Back straight, head held high, Felicia walked purposefully through the castle's main doors and in the direction of the room where she held class for Fuchsia. Both were completely unaware that Steerpike had followed as he held himself back and out of sight for the moment. Realizing that Fuchsia was dawdling as usual, Felicia turned around, not seeing the form that ducked out of sight a ways behind them.
"Please Lady Fuchsia, I really must insist that we take no more time. I had planned on getting further along on your history lesson, but as it seems we no longer have time for that, perhaps we'll deal a bit with your grammar skills." The momentary calm Steerpike had lulled Fuchsia into vanished and the girl began to fume and stamp again, her fingers crushing the slice of cake.
"But I wanted to paint! Or write poems! I hate grammar! It's stupid and boring! Just like you!" Felicia had had enough of her idiocy and seeing that they were in a secluded hallway, rounded on Fuchsia and backed her against the wall, hissing nastily through her teeth.
"I have had quite enough of you today... madam. You are going to come along nicely and work on your grammar lessons and I will have no more tantrums or refusals. Do you hear me?"
Fuchsia seemed shocked into silence before she caught herself and tried to raise her head imperiously. "You can't speak to me like that... you're just a servant!" Felicia smiled coldly and moved forward, her posture making Fuchsia shrink closer to the wall.
"Oh, but I can. Your mother is quite fond of me, you know that. And when I expressed to her the other day what a horrible student you were, what an insulting and disrespectful girl you were, she informed me... that I'm allowed to punish you."
"Your mother is quite fond of me..." Steerpike smiled to himself as Felicia spoke those words. He had thought himself lucky being discovered and harbored by a Groan. But when he had been admitted into the Prunesquallors's service, he had thought his blessed days may have been numbered, and that he would have to advance alone. But now, it seemed, here was another chance to better himself, another avenue down which he could walk towards the distant light of power. Already he had witnessed the tension between the tutor and the pupil, already he could sense the possible tensions that lay within Felicia's mind, her disgruntled thoughts and resentments at being born into a station which ill-fitted her intellect and outlook. Here, perhaps, was someone dangerous, a threat to his ambitions, one who may be able to see the truth behind his schemes; that would be if she were loyal. If she proved otherwise, perhaps a different outcome could be achieved. If Felicia truly was favored by Lady Groan herself, it would be worth staying on her good side, impressing her, attempting to appeal to her more delicate tastes. Satisfied that he had not been noticed, Steerpike continued to eavesdrop and tail the two women.
"P-p-punish... m-me? But... but... you c-can't... she wouldn't..." Fuchsia bit at her lower lip as she stared into Felicia's smug face, the color draining from her own as she realized that her mother would give her schoolmistress such authority. Felicia began to nod slowly as she gave Fuchsia a feral grin.
"Yes. However I see fit. And for the way you've acted today I truly should punish you. Perhaps I should put you in the stocks? Or the guardhouse? A caning perhaps... you have been quite dreadful after all."
Fuchsia began to splutter and whine, tears welling in her eyes as she became overly distressed at Felicia's idle threats. Gertrude had had no such conversation with her and as much as she seemed to favor Felicia, she was more concerned about the welfare of her cats and her birds to worry about how her daughter spoke back to her tutor. Seeing that Fuchsia was about to take a turn into a different, though just as annoying direction, Felicia drew back and tutted calmly.
"Now now, Lady Fuchsia. If you can promise to behave, I shall only hold class for half an hour and I suppose you shouldn't need a punishment after all. Now come along." She turned back around and began walking briskly down the corridor, smirking at the sounds of Fuchsia's sniffling as the girl followed along silently behind her. She should have thought of this sooner. It would have saved her quite a few headaches.
Steerpike raised an eyebrow as Felicia spoke of canings and other punishments. She had appeared so elegant and refined in their brief meeting, but it would seem that the tutor had her own secrets, her own ways of dealing with those who displeased her. Maybe she, too wanted power; certainly, she wished to exercise some degree of control over Lady Fuchsia, a fact which Steerpike did not find displeasing. In fact, he wished the tutor as much luck as she could possibly muster, with the fires of chaos burning so eagerly in Lady Fuchsia's chest. Still, he could feel that smug swell of pride within his own breast just knowing that there were few who held sway over Lady Fuchsia, and he was one of them, the other being Nanny Slagg, the wizened old crone of a guardian whom he found most distasteful. So engrossed was he within his own thoughts that it took him a moment for his mind to register that Fuchsia was sniffling sadly, and without realizing what his body was doing, he felt a pang of concern stab at his heart. But it was swiftly converted into grudging pleasure as he realized that, after all, he enjoyed the sound. It was the embodiment of power and wealth reduced to sorrow, and that was a feeling he could revel in and understand.
So heartbroken and forlorn was the sound of Fuchsia's sniffling that Felicia was hard pressed not to burst into laughter. She'd had no idea her threats would affect Fuchsia so strongly. But if she kept in this direction, it would prove just as useless as her usual exuberance. Turning again just outside the classroom door, Felicia held her arms open and cooed as she cocked her head to the side.
"Oh Lady... I'm so sorry to have caused you such distress. I'm afraid I've not been myself today and have been in a most foul mood. It's only that I worry about you. Being of noble blood, having money and power and people to look after you, it seems you don't realize how useful it is for a young woman to have an education. Perhaps you will realize this someday... but I'm afraid it is not today... when you've a head full of dragons and beasts and handsome knights to slay them."
Stupid little urchin should count herself fortunate that she had such ease and leisure to dwell in such a romantic world. But such is the life of the aristocrat. Still affecting a concerned gaze, she tutted placatingly as she observed the way Fuchsia clutched at her piece of cake.
"Oh dear... you've smashed your cake. Though I'm sure it will taste just as well. Perhaps you can eat it while you're painting." Fuchsia instantly brightened at the idea and rushed through the door, jabbering about what colors she would paint her dragon. Trying to get Fuchsia's mind on grammar would have proven futile anyway. Just as she was about to close the door behind them, she spied a figure moving stealthily in the shadows before jumping behind a dusty suit of armor.
As far as Steerpike was aware, his passage through the dingy, gloomy halls of Gormenghast had still gone unobserved, his footsteps little more than the passing of a breeze, his body clinging to the shadows faithfully and softly. He had listened and watched the most recent exchange between teacher and pupil, observed silently as Fuchsia was placated with promises of pictures and cake. Spoilt brat! Spoilt, yet... beautiful. Again, his mouth risked a smile, and he berated himself for his feelings. He had long perceived feelings to be a weakness, the blight of the human condition, barriers which prevented the achieving of greatness, the acquisition of goals. He would not fall to such a flaw. The door towards which he was headed remained open as he shuffled closer, hearing the sounds of Fuchsia's tuneless singing ringing out into the dusty corridor. He paused beside the doorframe, his ears trained in on the room, hoping to glean yet more insightful information as to Felicia's past and station.
Little did Steerpike know, but Felicia had not entered the room. Fuchsia was too caught up in her singing, dancing and painting to notice her missing. Felicia watched from a dark alcove on the opposite side of the doorway, hidden in shadow, standing as still and quiet as she could. A faint smile played at the corner of her lips as she observed him, thinking himself so stealthy and clever, unobserved. She was tempted to stay back, to see what he might do, but if he were to pay closer attention, he might well notice her absence from Fuchsia's side.
"And what exactly is it that you think you are doing... clerk?" She was pleased to see him jump ever so slightly before turning in her direction, his eyes flicking through the gloom as she slowly revealed herself. "Following us are you? Sneaking around? Clerk?"
His thin lips drew into an even tighter line, the only visible sign of his anger at being discovered; for, if there was one thing which Steerpike despised, it was to be outwitted or bested in a contest of words.
"Felicia," he said with a false smile, although they were both fully aware of the animosity between them; for Felicia, there was no bow, no great exchange of pleasantries. "My name is Steerpike, madam, if you would so kindly call me," he announced, drawing himself up to his full height.
"There was no sneaking involved, I can assure you. Indeed, my purpose for my presence here can be no less nefarious than yours, good tutor; for what would possess one such as yourself to skulk in the shadows like a common thief? The key to your wealth, as we both know, stands beyond that door, lost, enrapt within a world of her own creation. What you think I would gain from strolling these corridors with cruel designs is quite beyond me."
"Oh... oh oh oh... so innocent are we? As I was about to close the door I turned and saw quite a sneaky looking figure... moving quite sneakily through the darkest bits of the hallway... before making quite a sneaky looking leap behind a suit of armor. In order to divine who it might be making such a stealthy and... sneaky approach to my classroom, I rightfully secreted my person so that I might observe who it would be. And it seems we two are the only persons in the direct vicinity, yes? So... if it wasn't... you... doing the sneaking, then who was it?"
She gave him a patronizing smile and cocked her head to the side, tapping thoughtfully at her chin. "What exactly is the purpose of your presence... clerk?"
"I am running a morning errand for the Prunesquallors," he announced, the merest hint of an angry flush reddening his cheeks, emphasizing the cold stare of his eyes.
"Surely, it is no secret that a doctor's assistant, a pharmacist-in-training, should be sent to the castle to procure various items required for poultices, potions and tinctures? Really, Felicia, you are so naive!"
He dismissed her allegations with a wave of his thin, pale hand. "As for this so-called sneaking, the snooping of which you speak, then yes, it was I whom you saw moving behind you; but then again, after Lady Fuchsia's atrocious behavior this morning, can I be blamed for my prudence? The mere sight of me could have been enough for her to lapse once more into her daydreams, and then it would have been left to you to wake her."
Felicia's voice was soft and almost purring as she gave a slight laugh and shook her head. "Oh, you are good aren't you? So calm and reserved, so docile and helpful." She paused and moved closer to him, her voice falling into a whisper. "I saw the way you were watching her."
Straightening up and stepping back from him, she moved to pull the door partially closed, muffling the sounds of Fuchsia's warbling. "You have designs on her... haven't you? Maybe you hope if you win her favor, they'll think better of you? Let you rise above your station, forget where you came from? I'll put this plainly to you as I'm sure you appreciate directness. Once a kitchen boy, always a kitchen boy. You come from nothing. They'll never forget that and they'll throw it in your face until the day you die."
His cheeks flushed an even deeper shade of red, his eyes blazing as he glared at her, his look as sharp as any dagger or knife. He did not allow anybody this close; nobody was ever allowed to ponder or consider his secrets, nobody should have been able to see his thoughts and desires, and yet this impertinent school marm had managed it within the space of an hour. His fingers trembled as he clenched one hand into a fist, but he managed to keep his voice steady.
"Not if they die first."
Again, that enigmatic smile, that unfeeling glint in his hard stare. He had calculated his words before he spoke them, but his experience with Felicia had given him enough confidence to let her think what she wanted of that statement.
"Whatever arises between me and Lady Fuchsia is none of your concern, and since you are the one talking of station, then it is certainly no business that a dusty bookworm like yourself should be concerned with. I will not distract her from her studies, if that is your worry."
She stifled a laugh and began to pace calmly around him, her hands smoothing over the fabric of her dress in a subtly suggestive manner. She knew more than to try to turn him in her favor through a ridiculous display of femininity, though that sort of thing generally worked on most males. Most... but not this one. Her eye stayed on him as she continued her tight circuit, a smirk curling her lips.
"I'm hardly dusty... I dare say I'm not much older than you. You're 17, didn't he say? I've only 5 years on you. And I'm quite sure you would dearly love for something to... arise... between you and the dear Lady Fuchsia. Despite her being an obnoxious twit."
She paused before him and looked him over once more. "I suppose you could try to seduce her. She already seems quite fond of you, despite the way she may have acted towards you at the Prunesquallor's. She draws pictures of you, you know." Biting her lip, she folded her arms and took a slightly more relaxed stance. "Perhaps I could help you."
He tried not to appear pleased or surprised at the revelation about Fuchsia's artistic efforts, attempting to keep his feelings hidden behind a slight incline of his head and a raised eyebrow to indicate his possible interest.
"Oh? Well, I suppose that isn't too surprising. She already has me written off as a bold explorer, the gallant knight to her embittered princess, and who am I to argue?" In reality, however, his heart gave a tug towards the door behind which Fuchsia was, even now, gazing at something that only her eyes could see behind the shutters of her eyes. This feeling angered and irritated him, and in the lack of any other presence he was forced to display his irritation in his reply to Felicia.
"You can help me?" He sounded more eager than he had intended. "Please, excuse my wry smile, but what do you honestly think you could possibly do to help me? It's clear to me you have a problem dealing with the girl as it is."
She smirked and tilted her head to match his. "Well, for one thing, I'm in her presence a great deal more than you are, aren't I? You've only witnessed a moment in my relationship with our dear Lady Fuchsia. When I'm not pressed with the ludicrous task of trying to hammer plain facts into that flighty brain of hers, she's rather easy for me to handle. And considering the place you already seem to hold in her mind... and heart... I'm quite sure it wouldn't take too much to place a few romantic suggestions in her ear, talk you up a bit to her."
The idea alone made him want to retch. To think that he, a man of superior intellect and cunning, should require help with one so thick skulled as Lady Fuchsia! Besides, there were far more things at stake here than a mere girl; there was the Gormenghast estate to consider, the offing of half of the family members, the removal of rivals and possible obstructions. He had to consider Titus, the relatively new problem; Flay, with his disturbing habit of creeping as silently as one of Lady Gertrude's cats; Lord Groan himself, the root of the family troubles. He could not afford to let these alien twinges of heart affect his judgement in these matters. Nonetheless, he found himself agreeing to Felicia's terms before his mind had had a chance to fully consider the offer, his lips moving of their own accord, fuelled by an over-abundance of testosterone in his otherwise well-controlled body.
"I admit, this could be beneficial," he realized he was saying. "Certainly, it could do no harm to find myself high in Lady Fuchsia's regard. But of course, Felicia, I know that all things must come at a price, and so I must ask of you exactly what it is that you require in return." Cursing himself inwardly for falling before the very weakness he had only moments ago been sneering at, he sighed and settled back on his heels, awaiting the cost of his folly.
All trace of humor or emotional drained instantly from Felicia's face as she took a step back and lifted her chin, her eyes suddenly burning with a cold malicious fire.
"Make them suffer. Every last one of them. Bring their great house crashing down around them. End the line of Groan however you see fit, usurp them if you wish. That is the only form of payment I shall need. To see them finished and wallowing in squalor."
Her words had gradually become more harsh and acidic, her voice a hissing rasp of anger and loathing as she stood pale and trembling before him.
The colour drained from Steerpike's face as she spoke, only to be quickly replaced with another flush, resulting this time from an exhiliration, a thrill of excitement. Did she truly mean what she had said? Did this tutor, this low-born woman of words, really wish for the great house to fall and shake within its very foundations? Certainly, she was shivering before him, but knowing himself how well he could keep his emotions in check, he did not put it past the young lady to be able to emulate his actions. He had to be wary, he must tread carefully, lest her words were a stealthily-laid trap.
"Hush, Felicia! What you suggest is treason!" he uttered, a slim finger extending towards her lips, his head darting left and right as his voice lowered to a cautious whisper. He held her with an intense gaze, his head tilted slightly to one side, his face a picture of deathly seriousness as his eyes attempted to bore into her very soul. "I have heard of low-born ones such as ourselves being slain for even hinting at their displeasure of serving the ancient line of Groan. Would you incur the wrath of the household by risking your ideas to be heard by those who faithfully serve Lord Groan himself...?"
An impassive answer, an answer which would reveal nothing, neither his own loyalty nor his burning ambitions. His shock, of course, was due mostly to discovering another who shared his desires, another like he who wished nothing more than to see the Groans meet an untimely end. She seemed genuine, to all intents and purposes, but Steerpike wished to ensure his safety before any more words were exchanged.
Her eyes darted quickly to the door of the classroom and then along the passageway before she stepped back and pressed herself against the wall, nearly concealing herself in shadow. Steerpike could hear her breathing shallowly as she placed her hands against the cool stone behind her, her eyes closing for a moment as she seemed to be trying to compose herself.
"My brother was such a one, a low-born servant who dared voice his displeasure with the service he was required to perform. A scrubber of the stones, spending day and night on his hands and knees until his fingers were raw and bleeding and he could barely move. He was overheard making an idle remark and when he was confronted he stood his ground. Only to pay the ultimate price. He was hanged... my only family. Hanged because he refused to wallow in faceless servitude."
She was trembling again, her breathing coming harshly through her nostrils as she again attempted to regain her composure, staring to the ceiling to hold back the angry tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. But finally she controlled herself with a deep breath and stared hard at him.
"So I say to you, Master Steerpike, that if you are indeed of a mind to do so, I will aid you however I am able in ridding us of those arrogant monstrosities."
"And what makes you think my mind would be so inclined, dear tutor?" he smiled dangerously, having regained his composure as she had almost wept with anger. He was on edge, irritation boiling within him. Had she seen his true wants and needs through his calm facade? Were his cold ambitions truly so clear to see? He had better be more careful in future. "You have noted my... interest in the Lady Fuchsia. That, I cannot deny, and I hope we have a mutual understanding that this matter should not be discussed in the presence of any other." He gave a half-bow, also glancing towards the door, then allowed his smile to widen as he continued.
"However, I find this talk of betrayal and murder most disturbing. Indeed, were I so inclined, I could take the news of your words to the very ears of Lord Groan himself, as I believe Prunesquallor has a shining relationship with Lady Gertrude, does he not? Yes, I could hasten back to the Doctor's residence immediately with reports of rebellion and deceit, if I so wished; although, if you were to speak sweet words of me to Lady Fuchsia, then maybe I shall not mention that which has just transpired."
His dark eyes glittered, his face gave the merest hint of amusement.
Felicia's eyes went a touch wide and her heart began to beat rapidly in momentary panic before she caught herself, her eyes narrowing, chin tilting upward.
"Is that so? You would report my words to the Doctor and Her Ladyship? And what exactly makes you think they would believe you... a former kitchen boy? As the Doctor has his relationship with Lady Gertrude, you seem to forget that I do as well. Indeed, Her Ladyship has even expressed to me how irritating the good Doctor can become when she is forced to spend too much time in his presence. She rather values me, clerk, whether you wish to believe that or not. And I have never given her any reason to question my allegiance and loyalty to Gormenghast."
She sighed and closed her eyes, shaking her head softly as she folded her arms and looked to him again.
"And I fail to see why you would think it necessary to threaten me into performing a favor I have already offered freely. I could pour forth such loving and honeyed words in your favor as our dear Fuchsia has never even imagined."
She paused again and took on a slightly malignant air as she drew away from the wall and moved slowly toward him.
"Or... alternatively... I might just have a mind to turn your little play of blackmail against you. I wonder what Her Ladyship would say if I happened to mention to her that whilst in the presence of the Doctor and his new dispensary clerk, I happened to notice the clerk giving Fuchsia rather inappropriate glances. I might feel it my duty as her tutor and guardian to express my concern over the longing, indeed lascivious looks the Doctor's clerk was directing toward her daughter. I dare say she would be quite distressed."
His jaw clenched, and the merest shiver of anger could be seen upon his face as he fixed her with a stern, hateful glare. He had been correct when he had decided that she needed to be watched; it seemed she wished to match him in cunning and guile, for she was certainly quick-thinking and able in her bid to trap him within his own words, much as he had attempted to trick her. But there was admiration too, a relief that perhaps, finally, here was one whose mind was on his level.
"I do not think there is any need for such an exchange." He was standing up straight now, his back stiffened, his face an almost impenetrable mask of coldness. "Surely, it would be foolish to make such a fuss over the smallest of concerns. Perhaps I was too quick to judge you when you spoke of treason; I see, now, that you are far more... valuable... walking the halls of Gormenghast than you would be if you were banished or sentenced to death." He flashed her a curious glance, indicating that her assumptions of his treachery were possibly correct.
He stepped a pace forward towards her, his hands clenched behind his back, and regarded her curiously as if searching for a telling emotion upon her hostile person. Well, he supposed, he would have to take the risk sooner or later; if she had been so candid as to let him hear her outburst, he would tell her, in return, a little of his true feeling. Checking the corridor left and right, his voice falling to a hushed whisper, he spoke out.
"I doubt it would come as a surprise, Felicia, to hear that I have little love for the Groans myself. It was their doing that I was one of Swelter's rats, it is still their doing that there are ones like me trapped in vile servitude, suffering merely for the luxury of their heaving dining tables!" His words were venom-tipped, his hatred clear. "But do not think that I am a savior of men, nor that I wish to see all of the wrongs of this place put right, dear tutor; all I care about is pain. Their pain. They are mad, Felicia, quite mad! Even the Lady Fuchsia herself is afflicted by their wild, incestuous dealings! There is nothing that would please me more than to see... their fall... and... my rise."
He stood back, pleased with himself, an eager grin on his lips.
"There. I've said my peace. If you truly mean what you have said, then we understand each other. If not, then so be it, and we shall see which of us hangs first."
A venomous smile graced Felicia's lips as her posture relaxed, her head nodding slightly as she seemed to see him through new light. This former kitchen slug... this Steerpike... was quite a dangerous young man. She could see that. Once an alliance was formed between them, she would have to make quite certain that she proceeded with great caution... and kept in his good graces. But if he dared to attempt to turn on her, he would pay dearly. She would make certain of that. Rousing from her thoughts, she waved her hand idly in the air in a dismissive gesture.
"I care not for the others who choose to wallow in their servitude, too frightened or actually thankful for their lowly station to even speak so much as a single word against this place. Let the wrongs stay wrongs, as long as we two achieve whatever our hearts and minds desire."
Her smile had fallen away and her face took on a rather serious look as she stepped closer to him, her hand held out for him to grasp.
"A truce then, and perhaps an allegiance between us, Master Steerpike. For our benefit, indeed, for our glory... and the ruination of all who oppose our will."
The faint smile that had been hovering over his lips broke into a broad, proud grin as she announced their alliance, his suspicions proving correct, his treachery safe. He had no reason to betray her; at least, not for now. Much as he favored working alone, it was always useful to have another to watch his back. he wondered idly, though, if she meant anything cryptic with the mention of her heart's desire. She knew of his lusts... perhaps she had some of her own. No matter.
"I have long believed that nature holds its own laws, Miss Felicia, and that those who are strong should rise against those who are weak." He strode forth boldly and clasped her hand tightly in his own, his grasp far warmer than one would expect of his cold, distant demeanor. "It is agreed, then. We are to work together for our own ends... the downfall of the Groans. And we shall start in the most subtle of ways; the weaving of sweet words to turn hearts away from parents, and toward more lowly persons of the household."
His eyes turned towards the door behind which Lady Fuchsia remained, his eyes shining dangerously as he let Felicia's hand loose from his vice-like grip.