The Fourth Wise Man

No one knows his name now and very few knew it when he was alive. He was, and is, just the Mosaic Master. Some said he had come to Classe from the east, and it is true that he had studied his art there, but he was not one of the Gate People. He was Talian through and through and his name was actually Baldassare.

He wasn?t the only mosaic-maker in the city; it was known throughout the Middle Sea as a centre for the art and people gravitated towards it. There were rich commissions to be had to decorate churches, public buildings and private houses, and artists swarmed in the city, where workshops rang with the sound of hammers breaking the sheets of enamelled glass into tiny tiles. It was hard to keep up with the demand for all the many large-scale schemes being worked on.

But Baldassare was the busiest of them all. The birds that he designed, though made of hundreds of tiny pieces of metal and glass, looked so lifelike that people expected them to flap their wings and sing. His fishes and dolphins darted so realistically between foam-crested waves that onlookers stepped back lest their clothes get splashed. And his mosaic lions and leopards bared their teeth and lashed their tails so convincingly that the mosaic mules and sheep shrank from them.

So when the commission came to decorate the apse of a just-finished and very grand church dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lord, no one was at all surprised that that Baldassare was the artist chosen.

He spent many hours in the church, measuring the curved space with his eyes and then erecting ladders to climb up and check his calculations. Then followed weeks of work at his drawing table, chalking designs and scrubbing them out until he had reached a final version that satisfied him. It was a crowded scene, with the Holy Family at the centre, shepherds on the right and the three wise men coming in from the left with their rich gifts.

Above the manger and the stylised stable floated an archangel, and the ray of the star that guided the men from the east pierced downward like a blade. Baldassare understood that in such an expensively constructed and decorated church, it would not be a realistically humble stable that was required.

And if even the maid and her husband and the shepherds who had come in from the fields must be shown in a glorious transformation, how much more grand must the angel and the wise men be?

?I am going to need more silver tesserae than there are in the whole of Classe,? muttered the Mosaic Master, putting in an order for twice the quantity he thought he might need. He knew from experience that he always underestimated.

The whole scheme took five years to carry out. Baldassare had many workmen to help him but it was a complicated design and could not be hurried. At last the angel blazed over the stable — a miracle of silver and white, with a gaze that caught the onlooker?s eye with a promise of glory and salvation.

Baldassare had left the three wise men till last. The space behind them was decorated with flowers and ferns in jewel-like colours and finishes, against a background of silver tesserae, subtly mixed with many shades of grey and white. The wise men, or kings, had complicated flowing robes in red, green and blue, trimmed with silver and spangled with geometric designs. Their cloaks were pinned with mosaic brooches, mimicking rubies, emeralds and sapphires.

He had begun their faces — the young man, the black-bearded one and the white-haired leader. But there were no crowns or presents as yet; the kingly hands stretched out into the bare wall empty of any burden. Then Baldassare heard that there was to be a royal visitation to match the one on his mosaic: the Emperor was coming to the dedication of the church.

In just a month?s time, the Emperor and his beautiful Empress would visit Classe specially to see Baldassare?s work. He and his men threw themselves into their work on the last sections of the apse. And then, with so little time to finish the kings on the wall as royally as their Imperial Majesties? presence deserved, he ran out of silver tesserae.

Pirates had boarded the ship that was bringing Baldassare?s latest order from Bellezza and, along with the silks and jewels and other merchandise that would be much easier to sell, had captured the materials he to complete the mosaic.

Baldassare was tearing his hair out. He visited all the other workshops in Classe but could not find enough for his needs. And the worst thing was that he had modelled the black-bearded king on the Emperor. Of course, he had no idea what the real man looked like, any more that most of his subjects did. But the black beard was a given: all Reman emperors were dark, since that was the commonest colouring in Talia, and all men at that time grew a beard as soon as they could.

What was distinctive and would mark out the king?s portrait as a tribute to the Emperor was the Talian Imperial Crown. It had been hard to portray in mosaic, with its characteristic loops and spikes, and it was too late to change it.

While Baldassare eked out his dwindling supply of silver tiles on the crowns and caskets of the kings, his workmen were finishing off the carpet of flowers and plants that spread across the bottom of the apse. The Mosaic Master had even designed extra foliage so that he had more silver tesserae to use on his kings. But it was still not enough.

A week to go and the Imperial Crown was still not finished when the Emperor?s chamberlain arrived in the city. When he entered the great church there was no mistaking that he was a visitor from the Imperial Court. His fine clothes made him stand out from the coarsely clad workmen who were busy on the mosaic or finishing off other details in the building.

A messenger climbed the scaffolding to let Baldassare know the chamberlain was there. The Mosaic Master groaned but he climbed down straight away and greeted the grand visitor with all the courtesy he could muster.

?I came to see your work for myself,? said the chamberlain, ?before my master comes to view it. But I can see very little through the forest of wood in front of it.?

Then of course Baldassare had to offer to take him up the ladder and on to the series of platforms that allowed him and his workmen to do their work.

The chamberlain was an acute observer and soon noticed the unfinished king with the incomplete Imperial Crown.

?My master will be pleased,? he said.

Baldassare sighed. He still had to create the massive diamond that hung from the centre of the crown over the Imperial brow. Even though the kings were shown in profile, this giant diamond would take at least fifty silver tesserae, and he was down to his last ten; what was he to do? Something that should have been a subtle compliment to the Emperor was in danger of turning into a crude insult.

?What is the matter?? asked the chamberlain, and Baldassare was so downhearted he told him the whole story, from the pirates onwards.

?What will His Imperial Majesty do?? asked the Mosaic Master. ?Will he order my head to be removed from my shoulders??

?He is a compassionate man,? said the chamberlain, ?but I doubt he could ignore the lack in your picture.?

?Then I am finished,? said Baldassare. ?At the very least I shall have to go into exile and start my life over again in a new country.?

?That would be a poor reward for your great genius,? said the chamberlain, who had taken rather a fancy to the Mosaic Master. It was very unusual for people to tell him the truth and he appreciated Baldassare?s honesty, as well as his great skill. An idea was forming in the back of his mind. ?I must get back to Remora as quickly as possible,? he said. ?Don?t worry. I shall be back here the day before my Imperial Master. All will be well.?

And with that he was gone