Crown Infernal

Episode 13:
Off the Radar
~ or ~
Be Careful What You Wish For

Part 3

The joint party of five set off for Cabana Urlea the following day. The Lady Mirela - Maxine - and her entourage were to seek out the Lord Emilian. The story was that Mirela wanted to fulfil her dying mother's last wish - to see her daughter safely married, and in prime style.

Her mother, the Lady Anica, was allegedly a second cousin of Lord Boian of Biserica. Boian was an elderly hero of the Bruxan Empire who now lived as a recluse. The Lady Anica was fictitious, the name neither common enough to be plebeian, nor rare enough to be remarked upon. Anica was also, allegedly, the widow of Lord Neculai, who had been killed in battle some fifteen years earlier. Anica wished to 'borrow' Anton for her daughter's wedding feast and, as her time was short, she wished to make arrangements as soon as possible.

Other members of the Lady Mirela's party were Luc as her brother, who was a mute - and thus used sign language, J as her bodyguard, Ruby as her handmaiden, and Ioana, a motherly woman of middle years and a member of the Albastru, or 'Blue' Team, as Mirela's old nursemaid. This increased the number of fluent Romanian speakers.

Theo stayed behind to demonstrate KIT and provide the Contra-Bruxai's scientists with plans to construct their own machines.

The first hurdle was to pass through the Cabana Urlea 'Customs House.' They had already had a run-through of the procedure before they left so as create the right impression of familiarity with the system.

They certainly looked their parts. J, or Iosif as his papers decreed him to be, was dressed like a security guard in a light brown uniform and peaked cap. Luc - or Lukian - looked very natty in black satin and with his beard neatly trimmed. He also had a diamanté medallion pinned to his chest.

The Lady Mirela was wearing a deep jade green dress with a long, full, taffeta skirt over her jeans. She was dripping with jewels - fakes, but good fakes - including a jeweled headdress over a wig of long, raven-black hair. Ruby was similarly attired and with her red hair streaks covered, but in less rich fabrics and without the jewels save for a diamanté choker - a gift from her generous mistress. Ioana had the look of a much valued old retainer - well-dressed but not gaudily so.

Iosif went through the 'Gate first, followed a little while later by the Lady Mirela and her maid, and followed immediately after by Lukian and Ioana.

By then, Iosif was surrounded by several customs men and looking worried. The Lady Mirela swept regally up to the little group, and looked around, raising one enquiring eyebrow. The customs men all started talking at once.

The lady held up an imperative hand. "Silence!" she ordered in Romanian, then turned to glare at Iosif. Still using Romanian, she said, as if addressing a simpleton, "Show. The men. Our papers! You big dumb ox!"

She raised her hand as if to box his ears. Iosif cringed away from the expected blow, pulling out the five sets of papers, and shoving them into the hands of the nearest customs officer with a pleading look. Their papers were given only a cursory scrutiny. No one wanted to tangle with Lady Crosspatch!

It wasn't difficult to find the Lord Emilian's town house, which was in the better part of the city, and not too far from the 'Gate. Iosif rapped loudly on the brass lion's-head knocker on the shiny green door. It was opened promptly by a manservant in dark green livery.

"I'm sorry but Lord Emilian is out of town," he intoned as if addressing importunate traders.

Ioana stepped forward as the Lady Mirela, arms akimbo, favored the man with her best glare.

"My lady's business is with Anton. Is he also out of town?"

"No, my lady. If you would come into the gold drawing room, I will fetch him for you."

Mirela, with her retinue, marched grandly into the house and into the chamber indicated by the footman. There, they waited some twenty minutes before Anton put in an appearance.

As soon as the group clapped eyes on him, they could see why Noucincu's 'king' had chosen Major King as his body-swap. The American was everything this elderly, scrawny, weasel-faced little fellow wasn't. Major King was tall and sinewy with an erect military bearing. Every inch a king in fact.

Anton apologized for the delay, citing a delicate lemon soufflé as the reason. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Anton managed a professional attitude, neither obsequious nor supercilious. Maybe his natural demeanor overrode the king's obnoxious personality? Maybe this wouldn't be so difficult after all?

Ioana took over and explained her mistress's mission. Anton listened courteously and sympathized with Mirela about her mother's terminal illness. He would be happy to be of service, but had several little jobs to do in his kitchen first, in anticipation of the return of his lord and master on the morrow. If that was alright with the Lady Mirela?

"My mistress would not have it any other way," Ioana said with her gentle smile.

These little jobs took over an hour, but Anton sent through some of his best delicacies to keep them happy.

At long last, they were all on their way back to the Customs House. 'Lady Crosspatch' and her people were pretty much nodded through. Maxine used the time loop brooch to cover the fact that they were going to Gradina, not Biserica.

On the other side of the wormhole, Anton was aghast.

Maybe it was the shock of the forested world, or maybe it was a distant, deeply buried, memory that had been tripped.

"This is not Biserica!" he cried out in English with an American accent.

Luc stepped forward to the senior officer and saluted him.

"No. It isn't, Major King."

The action and words seemed to deprive him of breath for a moment, then the mental conditioning of the slave kicked back in. He sank to his knees and begged, in Romanian, to be returned to his master, the Lord Emilian, who was a good man and treated him kindly. So far. His current dereliction of duty would cause all that to change...

Ruby translated for J and Luc.

"Yes, your life is going to change," Luc said, sticking to English in the hope of breaking through the conditioning, "but for the better."

"How, when you have kidnaped me?" Major King asked, rising to his feet. "Because you have kidnaped me, haven't you?"

Maxine stepped forward. "You were kidnaped many years ago, Major," she said sadly. "A man, who looked as you do now, stole your body, your memories— hell, your whole life."

"But I have a good life now," 'Anton' protested, lapsing into Romanian again.

"Why don't we go somewhere more comfortable to discuss this?" Ioana suggested, pulling something black from her belt pouch. "I'm afraid I must insist that you wear this hood while you are our guest."

"I would rather not come with you. I just want to go home to my master," 'Anton' said miserably, yet sticking to his native tongue.

"Well, there's the rub, you see, "J said. "The wishes of a slave count for nothing. But if you were a free man - as you once were..."

"I have no choice then?"

"At this moment, no, so just put on Ioana's blindfold."

'Anton' capitulated and was led, very carefully, through the trees to the castle, and down into the living quarters. When he was comfortably seated, Ioana removed the hood.

Maxine was shocked by his face. He looked so old. Defeated. Sad. She wondered if it was such a good idea after all. Then she remembered Rachel.

She sat down beside him and took one of his hands between her own. "Truly we mean you no harm," she said, "and we appreciate that this must be a hell of a shock for you to learn that you're not who you thought you were."

Maxine went on to tell him his history so far as she knew it. He listened in silence, mostly looking puzzled, but occasionally there seemed to be a flicker of something else. Eneas and Skender came in as she hitched up her skirt and pulled three photos from her jeans pocket.

"This is you before you joined the Air Force, and this is you in uniform."

"They don't look a bit like me! He's a handsome man. I'm not," he said sadly.

"As we said, that's because a bad man swapped bodies with you, and we want to put that right," Maxine said, giving his hand a slight squeeze. "You also have a daughter—"

"Rachel..." he murmured. A tear trickled down his wizened cheek."

Maxine's eyes widened. "You remember?"

"The memory is hazy, but yes. So how can I return to her as such an old man?"

"Because she asked me to find you for her, and she gave me these photos," she said handing over the last photo of father and daughter taken when she was nine years old.

"And, while she is much older than your memory of her, you will look much as you did when she last saw you."

She turned her head to J and added, "And I think we should try to find out how..."

"As if we can't guess," he replied, looking grim.

Maxine turned back to Major King. More tears had followed the first one, but he was looking different. Hopeful.

"I will go along with your plans," he said with a faint smile.

The plotters hoped that the next part of the scheme would go as well as the first. Maxine, naturally, thought that that had gone far too well and wondered where the catch was. Maybe the next part would go catastrophically badly by way of balancing out their luck?

Luc grabbed her arm and yanked her round to face him. "Bambina, will you stop being so damn' negative! Or at least keep it to yourself. It's very demoralizing and that in itself can contribute to the catastrophes you fear so much."

Maxine looked as if she'd been slapped in the face.

"He's right," Theo agreed, and plowed on before she could say anything. "Did you know that Ash and I nearly broke up after the Dwimmerling rescue mission? Because, not only did I not trust him, I showed that I didn't trust him."

"I'm sorry, I didn't know," Maxine murmured.

"All right, team, that'll do," J said in a way that barred any further argument on the subject.

It was agreed that the mission to Noucincu would be another joint venture. This time, Eneas and his nephew, Gavril, would take part. Theo was to remain at Gradina. He'd found a kindred spirit in their engineer, Ruxandra - Ruxi to her friends who now included Theo. This was turning out to be mutually beneficial.

As they had a good idea of the layout of the building, thanks to Radu, the plan was to go over the wall to the rear of King Tobias's mansion after dark. Eneas had a neat little folding trolley which they could use for transporting the king back to the 'Gate if he happened to be unconscious - as seemed likely.

"What do we do about his sons?" Luc asked. "I seem to remember him saying he had four sons and two daughters."

In the silence that followed, Maxine raised a finger. "Permission to speak, sir?" she asked brightly.

Looking wary, J nodded.

"Well, on the positive side, isn't it possible that that was just bullshit to try to scare us off?"

"That would be nice," J agreed with a small smile, "but I don't think we should count on it."

KIT was sent through the wormhole first, revealing that all was quiet. When the rest, all clad in black, arrived on Ceresc-tsara, it was found to be mid afternoon, a little earlier than they would have liked.

Having hidden KIT in the long grass surrounding the 'Gate platform, the rest waited for half an hour to see if anything interesting turned up. It didn't, so before the full half hour had elapsed, boredom sent them on their way to Noucincu.

At the city gates, the guards were as 'helpful' as they had been on SG-24's first visit - until J crossed their palms with silver. That was something that was going to change, they all thought.

Eneas and Gav did a little spying as they waited for nightfall. This ascertained that the king indeed had four sons, but they had all died in infancy. Two daughters had been still-born. There was some talk of illegitimate children though.

The group then headed for the king's mansion. From an alleyway, and before the curfew kicked in, J used the bug glasses to spy around. There was some collapsed masonry in the surrounding wall behind the mansion. It should be easy to break through or climb over. From there, the cellar entrance was close by.

Breaking in was as easy as they'd hoped. They worked their way around outside of the wall until they came to the fallen part where Eneas concealed his trolley, and soon they were inside the grounds.

There was a new padlock on the cellar door which J picked like an expert burglar. Once inside the mansion, the passageways of which were lit by flaming torches along the walls, J used the bug glasses again to find the king's quarters.

All was quiet. J then managed to locate the king who was carousing in the dining room where they'd first met Radu. The five quietly made their way to the king's quarters. Both the doors to his sitting room and bedchamber stood wide open. The rooms were only dimly lit with candles. There, the intruders found somewhere to hide, and waited. And waited.

The king arrived in his sitting room, shit-faced, at around 0300, carrying a wine flagon and accompanied by a young woman. He told her to wait; he'd be back soon.

When he went through an interconnecting door into his bedroom, the girl made her escape. Unaware of her defection, he put the flagon down on a table by the bed and began to strip off.

J followed him using the invisibility material and dropped a knock-out pill into the flagon. Maxine came through into the bed chamber and encouraged him to hurry up. She didn't think he'd notice the switch in his present state, and he didn't.

"I want more wine!" he called.

"Will you still be able to perform?" Maxine asked doubtfully.

"Of course I will!" he yelled. He sounded most indignant and knocked back the rest of the wine in the flagon to prove it. Then he collapsed.

J zip-cuffed the wrists and ankles of the half-naked king while Maxine gaffer-taped his mouth. Then the whole group worked together to roll him up, Cleopatra style, in a large rug and tied with curtain cords.

They had some difficulty in lugging the soon-to-be ex-king up the cellar steps and over the wall, where they dumped him with some relief on to Eneas's trolley.

The next problem was how to get out of the town itself. The gates would undoubtedly be locked overnight. Luc, their mediaeval weapons expert, suggested that maybe there was a postern somewhere. Unfortunately, with no moon and no night vision camera, it was too dark to use the bug glasses. So, with J camped down in an alley with the gently snoring king, Eneas and Luc set off clockwise and Gav and Maxine counterclockwise to search the wall, and hopefully not meet 180 degrees from J.

Fortunately, all went well. The searchers managed to avoid guard patrols looking for curfew breakers and twenty minutes in, Luc spotted a door at the end of an alley where, by rights, there should only have been curtain wall. Naturally, it was locked, but hopefully J could pick it.

Luc called up J and Maxine on their comms and gave them directions. The door was a little east of south and hence not too far from the main gate. Maxine and Gav came back via J's alley and helped him to drag the trolley to Eneas and Luc's alley. Once they were altogether, J examined the lock on the iron-bound postern.

"Damn! This is beyond my abilities to pick. And we've no C4."

"C4?" Eneas asked.

"It's plastic explosive. Would do this job perfectly, but we thought they wouldn't like it at the Agora..."

"Probably right," Eneas nodded sagely, fishing in his backpack. "However, I do have a little of our own explosive with me. You might like to get out of the alley, especially with our 'cargo.'"

"We only need a small charge," J cautioned. "We don't want to wake the whole town."

When the rest were safely out of range, Eneas laid the charge, then legged it to join them. The boom of the explosion took down a twelve foot stretch of wall.

"Uncle," Gav said as the dust settled, "You were only supposed to blow the bloody door off!"

Fortunately, the battered door had survived well enough to provide a bridge over the heap of masonry, so getting the trolley out wasn't quite as difficult as it might have been.

Fortune favored them further as the explosion brought people out of their houses to see what was going on, which thus hindered any pursuit. The result was that the kidnapers were long gone before the guards managed to get themselves organized. When they did, they focused their activities on those inside Noucincu, and sent only a token force - three youths - in the direction of the 'Gate.

They were easily avoided both on their way to the 'Gate and on their way back, having found nothing.

At the 'Gate, J reached into the long grass for KIT, which they would send through first. It seemed reasonable to check that all was clear on Gradina first. Then the 'Gate started to spin and the chevrons light up.

J left KIT and clipped on the probe's earpiece as the group leapt into hiding. After the wormhole had stabilized, half a dozen armed men came through. In the light from the event horizon, J recognized them as SG-14, one of the least principled teams on base. He wondered whom they'd gotten to replace the injured Captain O'Malley at such short notice. He didn't have long to wait as a familiar voice grated in his ear via KIT.

"I really appreciate you giving me this opportunity to put one over on that wuss, Mitchell. Ten per cent? I think not. That King Tobias sounds like a real pushover."

Bachman! Well this mission had just gotten personal... Of course it meant that they'd have to wait a while for SG-14 to get well on their way to town before they could return to Gradina without being interrupted.

On the plus side, they hadn't had the nous to leave someone on 'Gate duty. Granted it was boring, but they'd just given vital information away to their enemy and then left that enemy free to escape and use said information.

Back on Gradina, Eneas converted the trolley into a stretcher. They didn't want to leave revealing wheel tracks back to the castle. The ex-king was still out cold which made the journey a little easier.

In the castle, he was taken down to the original dungeons. These had been refurbished and so, as cells go, they were reasonably comfortable. Next, they looked in on Major King.

He was looking more sanguine, sitting more erect and still clutching Rachel's photographs.

"Okay," J began, "we've got him - the man who stole your life - and your kingdom awaits you, but... I think you're going to have to win it."

He went on to brief his fellow officer and bring him completely up to date.

"Of course, you'll have our help— "

"And ours," Eneas added.

"And you have the advantage of already being the de facto ruler," Luc added. "Whatever we do - that's SG-24 - it will have to be covert as the man, Bachman, is officially a member of our team. He is also an enemy, especially to J - Major Mitchell - whom he blames for his demotion from Lt.Col. to Captain at his court martial."

"I'll bear that in mind, Captain," Major King said with a smile. He looked as if he were actually looking forward to this. Well, he had been an officer and a man of action. Maybe some of his suppressed memories were beginning to return of their own accord? Skender had said it was possible.

The following morning, SG-24, Major King, the ex-King Tobias (blindfolded), Eneas and some of his men went back to the Gradina 'Gate where Eneas dialed the 'Gate where Skender's main lab was.

J had a painful sense of déjà-vu as they walked into the lab. The ex-king, seeing what was coming, was inclined to struggle until Toma pointed out that they could do the job with him conscious... or unconscious. His choice.

With that, all the fight went out of him. The swap was soon completed.

"Ow, my head!" the real Major King groaned.

"Oh sorry, Major. We should've warned you about the hangover." J said with a rueful grin. "When we grabbed him, he was pretty much smashed out of his skull."

"What are we going to do with this one?" Theo asked, indicating 'Anton' with his thumb.

"Well, he still has Anton's papers on him," Eneas said, "so I guess we return him to Cabana Urlea." He thought for a moment. "He could tell them he went to discuss the Lady Mirela's wedding plans and sustained a knock on the head on the way back, leaving him with amnesia. I think he's popular enough for them to retire him unharmed."

Anton latched on to the last part. "I'm popular?" he asked looking pleased.

"Well, you are now," Eneas said, "so if you stick to the script, you should be okay."

They rehearsed 'Anton' with the tale until he'd got it right, then a couple of Eneas' men took him back to the 'Gate and sent him back home. Some months later, the Contra-Bruxai learned that the plan had worked and 'Anton' was living in a retirement home at the expense of Lord Emilian.

Back at the castle, all those involved had an informal debriefing session and Major King was inviting them all to call him Toby.

"I think you need to get used to being called King Tobias," Maxine smiled.

"Hm. From what Anton said, I take it I'm not an overly popular monarch?"

"I wouldn't worry too much. You're not him, and you'll do a much better job. Your subjects will appreciate that."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," he smiled. "I must say, this hangover, which is fading fast by the way, is an improvement on the arthritis. I feel so much younger! I mean, I must be in my seventies, but I don't feel much more than half that."

"Yeah, about that," Maxine said. "We suspect that it's not entirely natural."

"What to you mean?" Toby looked puzzled. "I'm sorry, I have so many visions from the past - both pasts - flashing through my mind right now that it's difficult to focus."

"No, we're the ones who should apologize after we just turned your entire life upside-down."

Toby suddenly sucked in his breath and looked pained. "Argh, I see what you mean. He had access to a sarcophagus! But no, I can't remember where. Yet. When I find out, I'll let you know."

"Actually, that might not be a good idea," Luc said. "A lot's changed back on Earth since the Great Disaster, and most of it isn't good. In fact, a lot of it's bad, very bad. We're trying to exert an ameliorating influence but it's very much an uphill struggle."

"I see. Well count me in. I'll do what I can."

"I think our best move next will be to reclaim your kingdom," J said, "because right now, it's a fair bet that Bachman and co. are tearing Noucincu apart brick by brick looking for you."

"And heaven help anyone who gets in their way!" Luc added.

"So we need to take them all out somehow," Eneas commented.

"Yes, but with as little bloodshed as possible," J warned, "or the reprisals will be very bloody indeed."

"Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind?" Eneas asked, though this was clearly more of a statement than a question.

"Very much so," J nodded. "So first we need to get back into your mansion, preferably unseen."

"Ah, I think I might be able to help there," Toby said, shaking his head slightly. "Ya know, that guy was positively paranoid, especially after your first visit, J. There were quite a few hidden rooms and passageways built in the reigns of earlier monarchs, and our friend added another tunnel from the cellars to beyond the garden wall."

"Ye-es," Luc said. "That's how we got in the other night - over the wall that is - so I suspect the tunnel may have collapsed. And Eneas blew the postern door off when we got you out."

"So I don't exactly have a defensible site then?"

Toby thought a while then said, "but if we can get into the cellars, there are a lot of zats and other weapons—"

"Um, no, there aren't," Theo said. "We took some and destroyed the rest."

"Destroyed...?" Toby looked shocked.

"Our first thought was to keep them all, but then we thought of them getting in to the wrong hands..."

"Ah, I see your point," Toby said, wearing a slap-forehead look.

Finally, they came up with A Plan.

Part 1

Part 2


Part 4

by Hatshepsut

Crown Infernal