Brian RB Wilcox is a licensed psychotherapist with degrees in counseling psychology and transpersonal psychology. With his wife, he is an avid traveler and incorporates places and experiences garnered from his nomadic lifestyle into his work. In addition to fiction, Brian writes poetry and songs. Other interests include cooking, photography, sailing, playing multiple musical instruments, dream study, and core shamanism.
His favorite place to write is in a remote house in the forest looking out over Sebec Lake, Maine.
I am publishing this short story here that originally appeared as a prologue to my second novel, FOR THE BLOOD OF PIGEONS. It's coming to you in serial form weekly until finished. It also appears on my travel blog at nownomadic2.com.
Captain Abreu, feverish and in a great deal of pain rested crosswise in his hammock hung behind the ship's wheel, his feet compulsively tapping heel and heel in synch with his throbbing face and jaw. The Santa Catarina's surgeon had given Abreu a very generous butt of rum heavily laced with ground clove and willow bark as a brief surcease while he worked below decks to make a tincture of refined opium concentrate from recent acquisition in the sacking of Malacca.
Veteran captain, and close friend and confidant of the High Commander Afonso de Albuquerque, Antonio de Abreu was not in a generous or forgiving mood. Of Abreu's courage there could be no doubt. He fought at the head of his crew and the crews of the two past ships under his command as a demon incarnate. His swordsmanship was impeccable and of a ferocity that often cowed his opponent into an early grave. During a pitched battle during the siege, after cleaving a man from collar bone to sternum, Abreu whirled abruptly only to catch a piece of chain-shot from a swivel gun above him. He was knocked unconscious, bleeding copiously from shattered teeth and a half-severed tongue.
The teeth he could repair with gold caps, if his rewards from this venture were substantial enough. The tongue was another matter. He did not need to speak clearly to bark orders, and he could work that through his first mate, a half Chinese called Li Wei Matos Y Moreno. The mate had been with Abreu for over ten years and he trusted and valued him more that his ship itself. The mate knew as did only Abreu, that there was a conflict of interests in this venture. His benefactor and patron the High Commander sent him to find riches. That was the common thread, but there, the path forked. The court wanted and needed gold. Not just gold that came from sacking a port, but a continuous source of gold to further the realm. Abreu knew from tales of his own ancestors and the stories shared with him from Matos Y Moreno about his grandfather, a supposed rabbi killed by the Inquisition, and his Chinese forbears who studied transformation and transmutation for the physical and mental longitudinal dimensions of human potential. Abreu's ancestor did much the same, but also strove to bring alloys and metals together to achieve the purity of gold itself. Both families had, since times unremembered except through genetic memory and predisposition, been proficient in the preparation and application of gem elixirs.
Crystals of quartz, agate, fluorite, amethyst and citrine had all been used with desired results, but Abreu wanted to take the benefits up to new and much stronger vibrations. He was aware from his time in Ceylon that rubies held a very high purity and strong vibration. He believed that a properly prepared elixir of rubies could and would promote extreme longevity and a predisposition for success in endeavors of personal gain. Li Wei agreed with him and went so far as to say that in the Chinese disciplines of transmutation and transformation it could actually produce immortality.
The mate and the captain were synchronized in this effort and realized the value of outwardly keeping to the mission the High Commander had set them on. The problem was Abreu's vice-captain Francisco Serrão who was a dogmatic adherent to word from above his station. There was no one above his station on the Santa Catarina and Abreu had fixated on this problem as his tongue wound festered and the pain from his shattered teeth allowed him no dormancy.
The ship had anchored in the flats off the Ayerawaddy delta. The riches of Burma had long been spoken of in the ports of Abreu's world. The Arab traders of Gibraltar knew of it, those from the ports of Genoa and Dubrovnik told the same stories and the tales that Li Wei brought from the Chinese lore all served to lead Abreu to this river. The delta would be difficult to navigate, but with rowers pulling in the skiffs, and horses swimming in halter and pulling by cable on the banks where solid ground could be found would, with dint of constant soundings with the lead, bring them into the estuary and then the river itself. The horses would further prove their worth with bringing select teams overland to follow information gleaned from captives and outright briberies where possible.
Li Wei sat at the bowsprit between watches. He listened and scrutinized the sea in the moonlight for any inclination of sail or oars approaching their caravel. He knew well the history of piracy of the Malays in this area of the world and did not relish the idea of being put upon. The gunnery on the caravel was more than adequate and the crew were all veterans of many pitched battles on land and ship to ship. With the captain absorbed in his pain and Serrão sticking rigidly to an unrealistic watch schedule, the mate attuned himself to acute watchfulness. In the hour before the rising tide near dawn he went to Abreu and spoke. He told the captain the caravel was ready to try the delta within the hour. The tide would be at its highest with the full moon above and there would be no better time. There was also a mild onshore breeze that would allow the smaller topgallants to be set in their favor. Abreu agreed and indicated to the mate to launch the skiffs with the rowers. The mate did so and stationed sounders on each side of the bow and along the rails in case of current drifting them to eddies along the shores. The horses would not be used until there was sufficient light and shore parties sent to test the firmness of the ground along the reed choked tufts of the delta.
They would take the eastern ingress and stop at Dagon to parlay with the monks there. Their plan was to procure a team of guides and elicit information in the most expeditious way possible. Naturally the guides would not be seen again in the precincts of Dagon. They would tell the monks that their endeavors would be to assist in the location of jade and sapphires for the betterment of the Temple. Though vowed into poverty, the betterment of the tributes to the Buddha was a viable incentive to the monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda. The fact that there was a jewel encrusted, golden sheathed 76 carat diamond was not lost on either the mate or Abreu. He had more than a passing interest in this but for the problem that it sat at the very pinnacle of the main stupa there and was never out of the reach of observing eyes. The grace that Abreu allowed himself in this was that it was proof the monks could be swayed to provide guides to procure more purity and light for the Buddha. The relics there were 8 hairs of Guatama Buddha, a staff and water filter from later Buddhas and a piece of the robe of Kassapa, the third Buddha.
Abreu was more paganistic than Catholic but saw the importance to his conflicting missions of the beliefs of the Mon people of Dagon. That he would prey on any useful predilection of those around him to gain his ends was not a secret and something the High Command valued in him. The thorn in his side was Serrão.
Francisco Serrão had been assigned to the voyage by the king himself. King Manual I, known as Manual the Fortunate was a conquest-oriented ruler. Conquest meant riches both in natural resources and gold coinage. By 1503 he was wealthy. His most prized captain, Vasco da Gama had been bringing gold from east Africa. His kept man, his overarching watchdog was Serrão. The man was an accomplished observer of human behavior. His naturally suspicious nature was augmented by an intuition that had seldom proven wrong.
That he loathed and suspected Antonio de Abreu was not going unnoticed on the voyage. His utter contempt of the half Chinese Li Wei was undisguised, and in the sparse conversations he allowed himself with Abreu he merely referred to the first mate as the dog.
Captain Antonio de Abreu was a man of rough ways. He came up through the ranks not because of well positioned family or nobility, but through his utterly fearless drive to obtain gold and gems. The truth that Abreu knew was that conquest and pillage of such was worth much more to him than materials. This was in perfect juxtaposition to Francisco Serrão, whose moralistic overcompensation to his own common upbringing, caused him to hold the will of the king above all else except God.
The mission was clear in Serrão's mind, as it was in Abreu's. The problem was that each held a very different concept. Furthering Manual I's preoccupation with exploration and conquest was the unquestionable task for Serrão. In his mind the mission had specific steps. Steps to be adhered to in an unwavering manner. They were to take the traditional route around the bottom of Africa, making stops in Portuguese held ports to refit and take on supplies. Serrão would journal the condition and state of things in these ports as part of his information gathering for the king. They were to stop in Goa and gather as much intelligence as they could for the desired voyage up the Ayerawaddy to obtain gold, and to assess lands for future colonization. They were to return the way they had come with a full cargo of wealth and sufficient information to further the Portuguese realm.
Antonio de Abreu had a much different agenda. He was not a politico, nor was he in any way moralistic in his regard to the will of the King of Portugal. He enjoyed his position as a captain, ostensibly furthering the realm, but more so enjoyed the pillage and the healthy portions he skimmed off the top of the gains before they ever reached Lisboã. In this he was essentially a pirate. He used this to his advantage, often using his captaincy to usurp Serrão's protests when he varied from the mission as seen by him.
The current situation with Abreu nursing a broken face and a more surly mood than usual was a perfect example of his reckless and disobedient nature to Serrão. It galled his very nature to the core and he could not wait to bring Abreu to justice before the king. So far from Lisboã and all that was right and good, he would have to bide his time. Bide it, he would.
It was the quest of rubies that drove Abreu. The gold would be obtained, yes. But the lure of the rubies was much stronger for him. Li Wei and Captain Abreu had been discussing alchemical processes for some time. Information provided by lore from wise men and women on Portugal, tales related to Li Wei from his grandfather, and parlays with Arab traders had brought the pair to a single conclusion. Rubies had the power of longevity if processed correctly.
For Abreu it was more than that. He was convinced that if properly made, a gem elixir of rubies and certain plant extracts would provide him with immortality. In previous voyages they had been procuring and preserving stores of Astralagus root, and two rare plants from the Far East; Jiaogulan and Wû Wè Zi. Now they needed rubies, enough for both of them to live forever.
The two formulations of the mission of the Santa Catarina were incompatible.
Approaching the delta of the Ayerawaddy, Abreu asserted, despite protestations and threats from Serrão, that they would stop at the fabled city called Dagon and there they would get the guides and information they sought. They reached the city late in the night and in the morning, Abreu beheld a sight that filled him with awe and renewed his zeal for immortality. What he saw, he felt, was not made by ordinary humans. It must have been born from beings with a much higher vibration. Perhaps a vibration as strong and pure as that from rubies.
The Schwedagon Pagoda stood tall and in the dawn was throwing intensely pure golden shafts of light from its stupa. Through the ship's glass, Abreu could see that the golden tower was encrusted with jewels and that the great diamond at the top cast cold fire, and in his mind it was cast to him.
The Santa Catarina did come in quietly in the night, but the Sangha, the monastic elders, knew they had come and had elected to wait until dawn to greet them. As Abreu, Serrão and Li Wei disembarked the caravel, eight of the Sangha elders stood to meet them at the city wall. The three white men from the strange looking ship approached slowly and confidently. The Sangha stood, without indication of disposition.
Captain Abreu, much to the objection of Serrão had decided they would approach the monks without weaponry. They carried no harquebuses, lances or crossbows. Those would be visible and possibly threatening. They wanted no quarrel here, they wanted dupes, willing pawns in their scheme. All three carried concealed daggers and in a leathern sack each carried three granadas, small round hand bombs to be ignited with a lit match-cord that they carried trailing from their opposite hand. To the Sangha, they appeared to be bringing gifts, and the slow smoldering match appeared as a votive. Li Wei, who was able to speak in the Mandarin tongue, was able to communicate with the Sangha in a rudimentary way. As their custom, they took the strangers into the Pagoda grounds, sat at the base of the great stupa and offered them rice and tea. In exchange for their help the elders demanded that the men learn the teachings of the Buddha.
After a full week of Theravada teachings Li Wei and Abreu were deemed fit to continue to the Mogok region. The Sangha elders had been discomplected when they were told that Serrão would not attend. They told the Sangha that their comrade had fallen ill, quite ill. The elders offered a healer for him, but they demurred saying that it has happened frequently and he would recover. They assured the monks that they would relate the teachings to him. That Serrão was ill was not really a lie. He was sick with a foreboding of the bête noire as the Beast he felt traveled among them now on the Santa Catarina.
Four young acolytes who had come to Shwedagon from Mogok were chosen as guides to accompany the Portuguese mariners. Three were cousins and their uncle, U Minh, although not related to the Shan king, was entitled Prince of Mogok. Only the one called Dhammacara was able to speak in Mandarin and thus communicate with Li Wei.
In the interest of safe haven on the return if necessary, Captain Abreu, to the objection of Francisco Serrão on grounds of religiosity, made a modest donation of gold to the Sangha.
The Santa Catarina moved out from the eastern egress and then west to the delta proper. She made her way through soundings and assistance from the towing skiffs into the main channel of the Ayerawaddy. Going up river they needed all the assistance at their command; top gallants when practicable, the rowing skiffs, horses towing when the riverbanks were firm. The journey was slow always and burdensome at times but there was steady progress.
Captain Abreu kept to his cabin poring over his alchemical treatises. Li Wei joined him in the late night to continue their work extracting the quicksilver and preparing the plants for the first steps in the making of the gem elixirs.
Francisco Serrão also kept to his cabin, praying and planning his defamation and undoing of the captain and first mate at the first opportunity. When there was necessary contact with Abreu and Li Wei, he dared no eye contact but continued to voice his denunciations of blasphemy and heresy. The two alchemists grew evermore suspicious.
Despite the challenges and difficulties of the voyage, within several days they reached Mandalay. There they lay to in the river and prepared for the upland journey to the Mogok region. The acolytes went ahead to the Mahamuni pagoda to smooth their welcome and to arrange for runners to be dispatched to Mogok to inform U Minh of the coming visit from the strange white men.
Abreu sat in his hammock, tapping heels and drinking fortified wine to ease his pain from the broken teeth. His tongue was healing, but the wine stung. He had lost several pounds through difficulty in eating but even plagued by pain he was hungry. There would be plenty of eating and drinking after the pillage. Abreu was at his best when hungry: his hunger for food was nothing compared to his voracity for conquest and usurpery of riches. Yes, plenty of time for eating and drinking after the pillage; and then to deal with the issue of Francisco Serrão.
After the unloading of the rest of the horses, supplies, water casks and sundry, Captain Abreu had the ships tables set upon the main deck and dressed with the ship's best linen and silver plating. He had the table set with flagons of wine, sweetmeats, and had the cook roast two geese. He sent Li Wei ahead to invite the Mandalay Sangha elders for a meal on his ship. The elders came and sat at table with him and his first mate, Serrão refusing to break bread with them. Captain Abreu helped himself to much wine, and as the would-be feast progressed, his anger flushed nearly to a fit of pique. None of the guests would touch the wine, or the geese, nor anything really. He did not know that they were strict vegetarians, all totally abstaining from alcohol and forbidden to eat anything at all after the noon hour. After Li Wei ascertained the reasons of their constraint Abreu's anger turned to drunken brays of laughter. The Sangha elders thought that the sooner this one was on his way to Mogok, the better.
Early the next morning the party set off for Mogok. They were heavily armed this time, carrying harquebuses, a hand cannon, crossbows, pikes and personal bladed weapons. Abreu, Li Wei and three seasoned crew members rode horseback, three more crew walked behind the pack horses, and the acolytes led the way. Abreu and Li Wei had donned their light armor, and the crew were protected with boiled leather jerkins and greaves. They did not appear as a trading party and were rapidly morphing from glad-handers into their true predatory selves.
Abreu's broken dentition was causing him a great deal of pain and infection sent a fever throughout his body. He went from perspiring heavily to wracking chills. That he continued to wear a greatcoat, hat and high leather boots in the hot, steamy climate of Southeast Asia further exacerbated his health issues and served to foul his already malevolent mood even further. He rode with malcontent and a singular urgency to obtain that which he needed in his quest for immortality.
The passage overland to Mogok was grim. The trails were at times mountainous, at times quite narrow with tangled vegetation closing in on both sides, always muddy with the slick red clay causing dangerous slippage for the horses. It took the party sixteen days to reach Mogok, and when they got there, their arrival had been expected thanks to the runners from Mandalay. U Minh greeted them and offered a raised longhouse for the white foreigners. They were afforded food and drink from the Mogok headman and were gracious in receiving it. U Minh knew well why these foreigners were here. No one from away came to Mogok were it not for rubies. His interest was gold and status in his pose as a worldly man to the village, and as an important man to the Shan King, Sawlon of Mohnyin, also known as Ashin Wunna, the Golden Lord.
Li Wei parlayed with U Minh and brokered a deal for a cask of high clarity rubies, free from their marble and calcite matrices to be brought for their consideration. U Minh was promised a price in gold and the ruby sellers from the mines were offered a price for such a weight. The white men from away were generous in their offer, and U Minh was convinced he was shrewd in his reluctant agreement with them. Abreu and Li Wei knew different.
In preparation for the voyage Abreu had taken an amount of the gold supplied him by Alphonso de Albuquerque and many lead bars carefully shaped. He took these to a forge and had gold cast around the lead to form heavy bars, about the size and shape of a deck of playing cards. They would pass all tests but drilling or melting and to circumvent this they brought identical sized bars of twenty-four carat gold to lay atop the adulterated bars in the carrying caskets.
The rubies and their sellers arrived. After long negotiations the price was agreed upon and the rubies loaded onto the pack animals; the gold carried back by palanquin to reach the king and the mine owners. Li Wei dispatched half the crew with most of the pack horses back to the Santa Catarina. He knew it would be a long journey. The other half of the crew that he held back he sent with special instructions.
There were seven of them and Li Wei sent them to a narrow defile several hours down the trail toward Mandalay. Here, he felt was the perfect place for an ambuscade and he instructed the crew in what to do.
Captain Abreu and Li Wei had not planned to be satisfied with just the rubies brought down from the mines. They knew there were more, bigger and of greater quality, cut and polished to a pure luster to supply the Sangha pagodas of Burma. They would have these as well.
The ruby sellers with their cargo of gold parted late in the afternoon. Li Wei stole into the house of U Minh. Only his concubine was in the kitchen and U Minh at table by himself. He came behind the delicate woman in silence and slipped his dagger between her ribs and into her heart. She died without a sound, and he went to the room where U Minh sat at table awaiting his warmed Sato rice wine.
When U Minh saw Li Wei, he thought that the foreigners had second thoughts about the price. He was right. What came next was unexpected. Li Wei leapt across the low table and plunged his blade into the top of U Minh's head. Captain Abreu was waiting outside with their horses. The casket of gold was on the floor next to the table and Li Wei stooped and took the top layers of twenty-four carat bars from it.
There remained sufficient light for the two to pick up the trail of the ruby sellers. On horseback they were much more efficient than the Burmese walking with the payment of gold, and so they hung back until the complex of mines was reached. They did not have long to wait until the darkness closed in. They knew the full moon would soon follow.
Li Wei and Captain Abreu made their way to the top of a small hill where the sorting house was and where the rubies were stored. There was candle light in the bamboo house and they could hear two men talking in Burmese. Hesitation did not occur to them and they rushed into the house, immediately dispatching the two Burmese with their swords. There were fabulous rubies on the sorting table, and a leather bag on the floor with cut stones of unusual size. In the fury of their attack the four candles that had been on the sorting table were knocked to the floor and ignited the palm matting there. They mounted the horses and left the mine complex as the building flared and the ruby miners began to shout in alarm.
They could not gallop at first but with the rising moon there were places where the horses could canter, and soon they were in the open valley just east of Mogok. They rode fast through Mogok and they could see a commotion at the home of U Minh. They knew their larceny had been exposed, but they rode on in confidence.
Li Wei in his foresight had instructed the seven crew members to prepare two large trees to fall with just a few more cuts of the axe. They were to fall the trees just as Abreu and he came down the trail. The trees would stop any following party and provide a barricade from which to defend themselves.
The plan worked without a flaw; the crew heard them coming and felled the trees as they passed. The horsemen stopped and dismounted, each taking up an harquebus and smoldering match. A crewman stood at the barricade with a loaded hand cannon, the others with crossbows. They waited.
Within an hour they could hear the approach of the Burmese. The Portuguese were veterans of many battles and knew what to do. The hand cannon had a bore the diameter of a duck egg and had been loaded with grapeshot. The quarrels of the crossbows were well made and of the sharpest steel. Four clay pot hand bombs or grenades sat at the ready.
The Burmese came strong down the trail and were two abreast when the hand cannon was fired, it took three of their number down. Abreu and Li Wei shot two more with the harquebuses and then the crossbow men shot and reloaded and shot again. Some stepped back and looked as though to turn and run, but the clay pot grenades had been fired and were thrown down the trail behind them. They exploded, sending sharp, hot scraps of iron, bits of old nails, and pieces of chain shot into the bodies of four of the pursuers. That left only two. Abreu mounted and cleared the tree barricade with sword drawn and swinging. In seconds it was over and the riders continued toward Mandalay. The crew members had stripped the pack horses and riding bareback they too pushed the animals as fast as they could in the dappled moonlight of the night forest.
At dawn the raiding party arrived at the Santa Catarina. The skiffs had been lifted on davits to the deck. They did not load the horses as it would take hours to hoist them by derrick and put back into the hold. Li Wei had relayed instructions with the returning crew to ready for a swift departure. Going down river they would not need the towing, just some care in performing the soundings at regular intervals. Abreu and Li Wei knew that on the ship they were virtually invincible to ground troops armed only with arrows and spears from the banks or from swift war canoes. The crew knew well how to repel boarders and to utilize their superior weaponry.
The voyage downriver was considerably easier going and less navigational problems asserted themselves due to not having to rely on the horses towing on the bank and the treacherous mudflats found along both banks.
Just previous to the overland journey to procure the rubies from Mogok, Li Wei as able to have discourse with the Chinese monk at his leisure. He learned that going downriver there were places where the Sangha was wealthy and the golden tributes to the Buddha were many. As they departed Mandalay, Li Wei and Captain Abreu made a plan to gather more gold and rubies where they could find them.
At Thihoshin Pagoda the Santa Catarina stopped and on the pretense of taking on water a raiding party entered the precincts there and stripped gold from several of the small stupas there, holding the monks at bay with pikes and crossbows.
At Man Shwe Settan they repeated the process and came away with golden statuary of saints, trunks of coinage, and myriad ceremonial golden chains. Here there was an armed resistance, but with the harquebuses and grenades the actual hand-to-hand combat was short lived with the crew of the Santa Catarina again making off with the gold.
The real prize came in disguise when they made their last stop before leaving the delta of the Ayerawaddy. On a small hill above the river, close on the bank, stood the Myathalun Pagoda with its golden stupa soaring nearly a hundred feet above the summit. The crew was tired and growing restive, Serrão had been vociferous in his complaints about the way the voyage was going. Abreu resolved to leave the Ayerawaddy after this last raid.
Raiding is exactly what they had been doing. The voyage of discovery had devolved into abject piracy. Serrão had not forgotten the mission. It was to have been focused on discovering a continuous source of gold for King Manual I. Yes some marauding was to be expected but Serrão saw that the captain and his first mate were nothing more than Barbary Coast corsairs. The deviltry that went on behind the captain's door in the late hours was something that filled him with dread.
The crew returned to the ship with more gold, some precious stones and a large sitting Buddha carried on a makeshift litter. When they had boarded the ship cast off lines and made downriver. Abreu had the men stow the gold as they had been doing, but the sitting Buddha, larger than a man, he left on a low table on the main deck. It gleamed in the sunlight, filling his eyes with the divine light of riches.
Abreu's reverie was brought to a rude halt as the ship fetched up on a gravel bank two miles down river . There was a sudden lurch which threw the captain to the deck along with the golden Buddha.
He stared in amazement. The golden Buddha had broken apart into many pieces. It was merely ceramic covered in thin gold leaf. But what threw rays of fire were hundreds of deep red pigeon-blood rubies that had been cached inside along with many large uncut diamonds.
Captain Abreu stood and barked orders to the deck crew to stand away from the wreckage of the statue and called to Li Wei.
"Get two men and secure these jewels. Have them put in a cask and store them aft in the lazaretto on the orlop deck. No crew are down there now. Make sure those two men do not return from this task. You know what you must do."
"Aye, Captain. At dark I can put them through the small port in the lazaretto."
Li Wei chose then two smallest crew men he could find and set to the job of gathering the rubies.
Serrão had been watching, unseen. When Li Wei had casked the rubies and made his way below decks toward the lazaretto he followed at a safe distance, silent as a cat. When they reached the lazaretto, Li Wei had the men place the cask among others of the same size. He had closed the door behind him when they entered and as soon as the men had placed the cask he loosed a crossbow bolt into one's back and moved swiftly with his dagger to stab the heart and liver of the second, then stepped in behind and with a great twist broke the man's neck. The two unwitting crew lay dead on the lazaretto floor.
Li Wei locked the door and moved back toward the main deck through the other storage chambers. As he passed through the wine storage the light from his lantern reflected a glint from the buckle of Serrão's shoe. Li Wei just moved through as though he had seen nothing and entered the next storage chamber, closing the door to the wine storage behind him. Here he waited in the shadows.
He hunkered in silence for ten minutes, and then heard a shifting in the chamber behind him. He waited, lantern closed, with his back against the bulkhead in the lee of where then passage door would swing open, and soon it did. Serrão crept through the half-opened door and rising from his crouch, Li Wei stood and grabbed the smaller man by the hair. He swung him around and drove him face-first into the edge of the oaken door. Li Wei pressed the cold steel of his dagger into the hollow of Serrão's throat where his life bubbled close to the surface. He applied just enough pressure to start a small rivulet of blood.
"What do you seek down here, then?" He hissed into Serrão's ear and pulled back on his hair to expose more of his throat.
"N…n…nothing. I am checking the stores as I assume you are" the King's man stammered.
"You are out of your place. In more ways than one. When I advise the Captain of this it will be ill for you, believe me. You take heed of me now; it is dark down here, and silent. Is it not?"
"Is it NOT?"
"And dark, is it not?"
"Dark, yes, and silent yes, don't hurt me. The King will hear of this!"
Serrão, though trembling now, made a false show of bravado. It was short lived.
"You will tell no person of this. Not of seeing me, or hearing anything, or of being down here at all. Do you understand me?" He pressed the dagger a little harder. "I will tell my Captain of this, and you…you will be contrite and admit your transgression to him, and him only, and he will decide what to do with you. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, I will, I will. Take the knife away, I beg you."
Late in the night, as the Santa Catarina made out of the estuary of the Ayerawaddy and into the Bay of Bengal, Abreu ordered the helm to set a course for Ceilão and the settlement of Colombo.
Serrão hung by wrists bound to two eyebolts sunk deep into the beam of Abreu's cabin. His back was bleeding and he was sweating profusely as Li Wei rubbed salt into the open stripes on the Kings' mans' back. His screams of pain were stifled with a ball of rags bound with a strap around his mouth. When he passed from consciousness the surgeon was summoned and Serrão was swaddled in blankets, constricted into a litter and together the surgeon and Li Wei bore Serrão back into his cabin. There over the next several days, the surgeon ministered to him, but even as he healed he was not seen on decks until they stood off Colombo. No crew dared look long on his swollen and bruised face, but had they, they would have seen the storming malevolence clouding his eyes.
Captain Abreu knew that his flogging of Serrão would have repercussions. Francisco Serrão was not a man to take any degradation. His position as a man in the King's service was one that gave him purpose, identity and above all ego strength. To be humiliated as he had, and in the face of such crimes as he saw being perpetrated against the King, he could not countenance, would not stomach. Indeed, he planned to bring the entire Burmese episode to task governmentally the minute he put in to a Portuguese or allied port of call. Abreu was not ignorant of the ways of such a petty tyrant and his authoritarian proclivities. Not to mention the small man's penchant for vengeful usage of power whenever possible.
To this end, as soon as the order was given to put in at the harbor of Colombo, Captain Abreu had Li Wei put together a detail of six crew members to keep Serrão confined to his quarters under strict orders to 'assist' him in maintaining complete silence. His golden signet ring bearing the endorsement of King Manual I was taken from him and given to Li Wei in the interest of obtaining provisions on the seal of the sovereignty of Portugal. Abreu did not wish to part with any of the gold the Santa Catarina now carried. The acts of piracy continued under Serrão's very nose and alone in the dark of his quarters, with only minimal sustenance given he grew more choleric and convulsed with rage toward Abreu and his first mate.
The ship remained in port for two days. They took on fresh water, vegetables and fruit along with live provisions of poultry, lambs and three pigs. Captain Abreu did not allow any stevedores to board the ship, and rather, bade them to bring the cargo to the end of the quay where his own crew members would perform the loading and stowing. He brushed off any questions regarding this in his usual brusque manner, and the harbor master, whom he knew from past voyages did not question him.
During the next leg of the voyage, Serrão was afforded some closely supervised time on deck daily and his rations improved slightly, but fruit was withheld in Abreu's passive attempt at providing Serrão with a case of scurvy. Frequent late-night meetings with Serrão in the captain's quarters consisted of further threats to him and knowing that the man suspected him of the devil's work, Abreu made sure that his alembics, retorts and aludel, the sooty subliming pot, were in evidence and that the cabin was rife with the stench of sulphur. That Serrão was duly terrified there was no doubt. But his terror did not quell his outrage in the least and his determination to bring justice onto the head of Antonio de Abreu was invigorated.
The passage of the Arabian Sea went without incident and in January of the new year 1512 the Santa Catarina reached Soqotra Island at the tip of the Gulf of Aden. In 1507, Abreu's patron, Alphonso de Albuquerque took the capital of Suq and began construction of a fortress there. The island proved infertile for crops which led to famine and sickness. The harbor itself was very poor for overwintering and when the Santa Catarina put in, Abreu was loathe to find that the Portuguese had just abandoned Soqotra to the Mahra Sultans and Islam now held sway. The ship was forced to move on under short supply and in need of a refit.
It was an unhealthy ship and an increasingly disgruntled crew that made its way west through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, stopping at what meager ports they could to take water and dry supplies. During the passage north on the Red Sea, Captain Abreu, consulting what literature and old charts he had supporting the idea of canals to the Nile, repeatedly sent the skiffs ahead and when he could, put in and sent horse mounted sorties to find a passage. They found none, no viable passage to the Nile either natural nor man made.
At the ancient port of Ain Sokhna, the Santa Catarina came hard upon the terminus of the Red Sea. The port was not hospitable to the Portuguese. Abreu knew his only hope now lay in reaching the Mediterranean Sea via an overland route. Through tense negotiation a trade agreement was reached.
The agenda of Abreu was certainly not that of the King, nor his patron the Duke de Albuquerque, and by this time he knew he could not return to Portugal. His goal now was to make to any port on the Mediterranean coast, obtain a boat and abscond to Corsica and there perform his experiments with the gem elixir, the Santa Catarina be damned, the crew be damned, Li Wei be damned if necessary and Serrão to be terminated.
The Mamlūk Sultan there was not about to show any favor to the Portuguese and his bargaining was shrewd and without mercy as was Abreu's determination to get himself to Corsica. In the end he bartered the Santa Catarina and most of its cargo including a small amount of gold, in exchange for undisputed overland passage to the Mediterranean and the small port called Damietta.
Abreu retained his horses and the few camels his gold provided. The crew were given the choice to continue or go their own ways, but over half elected to remain with their Captain in whom they had complete trust. The horses and camels were utilized for pack animals and the crew as porters. They took what food they had and the rubies and alchemical supplies were at the front of the pack train guarded by pikemen and gunners with harquebuses. It had been in Abreu's mind to dispatch Serrão at the first opportunity but, the last night aboard, before the ship was given over to the Mamlūks, the small man saw his last chance and took it.
A crewman came to Serrão's quarters with a meager meal and knocked at his door. There was no answer, and when the man opened the door it was pitch black inside. Suddenly he was hit by several books wrapped in a bit of muslin sheet and stunned momentarily, a body rushed past and hurtled over the starboard rail. There was a splash and when the crewman regained his senses and went to the rail, there was nothing to see or hear, only the black water.
Hitting the river, Serrão dove under water and stroked his way to the stern where he surfaced and clung to the rudder listening. As the alarm went up he could hear crew rushing to the starboard side from where he leapt. In desperation he left the rudder and with their shouts and babble for cover he struck for the shore.
The report of Serrão's escape reached Captain Abreu who in light of the hour and the need to vacate the ship and secure his precious cargo was unable to engage a search for the thorn that had chafed his side for over a year. The rage in his soul at this was matched only by the continued pain in his tongue and jaw. When the exodus was mounted at first light he sat at the front of the train with Li Wei by his side, both on horseback.
"He will die," Li Wei said as he handed his captain a small vial of opium tincture.
Captain Abreu downed the opium and shook his head. "Not by my hand though, and that is what vexes me truly."
"He will die a bad death in the desert, he will find no succor here, be assured of that."
At this Abreu turned to his first mate and gave what smirk he was able. "He will, he will die a very base death in the desert. And you and I…you and I will become immortal, will we not?"
"Eternal" said Li Wei only half believing.
"Eternal Life, Life Everlasting!" Returned Abreu. "But not at the Right Hand of the Father. More likely at the throne of the Dark One. And I say, better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven."
"So you say my Captain, so you say…" And with that Li Wei solidified his plan to part with Abreu when once then elixirs were prepared.
After a difficult journey of over a hundred kilometers overland they reached the coast, haggard, dirty and hungry. The party turned west and continued to Damietta a short distance away but across difficult tidal flats and stoney littoral. At Abreu's behest, Li Wei dispersed the crew except for three, and gave them horses and the camels to sell or use. Each was paid a modicum of gold and thanked by the mate for services. They, to a man, vowed to serve again with Antonio de Abreu if given the opportunity.
Li Wei went to the harbor with gold and purchased a felucca. With the casks of rubies, the remainder of the gold and the alchemical equipment they struck for Corsica the next morning with the tide.
The felucca bearing Abreu and Li Wei along with their precious cargo made a long passage north and west to a brief landfall at the small island called Gondzo. They did not linger. Though they could see the larger and more populous island of Kriti the had no desire to linger in the area wherein they might encounter Ottomans. They took water, some fruits and bread, staying only a few hours past the dawn when they arrived. The boat was at a disadvantage having neither charts nor astrolabe and their navigation, such as it was depended on the sun, moon and stars.
From Gondzo they skipped west with the Levant wind and bore off toward Malta, Kingdom of Sicily. The small crew was hungry and restive when they made port by the small watchtower of Sciberras. Abreu and Li Wei went to procure supplies and news of the Genoan held island of Corse and in their absence, what remained of the crew from the Santa Catarina decamped with a small sack of gold in the form of powder, tiny nuggets and broken chunks of jewelry. On returning to the felucca, Abreu flew into a rage.
"We will find them. Their heads will be their repayment to me" he shouted.
"We can chase them, they cannot have gone far. But we yet have gold enough. The gems are here. Perhaps we should not linger but press on to our task. Let us go on, go on to Corsica, we have our destinies to greet, do we not?"
"We two, drive on to Corsica?" Abreu began to calm with the thought of the gem elixirs to be made.
"We've water enough. Food enough for a week. We can reach the port at Bunifaziou within three days. To linger could be to tempt the fates. We know nothing of the circumstance of that black heart Serrão. I believe he will be indefatigable in his pursuit to punish us before the King if he yet survives. We must get to the Genoese at Corsica, and out of the shadow of the Ottomans. We must find a place to work the craft and obtain the elixir."
Abreu took a deep draught of the fortified wine in the last of the leathern bags.
"Cast off" was all he said to Li Wei.
They arrived at the port of Bunifaziou after several days of rough seas and high winds coming off the Levant. Taking temporary lodging in a public house, they rested, having moved the casks of rubies and the remainder of the gold to their quarters with the help of stevedores on the quay. Before too many questions were raised about the felucca or the casks and trunks, Li Wei returned to the docks and sold the felucca. He crafted a story saying they were beekeepers, specializing in a rare honey for the manufacture of mead. The beekeeping equipment, he lied was in the trunks and the bees themselves sealed in the casks. The ruse was mildly effective for the time being, but they continued to attract suspicion and thus kept for the most part to the public house where they managed to gather information regarding the lay of the land up country.
In a few days, with the proceeds from the felucca and some of the Burmese gold they bought a pair of mules and a cart with an old swaybacked horse. With hand drawn maps they purchased in the tavern of the public house from an old Italian man, they set off to the north of the island of Corsica.
They had retained two harquebuses and crossbows with some powder, shot and bolts, enough for hunting. Going north and east from Bunifaziou they kept to the eastern coast where the mountains were less and some cart tracks existed. Abreu and Li Wei sought a high area in the north called the Oletta Alta and there a number of caves, one of which they hoped to turn into a dwelling with serviceable alchemical workings and there to prepare the elixirs.
At a beautiful and narrow cove with a small port called Bastia they turned inland and southwest into the high mountains. The trails were narrow and overgrown and they had to leave the cart and press the mules and old horse into pack service for the jewels and equipment. They were forced to break trail at times with cutlass and mule to move fallen vegetation.
When the forest broke and thinned to nothing above treeline, the massif was rocky but still they pressed on. Finding nothing of note above treeline, and virtually no game to sustain them they descended to the upper edges of the forest and near a defile with clear water they found the opening, under a cliff face, of a deep cave. They camped there at the entrance and over the coming days they made deeper and deeper forays into the depths of the cavern. Far in the inner reaches, after a considerable narrowing they came upon a large open chamber, and here they chose to make their bid for immortality.
Day by day they imported hardwood staves into the depths, set the alchemical production on fallen, table-like stones, collected pitch and moss to bind to the staves for torches, firewood for light, heat and cooking and with that gradually moved entirely into the large open chamber deep in the cavern near the wooded defile. They killed and butchered the old horse and the two mules, smoked the meat and hung it in cool chambers along the stygian route to the chamber of alchemy. They emerged only to collect water at first, but later found that a spring held cool pure water from the further depths of the subterrane. They set about their process of making the quicksilver and sulphur harmonizing mixture and the plant tinctures that would amalgamate and sublimate the gem elixir.
Abreu grew taciturn and utterly driven. He would no longer converse with Li Wei about anything save process. He slept very little, and even then agitated with constant mutterings. At times, he would sit, throwing stone after stone one upon another until the violence produced a reddish powder that he was convinced held the secret to the Rubedo phase of the process that would imbue the elixir with the gold traces of eternal life. In anticipation of the final products, Abreu began to consume the reddish powder in a tincture as well as apply it to his skin as a patina to bring him into alignment with the process. He consumed the quicksilver and sulphur mixture to this end along with the rouge bauxite pigment. When he burned the harmonizing mixture along with the plant residue he inhaled the fumes from this Nigredo phase, again in the belief that it brought him into alignment with the process. The result of the mercury, sulphur, plant chemistry and trace aluminum was a burgeoning psychosis.
Abreu felt empowered, the growing psychosis in his brain gave him a precursor of the immortal feeling he sought to realize. The effect of this on Li Wei was less well taken.
Li Wei had not planned to remain long with Captain Abreu and held his own goals for the gem elixir process. He grew terrified of the way the eyes of Abreu reflected an inner madness that he deigned had nothing to do with the quest of everlasting life. In fact, he correctly surmised that Abreu was on the way into full thanatic darkness from which there would be no return. After a particularly virulent rant by Abreu, Li Wei, on the pretense of gathering wild mushrooms in the forest outside the cave stuffed his pockets with rubies from an open cask and returned no more into the cavern.
Abreu, after a time, so involved with his process forgot all about Li Wei and became absorbed in the task of pounding the rubies with an iron bar into the smallest granules possible, soaking them in the tinctures, then the harmonizing mixture and steeping the elixir in the light of the full moon outside the cave, month after month. He became gaunt, his movements random and quaking, his thoughts filled with tremors and fears along with elation and megalomaniacal strivings.
After too long, he deemed the elixir ready. He returned to the depths of the cavern and cleared the chamber of the alchemical equipment which he sank into the pool where the spring bubbled cool and clear. The gold, and a full cask and a half of the rubies he carried deeper into the cave, sliding down slopes, inching through crawlways, returning for more torches and probing still deeper into the deepest recesses of the labyrinth. And there, with the several liters of elixir he had produced along with the plant tinctures he sat, letting the torches burn down to nothing, the dark thick around him. The dank of the cave seeping into his soul, he mixed the tinctures, elixirs and harmonizing mixture into the cask half filled with rubies. He drank from it, deeply, spilling rivulets in the red coating on his skin, drinking it all, until only rubies were left in the cask and the smaller of these he began to swallow, alone, in the lightless shade of his madness.