At the moment his expression was distant and preoccupied. His daemon came close and leaned her head on his waist, and he looked down at her unfathomably before turning away and walking to the table. Lyra suddenly felt her stomach lurch, for Lord Asriel had taken the stopper from the decanter of Tokay, and was pouring a glass.


“No!”

The quiet cry came before she could hold it back. Lord Asriel heard and turned at once.

“Who's there?”

She couldn't help herself. She tumbled out of the wardrobe and scrambled up to snatch the glass from his hand. The wine flew out, splashing on the edge of the table and the carpet, and then the glass fell and smashed. He seized her wrist and twisted hard.

“Lyra! What the hell are you doing?”

“Let go of me and I'll tell you!”

“I'll break your arm first. How dare you come in here?”

“I've just saved your life!”

They were still for a moment, the girl twisted in pain but grimacing to prevent herself from crying out louder, the man bent over her frowning like thunder.

“What did you say?” he said more quietly.

“That wine is poisoned,” she muttered between clenched teeth. “I saw the Master put some powder in it.”

He let go. She sank to the floor, and Pantalaimon fluttered anxiously to her shoulder. Her uncle looked down with a restrained fury, and she didn't dare meet his eyes.

“I came in just to see what the room was like,” she said. “I know I shouldn't have. But I was going to go out before anyone came in, except that I heard the Master coming and got ^ trapped. The wardrobe was the only place to hide. And I saw him put the powder in the wine. If I hadn't…”

There was a knock on the door.

“That'll be the Porter,” said Lord Asriel. “Back in the wardrobe. If I hear the slightest noise, I'll make you wish you were dead.”

She darted back there at once, and no sooner had she pulled the door shut than Lord Asriel called, “Come in.”

As he'd said, it was the Porter.

“In here, my lord?”

Lyra saw the old man standing doubtfully in the doorway, and behind him, the corner of a large wooden box.

“That's right, Shuter,” said Lord Asriel. “Bring them both in and put them down by the table.”

Lyra relaxed a little, and allowed herself to feel the pain in her shoulder and wrist. It might have been enough to make her cry, if she was the sort of girl who cried. Instead she gritted her teeth and moved the arm gently until it felt looser.

Then came a crash of glass and the glug of spilled liquid.

“Damn you, Shuter, you careless old fool! Look what you've done!”

Lyra could see, just. Her uncle had managed to knock the

decanter of Tokay off the table, and made it look as if the Porter had done it. The old man put the box down carefully and began to apologize.

“I'm truly sorry, my lord—I must have been closer than I thought—”

“Get something to clear this mess up. Go on, before it soaks into the carpet!”

The Porter hurried out. Lord Asriel moved closer to the wardrobe and spoke in an undertone.

“Since you're in there, you can make yourself useful. Watch the Master closely when he comes in. If you tell me something interesting about him, I'll keep you from getting further into the trouble you're already in. Understand?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

“Make a noise in there and I won't help you. You're on your own.”

He moved away and stood with his back to the fire again as the Porter came back with a brush and dustpan for the glass and a bowl and cloth.

“I can only say once again, my lord, I do most earnestly beg your pardon; I don't know what—”

“Just clear up the mess.”

As the Porter began to mop the wine from the carpet, the Butler knocked and came in with Lord Asriel's manservant, a man called Thorold. They were carrying between them a heavy case of polished wood with brass handles. They saw what the Porter was doing and stopped dead.

“Yes, it was the Tokay,” said Lord Asriel. “Too bad. Is that the lantern? Set it up by the wardrobe, Thorold, if you would. I'll have the screen up at the other end.”

Lyra realized that she would be able to see the screen and whatever was on it through the crack in the door, and wondered whether her uncle had arranged it like that for the purpose. Under the noise the manservant made unrolling the stiff linen and setting it up on its frame, she whispered:

“See? It was worth coming, wasn't it?”

“It might be,” Pantalaimon said austerely, in his tiny moth voice. “And it might not.”

Lord Asriel stood by the fire sipping the last of the coffee and watching darkly as Thorold opened the case of the projecting lantern and uncapped the lens before checking the oil tank.

“There's plenty of oil, my lord,” he said. “Shall I send for a technician to operate it?”

“No. I'll do it myself. Thank you, Thorold. Have they finished dinner yet, Wren?”

“Very nearly, I think, my lord,” replied the Butler. “If I understand Mr. Cawson aright, the Master and his guests won't be disposed to linger once they know you're here. Shall I take the coffee tray?”

“Take it and go.”

“Very good, my lord.”

With a slight bow, the Butler took the tray and left, and Thorold went with him. As soon as the door closed, Lord Asriel looked across the room directly at the wardrobe, and Lyra felt the force of his glance almost as if it had physical form, as if it were an arrow or a spear. Then he looked away and spoke softly to his dasmon.

She came to sit calmly at his side, alert and elegant and dangerous, her tawny eyes surveying the room before turning, like his black ones, to the door from the hall as the handle turned. Lyra couldn't see the door, but she heard an intake of breath as the first man came in.

Two

The Idea Of North

“Master,” said Lord Asriel. “Yes, I'm back. Do bring in your guests; I've got something very interesting to show you.”

“Lord Asriel,” said the Master heavily, and came forward to shake his hand. From her hiding place Lyra watched the Master's eyes, and indeed, they flicked toward the table for a second, where the Tokay had been.

“Master,” said Lord Asriel. “I came too late to disturb your dinner, so I made myself at home in here. Hello, Sub-Rector. Glad to see you looking so well. Excuse my rough appearance; I've only just landed. Yes, Master, the Tokay's gone. I think you're standing in it. The Porter knocked it off the table, but it was my fault. Hello, Chaplain. I read your latest paper with great interest.”

He moved away with the Chaplain, leaving Lyra with a clear view of the Master's face. It was impassive, but the daemon on his shoulder was shuffling her feathers and moving restlessly from foot to foot. Lord Asriel was already dominating the room, and although he was careful to be courteous to the Master in the Master's own territory, it was clear where the power lay.

The Scholars greeted the visitor and moved into the room, some sitting around the table, some in the armchairs, and soon a buzz of conversation filled the air. Lyra could see that they were powerfully intrigued by the wooden case, the screen, and the lantern. She knew the Scholars well: the Librarian, the Sub-Rector, the Enquirer, and the rest; they were men who had been around her all her life, taught her, chastised her, consoled her, given her little presents, chased her away from the fruit trees in the garden; they were all she had for a family. They might even have felt like a family if she knew what a family was, though if she did, she'd have been more likely to feel that about the College servants. The Scholars had more important things to do than attend to the affections of a half-wild, half-civilized girl, left among them by chance.

The Master lit the spirit lamp under the little silver chafing dish and heated some butter before cutting half a dozen poppy heads open and tossing them in. Poppy was always served after a feast: it clarified the mind and stimulated the tongue, and made for rich conversation. It was traditional for the Master to cook it himself.

Under the sizzle of the frying butter and the hum of talk, Lyra shifted around to find a more comfortable position for herself. With enormous care she took one of the robes — a full-length fur — off its hanger and laid it on the floor of the wardrobe.

“You should have used a scratchy old one,” whispered Pantalaimon. “If you get too comfortable, you'll go to sleep.”

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