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His partner in conversation was of a height with him. Her body was strong, hardened by use yet softened with feminine curves. Her dark hair showed no signs of age. Minobu took her to be quite young until he caught the wrinkles about her eyes that could only have been acquired from years of squinting into harsh suns. A brittle shell surrounded her, protecting a yielding yet strong center.

The last Colonel was seated, relaxing. He was a big man, massive through the chest and shoulders. He would stand tall, probably taller than Minobu's own two-meter height. No aides approached him while he sat back and listened to the others. Occasionally, he offered a comment. His strength lay dormant.

After only a few minutes, the pacing Colonel stopped, dismissed her aide, and gave Minobu an appraising glance before turning her attention to the table. She said something to the big Colonel who answered her. She laughed.

Minobu knew the time had come. He was expected to make his selection. To delay would be a loss of face, even if he selected correctly. He walked forward.

Drawing nearer, he pierced the curtain of white noise that had muffled the voices around the table and prevented him from hearing their conversation. At his approach, the talk stopped. He passed the pacer and moved around to the far side of the table, stopping behind the short man. “Colonel Wolf?” he said, making the polite interrogative into a statement. “I am to be your Liaison Officer.”

The man turned to face Minobu. His cool gray eyes scanned up the front of Minobu's tunic, stopping momentarily at the Bushido Blade on the left breast pocket. He stared briefly into Minobu's eyes, breaking contact before the stare became impolite. “More than just a lucky guess, I think. What gave me away?”

“It was obvious.” Minobu's voice was calm, almost casual. “Yours is the only kiin the room strong enough for the command you hold.”

“Ki,is it?” Wolf, one eyebrow arched, glanced around at the other officers. “I think we are gong to have an interesting relationship, Colonel—or should I say Chu-sa—Tetsuhara.

“Let me introduce my officers. Footloose down there is Kathleen Dumont, Delta Regiment. This is Jason Carmody, AeroSpace Operations Group.” With a thumb over his shoulder, he indicated the other female Colonel. “Wilhelmina Korsht, Gamma Regiment. The lazy bear in the chair is Andrei Shostokovitch, Beta Regiment. The young sprat is Kelly Yukinov.” Wolf indicated a Major standing near Carmody. “He's the one who really runs Alpha Regiment.

“I'm afraid you'll have to wait to meet the rest of the command staff. Transport timing didn't work out.”

“Colonel.” The speaker was Major Yukinov. When he had his commander's attention, the Major inclined his head toward the archway. Through it, they could see the two Sworder officers approaching, led by the same blonde Lieutenant who had met Minobu. Her face was set and she was not speaking. No doubt Terasu or Hawken had commanded her to silence, for neither man thought much of a woman's conversational abilities. Without hesitation, the Sworders walked through the arch. Behind them, the Lieutenant shrugged and turned away.

“Which one is Wolf?” Terasu only looked at Minobu long enough to direct the question to him. Then, like Hawken, he scanned the assembled mercenary officers. Their disdain was evident in the way they held their bodies.

“I'm Wolf.” The Colonel spoke before Minobu could.

“You will brief us on the current situation,” Hawken commanded.

Wolf made a small bow of acknowledgement and began a rundown of the Dragoon dispositions. If he was annoyed by the peremptory manner of the Sworders, he showed no sign.

The bow was a surprise, though. It showed that the mercenary commander had made at least a cursory study of the forms of courtesy prevailing in the Combine military. Minobu wondered if Wolf was aware that no commanding Tai-sa,or Colonel, of the DCMS would ever make a bow-to-superior to a Sho-sa,or Major, as he had done. Perhaps he thought it appropriate from a mercenary to the soldiers of his paymaster. The Sworders certainly accepted it as their due. From what Minobu had seen today, Wolf might be merely playing to their arrogance the way one humors a small child. Minobu decided that this mercenary Colonel was a man who would bear watching.

Wolf apologized that the holoprojector was not yet operative and proceeded to sketch the situation in words. His briefing was succinct and clear, interrupted occasionally by comments or queries from the Sworders. They seemed more interested in Davion activity in the immediate area of the port and the aerospace above. Though their questions were pertinent, Minobu could tell from the structure of the mercenary's presentation that he would eventually have answered all their questions in the course of his outline. Once satisfied that matters were proceeding according to schedule, the Sworders announced that they would personally inspect the security measures taken to secure the port.

The briefing reminded Minobu that there were still military concerns in his world that would constantly affect him and those around him. The Sworders' obsession with safety matters seemed uncharacteristic. He had assumed that the presence of the officers and the companies they commanded in this operation was simply a chance to blood some of the newer members of the regiment or for the veterans to sharpen the edge. It was also an opportunity to test coordination, tactics, and, perhaps, loyalty in a relatively controlled combat situation. The First and Seventh Sword of Light Regiments certainly saw little action in their position as honor guards at the capital on Luthien. The planet had seen no military action in Minobu's lifetime. It was secure and safe, as the capital of the Combine should be.

“The city administrator is at the gate, Colonel.” The soft voice broke into Minobu's thoughts. He looked around. The speaker was a slim Captain who had been standing by the table all along. A flat, metallic box fitted to the curve of the young officer's shoulder. A cord led from it to a receiver in his right ear, and another connected to the comp pad he held in his right hand. The boom-mounted microphone partially obscured his mouth. It was obviously a communications device, but Minobu had never seen its like before.

“Thank you, William. Pass him in and have Alpha's mobile HQ brought up.” The Captain was murmuring into his microphone before Wolf had turned to face Major Yukinov. “Time for you to go, Kelly. Reports at regular intervals.”

Yukinov snapped a quick salute, and along with several junior officers, headed for the exit. Each started to fasten on humidifier masks as he went. Minobu marveled that these mercenaries, so informal among themselves, could so quickly respond to orders, as was proper. At least, there were some soldierly virtues among these Dragoons. Wolf's voice caught his attention.

“Kathy, flick that thing on.”

The blond officer, nearest to the holoprojector, did as he said, and a relief map of the Ajan continent appeared, floating in the air above the table. The terrain was depicted in a muted gray, allowing the bright reds and blues of unit dispositions to stand out.

“Let's get this show over with,” Wolf said impatiently, “so we can get ready for our guest.”

Around the table, the Colonels began adjusting their reports, conferring with their comp units, and dispatching aides. The jumble of action reflected Minobu's reactions to Wolf's last comment. Puzzled, he asked, “What is this show, Colonel Wolf?”

Wolf left off studying the holomap. “Our visit from the Baron of Batan. He's here to meet the rampaging mercenaries, and we don't want to disappoint him.”

“So ka.Then the guest you wish to prepare for is someone other than the Davion administrator?”