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Written in the Stars · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The Bone Dice
I was sitting in a restaurant in Harbin with a small glass of zavarka. Darkness had fallen and the rain poured down, clattering on the windows. I looked at the small red velvet satchel, before putting it in a tiny wooden box. I looked around, few customers were still there as the opera would soon begin. In one corner a older couple sat, both dressed in expensive and tasteful clothes. On the other side two men, probably mongols, dressed in western clothes sat with a half-empty bottle of vodka and two glasses.

I followed the line of the box with my fingers, then took it and put it in my pocket. I pulled out my clock and checked the time. It was half past six. I looked around again, the older couple was getting up. I drummed with my fingers.

The door opened and I half-turned to glance to the entrance. I felt my blood freeze as a group of Japanese soldiers entered. I counted six of them and one officer, Kwantung Army, the soldiers carrying rifles and the Gunsō, the sergeant, with pistol and sword.

The couple froze, then the man bowed slightly, tipping his hat. The woman tightened her grip on his arm.

The officer barked something, then I heard steps coming near me. They stopped a short distance behind me, then I heard the officer talking. I turned, bowed my head, and said "I regrettably do not speak Japanese."

The Gunsō stared at me, I felt a bit of sweat run down my neck, he then repeated in Mandarin. "Mr. Rijnder, you will come with us."

I didn't move. "Is there a problem sir?"

He didn't change expression, his tone became colder. "Follow us, now."

I slowly reached for my hat, then heard a gunshot. I threw myself on the floor, rolled to the side, kicked upwards and flipped the table. Screams of pain and more gunshots rose around me as I crawled behind the flimsy cover.

I leaned around to take a look and retreated immediately after. Being fast on the uptake had always been a quality of me I'm very proud of. Two soldiers were down, the others had jumped behind some kind of cover and were shooting. On the opposite side of the restaurant the mongols were behind a corner, handguns drawn and answering to the fire.

There were other screams and the firefight intensified. Another glance showed me that others were shooting from the entrance, more Mongols it seemed.

It rapidly dawned on me that I should vacate the premises as soon as possible. I took a deep breath and looked for some way out.

The shots stopped. I heard groaning and weeping. And then from outside came the thrill of a whistle. It broke the silence and the shooting resumed. I took a deep breath, grabbed my hat and then crawled in direction of the kitchen. I silently prayed along the whole way, which seemed eternally stretching before me.

Then I was there, the swinging doors in front of me, a cabinet full of glasses and wine giving me merciful cover. I dashed inside and found it empty. I stopped to catch my breath, shivering. It took me a few moments to compose myself. The fight in the other room continued as I made a beeline for the backdoor.

I peeked outside, and saw an empty alley. I caught a glance of one of the cooks disappearing behind a corner and decided to follow that admirable example.

I ran down the alley away from the main road. Before turning a corner I stopped and cautiously leaned behind it to check the street. The lights of cafes and restaurants fell on the cobblestone, gaslights kept the darkness at bay. I could still hear gunshots and whistles in the distance. I heard the rumbling sound of engines and took a step back. Two soldier loaded trucks passed by before me, splashing me with water.

I shivered in the cold, then steeled myself and carried on walking with all the dignity my wet clothes would allow me. I had to disappear from the road and possibly from the city. My room had to be written off, they knew my name and would probably keep it under surveillance.

I walked for half a mile, always away from the chaos that had bloomed around me, then turned into another smaller street. The Russian shops disappeared in favor of Chinese businesses. I began to walk a bit faster, until I finally reached a small tea house.

I entered, bowed and greeted the lady at the entrance. I then whispered to her, "I need to talk to Miss Soong." She nodded and escorted me to a table, before discretely leaving.

The tea house was filled with customers, some smoking, others gambling. It was warm, and I felt a bit of life return to my appendages.

A servant arrived after a while and gestured me to follow him. We entered a small backroom, climbed some stairs and walked down a corridor. As we finally arrived at an unassuming door the servant bowed and left.

I took a deep breath and knocked. A voice called out, "Come inside Mr. Rijnder."

As I set foot in the room I could see Miss Soong. She was quite tall, a very thin frame and a smiling expression. The wrinkles on her face were a clear sign that she wasn't young anymore, yet I couldn't guess her age to save my life. She wore a red and white dress, a qipao if I remembered the name correctly. She had an ivory mouthpiece with a lighted cigarette on an end, and sat behind a massive red lacquered desk. She slightly bowed her head to me and said, "Mr. Rijnder, you look quite miserable, such a shame."

The room itself was simple, a few libraries filled with ledgers and books, almost no decorations.

I sat down in the wicker chair in front of the desk. "It has been an exciting night, although bit too interesting for me."

"So I heard, so I heard." She drew at her cigarette. "What can I do for you?"

I turned my hat in my hands. "Well, it seems that I am not welcome anymore in this city, and I think it would do wonders for my health if I could reach Ryojun and depart for warmer climates."

"Such a shame, are you sure you want to leave our beautiful city so soon?"

"I fear it is necessary."

She looked at me. I had a fleeting vision of sharks. "Well, we can see to that. It will be expensive."

I closed my eyes, I expected that. "I am momentarily a bit short on yuan, and I may have a bit of difficulties accessing my account here."

She made a dismissive gesture with her mouthpiece. "That will not be a problem. I have a business associate in Hong Kong that can handle this issues. There will be a bit of an extra fee, but I am sure a gentleman like you will have no problem with that."

"How much will it be?"

She told me, I briefly considered the idea of surrendering to the Japanese.

I nodded. "When will it be possible for me to leave?"

"Tomorrow evening. In the meanwhile you can rest here. So, what have you that has awoken the interest of both the Kwantung and the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party?"

While that explained who had shoot on the soldiers, the knowledge didn't help me to calm down. I thought about some story to tell her. On the one hand, she was a greedy predator, on the other, once in her care I was safe, and maybe she could help me salvage the whole uncomfortable situation I was in.

I pulled the small wooden box out of my pocket, then opened it and took the velvet satchel. I turned it on the desk, and four small and brightly colored bones fell out.

Miss Soong leaned forward and observed them, then looked up at me. "I see four shagai. Why are they important? You can find them everywhere, Mongols use them for fortunetelling."

"These happened to be the shagai of the Mad Baron, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. It is said they were a gift to him from something he found in the Mongolian steppes. His fortune tellers used them before he captured Urga, and that they are a symbol for his having been the incarnation of Tsagan Burkhan, some kind of war related deity but on this last point I am not quite sure, my theological education is a bit lacking on details regarding their variety of Buddhism.

"It is said that this shagai can neither be stolen nor can they be lost. One can only lose them in a game of chance or give them away voluntarily. And they are always surrounded with blood."

Miss Soong leaned again against the back of her chair. "*They* say a great amount of things about those small things. In the end it seems that those bones did not help the Mad Baron that much against the red army. If I remember correctly they executed him twelve years ago."

I shrugged as I put the shagai back in the pouch and stored them safely. "It is not my place to question what my customers want. I only procure them what they desire." I caressed my mustache. "Considering that my meeting with my customer has been so rudely interrupted by soldiers, could you deliver these to him?"

Miss Soong looked at me, puffing on her cigarette. After a minute of silence, she said, "While I might not believe the tall tales that surround those shagai, I think they bring misfortune. I am not one to tempt luck, so no, I will not touch them or take them. What I can do is send a message for a small fee."

I had hoped to close this fast, but one learns to be satisfied with the chances life gives. "Very well. your man will have to deliver it in this cafe near the Church of the Holy Iberian Icon..."

I obtained a fresh set of clothes, a warm bath, a bed and, the following morning, an answer from my customer.

Dear Mr. Rijnder,
we are glad you seem to be both in good health and free. We apologize for missing our meeting yesterday, but as you can see from the unruly mob that infested the place, there was not an atmosphere conductive for finalizing our transaction. We would gladly meet you again to conclude our business this evening at four o'clock in the Cathedral of St. Sophia.

I pondered a while on the message. Delivering the shagai and leaving the city immediately after that would be tricky. On the other hand, it meant I could stay hidden until the last moment, a quite alluring perspective in the light of my decision to not land in the hands of either the Mongolian Communists or the Japanese.

As I was lost in my thoughts someone knocked at the door of my small and cramped room. Without waiting for my answer the door opened and Miss Soong entered.

She smiled and said, "Good morning Mr.Rijnder. You look far better today, almost like a civilized man."

"Why tank you. Not being shot at seems to do wonders for my complexion."

"Indeed. I was curious about the details of why the Kwantung and the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party are interested in those alleged relics."

"I take offense to that insinuation. While I don't offer any guarantee on what they do, all artifacts I recover are indeed the original ones."

She looked at me in silence for a few seconds, then said, "Be as it may be, they should not gather the interest currently focused on you. I suspected that there may be something else afoot. And so I listened."

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and readied for another hit to my financial situation. "And what did you hear Miss Soong?"

"A great deal of things, most of them utter nonsense. But among those I found a few interesting gems. It is not the Army itself that wants those shagai, it is one specific individual. Hibiki Saito has ordered your arrest on the suspicion of smuggling."

"And where did he get that information, or why may he be interested in my business?"

"That I do not know, but it explains how the reds became involved. If I heard it, they also know about this, and if the Kwantung wants it, so do they."

"How much does this information cost me?"

"Only a small favor."

The weather had decided to relent and for once the heavens decided to not pour down on the human miseries. The sky was clouded and the moon hided behind the dark cover while gas-lamps illuminated the square.

The Cathedral of St. Sophia stood high in the middle of the plaza, golden decorations reflecting the street-lights. All around people were still visiting shops and cafes, the life of the city completely immune to the chill of the Fall.

I walked like I knew where I was going, carefully observing my surroundings. Patrols of soldiers where at every corner, checking the documents of Chinese and Mongolian citizens. They seemed to completely ignore the Russian population. Word had gone out that subversive reds had attacked with horrid savagery innocent people. At least that had been one version, the other talked about unjustified cruelties from the soldiers on poor workers.

I had my hands in my pockets, and caught myself nervously passing my finger along the border of the documents Miss Soong had supplied to me.

I continued to check my clock and five minutes before the time I walked to the cathedral.

As I passed the imposing doors silence surrounded me, the thick walls completely cutting off the sound of the outside world. Countless candles illuminated the church with a soft glow. From the walls saints looked down at me as I proceeded between the benches, and I felt their eyes on me as I sat down in the third row on the left of the altar. I regretted deeply not having visited the church before, it was a verily repository of art. Now there wouldn't be time anymore.

I heard steps, then someone sat down beside me. I looked up and saw a young man, smartly dressed, blonde and with a thick and short beard.

He looked at the altar as he spoke in Russian with a sophisticated accent. He said, "Well met Mr. Rijnder. It is wonderful to finally talk to you in person. I hope you didn't have too many difficulties coming here." He then showed me a seal.

I bowed briefly my head. "I found a way. Now, about the payment..."

He nodded. "Certainly, here is what I promised you." He passed me a manila envelope.

I opened it and pulled out a sheet of paper. It was a letter of credit for the Bank of England for an amount of two thousand and five hundred pounds. I briefly checked seals and stamps, they seemed authentic and I had earned through the years to recognize with a glance forgeries. I closed the envelope again, then took the wooden box out of my pocket and passed it to the man.

He took it and opened it with trembling hands. He unfurled the twine of the satchel and reached inside it, taking out a red shagai. He observed it and smiled. "Wonderful Mr. Rijnder, you delivered exactly as promised. I have waited so long for my rightful inheritance."

I knew better than to question customers about their connection to the objects I recovered. In my specific line of work curiosity was useful only when one knew when it was appropriate to to satisfy it and when it was wiser to let it be.

The man chuckled. "Tell me Mr. Rijnder, where did you find it? I have always been baffled how it was possible to lose this relics considering their power."

Having an opinion on the specifics of the recovered objects was another mistake I avoided. "It seems your courier had bit of a bad habit. He seemed to like Pai Gow, a gambling game, a bit too much. He apparently lost those to an employe of the South Manchuria Railway and ended later dead in a opium den. The railway employe was a bit of an intellectual radical, a disposition which did not go over too well with a part of the administration. He took the fall for an unfortunate incident in Manchowli, which disgraced him. He then sold them to a pilot of the Manchukuo army, from which I had to win them through a bet regarding a horse race. He died two weeks later in a crash."

The man nodded. "I see. This shagai clearly wanted to return to their proper owner. Misfortune falls on those who try to keep them away from the blood of the Ungern-Sternberg."

I stood up and said, "Well, I am glad you are satisfied with my services. I fear I have to leave now, but I wish you good luck with whatever endeavor you intend to use those for."

He stared still fascinated at the small bones. "I shall continue the dream of my father. The Khanate shall be restored and the damned reds shall be slain so that our motherland once more will rise."

I left the cathedral and breathed deeply the fresh air outside. As I looked down the stairs I saw five soldiers and an officer. I brought my hand up to my temples and massaged them. "Rikugun-Shōsa Saito I suppose."

The officer walked up to me and observed me. "You have been a very slippery individual Mr. Rijnder. Is that worthless frog Naryshkin inside?"

"I fear I do not know what you are—"

I didn't even see his hand, I only felt the slap and the burning pain on my face as I staggered back.

Saito stood as if he hadn't moved at all, his voice gave me shivers as he said, "Do not play dumb, I will not tolerate it. Is Mr. Naryshkin, your customer, inside?"

I nodded weakly.

He gestured to two of his soldiers that promptly entered the church.

We sat on the backseat of a quite luxurious car. The driver compartment was separated, and the rear was spacious and composed of two backseats facing one another. Saito sat in front of us, his left hand on his sword, his right one holding a small velvet satchel. He smiled, but there was no warmth there. "You should have know that this would rightfully end in my hands."

I glanced to Mr. Naryshkin. His face was livid and I could see him clench his teeth. "Those are rightfully mine per blood. You will die like all the others who have tried to keep them away from me."

Saito frowned. "You are wrong. These were never meant to be in the hands of your breed. Even considering the desperation and stupidity of the mongols, I can never understand how they thought a degenerate noble from the west could be the incarnation of Trailokyavijaya."

I carefully considered my course of action, and then made the wrong choice. "To be clear they thought of him as Tsagan Burkhan, which is not exactly—"

This time I could see him move even if it did not help me much. The pain silenced me and I held a hand on the swelling side of my face. A trickle of blood dripped from my lip.

"We will talk later Mr.Rijnder, and then you shall tell me where you did get this documents and where the rest of your belongings are, considering your Hotel room was empty."

Naryshkin glowered at the officer. "How did you know I acquired my inheritance?"

Saito smiled again, and I decided I preferred him when he frowned. "You talk a lot you fool, and your household is a bit less tight than you think."

We sat in the backseat of the car, looking in the damp alley. Two trucks unloaded soldiers who silently fanned out. There were few streetlights here, the windows of of houses and taverns the only source of illumination, the roofs of the buildings fading into the darkness.

The handcuffs were tight around my wrists and chafing on the skin. Saito sat beside me, a hand on his gun looking out to his men. "I am quite disappointed with you Mr. Rijnder. Your choice in company is distasteful. Well, at least we shall solve another problem that has plagued Harbin for far too long."

I kept my eyes low, half my face pulsing with pain, the other half numb. It would take a while before I became my old fascinating self again.

He shook his head. "Why had you to side with the reds? It seems quite—"

I heard some screams, a crash like wood splintering, and then an explosion.

The door on my side was thrown open, someone grabbed me and yanked me out. I heard Saito scream something before the sound of gunfire and broken glass overcame everything.

They pulled me for a few yards, then through an open door and then dropped me.

As I turned around I saw Miss Soong's servant standing there, a bandoleer flung over his shoulder, two guns and a vicious looking blade in his belt. He wore dark gray and tattered clothes. The sound of screams and shots filtered through the closed door.

He gestured to my handcuffs, I stood up and raised my hands.

As he began to work on my bindings, I looked around. The house was a hovel. There were a few old and half rotten pieces of furniture. Everything was covered in dust and grime, and I shivered at the thought of how I had too look after this horrendous night. There were some interesting mold stains on the walls that reminded me of certain enthusiastic young 'artists' I had seen in Paris.

At the moment there was nothing I longed more for than a warm bed and then maybe breakfast somewhere where people did not murdered each other on the streets for politics, but kept it all away from the general population like good civilized men.

I heard a click and the handcuffs fell down. I massaged my wrists and smiled. "Thank you."

He bowed slightly his head and said, "We will have to go now. Soon others will join the fray and we do not want to be here then. Miss Soong thanks you for your help in solving her problems with Saito. She has also decided to concede you a discount considering the sum the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party paid her."

I nodded and pulled my clock out from my pocket. I saw that the glass was broken and the fingers did not move. I sighed and put it back again, I would have to make a visit to a watchmaker in Hong Kong. "What with Mr. Naryshkin and his trinkets?"

"Mr Naryshkin will be released soon. He has some important friends and now with Saito out of the way his life should improve. We will also see that the shagai will find their way to him, although Miss Soong says we would do him a favor if he never saw them again."

I sighed. "That may be, but I have a certain name in the business that I need to keep up, and that means that he will receive what he payed for. And on the issue of my money..."

"Miss Soong guarantees that we will recover your letter of credit and you shall receive it before leaving Ryojun."

I tried to remove some dirt from my clothes with the only result of spreading it more uniformly. I sighed, I was tired and in pain, but it seemed it was finally over.

He smiled, extracted a pistol from his belt, then said, "Mr. Rijnder, you have a boat ride to catch, shall we go?"

I straightened my jacket. "Certainly, please make way."
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