Scent of Magic Page 30

Each team would travel in opposite directions for an hour. They couldn’t spread out or go in different directions. They had to stay together as they would out on patrol. Not side by side, but close. They couldn’t lie in wait for more than fifteen minutes, and those who were “caught” had to return to base where the officers waited. Caught meant being surprised by an opposing team member. If there were still active participants on both sides at sundown, the winner would be determined by the percentage of “kills.”

“Sergeant Irina?” Granvil called.

Oh, no. “Yes, sir?” I stepped forward, drawing everyone’s attention. My gaze stayed on Granvil, but my skin itched as I felt Ryne and the guys studying me.

“You’ll be the intermediary, ensuring everyone is following the rules and dealing with any contested ‘kills.’”

“Yes, sir.”

“Any questions?” Granvil asked.

Everyone’s focus returned to the major. Everyone’s but Belen’s. His gaze burned into my soul, and I shifted so my back was to him.

“How far can we go?” Ryne asked.

“This large patch of woods is surrounded by farm fields. As long as you stay within the forest, you can travel anywhere.”

“Fair enough,” Ryne said. Then he looked at me. “How can we be sure Sergeant Irina isn’t biased? After all, she trained these men.”

Good question. I glanced around, but it seemed no one wanted to answer him. “All I can give you is my word to be impartial, sir. If you’d like to pick—”

“Her word is enough,” Belen said.

Ryne accepted Belen’s endorsement without hesitation. But I worried. Did he recognize me? I’d have to avoid him during the exercise. Oh, joy.

Since there were no other questions, Major Granvil sent the teams deeper into the woods. Ryne’s team to the east and Ursan’s to the west. I stayed behind with the major and Noelle. Nothing would happen for more than an hour, so I didn’t need to be out there yet.

Major Granvil chatted with me, asking about the jacks’ odds and how the morning practice had gone. I answered his questions but kept track of Noelle. This could be my chance to talk to her. She found a rock to sit on. Pulling a square of paper from her pants pocket, she unfolded and stared at it.

“Excuse me, Sergeant,” the major said as one of his lieutenants arrived with a message.

I left them as they talked in hushed tones. Hoping to appear casual, I approached Noelle.

She didn’t even glance up when she said, “Shouldn’t you be in the woods, Sergeant?”

“Not yet. But when I do go, that’s when you should fetch the general.” I recognized my handwriting. She was reading my letter! And from the creases, it wasn’t the first time. Fear and sadness gripped my throat, making it hard to breathe.

She sighed dramatically. “Can I help you with something?”

I pointed to the paper. “Bad news?”

Noelle folded it so I couldn’t see the words. “It’s none of—”

“My business,” I finished for her. “You’re right. I suppose you already talked it over with a friend. Or does the general keep you too busy to make friends?”

“I’ve a very important job, Sergeant. It’s an honor to be her page. This—” she waved the letter “—is all in the past. It means nothing to me now.”

Yet she tucked it back into her pocket, and I caught a glimpse of a silver chain around her neck when she stood. She wore my necklace. The hands pendant our older brother, Criss, had given me before I’d left for my apprenticeship. I had put it in the envelope with the letter.

Hope. Real hope that I might get my sister back spread through me like a healing balm.

* * *

As Noelle went to find Jael, I entered into the “war zone.” All was quiet. I settled in to wait. Sure enough, I heard the minute off notes to the west. The jumping jacks were traveling northeast, probably hoping to get in behind Ryne’s team. I concentrated, but the monkeys couldn’t hide from me. To the east, I picked up Loren and Quain’s progress. Ryne’s passage sounds weren’t as familiar. We’d only traveled together once, and I’d been sick with the plague at the time, so my memory was more than a little fuzzy.

Belen, though... Why couldn’t I hear Poppa Bear? Perhaps he had stopped. I wished I had Kerrick’s forest magic right now. Then I would know everyone’s exact position. I touched a leaf, seeking the tingle of his magic even though I knew he was in the north. Nothing, as expected. I breathed in the earthy smell of living green—his scent—to console myself.

A few off notes and sour sounds meant the two teams were drawing closer to each other. But still no Belen. He had been out on patrols these past four months. Perhaps he had improved.

I moved so I could observe the almost silent action. A muffled pip sounded behind me before two large hands grasped my shoulders. I clamped down on my squeak of surprise. I’d found Belen. Or rather, he had found me.

He turned me to face him. I braced for...I had no idea. He stared at me for a heartbeat, then crushed me in a rib-breaking hug for so long I thought I would faint from lack of air.

Easing his embrace, he still didn’t let go. “You have a lot of explaining to do,” he whispered.

“I know. What are you doing out here? It’s against the rules.”

“Tell that to the other team. One of theirs has broken away from the main group and I was following him.”

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