Shadow

A shadow is an absence of light and so it is with the souls of those who hide in them. The old aphorism comes to Garrado as he hides behind a palace tapestry. He had set the gory old hanging into a gentle sway in his haste and is trying to settle it as footsteps and candle light pass down the hallway. Holding his breath he waits unnoticed, the footfalls die down as they round the corner. Out of cover now he darts along a route he has memorised. The route itself provided by spies and paid for in their blood. Six of Methza Province's finest gave their lives to bring home the simple map and route to Princess Aldutha's chamber. Last of her line since her father's death, she is days away from coronation. Suitable consorts are lining up and if she bore offspring, further centuries of tyranny would be assured. He faces her door, security is no longer an issue, all of the systems were designed to keep intruders out of the palace itself he has subverted them all as he has trained his whole life to do. Of his equipment all that remain are his knife, the pick-up transponder for escape plan A and a cyanide pill for escape plan B.

He opens the door, advances soundlessly towards the sleeping figure on the bed. Feeling the hilt in his hand, he takes the last step, stretches out to grasp hair and stops. The dim light has fooled him, he saw what his eyes expected him to see, a single female figure on the bed but it's just rumpled blankets. A noise to his left, an en-suite door opens, Princess Aldutha's naked frame stands before him, eyes wide in panic. She is no fool, at 18 years of age she has received a decade of self defence and other more offensive training, but she is no Methza assassin and he most assuredly is.

She makes her move, a clumsy attempt to strike the knife from his right hand with hers. He calmly parries, but it was a smoke screen, a feint, and her right elbow continues the arc to connect with his nose. A new respect fills him, he knows he has to make this quick. Reeling back from the blow he regains his balance and advances, she is on the attack again, a knee rising towards his genitals. This time he spots the second move as the muscles in her neck twitch and she thrusts a headbutt towards his face. He leans left and raises his right shoulder into her descending nose while striking downward with the knife which embeds itself in her thigh. She emits an animal growl as he twists the blade, withdraws it and thrusts upwards forcing the six inch blade into the soft tissue under her chin and up through her palate.

Princess Aldutha's short reign is over and her final exhalation sprays him with blood. He drops her to the floor without ceremony and hurries to the door, closes it, and sprints down corridors to the nearest exit in his mental map. He had been prepared to die but there is still opportunity for escape. He opens the window, drops to the ground and bolts for the garden, searching for the transponder and with shock he realises that he dropped it in the struggle along with its concealed compartment containing the cyanide pill.

Heart pounding, breath ragged, legs pained from enforced crouching he waits. Panicked races through him, weapons spent, planned egress gone, comms down so no fight, flight or help. Base instinct is in control now, hide and find a solution.

He focuses on where he is, a garden, the product of obdurate love, wildly manicured and chaotically organised and at some level he's sure, aesthetically close to a perceived model of perfection. For now it is sanctuary, he gathers his reeling thoughts and tries to calm his breathing. All across the estate people are waking and starting work, how long before the shock of his crime finds one of them? He breathes out heavily, trying to lose some tension but the hazy plume of his breath sends a smoke signal of his location. Literally scared to breathe he feels like weight is building on his chest and shoulders.

How ignominious an end to his thus far been extravagantly lived life, crouching behind a hedge in fear of discovery. Death is not what he fears, that has always been nearby and besides he has lived more than his share of life already. What he fears more is what will happen to those he loves if he is captured. Could it make his success here not worth it? He doubts it but it would be a bitter, much diminished success. No, better to end it now while he can betray no one rather than risk capture and all that would involve. The question is "How?" His options are limited to the immediate surroundings, thoughts of dashing to the sheds and green houses at the back of the estate and whatever grizzly means of ending his existence he might find there are moot. Save for this narrow aspect he disabled on his way in, house's automated systems would spot him a microsecond after he set off and capture would follow almost immediately. About his person he has nothing beyond his clothes and while he can kill a man with less he knows of no martial technique whereby a man can kill himself. How would one even practice?

Strangely calmed by his decision he re-checks his immediate vicinity in the verdant idyll, no errant tools lying about nor wooden stakes, ropes, knives, guns, hand grenades, nothing of use at all in fact. The hedge itself is harmless, fate hasn't placed him behind a hedge full of toxic berries. His examinations reveal a small yellow snail making stately progress across one of the broad, non-toxic leaves. Its carefree motion as it ululates towards an unclear goal a further contrast to his urgent search for a definite end.

Something is scratching at the back of his mind, a lesson learnt in youth, something to do with the snail. In Methza snails are a particular delicacy and made all the more so by the careful rituals surrounding their treatment, they must be caught and purged for weeks in advance, fed specific leaves to ensure they are edible. He remembers speaking to his father many years ago about them. "You can't cook them straight away, in case they've been eating something unclean." A later conversation about the yellow snails "pay special attention to these, they love to eat parchwort, it stays in their guts for two to three weeks." That's it, the bloody snail is toxic but a bout of diarrhoea and a high fever won't do him much good, he needs to look for the mushrooms.

He dives under the hedge, dust and dry scratchy branches assailing his eyes and looks for signs of the lethal parchwort caps. He hastily brushes the detritus aside and reveals a single, yellowing, overripe cap slick with decay. Several edges have been eaten away but he is loath to berate the snail that lead him here. Forcing his body entirely under the hedge he hopes the sound and shaking of the shrub has not given him away.

An alarm sounds from the house, if it is he or the princess who has been discovered he cannot tell but time is against him either way. He grasps the noxious fungi and it threatens to shoot away like soap in the bath. There are footsteps, running and shouts in his direction, no time. He thrusts the mushroom into his mouth and recoils as his innate revulsion to all things rotting makes him retch. It barely fits in his mouth and the stench infuses him. He must chew it, swallowing it whole will trickle the poison into his system and he doesn't trust his stomach not to betray him before a lethal dose is achieved. His teeth sink into the flesh and a cold oil slick fills his mouth, he bites hard and cracks his teeth around a stone, he spits it and a piece of tooth out in a small puddle of blood, pain flowering through jaw and up either side of his skull to meet at the top. As he chews, sharp pinpoints of pain at least distract him from the act he is committing and urgency drives him on.

Footsteps are all around the hedge but hesitant now, unwittingly giving him the seconds he needs to finish and conceal what he is doing. He swallows; it is done. He rubs dust over his face just as he as hauled roughly by his legs out into bright sunshine and is surprised to find himself laughing. They will not pass well these next few minutes but the following century will be glorious.

By Tim Fitzgerald