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Chapter One

         Atlanta knew things were going to get rough. That's why she sent little boy Loki away to boarding school. His Full Sixth had been and gone, so he was old enough. She had him put on a sailing ship and sent all the way to Cherwin Skam.
        "Isn't he rather young to be going to boarding school?" said Heineman.
        "My mother's read another book on child psychology," said Atlanta, deadpan. "She says it's good for them."
        "I thought your mother was the last person you'd listen to."
        "Sometimes it's easier than fighting her," said Atlanta.

* * *

        "Atlanta!" said Olabadilia. "Little boy Loki!"
        "What about him, mother?"
        "They say you've sent him away."
        "And if I have?" said Atlanta, coolly.
        "You never asked me about it."
        "He's my child, mother, not yours."
        "But he's so little!"
        "He'll be all right," said Atlanta. "He's got Igi-Igi."
        "Why did you do it, Atlanta?"
        "I thought it'd be good for his character development," said Atlanta.
         She thought it would be good for his chances of survival. Things were likely to get very, very rough before it was all over. Atlanta knew that. But Heineman hadn't even begun to figure it out.

* * *

        Heineman didn't have a clue. Heineman didn't even know that Gorkindachina was on his way back.
         Even Atlanta hadn't yet figured out the part about Gorkindachina, but it was true. Gorkindachina would be back in Lexis before the year was out, and on his return he would inevitably challenge Heineman for power. As if that wasn't bad enough, there would be a political scandal which would shake the system to its core, and one of Heineman's sisters would be put on trial for her life. But Heineman didn't know about that, either.
         For the moment, Heineman was entirely innocent of any knowledge of the future. He didn't know about Gorkindachina. Or about the fryguns. Or about the plan for arson. He didn't even know about the assassin. He hadn't even realized that people were out to kill him, and that he'd be dead very shortly unless he was exceptionally quick on his feet.
         Heineman though his presidency was unshakable. The only thing he was worried about was the carpet. Heineman didn't know anything about the assassin, but he knew all about the carpet. The carpet was trying to kill him.
         Heineman was dreaming. Let's get that straight. Some parts of his life were as bad as any nightmare, only this time he was dreaming for real.
         But he didn't know that.
         The carpet was trying to kill him. That was all Heineman knew. As far as he was concerned, the whole thing was on the level. The carpet was huge, and it was crushing him, and unless he could break free he'd be dead.
         In cold engulfments of night he struggled, observed by the pale ghosts of sharks. The carpet was heavy, waterlogged, hairy. It was clutching him, dragging him, groping him, drowning him. Each hair of the carpet was an itching, burning agony. Heineman tried to scream, but it was useless. Deep underwater, his voice bubbled mutely. Nobody could possibly hear him but the sharks, and the sharks were swimming away through the cold phosphorescence of stars, abandoning him to his fate.
         The sharks turned into kitchen chairs as they swam, clattering to the bottom of the sea, which had somehow become part of a cockfighting ring. Despite these peripheral transformations, Heineman was still deep underwater, still enduring the onslaught of the carpet.
         And he was cold, bitterly cold.
         In sleep, Heineman whimpered.
         —  Heat is the answer to cold.
         That thought came to Heineman in his dream, and it was sufficient. By an act of will, he transmuted each hand to a frygun. The fryguns were heavy, armored with the generous gold needed to shield them from Chalakanesia's metapsychic faultline. But he could hold them, and fight.
         With the fryguns, Heineman burnt his way free from the carpet. He ascended to the surface of the sea. The cockfighting crowd cheered him as he burst from the surface and stood upon the surface of the water. But how could that surface support his weight? It could not, unless he was a ghost. Heineman realized he was a ghost. He was a ghost, an insubstantial doppelganger of his real self, a transitory artefact generated by the metapsychic faultline. He was a ghost, and so doomed to die.
         Shocked by that discovery, Heineman whimpered anew, and the whimpering set up a harmonic resonance in his ghostly body, which shook him till the sea trembled, which shook him till he awoke.
         Heineman awoke from his nightmare, sweating, gasping, his body trembling. Such a dreadful dream! But it was over, he was awake, properly awake, and the night was calm, and quiet, and peaceful.
         Recovering from his nightmare, Heineman lay in bed, a vast triple-bed set under the faintly shining glimmerdome of the Presidential Bedroom. He was alone. Where was his wife? He groped for explanation, then remembered. Charlotte was sleeping in the House Jubiladilia, having declared that very day that the Presidential Mansion was no place for a pregnant woman. Was she right? Probably.
         Even so, Heineman resented her absence. He had never been conscious of loving her — she had been chosen for him by his grandfather Zinjanthrop, rather than by any act of his own will -but she had become familiar. She had become a habit, and Heineman was very much a creature of habit. Now, he blamed Charlotte for the nightmare he had just had. It was her fault for deserting him. Of course, she hadn't deserted him, not technically, not as far as the law was concerned. She had just chosen another bed. But the emotional impact was the same.
         This thought led Heineman to start counting the number of true and certain friends he could actually rely on, but he cut off that line of thought fairly smartly.
        "It's the accountant in me," said Heineman, dismissing the question of his allies as an irrelevance.
         Actually, the truth was that President Heineman was distressingly isolated, something he would rather not think about unless he absolutely had to. He had nothing much in the way of a power base, and had precious few rock-solid supporters. Maybe none.
         Rather than think about anything so disturbing, Heineman slid barefoot and naked to the cold stone floor. Then he slipped a silk dressing gown over his silver-skinned nakedness, since he needed to go to the toilet, or at least thought he so needed.
         Heineman was born to the Merlines, the sealines, and some people of such breeding have exceedingly small bladders -logically enough, since the Mer excrete all wastes directly into the water, and, living in the sea, have no need for the water-conserving waste management systems of land creatures.
         While Heineman was afflicted with no such defect of anatomy — his doctor had assured him of that, and tests at La Lantis had confirmed it — he still felt a neurotic need to void his bladder whenever some permutation of nightmare troubled him into wakefulness. This was, on average, once or twice a night, for three years as president had seen Heineman's anxieties increase until they were almost intolerable. Furthermore, on this night Heineman felt the urgings of something uncomfortably like incipient diarrhoea.
         The day before, Heineman had attended the wedding of Jeronica Bullock, daughter of his bodyguard Glotimus Bullock — a personal obligation, this, rather than a political one, since, while the Gan as a whole were of little account to the nation, Glotimus had served the Jubiladilias long and faithfully, and had almost lost his life in such service. As the Bullocks belonged to the underclass known as the Gan, they naturally lived in that part of the city known as Westport, and it was entirely possible that the fish and shellfish served at the wedding had been taken from the insalubrious harbor likewise named. Be that as it may, Heineman most definitely needed the toilet.
         Disregarding all slippers, Heineman left his bedroom. He parted the heavily embroidered doorhangings, which smelt, as ever, of mothballs, then padded into the corridor beyond. When he passed the big full-length arched window which looked out onto the lawn, he paused, as was his custom, and looked out through the uncurtained glass to the night-silence beyond.
         It always struck him as strangely unreal, that prospect of night. The ever-present undertones of illumination from the night-writhing sky showed the same unchanging scene: lawns of darkness, a liquid-glinting carp pond, and, off to one side, the famous statue of Goblet the Martyr. Heineman liked that night-view because it was quiet, because it was unchanging, because it was free of people and devoid of any hint of the clamoring demands of humanity. It suggested that it was possible that he might some day be able to balance himself, to achieve a mode of effortless existence free from the eternal wrist-wrestling of commerce, politics and affairs of the heart.
         He never lingered long by the window, however, because the cold of the stone floor inevitably forced him to move on. While the climate of Islam Demaxus was generally warm, a peculiarly gripping cold seemed to settle into the stones of the Salsa Soko Pelchis by night. This was, said some, a consequence of the art of the Balancers, the Masons of Chalakanesia's classical period whose surpassing excellence in construction was proved by the fact that this building, one of the greatest of their works, had stood for centuries without needing so much as half a morning's repair work.
         Excellent, certainly — but cold. And Heineman did not like to wear slippers against that cold, since he trusted his bare feet better. He had a positive horror of slipping on the smooth stone floors and breaking his head, a horror which was enforced by the fact that he had repeated dreams which suggested that he would die in just that manner (if he was not first eaten by a giant carpet, or buried alive by a screaming avalanche of bright green broccoli).
         So Heineman went barefoot and coldfoot down the corridor. And a long way it was, for it was a full hundred paces to the Presidential Toilet. The Salsa Soko Pelchis, the Presidential Mansion, was vast, and ancient, and inconvenient, and had exceedingly primitive plumbing. As Heineman had learnt shortly after assuming the presidency, all previous incumbents had kept a chamber pot in the bedroom, but he refused any such expedient. He had grown up in the House Jubiladilia, which had its own private spring, the waters of which were used (amongst other things) to power flush toilets, and he had a horror of the notion of sharing his bedroom with a bowl of reeking urine and ordure.
         So Heineman padded barefoot to the Presidential Toilet, which was set in a room as big as one of those small Chalakanesian shops which are devoted to the sale of nostraluminums. An actual nostraluminum, a devotional candle, was burning in that gloomy chamber. By the light of that candle, Heineman first checked that there was toilet paper, and found that there were two and a half rolls.
         Toilet paper? All those who study the more primitive societies soon come to understand the stuff well. You must understand that Chalakanesian toilets do not have the cleansing water jets which are standard in the sanitary facilities of Heaven and Hell. Unlike ourselves, Chalakanesians have not yet internalized the knowledge that the hand should be kept away from the unclean parts of the body. Accordingly, they see nothing wrong with using sheets of paper to wipe themselves clean, an unclean habit which our psychologists are inclined to think must create very disturbing associations in the minds of those Chalakanesians who make literate use of paper.
         The curious will find a full account of the interaction between the use of toilet paper in Chalakanesia and the development of that archipelago's intellectual life in a scholarly tome called  "The Scatological Flaw: An Ethnopsychological Inquisition Into Chalakanesian Culture As Accounted For By Its Toilet Training," by Pan Elkodramaticus (the Ethnological Press of Chan Molest, Belta 2289). For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that there was toilet paper; that it was in rolls; that Heineman counted those rolls; and that their number was two and one half.
         Since Chalakanesians have not yet learnt that human anatomy is designed to excrete at the squat, Heineman's toilet was further curious in that it consisted of a seat set high upon a hollow pedestal. The seat was actually not a proper seat at all. Instead, it was a broad horseshoe-shaped rim capable of sustaining the buttocks without impeding the excretory functions, and it was hinged so it could be raised or lowered, for reasons which the scholarly Elkodramaticus has seen fit to write upon at length.
         If you have a profound interest in the excretory functions, then you are invited to indulge yourself by reading the pages of Elkodramaticus. Suffice it to say that, having counted the toilet rolls, Heineman used a spare unlit candle to raise the seat (the broad horseshoe-shaped rim), and checked the underside of the seat and the top of the hollow pedestal for poisonous spiders. There were none.
         Heineman then took a piece of toilet paper, intending to light it by the flame of the nostraluminum then drop it down the shaft of the toilet.
         In Chalakanesia's feudal period, which is so luridly interesting that the memories of it still keep a whole school of comic book artists in constant employment, the island of Islam Demaxus suffered beneath a notorious tyrant known as Hector the Pig. One favorite Chalakanesian children's story tells how the brave assassin Gog Magog armed himself with a very sharp spear, swam through the sewers, climbed up the shaft of Hector's toilet, braced himself in that fateful shaft, then waited.
         That Hector the Pig was assassinated in just such a manner is a matter of historical fact, one of the many recorded in that classic history called "Drop By Bloody Drop: An Analysis Of Mortality Rates In The Middle Period Of Chalakanesian History," by Ika Van Squid (House of Shadows, Belta 2294).
         The manner of Hector's death had given Heineman nightmares as a child, and troubled him no less now that he was an adult, since his personal toilet was the very one which had harbored the brave assassin, and he nightly relieved himself in the very room where Hector the Pig had expired in agony, "his screams so loud they split his teeth and turned the walls to water," as the historical account has it. Therefore, before using his toilet, Heineman was accustomed to light a piece of paper then drop it down the shaft, watching as it fell some thirty paces to the filth of the sewer waters.
         In accordance with his custom, Heineman now lit a piece of toilet paper, tossed it into the toilet, then jumped back as a spear abrupted from the toilet.
         Heineman grabbed the spear and hauled on it, hard. Whoever was holding the spear released it. Suddenly. Heineman collapsed backwards, landing on his rump. The spear was still in his hands. As he struggled to get up, an assassin scrambled out of the toilet. He was naked, but for a pair of work shorts. There were sundry tattoos on his arms and chest, but things were moving too fast for Heineman to sum these by candlelight.
        "Help!" yelled Heineman.
        "Shut up," said the assassin.
        "Help! Help! Help!" screamed Heineman.
         Then stabbed savagely at the assassin. But Heineman was an accountant, not a spearsman, and the assassin dodged the blow easily. He was a big, fat man with lank, straggling brown hair, hair still wet from the sewers. The last charcoal-crinkled remnant of a piece of paper was still burning, perched precariously on the man's hair.
        "Help!" screamed Heineman.
         The burning toilet paper smoked and expired.
        "Give me my spear," said the assassin, as if it was the most reasonable request in all the world.
         It was a strange to hear a tone of reason from something which stank like a sewer and looked as if it had been born there, and had been living in the depths for about forty-five years or so. The assassin's  pink-pale face was puffed and swollen, with the raspberry lumps of mugwumpus living in his bloated cheeks. His bulging eyes were a pale and glaucous blue. He looked more monster than human.
        "Give it to me," said the monster. "Give me my spear, and nobody will get hurt."
        "No!" said Heineman, jabbing at the man. "You're my prisoner! Get down! Down on the floor! Or else!"
         Or else what? Or else Heineman would have to kill him! It was Heineman's guess that the intruder was an imported killer, a foreign-born hitman, probably from the Gulf of Heaven. You couldn't muck around with such people.
        "Down!" said Heineman. "Down on the floor! Or, or someone might get hurt."
        "Yes, you!" said the assassin.
         Then roared, bellowed, and lunged for the spear.
         Heineman stabbed him.
         The full force of Heineman's harpooning strength went into that spear-stab. Sharpened steel shrieked into flesh, which screamed, and writhed, and tore monstrously. Heineman yanked out the spear.
        "You cut me!" said the assassin.
         Heineman had done more than cut him. There was a weltering gash in the man's gut, slick with blood and spillage. Shouldn't the man be dead? Or, at the very least, shouldn't he be screaming? Heineman used his foot to hook at the door behind him, to open it. Then he began to back out of the toilet, still holding tight to the spear. Outside was the corridor, and the chance of a sprint to safety.
         The assassin charged. Caught backfooted, Heineman tried to stab. The assassin knocked aside the spear. He slammed Heineman hard against the wall of the corridor. His sewer-greased hands slid to the strangle, his thumbs sliding in to crush Heineman's throat.
         Heineman dealt the man an ear-bursting cymbal-slap. The palms of his hands crashed against the assassin's ears. Then his own thumbs slid to the assassin's eyes, and he gouged in earnest. As the assassin broke free, Heineman kicked him the crutch, slammed an elbow across his face, grabbed the man by the hair then pumped a knee to his face.
         The assassin went down. Dead? Surely! He had to be dead, broken, ruptured, crushed. Or so thought Heineman. But not a bit of it! The man lumbered to his feet and began to lurch away down the corridor.
        "Guards!" shouted Heineman.
         It was not much of a shout. It was more of a squawk. The assassin's thumbs had just about crushed the voice out of him.
         Besides, while there were theoretically guards within earshot, there had been no response so far to all the yelling and screaming. Maybe the guards were off drinking somewhere, true to rumour, or were asleep.
         As the assassin started to escape, Heineman took off after the man, his dressing gown flapping around him as he ran. Despite the assassin's inhuman capacity for absorbing punishment, he had been seriously damaged, and Heineman gained on him by leaps and bounds. The assassin looked back, saw he could not outrun his pursuer — and crashed through the nearest window. Glass shattered in a splintering crash.
        — Watch your feet!
         So thought Heineman. He could not help himself. As a child, he had cut one of his feet badly on a broken glass, and the caution learnt then stayed with him even in this moment of crisis. He whipped off his dressing gown, bunched it up, went down on all fours then advanced, using the cloth as a great big mop to push aside any fragments of broken glass which lay between him and the broken window. Gaining the window, he saw the fugitive assassin groaning on the grass outside.
         Heineman hesitated.
         Thanks to the activity of Chalakanesia's metapsychic faultline, the night sky was intermittently lit by a writhing pattern of bruise-dark purple and snakeback orange. Like all those born of the sealines, Heineman saw well in the dark, and the dimlight illumination from the night sky was sufficient to show him the knives of broken glass which made the window frame a potential instrument of suicide.
         Abandoning thoughts of following the assassin through the window, Heineman mopped his way clear of the spillage of glass, then sprinted for his bedroom. In moments, he had triced open the heavily armored blast-door of titanium steel which guarded his private bolt hole.
         Opening the blast-door revealed a polished fire-escape chute, which Heineman's bodyguards checked on a daily basis. Heineman swung himself into the chute, then slid down through the darkness. His heels slammed against the exit door, which burst open. He came tumbling out onto the soft wet dark of the back lawn of the Salsa Soko Pelchis.
         Heineman crouched in the darkness, making himself small, unwilling to stand. Heineman owed genes to the sea, and was not built for nightfighting. With his white hair and his silver skin, he would stand out easily in the darkness. Light would reflect easily from all of him, particularly from his arms, which were armored with scales like those of a fish.
         So Heineman crouched, watched, saw.
         His quarry, the escaped assassin, was making his way across the lawn, his crippled movements reminiscent of those of a half-dissected animal. Frog by frog, toad by toad, the assassin lurched and labored in the general direction of the carp pond. Beyond the pond was a hedge of prickly pear. A formidable obstacle. But Heineman thought it would take more than a few cactus plants to stop a man like this.
         Somewhere in the Salsa Soko Pelchis, loud voices were upraised. Heineman heard his bodyguard, Glotimus Bullock.
        "Heineman! Heineman! Mr President! Sir!"
        "Out here!" squawked Heineman.
         This wheezing rasp of a cry was scarcely enough to summon his guards — but enough to make the assassin accelerate.
         In a moment of inspiration, Heineman clapped his hands, twice, loudly, alerting the night to his whereabouts. Having given that clue to his guards, Heineman took off after the assassin. The man broke into a lurching run. He got as far as the carp pond when Heineman brought him down with a flying tackle which took them both crashing into the water.
         In kneedeep water they struggled and fought. The assassin had been wounded by a spear, had been slapped, had been gouged, had injured himself further by crashing through a window. But, to Heineman's shock, the man was still possessed of a monstrous strength.
         The assassin wrestled Heineman down into the water, thrust Heineman's head under, pushed him down to drown. Submerged, Heineman felt a surge of coldness as gill-slits opened between his floating ribs. Water fluxed into his water-lung, the air-breathing water-pump which lived beneath his omphalos. He thought of that organ as an octopus, for, when it was working, it felt like a creature with tentacles was working its rhythms in his belly.
         Powered by that air-breathing organ, Heineman reached up, grabbed the assassin by the back of the neck, and pulled him down into the water. Heineman bared his teeth, which were shark-sharp. But Chalakanesians have terrible inhibitions against biting, and Heineman could not bring himself to rend his enemy. But he was perfectly prepared to drown him.
         As the doomed assassin thrashed and struggled, Heineman clasped him, held him, clutched him, hugged him. The assassin was a foreigner, a creature of the land, incapable of surviving under water. He could drown, would drown, must drown.
         Realizing his danger, the assassin thrashed and struggled. Momentarily, he almost burst free. But Heineman held him, and felt the spasms losing their strength. The man was failing, flailing, kicking toward death, was close to death and dying.
         Then Heineman felt an overwhelming sensation of strength, of power, of obliterating ecstasy. He could kill this man. He could kill, and say it was self-defense, and nobody would know otherwise. He felt a milky surge of the most wonderful sweetness, sweeter than sugar, sweeter than bedroom appeasement. He was killing a man, and he loved it. Clutching the thrashing thing, he knew himself to be infinitely powerful. He could, would, must destroy this forked creature, and its destruction would be a sweetness which would nourish him for the rest of his life.
         Then Heineman experienced a flashback replay of the tiniest of crystal-clear memories. He saw himself accepting his degree in accountancy from the Daigaku University, and heard himself making the Accountant's Commitment:
        "I pledge myself to the balance of budgets."
         That pledge was a summary of civilization and sanity. Implicit in that pledge was a statement of the merits of order, of limits, of restraint. It was a statement which summed up a lifetime's commitment.
          —  Who are you?
         Either Heineman was Heineman, or else he was Hector the Pig. Either he was a modern, rational administrator, or else he was a bloodstained feudal butcher. Heineman? Or Hector? He thought he was Heineman, though he wasn't quite sure.
         That moment of doubt, of self-questioning, was sufficient to check the act of murder. Abruptly, Heineman released the assassin, pushed the body away from him, then sat up, clenching his fist, making ready to smash the assassin hard and fast if the man started to put up a fight.
         The assassin, however, was in no state to fight further.
         He lay in the water.
         Then Heineman realized he might have changed his mind too late, might have killed the man already.
         Immediately, he turned the man over, slid a knee under his shoulders, got his head out of the water, tilted the head sideways so gravity could claim any water in the mouth, cleared the mouth with a finger-swipe so violent it removed two fight-loosened teeth. Then he set two fingers on the bone of the jaw, tilted the assassin's head backwards to open the airway, crushed his cheek against the assassin's nose to seal off the nostrils, then blew air and life into the assassin's gaping mouth.
         Heineman breathed for the assassin once and twice and thrice and a fourth time. Four quick breaths, then Heineman slid two fingers to the windpipe, felt for the carotid pulse, found one. The assassin still had a pulse. His heart was still beating. But he was still not breathing. Heineman's ear was against the open mouth, from which chasm there came no sound of soul, no wind of warmth.
        —  So breathe, so breathe.
         Heineman breathed for the man, breathed as he had been taught.
         —  Don't die, don't die.
         There in the dark of the carp pool, in a wet pool of darkness beneath a sky which writhed in bruises and fire, Heineman breathed for the man, and remembered. Years and years ago, when Heineman had been aged about twelve, he had helped his cousin Dug Mantis pull a child from a water cistern. The child had been dead. They had worked for hours on the drowned body, worked until exhaustion set in, but it had all been for vain, and Heineman had wept in heartbreak over the ragged discards of the child's life, had wept in fatigued helplessness and despair.
         Perhaps it was that death which now helped save an assassin's life, for Heineman worked on the man who had tried to kill him, worked till the soul spluttered and gagged, coughed and gasped, till the dark coughed hot, till the fingers curled and gripped, the hand making a fist.
         By then Heineman had voice enough to shout, and the men came for him, came with torches, and warmth, and help, saying, are you all right, Mr President, are you all right?
        "I'm fine," said Heineman. "But let's get my friend here to La Lantis, or he's a dead man."
         By naming the assassin as his friend, Heineman gave the assassin his best chance of life, for in the night's confusions the guards took their president at his word. They presumed the torn and half-drowned stranger to be a friend indeed, and rushed him to La Lantis with a speed which gave him at least half a hope that he would survive for at least one night longer.

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