"Here, domina, here." A hand shaped itself to her bottom, drawing her to another table and up against the side of a seated man with a strong chin. "I am Julius, like the emperor." His friends groaned. "And you must be the lovely Cleopatra. Want to conquer Egypt together?"
This was a bit much. Zelda tried to slide free as gracefully as possible. "Aren't you a little busy here? Conquering rogue Germanians can't be easy." As she'd hoped, she got a range of responses.
"Easy, bella, easy!"
"We can manage, never fear."
"This is peacekeeping, domina."
She pouted slightly, casting her eyes around the table. "You know, I just arrived from the capital, and I don't understand things here at all. Do you think you could explain it to me?"
Aeneas gave her bottom a squeeze. "Why should we bore you with that, lovely? Come, we'll buy you a drink."
"Oh, but I want to know! Should I be frightened, all you soldiers here? Is something going to happen?" She made her eyes wide—the eyes her mother called silver platters.
A very drunk soldier scowled belligerently. "Etiam. Of course. Germanian bastards. They'd kill us all in our sleep if we gave them half a chance. Ja? Ja, you traitors?" The Germanians at the next table wisely ignored him.
"Really, lovely, don't worry about it," Aenea smiled at her. "We'll protect you, never fear." The others agreed, while his hand made for the hem of her skirt.
Zelda stepped back, starting to get frustrated. "Dominus! We're in public!"
The table roared and more hands came for her. "It's just a bit of fun…" One caught the soft skin just above her knee and she leapt backwards, only to be pulled into someone else's lap. She wriggled free, her cheeks hot and anger coursing through her. She was a professional, damn it, not—not that kind of professional! And now they were bickering over who was going to take her home!
"Enough of this," she hissed to herself and began trying to leave their sphere. Their protests tugged at her but she shook them off, anger growing. Lusty drunks, she should have waited—
"Leave her alone. Domina, come here, I'll talk to you."
She craned her neck and finally found him, one of the only men who didn't look drunk out of his mind. The other men at his table were leaving, but this one stayed. He motioned for her to come over.
"Callaghan's already got a girl! Why should he get this one, too?"
Callaghan smirked. "Because I'm just that good. And that sober."
Smirked despite herself, and sat in the chair he pulled out for her. So, good manners did live on in the outer provinces. The rest of the protests were half-hearted, none of the drunks really willing to put up a fight for her. Callaghan pushed in her chair, cast a final, good-natured, "Fuck off," to his comrades, and resumed his seat in the chair opposite hers.
"Thank you. I don't like needing a rescue, but you saved me." Always good to stroke egos when pinning down a potential source. She itched to take out her notebook. There was just something about this guy. He was about average height, solidly built, with an open face. Or it should have been open… something about him told he wasn't the type to lie.
This guy knew something.
Callaghan folded his arms on the table, watching her just as she did him. "What is it you want to know, domina?"
"Like I told them, what are you all doing here? I remember something in the news about sending more troops out here, but I didn't think much of it. Who does? Then I was sent here on business and suddenly, wow! Soldiers everywhere!" She let her mouth run, giving in to that girlish bubbling every woman learned to suppress. It had its uses, though.
Callaghan smiled, but it wasn't really a complete smile. "Well, you see, there's some unrest in this region. We're just here to keep an eye on things. Make sure nothing gets out of hand. Babysitting, really."
She knew that wasn't true, knew it in her bones. But she batted her lashes and gave a sigh, "What a relief! We don't see a lot of soldiers in Roma, just officers looking all impressive in their uniforms. Do... you have a uniform?"
"Every enlisted man does," he said, with what she could see was waning patience. Time to switch tacks.
Zelda let the 'bimbo' leave her eyes. "Really, though… What is going on? Why is there a cohort in Mattium? This doesn't seem like the sort of place to pitch a riot."
Just as quickly, Callaghan's face turned wary. "I'm really not at liberty to discuss that. And if you want to get that kind of information, you're better off going through official channels. These are good men. They don’t deserve to have their careers torn apart by a journalist looking for a headline." With that, he stood, giving her a hard look. "Have a good night, domina." He slapped some money on the bar, said farewell to the barkeep, and went back into the cold.
Her jaw—she picked it up before he could see the absolute shock on her face. How did he know who she was? How did he guess?
Was she really that bad at her job?