Chapter seventeen: The moment of truth
Turns out I hate waiting.
It’s odd really, normally this clock tower ticking in the square is there to remind me of my time running out.
‘The grace years’ I’ve been allowed until they come for me full force by the time I turn eighteen.
But with the auction still a whole week away…
I wish time would go faster.
Just for a bit.
Just until the restaurant is saved.
Then time can slow down to a crawl, or stop entirely.
Locked in a moment of never-ending victory.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
I grimace at my wishful thinking, push my hands down my pockets and head on to Shiwaso.
“Good morning,” I call out as I take off my coat.
“Hey, Hui.” Himowa smiles for me but I can feel something’s off. The smile feels forced, artificial.
“You okay?” I ask.
She rubs her eyes theatrically “I’m sorry I didn’t sleep very well. Don’t mind me.”
“Okay.” I smile kindly and make my way to the kitchen for prep.
“Actually that’s not all of it-” she starts, I pause. Turn back to look at her. She has wrapped her arms close around her body, her eyes are pointing to the floor “Every time I wonder if this month is going to be the month that ruins us. And I wonder if it’s not just better to pack up the business entirely and look for something else to do.”
“No don’t, it’s going to be okay.”
“How do you know!?” She exclaims, then immediately says “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to lash out it’s just. It all feels so hopeless and-”
“You feel powerless to stop it.”
I know the feeling. I’ve had it for weeks but now I know things will look up and all I want to do is tell her everything.
But I shouldn’t.
Nothing is sold yet, nothing is saved yet.
It could all come crashing down and if that’s the case I feel like that would be far worse than never having known there was hope, to begin with.
I walk up to her, and embrace her “I know it all feels bad now but as long as we keep fighting it’s never truly hopeless.”
“You’re just saying that aren’t you?” Her hands grasp the back of my robes “We’re just waiting for the inevitable.”
“I believe things will be okay in the end. You said it yourself we’re a good team. We can get through anything.”
She huffs dismissively, lets go of me “Well as long as Yaye wants to keep the place going there’s not much I can do besides work and hope.” She turns on her heel “Let’s just get to work.”
As she walks away I kick myself for not telling her.
But now it feels too late somehow.
Okay Hui, only one more week, then we can get all this straightened out and things will be fine.
I cross my arms and walk over to the kitchen.
On the day of the auction, I’m nervously standing by the entrance eyeing the clock tower by the square.
Elizabeth told me she’d try to be there, but she’d have to get out of a different engagement first.
It sounded pretty secretive so I didn’t ask beyond that.
In hindsight I wish I had, for the clock hand is edging closer and closer to action time and now I can’t even tell the people here where the hell she is.
It doesn’t help that this district is Migako’s territory and the thought of running into her makes me want to hide.
To her subordinates, she’s known as the golden thorn. You don’t get a title like that by playing nice.
And I’m pretty sure she’s sick of my antics regardless of whether she knows about Elizabeth.
And so I wait and watch my back. Hoping for a reassuring hand on my back or a cheerful greeting.
I should head inside, I don’t know what happens if I’m not present when the piece is sold.
I wish the clerk had told me more about how all of this works. But either way, I decide to play it safe.
Whatever engagement she had she didn’t manage to cancel it apparently.
Guess I’m on my own for this one.
My shoulders are slumped as I head inside.
The auctioning room is in turmoil, people are yelling numbers and tossing up fans while a lady in white brings the items to the front of the hall. The item being sold looks like a regular candlestick to me but the prices these people are willing to pay for it are mind-boggling.
If a drab looking candlestick like that can fetch over two hundred chui the pin must be a gold mine.
Now I thought long and hard about this, but I’ll only take what I need to pay Failao and nothing more. It’s not my property being sold and Elizabeth should have the rest of the money.
I haven’t told her this yet, but I’m sure she’ll understand.
Some of the bidders have looked my way as I entered.
But none of them are willing to acknowledge my presence beyond that.
Posh rats, I bet at least a third of them are Kashuya.
But I keep my mouth shut and simply wait for the hairpin to appear.
I had to wait through a silver-plated book and a pair of jade earrings.
And then the piece comes on.
It’s placed in a dark box and projected on a bulging mirror showing the piece much larger and in great detail. It looks like magic to me but I’m sure Elizabeth knows how it works.
The man behind the podium rattles off a whole bunch of jargon I don’t understand but I recall a couple of the phrases being things Elizabeth was on about.
I just hope the audience is just as enthusiastic.
“We’ll start the bidding at eight hundred chui the man announces.
It’s silent, the whole room knocked speechless.
I’m holding my breath.
If someone as much as accepts the opening bid that would be more than sufficient.
“Eight hundred Anyone?”
There’s hushed arguing on the far side of the room followed by a bored young man saying “Fine, eight hundred.”
“Eight hundred bid, so I hear eight hundred and fifty.”
“All right then, going once, going twice. Sold to the gentleman with fan number 23.” There’s a soft squeal from a female companion sitting next to the man. And then that’s it.
Eight hundred chui, more money than I could make in a year earned in less than five minutes.
Part of me wishes it would have lasted longer, a bidding war bringing the price to insane heights. But the rest of my brain feels kind of ashamed of that part and I’m just grateful to Elizabeth for her help.
If only she were here.
“Good afternoon.” Elizabeth pants and I look next to me to find her catching her breath with her hand on the wall. Her face is red from exertion but she then rights herself and within seconds her usual poise returns, just in time for the man who helped me last time to come up to us and say “Miss Chattoway it is an honour to receive you in our humble hall.” The man then takes Elizabeth’s hand and placed a kiss on the back of it.
“Thank you, sir.” She replies with a smile.
“Can I offer you some tea?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have much time between engagements, I just came by to pocket the money.”
“Of course, of course, this way please.”
“Wait here,” Elizabeth tells me and then walks off with the man. Part of me is annoyed I’m ‘too low class’ to come in with her, but this isn’t the time to make a fuss. The story we’re trying to sell is that I’m her servant, and servants don’t talk back.
So I wait for a short while, watching the fat cats buy their toys.
One thousand chui for a teapot!?
This world is absolutely bonkers!
Twenty minutes later we walk out again with an envelope filled with eight hundred chui in cash.
We walk in silence for a bit, I wonder what to do now, then after turning a couple of corners Elizabeth suddenly deflates.
“All right.” Elizabeth sighs as her shoulders sag and the fatigue crosses her face “sorry I wasn’t there for the sale I tried to get away earlier but my dad didn’t believe I was sick and sent me to lessons regardless and I had to convince Dana to let me go early.”
“Oh and here of course.” She said handing me the envelope.
“I really only need five hundred fifty if you don’t mind. I wouldn’t feel good taking all the money since it was your pin.”
“You intend to use the money to help out the restaurant right?”
“Then just give the owner what’s left and tell him it’s to expand his business.”
“I’m sure, I don’t need money for myself, besides I’d feel much happier in the knowledge this goes to a good home.”
“Now I must rush on home before they realize I’ve wriggled my way out of class to come here. I’ll see you next week okay?”
“Right, thank you again, this means a lot to me.”
“Don’t worry about it, I’m certain your boss will be delighted.”