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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13. Survey Notes

Jenna and Derk returned to the capital, since Ashlin and Justin were, while still not ready to travel, not in any obvious danger, and somebody had to go and tell Doctor Grey what little they knew about the badger. Jenna was of the opinion that no doubt he would rub his hands and cackle like a stage villain at the report of such excellent progress in his deep and fiendish plot. But if so, Derk suggested, he would probably wait until nobody else was around, because he had not been known to cackle in living memory.

Jenna left Ashlin propped up by the fire in the common room of the inn, with a pint of ale and his notebook for company. Justin, arm in a sling and ear in a bandage, stood by for purposes of aggravating his already dark mood, just in case Ashlin’s own knee wasn’t up to the task any more.

There was a moment just before Jenna left, when Ashlin thought she might kiss him, or hug him in a strictly friendly expression of camaraderie, or shake his hand, or something. And then she was away out of the door, and she probably wouldn’t have anyway, and never mind. And also, shut up.

He opened his notes and began writing. “What’s the date?”

Justin offered a guess. Ashlin left the space blank where he normally dated each page, on the principle that Justin was probably wrong. All the members of the survey team who hadn’t been unconscious for an unknown number of days had just left on a coach. He could always ask Dennis later, or the landlady of the inn.

He paused. What did they actually know about what had happened?

We encountered a badger in the hilly countryside approximately two miles south-west of Little Sedge. It was unusually large

“Or else some joker round these parts has been painting stripes on a bloody bear.”

Ashlin hadn’t realised he had been talking under his breath as he wrote.

“You aren’t helping. I can only assume that means you are recovering and will soon be back to your usual self, for which I am glad. Surprisingly.” He put the notebook down and took a sip of ale. “Justin, you’ve been in the survey for longer than I have. Longer than Jenna. Did you ever hear any stories about this kind of thing happening before?”

“Not bloody likely. I didn’t sign up for anything political, even if it were safe. I definitely didn’t sign up for nearly having my head bitten off.”

“Political? So you’ve been talking to Dennis, then?”

“Yeah. Load of bollocks. I want no part of it. I’m the man to do an honest day’s work for modest pay, not tangle with tricky bastards and giant ravening monsters.” Justin seemed to feel that politics was in itself inextricably linked with deadly animal encounters. It’s possible Justin wasn’t entirely clear what politics was, but if this was his first knowing encounter with it, Ashlin couldn’t blame him.

“Jenna, now ...”

“What about her?” asked Ashlin, more sharply than he intended.

“About her,” Justin paused, grinned as though he was reading Ashlin’s reaction all too well, “about her, I can say she is the very type to tangle with tricky bastards---and ravening monsters too---and give them a thing or two to think about.”

“She can have my job then.” Ashlin tried to sound dismissive, unconcerned, unsuccessfully.

“That business with the rock. That was nasty.”

“The rock?”

“Yeah, she picked up a rock the size of ’er own head, and smacked that badger right between the eyes. I saw her face. She really meant it. Then she got that little butcher-knife of Dennis’s and sliced it from ear to scabby ear. Didn’t spurt much, I reckon it was the rock that finished it.”

“Then she, and Derk I suppose,” now that he thought of it, Jenna being quite slight, even if strong, “pulled it off me. She---they---saved my life.”

“Oh, yeah, a bit later on they did that. Came up the hill to deal with me first, on account of I was screaming my head off. You were out of it. Most likely thought you were dead at first.”

Ashlin frowned gloomily into the fire. It shouldn’t matter. She did the right thing, she somehow got them both rescued. Probably Derk hadn’t known what to do, but Jenna always knew what to do. And Justin was hardly a reliable witness. So she left him under a giant dead stinky monster for---how long? It shouldn’t matter. He was going to be a blacksmith and never see her again.

He picked up his notebook.

It was unusually large. It nearly ate a member of the survey team in front of my eyes. It could have easily killed all of us, including the woman I

He scored out the last sentence heavily, and scribbled over it.

I can’t do this any more. I resign,

Ashlin Smith, Survey Supervisor. Retired.

He thought about throwing his notebook into the fire. He couldn’t. He could reject the job for himself, but not destroy the work he had earnestly done while he thought it was at worst pointless. The notebook had been his duty, even if it was no more. He stuffed it in a pocket and drank off his ale, and brooded.

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