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The Mistress of Mayanna:

or The Adventure of the Crystal Staff

Lady Carleon Investigates: The Mistress of Mayanna or The adventure of the Crystal Staff. A detective story set in an all-feminine world.

The great bell struck the quarter-hour. Fifteen minutes to tea-time. Annalinde was the name of the bell, although many people assumed it to be the name of the clock on the tallest spire of Queen Mayanna House. Dear old Annalinde. Lady Carleon loved her, as she loved every inch of the beautiful college.

She sat in her deep leather armchair and watched two Glides (as the Q.M. maidservants were called) setting out plates of small delicate sandwiches and a fine coffee and walnut cake. The chrome Art-Neo tea-kettle was placed by the little chrome flame-boiler and a stone pitcher of water placed by the side of the table. Lady Carleon herself would make the tea in the traditional manner. In other parts of Trent the servants might have made the tea, but this was too near the Novari border for such untraditional behavior.

Every day at four, when she was residing in College, Lady Carleon had tea. It was a small tea – not sufficient to spoil dinner – but very charming. Her lovely eggshell-china cups from Tokoranji; the tea itself, imported specially from Chen Avitsene; the wonderful bakery items from the little shop in town run by a baxter-mistress from Ladyton and delivered to her rooms each day; and above all the splendid conversation, all went to make Lady Carleon's afternoon teas an event to which an invitation might have been a coveted honor. But in fact the invitation was completely open. Any girl in the College was free to wander in at four o’clock and partake of tea.

In actuality, it was not quite so simple. So little is in Trent. It was an unwritten rule that a girl should attend no more than once in a term unless she was invited back. Lady Carleon, of course, would always say some such thing as “I hope that you will honor us again with your presence.” Less would have been ungracious; but this meant no more than that the girl might attend next term. Something more explicit like “I do hope we may have the pleasure of seeing you next week” conveyed an invitation to come sooner. Sometimes a specific day would be mentioned, for Lady Carleon had “particular days” – days when girls of an especial type or area of interest were brought together so that the tea would have – not anything so vulgar as a theme — but a certain tint. Tint seems the proper word to apply to these gatherings. Dinner in the great paneled Dining Hall had conversation that was clever and often colorful, but the conversation of tea-time should be in delicate watercolor shades.

Lady Carleon was not an academic. She was in fact a writer who had published a few very fine books, and something of a traveller, especially in the East, and in the far north of Vintesse and Quirinelle, thus terms sometimes went by when she was not in residence at all. Her position at the College was that of a scholar, but this term requires a little further explanation which will be made clearer by an examination of the nature of the college.

Queen Mayanna House is what is known as a Lay College. There are many of them in the West, and the main reason for their existence is the same as the reason for the many Brunettes’ Clubs and in recent times Blondes’ Clubs too as well as small residential hotels and pensions. In times past, and still in the East, when a maid was unmarried (as maids often are in Aristasia since the procreative need is rather smaller for such a long-lived and harm-resistant people) she stayed with her extended family or, if she were a magdalin, with the mistress to whom she was apprenticed. In the West, with the decline – though by no means death – of the guild- and apprentice-system and with so many of the more modern type of unmarried girl preferring to place some distance between themselves and their families, new places grew up in which such a girl might live.

To take a flat alone is not unheard of, but it is very rare. Aristasians have been rather disrespectfully described as pack-animals and it is true that individualism of the late-schizomorph kind has made little headway in the Motherland. Even if they move away from some of the more traditional ways of life, Aristasians require an in-group in which to live and move and have their being.

The Clubs create one such group. They often have particular activities associated with them such as fencing or poetry, and they may meet other like-minded clubs for contests, exchanges of ideas or joint exhibitions of work. Another is created by the Lay-Colleges, some of which have filial ties to the great Universities, others of which are simply small private establishments. As they are primarily living places, their courses of compulsory study are often small. Queen Mayanna House simply requires one essay or major poem per year as a condition of membership: but these essays and poems have often taken their place among the most admired literature in the Western World, for the Annual Opus (as it is called) stimulates the best efforts of some of the finest minds in Trent and Novaria.

Queen Mayanna is a daughter-house of Goldcrest College, Milchford University, and nearly all its members are Old Goldcrestiennes. This gives the college a somewhat cosmopolitan character as girls from all over the Western Empire, and some from the East go up to Milchford, and a few of them move on afterwards to Queen Mayanna House; so while the College has a largely South-Trentish and West-Novarian character, it does contain girls from many different lands. Lady Carleon herself was a Chelvertonian from Quirinelle who had every intention of moving back into Leontine Place, the family seat, when she came into her inheritance, or perhaps even taking up residence in the town-house in Chelverton before then. For the present, though, Queen Mayanna House suited her admirably.

A knock came at the door. Achira opened it. Achira was Lady Carleon's own personal maid: a girl from Marenkhe, Novaria. She ushered Miss Verice Ayakhani into the room. Lady Carleon stood up and Miss Ayakhani reverenced deeply. Lady Carleon made smaller reverence.

“Rayati,” she said. “You honor my poor chambers with the radiance of your youthful presence.”

“Rayati,” Said Miss Ayakhani. “I blush to place my ungainly foot in such a temple of beauty and wisdom.”

Miss Ayakhani was a young daughter of one of the noblest houses in Miralene; a pure Estrenne who spoke the Westrenne dialect more perfectly than many Trintitians* and who might one day become the Archduchess of the Duchy of Miralene.

“Honor me further by taking this chair and drinking some of the poor tea that I shall make.”

“I have taken your tea before this, my lady, and if I were able to make a drink one half so perfect, I should consider myself an accomplished person.”

“Your kindness is too great, as is sometimes the way with generous persons.”

Miss Ayakhani partially hid her face with her fan in a traditional gesture of shyness.

“There will not be many here today,” said Lady Carleon. “It is the High Feast of Rosa Mundi, and many have gone to be with their people.”

“That is true,” said Miss Ayakhani, “the poor college is almost deserted, but how lovely the summer gardens are with only the singing of birds and not the chatter of maidens. It is a charm that has a wistful loneliness, but is no less beautiful for that.”

“You think so too?” said Lady Carleon. “We feel so many things alike.”

“This poor child has learned fine taste from a great lady,” said Miss Ayakhani, hiding her face again.

The two sat talking and sipping tea from the exquisite cups. Achira knelt by her mistress’s chair, assisting the ladies, passing the tiny sandwiches, but never pouring the tea, which was the ritual function of the hostess. Lady Carleon had invited no one specifically today except for this delightful Estrenne, she had felt that Miss Ayakhani might be somewhat lost at the House during the de facto vacation (there are no official vacations at QMH, but there are times when the College does become very vacated). She had also been hoping for a chance to know her better and to enjoy her company alone, for she was a girl who receded shyly when others were present.

Another knock came at the door. Lady Carleon sighed inwardly. Today was not to be that opportunity.

Achira opened the door and Lady Carleon and Miss Ayakhani stood. The visitor was an unexpected one. It was Dr. Catrin Meldonshire, the Mistress of Queen Mayanna House. Both girls reverenced very deeply. Achira fell to her knees and touched her forehead to the floor. At just under forty years of age, Lady Carleon was still a girl in Aristasian terms, and naturally had the appearance of a Tellurian girl in her early twenties. Before the 130-year-old head of the college, both felt very young and small.

“Rayati, ma’am,” they said in unison. Many things are said in unison in Aristasia. Things that are the only thing that can or should be said.

“Rayati, children,” said Dr. Meldonshire. “Please forgive this intrusion upon your charming company.”

“Your presence overwhelms us,” said Lady Carleon. “Such an honor is unknown.” This was almost true. It was more than rare for the Mistress of the College to visit a scholar in her room. “Please have a seat, Ma’am, and please allow me to make fresh tea.”

“Pray do not discompose yourself. I shall drink what is in the pot.”

“No, ma’am. It is bitter now. I must make more.”

“Make more! Make more!” Demanded a high voice. “Tea, tea, tea, tea, teeeeeea!”

“Oh dear,” cried Dr Meldonshire. “Reep-reep has come with me. I am sorry.”

“Please do not apologize, ma’am,” said Lady Carleon. “Reep-reep is most welcome to take tea with us.”

Reep-reep was a chenkireet – a creature something like a long-haired rabbit walking on its hind-legs with little monkey-like hands. She could talk, as most domesticated chenkireets could, though her understanding of the language was somewhere between that of a parrot and that of a small child.

The Reep-reep incursion had somehow relieved the tension of surprise. Dr. Meldonshire was seated, Achira resumed her place kneeling by her mistress’s chair, Miss Ayakhani was ushered to a new chair (Dr Meldonshire now taking the seat of honor) and Reep-reep knelt by her mistress’s chair in imitation of Achira.

“Please forgive me if I come directly to the point,” said Dr Meldonshire, who was little influenced by Estrenne ways. “Honored Founders’ Day – the great Queen Mayanna Festival – as you know, will begin our new term.”

“I look forward to it, ma’am,” said Lady Carleon. It will be my first.

“You know that the Crystal Staff of Queen Mayanna is central to the ceremony?”

“Yes, ma’am – the great Constructive Staff with which Honored Queen Mayanna herself is said to have raised the very rocks on which the College stands into the great central towers.”

“That is certainly true. Those towers have no foundations in the ordinary sense. They grow as if organically from the rocks below. Though of course the Staff has no such constructive powers in this late age – certainly not so far west. But it is still regarded as one of the High Treasures of Trintitia.”

“I had the honor of seeing it earlier this year, ma’am, when it was on loan to the Centennial Exhibition at Trintitiana. It is truly a beautiful thing – a spiral-patterned staff of pure crystal that seems at times to have a subtle light from within. I have been looking forward to seeing it again at the Queen Mayanna Festival”

“I fear you may not do so, my lady. The Crystal Staff has been stolen.”

“Stolen – but how can that be, ma’am?”

“That I do not know. The Staff rests always on its pedestal, in its special chamber, across the hall from my own room. That chamber has no windows and only one door, which is locked at all times, except on the few occasions when the Staff is taken out for ceremonial purposes.”

“A lock can be picked, ma’am.”

“Indeed, but this door is sealed with the seal of Queen Mayanna, presented to the College at its foundation, and also with my own personal seal. Neither was broken when we opened it this morning.”

“How remarkable, ma’am.”

“I thought you might find it so. The question is, can you solve the problem, my lady?”

“I, ma’am—?”

“But of course. It is well known that you have solved several celebrated mysteries.”

“Well, I just happened to be in the right places at the right times and to have had a few inexplicable intuitions. There is nothing really systematic about it, ma’am.”

“You are in the right place at the right time now, my lady. Without the help of one of your inexplicable intuitions, I fear we may have to celebrate Honored Founders’ Day without the Staff, and there will be no Staff for the Townspeople at the Great Queen Mayanna Festival. A tradition of some eight hundred years’ standing will be broken for the first time.”

“I shall do my best, ma’am. I only hope it will be enough.”

“Thank you so much, my lady. I cannot ask more of you than that.”

“Perhaps you would be so kind as to allow me to examine the room in which the staff was housed, ma’am.”

“By all means. Would you care to come now? Miss Ayakhani, you are most welcome to accompany us if that pleases you.”

“I should be thrilled, ma’am,” said Miss Ayakhani.

They walked down the long oak-paneled corridor and out into the quad. The midsummer heat felt like a solid thing as they left the house, for these Southren houses are built to stay relatively cool. The College had an air of desertion. Many who had not left for their homelands were extending their zitronels – the afternoon sleep that is common especially over the border in Novaria. The extended zitronel at this time of year was often accompanied by a very late night. The College would spring into a very limited version of its usual life at dinner-time and the conversations, word-games, pool-bathing and other diversions would continue long into the night. It was a habit of which the somewhat strait-laced Westrenne College-Mistress had never fully come to approve, and yet she has to agree that it made the best use of the cooler (though still sultry) night-hours.

The white stone of the College glittered in the sunlight; the barley-twist towers, echoes of the Crystal Staff which was said to have fashioned them, soared high into the azure sky “as the soul ascends, like the lark, directly to Dea.” The College was founded at midsummer and was replete with the symbolism of the season of Fire and Rose. It was beautiful at all times of year, but at Midsummer it was at its very best, lit, as it seemed, not only from without by the light in which it was raised from the depths of the earth but from within by the light of its native spirit.

A door opened, and a figure issued into silent quad which enhanced yet further its atmosphere of white, sun-sanctified purity; a figure robed in white from veiled head to white-sandaled feet. It was Matri Carmaline, the College Chaplain.All three made deep reverence to the Matri who signed her blessing upon them.

“Has the Staff been found, College-mistress?” she asked.

“I regret to say, Matri, that it has not,” replied Dr Meldonshire.

“Have you done as I advised and lit three candles to Sai Mati?”

“Not as yet, Matri.”

“You should do so, my child. Do not underestimate such simple traditions.”

“Matri, with respect, if all who supplicated the Angels in the traditional manner received the boons they asked, there would be but little unhappiness in the whole of the East. None would ever lose a loved one or lack for anything she wanted.” The College-mistress, though devout in her Westrenne way, was the closest thing to a sceptic about the old traditions that one finds in Aristasia.

The old priestess smiled. She was a blonde who was near to her two-hundredth year, yet her face had the childlike clarity of a Votary. Like many of these unworldly old-style Haiela she would doubtless sail serenely into her third century even though few worldly people lived so long.

“The will of the Angels is unsearchable, my child,” she replied. “If it is ordained that the Staff be lost then it shall be lost. If it is ordained that it be found, it shall be found. Yet for all that we do not cease to take action. You will seek the Staff and believe your seeking may have effect. Why, then, not pray for the Staff and believe your praying will have effect? For I tell you that praying and seeking are both nothing; and yet they are both everything.”

“These ancient riddles were made for wiser heads than mine, honored Matri,” said the College-Mistress. It was a polite dismissal of the priestess’s words, yet a dismissal nonetheless.

“Then pray to Sai Mati and let your head become wiser,” said Matri Carmaline. Only a priestess could have issued such a rebuke to the College-Mistress. It was a neat one, for Sai Mati, who, on a simple folk-level is regarded as the finder of lost things, is also the very Angel of Wisdom herself.

Dr. Meldonshire reverenced, accepting the rebuke. “I should do so, Matri. I shall do so – some day.”

“No day shines fairer on the soul than this day, my child,” said the priestess, her ancient-yet-childlike eyes smiling kindly.

The College-mistress reverenced again and, giving her Rayati, passed on. Her small party (including Reep-reep) made deep reverence to the priestess, gave Rayati and passed on also.

They entered the main house and made their way to the High Corridors where the academic staff lived. These people were lay-academics who had a far lighter schedule than the full-time academics at a full University, yet most were engaged in their own research projects. Each could have been – or had been – a full member of the staff of Goldcrest and each was an expert in some particular field of study; Lady Carleon had learned many things on subjects ranging from nether-Estrenne dialects to the history of the child-votaries at the nearby Temple of Sai Candrë at the lectures given in the College’s Great Hall and on the occasions when she had had the honor of being invited to dine as a guest at High Table and take part in the conversation of the Elder Sisters of the College.

They came to a door that looked no different from any of the other large oak doors. Dr Meldonshire unlocked and opened it. Unlike the other rooms, the walls were still bare white rock as they had been on the day the building was raised. The floor was covered in wooden parquetry and in the centre of the room rose a pedestal of the same white rock as the walls, which looked like an organic part of the room.

“The room has not been changed since 2489,” said Dr. Meldonshire.

“So many centuries,” said Lady Carleon almost to herself. She felt somehow trivial and out of place in her black-and-white triangular-collared art-neo jacket and black skirt with white-lined long-triangular darts. Dr Meldonshire, in her classically-styled Trintitiana suit never felt out of place anywhere. To her the ways of the modern West were the perfect redaction of the primordial tradition.

Lady Carleon walked quietly into the room, looking carefully at all the walls.

“A room is essentially a cube, ma’am,” she mused. “If entry has been made it must have been made through one of its six sides.”

“As you see, my lady,” said the College-Mistress, the walls are fashioned from the solid rock.”

“Yes. And the ceiling too, ma’am?”

“The ceiling too.”

“I see, ma’am. I had wondered if someone might find her way through lath-and-plaster, but hardly through the living rock. And beneath this wooden flooring?”

“Rock again.”

“I thought so, ma’am. No chance of any secret passages or false walls, I suppose.”

“Is it likely, child, that when a great queen raises towers from the solid rock, she will be incorporating secret passages or false walls?”

“Most unlikely, ma’am, and since that time the living rock and this room in particular were regarded as near-sacred. No one is remotely likely to have tampered with them.”

“That is so.”

“There is a slightly musty smell in here. Is that usual, ma’am?”

“Why, you are right my lady. And I do not think it is usual.”

Miss Ayakhani spoke up shyly. “Musty smells are sometimes associated with ghosts and certain sprites, they say, ma’am.”

“Sprites—” repeated Dr Meldonshire. “Really that is not something—and yet this disappearance does seem beyond the power of human agency.”

“Has Reep-reep ever shown an aversion to this room, or an excitement about it, ma’am?”

“Not that I am aware of.”

“Has she at any time in recent weeks shown unusual excitement or agitation with no apparent cause?”

“Not at all. Her moods can be extreme, but they have always been quite normal for a Chenkireet. She has behaved recently just as she always behaves.”

“What about these white stains on the floor?”

“They are very slight – I had hardly noticed them. You could ask Vayashti if you think them important. She is the maidservant with special responsibility for the Staff. She always takes it out and puts it back, polishes it and prepares the room. Normally she would have cleaned any stains in the room, but I suppose she was rather taken aback by this turn of events.”

“A hereditary post I suppose, ma’am?”

“That is correct. The Vayashti are a paxit family. They have been Staff-Wards, I believe, since the beginning.”

“Splendid, ma’am. Are there any other families associated with the staff?”

“Well, the Maybridge family, of course. They were hereditary Mistresses of the College until relatively recently and were the Keepers of the Staff. None of them still lives in Maybridge County now though.”

“Even though they are Countesses of Maybridge?”

“I blush to say that I am not much au fait with the local history. As you know my specialization is in Modern Letters. You should ask Professor Calvers if you consider any of this relevant to your enquiry. She is an encyclopaedia of local tradition.”

“One never knows, ma’am. One more question and I shall cease to trouble you for now. What is directly above this room?”

“Curiously enough, Professor Calvers herself occupies the rooms above here.”

“I wonder if I might be possible to speak to her, ma’am.”

“It is a shade unorthodox, but in the circumstances you might visit her rooms.” Dr Meldonshire produced one of her own cards, scribbled a few words on the back and gave it to Lady Carleon. “Present this to her. She is certainly in residence and she may well be in her rooms now.”

“You are more than kind, ma’am,” said Lady Carleon, making reverence. “Oh, and just one final tiny point occurs to me. I take it that Vayashti put the Staff back on its pedestal after it returned from Trintitiana.”

“Of course.”

“And you watched her do it.”

“Certainly I did. Then I locked and sealed the door.”

“I take it she wore gloves to handle the staff, ma’am.”

“Of course. It is highly polished. It is necessary to avoid getting finger-marks on it. If I may ask, my lady,” said the College-Mistress, “how do you plan to proceed?”

“I shall have a few words with Professor Calvers, ma’am, just to get a little background information – and then I think I shall light three candles at the shrine of Sai Mati.”

A short time later, Lady Carleon knocked respectfully at Professor Calvers’s door and presented the card with deep reverence.The Professor was a delightful lady of a hundred and fifty, though she looked not a day older than a hundred. She wore a fine embroidered silk house-robe of traditional design.

“Lady Carleon,” said the professor, returning reverence. “You asked some extremely interesting questions at my recent lecture-course, I seem to recall.”

“Thank you, professor; I found them fascinating.”

“You are more than kind, my lady, and to what do I owe the honor of this visit?”

“The College-Mistress flatters me with the suggestion that I may be of some help in the matter of the Crystal Staff.”

“It is a distressing affair, my lady. And utterly perplexing.”

“It does seem so, ma’am. Would you humor my childish curiosity by answering a few questions?”

“By all means, child. Your questions are always most intelligent, and your reputation as a detective is not unknown to me.”

“You are too kind, ma’am. To begin with, can you think of any possible motive for anyone’s stealing the Staff?”

“I fear not. Apart from the rather obvious matter of physical impossibility, that is the most perplexing aspect of the affair. The Staff is far too famous to have monetary value. It simply could not be sold. There are many people with a great affection and even fascination for the Staff, of course. Some travel here to the Queen Mayanna Festival each year in order to see it, but I cannot think that any of them would wish to remove it from its proper place. After all, its setting in the Great Tower here is an essential part of its value.”

“Could you tell me a little of the history of the Staff? Dr Meldonshire seemed a little reticent on the subject.”

“Reticent,” the professor laughed, a charming silvery laugh that rather surprised Lady Carleon. “Ignorant you mean! Oh, pray forgive me. That was very ad lib*. But really – how a renowned scholar like Dr Meldonshire can be Mistress of this College and care so little for its history is beyond my reasoning, it truly is.

“But the history. You know, of course, how honored Queen Mayanna raised up the towers by means of the power of the staff. That was not so very unusual in those days as you will be aware, but few of these artifacts remain to us this far west.

“The Towers were originally a Votary-House devoted to Sai Mati and the Rose of the World. As well as raising the House, honored Queen Mayanna endowed it very richly. The House was devoted to the Path of Light: pure contemplation as well as study of ancient texts. Over the centuries, the work of the Order took on a more academic coloring, though not to the exclusion of contemplation. Then, about the time when the border was drawn between Trent and Novaria, leaving Maybridge on the Trintitian side, some of the more contemplative Sisters left for a sister-house in Novaria, while some of the sisters from that house came here. The reasoning was that the academic and contemplative aspects had gradually grown further apart and that one House would now specialize in each aspect. Within another hundred years, the Order of Sai Mati at Queen Mayanna House began to accept non-votaries as scholars and eventually even as College-Mistresses.

“As you know, the Order was much involved with the founding of Goldcrest College and there had always been ties between the two. Eventually this College became a daughter-house of Goldcrest and ultimately a lay-College as it is now.”

“And what of the Maybridge family, ma’am?”

“The Maybridges were originally part of the western branch of the Vixen Clan. They founded the town here, and when it was renamed Maybridge, in honor of Queen Mayanna, they became the Maybridge family. They were benefactresses of the College and the family had all its daughters educated here. The sisters taught them and the children of a few other prominent local families. The first non-Votary mistresses here were Maybridges and eventually Eglantine Maybridge became the first non-Votary – and therefore, of course, the first Raihira – Mistress of the College. Before long the post became an hereditary one, always held by a Maybridge.”

“So the Maybridges were both Mistresses of the College and Countesses of Maybridge County.”

“Yes. Occasionally the two roles were combined in the same person. Eglantine, the seventh Countess, was perhaps the most famous Mistress we have ever had.”

“Were they all called Eglantine, ma’am?”

“There was at least one Eglantine in each generation and she often became either Mistress or Countess depending on her aptitude.”

“Yet now, ma’am, they are neither Mistresses nor Countesses here.”

“That is so. The family became much reduced. Fewer children for several generations. In the last century young Eglantine left the country and became involved in what they called the ‘wild life’ of Vintesse. When she came into her inheritance she began selling off assets to support her extravagances. The estate was hopelessly mismanaged. She refused her administrative duties because she did not wish to return to what she considered the dull life of Maybridge. A sweet but very incompetent sister became Countess and the government was, in practice, in the hands of an old Goldcrest friend of hers. Ultimately, with her permission, and that of Lady Eglantine – who really did not care and apparently received some financial consideration – the friend, Melestrine Eveston, became Countess and the Evestons have been Countesses since. They are splendid people who have brought many improvements to Maybridge while remaining wholly sensitive to its traditions.”

“What about the Maybridges, ma’am?”

“Constance Maybridge was Mistress of the College when Lady Eveston became Countess. She was a true devotee of Sai Mati – a throwback to the old half-Haiela days and a close friend of our present Chaplain. She lived to a very great age. She had no children and was the last Maybridge of any consequence to live in the County. When she went to the Jeweled Island, the post of Mistress was offered to a very clever young academic at Goldcrest, Catrin Meldonshire.”

“Are there any surviving Maybridges?”

“Yes, the direct Countess-line is now in Vintesse. The current Eglantine is a birthright-Countess – that is to say, she is not Countess of Maybridge, just Countess Maybridge. She is an academic and a very clever one too. She went up to Milchford, but she attended Sai Mati College, not Goldcrest. An interesting choice don’t you think? A tribute to the family filiation to Sai Mati, but not the family College. I wonder why. Perhaps because she could not afford to keep up with the social life of Goldcrest.

“When she came down from Milchford there was a movement in this College to invite her here as an academic. She was unable to pay the rather steep residency fees. It was suggested – I should be frank and say that I suggested, though I was certainly not alone in the view – that the fees should be waived in view of her family connexion with the College. With her ability, she would quickly have become a Senior and not subject to fees in any case; why not anticipate that? Dr Meldonshire – also not alone – opposed the idea and it was dropped.”“Where is Lady Maybridge now, ma’am?”

“She founded a College called Nimwë Hall in Southwind, Vintesse. Another lay-College .”

“Like this one?”

“Not at all. A little place for working-girls apparently.”

“It all seems a little unfortunate for the family, ma’am.”

“It is. Most unfortunate. Many families suffer a ‘bad generation’, but usually, if a better generation follows, it can begin restoring things. Sadly, too much was lost during the lapse for that to be possible for the Maybridges.”

“And, if I may ask, ma’am, who is the true Guardian of the Staff?” The question was asked in Lady Carleon’s polite, diffident manner but it had its impact on the professor.

“A deft question, if I may say so, my lady.”

“Oh, not deft, ma’am. I just need to consider every aspect of the situation.”

Professor Calvers smiled and shook her head slightly. There are those – especially in the Town – who hold that the Maybridges are the true Guardians of the Staff. It is even said that if The Maybridge (as they call the head of the Clan) were to call the Staff, it would come to her wherever she was.

“That would account for its uncanny disappearance from a sealed room, wouldn’t it, ma’am?”

“I suppose it would.”

“But the idea had not occurred to you, ma’am?”

“I am not a disbeliever in legends, my lady, and the power the Staff once held is indisputable. Nevertheless the explanation seems unlikely to me.”

“There was a musty smell in the room, ma’am, which is apparently sometimes associated with ghosts and the like.”

“But not with High Magic, my lady.”

“Are these rooms normally damp or musty, ma’am?”

“As you know, the atmosphere here is warm and dry most of the year. If there were any damp it would certainly not be in this season. The rock of this tower is like an impermeable vault. I really do not see how it would become damp.”

“And yet you do not believe that the Staff was, shall we say, spirited away?”

“What about Reep-reep?”

“Yes, ma’am. I had thought of that. Chenkireets react very strongly to anything supernatural. That certainly poses a problem for any such theory.” “I am sorry not to have been of more assistance, my lady.”“On the contrary, ma’am, I have found this interview not merely a great pleasure and a profound honor, but also every bit as useful as I had hoped.”

True to her word, Lady Carleon lit three candles at the shrine of Sai Mati in the Great College Chapel, which was also the Temple-Cardinal of Maybridge District. She knelt quietly in the coolth of the high-vaulted place of worship formed from the living rock, thinking over what she had learned and praying for guidance. Ideas moved in her mind and came slowly into place. She was certain of nothing yet, but at least she began to know where to look next.

She went to her rooms and changed, and rang a bell which caused her red convertible Sepharilla to be driven into the main driveway, polished to a glitter in the sunflood, fueled and ready to go. She drove into town and visited the main taxi office and the railway station. She came home and had dinner and then she went to the Paxit-Chambers and asked for Vayashti, the Staff-Ward.

Vayashti occupied a room high in the Main Tower, small but very charming with leather armchairs and a curtained-off bed. There were several family photographs and two paintings made long ago of former Staff-Wards. There was a charming shrine to the Mother and another smaller one with a curious fox-like statue.

Vayashti reverenced deeply. “You honor me greatly, my lady.”

“The honor is mine, Staff-Ward. I fancy your family is more ancient than my own.”

The Staff-Ward invited her in and gave her a traditional Southren wine.

“My family has warded the Staff since the foundation of this great House, my lady.”

“Before the Maybridge Mistresses, then.”

“Indeed, my lady. We were paxit to The High Vixens, who became the Maybridges. The first Maybridge assigned us as Staff-Ward to the Sisterhood of Mati that then ruled this House. When the Maybridge Mistresses began, we returned to the family, uniting service to the Maybridge and to the Staff.”

“And now both are departed.”

“So it would seem, my lady.”

“You must be distressed.”

“I am so, my lady, but I keep faith.”

Lady Carleon made deep reverence to the Vixen-shrine. “A shrine to Shearwind, the fox-yerthing of Sai Nimwë. That is not a thing one sees often these days, or so far west.”

“It has been in my family these long years, my lady.”

“And Sai Nimwë guards you, I am sure. May she guard you ever and bring your barque safe to shore in this time of trouble.”

Vayashti reverenced very deeply.

Lady Carleon admired the portraits of Vayashti’s Ancestress Staff-Wards and also a fine vixen-statuette on the mantel-shelf.

“This is honored Shearwind also, I think.”

“Yes, my lady. My lady will know the old hazel tree that grows in the Front Courtyard.”

“Indeed. It is said to be as old as the College itself and sacred to Sai Mati.”

“In one of the great storms that we have here, a large branch was torn off. I cut a section from that branch, my lady, and carved this likeness of the Vixen.”

“It is a very fine piece of work. The great Wind, from whom you are named cut down a branch from Sai Mati’s tree and you have fashioned it into her yerthing.”

“Indeed, my lady. It is pleasant to talk to one who understands these things.”

“Tell me, I pray you, what do you think of this story that the Staff might return of its own will to The Maybridge?”

“I do not countenance it, my lady.”

“It would explain much that seems otherwise inexplicable.”

“The Staff has no will in these days, my lady. I am her keeper and may say that. Such things could happen in the old days, but not, I think, today.”

“Tell me what you know of the white stains on the floor of the Staff-chamber.”

“I should have cleaned them before the Staff returned.”

“But how did they come there?”

“That I cannot say, my lady. It is a peculiarity of that room that certain white stains appear from time to time on the wooden floor. They are easily removed, but whether their cause is worldly or other-worldly, that I cannot say. I have never been able to explain them.”

“How very curious.”

“It is that, my lady. But there are many strange things in this place.”

As she was leaving the Paxit-Chambers, Lady Carleon was accosted by an elderly servant.

“Your pardon, my lady,” she said, making deep reverence.

Lady Carleon acknowledged her.

“You are looking into the matter of the staff, my lady. Is that not so?”

“It is so,” said Lady Carleon.

“Then I must tell you of a queer thing that occurred three weeks back. A lady came here and asked to see the Staff. She was a Raihira lady, ma’am, but she came here to the Paxit-Chambers. I told her the staff was sealed in its chamber and she asked to see the chamber. I took her there – I hope did right, ma’am – and she examined the seals, then she gave me a crown and went away.

“Well, that was a bit queer, wasn’t it, ma’am? But the queerest thing was, I knew there was something odd about that lady, ma’am. I knew I had seen her before somewhere. So I looked at the portraits in the Great hall and I saw her. She was Eglantine the fourth Countess. She was in modern clothes, ma’am, quite northern-looking, but she looked just like Eglantine the fourth Countess.

“I don’t know if that is helpful to you, ma’am. I hope it is. She gave me a crown, she did.”

Lady Carleon gave her informant another crown since she was so obviously hoping for one. She made deep reverence.

“That is very helpful,” said Lady Carleon. “Very helpful indeed.”

Lady Carleon went to bed that night not in her lovely high-ceilinged bedroom overlooking the gardens, but in a small stateroom of an international airliner. She could have had more spacious accommodations by taking the zeppelin, but she considered that the case should be concluded quickly, and the Araminta – the ship she was now on – would be in Vintesse by morning.

She sat up in bed reviewing some correspondence on her ordinator and chatting idly to her blonde sister, Lady Susan, who was giggling over some nonsensical episode that had happened at Leontine Place that morning

“I don’t know how you can buzz about on these aeros,” said Susan, “aren’t they fearfully uncomfortable?”

Lady Carleon looked about the tiny room. It was very neat, compact and orderly; not luxurious, certainly, but Lady Carleon rather admired the way everything necessary was compacted into a small space with a spare but pleasing Art-Neo aesthetic. She found it charming, but she knew that her sister, who had rarely spent a night away from Leontine and was passionately attached to all her ‘pretties’ would probably have considered such sparse accommodations barbarous.

The stewardess came in with the night-time drink Lady Carleon had ordered.

“I hope it is to your liking my lady,” she said with deep reverence.

“Perfectly delightful,” said Lady Carleon. She admired the girl’s neat uniform. She savored the drink. Life was so full of delightful things if one knew how to appreciate each thing at its own level. She felt a little sorry for Susan, which was silly. Susan was happy enough. Each to her own and all that.

She closed the ordie and lay down, planning to go over the case in her mind; but her head had hardly touched the pillow before she was fast asleep.

Morning in Vintesse. Cooler than Maybridge, though still very warm and summery. People were brisker and brighter here. Tradition sat on them like a light, fluttering cape rather than a full-length velvet cloak. That was rather good, thought Lady Carleon. She made a note of it in her little commonplace book. She might well use it in her Annual Opus.

“Lady Carleon?” shouted a brunette loudly from the seat of a white Sepharilla convertible that had just pulled up. She got out and shouted again at the top of her voice: “Lady Carlee-on!” The lack of ceremony would have seemed shocking even in Chelverton.

Lady Carleon walked to the car and threw her little overnight bag into the back seat. The driver made reverence in a rather jaunty manner and handed Lady Carleon a card and a small ink-pad. She printed the card with the seal-ring on her finger and wiped the ring with the little alcohol-saturated cloth which the driver had taken out of its sachet for her.

“Travel in safety, my lady,” said the driver, making reverence again in speeded-up-kinnie time, and left her with the car. Lady Carleon watched her trotting back to her depot, or wherever she was going, long-legged, short-skirted, swinging her outsize string of cheap beads. She supposed one must get used to Vintesse manners if one lived here long enough.

Lady Carleon slipped into the driver’s seat. She adored Sepharillas, but could never quite decide whether she liked them best in red or white. She had a red one, so she always hired a white one when she was traveling.

It was a long journey, lightened considerably by the music of the Dinky-Doos and other Vintesse musicians on the car’s wireless. She could have plugged in her own music-module, but she generally preferred to listen to the local wireless when she was traveling. It helped one to get the feel of the place.

A little before lunchtime she came to the town of Claremont, a busy commercial centre in mid-Vintesse. By sheer luck, as it seemed, she came quickly upon a house bearing a sign saying:

NIMWË HALL
Founding House of Nimwë College

It was a tall, gaunt building in a row of old houses. She parked the car and walked up the stone steps to the front door. It seemed at first a little like a cheap hotel. There was a reception desk and Lady Carleon approached it.

She made a little reverence and asked the girl: “May I see Lady Maybridge?”

The girl giggled and reverenced. “I don’t think you’ll find her here, miss. I can ask. You can wait in the Common Room if you like.”

The Common Room was surprisingly airy and well appointed. Jinky music was playing on the gramophone and a number of girls were chattering; some eating sandwiches – evidently having dropped in for lunchtime from their places of work.

“Hello,” said one of the girls. “You new here?” she made a tiny reverence with her head only. Lady Carleon mused that the famous Vintesse Bob did not only refer to hair.

“This is my first time here,” said Lady Carleon.

“Are you going to join the College?”

“Actually I have a College already.”

“I shouldn’t want to encourage you to be disloyal, but really, Nimwë Hall is by far the best College in Claremont. We have such marvelous times here, and it is getting bigger practically by the day.”

“Really?”

“Oh, absotively! I love it so much I even pop back for lunch. Lots of the girls do. They do serve proper lunch, but I just come in here for a sandiepoo and a chat. Save the proper meal for dinner I say. Dinner is the event here. You know, you’ll learn so much here and do so many things. I’d drop the other College, truly I should!”

“I really think I must be loyal,” said Lady Carleon, “though it does sound very tempting.”

“Nimwë ray’
Nimwë hay’*
Nimwë till the day we die!”

Shouted several of the girls spontaneously.

The receptionist came in. “Lady Maybridge is at the main House, miss, but I doubt if she will see you without an appointment.”

“I thought this was the main House,” said Lady Carleon.

“No, miss. This is the founding-house. The one first established by Lady Maybridge. The College has opened several Houses since then, all over town. The main one is Rose House – that big place just outside town on the Hazeldene road.“Could you give me directions? I am new in town.”

“Well I can, miss, but I really don’t think you’ll get to see the Mistress without an appointment.”

“I’ll just tootle over and see,” said Lady Carleon. “No harm in that, what-what?”

Rose House was a much bigger affair than the Founding House. Clearly the College was growing rapidly. Lady Carleon drove the car in and walked up to the main building. Unlike Queen Mayanna Hall at this time of year it seemed quite busy. Girls were playing tennis, walking arm in arm, sitting under trees and reading. It certainly had not the air of a working-girls’ lay-College, quite apart from the fact that nobody looked as if she were working.

Two girls carrying tennis racquets approached her. “Rayati. Who are you?” asked one of them, making the most respectable reverence she had seen thus far in Vintesse.

“Rayati,” said Lady Carleon returning reverence. “I was just taking a look at this lovely House.”

“It is fine, isn’t it?” said the girl. “But you can’t just wander in here, you know, it’s private.”

Lady Carleon reverenced deeply. “Please forgive my enormity,” she said. “It is so beautiful that I was attracted like a poor moth to a radiant light. I beg you to forgive me.”

Even in Vintesse, a formal and traditional apology is understood and calls forth both courtesy and generosity.

“You are so kind to our little College,” said the girl, making reverence. “Pray do not think me officious. I am a prefect here and must maintain proper order. But let me show you about.”

“You are more than generous. And a prefect, no less. I thought this was a lay-College.”

“Such things are not unheard of. In any case, our Mistress has her own ways of doing things. She has built this great College from nothing in a few short years. These are the tennis courts.”

“She must be a most remarkable person.”

“Oh yes, she is. The formal gardens are over there. One day they will be the finest in Vintesse.”

“I had thought Nimwë was a working-girls’ College.”

“It began that way. The Houses in town still are. But this House attracts Raihiralan* girls. It is becoming quite a centre of culture. The Mistress will never desert the working-girls’ Houses though. Their members can come for summer-schools and things here. They are given free tickets to our theatrical performances, and sometimes get up shows of their own that are put on here. The Mistress is making a new type of College. Something that could only exist here in the North, she says.”

“How very fascinating.”

A great cheer rose from a little way off. Several voices in unison:

“Nimwë ray’
Nimwë hay’
Nimwë till the day we die!”

“Our longsword fighters are having a tourney,” explained the prefect. “We shall take on Sai Mati next term.”

“Sai Mati College, Milchford?”

“Yes.”

“They have the best longswordsmaids in the west.”

“Wait till next term and see if you can till say that.”

“I like your spirit, I must say. Whom should I see to arrange to meet Lady Maybridge?”

The prefect laughed gently “One doesn’t see the Mistress just like that.”

“I think she may see me. Would you know how to get her a message?”

“Is it important?”

“Yes, it is rather.”

“What is the message?”

“If she could be told that Lady Carleon is here from Queen Mayanna House. I have come about a Staff. I think she will understand.”

The prefect reverenced deeply. “My lady I am sorry; I did not realize –”

“It is I who should apologize,” said Lady Carleon. “I have been slightly deceptive, but had I not been so I should not have had your charming company, and I assure you that I have valued it greatly.”

The prefect made reverence again. “Thank you, my lady. Please sit in the rose garden here. I shall come and fetch you shortly.”

Lady Carleon made a little reverence. “Thank you,” she said.

The rose garden was truly charming. The shouts and laughter of girls floated on the summer breeze. The College was very different from Queen Mayanna House but it had a life and vibrancy that was quite palpable. It seemed young and energetic, like Vintesse itself.

After a time a tall lady approached the little wrought-iron bench on which Lady Carleon was sitting. She was wearing an academic gown and a long frock, in contrast to the short skirts that Lady Carleon had almost ceased to be shocked by, which were seen everywhere in Vintesse. The lady was elegant and yet slightly aggressive in her movements; she had an air of command, and she looked exactly like the portrait of the fourth Countess of Mayridge.

Lady Carleon rose to her feet and made reverence.

“Rayati, my lady. I am Lady Maybridge.”

“Rayati. You do me great honor, my lady. I was not expecting you to join me out here.”

“I like to do the unexpected. Very un-Maybridge-like, no doubt. But then I am disinherited and I do as I please.”

“You have done something very wonderful, if I may say so, my lady,” said Lady Carleon looking about her at the College.

“I am supposed to say that the College is but a poor place and I am embarrassed to entertain you here, not so? Well, I am proud of it. Thanks to my dear scholars, it is a fine place.”

Lady Carleon was slightly shocked at the bitterness of Lady Maybridge’s words. Considering all that she had achieved and was achieving, Lady Carleon had expected her to be more confident, more independent of the blows that fate had dealt her family. Still, a thousand years of tradition is not easily replaced, and the very presence of a visitor from Queen Mayanna House may have touched a raw spot.

“Forgive me,” said Lady Maybridge, reverencing stiffly. “I am a Northren barbarian as you see. I was born here, you know. Please tell me how I may serve you.”

“Very simply, my lady, by giving me the Crystal Staff of Queen Mayanna.”

“What makes you imagine that I possess the staff?”

“I do not imagine, my lady: I know. And I understand why you believe it is right to keep it. I know that you came to Queen Mayanna House and examined the seals on the door of the Staff-Chamber—”

“And I suppose you think I was preparing to steal it.”

“Quite the contrary my lady. I know that you could not have taken the Staff from the Chamber on that day, because it was already gone from the Chamber by that day. It was precisely that action that made me certain you were honorable.”

“So – if the staff were here – you would know how it came here.”

“I do indeed, my lady.”

“You know that nobody could either have forged those seals nor gained entrance to the room without breaking them.”

“Nobody did.”

“And if the Staff returned through a sealed door across a thousand and more miles to the True Guardian —”

“If so, then whatever the law says it would be not only the right but the duty of the True Guardian to retain it. I think even a court would uphold that – at least in the South. That is why you examined those seals, isn’t it, my lady? To make sure that the Staff came to you by no natural means and that you had the right to retain it.”

“It is an interesting theory, my lady,” said Lady Maybridge.

“But suppose I could demonstrate how the Staff really came to be here, and that it happened by perfectly natural – though misguided – human agency. Would you not then be bound in honor to return it?”

“I am intrigued,” said Lady Maybridge. “Pray continue.”

“I took your advice, Matri” said Dr. Meldonshire. “I did light three candles to Sai Mati.”

“Good girl,” said Matri Carmaline. “And how soon afterward did Lady Carleon telephone to say that the mystery is solved?” The two were sitting in Dr. Meldonshire’s austere but supremely tasteful drawing room.

“As a matter of fact, it was within the hour. But do you really think Lady Carleon’s wits would have been less sharp if I had not made that prayer?”

“It is never that simple, College-Mistress: but if this whole matter resolves itself well, do not imagine your prayer played no part. Harmony in the heart becomes harmony in the world, my child.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Our visitor, I believe,” said the priestess.

Lady Maybridge entered and made deep reverence. A servant, following her, placed a large, leather-covered case on the table.

The College-Mistress made deep reverence.

“Lady Maybridge, you honor us. As a poor interloper I am humbled in the presence of the True Maybridge.”

Did Lady Maybridge raise a cynical eyebrow? She nevertheless remembered her manners. She reverenced again.

“The ages pass, and old things give place to new. I am more than fortunate that one so gifted and so renowned continues the work of my poor disgraced family.”

“My lady, if a little misfortune were sufficient to disgrace a family, mine were long-since annihilated. Seeing you here, in this tower, I know that I am but a barbarian before you.”

Lady Carleon felt that she heard a certain ease in Lady Maybridge’s voice as she replied. Perhaps for the first time in many long years, Eglantine Maybridge was realizing that words such as these are not mere empty forms but rituals that can, at certain times, bring a degree of healing. Dr Meldonshire was speaking again.

“A thousand thanks for restoring the Staff to its resting-place. May I be so forward as to ask how it came to be so far away?”

“Perhaps my traveling companion Lady Carleon had best answer that, madam. It was she who unwove the tangled skein of this mystery.”

All eyes turned on Lady Carleon.

“How did you do it, my lady?” asked the College-Mistress.

Lady Carleon tried not to shuffle and look childlike. Surrounded by these great ladies in conclave, she did feel rather childlike.

“It was just one of those random intuitions really. No, I suppose that isn’t true. It was mostly a matter of logic. I think we all agreed that the seals on the Staff-Chamber could not have been tampered with and that a supernatural disappearance was somewhat unlikely.”

“We had, my lady,” agreed the College-Mistress.

“So I had to consider the problem: setting aside the supernatural, what other explanation could there be? Clearly there was no means by which the Staff could have been removed once the seals were applied, so the logical conclusion is perfectly obvious. It was never there in the first place.”

“But,” said Dr Meldonshire, “I saw it placed there with my own eyes, just seconds before I locked the room and sealed it.”

“With respect, ma’am, you did not. What you saw placed in the room was a likeness, a simulacrum: something that resembled the Staff sufficiently to satisfy you that it was in the Chamber.”

“But when I removed the seals and unlocked the Chamber this – this simulacrum as you call it – was no longer there. With respect, my lady, does that not leave us where we started, with an impossible mystery? Are we not back to the supernatural?”

“We are not, ma’am. You see, the simulacrum was still in the Chamber. It had simply changed its form to one you did not recognize—”

“Magically, my lady?”

“No, ma’am, perfectly naturally. The only perceptible traces of that simulacrum by the time we entered the room were a slightly musty smell and some faint white stains on the floor. You see, the staff that was placed in the chamber by Vayashti was carved from ice. Left locked in that room in summer, it naturally melted and became a puddle on the floor. Then the puddle evaporated, leaving only a few stains. The room smelt musty, because, as I was told, those rooms are like sealed vaults. Any damp in there remained trapped in the warm southren atmosphere of the Chamber until the door was opened.”

“But how did you know all this?”

“In the first place because, leaving aside the supernatural, it was the only possible explanation of what had happened. Secondly because each small bit of evidence we had pointed to the solution – the white stains, the unaccountable damp in atmosphere, the fact that Vayashti is an excellent amateur sculptress—”

“Yet, this sort of cunning,” said the priestess, “this is not usually characteristic of the Paccia Estate.”

Lady Carleon reverenced. “That is true Matri. It is a subtle objection to my thesis, but actually the best one. I thought about that too. But have you considered the tutelary genia of the Vayashti?”

“But of course! How foolish of me!” cried Matri Carmaline. “Shearwind the Vixen. The trickster aspect of Sai Nimwë the Enchantress! The spirit of honored Shearwind guided the hand of the Staff-Ward in what she believed to be a noble act of trickery.”

“Exactly, Matri. And that answers the other difficulty. Surely a true and hereditary paxit like Vayashti would never betray her mistress. But Vayashti did not see Dr Meldonshire as her true mistress. Her hereditary loyalty is to two things: The Staff and the Maybridge. Her duty, as she saw it, was to reunite the two. That was not possible whilst the Maybridge seemed aberrant, but when she learned that Lady Maybridge was now Mistress of a fine College in Vintesse—”

“But,” said Dr. Meldonshire and her eyes seemed just a little tearful, “if she had no loyalty to me, had she none either to Queen Mayanna House?”

“I do not know the answer to that, ma’am, but I fancy she would believe that with the Staff and the Maybridge reunited, they would not be long in returning to their rightful place in the Towers.”

“Perhaps I am an interloper,” said Dr Meldonshire quietly. The priestess smiled.

“By no means, ma’am,” said Lady Maybridge. “My family left their post untenanted. I am more than grateful to you for taking our place and doing the duty we have so shamefully neglected. I confess that I might once have thought otherwise, but I see with clearer eyes this day.”

“And now—”said Dr Meldonshire, her voice faltering in a way that the priestess had never heard it falter before.

“Now I have been given my vocation in the high lands of Vintesse. My work there is hard, but it is deeply rewarding, and I know it is the work I was born for. I confess that my false self* is sorry to relinquish the Staff, for it has brought great blessings on my work.”

“Is that so?” asked the priestess.

Lady Maybridge reverenced deeply. “Indeed Matri. My work went well before, but when the Staff came to me it was as if a new spirit entered me. I prayed each day to Sai Mati in my gratitude. Everything seemed to work as it had never worked before, and the weight that had long lain on me seemed somehow lifted.”

“Perhaps your prayers had as much to do with that as the Staff,” said the priestess.

“Perhaps, Matri,” said lady Maybridge with a small sigh.

“But how did the Staff come to Vintesse?” asked Dr Meldonshire.

“Oh that was a very mundane matter,” said Lady Carleon. “The disappearance of the Staff was, I fancy, a work of sheer Vixen-genius. That must have been planned long and carefully. The conveyance of the Staff to Vintesse was, by contrast, a rather clumsy affair. Vayashti simply took it by train. Not only that, but she booked a ticket all the way from here to the little station at Hazeldene – the nearest one to Rose House. It is cheaper to book the full ticket, of course, but she really should have thought of buying several separate tickets at stations along the way. The transaction was still on the ordinator at Maybridge Station. The famed economy of the Paxit Estate, I suppose.

“It didn’t really tell me anything I did not already know, but I fancy it helped to convince my Lady Maybridge of the truth of my theory. After all, a train-booking all the way from Maybridge Station to Hazeldene Station – how many of those are there in a decade? One on the very day that the Staff ‘appeared’ in Lady Maybridge’s rooms at Rose House was really beyond coincidence.”

“What shall we do with Vayashti?” asked Dr Meldonshire sadly. “I understand that she meant well, but it is clear that she is not loyal to me or to the House. Perhaps my Lady Maybridge would care to take her.”

“May I make a suggestion, College-Mistress?” asked the priestess.

“By all means,” said Dr Meldonshire.

“Vayashti is the Staff-Ward. She should not be separated from the Staff. The Staff belongs here at Queen Mayanna House. The True Guardian of the Staff is, I firmly believe, Lady Maybridge. There was no supernatural demonstration of the fact, but I ask you, College-Mistress, now that you have seen her, can you doubt it?”

“I cannot, Matri.”

“My suggestion is, then, that Lady Maybridge be appointed Guardian of the Staff. It will be a ritual rather than an operative position. She has her work in Vintesse, but she will perhaps honor us by being present on those formal occasions when the Staff is removed from the Chamber. If this is done, College-Mistress, I assure you that both you and Lady Mayanna House will have the absolute loyalty of Vayashti.”

“It certainly makes sense, doesn’t it?” said Dr. Meldonshire.

“It makes something higher than sense, College-Mistress.”

Dr. Meldonshire made reverence first to the priestess and then to Lady Maybridge. “Would you honor us by accepting this post?” she asked.

Lady Maybridge made deep reverence. “The honor would be mine,” she said.

“I am thinking, my lady,” said Dr Meldonshire, “that I should like to come and see Nimwë College. Perhaps we should be thinking about sister-ties between the two Houses.”

The priestess turned to Lady Carleon. “Shall we let the College Mistresses discuss their business, my lady? Perhaps you would care to walk me back to my rooms.”

Out into the blazing southren sunshine stepped the priestess, escorted by Lady Carleon as she might escort any blonde. Her calling aside, thought Lady Carleon without a trace of irreverence, the two-centuried priestess was also a very fine blonde.“You know,” said Matri Carmaline, “Dr Meldonshire could not see how her prayers to Mati might have any bearing on the solution to this mystery. She is so terribly Westrenne sometimes. The word ‘solution’ took on a very narrow meaning in her mind. Now you are a detective – an amateur* one I hasten to add – and one from Quirinelle at that. But I think you understand a little more about solutions.”

Solve et coagula, Matri,” said Lady Carleon.

Solve et coagula,” repeated the priestess.

*NOTES

Trintitia is the older, and still more formal, name of Trent. Trintitiana is the Capital City of Trent.

Ad lib = "Not in the script" - unexpected, and therefore impolite. The expression is based on the understanding that what is said is to some extent ritual in nature and that rudeness consists in departing from the set ritual "form".

A yerthing means a coming-to-earth, usually of an Angelic influence. The concept is akin to the Hindu avatar, but holds less importance, since the earthly incarnation of such influences is not central to Aristasian thealogy. Shearwind the Vixen is a legendary form taken by Nimwë the Enchantress, who in turn is a lesser form of Sai Mati.

Vaya = wind, and especially the Wind of the Spirit. It is associated with Sai Mati and with inspiration.

Ray’ and hay’, short for raya and haya, are in this context used as cheer-words. Both rhyme to “die”.

The nearest equivalent to the word Raihiralan (used in this sense) in Telluria is perhaps “gentlemanly”. People described in the West as Raihiralan constitute something like an upper and upper-middle class, consisting of people of Raihira, Haiela and high-Magdala Estate. In more traditional areas, such as Maybridge, they would be known by their Estates, but here the Estate system is considerably weakened. The raihiralan girls at this College are likely to belong to that group which is neither wealthy nor aristocratic and does not usually attend the prestigious Milchford Colleges or their equivalent, but nonetheless is often leisured and considers itself part of the great Raihiralan class. [Note that Raihiralan is also the colloquial name of the dialect spoken in parts of Novaria and the hither-East.].

Several schools of Aristasian psychology or Thealogy (the two are not distinguished as wholly separate sciences but are properly continuous one from another) speak of a True Self and a false self. The latter is the passional and worldly self, the former is sometimes thought of as one’s “better self” but ultimately it is much more than that: it is the supreme Self or Atma, the Self in each of us that is identical with the Solar Spirit.

Amateur = one who does something “for love”. For a Raihira of independent means to be “professional” would be considered demeaning, at least in more traditional circles. While “amateur” has become a term of derogation in the commercially-oriented world of late-Telluria, in Aristasia its associations are with high estate rather than ineptitude.

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