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 battle and 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 other 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 in the siege of the town, after cleaving a man from collar bone to sternum, Abreu whirled abruptly only to catch a piece of chain-shot from a swivel gun mounted on the balustrade thirty feet 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 to the men, 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 him and valued him more that his ship itself. The mate knew as did only Abreu besides 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, 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, mental longitudinal dimensions of human potential. Matos 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 weather was fine and the ship had anchored in the flats off the Ayerawaddy delta. The riches of Burma had long been spoken of in the important 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 in the 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 were 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 caravelle. 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 caravelle 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 for acute watchfulness. In the hour before the rising tide near dawn he went to Captain Abreu and spoke. He told the captain the caravelle 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 grassy and 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 Sangha. 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 the Sangha 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 the High Command valued in him. The thorn in his side was Serrão.
Francisco Serrão had been assigned to the voyage not by the High Commander Alfonso de Albuquerque, but but 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 Game had been bringing gold from east Africa. His prized kept man, his overarching watchdog and whistleblower was Serrão.
The man was an accomplished observer of human behavior and malcontent in others. His naturally suspicious nature was augmented by an intuition that has 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 of any sort, but through his utterly fearless drive to obtain gold and gems. The truth that Abreu knew was that the conquest and pillage of such was worth much more to him than the 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 overall 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 seek and obtain gold, and to assess the 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 expansion of 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 then 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, no more than a swashbuckler with the backing of a King of renown. 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 surely mood than usual after the sacking of the Molucca’s 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 form 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 canned 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, at dawn 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 and 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 caravelle, eight of the Sangha elders stood to meet them at the city wall. The three white men from the strong looking ship approached slowly, bowing intermittently as they came. The Sangha stood, implacable and without smile or any indication of disposition.
Captain Abreu, much to the objection of Serrão had decided they would approach the monks without weaponry. They carried no arquebuses, 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 that they carried trailing from their opposite hand. To the Sangha, the 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, through dint of effort was able to communicate with the Sangha elders in a rudimentary way. As their custom, the took the strangers into the Pagoda grounds, sat at the base of the great stupa and offered the three rice and tea.