We can’t wait to bring you Justin Call’s epic adventure, Master of Sorrows in February. And because it is the season for gift giving we’re giving you an exclusive extract from Master of Sorrows.
Enter the Academy of Chaenbalu . . .
The Academy of Chaenbalu has stood against magic for centuries.
Hidden from the world, acting from the shadows, it trains its students to detect and retrieve magic artefacts, which it jealously
guards from the misuse of others. Because magic is dangerous: something that heals can also harm, and a power that aids one person may destroy another.
Of the Academy’s many students, only the most skilled can become Avatars – warrior thieves, capable of infiltrating the most
heavily guarded vaults – and only the most determined can be trusted to resist the lure of magic.
More than anything, Annev de Breth wants to become one of them.
‘Annev! Wake up.’
Annev rolled away from the voice as a sharp jab in the ribs brought him to complete wakefulness.
‘Get up,’ Sodar hissed, prodding Annev with the butt of his staff again. ‘You’re going to be late for class.’
Annev sat up and threw off the mound of blankets. ‘I’m awake! I’m up!’ He jumped to his feet and shivered as they touched the freezing floor. He stretched, shivered again, and inhaled the earthy smell of sweat mixed with straw, dirt and cinnamon. He wrinkled his nose and yawned.
With the windows shuttered, the only light came from the guttering candle just outside his bedroom door. As his bleary eyes adjusted, he saw the priest standing before him, staff in hand.
‘Come on!’ Sodar snapped. Then he paused, his face softening as he studied Annev in his small clothes. ‘You can skip dusting the chapel today. You’ll barely have time to wash as it is.’
Annev grinned in spite of the chill. ‘I’ll have time,’ he said as he flipped open the chest by his bed and pulled out a stained beige tunic and matching pair of breeches. The unbleached fabric had once been ecru – almost white – but now his Academy clothes looked more brown than greige.
‘Fine,’ Sodar said, beckoning him to hurry. ‘Water, hearth, kettle. When you’re done—’
‘I know, I know,’ Annev pulled on his breeches. ‘Check the traps and clean the chapel. Same thing every day.’
‘Almost every day,’ Sodar corrected. When Annev looked up, Sodar caught his eye. ‘Tonight is the first night of Regaleus. And tomorrow is Testing Day. The last Testing Day.’ The words hung in the air, heavy with meaning.
Annev nodded, his face turning solemn. ‘I haven’t forgotten.’
Sodar nodded. ‘Good. Hurry up then. I’ll ready your waterskins. I’m starting the count as soon as you leave this room.’ The priest left.
Testing Day, Annev thought, lacing up his breeches. The last Test of Judgement. The next three days were Regaleus, the celebration that signalled the beginning of spring, and that meant tomorrow was the last time Annev’s class could take the test – the last chance any of them had to earn their avatar title.
Annev weighed his own prospects – and sighed.
The Academy held a test at the end of every month to see which student would advance from Acolyte of Faith to Avatar of Judgement. Only one student could advance each month – and after participating in fourteen tests, fewer than half of Annev’s classmates had gained the coveted rank. It might have been more, but becoming an avatar didn’t disqualify the winners from participating in the next Test of Judgement, so boys who had already won kept competing against those who hadn’t.
It isn’t fair, Annev thought – not for the first time. Especially when my reap is the largest the Academy’s ever had. Annev belted his tunic and pulled on his soft leather boots. As he laced them, he thought of his two friends – a skinny youth named Therin and a plump little boy named Titus – neither of whom had yet earned their avatar title. Remembering that detail pained Annev, for it also reminded him he would be competing against his two friends for the final avatar promotion. It seemed unlikely, too, that either of Annev’s friends would win, for neither excelled at physical combat. Therin’s strengths instead lay in stealth and skulduggery, while Titus was simply outmatched. Almost two years younger than the rest of Annev’s classmates, Titus had come to the Academy in a later reaping and was advanced into Annev’s class because of his talent with the softer skills taught by the ancients, such as history, husbandry, agronomy and arithmetic. But that advancement had also come with an ultimatum: if Titus could not pass the Test of Judgement with his senior classmates, he could not graduate at all.
No student had ever been turned out of the Academy, but those who failed their Test of Judgement were forbidden from ever becoming master avatars. Instead, they became stewards, and in Annev’s mind there was no greater punishment: stewards could never qualify for the highest rank of Ancient of the Academy, they could not teach the acolytes, they could not marry, and they were de facto servants of the masters and ancients, subject to their whims and slave to any tasks the
Master of Operations deemed appropriate.
That wasn’t even the worst part, though, which was that avatars were sent on artifact-retrieval missions once they became masters, but stewards could never leave Chaenbalu. They would spend their whole lives in the village, trapped.
Annev always felt for Markov, in particular, a steward who spent most of his days helping Master Narach catalogue artifacts in the Vault of Damnation. A plague had passed through Chaenbalu several years ago, striking many people down, including a good portion of the Academy’s older students, witwomen and master avatars. Markov was one of the lucky few who fell sick but survived. Unfortunately, he had been too ill to participate in most of his reap’s tests, and by the time he had fully recovered his chance was gone.
Annev pulled out a pair of black gloves and stared at them, noticing that the left was more threadbare than the right. He shrugged, flung the second glove back into his chest, and pulled the worn glove up to his elbow. He didn’t always wear just one glove, but he did it often enough that the masters and ancients had come to accept it as his personal idiosyncrasy.
Dressed and ready, Annev went to the kitchen where Sodar threw him a pair of thick leather water bags. Annev caught them instinctively.
‘One,’ the priest began. ‘Two . . .’ Before Sodar reached three, Annev was through the kitchen door, racing past the rows of benches in the chapel and flinging open the doors. He stumbled in the near darkness then righted himself before he could fall to one knee and sprinted out into the morning.
Annev’s routine was the same every day: run to the well at the centre of the village then race back with as much water as he could carry. Meanwhile, Sodar sat serenely in the kitchen, counting the seconds for Annev to return. It was supposed to complement Annev’s Academy training, but for the first year, Annev had considered it little more than a gruelling chore. He complained for so long that Sodar finally made a game of it.
‘Bring back enough water to fill this jar,’ Sodar said, indicating a large clay pot in the corner of the kitchen. ‘Fill it before I count to fifteen hundred.’
‘What do I get if I do?’ a cheeky, eight-year-old Annev had asked.
‘You get to drink it.’
Annev’s brow furrowed. ‘I can do that now.’
‘Not any more, you can’t.’ He waited for his words to sink in.
‘You’re not going to let me drink our water?’ Annev exclaimed, incredulous. ‘The water I bring you? The water I have to carry?’
Sodar smiled. ‘You’re catching on.’
And he hadn’t been kidding either. The day after Sodar proposed his little game, Annev had deliberately taken his time on the way back to the chapel. He had been carrying the water in buckets back then and thought that by going slowly he would spill less water and not need to make a second trip. He had been right – he had filled the water jar to overflowing – but Sodar’s count had reached two thousand. When Annev then ventured to scoop a ladle of water, Sodar’s staff had come swinging down on his hand, knocking the ladle across the room.
‘Ouch!’ Annev shouted, rubbing his bruised hand. ‘Odar’s balls! What was that for?’
‘Language,’ Sodar chided, picking up the ladle. ‘And you know why. Rules are rules. No water from the jar.’ And that had been that. No water to drink or to wash his face or hands. He’d left early that morning – thirsty and stinking – so he could stop at the village well and draw up a few handfuls of water before class.
He was rarely late again.
As Annev sprinted towards the well through the pre- dawn light, he swung the thick leather sling around his neck and draped the empty water bags behind his back.
The bags had been his idea, one he was especially proud of. After months of blisters and a few times he had tripped and spilled the buckets of water, Annev had spoken with the village tanner Elyas and asked how he could make a waterproof bag. By the end of the week, Annev had two of them and was bringing the water home well before Sodar’s count reached fifteen hundred.
‘Well done,’ Sodar said after the second week of bringing the water back early. ‘Let’s see if you can fill the jar before I get to thirteen hundred.’
And so it went. Year after year. Each time Annev found a way to improve his speed, Sodar dropped the count. When Annev became quicker at drawing the water from the well, it fell to twelve hundred. When his endurance improved, it fell again, and when Annev mastered gliding across the ground without jostling the water bags, Sodar dropped the count to one thousand.
Annev had his own count when he reached the well. After hanging both bags over his chest, he kicked the lock-bar holding the hand crank in place and listened as the bucket tumbled to the watery depths below. As soon as it splashed, he slapped the crank and began to wind.
‘One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.’ After nineteen solid cranks, the bucket rose up out of the darkness. Annev dropped the lock-bar back in place, reached over the edge of the well, and submerged one end of his sling into the bucket. Once the first bag was full, he cinched it tight and kicked the lock- bar again, sending the bucket spiralling back down into the darkness. He was on his eighth turn of the crank when something on the other side of the village plaza caught his eye. Annev glanced up just as a yellow dress and white apron ducked into Greusik’s cobbler shop. His fierce cranking slowed.
Someone spying on me? Annev wondered. It couldn’t have been Greusik’s wife – she wasn’t the type for spying and she didn’t own anything brighter than the earthy red dress she wore to chapel – but it might have been Myjun.
The headmaster’s daughter had been wearing a yellow dress over a month ago when she had beckoned Annev into the alley behind the baker’s shop. Myjun had leaned him against the wall and, while his heart raced, she had slipped a piece of chalk from her apron and pressed his hand against the red bricks. Glancing away from his gaze, she carefully traced its outline on the wall then blushed as she finished and he took the chalk from her. He placed her hand so that it overlapped the outline of his and slowly traced her fingers onto the brick, memorising her scent, the curve of her jaw and the feel of her warm skin pressed against his. A week later, rain had washed the chalk from the wall of the bakery, but Annev’s eyes still lingered on the brickwork where the white lines had been.
Annev startled as the bucket thumped to the top and water sloshed over the edge. He dropped the lock-bar in place, filled his second water bag then glanced once more at the cobbler’s door, hoping for another flash of yellow.
He spun on his heel and raced back to the chapel.
The return trip was much slower, but Annev found that if he counted his paces as he ran, he was less likely to stumble. It was exactly one thousand and eleven paces back to the church at the edge of the forest, and Annev spent each step thinking of Myjun and the promise ring he hoped to one day give her.
Annev sprinted through the front doors with a smile on his face and surveyed a chapel that, while large enough to house Chaenbalu’s regular worshippers, was still smaller than the Academy’s dusty nave. Clutching his waterskins to his chest, he dashed up the aisle, launched himself onto the dais, and burst
through the door at the back, which led immediately into the rectory.
‘Nine hundred and sixty-three. Nine hundred and sixty- four . . .’
‘I’m here!’ Annev gasped as he tumbled into the kitchen and unslung the water bags. Sodar pointed at the empty pot in the corner of the room, still counting.
Annev groaned, even as he hurried to the earthenware jar and began filling it from his bags.
‘Nine hundred and seventy-one,’ Sodar concluded as Annev tossed aside the empty bags and slumped to the floor. ‘You’re getting slower, Annev. Last week I never reached eight hundred.’
Despite his panting, Annev found he was still smiling.
‘Yeah.’ He laughed. ‘I got held up.’ ‘Doing what?’
‘I thought I saw Myjun at the cobbler’s.’
‘Mmm.’ Sodar tugged his beard. ‘That would do it I suppose.’ He took the wooden ladle from above the fireplace mantel and began spooning water into the kettle hanging over the blazing hearth. ‘Was it truly her?’
‘I don’t know. I think so. She ducked into Greusik’s just as I was filling the waterskins.’
Sodar shook his head. ‘And what would your headmaster say if he caught you pining after his daughter? Hmm? It’s bad enough that you cross paths at the Academy. If you start running into her outside of her father’s domain, and without his knowledge . . .’
Annev eased himself into a chair. ‘Tosan,’ Annev said, ‘can take a flying piss off a rolling bread bun.’
‘Annev!’ Sodar turned, spilling water. ‘Tosan is the Eldest of Ancients and head of the Academy. Show some respect.’
‘Fine,’ Annev said. ‘Elder Tosan can take a flying—’ He met the priest’s eyes and saw they were cold as ice. He swallowed. ‘Sorry, Sodar. I’m just . . . I’m worried about the Testing tomorrow.’
Sodar turned back to his kettle. As he did, Annev thought he heard a suppressed bark of laughter followed by the words ‘. . . rolling bread bun’.
Annev smiled. No matter Sodar’s words, he knew there was no love between the priest and the headmaster. The division between the priesthood and the Academy stemmed from a split that had occurred decades ago – well before Sodar came to Chaenbalu – but the tension had been exacerbated by Annev’s apprenticeship to the priest, and Sodar made no effort to relieve it. Sometimes Annev thought he was even stoking it.
With the kettle full, Sodar passed the ladle to Annev, who took several long gulps of water from the clay pot. Meanwhile, Sodar moved about the kitchen gathering tea leaves and cinnamon sticks. ‘As you check the traps, don’t reset them – and please spring all the ones that haven’t been set off.’ He tossed the leaves and sticks into the kettle.
‘But not the bird traps,’ Annev said, replacing the ladle on the mantel.
‘The bird traps, too. “No beast, nor fish, nor fowl shalt thou consume on my holy day.”’
‘But it’s not Seventhday,’ Annev argued.
‘No, it’s the first night of Regaleus,’ Sodar said, tossing a handful of ground chicory root into the kettle. ‘Besides, if tomorrow is anything like every other Testing Day, you’ll be no use to me in the morning. So distracted I’ll have to mend half your chores.’ He shook his head. ‘We’ll prepare for tomorrow today; spring all the traps.’
Annev frowned at the reminder of tomorrow’s test – and Sodar’s allusion to his previous failures – and felt churlish.
‘If the Book of Odar says we’re not supposed to eat animals on holy days, why do we still eat birds and fish on Seventhday?’
‘Because Seventhday is a regular holy day. Not a “holiday” like Regaleus.’
Annev’s frown deepened. ‘But shouldn’t we still—’ ‘Annev, do you really want to debate the difference between holy days and holidays now?’ Sodar asked. ‘The Council of Neven nan Su’ul tried that in the Third Age. Whole books are written on the subject, and most of it’s horseshit.’
Annev’s mouth dropped open, though the priest pretended not to notice. A smile flickered across his face as he concentrated on his tea.
‘The truth,’ Sodar continued, ‘is that I can be a bit of a hypocrite, but – unlike some of my brothers – I try to be honest about it.’ He glanced back at Annev, his eyes twinkling. ‘But this isn’t about holy days or the Book of Odar, is it? It’s not even about you doing your chores.’
Annev looked into the priest’s eyes and clenched his jaw, afraid to speak.
Sodar watched him for a moment. ‘You’ll do fine, Annev.
No matter what happens, I’m proud of you.’
Annev nodded once, his face flushed. ‘Sure,’ he said, his throat clenched. ‘So I spring all the traps. Anything else?’
Sodar poked at the leaves floating in the kettle. ‘Don’t chop more firewood. We have enough in the shed to last us through the weekend, and I’d rather you were early today.’
‘I still have plenty of time to get to class.’
‘Not if you plan to change and wash that face of yours.
It’s grubby enough to make your tunic look white again.’
Annev forced a laugh then rubbed his hand along his cheek. There was definitely dirt there, though he wasn’t sure if it came from his fingertips or his face. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll hurry back,’ and he ran before Sodar could tell him to do anything else.