The Salt in Our Stars
Synda Grilvayn no longer liked to be seen.
She followed her parents down High Town’s broad streets, beneath the strings of yellow lanterns and past the burbling fountains whose turbid waters caught the lanterns’ light. It was evening, warm and balmy with the stars shining bright in the soft darkness, the summer air untouched by dust or ash.
A perfect night, in other words, for St. Roris’s Feast. Outlanders at least understood this night was not for them—she saw only a few, those too mired in Great House Hlaalu to be easily shunned. Dunmer walked all around her, voices stern but calm in observance of the festival.
Not long ago, she’d have felt at home. This was her birthright, after all. The very thing St. Roris had died to protect. A world of order and grace beneath the guidance of the Three.
“And the ending of the words is ALMSIVI,” she muttered, in the Tribunal’s honor.
She wanted to hide, though no one knew she'd given her father's wealth to criminals to cover up her own foolishness. Her mother's words from the awful morning after still echoed:
“It would have been better for us if they’d killed you!”
Synda closed her eyes and gulped as her body shook. If only Todis had aimed his knife a bit better. If only Daria hadn’t been so cruel as to save her—doubtless the outlander bitch relished Synda’s pain as payback.
But it was already done. Synda's sin forever stained her in the eyes of her parents. All she could do was keep going. One foot in front of the other, she reminded herself. As surely as her ancestors followed St. Veloth to Resdayn, certain of their purpose. She bound her body to her will, ignoring the fear and the pain, as her forefathers had.
And she walked, as graceful and fearless as any young lady ought to be. But it was getting harder.
“Muthsera Grilvayn,” came the greetings, voices low and rough as father passed by his acquaintances and friends. Her mother stood close behind him, imperious in that effortless way unique to the Dunmer.
Synda shivered and hugged herself, wanting to feel her hands against her arms, to feel something soft to cushion her from the world.
“Synda, you’re trembling!” her mother hissed.
“Forgive me, mother. It’s cold.”
“Nonsense. It’s a warm summer evening,” mother said, her words slow and heavy. “The finest families of Balmora are out tonight. You must not show weakness.”
“I will not—”
“You already are. This is a chance for you to begin your redemption. Do not shame us again by making a fool of yourself!”
“You better not!” chimed Salyn, her younger brother.
Synda waited until her mother’s attention turned to Nerlo Andrana, who’d just come up to offer his greetings, and scowled at her turned back. The mere act felt like a strike of lightning: quick, hot, and painful. She’d done it all the same. Yes, mothers in Morrowind had to be cruel—but Synda was tired of cruelty.
The street opened up into the vastness of Brindisi Plaza, the central hub of High Town. Imported plane trees, slender and stunted from the bad air, spread paltry limbs laden with more yellow lanterns. At the center stood the great fountain carved into the likeness of a rearing shalk beetle, water spouting between stone mandibles.
Five wooden statues of St. Roris, each twice as a tall as man, had been carted out to receive the adoration of the faithful. Silk-robed merchants and bureaucrats knelt before the four statues showing Roris in the agonies of his martyrdom and left their offerings of spice and gold at the fifth statue of Roris standing in calm and placid glory, his shoulders draped with garlands of willow anther and translucent coda flowers.
At least this place offered distraction.
“Ah, Muthsera Grilvayn,” came a voice. “We were expecting you.”
“We are little without the saints,” father said, “and nothing without the gods.”
Like the others, the Grilvayns went from statue to statue. First to Roris bound in thorned vines. Second to Roris pierced by poisoned darts. Third to Roris with limbs wrenched and broken. Fourth to Roris flayed by Argonian claws.
His face stayed the same through each ordeal: peaceful and certain of his sainthood. A reminder that Dunmer never shrank from pain or hardship.
Except Synda was a Dunmer and she had.
Her heart trembled as she looked into Roris’s painted wooden eyes. Most likely imported wood, she realized, having somehow never thought of it before. But so what? Taking things from outlanders was fine, so long as those things were properly used. It was the Hlaalu way: canny and pragmatic.
They reached the fifth statue to deliver their offerings. Synda waited for her parents to place gold and glass in the brass bowls set before the statue, and then placed her own gift, a bundle of precious jewels she’d spent the last week purchasing. Mother had lent her money to buy the jewels, but with high interest. There would be no more gifts to Synda after what she’d stolen. Each holy day pulled her further into debt, for one of her station had no choice but to give, and she had no money or gifts of her own, nor any respectable way to attain such things.
She needed to escape her family.
Having completed the ritual, her parents spoke with the others gathered there that night. Servants and low-ranking agents walked in and out of the festival kitchens with bundles of marshmerrow and pots of shein. Her brother kept close, her mother’s hand gripping his shoulder as if to keep him from drifting too far. He’d not failed them. Yet.
She spotted Satheri standing next to one of the tortured statues, her left hand clasping St. Roris’ robe, her lips unsteady and her eyes sad as she looked upon his pain. A few feet away, Serjo Briltasi Talori gossiped with some other highborn girls, her outlander stepmother standing next to her and having the gall to pretend like she knew what was going on. Muthsera Lli flitted from group to group like a skyrender that ate praise instead of flesh, indifferent to the outlanders she educated. Or pretended to educate.
The other great houses thought Hlaalu soft. Maybe they were right, with so many Hlaalu thinking that the outlanders actually cared about them. Synda felt like she was fighting the tide, lonelier and weaker with each passing moment. Righteousness took its toll, she supposed.
Not that she had much honor any longer. And if she didn’t, why keep fighting? She walked aimlessly, finally stopping near one of the lantern-laden trees. Maybe she could escape that night. Mother and father no longer had much use for her except as a bargaining chip. If she married someone useful to them, she could move on with her life. Father would never tell Synda’s future husband of her misdeeds.
Only secret crimes are truly forgiven, as the Dunmer saying went.
“Pardon me, sera, but you’re blocking my light.”
Synda followed the sound of the voice to see a young man, about her age, seated on a stone planter and reading a book by a lantern’s glow. She didn’t recognize him but his clothes showed real wealth: a thick blue-and-red Imperial-style coat with silver-lined lapels and cuffs, beige breeches whose tightness edged the line of decency, and a bejeweled amulet on his chest.
Rich, and with close connections to the Empire. Quite handsome, too. He looked chiseled, his red eyes calm and assuring, his black hair slightly tousled as if he’d only recently arisen. She didn’t know his rank, but the authority in his voice left no doubt that he was highborn.
“Forgive me, serjo,” she said.
Why was he reading a book? The oddness of the situation rankled Synda. The night was for the Dunmer to come together and honor St. Roris. Not for sitting alone and reading. She leaned over to peer at the text, her shadow falling over the page as she did. It looked like a novel.
“You’re still in my light,” he said.
“Forgive me,” she said again, taking a step back. Damn, she’d annoyed him already. “I was curious as to what you were reading.” She thought a moment. It’d be best to give him a way to save face. “A work on the heroism of St. Roris, I’m sure.”
“Uh, no. I’m reading A Game at Dinner. I figured a dubiously true account of nobles poisoning each other fits tonight’s crowd reasonably well.”
He’d actually admitted it! Without any uncertainty or shame. And in so doing mocked the rest of the crowd: mother and father in their cold certainty, Satheri in her weepy-eyed adoration, Lli in her grandstanding.
“I… uh…” she trailed off.
No, this was not acceptable. No matter how powerful he was!
“St. Roris died for Morrowind!” she stammered, her voice shaking with fury.
If he was that powerful, she’d just shamed her family by insulting their betters. But if she stayed silent, she’d shame her family by failing to defend the honor of the Tribunal faith.
He raised his hands. “I know, I know! Believe me, I’m not trying to insult St. Roris. I was just taking a little break from all the forced socializing.”
“But this is a social occasion!” Synda countered.
“Then what are you doing here away from everyone else?”
She hesitated. “I suppose it’s okay to like, take a break.”
He stood up and gave a quick bow. “Sorry, I never properly introduced myself. I’m Serjo Tomal Sloan.”
Sloan. One of the richest families in Great House Hlaalu. No Sloans currently sat on the council but they always had the ears of those who did. Fleets of merchantmen and clews of caravans traversed Tamriel at their bidding, bringing Morrowind’s treasures to the Empire and the Empire’s wealth to Morrowind.
“ALMSIVI protect me,” she uttered, her knees trembling.
One wrong word and she’d ruin everything. No second chances this time. How could she have been so foolish as to scold him?
“No gods here, just me,” Serjo Sloan said, offering a quick smile. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, Serjo Driler was telling me about your parents! Glad we finally met.”
Synda still wanted to faint, the world spinning into darkness around her. But Serjo Sloan stood there, calm and sure, looking as if nothing could possibly be wrong.
“The honor is mine, serjo,” she said, bowing.
“Your dad handles kwama egg distribution, right?”
“Yes. We, uh, have shares in all the local mines.”
“Not a bad way to make money. Are you okay?”
Was she? She decided to nod. “Forgive me, serjo. Seeing these reminders of St. Roris’s suffering, like, affected me.”
“Understandable, the sculptors really knew how to capture pain. Shall we walk a little bit?”
“Okay,” she uttered.
Every moment of every day of Synda’s life had been spent preparing to marry above her station. She’d been sure she would—mother had trained her in the subtle arts of attraction, of bending the wills of others. But never had she dared imagine she’d get a chance with someone as prestigious as a Sloan.
She reminded herself to be careful. They’d only just met. Serjo Sloan had not evinced any attraction, nor had she shown her best face. But even if Serjo Sloan ultimately chose to look elsewhere, he doubtless had other important friends that might be more amenable to marrying the daughter of a respectable but not terribly rich family like the Grilvayns.
“Do you find Balmora to your liking, serjo?” she asked. She needed to focus, but her head still spun from her earlier faux pas.
“What’s not to like? Balmora’s got corruption, shady business practices, and backroom deals. It’s basically a more affordable version of the Imperial City!”
That was not the answer she’d expected. He mocked the town he visited—but he’d done it so well. He wasn’t exactly wrong, either. Synda stared at him for an incredulous moment and then burst out laughing. With that all her fears vanished, even if only for a little while, thanks to the sheer absurdity of this wealthy scion verbally skewering the regional capital of his own great house! Was he a lunatic? Part of her wished her mother had been there to hear it just to see the outrage on her face.
“Thanks, I’ll be here all night!” he said. “And every night for the foreseeable future.”
Tears now flowed from Synda’s eyes as she kept laughing, and she had to stop and lean against one of the stately manor houses. The benefits of power: he could get away with nearly anything. He stopped to let her get her breath.
“I… can’t believe… you said that. You have the manners of a Nord!”
Serjo Sloan stroked his chin. “I did hang out with some Nords, back when I lived in the IC. I guess their bluntness rubbed off.”
“So it seems,” she said, wiping away the tears from her eyes. “How long did you live in the Imperial City?”
“I was born in Morrowind but spent five years in the capital with my uncle. Dad summoned me to Vvardenfell last year. All the new exploitation means there’ll be plenty of opportunity for me to make my mark.”
“I am surprised you’d call it exploitation, serjo,” Synda said. “Is it not our right?”
“You say right, I say exploitation—it ends up the same way: more money for my dad.”
They resumed the walk, hovering at the edge of the crowd.
“So you’ve been in Balmora since then?” she asked.
“We’ve been nomadic, actually. Spent some months in Vivec City, a few more living with friends in the Ascadian Isles. Now we’re staying at Driler’s manor, and probably will be for a year or two.”
“Truly, Serjo Driler is honored to host you.”
“Eh, I’m sure that’s what he’ll tell my dad.”
Synda blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve been reading a lot about social relations. Serjo Driler doesn’t really have much choice if he wants to stay reputable, so though he says he’s honored, I’m skeptical he really feels that way. But we are covering our own expenses, so the only thing Serjo Driler really has to deal with is my dad bugging him to play chess at odd hours.”
“Wait, what? That’s like, such a weird attitude to have. Our duty is to serve people like you.”
She didn’t get him. He acted like his station didn’t matter. Maybe that was simply how the powerful really were; they’d gotten too used to their power to notice it. But whether or not he noticed it, he had it.
“So say the traditions,” Serjo Sloan said. “But do you want to?”
Synda’s breath caught in her throat. Was she blundering into a trick question? One where the wrong answer might cost her everything? Best to be safe. “Of course,” she said.
“Uh… because it brings honor to my family. And I, like, want that.”
“Do you want that? Or do your parents want that?”
She trembled. “Please, serjo. Are you testing me?”
He held up his hands again! “No! Sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t have gotten into that! It’s just that, well, I haven’t really hung out with any locals my own age since getting here. So I probably still sound like an Imperial City student more trained in rhetoric than in responsibility.”
Serjo Sloan sighed. Synda watched him for a bit, not quite trusting herself to speak.
“Forget it,” he said. “Look, I’ll admit that I’ve forgotten a lot about how a Hlaalu noble should behave.”
“It is not your fault, serjo. The outlanders in the capital should have paid you more respect.”
Serjo Sloan laughed. “This might surprise you, but most people outside of Morrowind and eastern Cyrodiil haven’t even heard of Great House Hlaalu.”
“What? But we trade all over the continent!”
“We do. A lot of that’s through intermediaries, though. Besides, when you buy moth-silk do you really pay that much attention to who shipped it?”
“I suppose not.” The conversation made her uneasy. All the work Great House Hlaalu did, and people didn’t even know? She’d always assumed that the Hlaalu were the powerhouse of the east, known far and wide as the gatekeepers of Morrowind’s treasures.
“But,” she said, “Morrowind is important.”
She said it to hear it. And so that he’d agree.
“Absolutely. It’s our province, and we need to do what we can to make it a better place. An even better place,” he added.
The whole thing still felt unreal.
“Sera Grilvayn,” he said, “you seem pretty well-versed in local etiquette. I certainly wouldn’t mind if you brought me up to speed.”
All at once blood rushed to her cheeks and her legs grew weak. He was inviting her to help!
“Yes! I mean, uh, like, of course, Serjo Sloan. Though I am but a young woman, not wise to the ways of the world like you are.”
“I just need someone who’s wise to the ways of Balmora.”
“Then I can help. I have lived here for twelve years.”
“Perfect. All I ask in return is that you be patient with my occasional pedantry.”
“Oh, but serjo, I eagerly accept your wisdom.”
He sighed. “Sure, if you want.”
An idea came to her. “Serjo Sloan: would it please you to meet my parents?”
“Sure! My dad does want me to talk to some of the notables, and I guess I can’t hide behind a book forever. Lead the way!”
It felt like something from a dream. In a few minutes, Synda would exceed her mother’s expectations a thousand-fold. To bring an actual Sloan to the Grilvayns! Too good to be true, she was sure—perhaps he was an imposter.
But she was already locked in, gliding past the nobles and merchants, heart pounding and stomach tumbling. If this worked, she might even be forgiven, at last be the daughter who’d done something extraordinary for her family!
And Serjo Sloan had invited her to guide him through Balmora. There were so many others he could have chosen. Maybe he saw something in her. Yes, he was strange—too versed by far in the ways of outlanders. But business with the Empire was practical. It helped Great House Hlaalu. Perhaps his oddness might make him soft, so that maybe one day she could tell him what she’d done to her family, and he’d tell her it was okay.
She sniffed to keep from crying and continued searching for her parents. No, she could never tell Serjo Sloan. The truth of her sins could never leave the Grilvayn home. But at least she could dream of someone forgiving her.
Synda found her parents a bit later, engaged in conversation with the Leldros and their daughter Nedrasa, Salyn still in mother’s grip. Her eyes met with Nedrasa's, who smiled and bowed. Seeing her strengthened Synda’s resolve. She’d help the Leldros as well. Nedrasa had always been a faithful friend, and that warranted a bountiful reward.
“Ah, I see your daughter is here, Muthsera Grilvayn,” the Leldro patriarch said. “We are honored by your presence, Sera Grilvayn," he said to Synda.
“Thank you,” Synda said, bowing. “Indeed, we are all honored by the presence of my guest here.”
She waited a moment, relishing it. Mother’s eyes had already turned as hard as rubies. She expected little, but she’d get something beyond her wildest dreams.
“Serjo Tomal Sloan, of the Sloan family," Synda announced.
Gasps as Serjo Sloan bowed. Mother and father genuflected before the young noble, and Synda thrilled in the moment. This is what I can do for our family! she exulted.
“Serjo Sloan! I was informed that your family might be here—truly, we are graced by your presence!” father said.
“And I am honored by yours, and hers,” Serjo Sloan said. “I can see her strength in the way she carries herself, and her beauty is obvious to all.”
“The honor is all mine, serjo. Truly,” Synda murmured, lowering her head, her face hot.
“Is there anything we can do for you?” father asked.
“Your presence is sufficient. Though I am new to the city, and it would please me if Synda could help acclimate me.”
Mother and father looked at each other, and then to Serjo Sloan. “Whatever you need from our family, we will provide, serjo.”
“It’s, uh, just a request—well, thank you regardless.” Serjo Sloan exhaled, sounding a little uncomfortable.
“Your father’s business acumen is well-known. So much of Great House Hlaalu’s wealth comes from the efforts of Sloans past and present.”
“He continues to work hard, and I shall endeavor to live up to the family name,” Serjo Sloan said.
“We have no doubt that you will, serjo.”
Serjo Sloan glanced at Synda and raised his eyebrows for a moment. She stifled a giggle, though she wasn’t sure why she found it so funny. Perhaps just the perversity of a great highborn so casual about etiquette. They spoke business for a while longer, Serjo Sloan polite but sounding much more bored than he’d had with Synda. Which she liked. It meant he might let her get away from mother.
A sonorous drum beat echoed down High Town’s streets as lit torches bobbed like fireflies before the council manor, guiding the paths of temple priests carrying books and saint-scrolls.
“That’s my cue,” Serjo Sloan said. “I’d better go see to my father. Again, I am thankful we met.”
Mother and father and the Leldros all talked over each other in their attempts to thank him. He bore it with good grace, and then moved a little distance away with Synda.
“Here comes the boring part. My dad’s going to want me to stand next to him while he makes the recitation to St. Roris. I don’t have to say anything, but I do have to stand there.”
“It is an important recitation,” Synda said.
“Right. Do you want to meet next Morndas? I can send a servant to come fetch you.”
“If it pleases you, serjo.”
“It would. This might sound a little odd, Synda, but I kind of liked the way you got mad at me earlier.”
She froze. She’d almost forgotten how badly she’d flubbed the first part of the encounter. “Uh, you did?”
“It keeps things interesting.”
“Oh,” she said. She wasn’t sure she could still manage that. But she had to try. “Of course. Thank you for your time and your invitation, Serjo Sloan.”
“Thank you for yours, Sera Grilvayn.”
They bowed, and Serjo Sloan headed to the council manor. Synda watched him go. For the first time in quite a long time she felt hopeful. Not happy, exactly—but things might get better.
“Muthsera Grilvayn!” Nedrasa whispered, putting her hand on her shoulder. “This is fantastic!”
“Much work remains to be done, Sera Leldro,” she said. But she smiled at her friend. “Yet there is potential.”
“The rest of us girls don’t stand a chance against your beauty, Muthsera Grilvayn. Which is why I’m so glad you are my friend.”
Nedrasa bowed, and Synda put her arms around her and pulled her close for a quick embrace.
The Leldros departed to get closer to the recitation. Mother walked toward Synda.
“You certainly made the most of this night,” she said.
“I did as I was trained.” A coldness settled over her. She could not show pride or carelessness. This was a serious matter. Even if Serjo Sloan wanted to pretend otherwise.
“Perhaps there is some use to you after all. Though the Sloans are a peculiar family. Perhaps they must be, to better work with the Empire. I don’t know why else Serjo Sloan's father would have freed all his slaves. Regardless, you did well tonight,” mother said.
Synda shuddered in relief. The crime was not forgotten—but maybe it could be overcome. She could still be useful.
“Thank you, mother.”
But her mother’s words persisted in her mind.
“It would have been better for us if they’d killed you!”