Another memory wedged its way forward.
Henri stopped at her desk, jacket on and work bag slung over his back. “You’re looking happy. Tide come in?”
“You could call it that.” Zelda locked her file cabinet and beamed at him. “I’m being sent to Lower Germania on assignment.”
Henri tried to piece together just what about that could have her so cheerful. “Lower Germania, hm? And that’s… good?”
“It’s fantastic. Could you pass me those?” she pointed vaguely at the white-out bottle beside him. He handed to her, still perplexed.
“How long will you be gone?”
“Months, I hope!”
Months? Huh. That did not fit his idea of ‘fantastic,’ not at all. Henri drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Are they transferring you?”
“No, just an assignment. I won’t be paid much—not unless I get some big scoop, but I’m sure I’ll find something.” She straightened, pushing honey-colored hair out of her face. “Don’t look so sad. Anyone would think you’re going to miss me.”
Miss her? Miss being sniped at for enjoying sports?
Still chipper, “I’m sure you’ll survive without me.”
“Write to me,” Henri blurted.
Zelda looked up from her handbag. “What?”
“Reinard called you a storyteller, right? So write to me. Tell me the story of Zelda Minelli, foreign correspondent.”
She did like the sound of that. Zelda half-smiled. “If I have time, I might. But, you know, I’m going to be so busy, trailing truant princesses and…” Reinard passed her desk. “And finding out what they are up to. Being truant. In a distant province. Oh, yes. Lots of story there.”
Henri shook his head. “Come on, Minelli. Let me buy you a farewell drink.”
That had been a good drink. She was definitely in the mood to celebrate just then. Now that she had time and distance from the evening, she thought she remembered promising, a bit too emphatically, that she would indeed write to him. Zelda sighed. Why had she done that? It must have been the wine.
She would send him a telegram now, to let him know she had arrived safely. Even more importantly, she would tell Reinard she was on location and getting down to work. The very idea of work hung like an insistent gray cloud over her shoulder. It followed her downstairs and dogged her down the road to the post office. She had spent four and a half years covering Zoë Zeoli’s antics for Reinard. She was sick of it, she didn’t want to waste any more time on the matter. Well, she would put in the effort up front, convince Reinard she was doing what he wanted and then get down to what she wanted. She was going to find a scoop if it killed her.
Zelda paused, taking the time to re-read the street sign above her. Eßen? Eben? Where had Eben come from? The innkeeper had told her she would find the post office on Essen Street. She turned in a circle, checking off the landmarks she had been told to look for. There was the bridge, and the temple—though she’d never seen a temple quite like it before. Essen should be this street here. Perhaps the name had changed? She couldn’t imagine a typo that would turn two Ss into a B, or any bureaucrat who would let such an error slide. She walked down another block, but had been told that if she reached Wagner she had gone too far. Back she went. This time she spotted what she thought might be a post box, and she followed her instincts. The post office was squeezed between a public house and a bakery, easily missed. She glanced up and down the street for anything named Essen to tell her she had been imagining things, but couldn’t see any. Marking it down to the curiosities of a strange city, she went inside.
There was someone already at the counter, so she looked about for ways to help herself. A long table down the center of the lobby held address labels, insurance forms, and pens. Zelda found the forms for telegrams and took two. Reinard would have her dragged home in chains if he caught her piggybacking personal correspondence on work. Thankfully, he had given her a small expense account for the purpose. Well, not her own, that was. Access to the pool used by correspondents to wire their stories home. She filled out the forms, amused by the double labels on each box, Latin contrasting with the local language the Gemanian tribes had been using long before the Romans arrived. Name – Der. Address – Addresse. That last one seemed like a real waste when they were so similar.
When she reached the clerk, he grumbled about billing the RAP account. Chances were he’d never see the money, or not for years. Zelda found herself growing angry. “The RAP serves people all over the empire, dominus. We are a respected organization—and we pay our bills!” He gave her a doubting look but executed her transaction with an obsequious flair that made her want to kick him. She left the post office with a final scowl for him, and found herself facing the same dilemma.
Eben Street. She thought about going back inside to ask for clarification, but decided against it. Why give them any satisfaction? She turned in what she would later realize what the wrong direction, and started looking for her hotel.
The sun was setting before she found her way home. The streets were a mess, and she was furious. Nearly all of the major roadways, like Eben, had no Latin translation. The result was a town full of long, unpronounceable, indecipherable street name. Brachenbeidenstaf. Ynglestonoer. The only reason she had made it to the hotel at all was because a mother walking her baby had taken pity on her. Zelda was too angry to register just how cold her core was. The innkeeper saw it immediately.
The brunette hurried forward. "Domina, would you like some hot tea brought to you? We have chocolate, straight from Belgica. And the hot water heater is excellent, you will have a bath in minutes."
Zelda opened her mouth to snarl at the woman, but the wisdom of her words sank in. "...I would like some hot chocolate, yes..."
"Right away, domina." The innkeeper was off to the kitchen.
The chocolate was every bit as good as Zelda remembered from her childhood. One of the perks of attending one of the most expensive boarding schools in Italia was the quality of their treats. As promised, the bath had been drawn quickly and lavender bath oils added, made locally. She got in and closed her eyes and tried an old trick she had learned in school when she felt overwhelmed. It was like going through her mail. If she looked at each fact in front of her, she could evaluate it and make a decision about what to do with it. It had been an enormous help during finals, when she and… No, she didn’t need to go down that road just now.
Zelda resettled herself and began making a mental list of what she had learned so far.
First, Mattium was much larger than she had thought originally. A wooded park had kept her from seeing that the town was very nearly a city, until she stumbled upon it. That had been accompanied by sudden fear that she would never find her way back to the hotel.
Second, the people of Mattium clearly didn’t give a damn about Roma’s oldest laws. Like all privileged citizens in Italia, she had been told by her teachers that one of the reasons Roma had been able to conquer and hold so many different regions for so long was the introduction and enforcement of Latin upon the native peoples. It was Latin, beautiful Latin, that bound the people of Europe. She had been promised that, no matter where she went in the Empire, she would find people who spoke her language, learned it side by side with their regional tongue. And that had been true all the way to Kassel. Every sign had been written first, proudly, in Latin. Underneath had come the local languages—purely for people who had failed to apply themselves, she had assumed. She herself had learned Gaullic, though that didn’t help her now. Clearly she was going to have to start learning Germanian if she intended to stay.
Also in her travels, she had passed several news distributors. She hadn’t bought anything, but she would tomorrow. She wanted to see what she could glean from the local papers. Maybe Zoë would even wind up in their gossip column! That would certainly make her job easier.
The job was making her feel depressed again. Now that she was here, her enthusiasm was flagging. She needed to find Zoë, quickly. She also needed to get an idea of how long Zoë planned to stay. Not that she’d up and tell Zelda, not these days… That incident at Saturnalia really had put the final nail in the coffin, hadn’t it? Zelda winced at the memory. Once upon a time she’d been new on the job, and eager to prove to Reinard he’d made the right choice in hiring her. That excuse no longer fit. She quashed the guilt. She’d done what needed to be done: secured her job.
Somehow it got a little harder each year to justify that to herself.
She needed to stop thinking this way. Zelda got her notebook from the counter and began making a list of all the sorts of places she might find Zoë. You learned a lot about a person during six years of boarding school. Once again, she felt a flicker of apprehension. Zelda took a steadying breath through her nose. Enough. She’d been given the beat for a reason, and she wasn’t going to throw it all away now. Not when she had no friendship to go back to.