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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8. Theories of Badger Surveying

After the party had surveyed a round of drinks and a supper, they felt less discomfited, and after a night’s sleep they woke into a bright morning that simply would not countenance dark thoughts or any kind of gloomy supposition. They asked around in case any of the locals had news of a particularly surprising or interesting badger in the vicinity, and none had.

So with an early start, they had a full day of bright mountain sunshine and clear mountain air, pretty flowers by the roadside and another lunch of pies. Apart from the harpoon head lurking in Derk’s bag, there were no troubling evidences of anything untoward, and Derk assured them that Doctor Grey had not explicitly told him to bring it, so it was possible that it wouldn’t be needed. Although he was the best harpoon arm in the service, and according to his captain not much good at anything else, so it was also possible that it would.

However, Jenna pointed out---perhaps trying to convince herself---that if Derk wasn’t much good for nautical matters in general, then maybe nautical matters in general, including harpooning things, were not expected of him, and perhaps he was only required for an extra pair of hands.

This was cheerfully accepted by all, even Derk, who might have taken the implication badly from anyone less pretty and bright-eyed than Jenna. All in all, the journey was beginning to look like a holiday, or at any rate a skive. Justin had recollected a large number of off-colour jokes with nautical themes, for their entertainment. Well, mostly for his own.

“... so then the Captain says, `Arr, you did a fine job of polishing, lad, but that wasn't me wooden leg!’”

“I’ve never seen a badger,” said Derk suddenly, as the coach trundled through a wooded valley. He leaned out the window and peered about as though expecting to see one frolicking in the trees.

“They mostly come out at night,” said Ashlin. “You have to wait very quietly in the dark, and when there’s a bit of a moon you might see one. We usually don’t bother trying, because it’s cold and miserable and not much use even if you do.”

“I thought you would stand in a field, casting your eye about you, surveying them like, ‘There’s a badger here, and two down there’ and such like.”

“No.”

“No? What, then?”

Ashlin took a moment to compose his usual reply to the embarrassing question of how he made a living.

“We count their droppings. We look at their tracks, and make plaster casts of their footprints. We estimate their numbers. We find out where they go, what they eat, whether many of them are falling sick, if any of them are different or unusual, and we make a note of everything. And,” since he was talking to a heroic coastguard somehow attached to the survey, and not to a member of the public at large, he felt he owed Derk a little honesty, “we don’t know why.”

Derk remained silent and let his questioning hair speak for him.

“It’s important,” interposed Jenna, “to know the ways of the woods and the animals in them, and since badgers will eat most things, and dig in the earth, and range over a wide area, their lives are a good indicator of the health of the woods and the effects of the seasons.” She frowned darkly at Ashlin. “It’s important. Why would we be paid to do it at all by such short-handed skinflints as old Doctor Grey, otherwise?”

“And why go to all this expense to survey even one badger if it wasn’t worth doing in general?” added Justin, unconsciously undermining the argument quite seriously by reintroducing a large amount of unresolved mystery back into the question.

“We don’t know why,” repeated Ashlin, shrugging. He felt relief saying it at last. He felt sorry for Jen, who had her own reasons for needing this job to be important, and what is more, plausibly important, but it had to be said.

“We don’t. It doesn’t mean it’s not important. It probably is.”

He remembered Doctor Grey insisting it was “more important than you know” and for some reason it now brought to mind a chill of dark nights and distant howling in the cold wind.

“More important than we know,” Chill, howling; shrugged off. “It’s simply that nobody has ever told us the truth about why it’s important.”

“I do it because it’s easy work and the hours are good and I get paid regular, if not very much.” This from Justin of course. “I never signed up for nothing important, and I’d be greatly put out to find that any importance had been sneaked into my terms of employment.”

Jenna frowned again, but remained silent, torn between defending anew the importance of her own work, and deriding the improbability that Justin would be chosen to do something that had to be done well or at all.

It was still a pleasant day, and they managed to turn the conversation around to diverse topics such as horse racing, medicine and ale-brewing, of which all of them were safely ignorant. They avoided politics and the purpose of their journey, of which all of them were unsafely ignorant.

Towards evening, they were in the mountains proper, and less than half a day’s travel from Little Sedge. They arrived in the more ominously-named village of Dark Sedge, where they stopped for the night. The landscape was uneven, and the roads twisted around rocky hills and marshy pools. It was bleak and wet, and they were glad to get indoors.

Inquiries about unusual local badgers were met with friendly unhelpfulness. Most of the men in the bar were unable to understand the concept of badger surveying as explained never so earnestly by Jenna. But they were all enjoying the explanation, and many of them were willing buy her drinks, which were mostly drunk for her by Justin.

After a supper of bread and mutton stew, the badger survey took stock of what they had so far discovered.

“Nothing.” Ashlin said. “On the most direct route of travel between the capital and Little Sedge, we have met nobody who knows anything about this badger, or even badgers in general.”

“Meaning what?” asked Derk.

“Meaning, news of this badger didn’t come to the office of the Regent Counsel by the normal means, as rumour or hearsay or tales by wandering minstrels.”

Jenna nodded. “Your tone of voice meaning in turn, that you were allowed to assume it had done, and are now getting suspicious.”

“A little perhaps, but also relieved. It could be all a false report, so that when we get to Little Sedge tomorrow, we ask around, meet with blank stares, hop back on the coach and head home.”

“Or?” Derk again.

“Or, it’s a lie to get us out of the capital for a few days, which I can’t explain because we aren’t important for anything I can think of. Except badger surveying, Jen, I know. Or ... I don’t know.”

“You are getting better at being suspicious, Ash, but you’re too inexperienced. I have thought of a few possibilities.”

“Fine, Jen. You are about to show evidence of being what Justin calls ‘tricky’ I expect. Go ahead.”

“One: we are being kept out of the woods where we normally work because something else is being transacted there, and they don’t want anyone sniffing around.”

“They? Who? Transacting what?”

Jenna rebuffed the questions, waving them away impatiently with her spoon.

“Two: Derk is carrying a message of dire importance to a secret meeting in Little Sedge, and we are accompanying him as a pretext. Or our arrival is itself the message, and the whole thing way deeper, unknown to all of us, including Derk.”

Derk looked sceptical of his own involvement in any kind of deep plot. “Especially me.”

“You could send anyone in that case, on any kind of pretext or none at all. Probably cheaper and faster,” objected Ashlin.

“Three,” insisted Jenna, unperturbed, “Someone is waiting for us at Little Sedge on the pretext of reporting an unusual badger, and will instead give us something to convey secretly back to Doctor Grey.”

“Actually, that’s possible, I suppose ... we’ll see tomorrow if that happens.”

“Four: there is really is a notable and unusual badger, perhaps bright blue or one that talks like a parrot or shits gold, and it really is our job to investigate it. And among all these people who clearly have no idea what the badger survey do, and haven't heard anything about it, one unknown person noticed. One person who immediately and secretly conveyed a message about it to Doctor Grey. Because that’s obviously ridiculous.”

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