"Half the fucking kingdom!" Mikael, on top of the precarious edge of the upturned table, bottle slipping from his hand to crash on the wet floor.
"What's left of it!" Vladimir against the wall, barely able to stand by now. "We already own half the fucking kingdom. Now we get the rest."
Josef glanced at Rikard. They'd done nothing but drink and wait for the long hours since the announcement, but neither had drunk enough vodka to be stupid. The man they were waiting for didn't take to anyone claiming a share of anything that was his, possessions or glories. Just because you ran with him didn't make you safe; far from it.
Rikard looked back, stone faced. First lessons, remembered. Don't interfere. Don't warn him to watch his tongue. If Karl's in a mood for mayhem, let it land anywhere but you and me. Following that advice hadn't kept Josef entirely out of trouble, trouble being what Karl was after, quite often, but it had kept him here and here wasn't back in the factories or back in the army.
The small TV over the bar was showing the announcement again, repeated every few minutes between the frantically convened panels of celebrities and media experts asking each other the same dumb questions over and again. Josef picked up the vodka bottle again, took a rather more cautious swig, watching the TV pictures without much curiosity. Two people in the kingdom had answers and one of them was due into the bar any time now. He'd find out what the hell was going on then.
The boys had known for a while that something big was going down. Karl had been most pleased for the last week, with himself, with them, with business. He didn't let things slip accidentally, not Karl, but he'd hinted that very soon annoying obstacles would vanish. Half the bloody kingdom- damn but that was a hell of a lot bigger than Josef had dreamed though. Smart motherfucker, Karl. As always.
The slam of a car door right outside brought his attention back to the room. Stefan and Gabriel had got themselves a couple of girl whores in from somewhere and were trying to persuade them to fuck each other. Mikael had fallen off the table and was lying face down in shards of broken glass, laughing. Vlad was still shouting his stupid sodding face off. Rikard was nowhere to be seen.
"Guys! He's here." Josef slid off the bar stool to face the door. Within seconds men were jostling and swearing around him. Someone started stamping on the wooden floor, ragged then rhythmic, and Josef joined in. By the time the door opened the floor of the room was shaking under the thunder of six jackbooted heels.
Karl faced them, silent, still in his silver buttoned palace black. Josef was shoved roughly sideways as Mikael shouldered his way to the front.
"Half the fucking kingdom, man! You are fucking awesome! We took the fucking palace to the fucking cleaners this time!"
If he'd been sober the blow would have broken his nose. As it was he staggered backwards into Josef, taking them both to the floor. Josef pushed himself up, climbed onto his feet again in the silence.
"Anyone else got anything to say?" Karl's voice was harsh. "No? Get me a bloody drink then."
Josef held out the vodka bottle and Karl spun on a heel to take it and turn away. The grace of the man, always; now was not the time to think about that. Now was the time to figure out what Karl wanted and to provide it, or at least to not be in the way.
Karl slammed the door he'd just come through. He was talking, too quiet to hear at first, then louder.
" ...going to shove that mother fucker's face so far up his scrawny royal fucking arse that he's going to eat his own stinking cowardly guts. Half the fucking kingdom." He turned back to the waiting men. "Half the sodding kingdom and his bitch daughter! In some bloody gameshow! And what do you lot think you're doing? Is this a fucking celebration?"
Josef found himself the main object of that furious glare. He resisted the urge to run. Someone had to answer.
"We thought this was your idea, Karl." Silence. "The competition. When we heard...you'd have rigged it, right?"
"Wrong." Karl's grin had too many teeth to be pleasant. "I didn't need any fucking competition. I'd got the Council by the balls, hadn't I? His Majesty had his back to the fucking wall and nowhere to run this time. I was going to be his new son-in-law and a very small accident away from the whole bloody kingdom, so screw half of it, Josef. He thinks he can get rid of me by giving what's mine to some shit-juggling peasant, he's going to find out what happens when he pisses me off."
The door was jerked open again, the empty vodka bottle shattering on the stone step. Karl took one final glance back into the room.
"You lot are a bloody disgrace." He jerked his head. "Rikard, you look a little less rat-arsed than the others. I'll see the rest of you at the house 6am tomorrow. And you'd better be looking fucking smart, boys."
The men were still until the car engines faded. Josef shook himself into motion towards the open door. Coffee; he needed to sober up fast.
Stefan was faster, blocking the exit.
"What did you go and tell him that for, Josef?"
Still drunk, and frightened, and looking for someone to blame. Josef stopped well away, shrugged.
"I had to tell him something, didn't I?"
Someone shoved him in the back. A snarl; Vlad. "You made us look fucking stupid."
Josef turned, backing up to keep both of them in sight. "You were born stupid, Vlad."
Where were the other two? He risked a fast pivot. Mikael was behind the bar, looking for more to drink no doubt. Gabriel had his fists balled, was coming forward. Three to one.
"Tone it down, guys. You heard the man; we need to sober up or we're all going to be in the shit tomorrow."
"Tomorrow." And when Gabriel's voice had that purring tone, someone was about to bleed. "Tonight we're going to shut that talkative little trap of yours, Joe."
Karl wouldn't care if they did just that. Long fingers would drag across bruised mouth, dig down into battered flesh and he'd laugh. But tomorrow sharp didn't mean tomorrow incapacitated and he'd know who was to blame if there was anything awry in their practised formations.
Bruised was bad enough and the half-ally Josef sometimes had in Rikard wasn't here. He tried conciliatory.
"I'm sorry, OK? He was looking right at me. I didn't know what to say. Vodka, right?"
"Getting scared now, aren't you? Come on, little faggot. Try to run." Stefan again.
Fuck. He was going to have to fight Gabriel anyway; the man liked a scrap too much to ever make peace before blood had been spilled. Vladimir would follow Stefan's lead either way, so it had been Stefan he'd been hoping to appease. Not going to happen, it seemed. Sod it then. Give Karl something else to laugh about.
He faked a cower, ducked low to pivot and swing his right fist high, hard into Gabriel's perfectly shaped mouth. For a second the pain of split skin across his knuckles from a tooth was sharp. Them he was dragged to the floor and the professional application of three sets of steel-toed boots blocked out every other physical sensation.
Josef had been involved in enough beatings on one side or the other for his reactions to be near-automatic. One arm went over his head and the other hand covered his balls. He didn't waste breath swearing or begging. Instead he gave them a fair amount of the noises they'd be wanting; gasps and grunts of pain. That bit wasn't hard at all. Less easy was throwing up right. If he got Gabriel's nice shiny leather boots dirty, this would go on half the night.
Retching a quarter bottle of vodka back onto the bar floor without splattering anyone but himself brought proceedings to a swift halt. Blame had been established, pecking order reinforced, adrenalin burned off; that was enough. Feuds weren't smart with Karl in the picture and even Vlad could understand that one, even Gabs could stop short of the carefully unspecified line.
So when Stefan stretched out a hand as his victim pulled himself painfully up onto his knees Josef wasn't entirely surprised. His first instinct was to spit on it; there had been nothing fair about the whole thing and it had fucking well hurt. Bruises would stiffen overnight and he'd have to spend painful hours loosening up if he was going to move fast and smooth tomorrow. He has every right to be royally pissed at Stefan.
But moving fast and smooth wasn't something he just did alone. They only looked really sharp when they moved together, and Karl wanted them sharp. This competition was real trouble if it had Karl this riled. Telling Stefan to fuck off was an indulgence he might well regret when the six of them next came under pressure, and way things were looking, that could be soon.
Josef took the proffered hand, grimacing, climbed to his feet. He'd settle the score later, his way.
That night he barely slept. By 4am he'd given up and was cursing his way through a succession of stretches. No-one to disturb tonight; the room's other bunk lay empty. Rikard hadn't come home.
Twenty to six and Josef made his way quietly through the dawn mists to the back gate of Karl's place. As he walked up the long curve of the rear drive, startling a sleepy peacock or two, he could make out a black clad figure sprawling across the wide stone steps. A little closer and Josef recognised him.
Gabriel. It would have to be him this morning, and no-one else yet in sight. In the scarce few weeks he'd been here Gabriel was the one he'd managed to avoid being alone with. Gabriel with a lip puffed and scabbed this morning, watching him approach.
Josef straightened his back, didn't slow down. If Gabs wanted to make something of it in Karl's own backyard, Josef would hold his ground. He just really didn't want to have to, not with every muscle still sore as hell.
He nodded a greeting. "Gabriel." Voice steady.
Swollen mouth twisted upwards. Gabriel bent forward, pulled a knife out of his boot, tossed it into the air a couple of times. "Catch."
The throw was slow and high. Something a novice could catch, if a novice didn't think too hard about making a mistake, about the wicked edge against his fingers.
Josef wasn't a novice, not in everything. He pulled the knife out of the air, sent it back faster and lower with a snap, sent his own flying a couple of heartbeats after it. Gabriel was on his feet to catch the first and return it, and they were juggling back and forth across the ten feet between them, fast enough that Josef was sure he didn't have a flicker of attention for anything else but the flight of the knives.
He saw Gabriel's attention shift though, reacted fast enough that the third knife from the side ended up with the handle safe against his palm. Three of them then, and a pattern that shifted. The third shift was his doing, picked up with bare hesitation by the men on either side. He tried another couple of changes, picked up the speed again, felt the newcomer struggling to keep up.
A man could lose a finger, falling behind; that was enough. All three knives fell into a controlled, noisy heap at his feet. He slid his back inside his boot. Gabriel caught his with a lopsided smile, Mikael his with a flicker of what might have been gratitude.
"Where did you learn that trick, Joe?" Stefan had been watching, with Vlad.
Josef shrugged. "My mother was a greengrocer. I've been juggling all my life."
"You're as good as Gabs." Stefan said, thoughtfully. "Much better than Mikael. Could you teach it?"
"Sure." He'd taught half the kids in the street, with purloined oranges when he could get them and bruised apples when he couldn't. "Not with knives, to start with."
"Gabs won't juggle with anything but. No-one wants to learn from him, for some reason. " Stefan nodded. "We'll work up a drill. Karl will like it, when it's with knives. Showy."
And just like that they were a unit again and this was what it felt like to belong somewhere. Josef was still plenty pissed with Stefan and the other two, but that was off duty. Right now, right here, they were all on the same side. Karl's men, and God help anyone, high or low, who crossed Karl. Anyone at all.
End of Chapter One