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Growing up, Jeremiah Llyn had hated being short.

Not that he was that short. Not really. No more than nine or ten centimeters shorter than the planetary average. But ten centimeters had been more than enough to set off the jokesters in primary school, the brawlers in middle grade, and the more elaborate hazing during his teen years. Young adulthood had been marginally better, with at least a veneer of politeness and civilization covering up the derision. But even there, he could see the mental evaluation going on behind employers' eyes as he was passed over for promotions and the truly lucrative jobs.

Now, with the perspective and maturity that fifty T-years of life afforded a man, he found his lack of towering stature not only comfortable but valuable. People, even supposedly intelligent people, tended to underestimate shorter men.

In Llyn's current position, it was often very useful to be underestimated.

Across the desk, Cutler Gensonne shifted position, the prominent and self-awarded admiral's bars glinting on his shoulders with the movement. “Interesting,” he said, his eyes still on the tablet he'd been studying for the past fifteen minutes.

Llyn waited a moment, wondering if there would be more. But Gensonne just flicked to the next page, his black eyebrows pressed together in concentration. “Is that a good interesting, or a bad interesting?” Llyn asked at last.

“Well, it sure as hell isn't good,” Gensonne growled. “You realize this is a system that can conceivably field somewhere in the vicinity of thirty warships? Including six to nine battlecruisers?” He cocked his head. “That's one hell of a fighting force, Mr. Llyn.”

Llyn smiled. It was a standard gambit among mercenaries, one that had been tried on him at least twice before over the years. By inflating the potential risks, the bargainer hoped to similarly inflate the potential payment. “You apparently missed sections fifteen and sixteen,” he said. “The bulk of that fleet is in mothballs awaiting the scrapyard. What's left is either half armed or half crewed or both. Our estimate is that you'll be facing no more than eight to ten ships, with maybe one of those ships a battlecruiser.”

“I did read sections fifteen and sixteen, thank you,” Gensonne countered. “I also noted that the most recent data here is over fifteen months old.”

“I see.” Standing up, Llyn reached across the table and plucked the tablet from Gensonne's hands. “Obviously, you're not the group we're looking for, Admiral. Best of luck in your future endeavors.”

“Just a moment,” Gensonne protested, grabbing for the tablet. Llyn was ready for the move and twitched it out of his reach. “I never said we wouldn't take the job.”

“Really?” Llyn said. Time for a little gamesmanship of his own. “It certainly sounded like the job was too big for you.”

“There is no such job,” Gensonne said stiffly, standing up as if prepared to chase Llyn all the way through his office door if necessary to get the tablet back. The fact that Llyn was making no move to leave seemed to throw him off stride. “I was simply making the point that your intel was stone cold, and that any merc commander would want an update before taking action.”

“Was that what you were saying?” Llyn said, feigning a puzzled frown. “But then why did you imply that the odds—?” He broke off, letting his frown warm to a knowing smile. “Oh, I see. You were trying to amp up your price.”

Typically, Llyn knew, people hated to see their stratagems trotted out into the sunlight. But Gensonne didn't even flinch. A bull-by-the-horns type, with no apologies, no excuses, and no regrets, nicely consistent with Llyn's pre-meeting analysis of the man. “Of course I was,” he said. “I was also seeking more information.” He gestured to the tablet. “We can handle the job. The question is why we should bother.”

“A good question,” Llyn said. As if he was really going to let a grubby mercenary leader into the Axelrod Corporation's deepest thoughts and plans. “You'll forgive me if I respectfully decline to answer.”

Gensonne's eyes narrowed, and for a moment Llyn thought the other was preparing to delve back into his bag of ploys and tricks. But then the admiral's face cleared and he shrugged. “Fair enough,” he said. “You're hiring mercenaries, after all, not fishing for investors.”

“Exactly,” Llyn said, his estimation of the man rising another notch. Gensonne knew how to play the game, but he also knew when to stop. “So. Are the Volsung Mercenaries the ones for this job, or do I look elsewhere?”

Gensonne gave a little snort and an equally small smile. “The Volsung Mercenaries are very much the ones for the job, Mr. Llyn,” he said. “Have a seat, and let's talk money.”

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