chalice Page 18

She would have to marry him. Marry the new Master, and bear his child.

The Overlord looked up at her, at the Chalice, standing at the top of the House steps, and made her the least possible bow: just enough of an acknowledgement that he should be seen to be acknowledging her.

She prevented herself from closing her eyes, met the Overlord's gaze steadily, and made the tiniest of bows in return. Whatever he had in mind for her later, he needed her now. And would a short life be bad, if she were Horuld's wife?

The Master was offered the choice of the swords. He still wore his billow of cloak, and the sleeves tangled with the filigree around the case's edge. He needed both hands to lift his sword – his choice was merely the one that lay nearer. She thought she saw him hesitating before touching the hilt, perhaps so that he would not burn the fine lining of the case.

Horuld, stripped to his shirt, stepped forward and seized the other sword with a flourish. Holding it aloft in a gesture she disliked intensely, he too looked up to the head of the House stairs, and his bow was as flourishing as his grasp on the sword. But when he straightened out of his bow his gaze too seemed to go above the heads of the Chalice and the Grand Seneschal, and the sword wavered slightly. She thought, He knows he is not fit to govern this or any demesne. She gave him the same tiny acknowledgement she had given the Overlord. She would have preferred to give him no acknowledgement at all. But if he won…when he won, when this grotesque charade was over with….

Two of Horuld's – or the Overlord's – folk paced out and stood at two of the corners of the area where the faenorn would take place. There was a brief pause, and the Master seemed to shake himself. He began to say something – and then two of the demesne folk came forward and bowed awkwardly; she could see the gestures – equally awkward – of asking leave to speak to the matter at hand. At first she recognised neither of the men, and strained to see, because they were finely dressed, like members of the Circle, but with none of the individual marks and badges that identified each Circle member; that and their strange gracelessness with the ritual gestures…. One of them was Lody the shepherd, and the other, the butcher for the House kitchens; Gess? No, Gresh. Although he was still a young man, he bought honey from her for his aching knee – a hunting accident, he had told her.

She glanced at the Seneschal, who gave a tiny nod. "They volunteered," he said. "They have no families."

Little to lose, she translated silently. Little to lose, and courageous with it, and briefly her eyes blurred with tears.

The Overlord's men carried tokens for north and south, tree and fruit; the shepherd and butcher held those for east and west, the sun and the earth. Mirasol suddenly became aware of her hands in their empty cradling; and almost without thinking, she pulled the bag over her shoulder forward, and opened it. Still watching the people on the ground, she groped for the shape of a particular jar and lifted it out. It wasn't till she looked at it that she realised what she was doing – or rather that she didn't know what she was doing – but her hands seemed to know, her Chalice hands. The jar her hand had chosen – and it was an odd old wooden jar, a recognisable crooked shape under her fingers, a reject because it would not sit straight on a shelf, the only empty jar she could find when at the last minute she'd decided to take a little more honey on her journey, a little of the mysterious honey, the honey that seemed to suggest laughter and joy and a long bright horizon, the strong-tasting honey whose distinguishing source she could not identify.

She'd almost laughed when she decanted it because the bigger crock it lived in was also very crooked, not merely a reject but so lopsided that her mother had kept trying to throw it out, and her father kept rescuing it; and when her father died her mother kept it after all, for those memories of him. Mirasol had thought, as she carefully poured, that perhaps this honey had an affinity for those who do not sit securely, who do not rest peacefully, who limp instead of walk. She hadn't quite been able to laugh, but she'd been smiling when she tucked it into its corner of a saddlebag, and the smile had been as refreshing as cold water on a hot day. This was the honey that had given her energy in the sennight past when she had none, the honey she had put last into the cup for her last-of-all stop on the pavilion hill. It was the honey she had given the Master, the day he had come to her cottage, and a bee had stung him.

She opened it because why else would she have taken the jar out? The smell of it made her think of the last dream she had had, on the pavilion hill.

It was not easy to arrange her hands in any Chalice grasp on a small round crooked wooden pot, but she managed. She held the little fat shapeless thing against her breast, beneath her chin, and the smell of the honey, even in these circumstances, still tried to make her smile. She was not thinking of her bees, but as she fitted herself into the Chalice stance, composing herself to stand true and straight and still, like a statue on its plinth, several bees landed on the backs of her hands, and several more on her hair – and one on the end of her nose. Again she tried to smile – as if there is a smile here, as real as a bee, trying to make me wear it, she thought, as I am trying to hold – to wear – being Chalice. Even with no chalice. to hold as evidence. "Welcome, my little friends," she whispered. "Do you remember your Master, who saved your sister?"

If the Grand Seneschal heard her, he gave no sign. Probably he was watching the scene below too closely to notice her or her bees.

Awkwardly the Master raised his sword in the ritual gesture. Gracefully Horuld did the same.

One of Mirasol's Chalice hands loosed itself from holding the little jar, and with the same formality as if the gesture were a ritual as old as Chalices, as old as demesnes and Masters, extended its forefinger, drew it through the jar, and put the finger in Mirasol's mouth.

The flavour bloomed on her tongue.

Thousands of years of Chalices, following the practises and services, the ceremonies and conventions, binding the demesnes, listening and speaking to the earthlines, sustaining and strengthening their Masters, witnessing the work of the Circle, doing as they must, and as every Chalice had done before and would do after them. Even when a Chalice died suddenly with no apprentice, the force of the tradition would lift and carry – no, sweep, flood, overcome – her inheritor into what she had inherited; into the Chalice way. It had always been like this; it had been this way since the demesnes were drawn. Chalices did not create; they cultivated.

There had never been a honey Chalice before.

The flavour of the honey filled her mouth; it felt as if it were seeping through the skin of her mouth and tongue, into her blood, running through her body with every beat of her heart.

The Master and Heir each took the ritual step forward, lowering the blades of their swords, and then stepped back again, again raising the blades to the beginning position. The Master stumbled as he stepped back, and again needed two hands to steady his sword.

Any decent man would refuse to raise a sword against a Fire-priest whose strength is in Fire, not swordplay, she thought. Any Heir fit to be Master of a demesne would refuse to go through with this.

The faenorn began. Horuld danced forward, one step, two steps. And the Master – as she had known he would – dropped his sword, spread his arms and stepped forward.

And at the top of the grand front stair of the House, the Chalice stepped forward too and screamed No through the taste of the honey in her mouth.

And the bees – hundreds of thousands, millions of bees, the Chalice's own bees, the House bees, the wild bees of the forests, the bees of hundreds of hives in hundreds of meadows and gardens and glades all over the demesne – the bees plunged down from where they had hovered above the roof of the House, making a noise more like thunder than like the humming of bees, and covered the faenorn field in a black cloud.

The Overlord seemed frozen where he stood; the four men at the four corners of the field stepped uncertainly back, seemingly more bewildered than frightened.

The faenorn field seethed with bees, peaking like sea waves lashed by storm winds. There was one shriek above their thunder, a man's voice: "I'm on fire! Burning – I'm burning!"

And then…nothing.

Perhaps half the bees flew away, dispersing like ordinary bees, making a humming noise as they went no different from any ordinary bees. The rest remained, lying in dark motionless heaps and hummocks over the space at the foot of the stair that ran up to the front doors of the House from the edge of the parkland and the end of the drive. The squared-off faenorn arena, as well as the crescent of gravelled drive, had disappeared under the dunes of dead bees.

My bees, Mirasol thought. My bees! What have I done! But she was the first to move. Still clutching her jar of honey, with the leather saddlebag still banging on her hip, she ran down the steps and waded into the rough sea of dead bees. There was one hummock, bigger and blacker than the rest, where the bees were all her own. My bees, she thought, weeping. She fell on her knees beside the hummock, and for a moment hesitated, not in fear but in sorrow; and then she leaned forward, her free hand disappearing to the shoulder as she brushed away the bodies of her bees, golden glints appearing and disappearing as the yellow stripes on their bellies appeared and disappeared.

What was under the hummock moved.

The Master sat up. His cloak was gone; he was bare-headed and bare-chested. His skin was the colour of Mirasol's, and his eyes were brown. He looked up, first at her, then at the sky; then at his own hands. He touched the back of one with the other. It was an ordinary, easy, smooth, human gesture. Mirasol stood up and offered him her hand, and he grasped it – grasped it with no hesitation – to stand up too, although he moved lithely and gracefully. His hand was no warmer than Mirasol's own. He was wearing but a few tattered rags; she let go of his hand to take off her own cloak and drape it round him. He smiled at her. She held out her jar of honey. He took it doubtfully, and stood looking at it.

"It's only honey," she said. "It's the honey you ate with me, the afternoon you and Ponty came to my cottage."

"Only honey," he said musingly, and his voice too was human, deep and resonant, with none of the crackly disturbing echoes of Fire. "I am not sure I can think of 'only honey' ever again. I saw you, just now, at the top of the stair, holding this little pot of honey as your chalice. straight and proud as any jewelled queen, with your saddlebag over your shoulder and the dust of your journey still on you. I knew I had no hope left – I had even convinced myself that I was relieved that the struggle was about to be over, because I knew I had already lost. And when I looked up and saw you as you were, in no gaudy robes and bearing no solemn goblet – suddenly I had hope."

"I did not see you looking," said Mirasol.

"I did not want you to see," said the Master. "And I looked away quickly, because I knew the hope was false. I knew – I think I knew – that it was not really about hope, it was about looking at you. And so I looked at Horuld, and at his sword, and reminded myself that they were about to kill me."

"But you have been helping me, this sennight past," said Mirasol, and as she spoke she was sure she was speaking the truth. "The earthlines were waiting for me. I did not have to reach for them; they were already looking for me, turning toward me. You cannot have been doing it only for the demesne. That is too bleak, too bitter, and the earthlines would have felt this, and shied away from me."

"I did it for you," he said. "You and our demesne. I might have gone mad, these last days, waiting for my death, staring endlessly at my failure, prisoned in my rooms, in my body, because I did not wish to go out among my people and force them to choose how to react to me – in these last few days, before my weakness forced an outblood Master on them. I had to do something. The Ladywell and the First Tree told me what you were doing, and so I went on before you where I could. Most of the earthlines were already roused; even the air over our demesne, this sennight, has been restless and fretful; the earthlines were feeling the apprehension in every foot, hoof and paw pressed against the ground. It was a matter only of helping them to look for you, to tell them you were coming. But at the pavilion hill I could do nothing."

"No," Mirasol said slowly, thinking of the dream she had had there only the night before, of the wedding, and the bees. "No. I think it did hear you. I think it is trying to come back to us, as you did, from Fire. It is having a difficult journey. We will go there – tomorrow – and try to reach it. Try to lead it home."

"Tomorrow," he said, and smiled.

Mirasol saw that he had a beautiful smile. She dropped her eyes to the pot of honey he was still holding. "I am still Chalice," she said, "and I bear witness to this meeting. I have offered you a cup, and you must drink."

"I believe in the luck of the Chalice – of this Chalice. Of my Chalice," he said, and he took one of her hands and gently placed the honey jar in it, folded both his hands around it, and, that way, raised the jar to his mouth; together they tipped it, and she saw a flash of gold, brighter even than her bees' bellies, as the honey poured onto his tongue.

They dropped their linked hands, but Mirasol's free hand found one of the Master's, and when they turned to look round them, they did so with their hands clasped.

Other folk had begun to move uncertainly through the swirls of bees flung over the faenorn ground. There was a muted exclamation when they found Horuld's body. Mirasol looked over at it, almost indifferently, but with a touch of fear like a bad memory. It was, at first glance, difficult to differentiate from the dead bees that had covered it. He was black and shrivelled, as if burnt in a fire to temper sword steel, his legs drawn up and his hands curled into claws. He wasn't recognisable as Horuld; he was barely recognisable as human.

The Overlord made an inarticulate sound, of grief or of rage. He did not move from where he stood – from where he had stood since the sword box had been opened, and the Heir had danced lightly forward to kill the Master – but he made a sharp gesture, and two of his folk ran to the carriage and, after a moment's confusion, brought a blanket to where the pathetic remains of Horuld lay, and wrapped them up in it. Mirasol thought, watching, that what was left weighed nothing at all, as if it were barely more than ash, and would have fallen to dust by the time it was carried to…she thought, I don't even know Horuld's home demesne. Deager told us – that among many other things – but I don't remember. Or perhaps the Overlord will take it to his own great estate outside the capital city, and bury it there.

But Horuld – what was left of Horuld – was being taken away. Away from Willowlands. That was all that mattered.

She was still watching as the two men carried their light burden back to the carriage, when her gaze crossed the Overlord's. He was staring at her, his face blazing with…something she could not read, and did not want to. When he had looked at her long enough, his scorching stare shifted to the Master, standing handfast beside her.

The Grand Seneschal had followed her more slowly to the foot of the stairs and stood now on the shore of the bee-ocean, its outer limits barely brushing his toes. He too had been looking at the Overlord, but he felt Mirasol's gaze, and he turned to look at her, smiled faintly and began to wade toward them. When he came close enough to speak privately, he murmured, "I had taught myself to like the prospect of retirement; of enough sleep every night, and meals taken at table, not at my desk. But you will need me, I think. Your Chalice, Master, sees all things clearly, which is both her strength and her weakness."

Mirasol could feel her cheeks go hot; it was true, she could, at this moment, only think that they had won, after all, won when there was no possibility of their winning. In a moment she would remember that she had made a bad enemy, and that the game was not over, and perhaps would never be over in her lifetime. Her mind shifted immediately to its second-most familiar track: after the question of what cup to mix next was always the question of what knowledge to seek next. Had any faenorn before now been won or lost by external agency? And had there been thereby any attempt to set its result aside, to declare it void?

No. It would not happen in this case, whatever tradition there might be – and she would find out if there were any such tradition. No Master who could guide and direct the earthlines all over his demesne from self-exile in his rooms at the House would have his demesne taken away from him. No such Master who was also human.

The Overlord was still staring at the Master, and he seemed utterly absorbed in what he was thinking, but at the sound of his carriage door closing on what had been the Heir he turned on his heel and strode back to his carriage himself. Someone leaped forward to open the door again for him.

He climbed the carriage steps as if treading on the bodies of his enemies, and the squeal of the springs sounded like a protest or a lament. He turned and sat down, now staring straight ahead, facing the padded seat where – presumably – Horuld had sat on his journey here, the journey both had confidently expected to result in his assumption of the Mastership of Willowlands. Briefly Mirasol imagined a pathetic lump, blanket-shrouded, on that seat now.

The Overlord's folk dithered a little, and then moved to their places in the smaller carriage or mounted their horses. Mirasol suddenly recognised Deager: he looked twenty years older and…frightened. She wouldn't have known it was he to look at his face; it was his walk that she recognised, and was shocked, then, at the face he turned toward her, toward her and her Master and the Grand Seneschal, standing only a little distance from him, in the dark, eerie, temporary new landscape created by the bees who had died to keep the demesne for its real Master, and out of the hands of the Overlord and his false Heir. Deager turned toward them only long enough for her to identify him, then turned away quickly, and almost ran to his carriage, the second, smaller, plainer one behind the Overlord's own.

Coachmen were clambering up to their perches and taking up reins; postilions let go horses' heads and climbed to their places. The Overlord's party left without saying a single word since Horuld had cried "I'm burning!" although a few of them glanced back, as Deager had, at the House, its Master, Chalice and Grand Seneschal, as they turned down the drive. The Overlord's coachman was one of those who looked; but of them all only three of the riders following the carriages, out of the Overlord's sight even had he stopped staring at the seat in front of him and chosen to look round him, gave the proper salutation to the faenorn victor.

Mirasol, holding her Master's hand in hers, remembered thinking that as Chalice, witness and cup bearer, she would be spared having to make that sign to Horuld.

"I am grateful to have a Chalice who sees clearly, and will gladly bear her weakness for her strength," said the Master. "I fear that she will have to teach me to see anything at all – everything. You will have to say to me 'House,' 'tree,' 'stair,' 'horse'…" and as he spoke, while she could hear that he spoke in jest, she could also hear that he spoke the truth: he had to make an effort, each time, as he identified House, tree, stair and horse.

"'Bee,'" said the Grand Seneschal. "'Circle,' for we will need a new one. I'm not sure I wish to depend on any apprentices the current lot have bred up to their ways of thinking either. We will have to hope the finding rods agree with us. I am not looking forward to prying them off Prelate, however. I suspect he will resist. I haven't seen Prelate today at all, have you? If he's run away I hope he left the rods behind. Is there a cup of augury, Mirasol?"

"Yes," said Mirasol, "but I haven't learnt to use it. There's always been so much else…we may not have to look for everyone. Perhaps we can start with a shepherd and a butcher." She thought of the woman she had met the day she came to the House to borrow ponies and panniers, who had called the bee that had landed on her shirt front "little missus." "And perhaps I know a gardener to make a third. And perhaps they will find something comfortably in common with the philosophy of a woodskeeper. And with learning by doing, when you don't know what you're doing."

"It has worked well enough for you," said the Grand Seneschal. "For my first task I shall see to it that no one in all the demesnes under the king does not know the story of how Willowlands won back its Master from the priesthood of Elemental Fire – for that is how the tale shall go."

"Perhaps," said the Master slowly, "some of the present Circle may think better of their Master now."

"Perhaps," said the Grand Seneschal grimly, "but do we think better of them?"

"We are all only mortal," said the Master, even more slowly. "We do only what we can do. All the Elemental priests have certain teachings in common: one of them is that everyone, every human, every bird, badger and salamander, every blade of grass and every acorn, is doing the best it can. This is the priests' definition of mortality: the circumstance of doing what one can is that of doing one's best. Only the immortals have the luxury of furlough. Doing one's best is hard work; we rely on our surroundings because we must; when our surroundings change, we stumble. If you are running as fast as you can, only a tiny roughness of the ground may make you fall."

There was a silence, and then the Grand Seneschal said: "Master, I fear that during the seven years preceding your return, we all fell."

"Yes," said the Master. "I remember my brother. And I have not been able to smooth the way again as a Master should."

"You will be able to now," said Mirasol.

"I hope so," said the Master. "And I think the Circle will have some new members, but perhaps not all."

The Grand Seneschal sighed. "Weatheraugur and I were friends once, when we were young in our posts, under your father's Mastership. And Talisman…Talisman was a very beautiful young woman, and your brother…made it difficult to be a woman, and beautiful."

"I think my Circle has perhaps found it difficult to forget that I am – was – not only a priest of Fire, but brother to their previous Master."

The Grand Seneschal murmured, "When we were younger – when you and Chalice and Clearseer were still children, and your father was Master – we used to say that his sons were born in the wrong order."

"Fate does as fate wills," said the Master. "That is a common saying to both demesne folk and Elemental priests."

"I think poor Clearseer has only not been allowed to learn his job," said Mirasol. "There are advantages to being high in the hierarchy; I have had to find my own way because no one dared interfere – much."

"Yes," said the Grand Seneschal. "I'm afraid that was one of the occasions when I stubbed my foot on the rough ground and fell."

"Oh – gods," said Mirasol, half laughing; she had put her hand on the Seneschal's arm and then drew it back again. "I do not even know your name. I cannot always be calling you Grand Seneschal."

"Nicandimon," said the Grand Seneschal. "My parents – and the Grand Seneschal who apprenticed me – called me Nicci."

"Nicandimon," said Mirasol, "for I shall not call you Nicci without exact and specific permission, you held the demesne together for almost eight years – through the time of the previous Master till the time this Master came home to us. You of all of us have earned a few falls."

"And you will offer me honey for my bruises, will you not?"

"I will," she said, smiling.

Mirasol looked after the Overlord's procession, disappearing down the drive at a smart trot – too smart, as if they were fleeing. And she looked down at the black waves of dead bees – her poor, heroic bees, and silently promised them that no one would take any honey from any hive anywhere on the demesne this season, that those that remained might rest and recover. And, she thought suddenly, I will teach all the beekeepers in Willowlands to bring their bees through the winter alive. There shall be no more killing of bees in this demesne, ever again.

As she thought that, there was a faint buzzing behind her left ear, and she raised her free hand to part the tangle of her hair for the bee to escape. Before it flew away it did a little dance in front of her, as if drawing a symbol in the air, a symbol she should recognise. She thought, Left to right (do you read a bee-message from your perspective or hers?), bottom to top, and a spiral squiggle off to the side. She would go home and write it down.

"Look," said the Grand Seneschal.

The little group of eight Circle members was breaking up. Five of them had, or were in the process of, removing their badges and signs of office, and laying them at the foot of the stairs. Each of the five looked toward the smaller group of the three highest-ranking of their company, still standing among the drifts of bees, and each bowed, gravely and solemnly, before squaring their shoulders and walking away. The remaining three were removing their insignia more slowly, but they did not lay them down, but carried them in their hands, and looked toward the Master. These three were Talisman, Weatheraugur and Clearseer.

Mirasol found that she was still holding the Master's hand when he squeezed hers. She looked up. Thoughtfully she said, "I think I had better marry you anyway. It is against all tradition, but we are against tradition. And we will need to protect each other."

"Well done," said Nicandimon. "You are coming out of your woodright."

"I must," she said. "We will have most of a new Circle to train."

The Master still had a sticky gleam of honey on his chin. He rubbed at it with his free hand, and licked his fingers. "What might a priest of Fire and a honey Chalice do together? We shall begin a new era."

Mirasol held out her pot of honey to the Grand Seneschal and said, "And with this cup I bind us three together with all the strength that the Chalice can find in me."

The Grand Seneschal smiled – and for the first time since Mirasol had known him, the smile reached his eyes. They were caramel-brown, almost the colour of dark honey. "If the Chalice would do me the honour." And he opened his mouth, that Mirasol might tip the honey in.

All around them their folk were blowing out their candle stubs, and there was a faint, pleasant aroma of charred wick and beeswax. As Mirasol lowered the honey pot again, the first of their people came up to them, to lay the candle ends at their feet among the bodies of the victorious bees; and three of those first were the butcher, the shepherd and the gardener.