But before he had the chance to do anything, the man bent and scooped up his cat dæmon and made off quite quickly down the towpath, as if he’d decided to go and get help. At once Malcolm backed the canoe out of the reeds and sped towards the spot under the oak tree where the man had been standing. A moment later he’d jumped out, holding the painter, and Asta in the shape of a mouse shot across the path and under the bush. A rustling of leaves, a silence, more rustling, more silence while Malcolm watched the man reach the little iron footbridge to the piazza and climb the steps. Then a squeak of excitement told Malcolm that Asta had found it, and squirrel-formed, she came racing back, up his arm and onto his shoulder, and dropped something into his hand.
“It must be this,” she said. “It must be.”
At first sight it was an acorn, but it was oddly heavy, and when he looked more closely, he saw that it was carved out of a piece of tight-grained wood. Two pieces, in fact: one for the cup, whose surface was carved into an exact replica of the rough overlapping scales of a real one and stained very lightly with green, and one for the nut, which was polished and waxed a perfect glossy light brown. It was beautiful, and she was right: it had to be the thing the man had lost.
“Let’s catch him before he gets across the bridge,” he said, and put his foot down into the canoe, but Asta said, “Wait. Look.”
She’d become an owl, which she always did when she wanted to see something clearly. Her flat face was looking down the canal, and as Malcolm followed her gaze, he saw the man reach the middle of the footbridge and hesitate, because another man had stepped up from the other side, a stocky man dressed in black with a light-stepping vixen dæmon, and Malcolm and Asta could see that the second man was going to stop the raincoat man, and the raincoat man was afraid.
They saw him turn and take a hasty step or two and then stop again, because a third man had appeared on the bridge behind him. He was thinner than the other man, and he too was dressed in black. His dæmon was a large bird of some kind on his shoulder. Both of the men looked full of confidence, as if they had plenty of time to do whatever they wanted. They said something to the raincoat man, and each took one of his arms. He struggled for a futile moment or two, and then seemed to sag downwards, but they held him up and walked him across the bridge, into the little piazza below the church tower, and away out of sight. His cat dæmon hurried after them, abject and desperate.
“Put it in your insidest pocket,” Asta whispered.
Malcolm put the acorn into the inside breast pocket of his jacket and then sat down very carefully. He was trembling.
“They were arresting him,” he whispered.
“They weren’t police.”
“No. But they weren’t robbers. They were sort of calm about it, as if they were allowed to do anything they wanted.”
“Just go home,” said Asta. “In case they saw us.”
“They weren’t even bothering to look,” said Malcolm, but he agreed with her: they should go home.
They spoke quietly together while he paddled quickly back towards Duke’s Cut.
“I bet he’s a spy,” she said.
“Could be. And those men—”
The CCD was the Consistorial Court of Discipline, an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and unbelief. Malcolm didn’t know much about it, but he knew the sense of sickening terror the CCD could produce, through hearing some customers once discuss what might have happened to a man they knew, a journalist; he had asked too many questions about the CCD in a series of articles and had suddenly vanished. The editor of his paper had been arrested and jailed for sedition, but the journalist himself had never been seen again.
“We mustn’t say anything about this to the sisters,” said Asta.
“Specially not to them,” Malcolm agreed.
It was hard to understand, but the Consistorial Court of Discipline was on the same side as the gentle sisters of Godstow Priory, sort of. They were both parts of the Church. The only time Malcolm had seen Sister Benedicta distressed was when he’d asked her about it one day.
“These are mysteries we mustn’t inquire into, Malcolm,” she’d said. “They’re too deep for us. But the Holy Church knows the will of God and what must be done. We must continue to love one another and not ask too many questions.”
The first part was easy enough for Malcolm, who was fond of most things he knew, but the second part was harder. However, he didn’t ask any more about the CCD.
It was nearly dark when they reached home. Malcolm dragged La Belle Sauvage out of the water and under the lean-to at the side of the inn and hurried inside, his arms aching, and raced up to his bedroom.
Dropping his coat on the floor and kicking his shoes under the bed, he switched on the bedside light while Asta struggled to pull the acorn out of the insidest pocket. When Malcolm had it in his hand, he turned it over and over, examining it closely.
“Look at the way this is carved!” he said, marveling.
“Try opening it.”
He was doing that as she spoke, gently twisting the acorn in its cup without any success. It didn’t unscrew, so he tried harder, and then tried to pull it, but that didn’t work either.
“Try twisting the other way,” said Asta.
“That would just do it up tighter,” he said, but he tried, and it worked. The thread was the opposite way.
“I never seen that before,” said Malcolm. “Strange.”
So neatly and finely made were the threads that he had to turn it a dozen times before the two parts fell open. There was a piece of paper inside, folded up as small as it could go: that very thin kind of paper that Bibles were printed on.
Malcolm and Asta looked at each other. “This is someone else’s secret,” he said. “We ought not to read it.”
He opened it all the same, very carefully so as not to tear the delicate paper, but it wasn’t delicate at all: it was tough.
“Anyone might have found it,” said Asta. “He’s lucky it was us.”
“Luckyish,” said Malcolm.
“Anyway, he’s lucky he hadn’t got it on him when he was arrested.”
Written on the paper in black ink with a very fine pen were the words:
We would like you to turn your attention next to another matter. You will be aware that the existence of a Rusakov field implies the existence of a related particle, but so far such a particle has eluded us. When we try measuring one way, our substance evades it and seems to prefer another, but when we try a different way, we have no more success. A suggestion from Tokojima, although rejected out of hand by most official bodies, seems to us to hold some promise, and we would like you to inquire through the alethiometer about any connection you can discover between the Rusakov field and the phenomenon unofficially called Dust. We do not have to remind you of the danger should this research attract the attention of the other side, but please be aware that they are themselves beginning a major program of inquiry into this subject. Tread carefully.
“What does it mean?” said Asta.
“Something to do with a field. Like a magnetic field, I s’pose. They sound like experimental theologians.”
“What d’you think they mean by ‘the other side’?”
“The CCD. Bound to be, since it was them chasing the man.”
“And what’s an aleth—an althe—”
“Malcolm!” came his mother’s voice from downstairs.
“Coming,” he called, and folded the paper back along the same creases before putting it carefully back in the acorn and screwing it shut. He put it inside one of the clean socks in his chest of drawers and ran down to start the evening’s work.
Saturday evening was always busy, of course, but today conversation was subdued: there was a mood of nervous caution in the place, and people were quieter than usual as they stood at the bar or sat at their tables playing dominoes or shove-ha’penny. In a moment of pause, he asked his father why.
“Shh,” said his father, leaning over the bar. “Those two men by the fire. CCD. Don’t look now. Mind what you say near them.”
Malcolm felt a shiver of fear that was almost audible, like the tip of a drumstick drawn across a cymbal.
“How d’you know that’s what they are?”
“The colors of his tie. Anyway, you can just tell. Watch other people around them— Yes, Bob, what can I get you?”
While his father pulled a couple of pints for a customer, Malcolm gathered empty glasses in a suitably inconspicuous manner, and he was glad to see that his hands remained steady. Then he felt a little jolt of Asta’s fear. She was a mouse on his shoulder, and she had looked directly at the men by the fire and seen that they were looking at her, and they were the men from the bridge.
And then one of them beckoned with a crooked finger.
“Young man,” he said. He was addressing Malcolm.
Malcolm turned his head and looked at them properly for the first time. The speaker was a stoutish man with deep brown eyes: the first man from the bridge.