chalice Page 15

She released the Seneschal's arm. "I must go. I must go." The urgency was there; now all she needed was a plan to go with it. She stooped – slowly – to pick up her goblet, and noticed with regret that it was dented at the lip; that would have been when she dropped it, trying to pour. It amazed her how little, now, it weighed. It was perhaps appropriate that she had dropped it, though she would never have deliberately dropped a Chalice vessel. But the cup had been mixed for the meeting of the Master, Overlord and Heir, not for the treachery of the last two. To bind properly, the mixture must match the circumstances. Were there any records of a Chalice binding a demesne against her Overlord? But the new dent in the lip of a centuries-old goblet was a sorrow and a pity. It was, she thought, only the first small pebble, heralding the avalanche.

Beneath the humming of the bees she could still hear the lament of the earthlines. What did they grieve for? The coming of Horuld, the loss of the Master – or only the destruction of the change?

"At least let me send you with a pony," said the Grand Seneschal.

Her face was almost too stiff to smile, but the corners of her mouth did turn up at last. "And what pony will be happy trailing hundreds of thousands of bees?"

The Seneschal replied, "Ponty has carried the Master when he still smells of fire and char. I think Ponty might bear a few bees."

"What – what happened?" she said timidly. "What happened, that the Overlord…I did not see. I was indoors, I was eating," she said, as if this were a shameful thing, "and – "

The Seneschal interrupted. "They will have planned for it to have happened in the one moment the Chalice may rest herself in a long day of holding witness. That is not your fault either. In a way it should not have signified, because the Chalice was not there; the meeting was not whole nor held. But it was done to create this break, and no one, I think, could say that the Overlord was not within his entitlement to react as he did – indeed some would say he was required to do so.

"The Overlord stumbled. That is all. He stumbled while he was turning to ask – to say to the Master – I don't know what. His mouth was open; I saw that. Perhaps he was taking care not to say 'Watch carefully now, I am going to ruin you.' He stumbled – does he seem like a man who stumbles easily to you? – and the Master should have caught him. He was standing next to the Master, and no one else was near. The Master had to catch him. But the Master stepped back, and the Overlord fell."

The law was the law. The Master might as well have broken a blade under the Overlord's nose and dropped the pieces to the ground as what he did do. It did not matter to demesne law that this Master had been a priest of Fire less than a year ago.

There is always a hesitation before I touch anyone or anything…. If I know the need is coming for me to lay my hand somewhere, I can prepare. A sudden grasp – I cannot do it. A stair banister, a dinner plate, even Ponty's mane – no harm. But if I touched bare human flesh suddenly, I would still burn it. There were many reasons she did not like remembering the snowy night on the pavilion knoll. Frustrated she cried out, "But he is so much better! Think of when he first arrived – I don't only mean – " She stretched out her right hand and held it palm down. "When he arrived he could barely walk."

The Seneschal shook his head. "He can control it. But there is a pause before he touches anything, even now. The pause is shorter, but it's still there. He does not control it well, or for long, I think. If he had caught the Overlord instinctively – if he had let himself catch the Overlord instinctively – he would have burnt him. And in a sudden urgent moment like that, when you seize something harder, perhaps, than you mean to, simply to grasp it at all – how badly might he have injured him?"

She thought of what that momentary glancing touch had done on the day of the Master's arrival; and then she made herself think clearly of the night on the pavilion hill, when Fire had caught her away from cold death, and held her for some time. Last and unwillingly she remembered the conversation they had had that night, a conversation she had refused to think of, with its talk of ceding the Mastership. With the Master admitting he could not remember his own birth-name, but only his name in Fire.

She had never felt so cold.

"What I wonder," the Grand Seneschal went on desolately, "is why I did not guess something of what the Overlord had in his mind when I saw the coat he was wearing – those queer slashed sleeves and open shoulders. I only thought, What on earth is he playing at, dressed for a summer evening's ball? The Overlord has never been a favourite of mine. I decided the spectacle he was making of himself was only about intimidation and ostentation – the more fool I am. If I had glued myself to the Master's elbow for the day…. I have no excuse; I have not spent my life keeping a small lonely woodright and believing the best of people."

Mirasol shook her head. "If I may not blame myself for eating, then you may not blame yourself for being a Seneschal and not a soothsayer." She remembered a conversation she had had with the Master: Let there be no further exchange of courtesies between us. He had asked her to agree to a pact, that she supported him as he supported her – but it was at that moment a bee had stung him, and she had never answered him. Would it have made any difference now if she had? She had to tell herself – no. The real covenant between Master and Chalice existed as inherent in the bloodright of each. But she didn't quite believe it – as she didn't quite believe it wasn't her fault today for eating. As she was sure the Grand Seneschal didn't quite believe it wasn't his fault for failing to be prescient.

"I will accept the pony," she said. "I must get home – I do not know if there is nothing to be done, but there are still seven days in which to do it. And if my choice is to sit graciously in my best robes and accept the inevitable or to bail a sea with a bucket, give me the bucket. But you are right that I do not think I can walk very far just now. Let us see if Ponty is willing to be Overlord of bees."

Many years later her memory of the week before the faenorn was that – till the very last night – she had no sleep at all, except in those moments between blink and blink when you are so tired that you fall asleep standing up with your eyes open and wake again by finding yourself staring at the thing in your hands that you had been staring at just a moment ago. During that week, when she came back to herself, Mirasol was usually staring at a jar or a bottle or a flask containing honey or water or mead or a mixture of all three; she usually had those moments that almost felt like sleep – but couldn't be, because she was standing up and holding a jar or a bottle or a flask – when she was trying to decide what to mix next, and in what quantity and what proportions. Mostly she made the obvious choices – obvious choices drawn from a long tradition of beekeeping, like tree honey for strength and courage; obvious choices from this demesne, like Ladywell water for faithfulness; obvious choices from the Chalice tradition, like clay for stamina (although she didn't like working with clay: you had to stir and stir to convince it to suspend, and it still longed to revert to sticky lumps); and obvious choices from her brief experience of being Chalice, like starflower honey for rituals that took place after sunset. Plus herbs and a few small stones, most particularly a flint, for steadfastness.

Standing in her cottage with all the cupboard doors open, she had looked at the heap she had made of what must go with her with dismay. But the House grounds would need a different sort of serenity and connection with their surroundings than the deep woods would; the streams needed a different sort of loyalty than the ponds did; and the pavilion hill…she would leave the pavilion hill till last.

It could not be true that she had no sleep at all; but it might have been true that she never lay down for seven days. By the sixth day she would not have lain down because she didn't dare, for fear she would not get up again until it was too late.

She did remember the ride home, after the worst thing had happened, after the Overlord had declared a faenorn for a sennight hence – a thing so bad she hadn't even known to worry about it – while her mind was both paralysed with shock and scrambling frantically for any hint of a solution, a way out, of an alternative, of…anything. Anything but what was going to happen. What the Grand Seneschal had said could not be stopped from happening. No, she knew a solution was too much even to dream of. But she needed something, anything, she could do. She rather thought that if she decided there was nothing at all she could do, she would go mad.

She could not afford the luxury of going mad. Not now, and not…not after a sennight hence either. Not even then. She would have to marry him and…she would have to marry him, and teach him to hold the demesne together, when she knew so little of that great charge herself. And she would have to try to forget the stories of Meadowbrook and Fallowhill, demesnes that had not survived the transition to an outblood Master. When she could not stop remembering that while Silverleaf had survived, its name-trees had all died, and when the outblood Master's son took Mastership he renamed it Goldstone. Goldstone was almost a neighbour; Talltrees shared a border with both Willowlands and Goldstone; the previous Master had bought his carriage horses from the Goldstone stud.

The bees did indeed stream out of the hall and follow her, but they kept a little distance and Ponty, although his ears listened to the humming and not to his rider, otherwise bore their presence quietly. She couldn't remember the last time she had been on a horse; under almost any other circumstances she would have felt elated at the opportunity. Even so she found herself leaning forward to run her hand down Ponty's silky neck, not for her pleasure or his reassurance, however, but to help bring her back to herself by the touch of warm hair and horseflesh. And the gentle swing of Ponty's gait was soothing.

The fragments of her scattered wits began to drift back together. Some time on that short journey she came up with her plan – with the thing she could do. She did not know when it happened; she did not remember the process of formulation and decision. But she knew what she had to do by the time she arrived at the cottage. She pulled Ponty's saddle off and rubbed his back, and his face where the bridle straps had sweated him, and then she hobbled him where there was good grass, in the middle of her meadow, where he had to share the wildflowers with her bees.

Most of their escort had dispersed by the time they arrived back at the cottage; only a few dozen bees scattered away from them when she dismounted and looked around. But she listened to the hum – the sound holds my cottage like honey in a chalice. she thought – and felt it was louder than usual: as if the bees that had come to the House had preceded them home and were passing on the news – with emphasis. How many bees did she have living round her cottage and her clearing? As many as had been hanging from the ceiling and chandelier in the front hall of the House?

She had stopped trying to count swarms, hives and bee homes in the early days of her Chalicehood and had – half superstitiously, half because she did not have time, and superstition gave her the excuse not to make time – never tried again. She had been used since childhood to talking to her bees and had told them to stop pouring combless honey into her bowls, that winter was coming and they needed to be able to feed themselves. She was pleased to see that her bowls had begun to fill up much more slowly – although she doubted it was because of anything she had said. But this was the time of year that, any other year, she'd have been breaking cautiously into the hives and extracting what she thought they could spare of the final season's honey, which would also give her a rough count of their numbers, and also of their health. Not this year. She stared into the trees around her meadow – the trees drumming with bees – and then went indoors.

She began taking down jars of honey, and weighing them thoughtfully in her hands, and thinking, and making notes. She worked all night, and the next morning she saddled Ponty again (who sighed), and rode south. Her wood was near the southern boundary of Willowlands, and near also to the Tree of Memory and the Maidens' Arch. She returned to the cottage both jubilant and despairing; she could never do it in a sennight – in six days. She worked all through the second night, finishing her choosing and packing and list-making, and spending the last of the dark hours binding her own cottage and her own meadow and her own trees, and then, from the perfect centre of that binding, seeking what she could find out about the state of the demesne. She did not like what she found. At dawn she saddled Ponty again and went back to the House and asked the Grand Seneschal if she might borrow another pony for the next five days. She was already tired, and Ponty was old; but it had to be a pony who wouldn't mind bees.

They did not follow her this time in their thousands as they had come to the House two days ago; but a few had come to the southern border yesterday, and a few came with her today, back to the House. She kissed Ponty on the nose when she handed him over to a stableman, and walked the rest of the way to the House. She thought she had slipped indoors leaving her entourage outside, but the windows in the Grand Seneschal's office were open, and by the time she had greeted him and he had returned her greeting, several of her unusually large bees had flown through the window, despite its facing a small half-walled courtyard on the wrong side of the House. Half a dozen landed on her hair, and another half dozen on the Grand Seneschal's desk. He looked at them, and then back at her.

"I need a pony," she said. "One that can cover fifty leagues in five days. And who won't mind a few bees – only a few, I think." I hope, she added silently.

The Seneschal again looked at the bees. "You can have Ironfoot," he said. "He has never minded anything. He carried me through the floods four years ago, when the dam on the Wildwater broke, and the House was an island for a few days, and the Master's tall horses refused to leave their stables. I'm sure bees will be nothing to him, nor fifty leagues in five days." He looked at her again. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

She hesitated, thinking of the size of the heap on the floor of her cottage. "I need to both ride and carry," she said. "Perhaps you could lend me a second pony."

"Who must also not mind a few bees," said the Seneschal, staring at his desk. Two of the bees had found something that interested them on the top of a pile of ledgers, and were investigating it with their antennae. "You may have Gallant too. He is Ponty's full sister's son. Anything else?"

Again she hesitated. "Flasks," she said. "I need to carry honey and mead, and water from the Ladywell. Leather bottles that I can hang from a pony's saddle would be very useful."

"I will have them sent to the horseyards," he said. One of the bees was slowly creeping across the record book open on the Seneschal's desk; it had slid down the margin into the binding-valley and was now working its way toward the Seneschal. Another one had discovered his hand, which he had not removed quickly enough, and was ambling up his forearm. He looked at it, and away again.

"Make no sudden movements," she said. "She will fly away in a moment."

"It – she – they could sting me till I screamed with the burning of it, if it would save our demesne. I will not ask you what you are doing. I will say 'may the gods of the land and the earthlines bless your journey.'"

"I thank you," she said. She turned to go. She paused at the door to look back. The bees had left the Seneschal's desk and followed her. She held her hand out, and two landed softly on her palm. "Pray for me – for the demesne. Light a candle. Do you have one of my honey candles?"

"Yes," he said.

"Light that one," she said, and left his office.

She took the bottles she had brought with her, and went round the House, sprinkling honey, mead and water at every corner of its long rambling walls and murmuring, "Willowlands, be thou one and one-hearted; be thy House one and one-hearted; thy gardens and parks and fountains the same. Let nothing sunder the House from the lands, the lands from the waters, the beasts and people from all." Sometimes she dipped her fingers in the sweet sticky water and drew signs on the stones; sometimes she scooped up a handful of pebbles and poured a little over them, and then dropped them, one or two at a time, in corners, in plant pots, in the shadows of thresholds, in gaps in the walls. Several of the Housefolk saw her, but none said anything, and when she inadvertently caught the eye of one, he or she looked away at once – and sometimes bobbed a bow or a curtsey, like a sanction, or a benediction.

She spent some time searching through the gravel of the drive at the foot of the stairs to the front door. She found it at last: the grey scitheree crystal that had been in the cup she had dropped two days before. She picked it up gently and held it to the light: three days ago it had been as clear as a glass of water. There was a spidery, feathery gossamer of cracks which filled it now, like sheep's wool mounded in a bowl, waiting for the hands of the spinner. The force of the fall would not have harmed it, but it had tried to contain the force of her binding, like a teacup trying to contain a flash flood. "Thank you," she murmured, and slipped it into her pocket.

Finally she went back indoors, and found the long twisty way toward the outlying wing where lay the rooms the Master had chosen to be his – far from the rooms his brother had lived in. She touched her wet fingers to the four corners of the door, and to a fifth spot directly above the centre of the frame. The doors in this wing were tall, and she had to fetch a chair to stand on to reach the last spot. There was a faint tremor under her fingers there, like humming. Then she went back outside again and picked up more pebbles, because she wanted twelve for each of the three fountains that stood outside the House to enhance the view of the park from its windows. Last of all she went round the gardens, sprinkling all the gates in and out, the in-between ways from one area to another, and the beginning and the centre of the maze.

As she was leaving, one of the gardeners came up to her shyly. After her experience with the Housefolk, Mirasol only glanced at her, trying to smile – being saluted was disconcerting – assuming it was merely an accident that this woman's path should seem to be crossing her own. But when the woman caught her eye – and dipped a tiny curtsey – she said, hopefully, "Me too, missus?"

Mirasol might have stared at her bewildered, but the woman looked at the flask in Mirasol's hands. Mirasol thought, I am carrying nothing for humans, and this woman is not brick nor stone nor yet tree or flower. And then she thought, But it is all about opening and binding, is it not? And this one is for the gardens, and she is a gardener. She touched her fingers to the contents of her flask once again, and pressed them over the woman's heart. She left a tiny damp tacky mark.

"Thank you, missus," the woman said, and dipped another curtsey. One of Mirasol's bees flew toward her, and landed briefly on the mark on the woman's blouse. The woman looked down at her and smiled. "And thank you too, little missus," said the woman.

When Mirasol arrived at the horseyards, one saddled pony was being led out. The stablemaster was standing by the courtyard gate with his hands knotted together as if he was stopping himself from wringing them. "Missus," he said.

"Thank you for your help," she said. "I've asked the Grand Seneschal if I might borrow two ponies who could go fifty leagues in five days, and he told me Ironfoot and Gallant."

"This is Ironfoot," said the stablemaster. "It is not every Grand Seneschal who would trouble to know the horses in the horseyard, but ours does. You will do no better than Ironfoot and Gallant. Ironfoot cannot be wearied, and Gallant will go till he drops. They will do fifty leagues in five days, if you do not expect them to gallop, and if you give them decent grazing at the halts, which you should be able to do if it does not snow again. There is not much nourishment in the grass left at this time of year, but they are strong and tough, and they will do on hard rations for five days – even if their girths are going up an extra hole by the time you bring them home. There will be corn in a saddlebag for them. Gallant will be along as soon as the best flasks are chosen and hung." But his hands were still knotted together.

"What can the Chalice do for you?" she said gently.