The first clue
“Archeology is the search for fact, not truth.”
Chapter Forty Seven - The first clue
As soon as Lin Hua saw that Huang Ming and Sunli managed to peel away, she broke into a private smile.
“I thank you for your help,” she whispered as she lead them to the last exhibit as Nangong Xie and official Shen He trailed behind.
“No need for formalities, it might be my fault that you are being dragged into this,” Huang Ming replied in a low voice. If Nangong Xie had wanted to pander to official Shen He, the Handsome Scholar could have brought him to the Lichun Brothel. Instead, they were at this auction hall, and it was difficult for Huang Ming to understand the reason. ‘Either Official Shen He really does have something to buy here, or Nangong Xie was following me,’ Huang Ming thought to himself.
Lin Hua did not know the full story, but she nodded. Though her beauty was great and she had her fair share of unwanted admirers, she saw the underlying hostility from Nangong Xie towards Huang Ming.
The last glass-encased exhibit stirred Huang Ming’s interest. Within the display was a small box made of wood, it’s surface was intricately carved with patterns of flowers. A rusted, metallic lever protruded from the side.
“This is the rarest item we have on sale today,” Lin Hua announced once Nangong Xie and Shen He rejoined the group. She gestured at the box proudly.
“What is this?” Huang Ming exclaimed. ‘Is this a music box?’ he wondered. Seeing something so familiar from Earth shocked him. It definitely looked European, the style and design of the box was completely out of place of the oriental setting that he had experienced thus far in this world. His eyes were wide as he gazed at the object with fierce concentration.
Lin Hua shook her head. “I do not know. It came to us by a merchant caravan which had travelled all the way from the state of Jin. The person who sold it to us was desperate for money and said that it was an item handmade by a mysterious master craftsman.”
Huang Ming recalled his memories of the world and remembered that the state of Jin was far north of his current country of Wu, approximately 800 kilometers away once he had converted the distances into Earth’s metric. It did not seem like too far of a distance, but in this technologically-backward world and fractured political landscape it would take two months or more by caravan.
“If you do not know what it is, why do you value it so highly?” Nangong Xie asked. He saw the intense look of curiosity on Huang Ming’s face and was determined not to be disadvantaged.
“Can we have a closer look?” Huang Ming interrupted, annoying the Handsome Scholar.
Lin Hua motioned for her attendants and they lifted the glass case. She gently picked up the device and placed it on one palm. Under the intense gaze of those who had gathered around her, she opened the top of the box, revealing the intricate innards of rusted gears and a metallic cylinder studded with tiny pins. There were some layers of dust and dirt caked within the box, an obvious indicator of ageing and neglect.
Huang Ming drew a deep breath, it was definitely a music box. His mind was in a whirl, it was the first indication in many lifetimes that he had come across a Earth-like object in another world. He could feel his skin crawl as he pondered on the implications. Of course, there was a chance that the box was created natively; but Huang Ming could not help but feel excited about the remote possibility of encountering a fellow Avatar, let alone an Avatar that would have come from Earth.
On Earth, there was a term called “out-of-place artifact”, a pseudo-scientific phrase used to describe items that were discovered in very unusual circumstances, that such items were out of context with its surroundings. Examples included the Antikythera device, and Huang Ming found himself thunderstruck at seeing the music box. These items were often cited by pseudo-scientists as proof of extraterrestrials, time-travel or history manipulation. Such allegations were dismissed out of hand, some were debunked legitimately while others were laughed out of existence. Yet, there remained a conscientious few curios that could not be explained.
Huang Ming was a skeptic on Earth, he did not believe such supernatural or alien involvement. But his experience as an Avatar made him realize the possibility of such things were deliberately placed by Avatars before him. In the Waiting Area, he had discussed with his fellow Avatars and found that it was not unusual for them to leave such cryptic clues about their presence in their new world as a mischievous indulgence. Huang Ming himself could not resist the temptation to pull off such a prank in a previous life or two, eager to bamboozle the future archaeologists of that particular world with a ridiculously foreign device. That was why he was so dismissive about his friends proposal to buy cheap knock-offs and bury them as fake treasures; it was amateurish compared to what he had done.
However, the main reason Huang Ming was so shocked was that the music box on Lin Hua’s palm was obviously of Earth’s influence. Over the course of his multiple lives, he had encountered very few Avatars that came from his original Earth. The remote chance of encountering a fellow Earthling in this world was exciting to him, even though it meant that Avatar was his opponent.
“It’s just some rusted junk,” Shen He grunted, and Lin Hua winced. It was not an inaccurate statement, but she found herself unable to retort against the government official.
“I don’t understand it either,” Nangong Xie added.
“It’ not so much as what it is, but how it was made,” Lin Hua explained. “Our best craftsmen have examined this device and they do not know how it was constructed. Even a cursory examination revealed that the components are very finely constructed and beyond their means. We could have it taken apart for further examination but they were afraid of damaging it and none of them were confident of putting it back together.”
“Do you know its history?” Huang Ming asked, but the pretty woman shook her head in the negative.
“Its owner sold it to us and never returned. That was three years ago,” she answered as she placed the item back into the glass case.
Huang Ming sighed. It was like browsing a flea market in a foreign country, only to discover a piece of memorabilia from home that had inexplicably travelled across oceans and continents, and the seller could not explain how it had ended in their hands.
Lin Hua saw the expression on Huang Ming’s face and found a twinge of regret in her heart, sad to have disappointed him.
“You said this is for auction? Is there a lot of interest in it?” Huang Ming asked.
Lin Hua smiled ruefully. “To be honest, this will be its third time to go under the gavel. The other exhibits are often more practical and showy compared to this.”
“Let me take it off your hands. What is its price?” Nangong Xie said. He had no interest in the device, but he had seen Huang Ming’s contemplative expression and decided to buy it just to spite him.
“This…” Lin Hua murmured hesitantly, her beautiful eyes flickering at Huang Ming.
Huang Ming said nothing, a faint smile on his lips. The music box was a jarring reminder of his special circumstances, but there was no need to be overly obsessive about it.
Seeing how Huang Ming did not bite, Nangong Xie added, “Miss Lin Hua, surely you would not refuse me and Official Shen He now.”
“Why would I want to buy this?” Shen He said in surprise. He had no interest in the antiquities, he had only followed Nangong Xie into the hall after being told of Lin Hua’s beauty. He had no idea that Nangong Xie was only using it as an excuse to follow Huang Ming, nor that he was now being used to provoke the young master.
The Handsome Scholar smiled broadly. “Miss Lin Hua had attempted to sell this three times. If Official Shen He buys the item now, she would be extremely grateful.”
Shen He’s face lit up, and he glanced at Lin Hua with an undisguised leer. “I see, I see! Well, speak up, how much do you want?” he demanded coarsely.
Lin Hua and her attendants stiffened, enraged at the official’s provocative statement.
“Miss Lin Hua, you’re not conducting the auction yourself?” Huang Ming asked suddenly.
“I am not, I am only responsible for appraisal and the preview,” she answered distractedly.
“Then you are free after this? Please, sell the item to Brother Nangong Xie quickly. I want to invite you for a drink so that we can talk more about history,” Huang Ming said and winked at her.
Lin Hua understood that he was giving her a way out. “It would be my pleasure,” she said and bowed towards Huang Ming.
When she rose back up, she smiled sweetly at Nangong Xie and Shen He. “The item is priced at 1500 gold pieces, but we are willing to sell it to you for 1200 gold pieces as a sign of our gratitude,” she informed them. It was a blatant statement that her ‘gratitude’ extended only towards a discount and nothing like what Shen He had expected.
Nangong Xie’s face fell, he did not expect Huang Ming to be so bold as to antagonize the government official.
“You can buy it, I don’t want anything to do with this!” Shen He huffed. He shook his sleeves and left with his bodyguards.
“Official Shen!” Nangong Xie called out to no avail. He turned back to glare at Huang Ming venomously, his handsome visage twisted with rage.
“Sir, do you still wish to purchase the item?” Lin Hua asked.
“Forget it!” Nangong Xie hissed. He hurriedly went to chase after Shen He.
“I guess 1200 gold pieces is still too expensive,” Huang Ming commented blandly.