Oryn Mair noticed the approach of the group. In fact, with his perceptiveness, he long knew he had been stared at specifically.
To Ves, the man's demeanor reminded him of the war-hardened Larkinsons. That gave him a bit of comfort as well as quite some consternation.
Well-trained, veteran mech pilots had their own pride. They stuck to their principles and did not chase after blind opportunities like their younger and more adventurous counterparts.
Ves automatically adjusted his own demeanor when he recognized the tough customer he was facing. His memories flitted back to his days with the Vandals in the frontier. While he had lost much of his edge after returning from the war, he never truly forgot the depths he had sunk into in order to survive.
"Kelandra. Off to guide another spoiled brat to a bunch of our kids? You've come to the wrong place." Commander Mair grinned at the guide.
"Please indulge my client. He has become oddly interested in your story."
"Am I a circus freak to be laughed and jeered at? I have to admit, you're different from the other brats, kid. You've got some spine in you despite being a mech designer."
"My name is Ves Larkinson. I come from a military lineage in my state."
"Ah, oh really now? Don't think that makes us friends. I care not for the military of other states."
Ves' smile turned a bit harder. "Kelandra spoke right. I can't help but be interested in you and your Edge of Redemption."
The mercenary commander took another look at Ves. Though the two of them recognized an intrinsic quality between them that all veterans of conflict shared, that did not automatically earn the Kinner man's respect.
"What are you looking for?"
"A Kinner mercenary corps that can be depended on. I'm touring half the star sector for a year and I need an experienced and adaptable crew to escort me and keep me safe. After I return to my home state, I'd like to see whether it's possible to buy out the Edge of Redemption if possible."
Mair grunted. "You better look elsewhere, kid. Other Kinner outfits in these halls will be glad to run an easy escort mission. The Edge of Redemption isn't in the business of babysitting little brats like you. We do serious work for serious institutional clients."
"I'll make it worth your while."
"Money is just a possession. The Edge of Redemption is not for sale."
After a stilted back-and-forth, Ves eventually stepped away. The negotiations failed. While he had made multiple offers to hire or buy out the Edge of Redemption, Commander Mair simply refused to entertain any offers.
"Why is the commander even present in Ornament Halls if he ends up rejecting a job? Isn't that counterproductive?" Gavin frowned.
Though he had been met with refusal, Ves did not look displeased. "The most valuable soldiers are always the hardest to recruit."
"Does that mean you'll try again, boss?"
"I don't know." Ves shook his head. "I already had a notion that Commander Mair will be difficult to persuade. When people like him say no, they really mean it. No amount of nagging or haranguing will change the equation."
"I'm not surprised he refused to engage with you." Kelandra said with a calm expression. "Commander Mair is accustomed to performing missions from established institutions and companies. As employers, they are more reliable, dependable and much less likely to undergo any upheaval that changes the mission parameters."
In contrast, working for a supposed 'brat' like Ves came with a lot of disadvantages. His prosperity and his company's prosperity depended highly on himself. If he fell sick or if he made a stupid decision, then he might provoke a very dangerous enemy or suffer a deadly accident!
His relative youth did not make it easier to earn Commander Mair's respect. While Ves had matured a little bit since the start of his career, he looked too much like a rich student who went off to Bloodstone to play with mercenaries.
A client like Ves appealed much more to mercenary bands that lacked the confidence to take tough missions and to survive as an independent outfit.
"Every man has a price." Ves said with a low voice. "I just haven't mentioned the right offer yet."
"You're the Devil Tongue, boss. Why not just talk him into accepting your offer? Back then, I got the feeling that you didn't try your best. I know you've got a lot more verbal tricks in reserve."
Ves reached out and patted Gavin's head. "Do you think it's a good idea to manipulate someone I want to entrust my life to? If I want to obtain Commander Mair's service, I need to appeal with honesty. He'll only resent me if I resort to manipulative practices."
It was the same as if Ves got screwed by a spy like Calabast or Leland. He couldn't afford to make his own bodyguard feel the same way about him. He may suffer from occasional lapses of judgement, but his paranoia did not allow him to make this specific mistake!
His remark happened to meet Kelandra's approval. "Good judgement. We Kinners may not be as sophisticated as the citizens of other states, but we have our own principles. Even a disgraced Kinner like Oryn Mair has his own pride."
"He's a soldier. He deserves at least that much." Ves grunted.
Although Gavin did not necessarily agree, he knew better than to argue the point further.
"I know, Lucky. Commander Mair is the most remarkable mercenary we've met so far. It will be hard to find someone else who matches or exceeds his quality."
Even though Ves privately likened the Kinner Tribe's practices as a disguised form of slavery, the truth was that the Kinners still possessed a lot of choice. The younger and more inexperienced ones might have very little say, but those who had been in the mercenary business for decades and thrived were considerably more challenging to buy.
They knew their own worth and pursued their own goals. Ves guessed that Commander Mair might still be hoping to redeem his honor in the Kinner Tribe.
"Is Commander Mair's father still alive?" He asked.
"Yes, but he's long past his prime." Kelandra answered. "The elder Mair has relinquished his position as one of the Hundred-and-Seventeen Blades and is involved with training the next generation of Kinner mech pilots. He had hoped that his son would inherit his seat, but in the end another promising Kinner took over as a Blade."
Perhaps that must be what was holding Commander Mair. If Ves read the mercenary right, then the disgraced Kinner must be looking for a way to earn back his father's respect and acknowledgement.
The difficulty of this goal must be immense. To Ves, Commander Mair already undertook a lot of dangerous experiences. His sheer dedication to service should have been worthy of recognition.
Yet was it enough to change the mind of what appeared to be a very stubborn and honor-bound Kinner elite mech pilot?
Though Ves was not a Kinner, he already had a good glimpse of local customs.
The reason why the Kinners gained so much fame as mercenaries was that they actually took honor and promises seriously. So much so that any Kinner who broke this custom became the eternal shame of their tribe!
Ves idly scratched Lucky's chin. "Part of the reason why the Kinners look down on oathbreakers is because they tarnish their credibility. Their current success is derived from the reliability and trustworthiness they are known for in the mercenary community. Yet a reputation that took centuries to establish can be tarnished in mere moments by a couple of high-profile failures and betrayals."
Reputation was an unfair currency. Good service and good results did not attract that much attention. It took an extremely long span of time and constant excellence to build up a solid reputation. Yet a couple of cheap scandals might easily cause the house of cards to come crashing down!
For this reason, many Kinners appeared to have adopted a very hardline stance towards the sinners of their tribe.
No matter how much Commander Mair toiled as a mercenary, the tribe would never fully forgive him of his previous transgression. Ves suspected that the mercenary commander knew this truth as well, but still held onto his dream of redemption. Perhaps if he worked and suffered hard enough, Commander Mair might be able to earn back his father's recognition.
It depended whether the elder Mair's love for his son surpassed the values and principles instilled by his tribal corps.
Ves even suspected that this psychological restraint may have been holding Oryn Mair back from breaking through to expert candidate.
He sighed. "Let's leave the Edge of Redemption aside for now. While they are interesting to me, they're not the only viable choice available in these halls."
The group continued to wander the halls and the grounds, talking to various mercenary reps. While Ves did not encounter anyone with such a remarkable amount of spirituality, he did encounter several mercenaries with at least some hint of perceivable spirituality.
Sadly, these individuals were far behind compared to Commander Mair. They needed a lot more training and investment before they could knock on the door to the extraordinary threshold.
Ves had to suppress his disappointment as he chatted with the mercenary representatives.
Inwardly, his heart wasn't in it and his attention occasionally drifted off to possible ways he could secure the Edge of Redemption.
The most convenient way would be to assassinate the elder Mair. Although the older man used to be a formidable member of the Hundred-and-Seventeen Blades, Ves doubted the retired mech pilot was near a mech these days.
A mech pilot without a mech was as vulnerable as a regular human.
That left the question how it could be done without tracing the deed back to Ves. It would be difficult for him to sneak off on his own to attempt an assassination with his inept combat skills.
He eyed his pet thoughtfully for a few seconds.
His cat still wore the Miniaturized Stealth Generator on his neck. Most people thought it was a collar or an accessory, but its power was so much more.
If Ves could find out the elder Mair's location, he could pass on the information to Lucky and instruct his cat to go end the man's life.
With Lucky's uncommon stealth and infiltration abilities, it was child's play for him to slit the throat of an old and retired Kinner mech pilot in his sleep!
Though was that really the right way to go about it? Assassinating a former member of the Hundred-and-Seventeenth Blades would provoke a scandal of massive proportions. Let alone the extreme reaction of the tribal corps in question, Commander Mair himself might sink into an uncontrollable depression!
If Ves wanted to avoid a greater backlash, then the elder Mair needed to pass on from his life as peacefully as possible. Perhaps Ves could obtain some poisonous substance somewhere and pass it on to Lucky so that his cat could sneakily apply it to the intended victim and induce a quiet and seemingly 'natural' death.
As long as the Kinner authorities uncovered no evidence of foul play, an extreme reaction wouldn't take place. After all, wasn't the former mech pilot already getting it on in years? Dying a bit earlier in their old age was not an unusual outcome to veterans who suffered a lot of battle injuries in their careers.
The only variable remaining was Commander Mair himself. Ves could not predict how the mercenary commander would react to the peaceful death of his father.
Without a way to redeem himself to the person he looked up to the most, what would Commander Mair do next? Would he despair and give up his pursuit, or would he pick himself up and find another reason to live and fight for now that his main goal was forever unattainable?
"What are you thinking about, boss?" Gavin asked with puzzlement. "You haven't been paying attention lately."
Ves drew himself out of his thoughts. "Nothing important."