The Shape of His Heart
by Jane Kindred
It was an extravagance. She insisted she didn’t need a gift. It was the same every year, and every year, he ignored her, presenting her with trinkets, dainties, and posies, which she accepted with grace, chastising him gently. And every year, his gifts were piled with the others from her many admirers and instantly forgotten. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the gesture; she did say repeatedly, after all, that she didn’t need the gifts he insisted on giving. But the queen had many admirers, all of whom ignored her wishes on the matter.
One could hardly blame them. Male or female, human or hiddenfolk, one look upon her countenance and they were consumed by an inescapable obsession. He’d fallen for her himself so long ago he no longer remembered the life he’d once had in the world above. All that mattered was the queen. And all that mattered to the queen was conquest.
He had brought her the spoils of war—foreign princes from exotic lands in the upper realm, incomparable beauties of every hue and height who knelt before her, defeated, for her amusement. He supposed he might once have been one of them. The thought only bothered him a little. Those who resisted her pull amused her most, as they would be the ones who simpered and fawned over her to the point of obsequiousness after their ultimate surrender.
He had given her the daughters of princes, as well. Teary-eyed little things who missed their mothers, and who were easily enchanted by the maternal kindness she showed when she chose to. But she had so many of these tender morsels she couldn’t remember their names.
He’d gifted her with rare blooms from the most distant mountaintops and valleys, stunning and exceptional, for her ladies-in-waiting. She wore down their pride with her own grace and elegance until they went mute, with eyes downcast, grateful for the chance at servitude. She decorated herself with them, arranging them about her throne in fantastic flowing gowns of every color to kneel at her feet and lay their heads against her thighs and drape her arms to offset her own matchless beauty. They changed with her mood, and she had many moods.
But this gift…this one, he was certain would surpass all others. It was a gift no one had given her before. He wrapped it carefully in leaves of gold, tied with glistening gossamer. He allowed the others to go first, patiently biding his time from the back of the hall, where he leaned casually against a crystal pillar watching the queen accept her gifts with the usual graceful boredom. This gift would not bore her. It was a gift she would never expect.
Her tresses of midnight blue trailed down over her ladies-in-waiting, stunning in gowns of scarlet against her own golden sheath, the train of which pooled around them like molten metal. She’d gone with lighter gold for her skin, offsetting it nicely. And her eyes this evening were the color of amber; he could see them from here, glowing like a cat’s. The queen nodded and thanked her admirers with the presentation of each gift, tolerating the emotional ones who wept and kissed her feet, overcome.
The gifts piled up.
At last, the room had emptied. Sycophants and servants glared at him on their way out, knowing he was a favorite, or at least that he thought himself so. She beckoned to him with jewel-bangled hand.
He pushed himself away from the post and came forward, bowing low—but not too low—when he reached the dais. She liked that he had a bit of spirit. He supposed he must not have struggled much against his enslavement, for he wasn’t in the least obsequious.
He straightened and held out the gift.
“Darling, you shouldn’t have,” she said, as always, as she accepted it. “You know I want for nothing.”
“But you do not have one of these.”
She raised a poppy-colored eyebrow. “Have you brought me a pixie? I can’t imagine what other living thing could fit in such a package.” Her graceful hands pulled away the gossamer and layers of gold, revealing the claret-colored box. The thick, leathery fabric of the box was stitched together with sinewy cord in the shape of a heart. He’d made it all himself by hand—the hinge, the clasp, the intricate designs he’d carved into it.
The queen raised her eyes and smiled encouragingly, inquisitive. He’d captured her interest. She ran her fingers over the surface, admiring it, rubbing her thumb along the seams. He held his breath. She opened it.
Nestled inside, the bloody muscle beat steadily.
The queen frowned, lifting it out. “You think I don’t have one of these?”
“My queen, that is not the gift. I merely thought you would appreciate the symbolism of what could the gift could be used to hold. The gift is the box itself.”
She set the heart back in its nest and closed the box once more, examining it. “It is lovely.” She seemed puzzled.
“I made it for you myself, my queen.”
“Made it? Out of what?”
He unbuttoned his coat and unlaced his shirt, holding it open to let her see the jagged pink line of puckered scar tissue.
Her eyes went wide, the amber sparkling like fire. “It’s your heart in the box?”
“No, my queen. My heart is the box. I tenderized it and hollowed it out, and sewed it together with cord made from my veins. The hinge and clasp are the arteries.” He smiled at her incredulous gasp and took her hand from the box to bring her fingers to his mouth. He kissed them reverently. “Your heart will be safe inside it.”
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