The late summer sun glinted off the cobblestone pavement. Verdant trees lined the streets, where carriages and automobiles drove past.
The wind blew, hot yet gentle, hesitant to change with the seasons.
As the vacation season neared its end, Saubreme, the capital of the Kingdom of Sauville, also known as the ‘Little Giant of Western Europe,’ was quiet and almost deserted. Men returning home from vacation, their skin tanned by the Mediterranean sun, strode down the sidewalks, while young girls, still entranced by the summer holidays, disembarked from the luxurious, steel-and-glass Charles de Gillet train station, hailing carriages as they dragged their heavy suitcases. A summer breeze rustled the roadside trees.
The red bricks and cobblestone streets that showcased the city’s long history, and the smell of iron and coal produced by the waves of modernization, gave Saubreme, one of the leading economic cities in Western Europe, a majestic atmosphere.
A luxurious carriage pulled up in front of an old, stately brick building. The horse neighed, hooves clattering rhythmically on the cobblestones. The driver opened the door politely. Young girls passing by glanced back a few times, anxious to see what kind of noblewoman would alight.
The first thing that appeared from the carriage was an ordinary pair of old, but well-maintained women’s shoes. A second later, the owner of the shoes jumped down.
“You shouldn’t jump down like that, Madam,” the driver said. “You might twist your leg.”
“But it’s too high. I will jump down.”
“There you go again.” The driver looked appalled.
The homely noblewoman gave the driver a kiss on the cheek.
The driver gave an embarrassed smile. “If you get hurt, the Master will give me an earful.”
“Then I will give my husband an earful. And a spanky-spank.”
“Oh, I’d like to see that,” the driver muttered as he helped a young maid in a blue-and-white uniform down from the carriage. “It’s not every day you see the Police Commissioner of Saubreme being scolded by his wife.”
The maid, a young and fashionable girl, giggled. The noblewoman, on the other hand, was clothed in a simple dress more fitting for an older lady and a random hat. Her brown hair, somewhat askew to the left, bore evidence of a last-minute grooming.
Upon noticing, the maid tried to fix the mistress’s hair.
“If you could wait here, then,” the woman told the driver with a smile. “I’ll be right back.” She walked away, her shoes clicking.
The maid, standing on tip-toe, grasped empty air. “Madam, you have bed hair!”
“I don’t mind.”
“I do. Madam! Argh, darn it. Get back here!”
Switching to a ruder tone, the maid lifted her heavy, navy-blue skirt with both hands, revealing a pair of white cotton bloomers and striped socks, and followed the woman. The woman stopped at the entrance of the brick building, then linked hands with the maid, grinning.
“M-Madam,” the maid said, panting. “Lady Jacqueline, your bed hair. Um, why are you holding my hand?”
“Marion, promise me you’ll stop me if I’m about to make a stupid purchase.”
“Oh, I’ll stop you if you’re about to do anything stupid. Like I’ve always done. But you never listen.”
The woman looked to be in her mid or late twenties, while the maid was much younger, still in her late teens, but for some reason the latter was the one giving a lecture.
“You want to go on picnics when you know it’s going to rain. You see a dangerous bridge and you want to cross it.”
“It was fun, wasn’t it? It rained all of a sudden, so we had to take shelter. And luckily, the bridge didn’t collapse.”
“I caught a cold. Unlike you, Madam, I’m delicate.”
Instead of replying, Jacqueline made a funny face by puffing up her cheeks and opening her eyes wide. The maid laughed.
“Thank you for coming, Mrs. Signore.”
A portly man, who looked like a manager, appeared and bowed before Jacqueline. The door opened into a large hall. Holding hands with the maid, Jacqueline walked gracefully, letting the man lead the way.
The hall’s high ceiling was filled with stained-glass windows, which turned the summer sun’s rays into a variety of colors before falling on the floor. They were in the pride of Saubreme, one of the five most magnificent auction houses in Europe. The rows and rows of iron benches were already filled with men sitting erectly. It was a surprisingly large turnout at the time of year when summer holidays were almost over.
The man glanced at Jacqueline gleefully. “It’s a great honor to have the Police Commissioner’s wife at this month’s auction. We have plenty of wonderful items today that I’m sure you will love. I hope you’ll enjoy.”
“I look forward to it.” Jacqueline smiled. “My husband is also very interested in this kind of custom. He said that it’s a pastime that requires a lot of education, and he hopes it will continue to develop.”
“It is an honor to hear those words. Please enjoy your shopping.” The man ushered her to a special seat in the front row.
“If I try to buy anything, you have to stop me, understand?” Jacqueline whispered to the young maid standing beside her.
“Do I really have to? He said there will be plenty of wonderful items.”
“Yes, you really have to. We’re running on a tight budget at the moment. Although my husband is a nobleman, he’s already used up most of his inheritance. Not to mention the ridiculous amount spent in repairing the castle. He’s barely making ends meet with his salary in the force.” She sounded proud for some reason.
“O-Okay, I’ll make sure to stop you,” the maid agreed, pouting her lips.
The hall suddenly turned quiet. The auction was about to begin. Jacqueline, sitting with her back straight, looked around.
“I sense eyes on me. A piercing glare. Is someone watching me?”
The maid also looked around. She thought she saw a young man look away, but there were so many people that she couldn’t be sure.
Tilting her head, the maid said, “I don’t see anyone.”
The heavy scarlet curtains opened, and with a round of applause, the auction began.
Swords used by medieval royalty and beautiful art nouveau furniture were brought on the stage. The jewels were all so exquisite that there was no end to the gasps, murmurs, and the voices of people competitively bidding for them.
Jacqueline, however, had her chin in her hand, seemingly uninterested.
“Smile, Madam. Make it look like you’re interested.”
“I bet the teacher reprimanded you when you were in school.”
“How did you know?”
“I can tell by looking at you. You’re the type to make her private tutor cry.”
“Marion. Look at that item.”
Jacqueline pointed to the stage with a look of interest. A creepy mask was brought forward, a far cry from the elegant antiques displayed earlier. It was black and looked hideously demonic.
Jacqueline giggled. “What a funny-looking mask.”
“You’re right.” The maid chuckled.
While the two ladies were elbowing each other, the price was announced. It was so expensive that they exchanged glances. No one wanted to bid on it.
Jacqueline raised one hand to nudge the laughing maid.
“Oh, Mrs. Signore has raised her hand!”
Jacqueline looked over her shoulder.
People all over the hall were looking at her. Jacqueline’s face was blank at first, then suddenly turned pale.
The price was not something the Signore family could afford at the moment. But she couldn’t find the guts to back down.
A man right behind her bid at a higher price. Jacqueline sank in her chair, relieved. No one else seemed to want the strange mask.
Some people have weird tastes, Jacqueline thought.
“Going once, going twice, sold to Mr. Grevil de Blois!”
Jacqueline looked back, shocked.
Light streaming in from the ceiling glinted off the familiar golden drill in shades of red, blue, green, yellow, orange. Grevil de Blois—the recent talk of the town, the man whose photograph appeared in the newspapers, the famous police inspector whose hand was always shaken by men and young girls alike whenever he walked down the street—got up, smiled and nodded as he waved his hand, then took his seat.
Grevil noticed the police commissioner’s wife staring at him with her brown eyes wide open. “I’ve always wanted that mask,” he said curtly. “For once, I didn’t come all the way to Saubreme to buy a doll. I came here to buy that mask. I can assure you that I didn’t do this for you, Jacqueline.”
“I-I see.” Jacqueline believed him.