Prim wrinkles her brow. “Only how do you know they’ll keep their word?”
I remember all of the lies Haymitch told Peeta and me to get us to do what he wanted. What’s to keep the rebels from reneging on the deal? A verbal promise behind closed doors, even a statement written on paper–these could easily evaporate after the war. Their existence or validity denied. Any witnesses in Command will be worthless. In fact, they’d probably be the ones writing out Peeta’s death warrant. I’ll need a much larger pool of witnesses. I’ll need everyone I can get.
“It will have to be public,” I say. Buttercup gives a flick of his tail that I take as agreement. “I’ll make Coin announce it in front of the entire population of Thirteen.”
Prim smiles. “Oh, that’s good. It’s not a guarantee, but it will be much harder for them to back out of their promise.”
I feel the kind of relief that follows an actual solution. “I should wake you up more often, little duck.”
“I wish you would,” says Prim. She gives me a kiss. “Try and sleep now, all right?” And I do.
In the morning, I see that 7:00–Breakfast is directly followed by 7:30–Command, which is fine since I may as well start the ball rolling. At the dining hall, I flash my schedule, which includes some kind of ID number, in front of a sensor. As I slide my tray along the metal shelf before the vats of food, I see breakfast is its usual dependable self–a bowl of hot grain, a cup of milk, and a small scoop of fruit or vegetables. Today, mashed turnips. All of it comes from 13’s underground farms. I sit at the table assigned to the Everdeens and the Hawthornes and some other refugees, and shovel my food down, wishing for seconds, but there are never seconds here. They have nutrition down to a science. You leave with enough calories to take you to the next meal, no more, no less. Serving size is based on your age, height, body type, health, and amount of physical labor required by your schedule. The people from 12 are already getting slightly larger portions than the natives of 13 in an effort to bring us up to weight. I guess bony soldiers tire too quickly. It’s working, though. In just a month, we’re starting to look healthier, particularly the kids.
Gale sets his tray beside me and I try not to stare at his turnips too pathetically, because I really want more, and he’s already too quick to slip me his food. Even though I turn my attention to neatly folding my napkin, a spoonful of turnips slops into my bowl.
“You’ve got to stop that,” I say. But since I’m already scooping up the stuff, it’s not too convincing. “Really. It’s probably illegal or something.” They have very strict rules about food. For instance, if you don’t finish something and want to save it for later, you can’t take it from the dining hall. Apparently, in the early days, there was some incident of food hoarding. For a couple of people like Gale and me, who’ve been in charge of our families’ food supply for years, it doesn’t sit well. We know how to be hungry, but not how to be told how to handle what provisions we have. In some ways, District 13 is even more controlling than the Capitol.
“What can they do? They’ve already got my communicuff,” says Gale.
As I scrape my bowl clean, I have an inspiration. “Hey, maybe I should make that a condition of being the Mockingjay.”
“That I can feed you turnips?” he says.
“No, that we can hunt.” That gets his attention. “We’d have to give everything to the kitchen. But still, we could…” I don’t have to finish because he knows. We could be aboveground. Out in the woods. We could be ourselves again.
“Do it,” he says. “Now’s the time. You could ask for the moon and they’d have to find some way to get it.”
He doesn’t know that I’m already asking for the moon by demanding they spare Peeta’s life. Before I can decide whether or not to tell him, a bell signals the end of our eating shift. The thought of facing Coin alone makes me nervous. “What are you scheduled for?”
Gale checks his arm. “Nuclear History class. Where, by the way, your absence has been noted.”
“I have to go to Command. Come with me?” I ask.
“All right. But they might throw me out after yesterday.” As we go to drop off our trays, he says, “You know, you better put Buttercup on your list of demands, too. I don’t think the concept of useless pets is well known here.”
“Oh, they’ll find him a job. Tattoo it on his paw every morning,” I say. But I make a mental note to include him for Prim’s sake.
By the time we get to Command, Coin, Plutarch, and all their people have already assembled. The sight of Gale raises some eyebrows, but no one throws him out. My mental notes have become too jumbled, so I ask for a piece of paper and a pencil right off. My apparent interest in the proceedings–the first I’ve shown since I’ve been here–takes them by surprise. Several looks are exchanged. Probably they had some extra-special lecture planned for me. But instead, Coin personally hands me the supplies, and everyone waits in silence while I sit at the table and scrawl out my list. Buttercup. Hunting. Peeta’s immunity. Announced in public.
This is it. Probably my only chance to bargain. Think. What else do you want? I feel him, standing at my shoulder. Gale, I add to the list. I don’t think I can do this without him.
The headache’s coming on and my thoughts begin to tangle. I shut my eyes and start to recite silently.
My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. The Capitol hates me. Peeta was taken prisoner. He is alive. He is a traitor but alive. I have to keep him alive….
The list. It still seems too small. I should try to think bigger, beyond our current situation where I am of the utmost importance, to the future where I may be worth nothing. Shouldn’t I be asking for more? For my family? For the remainder of my people? My skin itches with the ashes of the dead. I feel the sickening impact of the skull against my shoe. The scent of blood and roses stings my nose.
The pencil moves across the page on its own. I open my eyes and see the wobbly letters. I KILL SNOW. If he’s captured, I want the privilege.
Plutarch gives a discreet cough. “About done there?” I glance up and notice the clock. I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes. Finnick isn’t the only one with attention problems.
“Yeah,” I say. My voice sounds hoarse, so I clear my throat. “Yeah, so this is the deal. I’ll be your Mockingjay.”
I wait so they can make their sounds of relief, congratulate, slap one another on the back. Coin stays as impassive as ever, watching me, unimpressed.
“But I have some conditions.” I smooth out the list and begin. “My family gets to keep our cat.” My tiniest request sets off an argument. The Capitol rebels see this as a nonissue–of course, I can keep my pet–while those from 13 spell out what extreme difficulties this presents. Finally it’s worked out that we’ll be moved to the top level, which has the luxury of an eight-inch window aboveground. Buttercup may come and go to do his business. He will be expected to feed himself. If he misses curfew, he will be locked out. If he causes any security problems, he’ll be shot immediately.
That sounds okay. Not so different from how he’s been living since we left. Except for the shooting part. If he looks too thin, I can slip him a few entrails, provided my next request is allowed.
“I want to hunt. With Gale. Out in the woods,” I say. This gives everyone pause.
“We won’t go far. We’ll use our own bows. You can have the meat for the kitchen,” adds Gale.
I hurry on before they can say no. “It’s just…I can’t breathe shut up here like a…I would get better, faster, if…I could hunt.”
Plutarch begins to explain the drawbacks here–the dangers, the extra security, the risk of injury–but Coin cuts him off. “No. Let them. Give them two hours a day, deducted from their training time. A quarter-mile radius. With communication units and tracker anklets. What’s next?”
I skim my list. “Gale. I’ll need him with me to do this.”
“With you how? Off camera? By your side at all times? Do you want him presented as your new lover?” Coin asks.
She hasn’t said this with any particular malice–quite the contrary, her words are very matter-of-fact. But my mouth still drops open in shock. “What?”
“I think we should continue the current romance. A quick defection from Peeta could cause the audience to lose sympathy for her,” says Plutarch. “Especially since they think she’s pregnant with his child.”
“Agreed. So, on-screen, Gale can simply be portrayed as a fellow rebel. Is that all right?” says Coin. I just stare at her. She repeats herself impatiently. “For Gale. Will that be sufficient?”
“We can always work him in as your cousin,” says Fulvia.
“We’re not cousins,” Gale and I say together.
“Right, but we should probably keep that up for appearances’ sake on camera,” says Plutarch. “Off camera, he’s all yours. Anything else?”
I’m rattled by the turn in the conversation. The implications that I could so readily dispose of Peeta, that I’m in love with Gale, that the whole thing has been an act. My cheeks begin to burn. The very notion that I’m devoting any thought to who I want presented as my lover, given our current circumstances, is demeaning. I let my anger propel me into my greatest demand. “When the war is over, if we’ve won, Peeta will be pardoned.”
Dead silence. I feel Gale’s body tense. I guess I should have told him before, but I wasn’t sure how he’d respond. Not when it involved Peeta.
“No form of punishment will be inflicted,” I continue. A new thought occurs to me. “The same goes for the other captured tributes, Johanna and Enobaria.” Frankly, I don’t care about Enobaria, the vicious District 2 tribute. In fact, I dislike her, but it seems wrong to leave her out.
“No,” says Coin flatly.
“Yes,” I shoot back. “It’s not their fault you abandoned them in the arena. Who knows what the Capitol’s doing to them?”
“They’ll be tried with other war criminals and treated as the tribunal sees fit,” she says.
“They’ll be granted immunity!” I feel myself rising from my chair, my voice full and resonant. “You will personally pledge this in front of the entire population of District Thirteen and the remainder of Twelve. Soon. Today. It will be recorded for future generations. You will hold yourself and your government responsible for their safety, or you’ll find yourself another Mockingjay!”
My words hang in the air for a long moment.
“That’s her!” I hear Fulvia hiss to Plutarch. “Right there. With the costume, gunfire in the background, just a hint of smoke.”
“Yes, that’s what we want,” says Plutarch under his breath.
I want to glare at them, but I feel it would be a mistake to turn my attention from Coin. I can see her tallying the cost of my ultimatum, weighing it against my possible worth.
“What do you say, President?” asks Plutarch. “You could issue an official pardon, given the circumstances. The boy…he’s not even of age.”
“All right,” Coin says finally. “But you’d better perform.”
“I’ll perform when you’ve made the announcement,” I say.
“Call a national security assembly during Reflection today,” she orders. “I’ll make the announcement then. Is there anything left on your list, Katniss?”
My paper’s crumpled into a ball in my right fist. I flatten the sheet against the table and read the rickety letters. “Just one more thing. I kill Snow.”
For the first time ever, I see the hint of a smile on the president’s lips. “When the time comes, I’ll flip you for it.”
Maybe she’s right. I certainly don’t have the sole claim against Snow’s life. And I think I can count on her getting the job done. “Fair enough.”
Coin’s eyes have flickered to her arm, the clock. She, too, has a schedule to adhere to. “I’ll leave her in your hands, then, Plutarch.” She exits the room, followed by her team, leaving only Plutarch, Fulvia, Gale, and myself.
“Excellent. Excellent.” Plutarch sinks down, elbows on the table, rubbing his eyes. “You know what I miss? More than anything? Coffee. I ask you, would it be so unthinkable to have something to wash down the gruel and turnips?”
“We didn’t think it would be quite so rigid here,” Fulvia explains to us as she massages Plutarch’s shoulders. “Not in the higher ranks.”
“Or at least there’d be the option of a little side action,” says Plutarch. “I mean, even Twelve had a black market, right?”
“Yeah, the Hob,” says Gale. “It’s where we traded.”
“There, you see? And look how moral you two are! Virtually incorruptible.” Plutarch sighs. “Oh, well, wars don’t last forever. So, glad to have you on the team.” He reaches a hand out to the side, where Fulvia is already extending a large sketchbook bound in black leather. “You know in general what we’re asking of you, Katniss. I’m aware you have mixed feelings about participating. I hope this will help.”
Plutarch slides the sketchbook across to me. For a moment, I look at it suspiciously. Then curiosity gets the better of me. I open the cover to find a picture of myself, standing straight and strong, in a black uniform. Only one person could have designed the outfit, at first glance utterly utilitarian, at second a work of art. The swoop of the helmet, the curve to the breastplate, the slight fullness of the sleeves that allows the white folds under the arms to show. In his hands, I am again a mockingjay.
“Cinna,” I whisper.
“Yes. He made me promise not to show you this book until you’d decided to be the Mockingjay on your own. Believe me, I was very tempted,” says Plutarch. “Go on. Flip through.”
I turn the pages slowly, seeing each detail of the uniform. The carefully tailored layers of body armor, the hidden weapons in the boots and belt, the special reinforcements over my heart. On the final page, under a sketch of my mockingjay pin, Cinna’s written, I’m still betting on you.
“When did he…” My voice fails me.
“Let’s see. Well, after the Quarter Quell announcement. A few weeks before the Games maybe? There are not only the sketches. We have your uniforms. Oh, and Beetee’s got something really special waiting for you down in the armory. I won’t spoil it by hinting,” says Plutarch.
“You’re going to be the best-dressed rebel in history,” says Gale with a smile. Suddenly, I realize he’s been holding out on me. Like Cinna, he’s wanted me to make this decision all along.
“Our plan is to launch an Airtime Assault,” says Plutarch. “To make a series of what we call propos–which is short for ‘propaganda spots’–featuring you, and broadcast them to the entire population of Panem.”
“How? The Capitol has sole control of the broadcasts,” says Gale.
“But we have Beetee. About ten years ago, he essentially redesigned the underground network that transmits all the programming. He thinks there’s a reasonable chance it can be done. Of course, we’ll need something to air. So, Katniss, the studio awaits your pleasure.” Plutarch turns to his assistant. “Fulvia?”
“Plutarch and I have been talking about how on earth we can pull this off. We think that it might be best to build you, our rebel leader, from the outside…in. That is to say, let’s find the most stunning Mockingjay look possible, and then work your personality up to deserving it!” she says brightly.
“You already have her uniform,” says Gale.
“Yes, but is she scarred and bloody? Is she glowing with the fire of rebellion? Just how grimy can we make her without disgusting people? At any rate, she has to be something. I mean, obviously this”–Fulvia moves in on me quickly, framing my face with her hands–“won’t cut it.” I jerk my head back reflexively but she’s already busy gathering her things. “So, with that in mind, we have another little surprise for you. Come, come.”
Fulvia gives us a wave, and Gale and I follow her and Plutarch out into the hall.
“So well intended, and yet so insulting,” Gale whispers in my ear.
“Welcome to the Capitol,” I mouth back. But Fulvia’s words have no effect on me. I wrap my arms tightly around the sketchbook and allow myself to feel hopeful. This must be the right decision. If Cinna wanted it.
We board an elevator, and Plutarch checks his notes. “Let’s see. It’s Compartment Three-Nine-Oh-Eight.” He presses a button marked 39, but nothing happens.
“You must have to key it,” says Fulvia.
Plutarch pulls a key attached to a thin chain from under his shirt and inserts it into a slot I hadn’t noticed before. The doors slide shut. “Ah, there we are.”
The elevator descends ten, twenty, thirty-plus levels, farther down than I even knew District 13 went. It opens on a wide white corridor lined with red doors, which look almost decorative compared to the gray ones on the upper floors. Each is plainly marked with a number. 3901, 3902, 3903…
As we step out, I glance behind me to watch the elevator close and see a metallic grate slide into place over the regular doors. When I turn, a guard has materialized from one of the rooms at the far end of the corridor. A door swings silently shut behind him as he strides toward us.
Plutarch moves to meet him, raising a hand in greeting, and the rest of us follow behind him. Something feels very wrong down here. It’s more than the reinforced elevator, or the claustrophobia of being so far underground, or the caustic smell of antiseptic. One look at Gale’s face and I can tell he senses it as well.
“Good morning, we were just looking for–” Plutarch begins.
“You have the wrong floor,” says the guard abruptly.
“Really?” Plutarch double-checks his notes. “I’ve got Three-Nine-Oh-Eight written right here. I wonder if you could just give a call up to–”
“I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave now. Assignment discrepancies can be addressed at the Head Office,” says the guard.
It’s right ahead of us. Compartment 3908. Just a few steps away. The door–in fact, all the doors–seem incomplete. No knobs. They must swing free on hinges like the one the guard appeared through.
“Where is that again?” asks Fulvia.
“You’ll find the Head Office on Level Seven,” says the guard, extending his arms to corral us back to the elevator.
From behind door 3908 comes a sound. Just a tiny whimper. Like something a cowed dog might make to avoid being struck, only all too human and familiar. My eyes meet Gale’s for just a moment, but it’s long enough for two people who operate the way we do. I let Cinna’s sketchbook fall at the guard’s feet with a loud bang. A second after he leans down to retrieve it, Gale leans down, too, intentionally bumping heads. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he says with a light laugh, catching the guard’s arms as if to steady himself, turning him slightly away from me.
That’s my chance. I dart around the distracted guard, push open the door marked 3908, and find them. Half-naked, bruised, and shackled to the wall.
My prep team.
The stink of unwashed bodies, stale urine, and infection breaks through the cloud of antiseptic. The three figures are only just recognizable by their most striking fashion choices: Venia’s gold facial tattoos. Flavius’s orange corkscrew curls. Octavia’s light evergreen skin, which now hangs too loosely, as if her body were a slowly deflating balloon.
On seeing me, Flavius and Octavia shrink back against the tiled walls like they’re anticipating an attack, even though I have never hurt them. Unkind thoughts were my worst offense against them, and those I kept to myself, so why do they recoil?
The guard’s ordering me out, but by the shuffling that follows, I know Gale has somehow detained him. For answers, I cross to Venia, who was always the strongest. I crouch down and take her icy hands, which clutch mine like vises.
“What happened, Venia?” I ask. “What are you doing here?”
“They took us. From the Capitol,” she says hoarsely.
Plutarch enters behind me. “What on earth is going on?”
“Who took you?” I press her.
“People,” she says vaguely. “The night you broke out.”
“We thought it might be comforting for you to have your regular team,” Plutarch says behind me. “Cinna requested it.”
“Cinna requested this?” I snarl at him. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that Cinna would never have approved the abuse of these three, who he managed with gentleness and patience. “Why are they being treated like criminals?”
“I honestly don’t know.” There’s something in his voice that makes me believe him, and the pallor on Fulvia’s face confirms it. Plutarch turns to the guard, who’s just appeared in the doorway with Gale right behind him. “I was only told they were being confined. Why are they being punished?”
“For stealing food. We had to restrain them after an altercation over some bread,” says the guard.
Venia’s brows come together as if she’s still trying to make sense of it. “No one would tell us anything. We were so hungry. It was just one slice she took.”
Octavia begins to sob, muffling the sound in her ragged tunic. I think of how, the first time I survived the arena, Octavia sneaked me a roll under the table because she couldn’t bear my hunger. I crawl across to her shaking form. “Octavia?” I touch her and she flinches. “Octavia? It’s going to be all right. I’ll get you out of here, okay?”
“This seems extreme,” says Plutarch.
“It’s because they took a slice of bread?” asks Gale.
“There were repeated infractions leading up to that. They were warned. Still they took more bread.” The guard pauses a moment, as if puzzled by our density. “You can’t take bread.”
I can’t get Octavia to uncover her face, but she lifts it slightly. The shackles on her wrists shift down a few inches, revealing raw sores beneath them.