Chapter 2:

The Fox and the Hare Talk Beneath the Almond Blossoms

Beneath the Hazy Moon

“Did my auntie say anything about me?”

“She said you were only good for telling lies.”

At that, Agatha threw her head back and laughed her sweet laugh.

They were sitting side by side beneath the branches of the almond blossoms, on a hill overlooking the sleepy village. She had spread out a small picnic blanket, its deep blue hue shone brightly in contrast to the fallen petals. It was as though the two of them had been set adrift on a blue raft against a sea of pink.

“Tell me, was she wrong?” Agatha jostled him sweetly.

“Well,” Saimon began, “you said they needed my help with festival preparations, but we’re sitting here instead.”

Agatha considered this as she patted down a crease in the blanket. “Preparations don’t begin for another half hour. I thought this would give us some time to talk.”

“Talk? About what?” came Saimon’s reply.

“About you,” Agatha cut to the chase. “You said you live in Camford?”

A flicker of annoyance flitted across Saimon’s features. “I live here in East Meadow now,” he said stonily.

Seeing that she had upset him somehow, Agatha opted to retreat and change her line of questioning. She did not, however, offer any apologies although, uncharacteristically enough for a so-called ‘sensitive type’, Saimon wasn’t interested in anything like that.

“You don’t look like you’re from East Meadow, Saimon,” she spoke bluntly, “in fact, you don’t look like someone from Her Majesty’s realm at all.”

“That’s because I was born in the Greater East,” Saimon relaxed his shoulders as the conversation entered, at least for him, familiar territory. “In a place called Jiangsha.”

“Oh!” Agatha’s eyes lit up. “I’ve heard of Jiangsha. The city of temples, right? Are you a priest’s son?”

Saimon blinked at the inquisitive creature, taken aback by her uncommon insight. “No, but many of my friends from school came from families like that. Having a shrine or temple you can inherit is really an enviable thing…”

“You don’t have anything like that? Not even a bakery or a shop?” and then she continued, “What did your family do, then?”

“I’m more curious about you,” Saimon shook off the question expertly. “I didn’t think anyone in this village would know a single thing about my hometown.”

“Hmph! If you think of me as just a simple country girl, then you do so at your own peril,” Agatha replied haughtily.

“You’re saying you’re not a simple country girl?” he responded guilelessly.

“I’m a country girl, for sure,” she conceded, “but far from simple. I can read and write.”

“Mags taught you?”

She shook her head. “My auntie has a great head for numbers, but she’s about as literate as every other spinster in the village. In other words, not at all.”

“Then who? Your parents?”

“I don’t have parents,” she replied brusquely, and then, as though she had not said something incredibly pitiful, added, “the person who taught me to read lent his name to that fine cottage you’re living in.”

Saimon paused – certainly, the history of Huxley’s Place and its association with its namesake was what attracted him to the otherwise nondescript cottage. It was there that Eldritch Huxley, one of the century’s preeminent novelists, had written his final two masterpieces.

“You’re telling me Eldritch Huxley taught you how to read and write?” he began to move some facts and figures in his head. “And that he did it while writing A Ghost’s Nocturne?”

“If I hadn’t been bothering him all the time, he would’ve finished the manuscript much sooner,” Agatha grinned.

Certainly, it was within the realm of possibility. In terms of age Agatha couldn’t have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three, so she would have been a child during Huxley’s residence in the village of East Meadow; additionally, introducing a young girl, who would otherwise have spent her entire life wallowing in illiteracy, to the world of books would have been incredibly characteristic of Eldritch Huxley.

Not that Saimon had ever had the chance to meet that great doyen of contemporary literature, although he did read the man’s memoirs half a dozen times. No mention of Agatha, though.

“OK, I believe you,” he said. “So, you must’ve read about my hometown in some library book or other.”

“The nearest library is in Anglers’ Port, and I don’t think they have any books like that…” Agatha replied with a frown. “It was in the papers where I first became acquainted with the name Jiangsha.”

Saimon’s features hardened. “And what did the papers say?”

“They say it’s on fire,” she answered without hesitation.

“I see,” Saimon shifted uneasily on the blanket. “I try to avoid the newspapers myself. Nothing good has ever come from knowing what’s going on.”

Unreservedly, she asked: “Saimon, which side are you on?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you in favour of the revolution?”

“No comment,” he told her. “I’d rather everyone stopped fighting.”

“What if you absolutely had to pick?” Agatha continued to prod.

“Well, I’m only in this country because I’m sponsored by the government…” he began awkwardly.

“Right, so you’re a loyalist,” she spoke as though that mere fact told her all she needed to know. “The Times say your government won’t last much longer.”

“What’s that have to do with me?” he shot back, almost dismissively. “They stopped sending me money weeks ago. The funds for the overseas scholars programme is going into the war chest.”

“If your country disappears you won’t have a place to go back to.”

“You never know,” he began to idly play with the grass. “Whatever the revolutionaries build on Hanshi’s corpse might need intellectuals like me.”

“Or maybe you could stay here?” she reached out her arm, her hand resting on his.

His fingers twitched slightly at the foreign sensation.

“In East Meadow?” even Saimon was surprised by how composed he managed to sound.

Agatha laughed, almost scornfully. “Heavens no!” she waved it away, as though saying the name East Meadow brought with it some unpleasant odour. “I meant here in the Queen’s country. Maybe Camford, which you’re already familiar with or one of the big industrial port cities? Or even the Capital…” her eyes began to twinkle.

“I came to East Meadow to get away from places like that.”

“I thought it was because you couldn’t afford it anymore. You know, since you’re a government sponsored scholar from a country whose government is about to collapse.”

“Well, there were all sorts of reasons…”

Saimon was almost about to elaborate when Agatha suddenly stood up, stirred by the ringing of a faraway bell. Without a second person to keep it fully pinned down, the picnic blanket began to sway in the breeze and her long, straw-coloured hair did likewise. She was mouthing something Saimon couldn’t quite hear and when he asked her to repeat herself, she only responded cryptically.

“There’s the bell. They’ll be coming up the hill any minute now.”

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