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The combers live like spiders among endless underground tunnels linked by rope networks amd slippery rockfaces whilst in the beautiful city overhead, live the Abovers. These two worlds should never meet, but when the body of a murdered Abover appears in the catacombes below, their worlds begin to draw closer. Action packed, tense and brilliantly imagined, Basilisk will draw you into a dark and disturbing world.
Basilisk is a story which grew out of several disparate elements:
- I had started a SF story about a boy who lived underground in some strange underworld peopled by criminals and outcasts. He was a street wise teenagers called ‘Rej’ as in ‘reject.’ I liked the character but the story didn’t go anywhere.
- Several years ago I was in Amboise, a medieval French village and saw a chateau where Leonardo da Vinci had spent some time. There was an exhibition of his designs for weapons and warcraft and I thought how interesting it might have been if someone like him had turned his attention to chemical/psychological warfare instead. The Loire valley in France also has many troglodyte communities too, which also got me thinking.
- I have always loved the idea of dragons and stories about dragons and, as I know they are popular with other people too, I thought it would be fun to write a story about dragons.
- I love Florence and was very interested in the ruthless way in which politics was carried out in the Renaissance city states and fascinated by the power of a charismatic religious leader like Savaranola. I’m not sure those elements ended up as the story of ‘Basilisk’ but then ideas have a habit of developing in unexpected directions. I think I was heavily influenced by three books: George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s: The Handmaid’s Tale and a much less well known YA SF book I found in a second hand book shop and read first as a child Dark Universe: Daniel F Galouye about a society living underground after a nuclear war. I wanted to create an atmosphere of oppression and fear and keep the reader uncertain as to the outcome of the novel. I enjoyed making up the swear words that are the bed rock of Rej’s speech patterns. I asked my children to come up with as many as they could think of and went on from there. I always check my dialogue with my children anyway – the kiss of death for a novel is to have everyone speaking like a middle aged British woman!
Rej started awake in the total darkness of Below. He’d had that dream again. It was a moment before he realised where he was: the dream had a brightness and a clarity that made it seem more real than the damp darkness.
There were no dragons. He knew that, and yet again he had seen them soar above Lunnzia — wingspan wider than any eagle, scales tawny-gold like the heraldic symbol of the city, glinting in the sun. He had never seen the sun and yet he knew the quality of its light. He was shaking and his eyes watered as if from the brightness. Could it be tears that choked him, salt tears that streamed down his face? He did not think so. It was so long since he had cried it did not seem that it was something he could still do.
The sense of loss he felt was real. There had been a sky of a pure, pellucid blue, like no colour he had ever seen. It was everywhere and nowhere. He had been there, soaring through it — in it but not of it — with the city below, and all around him, everywhere, that colour —luminous, perfect. Then there had been the clean wind, smelling of strangeness and the pleasure of flight. Rej felt a new heaviness in his burial niche, a new sense of the gravity of his situation. The air smelled suddenly stale and fetid to sense that had never smelled anything else. The dream had been a kind of ecstasy, a gift maybe of the creator, Arché — a sign? He did not know, and the grief of loss was overwhelming.
There would be hours yet until the dim glow from the treaty lights would signal day. Rej wrapped himself more completely in his fur and retreated deeper into the narrow cave he had made his own with proper ceremony. It was too much to hope that the dream might return, and yet he sought to sleep as eagerly as some of his combe-mates sought unawareness. There were no dragons. He knew it and yet…
Donna woke along with everybody else and with the pale dawn light seeping through the shuttered window. The call to Morning Prayer sounded, a hand bell rung too loudly. She had no choice but to get up immediately. The sleeping arrangements at the university campus barracks for the preliminary scribes were cramped and everyone lay pretty well wherever they could. Gayla of the long limbs and flirtatious smile stretched and kicked her sharply in the ribs.
Donna did not complain. It could have been worse. This season the women were all together, since most of the men had joined the Lunnzia militia and gone off on the spring campaign fighting the army of High Verda. They were still gone though the campaign season was long over. Food was still in short supply after the heavy Autumn rains had destroyed much of the limited harvest that had got through the Verdan blockade, so that celibacy was this year’s community duty; there would be no blessed birthings this winter. Celibacy was not a hardship for Donna; she did not relish the prospect of motherhood or even the prospect of getting with child. Donna had unpleasant memories of the last time an extra ration of beer had turned the barracks bedding-down time into a free-for-all in an old-time liberty brothel.
She still bore the scars of her humbling after Darlish had reported her to the priest for pride and possessionism when she had refused to accommodate his demands. It was easier to keep her personal privacy intact in a women-only dorm. She knew most of the girls from previous work details and the left her alone. She wanted that — had encouraged it — and then again, sometimes she didn’t want to be quite so alone. This morning she would have liked to tell someone of her extraordinary dream. It was a dream of rare lucidity, a dream in which she had known herself to be flying free, high above the city of Lunnzia like the golden dragon — basilisk of Arché, in her dragon phase. Of course, she did not tell anyone.
She stretched less extravagantly than Gayla and got up like the rest, participating as minimally as possible in the grumbling early morning conversation. She tried not to wrinkle her nose at the pungent female odours surrounding her that never seemed to bother anyone else. She had stayed with her mother too long; even after four years of communal living she still found it difficult. She rolled up her bedroll with neat, economical movements and stowed it in one of the wooden ‘bird boxes’ that lined the walls. Because they were scribes they were privileged to have their own personal bird boxes labelled with their name. It was not quite a sin of ownership, more the privilege of permanent borrowing. It was one of the reasons that Donna had striven for this work tour. Should she be selected as a secondary scribe there would be other privileges, and she — strange, sinful, corrupted creature that she was — yearned for private space, for quietness. It was a desire she rarely dared confess. For her, as for all oppidans, service of the state was the rule of life, for only in self-surrender could there be perfection. Donna knew herself to be resolutely imperfect — resolutely different — a bird trying to swim. Some days she felt like a festival freak.
Today she had no room for such thoughts, for nothing but her memory, her memory of the dragon and those that had flown with her. Distractedly, she followed her work detail to the refectory and the morning rations. The cold stone of the flag floor brought her back to reality. The soles of her slippers were wearing thin — there was a shortage of leather this season.
The refectory was a beautiful room with a high vaulted ceiling and complex stonework. Each of the main craft masters had worked on the halls so that the walls were bright with frescos by the chief imagers of the city and lit by windows of magnificent glass depicting the myth of Arché, the creator dragon whom God had sent to seed the world and who, as the dark basilisk, would one day destroy it. It was hard to escape images of the dragon in this hall and, as she chewed on the weevily dark bread, Donna allowed herself briefly to recall the glorious liberation of flight. The red-garbed priest, the Most Humble Servant Hortim, was intoning the general confession of humility. Donna scarcely listened, busy with her own thoughts.
The slave had to address her twice before she heard him. His green-stained face looked sickly in the filtered light — by his tattoo he had been a native of the conquered city of Lambrugio.
‘How will you serve me?’ Donna answered softly in response.
‘The Doctor Esteemed Melagiar would have you scribe for him, Oppidan.’
Donna had never heard of Melagiar, but the university was stuffed full of Doctor Esteemeds so that was unsurprising. It was unusual to be asked for by name, but then she, when her humility failed her, had to admit she was an excellent scribe. She tried harder than most of her fellow acolytes, who were not interested in making this more than the usual three-month work tour.
She stuffed the remaining bread up her sleeve and, bowing vaguely in the direction of her peers and genuflecting towards the Most Humble Servant, she followed the slave through the cloisters to the library and study rooms. It was even colder in the cloisters, where frost had petrified the spiders’ webs that decorated the tracery of the arched portals into the finest silver filigree. The slave’s bare feet were blue with cold and Donna was rapidly losing all feeling in her own. There would be no fires lit until after midwinter, by order of the Arkel — the high priest of Arché and the unacknowledged ruler of the Council of Ten. The Council blamed the war for the shortage of fuel if not for the cold — even the most loyal of oppidans might find that hard to swallow.
The slave indicated a narrow arched stairway and said flatly,
‘Oppidan Donna will find the Doctor Esteemed Melagiar at the top of the South Tower.’
His voice sounded so weak and unsteady that Donna found herself looking at the man not the messenger. He was tall and cadaverous, with the characteristically high-cheekboned face of his countrymen. Older than Donna by some years, he looked ill even in the daylight, and the green stain with which he had been marked looked lurid and ugly on his finely chiselled face. His breath was tainted with the sweetness of berenslip. His eyes had a hectic gleam. The war with High Verda must have been going even more badly than they’d heard — berenslip, as Donna knew from her mother’s training, not to mention her own work with the apothecaries, was an elixir which gave the sensation of fullness in an empty belly; it stimulated health in the weak. It was given to those on the point of starvation. It occurred to her that when oppidans — free citizens of Lunnzia — were given coarse black bread, there could be no reserves left for the slaves. With uncharacteristic generosity she found herself giving the man the remaining hunk of food from her sleeve. He looked at her dazedly.
‘Eat it! It is health giving,’ she commanded, before climbing the dim stairwell.
‘Oppidan Donna.’ She turned to see the slave looking at her intently. ‘In my city that is now no city, I would have said to you be wary.’
Donna met his eyes and saw something there she did not expect to see in the eyes of a slave. She bowed an acknowledgment and continued on her way. He should not have spoken to her except to pass on a message, but he’d given her something as payment for the bread. That was how things worked in Lambrugio — or so it was said. In that brief exchange which had turned her generosity into a transaction, she had seen a flicker of pride in the man’s feverish eyes. In accepting that payment, she had allowed him to embroil her in the corruption of his kind. She shook her head to rid herself of such unwelcome thoughts and to focus her mind on the important part — what did the warning mean?