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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22. Seafood Delivery

The return journey was miserable. They were delayed by a series of unexpected squalls, making the captain fairly nervous of attempting a direct sea route in unpredictable weather, in what was by design primarily a coastal vessel.

Nearer the north coast, a full storm blew up. The crew frantically lashed things down and did nautical things with the sails under shouted instruction. The badger survey stayed below decks to keep out of the way and avoid being pitched over the side. The barrels of prawns sloshed violently. Lids had been affixed to prevent them emptying themselves all over the hold, but one barrel broke free of the ropes that were holding it in place, and burst open. The prawn it contained was lost until the following day, when it was soon judged unfit for human consumption. Someone had stood on it in the dark.

By the morning light, the situation appeared grim.

“We have seven prawns left. Six recently dead, one seemingly dying. We have no ice and if we put in to shore to get some, we won’t have enough time to get the prawns back home. This far away, it’s not certain we could keep them edible for the time it would take to get back, even on ice.” Jenna picked some seaweed off her sleeve and flicked it over the side. “Any ideas?”

“Can we get back in time for the feast if we head back as straight as possible?” Ashlin asked, looking from Jenna to the captain.

“Should be able to, with a bit of luck,” was the nautical advice.

“Do we have enough salt on board to preserve them? Vinegar to pickle them?” he asked.

“Not enough, and same problem as with the ice as for putting ashore to get some. We only have a bit of salt for the galley.”

“What about butter?” asked Derk, hopefully, “how much of that have we got?”

“What for?” asked Jenna.

“We could pot them. We cook them up, and while they’re still hot we put them in a crock or something, and pour melted butter over the top. As long as there’s no holes or gaps, they should keep for ages. Don’t even need to keep them very cold.”

“I don’t know,” said Ashlin doubtfully. “I think the idea was to bring them as fresh as possible and cook Lord Olaf’s favourite dish. Maybe potted prawns won’t be any more use than rotted prawns.”

“Most things are better than rotted prawns, I think,” said Derk, mildly, “I could be wrong of course.”

So it was that a very puzzled contingent of park rangers met the boat at Kennis port with a hired cart, expecting perhaps crates of prawns to be unloaded onto it. Instead they were handed a large copper saucepan with greasy brown paper tied over the top, and advised to get it to the palace as soon as possible.

“Shall do.” said Green of the rangers, sparing them two words from his carefully guarded store, and gestured to one of the others to set off with it immediately. One other was sent to make arrangements to return the cart to wherever they had hired it from and see if they could get back the deposit. They could not, so there was nothing more for Green and his men to do than follow behind the saucepan.

“Here,” said Green before leaving, and handed Ashlin a neatly folded letter sealed with the mark of the Crown Office.

A letter from Doctor Grey, addressed simply to Ashlin Smith. Ashlin thought the best thing would be to read it, consult the rest of the survey team as necessary, and then they could make their own arrangements to travel back to the Summer Palace, or even better, home.

The letter read,

Ashlin,

I hope you have succeeded in your errand. Sadly I must inform you by this letter that as of now, the traditional services of the Royal Badger Survey will no longer be required. I hope however that you will be able to serve at the feast for which you have been tasked to complete the dish of honour. I myself must be absent, but I feel it would be very instructive and improving for you to observe the man who looks to be the next king of Atlar.

Doctor Hopkin will meet you when you arrive and give you the necessary instruction in my absence. He asks me to reassure you that our friend Mr John Woods is feeling much better, and the condition of his leg is satisfactory. I did fear it would be necessary for that gentleman to leave us suddenly, but fortunately he may stay.

Doctor Grey, Regent Counsel of Atlar.

He turned it over. There was just that short message, nothing else. It was innocuous enough, should anyone else have intercepted and read it. But there were hidden meanings, he was sure. Why mention the one-legged poacher? Was there anything in the choice of words in the rest of the letter that should be alarming him? On the face of it, it might be suspicious that the Regent Counsel had troubled to write to a blacksmith at all. Was the fact that such a letter even existed, however innocuous it may be, in itself a message? He would run mad if he tried to make a list of all the unlikely possibilities and work them through to their logical consequences.

“I’m not devious enough to make this out.”

Accordingly, Jenna was invited to see what she could make of it. They discussed it over a pint of ale at the inn, having decided to stay overnight and make an early start in the morning. It being impossible to buy a round of drinks without Justin appearing, he and Derk were there too, but not contributing much to the study of the letter.

Jenna examined it closely.

“It means we’re fired. I’m happy to hear about Mr Woods, whoever he is. Is Doctor Hopkin that skinny man who runs the infirmary at the palace?”

Ashlin nodded.

“Well, that’s all, I should think.” She drank a mouthful of ale and gazed idly around the bar. “I’m relieved really. Back to normal, no more errands.”

They got a bite to eat and retired to their rooms.

 

Some time after midnight, Ashlin heard a gentle tap at his door. He crept over and listened. Nothing.

He opened the door a crack, and was promptly bundled back into the room by Jenna. She motioned him to be silent, putting her finger against his lips. It was all he could do to hold them still, not ...

Jenna turned away and shut the door.

“Listen. A few things you missed today. Our traditional services will no longer be required: implying that some very non-traditional services are likely to be expected of us. Doctor Grey ‘must’ be absent. I wonder why, must? I’d have thought he'd want to keep the Regent under careful handling, what with Willem being such an idiot and this being a dangerous time. But he ‘must’ be absent.”

Ashlin moved to speak, but the finger was back, all but paralysing him.

“Obviously Doctor Grey wants you to observe what happens at the feast. It will be informative (for him) and improving (for you, I assume). Do that. But please, Ash, think carefully yourself about what you see. I don’t entirely trust him. Next, the man who ‘looks to be’ the next king of Atlar. That’s ambiguous. It seems to mean the man it looks likely will be the next king of Atlar, but it could also mean the man who aspires or looks forward to be the king, but then---I think Doctor Grey is saying, he won’t be.”

“Second last thing, who is John Woods, and why did Doctor Grey nearly decide to have him killed?”

“What?”

“Answer, but quietly.”

“He, um, was a poacher. Something bit him and he had to have his leg removed. Part of it, anyway. I think it was some kind of monster that bit him, and I suppose Doctor Grey was worried about something spreading. Green and his men went out to look for it, and didn’t find anything by the time we left. Jeremy, that’s Doctor Hopkin, is a decent man, and wouldn’t be any part of having some poor poacher killed.”

“So. Mention that a good man whom you trust is going to be giving you your next instructions, and convey some good news from him, at the same time hinting that it could have gone otherwise. I don’t like that kind of hint much. You trust Doctor Hopkin?”

“I do.”

“Fine then, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“Why come and tell me all this in the middle of the night?”

“Because the last thing you missed was, while we were talking in the bar, a very muscular and violent-looking man with cold little eyes was listening and trying to pretend not to. So I played stupid. But this is looking very bad.” Jenna moved back to the door. “Tomorrow, we’ll leave at first light, and we’re going on foot. Get some sleep.”

Hah. As though it were that easy.

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