1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

She has no shortage of admirers in the Capitol.

By ten o’clock, only about half of the tributes have shown up. Atala, the woman who runs training, begins her spiel right on time, unfazed by the poor attendance. Maybe she expected it. I’m sort of relieved, because that means there are a dozen people I don’t have to pretend to make friends with. Atala runs through the list of stations, which include both combat and survival skills, and releases us to train.

I tell Peeta I think we’d do best to split up, thus covering more territory. When he goes off to chuck spears with Brutus and Chaff, I head over to the knot-tying station, hardly anyone ever bothers to visit it. I like the trainer and he remembers me fondly, maybe because I spent time with him last year. He’s pleased when I show him I can still set the trap that leaves an enemy dangling by a leg from a tree. Clearly he took note of my snares in the arena last year and now sees me as an advanced pupil, so I ask him to review every kind of knot that might come in handy and a few that I’ll probably never use. I’d be content to spend the morning alone with him, but after about an hour and a half, someone puts his arms around me from behind, his fingers easily finishing the complicated knot I’ve been sweating over. Of course it’s Finnick, who seems to have spent his childhood doing nothing but wielding tridents and manipulating ropes into fancy knots for nets, I guess. I watch for a minute while he picks up a length of rope, makes a noose, and then pretends to hang himself for my amusement.

Rolling my eyes, I head over to another vacant station where tributes can learn to build fires. I already make excellent fires, but I’m still pretty dependent on matches for starting them. So the trainer has me work with flint, steel, and some charred cloth. This is much harder than it looks, and even working as intently as I can, it takes me about an hour to get a fire going. I look up with a triumphant smile only to find I have company.

The two tributes from District 3 are beside me, struggling to start a decent fire with matches. I think about leaving, but I really want to try using the flint again, and if I have to report back to Haymitch that I tried to make friends, these two might be a bearable choice. Both are small in stature with ashen skin and black hair. The woman, Wiress, is probably around my mother’s age and speaks in a quiet, intelligent voice. But right away I notice she has a habit of dropping off her words in mid-sentence, as if she’s forgotten you’re there. Beetee, the man, is older and somewhat fidgety. He wears glasses but spends a lot of time looking under them. They’re a little strange, but I’m pretty sure neither of them is going to try to make me uncomfortable by stripping naked. And they’re from District 3. Maybe they can even confirm my suspicions of an uprising there.

I glance around the Training Center. Peeta is at the center of a ribald circle of knife throwers. The morphlings from District 6 are in the camouflage station, painting each other’s faces with bright pink swirls. The male tribute from District 5 is vomiting wine on the sword-fighting floor. Finnick and the old woman from his district are using the archery station. Johanna Mason is naked again and oiling her skin down for a wrestling lesson. I decide to stay put.

Wiress and Beetee make decent company. They seem friendly enough but don’t pry. We talk about our talents; they tell me they both invent things, which makes my supposed interest in fashion seem pretty weak. Wiress brings up some sort of stitching device she’s working on.

“It senses the density of the fabric and selects the strength,” she says, and then becomes absorbed in a bit of dry straw before she can go on.

“The strength of the thread,” Beetee finishes explaining. “Automatically. It rules out human error.” Then he talks about his recent success creating a musical chip that’s tiny enough to be concealed in a flake of glitter but can hold hours of songs. I remember Octavia talking about this during the wedding shoot, and I see a possible chance to allude to the uprising.

“Oh, yeah. My prep team was all upset a few months ago, I think, because they couldn’t get hold of that,” I say casually. “I guess a lot of orders from District Three were getting backed up.”

Beetee examines me under his glasses. “Yes. Did you have any similar backups in coal production, this year?” he asks.

“No. Well, we lost a couple of weeks when they brought in a new Head Peacekeeper and his crew, but nothing major,” I say. “To production, I mean. Two weeks sitting around your house doing nothing just means two weeks of being hungry for most people.”

I think they understand what I’m trying to say. That we’ve had no uprising. “Oh. That’s a shame,” says Wiress in a slightly disappointed voice. “I found your district very …” She trails off, distracted by something in her head.

“Interesting,” fills in Beetee. “We both did.”

I feel bad, knowing that their district must have suffered much worse than ours. I feel I have to defend my people. “Well, there aren’t very many of us in Twelve,” I say. “Not that you’d know it nowadays by the size of the Peacekeeping force. But I guess we’re interesting enough.”

As we move over to the shelter station, Wiress stops and gazes up at the stands where the Gamemakers are roaming around, eating and drinking, sometimes taking notice of us. “Look,” she says, giving her head a slight nod in their direction. I look up and see Plutarch Heavensbee in the magnificent purple robe with the fur-trimmed collar that designates him as Head Gamemaker. He’s eating a turkey leg.

I don’t see why this merits comment, but I say, “Yes, he’s been promoted to Head Gamemaker this year.”

“No, no. There by the corner of the table. You can just …” says Wiress.

Beetee squints under his glasses. “Just make it out.”

I stare in that direction, perplexed. But then I see it. A patch of space about six inches square at the corner of the table seems almost to be vibrating. It’s as if the air is rippling in tiny visible waves, distorting the sharp edges of the wood and a goblet of wine someone has set there.

“A force field. They’ve set one up between the Game-makers and us. I wonder what brought that on,” Beetee says.

“Me, probably,” I confess. “Last year I shot an arrow at them during my private training session.” Beetee and Wiress look at me curiously. “I was provoked. So, do all force fields have a spot like that?”

“Chink,” says Wiress vaguely.

“In the armor, as it were,” finishes Beetee. “Ideally it’d be invisible, wouldn’t it?”

I want to ask them more, but lunch is announced. I look for Peeta, but he’s hanging with a group of about ten other victors, so I decide just to eat with District 3. Maybe I can get Seeder to join us.

When we make our way into the dining area, I see some of Peeta’s gang have other ideas. They’re dragging all the smaller tables to form one large table so that we all have to eat together. Now I don’t know what to do. Even at school I used to avoid eating at a crowded table. Frankly, I’d probably have sat alone if Madge hadn’t made a habit of joining me. I guess I’d have eaten with Gale except, being two grades apart, our lunch never fell at the same time.

I take a tray and start making my way around the food-laden carts that ring the room. Peeta catches up with me at the stew. “How’s it going?”

“Good. Fine. I like the District Three victors,” I say. “Wiress and Beetee.”

“Really?” he asks. “They’re something of a joke to the others.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” I say. I think of how Peeta was always surrounded at school by a crowd of friends. It’s amazing, really, that he ever took any notice of me except to think I was odd.

“Johanna’s nicknamed them Nuts and Volts,” he says. “I think she’s Nuts and he’s Volts.”

“And so I’m stupid for thinking they might be useful. Because of something Johanna Mason said while she was oiling up her breasts for wrestling,” I retort.

“Actually I think the nickname’s been around for years. And I didn’t mean that as an insult. I’m just sharing information,” he says.

“Well, Wiress and Beetee are smart. They invent things. They could tell by sight that a force field had been put up between us and the Gamemakers. And if we have to have allies, I want them.” I toss the ladle back in a pot of stew, splattering us both with the gravy.

“What are you so angry about?” Peeta asks, wiping the gravy from his shirtfront. “Because I teased you on the elevator? I’m sorry. I thought you would just laugh about it.”

“Forget it,” I say with a shake of my head. “It’s a lot of things.”

“Darius,” he says.

“Darius. The Games. Haymitch making us team up with the others,” I say.

“It can just be you and me, you know,” he says.

“I know. But maybe Haymitch is right,” I say. “Don’t tell him I said so, but he usually is, where the Games are concerned.”

“Well, you can have final say about our allies. But right now, I’m leaning toward Chaff and Seeder,” says Peeta.

“I’m okay with Seeder, not Chaff,” I say. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Come on and eat with him. I promise, I won’t let him kiss you again,” says Peeta.

Chaff doesn’t seem as bad at lunch. He’s sober, and while he talks too loud and makes bad jokes a lot, most of them are at his own expense. I can see why he would be good for Haymitch, whose thoughts run so darkly. But I’m still not sure I’m ready to team up with him.

I try hard to be more sociable, not just with Chaff but with the group at large. After lunch I do the edible-insect station with the District 8 tributes — Cecelia, who’s got three kids at home, and Woof, a really old guy who’s hard of hearing and doesn’t seem to know what’s going on since he keeps trying to stuff poisonous bugs in his mouth. I wish I could mention meeting Twill and Bonnie in the woods, but I can’t figure out how. Cashmere and Gloss, the sister and brother from District 1, invite me over and we make hammocks for a while. They’re polite but cool, and I spend the whole time thinking about how I killed both the tributes from their district, Glimmer and Marvel, last year, and that they probably knew them and might even have been their mentors. Both my hammock and my attempt to connect with them are mediocre at best. I join Enobaria at sword training and exchange a few comments, but it’s clear neither of us wants to team up. Finnick appears again when I’m picking up fishing tips, but mostly just to introduce me to Mags, the elderly woman who’s also from District 4. Between her district accent and her garbled speech — possibly she’s had a stroke — I can’t make out more than one in four words. But I swear she can make a decent fishhook out of anything—a thorn, a wishbone, an earring. After a while I tune out the trainer and simply try to copy whatever Mags does. When I make a pretty good hook out of a bent nail and fasten it to some strands of my hair, she gives me a toothless smile and an unintelligible comment I think might be praise. Suddenly I remember how she volunteered to replace the young, hysterical woman in her district. It couldn’t be because she thought she had any chance of winning. She did it to save the girl, just like I volunteered last year to save Prim. And I decide I want her on my team.

Great. Now I have to go back and tell Haymitch I want an eighty-year-old and Nuts and Volts for my allies. He’ll love that.

So I give up trying to make friends and go over to the archery range for some sanity. It’s wonderful there, getting to try out all the different bows and arrows. The trainer, Tax, seeing that the standing targets offer no challenge for me, begins to launch these silly fake birds high into the air for me to hit. At first it seems stupid, but it turns out to be kind of fun. Much more like hunting a moving creature. Since I’m hitting everything he throws up, he starts increasing the number of birds he sends airborne. I forget the rest of the gym and the victors and how miserable I am and lose myself in the shooting. When I manage to take down five birds in one round, I realize it’s so quiet I can hear each one hit the floor. I turn and see the majority of the victors have stopped to watch me. Their faces show everything from envy to hatred to admiration.

After training, Peeta and I hang out, waiting for Haymitch and Effie to show up for dinner. When we’re called to eat, Haymitch pounces on me immediately. “So at least half the victors have instructed their mentors to request you as an ally. I know it can’t be your sunny personality.”

“They saw her shoot,” says Peeta with a smile. “Actually, I saw her shoot, for real, for the first time. I’m about to put in a formal request myself.”

“You’re that good?” Haymitch asks me. “So good that Brutus wants you?”

I shrug. “But I don’t want Brutus. I want Mags and District Three.”

“Of course you do.” Haymitch sighs and orders a bottle of wine. “I’ll tell everybody you’re still making up your mind.”

After my shooting exhibition, I still get teased some, but I no longer feel like I’m being mocked. In fact, I feel as if I’ve somehow been initiated into the victors’ circle. During the next two days, I spend time with almost everybody headed for the arena. Even the morphlings, who, with Peeta’s help, paint me into a field of yellow flowers. Even Finnick, who gives me an hour of trident lessons in exchange for an hour of archery instruction. And the more I come to know these people, the worse it is. Because, on the whole, I don’t hate them. And some I like. And a lot of them are so damaged that my natural instinct would be to protect them. But all of them must die if I’m to save Peeta.

The final day of training ends with our private sessions. We each get fifteen minutes before the Gamemakers to amaze them with our skills, but I don’t know what any of us might have to show them. There’s a lot of kidding about it at lunch. What we might do. Sing, dance, strip, tell jokes. Mags, who I can understand a little better now, decides she’s just going to take a nap. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Shoot some arrows, I guess. Haymitch said to surprise them if we could, but I’m fresh out of ideas.

As the girl from 12, I’m scheduled to go last. The dining room gets quieter and quieter as the tributes file out to go perform. It’s easier to keep up the irreverent, invincible manner we’ve all adopted when there are more of us. As people disappear through the door, all I can think is that they have a matter of days to live.

Peeta and I are finally left alone. He reaches across the table to take my hands. “Decided what to do for the Gamemakers yet?”

I shake my head. “I can’t really use them for target practice this year, with the force field up and all. Maybe make some fishhooks. What about you?”

“Not a clue. I keep wishing I could bake a cake or something,” he says.

“Do some more camouflage,” I suggest.

“If the morphlings have left me anything to work with,” he says wryly. “They’ve been glued to that station since training started.”

We sit in silence awhile and then I blurt out the thing that’s on both our minds. “How are we going to kill these people, Peeta?”

“I don’t know.” He leans his forehead down on our entwined hands.

“I don’t want them as allies. Why did Haymitch want us to get to know them?” I say. “It’ll make it so much harder than last time. Except for Rue maybe. But I guess I never really could’ve killed her, anyway. She was just too much like Prim.”

Peeta looks up at me, his brow creased in thought. “Her death was the most despicable, wasn’t it?”

“None of them were very pretty,” I say, thinking of Glimmer’s and Cato’s ends.

They call Peeta, so I wait by myself. Fifteen minutes pass. Then half an hour. It’s close to forty minutes before I’m called.

When I go in, I smell the sharp odor of cleaner and notice that one of the mats has been dragged to the center of the room. The mood is very different from last year’s, when the Gamemakers were half drunk and distractedly picking at tidbits from the banquet table. They whisper among themselves, looking somewhat annoyed. What did Peeta do? Something to upset them?

I feel a pang of worry. That isn’t good. I don’t want Peeta singling himself out as a target for the Gamemakers’ anger. That’s part of my job. To draw fire away from Peeta. But how did he upset them? Because I’d love to do just that and more. To break through the smug veneer of those who use their brains to find amusing ways to kill us. To make them realize that while we’re vulnerable to the Capitol’s cruelties, they are as well.

Do you have any idea how much I hate you? I think. You, who have given your talents to the Games?

I try to catch Plutarch Heavensbee’s eye, but he seems to be intentionally ignoring me, as he has the entire training period. I remember how he sought me out for a dance, how pleased he was to show me the mockingjay on his watch. His friendly manner has no place here. How could it, when I’m a mere tribute and he’s the Head Gamemaker? So powerful, so removed, so safe …

Suddenly I know just what I’m going to do. Something that will blow anything Peeta did right out of the water. I go over to the knot-tying station and get a length of rope. I start to manipulate it, but it’s hard because I’ve never made this actual knot myself. I’ve only watched Finnick’s clever fingers, and they moved so fast. After about ten minutes, I’ve come up with a respectable noose. I drag one of the target dummies out into the middle of the room and, using some chinning bars, hang it so it dangles by the neck. Tying its hands behind its back would be a nice touch, but I think I might be running out of time. I hurry over to the camouflage station, where some of the other tributes, undoubtedly the morphlings, have made a colossal mess. But I find a partial container of bloodred berry juice that will serve my needs. The flesh-colored fabric of the dummy’s skin makes a good, absorbent canvas. I carefully finger paint the words on its body, concealing them from view. Then I step away quickly to watch the reaction on the Gamemakers’ faces as they read the name on the dummy.

SENECA CRANE.

The effect on the Gamemakers is immediate and satisfying. Several let out small shrieks. Others lose their grips on their wineglasses, which shatter musically against the ground. Two seem to be considering fainting. The look of shock is unanimous.

Now I have Plutarch Heavensbee’s attention. He stares steadily at me as the juice from the peach he crushed in his hand runs through his fingers. Finally he clears his throat and says, “You may go now, Miss Everdeen.”

I give a respectful nod and turn to go, but at the last moment I can’t resist tossing the container of berry juice over my shoulder. I can hear the contents splatter against the dummy while a couple more wineglasses break. As the elevator doors close before me, I see no one has moved.

That surprised them, I think. It was rash and dangerous and no doubt I will pay for it ten times over. But for the moment, I feel something close to elation and I let myself savor it.

I want to find Haymitch immediately and tell him about my session, but no one’s around. I guess they’re getting ready for dinner and I decide to go take a shower myself, since my hands are stained from the juice. As I stand in the water, I begin to wonder about the wisdom of my latest trick. The question that should now always be my guide is “Will this help Peeta stay alive?” Indirectly, this might not. What happens in training is highly secretive, so there’s no point in taking action against me when no one will know what my transgression was. In fact, last year I was rewarded for my brashness. This is a different sort of crime, though. If the Gamemakers are angry with me and decide to punish me in the arena, Peeta could get caught up in the attack as well. Maybe it was too impulsive. Still … I can’t say I’m sorry I did it.

As we all gather for dinner, I notice Peeta’s hands are faintly stained with a variety of colors, even though his hair is still damp from bathing. He must have done some form of camouflage after all. Once the soup is served, Haymitch gets right to the issue on everyone’s mind. “All right, so how did your private sessions go?”

I exchange a look with Peeta. Somehow I’m not that eager to put what I did into words. In the calm of the dining room, it seems very extreme. “You first,” I say to him. “It must have been really special. I had to wait for forty minutes to go in.”

Peeta seems to be struck with the same reluctance I’m experiencing. “Well, I — I did the camouflage thing, like you suggested, Katniss.” He hesitates. “Not exactly camouflage. I mean, I used the dyes.”

“To do what?” asks Portia.

I think of how ruffled the Gamemakers were when I entered the gym for my session. The smell of cleaners. The mat pulled over that spot in the center of the gym. Was it to conceal something they were unable to wash away? “You painted something, didn’t you? A picture.” “Did you see it?” Peeta asks.

“No. But they’d made a real point of covering it up,” I say.

“Well, that would be standard. They can’t let one tribute know what another did,” says Effie, unconcerned. “What did you paint, Peeta?” She looks a little misty. “Was it a picture of Katniss?”

“Why would he paint a picture of me, Effie?” I ask, somehow annoyed.

“To show he’s going to do everything he can to defend you. That’s what everyone in the Capitol’s expecting, anyway. Didn’t he volunteer to go in with you?” Effie says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

“Actually, I painted a picture of Rue,” Peeta says. “How she looked after Katniss had covered her in flowers.”

There’s a long pause at the table while everyone absorbs this. “And what exactly were you trying to accomplish?” Haymitch asks in a very measured voice.

“I’m not sure. I just wanted to hold them accountable, if only for a moment,” says Peeta. “For killing that little girl.”

“This is dreadful.” Effie sounds like she’s about to cry. “That sort of thinking … it’s forbidden, Peeta. Absolutely. You’ll only bring down more trouble on yourself and Katniss.”

“I have to agree with Effie on this one,” says Haymitch. Portia and Cinna remain silent, but their faces are very serious. Of course, they’re right. But even though it worries me, I think what he did was amazing.

“I guess this is a bad time to mention I hung a dummy and painted Seneca Crane’s name on it,” I say. This has the desired effect. After a moment of disbelief, all the disapproval in the room hits me like a ton of bricks.

“You … hung … Seneca Crane?” says Cinna.

“Yes. I was showing off my new knot-tying skills, and he somehow ended up at the end of the noose,” I say.

“Oh, Katniss,” says Effie in a hushed voice. “How do you even know about that?”

“Is it a secret? President Snow didn’t act like it was. In fact, he seemed eager for me to know,” I say. Effie leaves the table with her napkin pressed to her face. “Now I’ve upset Effie. I should have lied and said I shot some arrows.”

“You’d have thought we planned it,” says Peeta, giving me just the hint of a smile.

“Didn’t you?” asks Portia. Her fingers press her eyelids closed as if she’s warding off a very bright light.

“No,” I say, looking at Peeta with a new sense of appreciation. “Neither of us even knew what we were going to do before we went in.”

“And, Haymitch?” says Peeta. “We decided we don’t want any other allies in the arena.”

“Good. Then I won’t be responsible for you killing off any of my friends with your stupidity,” he says.

“That’s just what we were thinking,” I tell him.

We finish the meal in silence, but when we rise to go into the sitting room, Cinna puts his arm around me and gives me a squeeze. “Come on and let’s go get those training scores.”

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23