Hamlet had always liked to talk.
Horatio didn't remember much about being small—his memory didn't work like Hamlet's, who had been able to tell you in detail about the frustration he'd felt as a toddler about not being able to express himself. To Horatio, childhood and, indeed, early adulthood was a blur of vague, intangible sense memories with the occasional sharp image scattered here and there. Most of those images were of Hamlet talking. Hamlet talking about his mother, his father, about how he would become king one day and conquer the world. Hamlet imitating Yorick's jesting monologues, arms flailing, making up with volume for lack of amusing content. Later, at Wittenberg, Hamlet arguing with the teachers. Hamlet talking to Horatio about school, about Denmark, about women. Maybe Horatio didn't remember much about being young, but he did remember that Hamlet had always liked to talk.
It ran in the family. Horatio's father had been a high-ranking soldier in King Hamlet's army, a good friend of the monarch whose wife had died in childbirth. He had led a prestigious battalion in a border scrap against Prussia when Horatio had been barely two years old, and hadn't returned. Horatio didn't remember him. Perhaps because he'd never talked much.
King Hamlet had allowed Horatio to stay at the court as a show of gratitude for his father's sacrifice. Horatio had grown up as everybody's and nobody's son—one day Yorick and his wife Inga had played parents, the next day, it had been the cook and his wife, or Gertrude's chambermaid and her various favoured gentlemen. On some days, even, it had been Polonius, or King Hamlet and his Queen. All of them had liked to talk. They had told Horatio about his father, about his father's accomplishments in the Danish army. They had told him about his mother, how gentle she had been, how kind. They had told him to be a good boy, to grow up strong and brave, honour his mother and make his father proud.
Horatio had listened; a quiet child, earnest, eager to do what adults asked him to. The other children at the court—Hamlet and Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sometimes even Ophelia—had teased him about it. Do you always do what you're told? Do you always listen? Do you not have anything to say for yourself?
He had tried not to let their barbs get to him. They were just good-natured jabs among friends. He had listened harder, had learned to listen well enough to know what people were going to say before they'd even put it into words. Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hadn't understood, and had eventually given up on him as a hopeless case. Hamlet, though, had been smarter. He'd recognized what had happened: Horatio had turned listening into a skill of itself. He knew what people were thinking before they even had to say it. Hamlet had always known how to recognize skills in others he himself was lacking, and had known how to put them to good use. Hamlet and Horatio had become best friends.
Now, though, Hamlet was dead. They all were: all those people who'd had so much to say; Polonius, Claudius, Laertes. Gertrude and Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern. Hamlet. At the wake, a big, royal occasion, all of Denmark dressed in black and heavy with grief, the silence had hung in the air like a dark cloud—huge, stifling, the clergyman's sermon almost inaudible around it. Horatio remembered being there, up on the platform with the late royal family and most of the seats around him empty, waiting. Someone would speak up. Someone would interrupt the proceedings to comment, speak his mind, express his pleasure, displeasure, amusement, grief. There would at least be Hamlet, leaning over and nudging him to make some dry, stage-whispered remark. Except Hamlet hadn't been next to him. Hamlet had been laid out next to Gertrude, his eyes closed and his lips sealed forever. The ceremony had finished without interruption, and Horatio had returned to the castle, wondering where a silent court would lead the state of Denmark.
Horatio wasn't of royal blood. His father had been well liked at the Danish court, but his blood had been the red, common blood of a tanner's son from the less noble parts of the state. Horatio was a quiet man, a listener. He had never fancied himself a leader, never mind a king. The only reason he had taken up negotiations with Fortinbras, had regulated the march of Norway's army through Denmark and had made certain the young prince wouldn't use Denmark's weakened state for a strike to win his father's lands back, had been because there was no-one else. Elsinore had been silent, the council of noblemen too distraught or distracted by their lack of a leader to come to a decision. So Horatio had stepped in. He had never intended, had never even considered the possibility of his leadership being permanent.
He knew young Fortinbras from the man's past visits to the Danish court. He had never spoken to him—he hadn't needed to. Not when he could listen to Hamlet and Fortinbras talk, about armies and states and kings and duties and honour, and learn from the words and the tone what kind of a man Fortinbras was. He had listened again, during the negotiations, had silently sat in his chair and listened to Fortinbras talk thinly veiled threats at him. And then he'd spoken. Just a few, carefully chosen words that had changed Denmark's future—and Horatio's, even if he didn't know it at the time.
Denmark had marched with Norway against Poland. They had taken the weak, barely defended lands Norway had been planning to take—and they took the lands bordering on them, fertile lands, trading routes, entire cities. Why fight each other when they could gain more fighting side by side? Fortinbras had won lands to compensate for the ones his father lost. Horatio had won an ally. And followers.
Three weeks later, the Danish people had elected Horatio king, despite his common blood and his silent nature. Three years later, King Horatio had made Denmark allies with every strong military force in Europe. Not through talking, loud speeches and long-winded letters. He had done it through listening. All the state leaders he met, from the king of England to the czar of Russia, they all knew how to talk. None of them knew how to listen.
Today, three years to the day after he'd lost his best friend, King Horatio had asked his advisors to leave him for a while. He had taken his leave from the castle and had wandered down to the graveyard, the low whistling of the autumn wind the only sound reaching his ears.
The old iron gate creaked as he opened it, and dried leaves blew along the path as he walked past rows of grave markers to the statue at the centre of the churchyard. Prince Hamlet, frozen in a pensive posture with his head lowered, one hand clutching a book, the other a dagger.
Horatio looked up, seeking out his friend's stony features with his eyes, the stony lips, as sealed now as they had been up on that platform when Horatio had said his last goodbyes. He let his eyes trail down to the inscription at the base of the statue. Letters engraved in stone, a memory to Prince Hamlet—his words, convictions, and the paradox of his existence.
Good night, sweet prince.
The rest is silence.