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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36. Double X

“What’s a double-X code mean?” Ashlin asked Morsen, as they sorted through a heap of books that had been donated to the library at the bequest of a wealthy land-owner, and cross-checked the titles against the library index.

“There won’t be a double-X in that lot,” Morsen seemed to stop and visibly change direction mid-sentence, “because there is no such thing.”

“Silly me, the number began with 88 and the ink is very light.”

“Well, then.”

There was silence for a while, as books were sorted, and a numerical code constructed for each one. This was looked up in the index for duplicates, and to find out on which shelf the book should go.

“So, Morsen,” asked Ashlin, “what does a double-X code mean? And no point in lying again, because I saw how you glanced at the door to the basement. Where I assume the double-X books are kept.”

“Wrong. You are completely mistaken. Get back to work.”

That was the end of that discussion, at least while the last of the books were sorted, after which they began shelving them.

“Morsen,” asked Ashlin, from a ladder, “am I to assume that the basement is where we keep the index of the double-X books? I saw you glance at the index on the table when you said ...”

“Ashlin! Are you bored with this job?”

“No, I’m sorry Morsen. I’m just a little curious though. Are they that bad?”

“I am not allowed to say. And you are not allowed to ask, guess, infer or wheedle more information out of me. It’s exasperating. When I ask if you are bored with this job, I'm not threatening to sack you; genuinely, I want to know. Because I thought you had had enough of danger, and wanted a nice safe indoor job with convenient hours and no monsters.”

“Yes, I did. I do. So these double-X books are...never mind. You’re not allowed to say. And now—I think I don’t want to know.” Ashlin climbed down the ladder to fetch another book.

“Well, you won’t need to know, if you keep being an assistant librarian. It’s bad enough that I explained about the single-X books, and I hope you’ll keep that to yourself if anyone comes in looking for one.”

“I certainly will. Keep me out of all Doctor Grey’s schemes and twisted plots from now on, and I’ll thank you.”

“Ah, about that.”

“Oh, no.”

“He’s coming in today, about lunch time.”

“Then I’ll be out for lunch. I’ll take a long lunch, if it’s alright with you.”

“Not a problem, Ash. But hurry up and get that lot shelved first.”

 

Ashlin’s favourite place to go out for lunch was a small bakery and tea-shop on the main road up to the library. In summer, they put out a few tables in the street, but since Doctor Grey would most likely come this way, Ashlin decided to take a table inside, at the back. There he sat with his back to the door, and took his favourite lunch, a pork sandwich and a small pot of tea.

He leafed through a small book, which purported to describe the language and customs of faraway Andaro. It had been written over forty years ago, by a man who seemed to think a couple of weeks’ travel by land or sea qualified a neighbouring country for the adjective “faraway”. His description of the language was extraordinarily complicated. There were far more explanations of how individual obscure grammatical features had originated historically, than example sentences telling you how to buy a bottle of wine or ask your way around.

By comparison with what Ashlin had learned and guessed during his own brief trip, it seemed that there was a huge mismatch between the official language and how people actually spoke there. But this made sense, because Andaro was made up of dozens of dukedoms and principalities and city states along several hundred miles of coastline, all with different customs and dialects, intrigues and disputes, and all kept in line by their Empress Celandine. She was presumably some kind of beautiful but deadly warrior queen, or some lesser king’s terrifyingly strict old aunt.

Ashlin sat comfortably sipping tea, occasionally stopping to put his tongue in strange positions as he tried to work out what the author meant by a “palatalised consonant.” A man walked past his table, but he didn’t take notice (because the baker or various members of his family often walked in and out of the kitchen at the back) until the man sat down opposite.

“Ashlin, I thought I might find you here.”

“Doctor Grey, what an honour for you to come and see me. You shouldn’t have. And I mean that.”

Doctor Grey nodded.

“It’s a little after your usual lunch hour at the library, so I thought that since you were now back on duty we might as well talk here. It seems nice.” He raised a finger and caught the baker’s eye. “Another pot of tea here, please.”

“It is nice.” said Ashlin. “I have many happy memories of sitting in here, drinking tea, not being murdered or menaced by abominations. I would hate to spoil that.”

Doctor Grey nodded, his lips compressed, his brow creased.

“I understand. I am wondering whether I can ask you something, Ashlin, but I don’t want to upset you.”

“Perhaps if you think—as I do—that the answer to your request is likely ‘no’, you could avoid upsetting me by not asking. It would save yourself some time besides.”

“It’s not a request. Ashlin, what happened between you and Jenna?”

“That’s worse. I thought you'd come to ask me whether I wanted to hunt some more monsters for you. I could have avoided hurt entirely just by saying no, that way. It’s none of your business.”

“I’m worried it might have been my fault, because of the danger I put you both in.”

“No,” Ashlin sighed. “In a way that helped. Jenna went back to live with her mother and sisters. I went to stay in the same village. We courted for a while. It was sweet, and we were happy, I think. But her relations madden her beyond reason. Her mother liked me and was absolutely in favour of our marrying and settling down. That would have ended it there and then, if I’d been the sort of person Jen’s mum liked. But I think she really only liked the idea of Jen settling down, and for that purpose I was merely a kind of necessary furniture. Even so, you know what Jen’s like.”

Doctor Grey nodded, with a trace of a smile.

“So you separated?”

“She left. One day, she said she couldn’t stand it any more, and next day she’d gone, leaving me a short letter. She’d found another job, and she’d be gone for a month or so while she figured out what she wanted. Not me, apparently.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Hmm. I suppose your job at the library is both interesting and boring enough for you? Not thinking of travelling?” Doctor Grey indicated the language book.

“No. Maybe. Is the library built atop a secret vault full of dangerous monster-summoning double-X-coded books? Because in that case, yes. Far and fast.”

Doctor Grey looked astonished. He didn’t speak for a few seconds. The tea arrived, and he didn’t speak for a few more seconds, evidently gathering his thoughts. Ashlin wondered if it was time to begin making travel plans.

“Regarding that book you are reading,” the Doctor continued, changing the subject, “I remember when I first read it, some twelve years ago.”

Ashlin held it up. “This one? It’s almost impenetrable.”

“Yes. I had just received a letter in the language, written in large shaky characters, as though hurriedly or by a person quite disturbed and upset. The letter was not addressed to me; it had been enclosed in a diplomatic package from Andaro, addressed to the Regent. Naturally, Willem passed it to me because he didn’t know what to make of it.”

Doctor Grey sipped his tea.

“I managed to read it, with a little help from that book. Then I didn’t know what to make of it either. It was a request to the Regent of Atlar to recommend or supply a tutor for a young princess. A tutor who would be able to instruct her in astronomy, botany, chemistry, dancing, trigonometry, and so on. A whole paragraph of ologies and arts. I finally concluded that the uneven handwriting was not due to terror or illiteracy on the part of its writer. It was due to the fact that the writer was the princess herself, her being at that time around four years old.”

“What did you do?”

“I sent a tutor, and in spite of his not being qualified to teach all of those subjects (who could be?) he was accepted. The next letter from the princess was in slightly ungrammatical Wester, thanking me for sending the tutor and apologising for her first letter being in Andalingvo, because she had not learned my language before. This was only four weeks after he began teaching her, you understand.”

“Clever child. She will be a force to reckon with when she grows up and starts meddling in your political schemes.”

“She already is. It was Celandine of Andaro.”

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