Even knowing the next few seconds could seal her fate, Nahlia closed her eyes and allowed herself one moment to imagine a different world. She pulled her small frame against his, running her hands over the hard muscles of his back. Stubble brushed her cheek as their lips met and parted.
Elias kissed the same way he sparred in the dueling rings. Firm but gentle—desire suppressed by greater caution and control.
The exchange only lasted a few heartbeats before the cabinet doors swung open on creaking hinges. Nahlia jumped back, squinting her eyes as light flooded the space.
A middle-aged woman—pear-shaped and violet-eyed—stared at them from behind a hooded lantern. She wore a white blouse and a slate blue skirt. One of the tower stewards?
"Elias Raider?" Her mouth made a perfect circle of surprise. "What in Aegon's name are you doing in the Chronicler's office?"
Elias played his part perfectly, unwrapping his arms with visible reluctance. "This isn't Zidane's office." He poked his head out the door as if seeing the room for the first time. "Is it?"
Nahlia shot him a look with narrowed eyes. "I told you we weren't supposed to be here!"
"It most certainly is." The steward ignored Nahila, placing her hands firmly on her hips. "Explain yourselves."
He made a placating gesture. "I thought it was the staff parlor."
"You aren't supposed to be in there either," she snapped. "You shouldn't even be on the masters' floor at this hour."
"You're right," Elias lowered his chin. "I got carried away ... looking for somewhere private."
The woman snorted, eyeing Nahlia with contempt. "Perhaps next time you should choose your company with more care."
"Excuse me?" He looked up again, mouth hardening. "Nahlia Cole is one of the brightest students this academy has seen in years. I'm not afraid to be seen with her. It's the rest of the world we wanted to get away from."
Nahlia winced at that. Please don't make things worse...
He drew in a deep breath as if finally realizing the gravity of the situation. "Are you going to tell the Council?"
"And why shouldn't I?"
"We'll go on trial for this," he said. "We might even be expelled."
Some of the tension left the woman's eyes, but she held firm. "Even so, this can't go unreported. You broke into a master's office."
"I didn't break in," he said. "More like ... wandered. The door was unlocked, after all. If you have to report me, at least tell Vash you found us in another room."
Silence followed as the woman considered. Rain fell in hushed whispers outside the room's ornamental window.
Elias took another step forward. "Korilyn, you've known me and my family for ten years. I know I'm not perfect, but do you honestly believe I'd go out of my way to break into Zidane's private office?"
"No." Korilyn pointed an accusing finger at Nahlia. "But she might. There's all sorts of information in here the Templars could use."
"The Templars?" He almost laughed. "We were a little preoccupied for that. Besides, my mother cleared her of any suspicion."
"Your mother isn't perfect either. She could've made a mistake with this one."
Nahlia glanced back and forth between their lantern-lit faces. I'm standing right here, she wanted to say. It was only the stolen map in her satchel that kept her quiet. All this woman had to do was demand to see inside, and it would all be over for her.
"My mother could have made a mistake," Elias agreed, "but she never has. Not when it comes to the safety of this enclave. Besides, Nahlia hasn't left my sight this entire time."
"Fine," Korilyn conceded. Then she held out a wrinkled hand. "Your keys."
Elias paused, then handed her the keyring from his belt
"I'll have to report this to Master Vash," she said as the keys vanished into her cloak pocket. "No doubt you'll be reprimanded for abusing your privileges as a student guard."
Elias nodded, still looking appropriately chastised.
"But I won't tell him I found you in the Chronicler's office." She raised a finger. "Contingent on the fact that I never catch you up here after hours again."
He nodded again, a faint smile creeping to his lips. "Thank you."
Relief snapped at their heels as they jogged through the courtyard, splashing through puddles and piles of damp oak leaves. The storm had subsided now, but the night air was still cold with the misting rain.
Elias led her down the staircase at the mountain's mouth, his strides as long as always. Nahlia hurried along beside him, trying to rub the chill from her arms.
"Well," he said once they reached the safety of the tunnels. "That was close."
Nahlia surprised herself with a nervous laugh. "Who was that woman, anyway?"
"Korilyn Demeron. She and her husband practically run this academy. The mass hall, the dormitories, the supply houses. Basically everything that's not directly overseen by the masters."
"In that case, it sounds like we were lucky to get away."
He gave a serious nod. "She's also an old friend of my mother." A grin crossed his face. "And in case you haven't noticed, I'm normally a respectable student."
"I suppose I've corrupted you then." Nahlia forced herself to return the smile. "Still, you didn't need to defend me like that."
"I wanted to." Elias stopped at a small alcove with a smooth stone bench and a crystal lantern hanging above. He sat down and leaned against the wall. "Everyone here judges you for being half-human—for what your father did during the war. But none of that is your fault. You were innocent when the Templars came for you, and you've done nothing but try to make the best of things ever since."
She sat down beside him, not meeting his eyes.
"The others here are all content to learn martial arts, academics, and medicine. But you ... you proved that Ethermancy is real."
"We did it together", Nahlia said.
He shrugged. "Maybe, but it's been six years since that book vanished from the library. I never made any real effort to find it. Not until two days ago." He pushed several strands of damp hair from his forehead. "I just wish we didn't leave empty-handed."
"Well..." Nahlia tapped her satchel. "That's not entirely true."
Realization shone in his golden eyes. "You took something?."
She unlatched her bag and pulled out the small leather-bound book from within. Apart of her wanted to keep this to herself, but Elias deserved to know after everything he'd sacrificed tonight.
He wiped the rainwater on his jacket before accepting the book. "It looks like a journal."
"It is. I think it belonged to my mother."
He opened a page at random, revealing a spread of quotes and excerpts. "So she was researching Ethermancy too. The Council must've thought it was valuable if they kept it."
"She always told me she believed in it," Nahlia said. "I guess it really was more than stories to her."
They sat there turning pages for the better part of an hour. As far as Nahlia could tell, her mother had never succeeded in performing Ethermancy in the physical world. She had, however, taken the first steps in the Ethereal just as Marwyn had. She'd also done an extensive study on the order of Redeemers.
Apparently, they were the first of the three orders to fall. It was centuries ago., long before the humans rose to power. Perhaps that shouldn't have been a surprise. The Order stood by the virtues of Treluwyn; empathy and compassion. Well enough for times of peace, but that sort of naive idealism could get you killed in times of war.
Eventually, Elias closed the book, jogging her from her Revera.
"Listen," he began, "about earlier—in the closet."
"We did what we had to," Nahlia said quickly. "Lady Demeron never would have let us go otherwise."
"It was a good plan," he agreed. "But it was more than that. At least it was to me."
Aegon, but he was bold. Apart of her wanted to melt into his arms, to tell him the truth, to shut out the world and everything that had happened these past few weeks. In another life, Elias Raider was everything she could have hoped for. Kind, honest, strong, and intelligent. And despite his wealth and high birth, he truly respected her as an equal. Far more than any boy in Northshire ever did.
Elias leaned closer. Nahlia knew what he wanted, but she pulled away.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I can't."
He moved back several inches, resting an elbow on the back of the bench. He didn't look surprised or disappointed. Only thoughtful.
"I don't want to hurt you," she explained. "There are things about me you don't know."
"Of course," he said. "We've only known each other for a few weeks. "But whatever it is, we can work it out it out together."
He honestly believed she was innocent, and that only made it worse. Funny how he could appear so much stronger and more experienced than her, yet still be so naive to the cruelties of the world.
"I know there's more to you than meets the eye," he said. "But I also know that I like you, and I'm willing to take the risk."
She wanted to say yes. She wanted it so bad that she bit her lip. But if she set down this path, it would only make her inevitable betrayal all the worse. Nahlia had gotten close to him for the purpose of finding the map, but she couldn't have imagined he would move this quickly. She couldn't imagine the guilt that would flood her.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I just don't feel the same way."
A long pause, then a nod. "Fair enough, I suppose." He slid out from the bench and offered her his hand "Come on, we should get back to the plateau. We have a match tomorrow morning."