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Constellations

Chapter Text

While the baby didn’t cry for the entire gyrocopter journey, she did snivel and wriggle for the bulk of it, and she shrieked her way through Asriel’s haphazard landing at the Southampton steamer port, though Marisa couldn’t fault her for that. She’d been dangerously close to shrieking herself, though that was less about Asriel’s piloting prowess (or lack thereof) and more about the rapid turn of events that had seen her spend most of her evening dodging bullets that, in another world, she might have been shooting, retrieve the child she’d dispensed of so deftly several months before, and then flee London mere moments later with only two small cases of clothes and books to her name, babe still clasped in her unyielding arms.

Asriel, too, was in a foul mood, and if she hadn’t still blamed him wholeheartedly for their current predicament, she might have suggested that they commiserate together. As it happened, she didn’t say a word to him as they boarded the boat, found their cabin, put down their cases and finally, blessedly, put down the baby. The room smelled like a morgue and the sheets were a vile shade of sage. Marisa placed Lyra on the bed, closed her eyes, and took a long, slow breath. As she did this, the girl’s dæmon began to inch towards the bed’s edge, though what he was searching for, Marisa couldn’t guess. With Pantalaimon a mere inch from a fall, she turned and headed towards the cabin’s cupboard-sized bathroom with the golden monkey at her heels, leaving Stelmaria to nudge Pantalaimon back onto the mattress and Asriel to sink into the room’s sole chair, elbows on knees, head in hands. When Marisa emerged a little while later, her mind all the clearer from a few minutes pressed to the bracing cold plane of the mirror, she found Asriel in much the same position. He looked up at her. She stared coldly at him. They said nothing to each other.

If there’d been no child, they might have spent hours in silence. But soon Lyra began to fuss, and soon that fuss became a cry, and soon that cry became a wail. Marisa wanted desperately to leave. She wanted to sprint down the gangplank, swim back through the floodwaters and return to her home in the capital, with its shelves of books and luxurious art and litany of esteemed, regular guests. But the home had been seized, the art likely sold, and the guests would never call again, she knew. And the boat had left the dock; Brytain was fast disappearing behind them. Still, though, she wished to swim for it. It seemed that anywhere would be better than here.

She was just planning an excuse for escape when Asriel got up from the chair, picked up the girl, and began to rock her in his arms. “She’ll need to eat. So will we.”

“Yes,” Marisa said. She glanced at their cases. They’d been packed before they’d had any idea that Lyra would joining them on their journey. Not one item was fit for an infant. “I suppose she’ll need a great many things that we can’t provide. What a marvellous idea it was, bringing her, hmm?”

“I didn’t hear you protest.”

“That’s because your gyrocopter is in desperate need of servicing. No wonder you couldn’t hear a word over its blades.”

“It is no longer mine,” was all he said to that, and Marisa felt like weeping. The ship creaked around them: pipes rattled, the engine rumbled, the churn of the propellor created a violent rhythm of the water against the hull. It sounded like it might fall apart at any moment. That would, at least, solve her problem.

“There are open berths,” Asriel was saying. “Down below. There must be more children on board. More,” he coughed, “More families. Surely you can convince them to offer us supplies.”

She’d have taken any opportunity to leave the cloying air of their cabin; if there’d been a raging plague, she’d have chanced it happily. “Alright,” she said, and left without giving him or the child a backwards glance.

Clearly, she did not go to the bunk-style open berths that lined the steamer’s lowest level. Instead, she made her way to the boat’s foredeck, where she came to stand at the craft’s very prow. She placed her hands on the rail and stared down at the endless, ominous, beautiful black water. It looked so enticing that she couldn’t say what stopped her from climbing over the railing and sinking to her death like a stone. Perhaps it was the thought that, should she throw herself overboard and plummet to the channel’s floor, she’d likely never be recovered. She’d simply slide into obscurity, another victim of the flood, or worse, a victim of the scandal. That was, somehow, more unbearable than standing here, bathed in the glow of the open sea’s stars and bitterly aware of all the ways in which her life was ruined.

She stood there for a long while, until the night’s cool air had tinted her lips a cyanotic violet and she’d lost all feeling in her fingers. She was turning the same moments over and over again in her mind: her reckless, reckless testimony, the delight with which the foreman had announced the verdict, the sound of Stelmaria’s howl as Asriel implored the boy and the girl in the canoe to pass their daughter up to him on the deck of the boat that was no longer theirs. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t realise Asriel was approaching until he was only a few feet behind her, and even then, it was only because her dæmon moved towards him, the little traitor.

Asriel came to stand beside her. The baby was still in his arms, and she seemed to be asleep. “I see that your mission was a great success,” he said sardonically.  

“No one would assist me,” Marisa replied. “And I cannot blame them for that. Who’d want to offer aid to two people as unwise as us, who’ve adopted a child on a whim, with nothing we might use to care for her, not to mention ourselves? Who’d want to be within two feet of people that foolish, that idiotic, that hopeless – ?”

“A stranger said that, did they?”

“Of course they did,” Marisa said. “Every word of it.”

“Mmm,” Asriel murmured. They stood and watched the waves together for a minute or two; lovely, velvet crests, capped with pretty seafoam, tinted silver by the moon.

“We could throw her overboard,” Marisa said. Stelmaria made a noise behind them, though it might have been an innocent purr.

“Yes,” Asriel said. “We could.”

“Say that the boy and the girl had it all wrong: she never made it to London with them, they lost her to the floodwaters, and their fragile minds masked the memories to protect themselves from the grief, the poor darlings. There will be so many dead unaccounted for, my love. No one would bat an eyelid. And we might be free of her.”

“Mmm. No need to source supplies. No need to bathe her, clothe her, feed her.”

“No need to sacrifice a moment’s rest, of which we’ll need every minute, if we are to recoup everything we’ve lost. There’s no place for a child in all that, is there?”

“No,” he agreed. “There is not.”

Marisa glanced down at the baby, wondering if perhaps they might do it, offer her to the fathomless waters of the channel and then make their way to the dining cabin arm in arm. They’d have just enough time to order a late dinner before the kitchen closed. They’d certainly have time to buy drinks at the bar. It might not even be entirely unpleasant. But when Marisa looked at Lyra, she found the girl’s eyes open, and the look she was giving her mother was one of such grave dissatisfaction that Marisa almost laughed. It seemed as if she’d heard them, and was not afraid; merely outraged. Asriel noticed the girl’s expression too and smiled. He shifted her in his arms and clutched her a little more tightly to his chest.

“The kitchen will take its last orders soon,” Stelmaria said from behind them. “And unless you’d like to change Lyra later without a scrap of cloth to help you, I’d suggest we solve that problem before we even think to dine.”

Asriel had, at least, been right about one thing: it took Marisa scarcely a minute to wheedle supplies from a few other mothers in the boat’s lowermost compartment. “Give me the child,” Marisa said, and she walked into the cacophony of the open cabin with the girl pressed sweetly to her breast. The lie was simple: they’d put all the child’s supplies in one case, for expediency, you see, and the porters had been utter buffoons and dropped it all into the water as they boarded. The boat had left the port before they’d been informed, and now they found themselves in quite a bind. Yes, she is a darling, isn’t she? A perfect angel, who finds herself bereft.

Marisa appeared a few moments later, the child in one arm and a bushel of items in the other: an outfit or two, changing cloths, a bottle and a blanket. Asriel nodded. She passed him each of the objects in turn and then handed him the baby too before starting back towards their cabin. “I’m glad you didn’t purchase tickets for that zoo,” she said, as the hallway tipped and tilted with the swell and had them swaying into one another. “The smell was ghastly. And the noise from all the little ones! I’d have had to leave you both, and hunt for a gentleman with a first-class ticket who was in vital need of company.”

“Very amusing,” Asriel said crossly, but Stelmaria gave Marisa’s calf a stroke.

Lyra was fussing by the time they’d returned to the cabin and placed her new possessions on the bed. “She needs to be fed,” Asriel said. He presented the child to Marisa, who recoiled.

“And what, pray tell, do you expect me to do about that?”

He gestured to her chest. “They are the most logical option, are they not?”

“They are not faucets,” she said. “It has been months, Asriel. I couldn’t even if I wanted to – which, let me be clear, I do not.”

“Well, that’s excellent,” he said. “Excellent.” He was irritated. Marisa took the bottle to the dining room and begged a little milk from one of the waiters, which was easy, thankfully: as soon as she began simpering about her infant daughter, even the most sullen of the staff started to melt. Now, that was a useful card to have in her hand; Marisa tucked it up her sleeve then started back to her and Asriel’s room. The milk was warm against her palm, and Marisa pressed it to her chest as she walked, so she might wrest a little of its heat before she relinquished the rest of it to the baby. It was cold on the steamer, and she’d left behind every warm thing she owned, it felt like. And they were steaming north.

The staircase back up to the boat’s deck was at the opposite end of the corridor to their room, and it did look very inviting. But then Marisa heard a little growl, and she turned to see Stelmaria poised in the cabin’s open doorway, a lethal silver sentinel. Marisa rolled her eyes, but returned.

Asriel was reclined on the bed, his shoes abandoned on the floor, Lyra lying there beside him and kicking her little legs while he peered out of the porthole at the raven waves. Marisa moved to pass him the bottle at the exact moment he moved to pass her the baby.

“Why should I have to do it?” they said in unison, with the same sense of disdain.

“It was me who put up with her whining for the entirety of the gyrocopter ride, was it not?” Marisa said.

“And I entertained her for the hour you spent on the upper deck pondering filicide!” he countered. She scowled. But then, always his better half, Stelmaria murmured something to him, and so he extended his arm for the bottle with a furious frown, but that was all. Marisa was certainly not about to join them on the bed – like they were survivors of a shipwreck, clustered on one tiny raft! – and so she fetched a book from her bag and settled herself in the small chair on the other side of the room. It was frightfully uncomfortable, and near-impossible to make notes in the margins with only her drawn-up knees for a table, and the lilt of the sea kept forcing her flesh against the chair’s metal edges, which was most uncomfortable. But she refused to yield, refused even to look up at her lover and the child, though her dæmon was watching them intently from his perch behind her head. Through him, she could glean the essence of Lyra’s meal: that Asriel didn’t have much of a clue what to do, of course, but that the sensation of milk seeping into his shirt sleeve or Lyra’s unhappy whines and flailing limbs were enough to help him find the best angle for the bottle, and after that had been done, father and daughter seemed to settle into the moment well enough. Lyra’s eyes were latched to Asriel, not that the girl knew who she was looking at, surely, and Asriel’s eyes were fixed to the porthole, and the starscape he could glimpse beyond it. Stelmaria lay by Asriel’s side with Pantalaimon between her paws. He was in the form of a tiger cub, and he did look peaceful. Marisa sighed.

The boat must have been buffeted by quite the wave, then, because Marisa soon found herself crushed against the chair’s sharp arm, a wayward pencil line scored across her page, ruining her neatly-printed notes. She wanted to screech. She wanted to kick a hole in the boat’s hull that was big enough to drown them all. She wanted to hit Asriel over and over again, until he had no choice but to hold her close enough that she couldn’t hurt him anymore. She wanted to hurl her dæmon into the waters that had been deemed too cruel an end for her daughter, so he might feel the cold sting of the sea and know, at least, that it would soon be over. But of course, this thought belonged to him too, and as soon as she’d thought it he leapt away from her and onto the bed, where Stelmaria received him impassively, lifting one paw so that he might settle at her breast.

Without allowing herself to think too much about it, Marisa snapped her book closed and climbed onto the bed too. The bottle was empty and abandoned by Asriel’s side: now, Lyra was dozing in his arms, and the man appeared to be snoozing too, his eyes closed and breathing even. Annoyingly, her mere proximity to him did start to calm her. After a minute or so, she managed to open her book and keep reading. Lyra kept releasing little squeaks and snuffles, which weren’t, Marisa had to admit, the absolute worst sounds she’d ever heard. She read for a little while longer, and then she closed the book, placed it gently on the floor, and let her own eyes wander to the midnight sea sloshing outside their single tiny window. The water would be getting colder with every mile forwards that they moved. Soon, they’d be in the North, in the land of ice and snow and isolation. It had once seemed only full of promise. Now, it felt like a place of great and violent peril, and nothing more than that.

Marisa had thought Asriel asleep, but then, as if he could hear the way her thoughts were getting away from her, his hand reached out and found her thigh. He gave it a squeeze, and then a stroke or two. Stelmaria’s tail found her feet and did the same. Marisa gave the man and the child a final glance, then she closed her eyes, made the scope of her mind the secure latch of Asriel’s hand on her leg, and forced herself to breathe.