Prologue : Saint Maria
Chapter 1 – The purest prayer[3748 words]
“Isis the great, almighty and benevolent, mother who fertilizes our lands and gives hope to all living beings; King Horus, whose divine power protects Ejypt and whose eternal glory shines upon the world.
Nu’n, father of the gods, born in the lotus of origin, creator of all; Ennead, the ones who dwell in the source of the holy river. Gods dominating the sky and the earth!… I beseech your patience to hear my words.
As you’ve said in the oracles, only the purest and most pious of hearts may receive the mercy of the gods. I here dedicate everything to you, my goddess Isis. Please let me have the Gods’ Tear…”
Icho Maria was praying to the gods. She prayed in a remote town called Duc, found on the border of the Kingdom of Hittite, which paid tribute to the great Empire of Ejypt.
The size of Duc was remarkable in this desolate rural region. It had several hundreds of houses and thousands of residents. Lord Dusti, the Mayor of Duc, was a Hittite nobleman. He also enjoyed the citizenship of the Great Empire of Ejypt, with all its privileges.
A town in the middle of nowhere had an excellent mayor for a reason. It was special. Duc was located at the southernmost tip of the state of Syah, which was famous for three of its products: iron, cedars and parangons.
They were the most important products that Hittite used to trade with foreign countries as well as the most precious tributes Hittite paid to the Empire.
Iron was used to make good weapons. Once refined by craftsmen, it could be made into the sharpest of swords and toughest of armors. It was a symbol of power, a useful tool to guard and seize treasure.
Many countries on the continent produced iron, but with limited output capacity. The production and trade of iron was strictly controlled by the authorities. Although Duc did not produce much iron, its iron was refined and of the best quality in not only the Kingdom of Hittite, but in the entirety of the continent, making it rare and famous. Most adults in town were miners as well as blacksmiths.
Cedars grew on the plateau due west of Kingdom of Hittite and in the mighty mountains beside the Euphrates. The timber, after being soaked in cold water, dried in the sun, doused in creosote and heated over a fire, then became the best material to use for ship building. Ships made with cedars could sail on lakes, rivers and even oceans.Various navies needed them in warfare, and merchants needed them to trade among countries. Duc did not produce cedars. They were everywhere in the mountains to the east of the town, but it was hard to imagine these huge trees being cut down and brought out of the high mountains.
The most important of Duc’s exports, however, was not iron. It was the [parangon]. Parangons, or the [Holy Gems], were the true rarity on this continent. Syah was one of the most important producing areas of parangon, and Duc produced almost half the parangons of Syah. Every country on the continent wanted parangons. The ones who wanted them the most were the masters of the supreme magics, the high priests of the various shrines to the gods.
Most of the ordinary folk and slaves did not understand the true usage of the parangons. They might have seen them on the scepters of the priests or on the armor and weapons of noble warriors. They seemed to be a symbol of power, wealth and divine force. Parangons themselves were also the most valuable currency across the continent. A parangon, which was indivisible, was twenty times as valuable as gold of the same weight.
The parangons used as hard currency were the most common ones, called standard parangons. They were completely identical to one another, with the same quality, size and shape. They were used as the standard unit of weight and length in the whole continent. The universal unit “paran” was named after the parangon. One paran meant the weight of one parangon. Some priests showed their extravagance by using parangons as the weights on the scales.
Icho Maria had come to Duc with Rod Drick, the governor and oracle of her home state. What she prayed for was far from a standard parangon. She was praying for the legendary [Gods’ Tear]. Only with a Gods’ Tear could she get the approval of the high priests of the Isis Shrine in Memfis and become the Adoratrice, guardian of Mother Isis. Only the purest prayer could communicate with the gods and obtain the Gods’ Tear, which would mean that the gods approved of her as the Adoratrice.
Icho Maria prayed devotedly. However, every parangon, even the most precious Tears of the Gods, were not given by the hands of the gods, but extracted by the hands of the miners.
Icho Maria resided in a villa in the south of the town, besides the shrine of Horus. It was one of the most beautiful villas in town and the former residence of the mayor. But in every city on the continent, the most important buildings were the shrines where people worshipped and offered sacrifices to the gods. The more powerful and prosperous a city was, the more splendid its shrines would be.
The shrines in Duc certainly could not be compared with those in the big cities. But, for an ordinary town, the shrine of Horus here was an edifice of opulence. It was built with huge blocks of white rock, decoratively topped by dark blue-grey stone statues. The pillars were made of white marble imported from far away. The lustrous lazurite was a local specialty. Using it as building material might sound luxurious in other places, but here in Duc, it was common practice.
There were two shrines of equal size in Duc. The one built in the south with white marble was for Horus, the patron of the Empire of Ejypt, showing the locals’ allegiance to the Pharaoh of Ejypt. The other was for the local patron Mourrin, a goddess who had been worshipped from ancient times not only by the people of Duc, but also by many in Assyr (to the northeast of Duc) and Bablon (to the southeast of Duc).
In fact, the Kingdom of Hittite was a union of a several dozen states. For the sake of better and smoother governance, the Pharaoh of Ejypt did not destroy the shrines in Hittite after conquering it. Instead, he granted the Hittites the right to worship their own gods on the condition that they agree to equally worship Horus, the patron of Ejypt.
Icho Maria prayed from the living room on the first floor. She prayed in the morning after she got up and bathed, at noon before lunch and at sunset. Of the three days she had spent in this town, she prayed every day, wholeheartedly and respectfully. Even Gabriel, the guardian of the shrine who had received the strictest training, felt from the bottom of her heart that Icho Maria had met every requirement of the Adoratrice, and that the gods would have mercy on her.
The sacred Nile River divided the Empire of Ejypt into two prosperous lands: Upper and Lower Ejypt. Gabriel was a warrior of the Isis Shrine in Memfis, the capital of Lower Ejypt. She had been sent to protect Maria in response to the report and request of Rod Drick, the governor and oracle of the state Cape of Lower Ejypt. Every qualified candidate of the Adoratrice of Isis would have a protector from the Isis Shrine.
Gabriel stood downstairs when Maria prayed, at the door to the courtyard. Strapped to her waist was a heavy long sword, which had a parangon set on each side of the crossguard. Though she detected no danger in the area, she still wore the silver armor in the most exacting manner. From where she was standing, she could see the lazurite dome of the shrine of Mourrin on the other side of the town. A cold smile appeared on her pursed lips.
Apparently this alien goddess gained no favor from the Isis Shine’s warrior. Now that the Pharaoh had granted the place the right to keep its own shrine, there was nothing she could say. Her duty covered no more than protecting Icho Maria. No other business should be taken into consideration.
Gabriel was tall, slender and straight. A sensual beauty pervaded her lithe but strong body. Her face carried some clear characteristics of the northern people, with her pale skin, straight nose, and charming cerulean eyes. Her golden hair curled upon the silver armor, creating a gentle harmony between softness and firmness. She was so young and beautiful, but the children who used to play with stones outside the gate had disappeared on her arrival.
When people saw Gabriel, the first impression may not be a beautiful woman. She did not try to hide her commanding presence made of confidence, pride and power.
Gabriel was the only guard in the residence. The Isis Shrine had sent only one warrior to protect Icho Maria, candidate of the Adoratrice. But Gabriel knew that stationed right in the shrine of Horus were 60 fully-armed elite soldiers acting as the escorts of Rod Drick.
Obviously, Lord Rod Drick did not believe that Gabriel alone could protect Maria. Though the desert between Ejypt and Hittite was dangerous, a squadron of 60 elite soldiers was still a trifle over the top. As a sign of good breeding, Lord Drick did not say anything. Still, Gabriel could feel his discontentment.
She did not mind it at all, not only out of politeness, but also because of her own pride.
On the other side of the town, in a room on the top floor of a mansion near the shrine of Mourrin, Rod Drick was looking out of the window with a goblet of wine in hand. His brown eyes glistened as if he could see the villa where Gabriel was standing.
It seemed as though this warrior from Memfis was not used to modesty. It was natural for her to display her power and aura publicly, which was normal considering that one part of her job was to make the majesty of the gods known. But for a man from a noble family that had lasted for generations, it was a dangerous habit. It was always better to hide a part of one’s power instead of brazenly exposing it to his potential rivals. Fights for power and wealth in the secular world could be, and were, brutal. One should be prepared to show proper deterrence, but should also prepare a last resort, meaning one’s true power should only be revealed at the right moment.
As for the shrine of Mourrin not far away, Lord Drick did not find it inappropriate. People on this continent worshipped all kinds of gods. Some were powerful, others were unassuming. Some appeared in well known legends, and some were just what the locals thought to be their patrons. Every country on this continent was ruled under a mix of a monarchy and a theocracy, where the monarch claimed to represent a deity.
The Pharaoh of Ejypt claimed himself to be the incarnation and representative of Horus, king of the gods and ruler of the Upper and Lower Ejypt. In Lower Ejypt, however, the Isis Shrine in Memfis was the center of power. In the old legends, Isis was the patron of Lower Ejypt and the mother of Horus. Her major shrine was located in Memfis, the capital city of Lower Ejypt.
Lord Rod Drick was indeed not content with the fact that the Isis Shrine had only sent a single warrior to protect the candidate from Cape. He felt that his state had been undervalued. The state of Cape was on the northeastern border of the Empire of Ejypt, next to Bablon and Hittite. A vast desert spanned the border, making Cape incomparable to those rich states with fertile soil . But its important location brought it benefits as well as harm. It was an important trade port to the northeastern countries in peacetime, a place full of opportunities. On the other hand, it was also the first place to suffer devastation when war broke out.
The Kingdom of Hittite had acknowledged its allegiance to Ejypt, but Rod Drick had heard vague rumors that the lords of some of the Hittite states were unwilling to accept the fate of being a vassal and were forming a secret union to fight against Ejypt. Therefore, when the Isis Shrine had decided to select the new Adoratrice, it was normal that Drick wished that she was from Cape. Not only would it bring the glory he had often wished for to his state, but if a conflict broke out, an Adoratrice from Cape could use the power of the Isis Shrine, or even the entirety of Lower Ejypt, to protect her homeland.
As such, Drick definitely wouldn’t like to see any accident befall Maria. So he brought with him the best military force he could wield, a force that appeared far excessive for the task of escorting a single person across the desert. Drick clearly had plans for himself. As the governor and oracle of a state, he was young for the power he held, which was not only because of his outstanding family background, but his own talent as well. He was the kind of person that knew how to seize opportunities and extract maximal benefit from it.
The Isis Shrine had sent one person for this mission. Good for them. At least it saved Lord Rod Drick a large amount of bribe money. The second he saw Gabriel though, he had a feeling that this shrine guard was different from most of the greedy priests he had seen. She was like a prideful cockerel. A bribe was definitely something she would look down upon rather than desire. Also, it seemed that she did not have much knowledge about money.
It appeared that Gabriel did not know the true value of the sword she bore, since the way she bore it did nothing but attract admiration or envy. If she walked about alone, the first effect the sword would have was invite bandits rather than protect her from them. Moreover, she had walked alone from Memfis to Cape. Rod Drick was amazed by the luck she had had that allowed her to arrive safely. Maybe the bandits knew who she was and did not dare offend the Shrine.
In the name of the candidate for Adoratrice and Lord Gabriel, with their retinue of servants and so many soldiers, the convoy arrived at the town of Duc with an enormous amount of goods and materials, most of which were fine wine and food that were extremely popular in the town. Accompanied by Lord Gabriel, they passed the border between Ejypt and Hittite without any check or taxes.
Speaking of taxes, the parangons extracted by the inhabitants of Duc were to be turned in as tax to the state. The laws of the state said that they could keep one of every ten parangons they found as the reward of their work. Rod Drick was very sure that Dusti, the mayor of Duc, was not as selfless as he was made out to be. He must have kept a lot of them to himself.
Parangons were currency. A parangon was worth twenty parans of gold. The same was true in Duc. However, Duc was rich and poor at the same time. Apart from iron and parangons, the only other product Duc had was the poor yield of barley from its barren land, which was barely enough to keep its inhabitants from starving. All other materials and luxuries in life had to be imported in from outside. Further, Duc was so remote that the cost of transportation was often much higher than the value of goods transported.
One thing that the people of Duc might not be aware of was that Duc was probably the richest town on the continent, but also had the highest prices and living cost. The tax on commercial roads to Duc was incredibly heavy, but a successful trade could still turn a decent profit.
As a cover for the goods he had brought to Duc, Dik had organized a caravan formed of the merchants of Cape. The merchants were more than willing to go with the convoy of Lord Dik. After all, it was a guarantee of absolute safety without paying a coin to hire escorts. With the presence of Lord Gabriel and Lord Dik, they would also not get extorted by the tax collectors on the way. They were quite grateful to Lord Dik for his kindness to his subjects. Not many noble officials took such good care of their merchants.
Lord Dik had just finished a pleasant conversation with mayor Dusti over the dinner table. They were both quite satisfied with the deal they had just brokered. Apart from the parangons, Lord Dik had also purchased a considerable amount of precious refined iron. This was smuggling, and such deals were to be kept clandestine. They decided to enjoy the delicious food and wine instead of talking.
The deals were delightful, but Rod Drick didn’t like the place. The air was choked with acrid smoke, and he was a bit anxious because all that was left was simply waiting.
What he was seeking here with Maria was not a simple deal with the locals. That was a side benefit. The genuine goal was the Gods’ Tear. The high priests had released the oracle. A Gods’ Tear would be given to the world. The one who received it would be the Adoratrice, guardian of Mother Isis.
Rod Drick had his own interpretation of this message. The Gods’ Tear was just a rarer type of parangon. If they were to be given to the world, they would most likely appear in the large parangon mines. Hence, he took the advantage of proximity and went to Duc, following his theory that early birds would catch the worm. It was a gamble. The difference was that every possible outcome was profitable, let alone the best one.
He told Maria that Mother Isis had given him guidance in his dream. Maria told the story to Gabriel and persuaded her to come to Duc across the desert.
Maria prayed piously every day after she had arrived at Duc. At the same time, Lord Rod Drick who had made up this story had started to feel impatient. The town was full of reeking furnaces. It was unbearable for any decent man. He doubted whether he could stand one more day. He forced himself to think of something else, like the legends about Gods’ Tear.
What are these stories about the mercy of gods?, he ranted inside his drunken head. Are they the will of the gods, or lies invented by the priests? Since when was this prophecy been released and spread? It’s just a stone, no matter how precious and useful it could be. Your should rather pray to the miners than to the gods. How will a Gods’ Tear make you the Adoratrice? If this was true, then what has it made the miner that discovered it? He could be just a dirty old man!
A gust of hot smoky wind from the window woke him up. Drick shuddered. He put his hand on his heart and prayed, “Isis the great, I mean no offense to you. I was only confused —”
Suddenly, something stopped him. He felt an indescribable wave of energy, mysterious and strange. It cleansed him of the displeasure caused by the hot smoky wind and the fear that made him shudder. He traced the source of the wave and found a small house on the edge of town.
Rod Drick put down the goblet and shouted, “Fayol! Get in here! The Gods’ Tear may have appeared. I have something for you to do!”
Gabriel looked up at the town. She felt a mysterious yet familiar wave of energy, faint but clear, causing ripples in the air. Her eyes glistened with relief. She looked back at the window to Maria’s room.
DING——. This clear sound was followed by a long-lasting small buzz in the room. Amon was holding a heavy hammer, and he had just struck it upon a fist-sized shiny black round stone. The hammer was heavy but the arms waving it were not ponderous. As it fell, it whistled through the air, but only a clear ding sounded as it lightly struck the rock.
Amon held the big hammer in a funny way. His hands were holding the fore part of the handle, with his wrists and forearms running parallel to it. Only 14, he wasn’t tall enough nor fully grown, but his muscles were strong and firm. As he wielded the hammer, they all contracted as one. The bulging muscles trembled as if there were small snakes scurrying beneath. According to the old traditions of Duc, a boy at his age was not qualified to extract parangons from the ores alone. A technique unique to Duc, it was the last and crucial step to obtain parangons from the mines after all the hard work in quarrying, cutting and transporting.
But he had to do this in his house. His father was drunk again. Those shaking hands could not control the hammer. And they had to turn in one parangon the next day.
[List of Characters]
Icho Maria Irka: Born and brought up in the Irka family in the state of Cape in the Empire of Ejypt. Left her family at 15 and lived in the Isis Shrine of Memfis as Icho Maria, a candidate of the Adoratrice of Isis.
Dusti: Mayor of Duc, chief priest of the Horus Shrine and the Mourrin Shrine of Duc.
Rod Drick: Governor and oracle of the state of Cape.
Gabriel: Warrior of the Isis Shrine of Memfis, protector of Icho Maria.
Amon: A miner’s son.
[List of Deities]
Horus: King of Gods, major God of Ejypt.
Isis: Patron of Lower Ejypt, mother of Horus in the legends.
Mourrin: Patron of Duc, worshipped in the large area across Hittite, Assyr and Bablon.