Dad hadn’t shaved his horns in a while.
The two bony protuberances stuck up from his forehead, strands of limp blond hair hanging like curtains off the sides. Dad didn’t used to wear his hair long but had started ever since they moved to Balmora. Come to think of it, that was when he’d stopped shaving his horns as regularly.
For his part, Jeval was just glad that he hadn’t inherited horns. It was already tough enough to make your way as a Bosmer in Morrowind—horns made it harder.
It was late on Fredas night, mom and his little sister already asleep. Jeval had been headed to his room when dad pulled him into the kitchen to ask the usual junk about his day.
Jeval gave the short version, hoping his dad would take the hint and let him go. Dad never got the hint.
“If you like this girl, just tell her. That’s how I did it with your mom back in the village.” Dad flashed his sharpened teeth in a grin. “And some girls before her, too.”
Jeval sighed. He really wished he hadn’t told dad about Quinn. Now he was going to give all this advice that might have worked great if he was after a Bosmer girl in Valenwood. Not so great for an Imperial girl in Morrowind.
“I kinda did earlier,” Jeval admitted, thinking back to the dumb things he used to do with Jonus and Julien to get Quinn’s attention. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Amazing she put up with him at all. Any minute, he expected her to bring that up and push him to the side, and this time for good.
“It didn’t work?” dad pressed on.
“Uh, hard to say. Didn’t get a clear answer.”
“Then move on. Life’s short.” Dad leaned in. “You know, I remember a guy from the village, Gochal. Everyone liked him. Then one day, a senche-tiger jumped out of the bush and dragged him away!”
Jeval didn’t roll his eyes, but he wanted to. “Senche-tigers don’t live in Balmora, dad.”
Dad made a dismissive gesture. “Don’t waste time over this girl. Go for someone else. You’re as sentimental as an Imperial.”
Jeval had gone after others. For a while. Then Quinn had kissed him. Just on the cheek, so not like she was interested. But by all the gods, he wanted to freeze that moment forever: her soft lips pressed against his flesh, his cuts and bruises forgotten.
“Yeah, well,” Jeval said, wondering how far he wanted to go, “you did raise me in an Imperial town. If you wanted me to be like a proper Bosmer you should’ve stayed in Valenwood—”
He’d gone too far. He saw it in the way the crinkles around dad’s eyes furrowed, the tension that crept up his arms. Jeval braced himself. Whatever, bring it on.
Instead, dad relaxed. “Ah, but you still got that Bosmer survival sense,” he said, reaching out and poking Jeval’s chest with a bony index finger. “Use it! That’s how we survived the jungle, and that’s how we’ll survive here.”
Jeval’s cheeks burned at the gesture. “Right, survival skills are what you need in the jungle. But you want to get anywhere here, you need social skills. Anyway, I’m beat, I need sleep,” he said, cutting off the conversation before it got any more awkward.
He woke up at dawn to fetch the day’s water, like always. A light drizzle misted the streets as he stepped out of the house, wrapped up in a warm but ugly wool cloak that he’d never let Quinn catch him wearing. Bucket in hand and his breath coming out in puffs of mist, he made his way to the fountain in Llethri Plaza. A silt strider crooned in the distance, its many-legged silhouette lumbering to the strider port in the south.
Women already lined up at the fountain, most of them Imperials and other humans. News and gossip jumped from mouth to mouth, and in minutes Jeval learned that Otulus’s son had abandoned the family business to join the Legion and that Rylata really was going to sell her mother’s jewelry (the shame of it all!) so that her daughter could invest in some crazy scheme.
No one talked to Jeval. As the only guy in the line, he stood out. Dad said that in Valenwood, the youngest and strongest people gathered water since they’d be best able to avoid crocodiles. Balmora didn’t have crocodiles, but Jeval was young and strong, so it was his job anyway.
He’d always hidden this chore from Jonus and Julien. They’d give him a hard time for doing what most people thought was women’s work. He hadn’t told the Fashion Club either. Felt weird enough that he hung out with girls to talk about fashion.
Maybe the Fashion Club saw him as one of the girls. Which was okay—except he didn’t want Quinn to see him that way.
The line inched forward beneath the murky skies. Jeval tapped his foot. He hated how long it always took. Maybe they should do it like in Valenwood and gather water from the river—not that he’d ever drink from the Odai. His turn finally came, and he put his bucket under the stream and let it fill up. Once done, he sidled past a pair of middle-aged Nord women talking about how Hjufra Tawny-braid had rejected another suitor, and could you believe she’d be so picky at her age?
Well, why shouldn’t she be picky? He wondered. Jeval guessed he was pretty picky, too.
Thunder boomed somewhere in the distance. Great. Dad hadn’t thought it was going to actually rain that day—otherwise they’d have just left the bucket on the roof. Oh well, what was one more pointless task?
Grimacing, he hurried back to his house as the drizzle turned to rain. He’d just reached the front door when he saw Treads-on-Ferns on the other side of the street, her snout pointed at the sky. She cradled a box in her scaly arms.
“Treads?” he called out.
Her yellow eyes opened. “Oh, hi, Jeval. Didn’t know you lived here.”
“Uh, what are you doing out in the rain—actually, I need to get this inside so my mom can make breakfast. Hold on.”
Jeval opened the door and went to the kitchen, where his sister was already stoking the coals in the stove while mom poured saltrice into a big mixing bowl for the morning’s porridge.
“Here’s the water,” he said. Then he grabbed a battered guar-hide parasol and walked back out, taking a minute to finagle the parasol through the door.
Treads-on-Ferns was looking up at the sky again when he joined her. He stood close and raised the parasol over their heads.
She made a sound that was kind of like a purr, except not quite. Jeval was pretty sure that was a good sound. “Thanks, but no need," she said. "Rainwater’s good for my scales. Really makes them vibrant.”
“Oh, uh, okay,” he said, stepping to the side so that the parasol only covered him. “So what are you doing out this early?”
Treads gestured to the box in her hand, which had a little slot at the top. “Donations for the Argonian Mission. My parents have me do this every Loredas morning.”
“Argonian Mission?” Jeval asked.
“Yeah. They do what they can to help Argonians in Morrowind.”
“Oh, cool. Is there a Bosmer Mission?”
“There is, but I think it’s on the mainland.”
“Cool, I didn’t even know we had one.” A gust of wind cut through the street, and Jeval shivered. “So you raise a lot of cash?”
She shook her head. “Nah.”
Feeling a bit guilty, Jeval reached into his pocket and took out a few tarnished septims, which he put into the box. “Sorry,” he said. “Don’t have a lot on me.”
“Thank you. Every bit helps.”
“Why don’t you ask Quinn and the others? They have more than I do.”
“Quinn contributed some when I asked her. But bugging friends to do that is a good way to lose friends.” She hissed for a second or two. “And I’m not really in a position where I can afford to do that, you know?”
“Yeah. Quinn’s something else,” Jeval said.
She really was. He’d seen plenty of hot babes in Drenlyn—but Quinn had something more. Like when she talked to you, she really made you feel like you mattered.
Even if you didn’t.
“You’re still in love with her, aren’t you,” Treads said.
“Don’t worry, I won’t say anything,” Treads continued. “But I’ll tell you right now, she doesn’t feel the same way about you.”
Jeval hung his head. “Yeah, I get that. I mean, I’m not going to make a lot of drama over this, or anything. Sucks though. Is there a guy she likes?”
Which, he realized, was a dumb thing to ask. “Not like you have to tell me—” he started.
“I can decide on my own what to tell you. To answer your question, if she does, she hasn’t told me. Honestly, I’m not sure Quinn actually cares about romance that much. She loves the idea of it—but so far as I can tell, she’s never interested in anyone in that way.”
“Huh,” Jeval said, nodding. “That’s kinda cool, I guess. Beats having crushes, right?”
That wouldn’t hurt so bad. Quinn, always beautiful, always chaste. And him at her side, friends to the very end.
But that was a dumb thing to think. Plus, since he was a Bosmer, he'd live way longer than her. It was okay to date humans, dad always said, but you should only marry Mer. Which ticked Jeval off whenever he heard it, but yeah, the age thing (and a million other things) made Men-Mer romances complicated.
“Do you have anyone, Treads?” he asked.
Treads fluttered her eye lids and inched closer. “Why?” she whispered. “You trying to tell me you’re interested?”
“Oh…” Jeval trailed off. He had screwed up big-time. “You’re really, uh, cool and—”
A bunch of short hisses escaped her mouth, whistling past her sharp teeth. Laughter, he was pretty sure. She’d pranked him.
“I’m giving you a hard time. No offense, but I don’t find Men or Mer attractive. Which I’m fine with because they don’t usually find Argonians attractive.”
“Right,” he said. He scratched the back of his neck with his free hand. Was he offending her? Dammit, he didn’t know what to say. “Most people don’t find Bosmer attractive, either. Not Bosmer guys, anyway. We’re too short, skinny, and weird-looking.”
Though plenty of humans liked to get it on with Bosmer girls. He left it unsaid, though.
The scales above Treads-on-Ferns’s eyes sank slightly as she looked him over. Maybe her version of raising her eyebrows? “You look pretty normal to me. I’ll admit I might not pick up on some of the differences. But hey, Bosmer girls like Bosmer guys, right?”
“Yeah. But there aren’t a lot my age here in Balmora. And Quinn’s the one I want.”
“You’re going to have to get over her sooner or later, Jeval.”
He let out a breath and looked down at the ground for a moment. “I know. It’s just… it’s hard. Like I can’t imagine finding anyone better.”
“She is pretty impressive. Have you noticed she seems to attract a lot of broken people? Tiphannia’s got that brain fog, Satheri’s always in a panic, I’m an Argonian in a province that hates my people—but we’re all with her.”
“Yeah! It’s like she fixes us.”
Treads-on-Ferns shook her head. “No, she doesn’t. She can’t. But for a while, she makes it seem like being broken is okay.”
Jeval thought about it a bit. Was he broken? He felt lost, at least. “I guess I’ll take that,” he said.
They stood in silence for a while, listening to the rain spatter against the flagstones. A thought came to Jeval.
“Hey, Treads, uh, sorry if I’m getting too in your business, but why do you live in Morrowind? Are you from here? Or did you move here, like I did?”
Treads didn’t say anything right away and, for a second, Jeval thought he’d made her mad. Then she spoke.
“I moved here. I grew up in Cyrodiil, in Leyawiin. My dad’s an ex-soldier and is a contractor with the Legion. They wanted him here, so here we are. Believe me, I’d rather be in any other province.”
“Okay. Yeah, I grew up in Cyrodiil too, over in Kvatch. My dad’s a courier, usually works for outlander merchants or the government. Him and my mom are from Valenwood but they had to get out ‘cause of the war in the ‘90s.”
“Oh, sorry! That’s hard.”
Jeval shrugged. “He doesn’t talk about it much. That’s why I got the last name Whitethorn, by the way. Bosmer don’t do last names, but he wanted to fit in when he moved, so that’s what we got.”
“My folks never went that far. They’re still pretty Cyrodiilic in a lot of ways. I don’t know a whole lot about Argonians.”
“I don’t know that much about my people, either. You ever see my dad? He’s got horns and filed teeth!” Jeval laughed, wanting to show he thought it was ridiculous, and raised his index and little fingers to his forehead in mockery.
“Wait, really?” Treads’ throat bulged out for a second—Jeval had no idea what, if anything, that meant. “I didn’t know Bosmer had horns.”
“Most don’t. I don’t! But some of the guys do. I guess it’s a pretty big deal in Valenwood, like they think you’re really cool if you have them. Here it just makes you look weird. Glad I didn’t inherit those.”
“Huh. I kinda get that though,” Treads said. “Like it’s him, right? So why shouldn’t he look the part?”
“’Cause it looks weird! Aren’t we like the Fashion Club, or something?”
“Sure, but think how Quinn does it. When I asked her for advice, she tailored it to how I look—with my scales, and tail, and everything. Do you have any idea how few people get that?”
Jeval gulped and shoved his hands into his pockets. Stupid of him to open his big mouth like that. “Yeah, I get what you mean. Sorry.”
“Do you ever think you’d go to Black Marsh?” Jeval asked.
Treads made a guttural noise. “Maybe. I used to really want to. But I don’t think I’d fit in. I don’t even have any Argonian friends.”
“I don’t have any Bosmer ones, either. But hey, maybe weirdoes like us just make friends with each other.”
Jeval wasn’t sure if that helped. But it was better than just saying they’d be alone and adrift all the time. Wasn’t it?
Treads’s scaly mouth lifted to reveal her sharp teeth. “Yeah. I guess that works. We’re tougher than most, so we make homes wherever we go.”
The door to Jeval’s house opened up and his sister stepped out. “Jeval! Breakfast’s ready!”
“Okay!” He looked to Treads. “Guess I better go. You going to be okay out here?”
“Trust me. A rainy day for me is like a sunny day for anyone else. It’s colder than I’d like, but I can deal with that.”
“Heh, okay. Later.”
Inside, Jeval joined his family as they sat on thick antelope hides and ate the porridge mom had prepared. Dad grumbled about eating vegetables.
“That’s why Dunmer and Imperials are so uptight,” he said. “Not enough meat!”
When he finished, Jeval took a ladle and scooped out some trama root tea from the big bone kettle on the floor and poured it into his clay cup.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Is it okay if I bring some tea to my friend outside?”
Her eyes widened. “Of course! In fact, bring him the whole pot. The poor dear must be frigid!”
Jeval chuckled. “She’s Argonian, so I think she likes the rain. But she’ll like the tea, too. Thanks.”
Taking the kettle and a few cups, he headed back out into the rain.
Jeval woke up early the next day. He got out of his hammock and got dressed before stepping out into the main room. Dad was already there, using light from the window to study his reflection in an old brass mirror. In his other hand he held a whetstone, which he sometimes used to sharpen his horns.
“Hey, dad,” Jeval said.
Dad pulled himself away from the mirror. “Yeah?”
“The horns are a good look.”
He blinked, looking a bit doubtful. “You think so?”
“Yeah, I do. They make you stand out. So you don’t look like everyone else. People will, uh, remember you.”
Dad didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he smiled. “I suppose they do.”
Not wanting to say anything more, Jeval picked up the bucket and headed out to gather the day’s water.