With a thrill of anticipation and a twinge of trepidation, Marisa glanced up at the dark November sky and felt the gentle whisper of snow brush against her face. She had for the best part of a week, agonised over the decision to come; if only she could be certain that she wasn't on a fool's mission. The building loomed before her, knifing up into the dark November sky. A cold, dark, sleek block of black granite that stood in a stark contrast next to the more ornate and older buildings that had stood for centuries on the same spot and seemed to frown in disapproval at the new impostor. It was like a mighty iceberg erupting from an otherwise bleak sea, a beacon in an otherwise dismal landscape.
Taking a deep breath and telling herself it was now or never, she walked into the foyer. A nest of butterflies erupted into flight in her stomach at the mere thought of being in his presence once more; her daemon quivering with a deep delight as he hugged her neck. It was with more confidence than she really felt that she purposefully strode across the gleaming floor her heels clicking on the shiny slate tiles. The foyer was bustling; a swirl of young academics clutching briefcases and chattering excitedly and older politicians with their insincere smiles and hollow greetings all meandering towards the doors to the lecture theatre. She knew from experience that politicians viewed such events as little more than a networking opportunity and this lecture would be no exception. Visiting royal dignitaries, even the King himself, would be in attendance to hear Lord Asriel speak. Granted, they would be at the front of the lecture theatre, separated from the common man, but it always paid to be seen. One politician, a man she vaguely recognized from Edward's last, tedious dinner party, knitted his brows in confusion for a split second as he placed her before brightening considerably and advancing towards her.
"Marisa! I say, Marisa!"
Her heart sank to think she would be forced to spend the evening at his side, singing her husband's praises and massaging the politician's considerable ego. Curling her fingers tight in her daemon's fur, feeling his angry growl reverberate deep within, she forced the cordial and delighted smile onto her face. However, before the politician had the chance to reach her side, the concierge intercepted him, bowing politely and asking to see her invitation.
"Straight up the stairs, Mrs. Coulter," the concierge informed her with a congenial smile after he had examined her invitation. "Lord Asriel's personal guests are enjoying an aperitif in the Reading Room prior to his lecture."
She nodded politely and began to ascend the wide, curved staircase that swept upward to the balcony above, her every movement exuding a confidence that told those eyes that watched her ascent that she belonged to this world of grandeur. Already she could detect the faint strains of classical music floating down from the room above, mingling with the gentle hubbub of excited chatter. It took all of her self control not to turn and cast a haughty glance down at the humble bourgeoisie below, for she was sure Edward's politician friend was watching with open mouthed incredulity as she, the mere wife of a politician, joined the aristocratic circle.
Standing in the doorway of the Reading Room, Marisa paused for a moment, hungrily drinking in the taste of power and the sight of the most prominent aristocrats and royals, all the while scanning the assembled crowd for a glimpse of him. Her heart sank a little when she realised that he was not in the room. However, her disappointment was only momentary, as the disgruntled and disbelieving cry floated down from above.
"You're out of your minds! All of you!"
Swiveling her head, along with the other guests, Marisa cast her eyes upwards to the balcony which encircled the reading room. A tall gentleman, whom she recognized from the Snow Ball as being one of the King's Advisers, had emerged from a darkened doorway above onto the balcony. Trembling, his frog daemon shuffling around his feet in agitated distress, the man pointed an accusatory finger at the group of men who emerged behind him.
"An insider, it has to be. How else could they have obtained such highly sensitive information? There is a spy in Whitehall! There is a traitor among us!"
The deathly silence which followed his outburst was deafening. Every whisper of conversation below was quashed in a heartbeat, dozens of frightened, beleaguered eyes swiveling upwards.
"This is neither the time nor the place, gentlemen," the sneer of cool command cut through the palpable tension, dispersing the riled expressions of his companions as he emerged from the shadows, a hand on the snow leopard's head. The very sound of his voice send a shiver racing through her as the room let out the collective breath it had been holding. "These are discussions best left for Whitehall."
He did not wait for a response, for he had left no room for doubt. Without another word, the group dispersed, heading for the spiral staircase that lead down to the reading room below. Leaning heavily on the railing, Asriel watched his companions melt into the crowd below as the murmurs of conversation began once more. Stelmaria murmured to him and he turned, staring deep into his daemon's eyes with an unfathomable frown. He knew human folly like the back of his hand. The last ten years had taught him several harsh lessons; the shallow value of wealth, the recklessness of romance, the brutal reality that a man had to stand alone. Yet as he stood high on the balcony above, surveying the frivolity in the reading room below, he felt his gut tighten. All his life he had strived for perfection: below perfection of a kind, a lone splendor shining bright in the darkness of the room, was conversing with an elegant eloquence that he had never before witnessed. Glossy black curls glistening in the light from the naphtha lamps swirled around her perfect alabaster face, her soft laughter, melodic and low, floated above the hubbub of gentle chatter to the balcony above and he allowed himself to be momentary lost in the delicious sound as he watched her charm the Prince Reagent of Tuscany. The most unwelcome intrusion, the sound of the Steward's voice asking the assembled guests to move towards the lecture theatre, roused him from his daydream, dragging him back to the harsh reality of the present. His pulse accelerated as she walked towards the door, his throat constricting as she hazarded the quickest of glances upwards in his direction. It had been so brief that he couldn't be certain that she had really smiled at him at all, the tip of her tongue provocatively running over sensual lips that were for others.
"The King may be in attendance," Stelmaria purred with a dark glint in her dark eyes, "however once you state your case, even he shall be powerless to protect you. We shall be on our own."
Another profound and indecipherable glance between man and his daemon and a thousand words, a thousand thoughts, a thousand dreams passing between them in the briefest of seconds as both acknowledged their fate.
"Come," he murmured to Stelmaria, "we had better not keep them waiting."
The stunned silence that followed his statement, hung in the hair before erupting like the first clap of thunder before a storm. Over the excited din, a furious sneer cut through the noise:
"Are you suggesting that this….script…predates the flood itself?"
The voice was that of the Cardinal Archbishop, who rose to his feet as he spoke, his lizard daemon flicking her tongue in anger as he glared formidably first at Asriel himself and then at the King, who sat expressionless in the front row with the other Heads of State in attendance.
"Surely I need not remind our most Imperial Majesty of the danger of supporting such assertions."
"Forgive me, My Lord," the sound of her seductive, soft voice, silenced the protest that formed on many a lip to see the Cardinal so flagrantly ignore the politics of addressing their Head of State, distilling rising tempers and drawing attention quite firmly onto her and her alone, "perhaps I have misunderstood. This stone carving predates the Great Flood. Surely all that confirms is that there was a civilization prior to the Great Flood, not that it survived the Great Flood; to prove that the script would have to be dated to the time of the Great Flood itself or the immediate aftermath, proving that there was one continuous, unbroken, unaffected civilization."
Dark, unfathomable eyes bored into hers, an enigmatic smile flittering across his otherwise stern face as he gave a terse nod, "precisely."
There were more questions, mostly from the scholars in attendance which he fielded with an ease and grace that left her in awe but she found herself unable to give the now more amicable debate that filled the room her full attention. Rather, she had sat quite still, immune to the rapturous applause as the lecture ended, oblivious to the jovial chatter of Prince Philippe as he introduced her to his inner circle, all the time haunted by the melancholy in Asriel's eyes. Declining a glass of Champagne as the waiters once more began their circuit of the most important of guests, Marisa excused herself, barely remembering to curtsy, before slipping from the room.
It was deep in the recess of the atrium, half hidden behind a colossal statue of the first Bear King, little more than a thinned and yellow scrap of paper, shriveled and torn around the edges. She had not been entirely sure where she was going and so she had let her instincts guide her to the antiquity's hiding place, out of view of most. Peering through the thickened glass, Marisa wondered what the complex series of lines actually meant. There had been several attempts to read it, she knew. All had failed. Roberovski had managed to date the script, or so he had claimed, to having been created shortly after the Great Flood that had washed all sin from the earth. The discovery, Marisa remembered although she had only been a small child at the time, had caused quite a stir. But the code could not be broken and interest in the script had dwindled and died out.
For as she stared at the ancient scroll, she knew with cast iron certainty that the tablet produced by Lord Asriel during his lecture, found deep under the ice of Svallbaard contained the same series of perplexing lines.
"I'm impressed," his voice was little more than a low growl but still it reverberated in the silence of the atrium as he came to stand behind her, resting a hand on the snow leopard's head. "I didn't think anyone had remembered Roberovski's script."
"Only it's not Roberovski's script at all," Marisa reached forward, letting her fingers trace the glittering gold letters inlaid on the white marble base that shone and sparkled like ice:
Bequeathed to the Royal Artic Institute by the Grace of the Authority, His Servant on Earth, Princess Gabriella of Brytain and the Brytish Dominions beyond the Seas, Imperial Majesty, Defender of the Faith, Saint of His Church upon her passing from this Earth on 11th November 1840.
"It belonged to the Good Lady Gabriella," she continued softly, "left to the institute when she died."
"It was what she died for," he corrected her, clenching his teeth as his face darkened in despair, "if the deciphering of the symbols proved that this civilization had existed before the Great Floor and indeed continued entirely unaffected by the same, it would bring into question the accuracy of the Bible. The church's teachings would be undermined – dismissed as being entirely irrelevant. Questions, questions as to the very age and origin of the world itself would be raised. The church would quite simply lose control," his eyes blazing with a passionate fury, he reached out to touch the glass, "in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1840, it was unthinkable."
"It's unthinkable even now," Marisa murmured, her brow furrowed, fear flittering across her face as she turned to face him, "the Church won't allow it. It would be madness to pursue this. Asriel, it's a death sentence."
"She knew something," strong fingers traced over the name before coming to rest on the glass, a fierce look of concentration upon his face as though he was trying to distill the knowledge of the departed by touch alone, "she gave her life in the hope that one day the truth would prevail."
"How can you be so sure it's what she died for?" Marisa whispered, stepping closer still.
"Because she was my mother," he replied simply, his hand falling from the glass.
He knew only to well the folly of letting his mask slip. It was only for the briefest moment but in that instant she saw it all so clearly as his heart lay open and exposed; the boy, drowning in the depths of a divine despair. A pain so old and yet so fresh so as to relive it with every wakening, as her memory clung to him, leaving a stain on his soul. Her fingers were as soft as silk, tenderly finding his and becoming intertwined.
"My Lord," the steward appeared, bowing stiffly, "Lady Belacqua wishes you to know the carriages are now departing; you have dinner reservations at the Savoy."
"Very good, Granton," Lord Asriel grunted, the intensity of the moment evaporating instantly as he turned on his heel and set off apace towards the stair case, calling over his shoulder, "I trust you can join us for dinner? Cecily is most anxious to meet you."
"Your wife?" Marisa asked, hoping her voice sounded as nonchalant as she hoped, all the while suppressing the most irritating feelings of jealousy that had welled up within her when the steward had mentioned Lady Belacqua.
"Cecily is my cousin," Asriel told her with a sardonic smile as she accepted his proffered arm, "Mrs. Coulter."
He had said something, she had blushed, laughed. Together they had descended the stair case to the foyer below, greeted by his peers, with good natured jibes for holding them up. Hidden in the shadows above, the King emitted a troubled sigh. Already it was as though she had always been one of them, born of noble blood, educated in the ways of the aristocratic circle. Turning slightly to address his personal secretary, the King never once let his gaze falter from the frivolity below.
"One of my junior advisors, you say?"
"Yes, My Liege," the elderly man took a step forward, coming to rest behind the King's left shoulder, "a very recent appointment upon the recommendation of the Master of Jordan College. Well educated, but quick to anger and not altogether popular.
"Send a messenger to Mrs Coulter in the morning. I wish to speak to her alone. Ask her to come to the Palace tomorrow afternoon."
"Very well, My Leige," the elderly man bowed slightly before asking, "is there anything else?"
The King was silent for a moment as he let his gaze linger on the glass display cabinet. Closing his eyes and stroking his daemon's feathers he gave a curt nod.
"Yes," the King said grimly, "the Roberovski script….it must be destroyed immediately."
A line he had prayed he would never have to cross.
A path once chosen that he could not veer from.
A promise he had made, which would now be broken.