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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40. Genius Problems

Derk was on the deck of the Green Lady when Jenna returned to the quay, after an exhausting day trailing around the museum. Her head was filled with hundreds of half-remembered facts. It had been interesting, but a nervy experience. Celandine’s mind would jump from discussing fossilised bones, to the layout of Jenna’s village and where exactly her house would have been if the village had been transported into the museum’s great hall, then on to politics, then spiders, and finally to the reason for summoning an adviser from Atlar’s wildlife service.

It was quite an alarming reason.

“Ahoy, Captain Sands,” she shouted.

“Are we going ashore for dinner now?”

“No, I’m coming aboard.”

The Green Lady was a large yacht or a small ship, with a crew of twelve. Derk called it a ketch, but it wasn’t clear to Jenna why; something to do with the sails. It bore the green and white flag of the Atlar Coast Guard, and a diplomatic flag that was similar but had an extra crown on it. Derk had hardly been off her all the time she was in port, as though he feared that she might decide to sink spontaneously at any time, and this being his first commission as captain of a ship, he was ready at a moment’s notice to stand on her bridge until she went under.

Derk met her as she stepped onto the deck. “You were gone quite a while.”

“Yes.”

“Queen keep you waiting a long time?”

“No.”

“Something bothering you?”

“Yes.” Jenna waited until they were in the captain’s cabin and shut the door.

“First of all, I’m sorry, Derk, but I think we are in some kind of trouble. I’m not sure you want to hear about it. Just for a what-if: if you were involved in somebody’s murder, indirectly and without meaning it, would you want to know all about it, say six months later?”

“Would there be anything I could do about it?”

“No.”

“Would there be prosecutors pursuing me? I’d probably want to know about that.”

“I don’t know. The murder is discovered, the means and the motive are known. The prosecutor is frighteningly clever and you can’t tell whether she knows you were personally involved or not.”

“This is getting worryingly specific.”

“Yes.”

“Are you saying we should leave with the next tide and make a run for home? Because although I have always happened to leave with the next tide---that’s what you do---I’ve always wanted to announce it dramatically, and have the crew jump into action. Only thing is, I think we have about two hours to wait if we’re going to do that.”

“No.” Jenna sat and thought. “We are here to advise Queen Celandine about something wildlife-related. Doctor Grey wouldn't have sent us to do this if he thought we couldn't help in some way. I hope. I am to return to the palace tomorrow and give my best answer. We can then either stay and help further, or return home.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Unexplained deaths. Mostly wildlife, but this last few months, increasing numbers of people. It’s happening up in the pine forests in the north.”

“Another monster?”

“I don’t know. It started with small game and other wild animals in the woods. Then some livestock. Then villagers, and traders on the west road.”

“Bandits, maybe?”

“Not impossible, but I think some of the local bandits have been getting killed too. The thing is, people are being killed, but neither eaten nor robbed. They are found dead and rotting.”

“Do we know how they die?”

“Some might have been injured by animals, some have a fatal fall from horseback. For some, they are quite badly decomposed when they get found so it’s hard to tell. An entire village got so terrified that they all left and came south, saying it was an ancient curse. If you ask me, it might be a disease, or it might be a monster. Either way, I don’t want to get too close to it.”

“So we say, ‘sorry, can’t help,’ and we go home.”

“It’s not that simple. The queen is quite pleasant to talk to formally, but rather frightening when she gets you alone.”

“How do you mean?”

“I don't know. Odd. Intense. Unpredictable. I don't know what happens if we refuse her. Doctor Grey is all secret subtle schemes, minor adjustments to how things work. With gentle nudges and barely noticeable winks he can keep a balance of power between factions and somehow manipulate each side into demanding that the Regent does what Doctor Grey wanted done all along. He operates as the almost anonymous adviser to a Regent with very little real political power. Everything has to be done carefully, indirectly, inconspicuously.”

“And the queen?”

“She’s much more direct, to say the least. She’s an empress with an army and a navy, no political opposition at home, and ridiculous resources to draw upon. Did I mention, she’s also terrifyingly clever? I get the impression that Doctor Grey has been trying to manage her like the other factions, but failing. She’s not a piece on the game board. She’s a grandmaster.”

“Then we say, ‘yes of course we’ll help, your majesty,’ take a quick look in the woods, go with the old scream-and-run-away plan, then home again.”

“It’s not that simple either.”

“Is it any kind of simple?”

“Most likely not. All the way back here from the palace, I’ve been making lists in my head of what might be going on. As usual, I don’t have enough to go on. I’ve been trying to think: if I were a genius with a huge army and had a little spot of bother on my northern border, what would I do?”

“Can you do that, Jen? To know what a genius would do, wouldn’t you have to be a genius?”

Jenna sniffed. “I might come to the same answer. It might take me a bit longer, is all.”

“Ah, well, on you go then. What answer did you come to?”

“I’d get together a few hundred heavily-armed men and send them to take a look.”

“Yes, fair enough.”

“So, assuming the queen came to that answer much sooner than I did, why is she sending out to Doctor Grey for help, who she knows doesn’t have an army, and isn’t even as much of a genius, instead of sending her own soldiers?”

“Maybe she did send an army.”

“Yes Derk, maybe she did. And maybe they didn’t come back.”

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