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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48. The Badger Man

“Badger man! Hey, badger man!”

The local children had taken to calling Justin that. He didn’t know why; he hadn’t told anyone he used to work in the badger survey. He certainly hadn’t been casually mentioning that he might be a shape-shifter out of the fairy-tales.

But his appearance had slowly taken on a slight badgeriness. He was in any case short and stocky. Now the premature greying at his temples was whitening and extending back behind his ears. And there was perhaps something about his eyes, although he didn’t see it himself. He didn’t like looking at his reflection.

For camouflage, he acquired a grey badger-skin hat, with a badger-tail hanging down the back. It looked absurd, but now any casual observer would assume he was being mocked as “badger man” for his lack of taste in hats. You don’t get hanged or driven out of town for that, at least.

“What? What do you little bastards want now?” he asked, but in a friendly way. He was a much more pleasant and affable man these days. He didn’t know exactly what affable meant, but if anyone wanted to aff him, he was fine with it. What he didn’t want was any more trouble. Ever.

He put down the hatchet he’d been using to chop firewood, so as not to seem to be brandishing it at the children, which is viewed as anti-social in all communities. He gathered up an armful of wood and walked over to the inn’s wood-pile.

“Well?”

“There’s some men to see you. Your name is Justin, right?”

“Men? What are they like?” He stacked the wood carefully, with his face turned away from the children. He looked left and right, wondering whether he should run.

“Westermen like you.”

“Right then, tell them I’ll see them at the inn in a moment. And tell them to get a round in.”

 

There were four men. At first he thought they were rangers, then he recognised one of them.

“Doctor Hopkin?”

“Hello Justin. Don’t worry, we’re not here to arrest you.”

“Good. Because I checked, and we’re not even in Atlar here. So you can’t. What do you want?”

“I’m here about your letter. These three men are from Customs and Excise. Don’t panic! Sit down, please. Have your pint. What on earth do you think they’re here to do, tax you of your few coppers?”

Justin sat down again.

“I don’t suppose it’d be worth their while to come all the way for that. What, then?”

“It’s about your letter. You remember where the, er, slime was being dug up? Can you take us to see it?”

“It’s a long way off.”

“Can you ride?”

Justin shrugged. Like he had ever owned a horse. “I know how to brush horses and feed them. If a horse doesn’t mind me sitting on him, I reckon I could stay on. You didn’t answer me. What are the tax men here for?”

“Well, I am here for scientific curiosity, and to try to verify your story. If it’s true, I have a Royal Pardon for you. These men are here to guard me, and take any other action necessary. Did you know—because I didn’t—that the Customs and Excise have authority that extends beyond our borders? If someone were importing certain categories of goods, such as brandy or sugar or whatever, and not declaring it or paying taxes on it, there would be nowhere in the world they could run to escape the Excise’s jurisdiction.”

“Bollocks. The world is a big place. It wouldn’t be worth them chasing someone all round the world for a groat’s tax on a pound of sugar.”

“Indeed. But it would never be worth it for a merchant, for example, to try to sneak a shipload of sugar in without paying duty on it. Wherever you went, you would be looking over your shoulder. It’s a rare circumstance, but here we have a law that the rich must fear and the poor hardly need worry about.”

“We have enough to worry about otherwise. But again, what are they doing here?”

“Oddly enough, Justin, the slime you mention in your letter happens to fall under a very particular customs regulation, and its import is very tightly controlled. So there we have it.”

“How? Nobody knew it existed.”

“I know. Strange isn’t it? Mr Gander here is the expert. Mr Gander?”

Mr Gander was a grim sight in the grey hood and chain mail of Atlar Customs and Excise, with a scar on his temple and a weather-beaten face, but he had a mild and quiet voice.

“Materials or objects believed to present an existential threat. Tax code XX-1B. There is no exhaustive list, but the tax code allows for new entries to be added on the advice of the Crown Office. We added Holy Lead five years ago, for example.”

“Never heard of it.”

“No, well, no reason you should have. It’s not a public list for obvious reasons. This slime of yours has been added provisionally. In the event that we encounter anyone on the road attempting to import it, we are authorised to stop them.”

“Arrest them? Tax them?”

“Stop them.” He rested one hand on the hilt of his sword.

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