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The thunder of the DropShip's engines subsided. As the relative quiet of the hundred-year-old DropShip's normal creakings and hissings returned, Sho-iRudorff appeared at the hatch to the stateroom. He apologized for the failure of the old ship's intercom, and assured them that it was safe to unstrap. Minobu released the restraints that had held him in place during the descent. As he started to swing his legs out from the confining couch, Terasu's head appeared. His face was flushed with returning blood. “Stay up there till the combat soldiers are clear, Tetsuhara.”

He put a particular, haughty emphasis on the word “combat.” Hawken, also up now, grinned maliciously at the comment, teeth shining in his black face. Minobu waited patiently while they slung their gear. The Sworders took their time, but Minobu recognized that there was more behind their actions than a simple desire to keep him waiting in the cramped bunk. A hasty appearance on the landing field would not suit a Sworder's dignity, especially on a field captured and held by merc mercenaries.

Terasu and Hawken finally finished. Terasu exited first, taking no notice as the Second flattened against the hull to give him room. As Hawken started through the hatchway, he said, “Make yourself useful, Tetsuhara. Tell the men to deploy the 'Mech lance into a guard patrol.” Over his shoulder, Terasu yelled back, “Make sure mymen are out first.” Hawken frowned and hustled after the other Sworder. Their voices, raised in argument over precedence, echoed through the corridor.

Minobu found Rudorff had come to help him change from the drab gray shipboard fatigues into his uniform. “I don't know how you do it, sir. Those two are barbarians. Always ordering everyone around. Such arrogance! As if they were the Coordinator himself. But you are never perturbed. Like a zen master. Why do you let them speak to you so?”

“It is in their nature.” As Minobu shrugged to settle the black tunic over his shoulders, the high collar folded and caught on the side of his neck. He straightened it before allowing Rudorff to fasten it. “Just as it seems to be your nature to speak so freely.”

At that, the man fumbled a fastening. “I am a loyal son of the Dragon, lord,” he stammered. “I meant no offense, lord.”

“I take none. Here. Hold this box.” From the box, Minobu removed his dress swords and placed them in his belt; first the short one, then the longer. Stowing the box again, he shooed the Second out of the compartment and headed for the ramp. “Have Sho-saHawken's order conveyed to the lance at your first convenience.”

Rudorff bowed. “As you command, lord.”

The walk through the corridor to the ramp was short, but Minobu was perspiring by the time he reached the exit. Even in the short time the Starbladehad been open to the atmosphere, the arid planet had conquered the old DropShip's air-cooling capability. Minobu's sweat evaporated in the first, unfiltered blast of the hot, dry air of Quentin IV, and he could almost feel the water being drawn from his skin.

As uncomfortable as it was, the climate over most of the planet was far friendlier than that of its sister world, Quentin III. Even in the inhabited zones of that planet's great mesas, a man had to wear a full environment suit whenever he left the safety of a ship or building. Hoping he would not be outside long enough to dehydrate, Minobu looked out across the field.

Nearer to the control tower, an OverlordClass DropShip stood on the landing apron, its huge, egg-shaped bulk dwarfing the BattleMechs walking sentry-go. The presence of the sentry 'Mechs and the bustling activity around the ship suggested that the Overlordwas Wolf's command ship. The Sworders had obviously reached the same conclusion because they had already started toward it. Minobu was about to follow them when he noticed a line of communication cables running from the ship to the tower building. With a small smile on his lips, he walked down the ramp and headed for the port building.

As he approached the entrance, the Dragoon guards drew to attention and saluted him in Kurita fashion, fists across their chests. Their posture seemed respectful. Most of the mercenaries Minobu had met in the past had been remarkably lax about military etiquette. Some had not even known how to perform a proper salute. Minobu found himself wondering if the Dragoons' visored helmets hid derisive smiles. It might be their idea of a joke to pretend to be respectful. It did not matter. They were only door guards and their thoughts were of no relevance. Minobu ignored them as he passed from the blazing sun into the shadows of the building.

Just beyond the archway waited a young Lieutenant in the camouflage field uniform of the Dragoons. He noted that her pale hair was cropped close after the fashion of most ‘MechWarriors. Cool air from the blower units rushed past Minobu, to be lost in the sweltering heat outside as she stepped up, saluted, and said, “Colonel Wolf will be pleased to meet you, Chu-saTetsuhara.”

He returned her salute without reply.

“If you will follow me, sir,” she said, turning. “I'm sure the other officers will be along in their own time.” She led him through the debris of yesterday's fighting, chattering at him over her shoulder. He had only enough time for single-word answers to her questions concerning his flight down from orbit and no time at all when she wanted his opinion of the local weather conditions. Before long, Minobu's attention drifted from this one-way conversation. His body followed hers through the corridors, but his mind wandered through other passages. Lost in thoughts of duty and what it meant to him and to his future, he was startled when she excused herself and left him standing before an archway.

Beyond it was a large open area that had recently been a passenger concourse. Its function had now changed. Scattered about were several tables and piles of electronic hardware. Techs, in an activity common to their kind throughout the Inner Sphere, bustled about, checking cables and exposed banks of circuitry. A heavy cable snaked through the arch to a large table where sat an inactive holoprojector and other machinery. Around the table stood and sat several soldiers in Dragoon uniforms. The late morning sunlight glittered off rank insignia. Five of those present wore the triple stars that marked them as Dragoon Colonels.

Understanding dawned on Minobu. He had spent over twenty years threading his way through the mazes of protocol and the labyrinths of status that underlay the Draconis Combine. This was an old game. One that was older than the Successor States, older than the Star League, older even than man's first departure from the cradle of Terra. That homeless mercenaries would set up such a test was unexpected and hinted at an unsuspected sense of propriety and proportion.

Now he knew the reason that no solidographs or datapics were included in the briefing materials. Only one of the five Colonels could be Jaime Wolf. Minobu must identify Wolf correctly or suffer a loss of face that would hamper all further dealings with these people. He would have to observe closely and rely on that. He calmed his mind and looked about him.

Nearest to him was a tall, angular woman whose dark blonde hair was pulled back tightly at the nape. She paced while speaking to an aide, and the spring in her step suggested that it was chained energy rather than anxiety that drove her. Her movements were fluid.

In her pacing, she went past the second Colonel. Because the man was seated at the table studying reports, his height was indeterminable. His uniform hung loose on a spare frame. Whenever the blonde passed, brown eyes in a face as dark as Minobu's own flicked up in distraction. The man's movements were as sharp-edged as his eyes.

The next was a short man with gray-streaked hair, erect carriage, and steady, economical movements. His uniform was tailored perfectly to the well-muscled body of an athlete. Though he was giving most of his attention to the fourth Colonel, he seemed to miss little of what the others were doing. His calm was a pool.