You choose a name. Are you driven by conviction, or random chance? Has the coin of your identity come up heads once more, or has it shown an unexpected face? You can’t be sure. But the guard doesn’t know enough to gainsay you. He lets you through.
As soon as you enter the castle, a second pair of guards wheels to escort you. You and your companion pass through an antechamber lined with tapestries, each one telling a story you can’t recall. Your companion pauses here and there to inspect this stitched hero or that crewel monstrosity, as though looking for the secret thread that binds them together. The same gold edges his sword and the dragon’s claws.
When a guard clears his throat, though, your companion rejoins you.
You can’t help feeling as though you are being marched to your death, with halberds shining pointedly on either side.
At last, you arrive at the throne room. A long, plush carpet leads to two thrones, which gleam as golden as the king’s embroidered robes in the dim light. You find yourself wondering whether you are gazing upon the hero or the monster. “Welcome,” he says, “dear Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.”
You exchange words. The precise nature of them escapes you; you mostly remember feeling foolish and travel-stained and suspicious, eager to please and increasingly certain that you will never be equal to the task set before you. Draw him on to pleasures, and to gather so much as from occasion you may glean, whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus. To learn the cause of Hamlet’s transformation seems as impossible as to predict the motions of the clouds; to remedy it, as impossible as summoning lightning. But what is there to say, when a sovereign power deigns to cast its eyes in one’s direction? “We both obey,” one of you replies, “And here give up ourselves in the full bent to lay our service freely at your feet.”
You both bow, severally and then in unison.
“I beseech you instantly to visit my too much changed son,” pleads Queen Gertrude. Her eyes are welling with tears. You remember, in some dim part of your mind, that you have seen tears like those not long before.
As soon as you’re out of the room, your companion turns toward you with a horrorstruck look. “We’re out of our depth here,” he says.
It isn’t too late to turn back, the girl had said at the gateway. You’re beginning to wish you’d listened—it’s certainly too late now. “Things could be a good deal worse,” you answer. You feel as though you are edging out over a perilous cliff, with a long drop below. (But of course, there are no cliffs in Denmark.) “We just need to put our heads in order. Prepare for the encounter.”
“What, you mean a rehearsal?”
“No, I was envisioning setting a trap for a leopard,” you snap.
“I should think they’d have told us if the prince were a leopard—”
“We’re in quite enough trouble without your prodding at every little linguistic uncertainty!” You wheel on your companion; he blanches, shrinking back slightly under the pressure of your gaze.
You must look a wild animal, yourself. You sigh, then card your fingers through your hair. “Sleep might do as much for us as a rehearsal,” you say, relenting.
“Well, which would you suggest?”