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"By spending time in his company – as Chalice, as you did – you were giving him your favour – your warranty. He will have gone away to send word to the Overlord that the Chalice of Willowlands supports him. Do you not know – you spend so much time reading" – and in his voice at last was the tone she was used to hearing when the Grand Seneschal spoke to her – "can you possibly not know that there is a move to put our Master aside and set the Heir in his place?"

"No!" she cried – although she had feared as much. "No, no – how could you think it? I would myself die, if it were necessary, to keep our Master; but the only story of a Chalice doing so, it was at Stonehollow, twelve generations ago, and it did not work and so…" Without thinking, she turned to glance up at the shelf where the book that had told her that story stood, and when she turned back again she was suddenly angry. "Reading. Yes. Yes, I do spend a tremendous amount of time reading – I should have known that I was giving that lizard Horuld my blessing? How was I to know it, please? When did I serve my apprenticeship, and with whom? Who speaks to me at all, since I became Chalice, except those who must?" She glared down at the sitting Seneschal. "I am far too strange and grand now for my old friends, even if they knew that a Chalice might send away an Heir with no form but the bare words of command – which I rather doubt they do know. All I have is reading. The books do not scorn or avoid my company, and they tell me plainly what they know."

"Forgive me," he said.

She heard him say "forgive me" and had a sense of dislocation and preposterousness almost as great as she had had on the day the Circle came to tell her she was chosen Chalice. She sat down with a thump as abrupt as the Grand Seneschal's had been.

"I guessed that," he went on, "yesterday, when Zinna brought me the news of the Chalice and the Heir – followed by Dora and Mallie and Sim bringing me the same news. I guessed that you did not know. You are right. I have blamed you often for the things you did not know. My only excuse, and it is no excuse, but I have only seen that now, last night and this morning" – and she realised, looking at him, that he had probably had even less sleep than she – "my only excuse is that I too have felt beleaguered by events. It is hard enough to lose a Master; harder yet to lose him unexpectedly and in such a way…. There are not even any folk-tales of how a Seneschal may best fulfil his obligation when his demesne has neither Master nor Chalice." Softly, draggingly, almost dreamily he added, "The last years of our Master's brother's Mastership taught me only to rely on no one; it did not teach me how to be a Grand Seneschal with a broken Circle; it did not teach me to lead when there was no leader…."

Unwillingly she thought: And he carried our demesne for seven months while I staggered blind and stupid in his wake; certainly our Prelate gave him little help, and the rest of the Circle little more. How could he not resent me, even though it was not my fault? Willowlands has been lucky to have such a Grand Seneschal – Willowlands who so gravely needs a little luck.

"I even believed that the most I could do for an inexperienced Chalice was to – to spare her the weight of a Grand Seneschal's advice. I know that my manner is not – is not cordial. But I could leave – try to leave – her – you – free to find your own best way. Our Circle has never been a true Circle. Our previous Chalice could not bind us and we grew more separate still, less aware of each other, under the – the curious strains of the last Mastership. Those of us who were very – involved with the old Master have I think never quite…" His voice trailed away. More strongly he went on, "It had not occurred to me, till yesterday, that there might be things a Grand Seneschal would know that would be useful to a Chalice struggling to invent her own apprenticeship. That, for example, a woodskeeper become Chalice might not guess an Heir might seek her validation for his own power.

"I knew you supported our Master. I knew it because you never said one word about the burn on your hand. That is why I guessed – finally – yesterday, about what had really happened." He smiled again. This time it lasted long enough to be identified as a smile, but it was more wintry than the snowflakes still drifting down outside the library window. "Let it be, perhaps, set in my favour that it was my support of your silence, at the beginning, that enabled you to go on being silent. Deager wanted to declare that by that wound the Master was no fit Master."

She whispered, "He cured my hand. The Master. It would not heal, and he healed it."

The Grand Seneschal put his hands on the table, palm up. "I beg you give me leave to tell that story."

She thought of Kenti and Tis, and her conviction that Kenti wanted to believe that same story, that a priest of Fire can cure as well as harm. "Will it help?" she said. "Will it help us keep our Master?"

"Yes – it will help. I do not think it will help enough."

He looked up at her, and the grief was still in his face, but it was a different grief. "We should have had this conversation months ago – when we first knew that Fire would give him back to us. No" – he put his hand up against her, although she had made no attempt to speak – "you need not reproach me; it is my blame that we did not. I know. I know. What I do not know is what to do now. And whether or not it is too late."

"It cannot be too late," she said passionately. "I – we – we won't let it be too late."

Then he did smile, a real smile, if still a sad one. "Then we will not let it. I must think. We will begin – I will tell it that the Master healed your hand; there is nothing to gain by pretending the accident did not happen, since everyone knows it did. And you – you must find a subtle way to tell everyone you can that the time you spent with Horuld…dispirited you; that you felt compelled to it because…because everyone of our demesne must bind themselves together in every way possible, to support our Master; the Heir must not feel shut out, however unworthy the Heir might be; that the situation at Willowlands is not traditional and so tradition is little help."

"I can't say that – be subtle, you say? – gods of the earthlines, how do you expect me to say that subtly?"

But the Seneschal only said grimly, "Those books you read – I have read some of them, and it has given me a distaste for reading, because it seems to me that most of them are full of unpleasant things said pleasantly. I'm not sure what else dead written words can teach you except the trickiness of words. Find a way to say this unpleasant thing pleasantly, from your books. I do not deny that I am asking you to walk the edge of a knife blade; you must condemn the Heir, who is human, that our Master, who is not, be seen as the better choice; and how to condemn him when at least the whites of his eyes are white and his clothes hang on his body the way clothes do hang on a human frame? And yet you must also condemn him in such a way that you may still welcome him if the worst happens and he becomes Master."

He stood up again. "I am sorry. I am older than you; I should have…"

He didn't say what he should have, and impulsively Mirasol said, "You were Grand Seneschal for our Master's brother. What…" And then she could not think of a way to ask what she wished to ask. "I – I – you see, I am not good at subtlety. I do not want to ask about the bad times, about the end. Only what it was like, having a – an ordinary Master."

The Grand Seneschal stood silently for some moments. "I wonder if there has ever been an ordinary Master. No – I think I do know what you are asking. But I don't think I can help you. I had my apprenticeship, you see. I learnt to hear and feel what a Seneschal must hear and feel of the demesne, to best serve his Master: I learnt this because the Seneschal who was daily, hourly, thus listening and feeling taught me and watched over me as I learnt. I was apprentice under the Seneschal for our Master's father, and indeed my first years as Seneschal were under him, under a Master who had held the land steady for fifty years and more. And in those years the Circle was also a Circle. Then our old Master died and his elder son became Master and all began to change, to…" He stopped. "But now, with this Master…a Master who is struggling to engage with his land without hurting it, as he hurt his Chalice when she gave him the welcome cup…there is nothing in my experience for that, any more than, I guess, there is in your books." He looked at her. "I daresay an apprenticeship – having had an apprenticeship – is better than no apprenticeship, even in these circumstances. Because I know that it does not help the situation I find myself in – I know the situation is not the fault of my ignorance. But that does not change the situation."

"It is the fault of my ignorance that I have been seen to sanction the Heir, when that is exactly what I did not want to do," she said bitterly.

After a pause the Seneschal said, "I came here to tell you that, yes. But I wonder…we have had a strong harvest. The Wildwater running over its banks after the seed went into the ground this spring – shortly after our new Master came home – looked like a bad sign. But the second sowing grew better than the first sowings have for several years. The Onora Grove has given us firewood and timber; it was not an area of the wood Oakstaff had thought to open up, but you know the Circle has decided it will open well. And we were lucky with it; even from the House the sky was red with the fire, and those who were there say there was a sudden heavy downpour that lasted just long enough to put it out. The earth tremors have all but gone; I can't remember the last report of a wall being knocked down – or of chasing animals so terrified they will break through a fence themselves. And no other demesnes – not even those who share a boundary with us – have been troubled. It has not been an easy transition. But even blood Masters have done worse, when the change has been sudden or unexpected. And outblood Heirs have done very much worse, I think."

Mirasol smiled a little. "Flood, fire, famine and war. I could tell you stories."

"Perhaps you should tell them."

"But subtly."

"Yes…but what I am thinking now…we have had too many disasters in too short a time, and we have begun to think in disastrous terms. When the Onora Grove burned, I wondered if it would take the demesne with it; and yet instead we have a new meadow with a pond where the stream bank fell in, and most of the trees are still fit for good use, in the hearth, or under axe and lathe, or…. Perhaps this disaster comes to you for you to shape."

"The only lathe I know is the feel of turning pages," Mirasol said forlornly. But she thought of the things she knew that even the Seneschal apparently did not. If anyone might have ferreted out the truth about the fire in the Onora Grove, she felt it would have been the Grand Seneschal; but he gave no sign of knowing it. He would have mentioned, she thought, the law that a Master can be put to death for harming a Chalice, if he knew of it; he would have mentioned that an outblood Heir might marry his Chalice to prevent the demesne from tearing itself apart from the stress of the blood change. She shivered. "Has the Grand Seneschal – have you had your disaster? And have you shaped it?"

His look was bleak. "I am shaping it now. My disaster is that I did not speak to you long before. If I hadn't – as I should have – when the priests of Fire first agreed to send our Master back to us, then I certainly should have spoken after he burned you and you said no word against him. Bringad has thought well of you from the beginning: I should have listened to him. And, Mirasol, it is not that you are – were – a woodskeeper. My grandmother was the daughter of a kitchen maid – got by the Master's fourth son. My great-grandmother was turned off the demesne before the baby was born, because it was the fashion in those days to do so, because the child might be able to cause trouble if it wished, on account of bearing the Master's blood. The Master I had my apprenticeship under – our Master's father – learnt of the story and set his Seneschal to track the line, and bring them home. My mother and father and I came here for the first time in the back of an ox-cart, and were shown into the Grand Seneschal's office smelling of dirty straw and too many weeks on the road, carrying a few ragged bundles that were our only possessions. I was eight, and could barely stand or speak, because I was overwhelmed by my first experience of my landsense, which had met me at the boundary of Willowlands. I had no idea what was happening to me; I thought I might be dying. When I turned nine the Seneschal took me to apprentice. I do not know why the earthlines speak in your blood so strongly, but that they do is all that matters. But I had twenty years' apprenticeship. You've had a year of reading – and of bearing Chalice perforce."

"You have held the demesne together, while I read."

"You have been Chalice since the day the Circle came to you. Your presence in the earthlines is strong; you were easy to find. This is why I hoped I could convince you to live at the House. We've needed your strength whether you knew how to use it or not. But I've come to realise that your bees were right not to let you go; a honey Chalice should live among them.

"Come to me if I can help you." He smiled again through his bleak look. "I will talk to you." And he turned and left the library.

It was snowing harder when she walked home that afternoon. She had not had a great deal more time for reading about outblood Heirs. There had been several messages for the Chalice – dragons take it, she thought, they're learning to look for me in the library. One, however, was an interesting query from the Housekeeper about the Chalice's beeswax candles. She knew that the Chalice put a little honey in her candles – you could smell it when they burned (and very pleasant it was, added the Housekeeper punctiliously) and she had furthermore heard that the Chalice also had different honeys which she used for different purposes. The Housekeeper wondered if she applied this to her candle-making? Might there, for example, be candles that, burning, helped you stay awake, if you were, perhaps, up late over your accounts?

"I haven't the least idea," said Mirasol. "But it's an intriguing thought. I shall experiment, and bring you the result, and you can tell me what, if anything, happens. Thank you."

The Housekeeper, looking slightly bemused (I daresay Chalices aren't supposed not to have the least idea, thought Mirasol), bowed herself out.

The last message was a reminder that her presence was necessary tomorrow evening for a meeting of the Circle with the Master, here at the House. If the weather continued as it was she might have to stay overnight there. She had done this several times when she was first Chalice, and more inclined to take other people's suggestions, because she found it difficult to say no – to keep saying no – to other people's advice. But she had learnt very quickly that she slept badly away from her own cottage, as if it were the one safe quiet place in a world suddenly in pandemonium.

She remembered one of the few times – before today – that the Grand Seneschal had showed her, she thought, any understanding. The Chalice moved from one person to another, but they were all Chalice; and as little changed outwardly as possible. And so a new Chalice took up residence in the old Chalice's rooms. The rooms were stripped to the walls and cleaned from ceiling to floor before the equally purged and polished furniture was replaced. When she was first shown the Chalice's rooms the walls positively glittered, and the sheets on the bed crackled with, she guessed, not merely washing and ironing but sheer newness; she'd never had the luxury of new sheets herself. Even in the midst of her own crisis she had been able to wonder at the time spent, in the middle of the demesne's crisis, on the task of scrubbing the Chalice's rooms. She supposed it showed respect – even for an unapprenticed woodskeeper Chalice – or perhaps terror: cleaning might be the only thing the Housefolk could do to clear the residue of the catastrophic end of the previous Chalice and help the new one to find her way.

But despite the shining walls and spotless furniture and new bedsheets the Chalice's rooms had been haunted. Mirasol had barely been able to stay alone in them long enough for the footsteps of the Housewoman who had showed her there to fade away down the corridor. She never so much as sat down. She left and went in search of the Grand Seneschal; she thought the head Houseman might have been enough, but he was new in his job too, and she did not wish to get him in trouble if he were not authorised to requarter a Chalice. So she looked for the Grand Seneschal. It had been less than half an hour since the end of the meeting, and she had left him still arguing – or rather listening and refusing to argue – with Prelate and Landsman. He could not be asleep yet, although she did not relish the thought of knocking on the door of his private apartments. But she had found him – despite the lateness of the hour – in his office.

She thought she did well not to stammer or squeak when she said she could not remain in the Chalice's rooms and that if he could not offer an alternative it was still not so late (it was past midnight) that she could not walk home, which was probably the best idea after all, but she did not wish to leave without informing him. She hadn't stammered or squeaked, but it had all come out in a breathless rush, like a small woodskeeper forced (for some inexplicable reason) to speak to a Grand Seneschal.

He stared at her in the blank, forbidding way she was already accustomed to, but his answer, when it came, was in no more oppressive a tone than usual: "You may have the Yellow Room." She had followed the Housewoman (a different one) in a daze. In the first place she had expected some dispute, even a silent one, when the Seneschal let her know that while he would accede to the Chalice's wishes, she as the woman within the Chalice was (again) failing to bear her new responsibility in a seemly or becoming manner. Furthermore, only the most important rooms at the centre of the House had colour names – suitable perhaps for the housing of a true, a satisfactory Chalice (supposing the Chalice's rooms had been somehow infested by tigers or chimeras, and uninhabitable), but…. As she thought about it now – the memory of their recent astonishing conversation at the front of her mind – the Yellow Room had since then not only been kept for her, but it was the most conveniently placed of any of the private rooms to the library. Either he had already noticed her spending every minute she could in the library, or he guessed that, unapprenticed as she was, she would have to. No – that her best choice was to learn what she could from the library's dead written words. Perhaps he had been trying again to influence her. She grunted a laugh. The wind was in her face, and several snowflakes fell on her tongue.

There were a few bees huddled under the peak of the little overhang that sheltered her front door. They flew, or fell, to her shoulders, and clung there. "It is too cold for bees, you silly things," she said. She hadn't meant to light a fire – only to go straight to bed – but her loyalty had its limits and while she didn't want to dump her bees to fend for themselves when they were already stupid with cold, she drew the line at taking them to bed with her. And so she stirred the banked embers and added kindling till a log would catch, and then sat down in front of the hearth to let it warm her and the bees still sitting bemusedly on her shoulders. As the fire began to work on them she had to help one or two free themselves from the tangling weave of her shawl, which made her think of the Master, the day he saved the life of the bee who had stung him.

She had to think what to put in the cup for tomorrow, and which cup to use. That the Heir would not be there meant she wanted to mix something binding – and exclusive. No longer did she have the luxury of merely wishing to make any gathering move as smoothly as possible; she wished to tie this truculent Circle and this singular Master together as tightly as she could, whether they moved comfortably and effectively within those confines or not…and then she had to hope that any such successful tie as she might create did not instead only rouse its members to split themselves more thoroughly apart.

She stared into the flames and thought, I am playing with fire.

She must have fallen asleep, because she dreamed. She was standing on the knoll where the pavilion had stood, the pavilion that had burnt to the ground, killing the Master and the Chalice and a dozen others, including the Clearseer and the head Houseman. The ruins were black and cold around her, and she felt nothing of those recent deaths, not even that of the previous Chalice. What she felt – or remembered – instead were the stories of what that place had been before the pavilion had been built on it. It had been a place of power since before the demesnes were made, and its power had been both used and subverted by the folk who lived here, and their Masters. But in her dream she remembered something she had not known she knew. Perhaps the lost knowledge was brought forward by the conversation she had had with the Grand Seneschal about the dreadful mistake she as Chalice had made in her behaviour toward the Heir. Perhaps she had never known this before, but the conversation and the urgency behind it had opened a way for the earthlines to speak to her directly.

Because, centuries ago, when the power of that place was still allowed to be what it was, and had not yet been dammed or forced into some channel it was not meant to be barred and bent by, it had given prophetic dreams to anyone who slept a night on it. It could not tell everything, and about some things it did not always tell the truth, or at least it told the truth so obscurely that it was easily misunderstood. But on a few subjects it most often spoke clearly: it would tell a man if his wife was faithful. And it would tell a woman whom she would marry.

And while the old usage had fallen into neglect, the power was still there.

Mirasol snapped awake. She could know now, at once – by morning – if her error in being gracious to the Heir was a critical error or not. If the oracle went against her…she couldn't remember if the story stipulated if, having learnt what the oracle would tell you, you could change your fate or not: keep your wife by persuading her to give up her lover, refuse to marry the man you did not want, whether the man you did want appeared or not.

Did Chalices ordinarily marry? In her confusion of mind she could not at present remember. Chalicehood was not passed down from mother to daughter as Mastership passed from father to eldest son, but it did sometimes run in families; a bloodline that matched well with the Masters' would find the Chalice returning to it again and again. The Chalice before her…the Chalice before that had been that one's aunt, Mirasol thought. So far as she knew, her own family, on neither her father's nor her mother's side, despite the fact they had long been of this demesne, had ever produced a Chalice, although her father's had produced both a Landsman and an Oakstaff many generations ago. But did Chalices marry and have daughters? Occasionally the Chalice came to a woman who was either pregnant or nursing, who then held her Chalicehood in milk; was the fact that this was considered bad luck for the demesne an indication that Chalices were encouraged to remain single and celibate? It was a clue to her state of mind, she thought, that she could not remember having read anything about this – although she knew she had not deliberately sought the information. She had never been in love, and her parents had not tried to force a husband on her; and since she had become Chalice, there had always been too much else of more immediate, more drastic relevance….

She struggled to her feet, feeling dizzy and stupid, her mind still half in its dream. She pulled her cloak and shawl up over her shoulders again; they had slipped off as she slept and in front of the fire she had not needed them. She looked vaguely around for the bees that had come in with her, but saw no sign of them; perhaps they belonged to the hive tucked next to the chimney breast. She could feel the finger of cold draught that told her that the bee door she had hollowed out of the window-frame was still open.

She went to her own human door and opened it. The snow had stopped, although it was still cold. Much too cold to sleep – to try to sleep – outdoors. But the night was at least half over, she thought; she only needed to sleep long enough to dream. She needed only to dream of one face – or of no face at all. How might the oracle tell her she would not marry? She shook her head. It would find a way. But she had to go now. She could not wait – not even till tomorrow night. The cold weather seemed to have settled in, so it would be just as cold tomorrow night; and she'd already spent half of tonight warm, indoors, in front of a fire.

She pulled on one of her oldest, shabbiest winter woodskeeper's dresses, snatched up her shawl and cloak again before she had time to change her mind and left, closing the door gently behind her. Since it had stopped snowing the temperature had risen again; the wind against her face was almost warm. It was the week of the dark of the moon or she might have tried to guess what time it was. But she had to have slept a few hours by the fire, or she wouldn't have woken so fuzzy-headed.

It was a longish walk to the knoll of the old pavilion. She knew the way, although no one, herself included, went there any more – not since the death of the old Master. The grove that had burned was more to the east; from lightning's point of view it was close to the pavilion, but from a walker's it was not; from Mirasol's cottage there was a long detour round a rough scarp. One of the main footpaths of the demesne ran quite near it, and the heavy use it had was evident; the turn-off to the pavilion, which had once been just as wide and worn, was now mossy and overgrown; Mirasol had to duck under young branches and flounder through banks of nettles.