Giacomo Paradisi was watching with a curious, sad smile. Then he said, “So much for opening. Now you must learn to close.”
Lyra stood back to give Will room, and the old man came to stand beside him.
“For this you need your fingers,” he said. “One hand will do. Feel for the edge as you felt with the knife to begin with. You won’t find it unless you put your soul into your fingertips. Touch very delicately; feel again and again till you find the edge. Then you pinch it together. That’s all. Try.”
But Will was trembling. He couldn’t get his mind back to the delicate balance he knew it needed, and he got more and more frustrated. Lyra could see what was happening.
She stood up and took his right arm and said, “Listen, Will, sit down, I’ll tell you how to do it. Just sit down for a minute, ’cause your hand hurts and it’s taking your mind off it. It’s bound to. It’ll ease off in a little while.”
The old man raised both his hands and then changed his mind, shrugged, and sat down again.
Will sat down and looked at Lyra. “What am I doing wrong?” he said.
He was bloodstained, trembling, wild-eyed. He was living on the edge of his nerves: clenching his jaw, tapping his foot, breathing fast.
“It’s your wound,” she said. “You en’t wrong at all. You’re doing it right, but your hand won’t let you concentrate on it. I don’t know an easy way of getting around that, except maybe if you didn’t try to shut it out.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Well, you’re trying to do two things with your mind, both at once. You’re trying to ignore the pain and close that window. I remember when I was reading the alethiometer once when I was frightened, and maybe I was used to it by that time, I don’t know, but I was still frightened all the time I was reading it. Just sort of relax your mind and say yes, it does hurt, I know. Don’t try and shut it out.”
His eyes closed briefly. His breathing slowed a little.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll try that.”
And this time it was much easier. He felt for the edge, found it within a minute, and did as Giacomo Paradisi had told him: pinched the edges together. It was the easiest thing in the world. He felt a brief, calm exhilaration, and then the window was gone. The other world was shut.
The old man handed him a leather sheath, backed with stiff horn, with buckles to hold the knife in place, because the slightest sideways movement of the blade would have cut through the thickest leather. Will slid the knife into it and buckled it as tight as he could with his clumsy hand.
“This should be a solemn occasion,” Giacomo Paradisi said. “If we had days and weeks I could begin to tell you the story of the subtle knife, and the Guild of the Torre degli Angeli, and the whole sorry history of this corrupt and careless world. The Specters are our fault, our fault alone. They came because my predecessors, alchemists, philosophers, men of learning, were making an inquiry into the deepest nature of things. They became curious about the bonds that held the smallest particles of matter together. You know what I mean by a bond? Something that binds?
“Well, this was a mercantile city. A city of traders and bankers. We thought we knew about bonds. We thought a bond was something negotiable, something that could be bought and sold and exchanged and converted . . . . But about these bonds, we were wrong. We undid them, and we let the Specters in.”
Will asked, “Where do the Specters come from? Why was the window left open under those trees, the one we first came in through? Are there other windows in the world?”
“Where the Specters come from is a mystery—from another world, from the darkness of space . . . who knows? What matters is that they are here, and they have destroyed us. Are there other windows into this world? Yes, a few, because sometimes a knife bearer might be careless or forgetful, without time to stop and close as he should. And the window you came through, under the hornbeam trees . . . I left that open myself, in a moment of unforgivable foolishness. There is a man I am afraid of, and I thought to tempt him through and into the city, where he would fall victim to the Specters. But I think that he is too clever for a trick like that. He wants the knife. Please, never let him get it.”
Will and Lyra shared a glance.
“Well,” the old man finished, spreading his hands, “all I can do is hand the knife on to you and show you how to use it, which I have done, and tell you what the rules of the Guild used to be, before it decayed. First, never open without closing. Second, never let anyone else use the knife. It is yours alone. Third, never use it for a base purpose. Fourth, keep it secret. If there are other rules, I have forgotten them, and if I’ve forgotten them it is because they don’t matter. You have the knife. You are the bearer. You should not be a child. But our world is crumbling, and the mark of the bearer is unmistakable. I don’t even know your name. Now go. I shall die very soon, because I know where there are poisonous drugs, and I don’t intend to wait for the Specters to come in, as they will once the knife has left. Go.”
“But, Mr. Paradisi—” Lyra began.
But he shook his head and went on: “There is no time. You have come here for a purpose, and maybe you don’t know what that purpose is, but the angels do who brought you here. Go. You are brave, and your friend is clever. And you have the knife. Go.”
“You en’t really going to poison yourself?” said Lyra, distressed.
“Come on,” said Will.
“And what did you mean about angels?” she went on.
Will tugged her arm.
“Come on,” he said again. “We got to go. Thank you, Mr. Paradisi.”
He held out his bloodstained, dusty right hand, and the old man shook it gently. He shook Lyra’s hand, too, and nodded to Pantalaimon, who lowered his ermine head in acknowledgment.
Clutching the knife in its leather sheath, Will led the way down the broad dark stairs and out of the tower. The sunlight was hot in the little square, and the silence was profound. Lyra looked all around, with immense caution, but the street was empty. And it would be better not to worry Will about what she’d seen; there was quite enough to worry about already. She led him away from the street where she’d seen the children, where the stricken Tullio was standing, as still as death.
“I wish—” Lyra said when they had nearly left the square, stopping to look back up. “It’s horrible, thinking of . . . and his poor teeth was all broken, and he could hardly see out his eye . . . . He’s just going to swallow some poison and die now, and I wish—”
She was on the verge of tears.
“Hush,” said Will. “It won’t hurt him. He’ll just go to sleep. It’s better than the Specters, he said.”
“Oh, what we going to do, Will?” she said. “What we going to do? You’re hurt so bad, and that poor old man . . . . I hate this place, I really do, I’d burn it to the ground. What we going to do now?”
“Well,” he said, “that’s easy. We’ve got to get the alethiometer back, so we’ll have to steal it. That’s what we’re going to do.”
First they went back to the café, to recover and rest and change their clothes. It was clear that Will couldn’t go everywhere covered in blood, and the time of feeling guilty about taking things from shops was over; so he gathered a complete set of new clothes and shoes, and Lyra, demanding to help, and watching in every direction for the other children, carried them back to the café.
Lyra put some water on to boil, and Will took it up to the bathroom and stripped to wash from head to foot. The pain was dull and unrelenting, but at least the cuts were clean, and having seen what the knife could do, he knew that no cuts could be cleaner; but the stumps where his fingers had been were bleeding freely. When he looked at them he felt sick, and his heart beat faster, and that in turn seemed to make the bleeding even worse. He sat on the edge of the bath and closed his eyes and breathed deeply several times.
Presently he felt calmer and set himself to washing. He did the best he could, drying himself on the increasingly bloodied towels, and then dressed in his new clothes, trying not to make them bloody too.
“You’re going to have to tie my bandage again,” he said to Lyra. “I don’t care how tight you make it as long as it stops the bleeding.”