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.


5. Something More

Doctor Grey was a thin, grey-eyed, grey-haired man of indeterminate age. He had been the Regent Counsel for some large number of years, and gave every impression of intending to be the Regent Counsel for some large number of years more. Anything so disruptive to the smooth, efficient running of the Crown Office as his own retirement or death from old age would be a damned impertinence and was not to be permitted under any circumstances.

He was always dressed neatly and anonymously in the current fashion of bankers and businessmen, tending to favour black or dark grey garments. It was occasionally a joke among the younger employees of the office that he wore his grey name as he wore his grey clothes, as a habit rather than with any personal attachment.

Older employees who had laughed about this in their time were more of the opinion that it wasn’t actually a joke.

There should have been nothing terrifying about such a grey little man. But it was he that carried out the will of the Crown. In the absence of a King, the will of the Crown was the judgement of the Regent. And in the absence of a Regent with any idea of what was going on, the judgement of the Regent was the advice of the Regent Counsel. He was very much the kind of man to exercise the full authority of the state to act on his own advice.

“But I’m resigning my post today,” Ashlin attempted. “So, it would be better if you bring in Jenna as supervisor, and she can train Derk.”

This was met with silence, while Doctor Grey walked over to his window and gazed out at the street below. Then he looked across the street to the old stone bell-tower, where directly at eye-level was the line of scoring and greenish stain left by the Great Wave. The Regent Counsel seemed to muse upon that outline, that boundary between modern times and long-ago history.

“You can, if you insist of course. I will be disappointed, and I think you too would be, in time.”

He turned and met Ashlin’s eyes, caught them in following his own gaze back from the bell tower.

“There are, however, political circumstances that lead me to ask you to stay on in the employment of the Crown Office for a little while longer. And personal reasons why I think you would benefit from this more than you currently appreciate.”

He walked up to his desk and pushed a small leather-bound book across the surface towards Ashlin. With a look, he indicated that Ashlin pick it up.

Ashlin did so, read the title---which was simply “notes”---and opened it to the first page. He scanned it briefly, without it really sinking in. He looked up, waiting for an explanation of how it was relevant.

“Eighty years ago, Ashlin, not one in a hundred people would have picked that book up and opened it to read even a page of it. Only about half of them would have held it the right way up, and then only by chance. Times have changed, with the trade schools and the clergy schools, and just last year, the opening of the first of our public libraries.”

“Your father, Ashlin, could not read. He was a fine man, but he didn’t have the chances you had, and he didn’t make of himself what he could have. Don’t be offended; he made a better man of himself than many with more wealth and opportunity, but still, as a blacksmith he wasted some part of his potential.”

Ashlin was showing some impatience with this disparagement of his own plans to wield a hammer over hot iron and impress simple golden-haired country girls, but he didn’t see a way to open this subject without seeming like the world’s biggest fool so he kept his mouth shut. Even so his eyes and cheeks showed probably more than he intended.

“And yes, I did meet your father. You wouldn’t remember because it was perhaps twenty years ago. You were very young, barely walking, and remained with your mother when your father came down into the city to help with some minor engineering work.”

Doctor Grey glanced back at the bell tower.

“Anyway, we met, and we talked, and he spoke to me as an honest man to an equal, either not knowing my position or not making anything of it. He spoke of hopes for his son, and I offered to help him. So I made some modest arrangements for your education. Sixteen years later, I made enquiries as to whether you had survived infancy without any debilitating head injuries, and whether you had learned to read, and whether you might be open to taking a job in the city.”

“I am grateful for that,” said Ashlin. “I didn’t know you had met my father. I see now that when my old schoolmaster brought me news of a chance to work here, he may have been acting not only on my father’s wishes but also yours. I’m not ungrateful, but it seems that in the years before that I was prompted here and there by little hints and chances and nudged towards the life I find myself in. I have to wonder: was that your doing?”

“No, I think most of that was just your father’s blood running in your veins. You are more suited to a life of thinking and observing, and measuring and making notes because of him, not because of me.”

Ashlin began to feel that the discussion was getting away from him.

“But I’m not suited to this. I don’t make anything, except notes on badgers. It’s all so pointless. My father made things. My uncle made things. My cousin still does and if I go and live with him, I can make things too. I can see the point to that. My family have been blacksmiths for generations. If it was good enough for my father ...”

“I beg your pardon, but it was not. It was only what he knew, and what was available to him. You do a job that your father knew not, but had he known he might have been happier doing what you do now. Times are changing fast, and there are new jobs, new things to be done. If nobody could do a job their father didn’t do, then who would do those new jobs? They would be left undone. And many of them are more important than you know.”

He leaned forward slightly.

“As your job, Ashlin, is more important than you know.”

“But I don’t see how. And in any case you have other people to do it, and I am lately finding it so boring.”

“Truly? That is your true objection to the Badger Survey? That it bores you? Smithing would bore you too. You are young and intelligent, so most of life will bore you from time to time. You have more free time, and less struggle to feed yourself, and more freedom to be bored than your father and your grandfather ever did. They would snatch at the chance to be as bored as you, Ashlin. And that without books to fill the hours.”

Ashlin flushed and fidgeted. True, all of this.

“I am grateful, like I said. I just ... I don’t know why, but this work is not suited to me. I am not really bored; I love walking through the woods, I like observing the animals and birds, I even take some pleasure in making those pointless notes and sketching anything unusual I see. So it’s not boredom, it’s a kind of restlessness I suppose. I am young, as you say. You will then grant me the right to some restlessness, if I grant you the liberty to call me foolish. I want something ... more.”

Somehow, blacksmithing didn’t seem like more.

“You are in luck in any case,” Doctor Grey said, opening the small book of notes to a page near the back, where a short passage had been circled in red pencil. “This job that so chafes your youthful restlessness is about to become a lot more interesting.”

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