COUNCIL

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The council of Royals quickly degenerated into a kind of trial. A chain of seemingly endless accusations against House Gerash were left dangling in the air while Samael attempted to defend against each one of them. Queen Aurra Firegem spoke first of her son Count Aldred.

She said, "I was already deep in mourning. The news of Aldred's death traveled faster from the field than the bier carrying his pierced body. Yet it was not until I saw the stricken face of Evandr that I submitted fully to my grief. And Lord Michael had come with him."

Then I spied Hashmal Phanuel of Family Bellon walking behind the procession, and I asked Duke Evandr, 'Did we prevail in the battle after all? Is the lord of Alodra our prisoner?' But my husband said, 'Nay, Aurra, the Lord Michael brought hem hither under a truce-bond.'

Phanuel prostrated hemself before me. Che offered hez deepest regrets for the death of my son, and che offered to give an explanation. 'But it is war', said I. 'What is there to explain?' The hashmal said in reply, 'Yet it is a war that never had to be, Your Majesty. Lord Samael came before me in Atria not long ago. Hy rolled out a map and told me the isle of Danya should belong solely to House Bellon, for we had ever been the mariners while the Gold Beards had become more the farmers and should be content with the vale of Loenna.'

'Hy said to me House Sala holding Danya was like sticking a finger in my eye. I accepted the truth of hyz argument at the time. Then very skillfully Samael changed the subject from Danya to the superbow.' And Hashmal Phanuel brought out this superbow for my inspection.

Phanuel stood up at a nod from the queen. Che said, "The superbow is made of gopher wood between a layer of sinew to the fore and horn to the rear, all held together from glue made from boiled horse hooves. The bowstring is made also of sinew from the shoulders of oxen."

My eyes fairly sparked at the sight of the thing. And when I fitted an arrow to it I deemed that only mighty ones could draw the string fully back, and when I released the string the shot flew half again as far as from any other bow. So I ordered a thousand of them.

And why should I not? Have not each of our kingdoms done the same for centuries, one or two Houses rising up against one, or all Houses assailing the others, but never, and how odd this now seems to be, all three Houses simultaneously coming up against the Black Beards?

Queen Aurra said, "I thank you, Phanuel. If you also recall, at the time I showed Duke Evandr the curious mark on your superbow which is also stamped on every weapon we have purchased of Adanite make, not excepting the compound bows that settled the battle in our favor."

The queen's husband Duke Evandr stood to explain hyz wife's remarks. "When my cavalry met Phanuel che had somewhat greater numbers than we, but my forces were armed with bows curved in curious shapes which allowed the archer to hold the string back without growing weary."

That in turn gave them sufficient time to take a carefully considered shot.

Phanuel said, "I was forced to break off the engagement or face a mutiny by my own cavalry. But it was not soon enough to preserve the life of your son, to my everlasting regret, Noble Ones."

The queen offered Phanuel a gentle smile, but her eyes were moist. She said, "My son is gone and cannot be replaced. Your army was driven off by special bows that Samael supplied to us just before the battle. And now we both see hy has been quietly playing a double game."

Queen Aurra was seated once more, followed by her husband and Phanuel. Then, abruptly, Samael stood up to speak. "I do not deny the essentials of what the queen, her duke, and the hashmal Phanuel have just related to you. Family Gerash is a House of merchants after all."

What I deny is the unspoken implication that my dealings with House Bellon and House Sala are somehow an evil. Are any of you making the claim here today that weaponsmiths may not seek increase? If they did not, of a surety there would soon be no arms in all of heaven.

King Uriel Bellon stood to answer hym. "No one here would deny workmen their wages, Lord Samael and no one is suggesting that the industry of a kingdom must be carried out entirely by edicts from on high. But I beg you to recall last winter when you came to my palace. You carted off much Bellon gold, and left in its place a forest of long pikes made from a new admixture of metals that could pierce any armor in my inventory, and you assured me it would pierce even the mail of the Brown Beards. Yet the summer campaign proved otherwise. The yeng and nephilim of House Larund were not caught by surprise. I was met on the approaches to Elketz by the ophan Gadreel and hyz entire infantry clad with immovable plate armor that was curiously able to turn aside the allegedly irresistible pikes you sold to me. So friend was turned against friend with no small loss of life, and no one benefited except the arms merchants of House Gerash. So let us not speak of reining in commerce when the only industry commanded by directives issued from a cabal is that of the Black Beards."

The Lord Samael said, "I fail to see any real significance in this tale, Your Majesty, nor in your conclusion. The pikes we sold were indeed invincible at the time we sold them to you. House Larund merely took advantage of a late breakthrough we achieved in metalsmithy."

If your ancient House and the House of Larund insist on carrying out your hoary family squabbles, we in Adan are only too happy to provide the means for you to do it, as surely as we aid House Sala and yourself in your other perennial quarrels on the shores of Thalury.

The lesser nobles of the monarchies then rose one after the other to weigh in on these matters. Jegeduel Bellon and Balthazar Firegem spoke of battles that were fought, every year it seemed, on the hills of glacial till that formed the border between Rimmon and Gerazan.

Gadreel of Elketz spoke of a skirmish with Hashmal Raddai near Peshast, a sharp row between nobles within the same House, and neither one knew at the time what had been the essential cause. "Only now, at this council," said Gadreel, "are things beginning to grow clear."

In hindsight we see Larund against Sala, Larund against Bellon, Sala against Bellon, even brother against brother among the Brown Beards. And it's so curious how Samael is omnipresent, pointing out problems we never knew we had, and ever with a remedy on hand for sale.

Lilith then stood up to state har piece. "All of you have heard tidings, no doubt, of how the land of Adan has been torn by civil war in recent years, and how my brother King Melchizedek was slain by many arrows even as hy drew night the shore east of Salem to surrender."

Mayhap not all of you know how I fled Salem in exile with my Lord Michael, and with the Fallen Angels and others of the city who yet call me Queen, even as we were pursued across the ice bridge by the overweening victors who were not content to digest the spoils of war.

But I deem that among those in attendance here only King Metatron knows of the bargain we forced on Samael, Michael and I, that there is now a hard border on the frontier of Magodon that the Adanites must never cross west, nor I east. And so I remain in perpetual exile.

My husband assures me that once a seraph's word is given, there can be no repentance, and indeed this is why Samael could depose my brother only by warfare and not a simple edict. Also an impenetrable bog stands between Adan and Rimmon so the Black Beards are boxed in.

They need only to fear an attack from King Metatron, yet the king has no reason to ever do so, save it be to recover the trackless wastes that lie between the new border and the ice bridge. But that would be a fruitless adventure against a thoroughly well-equipped army.

So the weaponsmiths of Adan have now only the three kingdoms to buy their wares. No great wonder, then, that Lord Samael is seen much of late craving audience with Queen Aurra in Sarahad, and King Uriel in Jelaket, and King Metatron in this city, and all their vassals.

Lilith was seated. Michael stood up to add hyz remarks to those of hyz wife. "Ultimately, Samael is lord of heaven. That no one denies. Lord Samael is a seraph in union with the sun we call Keter, and heaven huddles near to Keter as though to a fire in an overnight camp."

In the land of Adan House Gerash has always been especially devoted to Keter, and while angels and nephilim are peculiar to heaven, humans are from the world where Chokhmah reigns as lord, and it was from human stock that the angels and nephilim of heaven were begotten.

For heaven is a poor imitation of Earth, where there are islands with more land free of ice than exist in all of heaven, and there are no beasts native to heaven by reason of the world-embracing ice. And it is a truth that humans are kindred to the beasts in most ways.

Therefore in Rimmon where Queen Aurra reigns Chokhmah receives the adoration befitting an eloah, while in the lands ruled by the House of Bellon less so, and here in Magodon lesser still. This is tolerable to me since I have always called world-dwellers the Students.

It is a far better thing a student learns how to think rather than what to think, and I demand obedience only from the b'nei elohim, whom I have set aside just for that purpose. But I assure you divided loyalty is not tolerable to Keter, and there is Daat to consider.

Poor Daat has not even a thin ribbon of land on a world of ice to rule as his own, and his living avatar, Israel, must settle for whatever dregs in heaven are left to hym by Samael. And Samael has never called the dwellers of heaven the Students but rather the Servants.

So I am certain that Samael has already begun to set his designs in motion, and I think you will soon discover why he has maneuvered to keep the other three Houses off balance and at each other's throats. Yet I will not attempt to impose my will on that of the council.

But I counsel great caution in the wake of forming one front against Samael. Hy cannot assail you with hyz main force, but hy can send assassins at will, and burn through the ruling nobility until he finds one more to his liking, and outfit that one to adventure abroad.

Samael stood to offer a rebuttal. Hy said, "Of the self-styled queen named Lilith I have nothing to add, other than to ask, can there be a queen without a city to rule? For sha harself allows that sha must never return to Salem in har lifetime, nor har daughter in hars."

As for your own misguided imaginings, Lord Michael, consider! If I had truly ever wanted to subdue the remaining three kingdoms of heaven it would be a small thing to equip one and put a complete embargo on the two others, yet ever I have sold Adan's arms to all alike.

Samael seated hymself. All the guests of the king had stated their concerns. At last King Metatron rose to hyz feet to say, "Lord Michael, your words are weighty and must be pondered deeply. Know that we too here in Rumbek have played the fool for Adanite arms merchants."

This city has formidable water barriers to protect us on three sides, and the Nine Mile Wall protects us from being assailed by land on the fourth. Yet at times in centuries past we have ventured over the Wall of God, and even crossed Thalury to assail the Gold Beards.

Once during the reign of my father I crossed the ice bridge and passed through Salem to Ganelon and thence to Adan, a journey that took the better part of a year. In Ganelon I saw some of the finest bottom land I have ever seen, better perhaps than even around Saharad.

While there I saw that much of Adan had soil so deep and rich it was nearly black, yet there were few crops, save weeds.

Samael replied, "After the revolution most of the Middle Land has become a smithy. Only Salem has primitive agriculture like in your monarchies."

"Noble ones," said the king, "let us dwell on that for a moment. East of Salem, everyone who makes a living in the Middle Land is either employed to make weapons directly, or they support those do. Their livelihood rests entirely on keeping us at each other's throats."

"I will say what our livelihood purchases for us," Samael countered. "In a legal sense even my guards are on the same level as myself, with the same rights and obligations to the state. Can any of you noble born say the same thing about yourself and one of your servants?"

"A lowly apprentice could rise to attain to my seat on the State Council. Blood counts for nothing in the Middle Land, only ability and loyalty to Keter. In all of Adan now that Queen Lilith has been permanently dispossessed, we have a republic. A theocratic meritocracy."

Queen Aurra smiled at this. "When that apprentice does rise to your seat on the State Council hy will undoubtedly find hy is merely the next yang to be possessed by Keter. Nevertheless, not just citizens but kingdoms, too, may form republics after a fashion, Lord Samael."

A bell was heard to ring somewhere in the castle. Metatron slapped hyz hands sharply twice and that was the signal for Luzea and Gabriel to serve the midday meal. The Council of Royals paused in their grim deliberations to enjoy the hospitality of King Metatron's kitchen.

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