A hundred years ago, the Minotaurs saved Caeli-Amur from conquest. Now, three very different people may hold the keys to the city's survival.
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.
In a novel of startling originality and riveting suspense, 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.
Unwrapped Sky is a stunningly original debut by Rjurik Davidson, a young master of the New Weird.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Rjurik Davidson, a young Australian author who won the Aurealis Award for Best Newcomer some years ago, has been writing about the city of Caeli-Amur for nearly a decade. His debut novel, Unwrapped Sky is set in this city-state where magic and technology are interchangeable; where minotaurs and sirens are real; where philosopher-assassins and seditionists are not the most dangerous elements in a city alive with threat. During the day, the ordinary citizens do what they must to get along. But at night, the spirit of the ancient city comes alive, to haunt the old places . . .
Read an Excerpt
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, short-swords 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.
Copyright © 2014 by Rjurik Davidson