Summary: Nothing comes from nothing. A story of the once-proud Steerpike family, and their downfall, until the only things left are memory and vengeance.
Disclaimer: The Gormenghast trilogy belongs to Mervyn Peake and his heirs. No money is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.
Author's Note: Steerpike is my favorite character in the Gormenghast trilogy, to the point where I almost didn't want to read the third book. However, his background is a total blank: he appears fully developed at 17, with no hint of a family or childhood. This is an attempt to give him one.
Lavender Steerpike was the only child of a once proud family. Her grandmother had been nanny to the Seventy-Fourth and Seventy-Fifth Earls of Groan. Her great-great-grandfather had served the Seventy-First Earl, and was buried in the graveyard of Elect Retainers for throwing his own body in front of a maddened horse to save his lord. And in days unimaginably distant, a Steerpike had once married the sister of the Fifty-Ninth Earl, which was honour enough to tide a family over for generations.
But Lavender's father, as a young man, had the misfortune to drop Cora and Clarice Groan, the infant daughters of Lord Isambard, Seventy-Fifth Earl of Groan and Master of Gormenghast, down a flight of stairs. For that mishap he was banished from the upper floors, and his dreams dwindled in consequence. He became content to be a lamplighter and live in the servants' quarters near the great castle kitchens.
Lavender's mother was an assistant pastry chef in those kitchens, and as happy with her lot as her husband was, but Lavender dreamed of something more in keeping with her father's former position, something to restore her family's glory. Consequently, she manoeuvred herself into a higher position, that of cleaning maid in the schoolrooms. At the least this removed her from the noise and sweltering atmosphere of the kitchens, and at best, she might make the accidental acquaintance of a last-year student or even a Professor, and so make an advantageous marriage. She considered herself reasonably attractive, with a narrow, heart-shaped face and somewhat of a bosom despite her otherwise slight, sharp-boned frame, and so had high hopes of catching the eye of an available man of reasonable social standing.
The first few years' worth of students were hopeless -- too ugly, too dull, too malicious, or too free from ambition -- and most of the staff were equally unattractive to her. She toyed briefly with the idea of seducing Professor Bellgrove, a man of thirty-odd years and dignified features, but tossed that aside upon closer observation; the man was as vacuous as he was handsome, and not even his kind nature could compensate for that. Lavender had no interest in a man she could so easily dominate. While that might serve her immediate interests, he would be no fit aid in restoring future generations of her family.
Her plans finally bore fruit on her nineteenth birthday, when upon entering a long, dark classroom with her mop and bucket, she encountered a boy, perhaps seventeen years old, asleep at his desk.
"Please wake up, sir," she said, prodding him with her mop handle. "I've cleaning to do."
The boy started upright, exposing his face. He was long and lanky, as many boys are, with a pleasingly high forehead and strong jaw, but his face was marred by a port-wine stain that spread over his left cheek, eye, and jaw. Also, his eyes were permanently crossed, leaving him with a somewhat dazed expression.
"My apologies," he muttered, and made as if to rise.
"You can stay," Lavender told him not unkindly, recognizing exhaustion when she saw it. "Just lie on the Professor's desk instead, so I can move your chair."
"Thank you," the boy said, "but I have to meet with my father."
"Oh?" Lavender asked. She had assumed most boys his age wanted nothing to do with their parents, yet this one seemed almost eager to see his father.
"Yes, my father Barquentine. Today I start learning the Books of Ritual," the boy said, an exalted look passing through his crossed eyes.
Lavender trembled inside. The Books of Ritual! They were the heavy, beating heart of Gormenghast, the pulse of Law that regulated all life within the castle. And this boy, this polite, eager boy, was heir to the Master of Ritual. The clockwork gears of her mind spun into action, calculating how best to seize this opportunity.
She tucked the mop and bucket behind herself and essayed a smile. "I apologize for poking you, sir, but I had no idea of your family's position. Lavender Steerpike, at your service."
The boy smiled in return, his face crinkling upward until his crossed eyes were nearly hidden and the port-wine stain was minimized. Lavender, eyeing him through lowered lashes, decided she could live with such a face if he smiled often enough.
"Don't worry about it," the boy said. "It's just as well you woke me, or I might have overslept. I couldn't rest a minute last night," he confided.
Lavender nodded sympathetically.
The boy inched toward her. "I must go now," he said reluctantly. "Will you be here again?"
"I clean every afternoon," Lavender said, and smiled again to bait the hook.
"I'll wait for you, Miss Steerpike."
"You may call me Lavender, if you wish," Lavender said. "Might I know your name?"
"Inkblot, son of Barquentine, son of Sourdust, the Master of Ritual of Gormenghast," the boy said, looking simultaneously proud and embarrassed of such a grand, titular-sounding name.
"Honoured to meet you, Master Inkblot," Lavender said, and, setting aside her mop and bucket, she curtsied awkwardly.
Inkblot sketched a brief bow in return, blushed, and fled the classroom.
Lavender nodded to herself with the satisfaction of a job well done.
It took her only three meetings, spaced over the next fortnight, to have Inkblot hanging on her every word and expression. Lavender would, perhaps, have been disdainful of his innocence and lack of guile if she herself had not been prone to weak knees when Inkblot spoke of the Rituals he was learning under his father's rough guidance. Also, she tested him once by requesting a meeting she knew would interfere with his father's lessons, and was gratified by his refusal. The boy did, it seemed, have a spine underneath his eagerness and amiability, and while he deferred to her judgment in most particulars, there were points upon which he would not be moved.
It was a fair basis for a marriage, she thought. The wife managed the household and all matters pertaining thereto, and the husband managed the more rarefied matters, which would, in this instance, be the Law of Gormenghast.
Inkblot, for his part, seemed fascinated to encounter a strong-willed woman. His own mother, he confessed, spent her days in silence or in quiet weeping while she folded toy boats out of paper. He thought he had once had a brother and perhaps that was the cause of her madness -- or perhaps she had simply retreated from his father's acid tongue, wetly burning eyes, and implacable focus upon the Books of Ritual.
Lavender assured Inkblot that she found nothing wrong with his own enthusiasm for the Law, or with his port-wine birthmark and crossed eyes. "They give your face character," she said. "Most people have unremarkable faces, one as pasty as another, but you dare to have colour. And I like purple."
They continued their clandestine meetings for several months before Lavender somewhat indelicately broached the topic of marriage. "My family hasn't always been so humble," she said to Inkblot, "so you needn't worry on that account. My grandmother was nanny to Lord Isambard, and my great-great-grandfather is buried in the graveyard of Elect Retainers."
Inkblot was appropriately impressed by this lineage. "I'll have to ask my father, but I think he'll approve. I must marry sooner or later, and there must always be an heir to the Books of Ritual."
Barquentine was not much interested in his son's affairs, and granted permission almost before Inkblot finished the question. "Marry the rat-faced wench for all I care! Maybe then you can focus on the Law, where your attention belongs," he snapped, one hand knotted in his tangled, greying beard.
Inkblot took this in good cheer, spent an hour gently breaking the news of his impending nuptials to his mother, inasmuch as one could break news to a senseless woman, and returned to the servants' quarters to request permission from Lavender's father as well.
Aloysius Steerpike was astonished to see a person of such vivid and twisted features on his doorstep, but Inkblot's mild, nervous expression stopped the older man's instinctive recoil. Still, Mr. Steerpike's eyes remained fixed on the port-wine stain and he fumbled his greeting. Eventually he stood aside and waved the young man into his family's cramped apartment.
"Mr. Steerpike, I am Inkblot, son of Barquentine, son of Sourdust, the Master of Ritual of Gormenghast," Inkblot said, managing, after weeks of Lavender's careful encouragement, not to blush at the pomposity of his name. "I've come to ask for your daughter Lavender's hand in marriage."
Mr. Steerpike opened and shut his mouth soundlessly several times, and then glanced over his shoulder at the door to Lavender's adjoining room. His usually cold and reserved daughter was peering through the doorway, smiling and nodding vigorously. "Say yes, Daddy," she mouthed. "Say yes."
"I thank you for this unexpected honour," Mr. Steerpike said slowly, turning again to face Inkblot, now fully prepared to overlook the boy's unfortunate face in light of his position and his effect on Lavender. "You have my blessing."
At this Lavender burst from her doorway, crying, "Thank you, Daddy!" and flung her arms around the surprised Inkblot, who caught her awkwardly. She buried her face in his high shoulder and trembled, both at the fruition of her plans and at the sudden realization that she had truly come to care for this earnest young man with the stained face and crossed eyes.
There have been far worse beginnings for marriages than that.
The wedding ceremony was quietly attended to by one of Sourdust's assistants, and Inkblot and Lavender moved into a set of apartments in the south wing. Lavender immediately seized the management of the halls in her vicinity, while Inkblot continued learning the intricacies of the Law, the numerous books of cross references and alternate Rituals, and the secret symbols to make sense of the writings.
And then, not a year after the wedding, just weeks after the Earling of young Sepulchrave Groan upon Lord Isambard's untimely death, Barquentine declared his son's apprenticeship complete. Inkblot returned home that evening with a peculiar set to his high shoulders. "Father says I've learned all I need to know about the Law and am a fit heir to the Master of Ritual," he told Lavender.
"That's wonderful!" she said. "What do you do now?"
Inkblot smiled, but his smile had no joy in it, only a strained mirth. "I wait," he said, "until my grandfather dies and my father follows him. And somewhere in those years, I have a son and teach him the Law."
"That's all?" Lavender asked, appalled. "But what will you do all day? Sourdust is likely to live another twenty years or more and your father, vile though he is, is in equally good health. That's forty years or more you'll be waiting!"
"Yes," said Inkblot. "Forty years or more." Whereupon he sighed and sank into his leather armchair, staring dully at the fireplace.
Lavender thought for a minute, turning the situation over in her restless mind. Her husband was not a man who could be happy doing nothing; he needed a purpose, and waiting would not suit. She would have to find him a new one; if it meshed with her own goals, so much the better.
She crossed the room and knelt by the side of his chair, leaning on its overstuffed arm. "Then we'll simply have to have children now," she said. "I'll stop taking Doctor Waggleworth's medicines tomorrow and we'll hope for the best. I know you'll be a wonderful father."
Inkblot stirred. "Do you truly think so?"
"Yes," Lavender said firmly, "I do."
That evening sparked a new plan within her mind, one that grew from her old desire to better her position and escape the ever-present threat of kitchen work. Not only would her first son become Master of Ritual in his time, her other children would not be idle. They would take on her work of cleaning and tending the castle. The lost treasures of Gormenghast -- all the hidden corridors, rooms, staircases, and roofs, with all their myriad contents -- would be explored, mapped, cleaned, and restored to their former glory. Her eldest son would tend the beating heart of the Law, while the other children would make the castle into a fit vessel for the sacred pulse of Ritual.
She mentioned this to Inkblot one night while they lay beside one another. "It's a fine plan," he agreed. "We'll have to move slowly while my father lives, for he will tolerate no hint of change, not even change for the better... but so long as it doesn't interfere with the Law, I see only benefit in restoring Gormenghast."
"We will restore it together, carefully, as you say," Lavender said, running her hand along her husband's arm. "And my family will rise again."
Their first son, named Turnpage after Inkblot's great-great-grandfather, was born within the year. Inkblot formally presented his son to Sourdust, who smiled absently and used the baby as a giant placeholder in one of the Books while he chatted briefly with his grandson. Barquentine, however, had retreated to a nearly monastic life after his wife's hushed-up suicide, and refused to acknowledge his son's requests for a meeting. Inkblot settled for slipping a note and a pencil sketch of the child under his father's door.
"He'll most likely toss it on the fire without noticing," Inkblot said to Lavender, a note of weary resignation in his voice, "but I felt I ought to try telling him. He is my father, poor one though he may be."
"He has only himself to blame for shutting you out of his life, spiteful fool that he is," Lavender said, watching as her husband rocked the baby in his arms.
Inkblot frowned. "He loves the Law, which is as it should be, but he has no space left in his heart for anything else. Now that he doesn't have me to teach or my mother to tend, he has nothing to do but wait for Grandfather to die. It's a poor life." He sat beside Lavender on the couch and settled Turnpage between them. "Thank you for ensuring that I won't follow in Father's footsteps."
Lavender reached over and let the baby clutch her fingertip in his tiny fist. "You wouldn't have anyhow. You're much too intelligent to get caught in that sort of trap. I wouldn't have married you otherwise," she added absently.
"Perhaps," Inkblot said, amused at his wife's bluntness. "I'm grateful I'll never have to find out."
Chamomile, Hyacinth, Enid, and Horace followed their brother into life, filling the south wing apartments with childhood exuberance. Turnpage studied hard in his classes, prodded onward by the promised mysteries of the Books of Ritual that waited in his seventeenth year. Chamomile and Hyacinth, the twins, ran wild through the rooftop gardens and galleries, their enthusiasm for adventure equalled only by their enthusiasm for helping their mother map and diagram their newly discovered territories, so as to more securely stake their claims. Enid was quieter, eager to clean the twins' hideaways; she had a positive passion for curtains and upholstery that Lavender made full use of. Even Horace, who was too young for much work, was allowed to scrub floors and pull interloping greenery, though he tended to uproot as many flowers as he did weeds.
Inkblot presided over the horde with serene good cheer, telling stories of former Earls and leading his children to watch Lord Sepulchrave and the other Groans perform various rituals of particular significance or colourful character. The children especially liked the weekly summer ritual wherein the melancholy Earl walked backwards along a tree-lined walkway at dusk carrying a lantern of fireflies that he placed on the rim of a fountain, after which he returned down the path by walking on his hands.
"What if he couldn't walk on his hands, Papa?" Turnpage asked once. "Then he couldn't do the ritual and the Law would be broken."
"That's why there are alternative Rituals," Inkblot said. "No person is ever just like another, not even the Earls, and over time even the castle changes" -- here the children smiled, thinking of Lavender's quest -- "so we must make allowances for that. Remember that change is not always bad, but only so long as we remember the Law. And why must we remember the Law?"
"Because the Law is the Life of Gormenghast," the children chorused, Horace lisping along after his siblings, "and without it there would be Fire and Flood and Death, as in the Dark Days before the Earls built the Castle to shelter our bodies and wrote the Law to shelter our hearts."
"Very good," Inkblot said, bestowing a proud smile on his family. "Now let's return to your mother, who I believe has lemon ice waiting for us."
The children cheered and dashed through the stone corridors, vanishing around a corner and up a staircase. Inkblot nodded respectfully to his grandfather, a frail figure in crimson rags who was washing the Earl's begrimed hands with water from a silver pitcher, and made his own exit, taking Sourdust's slow blink as all the acknowledgement he could expect while the Master was in the middle of a Ritual.
The seasons turned on, one giving way to the next, and each spreading its unique influence over Gormenghast. In winter, when the frozen winds howled and raged against the stones, Lavender led her family in the refurbishment of the south wing, teaching them to repair furniture and stitch up rents in velvet curtains. In the rain-soaked spring, when the open ground turned to lakes of mud, she let the younger children run wild, requiring only that they bring home accurate reports of their explorations. In the summer, when the thick, humid air swaddled the castle in lethargy, she prodded her family into outdoor work, tending gardens and hanging new panes in broken windows. The lengthening nights of autumn brought them back inside where they began to clean new rooms in preparation for winter's refurbishment work.
And so the years rolled onward, with Lavender's drive and calculation giving purpose to her family and Inkblot's calm and good cheer regulating his wife's fierce enthusiasm.
The summer after Lord Sepulchrave's marriage to Gertrude Pinch, the daughter of the Headmaster and a woman from one of the distant estates that tithed grain and meat to Gormenghast -- the summer when Turnpage was fifteen and Horace nine -- the pattern changed abruptly. Lavender announced to Inkblot that she was expecting another child.
"A sixth?" he asked incredulously.
"I'm as surprised as you," Lavender said, "but there it is. I think this one will be another boy; he's making me as ill in the mornings as Turnpage and Horace did. We'll name him Aloysius after my father." She paused. "That reminds me; I heard my father is doing poorly, and I ought to visit him. He's never quite recovered from my mother's death, or last winter's influenza."
She fixed Inkblot with an eye made irritable by her unsettled stomach. "You will watch over the children while I'm away?"
"Certainly, beloved," Inkblot said. "We'll even continue your work, as I believe the fourth room off the basement corridor is ready for cleaning; I had some men move the broken wood into the storage rooms last week."
Lavender sighed and leaned against her husband. "You're far too good to me. I'm a wicked, scheming woman and I don't deserve you."
"Never say that," said Inkblot. "You're a wonderful wife and a marvellous mother, you've kept me sane all these years, and I don't deserve you." He dropped a kiss on the tip of her sharp nose.
"Oh, you," Lavender said, blushing at her enjoyment of such a sentimental gesture, and she swatted him playfully before slipping away to pack.
The next morning, she set off to Doctor Prunesquallor's rooms to fetch strengthening draughts and all-purpose remedies for her father.
"Splendid morning, Mrs. Inkblot, ha ha, and how absolutely splendid to see you on such a splendid morning," Doctor Prunesquallor trilled when he opened his door to Lavender. "What potential calamity, for I ascertain from your calm demeanour that no calamity is currently extant, ha ha, what potential calamity brings you here today?"
"My father is ill, Doctor," Lavender said sharply, having no patience for the young doctor's rapid and circuitous conversation; she had much preferred Doctor Waggleworth's phlegmatic temperament and meticulous speech. "He was weakened by the influenza, and in his grief over my mother's death, he has neglected himself. Also, he's old."
Prunesquallor sighed dramatically, rose up on his toes, and placed his hand over his heart. "Ah, old age, that strikes us all in the end. Still that's quite a ways off for us, ha ha ha, Mrs. Inkblot."
"That's as may be. What medicine can you give me?" Lavender asked, irritated by the trilling, coughing laughter Prunesquallor used in place of more workmanlike conversational fillers.
The doctor tapped his lip, frowning. "System weakened by residual influenza and grief-induced melancholia, overlaid by the general deterioration of age. Hmmm. Wait here." He seized Lavender's elbow, ushered her into his apartment, seated her in a chair, and vanished into a back room as if by magic, leaving Lavender somewhat nonplussed at her new position.
The sound of glass bottles clinking against one another, as well as folding paper and crunching powders, drifted from Prunesquallor's dispensary. Lavender waited impatiently, and soon enough the doctor popped back into the parlour carrying two tiny bottles and a small packet wrapped in waxed paper and tied with a red string.
"The green bottle," Prunesquallor said slowly and clearly, playfulness gone from his voice, "will strengthen the lungs to combat any residue of the influenza. It should be taken in doses of three drops, twice daily, for a week. The clear bottle contains a salve to soothe aching joints, a common malady among the elderly. It must absolutely not be taken internally, nor applied to any sensitive areas of the skin, nor, ha ha, rubbed into the eyes!
"The packet contains a powder to mix into your father's food or drink. It will ease melancholia, but it is dangerously strong and must not be used more than once a day, one half pinch at a time. Also, your father must not drink alcohol, though I am certain such a worthy man drinks none in any case, ha ha ha, but whatever his habits, he must not drink any for at least six hours after ingesting the powder."
Prunesquallor stared intently at Lavender. "Do you understand the instructions?"
Lavender nodded. "I understand, but I'm not certain my father will remember."
"Then either don't give him the medicine at all, or stay and dispense it yourself," the doctor said. "These chemicals are not to be trifled with."
"Oh," Lavender said, somewhat taken aback by Prunesquallor's unexpected seriousness. "Then I'll have to stay with him."
"Excellent!" Prunesquallor said. "How excellent your comprehension is, ha ha, and how excellent you are to minister to the ailing elderly. Enjoy the equally excellent morning, Mrs. Inkblot." He tucked the medicines into Lavender's pocket, ushered her out the door, and shut it in her face before she quite knew what was happening.
She stared at the closed door for a moment, trying to realign the gears of her mind. "Insufferable man," she said finally, and turning firmly on her heel, began the journey down to the servants' quarters near the great castle kitchens.
Mr. Steerpike was even more forgetful and weak than Lavender had feared, and she didn't feel comfortable leaving him even long enough to explain her absence to her family in person. Instead she sent a note and remained cloistered in her father's tiny room. It smelt of sickness and grief, a cloying, musty scent like a field rotting under endless rain, and no number of lamps, nor the weak northern light from the narrow window, could lift the pervasive shadows from his bed.
He was dying. There were no two ways about it. Nevertheless, Lavender resolved to stay and lighten his last days as best she could. The medicines she left alone, realizing they would serve no purpose; instead, she spent hours sitting by her father's bed, reminiscing about her childhood and telling him stories of his grandchildren.
"And soon you'll have another grandson, Daddy," she told Mr. Steerpike. "Can you live long enough to see him born? Please?"
Mr. Steerpike coughed wetly and shook his head. "I doubt it, my dear. Your mother is calling me to join her."
Lavender pressed her lips together and reminded herself that regardless of her father's station, she was a lady; she would not burst into demeaning tears. "I'm sure Mama will be happy to see you again," she said softly. "But I will miss you."
Mr. Steerpike grasped his daughter's hands with his weak, palsied fingers. "We will both miss you, my dear. But you have your own family now to keep you here and happy." He smiled and let his head fall back on the pillow, faint breath whistling through his loosened teeth.
Lavender plumped the thin pillow to raise her father's head another few inches and left to fetch him some broth.
When she returned, he was dead.
Lavender moved mechanically through the funeral preparations, washing her father's body and dressing him in his faded, threadbare suit. A few of Mr. Steerpike's neighbours agreed to act as pallbearers, having come to investigate the mysteriously open door of his tiny room and found an unfamiliar, stone-faced woman cleaning his corpse.
No coffin was available, but they were able to dismantle the bed and, wrapping the boards together with strips of the musty sheets, create a makeshift pallet. The men bore the corpse through the stone corridors to the vast, maze-like catacombs below the kitchens, where bones of unnumbered and forgotten servants lay dozens deep on the wide stone shelves. Their flickering lanterns lit the way only dimly, bathing the skeletons in shifting veils of shadows.
Lavender led the short procession deep within the dark warren until she found a narrow ledge as yet unburdened by bones.
"Here," she said. "Let him rest here."
The pallbearers hoisted Mr. Steerpike's body onto the ledge and bowed their heads briefly in an attenuated gesture of respect.
"This was my father, Aloysius Steerpike," Lavender said, her hollow voice echoing from the dank stones and mouldering skeletons. "He was a good man, and he followed the Law. Remember him."
"Yes, ma'am," the men mumbled.
One of them, somewhat older than the others, stepped forward and laid a book of matches on Mr. Steerpike's chest. "For want of a spare lantern," he said apologetically. "Old Steerpike was a good lamplighter, ma'am."
Lavender nodded at him, and they returned, slowly, the pallet hanging low in their tired hands, through the mazy corridors and their freight of bones.
That evening, as the humid late-summer dusk hung low over the castle, an acrid, smoky odour slowly seeped through the corridors until Lavender, sitting slumped beside the remains of her father's bed, sneezed at the tickle in her nose. Something was burning.
Well then, let it burn. It would be a fitting memorial to her father, a physical incarnation of the rage stillborn within her heart. Thus resolved, Lavender wedged a damp wad of sheet under the door to shut out the smoky draft and curled herself into the bedside chair to sleep.
She was awakened in the morning by someone pounding on the door and calling, "Ma'am? Old Steerpike's daughter?"
Irritable, for she was not at her best immediately after waking, Lavender opened the door and examined the person on the other side. "Yes, what?" she asked sharply.
The burly footman wrung his hands, a gesture that seemed out of place on his large, square body. "There's a message from the south wing, ma'am, for Mr. Steerpike's daughter. There was a fire last night, and they said a Mr. Inkblot and his children... well, they died." He shot a sidelong glance at Lavender. "Were you Mrs. Inkblot, ma'am?"
Lavender stood frozen, one hand clutching the doorknob. "Yes, I am Mrs. Inkblot." She blinked. "Dead?"
"Yes, ma'am," the footman said. "In the fire."
"In the fire," Lavender repeated stiffly. "Dead. Thank you."
She shut the door.
The south wing was shut off now, all but the upper floors uninhabitable. Lavender slipped past the guards and inched her way through the drifting wisps of smoke and the maze of blackened holes burned through the timber floors. Her apartments were ruined; nothing remained but piles of ashes in unrecognisable shapes.
She walked back to the unburned areas, no longer bothering to hide.
"What happened?" she asked, startling the guard, a grey, ferret-like man known as Pluckfeather, when she appeared from the haze of smoke.
"Mrs. Inkblot!" he exclaimed. "We were afraid you'd died!"
"I was with my father," Lavender said shortly. "What happened?"
Pluckfeather fiddled nervously with his pike. "Nobody knows where it started," he said, "but it spread up from the storage rooms, fed on all the old lumber stacked up down there. Your husband, bless him, tried to get the children out but they were trapped in the green room at the end of the corridor. He put them in the window, and we think he went looking for some rope. He didn't come back. Some people who were in the garden, they say your son took off his coat and tried to lower his sisters to the next window down, but the flames shot up and they couldn't get a foothold."
Pluckfeather shook his grey head. "We tried to catch them when they jumped, but it was no good. No good at all." He glanced up at Lavender's face and drew back at her icy stare. "No good at all," he repeated softly.
"I see," Lavender said. "Thank you."
She walked out of the south wing, her steps firm and even, and descended to the servants' wing near the kitchen. Her father's room was the way she had left it, musty, dark, and filled mostly with pieces of the dismantled bed. She looked around blankly.
"It will have to do," she said to herself. "It will do until the child comes. Then I can rest."
She was soon established within her father's room, which she left only mornings and evenings for meals. The other residents of the corridor whispered behind her back as she vanished into her room, saying, "Old Steerpike's daughter isn't right in the head. And bearing a child, too, with no husband in sight! Maybe that's why she vanished all those years ago. Maybe she's still up to her old ways, acting as if she's so much better than we are."
Lavender knew they scorned her, and she freely scorned them in return. What were they to her? Her family was ancient and proud, her husband's line even more so. And even had she been inclined to care, she was frozen inside, holding herself from shattering only for the sake of her unborn son.
"Not Aloysius now," she murmured, passing her hand absently over her growing thickness. "You will be Flambard, a torch to light the castle."
Six months she lived in her ascetic pattern, mortifying her flesh with the reek of unwashed chamber pots and mildewed sheets, until the child's time was come. Lavender hoisted herself from her father's ancient armchair and proceeded majestically through the corridors to the rooms of Mrs. Squab, a woman known throughout the kitchen quarters as a midwife.
"My son is coming," Lavender said when Mrs. Squab peered through a crack in her door. "You will assist me."
"Feh," said Mrs. Squab, for she held no sympathy for Old Steerpike's wayward, scornful daughter, but she hoisted her bag and sent her own daughter to fetch a bucket of water, for she also didn't believe in holding a mother's sins against her unborn babe. Lavender led her back through the corridors to her father's miserable little room.
"Oh, filthy!" Mrs. Squab exclaimed upon entering the room and seeing the mildewed straw mattress on the floor. "That for a childbed? My goodness, woman, what were you thinking!"
Lavender merely shrugged. "It will serve," she said, and she carefully manoeuvred her body until she was lying on her back. "This is not my first child. He should come quickly enough."
Not her first child... well then, so the rumours were right, Mrs. Squab said to herself, feeling vindicated in her dislike for this slovenly woman. But aloud all she muttered was, "Give thanks for small favours," and she set to work.
The child, as Lavender had predicted, came quickly enough, and Mrs. Squab wiped his face, tied off the cord, wrapped him in a bit of clean cloth, and laid him in his mother's arms. "There you are, a fine son," she said. "May he bring you joy." She nodded perfunctorily to Lavender, gathered the bucket of afterbirth and bloody water, and herded her fascinated daughter from the room.
Lavender ignored the departing pair and stared intently at her son. He had his father's high forehead as well as her own sharp nose, she thought. When he opened his eyes and peered quizzically around the dark room, she gasped softly in surprise, for they were not milky blue as most children's eyes were at birth. Instead, they were a dark red, like the colour of thickened blood or the smoky flames of a fire feasting upon flesh and bone.
"Flambard you are," she whispered to the child. "Fire and blood. You will remember for me."
The child, as if sensing her seriousness, cooed softly and nuzzled against her bosom.
"Yes," Lavender said more firmly. "You will make them all remember."
Sourdust was unhelpful. "I am the Master of Ritual, my girl," he said to Lavender as he awkwardly held his great-grandson. "The family must, of course, continue -- and the child certainly looks well -- but I have no time to raise him. If, when he has finished his schooling, I'm still alive and my son is still in retreat from the world, I will be most happy to teach him the Law, but--" He coughed then, interrupting himself with a fit of dry hacking.
"I can do nothing at the moment," he said eventually, through the tail end of his wheezing. "Try my son; remind him there is a world beyond his rooms."
Sourdust handed the child back to Lavender, who curtsied mutely.
Barquentine was still living in isolation, but after several useless attempts to slip letters under his door, Lavender managed to send him a request for aid by wrapping the note around a piece of dry toast sent up for his evening meal. He sent a response back with the empty tray: "Your son. Your duty to raise him. Do not shirk your duty."
"He's a vile, heartless man," Lavender whispered to her son, "and I will laugh when he dies. He should have burned and fallen, not my husband. The wrong man was spared. Remember that, Flambard, that the wrong man was spared."
She attempted to enter the south wing, to see if she might return to her old apartments or a smaller set of rooms nearby, but Pluckfeather rushed over to intercept her by the entrance hall. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Inkblot, but nobody's allowed in the south wing anymore. The Earl decided, since the fire drove everyone out, it would be a grand place to move his sisters, the Ladies Cora and Clarice."
Pluckfeather peered around anxiously, his eyes bright and quick in his ferret-like face. "They're barking mad," he confided in a whisper, "even if they are Groans. The Earl wants them kept out of the way where they won't bother anyone and can't cause mischief. But that means you can't move back in. Sorry, ma'am."
"It isn't any fault of yours," Lavender told him. "I understand." She attempted a smile; judging by Pluckfeather's worried expression, it was not a particular success.
She returned to her father's musty room. She could, fairly easily, have established herself in new apartments in the upper floors, but this did not occur to her in her frozen stupor. She had, all her life, relied only upon herself and her family. Now her family was gone or unwilling to aid her, and Lavender herself was in no state to think logically. The clockwork gears of her mind had ground to a halt.
And so she remained in her father's room, whispering to her son and waiting for someone to wind up her key and restart time.
It was nearly a year later that Mrs. Squab, passing by Old Steerpike's room, noticed a strange smell seeping from under the door. "Hmm," she said to herself. "I delivered a child there about a year past, to the old man's filthy daughter." And knowing that such a smell is never a good sign when a child is involved, she knocked firmly upon the closed door.
The only answer was the weak, squalling cry of a hungry child.
At that, Mrs. Squab gathered her skirts and made for the servants' dining hall, where she enlisted two young men to break down Old Steerpike's door. Inside, the room was even more filthy than she recalled, and the foul stench doubled and redoubled its force in the dark air.
The child lay on the remnants of Old Steerpike's bed, wrapped in scraps torn from his mother's dress. The woman herself was slumped beside him, one arm extended protectively around her son. She was nearly emaciated, and covered in filth to the point where the young men turned their heads, not willing to look on such a defilement of the human body. She was also quite dead. Flies had settled upon her staring eyeballs, in the dry cavern of her mouth, and on the clotted blood that had flowed around the broken slat in her stomach.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Squab, and, darting forward, she swept the child into her arms. "You cover that disgrace," she ordered the young men. "I'll take the child."
The boy squirmed weakly in her grasp and turned his head toward the corpse on the floor. "Mama," he said in a faint, dry voice. "Mama, Mama."
"Don't you look at that filth," Mrs. Squab said, not unkindly, as she carried the boy from the dark, stench-filled room. "She isn't your mama anymore. You haven't any mama, but I'll look after you now."
It occurred to her, after she had spoon-fed the child some mashed vegetables and a bit of water, that though she had delivered the boy, she hadn't the slightest idea what Old Steerpike's daughter had named him, or who his father had been. Nor, it became apparent, had anyone else in the vicinity of the kitchens.
They knew nothing of Inkblot in those stone warrens, nothing of the family lines of either the Masters of Ritual or of the Steerpikes; Aloysius Steerpike had been a private man and Lavender had never bothered to tell anyone about her husband. Thus it was that Sourdust, who could easily have identified his great-grandson, was never informed of Lavender's death. Thus it was that Barquentine, who might have dragged himself out of isolation to tend his grandson, was allowed to forget that such a person even existed.
"We'll call him Steerpike," Mrs. Squab decided eventually, "after Old Steerpike, his grandfather, and he can make do well enough without a father."
"Shouldn't he have a real name, though?" asked her daughter Maude, who had watched the child's birth a year ago, as she held the boy's hands and helped him take his first, tentative steps across the sitting room floor. "Something more than just a family name?"
Mrs. Squab shook her head. "He'll go to the kitchens eventually, no doubt," she said, "and goodness knows Swelter will never let him use more than one name. And his mother may have named him something, after all; it's best not to confuse the issue."
Maude nodded reluctantly and turned her attention back to the newly named Steerpike. He had reached the armchair by now and was attempting to climb onto the seat. When that failed, he fell to his bottom and peered around the room with his red eyes, as if hunting for a way to overcome this obstacle.
"Such a strange boy," Maude said. "He doesn't get angry or cry for help. He just looks for ways to get what he wants. I wonder what his mother told him all alone in that room? I wonder what he'll want when he's older?"
"Nothing more than any other young man, I suppose," Mrs. Squab said. "You leave off with your nonsense, girl. He'll go to the kitchens and there's an end to it."
Maude shrugged and scooped young Steerpike into her arms as he began crawling toward a nearby footstool. As she left the room she rubbed his back and murmured into his ear, "Don't listen to my mother, baby, whatever your name truly is. Remember what your own mother told you, and try to remember the name she gave you. You'll go far someday, I know you will. Someday everyone in this castle will know your name."
On her shoulder, Steerpike's blood-red eyes gleamed once before he drifted into dreams.
Thank you for reading, and please review. Your comments help me improve future stories.