On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
I’d love to have you as a subscriber to the weekly free story. You can subscribe via email here. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.
Laget couldn’t quite believe what was happening. In all of his fourteen years in the job, he’d never experienced a situation quite like it.
The auction had begun normally enough. Yes, there had been excessive interest in the item, and ultimately the house had to limit the number of bidders present, but otherwise it had seemed like a mundane lot. The vase was from the twentieth century, and of comparatively little value, at least in terms of what the house tended to deal with. Barely two thousand Euros at the top end of the estimation, according to multiple assessments.
He trusted the experts, not least because they were paid very well indeed, and the entire business depended on them. The auction house’s commission was partially calculated based on those valuations, and items were selected or rejected for offering as part of the same process. From experience, Laget knew that the group most likely to overestimate the value of a lot were the bidders, not the valuers. People convinced themselves before they even walked in. It was how things always were.
Today, it took less than five minutes for Laget to begin to doubt his own convictions.
Every face in the room — fifteen who were bidding on their own behalf, and fifteen more who were representing others via phone — was Chinese. He had heard some of the pleasantries that the bidders exchanged when entering the hall, and while he had only the most rudimentary grasp of Mandarin, he could certainly identify the language and a few simple phrases. It wasn’t a great surprise, either, because the vase itself was Chinese too, in an imitation of an earlier style according to the appraisal notes Laget had received the day before, and was aesthetically pleasing enough but hardly rare.
What certainly was a surprise, though, was when bidding exceeded the maximum estimate by a factor of five within the first two minutes, and then quickly doubled that amount, then doubled again, with no sign of stopping. Laget’s pulse quickened, and it took a supreme effort of will to avoid glancing towards his own superior, the principal of the company, who was by this point standing at the rear of the hall and watching with great interest.
Laget pushed on, maintaining the proper air of enthusiastic but wholly justified encouragement, watching as paddles were raised one after another, his gaze bouncing back and forth as he continually gauged the atmosphere and attitude of the bidders. He raised the increment in time with their eagerness, and the asking price shot up dizzyingly in the space of mere minutes.
By the time he crossed over the six-figure mark, Laget resigned himself to simply seeing how far it would go, without expectation or concern. He was a professional, and market forces were the ultimate determiner of value; the vase was worth what someone was willing to pay for it. The house’s commission, and his own, were undoubtedly a most welcome bonus, but nobody was compelling any of the bidders to spend money they didn’t want to spend. The convenient excuse of the free market, which of course was not entirely true at all, was a comfort to him. He refocused himself, and pressed on.
Sitting in the third row, Guo Min Yao was feeling both uneasy and excited. He had seen two more of these vases in the hectic, almost hallucinatory last five years of his life. One had been in his employer’s collection already, safely behind the door of a vault, and another one Min Yao had only seen in a digital photograph, already on its way across the world to join its brother. This one, though, was here in front of him, in the same room. He breathed the same air which surrounded it. And today, he felt lucky.
His bidding paddle, randomly assigned when he entered the hall and presented his identification, was number eight — a profound sign of good fortune. In his hand it felt like a talisman, or perhaps a weapon. He would not be defeated in this near-silent battle, not least because his employer’s resources were truly vast. Min Yao did not even allow himself to think of his employer’s name, lest he might accidentally shape the words with his lips for someone else to see. Suffice it to say that, whilst unknown outside of his homeland, many governments were aware of the man and of his vast empire of resources and businesses. Min Yao himself was a trusted if minor member of the great man’s retinue, and had been given what was surely the most important task of his own life.
The vases themselves, of which this was one of four, were of passable craftsmanship and a certain simple beauty. Their provenance was marginally older than the western experts had assessed, but not significantly so; they had been made a short seven decades before the close of the Qing dynasty, and the changing of the world.
In a way, Min Yao had often reflected, the vases were a vessel for the old world to survive within the new, and those who sat in the rows of seats all around him all had at least an inkling of the importance of the objects. He recognised several faces, and he could readily guess as to the identity of some of those who were speaking to proxy bidders on the phones pressed so tightly to fifteen ears.
Four million Euros, the auctioneer was saying.
Min Yao could tell that, despite his veneer of business as usual, the man on the podium was in shock. He knew nothing of the true value of the object he was selling. Even Min Yao himself was vague on some of the details, as his employer has insisted, but he knew that there was much more at stake than a simple piece of pottery. As with jade, there was that which was made by people, and there was also that which was made by heaven. The vases were both.
Five million. Six. And now there was only one other bidder besides Min Yao, and the woman had a bead of sweat at her left temple. Now he would obliterate her hopes, and win the prize for his employer, while still coming in beneath his advised maximum bid. He raised his paddle. Jiǔ, he thought, but he spoke the word in English instead.
The woman looked at him in fury, and the auctioneer in barely disguised amazement, but the other twenty-eight heads around him all lowered, avoiding his eyes.
“Nine million Euros, going once,” Laget said, feeling his own pulse thudding in his ears. “Going twice.”
There was no way that any of the others would bid again. He could see it. All of his experience said so. “Going three times.”
“Sold,” he said, bringing the gavel down firmly. To his ringing ears, it was more like the strike of a gong than the sound of wood against wood.
Min Yao nodded, and returned his paddle to his lap. He would shortly call his employer to report his success. And then he would arrange for transport of the item, packed in salt and then in one of the curious lock-boxes of solid silver that he had been given, before going to the private airfield once again.
He stood, paying no further heed to the brief speech of thanks from the man at the podium.
There was one more of the vases left in the world, and his employer required all of them. North, South, East, and West. Then his task would truly be complete, and he could rest.
Did you enjoy this brief tale?
I'd also love to hear any feedback or other thoughts; you can find my contact info here.
I encourage you to share this story with anyone you think would enjoy it. If you’d like to receive a tale like this via email every week, you can sign up to receive them here.
Thanks for reading.