This story is part of the Nimwë College Cycle setting the background of one of the prominent characters in the cycle. The Nimwë College Cycle is a team project to be published as a book by the Sun Daughter Press at a later date.
The warm evenings and sultry days enchanted Miss Arachanya Kashnevya. Many of her countrymaids found it oppressive, at least at first, but Miss Kashnevya was delighted by everything from the moment of her arrival – the flowering trees, the perpetual warmth, the grace and charm of the people she met – especially the Roder family with whom she had the honor of staying.
She had dreamed all her life of high and elegant company – not South Kadorian company specifically – indeed her untutored image of South Kadoria had been a shade too rustic for her liking – a shade too much akin to the plainness of her own people in the far North. But as soon as she encountered the Roders and their circle, she was enchanted. Not so much by Miss Destrine Roder, the head of the house, who struck her as a touch materialistic (no wonder she got on so well with her own family) but certainly by her delightful blonde, Chelenne, and by the gay young people who gathered there – especially the young Roders and their set.
At the same time she felt out of place. Despite the Westrenne acceptance of all “better” people as Raihiralan – a tendency more marked, in some respects, in Kadoria than in her North-West Arkadyan homeland – she felt her origins to be distinctly Magdala, and it seemed that her family never lost an opportunity to underscore that fact. And in subtle ways that she could not quite define, that seemed to matter more here in Dendreline than it ever had at home. And the truth was, she liked that. She liked the whole atmosphere of subtle exclusiveness. but she wanted to be inside it, not outside, and she feared she never would.
With the ever-seething emotions of a young blonde, she found herself alternately elated and in despair. It was during one of her desperate phases that, dressed in a flowing white frock (white always brought out a certain frail charm in her, she felt), and looking a touch like Vemera Chandleford in Young Hearts, she had taken a little rowboat out on the upper reaches of the mighty river Melfalchia that formed one boundary of the Roders’ plantation. She had no idea how to handle a boat, but then neither had Miss Chandleford in that famous scene. In fact the resemblance did not end there. Just like Miss Chandleford, she lost one oar, lost her nerve, and began to scream.
No one ever heard Miss Chandleford as she was drawn to her inevitable death and her boat plunged over the waterfall. Miss Kashnevya was luckier. A tall brunette dove into the river, silent as a fish, swam out and boarded her boat.
“I have lost an oar,” screamed the distraught Miss Kashnevya. “Now we are both doomed!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say doomed, ma’am,” said the brunette. “That word rings depressin’ to my ear. If it were needful, I could swim you back the way I came, but I wouldn’t want to dunk your pretty dress and all. I think we’ll manage with one oar.
“But the current! The waterfall!”
“There is a waterfall, it’s true, ma’am, but I reckon it would take us half a day’s good rowin’ to reach it. And a whole bit longer with one oar. I’ll just head for the bank if it don’t make no never-mind to you, ma’am.”
“Then we are saved?”
“I reckon. I know that ain’t the way it happened in the kinnie.”
“Who are you? One of the Roders’ hands?”
“You sure know a hand when you see one, ma’am.”
“There is no occasion to be impertinent. I wanted to have you rewarded, but I shouldn’t wonder I could have you whipped too.”
The brunette laughed. “I shouldn’t wonder that either ma’am.”
She disembarked deftly and handed the blonde out of the boat.
“Thank you so much,” said Miss Kashnevya. “Might I inquire as to your name?”
“Not one of the Roders? How came you to be working as a hand?”
“We’re a big family, ma’am – we ain’t all carriage trade. Would you care to have me escort you back to the house, ma’am?”
“I am capable of finding my own way, thank you.”
“As you please, ma’am.”
It was a few hours later that Destrine Roder Jr. returned home to be greeted by a disapproving blonde mother.
“My land, Dessie, what do you mean by coming home at this time? You know you are to escort Miss Kashnevya in to dinner.”
“Don’t you worry about one little thing, mama. I’ll be there with all my buttons polished.”
“You haven’t left yourself much time for dressing, dear.”
“Now have I ever let y’all down?”
“Well, there was the Matikind Reception and that dreadful time with the Dendrelina Blonde Choir, and then only last month…”
“All right, I yield. But I swear by the holy…”
“Now don’t you start swearing by anything holy or your ‘Nettie will have your hide.”
“Reckon she’s already got it. I ain’t had it back since last time.”
“And do try not to say ‘ain’t’.”
“‘Course I won’t. I’ll be a credit to y’all. Now you just stop worriting, Momsie.”
“Don’t you Momsie me.”
“Now wouldn’t you just be jealous if I Momsied anyone else?”
“Off with you! Polish those buttons.”
“Ma’am! Yes, ma’am!”
Miss Kashnevya was beginning to fret. Being escorted in to dinner by the heiress to the Roder estate was the high point of her nascent career, but while the other young blondes were already making the acquaintance of their gallant escorts, Destrine Roder Jr. had still to make her appearance.
She glanced anxiously around the crowded drawing room for any sign of an unattached young brunette. Beneath the glittering crystal chandeliers the conversation glittered yet more brightly. It was clever, elegant conversation of the sort she had read in books and missed so sorely among the plain-spoken people of her native Northland. Blondes were in voluminous skirts, as was the fashion – her own more voluminous than most, for she had persuaded her mothers that a wonderful creation from Garralette’s would reflect glory on the family. The young brunettes wore uniforms of several school Officer Cadet Corps or else slender evening frocks in black, dark red, dark green and other dashingly sumptuous hues.
Suddenly a brunette moved in her direction through the throng. One she had not seen before. Taller than most and with a carriage that bespoke power and confidence. She was in the black uniform of the Shentelle Cadet Corps – the elite of the elite – and wore several decorations. Could this be her escort? She was wonderful. Not only one of the greatest heiresses in the Duchy, but probably the most striking young brunette in the room.
And yes – she was indeed approaching Miss Kashnevya. She came closer. Miss Kashnevya had a clearer view of her and — it could not be! — Dressed and comporting herself as a young gentilmaid of the highest rank was the farmhand who had rescued her from near-death in the rowing-boat.
The brunette smiled and reverenced.
“How did you get in here?” Miss Kashnevya whispered.
“Oh I am a member of the family, albeit distant. The Mistress is very kind about these things. But should we be talking, ma’am? We have not been formally introduced.”
“Oh there you are, Dessie,” said Evelynn Roder, the heiress’s younger brunette sister. “You sure do like to slice it thin, don’t you?”
“May I crave the honor of an introduction to this blonde divinity?”
“Land sakes alive, sis – you aren’t even introduced yet? We’re going in in five minutes.”
“Then stop shootin’ flies and do the honors.”
Miss Evelynn raised her eyes heavenward. “Miss Arachanya Kashnevya, may I present my sister, Miss Destrine Roder Jr.”
Destrine Roder bowed low and kissed Miss Kashnevya’s hand. “This is one of the greatest honors of my life, ma’am.”
“I speak nothing but truth, I assure you.”
“But I thought — I mean you seemed — ”
“I know. It was my fault entirely. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?”
“I believe you are still teasing me.”
“Then I shall make it my constant endeavor to free you from that troubling belief.”
“What has changed since you were ‘a distant member of the family’ two minutes ago?”
“That most unpredictable of all things, ma’am: my heart.”
A great brass gong, out of the East, resounded to a single quivering stroke.
“Fairladies and gentilmaids, dinner is served,” announced the Seneschal.
Blonde ams were taken in strong and gentle hands. Chattering and laughing, the throng began, in measured steps, to move.
“I declayah I think I could just stay like this foah evah,” said Miss Kashnevya. She was half-reclined on several pillows in the rowboat, gazing into the white canopy of her parasol, illumined by the morning sun like the entrance to a heaven of celestial light. The warmth of the day, the plash of the oars and the breeze-blown scents of the Southern countryside left her gently stimulated in every sense but that of taste – and luncheon had been promised.
“That how you think I talk?” asked Miss Roder.
“Well yes. A blonde redaction thereof. Or maybe more how your family talks – that intonation but without all the rustic jargon.
Miss Roder laughed. “Rustic jargon. I like that. That’s good. And the ol’ family don’t use it, you reckon?”
“Well they use some characteristically South Kadori expressions of course, but not – well not –”
“Not the less eddicated talk?”
“Well –” Miss Kashnevya blushed deeply and was thankful for her parasol.
“That’s okay. I know what you’re shootin’ at.”
“Doesn’t it make life difficult at Shentelle?”
“Nope. You might be surprised to learn that a lot of the South Kadori aristocracy talks more as I do than like my family. Kandrina Standard ain’t the only school o’ speech in this great nation.”
“‘Ain’t’ and all?”
“All right, I confess some of it is just my plumb-orneriness. Anyways, Shentelle and the ol’ self have wandered our separate roads. Or anyhow, I have. They ushered me to the door.”
“But you wore the uniform last night.”
“Oh I wasn’t discharged or nothin’ noisy like that. Just invited to resign for personal reasons. I keep my honorary rank, and the uniform pleases the folks on family occasions. But I’m tellin’ you they didn’t need to invite twice. That door looked pretty good to me.”
“Weren’t you happy there?”
“I learned a lot. I made good friends.I ain’t altogether sorry I went there. ‘Fact I ain’t sorry at all. But I guess I have a different road to travel.”
“What road is that?”
“Can’t say I know. Maybe I’ll see it when I’m on it.”
“Perhaps you’re on it now.”
Miss Roder rested on her oars for a moment, gazing at the sun-flooded parasol and the white frock arranged delicately in the boat. “Y’know, that thought had occurred to me.”
They were silent for a while. The white canopy of Miss Kashnevya’s parasol radiated the good light of Sai Raya both inwardly and outwardly. Miss Roder pulled strongly but easily on the oars and both girls dreamed. In a while, the current began to assist the rower, and a distant murmur was heard which became steadily louder.
Miss Kashnevya sat up. “What is that sound?” she asked.
“That’s the falls,” replied her escort. “You wanted to see the falls, didn’t you?”
“Yes — but –”
“You aren’t going to –”
“I ain’t gonna what? Come on, spi– that is, unburden your lovely heart.”
“Oh it was nothing. It was foolishness.”
“Well tell me the foolishness. I’m pretty much a connoisseuse of the stuff myself. ‘Sides, you’ve gotten me as curious as a monkey in a maze.”
Miss Kashnevya lowered her parasol to hide her sudden coloration, The delightful warmth of the morning sun suddenly felt uncomfortably hot. “Oh it really is silly, but I suddenly thought perhaps you meant to take us over the falls, crashing to our doom amid the wild white water and the unforgiving rocks.”
“Now why would I do a plumb fool thing like that?”
“Well of course you wouldn’t. It was just a wild thought. Wild thoughts assail me sometimes, I fear.”
“But why would y’even think I might do it — even wildly?”
“Well,” Miss Kashnevya held her body rigid so as not physically to squirm, “it was what you just said about your road. The way you left your school and don’t seem of a piece with your family. I thought perhaps your road was a strange and dark one and that you had decided to take the shining road to oblivion, the last terrible leap, uniting us forever in a watery grave.”
“You think I got it bad for you, don’t you?”
“No, no — it was just my wild imagining.”
“Well I do. I love you, Miss Kashnevya. It’s a funny way to say it, but I guess we’re funny folks, you and I. That may be a bit of why I love you — just one bit. But I confess it never occurred to my prosaic soul to unite us in a watery grave. I was thinkin’ in terms of looking at the falls and then gettin’ a mite to eat. ‘Course if you’d rather go over, your wish shall be my command.”
“Do you really love me or are you laughing at me?”
“Both. I hope that ain’t troublin’ to you?”
“Not troubling at all.”
“And do you — I mean do you feel a little bit for me?”
“Do you have to ask?”
Miss Kashnevya was very taken by the great falls – the magnificence of nature, the symbolism of love and death and wild, strange adventure, the omnipresent sunflood gleaming on the white water and the presence of a brunette who had just declared her love.
When they had stood a while, rapt each in her several thoughts, they made the short walk to the Bird in the Thicket, a rather curious establishment which played host to a wide variety of people of all ranks and conditions.There was nothing like this in County Dheralanshka where Miss Kashnevya had grown up. The social order of Dendreline continued to puzzle her. The various features of the place seemed oddly assorted. There was a bar and several nicely set-out tables, a number of sporting trophies, a low chandelier. It seemed like a strange mixture of a private club, a quite good restaurant, and the sort of bar one had seen in kinemas but never been allowed to enter.
There were decidedly more brunettes than blondes, and most of them greeted Miss Roder.
“Rayati, y’all,” she called out to the room in general in a way that seemed shockingly informal to Miss Kashnevya.
“Ain’t you going to introduce us?” asked someone.
“Miss Arachanya Kashnevya, may I present the motley company of the Bird in the Thicket. I shall introduce those individuals who are respectable enough for that privilege as occasion presents.”
MIss Kashnevya blushed deeply. She had never in her life heard anything so enormate. What sort of place was this? What sort of escort had she entrusted herself to? What strange kind of person had declared love for her? She began to feel the terror of utter strangeness.
A respectable-looking blonde waitress conducted them to an immaculately linened-and-silvered table. Miss Roder handed her a blonde menu, without prices, and Miss Kashnevya began to feel a little more on home ground – almost as if the first moments in the establishment had been a topsy-turvy dream and she was now awake in the normal world again.
“Who are these people?” she whispered.
“Just the Bird in the Thicket crowd,” said Miss Roder, at nerve-wrackingly full volume. “It is a country hostelry, but it is very close to Dendrina. They are a mixture of plain country folks and what we amusin’ly call artistic folks and some of the looser local gentry. Now when I say ‘looser’, ma’am, I don’t mean nothing bad. Just a little more relaxed than my folks are. They are good folks. You’ll like ‘em.”
Miss Kashnevya did not feel certain of that. She gave her attention to the menu, which contained many strange-looking dishes, but she was nothing if not adventurous. She asked lots of questions about the food and decided to try several things she had never had before.
“And may I suggest the Senfercile to go with your interesting combination. It is really the only wine that will complement everything.”
“Wine?” said Miss Kashnevya nervously.
“Yes. You do drink wine?”
“Well, yes, I have, of course –”
“Good. Will you be guided by me and take the Senfercile?”
“Why, yes, certainly.”
As they awaited their meal, Miss Roder pointed out some of the features of the establishment and some of its more notable patronettes.
“That’s Miss Jilver-Mai Tarling there with the fiddle. She’s goin’ to play for us, I reckon. She makes her own tunes. They ain’t half bad either.”
“Her own tunes? How clever. Where I come from everyone plays the old tunes.”
“Nothin’ wrong with the old tunes. Sometimes, though we think there is something new that needs to be sung.”
“My ‘nettie says if it hasn’t been said by our great mothers then it can’t be true.”
“Yeah. My ‘nettie says that too. But y’know each age has its own art, its own music, its own life. It doesn’t replace the old ones – we still tell the old stories and sing the old songs – but we also feel new feelin’s and have new things to say.”
“Do you think so? Isn’t the old wisdom the true one?”
“O’course it is. But we live in time. The warp of life never moves – it descends down from Heaven to earth like the light-beams o’ th holy angels. But the weft is always moving across them, changing, turning, weaving in and out. You can’t live with only the warp or with only the weft. If you said everything is change and development and nothing is absolute, you’d be wrong. You’d be denyin’ the very Source of our existence. But if you said nothin’ ever changes and new things don’t arise, you’d be just as wrong. Then you’re denyin’ the weft and actin’ as though we don’t live in time.”
Miss Kasnnevya tried to make sense of this. Her head felt just a little bit fuzzy. She tried to think of something intelligent to say, and eventually just said “My, you are clever.” She found herself extraordinarily admiring of this loquacious brunette even though she could not quite persuade her mind to fix exactly on the words.
By this time, Miss Tarling was already fiddling. Her music seemed to mix the rustic folk idiom of southern Dendreline with something of the Neo-Romantic spirit of composers like Miss Clorasch and yet it was really quite different from either.
Miss Roder observed the intentness with which her companion was listening.
“You like it?” she asked.
“Oh I adore it,” said Miss Kashnevya, a little too enthusiastically.
“Here come the horses’ doovers,” said Miss Roder. “I think you can use a bite to eat.”
Everything was wonderful. The food was wonderful, the music was wonderful, the place was wonderful and Miss Roder was super-wonderful. They were wonderful in a warm, slightly foggy, sort of way that only made them wonderfuller still.
As they were finishing an absolutely wonderful dessert (Miss Kashnevya’s was sweet enough to make a brunette’s hair curl) someone came over to their table. Miss Roder introduced her as Miss Melford.
“Ain’t you gonna sing for us, Miss Roder?” she asked.
“I am not,” she replied. “Can’t you see I’m escortin’ a high-born blonde?”
“I can see that with ever-growin’ admiration. But I know honored Miss Kashnevya would like to hear you sing.”
“Oh yes, I should!” said Miss Kashnevya.
“That ain’t fair,” said Miss Roder. “She has to say that.”
“But it’s true,” said Miss Kashnevya. “I really want to hear you. I love the music here and I know yours will be best of all.”
“That ain’t wrong,” said Miss Melford. “Miss Roder really is one o’ the best around these parts.”
“Ain’t brung m’chittie,” said Miss Roder with an air of stubborn finality.
“Miss Sanders will loan you hers,” said Miss Melford.
“I can’t play any chittie but mine.”
“Sure you can. You played Miss Sanders’ swan back around Luciad. You know you did. When the Brightsea girls were — ”
“Put a sock in it. Miss Kashnevya doesn’t want to hear that story.”
“But she does want to hear y’sing.”
“Oh yes I do. Please sing for us, Miss Roder.”
And so Miss Roder sang, enchanting the extra-susceptible Miss Kashnevya as she had never been enchanted in her young life. Miss Roder was no ordinary singer. While her style was in some ways that which had been developed over the past decade by the Dendreline School (as it was later to be called – actually it was, like many great schools in their infancy, no more than a group of passionate young people with a new vision), she brought to it a touch of true genius. Miss Roder’s songs touched the deepest recesses of the heart in a manner, both musical and lyrical, that was deceptively simple, and few people who really listened ever failed to be moved by it.
“It was so lovely, and so – so sad,” said Miss Kashnevya, as her escort and enchantress rowed her home. “Is that what is in your heart, Miss Roder?”
Miss Roder nodded. “I reckon it is.”
“You always seem so – so jinky. You never seem to take anything seriously. And yet your music is so deep and lovely. And so sad.”
“Everyday talk never meant much to me. In the old days, folks used to declaim their hearts in the same words they spoke over the breakfast table, and their howdy-do was never more’n a skip and a jump from poetry. Now, somehow, our talk has gotten to be flattened down. The things we really mean, we have to sing. Leastways, I do.”
“Your talk is so close to the earth and your songs so close to the heavens. You are a contradiction you know.”
“Am I? I don’t know. The earth is always lookin’ up at the heavens. The things that grow in the earth turn their faces to meet the sun. That’s how I am, I reckon.”
They arrived at the banks of the Roder estate and Miss Roder handed Miss Kashnevya out of the boat.
“I’ll be here tomorrow if you want to meet me,” she said.
“Why must we meet here?” asked Miss Kashnevya. “Why can’t you come to the house like a normal caller? Why you aren’t even a caller – it’s your house you know, or will be.”
“No, it won’t be mine. I was born there, but it ain’t where I belong. That’s another story and I’ll tell it you one day. Meet me here tomorrow.”
“As sure as the sun will greet the dawn.”
But in the affairs of maidens, nothing is that sure.
Destrine Roder came to the house after all, but not to see Miss Kashnevya. She came in response to an urgent summons from her brunette mother and was greeted by one of her tirades.
“What do you mean, you aren’t coming to the meeting? It is one of the most important of business events of the year.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, honest I am. I didn’t get enough notice.”
“Notice? What are you? A tycoon in your own right? What is there in your crowded itinerary of vital engagements that cannot be canceled? Buy the blonde a diamond bracelet if she is that upset. I’ll even pay for it if you want.”
“It ain’t – it isn’t a blonde, ma’am. I’ve been engaged to sing. It is a long-standing arrangement. A lot of work has gone into this event. It is important to the Sisterhood. I can’t just let them down.”
“Sing? You are refusing to come to a meeting that is vital to the future of our estate in order to sing? What orchestra are you singing with?”
“No orchestra, ‘Nettie, just some girls with their chitties, but this is an important thing to us. We’ve been working a long time and –”
“So you are refusing your responsibilities in order to be with a gang of tavern singers?”
“That isn’t the right way to put it, ma’am.”
“So where do these people do their singing? In concert halls? Or in taverns?”
“In taverns, ma’am, but –”
“Now let me make this clear. You have a long history of neglecting your duties. I have been absurdly over-indulgent with you. But if you fail me this time, you are disinherited. When the time comes, your sister Evelynn will take over the whole estate. You know me, Destrine Roder. I am a maid of my word. I will not go back on this.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever listened to me, ma’am. I’ve said a hundred times, I’ve no intention of takin’ over the Estate. You give it to Evelynn. She’s the right maid for the job. She wants it. She’ll do it well. My destiny leads elsewhere.”
“Your destiny? Your destiny? Why, you pompous young whippersnapper. Your head is filled with these romantic kinematics from the North and from” (she pronounced the word with distaste) “Quirinelle. You’ll grow out of this, but if you do not obey me today it will be too late. Do you understand?”
“I understand, ma’am. May I go now?”
“Go by all means, and don’t trouble yourself to come back.”
As Miss Roder Jr. left the house, Miss Kashnevya ran after her.
“Miss Roder – what has happened?”
“Little altercation darlin’. Nothin’ new – it’s been a long quarrel, but it’s over now.”
“Are we going on the river?”
“I’m sorry. I have some things to arrange. I’ll be away a few weeks. But I’ll be back. You’ll wait for me, won’t you?”
The few weeks became a month. The month became six weeks. A long time in the lives of young hearts. But Miss Roder did return.
She came to the house, as Miss Kashnevya had wished her to, as a proper caller. She was granted an audience in the drawing room. She waited a few minutes and Miss Kashnevya came to her.
“Rayati, Miss Roder.”
“Rayati, Miss Kashnevya.”
There was an awkward silence.
“I am sorry I was away so long. I had an engagement in the Lucialia and – well – it has all felt a bit difficult – coming back you know. I guess you’ve heard about it all.”
“Yes, I’ve heard.”
“I missed you, y’know – all the time. Every day. Every minute.”
“Did you really?
“Really. Did you miss me?”
“Of course I did.”
“Would you care to take that trip on the river? I know it’s been a mite delayed.”
“I – I don’t think I should.”
“What do you mean by that, darlin’?”
“I mean – oh there’s no good way to tell you this. I am engaged.”
“Engaged? May I ask to whom? Was this some family arrangement from back home?”
“No, it wasn’t an arrangement. It was love.”
“Then who –”
“Your sister Evelynn.”
“Well, congratulations. Evelynn is a peach of a brunette. You’ll be very happy.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Well, I guess I’m a little disappointed for myself, but I’m happy for y’all.”
“I’m glad of that. And we can still be friends. We’ll make the gayest threesome!”
“I b’lieve not. I have some things I must do. I don’t b’lieve I’ll be seeing you for a whiles.”
“Where are you going?”
“Not – because of me?”
“It’s somethin’ I’ve been considerin’. I guess you helped me make up my mind, that’s all.”
“Don’t – please don’t go.”
“Sugar, you can’t keep a possum for a pet and have it for supper too.”
“When will you be back?”
“Someday. Maybe. Maybe I’ll come and see all your little’uns one fine day. You could name the first brunette for me. In fact I reckon you’ll have to. ‘Nettie will see to that. She’ll be the heiress, after all.”
“I thought you were back to stay,” said Miss Melford when Miss Roder came to pick up her few possessions from the Bird in the Thicket.
“Nope. Headin’ north.”
“No forwardin’ address, I suppose?”
“It ain’t because of that Arkady blonde is it?”
“It ain’t because of anythin’. It’s just because.”
“What you reckonin’ to find in the big wide world?’
“Now if I knew that ‘fore I went it would spoil all the fun in goin’, wouldn’t it?”
“I guess. See you some day then.”
But that day was to be far in the future.