The barber's clippers ran swiftly over Josef's scalp. Around him the others were dressing in the formal black suits that the Kingdom's best tailors had spent the previous day fitting to them. Not quite morning dress; something of Karl's devising that showed off hard biceps and solid thighs and gave them the freedom to move if there was trouble.
They expected trouble. No-one in the Kingdom wanted this marriage, except Karl. The five of them were all there was to make sure that Karl got his bride, and his half kingdom, without a hitch.
Barber stood back. Josef ran a hand over his fuzzy scalp, nodded, and the man left them alone.
They looked good. Karl had an eye for this, as for everything else. Close shaves, high collars; not high enough to hide the discoloration on Mikael's neck, though. Mika saw him looking, grinned, knowing hand to the red mark. Had been a good night; him and Mikael, slow and experimental, until Karl had turned up looking for company, and then it had got energetic and downright filthy. He'd slept like the dead afterwards, woken to Mika's hands on him and barely ten minutes to get each other off before they needed to be down for breakfast.
Josef flashed a smile back at Mikael, looked around for his shirt.
"Here." Scooped across Gabriel's arm.
"Thanks." He stretched out a hand, paused, puzzled at the lack of response. "Gabs?" Looked straight into those brilliant eyes and his stomach turned over, heart speeding as nothing the previous night had quite made it do.
"Come here." Gabriel jerked his head. "We'll see if you dress up well, Joe."
The chatter and movement in the room had paused.
"Okay." He came up close to the other man, felt Gabriel's warm fingers pulling the black silk cloth around him, straightening out the sleeves.
"Cuff links." Gabriel turned one wrist and them then other, threading the silver delicately through the buttonholes.
Josef turned around as Gabriel held up the jacket for him, caught Mika's expression, watching them. God knows what he saw.
"There." Patted down, turned around; Gabs' eyes flickered over his face, down his body. "Looks hot, doesn't he, boys? Don't let the Princess jump your dick, Joe, or Karl'll be pissed."
Josef nodded, swallowing, tried a smile at the room. "We done here?"
"Yep. Let's go see if the blushing bridegroom's up yet." As they headed for the door Josef saw Gabriel glance over to Mikael, and what the hell that look between them meant Josef wasn't going to begin to guess.
There were a lot of people come to watch Karl win. None of them looked like they were going to try to stop him. The boys split up as planned; Karl and Stefan to lounge around at the altar, Gabriel and Mikael back to the palace to check the royal procession was doing what it was told, Josef and Rikard to wait at the door of the cathedral. They didn't have much to do, except to smile nicely at the latecomers, which seemed to result in a great deal of rapid scurrying.
"Think things will be different, when he's married?"
Rikard frowned, thinking. "Quieter maybe. Till he's knocked her up, anyway." His toe ground into the stone step. "Quieter would be better. Though way you're going, maybe you don't agree."
That was criticism, from Rikard.
Josef shrugged. "Karl wanted me to keep in with the boys, didn't he? I don't mind it."
"Don't bullshit me, Joe. Keeping in with Mika, maybe. And if you like what Karl does; well, luck for you, I guess, cos he'll do it anyway. But Gabriel...fuck, Joe, have you any idea what you're getting into there? The way he looked at you this morning; how you going to get out of that one without bloodshed?"
Josef felt suddenly hot; God, he was blushing! Pray Rikard didn't see that! "Maybe I don't want out. I got no problem with Gabs being around."
Rikard shook his head. "Listen, Josef. I've been here a hell of a lot longer than you, or Gabriel. I've seen the mess when things get far too fucking intense, and I'm telling you to back off Gabs. I'll tell him that too, and if he won't listen to me then the other two will tell him louder. Screw each other all you like, but stop fucking looking at each other, at least in front of Karl. He won't tolerate it; will turn bloody nasty, fast. Show some fucking sense, Joe; back off now."
For a moment Josef felt elated, then sense returned.
"It's not like that, Rik. He's just bored with Mikael, after a bit of novelty. Heard him tell Karl."
Rikard snorted, sceptical. "And what are you after, Joe?"
"Same as everyone else. Keep in with the seniors, have some fun, earn what Karl pays me. Nothing more."
He didn't find out if Rikard believed him, because the Royal procession had just come into view; outriders on horseback and then the golden coach pulled by six white horses. The crowd was cheering, that being what crowds did, however inappropriate the occasion. The coach drew up at the cathedral doors, the footman opened the golden door and the Princess emerged.
"Fucking hell! He's going to murder her!" Rikard muttered. Josef could only agree.
Karl had insisted on control over everything about this spectacle, and the bride's dress had been no exception. Josef had been there when the boss had gone through patterns and illustrations with the Kingdom's top designer. Silk and pearls, golden embroidered thread, a train a full twenty foot in length, a low cut bodice and a demure veil of the finest lace. As far as Josef could tell, his instructions had been followed to the letter. Unfortunately, Karl had somehow failed to specify one crucial detail. The dress, the veil, the train and the garb of the handmaidens currently gathering it up were all dyed deepest funereal black.
The stupid, stupid woman. Provoking Karl right now, of all times. Didn't she know what sort of hell he could make her life once he was her legal husband? Not just her; all their lives would be hell if Karl thought he'd been humiliated. Josef stepped forward, and she turned to face him, surprised.
"Get the fuck back to the Palace and change, Princess!" he snarled. "Claim the damn dress got stained, anything. He'll be pissed off but he'll wait."
Her chin went up, arrogant. "Get out of my way, thug."
"You got any idea what he'll do to you, for this?"
"He can only kill me, and that would be far better than the fate which awaits me tonight."
Josef stared at her, disbelieving. Fucking royal histrionics. Could she really be so stupid? "Of course he won't kill you. He can do a hell of a lot worse than that. The bloody marriage won't be so bad; just keep your head down, do what he says and try to keep him happy; you'll be OK. And change that fucking dress!"
She glared at him. "Run back to your master, dog, and tell him I'm not frightened by his posturing rent-boys."
Josef lost his temper at that point. He'd been trying to do the bloody girl a favour. "Yeah, well maybe you should remember that Karl's got five posturing fucking rent boys. Better hope your bed tonight is big enough, Princess."
He had the slight satisfaction of seeing her face go white before she tugged down the black veil and swept past him into the cathedral. He'd tried, most he could do. The girl would learn, soon enough.
Gabriel and Mikael had arrived in a car following the coaches. Josef waited at the entrance arch for them. "You were meant to fucking sort this sort of thing, guys! What the hell happened?"
Gabriel shrugged. "Switched on us. Neat fucking job, too. We nearly chased a girl in a white dress half way across town. " He didn't seem too bothered.
"Karl's going to be livid!"
Mikael shook his head. "Wanted the Princess here, she's here, Daddy's here, on time, everything. He'll be too busy today to get mad at us over a fucking dress."
"Yeah, right." Josef was deeply unconvinced. "We'd better get in."
The Princess was halfway up the long aisle, moving with slow, stately paces, hand in her father's hand. Karl was watching her, smiling. His nice smile, the one for show. Josef had absolutely no idea what he was thinking.
The ceremony went without a hitch. The Princess stood quiet by Karl, sang all the hymns, listened to the archbishop droning. Most of the sermons had rather more to do with Karl's new status than his actual marriage, but no-one complained.
Josef sat in the front row with the others, bored as hell. Long time since he'd last been to church; it hadn't got any more fun. Music was pretty, he supposed, although the beat underneath was a bit odd; almost sounded like the fucking clock. Karl would be pissed at that too, if he noticed.
Hard not to notice because the beat was getting louder, no longer part of the music. People were starting to look round. Karl flicked a glance at the boys; sort it. They stood up, quietly, started to spread out, hunting.
Echoes in this place were weird, but it was definitely coming from the front. Under the altar table, maybe. Josef had a seriously bad feeling about this. He made his way unobtrusively over to Gabriel.
"Chained in the palace dungeon. Checked before we left, and I've got the only fucking key. It's not him."
"Think there's another one?"
"Yeah. Better shut it down before everything goes fucking crazy again."
Too late to keep things subtle; they charged the altar, ripping the cloth off, turned the table over. Nothing, except the ticking, loud enough to be mocking. Josef glared around, trying to figure out who was to blame. Not the archbishop, who was cowering. Not the Princess, stiff and motionless. Tick, tick; he turned back to the overturned table, saw the glow above it coalescing into a clock face. Fucking hell! He sent a knife snapping through the vision, saw it flash and vanish. Larger now, the clock, and larger, and it couldn't all be happening again because Karl had broken the sodding thing; he'd seen it.
A shimmer and there were people, coming out of the face. Three astonishingly beautiful women; half naked, making for Karl. He threw himself in front of his employer and they walked straight through him. The damn ticking was deafening. They had Karl, were taking him back; Gabriel grabbed one arm, he seized the other but the women pulled like fucking carthorses and nothing was slowing them down. Karl was struggling and swearing. Mika stabbed one of them, knife went straight through, nicked Karl's arm. Three yards, two, one, and there was suddenly nothing in their hands any more, and the women were gone. Karl was outlined in the clock face, arms flailing, then was slowly, horribly pulled apart, limb from limb, head from body, until all the various body parts swirled around the clock face and everything disappeared. The ticking stopped.
Three heartbeats of silence across the whole crowded cathedral, then Stefan's voice, badly shaken. "Let's get the fuck out of here, boys! Now!"
It wasn't straightforward; there were people to fight past, doors to break down. When they finally got out of the cathedral precinct they ran through the confused crowds, heading for the town gates. Behind him Josef could hear the ugly noise of a mob forming, loud and vicious. He knew mobs; he'd organised a few. Gabriel was beside him; he had no idea where the others were. As they turned the corner onto the street with the distant gate he saw the crowd in front of it. No way out.
"In here! Here!" A door open; he recognised the woman's voice, grabbed Gabriel's sleeve and steered then both inside. The door slammed behind them.
"You can get on the roof, over the wall." The same matter of fact tone in which she'd announced the burgers ready. "Hurry; they're already outside." There was a man holding a meat cleaver in the room but he wasn't attacking or blocking their way. A small child stared at them, eyes wide.
They raced up the stairs onto the flat roof. The mob was noisy below. Josef pulled boxes and barrels to reach the wall ten foot above them, hissed for Gabs to help, but Gabriel was staring down into the street that they'd left.
"They've got the others."
"Shit!" Josef dropped a carton, took a look. There was fighting down there now and black shirts in the middle of it. One man went down, and then a second.
Gabriel turned round to the top of the staircase, where the woman held the child in her arms. Three paces and he'd seized it from her, was back at the roof edge, shouting down.
"Let them go or I'll kill the kid."
Its mother screamed. Her husband pushed past her, cleaver raised, charged towards Gabriel and Josef's knife took him in the side of the throat. Below, the crowd had quietened.
"Back off. Let them up here." Gabriel tossed the toddler into the air, caught it again by an ankle, dangled it inverted over the drop. Both woman and child seemed terrified into silence. Josef retrieved his knife from the body, wiped it clean on his shirt, automatic.
The crowd pulled away from the boys. Stefan was still on his feet, limping towards the door. The other two were motionless heaps on the cobbles.
Everything was still. Just Stefan running up the stairs.
"They'll come after us." Josef said to him.
"Paraffin in those bottles?" Josef nodded. Gallons of the stuff for the burger grill. "Tip it out. Quickly. We'll burn the fucking place." Stefan looked across at the woman. "I'd jump if I were you."
"Please don't let him kill her!"
Stefan shrugged. "Come on, Joe! Move!"
Seconds to spill the oil. Josef grabbed an open box of matches, gave Stefan a leg up onto the thick stone wall, was pulled up himself. "Gabriel!" He struck a match. "Now, Gabs!"
Gabriel tossed the child out into the crowd, turned and leaped up to meet Josef's hands. Behind him the woman threw herself off the edge screaming as flames engulfed the rooftop. They flung themselves down off the other side of the wall into the deep grass, rolled onto to their feet and ran full tilt towards the dark forest edge.
X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X
He flew through the air, black space beneath him, spotlights bright around him. One, two, three and on the fourth beat his hands wrapped around warm wrists, the man's fingers solid at his own pulse points. Below him the crowd roared, the lights swung crazy patterns but all he ever had eyes for at that moment were the blue eyes watching him.
Josef twisted up onto the bar beside his catcher. "Hot tonight."
"I'm always hot."
"Talking about the fucking weather, Gabs. You're old and slow. Going to drop me one of these days."
"Got to find your replacement first, Joe. Six foot six, twenty years younger, can triple flick and give decent head; then I'll drop you."
Josef laughed, launched himself onto the trapeze again. Below the crowd shouted their fear, their approval as they did every night. No nets, no harnesses. Just him and Gabriel, up here above the world.
Afterwards he left first as usual, signed a dozen autographs "Johann", with a flourish. Gabs always stayed behind, checking the ropes, avoiding the crowds. There was Helga, the ring master waving him over to meet some overdressed dignitaries. Up here in the capital there seemed to be a different set every night to be polite to. He'd be glad to be out touring again next month for kids and peasants.
"This is Johann, half of our trapeze act. Johann, we have been honoured tonight to entertain His Majesty King Leonardo, from the Kingdom, and the Queen, with their grand nieces."
Josef didn't miss a beat, bowing politely. "Your Majesty." He couldn't quite believe this was happening. Not here, not now. No reason for the man to remember his face, surely, after all these years. Heart racing, drumming out the beat. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
"That was truly spectacular." The King smiled warmly at him, no hint of the awkward peasant Josef had remembered. No doubt he'd had a lot of practice. "We've a popular trapeze act with six men at home; the Barigas. Have you seem them?"
Josef shook his head. "I'm afraid I've never been to the Kingdom, Sire." He'd long since trained every hint of the accent from his voice.
Leonardo's attention focussed abruptly. "You're lying," he murmured, quiet enough that only Josef could hear. "The echo of my clock is in every move you made up there. Both of you; why would you lie?"
His eyes widened. "The right age; yes, I know you now. God! To stumble across you, out here! And the other one has to be Gabriel. Still together."
A dozen bodyguards scattered around the area outside the tent for the visiting monarch; Josef checked the urge to run, shook his head. "Twenty five years and a thousand miles away, Leonardo. Let it go." Fuck, please let Gabs be running by now.
The Princess- the Queen- had joined them, caught the last sentence. "Let what go?" She smiled at Josef, sedate, middle-aged. "Have we met? I thought your face seems familiar."
"I can't." Leonardo had no sympathy in his voice. "I won't. Justice doesn't grow old. Did you see the trials, Josef?"
The first had taken place while they were still running. Rikard had died back there in the street but poor fucking Mika had been scraped up from the cobbles, kept alive for just long enough to be swiftly, judicially hanged. Josef hadn't found out until weeks later.
Fifteen years later the discovery of Stefan living in the Democracy, his extradition and trial had turned out unexpectedly popular as reality TV here, a continent away from either country involved. He hadn't run nearly far enough. Josef had watched it night after night on cable, heartsick and alone; Gabriel would have nothing to do with it. The Kingdom claimed to have become morally improved in Leonardo's reign; Stefan wasn't executed, was still rotting in jail somewhere. His young and pretty wife acquired a publicist, spent a year doing the rounds of daytime TV and celebrity gameshows, married a footballer when the divorce came thorough.
"Show trials." Josef didn't look away from Leo.
"Justice done for all to see." The King licked his lips. "You weren't as complicit as the others though, were you, Josef? Barely more than a boy, abused by him yourself...if you co-operate the courts will almost certainly be lenient."
Josef had seen the evidence presented at Stefan's trial. He'd seen what Gabriel was claimed to have done in the year before he joined, had never doubted Gabs capable of it for a moment. No chance of leniency there. He wouldn't turn on his partner. He started to say so, was interrupted.
"To hell with co-operation." Josef stared at the Princess, startled. "This one was an animal, Leo. He should be put down, or at least locked away for life." Her voice was shaking with hatred.
What had he ever done to her? He'd done nothing but hold her- a sudden memory of her struggling in his arms, his unwanted erection pressing hard up against her arse. Was that it? A simple bodily reaction to condemn him? Oh God, and that fucking argument in front of the cathedral. Shit.
"This isn't the Kingdom," he snarled at her. "The Realm had no extradition treaty with you." It was why they'd settled here.
"Things are changing." Leonardo, cold. "There will be a treaty in place by the end of the year and you can be sure that it will be retrospective. Until then I'm sure the Realm can dig up enough to keep you both safe in custody for me."
He lifted a hand for his men. "Find and hold the other one."
Gabriel was still somewhere in the tent behind him, unless he'd spotted trouble already. Josef took a breath, loud as he could, "Gabs! Run!" Someone knocked him down; he stayed there, listening to the shouts from the other side of the canvas, as close as he'd come to praying since he was a child.
Then abrupt silence, and after a few heartbeats a babble of voices. A man came running back in, stopped in front of Leonardo.
Josef's mind went numb. He didn't want to hear, but the man didn't shut up. "He was right up at the top; he jumped."
"Let me see him." He felt cold, hot..."Let me see him, Leo. Twenty five fucking years- I need to see him."
The King nodded. "Don't let him climb anything," he instructed. "Don't let him out of your reach. But let him see."
There was a figure in a green spangled leotard crumpled in the centre of the ring. The rigging here had been forty foot up. There was no rush. Josef walked slowly towards Gabriel, knelt down. Smoothed the fair beard, ran his fingers through the short, greying scalp hair, took up a hand still dusted with chalk, limp as Gabriel's hand had never once been in life. The blue eyes were open, empty. "You could have waited," he murmured. Louder, "You could have fucking waited for me, Gabs. I thought we were fucking pack!"
"You're the last one now." Leonardo with no hint of compassion. "The last of Karl's boys. One more trial and this is done for good."
Josef stood up, turned. The King and Queen were watching him. Stupid fucking...he and Gabs had been so sure they'd beaten them. Should have kept running. Safer if they'd split up; they'd known that, but he hadn't wanted to be on his own, and Gabs had somehow never got round to leaving him. Until now.
Long ago, a while after they'd settled in the Realm, some years before Stefan was hunted down, Josef had begun to believe that the past was dead. Irrelevant. They could just get on with their lives, now, like real people did, with no Karl over their shoulder, no killing people, not even breaking the law, just earning a living and living it. Then he'd got drunk one night after a meaningless quarrel with Gabs, ended up slouched in front of the TV watching some stupid documentary on the Kingdom. Half lies and full lies, not worth the hour of his time- he'd have not gone near it, usually- but they'd got a photo from somewhere of Mikael, after he'd been cut down. Real tasteless death porn stuff; the sort they only ever show of the bad guys. Clear in his fresh-shaven skin, the raw red abrasion of the rope and, blooming upwards into his jaw, the marks that Josef's teeth and lips had left, that one good night they'd had. Josef had known then that none of them would escape, not really, not even if they never got caught.
And now he had been caught, after all. Prison. A legal battle over extradition, to be inevitably lost, a long show trial dragging everything through the dirt again, a conviction, a sentence, life, probably, or decades at least. And all on his own. Fuck, if he'd been on that rigging he'd have jumped too. There were Realm police here now, with guns and cuffs; too late to make a break for it.
The first thing he'd learned from Karl was that entrances and exits mattered. He shook his head, slowly.
"Karl won that fucking competition, by all the rules. He should have been King. Under him the Kingdom would have flourished, become wealthy, powerful." He glared at the Princess. "And you'd be bringing your own grandchildren to the circus tonight, not someone elses'. Instead you're stuck in a barren marriage in a failing kingdom, obsessed with vengeance on straw men from your past. You think putting me on trial will give you closure? You murdered Karl and took his prize. He's going to haunt you forever. We all will."
The look on her face was something to take with him. They wanted to put him on show; he'd take the fucking platform then, tell the Kingdom some of the truths it didn't want to know. He was the last of Karl's boys, last of the pack, forever junior, but he was still a fucking wolf. Karl and the boys between them had taught him that. He'd do them all proud one last time.
Josef straightened his spine as the police cuffed him, tilted his head up. "See you in court, Princess," Goodnight, Gabriel. Night, boys. He had no need to look back at the body in the dust as they led him away.