chalice Page 9


PART THREE  

Two days after the fire the Overlord's agent came to the House, and another man with him. She already knew she did not like the agent, Deager, and she disliked the new man immediately, although at first she could not be sure she disliked him for any reason other than the company he kept.

He gave her reason soon enough, however, in the proprietorial air with which he looked round. He was introduced to her with a tremendous flourish, although no reason was given for his presence; which, with the air and the flourish, was explanation enough, and her heart plummeted. By the time the Grand Seneschal informed her, stiffly, that this was the Overlord's choice for the next Master's Heir, she didn't need to be told, and in her anger and frustration she said, "That is hasty," before she remembered to whom she spoke, and she bit her lip, waiting for the rebuke. But none came. She was so surprised she looked into his face. He scowled at her at once, the familiar contemptuous, disapproving scowl, but when she ducked her head and then glanced back again a moment later, his face had relaxed into what looked a lot like sadness.

The new man's name was Horuld. She paid little attention to his breeding, that several of his forebears' lines ran directly from Willowlands, and several more had crossed in the ensuing generations, and which Deager was very eager to tell out, over and over and over, even to such unworthies as the demesne's shabby and erratic new Chalice, who was herself one of the indications (Deager didn't say this but he didn't have to) that the demesne was still in trouble, over a year after she had taken her place in the Circle.

So far as she knew no Chalice had ever been deposed. But she had never seen any record of a Chalice chosen when there was no Master to hold the land steady while the Circle did its work either. It had very occasionally happened that an apprentice died with or before her Chalice; but then too there had always been an experienced Master. And there were stories of Chalices who had not been able to bear the work they were called on to do – even those who had had their proper apprenticeships – and broken under it. There were only a few of these stories, but one was too many, and there was more than one. She believed that one such Chalice was the Chalice she herself followed.

She was surprised – even more surprised than she had been at the Grand Seneschal missing a chance to reprimand her – when Horuld seemed disposed to talk to her. There were other, more prepossessing and conversationally skilful members of the Circle he could address himself to; demesne hierarchy declared that Chalice was Second of the Circle, but that had to be remembered only when there was work to be done. Her Circle recollected it only when they had to, as did the Overlord's agent – or they always had done previously. She was, as Chalice, compelled to be present for the agent's visit, and – as Chalice – she would serve whatever Master fate set over Willowlands. That was enough. Perhaps the training she hadn't had would have included how to hold superfluous discourse with people she would rather avoid. When she was standing Chalice or performing a ritual she did not have to chat; but Horuld's first visit was informal. In other circumstances this would have seemed friendly and considerate; as it was it seemed ominous and coercive.

Deager, having proved to his own satisfaction, if not all of his audience's, that Horuld's bloodlines were an excellent choice, wished to make it clear – he said – that the Overlord was merely anxious that an unambiguous Heir should be in place, after the recent disaster. If such an accident should happen again, the demesne might fall apart entirely. It had been without a Master for seven months; it could not survive this a second time.

She tried to tell herself that a declared Heir was a sensible precaution; their present Master was the end of his family. The previous Master should have declared an Heir when he sent his only brother to Fire. She wondered why the Overlord had not obliged him to do so; she had only been a small woodskeeper then, and small woodskeepers heard little about Overlords' decisions. The demesne gossip said merely that the Master was a young man, and hale, and he would produce Heirs – had probably produced a few already, the uneasy joke went. But they would be bastards, and prohibited. By the time the ordinary folk of the demesne had begun to realise that their young Master seemed to have no intention of marrying and producing a proper Heir, especially in combination with his increasingly alarming general behaviour, the fear of what this meant also meant that no one wanted to talk about it.

And then the worst had happened.

Perhaps she should try to believe that the Overlord was merely doing the responsible thing – the responsible thing he had failed to do before – but again she wondered. It was too soon to tie an Heir to the present Circle; Willowlands was still too precarious. However necessary an Heir was, forcing him upon them now would unbalance it further. Would the next thing be that she was obliged to take an apprentice? She had no energy for the binding that would entail. Leaving aside that she had nothing to teach one.

Perhaps it was only her dislike of both Deager and Horuld that made her feel the agent was making it clear that Horuld was being introduced to Willowlands as the Heir only after he had made something else even more clear, if not in so many words: that the Overlord would like to see Horuld taking up this inheritance soon. She was too quick to feel she needed to defend the Master, she told herself. But what she had taken from the agent's description of Horuld's bloodlines was that if he was the best that could be done for her poor demesne, the Overlord should be straining every muscle to support the present Master. Did the Overlord want to break Willowlands entirely? Surely not. The disruption would damage the Overlord's grip too…no. He would be counting on riding it out; might he, more, be betting on the huge increase of his own power the successful changeover would produce? She knew almost nothing of the politics among Overlords. Demesne folk did not travel to the crown city nor visit the court of the king; and as practising Chalice she was furthermore indissolubly tied to her land.

But whatever else she knew or thought of the Grand Seneschal, he would not have kept such a piece of news as a visit from the Heir from the rest of the Circle; and Deager glossed, or slithered, over the question of why Willowlands had not known who was coming with him, which made it plain that there had been no message that had gone awry.

She had mixed the cup she would offer to the company before she came. She had mixed it for the visit from the Overlord's agent, and that was all. That was how it was done; that was why it was important that a Chalice know in advance who would drink from her cup, and for what reasons. Last-minute changes were destabilising, which was why battlefield cups, which were perforce rare, were also notoriously volatile.

It should not have been a good omen, that a Master's Heir should be left out of the first cup he received from the Chalice. Perhaps the Overlord, or some other of his plotters, had decided that being left out was better than a Chalice throwing her weight against him, which a loyal Chalice might be suspected of doing upon the presentation of any outblood Heir. Chalices were parochial by definition; of all the Circle, only the Chalice could not set foot across her demesne's boundaries. Some of the oldest records called the Chalice the Landtied – and because of this literal overidentification, the Chalice's response to outbloodedness in any member of the Circle was considered crucial. This perhaps explained why Horuld was interested – indeed eager – to talk to her. Perhaps she could be disposed to include him kindly in her mixture for his next visit, after he had been careful to make a good first impression. She would not need to be disloyal. Any Master's Heir was an important part in the demesne structure; most accepted Heirs attended at least some Circle gatherings; and under the present circumstances the only possible Heir was an outblood. A Chalice must at least punctiliously include her Master's Heir in any cup he was present for; of course it would be better if she felt at least benign toward him, or even generous.

But she did not feel benign or generous. She listened, smooth-faced, when the agent pronounced some blather about how the surprise of presenting Horuld unannounced would create "clarity" in an awkward situation; that he would be more able to see where he would best fit into difficult circumstances if no one was trying to soften the truth. She knew that a properly schooled Chalice would have some matching blather to offer in return, but she was not a properly schooled Chalice, and it gave her a little meagre pleasure that her silence discomfited the agent, and by his discomfiture he exposed that he knew his action had been dishonourable.

Did she loathe Horuld because Deager was a toad? No. Sunbrightener was a toad, and his antics merely made her feel tired and sad. Or because the Chalice was repelled by outbloodedness? She looked at Horuld and every particle of her recoiled. No. She bore the Chalice, she was not engulfed by it.

Mirasol had arrived a little late at the House for the meeting with Deager. Just as she was leaving her cottage a young mother had burst into the meadow carrying a wildly weeping child. Mirasol knew them, Kenti and her daughter Tis; they were neighbours. Tis had pulled a kettle of boiling water over. Fortunately it had only been half full, but the child still had a badly burned arm; and the local herbswoman, Catu, was gone to a lying-in, Kenti did not know where. Mirasol hadn't spoken to Kenti or her husband Danel properly since she had become Chalice, in spite of the fact that Danel and she had grown up together; she had been jealous when he had been apprenticed to a ploughman, for the horses.

Kenti said breathlessly, "Can you do anything? Can you help?" Her eyes went to the back of Mirasol's right hand, which was holding the edges of her cloak together over the cup of congruence in her left hand, and then hastily rose to Mirasol's face. But she couldn't meet the Chalice's eyes the way she had many times met Mirasol's, and they dropped away again. Poor Tis was weeping in a miserable, exhausted way that was painful to hear.

Mirasol brought them into the cottage and took down a small pot of the honey especially good for burns and smeared it carefully over Tis' arm. The little girl cried out at the first touch but by the time Mirasol had finished she had fallen silent, and leant back against her mother's body staring at Mirasol with huge still-wet eyes. Even as Mirasol looked back at her the eyelids drooped, and Tis was asleep.

And then Kenti burst into tears. Mirasol led her to the big soft chair by the fireplace where Mirasol did much of her reading and let her collapse. "It was my own carelessness – I know what she's like – I let myself be distracted – it was only a moment – and then I heard her scream – and I knew Catu was away – I didn't know what to do – it was awful" and then she couldn't say anything for a while.

Mirasol made a tisane – a spoonful of her soothing honey with a spoonful of the calming herbs she'd had from Catu herself; in the early months of her Chalicehood she'd drunk it by the bucketful. When she brought a cup to Kenti, Kenti laid Tis tenderly down beside her on the chair, sticky arm uppermost, and took it. She breathed in the steam and gave a little half laugh: she recognised Catu's mixture.

"I've used honey for littler wounds – your mother taught me that when I wasn't much older than Tis – but this one was so dreadful. And then I remembered – I remembered your hand. I thought, if your – if the Chalice's honey can cure what a Fire-priest can do, then perhaps it can cure Tis' arm."

Mirasol said gently, "The Master cured my hand."

"He – ?" said Kenti unbelievingly, and Mirasol saw the fear in her face, the same fear she saw in the Housemen's faces before they bent nearer their Master to slide the chair under him as he sat down; the fear she saw in the faces of most of the others of the Circle when their part in a rite brought them too close to him – the fear of him that made the Master leave the burnt grove before any of his people saw him there.

"Yes. He." She wanted to say, Tell Danel. Tell your mother. Tell all your friends. But she watched Kenti's face and knew that she would tell the story – if she believed it. Kenti's face said that she wanted to believe it – she wanted that hope, not only for herself, but for her demesne.

Kenti sat looking at her daughter for a long moment and then said wonderingly, "Look – the mark is already fading. Your mother's honey could not have done so much so quickly. It is the Chalice in you, I know, but perhaps – perhaps – perhaps it is also that we have a Fire-priest for Master…." Her voice had sunk to a whisper.

Mirasol was still thinking about the hope in Kenti's face when she walked up to the House. She knew she was late, but it was only Deager, the agent, coming for a – snoop, she thought uncharitably. Overlords' agents were supposed to visit their Overlords' demesnes, but she didn't like the way Deager's nose twitched, the way his eyes darted around, as if he were hoping to smell something rotten, to see someone doing something illicit or disgraceful.

And then she arrived, and there was a surprising number of people churning around in the big hall behind the front doors, and a youngish, weaselly-faced man she had never seen before standing a little too close to Deager's elbow.

The situation was uncomfortable enough to begin with, when it was only Deager and Horuld, herself and the Grand Seneschal and the Seneschal's apprentice Bringad, and four of the minor Circle (the others were hastily sent for when Horuld was revealed as the Heir) plus the attendants the visitors brought and their own Housefolk. As the word spread about Horuld, more and more people streamed in, and both the noise and the tension level, it seemed to Mirasol, rose, and the ever-worried Bringad looked more worried than she had ever seen him. But when the Master arrived…she did not know how to understand it, explain it, even to herself. It was as if the level ground tipped a little in one direction and the high curving sky changed its arc just a little in some other direction.

A Master was not expected to greet a mere agent on his arrival; the Grand Seneschal did that. But as the representative of his Overlord, a Master would be churlish as well as foolish not to see him at some point during his visit. She assumed the Grand Seneschal had despatched a message to the Master about Deager's unexpected companion; it was impossible to read any trace of surprise or disquiet on the Master's shadowy black and strangely mutable face when he made his entrance. Mirasol heard with what was beginning to be a familiar sinking of the heart the conversation falter and then stop as he was noticed, before the head Houseman announced him. Perhaps all Masters are greeted with a respectful hush, but she doubted that most demesne folk drew together as if for protection when their Master appeared.

When Deager (his voice positively quavering as he addressed the Master) described Horuld as the Overlord's candidate for Heir, the Master merely bowed his head. There was a disagreeable pause, and then the agent rushed to begin telling Horuld's bloodlines over again, speaking too loudly and too quickly, and at first forgetting his flourishes. But when a Master has no son nor other suitable close relative, the meeting between the Master and the Master's newly declared Heir was as laboriously and ponderously formal as centuries of tradition could make it, including, in this case, the tradition that an unexpected situation should be treated even more formally than the same situation when everyone knew what was happening. The Grand Seneschal managed to insert an orotund phrase or two (rather like a pole through the spokes of a wheel, Mirasol thought) into the agent's barrage of genealogy, which had a steadying effect. When Deager finally fell silent, his concluding bow was as elaborate as if he were being presented to the king. But Mirasol found herself thinking that the Master had bowed his head so very ceremoniously indeed that perhaps he had somehow known of Horuld's coming before the message from the Grand Seneschal.

Most of the initial gestures among any group that required the presence of the Chalice were stylised, just as her offering of the cup was, but during Horuld's first visit to Willowlands they all seemed to move as if they were puppets in a puppet show, their limbs made of wood, the pulling of their strings performed by a puppeteer. If there had been an audience Mirasol felt they would not have found the performance convincing. Although Deager had insisted in a manner that was obviously meant to be magnificent but came over as merely presumptuous, that this first informal meeting with the Heir should proceed as it would have if Horuld had not been there, this was not possible, as Deager would have known it was not possible. Furthermore any meeting involving the Circle to which the Chalice stood should be precise about the number of people present, the number of people who would be offered the Chalice's cup – which Deager would also know.

And the Willowlands folk were doubtless awkward with surprise. They had known an Heir would be chosen, and Mirasol had held Chalice during the gathering when the Master had acceded to the Overlord's wish, as presented by Deager, that the Overlord do the choosing. But that had only been a few weeks ago, and they had heard nothing of the progress of the search. She had begun reading about the meeting of a Master with an unknown Heir, so she knew that if it had been a proper meeting she should offer her cup first to the Master and second to the Heir. After a moment's invisible dithering behind the face she tried hard to keep in an expressionless Chalice mask she did so anyway: let Deager assume this was a manifestation of magnanimity and support; she considered it buying time.

The contrast between the Master and an ordinary human had never been so marked, she thought, as between the Master and his Heir when she took the cup from one and offered it to the other. She had directed them to stand on either side of her – which would also have been the correct form for a planned first meeting between the two of them: she could see Deager smiling with satisfaction, but she ignored him. The Master seemed to tower over her, and his natural heat, as she stood close enough to him to hold a cup to his lips, wrapped itself around her as if claiming her – and briefly and disconcertingly she remembered riding home with him after the fire in the Onora Grove. Horuld, who was no more than average size, seemed puny and frail in comparison; and the fact that he was obviously struggling not to flinch away from the Master added to this impression of weakness.

She might have helped him, as she often helped the Circle members who were still reluctant to approach the Master, by stepping toward him, by allowing him to maintain a greater distance; but she did not. She offered the cup to the Master with a bent arm, and then turned and offered the cup to Horuld, again with a bent arm, and waited, forcing him to step close, not only to her, but to the Master. He did not try to take the cup from her, but he did raise a hand to grasp it, and she could feel him trembling. There were beads of sweat on his upper lip which she doubted were only from the heat. Before she took the cup on to Deager and the rest of the Circle, she bowed, to the Master, and then to Horuld. The Master must receive the deeper bow, of course, but the Heir might have had one nearly as deep; her bow to the Heir was only enough more than perfunctory not to be offensive. She let her gaze pass as if carelessly over Deager, and saw that he had stopped smiling.

She could feel, before she had got halfway round the Circle, that it was not a good binding. When she made her final bow it was almost difficult to stand upright again, and she was exhausted. She had to make a great effort to meet the eyes of Horuld and Deager; the Grand Seneschal's eyes looked glassy and unfocused, and the Master's were as unfathomable as they had been the first day, when his hand had slipped and burnt her, and his face was only blurred shadows. She tried to remember the sudden surprising joy of his healing of her hand, of talking to him about what he saw, about her bees being tiny golden sparks in his strange vision – of the night that she had helped him put out the fire in Onora Grove, and the ride home after. But she remembered these things as she might remember something out of a book, a story told of someone else.

Even if, by some extraordinary accident, the Chalice had not known beforehand all those who would drink, a well-mixed cup should have had a more positive effect than this. Perhaps she had mixed it injudiciously; that was likeliest. Even without his bringing an unannounced Heir, her dislike of Deager made it onerous for her to mix a cup that she would have to offer to him. But even if a more experienced Chalice might have done better, it was still true that introducing an Heir without proper advance warning was like throwing a boulder on one side of a delicate scales and expecting them still to balance.

But perhaps the lack of binding and balance in this gathering was because Horuld was wrong…wrong for the demesne, wrong as Heir, wrong even to be here. It had been known in the past that an outblood Heir was rejected by the demesne, however carefully the humans had tried to make the best choice. Perhaps the Overlord had overplayed his game by giving the Master and his Chalice no forewarning that the Overlord's choice was coming to be introduced to his hoped-for inheritance.

By the end of the day, when she could leave the House and make her way back to her cottage, she was shaking and sick. She pulled her hood over her head and held it bunched round her throat with her hands, feeling that what she really wanted to do was disappear: if she wrapped the ends of her cloak around her tightly enough and then tighter still, eventually there would be no one left inside…. Usually the gentle thumping of the empty Chalice cup against her hip was comforting: another ritual got through. Today it was not; she felt that she – they – Willowlands had indeed not got through the ritual of the introduction of the Heir. She concentrated on the thought of sitting in the last of the daylight in the clearing by the cottage, listening to her bees.

She was still ten minutes' walk from the cottage when some of her bees came to meet her. She stretched out her arms to them and they landed on her hands and forearms, stroking her skin as if the tiny hairs were sepals they expected to secrete nectar for them. She shook her hood back, and several landed on her face and neck; out of the corners of her eyes she could see more landing on her shoulders. As she walked the last few minutes to the cottage she found herself thinking that her head felt strangely heavy, and that the hum of the bees was unusually loud; and then when she came out of the tree-shadowed path into the sunny clearing around the cottage she saw a great cloud of bees lifting away from her and dispersing, and she realised that she had been wearing a hood and cloak of bees. She watched them scatter about their proper bee business, and wondered.

Horuld came twice more in the next few weeks with Deager, and then a third time he came alone. When he came with Deager their visits were announced in advance; but now as the acknowledged Heir, he might come as he pleased – and stay as he pleased. She was in the House library when he came that third time, and the first warning she had was a shadow falling across the open door; she was deep into her research and would not have noticed, except that a half-familiar voice said, "Chalice," and her body had recoiled before her mind had recognised who it was.

She turned the recoil, she hoped, into a mere startle, and stood up at once to make a ceremonial sign of greeting, saying, "Forgive me, my mind was lost in what I was doing."

He said smoothly, "And I have interrupted you; forgive me."

She bowed her head and waited, hoping his appearance was a formal signal only and that he had no business with her. The demesne's folk were growing used to their new Chalice, and they were now coming to her more and more; this was a relief in some ways, and she knew she must be grateful for the good this was doing Willowlands, but she often had to put aside what other work she had planned on doing. She had fled to the House library today and was hastily reading up on the behaviour toward and reception of outblood Heirs. Part of her problem, she thought, as she had thought many times since the Chalice had come to her, was that she was not by nature a formal sort of person; she found that side of the duties of the Chalice so difficult as sometimes to feel incompatible with her private self. She wondered if this was anything like trying to live in the human world when you were a priest of Fire.