“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” he said, leaning back against his chair and folding his arms across his chest. “Each file is individually encrypted and I have to figure out how to decipher every Woodlander sale that was made after the day you were sold… and that’s just the start, it’s a whole different mess to figure out what happened to her after that. It’s been a month now, that means she’ll be passed the first game if she’s a Fighter or she could’ve been traded out of the house already or given as a gift, who knows,” he shook his head.
“You think-?” she started. “You think she’s a Fighter?”
“There’s a chance, but it’s small. She’s young, chances are she’s just a Favourite.”
She closed her eyes then, her face scrunching up in a wince. She wanted to gasp, she wanted to cry, she just wanted to lie down.
“Is it safer to be a Favourite?” she whispered.
“What do you mean by safer, Phoenix?” he tutted. “She won’t be in the Fights if that’s what you mean. If she has a Master that…” he shook his head again, his eyes flicking away to stare at the wall when he saw her watching him. “Every Master is different, most of them treat their Favourites pretty well, but I can’t tell you for certain.”
“What are the chances she’s with one of them?”
“I can’t tell you-,”
“Just give me an idea,” she cut in, and those eyes flicked back to her, those Implants flickering furiously, his face so tight.
“I’m still your Master,” he said, his voice just barely above a whisper. “You’d better learn how to talk to me, Phoenix, or we’ll be done here.”
She stared at him, her heart racing, her mouth dry. She didn’t want him to stop giving her answers, but she didn’t know what to say to keep him doing just that.
“I just want to know,” she whispered, and he sighed again, his eyes flicking back to the screens, his forehead lining in a crease.
“She’s a Woodlander,” he said. “Chances are she’s eating three meals a day and has nothing to do,” he shook his head. “But things could be different if she’s as rude as you are.”
She gasped then, a gasp that was almost a laugh and was almost a sob, and he looked at her, his forehead lining in a crease, the light in his eyes something that she couldn’t place.
“She’s just a kid,” she breathed.
“Seventeen is old enough to be smart.”
She gasped again, her eyes flicking back to the screen, her fingers rubbing at her lips. She was a step closer, a real step, a step she could look at, and she’d keep looking at it all night if he let her, her eyes darting over those symbols over and over again.
“They’re separated into lots?” she asked.
“No, they’re individual sales.”
“Hmm…” she hummed. “You could’ve figured out which one was me by looking for Belfire.”
“Belfire’s there,” he said, reaching a finger up to point at the screen. All that was there was a blank line, his finger tracing along it until it ran into a line of symbols clustered together.
“His price?” she asked and he nodded. “They deleted his name?”
“Everything,” he nodded. “Citizens lose everything when they become Offenders. Those are the rules.”
She stared at him, a part of her not sure why she asked, a bigger part of her wanting to know the answer. “Are you going to use him in the Fights too?”
He looked back at her, his head tilting to the side. “Maybe, I haven’t decided yet. Why, Phoenix, are you going to offer to take his place?”
Her forehead lined in a crease then, her eyes flicking back to the screen. “He’s not mine,” she said.
“Aspen Rosehip wasn’t family, but he still helped you.”
That crease grew deeper, her eyes narrowing into slits as she glared at him. “Aspen had something to spare,” she said.
“He had three other mouths to feed, he didn’t have anything to spare.”
“How would you know?” she asked. “You have no idea what it’s like out there.”
“I can do the maths, Phoenix. He didn’t have to help you or Ash the way he did.”
“He’s the one who taught us,” she shook her head. “Your family always comes first. Iris is my family, no one else matters.”
“That may have been true out there,” he nodded. “But here, I matter, you understand what I’m saying, Phoenix? You think about it however you need to to make yourself care, but from now on, no one should matter to you as much as I do.”
“That’s not going to happen,” she said, her eyes narrowing into slits. “That’s the truth, I’m not going to lie about it. I’ll work with you or for you or whatever, but you’re not family.”
“I didn’t say I was, I said I mattered more.”
“You don’t,” she said. “No one matters more than Iris.”
“Then what’s going to happen if I do find her, hmm? What are you going to do then?” he asked, but she didn’t expect him to laugh. “Ah, there it is,” he said, his head tilting to the side as he watched her. “There’s no running away, Phoenix, how would you do that anyway? It’d be hard enough for you to get out on your own, what are you going to do with the two of you? And you don’t even know where you are, how would you even know which way to run?” he shook his head, folding his arms across his chest. “You’ve been asking the wrong questions all this time,” he said. “The question is if I’ll still need you if I find her.”
She stared at him a moment, her eyes unblinking, and then she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “If you don’t need me, then you’ll need her and you’ll keep her safe.”
“Someone good at making deals would offer to do whatever I wanted to keep you both safe,” he said, and she nodded, her eyes flicking back to the screens.
“I’m not good at making deals, not like that anyway,” she said. “You could set her free, I’d still do whatever you wanted and she’d be safe,” she shrugged. “Then you wouldn’t have to worry about us running away.”
He laughed, shaking his head and pushing his chair back so he could cross his legs. “You really are bad at this, even when I spell it out for you. You’re never getting out of here, Phoenix, either of you, even if I find her. Where would you go? You can’t go back. If that wasn’t Ash, you’d just be leading the Head-hunters straight to him and the girls. The only future either of you will have will be here, so I’ll agree to keep her safe if you agree to keep doing what I need you to if I find her.”
“You’ll keep her out of the Fights?”
“Even if I die?”
He stared at her, his eyes never blinking when he said, “I take deals seriously. You die in a Fight, an honest Fight, and I won’t blame you for it. There are better slaves out there, better Trainers,” he nodded. “There’s no shame in losing to one of them.”
“And you won’t use her in the Fights if I die in one.”
“She’s small, Phoenix, and pretty weak by the looks of it. I don’t need a Fighter like that.”
She looked back at the screen then, her face scrunching up in a wince, her eyes suddenly so heavy. She just wanted to know, she just needed to know what Iris was and if she’d ended up in the same place Phoenix had the night before. He tutted, his eyes flicking away to stare at the wall, his arms folded across his chest.
“Did you ever stop to think about whether you’ve done enough for her already?” he asked. “You’re on your own now, you should be more worried about surviving.”
“I was always on my own,” she said. “You said there were four auctions a day, did you see anyone coming and going? Maybe they also left after buying her.”
“You’re not getting this,” he shook his head. “I have no idea who was at that auction, everything is kept a secret, everything. I didn’t see another Master, I didn’t meet anyone, I wasn’t even there, I watched from here,” he nodded at his screen.
“So it was broadcasted?” she asked, her eyes going wide, her heart lifting. “You could find their addresses from the-,”
“I watched from here,” he cut in. “What’s to say it wasn’t a Master who was there that bought her?” She shook her head, her face so tight, her eyes so heavy, and he sighed again. “Astor was at that auction, that much I know, and he’d have the funds to buy one. There’s a small chance he did.”
She looked up at him then, her heart beating a little quicker, her mouth going dry. “You think he did?”
“I don’t know,” he shook his head. “And it’ll take me a while to find out. He’s from a rich family, Phoenix, and an old one. There’s a lot of security around his house.”
“He said his cousin has younger… Maybe he-,”
“He has a lot of cousins,” he cut in, and then he sighed, rolling his chair closer to his desk and flicking his fingers across that red light. She watched a group of faces pop up on the screen, all of them wearing white, not all of them men. “I have an idea which one he was talking about,” he nodded. “But getting to him is going to be difficult, you’re going to have to be patient.”
She felt her voice go tight, her voice a little strained when she asked, “How long?”
“A while, Phoenix, longer than you think.”
She shook her head, her heart racing, her stomach burning. “Let me help, how can I help? I can go through files and-,”
“I don’t need you anywhere near my tech.”
She stared at him, her eyes so cold and sharp, that burning growing. “I know what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m not-,”
“You have no idea,” he shook his head. “You think because you could outsmart the Head-hunters, you can handle this?” he nodded towards his computer. “Head-hunters only have access to the worst technology to make sure people like you don’t get their hands on too much…” he looked at her then, his face going stiff, his arms folding across his chest. “You’re good, Phoenix, but not good enough and you need to spend your time doing something useful.”
“How is this not useful?”
“Did you see any computers in that Fight, hmm? You can’t-,”
“I’m not an idiot,” she cut in, her eyes narrowing into thin slits. “I can figure out how to-,”
“I never said you were,” he said. “Far from it, you built that Radar with what you had, an idiot wouldn’t have been able to do that,” he shook his head. “But that’s not your job anymore, your job is to be useful to me… You think she’s looking for you like this, Phoenix? You think she’s making deals and-?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, her voice so soft and quiet. “She’s mine, I have to protect her.”
“Who protected you?”
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