The King woke up one morning to find his heart had gone missing.
It had sprung from his chest at night, noiselessly in the din of his snores, snuck down his bed and across the thickly carpeted floor like a thief, jumped out the window throwing caution to the wind, and scuttered into the woods as if running for dear life.
That was the version of events that the king shared with the royal court that morning (leaving out the bit on snoring). Truth be told, he simply did not know when and how and to where his heart had fled. But he could not bring himself to admit his baffled ignorance to his subjects, and so it was a concocted little tale that he shared instead.
Mortified that his heart had skedaddled, he called upon his commander-in-chief to lead a fourth of the royal troops into the forest at once.
"Bring me back the traitor," he bellowed. "He can't have gone very far, the little imbecile."
Days went by without any word from his men. After what seemed like aeons only a handful of soldiers returned empty-handed and addle-brained, muttering incoherently of terrible loss and unspeakable danger in the woods. "Off with their heads," hollered the heartless king and sent them marching to the guillotine.
He then commanded a third of his remaining troops to comb through the kingdom.
"Leave no house unsearched, no corner unexamined," he thundered.
The soldiers rummaged through homes and shops, markets and fields, gardens and streets. Walls were broken down, roofs were torn apart, the earth was dug into, birds' nests were ripped apart, wine barrels were struck open, crops were pulled out by the roots.
When the heart made no appearance, what began as a hunt soon devolved into plunder and pillage. For fear of losing their heads, the king's men sacked the city and made off with their loot to the neighbouring kingdom. Infuriated, the monarch sent half of his remaining troops in pursuit of the defectors.
The rest of the king's soldiers remained in position, awaiting his orders, when one of them, a young pursuivant, piped up, "Has it crossed anyone's mind at all that the king's castle ought to be searched too?"
His comrades quickly shushed him.
"Have you taken leave of your senses, young man?"
"But think about it. This is the only place left untouched in the entire kingdom."
"You may be right, my man. But what if you are caught? Do you want your head to roll off that guillotine like a pebble down the hill?"
"If the heart is not found, we will all meet that fate sooner or later," the pursuivant sighed. "What kind of a heart is it that does not want to live with its master?" he mused.
"Perhaps it was a good heart."
"Too good for His Majesty."
Before long, the soldiers had made up their minds to sneak into the palace and look for the heart every night. They searched room after room painstakingly, taking care to put everything back in its place lest any suspicions should be aroused. But their quest was in vain. A search of the queen's chamber too failed to yield the heart. "Pity, he had never really given her his heart," someone observed.
On the last night of the search, when His Majesty had joined his wife in her room, the pursuivant made his way to the king's chamber. Moonlight bathed the room in eerie silver. His heart thumped with misgiving and he could swear he was being watched by unseen eyes crouching in the shadows. He took a deep breath, and ploughed on, first checking under the bed, then in the drapes of the curtains, and in the motes of dust that floated in the moonlight.
Once more his search proved futile and he slumped out of the chamber, head hanging low, now mulling the possibility of handing over his heart to the king if only to save his compatriots from the guillotine. Lost in thoughts, he ran into a wall. He backed a little and turned left to look for a way out and found himself facing the king.
"Your Majesty," shrieked the pursuivant, and jumped back in fright. So did the king.
The officer quickly bowed and let loose a profusion of apologies. The king responded with silence. The officer finally mustered enough courage to look up, and saw the king staring back, bent in a half bow.
Our little spy slowly straightened himself and stood hesitantly. His hand crept to his chest and patted his thumping heart, wondering what to do next.
The king stood up too, hand on chest, lost in thoughts.
Was this some kind of joke, the officer wondered, but the king remained where he was.
That is when the pursuivant noticed the king was dressed in a tabard in faded red emblazoned on the front with the royal coat of arms, not unlike his own outfit.
A thought took seed in his mind. He stepped forward. When he was close enough, he held out his hand, palm facing the king's. Their fingertips touched each other's through the wall of glass. The officer then smashed his fist through the glass and retrieved the king's heart from the mirror.
"Why here?" he asked.
"A vain man's heart finds refuge in his mirror, the only place he cannot bring himself to destroy," came the reply.
The following morning, the king was a changed man. Humble and noble, he set about restoring his kingdom, looking to his heart for counsel every now and then.
As for the pursuivant, he was never to be seen again. Some claimed that he had to give himself up to the mirror. Some others swore they saw him at the break of dawn slinking out of the kingdom carrying two sackfuls of gold and a broken mirror.