Volume III : The Divine Emissaries
Chapter 84 – Mount Horeb[3121 words]
This was the question that Amon had asked Maria, which she had just thrown back at him today. There were many emotions and many meanings which had been compressed into this one question.
“I’m fine. I’ve never lived such a good idle life. I’m just waiting.”
Maria’s eyes were as clear and gentle as a lake on a windless summer day. She continued, “What are you waiting for?”
Amon looked at her eyes blandly, “To meet you. I’m also waiting for a chance to ask you one thing: I have said that I am going to go back to Duc and guide my clansmen back there too.”
Maria nodded slightly, “I remember that. You said that you had things to do in Duc. When are you going to set out?”
“In about two months.”
“I’ll assign you a mission in a month. You will be asked to penetrate into the marshy land to the northeast of the Syah Desert, including the area of Duc. There, you will need to investigate the situation, record any changes in detail and report it to me. To my knowledge, you are the one who knows that area the best. No one would be better suited than you.”
“Thank you for your consideration. I will do my best to fulfill this mission.”
There was a trace of apprehension in Maria’s tone, “I do have to remind you that there have been reports of many monsters after the flood. They appeared in the mountains, the plains, the marshes and the deserts. This mission…will be very dangerous.”
Amon was surprised, “I travelled across the area last year, but I didn’t see anything like that.”
“Where did that journey take you?”
“I started from the south bank of a big lake. I walked through the desert and reached the end of my journey in Cape.”
Maria explained, “The monsters mainly frequented the areas to the northwest of the lake and attacked travellers. We started receiving sporadic reports about a year ago. But in the past few months, the number of cases have grown rapidly. There are also many scorpions in the desert now… Do you need a mage? We can not send any large-scale military expeditions because of the marshy terrain as well as to avoid suspicion from Hittite.”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” replied Amon, “I grew up there so I’m familiar with the terrain. It’s more convenient for me to act alone. As for the danger, I’ve already been through alot. I am not afraid of anything. Even if there wasn’t a mission and I had to face countless dangers, I must go. I have no choice. The information about the monsters is also important to me and my clansmen.”
Maria sighed softly, “There’s always a choice. An emerging rich land in the center of the continent, with a lot of monsters. It’s the place where countless heroes would earn their spurs and where the kingdoms would fight for every inch of ground. Are you sure that you want to guide your clansmen back to your homeland? You can always choose to build a family and live a peaceful life in Memfis, like many ordinary people here do. You don’t have to risk your life.”
Maria had, evidently, read the story of Marduc’s Land. She was discouraging Amon from going there by hinting at how complicated the situation there would be. Amon answered earnestly, “I’ve made a promise to my patron and the dead Ducians, that I will find the surviving clansmen and guide them back home. I will do everything I can to fulfill that promise unless my clansmen disagree to it.”
Maria hesitated for a bit, but finally asked, “That day in the ceremony, you noticed the assassin and threw a javelin at him. I saw you on the altar. You rushed directly at him and I was worried at the time. Fortunately, the assassin simply escaped. If you had fought with him, you would have been in great peril. Gabriel told me that even she was no match for the assassin.”
“Thank you for your concern, but it was my duty. It’s like how warriors would charge towards their enemies on the battlefield, no matter how strong their enemies are. Only traitors would turn and flee.”
“Anyway, I should thank you for that. I’ll help you in what you are trying to accomplish, but I don’t know how much I can do. The mission will begin in a month. Meanwhile, I will send you to inspect a certain place. You will know why when you get there.”
Amon didn’t ask for a reason. He stood up and replied, “Thank you for your thoughtful arrangements.”
Maria seemed to want to stand up as well, but she eventually stayed in her chair and waved her hand, “There’s no need. You will understand once you are there. I’m sorry that I cannot do more.”
The short conversation came to an end. After all, the Adoratrice shouldn’t spend too much time with a humble foreman. Amon was as respectful as anyone else who presented themselves to the Adoratrice. The only difference was that they looked at each other’s eyes from beginning to end.
When Amon turned around to the door, Maria suddenly spoke, “Take this, Amon. You should have a look at this file.”
Amon turned back and saw Maria stand up with a piece of papyrus in her hand. He strode forward and took it with two hands… His finger accidentally touched hers.
It was against the rules: As an adult male, he shouldn’t take anything from the Adoratrice directly, not to mention touching her body! The most lenient punishment would already be to cut off the finger that had touched Maria.
Finger cutting was familiar as a punishment to Amon. However, the Adoratrice didn’t reprimand him, nor call for her servants. She just left the papyrus to Amon and said in a calm voice, “I forgot to call a servant to hand it to you. Let’s pretend that I left it on the desk and you took it yourself.”
It was not necessary for her to say it, but she still did. Amon realized it too and tried to prostrate and apologize, but he was also busy recalling the feeling of her finger, which then made him feel somewhat ashamed. Maria stopped him, “You didn’t mean to. It’s not your fault, you don’t need to apologize… When you are ready to set out in a month, I will summon you again.”
Amon looked up and saw Maria’s eyes once again. There was only a desk between them. Suddenly, he had an impulse. He wanted to finish the kiss three years ago. God! For one second, he struggled with his desire, he wanted to kiss her so much! He forced himself to look down and avoid her eyes. He simply bowed and walked out of the room.
The buildings in Memfis was just one part of the properties of the Isis Shrine. The Shrine also owned farms, pastures and manors with numerous slaves. The place Maria sent Amon to inspect was somewhere to the south of Memfis, near the sepat of Herak and about sixty miles to the west of the Nile. The dry climate made the place deserted, with many rocky hills.
The few, scattered clumps of grass at the foot of the hills and the shrubs between the rocks could hardly cover the yellow ground. The hills were of a darker color. Beside them were stretches of low, dilapidated huts built of mud and rocks. As shabby as this place was, it was important to the Isis Shrine. It was the main production area of parangons in Lower Ejypt, Mount Horeb.
Amon was assigned to inspect the parangon mine in Mount Horeb and escort last season’s harvest back to Memfis. He was warmly received by Pawara, the chief manager of the mine, a sixth-level mage and a senior priest. He welcomed Amon ardently and invited him to his luxurious mansion, where he presented his guest with lavish gifts.
Despite the desolate environment, being the manager of the Horeb mine was a plum job because of what it yielded, parangons.
Lord Pawara was a man who knew how to enjoy life. His mansion was a secret haven in this remote land. Magic formations were set to adjust temperature and moisture, making the place cool and fresh. Water was transported from the Nile and filtered. There were even fresh vegetables and meat from Herak every day, let alone condiments and wine.
It was also a juicy assignment to inspect Mount Horeb. Pawara had felt a bit anxious when he learned that this young inspector was appointed directly by the Adoratrice. He knew that the Adoratrice was just beginning her reign and was afraid that he would be the sacrificial lamb of the coming reform. That was why he plied Amon with exuberant presents the moment he arrived.
But his worries proved to be uncalled for. Amon wasn’t looking for trouble or trying to extort money from him. However, Amon soon discerned his fear. He accepted the gifts with a smile, then started to check up on the accounts and inventory. Seeing the young inspector order the priests to load the coach with the season’s tribute, Pawara finally brought out a sigh of relief.
The careful reception from Pawara didn’t impress Amon much. He didn’t try to be picky. He spent his first several days in Mount Horeb reading in his own room. The contents of the papyrus that Maria had given him were the code numbers of several files in the Archive. He had borrowed them before departure and had been reading them at his leisure.
Not all the files in the Archive were written in hieroglyphs. As a warrior, Amon was allowed to borrow some documents that were recorded with secular writings, but he hadn’t read any of them. He had started from the files written in hieroglyphs.
To his surprise, Maria wanted him to learn the art of war. The files were about military strategies, about how to organize an army, how to arrange logistics while marching, how to coordinate different branches and order them in a battle. Amon was a young and promising sixth-level warrior with a chance of ascending to a supreme warrior. Nevertheless, why would Maria tell him to read these documents? Was she expecting him to be a general?
Reading strategy books didn’t make a man a general, but it could be useful. There were few people in the continent who could read, so not many commoners had the chance to learn the art of war before participating in a battle. The documents that Maria gave Amon to read were in fact a series of systematic instructions on the art of war, from general introductions to specific treatises. If Amon was going to command an army in a war, these works would help him build a foundation at the very least.
Once he became a supreme warrior, should he possess systematic knowledge of warcraft as well, he would then be qualified to lead a legion. Was this a hint from Maria? Amon studied the documents seriously. He often tried to reconstruct the classic battles mentioned in the documents and apply strategies he had learned. When he arrived at Mount Horeb, he could already remember the contents of the documents by heart.
After he had finished checking the accounts and loading the parangons, Amon chose to stay in Pawara’s house. He still had a mission: to inspect the mine. The third day after his arrival, Amon asked Pawara to show him around in the mine. He would like to go through the whole process of parangon mining and extracting. Maria must have sent him here for a reason, so he decided visit the whole place.
Swinging his goblet of beer, Pawara tried to dissuade him, “Dear inspector, you don’t need to go into those nasty places yourself. If you want to know how parangons are extracted, you can just go see the place where our priests open the ores. I will write an excellent report about how Your Honor was diligent in fulfilling your mission.”
Amon chuckled inwardly. It seemed that this senior priest didn’t know who he was. He was a true miner. He had a workshop to open ores in the backyard of his own house ever since he was a child. He smiled and explained, “Don’t address me like that. I’m still a commoner. The Adoratrice asked me to inspect the whole place, and I will obey her orders. I am going to visit every corner of the mine. The noble lords might find this unbearable, but that’s not the case for me.”
He was not a noble? Pawara was already aware of it. But the chief guard of the mine, Hardedef, could hardly hide the astonishment and contempt on his face. Born in a powerful noble clan in Memfis, Hardedef was also a sixth-level warrior, just like Amon. However, his reputation was not as good. This volatile young nobleman was in Mount Horeb after being found guilty of intentional assault. In other words, he was in temporary exile.
Supercilious as he was, grievance naturally bred in Hardedef’s heart. When he saw Amon, he couldn’t help but compare himself with this young inspector, who was said to be appreciated by the Adoratrice for his deeds during the assassination attempt at the Hapisidis. Hardedef was sure that if he had been there when the accident happened, he would have done better. But having been garrisoned in this remote place, he would never have a chance to impress the Adoratrice. Now that he learned that this young inspector was just a commoner, his heart was filled with resentment.
Amon had already detected Hardedef’s emotion. Even so, he pretended that he knew nothing. He just smiled and replied mildly, “Please don’t worry for me, Lord Pawara. You don’t need to show me the place yourself. I just need a guide so that I can accomplish my task. You can pick one from your subordinates.”
The mine in Mount Horeb was large. Besides the parangons, it also produced the rock that would be used to build shrines and pyramids. The next day, Amon visited the work site. He felt like he had returned to Duc. The work site here was much larger than that of Duc’s. There were soldiers maintaining order and supervising the laborers, who were mostly slaves. The laborers battered large rocks into pieces to check for any ores in them. It was a toilsome labor and the laborers all looked terribly fatigued.
The following day, he went to inspect a recently discovered parangon mine vein. He entered the tunnels and saw rocks being carved out, ores being excavated and transported to the workshops. Amon recalled his old days in Duc. The Horeb mine was about ten times larger than the mine in Duc, with a lot more miners, but the yield here was only one tenth that of Duc.
On the third day, he went to see the last step of the parangon mining. In a large, clean rock house, several dozens of primary mages were extracting ores with staffs. They were mostly in the first level. The Isis Shrine would send new mages to extract ores as a trial, where they usually worked two or three seasons before being replaced by newcomers. It was a tough mission for these young nobles. Still, each of them had a separate room, and a slave to serve them.
Watching them opening ores, Amon quietly estimated the daily yield of the mine, then he found something wrong. He asked his guide, “I have been counting the number of parangons that you can produce in a day. With this speed, you can only produce three fifths of the seasonal yield. Has the yield been decreasing today?”
The accompanying priest hastened to explain, “This is not the case, dear inspector. There’s another group of people extracting the parangons from the ores. But those ragtags work in a dirty place. You don’t need to see them.”
Amon was startled. There was indeed something wrong with this place. Every ore in Ejypt was extracted by mages, how could there be any “ragtags”? He insisted, “I’ve already been in the dirty tunnels. Parangon extracting workshops can’t be any worse. I have to inspect every place of the mine. Show me the way.”
The priest answered reluctantly, “It’s lunch time. I suggest we have some lunch before we continue, dear inspector?”
The accompanying priests encouraged Amon to a lot of wine during the meal, but Amon still insisted on seeing the place. Finally, they reached another patch of huts in the rear of the mine site.
It was a separated village. Surrounded by low cottages was a large workshop, which was low as well. Standing on both sides of its narrow gate were two armed guards.
Before he entered the gate, Amon heard a furious roar, “You filthy miner! Are you seeking death? How dare you ruin my parangon…? The inspector’s here. He ordered double the production! You have to turn in twenty more parangons today! Or this man will be your example!”
Along with the roar was the sound of whips. Amon suddenly found something. He jumped into the room with a big stride.
The workshop was commodious. Dozens of miners were wielding hammers around rows of anvils, trying to extract parangons from ores. A delicate young man was crouching beside a workbench close to the gate, a hammer in hand. In front of him was a smashed ore with a shining broken parangon.
Amon noticed the young man at first sight. His face was darker and thinner, but was still familiar to Amon. He was Moses, Mayor Dusti’s son!
Hardedef, the chief guard of the mine, was standing beside him, filled with anger, waving a whip towards Moses with full strength. The next instant, however, he vaguely caught sight of a figure, and saw his whip striking on another man’s back, leaving a long bloody wound. The man turned around with a sullen face, chest heaving terribly, as if he was restraining his rage. It was Amon, the inspector from Memfis!
Hardedef was astounded. He hurriedly put down the whip and said, “Mister Amon! Why are you here? Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to hurt you! It was an accident!”
The priests arrived as well. Frightened, they rushed to the inspector and asked, “Are you alright, dear inspector? …Please don’t blame Lord Hardedef. He didn’t mean it. Please return to your room with us… This should be enough for today. You need to take a break…”
[List of Characters]
Pawara : The chief manager of the mine in Mount Horeb.
Hardedef : The chief guard of the mine in Mount Horeb.
Moses : Mayor Dusti’s son.