The Hounds at Our Heels

Their howls sound of shattering glass. They’re excited, hungry, and terrifying enough to steal my attention from the indignant man in front of me, Ron Nielson. He marches on with orders while I sit alone in his office to listen to him and hounds bark at the moon.

“You need to send Confirmed two, three emails a day to fix the issue with SnapLiberty. We’re paying them for support, so you need to use it,” my boss barks at me.

Ron could motivate a victorious army to defeat. From his office at the top of a commercial building that’s too environmentally friendly for office sinks, he commands this city’s branch of WorldConnect.

“I’ll send them another email.”

“Get on this. SnapLiberty only has this problem with mobile data using our service. Also get in touch with Secure Internet Transmissions. They’re the company that makes the white label app used by SnapLiberty’s users. Set up a PCAP with them and Confirmed as soon as you can.”

He taps his finger in time with each order, a habit he developed when he was a high strung, jet-setting CTO for GT&T. It must’ve motivated the underlings at a company with more customers than sense, but this is a start-up, and he’s still doing it.

“Will do.”

“Good. Keep me informed of your progress.”

That’s not to say there’s nothing good about the man. He has fantastic hair. It’s as thick as mine, and he’s more than twice my age. I want to know his secret. Hair restoration surgery? Fancy shampoos? Winning the genetic hair lottery, but losing every popularity contest since high school?

“I will.”

“There is always something on fire in this company,” he mutters to himself.

I write up another email to Confirmed after returning to my desk. Out of the corners of my eyes, I watch Ron pack up in a huff. It’ll be safe to leave five minutes after he does.

“Good night, Jim,” Ron says as he passes by different offices, “Aaron, Eric.”

I unconsciously sigh in relief when the office door next to my desk clacks shut. The very same moment, I look up the traffic report. Terrible as always, but I should let Gisèle know when I’m leaving. Although, I’m not the only one planning on dashing out the moment the boss leaves.

“Later, Sam,” Eric says to me as he walks out.

“Later.”

“Have a good night, Samuel,” Jim says as he leaves.

“Good night, Jim.”

I send a quick message to Gisèle, “Heading home now. I’ll probably be late.”

“Remember to lock up before you leave,” Eric tells me with the door half open.

“I will.”

“Catch you later then.”

“Later.”

I close the office door on the pack of hounds barking a few blocks down. Even though I’m on the twentieth floor, they feel close. My heart quickens as familiar static fills me. My breathing hastens to match the beat in my chest.

Stop. Breathe out.

The feelings throughout my body come back into focus. My breathing returns to normal after five steps toward the elevators. Best of all, my phone vibrates with a message, “Oui.”

* * * * *

I shut out the cold wind and rain behind me after a long, long drive home. What should’ve been twenty minutes took over an hour. Traffic is getting worse every year as more people come to seize opportunities in this bleak, shining city.

“Bonsoir, Monsieur Clemens,” the brightest part of my day greets me.

My lips crack a smile from hearing Gisèle’s Lorrainian accent. Her words are as easy on the ears as she is on the eyes.

“Hey.”

“Dinner is waiting for you on the table whenever you’re ready.”

She’s wearing the black apron I never used again. From the moment she saw it, it’s been her favorite accessory.

“Non, non, Monsieur,” she reacts instantly the moment I step onto the carpet in my apartment.

“Right,” I glance down at my feet, “shoes.”

Even though it’s been two months, I’m still not use to taking off my shoes when I come inside. It’s one of her peculiarities. I understand why – she’s the one cleaning up the mess I track in, but still, it’s like she has eyes in the back of her head.

“Sorry about that.”

“Think nothing of it.

Her feather tailed sways back and forth as she returns to the kitchen. It and the tuffs on her wrists are the same dark chocolate as her hair.

“Dinner is waiting on the table, whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks.”

On the table, under fogged up plastic wrap, is our dinner – Salisbury steak, a mixture of steamed vegetables, and a freshly baked baguette.

“You didn’t have to wait for me.”

She answers while carrying our drinks to the table, “It would be rude to begin without the master of the house.”

“Wouldn’t master of the one bedroom apartment in the bad part of town be more apt?”

“Oui. It would be rude to begin dinner without the master of the one bedroom apartment in the bad part of town.”

We take our seats at the table too small for two people, and Gisèle deftly removes the plastic covering our plates.

“Ack, you win. That sounds terrible coming from someone else.”

Silence hangs in the air. Nodding down, voiceless words pass over her lips.

“Amen,” looking up at me, she beams, “It does sound terrible coming from someone else.”

“Well, just don’t wait around for me all night. I might get dragged into staying late.”

“If that were to pass, I trust Monsieur will be kind and use a device called a cellphone to tell me. Meals are to be shared.”

Gisèle sits with perfect posture, hands folded in her lap. Her gray eyes never leave mine, as if they could see through me. The bemused smile she wears asks, “When will you quit it?”

“Meals are to be shared, huh?”

I say to myself more than fair skinned girl across from me. Along with shoes, it’s another peculiarity of hers. I don’t hate it. I’ve eaten more meals in front of a computer monitor than at a table the last few years, but… Gisèle nor I have touched our food.

“Thank you for cooking.”

I take a bite of her fresh, artisan homemade bread.

“Service.”

Gisèle finally takes a bite of the food she labored to make. She’ll only eat after I’ve started. I don’t know if it’s another one of her peculiarities or she’s well-bred.

“You’re going to spoil me with this kind of food.”

The bread is warm, soft on the inside, but a little crunchy on the outside. The Salisbury steak explodes with savoriness from the first bite. The rich brown sauce lends it an extra layer of flavor that goes well with the mixed vegetables.

“We call it job security in my profession.”

“I can’t call you my employee when you’re paying half my rent.”

“It’s thanks to your charity that I have a place to stay. It’s expensive to take in another, hein?”

“Not as much as I thought it’d be. Your home cooking and coupon hunting have helped with that.”

“Oui! A proper maid uses every resource available for the estate’s prosperity.”

“I thank you for attending to the welfare of the estate, but what about Lorraine?”

“Aahh…”

The light in her smile fades as her eyes escape to the corner.

“You’ve been helping out with food too, right?”

“Oui… I wished to be a benefit while I intruded upon your hospitality…”

If she had dog ears to go with that tail, she’d look like a scolded puppy.

“I’m not mad,” like a puppy she returns to me with big, round eyes, “It really does help, but you’re not my maid. Isn’t returning to your family more important than eviscerating my junk mail?”

I try to smile to reinforce that I’m not angry at her, but from how she bites her pink lips, I doubt it worked. When all else fails, change the subject.

“This is really good,” I take a bite of bread, “Did you make it from scratch?”

No matter how obvious and awkward that change may be.

“Oui,” her lips cautiously turn up, “It’s so much better from the oven than a shelf.”

I answer her by taking another bite. The heat has keeps the crust soft, and the inside light. She avoids the biggest problem with Lorrainian bread, a spikey crust. If it sits around too long the crust hardens and stabs your gums with every bite.

“We Lorrainians enjoy a fresh baguette, croissant, ficelle, boule, or other kind of breath with our meals. I couldn’t stand to waste your money on stale imitations when I could treat us to the real thing for cheaper. I could try making some brioche, but it’s best with meat and that’s becoming expensive lately…”

She strokes one of the larger brown plumes that adorn her wrists. They’re like miniature pom-poms that never seem to interfere with what she’s doing. I’ve thought about asking her if anyone’s ever found a feather in the food she’s made, but that’d start a fight I could never hope to win.

“Although, it’s a good dessert too…”

“Shouldn’t you finish this meal before planning the next?”

“Bah!” Her hair bun bounces as she snaps back to reality, “I should, but I want to share as much Lorrainian cuisine with you while I can. You Alleghanians have no appreciate for the subtle tastes in food. It always tastes like sugar and salt. I need to stop myself from cringing every time I serve food to guests at the cafe.”

“Is the ritual that bad?”

“Monsieur! The taste! I would happily cast that spell on all your meals.”

“Stick to cakes and sugar sauce parfaits.”

Her left eye tweaks.

“Beurk, I’ll never bring that to this table. I considered asking Madame Spencer if I could change the items on the menu to something… better, but I’ve only been working for a month. That would be presumptuous, hein?”

“A bit, but she’s already advertising that a real kikimora works for her. You can get away with it.”

“Hmmm…” She breaks eye contact with me, “I should start with one item while keeping in mind taste, cost, and difficulty to prepare… I won’t be around long enough to do more.”

She bites her lip again.

“Still bothered about Sutton?”

She fidgets in place, tail swishing to the other side of her chair.

“My situation with Monsieur Sutton will be a problem,” her cheeks redden, “I don’t want to tell my mère. She’ll fall in the apples.”

“She’ll what?”

“Ah, pardon. I mean she’ll faint, and my friends will tease me for years.”

“Even though he was a dick?”

“It’s unthinkable to return before a contract is finished.”

“Even if the guy came onto you like that?”

“A kikimora does not fail her master, Monsieur.”

“Telling him no to that isn’t failure.”

“That wasn’t the reason given to the agency though. I’m afraid of what Monsieur Sutton may do if I told my family before I can tell them it was a necessary step in finding my beloved master. My père would be angry.”

“You could win that case.”

“Monsieur Sutton is a very powerful man. Even if I won, what would he do legally to my family and I in revenge?”

She has a point. We’ve been over this several times before. I can’t help but want to do something about it. He’s the richest man in this city, maybe even the country. He could hire as many fancy lawyers as he needs to lie his way out of it.

“Still…”

“Merci Monsieur. I’ll think of an explanation that won’t be so shameful. He’s a crafty man. Everything he wrote on the notice of dismissal to the agency was true.”

She bites her bottom lip yet again while her tail rustles to the other side of the chair.

“That’s bullshit though.”

“I wonder. He is a particular man, obsessed with his work and purpose. His passion was so bright that I could hardly discern his desires aside from it. He and Monsieur are cut from the same cloth.”

“I’m not like that.”

“I’ve seen you write,” she smiles wryly, “You’re dazzling; like your abuse of commas.”

“Irk,” a sound escapes me.

“Will you continue your novel tonight?”

“After I run,” I stand from the table, plate in hand, “Thanks for making dinner.”

I nonchalantly head to the kitchen, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Service, but Monsieur, please leave that there.”

Damn it.

“You’re particular about that.”

“A maid’s honor.”

“Sweet talk and fake promises will work better next time.”

Gisèle finishes the last of her dinner and collects the plates on the table.

“Season lightly. If you bake your words like your cookies, the salt will be charming.”

That was an accident. I wasn’t used to having all the seasonings in jars instead of packaging.

“I only need a one charming lie to ruin your honor.”

As she passes by me, hands full of dishes, she answers, “Which is safe, because your heart is too big for a lie to occupy.”

Before I can reply, she ends the conversation with the sound of running water. Equipped with her trusty apron, she sets to the dishes that I failed yet again sneak into the sink.

Sitting down at my computer, I begin the most unproductive time of the day. My mind is too rattled from stress at work, but my body is too full to go for a run. I glance at my daily reminder to write, an open tab in my web browser that contains the schedule and deadline for the Shoemaker contest.

Every year the Shoemaker Prize is given to the winner of an international contest for aspiring serials writers. The winner is guaranteed to have their entry published by one of the sponsors, but that’s not easy to do. Leading agents, editors, and authors are brought in each year to scrutinize the works on plot, language, and marketability. Every winner has gone on to write a bestselling selling series. So much so that the companies who sponsor the contest will wage bidding wars against each other for the rights to publish their entry.

While winning the contest would be a great, it’s not necessary. Nearly all the candidates who make it to the last rounds of the competition are gobbled up by the sponsors as well. The level of talent is too high for them to ignore. That’s why I’ve obsessed over this contest for years now. It’s the fastest way for a nobody to become a professional author, and its deadline is creeping up on me.

I scan through my inline notes for my next entry, “The Hunter of Lost Causes.” I try to picture the scenario and tune into my characters’ voices, but all I hear is static and barking of dogs. The noise prickles, pops, and obscures my story while the hounds taunt me, “Your dream is a lie. Your life is ticking away, then you will die.”

A feeling between fear and horror swells inside me as I listen to the hounds. The barking grows louder every day that I don’t add a word to this file, because they’re catching up to me. Closer and my bones jitter. Closer and my mind trembles. Closer and they nip at my heels. I’m like a hunted fox.

I don’t know what will happen if they catch me. Will I give up my dream? Will a bullet become more appealing than another sunrise? I don’t want to find out, but it’s been six days since I added anything to this document.

“Awwwoooooooooh!”

My heart drums against my chest. There’s so much for me to do. I’m essentially trying to self-publish a book by myself for the most critical judges in the most competitive contest in the world. There’s no…

Stop. Breathe out.

I pour my tension into my breath. I’ll write. They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Focus on finishing this scene then the next scene. I’ll write tonight.

+ + + + +

It’s an art to avoid wetting my feathers when I do dishes. I can’t use long, yellow rubber gloves, because they pull my feathers out. It hurts just as much as plucking hair from your head.

Why the Creator of Man and Fae gave us who are called to serve feathers on our wrists is a mystery. They’re an attractive accent, but impractical for dirty chores. They get wet and dirty so easily. They’re hard to clean. Although, it may be His sense of humor that dish soap cleans them better than expensive shampoos. I place another clean plate into the rack next to the sink.

Did I make the right choice? I’ve fallen from an executive condo to an overpriced hovel. The thin sink is too shallow to work with. Each of the burners on the electric stove heat at different temperatures – a four on the right is like a two on the left. Ugly linoleum is a poor disguise for a concrete floor. It amuses me how the brown, threadbare carpet only a couple steps away now feels wonderful underneath my feet. I’ve preferred ceramic tile in the past. The click-clack from my talons had me feel important since I was a girl.

It is the master, not the mansion that determines the quality of the estate. My mother stressed this to my sisters and me repeatedly when we were growing up. It’s also easy to say when you’re living in a chateau that’s surrounded by gardens. However much I may I want to jab at my mother’s wisdom, I know it’s true.

Samuel is a different man than my other masters. He’s failed. My previous masters were men groomed for or blessed by success. It’s from Samuel that I’ve learned what failure can do to a man.

If men were like flowers, success and failure are like the sun and darkness. As plants grow toward the sun, so do men grow toward success. When they are nurtured and achieve a steady stream of victories, they grow tall where the whole world can see them, but what of the men left in the darkness of defeat? Like plants, they warp. They grow in strange directions to find precious sunlight. No one notices these warped, hidden flowers.

I turn the water off after placing the last piece of silverware into the drying rack. Without any chores left to do, I return to my bed, a green, comfy couch that Samuel has carried with him for years. I love how it naturally rolls me toward its back and how I can bury my head in the crook of the armrest. The worn cushions with that stain that won’t come off (I tried) embrace me better than whatever memory foam or shock absorbent mattress they pedal on TV.

Two books lie on the coffee table in front of me, “A Hero of a Thousand Faces” and “The Elements of Style.” Neither of them are what I would usually read, because they are books for storytellers. Creativity for me is exploring new tastes or inventing new conveniences. Sure, I indulged in fantasies of romance and adventure when I was younger, but I never felt called to share what played in the theater of my mind. And yet, I feel called to study them. Not for my sake, but for his, my unofficial fourth master.

“Unofficial…” I sigh.

The word pains me as much as the number of my masters. It’s secretive and shameful. I’m hiding from the embarrassment that I don’t want to face, because I failed as a kikimora. How could I fail to serve when my Heavenly Father has given me gifts that humans call magic?

I followed my mother’s advice and saved myself for my future, nonexistent, beloved master, but was that right? Other kikimoras test out their masters before deciding which one to dedicate their lives to. Maybe I’m too old fashioned. They’re serving officially while I’m hiding in disgrace.

That book, the one about heroes, tugs at my heart. I need to understand this book. It calls to me more than brooding about the past or earning a ticket home. His dream and stature are so small compared to theirs. However, I feel moved to help him, as if this were all a part of Providence’s plan. Sometime in the future, Samuel will need this book’s help. And so, I lift it from the table.

There’s still sometime before Samuel will start his run. My inner eyes see a black aura marred static around him. When he returns, it’ll be a warmer red or orange, but the static will remain.

Hopefully, tonight, he’ll make more progress.

* * * * *

A gust of freezing wind beats across me as I run over the bridge near my apartment. Black water reflects white moonlight. Chilly drizzle stabs into my exposed face and legs. Gisèle panicked when she first saw me set out like this, but it’s nothing unusual around here. As long as I can keep my core warm, I’m fine.

But nights like this show how cold this city can be. Wafts of marijuana smoke rise up from the colony of homeless people underneath the nearside of the bridge. Like animals they claim territories where they panhandle by onramps, rummage through garbage cans for half-eaten leftovers, and sleep under awnings of stores. I’ve heard rumors of that some burrow into the access and utility tunnels that crisscross the city as if they were urban mole people. She wasn’t like them.

It was on a night like this that I found her clutching her knees next to a dumpster. Her eyes were as dark as the rain slick asphalt she sat on. White knuckles and stiff fingertips couldn’t stop her shivering. A feathered tail laid limp in front of her.

Eastlake waits for me at the other side. The uneven sidewalks split from years of neglect and the slow undulations of the earth transition into straight boardwalks as flat as my salary. Luxury apartments, fancy restaurants, and even a caviar store line one side while small trees dot the other. Not a soul seeks shelter from the rain here.

In this city, maybe one in ten thousand people are fae like Gisèle. They’re what you see on TV or from far away at tourist traps like Salmon Street Market. Parents join their children in gawking when they chance across one.

I take the right fork in the road, following the flat ground. After a mile, runner’s high sets in, and the chill of this miserable winter night becomes pleasant. The static that plays from the dial in my mind clears as I distance myself from work. However, I can never distance myself from my choices.

Every decision has a consequence. Year after year I chose to ignore my friends and family to lock myself in a dark room and write. I missed the recruitment drives for college graduates, snubbed new people, and watch my student loans grow larger. In the end, all I had to show for my sacrifices were a pile of rejected manuscripts.

Splish, splash, I dash across puddles of water that grow in the rain. The fancy buildings give way to medical research companies and high end tech firms. The greenery grows denser with each company showing off their wealth through street side gardens and expert landscaping. All of the green reminds me of a friend’s house I use to visit in high school. These unofficial parks that combine nature and technology are half the reason why I take this route.

Nothing else has the power to sap belief from a heart like coming up short. When those hearts belong to family, encouragement turns into practical advice and excited news of job openings. Friends start to dance around certain topics and find it easier to hang out with other people. I don’t blame them. It was my fault.

Once the displays of corporate wealth come to an end, I take a turn toward the lake and run along its shore. House boats, small docks and concrete line its rocky beaches. Further out, a barge floats across its water toward the locks that connect to the ocean.

Hounds bark and howl behind me. I speed up rather than look back. Over the bridge and back into Wellingford. The broken sidewalks and the stench of marijuana welcome me home. The sidewalks and walls preferred by the homeless are dirty and discolored even when they’re not there. A feral man wrapped in secondhand rags rummages ass up in a dumpster, more trash is scattered around than inside it.

Will I become like him, a broken man who gave up on himself and everything he dreamed of, if the hounds sink their teeth into me? I shake my head desperately trying to remove myself from that dumpster in my mind, but it’s too easy to picture myself in his place. I continue to try even though no one, including myself, believes I will succeed. Because, that is my future if I stop.

“Bonsoir, Monsieur Clemens,” Gisèle greets as I close the front door behind me.

After slipping out of my running shoes, she hands me a cold glass of tea. It’s hard to drink anything when I’m breathing so hard, but I accept it anyway.

“…thanks…” I manage to get out.

“Service.”

I throw my wet sweatshirt onto the bed and take off my socks while glancing over at my computer. Good. There’s no messages from Svartland or Rajasthan. I should be able to write tonight.

“There should be plenty of hot water for you, Monsieur. Please take a shower whenever you’re ready.”

I take a drink after getting a hold of my breathing.

“Thanks.”

Today should be a good night for writing.

* * * * *

My fingers tip toe across the keyboard. It takes a while to get into the mood for writing. Even though I love it, it still feels like work. It takes effort to tune into the characters and world that I’m creating inside my mind. However, that effort is always worth it. The night is silent.

As I enter my flow, the scenes and characters come alive in my mind. They’re not images, but I can see them. My pace quickens as I record what my characters are doing. The deeper I go into a writing trance, the more removed I become from them. I feel their emotions, and their voices flow through to my fingertips.

Ping!

Until that happened. The Skyte icon flashes yellow at the bottom of the screen.

“Awwwoooooooooh!”

I know what that means, but I don’t want to look at it. In the past, that sound would excite me, because a friend reached out to me. Now, it only means work. I could ignore it and say that I was asleep tomorrow, but Ron wouldn’t buy it. Apparently, I’m a professional and that means work is my first priority.

The message from Ron reads, “A customer crashed the database and brought BSS and OCS down. NOC removed them from the flow, but PDP rejects are still increasing. Notify all customers and run the usual reports. You will help with customer complaints.”

Fuck.

* * * * *

I’m surrounded by spreadsheets and charts. One monitor displays the raw data from the GGSN that I transfer into different reports. The red line of PDP rejects closes in on the blue line of PDP attempts meanwhile, another graph shows the blue line indicating the number of current sessions steadily decreasing. It won’t long before there’s a complete service outage for all customers.

Bing!

A different notification – this one from the support ticketing system. It didn’t take long for someone to notice that their phone didn’t have internet anymore. Part of me believed that no one would notice, because it’s the middle of night, but that also believes that I’m an only child, because the stork lost the directions to my parents’ house.

“Pardon,” Gisèle raps at my open bedroom door, “I brought you a drink.”

“Thanks,” I can’t spare her much of my attention as I type another long explanation for an angry customer.

Yes, I understand that you’re receiving thousands of customer complaints. It’s being worked on. Complaining to me won’t make it go any faster. That expertise is above my pay grade.

“Monsieur, this doesn’t appear to be your novel.”

“Got called into work.”

I drink the warm milk she brought me. It’s good, especially how she mixes in a little honey and nutmeg.

“Do these people ever stop working?”

“As often as you stop acting like a maid.”

I meet her eyes and discover that the fae are as good at scowling as their human sisters. A moment later she smacks my shoulder and reveals a slight bush in her cheeks. Worth it.

“How long will they need you?”

The real time graph isn’t painting a pretty picture.

“Probably all night. Every customer is affected, and it may become a total shut down.”

“Then I’ll make a snack in a couple of hours, but first, I should brew some tea,” She tries to take back the mug.

“Thanks, but I’ll finish it. No reason for you to stay up with me though. Ms. Spencer won’t appreciate bad service from a sleepy poster girl.”

Besides, I’ve started looking forward to it every night.

“Hmph!” She cocks her head up, “As if tiredness could stop me, a kikimora, from providing the best service.”

“But the dark rings around your eyes will change your pre-meal spell into a curse.”

“Then I’ll cast the best curses in the cafe.”

“You’ll have every kind of creeper coming to visit you.”

“And giving big tips for their favorite maid.”

Ping! Another angry Skyte message from a customer.

“Got a curse I can use for mine?”

“I need dark rings for that, remember?”

“Damn.”

“But, is there anything I could do to help you?”

“Sorry. I signed up for this.”

Unfortunately.

“I… I understand. Bonne nuit, Monsieur.”

“Night.”

My heart sinks as I watch her limp out the room.

+ + + + +

Perhaps it’s Providence that this couch suits me so well. Whenever I sink into the cushions and wrap myself in Samuel’s blankets, I feel like I’m drifting deeper into the peaceful dark. The mistakes and regrets of today are gone, and the challenges of tomorrow aren’t here. It’s only during this transition that I can retreat and reflect.

I watch Samuel hunch over his keyboard through the open door to his room. Black smoke continues to surround him. Strangely, static, like the kind on a TV, mixes into the dark plumes. At times, I can see the shape of a dog or a maw inside the clouds.

Monsieur Sutton had the same air about him. Does it mean that something is burning them alive? Or, does it mean that they’re burning from passion? I could never tell. Both of them would work far into the night on the dreams that drive them and fall into despair whenever they were separated from it.

With a blink, I close the eyes that lie behind my eyes. The super imposed colors and images disappear from view, but I keep watching.

What about this man draws me to him? He’s nothing like the masters I dreamed of serving when I was child. I always wanted to stand at the side of a rich, powerful man capable of reshaping the world. His labors would lift the poor from poverty or revolutionize industries. Then at night, when we were alone, he would hold me close and depend on me like the world depends on him.

David Sutton surpassed that fantasy. He built the world’s largest online retailer that’s made tens of thousands of rich. It carries every product imaginable by providing anyone who desires it an opportunity to sell. Through his platform a simple man can reach billions.

That was why I was so excited when I learned that he was going to be my next master. That’s not to say the ones before him weren’t excellent men. They were. The difference between Monsieur Sutton and them was like a hero and a strongman. A hero is written about while the strongman is talked about.

I was sure that he would be my beloved master. I thought I could dedicate my life to him, but no matter how many meals I cooked or rooms I cleaned, I wasn’t satisfied, because he didn’t need me. Housekeepers and personal chefs could do what I did. No, what Monsieur Sutton wanted from me was convenience and another reason to be envied.

It’s no secret that kikimoras lay with our masters and that was what Monsieur Sutton desired most from me. I was to be the replacement that looked after the house when there wasn’t a supermodel girlfriend in queue. Whenever that occurred, I was to stand next to him for the camera at the celebrity parties he loved to attend. The millions he donated to charity saved tens of thousands from sickness, poverty, and hardship, but it was vain. Thus, when he approached me, I refused to serve him.

Since then, I’ve wondered what service really is. I had always thought it meant housework and freeing my masters from the mundane. The Almighty Director of Events had cast them for much grander roles and watching them contribute to His plan filled me with joy.

“Oh shit, sorry, I left the door open,” Samuel says to me as he closes the door to his room.

He’s even taller when I look up him from the couch.

“Please leave it open. I like a nightlight.”

He cocks his up at me skeptically, overgrown hair sweeping away to reveal brown eyes.

“Even big girls are scared of the dark, I guess.”

“That’s why we send men to check on what goes bump in the night.”

“Ain’t that the truth?” He sighs as he returns back to his work.

Truthfully, I want to keep watching him. The dark is comforting when I’m in a home as warm as this one, but my nightlight highlights why it is. He welcomes me without expecting anything in return. My other masters did. There was always a quiet question asking, “Will you now?”

Maybe that’s why I bother to bake bread for us twice a day or hassle the clerks at the supermarket with fistfuls of coupons. When nothing is asked of me, I want to serve. Preparing a single meal for him is more satisfying than all of the work I did for Monsieur Sutton, but it still lacks. I’m waiting on Samuel, not serving him.

This anxiety from not fulfilling your purpose must be what he’s feeling. Unlike the fae, the Lord allows humans to choose their purpose. I, like the rest of my kind, have the call to serve written into our hearts from birth. We become maids, servants, nurses, and secretaries, because helping our Heavenly Father’s beloved children brings us the most joy. However, humans spend their lives searching for that happiness. How much worse it must feel to have it snatched away after finally finding it?

I can only see the back of his head from the couch. When I first arrived here, I wanted to clean that messy mop up with a pair of scissors, but, it’s grown on me. It’s a little disheveled like he is. Not that Samuel is a dirty man. He’s the type who builds monuments of junk mail on the dining room table, forgets to do the top button of his shirt, and refuses to brush that hair.

A black sweater hugs broad shoulders that peek over his chair. Those shoulders carry the weight of his small ambition. It won’t change the world or revolutionize business, but what about the man? Does he have the potential? If I could raise his arms when he falters, would walls surrounding his dream finally fall? Is Samuel worth my life?

I don’t know, but I like to watch him.

* * * * *

After the fourth live session with either a CTO, VP, or COO and all of the poor saps like me they’ve dragged into the meeting, I finally catch a break. I tip toe through the living room, returning the mug Gisèle brought earlier to the sink. I should get something to drink before work catches me again.

I ignore the pitcher of purified water in the fridge and fill the mug with tap water. Ever since Gisèle entered my life, I haven’t eaten better. Her cooking is better than a restaurant’s, and she leaves smalls snacks or drinks for times just like this. Hell, I’ve lost ten pounds since she’s moved in. She wants what’s best for me, but doesn’t realize that it’s pearls before swine.

I come to a stop behind the old green couch I’ve drug around with me since my college days. Gisèle sleeps wrapped in blankets made by my grandmother with her tucked between a worn-out pillow and the puffy armrest. She cradles another pillow in her arms like a favorite teddy bear. She’s a cute girl. If it weren’t for her feet, tail, and built-in feather bracelets, she would be unmistakable from a pretty human girl.

Listing out all those features makes me feel like an idiot, they’re all easy to hide. She can cover her feet, and a long skirt is enough to hide her tail, which by the way, is the strangest bird dog tail I’ve ever seen. It’s built and acts like a dog’s, but feathers cover it. Finally, she could shave her wrists. Or is it pluck? Do kikimoras consider it a hate crime to de-feather their wrists? I crack a smile imagining the PC kikimora police. They carry feather dusters instead of pistols in their holsters.

As I turn toward my room, I hear faint barking in the distance. Anxiety instantly grips my heart as a pack of black hounds as big as a man appear in my mind’s eye. Their dark fur flickers, cracks, and sways like midnight fire. Saliva drips from their jaws lined with fangs three inches long. They don’t so much have eyes, but madder red slits that leer at me. The stench of rotting corpses tickles my nose as they hungrily approach me.

They’re close. So close that I’m trembling. How much longer will it before their jaws are clenched around my neck? My hand trembles as if I were their prey.

Stop. Breathe out.

Gisèle turns on the couch, long hair flopping onto her face. She usually keeps it in a bangs and bun combo that’s everything a man with a maid fetish could want. However, I like it down too. It’s girlier, more intimate. I brush away the hair covering her face with my fingertip. Much better.

The night is quiet again. I need to at least try as hard as this girl. I’ve put off writing seriously for too many days now to go easy on myself. Even if I stay up all night, I’ll write tomorrow. Definitely, I’ll write. No matter what.

* * * * *

A cheap alarm clock softly rings in the living room at seven in the morning.

“Hrrrmaah…”

A quiet grunt precedes a slap and then silence. It’s a reasonable time for most people to get up, but it’s too damned early for a night owl like me. If I could have my way, I’d never wake up before noon.

A minute later, there’s a gentle rapping at my door, “Monsieur, have you been awake all night?”

A sleepy maid teeters in the door to my room. She rubs her eyes, struggling to stay awake with the sleeve of her cotton nightgown. It’s nice to see that Little Miss Diligent isn’t a morning person either.

“Yeah, I had to help the guys in Rajasthan and Svartland too.”

“Will you be going into the office today?”

I nod, “Ron is too pissed to let anyone off the hook.”

“Would you like to take a nap before then? I can wake you up when it’s time.”

“Sorry, I’m on call.”

If a look could kill, I’d suddenly unemployed. The scowl she casts over my shoulder to Ron’s Skyte image is the darkest I’ve ever seen from her.

“Will you make me a promise?”

That blackness evaporates the moment she returns to me.

“Sure.”

“When you come home tonight, please skip running, ignore any messages from that Ron, and rest.”

“I will.”

“Merci,” she smiles, “I’ll be home late, because Madame Spencer believes that my presence increases sales on the busiest night of the week. Dinner will be waiting for you in the refrigerator.”

“Thanks.”

She motions as if she wants to step through the door, but hesitates. The worry in her eyes is as easy to see as the dark rings around my own. She acts like she wants to add something, but never forms the words.

“Something wrong?”

“Should I start breakfast, Monsieur?”

The words come out too quickly.

“I’ll be hungry at work if I eat now.”

“Ah, oui, then it’ll be ready at the usual time.

Occasionally, on mornings like today, I get to peek at Gisèle’s morning routine. A chocolate ponytail sways back and forth as she completes stretches and body weight exercises that look like they’re from a gymnastics class. I feel like a letch for ogling her ass during her to routine, especially the stretch where she splays her legs out completely horizontal while pressing her chest and tail to the ground, but it’s her best asset. She more of the tight athlete than the curvy vixen.

She ends her exercises each morning with a short run, probably no more than a mile or two. One of these days, before she goes home, I should go running with her.

Support tickets come in sporadically through the morning as I work from home. Most are the usual, a SIM card with a particular IMSI isn’t working in some random country, but a few are still a part of the fallout from last night. Those are harder to deal with because the engineers who can fix the problem crashed hours ago. All I can tell them is that the problem is under investigation and add another email to the pile.

I find my eyes wandering back to my writing during those lulls where I can’t do anything. Each time, I reread the last section to find my bearings and reenter that world. As the scene is reconstructed in my mind and the voices of my characters return me, my concentration is dashed by a beep. Another email.

I didn’t add a word to my story.

“Monsieur!” A tapping at my door, “Breakfast is ready.”

Like every morning, the aromas of freshly baked bread and coffee hang in the air. If it were any other day, this and Gisèle’s voice would greet me when I woke up.

I take my seat while she brings the last item to the table. Another one of her peculiar habits is the difference in breakfast. In front of me is what she calls a, “Mercian Breakfast.” I’d call it something my grandma would make – a plate of eggs, sausage, fresh bread, and an oddly placed fried tomato. It’s her way of working vegetables into every meal. What’s hers? Bread with jam. Even our drinks are opposites – cold tea vs hot coffee.

Gisèle nods her head for a few quiet moments and then faces me, “Bon appétit.”

* * * * *

After breakfast, while I’m packing up my laptop, Gisèle appears in my bedroom doorway.

“Monsieur, is it that time?”

“Yeah. I’ll be home first tonight, so could you pass me the key?”

“Oui.”

We don’t have a spare key to my apartment, because I didn’t tell my landlord about Gisèle. That company would’ve demanded that I put her on the lease. So, we swap the key back and forth depending on who’s coming home first.

“Thanks.”

“Service,” she hands me a box, “Your lunch.”

“I’m going to miss your lunches when you leave.”

I almost pat her head. I shouldn’t.

“Thanks again. I’ll see you later.”

As I walk past her and toward the door, Gisèle calls out to me, “Monsieur!”

The concern in her eyes is unmistakable; a little glossy, but not wet. The way they cringe is enough. Even her hand attempts to reach to me, but falls short. Her lips pretend to form words, but nothing comes from them.

“Something wrong?”

“Non, please drive safe.”

“I will. One all-nighter isn’t going to kill me.”

The sooner I can start this day, the sooner it’ll end.

+ + + + +

The aura following Samuel out the door is terrible. It waves and billows like a black fire. What would be the brightest, whites and yellows of the flame is a dense, roiling static. Wisps of it waft from dark arms like embers floating in the breeze. If I use my inner hearing to listen, I can hear the distorted rumbling of a radio out of tune mixed with brief spells of silence and crackling campfire.

I’m not worried about his physical exhaustion, but mental. The mind jumps to terrible conclusions when it’s tired. That combined with another night away from his writing may be enough to draw out the emotions that fuel that aura.

Turning away from the door, I hurry into his room, almost forgetting to take off my apron. A couple of clicks on his computer and The Hunter of Lost Causes appears on the screen. Good, he’s added more since yesterday. It’s half a page of story and another half of notes for the scene. It’s not much, but hopefully it’s enough to keep the hounds at bay.

Hounds? Strange that my intuition chose that word. Samuel doesn’t keep any figures or pictures of dogs anywhere on his desk. There’s no room for them in the mess of computers, monitors, laptops, and cellphones, I dig my talons into my slippers to restraint myself from cleaning it all up.

As I return his computer to how it was, a piece of crud rolls under my finger. It jabs into me like a pebble in my shoe. Eating in here again? I just cleaned this mouse a week ago. I curl my talons into my slippers again.

I sigh as I pull away from his computer. The snippet of the scene and notes are following the loose outline he wrote, but his progress is too slow. He won’t be about to finish a draft for the Shoemaker Contest, let alone an edited copy that stands a chance of winning.

There’s no chores for me to do, but I want to help him write faster. The real culprit is that Ron and the job that robs of him of his time. Samuel needs time to peck at the keyboard and materialize the story, but also, idle time to think and piece together the events and characters. My housework saves him minutes compared to the hours Ron steals.

Another sigh escapes me as I plop down onto this wonderful couch. If Samuel were to become my beloved master, I’m never letting him get rid of it. If he were… the books on the coffee table call to me again. I should use the time before work to study.

* * * * *

I sit in Ron Nielson’s office, twenty floors above the city streets. In the window behind him, the sky turns pink as the sun sets in the opposite direction. The mix of pink sky and blue, ice capped mountains is like a painting of from Yamato. He really has an amazing view in here.

“There was misinformation that was distributed last night to a customer during the BSS downtime that should have not been,” Ron leans on his desk, “That the service downtime was caused by a particular customer overwhelming the capabilities of our database.”

“Wasn’t it though?”

His eye twitches. Not good.

“Yes, it was, however our other customers did not need to know that.”

The way he emphasizes that not is exactly how my parents did when I was a teenager.

“I want to know why you told them this.”

“I thought it would alleviate customer concerns because it was not WorldConnect’s fault. Instead, it was another a customer violating their SLA.”

“Are you fucking stupid?”

Yes?

“Telling them that their service was affected by another customer reveals the weaknesses of our solution.”

“I’m sorry.”

He sighs.

“When you file the RCA reports do not tell them that it was caused by another customer. Just say it was caused by abnormal increase in PDP attempts during a small amount of time. WorldConnect is working to increase its capabilities to handle these new loads.”

“Understood.”

He shakes his head as he reaches for his coat on the wall. I know he wants to rant at me more, but it’s getting late and like most people, he’d rather be at home than here.

“Should I start now?”

“No,” he slides his coat on, “Wait till next week when the team in Svartland come up with a more permanent solution than the one in place.”

I jot the instructions into an empty text file.

“I’m leaving now.”

Back at my desk, I finish taking a few extra notes about my mistakes and what I’ll need to do next week. My hand squeezes the mouse unnecessarily as I work.

“Aaron, Jim, Eric, good night. I will see you all next week.”

I bite my lip. The longer I work this job, the more I realize that I’m not the guy they want for it. I don’t care enough about customers’ complaints or whatever image the company is promoting to customers. If there’s a problem, I want to tell them there’s a problem and the reason why, because… that’s what I did.

I accepted responsibility for failing to place in the Shoemaker Contest repeatedly. It was my shoddy storytelling that was at fault. I ruined my friendships with everyone else by becoming obsessed with trying again and again. So, it’s not that Ron scolding me for fucking up that bothers me. It’s that I failed again. And from those accumulated failures, I failed everyone whoever believed in me.

I’ve learned the hard way that the world doesn’t award partial credit or participation trophies like school does. Crappy stories are rejected by editors. Under performing employees are fired. People believe in winners. Only success is rewarded. It’s my fault that my life is like this.

When I close my eyes for a momentarily blink, I hear black hounds barking. Instantly, I freeze in terror, but my heart accelerates to twice its normal speed. Another blink, it doubles again. My breathing becomes harder, faster, as if I were running.

Stop. Breathe out.

“Good night, Sam,” Jim says to me from the suite door.

My heart rate returns to normal.

“See you later,” I answer.

He smiles me at me, graying mustache turning up, and then leaves.

When I look around, I realize the office is now empty. I didn’t notice anyone else leaving even though I’m sitting next to the door. That’s unusual for me. Jim must’ve noticed. He’s known me too long to not have.

He was the one who talked to Ron to get me this job. Every time I mess up or cause some problem for the company, I don’t care if I piss off Ron. That man’s temper flares whenever something doesn’t go his way, or he receives a bit of bad news. I’ve spent hours listening to him curse at the air while he reads his email. What I care about is damaging Jim’s reputation with Ron and all of the wealthy investors who live in this area.

As much as I despise the man, he knows how to run a technical department. The investors brought him in to fix the technical problems WorldConnect has had. He an eye for best practices that the guys in Rajasthan and Svartland don’t have.

I stand and pack up my laptop. I should go home. There’s only one person in the world that I haven’t disappointed yet, her. While I may be a screw up at work or at writing, at least I want to appear reliable to her.

What better way than to show my appreciation tonight? She’s done so much for me, that I can at least treat her to a little something after I pick her up from work. My cooking isn’t as good as hers, but food made by other people always tastes better, right?

On the road, traffic is terrible like usual. The wind, rain, and darkness mix with poor highway planning to make a time wasting cocktail that I have to drink every day. The only good thing about it is the chance to listen to, “The Locker Room,” a radio talk show on the rock station. It’s nothing more than four guys having a good bar conversation. It’s great.

However, the laughs end when I walk into my dark apartment. Without thinking, I take off my shoes and step to my room, missing the aroma of freshly baked bread. An empty apartment has already become nostalgic. Gisèle has made those lonely every days seem like the distant past even though they were only a couple months ago. It’s better with her here, but I shouldn’t be selfish. She needs to move on with her life.

The bed springs squeak as I collapse onto the bed. I bounce once, twice, before settling into the old mattress, legs half hanging off the side. I’ve been awake for over thirty hours now. My eyelids are already shutting down, but I force them open like a customer who wanders in a minute before closing. If I call asleep now, my sleep schedule will be screwed up for the next week.

After I warm up the dinner in the fridge, I’ll try to write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, I need to write. I need to make progress. I’ll fix whatever shit I put out by revising it a couple times later.

I know I promised her that I’d rest, but I need to do this. I’ll head over to Trader Mike’s after the dinner rush is over then pick up her at closing. She probably won’t be happy, but every weirdo in this city rides those buses late at night. She’s bound to have another one follow her if she rides it again.

* * * * *

The bells to Mansion Cafe jingle as I push the door open.

“I beg your forgiveness master, but the cafe is now clo… oh, it’s Monsieur,” Amy, a blond maid, flashes a catty grin from the front counter.

“I’ll wait here,” I take a seat in the waiting area at the front of the cafe.

However, Amy won’t have any of that. She slinks over, occasionally pausing to look over her shoulder.

“How’s it going… whoah! What happened to you?”

“That bad?”

“If you were a girl I’d ask if he hit you.”

“My job can throw a nasty sucker punch,” I stile a yawn, “Just have to pick up Gisèle before it knocks me out.”

“Sounds like this place, but we’re almost done, finally,” she looks up from me and waves across the room, “Gisèle! Monsieur is here to pick you up!”

“Monsieur is here? He should be…”

Quick footfalls race across the cafe and Gisèle looks over the banister covered in potted plants. She stares at me wide eyed for a moment, everything feather standing on end. As she looks at me, her eyes narrow into a scowl while her tail rises up. She gnashes her teeth before speaking.

“I will be a bit longer,” her voice carries an unnatural evenness.

Amy looks to Gisèle and then me and back again. I can almost see the question marks above her head, but before anything can be said, Gisèle turns and leaves. That furrowed tail raises up her frilly skirt enough to reveal well-toned thighs.

“What was that?”

“An angry maid.”

“Duh. What’d you do?”

“Break a promise.”

“Oooooh,” she hums, “She’s a stickler for kind of thing. I’ll pry all the details from her later. Good luck with that, Monsieur.

Just like a cat, she slinks off when it suits her. The other maids don’t give me more than a glance before continuing with their work. To their tired eyes, I’ve become a piece of the background. I like it this way.

Their work comes to an end when the hanging lights turn off row by row. The lamps mounted to the sides of the wall are next. The pitter patter of feet toward the main entrance sounds like a race. No longer in their costumes, the girls say their goodbyes to each other, but each one turns to me before calling it a night. With a smug look the say, “Good night, Monsieur.

I cringe whenever someone besides Gisèle calls me that. When a gaggle of cute girls do, I have to fight to keep myself from blushing like a teenager admitting he has a crush. It’d be easier to take if I had a shot with any of them, but that’s a fantasy. Women aren’t interested in the man I am now.

Gisèle and the maid supervisor for the night, a woman in her mid-twenties with lengthy charcoal hair, are the last ones to leave the cafe. The supervisor signals for me to get on with it so she can go home with an impatient roll of the eyes. Can’t blame her for that.

“Let’s go, Gisèle,” I open the front door for them, “Have a good night.”

Gisèle breezes out while the maid supervisor giggles to herself.

“Good night, Monsieur,” she locks the door behind her, “Sleep well in the dog house.”

“I will. It’s got cable and mini-fridge.”

“Perfect then.”

Gisèle waits for me five steps ahead, far enough to say, “I’m mad at you” without so many words. She maintains that distance until we’re inside my car and driving us home.

The city is empty at this time of night. Outside of the main roads and the clusters of bars in the popular neighborhoods, it’s as quiet as the country road my grandparents live on. Not a sound is heard on the barren streets except for the hum of my old car’s engine and the drumming of chilly rain on asphalt. The city’s silence puts me at ease unlike the silent treatment from the girl next to me.

She finally speaks once my apartment’s door closes behind us, “Why did you break your promise?”

“I can’t let you ride the bus when every weirdo in town is on it. Do you want another round of creepers following you home?”

I flick on the lights. Even with an angry girl, it feels better to share it with someone else. I slip out of my shoes and walk into the kitchen.

“Non,” she sighs, “But Monsieur, you need to rest. Couldn’t you have at least taken a nap?”

She still hasn’t taken off her shoes.

“My sleep schedule would be a wreck for the rest of the week.”

“Thankfully you have the weekend to repair it,” her tone shifts when she sees me turning on the stove, “Ah, let me.”

She slips out of her loafers and reaches for her trusty apron.

“Don’t worry about that. This is the other reason I didn’t sleep.”

“Monsieur?”

I nudge her to the dinner table.

“What are you doing? You should let me…” She resists, tail hiding between her legs

“Relax, relax. I promise I’ll scratch the pan with a metal spatula.”

Inside the kitchen, I open the cabinet where I keep the cooking oil and find more than I remember: olive, grape, peanut, vegetable, and lard? Where the hell did she find that in this hippy city that has vegan BBQ joints? Whatever, vegetable oil works for this.

“Hhrr, merci, but it’s okay. It’s not good to eat so late at night.”

“I’ve heard you sneak snacks at night.”

“Ah!”

“And you’ve got to be hungry after your shift.”

“Oui… I appreciate your feelings, but you should rest.”

Once the oil is heated, I dump a bag of Trader Mike’s orange chicken in. It’s about as good as take out from a Qin restaurant.

“I’m hungry though, so I’ll make this for us.”

“Hhrr, Monsieur, you don’t know how exhausted you are.”

“I’d say I’m about forty hours in tired.”

“It’s more than that. It’s been building since I met you. Stress, exhaustion, desperation, becoming darker and darker. It takes the form of a…” she pauses searching for the right word, “a hound.”

What!? She tilts her head back and forth as she pieces together an image that she should not know.

“A pack of them, barking, whouaff-wouaff… each one large… black. Oui, with fur that sways like lightless fire. Wouaff-wouaff, you hear them around the corner, beyond the horizon, excited, hungry. Wouaff-wouaff their fangs drip with spit. Wouaff-wouaff, they’re close. If they seize you… they’ll devour your dream,” she nods, more confident in the image, “Wouaff-wouaff.”

I swallow hard.

“Awwwoooooooooh!”

Did she hear that too? Of course, she did. She can see right through me. I tremble. Add another failure to the list. I hear the thud of heavy paws on pavement. I couldn’t even convince one person that I’m not a wreck. They’re close. My cheeks burn, and I hide my eyes from her.

“Monsieur?”

The girl in front of me comes from a race of fae that are famous for their ability to understand others. I know that! I know that so why did I think I could fool her? Kikimoras aren’t hired, because they all attend maid school. They’re hired, because they understand your needs before even you do. I shake my head.

“Oh, I was afraid of this.”

Why did I think I could fool her? Because I’m doing it again. I’m giving myself another impossible goal like placing in the Shoemaker Contest and then kicking myself when I fail to do the impossible. Idiot. I know why I did it. I wanted a piece of pride, small as a marble, which I could hold in my hand. I’d hold it up and tell myself, “It’s so pretty!” When I become depressed again after she leaves. It’d be my beautiful memory at succeeding at something in the eyes of someone else. Maybe, if I were lucky, she’d fondly remember this time while she served a master better than me.

“Please, you’ll feel better if you lie down. You’ve had a long day.”

Every time I try to look at her, my cheeks burn hotter. It’s impossible. I can’t hide that I’m a coward trying to cover up his fuck ups. How can I meet her gaze now that I know she can read my mind? How long did she know? Was she acting like my maid, because she felt sorry for me?

“I’ll finish making that, so we can eat it together tomorrow.”

Pity? That pisses me off. My hand clenches into a fist. I don’t anyone’s sympathy, because I made this mess myself. I’m a failure of a man, but I won’t deny my responsibility in ending up where I am with sympathy. I hate being pitied. It’s a sweet, condescending lie that lets someone else mock you while appearing the saint. Oh, I’m so sorry, things just don’t work out sometimes, do they? As if I were so useless that luck is the only thing that could’ve helped me. I’m not a tool to make someone look better. That’s disgusting.

“So, let’s go to bed. You’re not feeling well, hein?”

I won’t be mocked in my home. It’s a hole in the wall compared to whatever God damned mansion she comes from, but it’s mine. She’s gone. It’s been two months already. That’s enough to catch a red eye to Lorraine, and if that’s embarrassing for her, too bad. She’ll need to get over it or find somewhere else to live.

“Gisèle,” I state.

The haughty maid changes with a single word, eye grow large, round, hands quiver. That tail retreats between her legs. She can see through me, so she knows what I’m going to say next.

“W-what issit, Monsssieur?” Her words stagger and fall from her lips as whatever conceit she held onto collapses.

Stop. Breathe out.

“Hein?” Gisèle tilts her head like a dog that saw something interesting.

The hell am I going on about? If anyone is disgusting, it’s me. I’m accusing her of doing what I did. I felt sorry for her that night and brought her home with me. At the time, I did it, because I wanted to help, but somewhere, I decided to turn that into a boost for my self-esteem. Then, when I couldn’t use her to massage my ego, I was going to kick her out. I should’ve gone to bed like she said.

“Sorry, never mind,” I force a smile, “It’ll be ready soon.”

What is my job doing to me? It pays my bills, but do I need it so much that I’m willing to warp myself into a self-righteous monster one rejection away from a tantrum? I’m not.

She steps back from me, but I don’t remember her getting up from the table. She flutters around me, looking at me from different angles while she were filming different camera shots for a movie. Am I missing something?

“Oui.”

She turns back to the table, eyes lingering on me until it’s no longer possible. As I cook dinner, she continues to watch me half-cocked from the table. It’s unsettling, but understandable. I present our late-night dinner of orange chicken on a bed of spinach and take a seat at the table.

“This is one of the better things you can find at Trader Mike’s.”

After a silent prayer, she answers, “Merci, Monsieur.”

I start our meal by taking a bite. Despite being coming from a frozen food bag, the chicken has a nice crunch. The sweet orange sauce compliments that texture well.

“I think it’s about as good as what you’d find at a Qinese restaurant.”

Gisèle’s face puckers tighter and tighter as she chews. I’ve seen that face before. It says, “I can make better.”

“Is it called orange chicken for the fruit or the color?”

Her eye twitches whenever she glances down at the pile of food on the plate. She’s cute. Half of the fun of taking her to restaurants is watching the shapes her face twists into for each dish.

“Probably the fruit.”

She rolls the chicken to the side, searching for any piece of spinach that hasn’t been defiled by the sauce.

“Oui… oui… and the chicken is deep fried?”

She reluctantly takes another bite. She thinks about how to make her own version while rolling a piece around her plate. I know it. I’m having her version for dinner tomorrow.

“Yeah.”

That’s why I don’t want to take my stress out on her. She doesn’t deserve to be treated like a chew toy. As I watch Gisèle fight through another bite, I make my decision – I will change my life.

“Hein?” She pops up.

I’m not the type of man who uses others like that. However, if I stay on this path, I know I will be. Ron will wring me until I’m as snarled and grotesque as him. I need more time to write, but to get that I’ll need to renegotiate my hours.

“Monsieur?” She cocks her head to the side again.

That won’t be easy. He only respects position. If I demand fewer hours, he will take that as challenge to his authority. From the moment he hired me, when I was desperate for a job, he’s thought of me as property. I’ll need to strike his weakness if I’m going to succeed.

“You eat slow,” I smile.

I stand up, plate in hand. A small pyramid of chicken stands atop a foundation of spinach on her plate while mine is decorated by scattered puddles of orange sauce.

“I will-“

“I got it,” I put my plate in the sink, “I’m going walk off dinner before bed. Later.”

The chill of winter rain and wind feels good. I’m hot. I haven’t felt like this in a long time. My confrontation with Ron will happen the next time I see him. If I wait any longer, I’ll never do it.

I walk on uneven sidewalks and past dirty, rundown buildings. In an alleyway, a homeless guy rummages through a dumpster ass up. If this goes wrong, I’ll be there right beside him. Should I ask how to tell which piece of half-eaten food is still good to eat?

There are several piles of investment money in this city. David Sutton is at the center of the newest while Ron is connected to the oldest. WorldConnect is a start-up financed by the millionaires and billionaires that sprang he grew wealthy with. He probably got his position as CTO at their recommendation. He deserves it.

I heard from Aaron that before Ron came on as CTO, WorldConnect’s development and support divisions were even worse than what it is now. The teams in Svartland and Rajasthan were completely out of sync with each other and the Alleghenian offices. It was like that mission to send a surveyor to Aries where one team worked in metric and the other in the imperial system. Disaster.

What am I compared to that? A tech that doubles as the primary support for the company’s largest customer, SnapLiberty. Threatening him with a complaint to HR won’t amount to more than a slap on the wrist. The board won’t jeopardize theirs or the investors’ money to do anything more.

The higher a man rises, the further he has to fall. Men as rich as him don’t take jobs as demanding as his, because they need money. They’re motivated by a currency that can’t be printed. It’s there that I have a chance.

* * * * *

“Your complexion is so much better this morning, Monsieur.”

“I probably looked like a zombie last night.”

I sip cold black tea as Gisèle sets breakfast on the table.

“Oui. I thought brains were on the menu when you started to cook.”

It’s another full breakfast. She used some of the leftover bread from yesterday to make Lorranian toast, but it’s savory instead of sweet by topping it with herbs, spices, and tomatoes. The other half of the plate is scrambled eggs with sautéed mushrooms, onions, and peppers.

“Thanks for cooking, but is toast and coffee enough for you?”

I wait for her to finish a quiet prayer before beginning.

“Amen,” she returns to me, “We Lorranians prefer a larger lunch.”

I start our meal by taking a bite of the Lorrainian toast.

“This is as good as the sweet kind. Could we have that sometime too?”

She drinks to hide her expression, but the tail sweeping across the carpet gives her away.

“It’s not good to have that much sugar in the morning, Monsieur.”

“I know, but it tastes good.”

“Alleghanians…” she sighs, “You realize that you’ve lost almost five kilos, because I cut out so much sugar, hein?”

“How did you… wait, I already know. Your powers, right?”

“Oui.”

“But every now and then won’t hurt.”

“Bof, maybe if you do something remarkable.”

“So it’s-“

My cellphone buzzes in my pocket. I know who this is. Excitement wells up inside my heart. This demon king won’t wait in his throne room.

“Sorry, I need to take this.”

I lay the phone on the table. It’s him. I turn on speaker phone.

“Morning, Ron.”

“Why haven’t you responded on Skyte?”

Gisèle furrows her brows.

“Because I woke up ten minutes ago.”

“None of us have the luxury of waking up this late. Check your email and Skyte first thing in the morning.”

She bites her lower lip.

“You’re a professional. Act like one.”

“Is there a reason while you’re calling me while I’m eating breakfast?”

“There is. In response to yet another outage and the recent problems with SnapLiberty, the board is having a meeting on Tuesday. Put together a series of reports and analyses from the gateway for the last three months for all customers.”

“All right. I’ll do it Monday.”

“Would I be calling you if I wanted it done then?”

“I can’t keep doing this, Ron.”

“Your point?”

“I’m renegotiating my hours. I want Fridays off, and work outside of business hours counts toward my time each week. Lower my salary for the day I’m not working. There’s other things I need to do with my life.”

“How about I fire you instead? You’ll have all the time you want.”

Gisèle’s eyes become as round as the plates we’re eating from. They dart between the phone and me again and again.

“You’ll be joining me in the unemployment office.”

“Tsch!” I can see him suppressing a laugh through the phone, “You’re forgetting who’s in charge. Get to work on those reports before I demonstrate how replaceable you are.”

She shakes her head, begging me to cave in. Sorry Gisèle, the die is cast.

“I’m sure it’d be a lovely demonstration, but Ron, it’d be terrible optics. You need to remember who the primary contact for SnapLiberty is. Think about the reason why you hired me in the first place. It was a KPI for SnapLiberty. They got sick of delays and techs that can’t speak Merician in Rajasthan. Imagine what will happen when their primary contact disappears and WorldConnect fails on another promise. When I tell them not to contact anymore for support, they will ask why. I’ll tell them that I lost faith in the company.”

The girl across from me understands the meaning of service, but does he?

“We’ll issue an official notice explaining the circumstances.”

“You think they’ll believe an official notice over the company that needs the business relationship or the guy who has nothing to lose? It’s obvious who. Paranoia will set in as they wonder what other problems will be coming. They’ve already suffered through numerous service outages, disputes with billing because of bad CDRs and problems with VPN services over the WorldConnect network. The fear of what might come will drive them to the arms of a competitor. And who will be held responsible? You. Your decision will lose SnapLiberty as a customer.”

“Nonsense.”

“Is it? You weren’t there when CTO and COO of SnapLiberty were yelling at me over Skyte that they were losing customers, because of another technical problem from WorldConnect. Remember, I already told them that it was WorldConnect’s fault.”

I wait for an answer, but it never comes. I recognize this. He was like this when he was negotiating my salary. I made a mistake by waiting for him back then. Now is the time to press the attack.

“When they leave, it’ll mean more than your job. Most of the investors and board members are your buddies from your days at GT&T, aren’t they? You spent a lifetime creating your reputation with them. They trusted you with this job to protect and grow their money. If you destroy this company, they’ll never trust you again.”

I pause to drink my tea. I need to let him stew in silence as he imagines the possibility.

“What will it be? My hours or your reputation?”

Gisèle shakes her in seat as the silence grows ever longer. She holds her mug to her lips, but doesn’t drink. Instead, she stares at me with moist eyes. I hate to stress her out again like this, but this has to be done.

It’s been silent for over five minutes now. I’m tempted to say something, to press my point further, but that would be my undoing. You will respond to me, Ron.

“Fine, but I want those reports.”

“Monday.”

Not an inch. Not a mile.

“Fucking hell, fine!”

I smile when the call abruptly ends.

“I dislike that man,” Gisèle says as she melts into her chair.

“My mom lovingly calls him pecker head.”

“It suits him,” she smiles, “But Monsieur, will you be okay? He seemed quite angry with you.”

“He’ll probably make my life hell for a while, but he’ll find something else to be pissed off about sooner or later.”

“Are you sure he won’t fire you?”

“Absolutely? No, but I was becoming like him.”

I shouldn’t need to say why, because she already knows, but it feels disingenuous not to.

“Hein?”

She tilts her head like a dog that saw something interesting.

“For last night. When I found out that you could read my mind, I lost it for a bit. It’s exactly how he’d act. It’s disgusting. So, I did something about it.”

“Monsieur, I can’t read your mind.”

A finger to the chin and an upward glance.

“The Lord has blessed my kind with a second sense. It speaks to us in colors, sounds, images, thoughts, feelings, you know, senses. A black aura of static, the crackle of a campfire, they come from people, and I have an intuition of what they mean. When I touch you, it’s like unspoken words confess to me. A glance, a touch, your presence, and I sense.”

“And what shows you the hounds?”

“That’s the image my second sense painted when I focused.”

“Can you do this with anyone?”

“Oui, but it gets easier the more I serve them. In time, I’ll understand my master’s needs better than he will,” she giggles again, “But sometimes, a master can surprise me.”

It’s my turn to tilt my head like a dog who saw something interesting.

“Monsieur, do you realize what you’ve done?”

“Almost get fired, because I had a meltdown from the cute girl I live with seeing how pathetic I am?”

She makes a difficult expression somewhere between a sidelong glance and a frown.

“May I speak of my former masters?”

“Not my place to decide.”

“Men are usually so eager to hear about a girl’s history, but Monsieur doesn’t seem to care.”

Her disappointment is as sincere as a crocodile’s tears.

“I’m not the jealous type.”

“A little jealousy makes a girl happy.”

“And me too tired to listen.”

“All that running and no stamina. You Alleghanians were infamous as Minute Men.”

Little brat.

“My previous masters were brilliant, powerful men. Some were groomed by their families from birth. Some were self-made men. However, they always got their way.”

She finally continues her miniature breakfast. I never asked where she got the apple jam from. Did she make that herself too?

“Their passion, ability, and success were like a bonfire at night. People gathered around them because they saw wealth and power in their light. They added fuel my masters’ fires, and my masters’ flames grew brighter. So brilliant that they hid the stars.”

Nostalgia shines in her eyes. It reminds me of how my parents were reflect of their high school years, a mixture of fondness and melancholy for times of uncanny insights and misguided beliefs. It’s like that for everyone, isn’t it?

“Success after success transformed their beacon into a guiding light. Admiration bordered on idolatry in the minds of those washed in it. They followed my masters without question, because their light had brought them so many wonderful things. That’s poison for a man.”

I’m tempted to ask her for seconds for this Lorrainian toast. The fats mixes well with the bread and spices. As odd as it is to say, it’s like a breakfast garlic bread. I am so going to miss her when she goes home.

“They excused the failings of my masters’ character. Monsieur Paeau overindulged in wine and drunkenly seduced over men’s’ wives. Many women fell victim to his flattery and scandal followed him. However, his followers called the stories envious slander.”

She sips her caramel colored coffee slowly.

“Monsieur Böhm could never have enough. He considered his net worth to be the high score of life and was determined to be number one. He lied, deceived, and conned his business partners in contracts that took as much as he could. Investors, stockholders, and business papers touted him as an exemplary businessman of impeccable ethics. He put shareholder profit as his foremost priority after all.”

She chuckles to herself as looks down at her food.

“I’ve told you about Monsieur Sutton before, but not why my rejection bothered him so much. He was the greatest of the men I served, a self-made man who started his business in high school. He was intelligent, driven, charismatic, and vain. He enjoyed the fruit of his labors, but he enjoyed the attention of others more.”

She shakes her head at no one in particular.

“To snatch the attention of anyone around him, he demanded that everything of his was the best. He lived in the most expensive penthouse in this city. He rode in the most luxurious cars. He vacationed at the finest hotels at the most awe-inspiring locations. He wore the most expensive suits to parties accompanied by the most beautiful women. Supermodels, actresses, singers, and the like were the only ones fit for him. It didn’t matter how shallow their relationship was. I assume that he hired a kikimora, because we’re the best kind of maid.”

The elevator conversations at work are the same way. Some guy in another office on another floor brags to his coworker about his new expensive car while the other talks up the bonus he got last year. When the doors open they have a laugh while they decide which overpriced restaurant they’ll eat lunch at.

“If his pride didn’t require the admiration of people he didn’t know, he wouldn’t have bothered with any of it. At home, he preferred sweatpants and t-shirts I got from Hal-Mart. He never used the pool table, swimming pool, or other amenities he bought unless someone else was there. He spent most of his alone time exercising or working.”

Before Gisèle came, my life wasn’t too different. I’d wake up, go to work, eat dinner, exercise, and then work on my writing. Repeat.

“However, no one would envy him if they knew that. His groupies followed his celebrity, and his business partners chased after the opportunities he created. He drank deep of the power he wielded over them. No one dared embarrass him with rejection.”

She lets out a disdainful laugh.

“Until me. He couldn’t believe that someone would deny him, the greatest man he had ever known. I’ve watched powerful men and women trade their dignity for a sliver of his attention. His pride couldn’t withstand the insult. I don’t need to describe what happened next, do I?”

“No.”

“I wasn’t the only one he punished for a slight. He fumed at the tabloids that printed hit pieces on him. Shortly after I began serving Monsieur Sutton, the International Enquirer published an unflattering article about him. The author doctored photos of him and lied that Monsieur Sutton was a homosexual. Instead of brushing it off as most celebrities do, he obsessed over. He wanted revenge. He tried to sue for libel, but his attorneys advised that the case was weak. So, he decided to ruin that writer’s life.”

“How’d he manage that?”

“Connections. There aren’t many billionaires in the world, so they all know each other from business or the parties they attend. He talked with the head of the International Enquirer and had the writer fired in exchange for increasing his company’s advertising in their tabloid for a year. He then called his other friends at other tabloids, newspapers, and news sites. He had them agree to blacklist the writer in exchange for various personal and professional favors.”

“How much did that cost!?”

“Tens of millions of dollars. He spent millions to eliminate a writer for a petty lie that no one would with a sound mind would believe or care about.”

“Why’d he let you off easy then?”

“My pride and earnings were a steep price, Monsieur, but, if I were to guess, it’s because you’re the third person to learn of what happened between us.”

I lean back in my seat. Between Ron and Gisèle’s story, this has been a heavy morning.

“This was the worst of his indignation. He also rewarded capable people who kissed his ring with positions or deals that created wealth for both of them. Despite his flaws, he’s still a brilliant man. You remind me of him.”

“How the hell am I like him?”

“You’re both men driven by your dreams and wounded prides.”

“Ack!” I’m too slow to catch that, “Aren’t maids supposed to be better at flattery?”

“Oui, nurturing the master’s ego is important. He needs to be puffed up enough to float, but not so much that he pops from his hot air.”

“You just made me flat though.”

A smile returns to her face.

“But Monsieur, you’re different from them. Whenever Monsieur Pageau’s excess, Monsieur Böhm’s geed, or Monsieur Sutton’s vanity seized them, they were powerless to escape. Their flaws became obsessions that cursed them. They didn’t care who they hurt, what they lost, or how much they destroyed until those terrible spells were satisfied. However, you broke that curse on your own, and then made amends for the damage it caused. I hadn’t met a man that could until you.”

“Controlling yourself is part being of an adult.”

My mother’s favorite childhood memory to embarrass me with is when I came home from preschool bragging, “I can control myself!” after the teacher complimented me for it.

“Oui, oui, but how many adults can control themselves when their flaw cracks their heart? Remember what the hounds hunger for, Monsieur.”

“Still-”

“Do you remember the state I was in the night we met?” She interrupts.

“You were a rain soaked mess huddled next to a dumpster. Bringing you back here was more like hauling a corpse to its grave than leading a girl to shelter.”

“That was my answer.”

She finishes her dinner long after me.

“I feel terrible about it.”

“I know.”

“I was going to kick you out.”

“You didn’t.”

“At least let me apologize.”

“Isn’t that why you confronted that man?”

“Am I that easy to see through?”

“Oui.”

She stands from the table and circles around behind me. I look up when she wraps her arms around me; gray eyes, a soft smile, a tight embrace. Dark fringe hangs over me.

“Does it bother you?”

“Not as much the second time around.”

She pulls me deeper into my flimsy chair.

“Thanks Gisèle, none of this would’ve happened without you.”

“Monsieur,” she shifts me to and fro in my seat as she fidgets, “what brought this on?”

“You’ve helped me so much these last couple months, but it’s been hard for you, right? You’re alone in a foreign country. You were tossed onto the streets by that jackass then picked up by an emotional time bomb who almost did the same thing.”

“You shouldn’t break your head over me.”

“Thankfully it’s too hard to crack.”

“Oui.”

“So, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you need. Sort your feelings out, and go home with your chin up. I know it’s not any different than before, but don’t feel pressured.”

She squeezes me tighter.

“Oui,” it comes out little more than a breath.

“Otherwise, all I could do is…”

I almost bring my hand to hers, but stop. Why am I hesitating? I’ve avoided touching her, because I thought she’d freak out if I made a pass at her, but she obviously doesn’t care. I slide her hands off my chest.

“Come with me,” I nudge her toward the couch.

I sit her down on a pillow front of the couch that’s been her bed for the last couple of months. While she sits between my legs, I place my hands on her shoulders.

“Monsieur?”

“I’m going to do something for you.”

The first trick with massages is that you need to begin slowly. The muscles are cold, stiff, and going full bore into them from the start will hurt. That’s why I firmly trace my thumbs down the sides of her neck and flare out at the shoulders.

Gisèle is more muscular than she looks. Her morning workouts didn’t look that intense, but looks are deceiving. Actually touching her, I feel how toned she is. She’ll like a harder massage once she’s warmed up.

The second trick of massages is to not rub the bone. Most people know not to knead the spine, but fail to think three dimensionally. You can press through the muscle and against the bones underneath. That hurts too.

I take my time cycling from the top of her neck, just below the hairline, down each side of her neck then along the traps, to finishing with a soft squeeze at the shoulders. I note the small knot like marble on the left side of her neck. Her skin slowly warms and muscles loosen as they receive my attention.

“You have a gentle touch.”

“Because it’s bad manners to rush a lady.”

“But it’s rude to keep her waiting.”

“Anticipation is half the fun for the fairer sex.”

Despite her suggestions to hurry up, I keep my pace. She’s not quite ready yet. However, my soft, slow massage is having an effect. Her head hangs from her shoulders and the strength in her back is pushed away with every pass. The perfect maid posture she prides herself on has crumpled into the lazy slouch of a computer nerd. A little longer, and her muscles lose their firmness. Now it’s time.

She inhales sharply the moment I use more force. Her spine straightens, regaining its former maid glory, while she feels a power chill run down her. Previous girlfriends said it would start at the crown of the head and continue all the way to their tailbones. The rustling underneath the couch tells me that it stops at the tail for kikimoras. When it passes, Gisèle collapses into my hands.

“Oula…”

I continue kneading the flesh on each side of her neck. I gently sandwich the flesh between my thumb and the side of her spine as I stroke up her neck. Then, at the hairline, I circle back down. I pass over the knot on the left side, but don’t pay it anymore attention. Again and again, I repeat this circle.

“Monsieur,” Gisèle coos, “I have a confession to make.”

“Are you sure want to interrupt your massage with it?”

“Mmmhmmm, while you were gone, I read your stories.”

I make it a point to keep going at the same even pace.

“I’m sorry snooping, but I was curious.”

“What’d you think?”

“You’ve improved.”

“That’s what you say to bad writers.”

I switch to her back and shoulders. This part of the body is meatier than the neck so I increase the force a little more. Gisèle is athletic for someone who doesn’t lift more than a vacuum cleaner every day.

“Aaah…” her back arcs and her head flops backwards, “None of it was bad, maybe… amateurish? Although, your first story was pretentious. It was obvious when you used a thesaurus to make yourself sound smart.”

I was so proud of it at the time too.

“But I like The Hunter of Lost Causes. From the first page, I could feel the raw emotion driving the protagonist. It colored his struggles so much that I was hooked. Mmm… That feels good.”

A previous girlfriend liked to pinch my traps when she gave me a massage. She would do it slowly, gathering up flesh and letting it slip from the fingers. Done right, it’ll give the best feeling head rush.

“Oula…”

There it is.

“You’re good with your hands.”

I feel Gisèle turn into pudding. Her head wobbles to and fro in time with my movements. As she relaxes, warmth radiates from her skin. She’s ready now.

Invisible rain pelts against the living room windows. Dim light filters through the gaps in the curtains. Heavy black clouds impersonate the night sky. It’s dark, but comfortable. A warm light casts long shadows from behind us. No matter how loud the wind screams or how hard the rain drums against this old, shabby apartment, it’s calm in here.

My fingers search out the balls of tension in Gisèle. Despite how much this girl has been through, she only has a single one. I trace circles on it, feeling it out. Knots like these require more pressure, but they’re all different. I dial up the pressure, carefully watching how she reacts.

“Oooh…” a moan escapes.

About that much. I change my stroke while keep the pressure the same. From circles, to lines up and down, going as far as to gently pinch, I take my time untying the knot in her neck. However, I don’t focus solely on it. I use my free hand to caress the other parts of her neck, back, and shoulders. Occasionally switching hands so neither side of her body becomes jealous of the other.

“Aaah!”

Unraveling a knot releases the tension inside of it. An emotional intensity between pleasure and relief rises from its catharsis. I watch it go through her from how her back stiffens and relaxes. Her coo afterward is the most satisfying part for me.

When it all passes, she slumps back into my hands and flops her head back. Her half-lidded eyes, decorated by blushing cheeks and dumb smile, let me know how much she enjoyed that. Her words are lazy, “That was amazing… maids don’t get treats like that often…”

I lift her head and undo her bun. My fingertips trace through her lush hair, rewarding me with a soft sigh, but that’s not enough for me. I transition to massaging her scalp.

“Mmm… you’re the first master who would wash another’s feet…”

The pleasure might be getting to her head, but I like her like this. She’s supple. Her hair drapes over the couch and my legs as she looks up at me in a daze.

“Monsieur, when you win the Shoemaker Contest… or maybe when The Hunter of Lost Causes is picked up by a publisher… what will you do?”

“Finish it?”

Her tail swishes from right to left underneath the couch.

“After that. Will you be content to spend your life writing stories and enjoying the success it brings you?”

A gleam shines in her eyes despite the dim lighting.

“I thought about that more when I was younger. Now it feel like putting the cart before the horse. If I were to succeed… then, I’d like to get out of this town and see the world.”

“Like a vacation?”

She’s as sharp as a blade bow, searching for meaning in my words with whatever special kikimora powers she has.

“More than that,” my cheeks redden in anticipation for what I’m about to say, “An adventure, like the ones in fantasy novels or video games.”

“Demon kings don’t exist, Monsieur.”

That tail swishes to the other side. Wonder how much dust she’s pushed out.

“I mean like a writer from last century. He spent his life reporting wars, fighting bulls, hunting big game, and challenging himself in exotic places. He did it for the wrong reasons, and ultimately killed himself, but I think experiences like that are good for writers. We need to always be discovering something new so we can come up with more vivid stories.”

“It’s still about your writing.”

“Partially. I don’t think I’ll ever be happy with a nine to five. Starting my own business sounds neat, but it’s not artistic enough. Neither of those jobs would let me have the freedom to do what I want. I’d rather have that freedom than however many billions of dollars David Sutton or those guys have.”

“Oui, none of my previous masters were free. Their positions controlled their lives more than their vices.”

“Besides, adventure isn’t something you plan out. It’s about experiencing the unknown. I don’t know if it’ll inspire me to write a new story or have a new story to share. That’s the fun part.”

“What then?” she asks herself with a sleepy smile, “I don’t know, he answers. That’s the fun part.”

She rolls her head from side to side on the cushion between my legs as she mulls over the thought. My fingers rub against her scalp without doing anything. In a way, she’s giving herself a massage. And then after, a few moments, she giggles.

“Such a dumb, obvious answer, but…”

She reaches up and wraps her hands around the back of my head. She my eyes to hers.

“What else could I expect?

The air grows heavy.

“Will you be my master?”

“I can’t afford you, missy,” I tap her forehead to put a period to the answer.

She shakes her head while gazing up at me, “My beloved master.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means that where you go I will go, and where you sleep I will sleep. Your people will be my people and your dream will be my dream. And then, where you die I will die. Let the Creator and Judge of Man and Fae deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

I gulp.

“What’s causing all this?”

“You have more potential than any other man I’ve met.”

“I still can’t afford you.”

“You won’t be paying me.”

“Do you believe in me that much?”

“As much as I believe in Our Father.”

This is heavy, but surprisingly light on my heart. Her gray eyes don’t leave mine as she silently waits for my answer. She’s an earnest girl that I don’t deserve, but…

“I will.”

“Then… I’m yours with a kiss.”

Our lips meet. Her hands pull me closer as the kiss intensifies. A warm pleasure wraps around my heart, and I become aware of an otherworldly connection to Gisèle. Feelings of intimacy and responsibility mix with the warmth in my chest.

I break away from her. As much as I don’t deserve this girl, I couldn’t bring myself to let her go. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. No one else, not even my own mother, could keep their faith in me after witnessing my failures. I can’t deny someone that can.

A peace bordering on bliss settles into Gisèle. Whatever torrent of emotion that seized me seems to have washed over her like the tide. She looks like a girl who’s found her purpose in life. Her arms fall away from me, and she basks in the afterglow of whatever magic happened between us.

You will be held responsible.

A voice warns in my mind. A tremor courses through me. I can’t imagine the wrath that would come upon me if I were to abuse or abandon Gisèle. Hellfire is just the beginning.

“Cherish her.”

The voice again speaks to me. Calm settles in terror’s wake. I shouldn’t live in fear, because that would transform this blessing into a curse. That was never intended. She is loved.

“Do you regret it?” She asks.

“No, but that was the most powerful kiss I’ve ever had.”

“Oui.”

I tap her shoulders to let her know that I’m getting up, but she places her hands over mine.

“Stay with me.”

Gray eyes twinkle up at me. That look is going to be deadly against me.

“Okay…”

She’s curled up in my lap as soon as the words leave my mouth. Nestling her chin in the crook of my neck, she wraps around me. Long, deep brown drapes over us. All the hair that she keeps tied up in a bun reaches her lower back when undone.

I begin to form words, but stop. The rain falls. The wind blows. The darkness of the day fills this room. The girl in my lap is defenseless to it all of it. Shallow breaths tickle the side of my neck. Long eyelashes hang.

Instead of words, I pull her close. A smile forms on those pink lips that do a terrible job of pretending to sleep, but I play along with my spoiled maid. A peck on the head is all I can manage without knocking her out of position.

It’s hard for a man to restrain himself to a single kiss when there’s a cute girl curled up in his lap, but I try my best. This is important, much like staying awake with your girlfriend for a few minutes after sex. I can sense her vulnerability by the stiff fingers digging into my side and the tremors in her legs. That kiss may as well count as our first time together from how hard that hit us emotionally. Did that voice say something to her as well?

Time passes slowly as I hold her. She entertains herself with small pecks and nips on my neck between quick breaths. She’s about to crash. It’s easy to do when coming down from an emotional high. The normal world feels dull and cold in comparison. It’s in that moment that demon whispers are easiest to hear. I embrace her tighter.

“I’m here.”

She snuggles closer to me as if I’m the only thing that can keep her head above water. The security slows her breathing until it’s like a metronome. It lulls me into a nap, but as it does, I plant a kiss on her forehead.

* * * * *

Rain drops pitter-pattering on the long, living room window wake me up from my light sleep. Gusts of wind howl like a chorus of hounds. Why is this city always so dark?

My body aches from having a girl sleep on it for a couple hours. A small grin is etched onto her face. She must be having a good dream. Something a kikimora would enjoy like cleaning a shut-in’s trashy bedroom. Except, her hands clasp mine.

It pains me to ruin it for her, but being a girl’s pillow isn’t as great as the movies make it out be. I feel a crick forming in my neck from how she’s nuzzled against me, and my legs have gone numb. My arms are cramping, because she’s held them at an odd angle for so long.

“Hey Gisèle.”

No response.

“Gisèle, wake up.”

She stirs, shifting into an even more awkward position. Her arms stretch out as I pull my right hand away. She twists in another direction.

“Mmnnn…”

“Gisèle, I need to get up.”

A tap on the back, a flicker of the eyes.

“Mmm… Monsieur…?”

“Sorry, but I need to get up.”

“Oui,” she nods groggily, “oui.”

She follows me to my feet. The numbness jabs into my legs like a thousand needles. A new pain stabs up from my heel when I take my first clumsy step, maid in tow.

“Are you going to let go?”

“Non.”

I take a moment to turn off the lamp we left on.

“Well, come on.”

I lead her to my bed. The clinginess is cute, but I hope she doesn’t make a habit of it. Maybe that magic is still affecting her. A cat nap doesn’t compare to a full night’s rest when getting over emotions. Although, looking at her half-lidded eyes and limp tail, maybe she’s just sleepy.

“You’ll need to let go while I change,” I say while sitting her down in my computer chair.

“Oui.”

After the excitement earlier, today is turning into my laziest yet. I’ll need to get her out of those clothes if I’m going to sleep anymore. She’s a modest girl, maybe all Lorrainians are. My grandmother is the only other woman I’ve seen wear a nightgown. I should give her something.

A plain white t-shirt hanging from the side of a hamper. That’ll work.

“Change into this.”

After taking off my pants and socks, I crawl into bed. I ignore the rustling of clothes beside me and bask in how amazing bed feels even though I’ve slept all day. The smell of freshly washed sheets greets me as I curl up inside, another one of Gisèle’s touches. The bed springs feel perfect against my back even though this mattress is too old for that to be true.

The blankets flare open and a weight settles next to me. The mattress creaks as its worms its way closer. Closer and closer until it’s touching as much of me as it can. A silky trail of feathers lays across my leg and a soft, scaly foot rubs against my calf. Its dull talons draw lines on my skin as it snuggles tight.

She giggles to celebrate maximizing our body contact. It’s cute enough to convince me that I should try to sleep like this even though I’m a light sleeper. The next round of giggles comes when I wrap my arm around her firm stomach in the spoon position. Time passes slowly as I try to fall asleep again, but can’t because her damned tail keeps wagging between my legs.

“You can’t control that, can you?”

“I can, sometimes,” she giggles.

Gisèle responds to my sigh by placing a hand over mine.

“But I don’t want to.”

“Even if it’s keeping your Monsieur up.”

“You had a nap.”

“I can’t believe I got such a cruel maid.”

“All sales are final.”

“Then I’ll complain to customer service.”

I pull away a section of her loose hair and nibble on her neck.

“Ah!” She squeals, back and tail straightening at once.

That’s kind of fun.

“Monsieur!”

Another nibble, another cute squeal. She wiggles in my arms, but doesn’t try to break free. Instead she pushes in closer, but meets a part of me that’s been roused by a hyperactive tail.

“Oh… Monsieur.”

“What is it, Gisèle?”

She shudders when I start mixing in soft kisses with the soft bites along her neck. The blankets stretch and pinch as she rubs her legs together.

“We could change positions if you’re uncomfortable.”

“Oui.”

I interrupt her sigh of relief by abruptly moving.

“Ah!”

Blankets rustle. Bodies shift. The mattress creaks with the sudden redistribution of weight. Gisèle’s scent tickles my nose. It’s light, feminine, and a bit heady. It short circuits my thoughts and leaves me with their emotional undercurrent. When the it’s over, I’m top of her.

In the blue back light reflecting off the walls from my computer, I see her blushing face. Damp, half-lidded eyes meet mine, retreat, but find their way back. A complicated grin, part nervousness, another part excitement, shifts as she thinks about saying something. Her modest chest rises and falls with shallow breathes. Its sound mixes with the murmur of spinning computer fans.

Is she ready for this? I place myself between her legs and lean over for a kiss. Her eyes widen and a wave whips through her tail. Best of all, her hands find my back, soft feathers caressing the skin behind them. That’s all I need to know, but there’s no point rushing.

After brushing aside strands of hair obscuring her face, I kiss her. It’s little more than pressing my lips against hers, but I dial up the intensity as I feel her relax. I’m rewarded with a small coo and a timid peck when I suck on her lip. Adorable, absolutely adorable. A thrill I haven’t felt in too long rises inside me, and I kiss her harder.

Muffle cries leak from where we’re joined. Her feathers dust back my back as her hands wander. That tail jumps about between my legs. I like her like this. I’m stripping away the layers of decorum and refinement that she wraps herself in. The thrill inside me sharpens as I imagine her stripped bare of them.

I slip my tongue into her mouth, not far at first, only tracing the sensitive insides of her pink lips. For a moment, she stops as if it had short circuited her brain, but opens her mouth a little wider, seduced by the feelings. However, this girl hasn’t learned that if you let a man have the tip, he’ll give the whole length.

I seize the opportunity and go deeper still, exploring her mouth. Almost as if I had a sixth sense about her, I become aware of how this spot causes her left shoulder to shudder or that one makes her curl those talons. Deeper still and I feel how each of her vertebrae straighten and relax as I graze another sensitive area.

I’ve never felt this connected to someone in my life. Every one of her subtle movements are obvious. If her feelings were words, they would whisper, “Ah, oui, oui, there” or “Non, over here instead” or even more faintly, “Come closer.” It’s unnatural – no supernatural.

My instincts tell me to relax. This is how it should be, and after today, I’ll never want to go back to the sex I had before.

As the connection between us grows stronger, Gisèle settles into my lead. She copies my movements at first, tracing the inside of my lips. It’s a pleasant tingle, but she takes a different route once she’s ventured inside.

Our tongues intertwine and the thrill from before wraps around my heart. I feel a warm pleasure in my chest even though nothing is touching me there. It radiates up from my heart and throughout my body. Each time Gisèle discovers a sensitive spot I never I knew that I had, the warmth dials up a notch. It’s like she’s guided by the same instincts as me.

When our long kiss ends, I look down at this beautiful girl. Dewy eyes, half lost to passion and moist lips make me harder. If she were the type, she could be on the front page of a magazine. She leans into my hand that caresses her cheek like a dog being pet. The following stupid words escape my lips before I could push them down, “I don’t deserve a girl like you.”

“Samuel,” she says softly, almost maternally, “You would never have me if that were true.”

“Wasn’t it just luck?”

“Non, non,” she places a finger on my lips to hush me, “Boys need to learn when talking ruins their chances.”

That’s truer for me than I’d ever want to admit.

“I’ve met and served many of the greatest men in the world, but I chose you over them. Comprendre?”

“Yeah.”

“So never say that to me again.”

I nod. Her reply is a peck on the lips, but I take it an invitation to for more. Short kisses quickly become long, and we’re making out like teenagers again.

Another thread of emotion weaves itself into pleasure surrounding my heart. She chose me over them. It makes me happy, but another part of me isn’t satisfied. It never will be. It’ll always suspect her sincerity and believe she’s lying. It’s endless.

Even so, it’s hard to ignore. That side of me has whispered into my ear like a demon for years now. I’ve felt like my life has been like a plotline that a reader would reject – I’m the hero who failed despite giving everything he had trying.

“Cherish her,” that voice told me. I will, because I’ll never meet a girl as incredible as her again. It’s not that I want to medicate my low self-esteem with her. That’s stupidly self-destructive. Instead, I should think twice about the whispers in my ear. What can she see that I cannot? I should believe in that instead of my weakness.

“Mmmph,” a moan leaks from her.

Heat rises up in me, burning away out of place introspection. Passion focuses me on the now. Unable to control myself any longer, I slip a hand into her shirt, tracing up her firm body. She’s not wearing a bra, but I purposely avoid that area. It’s not time yet. Instead, I wind my hand behind back, and bring us closer together.

Our chests come together. I feel two hard points through the thin fabric, but I don’t pay them any attention. I focus on our kiss. She’s long left my back and uses both hands to embrace my face. Passion takes over, and she pushes for more, driven by a combination of desire and need.

As our tongues intertwine, I’m acutely aware of her. How vivid her blush has become even when colored in the blue backlight. How a vein in her neck flutters to the surface whenever I suck on her lower lip, and how her skin sings to me from being close. It’s cute how her breath crashes in her throat and eyes roll back when gently pull her hair.

I sit up for a moment and strip the shirt off her in a single movement. Her only resistance is a grin and a giggle.

I don’t stop to marvel at her beauty. I can do that without breaking the mood later. Instead, I pull her into another kiss while exploring her naked body with my free hand.

I feel her warmth against my skin. It weaves into the vague, supernatural connection between and becomes more vivid. I feel emotions like joy, hope, love, and desire coming from her. Our breathing synchronizes, and I feel the emotions swirling inside me communicate in voiceless words to her.

The reason why this is called, “magic, instead of, “ability,” becomes clear to me. There’s no physical explanation for this, but reality is distorting so it happens. It’s a small miracle that reminds me of what the Yamato call the red thread of fate. They say that a magical red thread binds lovers together forever. As we push further, it’s like we’re tying that thread to each other’s pinkies.

I break away from her lips and blaze a trail of kisses down her cheek and neck. She mutters something in Lorrainian and holds me tight when I focus on the nape. Her thighs tense and relax in time with each kiss. I love to see her feeling good. It grants me a pleasure greater than any sensation I could receive. It’s intoxicating.

Gisèle likes to play with my hair. Her fingertips send chills down my spine by sweeping across my scalp. She creates them so easily it’s like she can hear my body confess everything it wants to her. Slowly, gingerly, she pets my head, brushing away whatever trivial care or worry that exists outside this room.

Her head rolls across the pillow when I switch sides of her neck. She breathes out a long sigh as I sate the other side’s jealousy. She clings me to me tighter as euphoria washes over her.

A rush of emotion, a combination of happiness and desire, streams through me in reply. I find myself growing harder, larger. Her wordless cries for more excite me more than I thought possible. The pleasure I feel grows with my excitement. It flows from my chest in the form of ribbons. Each one is like a line of vibration that billows and ripples, allowing me to feel each part of my body as it moves through me. I’ve never felt so much at once, it’s hard to keep me my head on straight.

Continuing from her neck, I remember to show my appreciation to her thin collarbones. It’s such an erotic part of girls that men ignore while making their way to the breasts. From all of the exercise she does, Gisèle’s neck and shoulders are trim, toned, and seductive. She’d be gorgeous in a dress that exposes them, or even better, a sweater that hangs from one while revealing the other.

“Aaah!”

Her back and tail straighten when I graze by her modest breasts. She wants it, but not yet. I tease around the side of her right breast with my mouth. The way she tilts her chest toward me excites me more than it ought to.

I press in a little on side before retreating to other. I tip-toe toward the crest, but stop short of the peak. I circle around the top of the right, before jumping over to the left. I let the tension build, and then, when she feels like I’m about to take the crown into my mouth, I retreat to her neck.

“Mmmn!”

Her nipples are as hard as I am. She wiggles against my chest trying to satisfy herself from my teasing, but it doesn’t. The pleasure from her neck swirls with the desperation in her chest, deepening the blush in her cheeks. This is fun, but I shouldn’t tease the poor girl too much.

“AH!”

I take a nipple into my mouth. She bucks underneath me. Tail flailing more than her. With a free hand, I rub and pinch the other. Hearing her babble in broken bits of Lorrainian pushes me higher.

The pleasure enveloping my heart now pierces through it. Somehow, it travels through my veins and pulses in time with my heart. My excitement grows from seeing Gisèle losing herself to me and the feelings I give her. It clears away all other thoughts and feelings that aren’t about us and electrifies our connection.

Then, after watching her buck from changing to the other side, it happens. The dull tingle that vibrates throughout my body turns on. In long ripples, pleasure swells and ebbs carried by a current of love and happiness. Everywhere two waves cross the pleasure heightens and feels like stars twinkling at night. I’ve never been so excited from giving a girl pleasure before.

Coming down, I’m not tired. In fact, I’m more awake than before. My erection is stronger, and I didn’t let anything out.

“That was better for you than me,” she caresses the side of my face.

“What was that…?”

“Think about it later.”

She puts a halt to any poorly timed introspection by driving a tongue into my mouth. Gisèle understands me too well.

As we make out, she grinds her hips against me. Drops of sweat run down her brow, and I throw off the blanket covering us. The heat rising off her skin is more than enough to banish whatever chill might enter from the winter storm on the other side window.

Gisèle latches onto my neck. A jolt of bestial pleasure is added to the blend of feelings and sensations whirling inside of me. A small, uncontrolled gasp is enough to set her off. She sucks harder, forgetting to breathe. Somewhere between a possessive kiss and a loving bite is a girl abandoning herself to the moment.

I become harder, larger as the realization stokes the fires in my own heart. She grinds rougher against me, as if she could sense every change, following as much of my length as she can while gasps and moans fill the space between breaths.

I strip her of her boyshorts panties easily. She’s more eager to lose them than I am to take them. A small, neatly trimmed strip of hair leads to her slit. It’s just like her to have everything in order like this.

A thin trickle coming from inside catches the blue light reflecting off the walls. She fidgets as often as her tail sways back and forth. Delaying things would be torture for her, no matter how good I can make her feel. And besides, she’s more than ready.

She grabs my hand as I reach over to the nightstand.

“Not this time, please.”

“I’m not ready for a-“

“Please. It’s important.”

“We’re going to regret-“

“We won’t regret it. Trust me. Just this once.”

I stare into her eyes. A lot of guys have made the mistake of trusting a girl who wants it raw. Usually my instincts would scream out to ignore her, but this time they agree. There’s something flowing between her and I that says to me, “You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

“Just this once,” I sigh.

The correctness of that decision hits me like a sucker punch. From the moment the tip spreads her lips, the hazy bond sharpens, and a torrent of emotion and energy flows into me. Gisèle’s nervousness and desire become palatable. As I slowly push in, bit by bit, the connection becomes increasingly vivid. I feel her body give way to me while sensing the feelings stirring inside of her.

“A-a-ah!”

Pain. It hurts her, but she wraps her legs around me, before I can finish thinking about stopping. How did she… that’s when I notice the curious feeling of something flowing from me. I don’t feel weaker from it, no, it feels like the happiness of giving a gift. It travels the same path that her energy comes on.

So, it works both ways then.

Her walls squeeze me tighter than her arms around my neck. Each fold searches for the best way to wrap around me as I penetrate further into her. Even though it hurts her, joy swells in her heart like I’m making her whole.

Her anticipation invites me deeper like a finger curling come hither. As I do, her excitement builds amidst the pain. She wanted this for so long that emotions swirling inside grow stronger until they transform into ecstasy, and she overflows.

“Ah-AH-AAHH!”

Gisèle wrings my entire length as pleasure overwhelms pain. The outpour of emotion and sensation wash over her, drown her consciousness, and fills her with bliss. Each pull against me is the beginning of a current that ends at the tips of her fingers, talons, and head. Her muscles contract and release like a wave throughout her body.

Most of all, her heart flutters. Each beat stirs and whips the stream of energy and feelings cascading through her into a torrent. As the seconds become minutes, she clings to me in order to save herself from being washed away by it all.

When the tide finally retreats, I plant a small kiss on her lips. Gray eyes sputter open, dewy drops pouring down each cheek. Happiness seizes me. Another emotion emerges, admiration for how gorgeous she is.

“Mmnn!” She winces.

My desire takes control, and I pull back before she’s ready. After what she shared with me, I can’t control myself anymore. I want her. The thought of taking her for myself is almost enough to push me over the edge, but I resist. I want to enjoy her.

As I pull out, every hot, wet fold tugs at me not to leave. Each snag sends a chill from the tip to the root and all the way up the spine. A heady sensation beckons me to return. I can’t figure out where it comes from: her, me, or us.

“Aah!”

I push slowly in. Heat welcomes my return and a sigh slips from my mouth when I bottom out inside her. Feathers caress my back as Gisèle tries to trap me with arms and legs when I’m at her deepest. But, I can’t stop.

I set a gentle rhythm. Winces and flinches blend into long sighs and short gasps. From the connection between us I know which ones are from pain and which ones are from pleasure. At first it all hurt, but now it’s an odd combination that confuses her more than me. Then, an unspoken question, “Is this good for him?”

Of course, it is, dummy. Of course, it is. The inexplicable feeling of togetherness and the intensity from doing it raw tempt me into spilling everything this instant. It takes every bit of self-control I have remaining to stay relaxed and maintain the pace. As I try, my root quivers from the tension tempting me with how good it’ll feel to let loose.

As if answering my feelings, she awkwardly rocks hips to my beat. It’s off time, but even this small display of passion is excites me. The emotionally charged sensations coursing through me pick up in intensity, spurring me onward, faster.

“Ah! Mmn! Ah!”

The bond between us expands from a thread to a ball that surrounds us. Every thrust feels like it penetrates to the soul. The deeper I go, the more she envelopes me until she’s the only thing I can feel.

It feels incredible. Ribbons of pleasure that flutter inside me sew into the energy around us. They bind us together and at the edges of my consciousness I feel the pleasure inside of her. Her emotions dot my vision in brilliant colors.

Her ministrations grow harder, tenser. She’s close. The way she writhes underneath me is a joy to feel. Each long, strong squeeze tries to pull me deeper, no matter how impossible that is. The waves of pleasure inside her merge and cross, dotting her with short-lived climaxes that are like twinkling stars.

I sit on the edge of goodbye. One last thrust breaks the dam and the torrent of sensation and emotion roiling inside me spills forth. It feels better than any orgasm I’ve felt before. It’s powerful, energetic, enduring, and all encompassing. The sort of pleasure that men would think is impossible.

“A-a-aaa-AH!” She gasps as reaches her peak, “I love you, Samuel!”

Those words are enough. Instantly, like a crank setting into gear, my climax begins. Emotion and sensation intertwine and races through every vein in my body. If the previous, dry orgasm felt like a starry night this one feels like three suns igniting at once – my hips, heart, and mind. Each pulse of the orgasm is like a flare of pleasure that sears me to the bone. The pleasure is like an all-consuming fire, but even more than that, those three stars are so hot with ecstasy that it sears my vision in an aurora.

Again and again, I release deep into her. An orgasm that should only last a few seconds stretches onward. It’s as if the supernatural force that’s linked us together beckons more from me. Each squeeze inside my hips is long, slow, and thick. I’ve never released this much before, and I don’t know where it’s coming from. However, dying her in my color satisfies more than this orgasm.

Gisèle latches onto me as she’s engulfed in pleasure. She fights to keep her head above water as the undertow of sensation, emotion, and connection pull her deeper. Currents of pleasure flow, whip, and stir from the surface of her skin to inside her heart. It washes over everything. More powerful than that is the love, contentment, and bliss inside her heart. It’s carried by the flows of orgasm, magnifies their intensity, and reveals how deeply we’re bonding. An overwhelming sense of completeness fills us.

Is this ecstasy? I’ve read about it when I was researching mysticism and spiritualism for my writing, but the descriptions fall short of what we’re feeling. In this moment, as another lengthy contraction fills my girl, all of my worries are replaced with peace, love, happiness, and the longest, most powerful orgasm of my life. Almost if, this was my purpose in life, to be here like this with her.

When our orgasm finally ends, I almost collapse on top of her. The afterglow has turned every muscle to putty, but I manage to make it onto my back beside her. I glance over at the blissful face next to me while breathing heavily.

We’re still in sync. Our chests rise and fall at the same time. An open-mouthed smile hangs on the face that gazes back into me. A light I hadn’t seen from her before shines into those gorgeous eyes. It steals my attention with its radiance. We both want to say something, but are too winded for words.

That’s probably for the best. I use what little strength I have left to pull her over to me. However, she takes it as an invitation to roll on top of me. She’s lighter than I expected. I don’t want to spoil the moment with pointless talking, but Gisèle has another idea. She crawls up my body and touches her lips to my ear, “Now, I’m yours, forever.”

With that, she fades into the afterglow. Her eyelids grow heavy and within seconds, she’s asleep.

Her declaration reaches to the core. Strangely, I’m not anxious. Unlike every stereotypical depiction of man, this commitment doesn’t scare me. It’s comforting to know that she’ll always be with me, even if I’m responsible for where our lives will go. Cherish her… that shouldn’t be hard, because I’ll never want another woman.

I’ll never be able to share that level of intimacy with anyone else. I don’t know how to cast whatever magic that allowed us to bond this tightly. Even if I could cast it again, the thought of exposing myself like that to anyone else is revolting. We’re like a lock and key now.

My eyes grow heavier as I bask in the lingering pleasure of sex and the cuddling afterward. She’s snaked her arms underneath my neck and shoulders in a loose, usually uncomfortable hug. I’m not much of a back sleeper, but tonight is an exception.

“Really now, magic sex is like cheating,” I whisper to myself.

The last thing I do before darkness claims is stroke her silky, dark chocolate hair one more time.

* * * * *

What little bleak light is left filters through the blinds. The wind tumbles across the walls and windows. The warm peace inside this room is safe from the cold violence of the storm outside. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of contrast.

After delicately untangling Gisèle from around me, I leave the warmth of bed. That same content smile is plastered on her lips. Before saving myself from the cold, I draw the blankets back over her.

My seat and the opened file on the computer look more inviting than they did the first day I started chasing after this dream. Today, just maybe, I can actually make progress on this story. The Shoemaker Contest deadline is still a ways off, but I’m behind.

The instant I put my fingers on the keyboard, the words come to me. Within my mind’s eye, the characters live out their parts. I hear their voices clearly as I record their story. I enter a deep trance, the rapping of the keyboard bringing me deeper into my fantasy. Hunger, thirst, and time don’t register with me.

That is, until I finish a third chapter. When I write its last word, my concentration recedes. My stomach shanks me with hunger, and thirst scraps my throat. A sense for the hours that have passed come to me.

With a grin, I look back over what I’ve written. Incredible. It’s over 8,000 words. Good words. Probably the best I’ve written for this novel. Before I can praise myself too much, a weight presses against my neck while two arms pull me close.

“You were dazzling,” I hear in a whisper.

A quick glance to the side shows a perfectly made-up, but empty bed.

“How long has it been?”

“More than seven hours.”

“I didn’t even realize.”

My stomach roars.

“Monsieur Belly will be happy to know that dinner is ready.”

“Thanks.”

She leans over and kisses me.

“Service,” she smiles.

Happiness flutters in my chest. Before Gisèle became mine, I had to worry over details like meals, cleaning, and chores. They were distractions that stole my time and attention. I never had enough time or heart left over to make any headway, but that’s different now.

“Will you write again after dinner?”

The oven clock reads 11:00.

“Nah, I’d rather go out.”

“At this time?”

“Ever play pool?”

“Non.”

“I’ll teach you after dinner.”

I knew it. She made orange chicken. Since we don’t have any rice, she turned it into an orange chicken stir fry. It looks better than anything I could get at Trader Mike’s or a restaurant.

“Oui!”

After her small prayer, I ask her a question that’s been bothering me for as long as I’ve known her, “Why do you mix in so much Lorrainian when you talk?”

“Service!” She beams.

Yeah, that accent really is fan service.

After dinner, we head out. The rain sounds like the chorus of crickets at my grandparents’ house. Two smokers have a conversation underneath me as I lock the door to our apartment. Further away, garbage truck sirens alert empty streets, and at the limits of my hearing, the draw bridge warning bells ring the coming of another cargo ship.

However, there are no hounds.

* * * * *

Dear Mère,

I apologize for not writing you sooner. There are reasons why I’ve refrained from writing about my change in circumstances, the greatest of which you have likely deduced from your returned letters and the notice from the agency. I am no longer serving Monsieur Sutton.

It’s true that I failed to provide adequate service to Monsieur Sutton. He did not appreciate my daily attempts to improve his diet, and I refused to be an arm decoration for the numerous social events that he attended. Even when he invited guests, I spent my time working in the background rather than sitting on the mantle. The truer reason for my termination is something I’ve had debated on whether to tell you, but I feel that if I am going to confess then it should be a complete confession. I refused Monsieur Sutton’s advances.

A smoky aura rose up from him the night he made his approach. The shapes of a maw or a dog’s head appeared in the shifting clouds as he came closer. He had been rejected by a woman he had shown interest in, and another type of frustration mixed with the one he was already feeling.

He slammed me against the wall and leaned over. He was a tall man, dark, clean cut. His frequent exercise had made him fit despite his love for sweet meats found in Qin cooking. My heart raced as his lips drew near mine, and I debated if I should accept. When he was mere moments from stealing my lips, I remembered your lessons. I turned my cheek.

A week later, he fired me. I remember the moment clearly. He sat at his computer desk reading emails when I brought him another breakfast with vegetables in it. His aura was a brilliant light whenever he worked or partied. He looked up from the mess of monitors, phones, gadgets, and papers, and in a cold voice told me, “This is the last breakfast you will make. Pack your things and hand over your keys. Leave by the end of the day.”

The rest of that day was hazy to me. I remember packing what I brought with me while tears fell onto the tile floor of my bedroom. I wiped those spots time and again, but more tears replaced the ones them. The door slammed behind me, and I wandered the city in a daze.

How could I be fired? I was a kikimora. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and depressed. How many years had I been looking for my beloved master? My pride led me to join the agency to have access to the men I dreamed about, and now that I served one, I failed. Meanwhile my friends had already found theirs and were happy. What would everyone say to me? I couldn’t bear it.

I also couldn’t bear his attack on my finances. I scoffed at a provision in my contract that stated I was to pay Monsieur Sutton a large penalty if I were terminated before the term was completed. At the time, I scoffed at it. I wasn’t such a pathetic kikimora that I would be fired.

I am.

As I meandered through the city, alone, penniless, the gray clouds above me turned dark. Winter winds found strength, and the rain fell. I didn’t feel the chill or mind how my clothes stuck to my skin. Whatever pain it wrought upon me was less than the agony in my chest.

Even though I didn’t feel the pain of the elements, it drained the strength from my legs. When I could no longer walk, I curled up next to a large dumpster. I shivered while trapped in a loop of self-derision and embarrassment. I cursed you. I cursed your precious lessons. And most of all, I cursed myself for rejecting the man of my dreams.

Time passed, but the wind and rain never let up. I watched people from the alley I settled into. Most of them never noticed. They were too focused on their cellphones, conversations, or getting out of the rain. However, a few did.

The first was a social justice activist. Our eyes met, and came to understand my situation. She held a stack of waterlogged fliers that read, “Lift the Homeless out of Poverty! Demand Jobs for All!” After a few pregnant moments, she dashed off without looking back.

Later, a group of professional dressed in brand name clothes and hiding under umbrellas came by. I could hear their conversation a block away. They excitedly talked about how they could develop technology to help the world until they saw me. Their conversation fell silent, and they exchanged winces. With a nod, they continued walking. Their conversation continued soon after.

The last to notice me was a tall man dressed in old clothes and carrying an order of Qin takeout. He called out to me, but I didn’t respond. He told me I was going to die if I stayed out in the rain. I stuttered that I had nowhere to go. He brought me to my feet and said, “You do. Follow me.”

Samuel Clemens gave me warmth. He drew a hot bath for me, and gave me his old, dry clothes to wear while mine ran a cycle through the laundry. He shared his dinner, but didn’t press for my circumstances. That night, I slept in his bed while he had the couch.

I was ashamed that it wasn’t the last. I awoke with a fever the next morning. Feelings are not enough to ward off the effects of exposure. I hacked, coughed, shivered, and faded into a long fever dream. However, Monsieur Clemens stayed by my side. He took time off work to nurse me. When that failed, he paid for a doctor at a local clinic to see me and then the rounds of antibiotics prescribed to me.

I explained everything to him after I recovered. I was surprised when took my side. His indignation toward Monsieur Sutton cleared away the darkness that stuck to my heart. He found me work at an establishment known as a maid cafe. He indulged my selfishness about wanting to hide my shame from you and said that I could stay until I could buy a plane ticket home.

In my darkest hour, I thought Providence had abandoned me. I forgot about the birds who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but always have plenty to eat. I forgot about the flowers that neither spin nor toil, but are dressed in clothes finer than Solomon’s. I was wrong. He led me to safe pastures.

And now, please indulge a request from your selfish daughter that has already worried you. Please do not report Monsieur Sutton’s actions to the agency. He is a powerful man who can destroy our family, the Voclain estate, and Monsieur Clemens if he were embarrassed. Please trust in Providence and that my life serving Monsieur Clemens is happier than Monsieur Sutton.

I will not be returning home soon. I chose to serve Monsieur Clemens after the great kindness he showed me. He is unlike the men I dreamed of serving as a girl. He is not glamorous. He doesn’t have the wealth or connections that unite scores of men under a single cause. He has yet to develop the confidence to command a room. He is simply an aspiring author working a job he hates.

I’ve come to love baking since living with Monsieur Clemens. I want to share the different tastes of Lorraine, but there’s been one that’s escaped me. How did you make the bread that Radelle, Audric, and I ate every summer when we were kids? I haven’t been able to recreate that taste from memory.

After Monsieur Clemens poked me for them daily, I experimented with Alleghanian pies. The base recipes show potential, but as always, Alleghanians use too much sugar. Their apple pie is famous, but I prefer their pumpkin and sweet potato pies more. They have a creamy texture and a delightful natural flavor (using only a quarter of the sugar).

If I could send some to you and père, I would. I know that père would love it. He’s always had a taste for the exotic. It would be a good apology for worrying him so much. Please help him understand why I couldn’t. The Lord has given humans so much freedom that they have difficulty comprehending our calling.

Audric will probably laugh at it all. He’s always been a little too laid back, but what can you expect? He’s grown up with a younger and older kikimora sister doting on him. Has he been pestering Radelle if she knows any single kikimoras she could introduce him to? He must be having a hard time living on his own at university.

Does Radelle have her eyes on anyone? She’s always been more pragmatic than me, so she’ll likely be thinking of a local boy. However, she’s so shy that she’ll watch him from a distance, and let the opportunity slip by. Give her a little push for me. She only needs help in the beginning.

If you ever become too lonely for letters, please reach out to me at the number I’ve included. I’ve also attached my new address, and I promise to respond to your letters sooner. Monsieur Clemens finds it funny that we write these when we live in an era of phones and internet. He’s a little too digital to appreciate the care that goes into a handwritten letter.

With Love,

Gisèle Clemens

LackingFairGoodExcellentPerfect (51 votes, average: 4.73 out of 5)
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10 thoughts on “The Hounds at Our Heels”

  1. Really Really Really Good
    Romance had really good intimacy and i felt like you nailed the hounds in real life i feel that now as an aspiring author and entrepreneur so i really identified with it. Good job!

  2. Needs a bit more polish, there are quite a few errors where some redundant words need to be cut, some better word choices, and, a few made plural. Otherwise, well done. The story flows well, even with the errors, and, the scenes were well painted. Great emotional impact, building up to the climax…

  3. Of course I come across this at 1:45 and stay up till 3 reading it.
    I did not expect a novel on here.
    And the 7? 4 star ratings should be left in the rain next to a dumpster.

  4. I saw the title and was hoping for a bit of saucy Hellhound fiction. Decided to read anyways and good Lord.

    I’m no proper literary critic by far, but to me, this was really good. And the feeling of hounds nipping at your heels is an apt comparison to daily life. More than once I put my tablet down to reminisce on my own experiences about times when it felt like something hellish was coming for me, and my efforts were barely keeping it at bay.

    A very, very good story, mate. Well done.

  5. God fucking damn. This was amazing. Keep writing, my dude. One thing, the grammar in a few spots was iffy, but other than that this was damn near perfect.

  6. Fuck me, this was good. A bit of proofreading would clear out some minor spelling and grammar issues but they are easy to ignore. I was crazy for a moment during the climax before that feeling petered out and was thinking of giving this piece a 4, but I’m gonna hand it a 5 instead. Great job!

  7. Woo boy this was read! I didn’t expect a novel going into this but it was still a nice read.

    Interesting that it has the Kikimora we’re familiar with, but they’re referred to Fae and work a little differently. I personally wouldn’t mind seeing more stories based on this little world you’ve established.

    Even the sex scene didn’t feel tact on. It was written in a way that was more about the passion than being fap material.

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