“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 like a child.
“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 the 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 janya 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 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 Queen 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 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.