"Just watch your pockets," Jane warned. "There are a lot of greedy hands here."
Daria's right hand closed around the ten-septim piece in her lower coat pocket as Jane ushered her through the doorway of the South Wall Cornerclub. The smoke hit her before anything else, a dozen times worse than the smoggy evening outside, stuffed into a single adobe building, and strong enough to make her eyes water to the point of blindness. With that came the acrid stink of alcohol and other, less pleasant smells.
"You know, the only reason I agreed to go to this place with you is because my mom would be furious if she found out," Daria said, taking off her glasses to clear her teary eyes. "And she better not find out."
"Hey, I'm about to show you the real Balmora. Not the picture-book fantasy of Talori manor and Drenlyn Academy."
"And if I get knifed in a dark alley during this visit to the real Balmora?"
"Consider it another experience you can add to your resume. Aren't savants supposed to be worldly?"
"I try to become worldly by reading a lot," Daria said. "It's safer. More importantly, I don't have to work hard."
"Come on, let's go."
Jane waited just long enough for Daria to put her glasses back on before taking her hand and leading her through a dark and surprisingly twisty adobe corridor. Specks of candlelight revealed limp and torn tapestries hanging on the walls, their images long since blotted out by too many carelessly held drinks.
A red-and-white Khajiit woman leaned in the shadows of a corner, her golden eyes the brightest things in the hallway. Her tail twitched as Jane neared.
"Ah, Dunmer is here to see her brother play," she said, her words running together in a throaty purr.
"And I brought a friend this time," Jane said.
"Then Khajiit will be friendly to friend," the woman promised, gesturing down the bend in the hallway to a staircase leading down.
"What was that all about?" Daria asked, as she carefully navigated the uneven steps, the smoke getting thicker the deeper she went.
"Oh, that was Sugar-Lips-Habasi. She's a bouncer, of sorts."
"I'm not sure it's a good idea to have a staircase right outside the drinking parlor," Daria said.
"Sure it is!" Jane said. "The rest of us get to take bets on which of the drunks will stumble and fall!"
Daria's foot dropped a bit further than she expected, the jolt sharp but momentary. "I'm getting the feeling it's pretty easy to stumble down this while sober."
"Sobriety's not something you'll have to worry about tonight, my friend."
Glass lanterns burned blue and dreamlike in the parlor's smoky haze, the foul air quivering with dozens of voices: Dunmer rasps, Argonian hisses, and the more familiar enunciations of human tongues mingled together in a lively babble. The mix of peoples made her think of the Lucky Lockup, but the rough-spun clothes of the patrons and the air of familiarity told her that the South Wall was a place for locals, not for travelers.
She supposed she counted as a local of some sort.
Jane guided Daria through the densely packed little room, seating her at a wooden table that probably had dozens of splinters poking out the surface.
Daria blinked again, light-headed and wondering if she was going to pass out. Dunmer buildings tended to be poorly ventilated, the race's throats and lungs already hardened by living in Tamriel's most volcanic region. Sure made things tough for non-Dunmer, though.
"Is your brother here yet?" Daria asked, speaking louder to make herself heard.
"Don't see him," Jane said. "He'll show up sooner or later. Probably later."
"What kind of music is he going to play?"
Jane shrugged. "With a crowd like this he's mostly just playing to make noise. Trust me, it suits him well."
The parlor was still uncomfortably dark, but Daria could at least make out the interior. Pretty standard set up: tables and benches, a publican's bar, and big clay bottles of alcohol. Dried up bittergreen vines hung from one corner, serving as both decor and a fire hazard.
Daria took the two pewter cups she'd brought from home and set them on the table. Jane had warned her that nothing in the South Wall was particularly clean, so she chose to bring her own drinking vessels. A Dunmer serving woman came by with a large jug, tilting it to pour some frothy mazte into the cups.
"I'll keep track of the tab," Jane offered.
As she spoke, a tall and thin Dunmer made space for himself at the corner framed by dehydrated plant-life. His hands, oddly delicate, held a worn Imperial-style lute.
"I'm Trent Llayn," he said, his tone almost bored. "And this is a song I call 'Fire-Eyed Woman'."
He raised his hand to cover a cough, and then let it fall to the strings. Daria watched, fascinated by the ease at which he performed, the dark and smoky room probably nothing to someone like him who'd traveled the length and breadth of Morrowind's Vvardenfell District, turning its ash-choked foyadas and jagged coasts into poetry...
Daria blinked again. The smoke must be getting to her. She took a sip of her mazte, which she knew would probably only make it worse.
Fingers stormed across the strings, the lute erupting into tune both angry and mournful. He played loud to be heard, not willing to let the mob shout him down. Daria leaned forward to get a better look, taking in his tousled black hair and seen-the-world red eyes.
"You singed me at the park, when I asked you for a dance,
You burned me when I wept, didn't care about my stance.
You're a fire-eyed woman as sweet as the moon.
But darling, oh darling, you'll doom me soon."
He snarled the lyrics with feeling ripped from his heart. The song was worlds away from the lugubrious bardic ballads and jaunty drinking songs she'd heard back on Stirk. Trent didn't recite the tales of others; instead, he turned his pain into song. A song with somewhat questionable lyrical construction, she admitted. But she loved the directness.
He said what he thought, just the way she wanted to.
No one in the crowd listened.
Daria watched transfixed until he finished his first song. A tap on her back got her attention and she turned around.
"You sure seem pretty interested in music all of a sudden," Jane said. "I tried to talk to you three times during that song."
"Oh, sorry. I'm just intrigued by the kind of music he plays. Is this the normal style in Balmora?"
"Normal here means temple hymns or war songs celebrating the horrible things we Dunmer did to our neighbors a few centuries ago. Trent can play those, but he likes to follow his own muse and South Wall's one of the only places that let him get away with it."
Daria's gaze had already turned back to Trent
Balmora roasted under the stars, hotter than a summer night in Stirk even though it was only mid-spring. Red Mountain's caldera glowed sooty on the northern horizon as it puffed volcanic toxins into the air and into the nostrils of everyone downwind.
Daria leaned back against the balcony walls around Jane's apartment, dizzy and sweaty and content for the first time she could remember. The darkened city seemed to spin merrily around her, its torches and lit windows like a sparkling kaleidoscope.
She, Jane, and Trent sat around a lantern, its brightness hemmed in by the smoky night. Jane was next to Daria, her eyes to the dark sky and with her hands clasped behind her neck. Trent rested on the other side, long legs sprawled out on the floor while he fiddled with a three-stringed instrument made from an insect carapace. He'd just taken it out from storage.
"What is that?" Daria asked, still letting the world spin around her.
"It's an Ashlander harp," Trent said. "Really old school. Not everyone likes it, but I think it has a richer sound."
"Ashlanders," Daria repeated, letting her thoughts settle. "Nomadic Dunmer, uh, pastors, I mean pastoralists who herd bugs. Big bugs. Transhumance."
"Hey, yeah. You're pretty smart!" Trent said.
"Uh, thanks," Daria said, wondering if her blush could be seen through her red-cheeked inebriation. "Have you spent a lot of time with the Ashlanders?" she asked, suddenly wanting to hear about Trent braving the toxic Ashlands and smoldering Molag Amur, needing only his poetry to keep darkness at bay.
"Heh, nah," Trent said. "I picked this up at a pawnshop in Ald'ruhn. Don't really know how to play it but it's fun to mess with sometimes."
"Oh. Well at least you're honest about it."
"I'm all about keeping it real."
Daria tried to get herself together. "Some philosophers say that it's better to be honest than to deal with the double-speakings of the rich and powerful. So in that way I think you're really philosophical."
She blinked. That wasn't quite what she'd wanted to say.
Jane clucked. "Hmm, I think you need some water, Daria. Luckily I still have some leftovers from the well this morning." She stood up and entered her apartment.
"How long will you be in Balmora?" Daria asked, turning back to Trent.
"A month. Maybe two. I like to keep it loose."
"You must have traveled a lot."
He shrugged. "I'm pretty local. Can't afford to go much farther than that."
"Is it dangerous to travel?"
"Can be. Got robbed a couple of times. Had to fight off a pack of nix-hounds another. I usually travel with a troupe these days. We're called Mystik Spiral, but we're thinking about changing the name."
"Where did you get that name?"
"I liked the spiral, 'cause it shows how everything comes back on itself, so you gotta go back to the source to get to what's real."
Daria tried to figure out what that meant. Somehow, even in her state, she was pretty sure it meant nothing.
Trent continued. "And mystic because mysticism is the best form of magic. Fireballs and lightning and stuff."
"Uh, actually," Daria corrected, "you're thinking of destruction. Mysticism is the use of magic to manipulate spiritual forces."
Trent nodded. "Right, what you said."
Jane came back with a jug of water.
"Now can you actually hold this and drink it, or should I pour it down your throat?" Jane asked.
"I'm fine!" Daria exclaimed, reaching out to grab the jug and missing it by a mile.
"Uh huh. I'll just put it down on the ground until you're ready to pick it up."
"You're a jerk sometimes. But thanks," she mumbled. Waiting a bit, she took the jug by the handle and lifted it up, drinking deep. The bitter ashen water cooled her dried lips and seemed to restore some clarity to her mind.
Trent started playing the Ashlander harp, his fingers more careful than they'd been with the lute, plucking each string as they danced up and down the neck. The tone, deep and mournful, somehow sounded a million miles away. She felt the music more than she heard it, the sound a quivering in the smoky air.
"I like the sound," Daria said. "But it's a little hard to hear."
"It is? Seems normal to me. Janey?"
"I can hear it fine—wait, human ears might not be able to pick up the sound of an Ashlander instrument."
Trent stopped and looked up, his expression cool. "Sorry. Should I get the lute, instead?"
"No, it's fine," Daria said. "I still enjoy it."
"Let me tune this a bit more," Trent said, tightening the pegs at the top. He strummed the harp again, the sound clear. "Better?"
"Much. Uh, thanks."
Trent continued playing, his tune meandering between major and minor, slow and fast. No words that time. Probably for the best, Daria thought, even as she lost herself in the music.
They stayed out a while longer as the drink left Daria's head and the lantern dimmed. She tensed up for a moment, wondering what stupid things she'd said to Jane or Trent back at South Wall. But seeing them there, insouciant and relaxed, she realized it didn't matter.
As she sat there in the smoggy night, in the middle of a foreign world, listening to an instrument never intended for human ears, she realized Morrowind no longer seemed so bad.
"Just watch your pockets," Jane warned. "There are a lot of greedy hands here."