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All she ever seemed to see were three hungry faces, always pale, always tired, always grim. This was too far, she knew that. If she’d seen them in The Forests, she would’ve known their time was up, but there was food right there, they just had to be strong enough to get it and there was nothing Phoenix could do to help them with that, nothing, not without giving more than she could spare. Belfire slammed his fist down into the table, so suddenly, so loudly he made Mia jump and he turned, pointing his finger across the canteen at Cassie, his eyes burning, his shoulders raised up high.

“Enough,” he said. “Enough, Cassie, I’ve had it. It’s over, you feed us right now.”

Phoenix did not expect Cassie to smile, to tilt her head to the side and watch him over her big pot of porridge. “You just earned yourself another week, Belfire,” she said, but Belfire slammed his fist down again, his face a deep, tight scowl, those eyes burning brighter.

“You feed us right now or I’m never eating again,” he said.

“Good,” Cassie said. “Someone like you-,”

“I’m here,” Belfire cut in. “Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing I’m here, I’m not in The Mines,” he pointed his finger at her. “I’m in the same place as you are, so tell me what that means, hmm, Cassie?” Phoenix did not expect Cassie to go so still, her eyes going cold and dark, her lips a thin, tight line. “I’ll never eat again,” Belfire said. “I don’t care, what do I have to lose? There’s no life left out there for me anyway,” he shook his head. “But something tells me you’ll lose something if the Master loses a slave because of you.”

“You’re an Offender, Belfire,” Cassie said. “You’re nothing, you-,”

“I was in the same lot as a Woodlander,” Belfire nodded. “Whatever he paid for me, I bet it was three times more than what he paid for you. Do you want to find out? I’m willing to risk it, come on,” he said, getting to his feet. “Let’s go. Go get your sword, I won’t even fight you, just kill me.”

Cassie’s face went so tight then, her cheeks burning, her eyes blazing. “Sit down,” she warned.

“I mean it,” Belfire said. “I’ll never-,”

“Line up,” said a voice, and Phoenix saw Cassie’s cheeks pale.

So quickly Cassie jerked her head towards the sand, but she didn’t need to. The other slaves were already running, lining up in the yard with their hands clasped behind their backs, and Phoenix stepped into line beside Belfire, his chest heaving, his body so warm she could feel it over the sun beating down her back. It took so long for the Master to speak again, his fingers thrumming against the top of that stone bannister, those dark eyes so cold as he stared down at them.

“You have one job, Cassie, why am I out here doing it for you?” he asked, his voice just barely above a whisper.

“It won’t happen again, Master,” Cassie said, her head bowed, her face tight, and he tutted, a sharp, crisp tut, his forehead lining in a crease. He did not look anything like that man who had smiled when talking about his computer, his face then only sharp, those eyes like hot smouldering coals.

“I don’t like people who make assumptions, especially not slaves,” he said, and he threw something then, something with a glint to it as it fell to the sand. Phoenix saw that knife, only something small, but sharp enough by the looks of it, and Belfire looked up at him, his face so tight, his eyes so narrow. “Pick it up,” the Master said. “You can use your sword, Cassie, I’ve kept it sharp for you.”

Phoenix watched one of those slaves in a pastel robe step out from the corridors, a bundle of thick, red velvet in his hands, and he flipped one end open, pointing the hilt at Cassie and she unsheathed it, the metal ringing in the air as she whipped it around. Phoenix watched her smile, her head tilting to the side, her eyes fixed on Belfire, and the others in the line took a few steps back. Phoenix didn’t know what to do then, her eyes darting to Belfire, to Cassie and then up to him, but then she took a step back too, knowing this wasn’t her fight and Belfire had to be stronger, but she did not expect him to kick that knife away, shaking his head and looking up at the Master.

“I said I wouldn’t fight and I meant it,” he said. “Cassie can just-,”

“Cassie does whatever I tell her to, just like you should,” the Master cut in, his eyes narrowing. “What you say or what you think doesn’t matter anymore, Belfire, you should know that by now… Perhaps I need to teach you a lesson too.”

Phoenix’s blood ran cold, her skin tight, her eyes going wide as she stared up at him, and then her eyes flicked back to Belfire, a part of her wanting to shout and warn him about what was waiting for him, but he had to know already after seeing her bruise. The Master tutted again, that crease growing deeper.

“Put your sword away, Cassie,” he said. “You feed the others. Jameson, bring him here.”

Phoenix shook her head then, watching the Master disappear back into his room and hearing Cassie sheathe her sword. Belfire was going to get the rod, that much she knew, that much was certain, and he had to know what was coming for him, he had to be ready so she shook her head again, clearing her throat and watching him climb the steps up to the canteen.

“Belfire,” she called, her voice so strained and tight, her head shaking again, and he turned to look at her, those eyes never blinking, his eyebrows raised. “Only the strong get to eat,” she said.

He stared at her a moment, his forehead lining in a slight crease, before he nodded, a slow, small nod, and she almost sighed. She just hoped that he would listen, she just hoped that he was ready and stronger than she had been, but he was not back by dinner, when Phoenix’s mind was still racing with the sound of that crackle. Had he been hearing it all this time too? Could someone last that long against the rod? She wasn’t sure, her heart sinking a little further when she knocked on his door and opened it. He wasn’t there either and he still wasn’t there the next morning. Surely he hadn’t gotten it all night, just what was the Master doing to him?

Her heart was so quick as she sat at that table with the other two, her ears straining to hear something, anything, from that balcony all day. Maybe he had just passed out like she had, maybe he did well and the Master was letting him sleep it off. Her mouth was dry again when she knocked on his door that night, drier still when she heard someone move behind it.

“Belfire?” she asked, opening his door, and she found him in his bunk, his back turned, his shoulders so stiff, his arms tight around him.

“Go away,” he whispered, and she almost did then, a part of her not wanting to see that bruise, a part of her knowing that she still had a debt to pay.

“You hurt?” she asked, and he shook his head, his hand gripping his arm so tight she saw his knuckles go white, and she cleared her throat, not knowing what to say, not knowing what there was left to. “You get something to eat?”

“Go away.”

She stared at him a long while, remembering that pain, still feeling it herself, and she nodded, taking a step into the room and closing the door behind her. She gritted her teeth, holding her breath as she sat down in front of it. The floor was hard, that door behind her cold, but she’d slept in worse places than that, and she nodded again, resting her head back and closing her eyes. She was not sure what she could do for him when she was not that much better herself, but she could spare him something, that much she knew.

“What are you doing?”

“She fed the others,” she said, and she heard him take a quick breath.

“Just go away,” he whispered.

“Just wake me if you need anything,” she nodded, but he didn’t, and he hadn’t by the time that alarm rang.

He woke gasping, his face slack and pale, his eyes wide as he span around and pressed his back to the wall. He was shaking, his hands trembling, his eyes so big and wide and wet with tears, and she remembered that pain, nodding to herself and getting to her feet, and then she reached for his boots, kneeling in front of his bunk, but he only shook his head.

“No, go away,” he said, his voice so tight and strained.

“Are you excused from training?”

“Go away, Phoenix, I mean it.”

“Do you have to train today?” she asked, and he nodded. She nodded too, holding his boot out closer to him, but he went even paler, his eyes closing tight, his whole body shaking.

“Don’t-!” he gasped, and she saw those cuts on his wrist from where he had been fighting his bands, and her mouth went dry then, seeing the ones on her own, and she nodded again.

“Stomach?” she asked.

“Go away, Phoenix, please,” he said.

“Say that one more time and I will,” she warned. “I’m here to help, Belfire, if you want my help that is, but I won’t force it on you.”

“He-!” he shook his head. “He said you would say that,” he whispered. “I can’t, Phoenix, I’m done, I can’t.”

She stared at him, her forehead lining in a crease. “What else did he say?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he shook his head. “Just go, Phoenix, please.”

“You learned something?”

“Nothing new.”

“What do you think? You think we can trust him?”

“No!” he gasped. “He’s a Master, you can’t trust a Master.”

Phoenix stared at him again, watching him shake and tremble. “I made a deal with him,” she said. “You think he’ll keep it?” she asked, but she did not expect him to go so stiff, his eyes closing, his face scrunching up in a wince, and she did not expect him to nod. “Why?”

“I think-!” he started, but then he shook his head. “I did too,” he whispered, and that wasn’t what she’d wanted to hear, but it would do for now so she nodded, grabbing his leg and trying to slip on his boot. “Don’t-!” he gasped, his eyes flicking open, the colour draining from his cheeks. “Don’t touch me!”

She watched him so closely, her eyes lingering on his face before she nodded again and she stood. She took a few steps back, her eyes never blinking, his seemingly staring straight through the wall.

“Your boots are there,” she nodded just beside him.

“Just-!” he shook his head. “Just give me a second,” he closed his eyes, his chest heaving, his face scrunched up in a wince. “I can do it,” he whispered. “I just need a second.”

“Where did he get you, on the stomach?” she asked.

“I’m not hurt,” he shook his head again, his voice just barely above a whisper, and she was not sure if she believed him, but she wasn’t going to fight to find out.

He was being strong, stronger than she had been, and she nodded when she watched him pull on his boots. That was good, if he kept that up, she couldn’t see why he wouldn’t survive whatever this place would throw at him, and she needed to be like that too. He was stronger still when they took to the sand, his eyes clear, his body not shaking, and she nodded again, biting through that burning in her muscles and swinging her sword for Mia, but she did not expect to hear that scream, a dark, twisted scream. When she turned, she saw him on top of Boris, those eyes so distant and wet, his fists pounding into Boris’ face, and Boris did not look like he could fight back, his hands raised and only blocking a few of those blows, and then she saw Belfire shaking, those fists growing weaker, that bright light in his eyes fading.

“Belfire!” Emery snapped, but Belfire didn’t seem to hear as he screamed again, a scream that was more like a growl, his fists harder and faster against Boris’ face.

“Belfire?” Phoenix called, but she did not expect him to turn. He was staring straight through her, that finger pointing at her shaking, his face scrunching up in a scowl.

“This is all your fault,” he said, and she could only look at him.

She did not expect him to charge for her either, her eyes going wide, her head shaking as she took a step back, but she had not heard Mia creep up behind her, their boots tangling and Phoenix falling to the sand. Belfire was on top of her then, his whole body shaking, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Belfire?” she asked, but he did not seem to hear.

Her stomach burned, inside and out, her breath catching in her chest as she stared up at him and tried to breathe. His knee was on the inside of her shield, his fist was raised and heading straight for her and she just about blocked it with her arm, her muscles straining and burning even more.

“I told you to leave me alone,” he said, but his eyes were staring straight through her.

“Belfire,” said a voice, so soft it was barely above a whisper, and his eyes went wide, his whole body shaking and trembling as he looked up at the balcony.


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