Eons ago, a time before the World Wars or the industrial revolution, before anyone knew of slave trade or Vikings, even before the birth of the great Roman Empire or Ancient Greece, there lived a woman who was the most beautiful being on Earth.
Her mesmerizing eyes flashed blue as the azure surface of the sea, and long locks flowed down her back as black as night. With rosy lips as red as bull’s blood, and light skin as clear as crystal, this lady was the apple of every man’s eye.
Being the queen at the time, her inimitable beauty was known to all - near and far, opulent and indigent - and each day, men came to her courts, presenting her with various gifts - old and new, rare and common - in the hopes of winning her heart. But try as they might, Queen Cleo was impossible to please, and each suitor left her presence with his ego in disrepute.
The infamous habit Cleo had of turning down even the best of men spread like wildfire from one mouth of a disgraced suitor to another. Not one person knew the gift to bring that would please this Queen who had everything.
Some blamed her callous behaviour on cruelty, claiming she was only satisfied in seeing men leave her presence in shame. Others said she was simply bidding her time and waiting for the right man to court her. However, the widely accepted theory then was that Queen Cleo simply lacked a heart, and could neither love a person nor feel loved.
This assumption was believed so strongly by the majority of the world, that the number of men visiting Cleo’s palace each day began to dwindle. Yet, there were some men who failed to accept such speculations, and still searched far and wide for the perfect gift to bestow upon this insatiable woman. It is on three of such men this story begins, and on one of them this story will end.
Three men stood quietly by the great, bronze gates of the noble palace. From merely looking at them and their attire, one can easily read a thing or two about each man’s personality.
The first man, standing tall and proud, was finely dressed in purple linen, which screamed money. His brown beard was freshly trimmed, and his hair was neatly combed and parted to the side. His grey eyes held hostility in the way it examined the two men beside him, and his pompous self frowned at their cheaper clothing.
The middle man was dark and stout. He wore a bright orange robe with a matching orange turban on his bald head. His brown eyes were wide as they moved slowly from the ancient carvings engraved on the stone walls, to the coloured petals of the rare flowers surrounding them. In his awe, he muttered a few things about the palace's beauty, which showed he was fond of art.
The last man was slender, with long; black hair, and baby-blue eyes. His ragged clothing indicated poverty, but his oddly calm and resolute expression said he believed he and the two other men were on equal footing on the battle for the Queen’s heart.
Each man had a gift with him.
After seven minutes of patient waiting, which gave each man enough time to size up his opponents, a fine lady opened the palace gates. She was dressed in a silk, white gown that had a golden star pinned above her left breast to indicate she was a servant. Without the pin, anyone could have mistaken her for the Queen herself, because she was beautiful. Her waist-length, golden curls shone in the afternoon light, and her forest green eyes twinkled like stars. Her presence brought with her the scent of lavender and roses, and in her hands, she held three daffodil leis.
“Her Majesty is ready to meet with her guests.” the servant lady said as she adorned each man’s neck with the beautifully woven leis, and turned to lead them inside the palace.
Stunned into silence by the brusque manner in which she welcomed them, the men followed this damsel inside, the gates shutting behind them.
As they walked further into the depths of the palace, winding through many twists and turns, each man tried not to be intimidated by the eerie silence inside the palace walls. They might have found comfort in hearing the sounds of their footsteps, but those were masked by the plush, velvet carpets which covered every inch of the palace’s floors.
The wealthy man occupied himself with efforts of small talk with the servant lady, but her brief replies and disinterest in the conversation eventually dulled him to silence. The dark man busied himself with observing the paintings in the palace, while the slender man was indifferent, and kept walking with his hands in his pockets.
None of them spoke a word to each other.
After a while of walking, the servant lady came to a halt in front of an ivory double-door.
“We are at her Majesty’s reception chambers.” she began, looking each man in the eye. “One by one, you will present the Queen with your gift. If she is pleased with it, she will give you her hand in marriage. If not, you must immediately depart from her presence and never come back to the palace.”
The men nodded. They knew the whole procedure, and wanted as quickly as possible to claim the most beautiful woman in the world as theirs. Seeing they understood, the servant lady continued her monotonous speech.
“Now, one of you must come with me to stand before the Queen. Who will be the first?”
“I will.” the wealthy man said immediately. His proud look showed he was more than certain the queen would be his wife. “The key to a woman’s heart is jewellery, and I have exactly that with me.”
“Very well.” the servant girl replied. “Let’s see if your gift is enough to win her Majesty over.”
With that, the two walked into the Queen’s chambers, and the doors shut behind them.
Cleo looked blandly at her first suitor that day. Sitting proudly on her majestic throne, her cold gaze eyed him wearily. The man was neat and finely dressed, but the overconfidence radiating out of him irked her.
She saw, as she always did when men met her, the way he reverenced her beauty, but that did nothing to warm her. She also saw, with pleasure, his sick look when he glanced at the grotesque, dark-red human organ in a gold cage beside her, and the paling of his face when his eyes landed on the huge, white-and-black albino tiger lying comfortably at her feet. No man would think that a woman as beautiful as her owned such ghastly possessions, and seeing the coward in him almost made her smile.
“Roger won’t bite you.” she stated calmly to the man. Not quite believing her, as most men did, his feet were still planted by the door. Heaving a huge sigh, she scratched behind her tiger’s ears long enough for anyone to hear the low purr he made. “See? He’s just like any other cat. Now, tell me why you’re here.”
Regaining his composure, the wealthy man flashed a smile he thought was attractive, and introduced himself. “I am Lord Philip Lukeman, and I am here with a gift I believe will earn me your hand in marriage.”
Then, unwrapping an object he’d been holding in his hand, he brought out a crown made out of gold so pure, it resembled transparent glass. Encrusted on the crown were twelve different gems, and they splashed the room with colour as light bounced off them. Decorating this crown, also, were small pearls and tiny, gleaming crystals, making this treasury a sight to behold.
“I have with me a crown crafted by the finest of goldsmiths, and decorated with twelve precious stones. The gems are jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, ruby, garnet, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, and amethyst. Very rare are these gems that there is no way your heart can reject this gift. On it also are the finest pearls and crystals to complement your perfect beauty, my Queen.”
Cleo was impressed. This crown was unlike anything she had seen, and she could not wait to see it on her fair head.
“It’s truly a work of beauty, Lord Philip.” she remarked.
“Only the most beautiful object for the most beautiful woman, my Queen.” he replied. “If you please, you can try out the crown to see just how wonderfully it adorns your lovely head.”
Cleo nodded, and the servant lady with golden curls took the splendid crown from Philip’s hand and presented it to the Queen. Two other female servants stood in front of Cleo, holding a tall; glass mirror for her to view her reflection. Eyes sparkling, she lifted the crown to her head, and after a while, a frown creased her forehead.
“Lord Philip, which measurements did your goldsmiths use for this crown?”
“Only the average size of a woman’s head did they use in sizing the crown. It was even placed on ten women’s heads before yours, to ensure it could fit you.”
“That’s surprising, Philip, because this crown appears to be too small on my head - it won’t fit at all. Maybe the females used to size this crown were girls, and not women.” her last sentence rose at the end, so it sounded more like a question than a statement.
Philip was caught off-guard. He was sure the crown could fit an average woman’s head. Why couldn’t it fit the Queen’s?
“No, your Majesty. That crown could fit any woman’s head - even your servants. Maybe your head is a tad big.”
A collective gasp from everyone in the room made Lord Philip realise too late that maybe what he said was the wrong reply. With flared nostrils, Cleo gave him a look that could scare the most savage beast.
“Get out!” she screamed at him. “How dare you spew insults from your mouth about the most beautiful head in the world. GET OUT!”
Running like a gazelle, Philip exited the room and left the palace. Maybe it was her tone of voice, or because Roger got up to a crouch in preparation to spring at him, that scared Philip. What he knew, however, was that he never wanted to visit there again.
The two men standing outside the door heard the Queen’s bloodcurdling screams, and each were frightened to the roots when they saw the confident Philip running out of the doors, not once looking back.
None of them were prepared to face the wrath of the Queen behind the door when the servant lady came out to ask who would be the next to go in. However, the dark man volunteered.
“What most men don’t understand, is that the key to a woman’s heart is music. I have the right tunes to soothe her enraged nerves.” he said.
With that, he entered the chambers with the golden-haired servant, and the doors shut behind them.
Cleo looked with disdain at the stout man, who was her next suitor. She was still reeling over Philip’s presence, but seeing this man avert his eyes when he looked at her, and give a strangled scream when he saw Roger prancing around the room, calmed her a little. She liked that he was scared.
“The cat doesn’t bite my guests.” she said curtly. “Why are you here?”
Fumbling with his turban, the man replied shakily, “I am Professor Yuros Blankwork, and I have with me the perfect gift for a woman like you.”
Yuros gave a shrill whistle, and in came a plain, grey bird from the open window, which landed beside the Queen on the gold cage that contained the grotesque organ. Scrunching up her nose in disgust - not at the organ, but at the bird - Cleo turned to Yuros in anger.
“Is it this wretched animal you present to me?” she spat.
“I know it’s visually unappealing, but I assure you this nightingale’s beauty isn’t in its looks. Listen.”
Cleo closed her eyes and opened her ears to the nightingale’s sweet, soft music. Yes, the nightingale’s song was really beautiful, its tender melody soothing and pleasurable.
“This is lovely music. I suddenly feel calm.”
“That’s the beauty of the nightingale. Though it's ugly, these rare birds play the prettiest music. It’s very hard to find one, my Queen, so you are really fortunate to have this as your gift.”
“I suppose I am.” Cleo replied softly, and everyone in the room was glad for the tunes the nightingale played, which were a change from the leaden silence that usually filled the palace’s atmosphere.
However, in the middle of a song, the nightingale was cut off as it made a piercing scream. Cleo quickly opened her eyes to see the mangled body of the grey bird in the mouth of her tiger.
“Roger!” she exclaimed. “Bad cat!”
“That beast killed my bird!” Yuros yelled. “I thought you said it doesn’t bite your guests.”
“A bird isn’t a guest, Yuros.” Cleo stated matter-of-factly. “Now, unless you have another nightingale, I doubt Roger and I will see you as one either.”
Mouth agape, Professor Yuros stared in shock at the Queen. “You’re crazy.” he breathed out.
“And you’ll soon be Roger’s dinner. Run now, before he remembers you’re here.”
Yuros still had a few things to say, but once he saw the bloody face of the tiger turn on him, he ran for his dear life. The last words he shouted before he left the palace were, “I hope no man steps foot in this damned place again!”
But Cleo’s laughter trailed after him in reply because truly, the Queen lacked a heart.
The third man trembled by the door. He still had the poker-face he had when he first entered the palace, but his body spoke otherwise, and his heart was pounding. The adrenaline coursing through his veins made his palms sweaty, and he wiped them continuously on his ragged shorts.
The golden-haired servant soon came outside again, and on her face, he could read pity.
“Sir, you don’t have to do this.” she whispered. “No man ever succeeds in winning her heart.”
“That’s because no man had the key to her heart. But I do.” he replied.
The servant lady shook her head because she could not count how many times she had heard that statement from a man. Nonetheless, she led him into the Queen’s reception chambers. Sucking in all his courage, the man followed, and the doors shut behind them.
Queen Cleo was still smiling as she scrutinised her last suitor for the day. His clothes were dingy, so she concluded he was poor. The poor men never brought things that interested her. However, he was more handsome than most with his raven black hair, solid jawline, and high cheekbones, that she did not immediately dismiss him.
She also didn’t fail to notice the indifference on his face when he looked at her, which was a first. He stopped a little at the sight of her tiger, who was licking his bloodied lips, but that was the only reaction that came out of him. Even looking at the dark red organ in the gold cage beside her didn’t spur any reactions. In fact, the sight made him smile a little, and his pleasure wiped the smirk off her face.
“It seems you already know Roger doesn’t bite my guests…” she drawled.
“Yes, my Queen. I also know he doesn’t bite humans at all, because his breed isn’t an aggressive one. If I’m correct, he’s a very friendly tiger, and he’d be more than happy if I petted him.” he replied.
Cleo scoffed at him. She had not met anyone who knew the secret of her tiger before. Who was this man?
“Why are you here?”
“My name is Rod Lewis, and I’m here because I have the key to your heart.” he replied. Before she could inquire further, he brought out a silver key from his pocket.
“What is that?” she asked, and Rod could detect a hint of fear in her voice. She was scared because the game she played with men for a long time was finally coming to an end.
“This, my Queen, is the key to your heart, which you have kept locked up in that gold cage for a while now.” he said. “If you please, give me permission to set your heart free.”
Cleo couldn't believe it. How did this man find the key?
“No. I won’t let you near my heart. It’s very fragile, and for this reason alone have I kept it secure in this cage, so it cannot know the pain of love.”
Giving her a stern look, Rod said, “My Queen, love is as beautiful as it is painful, and I’m here to put your heart where it belongs- in you.”
And he moved to the gold cage containing the human organ, inserted the key, turned it, and set the Queen’s heart free.
That day, when Cleo’s heart started to beat inside her, her cold eyes regained their warmth, and she began to see the world as clearly as an eagle. Feelings she hadn’t felt in a long while stirred within her, and tears spilled from her eyes as foreign emotions kept crashing inside her, giving her little room to breathe.
Rod stayed with her, wiping her tears and comforting her in his arms. He said it was human to feel, and everything would be okay soon. Queen Cleo didn’t think being human was beneficial, but she put her trust in Rod. Slowly but surely, she began to love and feel loved again, and that was all thanks to the man with the key to her heart.