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Flesh and Blood

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If it hadn’t been for Edward Coulter’s empty seat in the House of Lords, then the debate would have merely been tedious. But as the guards waved the final members into the room and closed the chamber’s doors behind them, Lord Asriel felt a renewed sense of curiosity in a morning that he’d assumed would be only inane. Coulter should have been there, just to the right of the centre of the bench, shuffling his papers with his politician’s fingers, preparing to fill the peers’ minds with shameless propaganda ahead of Friday’s vote on the Peacekeeper’s Bill, a detestable piece of legislation that would allow the Magisterium to – in full scope of the law! – detain and interrogate suspected defectors without an atom’s-worth of evidence. It didn’t say that exactly, of course: it was shrouded in the bland, impenetrable language of bureaucracy – as was, no doubt, the speech that Edward Coulter was supposed to be starting to deliver at that very moment. Asriel’s rebuttal was going to be a lot more to the point, thorough but zealous, and offered at a grander volume too, so that even the catnapping octogenarians in the back benches had no choice but to open their eyes and stare the truth in its face, sanctions be damned. And then Friday’s vote would swing his way and the bill would be defeated, the only outcome he could abide.

But none of that could start to unfold yet, because there was no abhorrent speech to which Asriel might object. There was just an empty spot on the bench.

“No Coulter today?” Asriel murmured to the Baron Willard, who was sitting beside him, his greenfinch-dæmon twittering softly in his ear and flitting from shoulder to shoulder. “With the way he’s been hawking this bill since midsummer, that surprises me.”

Willard gave an absentminded half-shrug, then stopped. “Oh, yes. I remember. He was called away the other night; an emergency of some kind. A wife in the hospital, I believe.”

At once, the room became a vacuum chamber; the mutters of the other peers disappeared, as did the shuffling rasps of stacks of paper and the clicks and whistles of noble beaks and claws. Every grain of Asriel’s attention was focused on his colleague. “What did you say?”

Willard overenunciated as he repeated, “His wife is in the hospital.”

“Why? What happened? Is she unwell?”

The next look Willard gave him was more quizzical. “I don’t know; he didn’t say. Why would he? Though I agree that it must be something grave for him to not be here today. If he misses the vote itself, we’ll have to assume she’s dead.”

Stelmaria’s whine drew not just Willard’s eyes but those of several other peers around them. Asriel placed a firm hand on her head.

“Do you know the Coulters well?” Willard inquired. Then he chuckled. “Now, that is an unlikely friendship.”

If he hadn’t been so disconcerted, Asriel might have allowed himself a chuckle too. Asking the shadow of a marriage if he knows it well. As if he hadn’t flooded every one of his senses with Coulter skin and sounds and scent a thousand times; licked sweat from beneath her arms, blood from the heart of her thighs. As if Stelmaria hadn’t tugged him out of the palace and across Green Park one day, only stopping once they’d found the little bookshop on Brick Lane in which Marisa and her dæmon had been browsing (and were only half-pleased to see him). His soul knew hers well enough to trace a molecule of her for a mile. He’d seen through her lies a thousand times too, and he knew her well enough to know that’s what kept her coming back. He knew what it felt like to waken with a golden beast on his chest, knew the sear of a fang in a leopard’s haunch, the hoarse and raw decibels of the little fellow’s voice. And as an undercurrent to all this, he’d learned – unwillingly, he’d hasten to add – plenty about the other Coulter too. He knew the man’s schedule, based on when Marisa could slip away to meet him. He knew the man’s ambitions, based on his lover’s rationale for staying. And no matter how much the Marisa he knew and the Marisa that Edward Coulter had married might seem to be two circles with no overlap, he knew something about the man’s heart too, and why and when and for whom it beat, the most unsettling of intimacies. Did he know the Coulters well, Willard asked?

“Not especially,” Asriel said.

Willard gave a little nod and then turned back to his notes, while Asriel’s eyes returned to the empty space on the bench across the room, now more ominous than curious. But he couldn’t go now. That would be more than just suspicious; it might as well be a direct admission of their love affair. He should wait, listen to whatever cretin had been dispatched in Coulter’s absence, then gather information from the aides over port in the reception that was to follow. He didn’t even know which hospital she was in, for god’s sake. It was beyond irrational. It was pathetic.

He left the room not ten seconds later, Stelmaria dashing ahead with her ears pricked and tail rigid, Willard’s papers ruffling in the wind made by the man’s swift and spritely exit. 

“Where d’you think she is?” Asriel said, as soon as they’d been spat out onto Westminster Bridge. “Where do we go?”

Stelmaria was very quiet. “We can’t search every ward in London,” she said. “Let’s go to Guy’s. It’s close to her and much larger than Harley’s or the Chelsea.”

Asriel was shaking his head. “But if she’s been in an accident, she could be anywhere.”

“Then we’ll simply have to return home and await news.”

“No,” Asriel said. “No. That’s not good enough.” How embarrassing, he thought: after years of risky expeditions, alone in the middle of the barren, ice-bright wilderness, to feel that London, a place in which he’d never had any trouble making his mischief, was frighteningly, untameably large.

They reached Guy’s not long after, and while Asriel approached the reception his dæmon prowled around the waiting room, sniffing the air and searching the scene with eyes as sharp as flint.

“Tell me if there’s a Marisa Coulter here,” he said, to the freckled nurse behind the desk, who was looking at Stelmaria apprehensively. “As a patient. I must know at once.”

“Are – are you family, sir?” the nurse said. “Because that’s confidential, see. If you’re not family, I really can’t say anything. It’s the law. I’m sure you understand.”

“I do not,” Asriel said. “Nor can I accept such flimsy rationale. Tell me if she’s here, and tell me now.”

“She is here,” Stelmaria murmured, having returned to his side. “I can’t know where just yet, but I’m certain. She’s somewhere in the building.”

Asriel nodded, ignoring the nurse’s next attempt to knock him off Marisa’s scent. “Save your breath. I know she’s here. Now, tell me where to find her in this maze, or suffer the consequences.”

“Sir, I absolutely cannot do that,” the nurse stammered.

“Of course you can.” Asriel pulled out his wallet, fished out a stack of notes, and placed them on the stack of files the nurse had been sorting through when he approached. Her eyes widened. “I’ll ask one more time. Where is she?”

There were plenty of things that Asriel should have been thinking about as he made his way to the twelfth room on the third floor – who saw him; how he would need to behave if she was in one of the wards instead of a private room, surrounded by those who might delight in prying; what he might say if Edward was there with her, as he almost certainly would be – but he contemplated precisely none of them. Instead, he could only think about how damn furious he was with her for interrupting his morning, sending him on this goose chase, and for not having the basic decency to send a note to inform him that she was meaningfully infirm. They’d arranged to meet the following day, after all. How typical of her; how absolutely thoughtless. Yes, it was this on his mind when he stormed into the room, ready to excoriate her for her callousness, happy to interrupt her busy morning of pricing the various bouquets she’d been sent and scrutinising the cards to see who was worrying about her most. But when he entered, when he saw her lying there like that, he found that he could say nothing at all. He felt suddenly as limp as she looked.

She wasn’t obviously injured – no bruises, no wounds – but she did look very unwell. Her skin was sallow, ashen and waxy, and there was no colour in her cheeks or lips, as if she was wearing lipstick that matched her awful sickbed-shade to perfection. She was receiving fluids into her arm and she looked to be asleep. Mercifully, she was also alone. Her dæmon was curled up on the bed beside her, his fur dulled to a muddy ochre, and Asriel could see that he was shivering. His eyes prised themselves open at the intrusion, and at the sight of their lovers, he let out a little cry. It was then that Marisa’s own eyes fluttered up. “Oh, wonderful,” she said dryly, in every sense of the word. Her eyes closed again. “Just what I need to better my morning. How did you find me?”

All he could say was: “Marisa…”

“I’m sure you’re very pleased with yourself, but I don’t have time to congratulate Stelmaria on her nose. Edward will be back any minute.” She looked at him, bare-faced, big-eyed, and said, with a tiny tremor in her voice, “You really must leave, Asriel. Right this moment. You can see that, can’t you? Turn around, and go.”

He barely even heard the plea. “What’s happened? Why are you here?”

“Asriel, listen to me, I’m begging you. I need you to walk away this very second – ”

“I will not,” he said, and she put her head in her hands. “You’re ill, are you? What’s wrong? Or are you hurt?” Awful thoughts began to bombard him. “Did someone hurt you? Did he – ?”

Marisa gave a hollow little laugh. “Quite the imagination you have there, darling, don’t you? My goodness. It’s nothing quite so grand as all that. It’s mild, I promise.”

“Mild enough to see you admitted and on a drip. For Christ’s sake, Marisa, you cannot lie to me when I can see the state you’re in with my own eyes! And still, now, you refuse to say a thing of substance! Drop the performance right this instant, and tell me.”

“Keep your voice down,” she hissed, which he ignored.

“If it weren’t for a chance moment at the House, you know, I’d still be none the wiser as to your condition! Is this how we’re to communicate now? Shall I discover your death from my driver – or better yet, an urchin on the street?” He shook his head. “No note; no call; no message at all. I should have been informed. At the very least to keep me from having to waste my time tracking you down.”

Marisa was looking at him like he was mad. “And how was I supposed to manage that? Send a note out with one of the porters and simply hope that he was too dense to make sense of it? Of course no one called you. You’re not my husband; not family of any kind. There’s scarcely a trace of you in my life at all. There was never going to be a message. How on Earth could that surprise you?” She glanced at the door. “Darling, I can see that you’re upset,” – if there’d been something breakable within reach, he’d have had to hurl it – “but we really must discuss this some other time. Go, Asriel, please. Please.”

“Not until I’ve received some answers. I deserved to know that you’re – what are you, unwell? Injured? I still haven’t the faintest idea what’s landed you here in the first place – !”

“Asriel,” Stelmaria interjected; her ears were as exact as her nose. Marisa seemed to intuit at once what was about to happen, and so by the time Edward Coulter entered the room, she’d winched herself into a more upright position and had plastered a sweet smile on her face, which was awful to see.

“No chocolatl, I’m afraid,” the man said, a paper cup wisping steam in each hand. “But I put several sugars in the tea.” He stopped when he realised that he wasn’t alone with his wife. “Lord Asriel. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, it’s a dreadful story,” Marisa said as she accepted the tea from her husband and took a dainty sip, missing not even a beat. “His dear aunt is bedbound just down the hall – cancer of the lung, didn’t you say? – and he was being a darling and paying her a visit, a lift of the spirits. He saw my name on the board on his way out, and came to offer some well-wishes.” She gave Asriel a pointed look. “But I’m sure that he’d better be going now.”

Edward gave a weary nod as he sat beside Marisa’s bed and took her hand. He didn’t appear to have shaved in several days and his shirt was streaked with creases. Even his dæmon’s eyes were bloodshot. He looked exhausted, unsettled; perhaps even a little frightened. He looked how Asriel might have looked, he supposed, if his name and not Edward’s had been marked down as her next-of-kin – as it should have been, really, for he was the closest thing to kin she had.

“I see,” Edward said. “Well, that’s kind of you.” He checked his watch. “You must have come straight from the debate. I hope they didn’t butcher my speech.”

“I’m afraid that I too was unable to attend,” he said tightly, and Edward nodded, as if that was entirely expected. “Family matters, you understand.” Then he looked at Marisa, who was doing her best to look everywhere but into his eyes. “I do hope you’ll be back on your feet soon, Mrs Coulter.”

“Thank you, Lord Asriel. It was only a little blood loss; I’m sure that I’ll be right as rain in a few days.”

That made Edward frown. “It was somewhat more spectacular than a little blood loss, darling. The doctor said that I might have lost you both.”

“Both?” Asriel asked, at the same time that Marisa hissed, “Edward.”

He looked only vaguely bashful to have spilled the secret that Marisa had been guarding with such gall. Marisa had no choice but to look at Asriel. He saw her swallow before she spoke. “It appears that I’m with child,” she said. “There were concerns that I might be losing the baby, but somehow, against the odds,” she gave a grim smile, “all appears to be well.”

“A miracle,” Edward murmured, and Marisa took the opportunity to gaze lovingly at her husband, one hand pressed to her stomach, the other cupping his cheek, all of which meant that he didn’t notice how Asriel’s face had been drained of its colour, nor how Marisa’s dæmon was pressing his face into her side, so that he didn’t have to look at any of them. Marisa was still fussing with her husband’s hair and collar when a knock came at the door.

“Mr Coulter?” a voice said, cracking open the door just a touch. “There’s a courier downstairs for you, with a package. Needs your signature.”

“That’ll be the transcript from this morning,” he said, getting up at once. “I’ll just be a minute, darling.” Then, one hasty kiss on the forehead later, Asriel and Marisa were alone.

For what felt like a long while, no one spoke. He stared at his clasped hands; she watched the clouds glide by through the window. When he did finally find his voice, his throat had been scorched dry. “When did you find out?”

“A few weeks ago.”

“You didn’t tell anyone.”

“Of course not,” she said. “I had to be sure, didn’t I? No sense causing such a fuss over nothing. But I didn’t have a choice in the end, not with all this. They told Edward while I was half-conscious. Nothing to be done about it.”

“And you thought you were miscarrying?”

She let out a breathy, melancholy chuckle. “Something like that.”

He studied her, in that sterile white bed in a sterile white room, her skin flax-yellow against the pale sheets, her dæmon vibrating with what Asriel had come to recognise as her shame. He narrowed his eyes, but she didn’t flinch, as if she was daring him to bring the thought to fruition. “That’s common, is it? To have all the symptoms of a miscarriage – including a spectacular amount of blood – and yet somehow, the pregnancy remains undisturbed?”

“It happens,” she said coolly. “Didn’t you hear Edward? It’s quite the miracle.”

“Is it now?” he murmured. He got to his feet and came to stand by the window, hands held behind his back, looking out at London. The sky was the robin’s-egg blue of winter and the glass was mottled with condensation from the chill, but still, Asriel could see the first buds of blossom on a cherry tree across the street. New life. He might have laughed. “What did you use?” he asked.

“A knitting needle.”

Never before had a phrase made him tremble. He bowed his head and placed a palm against the window to steady himself. “Christ.”

“Spare me the melodrama, Asriel. I didn’t shove it inside you.” 

As if there was any difference. He turned to her, furious. “Why didn’t you come to me? If that’s what you’d wanted to do, I could have had someone come to the house. No one would have seen you. I could have built you a private clinic on my land, for god’s sake!”

“I didn’t want to involve you,” she said, as if that were obvious.

“Why not? I am involved!” He stopped. He hadn’t for a moment considered the alternative. “Or am I not?”

The pause was agonising; no doubt she was doing it on purpose. At least she had the decency to look him in the eye as she said, “You are.”

“And you’re certain of that?”

“Do I strike you as the sort of woman who hasn’t the faintest clue which brute has fathered her child?” she snapped. To that, of course, he could only laugh. He expected worse fury in response – indeed, if there’d been an inkwell or notebook within arm’s reach of her, he might have ducked by reflex – but instead, her eyes just filled with tears. He spoke marginally more gently when he said, “How can you be certain?”

He expected something scientific. But her answer was not that of a technician, nor a frightened young woman; they were the words of another man’s wife. “Well,” she said, “you know how it is when a new piece of legislation is being drafted, don’t you? Each appendix debated ad nauseum, each sentence tweaked a thousand times. It’s been controversial too – with other people, I mean; I’m not talking about you – and Edward’s been wrapped up in it for months now. It’s all he can think about, all he talks about at home, and his hours have been frightfully long. Well, you know that. You’re the one who benefits, after all. But the stress takes its toll, and so we haven’t been… acting as man and wife, shall we say. Not for a while. He’s needed other things from me instead. I had to take him to bed as soon as I found out, so that the dates could be fudged. But yes, my darling, you odious man, I’m cer…”

It should have pleased him, he knew, to be told that he’d been her only lover for months now, that all that heat and intimacy had been reserved for him and his body alone, the other man left with just her grudging caresses and keen eye for proofreading. But instead, he found his mood worsening. He didn’t want to hear another word about their cosy conversations over dinner; the things they murmured about as the sun rose and their days began. The other ways she soothed his stress, that he couldn’t even picture.

She was still talking, saying something bitter about blame and his ecstasies, but Asriel cut her off. “So I am involved,” he said. “And yet, it doesn’t occur to you to come to me, so that we might make a plan as a pair. No, you retreat, like a coward; you maim yourself on a whim instead – ”

“It was not a whim!” she cried, outraged. “How dare you? As if I simply picked up some convenient implement and began to root around. I studied for it, I’ll have you know. It took weeks to prepare. Everything was sterilised; I’d memorised the diagrams, so there’d be no paper trial. I was meticulous. I knew what I was doing.”

“Evidently!” he said, gesturing to her in the bed. She covered her face with her hands and lay back against her pillow. He waited for her rebuttal, the next step of the dance. But she didn’t speak, and when her hands fell away from her face, one to her chest, the other to cover the incipient child, her eyes stayed closed. She looked so ill.

“I can still help, if you want,” he said quietly. “Say the word, and it can be done.”

“I don’t think I have that option anymore,” she said. “The doctor… he said that it’s very, very rare for things like this to happen twice, so that should I appear with a similar issue again, he might be forced to get a second opinion, one that might be less favourable. The point he was making was quite clear.”

“Good man,” Asriel said.

Marisa rolled her eyes. “Yes, he won’t have a woman hanged simply for taking the small matter of her entire future into her own hands. What a saint.”

“Others would have done so. Gleefully.”

“Yes, thank you, I’m aware,” she said. “And now there’s Edward to contend with – did you see his face? He’s buoyant about it, my god – and there’ll be increased scrutiny too, I was told, because of this incident. Additional appointments, specialist care. To tell you the truth, it’s all a bit of a disaster. A flock of people making sure that this child arrives in the world unscathed. And,” she swallowed, “this was perhaps cut a little finer than I would have liked. So it’s not an experiment I’m in any hurry to repeat.”

“No,” he agreed. He came to stand at the end of the bed, his hands resting on the rail. “So I don’t have to be concerned that you’ll fling yourself down a set of stairs the moment they discharge you?”

Her voice was soft when she replied, “That would concern you, would it?”

“Of course it would. I came here, didn’t I?” She wiped her eyes as she nodded. Asriel sighed. “So what happens?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re on a clock now, aren’t we? It seems better to tell him sooner rather than later. Leave time for life to find its level before the thing is born.”

“Asriel, what are you talking about?” Marisa asked fearfully.

“The child, Marisa, that it appears we’re having. You’ve made your point well enough these past few years: you can resist me, and you have, but it’s time for the games to end. Come and be with me, my love. Let us be free, and let us thank our offspring for it.”

“Asriel, no, no…”

“Yes. What is it that you need to feel secure? I’ll put one – two, three, name your price – of my homes in your name tomorrow. My assets need not trap you. Or be my wife, and have half of everything. But let us stop this cloak-and-dagger nonsense. I tired of it a long time ago, as you well know. Christ, come north with me now – we can bring a physician to attend to you – we’ll leave next week! Edward can lick his wounds and you can rest in the perfect peace; we’ll furnish the cabin with silk sheets and make love on the unbroken snow! My love, what a gift!”

“And what then?” she said. “We return for the delivery, and then you head back to the North not three months later, and I am left to nurse the brat and wither? I would rather die.”

“Clearly,” he said. “But Marisa, do you not understand? You can do whatever you wish! You need not lift a finger for the thing if it does not please you. Nurses can be sourced; nannies hired; tutors and teachers for all manner of needs. I left for Eton at eight. You worry about next winter? We can leave the babe in Brytain and fly north again together! Study and travel, and return in the spring. Or they can accompany us, and we can show them the world! Truly, my darling, I cannot comprehend your reticence. What – ” He found himself forced to pause. He stared at her. “What does he offer you that I can’t? Tell me.”

“Asriel, please,” was all she said, as if she was choking. Then footsteps sounded outside the door, and she gasped. She began to fan her face, to blink away her tears, to snap her fingers at her dæmon and rip him from Stelmaria’s powerful embrace. Fortunately, the footsteps faded away as the stranger kept moving, but the spell had been broken. She lay back, breathless, and tried to wave him away, but her distress was evident: she could hardly speak, and had begun to tremble.

“My love,” he said, and moved towards her, so that he might take her in his arms and kiss her, stroke her hair, her back, the battlefield of her abdomen. But as soon as he was close enough to touch, she found her voice and batted him away.

“Have you lost your mind?” she hissed. “That could have been a nurse, that could have been my husband… He could return at any moment; he could have returned at any time! You should have left so long ago… really, Asriel, don’t you ever think?”

“I will not be lectured about recklessness by you. Not in this state.” He was quivering with the effort of standing apart from her. “Marisa, what I said. Tell me you’ll join me. Think of what we could do, together! Yield, my love. Come and be with me; come and live that life.”  

But she wasn’t listening anymore. “Asriel, you need to go. I need you to go. My god, what are we doing? You with your fantasies, me actually listening. I don’t know what’s to happen, there’s your answer. I can’t – I can’t think about it now – Oh, Asriel, I’m so unwell. I need you to leave. I need you to leave me be. Please, darling. I’m begging you.”

The thought that he would be the one forced to walk away, that the other man would be allowed to return, even after such a cataclysm that seemed so wholly theirs to share, made Asriel furious with her like never before. “Fine, then,” he spat, and stormed towards the door. He was followed by the pad of monkey feet, and when he turned and looked into the little beast’s eyes, he was almost bested. So much misery in that malevolence! But all he did was give her golden dæmon a glare, and then continue. “Talk to your woman,” he said, as he turned the door handle.

But he couldn’t cross the threshold. As soon he moved to swing the door open and expose them to the world, he felt the pull in his chest, a silver thread sewn through his heart and deftly tugged. At the sensation he turned, perturbed. “Come, Stelmaria,” he was going to say, but when he saw the scene before him, he could only sigh. He eased the door closed again and stood with his back pressed to the wood, so that Edward couldn’t ruin them without some warning.

Stelmaria’s front paws were on the bed, and she was staring into Marisa’s eyes. “Don’t look at me like that,” Marisa said, as she ran a hand through her hair, straightened her sheets. But even when she’d calmed again, Stelmaria stayed resolute. Her glowing, green gaze was intense, Asriel knew, and Marisa soon started to wobble with its weight. “Stelmaria,” she warned, but his dæmon didn’t stir; she was perfectly stoic and silent, like a marble statue under moonlight.

Marisa’s eyes were now brimming with tears, and it only took one graceful bow of Stelmaria’s head for them to start to fall. His dæmon let his lover cry into her fur, all the while murmuring into Marisa’s ear, remarks to which Asriel would never be privy. She shared with him only the last thing she said: “It could be whatever you want it to be, Marisa.” Marisa shook her head with a whimper, but she buried her face more deeply into Stelmaria’s coat and held her even more tightly. Even as her sobs tempered, she refused to let go; Asriel took that pain to be the faintest, palest stab of hope.