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.


21. Delivery Planning

The weather not looking promising, their little vessel hugged the north coast of the Inner Sea, but after a few days the captain ruled that it should be safe to take a straighter course south east. This would take them far out of sight of land, but save them as much as a week and bring them in to the southern parts of Andaro. Conveniently enough they would also not pass around the coastal waters by the capital, Stolic, where they might possibly attract attention.

It was not specified what sort of attention the captain anticipated. Any attention might arguably have been unwelcome, because they weren’t bearing the marque of any of the Atlar or Andaro trading companies and had an almost impossible-to-believe explanation to account for their presence. The fact that it was the true explanation made things worse, because they didn’t have another story to fall back on if, or rather when, it wasn’t believed.

“I never knew the sea was so boring,” complained Justin, after another day with literally nothing to look at, the sky being bright and clear, and the sea featureless.

“I did,” sighed Derk.

The air was gradually becoming warmer, and they passed some small dusty islands with strange flat-headed pine trees and skinny goats. The next day they turned due east again, and arrived at a small port. The water was bright greenish blue, the buildings were of orange-brown brick, and the people were black-haired, black-eyed and nearly as brown as the buildings.

The captain called a conference to determine how to proceed. He and three other members of the crew knew a few words of the local language, although opinions differed on how exactly to joint and splice them into a sentence that might convey any particular thought. It being, according to the captain, “one of them languages with endings.”

Jenna summarised the timetable. “We took only thirteen days to get here from Kennis. Allowing for bad weather, it might take us twenty to get back, then three days by land from Kennis to the Summer Palace. We have to be at the Summer Palace in twenty five days with edible prawns or we might as well not bother. Which gives us a problem.”

“Prawns won’t keep for twenty five days.”

“Most likely not. So we wait here as long as we dare; we have to judge it fine. When we buy the prawns, we get the fattest, healthiest ones, and we buy them live. We put them in barrels of seawater, and try to keep them alive as long as we can. When they start to die, we cut north to the nearest coastal port where we can get ice, and we put them on ice. Then we're off as fast as the wind can take us home.”

“You are allowing three days from Kennis with a cart full of barrels,” pointed out Ashlin. “We can pack the prawns in ice and straw in a saddle bag and get them back in a day, at a pinch.”

There was some arguing back and forth, and eventually it was decided that they would risk four days in this fishing port, then buy the prawns and sail direct for a tiny fishing village on the extreme north-west corner of Andaro, where the crew were confident of getting ice, and if the prawns were still alive by then, so much the better.

What to do for four days in a fishing port? Justin’s first suggestion was met with a ferocious sort of silence by Jenna, until he fidgeted nervously and then withdrew it. Moderate drinking and gambling were assented to, it being perhaps more suspicious and likely to draw comment if a boat load of sailors from Atlar didn’t boost the local economy in that small way.

“But no fighting, no cheating at cards, no womanising. All of which amounts to: no causing conspicuous amounts of trouble. And no getting so drunk we have to go and look for you when it’s time to leave. Because we won’t.”

Purchases were made by pointing and holding up a coin estimated to be worth much less than the asking price. Haggling was done by looking puzzled and repeatedly offering the small coin. At least, the rest of the crew made purchases in that way. Ashlin showed sufficient respect for the locals to learn their numbers and make sincere enquiries as to prices. He was roundly and obliviously cheated in almost every transaction.

He found himself taking notes—habit possibly. He also found that he was enjoying himself immensely, looking at everything around him, sketching the different plants that grew along the shore, and forming naïve linguistic theories about how the sentences of southern Lingo de Andaro worked. The mysterious “endings” held no terrors for him. Most of his theories would have been no use to him whatsoever, even if accurate, any more than if he had attempted to communicate with Justin using a grammar book of Wester to parse his utterances.

The fourth day came, the prawns were negotiated for without haggling, and were judged sound and healthy. They were fine blue-grey creatures, as long as a man’s hand, with no evident monstrous characteristics. They were barrelled up and Justin threw a handful of seaweed in one of the barrels. “You never know,” he said.

“You generally don’t,” added Jenna. But she made a private note to observe whether that prawn died last or first, just in case.

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