The auction room at Christie’s hummed with curious whispers. People filled the upholstered black seats while others stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the aisle on the right and the wider space in back. The left aisle, however, remained clear. Nobody dared to stand too close to Captives, the painting about to go on the block.
Craig sat in the middle of the room, trapped and sweating like a man waiting for a subway in summer. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow.
So many people in the room wore black, the unofficial uniform of New York City. It was as though he were at a damn funeral.
He looked again at the painting and thought, If only…
Those were the two saddest words he knew. No one had ever considered giving Celio a memorial. Missing men didn’t get them, Craig figured, and he never pressed the issue.
A woman with white hair pulled into a tight bun leaned over, whispering, “Cross reinterpreted the story, made the brother and sister incestuous.” She drew out the last word and grimaced.
“I know,” Craig answered.
“No one knows what happened to him. Such a shame.” She shook her head and pulled her shoulders back, straightening her posture.
I know what happened to him. Craig bit his lip, remaining silent.
He glanced over at Captives as envy wrapped around him like a snake. He gripped the edge of his chair and looked at the ground, clenching his jaw. Craig wanted more than anything to be in Celio’s place, to be back in Suntaria with everyone and everything he loved.
If only I still had the flute. If only I hadn’t left the castle. If only I’d kept my family close. If only…
Thinking of it all made his breath come in inadequate short gasps. He inhaled through his nose for three long seconds and exhaled from his mouth, his lips puckered like a fish. The action calmed his beating heart. He wiped his face again and eyed Edward, a tall man with perfect posture sitting in the front row.
The auctioneer stepped up to the block, and the room fell silent. Craig shifted eagerly in his seat.
The auctioneer’s voice echoed through the speakers. “Up next is lot six, Celio Cross’s Captives, oil on canvas, painted in two thousand four. It’s being shown on my right and on the screen, and it’s also described in the catalogue.”
Every head in the room turned toward the painting. Voices rose. Craig watched the crowd, feeling like he existed in a bubble, separated from everyone around him.
“Five million dollars to start.” The auctioneer placed his hands on the podium, waiting.
For a few seconds, no one moved. In the quiet of the room, Craig’s blood rushed like a raging river. An employee with a phone to his ear raised his paddle, bidding on someone’s behalf.
The auctioneer pointed in his direction. “Six million?” He turned his attention to the back of the room. “Seven million?”
Then, they came, bid after bid, a flood of hands and paddles. Craig’s head spun, following each one, until he became dizzy, little specks of light clouding his vision. Despite the frenzy, he kept an eye on Edward, the perfectly postured man up front, who remained motionless.
Two minutes later, the madness slowed, each bid being thought out more carefully than the last.
The auctioneer took in a large breath, wind echoing in the mic. “We’re at sixteen million.”
Craig stared ahead at Edward, silent and detached.
“Liar,” Craig muttered, wringing his hands so tight they turned red.
He wanted to storm over to Edward and shake him, but Craig was wedged in a sea of useless onlookers, unable to escape. When vomit began to make its way up the back of his throat, he leaned forward, closed his eyes, and put his head in his hands.
In that darkness, he finally heard the shout, “Sixteen million!”
Defeated, Craig looked up to see the auctioneer pointing at Edward, his paddle still in the air.
Craig swallowed hard, the nausea passing, and he breathed again.
“Seventeen million?” the auctioneer asked the crowd.
Everyone looked around the room, wondering who’d be next.
When no one bid, he waved his hands over the podium. “Okay, I’m selling it now. Sixteen million. Going once, going twice…” He banged his gavel on the rostrum. “Sixteen million to number twenty-one in the front row.”
Craig collapsed into the back of his seat. His shoulders and legs melted toward the floor as the tension they’d held evaporated like steam.
Edward turned and nodded. The subtle, You’re welcome, made Craig want to throw his arms around him and rejoice like a man whose noose had just been cut.
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