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The Cherub Metatron said, "To the lords and ladies of Heaven, I wel- come you." Hy picked up hyz goblet since hy deemed it more mannerly to raise a glass in the direction of someone than to point a finger. "Queen Lilith of Salem and har husband Lord Michael have been my hon- ored guests on this isle for over two years. They arrived through the air inside what Lord Michael has called an avatar, made by the hand of Chokhmah himself."

The king glanced at their child, who was busy enscribing all that he just said.

"With them came their daughter Leliel, who even now is marking down the words I say here, and har mother insists Leliel does not merely play at being a scribe. Lord Michael and Queen Lilith have experienced many lamentable misfortunes which have led them to be driven into ex- ile from Salem, but recently the birth of their son, Ithuriel, on this very isle, has been an occasion of great joy, and I rejoice in union with them."

Metatron turned hyz hand holding the wine goblet to where Samael and Joy remained seated, both unmindful of the traditional decorum in the presence of a king. Of them Metatron said, "It is well that the ruler of the Adanites, Lord Samael, has also made hyz appearance, that hy may see we do not conspire against hym in secret. Lord Samael has come to us in the extraordinary way that some among us have seen before, as hy is of the seraphim and can travel anywhere in Heaven at once. An Earthwoman named Joy accompanies hym. I am told she is a warrior of rank that would make her equal to one of the malakim."

The king looked along the table and said, "The Baron Alastor Firegem of the House of Sala has come, and he did not need to travel far, as he was already in Rumbek on an errand laid upon him by his mother."

At that Ayani could not help making a sharp chuckle, to her own sudden embarrassment.

Metatron had intended to mention Ayani next, but her short eruption of mirth did not suit the words hy had prepared touching the recent death of her spouse Count Aldred. Annoyed, the king passed over Ayani and introduced instead King Uriel of Jelaket and hez daughter Dafla. "I think in all of Heaven the only means of travel more unusual than the one employed by Lord Samuel must be to come hither on the back of the last surviving dragon, even as the nobles from Jelaket have done. I am certain the Cherub Uriel will have more to say about that."

Metatron's eyes moved further up the table. "We are also honored to have with us here the Ophan Nithael of Vaska and also hez spouse Los- na. They traveled by means of the avatar of Chokhmah which whisked them over the wide expanse of Thalury, the Wall of God, and most of Magodon.

"We have with us also Hashmal Phanuel and I am told hy was the travel- ing companion of Baron Alastor. The both of them had perhaps the most arduous journey of all who have attained to this council chamber, for they went by foot and by steed, and took the better part of a year to arrive."

The king turned then to hyz own delegation. "I am pleased to see my son the Hashmal Uzziel is also here today," hy said. "Hy is come from Elketz, the nearest city to Rumbek west of the Nine Mile Wall, yet hy spent the better part of the summer riding here, as this Heaven where we dwell truly is great in extent."

Metatron then introduced Raphaela of the Fallen Angels, who sat be- tween Uzziel and Barachiel. "Of har doings on the eastern marches of House Larund to the sha no doubt has much to say, for indeed events there precipitated this very council, which is, I think, unique in the long history of Heaven. Yet it is long overdue. The question before us is nothing less than this: Will there be lasting peace in Heaven? Such must be foremost in the thoughts of Queen Aurra Firegem of Rammon, and Duke Evandr, and the Countess Ayani, who have come to this council still deep in grief. Not a one present here can be unaware that the nobles of House Sala have come to us soon after the life of their kinsman Count Aldred was taken on the field and in the days leading up to this conclave it first came to my mind to utter soothing but empty words in his memory. Let us drink to a better sentiment instead."

Metatron as hy raised hyz goblet. The lords and ladies seated at the table raised their own at the bidding of the king. "As we trot out our grudges at this council may we resolve to forge something truly last- ing and meaningful. Let us see through to making Count Aldred's other- wise useless death significant in an enduring way."

Then the King and all the attendees quaffed the wine, save for Samael and Joy, who remained seated and did not share Metatron's sentiment.

There were gasps around the table, but not at the rude non-action of the Adanite seraph. Rather, the gathered noble lords and ladies mar- veled how the wine was somehow as chilly as a mountain stream after being poured from Gabriel's wineskin. Even Gabriel joined them in the toast, standing near the King, and Lamassu thought it supremely unfair che was not rebuked for drinking on duty.

But Gabriel was quite finished with hez appointed task for now. Che polished off hez crystal goblet of wine and returned to the high nook where Lamassu waited.

The Cherub Metatron bade everyone to be seated. Then hy struck the bell that was set before hym and the council had begun.

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Strangers In Paradise