Daria didn't think that the Nordic couple lounging outside of the Morgendorffer home looked like the kinds of clients mom usually got. Or dad either, for that matter. Their non-ritual scars stood out, as did their weapons: a big two-handed sword in a scabbard was strapped to the man's back and the woman leaned on a long spear. Their travel-stained clothes, streaked with dirt and ash, hadn't been washed in a while. Neither had the two smelly canvas bags at their feet.
Venturing closer but not looking directly at them, Daria got a whiff and realized they hadn't washed in a while either.
The man had iron-gray hair and a thick black mustache while the woman had tied her brown hair into a loose bun. Both had bright eyes, confident but watchful.
Daria appraised the situation. It was a crowded street, and a Hlaalu guard stood at the corner. These two wouldn't try anything in public, she was pretty sure.
"Excuse me," she said. "Are you looking for someone here?"
The man smiled and looked over to the woman. "She's a bold one, isn't she?"
"Takes after her father," she said, then turned her head to face Daria. "We're old friends of your dad, from his Fighters Guild days."
Suddenly it clicked. He'd mentioned them before on the rare occasions he talked about his wild early years, spent roaming from Skyrim to Cyrodiil with a sword in his hand and not much of anything in his pockets, sharing hardships with a few close companions.
"Fox and Willow," Daria said, looking from one to the other. She didn't know much about them specifically, other than that they'd been in the guild longer than dad.
"Smart, too! The guy I asked said Jake had a couple of daughters. You're Quinn?"
"Daria," she corrected.
"Great! We knocked on the door but no one was home, so we thought we'd wait around."
Daria hesitated. She suspected they were who they said they were. The weapons gave her a bit of pause. Weapons weren't exactly a rare sight in the Empire since the Crisis, but people didn't usually bring them to the Morgendorffer home.
On the other hand, mom and dad did make a big deal about the Imperial and Nordic rites of hospitality, respectively.
"Mom and dad are both out today, but they'll probably be back pretty soon," she said, and hoped that pretty soon meant almost immediately.
She glanced again at the guard. He stood within shouting distance. Taking the heavy iron key from her purse, Daria unlocked the door and held it open.
"As the eldest daughter of Jake and Helen Morgendorffer, it's my honor to invite you within these humble walls," she said, reciting the age-old Nordic words. Then she added: "Please keep in mind that humble is only a figure of speech, and that that we actually spent a lot of money to get quality walls so as to maintain the appearance of respectability."
“And we accept your shelter from the storm,” Willow said, as she and Fox picked up their bags and stepped inside.
"Wow! Books, papers, a desk! You sure we're talking about the same Jake Morgendorffer?" Fox asked as he surveyed the front office.
"Well this is actually my mom's office."
"Helen has an office?" Willow shook her head. "She was such a free spirit, always roaming hill and dale with nary a care."
"Oh, she still is a free spirit, but now she prefers to roam courtrooms and cares a lot about finding weakness in the opposing counsel's argument. I think that's how she expresses her inner savagery."
"So she really did go to the School of Julianos." Willow sounded disappointed. "Helen always swore that was the last thing she'd ever do."
"Wait a minute, was mom part of the Fighters Guild with you guys?" Daria asked.
Fox shook his head. "She wasn't. But she did hang with us for a bit, back when the three of us got some work in Kvatch. Don't think her mom approved of that very much," he added with a laugh.
"Grandma didn't strike me as someone who approved of much of anything." Daria had only met the woman once, when the Morgendorffers had ported to Kvatch and stayed there for a week while en route to Morrowind.
"I'm not a very good host, but I'll do my best," Daria said. She tried to think back to the rules. "Mom and dad will probably want you to stay in the room I share with my sister. My sister will throw a fit at having to sleep downstairs, which definitely makes me happy, so I'll go ahead and take your bags up."
"Oh, no!" Fox said. "Me and the old lady are used to sleeping outdoors. How about that balcony we saw? That'd be perfect."
"I do love sleeping beneath the stars," Willow said.
"Sad as I am to lose the chance to inconvenience Quinn, our house is yours."
Willow reached down to open up her canvas bag and started taking out a bunch of clay bottles. "We've brought gifts, of course! Mostly mazte but we did get one bottle of Cyrodiilic brandy."
"Great. I'm sure my parents—"
Daria paused when she saw Willow pop open one of the mazte bottles and take a swig before she handed it off to her husband who did the same. Then they settled into the chairs usually used by clients.
"Typically you wait for the recipient before you start opening their gifts, but who am I to object? Uh, we do have some food. All local cuisine."
"More bugs? Guess that's all there is to eat in Morrowind. Hey, Willow? Maybe we can talk Jake into going hunting around here to get some real red meat. Remember when we caught that wild goat just outside of Riverwood? Back when Jake got us kicked out of town?" Fox threw his head back and laughed.
"And how did dad manage that?" Daria asked.
"What did he do again? Oh yeah, some city guard made fun of Jake's hat. He was wearing one of those goofy Colovian fur hats for some reason, and Jake took it personally and tried to slug the guy." Fox laughed again. "He's lucky he didn't get skewered!"
Daria's eyes widened. Just how close had dad gotten to getting killed back then? And over something so trivial? The thought that she and Quinn might not even exist because he'd picked a dumb fight gave her pause.
"I'll prep something in the kitchen for you," she said, less from being a good host and more from the desire to be on her own for a bit—a desire she'd already deferred for too long.
Once in the kitchen she considered her options. Cooking was far from her forte, but she knew some basic recipes. She could just give them some bread and scuttle but that risked making mom and dad look like poor hosts. On the other hand, a good host didn't leave guests on their own as soon as they'd arrived.
The strum of a hurdy-gurdy jangled in the air as Fox raised his voice in song.
"Sing ye now of Ysgramor, sing ye of his sword of gore..."
Looked like Fox and Willow were perfectly capable of entertaining themselves. With any luck, she thought, mom and dad would be home before Daria had to go back out to the office and actually talk to the pair.
She opened the pantry and wondered exactly what else she might learn about her parents that night. With mazte and brandy flowing among old friends, all kinds of things could slip.
It'd be a great opportunity for vicarious embarrassment.
Vicarious embarrassment had never been so dull.
Daria sighed as she and Quinn stood next to the dinner table where mom, dad, Fox, and Willow all gathered around. The hour was late, the air in the kitchen stale from too many sweaty bodies packed in its tiny confines for way too long.
And they just kept talking.
"Whatever happened to Maglin, anyway?" dad asked. He slurred his words a bit, still holding the bottle of Cyrodiilic brandy.
"Died on the job somewhere in Elsweyr," Fox said, shaking his head.
"Oh, that's terrible," mom clucked. She had her hands folded in front of her, and the tension in her shoulders suggested she was also getting tired of socializing.
"Hey, easy come easy go. That's how we fighters have to look at it, right, Willow?"
"Attachments will only slow you down," she said, with a nod.
"Speaking of attachments," Fox said, gesturing up at the roof, "this place is a mansion!"
Great, Daria thought. The last thing she wanted was for Fox to give mom and dad an opportunity to brag about the house.
"Excuse me," Daria said. "But Ondryn and Dimartani both have assignments for me to do, and I'd better get started on them."
A lie. But she did have a book she wanted to read and frankly she'd probably learn more from that than from listening to Fox and Willow yammer about old times.
"Now Daria, we do have guests," mom reminded her, sounding reluctant. "We have to be good hosts."
"Hold on, hold on. Assignments? Are those like guild contracts?" Fox asked.
Mom smiled. "We enrolled Daria and Quinn in Drenlyn Academy. It's a highly-rated institution where young people can practice skills like rhetoric and oratory."
"Huh. So you just learn how to talk?"
"Oh, mom's being too modest," Daria said. "We also learn about ruthless networking and the casual acceptance of nepotism as a means of advancement."
Fox still seemed confused. Then he turned to dad, who'd just taken another swig. "You guys really have changed. Your girls can't learn anything in there. It's too structured! You gotta jump into the chaos to figure things out, the way you two did! Back in the day."
"Maybe you're right," dad mumbled.
Mom's smile turned rigid. "Times have changed, Fox."
"But the eternal truths of the endless road abide, dear Helen!" Willow proclaimed, throwing out her arms for emphasis.
"I'm not saying we should take the girls out of school! But maybe they need a little more for their education. You know, to keep things real," dad said.
Mom reached out, pried his fingers off the neck of the brandy bottle, and grabbed it to take a drink herself. "Oh, it's so fun to reminisce. Did you two ever try to settle down?" she asked.
"We lived in Bravil for five years. Got a long-term contract to guard a warehouse that no one wanted to steal from. Decent pay but we can't be tied down. Life's an adventure. I hope you two don't forget that."
"We haven't!" Jake jabbed a finger into the air as if making a point. "Hell, we traveled across the continent to get here."
"There you go! Must have had some wild encounters on the road."
Daria shook her head. "Actually, we used my mom's connections with the Mages Guild to conveniently teleport us halfway to Morrowind. We took a boat the rest of the way."
Fox gave dad a disappointed look.
"Yeah, but the boat ride was really tough! I kept getting sea-sick," dad protested.
"Aw, come on. The Jake I knew wouldn't be bothered by a boat ride!"
"The Jake you knew was in much better shape," mom muttered.
"What was that, honey?" dad asked.
Mom clapped her hands together. "What fun we're all having! Unfortunately, I have a busy day tomorrow and I really must catch up on work."
"But what about the sacred duty of hospitality?" Daria protested, trying to sound sincere.
"As the primary breadwinner of this household I get a certain degree of leeway that layabout teenagers don't," she growled. Then she turned to Fox and Willow. "I do apologize but I must get ready for my client meetings tomorrow!"
"Work? Helen, we gotta stay up late and sing old songs, like we used to!"
"As much as I'd love to, I don't think the neighbors would care for that."
"Another reason not to live in cities," Willow said. "They're such strange places."
Dad laughed. "You're too uptight, Helen. I say we sing!"
She forced a laugh. "My singing voice isn't what it used to be, and I have actual responsibilities now!"
"You're no fun," dad muttered.
"Girls, why don't you prepare a bath for our guests?"
"That won't be necessary," Willow said. "I prefer the feel of nature on my skin."
"Not to mention the smell," Daria added.
Mom grimaced. "Well draw a bath anyway. It's been a long hot day."
The music started almost immediately after mom went to her office. Willow played the hurdy-gurdy while Fox sang about various bloody-handed heroes, dad humming along without really knowing the tune.
Daria turned off the kitchen spigot once the bucket filled up. Her ears rang with the epic of Hjoring Eater-of-Faces as she lifted the bucket, grunting from the weight, and began the process of hauling it to the small backroom they used for bathing.
Once there, she poured the water into the small wooden tub. Still not even halfway. She put the bucket down and wiped her brow. Quinn tended to the small fire that would heat the bath.
"I get first dibs on the bath, okay?" Quinn said. "Me and the Fashion Club are going to the market tomorrow and we need to smell our best."
"Forget it. I'm hauling the water, so I get first dibs."
"But I need it to make a good impression! Who knows, I might meet some handsome young noble and get married and take care of everything for our family, but it'll all be undone if I don't smell perfect!"
"I'll take my chances."
Quinn opened her mouth as if to say something but appeared to think better of it. "Fine. I guess since you're getting all gross and sweaty you need it more. What do you think of Fox and Willow?"
The ballad reached a crescendo, Jake's voice breaking at the climax where Hjoring Eater-of-Faces finally lived up to his name.
"As much as I enjoy seeing them embarrass mom and dad, I'm already sick of having to spend time with them."
"I mean about what they said. Sometimes I wonder if we are too sheltered. Like Balmora's pretty good when it comes to shopping but there are all these other cities where dresses and bargains might be even better and how would I even know if I stay here? Maybe I should join the Fighters Guild."
"I'm sure you could offer some great fashion advice on what kind of weapon goes best with plate mail."
"Ew, plate mail? Won't I smell all like rusty and stuff?"
"Depends how well you grease it."
"Ew, grease? Forget it then. Yeah, I'm getting kind of tired of them too. I don't like how they keep making fun of dad."
Daria thought about it. "It's sort of amusing. But they do it more often than I'm comfortable with."
With that, Daria took the empty bucket and walked back to the kitchen. She hoped their guests wouldn't stay much longer. She also knew that as good hosts, mom and dad would never kick them out no matter how much they wanted to.
Drenlyn Academy felt like a sanctuary compared to the increasingly crowded Morgendorffer home.
It was a little past noon. Daria sat with Jane in the shadow of the library wall, the air there scorching them a bit less than it would in the direct sunlight.
"I'm not sure what's worse," Daria said. "Dealing with the incessant singing or watching dad regress to adolescence."
"I don’t know that one has to be worse than the other. They could both be equally awful."
"Plus, I have no idea how long they're going to stay. Mom reminded me this morning that it'd be rude to ask."
"That's one of the nice things about being a Dunmer. We don't have any rule about hospitality. If a guest's being a pain, we can just tell them to buzz off."
"I think the Dunmer definitely have the right idea about that."
"You know, Daria, you're free to crash at my place after school. Trent's on the road so there won’t be any unwanted music. J'dash did see an huge rat rooting through the alley next to the apartment, but he won't let the critter inside. Unless the rat pays rent.”
Rats could actually be a pretty serious problem in Vvardenfell, growing to monstrous sizes in the absence of natural predators.
"Thanks. Unfortunately, dad decided this morning that Quinn and I are going to go to the Fighters Guild with Fox and Willow so we can see the important things they do for the community."
School ended and Daria met up with Quinn at Drenlyn’s gate. They walked along the river market for a while, where the air buzzed with ferocious swarms of biting flies brought out by the sticky late summer heat.
"I was thinking," Quinn said.
"Before you ask: a pink moth-silk dress isn't generally considered suitable battle gear for the Fighters Guild."
"Ha. Ha. If you're done with your weird jokes, there might be something good we can get out of these jerks."
"Other than their departure?"
"Think about it. They knew mom and dad when they were our age, right?"
"A little older than our age but go on."
"So that means they know all the dirt! And if we can dig up that dirt than we can have something to use against mom and dad when we get in trouble."
Daria nodded. "I've never said no to good blackmail material. But weren't you complaining about how mean Fox was being to dad?"
"Ugh! That's totally different, Daria! Fox was just being mean for no reason. This isn't being mean, it's about being practical."
"When you get in trouble, you mean."
"Oh come on, you know mom wouldn't approve of you going to those weird cornerclubs with Jane."
They reached Guild Row and walked up the gently sloping street. The Fighters Guild office was right next to the Mages Guild, the two buildings almost mirror images of each other. Daria hadn't been there since her brief tenure as a Mages Guild volunteer, and she idly wondered how Johanna was doing out in Sadrith Mora.
Walking beneath the archway in front of the door, Daria knocked and got no response. Not wanting to wait, she opened it and entered. The door led to a narrow adobe hallway sparsely decorated with threadbare rugs and crooked tapestries. A grimy window facing the alley let in a few beams of soiled sunlight. The musty odor in the place made it smell like an unwashed armpit, and Quinn gagged behind her.
"Don't they ever, like, clean this place?"
"Apparently not. Hello?"
Her voice echoed down the hall. A little unsettled, she nonetheless moved forward. If the layout was anything like the Mages Guild's office, most of it was underground. Stairs going down after a bend in the hall confirmed her suspicion.
The smell worsened as she descended, accompanied by the greasy stink of armor oil. Light came from basement windows, and the feet of passersby cast shadows on the wall.
"Are you sure this is the Fighters Guild?" Quinn asked.
"It has the sign outside, and I know we're on Guild Row. But hey, maybe it's a secret Camonna Tong hideout pretending to be a guild office."
Daria regretted the joke the moment she made it, her mind flashing back to Synda and her thugs in that early morning alley. She drove away the thought. If this really were a Camonna Tong hideout, she and Quinn would already be dead.
She felt better once she heard heavy objects hitting each other, accompanied by loud grunts. The door at the end of the hall opened up to an enormous subterranean sparring room. A woven mat covered the floor and cloth dummies were propped up on sticks. Wooden weapons, some cushioned some not, waited in their racks.
Dad, Fox, and Willow stood nearby, talking to an enormous red-headed Nord woman wearing bonemold armor and a baleful expression.
"Oh, hey, girls! Welcome to the fighter's life!" dad exclaimed, waving.
"Please tell me you didn't sign us all up for the guild," Daria said.
"Ha ha, no, I don't meet the physical standards anymore. But Fox and Willow are members and so we can hang around as long as they’re here! Isn't this exciting? You know, the Fighters Guild does a lot of important work. Protecting caravans, hunting monsters, sometimes even tracking down criminals!"
Daria crossed her arms. "Hmm. So what you're saying is that the Empire's inability to adequately police its own territory means it has to outsource security to private institutions of dubious ethics."
Dad looked hurt, and Daria almost regretted her statement. She was still right, though.
"No, kiddo," he said, "it's just people doing their part. This is, uh, why I wanted you to see it. You could even do some sparring, like we used to do back on Stirk!"
"I'd love to spar, daddy," Quinn said, "but I'd like to do it with Willow. I feel like I can learn a lot from her."
"That's great! Hey, Willow!"
Surprised, Daria gave Quinn a quizzical look. She just tapped her head and mouthed: "Blackmail!"
"What about you, Daria? Ready to test yourself in the art of battle?" dad asked.
"I think I'll pass. It's dark enough in here that I won't be able to see anything if I take off my glasses. And sparring with my glasses on is definitely not an option."
"Huh, guess I should have thought of that."
Feeling a little bad for her dad, she decided to let him off easy. "You go and spar with Fox. I'll sit over there and read my book."
"Okay. But watch what we're doing! That way you can get a feel for what it's like!" Dad turned around. "Hey, Fox, ready?"
"Just a minute, Jake. I'm discussing some business with Eydis over here. I'll join you in a bit."
Dad ambled over to the nearest weapons rack and examined the different practice swords on display. He picked one up and for just a moment looked like a hardy northern warrior. Then the gentle father he was came back to the fore.
Still thinking about her sister's blackmail suggestion, Daria walked over to where Fox and Eydis spoke. Taking her book from her bag, she opened it and pretended to read while she listened.
"Look, Fox," Eydis said, her tone annoyed. "we don't have too many contracts available right now. And frankly, your reputation isn't the best."
"Me and my old lady just want to settle down in Balmora. We've been on the road for months."
"Spend a few more days on the road and you can see what kinds of jobs they have in Vivec City or Ald'ruhn."
"Come on, Eydis. We found a place to stay here."
"You could always sleep in the guild barracks," Eydis said.
"I mean a nice place! Old buddy of mine's letting us crash. We're in our forties. Sleeping on the hard ground isn't as easy as it used to be. Figured we'd stick around with him for a few months. Until we get enough to rent a place of our own."
Hearing that, Daria glowered at the text she pretended to read. So much for a happy life on the road. She considered telling dad, but he'd never see it through his nostalgia blinders.
"That isn't my problem, Fox. If you'd done your bit in Bravil you could have had a nice and cushy desk job. Instead, you decided to strike off on your own mid-contract. Frankly, you're lucky your membership wasn't revoked." She sighed and rubbed her temple. "I have a grunt job you and your wife can do."
"Uh, sure. Will it lead to more?"
"If you do a good job and finish it, yes. There's a big rat causing problems in Labor Town, down by the southern wall near the river. A Khajiit junk dealer named J’dash hired us to take care of it. Ask him, and you should be able to track it down."
Daria’s eyes widened at hearing the name.
Fox laughed in disbelief. "A rat? You gotta be kidding me, I can—"
"You can take or leave it." Eydis crossed her arms and stared him down.
"What about guard duty or something—" Fox started.
"Hey, I remember you!"
Daria flinched at the sudden exclamation in her left ear, the voice male and Dunmer though unusually high-pitched. It took a moment for her to recognize the speaker when she saw him: skinny, in oversized bonemold armor that left his flat gray belly exposed, and wearing a guileless smile one didn't usually see on the native-born.
"Kavon?" It came back to her: the dimwitted Hlaalu guard and Briltasi's secret boyfriend.
"Yeah! And you're, uh, Briltasi's friend! Sorry, I forgot your name."
"I'm Daria. And I’m more of an acquaintance. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm trying to—"
"Cool! Thanks for keeping that whole thing a secret, by the way! I don't want Briltasi's folks getting mad at me. Or at her!" he all but shouted.
"If you want to keep it a secret, I suggest lowering your voice."
"Oh, right! Sorry," he whispered. "Hey, are you part of the Fighters Guild! That's really cool! Oh, wait! That's what those glass things on your eyes are for, huh? They're like eye armor! I never even thought about eye armor. I should get a pair."
"Arrows just bounce off these old eye-plates," she said, tapping the side of her right lens. Fox and Eydis were still negotiating, the former sounding increasingly desperate. "Look, I really need—"
"I'm here to join up in the guild and see if they have any jobs! I'm a pretty tough guy so I can make myself useful around here."
"Aren't you already working for Great House Hlaalu as a guard? Seems like that'd be a conflict of interest."
He waved his hand. "Nah, they don't mind if we take a few jobs on the side. Plus, I really need the money! I want to buy something nice for Briltasi pretty soon because it's almost our year-long thingy."
"Ann-i-ver-sa-ry," Daria corrected, enunciating each syllable.
"Yeah, that! You think I'll be good for this?"
Daria observed the sparring room, full of people hitting each other with wooden sticks. At the far end, a panicked Quinn warded off Willow's strikes as best she could, steadily retreating under the assault.
"I think you'll fit right in." She thought back to the conversation she'd overheard—the portion of it, anyway. "But from what I hear, there aren't many jobs available."
Kavon’s face fell. "Aw, man!"
Daria considered the situation. Eydis obviously didn't like Fox. If Kavon asked to do the job—and killing a rat would probably fall within his skill set—would she give it to him instead?
"Try asking the Nord woman over there. Her name's Eydis," Daria said, pointing to her. "She mentioned something about a rat in Labor Town, but you better move fast. She's already negotiating a contract with the guy she's talking to."
"Okay, will do! Thanks, Daria!"
Trying to look inconspicuous, Daria watched and waited to see what would happen next.
Sure, Willow acted like she was all sweet and at peace with the world, but it turned out she really wasn't.
Quinn barely blocked another of Willow's swift strikes. The staff's ends were padded but it'd still really hurt if she got hit! And she had to wear a smelly cloth helmet which probably hadn't been washed in years!
She’d need another bath that night. This time she’d get first dibs!
Willow paused to take a breath, her face red and sweaty.
"Uh, so anyway Willow, I'm really wondering what mom was like when she was my age! What kinds of crazy things did you guys get up to?"
"Twenty damn years," Willow muttered. "And I'm still on the road killing things to earn food and shelter!"
Quinn took another step back. "See, I didn't mean killing things. More like what kinds of fun things you did! Like staying out late with cute boys, or buying accessories you couldn't really afford—"
"Why can't I have a house? We had one once, in Bravil. A son, too! But Fox just had to keep on adventuring. We gotta be free," she mimicked.
Willow shouted and lashed out. Quinn blocked but the impact tore the staff out of her hands. Then Willow struck Quinn's calves and literally swept her off her feet.
Quinn landed on her back, the mat soft but smelling like the sweat of a million different people.
"Not bad," Willow said, acting like she was all normal again. "Want another try?"
"Actually, I think I'll just lie here a little while," Quinn said, too tired to even complain.
Daria inched closer to make sure she heard the brewing confrontation.
"Hey! My name's Kavon and I want to join the Fighters Guild!"
Eydis, still standing next to Fox, eyed the young Dunmer up and down. "All right. You want to read the guild bylaws, first?"
"Nah, I don't have time to read. I'm just here to fight!"
Eydis smirked. "Just the way I like it."
"So you need someone to kill a rat? 'Cause I'm your guy!"
"Hold on," Fox interrupted. "That's my job!"
"Oh." Kavon hung his head.
Daria whispered a curse. He was giving up too easily.
"Besides, Eydis,” Fox continued, “you don't want some scrub like this doing the job. You want a seasoned professional."
"Actually, Fox, killing a rat is a job for a scrub. I like this kid's hustle. Kavon, you with Hlaalu?"
"Uh, I'm not a member but I work for them! I help guard High Town."
"Interesting. How long you been doing this?"
Eydis cocked her head, eyes still on Kavon. "I don't know, Fox. He's a gainfully employed guard and you're a vagrant who's behind on his guild dues."
"You can take the dues out of my payment for this job!"
"Except your payment won't cover all of what you owe."
Kavon scratched his head. "What are dues?"
"Don't worry about it, kid. I'm having a hard time making a decision here. Here's what I'll do: you both have the job. First person to kill the rat in Labor Town gets the fifty-septim reward."
Fox's jaw dropped. "What? You can't do that! Guild Act doesn't let—"
"I do whatever the hell I want."
"Thanks, Sera Eydis!" Kavon said.
"Kid's got a good attitude. Never too late to learn, Fox."
No longer pretending to read, Daria watched and wondered what, if anything, she should do next. If Kavon pulled it off, it might get Fox and Willow to leave Balmora. She didn't doubt Kavon capable of killing a rat, even the mean dog-sized variety found in Morrowind. But he might not be smart enough to find it on his own, and Eydis's directions hadn't been the best.
Daria, on the other hand, knew exactly where the client lived.
"I don't believe this!" Fox whirled to Kavon and pointed at him. "You just got in way over your head. My advice to you is to stay out of our way."
"Uh, okay. Sera Eydis, can I get started?" Kavon asked.
Eydis laughed. "Whenever you're ready, kid."
"All right!" Kavon pumped his fist into the air.
Fox looked back over his shoulder. "Willow! We got a job and we gotta do it, pronto!"
Standing over a defeated Quinn, Willow jogged over to her husband. Dad, who'd been standing by the weapons rack with a dejected expression, took notice.
"What's going on?" he asked, shouting to be heard across the room.
"Me and the old lady got some work. You remember what a hustle it could be. We won't be back until late!"
A beaming Kavon walked by. "Thanks, Daria! I owe you one! Again!"
"If anything Kavon, I might owe you one." Then a thought came to her. "Actually, Kavon, could you wait outside for me? I need to ask you about something."
"Okay!" he said before walking out the door.
Daria stood up. Fox and Willow were talking to dad, who seemed as confused as ever. If she was going to make her move, it needed to be now.
"Dad," she said, "I need to go to Jane's."
"Uh, sure thing, kiddo! Just be back before it gets dark."
"Will do," she said.
Remembering Quinn, Daria looked back to see her sister leaning against the wall, grouchy but none the worse for wear. No need to worry about her, she decided.
Kavon waited for her in the bright sunlight outside, as he'd promised.
"I have a proposition for you," Daria said.
"Uh," he grunted, rubbing the back of his neck. "No offense, Daria, but you're not really my type."
She wondered just how stupid he really was and had a bad feeling she was about to find out. "That's not what I meant."
"Oh! What did you mean?"
"You know that guy you're competing with? His name's Fox and he and his wife are guests at my house. Guests I’d like to get rid of. I'm hoping that if you get the job done before he does, they'll give up on working here and annoy someone else in a different city. Thus I have a vested interest in your success."
"Can't you just kick him out?"
"No, because of this stupid human thing called hospitality. But frankly he and his wife are disrupting my mom's business, keeping us up to obnoxious hours, and eating all of our food. If they stay on much longer, I'll probably have to smother them in their sleep and a murder rap is the last thing an upwardly mobile young person like me needs on her resume."
Kavon stroked his chin, clearly puzzled. "Man, you outlanders are weird. I'd just kick him out. So if I kill the rat like Eydis wants, Fox has to leave your house?"
"That's the hope. And I'll be happy to help you. I'm not much of a fighter but I happen to know the client."
"On that case, let's do this while we still have a head start on Fox and Willow."
Fox got that devious look he’d always gotten when he was about to go all out. It worried Jake, but he didn’t know what else to do but listen. Around him, fighters sparred and cursed. He felt every one of his forty-six years.
“You know where we can find J’dash? The guy hiring us for this contract?”
The name sounded familiar. One of Quinn’s friends?
“Uh, I’m not sure—”
“Maybe you could help us look for him, Jake,” Willow said. “You know this city better than we do.”
“I don’t get into Labor Town a whole lot.”
Fox gripped his shoulder. “Come on. You’re still a warrior, deep down. It’ll be like old times.”
Like old times: blistered feet and soaked clothes; the screams of stricken men and knowing that one moment of bad luck would bring him to a bloody end. The brandy had kept him from thinking about that too much the previous night. But now he was sober.
“I should check with my wife, first—”
The voice of his father, the Mad Wolf of Haafingar, cut into him like a cruel winter’s wind. “No true Nord shuns hardship, Jakob! Are you a man? A warrior? Or are you some cringing shopkeeper enthralled to a woman?”
Jake shivered. “I am a man! And a warrior.” His heart pounded. His mind reeled.
Why am I doing this again? he asked himself.
“Great! That Dunmer kid already has a head start on us, so let’s go!”
Jake, Fox, and Willow went out to seek violence. Just like the old times Jake hated so very much.
The sun burned its way to the west as Daria and Kavon walked through Labor Town. Shadows grew long in the crowded streets as merchants made their calls to weary workers trudging to homes and cornerclubs.
"Isn't clearing the town of pests something the Hlaalu guards should be doing?" Daria asked as they walked. She had to shout to be heard above the hoarse cries of stubborn traders.
"Oh, yeah, we do that!" Kavon said.
"But you're killing this rat on behalf of the Fighters Guild."
"Us guards only do pest control in High Town and the Commercial District. Labor Town's big so it'd be super-expensive for us to keep it clean. My boss said that having the folks in Labor Town hire Fighters Guild guys means the rest of us don't have to pay as many taxes."
"And what about the fact that people in Labor Town don't usually have as much money? Doesn't that mean they can't typically afford to hire fighters? And the pest problem gets worse?"
"Aw, they always figure something out. Anyway, this means more work for people like me."
"Classic Hlaalu. But you've killed rats before."
"Nope," Kavon said, almost proudly.
"What do you do as a guard, then?"
"I keep watch on the towers around High Town. But don't worry, Daria. A big part of being a guard is looking tough enough that nobody messes with you. And me?" He stopped and turned to face her, then took a flexing poise. "I look pretty tough."
"Kavon, you know I can't see you flex through that armor, right?"
"Huh?" His eyes widened, and then he let his arms fall. "Oh, yeah, huh. Anyway, I'm not worried. We'll probably scare the rat away."
They reached the apartment to find out that Jane wasn’t home yet. However, J’dash was happy to show Daria where he’d found the rat. The Khajiit had actually sniffed out the trail that morning and retraced his steps to a narrow alley a few blocks away from the South Wall Cornerclub. Filth and garbage lay heaped up against the dirt-streaked walls, their moldering forms studded with clay shards and dried beetle shells.
"Rat is somewhere here." He made a growling noise. "Khajiit finds the smell offensive. Perhaps noses of Mer and Men are less sensitive?"
If it reeked to her, it was probably borderline intolerable to him. The alley wasn't long, terminating in a wall about ten feet in. The rat likely made its nest under one of the heaps.
"Okay," she said. "First we find the nest."
"And then charge in! Yeah!" Kavon exclaimed.
"A rat nest is way too small for you to charge in," Daria said.
"But isn't this like a really big rat?"
"Not big enough for that. Rats tend to be retiring, so our target’s going to prefer to come out at night when there are fewer people around. What we should do is make a trail of food from the rat’s nest to the mouth of the alley. We wait for it to follow, and then strike.”
“Imperial is a clever huntress,” J’dash said.
“And if I remember correctly, rats do like the taste of marshmerrow pulp.”
“Bosmer a few streets down sells marshmerrow. Come, this one will show you,” J’dash offered.
“Kavon, you stand guard.”
A bit later, Daria returned with a bundle of marshmerrow reeds in her hand. Now came the hard part.
Taking a deep breath, Daria stepped into the alley. It was like wading into a sea of stench and she suppressed a gag. Her eyes watered, mixing with the distortion of her glasses so that she could barely see.
"Dammit," she uttered. She took off her glasses and blinked away the tears. A soft step behind her revealed the presence of J’dash, who covered his nose with a furry hand.
Daria again donned her glasses and stepped forward, her booted foot sinking into something wet. She wondered if the bathwater still in the tub from last night was clean enough for another go-around. Trying not to breathe, she peered through the darkness for some sign of a nest. The rat could be huddled underneath any of the decaying heaps.
"Rat is here," J'dash whispered, pointing to a partially collapsed barrel a few feet ahead. "Khajiit can smell it."
"Okay." Daria leaned in for a better look. She couldn't see a thing, but Khajiit had sharper senses than humans. She took one of the strands and tore off a chunk. Sticky and sugary pulp dripped out the ripped end. She threw the piece at the nest and it landed just in front of the entrance.
Daria tossed another and another, making a trail. Doing this, she backed out of the alley, all the while hoping she didn't slip on anything.
Finally done, she looked to Kavon as the last of the sun’s light slipped behind the adobe blocks. "Now we wait."
“You win again, old man,” Jake muttered as he pretended to know where he was going.
The grid of Labor Town spread out in all directions, the big streets connected by winding alleys that ran between the rough earthen apartments and grubby shops. Jake mostly helped independent Dunmer merchants figure out how to pitch their goods to the shipping magnates that connected Vvardenfell with mainland Morrowind and the rest of the Empire, and those merchants usually lived in the Commercial District.
“Hey, Jake, you sure you know where you’re going?” Fox asked.
“This is like Karthwasten all over again,” Willow muttered.
“Uh, just give me minute. They’re always doing construction in Labor Town, it’s like it’s never the same neighborhood two days in a row!” He faked a laugh.
Who was he fooling? He was a failed warrior and thus a failed man. Just like dad had said. He didn’t even really want to kill the rat. Sure, he got that rats were dangerous, but he’d seen enough blood for one lifetime. Poor rat probably just wanted a few crumbs, same as anyone else.
They came to a crossroads plaza where late shoppers searched for deals under the darkening sky. At the edge walked a Dunmer girl with bobbed black hair and a canvas under her arm.
“Oh! Jane!” he cried out.
Jane turned, eyes widening in surprise.
“Hi, Mr. Morgendorffer! Didn’t expect to see you in Labor Town.”
“Didn’t expect to be here! Say, could you do me a favor? My friends are from the Fighters Guild and they’ve been hired by some guy named J’dash to kill a rat—”
“J’dash! Yeah, he’s my landlord. Didn’t know he’d hired the guild to take care of the rat.”
That’s how he knew the name! “Think you could show us where he is?”
“Yes!” Jake cheered. His smile vanished when he saw the puzzled looks from Fox and Willow.
Why didn’t they get it? He’d just used networking to find J’dash. And the great thing about leveraging personal relations for business was that you didn’t have to cut anyone’s head off. Not usually, anyway.
“Who’d you paint today, Jane-o?” he asked, to distract himself.
“Conemmus Terano. Big-shot silk merchant. He doesn’t live far from you.”
“Oh yeah, I know him. Nice guy. By the way, is Daria still at your place?”
“Huh? I don’t—oh, yeah, she left right when I went to go, uh, retrieve my painting from the Terano house. She must be home by now.”
Jane brought them to a cluttered junk shop with a tiny second story.
“Hmm, no lights. He might not be home.”
Fox groaned. “Great going, Jake.”
“Just a minute,” Jane said. “The rat ran off when J’dash found it, but he sniffed out its trail—Khajiit can do that. I think I still remember where he went. Just let me put my things upstairs. And maybe get J'dash's club, just in case.”
What a relief. He was useful!
“You’re a lifesaver, Jane. Lead the way once you get everything!”
Daria waited as sunset turned to dusk. Only stragglers still walked down the street. It was unwise to wander alone through Labor Town at night—then again, she’d only ever been attacked in the Commercial District.
She and Kavon sat behind the corner of the abandoned apartment next to the alley, eyes on the trail of marshmerrow segments winding through the trash. Hopefully, the rat would follow the trail to them. Kavon would kill it, but as a precaution he’d lent her a short blade made of sharpened chitin. It wasn’t much, but better than nothing.
J’dash hovered behind them, apparently wanting to see this through to the end.
“Man, this is boring—” Kavon started.
Daria hushed him, not wanting chatter to scare away the rat. He was right though—the waiting was boring. She found it hard to believe someone as high-strung as dad could have ever put up with this sort of thing.
“Khajiit hears Jane! But what is Jane doing here?” J’dash said.
“Huh?” Daria turned around to see J’dash pointing back from where they came. Dad and Jane walked down the street, with Fox and Willow behind them.
She turned cold. This was bad. “Kavon, hide.”
“Huh? I’m a fighter, Daria, I don’t hide. And I thought you didn’t want me to talk—”
“Just hide, dammit! Your competitors from the guild are here, and I don’t want them to figure out that we’ve found the rat’s lair.”
J’dash made a rattling purr. “Maybe competitors are not so bad. Khajiit is concerned about that one’s competence,” he said, pointing to Kavon.
He had a point. “Look, let me see what’s going on,” Daria said.
Exhaling and hoping she didn’t smell too awful, Daria approached the quartet. Jane led the way, a stout stick in her right hand.
“Daria, is that you?” dad called, his voice echoing in the street.
“It’s me. What’s going on?”
“I thought you went home.”
She remembered her earlier excuse about going to Jane’s. “No, I hung around for a bit. I’m, uh, about to go home.”
They got close enough to speak at normal volume. “This isn’t a safe place, kiddo.”
“I know. I lost track of the time.” She decided to feign ignorance. “What are Fox and Willow doing here?”
“We got a contract to kill a rat in this neighborhood,” Fox said.
Kavon stepped away from the alley entrance. “Uh, hey! Me and Daria already found the rat. So you guys gotta find a different rat to kill.”
Daria put her palm over her face.
“What’s going on here?” dad demanded.
Fox glared at dad. “I think your daughter was helping the opposition. Maybe she’s sweet on the kid.”
“I am most certainly not,” Daria said.
Then Fox turned to Kavon and stalked toward him, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Willow followed close, the butt of her spear tapping on the ground.
“Look, punk. My wife and I have killed more people than you can count to. So you’d best get out of here before we turn mean.”
Kavon puffed up his chest. “Oh yeah? I’m not afraid of you.”
“Rat is here!” J’dash shouted. “Idiots!”
Daria looked in time to see a dog-sized rat barrel out of the alley. Bristling black fur as thick as a porcupine’s quills covered its muscular body, and the naked pink tail moved like a whip.
“Guys! It’s the rat!” dad yelled.
The rat ran past J’dash, trying to make a break for it. Dad moved first, shouting as he jumped in its path. It swerved toward Daria. She drew her puny weapon as the monster bore down, its incisors gleaming in the torchlight. It suddenly shrieked in pain, Jane beating its flank with her stick. The beast spun and lunged at her, but she ably hopped out of the way.
Hissing in rage, the rat whirled and scurried in the other direction. J’dash was already waiting. The Khajiit ducked low and lashed out with his hand. The rat tumbled, screeching as blood and worse spilled out from its body. Dragging itself a bit farther down the street, it collapsed and went still.
Meanwhile, Kavon still argued with Fox and Willow.
“I don’t care that you were here first, we’ve been with the guild longer!” Fox said.
J’dash stalked up to the quarreling trio and roared. He thrust out his clawed right hand, drenched in blood.
“Khajiit has killed the rat! Khajiit will not pay Fighters Guild! Guild has done nothing on this day.”
“Wait, you killed the rat?” Kavon asked.
“Yes, Khajiit has done guild's job. Khajiit will enjoy the coin Khajiit was going to give you. Only Khajiit’s friends helped.” He motioned to the rest.
Willow pointed at Kavon. “See what you did? Now none of us are going to get paid!”
“Hey, don’t get mad at me! I’d have been on that rat if you jerks hadn’t interrupted.”
“We needed that job!” Fox stepped back and drew his sword.
Daria gasped. Killing rats was one thing—people killing each other quite another. There had to be something she could say, some clever remark.
Instead, dad stepped between the combatants with his arms held out.
“All of you settle down!” he bellowed.
And again, Daria saw the Nord warrior he’d once been: fearless and in control. Judging by the reactions, so did Fox, Willow, and Kavon.
“Look,” he continued, in a quieter voice. “You guys need to do some basic cost-benefit analysis. How much is this job worth?”
“Fifty septims. That we need!” Fox groused.
“Okay, fifty septims. And how are you going to spend that in prison if you kill this kid over here?”
“It’s not about the money!” Fox said.
“No, it totally is,” Willow corrected.
“It’s always about the money!” dad said, his voice turning cheery. “What kind of work do you do, son?” he asked Kavon.
“Uh, I’m a guard.”
“Hmm, I don’t think the guard captains would like one of their own getting into fights with guildies.”
Kavon nodded. “Huh, yeah, I guess you’re right. Uh, what were we fighting about?”
Fox shook his head. “Clever words, Jake, but words are no match for blades. And, uh, we still need that money.”
“I’m not finished yet!” Jake said. “That fifty wasn’t going to take you far. And I heard how you negotiated with Eydis, with all that stuff about unpaid dues. You never want to start a business relationship off from a position of weakness.”
“But the guild is all we know!” Willow protested.
“Which is why you need to diversify your employment opportunities! There’s plenty of guys looking for tough fighters like you. In fact, I happen to know that the East Empire Company is always hiring.”
Fox looked abashed. “East Empire Company? I don’t want to go corporate—”
“That sounds like a really good idea,” Willow said.
Some of the tension left the air. Weapons were still drawn but held loosely.
Dad kept going. “Pay’s not bad and they’ll give you a place to stay. Spend a few years doing a good job and that mix-up with the guild won’t even matter.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment. Then Fox spoke. “I can’t believe I got that worked up over a rat-killing job. Maybe you’re right, Jake. Maybe it’s time to settle down and let go of the past.”
“Long past time,” Willow muttered.
“So, uh, are we still mad at each other?” Kavon asked.
Fox shook his head. “Nah, Jake talked some sense into us. Sorry for going after you, kid.”
“Aw, it’s okay.”
Fox held out his hand, and Kavon was apparently familiar enough with Nord and Imperial customs to shake it. He repeated the ritual with Willow.
Dad raised his face to the starry sky and shook his fist. “Yeah, you hear that dad? I didn’t even need a weapon to get what I wanted! Who cares about Jake the Warrior—I’m Jake the Negotiator!”
Fox and Willow left early the next morning. They seemed much more tolerable once chastened by their experience, and Daria almost felt sorry for them as they left for Ebonheart, where the EEC kept its Vvardenfell District headquarters.
Dad was still riding high on his success the previous night. Not long after their guests departed, Daria confessed her involvement to dad over a pot of trama root tea in the kitchen. She felt partially responsible for the confrontation—as much as she’d disliked the people involved, she didn’t want to be responsible for death or serious injury.
“I guess it was a little impulsive to help Kavon,” dad said. “But you couldn’t have known they’d go that far. Frankly, it was pretty damn unprofessional of Eydis to even set up a competition like that!” He scowled and slammed his fist on the table.
“For what it’s worth dad, you did an impressive job last night.”
He grinned. “See? Your old dad isn’t so lame after all!”
“Don’t let it go to your head.”
He looked taken aback for a moment, and then laughed. “Let me tell you, Daria. Guild life wasn’t that great.”
“Does this mean mom won’t pressure me to intern at them any longer?”
“Most guilds are fine! And the Fighters Guild is important but—well, I never liked it. You know, the only reason I joined up was to get away from my dad. He was about to march me off to the War of Bend’r-Mahk and, well, I didn’t want to kill people. So I did the guild instead. Figured that’d still be a way to prove myself and I wouldn’t have to do much more than guard caravans or fight monsters.
“And I had some fun with Fox and Willow. But a lot of it really sucked. I killed some bandits. I don’t regret it—I mean, they were killers, too. That sort of thing sticks with you, though. I met mom not long after that and we decided to go our own way. Except I always wondered if I was a coward for doing that. Knew my old man wouldn’t approve of me going into business.
“But last night I realized I don’t need to kill my way into greatness! I can talk my way into it, instead! And I like that a lot better. Because that way, no one has to die.”
“Except for that rat.”
“Well, yeah. Except for the rat. But J’dash killed him, not me. Anyway, I like being able to talk my way into greatness.”
“On that case, Balmora’s legalism and intrigue probably suit you perfectly,” Daria said.
He raised his clay teacup over the table, and Daria did the same, the vessels clinking against each other in a heartfelt toast.