Along the entire length of the Promenade, the shops sparkled with gleaming ornaments, colorful lights, and glittering bits of tinsel. Even the Bajoran merchants had put up Christmas decorations, although they knew next to nothing about the holiday, in the hope that a few more customers could be parted from their latinum. Apparently this was having some effect; the Promenade bustled with cheerful shoppers, many of them wearing holiday-themed clothing, and a lively buzz of conversation carried up to the railing where I stood alone.

I could pick Ziyal out of the crowd easily, not so much by her bright red silk dress but, rather, by her confident stride as she walked from one shop to another, chatting and laughing with Garak. A new earring, Bajoran-style, gleamed against her dark hair. There was nothing to betray the hardship of her earlier life; she could have been any well-to-do young woman out for a stroll, enjoying the company of an older admirer.

And that, of course, was what I had intended when I gave Garak most of my savings to pay him for creating a wardrobe of lovely custom-made clothes for Ziyal. She could have gotten something functional enough from the replicator, but I thought that after a childhood in rags, she deserved better. Anyway, what else was I going to do with my salary on Deep Space Nine? Buy Christmas decorations for the barren little rooms I called my quarters and try to pretend I wasn’t so alone? Drink myself into maudlin self-pity at Quark’s bar?

Spying snake that he was, Garak had good skills as a tailor, even I had to admit that. The dress flowed beautifully over Ziyal’s curves, accentuating her lithe young figure. She turned heads all along the Promenade as she made her way through the crowd. I closed my eyes and, for a moment, I still saw an afterimage of Ziyal’s red dress, sparkling in my mind like the brightest of all Christmas decorations.

No doubt Ziyal believed that I was wealthy and a bit on the eccentric side, giving her expensive clothing and jewelry out of kind-hearted benevolence. The more perceptive officers on Deep Space Nine thought that I saw in Ziyal a reflection of my own childhood experiences in the camps. That guess came much closer to the mark, and I had spent a great deal of time trying to convince myself that there was nothing more. And it went without saying that, even if I had not borne the responsibility of being her mentor and thus obliged to act honorably toward her, there could be nothing more between a high-ranking Bajoran officer and Gul Dukat’s half-caste daughter.

I looked down at the Promenade again and saw Ziyal walking briskly away from where I stood. All of her attention was on Garak, and she never noticed me at all. She laughed and smiled as the two of them carried on a very animated conversation.

Whatever Garak’s other faults, I believed that he was responsible and mature enough to avoid any improper entanglements with Ziyal. He would be a pleasant companion for her walks around the station, and he would refrain from any behavior that might take advantage of Ziyal’s inexperience and loneliness.

He would not gaze lovingly into her eyes, kiss her moist lips, caress her yielding body, or hear the soft sighs of her pleasure.

And neither would I.

At the far end of the Promenade, the red dress blurred into a misty haze of multicolored Christmas lights and sparkling tinsel strands. I brushed the back of my hand roughly across my eyes and turned away. Drinking myself into maudlin self-pity at Quark’s bar was starting to look like a better option all the time.