It seems as though Hamlet has scarcely assumed his rightful place on the throne of Denmark when the international threat begins to make itself known. Rumblings from Norway cease as all in their little corner of Europe prepare for Nazi Germany in whatever way they can.
Some nations, of course, have more options than others. England has her navy, France her vaunted Maginot Line. Denmark - in the end, Denmark has a pen, which her king uses to sign, stonefaced, the agreement to surrender and submit to Nazi occupation.
Later that night, so late it has become early, Horatio steals quietly through the corridors to his king's chambers. Hamlet has borne up under the burden of this day with his characteristic grace; in this restructured court, with the Polonius family gone and Hamlet's mother in voluntary exile since her husband's death, Horatio is the only one left who knows him well enough to see the tremendous strain his outward calm is costing him.
Hamlet is standing at the window when Horatio enters, his hands clasped precisely behind his back.
"Horatio," he says, without turning around. He always knows, even when it is a time of day that anyone might visit. Even back in Wittenberg, as schoolmates - so long ago, it seems now. He always knows.
"My lord," Horatio answers.
"When I envisioned my first great act as king . . ." He turns. His eyes are red-rimmed, and his voice softens suddenly from that of the king to that of Horatio's sorrow-stricken friend. "This was not what I imagined."
"You were left no choice, my lord." No doubt Hamlet has heard the same or similar words uttered countless times today, and Horatio does not expect them to be any more the comforting for coming from him, but some things must be said.
"No," Hamlet murmurs, his gaze drifting away to the carpet. "He left me no time for even a declaration of war."
There is something unspoken in that; Horatio remains silent, waiting. After a moment, Hamlet's eyes raise again to meet his.
"If there had been time," he says, "I still would not have declared war."
"I did not think you would have, my lord," Horatio says. He has too much faith in his friend's intelligence to have expected otherwise for even a second.
Hamlet takes a breath. "That is not what my father would have done."
This is only the truth. The previous King Hamlet had been of a more warlike disposition; but then, during his reign, war had been a luxury that Denmark could more easily afford.
Horatio says none of this. It won't help. He says instead,
"No one expects you to be him."
"I thought I could see him as I signed that wretched document, shaking his head in disapproval. He would never have given in to Hitler so easily."
"With all respect to your father, my lord, and to his talents as king, he would only have gotten his men killed and to no purpose. We cannot hope to take Germany in battle, not as we are now. You know this."
Horatio is the only man in Denmark who could get away with speaking of Hamlet's father to his face in such a manner; even so, Hamlet's mouth tightens for a few seconds before he answers.
"Yes," he says, "I do. And the time changes as the sun rises and sets, and the weapons Germany wields now would have been half-plausible at best twenty years ago. But . . ." He turns away again, back to the window. "Time, Horatio, as of late - it is both yesterday and years ago since I swore the oath to avenge his death. Everything I have done since then has been in his name, and even though I have succeeded in his task and he is now at peace, I still feel as though he is watching everything I do. How he chides when it is not what he would do himself!"
Horatio steps up beside him, placing a light hand on his shoulder.
"And still you do as you would," he says softly. "You saved lives today, my lord. Only the most foolish in Denmark will not be grateful for that. The past is in the past. We always loved our prince, with his quick wit and constant hunger for knowledge, and now we will love our king for his fearlessness in applying the wisdom he has gained."
Hamlet looks at him, with something like a smile beginning to soften his features. "Are those the words of my people," he asks, "or of my dearest companion?"
"Soon enough, they will be both," Horatio says, with a slight smile of his own. "If any man in Denmark can find triumph in disappointment, it is you."
Hamlet turns once more, leaning back against the window to face Horatio this time with his elbows resting on the ledge. The casual stance reminds Horatio overwhelmingly of the boy prince he met at Wittenberg, who had surprised him so with his interest in befriending an ordinary citizen with no title to distinguish him.
"When I bid you stay here," Hamlet remarks, "I did so with the idea that I could trust you to tell me unpleasant truths rather than the charming fictions others spew to save their positions." His tone is as light as it can be, under the circumstances of the moment, but Horatio knows that he is not entirely joking.
"I believe, my lord, that you asked me to tell you the things you don't wish to hear."
"Those were my words, yes," Hamlet concedes. Horatio nods in acknowledgment.
"In which case, my lord, I don't believe I am wrong in thinking that what you do not wish to hear is this: You are yourself, not your father, and on this day you are the King Hamlet Denmark needed most. That is what you will continue to be, and in time the people will come to love you for it as I do."
There is a long heartbeat of silence before Hamlet speaks.
"Yes," he says softly, "that is why I bid you stay. But I will not hear you speak of my wisdom again, Horatio, when it would be nothing without your strength and loyalty to guide me. No, and I won't have you arguing with that, either." He smiles - not full-fledged, but enough to show that the storm in his mind has begun to clear.
"And I will sign all the paperwork Herr Hitler likes, and none of it will be enough to make Denmark true Nazi territory. We will make certain of that."