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 \"Mr. Larkinson! I am Benedict Vinzler, senior relations manager of the Kemila Hunting Hall. Welcome to our fine establishment!\"

Ves offered the middle-aged manager a polite smile while they shook hands. \"I hope my unscheduled arrival hasn't brought any inconvenience, Mr. Vinzler.\"

\"Greeting an esteemed guest such as you is no inconvenience to us at all!\" The hunting hall representative gushed. \"Journeyman Mech Designers such as you are highly prized in Kemila. A lot of doors will open up for you as long as you offer up your expertise!\"

As they started to enter the austere and way too clean hunting hall, Ves decided to burst the hunting hall's bubble before their misunderstanding stretched any further.

\"Mr. Vinzler, please don't assume I am offering up my services. I am only paying a visit here. I don't intend to stay longer than a couple of months.\"

That caused the manager to stop short. \"You are not here to help the hunting teams improve their mechs?\"

Ves smiled. \"Not for the long-term, no. However, I may be amenable to offer up my expertise for a limited duration in lieu of other payment.\"

That caused the manager to regain some of his cheer. \"I see! I know some hunting outfits who value their mechs very highly and would appreciate such a favor. It isn't every day a Journeyman such as you graces Kemila.\"

Kemila wasn't the largest or the most popular of settlements on Asco. Other cities had access to many more Crown Cats or were close to lots of hunting zones.

The city that Ves decided to visit only ranked in the middle in terms of hunting team density. Hardly any top-tier hunting outfits based themselves in Kemila as only a single Crown Cat resided within range of the city.

Still, Ves decided to visit Kemila over other cities because the nearby hunting zones hosted many huge cats that sparked his interest. He judged that he had the highest chance of encountering a huge cat with spirituality if he started his search in this tropic city!

\"Meow.\"

Ves reached out to scratch Lucky's ear as the cat comfortably observed the surroundings on his shoulder. \"Don't wander off, Lucky.\"

\"That's a very impressive mechanical cat you have.\" The manager complimented. \"I don't recognize this exquisite model.\"

\"It's a present.\" Ves curtly replied. \"Don't ask me where you can find him. I also upgraded him numerous times, hence his unusual appearance.\"

\"You have quite a taste for cats! If you put your mechanical cat up for auction in Felixia, I'm sure you can earn a fortune from his sale!\"

\"Lucky is not for sale.\"

\"Well, if you change your mind, know that Felixia is by far the best destination for you to sell your exquisite cat.\"

The group entered the interior of the hunting hall. The huge lobby partially served as a showcase for successful hunts. Enormous preserved cat heads hung on the walls as trophies. They were so huge that even Ves felt threatened by their snarling appearances!

\"Impressive, is it not?\" Vinzler grinned. \"Sadly, these honored trophies have only been taken from the younger and smaller prey in the hunting zones. The larger trophies would have taken too much space in our halls.\"

If the younger and weaker huge cats were already this intimidating, then Ves wouldn't want to see a massive Crown Cat up close!

After the manager spent some time to show off the trophies, they moved to an open meeting room decorated as the interior of a hunting lodge. Smaller cat trophies along with fur pelts lined the floor and walls. The comfortable seats were made of leather skinned and treated from notable huge cats.

Fortunately, despite seeing all of the treated remains of dead cats, Lucky exhibited no fear or displeasure at all. It was as if belonging to a superior cat species made him immune to the same fate that befell the lesser cat species!

Nitaa and Gavin remained standing while Ves enjoyed the luxurious seat.

\"Alright, Mr. Larkinson, how can our hunting hall be of assistance?\"

After a brief moment of contemplation, Ves decided to be open about his motives. It wasn't as if he needed to keep them secret anyway.

\"I'm considering designing a bestial mech. A tiger mech to be exact.\"

The hunting hall manager nodded in understanding. \"So you are looking to gain inspiration from studying the carcass of one of our huge cats?\"

\"It depends.\" Ves said in an uncertain tone. \"It's difficult to describe what I need. I may have to get my inspiration from observing a living huge cat. Killing one might not be what I need.\"

\"That.. is a rather unusual but not unheard-of request, Mr. Larkinson. Kemila has played host to a number of clients like you who seek to base their next mech designs on our huge cats.\"

The manager began to explain the basic procedures and options to Ves. There was a substantial difference between hiring and sponsoring a hunting team.

\"For your purposes, it is best for you to hire a hunting team rather than sponsor them. Sponsoring is a long-term commitment that isn't suitable for your needs.\"

\"That's true. Do you have any hunting teams in mind?\"

\"Many hunting teams can do what you ask, but I know of half-a-dozen of them who are more than willing to trade favors with notable mech designers. As long as you make yourself available as a mech consultant who can assist in modifying and improving their mechs, you can secure a significant discount on hiring these teams.\"

\"Can you give my assistant a list of suggestions?\"

\"Certainly.\"

Once Vinzler sent a brief message containing a list of names to Gavin's comm, he began to explain some of the basic traits that Ves had to take into account.

\"Mech hunting teams and mech hunting outfits operate in a similar way to mercenary corps, but there are several critical differences. First, the mech pilots on Asco are generally professionals to varying degrees. Hunting is a ritual to them, and they aren't very tolerant to interference from laymen in the art of hunting.\"

\"I understand.\" Ves replied. \"I know better than to instruct the hunters on what they should do, have no fear of that. I wouldn't want a mech pilot to tell me how to design a mech either.\"

Vinzler smiled. \"It is good to hear that from you. Disputes between clients and hunting teams are depressingly common. As long as you know your boundaries, you will find the hunters to be more than willing to accommodate your more reasonable requests.\"

As the discussion continued, Ves got the sense that the value of a Journeyman was even higher than he expected. Most hunting teams used standard landbound mech models designed for general purpose or war in mind. Rarely did they pilot mechs specifically optimized for hunting activities.

It couldn't be helped. The hunting market alone simply wasn't as lucrative enough. Ordinary mercenaries numbered so much more.

Mech designers who specifically designed hunting mechs generally did so out of lack of confidence. They didn't think they were good enough to compete in the larger markets.

This was where people like Ves could help. As a Journeyman, his design abilities were very formidable, at least compared to the Novices and Apprentices who advised or directed the maintenance crews responsible for keeping the mechs in tip-top shape.

This gave him a considerable advantage as he could easily issue a couple of suggestions and modification plans that could considerably alter the performance of a hunting team.

A boost of five or ten percent may sound small, but to the hunter mech pilots who put their lives on the line, every little bit helped!

Ves did not even have to stick around to make his contributions. Merely analyzing the mechs and composing detailed, annotated design plans was sufficient! It would be the job of the resident mech designers to follow the instructions that Ves laid out beforehand as he had already performed the heavy thinking.

At some point in the discussion, Vinzler looked at Ves with an intrigued expression. \"Please allow me to be presumptuous for a moment. As a relations manager, it is my responsibility to connect with every significant figure in Kemila. I am familiar and on friendly terms with every big figure in this city.\"

\"Are you trying to refer me to someone?\"

The manager smiled apologetically. \"There is a.. special individual who is currently residing in the city that may be of interest to you. She can dearly use the services of a Journeyman such as you, though the favor she may request from you may be quite significant.\"

\"Who is this individual you are talking about?\"

\"A noble scion from House Laterna.\"

\"No thanks.\"

\"Pardon?\"

\"Mr. Vinzler, I prefer not to get entangled in political matters during my tour through the Sentinel Kingdom. Felixia is just the first Sentinel planet that I intend to visit, and I don't want to take any sides at this point.\"

\"I.. see.\" The man looked defeated. \"If that is your wish, then it is better not to engage with Lady Laterna.\"

Obviously, there must be a huge story behind this young Lady Laterna. Ves wasn't interested in her troubles or ambitions. The Sentinel Kingdom was simply a stopover point to him and he didn't care who rose to the top or fell from power.

As their talk neared the end of the session, Vinzler made one more suggestion.

\"The majesty of Felixia's huge cats are indisputable, but reading about them and witnessing them in the form of projections does not do them justice. If you want to get a better idea about the creatures, you should visit the underground holding cage complex. Whenever a hunting team subdues and captures a huge cat alive, they're temporarily placed in one of the holding cages before they are shipped offworld.\"

This aroused Ves' interest. \"I read that the holding cages are off-limits to the public.\"

\"To the public, yes. To an esteemed mech designer such as you, I'm sure we can make some arrangements. The holding cage complex is under our purview, after all. The only reason why we bar the facility from the public is because we don't want footage circulating of our huge cats in their most pathetic state.\"

As a business owner, Ves agreed. Felixia marketed Asco as an exciting and dangerous continent where humongous cat species prowled the wilds and ambushed mechs. All of their promotional footage centered around showcasing the impressive cats in their prime.

Seeing the same cats injured, defeated and stuck inside a cage would present a completely different image that wouldn't be good!

\"When can I visit?\"

\"Preferably tomorrow. Today is not a good time as some transfers are taking place in a few hours.\"

\"That is acceptable.\"

The two quickly wrapped up their meeting. After shaking hands with Vinzler, Ves grabbed Lucky and led Gavin and Nitaa out of the hunting hall.

As Ves idly admired the trophies on the way out, he noted that he attracted a lot more attention than before. The hunters and other people milling in the lobby seemed to recognize his appearance as if they had seen an image of him beforehand.

\"Mr. Larkinson!\" A hunter stepped forward. \"Our Dire Hogs have heard that you are looking to hire a mech hunting team. How about picking us up? We'll waive fifty percent off our regular fees in exchange for your help in upgrading our mechs!\"

Another hunting team representative shoved aside the first fellow. \"Don't listen to this pig! His Dire Hogs are a bunch of hogwash hunters! They've been in operation for less than two years and only have ten successful hunts on their belt! Come to us instead! Our Zinc Asps have been in the hunting business for over a decade!\"

As more hunters started to press closer to Ves in order to solicit his services, Ves raised his arm in a brief but clear message to Nitaa.

The woman in armor stepped forward, her armored feet clanking against the floor with loud metallic clacks. Her face, surrounded by an open helmet, glowered down at the hunters.

Nitaa's tall stature and armored form instantly caused the hunters to wither and step backwards. A straight line spontaneously formed in the middle, allowing the group to exit the hunting hall without any further obstruction.

On his way out, he threw out a single remark at the hunters. \"Your interest is appreciated, but I will come to you, not the other way around. Don't approach me again.\"

He and his group departed from the hall while leaving behind a silent crowd of staring hunters.

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