You stand, motionless, in your mistress’s apartment, most of your awareness suspended, as it has been for the past… week? Month? It’s unclear, irrelevant. Right now, she’s dressing you for some purpose. When she says, “Follow me,” you follow. When she says “Stand here,” you stand. When she tells you to lift a foot, or hints with a touch that your arm should be somewhere else, you do it.
When the doorbell rings, you do nothing, because you register it only as a transient noise, with no meaning to you.
“Hold your pose; you may speak if spoken to, but only if relevant,” she says. So you hold your pose, standing barefoot on your mistress’s hardwood living room floor, arms at your sides, your mistress’s ever-present pendant around your neck, cocktail gown half zipped up over your naked back. You hear the apartment’s front door open somewhere off to your side.
“Brina! Come in. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Heard you had a new toy. I couldn’t help myself. Had to come see since I was in the neighborhood. The shop’s closed today anyway.”
You hear more noise, the clumping of boots across hardwood. A tall woman follows behind your mistress, wearing a black leather jacket over a tank top and olive drab cargo pants, a rather striking contrast from your mistress’s soft white top and grey slacks. Her hair is shaved up one side and dyed teal; her eyes are reptilian with slit pupils just like your mistress, but shocking blue instead of calming emerald; her lipstick is blazing neon yellow.
“Oooh, she looks like fun,” the woman with the teal side shave and yellow lipstick says, running her finger softly over the rapidly healing bite marks on your neck; you can just barely perceive her touch. Her tongue flicks out briefly. “Can I have a go?”
“Brina, this one’s special. And the last one I let you ‘borrow’, you still haven’t given back. So no. I am, however, taking her to a work thing tonight. If you want to watch, I have an extra ticket.”
“Congratulations on that, by the way, again. Really. It’s already impressive that you’ve been a speaker once, but I hear getting invited to speak at Pandemonium again is quite the feat,” Brina says. “If you’re serious, I will certainly take the ticket; I haven’t been since, well, you know. Does it come with a plus-one, by any chance?”
“Yes, it does. Hasn’t changed since last time.” Your mistress plucks a silver envelope from a slot next to its twin in a carved-wood mail holder on the kitchen counter, and passes it to the other woman. “Did you have someone in mind, Brina?” Her tone is light, underlaid with the faintest hint of teasing.
“Not like that,” Brina says, somewhat regretfully. She taps the toe of one boot on the floor, in an irregular, erratic pattern. “A friend I work with from time to time on Clan errands. I’d love for her to see Pandemonium, really get that things are bigger than just one Clan, because I can’t imagine the Serpentine elders sending her any time in the next century, and also, I don’t really want to go by myself.”
“I’ll be there —”
“I’m sure you’ll be busy. Don’t worry about it.” Brina turns away from you and your mistress, her expression stoic.
The half-zipped cocktail gown has fallen off your shoulders entirely, and slid down to your feet. You continue to hold the pose.
“Brina, I just wanted to say that I’d hope to see you at the reception too? If you can make it?”
“Oh. Yes. I’d like that.” Her voice brightens a little. “Word of advice, though: you may need to tape that dress in place.”
“What?” Your mistress turns back to you. “Oh, dear.”
“Until tonight, then, Cora. I’ll let myself out.”
Night falls. Dressed as your mistress wanted you, you accompany your mistress to the conference center hosting Pandemonium, and yet Brina’s casual use of your mistress’s personal name still echoes in your head like other sounds today have not.
Cora. Her name is Cora.
The conference center hosting the all-Clan, panspecies demon conference called Pandemonium has more inhuman faces, bodies, shapes, and emanations than your conditioning so far was supposed to handle. It doesn’t matter. Your mistress… Cora? No. Your mistress is here. You have your instructions.
In an interior hallway, she meets up with Brina. Brina’s plus-one is yet another ophidian demon, this one short, with brown skin and dark hair in a pixie cut.
“Brina! And Naja, too. Of course. I should have guessed. How have you been?”
“Busy,” Naja says, “busy busy. Clan business, personal business, some none-of-your-business,” she grins. “I’m told I owe you my invite, so thank you, Cora. Congrats on your talk, and also, your new toy. Brina said she was something. Brina was right.”
“Brina’s right here,” Brina hisses.
“Actually, I was hoping I could ask you two to watch my thrall for a few minutes. I’d take her with me, but I need some absolute quiet so I can go over my speaker notes one more time. Or two. Or three. Really, you can never be too prepared.”
“She’s not good at quiet?” Naja asks. “I could fix that.”
“It’s more that I probably should’t be left alone with her just now.” She grins weakly. “I might get distracted. There’ll be plenty of time for play after the talk. Please take her to the reception for fifteen minutes. I’m sure you two can handle it.”
She turns to you, and tells you, “You will continue to follow all of your standing instructions. I give you two temporary commands: Obey Brina. Obey Naja so long as her instructions do not conflict with Brina’s. On my return, these two commands will expire.”
She turns to Brina. “Fifteen minutes, I promise,” and then walks away from you.
Brina offers you her arm. “Come on, then. To the reception.”
You haven’t been away from her for more than a few minutes over days, weeks, possibly. You can’t remember the last time she bit you, but… it’ll be okay. Your mistress is the axis around which your tiny world revolves; her instructions are fate itself; she must know what she’s doing.
The reception seems to pack all of the horrors from the hallways into one big dark loud room. And they’re all drunk. Away from your mistress and in a crowd of inhuman monsters, your conditioning fails.
And you panic.
And you run.
Anywhere but here.
This is when you learn that Naja’s got quick reflexes, paralytic venom, and no surfeit of empathy. She spits on you from meters away as you make a break for it, and then returns to sipping her Blood & Sand. Seconds later, you go down like a sack of potatoes.
The shock of falling over jolts you back to more awareness than you’ve had in a while, followed by the further shock that you can’t move your muscles.