chalice Page 14


PART FOUR  

When the Overlord came she hated him. It was a shock like a blow; much worse than when she had met the Heir. She hated him so much that she trembled with it, and clutched the welcome cup to her as if it were a crutch to hold her upright. If there had not been a tradition that the Chalice's hand should not touch the hand of whomever she offered a cup, she would have invented the tradition on the spot.

The Overlord touched the hands or the foreheads of the others of the Circle…all except the Master, who was tucked into his deep cloak and long sleeves again, although he wore the chain, collar and belt of the Mastership of Willowlands, as he must to greet his Overlord. The hierarchy between an Overlord and a Master acknowledged the superiority of the Overlord; but it would still have been a discourtesy – even an impertinence – for the Overlord to demonstrate his authority over a Master on the Master's own lands. Perhaps it was only Mirasol's attitude that made her feel that she could see the Overlord's hands twitch in a longing to do so.

Deager had accompanied the Overlord, which was standard conduct for an Overlord visiting a demesne; but he had also brought the Heir with him. Probably this was no more than the correct form also. But she took it as an indication of his desires in the matter of the immediate future of Willowlands; and she was sure she read it in the Grand Seneschal's face that he believed the same. But then the Grand Seneschal always looked bleak and disapproving. Mirasol tried to remember if he had looked so before the seven years of the previous Master's disastrous dominion; but she had been the daughter of a beekeeper and a small woodskeeper then, and had not noticed such things.

The cumbersomely elaborate ceremonial greeting took place in the Hall of Summoning. Then the Housefolk brought food and drink to the outer hall and flung open the double front doors, and the pattern relaxed into groups of people talking to each other; but it was a formal meeting still, with the Chalice present, holding her cup. Mirasol had wondered if the Chalice, when it chose its next bearer, took into account the effect of irregular meals on human beings. While the Chalice held her cup to a meeting, she could not touch food or drink. Mirasol's mother had been one of those who ate when she had time, and didn't think about it if she didn't; Mirasol's father had been one who had to have his meals generous and on time or he grew short-tempered and clumsy. Fortunately Mirasol took after her mother, but some days it was harder to miss meals than other days. Today she was hungry.

Sometimes there was a moment while a Chalice-held assembly regrouped that she could snatch a mouthful, and there was such a moment on this occasion. The Overlord was to be taken on a tour around the demesne, and the horses and carriages that would carry him and his entourage took a little while to bring together. Mirasol set the goblet down with a smack that made its contents slosh (of the Chalice vessels available she'd learnt very quickly to have a preference, when she could, for the ones with deeper bowls, against inadvertent splashes) and pounced on the nearest platter. She therefore didn't see what happened; she was only aware that something had when there was a shout followed by an angry clamour.

She didn't remember dropping the fishcake she was eating, nor snatching up her goblet on her way to the door; not that there was anything she could do. At that moment she thought agonizedly that if the Chalice had still been present it might not have happened…but she guessed, with a sickening lurch in her stomach, even before the shouting had died down and the disputers had moved to face one another like battle lines being drawn that what had happened was not an accident.

The Master stood inscrutably, nearly invisible in his cloak and hood; she looked for him first, and so saw the red of his eyes flicker as she ran through the door. Perhaps he had been looking for her, or perhaps he was only calmly waiting for the audience to gather. She was not even first out the door, though far from last, and the others made way for her, because she was Chalice. She paused with an effort at the top of the steps and came down slowly, her hands correctly on the base and stem of the goblet, trying to train her face to the frigid expressionlessness on the Grand Seneschal's face. The Grand Seneschal stood at the Master's elbow; the Overlord and his agent – and the Heir – stood opposed. The half dozen servitors who had come with them stood immediately behind them; the folk of the demesne, Mirasol was dismayed to see, including most of the other members of the Circle, were collecting at a little distance from their Master. The Prelate, Keepfast and Sunbrightener had disappeared.

She finished walking slowly down the steps and took her place at the Master's other elbow. She could not then see where – or who – anyone who might also take the Master's part stood; she heard feet behind them, but her pulse was thudding in her ears and she could not hear if the footsteps stopped or went on. She made a point, difficult as it was, to look directly at both Horuld and the Overlord. She thought Horuld looked at her worriedly, and the Overlord, briefly, narrowed his eyes when he looked back at her. A hot rush of fury stiffened her; even had she preferred the Heir, what Chalice would leave her Master's side? It was bad enough that the rest of the Circle stayed at a distance, but the first, crucial bond in any demesne was between Master and Chalice. For just a moment she thought of the Chalice before her, who had died in the pavilion fire, and wondered if she had been less willing than the tale of her made out to abet her Master's schemes and indulgences. If the Chalice is not strong enough to lead or redirect an ill-choosing Master into ways better for the demesne, what then can she do? To leave her Master would always be worse for the demesne she is sworn to cherish and protect than to stay with him.

Her mind paused, and grasped that thought, like a Chalice grasping her goblet. And what if a Chalice can see disaster coming, and there is nothing, nothing she can do to stop it?

For an event that was to tear their world apart, it took astonishingly little time.

Horuld's voice was high and brittle when he spoke – dispassionately she observed that while he might have learnt his role he did not fill it. "I declare by this misdeed that you are no true Master, nor fit for the great and solemn responsibility of this demesne and its folk; and I challenge you to the single combat of faenorn, which will so demonstrate that I am not merely the rightful Heir but that it is my duty to seize rule now, ere some greater calamity come about."

The Overlord's voice, by contrast, was strong and sonorous. "I accept the terrible truth of what you say, and declare, as is my right and duty, that the combat of faenorn shall be held this day sennight, and may the demesne itself know what has befallen it, and drink the blood of the loser to its support and nourishment in this direful time."

Faenorn? Her memory scrambled for a meaning. There were ritual duels occasionally fought among members of a Circle but she remembered nothing about a challenge an Heir might give to a Master to take Mastership – drink the blood of the loser – a Master was Master. He could not be deposed, set aside. The only way the Mastership passed was by the death of the Master. The Overlord, she thought – even had the Master made the offer to cede that he had spoken of to her – would not have accepted it. It was blood that was binding – for good and ill.

Did the Master know the right form? Why should he know it? She wanted him not to know it, not to have been thinking about anything like it – about losing or ceding the demesne to the Heir. Did he respond, did he accept, because he had to?

What if a Master saw a disaster coming, and there was nothing he could do to stop it?

"I mourn the circumstances of this day to the full depth of the bloodright of Mastership I bear, and I mourn the turmoil and destruction that any resolution must have upon the demesne. I desire with all my strength that the meeting of faenorn in a sennight will produce a clear and swift completion of the business, and that no havoc be loosed upon this land and its people, which are innocent of the matter."

The Overlord bowed once, as magnificent as any emperor; the Heir bowed too – like an apprentice who had not done it often enough and was uncertain of his skill. The Overlord then turned on his heel – putting his back to the Master. Even in the midst of the first horror of the new situation, Mirasol was shocked at such deliberate discourtesy, and discovered that she was clutching her goblet so intensely that both her shoulders and her finger joints ached. The Overlord snapped out orders to his servants. Dazed as she was, it still seemed to Mirasol that the Overlord's carriages could not have come so quickly unless they had been held in readiness for this moment. It was the Master's carriages that should have been close at hand, to carry the party to the chosen points of the Circle.

Even the Overlord would not plot quite so cruelly, Mirasol told herself – tried to tell herself. It is only that I have not noticed how time is passing. But she raised her aching eyes to look at the Overlord as he was handed into his carriage, and far from appearing saddened or distressed by the catastrophe he had declared for a sennight hence for one of the demesnes under his vassalage, he looked elated. She thought he looked as if he was trying to be stern, but could not stop his mouth from smiling.

The demesne seemed to be heaving under Mirasol's feet – no, the earthlines were splintering, like walking on frost. With every stamp of the Overlord's feet, every crackle of the gravel under his horses' hooves, more of her land shattered into irretrievable fragments; Mirasol shifted her grip on her cup, which seemed to have grown very heavy, increasingly heavy, as if it contained every broken earthline, every earthline as it broke.

For the first time in months Mirasol heard the earthlines weeping.

The Overlord had turned away first, and the Chalice did not need to take note of the Heir – not yet; not while he was still only Heir – and while it would have been gracious of her to do so, she was beyond grace. She turned away too, and laboriously hauled herself back the last few steps to the bottom of the House stairs. She struggled to hold on to the goblet, the weight of which seemed to be dragging her shoulders out of their sockets. She could no longer hold it round the stem with her hands, but awkwardly shifted it till she clutched the bowl of it with her arms, the fingers of her clasped hands sweaty with effort. And how could the sound the earthlines were making seem to darken her eyes? The lamentations seemed sung, like part-songs, the half-comprehended melody like a draught, and her vision like a candle flame.

She could go no farther; this would have to do. She struggled to raise the goblet above her head, her arms trembling with the strain; she had to brace it against her shoulder before the last ragged heave. There were probably ritual words for this moment, but she did not know them, and she guessed she might not choose to say them even if she knew.

"I declare this demesne sound and whole, by all the strength that is in the long bloodright of Chalice, and by that strength I bind this demesne together." She shouted the words into the heavy dead air, and felt, or thought she felt, something – some unknown thing, some hidden and invisible thing – turn toward her. Then she tried to tip the goblet to pour its contents on the stairs to the front of the House…and as she tried, she fainted.

She came to herself again in the formal entrance hall. She opened her eyes a little and registered the great table that stood at its centre, still loaded with food; slowly she recognised the roughness against her cheek as probably brocade. Her mind began to fit the small immediate pieces together, so she could finish waking up without thinking about what she was waking up from, or into. She understood that she was lying on one of the ornamental settees; she recognised its shape, graceful to the eye but uncomfortable to the body. It had perhaps been pulled hastily away from the wall for this purpose, since she seemed to be too close to the table. Then she registered that there was a humming in her ears, but she heard someone say "drink this," which distracted her from both thinking and humming.

She opened her mouth, and tasted wine with honey. She might have laughed if she could; it was the wrong wine with the wrong honey. But it did steady her. She opened her eyes the rest of the way and saw, to her astonishment, the Grand Seneschal sitting beside her, holding a small ordinary cup. As she saw him she scrambled to sit up. The Seneschal's expression changed from grim to sardonic.

"Lie quietly," he said. "I am not sorry to sit quietly myself, and tend the Chalice." He looked up. "It is true that in other circumstances I might have asked someone else to do it but there is a slight problem about bees."

Then she understood the humming noise. She thought, How curious, that there should be bees in the front hall of the House; but it was undoubtedly a bee hum. Now that she thought about it, there was a bee creeping down from her hair and walking across her forehead. She brushed it gently away, and saw the Seneschal wince. She looked up.

The ceiling was black with bees. She could see nothing of the fresco of the founding of the demesnes, which was all golds and greens and pinks and blues; and the huge chandelier, taller than a man, was equally invisible: it hung seething like a monstrous swarm in the middle of the hall.

"Oh," she said inadequately. "Oh dear."

The Grand Seneschal said, "I am assuming – no, I am pretending to assume – that to stay near our Chalice, whose particular gift, as we know, is honey, which is unusual and we suspect unique in the long complex history of the Chalice – I am pretending to assume that to stay near her is the second-best protection against an invasion of bees. The first, of course, is to flee, which is what everyone else has done."

She did sit up then.

"They are your bees? The House bees – well, the House bees have never had a Master called to faenorn before, so perhaps strange behaviour might be expected of them too. But they are your bees?"

She couldn't see them clearly enough from where she was, but she felt still too weak and shaken to stand up and go closer. Even then the chandelier swarm would be far above her head if she stood directly under it, but a few bees were idly circling it, as if scouting the room for an appropriate nest site. Absurdly she put her hand out – and a bee came and landed on the back of it immediately. Perhaps the one that had been climbing over her hair had not gone far. A second one joined it, and then a third. She could sense the Seneschal stiffening. "Yes, these are mine," she said. She did not add, They are more beautiful than any other bees on the demesne, because she did not think he would find this information either interesting or reassuring. Especially, perhaps, because with their additional beauty they were unusually large.

Very, very gently she put a finger out and stroked the striped velvet back of one bee.

She took a deep breath. "Where is…where are…"

The Seneschal said, in a rather too level, too dry voice, "After you fainted there was a bit of a commotion. I do not think the Overlord anticipated any rebellion – or let us say, significant response – or perhaps he merely assumed that everyone would be too stunned to do anything at all. But for you, Chalice, he was right. And whatever he might privately believe, he can find no public fault in a Chalice trying to bind her demesne together against the cruellest of odds. But as he appears not to have planned for either your courage or your presence of mind, his leave-taking was perhaps not quite the dramatic triumph he had no doubt hoped for.

"The Master disappeared at this point, but Sama says she saw him enter his rooms, and the door to them is now locked. While he makes no reply to knocking, I believe that is where he is. Maury and Dar picked you up and brought you here, and I have risked curse and calumny by bringing your goblet, since I thought leaving it lying at the foot of the stairs was a worse blasphemy than touching a Chalice's chalice. without permission. At this point the bees began arriving. I hope this had nothing to do with my transgression. I managed to extract some wine and honey from Maury before he too fled."

"If I leave, perhaps they will follow." She drew her legs up and turned to put her feet on the floor. The bees on her hand flew away. When she tried to stand, her head swam, and if the Seneschal had not stood up with her, and grabbed her as she swayed, she would have fallen again.

"Sit down," he said. "They are not doing anything but – hanging there," he said with a wary glance upward. "And the doors into the rest of the House are closed."

"No," she said, still standing, holding on to the Seneschal's other arm with both hands. "No. I must go home. There is – so much to do in the next seven days. Oh, I – " She stopped, overwhelmed.

"Much to do indeed, and all of it useless," said the Grand Seneschal. "It was a good thing you did just now, but it will be to no purpose, come the day."

She almost could not bring herself to ask: "This is not about…my blunder with the Heir, is it? That is not the straw that tipped the balance?"

"No. I would say the Overlord has had this in his eye since the first report of our new Master came back to him. I guess Horuld will have been discomposed by losing someone he believed an ally – I saw the look on his face as you shouted out your binding – and the Chalice is a very important ally indeed. But Horuld does what the Overlord tells him to."

"Planned," she said. "Planned." She heard the disbelief in her own voice as if someone else was speaking. She said what she had told herself just after the worst had happened. "Even this Overlord would not have planned…." And then she remembered how she had hated him at first sight. That was not only me, Mirasol, she thought. That was also the Chalice in me. Would the Chalice waste such hatred if there were nothing she could do?

"If, as we approach our final extremity, you will permit me a great impertinence…. This is why I have found it so difficult to accept you as Chalice. You are a quick study in the rituals of the Chalice; I have admired your skill very much in this, and never more so than this afternoon. As a seer into the darkness in human hearts you are…a keeper of bees who has lived all her life in a small corner of woodland, who sees but few people, and they clear and straightforward as she is herself. Forgive me, if you can, for speaking to you so, but if the demesne is to survive Horuld…." The Seneschal's voice stopped.

I will have to marry him, you know. She tried to make herself say the words. The "you know" would make it sound careless, not despairing. But she did despair, and she could not say the words.

"The faenorn – I don't think I know…." Her voice trailed away. She'd been sure, when she'd heard Horuld and the Overlord speak Willowlands' doom, she knew nothing about a duel between Heir and Master called faenorn. But there was a memory trying to surface. It was another of those things she hadn't wanted to know existed, and when she'd read about it she'd turned the page or laid the book down and taken up another one – or possibly gone to answer the door to someone else wanting honey or help.

"It's another of the grisly lingering remnants of our demesne's early history," said the Grand Seneschal. "I don't know much either – little more than what most of Willowlands now knows. It happened often enough in the early days, I believe, but rarely since. I know…" He hesitated. "I know our Master's brother threatened his father with it, but the old Master just laughed." The look of hopeless weariness Mirasol had seen before on the Grand Seneschal's face reappeared. "That's how I heard of it. I knew one or two of the old fireside ballads about bloodletting between Master and Heir; I hadn't realised they might be true, that there was something called faenorn with a name and a heritage. My own master – he who was Grand Seneschal before me – was very worried about it, but the old Master just laughed again, said that it was boyish high spirits, that every son needed to rebel against his father. My master tried to warn me…at least he never knew how right he was." The Grand Seneschal rubbed a hand over his face, as if to wipe away the hopelessness and weariness. "There is some irony in our Master being called to the faenorn, but I do not feel we are in a position to appreciate it."