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By mid-afternoon the council of Royals had degenerated into an ad hoc trial of Lord Samael. A chain of seemingly endless accusations were made against House Gerash. Samael defended Adan against each one of them, not willing to leave a single charge remain dangling in the air.

Queen Aurra Firegem spoke first of her son Count Aldred. She said, "I was already deeply immersed 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 my husband, Evandr, that I submitted fully to my grief.

"And I saw that Lord Michael had come with him, and hyz eyes were filled with sympathy for my loss. Then, too, I spied Hashmal Phanuel of House Bellon walking behind the procession, and I asked my husband, "Did we prevail in the battle after all? Is the lord of the province of Alodra our prisoner?"

"But my husband said, 'Nay, Aurra, upon the death of our son Phanael laid down hez arms of hez own accord. The Seraph Michael has brought hem hither for an audience before the throne 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, if I was willing to entertain one.

"'But it is war', said I. 'What is there to explain?'"

"The hashmal said to me in reply, 'Yet it is a war that never had to be, Your Majesty.'" The queen looked across the table. "Will you now, Hashmal Phanuel, tell the Council what you said to me at the time?"

Phanuel said, "As you command, Your Majesty. Lord Samael of Adan came before me in Atria not so very long ago. Hy rolled out a map and told me, 'Behold, Hashmal Phanael, the isle of Danya. Do you not agree with me that it should belong solely to House Bellon? For it is of a truth that you have ever been mariners while the Gold Beards had be- come more the farmers. They should be content with the vale of Loenna. House Sala holding Danya is akin to sticking a finger in your eye, puissant lord.'

"If you will ladies and lords, mark that Danya lies westerly across the wide expanse of Thalury, nigh much more to the lands of House Sala than Alodra, indeed it lay across the very mouth of the great river Loenna that winds through much of Rammon. Yet I accepted Samael's argument at the time, so cunning was it phrased. Then every bit as skillfully, Samael by degrees changed the object of his counsel from Danya to the superbow.'

"At my own request Lord Samael brought out this superbow for my in- spection. Hy told me, 'The superbow, Hashmal Phanael, is made of go- pher 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 bow- string 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 the mightiest ones in my army could draw the string fully back. When I released the string the shot flew half again as far as from any other bow. So I ordered from Lord Samael a thousand of them. And why should I not? Have not each of our king- doms done the same for centuries, one House against another, or two Houses together assailing one, but never, and how odd this now seems to be, all three Houses simultaneously rising 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 recent battle in our fa- vor."

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 al- lowed 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 mu- tiny 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 he cannot be replaced. Your attack was driv- en off by special bows that Samael supplied to us just before the bat- tle. 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 essen- tials 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, yet emnity between kindreds would remain. Shall you then resort to throwing stones?"

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 whole 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 im- movable plate armor that was curiously able to turn aside the alleged- ly 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 com- merce when the only industry commanded by directives issued from a cabal is that of the Black Beards."

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."

A bell was heard to ring somewhere in the castle marking the time of the evening meal. Lord Samael resumed hyz seat as Metatron sounded the bell before him. Then hy slapped hyz hands sharply twice and that was the signal for Luzea and Gabriel to serve the midday meal. The Coun- cil of Royals paused in their grim deliberations to enjoy the hospi- tality of Ophan Barachiel' galley.

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Strangers In Paradise