Chapter Twenty-Two

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May was the first to step through the giant oak doors. She wondered what the manor architect's intended purpose for the cavernous room she entered to be. Rows of identical chairs filled either side of the room.

They faced a wide, low platform adorned with a single table and podium at the far side of the room, with a wide aisle cutting down the middle like a catwalk. Curtains of luxurious black velvet hung behind the platform, shielding what May assumed were the treasures up for grabs from curious prying eyes. A pair of attendants handed out programs on thick creamy paper, and May took one with a polite word of thanks.

"Let's get as close as we can," Grant said, steering her forward with a gentle touch beneath her shoulder blades. They found the front two rows roped off, reserved for finest of these glitterati, and settled instead into the third, next to the aisle.

"What do we do now?" Welkin asked in a whisper as they peered around the opulent room.

"Nothing," Grant answered. "And I do mean nothing. Keep your hands down and your eyes forward — avoid any gesture that could be mistaken as placing a bid."

May stifled a laugh as she watched Welkin tuck their hands beneath their thighs. She fixed her hair so she wouldn't feel the need to touch it later, then folded her hands neatly in her lap and waited.

The room filled around them, the noisy babble of the foyer quieting to an eerie mass of whispering like wind racing through long grass as people took their seats. When the auctioneer, a distinguished-looking gentleman with salt and pepper hair, took his place behind the podium, the crowd fell into silence and watched him with eager, hungry eyes,

"Good evening everyone," he began, casting his crow-footed blue eyes around the room. "I'm very pleased to have you all with us tonight. We hope you've all enjoyed the hospitality so far."

An agreeable murmur rose from the audience, who confirmed their collective pleasure by raising their glasses with one hand and applauding softly atop their knees or wrists with the other. The auctioneer flashed a toothy smile and continued.

"Before I begin, let us all acknowledge and extend our thanks to our generous hostess." He waved an open-palmed hand at the front row. The Art Collector rose from her seat, dipping her head in a modest bow as the audience applauded louder this time. "We have a number of extraordinary items available this evening. Winning bids will be recorded by our secretary and successful bidders are asked to come to the stage after the auction concludes. And with that bit of housekeeping taken care of, let us begin."

May scanned the program, combing over the fascinating assortment of spoils one would be able to bid on that evening. Jewelry, fine art, expensive cars, and even homes; all manner of luxury was available for the right price. But there were other items — oddities and curiosities — that littered the menu too. Rare alchemical tomes, the glass eye of a long-dead lord adorned with a sapphire for the iris, and set of paints mixed of sacred clays from the holiest places on the planet caught May's attention. She dragged her fingertip down the list, wondering how many of the items on it were ill-gotten.

From behind the velvet stepped a tall, angelic woman. The gown she wore was the first item up for auction, embellished from top to bottom with glittering, high quality crystals. May watched, enthralled, as the woman descended from the stage and sashayed elegantly down the aisle to give potential buyers a closer look. Each individual crystal reflected the light from the overhead chandeliers, shimmering like midday sun on the water. Dazzled, May didn't even think to look away until after the woman passed. She blinked, and when her eyes refocused she noticed a man in the front row staring at her.

He was twisted in his seat like most others who followed the model in her sparkling gown, but his eyes, framed in feathery black lashes, bore into May instead. He was tall, lean, and objectively handsome; there was nothing threatening in his gaze, but May hadn't trusted the way men looked at her in a long time. Feigning indifference, May turned back to the auctioneer in time to catch the obscene figure that closed the bidding on the dress.

The evening was a parade of extravagance. When something was too delicate or large to flaunt down the aisle, the crowd would crane their necks to get a better look at the stage. At one point the velvet curtains drew back to reveal a pristine glossy white sports car with low-profile performance tires and custom light fixtures. Grant grinned triumphantly as the bidding on his addition to the program rose quickly. The car eventually sold to the man they had been speaking with in the foyer; May and Grant exchanged satisfied looks. The following item was, if the auctioneer was to be believed,  the skin of a man whose entire back had been inked by an infamous tattoo artist, preserved between panes of glass. May's stomach rolled, but no one seemed surprised when the Art Collector placed the winning bid.

May watched the entire spectacle like one might watch a movie — curious but comfortably removed. And every time she watched an item walked up and down the aisle, she found the man in the front row watching her.

When the auction ended, the audience rose in tandem with their voices. The evening's winners made their way to the stage area, glowing with excitement and looking eager to hand over overwhelming amounts of money for their treasures.

"Follow the hot shots," Grant instructed, nodding toward the winner's circle where attendants were ushering the buyers through a side door. Without speaking, the three joined the exclusive crowd.

From the corner of her eye, May could see the strange man was still sitting in his front row seat. He lounged next to the Art Collector, listening as she regaled him and a handful of others with her deep knowledge of the work she had just purchased. May straightened and turned her back to them, ignoring the feeling of his eyes burning into her back and focusing on the task at hand.

"How are you feeling?" Welkin asked quietly, their lips barely moving.

"Nervous," May admitted. In a combination of anxiety and spite, she picked at her nail polish and watched the line thin in front of them. "I really hope this woman can help us."

"One way or another, we'll walk out of here with some information," Grant muttered. "Let me do the talking once we get in there."

May nodded — she had no problem with that plan. The final winner was waved through the side door and Grant stepped up to the attendant, radiating confidence like a pheromone.

"We're here to see Devereaux," he explained. It wasn't a question, but nor was it a demand: it was a given.

The attendant barely spared the three of them a glance.

"Madam Devereaux isn't taking visitors."

May's breath hitched. She looked up at Grant, who didn't flinch.

"She's expecting us," he said. "This is a pre-arranged meeting."

The attendant looked at them now. His eyes narrowed.

"Did I stutter?" he growled. A pair of large men — undoubtedly security — stepped up behind him. "I said no visitors. Now get out of my face."

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