Roumar entered the orbit around Amarat and Jarol waited in the transporter room for the prefect and two more people.
She didn't expect what she saw. Two tall and one very short bipeds materialised on the pad. The short one was maybe one metre tall, all furry and reddish-green, he – or she – wore a heavy coat covered by colourful patterns and lots of jewellery, mostly chains. On the alien's head rested a strange hat, made of some kind of shiny metal.
“Gul Jarol,” the prefect spoke. “Let me introduce you to First King of Amarat, Zzarriss.”
She nodded her greeting, hoping her astonishment wasn't obvious.
“This is Glinn Dok, my aide,” Moskalt gestured to the Cardassian, who accompanied them. The Glinn nodded his greeting to her.
“Let me express my greatest gratitude,” the king's voice was low and slightly fricative. She was glad the translator worked. “We are in danger and we need your support.”
She glanced at Brenok, who was also present in the transporter room. This was not what she had thought she'd see. Was her expectation twisted by her service on Terok Nor and her experiences with Bajorans? This man didn't look rebelled at all.
Or was he a... how did Bajorans call such people? A collaborator?
“We will do everything in our power to protect you,” she assured him.
He showed his fangs. Was it a smile? It looked more like a threat, but the prefect patted king's shoulder, so seemed like it was an amicable expression. A smile then. Showing all the king's sharp teeth.
“Shall we proceed to the briefing room?” she said.
She headed for the exit with their guests following her and Brenok closing the group as it's tail.
“Gul Moskelt, what can you tell me about Amaratians,” she said. It wasn't only a polite way to ask about his job, she was genuinely curious.
“Amaratians are interesting people, Gul Jarol. Their culture is rich and fascinating. They have unique writing system, ah, several actually. The planet never unified, so the king here is a representative of the nation that welcomed Cardassian rule.”
“What about the others?” she asked, wondering if her initial assumptions weren't as wrong as she now thought.
“Well, we have some problems with them from time to time, but those are internal matters of Amaratians. We just help them in dealing with them.”
“Amassans are the problem, esteemed Gul,” spoke the king, bowing low. “But with your valuable help we can keep them in line and solve the problems they cause. It gives us work force, so needed in mines, and brings unity to whole planet.”
“Work force?” she repeated.
They entered the briefing room, so she gestured for everyone to sit.
“Yes, someone must work in mines,” Zzarriss confirmed. “We, Samaans, are not good for this. We are noble born people. They are good for work. It always was like this.”
Jarol caught Brenok's disgusted face expression.
“Do I understand right?” she looked at the prefect. “You support one nation and help them enslave another?”
“Enslave is too strong word, Gul Jarol. They are at war. They have always been. We just help one side – the side that supports us – to finally defeat the other side. The unity on the planet would bring long lost peace for everyone there.” He leaned toward her and said in a low voice. “And more resources for us.”
“Why did you ask for more people?”
“We not only arm and train them. We also send our soldiers to fight by their side. That assures victory.”
She leaned back in her chair. So it was another Bajor. And its prefect seemed to be very proud of his 'cleverness'.
“What is the other nation's attitude toward us?” she asked.
“Well, they fear us, rightly so.”
She looked at the king. Little, furry, mammalian being. Why did she have an impression that under all this fur it was slimy, wriggling like a mud worm? Yuck!
“We will do our duty and protect you from the Tzenkethi, as you are part of Cardassian Union, however some changes will have to be applied,” she said.
“What changes?” Moskelt asked, clearly not happy. True, she had no power over him, actually her rank was lower, but she knew someone with a rank and position, which would let him issue Moskelt orders. She just needed to convince Daset she was right. He was a reasonable man.
“You will discuss it with Gul Daset at later time. For now let's concentrate on our immediate problem of invasion,” she said.
She knew it was a long shot. She had no idea Daset would support her, so it would be better not to say anything to Mosklet, but she couldn't stand his self-satisfied smile. She glanced at Dok. The Glinn's face was unreadable; whatever he thought, he kept it to himself.
It was quiet on the bridge. Jarol hated waiting. She hated waiting for a battle, but even more waiting and not knowing if there would be any battle at all.
First Tzenkethi ships were in range of their sensors. Orbital weapon platforms were ready and Jarol positioned Roumar close to main power source asteroid to protect it, in case the enemy knew how to disarm the planet's main defence system.
But the Tzenkethi stopped and were not entering the system. What were they waiting for? Reinforcements? Or they didn't expect any Cardassian presence and hesitated, not sure they should or shouldn't attack.
So she waited. It was already a few hours and her patience was almost gone. She feared she would decide to attack them, tired of endless waiting. It was a Cardassian territory, so she had the right to attack, correct? No? She wasn't sure. Normally no one in Central Command would tell her she broke any protocol, as technically she could do what she saw fit, but in the warship's current state it would be equal to suicide and she had no intention of killing her own crew. Good crew.
“They're on the move!” Karama reported. He sounded excited. She knew no one here feared fighting. They were brave crew too.
“Zamarran, how are we?”
“Looking menacing,” he said. “The shields would hold for some time, but I will have to keep an eye on power source and redistribute it as necessary manually.”
“How much can we take?”
“Not much, Gul.”
“Sir, I detect eight Galor class warships coming out of warp near the system,” Ma'Kan reported excitedly. Or maybe it was happiness in her voice.
“Tell them to position themselves in the hutet
formation behind us,” Jarol ordered.
“Yes, sir,” the Dja replied immediately.
“Screen on,” the Gul barked and Karama activated the screen.
Tzenkethi ships were closing. They were smaller than Galors, but she knew it didn't mean weaker. Their hostile neighbours were known as formidable enemies and dangerous warriors. She leaned forward on the edge of her chair, putting one leg farther forward for better balance.
The Tzenkethi stopped and hanged in the vacuum of space, as if they were observing the Cardassians. Eight Galors joined the one near the planet, but did nothing more than that. Both formations hang there, not moving, waiting, expecting, ready for the other to make the first move. None of them wanted to make that move.
Jarol stood and made one step forward. Her muscles were tensed, she was aware of her chest filling the armour with each breath, trying to control the speed of her breathing. She worried the Tzenkethi had something hidden up their sleeve and in spite of her best efforts they would surprise her unpleasantly.
“Sir,” Ma'Kan's voice startled her in spite of its softness. “We just received orders from Legate Ahal.” She paused to read off her screen. “He orders us to withdraw. Take as many Cardassians off the planet and withdraw.”
“'Withdraw' as give the planet to Tzenkethi in case they decide to attack, instead of just looking into our pretty eyes?” Jarol asked.
She turned back to the screen to look at the enemy.
“Sir,” Ma'Kan asked quietly, as if she was ashamed to disturb the silence on the bridge. “What do we do?”
“We stand,” Jarol said calmly, but firmly. No way she would abandon those furry people and leave them to... what did Tzenkethi look like anyway?
“Yes, sir,” the Dja confirmed. Jarol searched doubt in her voice, but heard none. Good. She still had to fully test the girl for her plans, but everything looked promising so far.
“Sir, they move,” Brenok reported.
Her eyes glued to the screen. The enemy ships broke their formation and... started moving away.
“Is it just me or the sensors say the same?” she asked.
“They seem to have plotted course back to their space,” Ma'Kan said.
“Hold your positions,” Jarol ordered and Karama passed the order to other ships.
She kept the ships in formation for one hour after the Tzenkethi left and were beyond their sensors range. Then she ordered four to stay on the orbit and sent the other four back to their patrol territory.
“Karama, get me Gul Daset,” she said, heading for her office.
“Sir, Legate Ahal wants to talk to you,” Karama turned to her.
“Ignore him. Get me Daset as soon as possible.”
She sat at her desk and waited for the connection. Daset's face expression was far from happy.
“Ahal is furious,” he said.
“So am I. I told you he is a bad commander and he would give wrong orders. And so he did.”
“And now you want me to protect you.”
“I'll deal with him myself.”
“So why did you want to talk to me?”
“I need you to order Gul Moskalt to stop interfering in internal Amaratian matters.”
“Tell him to stop arming one side. Tell him to help them make peace. Not by one side being conquered by the other one, but by co-operation and talks. Make it work.”
“Are you ordering me?” he actually sounded amused.
She closed her face to the screen.
“You want new, strong Cardassia? Amaratians are friendly. At least some of them. Let's make them all friendly. We just saved their asses from the Tzenkethi. In spite of our orders. Let's not lose it. Do something about it. Use the opportunity. And if you don't care about this aspect, look at it from another side: wouldn't you rather have all those men on Cardassia, helping in rebuilding process, instead of fighting someone else's civil war?”
Daset inclined his head to one side and stared at her for a long while.
“Damn, Jarol, I smell Brenok's work here.”
She didn't react, didn't speak, didn't even change her face expression.
“What's your answer?” she asked flatly.
“Fine. I'll do what you suggest,” he raised both his hands, palms toward her, like giving up.
She let herself a weak smile.
“Is that all?” he asked.
She nodded and he disconnected.
“Splendid,” she muttered to herself. She pressed her wristcomm. “Ma'Kan, report to my office.”
The young officer entered a few seconds later.
“Ma'Kan, how is your practice in the holosuite?”
“Progressing, sir. However the changing circumstances make it difficult to achieve the result you have set up for me.”
“Real life is unpredictable. You have to be ready for anything.”
“What does it mean, Gul? Do I practice sniper skills for a real assignment?”
Jarol wondered if to tell her now. No. It's too early. She wasn't even sure of the girl's loyalty, she definitely couldn't reveal her plans yet.
“Keep practising. I will add a new program soon.”
“Understood,” the Dja straightened her back.
“Return to the bridge.”
She turned on her heel and left.
It was third time Brenok did not come to their dinner and she wondered why. Those dinners became a kind of habit: once a week they ate together and it was the third week in a row he didn't appear without saying anything. He could be busy, she knew, helping Zamarran in the engineering, but was notifying her such a trouble?
“Jarol to Brenok,” she said tapping her wristcomm.
There was no answer. She tried one more time and then decided to pay him a visit – again. Would she see shaking hands again? She had seen shaking hands once and she knew what it meant. Was the reason here the same? Or was it his pain he claimed he felt. She had gone to ask the medic and he'd told her the same thing he'd told Brenok: it wasn't real.
“Come,” said Brenok's voice on the other side of the door, answering to the chime.
She entered to see him sitting with a holopicture in one hand and a bottle of kanar in the other. He didn't even bother to use a glass.
“I knew it was you,” he said, not even looking at her.
“If you knew it was me, why didn't you hide the bottle?” she asked.
“You came here as my friend, or as my commanding officer?”
“So there's no need to hide the bottle,” he said grimly.
The holopicture – it was his daughter sitting in his wife's lap.
“Arenn, I know you suffer, but...”
“I don't want to talk about it,” he said dismissively, cutting her off.
“Even to me?”
“And who are you to be any different?!” he snapped, looking up at her.
Her eye ridges raised in astonishment, but she didn't say anything.
“Get out!” he shouted, leaning forward and almost dropping the holopicture. She realised he was drunk.
“Glinn Brenok, I expect you to be ready for duty tomorrow morning. After your duty tomorrow you will report to the infirmary for full check up.” She wanted to say that if the medic would find something wrong with him, she would dismiss him, but she feared the medic would
find something and she would be forced to act upon her own threat... and she didn't want to.
He only glared at her. “You know where the door is,” he grumbled.
Her eyes flashed with anger, but the feeling quickly subsided. She knew he suffered and she worried about him. She wasn't sure how she could help him, but she knew she had to do something. Drowning his pain in kanar was no solution.
Instead of returning to her quarters, she decided to head for lower decks. She knew Ma'Kan was training the troops; she wanted to talk to the young tactician and could also inspect how the young woman dealt with militia troops, who were everything, but gentle. She still remembered the first time she had to train them: she was older, but very nervous. She had to gain their respect and submissiveness, she had to become authority for them and they had to trust her judgement. Now, as their Gul, she probably knew the lower deck troops better than any Gul in the fleet, unless their path to the command chair was similar – through tactical.
She entered the gym and stopped by the door, looking for the tactical officer. She couldn't spot her anywhere and just started wondering if the troops were left alone with orders to practice, when she noticed that Ma'Kan was in front of the long jogging line – she led
Jarol smiled inwardly. Why didn't she even think about it? Ma'Kan had a great idea to simply join the men in their exercises, be with them, not just issue orders. She stood, observing the practice. Athletic men, their chests bare, muscles working under their scales and their Order tattoos visible below their left collar bone ridge and above ribs ridges. They looked astonishing: precision, discipline, strength, all the best in a Cardassian soldier.
Ma'Kan noticed her; she said something to the troop leader, who was directly behind her, and then slowed, breaking the formation. She approached Jarol.
“Sir, I didn't expect an inspection.”
“It is not an official inspection,” the Gul said. “I wanted to ask how is your other practice.”
“It is progressing, sir.”
“You have to be ready next month,” Jarol said.
“Already?? I am not sure it's enough time.”
“Make it enough time. Use all your spare time. You will be paid accordingly,” Jarol was ready to give the Dja her own monthly pay to have this done.
Ma'Kan said nothing.
“Dja, I you can't do it, I have to know it now.”
“I can do it, sir,” the officer replied crisply.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir, I am sure.”
“Good. Proceed,” Jarol nodded toward the troops. The Dja joined them and the Gul observed the exercises for a while longer and then returned to her quarters. She needed to talk to Brenok the next day.
“I still don't understand why you wanted me to get invitations for us,” Brenok said, sitting in his place. Jarol sat next to him. “That would give them an impression I think about their offer, while I don't.”
“I want to hear what they have to say.”
“Why?” he was surprised. “You don't agree with their reasoning and more than I do. And why did you bring Ma'Kan?” he looked around. “I can't see her now. Where did she go?”
“Don't worry about her. She's nearby, she has a job to do.”
“Oh, does she. Well, I expect it to be one boring evening.”
Brenok had been very surprised, when she asked him to secure two invitations for the Directorate meeting. He asked why she wanted to come, but she gave him some dismissing answer. He was clueless.
Legate Parn's speech was long, colourful and... boring. He spoke, and spoke, talking about Cardassia's glory and bringing that glory back, but didn't say anything on the subject of how to bring that glory back. Jarol's face expression clearly showed what she though about this speech – she smirked and observed the obese Legate with a contempt in her eyes.
Daset was next. He seemed to be one of the youngest delegates. He spoke of needs of Cardassia. He thanked people, who were helping in the rebuilding process.
Then it was Ahal's turn. When he entered the stage and took his place by the podium, Jarol smiled devilishly. Was it satisfaction on her face?
Suddenly Ahal collapsed. Jarol's hands moved slightly and Brenok caught her touching gently her wristcomm. It could be an accidental move of her hands, but something was telling him it wasn't, he had an impression she sent a command somewhere. He looked at the stage, seeing crowd gathering around the podium. He couldn't see Ahal.
Jarol stood up. It was done.