She spent two days searching Mattium for Roma’s wayward princess. She looked in every record shop, arcade, book store and quirky museum. (Mattium only had two museums, actually, one dedicated to the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the other to porcelain duck figurines.) None of these contained the Zeolis’ younger daughter.
Now, this in and of itself did not necessarily indicate defeat. But what was frustrating Zelda was that no one would admit to having recognized her.
At each location she showed Zoë’s photograph. Not a single person said they had seen her. Zelda couldn’t work out if they were defending Zoë, or simply being rude to a foreigner. Perhaps these strange people, who wouldn’t give Latin its due, were strangely loyal to the emperor and his kin. That explanation didn’t feel right, but she had little else to go on.
With evening drawing near, Zelda returned to the hotel and changed clothes for dinner. She had visited a beer garden the night before and been unimpressed. She couldn’t understand why so many people were happy to sit outside in the cold, even if it was a milder night than the one before and likely the very last of the year, all to drink their dark local brews and holler banter at each other across the park. No, tonight she was going to find a place to eat indoors. She knew precisely where she wanted to go, too.
Goldweizenhaus had first caught her attention when she saw half a dozen Roman soldiers, clearly off-duty, exit shortly after lunch. When she passed by again, a different set of men were going in. In fact, she had seen signs of the army’s presence throughout the town, more than she had expected for such an isolated place, but she had never seen the men looking so happy. She had taken to asking them for directions, as the locals didn’t seem too inclined to be helpful, and discovered that Goldweizenhaus was popular among the cohort for a good drink.
That meant three things to her. First, the proprietor accepted Romans, or at least he accepted their money. Secondly, she would be among her countrymen, who would actually speak her language. And third, she would be on top of any story-to-be.
She applied make up and made sure to arrange her hair in the latest styles from back home. The honey waves were curling in the damp, much to her displeasure. She didn’t understand how or why the women here were so set on keeping their hair dead straight and severely pulled back, often in braids. Happy to set herself apart for the first time since her arrival, Zelda tucked her faithful notebook into her bag and headed out.
The temperature had dropped significantly along with the sun, and she almost regretted changing into a fetching skirt and stockings. Thankfully, the walk wasn’t far, and she was soon at the pub. A handsome soldier still in uniform held the door for her with a smile, and she smiled right back, feeling a little flirtatious. The sound of common Latin and slang insults being hurled in good fun made the smile widen. It was like coming home.
The common room was full of soldiers, about twenty taking up several tables along the far wall. A few Germanians were sprinkled across the rest of the room, but they were either solitary drinkers or involved wholly in their own discussions over dinner. Zelda went to the bar and asked for a menu, perching on a bar stool where she could watch the men while making her choice.
As far as she could see, there wasn't an officer among them. These men were too comfortable with each other, too free with what they said and the jokes they made. It couldn't all be put down to alcohol, though a good deal certainly was due to Germanian beer.
She placed an order for the stew that was listed as the pub's specialty. Her choice was confirmed when the cook came out with half a dozen plates for the soldiers, who cheered. Zelda opened her notebook and jotted down notes while she ate. She began by sketching the tables, and marking down any names the men bandied about. Soon she knew Franco, Aeneas, Leander, Julius, that two were named Anthony, and Nick had made a pass at Calvin's sister. Nick had clearly not eaten dinner yet, and he made a feeble swing at Calvin which landed in the bowl of nuts. Everyone at his table burst into laughter.
Yes, these were Roma's military representatives. Zelda didn't miss the scornful looks they were getting from the Germanian patrons. The barkeep didn't appear to have an opinion either way, but perhaps he'd learned long ago not to chastise the patrons for relatively harmless antics.
Zelda finished her stew and spun her pen beside her cheek. Clearly these men weren't going to start talking military strategy. Not without a little impetus, anyway. She checked her reflection in the small clam-shell mirror she kept in her purse, and made her way over.
A dark haired man with the classic Roman nose caught sight of her first. He gave her a lazy, mischievous grin. "Domina… What are you doing so far from Italia? A beautiful woman like you shouldn't be here in all this cold."
She smirked as they all turned to look at her. "I came to speak to you, of course. May I join you?"
"You can sit right here," he tapped his knee, eliciting a chuckle from his fellows.
"Aeneas, you idiot. Treat the first beautiful woman we've seen in months like she's a common whore," another man smacked him upside the head, then offered the same hand to Zelda. "Domina, you are more than welcome to sit with us." A strange look crossed his face, then he burped. It smelled of dark ale.
"Suave, really suave!"
"Here, domina, sit with us, Aeneas' knee is all bone, come feel some muscle."
She forced herself to be charming. "Oh my! So many offers! How ever do I choose?"