Within the bustling town square of a cozy village, street merchants spilled out from cramped storefronts to pedal services, food, tonics, and other random knickknacks to any passersby. The vendors specifically targeted those who made eye contact.
Clumsily slicing through the crowd was a squeaky cart whose wheels kept taking turns getting stuck in the muddy street. The wagon carried a coffin-shaped crate, and a particularly unclean and weasel-looking merchant pushed it toward an ominous block-shaped building. The vine-covered domicile was shrouded by more shadows than it rightfully should have had, but thick yellow letters were bright as day on the charcoal plaque hanging above the front entrance: Ogygia Village Hotel. Despite the friendly and welcoming moniker, this was no hotel.
Inside, a savvy woman with sassy wit and an excess of attitude sat behind a tall desk, filing her fingernails and waiting for the next annoying guest to arrive. The squeaky sounds of an old cart being wheeled through the hallway broke the sweet silence, and she knew it meant only one thing.
“You again?” she asked. “How many times do I have to tell you? We don’t allow bums in here.”
“As many times as I gotta tell you that I ain’t no damn bum,” he said. “I work for a livin’. Look at them hands.”
She craned her long neck and cracked a condescending smile. “Soft.”
“Yeah. OK,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“You look like a bum. You smell like a bum. You have no money—like a bum. But every time you come in here trying to peddle your rabble, you insist you’re not a bum. And then I tell you to hit the road. And you walk away from here pouting like a widdle baby. I don’t see today being any different. The queen doesn’t want your scrap.”
“She’ll want what I got today,” he said.
“Yeah? And what do you got today?”
The merchant slid the lid off the crate to reveal Otis, still tied and gagged.
“Hmmm,” she said, intrigued, looking Otis up and down. “He looks a little scrawny. And he’s filthy. Look at that beard. Where did you get him?”
“Does that mean you’re not interested?”
“Wait a minute. I never said that. How much does he weigh?
“Come on,” she said.
“There’s no way you can seriously expect me to believe he weighs ten stone.”
“I don’t give a damn what you believe,” he said. “Ten stone is what the man weighs. You want him or not? Make up your mind. I got stuff to do.”
“Calm down. I’ll take him. The last thing I want to do is cut into your day. I know you’ve got a lot of coins to beg for, and they’re not going to collect themselves. You want gold or a line of credit in town? It’s good for anywhere but the whorehouse.”
“Where else am I gonna wanna spend it?”
“Anywhere else you please. Might I suggest the bathhouse?”
“How long has this whorehouse credit policy been in effect?”
“It’s not policy,” she said with a smirk. “It’s just that I have a good relationship with them over there, and I’m not going to send you in there with a line of credit.”
“Why the hell not?”
“For starters, you’re disgusting. Your hair looks like someone sewed three or four squirrel pelts together. You seem to be in some sort of contest with that man in the crate to see which one of you can go the longest without having a bath. Your teeth—your teeth kind of look like corn, but corn isn’t typically that yellow. Or crooked. And you smell like shit.”
“Well,” he said, with a defeated and agreeable nod. “Gold, I guess.”
“Very good,” she said, plopping a preweighed sack of gold and a skeleton key on the counter. “Don’t spend it all in one place. Put him in room 13. Last one on the left. Do not—I repeat, do not—cut him loose.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know how it works.”
The merchant pushed the cart down a narrow hallway and into the dim confines of room 13. After a brief struggle with the lid, the merchant harshly tipped the crate and emptied Otis onto the floor.
“Enjoy your stay,” the merchant said, sliding the heavy door shut.
Otis looked around the room, trying to make use of what little candlelight he had coming from adjacent walls. Sliding around the floor like a frightened caterpillar, he inched his way around the room in search of a possible way out or weakness in the calloused stone walls surrounding him. As he reached the darkest corner of the room, a mysterious breeze enlarged the flicker of the nearest candle. In doing so, it revealed a still, thick yellow coil. After another breeze and subsequent flicker, the coil started to unravel, and glowing snake eyes eased open.
“Oh, shit,” Otis said.
The giant python’s eyes absorbed and amplified the candlelight as it wagged its hungry tongue and ripped forward, stopping just short of Otis’s wincing face. It pulled this maneuver two more times but appeared to be growing impatient to the point of being disinterested. Eventually, it slithered back into the room’s darkest corner, recoiled, and rested its once-glowing eyes.
Sometime later that day, in a room directly next to room 13, the elegant and beautiful Calypso Queen watched Otis through a one-way mirror. His rugged and masculine looks were something she quickly took note of. She saw through his dingy beard and grimy appearance; this handsome stranger was a rather captivating sight.
The innkeeper entered the room, joining the queen, who was preoccupied with the calmness of this enticing man.
“Did I miss anything?” the innkeeper asked.
“No,” the queen replied. “It’s fascinating, really. It’s been so long since Kaa’s done this, I almost thought he’d grown out of it. It’s like this guy isn’t even in the room.”
“You think that’s what it is? Or do you think Kaa’s sick?”
“No. I’ve seen what he looks like when he’s sick. This is something else. There’s something special about our guest here.”
“What do you want me to do?” the innkeeper asked.
“Wait an hour. If Kaa doesn’t eat him, replace him with someone else. If he eats the next guest, get our new friend here situated in the guest quarters. We’ll see if I can find out what’s so special about him.”
A little more than an hour later, Otis was moved to a different location, a much different location. When his blindfold was taken off and his hands were untied, he found himself in the luxurious suite of a strange castle. The vivid colors of blueberries, strawberries, honey, tea, and a variety of apples were made brighter by the black-stone walls, furniture, and hardwood floors that made up the large room. Upon second glance, Otis spotted pitchers of water and milk. Then he noticed the bed, complete with fluffy blankets and thick pillows.
“Wow,” Otis said. “Why did you bring me here?”
The armored guards who had escorted him up had been vetted and trained to never speak—even when spoken to by guests. But one of the two stepped forward and pointed at an envelope Otis had overlooked when he spotted the berries. As he picked it up, the guards left, closing the door behind them.
“To my honored guest,” Otis read, ripping the envelope open. “Please enjoy the assortment of beverages and berries and a hot bath. In the cupboard closest to the balcony, you’ll find a chew stick and a copper razor. My guards will escort you to dinner at seven this evening. Until then make yourself at home.”
To say that Otis’s new accommodations were lavish would be an understatement of epic proportions. He was so overwhelmed at first that it began to feel like a dream. At any moment, he was prepared to close his eyes and open them again, only to find himself back in his cage on the Jolly Roger. Or worse, tethered to the shipwreck.
Otis’s first priority was the water. He ignored several glasses that had been put out and chugged it straight from the pitcher, dousing himself and the shredded rags clinging to his chest. After dumping just over half of the pitcher down his throat, he moved on to the pitcher of fresh milk and repeated the process. Once he had guzzled the milk, he moved on to the berries, smashing them in his mouth and inadvertently all around his cheeks. Moments later, he was on the balcony throwing up.
Once his stomach settled, it was time to enter the hot bath that had been drawn moments before his arrival. Using the most beautiful soaps made from olive oil and a razor-sharp copper blade, Otis washed and trimmed the last three years from his body and face. “Thank you,” he said, to anyone—or any entity—who may have been listening. “Thank you so much.” A tear slid down his smiling cheek as he cupped two satisfying handfuls of warm water over his face. It was not a dream.
At ten minutes until seven o’clock, the same armored guards who’d escorted Otis up to his room came to take him to dinner. As they approached the dining hall, Otis wasn’t sure who or what to expect. Nonetheless, he was surprised to spot a candlelit feast for two, laid out on a massive black dining table. The guards pointed Otis to his seat at one end of the table and left the room. The spread was magnificent. An aromatic collage of chicken, duck, and shrimp was accentuated by butter-drenched breads and colorful custard pies.
As Otis began to hope that his host didn’t keep him waiting, the Calypso Queen emerged seductively from the darkest corner of the room. “Good evening,” she said, her suggestive doe eyes refusing to look away from Otis’s. “Thank you for joining me.”
“My pleasure. I suppose I have you to thank for the accommodations.”
“Please,” she said, waving him off. “No need. You’re him, aren’t you?”
“Otis. Seehus. You’re him. Aren’t you?”
Otis raised his eyebrows.
“I recognize you from paintings,” she said. “Especially now that you’ve trimmed your beard. You’re a hero.”
“I don’t know about all that, milady. But I am Otis Seehus.”
“Please accept my apologies for your initial treatment. The man who turned you in had you mixed up with a local thief. As did we. I just thank the gods the mistake was corrected in time. Where have you been these past few years? According to everyone out there, you’re dead.”
“It’s a long story,” Otis said.
“It’s not every day I get to break bread with a war hero.”
The queen stepped farther into the light and took a seat at the opposite end of the table. She was beautiful. Her dark hair and chestnut eyes exuded a mesmerizing sheen while the form-fitting cut of her elegant black dress highlighted the voluptuous curves of her hips and cleavage. Regular baths in buttermilk kept her skin soft as a lamb. With youthful freckles covering her cherub cheeks, she looked to be about twenty-five years of age, despite the fact that she was over forty.
“I trust that you have everything you need in your room.”
“Yes. More than enough, in fact,” Otis replied, gratefully tipping his wineglass in her direction. “You’ll have to forgive me, though. I have no idea where I am or how I should address you.”
“You’re on the east coast of Calypso Island. For now, you can just call me Your Majesty. I am the queen here.”
“Your Majesty, I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am. These past few years—they’ve been rough. Since the war ended, all I’ve wanted was to get back home. But I keep getting pushed further and further away.”
“Where is home?” she asked, gently placing a small piece of bread onto her tongue.
“My word. If you left from Troy, how on earth did you end up all the way out here?”
“As I said before, Your Majesty, it’s a long story.”
Although it pained him to do so, Otis went into great detail about his time on the Jolly Roger.
“My goodness.” She wiped a tear and a trail of eyeliner away from her cheek. “That is, without a doubt, the saddest story I’ve ever heard. I can’t even fathom how much it must hurt, having never really met your son. Having never watched him walk, or heard his voice.”
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I’ve been so focused on surviving these past several years. Now that I have, all I can think about is the likelihood that they believe I’m dead. I can’t help but wonder, has Penelope remarried? If so, will my son ever see me as his true father? If not, what will he see me as?”
“I can’t answer any of that,” the queen said. “But I can make certain he gets to meet his true father. There’s a passenger freight that comes to the island every six months. It takes a while to get there, but it does pass through Ithaca. It’s scheduled to be back in two weeks or so. I’ll make sure there’s a cabin onboard reserved for you.”
“Thank you so much. Truly. But I’d really like to see if I can figure out something sooner than that.”
“I’d hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there isn’t anything sooner than that.”
Otis looked down at his lap.
“Please don’t be upset,” she said. “I promise that when it does arrive, you’ll be the first to know. And the first onboard. If you prefer, of course.”
Hesitant, Otis nodded and put on the most genuine smile he could. “That would be wonderful. But I’m afraid I don’t have any way to pay you—or anywhere to stay during that time.”
“I will gladly cover the cost of your passage, and there are plenty of hotels around willing to exchange work for room and board. But as long as you’re on the island, I insist you remain in my guest quarters.”
“You’re too kind,” Otis said humbly. “Are you sure it’s no bother?”
“Of course not,” she said, growing somber. “It’s actually quite nice to have some company at dinner. You see, my husband passed away recently,” she said, staring at a bowl of nearby apples.
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry,” Otis said. “When?”
“A few months back.”
“How did it happen?”
“Still unsure. He seemed just fine one moment. Then the next moment, he wasn’t.”
“Yes,” she said, staring off into blank space before snapping out of it. “Do you have everything you need? Enough berries? Water? Are the bed and goose-feathered pillows comfortable enough?”
“Everything’s perfect,” Otis said with another grin. “A thousand times, thank you.”