“Hallo,” you say cautiously. “I’m Rosencrantz, and he’s—”
“I’m Rosencrantz, and he’s Guildenstern,” your companion says, with a confidence that seems a bit forced.
The woman smiles. She has a guarded way of smiling, little more than a faint gleam in her eyes and a certain relaxation of manner. “What’s the matter? Don’t you remember your own name?”
“What’s yours?” you counter.
“Ophelia,” she answers with a curtsy.
Statement, you think, but she’s got you wrong-footed with this ticklish business of names, and the victory has little savor. “Why do you say it isn’t too late to turn back?”
“You didn’t sound as though you wanted to be here,” she answers. “You say the king and queen sent for you to ease Prince Hamlet’s madness? My father hoped I might ease it, too.” She looks out over the water, her gaze fixed on the waves as they curl and fold over the shore.
“That … doesn’t sound promising.”
“You may hear that the prince is mad with love.” She laughs, low. “My father would like that to be the case, I think, because then he’d know a remedy. It’s the only way to keep a story from becoming a tragedy: make sure the hero finishes safely married. But the balladeers know that love is a murdering madness. A madman mistakes his lover for a swan, or a madwoman drowns her better-loved sister for spite. Either way, she finishes dead in the water.”
By now, the sun has fully set. The sound stretches below you, an endless black abyss. It’s easy to imagine it swallowing you up. You stand upon an island of light, your perception compassed within a few square feet before and behind the gate. There might be no one in the world but you, your companion, and dark-eyed Ophelia; even the guards are no more than chiaroscuro figures at the edge of the knowable world. There might be no moment beyond this moment, this threshold between one unknown and the next.
At length, Ophelia shrugs. “But perhaps you’ll have better luck than I did.” She presses a sprig of rosemary into your hands. It smells sharp and sweet and green. “Here you are. That’s for remembrance.” Then she walks away, up the road and into the fortress. As she passes through the gate, she vanishes into the encroaching darkness.
You find yourself wishing you’d gone with her. You’re not sure whether you want to protect her, or the other way around.
You slide down from your horse, square your shoulders, and stride up to the guards at the gate. “We are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, come upon an urgent summons from the king and queen.”
One guard sizes you up. He has a hollow-eyed look to him, as though it’s been some time since he slept properly. The lamplight gives his face a sallow cast. “Which one are you, then?”
Your companion looks aghast. “Why, you don’t think we could be the ki—”
“He’s asking if I’m Rosencrantz or Guildenstern,” you say, rubbing at your temples. “You couldn’t be the queen. You don’t have the bone structure.”
Well, which are you?