chalice Page 5


PART  TWO

The day the Circle came to her seemed a century ago now, although it was only a year. Once Nora and Spring had joined Kard's small flock of four their milk production settled back to normal, although she heard later from Selim that it was two months before they stopped eating as much as the other four goats together. She could guess that Kard hadn't dared complain – inheriting the goats of the new Chalice, who no longer had time for them, had to be an honour – but no small woodskeeper has much to spare, and if the new goats had gone on eating their heads off, Kard might have had trouble getting through the winter; profits from additional cheeses wouldn't have come in time. Mirasol had been distressed at this story, declared that Selim should have told her sooner – "Why didn't Kard say something to me himself, when I go to him now for my milk?" she exclaimed, even knowing what the answer was. But Selim smiled one of her new, uncomfortable smiles, said that Kard was very pleased with his new goats which were now both in kid, that probably she shouldn't have told Mirasol at all except that this was a story that had a happy ending and she thought…and then her eyes slid away from Mirasol's and she hadn't finished what she had been going to say.

Then the new Master had returned but there was no happy ending for the demesne. Or perhaps for the new Chalice. Selim was the only one of Mirasol's old acquaintances who made an effort to remain in contact, to be welcoming when the Chalice managed to snatch an hour away from her responsibilities. And Mirasol had lost her woodright after all: she had known that she could keep neither it nor her goats once she was Chalice, and so she gave them up because she had to. The woodright had been divided among the three other rights it bordered on; Selim was one of the beneficiaries and claimed, with a believable manifestation of sincerity, that the extra work was worth the extra result.

But Mirasol had dared try to wield some of the power of the Chalice to keep her cottage, and her bees. She had declared her preference in a meeting with the rest of the Circle – declared it officially after having borne a series of unofficial attempts to persuade her to move into the House – and had worn her most gorgeous robes, and used the cup of decision, to bind the meeting. It was bad enough that the meeting itself had been at the House, with its heavy, disapproving air – and while no one but the Chalice should know the proper names of the Chalice's vessels, any Circle member who chose to pay attention would be able to predict, over time, which cup came out for which sort of occasion. She was sure the Grand Seneschal guessed by the damning look he gave her when she offered him the cup of decision, but even the Grand Seneschal would not dare refuse a cup offered him by the Chalice. The Circle drank – and Mirasol kept her cottage. And her bees.

It was possible that the overwhelming presence of her bees had discouraged Landsman from deciding to reassign her woodright whole, which would have included the cottage for its new incumbent, when he came to view the situation and decide on his recommendation for its future. The bees seemed as integral a part of the scene as the cottage and the trees. Landsman had not stayed long nor said much, but he had bowed to her so resentfully when he left that she felt his decision couldn't be against her or he would have been happier about it. And saying little could have been merely conservation of effort: the Circle had had to shout over the rumble of bees to make her hear their original news, especially since she couldn't believe it even after her ears had taken it in.

Perhaps it was her bees who kept other, more ordinary visitors away. She reminded herself that even Selim had found her bees disconcerting when there had been far fewer of them – before the Chalice had come to her. At least since she had accepted what she could do nothing about, her bees had stopped swarming, and the rivers of honey had slowed to mere streams – and you could begin to hear yourself think again, and eventually conversations no longer had to be shouted – as if by her acceptance the power of the Chalice had begun to run in the channel where it belonged. However ill suited she felt herself to contain it. She tried to think of it sometimes as she thought of her bees, something apart from her that it was her duty to tend; but it was like trying to tend the sea you were drowning in.

If it was her bees that were keeping her old friends away at least this new attribute seemed to include keeping unwelcome visitors away also. The Grand Seneschal had once come to her cottage alone, to try to convince her, he said, that she would be better taking the Chalice's quarters in the House. The underlying message was, she felt, that he wanted to keep an eye on her, and that would be easier at the House. Yes. And of the entire Circle she found him the most intimidating of all, so that at Circle meetings she had to keep reminding herself not merely that she was Chalice, but that she was also Second of the Circle. When she thought of meals taken daily either in the small House dining room, which was still large enough to seat twenty-six, with several of her fellow Circle members – either that, she supposed, or immured in her room with a tray like the Master – no. Or being walking distance from the outdoors – from grass and trees and weather and bees – instead of the other side of a single plain door: no again. It wasn't possible. It was one of those things that she, Mirasol, within the Chalice, could not do.

She was aware also that none of the Circle, most especially the Grand Seneschal, wanted to believe that the particular vessel of her Chalicehood really was honey, and she was not pretending something so ridiculous (and unheard of ) from perversity – the personal perversity of wanting to keep her cottage and her bees. She wondered which was the chicken and which the egg: did the Circle wish her to be an ordinary Chalice so that they felt justified in trying to bully her into moving to the House, or did they hope she might yet become a proper Chalice if she gave up her bees – by moving to the House?

But her bees had promptly stung the Grand Seneschal – twice – and he'd left in some confusion. She'd chased after him with salve for the throb and the swelling. She hadn't stopped him leaving for a fear a third bee would sacrifice herself to drive the interloper away. But since she needed the stingbalm so rarely herself, and since her bees were usually very well behaved (no matter how uneasy about them the visitor was), it had taken her a little while to locate it.

She'd insisted (panting from having run after him) that she put it on at once – although in hindsight she was surprised he'd allowed her to insist. He had one sting on one hand and the other on the opposite wrist. As he stood there with his hands held out they could both see the swellings subside, and he admitted (with a curious edge in his voice that might have been surprise, or indignation that he'd needed the healing, or that the healing had come from her) that the pain had stopped immediately.

She went home again slowly, hoping that he wouldn't decide to order her to get rid of her bees. He couldn't, in theory, order the Chalice to do anything, but in practise the Grand Seneschal could do just as he liked, and often did. He could certainly contrive to overturn the Landsman's decision to let her stay where she was.

She took a big pot of her most popular honey to the Grand Seneschal the next time she went to the House, as an apology. It seemed to have worked. If anything – and she found it difficult to believe that the Grand Seneschal would have deliberately done her any service – it had benefited her, for she suddenly had more orders for honey from the Housemen and-women, almost as if some permission – even encouragement – had been given. And although the honey yield had subsided since the first flood after the death of the old Chalice, she continued to have more than she could sell to her usual buyers in and out of the House, so this was very useful – especially when the Circle members who had once been her customers dropped away. Only the Weatheraugur and the Talisman still bought honey from her. The Talisman, she knew, used it in some of the tokens she made for her Circle work; the Weatheraugur merely liked it on her bread.

One day the new Clearseer bought a pot of her honey, and when he came back a month later for a second pot he said he was using it in his scrying.

"I didn't know honey was ever used for scrying," she said tentatively.

"It isn't," he said. "But it is customary to use water if your Chalice is a water Chalice, and a little wine if she is a wine Chalice. At the moment everything looks unnaturally golden and wonderful – which is no bad thing, but perhaps not practical – but I still have hopes of creating a tradition." He smiled at her: hopefully? Beseechingly?

She smiled back, and sold him a pot of her palest, clearest honey.

And Mirasol was glad of the money. She was going through quantities of paper taking notes and paper was expensive. (Sometimes she wondered why she found her increasing stacks of notes and notebooks such a solace, when the more of them there were the harder it was to find the annotation she was looking for.) Occasionally she'd been offered old manuscripts of Chalice records. She guessed they were black market, but she had no one to ask, or no one she was willing to ask (it was the sort of thing the Grand Seneschal would know how to find out), and she so longed to know everything. She'd once bought a particularly old mouldering one, because of its superlative oldness and moulderingness, and it had taken every penny she had. It had perhaps been worth it: it had been where she'd read of the one occasion when a Master had been put to death for harming his Chalice, which meant that she held the copy of that dangerous story, and not someone else. On the other hand it had rather put her off buying any more, because she felt a bit cautious about what else she might learn that she'd be glad to be spared.

She wondered where the Master had learnt that story; if another telling of it might be on some shelf in the library she had not come to yet. She doubted she could ask him, nor say: hide it, or I will.

And her bees kept making honey, and her buyers kept coming back for more (even if they looked around uneasily and tended to walk rather quickly back down the path from her cottage), and her tiny money pot had refilled by the time she needed more paper.

She also wondered if the Grand Seneschal had told anyone he'd been stung. She couldn't imagine him doing so; surely it was an admission of a loss of face? Perhaps here was why she had been left alone; but the Grand Seneschal would not need to give a reason for (for example) suggesting that the Landsman turn the new Chalice off her old landright. Stop, she told herself. The important thing was that he hadn't. The Grand Seneschal could no more order the Landsman to do something than he could order the Chalice, or any other member of the Circle doing their bloodright business; but it was a rare person who was brave, stubborn or desperate enough to resist his suggestion. Drily she thought, It has cost me sorely to be that rare person.

Her bees often landed on her – not just one or two or several any more, but dozens. When she came to take the honey away and replace the bowls and grass mats with new ones she had the extremely odd sensation that they were trying to help her. "Well, if you ate all this, you'd be too fat to fly," she said to them. She moved slowly so as not to startle them, but she no longer bothered to use smoke first to make them sleepy. This was foolish, but then harvesting honey by cutting a hole in a hive and putting a bowl under it was foolish too. Perhaps the reason her honey was so popular now was that it was so clear and clean; even sieved ordinary honey was never immaculate. But the honey still flowed – clear and clean and shining, in all the shades of golden from palest primrose to darkest amber – and her bees never stung her.

She worried about the combless honey, however, worried about how her bees were feeding themselves, till eventually she pulled the back off one of her mother's old pottery hives, the way she had done when she harvested honey by the usual method, and found the back full of normal sealed-up honeycomb; so she put the pottery plug back in, and daubed it round with mud and clay again to make it secure, and tried to stop worrying. She had noticed that three of the hives near the cottage produced no honey through the ridiculous holes in their bottoms, although she saw bees flying in and out of them apparently no differently than they flew in and out of all the other hives, and for a while she left them alone, thinking only that those bees had retained their normal bee sense and good for them. But eventually her curiosity got the better of her – why those particular hives, so close, as they were, to her cottage – and she pried the back off one of them too and discovered…rows and ropes and webs and columns of empty beeswax. She was initially shocked – there was something terribly wrong with these bees, and what was it, and would the rest of her bees catch it, and would they all die, and what were these bees living on?…And then the panic subsided and she felt so lightheaded she had to sit down, and when she sat down she began to laugh. Guessing what she would find this time, she got out her comb knife, and began to cut out just enough of the clean comb to let her see through to the front and yes, as if in reverse to the honey-river hives, there were the tidy rows of full honeycomb.

So she had beeswax candles to sell again too. Her mother had made beautiful ones, but the Chalice didn't have time. But she made them, and put a little honey in them too – a little of the honey Chalice's honey – and sold them. Beeswax candles were even more valuable than honey.

She had always been aware of the influence of the seasons on her bees' honey, but in the year since she had become Chalice she had begun to realise that the individual hives' honey had qualities which seemed to remain constant through the different seasons of nectar-producing flowers. She'd always tasted her honeycomb as she divided it up, so the different flavours – and colours and textures – over the year as different plants came into flower were familiar to her, as was the fact that these differences were quite marked enough for marked preferences, so for example the honey she liked best on bread was spring honey, and the honey she wanted with a winter stew was the last rich almost chestnut-coloured honey of the autumn.

It had also seemed to her for some years that different families of bees seemed to specialise in different flowers, and in different flying ranges to look for their preferred flowers, and that this tendency too had grown more pronounced this year. All honey was good for wounds and burns, but there was a lengthy folklore of specific honeys which declared, for example, that oak honey was the most nourishing for invalids and lavender honey was an appropriate gift from a lover to his or her beloved – and the honey from Willowlands' willows was for wisdom and decision-making. (She used a lot of this in her Chalice mixtures and wondered sardonically how much worse the Circle's relationship might be if she didn't.) It was this honey she had put in the Master's welcome cup. But this year the difference in taste and other qualities of the Chalice's bees' honey seemed much more extensive and distinct.

The majority of her honey was still just honey (although to a beekeeper honey is never just honey), so that when someone wished to buy some she didn't concern herself about what else she was selling besides golden sweetness. But she began to taste what came out of her bowls more attentively and discovered that there was the honey that made her feel sleepy and the honey that made her feel full of energy. There was honey that cured headaches – she'd tasted it the first time when she had a headache, which had snapped off like a branch breaking, which inspired her to taste it again the next time she had a headache and it had had the same effect.

But more and more she had somehow felt what a honey was good for as she bottled and labelled it; and as she grew accustomed to the discipline of – she called it listening, as she thought of listening to the earthlines – to the honey, she often heard quite complex things. There was a honey for stomach-aches and a honey for baldness; the stomach-ache honey was also good for bed-wetting and night terrors in children, and the honey for baldness was also good for too-heavy bleeding during a woman's monthly and for persuading a broody chicken to stop plucking her breast feathers out and get back to laying eggs. (This particular combination made her laugh.) And there was a honey that was particularly good for burns and wounds. There was also a honey to stop a well going dry, to stop a dog barking and to make fruit trees crop more heavily; and one that seemed to be to make the weather hold long enough to get the hay cut, dried and stacked. She stood looking at the last of these and wondered how it was supposed to be applied: did the farmer eat it, or put it in a bowl by the threshold of his house or his barn, or drop it in the corners of his hayfields, or did the scythesmen rub it on their scythes? The next time a farmer's wife bought honey from her, should she send her home with the haymaking honey?

And all of them tasted glorious on bread.

Still her mind kept reverting to the fact that her honey, which had never before failed her, had been able to do nothing for the burn the Master's touch had caused. She tried to tell herself that that had happened before she'd discovered there was a honey that was particularly good for burns. But she found herself doubting that it would have succeeded either. Maybe she had not yet discovered which honey was best to counteract a Fire-priest's touch? She thought of this when she remembered their conversation: that he himself had said he was no longer human. Was there a honey that could cure that?

She was thinking about the Master again one afternoon when she noticed the hum of her bees changing its note. It was a warm sunny day, so she was outdoors, with her books and papers scattered over the old stone chairs. She'd absorbed without really identifying the information that, since she had become a honey Chalice, the bees' note changed not only when they were angry or frightened but when they were making some kind of comment…. She resisted thinking that they were telling her something, but perhaps they were telling themselves something. She hadn't yet figured out (or perhaps let herself figure out) if different notes meant different things.

In this case she looked up and saw the Master coming toward her.

She stared at him blankly for a moment, believing he must be a mirage of her thoughts; perhaps her bees' next trick was creating three-dimensional pictures. She blinked, but he remained the Master and did not dissolve into nothingness, or into a cloud of bees. She did not think even her bees could create the blackness of him.

She jerked to her feet, for you cannot remain seated in the presence of a standing Master, even in your own front garden, and even when he arrives unexpectedly. She didn't think the Master was supposed to come to the Chalice; he was supposed to call her to come to him. But then she should be living in the House with him, where a message sent and answered involved no more than a few corridors and a flight of stairs or two.

She looked behind for the cart and driver which must have brought him, for she knew he could not walk so far, and saw a face she knew: old grey Ponty, who might have retired years ago, except he went on being sound and healthy and happy to see his tack appear – and as steady a pony as had ever carried a rider. He gave dogcart rides on feast-days to children who were fascinated by a smaller, quicker, more graceful version of the big farm horses most of them knew best. He looked fat and sleek and untroubled as he browsed the edge of her little clearing for savoury grasses. As she looked at him he raised his head and took a step forward into the sunlight as if appreciating the warmth, or as if to say to her: "All is well." She couldn't see his eyes through his thick forelock, but his ears, themselves barely visible, were pointed straight at her.

"Ponty," she said stupidly.

"Most horses prefer to avoid me," said the Master. "Ponty came straight up to me and asked for apples, which I have been careful to provide since then. He is also the image of his mother, who taught me to ride."

A memory she had no idea she had rose in her mind's eye: she was a very little girl going to the House with her mother – possibly for the first time, which was why it came to her so clearly. Her mother was carrying the pack Mirasol still used for transporting honey; when it was full of jars, you walked slowly enough for even quite a little girl to keep up with you, if she was a good walker, and Mirasol was, because her father often took her with him when he tended his trees. As they reached the drive from the forest track two older boys on horseback came trotting round the far side of the House and turned toward them.

Mirasol and her mother had already turned toward the back of the House but Mirasol had wanted to stop and watch; she liked horses, and knew the names of the work-horses and occasional riding pony whom she saw when she was out with her father. These two were from the House stables, and the one in the lead was very beautiful, although it threw its forelegs out in a nervous way. The boy on it suddenly gave it its head, and it shot forward, the boy easy and graceful in the saddle. It galloped past them, and Mirasol noticed that the boy was beautiful too. They made a splendid picture; but there was something in the way he ignored them that, young as she was, she did not like. It was not arrogance, but a kind of deliberate performance: he knew the effect they made and gloried in it. She turned her attention to the other boy. He was younger, and the horse he rode was only a pony. He followed the first boy, but remained trotting, and as he passed them he smiled and nodded, neatly but unshowily balancing the gesture against the motion of the trotting horse. He was ordinary-looking but he also looked – nice, Mirasol thought, a little wistfully; she missed having other children to play with. He was older than she, and he was from the House, but for a moment she had felt they might have been friends.

Her mother had stopped and was staring after the two boys. "That's the Master's two sons in a nutshell," she murmured.

"Mama?" said Mirasol, but Mirasol's mother shook her head and went on toward the House.

It was that ordinary boy who stood before her now. Half in the old memory and half in the shock of the moment she stumbled into speech: "You – you might have sent for me – or – or – Someone – anyone – would have been honoured to have been asked to bring you – anywhere – "

"Honoured?" he said. The sunlight fell upon his black cloak and disappeared in its folds. A small breeze stirred, although the cloak moved oddly in response, and as the fabric brushed against the body it concealed she was again reminded of her sense that even the shape of his body was no longer quite human.

There was a brief silence, and she realised, too late again, that this was not how a Chalice, or anyone else, greeted a Master. Was it herself, her own worries and preoccupations – her own inability to fit into the skin of the role she now played – that kept making her behave so, or was it the strangeness of him? Or was it the unexpected memory of him as a boy she would have liked to have had as a friend?

Breathlessly she said, "I am honoured by your presence here. You are most welcome…."

He'd come halfway across the meadow and had stopped, waiting, as it seemed, gravely.