You draw your horse up short and swing down. You seat yourself on a weathered stone, drawing up one knee and clasping it in your hands. Your companion sits beside you with his hands folded in his lap. His gaze is rapt, even avid. “What play is this?” he asks.
Upon the weathered boards of the stage, the boy-queen raises up the princeling in mourning. Their eyes are wet with tears—his, thin and angry; hers swelling, bubbling over as her voice hitches. His grip on her hands becomes a vice. When she tries to draw away, fear making her quiver, he pulls her back and forces her to look him in his fierce grey eyes.
You have seen such eyes before, but you cannot remember where.
The princeling draws his sword. His body is taut with fell purpose as he advances. The boy-queen shrinks away with her wrists crossed before her face.
Your pulse quickens. You want to cry out to her. You want to leap to the boards with your keen blade drawn, as though she is a real person and her peril a real peril—
You stay on your rock. “It makes Medea seem a sweet, domestic tale,” you mutter.
At the sound of your voice, the actors freeze. They melt out of character like wax from a crucible, and all of the menace bleeds away. The young man in black sheathes his blade and gives a courtly bow. “An audience!” he cries. At the shout, a half-dozen players emerge from the edges of the stage, from behind the green curtains and upon the carriage roof, and even from a hatch near the back of the stage. One has a hand drum, and another a long wooden horn. “Well met, my friends.”
You see suddenly that beneath his paint, he is not young at all. His hair is not blond, but greying; his skin is creased about the eyes. With laughter or cruel intent, you couldn’t venture to say.
Your companion claps hard. “Bravo,” you manage, a little dumbfounded. “This was … not what I expected.”
The player grins wryly. “That’s theatre,” he tells you. “A series of reversals, regressions, and revelations to make the inevitable appear unexpected.”
“Do you think so? But you’ll find, I think, that every play ends in tragedy sooner or later.”
“Comedies,” you counter. You’re standing now, dwarfed by the player on his elevated stage. You can’t remember getting up.
“The difference between a tragedy and a comedy is only where you choose to stop telling the story. And if the two of you can’t pay a nominal fee for your entertainment, we will have to stop telling this story here.” The players begin to pack up. They close the curtains, heave up the stage and latch it into place. The little world folds into a wagon, with a patient draft horse waiting beside to bear it away. The boy-queen strips off her dress and wig and crown and becomes a gangling boy with painted eyes. He looks you over as though taking your measure.
“You weren’t even performing for us,” your companion says, getting to his feet as well. He has the look of a man protesting an injustice. “You were just—performing, and we happened to pass by—”
“You chose to watch, not to pass us by,” the player says. “And unless you choose to pay us for our time, we’ll try our luck with the new king of Denmark.”