On the way to City Circle, I have to devote most of my attention to staying on the chariot. It's built for two people, not four, and Gilla and I are kind of hanging off the edges at a slight angle. Standing still, it's no big deal. In motion, I have to hold on so tight with my free hand that my knuckles are white. I'm holding the stupid helmet in the other hand -- Gilla's got her plastic pickaxe -- so all I can do is balance. I don't even pay attention to the big screens showing everyone's progress.
It's not like I haven't seen this parade every year since I was born, anyway.
By the time we're in City Circle, I'm not sure I could let go if I tried, and since I'd rather not fall off the chariot on national television, I opt not to try. It looks like none of the other edge-side tributes are letting go, either.
My clearest view is of the District One chariot, with four kids dripping with fake gold and shimmering crystals. In the middle is a tall girl with brown hair, twisted through with golden ribbons. Beside her is a boy who looks like he could be her brother -- I remember what Lacklen said about there being no rule against picking siblings, but I still think that would be too much of a coincidence -- and on either side of the chariot, hanging off like Gilla and me, are a couple of redheaded kids wearing tiaras. The boy looks scared to death.
District Two looks weirdly like us -- they're quarry workers instead of miners, but they're carrying pickaxes and made to look dusty. District Three seems to be wound up in wires. I don't have time to really get a look at anyone else, because President Snow mounts the stage for his address to the tributes.
I suppose I should listen to it, since I am one this year.
It's really the same as usual. The districts rebelled. The Hunger Games are a compassionate way to sate the anger of the war, taking only a few children, instead of thousands, and giving one the chance to live in the lap of luxury.
"This year," he says, "we honor our second Quarter Quell -- a reminder to the districts that their price for rebellion will always be higher than the price we in the Capitol will pay. We welcome our forty-eight tributes this year from the districts of Panem. May the odds be in your favor."
I look around the semi-circle. No one here looks like the odds have been much use.
I glance at Maysilee. She is listening intently.
The speech ends, and the chariots do another slow walk around City Circle. My hand is cramped up from the tight grip, and when we get back to the training center, I have to more or less pry it away from the chariot. I'm trying to rub out the cramp when Gia meets us and take us to the elevators.
I have been in elevators before, of course -- every year, we go down to the mines for a field trip, and it's considerably too far to walk to get down to the working area. But this elevator is nothing like the rickety cage elevator we take down into the depths of the earth. This like a small, crystal room, with a view down into the building. I can see stairs that lead down into the bowels of the place, and a door to a room with what looks like a gold-railed bar in it. Guards stand outside this room, and as we zoom up, I see Drake come out of it.
Gia tells us that District Twelve has the twelfth floor of the building, and we'll have easy access to the roof if we want to go up for some fresh air. This is supposedly a great advantage of being from the poorest district.
The door of the elevator opens into an apartment bigger than several merchants' houses in District Twelve. Wide windows give us a view of the city, the lights twinkling against the black background of the mountains, which cut into the starry sky like a jagged knife-edge. I wonder what the lake would look like from up here.
I shake it off. I'm not here for the sightseeing. The elevator opens again, and Drake gets off.
"Do I have any messages?" he asks without preliminaries.
Gia goes to a small table and presses a button. I have no idea what it is, but apparently, it has something to do with messages, because she says, "None yet, Albinus."
"I have a call out to Maris Brinn. Our usual sponsorship deal."
Gia gives him an awkward smile. "As I understand it, Miss Brinn has been seeing your victor from last year. She is usually a District Two sponsor."
"Great. No one else, either?"
"Not yet, but it's still early."
"I usually have sponsors lined up before the parade."
"You've been in District Two. When I was in District Seven, we often had to wait -- "
"I get it," he interrupts her gruffly. "I'm assigned to the hell district. My connections can usually be counted on to be a little bit better than Blight's. I guess not anymore."
With that, he stalks away to some other part of the apartment. Gia tells us all to take showers and get cleaned up for supper while she smooths things over.
Beech and I are sharing a room, and he asks me sheepishly for help trying to figure out how to use the shower. I've never used a regular one, but I did peek at the one over the Mellarks' once while I used the bathroom, and this looks nothing like it. Instead of handles, it has buttons, about a hundred of them. After a while, I figure out that one row has soap products, and another has hair soap -- I guess in the Capitol, you use different kinds of soap for different parts of your body, which I find funny, having washed myself with ashes yesterday morning. The rest of the buttons seem to make the water do different things, though I'm at a loss as to what the symbols mean. Beech decides to poke at them until he figures it out. Judging by the yelps that come out of the room while I look at the clothes they've given me, some of the settings aren't pleasant.
He finally comes to one that sounds like steady water, and the yelping stops. I run my hands over the closet full of clothes, all my size, that is at my disposal. I can wear anything I want. There's a drawer full of enough clean underwear to get me through whatever's left of my life.
You've already whipped one victor. Put him down like he was nothing.
I stop, my hand hovering over the softest sweater I've ever touched. Chaff was right. Drake's an idiot, but he won this. And I beat him.
I look at the string bracelet on my wrist, think about Digger and the ruined world by the lake in the woods.
I guess all forty-eight of us have something that we want to go back for. But I did put down a victor. Maybe I could…
I clamp my jaw as tightly as I can, until it causes enough discomfort to break me out of the fantasy. I'm going to try. I promised to try. But if I go in there thinking I have some special advantage just because I lost my temper at my mentor, I'm going to get killed at the Cornucopia.
Beech gets out of the shower smelling like lilacs, and I ask him to show me what he hit to get steady water. He doesn't remember, so I have to go through the same stinging process he did to get something bearable. I'll have to see if there are instructions anywhere to translate the symbols. I bet there are some good settings in there, too. I leave my bracelet on. I don't want to take the risk of Drake sending someone in and having them "accidentally" clear it away with the trash.
I give myself a good long wash. It's my third in two days, but I have to get rid of the fake coal dust, before my prep team decides to give me another scrub for good measure.
Besides, I could get used to this, if I had time. There are worse things in the world than a hot shower.
After my shower, I consider changing into an actual suit, but I end up going for clean blue jeans and the soft sweater. I put on warm socks, and the first whole pair of shoes I've ever had. They pinch a little, and I keep looking down at my feet to make sure those shiny things are actually attached to me.
By the time I get downstairs, everyone is there, including Drake and the stylists. People in serving uniforms are laying out another huge meal. I've eaten enough in the last day to make up for three weeks at home.
"Glad you could join us, genius," Drake sneers.
"You look nice," Gilla says. "Digger'd sure love to see you now."
"It's mutual," I say.
"Who are we talking about?" Gia asks.
"My girl," I say. I guess I could say she's my wife, but I can't quite wrap my mouth around the word. It just doesn't feel like a word that has a connection to me. Not yet. If I live, maybe I'll learn to say it.
"Mm-mm," Drake says. "No. No girl back home."
"If you get far enough, they'll interview her, and that'll be all right. People will have bought in by then, and it'll be something new to know. But if you're going to get any sponsors, be a damned man."
"Men… don't have girlfriends?"
"Men aren't pining around after them. You want sponsors, you better come off tough. Not to mention allies."
"Allies?" Maysilee repeats.
"Allies. Starting tomorrow, you're in training. None of you has much to go on alone, so you better find some way to impress the stronger kids." He sighs and leans forward, like he's the one who's been hit with a death sentence. "I don't know how much chance any of you have, anyway, but I mentored Brutus last year. Maybe I can get us an in with the District Two boys. Beech, anyway. He's strong enough for them." He looks at me. "You… just try not to piss them off."
"What about Gilla and me?" Maysilee asks.
"You won't have trouble finding allies," he says. "Pretty girls never do. Gilla… I don't know. Look for someone who's missing a little sister, I guess. Best chance." He shakes his head. Telling a thirteen-year-old girl that she doesn't have much of a chance to live must be tiring. "Now, you're going to have two full days of training, then you'll do a demo for the Gamemakers to get your scores. Do everything. Whatever you're best at, do it a lot, and make sure everyone sees you. It'll help intimidate them -- if you can do anything, that is -- and it might get you some allies…"
He goes on this way through the meal, taking a break every fifteen minutes or so to find something to insult me about. I start drinking the wine they bring. It doesn't taste like the raisins Danny brought, even though they both come from grapes. It's nowhere near as strong as the white liquor we tried. I'm not really paying attention to it. I notice that it's getting very warm and peel off my sweater. Drake says something to me, but it sounds like he's on the far end of a cave, which seems like an excellent place for him to be. I finish off my glass of wine and try to put it down, but there's no room. For some reason, there are four wine glasses there already.
"Haymitch!" Maysilee hisses into my ear.
I sit up. My elbow has slipped into some kind of sticky red sauce. "What?" I ask. I realize I'm half-naked, and guess that's what he means, but when I reach for my sweater, I lose my balance on the edge of the chair and fall down, my glass breaking on the edge of the table as I go. My head is spinning, and all the food I've been eating wants to come up. I look up, feeling confused and wrong-footed.
Drake is smirking at me. "Yeah," he says. "You'll be a contender."
"I can still whip you," I say. "Even if I am a little… maybe more than a little... "
"You have to be able to get up first."
He turns away, unconcerned. He has good reason to be unconcerned. I can't seem to get the mechanics of getting from the floor to my feet.
I pull myself over against a chair and sit on the floor until it's time for dessert. Gia comes to me and says, "Don't worry, sweetheart, we have ways to clear your head." She looks over her shoulder, and I notice that Drake is gone. "Don't tell him I gave you these." She pulls my hand up and puts two pills into it. I put them in my mouth and dry swallow.
It takes about ten minutes for my head to totally clear. I have no idea what's in the pills, but they work like magic. Gia keeps feeding me water, and I hear her tell the servers not to bring any more alcohol with meals.
I manage not to throw up, and when I wake up the next morning, I only have a little bit of a headache, nothing like the whoppers I remember Dad getting. I'm able to eat breakfast just fine, even though Drake harasses me all the way through it.
We take the elevator down to the basement just before ten. All of us are in simple exercise clothes. I have another pair of new shoes, athletic ones, but they feel a little constricting, so I take them off. I'm barefoot when we start training.
It takes me maybe five minutes to realize that not one of these people is going to be intimidated by anything I can do, and as far as allies go, the only ones strong enough to be of any use would kill me fast. I decide that my safest bet is to not show them anything, so I'll at least have the element of surprise if they think I'm easy prey. I sink back to the survival stations -- plant recognition, knots, shelters. I'm actually pretty good with improvising shelters after keeping my house together for the last five years. The real trick will be making ones that are strong enough to keep the elements out while still being invisible, and able to be broken down without leaving any traces.
Beech is following Drake's instructions to the letter, doing all of the strength training and making nice with the District Two tributes. I see the way they treat him like a pet. Maybe they'll take him as an ally, but I kind of think it's more likely they'll make him think they'll be allies, then knife him as soon as they get into the arena. I'll try to warn him about this.
Gilla seems to understand that she's not scaring anyone. She makes friends with other younger kids from other districts. I hear the girl from District One call them "the Fodder Brigade." I watch her carefully. Her name is Filigree. She looked tall on the chariot. In person, she's gigantic. She towers over the boys on her team, and certainly over those of us from districts that don't get enough to eat. She's obviously been training, even though no one is supposed to. District One is one of the Career districts, and everyone knows they train. She can shoot at the archery station, and she's good in knife combat and spears. She even manages to outshine the District Seven kids with an axe. She tells them that she'll take pleasure taking down loggers with their own weapons.
"She's nuts," Maysilee whispers, coming up to me.
"Yeah. That'll give her an edge."
"How come you're not at the combat stations? You could show them whatever you did to Drake."
I shake my head. "How about you? Not showing off that slapping hand? I'm intimidated by it."
"I've tried everything. I can't find anything that I'm better than anyone else at." She bites her lip. "I'm kind of watching the others to see what they're bad at."
"That's a good plan."
"How is anything good about figuring out how I'm going to kill these people?"
"It means you go home alive. That's good."
"Why do I have more of a right to live than they do? You said it yourself. This is my fault."
I pull her toward the little shelter I just finished, and duck inside. "I also said I shouldn't have said it that way. It's not your fault."
"It is, though. Me. The others. That's why there are so many of us."
I grab some plastic wrap that I didn't use and crinkle it loudly. "Be careful. We're bugged here."
"I don't have anything else to say, anyway."
"This is not your fault. You stop acting like it is. Everyone here has a right to be alive, but the fact is, forty-seven of us won't be at the end. You promise me that you'll be trying to live, okay?"
"Not very convincing." I shake my head. I feel stupid crinkling the paper, and I guess that they'll be getting suspicious by now, but I have to get through to her. "The only person whose fault it is is the one who made up the Quell. Who made up the Games in the first place. And whoever signed the treaty that allows them. It's stupid. You have a right to live. You try to."
She looks at me doubtfully, and I don't get an answer out of her, because we've been noticed. The shelter comes down easily, and the trainer frowns deeply at me.
Maysilee and I go off to separate stations. I see her making a serious effort, and hope I've gotten through to her, since it's my fault in the first place that she feels this way.
We don't sit together at lunch. It just seems like a bad idea after possibly being caught conspiring. A big boy from District Four steers Maysilee over to the Career table. Gilla eats with the rest of the young kids, and Beech is at the Career table as well. I can't think of anywhere to go so I sit down alone. To my surprise, the boys from District Eleven join me.
"Chaff said you're the ally to make," one of them says, and holds out his hand. "I'm Huller Green. This is Cotton Lawrence."
I shake their hands. "Haymitch Abernathy. Pleased to meet you. I wasn't planning on having allies."
"In case you have to kill us?" Cotton asks, grinning.
"That'd be about it," I say.
They smile, and I think they understand. They don't talk about being allies anymore, and we have a meal together. I get them to tell me about District Eleven, where it's warm even in the winter, and the dirt is red. I try to imagine red dirt, and come up blank, even though I read a book once that talked about it. They want to know what color dirt is in District Twelve, and all I can come up with is "dirt-colored," which doesn't help.
We train together for the afternoon session, though they want to go to the ranged weapons stations, which I'm not very good at. Toward the end of the day, we go to the knife fighting booth, where the assistants pose as enemies. I somehow think that in the arena, our enemies won't be wearing armor that knives can't cut through, so I'm not sure how useful it is, though this is programed to light up where we hit them. I turn out to be good at this -- good enough at it that I wish I hadn't shown it here. I decide not to be at the knife stations anymore.
After all, knives, I can get back in the apartment. I sneak one off the dinner table, take it up to the bedroom, and shred several of the outfits they gave me, which I've set up as my own dummies.
Beech looks at them, kind of green, and says, "I didn't know you could do that."
"Me, either. Hope I don't have to. Anyways, it'll be harder when they're moving. Don't tell anyone downstairs I can do it."
"But those guys I'm allies with --"
"Beech, they're going to stab you in the back as soon as you turn it to them."
"Nah. They're good guys. You should join us, too. They said those guys from Eleven you were training with aren't going to last long."
The next morning, I don't get to work with Cotton and Huller. Apparently, not everyone thinks they're fodder. The girls from District Six have latched onto them for the day. I go back to my station-by-station tour of the training center. I'm pretty good with knots, hopeless with spears, and way out of my depth with camouflage. Stealth is okay. Maysilee is at the station with me, and she's much better at it. I guess I've never been one for sneaking around, while she's had a good bit of practice at it.
None of the stations seem designed for passing coded messages to other tributes. We'd probably both excel at that.
We do a few more stations together, and she suggests that we declare an alliance. I tell her that I'm not going to have allies, especially allies who think they deserve to die.
She smiles. "Okay, I get it. I'll fight."
"Good. But I still don't want allies."
"Fine. Go it alone. I'll go it alone, too, and we'll see who lasts longer."
"Should we put a bet on it?"
"How would the winner collect?"
I consider it. "That's a good point. Besides, I wouldn't exactly feel like celebrating."
"Yeah. Don't get sentimental about it."
I take another long shower at the end of the day. I'm starting to like ending the day clean, and slipping into bed between sheets that have been washed while I've been out. I'm sure it's just to lull us into forgetting we're here to be murdered, but I don't care. I'm not forgetting that. It doesn't mean I can't enjoy what they throw at me in the meantime.
I ask for paper so I can write a long letter to Digger and another one to Mom, but this request is denied. Contact with our home districts is apparently over. After Drake goes out for the evening -- he has a date, in the middle of this -- Gia offers to listen to what I have to say, and pass it on to them if I can't go back and say it myself.
I guess most years, they have training in the morning on the third day, because Drake is grumbling about missing time, but this year, with forty-eight tributes to evaluate, the Gamemaker sessions go on all day. We all mill around in the dining area while we wait. I talk to Huller and Cotton, along with the District Six girls they've befriended, Drusilla and Mariam. I try to get an idea of how things are in District Six, and who the girl we buried might be, but I can't find a good way to bring the conversation around to who might have been whipped and then disappeared just recently. I do get the impression that there's been a crackdown in Six, and trains are being thoroughly searched now. Maysilee, who's joined us by this point, looks pained. She is wearing her mockingjay pin, and it's very obviously that Mariam recognizes it, but no one says anything.
It is quite late by the time they get to District Twelve. They've been going boy-girl-boy-girl with each district, and Beech goes first. He says he's going to show them how strong he is. Gilla is weeping, because she doesn't believe she has any useful skills, and she hasn't done well at any of the stations. I tell her to do something she knows from home. I never do find out what she does.
Once she's gone, it's just Maysilee and me. "What are you going to do?" I ask her.
"I'm going to pretend I didn't show up, then sneak around and jump on them from the back of the judging platform."
She shrugs. "We'll see. They might have some way to prevent that."
"Wait -- you're seriously going to try it?"
"Hey, you're the one who said to do my best."
"You listen to me way too much."
The door opens, and the attendant calls, "Haymitch Abernathy!"
I go in.
A boy my age is serving as a waiter. He's the only one showing any interest in the proceedings. The Gamemakers look worn out from their heavy schedule of watching us today, and they are picking listlessly at their food. One of them has a steak knife in his hand, and I know what I mean to do.
I tell them my name and my district.
"And what are you going to do for us?"
"I need the knife station assistants."
A button is pushed somewhere and the door slides up. The four knife fighting experts come in, carrying their capped knives.
"Mr. Abernathy, do you plan to arm yourself?" one of the Gamemakers asks.
I shake my head, look at the assistants, and say, "Grab me."
For a bare second, I worry that this was a bad choice, but then I am back on the Seam, back where Hazelle Purdy is mocking me while her friends hold me back. I learned how to get away from this.
I back up hard, throwing the one holding me into his companions, forcing them to trip. A swift punch to one side takes care of the one coming at me. I jump up onto the Gamemakers' platform and grab the loose steak knife, then launch myself down at the first one running at me.
The fight takes two minutes.
At the end of it, all of them have had to step back because their armor has registered lethal blows.
The Gamemakers are watching me. The Capitol boy waiting on them is white as a sheet, and his eyes are wide.
The head Gamemaker leans forward. "Thank you, Mr. Abernathy. You're dismissed." He smiles. "As soon as you give me my knife back."
I go up and return it to him.
When I go upstairs, I don't say how well I did. Gilla wasn't able to do anything; she says she missed two throws with the spear, then just hid in a shelter she made. She's realized that she's going to die, and she's sobbing. Beech says the judges didn't seem very impressed. When Maysilee comes up, she seems happy, but doesn't say anything in front of Gilla.
That night, they give out the scores. Filigree, from District One, must have proved that she's completely crazy, because they give her an eleven. The Careers average about nine. I can't keep track of most of the numbers, though the running average on the screen is showing six point two. Huller gets a seven. Cotton manages to pull an eight.
They reach District Twelve.
Beech has a six. Gilla is given a two. The announcer's voice picks up with a little bit of excitement.
"And our last two tributes bring the score up! Haymitch Abernathy -- ten!" I take a deep breath. It may mean sponsors. It will also mean other tributes gunning for me. The announcer goes on. "And finally, Maysilee Donner… also a ten! This will be a banner year in District Twelve!"
Drake seems put out by the fact that the girl who slapped him and the boy who laid him out flat are considered his best bets. He grumbles that we can work with what we've got, tells Gia to get Gilla calmed down by morning, and tells us to get some sleep.
The cameras come back tomorrow.