At Her Service

[mc, mf, fd, hy]

((The following piece was written for an anthology to be entitled Submission Rules. Sadly, the project itself never came to be, but seeing the story was written anyway, I share it with all of you. It’s a strange writing about unexpected discoveries.))


Sergei Bely was a man of extremes. When he was down, he was dark, gloomy, a boring spectrum of fifty shades of black. When he was happy, everything was whistles, double rainbows and impossible smiles from head to toe. Anyone who knew him long enough knew how to deal with each facet in a befitting manner, but there was no denying that one was more appealing than the other. Although he would never admit it out loud, Levin seemed to favor the shadows more than the light, and had a hard time dealing with his friend’s bouts of exuberant joy.

“Okay,” he said, looking Sergei in the eyes as he raised the cold glass to his lips. “You’re really getting on my nerves, here! You’ve got ‘skirt’ written all over your face so who’s the broad?”

“There’s no broad” Sergei replied, seemingly miffed by his poor choice of words. The bowl of salted peanuts next to him had seen better days, but he kept going at it almost ravenously.

“You’ve never been good at lying.”

Levin savored the last drops of beer and motioned the bartender for a refill. The petite blue-eyed brunette responded in kind, swinging her hips on the other side of the counter.

“I’m not lying!” Sergei shrugged, avid fingers checking his smartphone for any incoming messages.

“So you’re saying there’s no woman involved this time around? Get out of here!”

A new beer bottle appeared in front of him. Levin smiled at the bartender and made a mental note to ask for her number before heading home.

“I didn’t say that,” retorted Sergei. “but she’s not a broad! She’s a Lady!”

“Oh? Now there’s something you don’t hear often.” Levin nudged him and perked up his ears. “And where did you meet this Lady of yours?”

“Online, a couple of months ago. Every now and then, we talk for a bit. It’s always nice.”

“Are you sure you met a real woman?”

Shifty eyes hit Levin like a dart. A peanut bounced off his forehead and rolled under the seat.

“Positive. Didn’t I just say we talk from time to time?”

“Just messing with you.” His left hand reached for the last remaining peanuts. “Tell me more. Does this Lady have a name by any chance?”

“Of course she does. Her name is… hmmm… her name is…” Sergei moved around in his seat, feeling quite uncomfortable all of a sudden.

“Well?” Levin insisted.

“That’s strange, I…”

“You don’t remember her name?”

“No, I do. Her name is Gloria, but when I think of it, something else comes to mind.” Sergei confessed in shame. Even though they were the only ones in that section of the bar at the moment, he felt like a thousand eyes and ears were glued to his every word and that a torrent of eldritch horrors would be unleashed onto the world if he went any further. Levin brushed his worries aside with a grin and kept on pushing.

“Like what?”

Empress.” Sergei muttered, lowering his head.

“Speak up!”

“Empress, okay? I keep thinking about the word Empress!”

“I see…” Levin said, adjusting his reading glasses. An all-knowing smile suddenly filled his lips. “So you’ve met her, huh?”

“Wait, you know who I’m talking about?” Sergei asked in disbelief as he looked around for something else to snack.

“Most definitely. I met her a few years ago under similar circumstances, and I think I understand what you’re going through right now. I hope you’ve been enjoying your service to her so far.”

Had he been eating anything at that moment, Sergei would have undoubtedly choked on the spot. Nonetheless, he still did find himself gasping for air. The bartender rose out of seemingly nowhere to offer him a glass of water which he politely accepted.

“Excuse me? What did you just say?”

“Service, of course.” Levin replied. “Such a beautiful word, and such a beautiful thing, really. You’re one lucky bastard, my friend!”

“What the hell? I’m not serving her!” Sergei protested, perhaps louder than he wanted to. From the corner of his eye, he saw the bartender wink.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Levin declared in-between sips of beer. He continued to smile from ear to ear.

“Explain yourself.”

“Sure thing, but maybe we should take this conversation elsewhere. My car is parked two blocks away from here. How about I give you a ride home?”

Sergei rose from the seat without a second thought.

“Okay, but this round’s on you. You still owe me the last three in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Yeah, yeah… details.” Levin pulled a fifty rubles bill out of his wallet alongside a brand new business card and placed them on the counter, face down. The young woman handled both with lightning fast mathematical accuracy, subtracting and adding in all the right places. As she moved her left hand across the register’s keyboard while using the right one to grab a pen, her bosom rose softly underneath the striped pink and black shirt, the impression of a nipple becoming visible for a split second. He couldn’t help but grin.

The two friends left the bar shortly afterwards in completely opposite states of mind, and things were about to get even stranger.

* * *

Levin’s Prius was probably in need of some repairs but was still comfortable enough. Sergei took the passenger’s seat, fastened his seat belt and placed his hands on his lap before exclaiming:

“Spill the beans!”

Jazzy sounds reverberated across the dashboard. Holding the wheel steady but with no intention of starting the engine just yet, Levin indulged him without delay.

“Very well. Tell me, did she ask you to do something for her shortly after you met?”

“Now that you mention it, yes.” Sergei replied, recalling the nine stanza poem he had written a while ago just for fun. So simple, pretty basic even, that he would have probably never stop to think about it again if it weren’t for his insistence.

“And did you do it?”

“Yes.”

“That’s service right there.” Levin concluded, his words floating in air in conjunction with the prolongued notes of a mellow saxophone.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“I’m not. I bet what she asked of you was something right up your alley, something you already liked doing. As you were doing it, you felt a wave of pleasure washing over you but, because you were doing it upon her request, part of that pleasure became associated with her on the spot. It was a test, or a seed if you like. She gave it to you, but you’re the one that planted it, and your subsequent actions have been making it grow ever since. Ring a bell?”

“Not really… Come on, Vlad! What is this? You’re not making any sense!”

“How many times have I asked you not to call me that?” Levin growled.

“Well, suck it! If I have to listen to your bullshit, you might as well deal with your birth name, too!”

The background music became louder, a storm of strings rising from the depths of the once languid melody.

“It’s not bullshit, and I can prove it. In fact, I think I have a clear picture of what happened next. Do you want to hear it?”

“For the laughs? Sure!” Sergei sniggered, although the voice in the back of his mind was screaming all sorts of obscenities at him.

“Okay, then. After you did what she asked, the two of you began talking more often. Or rather, you started talking, slowly opening up to her. She talked too, but she proved to be more of a listener, a very good one in fact, and also one that happened to agree with most of the things you said, no matter how silly they turned out to be. That’s called ‘building rapport’, and it can be used as a simple persuasion technique in conversational hypnosis. Because of that, and without you realizing it, you began to trust her more and more without fully understanding why and, when she asked you to do something else for her, you agreed right away, didn’t you?”

The confusion in Sergei’s visage was too obvious to hide which is why he didn’t even try.

“I… hmmm… I’m sorry, but what’s this mumbo-jumbo about hypnosis now?”

“It’s no mumbo-jumbo, Sergei. You’ve been talking to a hypnotist, and she’s been slowly getting inside your head. Not out of ill-intent, malice or anything like that because she’s not that kind of person, but it’s been happening nonetheless. She’s very good at it, a natural really and, sometimes, I think she does things even without realizing she’s doing them, but the truth is I’m not really sure. What I’m certain of is that she’s highly perceptive. She can sense one’s hidden desires better than anyone else I know, and make them come forth by being just the way she is.”

“You’re losing me here.”

“Now, you’re just playing dumb, Serg. I’ve read some of the things you write, remember? I know what goes on in your head when you think of women. Well, some women at least.”

“I write fiction. Do I need to spell the word out loud for you to understand what it means?”

“You know how it goes: the best fiction is always the one that’s partially true.” Levin nodded. “And you’re still a terrible liar.”

“I don’t want to serve anyone.”

“That’s exactly what I said for the majority of my life. Then, she came along. She was swift to uncover my true self, but always kind. I fooled around for a bit, believing everything was perfectly normal. When I finally figured things out, I was already at her service.”

“I’m beginning to really dislike that word.” Sergei twitched on the seat.

“You’re also blushing. Look, I understand it’s a lot to take in, but the sooner you accept it, the better. You’ve changed when you met her, and now you’re at her service, too.”

“Okay, you know what? I’ve had enough of this crap, so I’m walking home, instead.” Sergei protested as he started unfastening his seat belt. “If you’ll excuse me…”

Levin grabbed him by the arm as he was leaving. A feverish grin hung upon his lips and his once vibrant emerald green eyes were now hazy and slightly defocused.

“Listen to me, Serg. I’m telling you the truth and you know it. Everything you do for her is service.” Sergei tried to break free, but Levin tightened the grip like a snake unwilling to let go of her prey. “You’ve been dreaming about her as of late, haven’t you? And sometimes, out of the blue, you start thinking of what you could be doing for her, and you smile and sigh. I bet you even volunteered to do some things you never thought of before just because you wanted to bring a smile to her face even from a distance. I did all those things too and trust me, trying to understand the reason why, rationalizing things over and over, won’t get you anywhere. Just take a deep breath, listen to your heart, and let go.”

“No, you let go! Let go, Vlad! Let go right now or I swear I’m going to break your nose!” Sergei vociferated as he pushed him aside.

“Fine, I’m sorry.” Levin sighed as his muscles relaxed, and the dreamlike persona seemed to vanish into thin air. Next thing he knew, his friend was already storming out of the car and crossing the street at a brisk pace without looking back.

* * *

Sergei Bely was a man of extremes. When he felt safe and confident with the people around him, he was quite easy-going, a genuinely nice guy. When a sliver of betrayal knifed him in the back, he became radioactive material and proximity checks were in order.

Levin had his flaws too but this time he had gone too far. How dare he come up with such ridiculous notions and twist a good thing into such an obscure one? He loathed the idea of being played like a fiddle, but even more so the fact that he could be the one doing the concealing in the end. Seriously, what did he hope to accomplish other than this rampaging fury? What good could possibly come from such forceful disclosure?

He was at a loss, running across the busy streets and deserted alleys that intersected them, gaze cast downwards. From where he had departed, it usually took him twenty minutes to reach his apartment, but he got there in ten and, by the time he did so, he was panting, sallivating, struggling to breathe, and even angrier.

The first thing he did upon entering the front door was throw the burgundy jacket aside and sit on the worn-out leather maple he cherished so much. It was his ‘thinking chair’, a mobile haven where he could simply relax and break free from all of the burdens of the world. As he felt the familiar groove settling in, he allowed himself to close his eyes and replay everything he had just heard, all the things that made absolutely no sense. Levin’s reasoning was eminently flawed. Did he like her? Yes. Did he enjoy talking to her? Absolutely! Did he, sometimes, feel weird when that happened, somewhat subdued even? No.

He just felt a wave of respect, obviously. Because he considered himself a gentleman and she was a Lady. All people are worthy of respect, but Ladies are the cream of the crop. A Lady always deserves more. Nothing controversial, nothing but the truth, nothing to be ashamed of. He respected her and, because of that, it was quite easy to listen to what she had to say and simply defer to her…

“Wait, what?” he jumped off the seat as if he had just been bitten by a vicious animal, his thought patterns becoming even more erratic. He fumbled his way into the bathroom, and looked at his sweaty face in the mirror.

“Why did I…? I… I’m not at her service, right?” he asked the reflection, secretly hoping for a reply like in the movies. Yet, the reversed image, immune to the worn-out clichés of Hollywood, did exactly what images are supposed to do and remained perfectly silent, much to his dismay. Even a bit of whimsical mockery breaking the fourth wall would have been preferable to the winding torture of an unanswered question, but silence had already taken over. He washed his hands and then his face before giving in to the appeal of the shower.

The cascading hot water felt wonderful upon his tired body, yet did very little to appease his tumultuous mind. Too many ideas were competing for attention at the same time. The process wasn’t anything new, but the resulting chaos was completely different. Ramblings of a fictitious muse were easy to filter, organize, being given an intelligible form in a story; ramblings of himself to himself at the fringes of an ever-growing paranoia were borderline unpredictable and devastating. Dominating them was an illusion. Giving in to them on the other end…

As the water gushed, vapor rose, and the whirling columns of steam, like shreds of fading ether, filled the air. Amidst the haze that followed, he saw something familiar, an echo of self being given shape. He started seeing…

* * *

bookshelves. Rows upon rows of perfectly aligned and equidistant bookshelves stretching as far as his imagination could reach. He knew what they were of course. He had seen them time and time again as he walked along the perpetual aisles alone. Always alone.

Except this time.

Uninvited but certainly not unwelcome, a specter stood in front of him, pulsating with iridescent light. Its outlines were subtle, indistinct, and yet the sense of recognition was undeniable. From what he could tell, a pearly hand was the only thing in it that felt substantial, a hand he would gladly kiss if given the chance.

Dancing with the gracefulness of a professional ballerina, the specter spoke:

It’s all in here, isn’t it? The rules, the principles, the expectations of the social role you’ve been asked to play since an early age even though no one bothered to ask if you wanted it in the first place. The order you’ve created it is quite admirable. Everything in your intellect is perfectly categorized and makes sense even though it’s not entirely true. If it were, I wouldn’t be here, would I? No, don’t say a word. Just listen for a moment. What would happen if you were to push one of these bookshelves against another? Would the weight be simply redistributed and everything remain the same? Or would that push create a domino effect, bringing one lie to the ground, followed by another, and another until all that was left was the truth? It’s interesting to think about it, isn’t it? Everything in here has been the same for the last three decades, but things can change quite easily if you just stop dreaming. What do you want, Sergei? Do you want to keep on sleeping or do you prefer to…”

* * *

“Wake up!” blared his body unceremoniously, unable to stand the stream of cold water anymore. Had he passed out, drifted into sleep? He couldn’t feel his arms and legs and was shrivelling with each passing second. At great cost, Sergei mustered enough strength to get up and exit the stall shower.

He dried himself, put on his favorite pajamas and proceeded to raid the refrigerator as it was way past dinner time already. Still dazed, he ate a bit of everything he could find, and spent the next couple of hours watching reruns of an old sci-fi show with a haunting theme. He retired to bed shortly after eleven p.m., focused on getting a good night’s sleep.

That night, he dreamt of aliens and government conspiracies.

He also dreamt of her and bookshelves falling down.

* * *

When he woke up, it was almost noon, and he felt like crap for staying so late in bed instead of being productive, a creative force to be reckoned with. Luckily, he didn’t have to work that day otherwise he’d be in serious trouble.

Oversleeping was a rare phenomenon in his life. That hardly happened to him except when he forced himself to stay up practically all night just for a chance to talk to her. Timezones were the hellish by-product of an ever rotating world but were easy to overcome when the cause was worthy enough and she definitely fit the pro…

“You’re doing it again,” his rational self protested quite audibly. “Stop thinking about her, will you? Just stop it already!”

He tried. He really did. He tried while having breakfast. He tried as he read the morning paper. He tried as he swept the floor because he had been neglecting the house cleaning in the last couple of weeks on account of a new project. He tried over and over again to focus on the tasks at hand without sinking into the land of erotic daydreams, and he failed every single time.

During the afternoon, feeling completely overwhelmed by the euphoric rush that came from within, he sat at the kitchen table and began to read words of yore. Perusing the history of their chats together, he checked and double-checked every word, trying to piece together the frame of mind he was in at the precise moment he had written them. Easier said than done obviously for the thundering echoes of Levin’s suggestions (revelations?) still lingered, and nothing felt the same anymore. Every detail he latched on to was amplified under the lenses of an evergrowing desire of submission, a surreptitious power exchange relationship that was simultaneously scary and liberating.

He remembered the teases, the subtext, the little innuendos hidden within the sentences and the spaces separating them. A patient, calculated game stood at the core of it all, but only she knew all the rules. Every move he made relaxed his spirit, every move of hers made him want to relax even more. Amidst the pleasantries of an innocent and delicate social interaction, an unseen web now glistened inside and outside his mind, but there were no itsy-bitsy spiders in sight. In their place, standing at a corner next to a velvet throne, an inviting silhouette with a whip smiled.

Sergei kept scrolling down, almost reaching the edge, teetering closer and closer to an unknown abyss. He blinked whenever the word “service” became visible, rapidly losing count of the number of times he had already done so or how many seconds elapsed between the moment of opening and closing his eyes. The two syllables gained speed, crashed upon his lips, a fortuitous accident that thrived on repetition. Drifting ever so slightly towards them, sounds became memories and memories became sounds.

* * *

Tell me your name.” She asked once in the middle of one of their late night conversations. But had she really? And if so, when exactly? He couldn’t place that particular exchange anywhere in time even though he clearly remembered them being spoken out loud. The more he thought about them the more they resonated, tingling at the base of his skull first, and going all the way down to his hardening genitalia.

Sergei. Sergei Bely.” He answered. No matter what she wanted to know, he always answered her questions. On the other side of the virtual line, she smirked:

Really? I just love Etymology. Isn’t it funny that your name comes from the Latin Sergio meaning ‘attendant’ which is another word for ‘servant’? And as for Bely, well…”

White, clear, transparent, blank.

Sergei Bely, my little blank servant…” Gloria giggled, the nice side and the naughty one coming together in a single sentence. “Hmmm… I love the sound of that. What about you?”

He loved it too. He loved everything she told him from the very first day, but one word was the loveliest of them all.

Servant. A person in the service of another. Someone that serves. Someone that submits. Someone like…

Her servant. A person at her service. Someone that serves her. Someone that submits to her. Someone like… like…

* * *

A mortifying sound pierced the air.

“God!” Sergei screamed as he came to his senses. The computer screen had gone dark and he seemed to be caught in a strange bodily position, halfway between a respectful bow and a totally compliant one. He heard Levin’s voice mixed with his own.

“You are at her service.”

He glanced at the wall clock. Three in the morning. How could have he lost a third of the day so easily? And why was he having such a hard time fighting the urge to kneel? Gravity was a harsh mistress made even harsher by the power of her words inside his mind. The stupor lasted for a while and he cursed during most of it.

“Vlad, I’m going to kill you! I swear I’m going to kill you for this!”

The moment he felt he was in control once more, Sergei dashed towards the phone and called his friend. He was sure to wake him up, but so what? Furious, he sat on the maple, and awaited the response on the other end.

The one that came was somewhat groggy, the latency of a broken sleep wrapped around a dry tongue.

“Serg…? What do you…?” Levin snivelled.

“You know damn well what I want, Vlad! What did you do to me?”

“I didn’t do a thing.”

“Yes, you did. You said all those things yesterday and now they’re all I can think of. She’s all I can think of!”

A creaking sound travelled the distance between them. Levin adjusted his pillow behind his back as he sat on the bed.

“But that’s what you were already doing, buddy.”

“It’s getting worse,” Sergei confessed. “Much, much worse. It happens all the time. The dreams, the voices… I… I’m not sure what’s real anymore. This has to stop! How do I make it stop?”

“Submit.” Levin replied.

Sergei sighed, head buried between his hands.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Then walk away.”

“I don’t think I can do that either.”

Levin sighed along with him, remembering familiar crossroads, his own journey of self-awareness.

“You have to make a choice, my friend. Don’t be scared. Surrendering is not the end, but rather a beautiful beginning and there’s a lot you can learn from her if you’re willing to listen. She’s special, and you’re going to love her court.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I did, and you and I aren’t that different in the end.”

“Do you still…?” Sergei asked in fear, fingernails tapping on his left knee.

“No. Not directly at least, but she did leave an impression. That’s what she does. And they’re always positive.”

“I feel like my world has been torn asunder. Hard to find anything positive about that.” Sergei said, bitterly.

“You’re lying again.” Levin retorted, but the tone this time around was quite reassuring as opposed to the sarcastic quips he was better known for.

“Maybe I am. I… don’t know, okay?”

“Talk to her. Come clean. You won’t shock her, I’m sure of that, because you won’t be telling her anything she doesn’t already know. If you don’t think you can handle an actual conversation, then write something and ask her to read it the next time you see her online. You’ll still need to talk eventually but it’s a good first step.”

“Is that what you did?” Sergei muttered.

He could almost hear his friend’s heartbeat become as excited as his own.

“I’ll let you read it one of these days. And Serg…”

“Yes?”

“Good luck.”

And just like that, the line went dead, leaving him even more confused. He got up, circled the living room a couple of times and found himself leaning against the farthest wall, heart racing faster than a speeding train.

Write, huh? Well, he could certainly try. Writing was easy and always joyful even at the hardest of times. What the tongue kept silent, the pen had this uncanny way of bringing forth whether by riddles and metaphors, archaic flourishes or surprisingly direct statements. The end results of his literary explorations always surprised him in one way or another and, if there was indeed any sense to be had from the twists and turns of the fabric of reality all around, perhaps it could only be found in the entwining paragraphs of a new tale.

Imbued with a newfound strength, Sergei took hold of his laptop and began to type.

The first words that came out were somewhat random, like fragments of fragments entangled in even more fragments in vicinities of an erupting volcano. Though they were screaming and burning, the ash and smoke made it impossible to see them for that they truly were and, without a direct correspondence between his thoughts and his emotions, the promise of catharsis seemed destined to fail the moment he started.

Naturally, he kept going, clearing his mind from prejudices and the blasphemous tyranny of “what if…?” scenarios. With every new character, every hopeful sentence, something new came to be. He wrote and wrote faster than ever before, almost begging to bleed from the tips of his fingers and, after two and a half hours of intense dedication, he stopped, took a deep breath and began to read it all from start to finish, discovering…

… an absolutely meaningless and convoluted mess that would make anyone he knew feel an intense need to gouge their eyes out! It was horrible, a travesty of inspiration and certainly not something he would dare to show her in any form or capacity. No, he needed something different, an entirely different approach and there were too many lingering feelings around preventing him from finding it.

Seeing the day was breaking already, maybe he should go for a walk. Yes, that would be nice. Perhaps, he could go to the park and write under the willow trees just like he did during the college years. Good memories always helped unlock the natural flow of his imagination. Surely they would do so once more.

Two minutes later, backpack in hand and laptop inside it, he walked out the door.

* * *

Unfortunately, he didn’t make it very far. Before he had the chance to notice the shift, the sky turned grey and it started raining cats and dogs, forcing a strategic detour. He found shelter at the entrance of a nearby coffee shop and, even though he had no intention of entering the place, his wet hair and clothes demanded otherwise.

As soon as he entered the facilities, a jolly man in his late forties, perhaps early fifties, and as American as his surroundings, came to him. The white name tag contrasting with the dark green uniform he was wearing simply exhibited the name “Miles”.

“Good morning. What can I get you, good sir?” he asked with a little bit of an accent but still perfectly understandable.

“A towel would be nice.” Sergei responded. He was a walking puddle, dripping all over the place.

As if by magic, the employee produced one right away and handed it to him.

“Best service in the city, sir. Best chat as well.”

“Yeah, I’m not really in the mood for that right now.”

“Maybe not, but I believe it would do you some good. Forgive me for saying this, sir, but you’re looking rather gloomy.”

“That noticeable, huh?” Sergei asked as he did his best to dry himself.

“I’m afraid so. Let me guess: troubles with the girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Sorry, I meant wife.”

“I’m not married either.” Sergei showed him the fingers of someone who had never worn a ring in his entire life.

“Good, because if you were, my next choice would have been mistress. Pancake?”

“What?”

“Will you be having some of our special pancakes?” the quirky man pointed at the menu. “They’re absolutely scrumptious.”

“I don’t like pancakes.”

“You don’t say? Well, nobody is perfect. How about some blueberry waffles then? I’ll throw in some extra syrup to further sweeten the deal.”

“Now that sounds like a plan.”

“Very well. Please, take a seat. I’ll be right back with your order.” Miles said, sauntering away.

As he left, Sergei laid down his backpack on the closest table, took off his jacket and even his shoes. Miraculously, his feet were still dry. In absolute silence, he examined the premises, wondering if the place was new as it sure felt that way. Everything was brightly lit, warm and cozy and he felt more at peace there than he thought possible in such a short amount of time. Proceeding to check if his laptop was still working properly, he turned it on, opened the ill-fated document and began reading everything again.

It was still rubbish. Of the more than five thousand words he had written already, only the first three seemed to actually mean something. “At her service”, the top of the opening page said.

Miles returned shortly after with a plate of freshly cooked waffles and a bottle of syrup. Peeking over his shoulder, he looked at the computer screen and asked.

“It’s not busted, is it?”

“It could very well be. The bloody thing won’t write what I want it to write.” Sergei replied, feeling as if all creative spirits in this universe and the next were looking down at his predicament and ridiculing him somehow.

“What are you trying to write?”

“Hmmm… well, it’s complicated.”

“I like complicated things. May I take a look?”

Dumbfounded by his unbashful curiosity, Sergei nodded.

“Okay. Let me see… At her ser.. Oh!” Miles exclaimed as his eyes trailed along the first couple of paragraphs. The same all-knowing smile Sergei had seen before in Levin’s lips manifested itself once again. “Dancing with royalty, are you?”

“No way!” Sergei shuddered. “Don’t tell me me that…”

“Okay, I won’t.” Miles whistled, gleefully. “Word of advice, though: don’t overthink too much and just let yourself go.”

“You sound someone else I know talking right now.”

“Then that someone is a wise person. Enjoy your waffles and be sure to come back for more, will you?”

Speechless, Sergei watched him head towards the door to greet a new group of customers wanting something warm and tasty. Of all the places he could have gone to, he had found his way there, thus taking a step closer to her world. Coincidence or maybe the hand of fate showing him the proper way? Outside, the sky was beginning to clear up again. Inside his mind, another bookshelf came crashing.

* * *

It took him three weeks to write something he could feel proud of, three weeks of constant struggle, three weeks of a vicious tug-of-war between acceptance and resistance. During that period, he avoided talking to people unless he really needed to. He never returned to eat more waffles despite the fact they were positively yummy. All of Levin’s messages to check up on him were dutifully ignored without remorse, and he never said a word to her either. A man of extremes for far too long, Sergei waited as patiently as possible for that one epiphany, the moment of resolution to put an end to all resolutions.

On a rather chilly morning, listening to the enthusiastic voices of singing teenagers gathering around the block, that moment came. Before he had any time to regret it, he opened up his e-mail, composed a very simple message and added his truthful fiction to it. The message was sent succesfully and then the waiting game began.

* * *

It was almost midnight in his part of the world, and the new year was closing in fast. Sergei was at his desk, resolute hands by the black keyboard. He had been sitting there for the last three hours, eyes fixated on the same spot on the computer screen, ears dying to hear the brief jingle that signalled her online presence and perhaps the ultimate answer. When it finally came, this is what she wrote:

“Hello. I’m so glad you’re online. I read your story. Quite a surprising one, in fact.”

“A good or a bad surprise?” he typed nervously.

“That depends on the answer you give me right now, Sergei. What are you willing to do for me?”

There it was, the final act. A small part of him was determined to say “nothing” and move on with his life once and for all. Royalty or not, her rules would forever remain a distant fantasy never to be conjured up again. And yet, no matter how much he tried to believe such an idea and eschew the enrapturing temptation waiting for him across the globe, he couldn’t stop looking at her avatar, and seeing the world through her eyes as he laid his thoughts to rest.

Chances are often easy to ignore in favor of the same old tune, real inspiration comes and goes as it pleases, and dreams are left to die in its wake. When was enough enough? When would the nauseating cycle of lifeless safety come to an end? He thought he knew all the answers but, this time, the only one that mattered was something he could no longer ignore. Just one step wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

Eyes closed, Sergei relinquished all sensations upon his hands to focus on the tips of his fingers. He allowed them to dance between the keys, leaping once, twice, three times, faith and reason walking side by side as the monstrous remnants of the past howled underneath. Finally, all movements ceased to be as he hit the “send” button to welcome a new reality with open arms.

“Whatever it takes, Gloria. I know it now and I know it’s true. I’m yours. I’m at your service.”

Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence, someone said once. He wasn’t sure who and it didn’t really matter. Anxiously, he opened his eyes and looked at the lower right corner of the screen. Thoughts of yore quarrelled in utter disarray, and his legs trembled on the chair as if they were about to shatter. Outside the bedroom window, lit by the warm fluorescence of the street lamps, the sky was unfolding in layered cascades of rain spiralling down beyond control. Suspended in time and space, he waited for a semblance of a reply.

“Good.” She finally said, and that was enough to bring him silently to his knees as the last bookshelf inside his mind came crashing. “Here’s what I want you to do, my pet.”

One by one, her instructions filled the screen and every corner of his conscious and unconscious mind. Even though he was seeing the strings of words flash before him, Sergei wasn’t actually focused on their inevitable progression, but simply repeating the unwavering truth contained in every single one of them.

He was at her service.

He would obey.

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