When everything was done in preparation for the Council of Royals and there remained only the impending arrival of the great Personages, Queen Aurra’s two serving wenches Luzea Cedarbranch and Aliwe Halil attain to the astonishing situation of having nothing to do. So they remove to a small empty nook above the great hall of the airy stone castle high enough to see everything and wait for the nobles to filter in. Whimsical Luzea, who speaks only in terribly bad rhyme, utters a verse then

I sing of final days brought by White Beard. When noble ones rose against what they feared. Just close your eyes to watch them meet the King. Mark two slave women who observe unseen.

(soberly) If they catch us here avoiding work Queen Aurra will have us flogged until the skin hangs from our back in bloody strips!

Shrugging, Luzea only continues her recitation

Aliwe Halil is one slave girl’s name
And Luzea Cedarbranch is her flame.
They shirk their toil in Arman’s galley.
“There’s Brogan Antero!” says Aliwe.

Indeed King Brogan Antero of Vaska arrives at the Council first, accompanied by hez daughter Kari, and they look none the worse for their flight by dragon to Rumbek. King Arman has decreed that no weapons should be brought into the council chamber, save for the Dragonthorn alone, the ceremonial blade in the possession of Kari, which she wears in a scabbard on her back.

Count Berek Antero follows the king into the chamber arm-in-arm with hyz wife Losna. Hy rules the city of Gerazan, the Antero city which lies furthest from the Bellon lands on the lake which snuggles at the far west of the West Lands. Gerazan is the breadbasket of House Antero and produces such a bounty that there exists a trade with House Larund beyond the ice.

Baron Priam Antero of Jelaket enters next, but no yin accompanies hym. The baron is the son of Baroness Vandriel Antero and the late Ichor Gerash, a spy of the House of Gerash who went native rather than passing through to the East Lands and carrying out hyz assignment against the Black Beards. So the Eyes of Thaumiel sent more spies to assassinate Ichor, but hyz son Priam took much better precautions, and when hy had buried his father he swore eternal conflict with House Gerash. King Arman, suitably impressed, awarded hym the mountain city of Jelaket, which breeds the best horses on Barbelo, and supports most of the military forces of house Antero.

After that Lord Kirodiel makes an unassuming entrance, a stroll without any pomp or wasted movements that says with no mistake that hy is first and foremost a soldier. He comes with a mysterious black-clad, black-haired human female he introduces as “Joy” but that is clearly an ironic name, for her black lips never smile, and her black eyes seem to show forth upon her pale white face her icy heart within. And it is rumored that this Joy is a great sorceress from Earth immersed in the martial arts who comes as both bodyguard and concubine to Kirodiel.

Luzea Cedarbranch is too frightened by this Joy, or possibly too fascinated, or both, to utter any verse.

Kirodiel knows the aim of this council is nothing less than the formation of a league of all the houses on Barbelo, which together would be far stronger than the house of Gerash alone. If that alliance came to be, an intolerable peace would break out between the eternally warring states, and that in turn would spark an existential crisis for the White Beards. For House Gerash has shifted over to an economy based almost entirely on supplying arms to the other houses, or attending to the needs of those who manufactured those arms. Now, overnight, the entire basis of industry in the lands ruled by House Gerash could evaporate, unless this nascent league of kingdoms was stillborn. Kirodiel would attend to that directly.

Next the delegation from House Sala enters the council chamber. Walking at the side of Queen Aurra is the Royal Consort Duke Evandr Sala. But again Luzea has no immediate comment. She would lampoon the Queen later during the meal, to her regret.

The Queen rules from Saharad, in the center of the most fertile plain on all of Barbelo. It is easy to follow the trend. Left unchecked, House Sala would simply continue to grow until it outnumbered every other great family on the planet. Kirodiel did not intend to leave House Sala unchecked.

Following the Queen is the Countess Ayani Sala, recent widow of Aldred Sala, which (after a suitable mourning period, of course) made har the most eligible bachelorette in the Land. Many at the Council, however, note the virtual eye-lock Ayani has with Count Priam Antero. Something is happening there, and Luzea is slightly disgusted because it is such a naked display of raw heterosexuality and there has only been two weeks since Count Aldred’s death.

Make room in the Sala barn of prize stallions.
The countess eyes a two leg medallion!

Following the countess is har brother-in-law, Baron Bayard Sala of Thorgrim, who is also eligible for marriage among the noble class, but it is said hyz tastes ran more to meat of the commoner female variety, which is contrary to the long tradition of the Sala clan. The Queen knows hy was probably born that way yet she would sanction no union between har son and a completely different sub-species.

The Baron Bayard is food for many a talebearer. Noblewomen have no chance, he finds urchins much fairer!

There is no particular order to which delegations come into the chamber, for it has been chosen by lots, lest some think the sequence represented the opinion of King Arman of which noble one was greater. Hy only decreed that the Bellon delegation should come last.

So at this time Lady Haziel enters, accompanied only by Khondiel in har best Fallen Angel dress uniform. Khondiel has dolled harself up, and wears another headband Haziel has given har with a brilliant pure white light set in the center of it. Many of the delegates marvel at this light, but Haziel tells them later sha is working to bring about a time on both worlds when such things would be mere trinkets, and an entrance such as made by Khondiel just now would be seen as totally ridiculous.

After Talishi and Khondiel are seated at the table the Black Beard delegation arrives. The first royal peer to enter is stalwart King Garund Larund of Peshast, at the foot of Mount Tureth in the highlands that separates the lands of House Larund from Haaretz, far below the Wall of God. And though this astonishing face of rock was an invincible barrier to large armies moving east or west, there remains a single path, known only to the Black Beards, which ascends the face of the wall like a narrow ramp. Thus in small companies House Larund often skirmished with House Sala or raided the children of Kirodiel in Haaretz.

Hy rules hillside Peshast where you were born.
The Queen greets hym without a trace of scorn.
Yet their bitter clash of arms claimed har son
And is fresh in the minds of everyone.

The King is followed by the stout and yangly Count Raddai Larund of the city of Belen, with hyz wife the Lady Irus on hyz arm. This count rules the chief city of a province with a wide variety of rich veins of ore honeycombing the hills near the place where the ice forms a barrier to House Antero. Luzea sings

Belen the source of much copper and gold Guarded by the might of Raddai the Bold.

The stylish Baron Kadir Larund follows next, but hy travels only with aides. His city of Locotin, well up the valley of the River Bandar, is endowed with a verdant forest of gopher wood, a type of lumber that is found neither on Earth nor on Barbelo, but is a hybrid of trees from the two worlds, and was used by many ships in the Great Deluge, for it is flexible enough not to be destroyed by expanding ice. But many other valuable goods are made from gopher wood. It is easy to cut and work, and the entire city of Locotin is constructed of gopher wood set in the branches of giant living gopher trees.

Locotin the arboreal city
Even the Baron lives high in a tree.

And the Larund delegation takes their seats along one edge of the large six-sided table made, appropriately enough, of gopher wood. Then at last the hosts of the council, the Brown Beards of House Bellon, make their entrance. King Arman Bellon, duke of the city of Rumbek, enters then.

Fishers circle Sealiah in a ring
With all of them subject to Arman King.

King Garand is followed by Count Zelus Bellon of the city of Mandakar, who comes to the Council with hyz beautiful human wife Tamar from the land of Haaretz. Mandakar, which lies on the west shore of the fertile island of Sealiah, is the city that feeds the Brown Beards.

The more food they grow in Zelus’ valley
The more we toil in Arman’s galley!

The Count is followed by the Baron Kerresh of Elketz, who proceeds at a stately pace with hyz wife Ainia at his side. Elketz lies at the center of the range lands of the Magodon Peninsula, where cattle are sold by the head or by the herd and driven alive to parts throughout the land to be slaughtered.

Watch your step Baron, when ready to roam,
We just caught a whiff, reminder of home!

(after everyone is seated)
In the name of our God Chokhmah, and in the name of Thaumiel Lord of Barbelo, I welcome all of you here, and I especially offer much thanksgiving to King Arman Bellon for hosting our Council in this beautiful city. The issue before us is nothing less than the question will there be enduring peace on Barbelo? Therefore I dedicate this Council, the first such gathering in the history of our world, to the memory of my recently slain son, Aldred Sala. I implore that each one of you endeavor to find a way to make Aldred’s otherwise useless death meaningful in some lasting way.” And after speaking those words she takes her seat to allow the Council to truly begin.

It quickly degenerates into a sort of trial, with an endless chain of accusations against House Gerash left dangling in the air while Lord Kirodiel attempts to defend against each one of them.

Queen Aurra Sala is the first to give har testimony.

I was already in mourning, for the news of the death of my son Count Aldred Sala traveled faster from the battlefield than the bier carrying hyz pierced body. But it wasn’t until I saw the stricken face of my consort Evandr that I submitted fully to my grief. Yet I was surprised to find that Lady Haziel had come with hym. Then I saw King Garand Larund in the procession as well and I asked Evandr, ‘Did we prevail in the battle after all? Is the King our prisoner?’ But Prince Consort Evandr said to me, ‘Lady Haziel brought hym here. King Garand comes under a truce-bond to offer hyz apologies for the death of our son, and also an explanation.’ ‘It is war’, said I. ‘What is there to explain?’ But King Garand said, ‘It is a war that never had to be, Your Highness. Lord Kirodiel came to me in Peshast not long ago. Hy rolled out a map, and said the Isle of Danya should belong solely to House Larund, for we had always been mariners, while House Sala had become more the farmers. Kirodiel said that House Sala holding Danya was as though the Gold Beards were sticking a finger in my eye. I accepted the truth of hyz argument at the time. And then very skillfully Lord Kirodiel changed the subject from Danya to the superbow.’ And King Garand brought a superbow out for my inspection.

GARRAND (standing)
The superbow is a sandwich of wood between a layer of sinew in front and horn in back, all held together from glue made from boiled horse hooves. The bowstring is made also of sinew from the shoulders of oxen. When Kirodiel showed this my eyes fairly sparked at the sight of it. And when I fitted an arrow to it I deemed that only mighty yeng could draw the string fully back, and when they released the shot, the arrow would fly half again as far as from any other bow. So I ordered a thousand of them. And why not? Haven’t all of us done the same for a century, four Houses against one or a combination of the other, but never all simultaneously against House Gerash?

Thank you King Garand. And if you’ll remember, I demanded to inspect the superbow myself, and I showed Evandr the curious mark which is also stamped on every weapon we have purchased of Gerash make. This mark is to be found in every Sala armory.

My cavalry met the cavalry of Prince Consort Evandr Firegem at Fatho. We had somewhat greater numbers, but we faced Gold Beards armed with bows curved in curious shapes which allowed the archer to hold the string back without growing weary. That in turn gave them sufficient time to take a carefully considered shot. I was forced to break off the engagement or face a mutiny by my own cavalry. But it was not soon enough to save the life of your son, your Highness Queen Aurra, to my everlasting regret. Hy fell at a shot from a superbow. As I told you at the time, I am truly sorry. I can never make good your loss.

My son is gone, and hy cannot be replaced. Yet something you said just now, King Garand, might forge some good out of all this. You said, ‘Haven’t we done the same for centuries, four against a combination of the others, but never all against the White Beards?’ House Gerash has been playing a double game for too long. Your army was driven off by what Kirodiel called a compound bow when hy sold them to us.

I do not deny the essentials of what Queen Aurra and King Gerand have just related to you. House Gerash is a house of merchants after all. What I deny is their implication that our dealings with House Larund or House Sala are nefarious somehow. Are you noble ones making the claim here today that the pursuit of monetary profit is intrinsically evil?

It is not. No one here embraces a planned economy. But as Lord Kirodiel may recall, last year your embassy came to my palace and sold to me a forest of long pikes made from a new alloy that could pierce any armor in the Red Beard inventory, and they assured me it would pierce even the mail of the Brown Beards. And yet during the summer campaign the yeng of House Bellon were not caught by surprise at all. I was met on the approaches to Elketz by Baron Kerresh and hyz entire infantry armed with new plate armor that was miraculously capable of turning aside those very same ‘innovative’ pikes that your representatives sold me. And so friend was turned against friend, brother turned against brother, with no small loss of life, and no one benefited except the arms merchants of House Gerash. It seems that the only planned economy we are really talking about is that of the White Beards.

I fail to see any real significance in this tale, King Brogan. The pikes we sold you were indeed invincible at the time we sold them to you. House Bellon merely took advantage of a late breakthrough in metalsmithy. If your house and the Brown Beards insist on carrying out your family squabbles, we are only too happy to provide the means for to do it, as surely as we aid House Sala and House Larund in their perennial warfare.

The lesser noblemen of the four kingdoms tell similar stories of wars that cross the ice, Larund against Antero, of the whole West Lands united against the entire East Lands, and they even speak of tussles between nobles within the same House. And at every point there is the seemingly omnipresent Lord Kirodiel or hyz representatives selling a problem to one side and the remedy to the other side. The stories with their common elements seem to reach back into antiquity.

Princess Khondiel stands up to relate the rise of the Law of Thaumiel among the White Beards, of the resistance of the city of Salem and the inexorable transformation of family Gerash to a harsh militarism that went far deeper than any seasonal skirmishing between the other four Houses.

And now the greater part of the Army of Thaumiel is camped in the eastern marches of this very land, not far from this very city. I have seen this host myself from the air. This of a certainty tells me that my father is dead, and the city of Salem has fallen. For of what real import is the controversy between House Bellon and House Antero if House Bellon entire falls to the White Beards?

King Arman addresses Lord Kirodiel directly.

Do you deny the report of Princess Khondiel?

I deny nothing, King Arman. I have come to demand the return of the fugitive and common criminal known as Haziel, and to take into custody the one who facilitated har escape, Princess Khondiel, as well as the hundreds of har accomplices. That is the explanation for my army crossing the Ice.

A bell rings somewhere in the castle. Queen Aurra Sala slaps har hands sharply twice, and that is the signal for har two serving wenches to serve the midday meal. The Council of Royals have discussed weighty matters indeed that morning, but now they pause to enjoy the hospitality of King Arman’s kitchen.

When Luzea Cedarbranch serves a kingly plate of roast beef to Brogan Antero she ventures to sing to hem

Born to rule Vaska as her king.
Yet queen-gentle hez words do ring.
Valiant like the yeng of old
Fair like a bust of purest gold.

The King is shocked at first, but then che laughs with self-recognition at the impromptu verse. Queen Aurra is less amused. Sha growls Luzea’s name But this merely serves as the trigger for yet another verse from the playful Miss Cedarbranch.

Who rules the city of my birth?
Aurra Sala, the Queen of mirth!

This elicits laughter from everyone at the table except the Queen, who points directly at Luzea.

Tonight. Twelve lashes!

Aliwe bursts into tears for her friend, and Luzea herself is suddenly shocked into silence. In fact, there is embarrassed silence all around the table now. Surely the Queen is joking, they think. The whipping tree for such a small thing?

Haziel catches the queen’s eye and slowly shakes har head, as though to forbid it. King Arman weighs the wisdom of publicly contradicting the queen’s command, hy would have no dungeon-style cruelty in hyz own house. But the Queen’s face remains stern and inscrutable. Luzea and Aliwe are finished at any rate, so they return to their niche high above the room.

The incident attracts the attention of Aurra’s son, Baron Bayard, who only recently has come into hyz full inheritance. Hy has been recalled from the border with the Middle Lands upon the news of the death of his brother. In fact, hy had spent many years in virtual exile and had not taken a meal with his mother the Queen for all that time, so hy was not acquainted with the new serving wench Luzea and her “talent”. Luzea Cedarbranch certainly caught hyz attention just now, and hy contrives a way to get with her alone. Bayard clears hyz throat.

Your Highness and my mother, I beg leave to speak.

State your piece, son.

Your Highness may not know it was a hobby of mine on the Ice to contrive certain unusual and severe forms of punishment. Now a flogging is certainly a painful and terrible thing, especially with a whipping tree, but it is also such a common punishment on Barbelo that I feel sometimes it no longer has the desired lasting effect as it undoubtedly did in days gone by. So by your leave, Mother, turn this slave girl Luzea over to me for correction. I can assure you in all truthfulness that she will never forget the experience.

The Queen knows exactly what hy was up to, and hides har smile behind a hand. It wasn’t like hy was going to come right out and ask har, before all the royals assembled there, “Mother may I be excused from this meal so I can go have sexual relations with your slave girl?” Nevertheless, Queen Aurra realizes har son is on to something. Knowing Luzea’s own preferences, it would still amount to a very severe punishment of both mind and body, and the whole thing would be an effective deterrent for the other serving girl, Aliwe.

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

Thank you, mother.

Baron Bayard pushes hymself from the table, and signs to the guards that Luzea should be brought along. And when the other guests are finished eating they excuse themselves as well.

When Baron Bayard Firegem is alone with Luzea Cedarbranch in hyz chambers hy commands her to disrobe, but Luzea balks, saying

The Queen would give me twelve whistling lashes I fear you more than a hundred slashes

Nonsense, Luzea, I know you have seen the whipping tree do its work. It may be one of 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. So remove that dress and let me see what I bought with my lies to my mother.

Luzea slowly complies, but she is trembling. The baron commands her to lie back on the bed so hy can drink in the vision of her nude body. Luzea is lovely, hy thinks, with that untamed female scent he craves, but her purely animal fear takes all the appeal out of what hy wants to do with her. As well mate with a captive hare. The Baron sighs.

You commoners are fortunate. You can do as you like but among the royal family of the House of Sala we are only allowed to take wife from among our peers, upon pain of exile. And when the Queen sets her mind to exile sha has options that are truly outlandish.

Luzea senses that hy is relenting in his enthusiasm for “punishing” her and her trembling begins to subside a little bit.

Oh, but only if you knew how good you seem to me. I’m a Gold Beard baron with a decidedly overwhelming preference for unspoiled human women or nephilim yen.

My Lord endeavors not to let this show
But tell me does your mother the Queen know?

Yes, Luzea, she has known for a long time. My taste for commoner female flesh is overlooked as long as I keep things quiet and discreet. But the Queen is beginning to lose patience.

There is a scratching sound in the ceiling above, and the Baron rolls to one edge of the bed just in time as a thin ceiling panel gives way. Aliwe Halil falls to the bed just then, landing on Luzea’s nude body amid many wooden splinters. One naked leg of Luzea curls around Aliwe almost instinctively with pleasure, a conditioned response from their many sweet nights together.

The Baron smiles, gets fully dressed, and strides 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.

Before hy leaves hy remembers something and turns 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.

Hy looks at the two of them starting to squirm and tilts his head.

And that should be me there wrapped in your lovely arms and legs, young Luzea!

Then he closes the door.