Foreign quarter - Shanghai, China - mid-December, 1853
The temperature had dipped considerably with the arrival of the cold Siberian winds. Ran wrapped his heavy woolen hakema closer to his shoulders as he made his way across the Foreigners Garden. The gates would be locked for the evening so he’d be unable to use this shortcut upon his return. It lead directly into the heart of the Dutch quarter.
Ken had insisted on accompanying him simply for safety but Ran had refused. Captain Crawford was quite specific – this invitation was for Ran and Ran alone. Besides, he was more than capable of defending himself. Ran snorted to himself once in self-absorbed amusement. These negotiations were nothing like they had expected so the offer wasn’t so unusual with all things considered.
Ever since their first meeting in Nagasaki in the summer, the Captain had been nearly impossible to anticipate. Unlike the arrogant, entitled Commodore he served, Crawford continually challenged them with new information and insights they could never have guessed at. And none of it seemed to have any bearing whatsoever on the situation at hand. Worse yet, it was clear, that he and his men were not a clear representation of Americans as a whole. Ran hadn’t decided yet if that was a blessing or incredibly unfortunate.
The lamplighters were just beginning to make their rounds as Ran emerged on the other side of the gardens. The smooth paths of the garden gave way to chunky cobblestone streets which were less than comfortable to traverse in geta. The few mumbled expletives went unnoticed by passersby as Ran adjusted his gait to find a steady rhythm that bridged the gaps in the cut stone.
The captain had alluded to the fact that he and his ship would be stationed in Shanghai until the American fleet’s return in the spring. The Shogun had jumped at the opportunity to negotiate further and learn more about this foe that seemed so immoveable and offered nothing in the way of compromise. The captain entertained each and every request they had made for an audience yet they learned frustratingly little about the Commodore or how to deal with him in those meetings although the Captain’s manners were impeccable. He was the perfect host and cunningly clever with the words he chose to share.
The Shogun’s countermeasures also proved frustratingly useless against Crawford although his officers were rather enamored of the Shogun’s concubines. Yohji offered to seduce the man himself if it would end this stalemate. That attempt proved nothing but comical although it did prove that, at least, some gaijin sailors lived up to the rumors and innuendo – just the wrong gaijin. The captain’s redheaded commander seemed to appreciate any pretty face irregardless of gender.
Ran turned down a wide alleyway, heading for the waterfront and the most expensive real estate in all of Shanghai. Crawford was apparently the guest of a wealthy Dutch banker which, on the surface, spoke loudly of political maneuvering. Somehow, Ran just knew it had nothing to do with the Americans position or not directly, at least. The lavish townhouses that lined this block recreated the feel of old Europe. The foreign quarter never felt more foreign than this. The idea that Edo would suffer this same fate churned hot in his stomach as he glared at the carefully laid stone facades as he passed them by.
The captain’s invitation to accompany them on a two week mission at sea was highly unusual and certainly raised all sorts of dark and sinister concerns in all their minds. The decision to accept that offer proved to be an easy one. The Shogun would insist they take the risk for the obvious tactical reasons. That, more than anything so far, had shaped his opinion of this man and his crew. Never once were their fears justified while on board. Yet the Americans were brutal and ruthless with the Taiwanese pirate ship they had sailed out to hunt. The guns the USS Saratoga brought to bear were devastatingly effective and deathly accurate. They were able to deliver precise crippling damage without sinking the vessel. It was just as much the vastly advanced guns as it was the skill of the crew and their captain. The captain of that doomed ship, and his closest mates were spared no mercy. Crawford, and especially his officers, took disturbing pleasure in their execution. This was the display they were sure they were intended to see – what lay in store for Nagasaki and Edo should they refuse the Commodore’s demands. Yet, when it came to the human cargo those pirates were transporting, the Captain was nothing but patient and accommodating. The final disposition of that ship and its goods was questionable as was the Dutch bankers involvement in the affair but, if the Americans did not see fit to question their own captain, Ran supposed it was none of his concern.
Ran played each of these crucial moments over and over again looking for any small sign or signal he may have missed. He was rather certain, the Captain offered nothing he had not intended to. When the Captain had sent this invitation, Ran had to admit that he was intrigued by the offer and was trying hard to deny the reasons why he was so eager to accept.
He approached the townhouse full of questions, but, more so, eager to engage this man that had vexed him all these weeks.
The Dutch servant girls were polite if a bit too friendly. They nearly mugged him for his hakema and giggled openly as he slipped out of his geta just inside the door. He had only realized they still wore their shoes as they lead him to the study where the captain awaited. The captain sat at a small desk, securing papers as he stood to greet him.
“I am glad you accepted my invitation.” Crawford offered an appropriate bow, his Japanese growing sharper and clearer each time they met. His usual uniform was replaced with more a more casual coat atop of fine cotton shirt, his trousers of a looser fit than those of his uniform.
Ran stopped himself mid thought. He wasn’t certain at what point he had taken note of the fit of the captains trousers.
“It was most considerate of you to invite me, though I must admit, I am unsure why you have invited me alone. Mamoru is tasked as the Shogun’s chief negotiator. I am…”
“Yes, I know. You are just a simple representative.” Crawford offer Ran a seat with a gesture then turned to the cabinet to pour them both a drink. He offered a stout round glass knowing Ran would be too polite to refuse. “It is a very fine cognac. There is a small ritual that accompanies it.” Crawford demonstrated with his own glass. “Hold it between your hands, let it warm a bit.” He rolled the glass between his palms slowly. “A good cognac will be the color of wild honey, a rich deep amber. Avoid pale cognac at all costs.”
Ran gave a small smile but followed along. He had never anticipated that the Americans would take the time to savor spirits in such a way but he appreciated the gesture of the lesson none the less.
“Once it warms, swirl lightly… “Crawford nearly stuck his nose in the glass and Ran sputtered out a small laugh. “Trust me… the aroma with haunt you if it is a good cognac. Go on. “
Ran’s amused skepticism relented as he swirled his glass and suspiciously raised the glass to his face. Crawford was not just toying with him, the aroma was heady and sweet, warm with hints of summer fruit – surprisingly more sophisticated than he let himself imagine.
“This is not lieutenant Farfarello’s whiskey. This one, you savor. Sip.” Crawford tipped the glass back, obviously rolling the liquid on his tongue before swallowing it down.
Ran followed suit. The harsh burn of Farfarello’s whiskey was missing. This had a rich deep character that engaged the senses. He looked to Crawford with approval. Again, the captain surprised him with a hidden depth he would never have guessed at.
“It is exquisite.”
“It is the reason I invited you and you alone.”
“You invited me to taste our future?” The bitter words contrasted sharply against the rich sweet taste coating his tongue.
Crawford rounded the couch, sitting across from Ran, crossing his legs in a much too casual pose, a small satisfied smirk on his face. He sipped lightly at his glass once more before continuing.
“I invited you because you are the only one who would understand the simple pleasure in that glass. Mamoru and Yohji would be reading political innuendo and looking for metaphors while wondering if I conspired to get them drunk for some nefarious purpose. Or worse yet – to finally poison them.” The captain’s eyes nearly matched the color of the cognac in the light from the fireplace and suddenly, Ran felt much too exposed under his gaze.
“But you cannot deny the seriousness of the situation. The position your Commodore has placed us in.”
“I do not.” The knowing smirk that tugged at Crawford’s lips was the only signal he ever let them see. It usually meant there was something there they were missing. Despite their efforts, they had yet to find what it was. “I also know that you and I do not speak solely for our respective superiors.”
Ran shifted uncomfortably on the overly soft couch. The man was aware that he represented the Emperor in July at Nagasaki and that he was tasked only as an observer there. Here, he was bound in service to the Shogun as well. He was aware that while Commodore Perry assigned this task of negotiations to Captain Crawford, he had done so only as a sign of good faith. They had no intention of negotiating their terms. Yet, here Crawford was sharing his cognac and treading into dangerously traitorous waters.
“I’ve come here to listen to what you have to say.” Ran offered plainly as he again sipped at his glass. “You have already heard all the words I have to offer.”
“Have I?” It was a question and a statement and neither when accompanied by that damnable smirk on the man’s face.
“When I made those first arrangements to meet the Shogun’s negotiators I had imagined white haired old men with practiced words and the patience of saints. If that had been the case, I would have politely sent them home after that first meeting. I was surprised that the Shogun sent the four of you. Young, untested…”
“We have the confidence of the shogun plus many years in the royal court…” Ran jumped to his own immediate defense.
“Ran, I have not invited you here to insult you. I had expected the shogun to send his most experienced negotiators; instead he sent his most persuasive. I have to admit, I’m impressed.” Again he sipped at his cognac briefly contemplating something in the swirl of his glass. “The four of you look far beyond the words. You negotiate with all the resources at your disposal, not afraid to use your creativity when the situation calls for it.” Crawford’s tone was most complimentary and a touch amused. Ran knew what creativity he was referring to.
“Yohji has quite the imagination.” Ran had to look away. This was not a topic of conversation he wanted to pursue in any sort of detail.
“The Shogun is a shrewder man than I had given him credit for. He anticipated far in advance that his beautiful concubines may not suffice so he stacked his odds by providing four beautiful men just in case the rumors about gaijin held true. It certainly worked in my commander’s case. Yohji did wrestle much more from him than I had wished.” The captain laughed to himself as he swirled his glass one last time before sipping down the remainder.
Ran eyes grew wide. He only knew of Yohji’s – activities- through pure accident. However the Captain found out about his own officer’s indiscretion was less troubling than the apparent disregard he felt for the exchange of information. Amusement should not be the appropriate reaction. In the Shogun’s court, such an officer would most likely meet beheading on sight.
This meeting - all of their meetings - obviously had nothing to do with Commodore Perry or his unreasonable list of demands.
“We were never instructed to… seduce… anyone. Yohji’s methods are his own.” The negotiator was lost for any further words.
Crawford was enjoying Ran’s discomfort in the silence a bit too much. The tall American stood, returning to the cabinet to refill his glass, crossing to the couch to top off Ran’s glass as well.
“I assume your Shogun expected all of you to use whatever means necessary. My commodore also expects no less. ” The captain pointedly caught Ran’s wandering gaze and held it just long enough to push his discomfort a bit further. “ I’m fairly certain I’ve made it clear that my influence cannot be bought. This is just business, Ran.”
Ran was unaccustomed to holding his opinion so close for quite as long as he had these past months. He wrestled with his discretion, leashing his words for the sake of an entire country.
“Perhaps it is just business for your Commodore and your president. You’ll understand if we do not see it that way. ”
The captain took a seat on the opposite end of the couch. He studied the complicated layers of Ran’s kimono, unable to picture the man in a suit or uniform. It seemed too simple. The layers suited him well.
“Is that the royal ‘we’ or the Shogun’s negotiator ‘we’? Or perhaps, you are referring to yourself and someone else much closer…”
Ran fixed a curious stare on Crawford trying to decipher exactly what this man’s game was. This had never been less about the treaty than it was right now.
“I speak for the emperor as well as the shogun. It would be improper to insinuate my personal matters into our discussions.”
“So it is personal… a girl, I assume. Your wife?”
Shock replaced curiosity. Why would this man care about his life? There was nothing there that could possibly influence a matter of this magnitude. Whatever personal information he shared would have no bearing whatsoever on his stance in these negotiations. He, also, could not be bought into concession.
“I am but a single man. My life holds no influence over these discussions.”
“We have already agreed. There is no discussion to be had. Your shogun will not concede. My commodore will not concede. But, perhaps, you and I are in a unique position.” Crawford may have gained Ran’s confidence but he did not yet have his trust. That too would need to be negotiated. “What if your Emperor could use this situation to gain back control from the Shogunate?”
The shock remained and compounded, Ran’s control finally usurped as his jaw gaped open. There was no way the Captain could possibly know… More games. Crawford may have had a theory to test or hunch to gamble on but there was simply no way he knew any of the details of Ran’s true mission. Even the negotiation team knew nothing. After a moment he clicked his jaw shut and sipped long at his cognac.
“Such talk is treason…”
“For you perhaps. This is why I speak the words. You, as a negotiator and observer are supposed to listen… so listen.” Crawford settled back into the couch, much too relaxed for a conversation that literally had Ran sitting on the edge of his seat, every muscle bunched tight despite the hazy warmth emanating from his stomach.
“The Commodore is a ruthless man. He is driven by power and prestige. His only flaw is his all-consuming ego and only those close to him would have hope of using that particular flaw against him. He has made a grave miscalculation in his negotiation efforts that I think could work in your Emperor’s favor. ”
Ran blinked hard. They had been here for months. They had endured meetings and dinners, political maneuvering and posturing and had even sunk to the basest level of physical bribery all in an effort to learn what Crawford had offered so plainly in those few sentences. Ran’s stern expression softened into a reluctant smirk. Perhaps it was the cognac or, simply a surrender to the sheer incomprehensibility of this man. He laughed quietly to himself with a shake of his head, taking a long sip from his glass.
“You wouldn’t care to tell me what that miscalculation might be, would you?” Ran knew he was playing an entirely different game now and he wasn’t even sure if it had any rules to be followed.
Crawford smiled and sipped, entirely pleased. Ran had the distinct impression he was dealing not with a man but a demon, one who would exact an impossibly high price in exchange for his favors. The man knew the information was too tempting a bait and Ran despised being so easily maneuvered. There was only one way to see this to the end and that was to play the demon’s game.
“Tell me about the girl.” Crawford quietly demanded.
“I do not see how…” Ran stopped himself. It was irrelevant but Crawford obviously wanted the information for something. It was a price to be paid, one that had no obvious cost or bearing on the issues at hand. With a reluctant sigh, he continued.” “… I do not have a wife. But I have a sister.”
“You walk a fine line between Emperor and Shogun. Is your sister the reason why?”
“It is.” Again Ran sipped at his glass. He had never spoken of this aloud to anyone and he knew Crawford would not be satisfied until he did. “My sister has been held at the Shogun’s court for three seasons in the stead of Mamoru. It is… complicated.”
Again the man shocked him with is level of understanding. There was no other way for this man to be so knowledgeable unless some traitor had tutored him, a noble one at that. “Yes. My family has fallen under the dominion of daimyo Takatori. My sister serves as his hostage… she, of royal blood… “Ran stifled the bitterness that crept to the surface much too easily.
“I thought the shogun’s hostages were only kept a single season.”
“They are supposed to be. Daimyo Takatori is one of the shogun’s greatest allies. The shogun has granted him the favor of using someone not of his direct family while still saving face with the other lords.”
“Her royal blood makes her valuable yet she is all you have…” Crawford drew the connections much too easily though so little was offered.
Ran nodded once but remained silent, reburying his emotions so he could refocus on the task at hand. His own thirst for revenge for the dishonor of his family would not be served here. He had given all he was willing to offer. The American had best not be toying with him for his own personal enjoyment. It was time for reciprocation.
“Why are you so willing to offer all I wish to know? My family history has no bearing on any of this. You have willingly committed treason against your own people and it is not solely for personal enjoyment. Every word you speak has purpose. I will know what that purpose is.”
Crawford put a hand to his chin in a moment of consideration. His eyes catalogued Ran’s features before settling on his unusual violet eyes. Ran was accustomed to the strange looks his appearance drew. He was long past the point of reacting to them though he wouldn’t quite classify Crawford’s expression as strange. If he didn’t know better, he would have said he saw desire written there. Just the possibility of that brought a flush of heat to his face so suddenly he had to look away.
“My father is the reason. My freedom is my purpose.” Crawford sipped slowly at his cognac, his eyes never leaving Ran’s flustered face. “This is not the life I chose. It is the life that has been written for me since the day I was born. I will be free of it, on my own terms. Nothing I say to you is treasonous … it merely takes advantage of the situation at hand which just happens to serve my needs as well as yours.”
“You are a captain with influence and power. And, judging by your transactions with the pirate vessel, I would reason that you have the means to make any life you desire. Yours is the ‘home of the free, land of the brave’ is it not? What possible need is served by involving yourself in the politics of Japan?” Desire or no, Ran needed these answers. He felt no obvious betrayal in the captains words but, then again, he wasn’t sure if he’d know a lie if he saw it from this man.
“Free? That is what they say, but it is not entirely what they mean… I do have the means to make any life I choose, and the opening of Japan’s borders offers vast opportunities for the man who knows how to utilize them. I intend to be that man. But money alone does not drive me.” Crawford slide forward in his seat, placing his glass on the table and clasping his hands as he leaned over his knees. It was the first time Ran could discern actual emotion on the man’s face though he was unsure of which emotion it might be.
Crawford dipped his head and laughed to himself before looking back to Ran. “Your shogun was partially correct in his assumptions. Many American sailors choose a life at sea because it is the only place they can live without ridicule. Men who prefer the company of other men are not tolerated in our society. In fact, it is illegal and not long ago such men could actually be hanged for such indiscretion. I have grown tired of hiding.” Again, the captain’s liquid amber eyes fell to Ran’s face. Ran felt the truth in his words as if they were his own. “Your society may not look favorably upon such relationships but their tolerance is more than enough for me.”
With an exhale, Ran sat in contemplative silence. He would never have expected such a huge, personal admission from Crawford. He not only sympathized with his situation, he battled with it for himself as well. At his age, it was unusual for a noble son to be unwed. In the very least he’d be expected to be courting. Whispers had already spread around the court and, in that moment, Ran wondered if those rumors were the reason he was sent here in the first place. It would not be the first time that his unique features had cast him in a woman’s role despite his skill with words and a blade.
He looked to the captain, their silence comfortable as both seemed to be analyzing all that had been said so far. Perhaps the captain’s earlier look had spoken of desire. Yet, he had not attempted to take advantage a single time. He had been true to his word. He would not be bought, not by concubines, or by Yohji. Even now, there was no hint that anything said between them was for anything other than…
“You go this far to earn my trust?”
“Without it we are nothing but two failed negotiators staring at an imminent war.”
“But I expect you to use any means necessary to achieve your own ends.”
“You are correct. MY ends. Everything else is secondary.”
Those were possibly the most honest words Ran had ever heard in his entire life. There was a dangerous determination in Crawford, a sort of reckless bravery, the kind that distinguished mere soldiers from heroes on the battlefield. No, not reckless. Calculated. This man would leave very little to chance. He was left to wonder how he had been chosen as the pivotal piece in this game.
“So tell me of this miscalculation.”
Crawford once again relaxed back into the couch, his usual mask of indifference gone by the wayside. “The Commodore has a very weak grasp on the political structure of Japan. He was instructed to present his letter from our president to the Emperor.”
“Yet he negotiates with the shogun…”
“He does not understand and refuses to be instructed in the crucial difference.”
“I did. He is solely focused on the outcome. He cannot be bothered with the details. While this may be a militaristic threat, it is coming in the guise of a political entreaty from a foreign nation. I am betting that your nobles will be less than enthusiastic to have a warlord interfering in matters best left to the Emperor.”
“They may dislike it but few would openly challenge the shogun.”
“And, what if the shogun conceded to our demands?”
“Sakoku has been written by the Tokugawa shogunate and is brutally enforced still by shogun Ieyasu. Our borders have been closed for generations. Our people have no desire to be consumed by foreign nations as China has been.”
“You have seen our weapons and our methods. My ship is smaller than the steam ships. The Commodore will not return with a handful of ships, he will return with a fully armed fleet. If his terms are denied, he will raze Nagasaki to the ground from the bay then proceed to Edo to force the shogun’s hand. These are the facts that, I believe, you have already clarified for yourself.”
Ran’s face grew dark. It was true, they had already surmised as much after their trip aboard the USS Saratoga. “So how do we prevent it?”
“We do not. The world will not cease to push at your borders. And my country will not sit idle while the Dutch grow fat in foreign ports. The future cannot be denied. The shogun will concede or Japan will be taken by force. While my country does not wish for war, they will not hesitate should the shogun resist. With our weapons, there would be little in the way of a fight. It will be a slaughter.” Crawford’s words were much too flat for the devastation he described.
“You spell out the end of life as I know it. How is that supposed to assist the Emperor?” Ran’s words were quiet. There had to be more. Crawford would not go through all this maneuvering to simply clarify the obvious conclusion though the confirmation of their fears was certainly disheartening.
“If the shogun signs this treaty, the Commodore’s mistake will not be discovered until months later. Our president will insist it be signed by the Emperor. If the shogun were to force the Emperor into ratifying an openly opposed treaty…”
“You want me to facilitate civil war.”
“Yes.” Crawford said the word as if it explained all. “It will be the unifying moment that solidifies support for the Emperor.”
“How can you possibly know that?! You ask too much!”
“I am not prone to recklessness. If I have misinterpreted the atmosphere among the courts, tell me where I have misstepped.”
The fact of it was Ran could not see a flaw in his reasoning. Shogun Tokugawa was a greedy man and while not a coward, he would act to preserve his own interests first and foremost. To allow such a treaty after his own house had declared such a thing treasonous would set a cascade of events in motion that could very well lead to the end of the shogunate’s stranglehold over the Emperor. And these words, coming from a gaijin…
“Who?” Ran shifted on his hip, never more serious. “Who has been informing you? It is impossible for you to have learned so much from outside the courts.”
“So I am not incorrect?” Crawford challenged with that damnable smirk once again.
“No, you are not. But I will have the traitor.”
“I cannot tell you my sources. I, too, have loyalties I keep. The knowledge I have is specific to this time and place. It will serve no one else, I promise you.”
“You speak in riddles, now.” Ran got to his feet, pacing a few times before settling in front of the large window, looking out over the harbor. All those ships, from a dozen different countries, all crowding the port. It made him ill to think of Edo suffering this fate.
“I have no way to explain and you would not believe me if I did. It changes nothing. The treaty requests a single consulate and I intend for it to be mine. Am I wrong to assume that so much pressure on the shogun – and his staunchest supporters – would not be advantageous for you and your family?” Crawford shifted to look in Ran’s direction behind him on the couch.
Crawford let the royal negotiator convince himself. It would all come down to the tentative, fragile trust they established here tonight. He returned to the cabinet to pour himself one more drink, sipping at it slowly while Ran stood motionless, lost in thought. In due time, Ran reached a conclusion with a resolute sigh.
“Again, you have predicted far more than you should be able.” Ran murmured. “You have conveniently provided all we need to convince the shogun of such a thing. Mamoru and Yohji have already reached those same conclusions.” Ran glanced back over his shoulder briefly. “What do we say of this night?”
Crawford smirked, and then sipped one last time at his glass before abandoning it, slowly approaching Ran’s spot at the window. “I have sent a case of cognac to Mamoru, a gift for the shogun. As an arrogant American, I have prematurely flaunted my victory and – as you so eloquently put it – I have invited you to taste your future.”
Ran chuckled mirthlessly to himself. “They will be stunned by your arrogance.”
“It is fortunate then that the shogun expects it from a gaijin. And what of you? Do you find me arrogant?” Crawford stepped closer. Ran could feel his presence hovering just at his back.
“Why is it that I feel I have just sold my soul?”
“I believe that is something that can only be freely given. The only price that you will pay will be your own.” Crawford’s hand slowly slipped over Ran’s shoulder as he sidled closer to his back, just barely brushing into contact. “We enter this accord as free and equal men.”
Ran looked to Crawford’s hand, wrestling with the implications. He was certain that Crawford would pay no price for the decisions made here tonight, totally unencumbered by guilt, or duty, or honor. He professed to hold loyalties but it was clear that his first loyalty was to himself. Ran envied it. Perhaps it was a skill he could learn.
Crawford inched closer, the weight of his wide chest solidly pressing against Ran’s shoulders. It was a polite request that simply sang through Ran’s nerves. This was what he feared in coming here. He did feel a purely physical attraction to the man but now, he couldn’t deny his attraction to the skill and cunning the man employed as well. His deal with the devil had already been signed. And, in that moment, he decided that he had already paid more than enough in this lifetime. He tilted his head aside in invitation.
“So, do you find me arrogant?” Crawford repeated, his lips dangerously close to Ran’s ear. The dark thrill of it stole the breath from the smaller man’s chest.
“I find you to be entirely evil.” Ran gasped as Crawford’s lips met his neck. He could feel the man’s smile against his skin and for the first time, he felt no guilt in his desires.
“Will you show me how to peel you out of this kimono?” It was not a smile, it was a full grin that Ran felt between caresses of Crawford’s lips.
“Evil and arrogant…” Ran conceded with a smile as he wrapped a hand in the man’s hair, intent to keep him where he was. Crawford obliged as his tongue found the curve of Ran’s ear before wandering the curves of his neck in slow motion.
Ran turned into Crawford’s waiting arms and their lips met, tentative yet curious but full of promise.
“Send home your servants. Kimonos can be difficult for gaijin to master.”
Crawford smiled as he ran his fingers down Ran’s cheek. “Hai, Fujimiya-sensei…” He teased and with a quick kiss, turned to dismiss the servant girls for the evening.