Maria Igalia Mustarios stood like a statue in her mirror walled dressing room as a pair of maid's removed the raven mask from her head and put it gently put it on a stand. Another maid removed her gloves and carefully put them in a box. Her cloak and elaborate gown were next, followed by her shoes. Soft clothes dabbed at her face, removing make up that had taken more than an hour to apply.
In the end she was nude, except for her underwear. "The uniform, informal," she said softly. Her maids slid open a mirrored door and brought out a suit of midnight blue fabric that shown like silk. Crimson shoulder boards and a moderate amount of gold braid and flashes adorned the uniform. Her maids produced gleaming black boots and a cosmetics kit and went swiftly and surely went to work.
A stern, yet beautiful woman stared back at her in the mirror. He short black hair was combed back and dark, piercing eyes looked out from a pale skinned face with perfect features. She seemed ageless and eternal, like a warrior angel sent by the Emperor to destroy his foes. Perfect.
She left her dressing room and passed through halls with rich wood paneling guarded by men in midnight black carapace armour with very functional matte black hellguns in their arms. Oak double doors swung inward at her approach and then closed behind her. The men and women gathered around the table rose and bowed to her. She had eyes only for one.
Throne, he was still so young. He was barely older than twenty and handsome, so much like his father. She wanted to hold him and shield him from the worst that the galaxy had to offer, but it was too late for that. He was a man now and heir to his father's house. She sat down at the head of the table and met her son's gaze before casting her eyes over the rest of the her retainers.
The venerable Janos Peteros raised his hand to the orb standing in the middle of the table and it glowed white. His bald head peeked out from beneath heavy fur robes. Rejuvenat technologies had kept Peteros alive for five hundred years, but he was slender and increasingly frail. He had, at most, a few decades left. His mind was still strong and his loyalty fierce and unshakable. "Full intrusion countermeasures have been invoked my lady. No one will be able to hear what occurs inside this room."
"Colonel," she said, "permission is denied." The mustachioed chief of her husband's life guards bowed stiffly. He was a proud man, clever and experienced and deadly with every weapon ranging from his bare hands to chain axes and missile launchers and she needed him. The request for permission to commit suicide was traditional among failed commanders of the life guard and a refusal was the most common answer. "We all know it was not heretics that killed my husband."
"The question," said her son, "is what do we do now?" All eyes turned to him. "We all know that the Inquisition had my father killed, but there is no proof that his killer was a Shrine Assassin."
"Indeed, young master," said Peteros. "In any event, this house cannot survive a war against the Inquisition. We do not even know which faction was responsible for ordering our lord's murder."
"Faction?" said Sybel Dawning. The young woman was dressed, as usual, in unrelieved black. Her olive coloured skin and dark hair helped her blend into shadow and almost vanish when she reclined in her chair.
"Oh yes," said Peteros. "The Inquisition goes through much trouble to provide the impression of a unified front, but internally they are riven into separate factions. Much like the rest of us."
"Opinions on our current options?" asked Maria Mustarios.
"It is clear," Janos Peteros began, "that factions within the Inquisition want to secure the election of Jerzy Ralsom's replacement to the High Lords of Terra. The failure of Ralsom's last two implant operations is well known. The man has at best a decade and a half to live and our lord, may he rest eternally by the Emperor's side, was one of the most promising candidates."
"When they failed to bribe our lord, they murdered him," said Colonel Dowell with disgust. "Because he was too successful at conquering in the name of our Emperor."
"Indeed," said Janos Peteros. "It was undoubtedly why they made the offer of a warrant first."
"Warrant?" asked Paul Mustarios. "What warrant?"
"A warrant of trade," said Janos Peteros. "A most generous grant of a ship and funding and a warrant for trading beyond the Segmentum Solar made by the High Lords of Terra. An offer, I might add, they have extended to you, supposedly in memory of your father's accomplishments."
"Our lord refused," said Dowell. "He thought he could do more good serving in the Imperial Guard. And they murdered him for it."
"How can we strike back?" asked Paul. "Our house is strong and has allies, but against the Inquisition that won't be sufficient. If we had a candidate for High Lords among our ranks we would be stronger, but we do not. Nor do we have the friends and allies that were personally loyal to my father. They won't risk fighting the Inquisition and the forces their pet candidate can bring to bear out of affection for a dead man."
Grim nods went around the table. "So," said Maria Igalia Mustarios, "we are outmatched. For now. What moves will avail us?"
"It is likely that they will let us retire from the field," said Peteros. "It would take great strength and it would cost them much good will to make war on House Mustarios. It would also require them to reveal far too much about who they are and possibly start an internal war in the Inquisition with rival factions. If we attempt to fight them, they will attempt to destroy us, in order to discourage other candidates."
"And they will likely succeed," said Maria.
"Even if they do not, the cost to this house will be very high," said Paul. "And if we bide our time, they are likely to place a pawn among the High Lords of Terra and become unassailable."
"For a time, yes," said Jonas Peteros.
"A lifetime," said Paul. "And the opportunities to strengthen themselves, unless they fall in disgrace, will be many. This is another reason why they do not want a war, they believe that they can place themselves beyond our reach."
"That is true," said Peteros."
"What are you thinking Paul?" asked his mother.
"If I accept this offer then my cousin Alexos becomes head of the Mustarios family. He is unlikely to pursue any feud."
"Paul, you can't be thinking-"
"Of accepting this warrant of trade. Yes, yes I am. I think it might be best if you were to leave Terra, perhaps return to House Igalia's holdings on Edos. See your father and your sisters again. A steward can maintain our Terran properties, at least until Alexos decides differently."
"Give up your heritage?" Maria asked. "Think Paul. The warrant is good only beyond the Segmentum Solar. You won't have power here."
"Our enemies will be watching if I try my hands at politics or military service," said Paul. "They'll either block my advances or kill me. Out there, out there in the void there is no limit to the amount of power and wealth I can obtain and I will be beyond their reach. Until I decide to return. On my terms."
"You could die out there Paul. Many do."
"I can die in this room. I can die day by day, watching and planning and doing nothing while my father's murderers increase their power and neuter this house. Or I can die doing something worthy of a Mustarios. Bring new worlds and new wealth into the Imperium while gaining strength for that day when justice can finally be done. What would my father do?"
The table was quiet. Only breathing broke the silence. Then Janos Peteros rose. "I have served this house for nearly five hundred years. It has been a honour. I would give my life for you and your mother, my lord. Of all the Mustarios line that I have trained and served, only your father was a better student. I say this: Mustarios lives in you." He slapped his palm on the table. "Hail Mustarios!"
"Hail Mustarios!" roared all the retainers. Palms slapped hard on the polished oak in a rising crescendo.
Maria rose from her chair and the pounding stopped. "Lord Mustarios has spoken. Let his will be done."