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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38. A Visit to the Museum

The Royal Museum of Natural Sciences at Stolic was the single most impressive building Jenna had seen in her life. It was grand, beautiful, and enormous; a cathedral or palace of natural sciences. She hadn’t seen a proper museum before, and imagined all of them to be a kind of dusty store-cupboard for oddities, where the curious could be charged a penny to see a half-penny’s worth of strange old junk.

This was quite a different experience. The façade of the building was cream-coloured marble, as high as the five-story palace buildings beside it. In spite of it being perhaps five minute’s walk from where she had been received by the queen, as envoy of a friendly neighbouring nation she was taken to the front steps of the museum in a shiny black coach.

There she was waiting for the queen to formally arrive in a much more impressive coach and begin the tour. She stared up at the graceful arches, and tried to read the inscriptions carved into scrolls of marble, inlaid with a darker, purplish stone. She didn’t understand the language well enough. In fact she didn’t even recognise all the letters, and some of the ones she did know were wearing hats, as if in disguise as different letters altogether.

A dark-red coach with many gilded decorations barrelled down the street at a speed that might be considered unsafe when carrying an empress. It came to a halt at the foot of the steps, as the explanation for this curious display of driving came around the corner of the building on foot.

“I walked. They were taking forever to get the coach ready, and I can be so impatient sometimes.”

Jenna bowed with a smile. “Your majesty, this is the best museum I have ever seen.”

“It should be: it is the best in the world. And you haven’t really seen it yet.” Celandine strode towards the doors, accompanied by various servants, and Jenna followed. At the doors, the queen turned abruptly, and stood playfully in Jenna’s way.

“Now, this is my museum, and although scholars and professors of the natural sciences make use of it, and merchants and priests and the merely curious too, I set a very special entry fee for all of them.”

“And envoys?”

“Oh, envoys too of course. Anyone who wants to enter this beautiful museum must bring with them, on their first visit, something interesting enough to add to the collection. A rare mineral, a stuffed bird, a book.” Celandine laughed. “I expect you didn’t bring a great many stuffed birds with you?”

“None at all, I’m afraid. Well, I would have greatly liked to see your museum, but I don’t think I have the entry fee.”

Celandine looked at her with bright blue eyes. “I think you do.”

“Anything I have is of course at your disposal. But really, what might I have that is interesting enough to go in there?”

“Did you keep notes, when you were out in the woods surveying badgers? Not that you would have them on your person today. But if a book would do, then information would do: that’s just a book without the paper, after all. In fact,” Celandine smiled again, “you yourself may be an interesting enough object. No don’t be alarmed—I won’t keep you. Welcome to my museum.”

Inside, the museum seemed even bigger, because most of the space was open. There was a vast gallery running down the middle, with rooms and display areas to either side. Half-way up to the roof, there was another floor that opened out on the central space. Broad stairs at each end led up to this second floor. Everything was cream marble, with dark red carpets, and glass cases with frames of brass and silver and dark wood.

“You could fit my whole home town in here twice over!” Jenna said.

“Now that would be an interesting exhibit, and I’d like to hear about it, even if it might be too expensive to transport it here. First though, because I want us to be on friendly terms, and be able to speak plainly to one another, I must show you my collection of fungi.” Celandine took Jenna’s arm, and led her directly across the near corner of the gallery to a wooden door, carved with shapes of skinny toadstools, fat mushrooms and apparently shapeless blobs.

The servants followed, but they were waved away and after a few words from the queen, they remained outside on guard.

Jenna followed the young queen around the fungus room, politely listening to her descriptions and explanations of the displays, and not really understanding what any of this had to do with plain speaking or why it would put them on more friendly terms. Celandine seemed to be a pleasant girl, but she was definitely a bit odd. Presumably she would come to the point sooner or later.

She did.

“Now, Jenna, envoy of Atlar! Pay attention, because although you are being such a dear pretending to be interested in all the rest of it, this bit is important.”

She pointed to some small toadstools or mushrooms in a glass case.

“These are very interesting, and fortunately they are quite rare. We call them mortimorgaŭ, perhaps you’d say kill-you-tomorrow or deadly-later.”

“Poisonous, then?”

“Funnily enough, no. You could eat a big bowl of them and come to no harm at all.”

“Then they have somehow got quite a bad name for themselves.”

“There’s more to it. Most people who eat them do die within a week or two.”

Jenna frowned and leaned over to look at them more closely. There was nothing about them that gave any clues. “I don’t understand. If they’re not poisonous ...”

Celandine stepped forward and put her hand on Jenna's arm. Jenna turned to see large, wide-set blue eyes fixed unblinking on her own, and uncomfortably close.

“It took considerable time and close observation to find out why. If you eat them alone and then eat nothing else for a day or so, you live. If you eat even a scrap of one with certain other foods,” the queen was looking steadily at Jenna, watching her face, keeping her own expressionless, “then the damage is done. The next time you eat that other food, your body poisons itself. Your throat closes, you choke, you swell up. You die.”

Jenna felt ill. “Such another food as, say, prawns?”

“I see you understand me. Now we can put this behind us and spend a lovely day looking at my museum, but,” her eyes were still fixed on Jenna’s, “when you next see Doctor Grey, please ask him, if he is going to poison any more kings, to please arrange for them to die in his own country.”

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