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Later in the evening Baron Alastor Firegem was alone with the queen's servant Lamassu in his chambers, where he had commanded his guards to bring her, and there he commanded her to disrobe.

At first she balked at the order, saying, "The Queen would give me twelve whistling lashes, I fear you more than a hundred slashes."

"Nonsense, Lamassu, I know you have seen the whipping tree do its work. It may be one of the tamest forms of life native to Heaven but it is nasty enough. Twelve lashes means at least two cracked ribs and maybe even some kidney damage. So remove that dress and let me see what I bought with all those lies to my mother."

Lamassu slowly complied, but she was visibly trembling.

When she had completely disrobed he baron commanded her to lie back on the bed so he could drink in the vision of her nude body. Luzea was lovely, he thought, a ginger covered with freckles and with that un- tamed female scent he craved. But she also had a kind of animal fear that took all the appeal out of what he wanted to do with her.

As well mate with a captive hare.

The Baron sighed, and said to her, "You commoners are more fortunate than you know. You can choose to love who you like. But among the roy- al family of Sala we are expected to take wife solely from among our peers, whether from House Sala or abroad, upon pain of exile. And when my mother means exile, sometimes it can literally mean out of this world!"

Lamassu sensed the baron was relenting in his enthusiasm for punishing her and her trembling began to subside a little bit.

"Oh, but only if you knew how good you seem to me," he lamented. "I'm a Gold Beard baron with a decidedly overwhelming prediliction for un- spoiled women among the lower classes."

"My Lord endeavors not to let this show," she sang, "but tell me does your mother the Queen know?"

"Yes, Luzea, she has known this about me for a long time. My taste for commoner female flesh was overlooked as long as I kept things quiet and discreet. But lately the Queen has begun to lose patience with me."

There was a scratching sound in the ceiling above, and the Baron glanced up just in time to see a thin ceiling panel gave way. Gabriel fell to the bed just then, landing on Lamassu's nude body amid many wooden splinters. One naked leg of Lamassu curled around Gabriel al- most instinctively with pleasure, a conditioned response from their many sweet nights together.

The Baron smiled when he saw that. "A little fraternization among the help, is it? So be it. Consider it recompense, Lamassu, for this little drama my mother and I have put you through. But I do insist that you put my room back in order when you are done. I'll tell the guards outside to give the two of you an hour alone."

Gabriel and Lamassu stared at him expectantly as he started to open the door.

Before Alastor left he remembered something very important. "There's still my mother's wrath to allay, Lamassu. You must not be seen in the council chambers for a number of days. Perhaps you could feign having suffered an experience so horrible that you refuse to speak of it. I think that will satisfy her. And that should be me there squirming in your lovely arms and legs, young woman!"

Then Alastor left at last and closed the door.

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Strangers In Paradise