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Chapter 1

Jane bowed before some clients, but not this one, not Haldskyr Bear-grip. It's not that she didn't respect him—but Nords hated bowing. Better for her to stand and watch as Haldskyr studied the three-quarters head-and-shoulders portrait she'd spent the last two weeks working on for him.

So far, so good: his brow furrowed, lips tight but not frowning, stance relaxed. She'd painted him in classic middle-class Imperial style, realistic in feature but flattering in outfit. Muted colors gave the image a sober, serious feel though she'd used some bright yellows to indicate the long and braided beard which he was so clearly proud of. And it was a pretty nice beard, as such things went. She added some jewelry to let everyone know he was rich (and therefore important), a mix of twisting Nord gold work around his brow and an agate cameo of Emperor Tiber Septim, done in the Colovian manner, pinning his cloak. And the piece de resistance, the mink fur mantle over his shoulders that she'd recreated down to each individual hair.

Her stomach growled. She hadn't eaten a proper meal since last night. Money just tended to run out.

"Satisfactory!" he rumbled.

"Thank you, sir," she said, ignoring the hurt. She'd worked herself to exhaustion on this painting and he just thought it was satisfactory? He hadn't even commented on that tiny cameo, which she'd spent hours working on to get the texture and detail just right—she’d captured Tiber Septim's profile in half an inch of canvas.

But he didn't care. Clients never did.

He strode to his desk on the other side of his office, the walls hidden by tapestries of Ysgramor and the Five-hundred doing gory battle against Falmer, Dwemer, Dunmer, Reachmen, and everyone else the Nords had picked a fight with over the millennia. It was a long list.

"I am a little disappointed in the beard. It's too bright. We Nords are a simple people, Jane, not given to such frivolous chromatic displays." The heavy gold bracelets on his right wrist clinked together as he opened a drawer and took out a purse.

"My apologies. I can adjust the color if you'd like—"

"No, no. There are other problems, too."

She'd met all the expectations of the contract. It sounded like he was trying to weasel out of paying her the full 200 septims. "Like what?"

"You did not capture me! Yes, the painting looks like me, but it lacks soul, don't you think? It needs more passion in the eyes. I want to look at it and see the wrath of my ancestors thundering upon the blood-streaked tundra!"

This sounded bad. "I guess I could add some flecks of gore to your beard?"

"Of course not! I'm a fur trader not a warrior. You should show my wealth."

"Right, hence the jewelry, and the mantle, and cameo where you can see Tiber Septim's face," Jane protested.

"Yes, my wealth is part of the physical aspect. Yet my ferocity is more spiritual. No, no. This is a very nice painting, but it's not me. So as per our contract, I will pay 100 since I am not completely satisfied."

"Sir, I spent 50 septims just getting the right kinds of materials." Actually, she'd only spent 44, but she figured a little mercantile license was fair game. And 44 was a lot for her.

"That is not my problem."

She recognized the finality in his voice. Imperial and Redguard clients she could haggle with, but Nords usually didn't bother.

A whole month of work and she hadn't even gotten full pay. Days of skimping, of not working on other commissions, of practically sequestering herself in her cramped apartment, her eyes aching from the guttering candle light as she labored to get just the right balance on details like his crooked teeth and that damned fur mantle, and he still wasn't satisfied.

She tried to keep her words steady. "I'm sorry it wasn't to your liking. But 100 barely covers my expenses, and I gave up a lot of opportunities to work for you since you're known as a generous patron to the arts." Actually, he had a reputation as a skinflint—a reputation she wished she'd heeded. He was a big name, though. And she'd hoped one happy customer might lead to others.

Haldskyr shook his head. "My mistake was in hiring a Dunmer. I should have hired one of my own people. You ought to work with your own kind, anyway. I do not know why a Dunmer would work with a Nord."

Because she was an outlander and a Dunmer. But he'd never get that.

*********

Wind-driven rain, gray and thick, pounded the streets as Jane walked home. Ash-tainted gusts tore at her guar-hide cloak, too thin and ragged to keep the rain from soaking into her clothes, her skin, and what felt like her bones. Huddled crowds trudged all around her, the market criers barely attempting to compete with the weather.

Only outlanders ever hired Jane. And while outlanders were in no short supply, there were only so many up-and-coming foreign merchants willing to take a chance on someone like her, an artist with a good reputation but a poor network and no official apprenticeship experience.

The supply wouldn't dry up completely. But her clients weren't so wealthy that they could buy painting after painting. Usually they commissioned one, a portrait or a full-body, and be satisfied with that for several years. What she needed was some super-rich patron who'd let her live at their house and eat their food while she immortalized them on canvas a dozen times over. Unfortunately, most of the really wealthy types in Morrowind were Dunmer, and native-born Dunmer almost never hired outlanders. Which meant more hustling on a half-empty belly.

Lucky her.

Pay was pay though, even if it wasn't as much as she'd hoped for. At least she'd earned the right to crash onto her threadbare bed and sleep the rest of the day. Except sleep didn’t earn cash, and she’d already put off too many of her commissions for Haldskyr’s sake. Now she needed to buy more supplies, which would eat through a lot of her meager earnings. All the while, Balmora’s outlanders would be gearing up for the gift-giving of Saturalia—an Empire holiday, to be sure, but didn’t she have a stake in that, outlander that she was?

“Give generously so that Stendarr will show his mercy upon you! Saturalia must be a day of charity!” proclaimed a fat Imperial priest whose gilt-edged teal robes barely contained his girth. He conducted his charity from a small tent, where a few acolytes tended to bowls of offerings that’d be taken back to Moonmoth.

Jane observed the priest for a bit, watching how he bowed his bald pate each time an outlander dropped a few coins in one of the bowls.

“Outrageous,” muttered a lean Dunmer dressed in a maroon tradesman’s robe.

“Huh?”

He pointed at the priest. “This display! The greed of outlanders knows no bounds. Not enough that they infest our city. They also bring their holidays.”

“Yeah, if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s an extra holiday in winter! Saturalia totally disrupts that bleak hopeless vibe I enjoy so much this time of year.”

Taken aback, the Dunmer stared at her. Then he snarled. “Wait, you’re one of them!”

Jane watched him stalk off, muttering to himself about foreigners. It’d be nice to make it big and rub it in the faces of people like him. But that was looking less and less likely.

Her path home took her by the house of Gallus, the art dealer who’d kick-started her career with a few well-placed recommendations. The windows glowed warm and yellow in the wet gray afternoon, and the smell of bubbling kwama stew wafted out into the street.

Maybe, she thought, Gallus was in a good mood and would let her have a bite. She’d done good work for some of his friends and associates.

More to the point, she didn’t want to go home in total defeat.

Jane knocked on the door and waited. It opened a minute later, revealing Gallus, a plump middle-aged Imperial with a short black beard and dressed in a comfy-looking down coat.

“Jane! I haven’t seen you in a while—come in, come in! The weather’s awful.”

Relieved at his welcome, Jane stepped inside. “Sorry to drip all over your floor.”

Gallus’s home looked as tidy as ever, the walls covered in thick tapestries displaying Bretonnian knights errant and Cyrodiilic rice paddies. What really got Jane’s attention that day was the hearth, an Imperial-style stone model filled with warm and steady flame.

“Oh, no need to worry. Wouldn’t be in the Saturalia spirit if I didn’t let you warm up a bit.”

Meaning that if it weren’t a week away from Saturalia, it’d be back to the rain for little Janey. But she smiled. “Thanks! It’s been a tough day.”

Jane knelt by the fire, her knees sinking into the soft blue-and-green rug before the hearth. Sudden warmth sparked feeling in her fingers, the cold joints loosening up as she held them in front of the flames.

“How’s business?” Jane asked.

“Not bad. Winter’s a good season for me. People always want to burn incense when it gets cold.”

Gallus wasn’t really an art dealer. He made his money importing spices and incense from Cyrodiil. But he’d always liked art and made himself known as the person to talk to whenever some trader needed an artist to make them look cultured. The little under-the-table commissions made it practical and fun, he said.

“It’s a good thing you came by. There’s someone asking for you,” Gallus said, as he settled back in his work desk.

“For me?” That was a surprise.

“Quite urgently! In fact, I was going to send my clerk over to Drenlyn and give Miss Defoe the message so she could tell you, but it looks like I won’t have to. At a luncheon last week, I met a rich young fellow from the Imperial City named Natalinos. He’s heard good things about you from some of your clients.”

Jane’s ears perked up. This was interesting. Especially the “rich” part.

“I’m pretty full up on commissions,” she said, which was half-true, “but I can always take a look. Is he going to be in town long?”

Jane pondered which commissions she could afford to delay. She’d already kept the Chimeri-quey boat captain waiting longer than the poor woman should’ve had to, so not her. But the Breton fellow who was always too busy to sit and pose could stand to wait a bit longer.

“Just a month or so,” Gallus said.

“Natalinos,” she repeated. “So he’s an Imperial?”

Looking down at a document, Gallus raised an index finger. “No! Actually he’s like you: a Cyrodiil-born Dunmer. But he’s lived in Cyrodiil all his life. He’s just here to do some business for his father, who’s a shipping magnate.”

Jane’s heart jumped up for a second. Another Dunmer outlander, like her and Trent. But with way more resources.

“Sounds interesting,” she said, keeping her voice level even though she wanted to grab Gallus by his shirt and get him to tell her everything he could about Natalinos.

“Here’s the note I was going to send,” Gallus said. He took a sheaf from his desk and walked over to Jane, handing it to her. The note told her to visit Natalinos in the Lucky Lockup where he’d be doing business all Middas afternoon. It also advised her to bring something to sketch with.

“Thanks, Gallus!” Jane said.

“You understand of course, that even though I’m only acting as an informal agent, I will need a 45% commission?”

Because nothing could ever be easy. “Hmm, see money’s kind of tight for me right now. This Natalinos guy is asking for me. That means people are talking about my work.”

Some of them, anyway.

“Jane, you’re a talented artist. But you never even went through an apprenticeship.”

“Makes me all the more remarkable then! You can spin a story about how a nobody like me clambered her way into the art world—with help from generous friends, of course. But here’s the thing: if I get more money, I can buy better supplies. And that means I can do a better job for the people you connect me to. That boosts your reputation—and this Natalinos guys sounds like a pretty big deal.”

Gallus stroked his beard. “Hmm, I see your point. Forty percent.”

He wouldn’t budge much beyond that, Jane knew. But she’d probe a bit. “What about 35%?”

Gallus shook his head. “Sorry. This guy has a lot of opportunities for both of us. Him being in the Imperial City he could open up a whole new market for you. I can only take advantage of knowing him while he’s here.”

Jane looked into the flames and let out a long, slow sigh. “Guess I can tighten my belt a bit. You drive a hard bargain.”

“In this city, you have to.”

“Thanks again, Gallus.”

Chapter 2

Daria awoke on Middas morning to the sight of fresh white snow on top of all the brown adobe houses, making the entire city look like some kind of enormous gingerbread confection.

“Snow! Oh, it’s so beautiful!” Quinn cooed, looking out the window that morning.

“For now. Just wait a few days and it’ll turn into gray slush.” Daria didn't have any experience with snow, but the phenomenon featured heavily in her father's rants about his childhood.

Quinn sighed. “Some of us prefer to enjoy the moment, Daria.”

“Some of us prefer to spoil it.”

Daria bundled up in extra layers, her breath coming out in puffs of steam as she walked through the frigid morning air. Stirk had never gotten cold enough for snow—a rare point in the island's favor so far as she was concerned. Yet snow was only the first surprise that day. At lunch, when the students all gathered in Ondryn’s room to stay warm, Jane told her about the new client.

“This Natalinos guy will be at the Lucky Lockup after school today. I’m going to make my pitch. You want to come along?”

“Why in the world would you want me during a sales pitch?”

“He’s already in our favorite hangout. Besides, I’m sure he’ll have all kinds of fascinating deficiencies for you to pick apart—once we’re out of earshot, of course.”

Daria pressed her back against the wall. “Let’s see: he’s the son of a wealthy businessman slumming it in the boonies while ostensibly doing work for his dad. That means he’ll be callow, spoiled, and probably arrogant. I don’t even need to see him to pick apart his deficiencies.”

“Only probably arrogant? Come on, Daria, you’re getting soft on me.”

“He’ll be just like our peers at Drenlyn.”

Jane persisted until Daria gave in. School ended, and Daria followed her friend along the banks of the Odai toward the Lucky Lockup. A morning’s worth of commerce and transportation had already rendered the thin snow into a noxious slurry spread across the mud and pavement.

Jane walked faster than she usually did, her motions quick and decisive. A far cry from her usual relaxed self. Something about this Natalinos intrigued her, and Daria wracked her mind trying to figure out what. The description made him sound like just another feckless Imperial visiting from the capital.

They reached the Lucky Lockup as a towering silt strider, with a dozen cargo nets dangling from its abdomen, took position at the strider port. Jane stopped and turned to Daria.

“How do I look?”

“I’m probably not the right Morgendorffer to ask.”

“I don’t need a full makeover!” Jane said, sounding a bit irritated. “But is there anything that looks off? Mussed hair? Random zit?”

“All I see is you being uncharacteristically worried about your appearance.”

“Hey, a good first impression can make all the difference in this business.”

“At least you’re motivated by greed, not vanity.”

“Exactly,” Jane purred. “Okay, let’s go in.”

*********

Jane had always tried to blend in as best she could. Sometimes she succeeded, passing in crowds unnoticed by the more xenophobic natives.

But Natalinos, dressed in a resplendent moth-silk robe of deepest crimson and filigreed with gold thread, practically bragged about his outlander status. He sat at a corner table with a pair of Imperials dressed in simpler garb.

“That’s him,” Jane whispered to Daria.

No doubt about it: Natalinos was a good-looking guy. He had that chiseled quality the best-looking Dunmer boys had, but without that sour, conspiratorial vibe. He carried himself like an Imperial—which is to say, utterly sure of his place in the world.

He was the first Dunmer she’d seen in a long time without any tattoos or ritual scars. Dunmer society had a lot of rules about how people could mutilate themselves. Trent had tried and his effort just made them hate him more. Jane had never bothered.

She walked slowly toward the table. Gallus’s message had said she could come in at any time, but she didn’t want to chance it. This was a business opportunity, maybe a big one. A wealthy client could go a long way.

And what’s more, he was like her. A thoroughly imperialized Dunmer, the way she might’ve been if mom and dad hadn’t dragged her back to Morrowind. To a place where she’d never be accepted, all because she’d spent the first five years of her life beyond its oh-so-holy borders.

Natalinos turned away from his associates to look at Jane. “Do you want something?”

“Sorry to interrupt. I’m Jane Llayn, the artist you were looking for.”

She held her breath, hoping she hadn’t been too forward.

His face brightened. “Oh yeah! My associates and I are wrapping things up. Next meeting’s yours! I wasn’t sure if you’d make it.”

“I always come through for a potential client,” Jane said.

She ushered Daria to the next table over, not wanting to make Natalinos feel rushed.

It was kind of fun to watch him: the mix of influences in his style just begged to be painted. He had the looks of a hero. A lot of clients wanted themselves painted in poses and with symbols that subtly recalled Pelinal Whitestrake, or Reman, or some other Imperial bigshot. Jane liked a challenge, and she certainly didn’t shirk at casting a pudgy middle manager in an epic light. But it’d be fun to paint someone who actually looked the part.

“A complete indifference to other people’s time,” Daria suddenly said. “That’s a deficiency I missed.”

“Huh?”

“We’ve been waiting here for a while.”

“Just a bit longer,” Jane said, tensing in her seat.

Sure enough, the two traders shook hands with Natalinos and stood up to depart. He ushered them over.

“Hey there. I’m Natalinos Dralavel, son of Marcus Dralavel, who owns half the ships in the Inner Sea.”

So his dad had an Imperial name, too.

“Charmed,” Jane said, getting up from the table she shared with Daria and taking a seat across from Natalinos. “You already know who I am. My friend here is Daria Morgendorffer. We’re both Imperials. I was born in the Imperial City, anyway.”

“And spent a whopping five years there as a little kid,” Daria said, as she followed Jane to Natalinos’s table.

Really not the time for this, Jane thought as she glared at her friend.

“Jane,” Natalinos said. “That’s short for Janieta, right? You should go by your full name. It’s got that classic Imperial style.”

“I would, but three foreign syllables might be a bit much for the average Balmoran.”

Natalinos laughed, the way a king might: utterly unconcerned what anyone else thought. “I can see that. A bunch of rubes here in Morrowind, right?”

“And I have to live with them.”

Natalinos shook his head. “That’s a shame. I saw that painting you did of Connemus Terano when I was visiting him last week. It’s impressive work.”

“What can I say, I’m an impressive artist,” Jane said, a warm glow creeping into her cheeks. Too much pride could turn a client off—but no, the light in his eyes, the certainty of his smile—Natalinos liked it. And why shouldn’t he? Folks from the Imperial City could do just about anything. So what if Jane had hardly spent any time there? The place had still left its mark on her.

“You paint like one of the big artists in the Imperial City. It’s that eye for detail,” Natalinos said, tapping his face just below his right eye. “Like the way you detailed Connemus’s ring. Even got the tiny little lion engraved on it.”

Jane’s heart leapt and she put her forearms on the table and leaned forward, closer to him. He understood. She’d spent ages on that ring.

“Guess I’ve got the artist’s eye,” Jane said, trying to sound casual.

“And a smitten young girl’s sense of caution,” Daria grumbled.

Jane lightly kicked at Daria’s feet. Had Natalinos heard? His expression hadn’t changed.

“Yeah, I can tell," he said. "And the way you handled the lighting? Totally something Morrius Baradus would do.”

“Oh yeah?” Jane had no idea who Morrius Baradus was.

“Absolutely. Sketch me. I want to see what you can do on the spot.”

Jane smiled and reached into her pack, taking out a graphite pencil wrapped in sheepskin and a sheaf of paper. “I’m more than ready.”

Or was she? Natalinos clearly knew about art. He was plugged into the heart of Tamriel’s culture in a way Jane, stuck out in Balmora, could never be. She used to worry about clients not noticing her work. Now she worried about Natalinos seeing all the shortcuts she took and flaws she hadn’t fixed.

But one way or another, she was committed.

Chapter 3

Jane loved art because it let her disappear. At work, she was no longer a tired outlander in threadbare clothes trying to ignore an empty belly. Instead, she became whatever her client needed. A dispassionate eye for Imperials, part of her own ancestral memory for Dunmer, and anything else as the situation demanded.

But this time, she couldn’t disappear. Jane felt herself in every stroke of the pencil. The noise of the cornerclub faded to a low buzz, her entire being invested in Natalinos’s fine features. She’d never seen anyone who looked so perfectly Imperial without also being one by ethnicity.

And he was a Dunmer, like her.

She tried to capture that, emphasizing the aspects court artists highlighted in portraits of monarchs. Specifically, like how the legendary Bouliere painted his portraits of Empress Katariah—the Dunmer woman who’d married into the Septim line and ruled all Tamriel for 46 glorious years. She made it more masculine to flatter Natalinos, but the regal quality would come through regardless.

It was pretty easy to ignore Daria’s bored sighs.

When finished, Jane sat back in her chair and pushed the drawing across the table. Natalinos picked it up, raising it to a nearby lantern to get better light.

“Not bad! Not bad at all! Has a real third century feel, I like that.”

Jane had actually been aiming a little older. But hey, who was she to quibble over centuries?

“So you’re interested in doing business?” she asked.

Maybe a little more than just business, she thought.

“Definitely. You know, I wasn’t too thrilled about coming to Morrowind—"

“I’m sure most of Morrowind felt the same way,” Daria muttered.

“—but turns out, sometimes you do find things of value in a place like this.” Natalinos winked at Jane. “One of my dad’s business partners is having this shindig Fredas night, and I’m supposed to be there. Should be a pretty high-class type of deal, lots of people to see and meet. You want to go?”

“Me? Sure, but I’m not exactly high class—”

“Just scare up some cool threads. No one’s going to question you as long as you’re with me.”

Jane thought about it a bit. “So I’d be a menial or something?”

“You? Nah, I’ll tell them you’re a close friend of the family.”

“Like a personal artist?” A long shot, Jane knew. But maybe it’d plant the idea in his head.

“Way I see it, you already are.” He held up the picture Jane had just done. “The party starts at sundown, at the house of Haldskyr Bear-grip.”

“Oh! I know who he is, actually. Just finished a job for him.”

“Great! So you’ll already know everyone. Hey, will I get a chance to see the painting you did for him? I’d love to see a Lane original in full color.”

“Should still be there.” But Jane already saw the problem. “Thing is, I can’t go if it’s at Haldskyr’s. A lot of my clients will be there. They’ll recognize me, and you know how us menials spoil the atmosphere.”

“Won’t be a problem as long as you’re my girl. These guys eat out of my dad’s hand. Hey, how about this? Wear a veil. You’ll look like a rich Imperial City girl.”

“Hm.” Now that was interesting. She’d always hungered to know what people said about her paintings behind her back. Real honesty never happened face-to-face. “These veils do a pretty good job of concealing, right?”

“Shame to hide a pretty face like yours—but yes. I actually have an old purple moth-silk veil you can use.”

“On that case,” Jane said, “count me in.”

This was fantastic. She’d finally know what others thought of her—and of the painting Haldskyr had stiffed her on. She knew it was good but she needed the right person to see it.

“Primo,” Natalinos said.

*********

As usual, Daria was less than impressed and started complaining the moment they left the Lucky Lockup. The sky was clear and the air crisp, the western horizon blushing with sunset.

“Primo?” Daria sneered.

Jane shrugged. “Hey, maybe that’s just the lingo over in the Imperial City.”

“You can’t seriously be defending him.”

“I’m not defending him! Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Face it, Daria, we are pretty back of beyond by the Imperial City’s standards.”

A sudden heaviness weighed on Jane’s skinny shoulders. She knew Natalinos wouldn’t amount to much, probably just another client who’d pay her an okay fee and whom she’d never see again. But he’d invited her to a big party with free food and drink. Where she could let go and have fun for a little while, pretend she was someone else. She wouldn’t even have to come as a menial either, the way she’d had to at the Talori party with the Morgendorffers.

Why did Daria have to stomp all over that? Couldn’t she have a little faith in her?

“I see,” Daria said. “So we peasants should be thankful he’s gracing us with his posh Imperial City stylings?”

“Come on, Daria. You’re from Stirk. That’s not exactly the cultural heart of the Empire.”

Daria made an irritated sound. “Stirk’s a narrow-minded provincial town with little to recommend it. But the Imperial City is probably equally screwed-up, just in a different way. And you said it yourself: you could annoy your clients if you go to this party.”

Jane almost fired back with a sharp retort. That maybe, deep down, Daria hated the idea of Jane hanging out with all the rich and beautiful people as an equal. Better to be Daria’s little sidekick, the humble and grateful menial who sometimes got a little peek of the high life.

But she held it back. Daria hadn’t ever deliberately looked down on her. In this world, that counted for a lot.

“It’ll be fine!” Jane said instead. “I’ve seen those veils before, they do a good job of hiding your face. Besides, the party will be dark and everyone will be drinking. Sure, maybe Natalinos is a little full of himself, but he’s different from the people I usually paint. He’s got this confidence, kind of what you’d see in an old portrait of someone really famous. Except he’s alive, he’s young—”

“And rich and handsome?”

Jane felt herself blush again. “Hey, you said it, not me.”

“Just stay realistic about him,” Daria warned.

“I will, Daria. I don’t have the luxury to do anything else.”

Daria slowed down. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jane hesitated. Best not to say what she really thought. “That surviving here, which I’ve done, means I have to be realistic. I’m not going to stop just because of one good-looking guy.”

“Hmph.”

They parted ways soon after, Jane excusing herself by saying she needed to get started on another commission. But really, she just wanted some time to herself.

She also needed to figure out what to wear for the party in two days. Her wardrobe wasn’t exactly current, stylish, or colorful. Buying a new outfit wasn’t in her budget and she wouldn’t have the time to get properly fitted for one anyway.

An idea came to her as she crossed the Foreigner’s Span, the Odai’s black waters flowing beneath. Not an idea she much cared for—but it’s not like she had any other options.

*********

Jane didn’t have any courses the next day, but she struck out for Drenlyn all the same, moving quickly to ward off the early morning chill.

She stopped outside campus and took a seat on a crate next to the apothecary’s shop. The position kept her out of sight while letting her watch the main gate. Daria came by on her own, dour as usual. But no sign of Quinn. Jane hoped that Quinn had school that day. Otherwise she might have to make a covert visit to the Morgendorffer house.

Fortunately, Quinn appeared a while later with her Fashion Club in tow, the high-pitched chatter of their voices scraping Jane’s eardrums even across the street.

“I’m probably going to regret this,” Jane said to herself as she stood up and hurried over to them.

“Hey, Quinn! Do you have a second!” Jane called, just as Quinn rounded the corner into Drenlyn.

Quinn stopped and turned to face Jane, her fashion fiends doing likewise.

“Uh, what do you want?” Quinn demanded.

“Had a question I needed to ask.” Jane glanced at Satheri, Tiphannia, and Treads-on-Ferns. “Preferably in private?”

Quiinn hesitated for a moment, then addressed the others. “Girls, go inside. I’ll take care of this.”

“You’ll be okay?” Treads-on-Ferns asked.

“I’ll totally be okay, Treads! This is just my sister’s weird friend.” As the rest of the Fashion Club left, Quinn crossed her arms. “So like, what do you want?”

“This is going to sound weird, but do you have a dress I could borrow?”

“A dress? For you? Is this some kind of trick?” Quinn put her hands on her hips and leaned forward, eyes narrow and searching.

“Not a trick! Look, I have this business thing I have to look nice for. And well, my wardrobe…”

She tugged at her tattered sleeve for emphasis.

“First of all,” Quinn said, starting to walk a circle around Jane, “you need brighter colors! I know, I know, Morrowind doesn’t usually go for that, but trust me when I say that they’ll really make for a nice contrast. I talked Satheri into buying this bright violet gown for her birthday, and now everyone is saying how great she looks.”

“Huh, must’ve been out that day. All I—”

“But what’s even more important is taking care of your clothes! Seriously, Jane, don’t go walking through paint or whatever it is you do! Or if you have to, have like a set of clothes you use just for that.”

“See, I don’t really have—”

“My advice is to go find something colorful and new. Red’s already a good shade for you, you just need something a bit brighter. And black always looks good, except on holy days. You should definitely start with a practice—"

“Quinn!”

“What? You’re interrupting me!”

“I don’t have time or money for a big fashion makeover. Can I borrow one of your dresses? Just for a few days. And one that will match with a purple Nibenese-style veil.”

Quinn tilted her head for a moment, lips pursed tightly together. “I guess I could let you borrow my pink gown. I’m not sure that’s your color, though.”

“Does it look Cyrodiilic?” Jane asked.

“Well duh! I brought it with me from Stirk.”

Jane tried to think of how to phrase it. “I was thinking more like a dress you’d see in the capital.”

Quinn rolled her eyes. “Good luck getting that!”

“Fine, fine. It’s good enough.”

“It’s kind of small for me now, but might still fit you. Mer girls have the daintiest frames,” she sighed.

“Think that’s the first time anyone ever called me dainty, but okay,” Jane said. “Could you bring it tomorrow?”

“I suppose I could…”

“And one more thing: don’t tell Daria about this,” Jane said.

Quinn smirked. “Now you owe me two favors. Hmm.” She tapped her cheek in thought. “I know! Sooner or later I’ll need an artist to show how like, beautiful and stylish I am. You can paint me or something.”

Jane shrugged. “Sure, I’m always on the lookout for clients. But my schedule’s pretty full until next year.” And with where things stood, embarrassing Daria by making a great painting of Quinn and company might even count as a bonus.

“Wait, I wouldn’t be like a paying client. You’ll paint me for free. That’s price for these favors.”

Jane shook her head. “Quinn, art supplies cost a lot of money—”

“Do you want the dress or not?”

Jane didn’t really care that much if Daria knew about the deal—but she needed that dress. If she snagged Natalinos she’d have a regular employer and not be forever hustling for pennies in the Commercial District.

“Deal. Just make sure you have it tomorrow.”

Jane walked away, hoping she hadn’t made a huge mistake.

“Great doing business with you!” Quinn called out behind her.

Chapter 4

Putting on Quinn’s dress turned out to be harder than Jane had expected. The damn thing was tiny—and apparently, Jane’s dainty Mer figure wasn’t quite dainty enough. The fabric squeezed her shoulders and upper arms like a vise once she got it on.

She hurried out to the coppersmith’s shop, taking care not to get too much of Labor Town’s dirt on the dress, or on her. The public bathhouse was cheap, but she’d already gone once that morning and didn’t want to pay for a second round. Once at the smith’s she crept off to the side where he’d set up a big sheet of polished copper that worked as a mirror.

Quinn had been right about one thing, Jane realized: pink did not suit her.

The smith took notice and chased her off. Back home, Jane adjusted the dress as best she could, imagining how it’d look on her. Art was good practice for that, at least. But each stumble made her situation look more hopeless.

Who the hell was she fooling? Some Dunmer menial, not wanted anywhere, hoping to get in Natalinos’s good graces? She wanted to smack herself for being so stupid. Worse, all the time spent primping meant more delays on her work.

But she was already committed. If she’d agreed to give Quinn a freebie…

“I need this to work,” she said, as she looked into her tiny brass hand mirror to apply some white ash around her eyes.

Jane left the apartment late in the afternoon, retracing her steps to Haldskyr’s home, a respectable adobe box on a little alley adjoining Ules Plaza. The bitter cold stabbed right through the dress’s thin wool fabric. She supposed freezing to death was one way to get out of having to paint the Fashion Club.

She lingered across the street from the house. The first guests arrived as the last slivers of sunlight disappeared. A well-dressed Imperial couple stepped up to the door and knocked on it, getting ushered in a few moments later.

Then came what felt like an hour of waiting. She crouched to conserve body heat and rubbed her arms. Where the hell was Natalinos?

She recognized the next guest as a former client: Lyfsa Storm’s Daughter. With her was her husband, Karl the Golden. Lucky for Jane, their son, Karl the Unctuous, hadn’t tagged along. The arrivals got more regular once those two showed up, coming in pairs or trios to Haldskyr’s door. Meanwhile, it kept getting colder and darker. Jane breathed onto her hands to warm her shivering fingers. Her heartbeat quickened, her stomach twisted: Natalinos wouldn’t show up. Just like how mom and dad left, how Trent never really did anything, how patrons always stayed out-of-reach, how—

He was there!

Jane sprang to her feet as Natalinos sauntered down the street, his blue silk shirt iridescent in the torchlight. He was there, he was there, and it was all going to be okay. She hurried over.

“Hey! I was wondering when you were going to show up,” she said, breathless and giddy. “It was getting cold.”

“Janieta? How long were you waiting?”

No one had called her by her full name in a while. “Since around sunset.”

“Haven’t you heard of being fashionably late?” he asked. Jane was pretty sure he was only pretending to be offended.

“I thought Imperials were real sticklers for time.” Daria always showed up on time—though she probably wasn’t typical.

“Maybe the Colovians are. But in the city? You gotta show up late if you want to be taken seriously.” He shook his head. “Whew, that dress is going to be a tough sell. Looks like something a country kid would wear.”

Jane blushed, and then gulped. Dammit, didn’t he understand this was the best she could do? “Sorry, but I had to get it on short notice. Us artists aren’t exactly swimming in cash.”

Natalinos stepped back, appraising her outfit. “I guess we could pass it off as a retro statement. Just be careful, Janieta. My reputation’s riding on this, too.”

“Sorry,” she said. At least he wasn’t mad. “Do you have that veil?”

“Sure do.” Natalinos reached into his coat and took out a silk purse, its surface decorated with a rose of silver thread. Opening it up he took out a bundle of purple cloth and handed it to Jane.

“Wow,” Jane said. It was the real deal, all right. A circlet of genuine gold and a veil of thick moth-silk. A nasty part of her—her inner Daria, she guessed—wondered why Natalinos would even have such a garment. Memento of some old romantic conquest?

Not now, she told that part of herself. She placed the circlet on her head, its weight like an affirmation of everything she could ever be. Drawing the veil over her face, she quivered in excitement.

“How do I look?” She couldn’t see much other than the torchlight.

“Damn good.”

“Damn good now that you can’t see my face?” she asked, kind of as a joke, kind of because she wondered. She held her breath.

“You look like a stylish Cyrodiilic lady with a retro streak. You’re a real diamond in the rough, Janieta. But don’t worry. I’ll polish you up.”

She didn’t like the way he’d said that. But then he offered his arm and she took it, felt the weight and strength in his body, saw the way he strode like a king among peasants and all her worries flew away.

Together they walked to the door. Natalinos knocked, and an Imperial servant brought them inside. Moving between the densely packed crowd took some doing, especially with the veil. Natalinos found a path, swapping greetings with the guests he knew.

“Who’s this fine young lady?” asked Naspia Occulito, a merchant Jane had once painted (her immense hair, piled high on layer after layer, had taken way longer than any other element).

“Pallia,” Natalinos lied. “She’s quite a gal.”

Pallia. Jane could get used to being called that. “Charmed,” Jane said, imitating what she hoped was a convincing capital accent.

“So good of you to accompany Natalinos to this dreary little town!” Naspia said.

Jane had done it. No one stared at her for being an outlander among Dunmer or a Dunmer among outlanders. She’d just needed to dress and act the part, and she could be anything she wanted. A blank canvas for the painting of her life.

With Natalinos as the artist.

Wait, no, she corrected. She was still the artist. But Natalinos could be the patron. Every artist needed a patron.

Dizzy with delight, Jane followed him as he made the rounds. Lucky for her, he filled in a lot of the details. Jane, now Pallia, was the daughter of wealthy Dunmer immigrants to the Imperial City. Following his lead sure beat figuring everything out on her own. Best of all, no one recognized her. Jane was gone, like she’d never been.

Finally, Natalinos came to Haldskyr. The Nord's rugged face beamed as he showed Jane's painting off to his guests. The old skinflint sure seemed proud of it.

“Is that the one you did?” Natalinos asked.

“Yup,” Jane said.

“Haldskyr!” Natalinos said.

The Nord’s eyes lit up and he ambled forward, gripping Natalinos’s free hand. “Ah, you must be Natalinos! Any son of Marcus will find a warm hearth and warmer welcome beneath my roof!”

“The honor’s mine.”

“And who is this lovely creature?” Haldskyr asked, looking at Jane.

Jane froze up behind her veil. He couldn’t see her, right? Since if she was lovely, didn’t that mean he could see her face? Or maybe he was just being polite. Maybe, like a lot of humans, he was too damned lazy to distinguish one Dunmer from another.

“Pallia,” she said.

“Well, Pallia, if Natalinos is anything like his father, and I can tell he is, you’ve chosen a fine companion for the evening.”

“This is quite a painting you have,” Natalinos said.

“Aye! Commissioned it from a Nord artist who was passing through.”

Jane closed her hands into fists. The bastard!

“Really?” Natalinos made a knowing glance at Jane. “Don’t suppose this artist is still around.”

“I fear he’s already left for lands better than this one. But look at the detail! Not many artists could capture that. You see that cameo of Talos Stormborn? It’s as if from life! And my beard in the painting is almost as magnificent as my real beard!” He patted his beard and laughed.

“She—he must’ve really gone the extra mile for that,” Jane said.

“We Nords always do,” Haldskyr said, following it up with a loud laugh.

More than anything, Jane wanted to tear off the veil and cut Haldskyr down to size. But that’d just backfire on her. No one would hire an artist that yelled at them for telling a few lies.

“Natalinos, darling? I’m feeling a bit peckish, and these hors d’oeuvres look delightful,” she said.

It was a good excuse to get the hell away from Haldskyr.

“Go nuts.”

Jane retreated. She didn’t actually eat much—anger stifled her appetite, and she didn’t trust herself to use utensils. Instead she drank rice wine, carefully positioning the ceramic drinking cup so that it didn’t lift her veil too much. She could still hear Natalinos and Haldskyr talking from where she stood.

“Son,” Haldskyr said, “I’ve a wandering urge in my bones. Mayhap it’s time to uproot myself from this dreary town and do business in the capital. I’ve worked with your father for some time, and perhaps he and I could strengthen our partnership.”

“An interesting proposition,” Natalinos said, scratching his chin with his thumb. “But my dad’s boats, and your furs, already make for a good combination.”

“Aye, they do. But I’ve been working the fur market for too many a year, and I’d like to see the Imperial City before I’m too old to appreciate its charms.”

Natalinos laughed. “I’ll let him know. If you do that, you’ll need to make some changes.”

“Like what?”

“Shaving off that beard, for one. Not trying to be mean, Haldskyr, but it makes you look like some hick.”

Haldskyr gasped and clutched at his braided beard. Jane grinned, smelling blood in the air.

“I’ve worn this—”

“Hey, you do what you want. But I’ve lived in the city all my life, and no one who matters wears a beard like yours. Try to talk a little more normal, too.”

“You forget yourself, Natalinos! I’m a Nord! Of Skyrim!”

“Sorry. But in the Imperial City, what’s in is in, and what’s out is out.”

Jane burst out laughing, tried to hide it by downing some rice wine, and then laughed some more. She wished she had a sketchpad and a pen with which to capture Haldskyr’s look of dismay, all that arrogance wrecked with a few well-chosen lines. It was glorious, absolutely glorious!

They lingered at the party for quite some time after, Natalinos flitting from guest to guest all the while. He told Jane to keep quiet—and that she hadn’t gotten the accent right—but the thrill of Haldskyr's humiliation kept her smiling all the way through. The rice wine helped, too. When he finally said it was time to go, Jane happily followed him out. The freezing cold stole the breath right out of her lungs, and she impulsively hugged him for warmth.

“How did I do?” she asked.

“Rough around the edges, but passable.”

“Thanks for cutting Haldskyr down to size,” she said, hugging him tighter. He put his arm around her and her heart raced.

“That guy! He’s a dumb hick who’ll never make in the Imperial City. That beard of his just pissed me off.”

“It’s not going to hurt your dad’s business, is it? Making him mad?”

“Who cares? My dad’s got more money than he knows what to do with.”

“You think I could make it in the Imperial City?”

“You? You got some rough edges, but we can work on that. Your art’s one-of-a-kind, you know? My family could use an artist. Probably time to put the one we have now out to pasture. And who knows? Maybe you could be more than just an artist.”

Jane thought she’d pass out. She moved the veil to the side, the winter air like ice on her face. “Oh yeah?”

Natalinos leaned in and kissed her.

Time stopped. His lips on hers, the two of them together high above the ground, the city and all its lights spinning around them as Jane lost herself in the kiss.

And just as quickly, it finished. She stood in his arms, smiling like she hadn’t smiled in years, their red eyes locked.

“You want to spend the night at my place?” Natalinos asked.

Chapter 5

A hundred different answers to that question swirled in Jane’s head as she stared at Natalinos.

“Uh,” she uttered.

“Come on, let’s walk,” he said, putting his heavy arm over her shoulders. “I’m staying with a friend of mine who has a house on Silk-hawker’s Street.”

“Okay.”

She probably had some time to figure out what she wanted. Pretty easy to tell what he wanted.

Was that how she won him over? A night of passion followed by moving back to the Imperial City and meeting great artists from all over Tamriel? A life of adventure and luxury where she never slept hungry?

Or maybe he’d just ditch her after he got what he wanted. She’d seen that happen before—the sad lonely mothers sweeping the temple floors, all exploited by the handsome and heartless.

But Natalinos wasn’t like that. The whole world seemed to bend to him, give him what he wanted. He’d always have room for her.

Jane almost laughed. Since when did the powerful care about people like her?

But he did. She’d seen it in his eyes, felt it in the way he held her.

She wanted to go home. Sleep on it a bit. But home was all the way back in Labor Town, and she didn’t want to brave its nighttime streets. If Natalinos really cared about her, he’d walk her home, right? Or let her sleep on his couch or something, warm under a blanket and her mind teeming with dreams of the Imperial City’s splendor? Vague memories of the place tugged at Jane: the sweltering heat; the horizon’s green haze; high towers gleaming in the tropical sun; canal water thick with the petals of a thousand colors; faces from a hundred different nations.

Away from grasping Balmora and its dust and greed. All she had to do was trust Natalinos.

She could figure this out. Just had to decide on an approach—

“We’re here!” Natalinos said.

Damn.

Natalinos guided her toward a corner house, the doorway lit by a lantern. Jane shuffled her feet on the flagstones to buy a few more seconds of time. Suddenly, a dull metallic clang sounded out from within the house, followed by a groan.

He stopped. “Oh, dammit.”

Confused, Jane didn’t say anything. Had she imagined it? Then she heard it again.

“Uh, what’s going on?” she asked. The groan was kind of creepy, but she didn’t feel threatened exactly. “Hey, about tonight, I don’t know if I want—”

“I forgot it was my friend’s penitence night.”

“His what night?” Jane asked.

Natalinos looked to the door, and then to her. “So I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I will anyway. My friend and I both follow the Way of the River Woman. It’s how we met, actually. Anyway, he’s doing penance. He’s second tier, so we gotta let him be for a bit," he whispered.

“The what of the what woman?” Things had taken a bewildering turn.

“The Way of the River Woman. It’s a cult,” Natalinos said.

Fear stabbed into Jane’s heart, and she pulled herself away from him. “Wait, you worship the Bad Daedra?” 

Natalinos laughed. “No! No, we don’t worship anything like that. The River Woman is an Imperial goddess who helps shipping merchants. The Imperial City’s a really spiritual place. Everyone who’s anyone is part of a cult.”

Jane relaxed a bit. “Oh, okay. I think I get it.”

“There are a lot of deities like her who aren’t that well-known. But that means they’re more grateful for the worship. Plus, joining a cult is how you network.”

Again with the networking. But it was probably naïve to think that was just a Balmora thing.

“You know,” Natalinos said, “follow my lead, and I could speed up your cult initiation once we get over to the Imperial City. You’ll find a lot of clients in the Way of the River Woman.”

“Huh. Look, Natalinos, I really appreciate it, but—”

“Or you can join a different cult if you want. I’m pretty sure there’s one or two for artists specifically. There are some I won’t let you join, because we don’t like them, but I’ll tell you what those are.”

“No, that’s not it. I’m part of the Tribunal Temple.”

Natalinos scoffed. “What, that hick religion? You gotta be kidding me, Janieta. Sharp girl like you shouldn’t be worshipping them.”

Jane’s lip quivered. “Yeah? Well, why not?”

Natalinos raised his eyes to the stars, as if looking for divine help. “I don’t believe this!" he complained, no longer whispering. "Come on, Jane. I thought you were serious about coming to the Imperial City with me. Look, being part of a cult doesn’t mean you can’t join a regular religion. I worship the Nine Divines, same as anyone else.”

Jane hesitated. The Tribunal Temple didn’t deny the existence of other gods. But what she had with the Tribunal was special. She didn’t want to leave offerings at any other altar.

“I don’t know,” Jane said. “This is a lot to take in. Is it okay if I just sleep on the couch or rug or something? I’m pretty beat. We can talk about it over breakfast tomorrow.”

“Janieta, you think I like coming to Morrowind? I’m not here to soak up local culture. I thought you wanted out of here—”

“I do!”

“So why are you dragging your heels on this?”

“Because the Tribunal Temple is special to me!" Jane protested. "The Tribunal never let me down.”

Natalinos raised his voice. “Really? Looks to me like they haven’t done much for you."

“I get by because of them!”

“Please. You get by because you’re on okay painter and because you’re sorta cute! Maybe that counts for something in Balmora but sister, you wouldn’t stand a chance in the Imperial City. You want to make it big, you better—"

“Natalinos!” bellowed a man’s voice from the house. “Quiet down, I’m doing penance here!”

“Dammit!” Natalinos cursed. “Sorry, honored one.” Then he turned back to Jane, his voice an angry whisper. “Look what you made me do!”

“You’re the one who got all worked up, not me!” Jane said.

Everything started falling into place. Natalinos being so picky about what she said and did, his comment about polishing her up, even him tearing into Haldskyr... none of it had been about her. Hell, he hadn’t even known that Haldskyr had stiffed her. He’d just wanted an excuse to slam down on someone who didn’t meet his standards.

Natalinos didn’t want Jane. He wanted someone to mold.

Jane stepped back. “You know what? I think I’m going to head home for the night.”

His nostrils flared. “Yeah? Well, have fun being poor forever!”

Jane turned and walked away.

“You’re gonna regret this, Janieta!” he shouted.

“My name’s Jane!” she shouted back.

“Why can’t you people shut up!?” cried the voice from the window.

*********

Jane took shelter in the temple. She didn’t tell Muthsera Feldrelo Sadri the full story, just that she needed shelter.

“Of course, child. But Jane, it saddens me to see you garbed like this. I keep hoping one day you will truly return to your people, outlander though you may be.”

I would if my people would let me, she thought. Too tired to argue, Jane accepted the criticism with a numb nod. Muthsera Sadri showed her to the small guest room, where the flame of a single candle flickered next a Tribunal triolith.

“Sleep well, and think of the gods,” Muthsera Sadri said, as she closed the door.

“Thanks,” Jane said. “I might do that.”

She walked to the triolith and knelt before it.

Like Natalinos, the temple as an institution just wanted her to act a particular way. The problem with being part of someone else’s painting is that you didn’t get a say if they decided to paint over you.

She bowed her head to the rough ground and thought of the god Vivec, who’d always found his own path.

“Holy Vehk,” she whispered. “Bring me to a place where I belong and can still be me. Please.”

Chapter 6

Jane woke up to the smell of fresh snow.

She unwound the layers of blankets around her and stood up in her cluttered little apartment. Opening the shutters revealed flecks of white drifting down on Balmora’s flat roofs. She stuck out a finger to make sure it was snow and not ash—definitely snow.

It was Saturalia morning. And Daria had invited her to the Morgendorffer house.

Jane ate a breakfast of cold scrib jerky, got dressed, and walked out into the streets. She loved how bright the white looked against the faded adobe. It wouldn’t last for long—snow in Balmora never did. But seeing it always felt like getting a secret promise that someday, things would be different.

She shoved her hands in her pockets, taking care not to step in the snow since it’d soak her thin shoes. Outlanders gathered in the street drinking tea or spiced sujamma, chatting with neighbors while kids ran around. Wreathes of bittergreen vines hung on front doors, their dark leaves tied with bits of colored cloth.

Most of the Dunmer kept quiet, keeping to their own and walking the long way around clusters of happy outlanders. But not all of them. Some Dunmer joined in, their faces guarded but not unfriendly as they greeted their outlander friends and neighbors.

Saturalia was the big Imperial holiday for gifts and remembrance. Jane still figured it was just an excuse to break the winter monotony, but hey, she’d take it. All things considered, her situation wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.

She’d told Gallus that things hadn’t worked out with Natalinos. Not the specifics, only that she couldn’t work with him, which meant no commission for Gallus. He’d been okay with it.

“Sorry, Jane. It’s always a risk working with kids like him,” he’d said.

“You mean kids like me? I’m only seventeen.”

“Yeah, but you’re reliable.”

Not that she'd shed her troubles. She still owed the Fashion Club a free painting. Nor did she know where things stood with Daria. Jane hadn’t told Daria about borrowing Quinn’s dress, or the emotional messiness of the entire night, but she’d admitted that yeah, Daria had been right about Natalinos.

“It’s like I always say: the better someone seems, the worse they actually are,” she’d said.

Jane shrugged it off, but she’d kind of wanted to take a break from Daria. From everything. But then Daria told her the whole family wanted her over.

It beat shivering in her cold apartment. She’d always treated Saturalia as a normal working day. At most she might have dinner with J'dash, or Trent if he was in town. But both had fled Balmora: J’dash visiting an old friend in Pelagiad, and Trent freezing his butt off way up north in Gnisis.

Seeing all the people chatting to each other from one window to another, Jane was glad she’d accepted Daria's offer.

The Morgendorffer home provided a warm and toasty sanctuary. Quinn at least acted nice, while Helen and Jake welcomed her in like family. In a way she was: their eldest daughter’s one real connection to the world. Daria herself smiled quietly, wrapped comfortably in a thick green robe.

“Hey, there!” Jake said. He fussed with a big potted roobrush, its scrawny branches drooping under the weight of coins and other ornaments. “Glad you could make it!”

“Thanks for inviting me, Mr. Morgendorffer.”

“Sure thing. Is this your first real Saturalia?”

“First I can remember. My family never made a big deal about it when I was a kid.”

“I think you’re going to have fun! Saturalia’s a great Imperial tradition!” He turned his attention back to the roobrush.

“Actually,” Daria said, stepping up to Jane, “Saturalia was originally a Breton holiday associated with debauchery and gift-giving. One of the Imperial governors decided he liked it, and spread it around, minus the debauchery.”

“That’s the Imperial way!” Jane exclaimed, in a mock dramatic voice.

“The act of stealing and reinventing a holiday probably does count as an Imperial tradition at this point, so my dad’s not exactly wrong.”

The day passed in a genial haze of conversation, songs, food, and a noontime walk around town, punctuated with small servings of Cyrodiilic brandy. For dinner, Jake experimented with kwama eggs and some sweetened sticky rice from Cyrodiil. It was edible. Jane felt okay. Not great, exactly. Her problems remained. Problems Daria would never have to deal with. But they felt farther away with a warm hearth, a full stomach, and the company of friends.

The family passed around the gifts shortly after dinner. It looked like the family had pooled their resources to get something for each member: a rose-colored winter dress for Quinn, which she hugged and twirled around with; a new pair of shoes for Jake; a gem-studded necklace for Helen; and a copy of The Axe Man, a book about a legendary Morag Tong assassin, for Daria.

Jane sat and watched, wondering what her family would’ve given to one another if they still lived under one roof. She was pretty sure Trent would still forget.

“Ahem,” Quinn said. “I have something for Jane. She came to me a while ago and asked for some advice on, like, color and stuff, ‘cause she’s an artist. And I told her I wanted her to paint the Fashion Club one day and to do it for free.”

Helen’s eyebrows raised at that. Quinn kept going. “But I thought about it and realized that by the time we need a painting commissioned we’ll already have like, tons of cash from being a guild or whatever, so we’ll totally pay you.”

“Oh, thanks. Always looking forward to new clients,” Jane said.

“I don’t know why you’d expect Jane to do something like that for free,” Helen scolded.

“But mom! She wanted my advice. And you say to never give away advice for free if it’s something you’re an expert in. Isn’t getting paid for advice your whole job?”

Helen sighed. “At least you did the right thing in the end. Daria, I’m sure you must have a gift for Jane.”

“I do, in fact. But if it’s okay with everyone, I’d like to wait a bit longer to give it to her. For maximum dramatic impact, you understand.”

“Keeps things interesting,” Jane said.

The rest of the Morgendorffers lounged in the warm parlor for a little while longer. Quinn retired first, followed by her parents. Without anyone to disapprove of their snark, Daria and Jane jumped right back into the good old mix of observation and mockery that had sustained them for so long.

“Oh,” Daria said, sometime later. The candles burned low, and Jake’s snoring drifted down from the second level. “I should probably give you that gift now.”

“By all means. I’m wondering what’s so dramatic about this,” Jane said. Still dizzy from the drink (plus the bottle of sujamma she and Daria had started on after everyone else had gone to bed), she had to admit she was getting pretty tired.

“Not dramatic,” Daria said, heading over to a big trunk in the corner. “Just practical.”

Daria opened it up and reached inside. Jane heard the clink of coins as her friend pulled out a bulging cloth pouch and handed it over. She gasped at the weight.

“One-hundred septims,” Daria said. “Mom wouldn’t approve of me giving away that much, but it is my money.”

“Daria!” Sure, Daria wasn’t even close to poor, but that was a lot of cash for someone who didn’t have a job. She could’ve bought a bunch of new books with that.

“I know you wanted art supplies, but I figured it’d be better to let you be the judge of what to buy.”

“This really helps, Daria. Thanks.”

“I remember you telling me about how Haldskyr had cheated you. And how you worked hard to find new clients to make up for the loss, no thanks to certain nameless friends who were too busy being arrogant jerks to offer any meaningful support. With all that, you deserved something nice.”

Jane hefted the pouch again, impressed at the weight. The debacle with Haldskyr still hurt, but not as much. “Would this nameless friend just be trying to buy her way back into forgiveness?”

“And if she is?” Daria asked.

“Consider my forgiveness bought!” Jane put the coins on her lap and picked up the nearly empty sujamma bottle, pouring out a bit for herself and for Daria. “Not sure how you guys toast for Saturalia. Something like ‘Happy Saturalia to all’?” Jane asked.

“Close enough.”

“Wait,” Jane said. “How about Happy Saturalia to all, except those jerks Haldskyr and Natalinos?”

“How about a Happy Saturalia to us?”

“Agreed!” Jane said.

The cups met, and they drank deep. Outside, the city shivered in a winter’s night, but the cold was a million miles away so far as Jane was concerned.

The End

Episode 14: Raiders of the Lost Arkngthand | Table of Contents | Episode 16: Arena

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  • The Saturalia Story, Balmora edition.

    First, I want to beat up both Haldskyr and Natalinos for their dishonor. Second, I give Daria a high five for giving money, but not being a jerk about it, and Quinn as well. Good chapter, this is probably one of my favorites so far, because I sometimes like good feel-good moments where people are nice. I feel sorry for Jane in the sense that she doesn't have an identy among her people or the empire. She's caught in the middle. It's a relatable situation. 

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