Chapter 1:

The Clearing of the Spring Mist Brings a Weary Traveller

Beneath the Hazy Moon

The light scent of winter flowers greeted Saimon when he entered his new home, the quaintly named Huxley’s Place, for the first time. As described in the ‘for let’ section of the Camford Herald, the rooms were generously furnished – even now, Saimon found himself being able to recall word for word the contents of that advertisement.

A spacious living area topped off with a handsome sofa and a fireplace which, despite its appearance, was fully functional. The dining table was admittedly a relic from two monarchs ago but had been recently varnished and sturdy enough to hold a veritable feast.

The article had waxed lyrical about the rooms’ natural light and cotton bedding too, but there was only one thing that stood out to the young scholar. Without any prompting from his new landlady, he darted to the corner where a schoolboy's desk, miraculously unmarked, rested. Atop it was, in Saimon’s opinion, the crowning jewel of the cottage: a Haverford-type typewriter.

He ran his fingers across the keyboard and was happy to find it free of dust.

“This is much nicer than my garret in Camford, mistress.”

“The cities are too crowded,” his landlady, known to the locals as ‘Mags’ or Mrs. Hughes, returned graciously. “I’ll grant you that these humble digs must seem grand in comparison.”

Saimon did not have the courage to tell her that Camford had only roughly a population of about 45,000 and was, as designated by royal charter, only considered a town.

“There’s no need to be so modest, mistress,” he said. “You were really selling the place well in the ‘paper, and not one word of a lie.”

“Who’s the modest one, sir? It’s Mags, not mistress. Really, now! As though I were some lady of the manor like from the stories…” the woman, handsome even in her middle age, almost flushed. “And pshaw! My niece wrote that advertisement for the paper, and all she’s good for is fibbing!”

“Oh, really?” Saimon replied vacantly; for a second, he imagined he might like to meet this nascent copywriter.

“Well, it wasn’t all fibs,” Mags eventually conceded. “Some good work has been done within these walls, and on that typewriter you were eyeing up just there. The place has some charm, eh?”

“It has all the charm of an age gone by, Mags,” Saimon concurred through the rose-tinted lenses of a man who has only ever known townships. “A much simpler and happier age.”

“All the inconveniences of an age gone by too!”

The voice emanated from the open doorway; slightly lower but not at all dissimilar to Mags’ own voice, it possessed a surety that the older woman lacked, a quality that comes only with a firm sense of conviction in one’s words and wit. Saimon knew, before he even laid eyes on the lithe figure leaning against the jamb of the door, that it belonged to Mags’ niece.

“Archons of Abbas Parva! Speak of the Goddess Yingfei’s beauty, and she appears!”

An idiom from the old country. There was an equivalent expression used here in the realm of Queen Marianna, naturally; something to do with the manifestation of devils or some such thing or other, but the exact wording escaped him.

Suffice to say, the newcomer at the door had his full attention.

Mags beckoned her inside. “Come now, and I’ll make the introductions. This here is my niece, Agatha.”

The initial rush had passed, and the young man now found himself sobering up. “I’m Saimon, from Camford,” was his mechanical, restrained greeting.

“You don’t look like you’re from Camford, mister,” she raised an eyebrow, mock incredulity creeping into her voice. “I came here as soon as I heard that there was a man taking up residence in these rooms. We’re looking for volunteers to help with preparations for the Almond Blossom Festival soon but you seem…”

Saimon remained steady against the girl’s scrutinising gaze.

“I’m sure I can be of some assistance.”

“Are you sure? Even though you’re one of those frail scholar types?”

“That’s ... not far off the mark at all,” he began but before the thought could finish the girl had already slipped her arms around his.

“But we really do need all the help we can get so!” she interrupted breezily, "Auntie, I’ll be borrowing this young man for a bit, okay?”

Mags, of course, protested that Saimon would be tired after the long trip from Camford, that he hadn’t had lunch yet or even the chance to unpack his bags. They were all valid points, he thought, but any tinge of hunger or tiredness he might have felt began to melt away as she ushered him towards the exit.

“He’s got plenty of time for that later! You’ll be staying for a while, won’t you?” she blinked up at him.

“Huh? Y-yeah, I’m in no rush,” Saimon replied, and then whispered under his breath, “I don’t have anything to go back to anyway. In Camford or anywhere else…”

If Agatha heard his cryptic remark, her face showed no sign of it. “He’s in no rush so he says!” she declared, and tightening her grip started towards the door.

Saimon shot Mags an apologetic look. She had mentioned something about a ‘piping hot soup on the stove’ that she was eager for him to try; and, evidently, his mind had yet to be fully divorced from the world of academia – all Saimon could think about was his colleague’s hypothesis on the potential of electromagnetic radiation, and how it could be used to heat food.

Mags’ cheeks reddened and her flustered face, vaguely reminiscent of his home country’s folkloric demons, pulled him from his reverie. He realised that he now remembered the wording of the expression that had eluded him earlier: “speak of the devil, and he will surely appear.”

They were outside now.

His gaze flickered back to Agatha who was still clinging to his arm, her hair a bonny amber in the sunlight. She caught his stare and beamed up at him. No, Saimon decided firmly, an idiom that uses an inauspicious term such as ‘devil’ couldn’t possibly be used to describe a meeting like this.

The idiom that he was more familiar with, the one that evoked the beauty of the Goddess Yingfei was much more apt. For no reason discernible to him, his heart was all aflutter, and he ventured to speak it lest it burst.

“Spring in the countryside is much more beautiful than in the towns.”

“What?” she responded absently, as though she hadn’t been paying attention.

“I said spring in the countryside is beautiful,” he repeated.

“Oh,” she was grinning now, looking at nothing and nobody in particular. “That’s right, I guess spring has sprung for the both of us, hey?”

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