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The Dollmaker's Rage

Mari Ness has published several stories in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine and right here in Daily Science Fiction, and twitters away @mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.

The dollmaker needs a year at least for each doll. Sometimes two. They are all handcrafted, of course, and the time needed to make the skin feel exactly like human flesh and settle on the bones, you understand--
The stranger is not interested in understanding. "Two months."
"Impossible. Each doll"--
"You will set aside everything else, and do this."
"I assure you"--
"Two months."
The dollmaker takes a deep breath.
"Remember your place, dollmaker." The stranger leans forward. "Remember how easily you can be removed from it."
The dollmaker parts her lips.
"Remember the others."
The dollmaker swallows.
The dollmaker does not waste time. With her remaining gold--damn the stranger for not paying, for being less generous in gold than in threats--she hires two servants. One to stitch clothing for the dolls. The dollmaker has always preferred to keep this in house, and her customers regularly return for new clothing. The other to handle everything else--cooking, cleaning, curious visitors at the doorway. She needed no more strangers. The second servant would no doubt end up cheating her--that was the way of servants--but she would be alive.
For two months.
The dollmaker orders her second servant to find a stomach settling tea.
Now, the doll.
The framework first. Hollow steel. Wood would be too fragile for this doll, unless she uses the heaviest of oak, in which case it would be too heavy. Not that the steel was much lighter.
She really must start thinking of other metals, other options--gold, once merged with nickel, was really far firmer than most customers gave it credit for, and he had heard rumors of new metals coaxed to life by the alchemists, which--
No time to think of that now.
The joints next. Extra flexible, as the customer had requested--no, demanded, but she is trying not to think of that. The doll will be able to flip her leg up above her head in either direction and, if needed, shoot her legs out to the left or to the right in either direction. That is easy enough to plan for: many of her customers demand flexibility in their dolls, although few demand as much as this.
She will not think about that now either.
The forge behind her shop is unbelievably hot.
Even stripped to the waist, she still sweats profoundly. More than once, she regrets the choice not to use wood. Another justification for the servants: they can draw a hot or a cold bath for her at need. She definitely has a need.
Making dolls has always been tiring, and often painful. But never as much as this.
She tests the framework and the joints, moving each finger, each toe. The customer had wanted flexibility there, too. She has it.
Next the muscles.
It is a delicate task, and she has one shot at this; one. Usually she can do this in slow layers, building the doll up bit by bit, shaping, molding, seeing, holding down the doll before it has the chance to breathe.
This time, she cannot.
She pours the material onto the framework, layer by layer, watching it harden bit by bit. Not too much--a bit of heat there, to soften it again, so that it will be ready for the next thin layer. And the next. She pushes down bubbles, heats and colors streaks, and then starts it all again, stopping only when her body is near collapse, for one hour--two at most--of sleep. Layer after layer after layer, pushing each layer to stay in place. Hoping each layer stays in place. More than once she finds herself wishing that she could make this doll the old way--stuffed with shattered silk, a technique she still uses for the dolls she leaves in the window, the dolls for children.
The dolls that only need to whisper a few words, and fall.
The stranger requires something more.
A slender doll, graceful. The dollmaker obeys in everything except for the face, which she rounds out, just a touch, to give it a more kindly, yielding, human look. Some of her customers wanted the dolls to look like dolls. She did not think the stranger was one of those customers.
The slightly rounded face is already breathing before she is ready to put on its skin. She presses down on the doll's chest, thinking, wait, wait. But she does not crush the chest.
She has no time to start again.
It is, she realizes, not quite perfect. The skin, as she had feared, had not settled perfectly on the flesh over the bones, though some of this is covered, if imperfectly, by a long silk dress.
And when the doll moves--
The body moves, certainly: slender and graceful and above all flexible, as requested. But the face--
The dollmaker grits her teeth.
This pains her, truth be told, more than the threats, more than what she knows the doll may--no, will be used for. To have a customer leave with an imperfect doll, however striking, however beautiful, the sculpted face--
But she has no choice. She knows her place.
With a deep breath, she feeds the doll another drop of blood, before sending a servant running to the address the stranger had left.
Fortunately, the stranger does not seem to notice any imperfections. She walks around the doll, slowly, playing with the doll's hair, touching arms, legs, neck, as the doll stares straight ahead. The servants shift uneasily.
"You have included everything?"
No, the dollmaker thinks, but she knows better than to say this out loud. "Everything as requested."
"She will be loyal."
"She has tasted your blood."
"You are certain of this."
The dollmaker does not answer.
The stranger takes another circle around the doll.
"I see clothing, but no weapons."
"I do not make weapons for my dolls," the dollmaker says stiffly. "Not additional weapons."
The stranger tightens her lips. "I suppose I can purchase them elsewhere."
"She will not need them."
"She?" One arched eyebrow. "It, surely."
The dollmaker gestures towards the doll's chest. "I think you will find, very definitely, she."
A tight smile. "She has been instructed?"
"In the basics," the dollmaker says, carefully. "The specifics I leave to my customers."
"Very well."
The stranger seizes the doll's hand, and turns.
"My payment?"
"You breathe," the stranger says, taking the doll by the hand and moving towards the door. "More than I intended to pay."
The dollmaker hisses a quick word just before the door shuts behind them.
The dollmaker remembers her place, so she does not attend, or even try to attend, the great ball held by the king for his eldest son, of course: such things are not for dollmakers. But she, like everyone in the city, hears the tale the following day, spread in urgent whispers from house to house: about the beautiful stranger who had shown up at the ball, dancing with him hour after hour without a single pause for food or drink, her face oddly still throughout, although the young prince had looked flushed and tired. How at midnight, everyone had heard an audible snap. How the horrified nobles and servants had found the prince's body sprawled upon the floor, neck snapped and back broken. And how worse was to come: the bodies of his younger brothers, necks also broken, kitchen knives in their back, and how the king cannot stop weeping.
Nor does the dollmaker join the crowd of mourners who flock to the estate of the king's sister to pay their respects to the new heir, her son. That is, after all, not her place. Nor does she hear about the new maid of the king's sister, a woman who, the other servants complain, never smiles, never even moves her face. What concern does a dollmaker have with the servants of a king's sister?
But when she hears, only a little while later, of how the king's sister had been found at the foot of her own staircase, neck snapped and broken, she does allow herself a slight smile, before she turns to building her next doll.
This time, she tells herself, feeling the anger leech from her, this time she will take the full year. After all, she cannot afford to have all of her customers break their necks, just because her work remains unfinished.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 5th, 2015
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