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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6. The Other Office

Ashlin and Derk trudged down to the Badger Survey's office and depot, which was an old farmhouse near the edge of town. Or rather, where the edge of the town had been when the Badger Survey was first founded. There were streets all around it now, and maybe half a mile away was the first patch of hilly woodland where there was even a remote chance of finding and surveying badgers, a duty which in any case got done half-heartedly at best and only around twice a week. This neglect didn't in any way inconvenience the badgers themselves.

On the door of the office/farmhouse was a slip of grubby paper stuck in with a pin. On it:

In tother ofiss

The spelling and handwriting of Justin. The other office was the “King’s Folly” across the street. Ashlin wasn’t sure he wanted to be responsible for letting Justin set Derk a bad example on his first day, but in the end he decided that any contact with Justin would sooner or later have that effect. He kept telling himself that he wasn’t committed to keeping that responsibility for any longer than another month; maybe it would still one day be somebody else’s problem. So, to the inn.

It was in use as an “other office” most days of the week around lunch time, because the inn did a remarkably good pie for twopence, and after any cold-weather badger-surveying trips, because it kept a good fire and the Badger Survey’s winter fuel budget was very modest.

Currently it was the scene for office business in the form of a game of cards.

“Two pairs.”

“Not bad I suppose. Two pairs ... and a king.”

Justin exhaled loudly and disgustedly.

“Jen, it isn’t hardly fair beating a man by a king, not in a bloody regency. We haven't even got a proper king.”

“If we had a proper king the Royal Badger Survey’d not be sitting around playing cards, Justin. And I can just see the sort of king who would employ the likes of you in a Royal anything.”

Jenna leaned over and swept the pot over to her side of the table.

“Bollocks” Justin offered, without any attempt to articulate a more reasoned response. “Ash, come and join us. This the new guy?”

“Yes, Derk, I think.”

Derk nodded assent. He was, as well as being tall and dark, possessed of unruly hair. A curl of it bobbed above his forehead like a question mark, making him seem slightly puzzled. Or maybe it was the rest of his face that did that.

“We’re at the cards again,” Justin explained most unnecessarily. “I’m winning today, mostly.”

Ashlin looked at the table.

“Are those ... are you winning ... badger droppings?”

He wasn’t asking out of unfamiliarity with the articles in question, but in a certain amount of incredulity.

“Well, yeah. We was counting them anyway.”

“You're supposed to count them where you find them.”

“It was cold out. Thought we might as well count them indoors, and since I happened to have me cards on me ...”

“And you’re winning.”

“Yeah, although Jen’s tricky as usual. I wouldn’t like to say, cheating, exactly.” Justin wouldn’t on most days like to mention cheating, so as not to draw attention to the idea while trying to carry it off himself. “But I’m holding me own, and still proud owner of more than half the prize.”

Jenna looked up from her notes (she was actually counting the badger droppings in a diligent if pointless execution of her duty) and added, “I’ll get them off him, don’t you doubt it.”

“It's not that I doubt it, but why would you want to? Get that shit off the table before Billy sees it, or we’ll be getting no pies today.” Ashlin turned to Derk. “It’s not like this all the time,” he said, stretching the truth a little, “Jen, don’t encourage him, please.”

“It’s not for me to discourage him. In point of fact I don’t think it may be done,” she sniffed. “I’m just getting on with the job nice and warm in here, and I can do that while I beat Justin at cards without taking any trouble over it.”

She made a show of being put out, but a little smile escaped at the corner of her mouth.

Ashlin cleared his throat, and tried to clear his mind.

“Well and good. Counting turds can wait. Today we have instructions directly from the Crown Office, believe it or not. It’s a bit odd really, and I’ve tried to make a case for giving it to the Rangers of the Queen’s Parks instead, but I am told it falls squarely into our laps, and we have to make the best of it.”

“You are not making much of it so far,” said Justin.

“True; because I don’t know what to make of it. We are to leave town as soon as we can, tonight if possible, and travel some fifty miles north to a place called Little Sedge.”

“Oh, bollocks. Fifty miles?”

“Room and board and a coach paid for by the office,” continued Ashlin.

“Oh, good then.”

“And there, we are to survey a badger.”

“That’s a very singular instruction,” observed Jenna, “in fact, not nearly so plural as we are used to. What do you mean, survey a badger? Badgers in general, yes. Some local collection or population or colony or ...”

“Parliament,” suggested Justin, with more confidence than was justified by his knowledge of collective nouns.

“Most likely not parliament. My point is, how do we survey a single badger? Was George clear on which one badger fifty miles away we are supposed to survey?”

Ashlin hesitated, and then decided that the bad news might as well be shared sooner rather than later.

“Not George. It was Doctor Grey himself.” The others looked respectively puzzled, intrigued, and worried that Doctor Grey was about to appear and have them arrested for something, in alphabetical order of their names.

“And what he said as to the precise badger we are to survey, was,” Ashlin went on, “You will know it when you see it.”

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