Volume II : The First Sin
Chapter 63 – Aesop’s Story[3083 words]
The coach went in silence. At sunset, they arrived at the place where Sihathor’s caravan had been assaulted. The camels were still tied to the carriages. Some horses were still roaming in sight. Numerous corpses were half-buried in the sand, including those of bodyguards with their weapons still in hand. They had all been killed by Sebni Abu and his fellow. It seemed that his frightening gang hadn’t been with them. The two sandmen had decided to rob the caravan on the spur of the moment, and they proved to have the ability to do so. They would have succeeded if they hadn’t run into Amon.
Amon told Aesop to stop, and he descended from the coach. He observed the scene and sighed, “What misery. If we can’t take their bodies back to their homeland, we have to at least bury them well.”
They stayed for a night. The bodies were interred. The camels and horses were gathered and tied to the coach. The other broken coach was dismantled. Amon split the carriage into many long pieces and erected them on the grave mounds. While Amon and Aesop were doing this, Sihathor was standing aside watching. Although he thought it was a total waste to dismantle the coach, he didn’t say a word about it.
To his surprise, Amon found that the strange ability that he had acquired in the Underworld hadn’t disappeared. He could sense the emotions of the master and the servant, but only when he was in a state of profound meditation. What was this? Was it an ability that he had “carried out” from the Underworld, or something in his nature that had been awakened by chance?
Let it be. Amon didn’t think too much about it. To him, it was just another magical power, similar to the others he had obtained from the day he started to learn magic. If he could obtain a magical power by learning, then it was possible that he could obtain one by chance. After all, it was not bad to obtain an ability like this one. The more, the better.
Sihathor was on his way back from Uruk after a merchanting venture. He didn’t have many goods with him. However, he did have the profits he had earned in Uruk. This was why Sebni Abu had chased him for so long a distance. All of his treasure was kept in a bulging pouch that he held in his arms even when he went to sleep.
The three continued on their journey at dawn. Sitting in a coach with plenty of food and water and horses, Amon found that the journey became much cozier. At noon, when the temperature peaked, Amon took the cat into his arms, pulled out a waterskin and gave it a drink. Small drops of water dampened the cat’s lips and then leaked into its mouth. Amon did it gently, like a mother feeding her baby.
Sihathor tried to break the silence, “You must be an Ejyptian. Only we Ejyptians cherish cats this way, adoring them as divine creatures. I keep four of them in my home. I can give the one I love the most to you, if you’d like. It is a little one with unique fur patterns, very docile.”
Amon smiled and shook his head, “Thank you for your kindness, but please keep it. This cat is a friend of mine. It’s been sick lately.” He then threw out a question that almost made Sihathor jump out of the coach, “How much money are you carrying? And why did the sandmen target you?”
The merchant subconsciously held the pouch tightly in his arms and shrank back, “Not much, just a dozen parangons.”
A dozen parangons were equal to about three hundred gold parans. That was a large sum of money even for a businessman. But Amon could tell that he was lying. Even without using his new ability or the Detection Eyes, he could discern it from his reaction and tone. The true number of parangons that Sihathor had with him was more than twenty-five. He made a grand promise the day before while competing with the sandman, which was to pay Amon three times the money he had with him. That would be at least seventy-five parangons, which was indeed a huge amount of money.
When he realized last night what he had promised in front of Amon, the merchant felt like being stabbed in the belly by a khopesh. He had been anxious from then on, fearing that Amon would suddenly check his pouch. Luckily, Amon didn’t go further on this topic. But Sihathor could already feel sweat trickling down his back.
Amon could see the merchant’s reaction clearly. He felt it laughable. He saved him because he wanted to, not because of the reward. But he found it funny to tease this merchant with it. Unlike the simple blacksmiths in Duc, he was weak and fat, shrewd and overcautious. Amon also recalled the merchants he had met in Duc. They were stronger and burlier, more open and direct.
In spite of his fully grown appearance, Amon was just sixteen years old. What he did next shocked Sihathor yet again. He took a fine brass bottle out of his bag, uncorked it, put the bottle to the cat’s lips, and gently fed it wine.
The carriage was suddenly filled with an enticing aroma. Even the coachman Aesop inhaled deeply. It must be an excellent wine. Amon had bought two bottles of wine for Schrodinger at Som. The cat previously drank one of them, and Amon had kept the other one in Orisis’ rib.
Sihathor was tempted by the fragrance as well. The wine in Amon’s bottle was clearly better than what he had in his waterskin. Licking his lips, the merchant sighed, “What a pity! Using the best wine to feed a cat.”
“It’s a friend of mine. It loves good wine.”
“I am a friend of yours too, dear lord. A most loyal one.”
Amon looked into his eyes, “I saved your life, but you are already regretting your promise. Now you are disappointed, because I choose to share my wine with a cat and not with you?”
Amon chose to be frank. He already saw through Sihathor. The merchant was abashed. He dodged Amon’s gaze and replied awkwardly, “No, of course not! As soon as we reach Cape, I will give you thirty parangons as my reward. And of course, there will be even more…”
Amon smiled. He knew that he was being mischievous and had made Sihathor uncomfortable. He stopped talking and fed the cat intently. He found that the cat was not completely unconscious anymore. It slightly licked its lips when it smelled the wine, seeming to enjoy it. After awhile, it burped, wormed its way into Amon’s arms, slightly rubbed his chest with its head, and then fell asleep.
It was the first time in the last two days that Amon saw this cat move. It seemed that it had recovered a bit, which gave Amon relief as well. He put the bottle back into the bag. If Schrodinger could drink wine, he could feed it some soup at dinner.
At dusk, Amon ordered the coach to stop and cooked a pot of soup on the ground. He waited for the soup to cool and fed the cat with it. Schrodinger ate less than before. It finished half a pot and fell asleep again. Amon then cooked another pot and invited Sihathor and the coachman to eat together.
As Sihathor’s slave, Aesop didn’t sit with them. He gratefully ate the rest of the soup after Amon and Sihathor finished eating. Even for Sihathor, it was the best food he had tasted in days.
Night fell. It was a beautiful starry night. Amon found a dune to sit down and begin his meditation. It was his daily assignment.
At twilight, the coach moved again. Sihathor thought for a long time and looked curiously at Amon. Finally, he asked, “My dear lord, are you a mage?”
Amon asked back quietly, “Why do you think so?”
“I saw you meditating last night. As far as I know, only the esteemed mages meditate. So I impertinently allowed myself to ask this question. If you are indeed a mage, please forgive my imprudence.”
Amon shook his head, “No, I’m not a mage.”
The coachman interrupted, “Master, I know some people who are not mages and yet still meditate. In my homeland, many common people like to sit and meditate. They ask themselves deep questions about life and existence and anything else. They are not mages… Sometimes, I also like to sit and think about what I have seen and experienced. It’s a nice thing to do.”
His words helped Amon a lot, saving him from more explanations. The rest of the journey was quiet and peaceful. They met other caravans too. The desert became rocky land. Then there were shrubs and weeds. Finally, they saw villages on the horizon.
Amon was ready to show the certificate to the soldiers at the checkpoint. But it went easier than he had expected. Sihathor was familiar with the tax collector and the patrolling soldiers at the checkpoint. At the cost of a small fee, they entered the territory of Cape without any examination or interrogation.
Leaving the checkpoint, Sihathor said to Amon with embarrassment, “We are in Ejypt now. But I have to reach Cape City to contact my shops and give you my reward.” He was implying that Amon should continue to escort him to Cape City.
Amon smiled, “I was planning to pay a visit to Cape City too. Let’s go together. I originally thought you were going back to Memfis. But I have to stay in Cape City for some time. So let’s part there.”
There was still a long way from the border of the state to Cape City. They passed a few villages and towns. The largest one was a port at the northern coast, with tens of thousands of inhabitants. It was comparable to a city-state. According to Sihathor’s explanation, the port was experiencing a sudden boom after the flood, since the land transport between Cape and Syah had been totally cut off.
However, for the state, or the sepat, as the Ejyptian people called it, the overall impact of the flood was negative, because an important trade route had been compromised. The traditional shipping lines of the Empire of Ejypt began from Memfis rather than Cape. The ports there had better conditions.
They proceeded toward the west. The next afternoon, they reached Cape City. Amon was immediately attracted by this flourishing city. It had a different kind of prosperity from that of the capital of the kingdom of Bablon. Standing in the middle of the infertile land of Cape, the capital of the sepat was built from rock. Behind the high ramparts made of soil and reeds, the streets were paved with cobble, the houses were piled with stones. Walking on the small metalled paths, various stalls and shops would jump out to your eyes. Vendors from different places lined the road, displaying the accessories and small toys they had brought from faraway lands. Shopkeepers were busy bargaining with foreign dealers who had just unloaded sacks of nutmeg and raisins from their camels. Jugglers and dancers could be seen in every plaza. Their little tricks delighted the customers of the nearby taverns, who threw copper coins to them with happy laughter. At night, by the fires all around the market, the tired traders sat on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets, chatting among themselves or listening carefully to the storytellers.
Cape was a bustling trading city. Its vitality was hidden in the disorder. Pessimistic people should come to this place before they commit suicide, for they could have a glimpse of the many different lifestyles and perhaps find the ones that suit them.
For Amon, who had just escaped from the Anunnaki Underworld, this contrast was immense. Even though he had demonstrated astonishing perseverance at the time, the experience had been harmful to his mental health. He needed to relax. And Cape was the perfect place.
Sihathor treated his savior well indeed. He arranged a nice hotel for him and asked Aesop to show him around the city in the coach. Amon spent two days in Cape visiting all kinds of interesting places. Despite being a slave, Aesop knew much about the city. He was also a good storyteller. Amon greatly enjoyed chatting with him.
On the third day, Sihathor invited Amon to the branch store of his family firm in Cape. He asked the shop manager Hepu to take out thirty parangons and put them on the counter, “My dear lord, please accept these parangons as appreciation for all your invaluable help that saved my life.”
Sihathor tried his best to look sincere. But Amon could sense that he was reluctant. He could feel that the merchant was dearly wishing for him to refuse so he could grab the money back right away. It was normal. People should feel heart ache when giving out such a large sum of money.
Amon didn’t want to give him a hard time either. He didn’t want to turn the man he had saved against him. He shook his hands and said firmly, “Sihathor, you should be thankful that you are still alive and are able to continue to enjoy your wealth. But have you thought about your bodyguards and your servants? They died to protect you. I will take ten from these. Please give the rest to the families of those who died in the desert.”
Sihathor was so moved that he almost burst into tears. He didn’t need to spend extra money on the solatium for the dead anymore. He came to Amon and grabbed his arm, “Thank you, my dear lord! If one day you pass by Memfis, please do drop by. I will treat you with the best I have.”
Aesop was moved as well. He took ten parangons from the counter and handed them to Amon, “Dear lord, I thank you for those who died in the desert, for your courage, righteousness, generosity and kindness.”
Amon took the parangons and put them in his bag. But Aesop was so excited that he forgot one thing. By Ejyptian law, slaves were forbidden from touching parangons. Touching one parangon would result in one finger being cut off. And Aesop had touched ten.
But neither Amon nor Sihathor appeared to have noticed this. Instead, Hepu, the manager of the branch, suddenly shouted out, “Master Sihathor, your slave just touched ten parangons! It’s a serious violation of the law!… He has crossed the line too many times now! It’s unacceptable!”
It was embarrassing to point it out during such a moving scene. Hepu shouted loudly and all the workers in the shop had heard his words. Aesop paled. But he managed to refrain from saying anything. Amon was shocked too. Looking at this slave, he recalled the scene in the square of Duc, where Shog had tried to force him to cut off his finger.
Sihathor was angry. He didn’t expect Hepu to denounce Aesop out loud. Why couldn’t he just turn a blind eye to that? To Sihathor, Aesop was a useful slave. He had rich life experience and a silver tongue. Sihathor regarded him as a valuable asset. During the sandmen’s assault, it was Aesop who had swiftly decided to drive the coach away from the path. Had he stayed there any longer, he and his master would have died like all the others in the caravan.
However, now that everyone had heard the manager’s accusation, it wasn’t wise for Sihathor to publicly speak for his slave. Amon glanced at Hepu. He could see anger and resentment in his eyes when he looked at Aesop, and he could sense a delight of revenge. Why? It was not hard to understand. Amon could also feel Shog’s resentment when he tried to cut off Amon’s finger.
Sihathor’s family firm had suffered a huge loss during the sandmen’s attack. And the loss was charged to the branch store in Cape. So were the thirty parangons. Hepu’s earnings were certainly going to be reduced. Meanwhile, Aesop, as a slave, had gained more confidence from his master. Sometimes, Hepu felt that Aesop’s status was even higher than his. Not to mention that Aesop had criticized him through innuendo several times in the past.
Moreover, Hepu had heard that it was Aesop who had saved the master’s life. What would his position be after that? Now that he had caught the slave making a mistake, it would be truly regrettable if he missed such a good opportunity to strike back.
Sihathor was quite embarrassed. He looked to Amon for help, “Dear lord, please tell me how I should deal with him.” He obviously didn’t want to implement the punishment to his slave, otherwise he wouldn’t have asked the question. To him, slaves are assets too. After the sandmen’s attack, he certainly didn’t want to lose any more valuable assets.
Amon didn’t think he could be another Aristotle. He was not a master of sophistry. He kindly asked Aesop, “What would be a good reason, if you want to keep your fingers on your hands?” He wanted to hear how this slave, who was skilled at witty conversation, would defend himself. At the worst, Amon would buy him with the parangons he just obtained, which could surely dispel all criticism.
Aesop tried to calm his voice, “Master, dear lord. I know that the law forbids a slave from touching a parangon. But I also know that the law says that a slave is property, and the owner of a slave has the right to decide how and when to punish the slave, as long as it doesn’t cause conflict with others.”
Sihathor nodded, “You are right. I can decide how and when to punish you. But I cannot go against the law. As everyone saw, you touched the parangons. Lord Amon asked you to give him a good reason to keep your fingers on your hands. Do you have a good reason?”
Aesop replied, “Please allow me to tell a story. It’s something I witnessed when I was younger. A story that takes place in a faraway land, about a savant called Pythagoras.”
[List of Characters]
Sihathor : An Ejyptian merchant.
Aesop : Sihathor’s slave.
Hepu : The manager of the branch store of Sihathor’s family firm in Cape City.