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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46. Pretexts and Plaintext

Doctor Grey was about to go through the day’s usual paperwork, resting on top was a letter. The handwriting on it was perfectly regular and elegant, and he recognised it with immediate displeasure. It bore the royal seal of Andaro, in dark-red wax, with the shape of a small crown embedded in it, picked out in silver leaf.

He opened it.

“To the learned Doctor Grey, Adviser to the Regent of Atlar,”

“I hope this letter finds you well. The friendly relations between our two countries as always ...”

Doctor Grey sighed: one of those letters. He fetched a piece of paper and a pencil, and began counting along the letters of the missive, permuting and shifting letters according to the pre-agreed scheme indicated by Celandine’s use of the word “learned” in the salutation. It took him half an hour. He wondered how long it had taken her to compose the letter. She probably had done the calculations in her head, at one sitting, without the risk of leaving an incriminating copy of the plain text.

What are you doing? You sent me a very interesting girl to help investigate my problem. I think you did that on purpose, because you thought I would like and trust her. Well, I did. She has almost no guile at all; she let slip that she was involved in the plot to kill Olaf. I ask for help and you send me a regicide, one that is careless enough to admit it to my face. Are you threatening me?

And now I hear you are trying to help your boy Willem retire early. I thought we had an agreement. I almost feel like it is time for a state visit. You know, the kind where my state comes to visit yours, and perhaps outstays its welcome long enough to make things go my way.

But no, that would be rude, and your envoy has been earnestly trying to help, even if you intended otherwise. I worry slightly that I may have sent her to get killed. I hope your conscience is not too troubled by that.

“Awful child. What little you know about my conscience!”

He crumpled up his version of the letter and threw it into the fire. Then he stabbed at it with a poker until the ashes had crumbled completely and mixed into the embers.

He hoped Ashlin had found Jenna, and could keep her out of trouble. Or vice versa. He wished he had received Justin’s letter earlier; then he could have sent Celandine some useful information, and not a potential victim of her amoral appetite for it. But hoping and wishing don’t get things done. That is what planning is for. He began composing a reply.

Please accept my apologies for not thinking deeply enough. Had I known your majesty would interpret my assistance on quite so many levels, I would have sent a less alarming envoy, albeit regrettably, a less capable one. If she comes to harm, it will be a great loss to our wildlife service, and severely hamper my ability to assist you in the future.

Re our agreement: the regency will endure for now but Willem will not name a successor. Sooner or later you will have a republic on the borders of your empire, an example of a thriving one with a literate population. That is all I threaten you with. If you attempt to force matters, a republic will still arise, but you should realise that an unstable republic that falls into disorder and bloodshed will also set an example to your people that you may not like.

I would be honoured to receive your majesty on a state visit, and would gladly take the opportunity to put her over my knee that we might discuss respect for one's elders.

He scored out the last paragraph. Celandine could read between the lines better than anyone, and it was already going to be a chore to encode a letter this wordy. He added:

Another piece of the puzzle has come to me, and I urge caution in entering the northern forests. If you have sent my envoy into harm’s way there, then please send her some competent help, not just soldiers. Know that I have done so also.

With considerable effort, he composed a plausible-sounding but bland reply to the original letter, with the true message embedded within it. Then he burned his notes and summoned a servant to see to the letter's delivery, as rapidly as could be managed.

It frustrated him. At the back of his mind he felt certain that there should be a faster way of communicating. Words weigh nothing and take up no space in themselves. In principle, it should cost nothing to move them as fast and as secretly as you liked.

He made a note to set the trade schools on to the task, and dedicate a moderate sum of money to a prize for useful advances in signalling. But he knew he was only trying to bargain with fate. In five years they might be able to somehow send letters to Andaro in a day, but he very much feared it would be too late by then to save all the lives that were in danger now.

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