The Royal Doll

(inspired by this prompt)

Ever since the prince's new tutor arrived at the castle, everything has been just humming along. It's really almost uncanny! It's like someone's filled off all the edges that used to cause so much friction; the chefs haven't bitten anyone's head off, let alone snapped at them, and the scullery maids have grown so quiet and efficient that you almost wouldn't know they're there. The footmen move in well-rehearsed motions, the horses kneel down to be mounted ...

Even the birds in the towers have stopped muttering.

And it's been weeks since the prince's last tantrum.

It's almost suspicious, thinks Oliver Seal as he paces through the halls. Everything running perfectly smooth, and he hasn't had to do a thing.

If this keeps up then maybe the castle doesn't need a butler at all, and that's a horrible (and threatening!) thought.

So here he goes, looking for any flaw to throw in the face of the other servants, girding himself to do something most unwise: intrude upon the prince's studies.

The new tutor's rooms (a study, a bedroom, and (for reasons which escape Seal) an observatory) are up in one of the castle's tallest towers, up and up and up along winding staircases and broad balconies; he's panting too much to enjoy the view out of the generously placed windows, but if he could pause for a moment he'd really ... well, he's not the sort of person to enjoy a view. Not yet.

There's no reply to his first polite knock, so he bangs on the door—in for a penny in for a pound, right? That's what he's always thought, what his father always told him.

The tutor's voice is full of strange cadences as she replies, a relic of her overseas upbringing (or so Seal understands, though no one has ever told him exactly where she was raised).

“Yes, Seal? Do come in.”

He doesn't stop to think about how she knew it was him.

The wide circular room is full of light, cascading in through the windows and sparkling off tall glass chimes and dripping down stacks of books; she's standing there waiting for him, her black robes and dull hat entirely out of place in such a beautiful room. The prince is ... no, that's not the prince. It's a porcelain doll, done up in a fine dress and positioned demurely on a throne-like chair; life-sized, which is odd, but Seal's seen stranger things in his 50-some years.

“Where's the prince, Ma'am? I was sent to fetch him.”

“And you came yourself? Seal, my dear, I'd have thought that you'd have sent another servant. All those stairs can't be good for you.”

His heart twinges at her words.

“Even so. Where is he?”

“She's a bit indisposed at the moment, Seal. If you would give me a moment ...?”

“Of course—wait, indisposed? What?”

“Mmm, she's just not quite ready. You understand, I'm sure.”

“I do not, Ma'am.”

“Ah well, you will. Just wait there, Seal ...”

The tutor turns away from him, and Seal adds another few notches to his tally of slights; he's already quite frustrated with her, but ... maybe he'll need to figure out how to properly destroy her. It can't be that hard, even if the prince likes her.

He almost misses the way she approaches the doll.

But when she lays a hand on its head and it tilts its face up to look at her, well ... that can't have been her puppetting it, can it?

“Dear,” the tutor says, “Seal is here to fetch you. You'll need to put your mask back on for a bit.”

The doll's voice is small and high-pitched, and Seal swears something about it seems familiar. “Do I have to? I don't think I'm ready ...”

“You do. It will just be for a bit, okay? Remember the game we've been playing.”

”... yes, Miss.”

Seal stares gobsmacked as the doll stretches and its appearance shifts—it's like it's putting on a fresh set of clothing, like it's letting something settle across its body. He stares, and blinks, and then ...


That's where the prince was, staring at him with curious eyes.

“What do you need me for, Seal?”

He chokes back a scream, and turns to run—if this is the prince then his tutor is doing something unholy to him, and if it's not then she's surely killed the real prince! Someone must be told! Someone—

“Calm down, Seal!” the tutor cries after him, her voice faintly mocking. “Think of your heart!”

He doesn't pause, just keeps on racing down the stairs.

His heart twinges and aches and his body feels leaden and sweaty and still he runs, as fast as he can, far faster than he'd ever call safe—

Pain shoots through his chest.

He misses a step.

And that's the end of him.

Rather later, the prince and the tutor stare down at his broken corpse from a ways above. There's blood spreading from his broken skull and the panic of his last few moments still fills his slack face. The prince stifles a giggle.

“Is he going to be one of yours now, Miss?”

“I do rather think so, dear. Better not to rock the boat too much. Now be a darling and help me drag him upstairs ...”