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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52. Moonrise

It was an uneventful voyage, nautically speaking. Jenna and Ashlin seemed to have a lot to talk about. They spent a lot of time on the port railing, watching the coastline change day by day as they headed south. Spruces and birch gave way to oaks and maples and fields of cabbages, then tall poplars and vineyards appeared, then larger and larger towns as they approached the capital. Derk didn’t like to interrupt them, so he kept himself busy captaining the ship. Justin was unusually quiet, and seemed uneasy. He hardly spoke to anyone except Doctor Hopkin, and avoided eye contact.

On the last night before they were due to arrive at Stolic, Justin turned down a game of cards, and went outside to stand at the bow of the ship by himself.

“Someone needs to talk to Justin,” opined Jenna, putting down her cards and standing up to follow him.

“If you mean, you need to ask him about the incident at Lord Bern’s mansion, then I don’t recommend it,” said Doctor Hopkin. “I’ve had a talk with him, and he’s not clear enough about what happened to satisfy your curiosity. It would only do harm to, er, badger him with questions, as it were.”

To give him credit, he seemed embarrassed with that particular choice of words.

“What can you tell us, then?” Jenna asked.

“If it’s right to talk about it behind his back,” interrupted Ashlin.

“No, I don’t think it’s fair.”

“Well, this is going to be a problem,” Jenna said, irritably. “All the years I’ve known Justin, he’s been loudmouthed, drunken, insensitive, lazy and a huge liability. Now he’s moping around quietly, causing no trouble to speak of, and won’t even let me beat him at cards. I feel like I’ve lost a friend.”

“He saved us from losing a lot more than that,” said Derk.

Jenna looked to Ashlin.

“Well, you then, Ash. You’re good at this sort of thing. Can’t you at least let him know we’re grateful for him saving us, and we don’t care about ... I don’t know.” She frowned. “It’s not like the rest of us are exactly normal, after all this.”

Doctor Hopkin nodded. “Ash, if he wants to talk, listen. If he doesn’t, then leave him alone.”

Ashlin went out onto the deck. Justin was watching the half moon rising over the coast. The sea was black with a silver-gold trail twinkling under the moonlight.

“Funny, that. I’ve always been a little bit afraid of the moon,” Justin said as Ashlin leaned on the railing beside him.

Ashlin waited.

“But now, I know that full-moon stuff is all bollocks.” Justin turned to Ashlin and for a moment his eyes reflected the moonlight weirdly. “I’ve always been a ’were, under the surface, according to the Doc. And it’s nothing to do with moonlight. Nor my mum being frightened by a badger or anything. It’s in yer mind. Nobody knows why, nobody knows who has a bit of a beast in them.”

He was quiet for a while, and looked away, his hands tight on the railing.

“So imagine what I thought of myself when those Beast Man arseholes were chanting and getting ready to murder us all, and trying to summon ... whatever ... and I was called.” He spat over the railing.

“We don’t think that of you,” Ashlin said, “you saved us. Whatever Bern was calling, he wasn’t calling for a rescue. He wasn’t calling for a hero.”

“A hero, eh. No thanks.”

“If it makes you feel better,” ventured Ashlin, “I don’t think that idiot Bern understood what he was calling. He’d had power all his life, unearned, unquestioned, just given to him for being born to the right father, and he thought all power was the same. He expected all power to be something that can be controlled by a rich man telling it what to do. He didn't call you: your friends needed you.”

“It doesn’t make me feel better. But I’ll get over it.” Justin sighed.

They watched the moonlight for while.

“I miss the survey, Ash. You think Doctor Grey might find me something else useless to do that means I can walk about in the woods, count a few badger droppings, have a few pints and just not get involved in all this politics ever again?”

“God above and below, Justin, I really hope so. I really hope he can find me something like that too.”

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