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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24. Dinner Guests

There was a private meeting between Regent Willem and the Jarl, which took place soon after the latter’s arrival. Then there was a tour of the palace, and an inspection of the servants and the grounds. Ashlin was dressed in livery, which he had once thought meant clothes that were purply-brown like liver. In fact for the servants of the Summer Palace, they were a dull green, the same as the park rangers wore, but in a more indoor style, with less mud on them.

Ashlin tried to observe the Jarl out of one corner of his eye, while he stood among the rows of other servants being inspected in the courtyard. Ashlin had been expecting a fierce, cruel-looking man, but Olaf was tall and good-looking. He had armoured guards, and he himself dressed in light armour. Two servants followed him, carrying a helm and a great sword. His bearing was confident and his smile was charming. But that armour said: I am a warrior, and I am ready at all times for war.

The message was not lost on Willem, who looked a little worried as he led his guest between the rows of servants and introduced the Jarl to a number of the higher ranking bureaucrats of the Crown office, and one or two local lords.

Ashlin searched among them for the Regent Counsel, who was of course not there. He looked among the other dignitaries to see if he could pick out the unexpected ambassador whose arrival had complicated matters. He couldn’t see anyone who looked conspicuously foreign.

The Jarl shook one lord's hand and greeted him by name, although Ashlin was too far away to hear it.

Ashlin nudged the man next to him, discreetly. “Any idea who that is?” he whispered.

“Bern. Jarl supporter.”

“Green?” Ashlin looked again at the man at his side. The ranger looked almost unrecognisable, shaved and with combed hair, highly impractical half-length pantaloons and white stockings. Only his grim disposition had resisted being scrubbed off or tidied away, and he simmered with disgust.

Ashlin looked up and down the rows of servants. He recognised two coast guards, four other rangers, and no—surely not the very annoying ginger-haired accordion player from the morris dancers who used to practice outside his window? He couldn’t be sure about that last one, but even so, this was odd. Something nagged at the back of his mind. Something that had been said to him recently, maybe by Doctor Grey? It was gone.

“Better get along,” growled Green, when the servants were dismissed to continue their duties. He went over to talk to the four other rangers, all likewise dressed as footmen.

Ashlin saw Doctor Hopkin gesturing to him by the door beside the stables, so he stopped puzzling over the situation and trotted over.

“It’s time for the feast. Remember, watch and listen. Pour wine, avoid eye contact. Go in the servant’s door over there, and the butler will tell you where to stand.”

“Anyone I should keep a particular eye on? Lord Bern perhaps?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, but don’t stand there staring at anyone in particular. Serve wine. Be invisible, and see whatever there is to be seen.” The doctor waved him away.

The great hall of the Summer Palace was usually only used much in summer, it being almost impossible to heat for the rest of the year. It was too tall, and there were too many places the cold wind could get in. No doubt up in the rafters it was cosy enough, but at ground level, you had to be at the high table by the great fireplace at the top end of the hall, or you would be very uncomfortable. Fortunately it was a mild enough day, and in any case, there was only the high table to serve, there being only six people seated, and a place set for a seventh.

The first course was a stew, and Ashlin served a strong red wine to complement it. Nobody looked at him, and he took care to glance rather than stare. One by one, he formed opinions of the guests.

Regent Willem, second regent of Atlar, was a quiet man, maybe in his late fifties or a little older. He had inherited the position of Regent from his father. He picked at his stew, and looked often at ...

Jarl Olaf of Norfjord, direct cousin of the king of Norfjord, indirect and distant cousin of Atlar’s last king, Leonard the Mad. Ashlin noticed that one of the Jarl’s retinue, the man who bore his great sword, tasted the stew and the wine before the Jarl himself would eat. Interesting. A confident man with political and military support among the landowners, who nevertheless takes precautions against poison. And he talks with one of his local supporters ...

Lord Bern of Kennis. A supporter of the cause of royalty in general, and specifically, of a king who would side with the landowners and nobles against the merchants, civil servants, poor people and other trouble-makers. He appeared to be slightly drunk. His face was flushed, and his eyes watery, bloodshot. He gazed around, unfocused. He suddenly looked directly at Ashlin, who immediately lowered his eyes, and poured wine for ...

Somebody whose name he didn’t know, but he was something high up in the customs and excise office. So maybe Bern’s fierce look had been intended for the tax collector. This man was tucking into his stew with a will, and after draining his cup quickly, he held it up again for Ashlin to re-fill it. Ashlin turned back and did so.

There was also a representative of the merchants, a ship-builder or ship-owner. Ashlin didn't know his name either. He was deep in conversation with a Lord Garmon, who wasn't very high-ranking but had inherited a lot of desolate forest land on the Norfjord border, and they were discussing how to most profitably cut it all down and turn it into ships.

When all the guest's cups were full, Ashlin paused at the empty place setting. He looked to the butler, who gave the slightest shake of the head, so Ashlin withdrew to the side of the room.

Jarl Olaf turned back to the Regent, and gestured to the empty place. “So, we await another guest. When does he arrive? And for that matter, who is he?”

Willem looked very uncomfortable.

“I am sorry, but I don’t know when to expect---” he noticed a footman down at the other end of the hall, waving in a rather rough manner not in keeping with etiquette, and pointing at the doors. “I think our final guest may be arriving now.”

There was a sharp tap at the doors, they were pulled open, and the final guest appeared.

He was tall, of indeterminate age. His eyes and his hair were a bright pale turquoise. Behind him, two similar men attended him, one with hair and eyes like copper, another steel grey. They wore clothes of silk, matching their hair colours, fitted with curved plates that would have been armour, if they were not apparently made of polished wood. Their features were thin, severe, pointed.

“Ambassador Luagh of the Fer Shea, and his brothers,” announced someone, into the silence that descended. The words echoed round the hall for a bit on their own, before they had the company of a ringing clatter, as Lord Bern dropped his spoon.

“What is the meaning of this? Is this an insult?” asked Jarl Olaf, looking directly at Regent Willem. He didn’t roar it. He just asked it.

“No, I assure you. Nothing is meant by it.” He rose. “Welcome, Ambassador. I am sorry we were unable to prepare a proper reception, for we did not know the time you might arrive, but please, sit and eat with us.”

The butler directed the next course to be served, roast boar. He oversaw the breaching of a cask of cider, which Ashlin was to distribute. Ashlin did so, carefully trying harder than ever not to stare, but under the circumstances, he probably would not be raising any suspicions if he had.

“Story time again,” he thought to himself. “Once upon a time, Elves came to dinner.” All of them bearing a more than a passing family resemblance to Doctor Grey.

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