Cassie didn’t say anything the next day, her eyes fixed on that big pot in front of her when it was Phoenix’s turn, her face so blank and stiff, but by the third day, when Phoenix could breathe and walk a little better, she didn’t let that bowl go, her eyes flicking up to Phoenix her voice so quiet when she said, “The Master’s having a Gathering in a few days. You’d better get it together.”
Phoenix took her bowl, nodding a slow nod, wanting to ask questions, but not sure which ones. “He’s going to use me?”
“What do I know, Phoenix?” Cassie tutted. “There’s a chance so you’d better not go looking like that,” she nodded towards her. “At least learn how to hide it.”
Phoenix stared at her, nodding again, her eyes flicking down to stare at the bowl in her hand. “It’s a Fight?”
“I don’t know, I don’t think so,” Cassie said, her face scrunching up in a frown. “It’s a Gathering, but anything’s possible. The Master’s get offended and we fight, remember that,” she said, her eyes narrowing into slits. “And get better.”
Phoenix tried to be and she was a little better, that burning not as bright a few days later, but it was still there, her back and shoulders so stiff, her face always scrunched up in a wince. She closed her door behind her, her teeth grinding together, that wince growing deeper, but then she saw that flask on her pillow. She stared at it a moment, almost not believing what she was seeing and waiting for the trick, but then she picked it up, twisting the lid and seeing that oil inside, and her shoulders dropped, her chest heaving, her mouth so dry. Could she use it now? Should she wait until she was sure it was time and use it when she needed it the most?
She lifted her shirt to check her bruise, her head rolling, her eyes closing as she sank to her bed and she was still lying there when he came in, his forehead lining in a crease, his eyes shining bright as she clasped that flask in her hand, not knowing what she should do or if she should tell him that she had it.
“Did your alarm ring?” Belfire asked, his voice so soft and quiet, and her forehead lined in a crease.
“It’s morning?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, closing the door behind him and sitting beside her on her bunk. He almost looked like he wasn’t going to say anything else, his face so grim and tight as he rubbed his chin, but then he sighed, yanking that flask from her hand and jerking his chin. “Let me see.”
“Give it back,” she said, but he sighed again, stretching his neck and making it click.
“Just let me help, Phe.” He wasn’t waiting for an answer, already yanking the lid off with his teeth and pouring that oil on his fingers.
She sighed, lifting her shirt, that crease on her forehead even deeper when she asked, “You think the Gathering’s today?”
“Only one way to find out,” he said, his eyes so cold and dark as he stared at her bruise, but his hand was so warm, warm and a little rough from training, making something in her stomach burn and shiver the longer she felt him on her skin. She had to look away, not knowing why her skin was on fire or her heart was racing and she cleared her throat.
“You look tired,” she said, her voice so soft and quiet.
“He kept me pretty late,” he nodded, but his voice was only a whisper when he said, “Sometimes it’s like he’s in your head.”
Her eyes flicked back to him and she didn’t like that light in his eyes or how low his shoulders were as she cleared her throat again, feeling that crease in her forehead growing deeper and her mouth go dry.
“He probably is,” she said. “He knows stuff about me that I…” she cut herself off, giving her head a quick shake and then she sat up. “We can’t fight it, it’s already done, you understand? He’s already got everything he wants from us,” she said, but she hadn’t expected his eyes to go so dark, so dark and cold and somehow shining so bright.
“How can you say that? Just because he’s a Master doesn’t mean he has a right to-,”
“I never said he had a right,” she cut in, shaking her head. “I said it was done, you can waste time trying to fight it or being angry about it, but it’s done, nothing’s going to change that. The only thing you can do is keep that in mind when you make decisions and change how you act now.”
He stared at her a moment, his shoulders so stiff, his eyes so bright, and he looked like he was about to spit something out, but then he only sighed, putting the lid back on the flask and tossing it to her.
“You ever think about what Mia said about The Outlands?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if your people had decided to stay together and fight, do you think things would’ve turned out differently?”
Phoenix stared at him a moment, not knowing what to say. “They didn’t.”
“I know they didn’t, I’m asking what you think.”
“But they didn’t, Belfire, there’s your answer.”
“What if they had?”
“They didn’t and what I think isn’t going to change that, but no, I don’t. My people came from a small village, there were never enough of us to fight back to being with. We would’ve all just been gathered in one place for the Head-hunters to come and find us.”
He stared at her a moment, his face so blank and slack, the light in his eyes something that she couldn’t place, and then he nodded, getting to his feet and stretching.
“The more you talk about it, the less I like the sound of The Forests.”
“Don’t say that, Belfire, don’t you dare say that. I had a good life out there,” she said, standing beside him and glaring at him. “It was a good life, I was free.”
He nodded, a slow, soft nod, but that arm that wrapped around her shoulders was quick, holding her to his side as he headed for the door.
“My life here sucked,” he said. “But you’re right, I was free, that means something.”
“Of course, it means something. It’s the only thing that matters after your family.”
“Hmm, where do friends fall in?” he asked, and she stared at him a moment, her forehead lining in a crease, her mouth so dry.
“Friends understand,” she said, her voice just barely above a whisper.
“Does that make me a bad friend then?”
“I never said you were a friend, Bel-,”
“Where I come from friends stick together,” he cut in. “And they don’t always understand, but they understand enough to know where you’re coming from.”
“I never know where you’re coming from.”
“Hmm, well, I guess that makes you the bad friend,” he said, and suddenly she couldn’t move. She stared at him, not knowing why she couldn’t, not knowing why her joints were so stiff and her stomach was burning. “What?” he asked, a soft smile on his lips. “You didn’t think about that?”
“We’re not friends,” she whispered, but somehow that just made everything stiffer.
“Mia and Boris are good people,” he said. “You should give them a chance.”
“We’re not friends, I don’t need friends, Belfire.”
“You needed someone to come pick you up after that,” he nodded at her stomach. “And you have people willing to do that for you, Phe, what would you call them?”
“Annoying,” she said, but she hadn’t expected him to laugh, a bright, easy laugh, a laugh that had the heat rising to her cheeks.
“I walked right into that one,” he said, opening her door and stepping out. “I’m going to have to watch you now, aren’t I?” he shook his head, and then he laughed again. “I didn’t take you for someone who made jokes, Phe.”
She stared at him, her hand clutching at her shirt, her head shaking to the sides. She almost told him that it wasn’t a joke, she almost walked on ahead and never looked back, but her stomach was burning, her knees a little shaky as she listened to that laugh. She could stand a little straighter when she saw Cassie waiting in front of all the others, her hand on her hip, her face so tight, her eyes so cold.
“Most of you know what you’re doing,” she said. “If your alarm didn’t ring, you’re free until lunch, then you go to the pods and to wardrobe. Don’t be late,” she said, those eyes going colder. “The rest of you get back to training.”
Belfire sat down beside Boris and Mia, his eyes darting around the room as he nodded.
“My alarm didn’t ring,” Mia whispered, and his eyes flicked to her.
“Boris?” he asked.
Phoenix didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing. His nose was still cracked, those circles under his eyes still black and purple, but Mia was coming, maybe Cassie had been right when she’d said that there wasn’t supposed to be a Fight or maybe it just meant that Boris wouldn’t be the one fighting. Phoenix watched him leave for the sand, her mouth a little drier than it had been before when she counted about ten of them left, the three of them, Cassie and Lyca and a few others Phoenix didn’t recognise. Cassie could fight, that much Phoenix knew, but she was a Favourite, would it be up to her to fight when the time came or would it fall onto someone else?
There were no clothes waiting for her outside the pod, only some sort of pale robe that fastened with a tie around her waist. She saw Cassie walking by, her robe made out of something that looked so smooth and shone in the dim lights from the pods, and Phoenix found herself staring, but she couldn’t for long, not when Cassie disappeared down another corridor and she had to follow the others. The room she stepped into was loud and dark, the wall to the side of her brimming with neatly stacked bottles and jars of all different colours and sizes. She didn’t know what they were for, but she heard that tut behind her and she turned to see Belfire leaning against the wall, his arms folded across his chest, his face so grim and tight.
She didn’t like that, her eyes flicking back to stare those colours, her heart beating a little quicker. Two of the other slaves in front sat up on high chairs, the mirrors in front of them lined with sharp, bright bulbs, the House-slaves working around them with their pastel robes already splattered with what looked like ink and powder.
“They use any of that on me…” Belfire said, his voice so tight, his eyes so dark when she turned to look at him and then she watched those House-slaves in front, brushes in their hands as they painted the Fighters and she almost laughed. It was a strange thing to see, stranger still that he was so angry over it. “What?” he asked, his eyebrows rising. “Don’t tell me you like playing dress-up.”
She shook her head, her eyes flicking back to those seats. “I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s easy,” he said, resting an arm on her shoulder and pointing towards the chairs. “You put that on your face and then everyone tells you how pretty you are.”
She heard that sharpness, that edge to his voice, and this time she did laugh, a soft, quiet laugh and she shook her head. “Something you want to share?” she asked.
“No, I told you I had a sister. Who do you think she practised on?”
She laughed again, turning to lean her back against the wall and stare up at him. “Older or younger?” she asked, her voice as soft as she could make it in a room full of buzzing and humming and clipping machines.
“Older,” he answered, leaning beside her, and she nodded, not knowing why she did it, but reaching a hand out to squeeze his and he smiled when she did, a small, soft smile and he squeezed back.
He looked like he was about to say something, his mouth opening, his forehead lining in a crease, but they were waved over and his mouth quickly closed, that crease turning into something like a scowl, something like a wince as he sat in that chair. She would’ve laughed again, but she realised it was also her turn and something that he hated that much couldn’t mean anything good for her.
She closed her eyes when she felt that House-slave begin to work, not knowing, not wanting, to know how much of her would be left by the time this was over. She couldn’t open them, not even when her chin was held up, when she felt those brushes tickle her skin and her cheeks, or when she heard that buzzing. It was only when she felt something grazing the side of her head, that her eyes flicked open. The first thing she saw was that black paint, thick and lining her eyes, somehow making them shine brighter, like pieces of cold, lilac glass, but then she saw it, that bumpy scar on the side of her head. She leaned closer to the mirror, tilting her head to the side to see where it had been shaved clean. It had been such a long time since she’d seen it, and she almost wanted to laugh, her fingers reaching up to poke at it and the Implants underneath, that burning in her stomach somehow so hot, somehow so cold.
The House-slave beside her tutted, tapping her fingers against a bottle of something and Phoenix sat back, letting her tousle her hair, scrunching it up in her hand and letting it go until it was a wild mess, wilder than Phoenix had ever seen it before. Phoenix caught glimpses of her hair on the floor, so much brighter and paler than any other hair that was piling up under that chair. Wasn’t that why he’d bought her? Wasn’t that why any one of the Masters wanted her and her people, and now it was lying on the floor. She didn’t know if she would laugh then, a part of her wanted to, she knew that, she just didn’t know why.
That feeling lingered, long after she’d been dressed in a tight, black suit with interlacing straps of leather lining her waist, and long after she’d made her way back to the yard, but her mouth went dry, her forehead lining in a crease when she saw him. He was laughing again, ducking and weaving and sparring with Boris in the sand, those thick dreads wild and free and shining gold in the evening sun where bands and rings had been tied throughout them. He was still laughing, his skin glistening, his chest heaving when he threw himself down on the step beside her, leaning in close and saying, “They didn’t get me!”
“What?” she whispered.
“Look,” he said, pointing his finger at his face and closing his eyes.
There was no paint or powder on his face, but his smile was so bright and light and easy even though his eyes were still closed. It took her a moment, a moment to breathe, a moment to laugh a soft laugh and let out something that was almost a sigh and his eyes flicked open when she did, that smile turning into a grin as he sat up straight and rolled his shoulders, but then Cassie was in front of them, jerking her head towards the corridors, her eyes so cold and sharp.
“Come on,” she said. “It’s just you two left.”
She led them down new corridors, her back so stiff, her face so tight. Phoenix went quiet then, her eyes darting ahead, her heart racing, but she hadn’t expected to walk into a room with a large tiled area for them to leave their boots, a small step up onto a wooden platform, a large table surrounded by benches lined with furs and pillows. And that table, it was littered with candles, piled high with pitchers and meats, sliced fresh fruits and food Phoenix had never seen before. Her mouth watered as she watched Belfire step up and sit next to Mia, his hand already darting, grabbing and piling food in front of him, the other tapping the bench beside him.
“Come on, Phe, you have to try this,” he said.
She wasn’t as quick as him, but she sat down, her eyes flicking around the table, her forehead lining in a crease. It was too much, so much food, more food than she’d ever seen in one place that wasn’t just dried and stored for winter. She shook her head, not knowing what she would try first, her heart hammering in her chest.
“Close your eyes,” he said, the corners of his lips twitching like he was fighting back a grin.
“Come on, you’ll ruin the surprise,” he said, and she stared at him, her eyes then flicking around the table and to all those faces she didn’t recognise, and she felt her blood run cold.
“I don’t like surprises.”
“You’ll like this one, trust me,” he said, and she doubted that, but she closed her eyes, her face scrunched up in a tight crease, her hands so stiff, her ears straining to hear if anyone moved, but she felt him press something to her lips, something a little hard, but creamy, her eyes flicking open to watch him lick what was left from his fingers before she could see what it was.
“It’s sweet,” she said.
“Chocolate?” she asked, and she felt a burning in her stomach when he smiled and she didn’t know why she said it, only that she wanted him to keep smiling even if it burned her to a crisp. “It doesn’t taste like corpse.”
His eyes went so wide, so wide and bright. “Ha!” he laughed, those sun-kissed cheeks going a little pink as he leaned back, laughing louder and louder, his fingers coming up to rub at his eyes.
“That’s disgusting, Phoenix,” Mia said, her voice so soft it was only a mumble.
“I can’t…” Belfire shook his head. “I can’t, Phe… I wasn’t expecting that,” he breathed. “You trying to kill me today or what? Here, try this one,” he said when he broke a bun in half, holding one piece to his nose and humming as he smelled it. “Wait,” he shook his head and his hands darted, piling a few things into her half and then holding it out to her.
She took it, staring at him as he watched her, resting his head in his hand, his eyes somehow so soft, somehow so bright as he waited. She bit into it, her eyes going wide, her forehead lining in a crease and she hummed.
“It’s so good,” she whispered, and she heard him laughing, a soft, warm laugh, that light in his eyes so bright.
“Don’t fill up on that, you have to try everything,” he said, popping one leg over the side of the bench so he could get closer to her. He reached over, grabbing a few more things and piling them in front of her, licking his fingers and shaking his head as he ate some himself. “I missed food,” he said, and then he snatched what was left of her bun and ate that too.
“Don’t get too full,” Cassie said, her voice so quiet and tight as she stood by the wall. “You have to be ready for anything.”
“But for what exactly?” Belfire asked, resting on his elbow so he could stare at her. “You said it was just a Gathering.”
“A Gathering is a Gathering, Offender,” she tutted. “You have to be ready for whatever the Master needs you to do.”
His face went tight then, the corners of his nose twitching like he was fighting back a scowl. “How many Masters are there going to be?”
“I don’t know, it’s not my job to know,” Cassie answered.
“Hmm,” Belfire hummed, tossing something from his fingers back at the table. “What’s the point in being a Favourite if you only know the same things we do?”
Cassie’s eyes narrowed into slits, her arms folding across her chest as she glared at Belfire. “I’m not an idiot, Belfire,” she said. “You’re not getting anything out of me so just shut up and eat your food.”
“So you do know something,” Belfire nodded, his eyes never blinking as he watched her and she went so quiet, her face so stiff, her eyes so dark, but Belfire only tutted, looking away and nodding again. “What do you think of that one, Phe? Pretty good, right?”
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