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Karl’s Boys

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It was all quiet when Josef reached the room he shared with Rikard. None of the boys were yet home. He was glad of it; he was tired and sore and not up to the confrontations that were going to be necessary. Stefan and Vlad had nearly got him killed. If he let that pass it would be taken as weakness, and he knew what happened to the weakest in the pack. This particular pack wouldn't tear him apart physically; after today they would be too cautious of Karl for that, but they could make his life hell, if he let them.

He lay awake for a while, his body still protesting the various indignities that it had been put through, his mind turning everything over. At least he'd done it now, or rather Karl had. He'd been waiting for that for weeks; ever since he worked out what Karl must be doing at night with one, sometimes two of the boys at a time. Something that made Mikael bright-eyed and exuberant, but left Rikard withdrawn and foul-tempered each time his turn came around. It had been less of a deal than Josef had expected. A couple of the drills were worse. He knew his capabilities; he could learn to be competent at it, given practice.

Karl had said he could practice, if he found a partner. He'd ask Rikard, normally, but Rikard's negative feelings on the matter were quite clear. Josef didn't expect to be on good terms with either Stefan or Vlad for some time to come. That left Mikael and Gabriel.

Mika was steady, when he wasn't drinking. He was second in seniority after Stefan, an ally worth having. He wasn't vindictive, and he was as safe as any of them could be considered. He was also fit and clearly experienced and, according to Karl, interested. Mikael was the sensible choice.

Josef lay awake a little longer, rehearsing what he was going to say to Gabriel, come morning, before he finally fell asleep.

Turned out morning was too busy to tackle either Gabs or Stefan. Karl arrived at the small house they called a barracks block very early. They all tumbled out of bunks fast, trying to look wide awake.

"More breaking heads, boys." Karl had informants; had been able to sift the thousands of intended competition applicants for the handful still planning to enter who might be any good. Karl declared that he had a couple to do himself; the rest were paired off and they headed out into town with lists tucked into jacket pockets.

It was mostly easy work. Find the man or woman practising their incredible performance or putting the finishing touches to their incredible work of art. Smash up everything delicate or valuable. Rough the performer up a bit and assess his or her level of defiance, if any. That usually did it; in a couple of cases they needed to start on the family. Josef preferred not to have to beat up the wife and kids. Didn't seem fair, really, when it wasn't them causing Karl trouble. He'd rather break a couple extra bones of the guilty party instead. But Mika said it was quicker and surer and Mika was in charge.

The advantage of doing the ones at home was that Josef and Mikael could pick up breakfast along the way, which was handy because they thought they were going to be tight for time. But by the time they got down towards the end of the list they were finding empty workshops and abandoned houses, and nothing to do but break things and move on. It was in one of these last that Mikael looked sideways at Josef and started a conversation.

"Rikard says Karl was with you a while last night."

Josef ripped the stuffing out of an upholstered chair. "I guess so."

"He fuck you?"

Josef had got the distinct impression that the boys didn't talk about what Karl did. Maybe that was just Rikard. "What's it to you?"

"Just curious. He's held off a while."

Was he suggesting that Karl hadn't wanted to? That there was something wrong with.Josef?

"So what are you saying, Mika?"

Mikael laughed. "Put those prickles away, boy. Just figuring out where everyone stands."

Josef glanced over at the man chopping a cabinet apart. He might as well find out. "So where's that?"

Mikael put the short axe down. "Good question." He thought for a moment. "Rikard just does girls. So does Stefan unless he gets drunk enough to forget the difference. Vlad's a whore, but you can't stand Vlad; that's bloody obvious. So me and Gabs, if you want some."

"And if I don't?"

Mikael picked up the axe again. "You're junior. Might be wise to acquire a taste for it. Saves trouble all round."

OK. Like that. "You and Gabs going to quarrel over this, then? Or do I have to do both?"

"You don't have to do anything. Just saying there might be trouble if you don't. If you can handle that, go ahead. Rikard used to sleep with a knife under his pillow back when he was junior. He got jumped a handful of times, even so. Fought like a fucking polecat; in the end the boys gave up, let him be."

That seemed fair warning. Josef had no desire to spend his time fighting off either Mika or Gabs. He had the more serious matter of Stefan to deal with. "I could do with the practice, as it happens, and I'll take it where it's offered. Except for Vlad. I won't touch that bastard." He might have a more definite preference but he had more sense than to tell Mika that.

Mikael grinned at him. "Sounds good to me. We're done here; who's next?"

"Last one. Guy called Leonardo, couple of streets up. Making..." he peered closer at the list, "something fucking weird out of paper, far as I can tell. Should be good for a decent blaze, at least."

The decent blaze was already well underway when they got there, silhouetting Karl looking well pissed off. "Rikard let this one go."

"I swear I didn't. No-one came past me." Rikard was hot and fed-up.

"He was in there when we arrived. Think he went up the fucking chimney?"

"He didn't come past me." Rikard insisted. "Maybe he found somewhere to hide inside."

"If he did the fucker's toast now." Karl spat in the direction of the flames. "One less fucking artist. Time to go visit the palace, scare the balls off His Majesty, get our front row places for this fucking show. Champagne all round, boys."

 

Kael and the boys had been allotted front row seats, just behind the orchestra pit. They sat around in the bar, drinking the complimentary champagne, while everyone else filed into the auditorium and the broadcasters sorted out sound checks.

"How about a toast for Joe?" Mikael raised his glass in the air. "One of us now."

Glasses were raised, though Josef thought Rikard looked seriously uncomfortable.

"Why? What's he done?" Vlad, of course. Being fucking stupid. Gabriel leaned over and whispered something.

"Oh. So what's his dick like, Karl?" Vlad was staring at Josef as if he were naked. Josef sipped his champagne and resisted the temptation to floor the guy. He was going to, just not here and now.

Karl leaned forward, hand on Vlad's knee. "You'll find out. Everyone's dick ends up in your mouth eventually, doesn't it, Vladimir?" The others laughed and Vlad swore at them. Not quite stupid enough to round on Karl, not smart enough to let it go.

"So found your drilling partner yet, Josef?" Karl's teeth gleamed.

"Not yet."

To Stefan's upraised eyebrow Karl explained, "Joe wants to start a drill for fucking. Puts the rest of you slackers to shame, doesn't it?"

"Just for the muscle tone," Josef explained hastily. "Not for...you know... technique."

"Nothing wrong with my muscle tone," Gabriel said coldly. Josef didn't doubt it at all. He cursed Karl silently; this really was not the way he'd wanted to raise the subject. If he tried to justify it now they'd be further insulted.

"It was a stupid idea" he said, trying for cheerful. "Can you imagine drilling on the front lawn? The groundsman really would throw a fit."

"He'd do what he's fucking well told. I like the idea." Karl was grinning. "How about tomorrow morning, all six of you. Josef can run it."

Shit. If Karl said it he meant it. Josef could feel the tension in the room; he was in so much fucking trouble, made couple of nights ago look like nothing. They wouldn't blame Karl. Instead they'd tear Josef apart, no doubt about it. He took a breath.

"Can't be done, I'm afraid."

The silence grew even tenser. Karl was staring at him, unbelieving

"And just why can't you carry out a direct fucking order, Josef? Do tell me."

Josef's stomach was a tight knot. "Because," he stuttered over the word, tried again. "Because soon as I try the guys are going to rip my tackle off, and I can't run the fucking drill without it."

His heartbeat pounded once, twice, three times before Karl laughed. "They would at that. OK, you're excused. Don't ever tell me "no" again or I'll tear your balls off myself."

Karl gestured at a nervous man who'd just sidled in. "He's here to tell us that everyone's waiting. Since you're being diplomatic you can go clear the seats, Josef. We'll have another couple of drinks. They can wait.

 

The auditorium was packed; the row of seven empty seats conspicuous. They wouldn't do at all. Karl didn't sit with his back to strangers. Josef seized an usher by the arm, yanked him along to stand in front of the allotted row. Three front, four back, two empty rows behind and two vacant seats to each side. Block of eight by four should do it. He raised his voice, addressed the grandees.

"I'm afraid the view from this part of the seating is going to be severely restricted. This man will be finding you better alternatives. Please vacate your seats and follow him."

The usher wasn't protesting; he recognised Josef's uniform. Not everyone else did. Josef found a crowd of complainants led by a burly middle-aged man with a great deal of decoration nearly shouting in his face.

"This is a disgrace! You can tell your management that Duke Berel does not intend to be shifted around like cattle. Tell them I'm not moving! Go on, boy. Run."

"Certainly, Sir," Josef said, politely. "However I don't work for the venue. I'll pass your comment onto my employer as well, shall I?"

The nan blinked, twice, his eyes drawn down to the black Josef was wearing. The crowd behind him started thinning fast. He switched his attention to the usher. "Hurry up, man! Where are these other seats, then? Bloody inefficient..."

Josef suppressed a smile and went back to ensuring the right seats were emptied. He was just finishing directing the last couple towards the usher when a man in a suit tapped him on the arm.

"Perhaps you might be able to let your employer know that everything had been ready to go for some time now."

"Not everything," Josef pointed out. "The seating wasn't satisfactory."

The man actually hissed at him. "We have a great deal to get through. We can't wait any longer. If the King himself can make it, I'm sure Someone can manage to get from the bar to his seat in the next two minutes. Otherwise I'm afraid we'll just have to start without him."

Josef wondered if they would. This was the palace's show; it might just try it. The whole competition was the King's act of defiance, after all.

He had Karl's honour to uphold. Josef glanced around, slowly, pointedly.

"I've always wanted to see what happens if you shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre," he said, cheerfully. "Though really you'd need a fire first. Why don't you go and check your insurance is up to date and I'll go and see if my employer has finished his important business yet at the bar."

There was still a half bottle of champagne left. "Seating sorted." Josef announced.

"Anything else going on out there?"

"Met a man who said if you weren't there in two minutes they were starting without you."

"Huh." Karl put down his glass. "What did you say?"

"Told him to go check his fire insurance."

"Good. I'm done with this horse piss. Let's go watch the fucking show." Karl let his glass shatter on the floor. "Wouldn't want to miss anything, after all. This is going to be good."