Inhale, exhale. Every morning, this was how Josef Phillip Muller would begin his routine. He would stare at the ceiling after he woke with eyes closer to the color of honey than a normal brown, and he would breathe, just breathe, for the time of ten seconds. It was unclear why he did this. To the normal man, there would have been no obvious purpose. Perhaps it was to calm himself, or perhaps just to allow the time he needed to fully wake. Or it might have even been for a darker reason, perhaps due to a depression so bleak that he needed ten seconds to struggle out from under its weight, or due to nightmares that lingered under his eyelids. But for whatever the reason, Josef never failed to take those few precious seconds to himself. He never explained why. He never had anyone to explain it to. Whatever the secret was of this event, it would stay a secret for a time longer still.
This pause, this time for air, never lasted for longer than the allotted ten seconds. And once it was done, he would climb to his feet with the slow movements of a man whose body aches. He would fetch a bucket of water from where it rested outside of his room's door, and would rub the cold water over his pale skin with a cloth. He'd rub it over the skin that was pulled taut over his ribs, over the fine scars that covered his arms and hands and over the thicker tendrils that made up a thick jagged line on his shoulder. He'd rub it into his russet-red hair, over his sturdy legs and arms. Then he came the clothes—a white tunic, a set of chainmail that lacked its shine but possessed the important quality of being intact, a pair of brown breeches, and a plain red surcoat. This last bit he fingered, feeling the coarse fabric between the pads of his callused fingers before he shook his head. The sword belt went on next and last. He buckled it on with efficient movements, then went to the bag he kept at the base of his bed. A bit of rummaging produced a small lady's mirror—not the object one would have expected from the rugged figure. He propped it up on the windowsill, fetched a knife from his belt, and began the careful process of shaving the morning's stubble. And once he was done, he examined the face in the mirror. Thin. The flesh stretched too tightly over angled cheekbones and jaw. Weathered in spite of his twenty-five years, reddened rather than tanned. The golden eyes that stared out from under thick brows seemed to burn. Seeming unnerved, he flipped the mirror down before putting it carefully back into his bag. There were only a few things left to do. His eyelids fluttered shut, and he remained where he stood by the window, the light casting a light on half of his face, and leaving the other side in troubled shadow. The eyes opened. He spun on his booted heels and crossed to a chest in the corner. He opened it and removed, with the utmost care, an old crossbow. He sighted over it, then glanced about as if to make sure no one was listening before fetching an arrow from the chest.
Moments later, an arrow was quivering in the wall, and Josef was smiling a thin and unsatisfied smile. He settled a quiver of arrows over his shoulder and shrugged a brown cloak on. Tugged the right way, it easily concealed the quiver, the sword, and the crossbow under his arm. He stood for a moment longer, then turned and walked out of the room.
It was time.