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At Barachiel's airy castle in the Dul Valley of Sealiah Islem every- thing was complete in preparation for the Council of Royals. There re- mained only the impending arrival of the Great Personages. Queen Aur- ra's serving wench, a young woman named Lamassu, attained to the as- tonishing situation of having nothing to do and removed to a place where she could watch. Lamassu perched in a nook looking down upon the great hall, high enough to be able to see all the nobles when they pa- raded in to be seated.

Presently was joined by Gabriel and they shared a sweet kiss. They had been together for only six days, but for as many wonderful nights. For Lamassu the wild affair had been entirely bewildering. Gabriel seemed to know everything about her. In bed there was not a single awkward move. It was as though they had been married for a lifetime and Gabri- el had returned to the very beginning to start all over again. Lamassu was already in love with this nephil who towered over her, this dark- skinned boy who was so beautiful because che was also a girl.

Gabriel told her che was a servant of Michael but that che really came from the other world where the nephilim were almost non-existent. Lamassu found that much easier to believe than another claim Gabriel made, that che had actually died in that other world. If che told her che had already died once in Heaven too she wouldn't believe it at all.

For hez part Gabriel adored how Lumassu communicated only with music. What a shame, Gabriel thought, that Michael insisted che could never return to Earth. Lamassu would have been a natural in Hunky-Dory, a better songwriter than his cousin Dory, even, although Robyn certainly had a better voice.

Lamassu sang, "I sing of woe brought by those of black beard. When no- ble ones stood against what they fear'd. Just close your eyes to see them meet the king. Mark two slave women who watch all unseen."

Gabriel said to her, "Technically I'm not a woman, but never mind that, it's your art, right? By the way, if anyone catches you here avoiding work I think Queen Aurra has a pet whipping tree somewhere that will render the skin on your back into bloody ribbons."

Lamassu ran a delicate hand over the cloth of the tunic covering Ga- briel's back, knowing that che, too, was no stranger to the touch of the lash. Five of the scars there had been given hem, che said, by men on Earth asking questions of hem, before Gabriel could extricate hem- self.

She sang, "Now Gabriel is one slave woman's name, and Miss Lamassu is her female flame. They shirk toil in the valley castle, as Uriel walks before hez vassal."

Indeed King Uriel of House Bellon had entered the chamber first, ac- companied by hez daughter Princess Dafla. They looked none the worse after their long flight east on the dragon Demonstroke to the Dul Val- ley. Ophan Barachiel excluded all weapons from the council chamber save for the Dragonthorn alone, the diamond blade in the possession of Dafla, which she wore in a scabbard on her back.

Gabriel knew the Dragonthorn was useless as a weapon of war, yet it was something more than merely a ceremonial blade. Here in Heaven, in this time, the word talisman was wrapped around it. Where Gabriel originated it would be understood as a simple radio transmitter and antenna to wirelessly control a machine.

Ophan Nithael followed King Uriel into the chamber arm-in-arm with hez spouse Losna. A jen and an ambi, red of hair in the nephilim crop, they looked less a married couple and more like nearly identical twins. The city of Vaska was theirs to rule on the western shores of Thalury.

Of two these nobles Lamassu sang: "They rule distant Vaska where I was born. Queen Aurra greets them with no trace of scorn. Yet their bitter clash of arms claimed her son, and is fresh in the minds of everyone."

"Not bad," said Gabriel. "I should have brought my sax."

Lamassu shook her head and sang to Gabriel: "Your horn with an other- worldly sound, will make it certain we will both be found."

And Gabriel had to admit she was right. They both watched as other servants pulled out tall chairs where the king and his daughter were to sit.

The Hashmal Phanuel entered then, alone, as the final delegate of the House of Bellon. Hy ruled the city of Atria in Haaretz. As an angel rather than a nephil, Phanuel served to remind everyone at least some members of the great family of Red Beards actually had red beards.

Atria where Phanuel dwelt, at the head of navigation on the River Sa- bik, was the only civilized place in a land nigh to the Wall of God that was rich but largely uncrowded and untamed. Gabriel knew, from his point of origin on the other side of much future history, that Haaretz would be colonized anew from Earth.

Lamassu sang: "Alodra the source of oxen and gold, all guarded well by Phanuel the Bold."

Samael made hyz entrance without pomp, in a gait that showed forth that hy was at heart a soldier. Gabriel knew the seraph came in the role of a spoiler. Certainly Samael knew that any league of kingdoms forged in this council would be far stronger than the Adanites alone.

Lamassu had never seen the stocky and brash Adanite Emperor before. Hy came with only a single human female, and she, it was said, a mere commoner. No one of noble rank accompanied Samael, neither cherubim nor ophanim nor hashmalim.

Lamassu thought the woman looked very much like she could be Gabriel's kin but she was somewhat lighter in skin and hair. Gabriel knew much more about the woman. She was in fact his daughter Ariel, but reveal- ing that, even by accident, would unravel Binah's greatest secret. As a member of the B'nei Elohim che could uncover nothing of this, will- ing or not. Chronologically, Joy was older than Gabriel, who could speak little of her even to lowly Lamassu, but what little he could, he now did.

Che said, "She's from Earth, even as I am, but Joy is not her right name. She is one of the B'nei Elohim who oppose Chokhmah and Binah, at least to whatever extent they can, which is much less than they like. In Heaven she has chosen to use the name Joy because she always did have a wicked sense of irony."

The name meant nothing to Lamassu in her own tongue. The cold and ex- otic woman seemed to frighten her a little, and halt her flow of verse.

The nobility of House Sala entered Barachiel's chamber. At the side of Queen Aurra walked Royal Consort Duke Evandr. The titles of human aristos differed from the titles of nephilim or angels. Lamassu, si- lent now, would publicly lampoon her queen later and immediately come to regret it. Queen Aurra ruled inland Ramman, the most fertile, well- watered plain in Heaven. Left unchecked, the Gold Beards would multi- ply until they outnumbered everyone else on the Slush Belt. And House Sala venerated Chokhmah alone. Samael did not intend to leave Ramman unchecked.

Following Aurra and Evandr was the Countess Ayani, the recently wid- owed wife of Aldred Firegem, which made her the most eligible bachelo- rette in Heaven. But many at the Council noted the continuous eye-lock Ayani had with Hashmal Phanuel, who was already seated at the table.

For hyz part Phanuel returned the gaze of the willowy and now, appar- ently, the flirty Ayani. Something was obviously happening there. Lamassu was slightly disgusted because it had been less than a month since Count Aldred's death. In Rammon the people were still mourning.

Gabriel knew Lamassu lived for saucy drama of this sort, and indeed she recovered her voice. Remembering the finest horses in Heaven were bred in Ayani's city of Locotin in the coast range of Rammon, Lamassu sang, "Heeding no more her grand prize winning stallions. Ayani now seeks two-legged medallions!"

Following Ayani was her kinsman the Baron Alastor Firegem of Thorgram, who was also eligible for marriage, but his ever-wandering eye made marriage impossible. When his dalliances annoyed his mother she would send him abroad. By now he knew Heaven better than any who lived. Lamassu found the man easy enough on the eyes. He was as brawny as any angel of greater stature, but always smirking, as though frozen in perpetual boyhood. Of him she sang, "Alastor's a feast for many a talebearer. Whomever he's with, he finds the next much fairer!"

The city of Thorgram was nestled in the range of high hills that formed a fence between the fertile heart of Rammon and the narrow coastal plain along the shore of Thalury, amid a vast forest of gopher trees. These produced lumber that was found neither on Earth nor na- tively in Heaven. Gopher trees were a hybrid of both worlds and their wood had been used by ships in the Deluge, for it could not be de- stroyed by expanding ice. It is ridiculously easy to cut and work.

Perhaps Alastor was so boyish, Gabriel thought, because he ruled a city made of tree forts.

The delegations came into the chamber ordered by lots, lest any think the sequence represented the opinion of Ophan Barachiel as to which noble one was the greater. Hy only decreed that the hosting Larund delegation must enter last. So Michael entered next with hyz growing family.

There hy was, thought Gabriel, his own grandfather in hyz younger days, a bit more well-dressed on this occasion than usual, but still at heart just a glassblower's son, in union with an eloah who typical- ly shunned formality. But Lamassu was too filled with awe for the in- carnation of her God to see Michael as less aristocratic and regal than any of the others present.

Gabriel's mother Leliel walked in front of Michael, but sha was just four years of age. On the previous loop of this council, the one that ended so badly, Gabriel had marveled how he was seeing his mother in the flesh for the very first time. On this loop Gabriel had time to marvel how Leliel, the tireless running doll, had somehow been tamed to a slow walk.

Che recognized hez grandmother Lilith, of course, walking next to Mi- chael. Gabriel thought her to be a dark thunderstorm that had somehow been frozen as a long-legged yin. Sha was attired in the gray and black lines of a Fallen Angels dress uniform, a recent thing which had appeared as the Sealiah colony took root. And Gabriel saw that sha carried in har arms Dory's father, uncle Ithuriel, but as a very young infant dirk, perhaps only a few weeks in age.

When Leliel seated harself sha methodically removed a white scroll from a fired clay cylinder and prepared quills in what was taken to be a precious parody of an adult scribe.

Lamassu sang, "I thought the child would sit and fidget, now I think sha is really a midget!"

The Hashmal Raphaela, second-in-command of the Fallen Angels, followed Lilith wearing an identical dress uniform. Sha walked beside Ophan Barachiel while they held hands. The two apparently grew quite close in the months they were left with little to do but watch the empty frontier with Adan.

The green island of Sealiah was held in fee by Ophan Barachiel. It kept the people of Rumbek well-nourished, and many more besides. The isle was a great blessing but perhaps not all thought so. Lamassu sang, "The more the soil yields in Dul Valley, the more we toil in Ophan's galley!"

Uzziel of Elketz entered then at a deliberately stately pace. Hyz city lay west in cattle country, where the animals raised were driven throughout Magodon to be slaughtered. Lamassu sang, "Check your soles Uzziel before further you roam, I just caught a whiff, a small remind- er of home!"

When Uzziel reached the place where hy was to sit, hy did not take hyz seat, but said rather, in a loud voice, "Lords and ladies, I beg thee, please rise to your feet, Metatron king of Rumbek is come."

Nineteen complied with this rule of etiquette, but Samael and Joy re- mained seated.

Cherub Metatron entered the chamber through a massive door behind the head of the long table where hy was to sit. Lamassu sang, "Fishers circle the island in a ring, all of them subject to Metatron King."

"Your pardon, Lamassu," Gabriel said, "there is a thing the Lord Mi- chael has said I must do."

Since all eyes were already on Metatron, Gabriel started there. Walk- ing to the king's side, che inverted his leather pouch to show here was nothing inside, then restored it. After that che reached in to withdraw a crystal goblet of chilled golden wine and set it on the table before the king to gasps and applause. Not a single drop had been spilled.

Gabriel repeated hez magic trick down the table on the king's left- hand side, omitting wine only for Leliel and Ithuriel. Samael seemed to be deeply impressed by the display but Joy seemed bored.

"Hush, daughter," Gabriel said to her in the tongue of the latter-day B'nei Elohim when he set her goblet down in front of her.

"You hush, father," she said in reply, and Gabriel could do nothing but just that, though che longed to ask her why she was in the company of Samael in this pivotal moment.

Gabriel moved along and produced more goblets of what would be called a crisp, oaky Chardonnay in hez own time. After a time that was far more brief than if Gabriel had poured wine rather than pulled full goblets from hez leather pouch, everyone had been served. Gabriel then stood at a distance from the king with a goblet of wine in hez own hand.

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Strangers In Paradise