Moonmoth Legion Fort didn't belong.
It proclaimed this fact in the artificiality of its construction. No adobe or insect shells, just massive blocks of stone piled one on top of the other. This being the Empire, one could be sure someone in charge—probably multiple someones—possessed reams of paperwork documenting each and every stone, tracing it from its origin from a particular pit within a particular quarry, its shaping beneath the chisels and calloused hands of foreign masons, its long journey by guar- or ox-pulled wagon, the time it spent in storage, the name of the foreman who oversaw its placement within a particular wall or tower, and how well it held up to the rain and wind and ash over the intervening years. The fort implied a world bound in clear and explicit rules, displayed for all to see so long as all were willing to take the time.
Moonmoth Legion Fort didn't belong. But that was okay. Jane didn't belong either.
Standing between the squat entry towers, strange in their angular rigidity, Jane looked back over her shoulder. No sign of Balmora, its towers and plazas behind a hill's barren slope. Moonmoth wasn't that far from the city physically, but it was a whole world away in every other sense. Atop the towers fluttered the Empire's banner, and on that its sigil: a sinuous red dragon in flight but bound and restricted within the straight lines of a larger red lozenge.
"What's your business here, citizen?" inquired the guard, the weak sun glinting dimly off the rearing horses emblazoned on his cuirass. He had the mindless look of someone bored out of his mind but too professional to show it.
"Hi, I'm Jane Llayn. Larrius Varro hired me to paint a portrait so here I am."
"Ah, I remember seeing your name on the schedule." He took a wooden slat and a charcoal pen from his belt, using the latter to mark the former. "In you go. Sir Varro should be in the keep."
"Thanks." Jane walked beneath the jagged teeth of the portcullis set within the arched gate.
The Legion was the Empire's heavy hand, but they behaved themselves. Jane found them less objectionable than the Hlaalu guards in the city, who tended to be idiot youngsters wielding weapons for the first time in their lives. Legionnaires were about the same age but with the stupidity trained out of them. Most of the time.
Plus, if worse came to worst, it'd be the Legion that protected outlanders like her. They'd protect her the same way they protected an entire continent and all of its teeming kingdoms, tribes, cults, and guilds: by sword-point and by their terms, no questions asked. But it was better than nothing.
She found Larrius Varro at his desk within the keep. He looked how she imagined a life-time Imperial soldier to look: uniform perfectly arranged, his frame lean and tough, not an ounce of excess flab daring to distort his rugged features. They exchanged pleasantries, his responses polite and economic. She confirmed his expectations: a head-and-shoulders portrait at three-quarters view. Legion commissions usually went full-length and full face, which meant Varro probably intended this portrait for personal use.
He sat for her at the top floor of the keep, an unadorned stone room where sunlight shone through the narrow window slits. Jane set up her easel and canvas as she studied her client. Most of her clients were outlanders—like her.
That meant they wanted to be painted in Imperial style. Trick was, that meant different things to different people.
Varro was an Imperial from the Colovian west. A soldier trained in the harsh ways of war and discipline. A client like him would be offended if she elided a wart or a scar. The Imperials took pride in presenting themselves as the eye saw them. Daria had probably fit in there better than she'd been willing to admit. And Quinn already looked perfect without embellishment.
When painting Varro, Jane was no longer Jane. She imagined herself as nothing more than a disembodied pair of eyes and hands, reproducing exactly what she saw in the physical realm. Varro existed in three dimensions, so she incorporated the vanishing point, the interplay of light and shadow to show the furrows of his brow, the gauntness of his cheeks, the straight line of his lips. She counted each detail, just like the Empire counted stones for its forts.
One day, if some illusionist or alchemist figured out how to capture an image exactly how it looked, Jane would be out of work. Or at least out of work with these clients.
She finished as the light waned, adding her signature in the lower right-hand corner. Jane returned, her body providing connecting tissue for the eyes and hands that the Empire, through Varro, had hired. She showed him the work and he nodded. Something that might have been a smile crossed his lips.
"Good work," he said. "Tell me: you're Dunmer but you bear an Imperial given name. Are you from Morrowind?"
"Actually, I was born in the Imperial City. Wasn't there for long, though."
"Ah, so the natives still see you as a foreigner. Is life good for you in Balmora?"
Jane thought a bit before answering. Why did people like Varro think anyone felt safe answering such questions honestly? "It's home. With all the good and bad it brings."
"Do the native Dunmer ever hire you?"
"Usually it's humans or other Mer. Got an Argonian client, once."
"Why don't you move to Pelagiad? Everyone there was born outside of this bleak land, the way you were, so you'd have no shortage of clients."
She knew the place. A little Imperial charter town nestled in the green hills of the Ascadian Isles, a day or so to the south. A safe and cheery place where nothing much happened, where the bright streets and tidy farm plots gave no place for the imagination to hide.
Best to deflect.
"Pelagiad's a little rich for my taste. Maybe when I get more money," she said.
"Nonsense! Marry some jolly old sergeant who's just turned in his commission. You can live off his pension while you get more clients. And when he's dead and gone, well you're a Mer, so you'll be in the prime of your life. Marry for love the second time, when you can afford to."
Varro's advice sounded more like misguided paternalism than a come-on. But she didn't want to play along any further. "Maybe someday. I get a lot of business in Balmora, actually."
"True. Most of the business is in the big cities. Just be careful. It's not always a friendly place for citizens like us."
She faked a chuckle. "Don't worry. I was born far away, but I'm still Dunmer. I blend in."
Which was a lie. But one that would satisfy him.
She spent the night curled up in a cot placed in a small but surprisingly warm basement cell. The next morning she ran into Maiko, the Redguard soldier she'd met at the Talori party. He procured some breakfast for her: thick saltrice porridge and thin wine.
"Varro's all right," Maiko said. "Sometimes he gets a little nosy."
"I didn't know you Legion types were allowed to speak your mind like that," Jane said, raising an eyebrow.
"You can say what you want. You just have to be smart about when and where you do it."
"Hmm. He seemed worried about Balmora. Is there anything I should know?" Jane asked.
"That's 'cause worrying about Balmora is literally Varro's job."
"Are you worried about it?"
Maiko shook his head. "Nah, not really. It's got problems, but I've seen worse. I used to be stationed in Taurus Hall, out in the Reach. That place was way more tense."
With that done, she walked back home to Balmora, the pleasing weight of a full coin purse added to her pack.
Jane got back in the early afternoon and rested for the remainder of the day. She thought about visiting Daria, but the long trek had tired her and she had more work tomorrow. Work she wouldn't get paid for but still needed to do.
Arising early she crossed the city streets as dawn's light turned red and ruddy in the smoky sky. She reached the temple shortly after the sun rose behind Red Mountain's smoky veil. Walking through the door returned her to darkness, the adobe anteroom's rounded corners and uneven surfaces reminding her of a natural cavern. It looked, in fact, like the adobe homes that many Dunmer had lived in for centuries. Part of the landscape, at this point, mixed from mud and water and ash. And it would not take much for such houses to return to the same landscape.
Morrowind was not a forgiving land.
Feldrelo Sadri, the priestess and master of the Balmora Temple, stood with bowed head before a tapestry woven with sacred words. She turned slowly at Jane's arrival. Feldrelo was a Dunmer woman with gray skin almost light enough to be blue. Her gaunt and careworn face seemed pulled back by her tightly wound bun of black hair, and her eyes bulged slightly as if from trying to see in her dark home. Her blue robes and gilded vestments conveyed authority but not luxury.
"I am here to offer my services," Jane said as she lowered her gaze, adopting the formality the Temple expected. Insincere formality—she knew it, and the Temple certainly knew it as well. But they appreciated the effort.
"Of course, child," Feldrelo said, her voice dry like old bones. "Please, come to my office. Your concerns are mine."
Jane hesitated. She could lie and say she had other work later that day and needed to get started. But while Imperials loved to finish tasks and move on Dunmer preferred to dawdle. Not to say that Jane dislikeddawdling—but she'd rather do it at a cornerclub or in her room.
Instead, she followed Feldrelo who'd already started her slow and shuffling walk to an adjoining room. A pot of tea steamed on her desk. The starchy smell confirmed it as brewed from trama root.
A polite interrogation followed. It started with praise of Jane's intermittent temple attendance that also stressed her more frequent absences. Then questions about her family. Jane tried to find a way of admitting she had no idea about them (other than Trent) while still sounding like a good Dunmer daughter. Then talk about the saint-scrolls she'd made for the Temple in the past, and how those indicated a piety that she really ought to express by being more involved in temple affairs.
"The Tribunal Temple is your home, Jane. Though you were not born in Morrowind, our blood does flow through your veins," Feldrelo said, pouring herself another cup of long-cold trama root tea.
"And I feel that, Mistress Sadri. Absolutely." And thanks for reminding me about not being born here, she thought. "That's why I'm here. To show my respect. Just give me the word and I'll start—"
Feldrelo clucked, and shook her head. "You still behave like an Imperial. I fear Balmora is probably the worst place for someone like you. House Hlaalu cavorts with the Empire, adopting its thoughtless ways. Perhaps you should go instead to Ald'ruhn, or even Vivec City. Yes, Vivec City would be a good place, I think. I can sign a petition so that you'd be able to live somewhere other than the Foreign Canton."
"I am honored. But..." Jane trailed off, trying to think of an excuse. Imperials usually understood when you weren't interested. Because in the end, they were too self-absorbed to really pester you more than necessary. Dunmer didn't get that. They never stopped. "Balmora is my family's home. And even though we don't have the old house anymore, my brother and I still have to take care of things until dad gets back."
In the unlikely event that he did.
"Let your brother stay. He has given himself to the ways of the outlander."
"He has," Jane sighed, trying to sound sad. "But he's still kin. And I'm a little worried what might happen if I'm not looking out for him. He's picked up some bad habits."
Some of which I partake in and enjoy.
"You are truly a Dunmer," Feldrelo said. "Our people are a family gathered around a flickering hearth, a lone warmth in the endless ashen night. You remember that. How sad a sign of these times that an outlander like you would remember what so many natives forget."
Finally, Feldrelo led Jane to a hallway deeper in the temple. Jane had no idea how much time had passed in the woman's office. Thoughts of day and night had vanished, replaced only by the fire of flickering braziers and the shadows that danced about them. It might be evening for all she knew—no, no way they'd been there that long. Probably just late morning.
Her workspace was a bench placed before a blank adobe wall. A pot of black paint, sanctified with ground beetle shells and dust from the sacred dead in Necrom, waited for her brush.
"I will leave you here to work."
Work, in this case, meant a painting of St. Delyn the Wise done in the traditional Dunmer style. Not really for piety's sake, she knew. Like so much else, it was for show. Because if she did need Dunmer patrons one day, it'd look good for her to have done some temple work. Because if worse came to worst and the Legion bugged out, she needed to show she could be part of the community.
And maybe because, for all its faults and xenophobia, the Temple had fed her and Trent in the lean years after they lost the house. Before J'dash took them in. Hunger deepened gratitude.
Imperials saw the world for what it was in form. But the Dunmer world consisted of saints and gods and spirits.
When painting St. Delyn, Jane was no longer Jane. She instead became the Dunmer people, driven by faith across ash and salt. What St. Delyn looked like didn't matter. What mattered was what he represented—law, wisdom, and benevolence. Generations of followers saw him a particular way, and it was this way that Jane sought to emulate.
Her strokes were thick and bold, abstract forms that followed the patterns of long-dead masters. Abstract on their own, they took shape only in aggregate. Robed St. Delyn stood tall with an open book at his feet, uncompromisingly two-dimensional. Imperial art privileged the viewer and the naked eye. Dunmer art privileged history and ritual.
She could do this blind. And she was sure some Dunmer artists had done just that—temples were never very well-lit, and her vision already strained from the effort. But who needed eyes for this art? Muscle memory—perhaps ancestral memory—guided her hands. This image of St. Delyn was like all others, and it would take supreme arrogance for any artist to make a saint—whom all believers served—their own.
Was she a believer? Jane didn't know. Sometimes. And painting a saint was one of those times.
Jane returned, standing in the present day, in the Third Era and 424th Year of the Imperial Calendar. The wall now proclaimed St. Delyn's glory. No signature this time. She'd just have to trust that Mistress Sadri would acknowledge her work and, if asked, mention it to others.
Exhausted, and quite certain it was late in the night, Jane went in search of Mistress Sadri.
Jane tried not to slack too often—laziness was a bad habit, one she enjoyed but could not often afford. But she'd earned it this time. Varro had paid a tidy sum, and the Temple work was a nice addition to her portfolio. At least the Temple had paid for her materials.
Thus she spent the next day idling in the Lucky Lockup with Daria, the Empire and Temple both feeling reassuringly distant and absurd. Later on they returned to Jane's apartment. Stretched out on the balcony, the sun bright and warm, Daria took out the book she'd brought while Jane sketched on a piece of paper.
She drew without thinking, translating the harsh angles of Moonmoth Legion Fort and the equally strict curves of the Temple into new shapes, spiraling around a slender figure curled up in a fetal position, bound by what was around her but still apart from it. Unique, vibrant, and her own.
When painting her own work, Jane was only Jane.
Moonmoth Legion Fort didn't belong.