Note: Special thanks to Atiyatortilla, mod and member of the Lawndale-high Message Board for the valuable feedback she provided!
At least Sera Dimartani wasn't boring.
Daria watched as the rangy Dunmer marched from one end of the dusty classroom to the other, his cadaverous features twisting in rage as he described a choice sampling of the atrocities and wars that comprised Tamrielic history. The material wasn't new to her; she'd studied plenty on her own, her mind absorbing her Empire's complex political and economic realities while also watching for gruesome facts with which she could torment Quinn.
Nonetheless, the threat of explosive rage—or possibly apoplexy—on Dimartani's part added a certain lingering tension to each lecture.
"Who here can tell me why the EMPIRE, fresh from its victories in the WEST, chose to annex Morrowind through TREATY rather than CONQUEST?"
Dimartani's skull-like visage swiveled to face the seated students, his left eye bulging in its socket.
Silence for a moment, and then Briltasi raised her skinny arm.
"Uh," she said, twirling one of her crimson ponytails around a finger, "was it because the Empire just really liked us and didn't want to fight?"
"Your NAIVETE continues to IMPRESS! Anyone ELSE?"
Daria hesitated. The longer it took to get a response, the more likely Dimartani would flip out in an entertaining way. On the other hand, the murky politics behind the Armistice had always interested her.
Jolda beat Daria to the punch and raised her hand.
"Though the Empire would have eventually won a military conflict against Morrowind, victory would have been costly in both finances and personnel. Thus, Emperor Tiber Septim invited the Tribunal to sign the Armistice late in the Second Era, allowing Morrowind more autonomy than most provinces while also peacefully spreading the Empire's values of free trade and the rule of law."
"Very good, albeit SLIGHTLY one-sided!" Dimartani bellowed. "The nature of the HLAALU-approved curriculum prevents me from giving my OWN thoughts on the matter. Suffice to say, Jolda's DESCRIPTION is accurate. Well-done!"
Jolda had navigated it well—made it clear the Empire had been in charge, while also throwing a bone to the Dunmer by giving some credit to the Tribunal. It did fit the standard Imperial-Hlaalu narrative.
Of course, Jolda hadn't mentioned the uglier details, like the Imperial monopolists profiting by outsourcing to Morrowind's slave labor.
"Few of you know that next Middas marks the FOUR-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY-FIFTH anniversary of the Armistice! In honor of this AUSPICIOUS, or perhaps DOLOROUS, day, I am assigning an essay in which you will share YOUR thoughts on the Armistice and how it affects YOU! Assuming, of course, that you have the mental CAPACITY to understand how history affects the present! This will be due TOMORROW!”
Briltasi raised her hand again.
“Yes, Serjo TALORI?"
Briltasi lowered her hand. "Uh, if the Armistice thing is next Middas, then shouldn't the essay also be due next Middas?"
"An ASTUTE observation, Serjo Talori! The REASON for the date is because the writer of the best essay will get to RECITE it for our honored magistrate at the Armistice FESTIVAL next week!"
Daria noted that she now had a good reason to write a subpar essay. The last thing she wanted was to help Magistrate Lli in any way, shape, or form.
"Are they going to do anything cool for this festival?" Julien asked from the back row. "The last one was really lame."
Dimartani growled. "They'll do the same thing they ALWAYS do: display PROPAGANDA for the Empire and Great House HLAALU in hopes of getting more FUNDING!" He spoke the name of the great house with particular scorn, which struck Daria as odd—wasn’t he subject to them?
The lunch break arrived, Drenlyn's courtyard bright and sizzling under the summer sun. Daria roasted in her worn orange shirt and long black skirt. The shade of her bug-shell hat offered only scarce relief as a bead of sweat rolled down one cheek. How did someplace so far north get so damn hot? she wondered. She lifted her hand to keep the glare out of her eyes and walked with Jane to the library, where they pressed themselves against the west wall to get whatever shade they could find.
"Lli always makes a big deal about the Armistice Festival," Jane said. "Her hope's that some Imperial or Hlaalu bigwig will see it and be so impressed that they invite to her a high-level networking party. You know, the kind with real nobles."
"Since it sounds like she's done this several times already, I'm guessing she hasn't had much luck."
Jane laughed. "One time some bureaucrat from Ebonheart came by. Stood up halfway through, looking really confused, and asked if it was the Marcolo wedding. He got out of there pretty quick once he found out it wasn't."
"Nothing warms my heart quite like Lli being disappointed. Speaking of which, I'm going to have to stretch my writing muscles tonight."
Jane arched an eyebrow. "Why, Morgendorffer! I never figured you'd be one to try and impress the authorities."
"On the contrary," Daria said. "I need to write at a level bad enough to ensure I won't be picked to give a speech for Lli. Do you have any idea how many good writing habits I'm going to have to break?"
"Hmm, that might be tough. Here's an idea! Hang out with Briltasi for a while. You'll be writing at her level before you know it!"
"I'm not willing to suffer quite that much for my art."
Jane shook her head. "Amateur."
The walls of the Morgendorffer home offered sanctuary from the sweltering late afternoon. Sweat cooling on her brow, Daria walked to the kitchen and made a quick meal of bread and scuttle before trudging up the narrow stairs to her room. Daria usually napped when she came home from school, at least on the days when mom didn't dragoon her into office work. But that day she itched to get started, and knew it'd be best to do it while Quinn was still out visiting with friends.
Once in her room she opened the window and looked out onto the rows of blocky Balmora homes shimmering in the summer heat. Warm air wafted inside as she put a paper on the surface of her desk, sat down, and gathered her thoughts.
Of all the students in Dimartani's class, only Jolda and Karl could rival her in writing ability. The rest offered little more than ink dribbles. So how best to imitate that? She pictured Briltasi:
"The Armistice is like, super-important to me because I like getting fancy perfumes from the Imperial City! And my daddy's rich so I can get lots of it!"
Daria shook her head. No way was she going to stoop that low. A losing entry was one thing; having her writing confused with Briltasi's quite another.
Perhaps dullness made for a better tack than stupidity. She leaned back in the chair and looked up at the wooden beams in the ceiling. They wanted the winning essay to be propaganda, right? The one thing propaganda could never afford to be was genuinely informative.
She turned the idea over in her mind. What if she just wrote a dry-as-bone account of the Armistice? In that case it'd be best to focus on the economic factors—almost no one liked reading about those (except her, from time to time). She pictured the opening paragraph.
The Armistice that brought Morrowind into the Empire's fold was a practical measure necessitated by Emperor Tiber Septim's need to maintain and cultivate a reliable tax base among the entrepots of the eastern Heartlands...
Daria smiled. It was dry and made no concessions to the reader's interest or comfort. She stood up to collect a few books for research purposes, eager to be as exacting as possible.
For the next few hours she read, referenced, and wrote. No detail escaped her pen—after all, who wouldn't want to know the price of a pound of saltrice in late 2nd Era Cyrodiil? She became like a machine that sorted facts on the basis of how boring they were (even if she did have to admit a certain grudging interest at just how grubby the Armistice was when put under scrutiny—gods and emperors merely a silkscreen behind which middle managers made history).
The setting sun painted her room a lurid red by the time Daria finished a few pages. She sighed and picked up the first sheaf and held it up to the light. Her text, detail-oriented and without an ounce of conviction or opinion, was sure to be ignored.
It'd earn the obscurity she craved but she somehow didn't want to turn it in. The essay made her feel more like a copyist than a writer, its information regurgitated and artlessly thrown together. She'd always thought of herself as better than that.
She frowned. Why did she even have to do this? The whole situation was pretty ridiculous—Lli’s insecurity and desire for social approval moving her to search for propagandists among the student body.
As ridiculous as the Empire being in Morrowind in the first place.
Sudden giddiness welled up through her exhaustion. Why not tell them what she really thought? That greed, more than anything else, had driven the Empire's annexation of Morrowind.
Daria slammed a new paper on the desk and grabbed her quill. Words jumped from brain to page, her hand hurrying to keep up so that the neat letters all but ran into each other.
Like so much else, the Empire's rule of Morrowind is built on the lie of Imperial beneficence. What Morrowind's conquerors called law turned out to be criminality. What they called order only covered for corruption. And don't worry, various Dunmer Great Houses both pro- and anti-Empire, I'm coming after you as well, she wrote.
Shadows stretched as sunset turned to night and Daria paused only to light an already half-spent candle. Quinn came in and spouted a few trivialities before sitting next to Daria with a pile of socks, her small hands deftly guiding needle and thread to patch the threadbare parts. They ignored each other, Daria hearing only the scratch of pen against paper.
The candle had dwindled to a nub by the time she finished, the night air still thick and warm on her skin. Four pages of anger rested on the desk before her, all her frustration poured out and ready to be justified by rejection. They wouldn't accept something that scared them.
A sudden and stabbing pain jabbed from her eyes to her forehead, darkness and the distortion of her lenses and hours of writing all taking their toll at once. She closed her eyes and massaged them. The pain stayed when she stopped and opened them again.
Daria heard steady breathing and looked over to Quinn's bed. Her sister slumbered, looking perfect in repose.
Going back over what she wrote, she realized she couldn't turn it in. The Empire tolerated and even encouraged veiled criticism. Hers was far too explicit. She'd gotten so carried away in the flow of words that she'd lost sight of the fact that too much scorn toward the powers that be would only bring trouble on her family. Probably not legal trouble—but she couldn't be absolutely sure.
The core still worked. She only needed to change the tone. Official histories told the broad truth—they simply did it obliquely. She knew how to follow suit. Take away anything that directly blamed the Empire, throw in a few laudatory comments about the Septim Dynasty and Great House Hlaalu, and insert the truth in between.
Not wanting to start another candle, Daria took the stub and crept downstairs with her essay and a few fresh papers in hand. Sure enough, mom was still working in her office.
"Oh, hello, Daria! Late night?" Mom raised her tired gaze from a pile of casework on her desk.
"For both of us, apparently. I've got this essay I'm supposed to write for Dimartani. I have a rough draft here," she said, holding up the finished work, "but I want to spruce it up a bit."
Mom brightened. "Well you're more than welcome to my candlelight! I'm still slogging through that Ralaalo case—I don't know why it's so hard for some of these Hlaalu types to understand Imperial patent law!"
"I suppose patent law is part our civilizing mission?"
"I'm not sure I'd call our mission all that civilizing. What's your essay about?"
Daria sat down at the edge of the desk, curling her arm around the papers to block her mother's view. "Oh, just a little bit on the Armistice."
"I'd be happy to take a look."
"That's okay, mom. I got this."
"Oh, I'm sure. Not many people your age know as much about Tamrielic history as you do. It's a talent, Daria. Nurture it."
A little embarrassed, Daria nodded and got to work on the final draft.
Like so much else, the Empire's rule in Morrowind is built on the canny pragmatism that has influenced so much of its expansion. Put simply, Morrowind had resources and weapons that Emperor Tiber Septim needed to guarantee the Empire's security. As for the Dunmer, trade was simply more profitable (not to mention safer) than fighting back, she began.
A decent enough start for something destined for the rejection pile.
Daria reached Drenlyn in a state of exhaustion. The rush from all the writing had left her spent and the morning heat sapped her vigor at every step. Her body still taut with expectation, she walked with Jane toward Dimartani's class.
"For someone trying to write a losing essay, you sure went all out," Jane said. "Five pages? That's practically a manifesto!"
"I figured if I'm going to try and fail, I might as well do it in style."
"You should do what I did. Three paragraphs that each more or less say the Empire is great. It's the same one I used last year."
"Normally I'd say that's a shoo-in for failure but considering the competition you might be near the top of the class."
"I don't think I have to worry about winning with that monstrosity in the running," Jane said, pointing to Daria's essay.
"Trust me. The content guarantees it'll be thrown out."
Part of her wished she'd turned in her more incendiary early draft, which she'd consigned to an incendiary end that morning, using it as fuel for the stove at breakfast. This one at least stayed in the bounds of acceptable criticism. She didn't deny the Empire's rapaciousness—she just described it with neutral words that gave the casual reader enough room to justify such actions as pragmatism.
Somehow, turning it in still felt a bit like defeat.
Her anxiety faded over the next few days, burned away by the scorching summer and the daily frustrations of life in Balmora. Nothing would happen because nothing ever did. Corrupt, sprawling, and elephantine the Empire would abide.
Students slouched their way to school on Fredas, on a morning when the blazing sun seemed to leech the very color out of the city. At least all that adobe insulated the classroom interiors.
Dimartani began speaking as soon as the students sat down.
"Your essays were, for the most part, as IGNORANT and TRIVIAL as I'd expected, though I supposed they at least demonstrate BASIC LITERACY! There were, however, a HANDFUL of entries that demonstrated real KNOWLEDGE."
His distended left eye bulged as it scanned the classroom, focusing on Jolda, Karl, and then on Daria. She tensed up a bit. The writing quality of her essay might've made it stand out, but no way would Dimartani let such a critical piece win.
Unless she'd veiled her criticisms a bit too much.
"As such, it is my honor to present to you the WINNER, and the person who will be READING this essay next week."
He breathed in. "DARIA MORGENDORFFER!"
Daria just blinked.
"Told you a five-page essay is overdoing it," Jane whispered. "You need some slacking lessons. Want Trent to teach you?"
Daria waited until after class ended to speak with Dimartani. She tried to mentally rehearse her protests but kept faltering. The only way to argue against him was to know why he'd accepted the essay in the first place.
Dimartani stood at the head of the room as the students filtered out into the torrid mid-afternoon light.
"Sera Dimartani," Daria said.
"Ah! Your essay was a FASCINATING piece of writing. I ADMIRED your honesty and dedication to the facts, unenCUMBERED by flimsy propaganda!"
Interesting. She'd underestimated him. "Thank you. May I ask why you chose my essay to be the winning entry? I think you know as well as I do that there's no way Magistrate Lli would let me read something like that. She wants propaganda, the way you said."
He made a noise that might have been a laugh. "Our honorable magistrate is far too BUSY to actually look at these essays. She THINKS that you're all good little drones. I'm PLEASED to see that she's wrong."
Daria crossed her arms. "Look. I meant everything I wrote in that essay. But what do you think's going to happen to me if I read that out loud? Lli's corrupt but she isn't stupid. My essay doesn’t condemn the Empire, but it's not exactly the feel-good rah-rah-rah piece she's expecting. From where I see it, you're potentially getting me in trouble just to make a point."
Dimartani was silent for a moment. "Some would argue that the point NEEDS to be made!"
"You know, the reason I wrote that essay was to avoid being picked. I figured that revealing some of the ugly truths behind the Armistice would make it way too controversial to win."
"Daria, I was GENUINELY impressed. No one else in Balmora cares about the truth. I'm sick of rewarding BOOT LICKERS with more opportunities for SELF-PROMOTION! Sycophants are KILLING Morrowind, Daria! And I DOUBT they're any better for the Empire!"
"That sounds like a personal problem." Daria sighed. "I don't want any part of this fight, but I'm guessing you can't—or won't—pick someone else."
He scowled, even the bright veins on his left eye seeming to bulge out from the red membrane. "You ought to show a little more RESPECT! I am still your teacher and I have given YOU, an OUTLANDER, the opportunity to make a difference!"
Daria wanted to keep staring, as if the sheer force of her annoyance would burn a hole through his skull. But she knew how much Morrowind loved its authority figures and lowered her head. "I apologize," she said, in the most neutral tone possible, before lifting her head back up to meet his gaze. "But you did put me in a spot."
Suddenly a bit shamefaced, Dimartani lowered his head. "Lli has NOT read your essay, nor will she care to. If you WANT to dilute the strength of your message, there's NOTHING either of us can do to stop you."
"Has anyone else read it?"
He nodded. "I gave it to JOLDA a few minutes ago. She's the head of the festival planning committee, and you'll be working with HER on whatever speech you finally give."
Daria was aghast. "You just handed it over to her?"
"NATURALLY! An assignment CEASES to be yours when you turn it in!"
She had to fix this. "Of course. May I be excused?" She tried to make it sound more like a statement than a question because one way or another, she was leaving.
He waved her off and she hurried out into the sun-blasted courtyard, searching desperately for Jolda.
Jane said that she'd seen Jolda heading off to Lli's office, so Daria cut toward the squat building where the magistrate held court. Remembering procedure, she knocked on the rough wooden door and waited as the sun beat down on her hair.
It swung inward to reveal a smiling Jolda, dressed in a flowing magenta dress that looked much more Hammerfell than Morrowind.
"Hi, Daria! I was just telling Muthsera Lli how impressed Sera Dimartani and I were with your essay."
She studied Jolda's face for any sign of sarcasm. Jolda was smart. She’d have figured out what Daria was saying. But she seemed genuine.
Magistrate Lli sat behind an Imperial-style desk of imported pine, garbed in blue robes decorated with angular Daedric letters spelling out the names of Great House Hlaalu's favorite saints. A sweating Sera Benniet stood next to Lli, fanning her with an enormous corkbulb leaf.
Lli looked at Daria, who lowered her head as a show of respect. Such a gesture was the closest most Hlaalu Dunmer ever got to a bow, and only used when they really wanted to wheedle something out of someone. "Honored muthsera," Daria said.
She hated giving that honorific to Lli. But Jolda already had, so if Daria didn’t, Lli would take serious offense.
"Good of you to join us, Miss Morgendorffer. I was just about to have you summoned. Jolda seems very impressed with your work." Lli tented her fingers together, her face impassive.
"Uh, thank you. However, I'd prefer not to read my essay at the Armistice Festival."
Lli's eyes narrowed. "What? Young lady, I've bestowed upon you a rare honor. This will be a chance for notable administrators and captains of industry to hear your voice raised in praise for the Empire, for Great House Hlaalu, and for the honor, and glory, of Drenlyn Academy. Who knows! There might even be a handsome young Hlaalu noble in the audience who takes a liking to you!" Lli laughed at her own comment and followed it with a loud snort.
"Regrettably," Daria said, "I've already been betrothed to a dashing young Daedric Prince from one of the more reputable Planes of Oblivion."
Lli frowned. "Sarcasm won't get you anywhere, Miss Morgendorffer. Besides, you're exactly the kind of person I need: an educated Imperial girl from a respectable but non-noble family. It'll be a great way to show just how open a place Drenlyn is for outlanders. Might even get some of those cheapskates to send a real donation for once!" She scowled for a moment before returning to her usual guarded expression.
"Wait," Daria said. "I thought I was picked because of my—”
Lli held up her hand. "Not now, I'm a very busy woman! Jolda's the head of the festival planning committee. She'll help you fine-tune your speech to make sure it’s optimal for potential donors. Jolda?"
"Keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t try anything funny. I’ve heard the instructors talking about her… manners."
"Of course," Jolda said.
Jolda led Daria out of the office. Daria used her hand as a visor to shelter her eyes from the blinding light, the heat already prickling her skin. She pointed her feet toward the emperor parasol in the center of the courtyard, wanting only its shade, and Jolda walked with her.
"I read your essay, Daria. I get the feeling you didn’t actually want to do this."
They reached the comfort of the shadows and Daria let her arm drop. "I had a feeling you'd figure things out. I take it Lli hasn't seen my essay?"
Jolda shook her head. "Good job on the writing, by the way. It was basically factual, and you hid your hostility pretty well. A lot better than you did in Lli's office."
"On that case, since we're on the same page—”
"Hold on. Lli wants the Armistice Festival to be perfect. I’m in charge from the student end, so if anything goes wrong, it'll fall on my head. Can you promise me you’ll take this seriously?" Her expression turned searching.
Daria didn't want to get Jolda in trouble. "I guess. I'll just stick with my mildly controversial script."
"Uh, about that—could we maybe make it a tiny bit less controversial? You weren’t wrong, but I think this sort of thing needs to examine the positives, too."
"I’m not sure we need positives. I like harsh truths a lot more than comforting lies."
"Just..." Jolda sighed. "What if we talked about this at my house tomorrow?"
"I see. And will my opinion matter?"
"Daria, I wasn't lying when I said I liked your essay. You wrote the truth. But I've got a lot on the line for this. Please give me a chance?"
Daria mumbled an affirmative.
"Thanks. I'm sure we can work out something that we'll both be satisfied with. Do you know where I live?"
"My family lives on Silk-hawker's Street, first house on the left after the market if you're heading toward the stairs. Would a little while after noon be okay? I have to spend the morning making sure that the local merchants will be there for the festival."
"Thanks!" Jolda made a quick, ingratiating smile. "See you tomorrow," she said, and walked away.
Daria thought for a bit, weighing her options and not coming up with any good answers.
"That's wonderful, Daria! I'm so proud of you!" mom exclaimed.
It was early evening at the Morgendorffer house. Mom was serving reheated bowls of saltrice porridge from the batch made a few days prior, along with lightly roasted hackle-lo leaf courtesy of dad.
Dad grinned. "See? You just need some confidence, kiddo. People love your writing."
"Apparently they do," Daria said.
But do I? she wondered.
"And I'm thrilled to hear you're doing this with Jolda," mom continued. "She's a promising young lady and her father's supposed to be very well-connected. You know, Daria, if you make a good impression on him tomorrow, he might even be able to open some doors for you in the Imperial administration."
"Great. That way I can start using complex bureaucracy to take out my resentment on a hapless citizenry. Just need to find a bolt hole for the inevitable riot." Daria prodded her porridge with her spoon, not feeling much of an appetite.
"If you want some help with giving a speech, I can totally teach you!" Quinn offered. "Just go on stage and think about how perfect you look and how everyone wants to date you or be you. Except, wait, you don't even look close to perfect." Quinn’s expression turned thoughtful for a moment, then brightened up. "I know, just think about how perfect I look!"
"The key to giving a speech is to never let those bastards see you sweat!" dad said, pounding the table. "You lose them the moment they start snickering—"
"I'm too contemptuous of my audience to be afraid of them," Daria insisted. "It's just..."
How did she even begin to frame this? Mom and dad didn't have a clue about the contents of her essay or how she’d tried to lose. And that didn't even begin to get into the question as to why her essay had been picked. Lli's comment nagged. Was it really her writing? Or had Lli told Dimartani to pick someone from the right demographic?
The same demographic that more or less ruled a continent, cosmopolitan enough to make some effort to let others in but still reserving most of the best for its own.
"It's just what?" mom asked, before lifting her clay cup and drinking from the tea within.
She decided to test mom's opinion. "I didn't really expect to win this, and I don't like the idea of my speech being used in some joint Empire-Hlaalu propaganda session."
"Oh, it's not that bad, Daria. This is just harmless boosterism. And an opportunity."
Mom and dad didn't always act like they took the Empire that seriously. But Daria suspected they did, and that evening bore out her suspicions. After dinner they gathered in mom's office at her behest and took turns reading from dad's copy of The Apotheosis of Tiber Septim, the timeworn poetic hagiography of the emperor who'd annexed Morrowind.
Watching Quinn read the passage about Tiber Septim's reclamation of the Imperial City, Daria wondered just how much room she really had to tell the truth.
Plenty of Balmora's upwardly mobile made their homes in Silk-hawker's Street, where garish pennants and drapes burst like fireworks amidst the city's brown adobe. Outlanders ran most of the shops and kiosks there, selling bolts of moth-silk to the servants of rich Dunmer families whose grand manses looked down on the street from atop High Town to the north.
Daria walked through the finely dressed crowds and smooth-tongued merchants on her way to Jolda's house. She found the place easily enough and knocked on the door. A smiling Bosmer housemaid opened it and let her in, telling her she was expected. Though the exterior had looked much like the Morgendorffer home, the interior was a world apart. A piquant and savory smell livened up the air within the hall, making her think of a well-stocked spice cabinet. No dull forest scene tapestries hung on these walls—instead, the tapestries glowed in bold yellows and oranges, featuring images of dueling warriors and dancing townsfolk whose harsh geometric forms emphasized motion over detail.
"Please take off your shoes, dear. House rules," the maid said. Daria knelt and unfastened her boots before taking them off.
"That’s an Old Redguard tradition," boomed a voice. "A lot of sand back in Hammerfell, and the last thing you want to do is track it into your home. Not so much sand here in Morrowind, but plenty of ash."
Daria stood up as Armand, Jolda's father, walked toward her. Lean and athletic, only the white flecks in his black hair suggested he'd reached middle age. He wore a gilded green and white frock coat which Daria suspected would meet with Quinn's approval.
Trying to think back to what little she knew of Redguard customs, Daria bowed deeply. Armand smiled and did the same, bowing slightly less to show his authority. The housemaid had already scurried back to the kitchen.
"I like that!" Armand exclaimed once he'd righted himself. "Not too many Imperials know any of our customs. Excellent work on that essay, by the way."
Daria blinked. "You read it?"
"No, I don’t have time, but I've heard it's good, and I'll definitely be there to listen you speak at the Armistice Festival. This here's a Forebear family, so we're friends of the Empire. Have been for a long while."
"Anyway, I won't take up your time." Armand turned his head to look up the stairs. "Jolda! Your friend's here!"
"Hi, Daria!" came Jolda's voice. She hurried down to the landing a moment later. "Come on, we can meet in my dad's office upstairs."
"I'm on my way out. You girls be productive!" Armand said with a chortle as he slipped his shoes on.
"Thanks for making it here, Daria," Jolda said, as she led Daria upstairs into the office. A sharp and piercing wail resounded in the hall, a few rooms down. "That's my baby brother, Eshraf. He can be pretty noisy," Jolda explained.
"At least he doesn't give you unwanted fashion advice," Daria said.
“Frankly, I’d deal with that as long as he did it a lower volume.”
Armand's office was a book-lined study with a few upholstered chairs. Running through the center was a long table on which rested an enormous and partially disassembled bronze insect, the spinning wheels and corroded pipes that served as its guts spilled out on the surface. Around it lay dozens of tiny prongs and crystal lenses along with pages of sketches and notes.
"So your dad really does have access to Dwemer artifacts," Daria said.
Jolda shrugged. "We don’t advertise it, but it’s not a secret. He's always been good with machines and did a lot of engineering work for the Empire when he was younger."
Daria leaned in for a closer look at the four-legged animunculus, staggered at the complexity of its inner workings. Morrowind, especially Vvardenfell District, was chock full of ruined Dwemer cities. Only a handful of citizens possessed the charters that let them own or trade in Dwemer artifacts, though she'd heard the law wasn't strictly enforced. Regardless, Armand’s engineering work must have been top tier for the Empire to grant him that charter.
"Sorry," she said. Jolda motioned for her to sit down at a smaller desk beneath an open window. Her essay was already on it.
"Okay," Jolda said, wearing a smile that looked slightly forced. "Your essay's great when it comes to being informative. But the festival is a fundraiser designed to impress people, so we need to put a more positive spin—”
"So you admit that what we're doing is just propaganda?" It still bothered Daria. Jolda knew how ridiculous this was—couldn’t she at least admit it?
"I don't think there's any harm in it. No one's going to take the speech all that seriously."
"But doesn't it bother you that we're trying to put a 'positive spin' on this? Shouldn't history be presented as it happened?"
Jolda’s smile faded. "If this were a scholarly symposium, I'd agree. This is just a fundraiser. And honestly, some of the buildings in Drenlyn badly need new adobe. It’ll help everyone if the school benefits from this."
"Yeah, it’s a fundraiser that's themed off of a historical event. And you want me to just continue the myth that the Empire conquered Morrowind for its own good and that everything's been hunky dory since," Daria countered.
She wanted to know exactly what Jolda thought. Why was she so comfortable with conceding?
"It's not just you, Daria. I'm involved in this too. And for all its problems, I don't think the Empire's rule is that bad."
"Sure,” Daria granted. “It could be worse. But it could be a lot better. The problem is that the Empire keeps pretending that it's doing this for the good of the world. Except they haven't really improved Morrowind. The great houses are still corrupt. Rich Dunmer still keep slaves and the Empire benefits from that even if they pretend they don't approve. I can put up with thuggish expansionism, but the hypocrisy is a lot harder to swallow." Daria's face turned hot and her voice grew louder as she spoke.
Because why should she put up with it? She was an Imperial citizen and she had a voice. Nothing she'd written contradicted the official histories—she simply emphasized the truths that they glided over.
Jolda leaned forward, her eyes angry. At least she'd gotten a reaction.
"You know," Jolda said, "I wrote an essay, too. Believe it or not, it actually wasn't that different from yours, except I also talked about the good things the Empire is doing here, like bringing the rule of law that helps common Dunmer like your friend, Jane. I spent hours working on it—researching all the relevant books in my dad's library, writing multiple drafts, the whole deal! And that was on a night that I also had to do accounting for the Mages Guild because my parents still make me volunteer there."
"I get that you're busy—"
"I'm not done yet! You know why I worked so hard? Because I wanted to get the chance to speak at the festival. I knew it was going to be a ridiculous propaganda outlet, but I figured it'd be a chance to talk a bit about the problems in Morrowind while also giving people hope for a solution. I wanted to be seen so I could get more opportunities to make the Empire a better place.
"But instead it goes to you! Someone who deliberately tried to fail by writing some snarky take-down. Because I don't think you really care about history or making the world better—you just want to look down on everyone. We're both good writers, Daria. We both did research. But why do you think you won? Lli gave you a hint."
Daria didn't back down. "Because Lli wanted an Imperial to read it," she said.
"Exactly. And to tell you the truth, I'm kind of used to that. The Empire's for you Imperials before it's for anyone else." Jolda threw her arms wide for emphasis. "But hey, having a rich Imperial girl give the speech is a great way for the school to get sponsors because that'll impress even richer Imperials! They wouldn't listen to some Ra Gada girl like me—I mean, the Empire can't even pronounce Ra Gada so they call me a Redguard, instead!"
Her arms fell to her sides, but her eyes still boiled. "But I get it. It's not fair. And I'm willing to put up with some nonsense if it'll get this project going since my reputation as committee head, as well as school funding, both depend on it. The only problem is that you're making things difficult."
Daria stood up, her face burning. Yes, it was unfair—but how would it ever get better if Jolda just went along?
"Say what you like. Facts are facts, and I've never been good at lying. Go ahead and write your own speech. I won't tell anyone."
Heart pounding, she stormed from the room, down the stairs, and to the door. Not wanting to give Jolda time to catch up, she put her feet into her boots without lacing them and stepped out into the seething afternoon.
Daria busied herself with chores the rest of the day: dusting tapestries, clearing the rubbish bin, and buying wood for the stove. She tried not to think about her exchange with Jolda, so naturally she obsessed over it.
Jolda had a point. Not about giving some feel-good message, but about Lli favoring Daria simply for her heritage. And that fact undercut Daria's entire message about being honest. She'd only won the contest because it was likely bent in her favor.
Though Dimartani had sounded impressed with what she'd written. Had he just been pretending? Daria wasn't sure why he'd bother.
It took Daria a long time to get to sleep that night. The next thing she knew, she stood in a great marble hall so vast that its edges were lost in shadow. Her footsteps echoed in the vast space as she walked through an endless forest of pale columns that supported a ceiling so high that the stars twinkled below it.
Tiber Septim, known to some as Talos Stormborn, founder of the Third Empire, waited for her at the other end.
Though a man, emperor, and god in one body, he didn't look too out-of-the-ordinary: short but powerfully built, with a well-trimmed black beard, wearing a slightly dented gold crown, and dressed in practical leather clothes. He sat at a desk that stretched miles in both directions, supporting towers and mountains of paperwork. Somehow, he tended to all of these forms while seated in one place.
Daria cleared her throat.
"Ah, Citizen Daria Morgendorffer," he said, not looking up from the missive he was reading. He spoke with an odd accent that sounded almost Nordic but not quite. "Charged with sedition, treason, and blasphemy. Oh, and since we're here, forgery—I know what you did at the Mages Guild."
Daria nodded. "I'll cop to the forgery, your imperial majesty. But I don't see how telling the truth about the Empire's history is seditious or treasonous. As for blasphemy, I'm not even convinced you're really a god, so I don't think that should apply to me."
Tiber Septim looked up, a faint smile on his face. "Well, I suppose we can let the priests quibble about the last bit. I never saw myself as a god while alive, certainly, but everyone insisted I was after I died. None of us has as much control over our narrative as we'd like, I'm afraid. Which, I suppose, is part of why you're here. Do you understand why we try to, shall we say, downplay the uglier aspects of my reign?"
"To protect the powers that be from embarrassment."
"Yes, that's part of it," he said, nodding. "But also to keep the Empire together. People are more easily unified around a government if they believe it to be for their benefit. And the Empire has done good things—our roads are safe and well-kept, our granaries full. People may worship and associate as they please. The law doesn't protect evenly—but it's a good sight fairer than the laws that came before. Isn't all that worth a few lies?"
Daria thought about it a moment. "I think you're making a false dichotomy. Those things won't disappear just because the view on a historical event undergoes some revision."
The emperor made a so-so gesture with his right hand, which was somehow signing a scroll at the same time. "The Empire's more fragile than you think, Citizen Daria. Scholars typically know the truth, but the uneducated rely on these founding myths to feel some sense of connection with their fellows. Look at them, all these people from mutually hostile kingdoms and tribes, just itching to get the chance to tear their neighbors apart. The Empire stops them from doing that. But we can only do that if people believe in our strength and righteousness."
"I'd say that if you're worried about the uneducated making bad decisions, the smart thing to do would be to increase funding for education so that everyone gets it instead of just the privileged few."
The emperor stroked his beard. "Hmm, that is an interesting point." Then he looked right at her. "However, it's easier to simply silence troublesome voices. But I like you, Citizen Daria, so you can choose how you'll be executed: fast-acting poison or decapitation?"
Daria mulled it over. "Hmm, well if I'm decapitated could you arrange it so that my head's put on top of my sister's dresser? It'd mean a lot to me if I could posthumously disrupt her beauty routine."
"Of course," Tiber Septim said with a fatherly smile. "Guards, take her away! Be sure to place her head on Jane's dresser."
"Wait! On my sister's, not on Jane's!"
Mailed hands grabbed Daria's arms and she awoke in her bed. It was still dark, and she took a deep breath.
"Thanks for nothing, Tiber Septim," she muttered.
Daria's doubt deepened as the hot Sundas morning cooked the streets and rooftops. She considered going back to Jolda's house to apologize, but it still didn't seem right to regurgitate the old myths.
"So which is it?" Daria asked herself. "Stick to your principles—which are based more on intellectual conceit than any real concern for your peers—and in so doing hurt the career aspirations of someone who does care and who has only been friendly to you? Or take a stand for truth that won't do anything more than assuage your ego?"
"Mom!" Quinn shouted from her desk. "Daria's talking to herself again!"
She decided to get out of the house to clear her head, heat be damned, and walked through the dusty markets under the dubious protection of her bug-shell hat. Her feet took her to the Foreigner's Span, the southernmost bridge in Balmora, before she realized she was making her way to Jane's apartment.
Why not? she figured. Jane might be able to provide some perspective.
She reached the narrow streets of Labor Town, its shabby markets redolent with guar dung and fresh-spilled beetle ichor. Passing by a crude street-side shrine to St. Roris, the clay figure inside bedecked with faded blue anther petals, she caught sight of Dimartani standing in line at a kwama seller’s stand.
Maybe he could clear a few things up. Daria walked up to him, and he gave a start when he saw her.
"DARIA! I wasn't expecting you to be in this part of town!"
"I'm just full of surprises." She raised her face to look him right in the eye. "Earlier, you said you admired my essay for its honesty."
"Great. On that case, I can trust you to be honest with me."
Dimartani glared. "As a STUDENT, you ought to show more—"
She didn't let him finish. "Did you just pick me because Magistrate Lli told you she wanted an Imperial to win the contest?"
His mouth froze mid-retort, and then his teeth clenched. His eyes roved nervously around for a bit before they settled on Daria. "Magistrate Lli DID insist upon an Imperial winner, yes. However, I could have chosen ANY of the Imperials in that classroom. My FIRST plan was to simply draw a name at RANDOM! But when I saw your veiled EVISCERATION of the Armistice, I was GENUINELY impressed in a way that I rarely am."
"I see. Thank you for telling me. But it still sounds like you want me to do your dirty work for you."
"They might LISTEN to you! You're IMPERIAL. I'm Dunmer."
Another reminder of how lucky she was. But Daria couldn’t forget how Synda’s thugs had beaten her in an alley for the crime of not being Dunmer. That made it harder to be charitable to him.
“And what do you think of outlanders? Should we be driven out from Morrowind by sword point? Because I’ve had some bad experiences with nationalists before.”
Dimartani shook his head. “I have NO fondness for those xenophobes! The EMPIRE has been here since my GRANDFATHER’S day, and I accept that they’re here to stay—but I’m tired of all the lies. I used to be a professional historian! The truth MATTERS to me! But NO ONE here seems to care!”
“I see. Where did you work as a historian?” And are they hiring? Daria thought but didn’t ask.
He looked down at the ground, his mouth set in a grim line. “I once worked as the family historian for a lord in Great House REDORAN. I served him as a SOLDIER before that.”
“Huh. How did you end up working for the Hlaalu?”
His shoulders bunched up. "Well, erm... gambling is a HELLUVA vice, Daria! Don't EVER let it get its claws into you! And if you do, NEVER bet your job against anyone related to Magistrate Lli!"
He made a mournful noise and started crying into his hands. Not sure what else to do, Daria let him be and resumed her journey to Jane's.
Luckily, Jane was home that day. She sat under a tarp that stretched to the balcony of a neighboring apartment while she added a few final touches to a painting of a matronly blonde in rich Imperial garb.
"Who are you flattering today?" Daria asked.
"Karl’s mom. Nice lady, believe it or not. Guess he gets all the creepiness from his dad. Luckily neither of them was there when I went over to immortalize her on canvas. So what brings you here to my humble abode?”
“Remember the essay contest?”
“Oh yeah, the one you blundered your way into winning?”
“More like I blundered my way into an episode of uncomfortable introspection that forces me to realize some things about myself that I’d prefer not to think about.”
And Daria did, while Jane layered brush strokes to add depth to her portrait. The situation seemed to grow clearer in the retelling.
“Sounds to me like you already know what to do,” Jane said.
“I do. It’s not fair for me to put Jolda on the line for the sake of my ego, so I’ll apologize and follow her lead. That part doesn’t bother me. What I hate is having to water down my statement even further. The Empire’s been in Morrowind for a little over 400 years, and I’m not sure the place has gotten much better during that time.”
“It’s not like the Great Houses were running things that well on their own, either. I still think the Tribunal wanted the Empire here to humble us Dunmer a bit.”
“I wish we could all just take honest looks at how we got into this mess and start taking steps to fix it.”
Jane looked over her shoulder at Daria. “It’ll take a lot more than a school fundraising speech to do that.”
“Maybe I was inflating the importance of my speech a little bit.”
“Well I’ll always be here to deflate you!” Jane said. She gave a brief smirk and turned back to her painting.
“Good to know I can count on friends to cut me back down to size.”
Daria already knew that Jane didn’t really mind the Empire. From her position, one ruling body wasn’t that different from another—kings and houses never cared about struggling artisans like her.
“I’ve talked to a bunch of people these past few days,” Daria said. “You, Jolda, Lli, Dimartani, my parents. They all have their own versions of what happened. I guess real history is the sum total of all those different opinions, bumping up against each other, taking stands or making compromises. It’s much too complicated and contradictory for anyone to put into a book or story.”
“Sorry, not quite sure what you’re getting at,” Jane said, sounding a bit distracted as she dabbed her paintbrush into the palette she cradled on her arm.
“I think I have an idea of what to write for this.”
Daria returned to Jolda’s house as the sun set behind Balmora’s shops and houses, crowning the roofs with the day’s last embers. Jolda sat on a crate outside her home, holding her baby brother Eshraf and gently rocking him back and forth. She saw Daria coming, but said nothing.
“Uh, hi,” Daria.
“Hi.” Jolda's gaze stayed on her sibling.
Daria took a deep breath. “It occurs to me that I may not have really made an effort to see things from your point of view. And that, by some perspectives, my actions could be seen as pretty selfish and ignorant. So I apologize for earlier, and I won’t contradict you any further on this project.”
Daria knew she always lapsed into some awkward facsimile of her mother’s lawyer-speak when she got embarrassed about something, and hoped the weird formality didn’t come off as insincere.
“Thanks, Daria," Jolda said, finally looking up. "If it makes you feel better, I can understand why you wanted to write your essay the way you did.”
“That was me holding back. You should have seen the first draft.”
Jolda grinned. “That doesn’t surprise me. I’m going to be busy getting the school grounds ready for the Armistice Festival tomorrow, but I can make a bit of time before classes open up. Meet me in the library?”
“Actually, I spent some time this afternoon writing a new speech. It’s only a page long and incorporates a lot of the things I’ve learned these past few days. I have it with me if you want to read.”
Jolda looked a bit doubtful.
“And if it’s not to your liking, I promise that we’ll just use a version of my earlier essay, with you having full editorial control.”
Jolda relaxed at that. “Okay. Let’s go inside, since it’s too dark to read out here.”
Daria followed Jolda back into the house. The smell of roasting chicken, slathered in spices and herbs she could only guess at, wafted down the hallway. Her mouth watered at the scent. She hadn’t eaten chicken for months. As much as she’d come to enjoy Morrowind’s bug-based cuisine, she still missed some of the old standards.
“You’re welcome to stay for dinner, by the way,” Jolda offered.
Part of Daria wanted to, and if it had just been Jolda she’d have said yes. But the idea of trying to make small talk with Armand and his wife was a little more than she could handle at the moment. Then again, it might look rude to refuse.
“Uh, thanks. I guess I can run back and ask my parents if it’s okay. They hadn’t started cooking anything when I left so it should be.”
And even if they had, mom would gladly let Daria go for the sake of a networking opportunity.
“Here’s the new essay.”
Daria handed the document to Jolda, who held it up to the light of a paper lantern hanging from the ceiling while cradling Eshraf with her free arm. She squinted a bit as she read in the dim hallway. Daria waited in silence, not sure whether the worse torment came from waiting for Jolda’s reaction or having to endure the heavenly aroma from the kitchen.
Then Jolda smiled. “This is really good, Daria.”
Daria re-read her speech one last time as she stood in the dusty pavilion set up just behind the temporary stage where some legion musicians played a classic triumphal march. Part of her had hoped Mystik Spiral would perform that day, but she couldn’t really blame Jolda for going with the safe option.
The day was hot but milder than the scorchers of the previous week. A good crowd had come to Drenlyn—no one that important so far as she could tell. Just the usual crowd of outlander parents, with more than a few Dunmer, all seated beneath a canvas that shaded them from the sun. Around them stood kiosks set up by artisans to sell their wares, including one for Jane who sat with a few of her paintings on display. Not the worst cross-section of the Empire, she supposed.
She spotted Jolda sitting next to Maiko. Jolda noticed Daria and waved. Daria returned the gesture.
The familiar march finally wound down. Daria straightened the stiff blue robe she’d donned for the occasion, the same one she’d worn to the Talori party almost half a year ago.
“I trust everything’s ready, Miss Morgendorffer?” Lli asked. She’d been roaming the festival grounds all day while wearing a loud yellow robe that rivaled the sun for brightness. Wherever she walked, an exhausted Sera Benniet followed close behind, holding a parasol over her boss’s head.
“Remember: you and Jolda will both be in trouble if you try any funny business. Be cheerful, optimistic, and do everything you can to reflect the honor, and glory, of Drenlyn Academy! We’re depending on your words, here, and frankly, you owe us!”
The musicians finished and marched off the stage single file, their footsteps sounding out in unison. Not waiting for permission from Lli, Daria walked up the steps and into the eyes of the crowd. Mom and dad sat in the middle of the audience, smiling expectantly.
Daria glanced from side to side and then straightened her gaze so that she looked at the audience as a whole and at no one person in particular.
“We’re here today to honor the armistice that brought Morrowind into the Empire some 425 years ago. Except we aren’t, not really. We’re here to be seen, to rub elbows with clients, or maybe just kill some time. To a lot of us, the armistice is something that happened a long time ago and doesn’t really warrant much thought today.”
She watched for reactions. A few people had stirred when she talked about the more pragmatic reasons for attendance.
“Maybe that’s because no one knows for sure what happened on that day. We have the broad strokes: we know that Morrowind stopped fighting the Empire and agreed to join our family of nations. Frankly, if the day of the signing was anything like today, it was probably too damn hot to fight.”
That remark got some mild laughter. A good sign.
“But it’s harder to know exactly why the Empire annexed Morrowind. Some historians say that the Empire only wanted to spread peace and the rule of law. But others think the Empire’s reasons were more brutally pragmatic: that it needed to secure the east in order to take on the west. I’m not a professional historian, so I’m not going to venture a guess. But here’s what I do know.”
No one seemed upset so far. Some were curious. A fair number still looked bored or hot and tired. All to be expected from the sort of crowd this was.
“The armistice is not history. It’s still going on today. What Tiber Septim and the Tribunal started was an experiment. Was it a success? Well, like it or not, that hasn’t been decided yet. The Empire’s ruled Morrowind for a little over four centuries and that’s just a blip, historically speaking.
“The good part—or bad part, depending on your point of view—is that we get to decide if it’s a success. Each and every one of us, no matter where we’re from or what we look like. Because nothing we do happens in a vacuum. The words we say and the actions we make affect not only ourselves, but our families, friends, enemies, rivals, and people we don’t even know or care about.
“So, if you’re a loyal citizen of the Empire, with a vested personal—or even just business—interest in Morrowind, you have to ask yourself what you’re going to do to make sure this works. A lot of this has to do with fulfilling the Empire’s declared mission—of loving justice, working diligently, and giving donations to worthy causes.”
She made a quick gesture to the buildings of Drenlyn Academy.
“Sometimes it might not be obvious. Sometimes it could be as simple as listening to someone different from you and trying to see things from their perspective, because guess what? They’re a part of this, too.
“So is the armistice worth honoring? Well, let’s find out.”
Daria briefly bowed her head. “Thank you,” she finished.
The crowd offered up modest applause, except for Jake who whooped and hollered. Daria didn’t linger on the stage and made a quick exit as a line of actors hurried up in costume to conduct a symbolic play representing the armistice.
Magistrate Lli waited behind the stage, still shaded by a hapless Benniet.
“Interesting choice of speech, Miss Morgendorffer. Not quite what I expected and a bit short, but I like the way you exploited Imperial civic-mindedness. Kudos!”
“I’m perversely reassured that you saw my heartfelt speech as just another sales pitch,” Daria said, but Lli had already hurried off to talk to a wealthy-looking Breton visitor.
Jolda still sat with Maiko. The legionnaire clapped as Daria approached.
“That was a good speech, Daria!” he said.
“Yeah, you did a great job!” Jolda concurred.
"Sorry again for not listening, earlier."
"I'm still upset at how unfair the setup was," Jolda said, her brow momentarily furrowing in frustration, "but you listened to me when it counted, and I appreciate that. So I'm not upset at you. Did you talk to Lli at all?"
“Lli seemed pretty happy with our little speech. And the audience didn’t mind, either,” Daria said.
“Your speech, Daria,” Jolda corrected. “You’re the one who wrote it.”
“True, but you edited it. Plus, I’d have never gotten the idea if it hadn’t been for you, so it’s a joint effort as far as I’m concerned.”
Jolda smiled at that. “Well I’m happy to accept co-author status in that case. Oh, hey, your parents are coming.”
Daria looked behind her to see her parents walking up with Quinn. Dad barely seemed able to contain himself.
“That was some out-of-this-world oratory, kiddo! My daughter the public speaker! Who’d have thought?” he proclaimed.
Daria stepped to the side and shook her head. “Great. I’ve spent my entire life trying to persuade them I hated the public, and now it’s all been undone. I’ll have to seclude myself for months to make up for it.”
Jolda laughed. “Well, for what it’s worth you made a pretty good impression on my dad at dinner last night.”
“All these important people liking me will really hurt my reputation for misanthropy.”
“Hate to break it to you, Daria, but you might be more likable than you think.”
“I guess I’ll just have to live with it,” Daria said. Wishing Jolda a good day, she walked out to meet her family.