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Every aspect of his life, since the moment of his birth, has been an ode to glory, however tragic it might be. He thrives in being the very sense of what a singularity could be in his world, so foreign, so astray. There is power to his words and there is power to his gaze. Asriel feels the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and Stelmaria constantly reminds him of that.

“You are not a child anymore.” She tells him, very often, as he pushes himself too hard, for glory, for purpose, for the sake of it, because he is in a constant state of epic excitement and fathomless boredom. He always reply that he is aware of that, but he doesn’t slow down. There is so much to do, so many things to see!

He isn’t used to being denied. He finds his way around the politicians, the clergy, the bloody Church if need it be. Asriel harbours no love for boundaries, he gets what he wants by either power, money or influence, or by merely asking, for who could say no to a man like him? Whatever the price, he can pay or so he thinks.

When he sees her, he knows he cannot have her, so immediately he wants her. Not because she is unreachable, but because she is far too interesting to not reach for at all. She smiles, glass in hands, and everyone who surrounds her is taken by her spell. What a gift she possesses , he thinks in union with Stelmaria, watching her from afar, what a waste of talent. There isn’t a single soul spared in the radius of her charm, all mesmerised by her beauty and graceful gestures, her warm laughter, but Asriel sees further. There’s a glitter in her eyes when she moves, she scans their souls for every sin, for every advantage she could get. It’s despicable and enticing.

A mutual colleague introduces them, by Asriel’s slight suggestion, so he doesn’t seem eager or interested. By now, he already concluded that she loves attention, so he knows not to give her any. The spark of frustration in her eyes when he kisses her hand, so bland and uninterested, is a sight to behold. Stelmaria reminds him of that particular moment for the years to come, never to let him forget he was the sole guilty party for his own damnation.

Marisa. He learns her name by consulting another colleague, as he sees her eyes following him around, judging and wondering why he hasn’t fallen for act. She couldn’t know he is trapped in her spell, but he could see it and thus, he could counteract it. She is the wife of the King’s advisor, a pious and boring man, and is well-known she uses his position to raise her favours within the Magisterium. Asriel laughs at the idea. She looks religious enough , he tells himself, as he watches as she gather another audience for her insufferable lies. She is beautiful and scholarly, a deadly combination, especially when her intentions are anything but noble. Asriel thinks she is talented, enchanting a whole crowd just to get his attention.

There is nothing typical about her.

 

***

 

He wonders, constantly, if she does it on purpose or if it comes naturally to her. With sunlight on her skin, she borders on angelical aspiration and he knows he is a fool for believing it. There is a cold underneath her eyes when she is measuring others, a dark spark of curiosity bordering on sadism. Marisa would dissect him if she wanted to know how he worked and he was well-aware of that.

That is why he is careful enough to control the situation before she traps him with her nice perfume and her gentle moves. He loves that she still tries to play the role of the demure wife, annoyed by his very forward, clearly inappropriate behaviour, when her eyes glitter with curiosity and interest. He wonders if he shouldn’t have denied her before, but apparently, the lack of interest is what pushes her towards him, so he brushes the doubts aside. Asriel doesn’t have time for doubts or regrets, he is a man of the present, a man of the future.

Her anger, in private, is fierce. For a moment he almost believe she wants him to leave, but her golden monkey is toying with Stelmaria. She understands that he is figuring her out, which is why she leaves him seated at the library of Jordan College and gracefully keeps him wanting more.

“You are playing with fire, Asriel.” Stelmaria tells him, as he watches Marisa go, golden hair moving as if taken by the softest breeze ever made. That horrid monkey is in her arms and stares back at him, deviously, as he scratches her neck. Asriel feels a slight shiver. Some bonds were strange, but the monkey was unnerving, yet when he thinks of it, as he leaves the library too, that uncanny was part of her mystique. She is unnerving as well.

“I can deal with this.” He says and Stelmarias sighs, because they are one and she reminds him, day and night, that there are boundaries he should respect. Later, much later, she reminds of this statement and how he couldn’t have foreseen the outcome.

 

***

 

She slowly becomes aware of his interest, his true interest, and it takes her by surprise. Whatever she thought he wanted, it wasn’t that , at least not in a sense that he wanted her because of her own true self and for himself . He dislikes her masquerade, however interesting it may be. It’s pointless to pretend to him when all he does is defy the common sense and the rules because he can.

At a lecture, she almost seems benevolent. There is a glitter in her eyes when she hears the man speaking, a brutally honest interest that she struggles to hide. Her golden monkey is insufferable, he tortures her whenever Asriel confronts her because every single base feeling she feels in embedded in that monkey. So, every empty smile she offers anyone, the golden thing twirls back and forth to avoid an outburst, to contain her nature. He never heard him speaking, neither to Marisa nor anyone else, but Stelmaria is to his liking, though she never shares their conversation. Asriel understands his intent when they speak, but he knows nothing of his words.

Though he started the evening controlling the situation, when she shows concerns about their meeting, he loses it. Her wide eyes make him pause, for he is used to have it all, yet she already has a life and a reputation. She is ambitious, so their relationship, however platonic, risk it all and she fears it. What would happen if someone whispered something to her husband? Asriel’s name could withstand the scandal, he was important enough for that, but her name wouldn’t. He thinks of that when he kisses her hand and leaves the lady at her ride’s door.

“You should let this go.” Stelmaria whispers, as they walked down the streets. Marisa’s perfume is still hovering around his head, stuck to the hand he used to touch her, on his lips for kissing her hand. A metallic taste is burning her image in his mind. He tells his leopard not to worry.

Stelmaria makes sure to remind him of that, years later, as well.

 

***

 

He understands her cautious behaviour, so he makes some moves and call in some favours, as to ensure her husband wouldn't be tipped on their encounters. Stelmaria chided him for plotting with such care, when they weren’t even together.

“You don’t even know if she wants you, don’t be foolish.” She says, as they mingle amongst the guests of a gala. He tingles with excitement, when she walks in, her arm intertwined with her husband’s, looking pure in a clearly fake statement of frugality.

“Less is more, or so they say, isn’t it?” Her voice is musical and soft, but her face is the clear image of something displeased.

Her husband introduces them, again, and Asriel is bemused by her talents, when she offers him her hand, he makes sure she is under his sway. He succeeds because she is busy concerning herself with the other man, she cares too much about appearances and reputation, about etiquette and socialising. It’s her biggest flaw, the only thing Asriel dislikes, because everything else about her is a tentative trait. He’s more amused than disgusted by her need to look good under the eyes of everyone.

She whispers to him he is out of his mind, as her husband leaves them alone because he has more important people to talk to. Coulter is as stagnant as his beliefs , Asriel tells Stelmaria, later, when they leave. Their marriage is a clear power-play of hers, and a huge achievement for him. His colleagues and opposition are slightly older or uglier, so a wife like her was like setting fireworks ablaze within a church. They could see him from afar because beside him was Marisa and she was everything, from ruthless to careless, but she was not a person one could easily ignore.

“This is getting out of hand, Asriel.” She whispers, and tells him blatantly he does not have the guts to act upon his flirting. Instead of being offended, Asriel is enticed to prove her wrong, or perhaps prove himself right. Either way, both ideas are pleasant enough.

She freezes as he leans to whisper in her ear, he delights in the fear she might have felt. Anyone could have seen them, the rumours it would raise… He nearly felt bad for it, but she was talented enough to get away with it and the risk was thrilling. She is also arrogant and a liar, and Asriel told himself that countless times.

As the years went by, it became easier for him to accept it as the truth.

 

***

 

Next time they see each other, Asriel knows that he has lost that war, perhaps even before it had started. He avoids her, provoking a chain reaction that would ultimately lead to his damnation. In the end, everything would have gone in that direction, whatever his wishes.

“You should have known better.” Stelmaria warns him, but it is too late. When he kisses Marisa, he tells himself (and his dæmon) that he misjudged his own resolve. Her sweetness has a bitter taste underneath and suddenly she feels so real that he questions his sanity. She still looks beautiful, yet now he can see every single flaw she has ever concealed and suddenly he feels disgusted. How could he allow himself to fall for such a despicable woman? Asriel is familiar with that petty desire though, so he doesn’t stop and neither does she, and he wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

His doubts vanishes as quickly as they came. Stelmaria whispers, later, that he should stop that nonsense for their sake and hers as well. He doesn’t listen, as usual.

He takes her one, ten, twenty times, and Asriel constantly tells himself not to trust her, that she would sell the country if meant more power and influence for herself. He tries to keep his distance, but every time he looks at her, he allows himself to doubt her ruthlessness, he even tells her that once, a commentary she merely replied with heartily laughter that still echoes in his ears to this day. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, as every single thing related to that personification of selfishness.

It’s not surprising when she sends for him after his return from Nova Zembla, a month apart he took to investigate abnormal readings in the region’s frequency, and to sever their bond just a little, so he could finally think straight. He doesn’t second guess her when Marisa tells him the baby is his, he doesn’t have to because the math is quite on point. She doesn’t weep, but instead, she sounds angry and frustrated, as if he had thrown an obstacle in her path and she couldn’t move anymore. She clearly doesn’t want to get rid of it, however, so he offers a way out by taking the baby the moment she is born.

Stelmaria marvels at that tiny creature and her dæmon, a fiery thing that changes forms so fast they hardly keep up. Both her and Asriel would worry for the future, but not at that time. They are too busy naming her Lyra and Pantalaimon, and Asriel is too focused on planning everything: who to take care of the child, how to return for Marisa and get her to safety at one of his estates.

He’d rather not talk about the fact she refused to hold her own baby, or how quickly she’d given Lyra up, and he tells Stelmaria to be quiet for the rest of their journey.

Certain truths were far more difficult to accept than others.

 

***

 

His life had always been a whirlwind of scandal and prosperity, of defiance of the common sense and a passionate thirst and lust for the unknown. He wouldn’t have it any other way, it was his calling, his own nature, but when Coulter shows up, foaming with an unnatural rage, Asriel questions himself for a second.

He disarms the man, then shoots him, and then it is over. He asks Mrs Costa to get out of the cupboard with Lyra, a crying rampage from the shock and strangeness of what happened. He takes his daughter in his arms and twirls around with her, with Pantalaimon carefully nested on her neck, and they are laughing as he carefully steps around Edward Coulter’s body. When Lyra calmed down, he told the gyptian woman to call the police. What else could he do?

“Your mother is a lying viper, Lyra.” He tells her, in an amused tone, but the rage he feels is quick and painful. Then he sighs, as Stelmaria reassures him he couldn’t possibly know that Marisa was to blame. She was still recovering from child labor, there was very little she could have done to prevent what happened. Asriel gives himself the chance to believe that, which only led to further pain when the trial started.

When he sees her at court, he already knows the worst is yet to come, but Asriel dares entertain the thought things may work on their own. They don’t, obviously, and it all escalates when she faces the court, eyes filled with silvery tears, and Asriel can’t help but scoff. She didn’t cry when she told him she was pregnant and she certainly didn’t cry when Asriel took the girl from her, a couple of hours after birth. It is ironic, if not borderline offensive, that she chooses to cry for a husband she did not love and to lie about a sin only she had committed.

He thinks she is despicable as she progressively narrates their affair, placing her demure and angelical character as a victim of a persuasive man. The monkey is expressionless, so Asriel knows she is just being cunning, gaining the upper hand. It makes the monkey even worse to bear, but there are far bigger concerns. The law was unclear, stating that both Asriel and Coulter were right and wrong. Asriel was protecting Lyra, but Coulter was avenging his and his wife’s honour, and for that mess, Asriel lost everything except his freedom. He feels the rage burn his soul as they now decide what to do with Lyra, since Marisa denies her so quickly, under the justifications that the child would be constant reminder of her shame. So, to Asriel’s fury, they decide to set a girl in a priory.

Oakley Street ensured it would be a safe place, as safe as they could or so did Lord Nugent told him, but that was a meaningless act. Asriel walks out the building, but having not the temper to deal with roaring press, he leans against a wall to wait for the crowd to disperse. People walked by him and he senses their glances, but ever so proud, he doesn’t mind them at all.

There is a minute or two of quiet, then Asriel looks around and the rest of the court is being dismissed and now leaves the building. She is one of the first to step outside, regal, deceitful, her face stained with her false tears of grief and shame. He knows her enough to know she is already plotting her next move, she talks discreetly with a man frugally dressed, wearing the colours of the Consistorial Court of Discipline. Asriel scoffs when she looks at him, a couple of meters apart, and he brushes aside the tiny idea that she might have told Edward herself about Lyra.

As her Magisterium companion leaves, Marisa turnes to face Asriel and he does not dare think that she might have been planted by the bloody Church since the start, because that would be too much, it would wreck his resolve for good. She has this slight curve on her lips, as if she found all of that amusing, but there is this dark thing underneath it that makes Asriel flinch. The monkey is in her arms, and they stare at each other, dæmon and human, and something happens within Asriel. He marches decisively towards her and the hatred in his eyes, the disgust he feels is stamped on his face, his eyes glitter when he sees Marisa change her stance, as if for a moment she considered running away from him, but she doesn’t and he stops just a few centimeters away from her. Her scent is like poison fumes, enticing his rage and for a second he considered striking her down, if only to fade that smug expression she had.

A column shields them from the sight of the press outside the building, so he takes a deep breathe as Stelmaria roars for the golden monkey. Marisa rises an eyebrow and he points a finger at her, brutal. She staggers and he whispers, but in a polite and quiet way that clearly unnerves her. There’s something dangerous about silent wrath.

“Did you do it?”

“What do you mean, Asriel?” She hisses, sweet and false, and he no longer finds her lies amusing. All he can do now is perceive her wickedness, how far would she go, did she know when to stop?

He takes another step forward as she takes a step back, nearly cowering underneath his wrathful gaze. The golden monkey hisses directly at him, but Asriel paid him no attention.

“I asked if you did it, Marisa. Did you tell Coulter about Lyra?” He says, walking towards her as she takes another step and another step, until her back is against a wall and Asriel is so close to her that his senses are numbed her by her perfume. They are not alone, though, but people either ignore them or glance over them, wanting nothing to do with both sinners. They are both tainted, now.

“No.” It’s all she whispers and that infuriates Asriel beyond reason.

“Do not lie to me!” He shouts, and the monkey is now on the floor, baring his teeth to Stelmaria, who is growling in response. Marisa’s face darkens, and she puts her hands on his chest to prevent him from coming closer though that was physically impossible since they were alaready too close.

“I did not tell him, Asriel. Now, mind your tone.”

He clenches his fists but before he can do anything or say anything, a powerful hand holds his shoulder. It was the Lord Chancellor and his solemn face has a deep frown that states Asriel is out of line. Lord Nugent, with two other companions, walk him outside and as far away from that woman as they can, yet Asriel knows that no matter how far he is from her, it will never be enough.

 

***

 

He manages to secure Lyra at Jordan, and to keep Marisa away. Whatever she wanted with the girl, it couldn’t have been good and he knows he put the Master of the college in a difficult position, but it was the only way. He also didn’t plan to be so absent, but it became increasingly difficult to visit her when he had to rebuild his career from scratch. When he comes back, she is always older and always fiery and with a high-spirited temper he finds amusing. There are no first words or first steps between them, she is always growing and learning when he is stranded either in the far North or the wild South, too busy with his discoveries and his resentment towards her mother and her Church.

It is the price he chose to pay.

“Do you bother the Scholars during your shenanigans?” He asks her during one of his visits, as Lyra stands in front of him, hands behind her back. She looks down, shy and uncomfortable, and Pantalaimon changes ten times in less than four seconds.

“No, uncle.” She lies, making Stelmaria grin, softly.

He is uncle Asriel, now. It was better that way and he knows that and everyone agrees, Stelmaria included, which is a rare deed. The girl is a terrible liar, and he is careful to encourage her curiosity, and the Master tells him she is a misfit, but a good child nonetheless. She is six on that visit, and she has Marisa’s chin. He bares his teeth at that remark.

“Really?” His grin makes her blush, but Lyra grins back once she understands he knows she is lying. He dismisses her with a pat in the head and some of money.

The next visit she is nearly nine, and the college servants tried their best to make her look presentable, to no avail. In front of him she stands again, wearing a frilly dress that seems misplaced in that brat’s figure. She is small and dirty, her fingernails would make Asriel’s mother shriek of horror, but he pays no attention to these details. Lyra’s lies get under his skin, they remind him of Marisa and how she ruined his life because she wanted to conform, how she cared only for herself and he failed to see that. Slowly, the girl starts to show her mother’s traits, not just physically, but the taste for deceit and the urge to control everyone else by charm or intimidation. Lyra tells her feats in awe, eager to please him, to see a nod of approval. He enjoys her fiery temper, but the lies keep him away.

The older she gets, the closer she resembles her mother, and the less he wants to be around her. At certain points he even feels bad about how cold and distant he became, but then Lyra would be her mother with every fiber of her being, lying and deceiving, thus making it easy for him to be cold. It is all unintentional, she means no harm through her lies, only seeking to gain the admiration of others or to intimidate, and sometimes is just a tool of survival, that is useful to her later in life, but that eludes Asriel at this point. When she lives happy and safe and sounds in Oxford, shielded from the perils of a world enslaved by ignorance, he cannot fathom the idea of her becoming anything like Marisa. Stelmaria tells him he is too relentless, too resentful, and Lyra slowly grows to fear him because he fails to get close to her.

“It’s better this way.” He tells Stelmaria, as they watch Lyra jumping through the roofs and running around the campus, followed by other children, Pantalaimon a raging burst of energy and laughter. Under Asriel’s care, and that of Jordan College, Lyra’s worst role was to be a tool he used to spite the Church and everyone that followed it, Marisa included. He took no pleasure acknowledging it, but he also cared very little about it. He knew that, under Marisa’s care or anyone else’s, Lyra would’ve been a weapon to be used in their quest to destroy all knowledge and freedom in the world. So, as long as he lived and breathed, Lyra would remain at Jordan College. Eventually, he would have to drag her along the aristocracy path or whatever suited her best, not only because he hated the Church, but because he would rather die than let Marisa have things her way. Lyra would never be safe, unless the Church ceased to exist.

When Lyra asks him to take her to the North with him, it’s the first time he actually pay attention to her. Dirty and ragged, there is nothing special about her if you don’t look at her eyes, which one wouldn’t normally do, since she was a dreadful child to look at, mud in her fingers, knees so crusty he doubted she could get hurt if she fell. But there was fire in her gaze, a fierceness Stelmaria found amusing and Asriel found annoying.

“Lyra has much of her mother in her.” Stelmaria tells him, after he refused his daughter and they were on their way to the zepelim. His plans were working smoothly, far more than he expected.  “But her eyes are truly yours.”


***

 

“Come with me.” He tells her, refusing to beg because she has already taken enough from him. Marisa’s face is the true image of a holy painting, sunlight turning her smooth complexion into gold. Cold surrounds them, but the warm kiss of Cittàgazze keeps them warm, and so does their embrace. He can feel her shiver underneath her clothing, and her eyes glitter with several different emotions not even Asriel and all of his understanding of the world’s engines could decipher.

She falters, as she always does. Torn between her reputation, her lust for power, this is what has always been, he would be a fool not to have noticed it. She hesitates and Asriel senses her fear, then he says she should not be afraid, for the days of the Church are numbered.

If she cared, that wasn’t enough to convince her. Kissing her, he knows she will not come, she is too despicable to let go of her ambitions. She tastes the same as the first time they kissed and that helps harden his heart. All the memories returned and he tried to find a way to despise her, as he so often did, and she so easily made it possible for him to do it.

“Stay, and I shall forget all about you.”

He isn’t prone to lying, yet that was the greatest lie he has ever told anyone. Lyra is somewhere, but he is far too devoted to his cause to think about her now. He knows he is just as wicked as Marisa, how else could they be so madly connected to each other? How could he love someone if they weren’t as depraved and morally deficient as he was?

Stelmaria scoffs. The basalt fortress keeps on growing, his fate and eternal quest each day closer to the end, to its inevitable climax. Asriel can’t seem to forget that fateful night, how he completely disregarded Lyra, how Marisa turned her back on him again so she could consort with her damned Church and her fretful desire to always be more. He is disgusted, and resents ever touching that lying viper. Her taste hasn’t left his mouth, even a week later, and he dares entertain the idea her taste has lingered in him since they first met.

“Her perfume certainly has.” Stelmaria mocks him, lazily lying on the floor. He watches the fortress construction from the Adamantine Tower, still incomplete and filled to the brink with actual dust. His dæmon rubs her head against his leg in a gesture of comfort, since they are alone and as usual, Asriel is distressed, the weight of the worlds upon his shoulder. “You are too hard on yourself.”

He turns around, without a word, lightly brushing his fingers in Stelmaria’s fur, then put on his coat, and leaves.