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  1. The council of Royals quickly degenerated into a kind of trial. A chain of seemingly endless accusations against House Gerash were left dangling in the air while Samael attempted to defend against each one of them. Queen Aurra Firegem spoke first of her son Count Aldred.
  2. She said, "I was already deep 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 Evandr that I submitted fully to my grief. And Lord Michael had come with him."
  3. Then I spied Hashmal Phanuel of Family Bellon walking behind the procession, and I asked Duke Evandr, 'Did we prevail in the battle after all? Is the lord of Alodra our prisoner?' But my husband said, 'Nay, Aurra, the Lord Michael brought hem hither under a truce-bond.'
  4. Phanuel prostrated hemself before me. Che offered hez deepest regrets for the death of my son, and che offered to give an explanation. 'But it is war', said I. 'What is there to explain?' The hashmal said in reply, 'Yet it is a war that never had to be, Your Majesty. Lord Samael came before me in Atria not long ago.
  5. Hy rolled out a map and told me the isle of Danya should belong solely to House Bellon, for we had ever been the mariners while the Gold Beards had become more the farmers and should be content with the vale of Loenna.'
  6. 'Hy said to me House Sala holding Danya was like sticking a finger in my eye. I accepted the truth of hyz argument at the time. Then very skillfully Samael changed the subject from Danya to the superbow.' And Hashmal Phanuel brought out this superbow for my inspection.
  7. Phanuel stood up at a nod from the queen. Che said, "The superbow is made of gopher 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 bowstring is made also of sinew from the shoulders of oxen."
  8. My eyes fairly sparked at the sight of the thing. And when I fitted an arrow to it I deemed that only mighty ones could draw the string fully back, and when I released the string the shot flew half again as far as from any other bow. So I ordered a thousand of them.
  9. And why should I not? Have not each of our kingdoms done the same for centuries, one or two Houses rising up against one, or all Houses assailing the others, but never, and how odd this now seems to be, all three Houses simultaneously coming up against the Black Beards?
  10. 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 battle in our favor."
  11. 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 allowed the archer to hold the string back without growing weary."
  12. That in turn gave them sufficient time to take a carefully considered shot.
  13. Phanuel said, "I was forced to break off the engagement or face a mutiny by my own cavalry. But it was not soon enough to preserve the life of your son, to my everlasting regret, Noble Ones."
  14. The queen offered Phanuel a gentle smile, but her eyes were moist. She said, "My son is gone and cannot be replaced. Your army was driven off by special bows that Samael supplied to us just before the battle. And now we both see hy has been quietly playing a double game."
  15. Queen Aurra was seated once more, followed by her husband and Phanuel. Then, abruptly, Samael stood up to speak. "I do not deny the essentials of what the queen, her duke, and the hashmal Phanuel have just related to you. Family Gerash is a House of merchants after all."
  16. 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.
  17. 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 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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 immovable plate armor that was curiously able to turn aside the allegedly irresistible pikes you sold to me.
  20. 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 commerce when the only industry commanded by directives issued from a cabal is that of the Black Beards."
  21. The 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."
  22. 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.
  23. The lesser nobles of the monarchies then rose one after the other to weigh in on these matters. Jegeduel Bellon and Balthazar Firegem spoke of battles that were fought, every year it seemed, on the hills of glacial till that formed the border between Rimmon and Gerazan.
  24. Gadreel of Elketz spoke of a skirmish with Hashmal Raddai near Peshast, a sharp row between nobles within the same House, and neither one knew at the time what had been the essential cause. "Only now, at this council," said Gadreel, "are things beginning to grow clear."
  25. In hindsight we see Larund against Sala, Larund against Bellon, Sala against Bellon, even brother against brother among the Brown Beards. And it's so curious how Samael is omnipresent, pointing out problems we never knew we had, and ever with a remedy on hand for sale.
  26. Lilith then stood up to state har piece. "All of you have heard tidings, no doubt, of how the land of Adan has been torn by civil war in recent years, and how my brother King Melchizedek was slain by many arrows even as hy drew night the shore east of Salem to surrender."
  27. Mayhap not all of you know how I fled Salem in exile with my Lord Michael, and with the Fallen Angels and others of the city who yet call me Queen, even as we were pursued across the ice bridge by the overweening victors who were not content to digest the spoils of war.
  28. But I deem that among those in attendance here only King Metatron knows of the bargain we forced on Samael, Michael and I, that there is now a hard border on the frontier of Magodon that the Adanites must never cross west, nor I east. And so I remain in perpetual exile.
  29. My husband assures me that once a seraph's word is given, there can be no repentance, and indeed this is why Samael could depose my brother only by warfare and not a simple edict. Also an impenetrable bog stands between Adan and Rimmon so the Black Beards are boxed in.
  30. They need only to fear an attack from King Metatron, yet the king has no reason to ever do so, save it be to recover the trackless wastes that lie between the new border and the ice bridge. But that would be a fruitless adventure against a thoroughly well-equipped army.
  31. So the weaponsmiths of Adan have now only the three kingdoms to buy their wares. No great wonder, then, that Lord Samael is seen much of late craving audience with Queen Aurra in Sarahad, and King Uriel in Jelaket, and King Metatron in this city, and all their vassals.
  32. Lilith was seated. Michael stood up to add hyz remarks to those of hyz wife. "Ultimately, Samael is lord of heaven. That no one denies. Lord Samael is a seraph in union with the sun we call Keter, and heaven huddles near to Keter as though to a fire in an overnight camp."
  33. In the land of Adan House Gerash has always been especially devoted to Keter, and while angels and nephilim are peculiar to heaven, humans are from the world where Chokhmah reigns as lord, and it was from human stock that the angels and nephilim of heaven were begotten.
  34. For heaven is a poor imitation of Earth, where there are islands with more land free of ice than exist in all of heaven, and there are no beasts native to heaven by reason of the world-embracing ice. And it is a truth that humans are kindred to the beasts in most ways.
  35. Therefore in Rimmon where Queen Aurra reigns Chokhmah receives the adoration befitting an eloah, while in the lands ruled by the House of Bellon less so, and here in Magodon lesser still. This is tolerable to me since I have always called world-dwellers the Students.
  36. It is a far better thing a student learns how to think rather than what to think, and I demand obedience only from the b'nei elohim, whom I have set aside just for that purpose. But I assure you divided loyalty is not tolerable to Keter, and there is Daat to consider.
  37. Poor Daat has not even a thin ribbon of land on a world of ice to rule as his own, and his living avatar, Israel, must settle for whatever dregs in heaven are left to hym by Samael. And Samael has never called the dwellers of heaven the Students but rather the Servants.
  38. So I am certain that Samael has already begun to set his designs in motion, and I think you will soon discover why he has maneuvered to keep the other three Houses off balance and at each other's throats. Yet I will not attempt to impose my will on that of the council.
  39. But I counsel great caution in the wake of forming one front against Samael. Hy cannot assail you with hyz main force, but hy can send assassins at will, and burn through the ruling nobility until he finds one more to his liking, and outfit that one to adventure abroad.
  40. Samael stood to offer a rebuttal. Hy said, "Of the self-styled queen named Lilith I have nothing to add, other than to ask, can there be a queen without a city to rule? For sha harself allows that sha must never return to Salem in har lifetime, nor har daughter in hars."
  41. As for your own misguided imaginings, Lord Michael, consider! If I had truly ever wanted to subdue the remaining three kingdoms of heaven it would be a small thing to equip one and put a complete embargo on the two others, yet ever I have sold Adan's arms to all alike.
  42. Samael seated hymself. All the guests of the king had stated their concerns. At last King Metatron rose to hyz feet to say, "Lord Michael, your words are weighty and must be pondered deeply. Know that we too here in Rumbek have played the fool for Adanite arms merchants."
  43. This city has formidable water barriers to protect us on three sides, and the Nine Mile Wall protects us from being assailed by land on the fourth. Yet at times in centuries past we have ventured over the Wall of God, and even crossed Thalury to assail the Gold Beards.
  44. Once during the reign of my father I crossed the ice bridge and passed through Salem to Ganelon and thence to Adan, a journey that took the better part of a year. In Ganelon I saw some of the finest bottom land I have ever seen, better perhaps than even around Saharad.
  45. While there I saw that much of Adan had soil so deep and rich it was nearly black, yet there were few crops, save weeds.
  46. Samael replied, "After the revolution most of the Middle Land has become a smithy. Only Salem has primitive agriculture like in your monarchies."
  47. "Noble ones," said the king, "let us dwell on that for a moment. East of Salem, everyone who makes a living in the Middle Land is either employed to make weapons directly, or they support those do. Their livelihood rests entirely on keeping us at each other's throats."
  48. "I will say what our livelihood purchases for us," Samael countered. "In a legal sense even my guards are on the same level as myself, with the same rights and obligations to the state. Can any of you noble born say the same thing about yourself and one of your servants?"
  49. "A lowly apprentice could rise to attain to my seat on the State Council. Blood counts for nothing in the Middle Land, only ability and loyalty to Keter. In all of Adan now that Queen Lilith has been permanently dispossessed, we have a republic. A theocratic meritocracy."
  50. Queen Aurra smiled at this. "When that apprentice does rise to your seat on the State Council hy will undoubtedly find hy is merely the next yang to be possessed by Keter. Nevertheless, not just citizens but kingdoms, too, may form republics after a fashion, Lord Samael."
  51. A bell was heard to ring somewhere in the castle. Metatron slapped hyz hands sharply twice and that was the signal for Luzea and Gabriel to serve the midday meal. The Council of Royals paused in their grim deliberations to enjoy the hospitality of King Metatron's kitchen.
  52. 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."
  53. 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.
  54. "Who rules the city of my birth?
  55. Aurra Firegem, Queen of mirth! "
  56. This elicited laughter from everyone at the table except Aurra, who pointed directly at Luzea. "Tonight. Twelve lashes!"
  57. Suddenly Gabriel burst into tears for hez friend. Luzea was shocked to silence.
  58. 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.
  59. 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.
  60. 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.
  61. 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.
  62. 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."
  63. 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.
  64. 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?"
  65. 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.
  66. 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.
  67. "You are too gracious to me, mother." The Baron tossed his napkin and pushed himself away from the table.
  68. 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.
  69. As the keeper of the sword Dragonthorn, Kari Antero was convinced that she had the power to bend the will of everyone around her, even the will of her father the King. At least, this is what her father constantly assured her, to his ultimate undoing.
  70. Some time ago Kari had taken Demonstroke all the way to the city of Mastema to put it to the ultimate test.
  71. Now, while the Council had taken a short recess she dismissed the guards blocking her way to Kirodiel’s chamber and received yet one more confirmation of her invincible power of persuasion.
  72. Joy was lounging sensuously inside the chamber like some exotic black cat. In fact, everything about her was black except her unnaturally pale white skin. Kari told her she was dismissed also. Joy left quickly without a word of protest.
  73. “How did you get in here?” Kirodiel demanded angrily after witnessing his woman sent away abruptly like some common servant. “It wasn’t very hard,” Kari said. “I’m very persuasive it turns out. Yet the last time we met, you had the stronger power, it seemed.”
  74. “I don’t know what came over me then,” he said. “And Joy would certainly never understand if she discovered the truth of the matter. She has very unpleasant ways of making her displeasure known.” “I came to see if your resolve to keep our secret has not withered.”
  75. “You must be thinking of the requirement for strict sexual purity for every woman who is entrusted to guard the Dragonthorn blade.” The penalty for losing my virginity is more terrible than any other punishment in the history of Barbelo.
  76. “Yes indeed, Princess. I am given to understand that if you were discovered to be, ah, disqualified, you would be actually rendered immortal and buried alive in a coffin deep under the ice to suffer the horror of eternal claustrophobia for all eternity.
  77. A truly horrible fate to contemplate for any creature no matter what their crimes, and sufficiently horrible, in fact, that it has never been found necessary to measure it out. In a way I’m flattered that you risked that awful penalty for a single session in bed with me.” “So what are your feelings on this matter, Lord Kirodiel?”
  78. “I find that I still have no desire at all to reveal it to anyone, and even thinking about revealing it to another person causes me to be overcome with a very bad depression that grows worse and worse the closer I come to making my urge into an actuality.”
  79. “It is a shame that it must be so, Lord Kirodiel. When last we met you said that I had a very lovely ass and could not keep your hands from caressing it.”
  80. Kirodiel puckered his mouth in disgust. “Princess, right now I wouldn’t reach across your ass to grab a winning ticket in the Salem numbers racket. I resent very much that you have somehow wound this spell around me. Your secret is safe. So if that is all you want, then please leave.”
  81. Kari pivoted on one foot and marched out of his chamber without a sound. When she was well out of earshot Kirodiel began to snicker. The effort it had taken not to laugh the entire time was almost too much for him!
  82. “So that was the girl,” Joy said, emerging from behind a curtain. She had doubled back by secret ways and listened to almost the entire exchange.
  83. “What a stupid twit, my Lord! It’s a wonder you didn’t have done and unleash the dragon on Vaska the instant she came to you and gave her so-called virtue away.”
  84. “It is not her virginity that controls the dragon,” he told Joy, “but the sword. I need only to manipulate her into breaking the sword and then you can take control of the beast yourself.”
  85. “With the sword broken I will have no problem flying Demonstroke. But I need access to his holding pen, my Lord. There’s a limit to the range of my power.” “My guards can get you in easily enough,” Kirodiel said. “But tell me, Joy, how is it you can make beasts do your bidding anyway?”
  86. “My lord already knows Yeshua and Talishi have what they call the B’nei Elohim project going on the side. A little below gods we are, the saying goes, a little above humans. As I understand it, I cannot control any animal until Yeshua prepares it with some kind of bead in their brain
  87. much as El Shaddai once prepared Samuel to receive his voice long ago in Palestine. Your dragon, however, has already been prepared by yourself, Lord. I will merely tap into that.”
  88. “Good. Then we shall await the moment when Princess Kari breaks the sword. There must be no doubt in the mind of Talishi and all the assembled ladies and lords that what follows is entirely the fault of the princess.”
  89. And though Joy had removed herself to the enemy camp, and served Mastema with her whole body and soul, it never at any time occurred to her to mention that Yeshua had discovered a way to manipulate time.
  90. The compulsion never to reveal this, directly or even indirectly, ran to the very inner core of the B’nei Elohim.
  91. When Baron Bayard Firegem was alone with Luzea Cedarbranch in his chambers he commanded her to disrobe, but Luzea balked, saying: The Queen would give me twelve whistling lashes I fear you more than a hundred slashes
  92. “Nonsense, Luzea, I know you have seen the whipping tree do its work. It may be the tamest form of life native to Barbelo but it is nasty enough. Twelve lashes means at least two cracked ribs and maybe even some kidney damage.
  93. So remove that dress and let me see what I bought with my lies to my mother.”
  94. Luzea slowly complied, but she was trembling. The 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, with that untamed female scent he craved
  95. But her purely animal fear 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, “You commoners are fortunate. You can do as you like but among the royal family of Sala we only allowed to take wife from among our peers, upon pain of exile.
  96. And when the Queen sets her mind to exile she has an option that is truly outlandish.” Luzea sensed that he was relenting in his enthusiasm for “punishing” her and her trembling began to subside a little bit.
  97. “Oh, but only if you knew how good you seem to me,” he lamented. “I’m a Gold Beard baron with a decidedly overwhelming preference for unspoiled women.” My Lord endeavors not to let this show, But tell me does your mother the Queen know?”
  98. “Yes, Luzea, she has known for a long time. My taste for commoner female flesh was overlooked as long as I kept things quiet and discreet. But the Queen is beginning to lose patience.”
  99. There was a scratching sound in the ceiling above, and the Baron rolled to one edge of the bed just in time as a thin ceiling panel gave way. Aliwe Halil fell to the bed just then, landing on Luzea’s nude body amid many wooden splinters.
  100. One naked leg of Luzea curled around Aliwe almost instinctively with pleasure, a conditioned response from their many sweet nights together.
  101. The Baron smiled, got fully dressed, and strode toward the door to leave them alone. “I do ask that you put my room back in order when you are done, ladies. I’ll tell the guards to give you an hour alone.”
  102. Before he left he remembered something and turned to Luzea. “There’s still my mother’s wrath to allay. You will have to feign some kind of injury so horrible that you refuse to speak of it. I think that will satisfy her.” He looked at the two of them starting to squirm and tilted his head.
  103. And that should be me there wrapped in your lovely arms and legs, young Luzea!” Then he closed the door.
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Strangers In Paradise