General Maada kicked the conference hall’s door open.
The four guards stationed inside the hall made no attempt to stop the general. They saluted, stared ahead and avoided eye contact.
“Wise choice,” growled Maada. “I am certain you remember what happened the last time I stormed this hall.”
The officer in charge, trepidation written all over his face, approached Maada. “General, with all due respect, His Highness is in the middle of an important meeting—”
Maada did not even bother to look at him. He drew his sidearm and shot the officer in the foot. The man made no sound. He folded, grabbed his foot and toppled to the floor. The smell of burned flesh filled Maada’s nostrils. The guards did not move an inch and made no attempt to help their superior officer.
Deep inside Maada’s brain, Crown Prince Mushgaana’s voice said, “That was a bit too much.”
Maada’s anger coiled in his stomach. He had repeatedly asked Mushgaana to stay out of his head. He felt violated when Mushgaana, or any other members of the uniquely talented royal family, entered his mind and read his intimate thoughts.
Clenching his fists, Maada approached a big table in the middle of the conference hall, where Mushgaana and five high-ranking diplomats who had just arrived from Tangaar were sitting. He ignored everyone and addressed the prince. “I have just heard you have accepted the Akakies’ peace proposal.”
Mushgaana frowned. “Yes, I did.”
“This is stupid,” said Maada, raising his voice. “Have you lost your mind? We have the initiative now. We must push forward until we reach Kanoor.”
One of the diplomats, a well-dressed young woman, sprung out of her seat. “You dare address His Highness in this manner?”
Maada glared at the woman. Nobody talked to him like that. His hand was moving towards his sidearm when another diplomat told the first one, “What are you doing? This is General Maada.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and she paled. She stuttered, “My apologies, General. In my defense, you look completely different in the news feeds.”
Mushgaana laughed. “The general has no time for trivial matters like newsfeeds and interviews. We hired an actor to do that. But we did not want to scare people, so we decided to find someone without that scary beard and those terrifying scars.”
The diplomats forced a laugh. Maada touched the scar on his left cheek. He was loyal to Mushgaana, but in moments like this shooting him in the face sounded very appealing.
Mushgaana continued, “Still, we cannot have you insult the commander of our fleet, can we?”
The diplomats sitting next to the woman pulled their chairs away from her. She leaned on the table to support her weight, lips shivering and face white. Everyone knew what was coming.
Maada stared at the crown prince, trying to get his attention, and thought, Your Highness, if you want to melt people’s brains for entertainment, it’s your right, but I respectfully request you do not do it on my account.
Anger flashed in Mushgaana’s baby blue eyes, and for a second Maada wondered if the crown prince might hurt him. They had been in many successful campaigns together and formed a close friendship. Mushgaana was surely accustomed to his outbursts and did not take them personally. Then the general remembered Mushgaana could read his thoughts, and he blushed so hotly his olive skin became the same color as his fabled space fighter.
Mushgaana chuckled, obviously amused by his discomfort. The woman sank back into her seat, a palm pressed to her heart.
“The peace treaty is a ruse,” said Mushgaana as if nothing had happened. “You know the Akakies are technologically much more advanced than we are, and our intelligence suggests the fleet we destroyed on Alora’s orbit was probably one-third of their total forces. We caught them by surprise this time, but the next encounter will not be so easy. The treaty will give us the opportunity to do three things: reverse-engineer a few of the ships we have captured and build a new fleet, attack easier targets, and replenish and expand our current fleet. Once we are better prepared, we will invade the Akaki’s homeworld.”
“Do you have a new target designated?” asked Maada.
With a flick of his wrist, Mushgaana brought up a holographic image. “Right there. The blue planet, third from the sun. And it is only the first of seven targets we have identified and are planning to hit one after another. Let me finish this meeting. After that, you and I must sit together and start planning our new campaign.”
Maada glared at the crown prince. Mushgaana should not have made the decision without consulting him first, but as the crown prince, it was his prerogative.
“Before you leave, let me share a military secret with these gentlemen and the lady,” said Mushgaana. “A decade ago, when the confrontation with the Akakies started to look inevitable, General Maada figured they might be watching us. In our last three military campaigns, he made our fleet perform far below their ability. We took some losses in those battles, but it was worth catching the Akakies with their pants down.”
The diplomats looked at Maada with admiration in their eyes. That made him uncomfortable. He bowed his head, turned and walked toward the hall’s entrance. The officer he had shot earlier was receiving medical attention. Maada stopped by him and said, “Sorry about that.”
Grimacing in pain, the officer replied, “Not a problem, General. It is not the first time, and to be honest, it is kind of an honor.”
Outside the hall, Maada rubbed the scar on his face and thought, I should really learn how to control my temper.
He nearly jumped out of his socks when, in his brain, Mushgaana said, “Have you ever considered therapy?”
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