Sao Feng crossed his arms and looked at the skin of the plum presented before him. Glistening, royal deep purple in shade and delicately plump, the fruit was gardened from behind the walls of the Golden City, a royal present by anyone's standards. A cowering messenger boy kneeled before the great Pirate, cupping the perfect fruit in his hands. The Emperor never met at open sea before, his golden masts heralded the worlds greatest and oldest Marine fleet. Simply known as Emperor, or Qing, to the civilizations of the West, he was a shrouded figure, covered in shadows and more protected than any one man on the Planet. Few men worried Sao Feng, but he could not deny his respect and fear of the greatest dynasty of the greatest nation the world had ever known.
"And how do I know this is not some Imperial trap?" Sao fang said low, nearly whispering to the boy.
"As a symbol of the Emperor's honesty, I will let you drive a blade into my belly. If I am lying, I will surely say so."
Sao Feng twisted the strands of his long beard and took the fruit from the boy's hands. "You are an interesting child. Such an example of the blind obedience the Emperor requires of his subjects. Stand beside me."
The boy stood slowly, never leveling his eyes to the impressive man, never daring to turn his gaze upwards. Sao Feng continued, full of both charm and venom, each word falling off the next.
"What do you know of freedom, boy? Have you ever once tasted a plum, such as the one you have brought me today? I dare say you haven't. I dare say you come from a family that will struggle for five hundred years to forget how they sold themselves into slavery for not more than a sack full of rice." Feng smiled and took a bite, savoring the juice that ran down his chin. "I know freedom. I know the freedoms of open air and wide horizons. I was the son of a simple fisherman. From desperate poverty, I emerged, and took to the seas to gain my fortune."
Feng put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Through dedication, in my lifetime, I have broken the shackles of poverty and built an empire all my own. Do you believe this was simple coincidence, or perhaps fate that ran its course? There is no Emperor lest we say there is. And I, for one, never voted this man to his position."
"You slander your lord and master." The boy said nervously, his voice shaking.
"I do. And I will again and again, because that is who I am. I am the defiant face to the despot. I am the freedom of all that would stand against him, or would find their own ways in the world. And you tell me, that you would give your life at his bidding. At his whim. Who is he to gamble you in such a way?"
Sao Feng put the plum in the boy's hand. "Would you take a bite of this fruit?"
"It is not my place to eat such a fine thing as that." His face was twisted in a precious mix of dread and confusion.
"Do me this request. If you are the vanguard of our beloved emperor, you will take a bite, and don't worry, I won't tell. I will allow you this freedom. It may be the only one you ever enjoy."
Sao Feng managed a smile, though he was sure it came more menacing to the child than he intended. Feng had never been able to articulate human warmth, unless it was for a member of his own crew. But the boy took the fruit into his hand and looked at it, glancing about him to see if anyone else was watching them. But, they were alone. They were in the belly of The Empress, Sao Feng's flagship, a great, strong vessel of immense fortitude. All about them were objects of Sao Fengs riches, his collected pillaging and murdering and sacking was displayed in piles and the boy was sure it was only a small portion of what he had amassed. Feng was well-known, widely feared, and quietly respected. He did not only live what he so proudly spoke, he was beginning to make a lot of sense to a lot of frustrated people. People that for so long lived in repressive fear of a series of dynasties that despite their incredible scientific and cultural advancements had never achieved the ethical responsibilities of the British or the democracy of the Greeks.
"Go ahead. I know it calls to you." Sao Fang beamed as the boy took the fruit in, silently chewing. He felt good that the boy trusted him, that through the power of his own words he could change even the most hard-hearted of Imperial stooges.
The boy seemed shocked when Sao Feng ran him through with his thin dagger. His eyes rolled up to Sao Feng and locked his gaze. Feng was emotionless, looking down at the dying child. "You were a good subject, and I do believe the Emperor is waiting for me. You have done your job well today, and your soul will fly unfettered."
Feng ended it quickly, and picked the boy up, taking him in his powerful arms. He walked through the galley and handed the child to a subordinate.
"What will you do?" Tai Huang, Feng's trusted bodyguard and confidant asked.
"I will meet with the Emperor. Tell him I grant his request. We will meet on the water."
Huang rowed Feng out into the middle of the sea, where the largest contingents of row boats the Pirate lord had ever seen circled about them. A larger dingy near the center of the group had a tent about it, surely this was the temporary house of the Emperor. Imperial Guards stood uneasily in the boats, prompting Feng to chuckle. No matter how skilled the men were as killers, without their sea legs, he would always have the advantage. Feng handed his sword to a guard and stepped into the tent, moving from boat to boat as easily as one would more from one step to another.
The Emperor was anything but a powerful looking individual. With a shaved head and a thinly built stature, he could have been easily mistaken for a librarian. In a crowd, no one would pick him out as an emperor.
"Captain Sao Feng." The Emperor looked as if he was expecting the Pirate to bow.
"You wanted to see me."
"I did. I tell you, it is refreshing to be in a room with a man that will not stay lower than me. To be looked at in my eyes, is something I am not used to. My father would have had you gutted on the spot. I am not my father."
"I knew your father." Sao Feng smiled. "And if he were to have me gutted today, my ship would have fired its cannons with dead accuracy on this spot. And you would still be Emperor."
"I suppose that is true. And I understand your threat. But I do not want you to feel threatened. I have always been on your side. I have allowed you to have free run of Singapore. This is no small thing. If today I wanted it so, I could descend upon your fleet and turn it to splinters. We have the guns. We have the ships. But you and your fellows have become something of an interest to me. It has to do with Capitalism."
"It is a new movement. Where one aims to make money on claims to future fortunes. A great addition to economics by the western minds, and the key to our nation's future. We have, for some time, been in the Opium trade. You have been a great cog in that machine, helping to move the drugs from one coast to another. And, whether you will like to admit it, you have been adding to the future fortunes of your people and this Empire."
"I fail to see what you mean."
"Well, Opium is a terribly addictive substance as you well know. Right now, we have people in all of Europe and in the West Indies that are actively spreading Opium to places where there was no demand. Soon, we will be the world's largest exporter in Opium, and with shipping lanes open, soon we will control all markets. Beijing will be the economic center of the new world."
"How very progressive of you." Sao Feng said, noticing the pleased look on the Emperors face. "If I may be so bold to ask, what part do you expect me to play?"
"You will keep doing what you are doing, but added to that, you will also steal the cargos of the Indian Opium traders. They are threatening to destroy our future gains and it cannot happen. I have in my possession the shipping routes of the Indian runners and you will intercept their largest cache and, if you can, cripple them."
"What is in it for me?" Sao Feng drove right to the point.
"More money than you can dream of. And, beyond that, that which you want most."
"How do you mean?"
"When you do this for me, I will let you know what I mean. But, for now." The Emperor held the tent flap open. "For now you will receive a generous bounty and my word that there will be freedom for you as long as I live."
Sao Feng stepped into the boat with his bodyguard, certain that the Emperor was something of a different breed than his father. He was loathe to say it, but this bald man was more like himself, a dreamer, looking for the next challenge to conquer.
More than ever, he knew to be cautious of the Empire. Using Opium to control the world was ludicrous, but if the pay was right, he would be all for it. He may have principals, but gold was more important than ideals, otherwise, what did it mean to Pirate?
Ahead of him was his ship, giant and serene in the still waters near Singapore. He was proud of the Empress, a sturdy craft that proved herself again and again in the trials of combat. His next stage, going after the Indian Opium Runners was something he would have to savor. Feng retired to his cabin, disrobing and sitting before a plate of incense, steaming his nostrils with good smells and he was ready to meditate, to get some of the answers he needed, silence to get his head in the right place to do what must be done.
Silence, until a ridiculous belch erupted from the corner of his quarters. Feng gnashed his teeth and turned about to find his passenger, the English addition to his crew out of Singapore, the loathsome Jack Sparrow, chugging on a bit of rum in one hand and finishing a half-eaten plum in the other.
"So, Captain. Where are we headed now?"