A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Six

By the time Ben arrived at the house, everything was already finished. Mr. Wakefield had come, been outrageously impressed with the presented automaton, and immediately written a check for the remaining amount. Warren spent a good bit of time after that simply laughing, alternating between holding the check in his hands to admire it and placing it reverently on the dining room table. As soon as Ben knocked, Warren pulled him inside and tugged him down for a kiss.

“It’s done, Ben,” he said, unable to hide his grin. He’d finally managed to control the trembling in his hands after spending all night pacing and pulling at his hair and quelling terrified sobs. In the moment, it had all happened so quickly, and he had felt so in-control. At night in the quiet house with the product of his murder in the workshop above him, he had panicked and worried and cried. But none of it mattered now. He had done what he set out to do, and he had been rewarded.

“What? What’s done?”

“I figured it out,” he said, the lie sliding surprisingly easily off his tongue. “I made the golem. No blood. Wakefield’s already come and gone. A thousand pounds, Ben! A thousand pounds is sitting on that table!”

“What was the answer?” Ben furrowed his brow in confusion as he looked down at the other man. “You spent all that time reading and didn’t find anything. What happened?”

Warren laughed, hoping that it was realistic enough to cover his lies. “You wouldn’t believe it. I made a simple error. You know how it is with circles—one line out of place and the whole thing can blow up in your face. But I did it, Ben. I made a golem.”

Finally, Ben smiled, and Warren felt a weight lift off of his shoulders. “Well done, love,” he said, reaching out to touch his lover’s dark copper hair. “Feelin’ better about the finances now then, are you?”

“For now,” Warren admitted. “Mr. Wakefield invited me to his dinner party tomorrow night. I don’t know if I should go.”

“Why on earth wouldn’t you go?” Ben laughed. “Don’t pretend you don’t want to go to a fancy party an’ave your genius congratulated all night long. I know you, Mr. ‘Ayward.”

“I haven’t any clothes,” Warren protested, rustling his ill-fitting shirt. “I can’t show up all covered in chalk dust and—candle wax? When did I get candle wax on me?”

“Pardon me, Mr. ‘Ayward,” Ben said with a chuckle, “but didn’t you just say there’s a thousand pounds on the table? Buy yourself some bleedin’ clothes and go to your party.”

Warren paused. “You make a good point. It can’t hurt to spend a bit, can it?”

“Not at all.”

He smiled and pulled Ben down to kiss him again. The memories of his dark deed seemed to fade into the background in the presence of Ben’s smile. He only felt a small pang of guilt about the lies. They would keep them safe. Ben would never understand what he had been forced to do.

Warren had absolutely no idea what to do with himself at the tailor, but he now had enough money to make it worth the clerk’s while to know for him. He arrived at Mr. Wakefield’s estate precisely on time, dressed in black trousers, a dark grey shirt, and a fitted waistcoat of rich violet, against which the delicate silver chain of his new pocket watch glinted brightly. He felt a little ridiculous in his top hat, but luckily the butler took it along with his long black tail coat as soon as he was admitted to the home.

Mr. Wakefield greeted him as soon as he entered the hall, pushing a glass of champagne into his hand and beckoning over a small group of people in even finer attire than Warren’s.

“This is the lad!” he said with a laugh, putting a friendly hand on Warren’s shoulder as he addressed the gathering. “The thing is simply smashing, my boy, simply smashing. Would you believe that I’ve already taught it two or three jokes to tell to my guests tonight? And see, there, he’s filling glasses and nattering away!” He leaned in to point Warren’s gaze across the room, where the golem stood with a bottle of champagne wrapped in a cloth, its brass jaw moving easily in response to a woman’s question.

“I’ve decided to call him Beckford,” Mr. Wakefield said with a nod, as though this was supposed to mean anything to him.

“Very good, Mr. Wakefield,” he answered, holding his champagne glass awkwardly in two hands.

“I’ve been telling everyone who will listen what a marvel he is. You ought to give me a percentage, my lad, for all the business I’m drumming up for you!”

“Business?” Warren’s heart constricted.

The other men in the circle nodded in agreement. One of them spoke up, “How long does production take, Mr. Hayward? Charles here said you made him wait two weeks. My niece has a birthday coming up, you know, and she would simply love one of these machines.”

Warren was distracted by the gleaming brass of the man’s hand, delicately grasping his champagne glass. There were hardly any visible joints, and there seemed to be an intricate picture of a hound etched into the back of the hand. Warren was willing to bet this man’s arm didn’t get gummed up at the slightest provocation or require taking apart every few weeks. Perhaps with enough coercion, Ben would let him use some of the money to have a new one fitted. ”Your...your niece, sir?” he said at last, pulling his gaze back to the gentleman’s face.

“Quite so, young man. How soon will another be available?”

“A—another? Sir, even the one I built for Mr. Wakefield was only—I build them by hand, you see, so—”

“I’d rather like a bit of variation, eh?” The gentleman chuckled and took a sip of his champagne before continuing. “We’ll discuss it in more detail later.”

“Yes, sir,” Warren answered without much of a voice.

Mr. Wakefield took him by the arm and led him around the room, introducing him to all of the guests and asking him more than once in a rather loud voice if he was married, completely by accident in front of small clusters of ladies. A few of them smiled coquettishly at him, but he could only give them nervous laughter in return. More gentlemen asked him about his machine, begging to know production times, prices, perhaps if there was a list they could go on. It made his head swim.

Once they all sat down to dinner and the topic of conversation moved to other things, Warren was able to relax. He actually enjoyed himself, due in no small part to the free-flowing champagne, and he found himself laughing at jokes over dinner and chatting casually with people he wouldn’t have dared to look in the eye a week before. He’d barely had a drink in his life before this, and his glass seemed to be bottomless. He even danced with two of the ladies who had been smiling at him, and they graciously only laughed in a friendly way when he missed most of the steps.

By the time he made it back home, he was stumbling out of his taxi, and he fumbled with the key to the front door. His wallet was stuffed with the cards of gentlemen who wanted automatons of their own and who had promised to call him very soon on the subject. It didn’t bother him just now. He stripped his coat and hat just inside the door and practically fell into the bedroom, rolling himself up in the blanket fully dressed. Cam peeked in on him curiously but said nothing.

The next few days were filled with telephone calls and unexpected visits. Mr. Burnham came around to ask if he or Sir Bennett had heard from his aged mother recently, but a simple “No, sir; hope you find her, sir,” had put him on his way, which was an incalculable relief.

Ben laughed and couldn’t understand why Warren paled and trembled every time a gentleman came. He always tried to send them away, but each visit ended in a bidding war until the number grew so high that Warren couldn’t refuse. He shut himself in the workshop, and Ben could hear him pacing above him while he ransacked the kitchen. He offered to help build the husks to take some of the pressure off, but Warren refused.

“I must do it,” he said, and he would shut the door again.

He felt guilty shutting Ben out, but he told himself that everything he had done and would do was for the other man’s benefit. When he finally went a day without a visitor, he spent the entirety of it in the workshop building the first husk. It would take a few days, but it went much easier now that he had already done it once. It gave him time to think.

He couldn’t let Ben know what he’d done. It would be unforgivable in his eyes, no matter the motive. But how was he to keep it from him now, with a dozen people waiting for their own personal golems? How was he to do it at all? A dozen golems meant a dozen more lives, a dozen more trips to the Llewan, a dozen more secrets. The practicality of it was enough to cause a problem, let alone how Warren shook and paced and pulled his hair when he thought about the old woman’s shrunken face. He needed help, but who could he trust?

The answer, of course, was no one. Even letting Cam help him with the body was a risk. As a golem, it seemed to have no inherent sense of morality, so Warren had only a little worry that it would tell Ben the gory details out of some feeling of guilt or conspiracy. It was simply something that had happened that Ben shouldn’t know about, and if Cam asked him why, Warren felt sure he could come up with an explanation for the golem. Somehow.

As for the requests for golems that had begun to stack up—there simply wasn’t any other option. If he thought about it like that, if he told himself that he was only doing what was necessary, then maybe he could do it. He didn’t have to be cruel. He didn’t have to be rampant. He had a need—a terrible need, it was true, but one that, once fulfilled, would mean a lifetime of leisure and security for Ben. He wouldn’t need to skulk around the Helostran road at all times of the day or night, putting himself in danger for the sake of unknowing and ungrateful mundanes. He could stay forever if he pleased.

Warren stayed in the workshop until Ben came in to tell him he was leaving for work, and Warren held him tightly and kissed him for longer than usual, causing Ben to let out a low chuckle as he reluctantly pulled away.

“You’re tryin’ to get me sacked, Mr. ‘Ayward,” he said, letting his fingertips slip slowly from Warren’s grip as he moved to the door. “Keep up that enthusiasm, though. I will come back.”

“I’ll be here,” he smiled, and Ben shut the workshop door behind him and plodded down the stairs.

He still waited until nightfall, nervously patrolling the hall while Cam questioned him about British history and the state of its room.

“Your room?” Warren asked, pausing in his stride to look at the golem.

“Yes. Warren Hayward said the workshop could be my room, but you have taken it back. Ben suggested that the study might be my room. May the study be my room?”

“What? The study?” He laughed a little despite his nerves. “Yes, of course. Whatever you like, Cam. This is your home.”

“Thank you, Warren Hayward.”

He made his way to the back door and paused with his hand on the knob to glance back over his shoulder. “Cam, if...if Ben calls—don’t tell him I’ve gone out, will you? Better yet, just don’t answer the telephone at all.” The golem nodded, and Warren slipped out the door, pushing a bit of loose hair behind his ear as he went down the steps.

His blood pounded heavily in his ears as he walked the damp streets, every muscle in his body tense as he passed a man lighting the gas lamps. They barely even exchanged a glance, but Warren felt terrified that the stranger knew the darkness in his heart. He thought about ending it then—snatching the man from his ladder and dragging him screaming back to the house. Either that or turning around and going home himself, staying hidden under blankets until morning. Each seemed equally likely to Warren at this point, but he kept walking. It couldn’t be too near the house. It would be too suspicious.

He walked until the bourgeois neighborhood was far behind him, until the black smoke of the factories began to coat his lungs with soot the way it had coated every stone around him. The street seemed grimier here, and the people who walked the pavement had filthy clothes and loud voices. He didn’t feel particularly unsafe here, but wary—he clearly wasn’t wealthy, but his clothes were at least clean and fit him properly, which was more than many of the people around him could say. A woman called to him from an alley entrance, tugging provocatively at the neckline of her worn red dress.

“In the mood for comp’ny, love?” she asked with a toothy smile, and Warren pulled away from her without thinking. He paused, weighing his options while she swayed toward him and ran a hand down his sleeve. He imagined slipping her a few copper coins, putting his arm around her, and whispering sweet nothings until he convinced her to go against her better judgment and return to his home. He would tell her the bedroom was upstairs, keep the lights low until she was in position, take the knife from the table—

Warren apologized under his breath as he jerked his arm out of the woman’s grip, and he hugged his arms to his chest as he sped down the pavement away from her. Impossible. What made him think he could do this?

He turned a corner and almost fell over a man huddled against the wall.

“Sorry, m’lord, sorry,” he rumbled in a raspy voice, feet scraping on the cobblestones as he attempted to move out of Warren’s way. “Pardon me.”

Warren paused to look at him. The man was a waif, swimming in his dirty coat. He looked up at Warren with sunken brown eyes set in a face smeared with dirt. He looked older than he probably was. A small twitch moved his mouth as a bit of hope clearly entered his mind, and he said quietly, “Spare a coin, sir?” as he held out a spindly hand.

“You poor man,” Warren said before he could think. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”

The man grimaced at the question, but kept his hand out in anticipation. “Too long, m’lord. I’ve been out of work. It’s me ‘eart, sir.”

“Your heart?”

He nodded. “Sawr a doctor long ago, said me ‘eart would burst if I kep strainin’ it. No work to be ‘ad that don’t strain a person’s ‘eart, sir. Now it’s strained by ‘unger,” he pressed, fingertips twitching.

Warren’s eyes narrowed slightly as he looked down at the pitiful and lice-ridden man. Then, with a caring smile, he offered him his hand. “I can do better than a coin. Come along, and we’ll get you cleaned up and put a hot meal in you.”

The vagrant hesitated, but he took Warren’s hand and lifted himself up onto shaky feet. With the younger man supporting him, they walked the streets back to the house, and Warren let him in the back door, where he stood clutching at his moth-eaten coat.

Warren led him into the dining room and sat him down, urging him to wait while he prepared some food, and then he rushed into the study to find Cam and tell the golem to keep to itself.

“Is there company, Warren Hayward?”

“Yes. Company,” he said, feeling the sweat forming on his brow. “You remember secrets, don’t you? You must keep secret from this company.”

It nodded and continued reading its book, so Warren hurried back to the kitchen and gathered some bread and wine to give to the dirty man at his table.

“I’ll fix something proper in a moment,” he said, the man already devouring the bread. “Please, make yourself comfortable.” He felt that his voice was shaking, but the vagrant was clearly too distracted to notice. He thought the man must see his sweat, his trembling hands, but he only ate and drank, giving a grunt in response. “Yes. Well. I’ll...I’ll be right back.”

He tried to keep his composure, walking with measured steps up the stairs to the workshop, where the chalk circle lay undisturbed. He fetched the incense and the matchbook, cursing under his breath as his shaking hands ruined match after match. Finally he managed to light it, and he positioned the burning incense in the proper places around the room. His gaze fell to the gleaming knife on the table, and he swallowed with a dry throat as he picked it up and slid it into the back of his belt.

The man was just where he left him, the bottle of wine already half empty on the table. He looked up expectantly when Warren entered.

“Well. Supper is going to take a bit to cook, it seems...would you—would you care for a bath in the meantime? I’ve started one upstairs.”

“Sir, you’re too kind to me, too kind indeed,” the vagrant said around a mouthful of bread.

Warren gestured for him to follow and led him up the stairs, feeling lightheaded from the quick pace of his breath. He could barely hear, his blood was so loud in his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment as he reached the top landing, opening them as he turned the knob to the workshop door. “Please,” he said softly, and he motioned to the man to enter before him.

As soon as the older man was inside, Warren shut and bolted the door behind them. The vagrant was suspicious at once, and turned on him, backing away toward the circle.

“Oi, what’s all this then?” he said warily, glancing around the room in a mild panic.

“I’m sorry,” Warren admitted, and he moved toward the man as he drew the knife from his belt. He should have done this faster, he knew. It was one thing to do it in the heat of the moment to protect the man he loved, but quite another to have eyes on you that have never done you a single ill.

The man tried to bolt past him, and Warren grabbed at him awkwardly, only succeeding in causing both of them to stumble. The vagrant snatched up the blacksmith’s hammer from the nearby work table and swung it wildly, still attempting to move to the door. Warren cried out when the hammer grazed his jaw, tasted the blood on his lip, but he got hold of the man’s ragged coat and dragged him to the floor. They struggled, and Warren felt certain that his ribs would bruise from the frantic hits. Once, the man swung the hammer so hard that it cracked the wood floor mere inches from Warren’s head. He managed to get the hammer away from him, and he hit the old vagrant in the temple, finally getting out from under him. He hit him again and again, panting and shutting his eyes against the spray.

When he was motionless, Warren stopped, and he turned the man’s head and pried open his eyes, checking him for signs of life. He almost wasted it. He stood on shaky feet and pulled the man’s unconscious body across the room to the circle, where he dropped him down and spoke the right words. The blood from the wound in his head was enough, it seemed—Warren turned his face away and stumbled back from the shockwave as blood touched chalk.

He looked down at the wizened corpse, and then to the husk on the table, which creaked to life just as expected. Wiping the spatters of blood from his face with his shirt sleeve, he stepped over the body to talk to the golem, assigning it a name and an owner just as he had the last one. He wondered about the safety of the first memory his golems having being of him in a room with a corpse, but he decided to address that issue with the next one.

This won’t work, he thought as he stood panting outside the workshop door, the vagrant’s body wrapped in an old blanket at his feet. He wasn’t a brawler. That man could have killed him, and almost had—and he was a sickly old man. Warren had two choices, then. He could either wait to build more golems until he had time to become an adept fighter, or he could hire help.

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