"...the Imperial Family returned to Roma this afternoon from their midwinter vacation to the south of Gaul. The princesses will be spending the Saturnalia holiday at home with their parents before returning to their respective universities in the new year."
"Turn it off, please."
Lars twisted a knob in the center console and tinny music began to play instead. "You know, that could've gone worse."
Zelda twisted in her seat to give him the most condescending glower she could muster. "Really. Tell me, Lars. Tell me how it could've been worse than having my press privileges revoked?"
"Well, the camera wasn't damaged."
She stared at him, finding it unfathomable that he would equate his stupid camera to her career. Lars wisely stopped talking. They returned to the RAP building in silence and Zelda didn't thank him for the ride when she got out.
The elevator returned her to the ninth floor, where a gold painted wall welcomed her to the Roma Affiliated Presscorps: Entertainment & Sports floor.
She wasn't sure which word she loathed more, entertainment or sports.
Her division, Entertainment, was on the right. Thankfully she didn't have to walk through the Sports offices to reach her desk. She could hear them hollering over a radio broadcast of a game from across the floor. Zelda took a breath through her teeth and counted to ten, finishing by putting her purse down on her chair.
Her notebook was transferred from her purse to the desktop, and flipped to a clean page. She scribbled the date in the top right corner before pulling the stack of memos out of her in-tray. It was ridiculous how much could pile up in just a few hours. Though the agency ran at half staff outside of standard working hours, Entertainment often kept going well past midnight. She had skipped that shift so she could meet the plane this morning.
So much for that.
Zelda sifted through the pile, marking a few pages that should be forwarded to someone else, and then sorting what was left by priority. Leads to follow up on, facts to check, rival publications to skim. The RAP ran its own daily paper, distributed throughout Italia, and the other provinces. Not that she was ever involved with those parts of the paper. No, the Entertainment Division tended to stay local. Sports followed teams across the empire and Arts & Leisure sought out talent from every hamlet, but Zelda was confined to the capital. Everything—everyone—she covered was right here.
She was just considering the redundancy of yet another charity dinner (surely the third this month for the Roma Historical Society, this time disguised as being for the Natural Sciences exhibit), when the elevator door into the newsroom opened.
Every head in the office turned. Zelda shot to her feet. The race was on.
Reinard was in.
She had to be the first to report on the morning's failure. Put a good spin on it.
The graying editor strode down the floor, collecting a bevy of reporters in his wake.
"Elton, could I have a word?"
"Sir, the ticket numbers haven't come in and Natalia isn't answering her phone—"
"Then send a telegram."
"Grazie." He didn't break stride, intent still on the door of his office.
"Mr. Reinard, if I could just have a moment—"
Zelda winced at the plaintive tone. She pushed past a set of file cabinets, trying to beat the posse to their goal. If she could just get a few minutes of his time…
"Don't you have an assignment?" he barked at someone waving a spreadsheet. The journalist stammered. "Thought so."
Half the followers fell back, sensing, as one, that this was not a good time.
"But the ticket numbers…"
"Get creative, Franco."
Zelda caught the irritation in his voice half a moment too late. Her feet carried her to the door of his office, straight into his line of sight. She froze, aware suddenly of how young and stupid she must look to him. Blouse too chic, hair styled, the gleam of silver bracelets on her wrist. Her mind blanked, leaping back four years to the day she was hired.
She yanked open the door, gesturing like a mute showgirl for him to enter. For you, sir.
He didn't even look at her. Just gave the door a tug when she didn't release it right away. She bit down a yelp, feeling foolish. The other reporters were already drifting away, answering their phones and picking at terminal keys. Another memo clattered out of the pneumatic mail tube.
Idiot. Why did she always turn into a schoolgirl when she tried to speak to him? Zelda shook herself out of the trance, clamping a hand down on the bracelets before they could ring. They weren't juvenile, she thought angrily. Bangles were the hottest trend this season, all the designers were using them. She wasn't wasting effort on being pretty, she was keeping up. It was virtually part of her job. How else was she supposed to be accepted by Roma's elite if she didn't dress the part? No one was going to let a frump like Dina Testa into the Natural Sciences benefit, not with that hideous skirt—
The office door swung open, the knob just missing her hip. "Testa! Have you finished with that interview yet? I want it on the wire by eleven!" Reinard turned and spotted Zelda. "You need something, Minelli?"
The fear began creeping across her brain again, little rivulets seeping in to freeze out her ability to think. Zelda grabbed the door. "Yes. Yes, I wanted to speak to you."
Reinard's mustache twitched, turning up the corner of his mouth. "Make it quick."
"It's about my performance," she said.
Zelda glanced away. As she'd known, everyone within earshot had half an eye trained their way. "Could we speak privately?"
He breathed through his nose, a huff. Reinard moved aside, letting her in. She held her breath against the smell. Old coffee and pipe tobacco. Do not waste time, do not annoy him more than you already have.
Blank mind again. No, no, she had it. Bigger than the flub this morning. If she made her pitch first maybe the disaster would be forgotten. "I've been working here for nearly four years now."
Reinard leaned against his desk, pulling out a packet of ground leaves, matches, and his pipe. When she didn't speak again, he gave her a significant look. Get on with it.
She took another deep breath. Her shoulders straightened and she lifted her chin. "I've done good work during that time. I'm always on time, I follow up on my leads, I find scoops, and my writing follows all the guidelines and then some."
He paused in lighting his pipe, watching her with some interest now. "I take it you want a raise? That's out of my hands, Zelly. You have to put in a request to Accounting."
"I don't want a raise. Right now." Never close that door! But this was more important than money. "I want to expand my coverage. Go beyond Entertainment."
Blue smoke was rising from the pipe, the sweet stench tickling her nose. Please, Fates, don't let her sneeze now.
Reinard pulled on it until the burn had steadied. He put away his paraphernalia and finally looked at her again. "I brought you on because you had inside information." She nodded, feeling like a wind-up toy. Up, down. One, two. Tick, tock. "I kept you because you worked hard, and you had potential. That's a word for your performance review." He tapped the pipe on the edge of the desk. "You've got a talent for wordplay, Zelly. That always goes down well with Entertainment readers." There it was again—the disdain for their readership. She heard it from every news veteran, and a lot of the temporary hires, the ones who usually quit rather than take a full-time position. Entertainment readers. Somehow, they were different from Sports readers or News readers. When she started, she had just been grateful to have any readers. He was staring at her again so she made sure to stare back. "You've got an ear for storytelling. That goes down even better. Our readers like a good yarn. That's really why people turn to Entertainment. You know the weekly insert is now one of the most popular sections? Remind them of that if you apply for that raise, you deserve a piece of that. Now, these talents of yours, they're important. They're valuable skills here. But make no mistake, my girl. They won't transfer well."
Her diaphragm collapsed. She couldn't breathe.
"They don't need storytellers in the other divisions," he said, and he was almost gentle about it. "We're a newswire agency. Get the facts, write 'em up, send 'em out. That's all they do, just find, report, disperse. Have you ever tried reading the daily all the way through? It's the most boring waste of ink you've ever seen. And that is where we come in. Entertainment breaks that monotony. What is it people really want to see? Not, 'Miss Jane So-and-so was seen at Party A with Mister Rake at seven yesterday evening.' They want, "The buxom Miss Jane, star of the radio drama Whatever-it-is, was spotted canoodling under the wisteria with bad boy Rake Wotshisname. Rumor has it…'" He let the animated sentence hang. "The whole section is one big gossip column, Minelli. Now, you are excellent at bringing that to life. But another division?" He shook his head. "You'd feel stifled within a week and beg to come back."
Her eyes were burning. There was wetness in her nose, but she'd be damned before she let herself sniffle in front of her editor. She tried, weakly, to protest. "Then what's the harm in letting me try?"
There was no room for argument. "I'm saving you the trouble. Does that answer your question?"