1. An Unwelcome Guest

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The alerting sensation vibrated her sword's pommel against her palm a split second before her ears popped from the slight pressure change. Her thoughts of strategy and points of attack whisked clear of her mind as she spun from her map table and faced the cloaked figure.

        "You shouldn't be here," she said.

        Gabron's back was toward her, a miscalculation on his part of where he expected her to be standing, so she could see his shoulders bunch defensively beneath the greying curls of his once dark hair. "I came to warn you," he said.

        She waited, but that was all he said. "How ominous. So are you here warning me about the war you're instigating, or about my assassination that you're organizing?" she asked through a long sigh, crossing her arms at her chest.

        The war she was almost completely prepared against. There was only one more thing which would take a few weeks to complete: trustworthy confirmation of her brother's opinions, and what that would mean for the plans she had already made. The assassin coming for her sometime soon, however, she'd only heard those rumors two days ago and gotten confirmation this morning.

        "Neither." The response was clipped and irritated, but his posture didn't change. "Dorgand will be walking the lands again. Soon."

        "I don't see how that's any problem of mine." The words were a well-spoken bluff. Ice stabbed her guts and twisted her heart into a pounding knot. Good thing he was facing the other way, or he'd have seen her working her face back into a neutral expression. "And I don't see why you're delivering this news. Seems below your lofty position to come here as a messenger."

        "A great deal below. I know I'm the only one you'll believe, however. Fortify yourself, Gabrhyne. You know he'll come for you once he learns you survived."

        "Get out," she growled. Her sword hummed in agreement with violence, the hilt trembling against her hand.

        He turned slowly. His nose was more flattened and crooked than last time she'd seen him, but the high cheekbones and disapproving lips were the same as ever. A glint as hard as steel flashed in the edges of his brown eyes. Gabby knew he noticed the tremor of her empty fingers and the shallow depth of her rapid breaths. Fathers always remembered their children's tells.

        She drew her sword and tilted it to a ready position, the edge of the blade almost moving of its own accord. How easy to slit his throat right now... but then she'd be even worse off than she already was, and without confirmation of her brother's position... His lips curled up into a grin, proving he was just as aware of the situation as she was, and that was why he'd felt safe coming in person. She shook her head at herself, surprised it was possible to hate someone this much and not kill them on sight.

        "I suppose I'll see you again soon," he stated, nearly in a friendly tone, as he patted a hand to the hilt of his own, sheathed sword.

        "Not if I'm successful," she replied quickly.

        That gave him pause – perhaps there was something he didn't know and she did? – and she had a moment of victory in their mental games before he snarled. With a dismissive wave of believing her to be bluffing, he drew a dagger and swept it in a wide arc to cut a long hole in the side of her tent. A dramatic swirl of cloak and a flap of canvas and he was out of sight.

        "Shit!" she muttered, slamming her sword back in to its scabbard. The enchanted blade emitted a yelp at the rough treatment. "Sorry," she added quietly.

        The words her sword spoke were barely words, and much of what she interpreted as the audible noises it made were inside her head. Often this blade was the one friend she could talk to when she was lonely, and the one she depended on most during a battle. That one-sided bond made it hard to remember the sword was enchanted and not actually sentient. At least, the sorcerer who made the enchantment said the sword wasn't sentient. Due to the number of years since her uncle had given it to her, and the things her sword had warned her about during those years, Gabby had her doubts.

        It had been a bad idea to tip her hand and tell her father she had other plans than the obvious one he believed he was cornering her into. Even though he didn't seem to believe her just now, that didn't mean he wouldn't look into it. Now she was going to have to be extra cautious, and devise an underlying ruse in very short order for him to 'discover' as her 'secret plan'. Her army was already gathered here after following her orders blindly for the past month as she refused to share her plans with anyone for fear of her father's spying. It was all such a mess.

        The looming war and now the assassination plan were his doing – he wanted it to look like her brother's planning, but all the actual evidence she had proved Gabrick wasn't as devious (or interested) as their father made him out to be. Gabby didn't want to be fighting Rick, and believed her brother didn't want to be fighting her, but this war... only their dad would pit siblings against each other in an international battle to determine a winner so he could die assured his successor was 'strong'. She and Rick both already had their own holdings, lands, and peoples inherited from their mothers' families, so it made no sense to fight over their father's territory. Honestly, Liege Gabron could announce his favorite General as his heir and both Gabby and Rick would happily continue on with their own people.

        Gabron didn't want to avoid a war, though. And Gabby had no way of securely contacting his Generals to find out their minds on the matter. It was all such a mess!

        Likely he'd only come in person and said Dorgand, the immortal sorcerer, was returning as a distraction; something to cloud her mind from untangling the deceptions he was orchestrating and not because Dorgand actually was walking the land. That was news she would have heard through her own contacts long before Gabron would have needed to come in person to tell her.

        But, her father had specifically said Dorgand was going to be returning soon...

        She traced a finger over the jagged weld across the stomach of her armor. It was a match to the healed gash in her own stomach and something the smith had added as decorative because, in his tribe, scars were things to wear with pride. Her father's family thought it was garish to display, but among her mother's people the weld and scar were held as reminders of how fragile – and resilient – a living body can be.

        Her sword hummed smugly about its own, less fragile resilience. Nicks and dullness could be sharpened away, and even snapped in two the blade could be melted and re-forged.

        "I could toss you into a swamp, you know. You'd rust to nothing," Gabby threatened. Her sword vibrated in the sheath, just like a person shaking from laughter.

        The edges of the cut tent fabric fluttered in the evening wind. She lifted the sword from her belt and dropped it on the cot where she slept, then dug through her trunk for the needle and sinew needed to mend the cut. Sleeping would be difficult enough after an unexpected visit from her father; she didn't need a literal cold wind added to the chill he left behind.

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