15,500 on “A Great Prince”! And…Niko’s Backstory!

Yeah, I’m going to be an adult and do the ten day pre-order sale thing on A Great Prince. I’m enjoying writing it…it’s light, easy fun.

How do these books rocket to #1 on day #1? Presales, presales, presales…right? At my current pace, this story is done by the end of October. Then hopefully my betas can turn it around in a few days and then whatever day it’s done-done, I put it up on Amazon on pre-order. And anywhere else that will do preorder – no KU this time…

I’ve learned my lesson on the “power of free.” Which is to say, I’m not sure it has any power anymore. It did…but I gave away 4,000 copies of Werewolves of Brooklyn during my BookBub, and I’ve sold…less than 400 copies. So that didn’t work out so good. Free was great under the old KU – if KU members download your book during a freebie, you still get credit for the borrow. But now, it just means that most everyone who wants to read it, reads it for free. The end.

From my .99 BookBub for A Little Too Broken, I’m getting credit for pages read at a ha’penny. So, $90 extra on borrows on that whoo hoo. That borrowbump is still going, but it’s on the down side, so, let’s say $150 when all is said and done. My Werewolves of Brooklyn freebie in September resulted in a grand total of $130 in borrowbux – that’s for a relatively new title, with a BookBub…

Whereas on Have a Little Faith in Me back in June, the last days of the Old KU, I scored about $400 in borrowbux. And that had really disappointing sales for a BookBub…

So A Great Prince will debut at .99, for let’s say preorders plus three days. If it goes batshit, then I raise the price to 2.99. But I’m done with free until someone hands me convincing proof that it can work.

And now…a modern rags to riches tale… 🙂 FYI these imaginary countries are fabricated out of real districts in Austria and Hungary…

NIKO’S BACKSTORY

After World War II, Burgenland had been occupied by both the Americans and the Russians, each taking control of half the country. And, like Germany, when all was said and done, Burgenland was split into two nations, Burgenland capitalist and Danubia communist. One country prospered, and the other did not.

Danubia had an old Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, and the Communists were ruthless in their “liquidation” of the nobility on their side of the border. Every member of the noble families in the new Soviet puppet state either died or fled…

Save one family.

Nikolas’ grandfather was Duke Zsigmond, a near relation of the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It was a family that had survived tyrants from Napoleon to Hitler, and it would survive the Communists, too, if it could.

His grandfather did what he knew he had to do – play the idiot, the weak-minded aristocrat, a fool who could be used as a Communist propaganda tool to show the world the inbred degeneracy of the ruling class.

And keeping him and his family alive “proved” that they didn’t kill aristocrats. They were given an apartment, and the former Duke was trotted out from time to time for self-criticism sessions and denunciations of his wicked ways as a decadent class enemy.

The regime had another humiliation in store for the family as well. It wasn’t enough that the Duke’s son, Imre, was working as a hotel porter, his uniform a mockery of the one his own father had worn as a Duke. No – they forced him to marry a gypsy girl, a Roma, the most despised ethnic minority in the country.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, the Communists fell, and there was no use for the court fool any more. And the family disappeared from sight, just another Eastern European family struggling to survive amid the wreckage of the former Soviet Empire.

But Imre had the last laugh on the Communists. He fell in love with that Roma girl, and when their son was born in 1990, he named him Nikolas – after the last of the Romanov Czars.

By the time Niko was fifteen, a series of ineffectual governments had risen and fallen. And the real power was in the hands of the oligarchs, the old Communist apparatchiks who’d seized the state industries for themselves, and become billionaires…and in the hands of the gengzters, the “other” criminals, the drug runners and extortionists and Internet scammers and identity thieves.

Niko at fifteen was tall and strong and poor and angry. He grew up fighting, his family name a joke. His peers’ parents still mocked his grandfather as a clown, and they in turn mocked Niko as the grandson of a clown. Niko’s parents died in quick succession – his father of a heart attack and his mother of heartbreak.

So at fifteen, Niko left his history behind, and squatted in an abandoned apartment, stealing electricity via extension cord from a neighbor who didn’t dare object when the tall, strong boy with murder in his eyes demanded it.

He did manual labor to get money for food, the kind of work that could be done by a man without papers, a man without a name, or a name he didn’t want to share.

That was where János Kovács found him, and made him a gengzter.

Niko was expected to kick back some of his wages to the thug who ran the job site, who in turn kicked back to János. And one day, he’d had enough.

“No,” he said to the thug, Lajos. “Go fuck yourself.”

Lajos was thick, in body and in brain. It took him a minute to realize he was being defied by this punk kid. Like most men of violence, he’d been raised in violence, had learned that a crack on the head was the way people spoke and were spoken to. He reached out to grab this kid.

“Listen, you Roma trash…”

Niko brushed Lajos’ arm aside, and fired a palm strike at his nose, breaking it. Lajos was stunned, more by the impudence than anything else, but before he could hit back, Niko followed up with an elbow strike to his chin, knocking him to the ground.

Growing up as the subject of ridicule, Niko had learned one thing quickly – that he was good at fighting. While the kids around him did ridiculous imitations of The Matrix, Nico sought out men who could really fight: street brawlers, enforcers, mixed martial artists.

Lajos got up and pointed a finger at him. “You’re dead,” he announced.

“Try it,” Niko replied defiantly.

That night János came knocking on the door of the apartment.

Niko saw him and nodded. “I’m ready.” He’d grown up with death, murder, chaos. He’d always known how he’d die.

János laughed. He clapped Niko on the shoulder. “My boy, you have it all wrong. I’m here to give you a job.”

 

So Niko became a gengzter. The Danubian economy boomed just as it did in its next door neighbor, Hungary, for the same reason – the massive housing bubble. People borrowed money at low interest in Swiss Francs, and buildings went up like crazy.

And of course the oligarchs, and the gengzters, profited. Shoddy materials were used in sweetheart deals, and Niko worked long days, and longer nights, visiting job sites as an “enforcer” for János’ crew. He’d either collect the kickbacks, or…enforce the lesson on what happened to those who didn’t kick back.

He partied hard, too, the money flowing like a faucet someone had forgotten to turn off. Coke and girls, top shelf liquor and card games, deluxe suites in Ibiza and Monaco… He was only sixteen, but money bought an exception to anything.

Szombathely wasn’t a big city, and the other gang members knew who he was, who his family had been, soon enough. And soon enough, he got his nickname – “Prince Niko.”

It was mocking, but affectionate, and…something else. These men are lawless sinners, but they’re also deeply religious, nationalistic, patriotic, and sentimental for the Old Days of Strong Leaders. They were men from a culture that held grudges for centuries, who would strike at a random person from a country that had offended their own in the 15th century, and they would consider it justice.

Then the bubble burst in 2008, all across the world. All the Danubians who had borrowed Swiss Francs for their mortgages suddenly realized they’d have to repay in Swiss Francs as well, a “safe” currency whose value soared while their own currency collapsed.

The Danubian government had never been a completely liberal, Westernized government, but it had blundered along without doing too much damage to the country. Now, all was chaos, and there were riots in the streets, rage against the bankers, the red flags of the old regime and the even older flags of the Empire waving in the streets.

The oligarchs moved to seize power, the corrupt Army in their pockets, the gengzters doing privately what the Army couldn’t do publicly to suppress dissent. Including detaining or…disappearing some of those dissenters.

And that was how Nikolas Almásy met Karl Lengyel.

 

The basement was a former wine cellar, musty and moldy. A Communist apparatchik had seized a noble’s collection after the war, and the whole collection had been smashed by angry rioters when the Communists fell. The earth was thick with the smell of old red wine, soaked in deep like old blood.

This was where the gengzters had taken Karl Lengyel, leader of the opposition. When Niko was assigned to guard duty, he found the old man tied to a chair.

“This one,” said the gengzter Niko was relieving. “They ought to kill him. Fucking atheist homo-loving Western scum.”

Niko grunted and nodded. All the patriotism, nationalism, the Orthodox religiosity that made the other gengzters weep and tear their hair…it meant shit to him. What had the nation done for him? Raised his grandfather up to a Duke, then threw him down again, made Niko’s father a hotel porter, sent Niko hungry and alone on to the streets to survive. Monarchy, Communism, Democracy…he spit.

Fuck all that. He had no hate for this old man. He was just another body, and guarding him was just another work detail.

There was a lone light bulb in the basement, swinging from the ceiling over the old man’s head. Niko easily picked him up, chair and all, and put him in a dark corner. Then he moved his own chair under the bulb and pulled out the book he always brought with him for these long nights. He’d learned that lesson a long time ago – the other men could sit and stare into space, in a thoughtless trance, but his mind was too restless.

This was an old man, tied up, his only allies a bunch of weakling protestors, not some rival criminal whose men might come bursting through the doors; it was safe to sit and read to pass the time.

“What are you reading?” Karl asked him.

Niko held up the book to show the cover of Goldfinger.

“Hmm. Interesting choice,” he murmured to himself in English.

Niko looked at him. “What,” he responded in the same language. “Are you surprised that I can read? Never mind read English?”

“Yes to both.”

Niko smirked and returned to his book.

A few minutes later, Karl cleared his throat. “Can I have a drink of water, please?”

Nick put the book down and got a bottle of water. He opened it and held it to the man’s lips, letting him sip.

“Thank you. Do you know what’s going on out there?”

“A revolution.”

“A counterrevolution. Turning the clock backward.”

“Back before the economy you and yours created? Back before everyone went broke thanks to the capitalists you let ruin us?”

Karl flinched. “I was not…” He sighed. “Yes, I suppose after all this, even a restored monarchy might look better.”

Niko laughed. “A monarchy? There hasn’t been a monarchy here since World War II.”

Karl paused. “You don’t know what they have in store for you, do you?”

“Me? A bullet to the head someday, I suppose. Same as any other man in my line of work.”

“Right. Amazing. You really don’t know.”

Niko put his book down. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Well, let’s use the Socratic method, shall we? What’s happening to the government right now?”

“It’s falling.”

“And it will be replaced by…?”

“Same as always. The rich, the powerful.”

“No more elections?”

“What for?” Niko laughed.

“Right. Because what are the people out there clamoring for?”

Niko thought about it. “Order. Safety. No more westerners calling our bills due and bankrupting us.”

“What kind of flags did you see being waved?”

“Old ones.”

“The double eagle?”

Niko thought about it, and remembered seeing some of the men having that tattooed on their bodies, the relic of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“Yes.”

Karl nodded. “They’re going to use you. They’re going to put a crown on your head.”

Niko bent over laughing. “You’re crazy, old man.” He shook his head and picked his book up.

Karl paused. “Do you know what keeps governments in power?”

“Guns.”

“No. Legitimacy keeps governments in power. The consent of the governed.”

“Oh,” Niko said, his anger flaring. “So we ‘consented’ to be overrun by the Russians after the war?”

“Good point. But, what did they do afterward? Did they say, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Danubia, these are all now provinces of Russia? No. They set up puppet governments.”

“Why? If you conquered the country, you conquered it, why pretend otherwise?

“It has to at least appear like the people want them there. And what happens when the governed don’t consent anymore?”

“What’s happening out there, right now.”

“Yes, Nikolas Almásy.”

Niko shifted, uneasy. How did this man know his full name? Did he really think that…

“So what’s this crown bullshit? What are you talking about?”

“Before World War II, Burgenland was one country, under a monarch. A beloved monarch, a Resistance fighter, a good one, unlike their current one. So…what would give this country’s government the same legitimacy as Burgenland’s?”

“A King? What’s that got do to with me? I’m a street rat, a gengzter, half Roma…”

Karl smiled. “You are the last of the Almásy. The closest remaining relative of the Holy Roman Emperor in this country.”

“How do you know that?”

Karl laughed. “Why do you think I’m imprisoned? Because I know this. Because I, and people like me, are resisting this.”

“Then why am I here, of all people, guarding you?”

Karl thought about it. “The nationalist, religious answer would be, the Hand of God, moving in mysterious ways. The secular liberal answer would be, someone fucked up.”

Niko laughed. He looked at Karl, hard. He picked him back up and put him under the light bulb so he could see the man’s face. Niko hadn’t survived all these years without learning how to read a man’s face, to see the truth or the lie when he spoke.

“Let’s say you’re right. Some moron wants to make me King of Danubia. Then what?”

Karl turned towards the door. Niko heard the heavy footsteps coming down the stairs.

Karl spoke hastily. “Then what happens is up to you. Remember that they need you. Name your own terms. Don’t let them make you King in name only. They will put the reins of power in your hands, on paper, but then they’ll make all the decisions. But remember, nothing can happen if you don’t sign that paper…”

The door burst open, and Niko’s boss János and his goons rushed towards Karl. “Time to go,” János said.

“No,” Niko said, putting himself between his boss and Karl.

“Niko,” János said softly. “Don’t make me kill you.”

“You won’t,” Niko said. “You need me.”

“Ah,” János sighed. “He told you. I’m too late.” He turned to one of his men. “You chose Niko for this duty? Really?”

The goon stretched his hands out in a helpless gesture. “I didn’t know, boss, he was the first guy I saw…”

János was fast. His gun was out and the bullet was in the goon’s head before anyone knew it. The body dropped to the floor, dead before it hit.

Niko didn’t flinch. It wasn’t the first man he’d seen killed. He opened his flip phone, his eyes steady on János and his gun as he punched in a number – that of the oligarch who really ran things in Danubia.

“István. Niko. I know what’s up. And I will play. But I have terms. Yes, he’s here, to kill Karl Lengyel. First of all, that’s not going to happen. I need him. We can use him for…”

Niko turned and grinned at Karl. “For legitimacy.”

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