Disclaimer: Gormenghast is the property of the Mervyn Peake estate and publishers.
A/N: What if Steerpike had succeeded in seducing Fuchsia? Could he have brought down the ancient rule of Gormenghast? I haven't yet decided if this is a one-shot or a serial. Probably the latter, but I'm so bad at updating I fear to begin yet another story. . . . Meanwhile, enjoy what there is, such as it is!
A Snake in the Ivy, A Fire Amidst Stones
She saw him with his hands across his face. And then she heard his voice.
"Fuchsia," he said. "Allow me one moment, only one, in which to tell you. . . ."
The lie had sprung to his mind, its unassailable crystalline structure fully formed. It was simple, plausible, plaintive, subversive, perfect; it hung like an ornament of spun steel in his mind, ripe for ejection via the pallid path of his lips. A tale of romance and danger awaited its potent birth, an iron flower poised to open, emanating such perfume as to lull its prey into a wondering sleep. Steerpike worked a cold magic, the mechanisms of which clicked immaculately in his brain.
Fuchsia! It was for you. The words were already on his lips, the creepers of a living web, its invisible tendrils stretching out to capture a dreaming bride. They trembled, like trailers of ivy ready to burst from their dark hollow into a fantastic and bedazzling garden. They trembled, and, frozen, remained tensely vibrating in their hollow, hidden from the sun.
The silence built itself from the ground up like a wall of bricks, each unit an utter vacuum of sound. An offspring of the ponderous shell of Gormenghast itself, this wall; an intangible child of the stone, a daughter of the inflexible ages, a son of convention, the spawn of centuries of rock. On one side, the poignant Fuchsia; on the other, the pale Steerpike, his face marked crimson by hatred, and by failure. Between them, the wall of silence reared monolithically, a thousand feet thick, made of nothing at all.
Fuchsia, a distillation of sunsets, held her thoughts still and waited.
"Tell me what?" she asked. She was not thinking; there were ideas and images in her mind, but she held them separate, out of one another's reach. There was the gentle "my lady" and the hiss of "fool" – the twain who should not meet, yet must, somehow, be reconciled. A wall divided these two as well, but this structure was thin, fragile, liable to crumble at a word.
Steerpike watched Fuchsia through his fingers, and her red form reflected in his red snake's eyes. Both of her minds dwelt there, one in each eye: the love in the right and the fear in the left. Her twin thoughts, each segregated into its own miniscule, liquid body, stared back at her in the mirror of Steerpike's eyes.
He lowered his hands slowly, gloved hands falling with infinite control past the scarlet trails marring his face. The fingertips passed his temples, shattering the armour of lies he had forged so quickly; they passed his eyes, and the exquisite twin icons of Fuchsia shuddered; they passed his lips, and the garden of words withered. They fell to his sides, and a new idea bloomed in his mind, one so pure, so childishly plain, and yet so diabolically cunning, a mental scream of laughter echoed manically in its wake.
What of lies, no matter how superlative, when the truth would serve a thousand times better?
"Fire," he said.
Fuchsia started, and the distance she had so briefly and with so much effort assumed shrunk minutely. Her fingers tightened on the creased skirts of her gown; in the tilt of her head was a trace of equine eagerness. A lock of inky hair, tossed carelessly against her face, shivered under quick, repeated expulsions of breath.
"Fire?" she repeated in a voice still deliberately non-descript.
His reply came in a beggar's disguise, a strained whisper marching with transparent bravery to her ambivalent ear.
"You held a candle, Lady Fuchsia. I have not been burned for nothing."
With a sudden, convulsive movement, he turned away, one arm raised as if to shroud his disfigured face from the watching walls. His odd, high shoulders curved about him like a shield. A gallant gargoyle, an ugly knight, ambushed without his armour and driven into a corner, he flew the flag of his pride with a defiance almost too affecting.
"I came along the corridor in the dark, without light, for fear of attracting attention. I know I am being followed. I have known it for some time – someone is following me, Fuchsia, and if they found us together it would mean death for me and infamy for you. I could not bear that, not because of myself, but because of you, Fuchsia – all my love is for you, all my hope is in you, and if I could not see you, not even from a distance. . . . No precaution is too extreme. I came in the dark. But you were early, Fuchsia, four minutes early! I saw someone standing at the door, our door. It could have been anyone. It could have been a servant, or the doctor, or your mother."
He turned back towards his audience slowly, his face still towards the wall. A glance out of the corner of his eye showed him her expression. She was rapt, her heavy, vibrant brow furrowed, her lips parted in tenuously restrained interest.
"I saw only a shape; an indefinite, an anything, an enemy. What was I to do? I could not be sure it was you. It could have been anything. I was angry, angry to be discovered like this. . . . I came closer, thinking the dark would hide me. But then you lit your candle, so suddenly. All I saw was fire. It was so close, so fast . . . it was in your hand. You, my own dear Fuchsia, were holding the flames. I was angry for a moment, and yes, afraid, without thinking. I am deeply sorry, Fuchsia; I know I cannot expect you to forgive me, ever, for the harsh and undeserved way in which I spoke to you. I can only beg humbly for your understanding. I can only hope that, in spite of my actions, in spite of the revulsion you must no doubt feel for me now, you will at least allow me to love you still. I cannot help but love you! I have nothing else . . . and I am the fool, Fuchsia, not you. I am a fool for speaking in such a way which bears no resemblance to what my heart would say to you."
A catch in his voice, which had pattered on like a small, cool stream, flung a brief curtain of quiet over the room. He leaned his body against the wall, tense and slender as a switch. Sweat beaded on his pallid, bulging forehead, anointing a face that was fiercely blank. He did not meet her eyes, but gazed with affected demureness at the ground before her feet. Slowly, his head sank onto his breast, and his voice, which had been strong and clear, if somewhat uneven, dropped hoarsely in volume.
"There was fire."
Caught in the soft light of the lamp, like insects in amber, the two players pose in this curious tableau. The grotesque, his back to the wall, his fortune dancing the razor edge of the tightrope, his mind flitting about on vulture's wings, and the princess, galloping through the wild fields of her heart, her eyes closed so she can feel herself falling. Where is he going, with his plots clenched in his fists like two bottles of poison? Where is she going, tossing her hair behind her at the games she has outgrown? Which of them is the more hopeless dreamer? Their minds take them in opposite directions, but so quickly that the silent, mouldering halls of Gormenghast are left far, far behind. . . . Their spirits might tear apart the subtle fabric of the ages, ripping holes in the cloth of tradition into an abyss, an abyss which is a doorway to . . . change. . . .
"I'm sorry," Fuchsia said, her voice ragged and potent as her poetry. "I'm sorry!"
Steerpike shook his head with fatalistic slowness. "No, Fuchsia; it is not for you to be sorry. It is I who desire your forgiveness . . . a forgiveness I have not the right to request. . . ."
"But I am, I am sorry! Why shouldn't I be? I've got a heart, I can make mistakes, I don't care! I didn't know about the fire, Steerpike."
"I did not want you to," he said in a voice so calm it might as well have been a sob.
It was this that broke the wall between them. More than that: it broke the walls of Gormenghast, the walls of this ancient, ossified society. The room did not contain a lady and a kitchen boy, nor even a Master of Ritual. It held only Fuchsia and Steerpike, a ridiculously tempestuous heart and a pitifully glacial one. In this, an unprecedented admission of weakness, glimmered the key to the lonely girl's confidence, this girl who thirsted for romance and colour. No poem could have endeared him to her more than the baring of such a raw, pained bruise of vulnerability.
Fuchsia took one awkward step closer to him, her graceless hands splayed at her sides. The insult was forgotten. The violence that had lived in his hands, she knew now, was not directed at her, but at himself, at his own fears. The cruel strength in his cold fingers wrestled with hidden demons, not with her. Her heart palpitated with the nobility of it, the silent courage, the suffering without complaint. She took another step.
Steerpike moved not a muscle. His eyes, which had been fixed on her feet, travelled up the length of her coltish body with a gaze both supremely modest and intimately tender. Her steps, not quite graceful, not entirely uncoordinated, brought her cautiously closer to him. A pearl hung carelessly from her red bodice. Her hair was a nest of midnight.
"Steerpike," she said, "do you love me?"
His brain rifled through a catalogue of responses, searching for one that would please her best. It was easy; he had plumbed, now, those last, timid depths, understood the unpredictability woven into her character. Her soul lay transparent before the lights in his eyes.
He reached out slowly and took her hand in his gloved one, raising it to his lips and pressing them gently against her knuckles. His gaze did not release hers.
"I am yours."
The moment had come. His fingers, in their gloves of finest grey silk, whispered lightly on the fabric of her sleeves, drawing her to him. They travelled, bold explorers in a scarlet landscape of folds and creases, to her neck. One elegant digit traced the delicate lines of her skin. She was in his arms, in his power; Gormenghast was in his power.
"I love you, Fuchsia."
Her breathing was hot and shallow. "I love you," she responded dimly, "I love you!"
His hand buried itself in the inky tangle of her hair. The hand, a pale phantom of grey, gripped like a tepid spider that web of starless night. It twined tresses of pure shadow about each finger, establishing itself as a presence too interwoven to ever be removed. The other hand had slipped to her waist, imprisoning a captive with no desire to flee. Fuchsia's face was upturned, her eyes closed, her hands lingering nervously on his shoulders.
The flames had not touched Steerpike's lips. No scars marred their thin, mobile surface, though they were strangely cool. He allowed a small, cold smile to play over his malformed features before he kissed her.
Fuchsia Groan kissed the lips that had smirked as her father's library caught fire; the lips which, curved into an ingratiating grimace, had mocked her aunts and plotted their murders; the lips that had whispered the name of the poison chosen for Nannie Slagg; the lips that had smiled so coldly, and now, kissed so passionately. She suspected none of it. Her head resonated with a rushing torrent of sensation. She felt only his agile hands, his strong, enveloping arms, the cool and insistent pressure of his lips. The moment overcame her, washing away the last, lingering remnants of wariness in a flood of the here and now.
It no longer made any difference that he was a commoner and ugly and strange. She saw only his cleverness, his courtesy, his courage, spontaneity, strength. And he loved her. Who else loved Fuchsia Groan? Was there anyone in Gormenghast – in the world? Only this odd, hideous, marvellous creature who gazed at her with such devotion. She had found it at last, after all those yearning days wandering through the woods and timeless afternoons playing in the attic: love.
Steerpike was not thinking of love. Triumph buzzed in the hive of his mind, a sterile sunbeam brightening its darkest corners. He had her now. Fuchsia was his. Gormenghast was his. Only time stood between him and the throne of the Earls. Only time, slipping away like summer mist, stood between Gormenghast and destruction.
He kissed her with all the vitality of his being, again and again. He did not love, but he was too alive to be indifferent. She was young, soft and pliant as satin in his hands.
"In the land of silver rain. . . ." he said between kisses.
"In the land of silver rain,
in that wild-flower domain,
a wind westerly blows
the petals of a red rose.
My love is a dark-red rose,
my love is queen in my heart,
my love with loveliness glows
my love and I never shall part."
Through it all, a monkey called Satan hung from the bedframe and chattered too softly to be heard, as mysterious and incongruous as a severed, golden tassel abandoned on the dappled floor of a pine forest.