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.


7. Nothing to Worry About

An interlude followed of packing and organising: Ashlin running over to the coach house to arrange the time of departure, Jenna negotiating for pies and ale from the King’s Folly to be carried away as a packed lunch, and Justin preparing the badger-surveying equipment.

This included oilskin-bound notebooks, a spring balance for weighing anything up to a medium-sized badger in a sack, dark pencils, bandages for anyone stupid enough to try to put a medium-sized badger in sack, long waterproof coats, and three flasks of brandy. The brandy wasn't official badger-surveying equipment---all three flasks were stowed in Justin’s long waterproof coat, which reached below his knees.

Eventually, it was time to depart.

The coachman informed them that if they left this late in the day, it would be two overnight stays instead of one, and that was extra. Since the extra was being charged to the Crown Office, and since that sounded like extra ale and extra repose before beginning their inexplicable task, those terms were agreeable and the coach left an hour before sunset.

“I can tell you, I don’t like this much,” said Jenna, as they rattled along the first leg of their journey.

“Derk, do you mind swapping places with Jenna? Although to be fair we should all have to take our turn sitting next to Justin.”

“Not that, although there is that too. But still, I don’t suppose it’s much better to sit facing him either. What I mean is, the office sending us off with a hamper of pies, and standing us a round of ale and soft beds and a hearty breakfast.” She looked out the window towards the fiery clouds still lingering above where the sun had lately dipped itself into the sea. “It’s too much like the condemned man’s last meal.”

“They ought to, Jen. They can’t expect us to pay for it,” said Justin. “They want the job done, they have to cover the expenses. We was always working away in those wet woods, with hardly a dry stick to burn in the fireplace when we got back, and never complaining.” This last claim was egregiously untrue. “They owes us some comfort and expense, I reckon.”

Jenna gave him a sidelong glance, and replied directly to Ashlin, unwilling to concede a point made by Justin.

“But exactly! For years now, we’ve done the job on not very good pay, and it’s been hard to squeeze even a penny more out of them for anything we need to do the job properly. The last big expense was that stupid spring balance, just before Roger, um, retired, and then we still had to club together to buy our own bandages.”

“Is it not usual, then, to go on trips like this?” asked Derk, looking puzzled as usual.

“No. No, not at all. What did you think the Badger Survey did, when you applied for this job? And actually, how did you apply for the job, Derk?” Ashlin was beginning to have suspicions about that, now he came to think of it, “I don't remember anyone saying we were recruiting.”

“Oh, I didn’t apply. I’m not joining the Badger Survey really. I’m just ... attached to it for a while? I think Doctor Grey said attached. I’m really an ensign in the Coast Guard.”

The other occupants of the coach gave this proper consideration, trying to make sense of it, or in Justin’s case, trying to think of any dirty joke about sailors appropriate to the occasion. Despite his very loose understanding of appropriateness in general, he was unable to come up with anything, and contented himself with a wondering utterance of, “Bollocks, you say.”

“Now Ash, tell me you like the sound of that.”

Actually, he did a little. The crashing waves, the freedom of the open sea and the open sky, combined with the proximity of dry land and good seafood and occasional rum. It was probably more cold and miserable than surveying badgers most of the time, but the chance to assist shipping in distress and meet new people from faraway lands did appeal to him, filtered through the favourable presentation that such notions were given in adventure stories that he used to love as a boy.

And also, when he was a boy, his grandma had told him one particular tale. On the day before the Great Wave, the fishing boats had been all commanded to go far out to sea on the King’s Orders, for no apparent reason, escorted by the Coast Guard. As a consequence they had nearly all survived to return in the aftermath, rescue survivors, and begin the work of getting the port back in good order. To Ashlin then, the coast guard was a somewhat heroic and romantic organisation.

However, he was at a loss to understand why one of the younger and not overwhelmingly heroic-seeming coast guards was accompanying the badger survey into the countryside on an unprecedented commission to survey one particular badger.

“It's odd, but I expect it's nothing to worry about. Perhaps it is a budgetary artifice, such that by involving the Coast Guard, this survey can be financed out of a different purse, one with maybe looser strings?” He looked to Derk, hopefully.

“Not likely, from what my old captain says about budgets and so on. To hear him talk you’d think that purse was done up in 2 inch hawsers, knotted wet.”

This new information was absorbed.

“What’s to worry about?” said Justin at length. “We find this badger, or don’t. If we find it, we survey it and come home. If we can’t find it, we have a few good dinners at the expense of the Crown and then come home. The Crown not sitting on any particular Head just this moment, it don’t have anything more useful to do than stand us a dinner or two.”

“Derk,” said Jenna, after letting that piece of political philosophy go by without comment, “Ash has been in this line of work for four years, and I have for five. Justin for even longer, but he never does any work, so never mind him. The two of us have skills. Useful badger-surveying skills.” She said this almost defensively, as though for the past five years she had been daily fending off hints that she was pursuing a pointless line of work with no usefulness to anyone, and should give it up and get married like all her sisters did.

“Doctor Grey isn’t a fool, and he probably brought you in for good reason, although it is most likely not a reason we’re going to like. So what is it that you bring to the job?”

Derk, probably taking this question rather too literally, answered, “This,” and reaching into the canvas bag at his feet, drew out a foot-long, barbed, steel harpoon head.

“Anything to worry about now, Ash?” Jenna challenged him, her dark eyes very wide and clear in the darkening coach, with glints of fire in them from the last of the sunset.

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