12. Into the lion's den

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ZARA

Panic wrapped its icy fingers around my throat as the guard stood in our way, his hand hovering near his weapon. My mind whirled with possibilities. We had to slip past him without causing a scene or risking exposure.

"Lord Leo has instructed that all guests remain inside until the party ends," the guard said firmly.

I let my body go limp against Blaze, swaying unsteadily. Beads of moisture lined my forehead—partly real nerves and partly illusion, courtesy of my water magic—as I fanned myself weakly with one hand.

"Please, sir," I gasped, my voice laced with feigned distress, "I'm feeling terribly faint... overheated." My breaths came in laboured, dramatic heaves. "The crowds, the dancing...I desperately need some air."

The man hesitated, glancing down the empty corridor before looking suspiciously at me.

The guard's eyes flickered over me, his stoic facade wavering as Blaze's arm came around my waist in a steadying embrace. "Surely you can make an exception," he pressed, "given her delicate condition?"

Every second stretched into eternity. I held my breath, hoping my acting skills were good enough, and to my relief, the guard stepped aside with a resigned sigh. "Very well. But be quick about it."

"You have our gratitude." Blaze inclined his head and briskly led down the corridor, away from the ballroom.

My racing heart began to calm once we turned the corner into an empty passageway. I sagged against the cool stone wall, wiping the fake sweat from my brow.

"Close calls seem to be becoming a habit for us," I said, aiming for casual and missing by a mile. My hands still trembled with leftover anxiety I couldn't quite suppress. "Damsel in distress is not my usual style, but necessity requires adaptation, I suppose."

"You were pretty convincing." Blaze's lips twitched with a hint of a smile, even if his eyes remained serious. "Hopefully, the night is done with surprises. We must tread carefully from here on out—Leo's guards are on high alert."

The halls were dim, but the music from the ball still echoed in the distance behind us. I trusted Blaze to guide us toward Leo's wing undetected, but the thought of being caught snooping around in a zodiac's private quarters sent a fresh wave of adrenaline coursing through my veins.

There was no other choice though. The answers were here...somewhere. They had to be. We only needed to find them.

Pausing before an ornately carved set of lacquered double doors, Blaze gave the handle a few firm shakes, but the lock held steadfast, regardless of his attempts to wiggle and jiggle it.

"Allow me," I murmured, stepping forward.

I had no clue what I was trying to do, but anything was worth a shot. Eyes drifting shut, I tried to feel the air around us. My power awakened, a hum vibrating just beneath my skin, and I focused it into the keyhole, imagining the mechanisms inside. With a gentle exhale, I guided the magic through the inner workings, shifting each pin until...click.

The latch disengaged, and the doors swung open silently, revealing Leo's private study lit by warm candlelight.

As I moved to enter, Blaze's hand on my wrist halted me. His astonishment sparked something in me, sending tingles across my skin as he looked at me with admiration and surprise. "That was some impressive lockpicking," he said with a small smile. "Almost makes breaking and entering seem too easy."

Pride swelled in my chest, and I couldn't help but grin. It felt satisfying to catch a powerful Zodiac off guard with my budding elemental skills, even if I was mostly guessing how to do it. But it worked. "What good are these powers if I can't use them to snoop in forbidden places?"

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