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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18. Errand Boys

A small coach arrived at the gatehouse of the Summer Palace, and three figures climbed down from it. They were dressed in shabby outdoor clothing without the dark-green hoods of the rangers, but they were admitted readily after a brief squabble over who had been carrying a letter they eventually found and showed to the guard.

Once in the courtyard of the palace, they argued about which way to go. This seemed likely to continue for some time, when they were hailed loudly from the direction of the stables.

“Jenna! Justin! Derk!”

“Ash? Ash!”

Ashlin jogged, a little unevenly on his bad leg, across the courtyard, and the others abandoned their packs and ran over to greet him. They shook his hand and slapped him on the back, and Jenna even gave him a quick hug.

“How’s the leg?” She looked at him with, what, concern? Sympathy?

“Not as bad as it looks. It gets a bit worse in this wet weather. What are you all doing here?”

“Looking for GIANT BADGERS!”, they replied in unison, laughing. Justin laughed a little less heartily than the others, it has to be said.

“No, really.”

“Well, as usual, we don’t know,” said Jenna. “We get sent around the countryside a lot, but don't survey anything. Apparently the Badger Survey is to be reorganised in some way. It seems that after eight decades of diligent research, there is suddenly no particular need to keep reporting on the movements of badgers. Or counting them. What we're actually for has not been explained to us.” She shrugged. “So at least that hasn't changed.”

Justin scratched at his stubbly chin.

“We’re errand boys now, is what it is.”

“Also,” added Derk, “it’s possible that technically I’m fully back in the Coast Guard, because we have to run an errand that is something to do with that. We find out today.”

“But,” Ashlin objected, “we’re up in the mountains, easily fifty miles from the sea. I don’t think you can get much further from it than here.”

Jenna nodded. “Not surprisingly, this errand is looking every bit as suspicious as another one I seem to remember from six months ago. I made another list of possible explanations and to save time, guessed it will be the most ridiculous one.”

“Which is?”

“We came all this way, as you say, fifty miles from the nearest coast, to be sent off on a sea voyage.”

“So, not another monster hunt?”

Derk laughed. “No. We struck that one out right away as too likely.”

After gathering up their bags, they went in to the stables, Ashlin made some tea, and they caught up on what everyone had been doing. In Ashlin’s case, mostly minor pieces of iron working. The others had indeed been mostly running errands for the various branches of the Atlar bureaucracy. The Badger Survey office was closed pending some more permanent decision on what to do with them.

A green-hooded ranger strode out of one of the palace side doors and looked around. He caught sight of them and strode over.

“You three here about the delivery?”

“What delivery? I mean, I don’t know. We haven’t been told yet,” said Jenna.

“Possibly, though,” added Derk.

“Well, then,” the ranger said, with apparent displeasure, “come on.”

He led them towards the door he had just come from. He stopped and looked at Ashlin. “You too.”

Ashlin was happy to accompany his friends, and curious. But not entirely convinced that a monster hunt could be ruled out on the grounds of being too likely.

They were led up many flights of steps and along quite a length of corridor decorated with tapestries and portraits, to a door which opened into a large and comfortable office. Incongruously, it contained an ornate wooden bed frame on the right hand side, with a fireplace on the left. Under a window in the wall facing them was a desk, and at that desk sat Doctor Grey.

“Come in.”

“You wanted to see me too?” asked Ashlin, hanging back at the doorway.

“Yes. For one thing, Ashlin, I wanted to tell you that I’m not going to continue trying to persuade you to take back your old job.”

“I hope that's because you are pleased with my iron-working, and that this isn’t going to be about politics.”

Justin visibly flinched.

“A little of both. As of some time in the next week or so, the badger survey will be suspended entirely, I’m sorry to say. The council of landowners already feel there was very little justification for the surveying of badgers in the first place, and soon it will be drawn to their attention that of late, the budget of the Royal Badger Survey of Atlar has been expended on performing trivial tasks and running unimportant errands.”

“Errands you sent us on,” pointed out Jenna, stung by the implication that her chosen career was being disparaged by the high and mighty council of landowners, vindicating her own lower and less mighty relatives in their opinions. “And I suppose it will be drawn to their attention by you too?”

“Hardly so. Others will point out the problem, then I will advise the Regent on how to correct it. There is always on hand a ready supply of people willing to point out the failings of others. Any one of them will do; such detractors who lack any specific talent of their own are essentially interchangeable.”

“So we’re fired then. Back to sea for me, I suppose,” sighed Derk, not really seeming in the least concerned either way.

“No and yes. You are none of you fired. You are now employees of the Royal Wildlife Service of Atlar, under the same management structure as the Rangers of the Queen’s Parks. This will be deemed more efficient, and a solution to the problem of bureaucratic redundancy that has so lately plagued the Crown Office.”

“I see,” said Ashlin, “and since I am already working here doing odd jobs for Green and his rangers, my employment status has essentially not changed while still,” he paused, “Still I feel that I am getting drawn back into something dangerous.”

“Does this mean we are working for that surly bastard Green now?” asked Justin, the very picture of a surly bastard himself, and completely unconscious of the fact.

“You are working for the Crown and I will expect you to take that seriously. In any case by the time the survey is suspended, you will have already been sent on one last entirely ridiculous errand that will force me to take the action I have just laid out, so for the time being you three will be working under the instructions of Stane here, and she will be taking those instructions from me.”

“No and yes, eh? No, we’re not fired and yes ...” Derk mused.

“Oh no,” said Jenna, quicker to apprehend the situation.

“And yes, back to the sea with you, Mr Sands. To sea with all of you.”

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