Lyra feels much better with a goal, so she throws herself into chores on the boat. She doesn't notice that the Costas watch closely for signs that anyone is unusually interested in her, as they know that the Oblation Board is looking for her. Tony hears gossip in pubs that the Board is conducting raids with no explanation, and it's rumored that they're after a girl—which is odd, as they've taken no interest in all the other missing children. Because of this, Lyra must stay below when they pass inhabited areas. Ma Costa even hides Lyra in a secret compartment while police search their boat. Despite these setbacks, the Costas' boat approaches the wild fens, a swampy wilderness where East Anglia meets Holland.
Again, hearing that the Oblation Board is after Lyra but hasn't pursued the other children's disappearances shows that they don't think that the gyptian or poor children are worth the resources to look for; Lyra, as a highborn child and as Mrs. Coulter's adoptive daughter, is far more valuable. The gyptians' willingness to hide Lyra speaks to their sense of responsibility to humanity as a whole, despite their status as an oppressed minority. They believe that all children are worth saving, even ones that are very different from them.
The Costas' boat and a thousand other gyptian boats head for an ancient meeting hall, the Zaal, in the middle of the fens. Lyra listens to the gyptian legends and picks up words in the Fen-Dutch gyptian dialect. One afternoon, Ma Costa reminds Lyra that she's not actually gyptian: she's made of fire, while gyptians are water people. Lyra doesn't take this as a compliment and doesn't understand why it should be. The Costas reach the Zaal by evening and Ma Costa cooks eels for dinner. Tony has a drink in a bar and returns with the news that the Roping—the meeting—is tonight, and there are rumors that Lyra is with gyptians and will be there. He laughs and Lyra feels hopeful.
For Lyra, her youth means that it's easier for her to experiment with different identities and toy around with acting like a gyptian child. Ma Costa, however, suggests that something about a person's identity is far more set in stone than what Lyra would like to think. This indicates that while Lyra and Pan may still be in a transformative and experimental state, there's something in them that's already settled, and in some ways, they're just working toward reaching that.
As Tony and Ma Costa lead Lyra to the Zaal, people stare and point. They enter the craggy old hall and squeeze in on the side. Eight men step onto a platform and seven sit in carved wooden chairs. Tony whispers that the standing one is John Faa. John Faa welcomes the gyptians, states the purpose of the meeting, and says that anyone who wants to give Lyra to the police and cash in on the thousand-sovereign reward can leave. Then, he states what they know: the Gobblers are taking gyptian and "landloper" children to the North. They don't know exactly what happens, but they know that the police and the clergy facilitate this. He proposes that they send a rescue expedition.
The relationship between the police and the clergy reminds the reader again that the Magisterium is far-reaching and holds sway in all sorts of government agencies. This also explains why no authorities have bothered to look for missing children; in addition to simply not caring about the gyptian or poor “landloper” children, they've likely been ordered not to look. John Faa's defense of Lyra confirms that the gyptians feel a sense of obligation to make life better for everyone, not just themselves.
One man stands and asks if they're supposed to rescue landloper kids too. John Faa says it'd be cruel to leave them; they're innocent. He asks for the assembly's blessing, and they all roar their approval. John Faa asks the families to raise a tax and to return in three days. After he dismisses everyone, Ma Costa points out who the other men on the platform are and specifically mentions Farder Coram, an extremely old man. Tony takes Lyra to speak to John Faa, and Lyra feels extremely shy knowing that she's worth so much money. John Faa shakes Lyra's hand warmly and then leads her into a big room with Farder Coram. Lyra is scared of the shaky old man.
The man who dissents here makes it clear that while the general gyptian belief may be that all humans are worthy of care and help, the group isn't a monolith—people still have the ability to choose how they behave and how they think of their role in the wider world. Lyra's shyness with John Faa is something that speaks to her growing maturity, as she recognizes that he's doing something dangerous for what seems like an entirely moral reason.
Lyra tells John Faa about running away from Mrs. Coulter, who she says is one of the Gobblers. She says that Mrs. Coulter didn’t realize that Lyra knows children who were taken, and she shares what she knows about Grumman's head and Lord Asriel's work, and states her intention to rescue him. She tells them everything she can remember about Lord Asriel's visit and about Dust, and specifically about the special photographs of the city in the Aurora. John Faa says that Farder Coram is a wise seer; he's been following the Gobblers and Lyra herself for years. Anxiously, Lyra insists that she never would've pulled the bung on the Costas' boat, which makes the men laugh. They assure her that she's not in trouble.
That Lyra goes immediately to fearing that John Faa and Farder Coram are going to punish her for stealing the narrowboat draws the reader back towards thinking of Lyra as naïve, rather than a child who's wise beyond her years. When she doesn't understand that Farder Coram may have a number of other reasons to be keeping an eye on Lyra, it shows how narrow her perspective still is and makes her seem even younger.
John Faa asks Lyra if she knows where she came from. Dazed, Lyra says that her parents died in an airship accident, but John Faa says this isn't true: her father is Lord Asriel. He says that both Lord Asriel and Lyra's mother were passionate, impulsive people, and they fell in love immediately even though Lyra's mother was already married. When Lyra's mother gave birth she was afraid of her husband's reaction, so she sent Lyra to Oxfordshire to live with a gyptian wet nurse. When her husband found out, he went intending to kill the nurse and baby Lyra. Lord Asriel stopped him and killed him, and in the ensuing lawsuit, Lord Asriel lost all his assets. Lyra's mother wanted nothing to do with Lyra, so Lord Asriel took Lyra to Jordan College. He insisted that Lyra's mother never have access to her.
The story of Lord Asriel's downfall reads like the legend of a wronged hero to Lyra: he defended his lover and his baby and was wrongfully punished for doing so. Learning the truth of what happened, however, also means that Lyra becomes even less willing to consider the possibility that Lord Asriel might not be as good as she thinks he is. His willingness to go immediately to killing a man rather than trying to resolve this in other ways suggests that he might have a cruel streak that, to Lyra, reads as heroism instead.
John Faa says that in the years after, people began to get anxious about Dust. He tells Lyra that the pastry cook at Jordan has been watching over her and passed it on when Lyra left with the person Lord Asriel said she should never leave with: Mrs. Coulter, her mother. Lyra is shocked. John Faa says that Mrs. Coulter must have some power over the Master. Lyra studies John Faa and Farder Coram and then tells them that she saw the Master try to poison Lord Asriel, and says that the Master gave her the alethiometer. She pulls out the instrument and says she doesn't know how to read it.
The revelation that Mrs. Coulter is Lyra's mother and that she was never supposed to have custody of her daughter brings up again the fact that everything that involves Lyra is intensely political. This also explains why the Master noted that he couldn't prevent Lyra from going with Mrs. Coulter. He didn't want to do it, which suggests that he was trying to do the right thing and protect Lyra, but things were out of his control.
Farder Coram says it's a truth teller and explains briefly how to read it: a person can ask a question by pointing the three short hands at different pictures with many meanings, and then the long needle will show the answer. He says that there's a book with all the meanings in a library somewhere. Lyra says that she kept the alethiometer secret, but the golden monkey found it. John Faa states what they know: the Master did his best to keep Lyra safe; Mrs. Coulter got the Church to help with the Oblation Board; and with the Church gaining power recently, the Master must have felt that Jordan College was dangerous. He knows that the Master loves Lyra, so the Master must have felt that giving her to Mrs. Coulter would be safer than letting her stay at Jordan.
The moral ambiguity of the Master's actions impresses upon the reader (if not necessarily upon Lyra) the fact that right and wrong don't always exist in an easily discernable relationship with each other. Instead, what might look wrong from the outside may seem better with the addition of more or different information. Giving Lyra the alethiometer when she's such a skilled liar suggests that going forward, Lyra will need to learn how to blend her lies with the truth to come to a better understanding of where her morals should lie.
They discuss what the Master intended in giving Lyra the alethiometer. Lyra thinks that the Master wanted her to keep it from Lord Asriel, but Farder Coram wonders if he intended the opposite. He suggests that the alethiometer could help Lord Asriel free himself from the bears. The men give the alethiometer back to Lyra, who feels suddenly shy. She asks which gyptian women nursed her, and John Faa says that it was Ma Costa. They send her back outside where Ma Costa hugs Lyra, kisses her, and takes her to bed.
Despite the revelation that Ma Costa has personal and emotional history with Lyra, it's still worth keeping in mind that the entire gyptian community is still willing to rally around Lyra to keep her safe. Again, this speaks to the general gyptian mindset that prioritizes caring for others over being exclusionary or selfish.