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La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)
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0375815309 (ISBN13: 9780375815300)
Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .
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Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.
The inn was an old stone-built rambling, comfortable sort of place. There was a terrace above the river, where peacocks (one called Norman and the other called Barry) stalked among the drinkers, helping themselves to snacks without the slightest hesitation and occasionally lifting their heads to utter ferocious and meaningless screams. There was a saloon bar where the gentry, if college scholars count as gentry, took their ale and smoked their pipes; there was a public bar where watermen and farm laborers sat by the fire or played darts, or stood at the bar gossiping, or arguing, or simply getting quietly drunk; there was a kitchen where the landlord’s wife cooked a great joint every day, with a complicated arrangement of wheels and chains turning a spit over an open fire; and there was a potboy called Malcolm Polstead.
Malcolm was the landlord’s son, an only child. He was eleven years old, with an inquisitive, kindly disposition, a stocky build, and ginger hair. He went to Ulvercote Elementary School a mile away, and he had friends enough, but he was happiest on his own, playing with his dæmon, Asta, in their canoe, on which Malcolm had painted the name LA BELLE SAUVAGE. A witty acquaintance thought it amusing to scrawl an S over the V, and Malcolm patiently painted it out three times before losing his temper and knocking the fool into the water, at which point they declared a truce.
Like every child of an innkeeper, Malcolm had to work around the tavern, washing dishes and glasses, carrying plates of food or tankards of beer, retrieving them when they were empty. He took the work for granted. The only annoyance in his life was a girl called Alice, who helped with washing the dishes. She was about sixteen, tall and skinny, with lank dark hair that she scraped back into an unflattering ponytail. Lines of self-discontent were already gathering on her forehead and around her mouth. She teased Malcolm from the day she arrived: “Who’s your girlfriend, Malcolm? En’t you got a girlfriend? Who was you out with last night? Did you kiss her? En’t you ever been kissed?”
He ignored that for a long time, but finally rat-formed Asta leapt at Alice’s scrawny jackdaw dæmon, knocking him into the washing-up water and then biting and biting the sodden creature till Alice screamed for pity. She complained bitterly to Malcolm’s mother, who said, “Serves you right. I got no sympathy for you. Keep your nasty mind to yourself.”
From then on she did. She and Malcolm took not the slightest notice of each other; he put the glasses on the draining board, she washed them, and he dried them and took them back to the bar without a word, without a glance, without a thought.
But he enjoyed the life of the inn. He especially enjoyed the conversations he overheard, whether they concerned the venal rascality of the River Board, the helpless idiocy of the government, or more philosophical matters, such as whether the stars were the same age as the earth.
Sometimes Malcolm became so interested in the latter sort of conversation that he’d rest his armful of empty glasses on the table and join in, but only after having listened intently. He was known to many of the scholars and other visitors, and was generously tipped, but becoming rich was never an aim of his; he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm in later life. If he’d been the sort of boy who acquired a nickname, he would no doubt have been known as Professor, but he wasn’t that sort of boy. He was liked when noticed, but not noticed much, and that did him no harm either.
Malcolm’s other constituency lay just over the bridge outside the tavern, in the gray stone buildings set among green fields and neat orchards and kitchen gardens of the Priory of St. Rosamund. The nuns were largely self-sufficient, growing their vegetables and fruit, keeping their bees, sewing the elegant vestments they sold for keenly bargained gold, but from time to time there were errands a useful boy could run, or there was a ladder to be repaired under the supervision of Mr. Taphouse, the aged carpenter, or some fish to bring from Medley Pond a little way down the river. La Belle Sauvage was frequently employed in the service of the good nuns; more than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly. Malcolm learned a lot on these leisurely voyages.