Lust for power and the sunset of two empires: seen through the eyes of politicians, soldiers, slaves, and churchmen.
In 1849, when Macau’s governor is murdered, Vicente Mesquita, a lieutenant in Macau’s small battalion is forced to avenge the murder of Macau’s governor and ordered to attack a Chinese fort―an action considered to be a suicide mission. Mesquita is trapped in conflict between two fading empires, China and Portugal. With a foot in each culture, he is torn between which masters to follow. The Macau of Mesquita’s time was a boiling pot created by three centuries of Portuguese expansion and assimilation. Mesquita fights his demons in a world of assassins, opium traders, politicians and slavers. Follow his adventures as he goes to war and steers his way through political intrigues, all the while being pursued by a maniacal killer. Marco Lobo’s novel is based on this tragic historical character, and has all the richness and intrigue of his first novel, award-winning The Witch Hunter’s Amulet.
1880 – Year of the Dragon
VICENTE FORCED HIS GUMMY EYELIDS APART. A strand of silk was snagged in his fingernail; the other end of it tethered to the wing of a water bird standing in a stream. He pulled his hand away, tensing the strand and bunching up the bird’s body until the thread tugged loose from the split in his yellowed nail.
He tried smoothing it out, but repeated scraping at the spot over his right thigh had already reduced the bird’s body to a fuzzy ball. To Vicente however, the robe he wore was like new, when the deftness of a Chinese embroiderer had given the illusion of the bird being covered with miniature feathers. Scraping of the blue stream had slackened the embroidery, creating an impression of hazardous rapids. Nearby, a flock of needlework geese had taken flight. He heard what he thought was a flap of wings. The geese called as they took off. “And goodbye to you too,” Vicente said with a glance in the direction of their travel, wondering where they were headed. To escape the confines of the garment perchance; free, and out to sea. Scent of sea-spray drew his attention to the window. Its shutters rattled, rusty hinges screeched against a gust—no, he realized despondently, not the sound of honking geese after all.
Through the bright rectangle, Vicente saw what appeared to be a gray veil; long dark tassels dangled from it, their ends ticking the waters of the Pearl River Delta. “What have we here?” He narrowed his eyes, trying to make sense of it. The veil seemed to shift, thickening, coming closer. A few raindrops blew into his study, one landed on the back of his hand. “Uh, storm clouds . . . pity,” he mumbled. “The parade . . . mustn’t forget.”
Lately, he had spent entire days enveloped in gloom. Rheumy eyes gummed shut, he hobbled on gout-swollen feet, pawing the air, trying to sweep away the fantasy mist. His wife or a housemaid steered him along―a circus bear and its trainers.
Vicente didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there. A near-empty bottle of Port on his desk was no help. It might take a whole day to drink a full bottle, but he’d also managed it in a couple of hours. No matter. “How long is a piece of . . .? A piece of . . . shit,” he whispered, stifling a giggle with the palm of his hand.
Leaning forward, he pinched the stem of a little glass on his desk and brought it to his dry mouth. He smacked his lips at the drink’s sweetness, enjoying the mild burn as it went down. “And now, time for a little medicine?” he asked himself.
He set the glass down and jerked open his desk drawer half way. A little brown bottle rolled forward. At one time it did contain medicine. With the doctor who prescribed it long since passed, Vicente kept refilling the bottle with laudanum. The rolling flask pushed something along with it; a note, doubled over and over until it was a thick wad incapable of another fold. The kind of thing you might do to hide a note away, keeping it from one’s own eyes, and yet too precious to discard.
Though he’d sat at this very desk each day, he had no recollection of what the note contained. He picked up the wad and unraveled it, bringing the creased paper close to his eyes. He recognized his own handwriting; the hand of a much younger Vicente Nicolau de Mesquita. He began to read, sounding the words out in his head.
16 Mexican silver dollars
“What the Devil . . .” Vicente said. He went to the next line.
One gold watch and chain
“Ah yes. Yes.” Now he remembered, a list―of what was to be a final testament―if he was to be completely honest about it. Something he’d scribbled thirty years before. “Tsk, tsk . . . poor sod,” he said of himself before going on.
One military saber
One pair of regulation dress boots
One oil painting depicting Chinese fishermen, by the artist George Chinnery
Vicente glanced towards a painting across the room where a blurry shape hung on the wall.
He gave up trying to read, the strain on his vision an excuse to escape the discomfort of considering his transience. Vicente looked longingly at the bottle in his desk drawer. “Not now.” He shook his head. “Later. After the parade.” He threw the open note into the drawer and banged it shut.
Wind rattled the displays on the wall. His head-fog prevented him from seeing them clearly, but he knew them intimately—his military honors. The ones closest to him were letters patent. The oldest one displayed his promotion to the rank of first lieutenant.
“And you.” he flapped a hand at the next one confirming his promotion to the rank of major. It swayed in response. “You took another fifteen years of my life.” Vicente shook a liver-spotted fist at the document. As he did so, two words rang simultaneously in his head: ‘appointment’ and ‘disappointment.’
The third frame held a letter received just seven years prior, advancing him to the present rank of colonel. His thoughts floated to times past, when he received other military accolades. Scenes of Macau’s governors pinning gleaming medals on his broad chest: Knight of the Order of Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Vila Viçosa; Commander of the Order of Aviz; silver and gold medals of valor and conduct. Vicente’s breast puffed out with pride at the memories, but just as soon deflated like a leaky bladder. “Accolades or reprisals?” He brought a limp hand to his temple in feeble salute.
Encased in a glass display lay a Chinese sword, one surrendered to him by a vanquished foe. “Ah yes, Baishaling.” He shuddered at the word, and at another one that rushed into his head: Amaral. A name he’d tried to forget, one that had dogged him for three decades. “Damn you, Amaral.” The words rolled out rhythmically, five syllables of an oft-repeated mantra. There were other weapons on display in his study. A locked gun cabinet held rifles with bayonets fixed. On top of a side table lay a long, wide-bladed knife in a brown leather scabbard. Vicente could barely make out its shape. A glint off its hilt winked at him. Vicente winked back. He tapped the side of his nose with a finger. “I know what you’re thinking, eh, Mr. Knife, where’s Breno, eh?” he said in a whisper that was all stale breath. The name Pearl floated up through the alluvium of his mind; the names Fang and Li also floated up.
Together, the names made his head spin. There were more names wanting to be discovered, like the partly concealed bones of ancient creatures. He tried to suppress them, covering his ears with his hands. He heard clearly the name, da Mata.
The memory of his medals, the framed patent letters, the Chinese sword and other weapons made his head rock backwards. He faced the ceiling, gasping like a landed grouper. The prizes surrounding him pooled into a ledger—one of an abhorrent life. Vicente felt a weight crushing him. There was no way to escape its force other than to retreat within himself, delving into places he ne’er dared look.
Vicente Mesquita squeezed his eyelids together, trying to shut out blurry pictures of a failed life. But with eyes shut, the images became crystal clear. His mind’s eyes revealed objects and faces to him in minute detail. And, like the first links of a chain, the interconnected rings of memory that followed, pulled with them entire scenes, complete with smells and sounds.
FANG COULDN’T BELIEVE HIS LUCK. First to have been kidnapped by a foreign devil, and then to be saved by one. Who would believe such a story? As he helped his injured friend limp away, he recalled the events that got him to this place a week before. Had it really only been a week since the start of this nightmare?
A nightmare indeed. That is how he would always remember it starting as.
In the dream, Fang heard rocks scraping together. He saw his father prodding a couple of sweet potatoes with a forked twig, roasting them over heated stones. The tubers were nearly ready; their skins, leathery and partly blackened, were split in places, exposing yellowish flesh. Seasoned in seawater, they hissed, releasing steam and froth that reminded him of a crab’s bubbling mouth.
Something about the smell of the fire bothered him. Other odors around him fit in place: sand, damp and minerally; salted fish, pungent, hanging off bamboo frames to dry. But the smoke didn’t carry the familiar smell of the cooking meal. Instead, its scent was altogether foreign; spicy, and a little green. He heard the clacking sound again, but now the image of his father poking at the cooking fire was gone, replaced by swirling colors.
As Fang drifted slowly back to consciousness, he recalled where he was. On watch-duty after a day toiling in the fields. He had dozed off. The clacks were sounds made by waves lapping the shoreline, raking over stones, rolling them against one another. For the briefest instant he caught the smell again. Then it was gone.
Lying face up, he searched for the scent, pulling air into his nostrils. A light breeze blew over him and he found it again. Fang snatched at the smell with several sniffs in quick succession. Determined not to lose the vapor trail, he continued sniffing and propped himself up on an elbow. He rubbed his eyes with a thumb and peeked over a driftwood log screening him from the sea.
Two hours before daybreak, the moonglow allowed only enough light to tell where land met water. Against the blackness, Fang saw a yellow-red dot hovering two meters above the surface. He breathed in, tugged at the odor. Now he recognized it as smoke from one of those foul-smelling sticks that foreign devils puffed on. Eyes wide, he stared into the dark space around the glowing spot. Slowly, the silhouette of a sailing junk materialized. About fifteen meters offshore he estimated, close enough for him to hear the creak of wood, a couple of bumping noises and then a faint splash of something large dropping into the water. He ducked behind the log, heart thumping in his scrawny chest. Holding his breath, he listened. Voices: men whispering in a foreign tongue.
Crouched over, he moved off the beach and started to run. Barefooted, he scampered inland, over small grassy dunes and through Dazhou’s fields. He stumbled and fell, scraped his knee on a stone and rolled. Regaining his footing, he took off again, his fear a wind at his back.
Fang made straight for the village hall. An old gong, parts of it completely worn through, hung from a roof beam of the stone hut. Fang grabbed the club and started striking the bronze disk. The sharp clanging silenced the crickets and set off the village curs, barking and howling
The village headman, spitting curses, hobbled over dragging his bad leg stiffly along, gripped the young man by the arm. “What is it, Fang?”
Fang stopped striking the gong, ears ringing. He flexed his fingers, aching from the tight grasp of the club. He pointed in the direction of the sea, huffing, unable to speak.
The headman shook Fang by the shoulder. “Calm down boy, what did you see?
“A boat.” Fang puffed. “Out there. Fan gwai, foreign ghosts, I think.”
“Think! Can you be certain?”
Fang hesitated for only a second. “I heard them,” he said, trying his best to show the confidence he didn’t feel.
“Well done. Run, get the others up quickly, I’ll keep beating this thing. Off with you.”
The farmers didn’t need to be told to run and hide. They knew what it meant when the alarm sounded. Most of them were up by the time Fang reached them. Some of the huts were already empty. The villagers always had a few meager belongings ready, tied in bundles which they snatched up as they scattered into their fields.
As the last member of his immediate family remaining in the village, Fang dashed past his own hut and headed towards the hills. Behind him, the gong went on sounding the alarm.
Fang kept running until he got to a place he felt safe, the holy cave. He entered the small grotto and hid in the shadows. He didn’t believe he could be found here, sheltered in this sacred place. His father had showed it to him, told him that the birthmark, the reddish stain on the skin of his neck was a sign of good luck. He looked at the red-faced statue for comfort and mouthed a few silent words asking the deity for protection.
For the next few hours he stayed hidden in a dark corner. The gong had gone silent soon after dawn, and Fang prayed that the old man had made his escape. From shadows at the cave’s entrance, Fang knew the sun was at its zenith. As he wondered whether returning to Dazhou Village would be safe, once again his nose warned him. This time the scent was a mixture of cowhide and sweat, the smell of a foreign devil. He heard footsteps nearing the cave, bamboo creaking and brush being pushed aside. The smell got stronger. When the foreigner got close to the cave, Fang picked up a sulfurous tang—something akin to the smell of exploded firecrackers.
He pressed himself into a dark corner and held his breath, watching the man enter the cave. He had seen this big dark man before, even remembered his name, Ēn lǐ kè, the one who had come before to recruit laborers, promising riches. The last time, he had arrived with a crimp, a Chinese native hired to recruit workers, paid a commission for each man he brought in. They called at villages along the coast, telling the farming communities of the good money that could be made by signing up to work in Gum Shan, Golden Mountain, in the West Coast of America. Fang’s father had gone that time, a year ago, and was not heard from again.
From the shadows, he saw Ēn lǐ kè walk to the altar, a lopsided stone slab coated in red candle wax and a fine layer of ash. On a wooden pedestal above it stood an effigy. A god, roughly sculpted in fired clay and brightly painted. Ēn lǐ kè had his pistol out and walked slowly, holding it in front of him. He put the gun on the altar and picked up a small bowl holding wooden ends and ash of spent joss sticks. He examined it briefly before throwing it back onto the altar. It rolled; its contents spilled and rose in a fine mist. He picked up the pistol, stuck it in his belt and began to search the rest of the cold, damp cave.
One of the rock walls dripped with water and green slime. Ēn lǐ kè pressed his sleeve onto the wet wall and wiped it across his brow.
Fang shifted. Ēn lǐ kè saw the small movement and moved in the direction of the hiding place. Fang pulled his knees in under his chin, trying to shrink further into the darkness.
Ēn lǐ kè came towards him.
Fang picked up a stone and got to his feet. His shoulders rose and fell with panicky breaths. “Don’t come any closer,” he said, voice shaky.
The man chuckled. He lowered his head to his side to take the rope off his belt and Fang took aim at Ēn lǐ kè’s head with the rock. The jagged missile struck him on the temple. He yelped and felt the spot where he’d been struck. He brought his bloodied fingertips to his eyes.
Injuring the man, seeing the trickle of blood, gave Fang a thrill. He didn’t understand it but knew the sensation was related to hurting Ēn lǐ kè. Killing an animal for food, for necessity, gave him no such feeling. Throughout his life he’d done it more times than he could remember. This new feeling grew from the pit of his stomach and spread through him. Like molten lava, it ran down his legs, through his arms. It reached his head with the sound of a wave crashing on the beach. Silvery dots danced in his eyes. His vision cleared to show Ēn lǐ kè pulling the gun from his belt. Fang bent down to grab another rock. He nearly fell over, but steadied himself against the wall.
Ēn lǐ kè took a step closer and Fang threw again. This time the coolie trader batted the flying stone away with the barrel of his pistol.
Trapped in a corner, Fang tried to make a break for the cave entrance. Ēn lǐ kè grabbed him by the hair with his free hand and jerked him backwards. Fang flailed his arms and watched helplessly as the man raised his gun. He knew it was over, and took a last look at the statue, his final memory before being bashed senseless was of the red-faced, bearded idol over the altar, staring at him with its fiery eyes.