Here we go again! Don't expect me to be able to update this very often as I'm seriously stuck for free time.
This story is written in response to a couple of questions I've asked myself. It fits chronologically after Intentions and Threads and before The Clockmaker's Boy. If you've seen my other stories already then fine, go ahead and read this one. Otherwise…
New readers start here:
In Intentions, the Subtle Knife is restored and passes from Will Parry to Giancarlo Bellini, and we first meet Lyra's half-sister Elizabeth Boreal. Giancarlo takes the Knife to his home world of Cittagazze.
In Threads, it is ten years later. Will is a doctor, Lyra is an academic, and Elizabeth is the chairwoman of the powerful Boreal Foundation, which is trying to make a new Subtle Knife. Giancarlo Bellini and his adopted sister Guilietta return to Will's world. Elizabeth's accomplices Mr Greaves and Miss Morley try to take the Knife, but are foiled by Will and Giancarlo, aided by Mary Malone. Mr Greaves is killed and the Knife is finally destroyed. Will Parry meets Judy Beckley, whom he marries.
Now: read on!
Professor Lyra Belacqua MA D.Litt DD D.Aleth was sitting at her desk in her rooms in Jordan College, Oxford, reading a tutorial essay on the subject of "The Uses of Myth and Mythology in Realist Narrative" that had been submitted for her consideration by one of her brighter undergraduates, when there was a double rap on her door. Recognising the characteristic knock of the College messenger she called out, 'Come in, Horace,' and turned around in her chair to face him.
The young man, sandy-haired and fresh-faced, entered Lyra's study and handed her a piece of paper. 'From the Dean, Madam Professor,' he said, standing to attention as if to reinforce the importance of his mission. Lyra broke the seal and quickly scanned the contents of the note. The Dean and the Master! she thought but, hiding her surprise from the servant she turned to her desk, took up pen and paper, wrote a two word reply, "Surely – Lyra", folded the sheet over and handed it to him.
'As quickly as you can please, Horace.'
'Yes, Madam Professor.'
The messenger closed the door behind him pushing it almost, but not quite, all the way shut and clattered back down the Stair, his terrier-daemon trotting purposefully after him. Lyra picked up the essay again but, realising that she might not now be able to pay her fullest attention to its turgid prose and over-earnest advocacy of the undergraduate's arguments, put it back down with a thud, took off her spectacles, stood up and walked around her desk and over to the stone-mullioned window.
'Something's up.' Lyra bent down and her daemon Pantalaimon leapt up onto her right shoulder. Together they looked out over the College quad, green from the wet and breezy Spring they had been experiencing this year.
'Yes, Pan. Something is most certainly going on. Why would the Master and the Dean both want to see us?'
'We could ask.' Pantalaimon twitched his nose towards the alethiometer, which was lying on the desk wrapped in its red velvet travelling bag.
'No. There's no need. We'll find out soon enough.'
The note had invited Professor Belacqua to afternoon tea in the Dean's House. It specified no time for the meeting, but Lyra knew College ways well enough by now and so, with the clocks chiming the three-quarters, she drew on her academic gown, picked up her mortarboard, pushed the alethiometer deep into the pocket of her long black skirt and set out for her appointment. The wind was gusting around the stone columns of the cloisters as she made her way, tugging at her clothes and threatening to tear the mortarboard from her head and send it skimming over the roofs of the College buildings. She walked past the Sanditon Library, over the Pneumatic Bridge and through the dank and dripping Bordon Passage. History and tradition had accreted over the original structure of the College, cementing together the bricks and stones and timbers of which its physical building were constructed. Lyra had been a resident of Jordan College for so long – most of her thirty-five years, indeed – that she no longer stopped to consider where the place's true strengths came from. The College simply existed – it was the most ancient college in the most powerful academic institution in Brytain; and therefore the whole world. It would not be appropriate for a junior professor, no matter how remarkable her past achievements, to be late for a meeting with the two most important men in the establishment.
Lyra reached the Dean's House just as the oak clock in the panelled hallway was striking four. The servant took her cap and gown and showed her though to the sitting room, where the Dean and the Master were already sitting in large red leather armchairs before a crackling log fire, their daemons by their sides. Lyra and Pantalaimon took the rather more modest chair that they were offered.
'Tea, Professor Belacqua?'
'Thank you, Dean.' Lyra was handed a cup of chai and invited to help herself from a silver tray of cucumber sandwiches and slices of walnut cake. Pantalaimon sat on her lap, under strict instructions to exhibit a proper attention to good manners and not to nibble crumbs. Lyra ate and drank and talked college small talk and waited to be told the real reason for this teatime appointment. She did not have to wait very long.
'Now then, Professor.' The Dean put his teacup and plate on the floor beside his chair. 'You're probably wondering why we've asked you to take tea with us.'
Lyra smiled at him. 'It's always a pleasure to see you, sir.'
'Hmm. Quite so.' The Dean turned to his colleague. 'Why don't you tell her, George?'
'Very well, Leonard. Lyra, I'll come straight to the point. The King has summoned a Special Council in London, and we should like you to represent Jordan College there.'
'But, Master! Why me? What about my work? My students?'
The Master smiled gravely. 'I'll admit that this is an unusual request. Let me explain further. It has been…' he looked at the Dean, 'ten or more years since the last King's Council, has it not?'
'Twelve years,' the Dean said.
'Twelve years, then. The last Council was concerned with the Matter of Eire. It sat in conclave for, I believe, seven months and the outcome was the Treaty of Cashel, which granted Eire limited independence from the Kingdom of Brytain, in exchange for certain trade agreements.'
'I remember it, Master. But Eire is at peace. The whole country is at peace, and prosperous, so far as I can tell. Why would the King need to call a Council now?'
'We don't know, Lyra. We rather hoped that you might be able to tell us. After all, you do have a – um – special relationship with the truth.'
Lyra took out the alethiometer. 'I can perform a reading now, Master, if you wish it.'
'No, on second thoughts that will not be necessary. You see, the summons from the Palace specifically requested your attendance – or, at least, the attendance of a skilled alethiometrist. You are by far the most adept member of College when it comes to the actual interpretation of the oracle, as opposed to its theory, and that is why we are asking you to go to London for us.'
The Dean sat forward in his armchair. 'You will no doubt consider it wise to ask the alethiometer, in your own time, why the King is calling his Council now. I should advise you to be wary of the answer it gives. It is my suspicion – our suspicion – that there are likely to be other parties in Council who will possess the means of divining the oracle in ways of their own.'
'Yes; and means of confusing it, too. Lyra, we would not normally consider sending a person so young, and with so little experience in politics and the ways of the world, to a King's Council. The Dean, or myself, would be expected to represent the academic community. But there are muddy waters here, and it may well be that youth and naivety will see things which age and wisdom will miss. And,' the Master gave a wry smile, 'you have unique knowledge which we think will be valuable. Will you go?'
Lyra stood up, gathering Pantalaimon into her arms. 'Yes, Master, I will go. When do I leave?'
'You will be collected at ten o'clock tomorrow and taken to London. The first meeting of the Council will take place the following day. In the meantime, I will see to the reassignment of your academic duties.'
'Be very careful. For all our sakes, and especially your own.'
'I will, Sir.'
After Lyra had gone, the two old men faced each other across the hearth, where the dying fire was turning to grey ashes. 'This is a terrible risk we're taking, George.'
'I know, Leonard, I know.' The Master sighed. 'She's still so…'
'Yes, young. And…'
'I know. It's just the same for me, too. But she's her father's daughter and she's seen things that we can only dream of.'
'Quite so, quite so.'
Old men are spared the harsher rigours of war; the marches, the bullets and the fear of death in battle. But it falls to them instead to be the ones who have to send young men and women into peril, to face death maybe, and so there is fear for them too. The Dean and the Master, old men both, sat silently musing over the circumstances which were forcing them to put in mortal danger a person whom they both loved so very dearly that it turned their hearts to ice to think of her coming to harm.