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 The Sword of Damocles the Vesians dangled over Bentheim threw the entire peace talks into a very precarious phase. As long as no one could manage to find a way to resolve the deadlock acceptable to both parties, they could forget about making other agreements.

A small mech designer like Ves could offer no input at all in such a high-stakes game of chicken. Right now, Ves somewhat felt that the current standoff tested each other's patience. The side who conceded first lost out or something like that.

Discussions still went on as each side tested the limits of the other. They frequently descended into overexaggerated shouting matches.

Ves barely noticed the deteriorating situation in Kester Hills. His head was up in the clouds as his inspiration ran amuck in his mind. He continued to sketch the vision of his mech, refining its overall shape and picking and choosing what attributes he wanted to emphasize.

In a break from his previous methods, he met up with Professor Ventag every evening once the talks for the day ended. Ves shared his current thoughts and difficulties and Ventag offered various hints or solutions, some of which were so difficult or advanced that only a Senior could realize these design aspects!

All of these improvements and additions elevated the design in his mind to a higher standard. To be honest, the technical planning involved already went beyond the reach of an Apprentice.

"It's not completely my design anymore."

Ves half-understood some of the measures, but many of them simply went beyond him, particularly the design elements revolving around redundancy and compartmentalization. The drafts that Professor Ventag casually sketched in a projection sometimes made the younger mech designer's eyes turn dizzy.

He learned not to peer in too close in these details. As a mech designer, he didn't necessarily need to know the ins-and-out of individual components and sections of his design. From a pure design ideology, they merely needed to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in the most optimal and synergistic combination.

"Even if it's not completely my design anymore, as long as I maintain overall control of the direction of the design, it's still my work."

The assistance provided by Professor Ventag was only supplementary to his design process. Ves essentially turned him into a very smart database who would spit out the right answers or at least point him in the right direction whenever he asked a difficult question.

For his part, the professor was content to let Ves take the reins and demonstrate his design process in real time.

This was also a test, after all.

When Ves next met up with Venerable Foster at a courtyard, his lack of focus on her attracted the expert pilot's attention.

His persistent smile as he goofed off in his mind trying to refine his mech concept stood in stark contrast to the frowning, glowering or sneering faces of the other members of the two delegations.

Ves cared nothing at all about their difficulties! At this moment, the momentum of designing a new, innovative and original mech in a weight class which very few mech designers dabbled in before swept him up entirely!

Even if the heavens may fall, let his mech be designed!

"What are you smiling about so much?" Venerable Foster asked in an abrasive tone. "Don't you realize we've got you Brighters by the balls?"

"Huh what?" Ves drew his attention from his ongoing mental design work. "Oh that? Pff. Who cares. The only way this pissing match will end is if both sides compromise and meet in the middle. All of the blustering that's going on now is merely theater."

The Venerable took affront of his dismissive attitude. "Say again? We're deadly serious here. You Brighters ought to be grateful if we canceled our invasion of Bentheim in exchange for concessions!"

"Yeah right. Everyone and their mother knows the Mech Legion is overreaching in order to get into a position to invade Bentheim. You guys won't actually go through with it because the military forces that you'll commit in the invasion will be devastated. Either they'll break against our system and planetary fortifications, or the Mech Corps will somehow cut off your escape route and crush your stranded carriers and mechs."

What Ves just said was the most logical outcome of the invasion. Barring any nasty surprises and brilliant stratagems, a reckless invasion of the Bentheim System would never end well.

"Even if our forces fall up short, Bentheim will still be ruined. Just the threat of war will spook many traders and investors from doing business in your precious port system." Venerable Foster smirked.

"Who will be willing to throw away their mechs and ships into the pit, then?" Ves poked back. "Your Mech Legion is led by selfish nobles wearing officer hats. I doubt that anyone of them would voluntarily play along to what is essentially a suicide mission for them. Will they truly be willing to throw away their military assets and their own lives for the greater good of the Vesia Kingdom?"

"A true loyal Vesian will know what is best!" She replied in a righteous manner, unaware that she fell into his verbal trap.

Ves smirked at that. He might not completely understand the Vesian mindset, but human nature didn't change. The agency problem that he learned about in his business classes also applied to the government and the military.

"I don't think the individual nobles and their noble houses will be enthusiastic about throwing away the lives of their scions and discarding their military assets. How would you compensate their losses? The Vesians don't have that much wealth to throw around and it's already been divvied up by all the duchies. Those nobles who offered up their forces would all be pissed at the puppet masters who orchestrated this show and perhaps even intensify the rebellions within your state! At the very least, an attack on Bentheim will hurt you Vesians just as much!"

The self-serving nature of the Vesians prevented them from engaging in large, coordinated actions. A possible invasion of Bentheim would be nothing different. Nobody wanted to stick out their heads and volunteer for the most dangerous duties only to benefit their more cowardly rivals.

From the intensifying glower on Venerable Foster's face, she recognized the truth in his words. That didn't lessen her determination at all. No matter what, she supported anything that made the Bright Republic suffer.

"One way or another, we'll make you bleed." She hissed.

Ves waved his hand dismissively and already went back to tinkering on his design in his head. "Whatever. You Vesians always talk big, but you never deliver on them once you balk at the price you have to pay."

Obviously, Ves made little progress in befriending Venerable Foster. They simply weren't compatible people.

At least Lord Javier put down his arrogance and made an effort to grow closer to Ves, though his lack of leverage also had a lot to do with it.

In contrast, Venerable Foster was an expert pilot in her prime. Though she likely lost the extremely expensive Belisarius in her mission, being pivotal in the effort to deliver a dose of high-grade life-prolonging treatment serum to Prince Colchester more than made up for the losses.

In the perspective of those old dinosaurs, an extra hundred years of their life was worth incalculably more than a mech worth as much as a mech regiment if not more!

From the way the other Vesians regarded Venerable Foster, she enjoyed a considerable position of favor among their ranks. Calling her Prince Colchester's pet wouldn't be too far from the truth.

That even expert pilots needed to bow their heads to someone made an impression on Ves. Only a tiny amount of people truly called the shots in their respective states and organizations. Others were forced to take orders from someone else no matter their strengths and achievements.

"Unless you're a Master Mech Designer, an ace pilot, a high official or similar, you will never be able to make your own decisions. Not completely."

Even so, part of the reason why Venerable Foster enjoyed so much attention and respect was because she enjoyed great growth prospects. This ridiculously talented mech pilot not only possessed an exceedingly high genetic aptitude, she was also loyal and hard-working.

As long as she kept up her current growth rate, she might very well become a pillar of the Hafner Duchy and the Vesia Kingdom!

Ves still found her presence at the peace talks to be wholly out of place. He understood why Prince Colchester needed her support in gaining traction for a possible peace treaty, but she did not even try to play along with the rules of the game.

"Why is she here, really?"

He drew his head from the clouds long enough to realize that the worsening moods between the delegates was detrimental to the goal of the peace talks. Why couldn't both sides recognize that all of this posturing was useless?

Ves felt something in the air. This standoff was building up to something. To what exactly, he couldn't figure out. He wasn't conceited enough to try and predict what Senator Tovar and Prince Colchester had in store for the stalled negotiations.

"Those two are absolutely not simple. They won't let this deadlock continue."

At some point, he received an invitation to attend an informal dinner with Colonel Xelven and a couple of military attachés.

Ves frowned at the message on his comm. "What does the colonel want with me?"

He attended the dinner that night at one of the largely-empty restaurants of Kester Hills. The original chefs did a great job turning freshly-imported ingredients into wonderful dishes.

During the occasion, Colonel Xelven grilled Ves on his impression of Venerable Foster.

"Do you believe she is a supporter of Prince Colchester?"

That was a difficult question for Ves to answer. "I think she's in his camp, but she doesn't care too much about politics. I think she's only aligned with Prince Colchester due to special circumstances. She's pro-war, but she cares too much about the Kingdom to let that get in the way of recognizing Prince Colchester's attempt to save them from a greater calamity."

The colonel swirled his glass of wine as he contemplated Ves' response. "I'm told she is rather direct as well, is that correct?"

"She's no diplomat. That's for certain. It's not an act either." Ves stated confidently. "However, she's also intractable for that reason."

Colonel Xelven looked disappointed. "You must work harder to break the ice with her. I'm sure you are aware of our current difficulties. We need every avenue at our disposal if we wish to break the ongoing deadlock in the negotiations."

If Xelven went as far as pushing Ves to achieve some sort of breakthrough in his attempts to get Venerable Foster to act cordially to him, then the situation was truly dire for the Tovar Peace Delegation!

"Are we about to give in, sir?"

"I can't comment on that, least of all here, Mr. Larkinson." The colonel said mildly. "Besides this, I also want to give you a warning. Don't wander off in or around Kester Hills. Something untoward might happen if you don't pay attention to your own safety."

Ves narrowed his eyes. What did that mean? The Honored Ones made sure that no one would attack the peace delegations. Who could possibly be so stupid to launch an attack on individual members?

He nodded regardless. "I'll be a bit more prudent in where I go. I haven't been wandering off very much in the first place."

"With hope, we will come to a satisfactory accord with the Vesians. We are not fooled by their inflated ambitions."

Everyone else agreed with that standpoint, though Ves wasn't sure if anyone truly believed it. The Vesian sabre-rattling spooked many Brighters, particularly the businessmen with lots of assets in Bentheim.

Will the Tovar Peace Delegation still be able to maintain a united front against the Vesian threats?

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