Joras chewed on the fingers of his gloves, bouncing from one foot to the other. “Tesha, Tesha!”
The little girl toddled over and seized his tunic, dropped one of her gloves, eyes round. “Fun?”
The tall, Arkan man competing for bodyguard looked down at the two of them, as the stood, waiting for the signal. His opponent crouched down arms on his knees. “Joras, you’re going to help me, hmmm? I have to get you safe.”
“Yah, yah, yah, we’ll be safe, safe, safe.” Joras flapped his soggy glove fingers at him. He nodded and got up, eyes going to the starter on the Presentation balcony. In that moment, Joras took Tesha’s hand and they ran over to the balcony rail, slid under it as if it were greased and darted into the shadows under the maze, giggling.
“Hey! They were just here!” The thunder of feet on hollow wood. “Wait, stop, no! We can’t run a race with no... um... kids to protect! We have to find the children!”
The starter’s horn went off, then blew the three blasts for stop. Joras put his fingers over his mouth and Tesha giggled again. “You’re going to get them to find you if you keep making noise,” he whispered. “Here’s a good hiding place.”
The referees’ whistles were blowing and the rising and falling of Sereniteer’s slide whistles. More feet above. “Joras!” Ilesias called. “Tesha! Stop playing! You come out NOW!”
Joras could see Tesha’s hiding place from his own and she wasn’t moving. He should behave and obey his Senior, but his sort-of mama was out of the city and he didn’t want to be carried around anymore. He was tired. He tucked his butt more firmly in the crack between a ramp and a set of stairs. He could see the edges of a trap-door where an ambushing party could come up, but even if they came down here they’d not be able to see him if he kept still. The bars of light falling across Tesha made her really hard to see, too.
“They were right here! They can’t have gone far!”
“Joras! Joras! Tesha! Tesha!”
More and more of the contestants were coming to look.
“Make sure they don’t slip out of the edges,” Ilesias said. I’m not going to do something stupid, Joras thought disdainfully.
The maze had been here for long enough that bugs had found it and he watched a pair of palm-sized green spike bugs crawl up the wood in front of his face. There’s spiders, too, he thought. But I’m Mahid. And if someone were trying to kill or hurt me, it would be my duty to get away from them, and be really quiet. That way I save myself. The water’s been washed through here enough that there’s a puddle under my rear.
“Tesha! Come out! You’re being a bad girl, come out right now! Joras, you put her up to this!”
The crowd, now that they realized what had happened and why one of the last solo races was delayed, were laughing, mostly. Some people were yelling for the kids to come out. Some people were angry because they’d had bets on the race.
It’s so noisy that I could walk over to the finish line, but I’d have to go out before I get there because there’s no open bits I can reach underneath. There’s too much stuff stored under there and even Tesh wouldn’t fit.
He was getting a little bored and was going to move when someone opened up the trap door and slid down to land with a hiss and a thump. A second and a third came after and all over the maze traps and sliding doors were being opened up. The dim light under the Maze was turning into a brownish, dusty colour with really bright spots dotted all through. Several of the bodyguard came down every opened up door.
Even some of the unchosen were out. The three in front of Joras split up, two going off toward the fountain. The third one was a young man named Teshan Nitzias and he stood still, looking.
“Joras.” He said calmly. “Tesha. If you come out now, you won’t have to do this anymore. You get to go have a snack.”
That might get Tesha.
“I’ll tell you what. You come with me and we’ll sneak past all of these bodyguard-types and you’ll be the winners.”
“Promise?” Joras whispered.
When Joras stood up, brushing ants and worms off his pants, Teshan held out his hand. “We have to be quiet.”
Tesha came out and he scooped her up on his arm and, walking quickly, staying in the shadows, even calling “Joras!” “Tesha, come on out now!” once or twice, he snuck them all the way down the course. The trapdoor at the end of the run was open and the fellow who should have been running this race stood, arms crossed, looking disgusted.
“This is just... wrong,” he said to the person above, whom they couldn’t see. “I’d put such a set of stripes on that boy’s backside he wouldn’t be able to sit for an eight day and tie the minx’s hands together for a day.”
“That sounds very much like Mahid upbringing,” she answered, from above.
“That’s my mama!” Tesha whispered.
“Check the other side, young man. You never opened the fake closets in that false building. A child as young as Tesha could fit.”
He grumbled under his breath and took the stairs two at a time.
“Now!” Joras yelled in Teshan’s ear and tugged him forward. They ran up the stairs and their feet boomed on the finish line as they broke into the sunlight. Inensa stood at the top of the stairs, having come immediately down from the Marble Palace, when the outcry began.
“I win! I win! I win! Teshan wins! He found us, he got us here. We win!” Joras danced in place.
“Mama, gots ‘im!” Tesha crowed triumphantly and Teshan froze as he saw what she waved at her mother. He hadn’t seen it, in the dark.
The red and yellow striped scorpion’s stinger was firmly clutched in the baby’s fist, tip flexing futile in the air over her fingers, while the rest of the thing – as long as her forearm – clutched and scrambled at her sleeve, tiny mouth parts unable to bite through the cloth. “’s’mine!” She crowed, waving her whole arm and the insect perilously close to his face.
Inensa smiled at her daughter, though her mouth was tight all around. “Get me a jar,” she snapped as she reached to pry the deadly thing out of her daughter’s fist. “It is indeed yours, darling girl,” she said. “But it’s unhappy out here in the sun. Why don’t we get it a nice, dark, damp tank?”
She deftly held the stinger so it could not sting either her or Tesha. “Did you get stung by the others?”
“Na- un.” Tesha shook her head.
“Excellent. Joras be quiet. Yes, you won. Yes, Teshan won. I am still very unhappy with you.”
“Do not ‘awwww’ me, young man. You had a task and you deliberately disobeyed.”
“It was fun.”
“Not for all of us looking for you. You are confined to your room for the rest of the afternoon.” A servant came scurrying up and she lowered the curling, roiling thing into the proffered jar, dropped it and slapped the lid on in a flash, as the bug turned around on itself and the stinger flashed up and through one of the hastily punched airholes. She looked around at the referees and hopefuls and winners and servants.
“We do have more races to run, now that the children are found – Joras Mahid do not sneak off and try it again – Don’t we?”