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.


4. Brand New Day

Ashlin turned over on the edge of his sleep, bothered by something malign hovering in the background. A sound, like the whine of a mosquito, modulated into some lunatic’s idea of a tune. Words followed, as he woke to the sound of squeeze box, bells, and clacking oak staves.

Hello, hooray, it’s a bran’ new day!

Woken by the horn of the morning ...

Rise up, rise up, for it’s time to play,

And the cock do crow for a bran’ new day!

“Bloody morris dancers!”

He was never going to get back to sleep with that racket going on outside, and besides, his bladder had woken up too.

Unlike most mornings, where he would wake from pleasant dreams to dismal anticipation of his daily responsibilities, on this morning he woke disgruntled but then remembered with joy that today was going to be different.

Today, he was going to become unemployed, and then tomorrow he was going to pay up the last few pence of rent due on his room, and travel out to the country (not on official business, thank god) to his cousin’s house, and become a blacksmith.

He should have done it four years ago. Like his grandma had said: “You’re Ashlin Smith, not Ashlin Badger-botherer.” That had at the time seemed comical, and the least persuasive argument from any of his relatives. Most of them had leaned hard on the old “don’t get above your station” line, and the classic “if smithing was good enough for your father and it’s good enough for uncle Stan, then it’s good enough for you.”

And at the time, the promise of a well-paid job, working for the Crown Office of the Regent Counsel, seemed grand, and the element of badger-bothering the job might entail didn’t weigh upon the young man’s mind. Now he was not so sure. It occurred to him that since the Royal Badger Survey had been instituted some 80 years ago, Grandma might possibly be the one member of his family who would have heard most about its origins and purposes, and known what the job entailed.

Sadly, she was gone now, and even if Ashlin had been able to pop around for tea and a chat one more time (for which, now, he suddenly realised with unexpected pain, he would have given almost anything), it’s probable she would only have said “Told you so, silly boy.”

He pissed, and washed, and dressed, and went down for breakfast. Breakfast was as awful as usual, but today it tasted, if not good, then at least bearable; a trial to be overcome in the knowledge that it would soon be over, and not be followed by an endless succession of awful breakfasts marking out and punctuating all his tomorrows with unsatisfactory porridge. One more awful breakfast at the start of one more day and then he would be away from it all.

This early in the morning, he would be able to report in to the Crown Office without much danger of meeting the other members of the Badger Survey. Any time before ten he would be unlikely to encounter Justin, who would roll in with another implausible reason why he had been delayed, or simply begin one of his stories that go nowhere and leave the listeners feeling like they had been subtly robbed. Perhaps only of their time, but sometimes the feeling was so acute, and so in tune with their other emotional reactions to Justin’s person, that they would pat and touch their pockets and pouches in case somehow the pointless narration had been a distracting ruse to allow them to be pick-pocketed.

Justin was now to be someone else’s problem.

And Jenna too, although she wasn’t the same kind of problem. Ashlin would under other circumstances have been drawn to her pretty face and clever sense of humour, and in his romantic inexperience he would have been dashed against the rocks of her confidence and wit. But their work situation and various badger-related experiences together had interfered with and delayed this process, so that they were now friends, and it was clear that she wasn’t interested in pursuing any greater closeness. So that was that.

But next to Jenna, other girls seemed less interesting and less pretty than they would if seen fairly only in their own light. This was unjust to them, he felt, and also very unsatisfactory for a young man woken regularly by “the horn of the morning”. Maybe out at his cousin’s forge, putting on some muscle and showing it off to good effect, bare-armed and sweating as he hammered out the hot iron, just maybe, he would impress and be impressed by some honest country girl, and drop back into the sort of ordinary life his family wished for him.

So yes, Jenna would also become someone else’s problem. Not such a bad problem to have, but anyway, not his.

Climbing the steep cobbled street, stepped with slabs of granite, he remembered how grand the port and eponymous capital city of the old nation of Atlar had seemed only four years before. It had wide streets and parks, and a few ancient stone buildings, all scored and stained up to the fourth storey. The newer buildings around them, on foundations of old stone below and new construction above, whispered a brave tale of calamity and survival.

Now the history of the Great Wave was well known to him. It was dramatic and terrifying, but some amount of the mystery and awe of it had faded, leaving the city somewhat less able to impress him. For one thing, much of the dirt and dilapidation was recent.

“God above and below,” he muttered, “they could at least have cleaned the place up a bit by now. They’ve had four-score years to do it.”

The office of the Regent Counsel occupied the mostly repaired shell of what had been the old Royal Palace. It was no longer a manifestation of the wealth and maritime power of Atlar, or the dignity of its long and noble royal line. It was a functional and efficient expression of the day to day bureaucracy needed to actually make a state operate.

A king can roll around in his golden coach, waving condescendingly at people, and for some reason those people don’t take it as an arrogant display, a rubbing of their noses in the dirt while he shows off his big fat silk waistcoat and ridiculous wig. A king can get away with worse than that, even.

But a regent has to restrain his self-indulgence a little. He is a steward, a mere caretaker, almost. He must not get above himself, even if he has as much of the indefinable royal quality in his blood as a formally crowned monarch. Of course, so has a pig farmer, as far as natural philosophers have been able to determine, but that is by the by.

If a king rules foolishly over a kingdom, and makes a great unholy mess of things, then it can always be someone else’s fault. The merchants are devious, the money-lenders are cheats, the people are idle, the priests are corrupt.

But if a kingdom under a mere regent is not run smoothly, and all grievances are not resolved, or at least carefully managed, then it is soon the general opinion that he is Not Doing His Job. And also that Things Were Better Under Mad King Leonard Say What You Like But He Loved His People, and so forth.

Willem, second Regent of Atlar was, if not as big a fool as his father had been, at least not very clever. And so he relied heavily on the Regent Counsel for advice in his public affairs, and to keep all the confusing details away from his fuddled old head. Time wasn’t standing still, and there were ever new problems he didn’t understand, and new solutions he didn’t understand to old problems that he thought (most inaccurately) that he had once understood.

This arrangement was working surprisingly well.

For these and other reasons, the old Royal Palace had been refurbished and redecorated without needless additional expense, and more than that, the finer fittings and ostentatious decoration had actually been removed, within and outside the building, so that if you didn’t know, you would never have guessed at its exalted origins or its vital importance to the state. You would perhaps think it a tradesman’s bank or a dealership in stationery, because a very great deal of paper was in evidence at all times.

The working office or depot of the Badger Survey was not in the Crown Office buildings; it was near the edge of town, supposedly for more convenient access to the countryside. But resignations from the Badger Survey, or from any organisation under the umbrella of the Crown Office, required complicated paperwork which had to be processed centrally, so Ashlin made his way into the central office building in search of the bureaucratic necessities that would free him.

It was rumoured that other ways of leaving Crown Office jobs had been known to occur more suddenly and under very informal conditions. But then, even the most orderly of bureaucracies have to tolerate this kind of asymmetry in their procedures. They perhaps make up for it by producing extra paperwork after the funeral.

Ashlin leaned over a wooden half-door into a tiny room with a single window the size and shape of a dinner plate high in the wall, and shelves of paper, books, and miscellaneous secretarial paraphernalia reaching up nearly as high on all four sides of the room. There was also a small writing desk and a chair, occupied by a short and broad man, reading one sheet of paper and making notes onto another. There was barely enough space for another person to stand within the room, hence the convenient removal of the top half of the door to make this unnecessary.

“Good morning to you, George,” Ashlin said.

“Indeed, and to you, Ash,” replied the broad man without looking up.

“I’ve come to resign from my post. Is there anything to write my name on before I go?”

“Indeed there is a form of some kind. There always is,” returned George. “Allow me to just fetch it down.”

He looked around the shelves up to head height, didn’t seem to find what he was looking for, and then rummaged around at head-and-an-arm height. Still without satisfaction, it seemed. He laid a hand on the top of the writing desk and rocked it slightly, as if pondering whether it might bear his weight. It seemed not.

“If you’ll excuse me, I may need to fetch a step-ladder. Or indeed a tall person would do.”

George being so broad, it was necessary for him to move his desk a little to get to the half-door, and it was necessary for Ashlin to back away from the door to allow him to get out into the corridor. There was a moment of uncertainty where it seemed Ashlin might have to retreat into a janitor’s cupboard to allow George to pass, but he turned sideways quite gracefully (most of his width being shoulder, not gut) and paced off.

This gave Ashlin a few minutes to wonder where the ladder was even going to go in a room that small, and had got as far as forming a theory that the chair would have to be moved out of the office, and the desk turned just so. Or perhaps one side of the ladder could be put over the half door ...

George returned, not with a ladder but with a tall person, so this geometrical question was never resolved.

“This is Derk,” said George, “he will be working with you.”

To get the form? Would one of them sit on the other’s shoulders or something? It seemed like a needless introduction. If Derk was just here to help reach a shelf, after which Ashlin would probably never need to see him again, one might as well take the trouble to introduce a stepladder by name.

Ashlin later regretted this moment of confusion. Had he understood the import of what he had just heard, he might have made a getaway then. He could have forgone his last week’s pay, and maybe changed his name or moved abroad. But he hesitated, looking puzzled, for long enough that George had time to add:

“Doctor Grey will explain.”

Doctor Grey being the Regent Counsel himself. It was that he would take an interest in the resignation of a Badger Survey Supervisor, but it was far more unlikely that he might trouble himself with how to retrieve the paperwork from a high shelf. So, reality came crashing back into a recognisable shape: Ashlin's escape was being thwarted somehow, and the time for making objections to George had passed. Ashlin made an attempt nevertheless.

“I’m resigning today. So Derk won’t be working with me, no offence intended Derk, and I have no objection on personal grounds, but I’m resigning today. That’s what you wanted to get the form for, remember?”

“Doctor Grey will explain.”

And that was that.

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