The job was weird from the start. Breaking into places and stealing things? He could do that. Was quite good at it, if he said so himself. Blowing things up? His other specialty; he’d tested high in force manipulation at the academy. The two were actually fairly similar in practice: you had to case the place, look for weaknesses and flaws, plan it out, and then execute, except instead of going in all quiet you’d make a racket fit to wake the dead. But this one needed both.
He didn’t know who the client was; whoever they were was operating under an anonymity veil, their appearance shifting and changing from one moment to the next, their voice a chorus of young and old, masculine and feminine and inhuman. But from the size of the payout they were offering, clearly they were willing to pay to ensure his lack of curiosity. And it’s not like he hadn’t had other clients that used go-betweens.
As for the target: Vala was a fairly famous (or infamous) enchantress, one of the best soulmages the world had seen in quite a while. She was apparently within striking distance of a new discovery, though the client didn’t elaborate on what exactly it was; not like he would have understood it, anyway. The important thing was that they would rather not have her be the one to make it; they’d much prefer if her entire workroom suffered a tragic thaumaturgical mishap.
So here he was, doing some preliminary observation of Vala’s mansion. It wasn’t the sort of gigantic ornate building that the word typically conjured, but it was far more ornate than a typical house, and it was certainly secluded enough from the rest of the town, with a forest surrounding it on all sides. White marble sculptures of women representing something or another, black stone statues of thaumaturgical instruments, that sort of thing. A monument to its owner’s interests, though at least she wasn’t gauche enough to make a statue of herself.
The front door was warded to the hells and back, of course. Even if it wasn’t, he’d have suspected a trap: if Vala had made enemies of the sort that would hire him, she wouldn’t have survived long by being oblivious. He pulled out his scope, looked around, and there it was: most of the windows were warded just as thoroughly, but there was one where the magical effects left juuuust enough of a gap that he could maybe use it to pry the entire thing open. Cancel them out with nulldust and the proper use of counterwards, and he could be in in just a few minutes.
And no doubt Vala would have been expecting him, because that gap was bait if he had ever seen it. He couldn’t see what was behind the shimmering wards, but there was no doubt something that was meant to catch a would-be thief off-guard when they thought they had found their in. So that was clearly a no-go too.
Although. Hang on. Now that he looked at it, there was something about the way the wards flowed into each other that caught his attention. They melded and mixed but never quite completely merged; he’d never seen anything like it. Was it some kind of new security system? A new thaumaturgical advance? He didn’t know, but he felt like he had to find out. For the sake of his work, of course. Vala wasn’t due back for a few hours, and his sentry would let him know if she happened to return early. So it certainly couldn’t hurt to spend a bit longer examining the swirling, spiraling magelight shapes that the baited window were presenting him with.
And when Vala returned well before she was supposed to (she had told her host about an experiment that she really shouldn’t leave unattended, it’s been so temperamental lately, her deepest apologies), he was still staring though the scope, ignoring the sentry stone buzzing away in his pocket. She found him standing, fixated, and even after she tapped him on the shoulder he was still far, far too intently focused on the trap she had embedded in the ward to notice her or care.
She looked him over, though an observer would’ve had the impression that she wasn’t looking at his body, but at something else, something deeper. “Mmm. Yes, this one will do just fine.” So she plucked the scope out of his weakened grip with one hand, pulled him forward against her with the other, and commanded him to “Sleep.” By the time his head hit her shoulder, he was already gone.
When it awoke, the first thing that it noticed was that it felt, for lack of a better word, empty. Like someone had hollowed it out while it was asleep and didn’t replace what they had removed. It was a strange sensation, and it had no idea why it could be feeling this way.
Then when it raised a hand to rub its eyes out of a lifetime of habit, everything simultaneously made more and less sense. The hand that it saw wasn’t made of flesh, but of something pale-white and hard-looking, with balls with grooves cut into them placed where its joints should have been. It hoped in vain that it was some kind of strange armor, but that hope was dashed when it curled its fingers in and found that it could feel those fingertips against its palm: hard, like porcelain, but with a little bit of give to them.
“What the fuck?” it said; the fact that its voice was now substantially higher, substantially softer (the word womanly rose unbidden and it did its best to push that down) only added to its confusion. “What the fuck happened to me?” It moved the hand around, and it moved just like it normally would, flexing and opening and closing like normal. The entire arm was made of the same material, with a larger joint for the elbow that moved in all the right ways; it couldn’t help but notice that it actually moved smoother than its real body, without all the vague infirmities of age and injury.
But that thought was pushed out of the way by the mounting dread that if it would look down, it would–and here its thoughts derailed again, because while it was half-expecting the rest of its body to be made of the same material, it didn’t expect the porcelain-like coating to be sculpted into a pair of breasts atop its chest, just below a purple oval gem embedded into its collarbone. It reached up to touch them, in case they were just attachments, but from the way it could feel its own touch, they had to be a part of this body. And a surprisingly sensitive part of them, at that. There were no nipples, not even a mark where they would be, just smoothness, like a mannequin one might display clothes on. Although those didn’t have individually-sculpted breasts like the ones it was looking at.
And then it remembered the dread that had struck it before it was distracted. It leaned forward to look between its legs, and it found, not its dick, not the pussy it had expected, but simply nothing. Its groin was smooth as polished stone, and prodding it with a finger did nothing more than bring forward the ghost of pleasure, like remembering yesterday’s lunch. And there was a decoration above it: a deep blue glyph that it didn’t recognize for a moment, all elegant curves intermixed with sharp angles. And then it realized it had seen the same glyph adorning the outside of Vala’s mansion. Which meant that its new body was already branded. It tried not to think too much about that.
It bent over to get a good look at its legs: slimmed down, lithe, with a ball joint at the knee and the ankle. Even its toes were articulated with detail as fine as any automaton it had ever seen, complete with ‘nails’ that were made of the same material as its new body. And that left only one part of itself left that it couldn’t see: its face.
“Here you go, doll.” someone said, holding a hand mirror out into its field of view. It jumped back and nearly collapsed on the bed, because it knew exactly who that voice belonged to, even before it looked around to find the source. Vala. It had to be her. And then it finally looked at her, seeing her up close for the first time.
She was taller than it expected; it knew her only by reputation, but by the look of things she was a little bit taller than it was. Her eyes were an intense purple, and her shoulder-length hair had been colored to match. But instead of looking too closely, or even accepting the mirror, it sprung off the bed and broke into a run for the door. Or attempted to, anyway. Its legs, its gait, were so different from what it was used to that it collapsed into a pile on the floor before it made it halfway out the room. And Vala’s laughter only made it worse.
“Do you really think I would’ve awoken you if you could just escape like that?”
“What the hell did you do to me?”
“I’m assuming that’s rhetorical, but in case it isn’t and the transference process scrambled more than I meant it to, I turned you into a doll. Well, I extracted your soul and put it in a doll body. Transmutation isn’t my thing.”
You’re lying, it thought, but even in its own mind it felt perfunctory. Soul manipulation was Vala’s specialty, and nothing else could explain why this body felt so real. It was too tight for armor, and an illusion wouldn’t have made him trip; that kind of muscle memory was beyond what illusion magic could target. So instead, it asked the obvious question.
“Why? And why did you give me… these?” it added, gesturing at its chest.
“Because I need a maidservant, and because I like beautiful women.”
“What, you think just putting me in this body will make me one?”
“Of course not. What’s your gender?”
“I’m a–” man, it was about to say out of habit, but that felt wrong. Like a lie, like saying that winter came in the middle of summer. “I said, I’m a–” man, but it wasn’t, any more than two and two made five.
“I’m not a woman.” it said, and that at least had the ring of truth to it.
“This is true. And you’re also not a man, not dual, not twilit, not anything. You’re a doll, and so you don’t have any gender until I give you one.”
“I thought you said you like women.”
“I do. And I’m sure you’ll decide you want to be a woman in time, and ask me for permission.” She smirked, and it unnerved it more than a full-fanged grin would have. “Just like you’ll ask me for your new name.”
“Fuck off. Doesn’t matter what you call me, my name is still… still…” It trailed off. It wasn’t that it couldn’t say its name. It simply couldn’t remember it. It could catch glimpses of it, but trying to grab it was like trying to pick up sand; it simply slipped through its fingers. Even in its memories, any time anyone said its name the sound came out smudged like a cheap-ink letter dipped in water.
“You made me forget my name?”
“Of course. Dolls don’t have those either until they’re given them.” That smirk again. “And I haven’t decided on yours yet, nor have you earned it. So I plucked it out of your soul while I was transferring it and installing your new rules.”
“What do you mean, ‘my new rules’?” It started kicking its legs a little, trying to get a feel for how the weight had moved around, trying to prepare for another escape attempt. It noticed that every time it moved, there was a faint whirring sound. Not loud, but loud enough that once she noticed it it was impossible to unhear. Great. That’d make trying to sneak away all that much harder.
“I’m sure you noticed you couldn’t lie to me earlier. That’s one. The others… well, you’ll find out if you break them.” She put the hand mirror down on the bed and turned to face a table with some clothes lying on it; it hadn’t noticed it before, but, well, it was occupied with other things. “Anyway, you ought to get dressed. Though, if you’re an exhibitionist, I could be convinced to let you stay like this.”
It took it a moment to realize what it meant, and then its hands flew between its legs to cover its… well, nothing. And then, following Vala’s grinning gaze, one arm came up to cover its, no avoiding it, might as well call them what they were, breasts. Even without nipples, it still felt like it ought to hide them, if only to deny Vala the ability to ogle them.
It kept hiding itself as it stood up, making its way on wobbly legs towards the table, only picking them up to get a closer look once it had turned away from Vala. Which left its ass exposed, but that felt like the least shameful alternative. Even if it could catch Vala enjoying the sight of its exposed body out of the corner of its eye. And besides, it was kind of nice being admired by a woman like–wait, no, where did that thought come from? It was grateful that the witch couldn’t see the shocked expression come over its face; if that was some kind of trick, it didn’t want her to know that it had worked.
And then it turned its full attention to the clothing. The black and white color scheme didn’t exactly hide what kind of outfit it was, and when it started picking up the pieces and holding them against its body its suspicions were confirmed: she was expecting it to wear a maid outfit. “I didn’t know you were a pervert in addition to being a witch.” it said with disdain.
“Please. This outfit isn’t the cheap fabric used by people who only want the appearance of a maid. This is the real deal, and it’s custom-tailored to fit your new body. Now bring it to me.”
“Bring it yourself.”
“Mmm. You really think you have a say in this?” The witch snapped her fingers, mana arcing through them, and the doll instantly felt her mind come to attention. “Bring me the outfit, doll.”
“Yes, Mistress.” was her automatic reply, her body moving on its own to obey the command. It tried to resist the stiff, mechanical motions, but the most that it could manage was a slight tremble in its limbs as it carried out the task. It picked up the panties, the dress, the petticoat, the stockings, and carried them all into Vala’s waiting hands. It only managed to regain control when it was standing in front of Vala, and the urge to throw the clothes on the ground was only tempered by the idea that it might not be allowed to wear anything if it did.
“Good doll.” said Vala, her voice like sweet syrup, and it hated that that praise actually felt like a reward. “See? Your body already obeys. Now sit down in the chair, legs out; let’s get you dressed up.”
It considered resisting, but there didn’t seem to be much of a point. Plus, it’s either this or nothing at all. So it did as it was told, letting the witch stretch those stockings up its porcelain legs. But when Vala picked up the panties, something in it rebelled.
“Please. Let me put those on.”
“Oh? By all means, little doll, go ahead.”
She took the panties from her and examined them: black lace, with that same glyph that decorated its body adorning them front and center, this time picked out in white stitching.
“Ah, you noticed. I’m a believer in marking my property.” she said with a smirk.
It just ignored the barb and bent its legs in to pull the panties up only to find that it couldn’t even pull them past its feet. There was nothing physically obstructing them, it simply couldn’t move. It was like its joints simply locked up any time it got close to putting the loops of the leg holes around its ankles. It looked over at Vala in what it hoped came off as anger, but judging by the amused look on her face as she looked at its bare legs and null, it wasn’t very intimidating.
“What are you doing to me?”
“I’m not doing anything right now. It’s just, whoever heard of a doll that could dress or undress itself? Only a doll’s owner can do that, of course.” Her voice dripped with condescension, like she was having to explain something patently obvious.
It tried a few more times, but each attempt just made its limbs freeze up. Eventually it held its panties out to Vala, head turned away in embarrassment. “Fine. You do it then.”
“Do what, doll?”
“Are you really going to make me say it?”
“… please put my panties on me.”
“Please put your panties on you?”
“… Vala.” She tilted her head to the side, eyebrow raised. “Mistress Vala.”
“There we go. All together now. And in the proper tone of voice.”
It glowered at her, and either she didn’t notice or didn’t care. So it pulled up its best meek, obedient, asking-a-noble-for-a-favor voice, and said: “Please put my panties on me, Mistress Vala.”
“Good doll.” It still felt like electric pleasure and shame the second time. Vala slid those panties up its legs, its hips lifting up briefly so they could go up its backside. And just as the doll was adjusting them for comfort, thankful that it was allowed to at least moving them around a little bit, there was a flash of pressure and pleasure from between its legs; Vala’s fingers were working over its null, below where her glyph decorated it. It couldn’t suppress a gasp (not that it needed to breathe, it was a reflex), and it had to keep itself from grinding its hips forward, it didn’t want her to know how good it–and then she pulled her hand back, and the torment of pleasure stopped.
“Good. Just making sure that component of your body works like I’d hoped.”
“You like fucking dolls? And you said you weren’t a pervert.”
“I never denied it; I only said that I have better taste than the common pervert. Which is true. If I only wanted to fuck you, I wouldn’t have made your body as capable as it is. Now let’s get that petticoat on.”
The rest of the dressing was uneventful, if embarrassing. Everything fit into the black-and-white color scheme, from the dress itself to the lacy black bra that it wore underneath (despite the fact that its smooth breasts were far too firm to need one). Aside from the deep blue glyph that was embroidered into the dress, just above its heart–or, where its heart would be. And it did have to admit that it did go together very well. Vala apparently had a good eye for fashion.
“Now, why don’t you go take a look at yourself in the mirror? Careful; as cute as your ass is, I’d hate to see you fall again.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure you’d feel awful seeing me helpless like that.” The sarcasm just wasn’t the same in its new voice. It carefully stood up and made its way over to the full-length mirror, and took itself in for the first time. It hadn’t gotten to look at its face earlier, so it took the opportunity now: its eyes were the same shade of purple as Vala’s, and its short brown hair barely came to its neck.
As it looked over its figure more, turning back and forth a little to see how the dress moved with it (an act that it told itself was necessary so it could move about in it with maximum efficiency), it realized that Vala wasn’t actually taller than it had expected; it had simply lost almost an entire head of height. And speak of the witch, she was soon behind it, her arms wrapped possessively around its waist as she planted a gentle kiss on the side of her head. “You look adorable, doll.”
“Fuck you very much.”
“Oh, that’s later. Now, I know you’re going to try to escape at some point, so why don’t you get it out of the way now?”
It was taken aback. This was hardly its first time in captivity (though never like this), but it couldn’t remember such an offer being extended to it. “What, so you can snap your fingers and make my limbs fall off when I step outside?”
“No, nothing of the sort.”
“Why would I damage something I had just gone through great expense to create? And why would I punish you for doing something I explicitly suggested you do? I’m amoral, but I’m not stupid.”
No matter how hard it tried to think of a hidden dagger in the suggestion, it couldn’t find one. And it supposed it would be better to figure out what would happen now than in a furtive escape attempt in the middle of the night. “All right. Fine.”
So Vala led it out of the bedroom, down the hallway and down the flights of stairs into the foyer where the grand double doors stood between it and the outside. Walking was awkward at first, but as long as it focused on each step and didn’t get distracted too much it was able to keep up with Vala’s pace (even if the stairs were a bit tricky). It soon stood in front of the doors; they looked taller than on the outside, but that was no doubt due to its diminished stature. It pushed on one, and it gave just a little; despite its new size, this body was apparently just as strong. Maybe even stronger.
It tried to take a calming breath, but it no longer had the ability to do so. So it simply stood there for a moment before it pushed the doors open.
Nothing. No trap, no flare of force, no optical trick. Just the cloudy day outside.
It took a step.
Nothing. Despite itself, it felt nervous. Why didn’t whatever-it-was trigger? It looked over its shoulder at Vala, who just smiled at it. “Go on, doll.”
Another step. Something had to be wrong. This was too easy. Would it just keep walking and walking and walking? Back into town, where–where nobody would recognize it or know how to recharge it?
Step. And it would be so far from Mistr–from Vala. Wasn’t she the reason it had come here? Why was it leaving? Its place was–step–here, a doll’s place is by its owner’s side. It could feel its internal rhythm start to diverge, a clockwork heartbeat coming jittery and fluttery and the farther it went from the mansion the worse and worse it was but it had to keep going it had to flee because
because why? Why leave? The world spun around it, the sky threatened to swallow it whole and the earth was about to part and rend it asunder; Vala had promised it safety but she didn’t control the world and so that safety only existed as long as it was in the mansion and
no no no no no wrong incorrect every gear every timing crystal was screaming at it to return to the mansion to safety to Mistress and away from this false freedom and
it turned back to the mansion and ran as fast as its legs could carry it, barely managing to avoid tripping over itself. The pressure let up immediately, and once it had crossed the threshold all of the dread was gone. But the aftermath remained, a pounding in whatever it had instead of a heart and a desire to curl up for a while, to blindly seek warmth and safety and comfort and–
It noticed that it had pressed itself against Vala’s front without noticing, and one of her arms was wrapped around it while her free hand stroked its head.
“There, there. You’re back here now. Nothing bad will happen with your Mistress.”
It pulled away from her, though there was a delay that it attributed to lingering fear (because it didn’t want to contemplate the alternative). “You knew that would happen.”
“Of course. A doll can’t leave the mansion without permission, after all.” The same condescending tone of voice she had used earlier.
“So why did you even let me try? Why not just stop me entirely like with the clothes?”
“You mean with your panties?” It glowered at her, and she just smiled. “Variety. Fear doesn’t make sense for clothes you’d wear anyway, but danger of the unknown can be a nice motivator. Oh, and don’t worry; it only triggers if you’re outside and away from me. You won’t be reduced to a whimpering pile when I have business elsewhere. As cute as you were like that.”
It tried to think of something witty to say, something defiant. But it came up blank (aside from a small part of it that wanted to respond “yes, Mistress” that it pushed as far away as possible).
“Nothing? Maybe that got to you a bit more than you thought, doll.”
It blinked once, twice, to clear its head, its eyelids making a quiet clicking noise as it did so. But still, nothing, no sharp retort.
“Adorable. Let’s finish getting you properly set up while you’re still in that state. Follow me.” Vala turned away and walked, but paused after a brief moment when the doll failed to follow. She held up a hand, fingers poised to snap. “Do you need to be reminded of who controls your new body, doll?”
It flinched a little. “No. I’m sorry.” it said, moving carefully yet precisely to come up behind Vala. Why did it apologize?
“Good girl. Follow.” She continued her pace, just fast enough that the doll had a little bit of trouble; it still wasn’t entirely used to the rhythm of its new form. But they didn’t have to walk far; before long they were in Vala’s bedroom once more. With a wave of the witch’s hand, she opened a nearby drawer, and she pulled out… a metronome? And judging from what the doll assumed was its new body’s magic sense, one with a quite powerful enchantment on it.
“I don’t know how to play an instrument, and I can’t dance.”
“Oh, no, this isn’t for anything as prosaic as that. Kneel in front of the table.”
It hesitated a moment. A moment too long. There was a snap, and its body went rigid. “Kneel in front of the table, doll, and do not move except to speak or to fulfill my orders.” This time, her voice was harsh, measured. And the way it called it a doll almost felt like an insult. It felt nothing so much as shame.
“Yes, Mistress.” Trying to stop the words or the motion of its limbs was just as futile as the first time. The compulsion to obey moved its limbs with all the inexorable force of a waterfall, of the gears in a clock tower. And it found itself on its knees, hands resting in its lap. But it was still unable to move; the lingering order had kept it still. An unnatural stillness, free even from the small shifts that it had made as a human to keep its muscles active on long operations.
“Good doll. Fortunately, this should help you with that rebellious streak.” Vala briefly stepped into its field of view to put the metronome on the table, then adjusted its head so that it was looking directly at it. “Stare at the metronome.” she ordered, and it complied. It took it in: bright-shining metal interwoven with the same material as its own body, in white and black and purple.
Was this meant to give it a sense of rhythm? Was this to be some kind of punishment by making it listen to the endless ticking until–
and then Vala tipped the arm to the side and the very first tick of the metronome shook it to its very core. It felt something inside it resonate; that dim awareness of the tick-tock rhythm of its core clock was now at the forefront of its mind. It wasn’t in sync with the metronome, and the two of them made a beat pattern in its mind, slipping in and out of phase, in and out of rhythm.
Tick, tock, tick, tock. It tried to look away, tried not to pay attention to the repetitive rhythmic sound, tried to do anything at all. But its body refused to move an inch; every single joint was locked in place with the compulsion of the order it had been given. Even the doll’s eyes remained focused entirely on the metronome, watching it sway back and forth and back and forth and–no!. It knew this had to be doing something to its mind, or else the witch wouldn’t have put it in this situation in the first place. And it could even feel the internal rhythm of its clockwork slipping to tick in sync with the metronome; the interference beats were getting slower and slower and slower.
The only way it could think of to resist was to tick-tock out of sync with it, to try to force its mind to work to a different rhythm than the one it was “supposed” to. So the doll began to think tock, tock, tititick… tock, tick in its head, slowing down and speeding up so it would never quite fall in line with the steady, unceasing tick-tock that it was meant to fall into. And for a while, it worked; if it focused, it could keep out of that seductive rhythm. But as soon as it allowed itself a moment of self-congratulation, it started to fall back under its sway, the titick, tick… tock… tock-tick-tick of rebellion sliding back into the steady tick, tock, tick, tock of submission.
No! I can’t let myself get distracted!, it thought, and it redoubled its attempts. A stray thought would come in: how long am I going to be here for?, or what if I try moving again, or I look so pretty on my knees like–wait, fuck– and the effort of pushing that thought away distracted it enough to fall back into the metronome’s tempo. By the time it managed to pull itself back out, it could feel its mind fraying around the edges. Thinking just distracts me, tock, ticktick, tock. I need to think less, ticktock… tick, tock.
But keeping away from that rhythm was so hard, especially when it couldn’t even remind itself why it was avoiding it in the first place. Because that required thinking, and it knew it wasn’t supposed to think, tick-tick, even if it couldn’t remember the reason for that either, tick, tock, tick, tock. Rhythm was important. Tick. Thinking was unimportant. Tock. The metronome meant it shouldn’t think. Tick. The metronome meant it couldn’t think. Tock.
The doll’s internal rhythm was becoming entrained to the movement of the arm that was all it could see, to the sharp tick-tock noise that was all it could hear. Resistance was fading. Tick. The doll was forgetting. Tock. It was clearly supposed to match its mind to the metronome. Because it was a doll. Tick. Because it was clockwork. Tock. Because it was a machine. Tick. Because it was an object. Tock.
After an infinite eternity that lasted a single moment, Vala snapped her fingers, the metronome stopped, and the doll’s awareness went with it.
It awoke. Panic, a vague hope that this had all been a dream, followed by the realization that it was still kneeling in front of the table where it had been… hypnotized, there was no other word for it. And that it still couldn’t move. Vala’s order must have lasted even through its unconsciousness.
“Back to normal, doll. Reinforcement time is over.”
The mental compulsions that had kept it in place disappeared just as quick as they had bound it, and it turned to face Vala, though it remained on its knees. “Reinforcement? Is that what you call whatever the hell that was?”
“Mhm.” She smiled that hidden-fang smile, looking the doll up and down. Clearly she was getting a kick out of seeing her still down like this, but as much as it wanted to stand, trying to do so made it feel like the world was spinning, so it stayed down. “Your disobedience is cute, but it doesn’t suit a maid. So I’ll train it out of you.”
“But you can already make me do what you want anyway. Why bother?”
“A controlled body and a resisting mind is suitable for basic chores. But I want to use you for much more than that, little doll. So I want to control your mind.”
“And how is that going to help? Even if I was–” blank, mindless, docile, all those words flashed through its head, but it felt too ashamed to say them. Too ashamed to admit how thoroughly the metronome’s magic had enchanted it. “–like that. I was in no state to do anything.”
“Oh, of course. I’m not going to keep you in that space all the time. But when you fail to follow the chores I assign, you’ll come to me, tell me you need to be reinforced, and you’ll spend some more time under my metronome’s spell.”
“And why the hell would I do that?”
“Because it’s a rule, doll. And a good doll always follows its rules. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, Mistress.” By the time it realized what it had said, the words were out of its mouth. “What–you–you made me s–” and the words died in its artificial throat, because it knew that that wasn’t a compelled response, and so saying that it was would be a lie. And it couldn’t lie to Vala.
“Good doll.” She lavished praise on that word, and it took effort for the doll not to moan and melt into a puddle of porcelain in response. “See? Listening and responding without thinking feels good. Now, it’s time for your chores. It’s late, so you’ll only have a couple tonight.”
“Late?” It cast its mind back to its ill-fated ‘escape’ ‘attempt’. It was autumn, and it was definitely light outside. And then it looked out of the bedroom window and saw that the sky had turned ink-dark. “How long was all of that?”
“A few hours.” She said it simply, matter-of-fact, as if it had asked her what she had had for lunch. “A doll’s sense of time always breaks when you mess with its core clock like that. Just another cute thing about your new body you’ll have to get used to. Now come on, my dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. That’s why I have you.” She stood, and reached down with one hand.
It looked at the offered hand, and briefly considered rejecting it, scratching it, anything other than what she clearly wanted. But it knew that would only earn it more time with the metronome. So it put its hand in hers (she was warm, and it was faintly surprised that it could still sense that) and she helped it rise to its feet.
Out of reflex, it wiped the dust off of its outfit, smoothed out the wrinkles. It winced inwardly at that, but if that was reflected on its face, Vala didn’t show. “Good. Tonight, you are to wash my dishes and dust the library.”
“And after I’m done?”
“Return to my bedroom.”
Clearly, not a negotiable schedule. So it simply nodded, and suppressed the Yes, Mistress that rose unbidden into its mind.
“Good doll. Get to work.”
Halfway down the hallway, it was struck by the realization that she had never told it where the kitchen was… followed by the realization that it knew anyway. Just like it knew where all the cleaning supplies were. Which was embarrassing to think about, even though it made an amount of sense; Vala was the practical sort, and given what all she could do, implanting basic knowledge like that would be well within her abilities.
It decided to handle the kitchen first. It didn’t find any gloves that would fit it, so it pushed up its sleeves instead, revealing the ball joints that had taken the place of its elbows. And then it picked up a sponge, soap, and a waterstone, and set itself to work. The dishes had clearly been there for a while; Vala was obviously not the best at taking care of herself. Maybe that’s why she needed a maid. Or maybe it was intentional to give the doll a tougher task. It couldn’t tell.
The kitchen was soon filled with the click-click sounds of porcelain on porcelain and glass and metal as it moved the dishes around to clean them. It used the opportunity to take a closer look at how its fingers moved and curled when it picked something up; whoever had made its body had clearly been an expert. No matter how it moved its fingers, they never rubbed up against the material of its palm or the back of its hand; everything was curved just so to give it the same range of motion as a human. And even when it filled the basin from the waterstone and stuck its entire hand in, its motion was just as smooth; nothing seized or felt stiff. So somehow its joints had been proofed against liquid, as well. (The shivering cold it felt confirmed that it even had the same sense of temperature as before.)
As much as it hated to admit it, this new body was elegant in design. It had heard of such expensive automata before, but it had never seen one, let alone had a chance to look at this one so intimately. It was almost a work of art in and of itself. How much could such a thing cost? It couldn’t even imagine.
Its reverie was interrupted by a nagging sense at the back of its mind: there were still dishes to clean, and shelves to dust. It wasn’t disobeying, per se, but it still didn’t want to displease Mis–Vala, and it could feel the threat of the metronome lurking just beneath. So it finished its work, setting about drying the dishes with the cloth that it knew was in the third drawer from the left and carefully placing them back in the cabinets where its instincts told it they belonged.
And when it was all said and done, when every dish was shining clean, it couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. Certainly it had put more effort into it than in its old life; there was usually some speck of food or something. It had simply been so easy to go along with the flow state, to let itself become absorbed in the task. Which was not a good sign. If its mind had been this affected already–it shook its head. No use worrying about that. Just focus on the next task. Wouldn’t want to give Vala a reason to ‘adjust’ it any more.
But as it re-organized the library books and dusted the shelves and tables, it found itself slipping into that doll mindset once more. Focused simply on the task it had been given, and nothing else. Not empty-minded, but single-minded. And whenever it tried to reassert its mind during the chore, its movements became erratic, unpracticed. By the time it was done, it felt like its mind had been spun halfway into oblivion. It took a moment to recover, as it thought it could manage before its compulsion would force its hand, and then made its way back to the bedroom. Its mind told it that it had only been a half hour, but some deep sense of time embedded in it insisted that it had been more than double that. And checking the time on a clock that it passed by confirmed that. Well, it supposed that even if it was forced to remain in this body forever, it would never be late to anything again.
The joke wasn’t exactly comforting.
When it returned to the bedroom, Vala was already in bed. Her pajamas were silken white, and she was reading a book titled Advanced Psychoresonance Dynamics.
“I wasn’t aware you were such a bookworm.”
“You don’t get as good as I am without lots of study, doll. I assume your chores are done?”
“Yes. I did everything you told me to.”
“Such a good doll, following its orders.”
It tried to not let the praise affect it, but judging from how intently Vala was staring at its facial expression, it had failed. “So. What now? Do I get free time? Do I need to sleep? Can I sleep?”
Vala set her book aside and got out of bed. “Most automata can function constantly, but you’re a bit special. Especially since your soul isn’t used to this new shape yet. And even if you didn’t, I’d rather not leave you alone with nothing to do all night.” She stood in front of it, put a finger under its chin, tipped its head up to look it right in the eyes. “I’m sure you’d get very lonely without me.”
“Oh, I don’t know how I would cope without the person who kidnapped me. It would be terrifying.” Its tone was as flat as it could manage, not breaking eye contact, and tried to ignore the feeling of being small. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that all she did in response was grin.
“Where do I go for the night, then? Your bed? You’re enough of a pervert for that.”
“I won’t deny it, but it’s telling that that’s where your mind went. But no, not my bed.” She waved a hand at a door, and it opened. It was full of outfits identical to those that it was wearing, as well as arms and legs identical to its own. And heads, which was somewhat more disconcerting. But there was very clearly no room for anyone to lie down in, especially with the glass case in the middle that was raised a few inches off the floor on a short pedestal. “Dolls get put away with their accessories when they’re done being played with.”
“In there? How?” It almost pointed out that it wouldn’t be able to breathe before it realized that that wasn’t exactly important any more.
“Get in the case and I’ll show you, dolly.”
Resistance didn’t exactly seem like it would get it anywhere. So it opened the case up and stepped onto the pedestal; it couldn’t help but notice that there was no way to open the case from the inside. There was just enough room inside for it to turn around to face Vala. Even with the extra height, it was still only as tall as she was.
“Look at me, hands in front of you, and smile. Dolls should look pretty and happy when they’re put away.”
It did as it was told once again, hands clasped in front, and put on as small of a smile as it could manage.
“I said, pretty and happy.” Her hand, poised to snap, was all the indicator it needed of what she thought of its small rebellion. So it put all of its memories and training into the most convincing fake smile it could manage, and for a small mercy, it was enough.
But instead of lowering her hand, she leaned in to hover the palm of her hand just over the the gem embedded in its collarbone. “Good doll. Time for you to go to sleep.”
And although it couldn’t see whatever Vala was doing, suddenly it felt tired. Like it had been running nonstop the entire day, and finally had a chance to rest. But instead of its arms and legs going limp, they became stiffer. Locked in place. Inanimate. Even its thoughts were slowing. Harder to think. Harder to move. Like the metronome. But different. Not obedience. Emptiness. Motionlessness. Still in body. Still in mind. Still in soul. Still smiling. Still pretty. Still a doll. Still on display. Still.
When Vala had finished her work, the shine of life was gone from the doll’s eyes, leaving them dulled over. Its soul was still nestled within its core, but was deep in the sleep she had induced. And so the doll kept that pretty porcelain smile as she closed it in its display case and shut the closet door, leaving it pretty and happy and empty in darkness.
“Goodnight, little doll. Sleep well. Tomorrow is the first day of your new existence.”