Pinocchio could see the remorse and sympathy in Mac’s eyes. The downtrodden pace of the mules beneath them only exaggerated Mac’s depressed jostling.
“Don’t feel bad for those guys, kid. Let me tell you something. They were going to kill us. Anyone who threatens your life doesn’t deserve your sympathy. And those guys were con artists. They know the best time to get sympathy is right after you’ve beaten them.”
Mac didn’t say anything, as he thought he would choke on the words, but he nodded in agreement.
“Right over that hill and past that open patch, you’ll see a gate. Approach it slow. When they ask your business, tell them you’re here to visit with the emperor and empress, and your father is Otis Seehus.” Pinocchio smiled. “They’ll know who he is.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“No, sir. This is as close as I’m getting.”
“Why’s that?” Mac asked.
“I don’t know if he’d remember me or not, but I don’t exactly have that great of a history with the emperor.”
Pinocchio licked a smile onto his lips and tilted his head. “A long time ago, he came to South Nestor and visited a schoolhouse where one of my daughters went. Well, the emperor tells the story of Aladdin and how he went from being somewhat of a loafer to what he would go on to become.
“He hadn’t gotten too far into the story before my youngest daughter blurts out, ‘Aladdin needs to get a job and quit living off his mother.’”
“Oh, yeah. None of the adults laughed, but all the kids thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. None of them knew that Aladdin—and the man telling them the story—were the same person. He turned beet red. It was humiliating. I’m lucky he didn’t have me beaten in the street.”
“Is that something I should be concerned about?” Mac asked, half grinning.
“Nah. He’s no monster. Just moody, sometimes. But aren’t we all? Best of luck, Mac. I’ll set up camp over there, just past that ravine. Take as much time as you need. I’ll be waiting here to guide you back.”
Mac followed Pinocchio’s directions over the hill. His mule grew curious at a small patch of vibrant vegetation, further slowing its already laid-back pace.
“Come on. Keep it mov—ahhh.” Mac placed his hand over the side of his neck in response to the sting of a powerful bug bite. When he touched it, however, he realized the culprit was actually a dart tipped with some sort of sedative.
When Mac woke up, he was blindfolded and concealed from the neck up in a burlap sack. “Hello? Hello?”
A stern, deep voice answered from the shadows. “What is your business here, young man?”
Mac was shaking his head, enraged by thoughts of Pinocchio. “I’m gonna kill him,” he said under his breath.
“What is your business here?”
“I sure hope I’m in the right place. My name is Mac Seehus. My father wa—is Otis Seehus. I’m here to see the emperor and empress.”
The man responded with silence until his heavy footsteps clanked in Mac’s direction. The mysterious watchman pulled his sword and cut Mac loose from the burlap sack. “You’re Otis’s son, huh?”
“Yes, sir. And I’ve come a long way to see the emperor and empress, so if they’d allow me to pay them a visit, I’d be indebted.”
The watchman peeled off Mac’s blindfold and looked him over. “I’m sorry I didn’t see it before. I served with your dad in the war. He saved my life.”
The lean man had a powerful presence that matched the gruffness of his demanding voice. “Follow me.” Shaking off the emotional déjà vu, he guided Mac through an opening in the floor of the corner of the room and down a spiraling staircase.
In the dining hall of their heavily guarded log cabin, the Empress Helen sat alone at a lengthy table, staring at her water glass and tapping on her wineglass. The emperor burst through the door, just barely late. “You look so beautiful tonight,” he said, resting his fingers against the silky olive skin on the nape of her neck. “Has anyone told you that lately?”
She aggressively pinched his chin and pulled him in for a kiss. “They have. But not near as often as they used to.”
“Oh, stop,” he said, playfully. “I know for certain there’s zero truth to that.” Aladdin leaned in for another kiss, only to be interrupted by three drawn-out knocks from the room’s only door.
He rested his forehead on her shoulder and nodded in frustration. “Never fails,” he said. “Every time we’re about to eat dinner. Every time.” The emperor turned to the door. “What do you want?”
The watchman who had last spoken with Mac entered the room, armored helmet in hand. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Your Majesties. But there’s someone here to see you, and I don’t think you’ll want to keep him waiting.”
Helen turned to the door, curious.
“Well don’t keep us in suspense,” the emperor exclaimed. “Who is it?”
The watchman guided Mac through the door.
“Well, I’ll be,” Helen said. “Looks just like him, doesn’t he, hon?”
The emperor stood up and grinned, completely taken aback. “It’s uncanny. Pleasure to meet you, Mac. You can call me Aladdin. This is my wife, Helen. Please. Have a seat.”
With full bellies and empty plates all around, Aladdin signaled the dinner servants to usher in more wine and the first dessert course. The elaborate feast had featured juicy, tender duck and sugary roasted carrots. Mac’s curiosity began to pique, as all he’d had to eat that week were thin chunks of dried elk and drier bits of bread.
“I can’t thank you both enough for your hospitality, Your Majesty.” Mac turned to the empress. “Your Majesty.”
Helen replied with a seated curtsy and smile before exuding pensiveness, circling her clanging spoon along the inside edges of a teacup.
“The son of Otis Seehus doesn’t need to stand on formalities in this place. Please, call me by my first name,” Aladdin said.
“And feel free to call me Helen. It’s our pleasure to be hosting you, Mac. And I hope it’s not difficult for you to break bread with me.”
“Of course not,” Mac said. “Why would you think that?”
“Your father. He helped organize the plans and orchestrate the attack that ultimately saved my life and the lives of everyone else the Trojan king had locked up in the castle. I don’t even wish to entertain the thoughts of where I’d be right now if it weren’t for Otis…but I think of you.” Regret began to percolate within her rich auburn eyes. “I think of your mother quite often, and it pains me to know that his saving my life undoubtedly had a role in taking him out of yours.”
Mac sat silent, unsure of how to respond.
“In any case,” Aladdin said, looking to his wife with an adoring smile, “we’re both very grateful. His sharp thinking and conception of the Trojan Horse—it saved a lot more lives than just hers.
“The Trojan king was a ghastly, arrogant man. But he was also a powerful man with a loyal army. Your father used the king’s arrogance against him—and rendered that loyal army useless.”
“I’ve heard a lot of stories over the years,” Mac said. “But these past several days, traveling through your beautiful country, it’s the first I’ve ever really understood what they mean to some people.”
“It must make you proud,” Helen said.
“It does. It really does.”
“A great man.” Aladdin raised his glass for a toast. “To Otis.”
Mac and Helen raised their glasses and replied in unison. “To Otis.” Several moments passed as all three savored the toast. Mac was the first to break the silence. “I don’t suppose either of you know what happened to my father after the war?”
Aladdin sat up. “I’m afraid not. But he talked about you and your mom. A lot. Said he couldn’t wait to get home to see you both…I don’t want to scare you, Mac. And I don’t want to give you false hopes. I’m hesitant to even bring this up, because I’ve never been one to put faith in thirdhand gossip. But there are rumors regarding his current whereabouts. And in certain circles, there is one rumor that seems to be more prevalent than the rest.”
“Please,” Mac said. “Go on.”
Aladdin spoke in a hushed and delayed tone with subtle hints of fright. “You didn’t hear this from me. But there’s a black castle on the east coast of Calypso Island.”
At that exact moment, thousands of miles from Mac and the emperor and empress’s cabin, in a place where the sun hadn’t yet set, Otis ran his rough hands through a cake of black dirt. The private garden was a sanctuary to him, as was the acre’s worth of sweet corn varying in age. He had raised all of them from seedling to table. Damp bits of soil fell through the creases between his fingers before he patted them gently back into the earth. Otis hadn’t aged a day and spent most of his time in this garden, collecting sun with the rotation of crops while looking out to the open sea.
Otis’s youthful appearance, his garden, the corn, and all the emotional gratification that came with cultivation, however, were nothing more than a grand illusion. Otis was never confused about who he was or where. In fact, he had such a firm grasp on reality that his imagination was all he had left to keep him sane.
The reality of it was that Otis spent his days, nights, and everything in between confined to a narrow, empty sliver of concrete on the face of the Calypso Queen’s castle. Where once stood the balcony of his luxurious private suite, the most recent layer of bricks had pushed him uncomfortably close to the edge. He might have accidentally rolled off the edge and into the rock-infested waters below, but harsh chills and whipping winds served as a constant reminder of the bloodthirsty fall awaiting such a mistake.
He was unshaven and unkempt and had aged considerably. His sharp, light-brown eyes gazed into the distance, failing to hide years of pain and heartache. Even a shaggy, goatlike salt-and-pepper beard covering half of his face wasn’t able to hide the hurt.
The queen of Calypso Island was still every bit as lovely as the day Otis had met her. Even though she was over fifty years of age, time had preserved her youth with soft skin and thick layers of rich brunette hair. However, despite the ample wit and charm that matched her beauty, insecurities relating to her looks kept her from achieving true happiness. Otis’s stubborn refusal to confess his love for her was also a strike to her ego.
Long, doe-like eyelashes bounced in the direction of her so-called magic mirror. She twiddled her thumbs and ran the glossy black fingernails of one hand over the other’s fingertips, nervously initiating eye contact with herself.
“Mirror of magic, on the wall in front of me. When will Otis Seehus confess his love to me?” The queen closed her eyes and anxiously awaited a response from the reflective surface.
“His heart belongs to another,” the mirror said. “As it always has. As it always will. But you already know this. We have this conversation every year around this time. Why must you insist on keeping him here? You say you love him. But this tortures him. And it tortures you.”
“When you saw the sun come up today, did you ask yourself, ‘What can I say that will get me smashed into little pieces?’”
“I cannot see the sun,” the mirror replied coldly. “And you only make such veiled threats because you know I am right.”
She turned her back to the mirror and paced about the room. After several quiet minutes, the mirror began to speak again. “Let him go,” it said.
She turned to face it. “Stop.”
“Let him go.”
“I said stop it.”
“Let him go.”
With an ear-piercing scream, she reached for an apple-shaped stone paperweight on her nightstand and threw it at the mirror. It shattered as her shrieking ran out of steam. She quietly approached the thousands of tiny reflective shards, hesitant to look down. As she made eye contact with a scrambled version of herself, the mirror whispered once more. “Let him go.”
“Please be quiet,” she begged, tearing up. She placed her palms on her temples and pressed them inward, trying to squeeze the frustration out. After an exasperating sigh, she burrowed her face in her pillow, along with the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Please stop,” she said, before crying herself to sleep.
Her beg had never sounded so desperate. Her mirror had never been so blunt. But what she hadn’t realized, and what no one else knew, was that Jinni had snuck into her bedroom through her balcony as she ate breakfast. When she came back, he was hidden beneath her bed, where he used his mind’s eye to enter hers. In doing so, Jinni was able to hear the mirror’s voice and imitate it with identical tone and diction. It was an aggressive tactic, even for him. But Jinni had visited Otis’s balcony just moments before. It was there where he found a beaten and broken man who was too afraid to leave on his own accord. Aware of the consequences that lie in wait should the queen notice a difference between her mirror’s voice and his version of it, Jinni felt the highest probability of success within this particular strategy.