He was leaning against his desk, his fingers tapping at his arms, his eyes never blinking as he stared at her. A part of her hoped that he wouldn’t say anything so she would never have to talk to him again, a bigger part of her just wanted to slap him and scream. He sighed, those Implants flickering a little quicker, his fingers going still.
“If I can’t trust you to keep it together, I won’t be taking you next time,” he said, his voice so quiet. “Look at you,” he shook his head. “I can tell everything you’re thinking just by looking at you. What am I supposed to do with a slave like that? Get it together or I’ll make sure you don’t waste my time again. What?” he asked, his eyebrows rising, those Implants flickering even quicker. “You think I want to spend all my time watching you? You’re here for a reason, Phoenix, you’d better make sure you do your job or I’ll find someone else who can.”
“You-,” Phoenix gasped, but that was all she could get out before her teeth were grinding together. “I did my job,” she said instead. “I took my training seriously, I didn’t try to run away again. You’re the one who didn’t tell me what I was training for.”
“You didn’t need to know,” he said. “It’s not your job to know, it’s your job to listen and I told you you needed to learn how to keep a straight face. Last night was too close. You think I can put a Fighter out there who’s just going to tell everyone everything…? And don’t think this will be a way for you to stay out of the Fights either. I’ll be using you next time, I promise you that, and you’re going to want me to.”
Phoenix’s eyes went wide then, her skin so cold, her stomach burning. She shook her head, her hands clenching into fists, her heart racing.
“I meant what I said,” she said, her voice so quiet. “I’ll do whatever you want, you just have to keep looking for Iris.”
He stared at her for a long while, his eyes never blinking, and then he sat up a little straighter, his fingers tapping at his arms as he let out a sigh.
“If you stopped for one minute,” he said. “And started asking the right questions, you’d find out something very useful to you. Masters usually travel around with their Favourites, Astor goes through them quickly that’s why he didn’t have his with him last night, but the next time I go somewhere or another Master comes here, there’ll be Favourites and I can almost guarantee you there’ll be another Woodlander.” She took a deep breath then, that burning gone, her eyes big and wide. He sighed again, shaking his head and looking away. “Don’t look at me like that, I chose my words carefully, I’m not saying any one of them will be Iris, but that will be a good way to start figuring out who has her. You get it together, Phoenix, you learn, and I mean really learn how to keep a straight face, and I’ll take you with me.”
“As a Favourite?”
“As a Fighter,” he shook his head, and she stared at him a moment, her eyes unblinking, her face so stiff.
“What happens if I lose?”
“That wasn’t the right question to ask.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she shook her head. “I’m going to fight, I just want to know.”
He watched her so closely, his head tilting to the side. “Each Fight is different. It depends on what I agree to.”
“I could die?”
“Astor was going to…?” she started, but then she cut herself off and shook her head.
“He was going to have his slave do it.”
“Hmm…” Phoenix nodded, her eyes flicking down to stare at the carpet, a different kind of burning in her stomach. “If-,” she shook her head, her eyes closing for a moment and then she looked up at him. “If I have any say in it, then not that, I don’t want that,” she said. “I don’t want to die either, but that would be better. I-,” she shook her head again. “As long as our deal isn’t broken by me dying anyway. I’ll do it.”
He didn’t say anything for a long while, his face so blank and slack, those Implants flickering so softly. “You understand it’s not up to you?” he said. “You don’t have a choice in this, Phoenix, if I tell you to fight, you’ll fight.”
“Would me dying break our deal?”
He stared at her before he answered, his voice so quiet when he said, “Master Astor, you’re a slave, you have to call him by his title.”
“If you threw the Fight just to die, then yes,” he said. “If you died fighting for me and fighting your best, then no, I’d still keep my side.”
Her shoulders dropped then, her eyes half-closing as she nodded. “Good,” she said.
“You thought about running away again.”
Her eyes flicked up to him, her back stiff, her mouth so dry. “Of course, I did,” she said. “Iris could be a Fighter, I have to find her.”
She didn’t know what she thought he would say to that, his eyes a little darker, those Implants flickering a little quicker, but it wasn’t what he ended up saying through tight lips.
“I take deals seriously, I’m looking for her.”
“Have you found anything?”
“Can’t you-? Can’t you find sales records or something? There must be some from the auction house or money transfers or-?”
“Do you honestly think that you could think of something I haven’t thought of already?” he asked, his forehead lining in a crease, those Implants flickering a little quicker, but then he sighed, pulling out his chair and sitting down. His fingers flashed across the desk in front of a soft red light, flicking and swiping and typing until a file popped up on the screen. “That’s all there is from the auction house,” he said, and she felt her face go tight.
She took a step closer, her forehead lining in a crease as she read. “That’s nothing,” she said.
“Hmm, slave sales are encrypted.”
“You can’t decipher it?”
“I’m working on it,” he said, leaning back against his chair and staring at the screen. “It’s going to take a while. No one wants slave sale records out there, it’ll ruin the games.”
She stared at him for a long while, almost not asking, but she couldn’t hold it back anymore. “Why?”
“Why they’d ruin them or why I play?”
“You don’t need to know, you just need to help me win.”
“I have a right to know what I’m dying for.”
“You’re dying for Iris,” he said, and that seemed to be it for a while, his eyes fixed on the screen, his fingers tapping at his desk, but then he sighed. “There’s not much to say. The Masters play and I want to be in the same room as a lot of them.”
“What does that mean?” she asked, pointing at a symbol on the screen.
“Hmm,” he nodded. “There were three of you at that auction.”
“Three?” she whispered, shaking her head. “That doesn’t make any sense. We were two, who was the other one?”
“I don’t know, I only went for you.”
“You only have information on lots you bid on?”
“I only stuck around for you,” he shook his head. “I don’t know which one of those you are, you could be any of them.”
“Iris went before me.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “It all depends on when the funds went through.”
“Three…?” Phoenix shook her head. “Were we sold the same night we were caught?”
“That’s usually how it goes.”
“So the third one was also caught the same night…?” she asked, and her mouth went dry. “Was it Ash? Did they catch him too?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you find out?”
“How many deals do you want to make, Phoenix?” he asked, his eyebrows rising. “You only have the one life, how much do you think it’s worth?” he looked at her a long moment, his eyes cold and hard before they flicked away and he sighed. “Was anyone else caught the same night?”
“They got the Rosehips, but I don’t know when. Ash told me right before-,”
“Hmm…” Master Gabriel hummed, those fingers flashing, those Implants flickering. “There were no Woodlander sales during the day, and…” those fingers stopped then, his eyes fixed on the screen as he sat back and watched. She watched too, her skin going cold, her breath catching in her throat. “There are four auctions a day. Chances are he went for you as soon as he found out,” he nodded. “He could’ve made it from his house and out to you in time for you all to be in the same auction.”
“How-?!” she gasped, staring at that map, watching those lines tracking the path she had taken back from that clearing. “How do you have that? How-?!” she shook her head, her hands clenching into fists as she glared at Ash’s house. “I never told you where-,”
“I know everything about you, Phoenix,” he said. “Knowing things is my job.”
“You’re asking the wrong questions,” he cut in, those eyes flicking back to the screens. “The Rosehips were four, so either they all didn’t make it or my calculations are wrong and the Head-hunters caught someone else.”
Phoenix gasped, her face scrunching up in a wince, her hand clutching at her heart. It was so heavy, too heavy with faces and names and now she might have to add another. She felt him watching her, her breath catching in her chest, her hand whipping up to flick away her tears.
“Is that all you’ve got?” she asked, and he looked like he was about to snap at her, his forehead lining in a crease, his eyes so cold and dark, his Implants flickering furiously.
“It took me a long time to get this,” he said, and she gasped again, a short, sharp gasp, and she came closer.
She stared at that file for so long, her eyes never blinking, her heart racing, but finally she crouched down, resting her chin on her arm and rubbing her lips with her other hand. It wasn’t much, but it was a start and it was much closer than she had been in the morning.
“They don’t register people when they bring them into the auction house?” she asked.
“I’m working on getting that.”
She nodded, her eyes flicking back to the screen. “He wasn’t caught before me. If they got there before us, it has to be one of the Rosehips.”
“They could’ve kept the others,” he said. “Six Woodlanders in one auction is bad for business, you’re supposed to be rare.”
Her eyes flicked to him then, a burning in her stomach, her heart so heavy. “So there’s no guarantee one of those is even Iris?” she whispered.
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