chalice Page 6

"Welcome," she said again, still feeling dizzy and confused, but realising she meant it. He was welcome. "May I offer you – " She stopped. She had no idea what a Chalice was supposed to offer a Master who visited her at her home. There must be a tradition, a right thing, even perhaps a rule. But it was not an eventuality it had occurred to her she needed to prepare for. And perhaps there was no rule after all, because the Chalice should have lived at the House, at the House with the Master.

"Honey," he said. "Will you offer me honey?"

"Of course," she said, still wit-scattered. "Anything – anything I can offer you."

"Honey, please," he said politely, as if he were anyone – as if he were one of her customers.

She looked at him bemusedly. Which honey? Not the sleepy. The energetic? One of the ache-soothers? Which one? One of the ones she hadn't figured out yet (maybe they were just to make dull bread or porridge taste wonderful)?

"Of course," she said, and went indoors, as much to hide her confusion from him – but what did he see with his uncanny eyes? – as to fetch the honey. She went to the shelf where she kept the jars in use, and put her hand out blindly, choosing by not choosing: and so her hand reached itself, and took down a jar.

It was one of the mysterious ones: she knew neither what it was for nor what it was made of. It was an early-summer honey, and she could taste the yellow singers and the wild cherry, but there was something else in it as well. Perhaps it's a confusion-tamer, she thought, and the choice is really for me.

She took two spoons, which is what she would normally do for a friend – or had done when she had had friends. But it was only as she picked up the second spoon that it occurred to her that this honey was also her secret favourite, and that she liked not knowing what was in it, and had silly fantasies about what it might be for, besides making dull bread or porridge taste wonderful. Would a Master eat honey straight out of the jar? She dithered a moment longer, and then made up a tray, with a half loaf of bread and a knife, and two cups, and a pitcher of water drawn that morning from the cottage well – whose water now had the faintest sweet taste, as if a little honey were leaking into its source.

He was sitting in one of the stone chairs when she came back outside again. She had noticed before that he rarely stood for long; she wondered if the Hardbutt family furniture was to him any improvement on standing, but he looked, she thought, almost relaxed. More relaxed, anyway, than he had ever been during all the gatherings she had stood Chalice to.

She paused in her doorway to look at him a moment longer. Even when there was not the slightest breeze the hem of his cloak stirred faintly, as if in response to some intangible air. Or flame. As she watched he raised his hands and put his hood back, tipping his face up to the sun and closing his disturbing red eyes. She'd never seen him bare-headed before and in the strong sunlight she had confirmed what she had suspected since the first time she saw him at the front door of the House, when she had given him the cup of welcome: there was a peculiar, somehow indefinite quality to his features that was not only to do with blackness seen in shadow. The lines of his face seemed strangely mutable, as if they flickered, almost like flames.

But she also saw that he had hair: black and straight, pulled back from his face, and tied at the nape of his neck with something she could not see, lost in the folds of the hood. The boy who had smiled at her and her mother as he trotted past on his pony had had curly brown hair. But many straight-haired people had curly hair as children.

She had to kneel to move some books out of the way before she set the tray down on the wide low stone that served as an outdoor table. He opened his eyes again and looked at her. She risked looking at him for longer than a glance. She could not discern pupil from iris – if perhaps a third-level priest of Fire still has ordinary irises and pupils – which were as lightlessly black as his skin. What should have been the whites of his eyes were red – red as fire – red as the embers that will set flaming anything that touches them. Reddened eyes in ordinary humans look sore and sick; his looked uncanny and fathomlessly deep. What might he see with such eyes?

As she had done the morning he healed her hand, she heard herself asking a question she had no intention of saying out loud: "Do you see differently?"

"With my red eyes?" he said, equably enough, and blinked. His eyelids stayed closed a fraction longer than a usual blink, and when they opened again that sense of burning embers was even stronger, in a face that seemed itself to flicker slightly, like a hot fire burnt low. "I'm not sure. It's a gradual process, being taken by Fire. I still see the leaves of the trees as green, and a cloudless sky as blue. But I see heat, in a way I remember I did not, when I…before I entered Fire."

"You see heat," she said, not understanding.

"You are warmer than the surrounding air," he said. "I see – or read – that. I read Ponty as a warm space too. A warm solid space – a Ponty-shaped space. His heat outlines him, and inside…within that outline there is movement, swirls, billows, like a stream in wild country over a rough rocky bed…the movement of his life force. It moves clearly and strongly in him, like clear water. It is rarely so strong or so clear in humans. There is a rabbit in the brush over there; I see the curled and curling shape of its warmth, its body, behind the leaves, which screen it, I think, from your sight." He looked around. "You can probably pick out the singing birds in your trees by tracing the sound; I can see the silent ones. I can see the ones invisible on their nests, and I can see how many eggs they sit on, for this late brooding. I can see where there is no life inside a shell, that it will not hatch."

"And the bees?" she said, fascinated.

"Yes. The bees are tiny golden sparks, as of fire."

"Of honey."

"Yes. Of honey. The hives glitter with the movement of the bees."

"I wish I could see them like that," she said wistfully. "It must be very beautiful."

He made no answer and – again as she had done that morning before he had first asked her to stand by him – she suddenly recalled to whom she spoke, and looked at him quickly, her mouth already open to apologise. But he was looking at her with what seemed to her was surprise. Her mouth stayed open, but no words came out.

"It is very beautiful," he said.

She looked down, at her tray, at the little lopsided jar of glittering honey.

"I don't know much – I don't know as much as I should – about Chalices," he said. "Isn't their usual susceptibility to water?"

"Or wine," she said. "Occasionally beer or cider or perry. Perhaps once every other century a woman who is pregnant or nursing when the Chalice comes to her finds that she holds her Chalice in milk, but that is not considered lucky for the demesne. Occasionally in a demesne near the sea it has been brine. I've read about the finding and naming of many Chalices now and I've not read of another one whose gift was honey. Never honey. I suppose that's one of the reasons that it never occurred to me what was happening, in the beginning, after…" She knew she was talking too much, but it seemed to pour out of her, like honey from a jar: it wasn't only the overwhelmingness of her life that made it lonely; it was that she had no one to share with how enormously interesting it also was. "And the coming is not usually so…melodramatic. That will have been the unsettled state of the demesne, I know, but…. You do get things like wells overflowing, but it was mead and honey everywhere here, and my goats were fountaining milk, and usually it's not quite so…You know the Lady of the Ladywell was our first Chalice – that was her house well originally – her well overflowed, but all that happened, according to the records, is that it was the herald of a drought ending, and so very welcome.

"This demesne has usually had water Chalices – maybe because of the willows. The last Chalice, the one who – who died" – she glanced up at him briefly and away again – "she was a water Chalice. I think that may be part of why…and part of why I…" She had babbled on too much already, but she did not want to stop there. "There's a very old story about a blood Chalice. She must have had a horrible time. But she brought her demesne through a series of wars that destroyed the demesnes around her, according to the story, so maybe it was worth it to her. I've never found any record of her, though, only the story. In the story her demesne is called Springleafturn, and there isn't one."

"'Part of why,'" he said. "Part of why she and my brother died?"

"I don't know," she said. "I should not have mentioned it."

"You have the right to know how your predecessor died."

"I have the right to have been apprenticed to the Chalice I was to succeed! I have the right to have known I was her heir! You have the right to have lived here and supported your brother as Master and learnt what you needed to know as his acknowledged Heir! Our land has the right to be cared for by a Master and a Chalice who know what they're doing and – and are able to do it!"

"And Willowlands is in trouble because these rights were not honoured."

"Yes," she said wearily. "Yes." She did not say, And it is why two – lame, faulty, unfit, what do you call a priest of Fire exiled from his Fire? What do you call a small woodskeeper suddenly ordered to be great? – unsuitable, unready people were made Chalice and Master, and why they cannot make a damaged land whole. It is all wrong; and the frame, the pattern, the yoke that holds us all, is not yet broken, but it is breaking.

"Tell me why you said what you did. That being a water Chalice was part of why they died."

She was silent a moment. At last she said, "They died of fire and wine. I – I guess – and it is only a guess – she might have shaped the way better if she had had more strength for wine. Willowlands has always been very – " She tried to think of an adjective that would fit. The only ones that came to her were "pure" or "clean" or "clear" or "simple" and she could not say any of them to the brother of the man who had made it not so. There were other demesnes whose strength was not in clarity or purity, but she did not know how to make her own another of them, even to heal it. She thought, If the land chose me, then it cannot want to go that way. The only thing I have to offer is simplicity – dumb, harassed simplicity.

"He was holding one of his – parties – I guess. Yes, he had begun them before he sent me away; indeed it was because of them that he did send me away, because I could, or would, not keep silence about them. No, no one has told me this, but it was the old pavilion that burnt, and it was there I know he held his first assemblies, because it suited his purposes. How can a Master and his Chalice be so insensible as to be overcome by fire, in their own demesne, unless they are drunk – or drugged?"

Quickly she said, "At least we did not lose the House."

"The House would not have borne such usage as his carouses were," he responded just as quickly. "He had to hold them elsewhere. I am sorry the pavilion was not stronger."

"But – " she said. "The – the old magic, before the demesnes were made, the old magic still lives close under the earth there. You know this – you must have felt it too. The pavilion was power to use, for good or ill, without rule."

Another silence, while he looked at his hands. "I apologise for the violence of my words. I did not – do not – hate my brother. The bitterness I feel is the bitterness of my own frustration – my own lack of power to pull our land together again. Or rather, the power is still there, but it has been turned to, or into, Fire, and I cannot turn it back, however I try." Savagely he clapped his hands together, and when he opened them, a pillar of fire roared up from between them – he closed them again and the fire disappeared. "That is only a trick to frighten children, here. Here I cannot be sure, if I reach out to grasp a goblet, that I won't miss, and grab the air, or burn the hand of her who holds it out to me. It is the same when I reach for the earthlines. I miss, or do harm."

"You healed the burnt hand of the woman who held the goblet for you. It is not all tricks to frighten children," she said, hoping he had not seen that she had been frightened just now. "I hear the earthlines too – I not only must, as Chalice, but by being Chalice I cannot help it – and I have felt no harm done lately."

He raised his eyes and looked at her. "Would you? Would you feel it? Could you say to yourself, 'Yes, here is a break – a roughness, a troubling – that was not here a sennight ago'?"

She returned his look and refused to look away. "I don't know. That is what you are pressing me to say, is it not? I don't know because I don't know what the earthlines should feel like, should sound like – what they would feel like if the land were settled and content – whether their constant plaintive murmur would at last fall silent. I don't know. It is only one of a thousand thousand things I don't know. But I know the land lies quieter now than it did a year ago – than it did six months ago. I know the earthlines lie softer than they did."

He shifted his gaze away from her, as if looking through the woods to the House and then beyond, across the long leagues of the entire demesne. She sat staring at him, and was so far away in her thoughts that when he looked back at her she did not move her eyes quickly enough.

"What do you see?" he said.