Scent of Magic Page 27

I sucked in a breath, settling my racing heartbeat. No need to rush into a decision. News about Avry the healer and Prince Kerrick would reach me, and I’d get a better sense of how to proceed.

Having a plan didn’t make me feel any better, so I decided to spend my morning searching for Melina. I walked through Dagger, Cutlass and Garrote’s companies’ areas, asking a few young girls Melina’s age if they knew her. Nothing. Then I swept through the others, scanning faces. No Melina.

On the way back to my area, I heard Ryne’s name. Without thought, I stopped to listen.

“...left half of his soldiers behind. The marauders had invaded,” a private said.

“Sergeant Vic said they’ve taken over the northern realms and everyone is dead,” another said.

“Then why would Prince Ryne leave, you dolt!” He smacked his companion on the head. “You can’t believe anything Vic says.”

“I heard Prince Kerrick is working for King Tohon as a double agent,” yet another chimed in.

Wild rumors and speculation weren’t helping me. I would have to check with a more reliable gossip source, such as Lieutenant Thea or Major Granvil. Continuing on, I wondered how long I should wait before approaching them. Perhaps tomorrow.

Hurried movement caught my attention, and I spotted Noelle running an errand for Jael. I needed to talk to her alone, but she was either out in the camp in plain sight or with Jael. Fingering my stiletto, I considered another option.

“Excuse me, Sergeant,” a voice sounded behind me.

I turned around. A very young private snapped to attention. He appeared to be eleven or twelve years old, but had to be at least fifteen—the minimum age to be a soldier in Estrid’s army.

“At ease,” I said.

He relaxed his stance but ran his hands down his shirt as if nervous. “Uh...are you the one looking for Melina from Mengels?”

“Yes. Do you know where she is?”

He wiped his hands on his pants, leaving damp stains behind. “Uh...can I ask why you want to know?”

“I’m a friend of her mother and I promised to check on Melina.”

His gaze darted to the side before returning to me. “I mean no disrespect, Sergeant, but you’re new here, aren’t you?”

I wouldn’t consider two months new, but I nodded.

“I’m guessing you haven’t encountered the Purity Priestess yet?”

Uh-oh. I had dodged her and her goons before. “Go on.”

“Um...well, as members of the army, we are the creator’s weapons and we must be pure of heart and soul. But Melina didn’t pass...inspection.” His prominent Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “She was sent to the monastery in Chinska Mare to atone for her...misdeeds.”

Various emotions swept through me. First, relief that Melina was alive and reasonably safe. Second, outrage that she had been incarcerated for life because she wasn’t a virgin. And third, surprise that she hadn’t passed. Sixteen seemed too young to me. Regardless of my views, it didn’t change my feelings for her. Or the fact that I needed to rescue her...somehow. Yet another worry, and an addition to my already long to-do list.

“Thanks for telling me, Private.”

He dashed off.

That solved one mystery. Feeling better about my situation, I found a comfortable place to sit and watched the manor house.

Ryne, Belen and the monkeys emerged after sunset. Shouting orders to his troops, Ryne directed them to bivouac in the fields north of the manor. Loren and Quain guided them to the proper spot while Ryne and Belen were joined by the High Priestess Estrid.

A ripple of sound emanated all around me as Estrid’s army jumped to attention at her appearance. She wore a red silk gown with gold brocade glinting in the lantern light. From this distance she looked elegant and younger than her fifty-two years. Ryne offered his arm, and she rested her hand on the crook as they descended the steps.

Her hand remained on his arm as they crossed to Jael’s tent. A sign to her troops that they were working together as equals. Impressive. My opinion of her intelligence rose a couple notches.

Followed by a scowling Belen, they entered Jael’s tent. I wondered if Ryne had broken the news to him about me. Or perhaps his uncharacteristic demeanor meant Kerrick was missing or worse. The temptation to sneak up to the tent and listen through the fabric pulsed in my chest. Before I could act on my impulse and be caught snooping, I turned away and headed for the sergeant’s fire, skipping supper. My stomach already felt as if I’d swallowed a twenty-pound rock.

All five of Lieutenant Thea’s sergeants lounged by the fire. No surprise the conversation focused on Ryne’s troops. Ursan watched me as I settled between Odd and Liv, his gaze contemplative. The others hardly noticed my arrival.

“...he’s holding back,” Odd said. “He has to have more soldiers.”

“Yeah,” Liv agreed. “No way he could have driven the marauders from the northern realms with only four hundred.”

“The captain of Falchion Company thought there’d be at least a thousand,” Wynn said.

“Oh? Did you just happen to run into Captain Lynton today? Or are you stalking the poor man again?” Liv asked.

Wynn punched her on the arm.

“Why would Prince Ryne hold back troops?” I asked Odd.

“There could be trouble in the north or it could be a strategic thing. Perhaps he’s keeping them in northern Pomyt just in case the battle doesn’t go well here and he needs to make a fast retreat.” Odd shrugged.

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