Inside, the auction hall's dark, drab but roomy interior did not detract from the interest the upcoming auction attracted.
Already, hundreds of wealthy guests awaited entry into the main hall!
Meanwhile, the more privileged auction goers with better access passes headed for the less-congested balconies and private boxes upstairs.
Ves did not wish to bid for goods in the main hall where everyone could see him. He approached one of the workers.
"How much for a private box?"
"100 million firthals."
That sounded like pure extortion! There was no way Ves would pay the equivalent of 2.4 billion bright credits just to secure a private box!
The worker looked at Ves' disguised form with contempt. "Temporary pass holders like you don't merit anything better. To gain the right to enter a private box, you must either upgrade your pass to one of the higher tiers or convince someone with an upgraded pass to invite you inside. The only other alternative is to offer a high-value good for auction that exceeds the value of 100 million firthals."
Ves stewed in his mind as he turned away as soon as he learned he had no means to obtain a private box.
It would have been a different story if he still possessed his Devil Tiger! Let alone 100 million firthals, the mech was definitely worth more than a billion firthals!
He mentally imagined shooting his mother over and over again with the Amastendira as he and Nitaa stood at the back of the waiting crowd.
He found out that they had come to the auction a little early. The doors to the main hall would only open in an hour, with the auction starting half an hour later.
The Circle of Mota who organized the auction wanted to make sure they attracted as many moneybags as possible.
Strangely enough, the normally quiet and standoff-ish guests began to converse with each other.
Only a certain caliber of guests were allowed to participate in the upcoming auction. They possessed a greater amount of wealth, strength or connections.
Despite knowing nothing at all about each other, the robed and disguised figures carefully approached the people next to them. Ves even witnessed a number of transactions taking place!
Soon enough, a group of recently-arrived guests approached Ves and Nitaa. The group of three immediately gave Ves the impression that the figure wearing identical shadow attire as him was a noble. The two larger figures following deferentially behind the person in the middle hadn't done a good job at hiding their bodyguard tendencies.
A distorted voice sounded out over the low din of conversation.
"The dark sun will collapse."
"Pardon?" Ves couldn't help but respond.
"Nothing. I was merely curious if you are in the know."
"Well, I'm not part of your club."
The unknown figure turned towards Nitaa. "You're a big fellow."
"What do you do for a living?"
"What an eloquent answer." The unknown figure replied dryly. "But interesting nonetheless."
Ves was pretty sure now that he faced a noble. Whether the figure underneath the pitch-black robes and hardsuit was a man or a woman, he couldn't tell.
He did sense he faced someone of the same age or younger as him. He could discern at least this much from the unknown noble's speech and movement patterns, though someone like Calabast could probably figure out more.
"You're kind of stiff." The noble spoke. "You really don't give me much to work with, stranger."
"That's the intention." Ves replied flatly.
"The Circle of Mota can be a dangerous place if you get caught, but we are all on the same boat here. You won't be able to make any deals if you keep up your stiff act."
"That's not a problem."
"This must be your first time here."
"Yes." Ves admitted.
He didn't mind exposing this bit of information, as it was hard to pretend he knew what was going on. He got the sense that plenty of rituals took place in the Circle of Mota.
"What do you do for a living?" The figure asked again, this time to Ves.
"You don't need to know the answer."
"You'd be surprised how much I can be of use if you tell me something about yourself."
"What is in it for you?" Ves probed.
"I'm curious about the two of you. I know more about the Circle of Mota than a first-timer like you. I can introduce you to the auction if you tell me what you are or what you do. Don't be shy."
Though Ves felt tempted to push this annoying fly away, he reconsidered. He needed a source of information, and the fellow who approached him seemed sincere.
In fact, that was pretty much what most people were doing in the waiting hall. They approached random disguised people and carefully probed each other. If they liked what they heard, they befriended each other or engaged in impromptu transactions.
"Alright. I'm a mech designer."
"Oh." The disguised noble did not sound excited. Cinach VIII hosted a lot of mech designers, in part due to the presence of institutions such as Rawlings University. "What rank?"
The instant Ves spoke those words, the noble immediately perked up. His body language made it clear that he became a lot more attentive!
Ves refrained from scoffing. "Truly. Believe what you will."
"I have a better idea. Are you willing to prove your assertion?"
The noble raised his arm and activated his comm. After a bit of manipulation, he presented a very complicated-looking mechanical puzzle.
"I'm told that only Journeyman are able to solve this puzzle."
Ves immediately grasped the essence of the puzzle. In fact, now that his Mechanics Skill was in the process of upgrading to Senior-level, he could easily solve it within a matter of seconds!
Still, in order to avoid standing out, he deliberately took his time and slowed down his responses. His fingers slowly manipulated the puzzle for a couple of minutes before he finally inputted the final solution.
"Astounding! You solved it in three minutes and eighteen seconds! That is definitely within the range of a Journeyman! You're the real deal!"
"I did not lie."
"You'd be surprised at how many Novices and Apprentices I've met who pretended to be bigger than they actually are. High-ranking mech designers are rare in these parts. Most of the time, they dispatch representatives to conduct business on their behalf."
That sounded like a clever solution. It added some separation between the high-ranking mech designer and the subordinate visiting the Circle of Mota. A Senior Mech Designer could not afford to get caught associating directly with this notorious organization!
If one of their subordinates got caught, the Senior could easily disavow the unlucky representative and claim that the miscreant acted on their own accord!
Whether the authorities accepted the excuse or not, Ves didn't know. The strategic value of Seniors to a state was very high though, so the Sentinel Kingdom was probably very reluctant to tear down one of their precious assets.
"You must be here on your own accord, right? You don't have to hide it from me. If you were sent by your mentor or boss, you would have gotten a better clue of what is going on. You're very brave."
"Why are you here, then?"
"I'm bored. The Sentinel Kingdom is so boring. Don't you think the Nyxian Gap is a lot more exciting? While I'll never step foot there, I can still take part in the gatherings organized by the Circle."
To be honest, the noble disgusted Ves a bit. The man lived a privileged life, and what did he say? He was bored! Billions of commoners in the Sentinel Kingdom would love to swap lives with a noble!
Fortunately, his muted mask helped a lot in repressing his inner Devil Tongue from lashing out. It wasn't as if he was any better than the noble either. Despite knowing that the Circle of Mota served as an enabler of piracy, Ves still sought them out and partook in several transactions.
""Say, what's your budget, mech designer?"
"That's none of your business."
"Just give me an approximation. Did you bring more than 100 million firthals?"
"But not that much more, right?"
"Hah. You don't have to lie. Don't get me wrong. 100 million firthals is enough to bid on a couple of lower-tier goods on auction. Some of the goods are sold in batches, so you don't have to compete against other bidders for a single rare good. It's the auction hall's way of giving paupers an opportunity to come away with the satisfaction of winning at least one winning bid."
"It's not enough, you think?"
"Not if you want to obtain something of significant value. Don't get me wrong. The lower-value goods on auction are already notable enough. It's just.. the real excitement happens afterwards. Some of the choicier goods of the Sentinel Kingdom and the Nyxian Gap will appear on the auction block. These are what makes the auctions organized by the Circle truly worth visiting in person."
Ves thought about his spiritual sweep over the expansive venue. The auction hall stored at least two objects that reacted to spirituality!
One of which was of a much larger size than any spiritually-reactive material he encountered before! In fact, it felt so exceptional to him that he suspected that its value must not be low!
Though he initially thought his budget ought to be sufficient to bid on this mystery object, now he didn't feel so sure. If the anonymous noble didn't lie, then there were doubtlessly a lot of people participating in the auction with a much bigger warchest than he could ever compete against!
As the most powerful third-rate state in the Komodo Star Sector, the Sentinel Kingdom also happened to be a lot wealthier than a regular third-rate state like the Bright Republic. Nobles and other wealthy magnates earned considerably more!
Ves paused a bit. "You did not bring up this topic without cause."
"Correct. Ever since I heard you're a Journeyman, I've been considering a proposal. Do you want to earn some easy money?"
"Up to a billion firthals."
"That's a lot of money."
That was an understatement! 1 billion firthals equated to at least 24 billion bright credits! Though Ves frankly owned a bit more cash than that, he only converted a limited portion of his money into firthals.
He was very loath to drain his bank accounts even more, as it might attract unwelcome attention!
"Are you interested?"
"It depends on what you want. I am unwilling to commit too much time, so if you want me to design a mech for you, you're out of luck."
"Ah, that is not what I am looking for. I want you to upgrade a series of identical mechs with the parts and materials I've supplied. Use your Journeyman prowess to turn my batch of mechs into something truly exceptional."
"Why not approach a Journeyman the regular way?"
"The mechs are rather.. Delicate."
Ves frowned inside his helmet. "Are you supplying the mechs to a Nyxian pirate outfit?"
"Let's leave this question open, shall we? What I seek is someone who can upgrade a batch of mechs without leaking anything. Are you open to this offer?"
"You will have to reveal more about the mechs and what you expect from me. It is hard for me to make a judgement without any relevant information."
"Understandable. Look, why not follow me to my private box and discuss some of the details? You can stay with me when the auction starts. If you encounter something that you can't pay for, why not let me pitch in? If it isn't beyond my means, I can cover the cost. If I win, I can hold the object in my possession and exchange it to you once you finish the job I give you. Doesn't that sound like a good deal?"
This... Ves began to grow suspicious. What kind of upgrade job did this anonymous noble expect from Ves that was worth a billion firthals?
The entire deal sounded shady as hell!