by Henrietta Wotton

[Note: This story takes place during DS9 season 4]

As Dr. Bashir approached the replimat, his face bore what Garak called That Look. It signified some personal triumph which would in turn give pleasure to the person with whom he favored it. Garak saw That Look most frequently when the doctor was explaining to Chief O'Brien the wonders of some new holosuite program that would permit them still another variation on their adolescent pursuits of glory in an historical setting. Now he was projecting it full on at his weekly Cardassian luncheon partner. Garak wondered how long it would take before it came up in the conversation.

"Guess who's coming on board the station next week!" Bashir enthused as they walked into the restaurant. Ten point three seconds, Garak noted.

"As there are likely to be at least a thousand new arrivals during that period, doctor, I'm afraid you'll have to narrow the parameters if you expect me to have a chance of guessing correctly." Garak took a perverse pleasure in delaying the disclosure by refusing to deliver up the expected, "No, who?" in response.

Bashir, however, ignored him and plowed straight ahead. "That Cardassian novelist you're so keen on-Preloc!. The Cardassians and the Bajorans have established cultural exchanges, and the first Cardassian delegation is going to check in here before going down to the planet. Captain Sisko is hosting a banquet for them, and I've talked him into inviting you, as the station's resident expert on Cardassian arts and letters."

The memory of their less than pleasant interactions a decade ago made Garak shift in his seat at the mention of Preloc's name. "That's very kind of you," he said. "But it's quite impossible that I should attend."

That Look vanished as Bashir assumed a crestfallen expression. "Why not, Garak? As much as you go on about his artistic genius, I would have thought that you'd jump at the chance to meet him."

"I have met him, my dear doctor, in the way of official business when I was still in the Order. You can rest assured that he would not appreciate seeing me again."

"Oh," the doctor replied. "And of course you can't possibly tell me any of the details of this 'official business.'"

"You're learning, doctor, you're learning," Garak said.

Late on the evening when Captain Sisko was hosting the Cardassian cultural delegation, Garak replicated a bowl of stewed larishes in his quarters and then sat down with a bottle of kanar to prepare his monthly accounts. A Trill concerto Commander Dax had prevailed upon him to sample played softly in the background. A half hour into his figures, the door chime sounded. He took the disrupter from his desk drawer and put it in his trouser pocket, with his finger on the trigger. Then he stood to one side of the door and pressed the access panel. Standing on the threshold was Vaslan Preloc, impeccably groomed as always but with a good deal more silver in his hair since their last encounter. "Hello, Mr. Garak," he said. "May I come in?"

A dumfounded Garak in rapid succession discarded both "No, you may not" and "What the devil are you doing here?" as possible rejoinders. He merely nodded and gestured him toward a chair with his free hand. He didn't take the other from his pocket. Preloc's gaze took in the room with the practiced eye of one who writes from observations of the life around him. Garak compared his small, spare quarters to the spacious and beautifully appointed Preloc home in the Midnokaty Hills and imagined that the writer was well satisfied that his erstwhile nemesis was living in such deservedly reduced circumstances. Never taking his own gaze off his unexpected guest, Garak eased himself into the other chair in the room and waited. He was in no mood to offer up small talk.

When Preloc finally broke the silence, he did so with a directness that Garak appreciated: "I gather you've been left high and dry here now that the Obsidian Order has been destroyed."

"I was left high and dry here when the Order exiled me five years ago," Garak replied.

"Oh come now," Preloc protested. "If a man of your standing in the Order ever fell foul of them, he'd be dead. No doubt you were sent here as part of some labyrinthine scheme on the part of the estimable Enabran Tain."

If I were, it would have been nice if Tain had let me in on the secret, Garak mused.

"I don't expect you to confirm that," Preloc continued. "Old habits die hard, don't they? Whether five years ago or five months ago, you've lost the power you had over me."

"And you've come here to gloat," Garak said.

Preloc narrowed his eyes and took a moment to reply, as if he were checking Garak's hypothesis against a mental inventory. "No, not to gloat," he said. "I'm sure I'm a bigger man than that."

Ten years of living in the shadow of ruin hasn't done anything for his humility. "Why have you come then?" he said aloud.

Preloc leaned back in his chair and placed his hands on his knees. "To satisfy my curiosity. It's bedeviled me these ten years to know what game you were playing with me, and what you would have forced me to do, if events hadn't sidetracked your plans."

How like a novelist. He can't stand being left in the dark about how the story was supposed to end. "I'm afraid my answer will disappoint you," Garak replied with a tight smile. "I had no specific plans regarding you. In my former profession one collected leverage with the powerful, because one never knew when it might be useful. No situation ever arose in which you could be of use to me. That is all."

Preloc studied him intently, as if trying to determine whether he was being lied to. Then he shook his head with a soft sigh. "Not the kind of answer I hoped for," he said. "I shouldn't have expected anything better, but I had to ask. I've been bouncing possible scenarios off poor Trokh for years now. He'll be crushed to learn that none of them was the right one."

For the first time during their conversation, Garak felt some emotion other than dull anger. "Trokh? Have you kept in contact with him?"

"Of course," Preloc said, proving once again how deficient he was in the art of self-protection. "Our family has always taken a solstice holiday at my brother's resort on Tertia. Trokh was assigned to our service. Now that he's completed his indenture, I've taken him on as my valet."

"That's most convenient," Garak said dryly.

Preloc caught the implication and flushed slightly. "He lost ten years of his life because of me. It was the least I could do."

"Not to mention how much you savor the pleasure of his company."

Preloc rose and took a step toward Garak. "I'm not proud of what I am," he said angrily, "but I don't view Trokh as some . . . thing . . . to be exploited for my pleasure. I care for him. I always have." He turned and went to Garak's replicator, requesting a glass of cold water.

"There's kanar on the desk if you'd like something stronger," Garak said, although he made no effort to get up and play the host.

"No, thank you," Preloc replied stiffly. "I've had quite enough for one evening. The station commander prevailed upon the Ferengi bar owner to donate some of the former Prefect's private stock to the occasion."

"I seriously doubt that any donation was involved," Garak observed. Both men smiled simultaneously and the level of tension in the room dropped a few notches. Garak made his own way to the desk. "If you don't mind, I'll pour myself a drink from my private stock. I don't think I have had enough for this evening."

Sipping from their respective glasses allowed for a conversational regrouping, and Garak decided to take the offensive. "So, you invented various devious plots I might want to embroil you in for Trokh's amusement. I wonder, did he ever have any suggestions of his own?"

"Oh, yes, he did," Preloc replied with an indulgent chuckle. "No matter how plausible my speculations might be, he insisted that there was a much simpler explanation. Trokh's no fool, but his intelligence is of a very direct and straightforward kind. He would be incapable of wrapping his mind around anything so convoluted as the scheming of an agent of the Obsidian Order."

"And what was this simple explanation?" Garak prompted.

"That Mister Garak was afraid that I would get into trouble because of the time we spent together, and they'd take me away as they had taken Trokh away, and then there would be no more books by Preloc. And that would make Mr. Garak very sad." The novelist laughed appreciatively at the absurdity of the idea.

Garak joined in, although he was laughing at a very different joke. He traced the rim of his glass with his finger, casting only a sidelong glance at Preloc. "If I had wanted to achieve such a goal, the method I employed could not have been more incompetent," he said. "You haven't published a single word since that night."

"Is it any wonder?" Preloc boomed out. "I was terrified to write anything. You'd just demonstrated to me that I had been revealing in my books for years the most shameful, hidden secret about myself, and I had no idea I was doing it. I couldn't be sure that I wouldn't keep on doing it until my deviancy was discovered by someone with no vested interest in being able to blackmail me with it." He finished his water and put the glass down on the side table. " However, the forces that would have condemned me to ruin no longer rule Cardassia. That brings me to the second reason I dropped in on you this evening."

He reached inside his jacket and took out a book bound in fine brown gettle-hide. "This week, my new novel, Standing on Sheer Crystal, will be published. Those ten years ago, you extorted from me a promise that I should give to you an inscribed , special limited and numbered edition of my next book. Even though you no longer have the authority to enforce that demand, I'm a man of honor and I keep my promises. This is for you, copy one of one."

He's enjoying my powerlessness over him so much that it sickens me. I should tell him to take that book and get out! Yet to possess a new Preloc after all this time was a temptation that Garak could not resist, despite the humiliating circumstances under which he was receiving it. He extended his hand and silently took the volume.

Preloc was clearly waiting for a thank you, and when he realized he wasn't going to hear one, he got up and walked toward the door. "By the way, there's a character in the book who may remind you of your former life-Maleg, the inveterate persecutor of the protagonist."

"Of course." Garak did not keep the venom out of his voice, "The villain of the piece."

Preloc cocked his head, considering the phrase. "Perhaps, but not only that.. He's a complicated fellow. You'll first meet him at the beginning of chapter three."

Garak sat holding the book, feeling the soft leather of its binding, tracing the silver-embossed letters announcing its title and author. Soon his hands began to shake. So many conflicting emotions sprang from its presence. Despite everything, joy was foremost. In all these bitter years of exile, his despair had come in several vintages. One that he tasted frequently, as he obsessively reread the two dozen extant Preloc novels, tormented him with the knowledge that no new Prelocs were likely to appear to give him solace-and that this was all his own fault. Disappointed by Preloc the man, his feelings bruised by their encounter, he had lost his temper and overplayed his hand. Completely unprofessional, Tain would have said if he had ever found out. Now, contrary to all expectations, here were words from Preloc the artist, to be read for the first time. He felt as if he were once again a boy, eagerly awaiting the day the bookshop would place the latest Preloc novel in its front window and he could start working on a plan to remove a copy overnight and then replace it without being caught. And yet he took the volume up with trepidation. How much joy could he derive from a tale that included some malign caricature of himself?

He told himself not to make the experience any worse by looking at the inscription, no doubt some veiled insult or triumphant sneer. Nevertheless he turned first to the title page, where it read "To Elim Garak, who held my life in his hand and never closed his fist. Gratefully, V. Preloc." Garak puzzled over the lines a while. Not an effusive expression of fellow feeling, to be sure, but he couldn't find any hidden malice in them. Curiosity propelled him to do the second thing he had told himself not to do; he flipped through the pages to start reading at the beginning of chapter three:

Akri Maleg was a very powerful man. Powerful men, we imagine, fulfill with ease desires that the rest of us must forever have frustrated. Yet Maleg lived a life of perpetual frustration. It was his misfortune to have been born with a love for ideas, a love that could only achieve its consummation through spirited debate and challenge. Nothing thrilled him more than heated disagreement with his own positions. Alas, no one had openly disagreed with Akri Maleg in a very long time, because the power that he possessed was the power to make men afraid. That power assured that whenever he put forward an intellectual position, all who heard it returned only nervous agreement. As an experiment, he had at times completely contradicted himself mid-argument, and still his conversational partners nodded their approval.

His frustration was particularly intense today, because the State censors had at long last approved the publication, in a Kardasi translation, of the teachings of the Vulcan, Surak. As Maleg had that morning sat alone, as always, at his usual table in the plaza at Bezhemet Square, drinking his habitual cup of hot fish juice and eating his one poached regova egg, he could hear around him vigorous discussions about the Vulcan discipline of logic as a foundation for state politics. He longed to walk up to one of the other tables and participate. Should he do so, debate would, of course, stop immediately. If he excoriated Surak's philosophy as evidence of Vulcan inferiority, bespeaking a weak people who suppressed innate humanoid savagery rather than channeling it into productive realpolitik as had their Romulan cousins, all would agree with him. If he made an analogy between the State's control of aberrant Cardassian behaviors and the discipline Vulcan logic imposed on the emotions, all would agree with him. If he pronounced Vulcan logic morally superior to Cardassian totalitarianism, all would be as afraid to agree with him as to disagree with him, so they would fall silent. And if he told them the truth, that he harbored these three opinions simultaneously, they would all agree with him, but none of them would believe him.

At times like these, Maleg wished he had no power to make men afraid, that he was some ordinary shopkeeper or teacher or technician. He never wished it for long, however, because he knew that if he did not have the power to make men afraid, he would be none of those things. He would be nothing.

"Sir, I don't think he'll survive much more of this." With a hesitant tap on his superior's shoulder, his aide brought him back to where he was. The interrogation room. Having turned off the microphone while the punishment interval proceeded, and thus deaf to the screams that reminded him of its progression, he had gotten lost in this reverie and let the torture go on a quarter-hour past the safety point. His practiced demeanor revealed none of this confusion to his subordinate. "We must be sure he understands the price of his continued stubbornness," he said before he reached for the control box and deactivated the device. "Send the doctor in to him and have him do whatever's necessary to prepare the prisoner for the next round of questioning. Call me when it's time. I'll be in my office."

Walking down the corridor, Akri Maleg reflected with bitter irony that it was his mission in life to destroy the very few men who dared not to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear.

Garak carefully closed the book and set it on his desk. He finished his drink and put his glass and Preloc's in the recycler and the bottle of kanar in its accustomed cabinet. Then Elim Garak stood very still in the middle of his sitting room and wept.

The next day he met Bashir at the replimat for their weekly lunch, and the doctor once again sported That Look. Garak knew he was in for an excruciating account of the dinner with Preloc. The young human's first action, however, was to drop a data rod into his hand. "Your Preloc has written a new book," he said. "He gave us copies as part of the cultural exchange. I knew you'd want to read it first thing."

Garak smiled. It was hard to be annoyed by Bashir's undeniable annoyingness when his friendship was so sincere. "Yes, indeed I will, thank you, doctor," he replied. "You must promise me to read it as soon as I've finished with it, so we can discuss its merits."

"I'll get around to it when I can," Bashir said reluctantly. "Every Preloc's a long slog for me. His characters are such dreary walking embodiments of political ideologies. There's never a one of them you could imagine meeting in real life."

"Just what I always feel about your Shakespeare," Garak said. "And yet I have faithfully read every one of his preposterous dramas that you have recommended."

"Point taken," Bashir sighed. "Now, if someone would only write a book about you, Garak . . . that's one that would keep the reader guessing." His eyes crinkled up mischievously.

"Ah, but what writer is there that could do me justice?" Garak replied with a forced levity intended to match the doctor's.

"Perhaps you'll have to do it yourself-Elim Garak, the memoirs of a well-tailored secret agent."

"Perhaps I will some day, my dear doctor, just for you."

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