Jane blew on her cold-numbed hands and wished she didn’t live so far north.
Shivering, she extended her hands so that they hovered just above the flickering flames in J’dash’s hearth. Rain crashed in torrents on the roof of her landlord’s junk shop, as it had been doing since the last afternoon. Because winter always brought the rain and the cold—and this time, an empty belly.
Feeling slowly returned to her fingers, and she rubbed them together to hasten the process. Once they got as warm as they were likely to get, she turned her eyes back to her commission: a painted portrait of one Marco Menculo, a visiting EEC man who didn’t have much to pay with but promised her that a commission made for “good experience”.
Except experience wasn’t much of a selling point, at least not on its own. Established outlanders now usually hired the established artists. The only clients Jane still got were fly-by-nights like Menculo who never stayed in the city long enough to build up her reputation.
But commissions of any kind were hard to come by. So she worked with a piercing pain in her eyes and a bone-deep soreness in her painting arm. Part of her hoped she’d never see another damned painting for the rest of her life.
A heavy knock sounded on the door.
“We’re closed!” Jane shouted.
“Janey, it’s me!” came Trent’s voice.
Good news, finally. He should have been back a week ago. Jane hurried through the dusty junk shop to the door, glad that he was safe and sound. He was back from Suran, and gigs in Suran usually paid pretty well.
She opened the door and saw Trent, gaunt and soaking wet, his clothes torn and his right arm in a sling. His lute was nowhere in sight.
Jane gasped. “What happened?”
Trent sighed. “Got robbed on the way back.”
“Get inside,” she urged, standing aside to let him squeeze through even as her heart sank. They’d needed that money. Jane’s earnings slipped through her fingers, spent on rent, food, and more art supplies. She spent cash to make cash but never seemed to keep any.
But she’d have to manage the lean times.
Trent still shivered as he dried out near the fire, wrapped in a ratty woolen blanket. J’dash had come out of his room with aged and creaking steps to offer what comfort he could, while Jane boiled water in a tempered clay pot above the fire.
“It was my fault, Janey,” Trent said, his voice quiet.
“Pretty sure it was the robbers’ fault,” Jane replied as she tossed some ground trama root into the bubbling water. She carefully picked the pot up by its handle and laid it on the ground.
Trent shook his head. “Iesse wanted to go back to Balmora on the silt strider, but I’m the one who talked the Spiral into going to Pelagiad. I should’ve listened to him. No one robs silt striders.”
Jane looked at her brother. Gods, he seemed so tired and old. She knew Trent’s flaws well—but he’d always at least tried to keep them afloat.
“Dunmer could not have known,” J’dash said, his whispery voice a wheeze. Each of the old Khajiit’s movements seemed to bring him pain. He’d been getting a lot slower over the past few months—losing things, opening up late, and closing early.
Jane wondered how many years he had left.
“Yeah, it’s not your fault. The Ascadian Isles are supposed to be safe, too,” she said. “And there must have been a bunch of them if they attacked all four of you guys.”
“Well,” Trent said, scratching the back of his head. “Max kind of ran away once he saw the bandits. So it was more like three of us. And Nick dropped his sword right after he drew it. So I guess it was more like two of us. And Iesse was hungover. So it was really just me. And, uh, I was still asleep.”
“But Trent’s friends are safe, yes?” J’dash asked.
Trent shrugged. “The robbers roughed us up but nothing too bad.”
Jane pointed to his limp arm. “That doesn’t look like nothing too bad.”
“It’s not broken, just sprained. Anyway, Mystik Spiral isn’t really a thing anymore. We’re too traumatized. Max is gonna go back to Cyrodiil and Iesse might go with him.”
“I’m sorry, Trent.”
“I don’t even have my lute anymore. I guess I could try to play that Ashlander harp.”
J’dash bared his teeth and his ears flattened against his head. “Trent is better with lute, J’dash thinks!” Then he sighed. “But J’dash knows times are hard. Dunmers have been like cubs, and J’dash will not charge rent this month.”
“Thanks,” Jane said. “I really appreciate that.”
But J’dash wasn’t some big Hlaalu magnate with properties and money to spare. Not getting the rent would hurt him.
She looked at her options. “I’m working on a commission now, but it’s not paying a whole lot. I just did it for money to buy better quality paints.”
“I bet you can do great art even with crappy paints,” Trent said.
“Let me talk art, Trent, that’s not really how it works.” He’d meant well, but the cluelessness of his statement irritated him. Clients expected the best, and that meant she had to step up.
The last real good job she’d gotten had been that pity commission from Daria’s mom and dad. Sad truth was, Jane had just about exhausted her pool of outlander clients.
Of course, there was one possibility. One she wasn’t sure she believed in.
“I don’t know if I mentioned this to you or not, Trent,” Jane said, “but Daria actually made a friend in High Town: Tomal Sloan.”
“Whoa. The Sloans have a ton of money.”
“That they do. So the Sloans already have a family artist. But I did show Tomal some work and he said he’d try to talk other Hlaalu into hiring me.”
“But does Hlaalu speak truly?” J’dash asked.
Jane shrugged. “Do they ever? Everything the guy says sounds kind of rehearsed—but I figure there’s got to be something real there if Daria puts up with him. And me getting a Hlaalu client could be a game-changer.”
“J’dash does not trust the Great Houses.” He slowly lifted his hand to scratch at his neck. As he did, the sleeve of his robe slid down to reveal the bare pink skin on his forearm, the fur rubbed away by the slave bracers of his youth.
“Oh, I don’t trust them either,” Jane said. “But I’ll take their moolah.”
“Maybe this place is the problem,” Trent said. “We’ve been stuck in Balmora for too long. We need a new sound. I know this girl in Vivec City we can crash with for a while. Is that too far for you, J’dash?”
J’dash lowered his head. “J’dash’s wandering days are long done.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Jane said. “Besides, I’m not sure Vivec would be any better than Balmora.”
Trent nodded, his eyes faraway. “Yeah, guess you’re right. I know some other musicians here who might need a singer. I could do pretty good with that. My voice is the only instrument I’ll ever need.”
Jane didn’t have the heart to correct him.
“But I’ll still save up to get a new lute. Feels weird to perform without one.”
“Good thinking,” Jane said. “As for me, I’ll scrounge up a few commissions. And hey, who knows? Maybe this thing with Tomal will pan out.”
She didn’t really think it would. But she still hoped.
The crisp, meaty smell of roast scrib wafting up from the Morgendorffer kitchen alerted Daria that breakfast was ready. She marched down to the rest of the family. Mom and Quinn already sat at the table, wrapped up in thick robes and gripping cups of steaming tea while dad cooked breakfast.
“Good morning, Daria,” mom said, her eyes bright but her voice a little tired.
“Let’s see,” Daria said, “it’s cold, gray, and drizzly. If I didn’t have to go to Drenlyn today, it would be a pretty good morning.”
“About that. You’ve been an attendee for two years now.”
“Really? It felt like twenty.”
“And many of your peers are getting ready to move onto their adult lives.”
Daria poured herself a cup of tea. Mom meant Jane, specifically—gods, Jane leaving Drenlyn just caused so many other problems.
“I’m prepared to accept my place as a cog in the machinery of Imperial governance,” Daria said.
“It might be a good idea to start making plans so that you could be more than just a cog.”
“You mean I could be an honest-to-goodness gear?”
Mom ignored the comment. “Maybe you could ask around Drenlyn to see what kinds of opportunities are available?”
“I’ll check them out, mom!” Quinn volunteered. “As the head of the Fashion Guild—or at least the organization that will one day become the Fashion Guild—I need to make as many connections as possible. Tamriel’s style depends on it.”
Mom smiled. “You’ve still got a little more time, Quinn. But I do like your attitude! It’s never too early to start planning for the future.”
“A future of being a cog,” Daria said.
Mom’s face darkened. “And if you don’t put yourself out there, Daria, you might not even get that! Anyway, you have made some good connections at that school. Didn’t Armand say you’d have a place on the next archeological expedition? That might be a good place to start.”
Daria hated to admit it, but mom had a point. Armand had been in Old Ebonheart for the past few months, but Jolda did say he’d be back for the holidays.
A sharp rap at the door grabbed everyone’s attention.
“Who could that be?” mom muttered as she stood up. “My first meeting’s not until mid-morning.”
Daria watched as her mom walked out of the kitchen and through her office to open the door. A smartly dressed Dunmer stood in the doorframe, a rolled-up scroll in his hand.
“Can I help you?” mom asked.
“I am here at the bidding of Serjo Tomal Sloan to deliver a message to one Daria Morgendorffrer,” the Dunmer announced, holding the scroll out for mom.
“Oh, well that is quite the honor! I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the Sloan family.” She gave a nervous little laugh. “What’s this about?”
“I do not know the contents of the message, which are for Daria’s eyes only. Good day.” The man inclined his head, wheeled around on his heel, and marched away.
“No way!” Quinn exclaimed, staring at Daria. “You’re getting letters from Tomal Sloan?”
Pleased at her sister’s indignation, Daria just smiled. She wondered what Tomal had to say. Though she didn’t talk with him often, his presence was one of the only bright spots in Drenlyn those days.
“Daria, what’s this about?” mom asked as she returned.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Daria said. “Could I see the letter? I’d hate to displease the Sloans by letting anyone else look at it first. It probably has very sensitive information pertaining to Great House Hlaalu’s long-term plans.”
Mom sat back down, still holding the scroll. “Daria, you aren’t… seeing this boy, are you?”
“Only when he happens to be in front of my eyes,” Daria said.
“You know what I mean, Daria,” mom said, a warning in her tone.
“Please,” Daria said. “He’s not even really a friend. Our relationship is best described as a strategic alliance.”
“You’re telling the truth?” mom asked. “Dating a noble—particularly a Morrowind noble—is very risky.”
Daria rolled her eyes. “Believe me, I’m well-aware, which is one of the reasons I’m not doing it.”
“Good, because you’d mess it up! Dating nobles is what I do!” Quinn said. Mom looked at her, aghast. “What I will do, someday, I mean. Once I’m head of the Fashion Guild.”
Mom handed Daria the scroll and she unrolled it.
I can’t make it to Drenlyn today, but I found someone who’d be interested in hiring Jane full-time. The Olerlo family moved to Balmora last month, and the patriarch, Serjo Navas Olerlo, is looking for an artist to paint his portrait. So as to prevent any surprises down the line, I told him about Jane’s background, and he has no objections to hiring her.
Serjo Olerlo has agreed to meet with her this Sundas at his home in High Town. Tell Jane to bring some sample paintings, her usual equipment (I think he expects Jane to do a test painting on the spot), and to dress as well as she can for the occasion.
Please let Jane know about this once you’re done with school. It was a lucky break to get an appointment with Serjo Olerlo on such short notice. I’m available tomorrow afternoon if you or Jane have any questions—feel free to visit me at the Driler manor.
- Serjo Tomal Sloan, Son of Serjo Angyar Sloan, Gentleman of Morrowind and of the Imperial City, Retainer in Good Standing to Great House Hlaalu
Daria decided to be charitable and assume that Tomal had simply written all the nonsense at the end out of habit. Otherwise, she might not be able to deal with him any longer.
No, she was being silly—he’d only included all that to show how ridiculous it was.
“What’s the letter about?” mom asked.
“Yeah, spill it!” Quinn urged.
“You all ready for some fried scrib a la Jake?” dad asked. “Hey, what’s going on?”
Daria made her announcement. “A few months ago I asked Serjo Tomal Sloan, Son of Serjo Angyar Sloan, Gentleman of Morrowind and of the Imperial City, Retainer in Good Standing to Great House Hlaalu—” she figured she deserved an award for saying all that with a straight face, “—to see if he could find any aristocratic clients who might be willing to take Jane on as a full-time artist. According to this letter, he might’ve found someone.”
“Oh, well that’s wonderful!” mom said. “I’m so proud of you, Daria. You really came through for Jane.”
“Yeah, that was great!” dad agreed. “You all want breakfast, right?”
“Don’t get too enthusiastic,” Daria said. “Nothing’s been confirmed yet.”
“Still, it shows great effort on your part.”
“Hey, what’s the point of a rigidly stratified society if you can’t leverage friendships with the upper strata for your own benefit?”
“Wait!” Quinn cried. “You told Tomal about me, right? And the Fashion Club?”
“No, because I’d like to stay on good terms with him.”
“Great House Hlaalu doesn’t have any say on what does or doesn’t become a guild anyway, Quinn,” mom said.
“Wait,” Daria said, “weren’t you just warning me about dealing with nobles?”
“About being involved with them romantically. Working with nobles does pose risks, but sometimes that’s the only way to get ahead. And a patron could be a tremendous boon for someone like Jane.”
“Or like me!” Quinn said.
“Doesn’t anyone want the breakfast I cooked?” dad wailed. “The one I labored over the hot stove to make?”
“Yes, Jake, we’d love to try your breakfast,” mom said. She looked at Daria. “You’re helping Jane secure her future. I only want to make sure you spend some time securing your own, as well.”
Daria just grunted as dad served up the roast scrib on a big wooden platter.
Jane almost couldn’t believe the news when Daria had told her.
And almost immediately, she thought back to the debacle with Natalinos the previous year. With that came all the other disappointments—the cheapskate clients, the lean winters, the parents who’d spent the last decade in the Imperial City with her not even knowing if they were alive or dead…
Jane was a Dunmer. Her ancestors had come to Morrowind with little more than the cloaks on their backs and the ash on their feet. Weakness was not an option, and that meant she had to hope.
She headed over to the temple, purchasing some gold kanet flowers on the way. Once in the temple’s shadowed sanctuary she knelt before the great triolith and laid the gleaming petals between the brightly burning candles around it.
“Holy Vehk,” she uttered. “Thank you for turning Serjo Olerlo’s heart. I’ll create something beautiful in your name.”
She glanced up at Vivec’s lean, flame-crowned form painted in black on the triloith’s side.
“And if you turn some more noble hearts, I’ll make even more. Like what you told me that one time—that the rest of the world doesn’t see things the way you and I do, and how that’s okay. Maybe I can make more people see.”
She whispered that part. The words weren’t strictly appropriate for prayer—but she still felt, in her heart of hearts, that she’d heard her god when she was a hungry child.
Even if she hadn’t, Vivec knew she believed she had. So he’d understand.
“But if he’s another jerk like Natalinos,” Jane said, voice trembling in the darkness as she lowered her head, “please watch out for me.”
And he would.
Jane reached the stairway leading to High Town by noon on Loredas. She’d decided it’d be wise to take up Tomal’s offer of answering any questions she might have, and Daria had agreed to join her.
Tomal wasn’t a client but he was a noble, so Jane did everything she could to make herself look presentable. She’d scrubbed herself clean at the bathhouse that morning and put on her least tattered clothes.
She’d met Tomal once before and he’d seemed okay. But rules were still rules, and she wouldn’t break them until she knew she’d get away with it.
Daria showed up a bit later, wrapped up in a thick green cloak. The sun glinted off her glasses as she neared.
“Ready to submit yourself to the tender mercies of the aristocracy?” Jane asked.
“I’d say I have too much self-respect,” Daria said, “but I spent the better part of the morning chaperoning Quinn and the Fashion Club on their latest spending spree, so that’s clearly a lie.”
Jane looked down at her own shirt, red except where paint had stained it differently. “I just hope my clothes don’t look too downscale for young Tomal to answer our questions.”
“You’re fine. As much as it surprises me to say, I don’t think Tomal is as stuck-up as his peers.”
“Goodness, Daria, is that actual praise coming from your mouth?”
Daria blushed. “Don’t get used to it,” she said. “Maybe it is only misguided rebellion on his part, but it does make him a lot easier to put up with.”
They marched up the stairs. Glancing up, Jane spotted a guard looking down on them from atop one of the blocky adobe watchtowers. Good way to get used to High Town, she supposed, where someone was always looking down on you.
“I still don’t know what I’m going to wear tomorrow,” Jane said.
“I’m sure Quinn could give you a recommendation detailed to the point of excruciation.”
“Hmm, I’d take that except I don’t think I can afford any of her recommendations.”
“She kept lecturing me on how to dress for my interview tomorrow,” Daria said.
Daria sighed. “I’m going to talk to Armand al-Sentinel. He was impressed enough with my performance at Arkngthand to help me formally join the Imperial Archeological Society.”
“Yes, since I’ve always wanted to make a living by counting wheels and struts.”
They finished climbing the stairs and Jane looked over to her friend. How nice it’d be if she could trade places with Daria just one day. No job was perfect but working for anything that started with “Imperial” and ended with “Society” probably meant a nice sinecure at the very least.
Get something like that and she’d never have to worry about an empty belly again.
“It’s not that bad,” Jane finally said, trying not to let it bother her. “You’ll get to explore Dwemer ruins.”
“I just hate being another part of this system.”
“Hey, get rich enough and you can probably figure out clever ways to cheat it. Or at least be able to get away with cheating it if you screw up and get caught.”
They reached the Driler manor, an expansive three-story home with potted ferns and mushrooms lining the balconies. Daria walked straight up to the door and knocked. It opened a few minutes later to reveal an imposing, scarred Dunmer.
“We’re here to see Serjo Tomal Sloan,” Daria said.
The doorkeeper frowned. Jane didn’t spend much time with nobles, but she still knew the rules. She stepped forward and bowed.
“Honored sera,” she said, “my friend and I have come at the request of Serjo Tomal Sloan. We will be waiting for him when he’s ready.”
The doorkeeper examined them for a moment, nodded, and then closed the door in their faces.
“I’m getting the feeling we’re not welcome,” Daria said.
“We’re fine. He’ll fetch Serjo Sloan for us—you just have to know how to ask. I’m surprised he hasn’t taught you more about aristocratic etiquette.”
“We don’t spend that much time together.”
The door opened up seconds later, revealing a smiling Tomal.
“Honored serjo,” Jane said, bowing.
“Hi,” Daria said.
“Hey, Daria,” Tomal greeted, offering a nod. Then he turned to Jane for a moment. “Good to see you again, Jane.” He smiled. “I’d offer to let you two inside, but you’d have to listen to my father complain about provincial shipping fees and that’s not something I’d inflict on my worst enemy.”
“Some time in an oubliette would be a mercy compared to that,” Daria said.
Jane cringed at Daria’s comment—weren’t they worried that the elder Sloan might hear? Then again, Tomal seemed relaxed. Maybe his dad just let this sort of thing slide.
“I’m sure my mom would agree,” Tomal said. “Anyway, we can talk out here. What do you want to know?”
Both Daria and Tomal looked to Jane. She breathed in to steady herself. Tomal accepted informality from Daria—so he probably wanted that from Jane, as well. “What sort of style does Serjo Olerlo want for his painting?”
“Standard Imperial,” Tomal answered. “Nothing you can’t handle.”
“Good to know that nobles are just as driven to conformity as everyone else,” Daria said.
Tomal smiled and gave an expansive shrug. “Hey, you always have to keep up with what the emperor thinks is hip.”
Jane nodded. Most of her samples were in that style, so she’d bring those. “Great, great. And, uh, what else should I know about Serjo Olerlo?”
Tomal’s expression turned more serious. “Now Jane, I have to be honest with you: I don’t know him very well. He’s lowborn but earned his aristocratic commission through work for the Hlaalu Council Company. Something to do with negotiating a tax decrease on tanna root sold in the Imperial City.”
“So he’s a token example to preserve the illusion of upward mobility,” Daria said.
Jane sucked in her breath, not believing her ears. Mocking the system in the safety of the Lucky Lockup was one thing, but right in front of one of the system’s wealthiest scions?
She’d bring down everything! Jane’s future, maybe her entire career, all vanished in a puff of smoke because of some smart remark.
“What’s life without a little illusion? And hey, at least some Dunmer nobles earned their way to the top. Not sure you can say the same for the Imperial equivalent,” Tomal said.
“I’ll have you know that it takes a lot of effort to sustain generations of selective inbreeding,” Daria replied.
Tomal smirked and turned his attention back to Jane. It was just another joke to him. No wonder he got along so well with Daria.
Jane exhaled and forced herself to concentrate. Everything was okay. “Uh, right. What about Serjo Olerlo’s personality?”
“He’s all business from what I’ve seen. Not friendly, but not mean either.”
“Whatever you do, Jane,” Daria said, “don’t get between him and profit.” But she looked at Tomal, not Jane, when she spoke, her eyes taking him all in through the thick glass of her lenses. Jane recognized the look—it was the same one she used to give Trent.
Great. Daria probably didn’t even realize she was interested in Tomal. She certainly didn’t care that she was making Jane’s job harder.
“I wouldn’t get in the way of his profit, Daria. I’m trying to make him richer,” Jane said. “In hopes that maybe a good painting or two will impress some other rich people and get him some more money. And then maybe I get a little bit of that money and not have to scrounge all the time.”
“That’s the attitude he wants,” Tomal said, his expression apologetic. “So I’d say you’re in the right mindset.”
“Great. Is there anything else I should know?” Jane asked. More than anything, she wanted to start working and get away from these kids.
Not kids, they were the same age as her. But it sure didn’t feel that way.
“That should be everything—though like I said, I’ve only met him a few times. I can tell you know your etiquette so just follow that and you should be okay,” Tomal said.
Bidding their goodbyes to Tomal, Jane and Daria headed out of High Town. They didn’t talk much until they reached the noise and crowds of the Commercial District.
“Sorry I blew up at you there,” Jane said.
“It’s okay. I should have let you talk,” Daria admitted. “You do have a lot riding on this.”
“No harm done. I know what I need to know.”
“I gotta say,” Jane continued, “you get along with Serjo Sloan surprisingly well.”
“He annoys me less than most people.”
“Why, from you, Daria, that’s practically a declaration of everlasting love.”
Daria scoffed. “Spoiled nobles aren’t really my type. Assuming I even have a type, which is looking doubtful.”
“How about Dunmer guys whose names start with T?” Jane tried to make it sound like a joke.
But when Daria’s face crinkled with suspicion, she knew she’d failed. “Are you trying to imply something?” Daria demanded.
“Uh, not really. But you do seem awfully fond of Serjo Sloan.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m in love with him. First of all, he’s a noble and I still disapprove of nobles—I just disapprove of him slightly less. Second, it’d be a lot of work for a humble commoner like me to date one of Morrowind’s great scions, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s effort.”
“Okay, okay. Maybe I misread.” But Jane didn’t think she had.
Gods, that could be a real disaster in the making. Daria armored herself with wit and sarcasm. That way, no one knew that the taunts and jeers of Stirk’s schoolchildren still echoed for her in Balmora’s streets, or that Quinn’s every dismissive comment struck right to the bone.
Daria hurt easily. Trent had been safe for her; he’d never go after someone so young. Jane hadn’t met Tedannupal, and had some doubts about him, but Daria hadn’t even seen him since the summer.
Tomal, on the other hand, was a lot like Daria in some ways. Aware of the world’s silliness and cruelty, but even more protected from it than Daria was.
Jane didn’t want to think of how many ways he could hurt her.
“If you like,” Daria said, “we can celebrate your ascension into high society with a few drinks at the Lucky Lockup.”
“Thanks, but I’ll have to pass. I need to get ready for tomorrow. And hey, if things go well, I can do the buying from now on.”
Daria nodded. “Well, good luck then.”
“And good luck on your interview with Armand tomorrow,” Jane said, waving goodbye as she split off toward St. Roris Bridge.
Jane didn’t feel that great about the situation. But right now, she had to concentrate on getting ready.
Daria wiled away the gray Sundas morning in her room, idly reading Tsathenes’ The Madness of Pelagius by candlelight. The doomed emperor’s bizarre torments cushioned her against the more quotidian torments of the outside world.
“Daria!” her mother called. “Are you getting ready for the interview?”
“I’m practicing my flattery and dissembling as we speak,” she said, not looking up from her book.
She’d hoped that be enough, but she heard her mother’s footsteps echoing in the stairwell moments later. Sighing, she doggedly kept reading even as mom poked her head into the room.
“That doesn’t look like practice, Daria.”
“Sure it is. I’m learning all about how people comport themselves in the highest echelons of society.”
Mom sighed and peered close to look at the book’s spine. “I’m not sure that the reign of Mad Pelagius provides the best examples of such things. This is a good opportunity, Daria, and you need to take it more seriously!”
“I’m taking it just as seriously as I take my schoolwork.”
Daria had expected that comment to annoy mom. Instead, her mother sat down on the bed next to Daria and put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“What’s the matter, dear? You seemed almost enthusiastic about working for the Imperial Archeological Society a year ago. Didn’t you enjoy your time in Arkngthand?”
Daria gulped. She didn’t know what to say because she didn’t know, precisely, what was bothering her so much. Since yes, the IAS probably was a good fit for her. As good a fit as someone like her would ever find.
“It was okay. All I did was count gears.”
No point in telling mom about how she’d blackmailed Karl over his artifact theft ring. Or that she’d never told Armand about it.
“You always have to start with grunt work, Daria. But you’ve already done some and you made a good impression.”
She’d been pretty happy when Armand promised her a place in any future expeditions. But the future had felt far away back then, like something that’d never actually arrive.
“I guess it’s a lot to take in,” Daria admitted.
“Just take things one day at a time. Quite a lot has happened in the past few years—and you’ve grown up a great deal in that time.”
Daria just grunted, her shoulders stiffening beneath mom’s caress.
“Anyway, try your best at the interview. You’re a vibrant conversationalist—when you want to be, at any rate.”
Quinn appeared at the door. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, your sister’s a little anxious about her interview today.”
“No, I’m not,” Daria said, not making any attempt to sound convincing.
“It’s no big deal! Here, I’ll even do your hair for you!”
Daria froze in terror.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea!” Mom stood up. “I’d best get back to work, but Quinn will make you look your best!”
“Wait, you can’t—” Daria began.
“Oh, I can!” Quinn said, smiling as she took out her comb and advanced on Daria.
As she walked down Silk-hawker’s Street to Armand’s house, Daria wished she’d worn something over her newly styled hair.
Everyone stared at her.
She adjusted her glasses and tried to look as angry as possible—easy enough to do given her situation. Sure enough, folks looked away or at least didn’t stare quite as obviously.
Daria hesitated at Armand’s door for a few moments. All her mother’s endless lectures about social advancement and networking ran through her mind like one long scold. Never, of course, anything about Daria just being herself.
Because she wasn’t enough for them. Mom and dad wanted a daughter who’d soar through the Empire’s institutions, collecting accolades and recommendations the way Quinn collected suitors until she reached some lofty position that they could brag about. All part of their plan.
Not her plan.
Daria didn’t particularly care about money or power. Because if Morrowind had taught her anything it was that those always came with corruption. Everyone in power got to where they were by trampling on others.
All she really wanted was a roof over her head and enough money to put the occasional new book on her shelf. A simple life in Balmora wouldn’t be bad. Get a quiet job for some local company, spend her free time reading or skewering the nonsense around her with Jane and Tomal at her side.
Funny, she realized. She’d never pictured Tomal as part of her long-term plans before. With Jane so busy she had been spending more time with him. But with any luck, Jane would finally have a stable job and not have to spend so many hours hunting for commissions.
Daria had fought an uphill battle to keep her place in Balmora. And she didn’t want to give it up to help the Empire find more Dwemer war machines.
The door suddenly swung open. Jolda stood on the other side with a puzzled expression on her face, cradling her toddler brother in one arm.
“Hey, Daria,” she said. “You’ve been standing out there for a while.”
Daria blushed. “Uh, sorry.”
Jolda smiled. “It’s okay. You’re here for my dad, right? He’s in the study,” she said, stepping aside. “I love what you did with your hair, by the way. It looks really cool.”
“What you see is the results of my sister using me as an experimental subject.”
Jolda laughed. “Well, your sister knows her stuff. Dad!” she called out. “Daria’s here.”
“Tell her to come in,” his voice came from farther down the hall.
Jolda sat back down on the rug in front of the glowing hearth. She’d spread out a dozen papers and a few open books on the rug before it. Sighing, she absent-mindedly cradled her brother while peering at the texts. Her half-lidded gaze told Daria that she’d rather be doing just about anything else.
Daria took off her shoes as per Redguard custom and walked on socked feet down the hall to Armand’s office. He waited for her inside, standing by a big table and dressed in a resplendent purple moth-silk robe. The place looked bare compared to the last time she’d seen it, the Dwemer artifacts and animunculi absent.
Armand bowed, and she returned the gesture a bit more deeply. He smiled. “That’s what I like about you, Daria. You pay attention to the details.”
“You say you like that now, but just wait until you ask me to edit something you write.”
His laughter, deep and rich, sounded in the room. “A keen eye is what I’d want in that situation! Anyway, let’s not waste any time, shall we? My understanding is that you’re inquiring about opportunities in the IAS. And as we’ve already discussed, I’m willing to give you a place there.”
“I’m just trying to get some more information at this point,” Daria said, shifting in place. She realized she had no idea what she needed from this conversation.
Armand nodded. He walked toward his desk and took a seat, taking out a few papers. “The good news is, we’ll be launching another expedition sooner than I’d hoped. The IAS—and more importantly, its backers in the Elder Council—were impressed with our findings.”
“Another trip to Arkngthand?”
Which, Daria supposed, wouldn’t be too bad.
“No,” Armand said, and then he smiled and raised his eyebrows. “They want us to go for the prize: the grand Dwemer city of Kemel-Ze.”
Daria had read about the place. Miles and miles of metal galleries coursing through the living stone, the single biggest city the Dwemer had ever built (that the Empire knew about, anyway).
Armand’s smile faded. “I’m surprised you aren’t more enthusiastic. This is the sort of thing that Dwemer scholars would kill to get.”
Daria struggled to meet his gaze. She felt exposed as her mind scrambled for an answer—for what she wanted.
“Kemel-Ze’s pretty far. On the edge of mainland Telvanni territory, if I’m not mistaken.”
Armand nodded. “It is. But the local wizard lord is a pretty reasonable sort. By Telvanni standards anyway.”
“Has Kemel-Ze been cleared?”
“They’ve cleared the parts we’ll be investigating.” He chuckled. “Daria, we want you for your brain, not for your sword arm. You won’t be the one fighting Dwemer animunculi or disarming their traps.”
“Me fighting ancient machines might make for a good dark comedy but probably wouldn’t help the IAS very much,” Daria said. “When will you be going?”
“At the beginning of Rain’s End, next year. The IAS is a bureaucracy at heart, but like all bureaucracies, it moves quickly when its properly motivated.”
“Four months from now?” she repeated, her mouth dry.
Armand’s brow furrowed. “Is that a problem?”
“Uh, is Jolda coming?”
He shook his head. “No. She’s got some promising internships here in Balmora, and we decided it’d be best for her to continue those.”
More like you decided it’d be best, Daria thought.
“How much taxpayer money does this expedition cost?” Daria asked.
Armand blinked and then drew his head back. “Why do you care?”
Daria crossed her arms. “Don’t you think it’s more important to spend public funds on empowering those who most need help?”
She’d gone too far—but she felt weirdly okay with that. Since the IAS was corrupt, as bad as the Mages Guild or Great House Hlaalu in its own way. Some of her doubt and uncertainty disappeared.
“Are you trying to be funny, Daria?”
“Not at all. I don’t think there’s anything funny about how badly things are run.”
“The kind of research we do has revolutionary potential!” he said, swiftly cutting his left hand through the air as he said “revolutionary”.
“Or maybe it’ll just go toward lining the pockets of nobles and monopolists.”
Armand’s jaw set, his face stormy as he stood up. “Daria, I agreed to speak with you because I believed you were interested in an opportunity. Now, Jolda tells me you can be kind of peculiar—and that’s okay, I can deal with that—but I will not abide insult.”
“I’m not insulting you. I’m simply expressing reservations.”
“Those aren’t mutually exclusive,” Armand said. “Let me ask you, then: what are you doing to help? All I see is a rich Imperial girl living it easy in an occupied province! Okay, the Empire doesn’t do everything it can to make things better—but at least the IAS does something.”
“The question,” Daria said, “is whether such efforts accomplish anything.”
Armand drew himself up, his chin thrust out as he glared down at her. “How old are you? Eighteen? You don’t know anything. I’m an adult, and I worked real hard to get where I am today. Your mom and dad never taught you proper respect, and that’s something that’ll cause a lot of problems for you.”
Daria smiled. His last little rant had just made things so much easier. “Uncomfortable truths mean a lot more to me than some artificial conception of respect. Since we’re clearly at an impasse, I’ll take my leave.”
Elation rushed through her as she turned around and walked out of Armand’s office. It’d have been gratifying to hear him rant on her way out, but she just heard him grumble something about wayward youth. Jolda looked up at Daria as she passed through the front room, her eyes questioning.
“There was a confrontation.”
Daria opened the door and stepped out onto the street, her cheeks hot and her heart thumping. All the doubts about her future fell away, replaced by the clarity of her ideals. The system was rotten. She’d seen the rot in the Mages Guild, in two Great Houses, in Drenlyn Academy, in the Cyrodiilic School, and in individuals and communities all through the Empire.
She wouldn’t play their game.
Daria tightened her coat around her thin frame, the air outside cold after the warmth of Armand’s home. Iron-gray clouds clogged the skies above. Rain was certain.
Equally certain was mom eventually finding out about the whole episode. She and Armand didn’t normally run in the same circles, but word would spread.
Maybe Daria had been a little hasty. But she didn’t want to end up like Jolda, living someone else’s life and always at the mercy of those stronger than her. The powerful weren’t all bad. Tomal was okay. But for every Tomal there were a dozen Syndas, Johannas, and Hetherias. Better to stay invisible and live on her terms with the people she trusted.
She started down the street as the first raindrops splashed against the flagstones.
Everything boiled down to this one client.
All the years Jane spent in practice, painting by candlelight until her eyes ached for rest and then doing it a bit longer. The years hustling for good clients and fighting behind a smile to get her fair share, of pinching every copper to make sure she had new brushes and good paints while still putting food on the table.
She was only eighteen, but it felt like she’d been fighting for a hundred years. And maybe, just maybe, if this went well, she wouldn’t have to fight quite as hard.
Her canvas and samples slung under one arm, her bag of equipment carried in the other hand, Jane stood before the door of Serjo Olerlo’s house. It stood on the south part of High Town, just above the rocky hillside that they hadn’t quite gotten around to paving over. The skies above threatened rain.
Jane glanced down at herself, tallying up the paint stains and patches of worn fabric. She’d bathed again that morning and made another short visit to the Temple.
ALMSIVI willing, she’d soon have a patron.
Jane knocked. A Bosmer servant opened it up, his black eyes suspicious.
“Honored sera,” Jane said. “I am the painter that Serjo Olerlo has requested,” she said.
The servant nodded. “Follow me.”
She did, passing through candlelit hallways upon whisper-soft rugs until the servant stopped at another closed door.
“Serjo Olerlo,” the servant said, “the painter you have summoned is here.”
A pause. Jane shifted in place, her fingers clutching her canvas. What if he changed his mind? Nobles were fickle—of course they were, they could always get away with it.
“Let her in,” came a voice from the other side.
The servant opened the door and gestured for Jane to enter. She muttered thanks and stepped inside. Olerlo sat behind a polished mahogany desk, wreathed in pale light shining through the glass windows in the wall behind him. Like most wealthy Dunmer in Balmora he wore an Imperial-style surcoat over a silk shirt, his legs in tight breeches. Only the jagged tattoos above the cheek lines of his beard marked him as a native.
“You honor me by your grace, Serjo Olerlo,” Jane said, nodding in acknowledgment.
“I am told that you are a skilled artist.”
Should she stay humble or go bold? Olerlo had worked himself up—maybe he’d respect her for showing ambition. Or maybe he was one of those who pulled the ladder up from behind him, angry that any other lowborn should benefit.
No way to know, so she decided to go bold. Jane smiled and raised her eyebrows. She’d be confident and sharp—the kind of person Olerlo might respect.
“I’ve been painting since I could first hold a brush,” she said. “But I’d rather let my work speak for itself. I did bring a few samples.”
“Let me see,” he ordered.
Jane crouched to put her canvas and equipment on the floor and then unwrapped her three samples. She’d chosen them carefully. The first two were of Imperial merchants she’d had as clients. She’d duplicated the commissions she’d made for them for just this purpose. The third was her sketch of Natalinos. Using a sketch was a risk, but she needed to show she could portray Dunmer, and she’d never had a proper Dunmer client.
Plus, it’d be nice to get some use out of Natalinos.
She brought them to her desk. Olerlo studied them for a while, his face never changing expression.
“My sources didn’t tell me about your apprenticeship days. You’re young enough to still be one,” he said.
Of course, he asked that. Because Dunmer always wanted to know who else you’d worked for so they could figure out exactly where you stood on the pecking order.
“My dad’s an artist. He lives in the Imperial City now, but he taught me when I was a kid. Also got some training at the temple, and from Sera Defoe over at Drenlyn Academy. I didn’t have a lot of options growing up, serjo, so I had to make my own.”
Dad had barely taught her anything—but the one thing Dunmer hated was the idea that anyone could teach themselves. Because that took power away from the Great Houses and the Temple, away from mom and dad.
He nodded and looked again at the samples. “So you never went through a formal apprenticeship.”
Give me a smile, you bastard, Jane thought. Or even a frown. Some hint of what you think.
“Not a formal one, no,” she said. “But I’ve practiced and trained almost every day of my life.”
“I want you to paint my portrait on that canvas you brought. Can you do that?”
“Of course, serjo. How do you want this portrait?”
He looked puzzled. “I just want a portrait.”
“Right. And I can do all kinds of portraits. Side view, three-quarters view, anything you like.”
This gave her an advantage. The guy didn’t know much about art, so maybe she could wow him with really basic knowledge.
“Hm. Uh, what’s that kind where the subject isn’t looking directly at the viewer, but kind of off to the center?”
“Three-quarters,” he said, nodding as if he knew what he was talking about. “Make it as good as you can within the space of a few hours. I’m checking for speed and how well you work under pressure here.”
Jane set up her station. She positioned herself at the side of the room, so she could see Olerlo without his desk getting in the way. Subtly and carefully, she directed his position.
“You have a strong jawline, serjo. Would you like me to emphasize that?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Could you turn your head a little more to the left? Just a bit—perfect!”
Now she sat before her client, her paints on her palette and her brush hovering inches above as she took in all the details one last time: the bottle of Cyrodiilic rice wine on his desk, flanked by silver goblets; the tapestry of St. Veloth leading Olerlo’s (and Jane’s) ancestors; the bookshelf laden with modern tomes on business and accounting; the faint smell of kwama meat and tanna root; the fine clothes and the ancient tattoos.
Every client wanted to look their best. A western Imperial might want the warts-and-all approach, but that wasn’t humility talking, not at all. Quite the opposite—they took pride in being honest, just as an eastern Imperial took pride in lavish wealth, or a Dunmer took pride in displaying the strength of ancestors through their scars and tattoos.
Serjo Olerlo was a Dunmer who’d made his fortune by working with and emulating the rich Imperials of the capital. And he wanted to show that off, but only so that everyone could see how far he, a Dunmer commoner, had come. His portrait had to show strength and splendor. Strength because the Dunmer could never afford to be soft, because Morrowind did not forgive weakness. Splendor because the Empire offered wealth to the daring and Olerlo was nothing if not daring.
Olerlo’s finished portrait formed in her mind’s eye. Knowing exactly what she needed to do, exactly how the painting would look, Jane dipped her brush in the palette and put the first stroke on the canvas.
Daria told mom that the meeting had been inconclusive. The fib didn’t strike Daria as an ideal solution. Lying to idiots was easy. Idiots never asked questions or bothered to look closely. But mom’s whole job was to ask questions and study things in exacting detail. What’s worse: she was good at it.
“Armand’s not sure there’s going to be room for me, and I don’t know enough about this position to be sure it’s a good fit,” Daria said. “Sounds like it’d be more bureaucracy than fieldwork.”
Mom frowned. “That’s odd. I’ve only met Armand a few times, but he seems very detail-oriented. I’m surprised he’d do an interview if he was so unsure about your place. And didn’t he say he wanted you with the IAS?”
“The situation has apparently changed since last year. More rich nobles’ sons who all want a position, you understand,” Daria said.
Mom grumbled. “Well, that’s no surprise. Keep at it. Maybe something will open up.”
The family decided to go out to the Glass Crown during a lull in the rain. Daria excused herself by feigning exhaustion. Once alone, she brought The Madness of Pelagius into her mom’s office and resumed reading as afternoon turned to evening. Or tried to, at any rate. Her attention kept drifting, and she’d forget how a sentence started before she got halfway through. Rain drummed steadily on the roof and splashed onto the street outside.
It should have been a perfect day for idling away with a good book in the comfort of solitude. But Daria kept ruminating on what Armand had said to her. Since what was she doing to make the world better?
But what could she do? The world was a crummy place and it’s not like anything on her part would make it substantially better. Balmora had its problems but she more or less knew how it worked. She was safe. For the first time in her life, she had friends—plural, if she counted Tomal and maybe Amelia.
Maybe Jolda. But Daria had the feeling Jolda no longer counted herself as one, not after that day.
Putting the book in her lap, Daria stared off into space and wondered what the hell she was going to do. Mom would find out sooner or later. There would be hell to pay when she did.
It was almost dark when someone knocked at the door. Daria hesitated for a moment, not sure if she wanted to answer it. Memories of Synda’s attack still lurked in the recesses of her memory—staves hitting her back and sides, her glasses shattering under Synda’s foot.
She broke out into a sweat.
But that was absurd. Synda was a faker who’d gotten in over her head.
“Hey, Daria! It’s me!”
Jane’s voice! All at once, Daria relaxed. It would be nice to talk to someone. Maybe, despite the late hour and the rain, they could go over to the Lucky Lockup and talk about the day over some drinks. Jane probably had stories about her stuck-up noble client, and Daria could get Jane to tell her that she’d done the smart thing.
Because hearing it from herself wasn’t enough that time.
She opened the door. Jane was drenched but grinning ear to ear.
“I got it!” Jane lunged forward and threw her arms around Daria, pulling her close and splashing cold rainwater on her once-dry clothes. I finally did it! I… have an honest-to-goodness noble patron! I never…”
Her voice broke a little. “I never thought this would happen.”
Jane stepped back and exhaled.
“Congratulations,” Daria said. “I hope you don’t forget the humble pleasures of kith and kin in your rise to the top.”
“Eh, Drenlyn Academy can go to hell. But I won’t forget you, Muthsera Morgendorffer,” she said, smiling and pointing at Daria.
Daria blushed. “My customary sarcasm aside, this is great news.”
“Some much-needed great news,” Jane said. “How did it go with Armand?”
Daria hesitated. “That’s a complicated story. If it’s not too late for you, we can go out to the Lucky Lockup and I’ll tell you what happened. I need to get out of here, anyway.”
“Drinks are on me!” Jane offered. “Hell, since I’m indirectly working for Great House Hlaalu now, maybe I can even get us a seat at the Eight Plates.”
“And deal with the thinly veiled hostility of its upwardly mobile patrons,” Daria said.
Jane shrugged. “Eh, I work for Serjo Olerlo now. They’ll just have to deal with us filthy outlanders entering their cornerclub.”
“If you are going to join Balmora high society, you might as well get started.” She’d never actually had a drink at Eight Plates before. That cornerclub was for Hlaalu up-and-comers, not for unconnected outlanders.
Jane’s smile faded. “So that’s the catch.”
“What is?” Daria asked.
“You mentioned Balmora high society. It, uh, won’t be Balmora.”
Daria’s heart skipped a beat. “What do you mean?”
Jane took a deep breath before she spoke. “It turns out that Serjo Olerlo wasn’t hiring an artist for himself—he wants one for his wife and brother in Vivec City. Which means I’m going to have to move.”
For once in her life, Daria couldn’t think of anything to say. She wanted to utter some smart remark, anything to break the unbearable cold terror that had suddenly seized her throat and her brain.
“It’s not right away,” Jane said. “I have a month to get everything straightened out, figure out what Trent and J’dash will do. And I won’t have to hunt for commissions, so we’ll have more time to hang out.”
“Hm. You are moving up in the world,” Daria uttered, her words sounding a million miles away.
“Guess so. But hey, Vivec’s not that far away. Just a couple days by silt strider. Anyway, let’s see if I can get us into Eight Plates.” Jane gestured with her thumb over her shoulder.
“Actually,” Daria said, “I’ve had kind of a rough day. Think I’ll just stay home.”
Jane blinked. “Oh! Didn’t you just say you wanted to get out of here?”
“I just got tired suddenly.”
“Huh, okay then. Well, sometime this week then. You know where I’ll be.”
“Right. Uh, congratulations again.”
Jane stood at the doorway for a moment, as if not quite sure what to do. Then she stepped back outside. “Later.”
“Yeah, later,” Daria said, closing the door.
Her argument with Armand echoed in her mind as she sat back down, her fingers brushing against her book but not able to pick it up. As rain continued to pour from the darkening evening sky, Daria suddenly realized how colossally foolish she’d been.