Autumn came. Once more, Bet Maryam sent me to the dye-works to further my understanding of the craft. Once more, I protested that I would prefer continuing as a fire imp to having to go back to snail milk. Once more, no one listened.
Stinky, my skin patched with dark reds and crusted-blood purples, the season drew to an end. And the Hecatoi announced that the Golden Thyrsus competition would be held, as it was only once every eight years. It would be awarded at the peak of festivities on the longest night of the year.
I thought about the rules, and I asked Sobe, Marmar and Haha to tell me about past winners they could remember. With so long between each competition, the judging panel was never the same twice. The only pattern I found in the awards was their priority for new techniques using tools, systems and people already in place. Also, their predilection for undertakings which would expand the temple’s power and prestige.
I wondered if there were any concerns I understood within the temple well enough to leap over the established practices and make an early name for myself. Some winners of the Golden Thyrsus had been quite young. Some had been Hecatoi time out of mind. The lack of a pattern left me frustrated.
Mimi ordered a set of small, stoppered glass containers from the glassworks shortly after I had returned. She wanted them in several sizes, each to hold a known volume. The artist worked with her to devise a method using molds, cruder and heavier than blown glass but identical from first to last, to reproduce the sizes she required with the tightly fitting stoppers which were her secondary concern.
In the end, they were a hybrid. We blew small gathers out, then clamped the molds around them, and finished blowing them into their final shape. Popped into the annealer to cool slowly, without cracking, they were basic enough once we had the molds that the artist allowed me to produce them all from gather to annealing.
The design was simple and undecorated. The process required little more than ticking off the set steps. The time involved was brief. Within one turn of Our Lady’s front wheels, we had the full set ready to go to Mimi’s still room, each stopper polished to ravishing smoothness for a tight seal-- a point on which Mimi never ceased insisting.
Part of my thinking crystallized at one of the family meals when Yahya and Yeshua, with the faithful Yosif in tow, returned from their northern trade circuit. I half-listened, being occupied with getting more honey onto the fresh cheese spread over wheaten bread we enjoyed to mark the occasion. It was tricky getting a full coat of golden honey to sit tamely on the low swirls of the soft cheese. I had determined to make it the best bite of the evening. It took nearly all my concentration.
“Tin is too heavy, I’m telling you. It would take oxcarts, and they are too slow and too water dependent,” Yahya insisted.
“Not by boat. The tin wouldn’t slow down a ship at all. It could make port at Barbarikon,” Yosif replied.
“Then what? You have around by the plains, up the mountains and through the desert. Or the short way, up the mountains and up the mountains and then through the desert. And then there’s the long way, around the great horn of the Hind and all the long way north again to one of the Han ports. There are barbarian tribes on the steppes, bandits in the mountains, and pirates to the very mouth of the Yangzi delta-- if what your sources say is true. And you would still need to haul that tin thousands upon thousands of stadion, though it might be done by river boat and barge at least part of the way,” Yahya conceded.
“Tin can’t be a commodity. It might be a secondary profit generator, but more likely tertiary. Yahya is right, it weighs too much. Of course, it would then be less convenient for brigands, pirates, bandits and the like to rob us of our key payload,” Yeshua chimed in.
“If we choose amber and furs, we have as much trouble or more than we would have with the tin, as both are lighter in weight and more easily portable,” Yosif objected.
“Yet there is an established market for both, which simplifies hauling it all that long way. There would be no trouble finding a buyer at a good price on the other end,” Yahya rejoned.
“It is an everlasting pity that the dye is too unstable to transport from here to the Han. That would cap all trade, everywhere,” Yosif sighed.
“We send them the silk, dyed and woven,” Yeshua answered. “Don’t we see more return on finished goods? I had thought that was an axiom of successful merchants.”
“With the Han, no. They maintain that their looms are capable of finer cloth with more advanced patterning than anything we can supply. They would likely pay a premium to be let to dye and weave their own material in their own way, with their preferred decorative motifs and such. People like their own ways best.
“This is why the crafters here at Tzor specialize in making better what other places already have and buy. But the Han are correct when they rate their weaving more complex and finer than anything we can produce. It may have to do with the looms themselves. I would give much to see them in action.
“But there is a fierce prohibition on persons not of the Zhonghua, as they style themselves, even travelling through the silk producing district, let alone observing the processes which turn it from plant matter into the first desire of women everywhere,” Yosif admitted.
“And men. A lot of the Sanhedrin themselves change out of their linens and into silks when they are at home,” Yahya interjected judiciously.
“Among the men of Han as well. They wear it quilted in the winters and in single layers in the warm months. I have seen some of their winter robes among Sarmatians. I can’t think what they must have cost,” Yosif shook his head in admiration.
“If we could ship the dye intact, then the Han would be the ones shaking their heads at the value of our trade,” Haha jumped into the conversation in progress. “For a while, we thought the glass might serve, but it is just too fragile. Only one of the trade sized amphorae reached Xi-an. Two more were traded away in Marakanda for a string of those imperial horses the Han favor. I thought they looked like bigger, fatter onagers. But several generals of Roma Imperia, to whom we sold them, said they were just the thing for a Parthian plains campaign.”
I suppose I had my Haha to thank for the sensation welling in my liver. I felt flushed, resolved, and more than a little fearful. If I were wrong, I would seem a fool. But what had popped into my awareness didn’t feel wrong. I excused myself from the table, claiming I had additional duties on the Galactaea shift and needed to be elsewhere-- that much was true.
I skittered to the glassworks, and pulled Matroi Deenah aside. As far as I could tell, there were no days in the years of her tenure where she did not appear on the hot floor. Through sicknesses and holidays, she never failed to make her presence in the glassworks known.
Our conversation did not take long. She grasped the possibilities my questions and instructions comprehended. I left her and made my way up the ramps to the level where the goldsmiths had their crafting halls.
Off to the far right lay the tinsmiths’ forges. They still worked in natural caves on that side of the Sidonian Harbor’s limestone walls. They were my next stop. An introduction from Matroi Deenah made my next conversation a quick one with the Mistress of Tinsmiths.
From there, I hied myself to Sobe’s room. I searched out the least cracked and crumbling piece of parchment from her decades old stash. I took the time to scrape the last message thoroughly from the thin leather. I pumiced the whole afterward, to smooth any gouges I had made and fine the surface for accepting ink.
As I wrote, I explained to Sobe what my idea had been. She asked good questions, her mind still sharp as her other senses faded. I listened to her carefully, made the answers I had, and took several of her suggestions to adapt my idea to a more ideal condition.
I would try for the Golden Thyrsus. The concept worked in principle. The temple already possessed the product, the tools and the capacity to synthesize my initiative into the standard calendar of activity already established. If my inspiration showed me the truth, there was little in my plan to which the Hecatoi could take exception, and much to recommend it-- if I could get them to understand that some changes, however radical or new, might allow us to build a new tradition from those we had outgrown.
I sanded the parchment when I finished writing, to pick up any ink that hadn’t yet dried. I tied and sealed my proposal with the official seal of Bet Maryam, one of which Sobe claimed as the house bookkeeper and accountant. Then I kissed Sobe on the cheek and walked my packet to the amphora which had been placed outside the council chamber’s door.
I had to stand on the tips of my toes to drop my sealed packet into the enormous receptacle. Once it entered the amphora, I became a contestant in the competition. It had last been held a few months before I entered the temple Novitiate, when I still minded my baby brothers in Migdala.
I might be too young to aspire to winning the Golden Thyrsus, but the concept I developed did not depend on my age. It relied on my combined experiences plus the common knowledge of the ebb and flow of trade with the Han in far Xi’an. My dream might be far fetched, but no one with whom I shared my idea thought it impossible.
The days dragged. I had entered my inspiration within a week of the competition being announced. I spent evenings sketching the different elements, and describing the parameters. For three afternoons, I chased Yosif around the quays, banking offices, and shipworks asking him questions about ships, camels, carts, and exchange rates.
Sobe asked if she could tell Mimi, of all people, about my plan. I couldn’t think of a reason why she shouldn’t. I would have liked to share it with Mariamne, but she had been away for some months. If anyone knew where she travelled, or why, they hadn’t told me.
Yosif and the Ai-Ramathea, with Yeshua and Yahya aboard, sailed out of the Sidonian harbor. They voyaged to Akko, Ashdod and Eskanderejai to dispose of some of their northern trade goods through merchants Yosif favored. The trip back would take longer, as they would be tacking across the trade winds. I barely noticed their departure, in my lather over the Thyrsus.
It wasn’t long before one of the Viragoi in the glassworks told me Marta had also entered the competition. I wondered if she had done it for herself, or to throw an obstacle in my way. No, that seemed too silly.
Many persons at the temple might choose to pursue the Golden Thyrsus. The award meant prestige and the long arc of status which came with it. If she had a stake in the contest, it wasn’t anything less than as serious to her as it was to me.
What had I done in my short life to earn such a nemesis? Her capacity to learn, her insight, her painstaking application of formulae were all bywords with the Viragoi, and the Matroi overseeing her development. She specialized in history as well as the oracular arts. Her translations were held up as an example to the rest of her peers for their standard of excellence in precision and thoughtfulness. Her gift with the flute, the same instrument on which they tried to train me, often presented her with featured solos in the liturgies, as well as the feast hall. I envied her as much as I feared her. And her implacable drive to cause me harm scared me no end.