Kessie found the steps leading down into the alley on her seventh try. She finally took a day off of work to do nothing but walk up and down the small, narrow streets of the oldest parts of West Market, searching among the tiny, crowded stalls and tucked-away little shops that gentrification had somehow overlooked, hoping to catch a glimpse of the shadowed archway out of the corner of her eye. She went through the same spots she'd already been through on her lunch break last week and the week before; they always said that if you couldn't find what you needed in West Market, you didn't really need it badly enough, and Kessie was hoping that desperation would make the difference.

Sure enough, when she turned away from trailing her ebony fingers along a section of red brick wall, hoping against hope that somehow she might find a crack between two buildings that wasn't there before, she saw the steps leading down into darkness and knew she'd found what she was seeking. She practically sprinted across the street, not daring to look left or right for traffic or even blink for fear that it might not be there when she looked again, but fate was with her and she reached the narrow alleyway instead of losing her life to an oncoming car. Three steps down, and she was standing on cobblestones that were old when Philadelphia was new. The Other West Market.

It didn't look like she expected it to. She was somehow picturing something out of a Harry Potter novel, with street performers juggling balls of blazing light and stall owners crying out offers for curses and love potions going cheap, but really, Kessie could barely even tell that the alley was too big to fit into the space it inhabited. The dreary shadows covered everything with a pallor of silent gray desolation, and the few shops that possessed windows had no lights burning in them. She peered around corners and saw tiny courtyards, but everything looked abandoned and empty. Kessie hoped it was another test. She didn't know what she'd do if it wasn't.

She began to walk at random, her long slender legs making their own decisions about where to turn left and right and whether to ascend or descend the narrow stone steps that dotted the maze of courtyards and alleyways. Sometimes she glanced to one side or another, her deep brown eyes skimming over tiny doorplates that said things like, 'By Appointment Only', 'No Solicitors', or once simply, 'The Wrong Door'. Kessie rapidly lost track of time as well as space, her mind misting over into a fugue of identical doors and twisting, winding cobblestone paths and only the narrowest strip of slate gray sky overhead. She didn't care. Her need drove her on.

And then, finally, she found herself at a dead end. A single door awaited her, set into the end of the alley as if in opposition to her progress. Kessie approached it slowly and read the nameplate, uncertain whether to hope or despair until she saw the words etched into the dull brass. 'Queen Lullabye. Purveyor of Drowsiness, Dreams, and Somnolescence Since'. The year was scratched over to the point of illegibility. Kessie leaned her forehead against the wooden surface and let out a silent sob of relief.

She reached for the door handle and found herself somehow still shocked when it yielded to her fingers. Turning the knob, she went inside to find a small, cramped room filled with an assortment of bizarre objects and oddities so vast that Kessie's eyes swam trying to take it all in. She saw a porcelain doll with one leg leaning drunkenly on a bronze statue of a penguin that leered at her with a lascivious grin on its beak. She saw an old necklace made out of obsidian that glittered with no obvious source of light, and a brand new bottle cap that still had a few droplets of soda clinging to the inside. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the collection; it simply was. Kessie was so overwhelmed by it all that she almost took the woman sitting in the corner to be just another curiosity at first.

But of course, once Kessie saw her, she couldn't look at anything else. The woman had smooth, marble white skin, every bit as pale as Kessie's was dark, and hair that spread across the floor in long, auburn locks. Her eyes were-her eyes, they-her eyes hurt Kessie's head to look at for long, and she stared down at the woman's tattered gray gown and tawny, furred legs instead. They ended in the daintiest little hooves. Kessie wasn't sure how the woman could possibly walk on them.

The woman let out a tiny harrumph, and Kessie looked back up to the face that perplexed her sense of spatial geometry so badly. "I believe you have a trade to offer?" the stranger said, her voice somehow sounding as though a second person was speaking in unison with her even though no one else was there. She blinked regally, and the eyes within eyes within eyes within eyes that receded bottomlessly into infinity blinked in sequence down the tunnel of regression where a pupil and iris should be. "I am she whom you seek. I can give you what you desire, if you are willing to pay the price."

Kessie froze in momentary panic. Nobody had ever given her a book of etiquette on how to address the purveyors in the secret market. There wasn't a guide to any of this, it wasn't even really talked about except for those late nights when the last of the stew had been scraped out of the pot and the poyo started going to everyone's head and someone finally mentioned that they heard about how Hassan really got Mariatu to marry him. It was the kind of story nobody really believed until they had to, until life became so intolerable that a little magic seemed like the only way to make the world make sense again.

"Um, uh, of course, my, um, my queen," Kessie mumbled, dipping her hips into an embarrassingly confused attempt at a curtsey. "I... I just need to sleep at night," she sighed, desperation leaking through into her voice and ruining her vague attempts at sounding polite and courtly. "It's been... god, it's been almost two months, I, I don't have insurance, I can't see a doctor, I don't know what started it or how to get it to stop, I just... please. Can you please make it stop? Please?" She could feel tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, and she was suddenly terrified that she was going to start bawling in front of a complete stranger. Kessie closed her eyes, trying to keep her composure. There were very few things she hated more than crying in front of people, whether those people were human or not.

The answer changed Kessie's near-tears to tears of relief, but it didn't make it any easier to stop herself from sobbing until snot bubbled out of her nose. "Of course, my child. I am Queen Lullabye, am I not? Sleep is my principality, dreams and nightmares my subjects. Though I am terrible and pitiless in my caprice, yet still I can be bargained with. You wish for sweet and pleasant slumber, and I can offer it to you. Night after night of sleep so deep that you will wake a new woman, rest and succor all your days on this earth. This I promise you, Kessie Tengbeh." The iceberg of dread had almost melted in Kessie's heart until she heard the last few words. "For a price, of course."

Kessie swallowed hard. "I... I'm not a wealthy woman, my queen. I work every day, as many hours as they offer, but... the pay is not good. There are always bills. Rent is expensive here, even for a room as small as mine. I still have relatives back home, and I must save to help them come to join me here. All I can spare will be yours, but I can spare so little." Her shoulders slumped, certain of her dejection even as her mind continued to hope. "What price do you ask of me?"

The Queen smiled broadly, revealing a line of teeth as sharp and as thin as ivory needles. "Oh, my sweet, darling child. The worth of an offering lies not in money, but in meaning. Do you see this?" She plucked a single piece of candy from off the shelf next to her, a small red pellet that looked to Kessie's eyes like an M&M or a Skittle. "A child of four gave me this, her fingers still sticky with its sweetness. It cost her mother only pennies, but she valued it with all the love her tiny heart could hold. Now it is mine, and she will dream of her true self no matter what the world tries to make of her. I want nothing of you that you cannot give. Only that which you esteem most dearly."

Somehow, that didn't make Kessie feel any better. She couldn't imagine parting with her mother's necklace, or the photo of her sister that hung on her wall, or the little stuffed squirrel that she slept next to back in happier days when sleep came easily. She didn't think Queen Lullabye would accept candy, not from a grown woman, and she didn't know what she had to offer that would be worth the trade without being too dear to her to lose. "Can I pay in service?" she asked, trepidation filling her voice.

The Queen ran a thick purple tongue over her narrow teeth, licking her pale pink lips with what could only be described as hunger. "Of course you can, sweet child, but it is a harder path than you know. For a lifetime of rest, you must pay for each night in kind. Do you think that you have the strength for that kind of service? Do you honestly believe that you can spend your every evening slumbering within the visions I choose, obeying my every whim without even the thought of dreamless relief to comfort you in your labors? For make no doubt, dearest, I will work you and work you hard. You will dream from dusk 'til dawn of service to me, and though you will wake refreshed, you will wake with the memory of my commands still floating through your mind. Are you the kind of woman who can do that?"

Kessie almost said yes without hesitating. She was only the third in her family to come to America, behind just her sister and one cousin, and she came understanding full well her duty to her mother and her brother and her nephews and her aunt. Hard work bought them freedom from economic uncertainty, tense political realities, and the sorrow of separation from the loved ones who had already emigrated. She was used to labor. Her children might well have to be used to it too. Working in her sleep simply seemed like the logical conclusion to her current situation.

But Kessie's mother hadn't raised a fool. "What kind of labor?" she asked, quickly adding, "Not that I'm saying no, my queen. I just want to know whether I can do the work."

The Queen's eyes within eyes within eyes within eyes lit up with excitement. "You wish to know?" she asked, her slender fingers gripping the hem of her tattered gown and pulling it up to reveal a smooth white cleft between her thighs. "Allow me to demonstrate. Consider it a payment in advance for tonight's slumbers." And with that, Kessie felt a fog settle over her thoughts, as though she'd fallen asleep without knowing it while she stood in the stultifying warmth of the shop and gazed into the endless depths of Queen Lullabye's stare. She found her mind settling into the comfortable inevitability of a dream, events unfolding without her will or control as Kessie observed herself obeying the Queen's commands.

Kessie found herself moving slowly across the room, wading through a sea of thick and drowsy relaxation to reach the spot where the Queen sat with her legs spreading wider and wider to reveal a hint of purple between her smooth alabaster labia. Kessie's body seemed to drift down onto her knees, and her hands rested gently on the Queen's pillowy white thighs as though settling like a drift of snow onto a rooftop. The contrast between Kessie's rich ebony skin and the Queen's pale flesh looked so natural it was almost soothing, like a study done in chiaroscuro. All Kessie wanted to do was rest her head in the Queen's lap, her short hair nuzzling the other woman's softness, and sleep forever.

She didn't do that. But it felt like she did. When Kessie leaned in and slowly slid her tongue into the deep, warm channel between the Queen's labia, it felt every bit like she was tumbling gently down a soft slope into the sweetest slumber imaginable. Every position felt perfectly comfortable, as though each lick, each kiss, each suckle on the Queen's stiff and throbbing clit was exactly where Kessie's body needed to be at that moment to relax completely into deep, dreamless oblivion. She didn't sleep, but she constantly felt that wonderful tranquility that settled on her when she knew that sleep was about to come.

It made the work of pleasuring the Queen almost effortless. When Kessie licked and sucked the Queen's clit, marveling as it stiffened almost three full inches out from her lover's delicious, slick pussy, she felt as though she was doing nothing but drowsing away a few moments in idle fantasy. When she spiked her tongue as deep as possible into the wet, musky cunt in front of her, Kessie couldn't imagine anything more restful. And when she looked up into those eyes, eyes within eyes within eyes within eyes, Kessie found herself floating on into the eternal depths of Queen Lullabye's stare with an ease and grace that eluded her waking mind. She could fall forever into that gaze.

The only sign that time passed for them at all was the occasional change in the tempo of the Queen's moans and whimpers, the rush of liquid heat that smeared Kessie's chin with thick, glistening musk whenever her questing tongue pushed Queen Lullabye past the limits of her endurance. Even that took on a languorous, drowsy quality; Kessie felt a sense of drowsy pride that her mouth could bring another woman so much pleasure with so little practice, but it was the only thought that passed through her somnolescent mind. She was there to make her Lady cum. That was her only purpose. That was her only need. She would kneel all day and all night if she had to in order to please the sweet, slick pussy before her.

It was only when Queen Lullabye shouted hoarsely, "Enough!", that Kessie came back to her senses. She realized first that her own cunt was practically on fire with arousal, the dream of lust making her pussy soak through her panties with sublimated desire that she was only now allowed to fully feel. Helplessly, hungrily, Kessie shoved both hands under her skirt and pulled aside her underwear to desperately masturbate away the urgent need that coursed through her louder than the pounding of her heart.

"That is the price you would pay," the Queen said, her voice still quaking with pleasure. "To spend all night between my thighs, lost in a dream of servicing me. To wake every morning with all the pent-up lust dripping inside you, making you ache with need and helpless to resist relieving your desire to cum. To spend each and every daydream inside my realm, constantly lost in my eyes and ravished by my touch. To live with one foot in the world of slumber, and to know that side of you belongs to me. Is that worth your sleep, pretty girl? Is it worth it to find rest at last between my thighs?"

"Yes!" screamed Kessie, her fingers churning her messy cunt into a thick froth of arousal as she came helplessly around her own hand. She shuddered and shook, already unable to resist slipping into another reverie of sweet, submissive bliss against the Queen's wet and dripping pussy. In her mind, she was already being fucked by that stiff clit, already spiking her tongue deep into the Queen's musky channel. She knew that it wasn't just a fantasy anymore, that all of her daydreams belonged now and forever to Queen Lullabye, but knowing they were real only made them all the better. She belonged to her beautiful new lover... and heady, overwhelming ecstasy was never more than a dream away.