The Conspiracy

Chapter VIII: The Interviews

There's not a whole lot of training that we need to do for the interviews. Cato and I have been taught how to manipulate the crowds, though not necessarily how to manipulate them to like both of us equally and as one entity.

"If you bring that up now," Enobaria warns me, "They'll suspect it and do something to keep you two apart in the arena." I nod. I don't know what they could do to keep us apart, considering we'll all be at the Cornucopia on the first day, but I know she's right. She knows their minds. She's not a victor for nothing. "Mind your attitude," she continues, "You want them to like you."

"What, am I not likable with my normal attitude?" I tease her.

"Cato's obviously not bothered by it but the Capitol might be." I nod again. "So mind your attitude. Be sweet to Caesar, cheerful. You can't show them that you resent them for making you go in together. But we're not going for a Johanna Mason here. You're not weak or terrified. You're cheery out here but let them know you'll mean business once you're in the arena. Don't give too much away about your skills." I continue to nod. "Let me know if you have questions. I don't think you'll need too much more instruction from me on the content of your interview. Caesar wants these to go well so follow his lead. Remember, happy here, business and survival in the arena."

"Okay."

"I'm gonna let your stylist take over. That'll be the hard part for you, cooperating with them."

"You have no idea." I hate these Capitol clothes. It's like what Cato and I talked about on the train. They're taunting us and I resent them for it.

"Sure I do." She grins at me, reminding me of her pointy teeth and I promise myself I'll never let anything that permanent touch me.

My prep team enters and does their thing. It's less painful now because there's no need for more wax but still there's at least an hour of basic work. Then Alaia enters carrying a black bag which presumably holds my dress for the interview. It's ridiculous that we get this dressed up for three minutes in the spotlight. I roll my shoulders as she pulls the dress down around my legs. "No peaking," she tells me, "Not until I'm finished." She masks my face with that same sweet smelling powder. Then there's some significant discomfort as she puts a pencil and then a fluffy brush up near my eyes. She keeps telling me where to look and not to move. If I knew what I was doing, I would demand that she let me do it for her, but I don't so I tough it out. At the very end, she puts some tall tight shoes on my feet and helps me up.

"What do you think?" she asks at last, turning me around to face the mirror.

I give myself a good once-over before answering her. She waits slightly anxiously for my response, which I find strange. Despite what she does for a living and how willingly she does it, maybe she'll grow on me. I don't know what to think of the reflection. I'd like to say I look and feel foolish and that the Capitol is full of ridiculous and foolish looking people, but I have to admit that I admire what they can do even without their normal standard of technology. My skin looks darker, maybe two shades darker, kind of bronze colored, or as bronze as skin can get. The pencil and fluffy ink-covered brush made my eyes look much bigger, more dynamic. They pinned my hair up, but left the back and the strands around my face loose and artificially curly. My dress is orange. It's a little low cut for my taste but I just think that that'll remind me to sit up straight and keep my shoulders back. It's fitted from my shoulders to my knees, tight but not uncomfortable, and from my knees down it's flowing. I turn around once on the spot, watching the folds expand with the wind created by my movements.

I look up at Alaia again and smile at her, the first time I've smiled at her ever. "It's wonderful." Maybe a stretch of my personal opinion, but surely that's what anyone from this city would say. "Thank you." She steps closer to me and puts her arms around my neck. This surpasses any discomfort I've encountered this far. No, wonderful does not mean hug me. But I hug her back.

"Come on, girls! Hurry up!" Brutus teases us through the door. I disengage her hug, she straightens my dress, and then crosses the room and holds the door open for me to exit ahead of her.

"Well, would you look at you!" Brutus exclaims. They're all dressed up too, but not to the same degree that I am. I feel overdressed and uncomfortable but I stand straight and keep my face calm, maybe even a little happy, as they jabber.

"Isn't she gorgeous?" gushes our escort. "You've done beautifully!" She hugs my stylist and kisses her cheek.

"Her ally doesn't look half bad either," says Enobaria. Brutus looks over at her, annoyed that she's encouraging this. "They look good together."

What? Where's Cato? I turn to look for him.

"Hey, you," he greets me. I smile and take a step back so I can see him fully. He does look nice. His suit is black, as is his tie, though in the right light there are orange and silver streaks running diagonally across it. We're not matching, per say, but complement each other well.

Tuuli allows us a few seconds of standing and looking before she says, "Look at the time! We've got to go! Hurry, now." She doesn't sound panicky, but she's definitely being stern. Cato and I stand still as everyone clears out around us.

"23'll have a hard time outshining you tonight," he tells me quietly once we're alone. Since when does he talk like this? First at the chariot, now, and both times what he's said has been perfect. Right on cue, exactly the words I need to hear. I wish I could say something clever back to him, but can't. I step closer to him, take hold of his wrists for balance, and stand as tall as I can to kiss him on the cheek.

"Thank you," I say, my hands now moving to straighten his tie, which doesn't need straightening. I feel like my reply wasn't sufficient, and neither is what follows. "Good luck tonight."

"Come on, you two!" Brutus calls to us. "Tuuli's about to have a meltdown."

We ride the elevator down again, below ground level to the stage where the interviews will take place. The tributes stand silently before the show starts. Cato never asked me if I was nervous, but if he had, I might have told him yes. I'm excellent with survival, but not always an excellent talker. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm good at it, I just don't like it. I remind myself here though, that the only other tributes who might rival my public speaking abilities are District 1 and Cato. They taught us at home how to win over the Capitol.

Once the crowd is assembled and lighting and sound are ready, Caesar Flickerman takes the stage. He greets the studio audience, the Capitol, and the rest of Panem, then presents us, the tributes. Between each name there are loud cheers or polite applause. I keep smiling the whole time the entire pool of tributes are onstage, then find relief in the fact that I can sit down again to await my interview. I'm not off camera though, so I sit straight, head up, shoulders back, and keep a calm, politely interested look on my face.

"Please welcome our female tribute from District 2, Clove Harper!" Caesar says as 2 walks back to his seat. I have to walk past Cato to get back to center stage. We lock eyes briefly as I pass and he gives an almost imperceptible nod. I nod too, though more to myself than to him, and put a big smile on my face as Caesar bows and kisses my hand. "Welcome!" He beams up at me. "Please, take a seat." He gestures to the chair next to his and keeps a gentle hold on my hand until I'm seated.

"Now tell me, Clove," he begins, cutting right to the chase. Three minutes go by quickly, as he knows better than anyone else. "Your parents are masons in District 2, are they not? They don't work in Defense?"

"That's right. They work in the quarries, excavating rock that helps build things all over Panem," I answer.

"Yet you volunteered to be this year's tribute? And, might I add, your reaping was one of the most dynamic we've seen. How very, very brave! And against all odds, you earned yourself a ten?"

Oh, that's the angle he's playing for me. I've got this. "What kid in 2 wouldn't kill for the opportunity to be up here right now?" Enobaria will either love my play on words, or kill me for it. I disregard that though and continue, "I guess I just wanted it the most this year. Half of earning your spot on the stage in 2 is the desire for it. And the ten wasn't the Gamemakers' way of being nice to me. I earned that ten, but I won't say how just yet."

"I'm sure you did. But let's talk about the arena for a moment. What are you thinking? Give us some insight into your plan of action. Are you confident? Are you concerned about your competition? Even your fellow District 2 tribute poses a threat to you in the arena." He's inviting me to brag, to present myself to the Capitol, to any sponsors.

"We're survivors in 2," I answer him. "We're built for this."

I can't tell them about the training we undergo as children because not all of Panem knows that some of the Peacekeepers come from 2 and it's technically illegal to train for the Games, but then again, where would the Games be without 1, 2, and 4 training their kids? There wouldn't be at least six of us a year who know what we're doing. You'd see 24 scared kids running around trying to avoid each other and the traps set in the arenas. Only the luckiest one would be victor.

I continue, "Of course I'm confident. As for the competition, I've got it sorted, Cato included. Give me some credit will you?" I tease. The audience and Caesar laugh. "What's he gonna do to me?" I see the big screen change from my face to Cato's. He's smirking as if he knows he'd beat me and sees this challenge as a joke. "Tell you what, Panem, if you want to see a good fight, make sure the two of us are the top two. I have no worries if it comes to that. I can take him. You'll definitely see me again, Caesar. In person, not just on the screen."

He smiles like this makes him happy, which it might. Maybe, under different circumstances, when we're not both faking for the cameras, we'd get along. "Glad to hear it. Is there anything you want to say to District 2? Your friends and family back home? They're certainly watching now."

"Absolutely. When I see you again, 2, I'll be where Enobaria, Brutus, Lyme, and everybody else are, and we'll be unbeatable."

Caesar keeps his camera ready smile on his face, takes my hand in his and kisses it gracefully. "I'm sure you will be," he says. "Thank you, Clove, and I'm sure I speak for all of Panem when I say I wish you the best of luck." I give him a big smile. The bell rings.

I hope I've done well.

I let the back of my hand brush subtly against Cato's sleeve as we cross paths. It looks like an accident if they see it at all, but it's comforting for us. They say you need five meaningful touches a day. That's one, maybe two if you count me kissing him earlier. Okay. I sit down next to 2 and listen to Cato's interview. He's nice, charming, but not being too obvious about the fact that he wants to charm the country. He tells Caesar outright that the Capitol can expect quite a show from him. He smiles a lot and it looks genuine probably to everyone who didn't train with him. He's got nothing in particular right now to smile about, but he's up there grinning like a loon. He teases me back too from his seat onstage.

"And Clove? How do you see her?" Caesar asks.

"We'll be allies in the arena for sure, at least for a while. After the alliance breaks though, bring it on, Clove. Let's see what you've got!" I laugh but they can't hear it, as my microphone's been turned off. The guys are probably getting a kick out of seeing us up here. I realize I'm smiling thinking about them and inwardly roll my eyes at myself.

9 seems smart. She's spent tons of time at the survival stations. 6 is nervous and twitchy but tells the Capitol he knows what he's doing. 21 is sweet, cute, floaty. The odds are not in her favor, but maybe someone will sympathize with her and sponsor her. 22 is brooding, barely responds to Caesar's questions and leaves without really acknowledging the audience. 23 is annoying. Maybe she thinks she's amusing or cute or girly but Cato and I look at each other out of the corners of our eyes and decide that even if she's going to be useful to us, we don't like her. 24 is a genius with words. It's undeniable. He moves the crowd effortlessly with the things he says. He's amusing, friendly, and for some strange reason asks Caesar to sniff him. I have to fight hard not to laugh because even Caesar is shocked, at first.

When he says, "Because she came with me," I don't know what to think. 23 looks shocked, which is appropriate, because she was apparently not informed. I should be annoyed at them for stealing any attention off any of the rest of us yet again, and I am to an extent. But I also appreciate 24 so willingly and unknowingly playing into our plan, for once. Some small part of me, the part farthest from the Games, farthest from the reaches of the Capitol, the same part of me that is determined to see Cato and me out of this together alive, feels sorry for him. If he's telling the truth (and he might be because why else would he do her that kind of favor?) it's got to feel miserable going into this figuring you're going in alone.

Then the interviews are over. Caesar makes some closing remarks, the giant screen flashes pictures of all our faces again, particularly the faces of 23 and 24, and the crowds continue to roar. We can't hear them in the elevator, but when we get off on our floor the sound comes back, dimmed by distance.

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