(For those wondering, I'm over halfway through with the series, so we will eventually be wrapping things up--but there are still plenty of adventures for Daria before that point. Also, mild trigger warning for references to mild corporal punishment.)
Situated in a rocky heath wedged between two rows of gray and dusty hills, the town of Caldera disappointed Daria the moment she saw it.
Caldera’s peaked and thatch-roofed buildings looked almost alien to her after the year in Balmora. Nothing about the place fit the landscape, the cross-timbered houses like a mirage that’d vanish in the next big rainstorm or ashfall. Only the squat stone heap of Governor’s Hall, which overlooked the city from a barren hill, offered any sense of permanence.
Daria wasn’t sure she’d much mind if some natural weather phenomenon did demolish the town. After struggling for so long in Balmora she’d finally achieved some sense of place there. She no longer panicked going down the street, had some sense of the place and who did what, and had an actual friend.
“Here we are, girls!” dad cheered, marching at the front. “Looks like a nice town.”
“It does come highly recommended,” mom said.
“I think we should double-check your sources on that,” Daria said.
Mom sighed. “Now, Daria. We’re just going to stay for a few days and get a feel for the place. I haven’t accepted Erarik’s offer.”
“But you’re still considering it.”
“Well, of course. My practice hasn’t been growing as quickly as I’d like—Balmora’s a hard market for outlanders. As an Empire town, Caldera might be a little easier for us. And the Cyrodiilic School here is supposed to be one of the best in the province.”
“Look at the clothes! Oh my gosh, look at the clothes!” Quinn exclaimed. A party of women in bejeweled gowns and Nibenese-style veils had just glided past them.
“At least we know that the locals have figured out how to use textiles,” Daria said.
Quinn gave an exasperated sigh. “I know you don’t know the difference between good and bad clothes, but the people here have connections! We’re getting a glimpse into what people in the Imperial City wear!”
“Please. The presence of the nouveau riche doesn’t make Caldera any less of a cultural backwater.”
Quinn looked around, lips tightening in doubt at the sooty houses. “Well, I’m sure it’ll be a really nice place someday! By getting here now, we get to make our claim early. Don’t worry, Daria, I’ll give you something nice once I’m rich and famous.”
“Give me a way to get out of this place, and we’ll call it a deal.”
They found Erarik’s home with some help from the city’s residents. He lived in a cramped but luxuriously appointed two-story home at the end of a narrow street. Sitting down on an upholstered chair, surrounded by overly busy carved wood paneling and tapestries of cliched hunting scenes, Daria reached into her bag and took out her copy of Palla to reread one of her old favorites.
But concentration eluded her. Daria kept listening to the conversation, searching for some hint that mom and dad would drop this ridiculous scheme and go back to Balmora.
“This is a great place you got here!” Jake exclaimed. “What do they charge for the rent in Caldera?”
Erarik chuckled. “Surprisingly little, my friend. You see, the Caldera Mining Company gets major tax breaks based on how many citizens live within the walls—part of the colonization program. The company keeps the rent cheap to incentivize us.”
“That’s a helluva deal. We pay through the nose for our place in Balmora!”
“Though,” Helen continued, “I have to say I’m surprised it’s so sedate. Mining towns tend to be a bit more… rambunctious.”
Erarik smiled. “The actual miners all live in the barracks near the mine. You know, the one that’s actually in a volcanic caldera. Caldera proper is for company and government officials and the folks who support them. It’s a model community.”
“A model community in the sense that you guys can exploit poor people, but never have to actually interact with them,” Daria said, not looking up from her book.
“Ah, I see you’ve inherited your mother’s penetrating insight! You know, Helen, I think the Cyrodiilic School would be a good thing for your eldest daughter. It’s easy for citizens, young ones especially, to go astray when they live in such a foreign province.”
Now Daria did look up. “Oh, don’t worry. The Dunmer are just as classist as we are. Though maybe more honest about it.”
Erarik ignored her. “The Cyrodiilic School emphasizes our nation’s traditional values, like piety and loyalty. Important things. Especially for a young girl. I think they’ll benefit when they visit it tomorrow.”
Daria gave Erarik the nastiest look she could muster. Mom noticed, and for a moment Daria feared she’d get in trouble—except mom looked equally displeased with Erarik’s comment. That was something, at least.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Swift-wit! Piety means a lot to me,” Quinn said, closing her eyes and bowing her head for a moment.
For the thousandth time that day, Daria prayed that mom would go back to Balmora.
The Morgendorffers stayed as guests in Erarik’s home, Jake and Helen taking a spare bedroom while Daria and Quinn slept in the parlor. They arose early the next morning to a breakfast of ham and porridge prepared by Erarik’s Khajiit servant, who’d arrived before dawn to prepare.
“Another nice thing about Caldera: you don’t have to eat bugs here!” Erarik boasted.
Next came the visit to the Cyrodiilic School. Daria and Quinn followed Helen into dry and dusty streets already teeming with activity. What struck Daria more than anything else was how much cattle stank compared to bugs and airborne jellyfish. She’d gotten used to Balmora’s sour smell.
The Cyrodiilic School turned out to be nearby, held in a well-maintained two-story structure built around a small garden filled with oak saplings and flowering rosebushes.
“Oh, it’s so pretty! I haven’t seen a rose in ages!” Quinn gushed as she hurried over to breathe in the scent.
“All right, girls,” mom said. “Erarik already made arrangements with the headmaster, so go in as if you’re regular students. Try to get a feel for the place.”
“You mean try to pretend we’re happy with giving up our old lives so that you can get a few extra big money clients?” Daria said.
She’d probably gone too far, but at this point she didn’t care. She hated this town already.
“Oh my gosh, Daria,” Quinn said. “Just try it! And Balmora’s only like a day away so you can still visit Jane sometimes.”
Mom drew in her breath, like she was about to go on some blistering lecture but exhaled instead.
“Nothing’s been decided yet, Daria. Right now, we’re trying to see what options we have. Which means I need an honest appraisal—something I know I can count on you to deliver for this school.”
Annoyed, Daria grunted.
“Anyway, I’ll be Erarik’s office all day. See you at dinner!”
Resigned to her fate, Daria followed Quinn through the garden and into a luxurious anteroom with wooden floors and thick Nibenese rugs decorated in complex and colorful abstractions. Dappled sunlight shone through windows of real glass. Big bookcases lined the walls and she examined the spines as she passed: encyclopedias, official histories, and other Empire standards. Nothing she didn’t already know.
“This is way nicer than Drenlyn,” Quinn said.
“Yes, aesthetics are far more essential than educational quality.”
Quinn sniffed. “First impressions are important!”
A young Breton girl about their age sat behind a small podium, wearing a pale blue robe that was maybe a bit too big for her. Like Daria, she wore glasses.
“Oh! Wow, I haven’t seen anyone else with glasses in forever!” the girl said. “I thought I had the only pair in Morrowind. That’s so cool!”
“Yeah, relying on cumbersome optical devices to make up for diminished eyesight really is pretty swell,” Daria said.
The girl laughed. “It can be a pain sometimes, huh! Do you ever get that thing where your eyes start—oh, shoot!” She straightened up. “You two are Daria and Quinn Morgendorffer, right?”
“We are!” Quinn said.
“Mr. Swift-wit’s servant told us you’d be arriving this morning. I’m Amelia, and I’m here to welcome you to the Cyrodiilic School in Morrowind: Caldera Campus!”
“Implying there’s more than one campus,” Daria said.
“Yup! The CSM also has campuses in Old Ebonheart, Firewatch, and Cormar. It’s part of the Empire’s efforts to provide a top-notch education for citizens.”
All of them, Daria noted, being cities built and inhabited by outlanders like her.
“I’m Quinn! Our family is like really popular in Balmora and we’ve heard so many great things about Caldera.”
“Great! We all do our parts to make Caldera a sterling example of the Empire’s governance.”
“It’s good to know that conformity and sucking up to the powers that be will always have a home under the Ruby Banner,” Daria said, but Quinn had already started talking.
“Same in Balmora!” Quinn said. “So is it true that in Caldera you can just go into a store and buy gowns straight from the Imperial City?”
Amelia’s freckled face scrunched up in uncertainty. “Uh, I think so, but I’m not really the girl to ask. I spend most of my money on books. My dad says it’s more important than ever to be well-read.”
Quinn turned to Daria. “See, you already have a friend.”
“You like reading, too?” Amelia asked. “I’ve heard Balmora has a great bookstore.”
At that moment, with Amelia’s eyes so wide and hopeful behind her glasses, Daria couldn’t really think of anything snarky to say. “Uh, yeah. Actually, we do have a pretty good one.”
“That’s so cool. Don’t get me wrong, I love Caldera… but culturally there isn’t a lot here. You’re in luck, though! Today, Master Pentuo’s going to be teaching us on the construction of early Third Era panegyrics. Mostly to Tiber Septim’s glory, of course,” she added, bowing her head.
“Because modern propaganda just can’t compete with the classics,” Daria said.
Amelia laughed again. Did this girl find everything funny? Did she get Daria was making fun of her?
“We’ll have to talk about our favorite books later. For now, you can follow me for the tour.” Amelia cleared her throat, and then gestured around the room. “As you can see, we have a lot of books here, most of which were donated by the Amarecto family…”
“This is really fascinating, Amelia,” Quinn interrupted, “but do you know what would be a good place to find some of the latest gowns? And maybe the names of the kinds of people who shop there?”
Daria noticed a flicker of a disappointment in Amelia’s eyes. “Falanaamo’s is the place to get clothes.”
“Great, well I’m going to take a quick visit. My mother is very insistent on getting the latest fashions and she’s just been dying to know what they are.”
“But Quinn! I’m supposed to—”
Quinn was already halfway out the door. “Don’t worry, I’ll get back in time for the pan gymnastics or whatever. Bye!”
The door shut, leaving Daria and Amelia alone in the expansive anteroom.
“Shoot,” Amelia said.
“Don’t feel bad. Quinn has a very clear list of priorities. Fashion is at the top. Education is somewhere below herding silt striders.”
“Yeah, she’ll fit in here,” Amelia muttered. Then the smile returned. “I guess I can show you—”
“Wait a minute,” Daria said, crossing her arms. “I heard what you just said.”
Amelia turned pale. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound—gosh—”
Daria held up her hand. “Trust me, it takes a lot more than that to offend me on my sister’s behalf. What I’m more curious about is your chipper description of life in Caldera and this school. You clearly don’t entirely believe what you’re saying.”
Amelia looked down at the floor, sighed, and then met Daria’s gaze. “It’s not all bad. But, well, education isn’t always a priority in the Cyrodiilic School, either.”
“On that case, it’ll probably be just like home.”
“Heh, guess things are tough for us intellectual types everywhere. Come on, I’ll show you to class. Just, uh, manage your expectations.”
The door led to a small hallway running along the front room, with a few more doors on the opposite side, one near them and the other farther down the hall. Amelia took the nearest door, and Daria heard chatter on the other side.
“Like I said Daria: manage your expectations,” Amelia said, bracing herself and then opening the door.
A lavish sitting room awaited beyond. Thick rugs of red and purple carpeted the wooden floor, and a dozen students in shimmering moth-silk tunics lounged around on upholstered chairs, some with their feet propped up on footstools. Candles, wax ones, burned on elegant metal holders even though the morning sun shone bright through the polished glass windows.
“Amelia! I was told there would be two new students.”
The speaker was another Breton, a reedy one maybe a little older than Daria, his features already locked into a disapproving snit. He sat in a chair upholstered in purple silk, bigger than any of the other students’ and near the front of the room.
“Uh, the other one, Quinn, is on her way,” Amelia said.
He got up and the rest of the room fell silent. “You must be Erarik Swift-wit’s guests? My dad knows him. They’re buddies.”
Daria already hated the guy. But she didn’t know his social standing so she had to play it safe.
“I am, in fact.”
He smiled. “Any daughter of one of Erarik’s friends is a friend of mine!”
“I’m certainly glad that our seconds-long acquaintanceship has already blossomed into a friendship,” she said, no longer able to stop herself.
Luckily, he didn’t notice. “I’m Skip Stieve. My father’s an accountant at the Caldera Mining Company, and a close friend of Headmaster Mantus Corpullo.”
Daria nodded, bile simmering on her tongue. He wasn’t a noble, at least, which gave her some leeway. “Is there anyone your dad isn’t close friends with?”
“He knows everyone important here. Anyway, now that Amelia’s brought you in, let me be the one to introduce you to the finest educational institution in Morrowind!”
“Gee, who’d have thought that a small company town less than a decade old would boast a school better than any of the age-old centers of learning in this vast province.”
Amelia covered her mouth and looked away.
Skip’s brow furrowed and his gaze became a squint. “Was that a joke? Because I don’t appreciate some newcomer making fun of what Headmaster Mantus Corpullo has done with this place.”
“Oh, not a joke at all,” Daria said. “I was simply praising the remarkable, if not downright improbable, skill in which he’s turned this school into an educational marvel without anyone outside of Caldera ever hearing about it.”
Skip pointed a bony finger at her. “You better be!”
The door opened and a middle-aged Imperial stepped in, carrying a few books. “All right, everyone take your seats so we can get through this lecture with a minimum of fuss.”
Not showing any emotion, Daria turned and stepped away from the front of the room. Gaining some positive social relationships in Balmora had made her worry she’d lost her touch, but it looked like she still knew how to alienate people the moment she met them.
Erarik hadn’t been the best student at the School of Julianos. An intelligent one, certainly, but never the most diligent. Cornerclubs and dice games always pulled him away from his studies, and his marks reflected that.
Yet, somehow, he’d gotten a fine position mere days after graduation while Helen had to pack up and move to Stirk to find any work. His wealthy drinking buddies had hired him—a bleak lesson which, in some ways, might have been the most useful she’d gotten from her time at the school.
Now, while Helen worked from a humble home office, Erarik ran a separate office on the floor above an accountancy firm within sight of the Governors Hall, complete with three secretaries and a fellow advocate. A bit extravagant, she thought, to have a building devoted entirely to office work, but perhaps that was the way of the future. It being right across the street from a bakery at least provided an aromatic bonus.
“Here’s where the magic happens,” he said. Erarik walked past the bookshelves packed with legal tomes to a marble altar inscribed with a scroll and triangle, the symbol of Julianos.
“You’ve certainly done well for yourself,” Helen said, crossing her arms and hoping she sounded sincere.
“The Divines have favored me—but I like to think I had something to do with it as well.” He flashed a grin.
“Does your office provide legal services for the Caldera Mining Company?” she asked.
He shook his head. “They have their own people for that. No, my services are for the people of Caldera. And there seem to be more every day. Which, of course, is where you come in!”
The people of Caldera, of course, referring to the bureaucrats and shopkeepers. Certainly not the miners—but it wasn’t as if she provided pro bono service to Balmora’s poor and indigent. No, she’d shorn off most of her ideals long ago, same as him, so there could be no fair judgment from her.
Helen walked over to the open window, made of real glass and not the hardened green resin the Dunmer used. A pall of dust hung over the town, dirtying the sun’s light—simply the nature of a mining town, she supposed.
“It is quite an offer. But I have to admit I’d be sorry to give up the legal fiefdom I’ve carved out for myself in Balmora.”
Erarik pumped his fist. “That you did that yourself is exactly why I want you! Here, that is. I remember how you were back in school—no weakness in the opposing argument escaped your ear, no obscure statute passed unnoticed!”
Helen turned around to face him. “What sort of position would I start with?”
“You’ve already got experience, so you’d be working with me.”
“What about that other advocate?” Helen asked.
“Shaz’vir? He’s fresh out of law school, he knows it’ll be a while. You’d start from a strong position. And don’t forget about Caldera’s advantages for your girls! And husband.”
Right. She’d already forgotten that, her mind calculating the costs and benefits of relocation. Some mother she was. Caldera probably did provide better opportunities for Daria and Quinn.
As for the job, she hated the idea of working for Erarik. Or working for anyone else, for that matter—she’d always taken pride in being a trailblazer of one kind or another. She’d risked it all to go to Balmora. Though she hadn’t made it yet, she was getting closer.
But this was a hard offer to turn down.
At least when Instructor Ondryn had them recite Dunmer poetry, it was something new. “To the Glory of the Emperor Everlasting” was a panegyric she’d memorized by age three and had gotten sick of before she’d turned four.
But that didn’t stop Master Pentuo from leading the class through the tired old recitation, Skip’s enthusiastic diction booming over everyone else’s.
Quinn crept in unnoticed halfway through, her voice seamlessly joining the others.
At last they broke for lunch. For lack of better options, Daria fell in with Amelia as the students filed out of the Cyrodiilic School and into the courtyard. Quinn already chattered with a crowd of young ladies whose wardrobe budgets put together probably exceeded the town’s tax output. As usual, a trio of guys stood in rapt adoration of their newfound goddess. Nothing ever changed.
“So what do you think?” Amelia asked, her voice hopeful.
“I think it’s pretty impressive for an effort that basically denies Morrowind’s existence.”
“What do you mean?”
Daria sighed. “Amelia, we’re in the Dunmer home province, but there’s not a single Dunmer student in the school. And if today was any indication, we won’t be learning much about Morrowind.”
Amelia was silent for a moment. “Yeah, it bothers me, too. When I came to Morrowind, I was really excited about getting to meet citizens who serve the Empire but in a different way, you know? But it is a good place where we can get training to make the Empire a more cohesive polity someday. Right?”
“Personally, I go for more of a live fast, die young ethos. I just can’t resist the thrills of Balmora’s seedier side.”
Amelia got all goggle-eyed. “Wait, do you really do stuff like that? Wow, you have to tell me more about life in Balmora, it sounds so exciting! I know a place where we can talk.”
Said place turned out to be Shenk’s Shovel, a spacious and richly appointed cornerclub with flower-pattern tapestries and cabinets opened to display rows of fine porcelain. Bureaucrats and company men in resplendent coats sat at lacquered tables laden with plates of spiced chicken and bowls of imported sticky rice.
“Why’s this placed called Shenk’s Shovel?” Daria asked. The sheer amount of luxury on display had caught her off-guard. She supposed it served as a good reminder that, for all of Great House Hlaalu’s wealth, the Empire and its companies had so much more.
“That’s Shenk over there, he’s the publican,” Skip said, pointing at a bald Redguard in a pricy-looking blue silk shirt. “And it’s called the shovel because Caldera’s a mining town.”
“I see.” Daria scanned the clientele. “These sure are some well-dressed miners.”
“Oh, ha ha! No, this is more for company men. But hey, they have coffee. Do you want some?”
It had been a while since the Lucky Lockup had gotten a shipment of beans. Nodding her assent, Daria let Amelia make the order.
Amelia returned and unleashed a fusillade of questions about Balmora: what was the food like? (“Bug-based, but pretty good when you get used to it.”) Were the Camonna Tong actually dangerous? (“Yes, but they don’t usually bother upper class outlanders, and the Thieves Guild protects the poorer outlanders.”) Was Daria part of the Thieves Guild? (“No, but I know someone who knows someone.”) Did the Dunmer like or hate the Empire? (“Depends on the Dunmer, and even a single Dunmer might have more than one opinion on the subject.”) Were the Dunmer gods real? (“Probably not, but you should respect their beliefs.”) Did Imperial citizens have to step aside to avoid touching the shadows of Dunmer nobles? (“That just plain doesn’t happen.”)
And many others.
The coffee arrived, and Daria savored the bitter aroma wafting out from the steam-crowned porcelain pot. She relaxed a bit as Amelia poured the brew into the two tiny cups. With it came a small meal of spiced rice and Nibenese-style mango tarts.
It felt like a weird repeat of her first day at Drenlyn. Coming in and befriending—or at least getting to know—an unpopular outcast while also getting on the bad side of someone with a higher social ranking. But diminished somehow. Amelia was no Jane, her insecurity writ large on her tightened lips and perpetually rigid shoulders. Nor did a sycophant like Skip really compare to Synda, who at least had had the courage to go all out with her harebrained cruelty.
“Why did your parents come to Morrowind?” Amelia asked.
“The only reason anyone does anything: the chance to make more money than their neighbors.”
“Heh, my dad came here after he finished his commission in the Imperial Navy. Now he’s a gardener. My mom makes some money doing secretary work for the Mages Guild.”
Amelia didn’t seem to be as well-connected as some of the other students. “You mean the mighty wizards of the Mages Guild can’t use the arcane arts to manage their own schedules?”
Amelia laughed. “You’d be surprised! Some of the people there are completely absent-minded! I intern in the Mages Guild—got the job through my mom, and I guess they needed me.”
Daria thought back to her own brief time in the guild. “In other words, they needed someone to roll scrolls for them.”
Amelia blushed, clearly embarrassed. Then she brightened up. “Hey, if you end up living here in Caldera we should totally visit Balmora! I might be able to talk them into letting us use the Mages Guild relay—and even if I can’t, it’s not that long of a trip. I’d love to meet all your friends.”
“You mean friend, singular?”
Amelia shrugged. “Well, even if they aren’t all friends, exactly, they sound interesting. Everyone here’s kind of, well, the same old, same old. Jane sounds so cool! She must be, if she’s your friend.”
Daria didn’t get it. Amelia was clearly someone who ultimately loved the whole Empire shtick. So why did she laugh along with Daria’s critiques? Didn’t she get that Daria was making fun of the Empire? It felt like a setup. She couldn’t really trust someone who seemed so eager to please. Not like Jane, always cool and confident and very much her own person.
They finished lunch and left Shenk’s Shovel, the Cyrodiilic School just a little farther down the street.
“Oh, one thing Daria?”
“Be careful around Skip.”
And all at once her stomach clenched up and she lay back in that Balmora alley with Synda gloating echoing in her ears. It still hurt, all the fear and helplessness crashing back at once despite everything Daria had done.
“He’s not a noble,” Daria said.
“Sure. Noble kids wouldn’t go to the Cyrodiilic School anyway.”
That’s right, Daria remembered. Imperial nobles all hired private tutors for their kids. It was only Dunmer nobles who’d actually send their kids to mingle in hopes of better business relations.
“But,” Amelia continued, “I think Headmaster Corpullo is good friends with Skip’s dad.”
“Skip was using that name—and title—like a mantra earlier. Is he some kind of local deity for the school? Should I burn some incense in Headmaster Corpullo’s name?”
Amelia giggled. “Skip just likes making a big deal of it. Seriously, Corpullo’s almost never on campus.”
“Great. So the head of our school is the educational equivalent of an absentee landlord.”
“Sort of! But Skip could still probably get you and your sister kicked out if you get on his bad side.”
Daria nodded, the germ of an idea forming in her head.
Dinner at Erarik’s proved excruciating. Daria analyzed mom’s every word and gesture for some hint as to her final decision, but couldn’t get anything concrete. When asked, mom said she was still analyzing the offer.
“We’ll be here a few days anyway, Daria, so you may as well make the most of it.”
Daria would. Just not in the way her mother intended.
“You’re plotting something. I can tell,” Quinn said, as they walked to the Cyrodiilic School the next morning.
“Good to see your pattern recognition skills are still in good shape.”
Quinn sighed. “Look, I don't really like Caldera either.”
“Wait, I thought this was fashion central in Vvardenfell?”
“It is! But that’s the problem! Now I have to actually compete with girls who have more money and connections than I do. I know I can do that—but it’s better for the Fashion Guild’s long-term prospects for me to build a solid base of support in Balmora and other cities before going after the ones connected to the capital. Plus, the gowns they wear just have too many jewels, it totally distracts from the fabric quality! Like why even wear moth-silk if you’re going to do that?”
“How far-sighted of you.”
“Anyway, if you do anything like, really embarrassing to get us out, I’ll deny I’m your sister but I won’t try to stop you.”
Daria nodded. “It’s a deal.”
Once in the luxurious lecture hall, she walked over to Skip’s big comfortable seat and sank into the soft upholstery. Then she plopped her feet down on a cushioned stool and put her hands behind her head. All she had to do was wait.
Amelia came in first, looking dismayed the moment she saw Daria.
“Daria! That’s Skip’s seat.”
Amelia frowned. “So, why are you sitting there?”
“Because it’ll annoy Skip.”
Amelia shook her head. “Come on—”
She reached out to take Daria’s arm, but Daria pulled back. “No. I’m tired of phonies like Skip acting as the self-appointed rulers of their petty kingdoms. If he wants to make an issue of it, he can talk to me.”
“I’m serious! He can get you kicked out!” Amelia whispered.
Daria looked her in the eyes for a long, awkward moment. “Exactly.”
“Hey! That’s my seat!” came Skip’s piping, disagreeable voice. He stormed over, his messy red hair like an angry little bonfire atop his skinny head. “Only I can sit there.”
“Gee, that’s funny,” Daria said. “I seem perfectly capable of sitting here. Are you physically limited to this particular seat?”
“Oh, I see how it’s going to be.” He leaned in. “You know, Daria: my word carries a lot of weight with Headmaster Mantus Corpullo.”
“But I, Student Daria Morgendorffer, don’t give a damn about your word.”
Master Pentuo arrived, a few scrolls under his arm. He took no notice of the class as he took position behind the podium. Skip scowled at Amelia.
“I bet you have something to do with this! You’ve never been a team player.”
“But I—” Amelia protested.
Skip stormed off and Amelia looked to Daria. “Jeez, Daria. Maybe this isn’t that big a deal for you, but the rest of us have to live here.”
“If you want to live under Skip’s thumb, be my guest.”
Master Pentuo cleared his throat. “All right, let us begin. Today we shall resume our lessons on proper elocution. Most of you are from all around Cyrodiil, saddled with barbarous regional accents, and you need to improve if you’re to have any hope in the respectable world. Now repeat after me, while taking care to de-emphasize the Rs: ‘My emperor, my protector’,” he said, his monotone putting Daria’s to shame.
“My emperor, my protector,” the rest of the class mumbled.
He sighed. “Dropping the rhoticity is no excuse for poor enunciation! Again!”
As Daria mindlessly repeated the phrase, not bothering to adjust her pronunciation, she observed Skip stewing in fury. So far, things had gone better than she’d planned.
“You! Daria, I think!” Master Pentuo barked. “You barely put any effort into that! Stand up and recite again.”
Daria stood up as requested and cleared her throat. She searched her memory for a worthy response.
“Sure, but I think we’ve exhausted the opening lines of ‘To the Glory of the Emperor Everlasting’,” she said, speaking quickly and loudly to ward off interruption.
She warned Pentuo with the hint of a smile and then launched into it: “They say, the Iliac Bay, is the place to barrel around without a bit of apparel on…”
Chaos took over from there.
Daria’s hands still stung from where Pentuo had struck them with his switch, but she bore the pain with pride. She'd almost reached her goal of becoming too much of a pest for this stuffy school to bother keeping.
As further punishment, she’d been consigned to dust the school library during lunch, which at least gave her some much-needed peace and quiet. Tucked away in the back of the building, the library had more books than Drenlyn’s, but consisted almost entirely of the standards found everywhere else in Tamriel. At least, she supposed, the Cyrodiilic School’s roof wouldn’t cave in as easily.
“Huh, hope you like dusting,” came Skip’s sneering voice.
Startled, Daria stepped to the nearest window, pushing open the panels so that the street would see if Skip tried something.
“I did, until you came along,” she said.
Skip stood in the doorway, leaning against the fame. “I don’t know who you think you are! This is one of the finest schools in the Empire and you act like it’s some kind of one-room hick schoolhouse!”
“I’m sorry that you fancy city-slickers aren’t impressed with my simple country ways.”
“You need to show respect!” he demanded.
“Why? Because you use your father’s position to torment people? Maybe that intimidates Amelia, but I don’t actually live here. In fact, I’d be happy to get out of here. I suspect you feel the same way.”
“What are you getting at?”
Daria rolled her eyes. Gods, this guy was thick. “What I’m getting at is that both of us want me somewhere else. So go to your headmaster or your dad or whoever and take care of it.”
Then he smiled, in a way that Daria wasn’t at all sure she liked. “You know what? I will.”
He turned around and walked away. Daria waited by the window until the sounds of his footsteps disappeared. Once they did, she resumed dusting. As much as she hated to admit it, she and Skip shared a common goal, one he'd likely expedite.
But the weird, cold way he’d just smiled gave Daria the uncomfortable feeling that she might’ve underestimated his cruelty.
Tension prickled the back of Daria’s neck as she walked to the Cyrodiilic School the next morning. Mom still hadn’t made a decision, and her refusal to commit made Daria all the more certain that they’d move to Caldera.
The only choice remaining? Hope that Skip got her kicked out and didn't screw it up too badly. Him being an idiot further complicated matters. She should have tried harder to make him think it was his idea to talk the headmaster into expelling her.
She sensed danger the moment she arrived at campus. Skip stood in the gateway to the courtyard, chin raised and holding out a parchment in his right hand. Amelia wrung her hands before him, her pleas low and rapid.
“I’m sorry, Amelia,” Skip said, his nasal voice carrying down the street. “But you aren’t wanted here any longer.”
“But I was promised a position—”
“You were offered one,” Skip interrupted. “Which was contingent on you meeting the high standards of the Cyrodiilic School!”
“I don’t understand.” Amelia’s voice trembled. “My marks are good!”
“There’s nothing more to discuss. It’s been decided you don’t fit.”
“Is this… is this because my parents don’t work for the company? My mom works for the Mages Guild at least, and they’re important!”
Skip scoffed. “She’s a secretary in the Mages Guild. But if you want to know why you aren’t welcome…” Skip saw Daria, and peeled his lips back in a sickening grin, “Why don’t you ask your friend over there?”
Following his gaze, Amelia blinked when she saw Daria. “Huh?”
“Hold on,” Daria said, not breaking her stride as she marched up to Skip. She grabbed the paper out of his hands and scanned the contents: a brief notice warranting Amelia’s expulsion, marked with what she guessed was the headmaster’s red wax seal.
“Skip, you wanted me out of this school,” Daria said.
“Why no, Daria,” he said, drawing out the ‘no’ to an absurd length. “Your mother, at least, has a very respectable profession. This school is for people like us. Amelia simply doesn’t fit. I only wish you’d act the part of a Cyrodiilic School student. An apology could go a long way.”
“Daria, what’s going on here?” Amelia demanded.
“I’ll see you in class. Not you, Amelia,” Skip said, turning around and walking to the front door.
“Dammit,” Daria said. She adjusted her glasses, trying to figure out what to say.
“Please tell me what happened!” Amelia begged. “I got here this morning, and he just shoved that stupid paper in front of my face!”
“Right. So, uh, yesterday I had an argument with Skip. He didn’t want me at this school, and I didn’t want to be here, so I suggested he simply conspire with the headmaster to get me kicked out. Apparently, he decided to go after you in order to get back at me.”
“Huh? But… oh my gosh! Daria, I have so much riding on this! My dad worked really hard to get me here, he did free work for all their parents. This is—it’s supposed to be my stepping stone to something better, so I can—”
Amelia sobbed. Daria froze. What the hell were you supposed to do when someone cried? It never fixed anything. She reached out and gave a few hesitant pats on Amelia’s back before Amelia threw both arms around her and full-on wept into her shoulder.
“Uh, okay,” Daria said. She held her breath for a few moments and then pulled away. She couldn’t think when someone was using her as a human handkerchief.
“Crying isn’t going to get you back into the school, Amelia,” Daria said.
Amelia sniffed, and blinked back her tears. “Wow, Daria. That was really cold.”
“Accepting the cold hard truth is a good first step to figuring out a solution.”
“Okay. So what do we do?”
But no solution presented itself. The facts were as followed: the headmaster was a close friend of Skip’s dad, and Skip’s dad worked for the company. Amelia had no such connections. It was another example of the vast web of family relations and old school ties that bound the Empire together, supporting and undergirding all of its kingdoms, guilds, and temples. Pushing back against one strand only made the rest cling more tightly.
What they needed was an expert. Someone who knew how to navigate this kind of complexity. A lawyer.
“Daria?” Amelia asked.
“I think we’re going to need my mom’s help on this.”
“Won’t she get mad at you for trying to get kicked out?”
“Her getting mad at me is a price I’m willing to pay if there’s even the slightest chance of pulling one over Skip.”
Helen’s fingers gripped the armrests of her chair as she prayed for something to do.
Erarik had insisted on her attending the office that day and meeting his star clients. They’d already gone through one, a pleasant Nord woman named Rifsa Blood-sworn, and all Helen could do was nod politely and make vague affirmative sounds while Erarik negotiated. She hated being the junior partner. She’d hated it in Stirk, and she hated it even more in Caldera. The extra income didn’t make up for the loss of autonomy. Besides, she knew the law better than Erarik. Why the hell should she follow his lead?
“Helen!” Erarik called, as he walked back into his office. “I’ve got a very special client here today: Headmaster Corpullo!”
Erarik gestured to the man next to him, a bald Imperial with angular green cult tattoos running along the sides of his face. Corpullo smiled and nodded his head.
Helen got to her feet and bowed. “It’s an honor to finally meet a man of your erudition, Headmaster Corpullo! My daughters have so many wonderful things to say about your school.”
“Good! That means we’re getting through to them,” Corpullo said. “I hear you’re from that barbarous den known as Balmora—I’m glad you made it to civilization!”
Helen forced herself to smile. “Well, we haven’t quite made it yet. But we’re considering the move.”
“I certainly hope you do. We need all the good people we can get, and Erarik tells me you’re the best.”
I’d rather my sterling record tell you I’m the best, Helen thought. “I do what I can!”
The chirpy way she said that made her feel like a slow and insecure child trying to impress a teacher. No wonder Daria got so frustrated at networking—as her daughter, how could she be any different?
“Excuse me, Erarik?” It was his secretary, a slim young Imperial man.
“What? I’m with a client!”
“Forgive me,” the secretary said. “Helen’s daughter is here to see her, and she says it’s important.”
“Daria or Quinn?” Helen asked.
“Daria. There’s another girl with her.”
Headmaster Corpullo frowned. “Daria ought to be in school right now!”
At least this gave her an excuse to get out of glad-handing. “Erarik, would it be too disruptive if I see what’s going on? She should be in school, like Headmaster Corpullo says.”
Hopefully, that made her request client-centered enough to meet with Erarik’s approval.
“Headmaster Corpullo, I apologize for this interruption—”
He waved it off. “Oh, no need. It’s good to see Helen is so dedicated to her family. A citizen’s virtues begin with family, after all.”
“Thank you, headmaster,” Helen said, cringing inwardly as she did.
Helen had to admit a significant sense of relief as she left the room, one that faded when she saw Daria standing rigid with her shoulders bunched up, like she always did when something was wrong. She had no idea what the bespectacled girl standing next to Daria had to do with the situation.
Daria cleared her throat. “Hi, mom. I guess I’ll get right to the point…”
Daria mentally prepared for the worst as she told mom the story. It’d end, she was sure, with mom suddenly looking years older than her actual age and uttering something like: “I am deeply disappointed with you.” No shouting or yelling. Just the exhausted glare of someone who’d been let down too many times.
Yet mom’s expression only grew frustrated at a few points. She leaned closer, brow furrowed and eyes attentive, as if reading Daria's words on some imaginary parchment and looking for errors or weaknesses. Of course, Mom always put up a polite façade in public. Only at home would she drop the full weight of her crushing disappointment on Daria’s shoulders.
“We reasoned that professional legal counsel was probably in order,” Daria said.
“A wise decision,” mom said. “Oh, Amelia! It’s good to meet you.”
Mom bowed her head in acknowledgement, and Amelia curtsied as best she could in her robe. This got a chuckle from mom. “Amelia, I think you’re old enough to bow.”
“Of course, ma’am,” Amelia said, bowing her head. “Sorry, it’s been a long morning.”
“It certainly sounds like it!” Mom looked back over her shoulder at the closed door, and then to Daria and Amelia. “Your timing was interesting. Headmaster Corpullo is actually chatting with Erarik in the other room.”
“Oh no!” Amelia gasped.
No surprise that this wouldn’t end well. “So, I suppose the iron law of pleasing your client means Amelia and I are back out onto the street?” Daria asked.
“Don’t be absurd, Daria. Corpullo is not my client yet. And I haven’t decided on joining Erarik.” Mom stroked her chin in thought. “Amelia, I’m going to be blunt with you: the odds are not in your favor. If what Daria told me is accurate—”
“It is,” Amelia confirmed.
“Then, unfortunately, Skip, Corpullo, and Skip’s father—and likely Erarik—will all help one another. Did your parents sign a contract with the school?”
Amelia nodded. “They did.”
“Do they have a copy?”
“No. There’s one big contract that’s kept in the headmaster’s office, which I think is the same. I sort of remember what it says: basically, as a student I’ve been let in because of my promising, uh, aptitude?”
“I was afraid of that,” mom said. “I’d need to see it to be sure, but it sounds like the kind of situation where your invitation can be withdrawn at any time.”
“Right.” Amelia sniffed. “I mean, I guess it is what it is—”
“Wait. Do you have a copy of the expulsion form?”
“I held onto it,” Daria said, reaching into her satchel and taking it out.
Mom took the document. “Hmm, this is rather brief. I’d expect Corpullo to explain why Amelia wasn’t welcome. Here it just says that her time at the school has ended. Terrible penmanship, too,” she said, shaking her head.
A thought came to Daria. “Amelia, you said that Corpullo’s hardly ever at the school. Do you think Skip might’ve faked the document?”
Amelia looked thunderstruck. “Whoa! Maybe? No, wait." She shook her head. "There’s no way Skip would go that far. Tampering with Corpullo’s seal is a big deal!”
“But, if he already thinks Corpullo’s a family friend who’ll stand for him…” Daria said.
“Girls,” mom interrupted, “that’s all very interesting, but it’s just theorizing. We have no proof of fakery, and unless we get some, we need to assume the form is genuine. Though if this is the kind of document that gets Erarik’s approval, I’m amazed he has any clients left!” Mom rolled her eyes.
Amelia nodded. “I wish it were all just a lie. But there’s no way Skip would do something like that. Bad as he is. What do we do, Advocate Morgendorffer?”
Mom was silent for a moment. “Amelia, I’m afraid the best choice might be to simply talk to the headmaster and hope for his mercy. Maybe I can soften him up a bit. He won't want to look overly harsh in front of me and Erarik.”
“What?” Daria exclaimed. “So we just kowtow to his academic majesty and hope he lets Amelia back in? You can’t be serious!”
“Daria, I am entirely serious.”
“I know the system’s corrupt, but as a legal advocate isn’t it your responsibility to make at least some attempt to protect citizens? To ensure that maybe, just maybe, the people with deep pockets can only get away with most of their misdeeds instead of all of them?”
Mom stared right at her. “I wish that was the case, Daria. But it isn’t. You and I are the people with deep pockets. And right now, our responsibility is to do something that will help Amelia. That means assuaging Corpullo’s ego, and not saying a single bad word about Skip or his father.”
“It’s okay, Daria,” Amelia said. “I’ll apologize.”
“You shouldn’t have to.”
“All right then, it’s settled,” mom said. “I’ll go in and try to smooth things over. You will have to accept some blame for this, Amelia. Just act the part of a contrite student. I am sorry that you have to do this.”
“It’s okay,” Amelia said. “I’m glad you’re helping me.”
“Follow my lead,” mom said, handing the expulsion notice back to Amelia.
Mom opened the door into Erarik’s office, and Amelia followed. Daria boiled in rage. Unfairness she could accept—just part and parcel of life. But to actually apologize after having done nothing wrong? Why did Amelia just take it? Didn’t she have any pride?
Headmaster Corpullo looked exactly the way Daria had expected: a Nibenese Imperial swaddled in moth-silk and easy living. No surprise that he hardly ever showed up to work. The man's lizard-like gaze barely seemed to register her or Amelia as they entered, his attention on Daria's mother.
"Daria here has certainly been impressed with your school’s library,” mom said, giving Daria a quick, knowing look.
Sighing, Daria went along with it. “The Cyrodiilic School’s library has everything I expected to find,” she said. Which wasn’t exactly a lie, given the selection’s cliched nature.
“She’s already told me so much about her peers, like Amelia here,” mom continued.
“Ah, yes,” Corpullo said, his face unreadable. “How is your father—the baker, correct?” he asked Amelia.
“Forgive me, headmaster, but he’s a gardener.”
Corpullo’s bushy eyebrows went up at that. “Oh! Well, I trust he’s doing well. Forgive me, Advocate Morgendorffer, but I’d be amiss if I didn’t ask these girls why they aren’t in school.” He looked back at them. “So why, exactly?”
That’s when it clicked: Headmaster Corpullo had no idea what had transpired. Daria looked to her mom and then back to Amelia, a shared understanding passing between the three of them.
“Excuse me, headmaster…” Amelia started, and then faltered. “I got this expulsion notice.”
She presented the document to Headmaster Corpullo, whose brows knitted together in puzzlement as he took a closer look.
“Is everything all right?” Erarik asked.
“Ah, no, not exactly. It appears that someone overstepped their authority. I did not authorize your expulsion, Amelia,” he said.
Amelia breathed out a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank the Divines.”
Skip apparently had been arrogant enough to try and get away with it.
“Forgery’s a serious offense,” Erarik said.
“Amelia, do you know why someone might think this? No one’s complained about you,” Corpullo said.
Amelia glanced at Daria, eyes begging her not to reveal too much.
“If I might speak—” mom said.
“Just a moment, if you please, advocate. I’d like to hear it from the girls.”
“Um, I’m really not sure,” Amelia said, stammering.
Amelia’s breathing quickened, her hands clenching and unclenching. The whole network surrounded her, ready to attack if she fell out of line. Like mom had said: the law couldn’t do much to help.
“We found it tied to the gate with a bit of twine,” Daria said, every cell in her body revolting at the idea of protecting Skip. But Skip was the son of Corpullo’s friend—and if push came to shove, Corpullo would always take Skip’s side.
“We thought it was a strange way of informing her,” Daria continued, “but it had your seal.”
“Indeed, it does.” A grim, knowing look settled on Corpullo’s face. He was obliged to tolerate Skip—but maybe he knew a bit about the kind of person he was. “I think this is something we can handle internally. It’s human error, I’m certain. And I’ll be sure to inform any relevant parties not to do something like this again.”
“That sounds very sensible!” mom said. She gave Daria a quick smile.
“Amelia, you’re welcome to return to class. Daria, I’m impressed that you stood by your friend, especially given that you’ve not been here very long,” Corpullo said. “Loyalty is a classic Imperial virtue.”
Maybe Skip would be disciplined. Maybe not. Maybe he’d just go on and on, casually wrecking lives with his pride and power.
Daria hadn’t done anything to stop him.
Gathered outside Erarik’s home on a bright and rosy morning, the Morgendorffers bade farewell to their host.
“Are you absolutely sure you won’t reconsider, Helen?” Erarik asked. “Again, I could really use someone like you on my team.”
“I am flattered, Erarik,” she said, “but what I want is to build my own firm in Balmora. Maybe I’m just too much of a control freak,” she laughed. “I’m sure my girls would think so.”
“Well, if you ever change your mind, my door’s always open.”
“Thank you, kindly.”
Standing nearby, Daria let out what felt like all the accumulated tensions of the last week in a single long exhalation. They were going home to dirty, dangerous Balmora, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The four of them set off down the street, packs on their backs.
“Caldera’s nice,” dad said, “but you know what? I was starting to miss having bugs for lunch.”
“Bugs are like pure protein so you basically can’t get fat from eating them,” Quinn said. “And I don’t even think these gowns from the Imperial City are all that great. I can get way better ideas by watching people in Balmora.”
Daria listened but said nothing, glad to be leaving Erarik’s stuffy home and the miserable, uptight town surrounding it.
“Daria,” mom said. “That’s Amelia over there.”
Daria’s eyes followed to where mom pointed. Sure enough, Amelia hurried toward them, a smile as bright as the dawn on her face.
“Hey! I wanted to catch you guys before you left. Mrs. Morgendorffer, thank you so much for helping me out. I don’t know what I’d have done on my own.”
“Of course, Amelia. It’s not often I get a chance to really help someone who deserves it.”
“And Daria, thank you for sticking with me. And for, well, going along with the lie. I could tell that wasn’t easy for you.”
“Hey, what’s a little complicity between friends?” Daria said.
“I got some presents for you guys.” Amelia unslung her pack and opened it. First, she took out a bolt of fine blue moth silk. “This is from my parents. They were thrilled with what you did, Mrs. Morgendorffer, and they wanted you to have this.”
“Oh my goodness! This is an amazing gift, Amelia. Why, I’m not sure I can accept this!”
“Please, Mrs. Morgendorffer. It’s on us. You did a lot for me yesterday. I’m sure Quinn knows which dressmaker in Balmora to take it to.”
“I do, in fact!” Quinn said. “Antava is probably the best overall choice, but if you want some of that Dunmer flair it’d be better to go with Rindral...”
She kept talking.
“Daria,” Amelia said, “I know we never got a chance to talk about books, so I thought I’d give you one of my favorites.”
Beaming, she reached into the pack again and withdrew a thick and well-worn tome bound in white leather. Daria took it.
“The Tales and Deeds of Lord and Lady Chesamere of Daggerfall, or A Romance Most Perilous,” Daria said, reading the cover aloud. Renowned as one of the longest and cheesiest of Breton chivalric romances, a genre already known for length and cheesiness.
“I don’t know if you like that kind of book, but it has great romance and adventure! Made me want to see all of Tamriel,” Amelia said.
“I’m sure I’ll find it interesting,” Daria said. “Since you’re giving me a book, I’ll give you my copy of Palla.” Daria took that slender volume, which she’d carried with her all the way from Stirk, out from her own pack.
“Oh wow! Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. It’s an adventure story. Of sorts.” Daria hesitated. It didn’t feel right to trick someone as guileless as Amelia. “It might be a bit more morbid than what you’re used to.”
“Ooh, okay! Ha ha, well you know what? I should probably broaden my reading horizons anyway,” she said, taking the book. “I know you aren’t much for this but is it okay if we hug? I feel like you’ve been my friend for a long time even though we just met a few days ago.”
“Sure, but only because we’re in Caldera. I have a reputation for aloofness that I really need to maintain in Balmora.”
Amelia hugged her tight while Daria stood there for a moment, finally raising her stiff arms and returning the gesture, only relaxing when Amelia disengaged.
“I guess you’ll all be on your way then. Thank you again. And if you ever come back to Caldera, let me know!”
“We will,” mom said. “You aren’t going to be late to school, are you?”
“Oh, well, about that.” Amelia gave a nervous chuckle, and then took a deep breath. “I told my mom and dad everything that happened yesterday. I decided that I don’t want to go to the Cyrodiilic School anymore. My parents are okay with that.”
“That school offers a lot of opportunity,” mom said.
“I know! But I don’t want to live in fear all the time. Skip’s still there and he’ll never be punished for what he did—not really, anyway. The good news is that I’ll be getting my education directly from the Mages Guild from now on.”
Daria decided not to say anything about her own experiences in the guild. It probably wasn’t the worst place for a serious student like Amelia.
“I’ll tell you, Amelia, a lot of Tamriel’s most important people got their start with that guild. It’ll be a challenge, but I think you’re up for it,” mom said.
“I’m sure. Thanks again, you guys!”
The Morgendorffers waved goodbye as they resumed their walk toward the gates.
They traveled the stony road back down to the Odai river basin, where the sprawl of Balmora awaited. Daria put one foot in front of the other through the heat. Sweat trickled down her face and her back, but she was too happy at the thought of going home to mind that much.
The family took a short break for lunch. When they resumed the walk, mom slowed down for a bit and fell in next to Daria.
“I’m proud of you for going along with Amelia’s lie. I know it wasn’t easy.”
“As much as I wanted to make Skip pay, I don’t have the right to sacrifice Amelia’s livelihood.”
“I know. Maybe one day we can make it better, bit by bit. But it won’t be for a long time.”
Daria wondered about that. They hadn’t taken any serious action. “What finally moved you to turn down Erarik’s offer?” Daria asked.
“I’m not sure I ever wanted to take it. I’m an independent kind of woman, Daria. I like working on my own. To tell you the truth, I never much cared for Erarik. I’d already more or less decided to say no—but that episode with Amelia made it easier.”
“Are you telling me that there’s still a human heart beating within that callous lawyer’s hide?”
Mom chuckled. “Yes, but keep that sort of thing to yourself.”
“Your secret’s safe with me, mom.”