Inspired by true events...
I'm still running.
Oh God, did I really do it?
I dive down a small alley and clutch the wall, breathing heavily. My lungs are burning as I try to catch my breath, but my throat hurts ˗ unable to take in any air.
I didn't do it. I can't have. I press my forehead on the wall of the timber building and close my eyes, just concentrating on breathing. The wall feels cold. I open my eyes again and see my fingers splayed on the timber, they're dripping blood in the moonlight.
I jump back, trying desperately to wipe off all the blood, but then I really see my clothes for the first time. Across my doublet and my hose, there's one long line of blood, running from my chest to my right knee.
Someone walks past the end of the lane. They can't know I'm here. I jump into the shadows, holding my breath.
Their footsteps fade, just as quickly as they came. I can breathe again. I can't stand here anymore. I have to get to Walsingham's house.
My body finds some energy and my feet take me running down the lane. Every few seconds I look over my shoulder, but no one's there.
Walsingham's house is squashed between two others at the end of the alley. So small you wouldn't notice it was there, unless you knew what you were looking for. I knock slowly on the door. The white moon shining on my hand ˗ it's now pock-marked with dried blood.
A maid soon answers the door and I frantically hide my hands in my pockets. It doesn't matter, she hasn't even blinked at the blood on my clothes. She only nods and lets me into the house. I guess from living here she's seen it all before. She shows me into Walsingham's study and leaves quickly.
Walsingham is sat at his desk with his spectacles on, writing something. He looks up for barely a second as I enter.
"Did you do it?" As always, he speaks so slowly, so calmly.
My breathing is so fast, I'm struggling to say a single word.
"Yes. It's done."
Walsingham goes back to writing. My whole body is shaking. I take my hands out of my pockets and see the blood again.
Walsingham looks up at my gut-wrenching yelp.
I can't believe I did it. How could I do it? How did I do it? I'm now walking manically in circles, my hands outstretched, like I don't want them to be a part of my body anymore.
"God, boy," Walsingham jumps up and walks calmly towards me. "You'll need a stronger constitution if you're going to work for me." He's half my height, double my age and has seen more death than a battlefield, so as he comes towards me with his hand reaching for my shoulder, I jump back. It's as though he carries the hand of the devil.
"It's alright, boy. It's alright," now he's holding his hands flat out to me like I'm a dog running wild. "You need to calm down."
"Calm down? Calm down!" My voice is getting louder, bubbling out of me. "How can I be calm right now? All of that -"
"Take control of your mind." His voice is so measured as he points me towards a chair. I fall into it, the wood hurts my back. I lean forwards, my arms on my knees and stare at the blood stains. Walsingham must see my stare because he pulls a bell and the maid returns. "Get a bowl of water." I don't see her leave, I'm scratching at one of the red marks that sits just under my right thumb. Then the bowl is put in front of me on the floor and the door closes again.
Walsingham pulls up a chair to sit across from me. "Wash your hands." I put the bowl on my knees and do as he says. The water's cold. Too cold, almost like ice. "Tell me what happened." Walsingham sits perfectly still in his chair as I shake uncontrollably in mine. It's like he's made of stone.
"I thought I would be able to do it." My voice is struggling, trembling as much as I am. It's like a whisper. "I didn't think I'd have reason to hesitate. But I did."
Walsingham tilts his head to the side.
"You gave him the time to fight back."
"Yes." The water is now pink. "It was messy." It really was messy. Instead of a clean attack, it had been a scramble, but I had got to the moment of pulling out the dagger and looking that man in the eye when I realised, I don't want to do this. By that point, it was too late. It was me or him.
"Did anyone see you?"
"No." I'm scrubbing at my hands now. I need them clean, but the water is getting redder and the white bowl is smeared pink.
"Good. Then all is well."
"All is not well."
"Yes, it is." Now he was stern. Staring me down with his wrinkled eyes. "You're just in shock. You'll get used to it soon." He stands up, walking away from me. He's gone to pour himself a glass of wine. "And as for Christopher Marlowe, our problem is over."
Christopher Marlowe. Kit Marlowe. Why a playwright would become the next victim of England's spymaster I had no idea, but Walsingham was a man of many secrets. Many shadows.
I lifted my hands out of the water, most of the blood is gone, but that mark under my thumb ˗ it's still there. I try washing it again.
"What happens now?" I ask as Walsingham smells his wine.
"I have people in place who are setting the next stage up." He wanders back to his desk, sipping delicately. "Frizer and a few others are now talking to the coroner, taking the blame. They'll explain it was just a tavern brawl."
"A brawl? What are they supposed to have argued about?"
It was tempting to laugh, but instead, I felt sick.
"It had to be believable," Walsingham explains. "And no one would doubt that story. Not of a man like Marlowe." He looks over at me. I know he can see I'm still shaking. "No one will know it was you." His voice is deep. How can he always be so calm?
"So why was it me? Hmm?" Now I've rattled him. Probably asked the question no one like me is ever supposed to ask.
"That is not your business." Walsingham's fingers are tapping his glass.
"Not my business!" I stand, nearly spilling the red water everywhere. I place the bowl on the chair and turn back to Walsingham. He looks old, frail, yet he holds himself like death will never touch him. "I may have just condemned myself to hell for all of eternity for you. For the sake of killing a playwright. I want to know why." Walsingham stops tapping his glass.
"It was orders."
"From above me."
"There aren't many men above the spymaster."
"So leave it at that." Walsingham walks around his desk and sits behind it, but I won't let it end there.
"What harm could a playwright ever do?" Suddenly I'm in front of the desk, my hands on the surface, leaning over it.
"Because he wasn't just a playwright." Walsingham sips his wine, he's watching my face, my reaction, I can feel it. "The rumours about Marlowe were true. He worked for me."
"Then why kill him?"
"He was, what you might call, a faulty weapon." He's still watching me. "He became reckless. He was arrested for atheism a few weeks ago, he made no secret of his service and the subtext in his plays... He told me it was nothing, but it didn't seem that way, especially to one of my superiors. And when he returned from his last trip to Rome, he failed to report to me. We were questioning his allegiance. In the end, he was too much of a risk. I can't let any man of mine become a risk."
Walsingham tilted his head again, his eyes unblinking. Now I understand him. I was like Kit. I have to do what the master says. Or I could end up like Kit. My feet are taking me away from the desk, slowly stepping backwards.
"Understand?" Walsingham's voice has never been so deep. I nod. "Good."
"Who issued the order?"
"Don't ask that -"
"Who issued it!"
"I can't tell you."
Walsingham puts on his spectacles and bends over his notes. Oh...
Behind him on the wall is a painting that says it all. It can't be ˗ I just didn't think ˗ yet it would make perfect sense.
I fall back into a chair, my eyes fixed on the painting of Elizabeth I. Her tall figure, her bright red hair, her hand resting on an ornament of the globe. I was right. There aren't many men above the spymaster, but there is one woman. I'm trapped.
Now I feel more sick than ever. I lean forward into my hands and swallow hard. That blood under my thumbnail, it's still there.