The rooftops of Seneret were tinged golden and warm orange in the light of the rising sun. The hour was still early. The trams from Hetla hadn't yet rattled into town, and the streets were quiet, devoid of what little activity they might otherwise receive. Seneret was not a town of labourers. With its warm sea breezes and pleasant climate, it had long been a retreat for Hetla's wealthier elite, a place where they could escape the crush and stress of the city center and take refuge in the quiet of the countryside. When the trams would arrive in the mid-morning hours, they would bring with them the servants and gardeners that inhabited Helta's Ket sector, a crowded, ragged part of the city that was pushed a little farther to the west every year, and farther from the extravagant houses and genteel existence of the upper classes that dwelt in the better neighborhoods of Terna and Merat.
The Malek family had long owned an estate in Terna, a large sprawling house that was situated on the crest of a low hill. It afforded a grand and sweeping view of the Panar sector, the administration's hub of Hetla, with its gleaming copper domes and claw-like spires. Not that Iliana had spent much time at the Malek family estate. She and her father had lived in Seneret for as long as she could remember, inhabiting a modest two-story townhouse that had once been the residence of Amaret Tol, a political artist who had been the favourite of Iliana's mother, Taiyla. They had not owned the house while Taiyla was alive, but when it had become available, Toman couldn't allow it to go to another family, and while it was considerably more modest than the homes owned by the other families in town, its history afforded it a certain prestige.
The townhouse was in the middle of the village, sitting at the end of a wide street that seemed to break against the house and run around the property like a stream around a sandbank. There was a wall around the perimeter of the property to afford the family some privacy, and the small streets that ran perpendicular to the main avenue seemed to run directly into the wall, as though the streets had been there first and the house had simply landed in the middle of them. Given the eccentricity of the artist who had built the house, that was not entirely unlikely.
Morning stretched now through those narrow side streets, and Iliana sat in her favourite chair by the oval picture window, watching the town change colour as the sun climbed higher and the day crept in through the buildings, casting long purple shadows on the streets and tipping the sparse foliage with crimson red. But her reverie was not a peaceful one. She should have been studying. She should have been rereading the preparatory lecture transcripts and memorizing statistical data. The National Science Academy expected excellence from not only its students, but its applicants as well. The intensive battery of placement exams they inflicted upon their applicants afforded no margin of error. She must excel, or she would be rejected.
And the exams were only half over. They would stretch for another few weeks still, measuring her skill, picking apart her weaknesses, deciding her future and whether she was good enough for them or just another "scrub" whose ambition outweighed her skill.
The thought of calamitous rejection made Iliana's breath catch in her throat. Washing out was not an option. Failure was unacceptable. It would destroy her. And her father would kill her.
She retrieved one of the PADDs that lay scattered around her in an attempt to continue her studying. The title of the article flashed on the screen, "Tectonic subduction cycles on the third planet of the Meklar System, and their effect on resource retrieval." How thrilling. She tossed the PADD down in frustration. It was not that she wouldn't find the article fascinating, or that she didn't enjoy geology. Articles like this one were vital reading in order to achieve placement in her first choice - The State Geological Survey. But the material was drier than the Plains of Amaret, and the excessive jargon was eating holes in her brain.
She picked up another PADD and stared down at the article on the screen. "Adapting appropriated alien technologies for military vessels and equipment." The muscles in her chest pulled a little tighter. She didn't deny her aptitude for technical engineering. As a child, her teachers had identified her ability to pull apart and rebuild everything from PADDs to wall consoles. This had pleased her father excessively. It meant his daughter wouldn't have to go off-world, wouldn't have to risk her life tramping about on alien planets mapping out Cardassia's mining operations. She could be safe on Prime, successful, respected, and utterly unhappy. But what did happiness matter when serving the interests of the State and of family?
She must have appeared sufficiently studious and diligent as she stared blankly at her reader and contemplated the snake-like windings of her future. If she hadn't, her father surely would have commented on her lack of focus when he entered the main room. Instead, he greeted his daughter with a cheerful smile and light bearing.
“Good morning, my darling.” The elder Malek strode across the room and placed a kiss on his daughter's forehead. “How are your studies progressing?”
For a brief moment Iliana's face betrayed her preoccupation as she looked from the device in her hand to her father's smiling, roseate face. The same infernal questions were still swimming in her mind – geology or engineering? Her own path, or the one her father had chosen for her?
“Difficult subject matter?” Something on her face must have given away her anxiety. There was an overtone of wariness in his voice that shook her from her reverie and snapped her back into the room, and she quickly fixed herself with a pleasant and entirely false smile. She would not give her father a reason to doubt her.
“Challenging, but very interesting.” It was clear from his narrowed eyes that the Gul did not quite believe her half lie. With a raised brow he freed the PADD from her curled fingers and looked over the article, his face lightening.
“Engineering!” The discovery pleased him greatly. He was assuming that she was studying the subject willingly, and not because it was being forced upon her. In the interest of peace, to avoid another lengthy discussion about her choice of career, she simply nodded and retrieved the PADD from his outstretched hand.
“I'm glad that you are finally seeing the benefit of entering the engineering field, Iliana.”
Her teeth ground together so hard she thought they would crack. Before her father could notice her irritation she swept away from the chair she'd entrenched herself in and headed toward the replicator. “My advisers say I have a natural aptitude for exogeology. They're encouraging me to follow a path into that field.” Her words sounded much sharper than she had intended. The rigorous schedule of exams and the constant tension over the past few months was wearing her patience razor thin.
Toman screwed his face into a smile and crossed his arms over his chest. “Exogeology, hm? This is something that interests you?”
“You know it does.” She ordered a red leaf tea and a rokassa juice to help sooth the tension that was spreading from her temples down into her shoulder ridges.
“Well, do not hang your hopes on it, Iliana. Engineering is more lucrative, and you could work here in Hetla.”
Iliana turned back to her father and handed him the steaming mug of tea. “I know, Gul.” One never called Toman Malek anything but 'Gul', especially if you were his child and he thought you were misbehaving. Signs of dissension were not welcome in his home, and her insistence on pursuing geology was true insubordination.
The Gul made a noise as he looked down into his tea. He took a sip of the warm liquid and peered at his daughter from below his eye ridges. “But, I suppose there's no harm in taking the placement exams. It's always a good idea to cultivate many options. I can't imagine what you find so interesting in it, though, poking around through patches of soil and reading endless streams of orbital data scans. I'd rather sit and listen to Minister Hetra's ramblings for an entire afternoon than have to endure the tedium of producing a survey report.”
Iliana was stunned. Had he just given his permission for her to take the exam? It wasn't that she needed his permission to take the exam. She had already reached the age of emergence, so her instructors were the ones guiding her through the examination process, not her father. But to hear him say it, that he would allow her to study geology, made something boil up into her. A fist formed in the pit of her stomach that no amount of rokassa juice could soothe.
“I have to get to my exam.” Despite the growing tempest in her belly, her voice was devoid of emotion.
“Don't forget about our company tonight,” he called after her. “You'll have to be home early to make preparations, I have to meet with the Minister again.” The Gul made a sour face, which he quickly hid inside his mug. As well meaning as the Minister was, the man had an unwavering devotion to stating every notion that passed through his head, stretching short consultations into hours-long discussions. The man had an innate talent at being irritating, and Toman did not seek his company unless it was absolutely necessary. As it was, there were shortages cropping up in agricultural centers in the outlying regions around the city, a deadly offense if it was done intentionally, and Toman had inserted himself into the investigation, attempting to make himself indispensable to the city government in order to secure a position with the administration. He winced slightly when he realized that it would mean spending more time with Hetra.
“I haven't forgotten,” she replied. “I was planning to stop at the market in Reyal on my way back from the city. They are supposed to have a remarkable selection.” Toman raised a brow at her. “Don't worry! I know how important this visit is to you, I won't buy anything too extraordinary.”
“You should simply call in Hama, she could take care of the cooking while you make the rest of the arrangements.”
“I like cooking.” A second trip to the replicator produced a tray of assorted breakfast foods, which she set on the table. “Now I have to go, the tram will be coming in soon.” She snatched up the nearest piece of toast.
“Just take the skimmer, Iliana, you'll be safer that way. You won't have to wedge yourself into a car full of commoners.”
“I don't mind. Besides, I like watching the people on the trams, it's a lot different from being among our own kind here in Seneret.” She bit off a corner of the toast as she swept her PADDs into her pack.
“It's unseemly,” he grumbled. Iliana leaned over and kissed her father on the cheek as she headed for the door. Before she could escape, he grabbed her by the wrist.
“Iliana, you do know that I only want what's best for you.” His face had softened remarkably, and any ire or disappointment that might have crossed over him before suddenly vanished. A modicum of guilt crept over her, and her shoulders dropped in defeat.
“I know, Daddy.” Her voice was much more subdued than she'd expected. However much they quarreled, he had never given her any reason to doubt his good intentions. She was all he had, of course he wanted to keep her safe.
She had to get away from the house and out into the open air. The tram wouldn't arrive for another half bell, but she didn't want to stay at home. The tension there hung in the air, thick like smoke and it choked her just as easily. “I have to go.” She kissed him on the cheek again and headed toward the door. “I'll see you tonight!”
The Malek home didn't have a formal dining hall. Iliana knew that if her father had truly wanted, he could have made an impressive display for the visiting Legate back at the estate in Terna, where an entire array of staff could have been brought in to make the evening truly spectacular. The Gul had done so plenty of times in the past, especially when he was working on someone that was especially important to the his political ambitions. But instead, Toman had decided that tonight, they would dine in their home, where they were comfortable and at ease. It struck her as a little strange, especially if this visitor meant so much, but Iliana had accepted her father's decision and worked to make the dining area in the townhouse into as formal a space as she could manage. There would only be two guests this evening, so she was grateful not to have the hindrance of a large staff. Having to direct the servants would only have slowed her down in her preparations. Besides, the setting of a formal dinner party was a welcome distraction from the relentless daily examinations and study sessions.
The fine porcelain from Lakarian City was set out with the crystal glasses from her mother's family and the silver service from Culat, and the proper tokens of greeting were set at their guests' places. Deep crimson mekla and crepe-like sakla flowers from the back garden were arranged in a traditional display that was meant to convey strength and loyalty. Everything was set in its proper place, and when she stepped back to examine her work, Iliana was quite satisfied with the result.
Iliana herself had spent the better part of two hours dressing her hair and choosing her clothing. The night was important for her father, so it was equally important to her. She had watched Gul Toman Malek working toward a position in the government since she was a child. There had been an endless stream of high ranking Legates and Ministers through their home for many years, and she was very practiced at how a proper young lady of a family as esteemed as the Malek's should appear and behave. It was on her shoulders to make a good impression of the Gul's ability to command his household. She was his reflection of his ability to lead.
Her hair was swept up in an array of coils and braids with little turin flowers made of folded silk dotted throughout the construction. Her gown was cream and gold and appropriately modest for the daughter of a respected Gul. As a final touch, she added some cosmetics to the proper scales on her neck and brightened the blue of the ridge on her forehead.
When Gul Malek arrived home, his daughter was already dressed and was setting a large silver tray of stuffed leaves on the table. “Oh my, that looks delicious.” He kissed her temple and put his hand on her back. “I didn't think it was the season for kuzal yet.”
“It isn't. There's a vendor in the Reyal district that grows it year-round.”
“Wonderful. Suret will love that, stuffed kuzal is a favourite of his.”
“Suret!” Iliana raised her brows at her father. This was twice today that he'd utterly stunned her. “That's rather informal!”
The Gul chuckled at his daughter. “I have known Suret Jorrel for many years. He may be a Legate, but he is congenial and makes fine company.”
“Oh, fine. If I had known you weren't trying to impress him, I could have dispensed with all the formality and simply served kanar and zabu steaks.”
“Friendship doesn't mean one dismisses protocol, Iliana, you know that. Besides, you've done a very fine job. And you look lovely.”
Iliana couldn't help but smile at her father's compliment. He wasn't a man to give frequent or undeserved praise, and she found herself feeling the same pride in what she'd done as she had when she'd been in her first years of schooling, showing him good marks she'd received on an assignment. Still, it hadn't escaped her notice that he'd failed to ask her about her earlier exam. Of course, it was only geology, why would he bother?
“Go change out of your uniform,” she said, “I've laid out your favourite suit. And be quick, you're a lot later than you said you'd be!”
“I shan't be but a moment.”
The door chime sounded just as the Gul was emerging from his private room, freed of his uniform and dressed in a fine civilian suit of umber and burgundy. He made a slight detour through the dining space and liberated a kuzal leaf from the tray, popping it into his mouth before heading toward the door.
“Oh no! I forgot to get the kanar out of the cellar!” Iliana looked plaintively at her father, who nodded.
“Go quickly, I'll greet our guests.” Iliana disappeared toward the back of the house. Gul Malek tugged on the bottom of his tunic and ran a hand over his hair before pressing the door release.
“Ah, Jorrel, my old friend!” The Gul thumped his palm hard against his friend's hand, and the two men grasped each other by the upper arms, sharing large, enthusiastic smiles with each other.
“Malek, it is wonderful to see you again. Too many years have passed.”
“Please come inside. We have good food and good drink waiting for you.”
“A most welcome greeting indeed!” Legate Jorrel stepped into the house and tipped his shoulder back to reveal a young man standing behind him. “You remember my youngest, Ilari.”
The young man stood rigid and formal just outside the threshold. He seemed to be holding his breath as the Gul gave him a good looking over. His brow creased when his father introduced him, and he gave a small formal bow. “It is an honour to meet you, sir,” he said, still stooped in the stiff bow. The elder Jorrel smiled at his son's unsureness.
“Ilari has just joined the military,” he said proudly, grasping his son by the shoulder. “He'll make an excellent soldier, don't you agree?”
“Oh yes, most definitely, especially if he's anything like you. So that would make you Gil Jorrel, then.” The Gul smiled as the young man straightened his back and lifted his chin, reveling in his new title.
“Yes, sir. I'm looking forward to beginning my service aboard the warship Rakellen in a few months.”
“A fine ship. I'm sure you'll excel in your duties.”
Iliana moved quietly into the room, keeping herself pressed to the wall to stay unobtrusive as she made her way toward the dining room. The empty kanar glasses were still sitting patiently on their tray, waiting for their time to be brought into service. Iliana quietly cursed her forgetfulness and the awkward position she had put herself in. It was customary as the eldest, and in her case only child to greet the guests at the door with her father. Instead she was skulking around in corners like a servant. As quickly as she could, she poured four glasses of kanar and arranged them on the tray before reentering the room in time to hear the party speaking of warships and military service.
“Ah! May I introduce my daughter, Iliana,” the Gul announced. Heat rose into her cheeks, and she quickly lowered her eyes and dipped into a small formal curtsey to mask it.
“It is an honour to meet you, Legate Jorrel.” The Legate stood imposingly tall and wire thin, a man made entirely of angles. To Iliana's surprise, his smile was warm and unassuming, and she immediately felt more at ease with him.
“The honour is mine,” he said, taking one of the glasses from the offered tray. A small sigh of relief escaped her. The Legate had not mentioned her tardiness or made any sign of annoyance, and she would not be the one to bring it up. With the acceptance of the drink by the senior guest, the others followed suit, and Iliana turned away to set the tray on a small table behind her.
When she turned back around, she came face to face with the Legate's son. He was not as intimidatingly tall as his father, nor did he share the man's harsh angularity, but he had his well defined ridges and elegant neck, with its many rows of perfect scales. And unlike his father, who had eyes as deep and dark as tar pits, his were steel blue and sharp as blades, and they sliced through her as though he was dissecting her. She forgot how to breathe.
“I hear that you are taking the placement exams at the National Science Academy.” He didn't break eye contact. She felt captured by him. Heat rose into her face again.
“I...yes...well, I'm going for engineering,” she stammered. Embarrassed, she crinkled her nose and turned away. The Gul's chest inflated with pride at his daughter's small declaration, however poorly articulated. It was not a formal Declaration of Intention, but right now the Gul would gladly take any small morsel he could.
“And she'll make a fine engineer, she has quite the technical prowess,” he boasted. Iliana fixed herself with an appropriate smile and straightened her shoulders, which only served to draw back Ilari's penetrating gaze. It made her feel utterly exposed. She knew that he saw the lie in her expression.
“I will do my best to serve the State. I wish only to serve Cardassia to my fullest ability.” Something in Ilari's eyes flashed, but the effect was so brief and so quickly contained that Iliana could not decipher it.
“That is all any of us can hope for,” the Legate responded, turning to his son. “Ilari has just joined the military to those same ends.”
Iliana raised her glass and smiled at the Gil. “Best of luck to you, Gil Jorrel.” The smile he returned was warm and inviting. He raised his glass in return, and toasted his new friend. From the edge of her vision, Iliana could just see her father, a crease forming in his brow, suddenly losing his smile.
The meal had been abundant and rich, with selections all the way from the capital and fresh game from the local butchery. The party had eaten their fill, talking jovially into the small hours of the night. The two older men sat at the end of the dining table, drinking kanar and revisiting their glory days spent aboard a warship named the Tamarot. Ilari and Iliana sat beside each other, speaking in more subdued tones than their fathers, sharing their stories with each other.
Ilari was the youngest of four brothers. They had all entered the military before him, and he had known from a very young age that it was expected for him to follow suit. He'd been living in Cardassia City for the past six years, attending a highly respected military academy and training for his future as one of Cardassia's fighting men. He would enter as an officer, and never have to endure the cramped accommodations and thin rations of the enlisted class. Of course, the family could have dispensed with the schooling and early training and simply bought a commission for the youngest Jorrel. They had grown rich from agricultural holdings near the DMZ, with large farms scattered over half a dozen foreign planets. Half of the northern continent depended on the Jorrel family to feed its people. The family, though, never actually set foot on their off-world holdings. They had people to handle that sort of thing, and many of the top graduates of Hetla and Terna's agricultural academies were quickly brought in to handle business.
But the Jorrel family valued duty and service. They would not allow any of their sons to simply buy their way into anything. They were expected to earn what they wanted, to prove they were worthy of what they were given. Ilari seemed quite adamant that Iliana understand that he had not been handed his commission, so she nodded and commented on his commitment to make sure he knew that she understood. He had taken a large drink of kanar and sighed heavily.
In turn, she told him of her life growing up in Seneret. Country life was peaceful and uneventful. She had few friends, dedicating her time to study and tending to her father's demands. The brightest moments of her existence occurred in Hetla. She told him of riding the public tram system and speaking to the commuters on board. They were her tether to the outside world, the thing that kept her connected to the rest of Cardassia. As much as she loved her home in Seneret, she felt isolated and detached here, and she thrived off interaction with others. She would play private little games in the city, creating new selves to introduce to others. These shadow people had entire histories and personalities, even little quirks like a tick or a signature. The game was to see how convincing she could be, and for how long.
“It sounds like you are quite adept at your little game.” Ilari narrowed his eyes and smiled mischievously. “Which you am I meeting?”
“The real one,” she confessed. “She's the dullest of the lot.”
She told him of her family. Her mother had died when she had been very young, and though there were holoimages of her all through the house, Iliana herself had no recollection of her. Her father had been devastated at the loss, and had never remarried. As a result, the two were remarkably close. Toman relied on her for comfort and loyalty, and she was utterly dedicated to providing him with a daughter he could be proud of. “Everything I've ever done was to please him,” she told him.
There was a sadness in her tone that she seemed unable to mask. It did not go unnoticed. “And what is it that you want to do, Iliana?” The bluntness of his question was irritating. She was not accustomed to such directness.
“What I want doesn't matter,” she snapped. It had been a mistake, and she knew it instantly. She was giving their guest reason to doubt her commitment.
“You have a strong sense of loyalty, Iliana.” The tone he used made the observation sound important. “Is that reserved solely for your father, or are you as loyal to your other superiors?”
The question hung between them, heavy with an indefinable significance. A chill crept down her spine. This felt like a test. “Loyalty is important.” She faltered. Her answer had sounded childlike and small. She looked down at her plate. “We have to know we have place. That we can always come home again. Without our loyalty, and the loyalty we earn from others, we are outcasts. It's everything.”
“Family is everything,” he corrected. Shame strangled her heart like a fist.
“Yes.” She had retreated, shrunk back into herself. “Family is everything.”
After some hours, the two younger Cardassians had endured the old war stories for as long as they could bear. Ilari finally raised his brow ridges and nodded toward a cozy corner of the main room, pleading silently for them to slip away. For a moment, Iliana eyed their fathers sitting at the opposite end of the table, but they were fully engrossed in their own reminiscing, and as soon as the first strains of an old marching song began leaking out between the mouthfuls of kanar and kuzal, she knew they could leave without interrupting their revelry.
The light of the main room had dimmed to an intimate level in the absence of any occupants. Iliana led the younger Jorrel to her favourite sitting area, an arrangement of overstuffed chairs that she liked to curl up in when she had the free time to read the odd Enigma Tale. Lately, it had become her study space, serving as a comfortable spot in which to memorize the endless streams of data she was expected to recall in her exams.
Ilari watched quietly as Iliana slid easily into her favourite spot and curled her legs up underneath her, her skirt falling to the side to briefly reveal a glimpse of thigh before she quickly tugged her dress back into place. A warmth grew in his stomach as he watched her awkwardly trying to make herself comfortable. It couldn't have been easy under his active attention. She didn't seem to be used to drawing such male consideration.
With a practiced ease, he slid into the chair beside hers and leaned over the arm to speak to her. Instinctively, she leaned away from him, but he smiled benignly and did his best to appear nonthreatening, and she relaxed enough to lean into the soft cushion of the chair and lay her hand on the armrest where he was perched. It was as close to him as she dared to get.
“So, engineering, then? Are you hoping for a position in the State Engineering Corps?”
A shadow fell over her and her muscles tensed in answer to the question. Sensing a misstep, Ilari backpedaled. “I'm sorry, I thought you had said you were studying engineering. I must have misheard.”
Ashamed of her lack of discipline, her eyes instinctively lowered. She should have schooled her emotions better. “No, you heard correctly. It's the field I plan to go into.”
Ilari leaned forward, tentatively brushing his fingertips over the back of her hand and down the length of her fingers. For the second time that night, she forgot how to breathe. “But it's not where your heart lies.” His voice was disarmingly gentle.
“No,” she whispered. It felt dangerous to say aloud. This man was practically a stranger, he had no business knowing this. All he should know was that she was a devoted daughter and a dedicated student. She was betraying her father and his ambitions for her with that single word. She still couldn't breathe, but for an entirely different reason. This man had control of her. A single glance from him could draw the truth from her. There was no denying him. Every part of her knew that he was the most dangerous man she had ever met.
Another compassionate smile. “Another science, then? Geology, perhaps?”
The question alarmed her. How could he know such a thing? Warning bells blared in her mind, and an energetic terror gripped her at her core. Her companion suddenly seemed predatory, leaning in toward her over the arm of his chair like a desert cat waiting to pounce. She had to back off, to somehow fix her horrifying mistake. “All I want is to serve the State to the best of my abilities. I will do that in whatever field I enter.”
The scalpel of Ilari's gaze seemed to penetrate to the very depths her very soul, searching, extracting, evaluating. All she could hear in the pressing silence of the darkened room was her own ragged breathing, punctuated only by the occasional chorus of laughter from the dining area. It seemed wrong that the others could be so jovial when she felt so threatened. Who was this man that had been brought into her quiet house?
The smile on his face never wavered, but a new playfulness suddenly twinkled in his eye. He fell away from his perch, back into the downy cushion of his chair. “But geology? How could you ever enjoy geology? Plodding around in dirt, taking samples, writing mineralogical reports, it's so dull!” The transformation was astounding. He was suddenly all lightness and ease, all sense of menace melted away. His eyes danced as he looked at her, as though he'd just pulled off some fantastic joke at her expense. Her temper flared in response. She did not like being the subject of whatever game he was playing at, and she had no cards to play in response.
“And I suppose marching in formation is so thrilling? And you'll be filling out duty reports every day! That must be terrible for you, to think of doing the same work as a lowly geologist.”
“Daily duty isn't meant to be thrilling, and the reports are necessary to maintain the order of the regiment.”
“Geology isn't meant to be thrilling, either. It's meant to provide resources. My mineral reports will provide the military with the materials it needs to build your ships.” She lifted her chin and raised her brows at him.
Ilari smirked at her smugness. “You aren't playing the game very well. I thought you said you were good at this.”
She felt her face burning. This man was completely infuriating. “You aren't playing by the rules.”
“Am I not? Which rule am I breaking?”
“You know when the game is being played. Most people don't. That's the point.”
He closed what little distance was between them and anchored her eyes with his own. “Shouldn't you be prepared for the possibility that one of your opponents may be on to you? Assuming that you're the only one aware of the game is a grave mistake. You'll get played too easily, and you can't control your emotions well enough to win when that happens. You react too quickly when you're provoked, you forget to think.” He tapped her on the forehead and she swatted his hand away.
“I suppose you're so much cleverer than I am, then.”
“I've known you a few hours and I already know all I need to in order to push your buttons.” Her body slumped. It was true, she'd given him plenty of ammunition to use against her, and she'd volunteered all of it. There had been no coercion, he hadn't had to manipulate or trick her in any way. She was too eager for a connection, and had become a fountain of information.
“Don't worry about it, Iliana.” In a bold move, he wound his fingers through hers and clasped her hand tightly. “Obfuscation is an art, and you have no training in it. With time, I think it's something you could master.” Only half of what he said actually penetrated her mind. She was totally focused on their entwined hands and the audacity of his actions. None of the suitors her father had introduced her to before had been so forward or so blatantly breached the boundaries of propriety.
“Are you offering to be my teacher, then?” Her voice was airy and distant.
“Is that something you'd be interested in?”
All at once, the intimacy of the moment dissolved and she pushed away from him. “What good would it do?” she grumbled, extracting her hand from his grasp. “What possible use could I have for such a skill in a laboratory? Will I have to convince the equipment I'm building that it needs to serve a greater purpose?”
“And what of your purpose? Would you truly be happy locked away in some sterile room with your gadgets and probes and none of the fulfillment you truly seek and need?” He pierced her again with that damnable look of his. It hadn't been an empty boast, he knew exactly which of her buttons to push. There was a purpose behind every word he said to her, that was painfully obvious now. He had been herding her toward some ultimate revelation, one she had not yet reached. But he was a patient man with a large arsenal to use against her. Every movement and word was a seduction, both physically and mentally. And she knew she couldn't outlast him.
“What do you want from me, Jorrel?”
He took her hand again, but her body didn't stir the way it had before. He had exhausted her. He traced the fateline on her palm with the edge of his fingernail, and the sensation made her hand closed around his involuntarily. “There are other ways to serve the State, Iliana. Better ways.”
“I know that.” It was clear from her own voice that she had been drained by his constant assault. Had this been his intention all along, to make her pliable, receptive to whatever scheme he planned to present to her? Why had her father let this man into their lives when he was usually so guarded? Surely he knew this man's character, knew his nature. This could not have been what he wanted for her. Could it?
All her years of school training and preparation flooded back into her mind. There had been no indication, not from her father or her instructors, that she had been meant for anything but a long and quiet life in the sciences. Her father had been quite clear in his intentions – that she should settle down into a career as an engineer and keep the Union running with her machines. She was to stay on Prime, in Hetla, and defer to his guidance if any doubt to her purpose ever arose. No, she decided. This was not a part of the plan. This man and his ideas were an anomaly, an aberration that had gone unforeseen and was unplanned for.
With a renewed resilience, she locked eyes with this interloper. “I'm meant to be an engineer, and that is what I will become. What I want is not important. This is my duty, it is what I am best at and I will fulfill it with dedication and pride.”
Ilari knew he was losing ground. “So you're resolved, then? Engineering for your father, not geology? Prime, not abroad?”
She felt herself waver, and she sought fortitude in her glass of kanar, which had been sitting patiently by for when she needed it. “My father would be very displeased,” she said blandly. She glanced at Ilari, who wore the mask of patience. “Some of the worlds the SGS surveys are dangerous, or they house unfriendly locals. I don't have any siblings, you see.”
And he did see. Family obligations weighed heavily on the shoulders of ordinary Cardassians, but the burden on an only child was often overwhelming. The continuation of the bloodline was a primary concern for every family, from the lowest service drone to the most high-born aristocrat, and the Malek family, which had endured for centuries and was as old as the Union itself, could not be extinguished. Right now, the Malek flame was flickering and dim. The slightest breeze could snuff it out, leaving a gap in the delicately balanced hierarchy of Seneret and Hetla. It was no small thing to be so encumbered with such responsibility.
The gravity of her family obligation had been weighing on her shoulders ever more in the past year. She'd reached marriageable age at her last birthday, and ever since then her father had been making less than subtle attempts at matchmaking. The frequency of parties at the Malek house had increased dramatically, and she was sure that she'd met every eligible son of every successful Legate and administrator on the whole of Prime. Ilari's presence here tonight was certainly not unintentional, and while she questioned his motives and found him to be exasperating, she also found an ease with him that she had not experienced with the other suitors that had been paraded through the house. She had told him truths that she'd never even spoken aloud. Whatever else he might be, he was now her confessor and her confidant.
Sensing the sudden shift in Iliana's mood, Ilari reached out and placed his hand atop hers. “I'm sure your father just wants to know you're safe. You're all he has, after all.”
She pulled her hand away abruptly and sprang to her feet. “I don't need to be reminded of that!” she hissed. “I don't need you to point out my situation, I'm well aware of the position I'm in!” She crossed her arms and turned away.
Ilari sat on the edge of the chair and looked up at the agitated woman. “So is that why you're so keen to run off? You want to get away from the pressure from your father, from your duties to your family?”
Iliana spun around wearing a glare that could melt a bulkhead. “No! That's not it at all! I'm not running off, abandoning my duties, how dare you!” There was a burning heat rising in her veins. It was one thing to point out her unhappiness, to prod her with her own discontent. This was something else. He was suggesting that she would shirk her responsibilities to her family for her own self-gratification. He was suggesting that she was disloyal to her father. That she was a bad Cardassian. It was an unforgivable insult. Tears stung at her eyes. “How dare you!”
Ilari knew that he had gone too far. This was not their playful banter of before. There was a fiery, hate filled energy coming off of her in waves that made him feel off-balance, and he had to physically move away to regain his footing. He was losing her. “Wait, please,” he said, standing to look at her on an even level. “I didn't mean to upset you, I'm sorry.” He placed his hands on her shoulders, her muscles tensing at his touch. “Please, sit back down with me.”
She swallowed hard and swiped at the forming tears. “My father has worked hard to get me where I am. I'm grateful for that. I'm not running away.” Part of her knew that his words wouldn't have hurt nearly as much if they hadn't been in some way true. Perhaps if she was somewhere else, some other world, some other system, she might find some manner of peace.
“I'm sorry I said that, I overstepped my bounds.” áHe took a step toward her, and she felt his energy stretch out and envelop her. A warmth came over her that she didn't expect, and she felt the anger draining out of her. The receding tide of emotion left a pit in her chest that felt hollow and deep, her entire body seemed weakened. If he hadn't been holding her, she was sure she would have collapsed. He ushered her to the chair he'd been occupying and sat her down firmly in the cushion before joining her in the seat.
“You still meant it,” she said softly. When she closed her eyes to collect herself, she felt him lean in and kiss her on her temple. The action destroyed any sense of decorum that remained between them. She belonged to him.
Ilari studied his companion's face. “I don't think you're nearly as upset with me as you think you are.”
“Oh really? And you suddenly know my moods and thoughts so well?” It was a childish rebuttal, and one he'd already countered. He knew her better than her own father, and they'd spent only a few hours in each others' company.
“I think you're very unhappy.”
All the muscles in her body tensed, and her brow furrowed. It seemed like she was about to argue with him again, proclaim her devotion to her chosen path and defend herself once more. “Of course I'm unhappy,” she whispered. “My life has been decided for me, I've had no say in it. I've tried to be a good daughter, to be what my father wants of me, but it's miserable living someone else's life.” She looked out the window toward the fading lights of the town. “I just want to do something that is mine. Not his.”
An almost imperceptible change came over Jorrel's face. His eyes had narrowed slightly, the ends of his mouth had stretched minutely with an inner satisfaction. Iliana's tone had become quite serious, and he took the opportunity presented. “You shouldn't be telling me this, Iliana. You barely know me.” Her body rocked with a heavy sigh, and for a moment he was acutely aware of how closely their bodies were pressed together.
“I just want to do something important. Really important. For Cardassia. I don't think my father understands exactly how much that means to me.”
“I understand it.” It was not a platitude. Despite his other obligations, he had felt bound to follow his father and brothers into the military, just as she felt shackled to her familial duties and her father's ambitions. Both of them had been raised to consider service to the State as their highest goal, and both of them wanted to do it differently than had been ordained by their parents.
He had known her heart before he had entered the house. All of her test scores in her placement exams indicated a dedication to her studies and a clear focus on any topic she studied. She would do what was necessary to reach whatever goal was placed before her, and she would eagerly and willingly learn any subject she was necessary to achieve her ends. She was young and na´ve, but it meant she could be molded and shaped into whatever was needed of her, a fact that her father was taking full advantage of. The Gul was no fool, he would not let such a malleable subject go to waste.
In his weeks watching and studying her, Jorrel had come to know her mind. He had watched her play her games with the residents of Hetla, creating the characters she wore like a garment and played with whenever the whim struck her. He had seen the satisfaction she felt at a successful deception. Invariable, the game ended in sadness, whether she had won or lost, because it meant returning to Seneret. As the trams rumbled closer to her home in the country, he had watched from a comfortable distance as the spark she displayed in the city slowly bled away, until she was a dim shadow of herself upon reaching her seaside home. It was only just before she entered her home that she donned the mask of the happy and dutiful daughter again, loping inside to merrily greet her father as though all were lovely and right. Every day the shadow lingered a little longer, and the spark faded a little more quickly. All his observations had formed the portrait of a girl who wanted escape, who was gripped by a deep and well hidden melancholy that she was quickly losing her ability to control. He had pushed her as close to the brink as he dared tonight. It was time to strike before he went too far.
“Iliana,” he said tentatively, “what if there was a way for you to serve the State that would benefit the whole of Cardassia?” áHe lowered his head, casting his entire face into shadow in the dim light. From underneath his brow ridges, he watched for her reaction. The light caught the weariness in her eyes, the drawn look that only came from deep emotional turmoil. The emptiness in her was at its peak, and he knew just how to fill it.
“What are you talking about, Jorrel?”
He took her by the hand and ran his fingertip along the lines in her palm. The lightest sigh escaped her. “What if you could go into the field, work hands-on on projects, and bring invaluable information back to Prime?” He unfolded her fingers like leaves and planted a kiss in the center of her palm before folding her hand up in his own. “The work you could do could save Cardassian lives. You'd be protecting our way of life, the very things that make us Cardassian. You may be away from Prime, or even the entire Cardassian system, but you'd be serving the entire Union.”
Iliana leaned in toward him, her eyes widening. The weary clockwork of her mind began clicking the pieces of the puzzle into place – the assessment of her loyalty, his encouragement of her little lair's games, his constant goading, forcing her into unplanned confessions of misery. But he couldn't be suggesting such a path, not to the daughter of Gul Toman Malek.
She did not encourage him to continue, but she was not repulsed either, as so many would have been. After all, it was a dirty business he was suggesting getting into. Hardly the ideal situation for the only child of such a privileged family. But whatever misgivings she might have had were too quiet in her mind, and when she thought of her own objections, they were in her father's voice and not her own. There was a new light dancing in her eyes, the spark he'd seen her exhibit only when she was truly excited, which told her in no uncertain terms, You have her.
“You can't be suggesting...Jorrel, it's lunacy. It's too dangerous! My father will never allow it.”
He could hear the thrumming of her heart as though it was crashing against the wall of her chest, so loud he thought the others would come from the other room to see about the noise. She was aglow, her body shaking with anticipation, all fatigue washed away with this new elation, and the room seemed brighter she she shone up at him. He was completely lost in the sound of her breath and the heaving of her chest. It took concerted effort to keep himself from pulling her into a passionate embrace.
He brushed the hair away from her ear and leaned in, placing a single, lingering kiss on her jawline. The silence of the room seemed to swallow them both. “He doesn't matter anymore, Iliana,” he whispered, attempting to preserve the stillness of the moment. “He has no more sway over the course of your life. From now on, your path is your own.”
It was only half a lie. The path she was setting on may have been one of her own choosing, but it was one he had guided her to. He had set the mechanisms in motion months ago, maneuvering not only her, but her father and her advisers like kotra pieces until they were poised to bring him to his goal. And now she belonged to him. And soon, she'd belong to the Obsidian Order.
This story is intended to flesh out the background of my RP character, Iliana Malek, and what led her to joining the Obsidian Order. The approximate date of her recruitment by Jorrel is 2355. I've placed the Age of Emergence (also when Cardassians are considered to be of marriageable age) at 15 years old, which would make Iliana between 15 and 16 in this chapter. The events in this story take place in the prime universe, during the age of the Cardassian-Federation border wars.
All characters are original to me, and do not appear in Trek canon or official Treklit.
A huge thank-you to for acting as my sounding board and helping me with edits and revisions.
All characters are original to me, and do not appear in Trek canon or official Treklit.
A huge thank-you to for acting as my sounding board and helping me with edits and revisions.
Wah, that first scene reminded me how my mother stormed into my room to yell that I wasn't studying but doing something stupid... only to discover I was reading a history book for a history class assignment.
So, that's how Iliana met Ilari...
So, that's how Iliana met Ilari...
I wanted to show how young and easily drawn in Iliana was when he recruited her. She had an idea of what he was doing, but she has no idea the extent of his manipulations. (Even I'm only beginning to figure out just how devious Ilari really was. He's becoming a much darker figure as I flesh him out than I originally thought he was. o.o )
You are very welcome, amiga
Well... what can I say? I stay by my statement: It reminds me a lot of a treklit book - only without poorly-developed, one scene-only, side-characters XD
I'll look forward for reading the rest!
Well... what can I say? I stay by my statement: It reminds me a lot of a treklit book - only without poorly-developed, one scene-only, side-characters XD
I'll look forward for reading the rest!
Thank you again, my friend. The next chapter is coming to me slowly, so it might take a bit longer to send you the next bit. But, they're moving me to a much slower section of the store that I work at, so hopefully I'll have a chance to tinker with some ideas in the next few weeks.