ROSE HOUSE was a much bigger affair than the Founding House. Clearly the college was growing rapidly. Lady Carleon drove the car in and walked up to the main building. Unlike Queen Mayanna Hall at this time of year, it seemed quite busy. Girls were playing tennis, walking arm in arm, sitting under trees and reading. It certainly had not the air of a working girls’ lay college, quite apart from the fact that nobody looked as if she were working.
Two girls carrying tennis racquets approached her. “Rayati. Who are you?” asked one of them, making the most respectable reverence she had seen thus far in Vintesse.
“Rayati,” said Lady Carleon, returning reverence. “I was just taking a look at this lovely House.”
“It is fine, isn’t it?” said the girl. “But you can’t just wander in here, you know. It’s private.”
Lady Carleon reverenced deeply. “Please forgive my enormity,” she said. “It is so beautiful that I was attracted like a poor moth to a radiant light. I beg you to forgive me.”
Even in Vintesse, a formal and traditional apology is understood and calls forth both courtesy and generosity.
“You are so kind to our little college,” said the girl, making reverence. “Pray do not think me officious. I am a prefect here and must maintain proper order. But let me show you about.”
“You are more than generous. And a prefect, no less. I thought this was a lay college.”
“Such things are not unheard of. In any case, our Mistress has her own ways of doing things. She has built this great college from nothing in a few short years. These are the tennis courts.”
“She must be a most remarkable person.”
“Oh yes, she is. The formal gardens are over there. One day they will be the finest in Vintesse.”
“I had thought Nimwë was a working girls’ college.”
“It began that way. The Houses in town still are. But this House attracts girls. It is becoming quite a center of culture. The Mistress will never desert the working girls’ Houses, though. Their members can come for summer schools and things here. They are given free tickets to our theatrical performances and sometimes get up shows of their own that are put on here. The Mistress is making a new type of college. Something that could only exist here in the North, she says.”
“How very fascinating.”
A great cheer rose from a little way off. Several voices in unison:
“Nimwë till the day we die!”
“Our longsword fighters are having a tourney,” explained the prefect. “We shall take on Sai Mati next term.”
“Sai Mati College, Milchford?”
“They have the best longswordsmaids in the West.”
“Wait till next term and see if you can still say that.”
“I like your spirit, I must say. Whom should I see to arrange to meet Lady Maybridge?”
The prefect laughed gently. “One doesn’t see the Mistress just like that.”
“I think she may see me. Would you know how to get her a message?”
“Is it important?”
“Yes, it is rather.”
“What is the message?”
“If she could be told that Lady Carleon is here from Queen Mayanna House. I have come about a Staff. I think she will understand.”
The prefect reverenced deeply. “My lady, I am sorry; I did not realize—”
“It is I who should apologize,” said Lady Carleon. “I have been slightly deceptive, but had I not been so I should not have had your charming company, and I assure you that I have valued it greatly.”
The prefect made reverence again. “Thank you, my lady. Please sit in the rose garden here. I shall come and fetch you shortly.”
Lady Carleon made a little reverence. “Thank you,” she said.
The rose garden was truly charming. The shouts and laughter of girls floated on the summer breeze. The college was very different from Queen Mayanna House, but it had a life and vibrancy that was quite palpable. It seemed young and energetic, like Vintesse itself.
After a time, a tall lady approached the little wrought-iron bench on which Lady Carleon was sitting. She was wearing an academic gown and a long frock, in contrast to the short skirts that Lady Carleon had almost ceased to be shocked by, which were seen everywhere in Vintesse. The lady was elegant and yet slightly aggressive in her movements; she had an air of command, and she looked exactly like the portrait of the fourth Countess of Maybridge.
Lady Carleon rose to her feet and made reverence.
“Rayati, my lady. I am Lady Maybridge.”
“Rayati. You do me great honor, my lady. I was not expecting you to join me out here.”
“I like to do the unexpected. Very un-Maybridge-like, no doubt. But then, I am disinherited and I do as I please.”
“You have done something very wonderful, if I may say so, my lady,” said Lady Carleon, looking about her at the college.
“I am supposed to say that the college is but a poor place and I am embarrassed to entertain you here, not so? Well, I am proud of it. Thanks to my dear scholars, it is a fine place.”
Lady Carleon was slightly shocked at the bitterness of Lady Maybridge’s words. Considering all that she had achieved and was achieving, Lady Carleon had expected her to be more confident, more independent of the blows that fate had dealt her family. Still, a thousand years of tradition is not easily replaced, and the very presence of a visitor from Queen Mayanna House may have touched a raw spot.
“Forgive me,” said Lady Maybridge, reverencing stiffly. “I am a Northren barbarian, as you see. I was born here, you know. Please tell me how I may serve you.”
“Very simply, my lady, by giving me the Crystal Staff of Queen Mayanna.”
“What makes you imagine that I possess the Staff?”
“I do not imagine, my lady: I know. And I understand why you believe it is right to keep it. I know that you came to Queen Mayanna House and examined the seals on the door of the Staff Chamber—”
“And I suppose you think I was preparing to steal it.”
“Quite the contrary, my lady. I know that you could not have taken the Staff from the Chamber on that day, because it was already gone from the Chamber by that day. It was precisely that action that made me certain you were honorable.”
“So—if the staff were here—you would know how it came here.”
“I do indeed, my lady.”
“You know that nobody could either have forged those seals nor gained entrance to the room without breaking them.”
“And if the Staff returned through a sealed door across a thousand and more miles to the True Guardian—”
“If so, then whatever the law says it would be not only the right but the duty of the True Guardian to retain it. I think even a court would uphold that—at least in the South. That is why you examined those seals, isn’t it, my lady? To make sure that the Staff came to you by no natural means and that you had the right to retain it.”
“It is an interesting theory, my lady,” said Lady Maybridge.
“But suppose I could demonstrate how the Staff really came to be here and that it happened by perfectly natural—though misguided—human agency. Would you not then be bound in honor to return it?”
“I am intrigued,” said Lady Maybridge. “Pray continue.”