When the fog had cleared enough to see where he landed on Ithaca, Otis was relieved, as the spot didn’t warrant much traffic. He gathered the most valuable of his provisions before stashing them in some tall grass and wrapped himself in a fresh brown robe—one of several gifted to him by King Calvin and Queen Elaine. Even though this was his home, Otis knew that a lot could happen in thirteen years, and should there be someone new wearing his crown, his life would be in immediate danger.
There was a decent chance he wouldn’t be recognized under the beard that covered the most recognizable parts of his face. But he needed more. It wasn’t enough to go unrecognized. He had to make sure he was ignored. So he reached down into the lush dirt keeping the olive trees fed and smeared just enough on his face to achieve the look he was going for.
They won’t look at a bum.
Every step closer to the castle made it grow in size, but for every one step Otis took toward it, the castle seemed to take two steps away. The pace of his heart increased rapidly while his breaths became more challenging to bring in. He was just about to break the barrier of town when he took a moment to collect his poise. There was no telling how much had changed, or if these next few moments were to mark the beginning of something—or the end.
As he took in his first full view of the castle and the small town in front of it, Otis noticed little change aside from cosmetic. Many of the street vendors were still in operation, or their children had taken over. The colors of their signs and platforms were seasoned and rickety.
Otis stepped through the crowd, feeling as though everyone’s eyes were recognizing him all at once. In truth, his disguise was working to perfection, as not a single person had purposely looked his way. Skittish and visibly paranoid, Otis approached the stairs as a man who was up to no good. There was no one standing guard on the front steps, but Otis expected to be greeted by at least three bulky men, demanding to know his intentions once he’d made it inside.
“Penelope,” he said, before knocking on the door. “If anyone asks, I’m here to see Penelope. She’s a cousin. No, she’s a—”
Otis stopped thinking aloud, as he’d realized he was making it too complicated. He needed to find a neutral way to approach this conversation, so he decided that if need be, he’d present himself as a messenger “here on behalf of distant family of Penelope.” And to give his lie validity, Otis knew of a place where Penelope actually had family. He figured that if someone else had taken over the castle, there was no reason to assume this grungy third-party messenger had any loyalty to her.
Otis knocked on the door, getting no answer. After a few curious moments, he looked around to make sure no one was staring and placed his ear on the door. The sound of shattering glass was surrounded by hearty laughter and chitchat.
“What the hell?” Otis asked, slowly cracking the door.
He stepped over the threshold and looked around in astonishment. Random men were scattered about, slamming full steins of ale, filling the air with smoke from their stories and tobacco, and treating the place as something in between an outhouse and saloon. No one noticed him standing there in disbelief. Otherwise, someone might have seen that he was about to break down right there.
He used his imagination as best he could to block them from sight and picture his castle as it was when he’d left it. It was quiet, clean, wholesome, and nothing short of heavenly. Otis was able to keep any tears from falling. Then he saw the dog. Grace was the sweetest and most docile black Lab anyone could ever have the pleasure of meeting. She loved Otis very much. Her first several months there, the two of them would wake up during the predawn hours, eat breakfast, and play for hours. He worked with her, taught her tricks, and even though it took her longer to control her jumping than anything else, eventually, she got it figured out.
That poor puppy adored him, and when he went off to fight in the war, she’d watch the front door of the castle every day, patiently waiting for him to return. For those first few months, it broke Penelope’s heart to hear her whining for him. After several months she stopped whining, but she never stopped watching that door. And when he came in for the first time in over a decade, her graying face lit up. If her haggard legs didn’t have so much trouble carrying the rest of her, she might have broken the rules and jumped up on him.
“Grace.” Otis crouched down and let a tear slip from his eye as he hugged the dog, emotionally accepting her jubilee of licks. “How are ya, girl?”
Her once-rambunctious tail used to sway high and proud, swinging wild in every direction. In recent years, however, it hung in a sad curve, finding little reason to wag. After those first whiffs of Otis’s hand and wrist, everything changed.
Despite the unusual scene between Otis and a dog that was usually on the wrong end of a smack or kick, still no one noticed him standing at the door. He held her floppy ears between his thumbs and forefingers and gently gave them a pinch before standing up and moving farther inside.
“Hey, anybody know where Eury is?” a husky male voice asked.
“He’s upstairs,” another answered. “With Penelope.”
A handful of men let out suggestive laughs as Otis looked up to his and Penelope’s bedroom door. At that moment, Eury was walking out of the room, smiling. Otis saw this and glared, assuming the smile was for something other than conversation. Eury, perhaps feeling the sting of Otis’s seething eyes, returned the stare for several moments before looking away and retiring to his own suite, as if having lost interest.
Otis had known things were going to be different in some way, but he didn’t expect that things would be so confusing. Who the hell is he, and who the hell are all these guys? He looked around the room, utterly disgusted by the lack of respect being shown to his home. Drinks were spilled, glasses were smashed, and several flocks of flies indulged in a buffet of rotting food on the floor. Otis wanted to shout out in anger. He wanted to kill each and every one of these men for invading his home, and he wanted to do it before sunset. But he knew that if he reacted with the same rage he carried in his gullet, he would be the one who wouldn’t live to see the night.
Just as his internal top was about to blow, he saw Penelope emerge from their bedroom door. She was just about to rest her arms on the banister when she looked down and saw him looking up. Even from a distance, his gaze bore deep into her eyes. He was experiencing a whirlwind of emotions.
Penelope slowly strolled to the top of the staircase. Looking and feeling as though he was being carried by a cloud, Otis approached the bottom of the staircase and started to ascend as she walked down.
“Queen Penelope,” he said. She previously wouldn’t have thought it possible, but now that they were face to face, he looked even deeper into her eyes.
“Hello, sir,” she said. “And what, may I ask, is your name?”
Otis was dejected, but he regained his composure just as quick as it had left him.
“Are you a friend of my husband’s—or my son’s?” she asked. “Do you have news of their returns?”
“Yes. I mean, no. I mean…I knew your husband,” Otis said, feeling the words pour in as if given to him by someone else. “I served with your husband. I was in the wooden horse with him—in the war.”
“The Trojan Horse,” Penelope said.
“Yeah,” Otis said. “The Trojan Horse. I, uh…just thought I’d stop by for a visit.”
“I’m sorry, good sir. But it looks like you’ve come a long way for nothing. Nobody’s heard from Otis, and he hasn’t been around here for years.”
Otis’s concern revealed his identity, just a bit. “I see,” he said. “And what’s this about your son? He’s not here either?”
“No. He snuck out and went overseas to find his father. Word is he’s on his way back, but I’m afraid he’s going to come back disappointed. Everyone around here believes Otis to be dead.”
“What do you believe?” Otis asked.
Penelope thought long and hard about that question and what it meant. She’d answered it for herself so many times that she really didn’t have the strength to answer it for someone else. But she did it anyway. “I’m not sure anymore. It’s been a long time since anyone’s asked me that. It’s getting more and more difficult to believe he’s alive. I’d like to think that if he were, he’d have found a way home by now.”
Otis closed his eyes in despair, but the coverage of his beard helped to soften the tone of his true feelings. “Well. If he is still alive, anything keeping him from you and Mac is keeping him against his will. I know there’s nothing he wanted more than to get back here to you. He loved you and Mac very much. You two were all he ever talked about. All the time. He mentioned that he missed your laugh and the way you always had the most adorable nicknames for him.”
Penelope couldn’t hold back the tears any longer, but when they came, they came softly and only visible to Otis.
“And he mentioned this twinkle you used to have in your eye when you looked at him,” Otis continued. “He said the thought of it could get him through anything. No matter what, it would all be worth it. Even if he only got to see that twinkle one more time…It was nice talking with you, ma’am. But I should probably get going.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” she said, wiping away the final tear. “You are welcome here anytime.”
Otis nodded and went back down the stairs before approaching the front door. Away from her, and away from the central cluster of sloth and drunkenness, Eury stood with a couple of pals and watched Otis leave.
“Who was that?” Eury asked.
“Who?” one of his pals asked.
“The guy that just left. Guy in the brown robe.”
“I don’t know. Looked like a bum to me.”
“He was talking to Penelope,” Eury said, hints of jealousy escaping his words. “He was talking to her for a while.”
“He just left,” the other pal said. “Want us to go take care of him?”
“Nah. That’s all right,” Eury said. “But there’s something about him that seems…familiar.”