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He was pacing in front of them, his hands clasped behind his back, a small, soft smile on his lips, and then he stopped, turning to face them, those Implants flickering so gently his voice just barely above a whisper when he said, “The other Masters mean nothing to you. You don’t answer when they speak, you don’t do what they tell you to, you wait for me. You talk to no one, not even each other, not unless I give you permission to. Three of you in the corner, three of you by the drinks, Phoenix, Belfire and Mia by that wall. Cassie, you’re with me.”

No one waited for him to say anything else, all of them darting to their places, Phoenix’s eyes flicking around this strange, new room, long and narrow, filled with those white, stone chairs in groups, tables littered with pitchers and food and candles placed around them. The walls were lined with curtains, some of them open and blocking the view of some of those chairs, not entirely but enough that Phoenix could only make out the shapes of the House-slaves working behind them and not their faces. He was in front of her then, pressing something on an armband not unlike the one she used to use out in The Forests to keep track of her sensors, and then he looked up, nodding and clasping his hands behind his back.

“You ready, Phe?” he asked, but she couldn’t find her voice to answer him, her mouth dry, her mind racing as she tried not to count those chairs and imagine them full, but she nodded. He stared at her a moment, his face so blank and slack she wasn’t sure he was going to say anything else. “If,” he started. “If she’s here, you have to be smart, you understand? Don’t give it away and follow my lead. A lot of things will depend on who has her… and you may have to watch her leave. Things take time, this will take time.”

She stared at him, wanting to shout and scream, wanting to tell him that she would rather die and tear this whole place down with her than watch her sister walk back out of this house, but all she wanted to do then was cry and his eyes went a little wider before they narrowed, those Implants flickering a little quicker.

“Look at him,” he said, his voice just barely above a whisper. “You be more like him or I won’t bring you again, Phoenix, I mean it.”

She didn’t need to turn to know what Belfire’s face must look like, feeling her skin go tight and her mouth go dry, and she closed her eyes. It took her a moment to gather her strength and to nod, but his eyes were a little softer when she looked at him again, those Implants so slow.

“Tonight’s not about finding her, you understand that, right? It’s just the start. You have to be patient and you’ll have to do plenty of things you don’t want to,” he said, turning around to face another wall, a soft smile springing to his lips, his eyes shining brighter. “Astor,” he greeted.

“Gabriel!” Master Astor said. “I’ve been looking forward to this all week.” The two men clasped arms, Master Astor’s eyes darting around the room as he nodded. “Looks good, you’ve done well, you use that designer I-,” he cut himself off, his face going so tight, his eyes narrowing into slits as he glared at Phoenix. “What have you done, Gabriel?” he asked, his jaw almost clenched shut, his voice so strained. “If you didn’t know what to do with a Woodlander, you should’ve just asked. Fix her hair before the others see.”

“I don’t see the problem, Astor.”

“You don’t-!” Master Astor hissed. “This isn’t a game, Gabriel. I put my reputation on the line for you, I won’t-,”

“I didn’t force you to help me,” Master Gabriel cut in. “We have a deal, Astor, and I take that very seriously, but this is my house and she is my slave. There are rules.”

Master Astor’s face went so red, his lips a thin, tight line, his eyes burning bright. “Of course, there are rules,” he said. “You don’t shave a Woodlander’s hair and you don’t have an Offender out-,”

“Hmm, so now you come around to it,” Master Gabriel smiled. “What’s the matter, Astor, does he scare you?”

“You can’t-!” Master Astor started. “You know who I’ve invited tonight,” he said instead, his face scrunching in a scowl. “You can’t-”

“I know what I’m doing,” Master Gabriel said. “And I want this to work, Astor, you’ll have to trust me.”

Master Astor stared at him for a long while, his eyes never blinking, his lips so thin and tight, but finally he said, “This is a mistake, Gabriel, you’ll see, but I’ll help you fix it afterwards and then you’ll really owe me.”

“I already owe you,” Master Gabriel nodded. “I know how many people are coming tonight because of you.”

“Hmm,” Master Astor hummed, turning around when there was a hiss of a door sliding open. “I have something to show you, Gabriel,” he said. “I bought a new Woodlander.”


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