"It must be there." Stelmaria insisted, a growl finding her usually chilled tone. Lord Asriel's eyes flickered from the label of one fat scroll to another, the tip of his impatient index finger sliding along the ledge as he searched.
"It isn't." He reported to the snow leopard, who tossed her tail,
"What are we to do?"
"Speak to the librarian..." Asriel decided after one last squint at the titles of the scrolls of the high shelf. He turned and began his trek to the desk across the way. Stelmaria was at his heels, as always,
The library at the Royal Arctic Institute was a sight to behold. Aside from Oxford, it was the largest collection the western world knew. The windows were slim stalks of light on all of the walls and today all of the curtains were drawn open. The sunlight reached through the shelves and as far into the warm, studious darkness as it could. But the ceiling was high and the navy darkness that pooled there had been untouched for centuries. Shadows were cast in odd places, but could be countered by the anbaric lamps that were hung in the most convenient of places.
Scholars and students and scientists sat in ornate wooden chairs at glossy desks that were clustered together in some spaces, drowning themselves in parchment and ink. Asriel would be happy to spend half of his life in such a place as this particular library (the other half, of course, he'd die to spend where the air was rarest).
"Sir," Asriel asked quietly of the librarian. The desk the older man sat at was a high one, one with carvings all around the edges, one with lists drooling off the sides of it, "You are certain that you have the 'I Ching' available in your collection of ancient texts?" The librarian himself was a waxy looking man, middle aged and solemn,
"I shall check again, to be sure." He said in his too-raspy voice. His daemon, a nosy little gopher scampered over a few papers and then came to rest in the man's lap while the librarian thumbed through a pamphlet, "Yes, we have it."
"I will look once more to be certain..." Asriel began when the gopher chirped unexpectedly,
"Oh," the librarian pursed his lips and lowered his nose to a little card, "Forgive me, the "I Ching", yes, it has just been borrowed out for the day."
"It was on reserve for me. I made sure of that yesterday, you see..."
"My mistake then, my mistake." The librarian sympathized, his gopher seeming very wary of Stelmaria's yellow teeth, "It was just about an hour ago. She said she wouldn't be leaving the library with it..."
"May I ask, who?"
"Well, it is with regret that I'll be interrupting someone, but I must have that text immediately."
"I understand. Would you like me to explain to her?"
"Save yourself the trouble, sir. I will handle this."
"As you'd have it. She has rented desk twelve for the evening. You will find her there, I think."
"Thank you." And Asriel set off again with Stelmaria irked more than she was earlier, her ears were pressing close to her head,
"The inefficiency of this place sometimes..." she hissed in the back of her throat.
"Calm yourself. No one but the librarian himself deserves any rudeness for his mistake." He could not wait to begin his work. The "I Ching" had intrigued him in class like no other text that they had touched on during the semester. The ideas of divination driven, perhaps, by Dust finally drew controversy into the class.
He passed the tenth desk, the eleventh, and there it was, the "I Ching" real and rotting at the edges and in the midnight paws of a golden monkey.
"Coulter?" Asriel asked. The lady who sat at desk twelve barely shuddered in surprise and then turned in her seat, her monkey gripping the scroll tighter,
"Yes?' she said lazily, looking up from the scroll, removing her thin reading-glasses. Her expression was bland and beautiful. She was dressed unlike any lady he'd seen for a while. The blouse she wore hosted a glittering broach that was pinned at already the most distracting part of the swooping neckline. And her hair was done up well and was dark in the dim light. "Oh, you must be Asriel. Looking for this, of course?" She nodded to the 'I Ching',
"I am. And, I apologize, but you must understand. You see, I had this on reserve for..."
"Oh, I know. I know." She said, keeping her low voice soft, turning to her notebook and making a final mark with her silver pen, "You may have it, of course. I just got here a while ago and noticed you hadn't come for it yet so I suggested the librarian allow me to borrow it until you arrived." And at this, Asriel expected Stelmaria to become very angry indeed, but to his surprise, his daemon barely acknowledged the news. She was preoccupied with watching the horned fingers of Coulter's monkey.
The lady and her golden daemon wrapped up the scroll together and then, Coulter took it up in her thin hand and held it out to Asriel. He pulled it from her immediately and nodded his head in strained thanks. He turned to go after Coulter smiled at him and returned to her note taking, crossing her legs. But then he stopped. Stelmaria had been startled. The Golden Monkey had made its way to the floor and prodded the leopard's tail with one of its sharp fingers. Coulter's dark eyes were on Asriel again and she said,
"I'm curious, I'm terribly sorry. What might you be using that for?"
"A research paper for Professor Gredulous. Psychology."
"The mind understanding itself and using that understanding to comprehend its own functions, predict its future functions..."
"Ah." She said, looking bored,
"And you?" Stelmaria and he said together. The monkey was sitting coyly by her heeled shoes now,
"Disproving the theories within it. I'm to assist with a lecture, held by the Lord Boreal in a few weeks." Her voice was quiet and small in the expanse of the library, so as Asriel had to strain to hear her. He neared her,
"Disproving the 'I Ching'. How can you manage to format an argument that..." Asriel challenged
"Attend the lecture and you might see how it is done." She tempted and retaliated in her deep whisper.
The next time he saw her it was through the smoke from his cigar, climbing up in front of his face. In those few instants, she was more of a mirage through the sweet smog than a tangible thing. But when Lord Asriel cleared the air before him with a slight wave of his hand, he saw the woman very, very clearly. He hadn't attended the lecture and he hadn't thought he'd come across her again. He found it odd that she would be invited to a benefit for the Magesterial sponsorship of the college.
"Let us go to her." Stelmaria suggested, eyes locked upon the monkey who was alert on the woman's shoulder, "Conversing with someone will be better than sitting and sulking." Asriel stood,
"But if she supports the sponsorship, that is all we will speak of and you'll become ill tempered and so will I..."
"Then be sure not to mention it. Speak of other things..."
"Good evening." Asriel offered the lady, who looked quite different than she had in the library. She was, tonight, a most glamorous creature, in a dark gown, with her lashes made-up and her lips seeming rosier. A graying man, in Magesterial robes, just then, stood up at the front of the room and began a dreadfully long toast. So when, the lady greeted him, her voice was quiet again,
"Sir." She returned. The Golden Monkey gave away the fact that she remembered him as well as he remembered her. Her daemon chattered and dared to bat the leopard's paw. Stelmaria kept still, watching. "You were not curious enough to visit for the lecture, I see."
"No, no, I was quite curious. I just didn't have the time."
"I'm merely playing at being offended." She did not even ask about the outcome of his paper. "Now, you will forgive me, I hope, for forgetting you name."
"Oh, Asriel, yes. A Lord are you, then?"
"I am." If she was impressed, she did not show it, "Are you involved with the college?" No women were present, save for the wives of the politicians. The Magesterium had boldly refused to invite any female student to the banquet arguing that their presence was not vital.
"My husband is." Stelmaria's tail curled and the leopard looked up at Asriel, "He's there, now. He's making the toast."
"Oh, I'm sorry for distracting you from his speech..."
"I welcome distractions." She said, making Stelmaria purr. And of course, now, Asriel's chest was tightening in a way so uncomfortable that he rarely allowed it to do so. And he was begging his eyes to stop being so effected by hers. But every time he tried to look from her face he'd notice something else about her, like the curve of her hips beneath the fabric of her gown, or the shadow pooling at her collar bone or when he looked away entirely, the unlikely metallic smell of her.
"He is on the high council, your husband?" Asriel diverted. Her husband was a fortunate man...
"Mhm." She said, her eyes, perhaps flitting down to his lips. Stelmaria arched her back when the Golden Monkey took its tail and brushed the leopard's chin lightly. "Edward Coulter." Asriel knew of him and hated him. Edward Coulter had been the one to see that Professor Addison was fired. Edward Coulter had been the one to place the final vote upon Proposition Ninety Four. And now, Asriel had one more reason, a far more selfish reason, to dislike him. "So, a Lord. Tell me honestly. Did you test well or did you parents see that you got into this school?" Stelmaria arched her back further at the insult,
"I will say that when you tell me honestly if you tested well or your husband saw to it that you got into this school."
"I tested better than my husband." She said with a smirk that Asriel had never thought possible.
"And I got into this academy fairly as well. We are both worthy students." Asriel said, his lips a thin line,
"And worthy opponents, apparently." She chortled quietly, forcing his mouth to relinquish a smile.
And when he happened upon her again, at another function funded by the Magesterium, this time at the Blakes Hotel, it was two months after their graduations from the Royal Arctic Institute. She was alone, with no husband to introduce him to or divert his attentions to.
"Excuse me, do you remember when we met at the Magesterial reception last November?"
"No." She lied with a feigned shyness that made his blood quicken, "Lord Asriel, I don't recall." Coulter's voice was the loudest he'd ever heard it. It was rich with cigarettes smoked and late nights spent awake over text books and under silk sheets. And she set down her drink on a little table beside the sofa upon which she sat, straight-backed. She moved over so that he could sit down near her. He did. And Stelmaria remained on the floor with The Golden Monkey,
"How have you been?" Asriel asked with a smile, adjusting his coat so he could sit comfortably,
"Well, quite well. And yourself?"
"I cannot complain." He began, daring to boast, "I have gathered a research team for myself so that's been keeping me busy."
"Oh?" The Golden Monkey was examining one of Stelmaria's claws very closely. Coulter's gaze strayed to observe two Magesterial officials passing by the sofa, "Well, congratulations."
"Thank you. Yes. I intend to research the Rusakov theories..." And Coulter turned her head quickly to look him in the face, her black curls moving,
'No, no..." She insisted, lifting a gloved hand to silence him for certain, "Don't go on. I've heard about you and I don't want any rumors confirmed about what you might be believing." Stelmaria shifted and pressed the sharp part of her skull into Asriel's leg,
"All right." Asriel said almost tartly, "Then I don't know what to speak of. My work has been consuming me."
"Well then let us not talk about research or work or husbands who happen to be out of town on business tonight." Stelmaria and the Golden Monkey were staring at each other and Asriel could feel the energy. The leopard could see herself reflected in the black eyes of the other daemon, with the anbaric glow of the lamp beside the desk floating behind her head like a misplaced star.
Coulter turned away to reach for her drink, moving so her spine curved in perhaps the most becoming of ways. When her hair moved, it exhaled expensive aromas. And when she turned back to him he could not hide his smile. "Are you staying here?"
"Yes, are you?" The daemons were still staring.
"Yes." She sipped the drink. It almost broke him to see her lips find the rim of the glass so casually, to see the wine fall into her mouth, to hear her exhale. "They've put me up in the penthouse despite my husband's absence. You, Asriel, must be glad that a bit of the Magesterium's sexism has died. At least they've allowed me to represent him here tonight. You must be happy of that, thinking the way you do."
"Yes, Mrs. Coulter, that is one reason why I'm glad to see you here this evening."
"Alone." Chimed Stelmaria brazenly, flaring her nostrils and slowly shifting her shoulders. The monkey did not stir. And Coulter knew of his intentions. Asriel was sure. And Asriel was correct,
"Please, Lord Asriel. Call me Marisa."
And he did. After a frenzied first kiss inside the elevator, Asriel called her Marisa over and over again until his voice was hoarse and they were on the floor of the penthouse suite and her dress was near the window with one of the buttons missing. And Lord Asriel was realizing that her face was gorgeous before, but it was never more beautiful than when she was looking up, her eyes opening and then closing tightly again, her high cheekbones bright and glossed, her mouth gaping to make room for the breaths singing out of her.
He pressed the woman to the carpet, ruining her perfected curls, erasing the make-up from her face. And she was very, very real now, but even in those moments the she was not entirely corporeal. As hard as he grasped her, as close as he took her to him, Asriel could barely believe Marisa Coulter was more than fantasy.
Stelmaria let the Golden Monkey gnaw at her back with his razor teeth. The daemons were a little ways away, fighting each other and then forgiving each other over and over. The leopard would occasionally purr kind things to Marisa Coulter's daemon, who stayed as silent as ever.
"Marissa." Asriel gasped to the searing side of her neck when both of them were dazed and all they knew to do was breathe together. He moved from her to lie beside her on the carpet, squinting his eyes shut, letting his lungs catch up with him.
The following morning was a hazy one. Asriel awoke before Stelmaria, who had slept on the floor beside the bed, coiled comfortably around the Golden Monkey. It was dim in room 502. The only light that peered into the room came from under the double doors at the entrance and from between the small space in the velvet drapes at the far side of the space. It took him a moment to realize where he was, but the instant he remembered who the soft woman pressed close to him was, Asriel easily recalled it all. Marisa Coulter's face seemed slightly pained as she slept, or at least that's what the early morning darkness made it seem. She was wrapped up in his arms, breathing her minty breath on his chest.
And it was in that instant that Asirel felt the strange straining beginning in his stomach. He felt sick with the thought that he might never see her again, at least not like this. He felt sick with the thought that he might never touch her face, her legs, her chest again.
Just as he was drinking in the darkness and the minutes with her against him, Marisa Coulter stirred. He felt her head slowly brush his chin, her leg shift upon his. And then her daemon appeared on the nightstand, very much awake and alert, with his black hands clenched and his black eyes wide. His appearance was so sudden that Asriel twitched where he lay, gasping. Marisa mumbled something barely audible and looked up at the man beside her.
"Hm?" Asriel hummed, shifting so that they could look at each other in the darkness. She replied with a lethargic kiss and a gravelly,
"Good morning." And they may have dozed in and out after that, but Asriel could not recall. His eyes felt heavier than they'd ever felt and his legs ached delightfully. And it may have been an hour or so before Marisa said softly,
"You'll want to go out through the other suite, the single door. It's just be the lifts." And his lungs and heart swiftly wrapped around each other, squeezing tight. He was reminded again that this may have been the luckiest, fastest evening he'd ever know and that he was in bed with another man's wife.
"All right." Asriel agreed, beginning to rise from the bed, his thoughts numb,
"Mhm..." she droned, stretching. Her daemon scampered to the foot of the bed to watch Stelmaria stand. Asriel kept glancing back at the lady while he collected his things in a blind rush after hearing a butler pass by the door. "Turn on a light." He did and finished dressing while Stelmaria lingered by the bed, letting the Golden Monkey touch her ears.
While Asriel stood before the ornate mirror on the dresser, he made the final adjustments to his tie and watched the Marisa sit up. And she let the sheets fall from her and she immediately moved over the bed on her stomach and went to her daemon to pat the monkey on the head and smile at him while he continued to pamper the leopard. And then Asriel turned to her, wanting to say a thousand things.
"I might like to see you again." She told him, resting her head on her arm, her black hair sharply contrasting her pale skin and the pale bedding.
"I might like to see you again."
"Well, that's good." And he took up his jacket and went to her while she smiled up at him. Before he left her, Asriel turned her on her back to administer an until-next-time kiss to her almost chapped lips. And then they said their tired goodbyes. The monkey and the leopard parted for the time being and Asriel strode off through the series of warm, shadowy suites with his daemon.
It was October when he heard from her again. She sent a letter in a light blue envelope that smelled like her perfume. Asriel read it in the back of his private cab, with Stelmaria peering over his shoulder, her tail flicking back and forth as he broke the seal.
"I was beginning to think she had just used us for the moment."
"I know you were. And now you can worry that she's just using us for money."
"I won't be worrying about that." His daemon said, licking her lips,
"I will be."
"You shouldn't. She has a husband on the council. She doesn't need money." And she was growing impatient now, "Go on and read it. The worst it can be is a business letter..." The windows of the cab were rolled down halfway, so the breeze caught the edges of the golden stationary, making the note tremble in Asriel's fingers.
That particular letter was followed by another morning in a penthouse suite. And more letters and more hotel rooms came soon after that. Until Lord Asriel found himself attending radical lectures that she attended and then found himself taking a master class with her and studying with her and kissing her on desks. And it was a year and a half of hushed tones and heated arguments and leaving through single-door suites that had previously only been travelled by politician's mistresses.
And then Stelmaria began to detest the monkey's black hands on her face and she became preoccupied with staring out windows and thinking of great things while Asriel undressed Marisa Coulter. And the Golden Monkey became easily angered and tugged at the leopard's tail until Stelmaria growled at him. But Stelmaria would talk fondly of the other daemon when the lady was away, though Marisa never believed Asriel when he explained that to her. And one day, late at night in a laboratory, when Asriel had taken her ring finger gently between his lips, Marisa pulled her hand away calmly and asked with serious eyes,
"What are you thinking about?" Because Stelmaria had ignored the caress of the Golden Monkey once again.
"Dark matter." Stelmaria replied for herself when Asriel tried to unclasp one of the buttons of her blouse but Marisa pulled away. "Dust." It was one of the things they had agreed to disagree on.
"Can you ever clear your mind..."
"Why would I want to clear it entirely?" Asriel replied, leaning forward in his seat, brushing some of the gold hair from his face. She moved from her seat atop the desk and the monkey found her leg and quickly scampered up to her shoulder to peer down at Lord Asriel,
"We should not have taken this class together, Asriel."
"I'm still interested. You can feel free to drop it, if you'd like..."
"I mean, it was bad for us, Asriel."
"Well, it is bad for me."
"There you are, Marisa" Asriel said while Stelmaria scraped her claws on the white tile, "Let's not deny your selfishness..."
"Mine?" she said calmly, "I'm interested in Rusakov particles, but barely. I don't see why I'd ever have a use for in depth knowledge of these theories. If I'm taking this class to be with you, when I'm with you, could you at least tell your daemon to behave as she should."
"My daemon behaves how she likes and your daemon behaves how he likes..."
"He could," and now the lady sounded bitter, "if yours would allow him to."
"Your daemon's mind is elsewhere, you mind is elsewhere..."
"What do you care?"
"My daemon is tired of battling your grand schemes for just a minute of attention." And the Golden Monkey screamed and lept from her shoulder and landed on the desk, his tail whipping. Asriel recoiled a little and Stelmaria growled,
"If you want me to pretend sex with you is more important to me than my research, I can do that for you." He could not believe he had said it.
"We should not have taken this class together." She repeated, brushing a curl behind her ear,
"We cannot understand each other like this. I won't continue next semester, but I'll finish this one out with you." She was bitter, but he didn't really mind it when she was bitter,
"You still want to see each other?" He dared, his tone straight,
"I know you'll want to see me."
"Of course." Asriel told her very honestly. Stelmaria stared at the shuddering Golden Monkey on the desk. Asriel and his daemon understood that in one more breath, Marisa Coulter might take her leave from their life forever.
"And I said I wanted to stop studying with you. I want to continue seeing you." Stelmaria's tail twitched with gladness and then she turned away to watch the test tubes bubbling at the table across the way.
"I love you, Marisa." Asriel told the woman and she sort of smiled back at him. "I do. If this is what is coming between us, I think it is best that we stop working together." They took a breath,
"You'll get more work done, at any rate." And her temper had cooled, for the moment and she slid back to her seat on the black desk. The monkey made room for her, his claws clicking when he padded a little ways away. Marisa touched her foot to Asriel's knee and he scoffed lightly, smiling at her.
Then, he reached out his hand, clenching his jaw before letting his fingertip graze the silk soft tail of the Golden Monkey. Marisa took in a fast breath, curling her hands around the edge of the desk. And then the monkey scampered away to pet the absent Stelmaria's paw. Marisa's voice was quiet and content when she reprimanded him,
"Asriel, Never do that. I told you never to do that." Asriel breathed deep while she uncrossed her legs and looked up at the ceiling,
"And you also told me that it felt more right than anything else, so I'll continue to do that on occasion."
"I love you."
She dropped the class as they had planned and then their visits became far less frequent. However, that meant that when they did meet, their visits were far more desperate and daring and Asriel hoped she enjoyed things more that way, because he knew he did. He missed her more. And after not seeing her for two weeks, he was eager and even Stelmaria showed it.
The letter had said that she 'needed to see' him, that they had to meet 'immediately'.
Stelmaria and Asriel quietly entered the elevator together, told the operator in the lift to assist them to the ninth floor, and were then off down the hallway at a brisk pace.
"Can you afford this break from your work..." Stelmaria tried, trotting along beside him,
"You know we can." Asriel said to his daemon softly as he passed white door after white door. He took the little slip of golden stationary from his pocket to be sure of the room and then took out the silver key as well and slid it into the lock.
She was standing by the enormous window when he entered the room. It was a bright November afternoon and the cold white light from the clouds so near the tower blazed about her. Asriel felt his blood rush faster.
Her daemon was holding tightly to her ankle, pulling at a bit of her pantyhose with his claws. Stelmaria went quickly to him, lowering her head for him to touch if he'd liked.
"Marisa." Asriel grinned, immediately nearing her, standing behind her and taking her in his arms. Briefly he felt the stitching of her bodice through her dress when he ran his hand over her stomach. When he went to taste her neck, however, she pulled away, shaken.
She turned and he was met with an odd sight. She had been crying, it seemed. Her make-up had dried in coal-black streams down her pale cheeks, "Marisa?" And her daemon tore away from the leopard and began to scratch at the woman's legs, ripping up the bottoms of her stockings even further. He bit at the heel of her shoe, screaming when Marisa pushed Asriel away. Stelmaria growled low in her throat and gazed up at the woman. She picked up her thrashing daemon in one swift movement and hugged his frenzied form tightly to her. He squealed and hissed and tore her sleeve a little. She moved across the room, "What is it?" He had seen her angry, he had seen her hurting, but he had never seen her behaving like this, "Marisa?"
"We should have stopped." She barked at the wall.
"What?" He wasn't sure if she was talking to him or her daemon,
"We should never have done this, Asriel." And she turned, her daemon flying from her and rushing at the leopard, "I can't..." And her beautiful face twisted up while she glared at him,
"What happened?" Asriel asked while Stelmaria held off the monkey with vicious swipes of her steely claws,
"No..." And Marisa folded over, sinking into her arms and standing frozen in the middle of the room. Her daemon screamed and tore at himself,
"No, no..." she repeated, her shoulders drawing up. Asriel dared to near her,
"What's going on?"
"No." And then Asriel realized that the Golden Monkey had charged the leopard again and this time, succeeded in clutching onto one of Stelmaria's arms. It wailed into her fur. Asriel watched Stelmaria stiffen in surprise when the small daemon buried its black face into her speckled, sparkling chest. "God..." Marisa choked,
"Tell me." Asriel urged, looking to the woman again. And when her eyes found his he noticed how dark they were and how sick the circles beneath them had become. She took in a shuddering breath and then managed,
"Asriel, I'm pregnant." And then she began to cry, her jaw shaking, "It's yours." And Stelmaria roared and the monkey screamed and the two daemons leapt apart to rejoin Asriel and the woman. Stelmaria pressed that sharp part of her skull to Asriel's leg and dug her claws into the carpet.
"Abort it." Stelmaria voiced severely,
"Yes." Marisa said over the unbridled shrieking of her daemon. The monkey dragged his teeth down her shin and then Asriel watched her kick her daemon into the dresser, where it shrank away, silent and quivering,
"I have to."
"No, no..." Asriel tried to remain calm for her, "bare the child if you'd like."
"If you want to, you can. Only if you wish. If you have no interest, abort it. But listen, I can arrange whatever you'd like..."
"Asriel." Marisa began, the monkey was watching intently from the leg of the dresser,
"Have the child. Convince your husband that it is his. Once it is born, if it has his features, keep it with you. If it does not..."
"Oh my god..." The woman cried, burying her face in her hands,
"Feign its death and give it to me."
"Oh, god. Oh, god..."
"I will keep it."
"What?' rumbled Stelmaria, "No."
"I will keep it safe and away from anyone."
"No." Stelmaria insisted. The monkey was chattering and dragging itself towards Asriel, "No, Asriel."
"I couldn't. I can't." Marisa sobbed, "Asriel..."
"It's what you want. You would have aborted it already..."
"You wanted me to offer..."
"I knew you would." Marisa breathed
"Asriel!" Stelmaria raged at him, going to stand before him, glaring at him with her teeth bared, back arched, her eyes damning him. He pushed past her and opened his arms to the woman. The monkey dared to sit up and began to violently rub his sharp hands together. Stelmaria hissed for a full minute while the Lord Asriel embraced Marisa Coulter.
"We can't see each other again." She gasped over his shoulder,
"We can. I'll check in. I'll be making arrangements." He assured her, moving his hands over her back so very slowly to stop her frustrated trembling,
"We were so foolish."
"It can be fixed."
"Damn it." She said through gritted teeth as she pressed her face into his collar. Her tears were wet on his neck. Stelmaria began to growl and pace around the couple. When Asriel looked up, he could see his daemon passing by, teeth obvious, fur on end, eyes raging as they rarely raged.
"You fool." She thought to him.
Stelmaria came to love the child more than she or Asriel thought possible. Everything went as planned. Marisa faked the child's death, told the midwife to take the baby to the street where Asriel's maid, a gyptian woman, waited in a taxi to sweep the child away to Asriel's most comfortable estate. The midwife was poisoned peacefully that night in her own home by one of Asriel's trusted servants, who was later poisoned by Asriel himself.
"Lyra." Asriel coaxed his daughter's light eyes upwards,
"Oh, look." Said the stout Gyptian woman to the baby in her arms, "Your father is going to ask for all the good luck you can give him on his hunting trip." Lyra yawned indifferently. She was a dangerously petite child and her daemon was a lively one. The gyptian woman turned to Asriel. She had a waxy face, with one too many wrinkles, but she was kind as could be,
"I should like to hold her." And he took the child in his arms. Lyra's daemon slid from the sofa and toddled to the snow leopard. He was partial to the form of an ermine. Stelmaria lowered her nose to the floor so the small daemon could climb up on top of her head to nip her ears. "Hello and goodbye, Lyra." He told the child, who looked up at him dazed from her napping. And he kissed her soft forehead twice before handing her back to the woman and asking, "She cried all night?"
"As usual." The gyptian replied,
"For your sake, I hope she calms down soon."
"She wants to talk. She gets frustrated when she realizes she can't." joked the lady as Asriel turned to go.
It was a clear September evening and the forest was golden and quiet. Asriel had taken his dogs and two men out on horseback. They had found nothing but footprints thus far and were tracking their second boar when the message came. Thorold, upon a horse, his dog daemon screaming and running along with him, approached. Asriel was angered at first. He turned his high-stepping horse and called,
"You've probably disturbed half the forest with his yapping." Stelmaria rounded and glared at the panting dog,
"My Lord," Thorold gasped. Now Asriel realized that the man had not even properly saddled the animal or dressed to ride, "Your estate. A man, Edward Coulter..."
"He got through the gates."
"Lyra." Stelmaria breathed. And Asriel, with fear thrashing within him, snapped the reins and set off on his horse. He left his party behind to gather themselves and take off after him. The setting sunlight was garish now and flickered through the pine trees. Stelmaria was bounding over the dirt beside him, leaping with the horse over logs and barreling through thickets. Finally they reached the edge of the woods and burst out onto the gold prairie before the mansion. Asriel's chest was heaving in panic. The wind stung his eyes and whipped out the tails of his coat. Stelmaria gave a roar as they tore through the open gates of the estate. The cheufer had been shot on the driveway and the doors were wide open. Asriel dismounted at the stairs of the house and drew his gun from his belt. Stelmaria continued running and crashed through the entryway before him while he climbed the steps, sprinting towards the door, with all the speed he had.
Asriel jumped over the bodies of two butlers, flying behind his screaming daemon, down the hall, up the stairs to the bedroom of his daughter.
Lord Asriel met Edward Coulter in the nursery. The politician was at the closet, trying to pry it open when Stelmaria's teeth found the neck of his daemon. She was a panther and a horrible match for Stelmaria. The daemons snarled together and threw each other into the empty crib. Asriel immediately shot at Edward Coulter, who charged at him despite the bullets in his arm and tore the gun from Asriel's grasp. Lyra was crying in the closet because of the noise and the gyptian woman was screaming. And there was a tearing noise and Edward Coulter was swearing at him, but Asriel knew only to batter him and be battered by him and force him out of the bedroom.
Stelmaria, her jaw dripping with gore, bit the panther's leg again and dragged her to the hallway. Asriel and Edward followed, gripping at each other's throats. Lyra was crying even louder. And then, Stelmaria tossed the other daemon down the stairs. Edward followed, tumbling, and Stelmaria brought Lord Asriel his gun. Edward Coulter clutched his broken leg and swore at Asriel one final time, his bloody face contorted for one last instant before the bullet found his left eye.
The courtroom went silent when the woman rose from her seat, smoothing her skirt, touching her hair and then stepping towards the stand. The judge sat at a high, metal desk, with stained glass windows glowing behind him. Even from a distance, Asriel could see the white haired man and his orange-eyed owl daemon looking the lady over. And Stelmaria let out a loud breath, when the Golden Monkey strode past her. The two daemons did not even glance at each other.
"Marisa Coulter." Came the Judge's voice. The Golden Monkey scaled the silver stand with ease, perching there and turning his black face to look up at Marisa. She had made her expression soft, painted with trouble and beautiful pain. And she did look beautiful, dressed as elegantly as ever, wearing a little less make-up around her eyes in case she began to cry. Asriel desired nothing more in that instant than to rise, go to her, take his hot hands and wrap his fingers around her neck and hold her until her pale face was icy and indigo and still. But he restrained himself and settled for staring at her, daring her eyes to find his. "Mister Quintinius will now proceed in asking you a few questions."
Quintinius was a seasoned professional, dressed in the dark blue robes of his trade that made his pale skin all the paler. His glasses sat stiffly on his nose. He approached his client with respect. And he asked her predictable questions in his soft voice. And she did end up crying, just as she'd planned. And Asriel watched as she let her eyes sweep the jury as she recollected,
"Edward just got so hideously angry, rightfully angry. I told him how I felt, I said I felt horrible. I said it wasn't even something I had wanted and I had been so, so ashamed to tell him what I had let become of me. I didn't want to be with Asriel in the first place and..." She paused to take in a breath and let her chest rise and fall under her jacket, "I...this is rather personal, isn't it..."
"Continue." The Judge said, touching the rings on his left hand, his daemon with its wandering eyes shifting beside him. "Please."
"I will." Marisa promised, putting a hand upon the drooping head of the Golden Monkey, "Lord Asriel and I met on an evening when I had had a few drinks. And we saw each other only a few times after..."
"Objection!" Rang Ms. Othora's deep voice. She stood up beside Asriel, her snapping hawk daemon gripping her shoulder.
"Ms. Othora?" The Judge acknowledged,
"Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter saw each other well over twenty times for certain. They took classes together..."
"Forgive me." Marisa recovered, "When I said saw, I meant, had sexual relations with."
"A few times, Mrs. Coulter?" Othora shot. Marisa cried again, taking her daemon close,
"Please, Ms. Othora, it's very difficult."
"But it is very necessary."
"Enough, Ms. Othora, enough." The Judge decided, allowing Marisa to go on about how ashamed she was of herself and the entire ordeal.
Asriel's lawyer sat down, the hawk on her arm folding his wings bitterly. Stelmaria looked up at Asriel when he took up his pen and began to write.
"If we had not hired a woman, we would have been in jail by now with the way those Magesterial pigs are eating from her hand." The leopard thought with the man.
"Now I regret all the infidelity, Edward knew I was ashamed." Marisa was saying. She had composed herself and now stood tall, bathing in the stares of the men on the jury. "It was childish of me to behave like I behaved. I turned from that sort of behavior months ago. I decided to strive to devote myself as I should to the practices of the Magesterium. Knowing I had a child out there, the ghost of a sinful affair out there, it pained me. I suppose that's what Edward saw. He cared for me so well." She paused, "Too well. And perhaps that's what drove him to try and harm the girl."
"Thank you, Mrs. Coulter." Quintinius sympathized, then turning sharply to the Judge and announcing that he had, "No further questions."
Asriel had a thousand questions for her. Would she sell herself to the Magesterium to keep her freedom? How much money did her husband leave behind? Would she keep Lyra if she were taken from him?
After days of daemons shunning each other, and cold eyes and accusations and papers and papers and papers, Asriel was stripped of all he knew. His manor was to be taken, his research team would be broken apart.
Marisa Coulter would remain a wealthy widow. There was some rude applause from Magesterial members, among them Lord Ashton and Lord Boreal and Sir Ciaphas, who attended the sentencing as Asriel stood with his brief case. Stelmaria was panting beside him in panic, but the man drew in a breath and calmly exited the courtroom where the fate of his child would be decided without him present.
The shuddering leopard passed the monkey and finally looked at him, trying to scorch all the golden fur away from his oily flesh with an electric glance. The small daemon's face was stone. Marisa Coulter's heel was digging sharply into his tail. And the Golden Monkey, his eyes black and shining, simply gazed back at the retreating leopard, who turned from him with all the coldness she knew.
Asriel got word that the gyptian woman who had cared for her, begged the officials to let her nurse the child, raise the child. She pleaded for Lyra as if she were the infant's mother. But the Judge decided to leave the decision to the child's true mother. And Marisa Coulter had dismissed her own daughter and made it so that she would be raised by the Sisters of Obedience at Watlington.
When Thorold informed Asriel of all of it, Stelmaria roared and flew at a pile of boxes in the corner of the nearly emptied mansion, breaking whatever relic was stored inside the cardboard. Then she returned to scraping her nails across the polished wood of the parlor floor. Her claw marks had marred the walls, carpet, stairs over the past month while she watched research equipment being dragged out the door, while she thought of the Golden Monkey around Marisa Coulter's ankle, while she imagined the future.
Asriel did not let his daughter stay in the arms of the Magesterium for long. The moment he could borrow a car, he did. And he drove to Watlingon with Stelmaria kneading the seats of the vehicle. The church was a warm place, decorated for Christmas and swarming with orphans. He was met by a willowy nun who asked with clasped hands,
"Sir, may I help you?"
"I have come to take my daughter." He told her,
"I am Lord Asriel, the baby Lyra's father and I am going to take her with me." Stelmaria stepped out from behind him and let the growl that had been forming in her throat since the moment she saw the church's steeple surface and rattle her yellow teeth. She glared at the lizard upon the nun's arm. He shrank from her and the nun replied with a simple, kindly smile,
"Oh, yes. Of course."
The Master of Jordan College was as hesitant to hold Lyra in his arms as he was to agree to keeping her. But he did both and when Lyra smiled up at him, he seemed to be soothed, though his shifting raven daemon continued to flap and caw at the stone cold Stelmaria.
"Never let her mother near her." Asriel said smoothly, taking his long coat from the arm of the chair and preparing to leave,
"I doubt her mother would ever want to see her." The Master hypothesized, but Asriel lifted a finger and warned,
"Not for any well intentioned reason she wouldn't." And Stelmaria spat a little, turning to go, "I will visit as often as I can. Half of the money I make will go to you for her care, Master."
"You may pay in installments if you'd like..."
"Oh, I intend to be well enough to support her by this March. If I pay in installments it would not be for very long." Asriel responded confidently, adorning his jacket.
"Very well." The Master said, shifting the baby in his arms. Asriel went to the child and touched her face, knowing the Master's worried eyes were close and studying him. But he ignored the older man, allowing himself to be lost in the bright eyes of his daughter for one last instant before turning. "You're sure?"
"Yes." Asriel said, moving away and meeting his daemon at the door.
He could support his child by March, as he intended, and he didn't visit as often as he could have, but it didn't matter to him or Stelmaria. When they did go to Jordan College, Lyra looked utterly changed since their previous visit and every time she looked more and more like her mother, who eventually did retrieve her from the college, ten years after she had dismissed her casually in the courtroom. Asriel heard of this, but could do nothing, as seeing he had been imprisoned for his dangerously successful work by that time.
His prison at Svalbard was perfection. The bears had been convinced to suit him with all the comforts and contraptions he needed to finish his work. Thorold was paid to return to him and aid him.
Stelmaria, one evening, rose up on her hind legs, to lean up on the arm of Asriel's chair and observe him twisting the last two wires of the engine together with copper tweezers.
"Finished." They said together. Stelmaria put her head on the man's arm, breathing deep, "Nearly finished." But it was enough to appease them. Asriel, for the first time since he could recall, took a bit of a break. He rose from his seat, Stelmaria dropping on all fours again. They traveled the expanse of the cluttered cottage. The amber lights were weary. Asriel pulled back the curtains and dimmed a light near the enormous window. Stelmaria stayed near his legs and said,
"They cannot stop us." Asriel drank in the confidence of his soul as he watched the aurora rippling against the black sky above the mountains. He could see his desk reflected behind him in the glass, too. And he let his eyes skim the completed pieces of his machine glittering there.
"It's a beautiful thing, them imprisoning us to thwart this effort and truly encouraging it by isolating us." Asriel marveled, trying to imagine the Dust that would be swirling about his own head, wishing to see it. "If it was meant to happen, they have made it so. If they deny that, they welcome the idea of chance."
"Now, if only chance will send us a child."
He filled his days after that with waiting and twisting more wires, and molding new pieces, and wandering over the porcelain peaks of the mountains at night trying to find the ideal location for his greatest experiment. And Asriel did not think of Marisa. And Asriel did not think of his daughter, either, until one evening. The girl showed up, glowing in the door way and when Asriel wiped his tired eyes and realized she was truly there he felt more pain flow through him than he'd ever known. Stelmaria was thinking frantically,
"We could use her. Should we? Asriel! Asriel! We must! Oh, Asriel, it might have to be done. It cannot wait any longer! We cannot be selfish! The cause is too important...Asriel!" But she silenced her ideas when a young boy strode into the room, shivering beside the confused Lyra.
After that night, work began and nothing but that work mattered. No time could be spent wondering where a daughter and a lover, who had chosen to stay behind, were wandering. Asriel could barely keep any ideas in his head, he was so consumed by the memory of that moment on the mountain. As he walked beneath beams, through the dust, with his team of otherworldly architects flanking him as the enormous fortress was being constructed around him, the recollections flooded him again.
The wires were hot in his hands and the children's screaming had faded with the wind. Stelmaria roared,
"Now!" in that place of his mind that only he could hear. And then, the heat of the chords bleeding through his thick gloves, he pushed the ends of the wire together. Even through his goggles, the flash from the heart of the machine was blinding. He felt Stelmaria falling with him, down the hill, her heart singing. The snow was tossing and he was tumbling and then all was still and the light shone through the gap in the sky that he had created. And all of science was chorusing together for him and around him in the greatest sight he'd ever known. The sky was in two parts with a glorious rift down the center. The darkness hung like tattered curtains, framing the door to the new, summer province that shone through the mist.
And from there the thought of it got hazy and tangled with the excitement of it all, and Lyra's ignorant fit after he and Marisa had shared an overdue kiss before she finally left forever.
"And so, Lord Asriel." An angel named Ixortia, who was aiding him in building his fortress for war spoke up beside him, her wings being buffeted slightly by the wind over the construction site, "The adamant tower will be on the Eastern edge of the fortress, furthest from the largest stretch of tundra, nearer to the sea."
"It will not be the highest point, as first intended. The watch towers will need to be far higher than planned." Added Mister Yoren, an architect from a rare world where people had to have metal coated over their skin to survive.
"As long as I have access to a taller tower from my quarters, that sounds fine." Ixortia spoke again in her wandering, incredible voice,
"The weaponry is of most importance. It will be at the heart of the underground. Show the drawing, Yoren." She ordered and the metallic man opened a folder to show Asriel what the angel was describing, "There will be a great deal of fire burning. The smoke will rise up through these channels... And tunnels will wind under the earth as well, to feed the molten rock from the west directly into the weaponry."
"But could outsiders intrude..." Asriel worried,
"We will have a guard at the volcano. " Mister Yoren assured him.
Stelmaria was taking it all in, silently striding beside Asriel. She marveled at the angel's shine, at the man's metal. All around her, her dream was unfolding in such reality and clarity. She often thought with Asriel that it was all some fantasy. And she'd worry that she'd blink and be back at the laboratory in London, dreaming these great dreams while the monkey pulled her tail.
As Asriel expected, Marisa Coulter found her way into the mess of things. When she was captured by his soldiers, he was very surprised. When she escaped, he was not. Stelmaria had been very wise in suggesting that Lord Roke, a tiny Gallevespian spy, stay with her at all costs. Marisa fled Asriel's fortress and returned to the Magesterium, to spy for her own reasons, communicated to Asriel himself by the Gallevespian.
Coulter and the spy found out together about a bomb, an intelligent missile, which had been birthed in the church. The program needed to identify a single bit of DNA from its target and they would be killed, wherever they were, within milliseconds of the bomb being set to detonate. Lyra was who the Magesterium had set out to exterminate.
Upon understanding this on the flight deck, Stelmaria roared as she had only roared a few times in her life. And instead of going to his daughter's rescue on horseback, Lord Asriel flew up the steps of an enormous aircraft with his daemon before him. They leapt into the cockpit of the intention craft. Asriel strapped himself to the seat with shaking hands and willed the machine up and towards the mountains of his old world, which he thought he had made his eternal exodus from months ago.
The mountain range of Saint Jean-Lex-Eaux, where the bomb was to be assembled, was ablaze with floodlights. As he approached with his fleet behind him in gyropters and zepplins of all sorts, from all worlds, Asriel could see that a fight had already broken out below. The bomb was there with a gleaming metal cage beside it. He had just lost contact with Lord Roke and feared for the worst. But Marisa was there, he could see her, dodging Magestirial soldiers, racing towards the cage, where a man had locked himself inside.
"It is the President!" Stelmaria exclaimed from the seat beside him, her keen eyes discovering more of the miniature events below the Intention Craft. "Go! Go!" And the machine spun downwards at the command of the man and his daemon. They reached the ground, snow exploding around them with the wind they brought. A few bullets bounced off of the windshield as the craft rocketed over the ice. They crushed men, racing to the bomb. "There!" Stelmaria cried just as something in the distance shattered. Asriel stopped the ship and with his daemon, sprang from the it. Fires from broken floodlights were burning so fiercely that he could feel their heat as he ran across the snow, underneath gunfire, over bleeding soldiers. Marisa was clutching the cage near the bomb, the President was dead. She was screaming soundlessly and her daemon was pressing his face to the metal platform where the contraption stood, wailing like Stelmaria had never heard a daemon wail before.
"Marisa." Asriel pried her hand from the wiring of the machine. He heard a shout and a shot and ducked.
"Asriel!" Stelmaria yelled. A bullet flew over him and lodged itself into the President's corpse in the cage. Asriel rose, his heart thrashing, and drew a gun from his belt, shooting two soldiers before returning to the crying woman in the snow.
"Marisa." He urged again, hauling her quaking form up and into his arms. She was limp and freezing tears were bleeding out of her eyes. Stelmaria let the monkey wrap his arms around her neck and hang there.
"Is he dead?" Asriel heard Marisa ask while he hurried her into the aircraft, blinking sweat out of his eyes, "Did it go off?" He couldn't answer. He was too confused and too ready to be off of the mountain.
He threw Marisa into her seat where she buried her face in her hands, deaf to the gunfire. Stelmaria tossed the monkey on top of the woman before climbing into her seat alongside Asriel. They willed the Intention Craft into the air and away. As they rose, Asriel glanced at Marisa, who had her bloodied, tear stained face pressed against the window. She never took her eyes from the scene until the clouds concealed it from her.
"Lyra." She kept repeating, staring at the ceiling. The monkey buried his face in her breast, whimpering. Asriel steered the craft northward, "Lyra...Lyra." Telling her that worry was fruitless would have done nothing, so he ignored her babblings. She eventually laid back and closed her eyes as angels guided the ship through the rift in the sky.
"What if Lyra has, in fact, been killed?" Stelmaria thought quietly when the monkey finally put his quivering head on Marisa's lap and shut his eyes along with the woman. Still, Asriel could not answer.
He tried to clear his head as he drove the craft through the blankness of the portal and then out over the plain. Asriel focused on the heartbeat of his daemon, the whirring of the anbaric engines below his feet, the hissing breaths of the Golden Monkey.
The clouds whipped across the plain that led to the basalt fortress. It was a beautiful sight, truthfully, but the rising sun seemed cold on the tundra. Asriel steered the craft to the flight deck with Xaphania, an ancient angel, guiding his descent.
Asriel returned to his chambers at the end of the day. He had left Marisa to sit in shock at the center of his office as the frigid sun had been raining into the room from the eastern side. Now, upon returning to the office, the left side of her face was painted red by the setting sunlight, where she stood.
She had, no doubt, been informed that their daughter was safe. Her trembling had not ceased, however. She had not made-up her face, her clothes were torn, she held her daemon gently to her and his tail curled around her arm tenderly.
"Lyra has to survive." She said definitely, her daemon looking out at Asriel with black eyes. Asriel nodded, going past the woman and set the papers down on his desk, which was illuminated in the strange scarlet sunlight. He didn't know what to say, so he was glad when Marisa added, "I just want to stay in here for a little while, don't feel the need to talk. Work. It's important. If I can help, I want to."
"Have you been here all day?"
"Almost. I slept."
"Good." And he did go to his papers. He sat at his desk and the woman went to the window, letting the bloody light engulf her and her daemon. Stelmaria paced in and out of her shadow, voicing to Asriel,
"No effort of war can protect Lyra."
"What can we do?"
"I do not know." And then silence fell over the study until the red light began to be dyed violet. Asriel occasionally scratched lines upon parchment that meant nothing. He noticed the Golden Monkey, at one point, climb down from his perch in Marisa Coulter's arms to sit on her shoes for a little while. Marisa eventually leaned against the window while she watched the angels fight on the plain, probably searching for Lyra. He once thought he heard her draw in a sharp breath and sob, but if it had occurred it, was a single instance. Asriel concentrated on the tip of his pen for a minute or two.
The room inhaled and then Stelmaria moved and Asriel's heart tightened.
The snow leopard crossed the office. She lowered her head by Marisa Coulter's ankles and touched the back of the Golden Monkey with her nose. The other daemon looked slowly over his shoulder, flinching when Stelmaria exhaled and his fur on his spine fluttered a little. Then, the monkey pressed his forehead to hers and chattered something.
Marisa Coulter stared at Asriel, the violet light behind her, illuminating the outline of her hair.
"Our daughter can save universes." He told her and saw her jaw tighten, even in the shadows.
"We may have to be the ones to help her."
"Yes." Marisa could not have understood what he truly meant by that, but he didn't want her to. Not yet. They simply looked at each other for a moment more while their daemons rediscovered each other in tentative caresses on the carpet.
"We may have to die for her."
"I would." And then Stelmaria gently put its mouth lovingly around the Golden Monkey's neck.
"Stay with me tonight."
"Asriel." The monkey broke free of the leopard and threw its black arms around the other daemon's neck, feeling her heart pounding in her chest.
"Please." Asriel stood,
"Are we going to die?" she murmured when he neared,
"Marisa..." And she let him hold her close and smell her hair while she breathed,
"Is this the last time?" she asked, then gasped a little when he pressed nearer,
"It's always a possibility. But we didn't think we'd be here together, did we?"
"Asriel..." She said to his neck, allowing her hands to grasp at his back, "Why is this..." Marisa couldn't finish for some reason.
Asriel opened his eyes and stared over her shoulder while he held her. The battlefield was still steaming, angels were falling through the sky like wayward stars. The wall of his fortress was a silhouette against the brilliant fires and the purple skies. Stelmaria brought her face close to the Golden Monkey's back, whimpering with him.
And when Asriel closed his eyes again, he let himself lose track of time. They embraced until their necks were searing and they had dampened each other's shoulders with tears. They breathed together, never able to press close enough, hold each other tight enough. He clung to her, missing this world already.
"I'm going to..." He tried, "It's going to be hard," he inhaled, trying to steady himself, "leaving."
"I want more time. We wasted so much time."
"Part of me wishes we'd never have met. You wouldn't be here right now if we hadn't."
"No, Asriel. No..." She said hastily drawing her cheek closer to his neck. Near the desk, the monkey began to claw at Stelmaria's leg. Marisa sputtered, "Lyra. If we'd never met, Lyra wouldn't..." She went silent and Asriel put his lips to the back of her head. She still smelled the same, felt the same. "I don't even know what we have to do yet," She voiced, "but I'll do it. I know it will hurt. It's going to hurt, won't it? But, I know it will matter..."
"I'm very frightened, Marisa." He confessed, his throat tight and his eyes blurred,
"So am I. We'll be together." She managed, "I've always hoped that that would be better than being frightened alone." He felt her fingers in his hair and he felt her chest rise. He felt her breathing.
In that moment, Marisa Coulter was finally real. Her heart was there, against his. She was warm and entirely human and with him.
Marisa's back began to shake beneath his desperate hands. Asriel's tears quickened and he clenched his jaw. She was trying to keep her crying quiet, but eventually, a stuttering wail escaped from between her teeth. He kissed her neck over and over until she quieted, telling her everything he'd ever loved about her. Then, stillness swept the dark room again. The sun had gone entirely. The only glimmering of light came through the window, from the distant lightening and the glow of the bombs.
Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter finally looked each other in the eyes. He took her head in his shaking hands and they pressed their foreheads together, the tears on their noses meeting. Stelmaria and The Golden Monkey had pulled away from each other, just to stare at one another. They could barely see in the flickering dimness.
"I'm sorry." She choked, her uneven, distressed breaths crashing into his mouth,
"Don't..." He said as they closed their eyes and tried to listen to the pounding of their blood instead of the muffled explosions from the plain.
"Forgive me." Marisa whispered,
"Only if you will forgive me ." Asriel felt her lips find his in a still, peaceful kiss.