Surely this was not natural. Zelda's teeth clattered together, and she rubbed her arms for warmth. Another gust of wind blew down the open platform, sending tiny droplets of rain that didn't quite want to be snow against her frozen cheeks. She took another gulp of air and jammed her hands back into her pockets. Fates, why had no one told her it would be this cold in Germania? And where was her luggage?
A team of men were unloading the baggage car, piling it up haphazardly without so much as a glance at the people waiting anxiously, like her, for their things. The train was filling up already, passengers casting annoyed looks in their direction. Zelda turned up her nose at them, then gave it a quick rub. It was too unnatural to be this cold, surely. It didn't help that she had dressed for winter in Italia. Roma still retained some of its August heat, the sort that sent people fleeing the city for holiday homes by the sea. The mildly chilly nights that had had her shouting at the superintendant about her window never closing seemed downright balmy now.
A flash of green cloth caught her attention and she bit back a cry of delight. Her suitcase! She waded forward to claim it, her breath a visible cloud. A kind gentleman helped her get the suitcase free, and she was back on track, finding her way to a ramp that would take her to street level.
Street level was less street, and more… empty road lined with trees. A single taxi was idling by the entrance. She found the note from her contact in the nearest large Germanian city, an RAP correspondent named Bert Schuler. He had met her in Kassel where she changed trains and promised to arrange for a cab to meet her when she reached Mattium. Shivering, she rolled the suitcase to the curb and tapped on the window.
The cabbie rolled the window down. "Ja?"
"I reserved a cab? It should be under the name… Schuler?" she checked the paper, then looked at the man hopefully.
He didn't react in recognition to the name. Instead, he checked his watch, then compared it to the large clock in the train station wall. "My last fare didn't arrive. I'll take you." His Latin was heavy and guttural, his tone surly, but right then, she didn't care.
"Grazie," she said and rolled the suitcase to the back for storage. The driver hefted it into the boot and got back behind the wheel. She read off the name of the hotel she had booked into, then turned all the heating vents she could find toward her frozen feet and huddled in her light coat. The car was already warm from the time it had spent idling, so she began to thaw fairly quickly. Zelda turned her attention to the outside.
Mattium was clearly very, very old. And very, very small.
Huge trees hugged the road that ran by the station, then cleared as they entered the town. She wondered when the sky had gotten so dark, then realized that the trees surrounded the village, hiding the horizon. The buildings were architecturally both foreign and ancient. Each stood stolidly on its plot, roofs sloped severely. Wood struts defined each façade in squares and rectangles, until she felt she had wandered into a bizarre dream based on geometry lessons of yore. Everything was boxy, each shop and restaurant defined by straight lines. Where were the creamy stucco curves and organic sculptures?
They stopped outside a white building with diagonal lines breaking the monotony of horizontal and verticals. The cabbie removed her luggage and waited for Zelda to pay him. She sorted through her coins and finally found the three denarii for a tip. He stared at her, then got back in his car and drove away, leaving her feeling the fool. Did they not tip in Germania? Perhaps the rates were higher? If so, she would have to ration herself. Putting the strange ride out of her mind, she wheeled her suitcase inside.
To her relief, hotels were universal. A uniformed woman who looked to be in her thirties stood behind a desk, filling out paperwork. She smiled when Zelda approached. “Hello, domina.”
“Hello,” Zelda smiled. “I have a reservation for Minelli, Zelda.”
“Let me see… Here you are.” The woman checked her in in record time, clearly practiced. It was rather impressive. “You are on the third floor with a view of the square. The piazza as they call them. You are from Roma, ja?”
“Yes, I’m sure that will be lovely.” And it was lovely, being taken care of by someone who clearly knew what they were doing. Slightly unnerving, as well. She was used to people taking their time in the capital, being chatty and taking a sip of coffee every so often. Not so this woman. She showed Zelda to the elevator and handed her a set of keys.
“Last door on the right.”
“Grazie,” Zelda got in before the elevator doors closed on her.
Upstairs was a sparse hallway, the doors clearly numbered. She found the one that matched her keys and let herself in. Light spilled in through a narrow window, falling across the double bed. The cast iron radiator was emanating mild warmth, but the room was cozy on its own. The carpet and curtains were a rich red, and the bedspread was clearly a handmade quilt. Zelda set her keys down on the desk and smiled to herself, thinking she would have quite a story to tell when she got home.
When she had settled in, she took out her notebook to look over what she had gathered so far. Several sources had confirmed that Zoë was not enrolled for the coming semester, nor had she reserved housing. The RAP journalists in Florence hadn’t been able to find anyone who had seen her since the start of the summer holidays. Before committing to her own trip, Zelda had skulked around the Grand Terminus until, luck would have it, she found the helpful Lucia. Her source had been only too happy to tell her more. Zoë had arrived inconspicuously, the large sunglasses and lack of an entourage helping her to blend in with the crowds of vacationers and commuters. It was Lucia’s co-worker, a bubbly girl just out of university herself, who swore she had recognized the princess first and insisted Lucia take a photograph so their friends would believe them. They proudly showed Zelda the shots they had deemed too fuzzy to send, and explained, with a conspiratorial eagerness, that when they spotted the dropped receipt they simply knew they had to tell their favorite reporter about it. Wasn’t she fabulous, the way she always seemed to know what was going on in the royal household before the Emperor did? Would she sign that week’s Entertainment insert for them? Please?
Zelda obliged, though she was secretly a bit appalled by these women who professed to live and die by the rag. Was this what the veterans meant when they said Entertainment readers in that awful tone? She wheedled a few more details out of the women, getting them to give her all the photographs. Those were all the proof she needed. They showed off Zoë’s mannerisms to a tee, not to mention the handbag that had been rated a Fashion Don’t at Saturnalia.
Within twenty-four hours, she had Reinard’s final approval. She packed up her desk that evening, cup overflowing with joy. She was getting out of Roma, going somewhere far, far from her usual haunts. And she would finally be able to investigate and report on something interesting. Something that didn’t revolve around celebutantes and royal gossip. Of course, she would have to keep an eye on Zoë’s escapades to keep Reinard happy, but what if she found something better to go on, something bigger even than a murder? Maybe the local Senate representative would be caught in a scandal. Or there could be a protest and they’d have to call in the army. She could just see herself, interviewing the legion’s commander, recording it for the radio and her voice being broadcast across the empire…