A long time ago, in a dark and heavily guarded palace, there lived Princess Gale, named for the wind which howled outside her parents’ chamber when she was conceived. Her father, the king, was a jaded and sadistic tyrant, forever devising new reasons to be murderously aggrieved. A year before this story, he ordered the execution of a tailor whose garment irritated the skin of the Prince, Gale’s brother. The king did not care for his children as individuals, but saw them as extensions of himself, so any perceived slight against them was a slight against him, and any slight against him was unforgivable. Princess Gale had been asleep when the tailor was executed, but the Hellish cries of the crowd around the gallows, some of whom were friends and family of the innocent victim, subtly invaded her dreams. Her child’s mind crudely re-imagined these cries as those of the Damned in Hell, a place she had only recently begun learning of in Sunday school, whose class comprised just herself, her brother and her parents’ private minister.
As this story begins, Princess Gale’s tenth birthday was fast approaching. In this particular kingdom, the tenth birthday was very important, because it symbolised initiation into the second phase of life, when the digits of your age number two and you begin the long ascent, then descent, of worldly life. Toymakers throughout the kingdom were auditioned in the palace, by a stern panel of courtly sycophants who dissected each craftsman’s creation with eyes more critical than God’s. Painted wooden dolls, teddy bears and games were tossed aside, forming a sad and broken heap beside the panellists. The toymakers, far from having their egos quashed by rejection, felt immense relief, for if they were prevailed upon to please the Princess with their product, and she disliked it, they could only imagine the king’s wrath.
Finally there came an old and cadaverous toymaker, stood erect but clearly with some difficulty. He was dressed in undoubtedly the best clothes he owned: a well-maintained though tired-looking suit, whose seams were like fingers clinging to a cliff’s edge. His eyebrows, great white bushes almost concealing the caves where his eyes were buried, were the liveliest things about him.
He carried a bleak suitcase. The foremost panellist, the king’s advisor (whose advice consisted mostly of praises) extended one hand, like a bishop expecting a kiss on his clerical ring. ‘Well, let’s have it, old man!’ he said when the toymaker did not proffer the case.
‘With all respect due to your class and position, fine sir’ the toymaker replied, ‘what I have in this case is too delicate, at this time, to be examined by hands other than my own. If I could have a table on which to open the case, fine sir, I would be delighted to show you its contents.’
The advisor reddened slightly, detecting a vague insolence in the toymaker’s manner. ‘What is your name, old man?’
‘Elias Hornsby, sir, just a simple inventor from one of your Majesty’s closest settlements, Arrows-Field, not far from where he slew our dreaded neighbours in ’88.’
The advisor’s nostrils flared as he raised his face a fraction, a sign indicating contentment and restored superiority. ‘You need not quote the King’s history to me, Hornsby. Servant! Fetch our visitor a table.’
When the latter was procured, Elias Hornsby placed his case upright upon it, flipped open its rusty iron clasps, and then opened it. Each half was padded with papier-mâché moulded to enclose a two-foot doll. This was made with bone china, not a crack in which marred the toy’s gleaming white perfection. The brittle flesh was as pure and unmarked as that belonging to a baby just delivered. Though its eyes were clearly two blue marbles, they had been shined and preserved to almost affect the appearance of sapphires. Its hair was light brown, like that of a healthy pet mouse, and undisturbed by any hat. The doll wore a plain, frilled white blouse, such as a modest bridesmaid would wear, and a long white skirt of similar colour and design, though the lowermost regions were sewn with small red love-hearts.
After a moment’s admiration among the panellists, Reason reached the king’s advisor. ‘It is certainly a fine object, Hornsby, but an inappropriate toy for a little girl. You said yourself how delicate it is. A child’s hands would break this the moment they removed it from the wrappings!’
Hornsby smiled without opening his mouth. ‘Once I have finished perfecting her, sir, she will be as likely to break as the King’s morale.’
‘Beyond employing the Dark Arts, old man, I do not see how that is possible.’
‘In the woods at Arrows-Field, sir, as I am sure a student of the King’s history is aware, there grows a species of tree whose sap was used to finish the saddles of His Majesty’s horses, and which rendered them stronger than sin. A full day’s riding and jousting could be completed with barely a scratch on the saddle. I, your humble servant, merely took inspiration one day and begun coating my dolls with it. This doll is as yet un-sapped, but once I have accrued enough of the substance, which should not be too far in the future, I will rectify that.’
The panellists were impressed, and Hornsby was henceforth entrusted with the honour of providing the Princess’ gift. ‘Do not disappoint us, Hornsby’ said the advisor, with an austere glint in his eyes, ‘or, more importantly, the King’s daughter. Children are not so easily impressed…’
Hornsby merely smiled.
Elias Hornsby, esteemed toymaker of Arrows-Field, died just one month before Princess Gale’s birthday, as, he revealed in his will, he had expected. His pay for the doll, he dictated, was to be shared between his three daughters, giving them a life as free women, unbound by the necessity of marriage. This freedom for his beloved young was, he wrote, his only motivation in applying for audition at the palace.
This death annoyed the king, because it deprived him of someone to torment should his daughter not like her toy. The advisor dared not try to placate this annoyance, but meekly abetted it. Besides, should a head be required to roll, the king could always find someone to kneel before the block.
The room chosen for the princess’ birthday party once hosted her parents’ wedding reception. A circular marble ballroom, placed regularly around it were ten twelve-foot pillars, on each of whose crowns stood white marble cupids, with golden bows and arrows spearheaded by ruby love-hearts. Between the cupids were hung flaming torches; the room did not have a chandelier, so a shadowy and antiquarian atmosphere was evoked by the ten torches, their lights dappling the cherubic sentinels.
In preparation for the ceremony a long table was placed in the centre of the room, to host gifts given by the kingdom’s subjects. Also from Arrows-Field, there came a punch-bowl crafted by the town’s pre-eminent glass blower; from another settlement lumber for the palace’s hearths was delivered; other settlements provided their own gifts to the royal family, the haul including masses of jewellery, fine foods such as cheeses and truffles, rare books and artworks.
Of course, none of the gift-givers were permitted to attend the celebration and see the response to their offerings. The honour of attendance was exclusively for the men, women and children of noble birth. Even the palace servants, who stocked the ballroom with plentiful provisions (mostly wine and ale), were commanded to leave before the princess’ arrival; within the palace walls, the tenth anniversary of her introduction to the kingdom would be celebrated, by her, only among her peers. She would remember the celebration for the rest of her life, though not for its pageantry.
The queen knelt beside Princess Gale’s bed and applied a damp cloth to the sleeping child’s forehead. She woke, a decorous and prim young royal, already in her light purple ball-gown, on as opposed to under the bedcovers for fear of wrinkling the garment. ‘It is time’ said the queen, smiling as her daughter’s eyes registered her. The queen was a trim and attractive woman in her middle forties, the progress of age having not ravaged her beauty so much as modified it, delicately, so there were quaint little stretches at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
Though she was blonde and her daughter’s hair was brown (the princess inherited this colouring from her father), mother and child looked alike. If the queen was a portrait bearing exquisite wear, the princess was a new, small sculpture of the same personage. ‘I’m so tired’ said Princess Gale. The queen took one of her hands. ‘I know, darling, but this is important. Everyone is here, and you know how your father deals with those who disappoint him.’ The princess gave her mother a mischievous smile. ‘Not me’ she said, ‘I am his favourite.’ The queen laughed. ‘That is true, but I would not tempt his favour.’
Princess Gale slid off of the bed and let her mother place purple velvet slippers on her feet. The queen then opened a drawer beside the princess’ bed and withdrew a dazzling, feather-light tiara on a display cushion. She placed the former on her daughter’s head, tilted her face upwards with a finger below her chin, and kissed the princess’ cheek. ‘One day, you will make some undeserving fellow impossibly happy’ she said, and took her hand.
Several branches and generations of the royal family were gathered in the ballroom. The king, fat and hearty, an enormous glass of wine in one oppressively jewelled hand, stood behind the long table’s centre, before the package containing Elias Hornsby’s doll.
The crowd hushed as one of the two doors opened, and in stepped the queen with Princess Gale. Her mother bade her sit cross-legged in the middle of the room, surrounded by her familial spectators (which included noble cousins she had neither seen nor heard of, besides the usual grandparents, aunts and uncles). With his free hand the king picked up the package, walked around the table and presented it to his daughter. ‘In honour of the tenth anniversary of your patronage here, in this mortal realm, o angel embodied’ he recited, the first time he had needed to do so, his only other child, the Prince, being but eight years old.
Princess Gale, as she had been coached, nodded her gratitude and accepted the gift with both hands. She untied the dark purple ribbons, unwrapped all of the light purple paper, and found a varnished chest. Using a small knob which gave the chest’s lid the appearance of a door, she revealed Elias Hornsby’s doll to the light. The sapping had left no blemish on its china skin, or stain on its white blouse, whose frills were like snowflakes. The princess was momentarily enraptured by the doll’s blue marble-eyes, which seemed to hold endless possibilities for childish love and companionship.
She also noticed the doll’s tiny nostrils, crafted too well to be human, and remembered a lesson her parents’ minister once taught her about why you needed to be blessed after sneezing. The latter action gave your soul escape, he said, and the blessing replaced it. If a soul can leave through the nostrils, Princess Gale wondered, could an alien soul use them for entrance?
Regardless, she adored her new toy and, lifting it roughly from the chest, cried ‘I love it, daddy, I love it I love it I love it!’ The crowd erupted into deafening cheers before the third “love” was out of her mouth.
Not long after the princess gave her gift her seal of approval, the noble children were sent to bed while their parents continued the celebration in the ballroom. Princess Gale slept with the doll in her arms, but was entirely unaware when its eyes started to move, as though registering the room and seeking its door. Nor did she stir when it stretched its limbs, testing their elasticity and autonomy, an observer might have assumed. Stealthily, it wriggled out from under her protective arm and sat on the edge of the bed. Its head tilted downwards, it contemplated the drop, came to a decision and pushed itself off with its hands, landing on its firm sapped feet. (In height, the doll came up to the princess’ kneecaps.)
Though the doll’s mouth concealed no hinges and was thus immovable, close examination of its eyes would have revealed a sort of contentment. The doll, it seemed, was pleased with its position, and proud of its defiance of the universe’s laws. It had left mortality’s dwelling, and confirmed its presence in the strange world beyond.
Just as stealthily as it had wriggled free of the princess’ arm, the doll clambered up the ornate doorframe, turned the knob with one hand, slightly pushed open the door, climbed down and quitted the room. The servants having all been removed to their own quarters, the doll faced no resistance as it walked, slowly and clumsily at first, down corridors and stairs to arrive at the ballroom’s oaken doors, one of which was still slightly open. It peered through this small entrance, and was almost pushed back by what it saw.
The decadence and debauchery, this china girl felt, defied imagination. The kingdom’s gifts were scattered around, the punch-bowl smashed like a bird’s egg, the lumber in ugly disorder, the paintings in pieces and the books torn apart. Amid this chaos the nobles raved, their royal garments torn as they drunkenly attacked and fornicated with each other. On the long table, where the doll was laid barely an hour ago, the queen posed like a canine as her husband mounted her, the pair making gross, animal noises. Above this Sodom-in-microcosm, the cherubic sentinels sat dumb and silent.
What previously was contentment, in the doll’s eyes, became rage, a wrath so pure and Hellish it would have startled anyone who beheld it, though none did. Clearly, the doll had not expected this. It did not know what it had expected, but this disgusting ode to ingratitude and animalism was not it. Even the eldest and most dignified royals cavorted with each other, a mob to rival the one which threatened Lot.
The doll’s eyes emitted an invisible energy, almost (but not quite) against its will. This imperceptible force grasped a flaming torch and threw it from the wall. The face of a minor princess, her person caught in the act of defilement with her lover, broke its fall. Her delicate features caved in and combusted, while her lover found himself seeding a faceless martyr. His momentary ecstasy became eternal fear as the Hell-flames caught him, dragging him into an embrace painful beyond comprehension.
Startled from their revelry, the royals screamed and ran towards the doors, but before they could reach them the doll stepped back, while the energy slammed the open one shut, sealing both with its dark magic. Inside the ballroom, which was now her tomb, the queen pushed her husband off of her and stared, dumbstruck, at all her known relatives (besides the children), through marriage and blood, pounding the oaken doors as each torch fell from its socket. She turned to her husband, now lying equally dumbstruck on the carpet, and said to him her final words: ‘is this some kind of trick, you monster?!’
The children’s bedchambers were sufficiently far away that they did not hear their parents burning and dying. The doll climbed back into Princess Gale’s arms, comfortable in the knowledge that she would be the throne’s new incumbent, come dawn.