“Hey, are you hungry? Huh?”
Not that Satheri needed to ask. Tollie always wanted a snack. She smiled as the bantam guar trotted, on his little leathery legs, toward her outstretched hands full of marshmerrow pulp. Daddy had bought Tollie at the market a few years ago and Satheri couldn’t imagine life without him.
The guar dipped his head into her hands. She giggled as the warm tongue lapped up the ground marshmerrow.
“I know you’re not supposed to eat too many sweets,” she whispered. “But you’ve just been such a good boy, huh?”
Tollie raised his head as if in affirmation, his pink tongue still lolling from his wide mouth. He dove back in for the rest and when he finished, the little guar pressed his head against her thigh.
“Aw, you want some attention? Okay, Tollie, so do I,” Satheri cooed. She reached out and picked him up and cradled him. He was heavier than he used to be—maybe she’d been spoiling him a bit. But easy enough to carry for a short while.
Satheri closed her eyes and rocked Tollie back and forth. Good training, mom had said, for when Satheri became a mommy. Which might not even be that long from now.
“Don’t worry, Tollie,” she whispered. “When I go get married to Serjo Lowendral, I’ll take you with me, okay? Serjo Lowendral will love you too!”
At least she hoped so. She didn’t know anything about Serjo Lowendral. Did he like animals?
“The Lowendrals have a big estate down in Shipal-shin, so there’s going to be lots more room for you to run around. And I hear there’s wild marshmerrow growing everywhere so you can get snacks whenever you want—but I’ll still feed you treats, too.”
Did marshmerrow grow down there? Satheri didn’t know that either. She gulped.
“Daddy says the wedding will be in a year. And before that we’ll get to go on a really fancy ship, and then take a silt strider way down to the south, where it’s always warm and lazy.”
Her voice trembled. It was getting closer every day and she knew nothing about him except that he was from a noble family that didn’t have a whole lot of money any longer. The ship probably wouldn’t be that fancy. But it was nice to pretend it was.
“And I bet there will be a lot of other bantam guars you can play with. But don’t worry Tollie—I’ll still be your best friend. Forever.”
She stopped before her voice broke and tightened her hug.
It was a little past noon. And Serjo Driler’s birthday part was that night. Which meant she had to get ready. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Satheri put Tollie back down on the ground. He nuzzled her hand and she smiled.
She wished everything could be as simple as Tollie.
It seemed like all of High Town had come to Serjo Driler’s 143rd birthday party. Satheri, dressed in the pale blue gown she usually wore for fancy occasions, loved seeing everyone in their finery. She couldn’t dress like a noble, but one day she would so she took mental notes of everything she saw.
Not many others from the Commercial District got invited to the party—but like daddy always said, money was its own form of respect.
And daddy actually had more cash than some of the people in High Town. Not coins or jewels, but things like cargo ships and caravans that went to Cyrodiil and brought back the prettiest dresses and cosmetics. Assets, he called them.
Satheri stood next to her parents on the outskirts of the party, watching the well-wishers paying their respects under the lanterns strung up over the street. She couldn’t see the Driler manor over the crowd, but she heard the music and the voices, all of them happy.
Her husband-to-be would have parties like this, probably. She’d be at the center of it all, greeting lifelong nobles and pretending she knew how to behave.
“Quite a crowd,” her mother said to her father.
“And hardly a one of them is here for the Drilers. They just want to talk to the Sloans.”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“A bit of both, dear. Something I’ve been wondering about the Sloans,” her father said, speaking quietly.
It was the voice he used when talking about complicated business things that Satheri wouldn’t understand. So naturally, she inched closer to hear him.
“Yes?” her mother asked.
“Serjo Angyar Sloan freed all his family’s slaves decades ago. Do you think…” he shifted closer and whispered, “…do you think he’s seen the twin lamps?”
Her mother scoffed. “I’m sure he only freed them to look good to the Empire. And you know better than to discuss that sort of thing here.”
“No one’s paying attention, dear.”
“Don’t be so certain. And do not ask the Sloans about this!”
“I wasn’t going to!”
Satheri, curious, decided to ask a bit more. “Are twin lamps some kind of business thing?”
Startled, her father looked back at her. “Don’t eavesdrop, sweetie. It’s not ladylike.”
“Sorry,” Satheri said, looking down at the ground.
Her mother sighed. “Your father had some odd idea about selling lighting infrastructure.”
“But what does that have to do with freeing slaves?”
Her parents looked unsure for a moment. Satheri knew she wasn’t that smart—but she could tell they were hiding something.
“Oh, well, it looks like Great House Hlaalu will one day give up slavery—which is good! Anyway, that means there will be more openings for, uh, employed people to carry lamps for their bosses. Since slaves won’t do that any longer. Hence the lamps.”
Her mother sighed again. Satheri nodded as if she believed it.
Satheri usually hung out with people smarter than her, since she knew she couldn’t always figure things out on her own. Mother and father were both very smart, so they protected her. And Muthsera Morgendorffer was practically a genius!
So what would she do when she was cut off from all of them? Maybe her husband would be smart.
But would he look out for her?
The night went on. Only a few High Town nobles said hello to the Rowenis. When they did, Satheri bowed and smiled and greeted. At least she was good at that.
They reached the brightly bedecked front door of the Driler house to find Serjo Driler standing there in full regalia, wine cup in hand. Servants stood at attention to accept gifts and bring them inside.
Now that they were at the center of the party they had maybe an hour to talk to everyone. People clustered around Serjo Driler and his family, or around the Sloans. Seeing Tomal standing at the side, politely listening as an old Dunmer talked about something, Satheri got an idea.
Taking a deep breath, she walked over to Tomal as quickly as her tight, stiff dress would allow. She’d act like she was there to pay her respects—which wasn’t really an act, she was being respectful—and then ask her question.
She waited for a while as the old Dunmer droned on about saltrice prices, smiling and trying to look every inch the proper Dunmer maiden she was. But already she was nervous, her skin getting all prickly. What if she made a mistake? Mom and dad were elsewhere and one wrong move would make the whole Roweni family look bad. And then the marriage might fall through, which she sort of wanted it to, but then that might mean there was another even worse marriage and…
Satheri clenched her teeth together and stared straight ahead. She felt like she’d explode. Muthsera Morgendorffer always talked her down from those attacks, but she wasn’t there.
Finally, the old Mer stepped away, his wine cup empty. Tomal exhaled in relief as Satheri darted in.
“Three blessings to you, Serjo Sloan!” she said, and bowed.
“Sera Roweni,” Tomal greeted. “This is an honor.”
Satheri thought back to her lessons, how commoners behaved. She bowed again, more deeply this time, to show how she appreciated being acknowledged. “My family is, as always, at your service.”
“And my family recognizes your dedication.” Tomal sighed. “But you know, this is Serjo Driler’s birthday—”
“I know!” Satheri interrupted, and then gasped. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh! Oh, forgive me, Serjo Sloan! I didn’t mean to interrupt! That was so disrespectful of me—”
He held up his hands. “It’s okay! No offense taken. Honestly, these overly formalized meet and greets get pretty boring. The interruption made things interesting.”
Satheri sniffed, and then nodded. Oh, it was so easy to be careless! She took stock of things. Tomal didn’t seem mad, at least.
“Begging your pardon, Serjo Sloan, but I have a question.”
“Um, well, I am arranged to be married to Serjo Lowendral’s son.”
Tomal looked unsure, and then brightened. “Oh! Othren Lowendral?”
“Yes, him! The marriage is in a year, and well, I don’t want to bore you with my problems but—is he nice?”
Satheri turned her eyes to the ground. She didn’t want to see it. Didn’t want to see Tomal’s face turn grave and give her the worst news possible, that Serjo Lowendral was mean. Because she couldn’t defend herself against mean and without mom and dad and Muthsera Morgendorffer she wouldn’t have anyone to defend her and she’d just be alone forever.
She stifled a sob.
“Othren? He’s nice enough. To be honest, Sera Roweni, I don’t know him that well. I only met him a few times when I spent the summer in Narsis, about eight years ago. I was about ten years old, he was maybe nine?”
Satheri raised her face. Well, that was something. “Does he like animals?”
Tomal shrugged. “I don’t know—oh, wait! He did have a riding guar he liked. I think it belonged to his dad, but he rode it around a lot. The guar was named… Champion? Hero? Something along those lines.”
“Oh! That’s good. And he was nice to you?”
“He was nice to me.” Tomal scratched the back of his neck, his eyes downcast. “Sorry I can’t offer you more. I just don’t know him that well.”
“No, it’s fine! Thank you so much, Serjo Sloan. If he’s good to you I’m sure he’s a good person.”
Tomal looked oddly helpless. “Uh, right,” he said.
“May ALMSIVI guide your path, Serjo Sloan. And your family’s.” She bowed again.
“May the Three bless you and your kin,” he said.
Satheri took the customary three steps back before turning around. So he didn’t know Serjo Lowendral that well. But the hints were good!”
She just wished she knew more.
The Rowenis returned home a few hours before midnight. Satisfied with drinks and hors d’oeuvres from the party, and too tired to draw water for baths, they all prepared for bed.
“Daddy?” Satheri said.
“Is it okay if I put Tollie inside? I’ll get his wooden cage. But it’s cold outside.”
“Oh! I suppose winter is getting closer. Good idea.”
Satheri smiled and prepped the big wooden cage where they kept Tollie during the colder months. She went out onto the balcony and called for Tollie, and the poor little guy practically jumped into her arms.
“Aw, poor baby! It’s too cold for you, so you’re going to stay indoors with us. It never gets cold down south where Serjo Lowendral lives. Isn’t that great?”
Tollie made a squeaking noise as she put him in the cage. Picking it up, she returned inside and placed the cage next to her bed.
“It’ll be really nice,” she said, as she tucked herself in. “I talked to Serjo Sloan at the party today, and he said Serjo Lowendral has a riding guar! That’s like a big version of you. But don’t worry, Tollie, I like you small.”
Tollie squeaked again and pressed his leathery snout against the bars. Satheri smiled and stuck her fingers through the gaps to stroke Tollie’s nose, his skin dry and pebbly.
“It’s still kind of scary, huh? Serjo Sloan doesn’t know much about him. But Serjo Lowendral’s a noble, so he’ll be good I’m sure.”
She listened to Tollie’s breathing for a few moments. Gods, she hoped Serjo Lowendral was good. No one was supposed to say bad things about nobles—but she’d still heard bad things about some.
“That’s a good idea, Tollie. I’ll donate to the Temple in the name of Mother Alma. She’ll protect us. She loves her children. You aren’t one of her children—but you’re with me so that doesn’t matter. You’re like my kid, and I’ll protect you.”
And she could. Plus, Serjo Lowendral probably liked animals. So that was something.
“It’ll still be another year before we have to go anywhere,” she whispered. “Another year where we can just have fun with Muthsera Morgendorffer and Treads-on-Ferns and Tiphannia.”
Not like a year was very long.
“And a lot can happen in a year. So it’ll be fine, Tollie. You and me will be fine.”