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Once, it is said, gods used magic to create reality, with powers that defied explanation. But the magic—or science, if one believes those who try to master the dangers of thaumaturgy—now seems more like a dream. Industrial workers for House Technis, farmers for House Arbor, and fisher folk of House Marin eke out a living and hope for a better future. But the philosopher-assassin Kata plots a betrayal that will cost the lives of godlike Minotaurs; the ambitious bureaucrat Boris Autec rises through the ranks as his private life turns to ashes; and the idealistic seditionist Maximilian hatches a mad plot to unlock the vaunted secrets of the Great Library of Caeli-Enas, drowned in the fabled city at the bottom of the sea, its strangeness visible from the skies above.
These three people, reflecting all the hopes and dreams of the ancient city, risk everything for a future that they can create only by throwing off the shackles of tradition and superstition, as their destinies collide at ground zero of a conflagration that will transform the world… or destroy it.
For the first time in ten years the minotaurs came to the city of Caeli-Amur from the winding road that led through the foothills to the north. There were three hundred or more of them. From the city they appeared as tiny figures—refugees perhaps. But as they approached, the size of their massive bodies, the magnificence of their horned bull heads, the shape of their serrated short-swords, became apparent. The minotaurs had come for the Festival of the Bull. When the week was over, they would descend from the white cliffs on which the city perched and board the ships that would carry them out over the Sunken City and home to their island of Aya.
The citizens watched the minotaurs silently, from their balconies or the city’s white walls. Some of the elderly leaned toward each other and whispered: “So few? There are so few of them.” Many of the children, especially from the factory districts, ran out to meet the magnificent creatures, laughing and calling to them until they drew close and the power and size of the minotaurs quieted them. Gliders swung out over the creatures and watched them from above, safe on the cool currents of air that swept in from the sea. Finally, when the minotaurs arrived at the city, some, who still held to the old ways, fell onto their knees in supplication. The minotaurs were still worshipped as gods by a few, though to harm them was considered a crime by all.
The orderly line broke apart when the minotaurs entered the city and spread out like tributaries into a delta: some climbed their way down to the water palaces and steam baths that ran along the peninsula at the northeast side of Caeli-Amur. Others caught the sooty street-trams through the windy streets along the cliffs, or took the cable car that ran from the massive machine tower near the piers to the top of the cliffs. Those minotaurs seeking knowledge ventured to Caeli-Amur’s famous cafés, where philosopher-assassins debated in the afternoon, drinking coffee and eating fruit. By nightfall, the minotaurs could be found in the liquor palaces and beer halls.
In one such drinking tavern called the Ruins, long after the sun had descended over the mountains to the west, Kata eyed a group of minotaurs. They dominated the place, which, perched on the edge of the factory district close to the city’s northern gate, was typical of workers’ establishments of the area. The proprietor of the Ruins had decorated the hot and dirty hall with a bar along one wall with fragments of ancient technology scavenged from the old places. In one corner, a lamp was cleverly constructed from a ragged half of a broken metallic sphere; the remnants of its insides—an intricate latticework of fine metals—were blackened and twisted. Strange angular implements hung on the walls: here what seemed to be a bulging glove ending in protuberances of unknown function, there a shield-sized fragment of a larger curved structure, geometric shapes cut into it. Had these pieces functioned in any way, the Houses would long ago have confiscated them. But as they were ruined, they remained weirdly beautiful decorations reminding the patrons of the long-lost glories of the world.
Usually filled with gray-eyed factory workers—the older ones keen to deaden their aching bodies with cheap beer, the young ones filled with rage and likely to end up fists flying in the surrounding alleys—the wooden stools and tables were as rough and worn as its clients. This evening, the men sat frightened and quiet in the corners, or slunk past the minotaurs, hoping not to brush against them. Minotaurs were quick to anger, especially when they were filled with beer or hot-liquor.
Kata knew she would have to approach; she needed two of them. But first things first, she thought as she took a drink of the bitter liquid from the flask at her waist. She kept her face still, though she wanted to grimace. The medicine tasted earthy and pungent, like dirt and ul-tree roots mixed together.
She watched and scratched distractedly at the metal sheaths that rubbed against her skin beneath her shirt. Realizing what she was doing, she stopped. The shirt was dark and loose, and she wore a skirt that reached her knees. Together they showed off her shoulder-length hair, which was black as the minotaurs’ eyes. Beneath her clothes Kata was lithe and unusually muscular; she was an athlete, of sorts.
A group of four minotaurs sat laughing at the front of the room, telling one another jokes about labyrinths and reminiscing about the Numerian Wars. She remembered the Festival of the Bull a decade earlier, when she was living on the streets after her mother’s death, but had forgotten the sheer physical presence of the minotaurs. Their shoulders and chests were like the statues of Caeli-Amur’s heroes that stood in the water-parks to the south of the city, where waterfalls and canals flowed gently through manicured gardens. The statues were seven, eight feet of white marble, muscles sculpted beneath their stone cloaks. But it was the minotaurs’ heads, those most valuable of trophies, that emanated majesty: the flaring nostrils, the wiry and perfumed hide, and most especially, the deep and dark eyes, mesmerizing and inhuman. Kata was afraid to look into the eyes, but she would have to.
To one side along the bar sat a slightly smaller minotaur with a dark hide. He did not speak but seemed to be brooding.
That one, she thought.
She slid down the bar and stood next to him.
“Why are you watching us?” he asked.
She could not look him in the eye; she felt guilty. “How far is it to Aya, across the sea?”
“Five days, if the wind is good.”
“Why don’t you use steamers? You could be sure to arrive in time.”
“Tradition. Anyway, I do not trust steamers. What if they break on the open sea? What if those wheels along their sides fall off? Give me the wind any day. It cannot be conquered but offers its gifts freely. It is a trusty partner, at times.”
She looked up into his left eye and then away from its glistening darkness. Its inky magnificence horrified her.
“What have you here, Aemilius?” The booming voice came from another minotaur. She forced herself to look up at the massive head towering over her. She held his eye for a moment before looking away.
“You know,” he said, stepping toward her so his chest came close to her face, “there was a time when a minotaur could stay wherever he liked during the Festival of the Bull.”
The smaller one sat impassively. “Those days are gone, Cyriacus.”
Kata stood up and placed her hand against Cyriacus’s chest, which was like a solid wall close to her face. He must have been almost seven feet tall. His presence was magnetic, his strength palpable. She pushed against him. He didn’t move. She pushed harder, and he took a step backwards. “It’s rude to stand so close to someone you do not know,” she said.
Cyriacus laughed and turned. “Hey, Dexion. We have a spirited one here.”
Aemilius leaned into her and said, “It is not wise to play with minotaurs. They are unpredictable and dangerous.”
“I can hold my own,” she replied. He nodded, turned, and walked away, leaving her with Cyriacus.
“Have a drink,” the minotaur said, handing her his own tankard.
She took a swig of the liquor, which burned her throat. She held back the cough. “Anlusian hot-wine,” she said, feeling her lips and mouth burn with the spices, the vapor rushing into her nose, making her eyes water.
“Yes. These new liquors fire the belly and the mind.”
“I live close to here,” she said. “I have more wine there, and it is free.”
He stood close to her again, and she felt the heat of his breath on her face. She forced herself to look up into his deep black eyes and put her hand against his chest again. This time she did not push him away.
The edge of the factory district was filled with families and older workers who had managed to escape living in the center of that industrial quarter. Here the apartment blocks rose to four and five stories and were built from bricks and concrete. Not crammed together like those in the center or the district or the slums close to the Arena, yet without the vastness of the Arantine where the elite of House Arbor built their mansions, Kata’s neighborhood was reflected its citizens’ status. Here they could breathe the fresh air that drifted from the sea, only occasionally punctuated by billows of smoke.
As Kata and Cyriacus walked along the narrow street where her apartment was located, the little street-child Henri ran next to them, “Kata, Kata! Yensa fudge, Yensa fudge?” Offering them a pouch of the toxic hallucinogen, he was unmoved by the minotaur. Kata liked that about the boy, whose face looked pure, despite the streaks of grime across it. She’d known a hundred like him: their innocent faces shrouded violent and animalistic instincts, the kind you needed to survive on the streets. Even now his eyes were wide as saucers, a sure sign he had eaten his own fudge.
She pushed the boy away. “Not now.”
The boy scurried around them to Cyriacus’s side. “Yensa fudge? Yensa fudge?”
The minotaur swung his arm out and the boy flew into the gutter, his eyes blinking rapidly. Kata looked back at him and shook her head quickly, as if to say, stop it.
Leaving the boy coughing behind them, Kata and Cyriacus climbed up the stairs that ran along the side of the building. Kata’s apartment was on the third floor of her building.
The key rattled in the lock, and the door swung open. Kata lit the lamp by the door. It was her windowless parlor, a kitchen off to one side. More stairs led up to her bedroom and a balcony that overlooked the eastern parts of the city, the Opera House and the docks.
Kata walked over to the table and leaned against it. Cyriacus slammed the door behind him—it shuddered on its hinges. He strode toward her, grasped her by the waist, lifted her like a doll, and sat her on the table, leaning in so she could smell the hot spices of the Anlusian wine and his hide, scented with pungent ginger and clove perfume. She touched the side of his face, feeling the thick, wiry hair. But still she could not look him in the eyes. Quickly she took her hands from his face so she would be ready.
Cyriacus stepped in and pulled her closer by the hips, so their bodies were hard against each other, Kata’s legs splayed around his trunklike thighs, her skirt riding up her legs. She placed her hands on the table behind her as he slowly and carefully unbuttoned her shirt with thick, powerful fingers. He looked down to see the waistband that held the sheaths behind her back.
“What?” he said, laughing. “A knife belt? What would a little—?”
But Kata had already drawn both long-daggers. She plunged them into his ribs. Cyriacus let out a deafening roar and threw the table away from him. Kata flew through the air backwards, the table rolling and spinning beneath her. She struck the wall and fell to the floor, the table crashing against her shins. She felt no pain yet, just the rush of adrenaline.
Cyriacus stared down at the two daggers, his head shifting from left to right in disbelief. Only the handles were visible, one jutting from each side. Blood coursed in deep red streams down his waist and onto his thighs. He snorted, looked up at her, and said, “You’ve killed me.”
Kata struggled to her feet and stared back at him. She was horrified by the scene: everything was wrong. Though she had killed before, it had always been in the wars between the Houses. She had felled three men with her knives, watching them collapse in seconds before her. It was war and she felt no remorse. Now she could hardly bear the sight of this magnificent creature at the end of its life.
Astonishingly, Cyriacus came at her. She turned and ran to the stairs that led up to her bedroom, thumping footsteps close behind her. She pushed herself, taking the steps three at a time, her heart rattling in her chest. If she could make it to her bedside table, she might stand a chance.
She burst into the room and dived across the bed, reaching for her bolt-thrower on the small table. From the corner of her eye she saw him charge into the room. She turned, raised the bulky weapon, and fired a bolt. Blood spurted from his abdomen like pollen from an open flower.
He staggered back and came at her again. His nose flared and a rumbling sound—either in anger or pain, she couldn’t tell—came from his chest and throat.
She threw open the doors and ran onto the balcony, reloading the thrower. No man could withstand such physical punishment, yet Cyriacus still came at her, immense and godlike. She heard the final click of the thrower and raised it, but it was too late. He was on her, his force crushing her against the balcony wall. A cry escaped her lips. So, she thought, this is how it ends—I was wrong to commit this blasphemy.
His breath steamed from his nostrils; his long, thick tongue lolled from his mouth. “I will crack your neck like a rabbit’s,” he said, grasping the top of her head in one huge hand. “I will take you with me, woman, to the land of light.”
“Please,” she said, her voice broken with fear and resignation.
Cyriacus looked at her in puzzlement, blinked slowly, his hands losing their strength, and crashed to the floor like a cliff into the sea.
Kata left him there, changed her clothes, and walked out into the night. Henri was gone: off to peddle his fudge elsewhere; the Festival of the Bull would be good for business. He’d be back: the streets around her apartment were his turf. He slept somewhere in the neighborhood, perhaps in a dry drain or a nook beneath one of the apartments.
She cut through the factory district. It was full of dirt and grime, the smoke from the underground machines pumping out even at night. She had never forgotten her mother’s last words as she lay in the factory infirmary, her face a splotchy red-white, the contagion eating away at her insides: “Do whatever you must to survive, Kata. The gods know there’s nothing else to do.” And then blood had come to mother’s lips and dribbled down her chin, her chest had thrust forward unnaturally, an awful odor was loosed in the room, and she had died. The next day Kata was on the street. She cried that first day—never again.
After her mother died, Kata had grown up in these streets, running with the urchin gangs, selling trinkets, stealing, doing odds and ends for House Technis, running messages, setting up robberies and murders. She had been a pinch-faced girl, scrawny but sly. Like the other children, she had dreamed of joining the ranks of dispossessed philosopher-assassins who lived moment to moment in Caeli-Amur, debating in the cafés in the afternoon, lounging in the liquor halls in the evening, forever at the beck and call of the Houses. She had one more minotaur to kill and she would be free.
Now Kata climbed up through the city toward the mountaintop and along the edges of the factory district. She kept away from the larger streets where the city was alive with news of the minotaurs’ arrival, and after half an hour arrived at House Technis. She slid through a side gate in the outer wall that surrounded the complex of palaces and administration buildings, gardens and ponds.
She came to the enormous palace, like the monstrous invention of a child’s fantasy, the ancient building swamped by layer after layer of extension, new wings and towers that had been added, regardless of architectural taste or style. It appeared as if blocks had simply been piled crazily one upon the other without design. Even now, as Kata glanced up at the towering structure, builders were working on the west wing.
Kata passed along the labyrinthine corridors that, having also been built at different times, were forced to accommodate themselves to the planless structure to which they had been added. Pneumatiques whizzed and whirred overhead on hundreds of tiny wires. Along the walls, pipes rattled and shuddered and heaved: some carrying small barrels filled with instructions, others of unknown purpose. In the background, the constant thump of steam engines could be heard, as the building shifted the rooms deep inside its mobile southeastern wing around each other, according to some preplanned sequence. She had never been inside that particular technological marvel, but had heard that it was easy to lose yourself as each room rose, fell, or spun before locking temporarily into its new location.
She slipped past a constant stream of house agents rushing to and fro, some carrying boxes, others pushing carts filled with delicate new technologies from the New-Men in Anlusia, yet others dragging bound and hooded seditionist prisoners to the dungeon. The place was a cacophony of voices yelling to each other all manner of things: what directions to Subofficiate Aruki’s office, about the latest strike to break out in what was becoming a wave of industrial unrest, about favors offered or claimed in return. Guards leaned against the walls beside their bolt-throwers, shortswords dangling from belts. Others played dice in a little alcove.
Kata passed through small grottoes; a large room filled with secretaries lined in rows, each busily shuffling papers; another where cramped offices, enclosed by five-foot walls, stood like little buildings in the vastness of the room. Pneumatics zipped in and out of the little offices as if running on a vast network of spiderwebs.
She found Officiate Rudé, a wiry little half-Anlusian administrator, in his office. Like most Anlusians, he had a youthful visage for someone so late in life: it was his quick and energetic movements, his slim and boyish body. He told her to wait as he signed a number of papers.
“Strikes, strikes, strikes.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “Why should the workers be so belligerent now, when things are changing so fast?”
“Perhaps it’s because things are uncertain that they think they can seize their opportunity.” Kata was aware that as winter had broken and spring set in, a wave of strikes has broken out in the city. The first few—the weavers who worked for House Arbor and the fishermen employed by House Marin—had been threatened into returning to work. Later, subofficiates were replaced, seditionists thrown into the dungeons, adjustments made to the factories’ operations. But that had not stopped more spot-strikes from breaking out like little fires on a smoldering summer’s day.
“Well, the House has had enough. The time for kindnesses is over.” Rudé looked up from his forms. “Let’s get to work then, shall we?”
Things were set in motion. Rudé accompanied her with two workmen back to the apartment in the carriage that would secretly carry away the minotaur. She took them to the balcony but avoided the sight of the minotaur’s body.
Rudé took a sharp intake of breath and ran his hands through his fire-red hair speckled slightly with white. “Majestical,” he said. “Fascinating. I should have liked to talk to him.… I didn’t think you would do it.”
“I told you I would,” said Kata.
“I knew you were hard, but even so.”
She stole a glance at the creature. It lay at odd angles against the balcony wall.
“Get to work,” Rudé ordered.
The workmen opened their cases and took from them mechanical saws and jagged knives with wicked blades.
“And be careful of the horns. They’re the most valuable pieces. And the hide,” said Rudé.
“You people… ,” Kata said.
“Remember, you asked for this job.” Rudé looked away from the minotaur across the city.
Kata could not bear the high whine of the saw or the wet thump of the minotaur’s flesh, so she walked down the stairs.
As Rudé followed her, he called back: “Don’t damage the eyes. Our thaumaturgists need those eyes for their preparations. Don’t get anything in the eyes.” He followed Kata into the room and said, “One more, Kata, and your debt will be repaid. Think about that. Think about how hard you’ve worked. Just one more minotaur.”
“Even if I repay the debt, I’ll never be free of you. None of us ever will. It doesn’t matter which House, you’re all the same.”
Rudé threw his head back and laughed. “Kata, remember, without us you’d still be on the street. Remember whom this building belongs to.” Technis had bought many of the buildings in the area, as if they weren’t content with their other forms of control but craved power over the citizens’ everyday lives.
From above, she could still hear the sickening sound of meat and bone being cut to pieces. When they left, she suddenly felt an aching in her legs and back. She looked down at her blood-covered shins, pieces of skin scraped into ridges near her ankles. The adrenaline had long ago left her and now all she could feel was pain.
Two nights after the death of Cyriacus, Kata watched the Sun Parade, celebrating the moment four hundred years earlier when the sun had broken through the fog and Saliras’s forces had been routed by the minotaurs and the Caeli-Amurians together. CaeliAmur was a city of festivals. Festival of the Sun, Aya’s Day, the Stars Descent, Celebration of the Dancing Goat, Alerion’s Day, the Twilight Observance—rare was the month when there was no celebration to be had.
The parade descended from Via Gracchia on the top of the cliffs toward the Market Square by the piers. Figures walked with hideous masks: distorted faces that looked as if they had melted in great heat; goats with gigantic eyes and too-thin faces; and, of course, bulls. Others played thin, high-pitched flutes or circular drums that fit beneath their arms and could be squeezed to change the pitch. All were dressed outrageously in oranges, reds, yellows. Crowds watched from the side of the road, clapping at the leering masks. Scattered among them were the minotaurs.
Kata glanced at the crowd. On the other side of the road stood the smaller and darker minotaur she had met at the bar. She emptied the acrid medicine from her flask, gagging as she swallowed it. It was the last of the preparation. When she had finished the job, she would be able to afford more. She had spent most of her remaining money at the markets, buying deadly herbs. From these she had prepared poison, mixing it with the flagon of wine, which she then placed in her cupboard. She could not risk another fight: Who would have believed anyone could be as strong as Cyriacus, to take so much physical punishment?
She had poison enough for ten men. That should be enough.
She scuttled gingerly through a break in the parade, dodging the drummers and dancers. Her shins were still scabby and bruised.
“Hello,” she said to the minotaur.
“Ah,” he said, “the woman who can hold her own. And did you?”
She smiled. His eyes did not seem so terrible this time; they seemed to be laughing. “I always hold my own.”
“I see. I’m Aemilius.”
“Kata,” she said. “You’re not marching in the parade.”
He shrugged and looked to the sky. “Look at the moon. Can you see Aya’s handprints, side by side, from when he threw it into the sky?”
“It’s bright, isn’t it?”
“So bright that on a clear and calm night like this, you can see the Sunken City through the crystal water.”
“No.” Kata frowned in disbelief. She knew that Caeli-Enas, Caeli-Amur’s sister city, was deep beneath the ocean. But she had always assumed that it was lost in the murky depths.
“I swear. Would you like to see?”
She hesitated. She should take this chance. It was falling into her lap. “Yes.”
They marched together up to the great steam tower—full of thumping and clattering from the engine at its base—that powered the cable car from the top of the cliff to the piers. There were too many people on the streets, and the walk would have been a long one.
They entered a doorway in the tower’s base and climbed wide stone stairs up to a wide entrance chamber with a platform opening out to the air on one side. A bustle of white-haired people with pointy beards or shawls or aging, curved backs stood around, whispering to each other excitedly. To view the city and the Sun Parade from the cable car was popular among the older citizens. The youth lined the streets or marched in the parade itself.
Kata and Aemilius watched as a cable car swung around the rear of the tower and reemerged at the open side of the chamber. They stepped into the car, which filled with people around them. There was no conductor—the cable car had always been free in Caeli-Amur, a remnant from ancient days perhaps. The workers who kept it going were supported by donations from the citizens. Some civic spirit still lived on in the city.
As they swung over the city, looking at the parade winding below like a cascade of lights, Kata noticed the passengers in the carriage kept away from Aemilius. She recognized their wide-eyed apprehension.
“You realize the effect you have on those around you,” she whispered to him.
“Of course.” Aemilius did not look about: to do so would be undignified.
“You have a strange bearing; you hold yourself apart somehow.”
“And you,” he said. “You do also.”
She looked away from him, down at the street-trams caught in the traffic below. The streets were like rivers of yellow and flickering lights. She could think of nothing more to say.
They reached the docks, nine piers jutting into a glassy, silent ocean. Clippers and cutters floated between monolithic steamers, the new and the old side by side. The piers were quiet: there were no signs of the Xsanthian dockworkers and only a few boatmen moved around carrying rope or boxes of tools. The moon hovered above, lighting a section of the water in one silvery molten band. Aemilius paid a boatman and took a small rowboat.
“It’s too far,” she said. “We need a steamer.”
“It’s not too far. Get in.”
She hesitated, then stepped onto the dark wooden planks of the boat.
Aemilius rowed away from the city, over the glassy ocean, the oars making satisfying creaks against the wooden oarlocks and subtle splashes as they entered the water. The two of them were silent as they left the city far behind, though they could still hear the laughter and the pipes and drums of the festival floating over the water.
“Look,” said Aemilius after some time.
Kata peered over the edge of the boat and put her hand to her chest in astonishment. “You can see it, you can really see it.”
Beneath them Caeli-Enas shimmered silvery white. Buildings and boulevards came suddenly into focus and then blurred again as the water moved quietly beneath them. Perched on its sunken hill, the great white dome and marble pillars of a statuesque building emerged briefly into view. Over four hundred years that city had slept beneath the ocean and with it, the last secrets of the ancients. A sense of wonder awakened in Kata. For the first time in years, she felt that the world was a large place filled with possibility.
“Most of the city was white marble,” said Aemilius. “I walked those streets when I was young. I watched white-caparisoned horses pull crow-black carriages. I watched street-officers lighting gas lamps on hot summer nights as lovers drifted through the wide streets.”
“How old are you?” asked Kata.
“Five hundred and twelve.”
Kata drew a long, quiet breath. So old. Eventually she said, “There is a sadness about you.”
“Look,” he said. “Can you see something moving down there? They say there are still sea serpents with heads like houses, bodies big as Numerian caravans.”
“There are,” she said. “I’ve seen them. They come closer to land during the winter.” She caught a glimpse of something snaking through the Sunken City’s streets. It seemed to warp in and out of existence. A chill ran down her spine. Should the creature surface, their rowboat would capsize and the serpent would swallow them whole.
“Perhaps we should head back,” she said.
Again, Kata led a minotaur up the cobblestoned alleyway to her house. Again the creature came in without encouragement, looking around her parlor with interest. He stopped at the bookshelf that held the few philosophical classics she could afford: Marka’s Unintentional Action and Ugesio’s Morality and Madness, the two most popular texts.
“You taught yourself philosophy?” he said.
“This book Unintentional Action, what does it argue?” Aemilius said.
“Ah, one of the new philosophers. Marka argues we only have the illusion of choice, the illusion of free will. He says that we are controlled by our past, by our surroundings, that we are forced into certain actions.” The streets where Kata lived as a child, the death of her mother, flashed into her mind, as did her desperate and ongoing desire to escape them, to escape the memory of them.
“And what do you think?” Aemilius asked.
“I think he’s right. We are all forced to do things we’d rather not, to compromise.”
“But is it not possible that our very knowledge of those forces allows us some measure of freedom?”
Kata pressed her lips. “I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t even know where I am.”
“The ancients said that everything has its place,” said Aemilius. “Everything finds its place.”
“Those days have passed.”
“Would you like a drink?” She felt a knot in her stomach and tried to swallow, her throat dry with fear. Nausea built up in her body. Her little finger twitched, then was still. Oh no, she thought, not now. She fought the rising sickness back.
“Yes,” he said.
She walked to her small kitchen, took the flagon of wine, two cups, and placed them on the bench. She stared at them.
“You have no windows in this room?”
“It’s hemmed in on all sides. Above, there is a balcony.”
“It is a sparse house. Not much comfort here.”
“As much comfort as I need. I fought for this place. I struggled for it. Even now it is not yet mine.” She stared at the flagon. She should pour the cups, but she could not. Nausea rose again in her body. Oh no, she thought. Quickly. She unstopped the flagon but set it down again on the bench before she dropped it. Her legs gave way beneath her and her body shook violently, as if her legs and arms were driven by an engine. She gurgled as the fit came on. Aemilius was above her, grasping her shoulder.
“Kata, can you hear me?” He grasped her hand. “Squeeze my hand. Try to squeeze my hand.”
Though her body shook and spasmed, she was aware of his presence above her. He held her hand and her shoulder and he comforted her. Though his voice faded away, as if down a long corridor, she was not entirely alone.
When the fit was over, she felt as if she had been wrung like a wet piece of clothing, twisted and distorted and empty. Aemilius carried her upstairs to her bed and laid her down.
“You will be all right now,” he said. “But you must sleep.”
Kata closed her eyes and opened them again. Aemilius was sniffing the air and looking around curiously.
Exhausted, Kata drifted off to the sight of him sitting above her, his deep eyes impassive, occasionally closing as he looked down on her. When she woke he was gone.
The following afternoon, Rudé let himself in to Kata’s apartment as she lay on her cushions in the corner of the parlor, still exhausted from the fit. It took her a day to recover, at least, and now that she had run out of the preparation that eased her condition, her body would remain tired and drawn.
“This is my house,” she said to Rudé, lifting her head with effort. “You can’t just come in here.”
“But I can,” he said, holding up his key, straightening his sharplined clothes. “And I will.”
“I need money, for medicine.”
“Do you now? The agreement was two minotaurs. Not one.”
“I need an advance.”
“I see. Well, don’t ever claim that House Technis is not generous, that it doesn’t look after its own.” He carefully placed a pile of ten florens on the table, stacked like a little tower. “By the end of the Festival, yes?”
There was a knock on the door. Rudé, his wiry little body always full of quick movements, darted against the wall for protection. Officiates lived in fear, even though the vicious war between House Arbor and House Technis had recently fallen into a lull. It was rare to find them out on the streets, meeting their agents and assassins face-to-face, which was mostly the province of the subofficiates. It was a measure of the mission’s importance that Rudé should oversee it himself. Unlike the Directors, who were surrounded by aides of all kinds, officiates needed to organize their own protection, if they felt it warranted.
“Get the door,” Rudé said, pulling out a long-knife from underneath his jacket.
Kata pushed herself to her feet and wearily opened the door. Aemilius stood towering behind it.
Exhausted, she hesitated. She couldn’t think of a way to stop the minotaur from entering and meeting Rudé. In any case, she was pleased to see him. His presence calmed her, as if he were a cool rock against which she could lean, close her eyes, and rest her face. Guilt washed through her now. For he had been nothing but gentle and caring, and she had been—no, it was best not to think about her deception. These thoughts rushing though her head, contradictory feelings swirling within her, Kata finally said, “Come in.”
“I came to see if you were feeling better.”
“I am, thank you.”
“Well, look,” said Rudé, smiling slightly, the knife hidden. “A minotaur. Fantastic… Let me see. But you’re a little small for a minotaur, aren’t you?”
“Is greatness measured by size?” asked Aemilius.
Rudé approached Aemilius, looking even smaller as he came close to the minotaur. “Incredible.”
“A friend of yours?” Aemilius asked Kata.
“Oh,” said Rudé, “I’ve known Kata since she was just a girl. I’ve seen her… grow up.”
In those days, Rudé had kept in touch with the children on the streets of the factory district. “Hello, Kata,” he had always greeted her ebulliently. “No smile for me today?” Sometimes he had taken out a little toy, a windup bird or a mechanical man, and given it to one of the children. The urchins had prized the toys above all others, for they were made with rare technical skill. Powered by springs and wires, the birds would fly and the men would march. Some were even powered by thaumaturgy. The children had never seen anything like them. Rudé had taken special interest in Kata. Her sheer strength of will seemed to impress him. She was the quickest messenger, the most determined servant. “My little Kata,” he had said. When she was fourteen, he said, “I know a philosopher-assassin who might be interested in taking on a pupil.” Kata had leaped for the chance: to be a philosopher-assassin, that was the dream of all the children. It was their only escape from the factory district. And so she met Sarrat the Numerian and escaped the grimy factories and the filthy alleyways that surrounded them.
Now, as Rudé obliquely mentioned those days, Aemilius nodded, as if thinking.
“I’d better go,” said Rudé, grinning quickly. “There are things to do! But I should very much like to see you again, minotaur. I should very much like to talk to you.”
“Perhaps you shall,” said Aemilius as Rudé closed the door behind him. “Strange,” he said to Kata, “is he a New-Man, with all that quick energy?”
“Yes, he is half-Anlusian,” said Kata, swaying slightly on her feet. “You can see it in his actions, his movements… his ambition.”
“I have never been to Anlusia, but I should very much like to see it. They say the New-Men are voracious, insatiable, that they take everything they can and destroy it to rebuild it. They say their city is constantly growing, constantly changing—even more than Caeli-Amur!”
“But is that any way to live? Isn’t that just distracting yourself from who you are, by concentrating solely on what you do, what you have?” She pursed her lips: she sounded just like Sarrat, who held to the Cajian philosophy of asceticism. It was a philosophy she’d rejected, and even now she thought of the time she’d spent on the streets, of her desire to own her house. She was no ascetic.
“Of course. And for that reason I should like to see it. To watch the New-Men build their technical wonders, only to throw them away.”
Kata shuffled to the kitchen. The flagon was where she left it. “Would you like some wine? We didn’t have a chance last night.”
“No. I have someone to meet. Thank you, though.”
Kata released the tension that had been building up in her body. She was not well enough today. She returned the flagon to the cupboard and walked him to the door.
“Rest,” Aemilius said.
She closed the door behind him and collapsed onto the cushions in the corner. She would kill him, or perhaps another minotaur, tomorrow. But even as she thought it, her mind was filled with doubt.
Unwrapped Sky © Rjurik Davidson, 2014