She recognized the man from the Newswire Network, but Zoë could not in that moment place a name to the face. It didn't matter. He was another psychic vampire come to prey on her. Him and his stupid microphone. "Get that out of my face."
Oron, bodyguard extraordinare, shoved between her and the reporter. "The princess is not taking questions tonight."
"Yeah? Then why's she talking to Minelli? I'm not letting her have the scoop."
Zoë cringed. A scoop, that was all she was. "I'm not talking to either of you." Her voice rose for emphasis, and heads began to swivel their way. "I don't want to talk to, or see, either of you ever again." She gripped her champagne flute close to her chest as she cut through the crowd.
"It's time for you to go," Oron told the reporters.
From behind her, Zoë heard the most damning question of the night.
"Is it true he's a common citizen?" the Newswire reporter shouted.
Suddenly all eyes in the room were on Zoë. She halted, a mouse in the cat's cross hairs.
It didn't matter that she could hear Oron and other guards hustling the reporters out. It was too late for that. The damage had been done.
She knew her social mask wasn't strong enough to hide the dismay coursing through her.
And just that easily, the real rumors began to circulate.
Zoë strode through the path that opened for her, knocking back her champagne as she went. She swung by the buffet long enough to grab an unopened bottle, and ducked out of the room.
Then she ran.
Halfway to her room she abandoned her heels and finished the run barefoot, not caring that she was tearing up her silk stockings to do so. Zoë locked her bedroom door and dropped onto her bed to begin working the cork free. She couldn't bear to be sober any longer. Not when so much had gone so unutterably wrong in such a short space of time.
The cork flew across the room and knocked a picture skew. A frame that had once held a picture of herself and Zelda. Once. Zoë gave up on the flute and drank straight from the bottle.
She had emptied the neck when someone's fist thudded against her door. "Zoë? Open this door immediately."
Her father. Fabulous. To shout 'Go away!' would no doubt be childish. So she said nothing at all.
She nearly choked when the side door from he playroom burst open, her enraged father and a group of guards spilling into her room. Zoë coughed instead of telling them to get the hell out of her room.
Maximus Zeoli narrowed his eyes at his younger daughter. "Take the bottle," he ordered.
Zoë looked up through the start of cough-tears to find Oron bending over her.
"Give it to me, your highness," he said, gruff as always.
She pitched it onto the floor and pulled the blankets over herself. From deep inside their cocoon she could still her her father's growled curse.
"Come out of there," he ordered.
"Leave me alone."
"We are not leaving until you talk to me," Maximus said. "What is the truth behind these rumors?"
Devon. Thinking his name made her heart hurt. Zoë squeezed her eyes shut. He would be halfway to Germania by now. There were always mutterings coming from that corner of the empire, always someone making noise about how Roma did its business. But they weren't violent up there. Not like some other places. No one in Europa was violent in this century. She had to believe Devon would be—
Maximus ripped the comforter away. "Look at you," he said flatly. "You're embarrassing yourself. Again."
"Only a problem because it embarrasses you." She saw him stiffen and braced herself for a shouting match.
"Leave us," he said to the guards.
They obediently filed out, but for one. Oron hovered in the doorway, his hand on the knob, until she looked back at him. His message was clear: he wasn't abandoning her.
Instead of reassuring, Zoë found the gesture incredibly sad.
The door shut and she struggled to sit up in her dress with its multitudes of fabric. "Alright, you can yell at me now."
"This is not about yelling at you! For all that is holy on Olympus, you are not a child anymore! You are nineteen years old, when are you going to act like it?"
"There it is."She slumped back down onto her elbows. Lecture time.
"Why does the press believe you're seeing a common citizen?" Maximus demanded.
Anger burbled to the top of her fuzzy mind. "Maybe because I was going to introduce him to you tonight but you sent him to Germania!"
"What are you talking about?"
"He's not just a common citizen, he's a soldier, and you sent his unit away! Just in time to stop me from embarrassing us again," she said, words dripping with venom. "I bet you already knew about him."
"I did not," Maximus said, looking affronted. "It never occurred to me you would seek out an officer—"
"He's not an officer."
The whites showed around her father's eyes. "He's a soldier, then. Just a soldier."
"Yes. A low-rank, cannon-fodder soldier, and you sent him to the border where he might die. Thank you, Pater. Thank you so much."
Silence filled the room for several long moments. At last Maximus said, very quietly, "I see you've yet to grow out of your left-wing tendencies after all."
"Don't tell me my politics."
"I am sorry that you friend is not here to give a good account of himself. I'll have a report from his superior officers after he's served for some time."
Zoë stared at him. "You're going to leave him there."
"He is doing his duty to his empire, Zoë. A concept you've yet to understand. I am returning to the ball, and you will remain up here. I don't want to see you until you're thoroughly sober again." Maximus strode out through the playroom door, shutting it firmly behind him.
There was nothing else to do but fling herself back on the bed and hurl a pillow to the floor. Zoë stared up at the mural on her ceiling—cherubs, of course, her mother's idea.
Nothing had improved. Devon was still bound for Germania. And now his CO would be alerted to keep an eye on his performance, and probably to find as much fault as possible. Zoë covered her face with her hands and let out a long breath. She'd probably doomed his military career, hadn't she? And she couldn't even say she was sorry.
An idea came to her.
Her hands slid aside so she could look up at the ceiling again but this time she did not see the cherubs. She saw only opportunity. A chance to get away from Roma and her father and all the pomp and circumstance she hated.
She was going to Germania.