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Rosemary for Remembrance:The Tragedy of Ophelia

Product Description

We all think we know Ophelia’s story. Hers is a tragedy peripheral to the greater tragedy of Hamlet. But what if she were the centre? Imagine an Elsinore where identity and meaning are as fluid as water, where love and loss, life and death, past and present flow together and one woman’s imagination might have the power to transform the hell of madness itself into a kind of beauty.

 

ROSEMARY FOR REMEMBRANCE

The Tragedy of Ophelia

By

FRANCES MASON

Copyright Frances Mason 2016

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

Chapter 1

Flying in a sapphire sky, at the moment of death all moments of life captured in a rapture of crystalline time. All that is lost returns in eternity, all that I loved, all that I was, but in life the dead cannot return. To some death comes quickly, by poison or sword or the gallows. To me it came slowly. The losses accumulated, like grains of sand in an hourglass. This one is trust. That one hope. This one reason. That one love. Here is my mother, unknown. There is my sister, banished. My father unhonoured. My lover sails over the seas, his love with doubt to be doubted. Does any part of myself remain?

The water fills my lungs, the flowers float above me, and I remember running through a garden. Who am I running from? To? Breathless. I remember love avowed, and disavowed. I remember Father warning me about Hamlet. I cannot remember my mother’s face. Why? Instead I see the face of a princess, of dukes and kings and a queen, of ambassadors and suitors, mingling. The queen is with her ladies. The faces form, float by, dissolve. Petals break away from the flowers above me, and rays of sunlight, fractured by the water, form a greater bloom in which the others float, radiant, iridescent, a confusion of colours with the intense beauty of madness: white rue; delicate columbines; the tiny yellow anthers of fennel; purple pansies, their angry petal-faces, so clear in the bloom, torn into expressionless shreds of purple, white and orange by the turbulence around us. The lilac threads of rosemary stitch together all the other colours for a moment, which floats, containing all other moments of my life.

That moment lingers. There is no movement here; the past never changing and unchangeable. The beginning must be here as surely as the end. But I cannot see it. I do not remember my mother. I was born. I lived. I am dying. Perhaps I am already dead.

I search through time, bend it to my will, and it flows again, but backwards. I am dead. I am dying. I am living. I am mad. I am in love. I am not in love. I am young. I am born. My mother must be here.

I hear a voice, distorted. It is at once pregnant with meaning and beyond understanding, like the logic of madness. Do I hear my mother calling? She must have been there, in the beginning. Is she the first part of me to have died? The beginning containing the ending? I can imagine almost anything in this place which contains all places, in this moment containing all time, but I cannot see her face.

An image struggles to be conceived. The sun breaks through the ring of floating flowers and a memory forms beneath ripples between petals. I did not forget my mother. I killed her. Her death was in my birth. I carry death like life within me. I will not give birth and yet, like her, I die.

But my life and death have more than one cause, and each has many sources. My tears mingle with the stream into which I sink, into which many others flow, and all forms transform here in the moment of their dying birth. I sing down here, a melodious lay, and water fills my lungs.

Chapter 2

The only sound was of my voice. The queen and her ladies in waiting listened intently as I played the harp and accompanied its notes with my own. The grand duke, Claudius, brother to the king, hovered between the queen and the king’s empty throne. I sang of love, of tragedy and transformation.

Henry was the greatest knight in Christendom. He scaled majestic mountains and forded rushing rivers and crossed sucking swamps in his quest to find a maid more beautiful than any other. In the mountain passes he battled with bloody bandits. At the river crossings he dared the rushing currents. When mired in murk and mud in the sucking swamps, where monsters with murderous teeth gnawed the bones of men, he swung his sword in arcs of steel, and severed the heads of so many slavering beasts that their bodies cobbled his way to the welcome light. He travelled to great cities, seeing the soaring spires of famed cathedrals, wherein scenes in glittering glass illustrated naves with numinous doubles, and the columns, also coloured with the lead lined sunlight, reached so high that the arches above might have buttressed heaven itself. He travelled across vast deserts, where the days burned the dunes, and the whirling sands flung the hot sand into blinded eyes and, when their howl sank to an all-embracing hush, seemed to leave the glowing grains suspended in the night sky as sparkling stars. From the icy north to the burning south he searched. He rode from where the sun rises in the east to where it sets in the west. He viewed the plains from the eagle’s eyrie, and ventured into the deepest darkest caverns. He wandered the world, following every tale of unsurpassed beauty, but always the tales of the maids outshone their beauty, always reputation was greater than truth.

One evening after yet another disappointment Henry came to a cape bound cove. The moon loomed full and the waves washed the sand and the foam bubbles burst like liquid pearls on the curving shore. Above the crash and hiss of waves the sound of flutes and melodious singing floated, more pleasing than the tones of any mortal voice. He was so enchanted that he rode straight into the sea. There the mermaids waited, ready to invite unwary men to their coral walled halls, curtained with dark green seaweed, there to die by drowning, their bare bones to fashion flutes, their flesh to be served as a feast for the fish. And there his tale would have ended. But the light of the moon fell on Henry’s face and lit his sapphire eyes, making a sky of day amid the silver softened night. The most beautiful of the mermaids, named Melusine, whose song was as the sound of the swelling sea, saw him in that moment, and love surged in her heart. Her smooth skin was like precious pearls, her hair like silver slivers of moonlight, her eyes emerald green and deep as the sea. To save him from her sisters’ seductions she became a woman. Her fin split in two and formed two feet. Her scales lost their lustre, their edges blurring and merging to form smooth skin. Her fish tail became knotted half way down, the knot doubled, and knees emerged from the water as she walked towards him. She took his horse’s rein and led him back to the shore. He stared in amazement at her. He had never heard of her, but the truth of her beauty outshone all the false reputations that had disappointed him. And so he fell in love with her.

He took her to his castle and they wed in the chapel. The night of the wedding Henry’s lord arrived. He had been travelling to battle his enemies across the narrow straits when he had heard of his greatest vassal’s wedding. Already the household was feasting, and the garrison drank deeply, finding courage in their cups to fight each other, or slept at their posts on the high walls. Jugglers drew loops of fire in the air of the hall where basted boars were baking on spits turned by sweating servants with fire reddened faces. Acrobats tumbled and minstrels strummed lutes and sang tales of ancient heroes. Henry’s lord was shown to the place of honour beside the newlywed couple. When he saw Melusine’s beauty he wanted her, and when he heard her melodious voice he knew he must possess her, and hear her sing in his bed the song of love. So he whispered to his squire to arrange a false messenger and Henry was called away.

The new lady of the castle showed him all the hospitality a noble lady should, not seeing that every dutiful consideration for his comfort and pleasure, though given for her husband’s honour, only inflamed his lust. Her face was lit from within with love for her husband, but his lord took it for himself. When the festive crowd had dispersed and the fires dwindled to glowing red embers in ash and the soldiers snored in the courtyard and the last of the servants cleared away the remains of the feast, nibbling as they worked on crusts and furtively sipping the dregs from golden cups, Melusine showed her husband’s liege lord to his room, lighting the way with a flickering candle flame. The bed was made, the air was scented with lavender, and on the flagstoned floor a bear skin rug had been laid so that his feet, once bare, would not be chilled.

She went to fetch his squire to help him undress, but before she reached the door he stepped in her path. He said his squire had left on an important mission, to prepare his ship to cross the narrow strait, and would not return until after the rising sun. She said she would fetch a servant. He closed the door. So euphoric with love for her husband had she been she had not seen the lust in his liege’s eyes until then. He offered her gold if she would take off his boots, but she knew it was not his feet he wanted unclothed, and so she refused. He offered her power, a place by his side, but she knew that place was no throne. No matter what he offered or what he swore she now saw the evil in his eyes. She would not be seduced. And so he took by force what neither gold nor deceit could buy.

When he had sated his lust he feared what might follow, because his vassal was the greatest knight in Christendom. So he slit her throat so that she could never tell of his crime, then murdered a handsome young servant and threw his body beside her. When Henry returned he told him he had found the two together, and had executed them to uphold his vassal’s honour.

Henry, so brave that none could daunt him, now froze to the spot, his grief rising like a monster from the murk of the room. He gazed on his wife, then stared at the servant, and finally looked at his lord. Did duty command loyalty to his lord or his love? His blood burned with rage. He would kill his lord. His hand went to the pommel of his sword. But he was honour bound as a vassal. His sworn duty was to his lord. He did not draw his sword. But was not his heart vassal to Melusine? What of his duty as a husband? He gazed on her again. Had her adultery murdered that obligation? Her body lay beside the servant’s, her blood was mingled with his, her shame and his tangled in sheets. Was it not his shame too? Or was the infidelity his? Should he give his liege his love, or break his holy vow? He had vowed to protect her. He had sworn to fight his lord’s enemies. But his lord had murdered Melusine, to whom he had sworn his love. So was not his lord now his enemy? And so he was his lord’s enemy. And so he was his own. This way he fought himself. And so Henry, the greatest of knights, was defeated. He sank to his knees beside his wife, and took her in his arms, and wept as his lord left, returning to battle his enemies across the narrow strait.

Henry took Melusine’s body to the cove where first he had met her, because he knew she loved the sea and her soul would not rest until she returned to it. He walked into the sea with her in his arms, and as her feet touched the water they changed. The skin of her legs became scaly. Her knees joined. Her feet came together, flattened and spread. The foam of the waves washed the blood from her breasts. His tears, falling on her face, became her own. She was crying in his arms because she had to leave him. He clung to her still and she clung to him. But her face was ashen and he had to let her go. Still she clung to him, and she would have died again with her arms about him, but her sisters sang to her, and with regret she went to them.

When she told them the manner of her death they were enraged. Instead of melodious songs the air was filled with their screams. The sea rose in waves so high that the fish swam higher than the albatross flew. The ship of Henry’s lord capsized in the strait as he crossed to battle his enemies. No honours awaited him in that field beneath the waves. Melusine’s sisters dragged him to his death in the depths. His flesh fed the fish and from his bare bones the mermaids fashioned flutes.

Henry would return to that cove as his strength declined and his sight grew dim and the years slipped into forgetfulness, though the memory of Melusine’s sweet singing never faded. She did not sing when he came, though, but only wept, her tears accompanied by the sound of flutes made from her murderer’s bones. And so she weeps when the moon is full, filling the cove with her salty tears, so that the tide is always highest then. She is crying now, can you hear her?

I was crying, holding the harp against my body.

The queen enthusiastically applauded the performance, and her ladies followed her lead. I wiped tears away.

“Such a heart for love,” the queen said, and her ladies nodded enthusiastically, all but one. Jane observed me curiously. I had denied to her the attractions of love many times recently, including only the day before. She was my closest friend and knew my views, though she doubted whether my heart and mind were in agreement.

“I’m not interested in love, Jane,” I had said to her.

“The queen says the games of love are the games of power and…”

“The games of love are the games of the powerless.”

“You pretend you believe that, but you know you could have any lord you liked in your power, Phi, any lord would be…”

“And so be in his power, and so be doubly powerless.”

“How doubly?”

“Once in being loved and once in being had.”

“But that’s one.”

“You’re mistaken.”

“Isn’t being loved being had?”

“So you admit to be loved is to be possessed?”

“Being possessed by love is to lose yourself, but the man loses himself also, so you possess him equally.”

“Or unequally. He lies and gets, you lie and are taken.”

“One day you’ll meet your match and I’ll be happy to…”

“I won’t play that game.”

“Wit is no armour against love. Your cleverness only makes men love you more.”

“I’d better play the fool then.”

Courtiers were now milling about the queen, begging her favour. My father, the Landgrave, lord Polonius, was whispering counsel in her ear, and she inclined her head slightly towards him. She wore her still lustrous dark hair in a simple fashion – visible beneath her slight, loosely worn wimple, held in place by a light golden fillet – with side plaits curled back up in loops on either side of her face, above her throat cloth. A strand of her hair had slipped free from the plait opposite that ear in which father whispered, and seemed to tenderly caress her cheek, whose complexion was as smooth as that of a much younger woman. Her sky blue eyes wandered casually about the hall, as if out of inattentiveness, but she smiled kindly whenever they fell, as if accidentally, on a favoured courtier, and she nodded, almost imperceptibly, at father’s counsel, frequently touching her lips delicately with her moist tongue as if preparing to speak, then rolling them in on each other and pressing together as though reconsidering.

Jane had taken the opportunity to come over and talk to me. “I’m not interested in love,” she said teasingly, as she reached out to wipe the remaining moisture from my cheek.

“Has any hero scaled majestic mountains or forded rushing rivers for me?” I said, smiling.

“No, but many would.” She slung her arms around my neck, and pressed her cheek against mine, trying to cajole me with her affection as much as with her words. I breathed in a faint scent of mint and roses. When excited Jane talked like a river flows, and besides the perfections of a certain prince no topic excited her so much as love. “So many would, so many lords, I’ve heard the ladies talking and even the queen and Sophie says that she’s been asked about you a lot of times and I have been too and you know the courtiers all know I’m your best friend so I hear a lot of it and I do encourage them when I can because I want everyone to love you as much as I do and I’ve seen them trying to talk to you but you never let them which doesn’t mean they don’t want to you know or else you put them down with that clever way you have but maybe you’ll find someone as clever as you and I can think of one lord only he’s not only a lord but every man likes you just as much as every lady likes him and every lord wants to love you and be loved by you so I don’t know how you could not know how much so many lords love you, how much all…”

Sometimes I would simply let her go on like this, but I had found that if I wanted her conversation punctuated without unkindly telling her to stop I needed to quickly interject. Many years of this had taught me a verbal quickness apt for both repartee and insult. With my friend, however, it was never deliberately offensive.

“Many would swear eternal love, and every vow would be as true as the tale I told. Don’t mistake my musical feeling for real longing.”

“Your feeling marred your music. Do you deny that?”

“I can’t.”

“Then you can’t deny the queen’s charge of a heart made for love and…”

“My performance required the music’s marring, and so perfection would have been imperfect. And besides, a heart is made for beating, as a mind is made for reason; love will only injure the one and derange the other.”

“If you insist on denying love, I’ll deny believing your denial because…”

“Have you so little faith in your friend?”

“Your friendship I’ll never doubt,” she said, holding me more tightly, “but your coldness is proven false by it which is just as well…”

“I don’t claim to be cold, except to foolishness.”

“Prepare to shiver then.”

“What do you mean?”

She was looking towards the door, momentarily speechless, a besotted expression on her face. Only one man could do that to Jane. Around the queen all her other ladies wore the same expression. Nauseating!

A herald approached the queen. “Your highness, your son, the lord Hamlet, returns.”

The queen rose and rushed forward to embrace her son, with her ladies hovering as close to him as courtly etiquette would allow, two of them kneeling to either side of the queen with the ostensible intention of straightening her mantle, but gazing up at the prince with adoration as their hands were thus occupied.

The grand duke did not immediately follow, though it was his habit to shadow the queen’s steps. His fashionable attire – white cloak split down the left side and open in front to reveal a closely fitting cotehardie, and hose down to small neat shoes of supple leather – emphasised his small slim physique. The lack of colour – cotehardie half white, half black; hose reversing the pattern, half black, half white; shoes chequered black and white – also understated his importance among the more flamboyant courtiers. A charismatic diplomat, perhaps with the eloquence of wine, he could seem careless, though he rarely was. I did not recall seeing him drink publically, but he was always slightly unsteady on his legs, so I assumed he drank in private. Despite this his conversation was always coherent. You would expect him to be an ambitious man – so many younger sons of kings are – but everything about him seemed to say, here is a man none need fear.

Now he stood directly in front of the king’s throne, facing out across the hall, breathing deeply, puffing up his chest, broadening his shoulders. His small dark eyes, usually unsmiling even when he laughed, now crinkled at the edges. Then, with a sigh, he stepped down from the dais, and walked to a point half way between the prince and myself, folded his hands behind his back, and watched with carefully subdued disgust the adoration of the queen and her ladies for the prince.

I could empathise. Though Hamlet is impressively handsome, with his father’s height and broad shoulders and long blonde hair, but his mother’s slimness and sapphire blue eyes, Jane’s adoration, like that of all the queen’s ladies, is beyond reason. To his own credit Hamlet seems baffled by his status among them, and expresses this with mild amusement. Today, however, he was in no mood for amusement and, after briefly embracing his mother in greeting, brusquely stated his need to leave immediately.

“I returned as soon as I heard of the war. I must follow my father south.”

Hamlet’s clothes contrasted markedly with those of his uncle, Claudius. Where Claudius’s was all understatement, Hamlet’s burst with colour. His cloak was a bright scarlet, his hose forest green, and his cotehardie was divided into lozenges of blue, yellow and purple. His peaked green cap was topped with an extravagant peacock feather. Even his shoes were coloured, with alternating diamonds of red, white and brown leather. Combined with the lustrous hair which curled down from the rim of his cap to his shoulders like a cascade of fine gold threads, the red flushing of his cheeks and the brightness of his blue eyes, his clothes suggested an inner vividness which could not be contained.

“You must rest,” his mother insisted, then added to the necessity with an accumulation of others, perhaps hoping the resulting mass would be incontrovertible. “The ship must only have docked within the hour. Your travels from Sweden must have been tiring. You must not exhaust yourself. You must be tired already.”

But Hamlet was not to be so easily swayed. “I can’t wait for tiredness to tire. I must fight, if needs be with sleep also.”

“So quick to action, son?” Her tone was no longer commanding, but pleading, and fearful. The thought of losing a son to the accidents of war is not easy for any mother, but Hamlet is her only child, multiplying her anxiety for his safety.

“I’d be less than a son if I were slower. While I wait my father fights. While he fights I should be with him.”

“You’re one man. A battle is made of many. Let those many fight and this one stay in Elsinore with me.”

“The actions of one man can change a kingdom’s fate.”

“Only if well chosen, and weariness feeds carelessness.”

Jane had by now rushed away from my side to join the others. She had the look of a child when her father has returned from a distant voyage. She would look about him for gifts, but he is stern and will not allow it, so she showers him with kisses in the hope he will reveal them as a reward. If she could have, Jane would have showered Hamlet with kisses, but the only gift she needed was his presence.

“Stay a while,” the queen urged.

Hamlet’s eyes quickly searched the throne room. When they alighted on me they paused.

“Answer my prayers, stay with us,” the queen begged.

“I shall obey you, madam, a little while.” And his gaze moved on, as if he had only noticed me by chance, settling on Jane’s beautiful face. He smiled at her, and she looked as though she would be overwhelmed by that simple gesture.

The queen smiled, then snapped: “Ladies, don’t hang about him like hounds about the stag.”

“Mother, they adorn you like jewels the crown.” He glanced over Jane’s shoulder at me again. “I’m blinded by the brilliance of the court’s greatest treasure.”

The ladies all tittered at that.

“But perhaps they would be kind to my tired eyes.” They stepped back. He glanced once again in my direction, then said to Lady Sophie, “My lady Sophie, your eyes seem even more brilliant than when I last saw you. Have you used sorcery to improve on perfection?” She shook her head, her mouth slightly open. “As admirable as the results are, you must beware promising the devil too much. He’s an unkind creditor.” She looked as though she was going to faint. He proceeded to flatter each one individually, with such subtlety that, by the time he was finished, each could have believed he loved her and her alone, and was merely toying with the others. This talent of his gave me good reason to doubt him. He wore so many masks it could be hard to see the man beneath them. But then, is that not true of us all? The king, the queen, Claudius, Father, Jane, even me; we all wore many masks. How can you know anyone in a world of masks? How can you even know yourself? Every mask becomes so familiar, so comfortable, that when you reach up to touch it you wonder, “Is this truly my face?”

Once he had finished with his flattery he turned in my direction again. “Uncle!” he shouted across the hall. Claudius looked startled at the salutation. Hamlet strode over and extended a hand to him. Claudius slowly took one hand from behind his back and extended it, while gripping the other so tightly I could see his knuckles whitening. Hamlet took the proffered hand in both of his, shook it so vigorously Claudius’s whole body shook also, then dropped it, as if having forgotten why he had been so eager to take it, and wandered over to the group of nobles beside which I sat with my harp, greeting each of them briefly, and pleasantly surprising them all. When he had finished he was only a few feet from me. I rose to leave, but he intercepted me by stepping across my path with his back to me.

“Excuse me, my lady,” he said as he turned, as if surprised.

“I own myself I owe no man so much, lord Hamlet,” I looked into his eyes, which are as sapphire blue as a clear winter sky seen through water.

“A strange reply!”

“Is it so strange?”

“As strange as you’re beautiful. Perhaps you’ve afflicted yourself.”

“How’s that possible?”

“Beauty is the cause of madness.”

“And am I mad?”

“Maddening at least.”

“So, where beauty lies, madness can’t sleep?”

“He’d rather not sleep, but lie where she lies.”

“That can’t be. Madness is inconstant, since he’s never himself from one moment to the next. And so I lie not and say I will leave.”

In Hamlet’s eyes as I escaped I thought I saw, not the expected annoyance, but rather admiration.

Jane hurried over to re-join me. “What did he say to you, Phi? What did he…”

“Oh, something touching on beauty and madness.”

“He told you how beautiful you are? The prince! The prince told you that? Tell me more, you have to tell me I have to hear what…”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

Hamlet folded his arms and observed us with mild amusement.

“Oh, don’t be selfish. Let me know, every word that he said, and don’t leave out a single letter.”

“So that all the queen’s ladies can use them to spell out rumours?”

“Better they know the truth than I make it up.”

“You wouldn’t!” I pretended shock.

“No, but…oh, come on, Phi! I love you and you want to tell me but you don’t know so if you only knew yourself better you’ll see and you’ll want to tell I don’t doubt you can…”

I noticed the other ladies watching Jane eagerly.

“He said little of interest.”

Hamlet pretended to lose interest, but he stood apart, engaging no one else in conversation. His mother observed Jane with a quizzical expression as she walked back to her throne.

“Stop teasing. Everything he says is of interest.”

“Why?”

“He’s the prince.”

“I’d forgotten.”

“You’d forgotten? You’re not serious, Phi. How could you forget the prince? The glass of fashion. How could you not love the prince?”

“He’s remembered and loved more than enough by you and the queen’s other ladies. He doesn’t need my love, except to prove himself necessary to all ladies. I’d like our philosopher prince to understand contingency.”

“So for the sake of philosophy you’ll be the only one in the kingdom who hates him?”

“I never said I hate him. I hate your assumption that I must love him.”

“But why don’t you?” She wore a wounded expression, as if my failure to love the prince caused her pain.

“If I don’t perhaps I haven’t as tender a heart as yours, Jane.”

Jane looked at me sternly, refusing to be flattered. “Your heart must be as hard as stone.”

“The better to stand firm when yours flits from one infatuation to the next.”

“I will never love any man but prince Hamlet.”

“Until a handsome baron comes to court.”

She shook her head and lifted her nose into the air with playful disdain.

“Or maybe a count?”

“A landgrave. He must be a landgrave.”

“See? Already the prince is forgotten, when merely the thought of a landgrave casts its shadow over your affections.”

“But the prince doesn’t love me,” she said in exasperation, “he loves you. Not that I don’t think…”

“He only wants to prove my love his. It’s a suit of ownership, and I won’t have it decided by the court over which he’ll one day preside. Or any of its ladies, not even the one I love most.” I gave her a hard look, but Jane is blind when carried away by her obsessions.

“But you own his heart.”

“I don’t see it.”

“He’s always seeking you out and talking to you.”

“Because I have ears and he has a tongue to wag near them.”

“So you can hear his words, his beautiful words, his beautiful, perfect…”

“Words are only air, and that costs no more than a chest to contain it?”

“His sweet words.”

“What value is the sweetness of honey if the bread is stale?”

“Hamlet’s not stale. He’s only twenty three.”

“And I’m eighteen.”

“Is eighteen too young to know anything of feelings? I’m only nineteen, and I can love him. Why do you feel so little? Why can’t you…”

“I have feelings. I love father, when he isn’t in a didactic mood.”

“You’re funny but that wasn’t….”

“I love Amleth and Alma…”

“Your stallion and falcon? Phi! Be serious. We’re talking about the prince who’s so…”

“Alright. Let me see. I love the colours of dawn and dusk over the sea, the scent of a field of wildflowers in spring, of bread fresh from the oven, the feel of fresh sheets against my skin, the sound of a harp, the song of a nightingale….”

“You’re deliberately ignoring my meaning.”

“I always do that. Anyway, I love you, unconditionally. Isn’t that something?” I noticed Hamlet had moved slightly closer, and realised I had been speaking in a low, conspiratorial voice. Though he pretended indifference it was obvious to me he was listening carefully. His mother was no longer scrutinising Jane, at least not directly, though it is always difficult to tell where her attention is focussed. Father has said she seems to notice little but recollects everything.

“It’s welcome, and I love you too, Phi,” Jane said affectionately, then paused, struggling between her love for me and for the prince, “but still, it’s madness not to love the prince. Haven’t you eyes? Can’t you see? What reasonable woman could look at him and not see the shape of love?” I’m sure he smiled at that, though he hid it well with a hand over a pretended cough.

“I’m a woman. I have reason. Do you dispute either proposition?”

“No, but…Hamlet…love…the two are eternally one, an eternity of…”

“You think too much of love, Jane.”

“You think too little of love, Phi. You weren’t always so cynical. I remember and don’t think…”

“Childish infatuations? Am I forever to be reminded of past foolishness?”

“Only until you admit the excellence of Hamlet.”

“He is excellently well dressed.”

“And his sweet words.”

“And his flattering tongue. He’s unsurpassed in that.”

“You deliberately provoke me, Phi.”

“Only so I can be forgiven by you. And you will forgive me. You are more excellent than any prince, sweet Jane.”

“No, I’m only a common girl, whom the queen was kind enough to, but that was a long time ago and just because she gives me beautiful things to wear doesn’t make me…”

“Your heart is more noble than many a courtly sycophant.”

“So I’m a sycophant now?”

“A sycophant of Cupid, selling his beguiling wares.”

“Then you’ll buy?”

“I can’t credit your suggestion. I have given my love to you, so my heart is as empty as a pauper’s purse.”

“But giving love makes the heart richer, and so you must have a full heart, which will be golden when you love Hamlet.”

“You’re a cunning advocate, but I must object.”

“If I may judge you will be overruled, and who better to rule than a prince?”

“You would have me enslave the prince? This is treason, Jane.”

“Oh, to hang from Hamlet would be the quickest route to Heaven.”

“Such a heaven could not last long.”

“How can you know without trying?”

“All men are mortal, no sooner they rise than they fall.”

“Some last longer.”

“But not an eternity.” I put on a saintly air. “And I value the most sublime bliss, which only the purest can know.”

Jane snorted.

Hamlet unfolded his arms, still pretending not listening to us, but I could see his reaction to every mention of himself. Because of all his impressive attributes – looks, charm, intelligence – he is proud, though despite this he has a sceptical mind. He can doubt everyone, even himself. I doubted him then. The words he said were too beautiful, too neat. Too much admiration, too little real perception.

The herald re-entered the hall and rushed to the dais, where the queen was settling back into her throne, two of her ladies carefully adjusting her gowns around her. She watched them, as though unaware of the herald. Sweeping off his hat, he dropped to his knee. “Highness,” he said breathlessly, and waited for her to openly notice him, then “the king returns.”

“In what fashion?” she asked, looking with relief towards her son.

“With much protestation of trumpets, a fine display of captured flags, muddied and tattered in mark of defeat, and more signs else of triumph than I have breath to say.”

Chapter 3

By the time I reached the balcony and looked down the queen was already in the courtyard, her ladies in waiting gathering behind her. Jane was the last to arrive, looking behind her, searching for something. Hamlet was standing in front, the colours of his clothes brilliant in the bright sun. Jane whispered something to another of the queen’s ladies but still kept searching the courtyard. A kite cawed as it circled above, then flew off in the direction of the approaching army. Jane looked up, saw me and waved. She motioned towards the prince with her head. I patted my mouth in imitation of a yawn, and waited for her to fold her arms and narrow her eyes at me. I was rewarded quickly.

The queen had chosen well when she had favoured Jane, the daughter of a common merchant, only a little girl then. Brought to the court she had been added to that greatest of treasures, as Hamlet had put it, the queen’s ladies and maids of honour. Remarkably beautiful, with intelligence enough when her enthusiasms didn’t submerge it, Jane had repaid the patronage with a devotion to all the queen’s cares and concerns that the nobly born ladies could not match.

Having vexed Jane enough I looked towards the town. Beyond it I could see a line of caparisoned horses, and armour and weapons glinting in the sun.

“A fine victory,” a voice commented sardonically beside me. I turned and saw colourless Claudius.

“Isn’t it good that our king has won?”

“At what cost? There are better ways.”

“Like diplomacy?”

“Precisely. War is the way of ignorant beasts, grunting and killing and dying in the mud. I say let the fools kill each other, and leave the world to saner men.”

“So war is the enemy of those that fight it, and the ally of saner men?”

He observed me with more curiosity then, as a hunter might a dangerous beast before killing it. I blinked, as a proper lady must, being too innocent to fully comprehend the meaning of her own words. He smoothed out his own features to form a bland, unreadable mask. Only his eyes remained expressive, glinting, then even that sign was erased from his face, like an error scraped from a wax tablet. He turned his face away, and when he turned it back the mask had changed. Courtly, charming, he continued: “Diplomacy wins without bloodshed, and leaves time for more civilized pursuits: music, poetry, the love of beautiful women.” He smiled to himself. “You’re hoping to become one of the queen’s ladies, aren’t you?”

“My lord, I wouldn’t presume.”

“There’s no presumption, Gertrude admires your beauty and intelligence, and why wouldn’t she? You have your father’s astute mind,” He frowned for a moment, then continued, “and any courtier with eyes devotes them to your face.”

“My lord!”

“Don’t think I flatter. My words are as true as the blood in my veins is noble.”

I sometimes forgot that Claudius too was the son of a king. He never did. And who knows with the accidents of fate? If a low born man can rise, as duke Victor had done, through the favour of the king, might not the second son of a king also aspire to a crown? If he married the right German princess….

The column of troops kicked up the dust of the dry summer road in a cloud, which settled on the surrounding trees fading verdant foliage to slate-green. Thirty archers in the king’s livery came first. Then followed the king’s marshal. Behind him the king himself, dressed in full armour for the triumphal return, riding a great destrier, and by his side duke Victor, likewise armoured and mounted. Behind them walked pages bearing the banners of the king and the duke. After that came the knights. For display they also were fully armed and armoured and mounted on their destriers instead of their palfreys; lances pointing to the heavens, pennons fluttering from the tips; helmets shining in the sun, tabards displaying coats of arms. Amongst their number rode unarmed and unarmoured men, gaudily dressed, captured southern nobles or their sons. They chatted with the knights in friendly fashion. Such men rarely die in battle. They would be ransomed for enormous sums, or stay at Elsinore or in the households of nobles, as hostages, well treated, but their precarious lives a guarantee against future rebellions. Squires followed, waving aloft captured banners, and further back, pages walked beside carts piled with weapons and armour and provisions and booty, holding long pikes in the air.

The townsfolk lined the southern road into town, the main street, and the road that ran from the last houses to the guarded palisades ringing the fortifications of the castle proper, where a few eager teenage boys tried to sneak past the guards, and were roughly shoved back when caught. Fathers had children on their broad shoulders, mothers restrained too eager sons from running beneath horses hooves, little girls clung to their mother’s skirts. Weavers and dyers and tanners and glovers and cobblers and armourers and many others had abandoned their work and come out of their workshops to stare and gape and comment. Perhaps, seeing their own work on these great lords and knights, a blacksmith boasted to his neighbour that this knight’s helmet or that knight’s sword had been hammered and tempered in his forge, while others claimed that lord’s hose had been woven on her loom, or dyed in his vats, or sold in their shop. The aldermen proudly stood in the town square, nodding with a combination of obsequiousness and pride as each of the most important men rode past. And so every man, from greatest to least, felt himself a participant in the victory and a brother to the king, while many a serving woman dreamed futilely of a handsome lord, and the life of a leisured lady.

The knights’ lances gleamed, but not the pikes held by the pages. From a distance their tips seemed to have been bated. A dark cloud moved with them, towards which the kites that usually circled the castle gatehouse now flew. As they came closer I could see the pikes were topped with the heads of dead men, mouths gaping, eyes unseeing, flies buzzing about them like hellish haloes. Boys from the town threw stones, and the pages laughed and jerked the heads around in a grotesque puppet show.

Faces change. Time becomes as uncertain as memory. Instead of the faces of mercenaries, I see those of the Danish court. The king, the queen, the grand duke. A mind sinking into madness. The queen in the courtyard below, the king at the head of the procession, the duke beside me. Like images drawn by dye in a stream they twist and flow, change and dissolve. Laertes. Safe, or is he? Nausea felt, as if poisoned. Father, his face in pain. My hand clutching my side. A parboiled skull, grinning, horrified, somehow amused by its own horror. How time changes the prince! Where is he now? The expectancy and rose of the fair state. Among all the faces I recognise I cannot see my own. I peer more intently. I know now I must be there among them. But many of them should not be there. Hamlet still lives. Laertes lives. The king and queen. But the king is not the king. Claudius is the grand duke. The queen still lives, but she is married to Claudius. Hamlet still lives, but Hamlet is the king, and the king is dead. My memories are confused. I see the sun through the water, and rosemaries on the stream, but the surface of the water is below me. I am flying above, looking down into the sun, and between us float memories like scattered petals.

I gripped the stone of a merlon and turned away, from the horror of the triumphal procession or a vision. Claudius rushed over and placed a steadying hand under my other elbow.

“There are better ways,” he said in reassuring tones.

“There have to be,” I could not help agreeing.

I leaned on him. The smell of alcohol on his breath brought me to my senses and I forced myself to look again. The known faces gone. To carts bringing up the rear a ragged assortment of men and boys were tied by ropes through dog collars. They looked to the ground, jeered at and spat on by the townsfolk as they passed. These were mercenaries, and common rebels and their sons. A boy stumbled, his legs tired from the long march, and was dragged by the neck. He tried to regain his feet but did not have the strength and would have died, strangled by his collar, had not two of the collared men lifted him, each holding an arm as his legs futilely imitated walking with a dragging step, like a puppet with broken strings.

I felt my own legs failing me again, and gripped Claudius’s arm more tightly. I couldn’t help exclaiming: “Is this the way to treat people, making ourselves beasts by collaring them?”

“The king is merciful,” Claudius sneered, his voice dripping viscous sarcasm, “he might have made them crawl, and look, look how they stand and walk, their legs free to follow, their hands free to beg, their necks free to bend and offer their eyes to the ground. No, there is no cruelty here, only a mighty king’s justice.”

He spat the word “justice” then literally spat, over the battlements, in the direction of the procession. I felt his eyes on me then, aware he had been too forthright, so I wore the mask of a dazed damsel; in innocence lies safety, or so I thought. He paternally brushed the hair from my face, which was pale without pretence.

In the courtyard the king greeted his son, praised the valour of his favourite, Victor, then presented the queen with carts of expensive cloth and jewels and more: Dutch tapestries and Chinese silk, jade from the east and amber from the north, Byzantine icons and relics of saints stolen or bought from venal Roman clerics, frankincense and myrrh.

Chapter 4

I made my way down from the battlements. As I was about to emerge from the stairwell I heard footsteps, stopped in the shadows in the last curve of the stairs and peered around the stones. Hamlet strode into sight, stopped and spun around. I could see he was angry.

I heard the king’s voice. “Why so angry, Hamlet?”

“I’m pleased by your victory, Father, but wish I could have helped secure it.”

“These are brave words,” King Hamlet said, reaching Prince Hamlet and grasping his shoulders in his large hands, “and auger well for future action.”

“But they’re only words. Have I nothing more?”

“You’ll prove yourself soon enough. None could doubt your courage.”

“None but Hamlet.”

“Hamlet doubts not Hamlet.” The king struck his mailed fist against his breastplate with a clang. Hamlet knows Hamlet’s mettle. This body,” he said, as he opened his hand and slapped the palm against his son’s chest, “is fired in a king’s loins, and tempered in a queen’s womb.”

“And untested in any wind but of my words.”

“All blades are untested fresh from the forge. You’ll be blooded soon enough. You’re eager. You’re young. And these are good things while they last. But never forget this, Hamlet: a king is not only a soldier; his mind must be as sharp as his blade. I see that sharpness in you, and because of that I don’t doubt you’ll make a great king one day. You must quell those passions though and use that mind, not only in abstract philosophy, but also to understand and shape the world. When a king rages it must be theatre not madness, and his audience must be entranced by his performance. The passions of youth must not mar your judgements. That is a fatal flaw in a prince; the court is a pit of vipers, of sycophants and assassins. You must see them clearly, know them for what they are. You must know when to charm them, when to trap them, and when to crush them beneath your heel.”

Chapter 5

After a triumph come the rewards, after the rewards the recriminations. The ambitious enviously observe success, the past greatness of a name has been forgotten, they say. The king’s favour and the proud contempt of ancient families mix in an unsavoury dish. Few show disapproval openly – no one wants to be accused of treason, and have his head decorate a pike above the gatehouse – but animosity simmers, only waiting for an opportune moment to boil over and burn today’s favourite. Until then the envious will mutter murderously and patiently plot.

I was in the throne room, and noticed the grand duke, Claudius, near me. His grace stood beside count Magnus, who wore a golden belt inset with pearls around his waist and a magnificent scarlet plume in his broad felt hat, and they whispered as the king presented duke Victor with the profitable care of the realm’s most valuable ward, a young count of the southern marches whose father and brothers had been killed in the recent war. His estates would yield as much revenue again as the duke’s own. Victor, already a rich man, was now in wealth second only to the king. Count Magnus’s small grey eyes, shrank to angry slits, but he decorated his deeply pitted face with a rigid smile, as a parsimonious baker decorates a stale cake with icing, and whispered in calm tones that might as easily express admiration or indifference or hate.

“As a king’s brother have you fought,” king Hamlet said, gripping Victor’s shoulder, “a brother we see before us, and as a brother do we place our young cousin in your care. In your care he is not out of our own. In your family he is still in ours.”

Magnus blanched at that and looked at Claudius as if to say, “see, see how he dishonours you?” but the grand duke’s face betrayed no emotion. He observed the proceedings, as well as the anger of the count, with the steady eye of a goldsmith tapping with his tiny hammer the setting for a precious gem.

The queen’s gaze floated over from the king to Victor to Claudius to Magnus, as a bee might float in the pleasure gardens, its trajectory apparently random. Only when they alighted on Hamlet did they pause, and a smile spread across her face. However uncertain her thoughts, no one could doubt her love for her son.

After the ceremony I joined my brother, Laertes, who was talking to Father.

Father was as tall and broad shouldered as the king, but with the bent neck and faltering step of a scholar. He was greying rapidly, and wrinkles lined his face, but between those lines the astute could read as much knowledge of men as books. His bushy brows protruded untrimmed over eyes that seemed to focus somewhere beyond your head when he spoke to you, as if you were a variable in an abstract problem. That problem was power, and its delicate balance. Its variables were emperors, kings, queens, princes, dukes, dynastic matches of famed names and children born to obscure barons; merchants, trade-winds, the wealth of guilds, the livestock of monasteries; the advantageous wakes of plagues, barren famines pregnant with opportunity; papal favour and secular consequences, scripture and Apocrypha, philosophies and heresies; armies and the chances of war, victories in far provinces or neighbouring fiefs, sacked towns sending black smoke to the heavens and refugees to hostile horizons – burdens or allies, infiltrators or friends; and always the solution, ever evolving, was the advantage of Denmark’s crown.

“The closeness of the king to his favourite is the seed of many whispers,” he said to Laertes, “his generosity too rich a soil. He heeds no warnings though. I fear a harvest of sour fruit for Denmark.”

“But why be concerned, Father? It’s only whispers.”

“Don’t doubt the power of rumour and discontent. Whispers can join like ripples until the shouting wave surges high enough to shatter the very stones of state.”

Noticing me for the first time, Laertes changed the topic.

“Sister, I need your help.”

“You know you can ask anything of me, Laertes.”

“Help me to convince Father I belong in Paris.”

“But we see so little of you in Elsinore.”

“Little sister.” He patted my head.

I knocked his hand away. “I’m eighteen, not nine.”

He laughed. I was rankled. I love my brother, but he always patronises me. When I was younger he was protective, and I appreciated that, but he refuses to recognise that I have grown up. “You ask for my aid but if I’m only a child how can I help?”

“Then today you’re no longer a child. Convince him.”

“But I don’t want you to go.”

“Then perhaps you are still a child.”

“You provoke me in quest of my assistance? It’s a strange tactic.”

“The ways of the court are subtle.” He assumed a sly, knowing air.

“What do you know of the court? You’re never here.”

Father nodded, his face serious. “My own fear from another, younger mouth. You spend much time on your studies, if that’s what you do in Paris. More likely cards and dice and…,” he glanced at me, “…and other things.”

“I haven’t a single disease,” Laertes said with a humour that was lost on Father.

“If you frequent such dens of iniquity that’ll change soon enough. You’ll lose your nose, and…,” he glanced down, “…other things.”

“I only frequent dens of inquiry, where the most subtle philosophy is the whole of my study.”

“To contemplate those wholes so deeply,” I asked with my most innocent face, “do you erect your substance as an intrinsic quiddity interior to the extraneous enfoldment, or is penetration rather facilitated arithmetically by the calculated addition of digits?”

“Not amused by my amusement, he resorted to his usual brotherly tactic. “Uh…Father, maybe this is not the company…”

My response was too predictably hot. “I may be a maid; I’m not a fool.”

He smiled in that infuriating way he has. “No, little sister, but…you know little of…”

“Of the world? I know enough, and perhaps you should know less if that’s what you’re doing in Paris.”

“I said I’m not.” He had abandoned his jocularity, and now pleaded his innocence with Father in a tone modulating between wheedling and desperation. “I’m studying. The university is all I care about. A banquet of savoury dishes to give vigour to the intellect.”

I knew there was something he wasn’t telling us. Laertes is intelligent but, unlike Hamlet, he has never been a committed scholar. He is enthusiastic for everything new, and carries others with his enthusiasm, but loses interest as quickly as he gains it. He lacks discipline and focus. Perhaps he is disciplined in his seductions, writing careful sonnets to his mistress’s eyes. Or does he pay with golden coins instead of flattering verses? I have been told he is the image of Father, seen through the glass of time; and he is certainly tall, broad shouldered, athletic and handsome; so you would suspect the former, though I have heard that even handsome men pay for the pleasures of a woman-warmed bed.

“Pha!” Father said, “the universities are nurseries of sophisticated stupidity.”

“You’ve always taught me not to despise learning.”

“All things in moderation. And learning has its limits. Pass beyond them and nonsense soon fills the void. Practical intelligence requires little more than History and languages, and experience.”

“You didn’t only study History when you were young. You studied Drama also. Yet you think I should limit myself to the study of History and Latin and Greek.”

“Drama teaches the arts of duplicity. Duplicity is the nature of the world. Know the nature of the world and its secrets will the sooner be found. Fail to discover them and your reward will be kites gorging on your eyeballs while your neck satisfies the prick of a pike.”

“Only at court. In Paris I’m safe from the machinations of the court. In Paris I can be naïve and survive. In Paris I can find a wife and give you grandchildren. An heir.”

Father sighed, and nodded. “You wring from me my unwilling consent. But you won’t go immediately. There’s much occurring now at court. I would have you observe at least some of the world. You’ll remain here for a while. Then you can return to your abstractions, your theological debates and Latin poetry, your anatomy and philosophy, your Galen and Averroes.”

Laertes carefully suppressed a grin. I wondered whether he had a mistress in Paris, or several. That would explain his urgency. Naïve indeed!

Chapter 6

An embassy had arrived. Father received them at the docks beside the town. From the mast of the docked ship flew the colours of the English king.

Seagulls dived in disorderly squadrons to the docks to squabble over whatever provisions might be accidentally dropped by visiting sailors, and an albatross hovered above one of the masts that swayed like slight beech trunks in the wind across the Oresund Strait, wings seeming painted against the clouds so perfect was its motionlessness. Down below and across the water, outside the village of Helsingborg, fishwives mended nets by the shore, their weather-beaten husbands and still young sons lost in small boats beyond the bay – whether for a day or eternity – in the blur of sea and sky at the horizon. Behind the fishing village, helmets and halberds glinted from the battlements of a small castle keep, winking in and out of existence behind the crenels and merlons. East of the fishing village and castle a horse galloped around a corral, tethered to a soldier at the centre. The grassy ground sloped gently away towards low hills, with irregularly dispersed rows of trees which drew closer together in the distance to form a uniform carpet of green. I breathed deeply, savouring the smell of seaweed and salt on the air, wishing myself lost with the fishermen in an eternal blue, or hovering, as light as air, and as free, with the majestic albatross. It rose now, as if by magic, its wings not moving. My spirit lifted with it, and higher. I breathed out, both air and dreams. I would go below, where courtiers, like the seagulls, squabbled over the scraps of greater men. Like the as yet unbroken horse across the water my range was limited, my path a relentless circle, drawing me towards a centre I could not flee no matter how fast I might run.

In the great hall Jane and the other ladies whispered behind the queen, deliberately loudly enough for her to hear, about Hamlet’s good taste. One of Lady Sophie’s brothers chatted with Laertes, perhaps exchanging anecdotes about sexual conquests, Father leaned towards the king to remind him who the ambassador’s companions were, Claudius brooded colourlessly, and Osric, a young courtier renowned for his combination of verbosity and vacuousness, spoke to Hamlet with such fluent incomprehensibility that the latter stared at him with bafflement, turning rapidly to impatience, which slowly moderated into amusement, before settling into princely indifference. The queen snapped at her ladies to be quiet, but with a smile of motherly indulgence, Laertes grinned, Father indicated the group by the door with his eyes, Claudius yawned, and Osric, mistaking Hamlet’s indifference for an invitation, continued blathering. Hamlet looked at me with comic desperation, and mimed unsheathing his dagger and stabbing himself in the ear.

Trumpets were blown, a herald introduced the English ambassador in flowery language and the ambassador, an earl named Richard, striding halfway to the king, briefly flattered him. After adverting to “the brotherhood of kings” and “the obligations of friendship” he asked leave to pursue “another important embassy.” The king seemed surprised by this precipitous request but, possibly seeing an escape from tedious sycophancy and platitudes, granted it. As earl Richard suddenly turned to me I noticed uneasily that Father was less surprised.

“An embassy of the heart,” Earl Richard said. Father whispered to the king, and they both watched me with knowing smiles. I had never had such need of wings. To everyone else’s surprise the earl strutted over to me and extended an upturned hand with a jewelled locket. “Lady, your beauty is so widely reported my heart was taken before my eyes had the fortune to confirm it. Please, accept this small token of my admiration. Though it is poor compared to the wealth of your virtues, yet it bespeaks a constant beating heart.”

I stared at him in disbelief. I glanced at Father, who was smiling and nodding approvingly. Had he arranged this? So public? How could I reject the token before so many witnesses and not mortify the man? Hamlet watched me anxiously, as though my decision meant as much to him as to the earl. “You’re too kind, I’m sure,” I said.

“No, not too kind, but true.”

“Many others would be more deserving. I ought not to take what I’ve done so little to earn.”

“You’ve earned more than this with only the grace of your reply, and you have so much more to offer.”

I lowered my voice: “You mean my father has more to offer?” I raised my voice again: “I can’t accept such a suit without good counsel.” I looked pointedly at Father, who seemed about to offer counsel, good or not, and sharply added, “and I will ask them to consider the matter carefully with me before giving it.” Father frowned.

Earl Richard’s hand was still extended with the gift. I reached out. He smiled expectantly. I folded his fingers over the locket, and said, “it’s a beautiful gift. Far too beautiful for a lady you hardly know.”

“Your reputation…”

“Reputation is the handmaiden of deceit. I’m not so good as some would have you believe. You wouldn’t want to stain your own reputation by a connection with any lady less than worthy of your affections.”

He started to answer but I walked away, and out of the hall, cursing my father.

Anger, burned in me, silent and unseen, like the sun behind clouds at the height of summer. A proposal I was expected not to question. Father had been greying as I reached marriageable age, and for love I spared him, for a while. Ever the good daughter. And so the fire raged within, the world shielded from its heat, my blood burning in my veins. A yearning for freedom; the truth of a prison. I had expected this. It might have come sooner. I had hoped it would never come.

When I was certain I was out of earshot I cursed loudly. “Why are men such fools? Curse you, Father! Curse you, earl Richard! Curse you…”

“My lady?”

I spun around. “Hamlet.” I rounded on him. “And will you now poison my patience with the pouring of foolish praise in my ear?”

He was taken aback. “My lady, I…I….”

“No words? No ready words, my prince? You’d rule me with a stutter?”

His eyes flashed with inner fire. “I’d overrule foolishness with reason, hate with love, coy cruelty with open affection.”

His anger surprised me, but I could not allow the last accusation to go unanswered. “You think me coy?”

He stepped forward and placed his hand against my cheek. “I think you coiled, like a fangless adder, ready for a kiss where you’d seem to bite.”

I breathed in the smell of his skin, and wished for a moment to rest my head there in his hand, but I restrained that desire, gently took his hand in both of mine and pushed it aside. “You think me a shrew to be tamed?”

“I think you shrewd, and kinder than you play at.”

I felt my heart racing, and turned away, fearing he might see me affected and mistake my anger for love. “What use is kindness in this world? My life is not my own. Should I be grateful for a cage?”

“I don’t seek to cage you. I wish to see you fly and hear you sing.”

“And if this bird flew away from you? Would you still love her song?”

“I’d love that she sings, and wish she sang by my ear.”

Every accusation he turned to his favour. For a moment I felt his words were just bait to entice me into another cage. Or was he enticing me out of a cage, one of my own making? I could not decide. I did not know what I felt. I knew I did not want a gilded cage, no matter who the master, but could not clearly define the shape of the freedom for which I hoped. Did he wish to join me, or contain me? And if he joined me would he raise me up or drag me down?

I feel my skirts dragging me down into the depths. Is this freedom or destruction, choice or accident? I see the sun above the water, and a hawk crossing its face, wings traced with shining gold. Does he see me, or only a reflection of himself? I am floating, his majestic form before me. I would be with him so I reach out. The water flows over my face like memories. The weight of the past is present, and unresolved, drawing me down into darkness.

Chapter 7

I awoke.

I could hear voices down the hall. Muffled, as in a dream. Rubbing my eyes I stretched and yawned. My ears popped but still I could hear the voices. Not just the residue of a dream then. Perhaps it was the servants in the room looking out across the courtyard. I flung the bedclothes off and swung my legs over the edge, then kicked aside the reeds that had been strewn across the flagstones to feel the smooth coolness of the stone, and I wanted to lie back again, but the voices persisted, and I was sure they were not of servants now.

I padded out into the corridor. There were two voices, and they seemed to be coming from the wall. I knew their source. There is a crack in the wall, about eye level. It has been there for as long as we have been in these apartments. On the other side is Father’s study.

There he will sit among his books and scrolls, contented for a long afternoon, peering first into this author, then that, occasionally jotting down an inspiring fragment or his own thoughts. I would read those fragments as a child. Or rather, I would look at the inky scrawls, as fascinating as they were incomprehensible, and imagine they were magical glyphs with which he conjured. This, I was sure, was the source of Father’s remarkable knowledge and power within the tiny circuit of my childish world. If I could understand it, I would become as powerful as he. I would become a grownup. I would use my magic for good, of course. I would make the world more beautiful. I would turn the castle and the town into transparent candy. Then no one would have any secrets, like the ones that made grownups so confusing, and everybody would be happy. But that future only shimmered in the distance, vanishing as I grew. The scrawls became the signs of painful Latin lessons. My harsh governesses effaced their magic with pedantry. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.

Some, however….

I thought I recognised the second voice in Father’s study. I peered through the hole. Books piled to the ceiling. Scrolls rolled like delicate pastries piled higgledy piggledy in shelves. A ray of morning sunlight on the floor divided neatly into bright diamonds by the leaden lattices of the window. On a table under the window, maps and scrolls unrolled, their curling parchment corners pinned by diverse objects: compasses, a lodestone, a guttering oil lamp, an astrolabe and abacus; an hourglass, its tiny cascade of sand so near the edge it seemed about to topple and scatter time across the floor.

A scarlet plume bobbed in the light from the window. A flash of gold and the soft glow of pearls. Proud, deeply pitted face. Strong jaw. Powerful mandible grinding protesting teeth. Complexion red from anger not the sun. Small grey eyes like smoky windows on an inner fire. Magnus paced back and forth, gesticulating violently, his hands periodically stabbing the air, as though he were in the midst of battle, surrounded by enemies. Father stood at a lectern, face impassive, eyes passing casually back and forth between a scroll before him and the space around Magnus, but never alighting on that angry red face with its glaring grey eyes.

“A golden elevation!” Magnus fumed, “the world is come to madness. Common sparrows climb above the view of eagles on a mountain of treasure.”

Father replied with his usual mildness: “Hamlet understands loyalty. When safety depends so much on his favour, what will the lord not do to protect his king?”

“Lord! Pha! A lord so made is only the image of nobility. His substance reaches no deeper than the paper on which he is drawn. His father was a wine merchant, his a common tinker. Press him and he’ll fold.”

“The king has minted his value and knows well how to spend it. The victory was total, and Victor’s role in it praised by all.”

“Now he will strut more proudly than a cock amongst hens.”

“What must be will be.”

Magnus stopped pacing. He looked directly at Father, who looked at the plume. But the count’s gaze was blank. Then it came alive, slowly at first, as if he was not sure whether to trust his thoughts to any mind other than his own. A number of emotions flickered there, suspicion, fear, arrogance. Finally anger swept aside all other feelings.

“But what might be can be.” The statement was cryptic enough for Father to incline his head, in what might be agreement with a sage or politeness to a fool. But Magnus, having begun, would not let his meaning be misunderstood. “Let a fox loose in the henhouse and the cock will cluck as fearfully as the hens.”

“The fox knows better than to risk the jaws of the great Dane for the flavour of feathers.”

“The fox might feed the great Dane, and meat can be sauced in many ways. Some sauces are rich enough to make the longest sleep.”

Among all these riddles I smelled treason. I did not know whether Father would be part of that. Perhaps he did not know himself. Some think him a fool, but I suspect the truth is he knows how precarious power is, and therefore speaks vaguely or sententiously. Courtiers are always conspiring against each other. The favourite of today is disgraced tomorrow. The merchant’s son rises while the old houses decline. A palace can become a prison. The wheel of fortune turns. In such a world unambiguous alliance is fraught, and it is hard to condemn a man with platitudes.

Chapter 8

The great hall. The nobles mill about, whispering, murmuring, shouting, shoving, scheming, loving. A squire with golden curls and lavishly embroidered tunic is courting Sophie, most senior of the queen’s ladies. They are close to the dais, in clear view of the queen, his overtures theatrically respectful. He understands her power over Sophie’s fortunes and his own ambitions, romantic, unromantic, or both. I would not want to be so subject to another’s whims. Hamlet is bantering with Laertes and another young man. Occasionally he glances in my direction. I wonder what Laertes really wants from Hamlet. Friendship? Alliance? And Hamlet from Laertes? From me? It is hard to make a choice here without political consequences.

The most astute are more awake to the significance of minute shifts in the balance of power. They watch as they talk. Claudius, legs unsteady, eyes bloodshot but not bleary. The queen, seemingly vague, but her eyes – though frequently straying to her son and his companions or with equally motherly concern observing the courting of her ladies – managing, as if by chance, to pass over every knot of intrigue. The king, ever redoubtable, sable silvered hair and lined, dark eyes taking in the whole of the hall and all its schemers with each majestic sweep. Father, standing between the royal couple, ready to pass messages from one to the other, or make observations about changing dispositions of forces in the unending game of power, the board not only in this hall, but extending from Constantinople to Winchester, the Mediterranean to the Baltic; the pieces kings, excommunicates and heretics, emperors, popes and anti-popes; the moves as obvious as marching armies, or as subtle as theological disputes.

A herald entered and announced a name now known to all. An embassy from a town in the south. The town which had joined the league in their fight against the king. The whole hall fell suddenly silent. All eyes turned to the king to calculate the politic response. His face was inscrutable.

They were proud burgesses, magnificently dressed in richly dyed fabrics. Their leader wore a sky blue vest over a bright orange tunic, lime green hose and shoes with curving toes, a cloak of blue as deep as the ocean, and a large velvet hat of the same colour. The others were equally well dressed, and despite their recent defeat their faces betrayed no trace of humility. Their spokesman stepped forward, and swept his hat off in an elaborate bow before kneeling. He concealed his pride better than the others, and the king seemed pleased by his manner.

“Great king, in whose magnanimity we trust, whose countenance lights the dawn of a noble day, whose anointment guides this kingdom to the will of the Lord of lords, who shows with open hand the worth of Denmark’s heart and with mailed fist marks the extent of his power.”

The king laughed. The ambassador hesitated, then began again. “Who…”

“The extent of which you have disputed.” The king laughed again. Then his mirth vanished. “And for which presumption you have been brought to trial in the field, before man and God, and found guilty.”

“Your highness, we only…”

“You only?

You only wished that peace would bow to war.

You only mocked our right, given by God,

Only would wash anointment from our head

With blood of loyal knights and tears of widows.

Yes, you would only feed to hungry chaos

The tattered corpse of law, only reward

The criminal, then hang the innocent

To see a child that swings while yet not playing.”

The colour drained from the burgess’s face. Then the king shrugged, as if these were trivial things. The burgess opened his mouth, but the king raised his hand. “Such is your madness.” He shrugged again, then, with a look of surprise, gradually modulating through puzzlement to glowering disgust as he spoke, continued. “You would only see

The beggar crowned, the leaping cripple led

By the blind fool, the foal bring forth the mare,

Have the moon rule the day, the sun the night,

Have the stars stare into the sky

And blink in wonder at its many eyes,

Do sin for penance, cure good health with plague

Bury the living and seduce the dead.

You would…you have…you only…you…only.”

His look changed suddenly from disgust to anger. “But you do not stand alone, and only and only and only too soon sum to all. You have turned our subjects against us. You have poured the poison of treason in their ears, and infected their humble hearts with glittering gold. Are not our subjects our very own body? And so you have made us sick. For we are our realm and in its health is our own. What cure is there when our body turns against us? What can we do but cut the tumour out?”

“Your highness, we have wronged you.” The colour had drained from his face, and his hands, holding his hat, trembled. “We admit freely our…”

“Freely? Freely?” the king laughed, then snarled, “you admit in the chains of defeat.”

The envoy gripped the hand holding his hat with the other to stop it trembling, which tactic failed as the terror spread through his body. His mouth opened and closed without sound. When he discovered his voice it had shrunken from its formerly proud tone to a whine barely louder than a whisper. “We admit our wrong. Trust that we ask, not for ourselves, but for our sons, who are innocent.”

“Ah. Innocent. Good burgess, you would ask for mercy for your children. And who would not feel for a father whose son has been dragged away in chains? Who would not plead on his part? Who would not pledge the surety for his hope?” The king looked around the court, beckoned a courtier to approach. “Would you not plead his part?”

On cue, the courtier, a gentleman of the privy chamber, pantomimed surprise and stepped forward. He looked to the king with deference, bowing his head and kneeling. He cleared his throat, and carefully examined the envoy, as if considering his suit and the king’s question. The courtier’s face was open, almost naïve, like a child’s when considering a father’s question and wishing desperately to please him with unexpected intelligence. The envoy looked momentarily hopeful, but his hat still quivered in his trembling hands. Then the courtier turned to the king again. “Your highness, I would always plead for justice, the surety for which is the health of our just king.”

“Ah…. The health of the king.” He waved the courtier away. “Such surety we give to these our subjects. Such surety they give us of their faith. But what of the faithless?” He looked out across the court, examining several courtiers, each squirming in turn, then looked intently at the ambassadors, examining them similarly, muttering “faithless,” as his eyes alighted on each, “faithless, faithless, faithless.” Despite the formerly unchastised pride each trembled under his gaze. Turning back to their spokesman, he asked in a gentle voice: “But what if he were faithless?” He spoke more loudly: “But what if he were faithless?” Then louder: “But what if he were faithless?” He rose to his feet, his face bright red, and roared, spraying spittle with his words: “BUT WHAT IF HE WERE FAITHLESS?” He took one step down the dais, then stopped, turned around, turned around again, took another step, and then, by iteration of this seemingly mad progress stepped down all the way to the floor, all the time his complexion glowing hotter, his eyes burning brighter in the furnace of his face, fuelled with red hot blood. He stopped at the base of the dais, flung one hand to his head, then the other, and gripped his hair as if he would tear it out, the muscles of his forearms visibly cording beneath the tight fabric of his sleeves. Then he dropped his hands to his side, then beat his chest, then strode again towards the envoys. As he strode he spoke, first in a whisper, then in a hiss, then speaking clearly, then louder: “What treachery stands before us and dares speak of trust? You offer us what is worthless and expect rich treasure?” And so by steps his volume rose, the cavern of his broad chest soon filling that of the hall with a resonance which made the whole court quake. No courtier, no matter how close to the king was unaffected. Beneath the dais, of all those I could see only Hamlet was unmoved, watching his father carefully, perhaps unsure how much of this was real, how much merely an act. “You betray our generous treaties and ask for better terms?” the king finished with, stopping within yards of the envoys, and the hall was silent, except for the sound of the king’s teeth, which he ground together and bit his lips with as though he would crush any kind word that might dare to pass them. Then he opened his mouth. Then he closed it, then opened it again. For a moment he seemed incapable of speech, as if the mass of all his words was too great to pass through his throat to his lips, which were now flecked with bloody foam. But the force of his anger burst the dam and he roared: “HOW DARE YOU SPEAK OF TRUST?”

The envoys had dropped from their knees to their bellies, and their bodies trembled on the flagstones.

“What dog doesn’t know not to bite his master’s hand? And yet you have bitten us, and whine for richer food? You have made war with your rightful king, aligned yourself with our enemies. Like thieves you have tried to steal our goods and barter them to assassins, sold your favours like whores for the knives with which to murder us. And you dare to speak of trust? You dare to speak of mercy with tongue so stained by lies?”

“My king,” the ambassador managed to cry through his terror.

“Your king? You treat us like a slave and speak to us as our subject? What worthless words are these issuing from such a mouth? What hate lies in protestations of love so gilded with deceit. You dare to…”

“My lord!”

“SILENCE!”

The king summoned the ambassador’s son. He was in the hall, but even though it took only a few moments for him to come forward it seemed an eternity. When the boy was standing beside his prostrate father the king spoke again. “If you ever dare speak to us again of trust, our blade will strike his head from off his shoulders.”

The ambassador looked at his son, as if unsure of what to feel, then, with effort, he contorted his face. “No, please, my king,” he sobbed, “not my son.”

“YOU COMMAND THE KING?” the king roared.

“No, your highness, no,” he squeaked, a tear rolling down his cheek, “I only beg what none but the king has in his power to grant.”

“The king? YOUR KING.” King Hamlet drew his sword as he strode towards the man, who kept his face pressed into the floor as firmly as if he would make the flagstones a mould for his bust. The boy stepped between his trembling father and the advancing king.

“Forgive my boldness, your majesty. I would only beg you do not take my father’s life. If my own might cool your anger I ask only the right to give it.”

The king stopped, and stared in unaffected amazement at the boy. No one in the hall breathed. Then the king roared in laughter. “The boy teaches manhood to the father.” He returned to the throne. “Lay off your womanly weeping. You will leave. Return to your homes. Your boys will stay. They will be well treated, but if ever you join with the League again, your wives will wash their faces with tears for their sons, and dry their eyes with the soil of your own graves.”

Chapter 9

The sun is high in the sky, the flowers about me. Where am I? There was to be a performance. Was it mine? Was it my life? I wonder how much I was beyond the parts I played. Was there nothing else? We know so much of ourselves beyond the faces we show the world; but is that not also a performance, one exclusively for ourselves? Within we rehearse a flawlessly fluent soliloquy, so at odds with the stuttering world. We exonerate ourselves for every foolish act before an audience too eager to applaud. But no; the performance I remember is yet to come, though the curtain of night is falling on the day. I am in the queen’s pleasure garden. The last light evaporates like dew from the flowers, their colours fade to grey, and the noises that clustered about noon sink to a liquid murmur.

Earlier the castle had echoed with the sounds of sawing and hammering.

Tradesmen and women from the town yelled to and at each other as they rushed through the corridors. Seamstresses and weavers’ daughters carried piles of cloth and elaborate costumes. Sailors, come up from the quays lugged levers and winches past courtiers. Some carried planks on their thick shoulders, one or two, or even six across two shoulders of a short man as broad as he was tall. In the courtyard a goldsmith argued with a blacksmith. The blacksmith smiled at his adversary and drowned his words with rhythmic hammering blows on a long iron object held with tongs across a large impact scarred anvil. The worked object was shaped like a spear, but bent periodically down its entire length in zigzags. The goldsmith shook a fist at him, gripping a sheet of silver leaf in his other hand. The blacksmith only grinned more broadly and shoved the zigzagged spear into an open barrel of water. The water bubbled, hissed, and the grin was lost in a cloud of steam.

As I made my way to the gardens a carpenter bumped into a courtier I did not recognise. “Out of my way. Out of my way,” the carpenter yelled as he waved a large wooden mallet in the courtier’s face.

The courtier slapped him. “Sirrah! The kites will savour your eyeballs sooner than the earth will eat your bones.”

I noticed Hamlet standing nearby, talking with Laertes, peacock feather’s false eye staring unseeing from above his cap.

“And you’ll nose the king’s shit sooner than your tongue tastes good sense. Get out of my way.” He shoved the courtier, who grabbed his arm.

“The hangman awaits your impatience, slave.”

Hamlet grinned, pointing to the offended courtier, and whispered something to Laertes.

“He can wait till my work is done or he’ll have no scaffold.”

Laertes slapped his thighs and laughed loudly.

“You have the smell of death about you.”

“Ay, ay, that’d be from the coffins, and if you want a box that’ll fit your bones you’d best not slow my work.”

“Make yourself a box quickly, base scullion, else you’ll only be housed in dirt.”

“Dirt will as soon fill the grave of a king as a carpenter.” Hamlet nodded philosophically. With a quick, contemptuous movement the carpenter freed his arm from the courtier’s grip.

“A thousand curses on the hole that welcomes you.”

“That’d be Sally the whore, and her syphilitic grip has cursed my prick, true enough.” The carpenter shoved past.

The courtier grinned at his back, and with a mildness at odds with his previous pride said quietly, “well said, man, well said.” He winked at Hamlet, who rewarded him with a mocking, extravagant bow, and continued on his way.

I made my way to the queen’s pleasure garden, and waited there until the sounds of the day had died. As the sun set I went to one of the larger halls. At one end a platform had been built. Along its sides folds of fabric were drawn, soon to become the borders of a kingdom, or the walls of an alchemist’s laboratory, or the boundary between day and night. Ropes were hung above, arcing in shallow parabolas from pulley to pulley, so that men might fly as angels; as a trapdoor in the platform could disgorge fiends from hell, or swallow the dead, who would miraculously rise later for applause’s saving grace.

The mutters of the already seated spectators merged into a low hum. Jane was seated. She caught my attention, then looked behind me. Her eyes widened. I turned and saw Hamlet, and further away, beyond his shoulder, his mother. Seen like this, side by side by a trick of perspective, the fine lines of her beautiful features in his face were undeniable, though masculinised, and his eyes might have been mirrored images of hers. Now hers passed beyond the back of his head and met my gaze in what might have been intense curiosity, if they had settled there, but instead they passed on to someone else, gliding smoothly from there to another, then another, in what could have been a sleepy meander or else quickly identified every important human detail in the large hall. Did I arouse her curiosity? Did Hamlet’s interest? Did she even notice anything? Or everything? I turned my eyes back to her son.

“Are you following me, my lord?”

“Since you lead I must.”

“Your logic would be impeccable if I led you.”

“I’m collared by your beauty.”

“Then I release you.”

“Are you one with your beauty?”

“I could hardly be apart from it.”

“The heart that would part me from it is hard.”

“You mean that part is hard which would be with it.”

“You mistake my intention.”

“My lord isn’t hard then?”

“Not as hard as this lady’s heart.”

“If you’re soft, how will you fulfil me?”

“My resolve needs only your softness to harden.”

“My softness? But you say I am hard and you are soft.”

“So let’s exchange my softness for your hardness. When you’re not hard I will be, and then I’ll fulfil you.”

“My lord is forward tonight.”

“I’m behind you.”

“You were until you made a pass.”

“Your place changes with your words, but here I stand.”

“You would put me in my place?”

“Your place is of your choosing.”

“Then I will choose my place, here.” I sat between Jane and a courtier with greying whiskers, leaving her between me and Hamlet.

He stood by Jane’s seat, pondering his next move. She whispered to me with such chaotic enthusiasm I could not make out her meaning. Probably she said something like, “He’s standing next to me, next to me, oh my God, the prince, the prince, oh Phi, oh Phi….”

“My lady,” Hamlet said to Jane in a smooth, gentle tone, and sat next to her. Pages went around the hall with snuffers putting out candles. Hamlet comfortably extended his arm behind Jane. She, her torso suspended between rigid shock and fainting ecstasy, stared wide eyed and moist mouthed at me, then stole a glance at him, then looked back at me, mouthing something, then back at him, and so on, until the lights were all extinguished. She didn’t notice that the queen frowned as her eyes passed over Hamlet’s shoulder and arm, Jane’s face, and several other possibly random people, before she faced front and sat between the broad shouldered king and his small, colourless brother. Neither did she notice that Hamlet had rested his hand on the back of my chair, out of her line of sight.

The play began in darkness. Two cloaked figures crossed the stage, holding a candle. They stopped half way across and looked briefly and covertly at several figures in the front row, close to the king, the ambassadors from the south, ostensibly honoured by him, though evidently seated there to intensify their discomfort while viewing a play fashioned especially for their mortification. Only the actors’ features could be seen in the flickering light.

“They will be bought,” one said.

“What price?”

“A few pieces of silver.”

“Then they will join our cause?”

“Yes.”

“It’s good they care more for their purses than their king, but how will the members of their guilds be made to follow?”

“With smooth words from the masters the objections of the others will be silenced. Rule will be established with talk of the injustices of rule. With talk of peace journeymen will be armed. Masters will chain prentices to our cause with words of freedom.”

“I like this well.”

“These are the ways of power, and ever have been.”

“Truth is the way of slaves, and always will be.”

Suddenly a torch was lit opposite to the side from which they had entered, revealing them for a moment, their apparel identical to that of the humiliated ambassadors. I glanced at the shadowy outlines of this propaganda’s targets and wondered what thoughts were going through their minds. The king turned his face in their direction too. An eye glinting. Perhaps it was only reflected light. The onstage conspirators scurried towards deeper shadows.

A boy in the acting troupe passed along the front of the stage with a taper, lighting candles. Hamlet pretended to snore.

Drums rolled a distant thunder, then Jupiter, king of the gods, was winched down from the ceiling, a crown on his head and a jagged silver spear in his hand, alongside Mars, god of war, in full battle dress, with the colours of duke Victor on his tabard. Several young boys, chosen from the king’s hostages, ran across the stage, mounted on hobby horses, charging with small sticks at the gods. As they came near Jupiter raised his spear. There was a loud crash of pans beneath the stage and a flash of light and they dropped their tiny lances, then ran to a corner of the stage and cowered. Being seated close to the side of the hall I noticed a man in a dark cloak beyond the curtain at the edge of the stage. He pulled back the curtain slightly and rolled a small cylinder with a burning fuse towards the boys. The king of the gods handed the lightning spear to the god of war, who threw it at the cylinder as it reached the middle of the group of boys. There was another clash of pans from beneath the stage and a flash of light, and the boys screamed in panic and jumped away from the spear, which had stuck in the wood and still quivered. The man in black gestured to them angrily, whispering harshly, and they fell down.

The man I had seen earlier in the day trading insults with the carpenter now came forward and recited a chorus.

“And those who owe allegiance would…”

Hamlet’s faked snoring was starting to annoy me, so I reached around and pinched him. He pretended waking, snorting and stretching. His arm brushed Jane’s back and I thought she would faint with pleasure. Then he placed his hand on the back of my seat again.

I leaned across Jane, away from his hand, though still in the ambit of his arm. “You don’t like the performance, my lord?” I asked, placing a hand on Jane’s thigh to support myself.

“A play shaped as a sermon is like a preacher without wit; never knowing when to end the lesson.”

“I suppose your father wishes his anger understood.”

“The king my father’s fury marks the merchants’ minds well enough, and hostage sons will lock the lesson in their memories. But you’re right. Repetition bends the mind as the bundle the peasant’s back. Aren’t her obsequies low enough? Add another stick to her fardel and her nose will touch the ground. Hardly a courtier could be found who’ll bow lower.”

“This is a wearying figure, my lord.”

“And yet to be finished. The mind bowed, the body follows her then, slave to a slave.”

“But what of choice? Surely our souls are free to fly which way they will.”

“The choice to fawn or hang is always ours. The predestining stars must grant us that if they’d laugh at our confusion.”

“So we’re only the fools of destiny?”

“Or destined to be fools.”

“A foolish figure.”

“Am I?”

“My lord?”

“To love where laughter is my only reward.”

“Doesn’t laughter give pleasure?”

“If I shared it. To share your pleasure is my only desire.”

“I only have a mind to…”

“To move the body one must first move the mind. If need be, with wearying repetition.”

“And you have a mind to move a body?” I teased.

“I have a mind to, but a mind that can’t, as the body is unmoved to having despite my wanting.”

“Surely my lord isn’t lacking willing ladies.” I looked significantly from him to Jane then back. “Slaves even.”

“Willing ladies offer what I would not have.” Hamlet’s arm still touched Jane’s back, and she did not move, barely daring to breathe, as though fearful of dislodging it. The task of keeping this contact took up so much of her attention that when I asked her later she claimed not to have heard a single word that passed between Hamlet and myself.

“Then would you have unwilling ladies?”

“I would that some unwilling ladies were more willing, or rather, one.”

“And my lord wants only one? Or would many satisfy?”

“Many would satisfy less than one.”

“How’s that possible? Is the arithmetic of pleasure so unaccountable?”

“If only two were made one as easily as one could be added to another number.”

“If I take one from two then you’ll have your one.” I rose and stepped past Jane and Hamlet.

“But not the one I want,” he whispered in an earnest rush.

I turned, leaned towards him, and whispered in his ear. “One who was as soon willing as many might the sooner divide a particular mind and his desire.” I did not know why I had said it. I walked to the door, and heard his footsteps following.

Out in the corridor I turned. Hamlet came so close to me I could feel his heat. “My mind could never be divided from my love. I am in loving one all that I can be.”

“All that you can be? What you can be is what any lady of the court desires. To Sophie you are one Hamlet, to Jane you are another. To each you are what she desires. As many ladies as you meet, that many are your selves. If you are so divided in yourself, how can you be one with any other?”

“These are acts only, to be believed for an hour and then forgotten, but I have that within which passes show, as you in worth surpass all other ladies.”

I scoffed. “Until another contradicts your words with her prettier figure.”

He shook his head. “No other could compare.”

“How many ladies beyond compare have been abandoned alike to the world’s cruel derision?”

He kneeled, and held my hand to his cheek.

“My lord!”

“I would never dishonour the one I love. By all the angels, by all the saints, by our saviour and everything sacred I give my word.” He grasped my hand between his.

“My lady, do not think that I would wish

To honour so dishonour as to make

You his poor subject, to subject your name

To slanders and ill fame. Desire for you

Is not to me a game, and reputation,

That fragile jewel, so effortlessly damaged,

In you is more than precious to my heart,

Because in you it shines with truth, unlike

The common sort, which is no more than silence

When honest speech would show flawed facets set

In the fool’s gold of falsest flattery.

As is your virtue, so my love is true,

And of such great extent that these hard ribs

Cannot imprison feeling any longer

Who beats against his cage with pulsing passion.

No journey’s miles could mark the furthest limit

Beyond which I would ride to win your love,

No pilgrim’s trudging tread, no angels ambit,

No weary wings of south bound bird, no wind,

Not east, not west, not north, not south, no sun

Sliding from shining dawn to bleeding dusk.

No moon plumbed sea, with silvered surface seen

Through wet whale misted air, could reach so deep

As does the truth that cannot be disputed

By sophist or philosopher, with logic

Or laws deceit, of this, my love, your own,

To own which only be yourself, no other.

No eagle hunting ever soared as high

As my love wings, no fire that kindled fuel

Has burned so bright, no summer sun at noon

So high, so bright, has lit the sky so clearly

From vertex to horizon that my eyes

Could be less dazzled by your slightest smile.

When waking in the lonely night’s embrace

I wish to throw aside her clinging darkness

And sleep again that I might see your face

In dreams where only you and I abide.

And yet I wake and yet the day assaults me,

Flanks me with courtiers, rings me about

With ranks of flattering words, so cruel in keeping you

Far from my sight, strikes my longing heart,

Wounding me deeper than the blades of battle

When brutal foes have borne me to the ground

And torn away my armour. Show mercy, more

Than those that keep me from you. Only you

Can heal my wounds and wash away despair.

Only you can staunch the blood which flows

Too freely while I wait, passing away,

Alive but in death’s shadow, Love’s helpless knight.

Only you can….”

I extracted my hand from his grip and placed a finger over his lips. He grasped my hand again and kissed my palm.

“My lord! You do me wrong.”

“Never!”

“By all the saints?” I teased.

“By all the saints. By the lives of all my kin. By the hopes of all men. By the health of the state. By the seas and the sky and the earth. By the constellations whose courses plot our lives. By the numberless grains of sand in the…”

“I believe you, my lord.”

“Then you…”

“I hope for your happiness with all of Denmark.”

Chapter 10

What is this place? Time cascades over itself, dividing, joining, flowing. I am in the stream. I am in the queen’s pleasure garden. Swallows swoop in bright white, red and blue blurs to capture careless insects, then dart quickly away with their twitching dark winged prey. Bees float from flower to flower, as if trapped in a parallel time. Their gold and black striped bodies seem like extravagant gowns at a ball, balanced in the air above a delicate petal floor, humming with the gossip of the hive. Above the battlements the blue sky clots into slender white wisps of cloud, drifting in an even slower parallel time. Smell of the earth, warm sun on my skin. The hedges are lush but trimmed into puzzling mazes and fantastic beasts: mermaid, unicorn, dragon; many others. All about me colours in blooming profusion: pink, pastel yellow, lemon yellow, Seville orange, scarlet, ruby red, azure, deep blues and lilac.

Because I was admiring the colours I did not notice Magnus approaching.

“Good morrow, Ophelia.”

I started. “My lord.”

He stepped close to me and gripped my arm.

“Please, my lord, release me.”

He did not move away apologetically but, instead, holding my arm and leaning over me, breathed “To the purpose. I would have a word.”

“You’ll have as many as your brain can find, but will you use them well?”

“It’s true I’m not a man of words. Action makes the man, and so, in being less the man of words I’m the better man. I would be brief.”

“Brief enough to satisfy me?”

I shouldn’t have said it. He is possibly the least ironical noble at court. And he took my question for an invitation. “You’ve become beautiful.”

Like a knave in the rack of an inquisitor I found that, despite the imprisonment of my arm, my tongue had its usual freedom. “Ugliness is so tedious I thought I would make a gift of mine to a lord. You’ve forgotten to thank me.”

“For what?” he asked, and breathed the aroma of rotten sweetmeats in my face. I tried not to gag, and attempted again to extricate myself. He drew me closer, pressing his groin against me. “I have spoken to your father. You are of marriageable age, and I could offer many advantages. My estates are some of the richest in the realm, and the views from my castle in the marches are matchless.”

Like many courtiers his face was pitted by childhood pox, and for a moment I felt sympathy for the man, or at least the child he had once been. Then I tried to twist my body away from his revolting rutting impertinence. His grip only tightened. Perhaps, I thought, if I caress his untender ego he might relent, but my tongue has an unfortunate habit of ignoring prudence and taking every opportunity to mock my enemies, my friends, my family; in short, anyone kindly disposed who might be forestalled, or cruelly determined who might be provoked. “It’s fortunate your situation can’t be matched.”

Fortunately, some of my enemies are more foolish than I am incautious. This one nodded, as humourless as a wolf’s snarling grin. “Its situation is ideal for war. And there are few stronger fortresses. And I have many men at arms at my command. And to command is to hold. And I would hold you and have you. And it would be a good marriage for you, an honourable marriage.”

“I don’t dream of honour.”

“You’re young.”

“Very young. Too young.”

“Is this right?” It was the queen’s voice, and Magnus released me.

I ran towards the voice, within one of the mazes. “No, no, no. It must be left, or did I turn left here before? I’m going in circles.” She laughed lightly, pleased by her dilemma. I entered the maze. Near the entrance Jane and several other ladies were whispering to each other. When she saw me she placed a finger over her lips. “Where are you Jane?” the queen’s voice said, “I will find you.”

Chapter 11

A moment in the stream of time. The stones of the castle, warmed by the summer sun. A seagull suspended aloft. The wind is moments in motion, cooling the sunned stones, lifting the seagull higher, fluttering banners on the tall towers. The wind drops into the well of the castle walls, swirling leaves around the courtyards where busy servants rush to and fro, gusting through windows, cooling my face as I sit on a sill and look across the gardens of the courtier’s quarter. Behind me the darkness of the apartments, almost silent. Footsteps in the hall. Laertes?

I dropped from my seat and padded over, bare footed, to the corridor. Yes, that was Laertes’ voice.

“But Bess, you know you’re the only one for me.”

I peered along the corridor to Laertes’ room. I could see him flirting with Elizabeth, a young washerwoman with a pretty face and a shapely figure. Apparently he was having little success.

“For shame, master Laertes. You know I’m a married woman.”

“In Paris many a fashionable married woman has a lover.”

“I’m not a fashionable woman. I’m certainly not French.”

“If you came with me to Paris you could be French for a while and forget your husband.”

“I’m staying right here.”

“Then think of me as France and come with me here.”

“Perhaps I’ll go to war with France.”

“You’re sharp.”

“To be blunt, a knife will cut, and some family jewels can’t be bought back once they’re gone.”

“Ah Bess! You break my heart.”

“Better I break your heart for a day than your hopes for a lifetime. Leave me to my work. I have no time for foolishness.”

She turned away, but looked back over her shoulder. “Put that hand anywhere near me,” she said as she saw him preparing to slap her bum, “I’ll get a stick and beat you like a dusty blanket.”

He sighed, and held back his hand, watching the movement of her bum down the hall.

The man with no knowledge of brothels. The man whose virtue is known. The child a father does not judge. He can choose for himself. Why must my life be decided for me? Away from the window the heat of these rooms suffocates me. I go back to the window, feel the breeze, look into the sky. A seagull floats on the air. So free! It spirals down, towards the refuse heaps beyond the kitchens. It too is bound to the earth, by its appetites. Preying on garbage, Hamlet said to me once when I was a child.

Chapter 12

The storm had passed and the summer rain was a grey curtain dragged by a southerly over the deep green sea. Fishing boats speckled the distant water. Inland, the town’s roofs gleamed in the noonday sun, tiles slowly fading from vermillion to coral orange. The cathedral’s roof and spire rose above the rest, green as rusted copper, its bell ringing a ninth peal. Physically closer but spiritually more distant, a few monks scurried across the courtyard of the abbey which abutted the castle’s outer curtain wall, late to chapel for Terce service, their pink scalps ringed by tonsures, signifying the cutting away of worldly vanity, effacing the difference between handsome youths and balding old men. Parallelograms where the morning sun had passed through battlement crenels still glistened, and the smell of wet stone mixed with smoke from the kitchens. Near to me, Hamlet, his eyes shadowed by brown eyebrows speckled with a dew of tiny liquid pearls, cast a brooding gaze over the port.

There the largest of a dozen merchant ships flying the colours of the Flemish count was docking, manoeuvred against the largest wharf by men with ropes and poles, their shouts losing no clarity as they rose to the castle battlements. The other merchantmen had dropped anchor further out, alongside the four escorting war galleys of the king. Sailors crawled over the rigging of the anchored ships with the industry of insects, furling sails. Longboats had struck out from the smaller wharfs towards the more distant ships.

The town was always awash with merchant sailors, seeking out local lovers, strong ale, or just fresh food and a flea free bed. As these fresh visitors disembarked, its alleys seemed to overflow with a tide of eager vendors and purveyors of pleasures simple or complex, innocent or depraved.

I had come up to the battlements to escape the bedlam on the floors below. The castle, usually swollen with visiting dignitaries and their trains of attendants, was more than usually mad in anticipation of this visitor. Shopkeepers crowded between the gatehouse and the curtain wall with carts of extra provisions: wicker cages with hens, ducks and wildfowl; wooden crates crammed with chirping chicks; pigs squealing, calves lowing and lambs bleating for their mothers; baskets of fish, fresh from the sea; sacks of milled wheat and barley; barrels of ale; fresh beans and peas, apples and pears and juice and milk; every kind of produce from the surrounding region and much from further afield. Servants rushed to and fro carrying loads of produce or firewood to the kitchens; strong men with two sacks to each shoulder, teenage boys bent under the weight of two, young boys dragging single sacks along as they struggled walking backwards. Maids hurrying with piles of linen; scullions beneath improbably balanced towers of copper pots or wooden trenchers; cooks barking orders; nobles leaping aside for workers blinded to rank in their rush – faces accustomed to deference twisted in rage as the brains behind them first devised silently a future revenge then realised one frequently ignored servant looked like any other, then satisfied themselves with the irrelevance of the malefactors. Everywhere a madness of too rapid movement, busy, industrious, unquestioning.

I watched the always questioning Hamlet watching the docked ship as if it carried a cargo of plague. He turned to me, as if noticing me for the first time.

“The fair Ophelia.”

His manner was unusual. I didn’t know whether he was mocking me, and decided the best defence was offence, which I promptly gave. “What does our brave prince fear?”

He started as though I had slapped him and I regretted my too ready tongue. “Is this fair?” he asked, and before I could answer spun away, from both the Flemish ship and me, and strode towards the stairwell.

I watched his back until the crown of his head disappeared into darkness. He was right, I had been unfair. I knew why he was troubled, and of all people I should have understood. I sighed and turned my gaze back to the quays.

An open carriage waited by the wharf, alongside a contingent of the king’s guard. The most important of the disembarking dignitaries climbed in, and the horses of the guards and carriage trotted into the back alleys of the town. Soon they emerged into a visible angle of the main street. They were dressed magnificently, as if fashioned by the most skilful doll maker. The honour guard rode in front and behind, the knights in full battle armour, wearing tabards with the king’s colours, pointing lances to the sky, horses’ steps ceremonially high.

Within the carriage one of the dolls was notable for her fashion, her dress a blinding white, the pale skin of her face flushed to a rosy pink by the breeze, but untouched by the sun. An attendant clung to the carriage behind her seat, holding an umbrella. The fashionable doll’s hands, concealed in white gloves, were in constant motion, like two agitated doves, pointing at features of the town buildings or castle or touching her cheeks with theatrical surprise or indicating obscurely to the world in a code of mute flutters what her lips communicated clearly to her fellow passengers.

Chapter 13

Father had told me I must be present in the hall, so as the carriage rattled through the keep gatehouse into the courtyard where a herald waited to usher the Flemings into the throne room I turned to the stairwell. Dodging past servants I reached the hall before the herald. The courtiers were lined up along each wall, in neat rows unlike their usual boisterous disorder, beneath the tapestries with their displays of hunting and military triumph. Jane was whispering excitedly to Anita, who whispered to the queen, who looked sternly at all her ladies until they fell silent. Hamlet stood near his father, having discovered one of the few shadows in the hall behind the throne. I was sure he had changed his clothes since I saw him on the battlements, dressing down for the occasion.

Two men raised their trumpets and blew an introduction. The herald hurried in, bowed to king then queen, cleared his throat and loudly announced the important visitor.

“The crown princess, Adele of Flanders.”

I am not one to continually compare myself with other women, but at the sight of the princess I felt painfully insignificant. She was dressed in elegant style: a flowing, loosely fitting gown of white, with an elaborate golden tracery around the hems and inlaid pearls like a thousand milky eyes blinded by the glamour they participated in. A simple golden fillet round her brow, her plaited hair captured in cylinders of gold fretwork matching a caul of gold net behind sparkling with tiny diamonds, white silk throat cloth wrinkled against a dainty chin belying a determination I would soon discover, her complexion of white with a hint of pink in the cheeks, as if a pail of fresh milk had been coloured by a single drop of blood. Over her left cheekbone she wore a tiny flat mole like a jewel. Her small pretty lips parted slightly and she sighed, an audible expression of pleasure that flattered all the court, an outward sign of wonder her eyes theatrically accompanied by opening even wider. But the sharp intelligence of those eyes showed clearly she was no naïf. They were bright and mobile, darting to all points, absorbing every detail of the hall, the courtiers and their almost palpable admiration. She curtseyed, then placed her hands together, stilling them in front of her as she moved down the hall in small, graceful steps, hidden by her skirts, but revealed by her forward motion, so precise they could have been used for a dressmaker’s measure. When she reached the steps of the dais she curtseyed again, first to the queen, then to the king, then smiled in the direction of Hamlet’s shadow.

“Your majesties, my father sends warm greetings, and wishes that no two realms in Christendom will be more mindful of the good fortune each of other than ours from today. I speak with his voice in friendly regard and do not doubt our hopes will be as inseparable as a happy couple joined with holy vows.”

The queen beamed. “So happy are we, so glad at this day’s bounty, the richness of such words could never be valued at their worth. Your father’s voice and your own self are welcome friends, and only that is lacking which would perfect the day, the promise of many more as happy.” She stood up, hurried down the dais steps, and took the princess’s hands in her own.

“I have heard so much of the kindness of Denmark’s queen, and now know rumour does not fly ahead of truth. I have also heard much of the queen as a mother, blessed by the lord in her son’s great gifts.” No other words could have so well disposed the queen, and she turned to Hamlet, who reluctantly stepped into the light, revealing dun brown clothes.

“My prince, Hamlet,” the princess said, extending her hand, “I have heard so much, yet no report could faithfully portray so great a stature, so noble a countenance, so graceful a form as greet my eyes today. But why so forlorn a look, so silent a tongue? Is not today a day for celebration?”

Hamlet, his features hostile, with a frozen formal smile, took her hand, and briefly kissed it. “The princess will forgive my silence. My better words have been stolen by her beauty.” His manner, so unlike his usual easy charm contradicted his words, but the princess deigned not to notice, and showed her diplomatic skill with a smile more subtly hypocritical than his, and a statement of gratitude she could not have felt. “This is a kind greeting, and a gracious reply, my prince. I could not ask for more, and my forgiveness need not be asked when I have not been wronged.”

There was a long uncomfortable silence, before the queen approvingly said. “Who would not be struck to silence by beauty and grace?”

The king nodded. “True, my queen. Young love must not be hurried. It must have its silences, and where it would speak be unheard by the multitude. Its secrets can only flourish in the soil of much noise and pleasure.” He clapped his hands and the master of revels came forward. “Come, master of our revels. Arouse both old and young, fire up the spirits of every age and rank, arrange the feasts and rally the laughter and merriment of all with clowns and acrobats and gifted minstrels’ songs. I won’t hear the Dane slandered for not knowing a host’s debt to his honoured guest. We will have such a time that feast will seem the staple of our court and festival the state of every day.”

The hall was suddenly in motion, as the master of revels rushed out, and anticipation buzzed through the noble throng. The princess, her company and her guards were led out by Father to invite her to find fault with her lodgings which, she was assured, would be immediately addressed. The king and queen retired to their own chambers to prepare. One courtier rushed to follow and stumbled. Another, a young lord, watching the princess’s departure while striding along the hall parallel to her path, walked into a wall, to the unrestrained mockery of his friends. The ladies came together in groups to consider the princess’s fashions. Were they brilliant exemplars of southern taste, or barbarically uncultivated, new or passé, to be admired and imitated or ridiculed as pitiable pretension?

I stood aside and observed as Jane, after a quick word to me, rushed out with the other queen’s ladies. Hamlet brooded, watching the door long after the princess had left.

Chapter 14

In the great hall acrobats danced or rolled, or somersaulted through the air or through flaming hoops. Jugglers juggled firebrands and a man with a scarred red face breathed fire. Trestle tables ran around the great hall in a U shape, with the king and eminent courtiers and guests at the far end on a raised platform. The space blazed with light from thousands of candles, obscuring the stars beyond the windows and spreading a honey sweet aroma through the air. A series of polished copper troughs, multiplying the light, extended around the entire length of the tables, filled with spiced red wine in which floated ship shaped silver bowls fitted out with bread stick masts, pumpkin skin sails, and celery fibre rigging climbed by apple fleshed sailors. Between and around the ships swam an assortment of fried fish – lamprey, shark, eel, skate, heron, salmon, cod, haddock and more besides I couldn’t name – like leviathans of the deep, challenged by the tiny men to whaling combat on the blood red sea. Servants weaved in and out among the performers in a dance every bit as agile as the summersaults of the most skilful acrobats, carrying their loads to and fro from guest to demanding guest. Frothy ale and sweet cider and malmsey poured from silver jugs into golden goblets. The goblets of the king and queen and prince and princess sparkled with encrusted rubies and emeralds and lapis lazuli. There were trays piled high with pastries or truffles or sweetmeats or fresh meats – veal and mutton and pork and duck and whole capons in circles around unmilled grain, as if extending their roasted beaks to peck. A pheasant flew past me on its tray, staring wild berries for eyes, body stuffed with bread crumbs and tiny sausages and apple slices baked in cherry sauce, all pouring out of the slit belly as from a newly fashioned Cornucopia.

The king’s bodyguards, huge men in full armour, stood in a row along the back wall, dwarfed by the figures in the tapestry there, ancestors of the king in historic and mythic confrontations with men and monsters of legend.

Next to the queen the princess sat, and behind them the queen’s ladies, including Jane, all eager to be charmed by the princess, each occasionally snatching something from one of the passing servants. The queen talked volubly with the princess. Claudius, sitting next to the princess, chatted amiably with the princess and the queen’s ladies, or replied to the queen’s own questions. Sitting next to his father, Hamlet’s mood cast the only pall on the brightness and animation of the hall. He had refused to sit beside the princess, using propriety as an excuse, and offering his mother’s and uncle’s companionship by way of compensation. I thought, if the queen’s choice decides the outcome Hamlet is as good as married. I knew they had been betrothed many years before, as children. Such arrangements are not always a guarantee; I myself had been betrothed to the son of a count of Upper Saxony, but since that count had fallen out with the Emperor his influence had declined at the imperial court and Father had ceased to mention his son. Adele’s father remained influential though, pincered between the English king, the French king and the German emperor, and playing each against the others, with ships and men and wealth of his own to tip the balance to his advantage.

Father now sat opposite me, next to an elderly Flemish baron who had accompanied the princess, perhaps discussing the fine points of mutual obligation and advantage the planned union would bring. Magnus, sitting on father’s other side, raised a cup in salute to me and smiled. I turned my gaze away towards the king’s clown.

He tripped a dancing acrobat and earned a slap over the head. Falling down, he twitched before leaping up, tweaking the acrobat’s nose and running up to the king, hitting himself this time, and falling down again, to be rewarded by the king laughing at him jovially and throwing him a slice of veal. The clown let it fall to the floor then, crawling on all fours attacked it as though it were still attached to a living dear and he were a ravenous dog.

Minstrels played lyres and flutes and tabors nearby. One sang of the royal ancestors, embellishing their accomplishments and rationalising their tyrannies. Beneath the table the king’s favourite hunting companion, an elkhound with greying muzzle, lay sleeping, its legs occasionally kicking, wheezing a muffled bark, as if running after phantom prey. It started awake, saw the clown snarling at the meat, and dragged itself over, growling. The clown whimpered and backed off as the dog dragged its prize back beneath the table.

Chapter 15

I sat on the ledge of a window in the south west tower, looking down on the diplomatic apartments – where my family lodged – and their adjoining courtyard.

The shadows of the colonnades kept the rooms – with their wide windows, shutters flung open – cool and fresh in the summer. I had played with my brother in the courtyard at their centre as a child. There visiting dignitaries had smiled indulgently on us, and elegantly dressed ladies speaking foreign languages had spoiled us with unfamiliar sweets.

There is a fountain at the centre. Near its rim and in concentric inner rings bronze fish, frozen as they leap from the water, twist their spouting mouths back to the centre. The streams, like the inverted corona of a limpid liquid flower, fall on the mermaid at the centre, while she combs her long bronze hair and dangles her fin in the inviting coolness of the pool. The seagulls leave irreverent offerings to her, white streaks which the fish quickly wash away. Across her surface a patina has spread, as green as the deep sea where her sisters might wait for her return.

Surrounding the fountain are flower beds and cherry trees, their chilly winter skeletons flourishing into white haloes with the spring, soon followed by fruit, rapidly ripening into blood coloured drops sweet enough to tempt even the most timid child to climb. At night torches protrude from brackets in the columns, sending fluid fingers of light grasping futilely at shadows, which stay always out of reach, hiding ghosts and romantic rendezvous and sneaking spies. It is at once the most innocent of paradises and the fertile ground of machinations, espionage, and even assassination.

As a child I had come out one morning, woken by the bustle of servants, and admired the way the sun as it rose above the battlements turned the fountain streams a pretty shade of pink. I had pointed it out to my nurse when she came searching for me. She had stared at the sparkling droplets, open mouthed, then rushed over to the fountain. As she looked into the water she screamed. I ran over. She tried to catch me before I could see, but I wriggled free of her hands. In the water, arms out as though crucified between the bronze fish, was the body of a duke, throat slashed from ear to ear, blood well mixed with water. His long hair spread in separate strands like a halo about his head. The duchess had always been kind to me. Looking at her husband’s bloated face I had wondered whether she would leave Elsinore now and was sad.

My father still thought me that little girl, and following his own advice to Laertes on the advantages of playing the fool, I let him think me still naïve, with only the occasional inconsistency of characterisation supplied by a too ready tongue.

The Flemish princess’s party wandered from the colonnades past the fountain to the shade of a cherry tree, fruit like swelling drops of blood over their heads. Jane was arm in arm with Adele, and I felt a pang at the betrayal. But I knew I was being unreasonable. Jane might be my friend, but she was the queen’s favourite lady in waiting; if she was accompanying the princess it was at the queen’s command.

At least Hamlet isn’t with her, I thought vindictively. He had not seemed much interested in Adele since her arrival. Perhaps because of this she had been more interested in me than I cared for. I supposed he did not have much choice in whom he married. He would be pressured to accept whoever brought with her the alliance most convenient to the crown.

“Why should I care?” I said aloud, and a servant, rushing down the stairs, half buried beneath a mountain of bed linen, responded with a smart, “I don’t know love, I ask myself the same question a hundred times a day,” before disappearing beyond a curve in the spiral stairwell.

I wondered what Jane was telling the princess, and how much of it was about me, or Jane’s mistaken notions about me. Adele had looked at me intently throughout the previous evening, perhaps even more than I had noticed. Then she had come over with Jane. Jane had been even more enthusiastic than her usual self, her tongue hardly able to keep up with her thoughts as she introduced me to the princess. Hamlet had watched us uneasily from his father’s side.

“Of course you know who the princess is, but did you know she has travelled the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela and Rome and Venice and even Jerusalem? And don’t you love the silk of this dress? I don’t know how they make that colour but I’ve never seen it before. Have you? I think the hall would look fabulous if all the ladies could wear the same colour. Imagine at a ball if we were all in the same colour, all the skirts swirling. I think the prince would be impressed. Not that we should, I suppose. I mean wear the same as the princess. And the prince couldn’t help but be impressed just by the princess. Not that I mean anything by saying ‘just’ the princess, because she isn’t someone of whom anyone would think she was ‘just’ anything, which sounds a lot like ‘merely’ which is very dismissive and wouldn’t be right at all. It’s important for a princess to stand out, but it would be nice, don’t you think? Which she does. I mean stand out, that is. And what’s wrong with me? I’m being so rude, not introducing you properly. This is my friend, Ophelia. You’ve met her father already; the lord Polonius. And of course, Phi, you know who Princess Adele is. Phi and I have been friends since I came to court. We were both little girls back then. I was lucky the queen was so kind to me. The queen has always been very kind to me. I was very young when I came here. It seems like yesterday, but it was such a long time ago. I haven’t seen my family since.” And on and on.

When she had squeezed in beside me the princess whispered in my ear: “He loves you.”

I decided it would be best to affect bafflement. “Who?”

Jane stood behind us, wondering what to do, and shuffled noisily on the spot, as if all her verbal energy had been transferred to her feet. Hamlet stood up.

The princess gave me a searching gaze and, despite her surface politeness, I sensed a depth of suspicious animosity. “Hamlet.”

A handsome visiting baron sitting on the other side of me noticed Jane’s discomfort and made room for her which she gratefully accepted, before rewarding, or perhaps punishing, him with her loquacity.

I laughed at the princess’s accusation, but I was not sure whether I sounded nonchalant or nervous. “Why do you think that?”

She ignored my question. “His mother seems oblivious, and his father, of course, but then fathers always are. His mother is…otherwise occupied.”

I could see Hamlet, having taken a few steps, stopping to debate with himself in mutters.

“Otherwise occupied?”

“You don’t mean to say you haven’t noticed how she favours her brother? The king’s brother, I mean.”

“Claudius?” I observed Hamlet’s indecision, and laughed again. This time I knew I was not nervous. “Now I see clearly. You have a romantic imagination, like Jane. Everywhere you look you see love.”

“No, I see it in Hamlet’s eyes. Yours maybe. The queen’s. Of course the king doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care.”

“The king is as devoted to his queen as to his realm, and she to him.”

“Of course, of course; it isn’t impossible to both have a lover and love your husband.”

“Perhaps Flemish ways are different to Danish ways.”

“Where the heart is concerned we are all alike. Sinning and sinned against. With God’s grace and a husband’s blindness any sin can be forgiven though.”

“How convenient.”

“Yes. So it is,” she said without irony. She scrutinised me carefully again.

The discomfort I felt angered me. “If you see a flaw you should ignore it. I know I will.”

She was surprised by my reaction, clearly more accustomed to the deferential adoration of courtly ladies like Jane. Then she smiled, and nodded.

“Hamlet speaks much of your sweetness. When a man speaks of a woman’s sweetness he’s lost.”

Hamlet, having finished debating with himself, walked towards us with hesitant steps.

“You have so low an opinion of your own sex?”

“No, a high opinion. Sweetness is for children. You enjoy torturing him.”

I was too amazed by the accusation to respond.

“I can’t believe you don’t know his heart.”

“The prince’s heart is no clearer to me than your meaning.”

“Then you understand him completely.”

“You presume too much.”

“I presume nothing. I observe. You enjoy torturing men. I understand, and approve. Men must be dominated or they’ll believe they rule us as they rule the world.”

“I have never tortured a man. No woman of any worth would. And the prince…”

“The prince will marry where he must, not where he would.”

“The prince will marry whom he chooses,” I retorted.

She smiled, gratified by my response. There was a sharpness to her look I could not mistake, and if I had the tone of her reply would have corrected me. She continued, her voice dripping sarcasm like bitter honey from a poisoned hive. “Yes, a prince will marry for love. A prince commands, and never obeys. A prince’s thoughts and feelings matter more to him than affairs of state.”

She had demonstrated such ignorance of Hamlet’s character that I wondered what happiness such a marriage would bring. But I knew she was at least partly right. I knew he would marry where he must. There was one other thing I was sure of though: I did not care. Why would I?

Hamlet approached, and stood behind and between the two of us. He looked uncertain how to proceed.

I plucked a capon from a passing platter.

“Ladies,” he said finally.

Jane, suddenly aware of Hamlet’s presence near her, stopped talking to the handsome baron and, turning, gaped.

“Our prince is a deep thinker,” the princess said to me, then turned a coquettish gaze on him, “you were explaining your theories to me earlier. Something about a nutshell and infinite space?”

Hamlet responded in that bored jocular tone with which he frequently delivers his philosophical ruminations, as if he suspects his conundrums are absurd but considers absurdity as necessary to philosophy as is obscurity. After all, is not life both absurd and obscure? And if philosophy simulates life in the one, why not in the other?

“A man’s soul can’t be bounded,” he said, “a soul is insubstantial, and therefore must be space. Space can’t be bounded. If it were what would be beyond it? Emptiness. But isn’t emptiness space? So in the emptiness beyond space is the space beyond space, a contradiction. Hence space is endless. From this it follows that the soul is boundless”

“And where does the nutshell come in?” I asked, and chewed the capon’s wing.

He picked up a walnut from a bowl beside me and examined it in his flat upturned palm. “In a nutshell, the flesh is finite, hence can’t be the soul.” He cracked the shell with a squeeze. “The nut is bounded, but my hand lies beyond the shell, my mouth beyond my hand.” He chewed on the flesh.

“And beyond your mouth?” I asked.

“My gut. The nut will pass through my gut to the privy, thence to the sea. From there the seaweed will grow with its vital power. The seaweed will be eaten by the fish, the fish by the sharks. The sharks will be captured by the fisherman, who’ll throw the bones on a heap in which…”

“And what is the point of all this eating?” I asked, then washed down the flesh of the capon with a mouthful of spiced wine.

“Nothing. Only a cycle without end. We are of it, yet we are not. A paradox, but space and time give the proof.”

The princess turned to me, but directed her flattery at Hamlet. “Remarkable! Our prince thinks of infinity and finds a solution in a nutshell. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.”

“In a nutshell,” I said, “the solution is without substance.”

Hamlet drew closer to me, nodding. “It takes a special genius to find sense in nonsense,” he murmured, his eyes bright with enthusiasm or candlelight.

I could feel Jane looking at me and turned to be given a sly smile. She turned back to the baron and whispered something in his ear.

“But…,” I said, turning back to Hamlet, who was ignoring the princess and looking at me intently.

“Yes? Yes?”

“Most men are not nuts.”

“Not yet,” Hamlet said, “but, in time, all things under heaven…”

“Will be all other things?”

There was a ripple of movement along the bench and a space appeared between Jane and me, into which Hamlet unselfconsciously squeezed himself. He smiled warmly at me and nodded. “And some who thought themselves irrevocably separate might realise the pleasures of joining.”

“And all that should be joined will be,” the princess interjected sharply, glaring at Jane. Jane did not notice, being too focussed on Hamlet, but the sharpness was visibly jarring to him, so Adele changed tactics. She smiled at me with a sweetness more full of venom than any glare. “Ophelia and I have been discussing you so much I am quite certain there is little left to discover.”

It was Hamlet’s turn to be sharp now. “You think to plumb my depths so soon.”

“I didn’t…”

I widened my eyes at Adele and bit the capon, smiling sweetly as I chewed.

“Here,” he beckoned over a minstrel and took his lute, “will you play this for me?”

“But, my lord. I have not the skill.”

“But you’ve seen lutes for many years. You’ve heard their music. And yet you can’t make it? And you think my secrets easier to master than this, this piece of wood and gut?”

“I…I,” she stuttered.

Hamlet tried to pass the lute to me.

“You know I prefer the harp, my lord.”

“Yes,” he nodded, smiling approvingly, and handed the lute back to the minstrel, who shrugged his shoulders and moved down the length of the table, singing to his own accompaniment. “You could play it if you chose though. Of that I’m sure.”

The princess was mortified, but quickly regained her composure, then attacked again. “And should I take employment from minstrels? Next you’ll have me herding swine. This isn’t decent. What lady worthy of the name does the work of common men?”

“The dust we all come to is common enough.”

“Your philosophy is deep, but the world is not. A man of your intellect knows this, Hamlet.”

“I know I don’t know the limits of my knowledge, but knowing that can’t help wondering what lies beyond the knowing I know.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I never understand Hamlet,” I teased him with a smile, “that’s half the pleasure.”

“And the other half?” he asked earnestly.

I realised I had said more than I intended, but how could I be cruel to him, even if I did not love him as he wished? “The other half is in knowing we have a subtle prince who will one day be a wise king.”

He sighed. “Am I only that?”

“Isn’t that much?”

“Much isn’t always enough.”

“Your nutshell may not be infinite, my lord, but it’s vaster than many a man’s world. Any shopkeeper in Elsinore would gladly exchange bounds with you.”

“Sometimes I wish I were only a shop keeper. Then I could choose where now I may not.”

“A shop keeper?” the princess’s laughter tinkled like rare diamonds on a silver platter – or perhaps shards of sharp glass on ice. “Surely you wouldn’t choose a common life. You have too elevated a notion of all things, too noble a perspective, too…. No, no, you couldn’t debase yourself so.”

“A shopkeeper can love where he chooses.”

The princess was sharp to Hamlet. “A shopkeeper loves where his profits can impress. If his business fails his wife spurns the embrace she once said she loved.”

He looked miserable, and my heart went out to him, but she was right. We are all bounded in this life, by family, by station, by sex, by money or the chances of war. There is no infinite space in this world, no freedom without sacrificing another. Perhaps another world exists beyond this, where death is life, where the shape of the self is as fluid as water and its extent as boundless as Hamlet’s infinite space, where the sun, as though seen through water, doesn’t burn, where floating is flying, like a hawk in the empty sky, mistress of all points of the compass, sinking, soaring, turning, diving. But that world was not Hamlet’s, nor mine.

“There’s always something beyond everybody’s reach,” I said. The effect was not as intended, and I hated myself for saying it when I saw his melancholy deepen.

“How apposite your observations,” the princess said to me, seeing an opening. “We were just considering what great good fortune any lady would have if she captured a man beyond her reach.”

“And who would be beyond your reach?” he said as he gazed at me.

“Few men would boast,” I said, with as much authentic sweetness as her, “to be touched by ladies easily reached.”

Now she glared openly at me, but I pretended not to notice. Instead I addressed Hamlet. “The activities of recent days must tire you, my lord.”

“The hours are wasted with fripperies and fools.”

“Have you no choice about how you spend them?”

“I must do my duty,” he said bitterly.

“A prince cannot command without the acclamation of the nobles,” the princess said.

“The nobles are only swayed by self-interest,” he said with disgust.

“Hence it’s in the interest of the prince who’d be king to be interested in their interest. A careless alliance, a foolish choice – a common mistake – and the prince will never be king.”

Hamlet stared at her as at a mythic monster, simultaneously awed and horrified.

Watching the princess from the tower window I pitied him his fate. She would make a great queen, whatever Hamlet’s feelings. I thought she underestimated him though. He would not be so easy to dominate as she assumed.

“My lady.”

I turned, surprised. It was Hamlet. He looked happier than he had in recent days.

“Your highness.”

“Will I ever earn anything beyond your scorn?”

“My scorn?”

“Never mind. My mother is not pleased.” He looked pleased at that.

“You’re mistaken, my lord. Your mother seems more pleased than I’ve ever seen her. She’s eager for the wedding feast even before the vows have been said.”

“I’ve told her there’ll be no vows.” He looked at me with unmistakable intensity.

“The princess is a good match.”

“There is a better.”

“Few could offer the advantages of her father’s levies, and wealth.”

“Power isn’t so simple. A loyal court at home is of more value to a king than armies for foreign adventures.”

“And your father agrees with your domestic politics?”

“He’ll need some convincing. It’ll take time, but he’s a strong enough king to listen. If only others would listen?” He gave me that intense look again.

“I don’t follow you, my lord,” I said, though I knew perfectly well his meaning.

Another servant rushed down, and Hamlet stepped away from me. She looked curiously at each of us briefly, while deferentially avoiding our eyes, then disappeared down the stairwell.

“I must attend to a matter in our apartments,” I said, and followed before her footsteps faded.

I wondered as I descended, how the queen would take her son’s reluctance. Whatever the heaviness in his face, speaking more loudly than words, he was the prince, his personal life subject to the needs of the realm. He might balk at first, like an unbroken colt, seeking freedom, running, choosing his own way, but if the tether did not check him a calm soothing voice would. If his father could not or would not overrule him the words of his mother, as light as air, would gently pressure him, gradually eroding his reluctance.

Queen Gertrude knew Adele was a golden prize for her son, bringing wealth and strengthening the sinews of power. No prince is powerful without alliances. She was beautiful too. Even I would admit that, despite her unkindness. She saw me as competition, but the game was won before it was played, and she knew it. Even if I had returned his ardour – and I told myself I did not – her qualities and connections would have burned brighter than anything I could give.

Chapter 16

I lay on the grass in the courtyard of the courtier’s quarter, concealed by the shadows between two cherry trees. I was wearing only a nightdress and my hair was loose, fingers interlocked behind my head. Above, the stars hung like bright fruit amidst leaves of unfathomable darkness. As a girl I looked up and wondered what stars would taste like if I could pluck them from the sky. Closing one eye, I had reached out, pressed my forefinger and thumb together, closed my other eye, brought that bright fruit to my mouth, and extended my tongue. Would a star be hot like a pepper, or cold like ice; sour like an unripe apple, or sweet like a blood red cherry? I had drawn back my tongue, closed my mouth, reached back out, opening my eyes, and separated my finger and thumb, putting the star back in the sky. I did not know whether it was returned to the right place. Perhaps only God and his angels knew, and who else could know what stars taste like?

That little girl is lost along with every other self that I have been. But who is the self that lost them? Was it with them? Was it of their number? How can that be if all are lost? And how can they be lost if none remain to lose them? Whatever the solution to this conundrum, they are all here, with whatever self observes them: the child, the woman, the reluctant student of grammar, the eager reader of poetry, the practical accountant and estate manager, the passionate musician, the daughter, the sister, the lover. So many selves, so many dreams. But after dreams you wake, or else you drown in madness. The stars were always beyond reach. You might seem to grasp them, but it is a false image, and fades like memories in the stream of time.

I heard a familiar giggle and rolled over onto my side, propping up my head on my hand.

“Stop it, Laertes.”

“But I love you, Jane.”

“The queen would be very angry if she knew I was here. This is very improper.”

“Even with a proper lord?”

“Pfft. You’re no Landgrave while your father lives.”

“But I will be. And you will be my lady.”

She giggled again. “Someone will hear.”

“I don’t care if someone hears.”

“Stop that!” I heard the sound of a slap. “I am lady in waiting to the queen. I will not be trifled with.”

“But, my love…”

“Tush! It’s an easy word, and a harder gift.”

“It is hard.”

“You’d best leave then. I will not be dishonoured, not even by my best friend’s brother.”

“But Jane,” he pleaded.

“No. Leave me, or I’ll tell your sister.”

“I’m shaking in my boots.”

“You know Ophelia has a foul temper. Remember that time she threw an unripe apple at your…”

“Ouch. Yes.”

“I’ll hand the apple to her this time, or maybe a knife.”

“Why are women so unkind?”

“Men are unkind and ruin us if we are too ready with our kindness.”

“I would never…”

“No. You wouldn’t think. You’d have what you want, and leave me to face the consequences.”

“You do me wrong to think so.”

“Leave me,” she commanded.

Perhaps Jane’s infatuation with Hamlet was of value after all. At least it made her wary of the motives of Laertes, who had all the self-control of a rutting ram in spring.

Chapter 17

I had been playing a child’s game. If I saw the English ambassador I would hide. He would seek me but I was more cunning than a child, and so he did not find me. I was amused by his blindness; vexed by Father’s consent to his suit, which he had now made explicit; and overly impressed with my own skill. I thought he was a fool I could avoid indefinitely but, fool or not, he was persistent, so one day he did find me. I was not even hiding at the time, so it was not exactly evidence of remarkable acumen.

I was politely contrary, hoping he would understand. “Good my lord, I’m discussing the matter with my father.”

“Your father is convinced the match makes good sense.”

Politeness wasn’t working. I would have to try something different. Every rose has thorns and the only satisfaction this would be plucker of buds would get was a pricked hand. “Excuse my delicacy then. I’m not so easily convinced as my father that what I don’t want is what I most need.”

“A lady’s delicacy is yet more evidence of her worth.”

“It’s evidence of a mind too free to satisfy a good husband.”

“Your every argument against yourself is further proof of your worth. I would hear you denounce yourself more roundly.”

“Then I’ll praise myself.”

“And confirm you’re beyond compare.”

“You misunderstand me.”

“Such sweet ignorance.”

“You provoke me.”

“I admire your fire.”

“Careful, it’ll burn you.”

“I await my suffering with pleasure.”

“You’ll have none from me.”

“Married life is said to be full of tribulation; it’s best you prepare me the sooner.”

“There will be no marriage,” I snapped.

“Then I’ll wait patiently, anticipating that antipathy will turn to love.”

“My life is not a comedy, and I’m no actress. My mind isn’t the fashion of an hour, to be changed for the pleasure of the crowd.”

“A more private performance gives the greater pleasure.”

I walked away from him. He shouted after me: “I’m patient. Perhaps you love me and don’t know it. Perhaps you need to learn of love and I must teach it. I’ll give you what time you need to think on sweet instruction.”

“You’ll outwait time,” I muttered to myself. It was no use saying it to him, since he only took every refusal as a plea for redoubled effort. I had to admit, however grudgingly, that he had verbal wit, but that could not compensate for his arrogance. He seemed to believe I did not know my own feelings.

Chapter 18

I was sitting in the queen’s pleasure garden, reading the song of Roland, and reminiscing about Abdul. It had been four years since he had departed, and my infatuation seemed as ancient to me as Roland’s death at the hands of the treacherous Basques.

“Why are women so cruel?” I was surprised by the thought. Was I cruel to fall out of love with Abdul, or was I being cruel to the English ambassador? Or to Hamlet? But the voice was not my own. It was Laertes. I searched his face while I gathered my thoughts. He must be talking about Jane, or Bess, or some fishwife in Paris he had failed to make his worshipful slut. “Why are men so careless with women’s virtue?” I retaliated.

“Virtue? Oh, you mean prudery.”

“And you were going to marry both Bess and Jane…and all the other women you’ve seduced, or tried to?”

“What do you mean?” he said, but his expression was full to overflowing with guilt. Still, I was sure he would recover; his sense of moral responsibility was as flexible as an acrobat.

“Don’t worry Laertes; I wouldn’t castrate my own brother…,” I smiled sweetly, “…unless he betrayed my friend.”

“Why do women assume the worst of a man?”

I sighed theatrically: “Long experience.”

He laughed. “Yes, all those eighteen years, all those broken hearts…of men you’ve ignored. You know….”

“Don’t.”

“I just….”

“Just don’t.”

“Don’t what? I was just going to…”

“To say that Father is right, that I should marry some idiot.”

“Not any old idiot. A rich idiot with a good name.”

“And then I can have spoiled idiotic children with a good name?”

He grinned. “Yes, and all the precious silks you can wear and sweetmeats you can eat, and beautiful horses and falcons and…”

“I have enough already.”

“Well,” he said, looking at the book in my lap then at me cannily, “all the books you can read.”

“I already have Father’s library. The largest in Denmark. Even the monks envy him.”

“And when he dies?”

“Then I’ll have your library.”

“So you think I’ll let you sponge off of me?”

“If you don’t I’ll tell your wife about all your dalliances.”

“Blackmail, eh? I always knew there was something I admired about you. An elegant hypocrite. You’d better be careful; the queen might take a liking to you and make you one of her ladies. Try telling her you’re not going to marry her pick.”

Chapter 19

I strolled through the garden in the courtyard of the courtiers’ quarter. Sun a bright circle of liquid gold, sky pale as a cold princess’s face. Mermaid combing sea green locks beneath glittering liquid arcs. Cherry trees scattering fruit and shadows on the grass. Courtiers pacing the rectangle of colonnades in twos and threes, heads close together so their whispers wouldn’t travel. Jane rushed through the passage into the quarter, rushed around the colonnades, calling my name and heading for Father’s apartments. I called to her and she veered towards me, into the path of a German diplomat. She started to apologise. He bowed with gracious forgiveness, and opened his mouth but, before he could speak, she picked up her skirts and hurried across the grass to join me. When she reached me she stopped, breathing heavily. I waited for her to catch her breath, but even when she did she said nothing. She clearly wanted to, but wanted not to at the same time, and the conflict produced an interesting range of expressions, joy, anxiety, confusion, hope, despair, each one chased away by the next and leaving her problem no clearer to me.

I decided to state the obvious. “There’s something you want to tell me.”

“It’s such a beautiful day, don’t you think, Phi?” she said.

“And you rushed here to tell me that?” She did not answer, but by now joy had firmly excluded all other emotions from her face. I looked at her askance. There was something important lost in the confusion of her thoughts, wandering in search of words. There was one thing I knew I could rely on to focus her mind though. “Look, there’s the prince!” I said with mock excitement, and pointed.

She did not even look. “Oh, that’s nice.”

“Alright, what’d you do with my friend?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve locked Jane up in one of the castle cellars and disguised yourself as her. What manner of changeling are you? Who are you, really?”

“I’m Jane, the same Jane who’s always loved you, though maybe I’ve never had so much reason as now?”

“You’re not making sense.”

“One day I will.”

She gave me an enigmatic look, her eyes watering, hugged me, almost painfully tightly, and ran off. I wondered at her secrecy. Jane had difficulty keeping any secrets, especially from me. It usually only took a question, and out they would pour, nonsense, court gossip, secrets of state.

Chapter 20

I had finished bathing and dressing and was going to Father’s study to examine the estate accounts which a courier had brought from our steward the night before when I collided with Magnus. What an unpleasant surprise, I thought, and smiled pleasantly, wondering how to avoid contact while not antagonising a brutal man. Before I could manoeuvre around him he grabbed my arm, gripping it tightly enough that I found bruises there the following day.

“Please, let go,” I said, politely.

He looked down, as if realising for the first time that he was holding me. He did not release me though, instead pressing his groin against me. “You’re modest. This is to be commended in a lady.”

“Your grip is immodest, and not to be commended in a lord.”

He looked stunned, but released my arm. As I stepped away from him he followed, as stupid as he was brutal. I turned and slapped him.

“You’d be tamed?” he said, apparently aroused by my anger, “I’m the man for you. Your father won’t object.”

I was furious at the thought that Father approved of this thug’s lust. I shoved him, but he was as unmoving as a mountain buffeted by wind.

“Be tamed by my love, my fair Ophelia.”

Love? This? “My father won’t instruct my heart how to beat. Your will won’t decide whom I love.” And surely, I thought, Father would not condone this. I considered crying out, but hesitated. Did he really have Father’s blessing? He had made the same claim before. Would Father think me ridiculously coy? Would he call me a shrew? Even if he had approved Magnus’s courtship, I couldn’t believe he would intend this. But still I wondered, would he blame me for any indiscretion?

Magnus pinned me against the wall; I stopped thinking and screamed. His kissing mouth caught the sound. I struggled more violently then, and somehow escaped his grip. Not knowing what had been agreed behind my back, I ran out to the courtyard rather than into Father’s study. Magnus followed quickly. I dodged behind a pillar. I could hear his breathing. It was loud, close. He gripped my arm. My heart stopped.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “hunting is a sport fit for lords and ladies. The horn sounds, and the chase is on. But a timid rabbit can’t outrun a brave hound forever. No matter what cover she chooses, he’ll sniff her out, no matter how she dodges and darts his maw will close about her trembling and the chase will be done.”

And the chase was done. But his growling voice was not beside me. I turned and saw Hamlet. I was more glad than even Jane would have been. I could have kissed him. “My lord!”

He was surprised by my manner, usually so mocking.

“Does the doe flee so soon?” Magnus asked, “My arrow hasn’t pierced her yet.”

Hamlet gave me a questioning look. I shrugged, hoping he did not realize what had happened. I avoided the blue depths of his eyes, sure that guilt would be reflected back from them. But he did not accuse me. His grip was gentle, merely drawing my attention, not trapping me.

“Let go!” I snapped at him, unfairly.

He released me instantly. “Forgive me, my lady.”

Magnus came around the pillar, awkwardly turning his forward momentum into an exaggerated bow and nearly toppling over. “Your highness.” When he regained his balance he turned to me: “I hope what has been said will be viewed in a fair light.” Then he strutted away along the colonnade.

“A strange man, Magnus. Fawning, foolish…”

“Loutish.”

I had said too much.

“May I ask…?”

“No,” I snapped, but my anger was not for him. I glared at the receding back of Magnus. When I looked back at Hamlet he seemed puzzled. Suddenly realisation lit his face, then his confusion turned to rage, expressed, as with so many of his feelings, in a torrent of words.

“Flee breeding cur! Maggot pregnant excrement! I have the sanguinary medicine to cure him of his pestilential life. I’ll seed the fields with his unseeing eyes, fertilize with the marrow of the man and water all with a rain of bloody vengeance.”

At that he moved to follow, but I placed myself in his path, and my hand on his chest. “My lord, you trouble yourself too much.” I could feel his heart beating strongly with his anger. He was surprised, and looked down with fascination at my hand. I quickly withdrew it, but my nerves still tingled with the sensation. I felt a phantom pulse in my palm as though still connected to him.

After a few more moments of staring at the place my hand had been Hamlet returned to rebuking himself. “No, I’ll not go. I’ll stay. Yes, it’s true, I roar like the mighty lion while my hands hang like traitors at my sides. I’ll whet my tongue and sheathe my sword while the assassin cuts another innocent throat. What am I then? A more subtle villain, nothing more. I adorn myself with cowardice, and in this fashion seek flattery’s applause.”

“Restraint is a sign of reason, my lord.”

He looked at me with solemn seriousness. “Reason? What value is a thought without an act?”

“A thought must pause to find his wiser friends, or lead where only fools would follow, and thought embracing thought is act enough to the wise.”

“Embracing thoughts? If only they were fleshed. Alas, a thought is naught but words bereft of speech’s telling breath.”

“But thoughts with value find the breath they need, and those without are better left unsaid. The worthwhile words give shape to coming action, and show your deepest thoughts to the listening world.”

“Or hide them. Words are treacherous cowards, dressing hatred with flattery, cowardice with bombast, foolishness with eloquence…” He grinned ironically.

“Lust with show of love?” I asked.

His grin vanished. “Lust speaks with love’s voice, so if love is silent false love wins the love of true love’s love, though to speak truly, true love can’t be spoken, only shown.”

“And yet you speak to me of love.”

“I’m a fool in love and so I must try what can’t be done.”

“So you’d make success of failure, make love where love can’t be made. Is this the act of a coward?”

“While you deny me I must be a coward. I wish I had true courage. I wish I had the proof that my words were more than lies. But only you can prove that, and I fear your contradiction. When will you see that my words are more than mere seduction? When you prove me true I’ll be brave, for then I’ll fear nothing, and words will be the form of action and action the shape of words.”

Chapter 21

When I asked Father about Magnus’s claims later he seemed surprised, but said that the count would make a good match, and berated me for being so particular about his appearance, his manners, and anything else I could think of without telling him what had happened. “He’s wealthy. He’s closely allied to Claudius. He’ll make a good husband.”

“And what of love?”

“Don’t speak to me of love. It’s only a bauble for the charming of innocent hours. You aren’t a child anymore. You must think as a woman. Find yourself a husband, or let a lord find you his wife.”

“Let a lord find himself sensible before I find myself his wife.”

“You weren’t always so reluctant to marry, Ophelia.”

“I was a foolish child then, and you wisely disallowed it. I’ve grown up since then.”

“You’ve grown in stubbornness.”

“Patience.”

“You can’t wait forever.”

“I’m only eighteen, Father.”

“And while you’re young men will court you. When the veil of age covers the beauty of youth they that turn their eyes towards your face will turn away. They’ll find willing freshness elsewhere while your staleness hardens you the more by the year, until none will wish to eat where once all would have feasted.”

“I’m not food to be eaten, and would you have me married to a man who’ll turn away from me at the first wrinkle?”

“I would have you safe from poverty.”

“Am I such a burden that you’d throw me in the gutter?”

“You’re not refuse to me. You’re my child. I would that my declining days weren’t the arbiter of your good fortune. What will happen to you when I’m gone?”

“Laertes will care for me. He’ll inherit your estates. He’s always been a kind brother, even if annoying, and never in the wrong, and…”

“Laertes will have his own fortunes to attend to. He can’t spread his inheritance so thinly his heirs won’t taste it.”

“My needs are slight. I won’t impoverish my nieces and nephews.”

“His wife may take a different view. The extent of a man’s family quickly contracts in the counsels of the wedding bed.”

“My brother will defend me.”

“It’s not so easy for a strong man to withstand the gentle siege of motherly concern.”

I thought of Father’s sister, who had entered a convent as a young woman, and wondered how much of his fear was really guilt.

“I trust to my brother’s goodness.”

“Would you have him undone by his own goodness?”

“Undone? Is that all I am? A burden?”

“No, no, you are a much loved daughter and sister, but you care less for yourself than we do. I would have you love yourself as you are loved. I would have you settled where we can see you glad with your fortune, bouncing a beloved child on your knee and cooing a mother’s love in a house where you are honoured as wife and mother, not hidden in shame or forgotten as a burdensome aunt.”

“I’m eighteen not thirty, Father. There’s still time.”

“Youth passes like the sun on a winter’s day; one moment lighting the face, the next lost in age’s wrinkled clouds.”

“This man is a fool.”

“All men are foolish in love. It’s a measure of their true feeling.”

“And some men are always idiots. How am I to tell whose folly is only a passing show? Count Magnus compares me to a hare and himself to the hound, as if I am to be hunted. I wouldn’t blood such lips with mine.”

“It’s only a manner of speaking. And he’s rich. You’ll never be wanting as his wife.”

“I will never want to be his wife.”

His anger flared. “Why must you cross me? I am your father, and yet your every second word is but a quibble to vex me.”

My own anger matched his. “You say you want my happiness but demand I choose a brutal fool.”

“I don’t demand you choose any fool.”

“No, not any one, but if not this one then that, if not that then the next, until all the stores of idiocy in this world have been emptied or I have bought their worst merchandise with my life’s unhappiness.”

“You’re an impossible child. Why do you defy me? Why do you make my age a time of anxiety? Why do you eclipse any hope of happiness with your stubbornness.”

“Happiness? You contradict yourself. You ask for happiness but demand happiness be sacrificed for it.”

“So you refuse all suitors?”

“I…,” I hesitated. Though I was angry with him I did not wish to hurt him, and I worried that his own anger would make him ill. “I will do my duty.”

His face expressed his surprise, then a hopeful half smile trembled into doubtful existence, seeming as likely to fade as assert itself.

“But never with Magnus,” I added.

“You will hear the English lord’s suit then?”

“If his suit fits well it’ll be worn. Naked foolishness is better unexposed.”

He thought better than to admonish me for my quibble. If he had not subdued my mind, he had at least been granted the outward show of obedience. Sometimes I thought that was all he cared about; that I should do what he commanded. Perhaps I was unfair, but at that time I was sure he did not care for the fate of my heart. With so many of our injustices, by the time we have realised our error it is too late to make amends. As he spoke of my welfare all I could see was my powerlessness. I wanted to be a good daughter, but did that mean I must choose like a puppet? I would obey him, and listen to the flattery of this Englishman. But I would never marry a man I did not respect.

Chapter 22

I wandered through the colonnades, across the gardens, past the barracks. I heard the clash of swords, and Hamlet’s voice. He also had little choice, but at least he could express his rage through fencing. I was not allowed to fence. I turned the corner. The fencing hall was filled with soldiers, with the sound of shouts and steel clashing against steel. The air was ripe with men’s sweat, with exertion, and anger. Laertes lunged. Hamlet parried, trying to turn him around. Despite his evident anger, my brother was too skilful with the sword to allow that. I knew Laertes’ anger was not for Hamlet. Suddenly I wanted Hamlet to win, to humiliate Laertes, who was allowed to seduce whomever he would. If he “sowed his wild oats” he would not be ruined. And so he pressured every woman he could, from the maid, to the queen’s ladies…my friend! Perhaps Paris prostitutes too. Them he had no need to pressure. Them he could merely buy, like meat at the market. Meanwhile, I had to be pure. I had to love no man but him I married. I had to marry whomever my father chose. I had to. I had to. I wanted to scream. If I had it would have been louder than all the battle shouts of all the soldiers fencing there. If I had the sound would have terrified those brave men more than the wail of a banshee. If I had the very castle walls would have trembled. But I did not. I was the good girl. Sweet Ophelia. The good daughter, demure, obedient.

Hamlet saw me, and dropped his guard. Laertes regained his balance and lunged. The bated point struck Hamlet’s shoulder.

“Why?” I asked no one.

Hamlet was puzzled.

Laertes grinned. “A hit. A palpable hit. You can’t deny it.”

Hamlet turned to him. “No point. The lady disarmed me with her beauty.”

“Still a point.”

I was not allowed to fence, and had no desire to hear them arguing about trivialities. “Let them skewer each other,” I thought, “let Hamlet debate himself about infinite space and walnuts. I will not hear it.” I crossed the parade ground in the direction of the stables. I was sharp to the groom as he saddled Amleth for me, then felt guilt. He also was not free. I thanked him as I mounted Amleth, then rode to the mews. The falconer fetched Alma, placing a hood over her head while I put on a wrist guard. When Alma was settled on my wrist I rode out.

I felt the power of the horse beneath me, saw the freedom of the hawk as she floated on the currents of the air. I had neither power nor freedom, only feeling. Too much feeling. I put my hand against Amleth’s neck, then leant forward to place my cheek there, my ear. I heard his heartbeat, strong and steady, and gripped his mane. He whinnied. He wanted to be free too. I controlled him, limiting his freedom, hoping to find my own. I spurred him into a slow canter, increasing quickly to a gallop. His mane flowed freely in a wind of his own making. Now I did not rein him in. He was free and I was free with him. Light on his back, not his warden. I would not overmaster him. And so he gifted me with the freedom he took. My hair flowed out behind me like a second mane. Together we were free.

Chapter 23

It was a hot August night, and from the west tower I looked down on the town of Elsinore, thumbing the amber beads of my rosary without a thought for heaven. In the waters of the strait lights bobbed – lanterns on ships and boats – ripples fragmenting fuzzy lines of light across the water into ephemeral constellations beneath the eternal heavens. The main street was brightly lit all the way from the outer palisades of the castle to the far end of the bridge over the ditch at the other end of town.

I had made excuses for avoiding the festivities, knowing Adele would be there, looking for any opportunity to bait me. The night would be mild in the fields as the wind gusted off the sea cooling the still warm earth where crickets chirped and mosquitoes hovered like malevolent pixies. I had enjoyed similar festivals in the past. Memory mingled with perception – the string of lights through the town, the breeze on my face, the smell of the meadows west of the castle when the wind died. The facades of houses – dark brown lattices of timber framing, whitewashing peeling from cracked plaster – flickered yellow from the torchlight. Children, having crept from their beds, peered from dark windows with sleepy eyes and wide mouths. Actors paraded by, heading for a stage built in the distant fields, wearing outlandish costumes. Heroes and gods and monsters of pagan legends from our distant past mingled with orthodox devils and angels and saints of the one true church. Knights gripping the necks of hobby horses bravely wielded wooden swords against shadow foes. The Vice followed, garbed in black, his face leering in a lewd painted grin, gathering the townsfolk behind him, urging them to drunken revelry and sin. All were tempted, from lowly prentice to guild master and off duty sailors and soldiers, abandoning sobriety in favour of a display of wild dancing and every form of immodesty and immorality short of public fornication. Last of all came the nobles, completing the disorder of God’s plan with a reversal of earthly order.

I breathed deeply the air, carrying to the castle tower fading traces of field and town and foaming sea, mingled with the rosemary hint of my rosary’s pomander, the fading memories of an insubstantial journey. I held those memories, for a moment containing the world that contained me, then sighed them out. Turning away from the view, the smells, the memories, I put away my rosary and descended the stairs.

I returned to the diplomatic quarter. In the courtyard torches flickered, and shadows conspired at the boundaries between light and darkness. The fountain’s streams descended from the star strewn sky in sparkling rosaries of water beads, splashing with the uncertain rhythm of troubled prayers onto the unmoved mermaid. She is nameless, but my nurse, who was taken by slavers from her native Iona as a child, told me she was from the seas by her island home.

The mermaid fell in love with a monk, a disciple of St Columba, so my nurse told the tale. When this monk came down to the shore to fish she climbed onto a rock where the waves could wash over her. She sang to him of her love and he was moved, but he was chaste and would not break his vows. Instead he told her of a great fisher named Jesus. He said he would lead her to this fisherman and He would net her soul and take it to a place in the deep blue sky where light alights like bliss on every face and darkness is unknown. But first she would have to abandon the sea and follow the path up to the church founded by Columba. There he would baptise her and she would acquire a Christian soul. But the song of the sea sang in her heart, warning her she would become mortal and die if she chose that path. So she sat on her rock and wept, for she loved the monk but could not follow him, and her tears were so heavy with grief they turned to pebbles and were washed by the waves on the shore.

So her mother had told the tale to her and now I tell you. Then my nurse showed me her most precious possession, a pebble from the shores of Iona, “one of the mermaid’s tears washed by the waves,” and she wept herself as she touched it, so far across the sea from her home. So, unconverted, her love unrequited, the mermaid sits and combs her ever tangled hair, and the drops of the fountain streams roll down her like endless tears.

Perspiration rolled down my back and my throat and mouth were parched. I stepped onto the grass, under a cherry tree, and plucked dark fruit. I chewed the sweet flesh and spat stones and let the sticky juice drip down to my chin and soon the juice had slaked my thirst. I was about to be unladylike again and spit out another stone when I heard two voices. One was the gentle voice of Claudius, the other, when it answered, made me shudder. Magnus! I took the stone from my tongue with my fingers and dropped it to the grass. While the presence of Claudius would prevent the brute’s misbehaviour, politeness would require I speak with both if they knew of my presence. Apparently they had not entered the diplomatic quarter together. Magnus, who was outside my family’s apartments, I thought, hoping to assault me without witnesses, waited for Claudius to reach his side, then they continued together in my direction. The shadows were deep beneath the tree, and the men were not close to me, but their voices carried clearly in the motionless air.

Claudius pointed with his chin towards the shadows. Magnus followed him down a path.

“The castle is quiet, your grace.”

“Silence ears the cheerless dark. Let’s fill these ears with the fountain’s cheerful chatter.”

They stopped by the fountain.

“The state is festive,” Magnus said, and spat at the mermaid.

“I fear what the state will become,” Claudius said, with a bluntness that surprised the count.

Though they had tried to cover their voices with the sound of the fountain they were now much closer to me and I could hear them even more clearly than before.

He looked closely at the grand duke’s face, and added, “the princess finds much favour with the queen.”

“The queen…,” Claudius paused, and his voice became emotional, “…the queen is not the king.”

“The king is strong, and just.” I might have wondered at the sudden transformation in the count’s attitudes, from those expressed to Father, if the hypocrisy of courtiers were not as familiar to me as the taste of pottage to a peasant. Claudius is, after all, brother to king Hamlet, and a wrong word to him might lead to more than the loss of royal favour.

“The king is strong. Who would doubt my brother’s rule? But all men have only that number of days allotted to them by God, and what will become of Denmark when he is gone?”

Magnus did not immediately answer, as if weighing the risks. Was the grand duke merely trying to draw him out, encouraging him to betray treasonous intentions? Or did he have an ally in discontent? Finally, he answered: “The young prince may not be ready yet, but the old king is not so old.”

“Young Hamlet is no longer so young, and yet he lacks the qualities of his father.”

“The princess might temper his steel.”

“Her father will strengthen the sinews of his power.”

“But the prince is reluctant.”

“Can he care so little for the security of the realm?” Claudius asked with a sigh.

“Only time will tell,” Magnus responded noncommittally.

“Yes, time is of the essence.”

“You’ve always been renowned for your wisdom, your grace, and when I hear you speak clearly I can’t doubt your reputation.”

“Other ways must be open, to protect the realm from decay, if anything were to happen to the king.” Claudius’s tone hovered between seeking an answer to a question and stating that answer.

“It’d be treasonous to suppose the kingdom in danger and not avoid that danger,” Magnus suggested.

“And there’s danger on all sides.”

“Of the king’s chamber?”

“Can those closest to the king’s body be trusted to best keep him safe?”

Finally Magnus felt secure enough to be explicit. “Victor’s hand is all that lies between us and the king’s safety.” He was rewarded by Claudius’s unambiguous response. “And so it must be removed.”

If I were not familiar with Father’s dissembling obscurity I might have found this conversation cryptic. It could be interpreted to either the advantage or detriment of Magnus and Claudius, but the real meaning was clear enough. Victor stood in the way of their ambitions, as did the Flemish princess. Victor was close to the king, and the princess would consolidate Hamlet’s position, guaranteeing his election in the event of his father’s death.

My own situation was not easy. There was no point speaking to Father. He would not trust me to judge political matters correctly. It was not that he underestimated the abilities of women; he had provided me with the best tutors and relied on me to manage his estates; he respected the queen’s subtle intelligence – more like his own than the king’s in valuing diplomacy over bloodshed; but he was like most fathers of daughters in his ambivalence about me growing up. My reluctance to view marriage as a strictly strategic or economic alliance only confirmed for him my naivety – which he both hoped for and despaired of – and the only way I could gain his respect was by submitting to an unwelcome suit. Until then, if I tried to inform him of this plotting he would probably dismiss my suspicions as immature fantasies, of a kind with dreams of love, and use my objections as leverage to pressure me more, since I had not yet granted a private audience to the over amorous Englishman. I could not speak to Hamlet either, because from what I had heard in Father’s study I feared Father might himself be compromised. In addition to that, Hamlet might take any desire to speak to him as a surrender to his suit, or at least a lessening of my resistance and, as much as I loved to hear him speak, I would not have him believe I loved more than his words.

So, to my surprise, I found myself hoping for Adele’s good fortune.

Chapter 24

Eternity: beyond time, changeless. When the hourglass is on its side time ceases to flow. Like a fallen figure 8 it signifies the infinite, silent, still, profound. But if, when the last grain falls, the hourglass is turned, time flows again, in reverse. The grains, trapped within a glass infinity, bounded by the boundless, retrace their path. War. Tournament. Resurrection. Death. A nightingale singing. Love’s suit, honey sweet. A handkerchief. A day with Jane. Figures that did not add up.

I was auditing Father’s estate accounts. An hourglass stood at one elbow, an abacus at the other, and all about lay some of the books, scrolls and maps with which Father was always making subtle adjustments to his abstract cartography of power. To prevent the parchment I was examining rolling back up I had weighted its upper edge with an astrolabe. An oil lamp flickered beside the ink well, augmenting a narrow strip of sunlight. I tickled the tip of my nose with the feather tip of my quill, soggy from chewing, tapped a fingernail on my front teeth, then flicked the beads of the abacus, more out of distraction than to calculate, which I had already done in my head. The figures did not add up.

The yields had been poor this year, and the tenants were suffering. Should I ignore the discrepancies between their dues and their payments, allowed by the compassion of our steward, or tighten the accounts, call in debts, and leave the poorest peasants starving? If the latter, the need for charity would be greater. Should I take with one hand and give with the other, proud of my acumen and generosity, or ignore the discrepancy? The result would be the same in either case. I chewed on the feather, then dipped the quill point in the ink well before making a mark next to a column of numbers.

I wondered whether my mother would have made the same choices had she lived. I had imagined a thousand possible lives with her. I had tried to imagine her as she would have been, as she never was. Did I lose that her or, in having never been that was she never what could be lost? The woman who bore me I have lost, though she gave me life before she left. What followed did not follow. I thought, I could go insane thinking like this. Was I bound for madness long before I reached it? But perhaps madness is really sane, the fractured image of truth in a world of lies.

Jane entered. She often teased me about this obsession with a lost mother. “My own mother was harsh, not like the queen. My mother hit me with a big spoon when I dropped food on the floor and you know how clumsy I am so my bottom was always black and blue and I slept on my face every night and stood up at table which made her even angrier so she slapped me but she never hit me in the face which was just as well because the queen thought I was very pretty when she saw me when she was on progress through the town with the king and the young prince and I was very little which she says was why she chose me and the queen has never hit me which is why I prefer her to my mother as well as she’s so nice to me in so many ways I can’t count though she tells me to be quiet sometimes because I can go on too much and I get to have Hamlet saying nice things to me. I really prefer the queen and she’s a really loving mother. You know how much she loves Hamlet and what mother wouldn’t and I loved him so much when I saw him and he was so nice and even talked to me, not like other stuffy nobles, more like his mother who’s so nice to people, even common girls like me. I really prefer her to my own mother. I’m sure she’d adopt you too. I’ll put in a good word.” After this stream of words she had paused, and looked at me slyly. “Or maybe there’s another way to make her your mother.” I had changed the subject.

Now she was looking around curiously.

“You’re looking for one of Father’s books to read?” I asked her wryly. She gave me a look which hovered between mockery of me and herself. I had tried to teach her to read, but she had never enjoyed the experience. Father had paid for the best tutors for me. I had learnt Latin, German and French, reading, writing, and estate management, and enjoyed learning. A heathen – an elegantly presented, sophisticated Moorish ambassador from Cordoba – had even taught me the secrets of algebra, and read to me devotional poetry in his own language. He had wanted to marry me, though I had only been fourteen. If my adolescent passions had decided the outcome I would have returned with him, even at the price of conversion. Father had not approved. I quickly forgot him and discovered the charms of German princes, several in succession. Jane and I had been partners in foolishness back then, encouraging each other with the arrival of every handsome prince, until the stupidity of each turned me against all. None could match the learning of Abdullah, a philosopher among obtuse princes.

“I’ve always been jealous of you,” she said.

“For having Father’s library to peruse?”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t want smelly, dusty books. I mean you have such a lovely family.”

“You know I’ve always considered you my sister. My family is yours.”

“Yes.” Jane hugged me. “But neither your father nor brother is around now.” Though it had the form of a statement it sounded more like a question.

“It’s not always good for Father to be around. As for Laertes, I can do without his patronising attitude. Neither will ever take me seriously, I’m afraid.”

“I take you seriously,” Jane said, then sighed.

“Why so sad?”

“Not sad.”

“Why so happy then?”

She hesitated, then said, “because I can finally spend a whole day with my sister. The queen and princess have given me some time and I’m giving it to you.”

I put down the quill, and examined my fingers. Tips black with spattered ink; not very ladylike. What would my mother think of me? Surely heaven was too far away for her to see. “And what are two such sisters to do with a whole day?”

“A merchant has arrived from Constantinople. I thought we might go and peruse his wares. He might have something beautiful.”

“Beautiful enough for a princess?”

“She is beautiful, and she’s been very nice to me, but she’s not my sister.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For being so…petty.”

Jane stared at me, uncomprehending. I clarified, “Jealous.”

“Of the princess?”

“Yes. She’s taken you away from me. I’d like to steal you back.”

“No need. No one can steal this sister from you,” she said, and added, with emphasis, “no…one. Not even Adele.”

“Not even the queen?” I asked, affecting a pout.

She laughed. “Not even the queen. Not even…,” She hesitated, as if she had said too much. Apparently she decided against discretion though, because she finished with, “…not even God himself.”

“Ah, so my sister is a heretic.”

“As you would have been once.” She played with my hair.

“An apostate, true. Abdullah ibn Rahman add Something and Something More was a tempting proposition to a bookish young girl. Since you didn’t denounce my apostasy then I’ll be silent about your heresy now. No burning. I’ll only gently roast you.”

“Nothing will change then.”

“You wound me mortally, Jane.”

“You mock me endlessly, Phi.”

“Perhaps I mock myself. I was a fool in love once. Never again! But…if you’d only heard Abdullah reading poetry.”

“I love love-poetry. Not that anyone has written any for me.” She frowned reproachfully. “You would think that someone would, wouldn’t you?” This time her question sounded more like a statement.

“I would think so.” I took her hands from my hair and held them. “You’re by far the most beautiful lady at court. But I don’t really know what Abdullah’s poems were about. Maybe God. Maybe they were eulogies to his favourite horse or hawk.”

“They must have been about love – beautiful, perfect, everlasting love.”

“Yes, lasting until wrinkles write a thousand more smiles than I have any use for and my boobs hang down to my knees and these lips so red for kissing now can only dribble senescent drool into mumbled pottage.”

“You know, your cynicism won’t save you from love, Phi. When you feel love there’s no denying it. All your logic will only find the reasons why you have to love then and why he’s the only one you ever could have loved and why you’re a fool for never having seen it till now.”

“A piece of the queen’s wisdom, or Adele’s?”

“I have a mind of my own, Phi, and a heart.”

“I know…I didn’t…”

She yanked her hands out of mine. “But you did, and you always do.”

We were silent for a while, then I said, “Anyway, love isn’t for me. Never again.”

“You’re confusing infatuation with love, Phi.”

I was surprised by the good sense of this statement. I peered at her curiously. She looked away. I had to admit she was right. I underestimated her too much.

Chapter 25

Jane and I held parasols against the blazing sun, its brightness washing out the blue of the sky visible beneath the rim of richly dyed, particoloured linen. I heard the croak of kites circling above and shuddered. I knew some would have settled on the pike pierced heads, pecking out eyes that might once have examined household accounts, or observed a family riven or joined more fiercely by petty rivalries. We rode out past the gallows, mercifully empty, and turned down the hill to pass the tollhouse so hated by Baltic navigators. On the distant western hills the windmills sluggishly turned. Behind us in the bay ship masts would be swaying gently with the waves. On our left the luckiest fishermen were already drawing their boats up to the sandy strand, dragging out barrels of heron, cod or shark, shouting friendly insults at each other or exchanging real blows, or haggling with merchants who would trade the fish further inland at inflated prices.

Jane had been silent since we left the stables, and I wondered at so uncharacteristic behaviour.

“I see so little of you these days,” I said to her, trying to draw her out.

She only nodded, and looked guiltily away.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong,” she said, turning to me with a forced smile, “everything is right.”

“You want to spend the day with me but don’t want to speak to me. I’ve always enjoyed new experiences, but when my talkative friend doesn’t speak…when my best friend doesn’t speak…”

“You worry too much. Don’t worry, Phi. I’m just thinking.”

I thought of asking whether the experience was pleasurable or painful, but checked myself, and wondered at my own cruelty. I decided that would make as good a subject as any. “I’m too unkind to you. I’ve hurt you…somehow, I don’t know how.”

“No, no.” She looked directly into my eyes, and her own were so full of emotion I felt it as though it were my own. But it was a feeling for which I did not know the cause. I needed to understand what was troubling my friend so much.

“There’s something you want to tell me.”

She blushed, and turned away. I felt her discomfort and did not want to intensify that, but I was intrigued.

“You know your secrets are safe with me, and I promise I won’t tease you.”

“Very much,” she said turning back with a smile, but her eyes were moist, and I could see the effort she was making to hold back any more visible sign of emotion. Her body was rigid with the effort, but her face twisted subtly, every tell-tale expression struggling to be born, but her willpower holding it back. I was sure her will would soon fail, but just as she seemed about to let her face reveal her heart she turned it away from me again.

I reined in Amleth. “You have to tell me.”

She turned back, reining in her palfrey, and said sharply, “just because I’m a common born woman doesn’t mean you can order me around.”

I was surprised by the vehemence of her response. “I never…you know I’ve never thought of you that way.”

“No? More like your little charitable project. Alms for the poor little poor girl.”

“Where is this coming from, Jane?” I decided to try facetiousness, hoping the familiarity would elicit forgiveness: “Charity for you is the queen’s project, I don’t have any rich lover to marry to you.”

The effect was the opposite of what I had expected. She flushed again, but this time with anger. “Maybe I’ll take what you won’t give. Maybe I’ll take everything and leave you nothing.”

That startled me. “What have I ever done to deserve that?”

My own emotion shocked her out of whatever feeling had been clouding the air between us and she nudged her palfrey close to Amleth, throwing her arms around my waist and resting her head on my lap. A faint aroma of mint and roses floated up to me with her words. “Forgive me. I don’t know why I said that. I’m a terrible, terrible friend. I would never hurt my sister. Never, never, never.” I felt her sobs, then heard them as they grew louder. I did not understand the cause, and blamed myself. Perhaps I had been condescending to her. Would resting my hand on her head be condescending? I couldn’t not comfort her though and, stretched across my lap as she was I could not hug her properly, so I rested one hand on her head and with the other rubbed her back reassuringly.

“May I ask?” I said softly.

She shook her head, but still clung to me.

“You’ll tell me when you’re ready.”

She nodded, let go of me and wiped away her tears.

Chapter 26

The warehouse was crowded with crates and barrels and sacks and bales, stacked against walls and rising in high hills across the sturdy boards of the central floor. Merchants and townspeople pressed together tightly in the valleys between. The air was filled with powder of sawdust and grain, spices and rancid sweat and reeking breath and haggling shouts, offer and counteroffer, curses and complaints.

It was a wholesale market, but a small stall was set up in a corner, ostensibly for the pleasure of the queen – who was at this time nowhere to be seen – but really so that townsfolk could buy single items at reduced prices without antagonising local shopkeepers who wanted to buy in bulk then sell to those same people. Jane and I tested the colours against each other. I was sure a deep blue silk would make a fine gown, and she recommended combining it with a cape of crimson cotton plush. She admired several richly embroidered silken handkerchiefs. Finally we made our choices and paid for our pleasures. A lackey carried my parcel out to Amleth.

Jane had forgotten her unhappiness though her eyes were still red. I plucked the handkerchief from her hand and tried to dab her eyes. She stopped me, and in a panicked voice said, “no, you mustn’t,” and took it back.

“But what good is a handkerchief if you can’t wipe your eyes with it?”

“It mustn’t be used.” She caressed it softly as though it were a lover’s face.

“Why?”

“Because.”

“Ah, Jane, am I at fault again?”

She cocked her head to one side, perhaps in parody of my own mocking mannerisms, and smiled wryly. “Are you ever innocent, Phi?”

“Always. Ask Laertes.”

Her expression changed, and she looked intently at the handkerchief, as if it were a complicated puzzle to be solved. “Why would I ask Laertes?”

“Because I’ll always be a child to him.”

“He’s your brother. He loves you.”

I clutched her hand. “No, Jane, no, you mustn’t take my brother’s side against me. What defence will I have against him if you join him?”

“You’ll always have a sister’s love, as well as a brother’s.”

“You give me little confidence. No, Jane, I must insist: join any of my enemies against me, but never my brother. Banish me to the ends of the earth, but don’t ally yourself to my brother’s condescension.”

“But if I ally myself to his condescension, I’ll finally have a defence against your mockery.”

“My mockery will always be kind with those I love.”

“As is his.”

“You don’t understand. You don’t have a brother.”

“Then I’ll study him carefully to understand your plight.”

“Ah, Jane, you break my heart. Will I ever recover from this betrayal?”

Jane curtsied. “My queen.”

I turned, and hurriedly curtsied to the queen. Behind her stood several armed men and her other ladies.

“Sweet Jane. Sweet Ophelia.” She placed a hand against Jane’s cheek, like a mother with a favourite child. “You’ve been crying. Is anything wrong?”

“No, your majesty. Just my foolishness. Ophelia has been telling me about the suffering of sisters, and I couldn’t help feeling strongly.”

“Sweet Jane. So sensitive. That’s a pretty handkerchief.”

Jane shuffled uncomfortably. “It’s a gift,” she said, with an embarrassed glance at me.

“A lovely gift.”

“Yes.”

“Well, I mustn’t waste what little time I’ve given you to yourself.”

“Oh, no, your majesty, no time with you is ever wasted.”

The queen smiled warmly at her favourite. “You’re a good girl, Jane. Don’t forget that appointment you need to make.”

“Appointment?” Jane looked blankly at the queen, who looked significantly at me. “Oh,” Jane said suddenly, “oh, yes, I mean no, I won’t forget.”

“Good day then.”

“Good day, your majesty.”

Jane curtsied, I followed suit, and the queen entered the warehouse with her bodyguards and the other ladies.

Now I teased Jane. “It is a beautiful handkerchief, and it mustn’t be used. Who’s the lucky Landgrave?”

Jane started. “Landgrave? What do you mean?”

“You said you’d reject any man less than a Landgrave, so you must’ve found the lucky man noble enough to wipe the prince’s memory from your heart.”

“Oh, oh,” Jane said, blushing, then suddenly handed it to me, “no, no Landgrave. My love is all for you.”

A mad thought crossed my mind, and I looked askance at her. I was opening my mouth to ask an absurd question, when she said in a rush: “You’re probably wondering what appointment the queen was talking about. Adele asked me to invite you to join her tomorrow.”

“She’s too kind,” I said, as unpleasant feelings overwhelmed thought. “I…I…,” wanted nothing more than to refuse but did not wish to antagonise the already unpleasant princess who might one day be my queen.

“I’m sorry, Phi. I didn’t want to put you on the spot.”

“Was that what our time together today was about?”

“No, no. You mustn’t think that. But…I know you don’t like Adele.”

“And I thought myself so subtle.”

“She’s not so very bad once you get to know her. She’s just….”

“A princess.”

“Yes. Yes, that’s it.”

“Proud. Haughty. Contemptuous.”

“You’re being unfair, Phi.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Suddenly she threw her arms around me, and pressed her face into my neck. “For me, Phi? Will you do it for me?”

I sighed. “How could I deny my sister anything?”

She loosened her hold and looked into my face. “You mean it?”

“I said it, didn’t I?”

“You don’t mean something else by your words? Something funny? Something like, I’m saying it but there’s no way I would ever do that?”

“Where do you get these ideas about me, Jane?”

“From a lifetime of being your friend.”

“I promise you I mean nothing by my words but what they can sensibly be taken to mean.”

“You’re trying to trick me.”

“Jane,” I said in an exasperated tone.

“Alright, alright. You mean it then. You’ll join the princess for her ride out into the country tomorrow.”

“Yes. Is that unambiguous enough for you? Yes, Jane, I will do exactly what you want, always.”

“Liar.”

“Well, for one day, anyway. And that day will be tomorrow. I’m a kind sister aren’t I? I’ll suffer the princess’s barbs for a whole day, all for you.”

“I don’t know how to answer that.”

“Better that you don’t then.”

Chapter 27

Bess sharply rebuked the messenger, tightly knitting her brow, eyebrows writing a fierce V, floating motes like sparks glowing in her eyes as if lit by the heat of her anger. She stepped between us then, turning, and setting her shoulders, broader than mine, squarely against any temptation to further impropriety. A circle of soap clouded the water in a bronze bowl beside me, and strands of steam streamed to the ceiling from a terracotta jug. Flustered, uneasily eyeing Bess, the messenger apologised with stuttering words and rapid abbreviated bows for entering my chamber, but stood his ground. “My lady, the queen commands your presence.” I had been washing, and was only partially dressed, and I believe she would have been as regally irate with the king himself. “Out,” she snapped, stabbing the air between herself and the passage behind him with an index finger. She held that position, arm out, finger extended like a rapier tip. Despite the barrier of Bess’s fearsome anger, however, the messenger did not withdraw, but continued bowing where he stood. “I am to accompany you to the place, my lady.”

That a message to me from the queen had not been delivered by Jane was unusual and ominous enough, and the order to follow him did not allay my fears. For all Hamlet’s caution in courting me I could not believe his mother, with her slyly disguised acuteness and her many spies, was unaware of his attentions; but I had hoped she would not blame me for his love while I did not requite it. I had no desire to interfere with her dynastic ambitions, and I had supposed my rejections evident enough. However, Adele might, in her envy, have suggested a cunning in me akin to her own. I had avoided her since the feast but I saw her eyes, bright and mobile, carefully observing Hamlet, and me, and I could hear her laughter, like shards of sharp glass on ice. She and the queen shared the same hope. I was perceived by one at least as an obstacle to that. Father had the queen’s ear, but that would not shield me – or others I cared about, even him – from her rage if Adele insinuated that I was a willing cause of Hamlet’s indifference.

“Am I to be your prisoner then?” I asked the messenger.

He was shocked by the suggestion, and I felt relieved, though I cautioned myself not to be complacent about my safety.

“If I am not to be your prisoner, would you be so kind as to wait for me in the outer apartments?”

“Oh! Oh, yes! My apologies, my lady.” He looked uneasily at Bess’s glaring face, then spun on the spot and shot out the door and along the passage in a rapid zigzag, like a hare fleeing the teeth of a hound across an open field.

For a moment I considered publically encouraging the English ambassador’s amours. But could I seriously contemplate behaviour I had always despised in other women? It is cruel to encourage a man you will never love, or marry. I tried to excuse myself morally: other women do this to provoke the interest of other men, whom they truly want, or sometimes for the cruel pleasure of emotional domination, as Adele had implied of me; I would do this for the safety of those I loved, substituting a harmless deceit for the dangerous, and malicious, one of the princess; and the ambassador would eventually assuage his suffering – if his feelings were anything more than a ruse in the pantomime of seduction – by falling in love with whichever pretty fool he next encountered.

My conscience would not be easy though. I pressed the towel Bess passed me against my face, less to dry my own eyes than avoid hers, but even with them closed I could see those motes, in which my potential guilt glowed. Laertes had tried to seduce her. She, who had so little, had rejected him, a man who could have given her so much. She had done what she knew was right. How could I, who had so much more than she, live with myself if I did what I knew was wrong? I could not. I knew I would hate myself for hurting an innocent man, however aggravating his suit. There was another man who was not so innocent, whose heart, if he had one, it would be just to break – Magnus. It would have been mad to flirt with him though; he needed no encouragement to be a brute, and even took refusal as an invitation.

Then I recalled that Adele wished to ride out with me the next day. Would she have arranged that if she had deployed the queen’s anger against me? And the queen had not been unkind to me earlier in the day either. If Adele had intended to strike, would she have waited so long? Maybe she had not poisoned the queen’s mind with malicious whispers; the messenger’s shocked reaction to the suggestion I might be his prisoner seemed to confirm that. Truth be told, I wondered if she actually enjoyed having me as a competitor, a woman she could slowly, meticulously – tenderly even – crush. I told myself, I must leave Denmark before she becomes queen.

Maybe I would marry, possibly even an infuriating Englishman. And he was not devoid of virtues: he was eloquent; he only ignored my rejections as much as Hamlet. He did not look like Hamlet though, and he lacked the prince’s earnestness. Hamlet was sincere, not a diplomatic hypocrite. His words expressed the poetry of his heart, even if he did flatter every one of the queen’s ladies with consummate skill.

Bess was about to reapply my makeup, but I would not flatter my reason with complacency – looking more plain might allay the suspicions I hoped, but could not be sure, the queen did not have; and if she were already angry any delay might further enflame her wrath.

The messenger led me to a part of the castle I had not seen since the explorations of childhood. He left me in a small room hung with tapestries. I looked around. Apart from the candles burning on a lone table in the centre of the room and the figures in the tapestries which they lit I was alone.

A knight in shining armour received a silken token of a lady’s regard. Her high conical buns were overhung by a white headscarf embroidered with gold and adorned with pink hawthorn flowers. He knelt before her, imploring her, as though she were his sovereign and he merely a humble petitioner. In the background his great white steed pawed the earth. In the distance, another knight, in black armour, mounted on a black horse. The black knight’s visor was lifted to reveal a cruel face.

I heard the echo of my breath, which was unusual – tapestries usually dampen the sounds of a stone room. I held my breath and still heard it. It was behind me. I spun around. A broad shouldered man was kneeling in the shadows I threw in the candlelight. I sprang back. The candlelight flickered with my movement. I stepped sideways so that my shadow would not block the light. The man was dressed in a colourful cotehardie.

“My lord, you startled me.”

“Pardon my unworthy petition, my…if I may say, ‘my lady.’ If my hope is presumptuous in your eyes I can only beg your charity, for who could not be unworthy of you.”

“You’re mistaken.”

He looked hopeful.

“I mean, you’re my prince. You’re above my station. It isn’t possible that I could be worthy. Many ladies deserve these praises more than I…and one most especially.”

He frowned at my addendum, then seemed to shake away its significance as he shook his head vigorously. The golden strands of his hair fell across his face. He swept it aside, and candlelight flickered in the facets of his sapphire irises.

“No, no; you cannot be unworthy, no.

Consider what you say and what it means,

How value must be valued if the truth

Stands as you’ve stated, and then falsehood falls

Allotted as love’s lot. Worth less than you are worth

Then worthless must be wealthy, wealth be worthless.

This cannot be. What weight of gold could tip

The balance against empty air if you,

Ophelia, could be unworthy? None.

Accounting you as less than all the riches of the world

Only could fill the ledger fairly if

Less were now more, the sum less than its parts.”

I could see he would continue this way for a while. “My lord…,” I paused, and emphasised, “my prince, you do me too much honour.”

“No honour could be too great for the paragon of beauty, the source of all perfections of your sex.”

“These things I am not, and a great many honours are too great for me. I am merely myself. You see what I am not, not what I am.”

“Yes, yes,” he became even more enthused, “yes, I am blinded by your beauty, disarmed by your wit, vanquished by your…”

“I mean you see something that is not me and name it by my name. I am only Ophelia.”

“Only?” he said, as if horrified by the description, as if it were an injustice against language and sense.

Only,” I insisted firmly, “only Ophelia.”

He shook his head, and his expression slowly changed from horrified to distant, as if he meditated on a sublime object, impossibly beyond his reach, and more desirable for that. I have had my own moments of religious ecstasy, and I could have joined with him in that admiration, if only I had not been its object. Why could he not see me? I stood right before him, breathing more quickly than I cared to admit, feeling the rush of blood to my face, my fingertips, and more, as when the autumn rains fall and the watercourses swell and overflow, carrying with their currents the remains of summer’s quiescence.

“Ophelia,” he said, savouring the sound, “yes, yes, Ophelia!

Your name, your very name invites a vow,

A vow of everlasting sole devotion.

The saints themselves could not inspire so surely.

Oh Oh, so sweet!

Heretic-mad at the sweet sound alone

I find faith faithless. You pour into the portals

Of aching ears like sounding poison, loudly,

So loudly with so soft a breath revealed,

I feel it as I hear it, in my blood, my blood!

Oh! I wish only to be made more sick.

How my blood burns! becoming heathenish

With need of grace from you before that saviour

Whose sacrifice is nothing to the loss

Of but one moment’s gift in your possession.

I would be excommunicate for only

A single loving word from your sweet lips.

For a brief kiss I’d dare eternal fire.

For a slight hope I’d challenge Hell’s own hordes,

Or fell about me all of Heaven’s hosts.

I would…”

I was feeling more pleasure from his words than was consonant with good conscience. I both wanted him to continue and knew he must stop. He had gone too far. “Hamlet!” I rebuked him.

“Ophelia.” He said it, then stopped, as if to relish the sound, then said it again. He pronounced it even more carefully the second time, as if his tongue could not bear to part with a single syllable. “Oh!-phe-li-Ah!” He sighed the last syllable then breathed deeply in. His eyes became more focussed, and a smile flickered across his lips. I smiled too, pleased that his philosophical sense of irony was reasserting itself over his romantic sentimentality. Then he became serious again. He reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out something I could not see clearly in the light. He held out his hand. On it was a tiny nightingale, encrusted with jewels. Despite my desire to restrain his passion I was speechless with fascination.

“Look,” he said, and produced a tiny silver key, inserted it beneath a wing and turned it. The nightingale began to sing, curiously turning its head this way and that, occasionally fluttering its wings with a whir of clockwork, splashing drops of jewel diffracted candlelight across Hamlet’s face as he shared my wonder.

“It’s beautiful.”

He looked up from the nightingale to my eyes. “Its beauty is artificial. Your own is real. Its jewels an adornment, yourself your own.”

I placed a finger over his lips, but accepted his gift. It was so small I could hardly believe it had been crafted by a human artisan. It seemed a thing of legend. “It’s magical. The maker must be a true master.”

He dared to kiss my hand and I let him speak.

“Magical, yes, masterful, and yet…

Your own sweet self has magic greater still,

This toy’s clear voice a harsh discordant note

That clashes in my ears compared with yours,

Which harmonises there with the tone tolling

My heart’s unfailing hope, my one desire.

The artistry of artisans so great

As fashion wonders such as this you hold

Is less than least beside the mastery

With which your slightest smile can speed my pulse,

And warm my blood like a swift fever that

I never would have cured.”

He struck his chest. “Here rules Ophelia.

To the blood flooding here you are more sovereign

Than greatest emperor to basest slave.

Pity me if you can’t, won’t, or must not love me

And let me serve who was born here to rule,

Last of your subjects, least in your feeling-realm,

And I will serve most faithfully and truly,

Most loyal subject of the realm of you,

Willing in slavery, more free in being bound.”

Chapter 28

In the morning I joined Jane at the stables. To tease her I wondered aloud, “Where is the glass of fashion?”

“What?”

“Hamlet.” I took her by the shoulders and shook her gently, my eyes wide. “The prince, the prince, the prince.”

“Oh!” Her eyes lit up. “He’s with your brother. Didn’t you know?”

“I don’t follow every movement of the prince, unlike…”

“Neither do I.”

“And yet you know where he is.”

She shrugged, but avoided my eyes. “They left an hour ago: Hamlet and Magnus, and….”

“Magnus?” Despite the warmth of the morning I felt a sudden chill, and my hands dropped from her shoulders.

“Are you alright, Phi? You don’t look well.”

“You don’t look well yourself. Maybe we should stay in the castle and convalesce together.”

“The princess…”

“Commands and you must obey, but if the doctor commanded you could obey him instead.”

She did look ill, and her indifference to Hamlet seemed to confirm it. Infatuation needs a healthy body to flourish; illness makes passion for anything but restored health tiresome. I recalled her indifference to him a few weeks before. Come to think of it, she had acted strangely a lot lately, rarely talking, and saying uncharacteristic things when she did. I hoped these were not all signs of serious illness. “You really should see the doctor,” I said emphatically, but my thoughts quickly returned to Hamlet. “What will Magnus…?” I said before realising I was speaking my thoughts.

“Magnus? He’s an odd one isn’t he? I never knew him to spend much time with the prince. I thought they didn’t like each other and I understand why Hamlet feels that way. I think he’s creepy, not the prince I mean but you know that. I’d rather not have anything to do with him but if Hamlet and….” She stopped talking without me interjecting. How strange! Unusually, I found myself prompting my friend instead of curtailing her.

“And Laertes?”

“And, and…. I suppose he loves the hunt so much he had to go.”

“Laertes?”

“No, no. What? What about…oh, Magnus. I mean Magnus. And I suppose the others are…. I suppose boys will be boys; one day enemies, the next firm friends.”

The idea made me ill.

“You should see a doctor yourself, Phi; you really do look ill. Or are you pretending?”

“What?”

She looked askance. “Because I wouldn’t want you to…”

“And if I really were ill, Jane? Would you insist I suffer? Is that my sister’s love?”

“No, of course not. But you wouldn’t pretend to be ill?”

“Do I have to pretend when anticipating the presence of her so very highness?”

She folded her arms and looked at me sternly. The result was more comical than commanding. I laughed. “I told you yesterday I’d do exactly what you want today, didn’t I?”

She laughed with me. “I’m sorry. I just…”

There was a commotion at the other end of the stables as the princess came around the corner.

“I’m feeling more ill by the moment,” I whispered.

“Give her a chance. You may come to like her.”

We laughed together again. I had missed the pleasure of sharing a joke with her.

“What’s so funny?” the princess asked Jane as she came up to us, and I noted with evil satisfaction how her beauty dissolved in the wrinkling of her frowning face.

“We were just considering the probability of the impossible,” I said.

Jane giggled.

“A philosophical conundrum,” Adele said to me, “how quaint.” She cast a disapproving glance at Jane, who tried to stop giggling but only managed to choke for a few moments before guiltily slapping her hand over her mouth. “It never ceases to amaze me how much thinking too much to no good end attracts a certain kind of person.” Clearly I was that kind of person, as was Hamlet. Her failure to impress him had evidently taken its toll on her self-possession.

“Better to think too much than too little.”

She glared then, first at me, and when that only provoked an amused smile, at Jane. Jane stopped giggling, turned her blushing face away from the princess, and slunk behind me, using me as a shield against her anger. I heard her shuffling her feet, as she does when she is embarrassed or nervous.

One of Adele’s servants helped her to climb into her side-saddle. She looked on disapprovingly as I mounted Amleth in the men’s fashion, my riding skirts cut by myself for freedom of movement, but without exposing my skin to the sun. Jane, though she had imitated me when riding with me before, now climbed into a side-saddle and turned her face away with embarrassment as I raised an eyebrow.

“Fashion should never exceed good taste,” Adele commented, nodding approvingly at Jane.

Jane looked at me anxiously, her eyes imploring me to be nice.

“Fashion is just another name for taste and can’t exceed itself any more than the face of virtue can change the substance of a vicious character.”

Jane shrank into her saddle, but Adele showed no emotion. “Indeed. The face of virtue is so often mistaken by men for its substance.”

“At least the best men aren’t so easily fooled.”

She kicked her servant away. “What are you waiting there for? Where’s my parasol? No, don’t hand it to me. Mount your horse and hold it for me. You know this. Why are you behaving like a fool today? You know your duties. And don’t look at me that way. Should I report your insubordination to the queen?”

“Forgive me, your highness,” he said with a bow so low he might almost have kissed the ground, “I will always seek to deserve the honour of service to your highness.”

“Do so.” She waved him away, magnanimously forgiving him for his terrible sin against her dignity. She whipped her palfrey into a canter towards the gatehouse, flinging dirt onto his face.

He muttered under his breath, something about pride before the fall, then realised Jane and I were still within earshot. “Forgive me, my ladies,” he said, “my loose tongue speaks with foolish freedom of I know not what.” He mounted his horse and galloped out after the princess. Jane and I followed at a more sedate pace.

We joined them at the gatehouse and rode out past the sentries, standing erect against their halberds, past the gallows, through the outer palisades, and towards the seaside hills. The meadows were full of peasants, men scything the long grass while women turned it in the sun or raked it into small stacks. The men’s long tunics and women’s dresses were hoisted up and tied about their loins, leaving muscular legs bare, burning or browning in the hot summer sun. The men wore straw hats, the women white cloths tied in knots above. A shepherd grazed his sheep in the stubble. Children chased birds out of the fields, flapping their arms like wings and cawing, or collected eggs from nests among the weeds. Adele observed the peasants with the same interest as she did the sheep. For their part the masticating sheep stared with large vacant eyes while the men and women watched us pass with expressions so devoid of inquisitiveness they could have been mistaken for boldness. The rhythm of the scything and raking was unaffected by the incurious observation. Only the children stopped. One boy sucked egg from a spotted shell while another imitated flatulence with a hand under his arm, grinning at his achievement before another boy wrestled him to the ground.

It was good to be away from castle and town. I breathed deeply, smelling dung and turned dirt. Beyond the mowing meadows I could see a sea of un-scythed rye, rippling with the wind. Swallows swooped across our path and scattered. While another shepherd leant on his staff his dog snapped at heels and barked. Mingling with its yapping was a more distant howling, of hounds. I could discern a faint clashing of pans. Hunted boars would be breaking underbrush and scuffling, shoving through, away from frightening sounds and sharp hounds’ teeth, tusks gleaming in the gloom. Then I thought of the previous night – the tapestry, the petitioner, and the black knight. Heavy hoof-beats resounding in my head. A horn sounded, a shrill blast. A portent. I shuddered. Boars are dangerous, and they were not the only animals in the forest that day. Why did young men have to take such risks?

Jane looked at me curiously. “Summer cold?”

“No, just…never mind.”

After several more minutes Adele looked back at Jane and urged us both forward to join her. Jane obeyed. Adele narrowed her eyes at me, then noticed the tip of the handkerchief protruding from my sleeve. She reined in her palfrey until I came up beside her.

“That’s a beautiful piece of work,” she said.

“Yes. A gift.”

“What a lovely thought,” she said, reaching out, “thank you.”

“You mistake me. It wasn’t a gift from me to you.”

Her eyes flashed with anger as I moved my arm, and the handkerchief, beyond her reach.

“Come now, Ophelia. Be as sweet as your reputation.” She moved her palfrey closer and tried to reach my wrist.

“Be less proud than your own.”

She smiled a contemptuous smile. “Pride is not a vice in the great.”

“Only the truly great understand magnanimity.”

Having failed to persuade me directly, and nearly falling off her horse in her effort to take by force what she could not gain by poor diplomacy, she then appealed to Jane. “It’s such a small thing. Is it too much, dear Jane, that I ask of Ophelia?”

I was horrified by that “dear Jane,” and unfairly turned my anger on its recipient: “Would a loving sister demand such a thing?” I should not have done it. Poor Jane, caught between a haughty princess and a jealous friend, did not know what to say. She blushed with her confusion, and I do not know how she would have solved her dilemma if the messenger had not hailed us at that moment. He rode up quickly and breathlessly addressed the princess.

“Your highness, there’s been a terrible accident.”

“News from Flanders?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Hamlet!” I said, and clutched Amleth’s mane.

“Yes, my lady.”

“The king?” I asked with treasonous hope.

“No, my lady. The prince.”

“What is it?”

“The prince was chasing a boar with two companions, the count Magnus and your brother, my lady. The party was split up by dense growth in the forest. The count heard rustling in a bush and was sure he’d cornered their quarry. He took the shot. The bolt passed through into the shadows on the other side, but it wasn’t a boar.”

“It was the prince.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Hamlet is dead!” I felt a rush of overwhelming emotion. I looked at the other two. Both were staring with the same disbelief at the messenger.

“I’ve been asked to bring you back, your highness,” he said to the princess, then turned back to me, “I’m sorry, my lady. It’s a tragic day for Denmark. He was a much loved prince.”

Now that he was dead I finally understood my own feelings. I loved him. I did not understand precisely how it had happened. I had been blind to whatever subtle transitions of sentiment had resulted in this feeling. Only the certainty of loss made clear, through the despair of never having told him, what I felt. I wanted to examine this perplexing feeling, to understand it, but it scattered all thought with its intensity, as a strong gust scatters the crumbling leaves of autumn. I could not think. I could not remember. I only knew I loved him, too late.

We rode back to the castle in silence. All thought of competition for Jane’s friendship was forgotten. Jane and Adele did not ride beside me. I fell back to avoid their scrutiny, though they must have been as distracted as myself. To me they had faded beyond sight, like the fields of rippling rye and the peasants mowing the meadows, like the bright sun and dark soil and sparkling sea. Sounds around me had become mere murmurs, as doubtful as the oaths of ghosts. All that existed was an overwhelming flood of love and despair. Then thought returned, as cruel as feeling but sharper in its self-recrimination, which joined with and augmented my despair, like flooding rains falling on a river in spate, threatening to overwhelm life and hope. Had I actually known my own feelings and not expressed them? Why had I not told him? He had made it so easy for me. Was Adele right about me? Had I merely been cruel to him? Or had I not known? If I had not known, had defying Father become a foolish habit that precluded admitting to myself love for any man? And such a man! Now that I thought about it I could not deny he was beyond compare. In form how like an angel. But, not merely was he handsome, he was also charming. Sometimes too charming, as if he made no distinctions in his loving, but was that not a fault of perception in me, always so cynical? By contrast how noble in reason he was. You could not deny he was remarkably intelligent, so intelligent that sometimes sense was lost in his abstruse reflections. But the error was not with his thoughts, it was with mine. He was the paragon of men. He was indeed the expectancy and rose of the fair state. His vows musical and honey sweet, if sometimes cloying. But does not sweetness cloy the coarse tongue? The fault was mine not his, the virtues all his own. I had been a fool. While others were fools in love I was a fool to deny it, but deny it I no longer could.

Many more such thoughts racked me until I realised I was riding through the gatehouse. One of the princess’s servants, her face glowing and smiling, ran forward as she dismounted.

“Is this a face suited to the moment?” Adele snapped.

Her servant was suddenly serious. “The queen wishes for you to join her in the prince’s apartments.” But her joy could not be repressed, and she smiled again. “His recovery is now certain.”

“What are you babbling about?”

“The prince will recover fully. The physician has told the queen there can be no doubt, though he wishes to test his vital spirits, to ascertain the time of full strength’s return.”

When I had recovered from the surprise my feelings began oscillating between joy and anger. My thoughts were even more wild. He was alive! How dare he deceive me. The lie was not his and he was not dead. It was not fair for him to have stepped so nimbly out of his grave, before I could throw a bouquet on his coffin. I was being unreasonable. His living was unbelievable. Were they lying? Was he really dead? If I went to him, would I find him a cold and silent corpse? At least then he would be incapable of foolish philosophy or protestations of love. Perhaps I loved him better dead. But if he were truly dead I could not berate him. How could he do this to me? I was doing it to myself. But that was not a good enough excuse. I was angry with him for breaking my heart then expecting me to put it back together again. If I had not loved him God would have had to forgive me for what I would have done to him. But I did love him. I could not deny that anymore. Dead or alive, he was loved by me. I had to see him, to touch…to speak to him, see his face, hear his voice. But not while the jealous princess was with him. She had run off with her servant, Jane following quickly behind.

I went to the hall beyond his apartments, stepped behind a tapestry into an alcove so as not to be seen, and waited. After what seemed a lifetime of confused thoughts and intense feelings the queen came out with Adele, Jane and several other ladies in waiting. When their voices had faded I stepped out and almost into the path of the queen’s physician. He was carrying a golden bowl filled with blood and a flask of yellow liquid. Stopping and looking sternly at me he said, “The prince must have his rest.” I nodded, and waited for him to leave, then entered.

Chapter 29

Hamlet was pacing back and forward in front of a window. He turned as I entered.

Despite what I now knew of my own feelings, now that he was before me, alive, the certainty of my feelings, felt before, faltered. Every possible obstacle to our love – all of which had a short while ago seemed trivial – now became insurmountable, and though I knew that I loved him, with equal certainty I knew it was a love that could never be. So instead of pouring out my heart for him to see I restrained myself as I always had, as if nothing had changed, although everything had. Searching amidst the tangle of my feelings and thoughts for something to say which would justify my presence in his apartments I stated the obvious. “You make death look more inviting, my lord.”

“My lady. You’re welcome.”

“I…I shouldn’t have entered.”

“You should have.” He looked over my shoulder. “The princess isn’t with you?”

“She went with your mother and Jane.”

“Good, good. Good.”

“Will you explain your unexpected good health?”

“Is it so unwelcome?”

“You think me so unkind?”

“No, only unsure of your own worth.”

“The physician says you must rest.”

“Pha!” he said, but he looked faint and put a hand against the wall.

“You’re weak from your wound.”

“No, from my treatment. The physician took more blood than the bolt, and now tests my piss for signs of what the wound tells more clearly. He’ll examine it with an alchemist’s ingenious stupidity, then tell me what I know or give advice better ignored than followed.”

Although I loved Hamlet’s poetic passion his sardonic side also had its appeal.

“You’re bleeding.”

“My heart is wounded.”

“Your heart’s in your side now?”

“It floats freely without the anchor of love’s requiting.”

“You have a unique physiology.”

“It would amaze indeed the disciples of Galen.”

He clutched his side, and the blood oozed between his fingers.

“The disciples of Galen ought to learn how to bandage you properly.” I took a handkerchief from my sleeve and made him press it into the wound. “I’ll go and find him. You’d better get back into bed.”

“You command your prince?” He smiled weakly.

“I speak to him of good sense. Sometimes he thinks so deeply on philosophy he forgets the world isn’t made of words. Talk of rest won’t help you as much as rest.”

“You do speak good sense, as too few women do.”

“Too few women are encouraged to be anything but fools.”

“And those who aren’t fools seek only their own advantage. But now it’s me who speaks like a fool. All seek their own advantage. But not all self-interest destroys the interests of others. And now I prattle platitudes. Foolishness in another garb. If I cease to speak I might cease to speak a fool’s wisdom. And yet I can’t be silent. Not with you here. Not while any hope remains. If only I knew no hope remained, if only you’d only despise me, I’d be silent.”

“If I hated you would you stop loving me?”

He shook his head. “I can’t overrule my heart. But my love would champion your cause against myself and raise the walls of silence in defiance of my heart.”

His hand now looked as though it had been dipped in a bowl of blood, and very little of the beautiful handkerchief Jane had given me remained unstained.

“You’ll be king, and yet can’t rule?”

“The heart defies all mortal power. Will you hate me? And yet, I know you can’t. If you’d hoped to be rid of me you wouldn’t have given me this. You would have let me bleed to death. Or am I mistaken? Did you come here to watch me die? Did you hope I’d die and rid you of this hated passion?”

“You think too much on what’s of too little value.”

“I know the worth of that you value too little. No, I lie. It’s unknowable. Incalculable.”

“The number of your words?”

“You sport with me, but know my meaning. Your own value can’t be calculated. It is and cannot but be as infinite as my love. So tell me. Do you hate me or love me?”

“A false dilemma. There are other possibilities.”

“You give me hope then.”

I looked uneasily at the handkerchief, which was now completely stained with blood. From there it was dripping down his side.

“How?”

“You don’t hate me, and so one day you might love me. Or is my syllogism flawed? It’s said that hate and love are twins, always found together. If so, then hate me. Hate me and give me hope. Mild feeling won’t serve my purpose. You mustn’t like me or dislike me. Only love me or hate me.”

“And if I felt nothing?”

“Then love would twin with despair.”

“If I felt much it would matter little. Your mother and father…”

“My mother adores me and will bend to the wind of my pleadings. My father respects strength and will battle my defiance only to increase it.”

“And the princess?”

“She’ll have many suitors, though none as true to her as I to you. Her future isn’t bound to Denmark.”

The blood had now reached his leg.

“I’ll find the physician. You must rest.”

“While my heart beats I’ll bleed, till one with the right physic tends the wound.”

I left to find the physician. Laertes was coming out of his room as I reached the door.

“Little sister,” he said, his tone and face surprised. He discreetly pocketed a small phial.

“Sister will do.”

“Ah, yes.” He recovered his composure. “You’re all grown up. I forgot…all of eighteen long years.”

“And so naïve that I couldn’t possibly change Father’s mind about letting you return to Paris,” I put my hands to my cheeks in affectation of coy horror, “that den of iniquity,” I dropped my hands to my heart, “entirely out of virtuous sisterly concern for your immortal soul.”

“Why would you do that?” he asked with a forced grin. I wondered why his manner was so uneasy, but I had more pressing concerns.

“Luckily for you I don’t want to add to his grey hairs.”

“More like you don’t want him to think you know anything a lady shouldn’t.”

“A modest lady,” I said with coy primness, “I am what I am.”

“And will seem to be whatever suits your purposes I don’t doubt.”

I was impatient for him to be gone. Hamlet was still bleeding, but I did not want him to guess where I had come from. I would have to fabricate something for the physician too. Perhaps a tale of a random servant or, no, of a prince who would not stay in his bed and stumbled out of his quarters bleeding. That was not too far from the truth; it would be believable enough; it would have to do.

“I’ll tell what lies need to be told. I’d love to talk longer with you of truth and virtue.”

He was uneasy, but whatever was troubling him I was sure it was not his conscience; the two of them had always been on an easy footing. More likely fear of getting caught. Perhaps it had something to do with his visit to the physician. I was about to ask him about that phial…emetic for an immature prank? love philtre for an unsuspecting maid?…when he said, “Whatever your character, Ophelia, I’m sure you care about the prince.”

I was sure my heart stopped beating. How had he found out? Had Hamlet told him? But Hamlet did not know. I had not even known myself when I awoke that morning. But perhaps he had unpacked his own heart to my brother.

“Don’t look so worried, Ophelia. He’s recovering well. I’ve just spoken to the queen’s physician. He says the prince will make a full recovery.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “That is good news. Denmark would be a less interesting place without his…,” I thought, honey sweet vows, but said, “…philosophical conundrums.”

“Yes. It’s always stimulating to talk to him.”

“And he’s always been a good friend to you.” Almost like a brother, I thought ruefully. “You’d grieve his loss.”

“As would all of Denmark. Except Magnus, maybe. If the prince had died he could have besmirched that woman’s…um…virtue…with impunity.”

“Magnus? The accident…it was…”

“Unfortunate. But they made up.”

“Made up? For one shooting the other?”

“As funny as always, sister. They fell out over some woman.”

“Oh?” He started walking along the corridor, and I followed him, partly so as not to seem eager to enter the physician’s room, and partly to learn more about what had happened.

“Yes. Rolling and wrestling in the dirt like swineherds fighting over a dairymaid.”

Did he know more than he was saying? “What woman?”

“What do I know? Some common tart, no doubt.” So he did not know about Hamlet’s feelings.

“That doesn’t sound like Hamlet.”

“Hamlet is a man like any other.”

Hamlet is a man unlike any other, I thought, but I would not contradict my brother. “Then Magnus shot Hamlet in revenge?”

“No. That was an accident. Why would you say such a thing?”

“But you said…”

“They fought over a common woman. It means little. Afterwards Magnus said Hamlet had misunderstood his intentions. Hamlet declared he would defend the honour of this woman with his life, and take that of any man who dishonoured her. Magnus said he valued her honour as much as Hamlet. Then he knelt and pledged fealty to him above that to any other save the king.”

“So you say the honour of this woman means little, but Hamlet would kill a count to defend it?”

“It’s a form of words. Men make inflated claims where women are concerned. A boast makes a battle of a brawl. A peasant becomes a princess, a slut a sweet virgin.”

“Such respect for ladies, brother!”

“No man values a true lady’s honour more than I,” he said with surprising passion, “but the truest of the true can never be compared with the common kind. More often than not the honour men fight over is as worthless as a thief’s promise. You’re still a child in your idealism, I see.”

“Don’t…”

“Patronise you?” He grinned and reached out his hand to pat my head. I slapped it away. Still, I thought, better he think they were fighting over a peasant girl than me.

“I have much to do, sister,” he said and quickened his pace. Perhaps in quest of a dairymaid whose reputation he could besmirch with impunity and a love philtre. I slowed my own pace and waited until he had rounded the corner of the corridor before turning back towards the physician’s room.

Chapter 30

When Hamlet had fully recovered the king announced a tournament would be held. There would be a general melee between our knights and the visiting Flemish knights in the morning, and jousts in the afternoon for a prize. Hamlet was in the lists. So was Magnus.

Jane was ill that morning, but recovered before noon. The princess had – thank the Lord, who works with mysterious and unpredictable humour – better things to do than take my friend from me that morning, so we rode out together in the mild heat of the mid-morning sun, provisioned with water and bandages to save fallen knights from bleeding or parching if not braggadocio and foolishness. In the stables she had corrected the groom with a shy apologetic look at me, asking him to equip her palfrey with a normal saddle instead of the side saddle. Before she could mount though she was violently sick. I suggested she should rest, but she refused. She stepped around the foaming pool of her thrown up breakfast, mounted her horse, and out we rode.

Beside the gallows carpenters hurried about their work, but no one would kick their feet to the deadly dance today. As Jane and I rode past the tiltyard was being fenced off and the stands rose row by receding row even as eyed. Though the stands were reserved for the great and the reputedly good, the king had declared the spectacle open to all. The mood of the early spectators, spectating nothing, was fortified by the Gascon wine flowing from the town conduits. Across the grass staggered a brace of bawdy singing prentices briefly supporting in their huddle each other’s shaky legs before falling in a heap, a new beast, marvel to its own multitudinous eyes, many legged but legless.

We rode with our backs to the sun, long risen above the castle battlements, casting short shadows, shortening. Soon town and castle and tiltyard were out of sight but the hills around us echoed clearly with the blows of mallets, the shouts of carpenters and the off key incoherence of tone deaf slurring revellers.

Throughout the morning the battle had ebbed and flowed inconclusively. Our knights knew the lay of the land, but the Flemings had fought fiercely. No quarter was given, and none taken. Beyond the manor house west of the town a great destrier had been crippled in a ditch, delaying dying with kicking hooves galloping in air’s earth before mercy’s mallet stayed the futile race.

Many ladies had tended the wounds of the injured who had surrendered. Jane and I rode to a hill near the northern beaches which had been fortified with bracken by a large contingent of Flemings. The Flemings chivalrously shifted their fragile barricades to let us through. Inside we bandaged and gave water to some captured Danes.

One of the Flemings left the barricade and set off south to scout. Three Danes, well concealed by a long shallow rise, had been observing. They waited until he reached a low hill and surrounded him. Jane watched the fight unfold from behind the barricades. Half a dozen Flemings rode out to aid him. One of our knights thrust his lance at the Fleming’s horse and it shied. Another hooked a loose plate of armour with the axe head of his poleaxe and dragged him to the ground. The third immediately leapt towards him and showered him with mace blows. He saw his fellow Flemings riding forth and bravely fended off the blows as well as he could with his sword. His sword shattered, but still he did not surrender, using its stump to defend himself. The Flemings who had ridden out quickened their pace. A blow wrenched the man’s visor away from his helmet, exposing his face. Blood poured from his nose over his mouth and chin, down his gorget and across his cuirass. Soon the other Flemings would reach them. Two of the Danes grappled the man from behind and tore his helmet completely off and the third pressed the tip of his sword between gorget and chin. He surrendered then, without dishonour, but the rescuers were near. The Danes quickly retreated with their captured man. The Flemings followed in a mad career towards the distant hills. As the captors disappeared behind a ridge with their hostage a dozen Danes poured out from an almost invisible ravine and flanked the pursuers. But the Flemings, instead of retreating, charged at the centre of their enemy’s ranks, reducing them to a confused tangle, from which they escaped, and returned to the hill.

So Jane breathlessly narrated to me, but despite the excitement near at hand I spent much of the time looking to the more distant hills. Oaks and alders and beeches lined the lower ridges, concealing defiles and paths. Hamlet might ride or walk along any of these. A cottage nestled between a copse of maples closer to the town. Perhaps he hid there. Further west a small church was concealed behind a ridge. A sanctuary! But only men of honour respect sanctuary. Between the cottage and the church, on the highest ridges, the sails of windmills turned slowly, the stones within grinding the last of last year’s grain before the fresh harvest. To the south, the fields stretched from the edge of town to the dense forest, a ripple of ripe grain between beach and meadow to the east and foothills to the west. Where was Hamlet? A foul beast still stalked him, more dangerous than the tusked boar, more deceitful than the fox, waiting for the next opportunity to strike. And the wilful blindness of all might present that opportunity to a man I feared more than a mother nursing her newborn fears the plague. Hamlet had not voiced any suspicions about Magnus, the king had accepted that the incident was an accident, and the queen had only chided her son on his insufficient concern for his own safety.

Hamlet had responded to her complaints philosophically. “The longest man’s span is but a blink of God’s eye, his life as fleeting as the foam on the beach.”

“True son, all the more reason to cherish what time we have. Who, seeing the waves, wishes their life shorter?”

“Waves will break whatever we wish, Mother. Waves will break, clouds will swell, rain will fall, lightning will strike, and princes will die, sometimes to thunderous applause.”

“Your life is not a player’s crown to be shattered for the crowd’s amusement.”

“Apparently my life doesn’t much amuse others; at least let me amuse myself with it.”

He had been right, though he had not understood how. I was not amused by his life; I feared for it. How could I love him and not fear for his safety? I tried to warn him, in a way that would not compromise Father, but even when I hinted darkly at Magnus’s motives he only found reason for a humour as dismissive as he thought I was of his love.

“Sweet Ophelia, rejoice,” he had said this morning, “if Magnus murders me you won’t have to hear my sonnets.”

“What sonnets?”

“The ones you would reject. Ah, but I’ll outsmart you yet. I won’t write them, and then, in not rejecting them I’ll know you accept me.”

I smiled. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s a foolish logic, true, but logic is foolish when the heart spurs the man. I may be an ass but I’ll gallop faster than the stallion when beat hard enough.”

“Meaning?”

“Many nonsenses compete singularly with sense.”

“You’re mad,” I said, seriously; I couldn’t laugh at this pantomime.

“Melancholy isn’t anger, as indifference can never be love. Leave me to my absurdity since it entertains you so little.”

I angrily left him, almost wishing Magnus would kill him. Soon I had forgiven him though, telling myself that it was my own refusal to profess the love I felt that was responsible for this behaviour. My anger abated, and my anxiety returned.

And now it was so great I could not even hold a bowl to the lips of an injured man without spilling it all over him. He gently rebuked me. “My lady, I’ve already bathed today,” he said. Then, understanding in part my fear, he tried to reassure me, “Whatever knight you look for beyond the trees, if he’s a Dane he’ll triumph.”

“As you did?” mocked a Flemish knight.

“Ah, well, God’s favour is as fickle as a woman’s love.” He looked at me again: “Forgive me, my lady. I speak of the common sort, not true ladies.”

“Don’t the common sort also deserve chivalry?”

“I’m rightly corrected. Tomorrow I’ll write sonnets to a fishwife.”

“If she’s really a wife that will be fishy.”

He laughed, and I with him.

“Laughter is always the best antidote for fear,” he said, at which I forgot my amusement, and turned to Jane. “There may be unseen wounded beyond the trees. I think I’ll investigate.”

Jane stayed behind the barricades and I rode out, confident I knew the terrain at least as well as any of the Danish knights. I would search in those places the Flemings could only stumble upon. There I would find my prince, crouching, waiting. He waited for me also. Why had I not told him? Why was I so reluctant? I knew I did not want him to suffer. I knew it was fear held me back. Fear of the consequences for my family. Fear of the consequences for Denmark. But most of all, fear of my own feelings, so intense, so unlike me – except with Abdullah. But I had been a child then, my feelings not yet clear, full of the enthusiasm of unexpected desire. Now I was a woman, I told myself, such feelings were irrational. But no, they were not, they could not be. Hamlet deserved my love, as no other man ever had, as no other man could. I heard the staccato sound of hammers in the distance, an irregular beat. The rhythm of my heart was more certain. My silence was unfair. The fair Ophelia indeed! My heart had decided. The heat of my passion was like an inner sun. Why did I defy it? Veins near bursting with blood burning like streams of liquid fire. A hidden heat parching my soul and only his heat could slake this thirst. Fire joining fire to beget an inferno that might challenge the very radiance of heaven. Why did I hide this fire? How could I? Why did this cool exterior not melt? Why did I have so much self-restraint when it was a sin against my heart and his? Why did I refuse to give him clear proof of my love? Why? How? Why? Why? I could not answer myself, but I could not cease to ask. In the open fields I felt the fire of the sun, rushing towards its zenith, but my own heat was greater. It was too much.

I soon found my way to a path through a copse of alders. Above the alders the meadow rose to the ridge. A stream trickled across the path, and a row of goslings followed their honking mother alongside, towards a grassy hollow on the lower side. Moss soft stones circled the tiny pool that formed there. Hot from my ride and the sun and my ardour, distressed by my thoughts, angry with myself, concerned for Hamlet’s safety; I dismounted and sat on a large boulder, letting Amleth graze and drink. Now I realised my efforts were futile. To find Hamlet among the labyrinthine hills and dark forests would be as impossible as telling him my feelings, and yet I had to do both. But how? And could I?

I heard hooves, and a familiar laugh. Coming down through the trees, Hamlet, followed close behind by Magnus.

“The fair Ophelia,” Hamlet said. Magnus rode up beside him.

Fair indeed! How undeserved his praise. But he was in a good mood, unlike before.

“My lady,” Magnus nodded, with unwonted gentility.

“You’ve captured nobody, my prince?”

They looked at each other and laughed.

“Unless you count the Flemings we tied up in the southern woods,” Hamlet said, “how many did you count, count?”

“Eleven.”

“My count too.”

“My fealty will never fail.”

“What did they say about ignoble nobles?”

“Stealing another man’s clothes is the mark of a rogue. You do us wrong.”

“And right we did. They won’t ride out like that.”

“That’s certain. Unless they want the welcome of all Elsinore’s laughter.”

This newfound friendship troubled me. Magnus was being grotesquely obsequious, and Hamlet was unusually uncritical of the sycophancy. He had never liked the count. He had called him a fawning fool before. Was this ridiculous, and dangerous, male bonding caused by my own apparent coldness? Did they speak foully of me in masculine camaraderie? But no, I could not let myself think that. And had not Laertes said they had fought over a woman? Hamlet had defended my honour. Surely his love would not turn to contempt so swiftly. But I had heard in the gossiping of servants that men’s love was like that, women no sooner had than despised. But that was ordinary men, not Hamlet. Not my Hamlet. I could not believe it. I would not.

“That doesn’t sound sporting,” I said about their treatment of the Flemish knights.

They looked at each other again and laughed as before.

“It’s true they don’t sport armour anymore,” Hamlet said.

“And they sport no clothes.”

“And yet there was sport in it.”

“Though they were not good sports about it.”

Hamlet slapped Magnus’s armoured back with a chain gloved hand. The sound rang hollowly through the trees.

“Ah, the prince. A great prize.” We all turned at the voice. It was a Fleming who had been in the hilltop fort. He must have followed me, expecting me to lead him to Danish knights. Behind him some others stood at the entrance to the alder copse.

Hamlet looked the other way. More Flemings blocked egress there. “Ah, no, my lady is treacherous. She punishes me for my insolence by leading a cohort of my enemies to capture me. I deserve no better after this morning’s words.”

“It’s only fair, my lord,” Magnus said, “she’s captured your heart, now she captures your body.”

“Ah, if only she would. It would be fair to be the captured body of a body so fair.”

“We all await so fair a bondage, my lord.”

“I didn’t…,” I began to protest.

A horn sounded. It was noon. The general melee was over. All ransoms were to be collected, all captured knights freed. The Flemish knights cursed the lateness of their luck.

As we rode out of the copse I saw the final touches being added to the tiltyard and viewing stands. Carpenters carried away their tools, and clothiers hung cloth of gold in front of the king’s seat.

Chapter 31

As the jousters assembled Jane sat between me and Adele in the stands. On the other side of Adele sat the queen. I possessively put an arm around my friend. Trumpets sounded and Hamlet entered the lists from the east, fitted out in armour painted azure and red and gold. On his tabard sprawled the triple lions of Denmark. His great destrier was richly caparisoned, a fine velvet barding with coat of arms hung over its armour, and harness studded with gold. He stopped before the townspeople and waved, his steed pawing the turf. They cheered and whistled and screamed their approval. He had always been a popular prince.

He looked at me, smiled a roguish smile, and took out the handkerchief with which I had staunched his blood. It had been carefully washed and folded. He unfolded it with a flick and tucked it ostentatiously into the wrist of his mailed glove, all the time looking at me, as if daring me to object. Instead I smiled and nodded. His surprise at my response might have unhorsed him before the joust. I felt Jane’s eyes on me, and turned to her. She mouthed, “you do love him.” I shrugged, but I could no longer fool my best friend.

“Gerty,” Adele said familiarly to the queen, “isn’t that a beautiful handkerchief Hamlet wears as token?”

The queen, her eyes suddenly sharp, took in the detail. “It is. Sweet Jane, what do you say?”

I felt Jane’s body go rigid in my arm. She was still looking at me. I could see the queen looking past Adele to Jane.

“Jane!” the queen’s voice, unusually sharp, demanded her lady’s immediate attention.

“Yes, my queen?” Jane said weakly, turning to face her.

“I said,” she said in a tone that threatened, while her eyes burned with rare anger, “don’t you love the beautiful handkerchief my son sports on his wrist? It could be no common lady would give so fine a token to a prince.”

I leaned forward to explain and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I who had always had so quick a tongue to tease now could not find a single word in aid of my dearest friend. I who knew her innocence became her accuser by my silence. How false a witness! How false a friend! She looked back at me then, suddenly pale. Adele, having intended me as the target of the queen’s wrath, surprised by her reaction, searched my face, then Jane’s, then the queen’s.

“Why do you look away, sweet Jane? What thought could you have that you daren’t share with your queen, sweet Jane, sweet, sweet Jane?” But there was no affection in that voice, so kind to Jane for so many years. All favour was lost in that voice, all maternal care, and all that remained was offended majesty, and terrifying, unsympathetic power.

Jane was shaking.

I finally found my voice. “Your majest…”

“Ophelia,” the queen icily cut me off, “do you now speak with Jane’s voice?”

Even Adele did not dare redirect the queen’s anger.

Then, as suddenly as the queen’s rage had manifested, it vanished. “We’ll speak later of this, Jane,” she said mildly, and turned her face forward, smiling with motherly pride at her son as he rode up and saluted his father.

Jane sobbed, and I held her tightly and whispered reassurances. Hamlet noticed, and gave me a questioning look. I shook my head, wishing he would turn away. Instead he looked compassionately on her, not understanding that every kind look of his was more evidence to his mother of a guilt that was all my own. I knew I had to tell her, but my own fear and paralysis, sufficient in themselves, were only magnified by her anger. Forgive me, Jane, for failing you. Of all my failures it is the one that pains me most.

Hamlet’s opponent, a knight in black armour from the southern marches, joined him before the king and queen. Both saluted the king, the black knight acknowledged the excellence of the queen with courtly extravagance, then they withdrew to opposite ends of the lists.

Hamlet’s squire, a young baron from Odense, showing more eagerness than skill, rushed forward with a lance. He ran its tip into the grass and fell flat on his face. “Boys!” Hamlet shouted to the crowd, “Always up to the challenge of pricking greenly then falling down.” They laughed raucously, the green prentices most loudly of all. “Come boy, but not too quickly,” he added. The boy blushed as he picked himself and the lance up and more carefully approached Hamlet, who gave him a friendly cuff before taking the lance, and speaking softly to him. The boy grinned, turned to the crowd and bowed. With Hamlet’s encouragement they cheered once more, and the boy strutted back to the table on which the lances were laid, proud as a peacock of its colours.

The trumpets sounded and the two knights took up their positions, but before the signal was given there was a loud shout from beyond the lists. “Make way for the king’s messenger.” The crowd opposite us parted, and the messenger rode up to the barrier and dismounted, climbing over and rushing across to stand breathless before the king.

“What is it, man?” the king demanded impatiently.

“Your majesty,” he said, recovering his breath, “news from the south. A mercenary army harries the Tander garrison. Genoese crossbowmen, and outlaws from the emperor’s demesne, joined by guild members – carpenters, dyers, tanners, weavers, butchers and more. And rowdy prentices who once sharpened knives to whittle wood now use them to cut men’s throats.”

Hamlet rode up. “Father, let me quell this little rebellion.”

“Very well. Vincent will advise you in the field. Take the hostages with you.”

“I don’t need hostages to rout these retailers of chaos and pretty fabrics, these butchers drenched in blood of bleating lambs, these whimpering dogs and mewling lions.”

“You will fight. We see no alternative now. Their word is false coin; ours is law. Their memories are short lived and so shall be their names. Those who would challenge the right majesty of Denmark shall know our wrath and fear it. Take the hostages. You will offer clemency to the sons for the price of the fathers’ heads.”

“And if they refuse.”

“They have refused all reason, and the will of God’s anointed. They knew the fate their sons would face. They will know our justice. Take them. Offer their lives. When the fathers spit at our too generous terms, execute them.”

“The fathers?”

“The fathers too.”

“Aren’t sons innocent of the sins of fathers, Father?” As he said it his face showed an acute awareness of his own anticipated guilt.

“Sons carry the curse of fathers till doomsday’s bell tolls. We are all Adam’s children. None are innocent.”

“Must I act without thought for the souls of children?”

“Hamlet, God has anointed us, to safeguard these,” He swept his hand in a gesture that encompassed not only the crowd, but all of Denmark too, “our children.”

“Aren’t those boys also Denmark’s children?”

“They are sons of traitors. But don’t worry your conscience, Hamlet. Remember, the King of kings will save the souls of all who have accepted his grace.”

“Suffer the children,” Hamlet said, but his ironic tone was lost on his father.

He rode back to his squire. “Enough of childish things, boy; these games of war, these brave plays and vaunting ostentation. For us, from this day all trivial fond pastimes are past. Only blood remains. Blood to stain the seas incarnadine and wash innocence away. Let churchyards yawn; we’ll fill their guts with good meat and only dogs will mourn the loss. And this is man? Damn us all! Follow.”

Chapter 32

“I’m banished,” Jane said between sobs, “for my indiscretion.”

“Banished?”

“The queen is right, I have loved the prince, and I have been indiscreet.”

For a terrible moment I believed it. “But…you haven’t.”

“I have.” Jane touched her belly, and I remembered her sickness. Morning sickness!

I felt sick. The servants were right. The double dealing of men was universal. Even Hamlet was guilty. How could he? How could she? Was I at fault though? Had he behaved that way because I had failed to tell him of my own feelings?

“He pressured and pressured, and told me I was more beautiful than the moon and his heat was so great it burnt him like a fever and he would sicken and die if I didn’t give myself to him. But I wouldn’t give him what he wanted.”

Clearly, men told the same beautiful lies to every woman. “You wouldn’t? But then, why…?”

“I know he’s your brother, and I’d love him for that if nothing else, Phi, but I’m a lady in waiting to…I was a lady in waiting to the queen. What am I going to do?”

“I…I,” was speechless, and dizzy; the earth spun within the circumference of my head, thoughts threatening to fly apart from their stable rational axis.

“But Laertes won’t leave me to infamy.”

“Laertes!” Why had I not seen it? The signs had been clear enough. Like everyone else in Denmark I was so preoccupied with my own troubles I had not noticed what was going on right under my nose. I was a fool. But…better a fool than betrayed. Now I had to gather my thoughts though. Jane had made a foolish choice, yielding to the importunate pleadings of my not so virtuous brother. I recalled what he had said about the honour of women.

“Yes,” she said, “who else?”

“I…never mind.”

“You don’t think I’d hurt my sister, Phi?”

“No. I wouldn’t ever think that of you.”

“But the queen did think I’d yield to her son.”

I ran out of the room. My brother had treated my friend like…like…a dairymaid, no, like a Paris prostitute, to be used and discarded. In this world, with her belly full of his child, without wedding vows, a woman like Jane would not have much of a future. I found him in our apartments.

“What have you done?” I demanded of him.

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, you keep your reasons from me but share your anger.”

“Jane.”

“Your friend?”

“Yes, my friend.”

“What of her?”

“Are you really going to be so callous?”

He said nothing.

“I know what you did,” I said.

“Well, at least one of us does.”

“Are you going to deny you’re Jane’s lover.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Don’t deny it. Do you know what you’ve done?”

“Not as well as you, obviously.”

“You’ve ruined her.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“She’s been banished because of your lust.” As soon as I said it I knew it was false. I was a hypocrite. I had kept secret my love, even from Hamlet. I was at fault, not Laertes, not Jane, not the queen, not even Adele.

“No one is banished for lust,” Laertes said.

Despite my own guilt I could not allow his indifference to Jane’s fate to go unanswered. “The queen has banished her because she’s pregnant.

He looked surprised, then regained his composure. “Some lord has been more than kind to her.”

I slapped him then. “Have you no shame?”

“For what?”

“You’ve no concern for the fate Jane suffers. You think the queen’s ladies are your toys?”

“I never wronged any true lady.”

“What does that mean? Are you trying to say Jane isn’t a lady?”

“She has a common enough father.”

I slapped him again, repeatedly.

“Stop hitting me. I swear I never wronged Jane.”

“So you did marry her?”

He didn’t answer.

“Answer me.”

“It’s alright, Laertes. You can tell her.” Jane was standing behind me. “He’s telling you the truth. He never wronged me.” She gave him a look of absolute adoration.

“I never wronged her,” he agreed.

“But…”

“He’s my husband now.”

I stared in amazement.

“It’s true, Phi. I wouldn’t give him the other without that.”

“You have to tell the queen.”

“And risk Laertes’ place at court, or your father’s, or yours? How could I do that to my sister, to my father,” and she looked at Laertes again with the same eyes, “to my own lord?” He looked back with the same expression. Heathens both, they had found new gods to worship, each in the other.

“But she thinks Hamlet is the father.”

“It doesn’t matter who she thinks it is. I was her lady in waiting; I had no right to choose my own husband.”

She was right, of course. It was the queen’s prerogative to make those matches, and she would have made a good one for Jane. But it would have been one that served her own interests too. Perhaps she would think Laertes a good match for that reason, binding Father closer to her, and establishing continuity of alliance if he died, but she would still be angry at the slight of having not been seen to be the matchmaker. Even the queen has her vanities.

I could not tell the queen myself either, for the sake of all the people I loved. All but one might be harmed by the truth. Then I thought, at least he can tell her the child isn’t his.

Hamlet was in the armoury. He shouted to his squire as I entered. “Not the rapier, the falchion; this is no street brawl over an alewife.” He smiled when he saw me. For the first time, in those eyes like the sapphire sea, I saw clearly my own desire, reflected. He had become the god of my idolatry, my foolishness, my salvation, my damnation.

“The fair Ophelia, this is a sweet farewell.”

“Must you go?”

“I failed to aid my father before. I must make amends.”

“There’ll be many wars. Why not stay?”

“The readiness is…all men must act.”

“But life is no play. Death can’t be reversed with a costume change.”

“Then I’ll defy Death with your love.”

“If only Death could slay my fears.” I remembered Jane. “Tell your mother that Jane’s child isn’t yours?”

“She’s with child?”

I nodded.

“Mine? Why would she think that?”

I took the handkerchief from his wrist. “A mistake. A princess’s envy. My cowardice.” I kissed it, where the blood of his own dear heart had once turned it dark red. Then I reached into my pouch and took out the key for the jewelled nightingale. I wrapped it in the handkerchief and handed them together to him.

“But this is for you,” he said, surprised, opening the handkerchief.

“Keep it safe for me, and yourself. You must return it to me.”

“I will.” He touched the key.

I had not let go of the handkerchief. Our hands touched. “Take my token, and remember me.”

“Remember you?” He grasped my hand, with gentle strength, tender intensity. “How could I forget my world, my heaven, my paradise, my heart, the whole from which I part?”

“Do you swear?”

“By all that’s holy and unholy, I swear. No horrors of hell usurping the night, nor heavenly minister winged with God’s command could wipe you from the table of my memory.”

He kissed me then, his tongue as sweet as his words, his breath in mine.

Chapter 33

The men left the following morning. I watched from the battlements until I lost sight of them, then ran down to the stables and rode out. Looking up from the gatehouse I had seen Adele, looking south from the battlements as I had earlier, so I took the western coast road, entered the forest, and only headed inland when I was beyond sight of the castle.

When I reached them they were fording a narrow waterway. Magnus was on the other side, shouting at the men pushing a cart as its horses sank their hooves into the mud of the bank. Hamlet, colourful in cotehardie and purple cape, was shaking his head at Victor on my side. They both turned as I rode up.

“My fair lady Ophelia,” duke Victor said, “does beauty go to war with us?”

“Then unlovely war must become lovely,” Hamlet said, smiling, “and war in being lovely will cease to be war.”

“Then our work is done, your highness, for war is no longer needful and lords must only battle with ladies’ wits.”

“Let’s turn back, your grace.”

“I fear we’ll be defeated, your highness, for ladies’ wits are sharp, and braver men than us have fallen for them.”

“Has insult now become the fashion in flattery, my lords?”

The duke was puzzled. “Insult, my lady?”

“You use my beauty as a weapon against me, and make of ladies’ wits a worthless trifle.”

“If it were a trifle to trifle with a lord’s heart I’d still be a bachelor and, I assure you, my witlessness can’t help but value my wife’s wit, the more so when it’s absent.”

“Her wit absent from your presence, your grace, or your witlessness from hers?”

“You see, your highness,” the duke said with a wounded expression, turning to Hamlet, “there’s no escaping the wit of ladies for the husband; my absence provides no defence, and my witlessness disarms only myself. My syllogism is proved: it’s the bachelor who’s happiest of all men; not, as you just asserted, the husband.”

“If only a wife’s wit were as gentle as my lady Ophelia I would marry. My lady, we’re honoured by your presence. Travel with us a while, but soon you must turn back.”

“You’d see the back of me?”

“I’d not affront you, but I’d sooner know you safe than see the front.”

“Am I so fragile?”

“You are so precious, and were you stronger than the bravest of my knights I wouldn’t risk your life. Heap the kingdoms of the world to Heaven and add its crown to theirs and still I’d value the conquest less than the beating of your heart.”

“Then you’ll be pleased I’m only a messenger.”

“From whom?” Victor asked.

“I can’t say, your grace, except into the ear of him it was intended for.” I looked pointedly at Hamlet.

“Let’s ride along the stream then, and your…and the mystery of this messenger’s name can be solved.”

“I would that you would.”

“And so I shall.”

We rode along the bank until we reached a willow weeping its leaves into the burbling brook. There we dismounted. There we were beyond the eyes of the duke and the troops, and beyond the eyes and ears of the court. The only spies were sparrows and insects and grazing sheep. I listened to Hamlet’s velvet voice, while beside us the water sang, wrinkling as it flowed over the smooth stones, caressing them in its crystalline depths. He leaned happily against the weeping willow while I spread my skirts on the scratching grass among the daisies and dandelions and the humming bees hovered or bumbled from flower to flower, thirsty for nectar’s sweet kiss, powdered with pollen, striped in bands of glorious gold. My legs itched but all my skin tingled as I watched his face, his adored face, curtained by his long hair as the wind played stage director to his expressions, and his colourful cotehardie clung as closely as my desire to his body. With my skirts around me like a dancer frozen at the moment that she spins I waited for my partner to take me in his arms, but I loved his performance, his words flowing like the water, and I wanted him to stop and to continue, wanted him to stop to come to me and hold me, wanted him to continue to ravish me with his words, to love me with the poetry of his soul. I extended my arms to him, inviting him to solve my dilemma, and he crossed the grass and sank beside me, embracing me while his words washed over me, breathless between talking and kissing, as though each expression of his love inspired the other, every word on his lips needed mine to complete it, an articulacy that inspired each and was incomprehensible without both.

When Hamlet was lost in the rumours of war and my soul was lost in dreams I would see that day in the depths of the night and there find the willow by the stream; and its branches were my arms and my lover was there and I touched the water with the tips of my leaves, my love streaming beneath me.

Chapter 34

The men had left so quickly that I had been unable to urge Hamlet again to tell his mother the necessary part of the truth. Jane had insisted I not tell her about my own feelings. I had reminded her that I was not a commoner born, nor one of her ladies, and so she would not be so angry with me. Jane had argued that the queen cared more for dynastic power than Hamlet’s heart, and she would destroy my family, now Jane’s own, if her ambitions were thwarted. Though I could not think the queen quite so indifferent to the feelings of that son she adored I had to admit Jane knew her better than I.

Now I was alone at court. No brother. No lover. No friend.

Laertes had finally received Father’s permission to return to Paris. Hamlet was fighting in the south.

Jane had gone to an isolated cottage on Father’s estates. Since I managed their accounts I could keep the knowledge of that from him. Though I had not seen so much of my friend since Adele came to Elsinore, now I could not see her at all. I wrote to her daily, and received her letters too. She also was lonely, hidden away while her husband studied philosophy or prostitutes in Paris, a lady of the court among rustics. Even as a child she had been accustomed to the sophistication of town; as the daughter of a wealthy merchant she had lived a sheltered life. True, she had servants, and she wrote that they treated her well, but she missed the extravagance of the court, and even more the kindness of the queen. The woman who had for so much of her life been an indulgent mother had become her most terrifying enemy. Soon she would be a mother herself. The child grew within her, the promise of a future little lord or lady to charm those hours which now were so bereft of cheer. Would he have his father’s strength? she wondered. Would she have her mother’s beautiful face, I wondered, her combination of nervousness and enthusiasm? I missed that face, the way she shuffled her feet when she was nervous, her enthusiasms, unrestrained by reason but more affecting for that. Having her stolen from me by Adele had hurt, but now I felt crippled. My circle had always been confined to my family and her, and she had been one of the few choices I had been able to make for myself. I tried to discern her bright soul in dark marks on the page, but saw only meaningless scrawls or, if I imagined her clearly; her eyes, her voice, her mannerisms; they only made more immediate the sense of loss.

In the midst of these feelings my mind would turn to Hamlet. I would fear for his safety, long for his return. I would see him clearly, standing before me in waking dreams, his colourful fashions; his words, sweet not cloying now; his face, with eyes like the sapphire sea. And I would feel guilt knowing he could occupy my thoughts so much that, even for a moment, my distressed friend was forgotten. I accused myself of fickleness. But I could not help wondering where he was. Did he lie on the battlefield, sighing out his precious life, coughing up the blood animated by his passionate heart, his eloquence no defence against death, and his final gasping words lost in the unhearing air?

To avoid this vision I would think of Jane and her abandonment by Laertes – as if the study of philosophy were more important than the woman he loved! His inconstancy would make me wonder whether Hamlet exchanged coarse tales with other knights, seeking that honour among men which seems to be acquired only by dishonouring women. What was the love of men worth? But always on my person was a tiny reminder. The jewelled nightingale. When I was alone I would take it out. I could not insert the key, wind it up, and listen to its metallic song, but I knew its pitch was true. It followed then, by the logic of feeling, that Hamlet’s love was true.

With doubting premises I would question it again, then with passionate logic refute my conclusions. Back and forth my thoughts would go, from Hamlet to Jane, from Jane to Hamlet. Hamlet and Jane, Jane, Hamlet. Jane and Laertes, Hamlet and me.

I had folded the key within the handkerchief. He had worn it at the tournament. He carried both with him now. And along with the key, in the handkerchief, he carried Jane’s love for Laertes and for me. She had told me she originally bought it as a gift for Laertes. To allay my suspicions it had become a gift to me, then later, by chance – no, by fate – from me to Hamlet. In that token all our lives were intertwined. I thought of the nightingale’s song, remembered Hamlet’s vows, Jane’s misdirection, Laertes’ pretence that he did not care for her, and the truth of his love behind that façade: that philtre I had thought was to aid seduction had really been a remedy for the suffering of his pregnant wife. Hamlet’s love was true too, as true as Laertes’ for Jane, as Jane’s for Laertes and me, as mine for all three.

I would stand at the lectern in my room, unroll a piece of parchment, sharpen a quill by slicing off the blunted tip with a small knife, dip it into the inkwell, and write to Jane about my thoughts and feelings. My sister, who I knew would understand my feelings, and would share them, as I did hers. I would seal the letter and give it to a messenger with a coin. And then I would wait for her next letter, wanting to hear all her troubles so that I could comfort her, wishing that I could hold her in my arms as I held her in my heart.

But Hamlet I could not write to. Hamlet, who had died once in rumour and been resurrected in life to live in my heart. Hamlet, who might now, for all the truth of his love, be dead. Magnus had ridden with Victor and my prince. The mortal enemy of both between them. I had tried to warn him again about the count. My professed love made him more receptive than before. He had not been dismissive of me, but he thought too little of Magnus’s abilities to believe himself in danger. And so, while I waited eagerly for missives from Jane, I feared every message to the court.

One of the first told the king the army’s poorly defended baggage train had been attacked by bandits. The carrier pigeons had escaped their cages. News could only be brought by mounted messengers after that.

When the armies had sighted each other a parley was arranged. Hamlet rode out to meet the leader of the rebels. He was the same merchant who had cowered before the king. Hamlet sent a message back to the army: bring the hostage. He regretted what he was compelled to do. He had befriended the boy as they had ridden south, and taught him chess. The boy had been a quick learner – at this point in his narrative the messenger had looked at Adele – “and made him think much on the pleasures of marriage and the value of strong smart sons.” And he had looked back to the king and queen, both of whom, for their respective reasons, were pleased with this statement.

“I hold your son’s life in my hands,” Hamlet had said when they had returned with the boy.

“I still have the tools to fashion more,” the rebel had sneered, gripping his crotch and thrusting at the air obscenely. “Your bitch of a mother may be so barren she could bear no more than you, but my wife is not so marred.” The messenger had apologised profusely to the queen: “Forgive me, your highness. I only repeat these terrible slanders to demonstrate the depravity of this traitor, which knows no bounds.” She nodded kindly and asked him to continue his tale.

Hamlet had put his hand to the boy’s neck, slid out his dagger, and held it to the soft white throat.

“You’ll watch him die, then join him.”

“You’ll kill him then die beside him with a thousand others.”

Hamlet had pressed the blade more closely to the boy’s throat, and a tiny trickle of blood had rolled down.

“Father,” the boy had asked, “why do you abandon me?”

“You serve your town and your kin well, son. Be proud.”

“Be merciful, Father.”

“You’d die a coward?”

At this hypocrisy the boy was incensed. “I stood between you and the king’s wrath. You call me a coward?”

“Forgive me,” Hamlet had said, whether to the boy or Heaven was uncertain, and prepared to cut his throat.

“I won’t die a coward,” the boy had said, spitting at his father, “but if my life is to be sacrificed to your greed I’ll not take your name with me. You’re not my father if you do this.”

“You call your mother a slut? I won’t deny it.”

“The king was right. You’d sell loyalty for a few pieces of silver. My mother was right. You aren’t a real man. She’ll curse you for the rest of your days.”

“She’ll be the shrew she always was. Nothing will change.”

“She’s more man than you. I hope she cuts your balls off. Then your body will match your soul, and you’ll fashion no more sons.”

“Quiet! What do you know of manhood? You know nothing of the world. Perhaps your mother clipped your balls after showing them to me, making you the girl she needs to echo her complaining. You always had her tongue. Our house will be the better without it.”

“She’ll give you no peace. And if you keep your shrunken balls she’ll fashion daughters with them, each like herself in hating you.”

Hamlet, who already liked the boy, could not help admiring him the more he spoke. He could not bring himself to cut his throat.

“No,” he had said, “a boy won’t die in your place. I’ll cut your throat instead.”

Then he had sent the boy back to the baggage train. “Hide behind boys or troops and still I’ll find you. I’ll drink your hot blood before next I taste sweet wine.”

“You’re a man of many words, proud prince, but words won’t save your hide from flaying,” the rebel had sneered, “I’ll make a tapestry of it finer than any seen in the halls of Elsinore, and hang it from my walls. All who enter my house will know that princes are only finer than other men when hanged.”

At that, they had both returned to their own lines.

The armies sought good ground, but neither attacked. Was the Danish force outmatched? The king told the ladies of the court this was normal, manoeuvres preceding battle. Skirmishes were reported. Again the king explained: Victor was probing for weaknesses, harrying supply lines, weakening the enemy. There was dysentery in the camp, but both armies suffered the same fate. And then the time came when messengers came not by the day but by the hour. Battle had been joined.

Our knights had flanked the Genoese crossbowmen. The rout was not general though. They had probed deep into the rebels’ ranks. They had been encircled. A victory had turned into defeat. But then news came of unmounted men at arms shattering the encircling ring. Our knights, never accepting defeat, fighting bravely alongside their prince, had survived the onslaught, and joined with the unmounted men at arms to annihilate one of the encircling arms of the enemy army. Victory was assured.

Then another messenger. Magnus had betrayed the prince. The confusion of the court mirrored that of the battlefield. At the very moment of apparent victory Magnus’s knights had turned on Victor, the prince and their men. Though they had fought bravely, both duke and prince had been overwhelmed. While Magnus had tried to take them as hostages the Genoese mercenaries had wanted revenge for all their dead. Victor had been dragged from his horse, his armour torn from him, ignominiously carved into pieces by the knives of butchers. A bolt had pierced Hamlet’s armour, and his heart.

At first I had felt nothing. I had observed the reactions of all with strange objectivity, as if none of this had any personal significance for me. The king was silent, his theatre of rage staged, if at all, only within, behind the curtain of an impenetrable expression. He brooded silently for a few moments, without motion, then calmly stood up and swept out of the throne room. The queen, at first too shocked to speak or even move, when the king had left screamed and tore her hair and gown, throwing herself to the flagstones and writhing as if in physical agony. Always mild in the expression of her feelings, always reasonable and restrained, news of her son’s death seemed to madden her. Then I saw the truth. It was not her who writhed on the flagstones. It was me. She acted that intensity which I could not bear to feel, and that was why I seemed to feel nothing. It was a mad thought, and I wondered whether I was going mad. Her ladies tried to comfort me, but we only became enraged, lashing out with her feet, her hands, her nails like claws in the flesh of her favourites. While her anger had been cold with Jane, now it burned.

Even Adele was not safe. “Why do you feel nothing? Nothing? Nothing. He is nothing now and never will be what he might have been. Never! Where are your men? Where? They are here, in Elsinore. Why are they not with my son? Why? Do you offer so little to Denmark? Why? Who are you? What are you? Why are you here? My son is dead? Why do you torment me with your presence? Why are you here when he is gone? Why do you live? What use are you, your knights, your ships? Brave faced cowardice, falsely true, truly false! Why here? Why? Why?”

Adele, wisely, said nothing. What could she have said?

Tragedies, it seems, though enemies to us, are friends to each other. Before the sun had set the king was dead. The herald came to Father in his study. Father told me. I wondered aloud whether the king had taken his own life, and silently if I would have the strength to do the same. “A mortal sin,” I said. And after this brief life he would burn. But Father admonished me. A serpent had stung him as he had rested in his orchard. Suffering silently, mourning his son, he was poisoned by the least ambitious of God’s creatures, the lowliest of courtiers, content to crawl with obsequious hypocrisy from birth to oblivion. The frailty of all human flesh writ in the king’s not by knives but fangs, sharpened quills of a malevolent God.

I went to my room and threw aside my rosary. Such a God did not deserve my prayers. But was it God? Satan seduced Eve in the shape of a serpent. It must be the devil’s work! I picked up my rosary again. I must not blame God for the cruelty of his fallen angel. But I could not pray. I slung it about my neck and reached into my pouch for a fresh pomander, and touched something jagged; a gem, and another, and a smooth metallic surface. I grasped it. The nightingale! I took it out, but could not find the key. Then I remembered. It was with Hamlet. Never again would I hear that sound – beautiful; perfect, like the memory of love. Silent. I wanted to hear his words. I wished the unhearing air could carry his last words to my ears, but the southerly wind only carried the leaves of autumn: yellow like lingering sickness, red like spilled blood, brown like the gaping grave. Never more would his musings amuse me, or his riddles rile me. Never more would I suck the honey of his music vows.

I rode out to escape the suffocating confines of the castle, where the stones echoed with the queen’s distress, but I could not escape my own feelings. My rosary hung heavily about my neck but I would say no Hail Marys. She to whom we look for mercy had not saved Hamlet. I would not honour her. It was a petulant thought, and irreligious, but she had been merciless, and so would I. I remembered Hamlet’s blasphemous courting with satisfaction. Somehow I found myself at the ford where I had farewelled him though as I rode I had been blind to all but my feelings and turbulent thoughts. Had chance led me here, or had my aching heart? I rode along the bank until I reached the weeping willow. There were no sheep grazing there, and the daisies which had been so fresh a few weeks before now rotted. The bees had departed. The stream now sounded strangled. Clouds darkened the dying day.

I left Amleth untethered and touched the trunk of the willow. It would never again feel the weight of my love. In the bark was a thread. Purple. A piece of Hamlet’s cape.

Here was a piece of him. He could not be dead. I knew the thought was mad but hoped it was not. One messenger had been wrong, after the hunting accident. Perhaps this messenger was wrong too. I had thought Hamlet was dead then but he had not been. So he might still be alive. I tugged at the thread, but it would not come out. But Magnus had tried to kill him before, of that I was sure, and that was consistent with his reported treachery on the battlefield. Therefore the messenger was honest. So Hamlet must be dead. I clawed at the bark, trying to dislodge the thread. But the earlier messenger had been right about the injury, and wrong about the consequence. Perhaps Hamlet had been attacked, but was not dead. So, by the logic of love, because he might be alive he must be. My clawing was achieving nothing; the thread was firmly lodged. But then the earlier messenger had had incomplete information, this messenger had reported in detail. He had not said merely that Hamlet had been struck by a crossbow bolt. He had said specifically that a bolt had pierced Hamlet’s heart. My nails broke. So his information was complete, and Hamlet was dead. My nails were broken, my fingers bled, and Hamlet was dead.

I sank to my knees at the base of the tree and threw my arms around the trunk. I wept. The willow wept with me, its long leaves blurring in the water. I wept until I choked on my tears, and the river choked with me, seeming to gasp in its own swelling currents. Then the heavens wept with me.

Amleth nuzzled me, whinnying inarticulately. “Why can’t you speak, Amleth?” I held my face to his. “If you could would you tell me Hamlet lives? Or would you be cruel? No. You love me. You wouldn’t be cruel. Is my syllogism sound? Is love kind? Hamlet loved me, and he died. Isn’t that cruel? Hence love can be cruel. But must it be cruel? I love Hamlet and accuse him when I should mourn him. More proof of love’s cruelty. Or is it me who is cruel? Or is it God? Whatever the truth, I’m talking to a horse. I must be mad.” I let go of Amleth, and he wandered away, nonchalantly grazing, indifferent to my distress. “And yet more proof. Amleth loves me, but he doesn’t speak to me and he cares little of my pain.”

I used the trunk to pull myself upright. I stepped towards the bank. As I felt myself falling I stretched back a hand and caught a branch. I was hanging over the water, so low that my hair trailed in it like the willow leaves, but I did not pull myself back up. What did I care if I fell? To let the stream wash me away, and with me my life, and with my life my pain. But that was mortal sin. With my free hand I clutched my rosary. If I let go I would be free of life’s pain, but I would be damned. If I did not let go I might still be damned later, in death, but would certainly live the torment of the damned now. I let my fingers slip. My hair flowed with the stream, tangling in the leaves. I would hurt no one but myself.

But was this true? Father would mourn me. But it would be a kindness to him. He would not have to support me or pay a dowry. Was that all he cared about? Even in the grip of grief I knew I was being unfair. And for all my anger at his demands I loved him. I tightened my grip. I felt the weight of my wet hair, dragging me down. He had loved me with a mother’s love as well as a father’s. His work for the realm had provided me with so much comfort, with a safe, warm home at the heart of the court and an education in the ways to insult him. I laughed at the thought and forgot to cry for a while. But laughter is too like the most tempestuous convulsions of misery, and soon I could no longer tell if I was laughing or crying.

Soon I could not see through the flood of tears. They were not for Hamlet now, but for myself. I was so alone. Why had he abandoned me? Why had he sought the worthless glory of war over my love? Perhaps he had tired of me. Perhaps I was just another conquest to him. Perhaps I was a fool. And like a fool I cared too much. My grip slipped again. Only my fingertips held, by some miracle, or curse. My hair, dark in the dying light, dragged down, inviting me into the depths, and death. The water would hold me, caress me, and carry me to I knew not where. There is no embrace like that of water; its infinite limbs forget no part of you, touch you without undressing you, love you without defiling you. I would let it take me.

Then I thought of Jane. She also was alone. I had to lash Laertes with guilt. I could not do that if I drowned. He must come back from Paris and be a proper husband. I twisted my hand from the wrist and curled my fingers around the branch. I could abandon my life, perhaps even poor Father’s happiness, but Jane? Sweet, affectionate, voluble, silly Jane? Jane with her affecting enthusiasm and shuffling nervousness? Never! She needed me more than ever now that the queen had banished her. And I needed to be needed by her.

I pulled myself back up. I felt my hair would drag me back down and struggled. I felt my grip slipping again, this time without my volition. Now when death was certain I fought for life. I let go of the rosary. It would not save me here. I tried to fling my free hand up and my other hand slipped. I was falling backwards, into the stream. Flinging my free hand had made my other slip and I gripped nothing but leaves, as fragile as life. They began to shred. I was hanging upside down, the hand I had held on with before trailing in the water. I reached up and grabbed the branch again and the clump of leaves disintegrated. Then I had both hands on the branch, and held it tightly. I carefully hauled myself upright on the bank.

Amleth grazed peacefully. The sun had almost set.

Chapter 35

Denmark was in chaos. Enemies threatened on all sides. The queen was paralysed with distress. A strong leader had to be found quickly. Without delay an election of a new king was called. Many nobles had been with the army, and only God knew how many had survived, or who among them were hostages. But many had remained at court with the king, enough for an election, and the choice was clear. Claudius had diplomatic skills. He was the king’s brother. The king’s son was dead. Claudius’s faction at court was strong. Only the queen’s was stronger, its numbers swelled by the late king’s loyal followers. At first she resisted, even when her counsellors, Father among them, urged her to join forces with the grand duke.

In her private chambers the grand duke petitioned her. Her ladies heard it all. Though Jane was disgraced they still loved her, and saw me as her proxy when they gossiped.

The queen spoke through tears to the grand duke. “I won’t abandon my son.”

“You can’t bring him back.”

“He is strong. He is brave. He is intelligent. He is loved. All Denmark love him. His claim is good.”

“Sweet queen, your son’s only claim now is to the benevolence of Our Saviour. This mortal world is as dust to him. He can’t take any lands or titles with him to that realm where now he treads, blessed among the angels.”

“No!”

“He will never walk these halls again.”

“You have no heart.”

“My blood runs as red as yours, sweet queen. And he was my brother’s son; had he been my own I could scarcely have felt more his loss. Pain paints my dreams with bleak colours, and my days are as dark as winter’s long night. But the people cry with us, and the people need us. I know you love your people. I know your people look to you and need your nurture, as surely as a crying babe needs his mother.”

“He cried in my arms. I felt his warm tears on these breasts. He was so small, so helpless. His hands no larger than a grape. So tiny! So helpless! He would question everything, even then. He would turn away from the milk he needed, as if to question its substance. But his childish philosophy would always relent. Born to doubt, he knew my love. With these arms I held him. With these breasts I fed him. He sucked no wet nurse’s nipple. Only mine. He’s mine. Only mine!”

“He was beloved by all your people. And now you must be as a mother to them. Now you must give them succour. Now you must quell their doubts.”

“I can’t even be a mother to my own son.”

“You did all that a mother could.”

“Oh, what I would do more to keep his heart safe! My heart! They’ve murdered my babe, flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart. Dead! Abortive death, you’ve made barren my life. No! No, he still lives. We must rally our forces and fight. To keep him safe I’ll fight a thousand armies. Smith me armour, bring me Hamlet’s sword. No man will slay my child. I’ll murder the manhood of any such man with impotent terror, make barren the earth of his birth and mate him to moaning death. Bring me a sword. No! I need no sword; with these nails I’ll tear their entrails out. With these teeth I’ll eat their still beating hearts. Their hearts for his! Still beating! With the fire of my soul I’ll burn them all, burn until the world is turned to ashes, to ashes! if only my son might live.”

Claudius patiently listened to this raving, then persuaded her with softly spoken words: “All your subjects would fight with you in that cause. I would lead them as they turned the world to waste to save him for you. But it is they who are now not safe. It is they whose lives hang in the balance. And won’t you keep them safe? Won’t you destroy their enemies, the enemies of those who loved your son?”

“I tried to keep him safe, but I failed him. I failed him and he’s dead.”

“Don’t cast them aside because of the grief they share with you. They too mourn Hamlet and Hamlet. Their father gone, their brother gone, only their mother remains. Will you turn away from them in this hour of their need?”

She slid a knife from Claudius’s belt and held it to her own throat. “I’ll join my child now.”

Gently he took the knife from her.

“Why don’t you care?” she accused him.

At that he held the knife to his own heart. “I too suffer. I too wish for this pain to end.” He pressed its tip until it pierced the fabric, then pushed it deeper. Blood seeped into the fabric and the stain spread as the queen watched, fascinated. She reached out to stop him. “But for the love of our people I won’t take that course.” He threw the knife aside then and it clattered on the stones. “And you can’t either. For Denmark you must choose.”

“What choice is mine when fate is set? What power does power have for me now? What meaning can words bear when he I bore speaks no more? What do I care when all I cared for is lost? I won’t stand against you.”

And so Claudius was elected.

Then another messenger arrived. Hamlet was not dead. The one who had brought that news was false.

The queen did not believe it at first. I understood her feelings; I shared them. When Hamlet was dead I could not believe it. When he lived again, I was sure he must be dead. More messengers came though. He had been injured. It was true that a crossbow bolt had pierced his cuirass, but it had been a grazing blow only. The boy whose throat he had held the knife to had run through the battle lines to his father’s side. There he had repaid Hamlet’s mercy by slaying his own treacherous father. Confusion had ensued in the rebel army, then rout. Magnus had been captured. By general assent of the army he had been hanged. The fate of a common traitor. An ignominious death for an ignoble noble.

Then Hamlet returned to Elsinore.

But Claudius sat the throne.

The queen could not undo what she had done, or failed to prevent in the paralysis of despair, and she was so overjoyed by Hamlet’s survival that she did not rebuke Claudius. Some whispered that she preferred the new king to the old. Some even dared suggest she always had, and I recalled Adele’s comments at the feast. A rumour spread that the messenger who had told of Hamlet’s death had been paid. Soon after he was found hanging in an orchard. Shame at his error, said the new king’s cronies. The princess was unceremoniously packed off, along with those men at arms and ships that might have fought in the prince’s cause.

Chapter 36

It was dark enough to hide the shame of departure. Adele had arrived with such ostentation and confidence. As she left her own future was uncertain, as was that of Hamlet, and Denmark. From across the straits sailors had returned with rumours of a mercenary army being formed in Norway. Without the Flemish count’s support the German Emperor was eying the south where members of the League plotted with a predictable desire for revenge. Claudius’s kingship was fragile, and many who had recently smoothed his way to the throne now whispered against him. Rumours of torture in the dungeons spread among the soldiers, and from there made their way to the ears of servants, then their mouths. From the gallows, which had been empty for so long, swung the heels of common traitors whose opinions might have been deemed loyalty only a few weeks before.

“It seems you’ve won,” Adele said as we stood on the jetty, waiting for the boat to be made fast.

It was a subtle attack, but I could not help feeling for her. “The new king has won,” I said, “and our prince has lost much, a father, and more.”

She looked sadly at me. “It isn’t what I would’ve wished.”

“Nor I.”

“Whatever happened between us, I only wished the best for Hamlet.”

I knew it was only a partial truth but, whatever our disagreements, however much she had tried to serve herself in pursuing Hamlet, I knew she had never wished harm to him, and for that I felt a gratitude our enmity prevented me expressing. I felt I had been too harsh with her and that, however complex my feelings were, I could not let her leave without expressing something other than exultation over a defeated adversary in love.

“Thank you,” I said, and wondered immediately whether it was enough, or honest, or even made sense.

She was surprised. “For what?”

“For loving Hamlet.”

She smiled wryly at that, and I wondered whether she had taken it as irony.

“It’s a strange thing for one woman to thank another for,” she said then, her eyes smiling with her lips, “thank you.”

“For what?”

“For being too worthy an adversary.”

“A backhanded compliment for which I have no rejoinder.”

“Then I’ve finally defeated my mortal enemy.” She laughed warmly, then became serious. “I don’t envy your position, Ophelia. Denmark is a troubled realm now. Let me give you one kind piece of advice. Hamlet poses a danger to many ambitions now in the ascendant. He’s an alternative to the current king, and those who are closest to his heart may become the means to destroy him.”

“You think I would…”

“No, but in hurting you they might hurt him. Beware the vipers.”

“Ah, you do care for me,” I said, ironically.

“God forbid,” she said, laughing again, “I only care for Hamlet.”

I embraced her and whispered into her ear. “And for that I’ll tell myself I love you.”

“It’s a sweet lie, Ophelia.”

As her boat rowed out to the ship I wondered whether sweet lies were the most we could hope for in this vale of tears. The torchlight from the lantern on the boat’s bow scattered across the dark water, like shimmering golden petals, more ephemeral than cherry blossoms, and I thought, happiness is like this, past as soon as present, swept away by waves or blown away by the wind. An autumn gust penetrated my garments and I shivered, turning away from the vision.

Chapter 37

Hamlet kept his own counsel. Even to me he would only speak of love, and of that not kindly.

“The rashness of love is a kind of madness. Why do I love? Without reason is love anything but folly? To hell with rashness. And yet I love you. But why? What are your perfections? Do you only wear them? Don’t you also decay? Won’t your beauty fade? And what hides behind beauty? What’s your essence? Beauty is a mask, is it not? You paint your face. That’s a mask. Why do you wear a mask and say you love me? Why do I love you when I only see a mask? What’s the reason for my unreason?”

I had no answer.

Though he would not speak of the state of Denmark openly, I hoped he might still lobby the queen for the return of Jane. “You must tell your mother that Jane didn’t seduce you.”

“And so displace her anger onto you? No, no, no. I mustn’t be rash. I must discover what hides behind beauty. I won’t have you banished. If you were I’d have to decide in the absence of sense.”

“This is only nonsense, my lord. If her anger is necessary it should strike where it’s deserved.”

“It doesn’t suit my purposes to be so clearly understood by her. What she did, the choice she made, for me, for him, for…” He looked at me suspiciously. “Your father has always…” He broke off and left.

I felt his loss and could not fault him. His father, his crown, perhaps even his mother’s loyalty. Why should he have trusted me? My father had advised the queen to back the claim of Claudius to the crown. And yet Hamlet loved me, as I did him. My friend was abandoned, but how could I urge against his interest when his own loss was so much greater than hers, or mine?

His grief was not only expressed in words. He was haunted by his father’s death, and lurked by his tomb. He discarded his colourful clothes, and only wore black. He looked behind himself and arrases before speaking. Then he left for Wittenberg.

Chapter 38

The king and queen were to be married. Autumn was long past. The fallen leaves had long since crumbled and turned to mud beneath branches that seemed twisted with arthritis and cold. Giant waves lashed the outcrop on which the castle stands, making walls of salty spray beyond the outmost fortifications. Wind tore tiles from roofs in the town and shattered them on the cobblestones. Lightning made staccato day of night, and thunder shook the heavy castle stones. Inland rain flooded the creeks and swept bridges and livestock away. Hail tore the skin of lonely travellers. Hamlet returned to Elsinore.

Father, involved in preparations for the marriage, was not in our apartments when my love came to me. He held me silently. I felt the cold of his wet skin, and held him tightly to give him my warmth. He kissed me fiercely then. There was no tenderness in it, only speechless need. He gripped my face in his hands and looked into my eyes, desperate to find something there. What he searched for I did not know. How could I know what grief had wrought in his soul? To soothe his pain I avoided mention of his father and asked mundane questions instead.

“Weren’t you returning to your studies, my lord?”

“I return to study the ways of love.”

“I can’t fault you for that.”

“But maybe I can find fault.”

“With me?”

“With love. My mother marries her brother.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Is this love?” He disentangled himself from my arms, and stepped away. He examined me then, not with the gaze of love, but with philosophical curiosity, as though I were a conundrum to be solved or, at least, a part of it; how important a part I did not know. He stepped forward and grabbed my face again, bringing his own close. I tried to kiss him, but he held me back. I could not restrain myself any longer.

“What troubles you, my lord?”

“Troubles?”

I nodded, and reached out to touch his face, so beloved. I wiped the moisture from his forehead so it would not drip into his eyes. Then I ran my hand down his cheek. He had not shaved recently. He pressed his cheek into my hand, and I saw in his eyes for a moment the love I had known for so long, then tears welled up. I kissed them away. This time he let me. He had lost so much. If I could have replaced that for him I would have, but all I could give him was my love, and he seemed even more unsure of it now than he had been when my words had denied it. He kissed me once more, fiercely, then turned, and without saying another word, left.

Chapter 39

At the wedding Hamlet lurked in the shadows, his cloak as dark as ink, two months after his father’s death. Claudius was now dressed with peacock brilliance, as if he had stolen Hamlet’s colours and confidence. He no longer drank in private, but in public revelry competed with roistering lords as the castle canons competed with heavenly thunder.

After the wedding Hamlet came to me. He peered into the shadows.

“What do you seek, my lord?”

“Dust.”

“The maids have swept it away.”

“And so a king might be spat on by a servant without consequence.”

“Our maids don’t spit on our floors, and no king lies there either.”

“It’s strange.”

“What is?”

“A king in his grave, yet…”

“Yet?”

“I can’t say.”

“Or you won’t.”

“You accuse me?”

“You tell me nothing. You speak in riddles. You always did, of course, but with more humour. Now I hear no humour, only…”

He looked at me expectantly.

“…only confusion…anger…grief? I can’t know what you’ve lost. I can’t take that pain from you. But if you let me…understand, maybe it would help.”

“There is no help.”

“There is love.”

“I loved my father.”

“I love you.”

“I loved my mother.”

“You’re angry with her. It’s a political marriage. It doesn’t mean she didn’t love your father.”

“Vows are only words. Yet marriage is built on vows. Is marriage only words?”

I thought of Laertes and Jane, and that I should pressure him to visit her. “You once made vows to me. Were they only words?”

“They haunt us.”

“Your vows haunt you? You repudiate me now?”

He left without answering.

Chapter 40

Laertes was leaving. He had found out about my liaisons with Hamlet and thought it reasonable to lecture me. I played my sweetest self, and he acted the part of believing brother. I repaid his lecture with my own. Then I embraced him and whispered in his ear: “Don’t forget my sister.”

“I write daily,” he said, “as do you, so I hear, or read. I go to her now, though Father doesn’t know, and won’t, given the way I’ll travel.”

“Here he comes,” I said and kissed his cheek, “let this remind you of your duty and our shared love.”

Father also lectured me about Hamlet. Servants gossip too much. I tried to advocate on Hamlet’s behalf at first, telling Father about the holiest vows he had made, forgetting to tell him about the unholy ones. So many tenders of his affection he made. He importuned me with love in honourable fashion. He gave countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven. But Father seemed determined. Go to, he said. You have taken these tenders for true pay which are not sterling. When the blood burns how prodigally the soul lends the tongue vows. Unholy suits. Pious bawds. I decided the easiest course of action was to offer no resistance. I wondered whether my unusual docility would make him suspicious, but apparently not.

Chapter 41

At first I disobeyed Father. I had made excuses for not appearing at the wedding feast, hoping Hamlet would understand my absence. When he came he said nothing. The man of many words now had none. He held me silently. At last I could no longer bear it.

“Won’t you speak to me?”

“Of what?”

“My lord, you’re the sovereign of my heart; ask me anything.”

“I won’t ask you for kinship.”

“Have I lost your love?”

“No, but you’re kinder than my kin, and so I won’t have you ruled.”

“But will you love me?”

“The future is uncertain: what was is not, what is won’t be.”

“You quibble with me, Hamlet. Do you still love me?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Your body is in my arms but your soul is distracted. Won’t you show me what lies within?”

I saw such pain in his eyes then that I could not keep the tears from my own. He brushed them from my cheeks as they fell and held my face to his so that all I could see was his eyes – sapphire blue, more beautiful than the summer sea, and in their centres his dark, dilated pupils, inscrutable whirlpools. My soul would have dived into them, to sink beneath the surface where only caution drifted, but the limits of bodily being, the bone of my forehead against his own, kept us apart, two forever divided, who had once felt as one.

“Don’t you see?” he desperately pleaded.

I squeezed my eyes shut. “Your eyes are as dejected as your visage, my lord, but I don’t ask for what seems. I ask for what is.”

“What is? What is as soon is not: day passes into night, health into illness, youth into age, wit into senility, vigour into the grave.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

He held me more tightly.

Chapter 42

Father was sleeping off the previous night’s wine, and no servants were about, so I was alone when Hamlet strode in. He disentangled himself from my embrace and paced back and forwards; his eyes to the floor, but with each turn, turned up to my face, then away.

“What do you want of me?” he demanded.

I was surprised by both the question and his tone. “My lord, what do you mean?”

He ignored my question. “If a mother is a whore then the son is a son of a whore. But what if all women are whores?”

He stopped his circuit then and looked intently at me. Then started again, walking, talking. “Aren’t then all men sons of whores? If all women are faithless, aren’t all men cuckolds and bastards?”

He strode up to me, and grasped my hands, but avoided my eyes. “Are we guilty from the first man to the last?” He tore the rosary out of my hand, broke its thong and spilled the beads into his hand. First he stared at them with mute fascination, like an astrologer reading his future in the stars, then he threw them at the wall. They rebounded, bounced in unpredictable receding arcs, and spread rolling across the floor. “Bah!” He almost spat the word in my face, then continued on his circuit. “What does it matter if we’re bedded in the earth? There all men come in the end. There all men are soiled.” He stopped. “And yet…and yet…where does the guilt lie?” He looked at me again. “For guilt always lies, isn’t it true? It can’t be and yet it must. Surely where a bed is men will lie. There a woman may lie too. And when a bastard is born of a whore who is he? Who is guilty? The mother was not alone. The father? But who is the father? The bastard doesn’t recognise his kin? His substance is sown in the enseamèd bed’s seams. It isn’t seemly, and yet so it seems.”

He grimaced at me. I went to him and tried to hold him, to calm him, but he shoved me aside and strode out. I watched his back receding, then knelt down and gathered the beads of my rosary.

Chapter 43

After that I decided to obey Father, for a while at least, hoping to make Hamlet think about feelings other than his own. For two months I would not speak to him. I would turn aside if I saw him. I would walk past him without comment. I would cross a courtyard to avoid him, or tell the servants to say I was not in. If he was hunting I would stay in the castle. If he was training with the soldiers I would ride out. But every dreaming night and every waking hour, locked in regret and wardened by doubt, I would wonder, was my treatment of Hamlet too harsh? Was he not in pain? Had he not lost a much loved father? What right had I to punish him for the effects of grief? Was I merely cruel? Why should he love a lady so unfair? With time he tried to approach me less, then not at all. I had achieved my end, but destroyed his love. It was not what I had hoped for. I felt the loss acutely. A love I had mocked for so long, then requited, then madly spurned, was all that I cared for, and it was as dead as Hamlet’s father. It would never return. I was a fool. I had thought myself so clever; I had thought to teach my love how to love me – I had hidden myself and with myself my feelings, and so had only learned how to lose my love’s sweet love. He was right to despise me.

Chapter 44

The white weight of winter’s foliage melted from the branches. The hard ground thawed and fresh grass patched the tattered remains of snow. Green shoots hinted at the shade they would flourishingly build. Sparrows collected dead twigs to build new nests or repair the old. Peasants mended their fences while townspeople mended their roofs. Cows licked afterbirth from calves. Foals tried unsteady legs. Suckling lambs staggered beneath their mothers in search of milk. The fishermen ventured further out and merchant ships proliferated in the strait. After a cold, dark winter the air, though still chilled by northerly gusts, carried the hope of renewal. The shadow of a cloud would pass and the sun would warm my skin. Hamlet came to me in my quarters. And then my heart truly broke. He did not despise me. He loved me too much, and it had made him mad.

I had heard the rumours of Hamlet’s madness, but had not seen him and did not believe that a mind such as his could be lost to reason. But, believe what we will, fate’s wheel will turn, crushing our illusions in her passage.

It began with a letter:

“Doubt that the stars are fire,

Doubt that the sun doth move,

Doubt truth to be a liar

But never doubt I love.”

That “doubt” in our dialect telling me both to believe and not believe. Was it equivocation or vacillation; contempt or confusion? The doubt was mine too, certain only of my emotional turmoil; but as I tried to understand the meaning of the words their author came to me, and then my heart was crushed by the too certain weight of grief.

I was sewing Father’s hose. He could be so absent minded sometimes. If I did not take care of him he would be lost. At first I did not notice the shadow of a man in the doorway. I assumed it was a servant, but when it did not move for a while I looked up, thinking to ask them what they wanted. I opened my mouth, but what I saw silenced me.

He was watching me intently. My love! I only saw his eyes at first, and I searched them as deeply as mortal sight could plumb. I needed to know what had become of his feelings. Did I see hatred there? No, only intense curiosity. Or so I thought at first. I pricked my thumb and glanced down for a moment then back up as I sucked the blood away. Now his eyes seemed empty of intelligence, and I wondered whether I had imagined the curiosity.

Then I noticed his clothes. His hose were down about his ankles, and dirty, as if he had waded through mud. But what a strange thing to do, coming to me like that, instead of cleaning himself up. He was a grown man. It was not only his hose either: his doublet was unbraced, or rather, the braces were all broken. Strangely, given the state of the rest of his clothes, his tunic was clean. His face was pale; not a hint of colour. He trembled as if with palsy. His legs seemed hardly able to hold him up, knocking together at the knees.

I looked carefully into his eyes again, and they were wide, but not empty, as they had been only moments before. I saw a look of tortured longing there. What had I done! He shuffled over to me. His face was haunted, and I thought, a soul in hell must look like this – and for all his devotion I had cast him there to burn. Hamlet! How little had he deserved this! How little did I deserve such devotion! I had tried to convince him of this once, and now the proof I had then wanted, unwanted was before me, his unreason more incontrovertible than any reason of mine. I held back my tears. I had no right to tears when he had lost so much: his father, his crown, the hope of my love – oh! how faithless I had been! – and now his mind, his once quick mind – shattered. Such tears as mine could only add insult to injury. But whose injury was it? Who was this that stood suffering before me? Was it Hamlet? In form it seemed like him, but I recognised nothing of his soul. The most fashionable man in Denmark cared as little now for his appearance as the most abject beggar. And he said nothing, only stared at me. A river of words no longer. Where are you, my love? I thought. What has become of you? But I could not speak, lest he pile my suffering on his own and die beneath the weight. We faced each other, equally mute, unequally rational, our bodies so near but our souls parted by a space of infinite sorrow.

Suddenly, as if hoping to mutely communicate what his madness would not let him speak, he grabbed my wrists tightly and stared. No insubstantial ghost escaped from infernal fires, he held me with strong hands within the circle of his hell of the living damned. His mouth hung slackly, then moved, but noiselessly. Imprisoned in speechlessness, his thoughts sought freedom but could not find the way. Where was the philosopher, the riddling wit? Where the courtier, the eloquent lover? Where was the intellect, the heart, the man? This was my doing. He suffered for my sin, but offered no salvation.

He gazed on me with adoration but not intelligence. He drew away to the length of his arms but did not at first release me. Then he released one wrist, but clung desperately to the other, like a sailor washed overboard in storm tossed seas when he grasps a rope. I tried to reach out to him. I needed to touch his face and, God willing, to reach his soul. But he pushed my hand aside. Then he released my wrist and touched my face, raised his other hand to his brow as if shielding his eyes from the sun, and examined me in such detail that he might have drawn me. Then his palsy returned, and not just in his legs, but throughout his whole body. How could I not feel what he felt! I trembled to the broken rhythm of his body as I desperately searched for his soul. Was it flown to reaches far beyond this world? No! it was buried beneath the ruin of the man. So lost! And such a man! My love! But my love did not deserve my love’s love. This was my doing. Treacherously, I had disturbed my prince’s peace. I had waged a war as cruel as any king’s. Fair Ophelia indeed! I had shattered his noble mind. But, oh, how strongly he still loved! his own self scattered about him.

“Hamlet!” I cried, but no words of mine could aid his own. His soul was only fluent in silent sadness, and he sighed so deeply that it seemed to shatter all his bulk.

I rose to my feet and tried to embrace him, but he drew away, looking back over his shoulder with the same piteous expression, and finding his way to the door without taking his eyes from my face.

“What have I done?” I accused myself. From this day forth all guilt was mine. No prayers would alleviate it, no words could forgive it. Only my tears might give some relief. And so at last I cried. He could not cry for himself so I must for him; and for myself, who had known that mind unstained by madness, and sucked the honey of his music vows.

Chapter 45

Father came in later, and noticed my distress. Under pressure I told him what I had seen and, reluctantly, provided him with some missives Hamlet had sent me, including the most recent.

“This is the very ecstasy of love,” he said, and many other things, including, “I am sorry. What, have you given him any hard words of late?”

I told him I had obeyed his command. He said we must go to the king.

I screamed at him then. “This is your fault.” It seemed the only way to escape my own sense of guilt. But if it had been his fault, had it not been equally my own? I had been weak, in obeying him. I had been vain, in blaming Hamlet for his moods. I had known his loss. I had known his grief. I had been stubborn, in denying him access to me, despite his clear distress. I had been faithless, in repudiating the love of him I told myself I loved. I had been capricious, in loving him then turning away from him. I had been at fault in every way, and so I must blame Father. I screamed at him now. “This is your doing. Yours, you, you are…I am, no, you…you…YOU DID THIS.” For once Father did not fight my anger with his own. When he should have told me of my guilt he suffered without resistance the blows I rained on his face, his chest – the place where I screamed he had no heart. “Why don’t you accuse me?” I accused him. “Why? Why? Why?” And I cried “Why?” until the torrent of my tears choked off the word, my own pain mocking me. He held me then to comfort me, but I would have none of his kindness; I pushed him away and ran out. I ran into the courtyard and fell on my knees beside the fountain. The mermaid cried as the fountain flowed and I cried with her, but she did not know my pain as I knew hers.

Chapter 46

Father took me to the king and queen. I waited outside the audience hall, but I could hear him telling them what he knew of Hamlet and me. There was so much more that he did not know.

Hamlet strode past me. His hose was no longer down about his ankles, but still dirty. He did not seem to notice me, though he walked within reach of the arms that longed to embrace him. He was carrying a book, open, upside down, and yet his eyes moved as if he were reading it.

The king and queen came out, she looking with concern at her son as she passed him. I dreaded her wrath, but knew I could no longer avoid it. When she emerged from the hall I stared at the flagstones, trembling. What would she do to me. She stood in front of me and I curtseyed so low I found myself kneeling. She reached out, took my chin in her hand and gently lifted it until I was looking into her eyes. There was no trace of anger there, only kind concern.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

I blurted out, “fear,” before I could think, then wondered if the kindness were just a ploy to extract a too honest answer. But, no, her eyes were still kind, and in them I could not help but see Hamlet. They were his eyes, sapphire blue, compassionate, intelligent. Though the man was lost to madness the mother whose womb had sheltered his infant soul was before me, and there was such an affinity between them. I wondered whether I could broach the subject of Jane, but I could not organise my thoughts. Jane. Hamlet. Love. Mine. The glass of fashion. Jane banished. The fashion faded, the clothes tattered. His eyes, here. The queen’s eyes, glaring at Jane, burning. My soul as cold as the sea in the darkest month, when the sun sets no sooner than risen. All love fled, like sunlight beyond the horizon. Sunk, deeper than the sea, in madness. Reason gone. My own thoughts lost, following feelings mixed: love, guilt, most of all unbearable loss.

“We have lost much in Hamlet’s loss,” she said, and I was not sure whether that “we” included only her and me, or all of Denmark. Perhaps she meant both. In Hamlet’s loss of reason she had lost a son, I had lost a lover, and Denmark had lost a prince without compare. But she had not lost hope. “Where the sickness is known the cure can be found. Together we will find the cure.” She caressed my cheek, like a mother her child. “You are a good daughter.” I knew it was not entirely true, but I did not contradict her. Then she left.

I moved closer to the door to observe Hamlet.

“Have you a daughter?” Hamlet asked Father. Had madness erased all memory of me, of us? But he had come to me only that morning. This made no sense. But why did I seek sense in nonsense? Surely this was madness.

“I have,” Father said.

“Let her not walk in the sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to it.” Did he not trust me? Did he think me so easily seduced despite my feelings? But I could not blame him. What evidence of that love had I given him in the last two months? And then, the man who spoke now hardly seemed the man I had told and told myself I loved. Oh, faithless self, treacherous heart! But, if he were not that man, where was he? In what dark place was his soul lost? Where could I find him? I wanted, no, needed him to return to me. I needed him to prove less faithless than myself.

“What do you read?” Father asked.

“Words, words, words.”

He spoke nonsense, arguments unarguable by reason: slanders; satirical rogues; old men’s faces wrinkled; if like a crab Father could walk backwards; to walk out of the air would be grave. He valued little his life.

He valued himself as little as my valuing had shown. How false a measure to measure his worth! How falsely I had shown when he had measured mine! So unjust his measure who measured not as I did! How far his measure fell short of his worth! How far I fell short of his measure of mine! Infinite he had said my value was. Only he deserved such praise. And yet he valued not his life?

I could listen no more.

Chapter 47

The following day Father took me to an audience with Claudius. There they unfolded to me a plan. They would hide while I spoke with Hamlet, and try to discover whether love had caused his madness. I wondered whether I should play this part. Would it not be yet another falsehood? Could I be false to my love – again?

I reasoned with myself. The queen had agreed to the plan. Did they not all love Hamlet? The queen especially loved him. That I could not doubt. And who could know him and not love him? So it must be for his own good. And I needed with a need beyond expressing to find the man I loved, to somehow restitch from the tatters of his soul the fashionable prince and earnest lover, the soulful petitioner of my soul. But no matter how I argued I could not convince myself I was not at fault. I had been at fault in causing his madness. Would this not be merely another betrayal?

But was it possible that a mind so sharp could be shattered on so slight a pretext. I was only Ophelia, and love was only love. But Hamlet had not thought me undeserving, and love was not only anything. Love was so much more. One moment I told myself Hamlet’s love was irrational; all love was, and so his state was the natural result. The next I told myself it could not be true; I was rational, and I loved Hamlet. No, love was not itself madness. But could it cause madness? The doubtfulness of the proposition seemed confirmed by Claudius’s curiosity. Or rather, suspicion. What did he suspect? What could he…? Hamlet was next in line to a precarious throne. He should have sat the throne, with Claudius relegated to the shadows where Hamlet now walked, a shadow of the man he once had been, ghosting reason with sophisting madness. What would happen if Claudius died? Either Hamlet would regain his sanity, or he would rule in madness. Or…

I looked helplessly at Father, and Claudius, now, even if despite right, king. I could disobey Father, but I could not disobey the king. I hated myself for this weakness, but I saw the heads on pikes above the gatehouse and the limp bodies of commoners dangling from the gallows, their necks bent at odd angles, their faces bloated and black, their breeches soiled and shoes stolen, all dignity lost with life – and I shuddered. I saw children confused, and widows weeping. If I defied the king what would follow? And then, not only my fate, but also Hamlet’s was at stake. I would not try to draw him out, if he hid in false madness. But if the madness were true I had to find its cure. And I trusted the queen. I knew she wanted Hamlet cured.

And what if he were not mad? I guessed that I was intended to be bait on the king’s hook. I would sooner net the king in a plot of Hamlet’s. I would never lead Hamlet to his death. And so I carried the book Father had told me to read as Hamlet had done with his book the day before, upside down. Neither Father nor the king could see this. If Hamlet were mad he would not notice. If he were sane he would see and guess. But guess what? He would know all was not as it seemed. But knowing what was not was not knowing what was. Or maybe he would notice if he were mad, and be pleased that my madness matched his own. Madness would marry us if no priest would. Or maybe in his madness he would think my insanity as sane as he madly thought his own. I could not know what my performance would lead to but, spied on by the king, the truth of false madness was all I could grant my love.

“The fair Ophelia! Nymph in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.”

The Hamlet I remembered had addressed me. If Father and the king had not been watching I would have thrown the book aside and embraced him. I restrained myself though, and tried to stand so that he could see the book’s inversion, but he seemed not to notice.

“Good my lord,

How does your honour for this many a day?”

“I humbly thank you; well, well, well.”

I felt happiness commensurate with the grief I had felt when I had first witnessed his madness. Hamlet had returned to me. I wanted to reach out, to reassure myself of the solidity of this good health, but to my horror my own hands betrayed my heart, treacherously obeying the king’s command.

“My lord I have remembrances of yours

That I have longed long to redeliver.

I pray you now, receive them.”

I proffered love letters I had kissed and the tiny jewelled nightingale. I felt that my heart would be forever broken by the loss of these few remembrances. How he had courted me, his mind so clear, his will so strong, his soul so sincere!

“No, not I; I never gave you aught.”

I gaped, unbelieving. How could he…? Only one thing could excuse this denial. And so he must be mad.

“My honoured lord you know right well you did,

And with them words of so sweet breath composed

As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,

Take these again, for to the noble mind

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

There, my lord.”

He knocked them from my hand.

“Ha, are you honest?”

“My lord?”

“Are you fair?”

“What means your lordship?”

“That if you be honest and fair your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.”

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”

“Yes, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was once a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.”

“Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.”

“You should never have believed me, for virtue cannot so deeply engraft into our sinful stock that we won’t taste the bitterness of Eden’s forbidden fruit. I loved you not.”

He loved me. He loved me not. A child’s game. Petals spread about me.

“God has given you one face,” he said, “and you make yourselves another.”

Who was he talking about? I wore so little makeup. He told me to get to a nunnery. For all my guilt I could not believe I deserved this.

I left him, but turned back after rounding a column. The shadows were deep about it, and so I could watch him unobserved. He would pace one way, hesitate, as if uncertain of his goal, turn and pace the other way, stop, as if reconsidering, then pace back again. The perturbation of my mind matched the indecision of his ambulation. Were his words cruelty or madness?

Forth and back he paced.

If Hamlet loved me would he be cruel? It is said we most hurt those we most love, but I could not believe it. They are the bitter words of cynical old age, I told myself. Therefore if he loved me he would not be cruel to me. Forward. Hesitate. Frown. But did he love me? He had, I could not doubt it. Such words with which he told me! Turn. Turn. Stare. But are not words merely the form of meaning? What if there were no meaning beneath their form? What if they told of a love that was not true? Sudden stride. Stop. Start. Spin. Stop. Stare. Grind teeth. No, no, no! No, I could not believe it. I would not. And I could not help but recall those eyes; eyes that spoke mutely beyond the form of words. He had vowed a thousand times more beautifully with his eyes than ever he had with words. And such words! For his gaze to speak so much it seemed impossible, and yet so it had been; I could not deny it. It was true. His love had been as true as his eyes were sapphire blue. Such eyes could not lie.

So this could not be cruelty. Hence it must be madness.

Hamlet was striding away from me now. Father and the king emerged from the edge of the arras, their transit concealed from Hamlet by his turned back and the angle of the columns. Father paused by the door and looked sympathetically at me, then followed the king.

Forth and back Hamlet strode. Back and forth. Eyes troubled.

Since it was madness who was it that hurt me? It was not Hamlet, for Hamlet was not himself. But my logic was flawed. I saw that. I had excluded that other possibility. Was it an act? No! It could not be. His eyes were troubled, eyes that could not lie. And look at his hose. Still foul, it had been down-gyved too. Not now, but…. No Hamlet I knew would act that part. He had always been the most fashionable of men. But he loved plays, and so perhaps…but here he strode no stage and so…and danger ringed him about, therefore…

He strode the hall. Back and forth.

The world was not a stage. No, it could not be an act. And his eyes, so troubled. They could not act, for to act was to lie, and those eyes could not lie. He must be mad then.

Mad! My love! If only I could take on myself his burden! If only I could again see him sane!

He stopped beside the nightingale then, looked around with his eyes without turning his neck, turned, rushed to the arras behind which Father and the king had been concealed and yanked it back. I moved around the pillar so he would not see me, breathing as softly as I could. He looked behind the other arrases then returned to the nightingale. He knelt and picked it up. He reached into his pouch and found the handkerchief. Neatly folded. He unfolded it. In the centre; where I had kissed, where his hand had touched mine, where he had bled, where so many lives had been entwined, where I had first professed my love with an obligation to my love to return; there lay the key. He had brought it with his still beating heart back to Elsinore but had forgotten to return it to me. What matters a symbol when your love is safe in your arms? And now he took it, inserted it in the nightingale and turned it. But she was broken, her carefully crafted mechanism shattered. She would not sing. Such fragile beauty! I barely breathed. I thought I saw a glint in his eyes, as of light on tears. He blinked repeatedly, then muttered loudly, as if aware of an audience, “What’s a nightingale but a windy darkness? And in the darkness lurks…lurks….” He ran back to the arrases and searched them again then returned. Then he shouted. “Get you to a nunnery. For none will breed sinners there.”

Was this madness? Surely there was too much method in it, as Father might say. Then it was cruelty. I was angry then. I forgot my self-recriminations for a moment, but…was I being fair? The fair Ophelia. I must deserve the title, in mind not only face. Beauty was fragile but my love must not be. His love had survived madness, or safety’s mask. I must forgive him his cruelty for was it not also a mask? What drove him to repudiate me when his eyes still spoke of love in fluent silence? If there was method there was reason. What was his reason? A throne usurped by his uncle. “What does our brave prince fear?” I had mocked him once. But that was long ago. Now he was right to fear. As Adele had said, he was a danger to Claudius. He would not be a danger if he were mad, only a tragedy. Was that his scheme? To allay his uncle’s fears, and so save himself?

Whatever his reason, if reason he had, his un-lying eyes had cried. He looked at the handkerchief that had caused Jane so much grief. He kissed it where I had, five months before then carefully wrapped the broken nightingale in it with its key and put them away. Here was yet another confirmation, a kiss in remembrance. “Never doubt I love.” That “doubt” could not mean “suspect”. I might doubt his madness, as his uncle did, but I could not doubt his love. Mad or not he still loved me. I stepped out from behind the pillar then. Mad or not, I had to hold and be held by him. But he had turned away, and ran out screaming profanities.

Chapter 48

An acting troupe had arrived in Elsinore, and the queen had sent her ladies to me. They crowded around me, fussing about my clothes and hair, commiserating about Hamlet’s state – “which saddens all of Denmark” – until Sophie, the beautiful daughter of a baron, one among many, quieted them with a gesture. She mentioned, though mostly as a pretext for flattery, the play which Hamlet had requested.

“He has such an artistic spirit.”

“The actor?”

“Hamlet.” The other ladies all added their own praises of the prince.

“You mean did.”

“Don’t worry, Phi, I’m sure he’ll soon be well. It’s just…just a phase of the moon.” Several nods.

“He’s ensorcelled then?”

“Don’t laugh, Phi, there are many things your books don’t know. A friend of mine once used a potion which an old lady made for her. She told me it helped to lay a lord in her bed.”

“And this friend was plain, with no dowry?”

“No, she’s quite the beauty. How is Jane?”

“Jane…I…why would you ask me?”

“We know she writes to you, Phi.” Loud agreement, a rebuke by Sophie, dwindling whispers.

“What?”

“There are eyes everywhere.” Eyes smiled around me, fingers plucked at my sleeve.

“Except where they should be.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, never mind. Jane is as well as can be expected.”

“Good, good. I miss her. We all miss her.” Protestations of devotion, un-quelled by Sophie. A hand touching my face, tactile eyes, seeing no deeper than skin’s smoothness. “The queen misses her too. She wouldn’t say as much, but Jane was always her favourite. It hurt her terribly when she had to send her away.”

“Not as much as it hurt Jane.” And if she misses her so much why doesn’t she recall her to court?

“You mustn’t be unfair to the queen.”

“I should keep my head.” Uneasy glances exchanged.

“Yes, I feel that way sometimes. If it weren’t screwed on I’d lose it.” Nods all round. A glare. Titters. “Anyway, her heart was broken by…and now prince Hamlet…she suffers so.”

I sighed. Losing my head might be simpler than discovering Hamlet’s motives. Cruel or cunning or mad, or madly cruel, or cruelly cunning, or cunningly mad. And what of the queen? She had been kind to me, but cruel to my sister. I could love her for one and hate her for the other. Whichever I chose I did not trust her. Was my reason marred by my friendship? Jane, banished. Banish her from Elsinore, you would never banish her from my heart, and while she lived in my heart your cruelty to her made you my enemy. But I saw his eyes in her face. And so I could not hate her, though I must; loved her, though I should not. I fought with myself, and could not decide what I thought of the queen or felt.

“So, you’ll come to the play?” Sophie asked, “I know it will make Hamlet happy. And happiness is the best cure for melancholy, don’t you think?”

“If melancholy is unhappiness, then happiness must be its cure.”

“Yes, how very true.”

“If the premise is so must the conclusion be.”

“Jane always talked so much of your intelligence, Phi. You’ll make a brilliant lady to the queen.”

“I…”

“She says she must have you near her.” Renewed touches. Ah, such smooth skin. Fabric palpated. Oh, these things won’t do. Silken voices, critical views. “The lady her son loves will be as important to her as to him.”

And I would be easier to observe close at hand, I thought, but said, “I’m not important to anyone, Sophie, least of all Hamlet.”

“Cheer up, Phi. All will be well.”

“Only if it ends well.”

Sophie shepherded the others out. I remembered the way the queen had looked at me, but wondered whether her curiosity was benign. I would have to be cautious around Hamlet. If his madness had reason, I reasoned, I must not expose it.

Chapter 49

Earlier, the town’s carpenters had again filled the halls with their industrious bustle and sound of mallets, putting back together the stage they had built last summer. Now the mallets had fallen silent, and the voices of courtiers re-emerged, the incessant murmur of platitudes and flattery, inanity and scheming, gossiping and ambition. I was ushered by the queen’s ladies into the hall where the stage had been re-erected. Hamlet was already there, lying on several aligned seats, acting mad. At least he had changed into clean clothes.

“How fares our cousin, Hamlet?” the king asked.

“Excellent, i’faith; of the Chameleon’s dish. I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so.”

“I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet; these words are not mine.”

“No, nor mine now,” He turned to Father, “my lord, you played once in the university, you say?”

“That did I, good lord, and was accounted a good actor.”

“What did you enact?”

“I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed in the Capitol. Brutus killed me.” Brutus, so trusted, so faithless. Yet, against a tyrant…

“It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. Be the players ready?”

A courtier said they were. The queen invited Hamlet to sit by her, but instead he sat by me. “No, good mother, here’s metal more attractive.”

“Do you mark that?” Father asked the king.

“Lady,” Hamlet said to me, “shall I lie in your lap?”

“No, my lord,” I said in a steady tone. Whereas before he had seemed mad in infatuation, now he seemed determined to offend me.

“I mean, my head upon your lap. Do you think I meant country matters?”

Uncertain whether he was mad or not, I would play the part I needed to play. If he was not even my love would not betray him. “I think nothing, my lord,” I lied. He shooed away courtiers from the adjacent seats and sat down beside me.

“That’s a fair thought to lie between a maid’s legs.”

“What is, my lord?” He lay down, extending his legs across the vacated seats.

“Nothing.” Pages went around the hall and extinguished torches and candles. I looked into his eyes, eyes that spoke love while his tongue figured jokes. There was no offence in his eyes though, however crude the intent of his words.

I would respond with mild amusement to these antics. “You’re merry, my lord.”

“Who, I?” The hall was dark now, except for torches about the stage.

“Yes, my lord.”

“What should a man do but be merry? For look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.” He moved himself along the seats and lay his head against my thigh. “No, it’s twice two months, my lord.”

“So long? Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year.” But what of lesser men? What of one buried without honours? Are they to be forgotten?

Now the play began. A player king and player queen came onto the stage. They did not speak. Mutely the queen protested her love for the king. I caressed Hamlet’s face, and twirled a strand of his hair. The player king rested his head on the player queen’s shoulder. I sensed Hamlet’s eyes on me in the dark. I looked down, but he was looking towards his uncle’s face. On the stage the player king lay down on a bed of flowers, and the player queen left. A hooded man came in and poured something into the ear of the sleeping king, then went out. The queen came back, and shook the king. His crown fell off and rolled across the stage, towards where the hooded man re-entered. He went to the queen, who was distraught, and wrung his hands beside her. Others came and carried the king’s body away. The hooded man pleaded silently with the queen and, picking up flowers from where the king had lain, courted her. At first she resisted. Then she embraced him.

The play seemed to be directed at Hamlet’s mother. I wondered again why he was so upset at a political marriage. But then, he had avoided a political marriage himself for the sake of love. Did he expect such idealism in his mother? Or was he subtly criticising me? “What means this, my lord?” I asked him, touching his cheek. I gently scratched his bristles. His tongue spoke nonsense while his eyes spoke more clearly to mine his unvoiced doubts. I had deserved his rebukes.

Another actor came onstage.

“Will he tell us what this show meant?” I asked Hamlet.

“Yes, or any show that you’ll show him. Be not you ashamed to show, he’ll not shame to tell you what it means.”

“You are nought, you are nought.” I slapped his face gently. “I’ll mark the play.” In the flicker of the stage torches I could see his eyes smile.

“For us and for our tragedy,” the actor said to the audience, “here stooping to your clemency, we beg your hearing patiently.”

“Is this a prologue or the posy of a ring?” Hamlet asked.

“It is brief, my lord,” I agreed.

“As woman’s love.”

For a moment my feelings perturbed reason. I could not help but be insulted. How could he say that to me? But, I then told myself, this was merely the form of madness. And how would his audience repay a poor performance? Love demanded caution, though love was most offended. And perhaps my fickleness had earned his cruelty. Though my heart had remained constant, I had rejected his pleadings. I had asked too much of his love, showing too little of mine.

The player queen and king came out again, and expressed beautifully their love, and their doubts about human passion. No matter his taunts, how could I doubt love when my love was here with me? I grazed his lips with my fingertips. The player queen professed undying devotion to the player king. The player king slept.

“Madam, how like you the play?” Hamlet asked.

I was about to tell him the player queen professed her love almost as beautifully as he, but his mother answered, “The lady protests too much.” I could not agree with her.

“Oh, but she’ll keep her word,” Hamlet said. I nodded. With or without reason, he understood. Love demanded she be true. Even madness could not break her vows.

“Do you know the play?” his uncle asked, “Is there no offence in it?”

“No, no. They do but jest, poison in jest. No offence in the world.” Then to me, as another actor came on the stage, he said, “This is Lucianus, nephew to the king.”

“You are as good as a chorus, my lord.”

“I could interpret between you and your love if I could see the puppets dallying.”

“You are keen, my lord, you are keen.”

“It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.”

I dug my nails into the flesh of his neck. “Still better, and worse.”

“So you must take your husbands.” I looked down, but he was watching his uncle intently, so I turned my eyes back to the stage.

“Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit and time agreeing,” Lucianus began,

“Confederate season, else no creature seeing.

You mixture rank of midnight weeds collected,

With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,

Your natural magic and dire property,

On wholesome life usurp immediately.” He poured the poison into the sleeping king’s ear.

Suddenly the hall was in confusion. King Claudius staggered to his feet. “The king rises,” I said. Queen Gertrude watched him with surprise. “What, frighted with false fire?” Hamlet said. Courtiers rose all about to follow the king as he called for light. Father signalled to the actors to stop. Pages hurried about with tapers, lighting candles and torches. The queen followed the king and her ladies followed her. Sophie fell and other ladies fell over her. As he reached the door I could see the king’s face was pale. He must be ill, I thought. Too heavy drinking?

Chapter 50

I was in the courtyard orchard when Bess came.

“My lady.”

There were tears in her eyes. She stood as if paralysed, unable to say anything more.

“What is it, Bess?”

“The prince’s madness…”

“What lunacy does he reward us with today?”

“Reward, my…?” She seemed to choke on the word.

“Has the prince soiled himself?”

“My lady!”

“Excuse my levity, Bess,” I said in a more gentle tone, “I know the prince is troubled. I mean no disrespect. I love…”

“He’s murdered your father.”

“I’m going mad. I thought you said…”

“Your father…,” She held back the tears as well as she could. “…is killed…by…by…the…the prince.”

“This is too cruel. You reward my levity with your own?”

“No levity, my lady.” She could no longer hold back the tears.

I saw again myself but was not myself. I was crying, but it was Bess’s tears.

“Stop this,” I screamed at her, “I can’t cry. You lie! Liar! Why do you try to hurt me? Why?”

I struck myself then, and Bess recoiled. “My lady, I’m sorry. Forgive me. He was a good master, a great man. Your loss is more. I have no right. Forgive me.”

She was shielding herself against my blows. I felt nothing. I reached out and she recoiled in fear. “No, forgive me, Bess.” I held her then, hoping to comfort myself, not knowing who I was or where. Above, the stars like bright mist swirled into a smear of light. I was lying on the grass. I could not move. Bess kneeled over me.

“Help!” her voice cried out, but her mouth did not move. Stars fell from the sky in bright rain, through Bess’s hair, rolling down her cheeks, dropping on my face. Other servants crowded around. Strong arms lifted me and carried me inside. The stars were still falling, filling my eyes with bright blurs. Even inside the stars were falling, whole constellations rolling down my cheeks, down to my ears and mouth. I had wondered what stars tasted like. I could never have guessed they tasted like tears. I was put into my bed, covered with warm furs, fed foul liquids. Faces came and went. Sympathetic faces flowing past, a stream of concerned eyes peering, passing, mouths mobile but only a meaningless murmur heard.

Chapter 51

The madness passed into reason, but what is reason, what is madness, when madness reasons and reason maddens? I loved my father. I loved Hamlet. One man I loved murdered the other. One moment I would hate Hamlet, the next I would rebuke myself. Was my love so ephemeral? But what of Father? Was this a daughter’s love? How could I be so cruel to a loving loved father? But how could I not be? And then, how could I love Hamlet?

“But if I must love Hamlet, and I must love Father, then it stands to reason Hamlet can’t have murdered Father.” I climbed out of bed. “Yes. Father lives.” I cried out, “Father,” but he did not answer.

I went into his study. Amidst his books I felt his presence. I had seen him reading here so many times. I had heard him speaking to so many people here, to servants, to courtiers, to conspirators, even to the king. The king was dead. Long live the king. I ran a finger over the scrolls. A scarlet plume bobbing. Magnus’s ghost strutting, scheming. Treasonous talk. Now, as then, the light in bright diamonds on the floor. But the abacus which had calculated so many accounts was untouched beneath the window.

The sands of the hourglass stilled. His hand would never turn it again. I wanted to sweep it from the table. If I scattered its grains across the floor, could I find the moment of his death and hold it? I strode over, reached out. I could not. My hand frozen, my eyes fixed. Outside its curves, in the next room, his body lay, unmoving. That infinity had only been a pretty figure. We are outside eternity and will be throughout irreversible time. Father is dead.

But how could Father be dead if Hamlet loved me? Hamlet would not hurt me. And Hamlet did love me, so Hamlet could not have murdered Father. Magnus was dead, not Father.

I went out.

There in the audience room, on a table, lay a shrouded body. A scent of rosewater, overlaid by frankincense. The smoke rising in threads, twisting, coiling, breaking. I went to the body. Sleeping. Was he sleeping or I? A dream of silence. The castle dead. His face peaceful. I reached out, touched. He slept on, undisturbed. In the room only my thoughts and the smoke were perturbed, twisting, breaking, floating, vanishing.

He was dead. Someone else? Who? King? Hamlet was not. Why? He had lost a father, and now I had lost mine. Had he?

A father lost, a father taken. Why could you not feel my pain as I felt yours? Did you not think I understood? Did you have to show me in my own father’s blood? Did you have to murder him so that I would feel enough? A serpent took your father’s life; am I to hate you as you hate the serpent? You are mad. Am I to become mad? Am I to join you in confusion? Is that the union you seek? Is that your? Then let me. Be faithless. Let me. Be sane. You. Repudiate. I. Love you. Not. Love you. Father. No. Will not love you. I must and. Father un cry for mourned you. Not. Tears enough. For him. I cry. Hate. You. Mad, mad. Mad love with love. Reason will not. Love madness. Only this sickness can. Heal me. Impossible.

Chapter 52

My skirts have caught in a tree root. The water eddies about me, turning me, tugging me, this way then that or both at once. I feel the turbulence. I have been torn apart by love. I loved Jane but where is she? I loved my father, but I fought him. I loved Hamlet but spurned him. I reach for my mother, but death has taken her, and I am only a bawling babe, covered in afterbirth. My vision is clouded, my eyes opening as for the first time. The waters of the womb, the heat of my blood, the fire of the sun. As vision clears I see the sun is only Father’s face. He is holding me. He looks puzzled. Should he hate me or love me? Hate me for murdering his wife? Love me for the part of her I carry in me? His face betrays no emotion; each is so perfectly balanced with all others that all are effaced. He hands me back to the midwife, who hands me to a wet-nurse. I am powerless. A small child in large hands. Passed from one to the next as the eddy drags me.

The wet-nurse walks down a passage to her room in which a tiny cot awaits me. She gently places me there. She will feed me with her own milk, care for me as her own child, be sharp with me when I am petulant, sing nursery rhymes and rock me to sleep when the terror of the night, of shadows, ghosts, of doubtful existence, has woken me to my own screaming. She will sing me a song of a mermaid, and show me a tear changed to stone, washed smooth by the waves of her home.

The eddy drags me to a still point. The hawk is motionless against the sun. Opposites merge. Above and below, past and future, heat and cold, shadows and light, birth and death. Love and murder. The madness of my love. Doubt as faith.

Chapter 53

Bess was backing in through the doorway, bowing. Then Claudius came in. Colours stolen from Hamlet. A king. Magnus had turned on Hamlet in the field. What had Father known? A false messenger dead. Feet dangling in the orchard. Heads on pikes. The gallows feeding the kites. Too many deaths.

He stood beside me, and reached out to support me as he had once before. I recoiled. “His blood is on your hands,” I said.

“I should have sent Hamlet away sooner. His madness….”

Tattered clothes, tattered mind. Better to be beggared of reason than know too much. Father had known too much. “You.”

“I?”

Usurper, I thought, tyrant, hypocrite, murderer. “Murderer,” I screamed, “murderer, murderer, murderer.”

The smile remained frozen on his face, but his eyes glinted. Bess, frightened, her eyes to the floor, backed out of the room.

“My father is dead.” I saw guilt in those eyes. Was it only reflected? My fire burnt out, my legs folded under me, and I was on the floor, my face buried in my tear soaked hands. “One more death. What’s one more death?”

Hamlet was right; God gave us faces but we made ourselves another.

“We all grieve with you. Your father was more than a skilful diplomat and trusted adviser. He was also a friend. He loved justice, and his family, your family. He was…”

The king’s ever reasonable voice droned on, but I would not hear him. I preferred Hamlet’s madness.

Chapter 54

I stared at the hole in the ground. Courtiers whispered around me. The king watched me carefully. Next to him stood a hooded figure.

I watch the bubbles of my breath. In this place they do not rise. They fall, like the sands of an hourglass. Each grain contains the whole world, but only a single day of my life. The bubbles stretch and twist as the pressure of memory fights against the containment of chronological time. What is the logic of this place? The sky falls away beyond the rippling surface of the water beneath me. I want to touch that surface, where the bubbles will burst, mixing all moments, mingling eternity and mortality. I cannot reach it, as Tantalus could not reach the fruit, but I am not in hell; I feel no fire, even from the sun, the cold sun, shivering apart in the water. I see the wings of an angel smeared against that curdled circle. Its wings are dun coloured, like those of Alma, my hawk. It sinks into the depths of the sky; I rise, flying in the flowing water. If heaven is below me and hell above this must be purgatory and my punishment deranges me. But that makes no sense; I am still alive.

My father is not. He lies in his grave. No honours.

I knelt by the hole after the other mourners had left and watched the sexton shovel dirt onto the coffin. It was such a small box. How could he fit in there? He was such a large man in life. When I was little he had seemed a giant. I had a mad thought. He was not in there. If he could not fit, how could he be? I wanted to leap in and tear off the lid. I crawled to the edge, swayed, and fell. Now the sky was beneath me. For a moment sky and earth mingled. Earth was falling, filling my eyes. I turned over, pressed my face against the wood, scratched at it, knocked on it. The sound was not hollow. He was trapped in there. I had to help him get out. He had not died. They had buried him by mistake. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“My lady. You won’t find him there.” The sexton had climbed down into the hole, and kneeled beside me.

I stared at him, hopeful. He knew. I was right. Father was not there. “Where is he?”

He pointed up.

“In the moon? I’ll wait till the night comes. Then I’ll see him clearly.”

He shook his head. I grabbed a handful of dirt from the box, and wiped my tears away, but the dirt turned to mud and the tears would not stop. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” There was too much to be sorry for, too much that could not be changed. I could not tell him that he was a good father. I could not tell him that it did not mean anything when I fought with him. I remembered every argument. I could not remember a single kind word. I had to tell him, but his ears would no longer hear, his eyes could not see my tears, and my feelings, too late expressed, gave him no solace. Even my grief was an unkindness, spent all on my own regrets and leaving him nothing.

Chapter 55

The queen sent her own physician to me. I would not touch his medicines. Instead the tiredness of grief lulled me to sleep. I woke in darkness. A shadow stood over me, reaching out. Eyes in the dark. I screamed and flung out my arms, striking. A sound of shattered pottery. The shadow fled before Bess came with a candle. My ear was wet. I shook my head. On the floor were the shards of a shattered vial, and an oily liquid, oozing. Bess cleaned away shards and oil. I fell asleep again.

When I woke again the world was not the world. It was a play, and all the actors played their parts with superlative talent. The maids were not the maids and yet they were. The gardeners were not the gardeners, and yet they worked. The courtiers were perfect in their pretended politeness. The ladies wore their beauty as though it were their own. The sun was a disc of brightness in the sky, behind which I knew darkness hid. The halls seemed so familiar, and someone had even hung tapestries that were indistinguishable from those in the real castle. Where was I? A man dressed exactly like Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, with mannerisms copied perfectly from that man, looked on me with a perfect simulation of sympathy. He even responded to the name, Horatio. I knew there must be a way to discover where I was. If I asked for the queen and no one could show her to me, then I would have certain proof that I was not in the castle above Elsinore.

“Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” I asked.

But while I had made my way to the great hall, messages had been passed, silently. I had seen them in everybody’s eyes. An actress was quickly costumed like the queen, and she acted the part so convincingly even Hamlet would have seen his mother. I saw the king was not the king, and yet he was. He wore Hamlet’s colours, but was not Hamlet, and they had chosen too small an actor for the role. I would play my own part as well.

I sang, of love and death, of flowers and showers of tears, of valentines and maids unmade and cocks and faithless men. But I could not find my harp, and my voice was broken by too many tears, so I said, “I hope all will be well. We must be patient, but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him in the cold ground. My brother shall know of it. And so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach. Good night, ladies. Good night, sweet ladies. Good night, good night.”

I walked out into the fields and collected flowers. When I returned the scene had changed. An actor playing Laertes part was there. I sang to him. I gave flowers to all. Had he forgotten Jane? I gave him a rosemary. “That’s for remembrance.”

The actor playing Horatio followed me.

Chapter 56

I find myself in the queen’s pleasure garden, but do not know how I came here. I am picking roses, red and yellow and white, but the white is only a bled dry red, and the perfume of that place is tainted by the overwhelming smell of its soil, a pungent mixture of blood and bone. Here the life of roses suggests not love but death. Bees bodies float above the decay, striped in gold and black like the cotehardies of tiny courtiers. I throw the flowers at them and they scatter, their movements suddenly mad, chaotic and minatory, as if chasing pollen on the agitated air. Honey for the hive is forgotten, the hollow halls and the works of wax.

I run from the garden to the diplomatic apartments. I want to taste the sweetness of cherries in the shade, but the fruit is on the ground, overripe and bloody, oozing between my toes. But the cherry blossoms have not fallen. A mist of water from the fountain caresses my face, and I go to it. A body floats here, slit from ear to ear, and my nurse is trying to shield my eyes. A maid unmade and murdered. The water murmurs, and the mermaid rises, alive but lost to her love, washed by waves and tears. But blood will not wash away so easily; it sticks like guilt to the innocent. It falls from the fountain, pink in the sun. Blood is on my face and feet. Blood floods from the fountain and across the grass. I try to escape it by running, but it sticks to my feet and beads on my face. My heart beats and it seethes in my veins with the deranging heat of hell.

I reach the stables and take Amleth, unsaddled. In the mews I release Alma, unhooded. No bird should be caged. But she hops after me. She flutters up and drops to my wrist, unfamiliar with freedom. I shake my arm and she flies up into the sky, but stays above me, floating, watching, waiting. She cries out, a piercing sound. By love we are bound. Together we ride out of the castle to the fields, her on the wind, me on the bare back of Amleth. Here I do not smell the blood and bone, so I dismount to gather wild flowers.

Amleth grazes. Alma floats above me. The actor who followed me stands by the edge of the field. Dandelion seeds rise on the wind, lighter than air.

Memories rise. A mother dreamed, a sister’s friendship, Hamlet’s love, Father’s protection. The air lifts them, without violence. They float away from me. I am floating away from myself. I see each memory, dancing with others, sometimes meeting, merging. Which is which, and when? I am climbing a cherry tree with Jane. I see cherry blossoms in the spring and taste fruit in the summer. Light scattered across dark water like shimmering golden petals. I fall from the tree. I am screaming. Did my mother hear my voice at least once before she died? A baby’s bawling. Jane and Laertes fight among the scattered blossoms on the grass. Children. Growing, loving, marrying. He must not forget my sister. Rosemary for remembrances I had longed long to redeliver. He made many tenders of his affection. A windy darkness. A nightingale sings. Its heart is broken. True pay in honourable fashionable princess. She astounds all, except we stand alone, apart. Father wants me to marry but when the blood burns. My soul burns. I am in hell with no hope of salvation. Hamlet loves, then despises, then loves. Madness. Gone. Across the sea in sapphire eyes. Father turns to dust. No honours. Only ashes to ashes. Burning. The world collapses. Sparks fly up from the embers, and float like dandelion seeds on the wind. The sighing field seethes, a sea of fire. Buds effloresce in bursts of flame, and flow towards and through me.

Beyond the flames the actor has changed his costume. Hooded, he stands in a field of wheat, watching. Who has written his part?

The heat is too great. I need water, so I go to the stream. Cool water, flowing. The fire of madness burns. I would quench it. My thirst is endless as I cry myself dry. A tear for my mother. One for Jane, banished from her sister’s presence by the queen who loved her. Another for Hamlet, the kingdom of his mind usurped by madness. A tear for Father, murdered by a false king. I have lost you all, and more. One final tear, for myself. One final tear and then I burn. I rise like smoke, choking on tears, rise and float and scatter.

A hawk floats in the air. Who is she?

In the wind a faded purple thread flutters. Where did it come from? Here reason is unravelled and rewoven in patterns of new meaning. I am climbing the cherry tree. Jane is not here. I reach out with a garland of flowers, hanging it from the branch. Crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples. Blossoms fall and spread on the grass, which flows. The cherry tree bends like a willow, as if it would pick up its fallen blossoms. I would help it grasp what has been lost. So much has been lost. I reach out, and for a moment I am in the air. Flying into the sky. The clouds rushing to meet me. A scream. The voice is not mine. It is a maid, and in the fountain a body floats, hair spread in separate strands like a halo. A mermaid in the arms of her lover, kissed by the sighing sea. The water caresses her like memories. Blossoms past and present make a pillow. I rest my head in them, borne up by skirts, floating in fleeting memories.

Repartee with Hamlet. Pure romance and dirty wit. By all the angels, by all the saints. It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge. Blood becomes heathenish, burning with hellfire. I would be excommunicate for only a single loving word. A heathen prince. Dark. But these are only suits. I will serve most faithfully and truly. Pious bawds! An affectionate hug from Jane, my friend, my sister, smelling of mint and roses. Scent of rosewater. A guilty brother. Father’s rebuke: why do you defy me? Laertes pats my head, but I do not knock his hand away this time. It is just the way of a brother’s love. Even Adele passes in the stream, beautiful, haughty, jealous, sharp. They are all here with me, swirling around, like brightly coloured fish around a mermaid. I hear Hamlet’s voice, courting me with poetic fervour. It mingles with Abdullah’s voice, reading poetry in his Moorish tongue. I only understand a few of his words, but I hear his passion, painful but beautiful, mournful but hopeful. My life is like that poetry to me now, making only occasional sense, its rhythms carrying feeling beyond what my mind can grasp.

The hawk has been as motionless as time, as still as my soul. Drawn against the flat sky, golden against the sun. Now space become as flexible as fabric. A sky as supple as silk folds down to the soft surface of the rippling water, while the depths fold up to meet it. Each is superimposed on the other, air and water, fire of the sun and earth of my body, a confusion of lines and colour and light. A nightingale turns its golden head and sings on a small coffin. Dirt flows in muddy tears. Through water the sky’s azure becomes sapphire blue. I feel you here. I know your warm embrace and passion. A man of words, with me you need none. I see your eyes and know your soul. Outlines tremble and twist, merging meanings: the sun and the darkness, the daughter and the mother, the hawk, nightingale and mermaid. She cries for the lover who will not love her, whose love she must both doubt and trust. The pebbles of the brook turn to tears. Her lamentation is a song of transformation, flowing with remembrance and feeling. All the moments of my life, all the people I have loved – Father, sister, brother, prince – they are all with me now, folded together in the fabric of my being, becoming me as I become something unknown, unknowable even to myself. As the current tugs at her body our golden whirring wings carry me across the sun, which is dark and cool and inviting. The darkness swells into the light in pulses, and everywhere shadows foreshadow the light.

A man watches across a field of reeds, through willow leaves and branches. The swaying watery wheat and willow hang and flow, intertwine and untwine. A faceless hood eclipses the sun. Eyes in the dark. A shadow. The willow reaches out, branches like arms. There is pressure against her chest, pressing Ophelia down, and the willow is her and not her, as she is myself and not myself. The planes of sky and deep unfold. Our depths reach to the sun. Sky is below. I am sinking. Soaring, drowning, breathing. Beyond limits and logic, above floating flowers and memories, I am flying in a sapphire sky.


Rosemary for Remembrance:The Tragedy of Ophelia

  • Author: Frances Mason
  • Published: 2016-11-14 07:20:28
  • Words: 65884
Rosemary for Remembrance:The Tragedy of Ophelia Rosemary for Remembrance:The Tragedy of Ophelia