13. Veiled Truths

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ZARA

With a mere flick of his wrist, Blaze summoned his magic. It unfurled around me, a gentle caress of warmth cascading over my skin, weaving through my senses like a tender embrace. My eyes drifted closed, and I let his elemental power guide me back through the fragmented recollections of the night.

The room fell away, replaced by fluttering visions tinged with crimson and gold. I saw glimpses of the grand ballroom, echoes of music and muted conversations, then flashes of our time navigating the shadowy palace halls. Our moment together in the alcove...

More images appeared like wisps of smoke until the memory of Zephyr's mansion came back to me. I focused, trying to find what I was looking for. It was like flipping through pages of a book until I had the right one, and Blaze's magic guided me through it.

The memories flickered—conversations, a myriad of faces—then the image of a man in my boss' home crystallised in my mind. A figure appeared, barreling straight towards me. I froze, bracing for impact, but the man stopped at the last instant, his face draining of colour as our eyes locked.

"There was a man...nearly collided with me at Zephyr's." The memory played out in my head, his shock and alarm evident, pierced by recognition. "He looked at me like he'd seen a ghost...like he recognised me." I paused, reflecting on it for a second. "The real me."

"The man from the ball?" Blaze's voice cut through the haze.

I searched the stranger's features in my mind, comparing them against my mysterious dance partner tonight. Different men, undoubtedly, yet a disturbing similarity in their presence linked them somehow.

"No, this one was older," I murmured. "But he had that same commanding power... Much like you, only..." Only what? The answer eluded me as I grasped at the fragmented pieces of my memory. "Something about our encounter was strange. Intense. He almost ran away after."

"Anything else? Concentrate on where you've seen that tattoo."

The visions swirled in murky wisps as I delved back into my memories. The answer lurked here somewhere—I could feel it in my bones, sense it pulsing just out of sight behind the haze.

I strained to direct my attention, willing long-forgotten moments to take form. The curling smoke mocked me while anxiety knotted my stomach.

There.

An image flashed amidst the rising fog. Coiled, poised...and identical to the stranger's tattoo. Not on flesh, but inked on paper in a leather journal.

"It was in Zephyr's study the day he died. Drawn on a pad. Almost like he was looking at it before...." I didn't need to finish that thought. We both knew how that day had ended. "It has to mean something."

"Good," Blaze said, his thumb tracing a gentle pattern on my arm. My skin prickled beneath his touch, my body and elemental magic attuned to him despite still feeling lost in the scattered pieces of my memory. "That's a start."

Finally, we had something more concrete. Zephyr had been studying it. But why? And what was the relation with the stranger I met tonight? Contemplating every detail I could take in, I tried to find other clues, but there was nothing. Just the shock and grief as I stood next to my boss' lifeless body once again.

The vision shattered, severing the link with Blaze's magic, and I found myself abruptly back in the present. My lungs were starving for air like I'd just been dragged out of deep waters, feeling disoriented.

"Are you okay?" Blaze's concerned eyes found mine, his hands steadying my shoulders before he gave it a light squeeze. It only lasted for seconds, yet I sensed his reluctance to break our contact as his touch trailed away, slow and deliberate, and he stepped back.

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