A Soul's Worth

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Chapter Nineteen

Warren’s peace of mind was short-lived. Ben talked constantly about the missing vagrants in the city, and he kept Warren updated on the status of his fellow constable—who was still missing, of course, since his body was likely already devoured by the Llewan and what was left of his mind now spent its time pouring tea and carrying luggage for Mr. Anderson. Warren almost wished he could just tell Ben the truth if it would keep him from having to listen to his constable lover worry and ponder.

One afternoon, as expected, Ben came to the house after his shift was done, but today he pounded through the front door, and Warren could hear his shouting voice all the way from the bedroom. He shut the book in his lap, put out his cigarette, and opened the bedroom door to see Ben storming through the parlor. Warren followed in a rush while Ben called out again for Simon.

The twins were in the kitchen searching through the larder when Ben entered, and before they had time to question his shouting, Ben snarled out, “Heald.” A spark flew from his brass palm as he reached out his left hand and pulled the brothers to their knees without touching them. A tin of biscuits clanged to the floor as Owen lost his grip on it, and both twins went completely immobile, to the point that Warren couldn’t tell if they were still breathing.

“This is your doing,” Ben spat at Simon, bending to look him in the face.

“What’s going on in here?” Warren cut in. “Ben, let them up.”

Ben looked over his shoulder at Warren with a scowl. “Who was the man you thought broke into Sir Bennett’s house?” he asked without pretense, and Warren frowned at him.

“Just an acquaintance,” he said casually. “Someone who met me at Wakefield’s.”

“It was Callaway, wasn’t it? That’s what you said,” Ben pressed, glancing back at Simon’s frozen face. “Callaway.”

“Yes,” Warren said. “Let them up, please. They haven’t done anything.”

“And you spoke with him, like you said? You worked it out?”

“Just tell me what you’re getting at, Ben,” he demanded. “Ask what you want to ask.”

“Apparently Mr. Callaway has taken quite ill very suddenly,” Ben said grimly. “After some party you both went to, his servant says he collapsed in his bedroom, and now he’s stuck in his bed, can’t move or speak. He’s so bad that the police were contacted on suspicion of poisoning.” He looked into Simon’s motionless eyes with a scowl. “Only one man I know what could make that ‘appen and takes an interest in your affairs.”

“Ben, no,” Warren insisted, and he stepped between his lover and the Irishmen. “He’s done no such thing.”

“I warned you about ‘em, Warren,” he growled as he stood, his good hand clenched to keep the twins in their place.

“He didn’t do it,” Warren repeated, watching Ben’s face’s warily.

A veil seemed to lift from the constable’s face, and he shook out his hand and let the brothers drop to the floor in a fit of coughs. Perhaps they hadn’t been breathing very well after all. Ben snatched Warren by the arm and pulled him out of the larder, letting the kitchen door swing shut behind them. He leaned down close to his lover’s face, watching him with a careful eye. “You tell me now that you didn’t do this, Warren. Tell me that it’s not blood magic. I could look the other way when it was rabbits an’ such, but I can’t sit by if you’re ‘urtin’ people. It’s not right. Tell me you didn’t.”

“Is that what you want to hear?” Warren returned, mildly surprised at the low calm of his voice. He looked into Ben’s face without fear. “Do you want to hear that it’s a happy accident for me? Or do you want to hear that I did what I had to do?”

“Christ almighty,” Ben breathed, pulling away from Warren to put a helpless hand to his forehead. “You did, didn’t you? Warren, this is too much. You can’t do this to a person. He’d be better off dead than the way he is now.”

“So you think I should have killed him?”

“I think you should’ve let him be!” Ben snapped. “Isn’t it point of you marrying some woman that we’d be safe from rumor! You didn’t have to do this. You shouldn’t have done it, Warren.”

“Shouldn’t have?” Warren moved to stand just in front of the constable, his lip curling. “You think I do these things because I want to? You think I want to marry a woman I barely know, or to make a man bedridden for the rest of his life? I do these things for you.”

“For me?” Ben asked incredulously, a small laugh escaping him despite himself. “For me, he says. Warren, you’ve not done a bleedin’ thing since Sir Bennett died that’s done anythin’ for anyone but you. And a couple of thugs what’d do more good hung from the gallows than lurkin’ in our house. Don’t think I don’t know where you would’ve learned magic like that. You’ve gone blind, love. This ambition of yours—”

“My ambition will keep us safe. My money will keep us fed. My influence will keep us free. There was no future for us until that day. We would have crept in the shadows, hiding, until we were caught and thrown in prison. That can’t happen now; don’t you see?”

“Warren, you have to stop this,” Ben almost begged, putting his hands on the smaller man’s shoulders and squeezing them tightly. Warren flinched slightly under the metal grip, and Ben loosened his fingers with a short sigh. “I’ve agreed to everythin’. I agreed to be a family friend. I agreed to you marryin’ ‘at woman. I even agreed to those blighters takin’ up space in our home ‘til who knows when. But I can’t let this by. You can’t see enemies around every corner. You’ll go mad, and you’ll do ‘orrible things to people what don’t deserve it.”

“Everything I’ve done has been because it was necessary for our future,” Warren said. “And I will continue to do it.”

Ben let his hands drop from the other man’s shoulders, shaking his head as he took a step back from him. “You can’t. Please. I’m asking you, Warren, for me. What’s...what’s done is done, but you must promise me that it ends here. I can’t stand by while you cause such things. I can’t. Promise me that it’s the end of the blood magic. You can’t ‘ope to control magic like that. It’ll control you.”

Warren sighed, folding his arms over his chest. “There isn’t any point to doing it again,” he said finally. “I told you what I’ve done would make us safe. So now it’s done.”

“It’s done,” Ben repeated. “Promise me.”

“I promise,” Warren said with just a touch of exasperation.

“You’re making a lot of promises, Warren,” Ben said, and he moved close to the other man and slipped a hand through his hair. “Make sure you keep ‘em, eh?” He lingered a moment before leaving, and Warren was left alone in the bedroom, swearing to himself as he pushed open the kitchen door to check on the Travers.

Since Ben had begun to make himself at home at the house in Belgrave Square, he and Warren hadn’t had as much time together as they supposed they would. Ben still had to make an occasional appearance at his small house in Southwark or risk his landlady claiming he had abandoned the place, so he sometimes spent the night there instead. He also still worked full time, of course, which kept him away on the Tuesday nights designated for Warren’s work with the Travers. These factors, plus the occasional party with Wakefield and others, meant that they spent two or three nights a week on a quiet evening together.

Ben was clearly agitated when one of their few nights was interrupted by Elizabeth dropping by to ask for Warren’s signature on this or that, or his opinion on various shades of blue, or for the addresses of any of his acquaintances he wished to invite to the wedding. Ben tended to shut himself in the bedroom until she left, but tonight he sat in a chair across from Elizabeth with his arms folded tight across his chest, slumping in his seat and giving the tea tray rather a petulant look.

“I’ve sent invitations to some family friends and business acquaintances in New York, but I doubt many of them will actually attend on such short notice,” Elizabeth said, steadfastly ignoring Ben’s grumpy glare in favor of the pad of paper on her knee. “Wakefield sent his RSVP back immediately, of course, which was rather irksome. I don’t know why you spend so much time with him.”

Warren shrugged. “I don’t mind him at all. He’s helped me quite a bit—what with being ‘new money,’ I need a lot of guidance, you know. Would you prefer I came to you for advice instead?”

“I can do very well without answering endless questions, thank you,” she said quickly. She finally glanced up at Ben and gestured to the tray on the table between them. “More tea, Mr. Cartwright? You look a bit sullen.”

“You’re about an awful lot for someone who says they don’t give a damn about how this wedding goes.”

“Ben,” Warren scolded him, but Elizabeth only gave him a chilly smile.

“You will find, I think, Mr. Cartwright, that I shall be here rather more often than not before you know it, and I don’t very much like the idea of living under the same roof as a man who can’t contain his childish impulse to sulk as soon as I enter the room. I will assure you that I have no intentions toward dear Mr. Hayward—as I believe you should well know but don’t mind repeating once or twice—and that my interests are purely mercantile. I might remind you, further, that it was Warren who first sought out a wife, and not I a husband. Now may we move past this, or shall we both continue to pretend that the other is invisible?”

Ben opened his mouth to speak, and then shut it again. He looked between Warren’s pleading face and Elizabeth’s empty one and sighed. “I didn’t think a woman existed who was capable of marrying a man she had no feelings for and never developing any,” he grumbled.

“You are afraid that Warren is so irresistable that, despite my intentions, I will simply be taken in by his charms and fall head over heels in love?” A small laugh bubbled out of her, and she quickly covered her mouth with one gloved hand and cleared her throat. “So sorry, darling,” she said as an aside to Warren. “I’m afraid that just isn’t the case.”

Warren stared at her with lifted eyebrows for a long moment. “I’m...glad to hear it?”

“Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but if I could be said to have a type, I rather think you would be the complete opposite. And if you kiss poor Mr. Cartwright the way you kissed me at Wakefield’s—” She was cut off both by Warren’s hiss and frantic hand gesture as well as Ben’s sudden shout.

Ben leaned forward in his seat to glare across at Warren. “You kissed her?”

“I didn’t have a choice,” Warren said immediately. “It wasn’t because I wanted to. And like she said, it wasn’t even that good of a kiss.”

“Oh, yes,” Elizabeth agreed, actually seeming to regret letting the detail slip. “Awful. I would be hard pressed to do it again. Warren is—he’s too short to kiss properly.”

“Thank you, dear,” Warren ground out, keeping his eyes on Ben. “Please. Don’t be this way. You knew I would have to pretend when we were out. I made you a promise, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Ben agreed after a moment, though he snorted softly in irritation. “I just...don’t want to hear about it, is all.”

The Travers passed through the room without bothering to announce themselves, but they paused at the doorway into the front hall.

“Do you need us, Hayward?” Simon asked while Owen leaned over to catch Elizabeth’s eye. “We’ll be back in the morning if not.”

“No, I suppose not,” Warren shrugged. He bit back a smile as Owen blew a quick kiss at the stoic Miss Trentham, who only glared at him icily in return. “Don’t get into too much trouble.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Owen said with a mocking salute in Ben’s direction. “Constable. On our best behavior, honest.”

“Shut your gob, Owen, or I’ll make your eyes match,” Ben snapped. Owen held up a hand in surrender, then placed it on on Simon’s shoulder to turn him, and they were out the front door without another word.

“How are you fine with them living here?” Ben asked Elizabeth, gesturing at the empty doorway. “Especially with the way the one leers at you. You know they’re both criminals.”

“I’m quite capable of taking care of myself, Mr. Cartwright,” Elizabeth said immediately, “but I thank you for your concern. I’ve dealt with worse than him. Now, if we might return to the business at hand? Or would you prefer to do a bit more grousing?”

“Grousing,” Ben grumbled, throwing his hands up in defeat and folding his arms as he slumped into his chair.

“Now,” she continued without giving him another look, “the venue has been booked…”

Late in the night, curled up against Ben’s warm torso, Warren heard the harsh ring of the TXM sitting on the bedside table and lifted his head blearily. Ben mumbled beside him and rolled over onto his stomach while Warren reached over to pick up the small machine. The screen was difficult to see in the darkness, so he put a hand on the lamp and switched it onto the dimmest setting to avoid waking Ben. Squinting, he saw the number for the Travers’ TXM, and the single line of the message—Present for you in the cellar.

Warren swore under his breath and clicked off the lamp as he kicked out from under the blankets, snatching his robe from the back of the door and hurrying out of the room. They knew better than to bring someone on a night that Ben was home. He opened the hidden door to the cellar and rushed down the stairs, where he found the twins standing over a limp, hooded body.

“What is this?” he hissed. “Ben is right upstairs; what are you thinking?”

“Got into a bit of a row,” Owen said, scratching idly at his stubbled cheek. “This bird ‘ere got it in ‘er head we owed ‘er money for summat or other. Never seen ‘er before tonight. Followed us down the Heolstran road she did, blabberin’ on about this an’ that. Seemed like she would’ve followed us right on home, so we made it an easier trip on ‘er.” He shrugged. “Know it’s off-schedule, but we thought you might like ‘er.” Owen smiled at the blank look Warren gave him. “We can make sure the constable doesn’t stumble ‘is way down here.”

“You’re both fired,” Warren said with a small laugh, putting a hand to his forehead as he looked down at the figure on the floor. “I’m getting rid of your troubles for you now? Did you really not know her?”

“Hard to tell,” Simon said simply. “Shall we remove her?”

Warren paused. He had promised Lady Caldwell her automaton within the week, and Cam had finished the dainty machinery that very afternoon. She’d be delighted. “No,” he said finally. “I’ll take her.”

Simon gave him a small nod, and the twins made their way upstairs, the secret door sliding into place behind them.

Nothing was prepared, so Warren gathered his materials. He lit the candles and the incense, and he got on his hands and knees on the floor to carefully draw the same circle he had now drawn more times than he could remember. When he finished, he stood and dusted his hands of chalk as he turned to face the unconscious woman. He could see a bit of her black hair peeking from under the rough canvas hood as she lay still on his floor, dropped in an uncomfortable-looking position with her ragged dress slipping off of one shoulder.

He took the knife from its place on the worktable beside the empty husk, and he moved to stand beside her, reaching down to drag her closer to the circle by her arm. He paused as he felt a bit more resistance than he was accustomed to. He thought he heard her take a gasping breath. He pulled her to her knees, and she stayed. He could feel the gooseflesh of her arm under his palm, and he jerked his hand away as a soft sob sounded from underneath the hood.

“Please,” a soft voice whispered, choked by tears.

Warren hesitated. They had always been unconscious before, at least since Mrs. Burnham and the old man. He had taken too long drawing the circle.

“Please let me go,” the voice came again. “Whatever you want, you can have it,” she whimpered, her fingernails scraping lightly on the stone floor.

Warren didn’t answer. He never expected one of them to be awake. After a moment of tense silence, the woman’s hands slowly lifted from the floor, her fingers trembling as she reached up to the hood on her head.

“Are you still there?” she whispered, but Warren felt frozen to the spot, a cold pit in his stomach. As the woman’s hood slipped free, she gasped to see him standing beside her, dropping the hood onto the chalk of the circle. She was young—couldn’t have been more than twenty—and pretty, with pale skin and a light dusting of freckles on her nose and chest. She stared up at Warren with wide green eyes, her chin trembling as tears streamed down her face.

“Please, sir,” she said, “I don’t mean anyone no ‘arm.”

Warren almost called for the Travers, almost asked for Simon to knock her out again so that he might do his part in peace. He couldn’t do it with her staring him in the face. If nothing else, he risked her screaming and waking up Ben if he laid a hand on her.

“Please,” she said one last time, and Warren furrowed his brow at her, feeling a quiet cold calming his heart. She would wake up Ben. If he let her go, she would tell the police where she’d been. She could identify him and the Travers as well.

“No,” he said softly, and he reached out quickly to clasp his hand over her mouth, muffling her terrified cry. She struggled against him, and he almost lost his grip on her. She fought and scratched at his arms, but he held fast, pushing her down over the circle and spilling the blood from her throat in one smooth motion. He braced himself against the shockwave and turned his head away from the light, briefly lifting his arm to shield his eyes. When he opened them, he saw the Travers standing across the cellar, and he glanced down at the girl’s withered body and dropped his knife to the floor as the golem began to stir behind him.

“Heard a yell,” Owen said, “but I guess you had a handle on it eh?”

“Assign that golem a number,” Warren said with an empty coldness as he looked at Simon. The thought that they had seen him perform the ritual barely crossed his mind. If he trusted them to bring him the bodies in the first place, he could trust Simon with the practical knowledge. “And get rid of the body.”

Warren brushed by them and up the stairs, slipping by Ben’s sleeping form to wash his hands and face and pausing when he found a spot of blood on his robe. He shrugged it off and peeked in on Ben, who still slumbered soundly, and he stuffed the stained robe all the way to the back of the armoire. He carefully climbed back into the bed, and Ben only mumbled and curled up tightly around him.

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