Chalice by Robin McKinley

Putnam (September 18, 2008). Available from Amazon

As the newly appointed Chalice, Mirasol is the most important member of the Masterís Circle. It is her duty to bind the Circle, the land and its people together with their new Master. But the new Master of Willowlands is a Priest of Fire, only drawn back into the human world by the sudden death of his brother. No one knows if it is even possible for him to live amongst his people. Mirasol wants the Master to have his chance, but her only training is as a beekeeper. How can she help settle their demesne during these troubled times and bind it to a Priest of Fire, the touch of whose hand can burn human flesh to the bone?

Read an excerpt from Chalice

Because she was Chalice she stood at the front door with the Grand Seneschal, the Overlord's agent and the Prelate, all of whom were carefully ignoring her. But she was Chalice, and it was from her hand the Master would take the welcome cup.
     From the front door of the House, at the top of the magnificent curling sweep of stair, she could see over the heads of the crowd. The rest of the Circle stood stiffly and formally at the foot of the stair with the first Houseman and the head gardener, but nearly the entire citizenry of the demesne seemed to have found an excuse to be somewhere in or near the House or lining the long drive from the gates today.
     Their new Master was coming home: the Master thought lost or irrecoverable. The Master who, as younger brother of the previous Master, had been sent off to the priests of Fire, to get rid of him. Third and fourth brothers of Masters were often similarly disposed of, but the solitary brother of an unmarried Master without other Heir should not have been dealt with so summarily. So the Master had been told. But the two brothers hated each other, and the younger one was given to the priests of Fire. That had been seven years ago.
     A little over six years later the Master died, still without other Heir. The Grand Seneschal had sent immediately to the priests of Fire to say that there was urgent need of the younger brother of the Master of Willowlands, for the Master had died without having produced a son. Such a request—a plea—had never been made before. Once someone has gone to the Elemental priests, they do not return.
     But a demesne must have its Master. And a change of family, of bloodline, in any demesne, upsets all, often for generations, till the new family has settled into its charge. The nearest other living relative of the old Master of Willowlands was a fourth cousin who had already married someone unsuitable and had three children by her. The priests of Fire said they would see what they could do, but they promised nothing. The younger brother of the old Master had just crossed into the third level, and by the third level Elemental priests can no longer live among ordinary humans.
     But six weeks ago the Grand Seneschal had received another message from the priests of Fire: that the Master of Willowlands was coming home. It would not be an easy Mastership, and the priests were not sure it was even possible, but the Master himself felt the responsibility to his demesne, and he was determined to try.
     Mirasol—straining her eyes toward the gate, partly as a way to ignore the three men who were ignoring her—remembered the younger brother: his strength of purpose, his feeling of obligation to the demesne, his feeling for the demesne. It was what the brothers had quarrelled about. The elder brother had loved the power of the Mastership, not its duties, and he was not the least willing to bear lectures on his behaviour from his younger brother. She wasn't surprised the younger brother was coming home, even from the third level of the priesthood of Fire.
     She had dreamed of the message to the Grand Seneschal the night before it arrived: she had felt the fire and smelt the burning. She knew the Master would come. She knew too that the smell of burning was a warning, but she did not know of what. Might the demesne itself burn, or its new Master?
     She could see only a little way down the drive as it curved toward the gates half a league distant. But she could see when people better placed than she for first sight of the arrival stiffened and stared. The three men standing with her drew themselves to attention.
     She could hear carriage wheels now.
     It will be all right, she told herself. It must be all right. She settled her shoulders with a tiny, invisible shake, and fractionally raised her chin.
     Six horses drew the coach: four of them coal-black, clinker-black, two of them ashy grey. The coach itself was also black, but black was always fashionable among the great and grand and would draw no comment. But the curtains at these windows were drawn closed, and they too were black. A light flickered behind them, red and wavering, like firelight.
     Again she smelt burning, but she did not know if she imagined it.
     The welcoming of a new Master was a time of rejoicing. The ceremony of investiture was the official occasion, and after the rites were done there was an enormous banquet with musicians and dancing for everyone who belonged to the demesne—and for anyone else from any other demesne who wished to join in the festivities at the price of some enthusiastic contribution to toasts and cheers and acclamations. But the informal arrival of a Master should still be a happy moment. And she knew she was not the only person present who felt that the brothers had been born in the wrong order: it was the younger who would have made the better Master from the beginning.
     But no one clapped or called. No one smiled. It was as if everyone was holding their breath.
     The coach stopped in front of the House, where the gravel had been raked in a perfect circle, a symbol of good luck. Any coach wheels and any horses' hooves would have broken the circle, splintered the careful spiral; that it should be so broken was a part of the welcome, like opening and pouring out the contents of a bottle of wine. There was no reason for her to feel uneasy, watching the horses dance as they halted, kicking pebbles every way, to feel that something fragile and vital was being destroyed.
     The body of the coach rocked on its wheels, and little spurts of gravel pattered out from under them.
     Then the door opened.
     Perhaps she imagined the cloud of darkness like smoke that billowed out; no one else reacted, and she bit down on her own gulp of astonishment. And of sudden fear. She remembered the younger brother. She had not known him—it was not for such a one as she had been to know the Master's family—but she had known a good deal of him. She had known more of him than of the Master, before the Master sent him away, because he was the one who rode or walked round the demesne, seeing that the fields and woods grew and throve, and the temples and places of power were serene and well tended. He was not tall and handsome and flashing-eyed like his older brother, but there was kindness and grace in him, and intelligence in his unremarkable brown eyes.
     She knew little of the Elemental priests, nothing of their initiations, and only folk-tales of what the priesthoods did and were capable of. She knew that Fire frightened her worst, more than Earth or Air. And the Fire priests themselves had said that Willowlands' new Master could no longer live among ordinary humans.
     As the coach door swung back, one of the House servants jumped forward as if suddenly recalling himself, and lowered the steps. Two figures climbed carefully down. They both wore black capes with hoods that hid their faces, but they carried themselves and moved and looked around as anyone might. As any ordinary human might.
     There was a collective letting-out of breath. Talisman, the tallest of the minor Circle, seemed suddenly shorter; Sunbrightener, who was the fattest, seemed fatter.
     That was until the third figure climbed down from the coach.
     He too wore a black cape with a hood, but the cape bulged and seethed weirdly around him, and he let himself carefully down the steps as if he did not know or could not remember how to use his feet for such an activity. The two figures who had climbed down first reached their hands to help him, holding him at the elbows and under the arms, but she felt, looking on, that their hands did not grasp quite where elbows and armpits should be.
     He half limped, half rolled up the steps toward the House's front door with his helpers still on his either side. She seemed to hear a distant roar, like a fire caught in a sudden updraft. She wanted to glance at the faces of the other people, the people who had come here this morning to catch a first glimpse of their new Master, wanted to see if they looked frightened or appalled. But she couldn't drag her own gaze away from the great roiling black loom of the third figure coming toward her.
     She felt the three men standing beside her struggling not to step back and away as she stepped forward. She had been clutching the welcome cup against her body so tightly that her stomach ached where the extravagantly ornamented brim had bitten into her. The roughness of the intricate overlay on the cup's bowl gave her suddenly cold stiff fingers better purchase as she moved her hands to their proper places on its stem.
     She was Chalice, and hers the first greeting.
     The top step was a wide smooth half-moon of white stone before the door. There was plenty of space for her and him and his two aides, as well as the three men behind her, and the doorkeepers back farther yet, flanking the doorposts. She raised her cup, grateful that the weight of it prevented her hands from shaking, and looked down. Three faces turned up toward her, two of them brown and ordinary and worried-looking.
     The third face was black, as black as the coal-coloured horses that drew the black coach, and its—his—eyes were red, flickering like fire around the black pupils. She recognised nothing in that face from her memories of the younger brother of the dead Master. She looked at him steadily, willing herself to see something—anything—that she could welcome as Master, and in the final seconds it took him to climb the last step, she saw what she needed to see: comprehension. He knew her for Chalice and knew she was there to welcome him, because he came as Master.
     When he stood with her on the top step he gave a little shudder, or ripple, and his two aides dropped their hands and stepped back. As they let go of him she saw that they wore gloves. Her mouth was dry, as dry as if she had been eating ash, and she was slow to say the two important words: "Welcome, Master."
     She was slow, but he was slower. He should reach immediately to take the cup from her, hold it briefly over his head for everyone to see that he accepted it, taste its contents and hand it back to her. It was possible that he would thank her, but it was not necessary.
     But he only stood, looking at her. The hood shadowed his shadow-dark face; she thought she was glad of it. He twitched, a tiny spasm, once, twice. Perhaps he was trying to raise his hands. The third time he succeeded, the sleeves of the cape juddering back as if blown by a wind, and she saw that he too wore gloves, long heavy ones, laced snugly to the elbows.
     She could not give any Chalice cup to gloved hands. She looked back into his face—into the shadows where his face was. She did not know what to do. She thought she must have imagined the comprehension she had seen there a moment earlier; she could read no expression on that black face now.
     Clumsily he raised his left hand and drew the fingers through the laces of the glove on his right. The cords fell away in uneven shards, as if charred. Slowly he peeled the glove away from his arm—and the heat of his flesh raged out at her. The air between them was almost too hot to breathe. Even more clumsily he raised his naked right hand, the fingertips glowing like embers, to touch the cup. She held her ground while the fingers of that fiery hand curled round the bowl of the cup inches from her face. The enamelled metal of the goblet grew uncomfortably warm against her skin and steam rose from the liquid within it.
     The weight of the cup did not change and she supported it as he stood with his hand around it. He looked at it and back at her.
     "What . . . do you give . . . me to drink?" His voice was as eerie as his appearance, but perfectly intelligible.
     Her answer to this question had been in no record she had consulted about the rite of welcome; but then no one had ever welcomed a third-level Elemental priest as Master either. She had held her own against the preferences of the Prelate and the Grand Seneschal only because she was, in the end, Chalice, and they could not order her to give him the earthed wine customary for a welcome cup. But she had not expected to have to announce publicly her departure from tradition: only the Master himself would taste the contents of his welcome cup. She felt as if she were being wayward, unreasonable and oblivious all over again when she had to reply, "Water—plain water from the Ladywell—and a spoonful of honey, Master."
     She was sure—she was almost sure—she did not imagine it that he smiled. And it was only after her answer that she felt him begin to draw the cup toward himself. Still he did not—or could not—bear its weight, and so she carried it for him. Together they made only a faint gesture of holding it above his head, for the audience to see; and then she tipped it gently against his mouth, and saw him drink; and also saw a tiny rivulet run down by the side of his mouth and hiss off his chin, briefly leaving a fire-red tracing thread behind it.
     He let her draw the cup back toward her again with his hand still around it. She looked again into his face and saw, though she could not have explained how she saw, that he was tired, tired almost to death; and so she knew that it was only weariness that made him clumsier still, that when he lifted his hand away from the cup, he was not able to do it cleanly, and his hand dropped a little, and glanced—only barely, fleetingly glanced—off the back of her hand, where it seared the thin flesh to the bone.

At the time it almost didn't matter. She found that she had been half expecting something like it to happen, and did not flinch when it did. She lowered the goblet only a little bit hastily, and tucked the weight of it against her body again so that she could drop her wounded hand to her side and let the long sleeve of her robe cover the burn. This made it throb worse than if she could have held it up, but that couldn't be helped. No one farther away than the three men behind her awaiting their turn—and possibly the Master's two aides—would have seen anything, and she wished to keep it that way.
     But the three men waiting just behind her would have seen. The Grand Seneschal might have kept his mouth shut for his own good—it was he who had negotiated with the priests of Fire in the first place, and he who had received the news that the priests did not believe what he was asking could be done. She didn't know the Prelate well enough to guess after his motives, beyond a growing suspicion he had few of his own and preferred to borrow them from some stronger character. But the Overlord's agent would have every reason to tell the tale—and doubtless had. While it would upset the balance of the entire country if one of the demesnes were realloted, the process of the reallotment would hugely increase this Overlord's power, and bind the new Master to the Overlord with a political gratitude it would take generations of Masters and Overlords to bring into equilibrium again. And their current Overlord was a little too fond of political power—she among others believed—without such temptations as a Master who might burn his subjects by the touch of his hand.
     By the end of the first day of the new Master's return, the people she met were looking first at her right hand. Gossip travels as fast as fire. By then she had dressed and bandaged it, so there was nothing to see but the bandage; but that was enough. And there was no way to shrug off what had happened as an accident. Of course it had been an accident: no Master could remain Master who deliberately harmed any of his people. What had happened to her should be viewed as no worse or more significant than if one of his coach horses had shied and trodden on one of the onlookers: an unfortunate mishap. That's all. But of course it was not, for it was not an accident that should have been able to happen. If the new Master were not a priest of Fire. If the new Master were still human.
     "It is nothing," she said to the people she caught looking at her hand. "It is nothing." Sometimes she tried to smile. She'd smiled at Sama, when she'd asked for lint and salve; Sama was a Housewoman with a round, happy face and three children, and she and her children were excellent customers for Mirasol's honey. "I was clumsy. It is no more than if I brushed my hand against a dish just out of the oven."
     "It don't look like nothing," said Sama, whose round face was not happy today. "And oven burns hurt."
     "Of course they hurt," Mirasol said briskly, trying to be competent with one hand and failing. "But we bear them because we are clumsy—and because we still like our food cooked."
     Sama's face closed a little more, but she did reach out to help Mirasol with her bandage.
     "It is not as though we had had a chance to practise our roles," Mirasol said, trying to make a joke, but she realised as soon as the words were out of her mouth they were a mistake. Usually a new Master was well known to the demesne; usually the Chalice's welcome cup to the Master entering his House as Master for the first time was a formality only.
     Usually a new Master was human.
     "But—" Sama began.
     "He is our Master," said Mirasol firmly.
     There was an uncomfortable pause while Sama finished tying up the bandage. When she was done she raised her eyes to Mirasol's and said, "As Chalice wills."
     Mirasol almost blurted out, It's not what I will! It is what has happened!
     A few months ago she would have spoken so, spoken before she thought, a few months ago when her Chalicehood was still so new that every reminder of it was like a burn. But she was Chalice now, and all things had changed, herself most of all. Before the Chalice had chosen her, Sama would have argued with her; would have held her own opinion against Mirasol's. She would not argue with her Chalice; it was her duty to accept the Chalice's ruling.
     Mirasol hoped she was right.
     She told herself it would have been worse if it had been an ordinary accident like a coach horse blundering into the audience, because that would so clearly have been a bad omen. The new Master was a priest of Fire, and adjustments had to be made. That's all. That's all. She could not help the bandage on her hand, but once she realised there was no point in trying to hide it, she used that hand freely, as if it did not hurt her. She had to hope that the fixed expression on her face that this usage provoked—because it did hurt a great deal—only looked like the Chalice's professional mask.
     But if their new Master believed he could be Master, then she wanted him to have his chance. In the first place this was only her duty: the Master was the Master, but no Master could maintain his land without his Chalice. But in the second place she wanted this Master to grasp and hold because these first six months of her abrupt and lonely Chalicehood had been almost beyond her strength. She did not think she would be able to bear—to contain—the tumult if Willowlands were given a new, outblood Master; and she did not think this or any demesne could survive an outblood Master and a second disastrously new, inexperienced and untrained Chalice together.

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