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Today, he mused, the past was meeting the present in more substantial ways. Today, forces of the Draconis Combine were assaulting the Quentin system. Once again, the Federated Suns and the Combine struggled for possession of these inhospitable worlds, just as those two states had for almost their entire history. The lure of Quentin was not that of friendly worlds, ripe for colonization, but a glitter that evoked the greed of the House Leaders. The third planet's mineral resources and the fourth's factories and research facilities were great prizes.

In the days when the Star League had ruled the Inner Sphere and its thousands of Human-settled stars, the battles for Quentin had been political. The League had tottered after Stefan Amaris had attempted to usurp the power of the First Lord of the League, and fallen apart when General Alexandr Kerensky abruptly vanished from the Inner Sphere in 2784, taking with him the bulk of the Star League military. When Lord Minora Kurita claimed that he was rightful heir to the throne of the First Lord, the other Council Lords opposed him. The First Succession War had begun.

Five states had solidified out of the chaos within the Inner Sphere; for good or ill, each was strongly wedded to a ruling house. Foremost among those quarreling realms were the Draconis Combine and the Federated Suns. The Combine was ruled by the Kurita clan and the code of bushido.The office of Coordinator of the Draconis Combine was currently filled by the strong-willed, forceful Takashi Kurita. Under him, the Dragon was strong.

The Federated Suns was headed by its ruling family's scion, the shrewd Prince Hanse Davion. Minobu had often heard it said that Lord Kurita considered Davion one of the few foes worthy of the Combine.

Minobu was no master of a star-spanning kingdom. He was only a ‘Mech Warrior—and a Dispossessed one at that. It was true that each of those redoubtable House rulers had served as a ‘Mechwarrior in his younger days, but neither one any longer fought in the battles of the Succession Wars. Lord Kurita and Prince Davion directed great states. They gave the orders while he, a simple soldier, obeyed them. His orders had brought him here to the Quentin system where, under the light of the present sun and the past stars, he would meet his future. Wolf's Dragoons.

So far, his own route of travel along the lanes of commerce had prevented him from joining the mercenaries to whom he had been assigned. Having their own transport gave the Dragoons tremendous strategic flexibility, and they had traveled rapidly across the Combine, then moved into action.

Minobu had finally been able to intersect their course. Soon he would have his first actual meeting with Wolf's Dragoons, or at least, with those present for the attack on Quentin. He would meet the people behind the communiques and situation reports.

One mercenary regiment and several auxiliary units had rushed on, joining a raid in the Hoff system. A second regiment was on recovery furlough and serving as escort for the Dragoon support services and noncombatants as they moved toward their assigned home base on An Ting. That left three full BattleMech regiments involved in this action, an unusually large force. Likely, it was simply a matter of timing. The Dragoons were to be stationed in the Galedon District, along the Draconis border with the Federated Suns. As they moved through the Benjamin District, the opportunity for the Quentin raid arose. The Dragoons simply used the whole available force, for it would mean a quicker resolution of combat and a faster arrival at their garrison stations.

In the three months since he had received his assignment, all of Minobu's contact with Wolf's Dragoons had been secondhand, through reports and ComStar-mediated communiques. Soon he would be dealing face-to-face with the enigmatic mercenaries from beyond the Inner Sphere. Indeed, he still did not know what the Dragoon commander looked like. For some unknown reason, there were no solidographs or datapics included in the briefing materials, and Minobu realized he could not even be certain of Wolf's gender.

The name was no help, either. Minobu had met or served with at least seven persons named Jaime, and only five had been male. While all Combine materials used the masculine pronoun when referring to Wolf, that was not proof of gender. Combine forces had suffered serious defeats when the Dragoons had been employed by the Lyran Commonwealth, the other Successor State bordering the Combine. Many Kurita officers could never accept the idea that a female could function successfully as a military commander. If the Dragoons' leader were a female, Combine officers might have concealed and denied that fact out of shame at being defeated by a woman.

Minobu had studied all the available history of Wolf's Dragoons. Of their origin, there was nothing. They had simply appeared in Davion space in 3005 and signed on as mercenaries. Details of their later history were just as meager, except for a long list of victories and a much shorter one of defeats. For almost twenty years, they had fought for each of the contending Houses in turn, but always seemed to avoid conflict with their most recent employer. Minobu knew that the contact with House Kurita specifically precluded the use of the Dragoons against House Steiner, and he suspected that their previous contracts had included similar clauses.

The Kuritan Internal Security Force had provided organization charts, but the ISF's data were incomplete. To Minobu's mind, the most glaring gap was the lack of personal dossiers on most of the Dragoon officers.

Sho-iRudorff, the ship's Second Officer, cleared his throat and interrupted Minobu's musings. “Sho-saTerasu and Sho-saHawken are on their way to the bridge,” Rudorff announced, his face showing concern for Minobu's position. The two Sword of Light officers had made it clear that they did not approve of Minobu's presence on the Bridge. Rudorff's warning was one more of the small kindnesses he had shown Minobu throughout the trip. Minobu acknowledged the man's unnecessary sympathy with a nod.

Because of the obvious rancor of the Sworders aboard ship, Minobu had tried simply to avoid them. With practiced ease, he scrambled up the worn steel of the ladder that connected the bridge with the ship's first deck. He had not quite made it to the cross corridor into which he intended to duck, when the two Sword of Light officers exited the lift. Honor prevented Minobu from showing an attempt to avoid them, so he continued on.

As their paths brought the three men nearer, Minobu stepped to one side of the companionway to allow the Sworders room to pass. Technically, he outranked them, but they held combat assignments and he had only a staff officer's position. Moreover, each of them was a commander in an elite Sword of Light Company and an active ‘Mech-Warrior, while he was Dispossessed. The net effect put the Sworders in a superior social position, and they took full advantage of it.

Minobu sensed that they disdained him because of some secret self-importance that made their harassment seem justified. Ever since his transfer to the Starbladefrom a commercial DropShip docked at Nirasaki's zenith station, their petty indignities and deprecating comments had been ceaseless. Minobu ignored them whenever possible, though he knew they took it as a sign of weakness.

Today there would be no avoidance.

Sho-saBrett Hawken of the First Sword of Light Regiment stopped as he drew abreast of Minobu. His long-distant ancestry on the Terran continent of Africa was as evident as Minobu's own, but he had made it abundantly clear in previous encounters that he would accept no hint of association with Minobu, however minor.

“It looks like our deskjock has been wandering around where he isn't needed,” the man drawled.