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ten steps ahead

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She follows Asriel up the mountain.

It’s late in the evening, or maybe early in the morning—the days are shortening and they’ve more or less lost track of them—and bitterly cold, as the North is wont to be, but she follows him toward the peak. At this point she expects she’d follow him anywhere—she’s known nothing of love, after all, and concluded that this is what proper devotion is: struggling upward in the dark to get a look at the same swath of sky that is visible from the observatory.

He stops up ahead and waits; Marisa can make out his broad-shouldered silhouette and that of her daemon crouched in the snow at his feet. A sigh escapes her, fogging the air and then dissipating. She is drowsy and dread-filled and unable to so much as curl her numb fingers into a fist, and three weeks pregnant besides, though she has not yet realized it, but she puts down another step, and then another, and then the toe of her boot catches in a hidden crevice and Stelmaria nudges her hip to keep her upright.

Marisa steadies herself against the snow leopard and tries not to think of the wool blankets piled on their bunk, of the murky glow of the naphtha lamps or Asriel’s hands or the warm heaviness of their daemons lying across their legs, of the drawer that holds the half-written letter addressed to her husband or the neat little row of crescent-shaped welts her mother left on the inside of her wrist before she embarked.

In a few days she will set out for Trollesund and begin the journey back to Oxford. Asriel hasn’t clarified his intent, but she suspects he means to continue deeper into the tundra; he so often speaks of scouting out the best view of the Aurora and establishing a permanent laboratory for himself, of recruiting witches and consulting with panserbjorne.

Marisa does not know where she fits into these plans, and she is too proud to ask.

When she reaches the outcrop, he clasps his gloved hand over hers and draws her onto the ledge, then into his arms, engulfing her. She feels his scruffy chin against her forehead and buries her face in the gap in his furs. The Aurora moves like something sentient, and she studies him through a spray of snow. She loves him deeply, but she resents him too: how he strides into every room with the easy grace of a man who has never had to prove himself. The sport he’s made of convincing the scholars of Jordan to fund his whims, knowing full well that Jordan has wealth to spare, as does he, if need be. It is a game for him. He can afford to gamble with his future, and with hers, criticizing her all the while for submitting to a comfortable life of soirées and petty gossip.

“I suppose this is the last time,” she says, in a moment that pulses blue, then green, then gold. His daemon licks the ice crystals from the monkey’s fur. They linger in each other’s embrace—together, and already a world apart.

 


 

He feels her like a cold draught of air.

She slinks through the crowd—early evening at the Royal Arctic Institute, an excitable bunch—with her daemon on her heels, tail perked up. It has been five years since he last saw her. Her hair is shorter but she still wears it loose. She is dressed in blue satin with a cut that is just shy of indecent. She sits near the front of the lecture theatre, and a hush follows her, though the slant of their disapproval is yet to be determined—she’s his victim or his whore, depending on who you ask.

Stelmaria lifts her head from her paws and rumbles deep in her throat, but he settles her with a look. They are seated in the back. He composes his face as though he can’t be bothered—and he can’t, for the most part. He is only present because his funding has run out and the Master has instructed him to be on his best behaviour when representing Jordan abroad, and so he has contributed to the Institute’s latest publication, and even turned up to make nice, to represent Jordan, to listen to an asinine presentation on the merits of coal-silk and try not to stare too obviously at the woman who upended his life.

Last he heard she’d returned from Africa and earned herself a reputation as a notable female explorer—he knows that must rankle her, as female scholar once did.

(But this is a lie he’s told himself: last he heard she’d held a cocktail party in her new flat on the river, and Boreal was the last to leave.)

She wrote a book that he pretends he hasn’t read—cover to cover, all quaint anthropological observations and inoffensive speculation. He knows it was not the sum of her research, and he’s lost sleep on more than one occasion, picking at clues, trying to uncover what she was investigating, what she found. He can imagine the pages and pages of notes she took—cramped handwriting, different inks, a complex system of filing. How many times had he fallen asleep to the sound of her scribbling? The lamp burning low and a notebook balanced on her knees. The sleeves of his sweater bunched around her elbows. She logged their every movement—those fit for the eyes of scholars, at any rate. She was twenty-two then, and still unused to having money at her disposal.

The theatre lets out between speakers and the attendees bunch in the lobby. Marisa corners two upstarts and valiantly ignores their discomfort—scandal is a stench that can’t be scrubbed out, even with a face like hers to mitigate it—and Asriel accosts a passing servant for a drink. He rounds a knot of society men who were very blatantly talking about him and they eye Stelmaria warily.

“That Coulter woman brings drama with her wherever she goes,” he hears, a sharp mutter that is just loud enough to carry.

Asriel weathers it without a hitch in his poise, but Marisa doesn’t. Her head jerks up and their gazes lock.

(Last he saw her: “I’ve changed my mind,” she said, and there was thunder in her eyes. But by then Lyra was safe at Jordan and his anger had ossified into hatred; he wasn’t prepared to forget that she’d stood before the court and proclaimed that it’d all been a mistake, that she wanted no part in her daughter’s life. He laughed in her face and walked away.)

The whisky is cheap, the conversation stale and stifling. He drinks too much and leaves early.

 


 

It isn’t much: a diagram of a diagram.

She’s heard reports of the latest experiments. Theologians’ attempts to make Rusakov particles visible—glass plates coated in different emulsions, their subjects staring blankly back at them, the nimbus of Dust growing steadily clearer. In the absence of spare photograms, their findings are being rendered in pencil. Asriel must have copied a set for himself: an adult emanating an unknowable force; a child, entirely plain.

It does not depict anything she didn’t already suspect. She keeps it anyway.

 


 

Finally: an account of Marisa’s expedition to Africa.

It’s taken some doing, and a fair few favours, and he’s received it in bouts of hear-say and scraps of correspondence—the Magisterium doesn’t require anything as formal as a paper; who among them would read it? And she wouldn’t publish anyway—he recalls her railing about it at length, her daemon’s claws cutting into his forearm: after the journey north, sick and exhausted, furiously trying to ignore her swelling midriff, she’d closed out the world and flattened their jumble of theories into something coherent and still it had to be published under his name.

But he won’t think about that. About her. Instead he absorbs descriptions of ancient rituals and grotesque separation methods and the result: zombis—soulless, mindless, likely Dust-less.

Stelmaria paces, reflecting his own frustration back to him. He doesn’t know what use Marisa has made of the information, but he knows there is something in it, for he finds himself dwelling on the idea of separation long after, trying to forge bridges between his thoughts. He flicks wildly through his notes, seething with displeasure and grudging admiration.

It’s all in the daemon-bond, he writes, though he can’t quite discern the meaning of it.

 


 

They arrive at a solution at roughly the same time (bleary-eyed, half-crazed, fortressed by heaps of books and forgotten mugs of coffee): titanium and manganese.

 


 

Boreal has connections inside Jordan College; he manages to obtain Grumman’s research from their archives. He tells her she has three days to extract all she can and then it must be returned. In the margins: notes from an interview with Grumman; a postulation about spirit-worlds. She recognizes it instantly—Asriel’s feverish scrawl.

 


 

He’s enlisted a clan of witches, and their assistance is invaluable. He questions them extensively about the Aurora: what they see, what they hear, the currents they sense. His concern binds to the veil where the worlds meet, but they keep him apprised of the North as a whole, for something sinister mounts in the icy waste: walls rising, animals fleeing—a disruption, a haunting. He cares little, but he listens anyway.

“I know not of its purpose,” one witch tells him, “only of its name.”

“And what’s that?” he asks absently.

Bolvangar,” she says.

 


 

There is a rise by the stretch of snow where the airship lands and from the top Marisa can look down on all she’s built.

She did it on their terms: they wanted cleanliness and deniability, so she gave them cleanliness and deniability. She refined her calculations and selected her technicians and selected her test subjects and refined her calculations again. She oversaw maps and floorplans and policies. She went where no man of the Magisterium had ever dared, putting down roots in Trollesund, in Tartar territory, in Svalbard. She raised the Oblation Board from nothing and delivered them the North in the process. It only took endless paperwork and three lifetimes’ worth of toil.

It feels like a calling. Years of her existence, and still more years before that, from the time she was a little girl with scraped knees and a head for numbers, then a disgraced widow living in a dismal flat in Oxford, not sleeping or eating, watching the floodwater rise and wondering if it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be swept away. Instead she spent her last handful of notes on passage to Geneva, where she sold her dignity and a chunk of Asriel’s research in exchange for a meeting. She crossed herself and knelt before the Cardinal and told him just how wicked she’d been. He licked his lips and approved her proposal. Scraped knees and a head for numbers.

Everything she’s managed—everything she’s accomplished—has been in spite of Asriel. (In spite of herself.)

The cold is its own presence, nipping at her fingers, plucking at her hair. The compound marks the plain like a stamp on a blank page. Upon her descent, she notices another set of footprints: two and four. She imagines they are his. It’s a foolish notion, but it’s there just the same, calling up memories of wind-burnt skin and cracked lips; the thrill of hiding in plain sight. Twelve years past they were rivals taunting each other from opposite ends of a library. Now they trade acts of sabotage across a continent.

Her daemon lingers over the tracks, whimpering. She skims her boot through a drift and sends a shower of snow into his face. There is work to be done.

 


 

In the bowels of Iofur Raknison’s reeking palace, Asriel plots his escape. His senses sharpened by Stelmaria’s, he takes in the slope of the walls, the guttural grunts of the guards, the mad wretch sharing his cell. He knows precisely what is happening—unravelling Marisa’s webs has been among the great joys and annoyances of his life, and she’s outdone herself this time. Even so, he isn’t daunted; he has chosen to see this for what it is: a fleeting setback. An opportunity.

He underestimated the extent of her influence—ignored it, really, though it never seized encroaching. The Master warned him; the witches warned him. The Magisterium has been prodding at Jordan for years, feeling for cracks and threading through like vines. They’ve chewed through the North, leaving all the usual imprints: the fear, the silence, the corruption. Bears that are neither armoured nor bears and a doll perched on their king’s knee—dark hair, staring blue eyes, the rough resemblance to Marisa.

That’s it, then. Iofur Raknison will drape himself in jewels and dream of daemons, and Marisa will volunteer herself as bait and get everything she wants: control, of course, in whatever capacity; a city named for her—what a thing to fling in the faces of her detractors; a lawless kingdom; and an opening to Lyra.

(Asriel can’t help his amusement. It is so like Marisa to chase her ambition to the edge of the world and stop there, just short of the real prize.)

He pushes himself to his feet, weary of sitting idle, and flags the guards’ attention. It was a bold plan, however tactless, and he is almost sorry to be foiling it so quickly, but he is too close to concede. The Magisterium is afraid now, and their last defence is a charlatan and a puppet—there’s no reason he shouldn’t dance on two sets of strings.

It takes upwards of three minutes for Asriel to talk his way to an audience. In the harsh light of a dozen chandeliers, he and his daemon face the king. The poor, duped fool. He is not the first to want to possess her, and he won’t be the last.

“Iofur Raknison, I’m going to be entirely frank with you,” Asriel says.

 


 

There is a tear in the air and through it leaks a slat of buttery sunlight and Asriel holds her and for a moment she is reckless enough to entertain the thought of following him into another world.

It is alarming, how quick that version of her is to surface: clumsy and conniving, desperate to suppress herself. The freest she’s ever been. She owned him once; she could do it again. She is still that woman. But she is also the woman who witnessed him flirting with countless others and the one who watched with dread and amazement as her daughter’s daemon coalesced and the one who left a footprint in a pool of her husband’s blood and stared at walls and considered jumping and considered drowning and rebuilt herself from ashes. She’s learned too much, and none of it easily. She won’t travel a road she hasn’t paved herself.

And she hasn’t just paved it for herself—she sees that now. Lyra was the piece that was missing. To give it all meaning. When Marisa is alone in the dead of night she can make out echoes of a voice she swore she wouldn’t heed again. I am your mother and I know what’s best for you. She never believed it when she heard it, but she’d like Lyra to believe it of her.

So she’ll refuse Asriel. She must. But she lingers in his arms anyway, absorbing his promises, his scorn. A rush of longing flows from her daemon into her—it’s the strongest feeling they’ve shared in years.

They are flushed with warmth, half intoxicated. Asriel looks older, and somehow still the same. She’d like to push him up against a wall and trace the lines of his face while he sleeps and spend the first hours of her day listening as he and his daemon talk through their plans. She’d like to be twenty-two and stupid. Succumb to his ruthless idealism and relive all her best and worst decisions.

But there is no going back. She knows that. She has a child and a reputation and a tangle of loose ends that need tying off. This time when she pictures it, the words come to her.

She turns away first; she does not want to watch him go. She steps out of the light and shoves her fists into her pockets and, though her daemon appears at her side, she feels like she is pulling. She concentrates on the trudge of receding footsteps, straining her attention as the sounds grow fainter and then disappear altogether, swallowed by the immense silence of the North.

It’s late in the evening, or maybe early in the morning. She descends the mountain alone.