Despite the battles she had been through, despite her torn and disheveled appearance, despite the fact that she was sodden to the skin, Atlanta was in no mood to go home.
Instead, on exiting from the Hari Mok, Atlanta headed for the Daffodil Burk, where she grabbed a coffee, borrowed a towel to dry her ice-white hair, then plumped her sodden bottom on a seat and ordered up some food.
She needed it.
The struggle beneath the water had automatically fired up Atlanta's metabolism, and her body was already demanding food, food, food, food. Had she still been underwater, hunger would not have made itself felt so swiftly, for those born to the sealines do not commonly feel hunger until they rest. But Atlanta was resting now, and so was ravenous.
Atlanta ate a loaf of bread, and a dozen rice crackers. She drank down a bowl of hot and salty miso soup, then eating more slowly by now finished off her meal with a bowl of cold rice served with a side dish of fish eggs.
The rice was imported from Sopwith Dromadex, since Islam Demaxus, with its uncertain rains and its periodic droughts, was no place for rice paddy. The roe, however, were local. The fish eggs were big, orange and popped in the mouth. They reminded Atlanta of the grapeskin-packaged goblets of wax which periodically oozed from the skin of Vignis Vo Gorkindachina. Still, this did not put her off. She took a seaweed-shaker, sprinkled her cold rice with a mix of sesame seeds and dried black shredded seaweed, then ate with gusto.
After food and coffee, Atlanta went next door to the Ul Den Ul, and went upstairs to her law office, intending to assuage her higher and her lower passions alike with a heavy dose of work. Certainly she was in no mood for sleep. She was either going to work or else she was going to go to Westport, root out Yulius from whatever funk-hole he was hiding in, and shake him till he shivered.
Before settling to her work, Atlanta changed her clothes. She shed her silks, angered at the damage which had been done to them. She had no idea if they could be salvaged. She knew almost nothing about clothes she had always had a servant to take care of that, usually Baz, and, if not Baz, then another. Atlanta threw her silks into a corner, but was careful to stash her pearls in the same safe in which she kept her inkan.
She dried all traces of dampness with a hand towel, then changed into her law uniform. Her shirt was of soft grey cotton, high-collared and long-sleeved. It was accompanied by a matching pair of trousers, the ensemble being finished off with hard-wearing slippers of grey felt. The cut of both trousers and shirt was loose, these garments being made for comfort, rather than for fashion. There was a jacket of similar grey which could be worn for extra warmth, though Atlanta did not make use of it.
These clothes declared the nature of Chalakanesian justice. In its rhetoric, that justice claimed itself to be plain, sober, simple, direct, economical and practical. Unsurprisingly, that rhetoric hid complexities of power which it would take several encyclopaedias to explicate.
Having changed her clothes, Atlanta settled to her work. She lit no candle, but, rather, worked by the illumination of a vial of lightwine. Lightwine, that fluid which absorbs the essence of the sun by day then gives it off by night, generates a light somewhat like that of the gel-torches of Heaven and Hell, and Atlanta ever preferred it for nighttime work.
Atlanta Ignalina Jubiladilia was the only female lawyer in all of Chalakanesia, and it was her ambition to become the first-ever female judge of the courts of that archipelago. Though Atlanta did not know if she would ever fulfill these ambitions, she believed of a certainty that she had found a way to write herself into Chalakanesian legal history.
In the year Belta 2351, the senate of Jaz Diva had been privileged to elect a president for Chalakanesia. The person appointed had been Wolfganga Zenseneth Belch. His seven-year term of office had long since ended, but his decisions had yet to make their full impact on Chalakanesia.
Amongst other things, President Belch had signed into law an Ecology Act designed to protect Chalakanesia's forests, coastlines and wetlands. The citizens of Heaven and Hell, having grossly polluted their own lands, now urgently desired to do some Ecological Good, preferably in someone else's country at someone else's expense. Hence Heaven and Hell had coerced Wolfganga into passing the Ecology Act, which prevented Chalakanesians from reclaiming land from the sea.
But what exactly is the sea? Does it include the zones between high tide mark and low? Does it include river estuaries? When salt water flows up a river with the incoming tide, is every salty section of the river to be construed as being part of the sea? To address such questions, the Ecology Act had included a tortuous definition of the "sea", thus removing the legal definition of the word from the world of common sense to an arcane realm of legal abstraction.
As Atlanta read the Ecology Act, is seemed that the "sea" was now to be defined as that area demarcated as "sea" on the maps of the Chalakanesian Legal Survey. This was a new set of maps which was being prepared with the help of experts from Heaven and Hell. So far, Legal Survey maps had been issued for only half of Chalakanesia's waters.
Unless Atlanta was reading things wrongly, the sea was now no longer the sea unless a Legal Survey map said it was the sea. Only half the maps were finished, which meant that at least half of that wet salty stuff which was used for the floating of ships was no longer the sea at all. So what was it? It was a Realm of Limbo, as far as Atlanta could determine. Furthermore, the Legal Survey maps themselves did not become effective for the purposes of the Ecology Act until their existence had been advertised in the Chalakanesian Gazette, something which often did not happen until a year or so after a particular map had been published.
All this was of intense interest to Atlanta, whose clients were mostly fishermen whose boats and gear had been confiscated under the Fishing Quotas Act, which regulated the catching of fish from the sea. Under this Act, a fisherman could lose his boat and gear if he was caught with as few as half a dozen undersized fish on board, or if he caught just half a haul of fish more than he was licensed to catch.
So far, Atlanta had done her best for her fishermen by writing groveling pleas for mercy. She had usually managed to get at least partial satisfaction for her clients, since the penalties of the Fishing Quotas Act were so savage that the Court of Justice was reluctant to enforce them to the full.
Atlanta's clients were usually pathetically grateful, but she herself was sick to the back teeth of this business of groveling. She wanted to attack, attack, attack, and she thought she could see how to do it. Thanks to the Ecology Act of Belta 2351, large chunks of the sea were sea no longer, so the Fishing Quotas Act was surely inapplicable to such chunks. That meant that many of Atlanta's clients had been unjustly prosecuted, and could sue the Federation of Chalakanesia for wrongful prosecution.
Of course, if Atlanta brought any such case before Chalakanesia's Court of Justice, then it would be thrown out in short order. She would be laughed out of court. Alternatively, if the Court of Justice took her arguments seriously, Chalakanesia's current president would sign legislation making retrospective adjustments to the law. Chalakanesia was like that.
But, as Atlanta knew very well, Chalakanesia was negotiating with Heaven and Hell on the text of a proposed International Justice Treaty. This would enshrine a number of human rights, such as freedom from judicial caprice, and protection against retrospective legislation. Furthermore, it would allow Chalakanesians to go to the international Court of Conference to seek remedies for any Breach of Treaty.
Heaven and Hell wanted such a treaty because they expected that technological advances would soon allow their airships to fly to Chalakanesian territory. This would vastly increase the commercial intercourse between Chalakanesia and the Great Powers, so Heaven and Hell wanted legal guarantees which would protect the Big Money of the Great Powers when that Big Money went to work in Chalakanesia.
As soon as the International Justice Treaty had been signed and ratified, Atlanta would sue the Federation of Chalakanesia. She would bring a class action suit against the Federation on behalf of all the fishermen who had been unjustly prosecuted. And, when Chalakanesia's Court of Justice threw our her case, she would appeal to the international Court of Conference.
Win, lose or draw, she would at least make a major name for herself, and write herself into Chalakanesian legal history. But the amount of work required was immense. So she sat with her fishing files, with a stack of back-issues of the Chalakanesian Gazette, and with big books on international law as practiced before the Court of Conference.
As she worked, Atlanta entirely forgot about the events at the Haridjakarta Moskovola. She worked until she was so tired that her head felt full of cotton wool, then she went to sleep in her high-backed wooden hair. It was easy to drop off to sleep, because the light from her vial of lightwine had fallen so low that it had become hard to read and write.
Atlanta slept long, the vial of lightwine dying lower as the night went by. When the light of that vial was so low that it would scarcely have given competition to a cat's eyes reflecting fire, there came a scratching at the door.
The room was almost dark, but Atlanta saw well in the darkness, in the manner of those born to the Merlines. She listened to the scratching, then roused herself from her high-backed wooden chair and stealthed through the dimness with not a single misstep to betray her onslaught.
At the door she paused, deciding between mercy and murder. The scratching paused, restarted. It was a very peculiar sound, that scratching, and it was accompanied by a whine like that of a wounded dog.
The hour was late, but -
It was the very lateness of the hour which at last convinced Atlanta to open the door. For, though her years were but twenty-six in number, she had nevertheless achieved a fairly broad experience of the world enough at least to convince her that the greater part of the world's trouble occurs when the bars are closing.
In this, the deepest part of the night, the drunks had punched out their anger long ago. All whoring, gambling and fighting was done with, and so was all marauding, all midnight thieving and hot-haste rape. So Atlanta unlatched the door, and opened it, with no weapon to her hands but her own knuckles.
The door swung open you must understand that it was a wooden door mounted on metal hinges, not one of the armored visor doors to which Heaven and Hell are accustomed to reveal a man well known to Atlanta. Gorkindachina. His familiarity was fortunate, since it served to moderate the shock of his appearance. He was wet, bleeding, naked. His body had been scratched as if with thorns, lacerated as if with razors, torn as if by the talons of a tiger.
You know the tiger? Then, if so, you know it from the zoo. But in the wilder reaches of Chalakanesia, the tiger is alive and well; and it faintly occurred to Atlanta that just such an animal might (just conceivably) be on the loose in Lexis. It might, for example, be a returnee, spatially and temporally displaced from its past existence by one of the metapsychic storms of Islam Demaxus.
So thinking, Atlanta did her best to peer around Gorkindachina a difficult feat, for his bulk was considerable -and to look both up and down the stairs for the shadow of a tiger. She looked too for any acquaintances, confederates or companions who might be leagued with Gorkindachina in mischief. Though she did not seriously suspect him of any delinquency, for he had power enough to do what he wanted without resorting to the stratagems of a juvenile gangster.
"Mah," said Gorkindachina, the nonsense syllable deep and throaty, guttural with the promise of blood. "Mah. Mah."
So saying, he wavered, and his eyes rolled up. Atlanta expected him to faint, but he steadied.
"Come in," said Atlanta, standing aside to let the man enter. Then, as he hesitated: "In!"
There was a touch of the whiplash to that last command.
Obediently, Gorkindachina shambled forward. He was lit by that phosphorescent light which sometimes accumulates around those who walk abroad at night in Chalakanesia. The light was color-bright, as the artists have it sufficient for colors to be made out and by that light Atlanta observed him clinically. He had a small pot; his buttocks were flaccid; there were small rolls of surplus flesh at his sides; but, all in all, his condition was not too bad for a man of fifty-four who had a considerable reputation for hard-living.
His back -
Atlanta glanced again at the stairs, checking for tigers or accomplices, then closed the door decisively and latched it. She took her time over the latching, slowing down deliberately as she felt her self-control wavering.
Gorkindachina was wavering too, teetering on his feet, which were flat. He was pallid in the manner of the people of the Gulf of Heaven. Lean and low against his skull lay a smattering of coarse brown hair, and stalks of a similar hair matted his back, their greatest thickness following the line of the spine. Despite those hairs, and despite the blood which was fluxing from his torn flesh, Atlanta could see that his entire back was covered with swollen pustules of yellow fat.
"Mah!" said Gorkindachina, a note of alarm entering that syllable.
It was an expression of dumb horror, of uncomprehending pain, of ignorance suffering.
Then he lifted his hands.
As if burst by that very action, the pustules on his back shocked open simultaneously. Swollen pellets of yellow fat sprayed through the air. Atlanta threw up a hand to shield her face -aghast at this onslaught. Gorkindachina flailed wildly, grasping for handholds in the air. Then down he crashed, carrying away a whole shelf of Atlanta's lawbooks. He crashed face-down in a shower of paper, then struggled to his feet.
The walls of Atlanta's office, generous with handholds, sustained Gorkindachina in his efforts as he began to claw his way round the room, crying out loudly as he fought his way from handhold to handhold.
"Mah!" cried Gorkindachina.
And down went Atlanta's prize jafogus cactus, displaced from its place of pride on the windowledge.
"Mah!" cried Gorkindachina.
And Atlanta's curtains ripped, torn down by his weight even as he staggered to his next place of purchase.
"Oh no you don't!" said Atlanta, seeing that her vial of lightwine looked likely to go next.
The vial was a large one, the size of your head, and when at its full strength it could flood an entire room with light. It was sitting atop a stand which was directly in Gorkindachina's path. Atlanta had only had it a couple of months, and it was not yet paid for, and was not insured.
"No!" said Atlanta, grabbing Gorkindachina and wrestling him away from his chosen course.
"Ga-mar!" he cried.
There was fury in that cry.
And with that shout, Gorkindachina turned on Atlanta, and did his best to rend her. He beat, clawed, savaged, tore. She fought back vigorously, tearing the flesh from his arms in long strips.
"God!" cried Atlanta, realizing what she had done.
In horror, she threw her assailant backwards.
Gorkindachina crashed back against the nearest wall. The impact shook the room. The stand bearing Atlanta's precious vial of lightwine swayed, and almost went over. Thus shaken, the lightwine flared up, filling the room with renewed radiance.
That flaring light lit every detail. Gorkindachina. His drowned man's eyes. His nostrils, wiry with hair, distended. His throat, huge with raucous breathing.
"Hold you there!" said Atlanta, with a commanding anger as large as Gorkindachina's breathing. "Hold you there, you thing!"
But the Gorkindachina-thing came shuffling forward like a drunken bear. The flesh yet remained to both its hands, and its left arm was sheathed in ragged meat as far as the elbow, but apart from that its arms were nothing but articulated bone.
"Hold!" said Atlanta.
But the thing came on.
Atlanta struck out. Her clenched fist struck roundhouse, the weight of her body packed behind it. Fist met jaw. The jaw cracked, tore. Then the Gorkindachina-thing was grappling with her, hard hands biting at her throat as it tried to strangle her. In fury, Atlanta rended the thing, her hands tearing away great globs of flesh. The meat was cold, was wet, was soft and dank. It felt like nothing so much as wet dishcloths.
But while Atlanta tore at the thing, its fingers kept pressuring her throat, trying ineffectually, but even the attempt was frightening to choke away her breath. So she windmilled as her combat instructor had taught her, putting the strength of her shoulders into her downswinging arms.
The Gorkindachina-thing's bones broke beneath that onslaught. Its shattered armbones crackled hideously as its shoulders rotated. It was still trying to attack her, though its jawbone was hanging loose, though its flesh was in shreds, though white bone showed where Atlanta had hit it.
"Back off!" said Atlanta, giving the thing one last warning.
It stood, teetering. Then its teeth began to fall out, one by one. As the teeth fell, the vial of lightwine began to flare erratically, lighting the room with soaring crescendos of blue-white light. Then, caught by a sudden rush of uncontrollable rage, Atlanta kicked the Gorkindachina-thing's feet from under it. Down it fell, crashing to the floor like a sack of rice.
Atlanta stepped back, hard-breathing. A shudder shook her milksilver elegance as the flesh of the Gorkindachina-thing began to fizz, to hiss, to bubble, to disintegrate. Blue-black smoke coiled around the collapsing flesh, filling the room with a very strong smell of over-ripe oranges.
As the last of flesh and bone sighed away to nothing, the vial of lightwine flared for one last time, then died down to a sullen red, a sunset red which indicated that it would shortly extinguish itself entirely.
By that bloodglow, Atlanta saw that a single souvenir of Gorkindachina's visitation as yet remained. Two teeth, joined each to each. She picked them up, expecting them to disintegrate. But they remained firm between her fingers, indenting her flesh when she squeezed their unyielding hardness. They were false teeth, two false front teeth set in a plate. Atlanta put them down on her desk, at which point her vial of lightwine died away to utter dark.
Within the darkness, Atlanta scrabbled through her assortment locker, finding a big fat beeswax candle as thick as her arm, a thin white taper, and an incensed nostraluminum candle of the kind designed to be burnt in front of a mirarilusistan for the gratification of the ancestors.
Atlanta lit all three candles lit them with a box of Ak Cherish Five Virtues Firecracker matches imported from Barth Banchup Bakchakris, the kind which ignite with a small pop and a smell which the knowledgeable have compared to seared flesh roasting upon burning sulphur.
She lit three candles? If you wonder at her extravagance, then know that a candle gives but poor illumination. We in our modern cities, accustomed to switching entire ceilings from moon to sun at the touch of a button, seldom encounter the candle except in our more romantic restaurants. Yet we all of us know that our ancestors spent their evenings by such light, and on occasion used it to work out their income tax, and so we are apt to imagine a candle to be the equal of a glossamer or Cold Perpetual. But as you will discover if you ever try to do your income tax in one of our more romantic restaurants the candle is but a poor substitute for the sun.
Atlanta Ignalina Jubiladilia was given to clarity. She favored clearsighted precision, which was why she had gone into debt to buy the largest vial of clearbright lightwine which could be found in all of Lexis. Even three candles burning in hot competition made but a poor substitute for such piercing knowledge. But by the romance of that light, Atlanta surveyed the unromantic shambles of her room.
There were fresh bloody footprints on the floor. There was a horrendous mess of paperwork, much of it besmirched with blood and water. But apart from that, and apart from the two false teeth -they were still on her desk, she checked to be sure there was no sign whatsoever of Gorkindachina. The man had disintegrated. Flesh, skin, bone and bowels all gone.
In the realms of Hell, a woman thus assailed at night by a thing of disintegrating flesh and scarecrow bone would presume herself to have surely been the victim of an unlug lorgis, one of those adroit torturing machines which work by conjuring the subject's worst imaginings to life. And in Heaven? A woman of Heaven would have thought herself surely the victim of a nightmare.
But the unlug lorgis was unknown in Chalakanesia; and, even had such a device been covertly introduced into Lexis, it would not have worked, for the unlug lorgis is one of those subtle devices which are disabled by the metapsychic faultline. Furthermore, even had Atlanta Ignalina then been resident in Barth Banchup Bakchakris, she would hardly have thought herself the victim of her own worst imaginings, since her own worst imaginings involved a collar, a chain, the senate, and a plate of the whitest porcelain imaginable. As for nightmare why, mere nightmare does not leave bloody footprints and souvenir teeth in its wake.
Therefore Atlanta knew she had been molested by a ghost.
A ghost so solid as to be in the possession of at least two perfectly serviceable and substantial false teeth would not be counted a ghost at all, at least not in Heaven or Hell.
In the Gulf of Heaven, as in the Chasms of Hell, when one talks of a ghost one talks of an ethereal spirit from the World Beyond, a thing which has a touch far fainter than that of any tendril of the night air, a thing which is silent in its charades as it walks through walls or levitates nicely through the air.
They do have such ghosts in Chalakanesia, gossamer-fine creations so short of substance that they can slip through walls or walk upon water. But even such gossamer ghosts are not things from the World Beyond but, rather, shadows of people who are alive and well in their living, breathing flesh.
Furthermore, the ghosts of Chalakanesia range through a full spectrum which begins with shadow and works through to substantial flesh. The most precise of these duplicates are fully-fleshed doppelgangers hard to distinguish from the real, original person. Many such doppelgangers are capable of carrying on an independent life for days, weeks, months in some instances, even years -before disintegrating into a bubbling confusion of expiring horror.
It should also be said that the spectrum of ghosts, though it stretches from shadow to flesh, does not end there. From time to time, the peace of Chalakanesia is molested by things possessed of a fearsome bulk, weight and rigidity which are alien to the merely animal. There are golems heavier than iron; there are things with faces of stone and feet which crack the granite flagstones where they walk; there are things possessed of a rending strength which can tear your greatest hero limb from limb like so much wet paper.
But these, fortunately, are rare.
All such ghosts the whole spectrum, from gossamer spirit through doppelganger to golem are products of the metapsychic faultline, that zone of instability which runs through the islands of Chalakanesia, and which interacts with the human mind, giving rise to those many transient phenomena for which Chalakanesia is famous.
Fortunately, the phenomenon of ghosting is largely subject to voluntary control, else most of Chalakanesia's people would bleed off a continual stream of partial spirit-images of themselves. One learns the control of this phenomenon early, learns it along with toilet training.
Certain undisciplined people like Atlanta's sister Panjalo maintained a habit of uncontrolled ghosting long into adulthood. At the age of twenty-one, Panjalo still ghosted frequently (and, apparently, shamelessly). But, to her knowledge, Atlanta Ignalina Jubiladilia had never ghosted in her entire adult life.
Now she had properly recovered herself, Atlanta sat herself down at her desk and went to work by candlelight, writing a letter for Tilibel Ulibel Ul, the youngest daughter of the Family Ul, who came daily at dawn to clean Atlanta's chambers.
You might perhaps imagine Atlanta scratching out this letter with a quill-pen fashioned from one of the pinions of a bird of prey, and scratching it out, moreover, upon fresh parchment or a worn palimpsest. But she did not. She wrote in the conventional fashion using a self-inking stylus sourced from Chan Molest, and she wrote upon the finest acid-free rag paper imported direct from Idosolaris.
"I have not been raped, murdered or seriously discomposed," wrote Atlanta in conclusion. "I have merely been annoyed beyond measure, as you too will doubtless be annoyed when you survey the mess which awaits you. Please rest assured that I will compensate you for the extra effort."
Having thus concluded her letter, Atlanta imprinted it with her inkan, validating the imprint of her seal by countersigning it with her signature. Then, having weighted the letter with a handgrenade (a child's plastic toy, a souvenir of her brother Heineman's boyhood and there is no telling how it came to infiltrate her law office), Atlanta pinched out the nostraluminum and its neighboring beeswax candle.
If there was one thing she couldn't stand, it was people who blew out candles. Such an act lacked economy. It smacked of posturing, of the theatrical excess which Atlanta ever associated with her sister Panjalo. And, besides, the smoke lingered afterwards, filling the air with the unpleasant smell of greasy wax-smoke.
She needed no candle, but the comfort of the thin-burning taper was tempting. She had been shaking, badly shaken, more badly than she cared to admit, and the prospect of darkness was momentarily threatening.
"My name is Atlanta Ignalina Jubiladilia, and I exercise my talents in the service of justice, in accordance with the law of Chalakanesia."
So said Atlanta, using the familiar words as a mantra. Then she reached out deliberately and pinched out the flame of the taper slowly, so slowly she almost burnt her fingers. Despite herself, she took a deep breath as the darkness claimed her. But she controlled herself, exhaled slowly, then stepped to the door, took the key from its hook, unlatched the door, then exited to the darkness of the stairs.
Atlanta locked the door the cleaner Tilibel had her own key then started to descend the stairs.
Then she heard it.
There was something below, and it was coming up the stairs.
From the very first, Atlanta knew the thing to be a golem, a doppelganger built heavier than any ordinary ghost. She knew it by the strength of its tread, that heavy-step tread which set the building shaking as it came stumping up the stairs. Heavier than stone. Heavier than iron. And strong, strong, strong enough to tear her apart like so much wet paper.
Atlanta turned, and fled upstairs toward the roof.