Worlds Asunder

Chapter 5: Breaking Point

In the room set aside for her at Jordan College, Mrs. Lonsdale was helping Lyra dress for the gala. Lyra had received a letter a few days previously explaining that there was to be a celebration in honor of the late Lord Davenport who had set aside a large amount of money for the college in his will. The Master invited her to functions like this every now and again to remind her that she still had a place at Jordan, and she welcomed the excuse to return to her old home.

"Stand up straight, girl." Mrs. Lonsdale snapped, pulling the younger woman’s shoulders back roughly. Lyra rolled her eyes, but kept her back straight. Heaven forbid Mrs. Lonsdale should say anything reassuring like, "My you've grown into a fine young lady," or "Well now, isn't that a beautiful dress." It was as though she’d never left.

The dark blue gown slipped over Lyra's head and glided effortlessly into shape around her – the simplest part of the process. "What to do with that hair…" Mrs. Lonsdale tut-tutted, and proceeded to comb and pin Lyra’s curls into submission. Pan stayed in the corner of the room, avoiding all this nonsense. Lyra envied him. She knew he wouldn't say much for the next few hours. If only she had such freedom. They both hated parties.

As Lyra stood she caught a glimpse of something in the mirror. Taking a shaky breath, she recognized her reflection, barely. She had not often looked in a mirror these past four years – there was rarely a reason to. Now, instead of the gangly awkwardness of a growing body, she was tall and slender, with long golden hair and startlingly blue eyes. She stood staring for a moment, her old vanity resurfacing for a satisfying moment. She was rather beautiful, in a way she had never thought possible. Mrs. Lonsdale appeared behind her, shaking her head disapprovingly. But there was a glint of amusement in her eyes. "Stop gawking at yerself an' come get these shoes on."

When Lyra reached the tall oak doors that led to the ballroom, someone came up beside her and slipped an arm around her waist. "You look beautiful."
She snapped her head around in surprise, coming face to face with a young man. Instantly she relaxed. "Good evening, Simon.” His vixen daemon stood quietly alert by his feet.
His green eyes twinkled as he raised an eyebrow. “I thought the brave Lyra Silvertongue was above the celebratory practices of us mere mortals."

She swatted his shoulder playfully and then took his arm. “The Master invited me. I couldn’t very well say no. Though I’d rather be anywhere else.”
He raised the other eyebrow. “I may have to accept that invitation.” She rolled her eyes. Simon was so easy to be around. He was charming and funny, and Lyra had begun to suspect that he didn’t come to St. Sophia’s so often just to visit his sister Eileen.

As they entered the ballroom, there was an audible change in the atmosphere. The guests didn’t stop what they were doing and no one openly stared, but she could feel their curiosity and condemnation reaching out to her with smothering intensity. Her adventures had become well known, despite her reluctance to discuss them, and she was something of spectacle to many people. Some were awed by her achievements. Others judged her a heretic. Either way, she had become a much more important and influential person that she had ever expected, or wanted, to be. And while the young Lyra may have relished this attention, the older Lyra found it disconcerting and unwelcome. Simon led her quickly to the where the musicians were playing and swept her into a fast waltz.

"Thank you." She breathed, dropping her forehead to his shoulder in relief.
"My pleasure."

They danced through one song and into another, though Simon did most of the dancing with Lyra following along as best she could. Slowly, she noticed subtle changes in their posture. His hand, instead of pressing lightly into hers to lead, came around her fingers in a soft clasp. The other, which had been at her waist, slipped down to the small of her back, pulling her closer. When their bodies touched, just the slightest pressure of chest to chest, Lyra caught her breath. Gently, hesitantly, she laid her head on his shoulder. His breath stirred her hair, and he sighed. "Careful." Pan whispered in her ear. Simon was very close.

Sooner than she would’ve liked the music stopped. Couples around them clapped and continued their conversation while Lyra and Simon remained still, facing each other. She could feel Pan trembling with apprehension at her neck.

Then somebody coughed conspicuously behind her. Lyra came back to herself and snatched her hand from Simon’s. She turned and saw two young women standing several feet away. They approached her, one smiling, and the other looking contemptuously down a long nose. The smiling one, the younger of the two, stretched out her hand. “Martha Seymour.” She said, giggling. Her daemon, a goldfinch, fluttered nervously about her head. Lyra shook the girl’s hand as she continued to speak, “But of course, I already know who you are. Lyra Silvertongue. You’re an idol of mine, you know? I would love to go on such adventures. But of course, a lady would never – Not to say that you aren’t a lady. Of course you are! I only meant that any normal woman wouldn’t dream of –

“Oh, for pity’s sake Martha, do be quiet.” The elder of the two girls came forward. Lyra immediately stepped back. “Ignore my sister. She’s rather excitable. Anything can set her off.” Her eyes were a cold, harsh grey – the same color as her mockingbird daemon. “Even the lowest of celebrities.”

Lyra narrowed her eyes and felt Pan’s fur bristle. He hissed softly at the woman. The insult was hardly the worst she’d endured but her old fierce pride was provoked by such bald rudeness.
“Joan!” Martha looked horrified. “I’m sorry, Miss Silvertongue – er, Miss Belaqua. She didn’t mean –
“Oh, but I did.” Joan turned her back on Lyra. “Come along. We shouldn’t mingle with her sort.”

Simon started forward, his daemon’s ears flat against her head. “Now, see here, miss –
“What is my sort, exactly?” Lyra heard herself say. She was trembling, but she wasn’t quite sure why.
Joan turned back, her mouth turned down in the faintest of sneers. “Oh, you know – the thrill-seekers, the braggarts. Though, recently I’ve heard the most compelling evidence that suggests most of your story is some kind of pitiable delusion: the fantasies of a neglected child. And I must say, it’s cruel of your companions to perpetuate it. But I suppose what little fame they may taste from playing along is worth the–

There was a sharp crack as Lyra slapped her hard across the face. A few onlookers gasped. Without looking back, she turned away from their stunned expressions and walked briskly through the crowds and out of the red oak doors. As soon as she was outside she started to run.

How dare that woman accuse her like that! As if she could make it all up. That would really be a feat worth the name Silvetongue. But it had all happened. It was all real. It was wonderful and horrible and real.

Furious tears rolled down her face, her carefully pinned hair falling around her shoulders. She found herself at a pair of gates that led off the college grounds. She pulled at them frantically, but they held fast. Shrieking her frustration, she threw herself against the gates to no effect and sank to the ground, chest heaving.

A figure knelt beside her. It was Simon, of course. He pulled her into a strong embrace and she clutched his shoulders as she tried to compose herself. It took some time, but finally her fury subsided and she slumped against him. He held her, murmuring words of comfort against her hair. Their daemons lay beside each other, taking comfort in each other’s presence. She looked at Simon and, without hesitation, reached up and kissed him on the cheek. It was a sweet touch and lasted only a moment. When she pulled away he helped her stand. She turned to the gates again and, with steadier hands, was able to pull them open.

He started to follow her, but she turned and shook her head. "Go back, please. I’d like to be on my own for a while." He nodded, pulled her close and gently kissed her forehead. They lingered in each other's arms. He smiled. "Goodnight, Lyra."

She walked and walked and eventually found herself on a familiar path. It was dark, and the flowers and trees cast ghostly shadows at her feet. But even in the darkness she could still see their beauty, and it gave her comfort. She found the bench and sat, sighing heavily, as if the very air was weighing her down.

Joan Seymour’s accusations had awakened a fear she had been trying desperately to ignore. She was forgetting. Only little things, and most of them unimportant, but every missed detail, every forgotten moment was one less connection. She had to keep him with her. If she forgot things, she might even doubt some of them had actually happened – a path that would lead her to doubt her entire memory, her entire world. Such suspicions would drive her mad, she was sure of it. There was only one way she could see of truly putting her mind at ease. And it was completely impossible.

She loved Simon very much; he was her closest friend. But she longed for Will with every fiber of her being – a desire so fierce it racked her body with constant waves of sharpest pain. Desire to see him again, to feel his arms around her, to hear his voice. The slowly healing wound inside her was torn wide, the ache was so strong and all consuming she was afraid it would tear her apart. Pan flowed into her lap, shivering violently, and she hugged him tightly to her.

She wished and wished to be with Will again. She wished harder than she ever had before. She wanted to be in his world. She wanted to see him, to hold him, to kiss him. She shut her eyes tight and pictured herself in his world, his Oxford, on this very bench in his Botanic Garden.

As she wished for this with all the considerable strength of her soul, body, and ghost, she unconsciously slipped into the frame of mind she had once used to read the alethiometer. It had been used by Will, and Mary Malone, and described by the poet Keats. It was used throughout the worlds to communicate with shadows, Dust, angels, dark matter.

But just as her mind began to remember, her world faded away, and she sank into the depths of the universe.
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