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Chapter 1

Contiminus Merro, the first Imperial to visit Vivec City and come back to write about it, described the place as “… a city of shrines and saints that lies within hollow mountains rising from the churning sea, built by the living god Vivace [sic] as a home for his followers.”

Daria leaned her aching body on a sloping stone barrier above the sea. Maybe Merro saw Vivec as a city of shrines and saints. She saw it as a city that future generations of urban planners would use as a warning of what not to do. Winding stairways led to monstrous ramps, and then to mazes of cramped tunnels, and then back down to the shadowy lower waistworks where sewage infrastructure coiled around obscure shops, every step of the way reeking of sweat and saltwater.

And that had just been in the Foreign Quarter.

She finally stood on the first level of what she was pretty sure was the Hlaalu Canton. The cantons were the mountains that Merro had described—buttressed ziggurats of dull green and gray stone, each two to three tiers in height, their foundations embedded into the seafloor. Ovoid entrances to shops and apartments pitted the canton exteriors like the marks of some particularly virulent pox, while grime from countless generations darkened the walls of the interiors.

Everything about the city dwarfed the people within it, as if to remind them of their insignificance before the glory of God-King Vivec who allegedly still lived in the Palace Canton at the city’s south end.

Daria had arrived in the Foreign Quarter early the previous evening. Unable to find a reputable cornerclub and confused by the directions people gave her (“Go to the upper waistworks from here, past the 5-2, then take a left and keep going until you take two stairways, one up and then one down, to the main mezzanine, and then go down the leftmost passageway to the 8-2 and take a right at the shrine of St. Roris with two statues—if you hit the shrine of St. Roris with three statues though, you’ve gone too far. Now quit bothering me!”), she’d slept rough in the lower waistworks and emerged, stiff and exhausted, to continue her search.

Worse, she’d emerged poorer. Someone, at some point, had nabbed her purse. She’d earlier put some of the money Tomal had given her in her coat pockets, but no longer had enough for a silt strider trip back to Balmora.

The sun was setting, and she still didn't know how to find Jane. Jane had to be somewhere in this canton, she was sure. Serjo Olerlo was a Hlaalu noble, after all. But searching even one of these monstrosities proved an enormous undertaking.

“Face it,” she muttered to herself, “coming here was the latest in a long series of bad ideas that might have started with being born.”

None of the passers-by, mostly middle class Hlaalu retainers and ship officers, took any notice of her. People had given her strange looks when she asked where she could find the Olerlo residence. Given how private nobles tended to be, she supposed she should have expected this.

Daria pushed herself off the wall and went across the wide walkway to the stone railing. She gripped the stems of her glasses to keep them from slipping off, and looked down at the web of docks and quays connected to the first tier by rickety planks and rope. Plenty of ships, mostly fishing and some trade, were coming in for the day.

“Let’s see,” she said. “If this big pyramid in any way resembles the hierarchy of Hlaalu society, it’s a safe bet that the workers all live at the bottom and the nobles…”

She looked over her shoulder at the bronze dome atop the canton.

“... are at the top. So, if Serjo Olerlo lives here, it’s probably at that level.”

Mentally prepping herself for another exhausting search, Daria navigated the dense crowds and the traders hawking grilled fish and kwama jerky. She bought some jerky with her dwindling funds and ate as she walked, wondering exactly what would happen if she failed to find or reconnect with Jane—something she ought to have considered more seriously back at Tomal’s place.

Try and make a life for herself in Vivec?

She marched up every ramp and staircase she found, both in and out of the canton. Wrong turns and dead ends slowed her progress, and night’s darkness soon spread over the sky, but she kept walking. Living in Morrowind at least taught patience.

Heavy clouds blotted the stars by the time she reached the enclosed plaza at the top. What looked like an entire Dunmer village had been built upon the plaza’s stone surface, plunged into perpetual night by the great bronze dome overhead. Lanterns burned bright in the darkness while the soft glow of fungi revealed stunted trees and bushes growing in the planters. The thick and sour smell of kwama clung to every surface, joined by the subtler scents of brine and burnt incense.

Now to find which of these manors held Olerlo. Randomly knocking on doors struck her as a bad idea. She’d tried that on the upper level of one of the other cantons (possibly the Redoran Canton) and was simply told to get lost. She remembered Tomal mentioning that the Olerlos had earned their reputation by talking the Elder Council into reducing a tax on tanna root. Maybe she could pass herself off as a representative of a tanna root concern?

She scoffed at the thought. In her ragged state, she’d be lucky to qualify as a representative of Stendarr’s lowliest mendicant order. Maybe her best bet was to rent a room in a nicer cornerclub and hope that they had a bath.

Of course, that meant finding one.

She spotted a human porter resting on one of the planters, his black hair shorn almost to his scalp. He might’ve been a Rimmenese, or a Keptu-quey like Tiphannia. A fellow outlander would probably be more inclined to give her good advice.

“Excuse me, but do you know where I can find a decent cornerclub? For outlanders?”

The porter chuckled. “Well, for that, you’re best off going to the Foreign Canton,” he said.

“I’ve spent two days trying to find this place, and I don’t want to lose it again.”

“And that determination will serve you well in this city! There’s a storm coming, anyway, so you don’t want to be walking tonight. If you have a bit of coin to spend, you can try the Elven Nations Cornerclub behind me.” He gestured with his thumb. “It’s where some of the foreign merchants stay.”

“How much for a night?”

“You’re asking the wrong fella, I’m afraid, I only know it by reputation. But hey—don’t step foot in the No Name Club on the other side of the plaza. That’s where the Camonna Tong types gather for drink, and they don’t like us humans.”

A faint chill ran through Daria. “I’ll avoid that place. I still have a bit of cash, so guess I’ll try the Elven Nations. Thank you—you’re easily the most helpful person I’ve met in this place so far, though that’s probably not much of a compliment given the competition.”

He laughed. “I see you’ve been given the runaround. Vivec’s got her charms, but they take a while to appreciate.”

“And by avoiding the No Name Club, I might live long enough to do that. Thanks again.”

Daria walked to the cornerclub that he’d pointed to. Like most of its kind, it bore the sign of a coiled-up scrib, though it was hard to see in the dark.

At least the interior turned out to be well-lit. The Elven Nations didn’t look all that fancy, with faded tapestries covering the gray walls. The fact that they used rugs (however threadbare), instead of rushes or keeping the floor bare, told her that this was a place for drinking but not for drunkenness. A good sign.

“I’ve already done some covers tonight, so my next song’s going to be an original. It’s called: Holes In My Heart.”

Daria followed the familiar voice to the corner of the parlor where he stood, lanky and perfectly unkempt, addressing an all but nonexistent crowd. He strummed his lute and closed his eyes.

“I followed you in the dark,

When you hooked me by the heart,

I lit up like a spark,

When you made me feel so smart,

But oh, now I know you just want to hurt me,

I’ve got holes in my heart,

And it’s all your fault!”

Daria hadn’t found Jane. But she had found Trent.

Chapter 2

Jane kept her head bowed as Serjo Felvane Olerlo examined the rough draft of her half-length portrait. That’s how Serjo Olerlo liked her employees—humble so that she never forgot how great she was compared to them.

“I want it to look a little more… Cyrodiilic,” she said. “You’re from Cyrodiil, aren’t you Jane?”

“Yes, serjo. But I wasn’t there for very long.”

Saying she wanted it more “Cyrodiilic” could mean a million different things. It could mean serjo wanted more emphasis on realism, like what someone might get from Colovian portrait painters in the west. Or maybe more vibrant colors, reflecting the lush Nibenese arts. Or that she wanted Akaviri motifs subtly woven into the image, like a gilded dragon-serpent stretching along the margins.

It really meant that she didn’t know what the hell she wanted, only that she wasn’t quite satisfied with Jane's work.

Serjo Olerlo waved her hand. “Nonsense, that sort of thing stays with you. Why, if I were a painter, I’d be influenced by Morrowind since I was born here! Yes, a bit more Cyrodiilic.”

“Of course, serjo.”

As always, it was Jane’s job to help serjo figure out what she wanted.

“Do you want brighter colors?” Jane asked. She turned her head slightly to look at the painting. It portrayed her boss standing at three-quarters view with an immense scroll in her hands to reflect a wisdom hard-won from years of cosseted luxury.

“No, no. More… striking! Yes, striking! I want them to truly see me.”

“I could go for bolder line work.” Which was a Dunmer styling, not a Cyrodiilic one. But whatever.

“That would work. Also, get rid of the scroll. I don’t want to appeal to those dreary scholars any longer.”

I’m sure the scholars would be relieved by that, Jane thought but didn’t say.

“Replace it with, oh, I don’t know, a baby guar. Yes, a baby guar!”

“Are you thinking about getting a pet, serjo?” Jane asked.

Serjo Olerlo sniffed. “Oh, goodness, no! I hate animals. But it’ll be a good look for me, baby guars are in right now. All right Jane, you are dismissed for the evening. Have the new version for me in a few weeks.”

“The honor is mine, serjo,” Jane uttered.

She waited for her boss to turn before straightening up and rubbing her neck, the muscles sore from long hours of work. Serjo Olerlo was a lot to deal with. But she also paid a lot.

For the first time in her life, Jane had money to burn.

Ready to go back to the dingy apartment she shared with her brother, Jane took her lantern, lit it, and walked out of the manor and onto the top plaza of St. Olms Canton, where a lot of the leading Hlaalu made their homes. On a different night, she might have headed over to a cornerclub in one of the other cantons, but the closed bronze dome over her head meant it was raining outside, and she didn’t feel like going far in a storm. St. Olms Canton had bars, but they all catered to long-standing regulars who gave odd looks whenever someone new tried to join in. Best to walk home.

Like most nights.

It’d be nice to have someone like Daria around to puncture some of the snobberies. Except it wouldn’t be that nice, not really. Daria would go after Jane for working with the snobs instead of making some defiant stand against them.

Defiant stands were a lot easier when you knew where your next meal was coming from.

Her thoughts darkened at the memory of their last, bitter exchange. Daria had seemed so perfect at first. Jane didn’t have to be a cringing outlander or a haughty Dunmer around her—she could just be Jane. Until suddenly, she couldn’t.

Enough. No point in dwelling on the past. People didn’t stick around. She wasn’t going to apologize to some spoiled Imperial girl for doing what she needed to do to survive.

“Hey, Jane!”

Celengor! Exactly who she needed to cheer her up.

“Hey, Celengor! Done for the day?” Jane asked.

Gods, she wanted to paint Celengor. There was something about the way the young Bosmer moved, each motion swift and fluid but precise, like living quicksilver.

“For this day, yes. But many days yet remain. Serjo Half-Troll’s pleased with my progress.”

Jane had long known that some Hlaalu nobles were also outlanders, but it still felt weird to hear a Nordic title after “serjo”.

“I’m sure he is. As for me, Serjo Olerlo is guiding my brush to create something more Cyrodiilic. Shows how, uh, wise she is that she knows Cyrodiil so well, even though she’s never been there. Did I get that right?”

Since living with nobles meant you could never say what you thought of them. Celengor had been training her in the subtle art of complaining without complaining.

“Oh, I understand completely. Would that we all had her penetrating insight, so wise that she doesn’t need to travel to the province from which she draws inspiration!”

He said it so perfectly—like he meant every word. Only his smirk, the gleam in his black eyes, let her know that he got it.

She and Celengor walked through the side gate leading out to the exterior walkway. Sheets of rain splashed down on the canton’s sloping walls, so they grabbed each other with their free hands and hurried across the slippery stones until they reached the nearest door to the upper waistworks. Damp, but not soaked, they laughed in victory as they passed into the dark hallway.

“Okay, so have you heard the news?” Celengor asked. His voice was taut like he couldn’t wait to tell her all about it. The corridor barely gave them enough room to walk side by side. They kept brushing up against each other, but Jane was okay with that.

“Can’t say—”

Celengor didn’t wait. “New show at the Black Shalk Cornerclub next Fredas! Just heard today. And get this!” He jogged out ahead of Jane and turned to face her, moving backward as he pointed at himself and then at her. “A show for our kind of art.”

“Portraits of stuffy people?”

“Jane, come on! You know what I’m talking about. Those charcoal drawings you do, the crazy ones—the ones straight outta your heart!”

Jane stopped and crossed her arms, flashing him a little smirk. “Are you calling me crazy?”

He grinned. “Yeah, visionary crazy! The organizers don’t want these boring old Imperial-style portraits. They want the artists who aren’t afraid to do something different. They want us.

Vivec did have a real artistic community. Artists like her, professionals who flattered the wealthy by day and lived their dreams at night. And plenty of blowhards out to live the bohemian life for a few years before trudging back to their parents’ estates.

Not Celengor, though. He was the real deal.

Celengor stepped to the side and fell in with Jane as she walked. “I’m going to submit that piece I did in yellow and green," he said.

“Ooh, that’s a good one! Show them what you can really do with colors.”

“And textures!”

“Wait a sec,” Jane said. “Who’ll be seeing this art?”

Celengor raised his eyebrows. “Here’s the best part: some rich types from Cyrodiil. More of an appetite for this kind of thing there. Could be some nobles who aren’t afraid of pushing the boundaries.”

“You mean respectable people might pay me to pour my inner angst out onto canvas?”

“For sure! Then you can get out of this dump.”

“I have to work for Serjo Olerlo a few more years at least,” Jane said.

“Sure, sure. Not saying we’d run out on our employers. But, you know, couldn’t hurt to make connections with the more forward-minded aristos. What are you going to show?”

Like that, his eyes got all big like he needed to hear. Jane had left most of her personal, expressive works back in Balmora, but she’d made a few more in Vivec and shown them to him a month ago.

“Wait,” he said. “Do the one with the screaming lady with the claws! That one, like, jumped right into my brain and isn’t ever going to leave.”

“Yeah, I should probably give it a title,” Jane mused. “Screaming Lady with Claws?”

“Works for me.”

“I got some time to think about it. But this is cool.”

“Better than cool, Jane. Folks like us? It’s going to be our time pretty soon. I’m sick of putting new wine in old mugs.”

“New wine in old bottles,” Jane corrected. She frowned—critical old Daria hadn’t quite left her brain.

“Whatever, whatever. Point is, too many artists are still painting like nothing’s changed for the past two-hundred years.”

Jane shrugged. “I love a lot of that old art.”

“For real?”

“Yeah, for real!” she protested. “Like Gwylain painting the Chaledone wedding and doing the entire scene again in that little background mirror.”

They reached the Llayn apartment. Living close to her main client made things easier, but Jane wished she’d lived a little further away that night. More time to walk with Celengor that way. Part of her kind of hoped he’d ask to stay a while. She’d let him in, maybe take out that jug of mazte… Trent was actually performing for once, so he wouldn’t be home for a while. Just her and Celengor, two bright young Mer in one of Morrowind’s greatest cities…

Celengor made a so and so gesture and pulled her back to reality. “Gwylain had some good stuff, sure. But he already did it. We should do something new.”

“The art world could stand more variety, I guess. Anyway, I’m in.”

“Hell yeah! And then, in a couple hundred years, they’ll be trying to paint like you and me.”

Jane laughed. “Aren’t you full of yourself.”

“Hey, I’m good with the brush. Good-looking, too. Why not be a little full of myself?”

She reached out and tousled Celengor’s hair. He laughed and darted back. “Trying to mess up my carefully arranged locks?”

“Trying to fix them. They don’t look like they’ve seen a comb in days.”

Celengor stepped back and grinned, teeth flashing in the lantern light. “You’re going to have to get a little closer if you want to do that,” he said, in a low voice.

Were they dating? She wasn’t quite sure. Every conversation they had turned to flirting eventually. 

“Maybe I will,” Jane said, reaching out to him.

“Janey!” Trent’s voice echoed from farther up the hall.

Dammit. “Hey, Trent!” she responded. She guessed Celengor wouldn’t be visiting that night—but maybe it was for the best. They’d known each other for a while, but work meant they hadn't actually talked that often. No point in getting too involved this early.

Trent’s lantern shone in the darkness ahead, by the door to the apartment where creepy Llendri muttered to himself and stacked furniture all night. She squinted for a better look—a shadow seemed to follow Trent.

“Howdy,” Celengor called out, waving with his free hand.

Someone definitely walked behind Trent. He stopped at the door and his mystery guest stepped to the side to reveal herself.

“Uh, hi Jane,” Daria said.

Jane gasped. It was her, all right: the same stoic and bespectacled face, one far prettier than Daria would ever willingly admit. But she saw differences, too: her hair in disarray, her clothes shabby, with dirt smudged on her face and hands. Plus, she kind of stank.

Jane gasped. “Daria! Are you okay? What happened? How’d you get here?”

“It’s a long story,” Daria said.

Trent stepped in. “We ran into each other over in the Elven Nations Cornerclub.” He looked at Daria. “Had a pretty fun time reconnecting, huh, Daria?”

“As much fun as anyone could have in a state of near-total exhaustion, yes.”

Celengor snapped his fingers and pointed at Daria. “Oh, hey, you’re that glasses chick Jane told me about!”

Daria glared at him. “Believe it or not, I do have an identity beyond my optical accoutrements and gender.”

Celengor was fun, active, and passionate about something beyond making sarcastic remarks—all traits that Daria hated.

Jane smiled and gestured to Celengor. “This is Celengor! He’s one of my fellow artists in this crazy city.”

“Heya,” Celengor said, waving. “Seriously, it’s a real honor to meet you. Any friend of Jane’s is a friend of mine.”

“Then I’d say you’re a little too quick to assume friendship,” Daria said.

Celengor blinked.

“Daria’s got… a way about her,” Jane said. She stepped toward Daria. “Seriously though, are you okay?”

Daria looked around the shadows. “From a historical perspective, lots of people have been less okay than me. From a personal perspective… I’ve been better.”

“What about your family? Do they know you’re here?”

“They’re fine, and no, they don’t. I’d prefer to keep it that way.”

“Hey, would you be okay if Daria stayed with us for a while?” Trent asked, though it sounded more like a suggestion.

Their little apartment barely had enough room for the two of them. She didn’t have room for any Daria-based drama in her schedule any longer.

But something was wrong with Daria, she could tell. It’d take a lot to get her to leave her comfort zone of school and home to travel out to Vivec. By the looks of it, she’d been traveling rough.

“I have some cash, so I can pay my own way for a while,” Daria said. “If worse comes to worst, I’m sure I can get a job as an exotic dancer.”

Jane wondered how much money Daria had. A septim didn’t go as far in Vivec as it did in Balmora. Living with her didn’t promise good times. But for all her faults, Daria had always been there for her.

Well, almost always.

“Sure. Here, let’s get you set up,” Jane said. “One nice thing about living here: all the apartments have running water. And you need a bath.”

Daria’s eyes widened, and then she sighed. “I slept in a place that stank of hobo pee last night, so I guess I couldn't come out of it smelling particularly pleasant.”

“Don’t worry, me and Trent scrubbed the hobo pee out of the apartment as soon as we moved in,” Jane said, opening the door and ushering Trent and Daria inside. She gave an apologetic look to Celengor.

“I’ll see you later, Jane," he said.

“You too! And I’m definitely going to submit some works for that show,” Jane said.

Following her brother into the apartment, Jane realized her life had gotten a lot more complicated.

Chapter 3

Sitting in a wooden tub almost too big for the coffin-like space that passed as a bathing room, Daria wondered how clean the water—pumped up from the seafloor and desalinated by divine will according to Jane—really was. But it was warm, at least, and that came as a relief.

Jane sat on a small stool next to Daria, practically wedged between the tub and the wall. Flat arcane light glowing from sconces cast a sickly sheen on her gray skin.

“You have been getting up to a lot,” she said, after Daria finished her story. “Fighting cliff racers, having affairs with nobles, breaking up with the same nobles, and then hiking to Vivec. I’m starting to feel like I was holding you back all these years!”

“Please,” Daria said. “I’ve spent my whole life avoiding society, and the episode with Synda and Tomal proves I was right to do so.”

“Guess so,” Jane said, sounding distant. She glanced at the door, and Daria couldn’t help thinking she wanted to leave. Jane had listened dutifully, but hadn't responded with the wry enthusiasm Daria had been craving.

How low have I sunk when I’m expecting enthusiasm from others? Daria wondered. She splashed her face with more water, wishing she could sink into the bath and become one with it for all time.

“Jane?”

“Uh huh?”

Daria squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m, uh, sorry about what I said at your going away party. It was insensitive and callous.”

“Water under the bridge,” Jane said. Then she yawned.

Daria tried to read her friend’s face and body language for hints as to what she truly thought. The tightness in Jane’s voice and the weariness in her movements didn’t exactly suggest forgiveness.

Jane yawned again. “Sorry, I had a long day working for Serjo Olerlo.”

“Uh, it’s okay. You can go to sleep if you want. We can talk more tomorrow.”

Jane stood up and tiptoed toward the curtain hung over the door. “Sounds good. I won’t be free until the evening—seeing a new potential client in the morning.”

Daria blinked. “Wait, I thought all your work was for Olerlo?”

Jane shook her head. “I wish. She’s my patron, so she offers a lot of support, but I still do some extra work on the side. Gotta keep adding to that portfolio.”

Daria nodded. She’d suspected this would happen—for all of Jane’s hustle, her situation hadn’t improved that much.

“I’m sure my mom would admire your obsessive drive,” Daria said.

And probably nag me to be the same way, she thought.

Jane disappeared through the curtain, leaving Daria alone in the dim, humid room. She breathed in and let her head sink beneath the steaming bathwater. Heat seeped into her bruised body to soothe pains and loosen stiff joints, and she held her breath for a few moments longer before letting it all out in a stream of bubbles. She emerged, drenched and relishing the feel of the water in her hair and on her scalp.

For now, she had to figure out how to start her new life in Vivec.

*********

Daria spent the night on a makeshift mattress constructed of sheets and spare pillows spread out on the living room rug.

She awoke to an empty apartment.

Too sore and tired to move, she lingered in her bed for a while longer. The lack of windows concealed the passage of time. Only the canton’s heavy gray stone surrounded her, the musty space illuminated by the wan light of the wall sconces.

Maybe gods weren’t the best when it came to designing mortal habitation.

Getting out of bed proved an ordeal of frustration and false starts. Exhaustion seized her after every few inches of movement, and she’d plunge back into sleep and wake up yet again—moments, minutes, maybe days later for all she knew. Finally, she forced herself to tear off her bedsheet, grab her glasses and put them on, and get to her feet.

Daria walked on legs as heavy as lead to the counter extruding from the wall. A plate of cold fish and a pot of scrib jelly had been laid out with a note. She held the paper up, squinting as Jane’s clumsy handwriting came into focus.

Hey, had to leave early. Got you some breakfast. Cooking isn’t an option here, so we grab meals from the big public kitchens. Take it easy today and we’ll chat more later.

- Jane

She stared at the note a while longer, only the apartment’s silence seeming to speak back to her. No wonder Jane and Trent spent as much time as they could away from their home. Putting the note down, she ate her breakfast and poured herself a cup of water from a small, noisy spigot behind the counter.

She needed a job. The 133 septims left in her pack wouldn’t last for long, and she didn’t want to impose on Jane’s hospitality any more than she had.

“Now, Daria,” she imagined mom saying, “any business would be glad to have a diligent and educated young worker like yourself. You simply need to show some enthusiasm for the job!”

“Right,” she said, her voice sounding flat in the stale air. “Since it’s so natural to feel enthusiasm pitching someone else’s shoddy product.”

“Well, it’d certainly be easier if you didn’t assume said products were shoddy. Give it a try! And smile, that always helps.”

Daria pressed her teeth together and gave the ghastliest smile she could. Then she wondered who she was smiling for. Her mom’s imagined voice faded, leaving her alone in the stuffy little room.

*********

The Brewers and Fishmongers Hall smelled exactly as awful as its name suggested. Daria’s eyes watered behind her glasses as she waited at the counter, thinking she should have applied at one of the less fragrant work halls.

“What do you want, outlander?” a sharp-faced Dunmer woman demanded.

“Uh,” Daria hesitated, trying to ignore the ways that the stench of fish worsened the stink of fermenting yeast. “I was wondering if there were any jobs that I could apply for?”

“Jobs?” The Dunmer woman said the word like it was something from a foreign language. Then she shook her head. “This isn’t a place for outlanders. Go look in the Foreign Quarter.”

“My olfactory sense thanks you for your rejection,” Daria said.

The woman glared as Daria turned around and walked out the door as quickly as she could, and from there marched back into the St. Olms upper waistworks, where she breathed in the less objectionable smell produced by the generations of Dunmer who’d crowded into the canton’s cramped space over the centuries. She’d gotten the same response at the other trade hall she’d tried. Apparently, she’d have to work in the Foreign Quarter.

It took what felt like an hour of winding through crowds and going down twisty passages before she emerged onto the exterior of St. Olms Canton. Bright afternoon sun pierced her eyes. It was already late in the day, but it still felt like morning somehow.

Daria stood in the shadow of the entrance for a minute and waited for her vision to adjust. When it did, she tried to orient herself. She faced south, looking at the tall and narrow worship structures atop the Temple Canton, whose design made her think of three big stone tents set in a row. Above it floated the enormity of Baar Dau, a mountain-sized meteor supposedly halted in mid-air by Vivec’s will and kept in place by his love.

Love didn’t strike Daria as the most reliable way to keep a natural cataclysm in check. The rock shadowed the entirety of the Temple Canton. If it ever fell, Daria suspected it’d wipe out a lot more than just the surrounding city.

Anyway, if she was looking south, that meant she was on the wrong side of the canton. Not wanting to get lost in the waistworks again, she decided to hike around the canton to go north.

Some time later, she reached the northbound bridge, a ponderous construction of arched stone that looked like it should have long ago collapsed under its weight. If she crossed that, she’d still have to go through or around the Arena Canton to reach the Foreign Quarter.

Jane had mentioned a gondola service connecting the cantons. A glance below revealed boatmen in broad conical hats plying the treacherous waters. Of course, to get a gondola she’d have to march down to the first tier and find a gondolier who wouldn’t overcharge her for being an outlander. Whatever way she took, it’d be well into the night by the time she found anything in the Foreign Quarter.

Maybe she should call it a day and head back to Jane’s apartment. She knew how to get back there, at least. All she had to do was go back around to the western gate on the south end of the second tier, then take the hallway to the big mezzanine, then go…

She frowned. Right? Left? Or wait, there was a staircase she needed to climb before she reached the mezzanine. Wasn’t there?

“Dammit,” she uttered.

Chapter 4

Ten days into her stay in Vivec, and Daria hadn’t gotten used to the stink-eye from the woman who doled out the saltrice porridge at the public kitchen. The kitchen was a low-ceilinged warren filled with the paupers of St. Olms Canton and the smell of burnt food. As an Imperial (the only outlander present most days) able to afford glasses, she didn’t exactly fit the rest of the clientele.

The Dunmer woman grunted and glanced at the beetle-shell badge pinned to Daria’s coat, emblazoned with the numeral two to show she was getting food for two people that day—her and Trent. Daria declined to meet her judgmental gaze as she heard the wet plop of plasticine gruel in her outstretched wooden bowls.

She left as soon as she got the meal, hurrying past the lines of tattered Dunmer and feeling the resentment in their eyes.

Trent waited back at the Llayn apartment, sitting on the counter with his back against the wall as he plucked the strings of his lute.

“I live in a shell, ‘cuz you put me in hell… nah.” He scratched some words off the paper next to him.

Daria placed the bowls on the counter and took a few wooden spoons from the drawer. She put a spoon in each bowl and wondering exactly how much labor had gone into producing the food that she, poor only due to pride, prepared to eat. She’d insisted on fetching the food though—the chore distracted her from the fact that she still hadn’t found any kind of job.

“Hey, Daria,” Trent said.

“Yeah?” she replied between mouthfuls of the blandest porridge she’d ever eaten. The stuff was like clay in her mouth, but somehow less appetizing.

“Jane said she’d bring some dinner from Olerlo’s tonight.”

“Great. I’m sure the public kitchen’s hardworking staff of irritable old people would be thrilled to know we’re dining off a noble’s table.”

“Hm…”

Daria looked up, wondering what Trent would say next.

“I live in a shell, you rang the death’s knell… nah.” The scratch of his quill consigned another line of poetry to oblivion.

Jane did come back that night, bearing a smile on her face and a sack bulging with herb-roasted kwama meat and a jug of mazte. The smell took Daria right back to the open-air markets of Balmora, back when the only restriction against buying food or drink came from potentially spoiling her appetite. With 98 septims left to her name, Daria had to be careful.

“Should I be thankful to your boss for gracing us with this bountiful meal?” Daria asked. Gods, the worst part was that she did feel grateful. Days of porridge did that to a person.

Jane made a dismissive gesture. “Eh, she’s got plenty to spare. It’s not like we cost her anything with this housing arrangement.”

Jane had explained the arrangement not long after Daria’s arrival.

“See,” she’d said, “St. Olms Canton’s supposed to be for poor people. That’s why you have all the free kitchens and public housing. Now, you do have some Hlaalu nobles—like my boss—who live on the top level. They worked out a deal with the temple to let their menials live in public housing since that means the nobles don’t have to feed and shelter us.”

“What did the temple get out of this?”

“Political support.”

“Classic Hlaalu.”

Back in the present, Daria sipped mazte and hoped that the alcohol would make the situation easier to accept. It didn’t.

“Doesn’t it bother you that we’re occupying an apartment meant for paupers who have nowhere else to go?” Daria asked.

Jane shrugged. “This living arrangement isn’t my idea—it’s how Serjo Olerlo wants it. She’d rather have me use public housing than pay me enough to afford a regular apartment.”

“But you’re going along with it.”

We sure are,” Jane said.

Daria didn’t miss the emphasized collective pronoun. “Because I lack the strength of will to make a big deal about it when I’m also a beneficiary.”

A beneficiary not only in shelter and sustenance, but in clothing. Jane had given her money to buy some new outfits. Important, since Daria had come to Vivec with only what she wore. She’d bought cheap and durable, and green and black, as always.

Jane took a bite of kwama, looking at Daria while she chewed. “You said it, not me.”

Gods, she wanted to say something. Weren’t they on the same side with this? Pushing back against the absurdities and inequities of life?

“I kinda like the apartment,” Trent said.

“Yeah, I can tell,” Jane replied. “You hardly ever leave it.”

Daria didn’t miss the irritation in Jane’s voice.

“It’s a good place for me to recharge my creativity,” Trent said. “I’m really soaking up the Vivec vibe.”

“And you show off this creativity when you play at Elven Nations one night a week.”

That was odd, Daria thought. Trent used to travel all over Vvardenfell to play his music.

“It’s about the quality, Jane. Not the cashflow,” he said.

Jane shook her head. “You’re both lucky that I’m working for Serjo Olerlo.”

Daria supposed if she were serious about this, she’d find a job and get her own place. So far as she could tell, most of the people in the Foreign Canton lived six to an apartment since rent was sky-high and kept soaring higher. That’s what happened in a holy city where urban development constituted literal blasphemy.

“Sorry,” Daria said. Yet what she wanted to say churned deep within her, bubbling to get out. She knew it wasn’t fair to Jane. She owed Jane, not the other way around. Why couldn’t she let these things go?

“It’s okay,” Jane answered, still not looking up.

*********

The late morning sun beamed down on St. Olms plaza the next morning, the canton dome retracted to bring in the fresh air and light. Jane crossed the plaza toward Olerlo Manor, where she’d spend the day working on her employer’s latest commission. With any luck, Serjo Olerlo would let her paint outside.

That was the problem with Vivec, Jane thought. Living in the dark made you lose your sense of color. Balmora hadn’t exactly been a riot of hues, but at least the houses there had windows! She wondered what Vivec himself thought of the city.

Jane checked her thoughts. Not that she minded living in his namesake city. She loved how its grandeur sang of his glory, and knowing that thousands upon thousands of pilgrims had walked across the same stones she now walked. The problem, she figured, was the Dunmer. As vain as always, her people had turned the holy city into a glorified money trap.

Maybe, one day, crafty Vivec would teach them all a lesson. A reminder that for all their wealth and power, he was greater still. But he’d do that on his schedule, not on hers. She bowed her head for a moment, focusing on the letter V so he knew that she still thought of him, and always would.

“Hey, Jane! Ready to rock the artistic world to its core?”

Celegorn strode toward her, his hair incandescent in the sun's light. Seeing him move was like watching nature bloom in the middle of this stone-clad city.

“I do whatever Serjo Olerlo wishes,” she said, and then lifted her eyes heavenward to show how much she hated that.

Celegorn laughed and got next to her. “We can both rock it for real at the art show tomorrow night. You submitted your entry, right?”

“Yeah, ‘Screaming Lady with Claws’ along with a few others. That one’s a good expression for how I feel right now. I’m stretched pretty thin between Serjo Olerlo and Daria.”

“The glasses chick still giving you trouble?”

Jane couldn’t help but giggle. “Daria will kill you if she hears you calling her that again.”

“She’ll have to catch me first. Us Bosmer are pretty quick. Seriously though, are things okay? You were pretty tight with her back in Balmora, right?”

“Living with her is a little tough, is all.”

Celegorn gave a sage nod. “It’s hard to share these dinky apartments with anyone. My roommate’s a great guy and I still feel like strangling him to death half the time.”

“Living with someone’s the first step to hating them,” Jane said. It sounded like something Daria would say.

But that didn’t sit well with Jane. Life before Daria had felt like a prison. Back then, she woke up in a box, pretended to pay attention at school, and then worked her fingers to the bone, all to go back to the box, sleep, and do it again.

Come to think of it, that’s kind of how life after Daria felt, too.

“Kick her out then,” Celegorn said.

“No, I don’t want to do that. Daria is a good friend—most of the time. She’s the kind of person who speaks her mind. I guess that’s why I liked her so much—she said the things I wasn’t allowed to say, and she could get away with it. Hanging out with her let me feel like I could do the same.”

Celegorn snapped his fingers. “She could get away with it? A ha! She’s rich!”

“Kind of. She’s lucky in a lot of ways, but she hasn’t always had an easy ride, either. Telling the truth to people doesn’t earn you a lot of friends. But sometimes, I don’t think Daria always tells the truth to herself.”

“How do you mean?”

“She says she can’t go home to her parents because she flunked some job offer. Which is crazy—I know her mom and dad, and they love her to bits. Not like my folks, who don’t even know if I’m alive. Though I guess I don’t know if they’re alive, either.”

The thought cast a pall over Jane. That was the one thing that always bugged her about Daria: the way she pretended to be alone.

“Yeah, I get that,” Celegorn said. “Don’t know if my folks are still around—and the world’s for sure better off if my dad isn’t.”

“Anyway, Daria goes on about how unfair the world is. She’s not wrong, but sometimes it being unfair helps her and she isn’t comfortable admitting that. And I don’t like it when she judges me, because then I wonder if maybe I could do better, and the reason I don’t is because I’m as corrupt as everyone else.”

“No one gets through life clean,” Celegorn said. “Way I see it, her family has cash. Your family might as well not exist, so you gotta get ahead however you can.”

“I know. Daria’s an Imperial, and you know how they are—think they can fix the world and make it perfect if they just pass the right laws.”

“Then they pass the laws and make it even worse.” He grinned. “Sounds to me like you need a break. Why don’t you come over to my place for dinner tonight?”

Jane’s heart leaped. Oh, she’d been longing to hear him say that! She reached out and took his hand, a surge of energy running through her arm as skin touched skin. His black eyes widened a bit but he didn’t lose his cool.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t.

“I’d love to, but I’m doing the finishing touches on Serjo Olerlo’s latest commission.”

“Tomorrow then. We’ll do lunch, and then go to the show. I’ll see if I can sneak out something good from Serjo Half-Troll’s kitchen.”

Jane smiled. “Yeah, that sounds fun.”

Still, she had to be careful. She didn’t know him that well. Maybe a date in a public place? Or maybe…

“Is it okay if I bring Daria?” Jane suddenly asked.

Chapter 5

If Jane had suddenly turned around and told Daria that she was being marched to her execution, she doubted she’d dread it any more than the upcoming dinner with Celegorn. Execution might be an improvement. A slice of the headman’s sword would at least be quick.

“Are you sure you want me along for this?” Daria asked as they scurried down one of St. Olms’ corridors. “You know I don’t make good company on this kind of thing.”

“It’ll be fine, Daria,” Jane said.

“It was anything but fine with Natalinos. You got pretty frustrated with me for being my usual charming self.”

Jane shrugged. “You were right about him. Look, I’m a little nervous about going to Celegorn’s apartment on my own. He seems alright, but you can never be sure. Think of yourself as an insurance policy if it makes you feel better. Insurance doesn’t have to be charming.”

“Okay, but Trent would have probably been a better choice for that.”

Jane didn’t respond. Daria plodded along behind her, more and more certain that this was a trap to get her to say something so obnoxious that Jane could kick her out and feel good about it.

“I don’t like Celegorn,” Daria admitted.

“You barely met him.”

“And when has barely knowing someone ever stopped me from hating them?”

“Anyway, that means if he turns out to be a jerk, I know you’ll be on my side,” Jane said.

Jane stopped at an anonymous-looking door and rapped on its worn, wooden surface. Celegorn opened it a few moments later. The bright grin on his face wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Hlaalu shyster.

“Come on in, come on in,” he said, beckoning with his hand.

Daria followed Jane into an apartment that felt like all the other interior spaces she’d seen in Vivec: gray, small, and smelly. Celegorn immediately gestured at the table, already laden with earthenware plates of fish and other delights.

“I got the best for you ladies! Grilled fish from the loudest fishmongers of the Arena Canton; a kwama egg omelet, also from the arena; a few glasses of Surilie Bros. wine that I won in a particularly vicious game of backgammon with a one-eyed Breton sailor; and the piece de resistance, beetle pie from Serjo Half-Troll’s kitchen, courtesy of a cook who now only owes me one favor.”

“This looks great!” Jane said.

Celegorn pulled a seat out for Jane, and she gave him this adoring look completely void of thought or critique. At Daria’s worst, she was pretty sure she’d never have given Tomal that kind of a look. She was about to say something when Celegorn darted over and pulled out a chair for her.

“And for you,” he said.

She glared at him, annoyed that he’d moved so quickly to be polite. Then she muttered a thank you and sat down.

“Daria,” Celegorn said, as he settled down on the seat next to Jane, “did Jane tell you about the art show at the Black Shalk Cornerclub tonight?”

Daria nodded. “I guess one good thing about Vivec is that it’s big enough to be culturally innovative. Not that it cancels out the city’s inequities.”

“Oh, Vivec’s a sleazy, dirty place,” Celegorn said. “Probably why I fit in so well.” He looked to Jane and grinned, and she giggled.

Gods, Daria hated this.

“Nothing like rolling in the mud to show how above it you are,” Daria muttered, making sure she said it loud enough to be noticed.

Was Jane trying to bring things to a head with this? If so, maybe it was time to indulge her.

“Hey, we’re all pigs, right?” Celegorn replied. “Just trying to get ahead any way we can.”

“You seem pretty comfortable with that proposition,” Daria said.

“I keep it real.”

“Said with all the satisfaction of someone who benefits.”

“Mm,” you picked some good fish,” Jane said, a little louder than she needed to.

“Oh, I know. Live here as long as I do, you know which fishmongers sell the best product. The key,” he said, lowering his voice as if sharing some kind of state secret, “is looking at their hands. Lots of scratches mean that they used to work with lines and hooks, and that means they actually know about fishing. The lady I buy it from, Nevasa? Her hands are all scars. And she sells the best fish.”

“See,” Jane said, looking at Daria, “this guy knows Vivec.”

“I’ve been roaming since I was a kid, so I got pretty good at figuring things out.”

Celegorn was so damned sure of himself. Why did Jane always fall for these thinly veiled confidence men? Her friend’s terrible taste in significant others aside, Daria knew she had to behave, so she focused on the food and let the lovebirds do the talking.

The food was pretty good. The fish tasted fresh, like it’d been snapped out of the ocean and plopped right on the grill before being served. Daria doubted that Celegorn knew how to pick out a good fishmonger (given the sheer number of people in Vivec, she figured the anglers focused on volume rather than quality), but he had found a good source at the very least.

Daria tried to figure out what she’d tell Jane later if she asked for her opinion on Celegorn. Then again, Jane giggled at every forced witticism that came from Celegorn’s mouth. She only wanted Daria's approval. The same way everyone wanted approval, to hear that they were great for taking part in a corrupt system. So that maybe they didn’t have to listen to that nagging voice that told them they weren’t so great after all, that maybe they could do better.

This was a trap. 

Did Daria deserve it? She’d showed up in Vivec unannounced, criticized Jane for accepting public housing while taking advantage of the same, all on top of treating her shabbily back in Balmora.

Hell yes, Daria deserved it.

She’d blown things up with Armand, with her family, and with Tomal. At this point, she might as well go all the way.

Daria took another draught, one big enough to make her a bit light-headed.

“Hey, Daria,” Celegorn said. “How are you liking Vivec so far? Must be a pretty big adjustment after Balmora.”

“Vivec’s a place where the corrupt rise to the top and exploit the system to stay there. So no, not a big adjustment at all.”

Celegorn smiled like he knew exactly what she meant, and for a moment, Daria saw what Jane saw. “Guess the Empire’s the same all over. But you can’t be that far from the top yourself.”

“Yes, which is why I came here with the clothes on my back and stinking of the road with barely over a hundred septims in my pocket.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get that. But you could always go back home. Those glasses?” he pointed two fingers at her eyes, “Those cost a lot.”

“Celegorn…” Jane said, and Daria couldn’t quite tell if Jane was warning him or admiring him.

Maybe it didn’t matter.

A strange sort of relief swept over Daria. After tonight, she’d be done.

“I am, in fact, a beneficiary of a crooked system. Much like your boss, though at his position he’s one of the people actively keeping it crooked. You help him with the visual flattery you call art. In return, you receive the largess you need to live comfortably and feel good about yourself. Unlike you, I won’t make any pretense that I’m doing this out of some kind of authenticity. Fundamentally, I am a bad person—but I realize it.”

“Wait, Daria—” Jane started.

Standing up from the table felt like breaking free of chains. This was the thrill of the void—casting it all aside so she could hide away in obscurity until she died and left this miserable, rotting world.

“And,” Daria continued, “since I realize it, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and attempt to find some way to separate myself from the corruption.”

Daria ignored their objections as she opened the door and stepped into the hall. Not knowing where she wanted to go, other than far away, she took quick long steps down the corridor and through every side-tunnel she crossed until she knew they couldn’t find her.

Now she truly was alone in the big city, with barely any money and no idea what to do next.

“How’s this for keeping it real?” she muttered.

Chapter 6

Daria was halfway through her cup of mazte when she finally accepted how foolishly she’d behaved that evening.

Maybe it didn't matter. Things would have fallen apart sooner or later, anyway. Jane wouldn’t put up with Daria’s constant obnoxiousness, any more than mom would put up with a daughter who burnt bridges with a pyromaniac’s zeal. But the fact remained that Daria was stuck in Vivec with barely any cash.

She didn’t fancy the idea of sleeping rough again.

Finishing her drink, Daria bought another. Mazte at least made her situation seem slightly less scary. She sat at the Elven Nations Cornerclub in the Hlaalu Canton, surrounded by soberly dressed outlander merchants going over accounts or discussing business in the low tones of people haggling over the very last septim. That she’d found her way there from St. Olms counted as a small victory, at least.

Maybe her best bet was to hike over to Ebonheart and beg the Imperial Cult for alms. Do that long enough to save for a sackcloth robe, and she could spend her days working as a penitent for Stendarr. Not too different from Synda's fate in the Tribunal Temple.

“Here’s to you, Synda,” she said to herself quietly, “from one horrible person to another.”

Daria raised her cup in mock salute, not caring if anyone saw her toast the empty air in front of her, and then took a drink. Someone sat next to her as she put the cup down on the counter and stared into the foamy brew within.

“Hey, Daria,” came Trent’s voice.

Daria froze. Because of course she’d end up in Elven Nations on a night Trent was playing. Why not draw out the pain a little longer? He might not know what had happened.

“Hi, Trent,” she said, not looking up.

“Figured I might find you here,” he said.

So he had been looking for her. She sighed. “I suppose that’s the problem when you’ve only been in town long enough to become familiar with a single cornerclub. I guess you heard about what happened at Celegorn’s.”

She finally looked at Trent. No anger or frustration in his face, only the perpetually relaxed expression that came from any major emotional display being too much effort. He ordered a pot of greef and then gave her the same all-knowing half-smile that had captured her heart a few years ago.

“Jane was looking for you in St. Olms. Her boyfriend was, too.”

“Great. Jane’s missing her big show because of me. If she didn’t hate me after lunch today, she definitely will now.”

Trent shook his head. “Nah. Her show’s still a few hours away. Anyway, I told her to take care of the show and that I’d find you. They’d been looking up and down the waistworks, but I figured you’d go someplace cooler than that.”

“I’m not sure how a bar for bored commercial travelers counts as cool, but okay.”

“Cool’s just a state of mind, Daria. Trust me, I know.”

Stupid though it was, she couldn’t resist smiling at that. His confidence was totally unearned and entirely authentic.

“So what’s your plan?” Trent asked.

“My plan is to finish this drink. Beyond that?” She sipped and then shrugged. “I guess I’ll hike to Ebonheart and see if I can find someone who needs a scrivener.” Admitting her charity plan to Trent felt a little too pathetic.

“Strike out on your own. Very cool,” he said, with a sage nod. “You know, you can stay with me and Jane if you feel like it.”

“It’s still hard for me to believe that Jane isn’t angry at me.”

“She’s a little mad. But friends get mad at each other sometimes.”

Daria shifted in her seat. “It’s the principle of the thing that’s bothering me.”

“Huh?”

“Jane’s been nothing but patient with me. The kids I grew up with turned me away if I said a single wrong word. Now, I meet someone who doesn’t just not mind me, she enjoys spending time with me. But instead of appreciating this, I criticize her and make my problems hers. Jane worked hard to get her career off the ground. Now that she has, the last thing she should have to worry about is offending my ethical sensibilities. Sensibilities which, in all likelihood, are a paper-thin mask for my pride.”

The bartender handed Trent the greef, which he took with a quick thanks. Then he looked at her. “I’ve never met a principal, so I don’t know much about that. But I do know Jane misses you. She’s been talking about you a lot ever since we got to Vivec.”

“Sometimes, I think Jane’s a little too forgiving.”

“That’s her call to make, Daria.”

It was Jane’s call to make. But it didn’t seem right to let her.

“Are you going to see Jane’s show tonight?” Trent asked.

“Uh, I’m guessing Celegorn’s going to be there.”

“Yeah, he will.”

“What do you think of him?”

Trent took a sip. “He’s okay, I guess. Kind of full of himself.”

“That’s putting it mildly. I shouldn’t have let him get under my skin like that.”

“It happens. Jane seemed kind of mad at him today.”

“Mad enough to break up with him?” Daria asked.

“Probably not.”

“I guess that’s her choice. Jane’s showing her personal art at this show, isn’t she?”

“Yeah. She never thought anyone would be interested in that. It’s way cooler than the stuff she does for her boss.”

“She’s a visionary.” Daria took another long drink. “Okay, you talked me into it. I don’t know if I’ll stay after, but I guess I should see this show at least.”

“Very cool.”

“Can you show me how to get here? I don't I trust myself to find this place.”

“Sure,” Trent said. He downed his drink in a single swig, left a few coins on the counter, and led Daria out.

Faint stars gleamed in the purple sky as they emerged from the Elven Nations Cornerclub. With the dome retracted, the plaza that had looked so dark and ominous to Daria upon her arrival now looked like any other upscale Hlaalu neighborhood: tidy, wealthy, and more than a bit stuffy.

She followed Trent as he crossed the big bridge connecting the Hlaalu to the Redoran Canton, the towering bulk of the Foreign Quarter within sight to the north. Something about the scene, the darkening firmament and the fresh spring air, took her back to her first months in Balmora, when the world seemed to consist of hanging out with Jane, longing for Trent, and blessedly little else. As if things were returning to normal.

Except they weren’t. Time moved on. But if Jane forgave her, she’d at least have this night as a reminder of how simple things used to be.

Which reminded her of another difference between then and now.

“Trent?”

“Yeah?”

“You used to travel to gigs all around Vvardenfell. Are you not doing that anymore?”

Trent was silent for a moment. A row of guar-pulled carts rumbled past, leaving a spicy aroma in their wake.

“I’m keeping it local. It’s better that way.”

“I guess I can see that, given that Vivec’s the biggest city in the district.”

Though Jane had said that he only ever played at the Elven Nations, and not very often at that.

“Travel’s not really my thing anymore,” he said in a resigned voice, as they turned left at the second-tier walkway of the Redoran Canton, its broad surface only occupied by a few Dunmer pilgrims kneeling at a saint’s shrine carved into the stone.

Some part of Daria flashed back to the days when she’d wanted to know every last thing about Trent, her ears hungering for his voice, her eyes craving that self-sure smile. He no longer had that pull on her. Now she saw someone hurting and lost, much like herself.

“Saw everything there was to see in Vvardenfell?” she asked, suspecting there was more to Trent’s story.

“Uh…” Trent trailed off as a white-robed and steel-masked ordinator swept past. “Did Jane, uh, tell you that I got robbed a while back?”

Daria nodded. “I remember.”

“I’ve been robbed before, up north. You can’t get too worked up about that—north’s always been dangerous, so you gotta accept that going in. But these robbers took everything the Spiral had, and they did it in the Ascadian Isles. That’s supposed to be the nice part of Vvardenfell.”

“Nice in the sense that the ugly parts are hidden instead of obvious,” she said.

“Heh, yeah. But it was usually pretty safe to get around. It made me think of that time the nix hound went after you and Jane, back on her pilgrimage. If stuff like that happens here… makes me feel like things are falling apart.”

“How do you mean?”

“Maybe it’s just me. But yeah, I stay in the city these days,” Trent admitted.

“Did you talk to Jane about this?”

“Nah. She’s got enough troubles without worrying about me. I’m the one who’s supposed to take care of her, anyway.”

“Hmm. Well, as a wise man once told me, maybe that’s her call to make.”

Trent was silent for a bit, and then he chuckled. “That is pretty wise. Maybe I should let her make it.”

“Jane’s pretty good at that,” Daria said, her heart lightening as they neared the Foreign Quarter.

Chapter 7

On most nights, the Black Shalk Cornerclub would have looked just like the Elven Nations Cornerclub and probably every other cornerclub in Vivec.

But when Daria and Trent arrived that night, the place had garbed itself in art. Not the quotidian portraits and nature scenes of the Empire, nor the jagged saints and gods of the Dunmer, but images and textures from the souls of a restless avant-garde.

Most of it, in Daria’s opinion, wasn’t that good. And judging by the dutiful, incurious expressions on some of the two-dozen or so visitors, she wasn’t alone in her opinion. Yet one artist stood out, to her and the others. A full half of the attendees crowded around Jane’s table, their dreary eyes suddenly lively as they studied, with fascination, the works she’d kept secret for so long.

Jane presided over them like a goddess greeting her petitioners. Her usually guarded expression glowed with untrammeled enthusiasm as she answered their questions and told them what went into the creation of each work.

“I guess I always had one foot in the Empire and the other in Morrowind. Blending the styles came naturally,” she explained to an Imperial Nibenese cloaked in scarlet silk.

Her eyes caught Daria’s gaze for a moment. Daria offered a faint smile, and Jane raised her eyebrows to let her know that she saw, that all was forgiven.

This was what Jane could be. Artists weren’t rare in Tamriel. There was no lack of nobles and merchant princes and prospective brides who wanted their likenesses captured in paint. But Jane did more. She followed her vision and, what’s more, got people to follow with her.

Daria realized that things would never be the way they once were—and maybe that was a good thing. Greatness had always been inside Jane, but she’d have never been able to let it out if she’d clung to the past in her little apartment.

Jane had adapted to the world while staying true to herself. If she could do it, maybe Daria could walk a similar balance. Stasis asked for nothing—but offered nothing in return.

“Hey, Daria. Glad you showed up. Me and Jane were pretty worried.”

It was Celegorn, leaning against the wall by canvases of abstract colors that no one seemed to care about.

Daria still didn’t like the guy—but that wasn’t Jane’s problem.

“Hey. Uh, I suppose I owe you an apology.”

He waved it off. “Don’t sweat it. I shouldn’t have needled you like that. Kinda my way, I guess, but sometimes I need to know when to shut up. Jane lectured me on that.”

“Think you’ve learned?”

“Nope. I’ll always shoot my mouth off. But I do know when to say sorry. So yeah, my bad.”

“It’s all right. Regardless of what we think of each other, we should probably keep things civil for her sake.”

“Yeah.” He looked over to Jane, his eyes alight with awe. “She’s amazing. I knew that everyone here would go to her paintings. No shame in being beaten by her.”

Daria took a closer look at Celegorn’s work: bold swaths of color, mostly yellows and greens, that didn’t seem to show anything in particular.

“Your work is, uh, colorful,” Daria said.

Celegorn laughed. “Go ahead, tell me what you think. Don’t hold back, I have a thick skin.”

“Hm, maybe you should tell me. I’m not as well-versed with art as you or Jane.” Saying that made Daria feel a little better.

“Alright, what does it look like to you?”

“Colors,” Daria said.

“Exactly. All most of us do is use the great colors nature’s given us to paint these stuffed-up jerks who run the show. Or we try to paint nature, but come on—do we ever really succeed? So I did pure color. Let people see how it looks when it isn’t shackled to something else.”

Daria peered a little closer. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but she noticed a subtle gradient in the greens and yellows, how they clashed in sharp contrast at some points but subtly mingled in others.

“I think I can see it,” she said. “You didn’t mindlessly slather paint onto the canvas. You put a lot of thought into this—intensifying the hues here and there. It's not only yellow and green, but yellow and green in all their varieties.”

“Just some of their varieties, there are way more than what you see here. That’s the idea though, yeah.”

“It’s not really my thing,” Daria said, looking Celegorn straight in the eye. “But I can see the value in it.”

“Then my mission here is accomplished,” he said, with a mocking smile. He again looked at Jane.

Daria walked around and studied some of the other artists’ work. Some, she had to admit, did nothing for her and probably still wouldn’t after an explanation, like a display of wooden plates skewered on spears put together by a young Nord. Others possessed an undeniable skill and elegance, like the complex abstract patterns done in watercolors by a Khajiit woman. Another display, a set of red and black demon statuettes that a bald Dunmer had carved from volcanic ash, disturbed Daria for reasons she couldn’t quite fathom.

She rarely saw much that was new in the art world. That night, she saw plenty. It still wasn’t what she’d want to hang up in her room. She was probably more old-fashioned than she realized. The safe and the familiar always beckoned. But she could still explore and appreciate the new while rooted in the old.

The crowd around Jane finally cleared, and Daria approached her friend.

“Sorry I ran out on lunch,” she said.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Jane said, and suddenly hugged Daria.

Daria stiffened for a moment, not quite sure how to react, but then relaxed. Jane disengaged a moment later.

“I’m sorry Celegorn kept bugging you,” Jane said. “I told him not to.”

“He and I both bear some responsibility with how it turned out. We were talking a few minutes ago, and I think we’ve put aside our differences. I can tolerate him, at the very least.”

Jane glanced over to Celegorn, who was chatting with Trent. “So what’s your honest opinion of the boy?”

Daria gathered her thoughts. She’d be honest with Jane—and honest to herself, as well.

“Celegorn’s the kind of fun-loving person who’ll always grate on my nerves. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, though. He seems genuinely impressed with you as an artist, and he’s aware of his occasionally obnoxious behavior and makes some attempt to ameliorate it.”

Jane crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “You’re getting soft on me, Morgendorffer.”

“I’d attack his fashion sense, but that’s probably more my sister’s field. On a more serious note, he does seem to take a free-wheeling approach to life, so I don’t know if he'll be one for commitment.”

“Oh, I don’t expect anything too long-term from him,” Jane said. “Neither of us is going to be in Vivec forever, anyway. But hey, my house is always yours—in Balmora, Vivec, or any other city where I make my home.”

Daria shivered. She’d done nothing to earn such a good friend. Maybe that was the beauty of it.

“Uh, thanks,” she managed to stammer out. “I’ll find some work in the Foreign Quarter so I can contribute a bit.”

“Take your time. You know, I was thinking about what you said about the public housing—how it’s crummy for me to use something intended for people who need it.”

“It’s not a great situation, but from what you tell me it sounds like you didn’t have a choice.”

“I don’t—but I do earn more than enough money to buy food from the vendors. Me and Trent went to the public kitchens because we could and, well, because I’m still kind of scared to spend money. That’s not an excuse, though.”

“Your half-hearted commitment to a more ethical lifestyle is an inspiration to us all,” Daria said.

“Yeah, I’ll have to do some more Hlaalu-esque things to make up for it. Embezzlement? Blackmail? Ooh, I like the sound of blackmail,” Jane said, rubbing her hands together.

“Given your clientele, I’m sure you’ll never be lacking for sources.”

“Thanks for coming to the show, Daria. You were with me when I did a few of these paintings. Didn’t seem right to show them without you.”

Jane gestured at one of the works on her table, showing a feminine figure tucked into a fetal position and drawn in thick black lines, surrounded by concentric strokes that somehow suggested both comfort and restraint. Daria did remember whiling away a spring afternoon on the balcony as Jane had painted that very image. She understood it immediately: Jane as herself, both Dunmer and Cyrodiilic but neither, and glorious for that uncertainty.

“I’m glad I’m here. It occurs to me that I’m not always the easiest person to be friends with. And that, in a lot of ways, I’m actually pretty lucky to have you,” Daria said.

“You’re not as unlikable as you think. You’ve made other friends, too: Jolda, Amelia, that random Ashlander kid… hell, you had a noble boyfriend, and you broke up with him, not the other way around!”

“You mean my efforts at flinty misanthropy were doomed to failure?”

“’Fraid so, Daria.”

Daria smiled. “I guess I can live with that.”

Chapter 8

The weekend felt like old times again, and was all the sweeter for being so very temporary. Done with her show and with her boss’s latest assignment, Jane finally had time. So she and Daria chatted aimlessly in the apartment and explored Vivec, the city’s monumentalism no longer so bleak.

On Loredas, Daria accompanied Jane to the Temple Canton where she gave thanks for her success. Jane entered its shadowy and smoky confines with her head bowed and her hands cupping a glass-like coda flower to give as a symbolic offering, and a pouch full of coins as a more concrete offering.

Daria waited outside, and wondered how things were going back in Balmora.

Sundas evening took them back to the Elven Nations Cornerclub, where Trent tried out a few questionable tunes to an audience that (save for Daria and Jane) didn’t give a damn, and it was wonderful.

Jane stopped by the Olerlo Manor on Morndas morning, and returned at noon with a sealed paper in her hand and a curious expression on her face.

“Hey, Daria. A courier came by with a letter for you.”

Daria looked up from her book, the slender twelfth volume of Perus’s Interviews with Tapestrists that had been left behind by a previous occupant.

“For me?”

“Yeah, there’s a note here from Quinn telling me to ask Serjo Olerlo to send this letter to the Sloans,” Jane said, handing Daria the paper. "I guess she still thinks you’re with Tomal.”

From Quinn? Suddenly faint, Daria held the letter up to the nearest sconce. 

Daria –

I hope you get this letter. I’m sure you’re having a lot of fun with Serjo Sloan. Serjo Talori tells me he’s one of the most eligible bachelors in Vvardenfell.

Mom and dad know Serjo Sloan’s a great guy, and that his family is honorable. But you’re their oldest daughter and you didn’t even say goodbye! That’s why they’re worried about you. They think they did something to make you run away, and they’d really like to see you.

I want to see you, too. I know we don’t always get along, but you’ve always been like a rock for us. Mom gets so driven and work-obsessed, and you know how dad kind of flies off the handle sometimes. And me, well I’m pretty great, but maybe I do spend too much time and money on stuff like fashion. You’re stable, though. You keep things going.

No one here is mad at you (well, mom is a little, but she’ll get over it). We just want to see you again. If you get this, please come home just to say hi. It’d mean a lot.

- Your sister, Quinn

Daria read it aloud, each word sinking in with the weight of gold. Jane gave a long, low whistle when Daria finished.

“Told you,” Jane said. “You’re more likable than you think.”

“I didn’t expect this.” And it couldn’t have been easy for Quinn to arrange the letter. Did mom and dad know she’d hired a courier?

“What are you going to do?”

Daria thought about it for a bit. It had seemed like such a clean break, too. But maybe that had been too easy.

Maybe, as she had with Jane, she should give her family a chance to decide if they wanted her around.

“I should probably go back,” Daria said. “Quinn’s right—I never said goodbye.”

Jane nodded. “Family can be a pain. But yours isn’t that bad, all things considered. At least they talk to you.”

“I do I owe them an explanation, at the very least. And right when I was starting to get comfortable in Vivec.”

Part of her didn’t want to leave, not so soon after things had gotten back to normal with Jane. Except they wouldn’t stay that way. The world moved on and she couldn’t—she shouldn’t even if she could—hold it back.

“You know, Daria, I’m free this week. What if I went back with you? There are always silt striders going between Vivec and Balmora, so it’ll be easy to get a ride. Plus, I should probably check in on J’dash.”

“You coming along would provide a welcome distraction from dreading the talk with my mom. I’ll need someone to guide me to the strider port, anyway. When can you leave?”

“Tomorrow morning’s fine. Think you’ll be ready by then?”

“Probably not. But I won’t let that stop me,” Daria said.

The End

Episode 29: Gone Sister Gone | Table of Contents | Episode 31: Bad Day in Balmora, Part 1

 

 

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  • I like the descriptions of Vivec and how the city's design contributes to the emphasis on people's social status. I can picture Altmeri cities being structured in a very similar way. It's good to see Jane and Daria together again and that Daria is starting to grow a little. Good read. 

    • Thanks!

      I really have a strong suspicion that my description of the system in St. Olms is pretty close to how it was intended. The fact of the matter is, you do have a place ostensibly meant for the poor that nonetheless has some of the most powerful and wealthy Hlaalu councillors living on the top floor.

      Vivec's an interesting city to visit--but I think it'd be a nightmare to actually live there.

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