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The Subtle Knife Chapter Three

Chapter Three

A Children’s World

Lyra was awake early.

She’d had a horrible dream: she had been given the vacuum flask she’d seen her father, Lord Asriel, show to the Master and Scholars of Jordan College. When that had really happened, Lyra had been hiding in the wardrobe, and she’d watched as Lord Asriel opened the flask to show the Scholars the severed head of Stanislaus Grumman, the lost explorer; but in her dream, Lyra had to open the flask herself, and she didn’t want to.

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In fact, she was terrified. But she had to do it, whether she wanted to or not, and she felt her hands weakening with dread as she unclipped the lid and heard the air rash into the frozen chamber. Then she lifted the lid away, nearly choking with fear but knowing she had to – she had to do it. And there was nothing inside. The head had gone. There was nothing to be afraid of.

But she awoke all the same, crying and sweating, in the hot little bedroom facing the harbor, with the moonlight streaming through the window, and lay in someone else’s bed clutching someone else’s pillow, with the ermine Pantalaimon nuzzling her and making soothing noises. Oh, she was so frightened! And how odd it was, that in real life she had been eager to see the head of Stanislaus Grumman, and had begged Lord Asriel to open the flask again and let her look, and yet in her dream she was so terrified.

When morning came, she asked the alethiometer what the dream meant, but all it said was, It was a dream about a head.

She thought of waking the strange boy, but he was so deeply asleep that she decided not to. Instead, she went down to the kitchen and tried to make an omelette, and twenty minutes later she sat down at a table on the pavement and ate the blackened, gritty thing with great pride while the sparrow Pantalaimon pecked at the bits of shell.

She heard a sound behind her, and there was Will, heavy-eyed with sleep.

“I can make omelette,” she said. “I’ll make you some if you like.”

He looked at her plate and said, “No, I’ll have some cereal. There’s still some milk in the fridge that’s all right. They can’t have been gone very long, the people who lived here.”

She watched him shake corn flakes into a bowl and pour milk on them – something else she’d never seen before.

He carried the bowl outside and said, “If you don’t come from this world, where’s your world? How did you get here?”

“Over a bridge. My father made this bridge, and… I followed him across. But he’s gone somewhere else, I don’t know where. I don’t care. But while I was walking across there was so much fog, and I got lost, I think. I walked around in the fog for days just eating berries and stuff I found. Then one day the fog cleared, and we was up on that cliff back there – “

She gestured behind her. Will looked along the shore, past the lighthouse, and saw the coast rising in a great series of cliffs that disappeared into the haze of the distance.

“And we saw the town here, and came down, but there was no one here. At least there were things to eat and beds to sleep in. We didn’t know what to do next.”

“You sure this isn’t another part of your world?”

“‘Course. This en’t my world, I know that for certain.”

Will remembered his own absolute certainty, on seeing the patch of grass through the window in the air, that it wasn’t in his world, and he nodded.

“So there’s three worlds at least that are joined on,” he said.

“There’s millions and millions,” Lyra said. “This other daemon told me. He was a witch’s daemon. No one can count how many worlds there are, all in the same space, but no one could get from one to another before my father made this bridge.”

“What about the window I found?”

“I dunno about that. Maybe all the worlds are starting to move into one another.”

“And why are you looking for dust?”

She looked at him coldly. “I might tell you sometime,” she said.

“All right. But how are you going to look for it?”

“I’m going to find a Scholar who knows about it.”

“What, any scholar?”

“No. An experimental theologian,” she said. “In my Oxford, they were the ones who knew about it. Stands to reason it’ll be the same in your Oxford. I’ll go to Jordan College first, because Jordan had the best ones.”

“I never heard of experimental theology,” he said.

“They know all about elementary particles and fundamental forces,” she explained. “And anbaromagnetism, stuff like that. Atomcraft.”

“What – magnetism?”

“Anbaromagnetism. Like anbaric. Those lights,” she said, pointing up at the ornamental streetlight. “They’re anbaric.”

“We call them electric.”

“Electric… that’s like electrum. That’s a kind of stone, a jewel, made out of gum from bees. There’s insects in it, sometimes.”

“You mean amber,” he said, and they both said, “Anbar…”

And each of them saw their own expression on the other’s face. Will remembered that moment for a long time afterward.

“Well, electromagnetism,” he went on, looking away. “Sounds like what we call physics, your experimental theology. You want scientists, not theologians.”

“Ah,” she said warily. “I’ll find ’em.”

They sat in the wide clear morning, with the sun glittering placidly on the harbor, and each of them might have spoken next, because both of them were burning with questions; but then they heard a voice from farther along the harbor front, toward the casino gardens.

Both of them looked there, startled. It was a child’s voice, but there was no one in sight.

Will said to Lyra quietly, “How long did you say you’d been here?”

“Three days, four – I lost count. I never seen anyone. There’s no one here. I looked almost everywhere.”

But there was. Two children, one a girl of Lyra’s age and the other a younger boy, came out of one of the streets leading down to the harbor. They were carrying baskets, and both had red hair. They were about a hundred yards away when they saw Will and Lyra at the caf?¦ table.

Pantalaimon changed from a goldfinch to a mouse and ran up Lyra’s arm to the pocket of her shirt. He’d seen that these new children were like Will: neither of them had a daemon visible.

The two children wandered up and sat at a table nearby.

“You from Ci’gazze?” the girl said.

Will shook his head.

“From Sant’Elia?”

“No,” said Lyra. “We’re from somewhere else.”

The girl nodded. This was a reasonable reply.

“What’s happening?” said Will. “Where are the grownups?”

The girl’s eyes narrowed. “Didn’t the Specters come to your city?” she said.

“No,” Will said. “We just got here. We don’t know about Specters. What is this city called?”

“Ci’gazze,” the girl said suspiciously. “Cittagazze, all right.”

“Cittagazze,” Lyra repeated. “Ci’gazze. Why do the grown-ups have to leave?”

“Because of the Specters,” the girl said with weary scorn. “What’s your name?”

“Lyra. And he’s Will. What’s yours?”

“Angelica. My brother is Paolo.”

“Where’ve you come from?”

“Up the hills. There was a big fog and storm and everyone was frightened, so we all run up in the hills. Then when the fog cleared, the grownups could see with telescopes that the city was full of Specters, so they couldn’t come back. But the kids, we ain’ afraid of Specters, all right. There’s more kids coming down. They be here later, but we’re first.”

“Us and Tullio,” said little Paolo proudly.

“Who’s Tullio?”

Angelica was cross: Paolo shouldn’t have mentioned him, but the secret was out now.

“Our big brother,” she said. “He ain’ with us. He’s hiding till he can… He’s just hiding.”

“He’s gonna get – ” Paolo began, but Angelica smacked him hard, and he shut his mouth at once, pressing his quivering lips together.

“What did you say about the city?” said Will. “It’s full of Specters?”

“Yeah, Ci’gazze, Sant’Elia, all cities. The Specters go where the people are. Where you from?”

“Winchester,” said Will.

“I never heard of it. They ain’ got Specters there?”

“No. I can’t see any here, either.”

“‘Course not!” she crowed. “You ain’ grown up! When we grow up, we see Specters.”

“I ain’ afraid of Specters, all right,” the little boy said, thrusting forward his grubby chin. “Kill the buggers.”

“En’t the grownups going to come back at all?” said Lyra.

“Yeah, in a few days,” said Angelica. “When the Specters go somewhere else. We like it when the Specters come, ’cause we can run about in the city, do what we like, all right.”

“But what do the grownups think the Specters will do to them?” Will said.

“Well, when a Specter catch a grownup, that’s bad to see. They eat the life out of them there and then, all right. I don’t want to be grown up, for sure. At first they know it’s happening, and they’re afraid; they cry and cry. They try and look away and pretend it ain’ happening, but it is. It’s too late. And no one ain’ gonna go near them, they on they own. Then they get pale and they stop moving. They still alive, but it’s like they been eaten from inside. You look in they eyes, you see the back of they heads. Ain’ nothing there.”

The girl turned to her brother and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. “Me and Paolo’s going to look for ice creams,” she said. “You want to come and find some?”

“No,” said Will, “we got something else to do.”

“Good-bye, then,” she said, and Paolo said, “Kill the Specters!”

“Good-bye,” said Lyra.

As soon as Angelica and the little boy had vanished, Pantalaimon appeared from Lyra’s pocket, his mouse head ruffled and bright-eyed.

He said to Will, “They don’t know about this window you found.”

It was the first time Will had heard him speak, and he was almost more startled by that than by anything else he’d seen so far. Lyra laughed at his astonishment.

“He – but he spoke! Do all daemons talk?” Will said.

“‘Course they do!” said Lyra. “Did you think he was just a pet?”

Will rubbed his hair and blinked. Then he shook his head. “No,” he said, addressing Pantalaimon. “You’re right, I think. They don’t know about it.”

“So we better be careful how we go through,” Pantalaimon said.

It was strange for only a moment, talking to a mouse. Then it was no more strange than talking into a telephone, because he was really talking to Lyra. But the mouse was separate; there was something of Lyra in his expression, but something else too. It was too hard to work out, when there were so many strange things happening at once. Will tried to bring his thoughts together.

“You got to find some other clothes first,” he said to Lyra, “before you go into my Oxford.”

“Why?” she said stubbornly.

“Because you can’t go and talk to people in my world looking like that; they wouldn’t let you near them. You got to look as if you fit in. You got to go about camouflaged. I know, see. I’ve been doing it for years. You better listen to me or you’ll get caught, and if they find out where you come from, and the window, and everything… Well, this is a good hiding place, this world. See, I’m… I got to hide from some men. This is the best hiding place I could dream of, and I don’t want it found out. So I don’t want you giving it away by looking out of place or as if you don’t belong. I got my own things to do in Oxford, and if you give me away, I’ll kill you.”

She swallowed. The alethiometer never lied: this boy was a murderer, and if he’d killed before, he could kill her, too. She nodded seriously, and she meant it.

“All right,” she said.

Pantalaimon had become a lemur, and was gazing at him with disconcerting wide eyes. Will stared back, and the daemon became a mouse once more and crept into Lyra’s pocket.

“Good,” he said. “Now, while we’re here, we’ll pretend to these other kids that we just come from somewhere in their world. It’s good there aren’t any grownups about. We can just come and go and no one’ll notice. But in my world, you got to do as I say. And the first thing is you better wash yourself. You need to look clean, or you’ll stand out. We got to be camouflaged everywhere we go. We got to look as if we belong there so naturally that people don’t even notice us. So go and wash your hair for a start. There’s some shampoo in the bathroom. Then we’ll go and find some different clothes.”

“I dunno how,” she said. “I never washed my hair. The housekeeper done it at Jordan, and then I never needed to after that.”

“Well, you’ll just have to work it out,” he said. “Wash yourself all over. In my world people are clean.”

“Hmm,” said Lyra, and went upstairs. A ferocious rat face glared at him over her shoulder, but he looked back coldly.

Part of him wanted to wander about this sunny silent morning exploring the city, and another part trembled with anxiety for his mother, and another part was still numb with shock at the death he’d caused. And overhanging them all was the task he had to do. But it was good to keep busy, so while he waited for Lyra, he cleaned the working surfaces in the kitchen, and washed the floor, and emptied the rubbish into the bin he found in the alley outside.

Then he took the green leather writing case from his tote bag and looked at it longingly. As soon as he’d shown Lyra how to get through the window into his Oxford, he’d come back and look at what was inside; but in the meanwhile, he tucked it under the mattress of the bed he’d slept in. In this world, it was safe.

When Lyra came down, clean and wet, they left to look for some clothes for her. They found a department store, shabby like everywhere else, with clothes in styles that looked a little old-fashioned to Will’s eye, but they found Lyra a tartan skirt and a green sleeveless blouse with a pocket for Pantalaimon. She refused to wear jeans, refused even to believe Will when he told her that most girls did.

“They’re trousers,” she said. “I’m a girl. Don’t be stupid.”

He shrugged; the tartan skirt looked unremarkable, which was the main thing. Before they left, Will dropped some coins in the till behind the counter.

“What you doing?” she said.

“Paying. You have to pay for things. Don’t they pay for things in your world?”

“They don’t in this one! I bet those other kids en’t paying for a thing.”

“They might not, but I do.”

“If you start behaving like a grownup, the Specters’ll get you,” she said, but she didn’t know whether she could tease him yet or whether she should be afraid of him.

In the daylight, Will could see how ancient the buildings in the heart of the city were, and how near to ruin some of them had come. Holes in the road had not been repaired; windows were broken; plaster was peeling. And yet there had once been a beauty and grandeur about this place. Through carved archways they could see spacious courtyards filled with greenery, and there were great buildings that looked like palaces, for all that the steps were cracked and the doorframes loose from the walls. It looked as if rather than knock a building down and build a new one, the citizens of Ci’gazze preferred to patch it up indefinitely.

At one point they came to a tower standing on its own in a little square. It was the oldest building they’d seen: a simple battlemented tower four stories high. Something about its stillness in the bright sun was intriguing, and both Will and Lyra felt drawn to the half-open door at the top of the broad steps; but they didn’t speak of it, and they went on, a bit reluctantly.

When they reached the broad boulevard with the palm trees, he told her to look for a little caf?¦ on a corner, with green-painted metal tables on the pavement outside. They found it within a minute. It looked smaller and shabbier by daylight, but it was the same place, with the zinc-topped bar, the espresso machine, and the half-finished plate of risotto, now beginning to smell bad in the warm air.

“Is it in here?” she said.

“No. It’s in the middle of the road. Make sure there’s no other kids around.”

But they were alone. Will took her to the grassy median under the palm trees, and looked around to get his bearings.

“I think it was about here,” he said. “When I came through, I could just about see that big hill behind the white house up there, and looking this way there was the caf?¦ there, and…”

“What’s it look like? I can’t see anything.”

“You won’t mistake it. It doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen.”

He cast up and down. Had it vanished? Had it closed? He couldn’t see it anywhere.

And then suddenly he had it. He moved back and forth, watching the edge. Just as he’d found the night before, on the Oxford side of it, you could only see it at all from one side: when you moved behind it, it was invisible. And the sun on the grass beyond it was just like the sun on the grass on this side, except unaccountably different.

“Here it is,” he said when he was sure.

“Ah! I see it!”

She was agog, she looked as astounded as he’d looked himself to hear Pantalaimon talk. Her daemon, unable to remain inside her pocket, had come out to be a wasp, and he buzzed up to the hole and back several times, while she rubbed her still slightly wet hair into spikes.

“Keep to one side,” he told her. “If you stand in front of it people’d just see a pair of legs, and that would make ’em curious. I don’t want anyone noticing.”

“What’s that noise?”

“Traffic. It’s a part of the Oxford ring road. It’s bound to be busy. Get down and look at it from the side. It’s the wrong time of day to go through, really; there’s far too many people about. But it’d be hard to find somewhere to go if we went in the middle of the night. At least once we’re through we can blend in easy. You go first. Just duck through quickly and move out of the way.”

She had a little blue rucksack that she’d been carrying since they left the caf?¦, and she unslung it and held it in her arms before crouching to look through.

“Ah!” She gasped. “And that’s your world? That don’t look like any part of Oxford. You sure you was in Oxford?”

“‘Course I’m sure. When you go through, you’ll see a road right in front of you. Go to the left, and then a little farther along you take the road that goes down to the right. That leads to the city center. Make sure you can see where this window is, and remember, all right? It’s the only way back.”

“Right,” she said. “I won’t forget.”

Taking her rucksack in her arms, she ducked through the window in the air and vanished. Will crouched down to see where she went.

And there she was, standing on the grass in his Oxford with Pan still as a wasp on her shoulder, and no one, as far as he could tell, had seen her appear. Cars and trucks raced past a few feet beyond, and no driver, at this busy junction, would have time to gaze sideways at an odd-looking bit of air, even if they could see it, and the traffic screened the window from anyone looking across from the far side.

There was a squeal of brakes, a shout, a bang. He flung himself down to look.

Lyra was lying on the grass. A car had braked so hard that a van had struck it from behind, and knocked the car forward anyway, and there was Lyra, lying still –

Will darted through after her. No one saw him come; all eyes were on the car, the crumpled bumper, the van driver getting out, and on the little girl.

“I couldn’t help it! She ran out in front,” said the car driver, a middle-aged woman. “You were too close,” she said, turning toward the van driver.

“Never mind that,” he said. “How’s the kid?”

The van driver was addressing Will, who was on his knees beside Lyra. Will looked up and around, but there was nothing for it; he was responsible. On the grass next to him, Lyra was moving her head about, blinking hard. Will saw the wasp Pantalaimon crawling dazedly up a grass stem beside her.

“You all right?” Will said. “Move your legs and arms.”

“Stupid!” said the woman from the car. “Just ran out in front. Didn’t look once. What am I supposed to do?”

“You still there, love?” said the van driver.

“Yeah,” muttered Lyra.

“Everything working?”

“Move your feet and hands,” Will insisted.

She did. There was nothing broken.

“She’s all right,” said Will. “I’ll look after her. She’s fine.”

“D’you know her?” said the truck driver.

“She’s my sister,” said Will. “It’s all right. We just live around the corner. I’ll take her home.”

Lyra was sitting up now, and as she was obviously not badly hurt, the woman turned her attention back to the car. The rest of the traffic was moving around the two stationary vehicles, and as they went past, the drivers looked curiously at the little scene, as people always do. Will helped Lyra up; the sooner they moved away, the better. The woman and the van driver had realized that their argument ought to be handled by their insurance companies and were exchanging addresses when the woman saw Will helping Lyra to limp away.

“Wait!” she called. “You’ll be witnesses. I need your name and address.”

“I’m Mark Ransom,” said Will, turning back, “and my sister’s Lisa. We live at twenty-six Bourne Close.”

“Postcode?”

“I can never remember,” he said. “Look, I want to get her home.”

“Hop in the cab,” said the van driver, “and I’ll take you round.”

“No, it’s no trouble. It’d be quicker to walk, honest.”

Lyra wasn’t limping badly. She walked away with Will, back along the grass under the hornbeam trees, and turned at the first corner they came to.

They sat on a low garden wall.

“You hurt?” Will said.

“Banged me leg. And when I fell down, it shook me head,” she said.

But she was more concerned about what was in the rucksack. She felt inside it, brought out a heavy little bundle wrapped in black velvet, and unfolded it. Will’s eyes widened to see the alethiometer; the tiny symbols painted around the face, the golden hands, the questing needle, the heavy richness of the case took his breath away.

“What’s that?” he said.

“It’s my alethiometer. It’s a truth teller. A symbol reader. I hope it en’t broken…”

But it was unharmed. Even in her trembling hands the long needle swung steadily. She put it away and said, “I never seen so many carts and things. I never guessed they was going so fast.”

“They don’t have cars and vans in your Oxford?”

“Not so many. Not like these ones. I wasn’t used to it. But I’m all right now.”

“Well, be careful from now on. If you go and walk under a bus or get lost or something, they’ll realize you’re not from this world and start looking for the way through…”

He was far more angry than he needed to be. Finally he said, “All right, look. If you pretend you’re my sister, that’ll be a disguise for me, because the person they’re looking for hasn’t got a sister. And if I’m with you, I can show you how to cross roads without getting killed.”

“All right,” she said humbly.

“And money. I bet you haven’t – well, how could you have any money? How are you going to get around and eat and so on?”

“I have got money,” she said, and shook some gold coins out of her purse.

Will looked at them incredulously.

“Is that gold? It is, isn’t it? Well, that would get people asking questions, and no mistake. You’re just not safe. I’ll give you some money. Put those coins away and keep them out of sight. And remember – you’re my sister, and your name’s Lisa Ransom.”

“Lizzie. I pretended to call myself Lizzie before. I can remember that.”

“All right, Lizzie then. And I’m Mark. Don’t forget.”

“All right,” she said peaceably.

Her leg was going to be painful; already it was red and swollen where the car had struck it, and a dark, massive bruise was forming. What with the bruise on her cheek where he’d struck her the night before, she looked as if she’d been badly treated, and that worried him too – suppose some police officer should become curious?

He tried to put it out of his mind, and they set off together, crossing at the traffic lights and casting just one glance back at the window under the hornbeam trees. They couldn’t see it at all. It was quite invisible, and the traffic was flowing again.

In Summertown, ten minutes’ walk down the Banbury Road, Will stopped in front of a bank.

“What are you doing?” said Lyra.

“I’m going to get some money. I probably better not do it too often, but they won’t register it till the end of the working day, I shouldn’t think.”

He put his mother’s bank card into the automatic teller and tapped out her PIN number. Nothing seemed to be going wrong, so he withdrew a hundred pounds, and the machine gave it up without a hitch. Lyra watched open-mouthed. He gave her a twenty-pound note.

“Use that later,” he said. “Buy something and get some change. Let’s find a bus into town.”

Lyra let him deal with the bus. She sat very quietly, watching the houses and gardens of the city that was hers and not hers. It was like being in someone else’s dream. They got off in the city center next to an old stone church, which she did know, opposite a big department store, which she didn’t.

“It’s all changed,” she said. “Like… That en’t the Corn-market? And this is the Broad. There’s Balliol. And Bodley’s Library, down there. But where’s Jordan?”

Now she was trembling badly. It might have been delayed reaction from the accident, or present shock from finding an entirely different building in place of the Jordan College she knew as home.

“That en’t right,” she said. She spoke quietly, because Will had told her to stop pointing out so loudly the things that were wrong. “This is a different Oxford.”

“Well, we knew that,” he said.

He wasn’t prepared for Lyra’s wide-eyed helplessness. He couldn’t know how much of her childhood had been spent running about streets almost identical with these, and how proud she’d been of belonging to Jordan College, whose Scholars were the cleverest, whose coffers the richest, whose beauty the most splendid of all. And now it simply wasn’t there, and she wasn’t Lyra of Jordan anymore; she was a lost little girl in a strange world, belonging nowhere.

“Well,” she said shakily. “If it en’t here…”

It was going to take longer than she’d thought, that was all.