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

in the stream. Lying unconscious in a pool of blood. And one I can’t place — perhaps this is how I looked when his fever was high—emerging from a silver gray mist that matches my eyes exactly.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“I hate them,” I say. I can almost smell the blood, the dirt, the unnatural breath of the mutt. “All I do is go around trying to forget the arena and you’ve brought it, back to life. How do you remember these things so exactly?”

“I see them every night,” he says.

I know what he means. Nightmares — which I was no stranger to before the Games — now plague me whenever I sleep. But the old standby, the one of my father being blown to bits in the mines, is rare. Instead I relive versions of what happened in the arena. My worthless attempt to save Rue. Peeta bleeding to death. Glimmer’s bloated body disintegrating in my hands. Cato’s horrific end with the muttations. These are the most frequent visitors. “Me, too. Does it help? To paint them out?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m a little less afraid of going to sleep at night, or I tell myself I am,” he says. “But they haven’t gone anywhere.”

“Maybe they won’t. Haymitch’s haven’t.” Haymitch doesn’t say so, but I’m sure this is why he doesn’t like to sleep in the dark.

“No. But for me, it’s better to wake up with a paintbrush than a knife in my hand,” he says. “So you really hate them?”

“Yes. But they’re extraordinary. Really,” I say. And they are. But I don’t want to look at them anymore. “Want to see my talent? Cinna did a great job on it.”

Peeta laughs. “Later.” The train lurches forward, and I can see the land moving past us through the window. “Come on, we’re almost to District Eleven. Let’s go take a look at it.”

We go down to the last car on the train. There are chairs and couches to sit on, but what’s wonderful is that the back windows retract into the ceiling so you’re riding outside, in the fresh air, and you can see a wide sweep of the landscape. Huge open fields with herds of dairy cattle grazing in them. So unlike our own heavily wooded home.

We slow slightly and I think we might be coming in for another stop, when a fence rises up before us. Towering at least thirty-five feet in the air and topped with wicked coils of barbed wire, it makes ours back in District 12 look childish. My eyes quickly inspect the base, which is lined with enormous metal plates. There would be no burrowing under those, no escaping to hunt. Then I see the watchtowers, placed evenly apart, manned with armed guards, so out of place among the fields of wildflowers around them.

“That’s something different,” says Peeta.

Rue did give me the impression that the rules in District 11 were more harshly enforced. But I never imagined something like this.

Now the crops begin, stretched out as far as the eye can see. Men, women, and children wearing straw hats to keep off the sun straighten up, turn our way, take a moment to stretch their backs as they watch our train go by. I can see orchards in the distance, and I wonder if that’s where Rue would have worked, collecting the fruit from the slimmest branches at the tops of the trees. Small communities of shacks — by comparison the houses in the Seam are upscale — spring up here and there, but they’re all deserted. Every hand must be needed for the harvest.

On and on it goes. I can’t believe the size of District 11. “How many people do you think live here?” Peeta asks. I shake my head. In school they refer to it as a large district, that’s all. No actual figures on the population. But those kids we see on camera waiting for the reaping each year, they can’t be but a sampling of the ones who actually live here. What do they do? Have preliminary drawings? Pick the winners ahead of time and make sure they’re in the crowd? How exactly did Rue end up on that stage with nothing but the wind offering to take her place?

I begin to weary of the vastness, the endlessness of this place. When Effie comes to tell us to dress, I don’t object.

I go to my compartment and let the prep team do my hair and makeup. Cinna comes in with a pretty orange frock patterned with autumn leaves. I think how much Peeta will like the color.

Effie gets Peeta and me together and goes through the day’s program one last time. In some districts the victors ride through the city while the residents cheer. But in 11 — maybe because there’s not much of a city to begin with, things being so spread out, or maybe because they don’t want to waste so many people while the harvest is on — the public appearance is confined to the square. It takes place before their Justice Building, a huge marble structure. Once, it must have been a thing of beauty, but time has taken its toll. Even on television you can see ivy overtaking the crumbling facade, the sag of the roof. The square itself is ringed with run-down storefronts, most of which are abandoned. Wherever the well-to-do live in District 11, it’s not here.

Our entire public performance will be staged outside on what Effie refers to as the verandah, the tiled expanse between the front doors and the stairs that’s shaded by a roof supported by columns. Peeta and I will be introduced, the mayor of 11 will read a speech in our honor, and we’ll respond with a scripted thank-you provided by the Capitol. If a victor had any special allies among the dead tributes, it is considered good form to add a few personal comments as well. I should say something about Rue, and Thresh, too, really, but every time I tried to write it at home, I ended up with a blank paper staring me in the face: It’s hard for me to talk about them without getting emotional. Fortunately, Peeta has a little something worked up, and with some slight alterations, it can count for both of us. At the end of the ceremony, we’ll be presented with some sort of plaque, and then we can withdraw to the Justice Building, where a special dinner will be served.

As the train is pulling into the District 11 station, Cinna puts the finishing touches on my outfit, switching my orange hairband for one of metallic gold and securing the mockingjay pin I wore in the arena to my dress. There’s no welcoming, committee on the platform, just a squad of eight Peacekeepers who direct us into the back of an armored truck. Effie sniffs as the door clanks closed behind us. “Really, you’d think we were all criminals,” she says.

Not all of us, Effie. Just me, I think.

The truck lets us out at the back of the Justice Building. We’re hurried inside. I can smell an excellent meal being prepared, but it doesn’t block out the odors of mildew and rot. They’ve left us no time to look around. As. we make a beeline for the front entrance, I can hear the anthem beginning outside in the square. Someone clips a microphone on me. Peeta takes my left hand. The mayor’s introducing us as the massive doors open with a groan.

“Big smiles!” Effie says, and gives us a nudge. Our feet start moving forward.

This is it. This is where I have to convince everybody how in love I am with Peeta, I think. The solemn ceremony is pretty tightly mapped out, so I’m not sure how to do it. It’s not a time for kissing, but maybe I can work one in.

There’s loud applause, but none of the other responses we got in the Capitol, the cheers and whoops and whistles. We walk across the shaded verandah until the roof runs out and we’re standing at the top of a big flight of marble stairs in the glaring sun. As my eyes adjust, I see the buildings on the square have been hung with banners that help cover up their neglected state. It’s packed with people, but again, just a fraction of the number who live here.

As usual, a special platform has been constructed at the bottom of the stage for the families of the dead tributes. On Thresh’s side, there’s only an old woman with a hunched back and a tall, muscular girl I’m guessing is his sister. On Rue’s … I’m not prepared for Rue’s family. Her parents, whose faces are still fresh with sorrow. Her five younger siblings, who resemble her so closely. The slight builds, the luminous brown eyes. They form a flock of small dark birds.

The applause dies out and the mayor gives the speech in our honor. Two little girls come up with tremendous bouquets of flowers. Peeta does his part of the scripted reply and then I find my lips moving to conclude it. Fortunately my mother and Prim have drilled me so I can do it in my sleep.

Peeta had his personal comments written on a card, but he doesn’t pull it out. Instead he speaks in his simple, winning style about Thresh and Rue making it to the final eight, about how they both kept me alive—thereby keeping him alive—and about how this is a debt we can never repay. And then he hesitates before adding something that wasn’t written on the card. Maybe because he thought Effie might make him remove it. “It can in no way replace your losses, but as a token of our thanks we’d like for each of the tributes’ families from District Eleven to receive one month of our winnings every year for the duration of our lives.”

The crowd can’t help but respond with gasps and murmurs. There is no precedent for what Peeta has done. I don’t even know if it’s legal. He probably doesn’t know, either, so he didn’t ask in case it isn’t. As for the families, they just stare at us in shock. Their lives were changed forever when Thresh and Rue were lost, but this gift will change them again. A month of tribute winnings can easily provide for a family for a year. As long as we live, they will not hunger.

I look at Peeta and he gives me a sad smile. I hear Haymitch’s voice. “You could do a lot worse.” At this moment, it’s impossible to imagine how I could do any better. The gift … it is perfect. So when I rise up on tiptoe to kiss him, it doesn’t seem forced at all.

The mayor steps forward and presents us each with a plaque that’s so large I have to put down my bouquet to hold it. The ceremony’s about to end when I notice one of Rue’s sisters staring at me. She must be about nine and is almost an exact replica of Rue, down to the way she stands with her arms slightly extended. Despite the good news about the winnings, she’s not happy. In fact, her look is reproachful. Is it because I didn’t save Rue?

No. It’s because I still haven’t thanked her, I think.

A wave of shame rushes through me. The girl is right. How can I stand here, passive and mute, leaving all the words to Peeta? If she had won, Rue would never have let my death go unsung. I remember how I took care in the arena to cover her with flowers, to make sure her loss did not go unnoticed. But that gesture will mean nothing if I don’t support it now.

“Wait!” I stumble forward, pressing the plaque to my chest. My allotted time for speaking has come and gone, but I must say something. I owe too much. And even if I had pledged all my winnings to the families, it would not excuse my silence today. “Wait, please.” I don’t know how to start, but once I do, the words rush from my lips as if they’ve been forming in the back of my mind for a long time.

“I want to give my thanks to the tributes of District Eleven,” I say. I look at the pair of women on Thresh’s side. “I only ever spoke to Thresh one time. Just long enough for him to spare my life. I didn’t know him, but I always respected him. For his power. For his refusal to play the Games on anyone’s terms but his own. The Careers wanted him to team up with them from the beginning, but he wouldn’t do it. I respected him for that.”

For the first time the old hunched woman — is she Thresh’s grandmother? — raises her head and the trace of a smile plays on her lips.

The crowd has fallen silent now, so silent that I wonder how they manage it. They must all be holding their breath.

I turn to Rue’s family. “But I feel as if I did know Rue, and she’ll always be with me. Everything beautiful brings her to mind. I see her in the yellow flowers that grow in the Meadow by my house. I see her in the mockingjays that sing in the trees. But most of all, I see her in my sister, Prim.” My voice is undependable, but I am almost finished. “Thank you for your children.” I raise my chin to address the crowd. “And thank you all for the bread.”

I stand there, feeling broken and small, thousands of eyes trained on me. There’s a long pause. Then, from somewhere in the crowd, someone whistles Rue’s four-note mocking-jay tune. The one that signaled the end of the workday in the orchards. The one that meant safety in the arena. By the end of the tune, I have found the whistler, a wizened old man in a faded red shirt and overalls. His eyes meet mine.

What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends them to me. It’s our sign from District 12, the last good-bye I gave Rue in the arena.

If I hadn’t spoken to President Snow, this gesture might move me to tears. But with his recent orders to calm the districts fresh in my ears, it fills me with dread. What will he think of this very public salute to the girl who defied the Capitol?

The full impact of what I’ve done hits me. It was not intentional—I only meant to express my thanks — but I have elicited something dangerous. An act of dissent from the people of District 11. This is exactly the kind of thing I am supposed to be defusing!

I try to think of something to say to undermine what has just happened, to negate it, but I can hear the slight burst of static indicating my microphone has been cut off and the mayor has taken over. Peeta and I acknowledge a final round of applause. He leads me back toward the doors, unaware that anything has gone wrong.

I feel funny and have to stop for a moment. Little bits of bright sunshine dance before my eyes. “Are you all right?” Peeta asks.

“Just dizzy. The sun was so bright,” I say. I see his bouquet. “I forgot my flowers,” I mumble. “I’ll get them,” he says. “I can,” I answer.

We would be safe inside the Justice Building by now, if I hadn’t stopped, if I hadn’t left my flowers. Instead, from the deep shade of the verandah, we see the whole thing.

A pair of Peacekeepers dragging the old man who whistled to the top of the steps. Forcing him to his knees before the crowd. And putting a bullet through his head.

The man has only just crumpled to the ground when a wall of white Peacekeeper uniforms blocks our view. Several of the soldiers have automatic weapons held lengthwise as they push us back toward the door.

“We’re going!” says Peeta, shoving the Peacekeeper who’s pressing on me. “We get it, all right? Come on, Katniss.” His arm encircles me and guides me back into the Justice Building. The Peacekeepers follow a pace or two behind us. The moment we’re inside, the doors slam shut and we hear the Peacekeepers’ boots moving back toward the crowd.

Haymitch, Effie, Portia, and Cinna wait under a static-filled screen that’s mounted on the wall, their faces tight with anxiety.

“What happened?” Effie hurries over. “We lost the feed just after Katniss’s beautiful speech, and then Haymitch said he thought he heard a gun fire, and I said it was ridiculous, but who knows? There are lunatics everywhere!”

“Nothing happened, Effie. An old truck backfired,” says Peeta evenly.

Two more shots. The door doesn’t muffle their sound much. Who was that? Thresh’s grandmother? One of Rue’s little sisters?

“Both of you. With me,” says Haymitch. Peeta and I follow him, leaving the others behind. The Peacekeepers who are stationed around the Justice Building take little interest in our movements now that we are safely inside. We ascend a magnificent curved marble staircase. At the top, there’s a long hall with worn carpet on the floor. Double doors stand open, welcoming us into the first room we encounter. The ceiling must be twenty feet high. Designs of fruit and flowers are carved into the molding and small, fat children with wings look down at us from every angle. Vases of blossoms give off a cloying scent that makes my eyes itch. Our evening clothes hang on racks against the wall. This room has been prepared for our use, but we’re barely there long enough to drop off our gifts. Then Haymitch yanks the microphones from our chests, stuffs them beneath a couch cushion, and waves us on.

As far as I know, Haymitch has only been here once, when he was on his Victory Tour decades ago. But he must have a remarkable memory or reliable instincts, because he leads us up through a maze of twisting staircases and increasingly narrow halls. At times he has to stop and force a door. By the protesting squeak of the hinges you can tell it’s been a long time since it was opened. Eventually we climb a ladder to a trapdoor. When Haymitch pushes it aside, we find ourselves in the dome of the Justice Building. It’s a huge place filled with broken furniture, piles of books and ledgers, and rusty weapons. The coat of dust blanketing everything is so thick it’s clear it hasn’t been disturbed for years. Light struggles to filter in through four grimy square windows set in the sides of the dome. Haymitch kicks the trapdoor shut and turns on us. “What happened?” he asks.

Peeta relates all that occurred in the square. The whistle, the salute, our hesitation on the verandah, the murder of the old man. “What’s going on, Haymitch?”

“It will be better coming from you,” Haymitch says to me.

I don’t agree. I think it will be a hundred times worse coming from me. But I tell Peeta everything as calmly as I can. About President Snow, the unrest in the districts. I don’t even omit the kiss with Gale. I lay out how we are all in jeopardy, how the whole country is in jeopardy because of my trick with the berries. “I was supposed to fix things on this tour. Make everyone who had doubted believe I acted out of love. Calm things down. But obviously, all I’ve done today is. get three people killed, and now everyone in the square will be punished.” I feel so sick that I have to sit down on a couch, despite the exposed springs and stuffing.

“Then I made things worse, too. By giving the money,” says Peeta. Suddenly he strikes out at a lamp that sits precariously on a crate and knocks it across the room, where it shatters against the floor. “This has to stop. Right now. This — this—game you two play, where you tell each other secrets but keep them from me like I’m too inconsequential or stupid or weak to handle them.”

“It’s not like that, Peeta—” I begin.

“It’s exactly like that!” he yells at me. “I have people I care about, too, Katniss! Family and friends back in District Twelve who will be just as dead as yours if we don’t pull this thing off. So, after all we went through in the arena, don’t I even rate the truth from you?”

“You’re always so reliably good, Peeta,” says Haymitch. “So smart about how you present yourself before the cameras. I didn’t want to disrupt that.”

“Well, you overestimated me. Because I really screwed up today. What do you think is going to happen to Rue’s and Thresh’s families? Do you think they’ll get their share of our winnings? Do you think I gave them a bright future? Because I think they’ll be lucky if they survive the day!” Peeta sends something else flying, a statue. I’ve never seen him like this.

“He’s right, Haymitch,” I say. “We were wrong not to tell him. Even back in the Capitol.”

“Even in the arena, you two had some sort of system worked out, didn’t you?” asks Peeta. His voice is quieter now. “Something I wasn’t part of.”

“No. Not officially. I just could tell what Haymitch wanted me to do by what he sent, or didn’t send,” I say.

“Well, I never had that opportunity. Because he never sent me anything until you showed up,” says Peeta.

I haven’t thought much about this. How it must have looked from Peeta’s perspective when I appeared in the arena having received burn medicine and bread when he, who was at death’s door, had gotten nothing. Like Haymitch was keeping me alive at his expense.

“Look, boy—” Haymitch begins.

“Don’t bother, Haymitch. I know you had to choose one of us. And I’d have wanted it to be her. But this is something different. People are dead out there. More will follow unless we’re very good. We all know I’m better than Katniss in front of the cameras. No one needs to coach me on what to say. But I have to know what I’m walking into,” says Peeta.

“From now on, you’ll be fully informed,” Haymitch promises.

“I better be,” says Peeta. He doesn’t even bother to look at me before he leaves.

The dust he disrupted billows up and looks for new places to land. My hair, my eyes, my shiny gold pin.

“Did you choose me, Haymitch?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says.

“Why? You like him better,” I say.

“That’s true. But remember, until they changed the rules, I could only hope to get one of you out of there alive,” he says. “I thought since he was determined to protect you, well, between the three of us, we might be able to bring you home.”

“Oh” is all I can think to say.

“You’ll see, the choices you’ll have to make. If we survive this,” says Haymitch. “You’ll learn.”

Well, I’ve learned one thing today. This place is not a larger version of District 12. Our fence is unguarded and rarely charged. Our Peacekeepers are unwelcome but less brutal. Our hardships evoke more fatigue than fury. Here in 11, they suffer more acutely and feel more desperation. President Snow is right. A spark could be enough to set them ablaze.

Everything is happening too fast for me to process it. The warning, the shootings, the recognition that I may have set something of great consequence in motion. The whole thing is so improbable. And it would be one thing if I had planned to stir things up, but given the circumstances … how on earth did I cause so much trouble?

“Come on. We’ve got a dinner to attend,” says Haymitch.

I stand in the shower as long as they let me before I have to come out to be readied. The prep team seems oblivious to the events of the day. They’re all excited about the dinner. In the districts they’re important enough to attend, whereas back in the Capitol they almost never score invitations to prestigious parties. While they try to predict what dishes will be served, I keep seeing the old man’s head being blown off. I don’t even pay attention to what anyone is doing to me until I’m about to leave and I see myself in the mirror. A pale pink strapless dress brushes my shoes. My hair is pinned back from my face and falling down my back in a shower of ringlets.

Cinna comes up behind me and arranges a shimmering silver wrap around my shoulders. He catches my eye in the mirror. “Like it?”

“It’s beautiful. As always,” I say.

“Let’s see how it looks with a smile,” he says gently. It’s his reminder that in a minute, there will be cameras again. I manage to raise the corners of my lips. “There we go.”

When we all assemble to go down to the dinner, I can see Effie is out of sorts. Surely, Haymitch hasn’t told her about what happened in the square. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cinna and Portia know, but there seems to be an unspoken agreement to leave Effie out of the bad-news loop. It doesn’t take long to hear about the problem, though.

Effie runs through the evening’s schedule, then tosses it aside. “And then, thank goodness, we can all get on that train and get out of here,” she says.

“Is something wrong, Effie?” asks Cinna.

“I don’t like the way we’ve been treated. Being stuffed into trucks and barred from the platform. And then, about an hour ago, I decided to look around the Justice Building. I’m something of an expert in architectural design, you know,” she says.

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard that,” says Portia before the pause gets too long.

“So, I was just having a peek around because district ruins are going to be all the rage this year, when two Peacemakers showed up and ordered me back to our quarters. One of them actually poked me with her gun!” says Effie.

I can’t help thinking this is the direct result of Haymitch, Peeta, and me disappearing earlier in the day. It’s a little reassuring, actually, to think that Haymitch might have been right. That no one would have been monitoring the dusty dome where we talked. Although I bet they are now.

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