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“I sort of rather like the fellow. I think he’s the kind of man that really goes out of his way when needs be. Even looks like he could take a bloody bullet if it came to that,” the general said while handpicking deliciously-looking morsels of meat from the buffet arrayed out in front of him, as if it had been arranged for his pleasure alone.

Suddenly, he turned to face his aide-de-camps, always three footsteps behind him, his medals, decorations, citations and merits dangling and jiggling with the equivalent effect of a dancing fool laden with bells and whistles.

“What do you think of the man, Ure?” said the general, holding a saucy meatball in one hand and a small cheese pie in the other.

“I think my opinion is irrelevant, sir. You seem to like the man, no matter what everyone else in High Command says. Is my place by your side threatened, sir?”, Ure Bouvet, the general’s aide-de-camps asked with a blinding smile, as if his career in the military depended on it; in fact, it did.

“Nonsense Ure, and you know it! I said the man could take a bullet for me, but he seems to attract an awful lot of them, especially after the incident in Manhigure. Besides, you know my taste in buffets all too well by now,” General Ramit said and downed a small confection to punctuate the fact that he thought of Trecibal Ure as a masterful culinary tactician, which happened to be an appreciated talent in the higher echelons of the military.

“Thank you, sir. Still, you have to do something about him, sir. Perhaps offer him some sort of ah, contract? Or provide a charter of leeway? Legitimise his actions in the eyes of the world, sir.”

General Ramit looked to ponder about something. It was difficult to say whether his mind was preoccupied with what Ure had proposed about the infamous Bel-Phon Affair, or the subtle choice he had to make between torto shells and gris-mas tarts. At length, he picked up a skewer of ortelot meat, a quality-assured fallback when it came to exotic buffets such as this one.

The hubbub in the grand ballroom started to build up as more and more guests arrived and were announced ceremoniously, the general waving acknowledgements to people he could barely identify at such a distance even if he knew them in person, however unlikely that may have been.

“Who are these people, Ure? Anyone important I should care to ingratiate myself with?”, the general asked his aide, glancing at a throng of excessively overdressed people that seemed to be what passed as important at these parts of the Empire.

“Well, there is Vice-Governor Anewilliad, Prince Regent Rewevelde, the Conglomerate East representative De Burgess – a crafty devil if I may add so sir – and they all seem to be ogling over Ms. Dirae, the glamorous performer with the exceptionally long list of publicised affairs,” Ure grinned shamelessly. Extending his mental heel-clicking to the real world, he lightly bounced on the heels of his boots, imperceptibly swinging to and fro like a toy soldier.

“Ms. Dirae, you don’t say? Pray tell dear Ure, what does she perform?”, the general asked using his tongue as the most immediately available toothbrush, curling his moustache at an impossibly steep angle, fixing his gaze on the impressive lady like a sniper on his mark.

“Largest repertoire this side of the spiral arm, or so I hear sir,” Ure stood at ease next to the general, an imperceptible air of lasciviousness permeating his words. It sounded as if the mere sight of the woman aroused him, in every sense of the word.

“I always had a soft spot for the arts, Ure. Think it’s time to indulge myself?”, the general asked without for a moment taking his eyes off the madame in question. He even put down a crab cake without bothering to finish eating it.

“I think you have made up your mind, sir. You seem committed to action now,” Ure said, positively brimming with enthusiasm as if a great city wall was about to be breached, ending a war and saving a planet.

“Indeed I have!” said the general. He patted his mouth gently with a napkin and nonchalantly tossed it on the floor, hurrying to meet Ms. Dirae with large, parade-like strides, right about when a deafening shrilling sound with the reverberating qualities of a train wreck filled the ballroom. The chatter suddenly stopped, and so did the band. The people in the crowd exchanged confused glances, right before the first shell landed at an uncomfortably close distance, the great glass observation panes offering a splendid view. Along with a burst of flames, thick red clouds of dirt and smoke, the crowd reflexively erupted in panic and disarray while the rest of the barrage started to fall.

“Talk about bad timing sir!”, Ure yelled above the mounting din, while scrambling to get both himself and the general to their carriage with an even number of extremities still attached to their bodies. As he motioned to the befuddled guardsmen to make way for them through the crowd, he could see the terrified guests bump onto each other, running wild like headless chicken.

“I thought the damn Dusikos could not bear artillery on Ciriad, especially not the First Quarter!”, the general exclaimed before calmly picking up his cap and arms. He took a fleeting look at the grand ballroom, eyes narrow but unfocused. He added while straightening his cap:

“Think this place will still be standing in the morning, Ure?”

“It’s only a ballroom sir. Not that important in my opinion, sir,” replied Ure while leading the way.

“I was talking about the city, Ure,” retorted the general, looking far more grave than when his immediate concern had been the intimate knowledge of Ms. Dirae’s repertoire.

Ure remained silent while navigating through the mayhem of the hapless crowd. Guardsmen and naval officers on duty tried to maintain some sort of composure, shouting evacuation guidelines to people that only read about artillery barrages in the papers. Fortunately, the needlessly large, ornate gates had been left wide open; a deeply ingrained sense of etiquette and manners rather than frosty calmness had prevented a truly wild stampede, no casualties so far. General Ramit shouted to Major Ure in order to be heard:

“Now, we must not set a bad example Ure. Calmly escort me to the exit, no need for an alarm.”

Ure had been the General’s aide since the start of the campaign on Dusik nine months ago, long enough to understand that the General was a peculiar man, but certainly he hadn’t sounded as daft ever before:

“But, sir! They are shelling us!”

The General smiled reassuringly as he smoothed his white gloves:

“If they had, we’d be dead already. There’s time enough to get to our carriage. Let’s not add to the panic.”

Trecibal nodded reflexively and kept pressing through the mass of people, unwilling to voice his objections while artillery shells kept exploding nearby at a steady rate.

They were soon outside in the courtyard; the streaks of incoming shells painted a thin impressive grid in the mauve sky, while explosions near and afar lit up the dusk with fiery undertones. The harrowing sound of incoming large bore missiles, like skytrains passing by overhead was deafening. People all around were fleeing, on foot, horseback, or car, and even military personnel seemed at a loss, uncertainty emblazoned across their faces.

Ure spotted their carriage; their driver was signalling frantically for them to run, rather than walk.

The General did not seem to be in a hurry, though. Ure reached the carriage first and opened the door for the General; he could hear the driver mumble some sort of prayer or perhaps a curse, gnawing at his teeth nervously. They exchanged a couple of knowing looks, before the General finally got inside. He shouted with a practiced air of authority:

“Field Command, my boy!”

Sighing with relief, the driver let loose the horses, always eager to run away from the exploding shells falling around them in precarious quantities.

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