The lawn in front of Karl's mansion was trimmed and maintained to a standard that any expensive golf club would have been proud of. Apart from the ground staff, Josef hadn't ever seen anyone so much as step on it.
"Drill? Are you sure?" Mikael sounded frankly disbelieving.
"Want to nip inside and check with him yourself, Mika? Front lawn, full drill, is what he said."
"Groundsman will shit himself." Vladimir, with relish.
"You're sure?" Mikael asked again.
Rikard was losing patience. "Just get the sodding gear. He'll be at the window any minute and you're wasting time arguing."
The thought of the unseen observer got the group in hasty motion towards the small armoury at the back of the house. Rikard dropped into step with Josef, spoke quietly.
"So who hit Gabs last night, then?"
"I did." Josef felt a certain amount of satisfaction in the answer.
"Huh. Since you're walking stiff as a three-legged dog this morning, I'd guess that was a mistake."
Josef bristled at the implication. "Wasn't just Gabriel, was it? Things went to hell after you left. You were better off out of it this time, believe me."
Which was the closest he would get to commenting on how Rikard had spent the night. Some things they didn't talk about, though there were things that he dearly wanted to know.
Rikard hissed his disapproval. "You need to pick your fights smarter, Joe. Better still, keep your bloody head down."
"I didn't pick this one!" Josef would have elaborated but they were at the door of the armoury and men were passing armfuls of clubs and knives out to them.
They normally practised drills in the wide rear yard, out of sight of the neighbours and passing traffic. They were Karl's business, after all, and Karl's business stayed private, for all that the six men accompanied him near everywhere. Rumours of what they were abounded, of course; that was the point, but the people who knew for sure didn't talk.
Drilling on the front lawn would make things different. There would be cameras and journalists out there. Karl was always news. Six men practising synchronised assault patterns with a number of very illegal weapons in Karl's garden in front of the Kingdom's media would be front page stuff, even in a country frantically excited about the competition.
It wasn't Josef's job to worry about why Karl had ordered this. He had enough to do carrying his share of the gear out to array in neat lines next to the main flower bed.
When they were ready, Stefan came out to face the short line. "Okay, boys, here we go. Make it sharp. He's watching." And louder, "Set."
Josef stripped his coat off with the others, acutely conscious of the red and purple bruising across most of his torso than the high waisted black trousers and suspenders did nothing to conceal. Beside him Rikard swore under his breath. " Fuck it, Gabs..." and got a hissed reprimand from Stefan.
Warm-up was painful if you had spent the previous evening being kicked, but otherwise uneventful. The handful of people behind the gate increased slowly, but it was still early morning and the avenue was quiet. On Stefan's command they paired off, switched to unarmed combat throws. No more than a curiosity to the crowd yet, Josef imagined. He had no time for them, anyway; he was too busy trying not to yelp every time his bruises came in context with Mikael or the ground. Mika was holding off a bit, making the moves look rougher than they were, with Stefan's tacit approval. Stefan must be wishing he'd left Josef well alone last night.
By the time they switched to weapons they were all sweating in the morning sunshine and there was a fairly large crowd with several unmistakable telephoto lenses. The spiked chains whirling doubtless made rather fine pictures; they used them to intimidate because they looked so good. The drills were vital though; people had a nasty habit of dying rather easily if hit in the wrong way with them. Karl didn't like unscheduled happenings.
Knife throwing. The whips that could bring a man down then take the skin off his back. The crowd was thick now around the railings, but quiet. Two hours in and they were all still sharp, still focussed. The pain was biding its time, hidden under adrenalin; he'd go through hell later, Josef knew, tried to put it out of his mind.
Final drill. Josef glanced at Stefan, who was hesitating. The Kingdom's traditional chain and knife weapon with its swinging razor-sharp edges carried draconian penalties even for possession. Surely the public had seen enough already for whatever purpose Karl had in mind.
The crowd was suddenly shrill and surging. Stefan, facing the house, froze for a full second then snapped out a call to attention. Josef, turning, saw the reason for the watchers' agitation. Karl, short black jacket open over a chest as bare as theirs strutting out towards them, the tangle of links and blades glinting in his hand.
They arrayed themselves in front of him, facing the crowd. Karl paused for a moment, looking slowly down the line. An eyebrow raised slightly as he reached Josef's bruises but he said nothing, moved onto the next man. Then he glanced back to Josef and jerked his head.
Josef had been learning to fight with the chain and knives in the weeks since he had arrived, one on one with Rikard, slowly, with blunted blades. The weapon he was passed was as lethally sharp as the one in Karl's hands. Graduation, then. The others spread out to leave the two of them facing each other on the trampled grass. Karl was grinning but his eyes were cold.
It started slow; step, swing, duck, circling each other inside the ring of men. Josef could hear the whistle as the knives cut through the air, his focus entirely on the other man. Faster, then; he kept up. Karl was still grinning. Faster still and the world had shrunk to nothing but the two of them. Too fast, it was getting away from him and the thought flashed through his mind that Karl intended a kill for the cameras. With that he pulled back from Karl's swing a little too much, lost his balance and was on his back on the grass with the knives swinging down towards his heart.
They veered at the last second, hit the ground inches away from him. By the time he could breathe again Karl had moved on. Josef propped his elbow up on the grass to catch his breath back and watch.
Anyone could hire a bunch of thugs and put them in uniform. Anyone could recruit ex-soldiers to march up and down their gravelled driveways. Other people had done both these things, thinking they were following Karl's example. They were wrong.
Sure, the boys could be thugs, when that was wanted, and it often was. Karl had business interests after all, and people to keep in line. They could be soldiers too; run drills, handle weapons, parade up and down neat as any Kingdom squad and with considerably more discipline.
But what they were; Stefan, Mikael, Rikard, Gabriel and Vladimir- what Josef was slowly becoming, in training far harder than anything he'd undergone in the army- were dancers. They danced now with Karl, blades flying, bodies twisting, booted feet drumming. It was beautiful and lethal and God knows what the cameras were making of it all.
After what seemed an age, Mikael pulled out of the melee, collapsed on the grass next to Josef. "Fuck, that was fast!" he gasped. One by one the others joined him, until only Stefan was left. A few more sweeps of the knives and he was backing away from Karl, hands outstretched in surrender, until he stumbled over backwards and fell.
Karl looked down at the lot of them. He seemed barely short of breath. "Get up. We're going to talk to some journalists. Be charming. Don't answer any fucking questions." His eyes were on Josef. "None. Understand?"
Josef nodded, mouth dry. This no-one had trained him for. He started to pull himself up, cursed and sagged back down as every muscle felt like mush. The others were all on their feet, watching him. They'd expected him to let them down already, Josef realised; young, half-trained, untried, and already hurt at the start. They still expected him to fail. Vlad was smirking; the others just waited to see if Josef would make it to his feet.
Fuck them. He took another deep breath, forced his limbs up to hold his shaking weight. Upright, but twenty yards or so to the gates; he had no idea how he would make it.
Mikael snorted, threw an arm across the shoulder of the men beside him. Within heartbeats all six men were in a single line advancing across the grass towards the crowd. The solid bulk of Gabs on one side and the reassuring warmth of Rikard on the other kept Josef on his feet and moving, though now that the pain was back it wasn't easing off any and he was terrifyingly close to tears.
There were the cameras, and the journalists. Karl was laughing, rich and warm, turned round smiling to introduce them all by name. "And this is Josef, our youngest member. We have high expectations of great things in the future from Joe."
The journalist was openly staring at his bruises. "Can I ask how you got hurt, Josef?"
That was definitely a question not to answer but no-one was jumping in to help him out. Josef swallowed. "Professional secret, I'm afraid."
"Really?" She frowned a little. "And, forgive me but...what is your profession, exactly?"
Still silence from around him. He glanced at Karl, who was apparently waiting politely for his answer. For a second he was tempted just to say "Murderer, bully, extortioner, and anything else the boss wants" just to see what would happen. Instead he looked into the camera and said, as smoothly as he could manage, "Entertainer." He smiled at the journalist. "I do hope that you were entertained."
Karl moved in at that point to take the focus off him. There were more photos but no more questions to him and eventually they were allowed to escape back into the house. As the doors closed behind him and Rikard let go of his shoulder the pain and exhaustion finally took over and Josef collapsed onto the hall tiles. Voices rose around him but he had nothing left to respond to them with; he lay on the floor, curled up in agony, and listened.
"Just bruises!" That was Vladimir, sullen. "We barely touched him."
"He wasn't hurt. He was fine this morning; he was juggling knives with Gabs, did all the warm-ups OK, everything."
"So he's no good." Karl's voice, flat. Silence. "Come on, you're telling me he was fine this morning and after three hours drills he's passed out. That's fucking useless. Put a bullet in him and find me someone better."
Gabriel's tone was deep and uncomfortable. "He wasn't fine this morning. We beat him up rough, boss. He shouldn't have been walking today but he's an obstinate little bugger. How the hell he got through warm-ups I don't know. But he's tough all right."
"Anyone got anything to say to that?"
A long pause. Finally Stefan, reluctant. "We were a bit rough, yeah. Gabriel's right."
"In that case someone had better stop him dying on my bloody floor. I have enough on my fucking plate right now without you lot fucking up my sodding property. Understand?"
They apparently understood.
"Good. Rikard, you're in charge of him today, being as you're the only one that didn't try to kill him. Take him into the second guest room and put the TV on. I want to know everything they're saying about me and the Palace and this fucking competition."
Karl's voice hardened, "Stefan, you and I are going to have a conversation about this right now. The rest of you clean up and wait for me. We have work to do."
Josef woke in a soft bed, head fuzzy from painkillers. The TV was droning; he caught Karl's name and dragged his eyes open. For a moment the patterns on the box made no sense, and then they did. Green lawns, and figures moving.
"Is that us?"
"Yes." That wasn't Rikard's voice. Josef turned his head, startled. The room was dark; he must have slept through into the night.
"If I'd wanted you awake earlier I've have woken you." Karl didn't sound particularly annoyed. Josef thought he'd better sit up anyway.
"What have I missed?"
Karl flicked the TV off. "The boys have been out talent spotting. Rash of broken arms and legs among our artistic community. Lot of people taking foreign holidays at short notice. Message is out now, loud and clear. This competition tomorrow's going to be nothing but a pile of crap."
That sounded efficient. "What happened about the drills?"
"Nothing. What they going to do, try to arrest me? Anyway, it was all just entertainment. Remember?"
Josef swung his legs off the bed, looked at Karl's tight smile. "I'm really sorry, Karl, if I screwed up. I didn't know what to say." Again.
"You didn't screw up. You thought fast. You did fine. All of it."
Josef nodded, hugely relieved. Karl lay back on the bed, legs crossed, hands under his head.
"Know who I bumped into today, Joe?"
"The pretty little Princess, all in pink. She's not happy about being Daddy's prize fund, you know. The little flower was trying to run away from home."
"Shit! Really?" Josef had never seen pictures of the Princess anywhere but smiling at her father's side.
"Yep. Innocent like that, could have got into any sort of trouble out there. She was lucky I found her." Karl grinned at the ceiling.
"Was she grateful?" Running into Karl was seldom anyone's idea of good luck.
Karl laughed out loud. "Not for long. Little bitch struggled like hell. Ran straight back to Daddy again."
He rolled on one side to look at Josef. "She's no good to me without the kingdom. I can wait. Still, it gets a man's blood up, soft little thing like that struggling in his arms."
"Yeah," Josef said, cautiously.
Karl was still lying on his side, watching Josef. "Those bruises go lower?"
Josef nodded, began to pull his leggings down, sitting on the edge of the bed. Karl reached out, smoothed his thumb across a purple hip.
"They did quite a job. You should pick your fights more carefully."
"That's what Rikard said." Josef managed to keep his voice from shaking.
"He learned everything he knows from me." Karl's hand tightened on the bruises. "Come here."
Josef rolled back onto the bed, naked. Karl pushed him on his back, started to trace lines down his mottled torso.
"Breathe," he commanded.
Josef nodded, flushing. "Sorry. It's just...I haven't..."
"I know that. Just do what you're told."
Josef nodded again, gratefully. He could do that.
Karl's hands were firmer now on his skin. Josef wondered if it would be more embarrassing to get hard or not. Not something he had a choice over; fingers were deftly pulling the start of a reaction out of his cock.
"OK." Karl was kneeling between his thighs, his attention nowhere near Josef's face. "You like girls, Josef?"
"I guess so. Yes."
"You work for me, you leave them alone. Understand? You need a whore, Mikael will find you someone clean who can get you off without fucking. Otherwise no girls." His hands closed over Josef's balls and Joe shuddered.
"OK," he managed.
Karl sighed, loudly. "Don't look so fucking tragic, Josef. You've got the whole damn barracks to screw around with."
Josef was startled at the thought. "They haven't..."
"You've been off-limits; that's why they haven't. But both Gabs and Mika have been sniffing around like you were a bitch in heat, waiting for go."
Gabriel and Mikael? Never mind Mikael. Gabs, though? Wanted him?
Karl was laughing at him, thumbs hard against his nipples. "Up for that now, aren't you? Hot for Gabriel, I'm guessing. Like a bit of rough." Fingers dug painfully into bruised muscle. "You're both mine, remember. Gabs can have what's left when I'm done."
He had pulled back, started to undress. "Get up. Back to the wall."
Josef could feel the cold stone against his backside. Karl was grinning at him, naked and hard. "How are you feeling?"
Josef thought about it. A little nervous, a little curious. More than a little self conscious. He believed that he was rather hoping to get off at some point, if the whole being fucked thing didn't turn out too painful. When Karl asked for a report you gave him one, so he carefully relayed his conclusions.
It took Karl some time to stop laughing, his body shoved hard up against Josef's. Eventually he pulled away, still grinning.
"God, Josef. You are... They're all different in here, you know. They have fun, they play whore, they follow orders, whatever. Couple of them hate every minute. I don't care. They all take it. But none of them have ever been fucking 'curious'. You've got more nerve than sense, boy."
Josef could only shrug. Karl shook his head. "Let's do something about that curiosity then. On your knees."
Karl's cock tasted of nothing in particular, which was something of a relief. Giving good head turned out quite difficult. He got snapped at a couple of times, Karl's nails raking across his close shaved scalp, before he found a rhythm that made his jaw ache but seemed to be acceptable.
He had readied himself for a throatful of ejaculate, whatever that might feel like, but instead a palm against his forehead thrust him away.
"You want to come, now's the time to do it. You're going to be too fucking sore when I'm done. And every time for a bit, till you get used to it."
Just like any other sort of training, then. The thought didn't worry Josef unduly. At least this didn't carry the risk of losing digits if you were careless. Not that he intended to be careless, not with the boss's genitals involved.
Karl was looking impatient. Josef gestured downwards. "Should I?"
"What do you want? A fucking orchestral accompaniment? You've got until I get bored watching."
His erection seemed to like the idea of a watcher. Josef spat on his palm, reached down and started to stroke, quickly accelerating. He was still kneeling, back on his heels with Karl's glistening damp cock at head height; if he leant forward he could drag his tongue across it. If he had permission. Karl was going to push that up his arse; that much he knew if the details were hazy. Gabriel wanted to do that, too; Gabs of the blue eyes and smooth skin and hard muscles, who liked blood and pain and juggling, who had kicked him over and over in the ribs and spoken up to stop Karl from having him killed.
Josef closed his eyes and thought of Gabriel until his maltreated muscles were quivering. Karl's hand had shoved his away, jerking his cock for a few seconds until the come pooled in the man's cupped palm, was transferred to coat Karl's own erection.
"Over the bed." Snapped this time and Josef responded automatic fast, his cock still spasming.
He'd got the idea from somewhere that some sort of warm-up was required. It would certainly make sense; you didn't push muscles from cold unless you had to and there were muscles that had to stretch, quite considerably.
Karl didn't seem to think it was necessary. Rough hands pulled him apart, pinioned him to the bed and Karl just shoved. Josef buried his head in his arms and gritted his teeth. It hurt like someone was ripping him apart but he told himself that was crap. Just pain, like everything else in the last 24 hours but at least there was a point to this. He was Karl's man, trained and paid, and this was what Karl wanted from him. It was just like every other physical exercise that made demands on rarely used muscles; it would hurt for a while then he'd get used to it.
Josef was pleased to find that it was the sort of pain that stopped pretty quick when Karl was done. He's been right, then; the agony came from overstretching muscles, not tearing them.
"What the fuck are you thinking about now?" Karl had rolled them both onto the bed, facing each other.
"There could be a drill for that. Get the muscles into shape."
"A drill? For fucking?" Karl sounded incredulous.
Josef shrugged. "Overstretching muscles isn't really the best way of strengthening them. It will work eventually but an exercise would be better."
Karl shook his head. "Go on, get out. I've got a kingdom to win here; I can't be doing with your fucking craziness." He didn't sound annoyed, exactly.
Josef picked up his leggings, slipped them on, feeling the odd sensation of liquid dribbling down his thigh. As he reached the door Karl spoke from the bed. "You find someone to do your drilling with, go ahead. But not tonight. We've got a hell of a day tomorrow. Get some sleep."