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.


12. Rank and Duty

Yes, yes, and no, to the questions: Are you really the vicar of this parish? Were you in the Badger Survey when you were younger? Do you know what the damned hell is going on?

Dennis hefted the short sword, twirled it round with a motion of wrist and fingers that Ashlin couldn’t quite follow, and jammed it into the bedside table with a cheerful disregard for the shabby dignity of the Royal Suite.

“I came here to be the vicar of Little Sedge soon after I left the church school. I was at that time, and I suppose I probably still am, also an employee of the Royal Badger Survey. Not a paid employee these days, not these two decades or so, but under standing instructions. And duty is duty.” Vicar Dennis smiled, and clasped his hands piously. “My current duty being mostly to be a vicar, and only in the very unlikely circumstance which, I am astonished to say, seems to prevail right now, to break cover as it were and get back to my badger-bothering ways.”

“Badger ... bothering?”

“That’s what they used to call us. Badger-botherers. You may think your chosen career is under-appreciated these days, with your modest resources and humorous agriculture-related justifications for even existing. Let me tell you, back when I started, we had shiny bronze badges. We carried swords. We had papers authorising all manner of intrusions into every aspect of country life. We had hundreds of surveyors, with military-sounding ranks from survey-private up to surveyor-colonel.” He chuckled.

“You were more respected, then?”

“We were ridiculous.”

“But you were posing as a vicar ... I don’t quite understand.”

“Politics. Seeing that we couldn’t sustain that kind of budget, or justify all the things we were doing, and seeing that probably only the Regent Counsel himself actually knew why we were doing it, we had to be diminished, and put into the background. All the surveyor-colonels were pensioned off or dismissed for corruption. And we got on with the important part of the job, which we could probably do all the better for doing it quietly and keeping out of everyone’s way.”

“Were so many of them corrupt?”

“What? The colonels? I suppose not. Politics again. They had to be seen to be dismissed for corruption, because so many of the merchants and landowners believed the whole thing was a waste of taxes, an absurdity only comprehensible to them as a club of civil servants conspiring to stuff each other’s pockets. The facts were beside the point: the story had to match the expectations of those who needed to be convinced. Nobody actually got imprisoned for corruption.”

“My grandma told me not to become a badger-botherer.”

“Wise lady. If you’d listened to her your leg would be in fair shape today, I expect. Of course, Justin would be dead.” Dennis said this with his same pleasant, inoffensive vicar-smile, but his eyes were green ice. “Duty is duty. It so happens you are lucky enough to be doing yours, whether you knew it or not.”

Ashlin thought about this for a while.

“The monster. Will it be buried, burnt, taken back to the capital for study?”

“Burnt. Burning now, with three strong men cutting more firewood as we speak.”

“Then, my duty is to make notes and bring them back to the office.” A flame of pain licked out of the banked coals under his kneecap. “Ow. How long until I can travel?”

“I would say a couple of weeks, and you should really take four. Justin will be able to walk before you can, but all in all he’s in a bad shape, and probably shouldn’t do anything strenuous for at least three weeks.”

“He’ll be delighted to hear that, I’m sure.”

“No doubt he’s already delighted to be here at all.” More green ice in those eyes.

“You think I’m not taking this seriously.”

“Are you, Ash?”

“Yes I am, Dennis. I just haven’t had forty years to think all the implications through. I was all prepared to resign my position and go back into the family trade, bored to distraction as I was with following badger tracks around the woods and ... and for other reasons I had had enough of it all. I get persuaded to stay on for one more month, that I might go on a short badger-related trip which promises to be a little more interesting, before I make up my mind whether or not to leave. Then this.”

He breathed deeply.

“I’m sorry, my leg is hurting again. I shouldn’t be angry with you.”

A nod, a vicarly smile.

“Then, this. Pain, and terror, and duty. I cannot imagine how you think I---how anyone could not take this seriously. But it is making up my mind very clearly to resign after all, even more firmly than before. Pain and terror will have that effect.”

“And duty?” Dennis poured out a cup of water from the jug by the bed, and added a carefully-measured two drops of brownish liquid from a small bottle. “Here, take this for the pain and sleep again.”

“Duty? Justin lives, Jenna ... Jenna lives. The monster is dead. I can go and be a blacksmith. Perhaps I’ll earn a prosperous living making badger-harpoons and giant spring-balances for Doctor Grey to distribute to the next fool who wants to take my old situation.”

“Perhaps. Get some sleep.”

Somehow the air glowed, pink and warm. The green ice in Dennis’ eyes melted. The happy dreams were coming back, and the fear was going away. His knee was warm, not burning.

A page, yellow, floating before his eyes. Notes. Music outside. Horn of the morning. Musical notes? Handwritten notes. Whose writing? Leonard says this, Leonard says that. Red circles around this, pink circles around that, rainbow circles. Very important, may be scribble scribble scrawl. Institute a survey of badgers under the pretext that ...

Eighty years ago? Really?

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