The Subtle Knife Chapter Eight
The Tower Of The Angels
Will said, “Who is this man who’s got the knife?”
They were in the Rolls-Royce, driving up through Oxford. Sir Charles sat in the front, half-turned around, and Will and Lyra sat in the back, with Pantalaimon a mouse now, soothed in Lyra’s hands.
“Someone who has no more right to the knife than I have to the alethiometer,” said Sir Charles.
“Unfortunately for all of us, the alethiometer is in my possession, and the knife is in his.”
“How do you know about that other world anyway?”
“I know many things that you don’t. What else would you expect? I am a good deal older and considerably better informed. There are a number of doorways between this world and that; those who know where they are can easily pass back and forth. In Cittagazze there’s a Guild of learned men, so called, who used to do so all the time.”
“You en’t from this world at all!” said Lyra suddenly. “You’re from there, en’t you?”
And again came that strange nudge at her memory. She was almost certain she’d seen him before.
“No, I’m not,” he said.
Will said, “If we’ve got to get the knife from that man, we need to know more about him. He’s not going to just give it to us, is he?”
“Certainly not. It’s the one thing keeping the Specters away. It’s not going to be easy by any means.”
“The Specters are afraid of the knife?”
“Very much so.”
“Why do they attack only grownups?”
“You don’t need to know that now. It doesn’t matter. Lyra,” Sir Charles said, turning to her, “tell me about your remarkable friend.”
He meant Pantalaimon. And as soon as he said it, Will realized that the snake he’d seen concealed in the man’s sleeve was a daemon too, and that Sir Charles must come from Lyra’s world. He was asking about Pantalaimon to put them off the track: so he didn’t realize that Will had seen his own daemon.
Lyra lifted Pantalaimon close to her breast, and he became a black rat, whipping his tail around and around her wrist and glaring at Sir Charles with red eyes.
“You weren’t supposed to see him,” she said. “He’s my daemon. You think you en’t got daemons in this world, but you have. Yours’d be a dung beetle.”
“If the Pharaohs of Egypt were content to be represented by a scarab, so am I,” he said. “Well, you’re from yet another world. How interesting. Is that where the alethiometer comes from, or did you steal it on your travels?”
“I was given it,” said Lyra furiously. “The Master of Jordan College in my Oxford gave it to me. It’s mine by right. And you wouldn’t know what to do with it, you stupid, stinky old man; you’d never read it in a hundred years. It’s just a toy to you. But I need it, and so does Will. We’ll get it back, don’t worry.”
“We’ll see,” said Sir Charles. “This is where I dropped you before. Shall we let you out here?”
“No,” said Will, because he could see a police car farther down the road. “You can’t come into Ci’gazze because of the Specters, so it doesn’t matter if you know where the window is. Take us farther up toward the ring road.”
“As you wish,” said Sir Charles, and the car moved on. “When, or if, you get the knife, call my number and Allan will come to pick you up.”
They said no more till the chauffeur drew the car to a halt.
As they got out, Sir Charles lowered his window and said to Will, “By the way, if you can’t get the knife, don’t bother to return. Come to my house without it and I’ll call the police. I imagine they’ll be there at once when I tell them your real name. It is William Parry, isn’t it? Yes, I thought so. There’s a very good photo of you in today’s paper.”
And the car pulled away. Will was speechless.
Lyra was shaking his arm. “It’s all right,” she said, “he won’t tell anyone else. He would have done it already if he was going to. Come on.”
Ten minutes later they stood in the little square at the foot of the Tower of the Angels. Will had told her about the snake daemon, and she had stopped still in the street, tormented again by that half-memory. Who was the old man? Where had she seen him? It was no good; the memory wouldn’t come clear.
“I didn’t want to tell him,” Lyra said quietly, “but I saw a man up there last night. He looked down when the kids were making all that noise…”
“What did he look like?”
“Young, with curly hair. Not old at all. But I saw him for only a moment, at the very top, over those battlements. I thought he might be… You remember Angelica and Paolo, and Paolo said they had an older brother, and he’d come into the city as well, and she made Paolo stop telling us, as if it was a secret? Well, I thought it might be him. He might be after this knife as well. And I reckon all the kids know about it. I think that’s the real reason why they come back in the first place.”
“Mmm,” he said, looking up. “Maybe.”
She remembered the children talking earlier that morning. No children would go in the tower, they’d said; there were scary things in there. And she remembered her own feeling of unease as she and Pantalaimon had looked through the open door before leaving the city. Maybe that was why they needed a grown man to go in there. Her daemon was fluttering around her head now, moth-formed in the bright sunlight, whispering anxiously.
“Hush,” she whispered back, “there en’t any choice, Pan. It’s our fault. We got to make it right, and this is the only way.” Will walked off to the right, following the wall of the tower. At the corner a narrow cobbled alley led between it and the next building, and Will went down there too, looking up, getting the measure of the place. Lyra followed. Will stopped under a window at the second-story level and said to Pantalaimon, “Can you fly up there? Can you look in?”
He became a sparrow at once and set off. He could only just reach it. Lyra gasped and gave a little cry when he was at the windowsill, and he perched there for a second or two before diving down again. She sighed and took deep breaths like someone rescued from drowning. Will frowned, puzzled.
“It’s hard,” she explained, “when your daemon goes away from you. It hurts.”
“Sorry. Did you see anything?” he said.
“Stairs,” said Pantalaimon. “Stairs and dark rooms. There were swords hung on the wall, and spears and shields, like a museum. And I saw the young man. He was… dancing.”
“Moving to and fro, waving his hand about. Or as if he was fighting something invisible… I just saw him through an open door. Not clearly.”
“Fighting a Specter?” Lyra guessed. But they couldn’t guess any better, so they moved on. Behind the tower a high stone wall, topped with broken glass, enclosed a small garden with formal beds of herbs around a fountain (once again Pantalaimon flew up to look); and then there was an alley on the other side, bringing them back to the square. The windows around the tower were small and deeply set, like frowning eyes.
“We’ll have to go in the front, then,” said Will. He climbed the steps and pushed the door wide. Sunlight struck in, and the heavy hinges creaked. He took a step or two inside, and seeing no one, went in farther. Lyra followed close behind. The floor was made of flagstones worn smooth over centuries, and the air inside was cool. Will looked at a flight of steps going downward, and went far enough down to see that it opened into a wide, low-ceilinged room with an immense coal furnace at one end, where the plaster walls were black with soot; but there was no one there, and he went up to the entrance hall again, where he found Lyra with her finger to her lips, looking up.
“I can hear him,” she whispered. “He’s talking to himself, I reckon.”
Will listened hard, and heard it too: a low crooning murmur interrupted occasionally by a harsh laugh or a short cry of anger. It sounded like the voice of a madman.
Will blew out his cheeks and set off to climb the staircase. It was made of blackened oak, immense and broad, with steps as worn as the flagstones: far too solid to creak underfoot. The light diminished as they climbed, because the only illumination was the small deep-set window on each landing. They climbed up one floor, stopped and listened, climbed the next, and the sound of the man’s voice was now mixed with that of halting, rhythmic footsteps. It came from a room across the landing, whose door stood ajar.
Will tiptoed to it and pushed it open another few inches so he could see.
It was a large room with cobwebs thickly clustered on the ceiling. The walls were lined with bookshelves containing badly preserved volumes with the bindings crumbling and flaking, or distorted with damp. Several of them lay thrown off the shelves, open on the floor or the wide dusty tables, and others had been thrust back higgledy-piggledy.
In the center of the room, a young man was – dancing. Pantalaimon was right: it looked exactly like that. He had his back to the door, and he’d shuffle to one side, then to the other, and all the time his right hand moved in front of him as if he were clearing a way through some invisible obstacles. In that hand was a knife, not a special-looking knife, just a dull blade about eight inches long, and he’d thrust it forward, slice it sideways, feel forward with it, jab up and down, all in the empty air.
He moved as if to turn, and Will withdrew. He put a finger to his lips and beckoned to Lyra, and led her to the stairs and up to the next floor.
“What’s he doing?” she whispered.
He described it as well as he could.
“He sounds mad,” said Lyra. “Is he thin, with curly hair?”
“Yes. Red hair, like Angelica’s. He certainly looks mad. I don’t know – I think this is odder than Sir Charles said. Let’s look farther up before we speak to him.”
She didn’t question, but let him lead them up another staircase to the top story. It was much lighter up there, because a white-painted flight of steps led up to the roof – or, rather, to a wood-and-glass structure like a little greenhouse. Even at the foot of the steps they could feel the heat it was absorbing.
And as they stood there they heard a groan from above.
They jumped. They’d been sure there was only one man in the tower. Pantalaimon was so startled that he changed at once from a cat to a bird and flew to Lyra’s breast. Will and Lyra realized as he did so that they’d seized each other’s hand, and let go slowly.
“Better go and see,” Will whispered. “I’ll go first.”
“I ought to go first,” she whispered back, “seeing it’s my fault.”
“Seeing it’s your fault, you got to do as I say.”
She twisted her lip but fell in behind him.
He climbed up into the sun. The light in the glass structure was blinding. It was as hot as a greenhouse, too, and Will could neither see nor breathe easily. He found a door handle and turned it and stepped out quickly, holding his hand up to keep the sun out of his eyes.
He found himself on a roof of lead, enclosed by the battlemented parapet. The glass structure was set in the center, and the lead sloped slightly downward all around toward a gutter inside the parapet, with square drainage holes in the stone for rainwater.
Lying on the lead, in the full sun, was an old man with white hair. His face was bruised and battered, and one eye was closed, and as they saw when they got closer, his hands were tied behind him.
He heard them coming and groaned again, and tried to turn over to shield himself.
“It’s all right,” said Will quietly. “We aren’t going to hurt you. Did the man with the knife do this?”
“Mmm,” the old man grunted.
“Let’s undo the rope. He hasn’t tied it very well…” It was clumsily and hastily knotted, and it fell away quickly once Will had seen how to work it. They helped the old man to get up and took him over to the shade of the parapet.
“Who are you?” Will said. “We didn’t think there were two people here. We thought there was only one.”
“Giacomo Paradisi,” the old man muttered through broken teeth. “I am the bearer. No one else. That young man stole it from me. There are always fools who take risks like that for the sake of the knife. But this one is desperate. He is going to kill me.”
“No, he en’t,” Lyra said. “What’s the bearer? What’s that mean?”
“I hold the subtle knife on behalf of the Guild. Where has he gone?”
“He’s downstairs,” said Will. “We came up past him. He didn’t see us. He was waving it about in the air.”
“Trying to cut through. He won’t succeed. When he – “
“Watch out,” Lyra said.
Will turned. The young man was climbing up into the little wooden shelter. He hadn’t seen them yet, but there was nowhere to hide, and as they stood up he saw the movement and whipped around to face them.
Immediately Pantalaimon became a bear and reared up on his hind legs. Only Lyra knew that he wouldn’t be able to touch the other man, and certainly the other blinked and stared for a second, but Will saw that he hadn’t really registered it. The man was crazy. His curly red hair was matted, his chin was flecked with spit, and the whites of his eyes showed all around the pupils.
And he had the knife, and they had no weapons at all. Will stepped up the lead, away from the old man, crouching, ready to jump or fight or leap out of the way.
The young man sprang forward and slashed at him with the knife – left, right, left, coming closer and closer, making Will back away till he was trapped in the angle where two sides of the tower met.
Lyra was scrambling toward the man from behind, with the loose rope in her hand. Will darted forward suddenly, just as he’d done to the man in his house, and with the same effect: his antagonist tumbled backward unexpectedly, falling over Lyra to crash onto the lead. It was all happening too quickly for Will to be frightened. But he did have time to see the knife fly from the man’s hand and sink at once into the lead some feet away, point-first, with no more resistance than if it had fallen into butter. It plunged as far as the hilt and stopped suddenly.
And the young man twisted over and reached for it at once, but Will flung himself on his back and seized his hair. He had learned to fight at school; there had been plenty of occasions for it, once the other children had sensed that there was something the matter with his mother. And he’d learned that the object of a school fight was not to gain points for style but to force your enemy to give in, which meant hurting him more than he was hurting you. He knew that you had to be willing to hurt someone else, too, and he’d found out that not many people were, when it came to it; but he knew that he was.
So this wasn’t unfamiliar to him, but he hadn’t fought against a nearly grown man armed with a knife before, and at all costs he must keep the man from picking it up now that he’d dropped it.
Will twisted his fingers into the young man’s thick, damp hair and wrenched back as hard as he could. The man grunted and flung himself sideways, but Will hung on even tighter, and his opponent roared with pain and anger. He pushed up and then threw himself backward, crushing Will between himself and the parapet, and that was too much; all the breath left Will’s body, and in the shock his hands loosened. The man pulled free.
Will dropped to his knees in the gutter, winded badly, but he couldn’t stay there. He tried to stand – and in doing so, he thrust his foot through one of the drainage holes. His fingers scraped desperately on the warm lead, and for a horrible second he thought he would slide off the roof to the ground. But nothing happened. His left leg was thrust out into empty space; the rest of him was safe.
He pulled his leg back inside the parapet and scrambled to his feet. The man had reached his knife again, but he didn’t have time to pull it out of the lead before Lyra leaped onto his back, scratching, kicking, biting like a wildcat. But she missed the hold on his hair that she was trying for, and he threw her off. And when he got up, he had the knife in his hand.
Lyra had fallen to one side, with Pantalaimon a wildcat now, fur raised, teeth bared, beside her. Will faced the man directly and saw him clearly for the first time. There was no doubt: he was Angelica’s brother, all right, and he was vicious. All his mind was focused on Will, and the knife was in his hand.
But Will wasn’t harmless either.
He’d seized the rope when Lyra dropped it, and now he wrapped it around his left hand for protection against the knife. He moved sideways between the young man and the sun, so that his antagonist had to squint and blink. Even better, the glass structure threw brilliant reflections into his eyes, and Will could see that for a moment he was almost blinded.
He leaped to the man’s left, away from the knife, holding his left hand high, and kicked hard at the man’s knee. He’d taken care to aim, and his foot connected well. The man went down with a loud grunt and twisted away awkwardly.
Will leaped after him, kicking again and again, kicking whatever parts he could reach, driving the man back and back toward the glass house. If he could get him to the top of the stairs…
This time the man fell more heavily, and his right hand with the knife in it came down on the lead at Will’s feet. Will stamped on it at once, hard, crushing the man’s fingers between the hilt and the lead, and then wrapped the rope more tightly around his hand and stamped a second time. The man yelled and let go of the knife. At once Will kicked it away, his shoe connecting with the hilt, luckily for him, and it spun across the lead and came to rest in the gutter just beside a drainage hole. The rope had come loose around his hand once more, and there seemed to be a surprising amount of blood from somewhere sprinkled on the lead and on his own shoes. The man was pulling himself up –
“Look out!” shouted Lyra, but Will was ready.
At the moment when the man was off balance, he threw himself at him, crashing as hard as he could into the man’s midriff. The man fell backward into the glass, which shattered at once, and the flimsy wooden frame went too. He sprawled among the wreckage half over the stairwell, and grabbed the doorframe, but it had nothing to support it anymore, and it gave way. He fell downward, and more glass fell all around him.
And Will darted back to the gutter, and picked up the knife, and the fight was over. The young man, cut and battered, clambered up the step, and saw Will standing above him holding the knife; he stared with a sickly anger and then turned and fled.
“Ah,” said Will, sitting down. “Ah.”
Something was badly wrong, and he hadn’t noticed it. He dropped the knife and hugged his left hand to himself. The tangle of rope was sodden with blood, and when he pulled it away –
“Your fingers!” Lyra breathed. “Oh, Will – “
His little finger and the finger next to it fell away with the rope.
His head swam. Blood was pulsing strongly from the stumps where his fingers had been, and his jeans and shoes were sodden already. He had to lie back and close his eyes for a moment. The pain wasn’t that great, and a part of his mind registered that with a dull surprise. It was like a persistent, deep hammer thud more than the bright, sharp clarity when you cut yourself superficially.
He’d never felt so weak. He supposed he had gone to sleep for a moment. Lyra was doing something to his arm. He sat up to look at the damage, and felt sick. The old man was somewhere close by, but Will couldn’t see what he was doing, and meanwhile Lyra was talking to him.
“If only we had some bloodmoss,” she was saying, “what the bears use, I could make it better, Will, I could. Look, I’m going to tie this bit of rope around your arm, to stop the bleeding, ’cause I can’t tie it around where your fingers were, there’s nothing to tie it to. Hold still.”
He let her do it, then looked around for his fingers. There they were, curled like a bloody quotation mark on the lead. He laughed.
“Hey,” she said, “stop that. Get up now. Mr. Paradisi’s got some medicine, some salve, I dunno what it is. You got to come downstairs. That other man’s gone – we seen him run out the door. He’s gone now. You beat him. Come on, Will – come on – “
Nagging and cajoling, she urged him down the steps, and they picked their way through the shattered glass and splintered wood and into a small, cool room off the landing. The walls were lined with shelves of bottles, jars, pots, pestles and mortars, and chemists’ balances. Under the dirty window was a stone sink, where the old man was pouring something with a shaky hand from a large bottle into a smaller one.
“Sit down and drink this,” he said, and filled a small glass with a dark golden liquid.
Will sat down and took the glass. The first mouthful hit the back of his throat like fire. Lyra took the glass to stop it from falling as Will gasped.
“Drink it all,” the old man commanded.
“What is it?”
“Plum brandy. Drink.”
Will sipped it more cautiously. Now his hand was really beginning to hurt.
“Can you heal him?” said Lyra, her voice desperate.
“Oh, yes, we have medicines for everything. You, girl, open that drawer in the table and bring out a bandage.”
Will saw the knife lying on the table in the center of the room, but before he could pick it up the old man was limping toward him with a bowl of water.
“Drink again,” the old man said.
Will held the glass tightly and closed his eyes while the old man did something to his hand. It stung horribly, but then he felt the rough friction of a towel on his wrist, and something mopping the wound more gently. Then there was a coolness for a moment, and it hurt again.
“This is precious ointment,” the old man said. “Very difficult to obtain. Very good for wounds.”
It was a dusty, battered tube of ordinary antiseptic cream, such as Will could have bought in any pharmacy in his world. The old man was handling it as if it were made of myrrh. Will looked away.
And while the man was dressing the wound, Lyra felt Pantalaimon calling to her silently to come and look out the window. He was a kestrel perching on the open window frame, and his eyes had caught a movement below. She joined him, and saw a familiar figure: the girl Angelica was running toward her elder brother, Tullio, who stood with his back against the wall on the other side of the narrow street waving his arms in the air as if trying to keep a flock of bats from his face. Then he turned away and began to run his hands along the stones in the wall, looking closely at each one, counting them, feeling the edges, hunching up his shoulders as if to ward off something behind him, shaking his head.
Angelica was desperate, and so was little Paolo behind her, and they reached their brother and seized his arms and tried to pull him away from whatever was troubling him.
And Lyra realized with a jolt of sickness what was happening: the man was being attacked by Specters. Angelica knew it, though she couldn’t see them, of course, and little Paolo was crying and striking at the empty air to try and drive them off; but it didn’t help, and Tullio was lost. His movements became more and more lethargic, and presently they stopped altogether. Angelica clung to him, shaking and shaking his arm, but nothing woke him; and Paolo was crying his brother’s name over and over as if that would bring him back.
Then Angelica seemed to feel Lyra watching her, and she looked up. For a moment their eyes met. Lyra felt a jolt as if the girl had struck her a physical blow, because the hatred in her eyes was so intense, and then Paolo saw her looking and looked up too, and his little boy’s voice cried, “We’ll kill you! You done this to Tullio! We gonna kill you, all right!”
The two children turned and ran, leaving their stricken brother; and Lyra, frightened and guilty, withdrew inside the room again and shut the window. The others hadn’t heard. Giacomo Paradisi was dabbing more ointment on the wounds, and Lyra tried to put what she’d seen out of her mind, and focused on Will.
“You got to tie something around his arm,” Lyra said, “to stop the bleeding. It won’t stop otherwise.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said the old man, but sadly.
Will kept his eyes averted while they did up a bandage, and drank the plum brandy sip by sip. Presently he felt soothed and distant, though his hand was hurting abominably.
“Now,” said Giacomo Paradisi, “here you are, take the knife, it is yours.”
“I don’t want it,” said Will. “I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“You haven’t got the choice,” said the old man. “You are the bearer now.”
“I thought you said you was,” said Lyra.
“My time is over,” he said. “The knife knows when to leave one hand and settle in another, and I know how to tell. You don’t believe me? Look!”
He held up his own left hand. The little finger and the finger next to it were missing, just like Will’s.
“Yes,” he said, “me too. I fought and lost the same fingers, the badge of the bearer. And I did not know either, in advance.”
Lyra sat down, wide-eyed. Will held on to the dusty table with his good hand. He struggled to find words.
“But I – we only came here because – there was a man who stole something of Lyra’s, and he wanted the knife, and he said if we brought him that, then he’d – “
“I know that man. He is a liar, a cheat. He won’t give you anything, make no mistake. He wants the knife, and once he has it, he will betray you. He will never be the bearer. The knife is yours by right.”
With a heavy reluctance, Will turned to the knife itself. He pulled it toward him. It was an ordinary-looking dagger, with a double-sided blade of dull metal about eight inches long, a short crosspiece of the same metal, and a handle of rosewood. As he looked at it more closely, he saw that the rosewood was inlaid with golden wires, forming a design he didn’t recognize till he turned the knife around and saw an angel, with wings folded. On the other side was a different angel, with wings upraised. The wires stood out a little from the surface, giving a firm grip, and as he picked it up he felt that it was light in his hand and strong and beautifully balanced, and that the blade was not dull after all. In fact, a swirl of cloudy colors seemed to live just under the surface of the metal: bruise purples, sea blues, earth browns, cloud grays, the deep green under heavy-foliaged trees, the clustering shades at the mouth of a tomb as evening falls over a deserted graveyard… If there was such a thing as shadow-colored, it was the blade of the subtle knife.
But the edges were different. In fact, the two edges differed from each other. One was clear bright steel, merging a little way back into those subtle shadow-colors, but steel of an incomparable sharpness. Will’s eye shrank back from looking at it, so sharp did it seem. The other edge was just as keen, but silvery in color, and Lyra, who was looking at it over Will’s shoulder, said: “I seen that color before! That’s the same as the blade they was going to cut me and Pan apart with – that’s just the same!”
“This edge,” said Giacomo Paradisi, touching the steel with the handle of a spoon, “will cut through any material in the world. Look.”
And he pressed the silver spoon against the blade. Will, holding the knife, felt only the slightest resistance as the tip of the spoon’s handle fell to the table, cut clean off.
“The other edge,” the old man went on, “is more subtle still. With it you can cut an opening out of this world altogether. Try it now. Do as I say – you are the bearer. You have to know. No one can teach you but me, and I have not much time left. Stand up and listen.”
Will pushed his chair back and stood, holding the knife loosely. He felt dizzy, sick, rebellious.
“I don’t want – ” he began, but Giacomo Paradisi shook his head.
“Be silent! You don’t want – you don’t want… you have no choice! Listen to me, because time is short. Now hold the knife out ahead of you – like that. It’s not only the knife that has to cut, it’s your own mind. You have to think it. So do this: Put your mind out at the very tip of the knife. Concentrate, boy. Focus your mind. Don’t think about your wound. It will heal. Think about the knife tip. That is where you are. Now feel with it, very gently. You’re looking for a gap so small you could never see it with your eyes, but the knife tip will find it, if you put your mind there. Feel along the air till you sense the smallest little gap in the world…”
Will tried to do it. But his head was buzzing, and his left hand throbbed horribly, and he saw his two fingers again, lying on the roof, and then he thought of his mother, his poor mother… What would she say? How would she comfort him? How could he ever comfort her? And he put the knife down on the table and crouched low, hugging his wounded hand, and cried. It was all too much to bear. The sobs racked his throat and his chest and the tears dazzled him, and he should be crying for her, the poor frightened unhappy dear beloved – he’d left her, he’d left her…
He was desolate. But then he felt the strangest thing, and brushed the back of his right wrist across his eyes to find Pantalaimon’s head on his knee. The daemon, in the form of a wolfhound, was gazing up at him with melting, sorrowing eyes, and then he gently licked Will’s wounded hand again and again, and laid his head on Will’s knee once more.
Will had no idea of the taboo in Lyra’s world preventing one person from touching another’s daemon, and if he hadn’t touched Pantalaimon before, it was politeness that had held him back and not knowledge. Lyra, in fact, was breath-taken. Her daemon had done it on his own initiative, and now he withdrew and fluttered to her shoulder as the smallest of moths. The old man was watching with interest but not incredulity. He’d seen daemons before, somehow; he’d traveled to other worlds too.
Pantalaimon’s gesture had worked. Will swallowed hard and stood up again, wiping the tears out of his eyes.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll try again. Tell me what to do.”
This time he forced his mind to do what Giacomo Paradisi said, gritting his teeth, trembling with exertion, sweating. Lyra was bursting to interrupt, because she knew this process. So did Dr. Malone, and so did the poet Keats, whoever he was, and all of them knew you couldn’t get it by straining toward it. But she held her tongue and clasped her hands.
“Stop,” said the old man gently. “Relax. Don’t push. This is a subtle knife, not a heavy sword. You’re gripping it too tight. Loosen your fingers. Let your mind wander down your arm to your wrist and then into the handle, and out along the blade. No hurry, go gently, don’t force it. Just wander. Then along to the very tip, where the edge is sharpest of all. You become the tip of the knife. Just do that now. Go there and feel that, and then come back.”
Will tried again. Lyra could see the intensity in his body, saw his jaw working, and then saw an authority descend over it, calming and relaxing and clarifying. The authority was Will’s own – or his daemon’s, perhaps. How he must miss having a daemon! The loneliness of it… No wonder he’d cried; and it was right of Pantalaimon to do what he’d done, though it had felt so strange to her. She reached up to her beloved daemon, and, ermine-shaped, he flowed onto her lap.
They watched together as Will’s body stopped trembling. No less intense, he was focused differently now, and the knife looked different too. Perhaps it was those cloudy colors along the blade, or perhaps it was the way it sat so naturally in Will’s hand, but the little movements he was making with the tip now looked purposeful instead of random. He felt this way, then turned the knife over and felt the other, always feeling with the silvery edge; and then he seemed to find some little snag in the empty air.
“What’s this? Is this it?” he said hoarsely.
“Yes. Don’t force it. Come back now, come back to yourself.”
Lyra imagined she could see Will’s soul flowing back along the blade to his hand, and up his arm to his heart. He stood back, dropped his hand, blinked.
“I felt something there,” he said to Giacomo Paradisi. “The knife was just slipping through the air at first, and then I felt it…”
“Good. Now do it again. This time, when you feel it, slide the knife in and along. Make a cut. Don’t hesitate. Don’t be surprised. Don’t drop the knife.”
Will had to crouch and take two or three deep breaths and put his left hand under his other arm before he could go on. But he was intent on it; he stood up again after a couple of seconds, the knife held forward already.
This time it was easier. Having felt it once, he knew what to search for again, and he felt the curious little snag after less than a minute. It was like delicately searching out the gap between one stitch and the next with the point of a scalpel. He touched, withdrew, touched again to make sure, and then did as the old man had said, and cut sideways with the silver edge.
It was a good thing that Giacomo Paradisi had reminded him not to be surprised. He kept careful hold of the knife and put it down on the table before giving in to his astonishment. Lyra was on her feet already, speechless, because there in the middle of the dusty little room was a window just like the one under the hornbeam trees: a gap in midair through which they could see another world.
And because they were high in the tower, they were high above north Oxford. Over a cemetery, in fact, looking back toward the city. There were the hornbeam trees a little way ahead of them; there were houses, trees, roads, and in the distance the towers and spires of the city.
If they hadn’t already seen the first window, they would have thought this was some kind of optical trick. Except that it wasn’t only optical; air was coming through it, and they could smell the traffic fumes, which didn’t exist in the world of Cittagazze. Pantalaimon changed into a swallow and flew through, delighting in the open air, and then snapped up an insect before darting back through to Lyra’s shoulder again.
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.”