The first chapter of SEEDS AND MASTERS (SYCORAX SERIES 2)

Claribel moved through the hedge maze, her feet landing noiselessly on the soft ground. She couldn't hear her brother Thanan, and that made her nervous. Mother, the High Regent of the planet Lanopi, set up the game, and the winner would gain praise and a reward. The loser would get a lecture and a punishment, likely a half day's isolation. Claribel had to be the winner.

She closed her eyes and thought of the overhead images of the maze they'd been able to study. She pinpointed in her mind where she believed she was, opened her eyes, and started moving again. She was smarter than Thanan and she would make sure her mother knew it.

She approached what she thought was an intersection, but it was a dead end. She closed her eyes again, imagining the map. She identified her mistake and reset her expectations. She opened her eyes and walked quickly back to the last intersection. The next few turns came just as she thought they should.

A loud rustling in the hedge to her right made her stop. She examined the hedge, looking for the cause of noise. Was one of the dogs lose in the maze? Was this a distraction designed by her mother?

Suddenly the hedge wall split open and Thanan popped through, almost knocking Claribel to the ground.

"What are you doing?" Claribel squealed.

"Getting to the center of the maze, you little twit." Thanan's smile held mischief but no anger or contempt. He liked winning as much as she did, but he still adored his little sister.

"You can't run through the walls!"

"Why not? Mother didn't say we couldn't. You may be too scrawny, but I'm not. And don't try following me or I'll tie you up with a branch and leave you here."

Claribel looked up at a drone camera floating above. "Mother, this is unfair. This should be against the rules."

But the camera just floated there, and the High Regent offered no response.

"See." Thanan smiled at her and then began digging at the hedge wall opposite of where he'd emerged.

Claribel stomped her feet and scrunched her face into an angry scowl. "This is not fair."

Claribel breathed deeply to calm herself; she was a year younger than Thanan and a lot smaller. He wasn't a man yet, but at eleven years old, his frame had begun resembling one; her frame resembled a small child's stick figure.

Being strongest is good, but being smarter is better, and being devious is best. One of her mother's maxims echoed in her head. She could not fail her mother, and she could not lose to Thanan. He was stronger for sure, but she was smarter, and she would be more devious.

She closed her eyes once more and pictured the maze, focusing on the thick hedge Thanan had clawed through. If he followed his direct course to the center, he would surely win; Claribel wasn't fast enough to beat him there.

But she could beat him if she made the hedge impassable.

Claribel ran, hustling to a certain spot in the maze before Thanan did.

Large Lanopian statues stood in most of the intersections. Claribel had memorized all of them, and she could hear her brother's mocking in her head when he'd caught her examining pictures and descriptions of the statues scattered through the maze. "The statues?" he'd said. "Who cares about the statues? Memorize that while I go do something useful." By that, he'd probably meant a nap.

She found a statue of her maternal great-great-grandfather at the next intersection. He'd made his fortune by cultivating and taming wild greenberry bushes, turning their juice into a delicacy. Mother told his story often, emphasizing his ruthless business practices. He'd created the wealth their family used even today.

Great-great-grandfather had been short, and his statue wasn't much taller than Claribel. His eyes looked up, and he held a small cistern of greenberry wine. Claribel reached out and tried to lift the stone cistern, and it came right out of his hands. She thought it would be heavier, but it wasn't really stone, just a lightweight plastic. The distinctive scent of greenberry wine hit her. Mother loved her realism, as long as she wasn't the one who had to be real.

Moving again, Claribel ran through the maze trying not to spill the juice. Some sloshed onto her dress and the ground, but she kept going, passing two more intersections. She could hear Thanan hacking through some hedges nearby.

Claribel stopped at a statue of the High Regent’s least favorite mythological figure: Ghosra, goddess of beauty. Though she claimed to believe in no gods, Mother used Ghosra's name as her most frequent curse. The goddess had been tall in the stories, taller than most men, and the statue reflected that. She had long, curly hair falling to her knees, and she held a large mirror.

Claribel gripped the statue's arm and climbed up toward the mirror. To her relief, it came right out of the statue's grasp and was light like the cistern. Once she was on the ground, she lifted both items into her arms. Even though they were light, running with both in her arms was still awkward, and more greenberry wine spilled onto her dress.

By a long stretch of hedge wall, she stopped and waited. Thanan's effective but loud method erupted in the thick hedge in front of her. It was Claribel's turn to grin.

She set the mirror down and poured the greenberry wine onto the hedge wall, dumping some deeper into the plant. After exhausting the supply of wine, she set the cistern down, crouched near the hedge, and picked up the mirror. The sun burned hot overhead. She had cursed the light and heat as they entered the maze, but she was grateful for it now.

Claribel held the mirror to get a potent beam of sunlight focused on the wine-drenched hedge. Greenberry wine was flammable, and she hoped it would act as enough of an accelerant to set the hedge aflame. If this didn't work, Thanan would soon burst through the hedge, and Claribel would lose. This was her only chance.

Her arms started to ache from holding the mirror in such an awkward position, but she remained still. A small wisp of smoke curled from the sunbeam's end, and Claribel held her breath as the sounds of her brother's hacking grew louder.

Suddenly a flame burst, and the hedge erupted in fire. Claribel fell backward as the wine on her dress caught fire in the intense heat. The mirror shattered on the hard ground. Claribel rolled frantically to extinguish her dress. After six rolls, she popped to her feet. The beautiful green dress was burned, but it hadn't reached her skin or long braid of dark hair. She ran, leaving the flaming hedge behind her.

Thanan's piercing scream stopped her at the next intersection. She looked back, worried that her plan might have been too much. What if Thanan was stuck in the hedge, surrounded by flames? He screamed again, and Claribel turned to go back.

Mercy and compassion are not for those who lead. You fake those attributes in public, but when important decisions are to be made, you leave them behind. Mother's one hundred and fourth maxim came to Claribel's mind, and she turned and ran toward the center.

Thanan would be fine, she reasoned. He might be faking the scream, tricking Claribel into returning to help him to slow her down. And if he was in any real trouble, a camera drone floated above him; the elite soldiers would come and help him for sure.

Claribel increased her speed as she neared the center. She would win. She felt bad for the trick she used, and worse to know Thanan would be punished. But she couldn't help the punishment any more than he'd been able to help when she was punished. It was all part of being the children of Rissa, High Regent of Lanopi.

 How do I establish their ages faster?