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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2. Breath

The old man's breath was uneven; sometimes difficult and shallow, sometimes deep but slow. From time to time it seemed to stop altogether for a few heartbeats. Outside, the wind pushed and tugged at the castle, sucked on it like a loose tooth. Rain spattered against tree and stone and moss, and drooled under the shutters of the windows whenever the castle, like the king, drew a long slow breath.

This was, though, a palace of sorts, belonging to a king (of sorts) so the room was comfortable and kept well warmed by a low fire. The fire did little to illuminate the corners of the room, and there was only a single fat candle lit by the bed. It was barely bright enough to read a book by, but King Leonard was finally, at the end of his life, done with reading books.

On a comfortable chair on the other side of the bed, half shadowed by the bed’s green velvet curtains, sat the King’s Adviser, waiting.

“It is a pity,” continued Leonard after so long a pause, with half-closed eyes, that it had seemed that he might have drifted off to sleep, or maybe further than that.

“A pity, my friend?”

“Yes. A pity I never had children.” A shorter pause, and the old king’s brow twitched into a frown momentarily, then relaxed. “Not, you know, for the succession. For my dear Margaretta. She would have so loved them, and it seems absurd to me that I could give her all manner of coaches to drive her about, and gold plates to eat off, and such nonsense. But not a child.”

The adviser leaned forward, and placed his hand on the king’s arm.

“You have been a father to your people ...”

“Oh no. Don’t try to comfort me with platitudes this late in the day. This late. No. I have been at best a crazy old uncle to my people. I am glad that I have at times amused them, glad they have mostly left me alone to read my books, much more glad that I have not carelessly harmed them with the folly of power. At least, I hope I have not.”

Another long pause.

“I hope too, that I will not, this one last time. Have you made all the arrangements for the ... my funeral?”

The dim light made it difficult to read that arcane old parchment, the adviser’s face. It is possible that there were no light bright enough for that in the whole kingdom. In any case, he might have given a rare expression to his emotions by looking down, blinking twice, and ever so slightly hesitating before mastering himself and setting himself back in order, as he would a book that was misplaced on the shelf.

“You are sure that we cannot proceed with the original plan of having a great party in the honour of your birthday? It is barely two weeks from now.”

“I am sure that if you do, I will be unable to attend. Ever since I can remember, I have always felt the shape of tomorrow, tasted it, every night before I settled down to sleep. Tonight, I do not. Tomorrow is not there.” King Leonard turned over onto his side, facing his oldest friend. It was somehow less formal, less dignified, to see a king lying on his side like any normal man. When they render a king in marble to lay on his tomb, he is always lying on his back; never on his side. Perhaps that is so you can’t walk round the other side and look at his royal marble backside.

“Anyway, I know it will be hard on the people to drive them up into the hills to the Summer Palace at such a miserable time of year. It has been hard on them raising the taxes, gathering a greater share of their crops. We cannot give them an explanation they will believe, so we must give them an excuse they will accept, however grudgingly. Perhaps it is better this way. I like to think they will endure a little hardship in sorrow for my memory. I fear that they might not for something so shallow and prideful as a birthday.”

The adviser nodded.

“Some will not come. Perhaps many.”

“That too,” said Leonard, quietly, “will be a pity.”

“Now, your majesty---”

“Oh, god above and below, don’t get started on my majesty. When you start that I know it’s official business. And I don’t suppose I can ask you to put official business off to the morrow?”

“Not, my friend, after what you have just told me. I have come to trust you in these predictions of what will be, as you have come to trust me in my perception of what is. And what is ... is the matter of the succession.”

“There cannot be another king!”

“I know. Or at least, I believe you. But we must at least appoint a regent, and after you are ... gone, I must work tirelessly in your memory to make sure that the regent we appoint will pass to one side or another of the pits and snares you have seen.”

Leonard struggled weakly to push himself half up into a sitting position.

“You. You, my friend. You can be regent. You can steer that course. Who better?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No. For one thing, I am also an old man. Older than you. And I am not of the royal blood. For me to act as regent would cause complications in the long term. We must pick one of your nephews. I suggest ...”

Leonard snorted derision. “Oh, pick any of that lot. Pick the youngest one, Willem, why not. He’s a fool but at least he knows it. He’ll listen to sense, even if he has none of his own, at least until he discovers girls.”

“As you wish.” The adviser smiled, a rare event indeed. The old friends sat together in peace for maybe an hour, while the candle wick lengthened and leaned over and flickered ghastly shadows around the room. But both men had seen enough ghastly solid objects in their time together; they were untroubled by flat patches of merely physical darkness.

As the candle dimmed at last, drinking itself to sleep in a goblet of wax, Leonard stirred and said a single word, indistinctly and in a puzzled way. Then he coughed, and opened his eyes, and beckoned weakly for the adviser to come near. That old friend leaned over and listened to the last confused words and last breaths of his friend.

Then he kissed him gently on the cheek, and stood up to withdraw to his study. Time enough to inform the royal household in the morning. In the meantime there was some research to begin in the palace library.

“Badgers?” he mused. The room gave no answer. The rain was still spattering against the window and chuckling in the gutters as though enjoying his perplexity, but if it knew anything, it was certainly not giving up any clues.

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