chalice Page 10

She had waited what seemed rather a long time with her head bowed, hoping that he would go away, waited until she began to worry that there was some ritual gesture that was now hers to make that he was waiting for. She raised her head at last, reluctantly, and found him staring at her with an intensity she disliked a great deal.

"I hoped," he said with a diffidence she was sure was feigned, "that you might have a little time for me."

Involuntarily she glanced at the book still open on the table. The driest record of a thousand-year-old court award ceremony would have been preferable to spending time with Horuld, and what she was reading did not merely interest her but drew her almost feverishly. She had not seen the Master for private speech since his first meeting with Horuld, although she often felt his presence in the earthlines, and she wondered what he thought of his Heir, and what he was, or wasn't, doing to make his Heir acceptable to the demesne. She realised in the shock of Horuld's unexpected and unwanted presence that part of her feverishness to learn about outblood Heirs was that she suspected the Master of trying to persuade the demesne to find Horuld satisfactory, even desirable. This was only what a responsible Master would do, but….

"Of course," she said, after too long a pause. "Chalice and Heir must" – she stumbled over her attempt to find words she could bring herself to say – "be acquainted."

And she went with him. But when he offered her his arm she pretended not to see, and instead folded her own arms in the ritual shape of a Chalice without a chalice. elbows tucked closely in, wrists crossed and hands loosely clasped. It had only ever been something to do with her hands on those fortunately few occasions when the Chalice was expected to attend but with no cup to present; today it felt like warding.

He had nothing to say to her; nothing of substance. She kept waiting for him to reveal his purpose – the purpose that was keeping her away from her reading – and answered as briefly as possible, almost falling into monosyllables and then remembering with an effort that she had to be polite to him; trying to prevent her mind wandering from his pointless remarks about the weather, about the picture or ornament in this or that hallway of the House, about that bird which had sat singing outside the House when he arrived. At each new topic she would jerk her attention back to focus, expecting to hear what he wished to speak about at last. The weather? Was there an omen in it? There were those who could read the future in the shape of the clouds, or said they could – although the Weatheraugur, whom Mirasol thought wistfully she rather liked, said this was nonsense. The painting of the yellow fruit outside one of the lesser meeting rooms – she'd always thought it rather dull herself – had it perhaps belonged to the forebear Horuld could trace his Heirship to, and he was suggesting that it should be more prominently displayed? The bird – he couldn't be talking about a redsong, could he? Redsongs were commoner than mud in a wet season. If he was trying to imply that a redsong singing for his arrival meant the demesne welcomed him, he was a fool.

He went on and on. As Chalice – and she did not plan ever to be Mirasol for this man – she could not be asked to sit and chat, so they had to stand or keep moving. They paced slowly through the House and then he took her for a stroll around the gardens, remarking on a shrub or a flower as if imparting some new perception, while she felt half mad from boredom, and from his extreme ignorance of plants. It occurred to her to wonder if anyone so ignorant could be Master; no garden would flourish under the weight of such ineptitude, which would put a greater burden on the gardeners and the rest of the Circle. And yet Horuld's animation seemed to increase the longer he held her prisoner. He caught her eye every opportunity he had – and she felt she had to meet his eyes occasionally – and smiled as if he believed she was happy in his company.

Once or twice she caught him looking at her in a way…she had to be imagining it; no Chalice and Master, nor Master's Heir, could…but the look made her long for the heavy camouflaging Chalice's robes, when ordinarily she was extremely grateful to be free of them for a day.

She finally managed to stop at one of the gates to the garden and resist being swept any farther. She did not know how she could take leave of him; she'd been clutching the formality of the Chalice to her with her clasped hands against her breast and therefore had to maintain the Chalice's character. She was sure a Chalice could not dismiss an Heir, but she didn't know how to get rid of him, and he gave the impression that he would cling to her forever if she did not. So she stopped and stood and bowed her head and refused to meet his eyes for several minutes – her heart beating in her throat in fear of the terrible insult she might be offering – and at last he thanked her for the noble condescension of her company – ugh, she thought, keeping her face blank – and bowed several times as he backed away from her. Backed away from her, she thought, troubled, when he finally seemed to have gone away and left her alone, and she risked raising her head again. Backed away. What had she given him that he was so pleased with?

She half ran back to the library, but her concentration was gone. She read a little more, about mixtures to be thought of when dealing with outblood Heirs, when the Master was present and when he was not, how both to delimit and to integrate such an Heir's place in the demesne. And then she shut the book and picked up another, smaller book that she could take with her back to her cottage. Perhaps reading within the sound of her bees would help bring her mind back to her business again; she would be positively glad of some ordinary unexpected visitor hoping for help or honey…. She didn't understand why she felt such a sense of doom. All that had happened was that she had lost two hours to a nonentity…except that he wasn't a nonentity. He was little enough in himself, but he was the Overlord's pawn and a danger to her demesne, and to her Master.

The walk back to her cottage settled her nerves a little; enough, at least, that she could open her new book and begin to read it without missing every other word. The amount of reading she did now was yet another of the strains of being Chalice. Her mother had taught her to read, and she had a few record books of this little corner of the demesne's woods (she kept telling herself she should pass these on to the new keepers, but she never quite got round to it), her father's account books, and one of the lives and meanings and symbolism of the trees of the demesne. She had used this when she had planted trees for her bees – birch, beech and hawthorn, but also a parasol tree. There hadn't been a parasol tree outside the House gardens in generations, but the one at the edge of her meadow was already twice as tall as she was, and her bees adored its flowers.

Most important she had her mother's receipt book, which had been her grandmother's and her great-grandmother's before that. It contained brisk notations of three generations of beekeeping which backed what her mother had taught her and therefore made some of the inevitable moments of learning by experience a little less overwhelming. It furthermore included things like how to tan leather and how to mix clay and straw for bricks and then how to bake them, useful things that any member of the small folk of the demesne might want to know.

But barring a little burst of winter weeks when she had studied the tree book she had never spent real time reading. Till she became Chalice. Her eyes were often tired now, but worse her mind was tired; she felt that the shape of her memory had been laid down when she'd learnt bees and woodcraft, and that neither shape readily held books or Chalice. She was not old, but she was old for learning something that should have begun when she was young.

It was cold early this year. She got up to close the door and the windows and to light the laid fire. Other years she might have worried that her bees would stop producing honey too soon, and that she would have difficulty bringing them through the winter. Perhaps there were advantages to being Chalice after all. But then bees which had (apparently) stopped building combs for their honey so as to let it pour out for their Chalice might not remember how to start again in time to manufacture sufficient winter stores. She would have to count how many colonies she was taking honey from and do some sums. I don't think I have enough shelf space for that much honey, if I have to feed them, she thought, let alone enough jars.

The memory of the time she had spent in Horuld's company still lay like a burden on her. But would it have been any better if she were still only a woodskeeper who also kept bees? She had always cared passionately about the demesne. Not all its folk did; some of them figured demesne business was for the Master and the great folk of the House and the Circle, not the ordinary small folk of barn and field, woodright and lake, even House kitchen and stable. But then many of the ordinary demesne folk did not feel the earthlines as she always had – as her parents both had, although not as strongly as she did. If she had not become Chalice, she would have been one of the people standing around the House doors the day the new Master had come home from Fire.

And she would not have liked the look of the Heir, even as a woodskeeper. And as a woodskeeper she could have done nothing about it. The problem was that she doubted there was anything she could do about it even as Chalice. Why did this afternoon with Horuld lie on her so, as if it would stop her breath? She shivered.

She went to the door and opened it. She could not hear her bees any more; they had wisely withdrawn into their warm hives. She took a deep breath of the suddenly winter air. There were even a few snowflakes falling, nearly a month earlier than usual. She found herself worrying whether the early cold had anything to do with a new Master who used to be a priest of Fire.

She went back indoors again and moved the kettle over the centre of the fire. She'd have hot water with a little mead and a little honey in it, which she liked better than any tisane, and keep reading. The terrible need to learn – to learn something, she did not know what – about Heirs continued to pull at her. She didn't know if she had brought the right book with her, but it had been the book her hand had fallen on, and she'd come to follow such signs, now she was Chalice, having no mentor to give her better guidance.

It was late when she found it. She should have gone to bed over an hour before, but in her mind there was still the little nagging voice telling her to keep on, that she hadn't found it yet, that she had to find it. And so she kept on. She was so blind to everything by then – blind with reading, blind with anxiety, blind with a too-narrow focus of concentration – that she almost missed it.

And so it was that the Heir was installed to great rejoicing amongst all the folk of the demesne, and all saw that the choice of Heir had been a wise one, for all that his outbloodedness had been great, and there had been those who had doubted he could be made of the demesne as a Master must be. But the Overlord had chosen his seers well, and they had read the earthlines truly, and the earthlines had told him where to look, that the Heir-blood ran to this man and not some other. And the demesne flourished from the moment his hand was laid upon it, and there was no hindrance nor turbulence, no discontent in tree nor well, no revolt in beast nor human. And the Overlord was pleased, because this gained him both praise and power, that he should have chosen so perfectly; but there were those who had watched and considered all, who said that it was less to do with the sagacity and good judgement of the Overlord and his seers than with the profound pragmatism of the marriage of the Heir to his Chalice. This convention is not well known, for it is so awfully and fearfully against what is well known, which is that the Master must not marry nor otherwise fondly touch his Chalice in any analogous manner, for the Chalice's power is to bind and the Master's to rule, and mixed they create an abominable disharmony, for they make weight and stillness when there should be lightness and motion. But in a state of disharmony, as an outblood Master conjoined to a demesne, such a tie is the pair's highest work, and creates a small harmony from a larger disharmony, from which a larger harmony may grow, in the shape of the child of their coupling who shall next be Master, and who shall call from the demesne by the strength of his inbred harmony the perfect Chalice to complement him.

She had already begun to study the directions for the preparation of the cup that would enable such a connection to be made between Master and Chalice when it finally sank in what she had read.

Marry Horuld!

That was the reason Horuld wished to speak – had been directed to speak to her. That was the reason he had looked at her –

She went to the door again and opened it, and half flung herself out into the cold clean-smelling darkness, away from the warmth of the cottage and the book she had been reading, which she suddenly felt must smell rotten, must be polluting the room it lay open in. She went back inside just long enough to shut it, tipping its cover over with the end of one finger, as if greater contact might make her ill. Then she wrapped herself in both her shawl and her cloak and went outdoors again, and walked, walked away, any way at all….

There was still snow in the air. She guessed it had been falling lightly, laconically, since she had first noticed it, but the ground was still too warm for it to lie. Some of the trees had a dusting of snow on their leaves. There had been no clear signs of a hard winter, and the harvest had come in safely with no more than the usual number of sudden storms. Thunderstorms, so long as they were not too destructive, were a sign of good luck; the very violence of them showed the strength in the harvest they raged over. In a harvest season with no storms the saying was that the crops were weak, and would give little nourishment. Fire of all things, she felt, was strong; she in common with many other of the Willowlands folk had feared too many storms at harvest rather than too few.

The only lightning-set fire had been the one at Onora Grove.

She lifted her face to the snowflakes and let them brush her skin – they felt a little like the feet of her bees – till they had swept away the murk of too much reading, till she felt like herself again. Marrying Horuld was no worry of hers. The demesne had a Master.

She turned around, returned to her cottage, put an extra blanket on her bed, and slept dreamlessly.

In the morning she tucked the book under her arm as if it had no power over her, and took it back to the House. There were other books to read, and she still needed to know as much as she could about outblood Heirs. The fearful little voice that had driven her to keep reading the night before had fallen silent; what she now wanted to know was if there was a way for a Chalice to say "sorry, I'm busy" to an outblood Heir who wanted to waste her time.

When the shadow fell again across the door of the library, she gave an involuntary shiver, nearly a spasm, of revulsion – not again! But it wasn't the Heir. It was the Grand Seneschal.

It was no good reminding herself that a Chalice had only to stand for a standing Master; she had scrambled to her feet before she'd thought anything but uh-oh. Once standing all her possible ceremonial gestures deserted her and she merely blinked at him and tried not to worry. The Grand Seneschal did not like the library. This was a fact well known to the Housefolk, who also knew they were therefore unlikely to be caught up for it if the books were not tended properly. The result was that Mirasol had to wipe the dust, and occasional spiders, off almost every book she took down. Fortunately the House cats had no such reservations and there were no mouse nests (at least that Mirasol had found) behind decapitated bindings. She stood and blinked some more. If the Grand Seneschal had come to the library there must be some unexpected urgency for the Chalice. Uh-oh.

But he only stood in the doorway and looked at her while she stood and looked at him. She was tired – she had had a very late night the night before – and she always had trouble dragging herself out of anything she was reading back into the real world, perhaps because reading was still difficult for her, or perhaps because, since she had become Chalice, she liked the real world less than she had. Eventually she tried a small bow. She'd never known him not to address her with grimmest formality, and here he was only standing there, as if he did not know how to begin. She finally thought of a suitable gesture, and touched her fingertips together and held her hands out toward him, in the ritual giving of first speech to another.

Still he hesitated. At last he said, in a curious, almost jerky way, as if the words were ripped out of him, as if he had not chosen to speak at all, "I had thought you…concurred in my choice of Master. In my attempt to bring our Master home. Even that you welcomed him. That despite his formidable priesthood his true blood as the younger brother of the former Master was proof that he was yet best for our demesne…."

She was so amazed at the Grand Seneschal saying I and my and you to her that it took her a moment to translate what he was saying. The Grand Seneschal had never spoken to her directly before; he spoke forbiddingly and exclusively in the third person when he had to address her at all, and had never – she felt – let it be anything but clear that he only addressed her because she had somehow, incredible as it seemed, become Chalice, and the Grand Seneschal was, unfortunately, too often compelled to address the Chalice. And now he spoke to her directly – and as if in great grief.

In his choice of Master? Those very early days of her Chalicehood were vague in her memory, with an overwhelming confusion and disbelief that even in retrospect made her wince and wish to avoid them. The Grand Seneschal's letter had already been written and sent by the time she had begun to bear Chalice to the gatherings of the Circle, but even in her dazed and muddled state she'd been aware that not all the other Circle members had agreed with the Grand Seneschal's decision. She could only remember hearing Prelate and Sunbrightener say as much aloud, but she was sure they were not the only ones. Perhaps the Grand Seneschal had been in the minority – he might, she thought, almost amused, be the only one, and had won his victory by mere force of character. The Grand Seneschal ranked third in the Circle hierarchy, after the Master and the Chalice, but he could not overbear the other nine – unless they let him.

She had been surprised to discover that the Grand Seneschal had written to the priests of Fire, because it was not a level-headed, dispassionate thing to do. In other circumstances it might have made her like him. But there had been no level-headed thing to do, because the Master should not have died with no Heir. What else was there to do but seek his nearest blood relative?

How could the Grand Seneschal think she did not support their Master?

She dropped her hands. "But – I do – I would have no other Master." She glanced at the book she had been reading, much as she had done when Horuld had interrupted her the day before; but she was not thinking that she wished to dismiss the Grand Seneschal because he disturbed her, only that she had not yet found a way to dismiss the Heir if he disturbed her again.

"It is all over the demesne that you spent the day with the Heir yesterday."

"The day," she said, appalled. "It was two hours – it felt like a century – if it had been an entire day I – I would have run away from Willowlands before sunset." She did not think of how irresponsible (and impossible) a thing this was for a Chalice to say; only how best to express her revulsion against the Heir.

Something that might almost have been a smile appeared on the Seneschal's face, but disappeared again immediately, and the grief seemed to deepen. He did not sound accusatory when he spoke, only sad. "And that you held your hands clasped, as Chalice."

"Ye-es," she said. "Yes – but I – I did not want to be Mirasol with that – man," although as she said her own name she wondered if the Seneschal even knew it, or if he might think that Mirasol was some strange low slang common among minor woodskeepers.

As if he did not know what else to do, the Seneschal wandered over to the table next to the one she stood beside, pulled out a chair and sat heavily down. She was clearly not bearing Chalice, so anyone might sit down in her presence without consequences, but this was still as out of character as the I and the you. Also the Seneschal always behaved with great precision, and he sat down with a thud, as if exhausted.

"I feared it might be something like this," he murmured. Louder he said, "Why did you not merely send him away?"

"Send him away?" she said. "Send away the Heir? I only wish I could – that I knew how." She looked at the book again. "I was hoping some book would tell me how, in case he comes back."

"How could you send away the Heir?" the Grand Seneschal said, almost gently. "By telling him to go. You, Mirasol, are Chalice. He is only Heir."

"But – "