Cithria Book 4 Preview! Read the Prologue to The Master now!
Joba reached for the glass-encased oil lamp on the top shelf. He set it on the counter next to his latest project, nudging it around slightly to get the best light. The sun had drifted behind the hills west of town, draping his workshop in shadow. He’d be called to dinner soon, even though it felt like he’d just eaten breakfast. Where had the day gone?
He slipped off his leather glove and ran nimble fingers along the edge of the wood, searching for any imperfection in the finish. No bumps or cracks. No rough spots. Smooth as Barjani silk, as usual. He smiled and stepped back, admiring the nearly finished product. A crib for a newborn. The fifth one he’d made for himself in just the last eight years. He’d created dozens more in his time as the town woodworker, but he always saved the best for his own children. He sniffed in satisfaction. This was his best one yet.
Well-worn tools lined the back wall, hanging from nails or pegs over a deep counter. Hatchets of various size, augers, braces, saws, rulers, a square, a crowbar, hammers, chisels, specialized planes, and a mallet. He kept a whetstone to sharpen his tools over in the corner. Examples of his work lined counters and shelves on the side walls, for customers to browse when they came into the shop. He had plate and bowl sets, dolls, writing boards, utensils, knife handles, small display stands, picture frames. A row of chairs were set against the side and front walls, each one showing his command of different styles – Thandaran, Calderan, Amankor, Barjani, Gowri, Valesi. Even Bergsbor and Anduain, though those sold mostly to wealthy lords who liked to show off. They especially enjoyed buying nuathreen chairs for their children.
A woman’s voice called out from the back.
His wife, calling him for dinner. His stomach rumbled. He often worked through lunch when invested in his projects, shutting out the world around him so he could focus entirely on creating something new. His wife was the lucky one, giving birth to actual children; he had to make do with creating the beds they slept on. He could have easily reused an older crib, but then he wouldn’t have any excuse to build a new one. He was a natural at woodworking, as he’d been at so many other things in his life, but his inherent skill wasn’t what drew him to this profession. He simply loved to work with his hands.
He took off his other glove and tossed it on the table next to the first one. He slid out of his heavy leather vest and hung it on one of the pegs on the wall, then wiped the bits of sawdust from his linen shirt. He had to look presentable for dinner. He left his tools where they were, since he planned on coming back tonight to finish the crib. He wanted everyone to see it before they went to sleep.
He left the woodshop through the back hallway, which led to the living area and kitchen of his two-story home. Three bedrooms were upstairs, one for the two boys, one for the two girls, and one for Joba and his wife, Isabel. He’d built the house himself, shortly after coming to this town ten years ago. Half of his children were already seated. Eric and Mila, the two youngest, at least for another couple months. His oldest son, Charles, was probably out somewhere, playing with his mischief-making friends. As usual, someone would have to go out and drag him back for dinner. The oldest daughter, Eva, liked to seclude herself in her room, reading whatever books she could borrow from the church library, or from Adam and Rhait, the town clerks. She was the studious one. A few more years and Joba would put her to work on his bookkeeping for the workshop. Knowing her, she’d enjoy it, too.
Isabel scooped chunks of potatoes from a pot onto a place for Eric, a faded white apron hanging over her large belly. Joba had begun to wonder lately if he might need to plan for twins. She hadn’t ever looked so large with two or three months still to go. A smile formed at the thought of crafting another crib.
“Almost done in there?” Isabel asked, setting the plate down in front of Eric while taking Mila’s.
“It’ll be done tonight, after dinner.” A knowing grin covered his face. “It’s beautiful.”
Isabel smiled warmly while fixing Mila’s plate.
“Eva!” she called out. “Come down here! You need to eat!”
“Coming!” came the muted reply. The lack of footsteps clomping their way to the stairs meant she wasn’t quite done with her reading.
“I’ll find Charles after dinner,” Joba said, sitting down at the table next to his daughter. “If he can’t be here on time, then he gets cold food.”
“Are you making a crib?” Mila asked.
“I am. Just like the one you used to have a few years ago.”
“For the baby?” Her eyes grew wide as a thought came to her. “Will she sleep in our room?”
Joba furrowed his brow. “What makes you think it’s a she?”
“It has to be,” she said, quite seriously, “so we can have more girls than boys.”
“It’s going to be a boy,” Eric protested in between bites of food. “It’s already been boy, girl, boy, girl. So the next one has to be a boy.”
Mila seemed perturbed by that revelation, and she stared at Joba as if waiting for confirmation. He just shrugged. “None of us knows until the day the true gods decide it’s time for the baby to join us. Until then, we can only guess.”
Mila frowned and poked around at her food.
A knock at the back door. Joba and Isabel shared a look. Customers usually came to the front of his workshop and rang the bell. At this time of evening there was a decent chance he’d be greeted by an irate vendor from the market holding Charles by the ear. The boy liked to make trouble, sometimes.
Joba sighed. “I’ll get it.” He slid out of his chair and wandered through the kitchen to the back. He’d have some harsh words for that boy tonight. Along with a harsh paddling.
He opened the door, and the frown melted from his face.
The Master stood at his doorway. He was a small man, barely taller than Charles, who wasn’t even ten years old yet. He wore a brown wool jacket that hung past his knees and a brimmed fur cap pulled low over his ears. A dark expression lurked beneath the cap.
Joba’s hands instinctively moved behind his back, where he clasped them together to keep them still. He bowed deeply, a sign of respect for the one who always came calling.
“The gods?” he asked, keeping his eyes down.
“They need you.”
The world around him seemed to freeze in place. No sounds came from the town behind the Master, or from Joba’s kitchen. He stifled the urge to look over his shoulder at his family, to make sure they were still there. To do so would be to disrespect the gods and everything they had given him. He had his family because of them, and he would have them again if the gods took pleasure in how he performed his work.
“This is no small task, Joba. Enemies have come. They threaten our gods and everything they’ve worked for.”
Joba shuddered. “The war has started?”
“It has. So you are summoned.”
He bowed his head, ignoring the despair in his heart.
The Master gave a slight nod.
“I knew you would.” He turned and motioned Joba to follow him. “We must go. Now.”
Joba squeezed his hands behind his back, remembering how they felt within each other. He would know that feeling again soon. He would build with those hands. He would hold his new child with those hands. As soon as the war ended and the enemies above had been vanquished.
The Master waited for him. Joba blinked, and the world became dark once more.
Damp stone walls greeted him, each one lined with thin veins of golden light. He stood in the center of the cell the true gods kept him in, this broken, desecrated body that had once been Duvarat, a heretic from a place called Elaria. Duvarat had come to this place to do selfish things, and to make war on anyone who stood in his way. But the true gods found that man, and they purged the evil from his body. For years they purged, until the day he let them remake him.
He wore nothing in this world save the dirty, frayed pants he’d had on when the true gods first came to him. They were the only remnant of that old, misguided life. The iron collar was already attached to his neck, and the Master, the short, white-haired man in the red robes next to him, held the other end of the chain attached to the back. The collar kept him from being unruly, a punishment for his rebellious spirit, not that he’d ever do anything to anger the true gods. Not anymore. The collar was a good punishment, a just punishment, if also a weak one. It paled against the greatest penalty he’d had to endure. He’d thought to lay hands on a true god, but that had been a terrible mistake. He’d paid for that sin with the loss of the very instruments of his heresy.
Still they didn’t trust him. But he would show them that he’d learned.
The Master led him out of the cell, where the tall, green-skinned gods awaited him. He shuffled barefoot across the cold stone one slow step at a time, feeling their eyes on him. They wanted him to move faster, but when returning to this world, he always found it hard to regain his bearings. His muscles felt old and numb, his body ragged and weary. And always pain. Such pain. The Master handed his chain to one of the true gods, who led Joba down the tunnel in silence.
He would do as the true gods asked. He would win this war for them. And then, if he made them happy, he would go home to Isabel and his children.
Hopefully, for good.