Crucible (achieved wisdom)
Lyra is thirteen years old when she enrolls as a pupil at St. Sophia's School for Girls.
Here are some of the things Lyra knows:
The language of the Gyptians, the leaders of ten different witch clans, the origin of the spectres of Cittagaze, the respect of the king of the armored bears, the geography of the land of the dead, the science of Dark Matter, the feel of a lover's hands on her daemon.
Here are some of the things Lyra does not know:
How to diagram a sentence, rudimentary algebra, the geography or history of mainland Europe, contemporary literature, the current fashion in dress and the most popular way for a teenage girl to style her hair.
"Well," she tells Pan with deliberate cheer, "we'd best make a start of it, I suppose."
The headmistress at St. Sophia's is quick-witted and tart-tongued, and to Lyra's surprise, she finds she likes the woman immensely. Headmistress Hawthorne has no patience for frivolity or stupidity, but appreciates a bit of cheek, and Lyra discovers that she's quite willing to do as she's told when she can respect the authority figure doing the telling. Hawthorne generally asks rather than orders, and always tries to take a moment to explain the why of any instruction she gives, and in time, Lyra comes to understand that there is generally a good reason to comply even when the wherefore of a particular directive is not immediately obvious.
It follows, too, that Hawthorne would never permit an imbecile to educate any of her students, and therefore perhaps Lyra's new teachers are worth listening to as well. They may not always show compassion for the gaps in Lyra's education, but they don't single her out for censure, either. And while Lyra doesn't necessarily enjoy all her lessons, for the first time in her life, she finds it easy enough to submit to them.
Some of the other girls are cruel, as children can be. "Where did you grow up, on a Gyptian barge?" Delphina asks haughtily, nose in the air, when Lyra, distracted, sips her soup directly from the bowl.
"Yes, partly," Lyra says, and nothing else. She meets Delphina stare for stare, unblinking as Will at his most terrifying. Pan is impassive at her shoulder. After a long minute, Delphina sniffs and turns away, resuming her conversation with her friends. Lyra finishes her soup and never once touches the silver spoon on the silk napkin beside her bowl.
Lyra is learning that truths, carefully selected, can be even more effective than the most elaborate lies.
She avoids even looking at the alethiometer for the first few months at St. Sophia's, keeping it locked in the trunk at the foot of her bed. She doesn't want to be reminded of how useless it is to her now, how impenetrable. Like trying to dive for pearls in a murky, filthy sewer, when once she could pluck them from a clear blue sea.
Her past is behind her, future vast and unknowable, and just sorting through the structured routines of life in a boarding school is challenge enough for the present.
Alpha & Omega (inevitability)
She knows it's still gleaming gold in its new velvet pouch, inscrutable and eternal, patiently awaiting her return.
During her waking hours, Lyra applies herself to her schooling. Even the things she finds silly and useless (she can't abide Latin declensions), she throws herself into with grim determination. To use the alethiometer effectively, rather than merely intuitively, she must acquire a breadth and depth of knowledge far beyond her own personal interests.
But that's only by day. Asleep, alone in her narrow bed, she dreams of red berries and dark eyes, and often awakens in the middle of the night with a cry caught in her throat and Pan's soft body curled around her neck, fur damp with her tears.
Madonna (the feminine)
There's a boarding school for boys about a mile away from St. Sophia's, and a Yuletide Dance in December. The other girls in Lyra's dormitory chatter and giggle and go shopping for new dresses. Delphina and Aubrey both hem up the skirts of their best frocks a daring three inches.
"Do you even know any of the boys?" Lyra demands.
"I know which are the handsomest," Delphina shoots back, and carefully pins her dark hair into perfect ringlets. "It's not like you have a particular beau, either, Lyra." Her daemon, Aemilius, shifts from his usual sleek cream-colored cat to a crow, mocking her with a series of harsh caws.
There are ten other girls Lyra's age at St. Sophia's. None of their daemons have truly settled yet, although a few have forms they clearly prefer.
They don't know the first thing about what it means to be in love.
Lyra doesn't bother with the Yuletide Dance that first winter at St. Sophia's, nor the May Festival (where Delphina is crowned the Queen of May, much to no one's surprise). She goes to the Botanic Garden on Midsummer's Day instead.
She doesn't attend the Yuletide Dance in her second year, either.
She turns fifteen just before the May Festival, and her friend Jasmine cajoles her into coming along. Jasmine has her eye on a boy at St. John's College, who Lyra stoutly disdains since he clearly wasn't good enough for Jordan, but she does reluctantly concede that he cuts a fine figure in his robes. He's eighteen and probably doesn't even know that Jasmine exists, but hope springs eternal. Jasmine and Lyra catch up brightly colored ribbons and dance around the maypole, and much to her surprise, Lyra realizes that she's rather enjoying herself.
The St. John's boy has a friend, Peter. He's tall and solidly built, with dark hair and strong cheekbones, and while Jasmine does her best to flirt and flounce with the object of her affection, Peter trades amused glances with Lyra. She likes the humor in his eyes. Later, when the band strikes back up again, he invites her to dance.
She politely declines. He shrugs and finds another partner. He's a very good dancer, Lyra discovers, watching him sidelong from across the green.
She's forgotten Peter entirely by Midsummer's Day. She sits on their bench and speaks quietly to the empty air about her year, her studies. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine the clear concentration of the alethiometer, the subtle shift in awareness that made those hidden meanings float up into awareness, and can almost feel the warmth of Will's hand covering her own on the bench.
Beehive (productive work)
On her fifteenth birthday, the Master of Jordan College invites Lyra home for dinner, and presents her with a box wrapped in brightly colored paper and tied up with a gold ribbon. "Go on," he says with a smile.
Lyra takes her time unwrapping her gift. She ties her own hair up with the ribbon, giving him a wink. She prefers not to be considered too tame, even if she is growing up a bit and can speak with correct grammar and all. But she's careful with the wrapping paper. It's too pretty to rip apart.
Inside the box is a heavy book, recently published, the gold embossed letters in the leather cover still shining. An Introduction to the Study of Alethiometry, it proclaims.
Lyra gives the Master a sidelong glance. "I en't really stopped," she confesses. "Playing with the alethiometer, I mean. I fiddle with it some nights. And Dame Hannah's been giving me private tutorials once a month."
"I know," the Master says. "But there are very few copies of the full alethiometric texts, and you shan't have access to them until you've started at Oxford properly. Dame Hannah herself co-wrote this, and it was only published earlier this year. This way you have it all to yourself, when you're 'fiddling' with your extremely rare and priceless toy in your spare time. Make a proper start to it, child."
Lyra smiles down at the book. "I shall."
Jasmine and Aubrey's daemons both settle that summer. While everyone knows that daemons settle with age and maturity, not for any one specific reason, Aubrey's cheeks flush bright pink whenever anyone mentions her daemon Claudio's new form (a particularly impressive greyhound), and Lyra knows. Aubrey's got a beau in the village, a clever jeweler's apprentice. Aubrey's parents wouldn't think he's good enough for her, and her best friend Delphina certainly doesn't approve. But Lyra watches the way the greyhound nuzzles against his red fox daemon when the girls are out shopping on High Street, and she knows.
Sometimes she misses Will so much she feels her heart must surely burst with it. Late at night, under her blankets and the cover of darkness, while Aubrey whispers secrets to an appalled and envious Delphina loudly enough for all the girls in their dormitory to hear, other parts of her ache and yearn as well.
She doesn't let herself dwell on that, much.
Once every season, when the Gyptians pass through Oxford, she still visits Ma Costa on her houseboat. Ma Costa folds Lyra in her ample arms and clucks over her, then feeds her until her stomach is near to bursting. She gives Lyra a more strident cross-examination on her studies than the Headmistress, and scolds her fluently for infractions both real and imagined.
Lyra takes another helping of dessert and fills herself up with a mother's love.
She reads the Master's book on alethiometry from cover to cover, then flips it back to the first page and starts again.
She memorizes the first through tenth meanings for all thirty-six symbols on the alethiometer. There are up to thirty meanings for each, of course, but one must start somewhere.
She sits exams and diligently prepares her application to St. Sophia's College at Oxford. It's a formality -- nearly every girl from the boarding school who wants to further her education is accepted into their mother college -- but Lyra intends to take no chances.
She consults regularly with Dame Hannah on her future at Oxford. Reading Alethiometry is hardly an option. It's an arcane discipline with only a handful of scholars across the globe; Dame Hannah suggests that she read History or Literature to best prepare herself. Experimental Theology would also be an acceptable course of study, but Hannah knows better than to suggest that to Lyra.
She begins reading the newspaper regularly and consulting with various Jordan scholars on current affairs.
She memorizes the tenth through twentieth meanings for all thirty-six symbols on the alethiometer.
She settles on History at St. Sophia's.
She matriculates to Oxford along with four other girls from her year, including Delphina. Jasmine bids her a tearful goodbye before returning to her family's home in London. Aubrey marries the jeweler's apprentice and is disowned by her parents.
She sits alone on her bench in the Botanic Garden on Midsummer's Day.
She memorizes the remaining meanings for all thirty-six symbols.
My dear Lyra,
Lord Faa tells me that congratulations are in order. Of course you shall be magnificent at Oxford, as you have been in all matters that you set your clever mind to. It gladdens me that you continue your fond association with your Gyptian family. They are good people who will care for you, no matter what paths you tread.
My sisters and I met with the angel Xaphania two months past. She tells me that her kin have made good on their promise, and nearly all the doors between worlds have been closed. All but one.
The winds in the north are sweet and cold once more. The armored bears return to Svalbard. There is one there who would wish to congratulate you in person, should you ever be granted the time for another journey.
I wish you well, my sister of the earth. You know how to call upon me should the need arise.
Ever yours, Serafina Pekkala
Lyra blinks out of her trance to find Pantalaimon twitching excitedly at her side. His tail brushes her arm. "Was that -- did we -- "
She looks down at the alethiometer on her lap. The fourth needle points firmly to one symbol, at perfect rest in a way it hasn't been since she was twelve years old. "I did," she agrees, awed. "Just for a moment -- and it en't like it was a terribly complex question, not like what we used to ask, but it answered. It answered!" She hugs her daemon to her chest, burying her face in his fur. "Oh, we've still such a long way to go, though, Pan."
"We'll get there," he tells her, certain.
Lyra is seventeen years old when she starts at St. Sophia's College, Oxford.
Here are some of the things Lyra knows:
Algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus; how many bones are in the human body as well as their names; the countries of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas and a rough history of each; that she absolutely despises most poetry but does have a fondness for lurid fantasy novels; the Master of Jordan's favorite brand of spirits; all thirty-odd meanings of each of the thirty-six symbols of the alethiometer.
Here is something Lyra does not know:
How to accept the reality that she will never hear Will Parry's voice again.
Helmet (narrow vision)
As a child, Lyra used to scorn the handful of female scholars at Oxford, pitying them for their pretence, confident in her certainty that a woman could never be a real scholar.
Now, as one of that sparse assortment of women scattered across the twenty-three colleges of Oxford, she wryly repents for her sins.
Delphina, to Lyra's surprise, takes to college life immediately. She's a bit lazy, and relies a touch too much on her charm and pretty face to smooth her way, but there's a sharp mind hidden beneath her perfect ringlets, and she navigates the condescension of their tutors with sly grace.
Lyra prefers her own forthright approach to Delphina's wiles, but finds herself admiring the other girl more and more each day.
The night before their first paper is due for their course on classical Brytannic history, Lyra nicks some bottles of ale from the college club and shares it with Delphina, swapping notes back and forth across the floor of her dormitory room.
There's an odd woman who always sits in the exact same corner of the college library, a huge reading table all to herself no matter what time of day or how crowded the rest of the library gets. She's pale-haired and dark-eyed, with a forbidding-looking sparrowhawk daemon, and no one ever speaks with her. Even the librarians seem to avoid her.
"Oh, her," Delphina scoffs, tossing her hair. "Her name's Asta Berger, she's a full scholar. Some people say she's a witch."
"She's not," Lyra says confidently. She knows witches. "Not every woman with a bird daemon is a witch, you know."
Delphina rolls her eyes. "Obviously. And I've never seen her fly. But there's other gossip." She lowers her voice, leaning in conspiratorially. "That she's a witch's lover."
The strange woman -- Asta -- glances up then, probably by coincidence. Her dark eyes flash to Lyra and Delphina, two tables away. Delphina doesn't notice. Lyra does.
"What do you think?" she asks Pan, later, when they're alone.
Pan shrugs. "I think you shouldn't listen to silly gossip."
"I think," Lyra says, "she'd have to be quite an interesting person, to be a witch's lover."
Bird (the Soul)
Pantalaimon isn't bound to her the way most daemons are, not since the land of the dead. He wanders, sometimes. Not for long, never so long that anyone would notice or start to wonder, but sometimes. He doesn't tell her where he goes. She's long since stopped asking. It's strange, to have a part of herself secret even from herself, but at the same time, she likes it. The thought that she's not set in stone yet, even if her daemon had settled so young. That there's still more for her to learn about her own soul.
Anyway, she's used to having a part of her heart missing. Sometimes whole days go by and she doesn't even think about Will, not even once.
Lyra wonders if she's not half a witch herself, these days.
It's a simple question to pose, relatively speaking. And good practice for her, since she already knows the answer. It only takes her about two and half hours to frame it properly. Is Asta a witch?
No, the alethiometer tells her firmly. Even Lyra can read that much without needing the books.
It takes several days to figure out the best way to frame the next question: Is Asta a witch's lover?
The answer is too complicated for Lyra and Pan to parse. They work at it for several weeks, though, posing the original question over and over again, noting down the alethiometer's readings with painstaking care. They haven't yet deciphered it, but Lyra gets the distinct impression that the alethiometer is scolding her for prying.
In her second term at Oxford, Lyra takes a course on economics and is utterly fascinated.
Maybe it makes sense. Trade and negotiation is what she's best at, viewed in a certain light. How else did she help Iorek Byrnison win his throne? It's what she learned in the Gyptian riverways, at Mrs. Coulter's fancy parties, in Will's world and Cittagaze and with the harpies in the land of the dead. Economics is just a different angle. And there are so many stories to be told through trade.
When she next visits with Ma Costa, she spends hours in deep discussion of trade laws with the heads of several Gyptian families, and wonders if she can write it up as a case study.
Lyra starts to wonder if using the alethiometer isn't cheating, somehow.
If there aren't better ways to seek out knowledge than taking that particular shortcut. If it's not just a sort of superficial understanding. Useful, but shallow. Cutting corners. Skipping to the end of the book.
The subtle knife created a spectre along with every shortcut between worlds. What unseen cost does the alethiometer extort upon the universe?
She never even tried asking the alethiometer about Will, not even at her most lonely, her most desperate. Not even when she thought she might literally die from the absence of him. Maybe she's always known that any response it gave her could never be enough.
She stops trying to decipher its answer about Asta.
One late afternoon in March, for no particular reason whatsoever, Lyra drops her stack of books down on the table in the back corner of the library with a resounding thud. Asta looks up, startled, her pen jerking across the page of her notes.
"Hello," Lyra says, with determination. Pan flows from her shoulder down her arm onto the back of the perpetually empty chair beside Asta's. "May we sit here?"
After a moment, Asta nods.
Asta is a Mathematics scholar, and she's a fantastic tutor when it comes to the maths aspect of economics. She's a woman grown in her early twenties, not a mere student like Lyra, and honestly Lyra's not sure why Asta tolerates her continued presence. But she seems to enjoy helping, though she masks it with frowns and a certain dry, sarcastic humor. Lyra doesn't think anyone else ever asks her for anything at all. Maybe that's why.
For all that, Asta seems to appreciate her forthright companionship, strange though it is.
Lyra invites her along to the May Festival, because she doubts anyone else will, and Asta scowls ferociously at her.
"I don't need your pity," she snaps.
Lyra blinks, caught off guard. "It's not pity," she says. "I thought it would be fun, that's all. I enjoy your company, you know."
After a long moment, Asta gives her a curt nod. "All right, then."
She's actually quite a good dancer, when they join Delphina and the other young women at the maypole. Lyra thinks she even smiles once or twice, and her sparrowhawk daemon wheels contentedly overhead.
Walled Garden (innocence)
"Hi, Will. It's me. I mean, of course it's me. It's our day, and our bench. Who else would it be?
"It's raining today. Not too hard, I like it. It's warm. Anyway, it means there's no one else nearby, and that's nice. I've got so much to tell you.
"I don't even know how to begin. Is it like this for you, too? Are there days when your life is just so full and busy and mad that it doesn't even occur to you to think of me? I don't blame you for it, Will. That's what living is, I think. We can't always be mourning each other or we'll never have any time for the life in front of us, and then we may as well have given up from the start. You know, sometimes, I can't remember the precise color of your eyes, and I hate myself for it a little, but then again you've probably grown up so much that it doesn't matter anyway. I'd much rather see you for who you are now than just be stuck remembering who you were then.
"It doesn't matter who you've grown up to be, Will. I still love you. Always, always.
"I think I've made a new friend. She's fierce and a bit odd. You'd like her.
"I miss you."
Lyra dives into her second year studies with a passion, all economics and history and no alethiometry at all, and ignores Dame Hannah's repeated messages. She only cares about what's real and quantifiable and true, true, true. She wants to prove her own theorems, all by herself; she won't rely on a golden toy to do her thinking for her, not any longer.
The alethiometer never lies, but Lyra can. To herself most of all.
"My friend Delphina once told me that you were a witch's lover," Lyra says, all at once, out of nowhere. It's an uncommonly warm November day, so they're sitting together on the grass in the college yard, books strewn around them.
Pan nips her pinky finger sharply in rebuke. She winces and brushes him aside.
"Did she," Asta remarks drily, not looking up from her notes.
Lyra bites her lip, then forges ahead. "I'm sorry, it's all right if you'd rather not say. I mean, it don't matter either way. But I've known a few witches, and one of my dearest friends is Serafina Pekkala, she's Queen of the Lake Enara clan, so I wouldn't mind. If you were. I'd think you rather lucky, actually. Witches are very selective about who they love."
Asta says nothing.
"I imagine it must be very hard, for someone who loved a witch," Lyra says softly. "The witches say how difficult it is to love normal men, because they live for so long and our lives are so fleeting to them. But the other way around can't be easy, either. And to love someone so far away--"
"Enough," Asta says quietly. Her sparrowhawk glares and ruffles his feathers ominously. Lyra turns back to her books, face hot.
"Lyra," Dame Hannah says, exasperated, at their regular monthly tutorial, "have you been working with your alethiometer at all since the summer?"
"Of course I have!" Lyra protests. She hasn't taken it out of her trunk in nearly six months. "It's just…"
All of her old habits come rushing back. She has more restraint now, though. No need for an elaborate lie when a simple one will do.
"This year, it's been harder than I expected," she says, downcast. "I mean, not that I didn't have to work hard at the boarding school, 'cause of course I did. But Oxford, it's different. And now that I'm my second year in, I got all sorts of different courses and my friends en't in the same track so we can't study all together like we used to, and I have to start picking a topic for my dissertation for next year… I don't mean to ignore the alethiometry, Dame Hannah, really I don't. It's just that's always been what came easiest, so it's easier to forget about it when everything else takes so much more effort to get right. I'm sorry."
Dame Hannah sighs. "It's all right, child. I forget the pressure you students are all under. It's just that you were making such remarkable progress, so quickly -- well. A bit of a setback is understandable. I can't fault you for focusing on your Master's studies. You may go. I'll see you next month."
"Of course, Dame Hannah," Lyra says earnestly. "And thank you."
Liar, the harpies scream in her nightmares, raking her scalp with their horrid talons. Liar, Lyra, liar!
Wild Man (lust)
"Oh," Delphina sighs, flopping across Lyra's bed as though it were her own, "you should have seen them! Those arms."
It takes Lyra a few moments to recall what sporting event she'd missed today. "The rowing team?"
"The rowing team," Delphina agrees, with gusto. Her cat daemon Aemilius purrs smugly. "I know I can hardly drag you away from the library these days, Lyra, but really, you would positively faint. Can you imagine upper arm strength like that under...other circumstances?"
For all her talk, Lyra's fair certain Delphina is still a virgin. Her highborn parents would probably murder her if she engaged in any relations out of wedlock. But she can hardly fault Delphina for indulging the fantasy. She still remembers the taste of those red berries.
"What is it with you and the library these days, anyway?" Delphina asks idly. "Some handsome librarian turn your head while he was up a ladder, hmmm?"
"No," Lyra says without thinking, "just studying with Asta."
Aemilius yowls, a cat's laugh, and Pan hisses and swipes at his tail. Lyra stares down at her rug to avoid Delphina's knowing look, equal parts gleeful and appalled.
She loves Will. She'll always love Will.
She throws herself even deeper into her studies, but avoids the library. She doesn't need any more maths for her economic history, anyway. There's a scholar at Pembroke college who's an expert on Tartary and Muscovite trade relations, so she seeks him out instead.
She visits the Botanic Garden even though it's scarcely even spring. It just feels empty.
She knows she can't run forever, but she takes what shelter she can find from the storm raging within her.
"Her name was Keila Sigyn, of the Taymyr clan," Asta tells her quietly. "I was only seventeen. It was before I came to Oxford. My parents were ambassadors, and we were traveling through the Laplands from Muscovy. I can't fathom what she saw in me. She was...beautiful. So very beautiful, and clever, and curious. And young, for a witch. I didn't realize that then. She seemed ageless, but I imagine she was about as young by their way of measuring it as I was by ours."
It's early July. Asta found her in the Botanic Garden. Not at her secret bench -- never there. But down by the water garden, out of sight of the main pathways. Lyra didn't ask how she'd found her.
"What happened to her?" is what Lyra does ask.
Asta shrugs, looking away. "This was...during a time of crisis, within the Magisterium. You were probably too young to know what was going on in the world. All of the witch clans were gathering. Some kind of battle, though what for, I never learned." She brushes a tear out of the corner of her eye, almost impatiently. "Her clan queen sought me out, a year later. She said Keila wouldn't have wanted me to live out my life wondering."
They sit together in silence for a long while, staring out at the peaceful pond. Dusk is falling over the gardens, soft and cool. Asta's daemon perches in the branches of a nearby tree, as though standing guard. Pantalaimon is nowhere to be found.
"What did she look like?" Lyra asks, breaking the stillness.
Asta smiles at her, dark eyes sad. "Nothing at all like you. And who did you lose, lonely Lyra?"
"The most important person in all of the worlds," Lyra says. "He didn't look anything at all like you, either," she adds, and kisses her.
There's no comparing Asta and Will, not at all. And that's for the best.
This is one answer the alethiometer could never have given her.
Sword (the Church)
As summer fades into fall, the daily newspapers begin to fill with rumblings about a new conservative force in the Magisterium, in New Denmark. It's far across the sea, and no one seems terribly worried yet. Except for the Master of Jordan, who frowns heavily and mutters into his teacup.
Lyra thinks, Not again. Please, not again.
For the first time in nearly a year, she finds herself considering the velvet pouch locked in her trunk, formless questions crowding her mind, uncertain of how to even begin to frame them.
Pantalaimon vanishes for three full days; it's the longest they've been apart since their first terrible separation in the land of the dead. Lyra shuts herself up in her room, skipping classes, hiding from anyone who might notice the unfathomable absence of her daemon. She even avoids Asta, feigning illness.
When Pan finally returns, a familiar goose daemon accompanies him.
"Don't worry," Kaisa reassures her. "Serafina Pekkala will meet you outside of the town, so as not to cause a stir among the scholars."
"Serafina Pekkala didn't need to come meet me at all!" Lyra protests, but Pan just gives her a smug look and curls up in front of the fire, tail twitching lazily.
Late that night, Lyra slips out of St. Sophia's College and makes her way to the marshland just north of the town. When Serafina glides down on her slender cloud pine bough, Lyra rushes to greet her, kissing her on both cheeks.
"Lyra Silvertongue," Serafina says. "Well met."
"I'm so sorry," Lyra blurts out. "I en't told Pan to fetch you, I swear! There's no earthly reason why he ought to've gone--"
"I hear the same whispers on the wind as you," Serafina replies calmly. "The same rumors of a new Authority beginning to stir."
"But it can't be war, not again, not so soon -- didn't we win?"
Serafina places a hand on her shoulder, her fingers strangely warm. "We did, Lyra. Have no fear of that. But any Republic may have its enemies, from both without and within. That is what it is to live in freedom from tyranny: to always permit dissension, to always allow for the possibility of dispute. And we are not so far along to claim everlasting victory for the Republic of Heaven, nor shall we ever be."
"But, then -- what is it that's coming?" Lyra demands, begin to feel somewhat overwrought. "I'm no soldier, I've never wanted to be."
"It is not given to me to see the future. Nor am I a general, to conscript you or any man or woman. All I can do is continue the good work we've started, and listen, and wait." Serafina arches one delicate brow. "What does your golden compass tell you?"
Lyra scowls, kicking at the mossy ground. "I haven't asked it anything. I don't know what to ask. Anyway, I'm not sure I ought to. Wasn't it cheating, sort of, what I did before? Skipping to the end of the book without understanding anything I'd read?"
"Yes, you did cheat, in a way," Serafina agrees, not unkindly. "At a time when we desperately needed you to, when all of the odds were stacked against us so high that there was no way out but to lose. You cheated so that we all could win." She smiles. "But to truly seek to understand -- how could that ever be cheating?"
Lyra stares up into the cloudy night sky, and gives no reply.
She's too tired when she returns to her room late that night to make a start of it. But the very next morning, she unlocks the trunk at the foot of her bed and shuffles through a pile of winter clothing, books, and old notes until she unearths the velvet pouch.
When she tugs loose the drawstring top, gold gleams in the anbaric light.
"Have you settled on a topic for your dissertation?" Asta asks, her pale hair gleaming like gold against the rich forest green fabric of her coverlet, her fierce dark eyes so like Will's that it makes Lyra's heart clench in her chest.
Perhaps they aren't so different in every way. She'll tell him all about Asta, next Midsummer. One day, she may even find a way to ask the alethiometer if he'd like her. It's always easier to frame a question when you're confident in the answer you'll receive.
"Lyra," Asta calls, sing-song. Her sparrowhawk daemon, Gerrit, snaps his tail feathers. "Still with me?"
Lyra blinks rapidly. It's as though she'd slipped back into that deep concentration she'd once known so well, when all the answers came so clear, just for an instant. "Sorry, my mind wandered. What were you saying?"
"Your dissertation," Asta prompts. "What have you settled on?"
"Oh, that. 'Developments in patterns of trade in the European Arctic region with particular reference to independent cargo balloon carriage, 1950-1970.'"
Asta shakes her head fondly. "You're an odd little thing, you realize that?"
Pan chuckles deep in his throat from where he's curled around the bedpost, and Lyra just smiles.
Lyra is twenty years old when she completes her master's dissertation at Oxford.
Here is the most important thing Lyra knows:
She's only just begun.