The weekend hunting party was the same as ever. There was the house with the same angles, the same stones, the same dusty, forgotten air. There were the same guests, ten or so at most, intent on learning secrets, tossing miniature insults from one to another. The same men with guns on their shoulders and the same woman, staying behind to compare dresses, houses, husbands.
The same name-cards on every bedroom door, their purpose hanging and unspoken.
Except that it was not the same.
Marisa and Edward Coulter, printed on a door for all to see.
Lord Asriel Belacqua, in bold letters, just across the hall.
Sooner or later, she thought, sooner or later.
"This is our Elisabeth," Franz, the host and the girl's brother, announced.
"A prominent family. German. He's here on Church business," the monkey hissed.
The girl dropped a stiff, old-fashioned curtsy, her pale, narrow eyes downcast, a moth-daemon fluttering round her shoulders. Her eyes remained lowered even after she herself had risen.
"I have heard so much about you, Miss Lindenstein. It is such a pleasure to finally meet you." The monkey scanned the room, searching for someone who was not there or not yet, at least.
"Thank you, Mrs. Coulter," Elisabeth stumbled in broken English, "I feel quite the same way."
"Do call me Marisa."
"And I Elisabeth."
Franz rose, his squirrel daemon perched on his shoulder and blank eyes fixed on the drinks table, leaving the two women to themselves.
"It is my pleasure," Marisa lied, a light smile creeping across her face, "This is your first season, am I correct?"
Elisabeth reddened, nodding.
"I fear I am making a terrible job of it," she confided, letting go of her strained composure.
"Not at all. I was far worse upon my season. In fact," Marisa leaned in as though she were telling a delicious secret, "I quite envy how well you handle it." Elisabeth blushed once more, looking pleased.
"Thank you, Mrs. Coulter."
"I tell you, it is Marisa!" Mrs. Coulter laughed, a light, tinkling sound.
"Thank you, Marisa."
"I am curious. Tell me, have all the guests arrived for the week-end?"
"Most, I think. There is an explorer Cristiana is excited about who has not come yet. I cannot recall his name."
The monkey bared his teeth, reaching for the still-flying moth. Marisa placed a hand on his back.
"Explorer? How terribly exciting! What sort of work does he do?"
"Northern exploration. Experimental theology, I should think. Cristiana says if he isn't careful he'll find himself in the same place as Rusakov."
She seemed pleased to have an important piece of information, as though it would make her belong.
Marisa bristled, both at this callous assessment and the girl's thoughtless, naive openness.
"Let us not talk of such unpleasant matters," Marisa warned.
"Of course not. I apologize." Elisabeth seemed to realize she had made a mistake. Her voice shook and her cheeks burned.
"Think nothing of it," Marisa dismissed, waving a hand. The girl smiled, impressed by her.
The moth landed in the monkey's outstretched palm.
"I want to see an explorer," Elisabeth mused, calmer, "It should be so exciting, someone who has been North and seen things. Everyone I am introduced to is dull."
She reddened, realizing what she had said.
"Oh, Mrs. Coulter, oh, I don't mean---" she stumbled.
"I know what you meant. And just so that you know, explorers are nearly always just as dull, if not twice so."
Elisabeth's face dropped.
"I suppose you are correct," she said, "All I meet, all my suitors are dull old men and young fops. I should like to meet an explorer."
Not unusual words from an awkward, dreaming, naive girl's lips and they were dismissed at the time.
Marisa had been dreaming all week, waking up sweating, relieved and disappointed to rise with the sheets tangled round her and Edward sleeping at her side. It was inevitable, she knew, ever since the night of the theater it had been set.
They'd seen each other a few times, Edward always present, trading short, scalding glances and a few words.
It was not the same.
I hope you are enjoying your evening, Lord Asriel.
Yes, I am quite well, my Lord. And you?
Good-night, Lord Asriel. I trust you have enjoyed yourself.
And he would nod and give brief answers, his eyes never leaving her, a smile playing on his lips.
Once, just once, as she was leaving, he pulled her to him and whispered in her ear.
"I won't always stand aside when you ask me to, Marisa," he'd breathed.
And then she'd slipped away.
He arrived an hour late and the room stopped, turning to see him.
How could they not?
The room was the same way for Marisa. She had been feeling eyes on her for the evening, for every evening. Polished, hard, sparkling.
For a moment, she imagined the two them walking in together, his arm around her as she smiled at the crowd. They would be the brightest in the room, always, surpassing everyone else.
But something made her shake off the thought, something she couldn't understand. In some way, it didn't seem right.
Every guest had their eyes poised on him, pretending to continue with their conversations, not to care.
The famous young explorer.
Well, well, well.
Marisa tried to smooth her face into blank disinterest, her hand clenching the monkey's fur, hoping she wasn't failing as miserably as the others.
Asriel did not seem to notice the room, or even notice her. He returned to his place by the wall, watching them all with faint, amused disinterest.
Him by the wall, her in the center.
That was how it went.
Cristiana, the hostess, her stiff face painted by rouge, rushed forward, her Siamese cat daemon trailing behind.
"Lord Asriel!" she cooed, "It is such a pleasure to see you!"
"The pleasure is mine," Asriel rumbled, indifferent.
Marisa covered her mouth with her glove, disguising the smile spreading across her face. He didn't even attempt to sound sincere.
Edward had twisted his lips into a grimace, turning his back, pretending to inspect the bookshelf.
Asriel threw a glance to where Marisa sat. Unlike their previous meetings, she did not avert her eyes.
"The shooting," brayed Sir Dullsworth, as Marisa had mentally dubbed him, a balding man with a sloth daemon, "is better this season than it has been in ten years. The country's absolutely running over with pheasants."
"That is good to hear," Cristiana simpered, "I'm sure you will bring back quite a bit. Franz, I must say, is an excellent hunter."
"My dear wife flatters me," Franz smiled, his eyes blank.
"English hunting is a dull, worthless pursuit," Asriel announced and all the heads whipped down to look at him.
"How have you decided that?" demanded Dullsworth.
"It is merely shooting at some slow creature in the woods or a pheasant in the sky without a trace of danger or a hint of risk. It's a way for cowards to feed their egos while remaining protected. How many men who brag of killing foxes would look a tiger in the eyes?" Asriel scoffed.
Marisa smirked. It was the most offensive thing he could have said at the table besides possibly professing loyalty to that new Muscovite heresy about distributing wealth and ridding the world of social classes or announcing that he did not believe in the Authority.
Both, she supposed, were faintly possible.
"And you have looked a tiger in the eyes?" Franz demanded.
"I've killed two."
"Well, isn't this nice?" Cristiana giggled, trying desperately to steer the conversation back to pleasant formality.
"I find hunting cruel," Elisabeth piped up, having been silent for nearly the entire meal.
"It's the natural order of things, my girl!" Dullsworth bellowed, "Haven't you heard the new theories? Experimental theologians say that the fittest survive, whatever the circumstances!"
"That's simple heresy!" Edward insisted.
"Excuse me," Marisa began, "I have a question for Lord Asriel."
The table became silent.
She smiled, a demure look passing over her face.
"If Lord Asriel has such a distaste for English hunting, why has he come this weekend?"
Asriel's eyes glittered, intense, looking her over.
"If you'll excuse me," she said, "I need some air."
She left the table, knowing he would follow.
"Hello," she breathed, pressed against the stones of the balcony, taut, waiting.
"You've been planning this out, haven't you, Marisa?" Asriel laughed, mirthless, anticipating.
Their daemons moved on the floor, forward and back, back and forth, a waiting dance.
"You seem to follow wherever I go."
"Yes," he rumbled, his eyes running her up and down.
"Why is that?"
He brushed his fingers against her skin. She tensed, that same constriction as before.
So this is what they speak about.
She found herself remembering a church visit, many years ago, when her father was still lucid enough to drag her to Church instead of staying in his ordinary haze. The priest had hung pictures on the wall, cartoonish and grotesque. One, labeled Avarice, showed a man pulling gold coins toward him, his face hideous and distorted. Another picture, marked Envy, showed a woman, green-skinned and deformed, staring with malice at another woman, pale-haired alabaster-skinned angel with a blank-eyed dove daemon.
And then there was Lust. Lust, somehow still more repellant than the others, her bloodshot eyes bulging, thick lips parted in twisted wonder. She was a warning symbol, Lust.
Marisa hadn't been able to look away from her at the time, fascinated and horrified by this thing she did not yet understand, this Lust.
The Seven Deadly Sins. She'd never forgotten them.
In the years ahead, when a man would touch her, his eyes clouding over and his mouth hanging open, she would see Lust's face for his and laugh to herself.
Asriel's hand moved across her hip.
"No," she whispered, "Not here."
"I'm not the sort to deny myself for long, Marisa."
"You are not."
And in that moment he pulled her round to him. They were locked together, her hands tangled in his hair, his hands on her back.
There was no calculation in it, only impulse. Again there was that new, odd feeling, that tense heat.
It was not until they broke away that Lust's contorted face hung in front of Marisa's eyes, her red tongue lolling and stupid eyes wide.
"Ever since that day at the theater," she whispered, "Ever since then... It's as though I'm being pulled in a direction I don't want to go but I can't help it, I can't help anyth---"
He drew her to him again, rough, careless, ignoring her words.
"It's right, I promise. It's right," Asriel insisted.
"I don't know if I---"
"All of it is right."
She had never imagined herself as Lust before.
"Sooner or later," the monkey whispered after Asriel had gone, his tone nervous this time.
"Tonight, I think," she mused, staring out the window.
It was set in motion. There was no way to stop.
I think so. I hope so.
Once your husband is asleep, leave your room and come across the hall to mine. I'll be waiting for you.