This story is the fifth in a sequence which began with INTENTIONS and was continued in THREADS, THE KING’S COUNCILLOR and THE CLOCKMAKER’S BOY. I’d love it if you were to read those stories before this one because they make a continuing overall narrative when taken in order, but I will, as ever, understand it if you’d rather not. The synopses that follow are very compressed indeed and miss out lots of fun stuff. New readers start here:
In Intentions, the Subtle Knife is restored and passes from Will Parry to Giancarlo Bellini, and we first meet Lyra’s half-sister Elizabeth Boreal. Giancarlo takes the Knife to his home world of Cittagazze.
In Threads, it is ten years later. Will is a doctor, Lyra is an academic, and Elizabeth is the chairwoman of the powerful Boreal Foundation, which is trying to make a new Subtle Knife. Giancarlo Bellini and his adopted sister Guilietta return to Will’s world. Elizabeth’s accomplices Mr Greaves and Miss Morley try to take the Knife, but are foiled by Will and Giancarlo, aided by Mary Malone. Mr Greaves is killed and the Knife is finally destroyed.
In The King’s Councillor, Lyra Belacqua and Arthur Shire help to foil the Church in its plot to murder the King of England.
In The Clockmaker’s Boy, set approximately twenty years after Threads, we meet fifteen-year-old Peter Joyce, an apprentice at James and James in Oxford, where fine clocks and instruments are made and repaired. Around this time, the Gobblers reappear and Peter, who is learning alethiometry, Lyra and her gyptian friend Arthur Shire discover that Elizabeth and Miss Morley are taking children’s Dust to power a machine for travelling between the worlds. Lyra and Will are briefly reunited, but the meeting is bittersweet, as Will is now married. In the final struggle Miss Morley is killed by mysterious forces.
Now read on…
The Queen of the Night
"Der Holle Rache kocht in meinen Herzen,
Tod und Versweiflung flammet um mich her!"
It is during a geography lesson in her first term at St Sophia’s School, taken by the strict grey-haired Mrs Jessop, that Lyra’s first period begins. It is not long after her return from her adventures in the worlds, it is summer, and the flow of blood, unimpeded by any form of sanitary protection, stains her white cotton skirt a shameful bright red and, running down her right leg, leaves spots on the bare wooden floor of the classroom.
Lyra spent her childhood among male academics with only the occasional female servant in attendance. She received no advice, no warning, of the changes which her body would undergo as she grew up. In addition, she has a slight, boyish, figure and has spent the past few months in intense physical activity. Both of these factors tend to delay the onset of menstruation.
In many ways she is old beyond her years, but none of her experiences have prepared her for the shock of finding that a gaping wound has opened between her legs and that her life-blood is draining away from her. She raises her hand to attract Miss Jessop’s attention.
‘Please, Miss Jessop, may I be excused?’
Miss Jessop assumes that Miss Belacqua merely wishes to use the lavatory. The lesson has only a further ten minutes left to run and she finds interruptions of this kind intensely irritating, as well as disruptive to the smooth running of the class. If she permits Miss Belacqua to leave the classroom now, the whole lesson will be wasted, she feels. The wretched girl can wait. It will do her good – it will teach her to anticipate her physical needs and take proper measures in advance. Furthermore, Miss Belacqua is an unruly creature who needs to be taught how civilised people behave. It is significant that she has as yet made few friends at St Sophia’s.
‘Please! I need to see Matron.’
‘No, Miss Belacqua, you may not leave the room before the end of the lesson. Please concentrate on your work and do not disturb the class any further.’
‘Silence, or I will issue you with an order mark.’
This is too much for Lyra, who has defied much worse tyrants than Miss Jessop. She scoops her daemon Pantalaimon into her arms, rises from her desk and walks to the classroom door. She knows that Miss Jessop will be outraged, and she is prepared for this. She is not prepared for the whispers, stares and giggles of the other girls in her class who, more worldly than her, know immediately what has happened. She is not prepared for their unconcealed disgust, born of their own vulnerability and fear; nor for their hurtful remarks:
‘Ugh, how foul!’
Helen Berry, who sits in the next desk to Lyra, and has become, for no reason that Lyra can tell, her sworn enemy, calls out ‘She’s got the curse! The filthy Belacqua slut has got the curse!’
The class dissolves into howling disorder, well beyond Miss Jessop’s capability to control it. She cries out ineffectually, ‘Girls! Girls!’ as Lyra, burning with horror, shame and mortification, aware of her ignorance and hating herself for it, enduring the spiteful jeers of her classmates and unable to think of any suitable reply, leaves the room and walks slowly down the corridor, leaving a pitiful trail of red blood on its polished marble floor. She sobs in her misery and despair:
‘Oh no, no, no! Please, Pan, no!’
* * * *
Peter Joyce is in serious trouble this time. He has been caught sneaking back into the shop in the small hours after spending an evening of amorous dalliance with his girlfriend Jane. It was his mistress who heard him, rattling on the back-door latch, and who roused his master from his bed, confronting him as he stood in the shop, his squirrel-daemon Viola’s eyes glinting in the semi-darkness.
Had it been only his master who had discovered him there, little or nothing would have been said or done about Peter’s "crime". Master James is a mild man – though not to be treated in any way short of complete respect – and would have been content to overlook what is, to him, a minor misdemeanour. He was young once too, and it is entirely possible that he may, as an irresponsible youth, have evaded his father’s careful watch and spent a few illicit hours in the arms of one or another of his sister’s friends. Also, Peter is a talented young man, who will one day become a master craftsman. Master James will be happy to see the sign James and Joyce over the door of his clockmaker’s shop in Shoe Lane one day, when young Peter has proved himself worthy of a partnership in the business.
For Mistress James the position is different. She does not like Peter – too clever by half, she thinks – and resents the fact that he will one day usurp the position that should, by rights, have gone to her son Charlie, who died in infancy. Not only this; Master James is too absorbed in his business, and too distracted by its demands, to provide the satisfaction that she, a woman in her late forties and approaching her sexual peak, longs for. Peter did not even know that he had rejected her advances – or he despised them – and now he has found some silly little hussy to service instead. I could have taught him so much, Mistress James reflects. Now fortune has delivered him into her hands. If she cannot enjoy his pleasure, she will relish his pain.
‘Husband; you will have him flogged, I hope?’
‘My dear, that is hardly necessary.’
‘It is the punishment laid down by the Guild, I believe. Thirty-six strokes of the lash for breaking bounds. It is very clearly set out in the boy’s indentures that you will observe Guild Law in all matters of discipline.’
‘It is at my discretion, my dear.’
‘It is not when there are witnesses to his crime.’
‘They are not public witnesses.’
‘It matters not! Where is your professional integrity, my husband? Do members of the Guild of Temporalists customarily ignore their own rules and regulations if they think they can do so without being found out?’ Now she has him. Master James takes his professional obligations very seriously indeed.
‘Very well, my dear. You are right, as always. I will chastise him tomorrow in the shop, before breakfast.’
‘No, you will not! He will be formally punished tomorrow evening in full sight of all the members of our household, except for Emily, who will spend the night away from home with her friend Abigail. Guild Law requires it.’
‘Very well, my dear.’ Master James sighs. He will go easy on the lad. ‘And, as the Guild Law requires for crimes of this magnitude, he will not be punished by you, his master. I will select someone suitable myself.’
Oh yes. And there’s something else we can do, too. Mistress James has long suspected that Peter has certain fears, which she can exploit to her advantage.
At six o’clock, after a long, anxious, day, in which he has made many clumsy mistakes in his work for which his master has not had the heart to castigate him, Peter Joyce presents himself in the dining-room. The mahogany table has been moved against the wall and one of the dining chairs stands by itself in the centre of the room. The remaining chairs form a half-circle around it. There are three of them; one for Peter’s master, one for his mistress and one for the household’s maid-of-all-work Carrie, for whom the ceremony will be a salutary reminder of the way in which society is ordered in this world.
Peter removes his shirt as his master directs and kneels upon the isolated chair, his bare back pale in the candlelight. His arms and legs are tightly bound to it, restricting his movement. Viola takes her place underneath the seat of the chair. She will suffer the punishment equally with Peter, although she herself will not be subject to the lash. Peter wonders who will administer the punishment, and whether he will be able to endure it without crying out, or disgracing himself by involuntary urination, breaking of wind or defecation.
It is usual, though not mandatory, for a minister of religion to be brought in to carry out such disciplinary exercises. These men may be counted upon to be firm, yet merciful. It is also conventional to employ a short, light whip, with broad strips of a soft smooth material; for the intention is to punish and correct the offender, not scar and mutilate him.
Mistress James has decided to discard the bourgeois dictates of convention. She has found a cowhide; a four-foot long length of cured leather, supple, heavy, and stiff as a piece of birch, as was once used in the Republic of Texas for the control of male slaves, and it is to be wielded by Peter’s enemy Mr Elias Cholmondley, who works behind the counter in the shop and has long hated him. He is delighted to have been given the opportunity to express his enmity in so direct a fashion and leans against the wall, grinning broadly. When all the witnesses to the punishment have taken their places he steps forward, standing behind and to the left of the prone Peter, ready to begin. Mistress James nods, and he lifts the cowhide high above his head, bringing it down with whistling force across Peter’s unprotected back and shoulders. Peter’s body jerks convulsively as the whip strikes him and the chair’s front legs lift slightly from the floor for a moment before falling back.
Each blow of the cowhide cuts a long crimson gouge in Peter’s flesh. Each blow drives the breath from his body in a gasping sigh which, as the relentless succession of brutal lashes continues, turns into a scream of outraged agony. The blood flows freely from his ruined back and shoulders and falls on the sheet which has been put under the chair to protect the carpet. Carrie has buried her face in her apron and is weeping without surcease. Master James stares straight ahead, frozen-faced. Elias Cholmondley, whose teeth are bared behind his rictus grin, plies the whip with ever-increasing vigour, breaking the rhythm and placement of the lashes from time to time so that Peter can never be sure of where or when they will strike next. There is a substantial bulge in Mr Cholmondley’s trousers. It is clear that he is deriving considerable personal gratification from this particular activity. Mistress James’ hands rest in her lap.
At last, after a length of time than cannot be measured in minutes and seconds by even the most precise of clocks, the designated sentence has been carried out. Miraculously, Peter is still breathing, quick shallow breaths. The sheet below the chair is soaked in his blood and his daemon Viola is lying on her back, twitching randomly and blinking in and out of view. Mistress James is still not satisfied, however.
‘Mr Cholmondley, you may now do as you please.’
‘Thank you, mistress.’
Elias Cholmondley steps forward to the chair and, taking a sharp knife from his pocket, cuts through the waistband of Peter’s trews and down along the back seam. He pulls at the fabric from both sides, exposing the boy’s naked behind. Stepping back, Mr Cholmondley undoes his fly, revealing his erect penis, purple-veined and moist at the tip. He advances towards Peter and, separating his buttocks with both hands presses his member against the boy’s anus, thrusting hard and pitilessly into his rectum. Violated and dying, Peter screams, louder and more desperately than even he did under the cowhide:
‘Oh no, no, no! Please, Viola, no!’
* * * *
Doctor William Parry has been brought before the Ethics Committee of the British General Medical Council. He has been accused of a series of grave offences, involving professional incompetence and the betrayal of doctor-patient confidentiality. As his trial, for such it is in all but name, proceeds, he looks about him at the faces of his accusers and judges and sees only contempt or cold indifference.
He has never been a social doctor; he has never been able to become part of the back-slapping inner circle – those top consultants who know how to look after their own interests, and those of the other members of their coterie. Now it has come to haunt him – he has no one to support him and the offences of which he has been accused have in fact been committed by others, whose friends fill the room in which he sits.
(‘Is he a good doctor?’
‘Best of his year. But he didn’t get any prizes. Nobody noticed him.’)
Will’s position is hopeless, he knows. The situation at home is little better, so that there will be no consolation or relief for him when he finally leaves, condemned as he knows he will be, this Star Chamber of the medical profession and returns to Bristol. His wife Judy has left him, tired of his continuing dream-communication with the hateful Lyra Belacqua, whom she met and loathed on sight, only a few months previously. His son John has gone too, troubled and confused, unable to reconcile the intolerable strain that his parents’ failing marriage has put him under. They have spoken only rarely since and Will fears that they will soon lose contact for ever.
Only his daemon Kirjava is left to him, and she is elsewhere. It is not normal for cats, however darkly beautiful, to be admitted to hearings of the Ethics Committee of the GMC.
When the last damning piece of evidence has been read out, and Will has spoken his last useless words of defence, the chairman of the committee looks around the room, catching the eyes of his colleagues and acknowledging their unspoken messages of agreement.
‘There is, I think, no need for the Committee to withdraw for consideration or for us to consume any more valuable time in going over the details of this case. We are all agreed on our verdict, I am sure.
‘Doctor Parry, you have been judged by the Ethics Committee of the British General Medical Council to be guilty of gross professional misconduct. You are therefore struck off the roll, with immediate effect, and may no longer practise as a doctor in this country, or in any other country with which we have reciprocal arrangements. You will find, Parry, that this provision covers most of the countries in the world in which you might try to seek work.
‘However, it is our experience that many failed doctors do attempt to resume their practises, bringing resulting disrepute on the GMC and threatening the authority of our disciplinary decisions. Consequently, we routinely opt to apply a physical mandate to those whom we find to be guilty of the more serious breaches of our Code of Ethics, such as yourself. This mandate will be applied in your case.’
Wise heads nod around the table.
‘It is ironic, is it not, that the mandate has, to some small extent, already been carried out on you.’ The chairman permits himself a small laugh, which is discreetly echoed by his colleagues.
Will Parry, who is aware of the terms of the mandate and is not surprised to hear that it has been optioned in his case, bows his head towards the long table at which his ex-colleagues sit and leaves the room. A green-coated orderly is waiting for him by the door. He takes Will by the shoulder and guides him along a short passageway and into a small room, brightly lit, which is equipped with a high metal bench to which are fixed a pair of handcuffs. Will stands at the table and places his hands in the cuffs, which are tightened firmly over his wrists. The palms of his hands rest on a piece of wood which serves to raise them above the surface of the table and facilitate the operation which is about to be carried out.
There is no anaesthetic. The orderly takes a small surgical saw from the table and uses it to amputate Will’s remaining fingers and thumbs one by one, applying the flame from a small blowtorch, such as is used by chefs to make crème brulée, to each stump in turn to cauterise the wound, sterilising it and staunching the inconvenient flow of blood which would otherwise stain the table top and impede him in his work. In such a way does the GMC enforce the decisions of its committees and prevent those whom it finds guilty of professional misconduct from practising elsewhere.
The physical pain is terrible, but it pales in comparison with the mental anguish which Will is suffering:
‘Oh no, no, no! Please, Kirjava, no!’
* * * *
A coal has fallen from the grate in Professor Lyra Belacqua’s rooms in Jordan College and set fire first to the carpet, then the furniture and books with which her study is filled. Arthur Shire beats frantically at the door from the landing outside and eventually manages to push it open. As the door swings back, a gust of smoke and flame billows forth from the burning room beyond, enveloping him in grey-black fumes and orange fire. Arthur breathes in the burning embers, searing his lungs and sending him crashing to the floor, clutching his throat and crying out in pain.
Lyra is trapped in her bedroom – Arthur can hear her screaming to be rescued – and he is still trying to reach her, crawling on all fours, when the naphtha tank which fuels the cooker in her small kitchen explodes, showering him in flaming droplets, flash-burning his clothes and tearing his skin away from the underlying flesh. He looks up towards the ceiling and sees, walking through the roaring inferno which has filled the room, not Professor Lyra Belacqua but Maggie Doyle, her blazing hair crackling around her head, her skin peeling and blackening and falling away from her.
‘Hello Arthur, it’s me. Maggie! Your old flame!’
She cackles obscenely, and the hot air lifts up her skirt, revealing her private parts, from which a stream of putrescent corruption, mingled with the left-over remains of the prophylactics she used during her career as a Limehouse prostitute, dribbles down her legs, failing to extinguish the sparks which flicker over the charred remains of her feet.
Sickened with pain and horror, Arthur cries out:
‘Oh no, no, no! Please, Sal, no!’
* * * *
Lady Elizabeth Boreal is exhausted, breathing heavily, hunched over the apparatus on the elegant table in front of her, where she sits in the blue boudoir in her London flat. Outside it is dark, but she has not yet had the curtains drawn. She needs to maintain some contact with the outside world – reality, as it is called – when she is using the equipment which rests on the table, otherwise she fears that she would be drawn inside herself for ever and become like the staring cretins she sees when she makes her periodic visits to the Friern Barnet Asylum for the Insane.
Or perhaps like one of those strange, uncommunicative young men – secular theologians and programme developers – at the Boreal Research Institute near Abingdon, where this new and potent device was first created, at her special order and with no regard to expense.
She gazes out of the window into the darkness beyond, dotted with street lamps, but otherwise dim and quiet. It is the small hours of the morning, here in the flat near the Embankment which once belonged to her mother, Marisa Coulter.
The daemons are the key. The key to everything. The key to Elizabeth Boreal’s revenge.
Her own serpent-daemon Parander is coiled around the mechanism of the apparatus, compressed between its thermionic valves, gearwheels, axles, screens, canisters, transformers, batteries and condensers, a vital part of the machine, without which it would be no more than a collection of loosely connected anbaronic components. This close coupling between daemon and amplifier is essential for it to function.
Revenge. Revenge is all at the moment. All that she has, until she can find a way to win the war between her sister and herself. Lyra and Will and their associates communicate via dreams, do they? Then she will, because she can, take their dreams away from them, making them loathsome and full of fear and pain, and breaking the link which enables them to speak to each other across the impermeable gap between the worlds.
This brief pause has enabled Elizabeth and Parander to recover their strength. She bends again over the amplifier, and readies a new sending in her mind. Queen of Dreams, Queen of the Night, she will break them.
* * * *
Mary Malone is on holiday, driving a hired car down the steep mountain road that leads from the Highland cottage where she has been staying for a week’s walking and climbing, heading for the valley below and the village shop where she can pick up some bread, milk and butter, when the brakes fail…