The President’s eyes widened as he saw who it was, and he smiled wolfishly.
“Mrs. Coulter,” he said, offering his hand. “I am very glad to see you. My study is cold, and our hospitality is plain, but come in, come in.”
“Good evening,” she said, following him inside the bleak stone-walled room, allowing him to make a little fuss and show her to a chair. “Thank you,” she said to Brother Louis, who was still hovering, “I’ll take a glass of chocolatl.”
Nothing had been offered, and she knew how insulting it was to treat him like a servant, but his manner was so abject that he deserved it. The President nodded, and Brother Louis had to leave and deal with it, to his great annoyance.
“Of course you are under arrest,” said the President, taking the other chair and turning up the lamp.
“Oh, why spoil our talk before we’ve even begun?” said Mrs. Coulter. “I came here voluntarily, as soon as I could escape from Asriel’s fortress. The fact is, Father President, I have a great deal of information about his forces, and about the child, and I came here to give it to you.”
“The child, then. Begin with the child.”
“My daughter is now twelve years old. Very soon she will approach the cusp of adolescence, and then it will be too late for any of us to prevent the catastrophe; nature and opportunity will come together like spark and tinder. Thanks to your intervention, that is now far more likely. I hope you’re satisfied.”
“It was your duty to bring her here into our care. Instead, you chose to skulk in a mountain cave—though how a woman of your intelligence hoped to remain hidden is a mystery to me.”
“There’s probably a great deal that’s mysterious to you, my Lord President, starting with the relations between a mother and her child. If you thought for one moment that I would release my daughter into the care—the care!—of a body of men with a feverish obsession with sexuality, men with dirty fingernails, reeking of ancient sweat, men whose furtive imaginations would crawl over her body like cockroaches—if you thought I would expose my child to that, my Lord President, you are more stupid than you take me for.”
There was a knock on the door before he could reply, and Brother Louis came in with two glasses of chocolatl on a wooden tray. He laid the tray on the table with a nervous bow, smiling at the President in hopes of being asked to stay; but Father MacPhail nodded toward the door, and the young man left reluctantly.
“So what were you going to do?” said the President.
“I was going to keep her safe until the danger had passed.”
“What danger would that be?” he said, handing her a glass.
“Oh, I think you know what I mean. Somewhere there is a tempter, a serpent, so to speak, and I had to keep them from meeting.”
“There is a boy with her.”
“Yes. And if you hadn’t interfered, they would both be under my control. As it is, they could be anywhere. At least they’re not with Lord Asriel.”
“I have no doubt he will be looking for them. The boy has a knife of extraordinary power. They would be worth pursuing for that alone.”
“I’m aware of that,” said Mrs. Coulter. “I managed to break it, and he managed to get it mended again.”
The President wondered why she was smiling. Surely she didn’t approve of this wretched boy?
“We know,” he said shortly.
“Well, well,” she said. “Fra Pavel must be getting quicker. When I knew him, it would have taken him a month at least to read all that.”
She sipped her chocolatl, which was thin and weak; how like these wretched priests, she thought, to take their self-righteous abstinence out on their visitors, too.
“Tell me about Lord Asriel,” said the President. “Tell me everything.”
Mrs. Coulter settled back comfortably and began to tell him—not everything, but he never thought for a moment that she would. She told him about the fortress, about the allies, about the angels, about the mines and the foundries.
Father MacPhail sat without moving a muscle, his lizard dæmon absorbing and remembering every word.
“And how did you get here?” he asked.
“I stole a gyropter. It ran out of fuel and I had to abandon it in the countryside not far from here. The rest of the way I walked.”
“Is Lord Asriel actively searching for the girl and the boy?”
“I assume he’s after that knife. You know it has a name? The cliff-ghasts of the north call it the god-destroyer,” he went on, crossing to the window and looking down over the cloisters. “That’s what Asriel is aiming to do, isn’t it? Destroy the Authority? There are some people who claim that God is dead already. Presumably, Asriel is not one of those, if he retains the ambition to kill him.”
“Well, where is God,” said Mrs. Coulter, “if he’s alive? And why doesn’t he speak anymore? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the Garden and spoke with Adam and Eve. Then he began to withdraw, and he forbade Moses to look at his face. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was aged—he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn’t it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of our love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?”
Mrs. Coulter felt a calm exhilaration as she spoke. She wondered if she’d ever get out alive; but it was intoxicating, to speak like that to this man.
“And Dust?” he said. “From the depths of heresy, what is your view of Dust?”
“I have no view of Dust,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. No one does.”
“I see. Well, I began by reminding you that you are under arrest. I think it’s time we found you somewhere to sleep. You’ll be quite comfortable; no one will hurt you; but you’re not going to get away. And we shall talk more tomorrow.”
He rang a bell, and Brother Louis came in almost at once.
“Show Mrs. Coulter to the best guest room,” said the President. “And lock her in.”
The best guest room was shabby and the furniture was cheap, but at least it was clean. After the lock had turned behind her, Mrs. Coulter looked around at once for the microphone and found one in the elaborate light-fitting and another under the frame of the bed. She disconnected them both, and then had a horrible surprise.
Watching her from the top of the chest of drawers behind the door was Lord Roke.
She cried out and put a hand on the wall to steady herself. The Gallivespian was sitting cross-legged, entirely at his ease, and neither she nor the golden monkey had seen him. Once the pounding of her heart had subsided, and her breathing had slowed, she said, “And when would you have done me the courtesy of letting me know you were here, my lord? Before I undressed, or afterwards?”
“Before,” he said. “Tell your dæmon to calm down, or I’ll disable him.”
The golden monkey’s teeth were bared, and all his fur was standing on end. The scorching malice of his expression was enough to make any normal person quail, but Lord Roke merely smiled. His spurs glittered in the dim light.
The little spy stood up and stretched.
“I’ve just spoken to my agent in Lord Asriel’s fortress,” he went on. “Lord Asriel presents his compliments and asks you to let him know as soon as you find out what these people’s intentions are.”
She felt winded, as if Lord Asriel had thrown her hard in wrestling. Her eyes widened, and she sat down slowly on the bed.
“Did you come here to spy on me, or to help?” she said.
“Both, and it’s lucky for you I’m here. As soon as you arrived, they set some anbaric work in motion down in the cellars. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a team of scientists working on it right now. You seem to have galvanized them.”
“I don’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed. As a matter of fact, I’m exhausted, and I’m going to sleep. If you’re here to help me, you can keep watch. You can begin by looking the other way.”
He bowed and faced the wall until she had washed in the chipped basin, dried herself on the thin towel, and undressed and got into bed. Her dæmon patrolled the room, checking the wardrobe, the picture rail, the curtains, the view of the dark cloisters out of the window. Lord Roke watched him every inch of the way. Finally the golden monkey joined Mrs. Coulter, and they fell asleep at once.