A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Sixteen

As promised, Warren went out the very next day to find what he thought would be a suitable engagement ring for a woman like Miss Elizabeth Trentham. Although he didn’t consider it to be a particularly dangerous outing, he asked the Travers to accompany him simply because it was to his benefit if people like the one who broke into his house—who apparently was not paid by Miss Trentham—knew that he had people like the twins looking after his best interest.

Warren knew absolutely nothing about engagement rings, and it wasn’t the sort of thing he could trust the Travers to judge, though Owen did offer his opinion on how much this or that ring might go for outside a shop, which was very helpful. The man at the counter asked him questions about his would-be bride to which he didn’t know the answer. Eventually he chose something simple—a single diamond set in gold filigree—and hoped that she didn’t actually care what the ring looked like. It was just something to show around when people asked, in any case.

On his way to the florist to pick up the agreed-upon roses—even though he was quite sure she didn’t actually expect them—he happened upon Mr. Errington in the street, and the two men paused to greet each other.

“Hayward,” Errington said congenially as they shook hands. “I was thinking of calling on you soon. Glad to see everything sorted with your benefactor? Everything going all right with the new house and all?”

“I’m very well on all fronts, thank you.”

“Good, good. Strangest thing; I was just talking to Callaway the other day—you’ve met him, at Wakefield’s I think, he’s in the automation business as well—and dashed if he wasn’t asking me all sorts of indecorous questions about you. Actually asked me if I’d seen the body of your Sir Bennett, can you believe it? What sort of a man thinks such things? In any case, I sent him out right away, but I thought you ought to know that he’s about and making baseless accusations.”

Warren expected to feel afraid, but it didn’t come. He expected to panic and worry and run straight home to ask Ben what he should do. Instead, he shook Errington’s hand, thanked him for the information, and went on his way with the Travers behind him.

“Think it’s the one who broke in?” Owen asked, and Warren glanced over his shoulder at him.

“I think he could be, and that’s as much of a threat as I’m prepared to tolerate at this stage.” He sidestepped into a busy cafe and requested a small table at the back, rolling the ring box idly in his fingers as they waited for their coffee. “Callaway,” he murmured. “I remember the name, but the man only vaguely. He’s no inventor. He collects his paycheck from his company and goes about his business. What purpose would it serve him to discredit me and try to steal my plans?”

“What sort of automaton did he mean?” Simon asked. “If his company makes similar machines, you’re a direct rival.” The conversation paused as their coffee was set in front of them.

“I would have sworn it would be Arville,” Warren sighed. “Callaway’s company, if I remember correctly, builds the kind of house automation that runs on rails all about the house. It doesn’t really serve the same purpose.”

“Good old fashioned jealousy, then?” Owen suggested. “You are a bit up-and-coming.”

Warren sat forward in his seat and waved away the discussion. “I don’t care what his reason is. The point is that he’s guilty at worst and too inquisitive at best. So what do I do about it?”

“He’d make a fine robot butler,” Owen chuckled, but Warren shook his head.

“A man like that can’t disappear. At least Sir Bennett was a recluse. If Callaway is the sort to attend Wakefield’s parties, you can bet that he’s socially active to say the least. Ben says there are too many missing persons being reported as it is; if someone important goes missing, it would bring far too much attention to the issue.”

“You need to remove him from the equation,” Simon said blandly. “There are ways.” Warren looked over at him curiously, but Simon only slightly shrugged one shoulder. “One learns certain things on the Heolstran road. We can discuss it later.”

Owen elbowed his brother with a scowl. “Don’t get into none of that,” he warned, and Simon sighed through his nose.

“It isn’t getting into it if I show him how to do it.”

Owen snorted. “Don’t like the technicality.”

“Then we’ll discuss it later,” Warren cut in, and he took a single sip of his coffee and allowed the twins the same before he stood to leave the cafe, leaving behind a few coins.

He pretended to listen to the girl in the flower shop as she waxed eloquently about the beauty of the roses she had to offer, but his mind was on Simon’s offer. It would be blood magic, surely. He’d heard Owen complain about it enough by now. Warren’s experience with blood magic thus far had only been the spell to open the door to the Llewan and the circle that made the golems. He knew very well what blood magic was capable of—he had heard warning stories from his mother and read detailed accounts in Sir Bennett’s books of men being forced to lose their wits, or commit atrocities, or simply bending to the will of the witch over any matter he chose. A man could be made to slice his own child’s throat, or his own, with only a drop of his blood and the right word spoken.

Was that really any worse than taking some unsuspecting someone in the dead of night and dragging them to a cellar to have their spirit bound to a piece of metal that would never remember the human it used to be?

It was with such thoughts on his mind and a half dozen roses in his hand that he approached the doorman at the hotel where Miss Trentham stayed. He introduced himself with a pleasant smile, and after a brief telephone call, he was given her number and allowed up the elevator to her suite.

She answered his knock almost immediately, and she actually laughed at the sight of him with the delicately arranged flowers.

“A man of your word, aren’t you?” she asked as she stepped back to allow him entry.

“In most things, Miss Trentham.”

“Elizabeth,” she reminded him. She gave his two companions a studying glance as they passed her by, and she shut the door behind them. “Did you think you might run into assassins on your way to see me?”

“They wouldn’t be very good assassins if I knew when to expect them, would they?” Warren made himself at home on the sofa, and Elizabeth took the roses from him before he could discard them on the coffee table and set about putting them in a vase.

“I’m glad to see my future husband is a modest man,” she spoke up from the water closet, and she returned with his flowery offering in a glass vase, which she placed on the mantle.

“Don’t you keep a servant?” Warren asked, glancing around the room. “At the solicitor’s you had a negro with you.”

“John is running an errand. I regularly receive correspondence from home, so I’ve acquired a box at the post office. You have good timing if you meant to catch me alone, although bringing your brutes with you may have spoiled that a bit.”

“She thinks you’re a brute,” Owen grinned to his brother, and Warren shushed him with a smirk before Simon could finish reaching up to cuff him on the head.

“Well,” Warren said as he pulled to his feet, “if you please, Elizabeth, get over here and get yourself proposed to, will you? I don’t actually have to get on bended knee, do I?”

Elizabeth lifted her chin as she approached the sofa, and she took her seat gracefully with her hands on her knee. “It wouldn’t be much of a proposal otherwise, would it?”

“You’re enjoying this.”

“Immensely.”

With only a short sigh, Warren dropped to one knee and offered her the ring from his pocket. “Miss Elizabeth Trentham,” he began solemnly, “will you deign to do me the honor of becoming my wife in a purely bureaucratical sense, thus ensuring a prisonless future of prosperity for us both?”

“I believe I will, Mr. Hayward; thank you,” she said, and he slipped the ring onto her waiting hand. “I’ve already had the announcements made up; tomorrow I’ll put a note in the paper. That, plus telling Lady Weyland herself next week, will ensure that the entirety of London will know the happy news by month’s end.”

Warren chuckled, dusting off the knee of his trousers as he stood. “It seems you hardly need me for this at all.”

“You’re a warm body, Warren, and that’s all that’s necessary for my purposes—as for yours, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You aren’t.” He offered his hand to her. “I’ll be available if you need any help with the...planning? I assume we have to do something, don’t we?”

“I promise to keep it tasteful,” Elizabeth said with a sly smile, and she took his hand to bid him goodbye. “I’ll be in touch.”

As they walked the street back toward Belgrave Square, Warren considered. If he had any proof, he could simply report Callaway to the constabulary and be done with it, but he didn’t, and he wasn’t likely to acquire any. What other reason could there be for Callaway to be spreading gossip about him? He hadn’t heard any indication that the invader could be anyone else—and frankly, he found himself unwilling to risk Callaway threatening him any further.

Warren stepped inside the house and stopped in the parlor, looking over his shoulder at Simon. “Show me how to take a man out of the equation,” he said, and Simon gestured to him to follow and made his way to the hidden cellar door, Owen grumbling behind them but choosing to raid the larder rather than object.

“Blood magic is insidious,” Simon said as he stood across the work table from Warren. “My brother is right to be wary. I’m sure you know the dangers—blood magic can do nearly anything, and it’s generally forbidden for that very reason. Blood magic by its very nature requires you to get inside the head of your target, and you must be careful that you’re able to come out again.”

“How does it work, precisely? I know that you need their blood—”

“As well as your own,” Simon cut in. “You should know before we begin that it’s next to impossible to separate oneself from the victim once the deed is done. Even if the target is a mundane, there will forever be a bit of you inside of them.”

“That’s very cryptic. What does that mean in a practical sense?”

Simon shrugged one shoulder. “I’m not an expert. I only know what I picked up on the Heolstran road, which certainly didn’t come from any established school. I’ve heard that a bit of your soul leaves you to stay in the mind of your victim, keeping them forever in your grasp at the expense of yourself. What precisely a ‘soul’ is, I’m not sure, nor do I know if it can be lost or if you’d miss it if you had.” He tilted his head as he looked down at Warren. “Do you believe you are transferring souls into your golems, or simply whatever life force exists in them? Do your golems have memories that could be restored with the right coaxing?”

“I don’t know,” Warren admitted. “I certainly hope not. Can you imagine if any of them knew where they came from? I tried with animals before it finally worked on a human. Some of them had an effect—I’d think they wouldn’t if it was a matter of a soul, wouldn’t you? Or does a dog or a cat have a soul, but one that isn’t worth what a human’s is?”

Simon held up a hand. “Metaphysical quandaries aside, the fact of the matter seems to be that there is definitely something that changes in you when you use blood magic. Whether it’s your soul decaying or your mind, it isn’t without a cost. You need to decide before we go any further whether or not you’re willing to allow that to happen for the sake of this man Callaway.”

“You mean I should decide on the spot whether or not to take this nebulous risk to what may or not be my eternal soul?”

A faint smirk touched Simon’s lips. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.”

“But you’ve done it, haven’t you? Do you feel as though anything’s left you?”

Simon hesitated, which didn’t do anything to convince Warren of the wisdom of this potential path. If Simon spoke in anything other than the most point-blank fashion, the news was likely something Warren didn’t want to hear. “Sometimes I wonder,” the Irishman admitted after a moment. “I don’t remember if I wasn’t always this way. Perhaps I was more like Owen, once. He doesn’t seem to treat me any differently.”

Warren leaned his elbows on the work table to peer up at Simon with a furrowed brow. “How much blood magic have you worked, Simon?”

“More than he knows,” was all the answer he got. The Irishman’s empty stare almost made him feel like a child. His father had always had the same distant look.

Warren ran a hand through his hair while he pondered the risk. He wasn’t sure at all that he believed in souls, at least not in the usual meaning. But a person’s mind, their self—couldn’t that be chipped away, until all that was left was a man like Simon, who rarely smiled or scowled or seemed to have any preferences at all except for drinking and coin? Or worse, could a man become no more than a golem of flesh and blood, an empty husk and a blank slate, with only his own beating heart to prove that he was once human?

He doubted it was as dramatic as all that. Simon was stoic, yes, but so were many men who had never even heard of magic. There was no guarantee that his nature had anything to do with the magic he practiced.

“Show me how,” Warren said at last, and Simon nodded, holding his hand over the table as he cut a deep scratch into his palm and pressed a bloody handprint into the wood.

“Give me your hand,” he said, and Warren tentatively offered his own palm. To his surprise, Simon only pricked his finger with the tip of his small knife, drawing a few drops of his employer’s blood into his waiting, reddened hand.

“What, you aren’t doing it to me, are you?” Warren asked. “How does that help?” His lip curled slightly as he saw his own blood seeping into the wound in Simon’s hand. “That can’t be sanitary,” he muttered as the Irishman closed his fist.

“Disease is the least of your worries with blood magic, Hayward,” Simon said in a low voice, and Warren put a hand to his temple as the words echoed in his head, making him sway on his feet. “To know how to command, you must know yourself. A mind is not a simple thing that bends at a whim. It requires force.”

The voice pounded in Warren’s head, and he felt himself pulled to the ground, trembling to support himself on hands and knees against the enormous weight on his back.

“A man’s will is the hardest thing to break,” Simon whispered as he stepped around the table, the hissing ringing in Warren’s ears with undeniable pressure. “Yours must be stronger.”

Warren slowly lifted his head against the invisible mass pressing down on him, though he felt his arms were moments from giving way. Then, with only the faintest of movements from Simon, he felt himself pulled to his feet and drawn close to him.

“Let’s start with something simple,” Simon said quietly while Warren struggled to balance himself on tiptoe, barely supported by an unseen force. With only a few drops of his blood, Simon had him completely at his will—even had control over his body. It occurred to him too late that perhaps he hadn’t thought this through as well as he ought to. “Tell me your name.”

Warren opened his mouth to speak, but a strange pull at the back of his mind changed the words before they left his lips, and he said, “”Robert Cecil.” His whole head felt fuzzy and unpleasant.

“Good to meet you, Prime Minister,” Simon said with a wry smile. “Now tell me the number for your account at Barings.”

Before he could stop himself, Warren had spoken the short string of numbers, and he grit his teeth with a panting breath as he was released to stand on his own.

“Don’t worry about your finances, Hayward,” Simon assured him. “I’ve no interest in endangering my employment. Now tell me how you feel about Ben Cartwright.”

Warren scowled at him. He didn’t like this game. Even while he attempted to tell the Irishman to mind his own damned business, he could feel the pull, like a string tugging the words forward through his brain and out of his mouth.

“He holds me back,” he said. “I should have made him a golem long ago, before he started asking questions—” He stopped and took a step back from Simon, gripping the sides of his head and doubling over. “It’s a lie,” he ground out. “You can’t make me—not about Ben,” he spat, though he could feel himself giving in even as he said it. Simon’s bloody hand stretched toward him, twisting him down onto his knees, and when he looked up, he wasn’t in his cellar any longer—a damp stone cell surrounded him, and the chill of a draft off of the Thames made him shiver in his rags. The word “sodomite” had been scratched deeply into the flesh of his chest, seeping red through his tattered shirt.

“No,” he said, reaching out to touch the cold stone of the wall, the iron bars in the tiny window. “Never.” He slid his hand through the blood on his chest and pressed his palm to the stone, growling, “This isn’t real. Brec,” he snapped, and the entire room crumbled around him, leaving him panting on the floor of his cellar. Real blood dripped from his chest and caused his hand to slip as he fell forward, and he looked up to find Simon supporting himself against the far wall.

“Very good,” he said, pushing himself up while Warren shook his head to clear the last bits of mist from his mind.

Warren looked down at himself and found his shirt pulled open, his chest wounded by deep scratches—by his own hand, it seemed, and not in the form of shameful letters. He carefully pulled to his feet and inspected the blood under his fingernails.

“It isn’t easy, is it?” Simon asked after a moment, drawing his attention. “Even with you a witch knowing full well what I was doing.”

“It was so real,” Warren said softly. “I could feel the texture of the stone.”

“That sort of thing comes in time,” Simon shrugged. “You must practice to make it real. Luckily, I think the chances of you attempting to use it on another witch are slim. Mundanes are much more easily fooled. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful.”

“Then I suppose I had better start practicing,” Warren said, and he picked up the knife from the work table and held his hand out to Simon. “Your turn.”

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