There's no better way to spend early morning for Lyra than running about, free as a bird. She spits plums from the treetops, or avoids Mrs. Lonsdale's wrath, or overturns broken, ancient mason stones to discover where all of the worms and roly-poly bugs scurry off to.
She never wants to be anywhere else.
(Except the North.)
Days trickle away the icemelt, ushering in a velveteen, warm light illuminating through the colorful stain glass. Springtide has come at last. Lyra can hear the rooks perched outside the kitchen's windows, cawing amongst themselves. A gaggle of servants bustle through. Flour hovers in the air.
One of the cooks, pounding on a heap of dough with his bare knuckles, explains to her and Roger how to make a excellent fruit tart using the orchard's apples. Heating them up and topping them with granulated sugar and honey and cinnamon. She can smell the boiled eggs and toasties, and a hint of fried animal meat, wafting around her. Lyra's stomach gives a strong, angry jostle, making the back of her mouth slick with bile.
She starts coughing, ducking her head.
The cook's terrier daemon glances up and barks high-pitched, alerting him to Lyra's sweaty, pale-flushed features.
"Out, out with you!" he says thunderously, going from calm to furious within moments, shooing her with a wave of clothed napkin. Lyra sneers up at the cook, avoiding a right thump on the bum, dragging Roger with her into the nearby winding corridor.
"You've been like this all morning," Pantalaimon whispers, nuzzling to Lyra's throat as a tiny, fluffy sparrow. "And the evening before."
At the mention, Lyra's fingers reach up, itching through her dress.
She did notice a huge, blood-darkened mark on her naked collar before going to sleep. Could be loads of things. Could have been a spider-bite from when she was jumping through the thick, green brush in the woods of Château-Vert.
"I know, Pan," she grumbles.
Roger hoists up Salcilia as a marmoset, into his arms. "Maybe you're getting ill or something," he declares.
"No, I ain't! Take that back!"
He doesn't seem bothered by Lyra's indignant yell, Roger's face splitting into an excitable grin. "Mister Davies had the chills before sunrise, and all of this green goo came out of his nostrils later—I seen it, I did—Mister Kerffle went and got sick all over himself—"
Salcilia chitters in disgust. "Awful! Awful, awful, awful!"
That only makes Lyra burst out laughing at the image. Mister Davies, stern and old, his long, white nose-hair always trimmed—having someone like him with tonnes of revoltingly pea-green snot flying out of him as he sneezes and sneezes the living daylights out of himself. Her laughter quickly dissolves into wheezing, Lyra's head aching. Doughy and pounded on like gigantic, bare knuckles strike her.
"Lyra," Pantalaimon whispers again, concerned. He shifts into a dark-bellied mink, scampering and impatiently going up on his hindquarters. Roger calls out to Lyra as well, watching her shake her head and coughing more raggedly, gripping her shoulder.
She quiets herself, glowering at Cousins—the Master's manservant—roaming over to her. Wiry, black hair. Dark skin, like the Master, but he has obvious, deep wrinkles on his brow and around his sharp, grey eyes. Cousins doesn't appear pleased to see her either. He shouldn't. They were sworn enemies, or so Lyra liked to believe when he used to slap her backside with the measuring stick during her punishments.
"This way, Miss Lyra," he drones, proceeding forward.
Roger vanishes back into the kitchens with his daemon, without saying anything, and Lyra groans. She doesn't argue this time with Cousins. Her body feels woozy and sore as if Lyra had been gallivanting through the marketplace without rest.
Pantalaimon follows after her, his russet-brown, moth wings fluttering above her in clear agitation.
"I told you! The Master probably knows we snuck out—!" he hisses.
"Hush up, Pan."
Lyra immediately recognises the cobblestone pathway leading to the Master's Lodging, opening from the Yaxley Quadrangle. She's been here before plenty of times. It's always gloomy and low-lit. Rarely visited by anyone else, unless they were the Librarian or esteemed guests visiting Jordan College. Lyra has been reprimanded thrice for handling the newly polished silver collection without permission.
Cousins nudges her toward the drawing room rudely, scowling and walking off. His afghan hound daemon boofs irritably at Lyra.
She knocks, remembering her manners, before hearing a greeting within. The Master appears in the doorway, offering a cordial, wide smile to her before turning and nodding to whomever he was conversing with. Lyra's heart rabbits in her chest.
Lord Asriel stands on his own, by a carved and gilded side table designed with with ball-and-claw feet and cavriole legs. Its surfaced marble.
He's an imposing figure, darkly bearded and no longer wearing his customary, handmade furs as Lord Asriel does in his travels. His expression goes from a haughty indifference, regarding the Master, and then changes as soon as he spots Lyra. It's an emotion that Lyra cannot place to memory. It's something impossibly vulnerable and soft. The corner of Lord Asriel's mouth twitches up.
Stelmaria mewls, her tawny eyes widened, gazing up at Pantalaimon as a hummingbird. He zips eagerly, carelessly over her nose.
Lyra rushes into the drawing room without thinking. She bounds to Lord Asriel, panting as if out of breath, and springs herself into his arms. He's much taller. It's no easy feat to reach him, but she's gladdened and Lord Asriel has never tried to kneel when they reunited. He would kneel for no-one. That's the truth.
Her voice strains longing and wistful, Lyra's hands grasping her own forearms as she hangs on desperately.
Lord Asriel slowly embraces her, tightening his arms and supporting her up, his lips pressing against Lyra's temple. He smells like oils and leather and the Master's brantwijn. And, oh, Lyra wants to stay like this. Forever. She doesn't need anything else.
(Except for Pantalaimon, and Roger, and iced blueberries sipped in light, sweet cream, Her favourite dessert at Jordan College.)
Lord Asriel readjusts his daughter clinging against him, his steely blue eyes on her. "Lyra, you cannot address me in that manner unless it is myself and the Master in the room. Only when the two of us are present," he warns her. "Do you understand?"
"Good girl." Lyra feels herself getting dropped promptly onto her own feet. "Hold still. Let me take a look at you."
As he inspects her, starting with her fingernails, appearing more and more chastising, a pluck of shyness drums through Lyra. "Filthy," Lord Asriel says, disapproving. He makes a grunt, running his weather-chapped hand through Lyra's dark brown strands. "Do you use a comb?"
"No, but Mrs. Lonsdale does," she mumbles ruefully. "It hurts."
"If you let your hair become a rat's nest—then yes, it will hurt," he answers, calm as calm can be. It's spoken like a matter of fact, and Lyra hates it. She wants to be like Pantalaimon. Turn into a million wild beasts and go where she pleases. Not have responsibilities. Or have to wash behind her ears. Or have to be buttoned into frilly, pink dresses and have tea with the senior Scholars.
Lord Asriel narrows his eyes, placing the back of his hand gently to Lyra's cheek. "You're warm."
"I was playing." She can feel another ugly coughing fit seated in her throat. Lyra tries to back away. "Can I be excused?"
"Good gracious, Lyra. Why is that?" the Master questions, also getting suspicious. Once her father shows up at Jordan College, it's damn near a miracle to separate Lyra from him. Every time. She desires nothing else but to convince the Master that her supper be brought to Lord Asriel's room, waiting impatiently to hear about his adventures and the persons he met during his exploration while up North.
She realises her mistake too late, stubbornly saying, "I promised Roger I w-would—" Her next inhale catches, violently expelling. Lyra begins to choke-cough. Before she knows it, Lord Asriel grabs onto her, sitting her firmly onto the side table, leveling her to him.
"Lyra!" Pantalaimon yells, and she can feel his blinding terror surging out—just as he can feel hers. "Lyra, are you alright?!"
"Take a breath, slow," Lord Asriel instructs, tilting her chin up. "Go slow. Take another breath for me."
She struggles, still coughing, but more faintly. Lyra feels like her whole body submerged into ice-cold water. Teeth chattering. Her dark eyes meet Lord Asriel's steel-bright blue, less terrified with him here. He cups her forehead, Lord Asriel's palm flattening to Lyra's burning-hot skin.
"She's ill." Lord Asriel drops his hand and stares accusatory at the Master, his teeth baring.
The other man seems genuinely confused. Alicia, the Master's raven daemon, squawks in aggravation as Stelmaria flashes her jaws, growling.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Lyra blinks rapidly, her vision increasingly spinning.
"Father…" she murmurs, weakly slumping in Lord Asriel's direction, passing out.
In the middle of regaining semi-consciousness, Lyra can tell she's being carried out, overhearing the Master giving orders Cousins and Lord Asriel shouting in a powerful and aggressive voice. She falls into the murkiness, rising back up.
They're undressing her—whoever they are—on a bed until she's left in her undergarments. No stockings or dirt-encrusted boots.
Pantalaimon makes small and whimpery noises, quivering, cuddling to Lyra's neck with his soft, warm fur.
He's so tired. She's tired.
Lyra needs to itch her collar-bone, but instead gags on the foul medicine they tip into her mouth. She forces a swallow, and thrashes wildly in place, as more hands and arms force her down, venting out her nausea and fear by releasing a monstrously loud shriek. "Lyra, stop! Stop!" Lord Asriel shouts over her, roughly pushing Lyra's dark, sweat-dripping bangs out of her face. "Stop this… you're going to be alright… …"
She wants to believe him, and then feels nothing.
Lyra has dreamed of living with her father. Countless times.
They would go North, hunting and pillaging and waging war, finding what needs to be found in order to make others respect them.
Eventually they would wander to the Kingdom of Clove Islands, and Arabia, and High Brasil, and Mejico, and befriend all of the powerful kings and queens and dictators until they all fell in love with her and Lord Asriel. Begged them to stay in their palaces and temples. Offered them wealth and immortality and secrets.
Lyra would find her mother, at last. Her mother would have beautiful, dark curls, and an adoring smile, and kiss her father's mouth like she loved him too.
It would all be perfect and happy, and no-one would ever leave Lyra again.
But when she wakes, Lyra finds herself at Jordan College.
She doesn't know the room, not with its peculiar, gold-glow lanterns, and overwhelming scent of dust permeating the air, and the mahogany break-front bookcase in the corner with fine matched veneers and Gothic glazing bars. It couldn't be the Master's.
Lyra pats over herself. Her fingertips smear with a gloss of medicinal ointment on her spider-bite. It doesn't feel itchy anymore.
Pantalaimon dozes on her pillow as a shorthair cat, his bluish-grey ears flicking. She can see Stelmaria with her gorgeous, silvery head on Lord Asriel's knee. Lord Asriel has crammed himself into an armchair beside Lyra's bed, stiffened up and with arms crossed. Both he and his daemon have their eyes shut. A loud snoring sound comes out of him, and Lyra's mouth perks up.
When a croak of a giggle escapes her, Stelmaria's head whips round, ears flattening. Her tawny eyes alert and pinning on Lyra.
Lord Asriel suddenly comes to, groaning.
"… Lyra," he mumbles.
"How long was I asleep for?" Lyra rubs her eye, holding back a yawn.
"Three days." At this, she halts and gawks open-mouthed at her father, Lyra's brow furrowing. "Your fever finally broke after the second night. No one was sure if you were going to live past the first."
Stelmaria bristles herself, exposing her fangs a little. "Asriel," she utters, like a reproach, and Lord Asriel's countenance softens.
It takes another moment, but he heaves out of his chair, situating himself to face Lyra, touching over the length of her neck as if feeling for her glands. Making sure they're no longer swollen. "What do you remember?"
"We…" Lyra shivers and rubs her other eye with a fist. "We were with the Master."
"Right before you fell to the worst of it, yes. I'm asking what you remember about becoming ill. They found toxins in your blood."
"I was playing. Outside." Pantalaimon, awake and extremely nervous, burrows himself into Lyra's hip, his long cat-tail curling protectively around himself. "With the gyptian children… in the claybeds… and the woods…" she adds, wincing. "I know I said I wouldn't again, but…"
"You need to be more careful," Lord Asriel says harshly. "This could have been much worse. You should start acting like a young woman."
Lyra's upper lip curls at the thought. "But you're not careful."
"Do not quarrel with me, child."
"But YOU go north and fight Tartars and—"
"That's enough. I'm your—" He struggles, and that's what Lyra remembers best when Lord Asriel first told her. It's been a year. She had been so resentful about deceiving her for so long. Even if it had been to protect her. But, over time, Lyra only wanted him to admit his parentage to her without slipping back his lies and coldness. "—I'm your father, Lyra, and you're too disobedient for your own good. Now, rest."
"Doesn't sound fun at all," Lyra mutters, pouting and flopping down backwards to the sheets. Oils and musk and Stelmaria's fur—this is Lord Asriel's guestroom. No wonder she didn't recognise it.
Lord Asriel lets out a tired, monotonous laugh, smiling.
"It's not supposed to be, Lyra."
He gazes over her further exaggerated pout, tickling her ankle and foot's sole. Lyra squirms, brightening, laughing with him. There's no better way to spend her early morning hours. She knows this more than anything.