A Soul's Worth

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Chapter Seven

Warren spent the next day contemplating, which for him meant a lot of pacing in the parlor while Ben lounged on the sofa and watched him. He had waited to feel something after taking the old man’s body to the Llewan—fear, or guilt, or even excitement. He had been protecting his freedom by killing Mrs. Burnham. It was a necessity, though it ended up being helpful to him. But the vagrant he had sought out. He had meant to find someone to bring home and murder, and he had done it. The fact that he had ended up fighting for his life was inconsequential. For hours afterward, he had only sat in the dining room, watching a cup of tea get cold and waiting for the panic to come.

But it hadn’t. It had seemed almost easy, once it was done. He might have felt regret, perhaps. He wished he knew a way to make the golems without blood. It just didn’t seem possible. If this is what it took to secure his future with Ben, then it’s what he would do—but he had to do it smart. He had to treat it like a business, and any business needs employees.

“Want to let me in on your deep thoughts, love?” Ben asked, brushing some digestive crumbs from the front of his shirt.

“It’s just...a lot to take in,” Warren said softly. He dropped down on the sofa beside Ben and leaned his head on his shoulder. “There are a lot of decisions to make.”

“Decisions? About what? What to wear to your next fancy party?”

“Amongst other things,” Warren chuckled.

“Anything I can do?”

“No. No, I don’t think so. You help just by being here.” He paused, glancing up to the clock on the wall as it struck six o’clock, and he sat up and kissed Ben’s cheek. “I’m going.”

“Going?” Ben asked as Warren stood. “Going where?”

“I have to go to the Heolstran road.”

Ben leaned forward on his knees, furrowing his brow at the other man. “For what?”

Warren waved him off. “I need supplies.” He tried to be as cavalier as possible, but the Heolstran road could be more than a bit dangerous to the unwary. Its denizens had good reason to keep secret—every house, every shop, every pub along the street was occupied by a witch. It was usually quite grubby no matter where you went, perhaps in an attempt to keep outsiders away. To the uninformed, it no doubt seemed to be full of vagrants, ne’er-do-wells, or thieves, which was actually not too far from the truth. Many witches made their living in less-than-legal ways and used their magic to aid them, and they were all by necessity quite secretive. It was the only place in London to get certain magic-related things, however, such as the incense that Warren was legitimately running out of.

“I’ll go with you, then.”

“No!” Warren said, putting a hand on Ben’s chest to stop him before he could fully stand. He smiled and pulled his hand away awkwardly, attempting to cover his outburst with a laugh. “No. You don’t need to. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll only be sitting about the house, love. Better with two of us.”

Warren hesitated, hoping that a lie would come to him. “It won’t help me to be seen with the constable if I hope to get my business done quickly and come home. And what if I’d planned on buying you a gift?” He tried to avoid letting out a sigh of relief.

Ben laughed. “What, a gift? From the Heolstran road? I don’t need any eye of newt, Warren.”

“No fair guessing. I’m going alone, Ben. Thank you, but I don’t need a chaperone. It’ll be fine.”

Ben seemed unsure, but he only took a gentle hold of Warren’s hand and touched a kiss to the back of it before releasing him. “I’ll be here when you get back.”

Warren smiled, and he almost stayed home in favor of locking himself in the bedroom with Ben all night rather than searching for just the right kind of murderer in a dirty alley. The sort that would participate in murder for money, but who wouldn’t accidentally murder Warren in his excitement. He settled for bending to give Ben a kiss, and he called to Cam to please make sure that Ben ate something other than chocolate biscuits for supper.

He walked rather than taking the autocar, since the Heolstran road was narrow and crowded, and he didn’t want to draw attention to himself in any case. He hadn’t been in some time, but Sir Bennett had always sent him on errands rather than visit such a filthy place himself. Probably wasn’t the place for a proper gentleman.

The Heolstran road was paved with cobblestones and dirt, and the light from the streetlamps gave the entire area a dim yellow glow. It seemed warmer here than elsewhere in the city, and more heavy; the air was thick with strange scents, and the subtle trembling of magic came from all sides and made the hairs on Warren’s arms stand up. He actually rather liked it here, despite its innate grubbiness—residents here were free and used their magic without fear.

Some people on the street leered at him as he passed, but he greeted the particularly menacing men with a quick “Wes hal,” and they snorted at him but let him be. The Heolstran road had existed ever since London had been called Lundenwic, and a few of the more orthodox witches communicated almost solely in Anglo-Saxon English. “Wes hal” was a simple greeting, and it had become a sort of password for witches to identify themselves to each other when in mixed company. In London, anyway. Back in Huntingdon, the only way to know another witch was to risk exposing yourself or to catch them in the act.

Warren stepped into a shop and greeted the clerk, who actually was vaguely friendly to him, since he’d been in before to make purchases for Sir Bennett. They exchanged pleasantries while Warren gathered the few supplies he needed, but he didn’t linger. He had more important business than making sure he didn’t run out of charcoal or incense.

With his small parcel tucked under his arm, he made his way to a pub called The Green Man, its wooden sign forming a human face out of leaves. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, quickly scanning the room as though he would be able to tell by faces who would be up to the kind of job he needed done. It was a fairly usual scene, he thought—some men at the bar slumped over, others conversing animatedly with their companions; a few at a table playing cards; a pair of women in low-cut dresses teasing the men and tugging at their sleeves; a great number simply drinking themselves into a stupor without a care to the world around them. He wondered briefly what exactly he’d gotten himself into. He had no idea how to find a person willing to do his dirty work, if such a person was to be had at all.

He took a place at the bar and ordered a pint, setting his package in front of him. He paid the man his copper coin and took a sip of the warm swill. He’d never been very keen on beer, but he thought it might give the wrong impression for a man to order a glass of wine in a place like this, so he drank it without much of a grimace and turned to look at the men in the room.

He would need someone strong, he knew that, and someone who wouldn’t have a problem with sending innocent people to their death. How could he tell that by looking? And even if he could, what was he to say? Hello, pardon me, have you any interest at all in bringing a rather large number of undesirables to my townhouse in the West End? He took another drink of his beer. The only way to do it was to be up front, he supposed. Ben was at home, and Warren knew Mulryan by sight and could tell he wasn’t present. No one who spent their time at The Green Man was likely to report him for suspicious behavior, so he chose a man by himself at the end of the bar.

He seemed a strapping sort—tall and broad-shouldered, with scruff on his chin and a scowl on his lips. Warren took his pint in hand and shuffled down the bar, pausing to excuse himself for bumping into a chair as he passed the table of card-players.

“Pardon me,” he said to the man hunched over his beer, “could I discuss a business opportunity with you?”

The man snorted at him. “Got no business with you,” he answered in a gruff voice. A Welshman.

“Well, yes, that’s quite true—”

“Get out of it, mate,” he interrupted, taking a long drink of his beer.

Warren frowned at him. He was determined to at least make himself clear in general, if not in the details. “I’m looking to hire a man for a job. If you’re incapable of work, you could just as well say so, rather than huffing at me like a woman.”

The man turned to stare at him with eyes narrowed and jaw set, clearly pondering his options. “What sort of job?”

“The sort that pays well for discretion,” Warren said in a lower voice. “I’m looking for someone who’s rather a...rough and tumble sort. If that isn’t you, then make yourself plain and save both of us the time.”

The man paused, taking in the sight of Warren. He wasn’t tailored to impress, but he definitely looked like he would be more at home in a gentleman’s service than on the street. The Welshman glanced behind him for eavesdroppers and tilted his head toward the back door. “Let’s ‘ave a chat about it in private, shall we?”

Warren made an effort to keep a straight face. Could it possibly be this easy? He let the man lead him through the creaking wooden door into a dark alley behind the pub, and as the door thudded shut behind them, Warren suddenly found himself in the grip of large, dirty hands, with a cool metal coin pressed into his cheek and burning into the skin. He felt paralyzed. He could barely breathe from the hand around his neck, and the pulsing burn from the coin prevented him from speaking in any case.

There were a few possibilities. The coin was likely a token with the right word scratched into it in ogham, but which word would change the precise effect. Probably something simple—the man didn’t seem the type to have mastered anything complex. Warren wasn’t an expert when it came to ogham, and he certainly didn’t feel capable of responding in kind. He could vaguely feel the man rustling through his pockets and the lifting of weight as his coin purse was removed from his pocket.

Then the grip loosened, and the coin fell away and landed on the stone with a soft clink that was overpowered by the sound of shouting and fists on flesh. Warren sat on the street, gasping for breath, and he saw through spotty vision the figures of two men standing over his attacker. The man from the bar growled and squirmed on the pavement, clutching his no doubt pained stomach. Warren flinched when one of the men approached him, but he only bent down and picked up the coin, turning it in his fingers as he turned back to the man on the ground.

“What are you thinkin’, tryin’a rob a fellow right on the Heolstran?” a gruff voice asked in a thick brogue, and there was a dull thud as boot met stomach again. “At’s plain bad manners, ‘at is.”

“And with such a common trick, too,” the other standing figure said in a low, calm voice, the opposite of the other. His accent was the same, but there was a clear attempt to rein it in. “You ought to be ashamed.” He flicked the coin away so that it landed on the mugger, and he bent to scoop up Warren’s purse.

“Off with ye,” the rough voice said while Warren unsteadily picked himself up, frowning at the damp patch on the seat of his trousers.

As the man stumbled away out of the alley, Warren found himself face to face with two men who were clearly no less miscreant than the one they had just run off. Now that he had his senses about him, he could see them mostly clearly in the lamplight. They were well over six feet tall, with hair even redder than Warren’s. After a moment, he realized that they were identical twins, though they were quite superficially different. One was thickly muscled, dressed in worn leathers and dirty trousers, and he wore his hair in a trim mohawk and a horseshoe moustache. He had a painful-looking scar marring the skin around his right eye, and the dark blue color had cloudy white in it. The other was more slender, and slightly cleaner. He looked minutely more respectable, with his hair in a modern cut and only a bit of stubble on his jaw, but his clothing was just as shabby and his gaze just as cold.

“You awright, mate?” the broader one asked, reaching out to dust off Warren’s rumpled shirt front.

“I’m fine, thank you.” Warren hesitated when the man holding his purse offered it to him, but then he took it with a nod. “I’m quite grateful for you gentlemen. You didn’t have to interfere.”

“Saw the Taffy take you out back, knew he was up to no good,” the mustachioed man said. “I told Si we’d better ‘ave a butcher’s, didn’t I? And a good thing I did. Not right to try an’ rob a witch on the Heolstran. Got to look out for each other, eh?”

“Quite so,” Warren answered with a relieved smile.

“Bit silly to actually go into the alley with a stranger, though,” the slender brother spoke up, and Warren’s smile faltered. The man tilted his head toward his brother. “We’re the Travers. I’m Simon, and this one’s Owen.”

“Very pleased to meet you. Warren Hayward.” He considered offering his hand, but neither of them seemed likely to take it, so he refrained. “I was actually—” He paused. “You gentlemen aren’t...for hire, by chance?”

The twins exchanged a silent glance. “For what?” Simon asked.

“I’m afraid I must ask for your discretion,” Warren said, taking a tentative step closer to them. They seemed to have some semblance of honor, but that didn’t mean he wanted to provoke anyone dangerous. “My name is Warren Hayward. I’m...I’m in the business of golems, you see.”

“No such thing,” Owen snorted, glancing over at his brother and jerking a disbelieving thumb at Warren.

“I assure you, there is,” Warren pressed. “As far as I know, I alone possess the secret. But the truth of the matter is that it’s rather a...bloody business, if you catch my meaning.”

“How bloody?” Simon asked, one eyebrow lifting curiously. Owen frowned, but said nothing.

“Quite,” Warren whispered. “I would venture to say that it’s completely draining.”

“A life for a life? Should be expected, I suppose.”

“Yes. Well.” Warren shuffled an inch or so closer to them, glancing around him for observers. They were far back from the street, and the noise from the pub no doubt covered their low conversation. “I’m not very much of a fighter, clearly. But I do have need of...bodies.”

“Bodies?” Owen chortled. “What, living or dead ones?”

“Living, I’m afraid. You understand the need for secrecy. I’m prepared to pay very well.” Warren said this before he knew what he was saying; he had no idea how much paying well would mean for such a service.

The two brothers stayed silent a moment, both of them clearly considering. Simon spoke first. “So you want us to find people for you to kill and turn into golems?”

“Ah...well, yes.”

“And then dispose of the bodies?”

“Well, I do have...something of an arrangement with the Llewan.”

“Gesundheit,” Owen chortled, but Simon glanced at him and repeated the word with a meaningful lift of his eyebrows.

Owen’s lip curled slightly in recognition. “Those grubby Welsh bastards?”

“If you know of a better way to lose a body for good, I’m all ears.”

“It’s sensible,” Simon said before his brother could speak up again. “If there’s a reliable method to leave no trace, then we should use it.” He folded his arms casually and looked over at Owen. “Can’t hurt to be on the good side of the blood-drinking cannibals, can it?”

“S’pose not. All right then.” He turned his attention back to Warren. “What’s the pay, exactly?”

“Well, I—I must admit to having no frame of reference.” Warren decided to ignore the stinging thought that they were negotiating the cost of a human life. It was payment for a service, that was all. “What sort of pay do you expect?”

The brothers exchanged a wordless glance before Simon spoke. “It’s a big risk,” he said, shrugging one shoulder. “Normally this sort of thing is above our pay grade. Are you prepared to move us up a grade, Hayward?”

Warren hesitated. He wasn’t certain he was supposed to be threatened by the question, but he was. The man had a very flat, somber voice that was difficult to read.

“I understand your risk,” Warren answered carefully, “and I’m prepared to be generous if it means safeguarding my business. I’m paying you for your discretion as much as your services.” He paused to consider. He didn’t want to risk offending them—they were likely the only people he was going to find. “Fifty pounds. Fifty pounds per body.”

Owen choked out a laugh, and Simon elbowed him sharply in the side and cleared his throat. “Fifty pounds is fair,” he said, his glowering eyes on his brother. He turned back to Warren and nodded. “We accept.”

“Excellent,” Warren said, breathing a sigh of relief. “How soon can you begin?”

The twins looked at each other again, seeming to communicate without the need for words, and Owen shrugged noncommittally. Simon looked at his new employer with a faint, cold smile.

“How about tonight?”

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