They left in groups, three and four at a time, only a dozen of them altogether. They took personal fighters and staggered their departure times and locations across the stronghold rather than following Marius Bassianus' example and outright stealing a warship. In the current climate, that kind of flashy escape would lead to interception and an aerial battle. Falling silently away into the winds of the Grand Stream, the refugees of the Guild's elite could only hope that they would make it safely to the surface, and that the land dwellers would welcome them as they had House Bassianus.
Delphine Eraclea woke to the gentle chime of her comlink. It was early; her maidservant had not even laid out clothing for the day. A disturbance at that hour clearly indicated a happening of some importance. There were a handful of situations she was personally monitoring, but only one which would warrant waking her. The interruption was expected; the only question, who the news favored.
The comlink chimed a second time and Delphine indulged a brief flash of irritation before acknowledging the signal with a gesture.
A deep voice rang in her ear. "Mistress Delphine." Despite the thin quality of the ship-to-ship transmission, she could hear the faintest hint of excited tension in the servitor's normally even tone. The corners of her mouth raised in a small smile—the news was going to be good.
"I show the Claudia signatures of multiple fighting units deployed without authorization. Do you wish me to engage pursuit?"
Delphine rolled over in bed, smiling up to the ceiling and arching her back slightly. This was definitely good; the pieces were falling into place as expected. She practically purred. "Which of the cowards was it, Cicada?"
"Members of both House Dagobert and House Hamilton, young mistress."
At that she sat up, gesturing sharply for the lights to come on. She said, acidly, "Did they take the brat with them?"
Cicada's reply was a study in neutrality. "Unknown at this time, we are still accounting for members of both houses."
Delphine frowned slightly and allowed herself a moment to consider before replying, "Let them run." She stretched, as though to relieve the tension of unwelcome news, then continued in a thoughtful tone. "We can't risk losing the child just yet, and if there are survivors, we can deal with them once my position is consolidated. I have more important work for you back here, Cicada."
"As you wish, my lady."
She let that hang in the air a moment, savoring the implications. "Cicada?"
His voice came back, as cool as ever. "Yes, Mistress."
"Where is the Maestro?"
"He was not among those who fled. I believe he is still in House Hamilton's quarters."
Delphine pursed her lips. "Ascertain his location then report to my father. It wouldn't do for him to think you've lost your touch. I'll have further instruction for you later."
She got only an even-toned, "Understood," and then the transmission cut off. Spreading her arms wide, Delphine fell back in the bed with a chuckle.
They took nothing, no hoarded possessions that might give their intentions away. Together, four members of House Dagobert left the family's communal quarters and headed in the direction of the hastily called Convocation of Houses. Then, they kept on walking.
They passed the entrance to the chamber without so much as a sidelong glance. Continuing on purposefully, they tried to project an air of normalcy as they made their way down the next corridor. A single blind corner now stood between them and the fighter docks and freedom in the skies.
They turned, only to find their way blocked by a dozen or so of the lower caste, eyes gleaming white against their mask-like markings. Both groups stood, facing each other in a strange standoff. Finally, one of the men blocking the hallway spoke.
"You would leave the Guild?" His flat intonation turned the question into a statement.
The Dagoberts stood silently. The younger among them looked warily around until their Elder stepped forward and replied, "We would leave this stronghold, yes."
The apparent spokesperson stepped forward in a mirror of the Elder's stance. "You would crawl with the land dwellers?"
A whisper of motion from behind caught the Elder's attention. He glanced away, but did not turn to look at it. Dagobert sighed then answered gravely, "We would have equity for all who call Prester home. If we must leave the skies to accomplish that, we will."
The speaker took another step forward and his fellows began closing in from all sides. "Then," he said grimly. "You are no House of the Guild."
Delphine stopped just inside the door and smiled as she looked out over the hall, which was nearly empty. Despite notice that the Houses of the Guild would Convene in parliament, no more than a handful of Principals came to Speak. The seats for the Houses of Bassianus and Dagobert were completely empty; the remaining families, represented by no more than token delegations.
The lesser Houses had been outmaneuvered and were paying the price. Whatever the Maestro seemed to believe, this wasn't a crisis; it was the Guild's rebirth. All births were accompanied by pain and blood. Delphine nodded, all was as it should be.
Turning towards House Eraclea, she saw her father sitting alone except for the handful of servitors who always surrounded him. His head was bent forward as he reviewed a vidscreen in front of him, but his posture was unnaturally straight. Every line of his body spoke of tension.
She descended the long stairs to join him. Without the lesser cousins, who seemed to have suddenly lost their taste for politics, they were the sole representatives for the Eraclea. Stopping next to his seat, Delphine graced him with a broad smile. "Father," she said lightly. "What is the latest news?"
Darius Eraclea blanked the vidscreen with a gesture, and looked up at his daughter, eyes narrowed. "Delphine, you should not be here."
She tilted her head and regarded him a moment, then her brow furrowed slightly. "Why ever not?" she asked. "This Convocation is for all Principals of the Guild."
He held up a hand. "That's as may be," he said. "But these are dire times. You may be a Principal, but you're still young and vulnerable. You're in just as much danger here as the rest of us."
Delphine chuckled. "Why would you think that, Father?"
Darius stared at his daughter, lips tightening as she spoke. She laid a hand on his arm as if to comfort him, and continued. "Look at where the attacks are taking place. They've all been at or near the fighter docks. It's only those trying to leave the Guild that they seem to want dead."
She squeezed his arm lightly and her smile broadened. "In fact, coming to this chamber, at the center of Guild power, is probably the safest thing I could do."
He had not yet given way to the anger so clearly writ on his features. Instead of raising his voice, Darius kept a tightly controlled tone. "Delphine," he began. "You haven't – "
A loud rapping sound came from the center of the room, drawing his attention and cutting off his remark. Delphine pulled away. The Convocation had begun.
Maestro Hamilton stood at the center of the chamber. His posture and movement were every bit as tense as Darius' and his eyes, haunted. As the handful of individuals that had been standing in discussion took their places, he scanned the room. His gaze passed over the empty seats with the same attention he gave to the few that were occupied. Somehow, he seemed equally disturbed by those that were present and those that were not. Once the rustles and shifting had quieted, the Maestro began to speak.
"I am sure that all of you are aware of today's troubling events, of the actions taken by the Houses of Dagobert and Hamilton, and of the bloody response by Members At Large of the Guild." He paused, clasping his hands in front of him and bowing his head slightly before continuing. "Dozens of Principals of the Guild have been slaughtered here within our own stronghold and at least as many intercepted in the Grand Stream as they fled."
The Maestro looked up again, focusing on the seats that would normally accommodate House Dagobert. "We believe some Houses to have been eliminated in their entirety," he said, turning towards the Eraclea, and Darius stiffened in his chair. "My own family seems to be lost. Though I've no confirmation of their deaths, I expect I will receive word soon.
"With chaos reigning throughout the Guild," he continued. "This would seem to some an odd time to Convene." Hamilton straightened his shoulders and looked directly ahead, the tone of his voice darkening. "I called you all here because of a truth I know in my soul. A truth I would not accept had I any other option. The truth, that this chaos must be orchestrated by one of our number."
He paused and Delphine took the opportunity to look around the room and see how the Principals were reacting to his bald words. They were, to a one, grave. Most sat staring at the Maestro, as though willing him to continue with the name of the criminal or, better yet, a solution that would stop the bloodshed and save their hides. Those that weren't focused on the Maestro were glancing around the room furtively, as though assassins were set to spring from the wall panels at any moment.
Delphine schooled her features into the same grave mask. It was one thing to tease her father with smiles and coquetry, but quite another to draw attention to herself at an inopportune time. Her time had not yet come.
Maestro Hamilton turned once again. Fully facing the Eraclea, he raised a hand, pointing in accusation. "Darius Eraclea," he said, his voice trembling with suppressed anger. "You have long stood on a platform of Guild superiority; the same superiority that these mobs claim as the motive for their bloody rampage." He stepped forward, the volume of his voice lowering as his anger grew more venomous. "Do you now deny that you incited this…this abomination?"
Delphine did not have to feign surprise as Darius leapt to his feet, the motion catching her sufficiently off-guard to produce a convincing response. She looked up at him, the anger he had kept tamped down now flushed his cheeks and made his movements wild, erratic.
"I do deny it!" Darius shouted, gesturing emphatically. "I am as much a servant of the Guild as any of the men killed today and it hurts me no less than it does you!"
"I would," the Maestro said coldly, "be inclined to disagree. Unlike the rest of us, House Eraclea has not suffered any casualties."
"Yet," corrected Darius. "We have not suffered any casualties, yet. This may be because our family has remained in their quarters." His eyes flicked down towards his daughter, then back to Maestro Hamilton. "It has been pointed out to me that the attacks are mainly occurring in or near the docking bays."
"But not exclusively," replied the Maestro. "It could be that your information isn't as good as you think, or events have expanded beyond your control. The fact remains that it is only your family that has escaped unscathed.
"Who would you have us look to? The dead House of Bassianus? Or was it fratricide among the Dagobert? Do you really believe we could accept that Guilders who have been bred for loyalty would rise of their own accord? It was you! You incited them!"
With this final accusation, the Maestro came closer until only a few feet separated him and Darius, who was rigid with fury. Delphine looked between them, glancing back and forth as though at some sort of sporting match. The two men held each other's gaze, each locked in a smoldering rage, until finally, Darius turned away. Without so much as a glance towards his daughter, he stormed from the hall, leaving startled servants to fumble their way out in his wake.
The Maestro watched him leave, then turned his attention to Delphine. The spark of rage in him seemed to have been extinguished at Darius' exit, leaving him only stern and solemn. "And you," he said almost wearily. "I've been watching, and you are a true Eraclea. What can you tell me about this treason?"
Delphine looked up at him, careful to keep the smirk that threatened at the corners of her mouth from her expression. She nodded slightly, keeping her eyes downcast. "I'm afraid I know nothing of my father's plans, Maestro."
Hamilton made a non-committal noise, then shook his head. "Somehow, I find that hard to believe. But then, everything that has happened so far amazes and frightens me, so it might just be true."
Delphine looked up at him again, eyes wide. "My father is careful to shelter me, he wanted me kept away from this Convocation." She leaned forward in her chair. "Is it really true that the castes could not have planned this on their own? I know they are meant to be without ambition, but they are intelligent."
The Maestro's eyes narrowed. "To a degree yes, and it is a mob mentality out there. There was a spark that lit this fire, though, and we will trace it."
With that, he turned away from Delphine and once again addressed the body at large. "Mark me well, all of you. Regardless of family, House, or status, any member of the Guild found to be involved in this conspiracy will be dealt with in the harshest of terms. You have my word as Maestro."
He raised his arms in a ceremonial gesture. "This Convocation is at an end. I expect each of you to do what you must to protect your families and uphold the honor of the Guild."
Lowering his arms, the Maestro crossed back to where House Hamilton was seated. Then, without pausing to speak with anybody, he continued towards the exit, his own retainers scrambling to follow, just as the servants of the Eraclea had.
Delphine watched as the remaining Principals stood and, rather than breaking into smaller groups for discussion as usual, made for the exits with unseemly haste. Her eyes narrowed as she tracked their movements, frightened children, the lot of them. Nobody who feared bloodshed was fit to serve the Guild, and should certainly not be in a position to lead it. As the last of them filed out, she allowed herself a thin smile. In the Guild's new era, she would see that all of her Principals were baptized in blood; a true Covenant to bind them.
It was not far from the Convocation hall to House Eraclea's quarters, and the small retinue closed that distance in record time. The head of the House was in a truly spectacular rage and nothing short of a troop of armed men could stop him in his path. The sight was not so unusual that it would elicit comment in these strange times, if anything there was comfort to be taken in the ability of some to remain unchanging in the wake of destruction.
Darius Eraclea entered the family quarters and cut a swath of destruction through the common rooms. Each item he passed, decorative or functional, got pushed or knocked to the floor. As he approached the door of his office, he called back, "Cicada, a drink!" and without a backward glance, disappeared inside.
Moments later, the tall, silent servitor was by his side, the requested drink on the desk in front of him. Darius reached a hand toward the vidscreen, then seemed to think better of it and picked up the glass instead. He drained the contents in one swift motion, then dropped it to the floor.
"You realize," he said quietly. "It is only a matter of time."
Cicada stepped forward. "What do you mean, my Lord?"
Darius leaned back in his chair, absently kicking the glass as he stretched his leg out in front of him. "Until Delphine has me killed, or I die in the fighting. Probably both, she does seem to be moving rather quickly and that would be a rather neat solution." His final words slurred into silence and Darius' hand slipped off the arm of the chair, dangling over its edge, his head lolling backward loosely.
Cicada bowed deeply. "No, my Lord, that was my idea. There were other plans for you, but my Mistress' timetable has shifted somewhat and I prefer not to leave her any loose ends." He straightened and took another step forward, watching his erstwhile master twitch as he tried to control slackened muscles.
"That neurotoxin for example," he continued in his quiet monotone. "It hasn't yet been perfected and dosing is uncertain. It should, however, be untraceable."
Cicada bent, looping one of Darius' arms across his shoulders and stood, dragging the man along like a doll. "Come," he said as they began moving toward the door. "My Mistress would be quite put out if there were a mess for young Master Dio to find."
The next morning, Delphine woke refreshed. She rolled over in her bed, savoring the calm after so much upheaval. The calm was hers to savor, though. Careful planning and a fair amount of situational adaptation had seen to that.
The reports had continued coming in well past midnight, and would have kept coming had she not halted them and insisted on taking some rest. The stream was never ending; constantly updated accounts of the dead, of those successful in flight, and, most satisfying, lists of those who had seen the inevitable, realized that the balance of power had irretrievably shifted in House Eraclea's favor and pledged her their troth. There were even scattered reports of those who had successfully sheltered themselves on the filthy rocks below. Few enough that she could afford to bide her time, dangerous enough that their hunt would remain a priority.
The former Maestro was, disappointingly, among them. Delphine had lost track of his whereabouts sometime after her father's body had been publicly discovered. It was regrettable, but she had focused her attention too much on keeping her own House in order and, of course, some loose ends might slip through. A Maestro could be expected to have a few contacts able to smuggle him safely, after all.
Regardless, she was quite certain that the Dagobert were extinct. She was equally as certain that she could eliminate the last of the Bassianus. That filthy rock crawler would be easy enough to remove in the skies she so blindly reached for, and without their Mysterion, the Hamilton brat's role was moot. With that, as the only holder of the Mysteria left among the skies, Delphine controlled Exile; and through Exile the Guild.
She chuckled and sat up. It had been a good night's work. Delphine swept her long hair over one shoulder and called into the dim light of the room.
There was a slight rustle of movement, and then he was before her, kneeling at the foot of her bed in a new uniform of black and gold. He looked up at her from beneath his lowered brow.
With that, she could no longer contain herself; Delphine Eraclea's laughter rang out. Her new era had begun.