The sound of the Count’s boots on the wooden floor would be enough to make anyone run as fast as they could in the opposite direction. They were certainly making his second in command nervous, and he was supposed to be used to it. The Count paced when he was thinking, and whenever the Count was thinking, someone normally got injured, usually killed. It was Milar’s job to make sure that that injuring or killing was carried out. Not that he ever got involved with the actual act, if he could help it. Normally, he just informed one of his many associates, and they would deal with it. He never called them assassins, even though they were. It was a dirty word, one he never said or even thought. To think it would be to connect him with the job, to attach him to it. As every professional knows, being attached to a job means that you could get caught. And Milar wasn’t ready to face the gallows just yet.
“Milar.” The Count’s voice was surprisingly soft and gentle for a man so steeped in evil. Milar turned away from the roaring fire to face the Count, or rather, the Count’s boots. Big, heavy boots, designed to last forever. Longer than he would. “Yes, my lord.” A bead of sweat trickled down Milar’s neck. He kept his hands well clenched behind his back so the Count wouldn’t see them shaking nervously. “It is good to see you again, my friend.” Milar couldn’t contain a shudder. Neither he nor the Count had any friends, and Milar knew that it was just to make an impression. As soon as he was no longer useful, Milar would be one of the names on the list the Count was holding. He knew that. He dreaded it.
“It is good to see you too, my lord,” he replied softly, trying to sound as though he really meant it. The Count nodded, stopping his pacing for a moment. The room was deadly quiet, except from the sound of the candles flickering. The shadows danced. Milar sometimes thought they were watching him. He hated dark, which was unusual for a...for someone of his profession. It was his biggest weakness, his fatal flaw that even the Count couldn’t eliminate. He could only remember dark from his childhood, monsters leering at him from under his bed and from in his wardrobe. Milar much preferred daylight. Unfortunately, the Count hated it and his preferences were Milar’s now.
The Count held out the list. The yellowing paper trembled nervously in the candlelight. Milar took a step forwards, not looking too closely at the paper if he could avoid it. He could see there was a new name on it, written in glossy black ink, almost like spilt blood. Knowing the Count, that was probably deliberate. “Milar,” warned the Count, “This is a job for you. Not one of your associates. I think even they would be shocked by this one.” Milar nodded, though his heart sank. He hated getting his hands dirty.
“When for, my lord?” he asked, reaching out for the paper with a gloved hand. White gloves, like Amandine had worn on their wedding day. He felt a stab of horror. Amandine would have been furious with him. She had told him to stop. Sometimes, when he was having one of his dark moments, Milar wondered if her death had not been an accident. She had been so graceful, so gentle. It was hard to believe she had fallen down the stairs. Milar shook this thought from his mind, like he did every time. All murders went through him first, so the Count couldn’t be traced. The Count would never ever break procedure.
The paper was old, almost as old as Milar himself. His predecessor’s name was half way down the first side of the page. He had come into this job at eighteen, with no qualifications and a large number of rich and unsavoury contacts. Twenty five years, but yet he still got a chill when he read the new names.
This name was different. This name made him freeze, sweat breaking out on his forehead and eyelids. He couldn’t speak. Just as well, because he wouldn’t know what to say. The Count said it for him. “You have to, Milar.” He gulped.
“I know, my lord.” His voice felt far away. He kept rereading the name, in case he had got it wrong, but no, he hadn’t.
He had to ask.
“Why, my lord?”
“It is a test of your loyalty, my friend. There are many years left in our partnership, and I need to know that you can be trusted and relied on.”
“I have never let you down before, my lord.” Milar found his voice fully at last. He would try and find a way out. He couldn’t do this. “Still, Milar. You have to. Your life or his.” Milar’s shoulders jerked. This felt like a stab to the brain. His knees started to shake until he thought he was going to fall. The shadows leered at him, dancing around his head and laughing at his misfortune. “I know, my lord.”