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Unstitching By Firelight

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Her mind lost faith, but her fingers never knew.

Penelope thought, sometimes, about what it would have been like if she'd had a daughter. A tiny pair of hands, clumsy on the loom, slowly growing more elegant. Blooming, and slowly drawing suitors' eyes away from her mother. But someone at her side.

Telemachus was restless. His small hands grew to hold a sword, a rod. To hold a bow, as his father had done, though the king's old bow remained unstrung, polished and well-kept in its place of honor in the hall. The bow was a steady, unchanging presence. That was a luxury not afforded to a young man who had spent his first flush of youth beating off those who'd poach his mother and his crown. There was a bitter twist to Telemachus’ expression that she noticed, these days, and wished she could erase.

With what could she sponge it away, though, when that same bitterness gnarled her knuckles and cloyed at the edges of her eyesight, dim from fine work in firelight?

The dog came and curled at her feet, sometimes, arthritic and tired as he always was. How many lifetimes had it been for him, she wondered, since his master was gone? How many it had seemed to her; she could only imagine.

She’d risen after too little sleep to set to work again, fine stitches on broad cloth. Amphinomus strode in, self-assured and early as he usually was. "Good morning, your majesty," he rumbled, as he passed her chamber. Penelope gave him a wan smile.

She suspected he had long since given up any idea of being chosen. He was here to eat her food and to lounge in her hall while he waited to see who she would pick. If she was picking, though, she’d pick him long before Antinous, everyone’s thought for frontrunner. She'd heard rumors that substantial bets had sprung up throughout Ithaca, that they'd grown and changed with time.

How sick she was of the whole business.

***

She started the shroud the first time that she caught one of the men looking at Telemachus thoughtfully. During the war, they'd all been boys, her son and her potential husbands; she was a good 10 years the elder of the oldest of them. But they were not boys now, none of them, and the first time one of them looked at her son as a threat, she knew she had to do something. The time of waiting had passed.

Penelope had wanted to throw them out of their palace, her palace, her son's palace, her husband’s palace, but no. No, they could have banded together. Or perhaps the cunning ones could have poured poison in their fathers' ears, their fathers who came home from the war. Talk of how the country needed a king, how the prince was still too young to shoulder the load. There were worse things to fear than boorish men eating her food.

She was the queen of Ithaca, still.

Saying nothing bought her time. Maybe, possibly… Let them have hope but never a promise, favor them all at times but never one more than the others. It couldn't last, she well knew. But it could last until Odysseus came home.

He was coming home.

***

The fire in the hall flickered as Eurycleia washed the vagabond's feet. The man had news of her husband, but she choked back a bitter laugh when he said the king would be home in a month. King Agamemnon had said as much nine years ago. She was suspended, always: too much hope to think he was dead, too little to believe he was coming back to her. Caught between earth and sky.

Her own thoughts preoccupied her, and she had watched the flickering light on the walls for a full few minutes before she noticed no one had spoken. She looked back and caught something in his stance – the way he held his shoulders. It flickered, like an image, superimposed. A painting over clear glass.

Penelope's days had been achingly, numbingly the same for so very, very long now. Even her dreams had become the same.

***

Odysseus and Penelope walked in their garden, their steps slow and measured. She was just beginning to show the swell of the growing life beneath her gown, and he glanced down now and then, with a knowing, private smile.

"You know, he'd best be terribly clever, if he wants to keep up."

"I've no doubt he will be," she said, running her hand lightly over the strange new shape her body was taking. "You've enough wit to spare, I'm sure he got at least some." The man was, of course, in love with his own cleverness. But that was fine; she was in love with it too. "Will you put him to tests, my lord, to make sure he meets your standards?"

Her husband looked thoughtful. "Perhaps. Perhaps I'll make up games, to prove his wit. Between you and me, he'd best have a fair amount."

She glowed under the casual compliment, embarrassed that he could so easily win her smile. She wondered if she looked beautiful, that evening; she felt as if she could give even Queen Helen some competition, in the shady garden lit with her husband's esteem.

"But," he added, a moment later, "no doubt you'd help him cheat, if he were a bit slow."

She burst into a frank laugh, and he grinned, her light reflected in his fine features.

***

Telemachus wanted so badly to be his father, without ever knowing him. He had his silver tongue, if not quite his strength or his wits (yet, she added to herself). As he stood to speak to the council, she watched through a crack in the wall, hidden. She watched his movements, and thought how much he looked like a prince, but how little he yet looked like a king. He was too old for talk of regency, and she realized it wouldn't be enough, now. The promise of her hand, lingering, wouldn't keep him safe from the hungry young men who wanted his crown.

She needed something else.

***

The stranger gave her a glance, as Eurycleia dried his feet. She said, very deliberately as she looked at him, "I think I'll set my suitors a challenge." She laid the words down like game pieces.

"Oh?" The old man shifted, stretching where Antinous had given him the wicked blow with a stool. (With servants like theirs, the palace held few secrets - the end of the pall attested to that. She knew everything as if she’d been there.) "What sort of challenge? Like a game?"

"They all think they're strong, in their youth." Her words were light, but her gaze was steady. "They think their strength will win them my hand, my husband's throne. If any of them can string my husband's bow and shoot an arrow through 12 axes... well. Perhaps he might be a worthy substitute at that."

The visitor almost faltered, as if trying to read her. And then he smiled, a harsh, weathered pleasure breaking through strange features like the sun. "Perhaps."

***

"You could talk them out of it."

She could see him resisting the urge to lash out at her. "You don’t think I’ve tried that?"

"Well, how would I know?" she asked, coldly, shifting her son against her hip as he began to fuss. "You haven’t said a word to me in more than passing for weeks. First this charade with insanity and now this brooding silence."

His jaw tensed. Though he was older than she was, he was not so old as all that, and Odysseus still had a young man’s temper.  "Penelope, my beloved, I have been trying to think."

She wanted to scream, but didn’t, and said very calmly, "Then let me help you."

"You shouldn’t have to," he said, almost petulant, and suddenly, she could see just how frightened he was. The mighty king of Ithaca, finally caught in something too large to get himself free of. Duty beyond even his bright wit. "The madness would have worked, if it weren’t–"

She reached out and seized his arm. She was the only person in all of Ithaca who could touch him without invitation, but now none of that mattered. He was just her husband, and the truth that he was leaving was more and more inescapable. She said the only thing she could say:

"Then promise me you’ll come home."

***

She heard the hall was a bloody mess. She didn't go down. She couldn't bear the thought she might lose them, either of them. It was as if she were a child again, closing her eyes against fear to make it vanish.

But there they stood, in the middle of it all, her familiar son and her once-familiar husband. She would have guessed so very wrongly. He was the same in ways she thought he’d be changed, and different in ways she’d never have guessed.

It was so hard to believe. Easier when he had been changed, had been a stranger in truth. But now, he was so much the same that it didn’t seem possible. His too-perfect disguise had seemed truer than this, a god’s trick on a heartsick woman.

Her voice cracked as she ordered their bed moved and he lost his temper, and that's when she knew he'd known about her knowing. All his games, and she was the only one who could win them; all her tricks, and he saw through them like glass.

Even the gods couldn’t counterfeit that.

***

She'd been scared, a young girl coming to this palace. She liked stories of when they were just that... stories. But things she'd heard about the king. That he was cunning, a schemer. That though young, he had the council and his elders on their toes. That he loved no one but himself.

Her father had been thrilled at such a match. He was brave, a hero, spoken of in the same breath as the great Achilles. His daughter could go to no better. And so she went.

The first time Odysseus saw her, he smiled, private and inward. It was as if he had his own secret joke. But when their eyes met, something changed. He was letting her in on it, if she would meet him. If she were up to the challenge. If she could be his match.

It was a game.

Penelope took his hand, and never once looked back.