INTERLUDE

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Gabriel fans out with wine. When Luzea Cedarbranch serves a kingly plate of roast beef to Uriel Antero che ventures to sing to hem:

"Born to rule Jelaket as king.

Yet queen-gentle hez words do ring.

Valiant like the yeng of old

Fair like a bust of purest gold."

King Uriel is shocked to silence at first, but then che laughs with self-recognition at Luzea's impromptu verse. Queen Aurra Firegem is less amused and growls Luzea's name. But this only serves as the trigger for a couplet directed at her from the playful Miz Cedarbranch.

"Who rules the city of my birth?

Aurra Firegem, Queen of mirth! "

This elicited laughter from everyone at the table except Aurra, who pointed directly at Luzea. "Tonight. Twelve lashes!"

Suddenly Gabriel burst into tears for hez friend. Luzea was shocked to silence.

Indeed, an embarrassed silence settled all around the council table. Surely the Queen must be joking, they thought. The whipping tree for such a small thing? Michael caught the queen's eye and slowly shook hyz head, letting her know as politely as possible hy forbade it.

In hyz mind King Metatron weighed the wisdom of publicly countermanding the queen's command. Hy would brook no dungeon-style cruelty by hyz guests. But the Queen's face remained stern and inscrutable. Luzea and Gabriel returned to the high niche overlooking the chamber.

Queen Aurra's surviving son Balthazar had been under a sort of punishment by exile that brought him to Rumbek. He had not taken a meal with his mother for all that time, so hy was not acquainted with Luzea Cedarbranch and hez "talent", although he certainly noted hez sex.

That Luzea was an ambi had naturally set the clockwork of Balthazar's mind in motion to find a way to be alone with hem. Now he saw a clear path to rescue his mother from her self-inflicted dilemma, and if by chance it also helped himself, well, that couldn't be helped.

He said, "My mother the Queen may not know it was a diversion of mine in Belen to contrive certain unusual forms of chastisement. Now a flogging is without a doubt a terrible thing, especially with a whipping tree, but I fear it is doled out far too frequently in heaven."

I feel that a flogging no longer has the desired lasting effect that it undoubtedly did in the days of yore. So by your leave, Mother, turn this slave nephil Luzea over to me for correction. I can assure you in all truthfulness that che will never forget the experience.

The queen knew exactly what Balthazar was up to and hid a smile behind her hand. It wasn't like he was going to come right out and ask her, before all the royals assembled there, "Mother may I be excused from this meal so I can go have sexual relations with your servant?"

Nevertheless, Queen Aurra realized her son was on to something. She was not blind. The entire Sala delegation had noticed how love-smitten Luzea had grown over Metatron's jen servant. What Balthazar had in mind would amount to a severe punishment of mind and body indeed.

Then I turn the ambi over to you, son. But let me caution you, if che is fit to return to work in less than a week I will deem your punishment far too lenient.

"You are too gracious to me, mother." The Baron tossed his napkin and pushed himself away from the table.

After Balthazar signed to the guards that Luzea should be brought along most of the other guests excused themselves as well, whether they were finished eating or not. Gabriel, free for a time, had a very good idea where Luzea was going, and knew of a second way to follow.

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