You reach into your purse and take out two coins, pressing them into the player’s hand. “There. I’ve paid,” you say. “We’d like to see a show.”
The player pauses to run his thumb over the face of the coin. A grin breaks slowly over his face. He licks his lips. “Well. This is another matter entirely. Alfred, put your dress back on. What can we give you fine gentlemen? Phaedra? The Bacchae? The Rape of the Sabine Women?”
“Don’t you have anything less tawdry?” you ask. “What were you playing when we first arrived? I thought for an instant that I recognized the characters—”
“A new tragedy after the modern style. Not yet complete,” the player answers. “But of course, we all know the end.”
Alfred, still only half into his dress, suddenly clutches his throat and falls. The player grabs one of his fellows by the collar, pulls him close, drives a blade of air up into his ribs—and the other man gurgles and falls. A third man drinks from an imaginary goblet, his eyes locked on the player’s, and then sinks slowly to his knees and falls across his queen. A gilt crown spins from his head, rolling across the ground to your feet.
You pick the crown up. It feels warm in your fingers, and surprisingly heavy. “A pile of bodies,” you say drily.
“A bloodbath,” the player agrees, taking the crown back. Your coins disappeared at some point, but you can’t remember seeing him pocket them. “A massacre.”
“And people keep coming back for that, do they? Even knowing how it will end.” Your companion trudges forward and offers Alfred his hand.
Alfred lies motionless in the pool of his long skirts, hair curtaining off his face. A leaf settles on his cheek for a long moment, then blows away.
Your heart just has time to sink before he rises again to straighten his wig.
“They long for it,” the player answers. “The certainty of it. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. There’s a measure of comfort in that.”
“But do they never wonder what would happen if things had gone a different way?” you press. There is an answer here—some deep, unfathomed part of you can almost grasp it. Not knowing is a wound in you that itches to be healed. “If you’d only stopped the story in some other place. When there was still a chance to change it.”
“It’s a player’s work to make them ask that question. To balance the audience on the knife’s edge of catastrophe, and to make them wonder where their heroes will fall.” He draws his sword and tilts it to catch the fading light. You know it’s only a prop sword, but it gleams wickedly in the sun. “But at the heart of the mystery is one truth: no matter where you fall from the knife’s edge, you fall onto the knife.”
Your companion plucks your sleeve. “Guildenstern,” he says.
“Rosencrantz.” You aren’t sure if it’s a reply or a correction.
“We should go on. Let’s leave them to their bloodbath and go on.”
“There’s something here,” you say. “They know something they aren’t telling us—”
“Anything they tell us will end unhappily.”
The player smiles. It isn’t an unkind smile, but it makes the hairs stand up on your neck all the same. “And so you’ll stop listening here, before you learn anything you can’t change.”
“If that’s how you want to put it,” he answers. “You can keep the money. And your secrets.”
As your companion pulls you away, a twinkling catches your eye. The player rolls a coin across the backs of his knuckles and onto his thumb. He flicks it up into the air, then catches it in one long-fingered hand.
You turn away before you can see whether it came up heads or tails.