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“Queen’s knight to king’s bishop four.”

Kirill’s opponent made the move swiftly, and with little ceremony – the sleek white figurine plucked up by a long-fingered, elegant hand, moved and replaced with the certainty of a brushstroke on canvas.

Kirill blinked and studied the board in the wake of the horseman’s leap, dark eyes seeking out each piece in turn. Four black, two white; two kings, two knights, a bishop, and a single, lonely pawn. The pieces were scattered across the inlaid board, ebon and bird’s eye maple spanning the landscape of a battlefield in miniature.

He calculated his next move the way he’d been taught; not by choosing what to do next, but rather by deciding what endgame he wanted, and then planning his moves backward.

Slowly, he frowned.

“Oh,” Kirill said.

The man across from him sat back in his seat, smiling with a faint press of narrow lips and an indulgently wry, crow-footed gaze. Officially, the man was known as Dolya - Fate - but Kirill knew him more familiarly as Leonid. Gray hair crowned a weathered, patrician face; moss green eyes watched him with languid interest.

“You should have said something,” Kirill said, reproachfully.

Leonid chuckled.

“I wanted to see when you would notice.”

Kirill groaned and rolled his eyes. He reached out to tip his king, shaking his head.

“How long did I miss it?”

“Not long. Only two moves.”

“Well, that makes me feel better.”

“Don’t worry, Kiryusha,” Leonid said, softly.

He stared at Kirill for a few moments.

Something weighted his gaze now, like snow on tree branches, turning it somber and grey.

“The inevitable is not always so easy to see,” Leonid said.

Outside, it was winter, but inside the library, with the fire blazing in the inset fireplace, it was warm; Kirill felt comfortable in the oversized grey cashmere sweater that hung off his narrow frame, spilled open to expose his delicate, prominent collarbone.

It was an adult’s sweater, a man’s sweater. Not his, but it was his favorite thing to wear.

Kirill smirked, and settled back in the chair.

“I guess it serves me right, for playing chess with a man who can see the future.”

Leonid laughed then, and his regard lightened.

“I wasn’t peeking. Promise.”

“I know.”

“It doesn’t work that way anyway,” Leonid added.

Kirill nodded.

“I know.”

A companionable silence passed between them as Kirill gathered the pieces and reset the board, lining them up in careful rows. He took his time about it. He liked every piece to be lined up just so, each knight facing forward exactly, each king and queen balanced perfectly side by side. It appeased his sense of symmetry, to make sure each element was exactly in place, the perfectly formed army.

“Do you hate me, Kiryushen’ka?” Leonid asked, suddenly.

Kirill looked up, startled, nearly knocking over a rook.

“What? No! What are you talking about? Of course not, Lyonya.”

He stared at Leonid, chess forgotten.

“Why would I hate you?”

Leonid looked away, staring out the window.

“For what I do to you. For what I make you do. Some would say…with a boy your age…it’s immoral.”

Kirill frowned.

“What does my age have to do with anything?” He paused, and his own gaze skipped away, to the fire. It was flickering, ever-changing, as fluid as the snow outside was still.

“You’re nice to me,” Kirill said.

He paused.

“There were others,” he added, more quietly. “It’s not like you were the first, you know.”

After a moment, Leonid let out a sigh. “I know.”

Kirill didn’t like to think about the others, the ones that came before Leonid, when he was almost too young to understand what was happening to him.

Almost. He’d figured it out quickly enough.

“There’ll be others after me, too,” Leonid said.

Kirill shook his head.

“I’m not looking for anyone else.”

Leonid turned to him, expression quiet and fathomless.

“I have to leave,” he said, quietly.

Kirill frowned.

“Leave? What do you mean? When?”

“Soon.”

“Why?”

Leonid raised a hand and reached out to touch Kirill’s face, long tapered fingers stroking down his cheekbone, lingering on his jaw. It was the hand of artist, that hand, a sculptor or a painter perhaps. Not a killer. But Leonid liked to say that killing was its own form of art.

“An assignment.”

“But you’re – ”

Kirill broke off. He almost said, too old, but checked himself in time, quickly searching for new words.

“…retired,” he said.

Leonid smiled, and his eyes briefly held their familiar gleam once more. He stroked Kirill’s throat, then pulled his hand away.

“Yes. Retired. Well, it seems they wish me out of retirement for one…last…assignment.”

Kirill sat back, stunned.

He couldn’t imagine being here, without companionship. Alone.

There’ll be others after me, Leonid had said.

At that moment, Kirill didn’t want anyone else, ever.

His eyes burned and his throat tightened, and he sat in his chair, chest aching, silent. A couple of times, Leonid moved as if to get up, but seemed to quell the motion, and hold back.

Kirill shivered, in spite of his sweater.

“But it’s winter,” Kirill said, finally.

Leonid looked at him, across the table, eyes as distant as the future.

A moment later, his gaze turned back to the window.

“Yes. It is, isn’t it?”
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