Scent of Magic Page 44

“Not,” I puffed.

She paused, opened her mouth but snapped it shut. Without glancing back, she left.

Wrapping my arms around my waist, I sank to my knees. Blood soon soaked my sleeves as the world spun around me. Pain clawed at my insides. Sweat dripped and stung my eyes. I huddled on the ground.

My emotions seesawed. Her attack felt more like a reaction to fear than of malicious intent. Fear that I might break through her defenses and she’d start to forgive me. Hating me was easier than forgiving me. I remembered my own hatred when Kerrick had backhanded me. Even after his apology and promise never to do it again, I couldn’t trust him. It took time and courage to change my mind.

I decided to view my encounter with Noelle as a positive step. Next time would be better. And I would be prepared for anything, including a poison-tipped dagger. Unless Jael got to me first.

Eventually the pain lessened. I lurched to my feet and returned to my tent well after midnight. Snores emanated from Wynn’s and Liv’s cots. Fumbling around in the dark, I removed my bloodstained uniform and stuffed it into the bottom of my locker. The wound still oozed, so I wrapped a bandage around my waist before donning my nightclothes. Weak from blood loss and healing, I collapsed onto my cot.

* * *

Saul woke me the next morning. Disoriented, I squinted into the brightness. Liv and Wynn were gone. Remembering the mission, I jumped out of bed. I’d overslept! A wave of dizziness sat me back down.

“Are you—”

I waved off Saul’s concern. “Give me a minute.”

“The lieutenant’s waiting.”

And probably pissed. “Tell her I’ll be right out.”

When Saul left, I changed. The cut had sealed shut, but the skin remained red, swollen and tender to the touch. With stiff movements, I packed my bag and slung it over my shoulder.

Thea and Saul stood outside my tent.

“This isn’t a promising start to our mission, Sergeant,” she said.

“Sorry. I had an upset stomach last night and didn’t sleep well.”

“I trust you’re feeling better?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Let’s go. We’re burning daylight.” She headed north, setting a brisk pace.

Saul fell into step beside me. “Problem?”

“Not at the moment.” Which was the truth. After being in one place for close to fifty days, the thought of hiking through the forest for a few days energized my steps.

Even though we hadn’t discussed it, we all went silent once we entered the woods. Saul and his squad had also caught on quick to the training. No surprise since they had already been a quiet group. Interesting how the ten soldiers within a group all matched personalities with their sergeant. Did the assigning officer do it on purpose, or did the men and women change as they worked with a certain group? I’d have to ask Thea later.

During the day, we encountered a few patrols. We slipped by a couple, but most heard us. Thea needed more practice. However, once they ascertained our friendly status, they moved on.

We stopped for the night before full darkness. No sense stumbling around in the dark, setting up camp. Saul collected firewood while Thea and I built a stone ring to contain the fire. The season had been drier than normal, and the clearing we picked was small.

After we started a little fire, we attracted two different patrols, checking for unfriendlies.

“Shouldn’t they be patrolling in Vyg?” I asked Thea.

She had insisted on cooking and was hunched over the pot. “We’ve plenty of soldiers in Vyg. They’re also patrolling east and south of Zabin. We can’t let Tohon’s army come in from behind.”

“Why is Tohon waiting to attack?”

“I’ve no idea. According to our intel, he has the men and resources. But once he reached the middle of Vyg, he stopped.”

“Sector five,” Saul said.

Where the liquid metal mine was located. He needed it to protect his dead troops. But shouldn’t he have enough by now?

“That was months ago. Why doesn’t Estrid take the initiative?” I asked.

“The High Priestess doesn’t want all-out war,” Thea said.

Right. She’d rather “claim” towns and villages in the name of peace where there was no resistance—just people trying to survive.

“Whatever his reasons, it’s good for us,” Thea said.

I let the subject drop, and we chatted about mundane things. Thea was born in Casis Realm.

“Compared to the warrior priests back home, the High Priestess’s rules are minor annoyances,” Thea said. “I think we’re the only realm that actually benefited from the plague.”

Surprised by her comment, I asked, “But the plague killed so many. Surely you lost family and friends.”

She stared at the fire. “Probably. I was taken from my family when I was four to be raised by the priests. Training and lessons dominated my life. I had no time for friends.”

Saul looked impressed. “Assassin?”

A smile flickered. “Scared?”

“Only if you say yes.”

“Not an assassin,” I answered for her.

“Why do you say that?” Thea asked.

“You’re too noisy in the forest.”

Another rare smile. “You’re right. I was training to be a bodyguard for the cardinals.”

“That’s still impressive,” Saul said.

She shrugged. “I didn’t finish, but I’ve learned a few tricks.”

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