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Five Petitioners Come To Chernosvyat

Chapter Text

The Deathless had his keep in the high mountains, at what seemed to be the very northernmost edge of the world. Maybe it was. No-one had ever told tales of where the Deathless’s castle was to be found, for the simple reason that no-one who had found it had returned from the endeavour, alive or dead. The castle itself had not been at all what Garak expected. It was built of white stone, so pale it almost shone in the light, all tall towers and dizzying heights beyond a chasm so deep and so dark that if you were to stand at the top and throw a stone down you would never see it hit the bottom. Gaudy turrets shaped like markala pastries topped each tower, in more and brighter colours than Garak could quite believe existed, luridly-patterned and ludicrous, but strangely beautiful in spite of all sense and taste. And, it seemed, positively crawling with life. Garak had seen great brown bears on the lower slopes of the mountains, spotted silver cats that moved as silently as snowfall and rangy, long-legged wolves whose howls rose up over the mountains more nights than not, distant enough that if he closed the shutters he could almost pretend they were not there. Even within the castle itself, there were a myriad of small beasts that had made homes for themselves in the courtyards and the corridors – small birds nesting in the eaves, hedgehogs and tortoises meandering aimlessly through the castle itself, and what seemed like several generations of small, brightly-coloured frogs living in the disused, stagnant well – so that it seemed that the only creature in these mountains of which Garak had seen neither hide nor hair was the Deathless himself. Garak’s new husband, such as he was.

They had not journeyed the thousand miles from Cardassia to this frozen range of mountains in the blink of an eye, as Garak might have expected, although they had gone far faster than any mortal means of travel could hope to match. Three nights to cross a thousand miles, and the storm had travelled with them. It scarcely seemed real. Garak’s marriage had been consummated on the third of those three nights. Before that, the situation had actually seemed quite promising. The Deathless had been downright solicitous the first night, full of eager enquiries about the food, the lodgings, whether Garak would like to send a message to his family, if he had any, if the cold was troubling him. He had never expected the Deathless to prove so eager to please, but Garak had always been a man to take advantage when a windfall fell into his lap, and so he had smiled and praised the food, the inn, demurred that his family would already know what had become of him and finally allowed the Deathless to put his cloak around Garak’s shoulders, and leant into him a little as he had. He’d brushed his fingers across the Deathless’s flesh-and-blood hand as he’d stood, too, and heard the catch of breath that followed. So. Not entirely unaffected, then. It was probably absurd to find that flattering, but there was something in the way the Deathless’s eyes had followed him that made Garak want to preen. On the second night, the Deathless had been quiet, preoccupied, but he had urged Garak to talk about himself, about the war, about Cardassia, about what it was he would miss and what he hoped to find ahead of him. And Garak had obliged him, and spun pretty and engaging lies until their supper was over and the Deathless was hiding a smile at Garak’s description of Lord Porania, the most famously long-winded bore ever to be granted a place at court. Garak had tried to turn up charges of treason against him once, that Tain had used to keep Porania an ally. And perhaps he had even begun to find it charming, how eager the Deathless was to be pleased. But, once again, Garak had spent the night alone, and risen in the morning to find the Deathless sitting down to breakfast in the next room, with no sign that he had ever been to bed at all.

They had spent the third night in a long low hunting-lodge in the foothills of the mountains, that the Deathless had called a dacha, and which had once belonged to a king. There was snow on the ground now, and Garak’s boots, meant for a Cardassian autumn, were soaked all the way through, his fingers thick and heavy and clumsy with cold. The Deathless had knelt to unlace Garak’s boots when Garak’s own fingers failed, with snow in his curling hair, and, not for the first time, Garak had felt it would not be so bad a thing to be married to the Deathless in truth. He had thought, after the first few nights, that he knew what to expect by now, but that night the Deathless had been almost nervous.

“This will be our last night together, before we reach my home,” he’d said, toying with his table knife, “I’ve…tried to make things ready, as best I can from here – it’s difficult, when I’m travelling as well. The winds won’t go the way I ask them to without some prodding.”

Garak had taken a sip of pale, sweet wine before answering. “I’m sure it will be beautiful.”

“There really isn’t much to it,” the Deathless had said, with an awkward sort of lopsided smile that did not at all match with his fearsome reputation “The castle will obey your commands as well as mine, just ask if you need anything...uh. I think that more-or-less covers it?”

Garak didn’t hide his surprise at that – the Deathless seemed to like explaining things. “Magic?”

“What else?” The Deathless smiled. “I’ve lived there for more than eight centuries now, and there was a dragon there before me. Magic has soaked into the walls, by now. It’s down in the stones and the mortar.”

“Should I be worried?”

The Deathless shook his head, a little jerkily. “Do you intend to be around for the next eight hundred years?”

“Not remotely,” Garak reassured him, which was true, although not for quite the reasons the Deathless might have thought.

There wasn’t much more conversation, after that, which ought to have been a warning in itself. The Deathless’s usual flood of idle chatter seemed to have dried out, his eyes everywhere but on Garak as they ate the finest supper that had yet been provided to them. It was only When Garak stood to go through to the bedroom that the Deathless stood too, and caught him, very gently, by the arm.

“…there is one last part of this contract,” he said, very quietly. “I wish there weren’t, but…you bargained to marry me.”

“And we’ve done as much of that as can be done publicly,” Garak had finished for him. At last. Garak had been starting to worry that the Deathless would never remember what marriages were for, and if he were as talkative as he had been those last two nights over dinner, what other secrets might he let slip in Garak’s arms at night?

The Deathless nodded, avoiding Garak’s eyes.

“No harm will come to your people if you refuse me,” he said quickly, “Nor to you, if I can prevent it.”

Garak smiled, and took the Deathless’s hand. “How very thoughtful!” he said, widening his eyes, “But we made a bargain, did we not? And does not the Deathless always keep his word?”

After that, it was all very simple. The Deathless was lean as a shadow beneath his cloak and surcoat and tunic, his bone arm just a peculiar lightness and coolness in the dark where there ought to have been solid flesh, and he was warm as a furnace to the touch. Garak could even say he enjoyed himself, which was rare enough for these assignments. The Deathless’s hands, flesh and bone alike, were careful and tentative and gentle, as if afraid to go too far, his body soft and warm and light atop Garak’s, and he made almost no noise at all, so that if it weren’t for the strange, lightning-sharp scent of him, the slight roughness of his skin beneath Garak’s fingers, it might have been any lovely young man in the bed with him.

After it was over, Garak lay still and watched, in the light of the dying fire, as the Deathless stood, and dressed with a wave of his bone hand and something that looked almost like smoke coalescing around him, until he was back in his heavy cloak and coat and tunic and shirt, and Garak still lay there, quite naked beneath the furs. Garak heard, rather than saw, the door click closed behind him. That was discouraging, he thought sleepily, but not irreparably so. Garak might never have been a great seducer, but if there was one thing he excelled at, it was conversation, and the Deathless seemed to prefer that in any case. Garak could coax more information out of him at mealtimes, and let nights be just for them.

Then morning came, and the Deathless would not look at him.

They had reached the castle the following night, and from then on, Garak had not caught so much as a glimpse of him. That burned, somehow. Garak might not have been the Deathless’s first choice, but he had, nonetheless, been chosen. And certainly on those three nights of travel, the Deathless had not seemed at all repulsed by Garak’s attentions. It had been a fortnight, now, since Garak had been brought here, and his bed had remained empty, his days solitary, the only sign of the creature he had married when he opened a door to find the room beyond freshly deserted, the scent of ozone and petrichor in the air. Sometimes he would find a book abandoned, still open, or a cup of the strong blue-black tea the Deathless seemed to prefer still hot on a table, but of the Deathless himself there would be no sign.

It would have been better, or at least easier to stay angry, if he had been kept in a dungeon and fed on bread and water. Instead, he’d been given a suite of rooms as fine as any he had seen in Cardassia, and the castle seemed to be competing with itself to produce more and finer delicacies every day. The Deathless had been telling the truth when he said the castle would obey his commands – it had been icy when Garak arrived here. Now, it was warm as a sauna, and other little comforts had sprung up here and there over time, many of which Garak had never even said he wanted, like the embroidered Cardassian carpet he’d found laid out by the bed one morning, when his toes had found something warm and soft rather than the usual bare cold floorboards, the door through to a private steam-room that could not really have appeared out of nowhere against the far wall of Garak’s new rooms, or the rough-hewn wooden box of thick-cut gingerbread that had appeared on the bedroom mantel a few days later. Really, all told Garak’s situation was better than he had ever had any reason to expect, except for the fact that he was, after all, here to gather information and his primary source of information was nowhere to be found.

In the end, it took almost a month for them to exchange more than a handful of, and while Garak would have liked to attribute that to his own efforts, the truth was far less flattering. Just under a month into this peculiar arrangement, they received a visitor.

Garak was in the library when he first became aware of another presence in the castle. Truthfully, that was where he spent most of his time, when he wasn’t combing the castle in search of...he still wasn’t precisely sure. Koschei the Deathless would hardly leave his life, the most precious thing he owned, in some dusty backroom of his castle with someone like Garak wandering around loose. Then again, a month ago he would not have said Koschei the Deathless would be awkward, or over-eager, or nearly as considerate as he had been. His investigations had so far found nothing but magically-sealed doors that had melted his lockpicks when he tried to open them, and empty rooms, and dust, and the faint, pervasive smell of a place that had stood all but abandoned for far too long. The library was the only room that really seemed lived-in, with heavy, ugly, comfortable furniture and more books than Garak had seen in his lifetime stacked so high that the Deathless had, apparently, at some point seen fit to install a ladder to reach the higher shelves. Quite what the Deathless had wanted with a ladder when he had shown himself quite capable of summoning anything he wanted to himself, at least within this castle, Garak had never asked, just in case the ladder would be taken away if he did. The other innovation of the library he had taken a particular liking to was the wide padded seat in the window recess, with a view out over the chasm and the steep mountain valley beyond. If he hadn’t been sitting there, he might never have noticed the figure in the tall hat crossing the bridge of swords below.

Not a knight - no gleam of armour. Not one of the villagers, either, unless Garak missed his guess - they didn’t come up to the castle, if they could avoid it, and indeed Garak would have hardly known there was a village at all if the Deathless had not told him so. And those who, like himself, had found themselves in desperate enough straits to bargain with the Deathless generally summoned him - it wasn’t difficult, any child knew how. Blood, and the right words. The words themselves were a children’s chant throughout half the known world, always ending before the last words that would call the Deathless’s attention. And yet, they had a visitor.
The back stairs down to the entrance hall were little-used and dusty and full of cobwebs and bats dangling like strangely-shaped fruit from the upper sections of the spiral staircase, but they served, and soon enough Garak could hear voice somewhere nearby.
“-what I don’t understand. You’re less than a month married, when you ought rightly to be in the blissful newlywed stage where you can barely keep your hands off each other and can’t stop billing and cooing and generally making yourselves unbearable to everyone around you, and here you are with a face like a wet Wednesday. Is she really that bad?” The voice was unfamiliar, bright and cheerful, and Garak frowned to himself, wondering whether the newcomer was as powerful as the Deathless or else simply mad.
“He,” the Deathless corrected mournfully. “And...no. He’s. He’s lovely.”

Garak blinked. That was...not a description he had heard applied to himself before, and he couldn’t say he especially liked it. There was something a bit off-putting about it. He kept listening, waiting for the ‘but’. There would be one. There always was.

“So! What’s the problem, then?”

A long pause, and then. “I don’t see that that’s any business of yours.”

“I’ll get it out of you sooner or later, you know! Let me see...not one for men, is he?”

“...he seemed to know rather too much about the subject for that to be the case,” the Deathless said, and now he sounded gloomy. “I…the bargain had to be consummated. You know the way my power works.”

“Magic for you, for your household, for your vassals, but everybody else has to pay or there will be trouble. Of the sort that tends to start with ‘there came a great sound of wailing fire from the heavens’ and end with ‘say, wasn’t there a thriving desert metropolis here just a moment ago?’”

There was an awful, bitter sort of laugh at that from the Deathless.

“Yes, I remember,” the other voice went on. “…oh. Oh. You…you didn’t …”

“I might as well have done.” The Deathless’s voice cracked. “I-  I’d barely had time to consider what the price might be – it was hard enough getting there in time to do any good. And then he- I’d made a joke. He asked what my intentions were, I…said something stupid about asking his father for his hand in marriage…”

“Let me guess. He assumed that was the price and you just panicked?”

A sigh. “In so many words, Jefferson. I- I’ve left him to himself, since. It seemed…kindest. After.”

Garak stilled. Well. Not as calculating as he’d thought, then. Tain would be fascinated to hear it, but it rankled, to find himself in this position out of nothing more than sheer dumb luck.

“Well,” the other voice said, “And, let’s face it, ‘marry me in exchange for…’ is the foundation of most matches you’ll see among the nobility, so he ought to be used to it, at least. Might be a bit of an adjustment being on the other side, but…”

“If he were nobility, you might have a point,” the Deathless said dryly. “Most people, however, find that ‘come with me or your whole province is consumed by ogres’ isn’t the best start to a marriage. I should never have let things go this far.”

Jefferson huffed softly. “You’ll never know what he thinks of it until you ask him,” he said, “I know it’s a radical concept, but you don’t actually know everything. At least talk to him, will you? I mean...not as if there’s much to do here. I still don’t understand how in a thousand years you haven’t gone mad with boredom, shut up here, and he’s probably worried you’re going to chop him up for potions ingredients or something.”

“I would never-”

“I know that and you know that, but he’s never going to know that unless you let him get to know you a bit. Who can say, you might even find you like each other.”

“I do like him. That’s what makes this such a mess. Under other circumstances, I’d be calling myself the luckiest man alive, but…”

“He agreed to marry you, didn’t he? We both know what makes a marriage, in law, and it’s not a few vows and a kiss in front of a friar. I think we can assume that he knew what it was he’d be getting into, and thought it was a worthwhile price.”

“Oh, marvellous, I’m not actually a fate worse than death! That’s so reassuring! I just…” the Deathless’s voice cracked. “I’d rather have been freely chosen. A bit much, for something like me to want, I know.”

“Koschei, my friend, I know you like I know my hat, and I will bet you the rights to tell March any story you care to share from the days before I met her that you made it very clear you can be refused.”

The Deathless made a choky sort of noise, “I swear, I will never understand you two,” he muttered. “But even if he did believe me, a forced choice is not a free choice, and these Cardassians – this one especially, it seems – they live and breathe duty. He sold himself into a marriage with a monster for duty. After that, bedding one couldn’t be a very much greater sacrifice.”

A snort. “Please. You’re not exactly hard on the eyes.”

“I also blackmailed him into marriage with the threat of a horde of ogres slaughtering him and everyone he knew. There's hardly much there to like.”

“Did you send the ogres? Did you tell him directly that it was marry you or everyone and everything he knew would die? You’re taking the world on your shoulders again – stop it, those bony arms of yours can’t hold it all yourself.”

The Deathless started to reply, but stopped at the sound of an odd, high-pitched half-squeaking, half-wailing noise. “Jefferson, was that- Have you got a child under your coat? I didn’t think you and March were expecting!"

“If we were, you’d be the first to know - you’re better than a fairy godmother. No, no. I heard about your happy announcement and thought I owed you a wedding present. Ta-da!”

There was another loud yowl, and then:

“...you mean to say you had that inside your coat the whole way here?”

“She rode on my shoulder for part of it,” Jefferson said blithely, “Took a bit of work to get hold of her, but at least she won’t freeze in the cold or get eaten by your menagerie of ex-heroes. So! Are you going to invite me in to meet the new Tsaritsa?”

“...please don’t call him that. I don’t know what he is, but ‘Tsaritsa’ definitely isn’t it.” The Deathless sighed. “But fine. Fine. He’s...oh.” A pause, and then. “Garak,” he said, in the tone he might’ve used with a wild animal, only half-tamed and still skittish. “You are there, aren’t you? I’d like to introduce you to someone, if- if you’re willing.”

There didn’t seem to be much point in hiding, after that, and so Garak stepped out into the hallway to see the Deathless standing there with a tall, broad-shouldered man in a long leather coat and a tall hat with a narrow brim, holding a squirming bundle of fluff in the crook of one arm.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, as innocently as he could manage, doing his best to ignore the embarrassment of being caught eavesdropping as he hadn’t been since before he’d lost his last milk-tooth. “I had been starting to give up hope...Koschei...had any other acquaintances at all.”

Jefferson laughed. “Well, he does make it difficult. So. You are...actually, I don't think I ever caught your name. Koschei, do us both a favour and introduce me to your charming Tsaritsa properly, why don't you?"

“He isn’t my Tsaritsa,” the Deathless muttered, rather sullenly. “I don’t know what the proper title is, because no-one’s had to come up with one yet. Er...Elim Garak, this is Jefferson. Jefferson, this is…”

“Just Garak,” Garak interrupted. “Plain, simple Garak.”

Jefferson grinned. “Garak it is, then!” he said, and deposited the protesting kitten in the Deathless’s arms before reaching out a hand to shake Garak’s. “I take it this means you heard all that?”

 “Jefferson,” the Deathless said warningly, but Jefferson gave no indication he had heard.

“I did,” Garak said, a trifle haughtily, “But I think that is a matter for Koschei and I to discuss privately, hmm?”

He had not expected the Deathless would have friends - allies, perhaps, but not strange men in tall hats who turned up at the castle bearing wedding-presents when, by rights, this ‘Jefferson’ ought not to have been able to find the place at all and, if he had, should never have been able to leave it again alive.

“If you’re sure, though how you intend to corner him if he keeps on like this, I’m sure I don’t know. So, now that’s out of the way, how have you managed to avoid going mad with boredom up here? Koschei's immortal, and therefore a bit mad anyway, but I’m not so sure about you.”

Garak gave a deceptively mild smile, “I find things to keep me busy. I’ve never seen so many books in my life, and I had thought myself quite well-read, for one of my profession, although a simple tailor can hardly aspire to very much by way of education.”

"Another reader!” Jefferson said, with a pointed look at the Deathless, who was paying a quite inordinate amount of attention to the kitten in his arms. “How lucky for you - Koschei is addicted to the things. He's asked me to retrieve a fair few for him over the years."

Garak blinked. “You don’t strike me as a merchant.” And it would be a rare trader indeed who would come to this castle, through those treacherous, wolf-haunted mountain paths, just to try and sell its master rare books.

“Consider me more of a picker-up of unconsidered trifles,” Jefferson said brightly. “People tell me what they want, I find it, they then pay me and my lovely assistant disgustingly large sums of money for the privilege.”

“Does March know you refer to her that way when she isn’t around?” the Deathless put in, still petting the kitten, which was cradled comfortably in his flesh-and-blood arm and purring like a small furry thundercloud.

Jefferson winced. “No. No, she doesn’t, and for the sake of Grace’s hopes of having a sibling at some point in the not-too-distant future, I think it probably ought to stay that way. Does that mean you’re keeping the cat, then?”

“What- Oh. Rukavitsy? Yes, I think I am.” The Deathless grinned, and it- it didn’t take years off him, but he looked a lot less like an immortal sorcerer and a lot more like any other young nobleman with that grin lighting up his face.

“Ruka- Oh, never mind,” Jefferson waved an airy hand, “Speaking of marital difficulties, you might think of including Garak here in that decision, don’t you agree?” This last addressed to Garak.

“I’m sure I’ll agree with whatever the- whatever Koschei thinks best,” he lied demurely.

The Deathless scowled. “Don’t do that,” he said, rather irritably.

“Do what?” Garak’s tone was almost bland, now.

“That! Look...you’re my- husband, not my servant, not my vassal, and not- not in any position where you should be- be afraid to disagree with me!” The Deathless drew in a breath. “Tell me you hate cats and they make you sneeze, and I’ll…”

“Try to keep the cat in part of the castle he doesn’t visit very often?” Jefferson said slyly. “Face it, Kostya, if he hasn’t run screaming at the rest of the menagerie, one cat is not going to make the difference. Still, progress. I expect you’ll be happily throwing the furniture at each other in a matter of weeks.”

“Sometimes your ideas about romance worry me,” the Deathless muttered.

Jefferson rolled his eyes, “As do most of your ideas about clothing, but you’ve never listened to my advice before, so why should I listen to yours?”

Garak half-winced, half-smiled at that. “They are rather appalling,” he said, trying and failing to sound sorry for saying it.

“I have tried to tell him,” Jefferson agreed, “But he will keep on with ‘purple and orange together was considered very elegant in my young day’...”

“I have never in my life phrased it like that!” the Deathless grumbled. “But it was.”

“...but since you’re an actual tailor, maybe you’ll be able to fix things so that he isn’t a disgrace to be seen with,” Jefferson went on blithely, ignoring the Deathless’s glare.
Garak’s mouth twitched. “I will do my best,” he promised, “But there is only so much one can do with an unwilling subject.”

“I have every faith in your abilities, now you’re actually talking to each other,” Jefferson said agreeably. “I’ll be back in a month or two, once you’ve had a bit of time to enjoy your honeymoon. Maybe bring you a few bolts of something pretty when I do, see what you can make of it.”

Garak let the mouth-twitch widen into a full smile, “You’re presuming a lot, aren’t you?”

“Not presuming anything, you can just let it sit if you’d like, but I know a few places out there with treasures you couldn’t imagine,” Jefferson said, with a wide and roguish grin. “Anyway, I’d better be going - look after Rukavisty...Rukaviksty...Ruka...Ruka...look after the cat, will you? She cost too much to be careless with.”

There seemed very little risk of that, looking at the way the kitten looked now, with its claws hooked into the Deathless’s hideous purple tunic and those bony fingers scratching gently behind its ears. Garak hadn’t expected the Deathless would like animals - although the amount of wildlife about the castle really ought to have enlightened him there. It was strangely endearing, like the appalling dress sense and the apparent unwillingness to take advantage of Garak any further than he already had. Hopefully those last two could be worked around - Koschei the Deathless had a weakness now, and it was sentiment, the oldest, simplest, most basic weakness of all. Garak would hardly have believed it, without the evidence there in front of him.

Jefferson swept his top hat from his head, bowed extravagantly at the pair of them, and then-

The hat began to spin, a cloud of purple- no. A purple vortex whirled out from it, and then Jefferson and his hat were gone. It took him a few seconds to collect himself enough to look to the Deathless, who smiled sheepishly back at him.

“He does that,” the Deathless said, shifting the kitten in the crook of his arm. “Jefferson is a portal-jumper. A more successful one than most, thanks to that hat of his - most of the people in that trade have to find natural portals, or have much less reliable means of transportation.”

Garak looked at where the hat had been. Well. There was more magic to be gained from this than just the secret of the Deathless’s life. “I see. Ah. If I may ask, how did you come to know each other? I would have thought Koschei the Deathless had no need for other sorcerers to do his work for him.”

The Deathless shook his head, “Jefferson isn’t a sorcerer - he has the hat, and he knows how to handle himself in half a hundred worlds, but that’s all. He tried stealing from the castle...oh, years ago. He wouldn’t have been much more than ten or twelve, then.”

Garak widened his eyes. “And he’s still alive?”

“I don’t kill people,” the Deathless said shortly. “I especially don’t kill petty thieves just trying to get by. I gave him the hat and sent him on his way. He just...kept coming back to visit.”

The Deathless sounded outright baffled by that last part, which fitted poorly with his terrifying reputation, but very well with how he looked now, lanky and rumpled in a tunic covered in cat hair.

“I was only curious, Deathless,” Garak said, with a haughty little sniff. ‘Demure’ was evidently not what the Deathless had been after. It was a relief, if Garak were to be honest with himself – he had never been able to sustain such a pretence for longer than a few hours without pause.

The Deathless winced. “Koschei,” he corrected. “If. If you’d like. I’m not going to force you into anything,” he added hurriedly, “But I’d like it if we could at least get to know each other.”

You were the one who disappeared in a puff of smoke every time I got near you,” Garak pointed out, rather tartly. “If anyone is preventing us from getting to know each other, it’s you.”

“I know.” Koschei’s voice was soft. “I’m sorry. I never meant to-”

“To assume that I was incapable of refusing or accepting you on your own merits, and for my own reasons,” Garak said acidly, “You made that much entirely clear.”

The Deathless actually looked affronted at that, “That isn’t-”

“Is it not?”

“Garak-” the Deathless shook his head, “I can’t- Maybe you were willing enough to make a bought-and-sold arrangement for your people’s lives, but I- Well, I’m a thousand years old. I ought to know better by now.”

Garak raised his eyebrows, “Better than save thousands of lives?”

“Better than trade in-” the Deathless cut himself off again. He was always doing that, or so it seemed. “Once, to seal the contract, was necessary,” he said, “Or at least, would have cost far more for me to circumvent. But I needn’t trouble you any further now. Cardassia is safe, and will remain so, at least from that particular threat. You don’t owe me anything.”

“I never for a moment imagined I did,” Garak replied coolly, “And I thought you claimed that my refusal would do no harm.”

The Deathless looked away. “None to you or your people,” he said shortly. “I keep my promises.”

A sore spot, apparently, but then, how many times had Koschei’s name been cursed by those he had dealt with? And how many times had the beneficiary of such a deal decided too late they could not bear the price that had been demanded of them?

“And I keep mine,” he lied. “I promised you a marriage. Where I come from, that is still taken seriously.”

The Deathless stared at him. “…what are you suggesting?”

“Nothing so very onerous, I assure you,” Garak said, with a mild smile. “But…shall we say a year and a day, to be traditional, to see if we can live with each other. If, at the end of that, we find we can hardly stand the sight of one another, then…perhaps we might renegotiate.”

Chapter Text

After that first month, things were…simpler. Garak would not say ‘easier’, as while deceiving others was all well and good, he liked to think that he was old enough and wise enough to know that lying to oneself could only cause more trouble.

Koschei was, it turned out, every bit as insatiable a reader as Garak himself, even if his taste was lamentable. The Deathless would, it seemed, read almost anything, and yet still dismissed The Never-Ending Sacrifice, the greatest epic ever composed by the greatest poet in Cardassia, as dull and wandering, and repetitive to boot. Repetitive! As if that were a pejorative term! Garak had done his best to explain the artist’s vision, but Koschei was not to be convinced. They had argued about other things, too, which Garak kept having to remind himself held a different significance here, in this strange, cold place. Still, Koschei did not seem to take a healthy argument as the insult so many of these northerners tended to read it as, and the way his eyes shone and he leaned closer with every moment’s disagreement had even led Garak to hope that, in time, this absurd prohibition on closer congress would be withdrawn. For professional reasons, that was all. Nothing to do with dark eyes and long, elegant hands, and the memory of the heat of Koschei’s skin on their wedding night.

“I suppose maybe I’ve lived too long,” Koschei said once, at the end of the argument. His tone was light, but there was something in it that made Garak prick up his ears.

“Oh? And what makes you say that?”

Koschei shook his head. “Doesn’t matter-”

“Well, evidently it does,” Garak said, a little impatiently, “If you can’t substantiate your argument-”

“No, it’s just- To me, everything looks like that.” Koschei nodded at the fine leather-bound copy of the epic in Garak’s lap. “One generation lives, grows old, dies, and then along comes the next to do the whole thing all over again. It’s…depressing, I suppose. Nothing new under the sun.”

Garak’s mouth twisted. “Perhaps to you. To a Cardassian…it’s what gives life meaning. We are one part of a greater whole, and some part of that whole will endure, even after we are gone.”

“Yes,” Koschei said distantly, “I suppose that would be…somewhat beyond my understanding. That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” he added, rather fiercely. “What’s the point if no-one ever does anything new? This…” he scowled, “It makes people indistinguishable. One dies, another takes their place, but there’s no real sense of loss because they’ll do the same things in the same way and so you don’t feel as if anything has been lost, even though it obviously has been! It’s not…Individual lives have to matter. There has to be something that sets them apart. They’re people, not patterns.”

He spoke a little too vehemently, and Garak had to suppress a smile. It had the sound of a man trying to remind himself of something that ought to be as easy as breathing, and furious to find that he needed the reminder.

“But each generation had their differences,” he pointed out. “The broad sweep remains the same, but it is foolishness itself to ignore the details. That is where most of life is lived. I’m a tailor,” he lied, “My father was a gardener, as was his before him, and his before him. Do none of their lives have meaning, just because they all did the same work in service to the same country?”

“What- No, of course-” Koschei broke off. “That isn’t what I meant.”

“Then what was?”

The Deathless sighed, “I don’t know. I just…I…I see the world that way anyway. One long string of people making the same mistakes and causing the same disasters. Me included, even.” He smiled, a little ruefully. “I suppose I see it enough in life I don’t want to see any more of it in stories.”

This had seemed patently absurd to Garak, but then, how much different did the world look from these heights? None of Koschei’s villagers had come to them petitioning, and although Koschei took some interest in the life of the town – in the search for a replacement for the ailing village schoolteacher, say, or the repairs for whatever damage he caused by the constant storms that raged over the Chernosvyat – he did not seem to tax it, nor did he sit in judgement of his people. They would summon him, Koschei said, if ever they needed anything – protection, or healing, or gold – and as his vassals, he was free, if not actually obliged, to grant them what they asked for without ever asking so much as a single copper in exchange. From that distance, all must appear as it ought, people going about their lives in accordance with their paths, following the patterns laid out for generations. The subtler treasons, of the sort it had once been Garak’s task to uncover, must pass by all but unnoticed.

Garak had seen the village now. Now that it was quite clear that he was not actively forbidden to leave the castle, although the roads were treacherous and the wolves of these mountains too bold for it to be safe to go on foot and unarmed, and the Deathless had no use for either carriage or horses, and weapons, for such as him, would have been charmingly redundant. Koschei’s power might have its limits, but Garak had never heard of a sorcerer who couldn’t kill with magic, if they wished it, and one didn’t develop a reputation as dark as that of the Deathless without a little blood getting spilt along the way. In the end, Koschei had taken him, which might have rankled if the point had not been to win his trust and appear as harmless as possible until the time came to strike. The storm had travelled with them – they had ridden in it, the winds whipping Garak’s hair out of its careful order, Koschei’s cloak wrapped warm about them both – and so secrecy had been impossible. It had made the place between Garak’s shoulder-blades itch, the way the villagers had watched them. The Deathless did not come down often, it seemed, and it had taken moving away from Koschei’s side, and letting the ordinariness of his appearance speak for itself before anyone would talk to him.

There had been no passing himself off as a servant then. Even if he had not stepped out of the storm on the Deathless’s arm, his clothes marked him out as a foreigner, and one of means besides, as even the servants of a royal court dressed better than the mayor of this small mountain village. It was, for purposes of intelligence, perhaps the greatest handicap anyone could have presented him with. The Deathless’s valet could, perhaps, have tried to share a few exasperated stories of a master’s peccadilloes, to coax out answering accounts from the tradesmen he dealt with. The Deathless’s husband had no such option before him. Still, Garak had done his best to win favour here. He’d bought several bolts of the best and warmest cloth he could lay hands on, stopped in at every stall and tried to acquire something from each one, less because he really desired milk or meat or strange glass trinkets than because the memory of his having paid in gold for things that were not worth silver might yet prove useful, and tried to at least start a few conversations about ordinary, trivial matters, as a starting-point on which to build.

The village itself told him more than the villagers, in the end. It was small, but handsomely-built, in comparison to the squalid peasant dwellings Garak had seen in the northern countries before, when sent abroad on Tain’s work. The houses were tall, and thin, with real windows of leaded glass and finely-carved shutters, the stalls at the market large and well-kept and prosperous, the well unfrozen even this late in the year. There was a row of well-kept alms-houses, and a low, square building that was, Garak was proudly informed, a school for the town’s children, purpose-built centuries before anyone had been born who was yet living. No-one starved in the shadow of the Chernosvyat, no plagues had touched this village, or the farms in the rest of the valley, and the last army that had thought to invade had turned aside the moment they saw the towers of Koschei’s castle in the distance, and had not yet returned. Cardassia could use power like that. No more starving children in the poor quarters of Kardasi’Or, no burning summer plagues, no more petty border wars to cling on to the territories they needed to feed themselves. Garak could almost taste it, that vision of Cardassia as the power it should be, strong and prosperous and free of the famines, the plagues, the wars that had chipped away at what had been the greatest empire on the face of the world until it was the greyed-out, war-torn husk of itself Garak had sold himself to save. Should he be grateful, then, that Cardassia had sunk to such a state that his life was a worthy price for it? But if it had not, the bargain might never have been necessary. Garak might have stood at Tain’s side even now, in Cardassia’s service once again, and even the knowledge that this, too, served Cardassia was not enough to ease the sting of that thought.

Garak had not known they had another visitor until Koschei materialised at his side, startling the mushroom-seller Garak had been slowly, patiently coaxing into telling him about the great shaggy golden beast – a lion, from the description, but Garak couldn’t be entirely sure, and in any case, it was too cold for them here – that had been seen wandering the foothills at the edge of Koschei’s lands.

“We should get back to the castle,” Koschei said, with a polite, faintly confused smile at the unfortunate mushroom-seller. “It’s- Well, you’ll understand once you meet her.” He sounded slightly pained at that, “Another old…well, not really a friend.”

“I must admit, I hadn’t expected to be inundated with well-wishers,” Garak admitted, once they were in the air again, soaring on a current of wind high above the village and the mountains both, and cold even through his new gloves and boots and the close fur cap Koschei had produced from thin air before they left the castle, Koschei’s cloak wrapped close around them both.

There was no-one in the entrance hall when they reached the castle, the chasm being apparently non-negotiable, to prevent rival sorcerers from being able to turn up uninvited. This would, Garak felt, have been all well and good if it didn’t mean he had to pick his way across a narrow bridge made out of what seemed like fifty long swords fused together, hilt to tip, to form one long, narrow chain across the chasm, too high and too narrow for anyone to approach incautiously. Well, not if they wanted to make it to the other side, at any rate. There was, however, no prohibition against magically easing one’s way, which was good, because while Garak flattered himself that he was more capable than most men his age at these tasks, the bridge of swords was daunting even for him.

“…your visitor appears to have made herself quite at home already,” Garak said waspishly, eyeing the empty entrance hall, and the hooded velvet cape thrown carelessly over the end of the great staircase up to the first floor.

Koschei gave him a sideways look. “It’s not like that. I’m old enough to be her father.”

“You’re old enough to be my grandfather,” Garak pointed out, “But, by all means, I understand these situations are quite ordinary, in some circles.”

How was it, he wondered, that the Deathless could be flustered so easily?

“No, I mean- I was quite good friends with her mother once, that was all.” Koschei winced. “I mean…good gods, I’ve known her since she was about a day old. Wait, are you actually…”

“Of course not,” Garak said primly, straightening his tunic, and made for the stairs before Koschei could say anything else.

Their guest was in the great hall, or what passed for one. It was a long room with a great stone fireplace, a long table, a few heavy, comfortable chairs in the same ugly old-fashioned style as everything else in the castle, at least outside Garak’s rooms, and their visitor stuck out in this environment like a windmill on a sand dune. Garak had to admit, she wasn’t quite what he’d expected. She was of no more than middle height, although that was increased by some inches by the way her black hair had been teased up off her face in an elaborate coiffure, and her black gown sparkled with jet, its wide skirts richly embroidered and splendidly made, although without, Garak thought, rather pettily, much real taste. He pitied the unfortunate dressmaker responsible for that garment – it was certainly an unworthy use for their talents.

“So,” she said, ignoring Garak entirely to focus on Koschei, “Not just a wife. You appear to be accumulating an entire household, Koschei.” She gave Koschei a brief once over and smiled coldly. “And yet, you still dress like someone’s jester. You ought to get your man on it. He doesn’t appear to have done a lick of other work about the place. There’s a clear inch of dust, and I don’t believe the silver’s seen a drop of polish in centuries.”

Koschei pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’d have hoped court life would teach you better manners,” he said, sharply, but far less so than a comment like that deserved, so far as Garak was concerned. “Elim, this is Regina, Queen of Misthaven. Regina, my husband, Elim Garak. Whom everyone appears to have decided is still going to be called a Tsaritsa, for lack of anything else to call him.”

“Charmed,” Garak interjected, smiling his most insincere smile. The one that showed teeth.

The Queen stared at him for a moment, and then her face smoothed out into politeness, and a sort of studied, practiced sweetness, clearly the result of years of study. “It appears I was misinformed!” she said, laughing a low laugh that ought to have been warm, but wasn’t. “Still, perhaps that is for the best. There are few enough who would stand for the threat of seeing any nobleman traded away like a prize horse, to be ridden whenever it’s wanted and put away when a pretty new filly comes along.”

Garak raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “I am sorry your experiences of marriage have been such a hardship to you,” he said, in a tone that just skirted the edges of what was acceptable. “I expect widowhood has been no less so.”

He had not had news of the king of Misthaven’s death, but if there was one thing his lengthy cover as a castle tailor had taught him, it was how to read a gown, even a foreign one. It might be black, instead of Cardassian mourning white, but that was common, in northern mourning dress, and the jet, the careful colourlessness of it, the comparatively low value of the stones in the queen’s jewellery, all of it spoke of a recent bereavement, even if the cut was more daring than most would consider tasteful, under such circumstances.

“It’s been a trial,” the Queen said, her smile vanishing, her face smoothed out into a carefully calculated expression of grief. Solemn enough for the occasion, but practiced enough to leave not a wrinkle on her face, nor decrease her beauty in any degree. Not the response of the truly bereaved, in Garak’s experience, and the more he took in of the details, the more certain he became of his conclusion. “But life must go on. I must say,” she added, glancing sidelong at Koschei with a mock-scandalised look, “I never thought to see you married.”

Koschei’s answering expression was surprisingly soft, a little rueful. “Nor did I.”

“You never struck me as the type, somehow,” the Queen went on, sweet as arsenic. “All those young ladies, and never a one you could keep for long. Still, you appear to have finally decided to start acting your age.”

“If I were acting my age, I’d be lying all day in a coffin staring at the lid and complaining about grave-worms,” Koschei retorted, “And there weren’t that many women,” he added, with a glance at Garak. “It’s over now.”

“Well!” The Queen’s smile was still carefully sweet, but there was something predatory in it now as she looked at Garak, who smiled back with the same sort of venom. “You have got him very well domesticated, haven’t you? My mother would have been fascinated to learn how you managed it. She was a great favourite of his as well, in her youth, you know,” she added in a stage whisper, “But, all things fade, and in time…so did she. He saw her married off to a petty princeling in a lesser kingdom, and thought no more about her, after that, but perhaps you will see better fortunes.” She patted Garak’s arm, and Garak had to restrain the urge to bristle at being patronised by a woman a comfortable decade his junior. “I’ve seen it happen to a dozen maidens, in my time.”

“It is terrible, what time has done to you,” Garak agreed blandly. Quite what the Queen expected to gain from all this, he wasn’t quite sure. A forty-year-old alleged tailor from a far-off kingdom who had been neither young nor especially handsome when he married could hardly have much to fear from the threat of his husband losing interest once he grew old and his looks began to fade, after all. But then…the Deathless had married him for a deal, and hardly touched him since, for all his attentiveness. Would he have done differently, if the Princess Iliana, young and beautiful and full of fire, had made their bargain instead? It didn’t matter. Garak wasn’t here for the Deathless’s attentions, except insofar as they would tell him where the Deathless hid his life. But if the Queen wanted to play the dowager, he was more than happy to use that pose against her, and let his own doubts take care of themselves.

The Queen’s eyes flashed for a moment – no-one ever seemed to have taught her the trick of averting her gaze to keep it from giving away more than it ought – but her expression shifted again towards haughty disdain. She sniffed, “I remember a time,” she said, “When I could expect some modicum of hospitality here. Or is it no longer customary to offer one’s guests refreshment?”

It was, perhaps, the most obvious pretext to reassert her superiority that Garak had yet seen. The Queen did not appear, he thought, to have much of a gift for subtlety.

“Oh, I do apologise,” he said, lifting a hand to his mouth in play-acted shock. “Tea, please,” he said into the air, and watched the Queen’s expression flicker again as a fine footed tea-urn and cups made of whisper-thin china appeared on the table, with a plate of the same thick gingerbread that seemed to be a castle specialty.

The Queen hid her responses quickly, but Garak enjoyed that flash of something like fury no less for that. Let her see, then, that the castle would follow his commands. Would it bind her, too, if he asked it? There were no dungeons here – at least, not any longer, as his exploration of the castle cellars had shown – but surely, for a castle that had created a steam-room for him apparently out of the ether, digging out a new cell from the rock of the mountain would not be so very difficult. Not, he thought, that Koschei would allow such a thing. There was something there between him and the Queen, something more than her being the daughter of an old lover, or an old friend.

“Do you miss your home?” the Queen asked, once she had settled herself in Koschei’s preferred armchair by the fire, and permitted herself to be served a cup of strong blue-black tea. The tone was very nearly clinical, the look in her eyes assessing. This, at least, was familiar territory.

Garak forced a shrug, “Cardassia is never far from my thoughts. But the mountains are not without their charms.”

He tried to catch Koschei’s eye, but the Deathless was looking into his own teacup, where he sat perched on the edge of the long table, and did not notice.

“True – but so far from the business of the world! After – where did you say you were from, again?”

Garak widened his eyes, “I’m surprised your majesty does not remember,” he said innocently, taking another sip of tea – more astringent than he usually liked it, even sweetened with honey, but not unpleasant – “It was only a few moments ago that I mentioned it.”

The Queen’s eyes turned colder, “I can hardly recall every ogre-ravaged backwater in the world,” she said carelessly, “Some petty kingdom or other where they bathe in rivers and use pinecones for money like any other, I expect…although I suppose that might explain why you seem so resigned to the isolation here. After what you’re used to, I suppose even this might be an improvement.”

Garak was just about to snap back that, evidently, the state of education for the nobility in these northern kingdoms was even more barbaric than he had been led to believe when Koschei interrupted.

“Not that it isn’t always good to see you, Regina,” he said, rather testily, “But I assume you had a reason for descending on us like this?”

The Queen paused, her tea halfway between its saucer and her lips. “Quite so. I suppose you heard of my husband’s death too.”

“I did.” The Deathless sounded tired now, which piqued Garak’s curiosity. Had he been involved in this recent death? Or did he know that she had been, and disapprove of it, for his own ineffable reasons? They had spoken very little of Koschei’s deal-making, since the deal that had brought Garak here. Koschei seemed to mislike the subject, and his fledgling trust in Garak still could not quite bear such things. “King Leopold will be much missed.”

“Yes,” the Queen said, “And his passing rendered still more bitter by the fact of his daughter’s perfidy.”

Koschei stared. “…wait. Snow? Snow White? Regina…” his eyes flicked to Garak, and he stopped. “Elim-” he started.

“I’ll leave you two alone, shall I?” Garak said brightly, because half his trade was knowing when people would speak more freely in his absence than his presence. Koschei’s grateful look almost eased the sting of the Queen’s titter.

“I take it back,” she said, with another sip of tea, “It appears the training was all the other way.”

“Once again, I pity your understanding of marriage,” Garak said acidly, and left the room. Listening at doors was beneath his talents, but there were other ways. There was a narrow servants’ passage between the walls of the great hall and the servants’ stairs, tight enough to make Garak’s breath come quick and shallow and the old fears of the walls closing in, of being trapped and cribbed and caged away from the world come rushing back with a vengeance. But, he could hear. Tain would thank him for any information he could gather this way, he told himself. Who knew what confessions the Deathless and the Queen might make to one another?

“-know he’s using you,” the Queen was saying, her voice almost dripping condescension.

“Probably he is. What of it?”

Garak stilled. He searched back, through his memory, to find where the slip had been. He could not find it. He had thought himself a good reader of men, but the point where Koschei had decided Garak could not be trusted had entirely passed him by.

He heard the Queen laugh. “My gods,” she said, “You really do care for what he thinks of you? He’s – what, forty? If he’s a day. My mother I could understand, but that?” she made a contemptuous noise, “Young maidens starting to lose their savour, were they? I understand the urge, but if you couldn’t find better than that-”

That is my husband,” Koschei said, and now there was an edge of danger in his voice. “I’d watch what you say next, if you want to leave on your own two feet.”

The Queen laughed again, “If you meant to do it, you would have done it by now,” she said mockingly, “You owe me, Koschei. Don’t forget that.”

“As if I could,” Koschei muttered, but then his voice rose again, “But don’t think that means I won’t find other ways. Whatever I might have done, he’s no part in this.”

“Protective?” the Queen enquired, too cloyingly sweet to be sincere. “Well, you can’t deny it’s surprising. Did you imagine plain men more trustworthy than handsome ones? Or was it only that you couldn’t find a maiden who would take you for longer than a handful of nights at a stretch? What was the last one called? Yelena? Vasilisa?”

“Marya.”

“…right.”

“Regina,” the Deathless said, and his voice was very cold now. “Tell me what you want and get out.”

“How very inhospitable of you. And we were such good friends, once. Still, I suppose these things happen. It appears,” the Queen said, all insincere innocence, “That Daniel was not the last in my stepdaughter’s list of victims. Had she not been discovered-”

“For the gods’ sake!” Koschei snapped, and Garak could hear his boots on the flagstones as he paced, “She was a child when Daniel died. She’s hardly more than a child now! Hasn’t this gone far enough?”

“That child,” the Queen said, her tone losing all its honeyed quality now, “Was a murderer twice over before I ever married Leopold.”

Koschei snorted, almost too soft to hear. “Sometimes I wonder if you really do believe that. I suppose you’re here to demand I help you find her?”

“And why not?” Regina demanded, “If you had intervened, he might still be here!”

“And you think that will compel me to hand another innocent over to be slaughtered? You really imagine I don’t know what you mean to do with her?”

“Innocent! The wretched girl-”

“Was not the one who killed Daniel,” Koschei cut her off. “Or the one who killed her father. And I think you’re the only person in the world who could convince herself that child was capable of something like that.” There was a long silent pause. “My offer still stands. A new start, a new world. A new past, if you want it, though for that you’d have to pay. The rest can be done without my magic entering into it at all. If you stay here-”

“Oh, no. I’m queen, now. Even my mother never reached those heights. I won’t give up an inch, now I have it, and if little Snow wants to fight me for it? I’m ready. When my guards find her – and they will find her – I will be queen, and then…then, they will see my kindness.”

“Will they really?” Garak had never heard Koschei’s voice so dry. “Regina…is there nothing I can say to get you to abandon this?”

“Nothing. And after all you’ve done, I’m surprised you have the nerve to try.”

A sigh. “Then we have nothing more to say to each other.”

“Fine. Then I’ll do it myself.” There was naked malice in the Queen’s voice now. “Enjoy your pet while he lasts, Koschei. These old men are so breakable, after all.”

“Are you threatening me?” Koschei did not sound the least bit afraid.

Garak didn’t stay to hear the reply. His hands were starting to shake now, the best sign that soon enough the closeness, the confinement of the narrow passage he was hiding in would soon become too much for him – he had been pushing it, staying there as long as he had without one of his episodes. Tain would have been disgusted by his weakness, but if he stayed here any longer, Garak risked panic, and that would give him away.

He caught the Queen just as he was coming out of the anteroom off the great hall, and another of those painfully sweet, false smiles crossed her face at the sight of him. “Ah! There you are! Does Koschei give you nothing else to do with yourself but wait for him to be ready for you?”

“Not at all,” Garak lied. “In fact, I was catching up on some sewing. Not that I’ll be called upon to work in that capacity again, but a good tailor is always prepared.”

The Queen gave him a sidelong look. “…right. So, I was misled again. Not a princess. Not even a prince.”

“Your majesty’s sources of information sound quite remarkable,” Garak said blandly, “Such imagination is a rare and wonderful thing, but in this case I fear it may have led you astray.”

Still, ‘princess’ was far from the worst thing Garak had been called.

“And, really,” he added, unable to quite resist, “If the Deathless himself cannot be free of the need for petty social climbing, one has to wonder what is the point of magic.”

The Queen’s eyes narrowed. A hit, a very palpable hit. Low origins, possibly almost as low as his own, and insecure about it. It was an easy set of insecurities to spot, for someone in Garak’s position, and if he tried to avoid thinking on why that might be…well. It didn’t impede his work, and that was all that could be asked.

The Queen schooled her expression into a smile. “I suppose I must seem interfering,” she said – it was not quite a simper, but some of the spirit of the thing was there – “But I’ve known Koschei…oh, for years now…and I can’t imagine he’s the easiest person in the world to live with. He always did love the sound of his own voice, to say nothing about that infuriating certainty of his. As if he knew everything the world had to offer.” She made a derisive noise in the back of her throat. “But, evidently you can live with it, for however long he decides he wants you here.” She gave what was probably an attempt at a sympathetic smile. “Men are so fickle – well, of course you’d know. One minute they’re spouting sonnets, and the next, you’re the hired help. Still, he’ll pension you off generously, I suppose. Give you to some petty noble or other, far away from anywhere you could cause him trouble.” She shrugged. “I suppose I’m sympathetic – I know a little of what it is to be handed off to one man or another, at the convenience of whoever has power enough to do the giving. It must be rather a new concept, to you.”

Garak kept his silence, let her talk herself out as she went on.

“My mother gave me to Leopold, who hardly so much as glanced in my direction, while that precious little daughter of his was around. Not that I was pining for his attentions, you understand, but I think we both know a man doesn’t have to presume on your person to be a poor choice, as a husband.”

“I don’t recall giving any indication I was unsatisfied with my bargain,” Garak said evenly. He could feel the anger building in him, but kept it at arm’s length. He had no reason to be angered by the assumption – indeed, it might well do him good, if the Queen believed him to be in a position to betray Koschei, he could set them on one another to cover his escape, at need, or use whatever leverage she held to find Koschei’s life, wherever he kept it, so that he could bring it back to Cardassia and hand it to Tain, to be used for the protection of the Empire and the greater good of its people. All the same, he was angry. He could feel it, distantly – the rush of blood, the way his nails bit into the flesh of his palm – and wondered at it.

“Perhaps you aren’t, yet,” the Queen said. “He’ll let you down soon enough. He did it to my mother, in the end, and then he did it to me. Sooner or later, he will always disappoint you.”

“I will bear it in mind,” Garak lied.

An interrogator learned to see lies early in their career, or they were no use at all. Something in this certainly tasted wrong, to Garak. Certainly, he could not imagine careful Koschei, who had worried so much over whether Garak might feel forced or pressured by a bargain he had made, and made willingly, simply handing off his lovers whenever he grew tired of them, even if they might well have found other men of their own accord. Well, even if Garak had wanted to, he wouldn’t. Not until he had what he needed.

“You might well.” The Queen smiled, the satisfied smile of a cat spying a trapped mouse. “I think I’ll leave you here. Good luck with…all this.”

In a cloud of black smoke, she was gone. That, at least, was to be expected. Koschei was quite unconcerned with people magically leaving his castle, so long as they couldn’t enter it that way. Garak couldn’t quite see the point in that, but then, what else could he expect from a man who had converted a perfectly good set of dungeons into a wine cellar and seemed faintly bemused at any indication that this was not a perfectly sensible use for the place.

Koschei was curled in the armchair when Garak returned to the great hall.

“I suppose you heard all of that,” he said, rather bleakly. “You seem to hear everything else around here.”

Garak went still. “And what makes you say that?”

Koschei smiled, rather wanly. “I know everything that happens in this castle. And I imagine Regina wanted to offload some of her frustration on you. She does that. Always has, ever since she was…oh, tiny. Two or three, if I have to go for a more precise date.”

“If that is your notion of precision, I have no hope for you,” Garak said archly.

Koschei’s smile dimmed a little. “You have questions, I expect,” he said, “Ask them.”

Garak considered this. “What happens,” he said, “When you tire of a lover?”

Koschei blinked. He hadn’t expected that question. “…it’s never come up,” he said, still blinking. “Usually they tire of me. Or die,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “Perils of…well. Being what I am. Immortality’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you know.”

Garak did not, as it happened, know.

“And what happens to them then?”

Koschei shrugged. “They leave. The more sensible ones fill their pockets first – there’s enough treasure lying about the place to be sure I wouldn’t miss it – but they all leave, one way or another. Some more amicably than others.” He smiled, a little ruefully. “Cora – Regina’s mother – was one of the worse incidents. It’s part of why things are the way they are with Regina.”

It would have been easier, Garak thought, if Koschei had raged and stormed against the faithlessness of the people who had left him. If he gave any indication that he had pursued them, or fought to hold onto that which wanted only to get away from him. Instead, his tone was resigned, a little sad, reminiscent, almost nostalgic. It would have been easier if he weren’t soft, with his great dark eyes and awful clothes and the way his whole face lit up when Garak argued with him. What had they found, these faithless, faceless people, who had had the Deathless’s love and given it up or thrown it away, and for what?

“It’s Ivans, usually,” Koschei said, apropos of nothing. “I don’t know what it is about the name Ivan, but I can see a pattern when it’s that blatant, and usually it’s Ivans.” He huffed. “Someone should do a study. They’re always named Ivan, they’re always the youngest of three sons, and they always come here for…something. Deal-making, unless they’re here to kill me and just didn’t find me here. Or just to boast that they’ve come here and seen the castle and lived to tell the tale. The last one had a magic horse, if I remember rightly, which did most of the work for him.”

Garak stared. “…how often does this happen?”

“Oh, once or twice a century,” Koschei said, a little moodily. “You’ll see, I expect. Everyone else has.”

Garak glared at him, “You weren’t married to any of the others,” he said haughtily, “Yelena, Vasilisa or Marya. In Cardassia, we take these things seriously. And if I ever meet a man named Ivan, I’ll have a dagger in his back before he can wish me a good morning.”

Koschei blinked. “…that’s a bit much,” he protested, “Most of them were all right, if you go in for the type. Although that time one turned up while I was still involved with another Ivan struck me as a rather confusing situation – how could they ever tell which one of them someone wanted to talk to? Still, they made it work for them. I even went to a few of the weddings, just to show there were no hard feelings. And Regina wasn’t entirely wrong – I am difficult to put up with.”

“Then they shouldn’t have robbed you before they left,” Garak retorted. “I must say, I deplore your taste in partners, my dear.”

“Does that include yourself?” Koschei said teasingly. “I…suppose you heard the rest of what she said?”

Garak snorted. “You have already decided that I hear everything,” he pointed out.

“I would expect no less from a man of your talents,” Koschei retorted, half-laughing now, “I expect you’ll have ferreted out all of my secrets before the new year.”

“You admit, then, that there are secrets?”

“There are always secrets. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

Garak blinked. “I am here for Cardassia.”

“Of course,” Koschei said, and his smile was the same, faint and sad and distant, the look of someone reading a tragedy for the hundredth time and knowing how it would end.

Chapter Text

It had been perhaps half a year into Garak’s proposed year-and-a-day when Koschei announced over breakfast that he was leaving.

“Just for a few weeks,” he had promised, taking Garak’s hands in his, flesh and bone alike, and giving him a painfully sincere sort of look. “I’ve been summoned again.”

“It’s taken this long?” Garak had asked, faintly incredulous at the simplicity of it, “I would have thought there was far more demand for your services than this.”

Koschei grinned, “What, you mean to say Cardassia would have summoned me if there were any other option before them? I’m a last resort, I’m afraid. Still, it gives me plenty of time for my own studies, which is more than most people can ask for.”

He produced a ring of keys from thin air, spun them once around his finger, and set them on the table.

“…is this the part where you tell me I can enter any room in the castle except that one, which will turn out to contain some horrifying secret or other?” Garak enquired, just to tease. “Are you that eager to be rid of me?”

“Then who would I argue with?” Koschei retorted, with a bright smile, “I just thought you might want them. I’ll be away for a fortnight or so – more, if King George is being difficult, which he usually is – and technically they’re yours by right.” He paused, then added, a little sheepishly. “Although, don’t use this one.” He indicated a pale gold key, at the very end of the ring, small and delicately-made, hardly noticeable at all amidst the rest.

“Why not?”

“Because that’s the key to the room where I keep all my previous husbands who’ve looked in there without my permission,” Koschei said, as if he were talking about the weather.

Garak chuckled.

“Laugh if you want,” Koschei said, “But I’ve seen it before. Beats me why they do it, though.”

Garak shrugged, “They were given the key. And, of course, they’re curious. There’s no shame in that – curiosity is all that keeps us from ignorance, in the end.”

“No, I mean – the men who set up these little tests. No idea what they get out of it. You’d think they want to kill their wives.”

“And so you’re setting up one of your own to find out?” Garak teased.

Koschei grinned at him, “Use it if you want,” he said, “Just expect to be disappointed. It’s not finished yet.”

“Eight hundred years, and your castle isn’t finished yet,” Garak said, shaking his head, “I know these things take time, but really, my dear, that does seem to be taking things a bit too far.”

“It’s a new addition – I’ll show you when I get back, if you can wait that long.”

Garak smiled. “I’m sure I’ll be able to contain my enthusiasm,” he lied.

“You’ll have the door pried open as soon as the storm clears, I expect,” Koschei said, almost fondly. “I should go – King George is many things, but patient isn’t one of them. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks he’s calling a tradesman instead of summoning a sorcerer.” He made a face. “I, uh, didn’t think to make arrangements for you to be able to go down to the village – I should probably find something like that for the next time I’m away – but will that be all right for you?”

“I’m sure I’ll manage somehow,” Garak promised, and saw Koschei off across the bridge of swords with every appearance of cheerfulness.

Alone, though…it was not that Koschei had never left the castle before, because of course he did. It was just that those were such short trips – a day or two at most, for the most part – and Garak had been so absorbed in exploring the castle, its wonders, and its secrets, that Koschei’s absence had hardly been a blow at all. And now here Garak was with the keys to the castle in his hand, and all he could think of was that he’d hoped to talk to Koschei some more about The Winter Prince, Garak’s latest find in that echoing library, which Garak might actually have been willing to admit he liked, if only because Koschei cared so little for it. He’d wanted them to argue, and to recommend a few Cardassian tales with similar structures, and maybe to have supper together and tease Koschei about how he seemed to bolt down every meal without really noticing it, or his loathing of the pickled beets that were apparently a staple this far north, but which Garak had never seen inside the castle and, Koschei had warned him, never would.

Garak did not truly believe this hidden room contained Koschei’s life, or any hint thereof. He’d combed the castle from the deepest dungeon to the highest tower and found no trace of it, and in any case, Koschei wasn’t fool enough to simply hand a vulnerability like that over. He had been sent on a wild-mura chase. Still, one of the other locked rooms might hold something of some value, and Garak intended to find out what.

By the evening of the first day, he was dusty, tired, had combed his way through most of the locked rooms of the upper floors, and found...it would not be precisely wrong to say ‘nothing’. Certainly, nothing of any relevance to his mission, or so it seemed. Mostly, he had found closed bedrooms, maintained as if their owners had just stepped out for a moment and would return at any second. He didn’t know whether or not to be pleased that he had not been installed in the same quarters as any number of previous partners, or grimly amused by Koschei’s sentimentality, that he had not even come in to tidy up the last of the rooms, which sat in utter disarray, as if its occupant had packed and fled in such a hurry there had been no time to pick up after them. The library had never been locked at all, although its key was on the ring, and it was all too easy to let himself be distracted by its contents, leafing through the higher shelves in the hopes of finding something more personal than reams of tales and books of philosophy, anatomy, botany, astronomy – Koschei’s hunger for books seemed quite undiscerning, in more ways than one – with the cat Rukavitsy purring like a thundercloud and winding herself around Garak’s ankles. It was quite extraordinary, how an animal that small could produce so much purr, but there it was, and she trailed Garak all through his explorations of Koschei’s workroom and the storerooms in which he kept the ingredients of his magic. Mostly herbs, it turned out, some of which Garak recognised, some of which he didn’t, and had to refer to a text on herblore from the library to parse the uses of. All of them with handwritten labels, or not labelled at all, written in the lovely, flowing script of the Seven Deserts, and not the strange harsh runes of the North, all angles and chilliness. The first script Garak had ever learned to read, although the form was archaic, the handwriting nigh-indecipherable. The kitchens were the domain of the castle domovoi, who liked Garak not at all, and in any case, there were no locked doors in the cellars. The room where the plate was kept stood open, centuries’ worth of gold and silver sitting there, quite unguarded, often-ransacked, as if it were the least of all Koschei’s concerns. Perhaps it was. The towers were no more rewarding, bleak and bare, and nowhere could Garak find any sign of where it was that Koschei slept, if he had to sleep at all.

It took him three days, in the end, to search every room in the castle but that one, and he was starting to wonder if Koschei had such a thing as a life at all, or if he carried it with him. What was his proof otherwise, after all? Only legends, which might be true or false, but had no real substance to them, and which he’d already seen disproved more than once since he’d come to the Chernosvyat. In any case, finished or not, forbidden or not, it was the last key left on the ring, the last place in the castle he had not explored.

The door, when he found it, looked as old as any other in the castle, a narrow little postern that might have led into a cellar or a stockroom, but the little golden key fit and turned, and the door opened into...Garak almost couldn’t believe his eyes.

The room was made all of greenish glass, with a high, onion-domed roof. It was warmer here than in the rest of the castle, without even the faint chill Koschei’s departure had left, as the castle adjusted to the absence of its master’s magic. There were stone paths and bare earth, turned and ready for planting, bags of seed, even a few potted saplings, stopped half-grown and looking strangely frozen, their leaves not even trembling in the gust from the open door. And there were orchids. In pots, or frozen in various stages of growth, the familiar – when had it become familiar? – tickle of magic against Garak’s fingers when he brushed them wonderingly against a deep purple petal, just to confirm it was real. In the centre of the glass garden, there was a round fountain, shaded by a lemon tree, and when he dipped his fingers in the water, he found it blood-warm and faintly sulphurous, the scent of trees and flowers all but drowning out that one bitter note in the beauty of the place. It was not a place that could have existed in Cardassia, where the aim was rather to shelter new growth from the heat than the cold, but it was beautiful nonetheless, and the work that must’ve gone into it sent an odd pang through Garak at the thought. He’d only mentioned once that he’d enjoyed his time as a gardener, as an aside in a conversation about the proverb-poetry of Agrabah and the western deserts, and from that one chance comment, Koschei had built all this. How strange, and strangely dear.

There was an odd, damp noise from somewhere behind him, and he looked around – Rukavitsy had pounced on one of those colourful frogs that tended to cluster anywhere water could be found. No, not a frog…

“You know,” he said pleasantly, “When intruding in someone else’s castle, the idea is usually to avoid unnecessary attention.”

There was a high-pitched, twinkly sort of noise, and Rukavitsy rolled over with her paws in the air, still breathing, but oddly still.

The knife was in Garak’s hand before he was consciously aware of having reached for it. “Also,” he added, rather testily, “That injuring people’s pets tends to be a very poor way of introducing yourself. You’re a fairy, I presume?”

Certainly, there were few other beings he had ever heard of that would appear in so small and insignificant a form for a first meeting, or who were in the habit of announcing their arrival with a sound like a small child playing at music.

“I am.” The fairy floated up, “Your cat is only sleeping. My kind are sworn to do no harm.”

“How very commendable of you,” Garak said flatly. “Why are you here?”

The fairy stopped mid-flutter, at about Garak’s eye level. This close, it was difficult to avoid wincing at that appalling dress. It made the tiny woman look like one of the jellyfish that were sometimes imported to the Cardassian court as a delicacy in the days before the war, all fronds and stiff skirts. Whoever had created such a garment ought to be shot, in Garak’s view, and since fairies could, in theory, create their own clothes the same way Koschei did, he was probably in an excellent position to put that belief into practice.

“I’ve come to warn you,” the fairy said, eyes wide, “But I can see that I have come too late. If you had called upon the fairies, rather than resorting to summoning the Dark One itself, maybe things would have turned out for the better, but as things stand…” she sighed. “And so, I have come to help you win your freedom. A little late, I know, but sometimes one’s wishes are granted long after they are despaired o-”

“I didn’t wish to be rescued,” Garak interrupted. “Not that I’m not certain you mean well, of course, but, as you can see, I’m quite well provided-for here.”

In all matters but secrets, in any case, but he hardly trusted this woman enough to ask for those.

The fairy’s expression grew, if anything, even more doleful. It was starting to really get under Garak’s skin.

“I should have known,” she said pityingly. “It always happens. You really do believe yourself in love with him, don’t you?”

“Quite an assumption to leap to,” Garak said, almost amused. “I could simply be bound by duty. He is my husband, by law, after all, and from what I recall, the faith of the Reul Ghorm has quite strict views on uxorial responsibility.”

The fairy sniffed. “In true marriages, perhaps – this is simply a travesty. A parody of something of which no Dark One has ever been capable, and something quite beyond his reach. You have no responsibility to the creature, Elim Garak.”

Garak bristled, but kept his tone level, his expression mild. “Well, then, perhaps I simply choose to remain because I prefer my life as it has been here. You must admit,” he added, glancing around at the glass, the plants, the water, the scent of lemons in the air, “That the position of Tsaritsa of the Chernosvyat comes with no shortage of compensations.”

The fairy had gone still. “It appears I’m later than I thought,” she said, still insufferably serene. “I should have come sooner, before he had a chance to corrupt you.”

It took Garak a few seconds to be certain he had heard that sentence correctly.

Koschei?” he said, rather foolishly, “Corrupt me?”

If anything, he would have expected it to be the other way around, if there was any corrupting to be done. Koschei was…well, yes, all right, he was immortal, powerful, and had a darker reputation even than Tain’s. It was difficult to remember that, though, when he was bickering with Garak over lunch, or worrying about arrangements for the new village healer, or creating glass gardens so that Garak could grow orchids again.

“All the Deathless touches, he corrupts,” the fairy said sadly. “This castle, the village that answers to it. His homeland, blighted and destroyed and haunted only by the shades of the dead, and lesser sorcerers seeking some of the power remaining there.”

Garak went still. “The Land of the Black Sand?” he asked, his heart in his throat. This was information Tain would kill for, given away as if it were nothing, if only he could be sure it was true. The Black Sands were the one part of the Seven Deserts that Cardassia had never even attempted to conquer. There would have been no point. A blackened, blighted land, clouded in poisonous smog, haunted by walking corpses, often enslaved and bound as mamluks by desert sorcerers. Nothing lived in the Land of the Black Sands. Nothing could.

“So it is called now,” the fairy agreed. “Then, it was Irem of the Pillars, the City of Brass, the greatest city in the known world, for a time, before it fell. The Deathless destroyed it, as it will destroy this mountain fastness, this world, these lands as well before it is finally cast down. Any number of brave knights have made the attempt. A full crusade was mounted, some years ago, in the name of the Order of the Reul Ghorm. The King of Mercia himself was to lead it.”

“Evidently it didn’t succeed,” Garak said, almost amused. “I heard about that in the village. If your entire army turned aside at the sight of the castle towers, garish as they are, I should suggest their hearts weren’t in their duty.”

“Koschei transformed them into beasts,” the fairy said, sounding quite disgusted now, “Kings and dukes and lords and princes alike. Every commander, every officer, every man of name in that company, turning their soldiers loose to make their way home as best they could. Every knight that came to this castle has met the same fate – surely, you have seen the marks of that.”

Garak had, although he had always attributed the proliferation of wildlife inside the castle to Koschei’s obvious fondness for the animals – he certainly doted enough on Rukavitsy to make a love of animals in general seem plausible – but, still. Any man who had tried to kill Garak would have met their end quickly enough at the end of his knives. By comparison, turning them into animals seemed almost merciful. The fairy was watching him now, expectantly. Expecting what? Shock? Horror? He had given her neither, and she had told him what was, if it were true, the most he had yet heard about how Koschei came to be whatever manner of creature he was now. Evidently, this was an avenue to pursue.

“Forgive me,” he said sceptically, “But if they were coming here specifically to lay waste to his lands and storm his castle, I can hardly see how that is any worse than killing those men in war might be. Indeed,” he added, “Since he only targeted their officers, one could argue it was almost a mercy, to spare those men the trials of a long campaign.”

The journey home might be equally perilous, admittedly, but it was a far better chance than those men’s officers would have given them, or that the crofters and villagers and hunters that lived in the shadow of the Chernosvyat would have received at their hands.

“If the Deathless had permitted us to contain his power, it would never have been necessary for them to come after him!” the fairy retorted and then visibly forced herself to calm. “And so, I have come to you.”

“Me. For what?”

The fairy drew in a breath. “There is- I had not thought there would ever come a time it might be used, but now it seems there is no choice. There is a way to break any curse, this one included, if the Deathless’s power cannot be broken any other way. True love’s kiss.”

It was only by a tremendous effort of will that Garak did not laugh.

“I think,” he said, once he had composed himself, “You have misunderstood the nature of our arrangement. He doesn’t love me. He’s been kind, certainly,” he added, because there was no escaping that. “But he’s no more in love with me than I am with him. And anyway,” he went on, struck by a sudden thought. “I thought you claimed he wasn’t capable of it.”

“We had not thought he was,” the fairy admitted. “But the tale of your bargain has spread across half the globe, and I had hoped…” she sighed, closed her eyes. “The face he wears is not his own, if that was what lured you.”

Garak paused, tilting his head slowly to the side in mute invitation to go on. “Is it really?”

The fairy nodded. “That body…it belonged to a child of the city. A merchant’s son. Simple, of course, but perhaps not so bad, at heart, as the creature that lives in his skin now. That child’s life was snuffed out like a candle flame so that the Deathless might take physical form again, might walk among men and whisper honeyed words in the ears of kings.”

It was difficult to imagine Koschei whispering anything, and no-one could call his words ‘honeyed’. All the same, Garak’s skin crawled. It might be false, he reminded himself. The fairy had been mistaken in other things, why not this? And, in any case…Garak had seen children killed before. He’d caused the deaths of children indirectly, even if he had never been the one holding the knife. Of grown men, his butcher’s bill was greater yet. Soldiers, some of them, but also scholars, poets, counsellors, kings, or just loose ends that must be tied up when they were no longer needed. All the same. Koschei had done that? The worst part was that he was genuinely shocked. He wouldn’t have been, a year ago, if someone had told him this account of the Deathless’s past. But…at the same time…this was the man who, if the rest of the fairy’s account was to be believed, transformed his enemies rather than killing them. Who, by Garak’s own observation, once apologised to a hedgehog he’d accidentally trodden on and had a weakness for the most sentimental nonsense Garak had ever read in his life. None of which, he knew from bitter experience, meant that Koschei was not, in fact, guilty as sin and, even if he were, Garak was hardly in any position to protest, but…he had always thought himself quite a good reader of people. And Koschei had read to him as…soft. He would’ve been naïve, Garak thought, if only he had the luxury. Which, then, was the true face? The monster of which Garak had heard only whispers before he came here, or the man he had come to know behind closed doors?

None of which, he reminded himself, mattered at all, because even if Koschei were the most loathsome creature on the face of the earth, it remained Garak’s duty to win his trust, discover his secrets, and deliver up his life to Tain once his work was done.

He paused, and looked back at the fairy, “I…think I understand,” he lied. “You are looking for a way to control the Deathless’s power. I am in a position to apply it. It seems that we may yet be able to help each other.”

The fairy blinked, and then gave a satisfied smile. “So,” she said, “You are not yet entirely lost to goodness.”

This was, to Garak’s mind, something of a wild speculation based on the available evidence. He needed more information. He needed more reliable sources, and this only confirmed him. Still, he smiled, and inclined his head.

“I came here to save my people,” he said, and this much, at least, was truthful. “It would make for a very poor showing if, by doing so, I have simply doomed them another way.”

He did not trust the fairy as far as he could throw her – which he judged to be quite a long way, if magic didn’t enter into it – but she had power, and that could be useful, and she hated Koschei, and that could also be used to Garak’s advantage if Koschei found out what he was doing and he had to leave the castle quickly. It might have been intended as a mercy, but Garak didn’t especially want to spend the rest of his life, however long that proved to be, as a hedgehog. Not that he imagined there was much any one fairy could do against the power of the Deathless, but it might be enough to cover Garak’s trail, and that was all he needed.

The fairy smiled beatifically. “And save them you shall,” she promised – lied, Garak thought, and he’d spent enough time at that trade to know a master when he saw one – “You are fortunate that we heard your wish, even if you never voiced it. Any longer and it might have been too late.”

It took a great deal of effort to feign a grateful smile in response to that. If Garak hadn’t been quite sure he wasn’t being told everything before, that would’ve clinched it for him. He was being used. He didn’t think he could allow that – professional pride.

“Believe me,” he said, meaning none of it, “If I find anything, you’ll be the first to know.”

Once she was gone, Garak sat there another few moments with the cat mewing insistently at his feet, then stood. He didn’t know how much of what she had told him about Koschei had been truth, how much misunderstanding and how much blatant falsehood. That bothered him, somehow. He’d always known he wasn’t above being deceived – no-one was – but to have been hoodwinked by a six-inch-tall busybody in glittery wings was really a step too far. He’d given her a few titbits of information to prove he could be trusted. Nothing very sensitive, he thought, and he’d lied about at least half of it, which he could easily explain away as him repeating what he had heard or deduced and having been mistaken. The one piece of information in the whole thing that might prove dangerous concerned a child that would be born at the turn of the year. Unwanted, Koschei claimed, except by a young widow on the other side of the globe who had no child of her own and wanted one enough to summon the Deathless in order to have one. It was only a few short weeks before Garak would have to make his choice, whether to stay, and play the role of Koschei’s husband, his Tsaritsa, whatever that entailed, for however long it took, or cut his losses and leave. The first option was his duty, was what Tain had asked of him, the second…if he brought back enough useful information, he might be permitted to remain in Cardassia’s service, but his place as Tain’s right hand, his most faithful, his most relied-upon agent would be lost to him, and Tain was not a man to forgive failure, even in those who had served him well.

Finding evidence for a few of the fairy’s claims was simpler than any task Garak had set for himself since he had first come to the castle. The sheer number of books written in the languages of the Seven Deserts, the villagers’ stories about the Deathless’s arrival in the mountains and of the army that had turned aside, the odd intelligence of the local wolves…all of them, now he came to look, were Garak’s spies. It was not conclusive, but it was suggestive, and now he had an idea of what he was looking for…would it be in the Land of the Black Sands, then, that the Deathless hid his life? It was a possibility, but then, so was almost everywhere else in the world. Koschei was, by his reading material, a sentimentalist. The sort who would wish to keep the nearest thing he had to a heart in the land of his birth, or the sort who might choose to forsake an old life entirely to embrace a new one? Almost certainly the former, Garak thought. There were a dozen empty rooms in this castle, untouched since their last occupants departed, that spoke to that.

Whether it had been true or false, Garak ought to thank the fairy for the good turn she had done him. He had grown too comfortable here. He never thought he would be, so far from Cardassia, but the promise of his eventual return eased the sting of it, as did the knowledge that, even here, he still served. It was too easy to forget his duty when all Koschei asked of him was company and conversation and for Garak just to be, here in this castle, and to be as crabby or as talkative or as silent or as argumentative or as peaceable as he pleased, so long as he was there. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

It was nearer three weeks than two, in the end, before Koschei returned, smelling of smoke and more than usually pleased with himself, bearing fresh fish for Rukavitsy and a copy of a new epic poem that had been written in King George’s kingdom to share with Garak. And Garak had smiled, and tried not to think of how easy it was to play the role, to behave as if delighted by Koschei’s return, to take the book and tease him for the predictability of his tastes and accept Koschei’s affectionate, exasperated answer. It was a role, he reminded himself, the same as any other. And, if it were a role that required more of himself than most, that made it no less a performance, even for an audience of one.

Chapter Text

Garak had never previously counted jealousy among his vices. How could he? As Tain’s agent, he had possessed so little, and been expected to discard it all at need, and as a dutiful servant of Cardassia all he owned was freely offered up for his country’s service. The notion that he might want to keep something so desperately as to hate and resent anyone he thought might take it from him had never even occurred to him. Never, that was, until Victor Frankenstein had arrived at the castle, and asked to be put up for the night.

It was, however he looked at it, all Jefferson’s fault. Jefferson was the one who had brought Doctor Frankenstein to this world, he was the one who had introduced Koschei to the scientist, he was the one who had first raised the suggestion of raising the dead by non-magical means, not as shambling walking corpses but living and breathing and themselves again in a way magic could not match. Garak had to admit, he couldn’t see the appeal of it. But then, there was no-one among the dead that Garak would see live again, and far too many that he had consigned there himself for him to be entirely easy with the idea that it might be possible for them to return. Not that Koschei seemed to share his reservations at all. He ate a biscuit vindictively and tried not to glare too obviously at his sewing.

It was not, even, that he had any particular right to be offended. Things had not been the same between Koschei and he since the fairy’s visit, less because of anything she had said than because of the reminder her visit had given him, of where the line fell between duty and desire. Koschei was clever, yes, and could be remarkably charming when he so chose, and was…yes, all right, quite astonishingly beautiful. None of that changed the fact that Garak had come here for a specific purpose and, once that purpose was achieved…he honestly wasn’t quite sure what would happen. He would still have to see Koschei, once he was bound in service to Cardassia, after all. And, for all that Garak might have liked to indulge the thought that they could still have this, still argue over books and poetry and the role of a king in regard to his people…it would seem a betrayal, to Koschei, even knowing it had been Garak’s purpose and his duty from the first. Perhaps, in time, Koschei would forgive him. He had not resented his previous lovers for proving faithless, perhaps he would not resent Garak for that part either, but yet…if the Deathless had sought a land and a people to serve, he had found one in these barren mountains, and for all that Cardassia was a hundred times the power this little valley could ever dream of being, Garak was not sure that that was what the Deathless wanted. All the power in the world, and Koschei seemed to seek nothing for himself but to be left alone. Of course, he never was. Garak should know better than to hope for forgiveness by now, and yet…and yet. What might it be, to serve Cardassia at Koschei’s side? To see that power harnessed and turned to greater uses, yet still in private enjoy the company of the man, in whatever capacity that ended up being? To have Julian, and Cardassia, and Tain’s approval, and not have to give up one to gain another was a dream all rational thought would declare impossible, and still he could not let go of the image in the back of his mind, the lingering sweetness of the dream.

It would have been considerably easier to dismiss, without Victor Frankenstein there to turn Koschei’s mind against him, and edge him out of their old ways of doing things, as the ‘doctor’ had wasted absolutely no time in doing.

“-no, no, you’re missing the point,” Frankenstein was saying now, “The search- It has not been entirely without success. There was a family by the name of De Lacey that lived in the mountains, not far from where Gerhardt was last seen. It took me some time to find them, but their account was quite encouraging.”

Koschei gave a neutral little hum, coaxing Rukavitsy up onto his lap and scratching idly behind her ears. “Victor, if he doesn’t remember who you are…”

“He will.” Frankenstein’s voice was urgent. “He has to. I can’t have done all of this to turn back now.”

“And what if he does remember?” Koschei demanded, “From what you’ve told me, the initial experiment went badly enough. If he remembers what happened to your father too-”

Garak frowned, put in a few more stitches, and kept listening. There were advantages to this position – curled in the big armchair in front of the fire, with its tall winged back and shadows, meant that, from behind, the room might appear to be empty of anyone but Koschei and Frankenstein. But, if Koschei concentrated, even for a moment, on that strange awareness of the castle he seemed to possess, he would know in an instant where Garak was, and while Garak could convincingly feign sleep if he needed to, he wasn’t sure just how thorough that awareness was – Koschei had deftly evaded all Garak’s questions on the matter, and he hadn’t judged it prudent to push further – and having to explain why he had been eavesdropping once again would be even harder to achieve convincingly.

“What would you have me do, Koschei? He’s my brother. I can’t leave him.”

“I’m not suggesting that you should. Only that…you might do better to try approaching this differently. He’s going to be scared, confused, probably he’ll have no notion of who you are, and from what you’ve already told me, Gerhardt as he has been since his resurrection tends to lash out when under threat.”

“He’s my brother,” Frankenstein repeated stubbornly, “He wouldn’t hurt me.”

“From how you describe him, I doubt he’d have hurt your father, either, in his right mind,” Koschei said dryly.

There was a sharp intake of breath.

“I’m sorry,” Koschei said quickly, “That was-”

“No,” Frankenstein’s voice was bleak. “I…I don’t know, what Gerhardt will do when I see him again. He would be entirely within his rights to kill me. I’m the reason he died, after all.”

“I see. You’re welcome to stay, of course. I expect we’ll be glad to have you.”

A low snort. “I sincerely doubt that new lover of yours will much like that. I wasn’t aware you had such catholic tastes.”

“Yes, well…” a pause, and Garak stilled. “I’ll talk to him,” Koschei promised, “It’s his home too, he ought to have a say in things.”

“You never said that about Ivan. Or Yelena, for that matter.”

A low huff of breath. “I never married any of them.”

There was a long, awkward pause.

“…ah,” Frankenstein said after a few long moments. “I- ah. Is this a usual custom, here?”

“We’re inventing a new one,” Koschei replied, sounding almost cheerful. “An affrèrement is basically a marriage in any case, just with a few polite fictions to avoid offending the Order of the Reul Ghorm and its like, and since they’ve despised me for nine centuries I think I’m entitled to do away with at least some of those fictions.”

“I suppose.” Frankenstein said, sounding slightly punch-drunk, “Well, I, ah, suppose I should wish you joy, but-”

But?” Koschei’s voice was soft, but there was a definite warning edge there. It was, Garak told himself firmly, absurd of him to feel an odd glow of proprietary smugness at that.

“Well, I can’t say I altogether understand your taste.”

“You’re the one who has told me no fewer than six times that you aren’t qualified to give an opinion on these things,” Koschei said, rather sharply, “And since the only people who need to understand our relationship are Elim and I-”

“I never said I disapproved-”

“But you do. You might as well tell me why.”

“So that you can glare down and ignore my objections?”

Koschei snorted, “If any of them boil down to you just not getting along with him, yes.”

“It is only…if I might make a personal remark…he seems rather too interested in your past for my liking. He asked me any number of questions, once he knew how long our acquaintance was-”

Garak did not hiss aloud only through years of careful self-control. And yet…he had thought those enquiries harmless enough, played the role of a besotted younger lover who only wished to grow closer to the object of their affections by learning more of their history. And yet…and yet. Koschei trusted Frankenstein, that much was clear. If steered the right way, if given reason to suspect Garak’s loyalty was less absolute than it seemed by someone he had, after all, known long before Garak came into his life…what then?

“…ah.” Koschei’s voice was guarded. “That.” He sighed. “He’s in the pay of Enabran Tain.”

Garak’s blood turned to ice.

“Who?”

“The Cardassian Master of Whisperers. I heard them talking about it, the evening before we were married.”

“And after all that you still married him? Are you completely out of your senses?”

A sigh. “Belike. But you must admit, it’s more certainty than any of my past entanglements have offered.”

“The certainty that your husband is informing on you to some foreign spymaster isn’t exactly reassuring to most people!” Frankenstein snapped, and rose to pace the room. “Of all the ill-considered, suicidally reckless-”

“Not suicidally,” Koschei corrected, “Deathless, remember. It’s right there in the name.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt!” Frankenstein snapped back. “And inviting the man into your home-”

“Well, I couldn’t exactly marry him and then establish him elsewhere, could I? I’ve only got one castle.”

It had taken this long for Garak’s heart to stop beating double-time. So. Koschei knew. Had known, it seemed, all this time. How good was his hearing, that he had known this much about their conversation in the courtyard when Koschei himself had been up on the walls? Could he split himself in two, walk in two places at once? It was hardly far out of the scope of the abilities Garak had seen him display thus far. But if that were it…why was Garak still here? Or, here and still human. It would have been the work of moments to kill or transform him, once their bargain was made, and not even very far out of Koschei’s way.

“I don’t see why you needed to marry him at all,” Frankenstein grumbled, “There must have been something else you could ask for, if you really can’t just do things out of the kindness of your heart…”

“Probably there was. I couldn’t think of any. Besides. I like Elim a great deal, spy or no. I think we will do very well together, so long as this lasts.”

Frankenstein shook his head. “I know you! You trust beyond reason! Wasn’t the Queen proof enough-”

“If a thousand years haven’t made me any more cynical about people I like, I doubt Regina is going to manage,” Koschei cut him off. “Besides. That tendency brought me you and Jefferson, didn’t it? I can’t say I’m sorry for taking a chance on either of you. I don’t expect I’ll be sorry I took a chance on Elim.”

Frankenstein sighed, “Then I don’t know why you wanted to hear my objections to begin with.”

“Curiosity, mostly,” Koschei admitted, “And I knew you’d never be easy until I had. Don’t tell him I know,” he added, quieter now, “I don’t want to alarm him. He’d probably run if he thought I knew.”

“Perhaps I should, then,” Frankenstein muttered, “Before you get any deeper into this mess – you realise what he could learn, just by living here?”

“I know. It’s an acceptable enough risk for me, and since I’m the one it’s going to affect, I think I have the right to make my own decisions about it – don’t you agree?”

“I think you need your head examined.”

“What is it you imagine he’ll do to me? I can’t die, remember?”

“Everything can die, Koschei.”

A low huff. “All right, I can only die under one very specific and complicated set of circumstances that I don’t plan on telling him about and he isn’t likely to hear about from anyone else. Near enough. If he wants to try and kill me…well, he won’t be the first. Not even the first I cared about.” Koschei’s voice was very bleak now. It hurt, listening to it, and just then Garak wanted, more than anything, to be able to say he meant Koschei no harm.

“I won’t tell him,” Frankenstein said at last. “But I think you ought to. If he loves you, he’ll stay anyway.” There was a sound of footfalls – someone getting to their feet – “I think I can find my own way up to my room after this long, unless this maze of a castle has shifted again.”

A low laugh. “Not since last night, it hasn’t.”

“Well then, I will bid you goodnight. Do you know when Jefferson will be back?”

“Another few days, he said.”

“I see. I should return to my own world as soon as he can transport me – my brother still remains to be found. I cannot rest until I have found him.”

“I never expected you would. Goodnight, Victor.”

The creak of the door opening, footsteps, and Garak almost risked moving, before he heard feet again, and knew he was not alone. He just had time to let his head loll back against the back of the chair, to let his limbs go loose and boneless and let the needle drop from his hand when he heard, closer now, the creak of a floorboard, and knew that Koschei was looking at him.

“…you mean you were here this whole time?” Koschei muttered, though in a tone that suggested he didn’t expect a reply. Garak did not go still when he felt the warmth of a hand hovering near his face, or the tentative brush of fingers down the line of his cheek. “I’ve been neglecting you terribly, haven’t I?” Koschei said, again more to himself than Garak. “Well, there’ll be time to sort that out. Tomorrow.”

This time, Garak let himself stir as Koschei’s hand landed on his shoulder, shaking him gently but firmly.

“Garak? Garak?”

Garak let himself roll with the shakes, blinking his eyes open to see Koschei standing over him.

“My dear…?” he managed, a trifle muzzily, for the effect. “Has Doctor Frankenstein already left us?”

“If by that you mean ‘left the castle’, no, he’ll be with us for a few more days.” Koschei smiled crookedly, and tugged his hand away, “Come on. To bed with you.”

“Will you be joining me?” Garak said, and couldn’t account for the impulse at all.

Koschei blinked. “Er…” he swallowed. “You’re sure? I don’t want to presume-”

“And you have not,” Garak replied, levering himself to his feet, maybe just a little stiffly. “I made the offer – it’s up to you to refuse or deny it.”

He was not quite sure, still, which he wanted. On the one hand, Koschei was…beautiful, yes, and clever, and the memory of the heat of his hands, the roughness of his gold-flecked skin, the cool hard strength of the bone arm, had given Garak more than one sleepless night since he had come here. On the other…on the other, already Garak was starting to feel himself compromised. Already, he was starting to forget why he had come here. It would be so easy to set his mission aside, to become Koschei’s lover, his husband in truth as well as in title. To live out the rest of his life as chatelaine of the Deathless’s castle and steward of his lands, to never share another’s bed, never learn another’s secrets. To continue this whirl of conversation and debate and companionable evenings in one another’s company, and more besides. Once he gave in, it would be no simple thing to leave again, and yet, one day he would have to.

And Koschei…Koschei knew. Koschei had known from the beginning, and still, still he had initiated all of this, had argued with Garak over poetry and plays and given him the run of the castle. And from what he and Frankenstein had been saying, he had something to lose from doing so. Had it been deliberate, then? A calculated seduction, intended to blunt Garak’s wits and bind him to the Chernosvyat?

“…well,” Koschei said, eyes deep and dark and wide as a boy’s in the firelight, “When you put it that way…”

Afterwards, Garak would remember that night in flashes. Koschei sprawled out amidst the pillows of Garak’s bed, Garak overtop him, the feeling of Koschei’s hands knotted fast in Garak’s hair. Oil shining on Koschei’s thighs, the sweet, sharp gasp against his neck as Garak entered him, the drumming of bone fingers on his back and shoulders, urging him closer, urging him on. Glowing golden eyes in the darkness, the faint glitter of gold-flecked skin, the scent of ozone and petrichor when Garak dropped his head to bite and nuzzle along the line of Koschei’s throat. It could have been anyone in bed with him, he had thought on his wedding night. How had he ever been such a fool?

He was still awake, though feigning sleep, when he felt the bed shift beside him, the furnace heat of Koschei’s body gone from his side. It ought not have disappointed him, he had yet to find any evidence that the Deathless needed sleep at all, and yet…and yet. He probably ought to be grateful. Alone, it was much easier to remember that this was a sham.

He kept turning over the conversation from earlier, in his head. So. There was something to be learnt, then, in this castle. Something that Koschei would rather he did not learn, but did not dread him discovering enough to make it impossible. He would need to redouble his efforts, but even so, without the ability to see past magical concealment, it would be slow going. Before, he had always been given some form of artefact to assist him, when magic seemed likely to enter into his assignments, and that had been mercifully rare. Here, he had only his wits, and whatever concessions he might be able to wheedle out of Koschei. And intimacy was only so useful as a means of persuasion if one’s partner never lingered long enough to be persuaded. The powerlessness of his own position had never struck him as it did in that moment. A servant at least would have the freedom of being unobserved and allowed to go about their business without their master even noticing them most of the time, but Garak…it seemed, sometimes, as if he could hardly go anywhere without Koschei asking him, later, what it was he had been doing. Not that he ever seemed to mind if Garak lied, or changed the subject, but all the same…too much interest in his activities, and in a castle where Koschei could know, in an instant, where Garak was without even looking, prying too deeply was rendered very nearly impossible.

When he woke in the morning he was alone still. It ought not have disappointed him. Koschei was probably in his workroom with Doctor Frankenstein again, discussing another of their ‘experiments’. Breakfast was waiting on the small table by the fireplace, the only meal Garak ever ate alone. Not for the first time, he wondered what it might be like to share it. With Koschei distracted, this was as good an opportunity as he was likely to have to continue his searches of the castle, he ought to have been delighted by the opportunity. He was not.

If Koschei was to be convinced that Garak meant him no harm, he would need to be persuaded that Garak had developed affection for him in all sincerity. Garak had found all he could without magical assistance. Now, the only place he might find Koschei’s secrets was within Koschei’s mind, and for that, he needed to claw back some measure of the trust he had thought Koschei was beginning to extend to him.

It was for that reason, and no other, that he padded down in stockinged feet to Koschei’s workroom, pushed the door open and stood there, watching the two of them, the doctor and the Deathless, standing over what looked like the stuffed crocodile from the workroom’s ceiling, their two heads, one dark and one fair, bent together over their work.

It was Koschei who realised he was there first, as Garak had known it would be – all he needed to do was concentrate, and he would know.

“Elim!”

And, oh, that smile, those eyes, still glowing as bright as they had done in the darkness of Garak’s bed last night, the full force of it let loose on Garak in a way that was, frankly, entirely unfair.

“What- Oh.” Frankenstein looked up too, and grimaced. “I wasn’t aware you were interested in the work.”

“I’ve been kept so far away from it, I can hardly say,” Garak lied, slipping over to join Koschei by the crocodile, “Although – I was under the impression your specimens needed to be fresh for the procedure to work?”

“They do,” Frankenstein said shortly. “I’m not trying to resurrect the crocodile.”

Garak raised his eyebrows. “Then why-”

Koschei grinned at him, and tapped the crocodile neatly on the nose with one finger. All at once, the great grey-green jaws opened wide, the glass eyes gleamed, the heavy tail lashed, all as smoothly and naturally as if the creature had been truly alive.

“…ah,” Garak said dubiously. “Er – I am going to presume it isn’t actually-”

“Alive?” Koschei suggested, sounding quite absurdly cheerful, “Not properly. Do you want to…?” he made a broad gesture in the direction of those massive jaws, still smiling brightly.

Did he want to…what? Stick his hand down the throat of a beast that was, even if not actually alive, still massive and dangerous and could probably have swallowed Garak quite comfortably, when it had still been a living thing. Still…nothing ventured, nothing gained, and the chance to learn more about Koschei’s magic was not something that ought to be cast aside.

He reached into the crocodile’s mouth, feeling dried-out skin and sharp white teeth, and then deeper still, until- His fingers closed on something.  Long, thin, made out of what felt like some sort of bone or ivory to Garak’s fingers. When he tugged it out, it turned out to be… a wand, of the same sort the fairy had carried. It was bone, now he looked at it, and had once been elaborately carved, the carvings now worn smooth enough that he could not make out what they had once been.

When he looked back at Koschei, he was beaming.

“It’s a fairly simple spell,” he said, “Once you get the trick of it. He can’t do much more than open and shut his mouth, really, but so long as only I can get him to do it, he makes the perfect place to keep things I’d rather weren’t found.”

Garak blinked. No. No, surely not. After last night, the Deathless couldn’t possibly be handing him information like this. He was, at once, uncomfortably aware of the weight of the wand in his hands.

“I see. And, ah, this item?”

Koschei smiled in a way that ought to have been wicked, but came off as boyish, mischievous, ineffably charming, “I won it,” he admitted, “It used to belong to a fairy called Green – I never learned what her given name was, but that was what the Order called her – who lost it under a rather murky set of circumstances a decade or so ago. Long story short, she lost her wings, and I won her wand in a game of darts a few months later.”

Garak blinked. “Ah. And the connection to Doctor Frankenstein’s work is…”

“Mostly superficial,” Koschei admitted, “But the appearance of life is what he’s after – his last few experiments are able to live again, more or less, but their appearance…tends to lead to angry mobs with torches and pitchforks.”

“Only one mob,” Frankenstein muttered, rather sourly, still giving Garak a wary sort of look. From what he had overheard the previous night, Garak supposed he had some justification…but still, it was the sort of thing that Koschei’s entirely innocent husband would ask about, and now, more than ever, playing the role was what mattered.

“Oh, dear,” Garak said, scarcely troubling to hide the relish in his voice – he could pass that off as plain jealousy, if anyone cared enough to mention it – “Have I done something to offend you, doctor?”

He didn’t pretend not to notice the look that passed between Koschei and Frankenstein then, but even that could be made useful. Playing jealous might do a great deal to lead Koschei to believe that, whatever Garak’s initial motives, he had been quite thoroughly seduced by now. Besides. He wasn’t altogether sure he didn’t have reason to be. They were close, Koschei and Frankenstein. As close as Koschei was to Jefferson, with no childhood link to ensure that, whatever else might have happened, Koschei would likely never look at the portal-jumper that way. Garak could not compete for Koschei’s trust, even against a friend. His greatest advantage was that he could presume in ways that a friend couldn’t. If Koschei had other lovers, that advantage was meaningless, and Koschei had had so many before Garak, and told them so little, that even that was a tenuous hope.

“No,” Frankenstein said at last, looking away from Koschei and down at the crocodile on the table. “Nothing.”

“Are you sure?” Garak prodded, “I should hate to be the cause of any difficulty between Koschei and his friends…”

“You haven’t been, I hope,” Koschei said, although his eyes too flicked to Frankenstein. If Garak had not heard what he had the previous night, he would have far more reason to suspect that he was not the only one who had sworn his oaths falsely at their wedding. “Victor’s just worried. He’s known me too long not to be.”

“All those Ivans and Yelenas?” Garak suggested.

“Something like that.”

Garak sniffed. “I wonder that you can call him a friend at all, then, if he thinks so little of you.”

“It’s not him I doubt,” Frankenstein said stiffly, “If we can return to work…?”

“Right- Yes.” Koschei gave Garak an apologetic smile, “I’ll see you later.”

It was the clearest dismissal Garak had yet received from Koschei, and it stung, that he could be dismissed at all.

“I’d rather stay, if you don’t mind,” he said hastily, “It’s been almost a year now, and I still know barely anything about what it is you do with yourself up here. It’s enough to make one feel quite neglected.”

Koschei gave him a slightly startled look at that – had he not expected to be defied? – but he didn’t look at all displeased. Quite the reverse, in fact.

“If…er…if you like,” he said, sounding as if Garak had just presented him with the most marvellous gift he could have imagined, instead of just trying to gather more information on his abilities, “Will you want explanations? I can-”

“I always have learnt best by observation,” Garak said, with an answering smile, pointedly paying no attention at all to Doctor Frankenstein. If he wanted to remove Garak from the Chernosvyat, he would have a much harder fight than he must have hoped for, whatever Koschei might suspect. Garak would see to that. And, in the meantime...desire was one thing, trust quite another. Both were to be encouraged, if he was to succeed here.

Chapter Text

In Cardassia, the new year had fallen in the autumn, and people had turned out in the streets of the capital to watch the sun go down. Here, in these northern mountains, it fell in the depths of winter, and a northern winter was a terrible thing indeed, as unlike Cardassia’s mild rainy seasons as could be imagined. The air was crisp, and cold, and clean, and cut like a knife whenever Garak set foot outside the castle. He’d come down with a painful ailment of the chest once already this winter, and Koschei had fussed over him with noxious-smelling recipes distilled from rare herbs, and rubbed his back and shoulders when they ached. It had been almost worth the inconvenience, to draw Koschei closer, and even if Garak had resented being worried over and doted on like a child, he could not deny it had yielded a few valuable crumbs of information, although too little, still, for him ever to take to Tain. That had been a month and a half ago, before Koschei had left on yet another journey. Garak might have wished he could say he had been shocked to hear the nature of the bargain – an infant child whose parents had sold it away, to be taken to the home of a widow who had been willing to pay with the greatest treasure she had, that she might have a child – but he hadn’t. Disgusted, contemptuous, appalled, yes, but not shocked. It was difficult to retain one’s illusions after so long in Cardassia’s service. That he could muster enough feeling to feel slightly sickened by the thought was just another proof, if any were needed, of how this past year had softened him, made him unfit for what had been his life’s work.

Koschei hadn’t liked it either, of course. Garak hadn’t seen him angry often before, but he’d been quietly furious the whole week before he left, and even if he tried to hide it…well. Garak had known many different tells in the course of his life, but never any so thunderously unsubtle as Koschei the Deathless in a temper.

“I wouldn’t go at all,” he’d said the night before he left. “Except that if they’re willing to sell their child to me, they’d be willing to sell to someone else, and I can’t have that. If they’re going to treat their own daughter like a commodity, they don’t deserve to have children at all.”

“When will you be back?” Garak had asked, pressing a little closer against the warmth of him.

Koschei shrugged underneath him, his bone fingers coming up to stroke and tentatively pet at Garak’s hair, making Garak want to purr with satisfaction. “A little under a month. I should be home by the new year, if that has any significance to you.”

Garak paused, feeling the loss of Cardassia under his skin like a wound. The celebrations in the capital had grown less and less in the war years, as Cardassia was diminished, and he had not attended them often in years before that…all the same, it hurt, that he would not be there to avoid them this year.

“No,” he said. “No, my dear, not especially.”

Koschei smiled, a little sadly, and traced his nose along from just under Garak’s ear to his chin. It felt like a line of fire, and Garak turned his head automatically for a kiss, and, as usual, didn’t get one, just Koschei leaning forward to press their foreheads together.

“We might do something to remedy that,” he suggested, “Is there anything you’d like, while I’m away?”

Garak gave a mock-considering little frown. “I suppose I could do with some new fabrics…”

“You know I can just conjure you new clothes.”

Garak sniffed. “I wasn’t asking for my own sake, except possibly that I have to look at you in those monstrosities.”

Koschei laughed, “I could try creating something from your specifications, if you’d like?”

“It would be a start.” Garak said consideringly, “But you know, I must have something to do here, and I’m afraid gardening and reading only take up so much of my time…”

“…I see.” Koschei frowned. “I’ll find something,” he promised.

“In a tasteful colour!” Garak added quickly. “If you are capable of recognising such a thing.”

“Purple is tasteful!”

“Not that purple, my dear, I assure you.”

Koschei had rolled them both over to pin Garak down again at that, and between one thing and another it was some time before Garak slept that night. When he woke, the castle was empty but for him and the wildlife, and Rukavitsy was sitting on the other pillow, watching Garak with eyes as round and as bright as gold coins.

It was not…well, no. Garak could admit that part of it was simply that he missed Koschei for his own sake. He had shared the man’s bed three months now, and though Garak could hardly claim to be party to…well, really any of the man’s secrets…it was hard not to grow accustomed to someone when they were often, for days or weeks at a time, the only person one ever saw. Besides which, the castle itself seemed to have yielded all it was going to, although he continued to prowl through the cellars and back corridors, looking for…something. There were something like twenty sets of rooms, not unlike Garak’s own except in their details, sitting preserved and untouched in the hidden corners of the keep and untouched since their occupants had departed. Artefacts both precious and common sat on decorative plinths or simply scattered about the place like rubbish. Garak had seen diamonds the size of his fist abandoned in a careless heap in the corner of a cellar storeroom, as if they were bet’to roots or tubers, and he had seen a handful of dried peas sitting demurely on a velvet cushion in one of the dust-choked galleries like a showpiece. He had ventured into Koschei’s study and searched through every shelf of books, every rack of rare ingredients and discovered more than he had ever hoped…and yet, any hint of what he was really there for remained as elusive as it had been the day he arrived at the Chernosvyat. Koschei, Koschei was the key, but even then…he had a way of twisting a conversation around, drawing Garak off down some fascinating tangent or other, so that the original purpose of any conversation Garak tried to worm around to the matter of Koschei’s life was lost. It was one of Garak’s own tricks, was the most frustrating thing, but there was something about Koschei’s strange golden eyes that had a way of making Garak forget his good sense and his first education. And Koschei knew what he was after, had known from the first. Garak might have hoped to wring some information from Koschei unknowing, but all hope of that was gone now, and still he stayed.

The stuffed crocodile in the workroom was still the nearest thing he had to a lead, but only the touch of Koschei’s magic could open its jaws, and it was, very definitely, Koschei’s magic that was required. The crocodile had been very nearly Garak’s first port of call, once he was sure Koschei had left the mountains. It had taken three sweeps of the castle to find another wand, but Garak had done it, in the end, though it had taken his venturing down into the deepest depths of the castle cellars, where the spiders were bigger than both Garak’s hands together. It had availed him not at all. And what could he do – return to Tain, and tell him that Koschei’s life, or the map to it, was possibly in a stuffed crocodile that hung on the ceiling of Koschei’s workroom, without producing either map, life or crocodile for Tain to make use of? Garak could imagine just how badly Tain would take such a failure, and he had no intention of letting that fate be his. Exile was the kindest fate he could hope for, and such an exile, without even the hope of service to Cardassia, would be worse even than the exile that Garak had chosen in being sent to these barren mountains in the first place. The fairy’s information about the Land of the Black Sands would likely be of more use, but without a more exact location or anything to corroborate the story, even that was less than Garak wished to stake Tain’s good opinion on. He had not sent a single message since he had come to the castle, even with all he had learnt. There had seemed to be no point, with so little concrete, so little useful information to be shared. It was not, after all, treasonous, to deny Tain information he had never requested. And what use could Tain have, really, for the knowledge of the care Koschei took with his people in the village, his careful avoidance of deliberate murder even of those who would cheerfully have killed him, the softness of his eyes on those rare mornings when Garak awoke to find him still in the same room, if not the same bed, with him? Garak understood less and less of the man he had married with every fresh revelation, and he had known little enough in the beginning. The only shred of consolation he could cling to was that Koschei seemed every bit as confused by Garak as Garak was by him.

After a week, he was almost certain this was a test, except that if it were, he would undoubtedly have failed it. He had not yet explored the whole castle, yes, but that was only because of just how much of it was underground and infested by arachnids of quite unusual size, and he had certainly pried into enough secrets to worry anyone more concerned with his personal safety than Koschei had proven himself to be. After another week, he began to wonder if, perhaps, Koschei’s aim in bringing Garak here had been simply to drive him mad with searching until Tain either gave Garak up for dead or was obliged to make his move without proper forewarning. At the end of the third week, a pirate arrived at the castle.

Garak had been in the glass gardens again when he became aware of another presence in the castle. Koschei would have known the instant their visitor mounted the bridge across the chasm, but even after all these months of marriage, Garak had no more than a faint and fading second-hand link to the Chernosvyat and so he did not know until the intruder was nearly on top of him, and that only because the man was fool enough to shout.

“Deathless! Come out and fight!”

Garak, who had been busily engaged with a particularly difficult rose-bush, paused. Well, well, well. Koschei had mentioned would-be heroes before, but this was the first one Garak had been troubled with. Quite a foolish one, if he was shouting out his location for anyone to hear. Then again, he had been foolish enough to come here in the first place, which did not exactly speak well for him. Still…there was no sense in letting the man wander around the castle until Koschei returned, because even if the Deathless need not worry about any physical threat, Garak had no such security. He straightened, set down his shears, and slipped over to the door to listen. The intruder could not be very far away for Garak to have heard him at all, but when there was no sound from outside, he judged it safe enough to slip out into the corridor and along towards the empty great hall.

Quite why Koschei had a great hall at all was a mystery to Garak – he’d certainly never seen Koschei in it. The room was vast, and echoing, with a high vaulted ceiling and great stained-glass windows that painted the floor in shades of blue and gold and purple. It had clearly once been a very fine room but that had, just as clearly, been a very long time ago. Now, the room stood bare and empty, inhabited only by birds and mice and hedgehogs. It was an uneasy thing to see, for Garak had lived in enough castles in his time to know that the great hall was the beating heart of all of them but this. The Chernosvyat, like its master, kept its heart elsewhere. Apparently their guest had not realised this, for there, in the centre of the hall, was a tall man in black leathers and with sword in hand – as if a sword would have availed him at all, had Koschei still been there.

Garak padded closer, sticking to the shadows, watching. Whoever this man was, he did not seem long on brains, but yet- He was threatening Koschei. Was it- Was it possible that he could? That he had found some secret Tain had not, that this overwhelmingly foolish mortal had found the key to killing the Deathless himself?

A year ago, that thought would have elated Garak. Now, he found himself sick to his stomach at the prospect, his mind conjuring up the image of Koschei’s lambent eyes gone filmy and dim in death, that gold-dusted skin clammy and cold under Garak’s fingers. It was not to be endured.

Garak’s next step was deliberately loud. The man with the sword turned on his heel, blade out, and stopped dead at the sight of Garak.

“You’re not him,” he said, disgusted. “What’re you supposed to be?”

Garak endeavoured to look startled and afraid, and thanked the long-dead gods of old Hebitia that he was plainly dressed for a day of gardening, for anything finer would have made this ruse impossible.

“I?” he said innocently, fussily, the affected air of the castle tailor slipping back over him as if he had never left it behind. Perhaps he had not. He made a show of collecting himself. “I-” he let his gaze wander down to the sword and widened his eyes as if in sudden realisation. “…oh.”

“Oh?” the man repeated mockingly. His eyes flicked contemptuously over Garak, examining him from head to toe. His lip curled. Garak quietly resolved to do nothing this man asked, even if it was in his own best interest, just to inconvenience the owner of that sneer. “You’re a servant, I suppose?” he went on. And, all right, that had been the impression Garak had been looking for, but the tone in which this man said it made him wish he was still in a position to have people assassinated for minor slights. “I’d heard the Deathless had a fancy for playing house all of a sudden. Did he send you out to deal with me? Not man enough to face me himself?”

…never mind ‘not long on brains’. Either this man had the secret of Koschei’s life, or he was an utter fool.

“‘Not man enough’?” Garak echoed, the corner of his mouth twitching up. “That seems rather…premature. One might wonder whether you stopped to consider what a person called ‘Deathless’ might have left to fear.”

“Even demons can be killed,” the stranger rasped. “I swore I would find a way.”

Garak stopped short. If that were true, if this man had found something that would kill the Deathless-

He could tolerate the idea of Koschei chained and bound to Cardassia’s service. He could tolerate the thought of the magic that had shaped the glass gardens out of nothing on the strength of one chance comment being turned against the enemies of Cardassia. He could tolerate the thought of Koschei hating him, even, once his work here was complete, so long as Koschei lived. The thought of a world without Koschei, even if Garak never saw him again, was a horror Garak could not quite bring himself to imagine.

“And…have you?” he said, his voice hushed with what he hoped would seem eagerness rather than dread. If he had- If such a secret existed…then, he would ensure no knowledge of it ever left this castle.

The stranger smiled widely, all vicious satisfaction. “It took centuries,” he said, his voice low and viciously satisfied. “Centuries of searching and bargaining. I’d supped with many devils before I even got a sniff of it, but now- Now, I have it. He isn’t here, you said?”

Garak spread his hands mock-placatingly. “My master,” he lied, “Left on a journey nearly a month ago. Taking the Tsaritsa with him.”

The stranger snorted. “Tsaritsa? Is that what they call a catamite up here, then?”

“I believe there was some difficulty finding an appropriate title,” Garak replied, his voice heavy with irony. He found himself liking this stranger less and less with every word, and he hadn’t cared for the man much to begin with. “Now, much as I would enjoy seeing my master…disposed of,” he lied, “I would recommend against summoning him directly. If he knew there were anyone in the castle but me and whatever servants he expects me to find before they return…”

The stranger grinned. “Killian Jones,” he said, offering a hand to shake.

“…Pythas Lok,” Garak replied.

“Well, Pythas, if summoning isn’t an option…what is it you propose we do?”

Garak smiled. He had him.

“Just how do you mean to kill him, once he returns?” he asked, rather than answering.

Jones gave him a sidelong, considering look, and then drew something out from inside his coat. “With this.”

It was a dagger, not even a foot long, with a blade that twisted like that of a kris, and letters in ancient cuneiform that Garak could not read picked out along the length of it.

Garak paused, and then said, in tones of carefully-calculated scepticism, his heart hammering hard beneath his breastbone. “Not to appear ungrateful, you understand, but one can’t help but feel that, if killing the Deathless were as simple as a knife in the heart, someone might have already done it.”

“This isn’t just a knife,” Jones said impatiently, “It’s connected to Koschei’s wretched soul. The one thing in all the world that can end the bastard.”

Garak blinked and glanced down at the blade. The life of Koschei the Deathless, before him at last. He would have expected it to be more impressive, somehow. “…where did you find it?”

“He’d hidden it well,” Jones began, and Garak knew he had guessed correctly, that this was a man who wanted nothing more than to gloat about how he had achieved such a victory. “I searched two hundred years before I even got a sniff of it. But once I did…he’s subtle as sin, that one. Had it hidden inside a needle, inside an egg, inside a duck, inside a hare, inside a crystal chest buried under a green oak tree, on the island of Buyan, which a skilled navigator can only find his way to once in a hundred years, under the right stars, and at the right time.”

Small wonder Garak had never even come close.

“I see…” he said, eyeing the blade with some trepidation. And then, just to be sure. “How does it work?”

If Tain had been right, if this was the means to control Koschei…it could be used to kill him as easily. Koschei’s only hope of survival once it came into Tain’s hands, lay in the hope that he could be controlled, that he, like Garak, would prove too useful to be so casually disposed of. The thought made something twist painfully in the pit of Garak’s stomach. He would be welcomed home as a hero, if he succeeded, forgiven and accepted and perhaps even revered as the saviour of Cardassia, and Koschei would be chained or dead. A year ago, he would not have doubted.

Jones gave Garak a blank look. “It’s a knife. You stab him, he dies. It’s not exactly complicated.”

“If that were the case then any knife would do,” Garak retorted, struggling to keep his voice even. “What is it that makes this one so very special?”

“You mean other than having the Deathless’s life bound to it?”

Garak tried, and failed, to keep himself from rolling his eyes. “So you’ve implied, but just how, exactly, is that supposed to work? Is this simply the only thing that can kill him, or is his life bound to the existence of this dagger in some way? I hardly think that stabbing him and then finding that, in fact, the only way to kill the Deathless is to destroy the dagger instead is going to profit either one of us!”

It was a desperate play for time – sloppy, sloppy, sentimental, Tain would have had Garak’s skin for such an obvious ploy – but, for a moment, it seemed to work. Jones glanced down at the dagger, and then up again.

“Only one way to find out,” he said, and then he spoke the words.

Nothing happened.

Garak swallowed. There was, he told himself, no reason to fear, but still. Koschei had not come. Why had he not come? This man held Koschei’s life in his hands, or so he claimed, and yet no storm had swept down over the mountains, there had been no sudden shift in the air, no sudden drop in pressure, none of the hundred little and not-so-little clues Garak had learnt to spot, this past year, to say that Koschei was near. Something was wrong.

“…you’ll forgive me if I seem a little underwhelmed,” he said dryly, every syllable dripping sarcasm.

Koschei would not use the winds for transport at a time like this, his connection to the Chernosvyat was such that he could hardly not know Jones was here, and if that truly was Koschei’s life that Jones held…Garak did not want Koschei there for what he would have to do, but that he had not come when summoned-

No.

He could not think on that. Koschei could have been delayed, or Jones’s information faulty. It was not as if Koschei had not waited days or weeks or even months before to answer a summons, when something else had caught his interest. But an old enemy with a grudge in the heart of Koschei’s stronghold with Koschei’s life in his hands? The Deathless had lost enough lovers down the centuries that Garak could not expect his own life to mean much to anyone but himself, but surely that would catch his attention?

Jones’s face twisted in confusion. “I don’t understand,” he muttered in a low near-growl, “He should be here. Even invisible, we’d see the storm outside. He can’t hide that from me.”

“He needn’t come at once,” Garak said quickly, not wanting Jones to leave with Koschei’s life still in his keeping. “If he knows you have it…”

“He should have come!” Jones was nearly beside himself now, whirling on the spot with the blade out, “Don’t you understand? Whoever holds the dagger commands the Deathless! He should have come! He should be here!”

For a moment, Garak almost forgot to breathe. If that were so, if there were no safe means by which the Deathless could be controlled…then, Tain would demand Koschei’s death, and Garak-

Garak could do it, he knew. It would be easy. Koschei would come to his bed, as had become his habit since Doctor Frankenstein’s visit, and their first night together. He did not need to sleep, but he would lay in bed with Garak nonetheless, coiled around Garak like a dragon about its hoard. It would be no great task to hide the blade beneath the pillows, and then up and under the ribcage, and the Deathless would be gone from the world. Tain never did care for power that could not be leashed and bound to his service. He would be angry, that the Deathless could not be thus bound, but if such power could not be bound, preventing any rival from making use of it was near as good. Garak could see it, almost taste it, and just the thought tasted like ash and ruin.

“It would appear your informants have led you astray,” he said, as coolly as he could muster, tucking his hands behind his back. “You might leave it here.”

Jones turned incredulous eyes on Garak. “Leave the dagger? Here?”

Garak spread his hands. “Why not? I have, after all, as much reason to want the Deathless dead as you do. So long as he lives, I remain trapped here, and, to speak frankly, I don’t care for it.”

“‘As much reason to want him dead as I do’, and that’s all?” Jones said, sounding disgusted. This, Garak reasoned, was probably the beginning of some sort of speech. He was familiar with the form and had heard many variations thereupon. It would likely begin with an accounting of every wrong Koschei had done, or that Jones imagined he had done, first in general and then to Jones in particular, followed by blistering invective against Koschei’s evil and Garak’s own motives. All one had to do was change the names and it was little different from what he’d heard often enough as Tain’s agent.

“That…thing…murdered – worse than murdered – the woman I loved, and you think that being kept here, unharmed and provided-for, compares to that?”

Garak raised an eyebrow. “My mistake. I did not know. Just as, if I may point out, you do not know how I came to be here…so, if we could dispense with the competitiveness? For all you know, the Deathless could already be on his way here to dispose of you.” He paused and then added, as delicately as possible. “Ah- Worse than murdered?”

“He turned her,” Jones growled. “Into a bloody parrot. Like it was some sort of joke. I had to keep her caged, keep her by me, but no-one could turn her back.”

It was not as if Garak had not done worse, but…still. He hadn’t thought Koschei was the sort to do that to an innocent bystander. Then again…well, when he’d asked for a volunteer to make whatever bargain it was he’d originally intended, Koschei had likely expected nothing more than an innocent bystander…and yet, ask he had. And, really, Garak had seen enough truly awful men turn kind and loving with their intimates that Koschei’s treatment of him could hardly be read as any proof against Jones’s claims. Whether Koschei felt any particular attachment to Garak or not, he clearly felt obliged to those who owed him loyalty – Jefferson, the villagers, even Doctor Frankenstein, strange a connection as he may have been. If he was kind to them, but cruel to all others, no matter how hard it was to imagine, Garak would never know.

“…I see,” he said, floundering. “You’ll forgive me for saying, but you don’t seem quite the type that usually attracts Koschei’s attention.”

Jones snorted. “I know he prefers to prey on the desperate,” he said contemptuously. “Never thought the desperate would be anyone I had to deal with.” A pause, and then. “You call him by name. Not what I’d expect from a servant in this place.”

“Slip of the tongue,” Garak said, for once truthfully, and cursed himself for it. “And, really, ‘Deathless’ seems more than a little inappropriate, standing next to the man who holds Koschei’s death in his hands.” He nodded at the blade. “Speaking of which, I do still believe I have the greatest chance at actually dispatching him. He may not trust me – I’m not sure he trusts anyone – but he is, at least, content to believe me broken, whereas you…you are a known danger to him. He will be wary, and since the dagger clearly does not exert the control over him that you seem to have believed it would…”

Truthfully, Garak had no idea if Koschei would even remember the man’s name, given that he had not noticed the ogre wars ending, resuming, ending once more and then resuming again in the three hundred years since they had begun. Still, any excuse to take the dagger for himself would do.

“I don’t think so.” Jones’s face was dark. “I told you, I have my own score to settle here. I’ll see to the Deathless myself.”

He turned on his heel and Garak hurried after him. “Even if you do find the Deathless, how do you intend to get close enough to put an end to him?”

Jones snorted. “I’ve managed it before. He ought to have died there on the ship, but my sword barely hurt him. I saw him bleed, and he never so much as flinched from it! Not this time.” He rounded on Garak. “How long until your master returns?”

Garak smiled, and this time it was not at all feigned. “Three days,” he lied. “Time enough, I think, to prepare an appropriate welcome.”

He would have little hope in a straightforward fight, he knew. Jones was taller, his reach was longer, and he had surely kept himself in better condition than Garak had had the opportunity to, and even if he had not been, he had a sword and Garak only the bone-handled knife Koschei had given him when they were wed. If the sword was removed from play, however…he would have to strike fast, and his aim would have to be sure – the tendons in Jones’ right wrist, he thought – if he severed those, it would be simple. He would have to move quickly, and at just the right time. He could not afford a mistake now.

“Have you eaten?” he asked, more briskly – the character he had adopted could afford to be brisk, now things had been sorted out. “That…creature…in the kitchens doesn’t care for me much, but it can be managed.”

“I’ll eat nothing in this place.” Jones was looking around warily, taking it all in. It was not, Garak imagined, what he might have expected. It had not been what Garak expected either. “It hasn’t harmed you?”

“Not so far as I can tell. Should I crumble to ash upon fleeing the castle, I will consider myself disproven.”

They turned a corner, onto the stairs, and Garak knew he would find no better opportunity. Unfortunately, Jones seemed to have had the same thought.

The first blow went to Jones, a thrown knife that winged Garak’s shoulder. The second was Garak’s, and that one did not go astray. Jones might have been swift, but Garak was sure. Jones reeled back with a roar of pain, and Garak pressed his advantage. Jones doubled over with a roar of pain, the bloody stump of his wrist bleeding freely – the wound was worse by far than Garak had expected, the enjoining blade sharper than any mortal knife should have been – but Jones’ left hand was already going for his sword. Garak surged forwards before he could reach it, and though he was not the strongest of men, on those narrow stairs it was no great feat. Jones’ shift in stance to steady himself brought his boot down on a fresh splash of blood. His foot slipped and he fell backwards, his head bouncing off the stone steps. Jones lay there, quite still, his chest moving shallowly, his wrist still bleeding, his severed hand lying on the stone like a discarded toy.

Garak knelt beside him, and quickly, methodically, started to go through the pockets of his leather coat for the dagger. It did not take long.

He did not want to touch the blade – something about it felt…strange. Almost oily, though the surface was dry and cool to the touch. There was something very wrong with that dagger, even Garak could tell that, and he had never been much given towards these strange leaps of intuition that so many others seemed to make without thinking. Still, he could hardly give up at the last hurdle out of simple squeamishness, even if the thought of putting that dagger to use twisted at him in ways he had no words for.

Now there only remained the problem of Jones. Garak could cut his throat here and now, but if the man died in the Chernosvyat…Koschei would know. He would want to know details. He already knew Garak had begun as Tain’s agent, but since that first night together he had acted as if he had forgotten that. Perhaps he believed Garak had truly turned his coat, but even if he didn’t, that was the impression Garak had to maintain to have even a hope of success here. If a man was murdered inside the Chernosvyat, either with the blade that held Koschei’s life or one that had been made from his very bones, the Deathless would feel it. And then…then, the game would end. One way or the other.

The dagger was too unwieldy to be hidden in a sleeve or tucked into a belt, but it could not be left alone, and so Garak had to hold it in one hand and drag Jones after him with the other, Jones’s head bouncing on every step, Jones’s bloody wrist bandaged tight with torn strips from his shirt to prevent more blood from spilling and staining the stone any further. It was slow work, laborious, the heavy body dragging across the floor, the leather coat flapping. It took almost half an hour to get to the entrance hall, a walk that would usually have taken less than half that time. Into the entrance hall, out of the great double doors, down the stone steps outside and across the smooth black stones outside to the edge of the chasm.

A dragon had died to make that chasm, Koschei had told him once while in a talkative mood. It was how Koschei had come to the mountains. For ten days, from the lowest canyons to the highest peaks, the Deathless and the dragon had fought until the Deathless had prevailed and cast the dragon down, rending the mountainside in two. Then, Koschei had still been young and tender. Gods alone knew how strong he must be by now. It was easy to forget that, when Koschei was there, with his great dark eyes and sweet foolish smile that made him look so much younger than he was. No-one had ever found the bottom of the chasm. Local legend said that it had no bottom at all, that anything dropped into it simply fell, for all eternity. Garak didn’t believe it. But the fall was far enough that, whatever lay at the bottom, Jones would not live long enough to tell the tale of what had happened here. It would do. Soon enough, Garak would be gone, and even if Jones somehow, miraculously, lived to tell his tale, it would not be Garak he hunted.

He had to set down the dagger to heft Jones’s body, already stirring weakly, over his head, and drop it over the edge. He watched, quite dispassionately, as it fell into the darkness beneath. Watched until it fell out of sight.

After that, it was simple. Garak had not had to scrub a floor in many years, but it was hardly a complex art. Jones’ severed hand followed its owner in quite short order, and Garak retired back to his greenhouse with the dagger in his hands, turning it over and over.

What duty demanded was clear. That Garak did not want to was irrelevant – he had killed people he had not wanted dead before, on Tain’s orders. But none of those had made him sick to his stomach to think of. There might yet be other ways, he reasoned. So long as control remained a possibility, to kill Koschei outright would be wasteful. Tain did not reward wastefulness. So Garak would stay, and he would work to find an alternative, even if it took the rest of his life. He tried to ignore the sneaking part of him that almost wished it would.

A week passed. And then another. The turning of the year came and went, and still Koschei did not return.