Phoenix could still feel that thumb digging. She turned her hand, staring at that bruise as the three of them walked back down the corridor. What had just happened? She wasn’t even sure, she wasn’t sure she’d ever be. She heard the sound of a boot scraping on stone then, her eyes flicking up to see Cassie leaning against the wall just before their corridor, her eyes darting between them, her arms folded across her chest, and then Cassie tutted, shaking her head and looking away.
“We lost?” she asked, her voice stiff and tight.
“Yes,” Belfire whispered.
“What’d he take?” she asked.
Cassie’s eyes flicked back then, her forehead lining in a crease. “It was Master Astor?” she asked, and Belfire nodded. “He took the money…?” she shook her head, standing up straight and sighing. “It doesn’t matter. There’s no more losing, you understand?”
“He wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t starved him,” Belfire said, his hands clenching into fists.
“Maybe not, but I doubt that,” Cassie shook her head. “He lost for a reason. He’ll have to get better, you’ll all have to get better.”
“There’s going to be more?” Phoenix asked.
“Of course, there’s going to be more,” Cassie said. “You’re Fighters, that’s what you do.”
“How-?!” Belfire gasped, but that was all he seemed able to get out before he was shaking his head.
“Don’t start, Belfire,” Cassie warned. “You think you’re the only ones who’ve been through it. It’s done, it’s over, learn from it and move on.”
“You think-?” Belfire started.
“Do Favourites fight?” Phoenix cut in, and he went quiet, his shoulders dropping as he stared at Cassie.
“No,” Cassie shook her head. “I only keep training because the Master likes it. I… I was a Fighter, but I did well and I’m not anymore.”
“Do-?” Phoenix gasped, her voice catching in her throat, but she knew she had to ask it. “Do Woodlanders fight?”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself, Phoenix,” Cassie shook her head. “You’re a Fighter right now, that’s all-,”
“Just answer the question,” Phoenix cut in. “You ever seen a Woodlander fight?”
“Sure,” Cassie said. “You have to be ready.”
“How many?” Phoenix shook her head. “How many did you see fight?”
Cassie stared at her, her eyes unblinking, her forehead lining in a crease. “A few,” she said. “It’s… They’re expensive, usually Masters only use them if they’re really good or getting old.”
Phoenix gasped then, she couldn’t help it, her eyes closing shut, her face scrunching up in a wince. She heard Belfire sigh, but she couldn’t look at him, she couldn’t even open her eyes. Phoenix shook her head, not knowing what she could say, not knowing what there was to after hearing all that, and then she heard Cassie tut, a sharp, cold tut.
“Get it together,” she warned. “You won’t be any good if you’re scared.”
Phoenix opened her eyes then, that wince still on her face, her eyes so heavy.
“It’s not that, Cassie, forget it,” Belfire said.
“What-?” Phoenix started, but then she could only whisper. “What else do they fight for? What-? What can they do to the losers?”
Cassie kept staring at her, her hand on her hip, and then her eyes flicked to Belfire. “It’s different,” she nodded. “It depends on the Fight and the Masters.”
“They said there were rules,” Belfire said.
“Of course, there are rules,” Cassie tutted. “Listen, I’m not going to explain them now, that’s not my job anyway,” she shook her head. “My job is to keep you in line and that’s what I’m doing. You get better, all of you, or next time it could be you, you understand?”
Phoenix watched her go, wanting to ask her to stay, wanting to never talk to anyone again, and then she shook her head, walking to her own room and closing the door behind her. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry, she wanted someone to pay, but she didn’t know whom.
“Phoenix?” he said, his voice so soft and quiet as he opened her door.
She leaned against the wall, her eyes flicking to him, her forehead lining in a crease. “What if she’s not a Favourite?” she whispered, and he sighed, taking a step inside and closing the door behind him.
“She probably is,” he said.
“What if she isn’t?”
He nodded, leaning against the door and sighing again. “What’s she like?” he asked.
“She’s-,” she gasped. “She’s just a kid.”
“I know that, Phe, but she looked strong when I saw her.”
“She-!” she shook her head. “She’s not strong, not like that.”
“She survived out there with you,” he said. “She’s not helpless or useless, have a little faith.”
“I-,” she gasped. “I can’t, Belfire, I can’t, I have to find her. She can’t go through that, she can’t. She’s just a kid! Why-?!” she shook her head and she wasn’t ready for him to hold her, her face pressed to his shoulder, her eyes so heavy, her hands shaking. “Why are they doing this?” she whispered.
“I don’t know,” he said, his voice so soft and quiet, his breath warm on her skin. “I don’t know, but we’ll find out… But what Cassie said is true, she would’ve been expensive. It doesn’t make any sense for a Master to put her in a Fight like that, not unless she could win.”
“I was out there,” she said, pulling away and shaking her head. “He would’ve said yes if Astor had picked me, you saw him.”
He stared at her for a moment before he nodded his head. “We don’t know that,” he said. “Not for sure, anyway, and I’m not,” he shook his head, his hand coming up the rub at the back of his head. “He’s weird, Phe, I haven’t been able to figure him out yet.”
“What’s there to figure out?” she shook her head. “I-,” she cut herself off, her face going tight, her eyes half-closing.
She had her answer, she’d had it all along, she’d just let herself be fooled. She shouldn’t have trusted him or his word or his deal, that much was clear and now she had wasted so much time. She had to find a way to get out of here, she had to find Iris and she had to make sure she was safe. She shook her head, her face scrunching up in a scowl and she heard him sigh. Her eyes flicked to him then, that burning back in her stomach, her chest heaving. He looked like he was about to say something, his hand rubbing the back of his head, that light in his eyes so soft, but then there was a flash of red and he went stiff. He looked at his wristband, the colour draining from his cheeks, his forehead lining in a crease.
“I have to go,” he whispered. “I’ll-, I’ll ask him about her, maybe he’ll tell me something.” Phoenix doubted that, but she did not say anything when he sighed again and opened her door. “I-,” he shook his head. “You going to be OK?”
She stared at him, her face scrunched up in a scowl, her eyes narrowing into slits. Why was he asking? What did it matter, it wasn’t like he could do anything about it anyway, so she nodded, a quick, curt, little nod, her mouth going dry when he sighed again.
“I’ll ask, Phe, I promise,” he said, his voice just barely above a whisper.
She nodded again, sighing as she looked away and headed to her bunk, and she heard the door click shut behind him, her eyes flicking up to look at her light. She had to figure it out, she had to find out how he’d known what she was doing and what else he had around this place that was keeping her here, and then she had to get out.
A part of her was heavier the next day when Belfire didn’t come out of his room and heavier still when Boris didn’t either. Neither of them were in there and Phoenix could feel Mia staring at her as she closed Boris’ door. Phoenix almost sighed, she almost snapped at her, but all she did was turn around and start walking down the corridor towards the canteen. She could hear Mia behind her, her boots too loud for someone that size, her breathing too heavy.
“Do-?” the girl started, but she stopped when Phoenix’s eyes flicked to her. “Do you think he’ll make me fight?” she whispered, her hand clutching at the front of her shirt.
“There’s a chance.”
“But-!” Mia shook her head. “I won’t win.”
Phoenix didn’t think so either, but she did not know what to say. If Mia had been a friend, she would’ve told her to be stronger, but what was she really? They’d been sold in the same lot, that was all that tied them together, nothing but luck and bad luck at that. Her eyes flicked away, her boots a little quicker as she headed towards the canteen.
“Will you-?” Mia started. “Will you train with me today, Phoenix, please! I-, I don’t want to lose.”
Phoenix stared at her, watching her shake, watching those tears in her eyes, and she had her answer. Phoenix had to win too, she had to to make sure she stayed alive long enough to find Iris and Mia couldn’t help her do that.
“I don’t pick who I train with,” she said.
“We could ask Emery,” Mia nodded. “Please, Phoenix, he’s paired me with Bolt, he’s just a kid. I won’t-, I won’t get better fighting him.”
“You won’t get better fighting Phoenix either,” Cassie said then, her eyes narrowing into slits as she stared at Mia. “Get going, Mia, you’re paired with who you’re supposed to be paired with.” Mia stared up at her, her eyes big and wide, her hand still clutching at the front of her shirt, and then Cassie sighed, shaking her and jerking her chin towards the canteen. “Go on,” she said. “I need to talk to Phoenix.” Phoenix watched Mia go, hearing Cassie let out a long breath through her nose. “You have to get better, Phoenix, you can’t be scared like you were last night.”
Phoenix turned to her, almost wanting to tell her what she had been scared about, but she only shook her head. “Pair me with someone good.”
“It’s not who you’re paired with that’s the problem,” Cassie shook her head. “You realise that, right? You need to focus more.”
“I am focused.”
“No, you’re not,” Cassie shook her head. “And you need to spend less time with them,” she nodded back towards the canteen. “You made it through your first month, now you’re just a regular Fighter. Stick with me and Lyca, we can teach you more.”
“My first month?”
“That’s what last night was,” Cassie nodded. “We all go through it. It’s… It’s like a game,” she shook her head. “When two Masters buy a lot from the same auction they can play against each other. It’s something like a test to see who can train slaves better… That’s why it’s important that we win. It looks bad for the Master if we don’t.”
“Then you should’ve fed them,” Phoenix said, her eyes narrowing into slits.
“Don’t try to teach me how to do my job, Phoenix, I don’t need your help.”
Phoenix gritted her teeth, her forehead lining in a crease as she stared at Cassie. She wanted to say so much, she wanted to say nothing at all and never have to talk to Cassie again, but still she found herself asking, “How do I become a Favourite?”
Cassie stared at her for a long while, her hand on her hip, but then she nodded a soft nod. “He has to choose you,” she said. “And you have to earn it… I was his best Fighter for a long time and I won a lot of Tournaments. He made me his Favourite when he retired me.”
“So I have to fight?”
“Maybe,” Cassie said. “That’s what I did, but I’m not a Woodlander. Things will be different for you, but I can only tell you what I did.”
“What about the Favourite before you?”
“I don’t know,” Cassie shook her head, her voice a little tight and strained. “I never really talked to her. He sent her to The Mines when she did something.”
Phoenix stared at her, her eyes unblinking, her face stiff. “Is that what he does? Does he just send us to The Mines when he’s done?”
“No,” Cassie shook her head, letting out a short breath that was almost like a laugh. “He sends you there if you’re not useful anymore… or if you made a deal with him and you break it. It’s pretty simple like that.”
“Does he-?” Phoenix started, but that was all she could get out before she was shaking her head.
“You made a deal with him?” Cassie asked, and it took Phoenix a moment to nod. Cassie sighed, her eyes flicking to stare at the wall, her face a little grim. “He’ll keep his side,” she said. “But you should’ve been training harder. You could’ve done better and he’ll know that. You don’t want to make him mad, Phoenix, and you don’t want him to think that you’re not taking your side seriously. He asked you just to focus on your training or did he add anything else?”
“He said a few things.”
“Hmm…” Cassie hummed. “You have to be careful, you have to do everything he says exactly how he said it. He doesn’t like people who break deals or liars, Phoenix, and he’ll know if you’re lying, trust me.”
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