The Adventure of the Crystal Staff Chapter 1 - The Sealed Room

ladycarleonTHE 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  and Novarya 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 also 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 facilitated 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 Sai Herthe 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 , with the mistress to whom she was apprenticed. In the West, with the decline—though by no means death—of the guilds and the 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. 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, Herthelans 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, and 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 primarily South-Trentish and secondarily 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  Verice Ayakhani-chei into the room. Lady Carleon stood up and Ayakhani-chei reverenced deeply. Lady Carleon made smaller reverence.

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

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

Ayakhani-chei was a young daughter of one of the noblest houses in Miralene; a pure Estrenne who spoke the Westrenne dialect more perfectly than many 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.”

Ayakhani-chei 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 Ayakhani-chei, “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 Ayakhani-chei, 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 Ayakhani-chei 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 Ayakhani-chei 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 Herthelan 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 Sai Herthe. 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, Ayakhani-chei 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, as you know, will begin our new term.”

“That is part of the Great Queen Mayanna Festival,” said Lady Carleon to Ayakhani-chei.

“I look forward to it, ma’am,” said Ayakhani-chei. “It will be my first.”

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

“Yes, ma’am. Do you know the story of the Crystal Staff, Ayakhani-chei? It is 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, Ayakhani-chei—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 Ayakhani-chei.

The River Thamë, the longest river in Western Sai Herthe, which in its south-western reaches forms the boundary between the nations of Trintitia and Novarya.
The Magdala Estate includes craftsmaids, farmers, and merchants.
Trintitia is the older and more formal name of Trent, the central province of the Western Empire. Trintitiana is the capital city of Trent.