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 River 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 that 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 into 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 the silent quad that 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 Sai Herthe.
The old priestess smiled. She was a blonde who was near to her two-hundred and fiftieth year, yet her face had the childlike clarity of a votary. Like many of these unworldly old-style , she would doubtless sail serenely into her fifth half-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 center 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 her black skirt with its long triangular white-lined 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?”
“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.”
Ayakhani-chei 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?”
“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 inquiry. 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 with 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.”
“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 fger 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.”