A Soul's Worth

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Chapter Four

Over the next few days, Ben came to the manor at every opportunity, but he always found the same thing—the workshop door closed and locked and Cam in the study, sitting quietly by itself and reading. When Warren did appear, he looked pale and tired. Ben tried to convince him to tell Mr. Wakefield that he couldn’t deliver or at least that he needed more time, but Warren always waved him away.

“It’s finished now,” he finally said after a week had gone by, on one of the rare occasions that Ben had been by around suppertime and had been able to convince the other man to eat. Cam had apparently made strange friends with the built-in automaton in the kitchen, but it admitted to Ben that Warren hadn’t been eating the meals they had prepared together.

“What’s finished? You figured it out?” Ben asked, leaning his elbows on the table to look into Warren’s face.

“I finished the body,” he sighed in return. “I couldn’t give him an empty husk. It had to look like a machine. It probably wouldn’t work, even if it had a real power source. What do I know about building robots?” he lamented, dropping his spoon and letting his forehead thump onto the table beside his bowl. “I just filled it with gears and pistons. I’ll have to seal it up properly, like Cam, so they can’t look inside.”

Ben paused, hesitating to ask his next question. “So…you don’t ‘ave any idea what to do about the actual golem bit?”

“I’ve been reading,” Warren answered without lifting his head, his voice muffled by the table and his curtain of red hair. “I tried last night. I did everything they said in the books. I put the letters on the inside of the forehead, I burned the incense, I said the words. I drew the circle,” he continued with a long sigh, and he turned his head so that he could stare up at Ben, his cheek resting on the wooden table while his arms dangled at his sides. “Nothing. Not even a glimmer or a tremble. There must be blood.”

“I don’t ‘ave to tell you I don’t like all this blood magic, love, not one bit. Not good for your soul, it’s not. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m trying to prevent on the Heolstran road, you know that.”

“Oh, it’s like any other kind of magic,” Warren scoffed, lifting his head and staring into his soup. “I control it, not it me.”

“Just be careful with it, eh? I won’t ‘ave you putting your own self in that circle an’ending up like Sir Ed.”

“I’m not about to sacrifice myself, Ben,” he assured him. “I thought…” He hesitated, glancing to the other man out of the corner of his eye. Ben was a big lad, but he was actually something of a soft touch when it came to matters like this. “I thought perhaps…if I used an animal—”

“What, you’re going to bring something in ‘ere and take it upstairs and kill it? Just like that?”

“Well what choice do I have?” Warren snapped back defensively. “The ritual requires blood, and I’m rather attached to mine.”

“You could tell your gentleman that Cam isn’t for sale and you’re out of business,” Ben pressed. “We don’t need the money, Warren. You said yourself we could live on Sir Ed’s investments for a time.”

“For a time,” he admitted. “But what then?”

“Then you get kicked out of the manor and you come and stay with me,” Ben said with a grin. He reached over to put a reassuring hand on the back of Warren’s neck, his fingertips brushing lightly over the tender skin and sending a small shiver up the other man’s spine.

“With you? They’d find us out, Ben,” Warren sighed, his eyes closing involuntarily. “And you only just support yourself as it is. What would I do, if I’m not an apprentice? There isn’t much call for magic at the docks.”

“You could wash my dishes,” he offered helpfully. “I ‘ear you’re good at that.”

“Sod off, will you?” Warren frowned. He opened his eyes and looked over at his lover with a furrowed brow. “You know we couldn’t. We’d be discovered.”

“Who would say anything? People mind their own business down there.”

“Anyone could say anything. It only takes one report. Someone would say something, and the constabulary would be at our door.” He leaned over to put a hand on Ben’s knee, his other reaching up to clutch the hand on his neck. “Wealth is the only shield we have. With money, you can get away with anything. It’s the only way we can protect ourselves. Otherwise they’ll put us in prison, Ben.”

Ben sighed at the plaintive look on the other man’s face, and he gently tugged Warren closer to him by his neck and pressed a warm kiss to his lips. “If you promise me you’ll be careful,” he said softly, “I’ll ‘elp you how I can. Tell me what you need.”

“I think…I think as long as it’s something alive, it might be enough. Maybe a rabbit?”

“A rabbit?” Ben pulled away from him and pointed at the cooling soup on the table, which Warren dutifully continued to eat. “Why a rabbit?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “It’s…small? I don’t know what the requirements are.”

“What if it works, but you just end up with a golem with the brain of a rabbit?”

Warren paused with the spoon halfway to his lips. “I…I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Maybe you could build little brass rabbits instead of people. Wealthy ladies could put them in the garden and chat while they ‘opped about.”

“Be serious,” he scolded, but he was smiling. “I have to try. If I end up with a human-sized metal rabbit, then I guess I’ll have my answer.” He glanced back up at Ben. “Where would I even get a rabbit?”

“Don’t you worry,” he answered as he got to his feet. “I’ll bring one in the morning. In the meantime, I expect you’ll get some sleep, Mr. ‘Ayward.” He bent to touch a kiss to Warren’s hair.

“You aren’t staying?”

“I’ve work, love. Mulryan’s ill, and the Heolstran road stays busy day or night, doesn’t it?” He smiled and moved to the door, but then paused on his way and spun on his heel. “Oi. Spare us tuppence, eh? Won’t have leftovers for any rabbits after Mrs. O’Leary comes callin’ for lodgin’ money on the morrow.”

“Oh. Of course.” Warren stood and hurried to the bedroom, where he opened the small box of change on the dresser and retrieved a single coin. He returned to the dining room and placed the silver in the man’s large hand. “There’s a shilling.” He held up a hand to interrupt the coming protest. “In case you’re short. You can bring me back the change if you want to.” He put a hand on the other man’s chest, fingers curling into the rough fabric of his shirt. “Thank you, Ben. This will be worth it; you’ll see.”

“If nothing else, we’ll ‘ave coney for supper, eh?” Ben smiled and tucked the coin into his pocket, pausing to catch Warren’s hand and give the knuckles a quick kiss before continuing on to the door.

Warren sighed as he heard the back door click shut, and he found himself alone in the dining room with only the sound of Cam’s tinkering in the kitchen. He glanced back at the half-eaten bowl of soup but then decided against it and went back up to the workshop. He didn’t have time to sleep.

Ben found Warren asleep under the table in the workshop with a large roll of blueprint paper pulled over him in place of a blanket. He scooped the smaller man up easily and put him over his shoulder, only earning himself a mild, sleepy protest, and he carried him downstairs to the bedroom and tucked him in.

“Silly thing,” he muttered, bending down and kissing Warren’s forehead. He shut the door quietly behind him and went to the kitchen to help himself to the breakfast Cam had helped to put together.

“Is there trouble?” it asked while Ben sat on the counter with a plate of eggs and toast. “Warren Hayward seems overwhelmed. He does not come out of my room very much, and he does not let me in. Why did he give me a room and then take it away?”

“You know you can go anywhere in the house you like, don’t you?”

“Yes, but the house is not mine. The room was mine.”

Ben paused, inspecting the golem’s crooked jaw and the bright light of its eyes. It was definitely not human and yet not at all a machine. No machine he’d ever heard of took ownership of anything, let alone had a desire for a space to call its own. Even if Warren succeeded in recreating more golems without taking human lives, what would he be releasing into the world? Into the homes of people who would only see them as a novelty, instead of as a living, thinking thing? He imagined an intelligent thing like Cam could only go so long being told to fetch bottles of wine or carry luggage up stairs before becoming restless. But then, some honest-to-God humans had lives like that and carried on rather well.

“I’ll talk to him about it,” he promised. “Maybe you can share, or you can stay in the guest room instead. Or the study? You don’t really need a bed, do you?”

“No. I like the study.”

“Very well then. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you, Ben.”

He smiled and finished his plate, which Cam promptly took from him in order to clean up, claiming that it enjoyed watching the water in the sink despite not being able to feel the liquid on its metal hands.

Warren didn’t stir until nearly lunchtime. Ben heard him burst out of the bedroom from where he was sitting in the study with a cup of hot tea, and he laughed at the sight of him. Half of his shirt’s buttons had come loose so that it was slipping off of his shoulder, he’d removed his belt sometime during his nap, and his hair was a disaster.

“Why did you put me in bed?” he huffed, tugging his shirt back into place.

“Because you were exhausted. Come on. ‘Ave a cuppa. Cam makes a decent pot actually. Then we’ll see about murdering Mr. Nibbles ‘ere.” Ben nudged the small wire cage at his feet, where a small brown rabbit sat with its whiskers twitching.

“You named it?” Warren sighed, buttoning his shirt as he approached the chaise.

“We’ve ‘ad time to bond. I about went out and bought another one that I wasn’t friendly with.”

“Good Lord, Ben.” He sat down and took the spare cup from the tea tray, pouring himself a serving and shutting his eyes as he took a sip. “This is serious, you know. This is day eight out of fourteen, and all I have is a casing hiding some very shoddy machinery and a named rabbit that’s about to give its life in the name of progress.”

“So, you’re sayin’ it’s not nothin’,” Ben said with a grin that made Warren smile.

“Let’s just get on with it, can we?” Warren drank the rest of his tea in a rush and set the cup aside before carefully picking up the rickety cage. “Come along, Mr. Nibbles,” he said as he carried the animal down the hall to the stairs. “You don’t have to watch if you don’t like, Ben. I promise I’ll be humane.”

“Poor Mr. Nibbles,” Ben lamented as he poured himself another cup of tea.

Upstairs, Warren set the cage on the table beside the lifeless machine and set about preparing the rest of the ritual. He lit the incense, washed his hands in the basin, and made sure he still had the book on the lectern open to the right page. Then he moved to the cage, picked up the small knife nearby, and opened the latch. The rabbit edged away from his hand, but he caught it by the scruff and carried it tentatively over to the chalk circle on the floor.

“Sorry for this, Mr. Nibbles,” he mumbled while the rabbit squirmed in his grip, and he placed the edge of the knife against the animal’s throat. With a quick breath, he read the words from the book, drew the blade across the rabbit’s skin, and dropped both hastily to avoid his hand being inside the circle when the blood hit the floor.

The rabbit crumpled to the floor with a slight bounce and the knife clattered away, and Warren waited for the shockwave and the light, but the rabbit’s blood only oozed slowly into the chalk while the creature’s leg kicked one last jolt of life. Warren stayed still and tense, hoping for a delayed reaction. He crouched to inspect the chalk, and a bit of it seemed to have burned into the wood the same way as before, but the machine remained motionless.

“Did it work?” he heard Ben’s hushed voice say through the door, and he sighed.

“No, it didn’t work,” he called back, dropping onto his rear and leaning back on his hands. “I think we need something bigger.”

A long pause passed before he heard Ben’s voice again. “Bigger?”

Warren considered, his eyes on the seeping blood on the floor. “Do you know where we could buy a goat?” His only answer was a small grunt of distaste and the heavy thud of Ben’s forehead against the door.

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