Chapter Talons of Mars
"Last year I didn't think the Talons of the Sky Gods existed." Minister of Intelligence Farge C'ncul scowled at the report on his desk. "Now it looks as if they've got their talons well sunk into Southern politics. Trust you have looked for the same sort of influence _here_."
As head of Imperial Security, General S'ank's main job was keeping the Imperial family alive and well. But he didn't neglect intelligence. He nodded in concert with the Intelligence Agent he had put in charge of the investigation, Vete D’woss. "Oh yes. It proved to be very interesting. Their main presence here is thin, and mainly in news organizations and restaurants."
The minister frowned. "Restaurants?"
D’woss answered. "Apparently a great deal of the Old Religion's traditions had to do with food preparation, eating and family life. Many of those traditions have become quite popular recently, in a completely secular setting. More so in the Union than here, but the very popular Salt and Sky Restaurant chain is deeply involved."
"Sand! Eat there all the time. Good food, the kids like those trifolds." The minister scowled at the Intel Agent.
"Yes, sir. And the 'fortunes' you got in the trifolds were most likely based on Old Religion philosophy. Sometimes they are the actual traditional temple chants."
The minister sat back, looking disturbed. "And what are we going to do about that?"
"Our recommendation is, nothing, sir."
"Yes, sir. The news outlets worry us more, but our analyses of the known infiltrated organizations' news is that it tends to be less politically biased and more balanced than the unaffected outlets."
"Yes, sir." D’woss hesitated, "We're still analyzing the theoretically non-political parts of the publications. Their fashion, social and business reporting have some subtle difference from the unaffected companies. Sports looks about the same."
"Fashion, social and business?"
"Yes. Again they reflect the Old Religions emphasis on family. They always showcase actors, politicans and sports stars that have exemplary home lives. No matter how popular, other stars seem to always get less column space than in other papers and magazines. We've been able to identify the Talons' companies just by screening for that." D’woss frowned. "Not that they have exclusive rights to virtue. Some publications, Truly Male, for example, have all the virtues, but much too much bare fem showing. Our investigation of them was a bit embarrassing, actually."
The minister raised his crest in enquiry.
"Turned out to be an undercover DMS operation we were unaware of." S'ank shook his head sadly, "Run by Prince Fatreve."
"Prince...Truly Male..." the minister paused, "Well. That's... Right." His gaze dropped to the report again. "So, you are satisfied that their activities, while quite actively political, and wrapped up with the K'dazle and L'azlod families in the South are actually politically neutral in the Imperium?"
"At this point, that is our opinion. We are still collecting and analyzing data on cultural influence."
The Minister huffed his spines. "Well, thank you for this brief. Please keep me updated."
S'ank and D’woss rose at the dismissal and departed with minimal social forms.
"That went better than I'd expected." D’woss led his superior out of the new ministry building, formerly a bankrupt mortgage and insurance company's office tower.
S'ank snorted. "You cheated, bringing up Truly Male. Did you know the minister reads it."
"Of course. And his restaurant preferences."
"You have no shame, do you?"
"I don't think using examples and counter-examples that he was unfamiliar with would have had the same impact."
"Most likely not." S'ank admitted. "Just pity poor Fatreve, wondering why the Minister is giving him those looks."
D’woss grinned. "I went through University with the . . . Prince. I'm not surprised he's editing a magazine full of ladies' frills. I'm only surprised he found someone competent to edit it. He deserves all the odd looks."
S'ank snickered. "You haven't talked to him lately, I see."
D’woss raised enquiring spines.
"If I were nice, I'd decide you had a need to know on some very odd things. But you really don't" he snickered, "So I'll just sit back and watch you deal with the new improved Prince."
"I'd much rather get back to analyzing L'azlod and the REM."
"Prince Fatreve can probably help you with that as well."
"I'll even put up with him, if it helps keep that pain-in-the-tail locked up."
"Oh, believe me, he's going nowhere for a very, very long time. Were just dragging our talons a bit to give you intel types plenty of time for a final data sweep. I'm sure these interviews will be brief, you'll whip out a report and then you can get back to the usual."
"I'm just glad I'm getting access to the principle witness." He eyed his boss speculatively, "Who is he? Friend or foe?" Horrible thought. "Not Fatty?"
S'ank stopped dead and seemed to be working on controlling his breathing. After a moment he continued. "Yes. And his girlfriend. And yes, she will be co-operative. Don't make the mistake of trying to badger the witness, though. She's a lawyer. And a couple of the guards may have a bit of input."
They crossed both streets at the next intersection which led them to the new Imperial Residence, which housed S'ank's office. D’woss's office was several blocks away, tucked into a crowded and rather anonymous government office building that was mostly taken up with health and education department offices.
"Prince Fatreve's location?" S'ank asked the Lieutenant of the front door detail.
"He arrived half a split ago and is currently with Prince Fensteri on the sixth floor." The Imperial Guards were supposed to be very good at keeping tabs on their charges.
"Why do you want me to talk to _him_?" D’woss asked, as the elevator door closed behind them. Of all the people he wished he never had to meet again . . .
"He, his primary Guard and Xaero L'svages have spent more time with a suspected Talon of the Sky Gods than anyone else we can tap. Fatreve is your principle witness." S'ank led the way out of the elevator, turning toward the Crown Prince's office. Space was at a premium here as well, but Fensteri had his own secretary, a tall thin pseudomale, currently sharing the outer office with four Imperial Guards. S'ank addressed the one in plain clothes, "Sergeant H'nkel, Colonel D’woss needs to speak to you, Trev and Xaero."
The big lizard nodded, "How much privacy do we need, sir? Conference room or anywhere?"
"Conference room." S'ank told him.
Vee tapped away at his hand comp. "Can we do this at Double Moon? Everything here is booked."
"That's fine, just . . . minimize outside spread." Damn good guard. Wish I could remember him.
The inner door opened, a pretty copper fem preceding his old nemisis Prince Fatty-the-spoiler-whiner out the door, as the youngest Imperial son paused to say something over his shoulder. He cocked his head at S'ank as he crossed the inner office.
"Trev, I'm sure you remember Vete D’woss from University. He's working for Intelligence these days. Colonel D’woss, Xaero L'svages."
D’woss barely recognized the prince. He'd lost weight, gained muscles and what certainly looked like secondary spines. The prince studied D’woss in turn, then spoke to S'ank. "You enjoy it when this happens, don't you?"
"Oh, yes. Unfortunately I can't hang around to watch the whole encounter. D'woss, you have my sympathy."
As he left, D'woss turned his attention to the fem. A spine over medium height, shiny metallic copper all over, slender and athletic looking. Sleek spines that could be either pseudo or tru, high quality business attire. He hesitated, then dived in. "Pleased to meet you, Miss L'svages. I understand you are dating Prince Fensteri."
"No, we're just having a bit of fun at the reporter's expense," she told him.
What? He hesitated, then turned to the prince. "Well, you've lost a bit of weight since school, Fatty."
There was a choked snicker from S'ank, from beyond the doorway. The prince gazed at the ceiling for a long moment, then looked down. "Oh, you have no idea how much I've changed."
The guard broke in, "There're no conference room available here."
"Let's go home then." The prince tucked the fem's arm in his elbow and led the way back to the elevators. Apparently in a preplanned and well known dance, a large cart appeared to whisk the fem away in a shower of photographic flashes. The prince took a position behind the oversized Guard and kept him between him and the reporters hovering around the exterior. They were too busy sending their latest pictures of the Crown Prince's femfriend off to their offices to give them a second glance.
"I think I need to speak to Miss L'svages as well," D’woss started.
Fatreve waved him down. "She'll be there. We're just taking some extra precautions, for reasons we'll shortly be telling you."
Two stops on the monorail got them to an older building with ornate carving and a lot of uniformed DMS officers. They all checked in, Xaero L'svages joining them. "You'd think a cart would be faster." She said, as the scale scan beeped its approval.
They took the stairs, and D’woss was annoyed to find himself the only one puffing. Fatty had definitely shaped up lately.
Under the current cramped conditions, the prince's current quarters were spacious. Plants graced the main room, and another guard met them at the door.
"All right," the prince sat, and waved them all to do likewise. "Here's the situation. Xaero and I are dating, and Fensteri and a cousin of Xaero's are dating. In order to draw the reporters away from them, so they could have some privacy, Xaero and I have been parading around town making spectacles of ourselves."
He grinned, probably at D’woss's expression.
"Last month, Metini L'azlod's criminal associates kidnapped me, thinking the Imperial family would pay through the nose to get me back. Or possibly for revenge, as I was instrumental in getting him arrested last tenth."
"On the third day, L'azlod's thirteen year old chick rescued me and kept me hidden for a couple of days. The cook at the L'azlod family cave talked extensively to me during that time. She didn't ever mention the Talons, but what she said matched the practices the historians have evidence of."
"You were in L'azlod's home cave . . . " D'woss boggled.
"Taking copies of everything I could access. That's the source of the political stuff you've been tracking down." The prince added.
D’woss tried, and failed, to imagine the alternately sullen and sarcastic, and always inert Fatty as a daring spy. "So, the kid is...?"
"In Ice Cap South. But possibly moving to Double Craters. His mother has taken an interest."
D'woss leaned back. "All photos. I take it you couldn't access L'azlod's computer?"
"No. I ought to have thought to grab it and take it with me." His eyes narrowed suddenly. "You, on the other hand, probably have all sorts of code breaking gizmos, don't you? Just a few hours in his office could yield a great deal of information, couldn't it?"
D'woss looked him over carefully. This cannot possibly be Fatty. And S'ank is quite certain he's got L'azlod behind bars. Maybe Fensteri has some other bastards around. "Let's finish up this Talons thing . . . There's no way to get into Ice Cap South, let alone into L'azlod's cave without the Southern Hemisphere Union Government and the police knowing all about it." He frowned as they all grinned. I really need to get onto S'ank's need-to-know list. "All right, tell me about this Talon of the Sky Gods. Then you can tell me how we're going to raid L'azlod's."
/// Right. So they spread rumors of a prison riot, to make Metini's escape plausable. Unfortunately the prisoners hear about the riot and begin rioting and Metini _does_ escape. Then they finally kill him.