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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14. Resignation

When Ashlin got back to the capital, limping on a crutch from where the coach deposited him outside the Crown Office, he noticed something odd. Remains of bunting hung along the main street, alternating blue and white, then alternating dark red and cream. It looked as though it should have been celebratory, but it seemed forced. Whatever the occasion had been, he'd missed it.

Politics, no doubt.

He limped and crutched his way directly past George’s office, leaning in over the half-door to say hello and then hurrying on. There was no point in delay, no point in paperwork, he was going to be no help with a stepladder today anyway. Time to go to Doctor Grey, insist on seeing him immediately, hand in his resignation in person---most forcefully at that---and then go back to his room to pack his few things and leave.

He was asked to wait a few minutes before being allowed in to see the Regent Counsel, and although he had no real claim on the man’s time, he resented the delay. There must be a hundred little matters to attend to in ensuring the smooth running of the state, but surely not many of them absolutely required leaving a man with a recently-broken leg propped up in the corridor when his simple petition could be dealt with in a minute and he could be sent away for ever.

“Please come in now,” said a functionary.

He entered.

“Ashlin, welcome back. I am genuinely glad that you are recovering so well.”

“As am I. I must inform you however, that I can no longer continue as survey supervisor, effective today.”

“Indeed.”

“Yes, I ...” The inflection had been odd. “Indeed.” Not “Indeed?”

“So,” Ashlin continued, “you guess my intention. You can not be surprised after what occurred. I agreed to stay until the end of the month, but that would be only another three days. I ask you to release me today, as a favour.”

“Ash, I do guess your intent. However that is not what I meant. I have already promoted Jenna Stane to the position of survey supervisor, in respect of her extraordinary presence of mind under extreme danger, her comprehensive and detailed notes,”---was that a trace of a smile? Surely not---“and the necessity for someone to take charge while you are on leave recovering from your injuries.”

“I’m not on leave. I am leaving. There’s a difference.”

“You are an impertinent young fool.” This said with in an even tone of voice, not suggesting wrath or derision, just making an observation of fact. “But that expression is doubly redundant, inasmuch as to observe that you are young is to imply a certain amount of both impertinence and folly.”

“Folly or not, I can’t do this any more.”

“It’s not still boring you, I hope?”

“I wish it were.”

“I sympathise more than you would expect, and I hope you can appreciate that I have been alive long enough to have been more thoroughly bored than you can imagine. However, I have had the misfortune of a quite exciting life, full of endless opportunities to embrace fascinating new challenges. Many of them, too many of them, did not end as well as your recent adventure. And many of my daily duties are miserable without even the compensation of excitement.”

“I am firm in my resolution. My reasons are personal, but compelling.”

“Jenna will make a good supervisor in your absence.” As if the old bastard knew his reasons and was twisting them back into his face, into his heart. “In the meantime, I do not release you or waive your last three days; not yet. I have questions for you first.”

The Regent Counsel walked to the door of the office, and opened it a hand’s breadth. “We are not to be interrupted. I shall call when I require anything.” He closed it and returned to his desk, then turned to Ashlin. “This chair here is more comfortable for your leg perhaps. I can stand, in fact I may feel the need for a certain amount of pacing back and forth. I am quite prepared to do so, and at my age it may do me some good. Please, sit and be as comfortable as you can.”

Ashlin sat at the desk. There was a book entitled “Notes”, but much newer than the one he had seen before. It wasn’t Jenna’s. Without being invited to do so, he didn’t feel that he might open it without being extremely rude, but he was curious. In particular, he was curious as to whether the handwriting might be the same as the older one. He quietly resolved to take a peek if the opportunity presented itself to do so unseen. Although, doing so openly might get him dismissed for extreme youthful impertinence, and he could finally be done with this nonsense.

“You have questions? I was knocked to the ground, crushed, rendered unconscious for I know not how long, then I recovered over several days under quite an amount of what I guess was opium for the pain. It’s unlikely I can tell you anything that was not documented fully in Jenna’s notebook.”

Ashlin nodded towards the notebook on the table by reference to the general category of things, also hoping to prompt an excuse to examine it.

“On the contrary, you can tell me everything that was not documented in Jenna’s notebook. She is capable, observant, disciplined, resourceful and clear-headed. But she takes her job very seriously, and in this case, her desire to express herself formally and precisely was of limited usefulness. Thanks to Jenna, I have the facts before me.”

“What do you need from me, then?”

“I need to get the feel of what happened. Question the first: how would you describe the badger, how it looked, how it seemed to you in the moment, how it felt for you to behold it?”

“It was very large.”

Doctor Grey waited and let the silence demand that Ashlin fill it.

“It was ... swollen. Not just a larger badger, but like someone tried to make a badger huge by stuffing more badger into it. It was ... wrong. It moved wrongly, it smelled ... so very wrong.”

“You felt that, then. Did it look at you?”

“I don’t know, I beg your pardon, yes. Briefly. It looked round at me I think, when I was trying to get it off Justin. It looked ...” memory rushed back, and Ashlin felt nausea, fear again. “It looked angry. Enraged. It was growling with rage before it even came out of the trees. We heard it, it was deep like thunder.”

“Did it speak to you?”

“What? No.”

“This is an unusual question, I grant you, but: if it had spoken, what do you think it would have said?”

“I hate you. Die. Be food.” Ashlin answered immediately without thinking. He knew it. He almost heard it in his ear.

“Good answer, bad answer.” Doctor Grey was pacing now.

“But what does it mean? Bad how? Are there more of them out there?”

The pacing stopped.

“More of them? There is only one such monster.”

“And we killed it. The body was burnt. It’s over.”

“Oh, the badger you mean. No, that wasn’t the monster. That was the bloody footprint of the monster, the scream of the monster on the wind, the hammering of the monster at the door. The monster we have yet to deal with.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Then I suppose you had better go and become a blacksmith.”

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