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. “Well, that’s one way of putting it! Oh, pray forgive me. That was very . 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 Great River became the official boundary between the Eastern Palatinate (which later became a part of Trintitia) and Greater Nevrayapurh (which later became Novaria), leaving Maybridge on the Palatinate side, some of the more contemplative votaries left for a sister house in Novaria, while some of the votaries 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 —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 that 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.”
“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 mantelshelf.
“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.”
“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 I 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 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.”