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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.

Chapter Text

"How desperately you crave excitement
only to be bored by daylight."

 

Marisa’s return to London was nonchalant, and while she arrived, her husband had to leave, busy while working as an ambassador in Geneva. Therefore, she didn’t linger in London, instead taking on Dorothea’s offer to stay a few days with her before the beginning of the new term.

“I didn’t think you would come back so soon.” Marisa told Dorothea on the day of her arrival in Oxford.

Lady Eilhart had a house in town, a large one at that, where she lived during the college’s term. It was well-furnished, from the time her uncle lived there with his family, but since Dorothea was officially nominated heir and lady, he had moved up north to live a quieter life or just a more secretive one. She never touched the house’s decoration though, but Marisa knew well she prefered a frugal and modern lifestyle over the marble statues and excessive drapery. The library was as antique as extraordinary, however.

“Why not?” Dorothea said, sipping her tea as they sat at the balcony, watching the people walking in the distance. She had a frown that made her forehead wrinkle, Marisa was used to that expression. “I wasn’t going to stay there watching Asriel look at the stars. I have better things to do, Marisa.”

Marisa laughed, and felt the need to ask her about Lord Asriel, but held her tongue back. She rather be careful while digging for information.

“You’re in a mood. Did the journey back upset you?” She said instead, sipping her own tea and watching Dorothea for a while. Her colleague moved uneasy on her chair, than shook her head. “You seem unhappier than usual. What is this about?”

“I’m just tired, that’s all. I don’t know how to proceed with the research.”

Ah , Marisa thought to herself and smiled courteously at Dorothea, who looked at her as if she could read Marisa’s thoughts. She couldn’t, of course; if she could, things would have been very different.

They had discussed that back in Lapland. Dorothea had reservations about using the data they found with her measurer, upgraded by Lord Asriel. Marisa didn’t offer her an opinion because she simply didn’t have one; if Lady Eilhart was afraid of how her device could be used, she simply shouldn’t have bothered building it in the first place. Asriel had told her to let it go and publish the work, though, but she just couldn’t do it. Doubts were gnawing at her and that was vexing Marisa.

Dorothea’s reservations were very well-founded: a device that could receive a mysterious frequency was the sort of thing theologians involved with Dust would like, and that was bound to attract the CCD’s attention. That much Marisa knew and understood, but Dorothea was defiant, and she was always very determined to not care about them, so Marisa didn’t understand the sudden reluctance. What she didn’t know, was that Dorothea was a spy, of a sorts, and attracting the eyes of her target was the last thing she needed. If the CCD began to be suspicious of her, her entire craft would be in danger and she didn’t need that nor want it. So, she was willing to throw away her entire research for the sake of Oakley Street.

“If you’re having reservations, wait a little longer, then. Perhaps things will change in a couple of years.” Marisa said, and her monkey climbed to her lap and they exchanged a quick glance, before he climbed back to the guardrail at the balcony. That was a lie, of course, because if Marisa truly believed that the power would shift, she wouldn’t bother bonding with the Consistorial Court of Discipline.

Dorothea seemed to have a similar conception of the situation, because she simply shook her head, a wrinkle between her eyebrows. Marisa wouldn’t call her beautiful, but she did have pretty features that in combination, worked in her favour. She certainly could be seen as a highborn lady, but at times, she simply disappeared in a poor cut and terribly coloured dress, drowned in a book in a dusty old library, hidden from the socialite world they belonged to. It was why Marisa liked her, in a way, and why Dorothea excelled as a spy. Everyone took her for granted and everyone failed to notice her and by contrast, everyone noticed Marisa when they were together.

“No, I think we’re in uncharted waters for a while. Nevermind that, this gloomy subject is eating me inside out and I require a distraction.” Dorothea said, and she placed her cup on the small table between them. Marisa offered her a sly smile, but Dorothea laughed. “Not that . I meant a party.”

“You’ve had worst ideas.” Marisa said, and Dorothea explained what she had in mind. She wanted a big soiree, excessive in everything, from drinks to the food and the guests. She wanted to invite all the big names, from politicians to nobility. “I assumed you would only want scholars, you always complain about your more influential acquaintances.”

“I think I want to diversify this time around, I do know a lot of prestigious people, after all.” Dorothea jested and Marisa rose an eyebrow. That wasn’t Dorothea’s common behaviour. “Come on, it will be fun and they aren’t all boring, you know?”

“Really?” Marisa mocked her and Dorothea sighed. “That is not what you said last time. I believe the words you used were ‘excruciatingly boring’.”

“All right, they’re mostly boring, but I could use the drinks and the distraction.” She retorted, extending her hand to her dæmon; the robin sat on her finger, chirping cheerfully. “I can invite some editors too, you know, for you and your book.”

“It’s hardly a book, Dorothea.” Marisa said, but her colleague didn’t seem convinced. “It’s just a thesis for now.”

“You can begin to network with some editors, it won’t harm you, you know? Even if you don’t have a book yet. It’s going to be fun, come on!”

Marisa found it difficult to decline, especially because Dorothea’s parties were always extravagant and filled with people she could always find a use for in the future. It was the sort of environment Marisa enjoyed belonging to, especifically when she could roam free without Edward around to show her off like a trophy he really didn’t work hard to acquire.

They arranged the party for the next Friday night, a week after their conversation. What Marisa didn’t know was that Dorothea had planned that party as soon as she was back from Lapland and Marisa’s invitation was part of her plan. She needed Marisa to be herself, meaning everyone would pay attention to her instead of Lady Eilhart, who had an agenda herself on behalf of Oakley Street.

She couldn’t know, however, if Marisa would accept the invitation; she was after all, a busy woman, so Dorothea sent an invitation to an estate in Chelsea.

Lord Asriel read the card multiple times in the short span of time he had after just returning from Lapland himself. He could make to the party in time, sort of, but he had no desire to; he was tired, sore and still dressed in winter gear in the middle of spring in London. His dark sweater was uncomfortably hot.

“You can always say no, Asriel, but what if she gets into trouble?” Stelmaria said, as they sat at his study and he flipped the card between his fingers. He moved his lips in a gesture of distaste; she was right and they both knew it.

“She is always in trouble, Stelmaria. She was born into it.”

“She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t need help.” Stelmaria insisted, softly.

Lord Asriel knew that was true, but then again this type of subterfuge was not exactly the sort of thing he wanted to participate. He looked at the invitation and behind it there was a scribbled note in Dorothea’s handwriting. I need your help, badly , it said and she had taken care of risking underneath the word “badly” at least five times.

Dorothea had two problems. Marisa was a good friend, but not that good, yet she had a natural magnetism that forced everyone in the same room as hers (and sometimes away from her too) notice her, but she didn’t know about Lady Eilhart’s spy pastime, so Dorothea couldn’t ask her directly for help. Lord Asriel, on the other hand, knew about her affiliation and they were close enough that if she asked nicely, he would help her, but then he would want to know more than he should and he was not the kind of man someone could say no to.

He was also aware of that, it was the reason he called for Thorold and asked him to prepare a flight to Oxford.

 

***

 

Marisa thought the party was outstanding, even for Dorothea’s standards; it had everything a party should have, from bubbly drinks and good canapes, to admirable guests and their companions. Soft music echoed through the house’s ballroom, and Marisa picked a spot near the library, sitting by a coffee table, and listening unattentively to the gentlemen who were chatting with her. But she failed to find anything they said interesting, and she couldn’t find a source of entertainment for herself.

Every once in a while, Dorothea would come up and make small talk, and she looked exuberant in her burgundy dress, but Marisa and her monkey could notice the anxiousness in her eyes, as if she was expecting trouble. But she smiled, gracefully, and then disappeared between her guests again.

The golden monkey was on her shoulders once Marisa decided to take a walk, politely excusing herself. She walked back to the ballroom, and saw Dorothea speaking to a man she recognised as the minister of defense, a close friend of Edward’s and an advocate for the Consistorial Court of Discipline. She rose an eyebrow at that, trying to figure out what could Dorothea possibly want with that man; he was twice her age and married, but none of these things were actually an obstacle. Marisa had gotten lucky with Edward, who was twelve years her senior, very average-looking, a pious and kind man in many ways, dull at worst, but she hadn’t always been lucky.

As she approached them, the man nodded to her, and left as Dorothea turned to speak to Marisa, her face flushed red from the wine or from the conversation, Marisa couldn’t tell. Her dæmon, however, was quietly seated on her shoulder, chirping softly at her ears.

“Are you trying to find a way inside the Ministry of Defense?” Marisa jested, but Dorothea went pale for a while, before shaking her head and laughing.

“I was just chatting, casually. I wanted to know more about the tartar invasion on the east.” She replied, but Marisa felt she wasn’t being completely honest. She was ready to shade Lady Eilhart on that when a thunderous voice echoed from the other side of the room, by the entrance.

“Asriel, it’s good to see you!” She heard someone say. “Where have you been?”

Before Marisa could process what was happening, he was already beside them, dressed as if he had just jumped out of Lapland, in his dark sweater and travelling pants, and accidentally fall on Lady Eilhart’s ballroom. His beard was messy and covered his entire chin, dark circles under eyes indicated he needed a nap, but his eyes had a vibrant glimmer, as if he was too excited to sleep. His dæmon was seated beside him, watching her surroundings and Marisa felt as if she had been bathed in cold water. Beside her and her immaculate white gown, he looked like he didn’t belong there, instead, he belonged in a dumpster.

“You made it, I was wondering if my invitation had arrived.” Dorothea said, half surprised and half not caring, it was difficult to read her, but her dæmon was something else entirely. Marisa saw the robin fly around her head, nervous. Was she not expecting Asriel? That is unlikely , Marisa thought.

“I almost didn’t, but I figured I could use a good drink, so why not?” He said, with a smug expression; Marisa could swear she saw Dorothea sighing. “Ah, Coulter. You’re here.”

He spoke as if he hadn’t noticed her before, which she told herself, had to be a lie. He was right beside her and that small pettiness was infuriating. She tried not to look offended and offered him an indifferent smile. Her monkey changed places on her shoulders, unnerved.

“Lady Eilhart wanted my help to avoid thinking of her research, so here I am.” She said, almost cheerfully, nearly vicious.

If Lord Asriel was the sort of man who rolled his eyes, he certainly would have, but he wasn’t and instead, he looked at Dorothea with a serious, bored expression.

“Publish the work, Eilhart. Don’t be unhinged.” He said and Dorothea shook her head in disapproval.

“Everything is too easy for you, Asriel. No, no… Don’t reply. I don’t want to hear a smart comment. This is a party, so enjoy yourself.” She said, picking up a glass of champagne and handing it to him with a bit of ferocity. He made a funny face at her before drinking the whole glass in one sip. “I must check on the other guests, please behave.”

Marisa watched that strange exchange with a lingering curiosity, that had begun to gnaw at her since Lapland when she first saw him. Dorothea turned around to greet another guest, leaving them alone, in a silence Marisa intended to fulfill.

“You enjoy upsetting our host, don’t you?” She asked, and watched as he graciously took another glass from a passing waiter. He also drank the other one quickly and made a funny face of disgust after he finished, to which Marisa raised an eyebrow with contempt. “You’re a strange man, Lord Asriel.”

“I’m not strange, Coulter, I’m just interested in things that are far more important than what the CCD says, things whose beauty make parties like this pale in comparison, that make you pale in comparison.” He said, with a grin she couldn’t decipher.

“Is that an insult or a compliment?” It was all she managed to say, because she honestly couldn’t find the words to reply that.

“Why can’t it be both?” He said, and he snatched yet another glass of champagne, but this time he drank it at a slower pace. He turned his back on her to watch the room, so she moved to stand beside him and see whatever was it that he saw. She couldn’t, she found out, so Marisa dared watch his dæmon for a while and found she was staring at her, blinking in repetitive, well-timed intervals. She looked away. “Why is everything binary, have you ever asked yourself that?”

“It’s a simpler way to solve the world, I’d say.” Marisa mumbled, changing her own glass on her hands, and she watched his figure. She couldn’t help but dwell on it for a while, and he looked at her and smiled as if he knew what she was thinking.

He stood tall and proud, dressed like he had rolled in snow for days, which was true, in a way. Lord Asriel was at least ten years her senior, but there was a youth in his eyes, an energy bristling against her cold nature, keeping her on her toes. He laughed at her as if she was a joke herself.

“That’s Magisterium rhetoric, Coulter. There are better ways to solve the world.” He said casually, as if it wasn’t dangerous at all to say things like that. He then cleared his throat and seemed to come off a trance, looking at her with an amused expression. “Where’s your trophy?”

“My trophy?” She couldn’t possibly know what he was on about now, but she was sure it was nothing good.

“Your husband . I’m surprised you’re here alone.” Asriel said and Marisa looked away for a while because his insufferable grin was too much to bear. “I assume he is your trophy, quite the catch even. A politician from the King’s party, no less.”

“I got lucky when I found such a lovely husband." She said with a lovely smile, but Marisa had a feeling he could read her eyes. Luck had nothing to do with that, and they both knew it, somehow.

“I’m sure you did.” He said and he snatched another glass of champagne. Asriel drank it and he made another face of distaste and Marisa began to wonder if he was doing it to irritate her.

“What’s wrong with your drink?”

“It’s bland.” He said, and scratched his chin. He seemed so aloof Marisa felt he wasn’t real during certain instants. “I could use with something stronger, but nevermind. Tell me, where is Mr. Coulter now?”

“Why do you care?” Marisa said, looking into his eyes and blinking inconspicuously. She was, in fact, trying to take control of the situation and failing at that.

“I don’t, although I am curious as to why you’re here alone.” Asriel said in a quiet way, which was a surprise coming from such a loud man as he was. "One might think such a dedicated wife as you are would be followed by her dedicated husband, don't you?"

She stared at him, her glass hanging carefully on her hand, terribly loose between her slender fingers. Marisa found herself at at lack of words, a rare feature in her life, and the fact Lord Asriel was the one responsible was twice more offensive.

"We both have our individual lives, Lord Asriel. Edward and I do not share a single life, we're allowed to exist outside the marriage." She said, and that was in fact, a truth. They were always busy, and often traveling; if that was because she found a way to stay away from Edward as much as she could, it was inevitably a coincidence, and it had nothing to do with him being bad, but instead, being boring and slightly patronising, which irritated Marisa. "He is in Geneva, acting as an ambassador."

"And here you are, in a party in Oxford, very distant from your home in... London, right? I wonder why." Lord Asriel said, cheerful and Marisa had her suspicious that he didn't wonder at all about that. "Why didn't you go to Geneva with him?"

“I don’t have to be with him at all times.” She said, almost harshly. “I simply chose to stay.”

“But why would you choose to stay, when you spent two weeks in the Arctic, alone and cold? Does he not miss you, because I’m willing to bet he does.” Asriel had a grin that Marisa described, again and again, as malicious. She moved uncomfortable and averted her gaze from him, shaking her head.

She didn’t have the time to respond to him, because one of the guests invited her to dance; saved at the last minute by a random politician, Marisa left her glass in Asriel’s hand and walked away.

There were a lot people dancing, so she couldn’t see him anymore, but his questions, of such indiscreet nature, were beginning to get under her skin. Marisa had to either find a way to figure out his weak spots or walk away before he overpowered her; she wasn’t always ready to deal with certain situations, sometimes she needed more influence, sometimes she just needed more time and in that case, she needed to know him better, which he was devotedly trying to prevent. He might have had some uses for her, being a lord and rich enough to buy an entire complex on Lapland, but he was elusive and controlling in a way she was reminded of herself.

She was twirling around the ballroom with her partner when Asriel approached them and asked for his turn to dance with her. They did so in silence, and Marisa couldn’t stop staring into his eyes, as he did the same with her. The warmth of his hand on her back made her feel wrong in many ways, and she felt as if she wasn’t breathing for the entire time they danced together. Suddenly, he laughed, more to himself than to her, but she saw the amusement in his eyes.

“What is it now?” She said, quietly, and he spinned her around, then brought her closer this time. Marisa dug her nails on his back like claws. What was he doing, had he lost his mind? She thought, and her monkey was staring at his dæmon, vain and suspicious as always. “What is so funny?”

“What brings you to St. Sophia, Coulter?” He ignored her questions, and she stared into his eyes, cold and confused. She couldn’t possibly understand what was he trying to say here, what was he after, or if he was even after something at all. When in doubt, Marisa did what she always did: smiled in the most inconspicuous way possible. “What do you seek in your studies?”

“What do you seek in your studies, Lord Asriel?” She mocked and he shook his head, grinning. “You are a member of Jordan, if Dorothea said so correctly. Why do you attend it?”

“I am, but I rarely stay there anymore. I come back when I need a drink or a smoke or just an intellectual conversation, but most those men are theoreticians, and I am anything but that.”

“I noticed it, as I noticed you didn’t answer my question, exactly.” She said.

“Neither have you.” He had a smirk Marisa desperately wanted to slap out of existence.

“I don’t have to answer you, Lord Asriel.” She said, bitterly. “I don’t even have to talk to you.”

“You’re right, yet here you are,so indulge me just the same.”

Marisa wished she could sigh, but that would only make him prouder of being annoying, so she didn’t.

“I want to understand how the world works.”

“You already know that, you married an influential man, a man whom you escape from by attending as many College’s gatherings and expeditions as you can.”

She stopped and pushed him away from her, her hand on his chest, a very soft movement. Marisa shook her head and helped the monkey get back on her shoulder; they both looked at that half wild, half civilised men, Marisa as indignant as she could without smearing her graceful manners, but her monkey had a gaze of pure contempt.

“You seem intent on offending me, Lord Asriel.” She said, and he shook his head, finally with a serious expression on his face.

“Not at all. In fact, that was a compliment.” He said, and his dæmon sat beside him, blinking peacefully at her. Marisa didn’t know what to say, for a second. “Not everyone can pull that sort of thing off. It takes skill and resolve, not to mention a great intellect. You enjoy what you do.”

“I certainly do.”

“Well, there’s no reason you shouldn’t.”

It was all he said before turning his back on her, walking away before she had the chance to do so herself, and leaving her more intrigued than irritated. Marisa gave him credit, she only realised she wasn’t bored around him when other people started to chat with her and boredom began to bite again. Lord Asriel absolutely knew how to pique one’s interest.

Chapter Text

"They linger quietly in the afternoon
awaiting doomsday."

“I can’t possibly think of a worse thing you could have done, Asriel!” Dorothea barked at him, the next day.

She visited him at his hotel room at the earliest hour she could have possibly conceived, standing by his bed after violently opening his curtains. It was so early there was almost no sun, but it was light enough to bother his restless sleep. He felt his body heavy and sore, he had awful cramps in his legs after spending so much time in the cold, and Dorothea’s snappy mood that day wasn’t helping to improve his own.

She snarled at him as he lay in bed, his face buried in his pillow; Asriel tried to cover his head with his thick blanket when she cast light on his face, but she pulled it away from him in one quick and firm pull. She was younger than he was, but she certainly sounded like a mother or one of the maids that took care of him when he was a child. Don’t do this or don’t do that , the thought of it made him laugh to himself. Dorothea tried really hard to pass as intimidating when she was not, but how could she be, having a robin for a dæmon?

Stelmaria purred lazily beside him, giggling at Dorothea and whatever she was saying. He was half-asleep, so it was hard understanding everything.

“Are you sleeping again?” Dorothea snapped, and Asriel felt a pillow being thrown at his head. He mumbled that he wasn’t. “If you’re sleeping while I’m scolding you, I swear to--”

“You’re in a mood. A nasty one at that.” He mumbled, his voice muffled because he was facing his pillow.

Stelmaria and Astraeus, the robin, were talking in a friendly manner, although the snow leopard was also very half asleep, yawning constantly as the robin talked to her.

“Why is she irritated?” Stelmaria asked, and the robin flew around, anxious.

“She is distressed, not angry, and that’s on you both.”

“Get up, now.” Dorothea said, shaking Asriel’s shoulders, but he used one of the pillows to cover his head and ears. He had hoped to win this confrontation by exhausting her and normally, that would have worked, but not that day. She was out to get him; he felt her cold fingers grab his arm and pull him towards the edge of the bed, but he barely moved. She gave up and sighed, loudly and brushed her skirt; Asriel threw one of the pillows at her. “Look at me, Asriel, we need to talk.”

“No, you need to talk, I need to rest. So talk, and I shall try my best not to sleep on you.” He mumbled, turning around to face her; she was the image of anger, arms crossed over her chest, her bird dæmon flying around her head then returning to speak to Stelmaria. Asriel’s sight was still blurry from his sleepiness, but he managed to see her frown. “I assume it’s important.”

“What are you doing?” Dorothea said. “What were you thinking?”

“What do you mean?”

“Marisa Coulter, that’s what I mean. I let it slide in Lapland, she is clever, and I thought maybe you wanted to be professional, ask about her studies, her current paper. But yesterday, you went too far. There was, at the very least, a dozen people who saw the two of you.” Dorothea said and Asriel shook his head. So, that was she wanted to talk; he figured it would take longer for her to notice what he was doing. “I don’t even know what to say, if someone asks me.”

“You tell them the truth. We just talked, it was all harmless.” He offered her a winning smile, but the light was getting brighter, and he had to close his eyes. He looked like a fool and even he knew it.

“Ha! Fuck no! You’re everything but harmless. You’re playing with fire, Asriel, and you’re going to burn me down with you.” She said, and accepted the cup of coffee Thorold was offering her; he left Asriel’s morning treat by the bed and the man sat down; Stelmaria stretched herself as he picked up some toast and his black coffee. Dorothea’s voice echoed in his head as if it was a thousand screams of witches and he had pissed enough of them to know that sound very well. “Marisa is a friend and I need her. You’re not helping.”

“You’re overreacting.” He said, and watched as she threw herself onto a chair nearby. “I don’t have time for this, Eilhart. Why do you care so much?”

She sighed, deeply, looking into his eyes as if she was searching for a signal; whether she should tell him or not her true motivations. She decided to speak the truth.

“Her husband has connections, he is a rising star in the parliament, probably involved with the CCD or will be, at any rate. Being close to her gives me a reason to invite him for parties and dinners, where I can extract information without having to force him to speak.” She explained, carefully. Asriel rose an eyebrow, he knew she wasn’t saying everything. “The man is… well, saying he is dull would be an euphemism. He is very talkative, sure, and knows how to win a crowd in a naive, almost innocent-like way, but there isn’t much to his persona. I keep expecting some dark, depraved secret to come up, but so far, there is absolutely nothing. Edward Coulter is almost a saint, if a politician could be such a thing.”

“Yet, his wife couldn’t wait enough to spend a few days away from home after two weeks in a desert of ice.” Asriel mocked and Dorothea made a gesture of impatience.

“Their marriage… has its perks, I assume.”

“I presume Mrs. Coulter has the better perks of the two, then.” He jested and even Dorothea laughed this time. “You do know a lot about it.”

Dorothea bit her lip; she knew this was his way of asking for the favour she owed him. Asriel was filthy rich, so there was very little he couldn’t get himself, except for the information Dorothea could find on her own, either by being the outgoing star of a party or by eavesdropping conversations and breaking into people’s offices. They had an agreement: when one of them needed assistance, the other would owe them a favour. Dorothea asked for introductions and expeditions, places she couldn’t go, people she didn’t yet know; Asriel asked for information on several matters, mostly on what the Magisterium was up to and what was her associates doing to counter it. She couldn’t tell him everything, obviously, so she measured her information carefully.

“She is a… complicated woman, I’d say.” Dorothea said and her dæmon chirped loudly, laughing. Stelmaria gave him an inquisitive look.

“That’s an understatement. ” Astraeus said. It was rare for him to speak loud enough for other humans to hear, but when he did he always had something sassy to say. Dorothea shushed him.

“Well, she is complicated. I value our… I call it friendship, although it’s not exactly that in its purest essence, but I’m not a fool. Marisa married Coulter for influence; she is ambitious, and had she been born as a noble lady, we’d be fucked by now.” She finished her coffee then set it at the coffee table nearby. “I mean, you’ve seen her, Asriel. It’s not that mysterious how she managed to snatch a man like Coulter.”

“I’m sure he is flattered by her attention.” Asriel scorned and he finished his coffee himself. Dorothea shook her head as he stretched his arms and went back to bed. “Tell me, why does she need so much power? What is her goal?”

He couldn’t understand why Dorothea laughed, with distaste.

“That’s what I am trying to tell you, Asriel. As far as I can tell, there is no goal. She is doing it for the sake of it, and I don’t think you should be so straightforward towards her.” She said, in a serious tone he was tempted not to take seriously; he thought she was too young to be taken seriously, that there would be time for that when she got older. “Why are you smiling?” She snapped, crossing her arms against her chest again.

“Don’t upset her.” Stelmaria whispered to him, laying her head on her paws, looking more like a cat than a leopard. Asriel took a deep breath before saying: “I think the only reason you care about this, is because you’re afraid your gold mine will leave her or move out of the city if he knew she’d been talking to strange men at parties, at her long and lonely expeditions.”

“Nonsense. I’m worried about the scandal this might cause.” Dorothea said, almost in a whisper; she was irritated and anxious, Asriel could tell by the way she played with her ring on her index finger. “And you might drag me along with you if you don’t stop it.”

“You’re the one who’s speaking nonsense! Do you really think I’m the only man she speaks to?” He asked and she moved uncomfortably on her chair.

“No, of course not. But you’re too blunt, too straightforward with your flirting and you’re the only one she mentioned.”

“And you believed her?” Asriel scolded her, and she nodded, but almost immediately avoided his gaze. He grinned. “She confides in you, doesn’t she? How much do you know?”

“She flirts a lot, that is all. She doesn’t need to act on it because most of the people she seduce are indulgent old men or naive scholars. A few smiles, a slight brush of hands, these are easily flattered men.” Dorothea said, a guilty expression on her face. Asriel knew she wasn’t supposed to be telling him those things, but he delighted on her dilemma, especially because she was not protecting a saint. “Look, she doesn’t confide in me; we trade information. Gossip, mostly; she tells me what she is up to or if someone we know is being nasty, and I tell her my social adventures.”

“She still could be lying to you, don’t be naive.”

“I know that, and I’m always cautious, but there is no motive for her to cheat on her husband other than… well, the casual flirting. He is a rising star; if everything goes well, she will be the wife of the King’s friend and advisor.” Dorothea sighed. “Why would she jeopardise that sort of thing?”

Asriel had no answer to that, despite having multiple theories. Stelmaria laughed, softly, at Dorothea’s pleading frown; he always thought she was too fragile and meek for the things she did, but he appreciated her fiery spirit.

“Fine, assuming you’re right, there’s nothing for you to be afraid of. Is that all, Eilhart? Can I go back to sleep?” He scolded her, with a sassy smile on his face. She shook her head in disapproval, although she was smiling.

“There’s another thing, first.” Her voice suddenly was softer, melodic; he knew instantly she was going to beg for help, it was what she always did. “I want your assistance for something, in fact, I need it. It’s important.”

“You have nothing else that I want, so, no.” He said, covering himself with the blankets again. The face of annoyance she made was priceless to him, but Stelmaria whispered to him: “She wouldn’t ask if she didn’t need it.”

“Please, Asriel. Doing this alone is too risky and my… quest is too important. I need your help.”

“What is your mission?” He asked, but she shook her head.

“I can’t tell you.”

Asriel didn’t say a word, but instead, turned his back on her as if he was about to go back to sleep. It worked as he expected; she sighed and after a couple of minutes in silence, she cleared her throat.

“Fine, if you help me, I will tell you, after I finish the job.” Dorothea said and her robin protested loudly but she shushed him again. Asriel turned back to face her; she was the sheer image of distress.

“You’re just going to lie to me.”

“When have I lied to you?” She asked, with a smug attitude.

“Do you mean just today or since we met?” Asriel jested and she stood up, suddenly. Her arms were still crossed, but she seemed less distressed.

“I won’t lie to you, I promise. Get some rest and meet me for lunch in the hotel restaurant, we have a lot to discuss.”

She turned around to leave but stopped by the door.

“And please, Asriel, promise you will not seek Marisa out. For both our sakes.”

He sighed, turning his back on her again.

“Fine, I promise. Now go, and let me sleep.”

 

***

 

Asriel had no intention of fulfilling his promise to Dorothea and he did his best to avoid her while trying to talk to Marisa Coulter alone, but Dorothea seemed to know he was lying, because she made sure she was with Marisa almost during their entire social time, including college classes and eventful evenings.

It took him a month to finally talk to the woman on her own, after weeks of dodging Dorothea’s imperative gaze and her elusive nature, making sure her friend was never alone to be approached. Asriel had almost given up - if that was possible - on trying to reach the Coulter woman and he stumbled upon her, alone, by accident, at Jordan.

He had left to check out a book from their library, cursing Dorothea for being too clever and persistent, when he saw Marisa seated by an open window, a thick volume laying in front of her, alongside a typewriter. She was so focused that a crinkle was showing between her eyebrows and she barely heard him approach her.

Asriel glanced over the papers she had with her, trying to make an assessment of what she was writing. Most of the papers had long and intricate diagrams of engines and clockworks, and there was several different paragraphs written in different languages, some he understood and some he didn’t. Stelmaria brushed her tail against his leg and he looked up, only to see the golden monkey watching him, careful, witty and dangerous.

“You’re staring, Lord Asriel.” Marisa said, without looking at him. She finished her sentence, then started another with a laborious gesture. Asriel quietly sat across her, examining her papers closely, paging through a thick essay on engineering clocks. She took from his hands a journal he had just taken, without ever looking at him, and set it closer to her. “Don’t mess with things you don’t understand.”

“You’re studying clocks.” He pointed out, puzzled. She let out a soft sigh, before stopping her typing.

“Not clocks, the bronze clocks of Benin. Marvels of engineering, built with intricate design no less than two hundred years ago.” She said, and pointed at a photogram so he could see. She wasn’t wrong, the thing was beautifully sculpted. “No one knows how they work and what exactly composes them. Their bronze is… weird, different.”

“That’s fascinating, but what is the use for them?”

Marisa scoffed, indignant. He delighted in leaving her speechless, even when he was just being insulting or patronising.

“The use?” She said. “Well, they’re metal clocks and it is said that they were used by the Edo people to preserve hidden messages. Many of these clocks have been disassembled ever since, but no one seems to find any messages, yet there are texts found by several historians that confirm, or at least the translation do, that these objects were used for that purpose. They kept their most precious secrets in these machines.”

“I assume you have a theory, then.” He said and they locked eyes for a second; she even indulged him a smile, and he could hear Dorothea’s voice in his head telling him to stay away from her, which he blatantly ignored.

Marisa took her journal and opened it so he could see a diagram of her own design. She had a steady hand and a thin and geometric handwriting, as if she calculated each angle of each letter. She had drawn another bronze clock, as faithful to the originals as she could, each part carefully dissected with their functions.

“You assume correctly. I’ve noticed how the clocks are always getting either late or early, after a while. With some in-depth study, I realised this was happening on purpose. The clockwork was designed to make stops in certain intervals, therefore tampering with the time.” She explained, then turned the page and showed him a second diagram; Asriel listened to her with great interest. “There’s a pattern to each clock. The hidden secrets aren’t inside the clocks, they are the clocks. Each one of them are built to reproduce a message by tracking the intervals or something similar.”

“That is quite the discovery, provided you can prove it.” He mocked, just to see how she would react. She merely raised an eyebrow.

“Unfortunately, I can’t decipher the message. I’ve been trying, but I’m certain they had a source for the original code that is now lost.” Marisa sighed and the monkey handed her a piece of paper, quietly. Asriel didn’t like looking at him, the dæmon gave him an uneasy feeling, sometimes unnatural. Stelmaria found him peculiar though, and they would look at each constantly, in silence. “I do speak their language, but I can’t find words that mean anything.”

“So you’re stuck?”

“For now.” She said with determination and Asriel couldn’t help but laugh, heartily. He couldn’t help but admire that woman’s persistence. “What’s so funny?”

“You really think you can decipher this? You just mentioned the original cipher is gone.” Lord Asriel said and there was a frown, she seemed offended, but Marisa hardly lost her posture.

“Even if I can’t, someone else might, and I need a good base for the book.” She said, almost harshly. “So I might as well try until I crack the code.”

“You’re turning this into a book?” Lord Asriel said, watching as she started to gather her things. He could almost taste her impatience, as she stacked paper and books and put her pen and pencils away. The journal went back to her purse, in a delicate gesture Lord Asriel grew to despise, eventually. There was a softness in every movement she made, even her dæmon had an air of grace about it, which only contributed to their uncanny nature. “Sounds excessive to me.”

“Why? It’s a thesis and it’s thorough. It’s a contribution to our studies.” She sighed. “You fail to see the big picture, my lord. This craftsmanship can be very useful when applied to our military, for example.”

“Of all the things you could make with this sort of engineering, the first thing you mention is the military.” Lord Asriel mocked and she shook her head in disapproval. She was almost done, tidying her things up. Asriel wondered if she was trying to get away from him.

“There are many other uses, of course, and I’m interested in learning about all of them, but for now, I must sell the patriotism so I can pursue my research.” She said. “It does no one no good to be too defiant of our system.”

She took her things and put them on a leather bag, then closed the typewriter machine into a small suitcase. She left, with Asriel walking beside her, as they crossed the bright gardens of Jordan, as summer brought in few breezes and a scalding afternoon sun. Her dress was of a thin fabric that was probably fresher than Asriel’s linen shirt. He started to sweat under the sun, but he was more interested in annoying this woman, enough that he endured the weather.

“Do you have a title for it yet?” He asked and she nodded, but didn’t say anything. They finally crossed the gates and the sun disappeared behind a cloud. “Hidden Clockwork Messages? The Mystery of the Benin Messages?”

“The Bronze Clocks of Benin.” Marisa said; they crossed a street and stopped by a beautiful house, with classy purple flower vases on the windows. She turned to face him, as he had stopped two steps behind her, on the small staircase.

“Not very imaginative, huh?” He jested and she rolled her eyes against her own will. The golden monkey was peeping at Stelmaria through her shoulders, curious and vicious in a way Asriel couldn’t quite understand.

“It’s a thesis, not a novel.” Marisa said, but she seemed amused, however offended she felt. She glanced at the house’s door, than at him again, biting her lip as if she was hesitant and unsure of what to say next. “Would you like to continue slandering me inside, Lord Asriel?”

For a moment, he didn’t know what to say. He was tempted to accept her invitation, for many reasons, a great deal of them were related to the fact he wanted to hear more about her thesis, and some were far less academic in nature. However, when she smiled, he smiled back; she had a beautiful smile, but there was something vicious lurking underneath her eyes, as if she was plotting something. She had checked the door before inviting him, Asriel started to feel a little paranoid.

“I might have to decline your kind offer, Marisa.” He said and her smile became wolf like, her eyes glittering in a malicious way. “I wouldn’t dream of slandering you at your own home.”

The door suddenly opened and Lord Asriel was so sunken in Marisa’s smile he almost got startled. A man came outside, checking his watch and carrying a suitcase, dressed in a long, dark coat and a bowler hat; at the height of summer, he must have been melting underneath all of that. He look confused, at first, seeing both Asriel and Marisa standing in his way, but then he stopped, and smiled, giving a soft kiss on Marisa’s cheek.

“There you are, dear. I was wondering if I would see you before leaving.” He said, and finally looking at Asriel, not with jealousy or irritation, but a dull curiosity. His dæmon was a small, white rabbit that was hopping at his feet.

“I’m just back from Jordan. Ah, this is Lord Asriel, a scholar from the college.” She said and Asriel offered his hand for the man to shake, which he did, cordially. Stelmaria turned her back, pretending to walk around Asriel’s leg when in fact, she was yawning. Politicians in general were a joke to Asriel and her, but they really hated the nice ones because there were no nice politicians. “This is my husband , Edward Coulter.”

“Belacqua, no? I’ve heard of you, my lord.” The man said cheerfully, in such a jolly disposition, Asriel almost felt sorry for him. What a piece of work of a wife he had found for himself! “Northern expeditions, right? I’m headed to Sweden myself tonight. I could use the cold weather for a while.”

“A very cultural place to visit, I know the king. Strict man, with a taste for sour wine.” Lord Asriel said and Edward laughed.

“It’s good to know! We’re trying to begin trading contracts for their coal mines and I’m set to do this arrangement.” Edward said, then he turned to Marisa, touching her nose softly with his index finger. Asriel watched that with amusement; she didn’t even flinch, instead, smiling as if she was grateful her husband noticed her, but the golden monkey pressed his little paws on her bare neck and if Asriel wasn’t so perceptive, the gesture would have passed as an affectionate thing. “Don’t worry darling, I will be back for the party.”

“I should hope so. You don’t expect to spend three months in Sweden, do you?” Marisa said, in a tone so convincing of her lack of priorities, Asriel felt like he was in a theatre session. “Are you attending, Lord Asriel? The Royal Arctic Institute Gala at the end of the year?”

“I will, in fact. As a member, I got invited.” He replied, watching Marisa frown with such grace that was alluring.

“Oh, Marisa is also a member! And you must bring your wife, then, and meet us there. Such good parties, those are!” Edward said, bring Marisa closer to him. No wonder she does whatever she wants , Asriel thought, this man was born clueless

“Oh, I will have a date, and I hope we meet there as well.” Asriel said and Marisa stared at him, fizzing with curiosity, that she tamed into a polite comment.

“I thought you weren’t married, Lord Asriel.”

He grinned, as she moved uncomfortably with Edward’s hand on her back. Dorothea hadn’t told her yet, for whatever reason and he saw the opportunity to mess with that Coulter woman even further.

“I’m not. I’m taking Lady Eilhart, since she was very insistent on attending the Gala and I don’t know how to say no to her, the pretty thing.” Asriel said, and he wondered what would Dorothea have done if she had heard him call her “pretty thing”. Probably would have slapped me , he thought with delight. It was worth it though.

Marisa’s stance shifted, but her face was unreadable. Asriel said goodbye and left, hearing Edward Coulter tell his wife how good news they were, that her scholar friend was finally setting her life straight. Asriel couldn’t help but smile to himself, even when Stelmaria scolded him for being careless and almost getting into Marisa’s game.

It was worth playing.

Chapter Text

"Thunderstorms ravage my sorry thoughts,
they cannot bleach this sinful nature of mine."

 

After their little chat at the front of her house, Marisa had a feeling Lord Asriel had given up on doing whatever he was doing with her. He was always close by, going to the same lectures and presentations she did, or joining the same gatherings, but he stopped acknowledging her altogether and she decided to reciprocate, however disappointing that was.

He was a rather improper man, or so the golden monkey had constantly reminded her of. She had a husband, and Asriel was too inappropriate, with his witty jokes and his facetious flirting, making Marisa feel deliberately reckless for as much as talking to him. Not that she minded that at all, bue she was enjoying it far too much. Dorothea had suddenly decided not to say anything unless asked, and Marisa tried her best to avoid asking her anything, as to prevent her own doubts on whatever was happening to be known. However, her noble friend seemed to already know more than she should, so eventually, Marisa started to question her, discreetly, about Asriel’s research and his social life, and Dorothea’s personal insight on his attitude. The only reason she trusted - although barely - in Dorothea to speak to her about these things was because Lady Eilhart was close to Lord Asriel as well and therefore, she wouldn’t do anything to harm neither of them.

Dorothea had told her, then, that Asriel was quite impressed with her, and Marisa asked if he had told her to say that. She laughed and said he hadn’t, and had Asriel asked her, she would’ve done the opposite just to spite him. Marisa believed that heartily, but she was more interested in what Asriel had to say about other things rather than herself. His research, for a starter, since he was oddly elusive about it; or the fact he was always outside of Brytain, roaming through the North in search of something Marisa couldn’t figure out.

“What were you trying to achieve by forcing him to meet Edward?” Dorothea asked her, laughing in disapproval.

“I was just trying to keep him on the edge, that’s all.” Marisa said, giggling herself. “He’s too used to doing what he wants.”

“That’s a poor excuse, Marisa, although not useless.” Dorothea said, using a small and delicate handkerchief to dry her forehead, sweaty from the merciless sun. “What about Edward? Did he say something?”

“Not really. He didn’t say anything because there isn’t anything to be said. Asriel walked me home, end of story. What is the harm in that?” Marisa said, softly, and blinked innocently at Dorothea, who scoffed. “Why are you so worried?”

“Because I have a bad feeling, that’s all. I know Asriel, he doesn’t back down once he sets his mind to something.” Dorothea’s smile was both sarcastic and amused. “And, at the moment, that something is you.

“Considering he is an explorer, those are not bad traits, don’t you think?” Marisa said and the monkey tried to grab the robin, from his place on Marisa shoulder, but Astraeus flew higher to escape his grasp.

They were walking back from the library on a hot day, and both of them agreed that the nearest pub would be a welcome change of scenery, but they were barely at the pub’s doorstep when Asriel halted them. He moved gracefully and quickly, despite his loud attribute being, his snow leopard dæmon walking beside him as if she could float.

“There you are, Marisa.” He said, approaching them; sun had burnt his cheeks and he seemed healthier and livelier than usual, so Marisa immediately guessed he was up to no good. “Eilhart. Here for a friendly drink?”

“Asriel! Ha, who would’ve thought you would have found your way to the only pub I visit when I’m in Oxford? What are the chances?” Dorothea said, crossing her arms, a sly smile thrown Marisa’s way; Marisa herself rose an eyebrow as if they both had a bet on what would happen next and she was eager to know who would win. “What kind of nonsense are you up to now?”

“I’m here to invite Marisa to a friendly collaboration, that is, if she is interested.” Asriel said, with Stelmaria seated beside him, polite and well-behaved, her lovely eyes glimmering at Marisa and her dæmon, her swinging tail as if she was a cute cat and not a predator. Marisa nearly believed that he meant no bad business, but they were trying too hard to be friendly and anything short of inappropriate would be uncharacteristic of Asriel. “I thought your expertise in clockworks could be just what I need.”

Dorothea shook her head, as if it wasn’t bad enough that she had predicted that; Marisa offered him a cold smile.

“I thought you didn’t see practical use in my research.” She said, bitterly and he seemed to be counting on that retort, because Asriel smiled in such a genuine way, Marisa felt slightly uneasy. “It seems you were wrong, Lord Asriel.”

“Not yet, but you could prove me wrong, by joining me in my research.” Asriel mocked her, his hands behind his back, his eyes glittering with a dark enjoyment of a situation that was purely platonic. “That’s a very rare opportunity.”

“You really have a very high opinion of yourself, don’t you?” Dorothea scolded him, her arms still crossed. Marisa was having difficulty identifying if she was angry, amused or jealous; her dæmon flew happily around her head, so perhaps neither of the options

“Oh, you’re welcome to come too, Eilhart.” Asriel jested and open his arms in a very welcoming gesture that made Dorothea roll her eyes and Marisa quietly laugh. “The more, the merrier!”

“I’d rather not, if you don’t mind.” Dorothea said, shaking her head. "I get into enough trouble without your assistance, thank you very much."

Marisa glanced over Dorothea, who had a very unimpressed expression on her face; her dæmon flying around Stelmaria, who cheerfully but effortlessly, as if indulging a child, tried to catch him mid-air. If Marisa was honest with herself, she was also very unimpressed, but Asriel’s smug attitude was entertaining, so she was considering his proposal for the sake of fun and solely that.

“Suit yourself.” He said. “How about you, Marisa?”

“That’s quite the opportunity, Lord Asriel, but what use could you have for me?” She said, trying to sound uninterested and she chastised herself mentally for failing that.

Asriel smiled in a way that forced Marisa to smile back, because it was as she if she could read every indecent thought he had in those few seconds of silence. He put his hands on his pants pockets then looked at her with a shimmer in his eyes.

“I can think of a few.” He said, then handed her a small card. Marisa noticed Dorothea look away, a smile on her face, and her dæmon chirped, mocking the golden monkey who tried to snatch him, to no avail. “This is my address here in Oxford, bring your books and notes on clockworks, let’s say… tomorrow night, around seven?”

“What could you possibly want with clockworks?” Dorothea asked, suddenly.

“I’m building something, but I can’t seem to make it work. I thought Marisa could help.” Asriel said and Dorothea sighed. Marisa looked at him, slightly surprised. “She does have a knack for machines as far as I remember.”

“I will think about it, then.” Marisa said, cheerfully. It was indeed an opportunity to dissect the man and his studies, things he was very secretive about, things Dorothea didn’t know about and that alone was good enough of a motivation for Marisa.

“See you tomorrow night, then.” He said, and as quickly and lithe as he came, he left, his dæmon’s fur shimmering under the sunlight.

Marisa stood quiet for a while, the sun burning her arms, as she carefully examined his card. The monkey whispered in her ear, so she nodded softly and he took the card from her hands and put it on her purse on his way to the floor. She knew he wanted to tear the thing apart, but he wouldn’t dare and even if he did decide to spite her and do it, Marisa had already memorised it. The robin was now flying above him, teasing him, and despite the monkey’s effort in his insidious desire to grab the little bird, Astraeus fared much better, always escaping by inches, as if by sheer luck.

“I sincerely hope you’re not considering going there, Marisa.” Dorothea said, but she didn’t look angry nor worried. Marisa, in fact, thought she was quite amused and she knew it was because Dorothea had been right, so far, about Asriel.

She tilted her head, then shook it in disapproval, as they walked inside the pub and sat by a window; a loud fan and joyful conversation muffling their own.

“I don’t understand why you are so worried.” Marisa said. “He is asking for help with a project.”

“Oh, he is asking for much more than that.” Dorothea said, and the monkey almost snatched her dæmon when he distracted himself. Marisa watched with a certain pleasure as her colleague stiffened herself, aware of her little robin trapped my the monkey’s dextrous paws. “Honestly, I don’t really mind the situation at all, but I do feel like a witness of a crime, sometimes.”

“You can’t be serious! That’s nonsense!” Marisa asserted, finishing her wine; it was still very hot inside the pub. “It’s not like I have done something wrong, you shouldn’t worry so much. This is just a friendly, platonic academic conversation.”

“It’s getting difficult to believe you, Marisa.”

“It’s all very harmless, Dorothea. You’re overreacting!” Marisa laughed, as if the whole concept of what was happening was a joke between them, not tangible in the slightest.

“I wouldn’t describe you as harmless, Marisa, let alone Lord Asriel.” She replied, and despite her cheeky tone, Marisa noticed as she glanced over their dæmons, the robin being caressed by the possessive golden monkey. There was a fear in the way she put her hands on the table, as if she wanted to take her robin from the monkey, but couldn’t risk it because there was the danger of touching Marisa’s dæmon. Marisa herself delighted in Dorothea’s fear, it helped put her in her place whenever she forgot who had the reins of their fragile relationship. “I just don’t think you’re being wise.”

“Why are you so concerned about my marriage?” Marisa snapped, although not as rudely as she could be. The monkey turned to face her, as Astraeus chirped softly in his little hands.

“I’m not. Why aren’t you , though?” Dorothea retorted and Marisa could tell she was aware of the risk, because as she said that, her eyes passed over the dæmons again. Marisa narrowed her eyes, not dignified enough to answer Lady Eilhart, but the monkey squeezed the bird a little, just enough to make Dorothea feel trapped, not hurt. “You’re going there, aren’t you?”

Marisa smiled, almost convincingly embarrassed, which she wasn’t, not in the slightest.

“Well, I am curious, and I’m surprised you aren’t. Normally you would jump at the thought of learning someone else’s secrets.” She said. Dorothea watched as the robin talked, in a whisper, to the monkey. Whenever the monkey grabbed him, she would always feel uneasy, because he had a certain tendency to hurt Astraeus, with or without Marisa support. But this time, he simply stroked the robin, who chirped loudly and satisfied, and then flew back to Dorothea’s shoulder. She breathed, relieved, though not entirely, because the monkey still watched languidly as the dæmon whispered to her.

“I am curious, of course, but I still think this is a bad, bad idea, Marisa.” She said, pattering her knuckles on the table; Marisa knew she was measuring her words, she always did that when she needed to think. “If you’re going, at least promise you’ll tell me what you learn. It would be nice to know what he is up to, God knows he is always hiding something.”

“I won’t promise anything, but let us see how this works out.”

Marisa smiled, nice and prude as always, and they both went on in the afternoon, as if their little feud hadn’t happened at all, despite the soreness underneath their polite chat, or the fact Dorothea still felt the grasp of the monkey on herself.  Both had their own ideas and thoughts on how that could work out, and they were anything, but very different from each other.

 

***

 

“I think you assume too much on behalf of others, Lord Asriel.” Marisa said, the next evening, when she barely hesitated to visit Asriel at his house.

She had struggled with herself and the monkey, as if they couldn’t make up their minds about going to his house or not. It was a short walk from where she lived, and Edward was gone, so a boring and empty house was the lamest excuse she needed to accept Asriel’s invitation. The monkey had argued with her, violently, because in his opinion she was giving much and getting little in return and that was “inconceivable!”, he had said. Despite him being correct, Marisa’s will prevailed as it always did and they both went there that day with a particular mindset. The moment he greeted Stelmaria was the moment they were both lost, and everyone at that house knew that.

It was unlike the golden monkey to be talkative; for instance, he’d only talk to people they found useful and only to get what they wanted. With Astraeus, he chatted during the first days of their acquaintanceship and then he grew quiet and more mimic, once Marisa realised Dorothea was willing to give her what she wanted for very little in return. But with Stelmaria he had more words, despite it still being less than a normal dæmon, and they had a lot to talk about, even though it was mostly a whispers discussion, meant only for themselves.

For a man quite rich, Asriel had a moderately furnished house, beautiful in a very scholarly way, but awfully modest for a lord, Marisa thought, but then she was focused on the wrong aspects of his personality. He was an explorer and an indulgent man in many ways, and a scholar atop of all these things; despite the lack of luxury on his curtains and decorations, he had compensated with a formidable study, one that made even Marisa quite jealous.

“I never assume anything, Marisa.” Asriel said, whilst pouring her what would be their fourth glass of Tokay; she was feeling tipsy, and she could tell he was feeling the same. His eyes were more fiery and he was less focused on the project and more focused on annoying her, which she found entertaining, as well as irritating. “There is no room for assumption in the academic world, you know that.”

“Isn’t assumption the core of a theologian’s research, though?” She said and pointed at the charts they were looking at. Asriel was rough and rustic, loud and messy, but he was a careful scholar, with an eye for detail as Marisa began to notice, and she deemed that the reason he was so keen on her own motives. The golden monkey had agreed and he had told her Stelmaria was way too aware of Marisa’s way of getting the things she wanted; she liked to think she was a person difficult to read, but Asriel kept on breaking that myth of hers. “For example, when you assume the Aurora is aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field.”

“That is no assumption, it’s based on facts. Had you been in the North as much as I have, you’d have time to gather facts for your research.”

“My research is based on an African city, why on Earth would I go to the North for that?” Marisa mocked and Asriel paged through a journal, and stepped closer to her to show her. Marisa felt his warm breath on her neck, the sweet scent of wine in it, and she tried to remain focused on the journal.

“Don’t be short-sighted, Marisa. The North is a mysterious place. There are things there that scare the bravest of men, and I don’t blame them.” He pointed at a crude schematic and Marisa leaned closer to read his notes; he held the journal open with one hand in front of her and his other hand touched her back and she shivered when she felt the warmth of his skin, but she didn’t move away. “But there are also things there that you can find nowhere else, so it’s a price worth paying.”

“Is this another improper invitation?” She teased him, despite knowing fully well she shouldn’t have done that.

The golden monkey turned to look at her, as if he meant to tell her she should have moved, but she knew that and he didn’t say anything, instead looking back at Stelmaria to listen about their journeys. Sometimes he would ask her questions, but quietly, for her ears only; most of the times he just delighted in listening, which was rare even for Marisa to acknowledge that. She tried to go back to their original subject.

“This is some type of alloy.” She asserted on his schematic, but quietly, because they were very close to each other now. His chest was slightly brushing against her arm, and Marisa resisted the urge to look into his eyes, for the sake of her marriage and her own sanity; she cared much less about the marriage though.

“Manganese and titanium, for the matter.” Asriel whispered to her and Marisa felt as if a current was running through her; his hand gripped her waist, tighter; she gasped quietly. “When bound, they have an isolationist effect on anyone close to it. The bond between dæmon and human is… disturbed.”

“Did you test it?” Marisa asked, excited, trying to pretend he hadn’t pulled her closer, or that heart was beating slightly faster, or that she was feeling exhilarated with everything wrong she was doing at the moment. “I’d like to see your results.”

He closed the journal and turned her so she would face him; she felt the desk against her back as he pressed himself closer and she put her hands on his chest to keep him from getting any closer than they already were, as if that wasn’t bad enough as it was.

“I asked for the alloy to be made, and kept in touch with it for a couple of days.” He said. Stelmaria and the golden monkey were playfully nagging each other. “There’s a feeling of apathy when one touches the allow, you feel… detached from your dæmon, uncomfortable as if you’re not meant to fit together. It’s like the alloy repels the bond in various levels.”

“That’s odd. The use of such a thing… I can’t think of anything.” Marisa whispered back, and he pulled her closer and leaned in as if to kiss her, but Marisa, despite not pushing him away, placed her index finger upon his lips. She gathered enough gall to stare him in his eyes and there was a sudden shiver down her spine. It was as if she had unlearned how to speak, for a moment. “What are you doing, Asriel?”

“Don’t be a prude, Marisa, it’s a little too late for that.” Asriel said and move forward again, but she pushed his lips with her finger again, a smirk slightly twisting her lips; it was the first time she had felt in control since they met and that felt good .

“I came here for the research.” She said, and she gasped when he took her off the floor and sat her at the desk. He ran his fingers through her hair and the mere contact of their skin against each other set something ablaze within her. Her monkey, if he wasn’t busy with Stelmaria, pressed against the floor in a gentle, yet caustic gesture of theirs, would have told her they had to leave before they made a mistake; she told herself the same, later, after the damage had already been done.

“I know, but not even you can be so naive.” Asriel laughed and he tightened his grip on her waist and her hair and pulled her violently against him.

Marisa closed her eyes when they kissed, instead focusing on his scent and his sweet taste of Tokay, the way his fingers clawed the flesh of her neck, how she was not supposed to be kissing him as well. He tried to pick her up but her dress wasn’t cut out for that, and she moaned when she heard the fabric tear a little. It was a good dress, Marisa thought almost giggling, how shameful.

It was hard to come back to her senses, but she pushed his face away, only to have him bury it against her neck, his teeth craved against her bare flesh.

“Asriel.” She said, her voice faltered for a second, so she pushed him away again. “Asriel, please, don’t.”

He stopped and put her on the floor again, but she was still clinging on his neck, bewildered; Marisa felt so light and dizzy she didn’t trust her own legs.

“Why? Has your conscious burden you, Marisa?” He said and leaned into kiss her again but she put both hands on his chest and gathered all resolve she had left to step away from him. It was very difficult, especially when he held her wrists, strong but careful enough as to not harm her. It was much more of a clingy act rather than an actual grip, because she easily got herself loose from him. “Why the sudden change?”

“There is no change, it’s just unwise and I could have told you that before what… what just happened.” She said, and quickly turned her back on him. Marisa gathered her things, throwing her journal and her notes inside her purse and she looked for her shoe, which had fallen from her feet when Asriel took her in his arms.

The monkey let out a noise of discontentment, but he went to her once she gestured at him, climbing her arm and standing on her shoulders, glancing over Stelmaria, eagerly, while she merely blinked at him. Asriel’s smug attitude was back and Marisa was not in the mood to deal that.

“You came here out of your own good will, Marisa.”

“I have, and I also came against my better judgement. A mistake, if you’d like my opinion.” She said, but he approached her again then pulled her closer. She could feel her willpower dwindle as he bit her lower lip, her earlobe and then her neck, her monkey escaping his touch with a fast leap and they were back right where they started.

Until she pushed him again, more determined to leave this time, before she dived into that situation with no guide to swim through. If he was angry, he didn’t show; he seemed much more entertained than frustrated, having a laugh at her confused gestures.

“I shouldn’t… I should go, Asriel.”

“Do you want to go?” He asked then took a step back, and let his hand drop so he could brush Stelmaria’s fur.

No , Marisa thought, the monkey at her heels. But what choice did she have? Edward would have come back from Sweden soon, and if his attempts to create trading contracts there worked as he wanted, he had already mentioned his desire to move to London for good, as he would be required to stay there for longer periods. She didn’t know what to make of her career, her careful efforts to establish herself in a position of power, all thrown away by her gullibly clever husband and Lord Asriel’s innate desire to possess everything he couldn’t have.

I suppose I should consider myself lucky, then , Marisa thought, but she chastised herself for thinking that immediately. Luck had nothing to do with it. There was a lot on her mind and Asriel grinned as if he could read her thoughts; she reassured herself he couldn’t, despite her own doubts.

“I have to. I hate to say it, but Dorothea was right, this was a bad idea.”

Asriel chuckled.

“That was not my question, and Eilhart is the last person who should be advising you in marital concerns.” He insisted and took another step forward, but she escaped her corner and stood by the study entrance. “If you wanted to go, all you had to do was say so. Do I strike you as the sort of man who would lash out because of an inconvenience?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Marisa sighed. “Does it matter? I shouldn’t even be here.”

“It does matter if you felt cornered by my actions, which in that case, I apologise.” Marisa thought he didn’t sound like he was apologising, but then again, she had a feeling Asriel was unfamiliar with the concept of apologies. “I don’t think you should go, though. Isn’t your husband out of town?”

“Oh God, Edward. No, that doesn’t concern you! You mustn’t say a word about this, you mustn’t!” She warned him, but he laughed quite rudely at her plea. “This isn’t a joke, this was a mistake! I can’t believe that after everything you have the gall to laugh at my face!”

“I don’t really care about your marriage, Marisa, you have nothing to fear from me.” He said, turning to finish his glass of wine. “As for my entertainment, I think your righteous masquerade is just too much, even for you.”

She found that hard to believe, all of it. All she could think about was how much she would have to lie to Edward once he was back, and how she could still taste Asriel and how she shouldn’t even had come in the first place. For a moment, Marisa thought she could hear Dorothea’s voice saying: “I told you so.”

“You only want what you cannot have, don’t you?” She scoffed, but Asriel shook his head and took a step closer. She didn’t move; Marisa told herself that if touched her again she wouldn’t have the willpower to see reason. “It must be hard for you, Asriel, to be denied.”

“I don’t recall being denied, Mrs. Coulter.” Asriel said, a sardonic glitter in his eyes, and his smirk made Marisa grin back, against her will. She felt overpowered again; the monkey whispered to her to leave and suddenly she felt like staying. The idea of staying because she caught herself longing for that rude and insulting man was terrible and exciting and almost as an act of self-harm as much as an act of self-care. Despite Asriel’s arrogance, Marisa began to feel as his equal in many circumstances, as she hardly felt before; he was rude, yes, but hardly patronising, not for real like every other men she has met before. Their mutual understanding began to twist itself in her and make her demand more, when she clearly couldn’t have it.

Asriel got close enough that she could feel his heat without ever touching him. He stared her down in a way that made her feel as if she was naked, stripped of every façade she had ever worn in her mischievous and ambitious life. There were few moments in her life where Marisa felt as vulnerable as she felt at that moment, with that egregious man looking at her in ways she thrived off, euphoric; in ways that Edward never would or could, due to a lack of imagination.

“For the record, Marisa, there is very little I cannot have.” He said and slightly brushed her cheek with the back of his hand; their faces were so close they almost kissed again. “I do not count you amongst those things and neither should you. Have a good evening.”

He walked past her, leaving Marisa standing in his hot study, her hand clutching at her necklace, nearly breathless.

Chapter Text

"Stars flicker upon her crimson lips,
the way pleasure aches makes it nearly bland."

“You had to tell her, didn’t you?” Dorothea scolded him.

They were at his house in London, and she was finishing getting ready for the party. Asriel felt slightly uncomfortable in his suit, but Dorothea had insisted he needed to dress accordingly; she was already upset he had told Marisa Coulter about her being his date for the gala, amongst other things, and he didn’t want to have another argument at New Year’s Eve, maybe next morning they would argue again or the day after that. He did have a slight suspicion Dorothea already knew he had kissed Marisa, but she hadn’t said a word thus far and he was happy to keep it that way.

“I was asked to bring my wife, Edward Coulter’s insistence!” Asriel said in a sour tone, as if it was a bad joke, and Dorothea shook her head while she finished putting on her earrings.

“Well, why did you tell them you were taking me to the party, then? I’m not your wife, Asriel.”

“Of course not. God forbid me from marrying you, you lecture me enough as it is.” He said with a serious expression, but she laughed.

She asked him to take her shoes and set them on the floor for her, a pair of silvery heels that could easily work as weapons, as skilled as Dorothea was. She checked herself on the mirror and her robin was talking to Stelmaria, friendly and radiant, just as she was; they were trading information on Dorothea’s quest that night. They were very, very anxious.

“If you behaved properly, I wouldn’t need to lecture you.” She said amused and she stepped into the heels in front of him. “Can you imagine what Edward would have done if he found you inside his house?”

“He seems clueless enough.”

“Not enough as to avert his eyes to his wife bringing strange men into their home, I’m certain. Marisa told me she said to him you were walking her home because you said it’s dangerous for a woman to walk home alone.”

“Well, it is.”

“In the afternoon ?” Dorothea said, snapping her fingers close to Asriel’s ear. He slapped her hands away from him, annoyed. “Don’t push your luck, I told you to stay away from her.”

“She knew he was inside the house, she checked the door before inviting me.” Asriel proceeded to ignore her. “The woman clearly is toying with me.”

“She didn’t check the door, she checked the window . When Edward is at home, he likes the living room to be in mid-light, so the curtains are always closed.” Dorothea explained and Asriel helped her with her coat; she went back to her purse, laying on the bed and got a thin necklace, in gold, with a small circular pendant. “She isn’t toying with you, she is making an assessment of you.”

“Why would she do that, though?” Asriel asked, his arms crossed over his chest.

Dorothea laughed, but it was a bitter laugh. She was struggling with her necklace.

“You assume I know her motivations? Please, why does she do anything? There is no explanation, she does what she wants to do, not unlike you, to be fair.” She said, then turned her back on him and gesture him to come closer. “Help me with this.”

She handed him the necklace, a tiny thing, and he took a look at the pendant. It had a small indentation, as if it opened. Asriel looked at her in the mirror, since she had her back turned on him, her hair on her hands, away from her neck so he could fit the necklace for her.

“What is this?” He demanded and opened it.

“A clock.” She said, impassive.

Asriel checked the content of the locket; it was a small rice, blue coloured. He closed it again, with a frown.

“Liar. It’s poison.” He said, then put the necklace on her neck; the tiny rice went on his pocket. “You expect trouble.”

“Always, but in this case, is just a failsafe in case I really don’t have a choice.” She explained, then turned around to face him, her hand standing extended and her palm open, as if she was expecting him to give her something. “I’d rather kill myself than risk getting caught by those bastards.”

Asriel reluctantly gave her the rice and watched as she placed it back on her locket. He considered all the different ways he could take the poison from the locket without she knowing; there were very few, she was clever and observant.

“I doubt it would ever come to that. You’re a noblewoman, influential, and you’re a spy. They would trade you for one of them, that’s what happens to spies every time.” He said. “You’re a bartering item.”

“This isn’t an international dispute, Asriel, the CCD don’t abide by social rules, their only interest is in the eradication of freedom. I won’t stand by it.” Dorothea scoffed, then poked his chest with her index finger. “And neither should you.”

He watched her take her purse and they both left the house without a word. Asriel didn’t disagree with her, every effort to disrupt the CCD was important, but things were escalating too much and he was beginning to doubt the efficiency of Dorothea’s benefactors.However, Stelmaria constantly reminded him of the necessity of Oakley Street.

“You are angry.” Stelmaria said to Astraeus, as they were in the car. Dorothea was watching as the street passed them by, quiet, too quiet in Asriel’s opinion. It was unlike her to be quiet like that.

Her robin landed on her knee and chirped.

“We are not angry, we are concerned.” He said.

“If this is about Marisa, I would rather not speak of it.” Asriel said, but Dorothea shook her head and lowered her voice so the driver wouldn’t listen to them.

“You understand you aren’t making my life any easier, don’t you?” She had a glitter of savagery in her eyes that amused him. “Of all the women you had to pursue the one that is married.”

“I’m not pursuing anyone. It has been fun, but she is too much trouble.” He said, a lie so blantantly obvious that Dorothea snorted. “I prefer my women feisty.”

“Yes, like that witch from Latvia.” Dorothea scoffed.

“Not that feisty.”

“Didn’t she leave you after you disappointed her?”

“Will you ever let that go?” Asriel mumbled, and she laughed as well, and the worrisome look she had went away for a while; Asriel realised how often he forgot how young she was.

“No, I won’t.”

It was a ten minute car trip between the apartment and the Institute, which was already shimmering with people arriving and music playing. As they stood by the entrance, her arm intertwined with his, he whispered:

“So, what do I have to do?”

“Talk to the director once I need to go to his office. My information says he is to leave there at ten, so I have an hour and a half to come back, two hours if things go wrong. The fireworks are at midnight, so I must be back by then.” Dorothea whispered back and they showed their invitations to the guard who let them pass. “You must keep your eyes on the stairs. They are supposed to be the only way to the office corridor on the first floor, and they’re barred to the guests except for members of the board and security.”

“If that’s the only way to a first floor room, how are you getting in?” Asriel asked.

They were inside a large ballroom, filled with humans and dæmons, chatting and drinking, as soft music echoed everywhere. There was about a hundred people in there, and that was only the beginning of the evening. Out of the cold night, suddenly the room felt warm and cozy; Asriel felt uncomfortably caged.

“Well, wouldn’t you like to know that?” Dorothea smiled, mischievously. “I’m going through the window.”

“How? You’re wearing heels, Eilhart.”

“I am resourceful, don’t worry. Focus on enjoying yourself for now and staying out of trouble.”

They got drinks from a passing waiter, bubbly champagne, nowhere near as strong as they both would have wanted. Asriel was already regretting coming to the party, if wasn’t for that tiny spark of excitement he felt, considering he would see Marisa that night, despite his claims to Dorothea that he had moved on. He looked at Dorothea, thinking about what excuse to make in the event Marisa approached them.

“What if you die?” Asriel whispered to her and Dorothea snorted.

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, Asriel.”

“You’re the one who is wearing poison around your neck.” Asriel pointed out, as they roamed the room. “What is it your after in that office?”

She smiled but didn’t say anything, and soon they were surrounded by people, acquaintances, scholars, politicians, nobleborns and that got them busy for the first hour of the party.

Dorothea seemed to be having a good time, or at least pretending she was; laughing and chatting avidly, watching carefully and charming information out of people, but Lord Asriel was beginning to feel bored. They had seen Marisa and her husband from afar, but Dorothea insisted they didn’t draw their attention, because she feared Marisa was too sharp and would figure something was wrong. So, they evaded the couple as much as they could, to Asriel’s distaste and Dorothea’s relief.

It was almost ten o’clock when they crossed paths, in a way that was impossible to avoid, by Asriel’s own plan and premeditation. Edward was already shaking Asriel’s hand as Marisa and Dorothea acknowledged each other in a friendly way. Dorothea’s dæmon flew between her shoulders, anxious; Marisa had a eerie smile that Asriel didn’t quite get at first, her monkey on her arms, viciously watching everyone, his glimmering fur as lustrous as ever. He did saw the flicker in her eyes though, as if she was reliving the memory of his house in her head and as if she feared other people could read it too.

“I thought you said the two of you weren’t involved, Dorothea.” Marisa said, calm and amused, as if she wasn’t stiff around Asriel. He felt Dorothea’s grip grow harder on his arm; she was feeling cornered but he was actually entertained.

“I did, and we’re not. Asriel wanted company for tonight, so here I am. There are worse ways of passing years, don’t you think?” She replied and smiled, cheerfully, not very honestly though.

Edward proceeded to bore them with news from Sweden and Asriel could sense Dorothea’s impending anxiety, as her clock was ticking and it was almost ten. He was also more interested in watching Marisa and how she seemed exposed by his gaze while her husband talked non-stop about things no one cared.

Someone, however, recognised Edward and called him, a couple of meters away: the director of the Institute, as Asriel recognised him and his sparrow dæmon. As Marisa’s husband turned to tell her he would go have a chat with “his old friend”, Dorothea got away from Asriel and whispered:

“Watch the stairs. Anyone, and I mean anyone  goes up, you find a way to stop them. I will meet you back here once I’m done.”

Before he could say anything, she mingled with the guests and disappeared. He had no idea how she was going to climb to an office on the first floor in high heels, wearing a dress, in the cold, but she had given him his task and her problems were own. Marisa had been distracted by her husband’s comment, so when she turned back, Dorothea was already gone. She inquired him about it.

“Lavatory, or so she said. As far as I know she could be messing around with some man outside.” He said, making both Marisa and Stelmaria laugh, for different reasons. “How’s your husband?”

“He is right there, why don’t you ask him yourself?” She said, gesturing at the man. The gentlemen were talking quite avidly, and he was grateful Coulter was doing his job for him. Talking to the director was always a chore that ended with him asking for money for the institute, and Asriel hated having to support a man with such holy views as he had.

Asriel turned around and smiled at Marisa.

“I rather talk to you, Marisa.”

“You’re becoming too bold, Lord Asriel.” She said, quietly; they weren’t very close, but they weren’t very distant either, and her perfume was intoxicating. To distract himself, he looked around and checked the staircase; no one there but the guard keeping guests from climbing it. “I am not sure I like that.”

“What is there not to like, Marisa? It is not as if you don’t thrive off attention.” He said and took two new glasses and gave one to her. Stelmaria was being watchful of the stairs now; she could do it in a more inconspicuous way than he could, because the monkey wasn't talking to her, he simply stared at her. “So, you’re a member of the institute too? I’m surprised.”

“I feel like I might regret asking you why, but indulge me.”

“You seem like a much more theoretical woman than a practical one, and the institute is responsible for many explorations.” Asriel said and she smirked, as if she knew something he didn’t which she probably did.

“They are, and I do have need for expeditions every now and then.” Marisa explained. “For example, I just returned from Benin after a two month trip, sponsored by the institute.”

Asriel’s interest was piqued. Stelmaria flicked her tail at the golden monkey, who did nothing but stare.

“You found what you were looking for.” He whispered and smiled, intoxicating and bewildering him.

“I have. There was an archeological site that found dozens of bronze works, including two clocks and tablets. They contained part of one of the codes they used.” She seemed proud, prouder than when she spoke about her husband. “I'm in the process of translating the rest of them, but it seems I was correct.”

“So, what do you intend to do with it now?” Asriel said, bluntly. “Your book is already published.”

The question seemed to have caught her off guard, because she smiled, confused, as if she was unsure of what he meant. She probably wasn’t expecting his comment on her book.

“I don't intend to do anything, it's purely academic.” She said, at last, choosing her words carefully, but Asriel noticed her hesitation.

“That's very noble of you.” He mocked her and she shook her head, amused.

"This isn't about nobility, I like the precision of facts and I like that I can be a part of that precision myself.” Marisa added, quietly. “It is really that simple, must you make a fuss out of everything?”

They spent forty minutes on that fencing of wits, slowly getting tipsy on weak champagne, as Marisa grew irritated and offended and Asriel was getting restless. Edward was still stuck with the director, who seemed to enjoy Marisa's husband's company, and Stelmaria reported no one near the staircase, but even she got distracted as the monkey tried to make contact, slightly approaching her, his little fingers tentatively extended in her direction.

“You’ve been oddly persistent, Lord Asriel.” She said, twirling around, as if to see where Edward was. He was still busy, now chatting with another man alongside the director, completely carefree about his wife’s whereabouts. “Was I not clear the last time we saw each other?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Oh, but I think you do.” Marisa said and she tilted her head, slightly, and the golden monkey approached Stelmaria, quiet and lithe, not a word voice but somehow their gestures spoke volumes. “Now, what you want from me is what I can’t understand.”

“I’m not a quiet man, Marisa. If I wanted something from you, you’d be the first to know.” Her smile was almost predatory, but it could capture the essence of innocence she so well painted herself with.

Stelmaria’s tail brushed against his leg, as if to tell him to go. That woman had an aura of calm and peacefulness that was unnatural; most poisons could be tasteful despite their deadliness. He didn’t mind that though, despite Stelmaria’s insistence that he should leave her alone.

“We’re here to watch the stairs.” Stelmaria scolded him, quietly, when a scholar from Jordan arrived with his wife, and was talking to Marisa about her book, distracting her for a while, albeit not entirely.

Asriel thought Dorothea was safe enough, and he felt like he required a rush of adrenaline or simply a gulf of fresh air, as he was feeling caged in that ambient. With her busy elsewhere, he had the opportunity to stay alone with Marisa, albeit the hundred guests around them. But the Royal Arctic Institute was big, with entire corridors that were deserted now, and a garden in the same state.

He grew bold enough to take a step closer and ask if she wanted to see the garden.

“You do remember I am a member of this place as well, correct?” She joked, but there was something malicious in her eyes, something unnatural as if she had predicted the outcome of that conversation long before it happened. It wasn’t as if the situation was truly unpredictable, but it was entertaining all the same. “I've seen it a lot, as a matter of fact.”

“It's a simple enough question, Marisa. No need for flamboyance.”

“It’s very cold outside.”

“Then you’ll be very comfortable, I can assure you.”

She didn't reply, but the monkey whispered something to Stelmaria, and she immediately led Asriel outside. He didn't have to look behind because Marisa's gaze was on his back and he could sense it as if she was made of sheer energy.

 

***

 

It was cold outside, enough that Marisa was shivering despite Asriel's warm hands on her back and her neck. They had barely got behind the cover of a large sculpture in the garden when she felt his hands grab her arm and pull her closer, kissing her so ferociously she was out of breath after a couple of seconds. Marisa was a fighter by nature, so if she didn’t want that to happen, she would’ve scratched his face; but she wanted it, she just hadn’t realised how much until it happened again and again.

There was a lot to process at once. The way he pressed her against him, how her finger clawed their way on his back and his neck, Asriel’s taste and his scent and how the dizziness made her felt so light in his arms. She recovered her senses for a brief moment, and stopped the kiss, but very slowly; Marisa grasped at his shirt and stared him down, a little unsteady.

“Are you out of your mind?” She asked him in a whisper, so quietly he almost didn’t hear her. “Edward is inside!”

“Don’t be a prude.” Asriel said and she pulled him closer again.

Marisa felt the cold of the sculpture against her back when Asriel pressed her against it. The freezing wind was making her shiver alongside his touch, and she had a wild guess he was aware of that and delighted in it. Somewhere close by, a clock made loud noises, announcing the closing in of midnight; they were alone for now, because it was too cold, but as the end of the night closed in, people would go outside to watch the fireworks and they were already at risk. She calculated her time, in her head, as they kissed; he had probably smeared her lipstick, so she needed to go to a lavatory to make herself presentable again before returning to Edward. She thought of her silly, naive husband with a certain disdain; sometimes she even pitied his cluelessness, but it all worked in her favour.

“We mustn't.” She whispered again and glanced over the entrance to the garden. As enticing as the risk was, Marisa determined that Lord Asriel was not worth it. He laughed, quietly, then kissed her again; she took a deep breath and pushed him away again, more fiercely this time. “We can’t, it’s too risky. It’s almost midnight.”

She could sense his impatience and for a moment she thought he was going to turn his back and leave her there like before, but instead, Asriel reached inside his jacket and picked up a small, white card and gave it to her. Under the soft moonlight and the white lamps that lit up the garden, she could read his address on the card.

“I have unfinished business with Eilhart, but be there by one, once you ditch your husband.” He said, and took a step back from her. Without him as a shield, the cold bit harder against her bare shoulders, but she was still feeling rather warm.

“What makes you think I want to be there?” She scorned him, but he pulled her closer and kissed her again, quick and provocative. Then pulled away and stared her down into an oblivious feeling of powerlessness. She saw her dæmon rolling, playfully, with his on the floor.

“Well, I shan’t shed tears for you, if that’s what you’re worried about, Marisa.” He said, with a smirk. “But if you hadn’t considered it, you wouldn’t be here, would you?”

She kissed him again before leaving; he watched her go, every and each one of her moves as fluid as if she was made of silk herself. The fireworks had began to explode, close by and in the distance, showering the night sky in colourful sparkles; some people came out in the garden to watch them and Asriel decided to go back inside, so he could rendezvous with Dorothea, then finally leave to wait for Marisa at his own house.

 

***

 

But Dorothea was nowhere to be found. He even saw Marisa and her husband, his cordial face flushed from all the alcohol; beside her, the man seemed to disappear in its mediocracy. Asriel was beginning to feel angry, especially when Marisa came by to say goodbye, and Edward questioned him on Dorothea’s whereabouts. They locked eyes, and Marisa seemed to be wondering if he had meant his invitation. He had, but with his companion missing, Asriel felt himself worrying and he didn’t enjoy the feeling; the director had disappeared too and he was on hurry to find Dorothea, then leave.

“Let us look for her under the window she climbed, perhaps she is trapped there.” Stelmaria said, and he went back to the garden.

As the fireworks slowly stopped, there were fewer people in the garden, and the ones left were couples, stranded in between areas. He moved about in silence, as lithe and quiet as his dæmon, as they tried to find the director’s window from memory, after visiting it so many times. Stelmaria had a better sense of direction than he did, so she easily guided them to the place; looking up, as they turned a corner in the garden, he saw the curtain of the office flowing in the air, as if someone had put them outside.

Stelmaria was the first to see her, but all they did see was her feet and her ankle, her silvery slippers stained with something dark, one of the heels was broken. His dæmon recognised her because Dorothea had a tattoo on her ankle, and her leg was extended, her possible body hidden between large crates of wine. He felt a rush of adrenaline, but he and Stelmaria moved slowly towards the crates, both already measuring everything they could do in any sort of event they could stumble upon.

She was indeed there. Stelmaria jumped to Astraeus’s aid, the bird distressed as ever, flying around Dorothea, whom Asriel kneeled beside. She was in an awful state, her hair messy and her dress torn, struggling to keep her head up. She was sitting on the floor, her arms loose beside her, her hands covered in blood; Asriel noticed her lip was swollen and split and there was also blood on her nose.

“You… were supposed to watch the stairs.” She mumbled and rose her hand as if she meant to pull him towards her; then she saw the blood on her own hands, thick and fluid, and stopped herself from doing it, instead placing her hand atop of her belly, leaving a bloody imprint of her palm on her white and golden gown.

“What happened to you?” He ignored her and tried to pick her up from the floor, putting his arms on her back to support her.

“Asriel, the locket.” Stelmaria said, but he had already noticed. It was open and there was nothing inside.

“Did you take it?” He demanded, holding her face and he noticed her eyes were wide, as if she was in shock. She shook her head and told him, with difficulty, that the poison had fallen on the floor. “What went wrong? Where does all this blood from?”

“Easy, Asriel. The lady has been through enough.” A voice came from the shadow, by the stairs that led to the river. A man stepped into the light and Asriel recognised him, as Dorothea quietly spoke his name.

“Coram. Did you do it?”

The gyptian came closer and kneeled beside them. Asriel had close ties with the gyptians since he had saved two of their children from drowning, and Coram had been a familiar face ever since. He had his suspicions that many gyptians had ties with Oakley Street, but because of the secrecy even between members, it was best if he didn’t try to know anything.

“Yes. He is in the river.” Coram van Texel said, his beautiful dæmon-cat, large and gloriously coloured, blinking carefully while trying to calm the robin.

“Who’s in the river?” Asriel snarled, helping Dorothea throw-up inside one of the crates. She didn’t seem wounded, but she was in a bad shape, emotionally. “What happened? Tell me, now.”

“You didn’t watch the stairs, that’s what happened.” She scolded him, but her eyes couldn’t focus on his face, Asriel doubted she could even see him properly. Coram searched his jacket and took a flask, then gave to her; Asriel roughly helped her to drink; it smelled strongly, whiskey or stronger spirit. “A man walked in on me, he was after the information too. CCD, no fucking idea who he was. He is dead. We fought and I killed him. Because you weren’t watching the stairs, Asriel.

“We stabbed him! Again and again! So much blood, so much blood, Stelmaria!” Astraeus said, flying tirelessly, but his wings seemed to be faltering.

“I think she has a concussion, I found her halfway to our meeting point, she was supposed to give me the information, instead… She was carrying his body.” Coram said, while he cleaned her bloodied fingers with a flannel he got inside his jacket.

“I couldn’t risk getting caught.” Dorothea said, with difficulty. She looked at Asriel, lost and confused; he recognised the symptoms, she definitely had a concussion. “You were with her, weren’t you?”

He didn’t say anything, instead, helping Coram take her from the ground and they went downstairs, to a boat in the river, that was waiting for the gyptian and the young lady. Asriel carried her because he was younger and he felt slightly responsible for her state, so he waited patiently as Coram set some blankets aside for him to place her and set up a tarpaulin to conceal her.

Asriel was careful enough to hold her, as her dizzy dæmon jumped on her chest, as if he was drunk.

“I seriously hope it was worth it, you know?” She said, then moved as if to get down his arms. She staggered for a while, but he helped her steady herself.

“What do you mean?”

“Marisa. I’m not mad at you, by the way.” Dorothea said and Stelmaria snatched Astraeus before he could fall into the river. “I was afraid she would distract you, but if I almost died because of it, I hope it was at least worth it.”

“It will be.” His smile made her frown and laugh at the same time, and in between, she moaned in pain and touched her ribcage. Coram offered his hand to help her into the boat.

“Ha, can you believe him, Coram? He gets to go home and have fun with her and I get to kill a man and nearly die stealing documents on the new year. Life is so not fair.” She said, laughing, and he helped her lay down on the boat. She fell asleep almost immediately.

Stelmaria put Astraeus close to her, careful enough as to not touch her and then returned to Asriel’s side.

“Where are you taking her?” He asked and the gyptian untied the boat, then looked at him with quiet and pacifying eyes.

“A safehouse. I’ll tell her to contact you in the morning, no need to worry.”

Coram and Asriel shook hands, he watched as the boat went on in the middle of the night, then turned his back and walked back to the garden. He was so focused on the possibility of Marisa waiting for him at his house, he had completely forgotten to ask Dorothea about the documents she had stolen.

 

***

 

Marisa found herself struggling to make a decision, despite whatever feelings she was feeling. The golden monkey whispered to her, while she was lying in her bed, with Edward dead asleep beside her. Her dæmon wanted her to stay, it was risky, too risky and Lord Asriel wasn’t worth it.

“He is rude, disrespectful. And you get nothing out of it.” The monkey whispered and Marisa sighed. Not entirely true , she thought. She stood up, put on a warm outfit, grabbed her coat and carefully left the flat.

She got to his house by cab, and his servant welcomed her in. The golden monkey eagerly sat by her side at the chair in Asriel’s study and she accepted the tea Thorold offered her. Marisa glanced over the desk where she had been seated not too long, and found it was unbearably easy to forget that she was married, as well as pretend that she wasn’t thrilled with all of it.

“We can always leave.” The monkey said, quietly, but she shook her head.

“It is too late now, we might as well get comfortable.”

It wasn’t really too late, in fact, she could have left at any moment and saved herself the trouble, as her dæmon reminded her of several times. But the mere thought of Asriel knowing she had come and that she backed down at the last minute, that was unbearable. She could see his mocking grin in her head and the things he would say and she would rather not give him the opportunity to do that.

She ran her fingers through the books in Asriel’s bookshelf, until she found one filled with bookmarks. Marisa thought it might have been related to his research, but it was a lot of heretic gibberish and practical philosophy, his notes as nonsensical as the book itself. She went back to the chair and delighted in it, as she waited for Asriel, who seem to be running late.

An hour later, and he hadn’t arrived yet; Marisa was beginning to feel restless and somehow began to doubt Asriel’s motivations. The outside door was open, then, and she heard his voice.

“Is that--” Thorold said.

“Yes, it’s blood. Don’t worry, it’s not mine and not much use for a suit at any rate, no big loss here.” Asriel said and Marisa turned around to focus on their conversation, a little muffled by the closed door of the study. “Is the Tokay in the study?”

“Yes, my lord. Alongside Mrs. Coulter.”

The door to the study opened, a blustering sound, and Asriel walked in, proud, tall and powerful. His eyes had a glimmer of savagery that made Marisa tremble for the first two seconds. She didn’t think anyone had ever stared at her the way he did, impassive and thorough, as if every detail of hers was worthy of investigation. He was restless, though, unbuttoning his sleeves and barely paying attention to her as he served himself a large cup of Tokay and drank it all at once.

A part of his white sleeves were red, dark and repulsive.

“What happened to you?” She asked, trying not to sound too concerned; he poured another glass of wine, which he again, drank it immediately, as if it were water. “Why do you have blood on you?”

He turned to face her, still restless, but he smiled in a very mischievous way.

“That doesn’t concern you. Did you come all this way to ask pointless questions?” He sat in the chair across from hers and Marisa put the book aside, making sure she made a loud noise when closing it. Asriel’s smile got larger, as if he was irritating her on purpose and he was doing a hell of job on that account, because she was already angered.

“If you’re going to speak to me like that, I might as well leave.” Marisa said and he scoffed; she felt so offended he might as well have slapped her across the face.

“If you wanted to leave, you’d have done so by now. Don’t waste my time, Marisa.” Asriel retorted then laid back on his hair and undid his tie. “Come.”

Marisa didn’t move out of spite. She was beginning to regret coming, in fact; Asriel sighed. It didn’t matter that he looked imperative and stoic under the soft lights in the study, or that he smiled as if he meant to promise her all sorts of things she could never have otherwise; Marisa refused to give him the satisfaction of commanding her.

“Who do you take me for? Do you think I’m here to do your bidding?”

“I’m asking you to come here, please.” He emphasized the word “please” in a mocking tone. She noticed it, of course, but then he smiled, witty and malicious, and she found herself moving towards him.

She sat on his lap and he grabbed her neck as he kissed her, violently and Marisa could feel the texture of his skin, and that of the leather chair, while his scent and the smell of blood made her dizzy. He might have noticed it, because he was careful enough not to let the bloody sleeve touch her, and eventually, he broke the kiss to take the shirt off with her assistance.

“What were you doing, after all?” She whispered as he threw the shirt on the floor; Asriel laughed at her determination. 

“It’s none of your business.” He kissed her again, his fingers dug deep in her silky hair; his warm skin gave her a dizzying sensation as she ran her fingers on his bare back.

Asriel helped her adjust and put her legs around his waist, so he pulled her closer and broke the kiss, his hand softly around her neck as he looked at her, almost as if inspecting her. On the floor, their dæmons were playfully rolling around, as the monkey was easily pinned down by Stelmaria.

He stood up with Marisa on his arms and laughed with her, and kissed her again.

“I assumed you were civilised enough to have a bedroom.” She jested, in a whisper. “Perhaps I was wrong.”

“And here I thought the floor would be good enough for you.” He mocked her, then turned to leave the study and climb the stairs to his bedroom.

She had noticed before, but at the moment it was very obvious, that Asriel moved with steadiness and confidence; as he climbed the stairs with her in his arms, Marisa never felt clumsy, but instead, he had a solid grip and he teased her all the way; she suddenly forgot everything else but Asriel and that moment, as if each second lingered so they could enjoy themselves longer.

 His bedroom was stoic and with books and maps everywhere, but in the dark, Marisa cared little about it, except focusing on his hands and the careless way he laid her in his soft bed. For a man so brute, he had exceptionally dexterous fingers, and Marisa shivered a little as he carefully took her dress off and she helped him with his belt.

It was difficult to see his face in the dark, but her eyes were getting used to it and she could make out the silhouette of his face. She dug her fingers in his hair once he pulled her closer again; Marisa gasped softly as he made his way down her belly and further, and she clawed at the sheets once he put one of her legs upon his shoulders.

Marisa had never felt so fully aware of her senses; how the fabric was soft and cool, and the house smelled like fresh wood and something citric, like books recently printed; how Asriel brushed his finger tips, softly, against her leg and how he knew exactly where to press to make her squirmish under his grip, his beard tickling her inner thigh. She had never felt so powerless, yet it was all very endearing.

He kissed her again and they switched sides, her taste in his mouth was intoxicating or the way his harsh fingers gripped at her hips to help her move in harmony with his own left Marisa feeling light and carefree. It was easy to keep her guard up to survive in the world, but it was twice as easy to let go of it all when Asriel touched her.

Asriel slapped her thigh when her moves became slower and she hissed at him.

“Don’t be a savage.”

He didn’t say a word; Marisa knew, that in general, Asriel was a rather man of action instead of words, and as a lover he proved that twice as much as she expected. He was not gentle, for that would have been unfit for a man like him; instead he was demanding and imperative, moving her around at his whim and even when she tried to take control, it was because he allowed her to and it was infuriating and exciting at the same time, as if that was their little game. Asriel craved his fingers on her back and her thighs, and bit her lips, her earlobes and her neck, the finger she slid between his lips, without mercy and with malicious delight in seeing her moan of pain and pleasure.

Marisa didn’t have the time to think about how she would hide the marks he had left on her; she was so spent in his arms she could barely move. They were embraced in the middle of the bed, her legs around his waist, as he thoroughly kissed her shoulders as she lay her forehead on his shoulders; Asriel ran his fingers on her back, almost softly. Sunlight, white and cold, came across the windows; she held him tighter, scratching his back in return for every mark he left on her, wishing desperately she didn’t have to leave.

Chapter Text

"tough love hardens her skin,
so careless, i fear it may harden her heart.''

“I am curious” Asriel said, circling the skin on her back with his finger, as they lay in bed again. “if you’ve seen Dorothea lately.”

Since New Year’s Eve, Marisa’s life had changed drastically. For one, when she went home that day, Edward had barely noticed she had left; and by Saturday on the first week of the year, he was set to go to Sweden again, leaving Marisa with a lot of alone time on her hands and an absolute craving for Asriel, despite him being insulting and irritating.

They saw each other constantly that month, at any given hour of any given day, and there was a silent agreement between them that Asriel was never to go to her house, be it in Oxford or London, because there were too many eyes to risk the exposure. So, she always went to him, either to spend the day or night in long and tiresome sessions of sex, or to argue about their recent studies. He had access to knowledge she would have taken a lifetime to access on her own, but with him she merely needed ask; she had a feeling Asriel was fully aware that he was practically a slave to her indulgences: a soft whisper here, a delicate brush of fingers there, an indecent smile at some point, and he would grant her whatever she wanted.

It was in one of those days that she had walked into his house, only to find Dorothea and Asriel in a heated conversation, that Marisa didn’t manage nor care to eavesdrop. She was used to their bickering and it was usually about uninteresting things or petty reasons, and she didn’t mind them at all once she entered the study. Dorothea saw her, then looked at Asriel then back at Marisa, confused, but far from surprised, and all she said, eventually, was: “I don’t want to know.” She, then, turned around and left.

And she meant it, because everything was quite normal after that, and she never asked about their affair, and everything was alright or so it seemed. Marisa, however, was feeling lonely once they were back to Oxford and Asriel had stayed in London to take care of some business, at the end of January, so Dorothea was the only improper entertainment she had.

They talked mostly about his research, and Dorothea was more than glad that Marisa was sharing everything she knew about that, although she didn’t tell her everything . They never talked about how Marisa obtained such information and Marisa was more than happy in not discussing her private moments with a random man, with one of the few people she had a little bit of respect for.

Asriel, then, returned to Oxford to do some research and their routine of seeing each other returned as well, especially with Edward away in the cold Sweden. But Marisa was constantly feeling unwell or stressed and they often started arguments for nothing, so each day they saw each other was a mood gamble.

“I saw her today.” Marisa said, and the monkey buried his face in Stelmaria’s fur as Marisa held Asriel tighter. She was feeling conflicting that evening, a little bit caged and slightly dizzy for no reason; she blamed Asriel’s bursting energy, at first, although she didn’t truly believed that. In fact, she was quite aware of what was wrong. “Why do you ask?”

“Did she seem strange to you?”

“Define strange. This is, after all, Dorothea we’re talking about.”

“I saw her a week ago, when I came back; she was restless, to say the very least.” He said, and sat Marisa on his lap; she laughed heartily before leaning in to kiss him. But she felt tired and uncomfortable in a way she hadn’t before, not with him, not ever. “And so are you.”

Marisa stopped, feeling cold and vulnerable suddenly. Asriel noticed, because he sat on the bed and pulled her closer. Her expression got darker, and the monkey looked at her for while, before snuggling Stelmaria again.

“Tell me what’s wrong.” He demanded and tightened his grip on her. She hissed at him, but didn’t move.

“Nothing’s wrong.” She said, quietly. “And even if there was something wrong, it’s none of your business, Asriel.”

He grinned, sarcastically, yet there was impatience in his gaze.

“Just say what you have to say, Marisa.” Asriel scoffed. “Your idling is a nuisance.”

“Fine, if you shut up afterwards. Have you ever heard of the name Bonneville?”

She felt his hands soften against her waist, and she couldn’t help but shiver a little bit, out of fear more than pleasure, not for him but because of the things she was thinking. Asriel’s expression darkened as if he could read every inch of her and how uneasy she was.

“I have. He was arrested two years ago, no? Heresy and some sort of sexual crime.” He said, then tilted his head and looked at her as if he just remembered something. “Your name... you were involved, weren’t you?”

“Sort of, yes.”

“Has he hurt her?” Marisa had never seen Asriel with such a serious expression before, it was enticing and conflicting and she wanted to do many things with him at that moment, from hurting him to kissing him; but the last thing she wanted was to discuss Gerard Bonneville with him or anyone else. “Or you?”

“No, not really. I mean, yes, but it isn’t what got him in jail. He was a charming enough man, and they were involved. Romantically. ” Marisa said, feeling a little bit disgusted when she thought of everything. She never understood why Lady Eilhart had chosen such a lowly man to consort with, he had nothing to offer her. “We were doing a research in Paris when we met, but Bonneville grew violent and possessive, horribly obsessed with her and his work, so Dorothea broke things off when he hit her once .”

“Well, I’m surprised she didn’t kill him for that.” He jested, bitterly, but Marisa shook her head, ignoring his interruption. “I’ve seen her strike at men for so much less than that.”

“He didn’t take it very well though, and became very inappropriate. He made aggressive advances on me, and other women; some poor unlucky girl got the worst of it. We caught him in the act, Dorothea and me. She made sure he was prosecuted by the Consistorial Court; I always thought she knew they would accuse him of heresy, that’s why she made sure the CCD would take care of his case. I agreed to testify as well, with Edward’s backup.”

“Considering her distaste for the CCD, the fact she used their authority speaks volumes about the situation.” Asriel said, pulling Marisa closer in a gesture she almost told herself it was of protection.

“He didn’t hurt me, you know? He simply got… inappropriate. You don’t have to get sentimental.” Marisa scoffed and he rolled around, changing their positions, laying atop of her. “I never assumed you could be so silly.”

“Don’t be nasty, Marisa.” He kissed her, thoroughly, but she wasn’t in the mood anymore. All she could think of was the uneasiness that came with Bonneville and all the nonsenseness of his existence and every single problem she had inside her head. Asriel felt her stiffen under his touch, so he backed down and got up to serve himself a drink. “You’re restless too.”

“I am.” She said, sitting in the bed and pushing the sheets closer to herself. Asriel brought her a glass of the wine, but she looked at it, then refused it with a gesture. “Not in the mood.”

“As you wish. What is happening, Marisa?” Asriel said, sitting in bed and facing her. There were many things happening, but she didn’t know how to tell him, or even if she should tell him. “It doesn’t suit you, the distress.”

“Dorothea has been told that Bonneville is to be released in a few months.” Marisa felt a shiver; even saying those words made her incredibly unease. Asriel got closer and sat her on his lap again. She dig her fingers in his hair, savagely but with a certain gentleness.

“So, you’re afraid?”

“She is angry , Asriel. And I have concerns, yes, but that is all.”

“Something still is bothering you.” Asriel insisted and Marisa sighed, getting up and looking for her clothes.

He tried to stop her, but she got away, slipping through his grip and smiling, deviously, at him. But even that smile felt misplaced, cold. There were many things bothering her, and Marisa thought of every single one of them before retorting:

“I am fine. Just tired, I must go home and rest.”

“You can rest here just fine.” Asriel got up and held her from behind, kissing her neck while she finished putting on her blouse. For a while she considered staying, but she was trouble and not even Asriel's touch was working on distracting her. In fact, he was doing the exact opposite. “Or do you truly miss your husband’s bed?”

So, Marisa gave up on kissing him goodbye and they argued, because he wanted her to stay and she insisted on leaving. When she was on the street, early seven in the evening, Marisa and her monkey whispered to each other and agreed; instead of going home, they walked a little further so they could speak to Lady Eilhart about their troubling situation.

She was not the best to ask to for advice, but between her and Asriel, she was by far the less worse.

 

***

 

Dorothea was definitely not in a good mood, and Marisa could tell just by looking at her as one of her servants poured them tea. The young Lady stood up and ignored her tea, and served herself a large cup of a dark red drink, which was her bad mood drink, because it was nasty and it tasted like kerosene. Marisa looked at the cup, parched, but settled with her tea.

"I told you, I don't want to talk about it." Dorothea said, a little off tune.

The monkey whispered to Marisa: "I think she is drunk."

She agreed, once she saw Astraeus trying to fly around Dorothea’s head only to clumsily stand on her knee once she sat down.

"I understand. It's not why I'm here." Marisa said, so softly and gentle and caring that Dorothea raised an eyebrow because that was unusual.

"If it's about our mutual friend, I'd rather not know." Dorothea snarled and the monkey snarled at her back. "Oh, how intimidating . I do have problems of my own, you know."

Marisa scoffed, sipping her tea.

"Bonneville will be released in, at the very least, a year. You don't have to worry now. "

“You should worry too, you know. You’re as responsible as I am.” Dorothea teased but Marisa shook her head.

“I did what I had to do.”

“No. You did what was convenient to you. As long as I live and breathe that man will not set foot outside of prison, for both of our sakes and those arounds us." Dorothea said and leaned forward in her chair, to stare at Marisa. "Why did you come? Has something happened?"

Marisa looked at her. Intoxicated, Dorothea became bold, sassy and insufferable, so she was considering if she should tell her what she had come to tell. She didn't know what she was expecting in return, but she also didn't know how to word her sentence. She moved, defensive, and put her hand upon her belly unwillingly; the monkey tried to warn her but Dorothea's eyes noticed the gesture, observant as ever, and she immediately understood. She rubbed her face, exhausted; she was only a few years older than Marisa, but she looked now, with all the stress, much older.

"You're pregnant." She whispered, wide eyed and dizzy.

"I believe so, yes. I will see a doctor once Asriel leaves again, but the symptoms--" Marisa said, direct and cold, as if they were speaking of a surgical procedure or an inconvenience easily solved.

"You mean you haven't told him yet?" Dorothea mumbled, surprised. "Why haven't you?"

"Because he will meddle with my affairs, and it's bad enough as it is."

Dorothea stood up, rubbing her eyes, confused, drunk and shocked. Marisa held herself graciously as the woman paced around.

"Are you insane? You have to tell him!"

"I will not, and neither will you!" Marisa said and the monkey stared at the robin, viciously, and the robin stared back, anxious. "When Asriel tries to be helpful is when he does the most damage. He doesn't help, he demands and he controls and he messes everything with his blunt behaviour. I don't need that right now."

"You're pregnant, with his child, Marisa!"

"It's not a certainty yet, so if I'm not, things will go back to normal as soon as possible." Marisa said and Dorothea laughed rudely at her.

"You cannot sincerely believe that. Are you listening to yourself?"

Marisa was, in fact, and she was disgusted with the fact she sounded exactly like the undergraduates at their college, whom they mocked constantly for their naive behaviour and their dreamy nature. She felt misplaced and out-of-character and if Dorothea saw it, so would Asriel, who could read even her deeper layers, and perhaps her clueless husband could too. Suddenly she felt terrified and hopeless, but she didn't show it. She took a deep breath and stared into Dorothea's eyes.

"I understand circumstances aren't ideal." It was all she said, Dorothea sat again, holding her chin in a gesture of deep thought.

"That's putting it mildly."

"I will tell him, if I get a positive. He need not know everything, despite you believing otherwise." Marisa scolded her with amusement.

Dorothea grinned, bitterly. She had caught Marisa's offense underneath that simple sentence and she didn't like it. The robin teased the monkey, who nearly caught him from the air.

"If you won't heed my advice, why did you come?"

"I thought you'd understand, clearly I was mistaken." Marisa sighed.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, please, don't act like you're a prude!" Marisa scoffed but Dorothea looked legitimately confused. Marisa sighed. "When you travelled to High Brasil, I know you did it to fix your indiscretions."

They stared at each other, fiercely, and in silence. Dorothea, then, sighed and Marisa thought it was of defeat and took it as a victory; however, Lady Eilhart had sighed of relief, for her trip overseas had nothing to do with an abortion and everything to do with her work for Oakley Street.

Marisa watched as her colleague poured herself another drink, a white wine now, and interpreted it as an act of surrender. White wine was what they drank when they were bored with their research; Marisa thought things were improving. She even dared entertain the idea that all of that was just a scare, one that she would take for granted, and Dorothea agreed, as never once she thought about breaking things up with Asriel, for he was too good of an opportunity to waste and all of that was exhilarating and she felt dizzy and reckless when they were together. Few things made her as ecstatic as Asriel’s touch.

"Why did you come here, Marisa?" Dorothea asked her, sitting beside her and Marisa smiled, gracious and lovely and the robin fell into the monkey's little black paws, being carefully caressed and Marisa once again had the upper hand; Dorothea's kindness and selflessness had once again gotten the better of her.

"I came so we could talk." Marisa said, cooly.

"Then let us talk."

 

***

 

Despite Marisa's incessant wishful thinking, her doctor only confirmed what she already knew. The morning sickness, the flimsy mood, the hormones mess… Marisa knew she was pregnant, she was simply in denial but once she worked out the details with Asriel, who behaved much like the arrogant fool that he was, things became simpler to bear.

For instance, she proud herself in involving Lady Eilhart on that situation, making her both an accessory and a useful company, for Edward had returned and was delighted by the news. They had slept together a few days before her dalliance with Asriel, meaning that the math was believable, as long he didn't look too directly at it and he wouldn't, because he was a pious man, who didn't care much about “female foolishnesses”, as he often described Marisa's foul mood. And Asriel left as soon as she reached the fifth month, leaving her behind with Edward and his nuisance, and her witless friends.

The only acceptable company Marisa had in the months of loneliness was Dorothea, who realised she was already too involved to back down and decided to be useful by planning Marisa a baby shower. As her mood grew fouler, Marisa constantly fired servants that Dorothea replaced quickly, with her sour disposition and a witty comment. Edward went to Oxford after Marisa had an outburst, promising to return as soon as he could, and he did so on weekends.

Asriel, stranded in the North, sent letters through Lady Eilhart and Marisa replied through the same means. He would tell her in great detail about his adventures, about the cold and his discoveries, and teased her for her "biological uselessness." She resented his freedom and sent him nasty letters about his lack of decorum, and how it was his fault that she was impaired like that. But at the end of his letters, he would ask her if she was well, how the baby was doing, and to tell the Lady if she needed something; and Marisa would advise him in his adventures at the end of hers, and scribble that she missed his touch and his inconvenience.

She was reading a letter of his after the baby shower, when Marisa was done with her clueless friends and Dorothea saw the guests out. Marisa, seven months in her pregnancy, was in an even fouler mood, uncomfortable and sore and she resented Dorothea as the woman sat across her, barefooted and carefree in her silky green dress, a cigar in a hand and a drink in the other. It was all Marisa wanted, to feel light and to have a large drink, and she knew Dorothea was doing that on purpose, her petty revenge for being dragged into that mess.

The worst thing for Marisa, though, was that the hormones made her incredibly aware that Dorothea was looking unusually beautiful and she hated it, and that glittery savagery in her eyes was something Marisa would've slapped out of her face, had she been able to stand on her own.

“‘Eilhart complains you're being nasty.’ Did you call me nasty?” Marisa said and Dorothea looked away, laughing. Marisa crumpled the letter and threw it at her. "You're an awful person."

“You drove your silly husband away with your bad temper, your servants have changed so many times I don't even know them anymore.” Dorothea said, finishing her drink and smoking her cigar. A white cloud climbed from her lips; she didn't even like smoking, Marisa knew that was just pettiness. "Nasty was a gentle way of calling you, the word I thought of was much less favouring of you, believe me."

“Stop smoking inside my house!”

The monkey growled at the robin, who blatantly told him to sod off, but Dorothea put the cigar away and sat straight on the sofa.

“Asriel will be back next month, I've been setting up the estate for him, making sure someone trustworthy takes care of the child.” She said, quietly, despite the fact they were alone. "He did have some recommendations, though. I've never seen him so invested in something. I mean, I have, just never on a person."

"The baby will only go to the estate if I can't pass it as Edward's." Marisa extended her legs on the couch, feeling uncomfortable; the monkey looked at her, and extended his little paws to touch the belly, but her cold glare aimed at him made him retreat. "I am exhausted and dying for a drink."

"Two more months and then you'll be free." Dorothea mocked, lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling. "I mean, as free as a mother can be, I assume."

Marisa felt malicious for a while. The woman had grown bold since Marisa became pregnant, barking back and mocking her at every turn; her monkey and her were constantly tired, so the robin had grown less fearful and Dorothea became snappish. Marisa was constantly irritated.

"Any news on Bonneville?" She said, and Dorothea moved, frowning from where Marisa could see. A bitter victory, in her opinion; the monkey sat beside her feet, languidly staring at her belly as if he meant to touch, but she never allowed it. His good intentions were often toppled by his savage instincts and he had hurt before, so she didn’t want to risk it. There was still a mark of the scratch he had left on her belly.

"Still rotting. I have made my move and asked for a favour, but I fear I won't be able to do much to avoid him being released." Dorothea said gritty. "But this is a future problem, one that I shall deal with accordingly, once we fix your situation up."

"I thought you were doing this for Asriel."

"I have done so much for you, yet you still have an extraordinary low regard for me, and that is plain offensive." Dorothea sighed.

"But that is the truth, no?" Marisa mumbled; they looked at each other.

"Marisa, if I wanted to ruin you I wouldn't be keeping your dirty secret, nor throwing you a baby shower or worrying about your future child." She said, sitting up and staring at her. “I would have told your husband about this and left for the the Austral Empire, as I was meant to have done since my father's death. Yet here I am; so offend me as you may, God knows that never stopped me before.”

Marisa felt a wave of impression on the woman; she had a backbone now that Marisa had never noticed before.

“You never speak of your father.” Marisa said, watching as Dorothea rubbed her temples; she suddenly looked very small, as if the weight of her past crushed her underneath it.

“That is because there is nothing to be said. He was in support of the Magisterium, he was taken down by the CCD when they asked to much of him.” Dorothea said, quietly and Marisa laughed. “This is what happens to greedy fools. Not only fucked himself, he also fucked me up when he left me as the sole heir. It ruined my life, that was not what I wanted for me.”

“Is that supposed to be a cautionary tale?”

“Maybe. I know you’ve been involved with the CCD recently, of all your bad ideas that was the worst, by a long shot.” Dorothea said, although she seemed amused before Marisa’s eyes. “What do you expect to accomplish with them? They take our freedom and turn it into glass shards.”

“They also control the power over academic research, so if I want to proceed with the thesis, having good connections won’t hurt.” Marisa retorted and Dorothea frowned. “You of all people should understand this.”

“Well, I don’t. These people are eating us alive and you want to play politics?”

“I’m looking after my interests, if they can provide it, why shouldn’t I use them?” Marisa defied and Dorothea’s nostrils flared and she stood up, angry.

“Because they are fucking tyrants! Killing people in the shadows, terrorising academics, making us go backwards! How could you stand by that? How can you support what they do?” Dorothea scolded her and Marisa faced her, infuriated, but she was too tired to stand up. It was an odd scene; the monkey growled at Dorothea.

“What you’re saying is heresy. I would be careful if I were you.”

Dorothea looked at Marisa as if she suddenly came out of a trance, breathing heavily. Her daemon chirped, softly and filled with anguish, as she sat back on the couch. She probably thought she had said too much, and Marisa couldn’t read much past that face of regret. They sat in an odd silence, as the monkey set the radio on and a low, whimsical tune echoed through the house.

 

***

 

Dorothea held Marisa's hand as she pushed the baby forward. For all the hell Marisa knew in life, labour was by far the most disgraceful one. Asriel hadn't arrived at the house yet, and Edward was in Muscovy; the baby came almost a month earlier than expected and no one was prepared, not even Dorothea. A servant, who luckily had the experience to deliver the baby, helped after Dorothea paid her handsomely to not speak word of it.

"Where's Asriel?" Marisa cried, nearly crushing Lady Eilhart's hand as the wave of pain came. Her monkey was on the floor, rolling around, utterly distressed, as the robin tried to reassure him with empty words.

"He is on his way, now breathe!"

Dorothea couldn't know that though, and Marisa read it in her face, her senses wide and sensible. She had paid a street urchin to deliver Asriel a coded note, in Chelsea, three hours earlier, when Marisa's pain began. If the boy arrived, she couldn't know, but she kept praying that he did. And Marisa too, because she suddenly felt too vulnerable and she needed Asriel right there and right now, although she would never admit it out loud.

She let go of Dorothea once she heard the baby's cry; the smell of blood was nauseating. The servant cleaned the baby and gave it to her, a small bundle with a snow leopard cub over its chest. Her chest, Marisa corrected herself.

Whatever Marisa thought she was supposed to feel, she wasn't feeling it and that didn't bother her, but the fact she wasn't bothered by it stung her heart. The monkey watched the baby with a clingy curiosity, but then he looked at Marisa and she felt her own skin against the baby, who was quietly snuggling on her arms and she felt dirty and ruined and deviated. She felt tears in her eyes, but didn't cry; Dorothea looked at her with wide eyes and it was as if both of them were thinking of every sin they had ever committed. Marisa thought how the child had come into the world bearing Asriel's colours mercilessly.

Marisa handed the baby to Lady Eilhart without hesitation, and the woman carried the newborn with a clumsy grasp, as if hers were arms never meant to be those of a mother's. Marisa noticed how similar her own grip had been; she longed for Asriel but he was not there.

"She needs a name, Marisa." Dorothea said, quietly, her arms with dried blood from aiding the servant during labour, her forehead glimmering with sweat from all the effort. She looked like a child holding a doll, scared and traumatised.

Marisa stood quiet for a while, than shook her head, shaking; the golden monkey climbed on her arms and put the hair in her face away. She closed her eyes and forced herself to sleep.

By the time Asriel arrived, Lady Eilhart was waiting for him in the living room, the baby girl in her arms as her robin sang softly to the sleeping snow leopard cub.

His eyes glittered, as he approached her and took the baby, now dressed in a cotton cloth and looking peaceful and small. Asriel held the girl as if she was too precious, with a confidence that made him a dignified man.

"What's her name?" He asked, imperative, as Stelmaria put her paws on his hips to watch that small creature.

"She doesn't have one yet."

"Where is Marisa, then?" He asked, looking a bit alarmed, but Dorothea raised her bloody hands in a pacifying gesture.

"She is distressed, but she is well. Sleeping, at the moment, and in the morning we'll discuss what to do."

Asriel sighed and walked inside the bedroom, where the sheets had been recently changed but the smell of blood remained. In the bed, Marisa looked anything but unscathed; her hair was messy and there was still sweat on her neck and face. He slowly climbed atop of the bed, and with one hand he held the baby, as Stelmaria carried the dæmon on her mouth, very quiet, and with the other he held Marisa gently by the jawline and neck, his thumb running through her chin. Her eyes opened and they were watery, as she whispered his name quietly.

He didn't say a word, instead kissing her fiercely and she kissed him back with renewed energy.

"I'll take her tonight and make sure she is cared for, then I will work on getting you with me." He whispered and she closed her eyes, feeling his touch and his scent and the way his words reverberated through their skin.

"Do not make promises you cannot keep." She said, touching his face, but he laid her down as he felt her force fade again and she fell asleep once more. He kissed her forehead before leaving the room.

Lady Eilhart had a bag in her hands by the door; he took a note from his pocket and handed it to her. She looked at it, slightly suspicious, but that had been imbedded into her very nature.

"You have a date tonight." He said and she nodded, exhausted. Asriel wondered, with amusement, how could she handle so much as she did. He felt in an awfully good mood.

"I hope you didn't read the secret message." She said, in a warning tone.

"I haven't." He watched, amused, as she checked the seal and noticed it was broken. She was so tired that all she did was smile.

"I'll go at once. But tell me, who is she?" She said, pointing at the baby. Stelmaria had whispered the name of the daemon into his ear, and Asriel had already thought of a name, back when he was in the North. He didn’t even know if she was going to be a girl, but that was the name he had chosen anyway.

"Lyra and Pantalaimon." He said, proud and joyful, such fiercely unusual behaviour that Dorothea raised an eyebrow, but then smiled, for his euphoria was as contagious as his wrath.

"Lady Lyra then. That is a beautiful name. Congratulations, Asriel."

He kissed her on the cheek and whispered in her ear something they never spoke of again.

"Thank you." He whispered and into the night he went.

Chapter Text

"At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying,
He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.
I can't go on! What have I said?”
(Samuel Beckett)

“How’s your target, Dottie?” George Papadimitriou spoke, with a disdainful smile on his face; Asriel laughed when Dorothea’s face darkened and she crossed her arms over her chest.

They were sitting in Lord Nugent’s study, with the man himself sat across Asriel; Papadimitriou, a scholar from Jordan, was beside him and they were all seated in comfortable, dark armchairs, each with their own drinks in hand. A fireplace kept them warm in the harsh December winter and they were chatting friendly, casually, until the target discussion was brought up.

“You know I hate being called like that.” She said, bitterly. “It’s a silly pet name. As for the target, everything is under control, as usual.”

“Do you think you could make a report of everything you know?” Nugent said and sipped his drink, his lemur dæmon comfortably lying on his lap. "In detail?"

Asriel watched as Dorothea moved, discreetly, crossing her legs one way then the other; like her, he had already noticed where Nugent was going with that conversation and he was eager to see what would happen next, because Asriel was thoroughly bored, while his noble friend was immediately in a defensive mode.

“I have done my reports, all of them.” She said, dry and nearly rude, and her dæmon chirped, angry, at the other two men. It was amusing to watch, the little bird and her delicate human trying to look like a tartar behemoth.

“We need a dossier.” Papadimitriou said, calmly; Stelmaria whispered to Asriel that they had started that conversation wrong by irritating Lady Eilhart; Asriel grinned, but he agreed. They should have tried to smooth-talk her.

Dorothea laughed, sassy, then snarled:

“You want to reassign me. I already told you, I am not leaving the country!”

“Bonneville is--”

“I don’t care.” She interrupted him, looking defiant at everyone, daring them to say a word to her; Asriel watched them with amusement. “I can handle him.”

Asriel was bored, as usual, and he would have chosen to stay with Marisa, had they not had a fallout two weeks before that. Dorothea had been working on a solution to their marriage dilemma, against her better judgement or her own will, but Marisa was becoming increasingly hesitant and nastier as Asriel insisted that she should leave her husband and move with him. Marisa, however, was not only hesitant but managed to find various excuses for not moving with Asriel or leaving Edward; that only irritated Asriel further, because he knew her only and honest concern was with her own power base.

She had visited the estate two weeks prior to that meeting. Asriel chose to put Lyra in one of his properties outside of the urban center, close to his hunting grounds, where he could visit constantly and where people wouldn’t see her and her gyptian carer. It was property handpicked by Dorothea, who checked the neighborhood and guaranteed its privacy. So, it was difficult for Marisa to get out of the city to visit a remote house, but she had done it twice and he wanted her to stay every time she came. She would say no, and they would fight, and then make love, then she would leave, after spending a day with her daughter, but no more than thirty minutes holding her. Asriel never expected motherly warmth from her, but he did expect her to stay with him, because everything else made no sense.

Their last fight though, had been too much. Stelmaria jested he regretted saying the things he said, to which he didn’t bother reply, because she was right, as always and he was too proud to admit that. So, Dorothea while trying to fix that whole mess without murdering anyone, decided to bring him along to what it seemed, at first, a mere gathering between friends. It turned out to be an Oakley Street informal meeting.

Dorothea, as a Marchioness, outranked everyone in that room, and struck a stalemate with Lord Nugent, but few people could tell that when Asriel was around, ruling over everyone. They often treated her as an inexperienced child, having known her for so long and she hated it for obvious reasons; she had, however, a greater chance of facing charges with impunity, given her noble status. It was difficult for the CCD to murder nobility with no consequences, and they blackmailed or arrested minor lords for different reasons, but they couldn’t arrest a Marchioness with no evidence, let alone someone like Dorothea, who was a known and loved socialite.

“We want to protect you, Dottie.” Nugent said, almost gently, but Lady Eilhart clenched her fists.

“Do not call me that! I am not a child anymore!” She scolded him. “I don’t need protection and I can do my job just fine. We’re getting a lot of information from Coulter and I can get closer than any of our agents.”

“But Bonneville is dangerous!”

“So, is she, Nugent.” Asriel said; that back and forth was irritating him already. Dorothea nodded in appreciation; he believed she could defend herself, but he also believed that if she wanted to be in danger, she had a right to do so. Discussing it was pointless. “And if you think you could ship her off England, you don’t know her at all.”

“Thank you! Everyone knows I’d just swim back. Why bother yourselves?” She jested and turned her drink at once. She was still irritated though, Asriel noticed her shaking hands. “We do have more pressing concerns.”

Nugent stared at them both, without showing much emotion; he was probably resenting ever bringing them both on the same meeting. If he was going to scold them, though, he gave up halfway.

“We’ll discuss this later, then. For now, are you certain that Coulter is dealing with the CCD?”

“Not directly, no. But he has been having lunch with allies, including Boreal, that rotten man.” Dorothea shivered and Asriel chuckled. “He is a politician. Whatever they’re offering, it will be tempting. As long as I remain close, though, I can make him talk.”

“That won’t last long.” Asriel said, and Nugent nodded. “He’ll grow afraid of them quickly, and if you push questions, you could be discovered.”

“How about his wife? Could she help us?” Nugent asked, and he was looking at Asriel, almost bemused, but Dorothea answered first.

“Could she? Yes. Will she? Likely not. She is already making her own connections, it’s too dangerous to use her.”

Asriel felt Dorothea’s gaze upon him; he had tried his best to look past Marisa’s poor choice of friends, but in moments like that it was difficult to overlook it. He looked back at her, only to ignore Eilhart completely.

“Do you agree, Asriel?”

“You don’t have to ask him to proofread everything I say, Nugent.” Dorothea scolded him but Nugent laughed. “I am not fourteen anymore, you know? I even have lovers now, can you believe that?”

Nugent made a funny face and Papadimitriou laughed, his greenfinch dæmon dancing in the air, teasing Astraeus, who was ignoring him and chatting with Stelmaria.

“I’m asking his opinion because I understand there’s a relationship between him and Mrs. Coulter.” Nugent said and turned to Lord Asriel, who smiled, deviant and condescending, choosing his words carefully.

“That is a private matter.” He said. Only Dorothea knew about Lyra in that room and he made her promise she wouldn’t tell anyone. All Nugent knew was that, perhaps, they had an affair or were very close.

“But do you think she could be an ally?”

Asriel doubted that, and he hated feeling like that.

“It’s unlikely.”

The rest of the conversation steered clear from Marisa, except when Dorothea was kept as Edward Coulter’s shadow and Asriel was reminded again that Marisa was married, but that their daughter was back in his estate, mumbling her nonsense to her tiny, curious dæmon. He felt indignant, because that didn’t make any sense.

They left at the end of the day, a thin rain covering their coats as they stood by the house entrance, whispering.

“How’s Lyra?”

“Well, she eats and sleeps. She’s healthy, she speaks a lot, you know.” Asriel mumbled and took a letter from his pocket. “I need you to give Marisa this.”

Dorothea took the letter, reluctantly. She had a frown that Asriel recognised as frustration and doubt, which were her permanent mental state.

“If you have something to say, say it.” He snarled and she sighed, heavily, as if she had waited for that opportunity for months.

“Have you considered she may not want to be with you?” Dorothea said carefully, in a way she never had before. They had respect for each other, which meant they measured no words when chatting, but at that moment, her gentle tone offended him more than if she had yelled that he was stupid.

“She is hesitant, but I know she wants to come.” Asriel scolded her. “Her husband is what’s in her way.”

“She fears for her reputation.” Stelmaria said, quietly and Asriel stared at her, angry. However true that was, he didn’t enjoy thinking about it.

Dorothea rubbed her eyes, tired.

“Of course she is. I told you exactly who she was, you shouldn’t be surprised.” She said, but she put the letter inside her coat. Her dæmon sat on her shoulder and looked, curious, at Asriel. “Even if I manage to get her a divorce, her reputation will be stained for a long time, perhaps forever. You understand how these things work, don’t you?”

“Unless Coulter is the foul party that triggers the divorce. What if he hit her, hurt her in any way?”

“He is too harmless for that, he’s never going to hurt her.” She went on and rose a finger when he tried to interrupt her. “ No . Lying about it won’t help. He is a politician, a well-regarded one, we would need to prove his violence to actually stain his reputation and give her cause to divorce him. Even then, some people might still see her situation as something she brought on herself.”

“As long as we make him look bad, and I can marry her. That would salvage the situation, right?” Asriel said, a little too exasperated. Dorothea shook her head in disapproval, she clearly wanted him to drop the matter, he knew that but he wasn’t going to do it. “This stupid title has to account for something, I think marrying an Earl would mend her image nicely.”

“It could help her, yes, but it could also backfire or not do anything at all. You aren’t exactly a model citizen.” She mocked, an eyebrow raised. “What could work, however, is making him an adulterer.”

Asriel snorted, but she didn’t laugh, so he realised she was being serious. Her dæmon hovered nearby Stelmaria, whispering.

“I thought you said lying wouldn’t work.” Asriel said and she made a face of disgust, as if she had tasted something super bitter but didn’t want to speak of it. She did speak of it, though.

“I didn’t say ‘lie about it’, I said we have to make him an adulterer.” She said. “It’s why I asked Nugent to keep me as Coulter’s shadow. So we can be seen talking in public, he is interested in my support and I’m already moving my pieces to make this work.”

“Wait, do you mean you are going to do it?” Asriel snorted, amused and horrified; Dorothea moved, uncomfortable, and sighed.

“Who else would? I can’t believe Marisa suggested it, but it does make sense. If we’re caught as… ugh, as lovers , his word against mine is nothing. It will be a slaughter, it’s possible his career will be dismantled too.”

Asriel laughed at her face. She had pretty features and under the right situation, she could be seen as beautiful, but overall she always was average and bland. It was the mood she put herself into so she could be a good spy; she was in fact a chameleon, moving between her personas so easily as if she had been born to do it. However, he couldn’t see her sleeping with Coulter for various reasons, including the fact he would never trade Marisa for Dorothea, who wasn’t his type in the slightest. But also because Dorothea didn’t seem thrilled with that idea at all.

She smacked his arm and he gathered his breath; she was angry now.

“I’m trying to fucking help you, and you laugh at me?” She scolded him, her dæmon flying around distressed. “Do you think I want to sleep with that pathetic excuse of a man? Do you think I enjoy playing lovely lady to that fool? If only you had listened to me, none of us would be in this mess. It’s time for you to stop being a fucking moron, Asriel! You have a daughter, for fuck’s sake. You have responsibilities now!”

“If you don’t want to do this, don’t do it. You aren’t being force, as far as I know.” Asriel scolded her back, and Stelmaria growled, but Dorothea took a step forward and poked his chest with her finger, violently. She was speaking quietly, but in an angry tone.

“If I don’t do this, Marisa won’t be able to marry you and then, what will you do with Lyra? What excuse will you give? You cannot hide her forever, she will need friends and an education. What happens if someone finds out about her?” She went on. “This is your biggest flaw, my friend. You never think about the long term, only about the short one. You act as you will and leave the mess for others to clean. I am grateful for everything you have done for me since my father’s death, but I am so tired of you and your lack of respect for consequences, Asriel. The world does not bend to your will, my dear.”

He didn’t reply and she turned around as to not face him. Asriel rubbed his eyes, tired; they had never been that extreme in their arguments. With her back turned to him, he heard her sobbing, quietly; Stelmaria touched his leg with her paw and he saw that Astraeus was cheerfully standing on her head. Asriel put a hand on Dorothea’s shoulder and she turned around.

“Are you sure this is the only way?” He asked and she nodded, brushing a single tear away.

“Even if I could make the CCD target him - which I wouldn’t do because that’s awful! - he is already befriending them. It’s too risky, seducing… ugh, him is the better option.” She sighed, but then smiled, bitterly. “And after Bonneville, Edward is quite the improvement in my opinion.”

They laughed and all their conflict was forgotten, as usual, but Asriel could sense her worry and how she felt burdened. She touched the spot on her coat where his letter was.

“I will give your letter to her tomorrow, when I meet with her.” Dorothea said, and Astraeus flew back to her shoulders. “I have to say, you should read some better poets, your letters aren’t exactly… romantic.”

“Are you reading my letters?” Asriel mocked her. “That is bad practice, Eilhart.”

“Asriel, love, I’m a spy . Of course, I read your letters!” She said, quietly, with a hint of a  smile. “But only when I’m bored. That last one though, not very adequate. Did you really think you could use “sexy” and “dolphins” on the same sentence and make Marisa leave Edward?”

“It was a joke, it was meant to be funny.” He laughed and Dorothea shook her head.

“I don’t think she laughed.”

“Well, she doesn’t have a sense of humour.” He said and they laughed again. “When she replies to the letter, give it to me immediately. I’ll be hunting at the estate tomorrow, all day.”

“A therapeutic activity, alright.”

“I’m in the mood to kill something.” He jested, a bit seriously, and left without saying goodbye, only hearing her last words, as she whispered to herself.

“Of course, you are.”

 

***

 

Dorothea left her house in a hurry the next day, a little after ten in the morning, and it was cold and wet as she expected. She later told herself that her choice of clothing must have been divine providence, but at first she thought it was just instinct, so she chose comfortable boots and her thick khaki skirt, because Astraeus convinced her that joining Asriel for a hunt after dealing with Marisa would be a good idea.

She walked down the street, her coat protecting her from the thin rain, when she arrived at Marisa’s flat in London. She was preparing herself to cross the street when something unexpected happened.

Edward came out of the house, accompanied by a man she didn’t recognise, but whom she immediately disliked; he wore an ochre and blue tie, the colours of the CCD.

“A priest?” Astraeus whispered, as Dorothea quickly set her coat as to hide her clothes, and leaned against a close by wall. She put her scarf around her head and lit up a cigarette, lowering her head, behind a lamppost, hoping they hadn’t seen her. It was a bad disguise, but she wasn’t counting on that; the last thing she need was to have Edward see her there and start asking questions.

“Priests don’t wear suits and ties, that is an agent.” She whispered back, and watched as Edward cheerfully talked to the man, who had a dark expression in his face. He was young, strong and tall, bald and fierce looking, and had the posture of a soldier. Against Edward’s cheery disposition, the man looked like he was about to murder someone.

She observed, as discreetly as she could, with people walking by her and dismissing her, the man pick up something inside his pocket and stand beside Edward to show him a stack of photos. Dorothea felt suddenly on edge, when Edward’s expression darkened and he became distressed as the man passed the photos, one by one, showing to him and pointing at things she couldn’t see. But she could imagine them, for very little things would have distressed Edward as much as he was now and she didn’t like it at all.

He shook the CCD agent’s hand, trembling, his dæmon hoping in distress around him and the other man’s dæmon, a hummingbird, watched with an amused expression. Edward staggered inside his house as the other man walked away, calmly, as if nothing had happened. Dorothea was ready to follow the agent, when she saw Edward come back, livid, with a pistol and then he went the other way. Suddenly, she hesitated, as she was taught never to do.

“The agent. He is the source, and has evidence.” Astraeus whispered and she agreed, although reluctantly, for they were one, and she crossed the streets, walking as calmly as she could. She saw an alley nearby on her way there, empty, dark and a dead end; it was perfect.

“Sir, excuse me.” She said, sweetly and the agent turned to face her. In the face of adversity, she always thought of all the bad things these people did and used it as a way to calm herself, because she hated them so much she only had peace thinking about their destruction. It gave her comfort and strengthened her resolve.

And then, she smiled, lovingly and naive; the man, surprisingly gullible, smiled back, mistaking her vicious grin and glittery eyes for flattery and infatuation.

“I was lost and turned on an alley, and lost my earring, clumsy me! It’s a family heirloom and I can’t find it. Could you, please , help me?” She said and took a step further and put a hand on his chest, softly sliding it up to his shoulder. He smiled and the hummingbird fell for Astraeus glimmer and playful nature, and that man was done before he knew it. “I hear you CCD folk are honest, hard-working people.”

Few times in her life she was grateful for being a woman, but that was one of those times, and she languidly guided him back to the alley and watched as the poor idiot kneeled to look for her earring, behind a dumpster. She took her scarf and rolled each point on her hands, making a steady object to choke the guy; he never saw her coming and he tried to fight back, but she immobilised him against the harsh wall, his face brushing against it. He gave up once she immobilised his legs, her scarf on his throat.

“What are you doing?” He gasped, moving around but she pressed him against the wall.

“What did you show Edward Coulter?” She whispered, as Astraeus pecked the other bird and watched the street. If she was seen, it would be over. She wished she had brought the poison with her.

“I’m not telling you anything, bitch!” The man said and tried to get away, but she overpowered him and kicked his back with her knee, and his own knees failed and he fell on the floor but she didn’t let go, still holding the scarf against his throat, not strong enough as to kill him. His dæmon chirped in distress.

“You’re gonna have to try harder than that if you want to offend me. Now, I’m asking you again, nicely , and you’ll tell me or else I’ll make you tell me. Don’t make me hurt you, I love hurting your kind and I may never stop if I start. What did you show Coulter ?”

She didn’t enjoy it, but he had no way of knowing that and she sensed his fear. He struggled less as he told her everything, how he had shown pictures of Marisa and Asriel, taken in different places, a picture of Lyra at the estate; she thought it was amusing how easily he cracked, and how odd. People like him undergone terrible sessions of anti-torture therapy; whether he wanted her to know or he was lying.

“Why? Why did you do this?” She said and when he cursed her, she hit head against the wall. Blood came off his nose. “What does the CCD gain from this?”

“The girl-- has to die.”

“She’s just a baby!” Dorothea scolded. “Why do you even care?”

“You’ll never know, bitch. And when he is done, I’ll be rewarded and Heaven will bless this world once more to purge the likes of you and that sinner bitch from this place.”

“Pff, psycho .” She mumbled.

Astraeus looked at her; she knew what he meant. That guy knew her face, he couldn’t live. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath and thought about every single bad thing the CCD and the Magisterium had ever done, all the mutilations, the violence, the people they had killed or erased from the world for their own sake. She felt a wave of peace inside her and then, she held his head and twisted his neck, as Coram had taught her. She lay the man against the wall, and searched his pockets for the photos; black and white, a little blurry, but featuring Asriel and Marisa talking in various places, including Jordan. And Lyra and her carer, walking around the estate on a sunny day. That photo was taken from a distance, meaning that the person couldn’t get too close for some reason.

It didn’t matter. She had made the wrong choice by pursuing the agent. Edward had an advantage now, one that she had to outrun by literally run through London, to warn Oakley Street so they could interfere and warn Asriel, and more importantly, to save Lyra.

 

***

 

Asriel heard her scream before he saw her, the sound of it startled the birds in the trees and his horse, making he lose sight of his target. He turned around to yell at her for making him waste his ammo, but stopped when he saw Dorothea, riding at full speed, pale and sweaty as her soft and glimmery dæmon flew desperately to keep up with her pace.

“Asriel!” She yelled, pulling her reins and almost falling off her horse; Thorold approached her to help her. She was out of breath. “Oh my God! The House!” She pointed to the house, or tried to since she was pointing at the wrong direction, trying to breathe and failing. “You have to go back to the hou--se. Edward, he knows . He’s gonna… kill…Lyra.”

She stumbled, breathless, but Thorold held her. Asriel felt something cold down his spine; without a word, he incited his horse to a gallop as fast he could, Stelmaria running ferociously at his side. He used all of his will to demand the universe to give him the time he needed to arrive in time to save his daughter. He felt a rush of pleasure and wrath at the same time, but he felt no guilt over that.

He practically jumped off his horse once he got to the house, the front door broken as if someone had kicked it. He took his rifle, but there were no bullets after he spent them on his prey, and sneaked into the house. He could hear Edward in the living room, kicking something and screaming.

He came by the door and peeked, seeing the man kick a cupboard and Asriel heard Lyra screaming and crying, the sounds coming from inside of it. Coulter took his pistol and aimed at the cupboard, but Asriel rushed into the bedroom and knocked him to the floor with his rifle. There was a gunshot, that hit the ceiling, the pistol knocked off his hands; Asriel climbed atop of Edward and punched his face; Stelmaria growled and bit the rabbit, enough to wound but not to kill. Coulter punched Asriel’s face too and he felt blood in his mouth.

At that moment, all he felt was rage, pure and in its most simple form. It was an instinct of survival, not for himself, but for his daughter, who could not defend herself. He kicked Edward and went for the pistol, as the man came at him, foaming. Asriel shot and Edward fell, a bullet wound to his chest. He died quickly, and he looked so peaceful being dead that Asriel felt jealous, for a moment. Even in death that man had something he couldn’t have. He thought of Marisa and of the words he would use to explain that. There were none.

“Mrs. Costa, it’s alright. You can come out. I wanna see my daughter.” He said, knocking on the cupboard’s door gently. He felt out of his body, as if his movements weren’t his own.

The woman got off the cupboard, shaking and looked at the body as she gave Lyra to Asriel. She easily composed herself.

“Call the police. Tell them there’s been an intruder but he’s dead.” Asriel said, and turned to Lyra. She calmed down in his arms, tiny and wide eyed, a little confused because Pantalaimon was between Stelmaria’s paws, comfortable as she licked his snow leopard cub and whispered kind words of incentive to him. “You’re more trouble than your worth, girl. How can that be, when you barely speak?”

She laughed and her tiny hands touched his bearded chin and he kissed her tiny fingers. He held her, careful and gentle, and walked to the radio and put on his favourite record. And then he looked at her, wild and peaceful, so carefree that he envied her greatly, for he wished he had the world before him like she did as a baby. They twirled around the living room and she laughed in pure euphoria, as he spun her around in his arms, Pantalaimon playing with Stelmaria, stumbling in his small legs.

Asriel barely noticed Dorothea watching, as Thorold went to clean the blood off the floor and put a sheet over Edward, whom Asriel ignored as he waltzed Lyra around, as if he wasn’t there at all, as if nothing had ever happened. There were tears in her eyes, as she sat on the couch, now breathing normally again.

She whispered to him that Oakley Street was on his way, and begged him to let her take the blame. He denied, again and again, until she stopped, but he never stopped his waltz with Lyra or talking to her or laughing with her.

He smiled at Dorothea, happy in a gruesome way, as Lyra laughed out loud as he spun her in the air, talking to her, and praising her joy. Dorothea smiled back; Asriel heard her dæmon whisper to her as they watched him dance with his only daughter, that they had only ever seen him look at something with that much love when he was staring at the Aurora Boreal, and perhaps, when they couldn’t see it happening, at Marisa.

Chapter Text

"She stood, as though distracted, near the window
and felt the violent drum-beats of her heart."

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

 

“I’d like to call Lord Asriel Belacqua, the Earl of Essex, to the stand.”

Few men could command the dignity Asriel had when he walked to the stand, his shoulders broad, his chin risen, his eyes fierce and with a bitter amusement, as if everything was a joke.

Marisa moved on her bench, uncomfortable. He looked at her with a piercing gaze that seemed to dig through her skin and turn her upside down. She hardly ever saw Asriel with so little warmth in his amused disposition, his sarcastic behaviour, but at that moment, when he looked at her, she could only sense a cold wrath in him, and that was unnatural.

She had already been summoned, her eyes were still wet from the tears she displayed for the courtroom, and she had lied with such sensibility, she nearly believed herself. Asriel met her before they entered the place, one last try at convincing her to stay with him, and he told her they should speak the truth in order to get the sympathy of the jury, but Marisa had other plans. Asriel could survive a scandal, but she wouldn’t and her acquaintances at the Magisterium had insisted that she posed as a dutiful wife as much she could, or else she would be lost.

And that’s what she did, between tears and sobs, she mumbled her narrative of a romantic and intriguing adventure, of a gullible woman who was mortifyingly seduced by this brute of a man, unused to being denied, making promises to her that she couldn’t look past. He looked at her, vicious, angry and betrayed and it did stung a little, but not enough to make her stop; sat beside him, was Lord Nugent, the former Lord Chancellor, watching everything solemnly and on Asriel’s other side was Dorothea, calm, composed and with a glitter of indignancy on her eyes as Marisa spoke. When Marisa got into the details of the affair, and called Lyra “a mistake I wish I could undo, because no one should be brought into this world through sin.”, Lady Eilhart stood up, quietly, and left. Asriel crossed his arms; he still had a hint of hatred in his eyes, but something shimmered underneath. She couldn’t understand what it was but Marisa did her best to defend herself against it, because it couldn’t be good.

“Do you acknowledge your affair with Mrs. Coulter, Lord Belacqua?” The lawyer asked him, stern and composed, and Asriel flinched a little on his chair, but the only thing that gave him away was Stelmaria swinging her tail. Marisa knew he hated being called Lord Belacqua. “It isn’t me. It’s my older brother’s title. I’m still Lord Asriel.” he had said to her one day. Yes, the older one, a dead brother.

“I do.” Asriel said.

“And do you validate her story?”

“No, I don’t. It’s not even remotely close to the truth.” Asriel said, calm, but Marisa could read his face and he was furious. She glanced over to his companion, but Lord Nugent had a blank semblant she couldn’t read. The man who had left the parliament under duress. Her monkey gripped tighter at her neck, as they held each other in an awkward embrace. “I am a man of many flaws, but I didn’t subdue nor force nor seduced that woman. I didn’t have to.”

“What concerns us is this: did your relationship with Mrs. Coulter lead you to commit murder? You claim self-defense, but as far we know, you could have plotted everything.”

Marisa watched as his lips curled up into a vicious smirk, but he frowned all the same, as the words ached as he spoke them.

“It was in self-defense and in defense of my daughter, whom this court insists on keeping away from me. This is nonsense! Your Honor, I demand to see her!” Asriel said, calm, but somehow his voice echoed everywhere. There were whispers while the judge asked for order; Marisa shivered when Asriel glanced over her, so angry she could feel her skin buzz.

“What is he doing?” Her monkey whispered, Marisa shook her head because she had absolutely no idea.

“Lord Asriel, you are not in a position to make demands.” The judge was a stern woman, that, as Marisa noticed, was almost immune to her lying and the only reason she wasn’t worried, was because the judge would never disfavour the Magisterium. But Marisa also noticed how, unlike the prosecutor, she hadn’t referred to him as Lord Belacqua, but chose to use his prefered title. That left Marisa conflicted; was this woman crazy enough to defy them? “Your daughter is in our care, in a state house, looked after by two nuns. Answer the questions and you may see her.”

“Lord Belacqua.” The prosecutor said and she saw how Asriel gritted his teeth into a sick smile; the man was a CCD member, nasty and young, and completely unprepared to deal with a man like Asriel. Marisa thought they’d need to change prosecutors by the end of the day because Asriel was going to eat him alive if he kept pushing. “Why did you kill Edward Coulter?”

“He barged into my home and tried to kill my daughter. Was I supposed to stand and watch?” Asriel snarled.

“How do you think Edward Coulter learned of the existence of your child?”

“Objection! Calls for a conclusion.” Asriel’s lawyer said; Marisa watched as he wiped sweat from his forebrow, and looked anxiously at the judge who nodded. That man had his work cut out for him, Marisa felt, with relief. “Sustained.” The judge said.

Marisa had asked herself that same question and she had no answer to that, but doubts and more questions. She even entertained the thought that Asriel had told Edward himself, just to have her exclusively, and she delighted herself with that idea, until the cold, harsh reality knocked at her senses and she felt the wrath for Asriel’s carelessness. She couldn’t know if he knew about it or if he had done it, or if it had been Dorothea and her know-it-all mind. Or anyone at all and the fact she didn’t have an answer gnawed at her soul.

 

***

 

“Put me on the stand, let me testify!” Asriel heard Lady Eilhart beg Nugent and his lawyer for what it felt was like the hundredth time.

Asriel had a migraine that was making him flinch at the barest sight of light, and they were standing outside of the courthouse, midday of a cloudy day, with the photographers of every newspaper in London waiting for them outside, screaming questions, trying to get a good photo of him and his friends, the former Lord Chancellor and the loud Lady Eilhart. What kind of people he got involved with, what kind of man he was: that is what they wanted to know. He had neither the time nor the patience to deal with this. As his trial slowly progressed, he could sense the lost cause coming his way: the CCD was out to get him, to take him out as they could, and no one in that world could stop them.

“We spoke about this. You can’t. If you testify you were there, they’ll know what you did.” Nugent whispered to her, as the lawyer took notes, walking away from them as he was fully aware that conversation was meant for others. “It’s bad enough that you allowed them to find that agent, we can’t risk exposing you like this. No, Mrs. Costa is enough. They’ll hear her and we have to pray the CCD hasn’t engulfed the judge yet.”

“I wouldn’t blame her, you know?” Asriel said, throwing his cigarette away and turned to face them. Dorothea was pale and she looked like a ghost on her black outfit, while Nugent wore a brown suit and had in his face an expression of a general marching towards death. They didn’t have any hope that things would work out, they were simply trying to salvage whatever they could, and that was mostly Lyra. “If she decided to abide by their judgment.”

“She is an honest woman. We worked hard to find a good judge, now it’s not the time for you to sulk over your tragedy.” Nugent said, stern and Asriel laughed.

He watched Astraeus scolding Stelmaria, who stared at him patronisingly.

“You should’ve listened to me.” Dorothea spat and Asriel, for once in his life, rolled his eyes at her. “I warned you this was going to happen. I told you to let me take the blame!”

“So?”

She was so angry he feared she would slap him, and Nugent noticed it too, because he got in between them. Asriel wished he hadn’t, for he felt like he could use the pain of a good slap.

“Fuck you, you ungrateful bastard.” Dorothea collected herself and left with a twirl, her bird following her swiftly.

They watched her go back to the courthouse and Nugent put his hand on Asriel’s shoulder; he was so numb he barely felt it.

“If not for her, Lyra wouldn’t be alive.” Nugent said and Asriel’s sighed, feeling the weight of a long day upon his shoulders.

“I know.”

“The weight of the murders is burdening her, Asriel. She’ll come around.”

“You shouldn’t have taught her how to kill, then.” Asriel retorted and Nugent laughed, defeated. “Have you learned something useful about Lyra? Why do they want her?”

“We have people working on it as we speak, but so far, no news. We’ll sort this out, Asriel.” Nugent said and they began to walk back towards the courtroom. Asriel welcomed the cold breeze on his neck, as he pressed his fingers around it, so tense he was hurting. “I am surprised Mrs. Coulter lied about the whole thing.”

“Why shouldn’t she? She’s looking after her own interests.” Asriel scoffed, feeling a bitter taste is his mouth. Saying those words out loud hurt him more than he expected. “As usual.”

“Still, to call her daughter a mistake in court was… odd.”

Asriel had no reply to that; he suddenly realised Marisa had stolen all of his words.

 

***

 

“Mrs. Coulter, regardless of the outcome on Lord Asriel’s part, the child is a separate matter. I understand you have no desire in raising her. Is that correct?”

“Yes, Your Honor. Nothing good could come of it.” Marisa said, again on the stand, with all of the curious and judgemental eyes upon her. She felt caged, but didn’t allow the feeling to show through her face. As she wiped away her tears, her dæmon whimpered on her lap, both convincing and terribly corny liars. Had the circumstances not been so dire, she would have been proud of herself.

“That is not an uncommon feeling, Mrs. Coulter, but it is a bit odd.” The judge said, calmly. “Are you certain of this decision?”

“I am. Looking at the girl’s face will do nothing but remind me of my… indiscretions. ” Marisa said, softly tapping her cheeks with her handkerchief. She dared glance over Asriel, who had a disdainful smirk; she saw how he clenched his jaw, as if he was biting the inside of his mouth as she spoke. “The fact that I was gullible enough to do something that resulted in Edward’s death. I don’t want her, I want nothing to do with her.”

“Very well. In that case, you won’t object if the child is given to Lord Asriel, or anyone else?”

She felt the question had an ulterior motive behind it, but she failed to see what it was, and she stood by her word in the event she was being tricked. Her monkey held her tighter in a clumsy embrace they were both unused to.

“No, as I said, I want nothing to do with her.”

She answered another bunch of questions, mostly trivial, and they cleared her so another witness, Edward’s secretary, could take the stand. Marisa wondered what could that man know, since he never even crossed paths with Asriel, but then again he was close to Edward, so there must have been a reason. He was an easy target to bribe into a false testimony or to twist his words in one’s favour.

She sat at the bench again, alone. People were avoiding sitting close to her, and she normally wouldn’t care, but it stung to notice how far she had fallen for something so trivial. But then again, Edward did die, she thought. Of all the stupid things Edward could have chosen to do, he picked the only thing she knew he couldn’t do; Marisa never thought he had enough backbone to march against a baby, let alone Asriel, but he had proved her wrong and she promised never to make such a mistake again. It would take time, but she had already pulled her contacts and she decided to focus on that; she had worked hard to get the power she had, and seeing it all go away for nothing was… painful.

Marisa took notice of Dorothea, as she sat beside her, her flowery smell and her shy dæmon, chirping softly at the monkey who growled at him.

“I thought you’d be sitting with your friends.” Marisa jested, quietly, as the lawyer interviewed the secretary. Dorothea laughed quietly too and sighed.

“You’re my friend too.”

“I do not want your pity, Dorothea.” Marisa scoffed and the monkey snatched Astraeus, but weirdly, the other woman barely flinched. She felt so diminished by the fact her colleague didn’t care at all about the situation that Marisa was left speechless.

“Oh, I don’t pity you. In fact, I think this your fault, both of you. Yours a little more than his, given that you were the one who was married, but you’re both guilty nonetheless.” Dorothea whispered; Astraeus nibbed the monkey’s paws and got free, sitting at her shoulder. The monkey growled, but didn’t move. “Your recklessness ended in death and you’re not even sorry.”

“I am sorry, I’ve said it multiples times.” Marisa said with a soft, sad smile.

She didn’t get a reply, because the secretary was dismissed and the session went in another break. They walked side-by-side, quietly, until they reached the garden; Marisa lit up a cigarette, but what she truly wanted was a big glass of the sourest wine in England. They stood below a structure, protecting them as the thin rain began to fall; the journalists outside were not frightened by it, though.

“I can’t believe you’re giving up Lyra.” Dorothea mumbled, but Marisa barely spared her a glance. She saw Asriel on the other side of the garden, standing in the soft rain, tall and powerful, but looking as if the weight of the world was upon his shoulders. He was talking to Lord Nugent, discreetly and with a serious expression; then he turned around and their eyes met and lingered for a while. There was not hatred there, but a lot of disappointment and Marisa shivered, uncomfortable, and looked away. Disappointment was worse than rage in her opinion, because it implied expectations that Marisa scarcely knew were there.

“You shouldn’t have lied.” Dorothea added.

Marisa didn’t have the time to respond to that, and neither was she going to, because they were interrupted. She recognised one of them immediately; Lord Boreal and an officer of the CCD approached her and Boreal immediately took her hand and kissed it in a demure, yet nearly obscene gesture. He had been annoying around her for quite some time and to deliberately support her like he was at the moment, with his connections and friends in high places, was even further proof that he was mesmerised. Marisa wasn’t about to complain, she needed all the help she could get at that point, even from people like him.

“Lady Eilhart. Are you here for a bit of excitement?” Boreal said, kissing Dorothea’s hand and Marisa saw her eye twitch. She hated him, and he was amused by her, as if she was pretty doll trying to do impossible things. “Are you bothered with your parties?”

Dorothea glanced over the man beside Boreal, wearing the ochre and blue tie; he had a distasteful expression on his face, but he was rather young for the role of Counselor that the badge he wore indicated. She smiled, then turned to Boreal.

“I am here to give my support to my colleagues in this dreadful situation.” Dorothea said, with a fake friendliness that almost made Marisa giggle. “And my parties are never boring.” Marisa felt her gaze and it was if Dorothea was asking her: “Boreal, really?

“I understand you are close with Lord Asriel.” Boreal teased her, a wide smile on his face, and Dorothea smiled too, but her white teeth could tear his neck apart if she had no self-control.

“He’s been a friend of my family for years, now. I’d say he is a friend of mine as well.”

“Yet, here you are, fraternising with the woman whom he had an affair with.” The Counselor said and Marisa noticed how he was a small man in comparison, but he failed to noticed that, but not for long. “How convenient and not suspicious at all.”

“And who might you be?” Dorothea snarled.

As the man introduced himself in an agonizingly long title, Marisa looked for Asriel again and there he was, looking at her, with an expression she couldn’t recognise. But there was wrath underneath that too, and he turned around at the same moment Boreal put his hand on her shoulder. She watched him go while feeling a lot of things she couldn’t name; suddenly she didn’t feel like laughing anymore, or breathing, or lying.

When she came back to herself, Dorothea was listening to a religious lecture with a vicious smile on her face. Marisa sighed, and nearly pitied the man, for he was in for a surprise.

“Lord Belacqua has committed a terrible deed, he seduced poor Mrs. Coulter in her gullible nature.” He concluded, looking at her patronisingly. “And he continues to influence weak-minded women like you.”

Dorothea laughed, heartily, and then she looked at him in a way that amused Marisa. Her dæmon flew around her hair, as if trying to warn her to stay quiet, but she didn’t. She rose her hand, a beautiful golden ring with a big sapphire on it and stood there, staring the man down.

“Do you forget who I am?” She said and the man shivered on the spot.

“No, I know who you are, Eilhart.”

“Then who do you think you are?” Dorothea snarled, violently, and the man lost his posture and he staggered, and Marisa watched with pleasure as he found himself lost.

“I think that the Holy Church--”

“I don’t care what you think!” Dorothea said, and journalists took notice of her voice, and tried to take photo through the bars that protected the garden. “I am a marchioness, and you’ll address me with respect. Do you forget your place? A proper man sees a marchioness and kisses her hand, even Boreal knows this, but not you.”

Marisa knew she was doing it on purpose, a clear act to hide something bigger, she just didn’t know what it was, but it was fun to see someone else humiliated, so she watched in silence, with Boreal’s hand on her small back, making her grit her teeth.

Dorothea yelled at the man until he disappeared in a pool of apologies, much for Marisa’s joy. She didn’t need another judgemental clerk around her. He left after kissing Lady Eilhart’s ring, an ultimate gesture of defeat.

“Poor man.” Boreal jested, and Dorothea ignored him with a sigh.“You didn’t have to do that.”

“You’re right, Boreal, I didn’t have to do that, but I wanted to.” Dorothea scolded him. “Marisa, when this is over, we need to talk.”

Marisa smiled as if she didn’t understand what she meant, but she did, quite clearly. She put a hand on Boreal’s arm and said:

“Whatever you have to say, I’m sure it’s alright for Lord Boreal to hear as well.” It wasn’t, but she had to at least pretend.

Dorothea smiled, gently, but she shook her head.

“Oh, I’m sure Boreal has better things to do than listen to… feminine issues. I have to go inside, but keep that in mind, would you?”

She nodded at Boreal and they watched her go inside again. Marisa felt a little puzzled; she assumed the subject of that conversation would be Asriel, but then again, what else could it be? He looked at her with so much resentment now, she couldn’t imagine what Dorothea had to say about it. Marisa felt as if she was in a whirlwind of memories and all of them were good, but they hurt her all the same.

“Nasty girl.” She heard Boreal say, and he had a disdainful smile on his face. Marisa hated how he looked at her as if she was fragile. Marisa smiled and her monkey carved his paws on her ankle; he hated when she complied to that behaviour. “She was fourteen and drunk at her father’s wake when I met her. Rambling nonsenses everywhere, very improper for a lady.”

“She rarely speaks of it.”

“Why do you put up with her? She’s not as classy as you are.” Boreal said, quietly, and put a hand on her shoulder, and Marisa struggled to not flinch.

She smiled, almost viciously, although Boreal wouldn’t have noticed her umconfort even if she slapped him with it.

“I’d say she’s entertaining.”

She thought it was funny: that was almost the truth.

 

***

 

Asriel watched as his life crumbled before his eyes and he never had felt so powerless, but he didn’t let it show. So, he stood proud as they cleared his charges, but fined him almost his entire fortune; the law protected him as well as Coulter, so a stalemate had been met. He would walk free, but with empty pockets; he didn’t speak of it, but he also walked out of that courtroom with an empty chest.

The worse part was Lyra: they had forbid him from being anywhere near her, and called him unfit as a parent. That was what hurt the most; they were taking everything from him and slandering his name for nothing. He barely heard what the judge said next and he was the first to leave, with Stelmaria reassuring him that they would find a way around it. They had friends, connections and a bit of money left; he could have things his way.

He stood in the garden, alone for a moment, the rain tapping at his neck as he rubbed his face, exhausted. He barely remembered the last time he slept, his concerns towards Lyra and his mess taking over his body; Stelmaria whispered he needed to eat, but he brushed her concerns aside with a mumble.

When he took his hands off his eyes, he looked away and saw her, standing alone under the entrance structure, protected by the rain. She was looking at a book, looking so gracious and lovely and sanctified that Asriel felt rage almost immediately; it was wrong that she looked so well when his life was becoming dust before his eyes, their daughter thrown around as if she was a doll. Without thinking twice, he walked in her direction, Stelmaria following him in silence.

He saw the panic in her eyes when Marisa noticed him coming, but she had nowhere to go. Asriel stopped a few centimeters away from her, her scent involving him in a sickening nostalgia, but he did not falter.

“Did you tell him?” He asked quietly but she smiled, disdainful and that only enraged him even more. Her monkey growled when Stelmaria roared; Asriel knew she didn’t do it, but he felt betrayed by her all the same.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m asking if you told him about Lyra? How else could he know about it if not you?” Asriel shouted and he took as step forward as she took a step back, until her back was against the cold wall and he was so close he could count her eyelashes. Asriel had never seen her so distressed and it pleased him. “Did you tell him?”

“Mind your tone!” She hissed, her backbone returning, but he was furious, so he dug his fingers in her hair and held her head, close enough that their lips brushed.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Are you happy now as a disgrace?” He whispered to her, shaking her. “Are you happy now, Marisa? Does your misery turn you on? You do thrive off of it, perhaps this was your plan all along. Is this what you wanted? Tell me, Marisa, is this what you wanted?”

For a moment, he stopped and brought her close and their lips brushed again. He could sense her heavy breathing and listen to the pounding of his heart, but then Marisa looked dead in his eyes, and her monkey growled and so did Stelmaria.

“Take your hands off me.” She hissed again, and Asriel felt a hand on his shoulder.

Dorothea pulled him away from Marisa, but she had recovered her gall, so she slapped him. He shivered from the pain, but he felt it was an awakening process, almost delicious. Marisa poked his chest with her finger while ranting:

“If you ever touch me like that again, there will be consequences.” She had a glitter of rage in her eyes; he couldn’t tell if they were real tears or if she was lying. “Haven’t you done enough to me? Haven’t you lost enough, Asriel?”

“You are a nasty, vile woman.” He had his hand over the cheek she slapped, which was feeling numb.

Marisa took a step forward to yell at him, but Dorothea got in between them, her nostrils flared.

“That’s enough. You’ve done enough, both of you. This is over now.” She snarled at them, then she turned to Marisa. “It’s time for you to go home, Marisa. Boreal is waiting for you outside, with a car. And you,” she turned to Asriel. He saw the anger in his eyes, but what irritated him was the pity underneath that anger. “Assaulting her in broad daylight will not improve your image. Nugent is there, go speak with him. Now.”

No one moved. Marisa stared him down, and he did the same, until Dorothea snapped at them.

“I said, ‘now’, Asriel.”

He considered not moving, but she was right: they had done enough already. He turned on his heels and walked away to Nugent. As he left, he heard Marisa say, bitterly:

“You can’t play both sides forever, Dorothea. I hope you know that.”

“Go home, Marisa. For fuck’s sake, just go home.”

Asriel saw Nugent, accompanied by the judge, now wearing normal clothes; she was a small woman, but with a fierce presence. With them, was a young nun, with pretty features and sad eyes, holding baby Lyra as Nugent held an umbrella over them. The sight of Pantalaimon as a snow leopard cub gave Asriel comfort, and Lyra herself was fast asleep, but when he opened his arms to hold her, the nun shook her head, shyly.

“It’s okay, sister. He is allowed to see her one more time.” The judge said and Asriel held Lyra, careful enough to not touch Pan, now in the shape of a mouse and carefully hidden on her hood. She opened her eyes and laughed when Asriel smiled to her.

“What will happen to her?” He asked; Nugent transferred the umbrella to protect him and Lyra from the rain, as the nun left in a hurry.

“As of now, she is in my care.” He heard Dorothea say; looking back, he noticed Marisa was gone. He felt a wave of regret that quickly disappeared.

“So, you’re raising her? Are you mad?” He mocked her, but Dorothea laughed, as did Nugent.

“It’s temporary, Asriel. We’ll find a safe place for her.” He said.

“Lady Eilhart managed to prove you are related to her in some degree, she literally snatched Lyra from under the CCD's care.” The judge said. “That makes her Lyra’s next of kin, so she’ll care for the girl until Lord Nugent, under official sanction now, finds her a new place.”

“She’s not safe, Asriel.” Dorothea said. “We learned that the CCD knows about some weird witch prophecy about her, they’re treating her as an enemy.”

“And this is why you have to stay away from her.” The judge warned him, with a gloomy expression. “I did my best to make sure you have your freedom, Lord Asriel, but if they find you near her, they will use any means to take her away.”

“You’ve done enough, Charlotte, you shouldn’t be seen here.” Nugent said and as she nodded and left, he turned to Asriel. “I’ve found accomodations for you here in London, Asriel, so you can rest and gather yourself once again. Thea will take care of her, and we’ll protect her. This our primary objective now, no higher importance other than your daughter.”

Asriel handed Lyra, not without kissing her forehead before, to Dorothea, who clumsy held the baby. He watched as Pantalaimon, curious, became a robin, twice more beautiful than Dorothea’s, and Astraeus sang to him, calmly. Lyra laughed and tried to snatch her carer’s necklace and Dorothea bopped her nose and made her laugh even further.

Asriel felt Stelmaria’s head against his hand. He thought that if he was the sort of man who cried, he would have done so then and there.

Chapter Text

"There was no life you could live out to its end
And no attitude which, in the end, would save you."

(John Ashbery)

Two weeks later, Marisa heard a knock on her flat door that made her take a deep breath. Despite expecting Dorothea, for a moment she had hoped it was Asriel; they hadn’t spoken to each other since the trial and Marisa had a feeling they wouldn’t talk in a while. She was certain he had his reasons to be angry, but she valued her reasons even more; it was hard to understand how could Asriel think she would have done anything other than self-preservation. There had been hope he could survive the scandal, so she gambled with his fortune over hers; it ended terribly, but she survived and so did he, better than many others who had crossed paths with the Magisterium.

“Why are you here?” Marisa asked her, as her dæmon silently hovered over her shoulder. The golden monkey watched every movement of Astraeus as if he was in slow motion, each second captured in time as it was made of gelatin. “Shouldn’t you be running after Asriel?”

Dorothea’s face darkened in a way Marisa had never seen before and she thought it was funny. In her eyes, she would always have that scared, young girl’s expression, trying to fit in a woman’s shoes. It was pathetic yet entertaining and Marisa resented the fact she agreed with Boreal over that matter.

“I don’t have time for this, Marisa.” She said and she put her hand inside her coat and took a piece of paper, an envelope. Marisa immediately recognised it and tried to suppress the surprise when she looked at it. Dorothea handed it to her, but she hesitated. “The day Edward died I was on my way here to give you this, but I never made it. Asriel gave it to me a day before and I feel like you should have it now, as it belongs to you.”

“If you’ve got it a day before, why didn’t you bring it immediately to me?” Marisa mocked her, taking the envelope and casually putting it on the coffee table. Her heart was racing though, she could hear it.

“Because I am not fucking a messenger, Marisa.”

She offered Dorothea a drink, which she gladly took, but neither of them sat down. Marisa decided to push her further.

“You haven’t talked to me since the trial.” She started, with a glimpse of a smirk on her lips. She watched as Dorothea moved, uncomfortable; Marisa wondered what kind of lies she was making up on her silence, because as far as she knew, it had to be a good lie. “You even declined my invitation for a dinner last Friday.”

“Well, you decided to befriend Boreal, so I guess I’d rather dine alone.” The truth unbalanced Marisa’s pose for a while; she laughed.

“He’s not so bad, once you ignore his remarks and his… handsy disposition.”

“He’s disgusting and he smells of rotten fruit. You can work wonders, Marisa, but you’ll never make me sit at the same table as Carlo Boreal.” Dorothea snarled, but she seemed more uplifted and Marisa used that moment to get information.

“I assume you’re not here just to criticise my choice of friends.”

Dorothea sighed and rubbed her eyes. Marisa thought she looked ten years older than she was, worn down by something invisible. She wondered if it had to do with taking care of Lyra, but she tried not to think too much about it. She became restless every time she tried to think about the girl.

“I am here because I’ve been told you’ve been asking about Lyra, and I wanna know why.” She said and Astraeus whispered something to her; the golden monkey climbed to Marisa’s shoulder, scratching her arm a little, so he could stare at the robin on the same level.

Marisa smiled, cooly.

“I was just curious.”

“I am sure you were, especially with your new friends at the Magisterium, whispering wonderful things about Lyra, as I’m sure they’ve done it.” Marisa’s smile grew wider when she heard that, but she fought the urge to yell her colleague. It would achieve nothing, as her monkey reminded her of. “You were suppose to be smart, Marisa. Do you think you are something to these people? You will always be the adulteress; they don’t trust you, all they see is your usefulness and that will not last long.”

Marisa took a step forward, but Dorothea barely flinched and that frustrated her, because she could feel her influence over the other woman slipping. So she resorted to sarcasm.

“Asriel sent you here, then, for what? So you could threaten me? Insult me?”

“He doesn’t know I’m here, no one does. I’ve come because I am curious.” Dorothea sighed. “Why the sudden change?”

Marisa had a simple answer to that, but one she decided not to give. She realised that she was also being manipulated into speaking of things she wasn’t supposed to speak of. So, she smiled, sweetly and spoke in a soft voice that unsettled Dorothea, much to Marisa’s pleasure.

“And why do you want to know?”

There was no reply. Marisa shook her head and walked away to pour herself another glass of wine. She heard Dorothea sigh, or let out her breath that she was desperately holding, and Marisa smirked. When she turned around, Dorothea was seated on the couch, her arms crossed and an intense gaze directed at Marisa, as if she was measuring the situation, which she probably was. Marisa thought it was amusing, for serious expressions were atypical of her.

“What if we trade information?” Dorothea said, quietly, as if she was sharing a dirty secret. Marisa rose an eyebrow; was she truly willing to do that? The monkey changed places on her shoulder while she sat down herself. “We speak of things of not so sensitive nature. You give me what I want, and I’ll tell you what you want to know about Lyra.”

“Why would I do that?” Marisa jested and Dorothea smiled asa if she had been waiting for that moment for years. “You have nothing that I want.”

“We know a lot.” Astraeus said, solemn and Marisa tilted her head because it was rare for the robin to address her.

“For example, I know that your new friends don’t include you in their meetings because they not only don’t trust you, they don’t think much of you either.” The way she said that made Marisa smile in a vicious way; she chastised herself for biting her bait, and her monkey scratched the back of her neck as a reminder of her foolishness.

“Nonsense. There are no such thing as meetings.” Marisa said, but she knew deep down that was a lie and she knew Dorothea knew it was a lie, and she felt horribly stupid for a while. It had been a bad move to make.

“Oh, but there is. Boreal, for example, your dear old friend, he is in one right now.” She laughed, but it was a bitter laugh. “I know as well that you’ve been asking about Lyra because you’ve learned something from them. A prophecy. I know about it too, I know a great deal about it, actually. This is a bargain, Marisa. You recognise one when you see it. Give me what I want and I will give you what you want.”

Marisa looked at her; she thought of Asriel and how much of what she said and would say there would go back to his ears. His approval was unnecessary, but she hated that she couldn’t control the situation anymore. She glanced over his letter at the coffee table and wondered what it would say. She took a deep breath.

“So,” she said, with a warm and inviting smile. She wondered how much she would regret this later, but perhaps it was worth the risk. “what do you want to know?”

 

***

 

“You’re the one who told her about Lyra.” Asriel snarled at her while in his home in Chelsea. Dorothea was writing a letter, ferociously, at his desk. It was a whole month after she had dealt with Marisa and the consequences of that day were still rippling through the world. “Did you think she was going to stay idle forever?”

“I’m tracking her, she’s not the leak. And I didn’t tell her about Lyra, she already knew. The information I gave her was harmless.” Dorothea said, without looking at him, tracing the letters into a code. The fact she didn’t meet his gaze irritated him, so Asriel slammed his hand onto the table, shaking it and making her wrongfully write a letter. She blew the air out of her lungs, in a gesture of impatience and he took a step back in case she decided to slap him. “What are you doing?”

“Where is she?” He asked her, quietly.

He knew Nugent and his colleagues had found a safe place for Lyra, and he had agreed that he would leave her alone, for her sake as well as his own. But then Dorothea’s message came, with Nugent’s permission, and Asriel learned that even with his obedience, they were trying to get ahold of Lyra. That made him angry, if anything, for his humiliating behaviour was for nothing.

“I’m not telling you, Asriel. I can’t.” Dorothea said, and looked at him, wide eyes and heavy breathing. She sealed her letter with her seal and began to write another, fast-paced, focused, but her dæmon had turned to speak to Asriel.

“She’s safe. We’re making sure of that.” Astraeus said and Stelmaria growled. “Don’t growl at me! It’s the truth!”

“They tried to snatch her from her priory, how can she be safe when you put her at a priory? Might as well give her to the Magisterium!” Asriel scolded, pacing around the study. He was feeling caged inside, and Dorothea was making his life exceptionally difficult by being too devoted to her cause. “Tell me where she is.”

“No.”

“We can’t. It’s for your own safety as well as hers.” Astraeus added and Stelmaria tried to snatch him when he flew too low, but he escaped, barely. “Rude!”

“Let me see her!” Asriel insisted and he leaned in close, and looked at her as if he was wounded but she didn’t buy it. “Please, I just want to see her. They’re not following the rules as well, so I think you owe me this favour.”

She laughed, yet it was more of a disdainful laughter, and she kept on writing her letter. Asriel peeked and noticed the name: Hannah. He couldn’t make out the rest because her handwriting was terrible.

“I owe you? Do you know the mess you’ve made of my life? I don’t owe you anything, I’m pretty certain you owe me a lot though.” She sighed and signed the letter so violently that she tore the paper a little. Her dæmon whispered something to her and she shook her head. “If I tell you, you’ll go there and make a mess that we-- I will have to clean up. We can’t afford this anymore, Asriel.”

He felt the tremor on her voice, and her tired eyes, and he knew that she was close to giving in. Asriel almost felt bad that he was insisting too much.

“Eilhart, let me see her. My expedition is on the final preparations, I will go and say goodbye and no one will see me.” He said, almost softly. He watched her squirm under his gaze, conflicted by her options; Asriel permitted himself to grin for a second. “Then I will leave England for the next year and you won’t hear a word from, I promise.”

“The nuns will see you.”

“I’ll convince them to let me see Lyra.” He said, almost with a winning smile that Dorothea brushed off with a snarky remark. “I can be persuasive.”

“Last time you convinced someone to do something, she ended up pregnant and here we are.” His face darkened, but not enough to make her feel guilty. She sighed. “We have people taking care of her, watching her.”

“It’s not enough.”

“I know, Asriel. But I can’t protect her personally, it was part of the deal with Marisa.” She rubbed her eyes, then sealed her letter. “So, I do what I can from afar.”

“She’s not gonna abide by your deal, you know that, right?” Asriel insisted.

Stelmaria touched his knee, as a sign for him to stop. He could see the moment Dorothea’s resolve was gone and she reached for her purse and took a piece of paper from it, with such pain in her movements he felt as if he was torturing her.

“You go, you say goodbye and then you leave. In the middle of the night. If they see you, we’re fucked. If Nugent finds out I did this, I’m fucked. Are we clear?” She stood up and he reached for the paper on her hand, but she snatch it away from him. “Asriel, we cannot afford a direct confrontation. They can and they will arrest you if they see you there. Are we clear?”

“Yes, we are. Of course.” He said and smiled and suddenly the room felt less crowded. He read the paper she handed him. “Who’s Malcolm?”

“The boy our reader has been dealing with. He lives at the Inn across the priory and he knows the nuns. He can help you, but you mustn’t say a word about… this.” She gestured all around her. Asriel smirked. “He’s a good kid, don’t push it. The Inn is called the Trout.”

“I appreciate this.” He said, and grabbed his coat from nearby, but before he left, he stopped by the door and looked back. She was putting the letters on her purse and noticed his gaze but didn’t say a word.

Asriel thought of the the letter he had given her before the whole mess and how immensely he regretted writing it. He felt a bitter taste in his mouth as well as something else he found it difficult to describe.

“Do you still have it?” He said, quietly, almost shyly, yet there was defiance in his tone as if he dared her to mock him for caring. She didn’t; in fact, she looked at him with so much sadness in her eyes that he thought for a moment he was looking at a mirror. “That letter? I was hoping you could burn it for me.”

“No, I’m sorry. I gave it to her.”

There was a cold feeling running down his spine. That wasn’t the answer he expected, not by a long shot.

“It felt like the right thing to do, Asriel.” She said, almost apologetic.

“I hope you found it entertaining, then.”

“Oh? I never read it. I just gave it to her. I don’t think she’s read it either. Things have changed a lot, my friend, for better or for worse.”

Asriel couldn’t assimilate what stung the most: if Marisa had his vulnerable words and planned on using them against him, or if she had never even bothered reading them.

 

***

 

By the time he was back on London, the flood was already stabilised, or as much as it could be. People were walking up and down, salvaging what they could, hugging their families and counting the dead. He walked back to Chelsea, but took a turn before he got there, instead going to Marisa’s flat. With Lyra safe at Jordan, he had a peace of mind he hadn’t had in months, and that slowly became an urge to see Marisa’s face that he found no explanation for.

So he got to her building, dirty from the mud of the flood, but almost entirely dry since she lived at a higher part of town. Stelmaria told him, as he climbed the stairs, slowly, that he shouldn’t have come, that good would come of it. He stood by her door, then rose his hands, his foot wet and the cold breeze making him feel cold. Asriel felt silly, but exhilarated; he could almost taste her in his mouth again.

“We shouldn’t be here.” Stelmaria whispered and he stopped, very close to the door, but he never truly knocked.

He noticed the sandbags on her door and the soft scent as he remembered from the flat. And then all the memories came back, vivid, brutal, hurting him inside out. He thought of his modest home in Chelsea, where the first floor had thirty centimeters of water and Thorold struggled to protect his books; Dorothea, shot and wounded by the CCD while tracking down La Belle Sauvage so they could protect Lyra, hunted down by the very same people Marisa consorted with. The smell of blood while Nugent held her wound against him and gave orders to the people around them, as Asriel took Lyra and the children and flew back to Oxford. He had thought of Marisa during the flight, and before that, and after that and at that sad, quiet moment at her door, his hands centimeters away from the wood. He felt his heart on his mouth. What had he planned to say? He hadn’t planned anything except his own indulgence, because there was nothing to be said.

Quiet and feeling defeated, Asriel lowered his hand and quietly walked away.

Meanwhile, while he stood behind her front door, Marisa was seated beside her fireplace, warm and comfortable, a little tipsy from her fourth glass of wine and the monkey had given in and opened Asriel’s letter. Outside, the world was in havoc, but inside she felt safe and at peace which was unusual.

His letter was short, straightforward and demanding, as he usually was. I’ll come for you, he wrote, twice, I’ll come and take you and we can move away to wherever you wish. You can research your business and I’ll make sure Lyra is properly raised . Marisa found that part funny, because as she learned later that evening, when Boreal came and she had to put on a bright smile and her soft manners, he sort of did that. Do not pretend you do not care about me, because I know you do. You need not be a mother, as long you are with me, we will work this out. She thought for a moment and closed her eyes and pictured his face and the glitter of his eyes, and the way he shook her and shouted at the court or the way he touched her before, how his eyes had followed her on the first night they met. She felt the tears come and go swiftly. I’ve been yours since I set eyes on you on Lapland, cursed be the day when I set on this path. Marry me. Tomorrow. Today. Now. I don’t care.

She felt the bittersweet feeling of the possibilities that began and ended that day, all the scars it left on them. Sometimes she still felt his hands on her and it ached and it haunted her, night and day. She thought that he had lost his mind, she didn’t know the man who wrote that note, but it certainly wasn’t him. It couldn’t be, it made no sense; in a realm where it had been Asriel, she thought that whole idea was too painful to exist.

Marisa, then, finished her glass of wine and carefully folded the letter; then, between tears, she dropped it into the fireplace, and without a second glance, she let it burn.