Ophelia has always felt the yoke of her femininity dig deep into her skin, through its bitter straps pulled tight around her body. But never in all her seventeen years has she felt it more keenly than she does in the autumn Prince Hamlet departs for university.
She is witty, with a mind just as capable (more capable, she thinks treasonously but not, she feels, incorrectly) than his. But he is a man, and someday he shall be more than a man, he shall be Denmark itself, and so he goes to university and Ophelia must stay to learn the arts proper to a lady.
She devotes a year to perfecting the skill of being decorative. Adornment is the only duty fate has deemed suitable for her. She writes so in her letters to Hamlet and he writes back that it is nonetheless a skill more interesting than astronomy, which he is forced to take at Wittenberg.
She keeps his letters in a box beneath her bed, cursing herself for being a cliché the whole while but unable to think of any other place safe from her father's all-seeing eyes.
The spring crawls back into the earth slowly, and just when Ophelia is despairing of ever seeing summer or her Prince again, they too arrive in Denmark.
But Hamlet does not arrive home alone.
The young man he brings with him is called Horatio. He has a mild voice and mild manners and mild eyes that he always turns down to look mildly at the floor. Hamlet tells Ophelia that he is a student of natural philosophy. When he takes Ophelia's hand and presses her fingers with his, Ophelia can guess that he will probably never be a politician, not even with Hamlet's patronage. Too mild.
Although it is the summer and his academic holiday, Hamlet still has princely duties. School has done nothing to dampen his ability to shirk them, however, and Ophelia has to clamp a hand over her mouth to keep the laughter from bubbling over her lips as they run to the river's edge, tree branches whipping past their faces like the wind. A lady of the court does not giggle wantonly like a harlot; Hamlet is not the only one who has received an education this past year.
They pick flowers by the river while Hamlet should have been greeting dignitaries from a foreign land. It takes Horatio a surprisingly short time to find them. It is also a surprise to Ophelia that Horatio comes as a messenger for the enemy.
"The Queen entreats me to bring you back to your obligations," he says to Hamlet, frowning and reproving like the old man he is not. "You should be at the castle gates, receiving esteemed guests after their weary travels. And you," he says to Ophelia, "you should..."
Ophelia turns her eyes onto Horatio coolly. Yes, she has learned the arts of being a lady of the court, and a lady of the court knows how to see the secret signs that indicate a gentleman is ill-equipped to deal with ladies.
As expected, Horatio falters, stammers, flusters. He changes the clear direction of his speech and instead says, "You should know how beautiful you look today, my lady." He finishes by bowing deeply.
Hamlet laughs at him, raucously, and even Horatio's blush is mild.
"Come now, Horatio," Hamlet says. "Do not do yourself the disservice of pretending to honour the trappings of courtly humour. I know your mind. You think these dignitaries corrupt, and their mission foolish. They neither require nor deserve my insincere greetings."
"I would fain have let you and fair Ophelia alone, had I believed that your absence was due to political protest and not sheer perversion."
"Are you trying to trap me into admitting I am a protester? When the King is my own father? Oh, fie, Horatio!"
Ophelia, ear long attuned by custom to hearing Hamlet's jesting tones when he is part of a joke, finally realizes that they are playing. She would never have been able to guess, without Hamlet here, that Horatio's mild, unassuming smile and his bowed head, gaze respectfully trained on the grass at their feet, was Horatio being playful. Horatio is capable of being playful.
They get along much better after that afternoon.
They run up and down the halls of Elsinore like children, or like soldiers scattering in the face of a foe too formidable to withstand. Queen Gertrude catches them once, and admonishes Hamlet for being barefoot and unsightly. Ophelia curls her toes against the cold stone floor and thanks God that her skirt is much too long for the Queen to see her feet. Horatio pretends that he was running after them, not with them, in order to stop them, but he is a terrible liar (he will never make a politician, Ophelia is sure of it now). Gertrude is too fond of all of them to hold onto her ire, and they scamper away from her chambers the moment she retires. Horatio presses his lips into a line and Ophelia keeps both hands over her mouth, but Hamlet lets his mad shrieks of joy ring out all over the castle because he can, because he is the Prince.
Sometimes Hamlet and Horatio go on long rambles through the countryside without her, when her father is around. It's bad enough, Polonius tells her, that she goes unaccompanied and unmarried in the presence of the Prince. Much worse if she does so with two single men, one of them practically a commoner, practically a stranger. She says, "Yes, father. Of course you're right, father," because she does not want to argue. Arguments are mere words, anyhow. Words do not bind her. She sees no reason she cannot make her father happy by assenting with words, and make herself happy by dissenting with actions. Duality has never bothered her.
There is a full moon two nights before Hamlet and Horatio are due to return to Wittenberg.
They sneak out, the three of them, past the guards on night watch (Horatio murmurs disapproval over how easy it was to do, and Hamlet points out that they are there to keep intruders out, not to keep them prisoner) and walk along the shadow of the ramparts. The moon is like a polished coin in the black purse of the sky, and Hamlet pretends to pluck it out and place it into Ophelia's palm.
"All the riches in the world rightfully go to you, my lady," he says, the mirth in his eyes but a veil to hide his sincerity.
Ophelia closes her hand around the moon Hamlet has given her and pretends it means nothing to her, just a small token in her collection of boundless treasures. "A boon for the peasant," she says airily, and tucks it into Horatio's pocket.
Horatio bows deeply, with a flourish. "Thy beauty is rivalled only by your generosity."
They continue walking until they are in the woods, and the moon that hangs not in Horatio's pocket but in the sky shines brighter as the night becomes darker.
They stand shoulder to shoulder, looking up at the stars and Hamlet says, "We make preparations for Wittenberg tomorrow." As though either Ophelia or Hamlet need to be told.
Hamlet knocks against Horatio roughly, and they share furtive smiles as their eyes meet. The secrets of schoolmates that Ophelia will never know.
For a mad moment, Ophelia thinks fiercely, he belongs to me, and you shan't have him. The moment passes.
The air at night is cold now, a true sign that summer is leaving along with Hamlet and Horatio. Ophelia slips her cold hand into Hamlet's warm one, is gripped surely as he has always gripped her since childhood. She hesitates but for an instance before slipping her other hand into Horatio's.