The Guilded Age (Daria in Morrowind: Episode 5)


Chapter 1

Someone had tied a big slate to the sinuous beige stem of the academy's emperor parasol. Bold white letters on the slate proclaimed the following:

All Honored Students of Drenlyn Academy:

I am pleased to announce that many of the most esteemed families and notable institutions within Balmora are opening their doors to Drenlyn students this month. You are being presented with a fantastic opportunity to apply the skills you have learned within these walls and to make valuable connections that will serve you (and the academy) well in the future.

I urge you all to take this chance to bring honor, and glory, to Drenlyn Academy, Great House Hlaalu, and the Empire that we all serve.

Application is voluntary, but failure to apply will certainly harm your reputation.

- Director Lli

Beneath that was a long list of families, guilds, and companies eager for fresh young minds to exploit. Standing next to Jane, Daria didn't do more than skim her options.

"If my reputation wasn't already as low as it could be, that last bit might actually sound like a threat," Daria said.

"Come on, Daria, this is a great chance for you to alienate new people."

"That still sounds like too much effort."

Jane stepped forward to get a better look at her options. "Not much here for me."

"You don't think you could wheedle a commission out of any of them?"

"Oh, I know I could. But look at this: the EEC wants a clerk, the Sloan family wants a scribe, and the Shulk Egg Mine wants an egg miner. Won't have much time to do commissions if I'm doing any of those jobs."

"I'm sure that transcribing endless lists of assets for the Sloan family would be a rich source of artistic inspiration," Daria said.

"I think the only thing rich in that equation is them. Anyway, I have a professional excuse to not participate, and I'm not even sure Director Lli knows I attend this place."

Considering that Jane rarely left Defoe's workshop, she might have a point.

Daria smiled. "As for me, I look forward to seeing just how low my reputation can go."

The two went their separate ways that afternoon; Jane headed off to a client, and Daria happy to go home. She dawdled at the river market for a bit and watched a burly Dunmer netchiman use a rope to pull his airborne beast above the crowd, its wiggling leathery tentacles colliding with the heads of annoyed passersby. She followed the netchiman from a healthy distance until one of the bull netch's tendrils hit the shoulder of a silk-robed Altmer and knocked him into the Odai's muddy waters. The resulting shouting match was a pretty good one by local standards.

Once home, Daria retreated up to the room she shared with Quinn (her sister mercifully still about town) and took a seat by the window with her copy of Jarth's The Argonian Account. As the setting sun's rays reddened Balmora's flat roofs and narrow alleys, she lost herself in the text's descriptions of Black Marsh's tangled jungles and the way the native Argonians got from place to place by traversing the spacious digestive tracts of miles-long worms.

Daria almost didn't notice when it got too dark, the black ink on the page becoming part and parcel of the shadows around it. She closed her eyes and massaged them through the lids. Time to get a candle.

"Daria!" Dad called from below. "Dinner's ready! I made some ash yams!"

Great. More of Dad's questionable cooking. And right when the story was getting interesting. Resigned, she put the book on her bed and walked down to dinner.

"One of my associates said ash yams make for great brain food," Dad said down below, as he gave each family member one of the spiky tubers. "Perfect to make my already brilliant daughters even smarter. I cooked it with some—"

Quinn scooted closer to the table, her chair's legs scraping against the flagstones. "So the academy's having this big volunteer thing where you can make connections and stuff. I thought it sounded pretty boring, but then I found out that this big cloth importer was looking for someone. I'm sure she'll appreciate my fashion advice."

"I'm proud of you, Quinn!" Mom said. "That shows a lot of initiative." Her eyes swiveled to Daria. "And what have you volunteered for?"

"I've volunteered my time for solitary self-cultivation," Daria said. Steam from the ash yam fogged her glasses, and she took them off, blinking in the dim candle-lit kitchen.

Mom made a disappointed sound halfway between a sigh and a groan. "Daria, you need to be more outgoing. How do you intend to be a savant if you have so few social connections? You can't get by in that field just by knowing a lot of trivia!"

Without her glasses, her family became little more than vocal blurs sitting around the table. Steam still wafted in her eyes, thick with the yam's bittersweet aroma.

"I'll just find some noble who's as anti-social as I am. Not like there's a shortage of weird aristocratic recluses."

Daria didn't need to see her mother's face to immediately know she'd said the wrong thing. Mom's slow exhalation confirmed it.

"Daria, we aren't in Cyrodiil anymore. This is not a friendly place for people like us."

"I think it's friendly! I've made lots of friends here!" Quinn interjected.

"Doesn't anyone want to try my yams?" Dad asked.

"Oh?" Daria decided to push back. "If it's so unfriendly here, then why didn't we stay home? That way, we wouldn't have to work double-time just to be accepted."

"You weren't accepted back home, either! What exactly is your long-term plan, Daria? Sit around the house reading for the rest of your life? Do you know how much we have to pay the Hlaalu Council Company to live here? What do you intend to do when we die? Hope some rich Dunmer will marry you?"

Quinn laughed. "Good luck with that! I'll be the one who marries a handsome Dunmer aristocrat with a big country house out in the Ascadian Isles. Maybe if he has a nice brother or something, I'll introduce you."

"The yams are getting cold!" Dad fretted.

"Quiet, both of you!" Mom ordered. "Daria, you will find something to volunteer for tomorrow, and I expect you to make the most of it. That's final!"

Daria gulped. How the hell was she supposed to network in a place like this? It was worse than back home. She recalled the crunch of her old glasses breaking beneath Synda's foot, the pain of the clubs hitting her back...

Sitting in her room and reading might not be a good long-term solution, but it worked for the short term.

Daria slipped her glasses back on. Mom's face was red. Quinn watched, waiting for one or the other to make the first move. Dad stared at his yams, his brow knitted in worry.

"What were some of the volunteer options?" Mom asked, her voice level again.

"Daria should try the Mages Guild," Quinn said. "All those guys do is read books in dark rooms. She'll fit right in."

"I think that's an excellent idea, Quinn. And Daria, the intellectual atmosphere might make it easier for you to find like-minded friends."

"I barely know magic!" Daria protested. "Don't I get a say in this?"

"Volunteers aren't expected to know much."

Daria crossed her arms. "And I don't suppose the fact that you've represented the Mages Guild a few times has anything to do with this?"

Mom met her gaze. "Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it does. The Mages Guild is an Empire-wide institution that offers countless opportunities. And if, while volunteering there, you find out they need legal advice, then please tell me. That way I can get more work with them, which is something that would benefit everyone at this table. Daria, see what you can do there. You might even have some fun!" Her voice turned unnaturally sweet at the last few words.

"If no one else is going to try these yams I've been cooking since afternoon then I guess it's up to me to take the first bite!" Dad fumed.

He grabbed the yam off his plate and ripped off a big chunk with his teeth. He chewed, jaws working and neck strained, staring at the family as if daring anyone to interrupt.

Dad's eyes suddenly went wide. He spat it out onto the plate to the sound of Quinn's disgusted cry. Then he threw the rest of the yam with enough force to send it sailing across Mom's office and through the window into the street beyond.

Musical Closer – Singing in My Sleep, by Semisonic

Chapter 2

"You never told me you were a practitioner of the arcane arts," Jane said. "What else have you been hiding, Morgendorffer?"

It was two days after mom's ultimatum. Noontime's bright sun revealed every worn-down speck of filth on Balmora's adobe homes. Darkness suited most cities better, and this one was no exception.

Walking with Jane, Daria turned the corner to Guild Row, where most of the chartered guilds kept their offices.

"I'm barely a practitioner! Back in Stirk, I had this soft-headed tutor named Vandries who somehow managed to explain the basics of alteration, mysticism, and restoration. I can cast a few spells, but magic's not something I know that well. And I can't legally practice without a guild member present."

"Those aren't bad skills to have."

"I asked Vandries to teach me destruction and got a long lecture about how we should all love one another. Some time in Balmora would probably change his opinion."

They passed a black-robed Temple preacher, his hoarse voice praising Almalexia's virtue to the uncaring crowd.

"This might not be so bad for you. Aren't mages all about collecting books and secluding themselves from the world?"

"I wish they were." Daria sighed. "The Mages Guild is just another example of a corrupt imperial monopoly that abuses its power for self-enrichment and to bully competitors."

"Speaking as someone who's lived here a while... I don't know if I mind them all that much."

Daria looked over at her friend, a little surprised to hear her defend the Empire. Jane held up her hands.

"I'm not saying the guild isn't corrupt," Jane continued, letting her hands fall, "but at least they keep Great House Telvanni's wizards restricted to their weird little corner of Morrowind. I can put up with some corruption if it means not having to worry about a Telvanni lord deciding I'd be a good experimental subject."

Not sure how to process the information, Daria just grunted. She'd heard pretty awful things about Telvanni. But it wasn't as if Hlaalu was much better. Both profited from slave labor and double dealing.

"Corrupt or not, I don't have a choice."

"Isn't Jolda part of the guild? It can't be too bad if a goody-two-shoes like her works there."

"She's only in the guild as a guest scholar from the School of Julianos. The guild probably keeps Jolda at arm's length from anything corrupt. Here we are."

Daria stopped. The earthen buildings on both sides had gotten close enough together to almost squeeze out the sunlight. To her left hung a wooden sign emblazoned with the stylized eye of the Mages Guild.

"Well, good luck!"

"I'll need it," Daria said.

"Hey, if you learn some cool spells, maybe you can go with Trent next time he tours! Mystik Spiral's always looking to add some pizzazz to their shows!"

"I hate you."

Jane's laughter rang in Daria's ears as she walked through the arch and into the cold, shadowed space before the front door. The place didn't look promising.

Why was it so hard to be left alone? Sure, her social skills weren't the best. But that didn't mean she had to throw herself headfirst into the guild. Except with mom nipping at her heels, she basically did have to.

The thought of a secretive wizard's conclave conjured images of mystery and magic, of floating flames and arcane chants. But the hallway beyond the door could've belonged to any Balmora office, with tapestries and rugs with abstract designs covering up the bland earthen surfaces. She followed a winding hallway down a steep ramp and into a vast basement too well-lit for the small number of candles within. An oak tree grew from a planter in the center, its leaves untouched by sunlight but somehow still green and vibrant.

So there was some magic, at least. But the rest looked mundane. Movable paper screens in wooden frames divided up the room into a dozen or so smaller workplaces, each one occupied by a desk and a bored-looking wizard. No unidentifiable noises or auras here, only the sounds of sighs and quill pens scratching on parchment.

Only the Empire could make magic so boring.

Director Lli had told Daria to look for one Associate Hetheria. She found Hetheria in a cramped office wedged between a monstrous desk and another of the ubiquitous partitions. An auburn-haired Imperial slightly older than Daria, she was busy writing a letter when Daria stepped up to her.

"Excuse me?"

Hetheria looked up, eyes uncomprehending. "You don't Director here."

"I'm the volunteer from Drenlyn, Daria Morgendorffer. Director Lli said she talked—"

"Oh, you're the new meat." Hetheria put her quill back in the inkwell.

"And it looks like I've just been served."

Hetheria waved airily. "Don't sweat it. So why did you volunteer for the Mages Guild?"

She decided to be honest. Maybe that'd annoy them enough to let her go. "Networking opportunities. At my mother's insistence."

"That's why a lot of us are here." She motioned for Daria to come in closer, which she did. "This whole volunteer thing is basically a crock, anyway. We take Lli's clients to make her look useful to her bosses in Hlaalu. In return, the local Hlaalu bosses make sure to use this chapter's services when they want to look good for the Empire."

"And when they don't care about looking good?" Daria had to admit that she was starting to like this woman.

"Then they get one of their own wizards to do the dirty work.

"That does sound like Hlaalu."

"You're catching on fast. Anyway, Drenlyn Academy's part of the system. At least you guys are all literate."

"That strikes me as an overly optimistic assessment."

"Ha! Anyway, I don't actually have much for you to do. We have some papers that need to be rolled up into guild-standard scrolls."

Daria considered it. Boring, but she probably wouldn't have to talk to anyone. Then again, her mom might get on her case for not networking enough. "Do you have any tasks that might require the literacy for which Drenlyn attendees are so famed?"

Hetheria smirked. "You don't get to pick assignments, kid. The Balmora chapter doesn't have enough people because Steward Artorius puts most of our resources into personal projects. And right now, there are a lot of scrolls that need to be rolled."

She pointed to another workspace, filled almost to capacity with a massive desk buried under a small mountain range's worth of papers. Next to it was a narrow cot where an elderly Orc woman slept on top of the sheets and shook the bed with her snores.

"Try not to wake Sharn up. She can be cranky. Get to it, volunteer."

Resigned, Daria crept to the desk and pulled the chair out with as little noise as possible. One of the legs scraped against the stone floor, and Sharn made a rolling snort as loud as thunder, her massive body jerking with the effort. Daria sucked in her breath, but Sharn returned to her slightly-less-loud snoring a moment later.

Daria carefully sat down. A nearby candle on a brass holder burned but let off no smoke. Suspicious, she held her hand close to the flame. No heat: the candle was real, but the light was an illusion. She guessed it was cheaper than having to buy new candles each time an old one got used up.

She opened the drawer to her left, which was filled with a hopelessly tangled mess of twine. She looked at the paper at the top of the nearest stack, wondering if it contained the secrets of a powerful spell.

The title read: Requisition Form for Ink Produced by Chartered Imperial Ink-Mixers and Reagent Extractors in Cyrodiil and Sent by Great House Hlaalu Merchants Using Animal and Ship Transport to Morrowind Province for the Purposes of the Approved and Chartered Guild of Mages Whose Practice of the Arcane Abides by Law as Determined by the Emperor and Interpreted by the Imperial Curia, and by Ethical Custom as Determined by the Priesthood of the Nine Divines and the Cult of the Ancestor-Moth.

This was going to be a long volunteer gig.

Musical Closer – Where It’s At, by Beck

Chapter 3

Sunset was no more than a sullen red glow in the west by the time Daria emerged from the Mages Guild with a headache clamoring in her skull. She took off her glasses and massaged her eyes through her lids, fingers sore from rolling scroll after scroll.

And she'd get to do it again the day after tomorrow.

Quick steps took her to the Odai where riverfront merchants finished up the day's business, the cool air rumbling with guttural Dunmer voices. That sound mixed with her exhaustion and loneliness to conjure physical memories of pain, and then of Synda's gloating voice.

Stupid to worry about that here. The streets were packed with onlookers and guards. The attack had happened in the morning, anyway. Still, for all their obnoxiousness, places like Drenlyn and, yes, the Mages Guild did offer a sense of cosmopolitan sanctuary. No one took notice of an Imperial there. Outside, the whole city seemed to draw away and stare at her with those unreadable red eyes.

She shook her head. Best just to get home.

Daria returned to find her mother lighting a wax candle before the small household shrine to Julianos. The flame's light reflected on the beads of white and green glass so that the entire mosaic glowed in the evening's soft darkness.

Mom put her tinderbox back on the shelf next to the shrine and turned to her daughter, her face as remote as a saint's in the candle's glow.

"Well, if it isn't my daughter, the volunteer! How was your first day?"

"Great. They put me in a dark basement where I rolled papers into scrolls to see whether my eyesight or fingers would give out first. It was my eyesight."

"Oh, it couldn't have been that bad."

Daria looked her mother right in the eyes. "That's all I did. No learning. No magic. Certainly, no networking. But hey, if you wanted a scroll-roller for a daughter, you got one."

Silence for a moment. "I know it's frustrating. But it's only your first day. I worked with the guild when I was your age, and—"

"You wanted me to do this to learn how to network, right? Because there doesn't seem to be much of that going on."

"Be patient. Balmora doesn't have that many options outside of Hlaalu, and I don't think you want to join them. The guild's one of your best options. You can't do it alone, Daria, even though you might like to. When's your next day?"

"Fredas. Most weeks that'd be time spent with Jane, but I guess it's more important for those scrolls to be rolled; my social development be damned."

"You'll still have time for Jane on Loredas," Mom said, annoyance creeping into her voice. "Anyhow, I made dinner tonight! Bread and tripe, with some Cyrodiilic olive oil, just like what we used to have on Stirk! Your father got the oil from one of his associates, and I can't wait to open it up. It'll be nice to have a condiment that isn't made from mashed-up bugs."

Daria had to admit it did sound pretty good.




Daria returned to the guild at noon that Fredas. An unexpected and persistent drizzle had soaked her clothes on the way there, and she conceded a certain relief at the dry interior.

The paperwork pile on top of the desk had renewed itself, and she wearily set about rolling each sheaf into a scroll. Her finger bones ached as soon as she began. At least no one slept on the cot that day.

Time stood still in the untangling of twine and the crinkling of paper. A pyramid of scrolls grew on the floor next to Daria's chair. The contents of the papers offered no relief, memo following requisition following memo. She imagined the immensity of Tamriel's forests: their mighty timbers fallen and rendered into pulp, then dried out in the heat of the sun, refined and processed into usable sheets, and then sent to dozens of offices across the Empire just like this one so that an exhausted guild associate could write out a request for more paper. And so, the cycle continued.

After some time—how long, she had no idea—she heard Hetheria's low voice. Daria turned to see the associate talking to a Dunmer woman in dark velvet robes.

"Given my already considerable tasks," Hetheria said, "it's difficult for me to pursue my research—"

"That's not my problem. Your research is to be done on your own time. We aren't going to coddle you just because of your family."

"Certainly not, Warlock Athrys. Forgive my impetuousness."

Athrys made a dismissive gesture. "I expect the report on my desk by tomorrow morning."

Hetheria waited until the Dunmer woman turned away before she made a face, and then leaned against the backrest of her chair to stare at the ceiling. As if sensing Daria's observation, she turned to look.

"Hey, Volunteer... Daria, right?"

"I am called by that name."

"Yeah, so maybe you could help me with something?"

Daria pushed back from the desk and walked over to Hetheria, who was suddenly all smiles and light. "So you can write and stuff, right?"

"I possess basic literacy. And stuff."

"Warlock Athrys needs me to write a report, but I don't have time. I'm working with other associates to refine the recall spell, plus I'm running behind on my original research—and I did not settle for Balmora just to stay an associate for the rest of my life! Maybe you could write these reports?"

"Maybe. I know some of the theory behind magic, but I don't have much personal experience with it."

"You don't need to for this."

"What's the report about?"

Hetheria raised herself from her chair and glanced over the nearest partition. Satisfied, she sat back down. "It's about unlicensed use of magic in Balmora," she whispered. "So it's not really work for volunteers, but I figure you're really smart—"

"Not for volunteers, huh?" Daria crossed her arms. "I guess that means I can't do it for free." She didn't like flatterers, anyway.

Hetheria's face suddenly hardened. "All right. I have money."

"Judging by that Dunmer woman's remarks about your family, I'd gather you have quite a lot of it."

Her glower intensified. "I do."

"Great. Let's talk shop. How long does this report need to be?"

"Four or five pages. It's just a summary. The information you need is all here." Hetheria pointed to a slender packet at the edge of her desk. "You won't have to do any original research."

"What about handwriting? I haven't learned forgery. Yet."

"I'll copy what you write."

"Okay. Twenty septims," Daria said.



"Fine!" Hetheria's eyes narrowed. "But you have to make it look like something I'd write. You can use this old report as a sample."

Hetheria reached into a desk drawer and took out another stack of papers. With her free hand, she picked up the packet from before and handed both items to Daria. "Don't tell anyone about this."

"Your secret's safe with me."

"And you still have to roll those scrolls, by the way."

Daria frowned. "Wait, what?"

"Look, that's your job here! If you don't do that, people will wonder what you're doing. Stay late to finish that, but do the report now."

"I should've stuck to charging twenty," Daria muttered as she headed back to her desk.

At least this work promised to be a bit more interesting. She first looked at Hetheria's sample report, which began with a lengthy preamble giving the date, location, and the guild's official title. The contents dealt with the slow progress of an associate named Ajira. Daria noted elements of Hetheria's style—her preference for multiple redundant adjectives and her omission of the Imperial comma. The layout was simple, each section getting its own overly elaborate heading.

Satisfied, Daria put it aside and started looking at the notes for the not-yet-written report. Those offered something a bit more interesting. Rumors had been swirling about a Nord woman, one Johanna, offering cheap arcane services to residents in Labor Town. Whoever had assembled the notes seemed pretty sure that Johanna was not a member of the guild and that by providing services—worse, charging for them—she was in violation of standard practices.

"Surveillance recommended," it read.

Daria went about turning a single sheaf of notes into a needlessly verbose four-page report in Hetheria's style. It was not always easy to expand on the document's terse observations, but she did her best. Hetheria's own wordiness helped, though Daria winced at some of the extra adjectives she had to insert for authenticity's sake.

When finished, she walked to Hetheria's desk and showed her the report. The associate gave her a startled look.

"That was fast! This better be worth what I'm paying."

"Hand it over, and you'll find out."

Hetheria scowled. They made the exchange, and Hetheria scanned the report's contents.

"Huh, you did a pretty good job," Hetheria said.

"Like any good counterfeiter, I take pride in professionalism."

"Great. Go back to rolling scrolls."

It was night when Daria left the office. Spent rainclouds blotted out the stars and the moon, the air damp and heavy on her shoulders. Oily shadows submerged the narrow street outside the guild, the darkness barely kept at bay by the feeble glow of dirty lanterns.

The deal she'd made with Hetheria suddenly seemed very foolish. But it didn't sound like copying was such a big deal. Everyone knew that guilds swam in corruption. Daria had failed to network. If anything, she'd annoyed Hetheria. She'd gotten paid, though, and wasn't money the whole reason Mom wanted her to network? The only difference was that Daria knew how to get straight to the point.

She gripped her coin purse to keep it from jingling as she made her way back home.

Musical Closer – Pretend We’re Dead, by L7

Chapter 4

"Wait, weren't you complaining about guild corruption a few days ago?" Jane asked at the Lucky Lockup the next day.

Lunch was on Daria, of course, and she'd ordered the best the cornerclub had to offer: hot scrib pie and boiled ornada eggs, along with some of the rarely available coffee brewed from beans shipped in from Elsweyr's humid coasts.

"I only have a problem with corruption when I'm not benefiting from it," Daria said. The croon of a silt strider from the port briefly drowned out the noise of conversation.

"As a fellow beneficiary," Jane said, holding up a slice of pie, "I'm okay with that!"

Seeing her friend eat a good meal assuaged Daria's uncertainty a bit. She knew she wasn't the first person to help a guild associate cheat. But the nature of the report bothered her. Guild security wasn't something she wanted to interfere with. At the time, she'd just been relieved to have something interesting to do, and she was reasonably sure she'd done a good job.

"Jane, have you ever heard of someone named Johanna? Over in Labor Town?" Daria hadn't mentioned the notes on which she'd based her report.

Jane's eyes took on a searching look. "Nope, don't think so," she said around a mouthful of sweetened insect bits.

"Hm, okay. Just wondering."

"Labor Town's a big place. I only know my little corner of it."

They wiled away the rest of the drizzly Loredas afternoon in shops and plazas. Daria bought a big green beetle-shell hat of the same type she'd seen the locals wear to keep their heads dry during rainstorms. The new headgear proved its worth as the light sprinkles turned to rain during her walk home. The next day passed quietly but nervously in the Morgendorffer house, with Daria and Quinn both helping out at their mother's office.

What would happen if someone higher up in the guild found out? Daria wondered as she sorted papers. The Mages Guild was an Imperial institution bound by law and custom. Still, she'd heard the occasional rumor of people within the guild simply disappearing. It used to be easy to dismiss such thoughts, but now, with her recent deeds heavy on her mind, such tales no longer seemed far-fetched.

Morndas afternoon brought her back to the guild office, her mouth dry and her heart pounding as she passed through the door and walked down the ramp. She eased up a bit once she saw Hetheria looking relaxed and glamorous at her desk. Maybe this sort of thing happened all the time.

Then again, she didn't have Hetheria's background. Coming from a noble family offered the kind of leeway that a Morgendorffer would never get.

"Well?" Daria said, once she reached Hetheria's desk.

"Oh, hey."

Daria stiffened, bracing herself for bad news.

"Athrys liked the report." She lowered her head. "And she doesn't suspect a thing," she whispered.

"Great." Daria didn't let herself relax, though. Something in Hetheria's eyes hinted at deeper calculations.

"And she has a job for you."

"Wait, for me? Doesn't Athrys think that you wrote the report?"

"She told me to let you do it since you've shown up for all your volunteer sessions."

"All two of them?" Either Athrys was the softest touch in the history of the guild, or Hetheria was up to something. Daria decided to play along for a bit longer.

"Well, yeah."

"And consistent with me being a volunteer, I suppose I can't get Athrys to pay me for this."

"You'll get some fresh air, at least. Fresh as it gets here, anyway," Hetheria said, making a face. "Anyway, your job is actually to go to Johanna's place with this."

Hetheria picked a tin ring up from her desk and held it out to Daria, who took it. Faint markings gleamed on the surface, but the distortion of her glasses made it impossible to see them in any detail.

"What is it?" Daria asked, squinting to try and glean some hint as to the ring's purpose.

"We're extending Johanna a formal invitation! You know, so she can practice her magic legally."

"I'll admit my eyesight is pretty bad, so maybe there's something I'm missing, but aren't invitations usually written on paper? How does a cheap ring communicate that?" Daria stared at her through her glasses. "There's something you're not telling me."

"Okay, so it's not an invitation." Hetheria's jaw clenched for a moment. "There's an enchantment on that ring that will tell us how much residual magic is in Johanna's house. Not conclusive, but helps us build a case. Just go to her home while wearing the ring, then twist it to the right to activate the enchantment. We'll get the information we need, and no one will be the wiser."

Daria shook her head. "You've got to be kidding me. Hetheria, I barely know magic. I can only cast five spells, maybe one of them reliably. And the guild wants me to spy on a wizard? Forget it. Let me talk to Athrys."

Hetheria gasped and waved her hands, making shushing noises, her eyes wide and frantic.

"Don't talk to Athrys."


"Just don't."

"You're making me want to talk to her even more," Daria countered.

"No! It's—okay, I'll admit it. I didn't think this through. She wanted me to spy on Johanna. Look, I don't want to get involved with any of this crazy magic stuff. I just joined the guild to coast my way to a sinecure!"

Scowling, Daria stepped back. "No. I won't. Do your own dirty work."

Hetheria's lips turned up in a hard smile. "Look, Daria. I tried to be nice about this. But I've come too far to risk it all. If you don't do this, I'll tell Athrys that you wrote the report."

"And you'd get in trouble, too."

"Sure. Except my family owns a nice, big chunk of Cyrodiil and is a generous donor to the Mages Guild. Your family, well, doesn't and isn't. So at worst, I might get a lecture. You, on the other hand, will be expelled from the guild and probably charged with a crime. Yeah, that's right: the guild is government-chartered, so by counterfeiting that report, you lied to the Empire!"

Daria's mind raced. Was that true? Mom talked about low-level corruption going on in guilds all the time. Usually, it was stuff they handled in-house, if at all. Most guilds kept secrets they didn't want the authorities knowing about, so it was rare that they'd report problems to anyone outside.

Yet all that suddenly seemed very abstract. And she couldn't ask Mom about this without revealing herself as a cheater.

She'd been played. And now this spoiled child of privilege held Daria's future in her hands. None of Daria's intellect or wit mattered compared to Hetheria's connections.

"Look, I am sorry," Hetheria said. "I didn't think Athrys would move so quickly. But it's not a big deal. All you have to do is stick your hand through a window and activate the ring. She'll never know. Johanna might not even be a wizard—wouldn't be the first time the guild's screwed up on something like that."

Daria couldn't think of a response. She stretched out her right hand and pressed it against the wall, leaning against it for support so that she didn't fall onto her knees.

"Come on, it's not that bad," Hetheria said, sounding a bit guilty. "I'm usually a nice person. It's just that things got kind of weird, and well, I have to look out for myself."

"How nice of you." Daria drew in her breath. She wasn't going to waste time being afraid. If she'd gotten stuck with this, so be it.

She pushed off from the wall and stood up straight, forcing her features back to sphinx-like placidity. "Since I'm doing personal work for you again, shouldn't you at least pay me for it?" That ought to keep her on the defensive, at least.

Hetheria looked disgusted. "I would've paid if you'd done what I asked when I asked. You made me threaten you, and I don't appreciate that. Now go do this. Athrys needs it done today. I'm going to hide out at Eight Plates so that Athrys thinks I'm out working. Meet me back here when you're done. The notes from yesterday have the directions to Johanna's place.”

Musical Closer – Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle, by Cake

Chapter 5

Daria made her way across the St. Roris Bridge on the way to Labor Town, still not quite believing the situation in which she found herself.

Not too late to run home and tell Mom everything that had happened. It might be a life-saving choice. Daria had no idea what Johanna was like. She might just be a regular citizen victimized by the guild operating off of bad information. Or maybe she really was a wizard who could fry Daria with a gout of arcane flame.

But that felt too much like admitting defeat. Bad enough that the guild was on her case. The last thing she needed was the disappointed look in Mom's eyes. Mom getting angry wasn't that big of a deal. She'd blow up, yell, and let off some steam, and then go back to normal in a bit. When she was actually hurt, she got quiet, her voice low, like she didn't want to make the effort to speak.

Maybe, if Daria did this one task, she could go on as a volunteer and forget this whole thing ever happened.

Daria stopped at the end of the bridge and leaned against the railing. Next to her, a guar pulled a wagon laden with bundles of saltrice. The Dunmer farmer on the wagon coaxed the beast along while a little girl, who might've been his daughter, sat amidst the produce cradling a many-legged scrib in her skinny arms.

Daria could throw the ring into the Odai. Say she lost it.

Except she doubted it'd be that easy. The guild would track it, she was sure. With that realization, she resumed her walk into Labor Town. The northern side was not much different from the southern one, still a warren of narrow streets running between adobe blocks stacked two or three stories high. The sounds of industry were constant: foremen calling orders, hammers striking anvils and butcher knives striking wood, the smoke of furnaces soiling the sour ambient scent of kwama meat.

Daria followed the directions to a meandering back alley at the edge of Labor Town, where the ground sloped up to the rocky hills north and east of Balmora. Patches of dirt showed through the crumbling flagstones. The only person there was an old, bald Imperial sitting on a crate at the end of the alley. Gray smoke coiled out from a wooden pipe in his hand.

If something bad did happen, there wouldn't be many people around to make a fuss.

The second house on the right was Johanna's, according to the directions. Weathered and run-down, the place looked like any other Labor Town home. Daria stepped up to the window, remembering Hetheria's suggestion of simply sticking her hand inside. Johanna had repurposed a hide tarp as a curtain, blocking Daria's view of the interior. She sniffed as she neared, noticing a damp and earthy smell around the house. Like fungus, she thought, which wasn't exactly unusual in Morrowind.

"Help!" wheezed a woman's voice, faint but forceful.

Daria froze. Heart pounding, she looked around. No one was there.

"Is this when the stress-induced hallucinations kick in?" Daria said out loud.


No doubt about it: the voice came from inside Johanna's house. Daria realized she could leave, wash her hands of the mess. If Johanna died, the guild would be fine with it. The woman was probably nothing more than another poor outlander who'd drifted to Morrowind, far from home and half-forgotten by her family. No one in Balmora would know or care.

Daria remembered Synda's mocking voice and the pain of clubs and fists. She remembered Hetheria's casual cruelty that day, borne by her social connections.

Screw them!

She ran to Johanna's front door and opened it. Carnage awaited her inside. An obese woman lay slumped against the wall, blood pumping from a wound on her neck and running down her body. More blood was spattered on the walls, on the rugs, and on the caps of the brown mushrooms growing in planters placed along the shelves.

Daria almost ran out again. The woman raised a shaking left hand, fingers outstretched. 

"Bastard stuck me!" she gasped.

Daria did know a bit of restoration magic, but it had been years since she'd cast a spell. Mouth dry, she stepped over the bloody trail and hoped she still knew how to do this. A second body lay deeper in the house, a Dunmer. No movement from this one, nor would there ever be. A white sheen of ice covered his face, his right hand still gripping a bloody dagger.

Killing frost on a spring afternoon. Johanna was definitely a mage.

More importantly, she was dying.

"I might be able to heal you," Daria said, her voice sounding far away.

She knelt next to Johanna and focused, thinking of the light of Aetherius as Vandries had taught her all those years ago.

Draw out the current of magic and place it within the formula, she thought. And the formula for healing is—

The spell fizzled out at her fingertips in a burst of white-blue light.

"Dammit," she uttered.

"Get that green bottle over there!" Johanna pointed to a nearby shelf packed with clay vessels. The woman tried again to move, only for more blood to seep out.

Grateful for the direction, Daria obeyed. She grabbed the bottle and ran back to Johanna's side. Uncorking it, she guided the vessel to Johanna's lips. The woman drank the potion and shuddered as her wounded skin stitched itself together. Some of the color returned to her craggy cheeks.

"Thanks, girl," Johanna said. "I appreciate that."

"Uh, yeah."

A good deed had been done. Maybe. But if anything, she was in deeper trouble than before.

"Now maybe you can tell me what you're doing here," Johanna said.

Johanna seemed remarkably self-possessed for a woman who'd been near death a few seconds ago. She looked like a mountain somehow given life, her eyes dark gemstones within a face that might've been carved from rock.

Daria suspected that she wouldn't respond well to meekness.

"Saving your life, obviously," Daria said, trying to sound as blasé as possible while thinking of an escape route. She stood up. Easier to run to the door that way.

"You just go around saving people's lives?"

"I try to fit it into my busy schedule of slaying dragons and rescuing princesses from questionable marriages."

It was hard to tell in the dark, but it looked like Johanna smiled. "Nice act. But enough of that. Why are you here? Well-dressed little Imperial gal, folks rich enough to buy her glasses? Labor Town's no place for you."

"Yeah, well, you're the one who got stabbed, not me." It took a moment for Daria to realize how brazen she sounded.

Johanna chuckled. "You don't scare easy. The guild sent you, didn't they?"

Daria hesitated. Her eyes strayed to the corpse. That might be her in a few seconds.

This would be a bad time to faint, she thought.

"Don't you fret," Johanna said. "That frozen fella over there wasn't from the guild. Not their style. He's just a criminal. I killed him because he tried to kill me."

"And came pretty close," Daria said.

Johanna scowled that time. "Don't push your luck, girl!"

Now, the fateful moment: admit the truth or try to lie? Daria's counterfeiting ability didn't extend to verbal falsehood. And somehow, she suspected Johanna would figure out the truth one way or another.

Daria noted Johanna flexing the fingers of her left hand, as if prepping a spell. Escape might not be an option.

"First, I don't want to be here. I'm only here because a corrupt noble in the guild twisted my arm and made me go. Second, I have no loyalty to the guild at this point, so I'm perfectly happy to head back home and lie to them about what happened here."


"They gave me this ring to see how much residual magic you have in your home. I won't use it, but if I don't come back, they'll send someone else."

"Hmm. Let me see that."

Knowing she had little choice, Daria took off the ring and handed it to Johanna. The woman chanted something under her breath.

"Hand me the blue soul gem up there on the shelf, the one between the sadrith saplings," Johanna said.

Daria found it hiding amidst the sadrith fungus' growth. She gave it to Johanna, who chanted again and waved her hands. The gem crumbled into dust, and the ring glowed briefly.

"There you go," she said, handing it back to Daria. "Fixed this ring to give a false reading."

"Thanks. In that case, I guess I'll be going."

"Probably for the best. What's your name?"

She hesitated for a moment before saying, "Daria".

"Sorry to be so suspicious. I owe you one. I don't forget a debt."

"Sure. Anytime."

Daria kept her panic attack at bay until she'd reached a healthy distance. Then, she leaned against the side of an anonymous house, shaking and taking in deep gulps of air until her heartbeat slowly returned to normal. She stood there a while longer, covered in sweat and taking in the little sensory details that let her know she still lived.

Musical Closer – Paranoid Android, by Radiohead

Chapter 6

"So everything went smoothly with Johanna? And the ring?"

Hetheria's breath reeked of booze, though she otherwise seemed sober.

"No trouble at all. I knocked on the door and pretended to be raising funds for the Imperial Cult."

Hetheria laughed. "Did she slam the door in your face? 'Cause that's what I'd have done!"

More than anything, she wanted to slap Hetheria. Daria had seen death before. She remembered the first time, a pale and bloated fisherman's corpse that had washed up on the beach when she was about three or four years old. Drowning, Dad had said. Deliberate death was new to her, however. The dead Dunmer's frozen face would be another memory she'd never totally escape.

"Not before I was able to take a reading." She handed the ring over to Hetheria.

Daria had gone to the local Tribunal temple before coming back. Jane had told her that the temple ran an enchantment service, mostly to bless items with healing magic. Being under the Tribunal protected the priests from guild interference. Daria had asked them to check the ring because she knew better than to trust Johanna. Who knew what kind of enchantment she'd actually put on the ring? For that matter, how good a job had Johanna done? Daria wanted to be sure that neither Hetheria nor Athrys would find out about the deception.

Fortunately, the Dunmer enchanter at the temple had said nothing was out of the ordinary. So far as he could tell, it was a ring designed to detect other enchanted items, had been used exactly once, and had not found any signs of arcane usage.

She hoped he knew what he was talking about.

"Thanks!" Hetheria said. "See, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

"Maybe not hard, but I don't enjoy being used like that."

"Well, get used to it. That's how guilds operate."

That was all Daria needed. "Which is why I quit," she said, standing up.

She knew she'd made the right choice as soon as she spoke. Hetheria's startled expression was simply an extra reward.




Daria didn't tell Mom the whole truth. Instead, she said that the guild had stuck her in a dark room to do busywork and that she'd quit before having any more of her time wasted.

Mom didn't get as angry as she would have if she'd learned the whole sordid story. But she definitely did get angry.

The ringing in Daria's ears had not yet subsided by dusk. She sat on the tiny balcony space outside of her room, watching the sun fade into the west. It was still mid-afternoon back home in Stirk, where the sails of docked ships rippled in a cool ocean breeze.

Daria heard footsteps, followed by the door opening and closing. She sensed her mother's presence next to her.

"Lovely evening, isn't it," Mom said, her voice subdued.

"Perfect for platitudes." Daria didn't want to talk to her. Except she did. She wanted to explain what really happened.

Maybe that way, Mom would understand how hard it was to network in this place.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you earlier. I shouldn't have."

Daria shrugged and made a noncommittal sound, pretending to be very interested in the empty roof next door.

"You know, the Mages Guild might take you back if you wait a while."

"I'm not going back there," Daria said.

"Hm. I had a feeling you'd say that. And you don't have to go back. But where are you going to go?"

"I was thinking about this," Daria said. "Jane gets by as an artist. I could do something similar as a freelance scribe or writer."

"Jane barely gets by."

Daria turned to look at her mother, annoyed. "How can you say that?"

"I'm not criticizing her. She works very hard. Her life isn't an easy one, however."

"So? I'm not afraid of some hard work," Daria protested. And at least as a freelancer, she wouldn't have to deal with a bunch of annoying coworkers.

"Freelancers have to do busywork, too. Not to mention network with clients. Being part of a guild, on the other hand, creates opportunities and gives direction. Spend enough time there, and you can get a secure job that offers flexibility and respect. I suppose you could try joining Hlaalu. There are a few high-ranking outlanders there. But I don't imagine you'd enjoy their company."

"I wouldn't. All of the factions here just want you to play their endless games of social one-upmanship and networking. It's like Morrowind was made for Quinn."

"It is what it is, Daria. You need to find a way to survive and contribute. I can offer suggestions, but I can't decide for you. You'll need to think about how you want to make your way in the world."

Mom turned around and headed back into the house. Night had almost fallen, and the stars smoldered in the sun's final rays.




Daria woke up before the rest of the family. No need to be in Drenlyn that day, which meant she'd help out at Mom's office.

But she had something else she needed to do first.

The damp and gray morning promised rain, so Daria donned her new bug-shell hat. She spent a few minutes balancing the oversized green shell, finally tying together the chin strap to keep it in place.

She retraced her steps back to Labor Town. Thick and scattered raindrops splashed against the flagstones once she crossed the Odai and picked up in intensity the deeper in Labor Town she got. The morning crowds bent their heads under the lashing rain. Water splashed onto her dress and rain soaked her sleeves, but the hat kept her head dry. Thunder rumbled from beyond the rocky hills to the east.

Daria walked to Johanna's door but hesitated before knocking. It might be better to leave well enough alone. Who could say how Johanna might react to seeing her again?

The door opened, revealing a smiling Johanna, who looked much recovered after the other day's incident.

"Well! I didn't expect to see you here again! Come on in."


Johanna's house didn't look all that remarkable when viewed through calm eyes. Just another modest Labor Town home with rough wooden furniture and threadbare rugs, all conveniently void of bloodstains. The corpse was long gone, and Daria decided not to ask how Johanna had disposed of it.

"You can take off that hat if you want," Johanna said. She walked over to an enormous wooden stool and settled down on it.

Daria marveled at the immensity of Johanna's arms, which looked heavy enough to break through the wall if she applied any real force.

"That's okay," Daria said. "I'm not going to spend much time here. I came here to let you know that the plan worked. The guild doesn't think you use magic."

"That's awfully considerate of you."

"Don't get too excited," Daria warned. "They could still be investigating you. But I quit the guild, so it's not my problem anymore."

"Doesn't surprise me. Bright young thing like you doesn't need what they have to offer, no ma'am."

"I'm not sure it was that bright of me to quit," Daria admitted, "but it's already done." She took a deep breath. "I've been trying to figure out why you're selling magical services from outside the guild."

Johanna chuckled. "Well, you worked there. You think I want to deal with that nonsense?"

"I'm sure that nonsense can't be worse than dodging guild surveillance. Maybe you're too cheap to pay the dues, but given how you killed your assailant with magic the other day, I'd say you're skilled enough to earn decent money. Which leaves one other option."

Her rocky face broke into a self-satisfied smile. "You are a clever one. Say it."

"You're with Great House Telvanni."

"And proud of it! Of course, I'm sure you ain't dumb enough to tell anyone else that."

"I know enough to keep my head on my shoulders," Daria said. "I've heard the Telvanni are pretty xenophobic toward non-Dunmer. Why would they accept a human like you?"

Or like me, she thought.

"Xenophobic? Oh, come on, girl, you should know better than to listen to what the Hlaalu say! Sure, there were some Telvanni Dunmer who called me outlander and n'wah when I started out." She grinned. "Not too many of them are still breathing!"

Johanna raised her head and laughed, the sound booming in the enclosed space. Her body still shook with mirth as she quieted down, her face red.

"The Telvanni respect talent and power. It's not like here, where you have to make nice with every spoiled noble's son," she said.

"That does sound pretty tempting," Daria said.

"Are you interested?" Johanna's expression turned serious. "It's a lifetime commitment. Your magic skills aren't up to snuff, so you'll have to do a lot of work on those—a lot more than you'd have to do at the guild. But I think you'll learn quick. Maybe I can teach you a few tricks. You won't have to deal with Imperial red tape, neither!"

"Except Telvanni lands are still under Imperial jurisdiction," Daria said.

"Don't be naïve, girl. Sure, the wizard lords bowed their heads to the emperor, but he holds no real power in our lands. We're too far away. And the Empire's grip gets weaker by the day."

It might be true. It might not.

Johanna kept going. "When you're Telvanni, you're free. You can do whatever you want as long as you have the smarts and strength to back it up. You have the smarts—I can tell—and you'll get stronger. Survive long enough, and you can grow your own sadrith tower and tell the world to go to hell. You'll be free from nobles, free from guilds. Free from gods!"

The hair on the back of Daria's neck stood up. Johanna hadn't been joking about that last bit. Scary, but it sounded like Daria. No social niceties, just the pursuit of her passions. She imagined her own domain in the fungal wastelands of the east, one forged through her intelligence and unmarred by nepotism or networking.

Then she thought back to her conversation with Jane the previous week, and the disgust her friend had shown in regards to the Telvanni lords.

"Free to use annoying people as test subjects for arcane experiments?" Daria asked.

"If that's what you're into, sure." Johanna sounded like a salesman.

And what if Daria was that annoying person to someone else? What if Hetheria had simply had the power to obliterate her for disobedience?

"Well, thanks," Daria said. "But I'm not sure I'm at the point in my life where I'm comfortable making that decision."

Johanna held up a hand. "Joining a great house is a big choice, and you don't want to make it before you're ready. Now, I can't stay in Balmora much longer, but I do owe you a favor, and I take that sort of thing seriously. So if you ever find yourself in Sadrith Mora, ask for me. I got a place where you can stay and can help you meet some interesting people. The offer to join Great House Telvanni is open as long as I'm around."

"Thank you. Truly. But I should get back to my parents."

"All right then. Thanks for paying me a visit. Take care now, you hear?"

Daria emerged into the driving rain, the drops drumming on her hat. She'd never join the Telvanni, she knew. But it'd be unwise of her to burn any more bridges.

Hungry for breakfast, she set off for home.

Musical Closer – Obstacle 1, by Interpol

The End

Episode 4: The South Wall Cornerclub | Table of Contents | Episode 6: The Artist's I

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  • Nicely written. Interesting that being in over her head doesn't seem to temper Daria's cleverness or sarcasm. It will be either a good thing or a bad thing, not sure yet. Are the characters introduced your creation or based off characters from the show? I know the immediate family is from the show as is Jane and I think Trent, but I'm not sure about the others. It is an interesting marriage between the show and Morrowind, a lot of it works very well and I'm getting used to the parts that take me out of the ES world. 

    • Most of the characters that appear here are based on ones from the show, though sometimes they're fairly obscure characters. Hetheria is based on Heather, who is a college student that appears in a single episode (and basically hires Daria to write papers for her friends). Johanna is this world's version of Mrs. Johannsen, who's a recurring character in the show. The show's version is basically just a mean-spirited joke about overweight people, so I decided to make Johanna more interesting and give her some time to shine.

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