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On the third evening since departing the Sacred Pool, the royals dined in the castle of Arman Sunshield, Duke of Menkant and King of all Hamar. And the time had come when the royals would declare whether they would continue the quest or stay behind to prepare their kingdoms for the backlash of Telan Blackseed should all their hopes be attained and the dragon killed.

The question of what to do with Mark Felton, a man with no combat experience and no physical conditioning to belong on the quest, resolved itself when Jill relayed news of the recent breakthrough at Midway. Jill just contacted me, Victoria said, and Mike nodded at her to indicate he received the same interior communication. Hope has achieved awareness. That means we need you back in front of a terminal, Mark, not risking your nerdy ass on the edge of some mountain catwalk.

Vic, I am very disappointed, Mark said, made parody by visible relief.

Baron Bayard laid out the nature of the path going forward. South of Menkant we will reach the end of a long ridge which divides the city from the Wild Coast. For three days we will ascend the spine of this ridge on a path too narrow for horses, eastward and upward six thousand feet, until we reach the face of the Sacred Mountain and there we will find the Catwalk.

Queen Aurra Firegem was the first to declare she would stay behind, setting an example lest the others feel compelled to go to prove their valor. It went completely without saying that har servants Aliwe and Luzea would stay with the Queen. Har consort Evander Firegem also expressed hyz regrets that hy must bow out, joined also by the Countess Bronzesaber-Firegem.

King Arman, the host of that evening's supper, was next to say he would end his part of the quest. Then Count Nerio said he did not think Irus could complete the journey and said he did not wish to separate from her.

Baron Nahaliel insisted that his lady Ainia remain behind. So the full tale of the nobility who pledged to continue the quest was seven: King Brogan Stronghammer and Ichor Losna of Menkal, Baron Elketz Kadir of Hamar, Baron Nahaliel Kerresh of Nath, Baron Bayard Firegem of Alodra, and the demigods Lord Michael Morrich and Lady Victoria Gervasi.

But Bayard thought the company looked too small. He told his mother, The servant wench Aliwe Halil must go as well. And Luzea Cedarbranch howled in greatly dismay because she would be parted from her best friend and lover, possibly forever. Aliwe tried to assure her it would turn out well.

Queen Firegem narrowed har eyes. Am I to believe my son cannot set aside hyz . . . hobby . . . for the duration of a single run-of-the-mill quest?

I know what it looks like, mother, but the girl has luck bordering on the supernatural. One might even suspect Aliwe is secretly a demigod.

Aliwe said nothing to this, and turned her head away, but this idle musing of Baron Bayard got both Mike and Victoria thinking. For the first time, Victoria looked at Aliwe very carefully and was surprised to see that the girl's face expressed certain features that strongly reminded Vic of her own. But there were also things in Aliwe's appearance that reminded her of Baron Bayard. Vic didn't know what to think. It was truly a mystery.

At length the Queen reluctantly agreed to the demand of her son, and so Aliwe began to serve directly under the authority of Baron Bayard. But the parting of the ways would not occur until the next morning. That evening when their duties were completed, Luzea treated Aliwe to the most intense lovemaking either one had experienced in their life. Aliwe took advantage of the occasion, and was thankful for Luzea's great passion, but she insisted that it was far from being the last time they would make love together, and swearing Luzea to silence Aliwe laid out for her why it was so.

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