I’m very happy to announce that my short story Fish Sauce has been published in the Hong Kong Writers Circle’s 2014 anthology, Another Hong Kong, an exploration of what the great city could be, could have been, could become, several dozen different and original point of views.
Among the stories I recommend to you in the anthology, please do check Stewart McKay‘s One Hundred Moons Over Sea-View, a post-apocalyptic story in sea-drowned HK; and Peter Humphreys‘ The Parachutist, about a strange war of memory projections in the sky of the city; and many other stories and poems of all genres and sizes.
My big personal thanks to Simon Berry, Katrina Hamlin, Kate Hawkins, Peter Humphreys and SCC Overton for editing this anthology.
As for Fish Sauce — it’s a short exploration of what Hong Kong could have been, if it had been founded not by the British in the 19th century, but by the Romans in the 5th — an alternate History, if you will. It was born from the discovery several years ago that the Romans actually ate (and loved) fish sauce, called "garum" and brewed all around the Mediterranean, but especially in Hispania (Spain). For some reason, their medieval descendants were not too keen on the stuff and rather promptly forgot about it (and about umami), while it remained a staple of several Asian cuisines.
Another thing I knew was the fact that Ancient Rome knew about China — and actually had a big problem of trade deficit with the country: as it happens, Roman aristocratic ladies were very fond of silk, whose fabrication process was kept secret (it would take several more centuries for silk worms to be brought to Europe). Meanwhile, Rome struggled to find anything to sell to the Seres or Sinae (as the Chinese were called by them), and ended up sending massive amounts of gold Eastward on the Silk Road, over the course of five or six centuries, maybe more. It is very amusing to see the echoes of Pliny the Elder or Seneca in modern Western diatribes against China’s trade preeminence, two millenia on…
With these premises, I thought it would be interesting to compare Ancient Roman and Chinese societies — I sometimes got the feeling that there were some very interesting similarities, in some ways… Something maybe to explore in more detail in a future story.
The beginning of the story, to whet your appetite?
The final part of the journey proved almost as tumultuous as the Erythrean Sea. The dromon rolled and pitched violently in the water, its beams creaking ominously as it fought a powerful cross-current–that of the large estuary they were crossing.
"The tide is falling," commented the pilot when he noticed his frown. "Nothing to be afraid of."
Flavius nodded, not completely convinced, though the Greek had steered them safely all the way from Egypt.
"We will soon be arriving," he added. "See that chain of islands in front of us? This is the colony."
Flavius stood up and moved, with difficulty, to a better vantage point on the boat’s deck. So this was it: the end of a twelve-month journey, and the whole point of his mission.
And what an important mission it was… Ha!
It had been a long time coming. Five centuries earlier, Pliny had already been fuming against Sinae silk, arguing that noble Roman women spent more on it than on offerings to the Gods. With time, the craze had only grown–but Rome seemed unable to sell anything to the Sinae in exchange. As a consequence, millions of gold solidi left the Empire every year, creating a tremendous strain on the already tight imperial finances.
This was why, two years ago, the Emperor, Theodosius the Second, had charged one of the Senate’s most revered members to head a trade delegation to distant Sina. His appointee couldn’t have been more experienced: Senator Numicius had presided over countless such embassies.
Yet Flavius wondered. For one, Numicius was an oddity among Senators: a century after Constantine’s conversion, he was one of the last patricians to keep to the old Gods. For the Christian emperor, this was an embarrassment. Sending him on a gilded mission to the other side of the world seemed too convenient to be honest.
In addition, Theodosius had given him a large military escort, officially to ward pirates off. But five ships, and five hundred men? With general Hathus at their helm, a known hawk with a reputation for brashness? This was like giving dice to a gambler.
Flavius’ suspicions were confirmed one year later, when word came that Numicius had drowned on route. Worse, instead of heading to the Sinae capital, Hathus had invaded one of their islands, and was now requesting reinforcement.
So when Theodosius’ summons arrived at his home in Constantinople, dread fell on Flavius’ shoulders, but he wasn’t surprised.
The Emperor could have chosen someone else. There were plenty of other senators with more diplomatic experience. Yet Theodosius had selected Flavius, another Pagan, to go and investigate. This was too much of a coincidence.
But there was more to tradition than just the ancient Gods. There was also duty, and obedience.
And so, leaving his wife and children, Flavius did what he had to do.
One year, the crossing had taken. And it would take exactly as long to return–assuming they once again survived the storms of the Erythrean Sea. Flavius couldn’t wait…