“How would you describe Mr. Coulter’s disposition at that time?”
“I would say the man was distraught.”
“Did he speak to you?”
“Yes, he said: ‘What have you done with her, you devil?’ Of course I assumed he was referring to his wife, and I was about to suggest he go home and ask her himself, but then the baby started crying upstairs. She shouldn’t even have been in the house. He lost interest in me at once—I realized it was her he was after.”
“And that was when you saw he was armed?”
“Yes. He took a revolver from his jacket and made a dash for the staircase, saying he would kill both me and my daughter.” At the word ‘daughter’ a quiet rumble of opprobrium moved through the courtroom, which Lord Asriel seemed not to hear. “I leaped on him, took hold of his arm. I beat it against the stair until he dropped the gun. He slammed his forehead into my face,” Lord Asriel continued, making a slight disdainful gesture to indicate his disfigured profile. “Then he grabbed it in his left hand and fired.”
“Did he hit you?”
“He hit my wall.”
“Were you aware at the time that Mr. Coulter was right handed?”
“I had begun to suspect it, yes,” said Lord Asriel dryly.
“Yet you still believed him to be such a threat that deadly force was necessary?”
“Frankly, yes, I did. Need I remind you he was trespassing on my lands, destroying my property, terrorizing my tenants and staff, and had threatened the life of my infant daughter?” Until now his anger had been obscured behind a veneer of terse courtesy. Only one person at the inquest was aware of how soon it would slip. “Whatever this court chooses to claim in hindsight, the responsibilities of my station require me to defend my household by whatever means I consider to be necessary, and fundamental human decency dictated that I protect my only child from a hysterical madman—“
“This is very much out of order—“
“Hypocrisy and obfuscation! I would have been within my rights to tear him limb from limb and throw the pieces to my dogs—”
A moan was heard from the assembly, caught in the briefest pause while Lord Asriel drew breath. It was the widow, seated on the front row center aisle, her slender black-gloved hands pressing her veil to her reddened face. She was trembling. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, and her sad voice was like music. “I think perhaps I’d better…”
“Of course, Mrs. Coulter. Please, there’s no need for her to hear this, is there?” a bailiff interceded, offering her his hand.
“No, she may be excused.” The judge was glaring at the defendant as he spoke. He was disturbed to see the look of contempt Lord Asriel wore as he observed the tears of the woman he’d once loved. A very strange man, he concluded uncomfortably, noting the exotic snow leopard dæmon, all watchful impassivity, the two of them together almost too large for the dock. Mrs. Coulter was a charming girl, he thought, watching her delicate steps as she allowed herself to be escorted from the courtroom, her grip light and chaste on the bailiff’s arm. It was a shame to see her mixed up in such a sordid business. He was sorry to think it of a peer of the realm, but Lord Asriel, by contrast, seemed almost inhuman.
In the hallway, Mrs. Coulter begged to be left alone. She only needed a moment to recover her composure, she insisted, and though she thanked the bailiff for the kindness he had shown her, it would be easier now if she had a little privacy. Her monkey dæmon stood on her lap, holding her hunched shoulders, nodding at the bailiff as if to reassure him that all was well in hand. After obtaining a promise that he would be sent for at once should she need anything more, the bailiff returned reluctantly to his post.
The monkey laid his small black hand over his woman’s heart and felt it fluttering.
“You’re making a scene,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “It’s to be expected.” He opened his mouth to argue, but she shushed him sharply. “Watch the door.”
“Marisa…” he protested, but her eyes were already closed, and she had crossed her legs tightly, and her upper knee was rocking under her narrow skirt, jostling him in her lap. Her expression was one of profound concentration. Her lips parted in a whimper. Her gloves were stretched taut over her knuckles where she gripped the edge of the bench. He examined her critically for a moment: she would expect feedback on her performance. In her black velvet suit and pearls, with the modest black veil pulled low, her shudders looked for all the world like sobs. Only the slight change in the smell of her body could have given her away. That was something no one but a scent-hound dæmon would be likely to notice, but the monkey took pride in being her most attentive observer.
“He’ll be thinking the same thing, you know,” he reminded her. "Stelmaria couldn't take her eyes off you."
“Let’s go and see him. This afternoon.”
Much of Lord Asriel’s Oxfordshire estate had been closed off and the servants dismissed, but faithful Thorold was still there to open the door when she knocked. Asriel preferred an empty house these days, and the manservant’s duties, never strictly confined by convention in any case, had broadened to encompass some minor housekeeping in the absence of a full staff. Marisa enjoyed the look of undisguised horror with which he greeted her. She had come prepared to handle him, and before he could speak she seized her chance. “Oh, dear,” she said in a tone of gentle disappointment. “He never told you to expect me this evening, did he?”
“Mrs. Coulter. No, his lordship certainly did not,” he said stiffly, but he didn’t shut the door. He was looking behind her for her driver but found nothing: she had driven herself, in Edward’s car, and parked it out of sight.
Thorold was the only person on Earth whose love for Asriel could have rivaled her own, and he was intimately aware of the man’s peculiarities, which gave Marisa a great deal of leverage. She nodded, letting a thoughtful smile play on her sad face. “He’s so proud, isn’t he? Perhaps he couldn't bring himself to mention it. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised.” So much for commiseration, now for sympathy. “Then again I suppose it’s possible he forgot me altogether. It wouldn’t be the first time. But he did ask me to come, Thorold, I promise you.”
His pinscher dæmon, Anfang, was too well-bred to bare her teeth at a lady, but her ears were back and her tail was low: a warning posture. There was no question that she was unwelcome in this house. So much the better. “Madam—“ Thorold began.
“No, no, please don’t turn me away. His lordship is expecting me, and I would very much like to see him. If he’s changed his mind he can always chuck me out himself.”
Persuaded if not convinced, the servant showed her to the front parlor where a merry fire had been lit. Garlands of fir boughs were hung around the doorways in honor of the Christmas season, and the heavy drapes were drawn against the cold. Breathless with anticipation, Marisa removed her hat and gloves, pinched her cheeks, bit her lips, and let the monkey fluff her hair.
She could hear Asriel’s raised voice as soon as he learned she had come, his library door slamming shut, his tread unusually heavy on the stair. Thorold was apologizing. Asriel said something brusque and exculpatory, no doubt assuring him that she was the sole responsible party, followed by a harsh staccato series of one-syllable words further impugning her general character. She felt warm, and undid the topmost buttons of her blouse. She used to think his temper frightened her, but now she recognized the feeling for something quite different. He suddenly flung the door open and his fury filled the room.
“What in Hell’s name d’you think you’re doing here?”
His fierce eyes were on fire as he glowered down at her from his full height; his fists were clenched and his shoulders hunched menacingly. No amount of antagonism could induce him to strike her—that she knew from experience—but he wasn’t above other forms of violence if she supplied the necessary pressure. Her heart was racing at the thought of it. She raised her chin and turned her head, showing him her profile, and sighed, aiming for exasperation but nearly careening into panic.
“It's nice to see you, too, Asriel.”
“Well? What have you got to say for yourself? You’d better say it and get out.”
“There’s something I wanted to ask you.”
“Oh? Something that couldn’t be asked at the inquest? You put on quite a performance for them in there today! You grieve very prettily, Marisa. I think you almost had the entire courtroom convinced you loved your husband. They were eating from the palm of your hand.”
“But not you.”
He laughed bitterly, with more confidence than he had any right to. “Never me.”
A sidelong glance told her he had noticed her bare breastbone, misted with sweat, the slight panting that betrayed her excitement. His fingers were twitching. He wanted her flesh in his hands, she knew, but whether to adore or destroy she didn’t dare to guess.
With a quiet growl in his throat he rounded on her, his arms shot toward her suddenly, and for an exhilarated moment she thought he might finally kill her, but instead he clasped her head in his hands and pulled her mouth to his, and it was no less an attack. His kiss was violent, so demanding he left her little opportunity to reciprocate, and when he at last pulled away his expression was tense and furious, brows knitted in a desperate question. He pushed the hair back from her forehead to see her face better. His lips were glistening with her spit. He was lost.
She laughed in his face.
He ripped open her blouse, not just popping the buttons and seams but rending the fabric itself, making certain to damage it beyond repair. Their days of subterfuge were gone forever. He was sucking her throat now, her shoulders, her breasts, almost too roughly to enjoy it—he was doing it only to hurt her, bruising her on purpose, tiny blood vessels were breaking under his tongue; he was dropping kisses on her skin the way a plane drops bombs on a town. She slapped him in the ear, making his head ring, and in response he hugged her tightly, pinning her arms to her sides. With his free hand he reached under her skirt, felt for her cunt, and found it dripping.
Still holding her arms down, he fingered her in astonishment. “Soaking wet, Marisa,” he muttered into her shoulder, and then bit her. “You’re depraved.”
She didn’t even try to deny it. She was grasping at his fingers helplessly, trying to hold or to expel him: either effort would be equally pitiable, since he always did exactly what he pleased. When he looked into her face her lip was curled in a sneer, and he stroked her until it faltered and her eyes fluttered closed.
“Have I answered your question?”
When he removed his hand from her it was covered with blood. “You might have said something,” he remarked, taken aback.
“You really never gave me the chance.”
Asriel laughed, shaking his head, and stuck his first and middle fingers in his mouth to suck them clean, followed by his thumb. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, wiping his palm carelessly on his shirt. “Come here.”
She shrugged off the tatters of her blouse and approached him like a sleepwalker. As soon as her shoulders were in reach he yanked the straps of her brassiere down to her waist, fumbling with the clasp at her back for a moment before losing patience and wrenching it apart.
“What am I supposed to wear home?” she sniffed. “If you ruin all my clothes?”
“Hardly my concern, is it?”
“Yes, of course not. How could I forget? You never spare a second thought for the things you break.”
“Nor do you.”
“What do you mean by that?” she demanded, but his eyes had darkened: the blinds were drawn, he wouldn’t answer, which told her all she needed to know. He was kissing her breasts more tenderly now, kneeling and pulling her down, kneading them with bloodstained hands.
“There are still one or two things of yours upstairs,” he said.
“I’m surprised you didn’t burn them.”
“Perhaps I should have. It’s not too late. I’ll call for Thorold right now to—“ She hit him in the face, first with one hand, then the other, so that he ducked his head a little and let her shove him to the floor. Her forearm was pressed under his throat like a blade.
“Don’t, you bastard. Don’t.”
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t throw you out of here.” His voice was a rough wheeze now; he was choking.
“You won’t.” She leaned into her arm, bracing the wrist with her other hand, making him gasp for breath. He stared up at her defiantly with watering eyes, and remembered her lack of self-control, her destructive nature, her propensity for tearing things apart just to see whether they would die. She would not stop unless he stopped her, and he would not give her the satisfaction of struggling. He had done murder and gladly borne the world’s disapprobation—let her bring the same upon herself, if she dared.
It was his dæmon who broke the deadlock, abruptly seizing the monkey in her jaws and shaking him violently as if to snap his neck. Marisa flinched, shrinking back as the leopard dropped the monkey and lunged at her with a snarl. Asriel rolled away coughing. The monkey had fled to the top of a wardrobe, out of reach, where he was perched like a wary gargoyle.
Asriel laughed harshly. “Did you come here to fuck me or to kill me?”
“Are those my only options?” she answered, getting nimbly to her feet, half-naked and haughty.
“Then I haven’t decided.”
“Get this off while you make up your mind.” He was behind her, hands at her waist, yanking her zipper open, and she heard the teeth break apart in his hands. The skirt pooled around her ankles and he marched her out of it, a few steps to a wingback chair, bending her over its leather-upholstered arm. The seat was smooth and cool on her flushed cheek. He crouched behind her, between her outstretched legs. Hands easy and possessive on her hips, he spread her and began to lick.
“Hm,” he muttered.
“What was it like to murder him?”
“Don’t be disgusting.” He tugged at the lip of her cunt with his teeth.
“Please. I want to know.”
He sat back on his heels with his hands in his lap, and she looked over her shoulder to see his familiar scowl, his dark brows drawn low, blood in his beard. If his dæmon could ever kill mine, she thought, this is how her face would look. The monkey must have sensed something of this, for he stared down at her in horror, and she smiled at him, picturing him swooning, eviscerated, dead.
“You heard everything at the inquest today,” Asriel said quietly. “What more could you want to know?"
“Were you frightened?” she asked him. Stelmaria’s tail was flicking uneasily, but she only lay sphinx-like at the foot of the wardrobe, watching Marisa with half-lidded eyes.
“No,” he said at last.
“Not at all?”
“Not for a moment.” He smiled a little. “I was ecstatic. I’d been waiting years to have it out with him.”
“Not for me?”
“You weren’t in immediate danger.”
“For the baby?” Asriel sighed. “When he threatened Lyra I was angry. Like never before in my life, nor since. Not even with you.” He lay a hand on her rear. His thumb rubbed her cunt absently, as if scrubbing at something smeared on it. “That was when I knew I would kill him.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Belacqua, you devil, you fucking bastard, what have you done?’” He was touching her the same way he might thumb through the pages of a book. “‘The only thing I ever cared about. How could you?’ he said.”
“Was he shouting?”
A slight hesitation, and then the ugly truth. “He was sobbing.”
“What did you say?”
“I asked him how he ever thought he could control a woman like you. ‘You married a scorpion,’ I said. ‘You brought this on yourself.’ I told him I didn’t believe he never knew, and that he was no better than a pimp, he made it so easy for us.”
“You’re sure you want to hear this?”
“He said, ‘You’ll die for this. You and that whelp of yours.’ Then he showed me his revolver.” Marisa exhaled slowly, long and shuddering, and Asriel looked again at his hand still playing with her cunt. Blood had crusted in the lines of his palm, but his fingers where he’d been touching her were slick with clear mucus, streaked with pink. “I charged him and caught him by the wrist,” he continued, stepping back to unfasten his dirty cuffs.
“Don’t stop,” she whined, dropping her head on her arms.
“Patience… I hurled him into the staircase, held him down, but he wouldn’t drop the bloody revolver. I still had his arm, and I brought it down on the edge of the stair. Good solid marble… He soon let go.” There was an unmistakable smirk in Asriel’s voice now. As he spoke he draped his shirt and waistcoat over the back of the armchair. She could smell sweat and blood on them as a sleeve grazed her cheek.
“The coroner said every bone in his wrist was shattered… Did he speak?”
“No. He screamed.” No hesitation now. The trousers fell on the chair back, and he hunched over her, hot breath on her spine, his loose forelock tickling her shoulder. She felt the blunt head of his cock bumping her experimentally. He was smearing it in her, getting it wet. “Edward slammed his head hard into mine. Broke my nose. I fell away…”
His cock slid into her then, impossibly smooth, and he let it rest there for a moment, silent, intruding, hard and heavy as iron.
“That was when he shot at me,” he said at last, and began a lazy rhythm. “He missed, of course. His left hand was weak, and by this time he was shaking like a leaf. The bullet’s… still in my wall…”
“You took his gun.”
“Yes. Get on the floor.”
He stepped away from her, stroking himself slowly while she climbed off the chair, his expression strangely distant, lost in recollection. Her blood was matted in his pubic hair, his red penis like a murder weapon. She lay loose and face-up on his beautiful carpet, and he lifted her hips in the air and fucked her upright on his knees.
“Did he beg—for his—life?” Marisa asked breathlessly, half her weight on the backs of her shoulders where the skin was hot from friction.
“No.” There was a light sheen of sweat on Asriel’s forehead. His eyes were closed and he was frowning. He was losing focus, she thought. He can’t come until he finishes the story. “Actually he had a certain dignity at the end.”
“Lie back,” she demanded, and leaned over him with her hands on his shoulders. She pushed the hair out of his eyes. “Look at me. What happened next?”
“He…” Asriel blinked, swallowed, started again, recovering the ruthless poignard stare that always pierced her soul. “He said, ‘Shoot me. I don’t care. You killed me the first time you had her.’”
Marisa groaned, approaching to the precipice, radiant with tension, a revolver with his finger on the trigger. She held his head in her hands, pressed their faces together. She said the words into his bloodstained mouth. “And you did.”
“In the face—”
“His blood…” she began, but suddenly his strong arms clenched around her, cutting off her breath.
“…Everywhere,” he said, and then whimpered like a child, and she felt him shooting into her, hard: felt the throb of it inside, the flood of heat.
“What did it feel like…?” she whispered.
“Joy,” he whispered back, and pleasure was exploding in her. He held her, rocking her softly all the while, though she thrashed the same way she had when they fought. His teeth were resting lightly around her throat. It was like the throat of a corpse.
As if awakening from a dream, he pulled away from her, frightened by the stranger in his arms. She had been his twin, their love had changed the course of his life as a wildfire changes a forest. This woman was like a shadow, a gravestone for where beauty had once been. He could find no tenderness in her now. She had hidden herself from him. It was unbearable.
Her smile was incalculably cruel. She’d had from him exactly what she wanted.
Red and brown flowers were blooming beneath her on the cream-colored carpet. His hands and face and belly were flecked with rust. There was no way to wash without leaving the parlor. It would be no use trying to hide what they had done.
“I’ll have Coulter blood spilled in every room of my house,” he said grimly, turning away from her as he dressed.
She flung her shredded blouse at his back. “That had better not be a threat,” she said sharply.
“Take mine,” he said, giving her the shirt he'd just put on. “Better you don’t stay and find out.”
“Nothing you could ever do would make me stay here."
Stelmaria stood before the wardrobe still, staring up with longing at the monkey who was crouched at the top. He was reaching out to her, but didn’t dare climb down. Without a backwards glance, Asriel left the parlor, so abruptly that the snow leopard cried in pain as she fled after him.
Getting shakily to her feet, Marisa took the monkey in her arms and placed him gently in the armchair, and he collected the shreds of gray silk and wiped at her legs with them before tossing the ruined blouse into the fire. Her skirt wouldn’t zip but it still fastened at the waist. Asriel’s shirt was warm from his body. As she buttoned it she heard the parlor door open.
An acerbic remark was on the tip of her tongue but she bit it back: it was Thorold, an apron pinned over his suit front, with a brush in one hand and a bucket in the other. His eyes grew wide, taking in her disheveled appearance and the blood around the room without comment in the moment before his shallow bow obscured his face.
“Pardon me, Madam. I thought you might already have gone.”
She could feel the hot blush rising in her cheeks, but she refused to be humiliated by him or any man. This mess was Asriel’s doing, not hers, not really. With a cool jerk of her head she bade the servant enter, and ignored him as he knelt at her feet and began to scrub, emitting a warm smell of bleach, his pinscher dæmon sniffing the carpet with a whine. Marisa buttoned her black velvet jacket, slipped her feet into her shoes, put on her gloves and hat as if she were alone.
“I’ll get my own coat,” she informed him from the doorway.
“Very good, Madam.”
A bubble of fire popped in her chest and rage breathed flame into her heart. Without a word she walked back to where the old man knelt at his work. Seething, she delicately placed the tip of her shoe on the aluminum rim of the bucket. In a way she and Thorold had always been allies: her wellbeing had become his business because his master had loved her. Now he looked up at her, surprised and uncomprehending.
With a snarl she emptied the bleach into his lap.