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Exiler drew near to tiny Rhene. Lahatiel ordered all hands on deck except Kushiel, who was to remain with his engines below. The Gunner came up to the bridge and sat at her fire control console, where she refused to even look Erel Barakiel in the eye.

Suriel didn’t think it was possible at the time, but for the entire mission the Exiler’s weapons officer Sar Adnarel Sala would manage to pointedly ignore everything Barakiel said. If a thread of conversation was taken up by others, Adnarel refused to take part if the topic was initiated by Barakiel. She seemed to have an immaculate memory for who started what discussion. After all, tossing someone in Lake Ignora wasn’t as much fun unless the victim was acutely aware at all times of being in Lake Ignora. The amount of effort this took on Adnarel’s part astonished Suriel, and it amused her to watch the train wreck unfold. Suriel almost felt compelled to take notes.

Unlike the navigator she despised, Adnarel Sala, at least, was not a fraud. She had easily killed her opponent in the death match simply because she could not miss. That was the talent for which Lahatiel had proposed to make Adnarel his weapons officer when he was reviewing the records of candidate officers. Arioch’s objection at the time was that Adnarel was simply too feminine. She was a girly-girl, loud and proud. It was jarring to see that in Mastema’s navy. At least Suriel made an attempt to half emulate a man, if you squint your eyes at her just right.

Lahatiel had to admit that even Adnarel’s official photo made her come across as a supermodel from Earth. Barbelo didn’t have supermodels, since they existed only to sell things to women, and women on Barbelo didn’t have any money. If Barbelo had a film industry like on Earth, then Adnarel would have easily been a movie star.

But meeting Sar Adnarel in person, Lahatiel found, was a subtly disturbing experience. Fully seven feet tall, the young woman’s undercurrent of sexual power was undeniable. The official record was sketchy about her past so Lahatiel was at a loss to explain how she had come to be a weapon’s officer and not the trophy wife of another officer, mated to either her brother or the one who vanquished her brother. Lahatiel asked her to fill in some of the details.

“I was born on the isle of Danya, sir, the part of the land of House Sala that is occupied by House Gerash. I didn’t have any brothers. I grew up with my sister on my father’s estate. We had many farm hands to help us, and I never had to toil once for all the days of my childhood. But then my father died in a battle against the Beaters, and our land reverted back to Sartael, because according to the Law of Mastema my mother could not inherit property. And by this time Sartael was running out of high-ranking friends he could assign land to, yet he refused to allow lower-echelon veterans to have estates.”

“My engineering officer, a ravmalak, mentioned that same policy when he was telling me about his own life.”

“Also, sir, there was the question of what to do with my sister and my mother and myself in any event. If we were cast out to become beggars, or set to toil on what had been our own land, it would set a precedent, and other officers of flag rank would fear to die in service to the Emperor, lest their own wives and children suffered the same fate.

“So Sartael reorganized my father’s estate as a kind of agricultural cooperative, and set my mother in place as the Emperor’s representative. Our farm hands continued to have employment, and the Emperor, Sartael, and then later Asmodeus, received far more in taxes than he did when my father was lord of the plantation, because there was no middle-man with expensive tastes like my father to intercept the bulk of the profits.

“My childhood was spent doing little more than idle play. When I became a full-grown woman and set aside my toys, life grew boring for me indeed. I knew nothing about farming, and sometimes there was only enough food and money to survive from one day to the next. But I did have one talent that could not be denied. When I went hunting with a bow to supplement our green stuff with meat, I found that if I put my mind to it, I simply could not miss. And that, through a long, strange winding path that included granting certain favors to smooth the way that I’d rather not go into great detail about, and an accelerated college education, led to my present job in Mastema’s Navy as a weapons officer.”

As Lahatiel had done with the three other officers he had selected to crew the Exiler, he gently steered Adnarel into revealing her true feelings about the Gerash Patriarch. At one point she admitted, “It was quite an eye-opener to see him scramble to recover from one of his own bad decisions. It was a person like waking up one day and realizing they have exceeded their own father in maturity and wisdom, and their father now seemed like nothing more than a petulant, selfish brat, only taller.”

Lahatiel was content to leave it there, rather than push Adnarel for an open declaration of rebellion against Asmodeus. He knew peer pressure from the rest of the crew would greatly sway her if she was wavering on that front.

To Erel Barakiel’s utter astonishment, the shakedown cruise of Exiler into Beater territory was Sar Adnarel’s first experience in free fall. Apparently she had been trained to become a weapons officer in the middle echelon the Imperial Navy entirely by simulators and classrooms on the surface of Barbelo.

Adnarel’s newbie status became a problem after their first dinner when Lahatiel and Suriel broke out cigars. A number of dependent guests excused themselves. Ravmalak Kushiel plugged his nose. Barakiel rolled off the lid from a can of smoked sardines. The smell of the smoke and the fish was too much for poor Adnarel. Sha started making horrible heaving noises. A fleck of her vomit struck Barakiel right in the face.

“They weren’t lying,” he said, wiping it off with disgust. “You really are a crack shot!”

But Adnarel was curled into a ball and would not or could not answer.

He rubbed it in some more. “Sar Adnarel, perhaps you don’t know the ancient spacer’s rule that says you have to clean up your own floating globules of puke.”

You clean it up, Erel,” growled Lahatiel, who was much more tolerant of Adnarel as she tried to get her space legs. “Momma and Poppa are trying to enjoy an after-dinner smoke.”

Barakiel felt knocked over by shame. In the eyes of Lahatiel he must appear as no more than an immature brat, which was entirely ironic, since Lahatiel was the youngest officer on board, younger than Adnarel even. Barakiel bristled at the injustice of it all. But this little girl who was allegedly a weapons officer was entirely to blame.

“Boot,” he sneered at Adnarel as he went aft to get cleaning supplies.

Before his head was clear of the Banquet Room deck, Adnarel unrolled from her fetal position enough to tell him icily, “I shan’t forgive you, Helm. I shan’t forget.” And without another word Adnarel went forward to the flight deck to brood at her weapons console. A legendary feud was born.

On the current mission to Xanthos, with the layover at Minos that he had ordered, Lahatiel thought back to that vomit incident. He suspected the feud between his officers was made possible because Adnarel realized, perhaps only subconsciously, that both Barakiel and his lover Peniel were entirely immune to her sexual charms. And that insight suggested a course of action to the ophan as they drew near to Minos. He spoke to Adnarel privately, asking for her willing cooperation. “I didn’t want to give you the wrong idea,” he explained, “but for this part of the mission, your talent as a gunner is entirely superfluous, but your talent as a beautiful nephil female is not.”

Barakiel approached Rhene with great caution to avoid tripping the hair-trigger automated defenses. Suriel watched the microwave band for any sign of fire-control radar locking on. Tiny Minos, the sub-mood of the moon Rhene, possessed a surface gravity sixty times less intense than Barbelo. Barakiel didn’t so much land Exiler on Minos as he docked with it. A tube in the landing facility fitted itself around Exiler Sidekick’s front hatch window to permit egress through the bottom of the ship.

Lahatiel asked Suriel to join him briefly in the Banquet Room so he could quietly pass along a few things. When they were alone, he said, “There is a graduate student by the name of Hadraniel, the son of the well-known human named Ithuriel, who, of course, invented the sub-macro and is currently the Imperial Astronomer. A month ago this young student traveled from the campus at Danae to the capital city of Xanthos to enjoy a break from class at the hot springs there. He was abducted by associates of a criminal organization called the Iron Fist, who are demanding a number of things as ransom. The orders I have directly from Asmodeus are to take out this Iron Fist outfit even if the boy is killed, if not directly by one of our torpedoes then indirectly by the Iron Fist after we answer their demand for a ransom by flattening one of their domes chosen at random.”

“So let me guess where you are going, sir,” Suriel said. “You think we can actually save this kid.”

He nodded. “The rest of the team will follow orders, but I’m telling you so you don’t wonder about any mission creep.”

“I appreciate that sir, but I am just as capable of following your orders as the other officers.”

“I know you are Suriel. Sorry. I’ll tell you more later.”

Lahatiel emerged from the upside-down lander hanging under the Exiler, weighing all of three pounds, and was met by guards who escorted him through a maze of corridors to the spacious office of the warden, Achimel Larund. The warden was a nephil with an exceedingly cruel reputation, the better to command Mastema’s version of hell. Lahatiel told him, “I am the Hand of Mastema.”

“I don’t know what a Hand of Mastema is,” Achimel sneered.

“I realize I will have to make certain allowances at first until all the servants of our Lord understand the authority that has been imbued in the Hand of Mastema. I will say only this: The Hand of Mastema demands that you release into his custody one Elimelech of the Cast Off from the prison at Rhene. Take as much time as you dare communicating with Palato about this demand, and my authority to make it. Or don’t communicate with Palato at all, if you dare that as well. I will await your answer aboard the Exiler.”

Five Eyes of Belial prostrated themselves before Asmodeus and his son Apollyon in the throne room on Palato. Arioch stood up and said, “Your pardon, Lord Asmodeus, but a matter has come to our attention that we believe proves your trust in Ophan Lahatiel was entirely unfounded.”

Asmodeus said, “Come closer, Arioch, and state your piece.”

Arioch walked reverently forward a few more paces and said, “We know, Lord, that you commanded Lahatiel to investigate the Iron Fist organization at Xanthos and destroy them. Instead, the Exiler has gone to the prison at Rhene and has ordered the warden to set free a notorious rapist and murderer named Elimelech, which will dismay certain very powerful clans on Barbelo when they learn of it.”

Asmodeus turned to his son and said, “Apollyon, Lahatiel trained you to prevail in the death combat, so you know him better than I. Can you think of a reason why he would disobey my order to proceed directly to Xanthos, and attempt a jailbreak at Rhene instead?”

“My father and liege-lord,” Apollyon said, “I believe Lahatiel intends to torture this Elimelech to give him a lead on the secret location of Iron Fist on Xanthos. I believe if you allow this prisoner to be released as Lahatiel has ordered, then Iron Dome will cease to exist only a few days afterward.”

“What perturbs me, son, is that the Eyes of Mastema are supposed to be my intelligence arm, yet the stupidity of their current leader has become apparent with this glaring oversight. You have faith in young Lahatiel, and I have faith that you would make a better commander of my Eyes than Arioch.”

Apollyon understood immediately. He stood up from his seat at the right hand of Asmodeus and said to Arioch, “When my father created the title Hand of Mastema he said, ‘When you do a thing, Lahatiel, it shall be as though I had done it. When you say a thing, it shall be as though I had said it.’ You were present when my father said that, so ignorance cannot be your excuse. The only alternative is that you believe my father said that in jest.” Apollyon drew his blade and approached the frightened nephil. “And now, Arioch, your blade, if you please…”

Arioch drew his own blade in turn, and flipped it in his hand to present it to Arioch hilt-first. But then without saying a word he set the blades’ tip against his own heart, turned, and rammed as fast and as hard as he could into the nearest dark gray wall of the throne room. His knees buckled, and Arioch sank slowly to the ground in the low gravity of Palato.

Apollyon rushed to the body of Arioch and flipped him over with a boot. The blade was still buried deep in his chest, piercing his heart with a mortal wound. As insurance against a botched attempt to fall on his sword, Arioch had simultaneously bitten on a cyanide capsule. The faint tell-tale odor of burnt almonds came from his open mouth even as he drew his final breaths.

The Eyes of Mastema might have been prepared with an antidote for hydrogen cyanide, and they might have been prepared to save Aricoh from his chest wound, but they were not prepared to do both. He was forever beyond the reach of Apollyon to arrange a far more entertaining and excruciating end.

After only a single hour the Warden radioed the Exiler and said, “I am at your service, Hand of Mastema. Your order will take about six hours to carry out. Only the prison ferry is permitted to approach or depart Rhene. All other vessels are attacked by automatic systems which cannot be overridden, lest the prisoners contrive an escape.”

“Very good, Warden, then I shall continue to wait aboard my ship.” And Lahatiel told Barakiel to move off the platform temporarily to make it ready to receive the ferry.

When the six hours had nearly passed Adnarel entered the Banquet Room from her stateroom wearing the blue skin-tight body suit uniform Lahatiel had asked her to wear, but she was also wearing some intensely provocative perfume, outrageous molecules she reserved for liberty ashore and hadn’t worn on the ship before out of olfactory courtesy for her fellow officers.

“Perfect!” Lahatiel exclaimed, but a picture said a thousand words. Lahatiel’s suddenly obvious male biological response said that he wasn’t telling his gunner a little white lie by any means.

So Lahatiel returned to the office of the warden, this time with Adnarel accompanying him. Elimelech was found waiting in the office bound in chains, wearing a tattered yellow jumpsuit which had been provided to him for the trip up from Rhene, but only for the convenience of Lahatiel, that he need not scrounge up clothing for whatever errand he had in mind for Elimelech, for otherwise all prisoners on Rhene remained in a disrobed state as part of the psychological warfare against them.

But the presence of Adnarel was an entirely unexpected form of psychological warfare.

The jumpsuit hid most of the damage to his body, but numerous scars on the face of Elimelech attested to a life of constant violence, either before or after his incarceration, or possibly both. A haunted look in his eyes spoke of the toll the prison was taking on his mind, but there was also a small hint of defiance there.

At a nod from Lahatiel, Sar Adnarel Sala took a large print out of a blue cylinder. It was a color photograph taken from space where two fissures on Xanthos met in a wide flattened cross. In the center was a cluster of sixty-one domes, like a giant Crwth game board, all connected by a web of roads. The Gunner posted it on the Warden’s office wall at eye level, then stood where the prisoner could easily gaze at her, which he often did. He had never seen her like.

“Elimelech of the Cast Off,” Lahatiel began, “the price of your freedom from Rhene is simply the correct answer to two questions. Please glance at this aerial photograph. My first question is, do you recognize this place?”

“I never saw it before in my life,” Elimelech spat, not even turning his head to look at it.

“Oh my, that was not the correct answer. Lord Asmodeus will be most disappointed that his generous gesture of mercy was thrown right back in his face. He might also conclude that conditions at Rhene have grown somewhat soft of late, warden, if a dangerous prisoner was offered a choice between freedom and a second round of interrogation, and he preferred the interrogation. But I suppose one can’t push a string. Thank you very much, Warden Achimel, for what cooperation you have provided. Asmodeus at the very least will be happy to hear about that.”

Lahatiel and Adnarel departed the office of the Warden at that time, and had nearly reached Exiler Sidekick again when Achimel approached him timidly and said the prisoner had thought things over for a minute and had grown a bit more contrite. The Warden looked a bit like a whipped dog himself.

So back in the Warden’s office Adnarel rolled out the map once more.

Elimelech said, “It is an aerial image of the city of Xanthos, sir on the satellite of Barbelo which is also called Xanthos.” And every time he spoke his eyes drifted to rest on Adnarel. It had been a long incarceration for him, and he had seen nothing but male nephilim for years.

“Excellent!” said Lahatiel. “Then if you would be so kind as to signify with this Darkr Markr which one of these domes is the true seat of power on Xanthos, Elimelech, you will soon be on your way back to hearth and home.”

“I will be happy to comply, if such a small thing is all that you wish,” Elimelech said. He took the Darkr Markr and casually put a black slash through the dome in the exact center of Xanthos.

“That’s not good enough, Elimelech. I already know that dome is the Directorate. I’m not looking for the facade, I’m looking for the real seat of power on Xanthos.”

Elimelech shot him a dark glance and seemed to mull it over for a bit, seeing the ophan’s game now in full. Then he sighed and looked at the aerial photo again, much more carefully this time, and placed an X over a dome on the outside ring, to the southeast of the Directorate.

“Very good,” Lahatiel said. “Warden, please remand this prisoner to my custody in accordance with the Emperor’s wishes. He will no longer need to be bound in chains. I’ll be taking him home to Xanthos myself aboard the Exiler. The Lord Asmodeus wishes it.”

“Asmodeus wishes it,” Warden Achimel replied with a trace of sarcasm, releasing the chains with his own key. “But I don’t think you realize what a monster this is you and the Emperor are letting walk.”

Adnarel rolled the photograph up again, slid it into the blue tube, and led the way back to the ship. She entered Exiler first and headed straight for the bridge, followed by Lahatiel. But when Elimelech climbed through the lander he found the hatch to the rest of the frigate closed.

Lahatiel’s voice emerged a speaker. “Relax and make yourself comfortable, Elimelech,” he said. “I regret that the rest of my ship is classified for visual inspection and you don’t have a clearance. When we get to Xanthos I’ll fly you down myself. In the meantime, you might want to close the exterior hatch before we return to open space, at least if you are fond of breathing.”

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Strangers In Paradise