Adelinda's was a public house recommended by the hotel's Guide to Mattium. With the help of her dictionary, she had gathered that they
It served a wide range of favorite foods, was suitable for families, and was popular with young people, especially on Tuesdays. She couldn't make heads or tails of what it was they did on Tuesdays, as the word had nine syllables (she thought).
As promised by the charming illustrations, Adelinda's was everything a public house should be. It filled the entire first floor of a very large house in the center of town, and happy voices could be heard on the approach. The restaurant floor extended to the outer walls on both sides, with the wait staff sprinting up and down a set of stairs and making good use of several dumbwaiters. Sure enough, several families were enjoying dinner. The staff clearly knew their job well, as parties of adults were kept separate from the noisier crowd. A waitress caught Zelda's eye and asked her, in Germanian, if she wanted to sit at the bar or a table. Prepared for this by the Guide, Zelda got out, "Tisch," with what must have been a tolerable accent. She was shown to a small table by a set of stairs leading to the second story.
She studied the menu with her dictionary—she was almost getting used to not being able to read a single thing. Luckily, the waitress returned and switched to Latin, helping her choose from the bizarre options. The girl laughed at Zelda's expression when she described a rich dish of deer and cream. She played it safe with a sausage sandwich, which caused the waitress to give her a strange look, but she departed amicably.
That trial over, Zelda set herself up with her notebook and the dictionary. Her mission tonight was to observe and listen. She had already learned that most people here spoke Germanian in their daily lives, which would make things that much harder. But she was determined to try. Already she was able to pick out small, frequently used words. The 'and's and 'the's of their language. She could recognize the nouns they had in common. An actor's name here, a city there. She jotted down what she hoped were the spellings and looked them up during lulls.
She was engrossed in eavesdropping on a couple that liberally sprinkled Gaullic into their sentences, when her attention was pulled away. The front door must have opened again, a chill running around her feet. She couldn’t see the door from her seat, so she let it slide, but then voices—Latin voices—caused her to look up once again.
There, wearing a pair of furred earmuffs, was Zoë. She was winding between the tables, part of a small group of other young people, both men and women. They went to the bar, Zoë tripping and giggling as they got close. A man put his arm around her, in a way that screamed intimacy.
Slowly, barely daring to breath
Breathe, Zelda reached into her handbag and found the one tool she had not yet used here. The camera was small, a gift from her father several years ago. It had a decent zoom, and should be able to get something decent even in this lighting.
If she got a photo of Zoë carousing, Reinard would toast her. And she would secure at least a week to follow her own project.
Like a lioness coming up on her prey, Zelda rose from her table and skirted the edge of the room. Her eyes never left Zoë. The princess was shedding her heavy coat to reveal what could only be described as party clothes. Not genteel party, but raucous teenage party. The sort where a girl could get into trouble. She shook her curls to lighten them and laughed at something the man at her side said. Zelda raised the camera.
A great hulk of a man loomed into her line of vision, blocking her view entirely. Zelda darted sideways, writing him off as a passerby. A heavy hand landed on her elbow, pushing her back in front of him.
"Oh. It's you," he rumbled, sounding not at all pleased to see her.
Hang on, who here knew her? Zelda looked straight up and came face to face with the only man more intimidating than her editor. The beard and hair were brown, but his eyes were as clear and gray as her own. They were also severely unimpressed. Which was not a good sign, as she was all too aware of the mass of muscle his sweater was not doing a good job of masking.
All she could think of to say was, "Tisch?"
He cocked his head at her, confused and suspicious. "Scuzi, domina?"
It was Reinard all over again. Zelda dug her nails into her palm and straightened her shoulders. "How is it you know me?"
"We all know you," he said cryptically.
Indeed. "If you'll excuse me, I see a friend at the bar—"
"You are not her friend," he growled, seeming to advance upon her without ever moving his feet.
She resisted the urge to back away. Instead she looked around to see if anyone had noticed; none had. Well, surely a good scream would do it… "I think you're mistaking me for someone else."
He bent so he was staring right into her eyes again. "Zelda Minelli, currently of the RAP. Usually assigned to cover the social circuit in Roma, but currently in the backwaters of Lower Germania for no good reason I can think of."
A little part of her, somewhere around her belly, began to panic. Her mad grandmother was right, there were people watching! Avia Candace had never said they would be so… enormous. "And who are you?"
"Protector Oron Biernevich,"
"A Protector Imperari Nostri?" Now her stomach was bottoming out. The Emperor's Guards… Protectors of Our Emperor… The Protectores were the last people on Earth she ever wanted to tangle with. Men hand-selected for their skills to guard the royal family. Usually they maintained a tight phalanx around the palace; what was one doing out here!?
"You've heard of us." Was he being snide, now?
Zelda set her chin. "I did go to school, you know." A flicker of recognition—he knew she'd been to school with Zoë. What else did he know? Probably everything. Which meant it was only a matter of time before he removed her bodily from the restaurant, and quite possibly the entire province.
"Mmm. I didn't think you'd come so far just for a story."
Now that was a bit much. She'd stayed in Roma partially because she'd been tied to her desk. "Good reporters go where the story is," she snapped.
"Oh, I see," he nodded, folding his arms across his chest. "Like the university campus, or a private party, or a public bathroom."
Her jaw started to work, uselessly, before she clamped it closed. She had been all those places. Doing her work. "Yes, if that's where the story goes."
Oron's eyes were hard. He spoke very softly, the accent coloring his words becoming more pronounced. "Zoë is not a story. She is a human being. You will respect her privacy, or I will confiscate your camera and began actions to have your press pass revoked."
How dare--! Zelda wanted to hit him, giant of a man or not. "This is a public house, Protector, there's no privacy here. What is said and done is public record and I am free to record or report it."
His eyes narrowed dangerously, assessing her. Abruptly, he walked away, to the bar, where he put a hand on Zoë's shoulder, whispering to her. The whole party of young people started to move. Oron came striding back to Zelda. "We'll be in a private room for the rest of the night. Thank you for the suggestion, domina."
Hitting was too good, she should gouge out his eyes! She tried to get a look at where they were going, but they had all disappeared up the stairs. Oron grasped her by the shoulders, spun her around so her back was to the stairs, and went up them himself.
Furious, Zelda marched back to her seat. They wanted to hide upstairs, did they? Fine! She would sit right here and wait for them to come down. Then she could get a photo of Zoë, probably drunk as any soldier. And wouldn't that make Reinard happy?
An hour past midnight, a waiter shook her awake. The restaurant was closing up, chairs turned upside down on tabletops. Zelda looked about her wildly. Where were they? Had she missed them!? Before she could be stopped, she darted up the stairs to the private rooms.
All were empty. She closed her aching eyes. Not going to make Reinard happy…
On her way out, she spotted a note taped to the door.
I meant it.