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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37. Empress

A terrace, tiled in intricate patterns of coloured stone. Her servants, professional flatterers all, would have described them as “semi-precious” stones. But in her idle moments many years before, she had identified the coloured stones, scratching them with quartz or steel, testing them with vinegar from her salad. That red one, for example, was only a kind of iron ore. That green one was nothing in particular. You could find a ton of them on the beach if you wanted, although they did polish up quite prettily.

As did she.

And she had come to the conclusion early on, that the people calling her “precious”, who also called green dirt-stones “semi-precious”, were offering her a very half-hearted kind of flattery indeed.

But it was a bright summer day, and she had cool lemon drink, and a beautiful view of the Bay of Stolic. And she of all the people here was privileged to entertain the notion that maybe the genuinely precious stones hanging around her neck—though each was worth more than most of her subjects earned in a year—were, like the semi-precious ones under her feet, still just stones after all.

“Your Majesty, Our Lady Queen Celandine of the Kingdoms and Islands of Andaro---” began a voice behind her.

“Vaclavo, I know who I am.” She turned and saw her servant, who was in the full ceremonial bow: on one knee, head lowered, hand outstretched. The man hesitated. It was an awkward position to be in, to pause and decide whether to continue the formal greeting or not. She showed leadership in his time of crisis: “Who is our visitor?”

“An envoy from Doktoro Grej, Regent Counsel of Atlar, on a matter of state business.”

“Very well, send him out and bring another glass.”

“If it please your Majesty, the envoy is a woman,” Vaclavo said timidly, as though if it did not please her Majesty, he would attend to the matter at once, possibly ready at a moment’s notice to go to Atlar himself and bring an envoy of whatever sex or species Celandine required.

“Well, I suppose she must be what she is whether it pleases me or not. Although I’m sure I don’t mind either way. A glass too, remember. For the lemonade.”

A few moments later, the servant returned, with glasses on a tray, a small bowl of ice, too, and at his elbow a slight woman with short, dark hair and a cheerful, energetic look about her. She was dressed well, but more like a sailor than a diplomat.

“Your Majesty.” The envoy bowed. She looked uncertain, as though not sure if a bow was appropriate. But truth be told, Jenna Stane had never learned how to curtsey. A bow was simpler, and possibly a failed curtsey attempt would have damaged international relations.

“Welcome, please have some lemonade.” Celandine saw that Vaclavo was preparing two fresh glasses.

There was a moment more of awkwardness until Vaclavo retired to a polite distance.

“I thought Doctor Grey would be sending someone else entirely. I expected, in truth, that you would be a large and dangerous-looking man, perhaps with a bristling beard and scars on his face.”

Jenna smiled. “Well, we do have a few such, but they are currently required for other things. For my part, I expected your majesty to be ...”, she trailed off, embarrassed that she might be going wrong so soon. Damn it, Doctor Grey gave her very little preparation for this.

“Older?” Celandine swung her legs and drank a swig of lemonade. “Yes. People I meet for the first time often think that. They don’t all say it though. You would almost think I were some spoiled brat who would throw a tantrum and cut their heads off should they offend me.”

“You must be, what, sixteen?”

“Seventeen. Legally a grown woman, although a queen is I suppose expected to be a sort of adult even when she’s a little girl.”

“And do you often cut envoys’ heads off?”

“Ha, no. I have people to do that for me.” She laughed, and it wasn’t the terrifying laugh of someone who could say a thing like that and mean it. She could do that laugh too, but it wasn't called for today.

“To be honest, your majesty, Doctor Grey gave me quite a different impression of you. He said you were a most remarkable lady. The way he said it, I assumed he meant—I beg your pardon for saying—a most remarkable old lady.”

“Oh, the old rascal.”

“He does speak of your majesty with respect, as is due your position as queen of a great nation. I don’t mean to imply that he spoke otherwise. I think that is what confused me really, since he is a terrible one for being smug and superior about all people younger than himself. Which is most people, from what I gather.”

“Well, I’ve never met him in person, so I don’t know what a terrible old man he really must be, but he should speak of me with respect due to my own attributes, not my title. I am a genius you know, didn’t he mention?”

“No, I don’t think he did.”

“Well then, please allow me to invite you on a royal tour of my museum, and I will by and by tell you what your wildlife service can do for Andaro and its ridiculously bright young queen.”

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