The fleet transitioned into the Reverend Indra System without any fanfare.
The Reverend Indra System was a port system, which meant it served as a nexus of trade and transit.
Not only that, but Reverend Indra also served as the capital of the Hertog Dominion! The rulers of the Dominion were always concerned about losing their grip on power, so they placed their seat of power directly in the economic center of their state!
There were upsides and downsides to such a decision. While the government exerted strong control over all of the trade taking place in the port system, the rulers also became exposed to many more influences.
In addition, due to the high amount of traffic in the system, it was extremely difficult to prevent threats from sneaking into the capital.
All of this didn't matter to Ves. Whether the Hertog Dominion concentrated all of their political and economic power in a single vulnerable and easily-navigable star system was their business.
Port systems were extremely easy to reach, and were always vulnerable against outside invasion.
This applied not only to human ships, but also to sandman vessels!
With a sandman invasion looming over the horizon, many people had become uncomfortably aware that the Reverend Indra would probably serve as a magnet to the sandmen fleets. The stories transmitted from the overwhelmed border states already proved that the sandmen disproportionately invaded port systems as if they followed the path of least resistance!
"That's the reason for the flood of outbound traffic in the star system." Captain Silvestra explained to Ves on the bridge. "Everyone who can book passage outward is frantically evacuating from this star system at this very moment!"
Ves frowned. "Won't there be anyone left by the time the sandmen arrive?"
Silvestra shook her head. "The exodus isn't as great as it looks, sir. Dominator Vivian II will never allow her own subjects to hollow out her most important star system. The ones who are booking passage outwards are mainly the foreigners and those who managed to afford the hefty bribes. Everyone else is forced to stay and keep the engines of the economy running."
"Well at least it appears the Dominator is serious about defending this star system. A lot of defenses are being erected."
The orbits of all the populated planets and moons began to look busy as countless workers and bots built hundreds of defensive platforms in space. Ves had no doubt that even more turrets and defensive works were being built on the surfaces of Reverend Indra III, the capital, and other planets.
Not only that, but many combat carriers and other military vessels had been summoned to the Reverend Indra System. They congregated together in powerful fleets and patrolled every direction of approach to Reverend Indra III.
"With the amount of assets gathered here, this star system might very well be able to bear the brunt of the sandman invasion." Ves stated with confidence. "It's just... all those mech regiments and mech divisions used to be deployed to cover other star systems, right? It appears the Dominator prizes the Reverend Indra System above every other territory in her domain."
"The defenses of the outlying star systems will definitely be affected."
Ves couldn't say whether the Dominator made the right decision. Many other states underestimated the attraction of port systems to the sandmen. In the end, once the defenses of a port system succumbed, the state lost a powerful economic and industrial center!
Having lost such an important pillar, the smaller and less important star systems all fell in quick succession.
"Well, we aren't Hertogers anyway, so it's not our business to pry in the decisions of the state."
The Barracuda escorted by the ships of the Battle Criers slowly approached the inner system. Ves agreed to rendez-vous with Gloriana in orbit of Reverend Indra III.
With a mixture of dread and anticipation, Ves watched the timer tick down. In a short period of time, he'd be meeting his 'girlfriend' once again. This time, he wouldn't be able to run if he wanted to! Gloriana already told him that she came with her own ship!
Time slowly passed as his fleet followed its assigned route and navigated through the immense amount of traffic.
Before he met with Gloriana, Ves decided to contact the leader of his hired mercenaries.
"Mr. Larkinson." The bearded man nodded over the comm.
"Have you thought about my proposal once more?"
"We did. Our answer is the same as before. We're willing to stick around, but not all of us are committed to signing up with you for life. We haven't shared enough experiences yet. Aside from a single battle, we hardly know whether you can keep your cool during a crisis."
Ves crossed his arms. "It's been many months, commander. Let me be frank. While I'm satisfied with your service, you're a lot more useful to me if I can rely on you as much as Nitaa and Crindon. As long as I'm not sure whether you and your men will stick around, you're not as valuable to me. Once I return home, my Avatars of Myth can cover most of my protection needs."
"What does that mean?"
"If your Battle Criers still haven't made up their minds by the time we reach the Bright Republic, I have no choice but to dismiss you once you complete your mission. My money is best spent on expanding my Avatars of Myth than hiring you on for another year-long mission."
Though Ves understood why he hadn't earned the approval of the Battle Criers yet, he no longer wanted to wait. He effectively issued an ultimatum to Commander Cinnabar. Either they decided to get in bed permanently with Ves, or choose to part ways immediately after their current contract ran its course.
Whatever the case, Ves no longer had to contend with the uncertainty of whether he would be able to gain an ultra-loyal Kinner mercenary corps.
The commander knew what was at stake. "I'll make sure to push the men into taking a stand. We'll conduct a vote within a week. You'll get your answer at that time."
"Let me remind you that while I am hoping that you will pledge your oaths to me, you are not as irreplaceable as you think. Now that I've earned more fame and prestige, I will doubtlessly receive a better reception the next time I visit Bloodstone. Perhaps I might even get my foot in the door with Commander Oryn Mair of the Edge of Redemption!"
Ves truly felt so, and Commander Cinnabar appeared to accept his words as well.
If Ves really wanted to, he could buy out a better and more renowned Kinner mercenary corps! By then, it would be too late for the Battle Criers to enter into the orbit of a young but promising Journeyman!
"I'll work extra hard to persuade my men that it's difficult to find an employer that is better and more generous than you. For what it's worth, sir, I think we can do great things in your service. Nitaa and Crindon have both been raining praises about you in our chats."
"I promise you that I won't neglect you if you make the right decision. You already know what kind of mechs I design. Think of how much you can do if your mech pilots are assigned to my best mechs."
They discussed some other matters after that. Ves also took the time to ask about the status of the Ingar siblings.
"They're shaping up well under our care, sir." Cinnabar smiled. "Imon is still a brat, but he stopped pointing his nose in the air when he's in our company. He's also a damned good mech pilot. Casella on the other hand has eagerly learned how to run an outfit from me. While I can't say she's a capable leader, she's definitely officer material."
"Are the Ingvars ready to renew their contracts with me?"
"Well, Imon is a bit despondent about the lack of action. I think Casella is more inclined to continue to work with you, but she won't abandon her brother if he wants to leave."
Ves briefly frowned. "I see. Why don't you tell the Ingvars that if they continue to work for me, I'll give them the opportunity to fight the sandmen alongside my Avatars of Myth. I'll even allow them to apply for the Avatars if they so desire."
"That.. I'm not sure whether the Ingavs are eager to fight the sandmen. To Imon, it's not as exciting as fighting other mechs."
"Fighting the sandmen is our duty." Ves stated with conviction. "As humans, we are obligated to defend our fellow humans from alien predation. I don't think it will do their records any good if they flee from the sandmen when they have the opportunity to contribute to the defense of human space."
"They can always sign up with another outfit or employer."
"They might, but will they be able to obtain conditions as good as mine?"
"...I'll see what I can do."
The call quickly ended after discussing their upcoming security arrangements on the remainder of the trip to the Bright Republic.
Ves leaned back on his chair and scratched his chin. His many preoccupations during the tour meant that he hadn't been able to devote much time to the former nobles.
He truly wished he spent a bit more time in persuading Imon and Casella that it was in their best interest to work for him. Of all the mech pilots that Ves encountered with spiritual potential, none exhibited spiritual attributes as unique as theirs!
"I hope they make the right choice. I'll only invest in them if they're committed."
Ves would never be able to command their permanent loyalty, but a long-term employment contract should be enough.
As for what might happen next, it depended on whether he could apply some of his more radical theories to develop an accelerated advancement path for mech pilots.
Time continued to pass as his fleet finally arrived in orbit of Reverend Indra III. The night side of the densely-populated planet lit up like a plane of stars from above.
Close to the Barracuda, a small but very distinctive fleet occupied an entire orbital band by itself!
Gloriana had reached the orbit of Reverend Indra III weeks ago!
Just like Ves, she traveled in a small but well-protected fleet.
As Ves studied the ships that made up her fleet, the difference in quality immediately became apparent.
Her flagship consisted of a frigate-class vessel that was larger and more powerful than his little corvette. Two powerful combat carriers and a fast transport ship orbited around the frigate.
Each of the three escort vessels bore the same heraldry and shared the same color scheme, signifying that they belonged to the Wodin Warriors, the powerful household troops of the Wodin Dynasty!
Gloriana had already informed him beforehand about their presence. They were the Glory Battalion of the Wodin Warriors, assigned to protect Gloriana at all costs!
The dedicated bodyguards and protectors only answered to Gloriana, her mother and the matriarch of the Wodin Dynasty. No one else had the right to order them around!
Though the Glory Battalion fielded the same number of mechs as the Battle Criers, the difference in quality was enormous!
"How luxurious! Every ship and mech of Gloriana's fleet is second-class!"
If the Battle Criers ever fought the Glory Battalion, the Kinners would lose soundly! Not only was there a huge difference in the quality of their mechs, but the disparity in training also mattered!
Ves frankly became a bit concerned about their presence. There was no way he could exert control over them. While they ostensibly obeyed Gloriana's orders, they ultimately answered to the head of the Wodin Dynasty.
They probably took a dim view on him on account of his third-rater background. Journeyman or not, plenty of mech designers from the Hexadric Hegemony could match his current accomplishments!
"It's easy to earn her approval. It's a lot harder to earn the approval of her dynasty!"
If he seriously wished to pursue a relationship with Gloriana, then Ves had to make the Wodin Dynasty acknowledge him somehow.