Basilisks and Brian (and a Very Bad First Day)
by Stuart Sharp
"This," Spider said, passing Brian a silvery thing that looked a bit like a melted wine gum, "is your Portal. It goes in your ear."
They were standing in the warehouse office of P. Edgeborough and co, suppliers of just about anything needed by wizards, mad-warlords, and every other weird thing in the Multiverse. The main desks were more cluttered than usual, if that was possible, since Peter and Spider had decided that it was time for Brian to learn about some of the more important things he'd be working with.
"In my ear?"
"So that you won't lose it. Now stop being such a baby and put it in."
Brian did as he was told. In the day or so since he'd started working for P. Edgeborough and co. he'd learnt many things; that the universe was full of so many dimensions you'd have more trouble unravelling them than describing the structure of a government department, that what wizards really wanted out of life were incredibly deadly dungeons supplied as cheaply as possible, and that dragons, for some reason, seemed to want to do what he wanted. None of these things were as important as the two things that he had learned about Cynthia Williams-Frothes, the incredibly good looking redhead who was Peter Edgeborough's other employee.
Firstly, you never, ever called her by anything other than her nickname, and secondly, when she started to speak like a teacher addressing a bunch of misbehaving children, it was usually a good idea to do as you were told. Brian put the thing in his ear.
"Right," said Spider, "that should let you hop around the Multiverse to your heart's content. Just touch it and think of where you need to be and it will get you, well... not quite where you want, usually. Peter keeps trying to calibrate them, but mostly they're not very precise. Now, drink this."
She handed him a goblet of something red. Brian knew better than to ask what it was. It was incredibly foul tasting.
"What was that?" he demanded, when he'd stopped coughing, having forgotten his thoughts on the matter of a moment ago.
"Yes Brian." Spider perched on the edge of the desk. "Don't make a fuss. The damn great lizards are perfectly all right afterwards, and their blood does give the ability to understand most languages, so lets not go all vegan about it, shall we?"
Brian tried not to think about it too much. The trouble was, he liked even the normal sort of lizards, and when you changed that to the giant, fire-breathing variety, he'd discovered that 'liked' quickly got upgraded.
"Are you sure they're not hurt?"
"Oh for... yes, Brian, I'm sure. Now then, we have a job to do. A little delivery for an enchantress. Just bring that box, would you?"
Brian picked up the box Spider pointed to. It was surprisingly heavy.
"What's in it?"
"Make-up, mostly. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is to get a decent foundation cream when you're out on a world that mostly thinks in terms of woad."
"And that's what we're delivering to this enchantress?"
Brian saw Spider shrug.
"I suppose that, if you're going to be a dark seductress capable of holding men in utter thrall, you'll take every edge you can get. Now, some ground rules. There aren't many. Don't touch anything you don't understand, whether animal, mineral, political situation or really pretty magical object. Don't do anything stupid. Don't insult the client. And remember, if anything goes wrong, use your Portal to get back here right away, all right?"
Brian nodded. It seemed to let Spider relax a little.
"Good, then off we go."
She put a hand on his shoulder, and the world shifted.
Brian hadn't had much opportunity to become a connoisseur of castles, but he had to admit, this one was pretty impressive. It was all winding towers and elegant flying buttresses, the sort of thing that looked like it should be on top of a cake. Even the guards were elegant in blue and gold uniforms that almost obscured the fact that they were carrying extremely sharp looking halberds. They crossed them as Brian and Spider approached.
Brian had to wonder what the guards made of them. After all, they were both dressed in jeans and t-shirts, not exactly the sort of thing they would be used to in a world of hoses and doublets, jerkins and whatever the other ones were. The difference didn't seem to bother Spider though. She strode up to them. Brian did his best to fall in behind her.
"We're here with a delivery for the Lady Olivia," Spider announced, and the guards looked at one another for a moment before stepping out of the way in a manner that reminded Brian a lot of one of those mechanical clocks people bought sometimes.
"Her Ladyship will be in the Slightly Less Great Hall," one of them said. "It's just off the Great Hall. You can't miss it."
They couldn't. Nor, as it turns out, could they miss the Lady Olivia. The fact that she was sitting on a throne at one end of a hall filled with courtiers and guards was one clue, of course, as was the fact that she was wearing the sort of intricate silver crown that had almost as many jewels as spikes. Brian liked to think though that even without those clues, he would have been able to pick Lady Olivia out as special. She was radiant. She was beautiful. She was beckoning them to come forward.
Brian recovered in time to keep up with Spider as they made their way to the throne. Brian gave what he hoped was a courtly bow, though that proved remarkably difficult while holding a box. He saw Spider incline her head. Brian was acutely aware of Lady Olivia's gaze sweeping over him and the box he'd brought.
"Is that everything?" She asked Spider, who nodded. "Oh good. Just put the box down there, anywhere is fine."
Brian did as he was told. Spider gave a polite cough.
"And now there's just the matter of payment."
Lady Olivia smiled.
"Oh yes. So there is. Guards!"
Brian pulled at the manacles attaching him to the foot of the four-poster bed. There wasn't a great deal of point, but it gave him something to do. The guards had grabbed Spider, and then when he'd stood there trying to work out how to help her, they'd grabbed him too and bundled him off to this place, whatever it was.
Well, actually, what the place happened to be was fairly clear, it was a bedroom. There was a bed with enough room for a whole battalion, should someone feel the need, a dressing table piled high with enough make-up, jewellery and perfume to suggest that it's owner didn't really know how to say no to the stuff, an open door which clearly showed the racks of clothes beyond, and a full sized mirror not too far from Brian. Definitely a bedroom then.
What Brian couldn't work out was what he was doing there, chained up so that he couldn't reach the portal in his ear. There was no sign of Spider. Just him, and his reflection, and this strange room.
That number expanded by one when the door opened to admit Lady Olivia, who closed it behind her and took off her crown, throwing it down among the other jewellery. Maybe it was something about the way she stalked towards him, shaking out her dark tresses while fixing him with a hungry look, but Brian didn't think she was planning on discussing the invoicing arrangements for the delivery.
She stopped just before him and reached out to brush a finger down Brian's throat.
"So, it's Brian, isn't it?"
For some odd reason, Brian felt the power of speech deserting him. Still, he made an effort. Not a very good effort, but an effort.
"What... um... yes. How did you...?"
"Oh, your little friend told me. I shall have to think up something to do with her, I suppose. Still, I'm sure the dungeons will hold her for now."
Brian fought the urge to throw himself against the chains, even though he suspected that was the sort of thing you were supposed to do in these situations. It didn't seem like it would help.
"Why are you doing this?" he demanded instead. That drew a laugh from Lady Olivia. A beautiful, musical, wonderful laugh that he could happily have listened to all day, damn her.
"Why not? It seems better than paying you, and it has extra... bonuses." Now Brian might have been the first to admit (or possibly the fifth) that, when it came to signals from the opposite sex, he wasn't much use. Most of the effort that might have gone into that understanding seemed to have gone into understanding things with rather more in the way of scales instead. In this case though, even Brian got the message. It might have had something to do with the fact that Lady Olivia was so close to him by this point that he noticed every time she breathed.
"What are you planning to do with me?" he asked, hoping that he'd managed to make it sound suitably like a soldier waiting to be shot. Since it earned another of those amazing laughs, Brian suspected that he hadn't pitched it quite right.
"Oh, I'm sure we"ll think of something, between us. I'll be right back. I'm just going to slip into something... else. I could say something about not going anywhere, but that would just be cruel." Lady Olivia appeared to think about it. "Don't go anywhere."
What exactly were you supposed to do while chained to one post of a bed, waiting for an unfeasibly gorgeous witch-queen to return? While Brian suspected that there was a school of thought that said 'pray for time to speed up', he settled for doing nothing. Well, actually, he had another go at escaping again first, but when that didn't work, he went back to doing nothing.
He was still doing nothing when the mirror in the corner started to glow. It briefly revealed the face of a man whose collection of scars was probably the envy of all his friends, and whose dress sense mostly seemed to run to black plate armour.
"Lady Olivia!" the man's voice boomed.
"Um, I'm afraid she's not around at the moment," Brian said. "Can I take a message?"
"A message?" The man said it in tones that suggested he liked to eviscerate those who took messages.
"No. The sight of your corpse will be message enough. Behold, the Basilisk!"
From somewhere off to one side a squarish shape covered by a cloth was wheeled in. The scarred man took hold of the cloth, and with a cry of "Aha!" whipped it off. Brian noticed that he shut his eyes as he did so.
Brian wasn't entirely sure why. There was quite a nice looking lizard there, in a cage, staring back at him. It had largish eyes, but otherwise looked perfectly normal, while the man was treating it like it was... well, ugly or something.
"Um... I'm not sure I understand," he said. "What's supposed to be wrong with it?"
The man in the mirror's brow furrowed. He didn't open his eyes though.
"You've got your eyes shut, haven't you?"
"No, why would I?"
"Because this is a basilisk, of course, whose very gaze can kill a man. Go on, admit it, you've got your eyes shut."
"No," Brian promised, "I haven't. Look, are you sure about this whole killer gaze thing? Only it doesn't seem to be working."
"You really haven't got your eyes shut? I mean, you're looking at it and everything, right?"
"Right in the eyes." Brian looked at it some more, just in case. "I think you must have been sold a dud."
The man in the mirror swore, shook his head, and opened his eyes. What happened to him next wasn't particularly pleasant. When he'd finished keeling over, Brian became aware of the soft pad of footsteps nearby, and looked over to see Lady Olivia creeping across the room, her gaze averted, holding a blanket like a net. To Brian's mild disappointment, she'd tied a silk robe around herself before coming into the room. With a quick lob, she threw the blanket over the mirror, covering it as surely as an old lady might cover a budgie cage. When Lady Olivia seemed certain that it wasn't going to fall off, she turned her attentions to Brian, looking at him like someone might look at a parachutist who, despite having forgotten their parachute, seems to have walked away intact.
"That's... that's not possible."
"What's not?" Brian asked.
"You did look at the basilisk, didn't you?"
"Why does everyone keep asking me that? Yes, I looked at it. It looked quite nice really."
"But looking one of those things in the eye is fatal!" Lady Olivia stepped back. "That bastard Duke Regor tried to kill me! And all because I said I wouldn't marry him if he were the last man..." she tailed off as another thought seemed to come to her. "Cynthia is going to be so angry with me when she finds out."
Brian felt his brow crease.
"Look, Brian," Spider said, seated neatly across from him at the big table in the Big Table room, "it's really very simple. I told you that there were rules you had to remember, yes?"
Brian was pretty sure that Spider was right. He just couldn't quite remember all of what she'd said. Spider sighed.
"And of them, the most important one was...?"
Brian thought about it.
"Don't touch anything?"
"No! If you get into trouble, use your Portal at once. This was a way of showing you why. You leave it too long, and you get grabbed."
"So Lady Olivia..."
The Lady in question shrugged where she sat, perched on the edge of the table. She'd changed back into her regal dress and crown.
"Cyn... sorry, Spider and I are old friends. It seemed like good fun to help her out. Particularly if I got to throw her in my dungeons for a little bit."
Spider gave her a smile, but it was accompanied by an appraising look.
"Incidentally, I don't remember saying anything about that, Livvy. Or about seducing Brian."
"Oh, you're just no fun some days," Lady Olivia said with a grin. "Besides, it seemed a shame to waste him. And if he hadn't been in my bedroom, I might be dead now."
"There is that." Spider sounded like she was contemplating whether that might not be a good thing. "I still don't entirely understand why Brian was immune. I can only assume it's something to do with the way reptiles like him."
"Maybe the Basilisk didn't want to hurt me?" Brian suggested.
"Yes, well, whatever. It worked out ok. It's time for us to go now."
She stood up.
"Yes." Lady Olivia said, kissing her on both cheeks. She turned to Brian.
"Don't even think about it, Livvy."
"Like I said, no fun at all. Maybe you'll come back on your own some day, Brian, and I can thank you properly."
Brian caught Spider's eye and had more sense than to say anything.
"Trust me," Spider said, "I'll be keeping him too busy for that. Call me when you need some more stuff bringing."
Brian started to say goodbye, but there wasn't really time. Spider clamped a hand down on his shoulder, touched the portal in her ear, and the world shifted.
© 2010 Stuart Sharp
Bio: Stuart Sharp has very nearly finished being a postgraduate history student. Definitely, this time. He's also the author of the urban fantasy novel Searching, published by Double Dragon Publishing. His first story featuring Brian Northington, Receipt for a Dragon, appeared in the December 2009 / January 2010 Aphelion.
E-mail: Stuart Sharp
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