After his discovery, Ves acted out a play.
He pretended as if he was as frustrated as the other Vandals, not even hesitating to demand a meeting with Major Verle to obtain some answers.

The rigid mech officer refused to spill the beans, just as Ves expected.
The man had a point that a secret as momentous as this should only be known by those who needed to know.
Ves did not actually require an answer to perform his duties, so he was firmly on the very large list that definitely didn ’t need to learn the truth.

Ves couldn ’t blame them from withholding the fact that they imprisoned Lord Javier and was attempting to bring him out of the Kingdom.
Though their greater motivations escaped him, the Vandals would surely be doing it for a reason.

That reason may be a great cause, or a selfish cause.
Whatever the case, Ves had no further leads to pursue.
Walking close to the hidden compartments already raised some flags, so Ves planned to keep his head down for the time being and pretend that he knew nothing more than the rest.

After the conference call, the mech designers all tackled their work with urgent effort.
Ves was glad to see that nobody slacked off time, and many had in fact exceeded their former standards.

”When other people ’s lives are on the line, there ’s no sense of urgency.
Now that there ’s a substantial chance that we might all go down, it ’s no wonder that they are working so hard. ”

With a deficit of more than two-hundred mechs, the Flagrant Vandals would be hard-pressed to regain their former strength.
Ves deliberately set their goal post to restoring a hundred mechs within a month as an aspiration.
He didn ’t expect the mech technicians and mech designers to reach this target, but getting close enough already helped out a lot.

As the task force finally left the accursed territory of Venidse, the Vandals kept themselves while they crossed through the space claimed by the Klein Duchy.

During this time, they managed to drop their work to hold another solemn space burial.

Over a hundred coffins had been laid out in the hangar bay of the Shield of Hispania.
The sheer amount of coffins weighed down upon the survivors like a boulder.
Pretty much every Vandal knew someone who rested in those coffins.

Seeing the coffins placed on the decks with the banners of the Vandals draped on top of them emphasized the peril they still hadn ’t gotten away from yet.
How many more Vandals would lose their lives in the coming days and weeks? A hundred? Two-hundred? Maybe all of them? Nobody knew, but all of them feared the answer.

The Vandals plainly weren ’t in a fighting condition at that time.

Fortunately, Klein appeared to be as equally fearful of the Vandals as the Vandals feared getting entangled with their mech legions.
From the intelligence the local rebels passed on to the Vandals, Klein wanted nothing to do with the scrappy enemy force that thrashed the Frosty Meteors.

Pyrrhic it may be, word of the victory had already spread throughout the Kingdom and the Republic.
The victory cemented the reputation of the Flagrant Vandals as devious but capable warriors.

While Venidse had a lot more mechs to spare, Klein faced the opposite situation.
As a peripheral territory in the Kingdom, they could afford to be lavish with their mech legions.
They hoarded their mechs as if they were their own children, and rarely deployed them against formidable enemies.

Though the Vandals had lost over half of their spaceborn combat capability, Klein didn ’t know that.
As long as the Vandals kept their true condition silent, the Vesians wouldn ’t have any reason to hunt them down.

This was why the Vandals acted very circumspect around the VRF and the local rebels.
Ves even received orders directly from Major Verle to limit the amount of information Iris could access.

Telling their guest designer to fob off was not a pleasant conversation for Ves.

”Our mechs are in a bad shape, Iris.
I think it ’s best if you lend your skills to the mech technicians.
They ’re awfully short-handed. ”

Iris glowered at him.
”Don ’t you need me anymore, boss? ”

”Ah, eh, you ’re not the only one who needs to get their hands dirty.
Some of the most complex repairs can ’t be performed by anyone in the fleet except me.
That should give you an idea how urgently we require more technical expertise. ”

With that quick excuse, Ves packed Iris off.
Naturally, he wasn ’t wrong either.
He did plan to allocate some of his time to restore the more difficult cases.
He even took the time to select some promising wrecks and requested the Vandals to transfer them to the Shield of Hispania.

Thus far, the Vandals managed to keep Klein guessing and their rebel partners mostly in the dark.
The only time where Ves thought the gig may have been up was when they converged in a desolate star system to trade away a substantial amount of loot and salvaged mechs for much-needed resources.
If the rebels had someone smart on their payroll, then they would have recognized the significance of the materials that the Vandals had requested.

They couldn ’t do anything about it.
During staff meetings and private talks with Lieutenant Commander Soapstone, Ves reiterated the importance of replenishing their stockpiles.

”You either get me the supplies on this list, or you ’ll have to accept the fact that we ’re going to be short of at least fifty mechs. ”

Presented with that argument, Verle and Soapstone couldn ’t resume their penny-pinching ways and continue to hoard their useless riches.
What they needed the most right now was to supplement their battle strength.
The odds of making it out of the Hafner Duchy at their current strength was small.

It would already be hopefully optimistic that the Vandals would be able to field around three-hundred mechs.
That was the number of spaceborn mech pilots the task force had left that could still go into battle.
The rest had died or suffered grievous injuries that their onboard medical bays couldn ’t treat.

A small number of mech pilots even suffered neural damage that permanently disabled their ability to interface with a mech.

Ves knew there was no going back from such an injury.
Even his grandfather suffered from the same affliction, and despite his prestige as a former expert pilot, he had no choice but to resign his commision.

All the suffering throughout the entire fleet affected Ves on a spiritual level.
His heightened spiritual sense picked up the waves of grief, apathy, and other unpleasant emotions.
The mech pilots in particular acted as beacons of despair, whose negative emotions propagated stronger and further than any other human.

Ves even suspected that they were responsible for exacerbating the negative mood that descended upon the task force.

”It ’s as if the mech pilots are infecting everyone ’s moods with theirs. ”

That wasn ’t good news, because all of the casualties of the previous battles happened to be mech pilots.

Mech pilots interacted the most with their fellow kind.
They developed very strong bonds of brotherhood with the people that fought by their sides, so their deaths impacted the surviving mech pilots most of all.

Ves sometimes wondered if this dark cloud of emotions would doom the Vandals to defeat.
If Klein ever summed up the courage to track down the task force and force a battle, the outcome wouldn ’t be in question as long as the Vesians brought enough mechs.

”This can ’t go on, but I don ’t know what to do. ”

It was hard to cheer up the Vandals.
While they were professional enough not to let their emotions get in the way of their duties, it was easy to see that they couldn ’t match the steel of their recent opponents.

Premier mech regiments such as the Calico Dancer Bats or the Frosty Meteors wouldn ’t enter a spiral of doubt and self-blame.
Their grit was legendary.
Even if they lost over ninety percent of their fighting force, the remaining ten percent would still cling onto their tradition and rebuild what they lost.

”It ’s all about belief and willpower. ”

These traits couldn ’t be measured on an objective scale.
Yet their importance ranked at the top.
Even if the Vandals fielded better mechs, they would still be considered trash if they couldn ’t bounce back from a modest defeat.

Though Ves mourned alongside the Vandals, he plainly didn ’t feel as much grief.
”In the end, I ’m not a Vandal after all. ”

As the head designer, Ves needed to keep the bigger picture into account.
He couldn ’t afford to get hung up on the past while the future still seemed turbulent.

The hierarchy also reinforced this detachment.
Mech designers didn ’t directly integrate with the mech regiments.
Instead, they stood apart and formed their own self-contained group.
They answered only to the highest ranking mech officer on-site.

This separation came in handy as the other mech designers also appeared to be less affected by the doom and gloom that had overtaken the Vandals.
Ves ordered them to push the mech technicians to get over their grief and work hard.

Though the mech designers only partially succeeded into kicking the mech technicians back into gear, any increase of productivity was welcome.

Thus, a long period of tranquility ensued.
The task force continued their silent trek to the border of the Kingdom, meeting very little setbacks along the way.

The Vandals even managed to slip into the Hafner Duchy without encountering any hostile forces at all.
Klein hadn ’t managed to sum up the courage to go after them in the end.

”Thank the heavens that the Duke of Klein is a scaredy-cat! ”

”It ’s as if angels are watching over our shoulders! ”

”Well, you better brace yourselves, because the Duke of Hafner is nothing like his neighboring peer.
That man is responsible for guarding the border.
The big ponce won ’t tolerate any incursions from Reinald.
He ’ll be even more determined to stop us from making a getaway. ”

Ves agreed with that sentiment.
Although the Hafner territory was situated on the other side of the border to the Bright Republic, they nonetheless heard some stories about how seriously they guarded their space.

The main threat did not come from the Reinald Republic.
In fact, the neighboring state was actually only a third the size of the Bright Republic.

Ordinarily, the aggressive Vesia Kingdom should have invaded Reinald as intensely as they attempted to invade the Bright Republic.

The only reason the Vesians curbed their aggression towards Reinald was that the latter forged a defensive alliance with two other minor republics.
Both the Roppo Principality and the Council Stars of Lisv banded together with the Reinald Republic to present a united front against the Vesia Kingdom.

Everyone referred to their defensive pact as the Frozen Leaf Alliance.
Though each individual alliance member was weak enough to be crushed by the Vesians, together they formed a formidable line of defence.

The Vesians had tested them over and over, but their bonds to each other turned out to be stronger than the relations of competing Vesian duchies.

This could still be overcome, if not for the possibility that other neighboring states might decide to join the Frozen Leaf Alliance.
If Reinald, Roppo and Lisv fell to the Vesians, the states beyond that might be next.

This effectively curbed the desire of the Vesians to aggressively expand in this direction.
As long as they didn ’t make any threatening moves, the Frozen Leaf Alliance wouldn ’t grow to the point of becoming a threat to the Kingdom.

”Still, even without a war, their citizens still need somewhere to vent. ”

The mech pilots of the three alliance states didn ’t face the threat of war like their counterparts in the Bright Republic.
Too much complacency bred weakness, so officially the Frozen Leaf Alliance encouraged the establishment of mercenary corps and treasure hunting outfits as a way for adventurous mech pilots to get their fighting urges out of their system.

Unofficially, they encouraged the establishment of less-than-legal outfits, and often turned a blind eye when these shady outfits decided to do their business across the border.

The Vesia Kingdom suffered a lot of damage from pirates that originated from the Alliance.
Though the evidence was never there, both sides knew the score.

The Hafner Duchy took on the important task of curbing every pirate incursion that crossed border from the Reinald Republic.
Over the centuries, they became very adept at hunting pirate outfits.

Unfortunately, the Flagrant Vandals happened to share a lot in common with pirates.

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