The Amber Spyglass Chapter 16 The Intention Craft
“My child! My daughter! Where is she? What have you done? My Lyra – you’d do better to tear the fibers from my heart – she was safe with me, safe, and now where is she?”
Mrs. Coulter’s cry resounded through the little chamber at the top of the adamant tower. She was bound to a chair, her hair disheveled, her clothing torn, her eyes wild; and her monkey daemon thrashed and struggled on the floor in the coils of a silver chain.
Lord Asriel sat nearby, scribbling on a piece of paper, taking no notice. An orderly stood beside him, glancing nervously at the woman. When Lord Asriel handed him the paper, he saluted and hurried out, his terrier daemon close at his heels with her tail tucked low.
Lord Asriel turned to Mrs. Coulter.
“Lyra? Frankly, I don’t care,” he said, his voice quiet and hoarse. “The wretched child should have stayed where she was put, and done what she was told. I can’t waste any more time or resources on her; if she refuses to be helped, let her deal with the consequences.”
“You don’t mean that, Asriel, or you wouldn’t have – “
“I mean every word of it. The fuss she’s caused is out of all proportion to her merits. An ordinary English girl, not very clever – “
“She is!” said Mrs. Coulter.
“All right; bright but not intellectual; impulsive, dishonest, greedy – “
“Brave, generous, loving.”
“A perfectly ordinary child, distinguished by nothing – “
“Perfectly ordinary? Lyra? She’s unique. Think of what she’s done already. Dislike her if you will, Asriel, but don’t you dare patronize your daughter. And she was safe with me, until – “
“You’re right,” he said, getting up. “She is unique. To have tamed and softened you – that’s no everyday feat. She’s drawn your poison, Marisa. She’s taken your teeth out. Your fire’s been quenched in a drizzle of sentimental piety. Who would have thought it? The pitiless agent of the Church, the fanatical persecutor of children, the inventor of hideous machines to slice them apart and look in their terrified little beings for any evidence of sin – and along comes a foul-mouthed, ignorant little brat with dirty fingernails, and you cluck and settle your feathers over her like a hen. Well, I admit: the child must have some gift I’ve never seen myself. But if all it does is turn you into a doting mother, it’s a pretty thin, drab, puny little gift. And now you might as well be quiet. I’ve asked my chief commanders to come in for an urgent conference, and if you can’t control your noise, I’ll have you gagged.”
Mrs. Coulter was more like her daughter than she knew. Her answer to this was to spit in Lord Asriel’s face. He wiped it calmly away and said, “A gag would put an end to that kind of behavior, too.”
“Oh, do correct me, Asriel,” she said. “Someone who displays to his under-officers a captive tied to a chair is clearly a prince of politeness. Untie me, or I’ll force you to gag me.”
“As you wish,” he said, and took a silk scarf from the drawer; but before he could tie it around her mouth, she shook her head.
“No, no,” she said, “Asriel, don’t, I beg you, please don’t humiliate me.”
Angry tears dashed from her eyes.
“Very well, I’ll untie you, but he can stay in his chains,” he said, and dropped the scarf back in the drawer before cutting her bonds with a clasp knife.
She rubbed her wrists, stood up, stretched, and only then noticed the condition of her clothes and hair. She looked haggard and pale; the last of the Gallivespian venom still remained in her body, causing agonizing pains in her joints, but she was not going to show him that.
Lord Asriel said, “You can wash in there,” indicating a small room hardly bigger than a closet.
She picked up her chained daemon, whose baleful eyes glared at Lord Asriel over her shoulder, and went through to make herself tidier.
The orderly came in to announce:
“His Majesty King Ogunwe and the Lord Roke.”
The African general and the Gallivespian came in: King Ogunwe in a clean uniform, with a wound on his temple freshly dressed, and Lord Roke gliding swiftly to the table astride his blue hawk.
Lord Asriel greeted them warmly and offered wine. The bird let his rider step off, and then flew to the bracket by the door as the orderly announced the third of Lord Asriel’s high commanders, an angel by the name of Xaphania. She was of a much higher rank than Baruch or Balthamos, and visible by a shimmering, disconcerting light that seemed to come from somewhere else.
By this time Mrs. Coulter had emerged, much tidied, and all three commanders bowed to her; and if she was surprised at their appearance, she gave no sign, but inclined her head and sat down peaceably, holding the pinioned monkey in her arms.
Without wasting time, Lord Asriel said, “Tell me what happened, King Ogunwe.”
The African, powerful and deep-voiced, said, “We killed seventeen Swiss Guards and destroyed two zeppelins. We lost five men and one gyropter. The girl and the boy escaped. We captured the Lady Coulter, despite her courageous defense, and brought her here. I hope she feels we treated her courteously.”
“I am quite content with the way you treated me, sir,” she said, with the faintest possible stress on the you.
“Any damage to the other gyropters? Any wounded?” said Lord Asriel.
“Some damage and some wounds, but all minor.”
“Good. Thank you, King; your force did well. My Lord Roke, what have you heard?”
The Gallivespian said, “My spies are with the boy and girl in another world. Both children are safe and well, though the girl has been kept in a drugged sleep for many days. The boy lost the use of his knife during the events in the cave: by some accident, it broke in pieces. But it is now whole again, thanks to a creature from the north of your world, Lord Asriel, a giant bear, very skilled at smithwork. As soon as the knife was mended, the boy cut through into another world, where they are now. My spies are with them, of course, but there is a difficulty: while the boy has the knife, he cannot be compelled to do anything; and yet if they were to kill him in his sleep, the knife would be useless to us. For the time being, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia will go with them wherever they go, so at least we can keep track of them. They seem to have a plan in mind; they are refusing to come here, at any rate. My two will not lose them.”
“Are they safe in this other world they’re in now?” said Lord Asriel.
“They’re on a beach near a forest of large tree-ferns. There is no sign of animal life nearby. As we speak, both boy and girl are asleep; I spoke to the Chevalier Tialys not five minutes ago.”
“Thank you,” said Lord Asriel. “Now that your two agents are following the children, of course, we have no eyes in the Magisterium anymore. We shall have to rely on the alethiometer. At least – “
Then Mrs. Coulter spoke, to their surprise.
“I don’t know about the other branches,” she said, “but as far as the Consistorial Court is concerned, the reader they rely on is Fra Pavel Rasek. And he’s thorough, but slow. They won’t know where Lyra is for another few hours.”
Lord Asriel said, “Thank you, Marisa. Do you have any idea what Lyra and this boy intend to do next?”
“No,” she said, “none. I’ve spoken to the boy, and he seemed to be a stubborn child, and one well used to keeping secrets. I can’t guess what he would do. As for Lyra, she is quite impossible to read.”
“My lord,” said King Ogunwe, “may we know whether the Lady is now part of this commanding council? If so, what is her function? If not, should she not be taken elsewhere?”
“She is our captive and my guest, and as a distinguished former agent of the Church, she may have information that would be useful.”
“Will she reveal anything willingly? Or will she need to be tortured?” said Lord Roke, watching her directly as he spoke.
Mrs. Coulter laughed.
“I would have thought Lord Asriel’s commanders would know better than to expect truth to come out of torture,” she said.
Lord Asriel couldn’t help enjoying her barefaced insincerity.
“I will guarantee Mrs. Coulter’s behavior,” he said. “She knows what will happen if she betrays us; though she will not have the chance. However, if any of you has a doubt, express it now, fearlessly.”
“I do,” said King Ogunwe, “but I doubt you, not her.”
“Why?” said Lord Asriel.
“If she tempted you, you would not resist. It was right to capture her, but wrong to invite her to this council. Treat her with every courtesy, give her the greatest comfort, but place her somewhere else, and stay away from her.”
“Well, I invited you to speak,” said Lord Asriel, “and I must accept your rebuke. I value your presence more than hers, King. I’ll have her taken away.”
He reached for the bell, but before he could ring, Mrs. Coulter spoke.
“Please,” she said urgently, “listen to me first. I can help. I’ve been closer to the heart of the Magisterium than anyone you’re likely to find again. I know how they think, I can guess what they’ll do. You wonder why you should trust me, what’s made me leave them? It’s simple: they’re going to kill my daughter. They daren’t let her live. The moment I found out who she is – what she is – what the witches prophesy about her – I knew I had to leave the Church; I knew I was their enemy, and they were mine. I didn’t know what you all were, or what I was to you – that was a mystery; but I knew that I had to set myself against the Church, against everything they believed in, and if need be, against the Authority himself. I…”
She stopped. All the commanders were listening intently. Now she looked Lord Asriel full in the face and seemed to speak to him alone, her voice low and passionate, her brilliant eyes glittering.
“I have been the worst mother in the world. I let my only child be taken away from me when she was a tiny infant, because I didn’t care about her; I was concerned only with my own advancement. I didn’t think of her for years, and if I did, it was only to regret the embarrassment of her birth.
“But then the Church began to take an interest in Dust and in children, and something stirred in my heart, and I remembered that I was a mother and Lyra was… my child.
“And because there was a threat, I saved her from it. Three times now I’ve stepped in to pluck her out of danger. First, when the Oblation Board began its work: I went to Jordan College and I took her to live with me, in London, where I could keep her safe from the Board… or so I hoped. But she ran away.
“The second time was at Bolvangar, when I found her just in time, under the… under the blade of the… My heart nearly stopped… It was what they – we – what I had done to other children, but when it was mine… Oh, you can’t conceive the horror of that moment, I hope you never suffer as I did then… But I got her free; I took her out; I saved her a second time.
“But even as I did that, I still felt myself part of the Church, a servant, a loyal and faithful and devoted servant, because I was doing the Authority’s work.
“And then I learned the witches’ prophecy. Lyra will somehow, sometime soon, be tempted, as Eve was – that’s what they say. What form this temptation will take, I don’t know, but she’s growing up, after all. It’s not hard to imagine. And now that the Church knows that, too, they’ll kill her. If it all depends on her, could they risk letting her live? Would they dare take the chance that she’d refuse this temptation, whatever it will be?
“No, they’re bound to kill her. If they could, they’d go back to the Garden of Eden and kill Eve before she was tempted. Killing is not difficult for them; Calvin himself ordered the deaths of children; they’d kill her with pomp and ceremony and prayers and lamentations and psalms and hymns, but they would kill her. If she falls into their hands, she’s dead already.
“So when I heard what the witch said, I saved my daughter for the third time. I took her to a place where I kept her safe, and there I was going to stay.”
“You drugged her,” said King Ogunwe. “You kept her unconscious.”
“I had to,” said Mrs. Coulter, “because she hated me,” and here her voice, which had been full of emotion but under control, spilled over into a sob, and it trembled as she went on: “She feared me and hated me, and she would have fled from my presence like a bird from a cat if I hadn’t drugged her into oblivion. Do you know what that means to a mother? But it was the only way to keep her safe! All that time in the cave… asleep, her eyes closed, her body helpless, her daemon curled up at her throat… Oh, I felt such a love, such a tenderness, such a deep, deep… My own child, the first time I had ever been able to do these things for her, my little…! washed her and fed her and kept her safe and warm, I made sure her body was nourished as she slept… I lay beside her at night, I cradled her in my arms, I wept into her hair, I kissed her sleeping eyes, my little one…”
She was shameless. She spoke quietly; she didn’t declaim or raise her voice; and when a sob shook her, it was muffled almost into a hiccup, as if she were stifling her emotions for the sake of courtesy. Which made her barefaced lies all the more effective, Lord Asriel thought with disgust; she lied in the very marrow of her bones.
She directed her words mainly at King Ogunwe, without seeming to, and Lord Asriel saw that, too. Not only was the king her chief accuser, he was also human, unlike the angel or Lord Roke, and she knew how to play on him.
In fact, though, it was on the Gallivespian that she made the greatest impression. Lord Roke sensed in her a nature as close to that of a scorpion as he had ever encountered, and he was well aware of the power in the sting he could detect under her gentle tone. Better to keep scorpions where you could see them, he thought.
So he supported King Ogunwe when the latter changed his mind and argued that she should stay, and Lord Asriel found himself outflanked: for he now wanted her elsewhere, but he had already agreed to abide by his commanders’ wishes.
Mrs. Coulter looked at him with an expression of mild and virtuous concern. He was certain that no one else could see the glitter of sly triumph in the depths of her beautiful eyes.
“Stay, then,” he said. “But you’ve spoken enough. Stay quiet now. I want to consider this proposal for a garrison on the southern border. You’ve all seen the report: is it workable? Is it desirable? Next I want to look at the armory. And then I want to hear from Xaphania about the dispositions of the angelic forces. First, the garrison. King Ogunwe?”
The African leader began. They spoke for some time, and Mrs. Coulter was impressed by their accurate knowledge of the Church’s defenses, and their clear assessment of its leaders’ strengths.
But now that Tialys and Salmakia were with the children, and Lord Asriel no longer had a spy in the Magisterium, their knowledge would soon be dangerously out of date. An idea came to Mrs. Coulter’s mind, and she and the monkey daemon exchanged a glance that felt like a powerful anbaric spark; but she said nothing, and stroked his golden fur as she listened to the commanders.
Then Lord Asriel said, “Enough. That is a problem we’ll deal with later. Now for the armory. I understand they’re ready to test the intention craft. We’ll go and look at it.”
He took a silver key from his pocket and unlocked the chain around the golden monkey’s feet and hands, and carefully avoided touching even the tip of one golden hair.
Lord Roke mounted his hawk and followed with the others as Lord Asriel set off down the stairs of the tower and out onto the battlements.
A cold wind was blowing, snapping at their eyelids, and the dark blue hawk soared up in a mighty draft, wheeling and screaming in the wild air. King Ogunwe drew his coat around him and rested his hand on his cheetah daemon’s head.
Mrs. Coulter said humbly to the angel:
“Excuse me, my lady: your name is Xaphania?”
“Yes,” said the angel.
Her appearance impressed Mrs. Coulter, just as her fellows had impressed the witch Ruta Skadi when she found them in the sky: she was not shining, but shone on, though there was no source of light. She was tall, naked, winged, and her lined face was older than that of any living creature Mrs. Coulter had ever seen.
“Are you one of the angels who rebelled so long ago?”
“Yes. And since then I have been wandering between many worlds. Now I have pledged my allegiance to Lord Asriel, because I see in his great enterprise the best hope of destroying the tyranny at last.”
“But if you fail?”
“Then we shall all be destroyed, and cruelty will reign forever.”
As they spoke, they followed Lord Asriel’s rapid strides along the wind-beaten battlements toward a mighty staircase going down so deep that even the flaring lights on sconces down the walls could not disclose the bottom. Past them swooped the blue hawk, gliding down and down into the gloom, with each flaring light making his feathers flicker as he passed it, until he was merely a tiny spark, and then nothing.
The angel had moved on to Lord Asriel’s side, and Mrs. Coulter found herself descending next to the African king.
“Excuse my ignorance, sir,” she said, “but I had never seen or heard of a being like the man on the blue hawk until the fight in the cave yesterday… Where does he come from? Can you tell me about his people? I wouldn’t offend him for the world, but if I speak without knowing something about him, I might be unintentionally rude.”
“You do well to ask,” said King Ogunwe. “His people are proud. Their world developed unlike ours; there are two kinds of conscious being there, humans and Gallivespians. The humans are mostly servants of the Authority, and they have been trying to exterminate the small people since the earliest time anyone can remember. They regard them as diabolic. So the Gallivespians still cannot quite trust those who are our size. But they are fierce and proud warriors, and deadly enemies, and valuable spies.”
“Are all his people with you, or are they divided as humans are?”
“There are some who are with the enemy, but most are with us.”
“And the angels? You know, I thought until recently that angels were an invention of the Middle Age; they were just imaginary… To find yourself speaking to one is disconcerting, isn’t it… How many are with Lord Asriel?”
“Mrs. Coulter,” said the king, “these questions are just the sort of things a spy would want to find out.”
“A fine sort of spy I’d be, to ask you so transparently,” she replied. “I’m a captive, sir. I couldn’t get away even if I had a safe place to flee to. From now on, I’m harmless, you can take my word for that.”
“If you say so, I am happy to believe you,” said the king. “Angels are more difficult to understand than any human being. They’re not all of one kind, to begin with; some have greater powers than others; and there are complicated alliances among them, and ancient enmities, that we know little about. The Authority has been suppressing them since he came into being.”
She stopped. She was genuinely shocked. The African king halted beside her, thinking she was unwell, and indeed the light of the flaring sconce above her did throw ghastly shadows over her face.
“You say that so casually,” she said, “as if it were something I should know, too, but… How can it be? The Authority created the worlds, didn’t he? He existed before everything. How can he have come into being?”
“This is angelic knowledge,” said Ogunwe. “It shocked some of us, too, to learn that the Authority is not the creator. There may have been a creator, or there may not: we don’t know. All we know is that at some point the Authority took charge, and since then, angels have rebelled, and human beings have struggled against him, too. This is the last rebellion. Never before have humans and angels, and beings from all the worlds, made a common cause. This is the greatest force ever assembled. But it may still not be enough. We shall see.”
“But what does Lord Asriel intend? What is this world, and why has he come here?”
“He led us here because this world is empty. Empty of conscious life, that is. We are not colonialists, Mrs. Coulter. We haven’t come to conquer, but to build.”
“And is he going to attack the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Ogunwe looked at her levelly.
“We’re not going to invade the Kingdom,” he said, “but if the Kingdom invades us, they had better be ready for war, because we are prepared. Mrs. Coulter, I am a king, but it’s my proudest task to join Lord Asriel in setting up a world where there are no kingdoms at all. No kings, no bishops, no priests. The Kingdom of Heaven has been known by that name since the Authority first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. This world is different. We intend to be free citizens of the Republic of Heaven.”
Mrs. Coulter wanted to say more, to ask the dozen questions that rose to her lips, but the king had moved on, unwilling to keep his commander waiting, and she had to follow.
The staircase led so far down that by the time it reached a level floor, the sky behind them at the head of the flight was quite invisible. Well before halfway she had little breath left, but she made no complaint and moved on down till it opened out into a massive hall lit by glowing crystals in the pillars that supported the roof. Ladders, gantries, beams, and walkways crossed the gloom above, with small figures moving about them purposefully.
Lord Asriel was speaking to his commanders when Mrs. Coulter arrived, and without waiting to let her rest, he moved on across the great hall, where occasionally a bright figure would sweep through the air or alight on the floor for a brief snatched word with him. The air was dense and warm. Mrs. Coulter noticed that, presumably as a courtesy to Lord Roke, every pillar had an empty bracket at human head height so that his hawk could perch there and allow the Gallivespian to be included in the discussion.
But they did not stay in the great hall for long. At the far side, an attendant hauled open a heavy double door to let them through, onto the platform of a railway. There waiting was a small closed carriage, drawn by an anbaric locomotive.
The engineer bowed, and his brown monkey daemon retreated behind his legs at the sight of the golden monkey with the chained hands. Lord Asriel spoke to the man briefly and showed the others into the carriage, which, like the hall, was lit by those glowing crystals, held on silver brackets against mirrored mahogany panels.
As soon as Lord Asriel had joined them, the train began to move, gliding smoothly away from the platform and into a tunnel, accelerating briskly. Only the sound of the wheels on the smooth track gave any idea of their speed.
“Where are we going?” Mrs. Coulter asked.
“To the armory,” Lord Asriel said shortly, and turned away to talk quietly with the angel.
Mrs. Coulter said to Lord Roke, “My lord, are your spies always sent out in pairs?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Simple curiosity. My daemon and I found ourselves at a stalemate when we met them recently in that cave, and I was intrigued to see how well they fought.”
“Why intrigued? Did you not expect people of our size to be good fighters?”
She looked at him coolly, aware of the ferocity of his pride.
“No,” she said. “I thought we would beat you easily, and you very nearly beat us. I’m happy to admit my mistake. But do you always fight in pairs?”
“You are a pair, are you not, you and your daemon? Did you expect us to concede the advantage?” he said, and his haughty stare, brilliantly clear even in the soft light of the crystals, dared her to ask more.
She looked down modestly and said nothing.
Several minutes went past, and Mrs. Coulter felt the train taking them downward, even deeper into the mountain’s heart. She couldn’t guess how far they went, but when at least fifteen minutes had gone by, the train began to slow; and presently they drew up to a platform where the anbaric lights seemed brilliant after the darkness of the tunnel.
Lord Asriel opened the doors, and they got out into an atmosphere so hot and sulphur-laden that Mrs. Coulter had to gasp. The air rang with the pounding of mighty hammers and the clangorous screech of iron on stone.
An attendant hauled open the doors leading off the platform, and instantly the noise redoubled and the heat swept over them like a breaking wave. A blaze of scorching light made them shade their eyes; only Xaphania seemed unaffected by the onslaught of sound and light and heat. When her senses had adjusted, Mrs. Coulter looked around, alive with curiosity.
She had seen forges, ironworks, manufactories in her own world; the biggest seemed like a village smithy beside this. Hammers the size of houses were lifted in a moment to the distant ceiling and then hurled downward to flatten balks of iron the size of tree trunks, pounding them flat in a fraction of a second with a blow that made the very mountain tremble; from a vent in the rocky wall, a river of sulphurous molten metal flowed until it was cut off by an adamant gate, and the brilliant seething flood rushed through channels and sluices and over weirs into row upon row of molds, to settle and cool in a cloud of evil smoke; gigantic slicing machines and rollers cut and folded and pressed sheets of inch-thick iron as if it were tissue paper, and then those monstrous hammers pounded it flat again, layering metal upon metal with such force that the different layers became one tougher one, over and over again.
If Iorek Byrnison could have seen this armory, he might have admitted that these people knew something about working with metal. Mrs. Coulter could only look and wonder. It was impossible to speak and be understood, and no one tried. And now Lord Asriel was gesturing to the small group to follow him along a grated walkway suspended over an even larger vault below, where miners toiled with picks and spades to hack the bright metals from the mother rock.
They passed over the walkway and down a long rocky corridor, where stalactites hung gleaming with strange colors and where the pounding and grinding and hammering gradually faded. Mrs. Coulter could feel a cool breeze on her heated face.
The crystals that gave them light were neither mounted on sconces nor enclosed in glowing pillars, but scattered loosely on the floor, and there were no flaring torches to add to the heat, so little by little the party began to feel cold again; and presently they came out, quite suddenly, into the night air.
They were at a place where part of the mountain had been hacked away, making a space as wide and open as a parade ground. Farther along they could see, dimly lit, great iron doors in the mountainside, some open and some shut; and from out of one of the mighty doorways, men were hauling something draped in a tarpaulin.
“What is that?” Mrs. Coulter said to the African king, and he replied:
“The intention craft.”
Mrs. Coulter had no idea what that could mean, and watched with intense curiosity as they prepared to take off the tarpaulin.
She stood close to King Ogunwe, as if for shelter, and said, “How does it work? What does it do?”
“We’re about to see,” said the king.
It looked like some kind of complex drilling apparatus, or the cockpit of a gyropter, or the cabin of a massive crane. It had a glass canopy over a seat with at least a dozen levers and handles banked in front of it. It stood on six legs, each jointed and sprung at a different angle to the body, so that it seemed both energetic and ungainly; and the body itself was a mass of pipe work, cylinders, pistons, coiled cables, switchgear, valves, and gauges. It was hard to tell what was structure and what was not, because it was only lit from behind, and most of it was hidden in gloom.
Lord Roke on his hawk had glided up to it directly, circling above, examining it from all sides. Lord Asriel and the angel were close in discussion with the engineers, and men were clambering down from the craft itself, one carrying a clipboard, another a length of cable.
Mrs. Coulter’s eyes gazed at the craft hungrily, memorizing every part of it, making sense of its complexity. And as she watched, Lord Asriel swung himself up into the seat, fastening a leather harness around his waist and shoulders, and setting a helmet securely on his head. His daemon, the snow leopard, sprang up to follow him, and he turned to adjust something beside her. The engineer called up, Lord Asriel replied, and the men withdrew to the doorway.
The intention craft moved, though Mrs. Coulter was not sure how. It was almost as if it had quivered, though there it was, quite still, poised with a strange energy on those six insect legs. As she looked, it moved again, and then she saw what was happening: various parts of it were revolving, turning this way and that, scanning the dark sky overhead. Lord Asriel sat busily moving this lever, checking that dial, adjusting that control; and then suddenly the intention craft vanished.
Somehow, it had sprung into the air. It was hovering above them now, as high as a treetop, turning slowly to the left. There was no sound of an engine, no hint of how it was held against gravity. It simply hung in the air.
“Listen,” said King Ogunwe. “To the south.”
She turned her head and strained to hear. There was a wind that moaned around the edge of the mountain, and there were the deep hammer blows from the presses, which she felt through the soles of her feet, and there was the sound of voices from the lit doorway, but at some signal the voices stopped and the lights were extinguished. And in the quiet Mrs. Coulter could hear, very faintly, the chop-chop-chop of gyropter engines on the gusts of wind.
“Who are they?” she said quietly.
“Decoys,” said the king. “My pilots, flying a mission to tempt the enemy to follow. Watch.”
She widened her eyes, trying to see anything against the heavy dark with its few stars. Above them, the intention craft hung as firmly as if it were anchored and bolted there; no gust of wind had the slightest effect on it. No light came from the cockpit, so it was very difficult to see, and the figure of Lord Asriel was out of sight completely.
Then she caught the first sight of a group of lights low in the sky, at the same moment as the engine sound became loud enough to hear steadily. Six gyropters, flying fast, one of them seemingly in trouble, for smoke trailed from it, and it flew lower than the others. They were making for the mountain, but on a course to take them past it and beyond.
And behind them, in close pursuit, came a motley collection of fliers. It was not easy to make out what they were, but Mrs. Coulter saw a heavy gyropter of a strange kind, two straight-winged aircraft, one great bird that glided with effortless speed carrying two armed riders, and three or four angels.
“A raiding party,” said King Ogunwe.
They were closing on the gyropters. Then a line of light blazed from one of the straight-winged aircraft, followed a second or two later by a sound, a deep crack. But the shell never reached its target, the crippled gyropter, because in the same instant as they saw the light, and before they heard the crack, the watchers on the mountain saw a flash from the intention craft, and a shell exploded in midair.
Mrs. Coulter had hardly time to understand that almost instantaneous sequence of light and sound before the battle was under way. Nor was it at all easy to follow, because the sky was so dark and the movement of every flier so quick; but a series of nearly silent flashes lit the mountainside, accompanied by short hisses like the escape of steam. Each flash struck somehow at a different raider: the aircraft caught fire or exploded; the giant bird uttered a scream like the tearing of a mountain-high curtain and plummeted onto the rocks far below; and as for the angels, each of them simply vanished in a drift of glowing air, a myriad particles twinkling and glowing dimmer until they flickered out like a dying firework.
Then there was silence. The wind carried away the sound of the decoy gyropters, which had now disappeared around the flank of the mountain, and no one watching spoke. Flames far below glared on the underside of the intention craft, still somehow hovering in the air and now turning slowly as if to look around. The destruction of the raiding party was so complete that Mrs. Coulter, who had seen many things to be shocked by, was nevertheless shocked by this. As she looked up at the intention craft, it seemed to shimmer or dislodge itself, and then there it was, solidly on the ground again.
King Ogunwe hurried forward, as did the other commanders and the engineers, who had thrown open the doors and let the light flood out over the proving ground. Mrs. Coulter stayed where she was, puzzling over the workings of the intention craft.
“Why is he showing it to us?” her daemon said quietly.
“Surely he can’t have read our mind,” she replied in the same tone.
They were thinking of the moment in the adamant tower when that sparklike idea had flashed between them. They had thought of making Lord Asriel a proposition: of offering to go to the Consistorial Court of Discipline and spying for him. She knew every lever of power; she could manipulate them all. It would be hard at first to convince them of her good faith, but she could do it. And now that the Gallivespian spies had left to go with Will and Lyra, surely Asriel couldn’t resist an offer like that.
But now, as they looked at that strange flying machine, another idea struck even more forcibly, and she hugged the golden monkey with glee.
“Asriel,” she called innocently, “may I see how the machine works?”
He looked down, his expression distracted and impatient, but full of excited satisfaction, too. He was delighted with the intention craft; she knew he wouldn’t be able to resist showing it off.
King Ogunwe stood aside, and Lord Asriel reached down and pulled her up into the cockpit. He helped her into the seat and watched as she looked around the controls.
“How does it work? What powers it?” she said.
“Your intentions,” he said. “Hence the name. If you intend to go forward, it will go forward.”
“That’s no answer. Come on, tell me. What sort of engine is it? How does it fly? I couldn’t see anything aerodynamic at all. But these controls… from inside, it’s almost like a gyropter.”
He was finding it hard not to tell her; and since she was in his power, he did. He held out a cable at the end of which was a leather grip, deeply marked by his daemon’s teeth.
“Your daemon,” he explained, “has to hold this handle – whether in teeth, or hands, it doesn’t matter. And you have to wear that helmet. There’s a current flowing between them, and a capacitor amplifies it – oh, it’s more complicated than that, but the thing’s simple to fly. We put in controls like a gyropter for the sake of familiarity, but eventually we won’t need controls at all. Of course, only a human with a daemon can fly it.”
“I see,” she said.
And she pushed him hard, so that he fell out of the machine.
In the same moment she slipped the helmet on her head, and the golden monkey snatched up the leather handle. She reached for the control that in a gyropter would tilt the airfoil, and pushed the throttle forward, and at once the intention craft leapt into the air.
But she didn’t quite have the measure of it yet. The craft hung still for some moments, slightly tilted, before she found the controls to move it forward, and in those few seconds, Lord Asriel did three things. He leapt to his feet; he put up his hand to stop King Ogunwe from ordering the soldiers to fire on the intention craft; and he said, “Lord Roke, go with her, if you would be so kind.”
The Gallivespian urged his blue hawk upward at once, and the bird flew straight to the still-open cabin door. The watchers below could see the woman’s head looking this way and that, and the golden monkey, likewise, and they could see that neither of them noticed the little figure of Lord Roke leaping from his hawk into the cabin behind them.
A moment later, the intention craft began to move, and the hawk wheeled away to skim down to Lord Asriel’s wrist. No more than two seconds later, the aircraft was already vanishing from sight in the damp and starry air.
Lord Asriel watched with rueful admiration.
“Well, King, you were quite right,” he said, “and I should have listened to you in the first place. She is Lyra’s mother; I might have expected something like that.”
“Aren’t you going to pursue her?”‘ said King Ogunwe.
“What, and destroy a perfectly good aircraft? Certainly not.”
“Where d’you think she’ll go? In search of the child?”
“Not at first. She doesn’t know where to find her. I know exactly what she’ll do: she’ll go to the Consistorial Court and give them the intention craft as an earnest pledge of good faith, and then she’ll spy. She’ll spy on them for us. She’s tried every other kind of duplicity: that one’ll be a novel experience. And as soon as she finds out where the girl is, she’ll go there, and we shall follow.”
“And when will Lord Roke let her know he’s come with her?”
“Oh, I think he’ll keep that as a surprise, don’t you?” They laughed, and moved back into the workshops, where a later, more advanced model of the intention craft was awaiting their inspection.