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In Hushed Whispers

Chapter Text

 

 "Rain pours quietly under the starlight,
the world resents our brevity."

They left the city before sunrise, too early in fact, and Marisa had to struggle with her urge to yawn through their journey. They had reached the city by zeppelin, but the rough terrain would make it difficult for the aircraft to land further inland, so they traded their ride for a smaller and more agile gyropter. It was nowhere near as comfortable, but they only had one and some of the scholars with them had to hire dogs and sledges and go by foot, so Marisa deemed herself lucky, although luck had nothing to do with it.

When they landed, close to the campsite, she tugged her dæmon closer to her body, so they would share the warmth her thick fur coat provided; they didn’t enjoy touching each other that much, but the cold was incentive enough to put aside their differences. She put her hood on carefully as to not mess her hair, protecting her cheeks from the harsh wind and followed their astronomer to the camp.

A couple of large tents were built surrounding three wooden cabins; there was around twenty to twenty-five people walking around, setting equipments, fixing the tarpaulin of the tents, making a fire in the center of the camp. Everyone was busy with something, so they didn’t have the time to pay attention to the newcomers; their pilot was carrying Marisa’s bags, heavy from the books she brought, and the clothes.

They entered the far-left cabin and suddenly there was this thickness of hot air and she put her hood off. It was a comfortable place but modestly furnished: a fireplace was burning with excitement close by, its orange flames lighting up the living room brightly. There were bookshelves neatly spread around the place, and a large study, with four large tables, filled to the brim with astronomical instruments, pens and books. There were two women in that room, and three men, all busy with their notes and researches; Dr. Wright, the astronomer with Marisa, announced them with his cheerful disposition. She wondered how bad the world would have to be to put him in a bad mood, because he was having a blast the whole trip while everyone else seemed to be struggling with the cold.

“You made it!” She heard a familiar voice; amongst the female scholars was the familiar face of Dorothea Eilhart, whom Marisa befriended when they started at St. Sophia. Lady Eilhart approached her, with a soft smile; she wasn’t a person who hugs people and neither was Marisa and that was one of the pillars their fragile alliance was built upon. She was involved in high politics and scandals, and she was highly influential amongst the experimental theologians of their country, so Lady Eilhart was a good friend to have and they did see eye to eye very often. “I was afraid the cold and discomfort would have scared you away from this place.”

“For a moment, it almost did, but my curiosity got the best of me.” Marisa said, smiling, taking her coat off and putting it away. They approached Lady Eilhart’s table and Marisa undid her scarf, for the cabin was very warm and she was beginning to feel uncomfortable. “Do you have anything new on the matter?”

“I did notice some larger discrepancies when I was measuring the atmosphere, but the astronomers insist it’s related to gravity, not a frequency.” The woman said, showing Marisa her messy notes, but however disorganised Lady Eilhart was, she was precise and that mattered. “Nonsense.”

“Hmm, how sure are you?” Marisa said, taking one of her charts and examining it up close. Based on what she could see, Dorothea was right, but she enjoyed testing her patience.

“I checked three times, Marisa. If they bothered listening to me, they would notice it too.” She said, in a whisper as to not disturb the other scholars. “I’ve used three different methods, hell, I counted on my fingers, they just don’t want to accept I may be right. Lucky for us, the experimental theologians arrived yesterday, and they’re already agreeing with me. Big surprise.”

“Seriously? All of them?”

“Well, not all of them, of course.” The woman said, moving uneasily. Her dæmon, a red breast robin, flew around her head as if he was a tiara. Marisa smiled with contempt. “I had to play some cards and cash-in some favours, but I requested help from a friend and I will prove my point.”

They sat by the table and Marisa received a thick book on Lapland’s topography. There were several bookmarks in it, and Lady Eilhart had placed carefully written notes in the pages. Marisa read them carefully, as the other woman searched for a note in another book. Her dæmon found it first, landing beside it, and the golden monkey watched languidly that delicate bird.

“You mentioned a friend.” Marisa said unattentive, circling some of the numbers in one of the notes so they could be verified again.

“A Jordan scholar… Well, an explorer. I’ll introduce you at dinner, if you’d like.” Dorothea said, checking the numbers Marisa circled. “This one is wrong, maybe a wrong reading, look for wild discrepancies too.”

“I see, this one is also different… Why seek this man out?” Marisa asked, and she checked one of her bags for her own research. When she found it, she lay that beside the number chart and started to find the discrepancies.

“He’s very influential, you know, he opens his mouth and the whole world silences themselves to listen. It doesn’t hurt to have his support.”

“Yet you sound very displeased.”

Lady Eilhart let out a deep sigh, as if she had been waiting on that question for weeks, which might as well have been true.

“He is, perhaps, too influential. We’ve known each other for a while, so he is very disrespectful sometimes. He is clever, though, and I daresay I even like his company, when he isn’t being insulting or boasting about his intellect.” Dorothea said then smiled. Marisa noticed she looked pale, more than usual, and there was dark circles under her eyes. She was tired, it was visible, but her dæmon had a glimmer and an energy that was indisputable. So Marisa ignored that, and focused on doing her own calculations. “You’re gonna love him, I’m certain. Pass me the map, please.”

They spent two hours in a friendly silence, checking their numbers, discarding what was wrong and taking note on what needed a rework. When Marisa started to feel sleepy, Dorothea recommended her to take a nap before continuing and showed her the room she was going to stay in. It was another modestly furnished room, but still very comfortable on sight, with two single beds and a fireplace also burning brightly. Marisa put her clothing bag on the empty bed and slipped a glance over the other one, with two sets of suitcases upon them.

“We’re sharing the room, to your dismay.” Dorothea laughed and gesture at the hallway. Marisa grinned in response and started to set her bed to have a quick nap. “Dr. Otero and his wife decided to stay, so I gave them the other bedroom.”

“Did you really set us up with the married scholars?” Marisa sighed, feigning disgust. She didn’t really care about it, though. “Couldn’t you put them with the older scholars? I heard they’re loud.”

“Ugh, they are. But I had to be polite and offer them the big bed. If we’re lucky they will leave in a couple of days.” Dorothea sighed, and for a moment her eyes lingered over her own suitcase on her bed. Marisa did notice it, but paid no attention to that, so Dorothea said goodbye and closed the door after she left.

Marisa slept until lunch time, and blamed it on the weather, since she left London during spring, but there was no visible spring where she was now, just snow and harsh winds. They had lunch in the dining room, a modest but hot meal, and spent the afternoon discussing better ways to measure a frequency they couldn’t see.

There was the slight discomfort about Dorothea’s theory, because it sounded quite a lot like Dust and that alone was reason to worry, but she was clever, she insisted on the fact that it was a radio frequency or something similar, so she could dodge the inquisitorial weight of the CCD upon her shoulders. That was the sole reason they had many scholars interested in their research and as long as she kept herself away from Dust she would be fine. Marisa knew Lady Eilhart wasn’t meddling with Dust because they often reviewed each other’s notes, so she would’ve known otherwise. Did her research bordered the line with Dust? Yes, but Marisa also knew that was not they were looking for; she wanted to know more about it of course.

It was four in the afternoon when Marisa noticed something odd. It was in fact, her monkey who noticed it first, but she was just a few seconds behind. Dorothea checked her watch, then stood up, saying she needed a book that was kept on her bedroom. Half an hour later, she still hadn’t come back and Marisa found that incredibly strange. So, to satisfy her curiosity, she followed the woman back to their room and found the door slightly closed, except for a small breach. She was ready to eavesdrop when Dorothea’s dæmon took notice of her, so she knocked on the door, pretending she had just arrived at the room.

“Are you alright? Have you found the book?” She said, noticing how quickly the other woman gathered a pack of papers and put them away inside her suitcase. She also put away two books, leaving one behind. The monkey, however, told Marisa later that while Dorothea was putting the stack of papers away, she slipped a thin, emerald, square shaped paper into the book she left behind. Marisa found that excitingly curious.

“I did, but I brought the wrong volume.” She said and turned to face Marisa, as level-headed as ever. “I should have been more careful.”

“You’re hiding something.” Marisa said, in an amused tone.

Dorothea barely flinched, instead grinning with a childish enjoyment. Under many different circumstances, Marisa managed to get a set of delicious secrets from Dorothea, things that would destroy people’s careers if they ever leaked; so she often read the woman as an open book of a sorts, except there was still something lurking underneath, behind the socialite façade and eccentric scholar she was, there was something Marisa couldn’t reach. She didn’t know at that time, of course, but Dorothea had a secret she would die before revealing: she was, in fact, an Oakley Street agent, a fighter for freedom, a spy quite excellent at her craft. And Marisa Coulter was not the worst thing she had faced, but she was sharp and cunning, so Dorothea had to tread carefully.

Before she could say anything, and to the surprise of them both, a loud voice called from the living room, so both women left and walked in a hurry to see the man who was making a fuss.

“Eilhart, where the hell are you?”

When they got to the living room, he was seated on the couch, his ankle upon his knee, and there was a savagery in his eyes that made Marisa twitch for a second. He had a worn-out coat and he dropped some snow from his shoes that was starting to melt on the carpet. A thick beard covered his chin, dark and wild, as if he was in dire need of a shave. Marisa had a couple of guesses as to how someone like Dorothea would be acquainted with someone like that man, and a great deal of them had something to do with a level of indiscretion she was familiar with.

His dæmon, however, was something else entirely. Serene and regal, a snow leopard stood at his feet, laying bored on the ground, her fur almost iridescent.

“You’re staining my carpet.” It was all Dorothea said, but she had an amused tone underneath her voice. She stood in front of him and he stood up, handing over to her a carefully rolled map. Marisa watched their exchange with a feigned disinterest. Her dæmon chirped loudly at the snow leopard, who barely moved even when the man stood up.

“You can afford a new one, don’t be ridiculous.” He said, his voice powerful and resonating across the room. He barely looked at Marisa, as if he was in transe inside his own thoughts and could only spare the energy to bark at the other woman. “You were right, the frequency here is unstable, but your readings aren’t enough. You need to do better, better readings, stronger numbers.”

“Funny you should say that... Well, nevermind, I will find a way to make the readings more reliable. Meanwhile, this is my colleague and research partner, Marisa Coulter.” Dorothea said, gesturing between Marisa and the man. He barely spared her a glance, but when she held her hand to him, he shook it. He had a strong grip, a little awkward because of the thick gloves he was wearing. He looked at her for two seconds, then looked back at Dorothea, bored and uninterested in neither of them but the subject of their conversation. “Marisa, this is Lord Asriel. He is an explorer and a very polite man, as you might have noticed already.”

“Indeed.” Marisa jested, finding it difficult to look uninterested in what was happening. That man, a lord? She couldn’t quite see it, but somehow it was believable. Perhaps it was his posture that sold him out, or the way he acted as if he owned everything, even the way he spoke to Dorothea, who was a lady herself, but the dæmon was what made it all tangible. There was an air of superiority to her that belonged to people like him. Or perhaps he was simply one of a kind, since Dorothea herself had a shy dæmon, beautiful, but unimpressive.

“You flatter me, Eilhart. I will try to pinpoint an area for us to test your improvements, by night. Please, do your job right.” He said, a spark of amusement in his eyes, he even dared show them a smirk. Marisa caught his eyes and smiled when he directed his attention at her and held his hand for her to shake. Another firm grip. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Coulter. I will see both of you later.”

He turned around and left, slamming the door on his way out. Dorothea was already looking at the map he gave her, checking the numbers, but Marisa needed a minute to recover. She stared at her colleague, trying to picture her relationship with Lord Asriel and found it amusing yet complicated, because there were many possibilities and none made any sense. She had a grin on her face, waiting for Dorothea to notice she was staring and when she did, a crinkle appeared in between her eyebrows.

“What? What is it?” She asked, and her dæmon flew nervously around her head.

“Nothing, I just thought that… you could do better than that man.” Marisa mocked and the woman rolled her eyes, while sitting on the couch and opening the map on the coffee table.

Marisa sat beside her, the monkey peeping at the map through her shoulders. Dorothea’s dæmon was not entirely afraid of him, like most dæmons were, which was a novelty and a nuisance. Fear was one of Marisa’s weapons of influence, the awareness the golden monkey caused had often worked in her favour and Dorothea’s slight immunity was unwelcome. The monkey often snarled at the robin, but the little bird merely chirped in defiance, and they would do that for hours; sometimes the robin would even whisper a word or two to him, but never got a reply.

Dorothea laughed at Marisa’s implication, heartily, then shook her head.

“Believe me, it’s nothing like that. We’re friends, that’s all. He is a brilliant man though, and his company keep undesirables away when I need it.” She explained, and fetched a thick red pen from her hair bun, letting her locks fall loose, then she started circling random numbers on the paper. “That being said, I have no interest in him. Not like that, at any rate.”

“So, he is married, then?” Marisa grinned, and Dorothea shook her head in disapproval, although she had a smile on her face.

“Do you really take me as person who would only refrain to take a lover if they are married?” She said, and her dæmon sang around the golden monkey to annoy him. Marisa was glad she hadn’t noticed she was scouring for information, rather than judging her taste in men. Or if she did notice, Dorothea did a good job of not showing it. “He is not married.”

“Then, you are not interested in him at all?”

“Are you? Oh, he made quite the impression on you, didn’t he?” Dorothea said, highlighting another set of numbers on the map. She then looked at Marisa, who felt the tiny fingers of the monkey held her arm very tight. She was bothered and didn’t want to show it. “He does that, quite a lot.”

“I think he is quite rude, actually.” Marisa said, her face unreadable, then she took the map back to the study, with Dorothea following her. “But we have work to do, let’s not digress.”

They spent the next two hours diving in their own researches, Marisa digging through her old notes and Dorothea fixing her reader. The monkey and the robin were fooling around, with the bird escaping its grasp sometimes, and sometimes he would be caught. Marisa had a certain delight every time that happened, because Dorothea would quickly look to see if her dæmon was okay; she could feel the way the monkey held him a little too tight, Marisa knew she was indeed wary of its presence and that was exciting .

 

***

 

Once they finished their work on the map, with Dorothea fixing the reader and taking note of the notes that needed a second check, Marisa was feeling a bit more confident in regards of their research, despite the crude criticism made by Lord Asriel.

So, they changed themselves for dinner. It was supposed to happen in the far right cabin, and to Marisa’s surprise, Lady Eilhart informed that Lord Asriel had taken that cabin all for himself, as they walked in that direction. She was glad when they entered though, because the cold was tougher to bear at night and the house was hot as if it was a brazier in itself. Asriel didn’t greet them, but instead, his servant, a man named Thorold, with a tough disposition and good manners. He helped them with their coat, and led them to the dining room.

“Asriel actually owns this whole complex, he bought it when I suggested the potential this area held for our research.” Dorothea said, quietly, as they walked down the hall. The house had a more robust furniture than the cabin they were staying, and Marisa noticed the study as they walked by, a mess of ideas, papers and geographic instruments. She smiled, mischievously to Dorothea, whose dæmon was chirping on her shoulder, gleeful.

“And you’re trying to convince me you are not involved with this man?” Marisa said, and the servant pointed the way to them. Dorothea stopped by entrance of the room, laughing.

“You misunderstand. He didn’t do it for me, he did it for the sake of the research.” She said and Marisa rose an eyebrow, because she was struggling to believe her colleague. “You don’t believe me, it’s fine. Just talk to him, you’ll see.”

Dinner was strange, to Marisa’s conception, and she was used to a wide array of dinners, from politicians and their endless rambles when she had to host them because her husband wanted to impress someone; or the scholars at her college and their not always interesting academic gatherings, or Dorothea’s fancy parties, which were plenty and very out-of-character for a woman who disliked the attention. But nothing was remotely similar to that dinner in the cabin.

They were one of the first to arrive, except for a man, a professor from Uppsala, who was actively speaking to Asriel about incredible imprints he had found in the glaciers of Svalbard a couple of months ago. Asriel barely acknowledged them as they sat at the table with him and his colleague, merely nodding at them, then returning his full focus to the man in question. Marisa listened with interest, but she could not replicate the passion Lord Asriel had in his eyes and his movements while chatting with the men. She enjoyed watching the exchange though, for he was a strange man. After a while, the married couple arrived alongside another scholar and two explorers, including Dr. Wright, and suddenly the table was filled with conversation, and Marisa got distracted talking to different people about so many different things.

Eventually, while they were eating, Lord Asriel turned his attention to her while she was talking to the married woman, a scholar herself, about the state of politics in Brytain. Marisa was sure Asriel was eavesdropping for a while, but she was still a bit startled when he spoke to her.

“You’re quite familiar with politics, Mrs. Coulter.” He said, and she saw his eyes flicker, or perhaps it was her imagination playing tricks on her; either way, she saw he was amused by her words in general. That intrigued her, but also slightly infuriated her.

“My husband is a politician himself, he is high up the hierarchy, involved with the King’s party.” She said, in a modest tone, but everyone sensed she wasn’t being modest at all. Asriel sipped his wine with a smirk; Marisa suddenly realised she wanted to slap it out of his face. “And I did some influential work here and there, but the St. Sophia’s college consume a great deal of my time right now.”

“Fascinating. I thought I recognised your surname. Well, politicians bore me to death, but I suppose they are a necessary evil.” He announced and Marisa scoffed, discreetly, as to not drawn his attention but he seemed to have noticed it. He smiled, but it was a cold grin, yet she did not bothered herself cowering. She had no idea what was his point, but she sure wasn’t letting him win now. “It makes sense though, why someone like you would bother befriending Lady Eilhart. She enjoys politics far too much.”

Marisa exchanged a glance with Dorothea, sat beside her, and the woman simply shook her head. So, she turned around and smiled at Asriel, a replica of his own grin.

“Lady Eilhart is a fine scholar, and our friendship has absolutely nothing to do with politics, Lord Asriel.” Marisa said, and Dorothea made a small gesture of raising her glass to her words. She smiled. “Besides, I was just telling Dr. Otero about how things are changing in Brytain.”

“Is it true, though?” Dr. Otero said, a little anxious; her dæmon was a turtle and was laying on her lap, calm and boring. “Did they really manage to send your chancellor away?”

“You’re talking about the Consistorial Court.” Lord Asriel said and Marisa noticed the shift. He didn’t even bother hiding it, he simply sat with a better posture on his chair and looked straight at her. Without all his winter gear, he looked slim and powerful, and less awkward than before. He was wearing a dark sweater that contrasted with his hair, his piercing grey eyes were darting through her as if to read the truth.

“I am. And yes, but I wouldn’t say they did it themselves. Lord Nugent’s point of view was in disagreement with the current government, who is aligned with the Magisterium. So he left, rather than staying and acting on behalf of a government he did not believe in.” Marisa explained and suddenly the whole table was paying attention to her. She thrived in it, and her monkey moved on her lap, almost pleased, if that was a possibility. She looked at Lord Asriel and he narrowed his eyes; she guessed he was trying to find out what was her point and who was she loyal to, and if he was truly intelligent, he would’ve already figured her loyalties lay with herself. Marisa had, however, been building a relationship with key members of the CCD, because there was where the power lay for the moment, and with Edward being a pious man, she could reach these institutions with ease. “Better than waste his time.”

“Nugent should have stayed. It’s easier to make an opposition when you actually have a position of power.” Lord Asriel said, and suddenly he slouched his shoulders again, and rested on his chair, looking bored. The golden monkey pressed Marisa’s finger, anxious: Asriel was hiding something, he was trying to hard and she noticed it. But what could he be hiding? She noticed Dorothea moving uncomfortably too, and then her dæmon came from under the table, then landed on her shoulder again, looking anxious. Marisa realised he had been talking to the snow leopard, most likely, and she was curious about why would they hide their exchange under the ruse of a political discussion. “At any rate, it doesn’t matter what kind of barbaric plans they have, these things tend to fail with time.”

“Do you really think the Magisterium is like any other institution?” Dr. Wright said; Marisa knew he was one of those radical scholars who despised the CCD and everything involved. “Remember when they tried to seize the Bodleian alethiometer? Ridiculous, yet here we are, with them changing our political body. This nonsense has to stop.”

A discussion ensued for no more than three minutes, before Marisa finished her glass of wine in one harsh sip, then placed it at the table, and said:

“Gentlemen, please, this is an academic table, how rare it is for us to meet like this? Are you really going to waste the opportunity to speak to men like Lord Asriel or Dr. Holmgren so we can discuss such a base thing as the Consistorial Court?” There was silence, and an apology from Dr. Wright. “I mean, they do influence us enough as it is, with so sudden rules and prohibitions, but let us focus on our area of expertise. I’ve heard you’ve had great developments in our atmospheric research recently, Dr. Wright, tell us about it.”

Suddenly, they were talking about the atmosphere and the movement of the stars, and anything unrelated to the Magisterium. Marisa was proud of her subtle move, so proud that she smiled unwillingly and when she turned her head the other way, she caught Lord Asriel’s gaze. His eyes were slightly narrowed, she guessed he was intrigued or amused; he was a difficult man to read. She rose her eyebrows and smiled, sly as ever; he rested against his chair again. It was as if he had seen her for the first time, and she was used to being stared at, even lusted upon, but that was something else.

By ten, almost everyone was gone, except for Marisa and Dorothea, so they went to Asriel’s study and started to point out the places they needed to make a second reread. Lady Eilhart then, left to fetch her second reader, and Marisa was alone with Lord Asriel for what felt like an eternity.

They were both making lists on their own, in casual silence, except for the occasional yawns of the snow leopard and the light scratching the golden monkey was doing on the wood furniture, out of boredom. She wanted to ask him what was his deal, but she didn’t know how to approach him, for he did not seem like the sort of man she was used to approach. There were scholars, normally lonely men who were easily flattered by her attention, and then there were politicians, who enjoyed being listened to and she could feign the smallest interest in whatever boring subject they had in mind. She could adapt and please with ease, all she needed to do was know what type man Lord Asriel was, but so far her assessment of him was that he was a weird man.

Normally, she would’ve ignored her thoughts and focused on her work, but she could feel the weight of his gaze upon her and it was troublesome. Marisa tried her best not to look at him, testing what he wanted and it payed off.

“I apologise if I offended you earlier, Coulter.” He said, and she saw his smug expression and translated that as if he wasn’t really that sorry about it. “Eilhart speaks highly of you, I was just--”

“-- you were baiting. Yes, I noticed.” She interrupted him, smiling. He gave her a notebook filled with chemical formulas she needed to project the readings. “How long have you known her?”

“A couple of years now, she is a good ally, just a little bit too involved with politics for my taste. We met at her uncle’s birthday dinner; she made quite the entrance.” Asriel said, and they sat beside each other, Marisa highlighting the formulas that seemed usable and Asriel balancing them out. “How did you meet her?”

“We both attend St. Sophia’s, and I guess we have a lot of common interests.” Marisa said. The golden monkey stopped scratching when Asriel’s dæmon approached him. They stared at each other, nonstop. “But we met at a lecture. We chatted a little afterwards, we’ve been research partners since then. She has a way of making herself known, that doesn’t hurt when one is seeking to improve one’s career. As for her dabbling in politics, I’d say she does it because she doesn’t have much of a choice. She’s good at pretending she likes it, though.”

“You would know about that, wouldn’t you?” Asriel mocked, and Marisa turned to see his face, then rose an eyebrow.

“Are you implying something, Lord Asriel?” She said and she felt unease when his smile didn’t go away. She would have liked to know what he was thinking, but the man had a will made of steel; she took note of that for later, when she would try and charm him one way or the other. He seemed useful.

He shook his head and turned to his book again. “You don’t strike me as a woman of politics, Coulter, but perhaps I am wrong.”

“My husband is involved, I just dabble; consequences of being married into the profession.”

“Your modesty is as admirable as it is fake, but you seem to handle yourself appropriately, a rare thing.”

“I’ve lost count of how many times you insulted me tonight, Lord Asriel.” Marisa laughed with distaste. “I’m beginning to think you actually mean to offend me.”

His dæmon purred something Marisa interpreted as amusement, but Asriel’s eyes were filled to the brink with a glittering of mockery. She didn’t know what to make of it though. Her monkey climbed to her lap, watching the snow leopard, peeking through her arm in front of him.

“I barely know you, Mrs. Coulter.” He said and he smiled in a way Marisa felt naked, because it was as if he could read her mind.

Without noticing it, she found herself smiling back, a cold and vicious smirk that never quite reached her eyes. She didn’t want to play his game, but somehow she was already playing it. They went back to their research, in silence once again; Marisa begin to wonder if he had sent Dorothea away on purpose, she couldn’t have required an hour to fetch a book.

Focused on her notes, Marisa smiled to herself, thinking that perhaps it would be easier to charm Lord Asriel than she first thought.

 

***

 

Dorothea did come back, an hour and a half later . Marisa even taunted her for it, asking if she had left to write the book herself, but her amusing response only led Marisa to believe Asriel had indeed sent her away.

She couldn’t know why, not entirely. She was used to being flattered and being flirted with, she made full use of these situations, they had given her power and status, her own husband amongst them. But Lord Asriel, despite his behaviour, did not look interested in her all that much. If he was faking it, he was doing a great job and if he wasn’t, than Marisa didn’t know what to make of it. She was stuck and didn’t know how to proceed; luckily, Dorothea had other plans in mind to keep them busy.

“I think the reader is ready, you mentioned there’s a hill nearby that would be ideal.” She said to them, and if she noticed their weird silence, she didn’t say. She barely explained her delay, saying she couldn’t find the book but Marisa thought that was unlikely. Asriel took the reader from Dorothea and examined it. “What is it now, Asriel?”

“I’m just making sure you are doing this properly.” He said, seriously and Marisa watched Dorothea roll her eyes. Lord Asriel seemed gifted in the matters of offending people and Dorothea had a big ego, so Marisa began to see why they had such a strange friendship when they were both walking disasters. She could also see why her colleague would still be willing to stay close to him, because Marisa herself felt drawn to his imposing presence and his flattering insults. He was no jokester, but everything was amusing to him and his serene dæmon, even if she didn’t laugh.

Lord Asriel used his free hand to flip through the loose pages over his table, looking for something specific and when he found it, he began to tap in the numbers he was reading on the page. The reader had been built by Lady Eilhart, who disassembled a radio handheld transceiver and tweaked it to do what she need, which was track and measure a lonely frequency that was unstable in regions of the North; she gave it a set of ten buttons, each representing a number between zero and nine and it took her a long time and long trips to finish. She went to Benin once Marisa suggested that the bronze clocks there might have had something useful to apply to the reader, and she was right. There, Dorothea found the last adjustments she needed it so the reader would actually work and she’d been tweaking it ever since. Her tests wore solid and in combination with other, more reliable measurers, she had a working device to help her prove her point.

“Now, this is a better parameter.” Asriel said, handing the device back to Dorothea, who twisted her nose but didn’t argue. Marisa thought it was funny how Lady Eilhart deferred to Asriel’s opinion so quickly and she made a mental note to scorn her later, because at the moment, they were heading back to their cabin to wear their winter gear and when they were ready, they met Lord Asriel outside, by the fire.

“Isn’t it safer to do this in the morning?” Marisa asked, as they approached the fire. Judging by the clock on their cabin, midnight was closing in and this far deep in the tundra, away from cities or villages, the sky was torn with a thousand million stars, glittering scornful. Asriel laughed, but it was a very throaty laugh, as if he didn’t want to do it.

“It is, but we noticed the readings aren’t steady during daylight. It’s as if the frequency disappears during the day, which is odd if you ask me.” Dorothea explained, her face nearly hidden by the fur hood she was wearing. Her dæmon had disappeared inside it, as the monkey clinged to Marisa’s arm in an awkward embrace to remain warm.

“That’s unlikely.” Lord Asriel said, hovering his hands over the campfire.

The only ones who didn’t seem bothered by the cold were the snow leopard and Asriel, but wearing that excessive gear, he probably was very warm. His shape disappeared within the clothes, he looked big and threatening, but a glimpse of his eyes and she could see he was having fun putting them through that. There was also something else she couldn’t quite describe but she could sense it, something on the verge of disaster or impeding sarcasm, as if Asriel wanted to defy the fire to burn him or the cold to freeze him. Marisa thought that was careless behaviour, because it implied that nature in all its wild behaviour, could comply to his will; she knew it could not, and therefore she left nothing by chance.

“So, with that in mind, the ideal time for the reader to work is at late night.” Dorothea said, mimicking Asriel’s movements over the fire. She was less defiant and more frustrated with the world than he was, Marisa noticed; they were alone now, except for two scholars who were snuggled around, reading their notes, but they could barely hear the three of them whispering by the fire. “If you’d like to stay, it’s alright. You can check the readings tomorrow.”

“No, I’d like to see. Besides, I slept a lot through the day, a good chilly walk would do me good.” Marisa said, and she held the monkey tighter. She sensed Asriel’s glance, but that lasted only a couple of minutes.

They walked for half an hour, Asriel carrying a bag with books and notes and articulate seats, Marisa and her maps and charts, and Dorothea went ahead, the reader in position and carrying another set of books and charts. The snow was thick, but it wasn’t too hard to cross through and their final destination was worth it.

“Impressive!” Marisa said, quietly, though she was sure Asriel had heard her because she heard his soft chuckle.

They set up the seats and Dorothea fixated the tripod close by, and set the reader atop of it. There was no moon that night, so the only thing illuminating their location was the Aurora, bright and colourful, and the faint light from the stars.

They took turns checking the reader, and while one was taking care of it, the others would check the readings. The parameters Asriel had set were paying off; the readings were doing well, more than expected. There was a silence hovering over them, peaceful, calm; Marisa found it extremely unnerving, but they were all so focused on their task they didn’t speak for a while and she was distracted, eventually.

An hour later, however, the cold began to bite harder and Marisa put her chart aside, and walked to where Dorothea was, by the measurer. They stood in a friendly silence, watching the Aurora dance over their heads, casting an unnatural and shimmering light towards them.

“Did he ask you to leave, back in the cabin?” Marisa whispered, and the monkey climbed to her shoulder, while Dorothea’s dæmon flew to him. They stared each other down and the monkey tried to snatch him, but he was faster. Dorothea looked at Marisa and said no. “I doubt that.”

Then the woman sighed and checked the measurer again. Looking back, she smiled.

“Fine, he did. He wanted to talk to you.” Dorothea whispered, getting closer to Marisa so Asriel couldn’t hear them and it was so cold he wouldn’t mind them brushing shoulders at that point.

“Why?” Marisa demanded.

“I don’t know, he wanted to speak to you alone. Maybe he knows your husband, or he’s read some of your papers. He didn’t say why.”

“And you left me alone with some strange man per his request?” Marisa lowered her voice even more and Dorothea scoffed.

“If Asriel was dangerous, I wouldn’t leave you with him, you know that.” She explained, then checked the measurer and wrote down the numbers it showed. “Besides, all he did was apologise to you, maybe he didn’t want to do that in front of me as I would definitely hold it against him.”

Marisa turned around to face her, an eyebrow raised. If it wasn’t so dark or if the Aurora wasn’t casting such inconsistent lighting, she would’ve noticed Dorothea’s frown after she realised she had said too much.

“How do you know that’s what he did?” Marisa said, and Dorothea looked away. “Were you spying on us?”

“No, of course not! No spies here, Marisa! I went back and wasted half an hour on our cabin, then when I returned, I was about to enter the study when you started to chat. I listened for a while, then got bored and went back to the living room.”

“You’re not telling me everything, Thea.”

Before Dorothea could reply, however, the Aurora faded completely, leaving them in the dark. She checked her reader, trying to read the numbers and Marisa leaned over the equipment to help her. What she saw was an anomaly of highest order.

“Oh my God, I think I understand.” Marisa said, cheerfully and Dorothea called Asriel to join them. When she did, Marisa stepped aside so he could fit in between them. Their arms touched slightly, through thick fabric, yet she still manage to feel slightly distressed for no reason. “The frequency, it reacts to light. Look at the numbers, this is the highest reading so far.”

“I thought the readings were worse during the day.” Asriel questioned, impassive. Marisa rolled her eyes; he truly was impossible.

“I think the frequency dilutes itself during the day because there’s too much light and it’s responsive to the lighting of the ambient. When the Aurora was on the sky, we had steady, high-level numbers; now that is dark, the numbers are next to improbable, because your parameters were set to search for it in the dark.” Marisa explained pointing at Asriel, and looked at Dorothea; her eyes were already adapting to the darkness, but she could see the woman listening to her intently. “You need to change the parameters, make it so that we measure only the points where the frequency reacts to light, and only there.”

Dorothea sighed and Asriel took the measurer in his hands, scratching his chin.

“I don’t think the machine can do that.” Dorothea said, gloomy.

Marisa was about to snap at her and her moody disposition, but Lord Asriel turned around and sat himself amidst his books. That got her attention and she watched as he carefully examined his notes and inserted several different parameters, then took a couple of minutes reading the outcome, and shaking his head failure after failure.

“We need to turn this into an actual receiver.” He said to Dorothea, who took a couple of seconds to think then nod. Asriel, then, turned to Marisa and she saw the vivacious spark in his eyes. “I need lamps, and coloured glass and something magnetic to attract the frequency.”

With that announcement reviving Dorothea’s spirit and Marisa’s need to get warm, they packed their things and returned to camp. As Dorothea went to her cabin to look for lamps and other tools they might have needed, Asriel requested Marisa’s help in disassembling the measurer and a radio he had nearby.

She considered refusing, but she was curious about him as a whole. They worked in silence, Asriel dismantling the pieces and putting them together again in a new way; Marisa studied the blueprints Dorothea had designed and made calculations to identify precisely what they wanted to find; and Lady Eilhart herself was helping Asriel by coordinating what he was doing. They didn’t speak other than merely asking for a tool or a help and the comfortable, warm cabin began to make Marisa feel sleepy, her monkey walking restless around her legs.

Dorothea did not resist longer and she eventually left to rest, leaving Marisa alone with Lord Asriel. She had expected him to talk to her again, like he had done before, but this times he was focused on the single task of updating the measurer, not even Marisa could drag his attention away. She didn’t try that either, since she was more curious about the outcome of their expedition rather than have the attention of this wild, foreign man. He was something else to look at, though; Lord Asriel’s imposing position, his broad shoulders and his dark expressions all made him look like a brute, more like a soldier than a scholar. His hands, however, were agile and he was dextrous, moving the tiny parts of the measurer with a delicacy Marisa found unfathomable.

It took her sometime to realise she was watching him, carefully, but he did not seem to notice. It was as if she was invisible or as if the piece of metal in his hands held a greater importance to him right now. Marisa snapped herself out of it and returned her attention back at her papers, but the monkey kept peeking at the snow leopard through her legs.

Morning came, and with it, a heavy, deep sigh from Asriel; it was so loud Marisa thought he had done it by her ear, but in fact it was the morbid silence of the cabin that made him sound so loud. She was half asleep, sat by a desk, a thick book on electromagnetic waves open in front of her, but the moment she heard him, she directed her gaze to him, fully awake. Soft light came through the windows and lit his face, and he had a smirk on his lips that told Marisa he had something wicked in mind. His eyes had a glitter of triumph, because he had finally completed his task and Marisa looked at the measurer with delight.

“Does it work?” She asked, walking up to him, leaning over the table to check the apparatus. Her hand touched his arm by accident; without all the winter gear, he was warmer and softer than she expected, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, skin against skin;  his scent was musky and sharp. She tried not to dwell on it.

“I need to test it, first, but it’s better than what we had.” Lord Asriel said and he pressed a button on the side of the machine. “Dorothea has a better idea on the frequency, so we need her, unless you know something too.”

“What do you need?” Marisa asked, picking up a piece of paper and a pencil. Asriel’s smirk was irritating her, so she smirked back.

“The highest possible frequency we have found, isolated from any other types of frequency.”

Marisa opened some books and started to write down the equation, and she felt watched the whole time. She didn’t bother looking at him, but she could feel his gaze upon her; he wouldn’t move, silent and lithe as his dæmon, and there was a discomfort alongside a warmth she felt being around this strange person. Eventually, as she was having difficulty concentrating, she whispered:

“You’re staring, Lord Asriel.”

“I’m watching your progress, Coulter, to make sure you’re not doing anything wrong.’ He said, but she sensed the jest in his voice, and that only irritated her further.

“I think I know what I’m doing, Lord Asriel, after all, this is my research.” She snarled at him, without losing much of her composure. He laughed, quietly, and she turned to face him, an eyebrow raised. He was resting on his chair, an ankle upon his knee, a smug expression she couldn’t decipher. Was everything a joke to him? Was she ?

“I’ll leave you be, then.”

He left for a while, and Marisa tried to concentrate. By the time he was back, his servant put up a cup of tea for her, and Asriel was back on his chair, staring at her; she decided he was doing that to deliberately irritate her, Marisa just couldn’t know why.

She had, however, finished her calculations and she passed the paper to him. Asriel then, typed the numbers in and sat the device on the table. For a while, nothing happened, so he twisted the antenna to one side and the other, until he finally found a position.

The lamps on the upgraded measurer were in five different colours: red, blue, green, yellow and white. Marisa stared at the five lit up lamps, that randomly were on and off, and Asriel slapped the table, excited.

“Yes! I told her it would work!” He said, getting up on a flash and startling Marisa for a while; his dæmon stood up too, and she moved agitated around him. “Thorold! Thorold! Nevermind, I’ll fetch her myself. You, Coulter!” He pointed at her as if he was in a frenzy. Marisa rose an eyebrow. “You can draw the frequency wave, correct? Then do it, I’ll be back with Eilhart.”

He left quickly and Marisa felt inclined to not draw his request. But she was curious to know what he knew, so she picked her pen and traced on a piece of paper the frequency they had inserted on the measurer. Slowly and steady, she had a wave draw neatly and she realised, astonished, that the lights on the measurer were not random. They lit up replicating the pattern of the wave she drew; they were communicating.

They discussed a lot about what they found, on the next two weeks. It turned out the frequency wasn’t entirely communicating with them, but instead, it communicated with frequency of the colours itself. Each lamp was rigged in a different frequence, to emit the their colour and Dorothea found a frequency that responded to light, therefore communicating through different lamps.

Marisa had never felt so intellectually exhausted as she felt during the two weeks that followed. Lord Asriel and Lady Eilhart argued constantly now that they had something tangible, and Marisa watched their discussions with immense pleasure. When things got too heated up - and they usually were - she would leave them alone for a while, instead working constantly and fiercely on her own research.

By the end, they had more than they had expected and Marisa was glad she got to see that through, because she had to return to London. Living two weeks in harsh cold was tough, but she felt sad she had to go back; she felt even sadder when she realised how little she had learned about Lord Asriel, but she got so hooked on the research she did not have the time to play politics. He also was far more interested on their discovery and staring at the night sky, so she began to think whatever was it that he wanted with her no longer interested him.