Once upon a time, I won a contest with a short scene between a shrunken artist and one of the future wives of Henry VIII. That was either two years ago or 482 years ago, depending on your perspective.
I love history and historical fiction, and was so excited when the theme of SizeRiot’s 2020 July Contest was announced to be history. I had studied Tudor history in college, but I wasn’t sure which topic to choose for my story until my metamour began listening to SIX: The Musical, about the six wives of Henry VIII. I loved the confident, empowered spin they put on Anne of Cleves living her best divorced life in “Get Down,” but it was the (admittedly ridiculous) “Haus of Holbein” that really got me thinking.
The key to the story came when I did more research and learned that the man who painted the fateful, controversial portrait of Anne was also famous for his miniatures. What if Hans Holbein was able to “raise the art of the portrait miniature to its first peak of brilliance,” according to one historian, because he had the ability to shrink? What if he kept that skill secret but was discovered? What would that moment be like? By the time I decided Hans had never before felt human contact while small, I was hooked on this idea.
Jump to the story, or scroll on for historical context and nerdery. (You won’t need it to enjoy the story, I promise.)
Inspired by true events
As the story goes, the king sent his favorite portrait artist Hans Holbein around Europe to paint pictures of the candidates for his fourth bride. When Holbein returned with the paintings, he was most impressed with Anne of Cleves and agreed to let his minister Cromwell arrange the marriage in winter of 1540. The legend would have us believe that Anne proved to be “ugly as a Flanders Mare,” as one historian insulted her centuries later. Henry was allegedly repulsed by her and annulled the marriage within six months so he could move on to one of Anne of Cleves’ more attractive ladies in waiting, Anne Howard.
The more I researched her story, the more I wanted to know about Anne of Cleves and what her life was like. The pieces fell into place when I learned a more likely chain of events from Dr. Katrina Marchant, shared in the 20-minute video below. In a nutshell: King Henry’s unrealistic expectations, his chivalric (and naïve) belief that true love will recognize itself even in disguise, and above all, his wounded masculine pride were the real problems in the situation. (CW for the video: descriptions of sexual assault, fat shaming, the king’s illness from a wound, and Henry being an unmitigated asshole.)
There was also the fact that Henry’s first three wives were all “small women” and Anne of Cleves was likely a taller German woman. If you happen to find that interesting at all.
Where was Anne in all of this? I agree with Dr. Marchant’s arguments that she was probably “not unpleasant to look upon.” But who was she? Was Anne shy? Bold? She was certainly sheltered, because of her culture’s traditions that had women largely sequestered in a Frauenzimmer, where men were forbidden. There’s some debate about whether Anne learned any kind of sex education in this setting. It was a point of contention during the annulment: did she know what was needed to produce an heir? Her ladies in waiting claimed that she believed a kiss was sufficient. I chose to write a story about an Anne who was, at the age of 25, still curious about men and their bodies.
I nearly titled my story “The King’s Miniaturist” because it reads easier. But to me the story was just as much about Anne of Cleves as it was about the artist who painted her. I may have written from Hans’ point of view—I couldn’t resist the poetic perspective of an artist, especially a tiny one—but it is not just his story. That felt important to me.
As for Hans Holbein the Younger, a German-Swiss painter considered one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century, even if you haven’t heard of him you have probably still seen his work. He painted the most iconic images of Henry VIII, as well as Erasmus, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell, who arranged the marriage between Anne and Henry, and who Henry actually put to death after the annulment. (Hans remained alive, employed, and unpunished, more evidence to suggest that the painting was faithful and Henry was merely nursing his wounded pride.)
You may have noticed that I have not linked to the Wikipedia article about Hans. That’s because the only remaining portrait of him (giving his best bearded Bruce Willis impression) includes what is a truly unfortunate haircut by modern standards. And I honestly don’t want my readers to be distracted. Speaking of which, check out his artistic skill! What a lovely painting he created of Anne, am I right?
I dare you to click on the image to open up the full file, lean close, and soak in those details. (If that doesn’t work, you can see more detail on the website of the Louvre, where it lives today.)
Try to see the work through the eyes of an artist, someone who had to build this masterpiece one brushstroke at a time. Try to imagine how much easier it would be to paint such intricate work if you had the ability to close up your studio, lock the door, and shrink yourself in secret.
Reviews & Contest Feedback
One thing I miss the most about the SizeRiot contests was the feedback. If I had the energy, I would love to create some kind of writers’ circle within the size kink community that could help us trade feedback and grow as writers. I would not be the writer I am today without those contests, particularly the supportive feedback.
It took me several tries over two years to solve the issues that readers had with the original 2000-word story. I hope, if you gave me helpful feedback in 2020, that you feel this is a clearer, less rushed, and more polished rendition. I am grateful for your insight and kindness.
(Mild spoilers in the reviews)
“Took hold of me right away; loved the story of this teasing, lustful adventure.”
“A superbly written and penned piece; subtle, steeped in the history and significance of the time, and ultimately a very sultry extract from the lives of two people who may only have ever interacted with significance that one time… An enjoyable story with a saucy little ending. ”
“Delicious, like a piece of fruit. The writing lingers in the mind, mixes with reality, and gives me the sense of scale, of the juxtaposition of the real Anne and the Miniaturist’s painting.”
“The details and language of this story were impressively rich and vivid. Not only did you know your era well… but you also built palpable sexual tension between them and allowed them to explore it… One of the sexiest stories in the contest.”
“A very poetic and delicate story. Tiny Hans is racked with political fear, Anne is confident in her authority and is moved by her desires. Together they make an interesting dance, as he has to overcome himself to receive the gift he has fantasized over for so long.”
“I loved how scandalous it was for them to be together in the way they were. It was cute how he was so worried about the wet paint, rightfully so! I thought you did a lovely interpretation of a historical period and size erotica. Definitely one of my favorite in this contest.”
“I’ve always loved the concept of a shrunken artist being able to apply levels of detail impossible for normal sized hands to achieve. This story plays with that trope in a wonderful, and ultimately sexy way… We need more stories like this.”
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Money is tight right now. I have twelve works of fiction in progress, ranging from wholesome to kinky as fuck. I’d like to continue releasing them here for free.
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Tags for this story include: F/m, shrunken man, dubious consent, oral sex, some antiquated language, and English history from the Tudor period
Read the story
TEXT VERSION: Read the text version of the story behind the cut.
AUDIO VERSION: Listen to a 26-minute author-read version of the story here. While I am proud of this reading, I want to let you know I tried out a German accent for the dialogue portions. I watched several videos from native speakers, practiced, and did my best. However, I am still a Texan. I hope it’s more cause for amusement than for offense, because I meant none. Please enjoy!
Anne & the King’s Miniaturist
By Elle Largesse
Copyright 2020, all rights reserved.
Word count: 3121
She captivated him. She, of the clear brown eyes, brows like the faintest of his brushstrokes, demurely folded hands that he ached to explore. She, of the pearl-encrusted cap, of the crimson velvet gown and gold brocade bodice, of the twenty-three gemstones set in silver flowers around the low square-shaped neckline. She, of the sweet and lovely figure he would conjure with oil onto parchment.
She was the first to touch him in his smallness, and the boldest.
She, whom his patron Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith and of the Church of England, would admire in oil on parchment and agree to marry. She, whom his patron would misuse and denounce as ugly in mere months, complaining that “she is nothing so fair as she hath been reported.”
She, who would live to survive King Henry by a decade.
Now, at five and twenty years of age, Duchess Anne of Cleves’ fate seemed largely beyond her grasp. She was either destined to marry an obscure Lutheran lordling to serve her brother’s Protestant cause, or become the fourth queen of Henry’s England. The deciding variable in the mathematics of His Royal Highness’ choice of bride was, unfortunately, her beauty—as depicted by the King’s Miniaturist, Hans Holbein the Younger, famous for his brilliant portraiture and skill with extraordinary detail.
Hans said he was honored. What else could he be? And yet, simply contemplating the weight of the decision resting on this painting made Hans’ entire body shake with the effort of maintaining the right and proper height of a man.
He’d met Duchess Anne briefly upon arrival at Castle Düren, and had given her much thought while painting her more severe sister, Duchess Amalia. The moment Anne had taken her place in his temporary studio, he had glowed in the reflected light of her eyes.
He stayed late that very first day just to commune with his first chalk sketch, and again and again as the painting took shape. Wishing to be small with the woman herself, and not merely her likeness.
She captivated him in a way few of his portrait subjects ever had, or ever would.
And when she caught him by surprise late one afternoon in his studio, standing on his special scaffold at his preferred height of half a hand tall, wielding a tiny brush for the detail work that made him famous, it was he who captivated her.
Duchess Anne didn’t step into the room so much as radiate into it, the way sudden sunlight could illuminate all other details and become the soul of an artwork.
Her eyes on him. Her eyes illuminating him. His secret, his truth. His tiny brush clattered to the slats of the scaffold at his feet.
“Duchess,” Hans breathed, first in courtly English, and then again in the comfort of their shared mother tongue. “Herzogin.” He was so shocked that he barely remembered to bow.
“Please, I beg your discretion,” he continued in German. His small voice rang out into the empty space between them, clearer and more confident by far than he could claim in this moment. The sound absorbed into the voluminous red velvet of her gown and the clattering jangles of her bejeweled cap. She pulled the door shut and glided nearer. Cautious, curious. Captivated.
“Wondrous,” she murmured. It was a measure of her awe that her eyes did not stray from him, even with the temptation of a painting of herself above and behind him. His knuckles tightened on the thin wooden railing.
He was accustomed to being the observer. The keeper of details and minutiae, not the one worthy of observation. Her scrutiny unsettled him as she bent forward to examine him more closely. Oh, but her scent! He breathed in the aroma of rosewater and womanly body and breath, intoxicating notes of humanity among the metallic pigments that usually overwhelmed him as he worked.
She was now close enough that he could have bridged the distance to her lips with a single standard brush, had he been a right and proper man.
Hans was not a right or proper man. He was the height of her longest finger, and as she reached for him, his whole body vibrated with the glow of her presence.
He forced himself to stand braced and strong, though he wanted to shudder and fold in on himself like a cowardly creature. The fingers of the duchess were soft and warm on his skin as she touched the side of his face and trailed down his bare right shoulder and arm. He did shudder, then, but it was with rare pleasure.
Not once in the years of this secret practice, not even when he was learning the limner’s magic in France years before, had he ever been touched.
He was a man in his prime and by no means virginal, but he had always communed at this size with paintings. Not people.
The secret of his trade was too precious, and the vulnerability of his diminutive body was too profound, for him to ever allow another to lay eyes on him this way. Let alone lay hands on him.
And yet, Anne’s fingers on his skin left a mark of fire in his soul, as if she trailed rose-hued paint in a blush down his cheek and bicep. First touch. First brush stroke on an untouched canvas. He shivered in the cool winter of the room and ached for her summer warmth to reach him again.
She pinched the gauzy linen that he had bound around himself in the fashion of the ancient Greeks, draped over his left shoulder and cinched around his waist with a thread. He wished absurdly that it was finer fabric, or that it wasn’t dusted and blotched with the evidence of his trade. He met her eyes, feeling as nude as a model hired from a brothel for charcoal studies.
“And here, I thought ‘Miniaturist’ referred to your skill with tiny portraiture, Herr Holbein,” she said.
“It does, Your Grace,” he said. “Please, my lady, will not your chaperone be alarmed?” Had he been his true height, he would now be ushering the duchess out the door. He had skills for this, honed over years of painting the courtiers of King Henry.
How could he hope to make her leave, without standing at his own height? Returning to himself required concentration and care. Even if he succeeded, he’d shatter the scaffolding and possibly injure the precious painting. It was a risk he would take only to save his own life—especially considering that ruining the portrait might place his life in peril, back across the Channel.
Not to mention, he’d be genuinely nude. The thought of baring his body before her in that way deepened the blush from her touch.
Anne gestured to the chair she had vacated that afternoon. He saw a detail he had missed earlier, due to the lady’s skirts: a small square of fabric had fallen to the floor below. “My chaperone and I believed the studio to be empty. She waits in the room beyond, secure in the knowledge that I’ve returned to retrieve my handkerchief and steal a look at the painting that shall decide my fate.”
Her eyes lifted from him, finally, drawing up to the painting. Hans felt his spirits lift with hers. To witness this moment, from this vantage!
Anne of Cleves beheld herself, and her lips parted with awe. “Glory,” she whispered. She leaned close to peer at his painstaking efforts, and he gasped as her skirts grazed the wicker scaffold. Her bosom sloped huge and round above him and he felt the warmth of her like an ache.
“Please!” he said urgently, before she caused permanent damage to either his work tools or his work, or himself.
“Is it dry?” she murmured, reaching to touch the portrait’s face. Alarmed, Hans summoned the magic to grow himself once more in a bid to protect the painting. It swelled within him like wine filling a skein, but before he could reach even one pearl taller, the magic spilled out with his panic. Trapped between the woman and the work, he reached with his voice instead.
“Yes, but—my lady—do not touch the hands!” he managed at last.
Anne pulled back and looked down at him with the same clear intensity she had shown during the long hours of sitting for the painting.
He gestured to the fresh paint he’d been working on and continued with somewhat more dignity. “Please. I am sure you will agree that this is most improper. Your Grace.” The chill of the room crept back into the space between them, and he felt it acutely.
“It’s true I’ve never been alone with a man outside my family,” she said finally. Her mouth twitched into a smile. “And yet, one could argue that you are no man. Perhaps you are a toy. Or a spirit.”
“I am a man,” Hans said, his pride stinging.
“A man in miniature.”
He gathered his dignity and his paint-stained smock and frowned up at her. “A man wise enough to not spend an evening alone with the potential bride of his patron. The King of England? I should think a lady seeking to follow in the footsteps of Anne of Boleyn might tread more lightly as well.”
The light in her eyes clouded with fear. She looked back to the painting and was silent for long moments.
“If I am to succeed where Boleyn failed,” she said, “it would serve me well to know what awaits me with your patron.” Her eyes roved back down, back over his form, studying him as he had studied her. “Curse me for my curiosity if you must, but consider my life, sheltered among the Fraunzimmer.”
Hans raised his hands. “It is not for me to know the ways of women behind closed doors,” he said carefully. “I am not the one to enlighten you, if they, in their wisdom, have not.”
She gave a small snort. “Card-playing ladies tittering and telling the same old tales. No substance. No details.” He could hear the frustration in her voice. “Little has it prepared me to meet my husband like a wife. Like a woman.”
She looked down at her gown, smoothing her hands over enough pearls to buy half the city beyond the castle walls. When she turned her gaze and faced the painting, her resolute expression made him yearn for his chalks to sketch her anew.
Her demeanor shifted as if swayed by the elegance he had captured there. “You have seen me like no other has seen me,” she said softly. “You make me bold.”
Even through the layers of fabric, his artist’s eyes caught the shift of her hips. Closer to him again. Not heedless of him, as before. Deliberate.
“If you’re indeed a man,” she said, “prove it.”
She reached for him, her fingers trailing up from his cold unshod feet, up his shins and into the folds of his makeshift Greek costume. He groaned as she explored up his thighs. He put his hands on her wide palm, intending to push her away. “Please,” he said.
He did not push her away.
Her thumb found his manhood and he sank to his knees, groaning deeply. Soft, huge fingers curled around his legs and buttocks. He craned his head back, all the way back, to see both Anne of Cleves in painting, and Anne of Cleves in the flesh, mirrored together at the extreme perspective. He had longed to be small with her in this way, but it had been a flight of fancy, something to grant life to hours of painting. “Your Grace, please…”
She lifted his entire person. Easily, quickly, as he gasped and groaned.
Hans cried out as the duchess pressed him firmly against the painting. Disoriented, he twisted his head to see where—by God, he thought, let it not be the hands! With surreal relief, he realized she had pinned him against the dried paint of her own face. Mouth. Lips. He looked forward and saw the reality approaching. Held in place by her will as much as by her hands.
She watched him. Studied him, not as one might a captive butterfly. But as a woman studies a man. It was overwhelming to feel her curious finger lifting his garment, trailing lightly over his body. The muscles of his thigh. His manhood, twitching at the pleasure of this unusual contact. It was an acute intimacy almost beyond bearing.
His mind offered him an avenue of retreat and he took to it gladly. It was a memory, not of his own first time with a woman, but of his first time sketching the human figure from a nude model. It had been the painter’s guild in Basel, hadn’t it? A local lady of ill repute, as far from the duchess’ station in life as he could imagine. He remembered the way he and the other young artists drank in the woman’s form faster than wine, collecting the details of her body like a little hoard of gemstones. Nostalgia turned bittersweet as he realized it had never occurred to him to wonder—what had it felt like to be the one on display? Bared to another.
Bared to her.
He did not come back to himself, as much as he came back to a powerful awareness of the Duchess of Cleves. She would not, could not, be denied.
She of the clear brown eyes. She of the womanly body and breath. She of the summer warmth so rich and profound that as she pulled the cloth from his body he shivered, not from cold, but from the way her presence enveloped him.
She of the sunlight that filled the room, that filled his eyes with every aching detail, before pressing her lips to his tiny body.
He breathed deeply of her scent. He pressed his hands and face against her smooth cheek as she turned her head in the borrowed likeness of a true kiss.
Her mouth was tender on his face, but inexorable, her curiosity undeniable. Her mouth, riotous as she kissed his shoulders, his chest, his stomach. Rapturous, then ravenous. Again he groaned.
Her lips throbbed with glorious sensation as she tasted, explored, demanded everything his body could give to her glistening tongue. “Your—your Grace—” he panted, his body quivering, rising up fully to meet her. Her title on his tongue was no longer a protest. It was a petition, but for what, he knew not.
Relentless, she kissed and suckled him, pressed harder, her own breath coming in gusts and tremendous sighs curling with heat around him. The rough oil brushstrokes at his back only made her softnesses richer, more luscious.
Hans cried out at the limits of his pleasure. Ecstasy washed through him like ink spreading through paper, changing everything it touched.
Her surprise and her smugness should not have been easy to comprehend at his size, at her proximity. And yet, he could read the set of her lips better than any scrivener at a manuscript. Satisfaction illuminated her countenance.
He allowed himself to sink into her hand. It was the same hand he had painted earlier, with great concentration and meticulous effort.
He felt as if he had no more faculty, no capacity for focus. But details abounded anyway. He was immersed in the minutiae of her palm, the crinkles of her skin, the lines of her knuckles and fingertips. It made him want to return to work, all while wishing she would keep him here in this moment, hostage to her curiosity. Better than hostage to a fickle, vindictive king. Here were treasures beyond any boasted by Henry’s court.
He reached for her thumb and draped his arms around the knuckle. He rested his forehead against the cushion of her thumbprint and dismissed the desire to draw the whorl. He closed his eyes until he felt her move again.
He opened them to see that she had returned him to the level of his scaffold. Slowly, reluctantly, he disembarked from her hand with all the caution of a man long at sea finding a dock beneath his feet once more. He turned to face her. He did not cover himself.
“Thank you for making me bold, Herr Holbein.”
“It was you yourself, did that,” he said simply. “I may notice more than most, but I paint only what I see.”
“As you say,” she said, pride suffusing her features. “Thank you for seeing me.”
She honored him with a lower, slower curtsey than honor demanded. He bowed deeply in return, wondering if he had ever, or would ever again, make such a gesture while completely nude. Or while so tiny.
The Duchess of Cleves retrieved her handkerchief and draped it across his shoulders, part blanket, part replacement of the garment she had pulled off him with such ease. He fingered the expensive fabric, the expert stitches. Then his eyes widened as she produced his paint-stained smock, folded it, and tucked it into her sleeve. A keepsake to rest against the pulse of her wrist. He swallowed.
“May I trust your discretion, my lady?” he asked, imploring her with his eyes. His throat tightened with thick emotion as her fingertips grazed the skin of his thigh. First touch. Last time. He rested his own hand atop her knuckle.
They watched each other for a long, wordless moment. He considered, then dismissed, the prospect of returning to the height of a man. What could he do at six hands tall? Keep her here, far from England and the dangers of court? From Henry? He’d have better luck halting the sun to earn more hours in the day for painting.
Besides. He would never admit it to another soul, any more than he would broadcast his own secret, but he preferred her to remember him this way.
The duchess tucked her new handkerchief deeper into her sleeve and looked out the window of the studio. He sighed, and felt the way he often did when watching a painting hung for display high on a wall. Details lost to distance. A treasure collected, and no longer a creation with the ability to come alive under close, intimate scrutiny.
“You may,” she answered finally. “As I am sure I may trust yours.” She graced him with a single soft smile, then was gone.
Hans stayed late that night, returning slowly to his God-given height to pack the entire studio. Before rolling the parchment for travel, he touched her lips in the candlelight, and remembered warmth.
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