The very worst thing about staying out all night drinking, Zoë decided, was that she always forgot to pull the curtains closed. Beneath her blankets was a warm, cozy little nest. Outside, not so much. Still, the light was penetrating even the thick down comforter. Mouth dry and forehead tight, she painfully extricated an arm and reached blindly for the curtains. Each swipe she made was more off-target than the last, letting more cold air in. With a whine that made her wince, Zoë sat up, whipped the curtains closed, and buried herself under the blankets again, shivering. Relief.
A few minutes later, Oron pushed the door open. The hinges keened, drawing an answering sound from the mound on the bed. He surveyed the damage. Boots kicked off haphazardly, but no sign of clothes, meaning she had slept in them again. Make up too, no doubt. No way for a princess to behave. But it was not his job to judge. He came forward and put a mug of weak tea on the bedside table. "It's after ten." She didn't respond. "Drink this, or you'll feel worse." Not waiting for a response, he left.
After gathering the energy, Zoë peeked out from her pillows. Common sense told her she was better off following instructions this once. With more care than she had used for the curtains, she snaked a hand out and brought the mug into her cocoon. Say what she might about Oron being a strict, stiff, badgering nanny, he did know how to get through a hangover.
She dozed for another hour or so, then dragged herself to the shower. Waiting for the water to warm up was excruciating. At home every room was heated and cooled by pipes under the floors. She missed the sensation of warm tile under her bare feet. Missed hot brick on a summer day… her dark hair getting hot after just an hour in the sun… refreshing breezes off the river… But she had left Roma and Florence far behind and was not yet ready to go back. She wasn't sure when she would be. The Saturnalia parties were better than most, but then her parents would try to get her to return to school for the spring semester.
It wasn't that she didn't like school. It was just… lonely.
Zoë kept her hair dry as best she could, and tried not to leave puddles for her flat-mate to slip in. She pulled on the same sort of clothes she had worn during the day since arriving. A thick, handmade sweater over an old linen shirt, and wool pants. She got fewer glares here than she had in Roma. It made more sense to wear swishing skirts when the weather was warm, and there were still a few matrons who cast disapproving looks at women who broke form. Foreign fashions, blurring the border between men and women. No one batted an eye up here, though. Zoë had always had a fond spot for the outer provinces that still followed their own rules.
She shuffled into the kitchen and brewed herself more tea. Oron had disappeared into his room, which was doubling as a base of operations. That was fine, she didn't need him hovering while she waited for her stomach to settle enough to eat something. She wondered how Devon was doing today. He didn't have the same resilience she did, and he'd be hurting. She felt a twinge of guilt. It really wasn't fair to keep dragging him out with her, not while he was working. It was different when they were students, they could afford to cut classes then. The army wouldn't mark him absent and let him make it up with homework.
At last she felt ready to make herself some toast, and went about it with only mild discomfort. She did bounce back quickly. She got a new jar of jam from the pantry cupboard and paused. The bag of sweets Oron was constantly taking from was nearly empty. She smiled to herself. Who would have guessed a great hulk like that would have a sweet tooth?
She ate while skimming the local paper. She had studied some Germanian in school before switching to Gaullic, and enjoyed trying to piece together the sentences. Oron's voice could be heard in the other room, probably calling someone to report on her. Finishing her toast, Zoë realized this would be an excellent time to give him the slip.
Quietly as she could, she gathered up her coat, boots, and sunglasses, and slipped out the door.
The sunlight wasn't kind, but she managed by staying in the shade. Mattium was full of fascination for the princess who had lived in Italia her whole life. When she had accompanied her parents to other provinces she was kept under strict watch. Hard to blame them, considering her propensity for sneaking off.
A sudden wash of homesickness swept her. She would never have had to sneak out alone in the old days. At the boarding school she had had 'friends' who would follow her no matter how much she told them to leave her alone. They were no loss, but Zelda had been her partner in crime for years. Zoë let herself feel the anger of that betrayal for only a moment. She didn't need such fickle friends. Not when she had a sister like Cleo. Poor Cleo… The older twin, and the one most anxious to perform. She had let Zoë lead the way and hated the consequences. Finally Zoë had stopped letting her in on the schemes, hoping to spare her the worry. She could just picture her twin as she must be right now. Fretful over Zoë, holding back tears and anger at the same time, comforting their mother who had given up controlling her younger daughter years ago. Alisia understood, on some level. She had been a plantation owner's daughter before Montgomery made her an Empress. She knew the need to wander, get away from people who pawed at her all day looking for favors…
She wouldn’t think about her father.
The confectioner's was quite a walk, but an enjoyable one. Zoë arrived to the smell of peppermint drifting out of the back kitchen. She breathed it in happily. "Gutenmorgen!"
The woman at the counter smiled back, "Gutenmorgen, domina. Was kann ich für Sie heute erhalten?"
Zoë bit her lip, and then smiled. "Sorry, that's all I know."
"Not a problem, domina. What can I do for you?" the woman switched smoothly into Latin, though her accent was rough. Together they translated the names of the sweets. Zoë had been to the shop before, but was still curious. She nodded away, eager to learn "Schokolade" and "Beere." A box of mixed berries covered in chocolate was prepared for her, and she scrutinized the shelves of pre-wrapped sweets for Oron's favorite. She found the hard candies in various forms, including pressed into animal shapes for children. Grinning, she grabbed a box as well as a bag of the stodgy squares.
Anyone could have square candies. Oron was going to get teddy bears.
She paid in the local currency, which made her feel like a native. At the last moment she added a lollipop to the total, and stuck it in her mouth rather than the bag. Waving cheerfully to the saleswoman, she backed out of the shop with her purchases.
Her back ran into something and she tripped over her own feet.
"Entschuldigen Sie mich!" whoever she had walked into helped steady her, continuing to apologize in Germanian.
"It's all right! Ah—ist gut, ist gut," Zoë reassured him, when she was sure she wasn't going to choke on her lollipop. She checked herself over, nothing damaged. The berries might not be happy, but they weren't long for the world anyway.
"I'm very sorry. Are you hurt?" he said, switching to Latin. His hand continued to cup her elbow.
"No, thank you. I should have looked where I was going." Zoë cast him a smile. The smile widened—he was a looker.
A classically Germanic face was watching her earnestly. "So should I. My, you're… beautiful."
He surprised a flattered laugh out of her. "Thank you—danke—but I have a boyfriend."
"What bad luck for me," he said woefully. "But I'm not bitter. Do you and your boyfriend go out often?"
She raised a brow. "I guess so."
"Then perhaps you'll like this," he dug in his pockets and handed her a palm-sized flyer. She turned it over, puzzled by the Germanic she couldn't read. "It's a party. A, what do you call them… a club? A party every night."
Zoë's face brightened. "Really? I didn't know there were any around here."
He put a finger to his lips and looked around conspiratorially. "Very few people do. It's only for people 'who know.' You know?"
"Yeah, I do," she said with a smile. The address looked straightforward enough. She could translate the rest at home. "Thank you. I'm sure we'll come by sometime."
"I hope you do," he smiled at her, noting with satisfaction the expensive designer logo on her sunglasses and the button of her coat.
"Well. I need to go. But thanks. Good bye," she waved quickly, backing away. Just in time, she remembered that walking backwards was what had caused the encounter in the first place. She narrowly avoided a streetlight pole, and kept walking. Interesting man… She'd heard something once about an underground club scene in the mountains, but hadn't seen any signs of it since arriving. Perhaps this was her 'in.'