The boys set their course, heads together underneath the kitchen table.
“Out the back door,” Zain whispered, pointing through the tablecloth toward the cleanest exit from the kitchen – ‘cleanest’ being the way that could actually be reached on a straight line as long as they jumped over the water barrel and slipped under the bottom pantry shelf. “Out the back gate, around the stables, up the hill, across the creek and around back to the front door…”
“If we get mud in the hall, my mother’s gonna make us scrub it up again,” Terius said.
“Then keep your feet dry when you cross the creek,” Zain said and rolled his eyes, as if that had already been said when he added the water as an obstacle. “We come back around to the front door, take the stairs all the way up to the west tower, then all the way back down here to the kitchen. First one to touch the table wins.” He clapped his hand against the underside of the table, touching it before Terius could, just to make sure that Terius wouldn’t reach his hand up and call a legality to skip the race. Not that Terius would. That was the kind of scheme that he’d only ever thought of after he saw it fall out of Zain’s sleeve.
“Alright,” Terius said.
“Ready?” Zain asked.
Annia, one of the kitchen hands heard the word and backed away from the table. She waved at the rest of the staff hurriedly and they rocked back on their feet, clearing the way to the door.
“Ready,” Terius returned. Zain’s head was already racing out before Terius finished and they broke through the kitchen and out the door. Cook looked at Annia and laughed as they heard the boys skid in the yard outside, yelling hard at each other while they raced.
“Will they be back?” Cook asked her.
“Quarter hour,” Annia told her with a shrug, not sure how good her time estimate would be.
“Alright,” Cook called to the dozen men and women ranged around the tables and stoves. “Somebody set a look-out for them coming back. I got broths on that have been cooking for days, and a dinner tonight that’s not to be wrecked, understood?”
“Any more than it already is?” one of the men asked, and promptly scooted out the door before the heavy wooden spoon in Cook’s hand whipped toward him.
A quarter of an hour and they heard the boys clatter on the stairs, all hollers and heavy feet. The staff scooted back to safe edges again and Annia stepped away from the table just in time to watch them run into the room. Terius came first, one long stride ahead of his cousin. Then he hesitated, shortened one stride and Zain zipped in around him, diving for the table. His hand locked on the edge a full second before Terius’, and everyone heard the two distinct thumps against the wood. Zain let out a whoop and grinned.
Terius took a deep breath. “Rematch,” he said.
“You’re not gonna beat me,” Zain said. “You never do.”
“I want a rematch,” Terius said. There was just enough of a challenge in the tone that Zain whooped again and set his foot for another start.
“Same course,” Zain said. “Go!”
And the staff skittered back a little more hurriedly than before, almost caught in the mad slide for the door.
Annia stared after them, her hands stilled on her work for a moment.
“You get trampled or something?” Cook asked, coming up behind her.
“No,” Annia said hurriedly. She looked down at the vegetables on her cutting board. “But… did Terius just let Zain win?”
Cook held a finger to her lips and winked. “Every time.”
“Why?” Annia asked, turning to follow Cook as she walked behind her.
Cook shrugged. “He’s a smart boy? He knows how to get what he wants.”
“I don’t understand,” Annia said.
She shrugged again. “Easiest way to get another race. He says he likes the running and the company, better than the winning at the end.”