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 The Barracuda transitioned out of FTL at the edge of the infamous Bloodstone System.

As Ves observed the local plot generated by a combination of public data and sensor observations, he noted the high amount of traffic. While the amount of vessels in the Bloodstone System did not match the traffic in port systems such as Bentheim or Zin Alpha, it was somewhat similar in scope to the Reinald Republic's Harkensen System.

Bloodstone reminded Ves of Harkensen in more ways. For example, a lot of ships originated from other states. A lot of them carried powerful people or representatives to this star system in order to contract or buy out a famed Kinner mercenary corps.

Naturally, those who visited Bloodstone in person only consisted of a fraction of business conducted on the planet. Many parties opted to solicit the services of a Kinner mercenary corps through the galactic net, especially if they weren't very picky.

Those who knew better or possessed more exacting demands visited in person, though. This was because every mercenary corps possessed their own characteristics, some of which weren't mentioned in their public record.

As someone who once contracted a mercenary corps before, he knew that there were a lot more variables an employer needed to take into account. Hiring the black-marked Oodis Mudriders to defend the Mech Nursery against Vesian aggression still left a bad taste in his mouth.

Gavin entered his stateroom after the Barracuda began to accelerate towards the inner system.

"Welcome to mercenary central, boss."

"Very funny, Benny."

"So you plan to pick up a mercenary corps here, right? They can get rather expensive."

"Anything of value is expensive. The Kinners made a name for themselves for offering near-absolute loyalty to their employers. That's better than most mercenaries, who generally aren't known for sticking around when a battle goes sour."

A battle had various outcomes, of which the worse ones inevitably led to death, capture or the loss of a lot of manpower and assets. A single ugly loss could devastate a mercenary corps and force their owners and cadre into ruin or worse.

With these kinds of consequences on the table, which mercenary wouldn't run when faced with strong adversity? Mercenaries running from a battle, even when they were winnable, happened all the time.

Even the Mercenary Association, which attempted to impose some order amidst the chaos, implicitly accepted that such dishonorable would happen. They merely stamped the records of the mercenary corps who failed their mission with red or black marks instead of forcing them to dissolve outright.

Unlike the Mech Trade Association, the Mercenary Association lacked enforcement power. They mainly verified information, kept accurate records and mediated between mercenary corps and their employers.

Although the Mercenary Association's services were very useful and welcome, their lack of deterrent meant that many mercenary corps often got away with misdeeds in the field.

One had to be very careful with hiring mercenaries, even those who hailed from the Kinner Tribe. Visiting Bloodstone in person would help him judge whether he could truly rely on the mercenaries he decided to enlist as his escorts.

"So your current plan is to find a medium-sized mercenary corps and hire them to escort you around the star sector for a year?"

Ves nodded. "Their rates will be rather high compared to hiring a regular mercenary corps for the same period, but I'll happily pay a premium for the reliability I can expect in return."

"And if at the end of the trip you happen to like, the mercenary corps, you plan to extend an offer to buy them out, right?"

"The Avatars of Myth that I've raised is growing far too slowly to my liking." Ves grimaced. "Even if another year has passed, I don't think that Melkor will be able to finish raising two complete mech companies and a single fully-trained guard infantry company. Since the Avatars are starting from scratch, it simply takes too much time to vet the new recruits, train them up to standard and instill the right values and principles in their minds."

"All the while, we constantly have to monitor their loyalty." Gavin added. "A single double agent or rogue mech pilot can do a lot of damage if he decides to go berserk while piloting a mech assigned to guard your life."

Someone frequently plagued by paranoia as Ves simply couldn't stand such a possibility. Therefore, he instructed Melkor to watch out for that and prioritize loyalty above everything else.

This was the biggest reason why the Avatar Commander hadn't been able to expand the Avatars of Myth as fast as he liked. No amount of money or training could accelerate the crucial process of vetting and indoctrinating new hires. Not when the Avatars of Myth were still very new and constantly in flux.

For this reason, Ves came up with a possible plan to remedy the circumstances hampering the growth of the Avatars.

By buying out a Kinner mercenary corps and integrating them into the Avatars, his personal troop would suddenly gain a very loyal cadre. The entry of the Kinners into the ranks would stiffen up the foundation of the Avatars and allow it to grow faster while still remaining in firm control of the bulk of its strength.

Of course, the cost of doing so was very expensive. When translated into a familiar currency, Ves might be looking at a total bill of 30 billion credits!

"The high prices being bandied about at Bloodstone only apply if you want to buy out their mechs, starships and other necessary assets." Gavin noted. "A Kinner mercenary corps is much cheaper to acquire if you only want the people. They can send back their stuff to the Kinner Tribe in order to outfit another band of Kinner mercenaries."

"That's true. This is why many clients that visit Bloodstone also consist of mech designers like me. We've got an abundant amount of mechs and money at our disposal but we're always short on loyal and dependable guards."

"I hear that mech designers are treated very well in Bloodstone for this reason. You'll be treated like a prince, boss."

"I don't think it will be that exaggerated. As a young Journeyman, I don't have the spending power of my older and more established peers. Even so, it's no problem for me to look at medium-sized mercenary corps, especially if I can buy them without their shoddy gear."

Kinner mercenary corps tended to disappoint when it came to the mechs they piloted. The Kinner Tribe still wasn't a prosperous state and its mercenaries couldn't afford to pilot expensive mechs. The best they could do was pilot budget mechs valued at around 20 million bright credits.

The Kinner Tribe instituted all sorts of complicated financial arrangements in order to put a mech in the hands of as many aspiring mercenaries as possible. Otherwise, how could the state keep hiring out mercenaries when they didn't have any mechs to perform their jobs?

If it was possible, Ves would have preferred to replace the mechs of whatever outfit he hired with his own. Yet such an option wasn't realistic. The LMC did not yet possess a robust market presence in the states he intended to visit.

Gavin brought up something else. "By the way, Ves, it's customary for visitors to hire a local guide. Bloodstone is reputed to be a very complex planet. With all the mercenaries and foreigners running around, it can be quite chaotic on the surface."

"Go take care of it, Benny."

As Gavin moved to make the arrangements, Ves returned to staring at all the ship icons displayed on the local plot.

The ships came from all over the star sector. While none of the vessels hailed directly from the second-rate states, citizens of almost every third-rate state converged on Bloodstone II. Ves even noted a couple of lone vessels and small fleets that hailed from the Bright Republic!

"They're a long way away from home!"

Each of these people and influences all traveled to Bloodstone for one reason. The same reason Ves diverted to Bloodstone as well.

Thinking of all the money that must be flowing into the Kinner Tribe's coffers, Ves scoffed. "Even if people aren't able to produce something valuable, they can always turn themselves into products."

The Kinner Tribe's practices leaned a bit too close to slavery for his liking. Ves understood the necessity of it, yet did the Kinner tribesmen truly support these customs, or were they coerced into playing along?

What Ves mostly found disturbing was how the Kinners raised many of their children. Mech pilots were a rarity, so the Kinners resorted to unsavory means to accumulate as many of them as possible. Otherwise, the Kinner Tribe's mercenary pool would have dried up many generations ago.

Too many Kinners grew up knowing that they were hardly worth anything. They grew up in a government camp or institute without ever meeting their biological parents.

Only until they reached ten years old did they have an opportunity to transform their lives. Those who possessed the right genetic aptitude would instantly be taken away and put into a different training regime.

As for those who turned out to be norms, some of them went on to be raised as the support staff for the mech pilots. The remainder just became low-wage laborers who were sent out into other states in order to eke out a living without straining the resources of their home states.

In short, the life of a Kinner from the underclass was barely better than that of a slave. Ves would not want to grow up under those conditions.

After a lengthy period of time, the Barracuda slowly neared orbit of Bloodstone II.

Due to all of the potential dangers involved with letting ships from every state orbit over an inhabited planet, the Kinners instituted a policy where they could park. The Kinners forced every visiting vessel to orbit around Bloodstone II-A, a nearby moon.

Bloodstone II-A was a small, barren rock mostly used as a moon-sized warehouse and storage space. Its surrounding orbit was littered with ships and fleets assigned to specific orbits to prevent collisions.

Anyone who deviated from the instructions of traffic control could be expected to be blasted into pieces by all the defensive installations and mech patrols in the vicinity.

A number of space stations orbited the moon as well, providing visitors and commuters with transit to the surface of the Planet Dyed in Blood.

"It certainly looks like someone dumped a planet-sized bucket of red dye over Bloodstone II." Gavin commented as he and Ves looked out of the transparent wall of the space station they entered. Right now, its orientation offered a distant glimpse of the globe colored in red. "It doesn't help that the Kinners love to incorporate the same shade in all of the architecture."

All of this combined gave visitors the illusion that they were visiting a hellish planet. The ubiquitous bloodstone that made up much of the rocky planet's surface made for relatively poor construction material, but that did not stop most Kinners from using them as the principal construction material of their structures.

"Meow."

Ves readjusted Lucky's body over his shoulder. "Yeah. Bloodstone probably tastes bad for you."

"Meow."

"Oh? You'll help me pick the right mercenaries to hire? Do you even know what to look for?"

"Meow!"

"Yeah, you did help with selecting the least awful board members for the LMC back then.. not that it helped all that much."

Lucky appeared to be looking forward to having a say in the matter, so Ves did not reject the offer. He knew that Lucky could be quite perceptive, but Ves possessed some tricks as well.

Ves briefly brushed his hand against his head, careful not to mess up his hair.

Almost two months had passed since he departed from Centerpoint. During that time, his spiritual energy reserves came closer and closer to returning to its peak level.

By now, Ves regained sufficient spirituality that it wouldn't do him any harm if he employed some subtle spiritual tricks. At the very least, employing his spiritual vision to see if any of the mercenaries in his consideration possessed the potential to become an expert pilot shouldn't be too demanding!

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