Zelda's press badge was re-issued two hours before the start of the ball. She had to pick it up on her way, feeling like a spectacle in her high end black dress with her shoulders exposed. Wolf whistles came from the Sports side of the floor and she picked up her pace, cheeks burning.
At the credentials desk she handed over her ID and tried to shield her face with her hand. "This one won't break, will it?"
The elderly woman who had been managing the RAP's interactions with other agencies for forty-four years gave Zelda a hard look over the top of her spectacles. "You won't get it broken, will you?"
She knew how it had happened. Someone must have told her. Maybe even that big bear himself, he'd probably enjoy that. Zelda took the pass and her ID and got out of the building and into a cab as quickly as her stilettos would let her.
In the taxi she took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. Then check her hair and make up one more time. She still looked good. Her mother could probably find something to complain about, but that was Cecilia for you. Thank Juno Cecilia had her own party to host tonight.
For a brief moment Zelda felt guilty about abandoning her mother to host alone. True, she hated the annual Saturnalia dinner, but it was a tradition. If she found a phone she would call. That would be a nice gesture.
Gestures be damned. She had to be on her toes tonight.
Zelda checked again that the small camera she'd borrowed from the equipment office was still in her clutch. More state-of-the-art toys. At least she knew how to operate this one. The weight of it in her hand felt like it was pulling her down through the floor of the cab and into the Underworld.
A camera had sealed their fates all those years ago. Without one Zelda's story might have been dismissed as hearsay. Just more gossip. But with photographic proof? She became a star reporter overnight.
She snapped the clutch closed. Hopefully there wouldn't be anything of note to report tonight. She wanted to be able to make a clean getaway, draft the story in her pajamas, and sleep late into the next day. At least that would be nice, Cecilia didn't believe in lounging in bed.
The palace was, as always, impressive, but for the ball it had become truly magnificent. Strings of lights floated between the outer gate and the top of the building, then cascaded down between the windows. Zelda caught herself staring while the cabbie waited for her to pay, and took care of the transaction as quickly as she could. She had to press her way through the crowd of gathered onlookers to get to the main entrance, where she flashed her badge. They waved her in. Only one guard's brows came together in recognition. Too late, she was in.
Zelda checked her coat and accepted the first glass of champagne to come her way. Ordinarily she only held drinks on assignment to blend in with the crowd. Tonight her nerves were raw enough that she just might drink it.
She moved through the grand rooms, each built to impress and awe. It was disconcerting to remember all the times she and the twins had played in these rooms as though they were merely carpeted jungle gyms. There were times where it was possible to forget that the girls were the daughters of an emperor, that they were giggling in between portraits of famous men and women, that Zelda was merely monied and well-bred. All that sense of comfort had flown away years ago, and now Zelda felt like an interloper. At any moment she expected to be recognized and driven out. She sipped her champagne. Might as well enjoy it while she was here.
She was about to make a second circuit of the party with her camera out when a familiar voice caught her ear.
"...really must come this summer. The views are simply breathtaking." As she suspected, it was whats-his-name from their boarding school years. He had attended the school across the road. Big, important family, and never let anyone forget it.
Zelda was ready to move on when she heard his shorter companion reply, in the tone of someone who has tried to end the conversation five times already, "It sounds amazing. If you'll excuse me, I see someone I need to say hello to." The shoulders parted and Princess Zoë stepped into Zelda's path.
The shock was mutual. It registered on both women's faces in raised eyebrows and loose jaws.
Zoë's gaze flicked to the camera peeking out of Zelda's clutch, the lens clearly recognizable. She took a deep breath.
"Wait," Zelda said before she could call for reinforcements. "Please."
"I heard you lost your press badge," Zoë hissed at her.
The guests milling around them were much too close to not overhear this conversation. Zelda motioned for Zoë to follow her into a corner. Zoë stalked after her, proving that it was indeed possible to plod in high heels. "Well?"
"It was reissued tonight."
"By who? Our press office knows—"
"—By someone who knows not to stir up trouble." Zelda found it difficult to meet the princess' furious glare. "The RAP would make a lot more noise about this than you can."
"Watch me," Zoë bit out. She picked up her skirts and turned directly into her bodyguard. Biernevich put steadying hands on her shoulders.
He looked at Zelda, then dismissed her, looking back at Zoë. "Are you alright?"
Zelda crossed her arms over her chest, not pleased. She was still a threat, damn it. "She's fine."
"I didn't ask you. Zoë?"
"Get her out of here." Zoë looked back at Zelda and the glance landed like a blow.
It was still there. All the betrayal, the anger, the hurt.
Zelda was a monster to have done this to a friend. She took a step toward her to apologize, for the very first time. If she'd even hear it.
A microphone was thrust between them. "Princess, there are rumors you've brought a date tonight. Where is he?"