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She didn’t know why he smiled or why he continued to smile when they were paired together for training, but she wasn’t close to smiling. He was a lot harder to keep up with, with her stomach still burning and his blows much stronger than Mia’s, but he didn’t smile for much longer either, soon he was panting, his chest heaving, the colour draining from those sun-kissed cheeks. He looked like he was about to say something, his forehead lining in a crease, his head shaking side to side, when Emery came close.

“Follow me,” he said. “And bring those,” he nodded at their swords.

Phoenix looked at Belfire, his eyes fixed on Emery’s back and then he gave a quick shrug, and Phoenix followed him, barely blinking, her boots making no sound at all on the stone floor. Emery led them to a room, an empty room, with pale red walls, no door, only an open doorway, but she didn’t expect to see the Master there, leaning up against one of those walls, and tapping his fingers against his arm. She felt Belfire go stiff, her eyes flicking to him to watch him closely, but he only frowned, the light in his eyes clear, his hands not shaking, and then the Master tutted and Emery jerked his head towards the middle of the room.

“Fight,” he said, and Phoenix wasn’t sure what to think then.

She couldn’t tell what Belfire was thinking either with his face so stiff and blank, but he took a few steps in, calling her over with a slight jerk of his head and raising his shield. She didn’t want to fight him, not in there, not with them watching, but she didn’t know what else to do. He swung for her, her stomach burning when she had to take a quick step back to block his blow, her teeth grinding together. His eyes went wide when she swung back quickly, his shield a little clumsy as he lifted it just in time to block her, and she did not know if that was a good thing, she did not know if she should be happy that she might beat him or not, but she gasped when he swung back, his blow so strong it set her skin on fire and had her seeing that white light.

“Enough,” the Master said, and Phoenix almost sighed, her shield and her sword hanging limply at her sides, her chest heaving.

The Master stepped up close, his eyes never blinking, those Implants flickering as he studied Belfire, and Belfire went so stiff, his lips a thin, tight line, his eyes staring over the Master’s shoulders, but then the Master tutted again, a short, quick, tut, his eyes flicking to her. How long had it been since she’d been this close to him? She couldn’t say, and she did not know if she ever wanted to be again, but he turned then, his back to Belfire, his arms folding across his chest as he studied her.

“I agree,” was all he said, those dark eyes on Emery, and then his hands dropped, his boots heavy on the stone floor as he started to walk away. She almost called after him, she wanted to, she wanted to know what he was doing and if he was looking for Iris, but he turned, those eyes so cold and sharp, those Implants flickering furiously.

“You’re still no better,” he said, and her blood ran cold. “Look at him,” he said, his head nodding towards Belfire. “You have any idea what he’s thinking right now?” he tutted again. “You have to hide your thoughts or I won’t be able to use you for anything.”

She watched the Master so closely, not knowing what to say, not knowing what there was to say, so she only nodded, but she didn’t expect Belfire to say, “Her name is Phoenix, you should try using it.”

Those cold eyes narrowed, those Implants flickering so quickly as he turned around and stared at Belfire.

“Not now,” he said. “I’m not in the mood. If you’re bored, you can work with this one here,” he said, jerking his head towards her.

“Phoenix,” Belfire corrected, and the Master came in close, his face inches from Belfire’s, his eyes half-closing.

“If you’re looking for a hill to die on, Belfire, I’ll find you one. Don’t test me again… Make sure they have everything they need, Emery.”

“Yes, Master,” Emery bowed.

“What did you do that for?” she hissed when they were back in the yard.

“What?” he asked.

“Why did-?” she cut herself off, shaking her head. “You’re going to get the rod.”

“I’m trying to figure him out, Phe, you can’t know someone unless you test them.”

She stood up straight then, her eyes unblinking as she stared at him. “You think that’s what that was?” she asked.

“I don’t know, probably. I don’t know for what though… But he is right, Phe, you have to learn to hide things. I’ve seen Masters kill for less.”

She stared at him for a long moment, but then she shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

He laughed then, a short, little laugh that came out of his nose. “You haven’t spent a lot of time around other people, huh?” he asked, but he didn’t wait for her to answer. “You done any trading?”


“It’s like trading, but you want something someone else has and you don’t have what they’re asking for it,” he nodded.

“So I steal it,” she said.

“No, you can’t steal it,” he shook his head. “You have to hide that you want it… or even make them believe that you don’t want it so they’ll trade it for cheaper.”

“You want me to lie?”

“It’s kind of like lying,” he nodded. “Think of it this way. The Masters want to know about each other, always,” he added. “The easiest way to do that is through slaves, so they’ll be watching you. What do you think will happen to him if you don’t like another Master and you show it? They could call him out for it or gang up on him or whatever,” he shook his head. “I’ve seen it happen. It’s all a game to them, but it’s people like us who get caught in the middle. You have to be smart,” he said. “Keep your thoughts to yourself and be careful who you share them with…” he shook his head again then, his eyes flicking up to the balcony. “Whatever we’re doing here has something to do with the other Masters,” he said. “I’m sure of that, and it has something to do with this,” he said, looking down at his sword and shield.

“Cassie had a real one,” she said, her voice so soft and quiet, and then he nodded, his eyes flicking back to her.

“If we have a choice, let me go first,” he said. “Then we can figure out what to do with Mia and Boris.”

“Why?” she asked. “You have no idea what’s going to happen, Belfire, what if you die?”

“That’s alright,” he said. “The important thing is my life means something, Phe, it doesn’t have to mean much,” he shrugged. “I’ll take what I can get, it beats just dying in The Mines…” he looked at her then, that smile back on his face. “We don’t have many choices left, but this one’s mine,” he nodded. “Let me have it.”

“You’re not choosing, Belfire, you’re just accepting.”

“Maybe a little,” he said. “But it’s still my choice.”

She did not argue with him again, but he did not look happy when he stood there waiting with the others outside the washroom that night. Phoenix knew why, her normal training leathers weren’t waiting for her outside the pod and neither were her boots. All there had been was a plain pair of black leggings and a sleeveless vest. He was wearing the same things, all of them were, only Emery wearing what he usually did.

“This way,” Emery said, and her eyes flicked around to the others. Belfire looked too, his eyes lingering on Mia, before he gave his head a quick jerk and started walking.

Before long they were in a dimly lit room, standing on a large, white step, thick and long and smooth, nothing like Phoenix had ever seen before. There were two stone chairs facing it, littered with soft pillows, but all she could look at were those fingers, thrumming on top of the arm. He stared at them, his eyes never blinking, his head tilting to the side as he crossed his legs, and another man in a white robe sat in that other chair, a smile on his face, as he leaned closer to look at them.

“You bought such an unusual lot this time, Gabriel,” he said. “Why’d you waste all that money when you could’ve just bought the good ones?”

Those hands reached then, clasping together in front of his face and tapping the tips of his fingers against his lips.

“You’re worried about how I spend my money, Astor?”

“Of course, I am,” he laughed, turning and nodding at Master Gabriel. “I can’t get back what’s mine if you run out before I win again.”

“I have plenty left, don’t worry.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” that man smiled, getting to his feet and climbing the steps up to them. He walked behind her, his breath hot on her skin and making her forehead line in a crease. “How much did you pay for her in the end?” he asked.

“Why would I tell you that?”

“Come on,” Master Astor said, his face so close to her ear it made her heart race. “Just a clue.”

“Are you here to play, Astor, or just to play games?”

Master Astor laughed, stepping out in front of her and shaking his head. “You have to learn to enjoy these things, Gabriel, the others don’t like to be rushed.”

“I’m not in a rush, Astor, is she your pick?”

Phoenix’s eyes flicked to Master Gabriel then, watching those dark ones stare at Astor in front of her, those Implants flickering so softly, so gently.

“No one wants to see that,” Astor said. “Although, I wouldn’t put it past you to waste a perfectly good Woodlander like this… Maybe I should pick her just to teach you a lesson.”

Master Gabriel tilted his head, his eyes never blinking, his fingers going still. “Is she your pick?” he asked again.

“What if she was, Gabriel, would you agree?”

“I know the rules, Astor,” he said.

“Do you?” Master Astor asked, his head tilting to the side. “The others aren’t as nice as me, they’d pick her just to mess with you.”

“You’re assuming she’d lose.”


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