The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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19. A Seafood Order

Justin and Derk were dismissed to collect some things that would be needed for the first leg of their journey, and Jenna was given her instructions. Ashlin stood by, neither dismissed nor explicitly included. This made him uncomfortable, and Jenna too, as he could tell by the way she glanced between him and Doctor Grey.

“A few months ago, our capital was graced with visits from not one but two ambassadors of our friendly neighbouring kingdoms. The ambassador from King Lund of Norfjord was welcomed and feasted by our dear Regent Willem, who made friendly noises and committed to no particular positions on foreign policy. The poor man is good at that, it must be said, and he acquitted himself well in the role.”

“The ambassador from Queen Celandine of Andaro was likewise feasted and placated to the very best of our honoured Regent’s ability.” He pronounced the queen’s name sharply, precisely: “tselandeen”. It seemed to irritate him.

Doctor Grey paced.

“It is not in the least secret that they also met one another, nor that the ambassador from Norfjord dined rather more modestly at the expense of some of our more prominent landowners, and the ambassador from Andaro dined rather more lavishly with several of our wealthier merchants.”

“You wouldn’t be telling us if it were a secret, I suppose,” said Jenna.

“I wouldn’t be troubling you with tedious little secrets of that nature, certainly,” the Doctor replied. “Ashlin may have told you, or perhaps you will have already gathered, that certain branches of the Crown Office, the Badger Survey included, are concerned with rather more interesting matters.”

Startled to be brought into the conversation in such a manner, Ashlin didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t had an opportunity to get into a detailed discussion about monsters with Jenna before leaving the badger survey; he hadn't been able to talk about why he was leaving at all. Being honest with himself, he hadn't been able to talk to her about why he was leaving.

She directed an accusing look at him, dark eyes narrowed.

“I don’t know what Ash can tell me about it. But an old friend of yours, Dennis, did have a story or two to tell.”

“Ah, no doubt. You should even believe most of them. But I must return to the matter at hand. Atlar has no king. Atlar must have no king, for reasons that I promise to tell you one day, if you earn my confidence. For a long time now, we have been able to make do without one, maintaining a balance of power between the nobility and the mercantile guilds. As Norfjord allies with the landowners, and Andaro with the merchants, we have so far avoided openly siding with one or the other neighbour, or either faction, and trade has prospered.”

He sighed.

“But in some six weeks time, a representative of the king of Norfjord will be coming to dine at this very palace, and will press us to accept him as the next rightful king of Atlar. After which, he will proceed to Andaro and make a treaty with powerful interests there, forestalling any interference. A delicate balance of power holds no attraction for him or those who support him. They want power that can be used immediately and to their sole advantage. At first that's how it would be, but later it will end up much the worse for everyone.”

“What is his claim?” asked Jenna. “Can it simply be denied?”

“The Jarl Olaf is a sort of cousin of the Royal line, and a relative of several of our nobles. He is politically powerful and can back his claim with force if need be. Atlar has no army to speak of, apart from those barons who have the right to raise a militia. They for the most part would back his claim in any case.”

“Then,” Jenna pressed, “what can be done? What is our errand?”

“The Jarl is extremely fond of seafood.”

Jenna barked a derisive laugh. “I beg your pardon?”

“I beg your attention. The Jarl is fond of seafood, and his particular favourite is a kind of large prawn found in the waters in the south of Andaro. These prawns do not travel well. It is certain that he is looking forward to dining upon them when he visits Queen Celandine’s court. We hope to pre-empt this and flatter him with a dish of his favourite food when he attends the banquet here. I have every confidence that, small and light as it is, this may be the touch that can swing the balance in our favour.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“But you will do it.”

Defiant silence for a few seconds.

“I will.”

“Good. Ashlin, you are going too. It’s a difficult thing for me to ask, but I have only one other use for you if you remain here and that is a hunt in the woods with Green and his rangers. Interested?”

“I must respectfully decline. Please, no more of that.” He was remembering a man’s lower leg being dropped into a box of shaved ice.

“Agreed, then. On your journey, please have that conversation that you have left long overdue with Jenna.”

Ashlin felt his cheeks reddening and becoming hot. Jenna was looking at him accusingly and again he couldn’t speak. Or breathe.

“About the monster, Ashlin.”

Breath returned.

“About the monster. Yes. I can do that.”

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