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Hearts Freely Given

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‘He left this on the grave,’ says Abner, sounding embarrassed. ‘I didn’t like to leave it there.’ And he tips a heart into her hands. It’s a big heart, a little hard, but so warm it’s almost burning against her palms. There is a deep crack across the left ventricle, blood oozing down from it.

‘That idiot,’ says Agatha, cradling it instinctively against her chest. ‘He can’t just throw his heart away for someone he barely knew. Anything could have happened to it!’

‘Lucky Abner brought it back to you, then,’ says Zeetha, looking over her shoulder. ‘What are you going to do with it?’

‘I…don’t know,’ says Agatha. It’s not as if she can get it back to him. In the end she wraps it in canvas and keeps it under her bed. She’s more careful with it than she is with her own, which she’s always slipping carelessly into a pocket or dropping into her tool box. In all the months she’s with the circus, though, it never quite mends.

‘An ordinary guy like me.’ Lars presses his heart into her hand, a soft, light heart, and still intact even as its beating slows, even as its warmth fades. Agatha closes her hands around it, knowing already it’s too late to do anything but hold it while Lars dies.

When it goes still she feels the trail of warm blood spill from her pocket as her own cracks. It will not be the only thing to break here.

Around the chapel, tucked between the skulls, are a thousand hearts. They beat fast and hard, surfaces crazed with old cracks long mended. When Agatha touches one it’s hard as steel and burns, like fire or ice and she’s not sure which. These aren’t human hearts.

‘Whose are these?’ she asks.

‘Those who gave their hearts to the House of Heterodyne,’ says the Castle.

‘The Jägers,’ says Agatha. It’s terrifying, more than the skulls, more than the cracked mask looming in front of her. She doesn’t know if she can be responsible for these. But she is the House of Heterodyne. And she holds out her arm.

‘Keep it,’ says Gil.

Agatha, still flushed with anger at him, tucks it back into her pocket. ‘Don’t think you’re getting mine.’

‘I didn’t ask.’

Her hand lingers on her pocket, feeling the warm, familiar weight of it. She would have missed it there, and she sneaks a glance at Gil, seeing the irritation with her fade to a puzzled warmth. They’ll both flare up again in a moment, she knows. In a moment she’ll remember she wants him gone.

‘Here,’ says Tarvek, pushing a wrapped bundle into her hands. ‘This is…it’s yours, already, please take it?’

Agatha knows what it is, she can feel it hammering even through the cloth, but she can’t help exclaiming softly when she unwraps it because Tarvek’s heart is mangled. It’s bruised, pushed slightly out of shape as if it’s been trodden on, and it feels chilled — as if it should be several degrees warmer than it is.

‘I know it’s…’ Tarvek looks away. ‘I don’t expect yours in return.’

‘Thank you.’ It’s all she can say, as she cradles the heart tenderly in her palms. She doesn’t know whether she can give either of them her heart, yet. She wraps Tarvek’s heart back up and slips it into the same pocket as Gil’s, as if that burning heart might warm it.

Tarvek’s heart is still, not like Lars’ heart was, not dead, but like it’s been lacquered. It’s disturbing and gives her hope at once. Gil’s burns like a fever and beats too fast, too shallow, as if he’s burning through his life like a candle.

Agatha will save them, although for now they’re both beyond her reach.

In the caves beside Mechanicsburg she sits with a heart in each hand.