberd in its hand still looked sharp.
“Hey, Daria,” came a voice.
It was Maiko, his legion armor already burnished to a sheen.
“Oh, hi. Didn’t know you were here,” Daria said.
“I got here a few days ago. Talked Varro into letting me be an observer; figured it’d be good practice for my liaison work.”
Daria raised her eyebrows. “Not to mention good practice for seeing Jolda.”
Maiko half-laughed, half-grunted in response. “Easy on what you say about that, Daria,” he said quietly. “Anyway, Armand’s going to give you guys a quick orientation speech after breakfast. The mess tent’s over there.”
He pointed to a beige pavilion next to a squat, cylindrical tower with a disc-like top.
“Good, an orientation speech is just what I need to get some extra sleep.”
“You better listen to him, Daria. Arkeng… Arkneng…” he trailed off. “This place is safe as far as we know, but you can’t be too careful with Dwemer stuff.”
“Wait, were you part of the team that cleared it?”
“No, but I talked to the guys who did. They didn’t run into anything too dangerous, but they only cleared the upper galleries. Listen to what Armand tells you.”
Daria and the rest of the Drenlyn students gathered at the mess tent for bowls of watery saltrice porridge and cups filled with some kind of bitter tea.
“Pretty sure it’s trama root tea, but they didn’t grind it very carefully. Make sure yours doesn’t have any stray thorns floating around,” Jane said, seated cross-legged on a rug.
“Tastes more like old bathwater. Speaking of which, do you know if there are any bathing facilities here?” The other day’s dirt and grime clung to Daria like a noxious second skin, one that she very much wanted to peel off.
“Jolda said there was a hot spring in a cave near the camp site.”
Daria blushed. “Please tell me it’s not coed.”
Jane waved her hand. “Come on, Daria, the IAS is run by Colovian Imperials like you—the only people more puritan than us Dunmer. Guys get one day, girls get the other. But I think today’s the guys’ day.”
“I guess that means I get to enjoy more quality time with the dirt I picked up on the way here.”
“And your mom says you never network!”
“That’s the only reason anyone does anything.”
“Uh oh, bad news,” Jane uttered. She pointed to the side, and Daria followed her finger to the loathsome sight of Karl the Unctuous. His clothes were dirt-stained, but his noxious grin shone as bright as ever.
“I was wondering why I hadn’t seen him for a week. I guess him being transferred to another province was too much to hope for.”
Daria looked to the side and saw Armand striding into the tent, Jolda following close behind.
“Attention, new arrivals!” Armand bellowed as he took a stand at the mess tent’s entrance. “Welcome to Arkngthand!”
He sure sounded confident about his pronunciation.
“Now, what you need to remember is that this is an official mission of the Imperial Archeological Society. That means you are working for his imperial majesty himself, and you are expected to act as the upstanding citizens you’re supposed to be.”
“And they don’t come much more upstanding than Karl,” Daria said.
“Think they’ll use him to test for booby traps?” Jane asked.
“No way we’re that lucky. He probably has some cushy job with lots of networking.”
With his connections, he probably did.
“In addition to the standard laws, there are also some specific rules for the dig site. First,” he said, raising his right thumb, “trafficking in Dwemer artifacts is strictly prohibited. Nothing you find here leaves the site unless it’s with the approval of the IAS—which here, means my approval. Fines will be levied on anyone breaking this rule, and more serious penalties will come into play if anyone tries to steal working Dwemer machinery or schematics.
“Second,” he went on, raising his index finger, “be careful when you’re in Arkngthand. Go down there and you’ll see big yellow Xs painted on some of the walls—that marks the limit of how far the legion exploratory team went. When you see an X, that means you don’t go any further. Up above, don’t go beyond sight of the tents. Molag Amur is not a safe place to wander around in.
“Third,” he said, raising one more, “obey your supervisors.”
He let his arms drop and then smiled. “With that said, let me welcome to you to one of the most exciting projects the IAS has in Morrowind today. We’re happy to bring in volunteers from the student body of Drenlyn Academy, an institution showcasing the cooperation between the Empire and Great House Hlaalu.”
Daria wondered if Armand reciting that was one of Magistrate Lli’s requirements for permitting the volunteer program.
“Anyway, let’s not waste time! You three,” Armand said, pointing to Jonus, Julien, and Jeval, “will be down below.”
“Sweet!” Jonus said, he and his friends exchanging high fives.
“Sweet indeed!” Armand proclaimed. “You'll be dusting the artifacts we find.”
“Wait, dusting?” Julien asked. “Like a maid?”
“Like a maid working for the Empire itself!” Armand thrust a fist in the air for emphasis.
“Aw, man,” Jeval mourned.
“Head over there to the gate!” Armand pointed to what looked like a bronze sphere partially embedded into the rock, some ways off. Armand turned to Jane. “Are you the artist?”
“Yeah. I brought my equipment with me, so I’m ready to go down below when you give the word.”
“Oh, you won’t need to!”
Jane looked surprised. “I won’t?”
“We already have sketch artists drawing up the schematics and artifacts. No, the IAS has a much more important job for you. We need heroic style three-quarters portraits of all the IAS supervisors so we can be a known quality in the capital. The more people see our image, the more funding the IAS will get.”
The flicker of disappointment on Jane’s face was so brief that Daria almost thought she’d imagined it. Jane nodded. “Sure thing! I’m the woman for the job. Who do I paint first?”
“Supervisor K’shath. He’s over in that green tent. You’ll have to do two other portraits, so work fast. And Daria? You’ll be helping Karl out with the paperwork.”
Paperwork with Karl the Unctuous. This was going to be a long internship.
Karl grinned and gave a florid bow. “Ah, what a fortuitous development! To work alongside the stunning Lady Morgendorffer, whose wit is exceeded only by her beauty. Who knows what thrilling adventures might transpire between the two of us?”
“Said adventures, Karl, will most likely involve severe and repeated testicular injury,” Daria said.
Karl chuckled, but his eyes stayed watchful. Daria’s skin crawled at the mere sight of him. Bravado aside, she didn’t want to have to dodge his harassment.
With positions assigned, the Drenlyn attendees spread through the camp to start work.
“With any luck I’ll be able to wrangle a few lasting clients out of this,” Jane said as she toted her art supplies.
“Sorry that you won’t get the chance to sketch Dwemer artifacts,” Daria said.
“Ah, it’s all right. Sketching gears isn’t as profitable as flattering rich people with art.”
“Hey, Daria?” Jolda said. “Let me know if Karl gives you any trouble. I'll tell my dad, and he’ll listen to me about this. And I hear that Karl’s dad is fed up with him, so he needs to be on his best behavior.”
Daria relaxed a bit. “I’m pretty sure I can handle him.”
“Nah, don’t handle him,” Jane said. “He might like that.”
“But thanks all the same,” Daria continued. “I don’t suppose you can ask your dad to let me do something other than bureaucratic busywork?”
“Sorry.” Jolda forced a smile. “It is important work. And it’ll look good on your resume!”
Jonus, Julien, and Jeval got up and stretched. Sucked that they had to start working so soon. Jeval still ached from walking all day yesterday.
“Guys!” Jovus said. “I just had a great idea. This ruin’s full of old treasures and stuff, right?”
“Uh huh,” Julien agreed. Jeval nodded.
“That means we can nab something for Quinn! Not the kind of junk you get at the market but something really valuable!” Jonus kept his voice quiet but looked like he was ready to run into Arkngthand and loot it on his own.
“Hey, yeah! There’s gotta be like, crowns and jewels and stuff. Oh man, Quinn’s totally going to be into that.”
Jeval shook his head. “Guys, didn’t you hear what Armand said? We’ll get fined if we take anything.”
Jonus scoffed. “Whatever, man. Everyone does it!”
“Yeah,” Julien said, “my dad has like this big old Dwemer gear or whatever and it just sits on his desk. We’ll only get in trouble if we steal machines or something, and Quinn wouldn’t want mechanical stuff anyway.”
“Come on!” Jeval protested. “I don’t want to pay a fine!”
“You won’t,” Jonus said. “And come on, this is for Quinn! The most beautiful girl in Morrowind!”
“The most beautiful girl in Tamriel!” Julien followed, escalating from province to continent.
“The most beautiful girl in Nirn,” Jeval said out of habit, going from continent to world, before skidding to a verbal halt. “Wait! Guys, she’s not into us! We’ve been trying to get her for almost a year. Might as well ask some other chick.”
“No, man. You can’t give up! No girl’s gonna say no to some bigass Dwemer jewel! So here’s how works: we watch each other’s backs, but we each have to find our own thing,” Jonus said, leaning in close to whisper his plan.
“Every man for himself, that’s fair,” Julien said with a nod.
“I need to find new friends,” Jeval muttered.
The administration tent looked exactly as dull as Daria expected. Its big gray canvas top sheltered a pair of tables and a desk set, all covered with parchments, inkwells, and record books. Karl strode about the place like a king attending court.
“And now I present you with the nerve center of this humble dig site! This is where we do the scrivening that makes possible all the labors performed deep beneath our feet, in the ancient bronze bowels of—”
“Karl, just tell me what kind of work I’m supposed to do,” Daria said.
His face fell. “You never let me have any fun. Very well, you need to take these,” Karl said, pointing at a stack of slates on the nearest table, “and go to that big blue pavilion over there. That’s where we keep all the goodies we grabbed last week. And now, Lady Morgendorffer, you’ll get to tally up all the findings!”
Daria took the top slate. It had already been divided into columns listing types of artifacts, crossed with rows displaying odd names like “Hall of the Centrifuge” or “Cells of the Hollow Hand”.
“What are these?” she asked, pointing at the names.
“A few of the marvelous locales within Arkngthand proper,” Karl answered. “Rather poetic, are they not? Just the sounds of those names conjure up a sense mystery and magic. You know, I could be persuaded to reveal some of these mysteries—”
“No mystery you reveal will ever be worth the effort.”
“Rowr, feisty! Report to Acullus over there when you’re finished,” he said, grinning and pointing with his thumb to a bald Imperial who sorted through papers on the other side of the tent.
Daria looked through the rest of the slates as she walked to the blue pavilion. The next slate was similar, but with what she guessed were the names of archeologists instead of locations. Finally, the third contained a preliminary count of the various artifacts.
More work for Daria Morgendorffer, the human abacus.
All thoughts of her ignominious task fell away when she stepped inside the tent and found herself staring face to face with a man made of bronze.
Not a man, she corrected, still trying to take it all in. More like an approximation of one: the head an oblong wedge with an eye of glass on the left side; its chest made of interlocking bronze segments; arms held together by thick screws, one ending in a shield and the other terminating in what looked like a bladed metal flower. Instead of legs, the torso connected to a massive and dented bronze sphere.
This was a Dwemer animunculus, still more or less in one piece. Thousands of them, maybe millions, had once scurried through the echoing corridors to do the biddings of their masters. As the animunculi worked, the Dwemer dreamed in their steam gardens and forged palaces.
Breath caught in her throat as she went in for a closer look, not daring to make a sound. Gouges on the sphere and chest, and the big impact dent in the back, showed the work of the legion's weapons. But how could she really be sure it was inert? How did one truly kill a creature of cogs and gears?
More importantly, how did one give it life in the first place? The Empire had ruled a continent and its myriad peoples for centuries. But all its greatest minds put together could not make even a single animunculus, much less the clockwork multitudes that had once served the Dwemer.
Daria shivered, suddenly feeling quite small.
Remembering that she had a job to do, she took stock of the rest of the tent. Gears, coins, glittering jewels, goblets, and smaller spider-like animunculi had been gathered up in groups according to the location in which they’d been found. A closer look showed each artifact marked with a pigment. A slate board pinned to a post showed which color was associated with which archeologist.
A tedious task. But not a difficult one.
Hours blurred together as Daria worked, tallying up each item no matter how insignificant. It was the kind of job she could do as automatically as breathing, all the while speculating as to what the Dwemer might have been like.
Dim lighting and detail work took its toll. Daria’s headache started as a faint pain at around noon and grew into a splitting agony by sundown. The archeologists hadn’t sorted the artifacts all that neatly, so she often had to lift heavy gears and scrap to make sure there weren’t smaller gears and scraps beneath them. Easy to lose count in such a job, and lose count she did.
But she kept at it. When her numbers failed to match up with the preliminary counts, she looked again and got the same results. Shaking her aching head, Daria stepped outside for a short break, and returned to tally the artifacts one more time. She felt like a dozen miners were chipping away at the inside of her skull and the backs of her eyes.
“This better be a good resume booster,” she muttered.
One by one she checked off the various column totals: 424 gears, ranging in size from smaller than her fingertip to as wide as a barrel hoop; 398 broken wires and cables; 301 pieces of unidentifiable scrap metal; 257 sections of broken tube; 144 small tools; 87 coins; 53 crafted items (cups, utensils, necklaces); 19 raw jewels; 7 swords and daggers; and 3 spider animunculi.
Most of it matched. But the preliminary count had 89 coins, 56 crafted items, 24 raw jewels, and 9 swords and daggers.
She was certain she’d counted correctly. At any rate, she was at the end of her rope, so she headed back to the tent and gave her findings to Acullus, his watery eyes marked by clear indifference.
“These things happen,” he said. “Could be they miscounted some of the items.”
“One gear looks a lot like another," Daria said. "Swords would be harder to miss, though.”
“Don’t worry about it. The IAS only really cares about the animunculi and any surviving Dwemer records or schematics. The Empire’s not going to learn anything from another loose cog. Anyhow, you’ve done well for today, thank you.”
Putting the slates down, Daria let out a long exhalation. She was exhausted and ready to sleep for the next week straight. But tomorrow would only bring more work.
She passed by Karl’s desk on the way out. Karl himself chatted with one of the archeologists, his smarm radiating across the tent. Daria noticed a paper sticking out from under a record book, the top reading: “Karl’s Magnificent Exports Inc.”
Keeping her eyes on Karl, Daria lowered her hand and slipped out the paper for a better look and then stepped away from the desk. She adjusted her glasses, the blurry letters popping into clarity as she did.
It was a client list of rich Imperials and Dunmer (she recognized the Talori family as a buyer). The items listed matched most of the missing ones in her account. The discrepancies finally made sense. They weren’t for items the IAS would particularly miss, either. But the marked clients would pay Karl handsomely for them.
Daria smiled. Now she had the best blackmail material a girl could want, to be used on the world’s most annoying target. She stood by Karl's desk and waited for him to finish, smiling in a way she hoped was enigmatic. When Karl disengaged from the official and saw her, he lit up.
“Ah, do mine eyes deceive me? Or has perhaps the stunning Lady Morgendorffer has taken notice of this young blade’s charms?” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Oh, I took notice all right. Nothing gets the girls going quite like embezzlement.”
His shoulders tensed up and he looked from side to side. “Why, whatever do you mean?”
Daria smiled wider and showed him the incriminating paper. Karl gasped and lunged forward but she put the paper behind her and stepped back.
Karl gave a nervous chuckle. “Ah, you see, I’m simply helping Armand. He has clients—men in high positions who possess exceedingly discriminating tastes. As a man of taste and culture myself, well, I was the logical choice to decide which of these fine Dwemer objects d’art would be offered as gifts.” He leaned in, teeth pressed together in an oily grin.
“Uh huh. So if I take this to Armand, he’ll say that ‘Karl’s Magnificent Exports Inc’ works for him?”
Karl gulped. “Armand’s a very busy man. Why don’t we save some time—”
He made another attempt to grab it, and Daria danced out of the way. All of dad’s old lessons on sword-fighting stances were turning out pretty useful.
Sweat glistened on Karl’s freckled forehead. “I know you’re a lady of refined expectations—and of ravishing beauty. Perhaps I could see to it that a few choice Dwemer adornments might come to rest on that pretty brow of yours—”
“I don’t know. I think it’d be a lot more fun to get you in trouble.”
“Come now, Daria. Surely you don’t think I’d be so careless as to get into real trouble? Artifact trafficking fines are a trifle to a gentleman of means like myself,” he said.
She considered it. Going by what Armand and Acullus had said, only the theft of schematics and machinery was taken all that seriously. Karl, predictably, just embezzled gears and jewels.
“You’re right, trafficking fines might not amount to much. But I hear your dad's none too happy with your behavior, and that hits a lot closer to home.”
He gulped. She smiled. “How about this?” Daria said. “I’ll keep quiet. In return, you stop trying to pick up on every girl you see.”
He gasped. “Lady Morgendorffer, how could you be so cruel!? The fair maidens of the world demand—nay—require, my amorous attentions!” Karl pressed the back of his hand and looked heavenward in faux dismay.
“Take it or leave it.”
Karl shrank like a deflated air bladder. “Fine!”
“I mean it. If I hear anyone complaining about you, I go straight to Armand.”
He raised his hands. “I won’t bother anyone!”
Daria took the paper, folded it, and put it into her coat. Patting her pocket, she smiled. “I think I’ll hold on to this. Never hurts to have some insurance.”
There was a spring in her step as she walked across the rubble-strewn fields around Arkngthand. She passed Jolda, who waved her down.
“Hey, Daria! How did it go on your first day?”
“As much as I love complaining, I’d say it went pretty well.”
She smiled. “Great! I know the work’s kind of boring, but my dad thinks you have a lot of potential—but don’t tell him I told you that.”
Potential. Like say, the potential to participate in covering up an embezzlement scheme for the sake of blackmail.
“Uh, yeah. Thanks,” she said, her good mood evaporating in an instant.
It was late afternoon. Daria stood on a rocky promontory in the shadow of a bronze tower, looking out at the ashen desolation spreading for miles to the north and east.
Jane sat cross-legged on the ground next to her, drawing the towers of Arkgnthand in her sketchbook with a charcoal stub.
"You’re making too big a deal about it. Armand has to know that people lift stuff from these sites all the time. He won’t care unless they steal something important, and it doesn’t sound like Karl is,” Jane said.
“Doesn’t it bother you knowing that people like Karl will just keep on exploiting the system? He’s already rich, but now he’s stealing Morrowind’s history to get even richer.”
Jane was silent for a bit, her eyes intent on the verdigrised towers. “Way I see it, you and him are both pretty rich. I’m a Dunmer anyway: the Dwemer weren’t too nice to us, so I don’t really care what Karl does with their leftovers.”
“You sure seem to like drawing their leftovers.”
Jane chuckled. “Once I’m done drawing them, he can take them. No skin off my back. You know, Daria, you’re a lot more idealistic than you like to admit.”
Daria shook her head. “Not even close. This isn’t idealism. It’s me being resentful at seeing someone I despise figure out a way to get ahead by exploiting something I’m interested in.”
“You sure there’s not just a teensy bit of disappointment at this mean old world of ours?” Jane asked, her voice needling.
“I can’t be disappointed when my expectations are already at zero.” Daria sighed. “Anyway, if I were an idealist, I’d have marched over to Armand’s tent first thing and shown him the evidence.”
And she still could.
“What’s stopping you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the fact that I’ve already compromised my moral integrity by blackmailing Karl in the first place," Daria admitted.
“So you do care what Armand thinks.”
“Whatever his faults, Armand actually did earn his position. And as much as I hate to say it, the IAS is probably a better fit for me than any of the guilds. I always complain about how corrupt Imperial institutions are, and here I am enabling corruption in a relatively honest one. Self-awareness is a real bitch, sometimes.”
“Well,” Jane said, “speaking as a woman, I’m happy I haven’t had to put up with Karl’s creepiness for the past few days.”
“True. But if I told Armand I could probably get Karl on that, too.” Daria crossed her arms. A cold wind from the south whipped against her coat and through her tangled hair. “Tell me, Jane: why do you think the Empire’s so keen on the Dwemer digs?”
“Probably so nobles can have some nice little doodads to show off.”
“This much effort for doodads?” She tried to imagine the battered animunculus decorating some count’s estate. Not too far-fetched, she supposed.
“Why not? Using a weird bronze monster as a garden ornament is way cooler than building a gazebo. It’ll be all the talk of the neighbors.”
“Speaking of talk,” Daria said, “Jolda and her dad invited me to dinner tonight. I’d better get going.”
“Honest-to-goodness networking! Your mom would be so proud!”
Daria rolled her eyes. “Don’t remind me.”
“Think you’ll tell them about Karl’s little escapades?” Jane straightened up, locking eyes with Daria.
“I’m not sure. Let me see how it looks when I get there.”
Dinner at Armand’s proved surprisingly lavish: ornada braised in comberry sauce, served with bowls of spiced cuttle and goblets of red Surilie Brothers wine. Quite a shock to the system after days of saltrice porridge and bad tea.
Armand sat lengthwise on a thick rug, across from Daria with a campfire flickering between them. Jolda knelt on some pillows next to her father. They’d just finished the dinner, Daria questioning (as politely as she could) why he lived so lavishly.
“I believe it’s important for leaders to set a good example,” Armand said, gesturing at the wine. “Rewards should go to those who’ve worked the hardest!”
“Tea and saltrice porridge do seem commensurate for the backbreaking labor of chipping rock all day,” Daria said, keeping her tone level and her face impassive.
Jolda narrowed her eyes in warning, but Armand just laughed. “Ah, Daria, you remind me of when I was your age: always wanting to change the world. But when you get older and work harder, you’ll find you want to get a bigger share of its gifts.”
Daria sipped the wine. Gods, it was good. Tasted of home and the sunbathed vineyards all up and down the Gold Coast. She supposed this made her complicit.
Well, Armand had laughed. So clearly, he wasn’t offended. “And what happens when there aren’t enough gifts left over for the little people?” she asked.
“Oh, they’ll manage. Survival’s a helluva motivator. But you’re not one of the little people, Daria. I’m not saying the work they do isn’t important. But just about anyone can do it. Not everyone can do the kinds of work we do, or that your mother does.”
“Plus, it is easier to help people when you have power backing you up,” Jolda said, her tone slightly apologetic.
Daria decided to change the subject. She wasn’t in any position to make a winning point, and a winning point might be hazardous to her future career opportunities.
“Speaking of the work we do—why exactly is the Empire so interested in the Dwemer? I know the IAS has Dwemer dig sites all over Morrowind and Skyrim.”
“Hammerfell, too!” Armand pointed out, with a grin. “The Dwemer colonies there are how I got my start in this business. As for why, I’m sure a young scholar like you understands the importance of history.”
“Sure, but my interests don’t drive the Empire. The only histories most nobles care about are the kinds that give them claims to their neighbor’s land,” Daria said.
The wind picked up outside of the tent, bitter and blustery. Daria inched closer to the fire.
“A lot of Imperial institutions are interested,” Jolda said. “The Imperial Historical Society, the Mages Guild, the Engineers Guild, and the Imperial College—to give just a few examples—all want to learn more about the Dwemer.”
“Exactly,” Armand agreed, lifting his cup in salute. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t practical reasons. The Dwemer had power. The machines they built survived for millennia, even when the Dwemer themselves did not. You saw the animunculi in the storage tent. Think of what the Empire could do if we produced our own!”
“Leave interesting mementos for post-Empire archeologists?”
Armand chuckled, or at least pretended to. “How about animunculi laborers who could make life easier for the common people? That’d sit well with you, wouldn’t it?”
“It would,” Daria answered. “Though I imagine it’d put a lot of people out of work, too.”
“Me and dad had an interesting talk about the potential economic consequences,” Jolda said.
Armand made a dismissive wave with his free hand. “Oh, it’ll be a disruption, sure. But think about the benefits: machines doing the back-breaking labor that cuts so many lives short! Commoners able to pursue their interests and passions, the way the Dwemer once did! And a way to free Morrowind’s slaves by making slavery economically useless! A lot more efficient than petitioning the Curia or Elder Council, wouldn’t you say? That’s not even getting into the military applications.”
Armand leaned forward, firelight flickering on his chiseled jaw. “Not many people know what I’m about to tell you, Daria. Oh, it’s not a secret—just obscure. When Emperor Tiber Septim annexed Morrowind, he did so specifically to gain access to the Dwemer cities.”
Daria thought back to her studies. “Huh. I’d always heard he’d done it to secure the eastern frontier so he could concentrate on fighting the Altmer—wait! Are you saying he used Dwemer weapons when he conquered the west?”
Armand was silent for half a second before he responded. “No, just that Tiber Septim understood the value of knowledge. It was Imperial grit and courage that brought the Aldmeri Dominion to heel. Nothing more.”
Somehow, Daria didn’t believe him. Deep inside she felt an intimation of fire and war, one emanating from the stone beneath the tent and the miles of twisting metal passages therein. The Empire simply did not care about the poor—certainly not enough to delve into dangerous ruins for their sake.
But it loved weapons.
She thought back to the bizarre animunculi in the storage tent. The Dwemer had armies of them, so why shouldn’t the Empire have legions of the same? Especially if Dwemer artifacts really did have something to do with Tiber Septim’s final victory against the Altmer. A victory that the military histories had always been a bit vague about. A victory that should have taken decades somehow compressed into a few bloody months.
No wonder it was so easy for the IAS to get funding.
The conversation turned to idler things. Daria faded out, letting Jolda and Armand drive most of the talk. Finally, she excused herself by pleading sleepiness.
“Before you go,” Armand said. “I’d like to show my appreciation for the work you’ve been doing. You can go inside Arkngthand tomorrow. Just ask the foreman for an assignment and she’ll give you one. I want you to get a better look at exactly what we’re working with.”
“Sure. Thank you,” Daria said. She bowed in the Redguard manner, earning a smile from Armand.
Daria stepped out into a starless night lit only by Red Mountain’s sooty glow. She tightened her coat and raised her hooded lantern to make her way back to the barracks tent. Gusts drove flecks of ash into her eyes and mouth.
She still hadn’t come to a decision about Karl’s incriminating paper. It suddenly no longer seemed that important. He’d just been skimming jewels. Probably not something the Empire—or even Armand—cared much about.
At least she’d get to see Arkngthand up-close the next day.
Far above, Red Mountain’s smoldering caldera stretched like a fiery mouth across the ash-blackened sky.
“I saw a gear that was really shiny. Maybe if I polish it some more it’ll be good enough for Quinn,” Jonus said, hanging his head low.
Jonus, Julien, and Jeval huddled in their corner of the barracks tent, listening to the winds howl.
“Dumbass, she’s not going to want a gear,” Julien said.
“What else can we get her? All the good stuff’s been packed away and we’re leaving in two days.”
Jeval stared into the flames. He was kind of glad they hadn’t found anything.
“We gotta get her something.” Jonus was adamant.
“Ah,” came a nasal, reedy voice. “It appears that the younger Morgendorffer’s suitors are in quite the quandary.”
Jonus and Julien bolted to their feet as Karl stepped forward, straightening his lapels.
“No! We’re not in a—what did he say we’re in?” Jonus asked.
“A quadrille?” Julien wondered.
Jeval buried his face into his hands. “A quandary!” he said.
Karl smiled. “I know full well what you have planned, and I applaud it! Sometimes, the right bauble is all you need to win the heart of a luscious young lady, and few are as luscious as Quinn. Thus, I have a proposition for the three of you: I run a small business on the side dealing in Dwemer novelties. Alas, I cannot proclaim the nature of my business due to certain narrow-minded statutes—”
“Get to the point,” Jonus said.
“Very well! I haven’t obtained as many choice goods as I’d like, and with the dig site closing up, well, time is running short. However, I have it on good authority that there are some untouched rooms containing wealth beyond your wildest dreams.” Karl spread his arms. “Rubies the size of apples set in crowns of gold! Silken fabrics of unearthly color, their luster undimmed by the passage of time! Necklaces—”
“We’ll do it!” Jonus said.
“Hell yeah!” Julien agreed.
Jeval shook his hands in warning. “Guys, wait! Karl’s telling us to go past those yellow X’s. You know, go into the places the legion hasn’t cleared out yet. That’s like a deathtrap!”
“Au contraire, my good Mer,” Karl said. “These animunculi are noisy constructs. We’ll have ample warning should one object to our presence.”
“This is our chance, man!” Jonus proclaimed.
“I’m in,” Julien said.
Jeval again wondered why he hung out with such morons.
Arkngthand took Daria’s breath away.
She walked in wonder as she descended the path into the Hall of Centrifuge, her way lit by plumes of smokeless flame blooming from broken pipes. Her footsteps echoed on corroded platforms inscribed with jagged characters whose meanings eluded the living. Stone and metal twisted together where the living mountain had pushed through the ancient Dwemer works, not even their craftsmanship a match for time’s inexorable progress.
But greater by far than the sights were the sounds. Arkngthand thrummed with a ceaseless symphony of hisses, clicks, and metallic thumps. The noise emanated from the very walls, as if there remained entire cities worth of machinery yet undiscovered, clanking and churning out of sight. She passed strange machines that belched steam and spun wheels, their pops and clangs joining the unseen orchestra for brief moments before fading into the background hum. At times came rattling groans so loud they shook the very air, and made Daria think of something immense waking from the slumber of millennia.
No one had traversed these halls for over two-thousand years. But they had never been silent.
For once, no smart remark came to her. She was in the presence of something great and terrible. Maybe, she thought, this was what Jane had felt when she’d knelt before the Shrine of Humility.
The feeling lasted up until she found the foreman, a middle-aged woman sitting at a round Dwemer table and engaged in a game of dice with a few workers.
“Come on, be good to mama!” she said, kissing her hand before tossing the dice. Standing up to see her result, she raised her arms in victory. “Yes!”
“Excuse me,” Daria said.
The woman glared at her. “Yeah?”
“You’re the foreman, right?”
“Oh yeah, you’re the one the bossman told me about. Look, we’re pretty much done here.” She pointed to the crates around her, presumably awaiting transportation to the surface.
“Have her copy some more pipe lettering from Heaven’s Gallery,” one of the guys at the table said.
“That works. Grab some papers and charcoal from that stack over there and you’ll be set to go,” the woman said.
“And how do I get to Heaven’s Gallery? Near-death experience?”
“See that door?” She pointed to a round metal portal in the wall. “Go through that, follow the hall, turn left and go through another door, then turn right and keep going until you get to a big yellow X on the wall. If you run into lava or a rockfall, you’ve gone too far.”
“Thanks for clarifying that last bit,” Daria said.
But the woman had already turned her attention back to the game.
“Hmm, I was certain that’d lead us to Heaven’s Gallery,” Karl said, studying his map by the light of a glowing glass tube.
Jeval crossed his arms and leaned against the metal wall. Stupid of him to go in the first place. And now Karl had gotten them lost.
“Come on, you said you knew where it was!” Jonus protested.
Karl cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, rushing me won’t help anything. We’ll be fine as long as we stay calm.”
“Hey, Jeval,” said Julien. “Where do you think we should go?”
Jeval turned to stare at his supposed friend. “How should I know?”
“’Cause this is a Dwemer ruin! You’re a Mer.”
“I’m a Bosmer, not a Dwemer.” Jeval rolled his eyes.
“That’s still Mer!”
“That doesn’t mean anything! The Dwemer lived in underground cities. My people literally live in trees. And I grew up in Cyrodiil the same as the rest of you, so I didn’t even do that!” Jeval shook his head. “I’m about as Mer as you are,” he muttered.
“Arguing won’t help!” Karl said, still staring at the map. “I say we go back the way we came. The entrance to Heaven’s Gallery should be one of these doors we passed earlier.”
“Hey, Karl? How did you get that map? I thought this part wasn’t explored yet,” Jonus said.
“This map does rely on a bit of inference—but don’t all maps?”
They started arguing again. Jeval grimaced. The constant noise of the place was getting to be a real pain. Mer ears picked up a lot more than the ears of Men, so Jeval didn’t know how the Dwemer had put up with it. Clank, rattle, boom, over and over again. It was deadening.
Seemed to be getting louder, too. Jeval kept hearing these big thuds, like someone hitting a huge drum. The floor vibrated with each beat. Real regular, too, one after the other. Like footsteps.
“Guys,” Jeval warned, “I think we have company!”
The light in the glass tube fascinated Daria the most.
She’d walked past similar glass tubes already. Only in the last room of Heaven’s Gallery, a dark rectangular chamber where metal cabinets and ancient desks held the dust of ages past, did she take a closer look.
This tube, like the others, connected at both ends to an engraved pipe running along the concave walls. Inside was a ring of glass emitting a bright yellow glow, held in place by triangular pieces of green metal.
Only the greatest enchantments lasted for perpetuity. One couldn’t have a proper magic sword or suit of holy armor if the juice fizzled out after a century or two. But enchanting to that degree took a lot of time and effort—so naturally, the Empire reserved such efforts for ostentation.
The Dwemer had possessed enough power to enchant common lights the way the Empire enchanted its greatest symbols. Not just once or twice, but over and over again.
With something like that, she’d be able to read as late as she pleased, even during the winter months.
All around her Arkngthand shook and groaned. The air was stale but warm, reminding her of comfortable nights spent by the fire back on Stirk. Darkness and bad eyesight blurred the grime and the dust, and she imagined herself as a Dwemer, the mysteries of the world bound in letters and numbers and laid out before her.
How could the Dwemer simply disappear? Their lights lasted forever—but served no one save for dust, animunculi, and the occasional clueless archeologist.
Lost in her reverie, Daria almost didn’t hear the cry for help echoing down the next corridor. Annoyed, she pulled away from the light. Had that really been a voice? Or just some machine noise she’d mistaken for a cry?
“Hello?” she called out, her voice reverberating against the metal walls.
She took a few cautious steps toward the round door marked with a yellow X. The door was slightly ajar.
“Someone! We need help!” the voice came again.
Daria hesitated. The yellow X meant danger. But surely a quick look couldn’t hurt? Maybe she’d learn something else about the Dwemer beyond Heaven’s Gallery. It’s not like she’d ever get another chance.
Taking a deep breath, Daria pushed against the door. Ancient hinges squealed in protest, but it opened without too much trouble. Ready to jump back in at the first sign of danger, Daria walked onto a small platform sticking out over a narrow shaft that plunged deep into the darkness.
Karl stood in an open doorway on the other side of the shaft. With him were Quinn's three suitors: Jonus, Julien, and Jeval.
“Daria!” Karl exclaimed, his eyes wide. “You have to help us!”
She studied the situation. “I don’t have to do anything. How did you idiots get yourselves stuck there?”
But something wasn’t right. It took a lot to knock the smugness out of Karl. Given their location, it wasn’t too hard to infer what had done that.
These goons might be in danger.
“Some big metal monster found us!” Jeval said.
A legitimate emergency. “Okay. Hold on, I’ll get help—”
The metal around her vibrated as a heavy footfall echoed down the halls, followed by another just like it.
“Crap, it’s getting closer!” Julien (or was it Jonus?) cried.
“Daria, did you see any other doors connecting with where we are?” Jeval asked.
“I don’t know! I’ve never been here before.”
Daria looked down, holding her glasses so they didn’t slip off. Stumbling blind through a Dwemer ruin struck her as a good way to end up dead. Some metal stuck out of the platform in front of her. Not much, just a foot’s worth. She took stock of her surroundings. Strange though the Dwemer were, she didn’t think they’d have two doorways on opposite ends of a pit unless there was a way for them to connect.
To her left, was a small wheel attached to a bunch of pipes.
“Hold on!” she said.
Daria grabbed the wheel with both hands and turned it with what little might she could muster. The ancient mechanism resisted slightly but slowly gave way. As Daria worked the device, the metal sticking out of the platform slowly extended.
“Guys! She’s making a bridge!” Jeval said.
“Hurry up!” Karl begged.
Daria planted her feet on the floor. The footsteps grew louder, an ominous percussion to the mechanical concert all around. She tried not to think of how big it would have to be to shake the whole room like that.
“It’s getting closer!” one of the other boys wailed.
Inch by halting inch, the bridge extended. Each turn of the wheel got harder. Daria gritted her teeth, numbness creeping into her fingers as she tightened her grip. She wasn’t built for this kind of effort.
“Hurry!” Karl cried. “I’ll give you my father’s fortune! I’ll be your servant for life! Just don’t let me die!”
The bridge was halfway there. But behind the panicked boys marched a giant that filled the entire hallway, a clanking monstrosity in the rough shape of a human, with steam for breath and weapons for hands.
She groaned from the effort and threw her meager weight on the wheel. Sweat poured down her body and her limbs shook. Still the bridge slowed, like it had gotten caught on something.
“Guys! It’s close enough, we have to jump!” Jeval ordered.
Daria turned just in time to see Jeval sail across the gap, landing on the bridge as lightly as a cat.
“You can do it!” he called.
Julien jumped next, followed by Jonus. Only Karl remained, frozen in fear.
“Karl, you have to jump!” Jeval ordered. Julien and Jonus had already run past Daria and into safety. Only Jeval stayed by Daria.
The wheel refused to budge. Daria strained until her body shook, but to no avail.
Impassive and inexorable, the animunculus advanced toward Karl. It raised the enormous mace head that served as a right hand.
Karl leapt as the animunculus swung. The mace slammed into the ground where he’d just been standing, the sound of the impact a wrenching metallic scream that shook Daria’s teeth.
Karl hit the bridge face-first, legs dangling over the edge. He started to slide. Jeval grabbed him by the forearms and pulled him up. With a sobbing Karl back on his feet, the two stumbled back to Daria’s side.
“Can you retract the bridge?” Jeval asked. “Here, I can help with the wheel if you’re tired!”
Black spots swum in Daria’s vision. “I don’t think that thing can jump. But go ahead.”
Jeval grunted as he tried to turn the wheel. The animunculus stood silent on the other side, a knight that was all armor and no man. The slits that served as its eyes stared at Daria.
“What exactly do you see when you look at us?” she wondered out loud, as the bridge began its retreat.
With the bridge retracted and the door closed, Daria confronted a blubbering Karl.
“I’m curious to know exactly what you four were doing down here. But I can already guess it’s something stupid.” She glanced over to the ashen-faced trio of Jonus, Julien, and Jeval. “Probably something stupid done for the sake of my sister.”
Jonus fell to his knees. “Please don’t tell Quinn about this!”
Julien genuflected. “Just pretend like it never happened, we’ll do anything you want.”
Jeval sighed. “They wanted to lift some Dwemer jewels or something to give to Quinn.”
Still on his knees, an aghast Jonus turned to face Jeval. “Dude, shut up! We’ll all get—”
Daria raised her right hand and motioned for them to settle down. “I already know about Karl’s little embezzlement scheme.”
“Yes, well…” Karl sat on the floor, knees up to his chin and his body quivering. “It appears that I owe you another favor!” He didn’t look at Daria as he spoke, his gaze stuck on the far wall.
“Yes, you do,” she said. “The favor is that you’re going to put back everything you stole from Armand. Do this, and I’ll keep quiet about your thefts and unscheduled visits beyond the safe zone. And my earlier requirement about you not being a pest still stands.”
Karl squeaked, his eyes bulging. “But… I have profits riding on this!”
Daria glowered and he shrank back.
“Of course, as a man of, uh, honorable reputation, I’ll fulfill my end of the bargain,” he said, a little too quickly.
“As for you three,” Daria said, “you can buy my silence by making sure Karl does what he promised.”
Since in the end, she couldn’t really force him into doing anything he didn’t want to do. She’d need backup—and unreliable backup was still better than none.
“Why, I’m shocked that you’d think so little—” Karl started.
“Stop talking,” Jeval ordered. “That’s fair, Daria. Hey, uh, so thanks for saving our lives and stuff.”
“Don’t get too excited. I just saw this as an opportunity to accrue more favors. Besides, I don’t want to think about what my sister might do if she doesn’t get her daily dose of attention from you guys. That fact alone makes you more useful to me alive than dead.”
“We were being morons,” Jeval admitted. “So yeah, I’ll make sure Karl returns the goods and doesn’t bother anyone. And personally, I don’t really care if you tell Quinn or not. The way I see it, we all owe you.”
Daria smiled at the storm of protestations that erupted from Jonus and Julien.
Jeval had done his job. Daria checked the now-organized artifacts on the last full day and found that the numbers matched up almost exactly. The items listed on the client sheet, at least, appeared to be back in their proper places. She supposed some had been lost to error. Karl probably wasn’t the camp’s only thief, either.
Plus, no one had complained about Karl’s sleaziness in a while.
The camp awoke before dawn to finish packing. Dozens of guar-pulled carts, already laden with crates, waited at the bridge while inspectors double-checked everything. Daria had hoped for a quiet moment among the aging towers before she left, but Karl interrupted her right after she finished her breakfast.
“Ah, Lady Morgendorffer,” he said. “If I might have a moment of—”
“In exchange for saving your life, can you at least drop the act?”
He cleared his throat. “I wanted to thank you for saving my life. I was in a little too much shock the other day to offer any coherent gratitude.”
“Just don’t make me regret doing it.”
“I am saddened that Karl’s Magnificent Exports, Inc. never got off the ground. Another shattered dream, I fear. Yet at the end of the day, I’m thankful to still be breathing. Besides, I’m sure I can capitalize on my experiences in Arkngthand.”
“Nothing draws in the crowds quite like a tale of human folly—"
Karl struck a pose, one hand on his breast and the other lifted heavenward. “Hear the tale of Karl in Arkngthand, with visage grim and a sword in hand!”
He bowed and grinned. “Just a start, you understand, but I’m sure it’ll soon be a cornerclub staple across the Empire!”
“Just remember that I won’t be there to save you from your enraged audience. In fact, I might help them kill you.”
Karl chuckled and waggled his fingers, but a glare from Daria stopped him from commenting on anyone’s feistiness.
She joined up with Jane as the sun rose, dawn’s light soiled by dust and ash.
“Have fun appealing to the vanity of low-level bureaucrats?” Daria asked.
“Sure, that’s how you get to appeal to the vanity of high-level ones with more moolah,” Jane said. “Turns out Supervisor K’shath lives in Balmora. Now he wants me to paint his wife and brother. I’ll have work for a while, at least. How about you? Enjoy sharpening those counting skills?”
“Not nearly as much as I enjoyed making myself complicit in the corruption that suffuses every element of the Empire.” She looked at the towers. “But I will admit that as jobs go, studying the Dwemer doesn’t seem too bad.”
Jane arched an eyebrow. “Why, Daria! Is that something approaching enthusiasm that I hear in your voice?”
“Just relief that what I thought would be unbearable turned out to be tolerable, which is about as good as things get. Even though the work we do is more fuel for the imperial war machine.” She’d told Jane about her conversation in Armand’s tent.
“You’ll be fueling that war machine with your taxes, anyway. Might as well have fun doing it, right?”
“Yeah, who cares about selling out your ethical framework when there’s fun involved,” Daria said. “Sooner or later though, I’ll have to join some corrupt institution. That or become a crazy hermit. Say, know any isolated anchorages where I could slowly sink into an ethically consistent madness?”
“Look around you, Daria!” Jane said, gesturing out to the volcanic desolation. “Morrowind is prime real estate for that kind of thing!”
Daria smiled, and then noticed Armand and Jolda approaching.
“Daria!” Armand said. “I wanted to thank you again for coming along on this. I know it was a big sacrifice to leave your studies at Drenlyn.”
“It might take me an entire hour to catch up on the week I missed,” Daria said. “But I’m glad I could help.”
Armand nodded. “I know the work you did wasn’t the most interesting. It’s a sad truth that, for lowborn types like us, the only way up is to start at the bottom. But the Empire does recognize skill and dedication, and I’m told you showed both those traits.”
Daria’s cheeks burned at the compliment. Praise always sounded fake to her, but Armand appeared to mean it. She wouldn’t relay this to mom, though—last thing she needed was to hear her go on about what a great worker her eldest daughter was.
“Yeah, thanks for helping out,” Jolda added.
“I’m hoping,” Armand said, “that I can get another dig here in the future. There’s no proper IAS office in Balmora, so I’ll be spending the next year going back and forth between here and the provincial HQ in Old Ebonheart. But once I do get another dig going, whether in Arkngthand or some other site, you will have a spot on the team should you want it.”
Make no mistake, Daria told herself. The work she’d do in the IAS would be to help the powerful become even more powerful, however indirectly. But as Jane said, taxes did the same. Given Morrowind’s dangers, it’d be better to at least keep her options open.
“Thank you,” Daria said, doing her best to fake gratitude.
Armand smiled. “Great! Not everyone recognizes the importance of the IAS. But the work we’re doing matters. If we do it right, we can have an even greater Empire to pass on to our descendants.”
He clapped her on the shoulder and walked past, Jolda following close behind. The cries of waggoneers rose up as the first of the carts started back on the journey to Balmora.
“Ready to blow this joint?” Jane asked.
“Just a minute. Want to take one last look at the place.”
Daria lingered on the rocky slope a few moments longer, her gaze on the fallen Dwemer city. Armand’s words echoed in her mind.
“If we do it right, we can have an even greater Empire to pass on to our descendants.”
No doubt the Dwemer had once shared a similar sentiment.
Daria shivered beneath her cloak, and hurried down to join the others.