This story is the sixth in a sequence which began with INTENTIONS and was continued in THREADS, THE KING'S COUNCILLOR, THE CLOCKMAKER'S BOY and THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT. I'd love it if you were to read those stories before this one because they make a continuing overall narrative when taken in order, but I will, as ever, understand it if you'd rather not. The following synopses are very compressed indeed and miss out lots of fun stuff.
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.
In The King's Councillor Lyra, now thirty-five and an established professor at Jordan Collge, is summoned to London, where she meets Alfred, King of Brytain. The Church, faced with Alfred's determination to reduce its power and influence, tries to kill him and Lyra, but is defeated.
In The Clockmaker's Boy, set approximately twenty years after Threads, we meet fifteen-year-old Peter Joyce, an apprentice in Oxford. Around this time, the Gobblers reappear and Peter, who is studying alethiometry, Lyra and her gyptian friend Arthur Shire discover that Elizabeth Boreal and Miss Morley are taking children's Dust to power a machine for travelling between the worlds. Lyra and Will are briefly reunited, but the meeting is bittersweet, as Will is married now. In the final struggle Miss Morley is killed by mysterious forces.
In The Queen of the Night, Elizabeth Boreal corrupts with nightmares the dream-communication of Will, Lyra and their friends. Please note that following an unfortunate change in policy at FF.NET which has banned NC-17 rated stories, this story is now only accessible at my sitelet www.geocities.com/ceres_wunderkind, or you can find the link on my bio page. Sorry about the inconvenience which is due to factors beyond my control.
Now read on…
A Gift of Love
It is the day of the funeral.
Where is everybody? What are they doing, all these different people, each living in their own worlds? Once they were connected by a web of dreams; now they are separated, fearing the dark, and sleep, and what horrors sleep may bring. How did they react to the news and how have they come to terms with it?
Let us see:
Guilietta Reigali was standing in front of a group of six-year-old children, conducting her class in the recital of their seven times table, when she learned what had happened. The children, all of them, adored their teacher, loving her for her kindness, her strength and her understanding. They were dismayed when they saw her suddenly pause in her energetic leading of her pupils through the intricacies of the multiples of seven; so hard to learn, so easy to forget. Guilietta turned pale and put out her hand towards the wall. She stood still for a minute, breathing shallowly, her face turned away from the children who, startled by the unexpected hiatus in the lesson and dismayed by the blow that she, their beloved teacher, had received, sat in silence, even fair-haired Reynaldo Migucci, who would normally have been expected to start playing about or whispering to the boy sitting next to him if Signora Reigali did not keep her eye upon him.
Presently, Guilietta turned to face her class. She saw twenty small faces looking up at her, frightened, staring, lost, as if their lives too had been knocked back by the same stroke of grief that had so taken her unawares. She gathered herself together and spoke, momentarily surprised to find that that she had the breath to do so.
'Reynaldo, all of you, listen please. Something has happened and I must go home at once. I do not know when I will be able to return. Not today, I think.
'Reynaldo, I want you to come up to the front of the class, where I am standing, and finish going through the seven times table with your classmates. When you can all say it perfectly, you may go home. School will continue as normal tomorrow morning.'
Awed by Signora Reigali's stern, controlled, face and obvious distress, Reynaldo, far and away the brightest child in the class, stepped up to the front of the sunlit whitewashed room.
'Lead them well, Reynaldo,' Guilietta leaned over the anxious boy and whispered in his ear. 'I know you will. Be good – for my sake.'
'Si, Signora.' The boy looked scared. Guilietta put a hand briefly on his shoulder and left the classroom. She slipped out of the front door of the little two-room school where she was headmistress and stepped into the street which led down to the harbour of the town of Cittagazze.
She did not mean to deceive them, but she had lied when she told her class that she was going home. She loved her husband, and their two children profoundly, but this thing that had happened was outside their experience, and their sympathy, although real enough, would not have had the depth of understanding that she needed so desperately. Instead she went to the one place, where the one person who would truly know how she felt would, she knew, be waiting for her.
Reaching the harbour wall, Guilietta walked along the promenade as far as the steps. Theirs (you should know this) was the ninth step down from the pavement – just far enough to be invisible from the roadway, still high enough to be able to see over the far harbour wall to the bay beyond. This was their place; where they could tell each other their secrets and their stories, and share their hopes and fears.
Her brother was waiting for her, his face as pale under his sunburn as her own, which was naturally fair. Now, at last, she could weep freely. Flinging her arms around her brother's shoulders she pressed her cheek against his and held him close. Their tears mingled and their bodies trembled, shaken by the force of their sorrow. The brilliant yellow sun shone mockingly down on them out of the blue skies of Cittagazze.
The narrowboat Maggie had just passed through Aldermaston Lock and her trailing butty boat, the Jimmy, had followed her dutifully through the top gates of the lock and through the little lift-bridge at its head. The pair of boats had been coupled back together and were steaming gently along the Kennet and Avon Canal towards Newbury when Arthur Shire, leaning against the cockpit rail with his arm resting along the Maggie's tiller and his magpie-daemon Sal perched next to him, suddenly knew, with a clarity uniquely his own, that the world had changed, and not for the better.
He turned and waved to Harry Owen, his business partner and steersman of the Jimmy, pointing towards the left. Harry pushed his tiller over to the right, turning the Jimmy towards the bank of the canal, next to the towpath and being careful to keep the line which connected the two boats taut. Harry sensed that there was something wrong – Arthur's stance at the rail of the Maggie had changed.
Harry moored the Jimmy fore and aft and joined Arthur in the Maggie's cockpit. Something was definitely not right, Harry could tell, not only from the bleak look on Arthur's face but also within himself. Something had chilled him, although the sun was bright and warm, flickering between the leaves of the trees which lined the sides of the canal.
They sat on opposite sides of the cockpit, facing each other, each waiting for the other to speak. The Maggie's engine, its polished metalwork glinting, was still, steam hissing gently though a safety-valve. He looks old, Harry thought. It had never struck him before; that Arthur, although his deeply lined face was sunburned and weathered by thirty years of working the canals of Brytain, would ever look old. There was too much vitality in him for that.
'We'll stop here for today,' Arthur said.
'Make us a cup of tea, would you?'
Harry stepped down into the Maggie's cabin. It was, as always, tidy, neat, and spotlessly clean, as if the cargo of sea-coal which filled the hold of the boat was forbidden to come any further sternwards than its own appointed domain. He raised the cover of the naphtha stove and lit it, being careful to put the spent match into the cream delft jar which stood to the right of the stove and was reserved for that purpose. His daemon Mike had followed him into the cabin.
'There's something awful going on.'
'Or it's already happened.'
'I felt it.'
'He'll tell us, if we give him time.'
Harry turned from the stove, where the kettle was just beginning to come to the boil, and looked up through the cabin's double doors towards Arthur, where he sat motionless by the cockpit rail holding his cloth cap in his hands, looking at the floor. The more discerning eye would have detected something resembling a hooded cloak of sparkling gold threads, resting on his shoulders and forming a halo around his bowed head.
Fleet Street, London
Adèle Starminster was standing next to the anbarograph in the newsroom of the Chronicle when the machine burst into life, ticking and clacking loudly and jerkily ejecting its message on a strip of paper tape. Journalistic instincts to the fore, Adèle took the paper in her hand and read the message as it was printed. Maybe there would be an interesting story there, one she could follow up.
The name on the tape was unfamiliar to begin with. Adèle thought for a moment, and then realised exactly who it was that had died, and what might be the implications of this death. When the message finished, she tore the strip off and took it into the editor's office, where she showed it to her boss.
'I want to look into this one myself.'
'Why? Why you, Adèle? One of the juniors could do it.'
Careful! Don't admit you're personally involved. 'I've got some contacts there already. I'll get more out of this one than the kids will.'
The editor looked dubious. Then; 'Very well. Only a couple of days. Keep in touch.'
'Yessir!' She turned to leave the office.
'This is the Boreal Foundation you're getting yourself involved with here. For God's sake don't do anything foolish. Don't dig too deep – you could get us all into a great deal of trouble.'
'I'll be… discreet.' Adèle returned to her desk and, taking out a well-thumbed copy of Bradshaw from the drawer, she looked up the times of the Oxford trains.
Damn. Here we go again. Where's Arthur when I need him?
Sister Judy Parry was admitted by her home as usual, that Thursday night. She had been on the evening shift, from four o'clock until midnight, at Frenchay Hospital so it was a quarter to one o'clock in the morning when the front door recognised her biometrics and swung wide open to let her into the dimly-lit hall.
She had intended to make herself a cup of cocoa in the kitchen and then sit down and watch a little TV, or read a book, before going to bed, but something stopped her. There was something wrong, or missing, but she couldn't identify exactly what it was.
A soft chime sounded. It was the house, attracting her attention.
'Judy, there are two messages for you.'
The first message concerned a planned interruption of network connectivity. The second sent her rushing upstairs, where the bedrooms were empty and the beds not slept in.
Peter Joyce felt it, like a physical blow to the skull, and for a moment he thought that he had bumped into a shelf or a cupboard, and he put his hand up to his head.
'Viola? What is it? What's going on?'
'Wait, Peter, wait.' His squirrel-daemon ran up his arm.
'It's something terrible, I know it is. What's happened? Oh, my head! It feels so strange.'
'Sit down, Peter.' The boy groped his way across the workshop floor, nearly tripping over a stool, and found a chair by the wall. He slumped into it. Master James was in the shop, talking to a customer, so it was several minutes before he found Peter, his face blanched with fear, sitting with his head in his hands, gasping for breath.
'Peter!' Master James shook the boy's shoulder. 'Peter, what is it?'
'N-Nothing, Master. I'm all right. I'm sorry.' Peter tried to stand up, but his master kept his hand on his apprentice's shoulder, preventing him from rising.
'What is wrong, Peter? Are you ill? Have you been having bad dreams again? Please tell me.'
Peter looked up, his face blank, his eyes full of pain. 'Master – I'm sorry. I must go!' The boy wriggled out of Master James' grip and dashed out through the shop and into the street. Pell-mell he ran, past shops and busy thoroughfares, public houses and restaurants, taking little heed of the people he passed, or knocked into, in his desperate hurry.
He scarcely slowed down as he ran through the gateway of Jordan College. A junior porter shouted after him, 'Hoi! Where do you think you're going!' but his older and wiser colleague said, 'Don't worry about him. That's young Peter, Professor Belacqua's student.'
'What's his hurry?'
'I don't know. Ask him yourself, when he comes back out. I'm off home.' The older man picked up his satchel and turned out of the porter's lodge.
Peter ran across quadrangles and down passageways, past cool cloisters and closeted halls, up and down wide staircases of carved stone, until he reached the stair where Professor Belacqua's rooms were located. Hardly pausing for breath, he clattered up the wooden steps to the door of her rooms. It was unlocked and slightly ajar, so he pushed it open and entered her study.
Thank heavens! There was Lyra, sitting as usual at her desk by the window with her elbows resting on its surface, a pile of books to her right and the alethiometer in its usual place on the blotter in front of her. No sign of her daemon Pantalaimon, but there was nothing unusual about that.
'Lyra! Wake up!'
Still no response. And then Peter saw, and it was like a thunderbolt striking him down where he stood, that Lyra was sitting unnaturally still, and that there was a thin stream of blood, scarcely yet congealed, running from her left nostril and pooling on the top of the desk. He stopped breathing for a moment then, knowing in his heart that it was useless, he shook her shoulder, and implored her, over and over again, to wake up.
Eventually, he had to stop. There was no point in carrying on any further; nothing to do now but call for help.
An angry old man, a professor of the Elder Eddar who lived in the adjacent rooms, answered his cries. 'What is all this about, you foolish boy? You have disturbed my studies.'
Peter pointed to Professor Belacqua where she lay slumped across her desk, following his vain attempts to rouse her.
'It's Lyra – Professor Belacqua, sorry. She won't talk to me. She's not breathing!'
The ancient professor took Lyra's wrist in his hand, felt for a pulse and, finding none, looked bleakly up to Peter.
'Is she?' the boy asked.
'Yes, I'm afraid she is.' And through the misty veil that was forming over his vision, Peter saw, in the bleared eyes of the old man, that his worst fears had come true and that Lyra Belacqua was dead.