A Soul's Worth

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Chapter Twenty-Five

The next day, as promised, Warren’s mother telephoned to ask if it was all right for them to come by for luncheon. Cam had spent all morning talking to the automaton in the kitchen—which consisted of only a single arm on a track around the top of the room that absolutely did not have the capacity to understand anything the golem said to it—and was quite eager to present its work. The golem served the food and poured the tea while Warren and Elizabeth sat in uncomfortable silence across the table from his parents.

“This is a lovely house, Warren,” his mother said once she had finished scolding him for smoking. “I’m so proud of you; who would ever have thought you’d end up here? From our little coaching house?” She tittered to herself a moment. “Oh, but I should be asking about your beautiful wife, darling! I’m so glad we get the chance to talk, Elizabeth.”

“I feel quite the same, Mrs. Hayward,” Elizabeth answered with what Warren considered an impressive amount of patience.

The questions fell from his mother’s lips like a waterfall, and Warren’s mind wandered until he occasionally heard his name mentioned. After what seemed like an eternity, the table was cleared, and Warren stood to address his wife and mother.

“I thought it might be nice if you two took in the sights a bit this afternoon. Mum’s never been to London, after all, have you? It would give you a chance to have a bit of an outing, and the weather is more than warm enough.”

Elizabeth’s gaze bore straight through to the back of Warren’s head, but he only smiled at her while his mother gushed.

“That sounds wonderful!” she said brightly. “You’ll be all right on your own, won’t you, Mason?”

His father grunted his agreement but said nothing.

“Take Cam with you,” Warren offered, predicting Elizabeth’s objection that she knew little more about London than Mrs. Hayward. “He knows the city very well, and he’s read just about every history book about it.”

“Oh, how exciting!” Anna moved from her seat to gather her handbag, and Warren escorted the two women to the front door, calling to Cam to prepare the autocar.

Just before they left, Elizabeth leaned in close to Warren on the pretense of giving him a brief kiss on the cheek and whispered softly into his ear, “If I tell you you’re going to America, you’re going.”

“Yes, dear,” he said with a smile as he pecked her cheek, earning himself a cheerful laugh from his mother before the two women went down the front steps to the waiting autocar.

Now alone in the house with his father, Warren stepped into the dining room, where the older man stood at the back of his chair with a frown.

“Let’s have it then,” Warren said with little patience. “Let’s hear your wisdom.”

“Wisdom’s nothin’ to do wiv what you’re doin’, boy,” his father answered. “Let’s see it. Where you do it.”

Warren paused. “You want to see my workshop?”

“Aye.”

Warren hesitated, but he gestured to his father to follow him and opened the hidden door in the hall, leading him down into the cellar. Mason coughed as he reached the bottom of the steps, holding his hand to cover his nose and mouth.

“Christ, it’s thick in ‘ere,” he said, attempting to wave the air away from his face. “How many?” He scowled when Warren only looked at him with a blank stare. “Answer me, boy; ‘ow many’ve died in ‘ere?”

A small thud of guilt ran through Warren as he realized that without his books in front of him, he didn’t know. “Dozens,” he said after a moment. “What’s thick in here?”

“Can’t you smell the blood? Surprised you can’t smell it all through the house.” He walked over to the partition and leaned around it to inspect the table. How’s it done?”

“Why do you care? Thinking of becoming a business partner?”

“You answer my question, lad, before I slap that smart mouth.”

Warren scowled at him, but he said quietly, “It’s a circle.”

Mason nodded. “Supposed it would be. Now you listen ‘ere,” he went on, turning back to face his son. “Not a word of what’s said ‘ere makes it to your mother, understand?” Warren said nothing, so his father snorted at him and continued. “You’re a man now, an’ I can’t make you do summin you don’t want to do. What I can do is do my duty as a father and give you fair warnin’.”

“Your duty as a father?” Warren laughed, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Since when has that been of any interest to you?”

“I done right by you as far as need be,” Mason grumbled. “You ‘ad a place to sleep and you never went ‘ungry. All the rest your mother ‘andled just fine. But this is different. Your mother don’t know nothin’ about this business, an’ she never will.”

“Get to the point, will you?”

“I know what you’re into, boy, because I’ve been deeper than you. Blood magic plays havoc with a man’s soul, and that’s the truth. You laugh if you like,” he said louder to speak over his son’s chuckle, “but I see it in your eyes already. You think this isn’t the same since it’s not your blood you’re usin’, but it’s takin’ what it wants from you just the same. You’re lyin’ if you say you can’t feel it.”

“I don’t feel anything,” Warren shrugged, and his father took a step closer to him.

“That’s the point. Look at me. You think I was always this way?” Mason shook his head. “It gets under your skin. You do it because it’s easy, and because every time it feels a little bit less like doin’ wrong.”

“You expect me to believe that you were so involved in blood magic that it made you into the miserable bastard you are today, and all you have to show for it is that coaching house?”

“I gave it up,” he said quietly. “I gave it up the day I realized I didn’t love your mother no more.”

Warren paused, and he watched his father with a furrowed brow, his eyes traveling down his sleeves as he remembered the older man’s scarred forearms mopping the floor or counting out coins. He used to wonder what had caused so many scars, but now he knew—he’d done it to himself.

“I don’t ‘ardly feel nothin’ anymore. When I was young, I did whatever I pleased—I gambled and twisted men’s minds to think I’d won when I ‘adn’t, I made people forget they’d seen me when I stole from ‘em, and I killed anyone who crossed me wrong. I used blood magic like it didn’t matter. But it matters.” Mason tilted his head slightly, and his gaze went distant, though he couldn’t quite manage to look sincere in his sorrow. “I remember lovin’ your mother. I remember when she was young and beautiful, and I would’ve done anything for ‘er. I did do anything for ‘er. Anything it took. An’at puts me ‘ere. That’s the worst of it, boy. I don’t feel it no more—but I remember what it was like.”

Warren folded his arms across his chest, more for a sense of security than out of disrespect. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because if you’re anythin’ like me, it’ll come as natural to you as breathin’. Because you say you love ‘at woman, your wife. If you keep goin’ down this path, you’ll forget what that even means. But I can’t make your decisions for you. You’ll dig your own grave if you like and it’s nothin’ to do wiv me. But you will do summin for me.”

Warren looked up at him with a small frown. “What?”

“You’ll give me enough money to buy your mother a little cottage down by the lake,” he said, “an’ you won’t talk to her again. Not if you keep on wiv this. It’d kill ‘er to know what you’re about, and I’m not goin’ to let ‘er find out. She deserves better from both of us. I’ll sell the coaching house, and you’ll give me enough to pay for the rest. If you ever get your ‘ead right, you’ll be welcome. Until then, I don’t want to so much as ‘ear your name. You understand, boy?”

Warren laughed despite himself. “You want me to pay you off?”

“I want you to give your mother what she deserves. She’s a good woman, and she never did no wrong to you, and I won’t ‘ave you breakin’ ‘er ‘eart because of this greedy nonsense.”

“Fine,” Warren said immediately, and he moved to the cellar steps and gestured to the door to send his father out.

He led him to the study and wrote him out a check for more than enough for a decent house in Huntingdon, tearing it away from the book and offering it to the older man. Warren tugged it just out of reach when Mason held out his hand for it, and he said softly, “Don’t imagine that this means you know me, old man. I expect I won’t have to hear from you either, once this is done.”

“Have no worries on that front, boy,” Mason said, and he snatched the check from his son’s hand when it was offered again.

Warren would have been glad to send his parents off early after his agreement with his father, but his mother insisted on remaining and visiting the entire week. They were in and out of the house at all hours of the day at their whim, which made getting any work done outrageously difficult. He could only really trust them to stay away at night, and even that was after a long dinner and a late coffee. Finally he was forced to excuse himself from after-dinner cordials when he heard his TXM chime in his pocket, and he knew that the Travers were in the cellar. He had hoped that his parents would have been gone by the time they arrived, but he couldn’t risk leaving his guest in the cellar for very long.

He pecked Elizabeth on the cheek and promised to return shortly, then hurried through the hidden door to the cellar.

“Family troubles, boss?” Owen asked, chuckling at Warren’s glare. “One good thing about not ‘avin’ any parents, eh Si?”

“I wouldn’t trade it,” Simon said, and Warren gestured to them to drop the unconscious man by the circle he had drawn up earlier. “We may have the beginnings of a problem, Hayward,” he went on, dusting his hands of whatever dirt had been on the man’s clothes.

“What problem?”

“People are startin’ to keep shut in before it gets too late,” Owen said. “Too many people gone missin’.”

“Perhaps you should take a sabbatical,” Simon suggested. “Give people time to forget. Give the constable time to forget,” he added, and Warren frowned.

“Not yet,” Warren said after a moment. “Cast a wider net. We can slow down production if we have to. There are always people coming and going from the city, aren’t there?”

Owen laughed. “Aye; I’ve always wanted to be a highwayman eh?” He nudged Simon with his elbow. “I like the sound of that.”

“It’s an extra risk, Hayward,” Simon said.

“Then we’ll have to be extra careful.” He took his knife from the table and bent over the man, lifting his head by the back of his hood and spilling the blood from his throat over the circle. The men swayed against the shockwave, and then Owen let out a small sound of surprise and cleared his throat loudly.

Warren turned to see Elizabeth standing at the top of the cellar steps, watching him with wide eyes. He felt frozen. He must have forgotten to seal the door behind him in his hurry.

“Your parents have gone,” she said quietly, moving down the steps and leaning over to get a better look at the guilty scene. “Warren, what is this?”

“I can explain,” he said in a rush, and his mind raced for possible solutions. He hadn’t taken any blood from this one beforehand, so that wasn’t even an option. He couldn’t kill her. She was too important; too close to him. He dropped the knife to the floor and pushed Simon over to deal with the new golem, cautiously taking a few steps toward his wife while Owen scrambled to wrap up the body as though it wasn’t too late to hide it.

“I’m listening,” she said calmly, but her eyebrows were raised like a schoolmistress expecting an explanation from a naughty child. “What was that light? Is that man dead?”

“Well—yes, he’s dead.” He expected her to recoil, to run or cry, but she stood still, looking him in the face. “The light was that,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder to the golem as Simon walked it out from behind the partition. Warren sighed. “I’m going to tell you the truth, Elizabeth. I should have told you what you were getting into. The automatons I make—they aren’t mechanical. Well, they’re built of machinery, but the life...the life comes from life. By magic.”

“Magic,” she echoed, and she actually let out a small laugh. “Why not?” She tilted her head as she watched the golem walk into the side room for storage until delivery in the morning. “I suppose stranger things have happened. Are you a magician, Warren?”

“I am a witch, yes. And so is Simon, and so is Ben. There are many more of us, living secretly among the rest of you. I know this must be unbelievable to you—”

“Show me,” she interrupted him, and she folded her arms to look him up and down. “That flash of light could have been anything. Show me something to make me believe.”

“What—you’re serious?” She nodded sternly at him, so Warren let out a sigh and glanced around the room for something to use. He let out a small sound of realization, and he took his old leather case from the shelf. He opened it as he walked back to her, digging through the various pouches until he found the small, bumpy cylinder of rough stone he sought. It had runes etched around the edges, and he offered it to her for inspection.

Elizabeth picked up the stone tentatively. “What is this?”

“Easy proof,” Warren said, and he reached out to place his hand on hers over the stone in her palm. “This one’s an old favorite of mine. Mum actually used to scold me for using it on the village girls when I was a boy.” He spoke the words carved into the stone, and water began to drizzle over the both of them, gently falling from a vague place near the ceiling.

Elizabeth gave a bit of a start and peered skeptically up at the ceiling, reaching her hand up to wave around at it as though looking for the source. When she looked back at Warren, he lifted his hand from hers, and the remaining droplets fell around them into the small puddle at their feet. “Well,” she said with a short sigh, “I suppose that answers that, doesn’t it? I never would have thought you had it in you, Warren. Couldn’t have perhaps done it without ruining my hair, could you?” She handed Warren the rough stone and leaned around him to peer at Simon. “And you?”

Simon only held up a hand, producing a quick ball of flame in his palm without even the use of a token. Warren was still learning that sort of trick. Simon closed his hand to snuff out the flame and returned his hands to their relaxed position behind his back.

“I see,” she muttered, and Simon smirked faintly at her. “But not you?”

“Not I, missus,” Owen said with a shrug. “I’m perfectly ord’nary in all ways but one.” He winked his scarred eye at her, and she sighed and returned her attention to Warren.

“Is that what’s been going on this whole time, then?”

“You’re awfully calm about this, you know,” Warren said, glancing over his shoulder at the wrapped up body. “You realize I told you that man is dead, don’t you? That means that every golem that’s come out of here has been followed by a dead body.”

“Oh, Warren,” she said softly, “how many people could that possibly be?”

“What—how do you mean? Quite a few, actually, if you’ve been keeping count.” He almost felt offended at her lack of fear or disgust.

“My family owns coal mines, Warren. Coal mines are dangerous. Do you know how many men died in my mines last year? Almost a thousand. Last year, two hundred died in one collapse alone. You put out one of these machines per week? You haven’t even been doing this for a year yet. Death is a cost of business, dear; anyone who tells you otherwise is naive.” She chuckled at his stunned face and leaned in to peck his cheek. “Just don’t let the neighbors know. I won’t have scandal coming out of this house.” With that, she turned and went back up the stairs, leaving Warren in the cellar with the Travers and a dead body.

After a long silence, Warren turned to the twins and gave a small shrug. “Well, be careful, gentlemen; we don’t want the neighbors to find out.”

“I am goin’ to change that woman’s life,” Owen said with a distant smile, and he shook his head when Simon nudged him. They carried the body out together, and Warren stood alone for a moment before a short laugh came out of him, and he went up the steps and sealed the cellar door behind him. He had chosen the right woman to be a placeholder wife, at least.

Warren escorted his parents to the train station the following afternoon, quite happy to see the back of them. His mother hugged him and kissed his cheek with tears in her eyes, and his father shook his hand for the sake of his mother if nothing else. They exchanged a long glance before Mason turned to board the train, and Warren let out a slow sigh as he returned to the autocar. At least that was one less trouble on his mind.

Warren was grateful for a moment to be alone with Elizabeth as they rode home in the autocar. “I need to ask a favor of you,” he began, and a small smirk pulled at one corner of her lips.

“Only the one?”

“The most important one,” Warren said with a frown. “You mustn’t tell Ben about what you saw in the cellar.”

Elizabeth lifted one eyebrow at him. “Your beloved Inspector isn’t privy to your nightly doings? No, I suppose he wouldn’t be,” she said in response to Warren’s furrowed brow. “It’s rather the thing it’s his business to prevent, isn’t it? I’d say he’s a touch too soft-hearted to approve of your methods, in any case.”

“Then you won’t tell him?”

“Your relationship with Mr. Cartwright is none of my affair, Warren. What you tell him or don’t tell him has absolutely nothing to do with me. I’m keeping enough of your secrets that this one more shouldn’t be any burden.”

Warren released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “Thank you. You’re very right to think he wouldn’t approve.”

“I’m right about most things, I think you’ll find, dear.” He smiled faintly at her.

Ben was waiting for him when they arrived back at the house, ready to greet Warren with a kiss which went politely ignored by Elizabeth.

“Cam’s made supper,” Ben said as he lightly squeezed Warren’s hand. “Will you join us, Elizabeth?”

The woman stopped mid-stride and glanced skeptically over at Ben, but he only gave her a warm smile. “You are in a good mood, Mr. Cartwright. I’ll stay if I’m welcome.”

“Of course you’re welcome,” Warren said, and he shrugged off his jacket on his way to the dining room. He sat at the head of the table with Ben at his right side and Elizabeth at his left, and Cam served them the meal it had carefully prepared with its good friend the kitchen arm.

Ben and Elizabeth actually exchanged a few pleasantries, which was a bit of a surprise, but Ben did seem in a much better mood than he had been for weeks. Perhaps he had finally taken to heart his promise to trust in Warren’s decisions. No matter what the cause, it was a vast improvement over his sulking. He still scowled when the Travers appeared in the doorway, and he very pointedly did not invite them to join in the meal, but at least all of his bad mood was reserved for the twins instead of Warren. Warren began to see the man he knew before any of this started, smiling and teasing. It made him ever more sure that everything he had done had been worth the cost if it meant that Ben smiled beside him this way.

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