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 Ves and Commander Dise spent more than an hour in the Jaded Sword's conference room. Amidst the trophies, flags, banners and other impressive artifacts, the two haggled two concurrent deals at once.

A confluence of interests sped the negotiations up. The Vandals and Swordmaidens both suffered heavy damage from the mission so far and wouldn't turn their backs to additional help.

The key was to make a credible agreement that provided plenty of incentives for both sides to stick to the deal. While Ves mainly negotiated on behalf of the Vandals, he also tried to make sure the Swordmaidens had no reason to renege on the deal once they thought it over.

Overall, Ves faithfully stuck to the points and priorities laid out by Major Verle. No matter what, he needed to forge an attractive enough deal for Major Verle to show off to his superiors. As long as this deal provided sufficient benefits to the Bright Republic, the decision makers who possessed the final say would definitely be more inclined to put their stamp on the agreement.

Of course, alongside the public deal, Ves was much more interested in hammering out the details of their private deal.

"Right now, you Swordmaidens lack a competent Journeyman Mech Designer." He began when they drifted to this topic. "Having benefited from Mayra's presence all these years, I'm sure you know what kind of benefits a genuine Journeyman can provide to your organization. While I'm not able to take over her role and provide the same level of services as she once did, I'm more than open to lending a hand every now and then in exchange for favors."

The bald and dark-skinned commander smiled warily at him. "Favors can be expensive and hard to pay back. What kind of favors do you have in mind, Ves?"

This was the point where Ves laid out his demands. For now, he didn't dare ask for anything too major. Their partnership still needed to go through a lot of time and successful cooperation before he could reveal his ambitions for the frontier.

"First, I want you to represent my business interests in the Faris Star Region. More specifically, I want the Swordmaidens to act as a secret channel to the various black markets and other exchanges open to pirates. There are a lot of rare exotics and other valuable goods that are hard or almost impossible to come by in civilized space. Even if they are available, all the middlemen involved will usually balloon the base price by five to ten times. I want a more direct channel to the frontier's most valuable exports."

Commander Dise didn't seem surprised that Ves started with this demand. "We can do that, for a price. Obtaining these kinds of hot goods and smuggling them to your hands will take a lot of effort."

The exact commission they agreed on was rather tentative and subject to change, but it definitely made it worthwhile for the Swordmaidens to fulfill his needs.

Ves knew he'd be better off paying a generous commission to the Swordmaidens rather than access any of the black markets he could access in civilized space.

With the Swordmaidens, he'd be able to purchase his goods from the source or at least close to it. In contrast, those markets and exchanges in places like the Harkensen System truly charged exorbitant prices for the same goods and services!

Not only did the middlemen needed to be paid for all the risks they took, separate organizations probably already reserved much of the good stuff for themselves at preferential rates.

This left the black market vendors at the very end of the chain with only a fraction of what had been obtained at the source. Demand for it hadn't changed, but the supply of it was much less. Raising the original price by a hundred or even a thousand times wasn't out of the question!

Nonetheless, while Ves valued this clandestine black market channel, he wanted more out of this relationship with the Swordmaidens.

The opportunity to forge ties with an established pirate organization didn't come every day! More than that, the Swordmaidens incurred significant losses and experienced a lot of upheavals at the moment.

They needed help. A lot of help. It wouldn't be easy for them to recover decades-worth of accumulation. In order to rebuild the Swordmaidens in a timely manner before their old enemies ganged up on them, they urgently needed a helping hand.

The main deal that Ves just closed with the Swordmaidens was the first helping hand. The secondary deal that Ves currently tried to make was the second helping hand.

Two hands were more than enough to lift the Swordmaidens back to their feet.

"Aside from opening up a channel for me and my company, I also want you to act as guides and escorts to any mech forces I send into the frontier." Ves stated, proceeding to his second demand. "It would be a similar arrangement with the Vandals right now. If I ever need something significant done in the frontier, I won't ask you to do them in my stead. I'll instead send my own forces, if I have any. Your role would be to guide them to their destination and let them do their thing before escorting them back to the border."

Commander Dise appeared much more hesitant about such an arrangement. "This isn't unheard of, but it depends on whether my Swordmaidens are available. While we know the lay of the land and we can depend on our name and friendships to get us by, we also have a lot of enemies as well. Your forces might get caught up in our own troubles."

"I'll take the risk. I believe in your sincerity. What I truly need from the Swordmaidens is your reputation and standing among the local bullies in the frontier. It will save my forces a lot of time and effort if they can avoid needless fights and reach their destination without stepping on the toes of other pirates."

Because Ves did not intend to draw upon this service until several years later, the two quickly agreed to this commitment on a trial basis.

"Are there any other desires you wish for us to fulfill?" Dise asked. Though she didn't seem too enthused about indulging Ves, for the sake of money and skilled mech designer support she seemed willing to hear him out.

Going into bed with someone like Ves who survived the same harrowing experiences as her was a lot better than doing business with some stuck-up business who never stepped foot in the frontier! At the very least, Ves had proven himself worthy of their trust!

"Perhaps in the future, I'd like something done in the frontier. For example, eliminate a specific outfit or expedition that's inconvenient for me or my forces to be associated with the deed. Having the Swordmaidens take care of these dealings without leaving behind a trail that leads back to me is something I would definitely be appreciative of. It's even better if you can fool another pirate gang into doing the job instead."

"I see." Commander Dise said as she crossed her arms. Her various beast bones and trophies jingled with the motion. "I won't say no, but..."

"I understand. It is risky and it might incur enemies to the Swordmaidens. However, we can definitely negotiate the prices for this service."

Like the other points, they didn't set more than a vague baseline. The exact price Ves needed to pay to get the Swordmaidens to 'take care' of a force in the frontier depended on the strength of their targets and the risks they incurred when attempting the deed.

Ves expected that killing a small force would already cost him hundreds of millions of credits while taking care of a larger force would easily force him to cough up more than a billion credits.

For some foes, this service was more than worth the hefty price tag.

It was unfortunate that Ves couldn't arrange the Swordmaidens to 'take care' of some of his domestic enemies. The Swordmaidens generally kept their noses clean in civilized space in order to retain their ability to cross over the border and access the Harkensen System.

"Anything else?"

"This is something a bit more personal to Ketis. It's not a demand per see." He said before turning to the young mech designer who mostly turned dizzy by all the negotiations so far. "Ketis, I think it's best you return with me to civilized space and come work for my company for a time."

She immediately shook her head. "I know that's what Mayra want, but the Swordmaidens really need my help. They can't do without a mech designer!"

"Many pirate gangs manage fine without one. As a Novice, you really don't bring too much benefits to the Swordmaidens at your current state. The deal I'm hammering out with Commander Dise will allow them to draw upon my assistance from remote, which is a lot better than anything you can do in person."

"Even so, I'm perfectly fine with the Swordmaidens as is. There's no reason for me to run off to civilized space."

"I disagree. Haven't you benefited from my tutelage already? How far do you think you'll be able to go in your career when I'm gone? The frontier is already an extremely poor and difficult place for a mech designer to progress and advance. At best, you'll be able to advance to Apprentice in a decade, but what then? It takes more than determination to reach Journeyman."

His words struck a mark. Ketis wordlessly blinked at Ves. She knew enough about her capabilities that it was extremely unlikely for her to ever match Mayra's prowess without any assistance.

Mayra herself lucked out when she caught the Skull Architect's attention, but Ketis failed to spark his interest. Ves also suspected that there was much more to Mayra's background than met the eye. She was way too refined compared to the rest of the Swordmaidens to have started off as a nobody from the frontier.

The key here was that Ketis lacked the various advantages and opportunities that Mayra enjoyed in the past.

Now that Ves, a skilled mech designer who she held in high regard, offered to be her new mentor, she'd be a fool to refuse!

Yet she still hesitated due to her strong affection and loyalty to the Swordmaidens!

Seeing that Ves couldn't break past Ketis' inner struggle, he instead turned to the other Swordmaiden in the room.

"Commander Dise, please think it over. You can easily pick up a random exile or refugee mech designer from the frontier to meet your basic needs. In the meantime, I can take Ketis back to civilized space where she'll be able to progress by leaps and bounds under my mentorship. Wouldn't the Swordmaidens be better off with a future Journeyman taking the reins again?"

Dise gazed suspiciously at Ves. "That is awfully generous of you, but I can't help but question why you insist on bringing Ketis out of the frontier."

"It's Mayra's last wish." Ves shrugged nonchalantly, at least outwardly. "She's also a mech designer with promise, though she'll need active guidance in order to bloom her potential. If nothing else, consider my tutelage to be another form of payment for your services."

In truth, Ves wanted to bring Ketis under his wings for two other reasons.

First, he trusted her. He would be able to reveal some of the secrets related to the Mech Designer System to her like the attribute candies and she wouldn't ask too many questions. Her gratitude to him for all the help he provided was the strongest assurance that she wouldn't turn against him anytime soon.

Second, grasping Ketis meant that Ves would be intimately connected to the Swordmaidens. While he'd never be a part of them, the chances of betrayal would drastically decrease as long as Ketis studied under him. She was basically a disguised hostage in this regard!

Even if she eventually finished her studies and returned to the frontier to become the head designer of the Swordmaidens, her close and unforgettable ties to Ves would ensure their continued cooperation.

Fulfilling Mayra's last wish was just a convenient excuse to Ves. What he really wanted was to get the Swordmaidens on his side on a permanent basis!

After all, as long as he continued to grow in power and wealth, it wasn't out of the question for him to displace their original backers one day...

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