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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20. Politics and its Teeth

Politics has teeth. Ashlin pondered this as they put out to sea from the north-eastern port of Kennis. Justin was right, it seemed. Politics got people killed. Even so, there was no getting away from it. You had to have someone taking care of it, preferably someone who knew what they were doing. If it was done ineptly, more people died---of starvation, or war, or a thousand simple uncorrected follies.

Ashlin's father hadn’t been able to read, and although he knew a lot about iron, he knew little of the world outside his village. And nothing about healing. He had died relatively young, of a scratch which wasn’t cleaned, and which festered, and so took him away from his family for ever.

Ashlin's grandma had been able to read a little, and had read to him once when he was young. She also told him many a tale that she couldn’t have read anywhere in the few books she had seen, tales either handed down or made up on the spot. Like that one about the coast guard and the fishing boats before the Great Wave, all putting out to sea for no apparent reason, an unmotivated and coincidentally lucky flotilla acting in concert on the King’s Orders. Actually, the king had already been dead at the time. Odd, that.

Politics and its teeth were gnawing at his childhood now, making his beloved grandma seem like a foolish old lady, and taking away one of her stories he had loved so much.

“Captain Griston, a foolish question if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all, Ash lad. I am well accustomed to ’em. Ho there, Derk Sands! I despair of you sometimes. Put that down and let a sailor do it.” He railed at his crew cheerfully and without ill-humour.

“Well, the question is about a matter of history,” Ashlin asked, hesitantly, “I know it will have been long before your time, but perhaps you’ve heard stories about the Great Wave?”

“One of the hazards of the job, lad.”

“Great waves?”

“Tall tales.”

Ashlin proceeded anyway. “About the day the coast guard and all the fishing boats sailed out to sea. I heard they did, anyway. On the, um, dead king’s orders, was it?”

“Ahh ha ha ha!” The Captain roared cheerfully for several seconds. “Oh, yes indeed.”

“Well?”

“Let me tell you how it was when I heard it. About a week after the king died, and all the folk were commanded to attend his funeral way up there in the mountains, the coast guard were ordered to keep all the fishing boats in port. The customs men were boarding everything, taking fish up for the funeral party. The harbour master was refusing to let anyone sail. And this was all the ports up the west coast, mind, but not over here on the Inner Sea. And then a few days later, word goes out.”

“Word of what?”

“Annesty. Complete tax annesty, on any deep sea fish caught in the next week. In honour of the late king. My, you couldn’t have held those boats back for any price. Even fishing families that were going to have gone to the funeral changed their plans and put their boats out that very day.”

“A tax amnesty, eh?”

“Oh, yes. Now taxes had been high for months, the way I heard it. Terrible high.”

“I don’t suppose the fishermen would have all put out to sea, just on the king’s orders?”

The captain laughed again.

“Not any fishermen I’ve ever met. Especially with the king being a week dead. What was he going to do about it, I should like to know?” He was more serious then. “And it was a good thing too, because not one in ten of the shipping that set off that day was lost in the wave, and not one was spared of any that stayed in port.”

“Somebody knew the wave was coming.” Ashlin stated it as simple fact. “And knew exactly what to do to get the boats far out of the way, and bring them back a week later loaded with fish to feed the survivors.”

“That he did, lad.”

Jenna came up behind them and leaned over the railing, looking into the water. “Story time?”

How long had she been listening?

“Story time’s over, lass. I’ve got things to make people do. Derk!” The captain glided evenly over the rocking deck in search of his favourite victim.

“Story time is far from over, Ash. A story about a monster, if you please.”

“There’s not much to tell, and I don’t understand most of it.”

“I’m the clever one in this team. You do the telling, and let me do the understanding.” She grinned.

“I thought you were the pretty one?”

“That’s Justin, though isn’t it? He’s looking so dignified with that grey coming in at his temples.” They laughed. Then: “Monster story, now. No more changing the subject, Ash.”

He gathered his thoughts.

“There’s a kind of ... thing. It’s a monstrous thing, but I'm having trouble imagining what it is from Doctor Grey's explanation. It might not actually be a solid thing you could see. It’s like a monster that makes monsters. It tries to come into the world, press itself onto the world and make its own shape on the things here.”

“Like cutting out fancy biscuits with one of those metal things?” Jenna wasn’t particularly domestic.

“Probably it’s more complicated than that. Anyway, it hates. It rages. It hungers. Wherever it touches the world, it makes things wrong. It made that giant badger, or at least used it once it had been made. Doctor Grey didn’t say what he suspected of how it happened. But he had been waiting for it for a long time, because that’s what the badger survey was for, originally. To look out for some strange thing, that somehow somebody knew would come in the form of a badger. And that mysterious somebody was sure that whatever strange badger appeared was probably something to do with that monster. That world-eating wrong thing.”

“Somebody knew? I’ve got a guess about who.”

Ashlin looked up, with an enquiring expression.

“Two guesses actually. Maybe three. As usual all are highly unlikely.”

“You and your endless lists of guesses.”

“Improves the chances that at least one of them is right.” She didn’t seem like she was going to tell him what they were yet. “So, this prawn plan, how do you think it relates to the monster?”

“Maybe it doesn’t.” Not very hopefully.

“Everything Doctor Grey asks us to do seems to be tied to ten other things he hasn’t told us about. It’s most irritating.”

Ashlin ventured, “So, on the bright side, there’s only a one in ten chance that it’s something to do with the monster he has told us about?”

That earned him a little smile, which turned back to a frown as Jenna looked out over the water.

“If we get to Andaro and I’m expected to take delivery of a damn great giant prawn with shark teeth and octopus arms, I am going to be so put out.”

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