The Conspiracy

Prologue Part II: The Reaping

I'm yelling that I volunteer, but so are all the others. We're pushing each other to get closer to the stage. Some people have started fighting, either out of anger or to get attention. Finally, one girl is pulled up onto the stage, but the commotion doesn't die down. There's enough that I shove my way to the stage jump up the stone stairs and connect the end of the handle of the knife I've been hiding with the girl's temple with all the strength in me. She makes a noise and falls like a rock to the ground, a bruise already rising around the point of contact. Nowthere's silence. Nobody, not even the Capitol woman sent to collect tributes, moves. They've never seen that happen. No one is bold enough to knock the potential tribute unconscious. I didn't even know I would do that. The knife was a precaution. "I said: I volunteer," I tell them clearly. Like the fact that they didn't pull me up first was a direct insult.

I can see Cato and his twin brother, Caleb. They are standing as close to the stage as possible, and at the ropes separating the boys from the girls. As I watch, Caleb pulls Cato back. It looks to me like Cato had tried to move over to grab hold of me to keep my in the crowd. There are some twins that have some differentiating factor in their appearance: small flecks of some color in the eyes, freckles, but not Cato and Caleb. They are the epitome of identical, but I can tell the difference between them even from up here. Caleb looks sad as we make eye contact. None of us wanted the others to go. Too bad for them girls go first. Cato's just glaring at me, furious at me for doing exactly what he begged me not to do. I glare back, but I must just look like I'm glaring at everyone. You can't volunteer now, can you?

"My my, aren't we persistent," the Capitol woman praises me, "Congratulations..." she waits for me to tell her my name.

"Clove Harper," I say darkly.

"Congratulations to District 2's Clove Harper!" There's a round of applause from the trainee crowd, their parents, our coaches and trainers, from everyone who doesn't work in masonry. Our district is credited mostly with mining granite by the Capitol. Everyone knows we train the Peacekeepers but they don't really advertise that, especially not around the time of the reaping because that would encourage rumors that we train for the arena. How ironic that the ones who work in masonry are the ones who hate the Capitol.

"And now for the boys." I stop thinking about the Capitol as my heart pounds in my ears and my hands begin to sweat. She clicks to the other massive glass bowl, reaches in and pulls out one of the slips of white paper. Then it's back to the microphone and it's all I can do not to cross my fingers and start mouthing my thoughts. "Congratulations to Caleb Armstrong!"

My stomach drops. I lock my teeth together to keep from throwing up. But I can't keep glaring at Cato now. His brother cautiously lets him go and makes for the stage. I fix my gaze on a far distant point, the roof of the train station that could take us by rail into the stronghold. If the crowd weren't standing in the way, I could see through the glass walls to the train that will now take me from home to the Capitol. From the stronghold, ultimately really just a place to play at war, to the Arena, the war I've been training for for nearly ten years. I spare Caleb a glance as he joins me, then turn my eyes away again, dismissing him. I never thought we two would be up here together. The Capitol woman makes a fuss over him, smiling and chirping, and then asks for volunteers.

The boys' volunteering goes much faster than the girls did. Cato wins it almost without effort. I can see him as he ascends to the stage and he actually grabs Caleb by the shoulders and shoves him bodily back toward the stairs. The panic he must be feeling seems to act as armor. He was almost as close to the stairs as he could get, but he still had to get through a crowd of ten or twelve boys all fighting each other and him and I see not so much as a mark on him.

I'm frozen to the stage by shock, terror, and sadness, but every part of me is screaming to run. Get off this stage. Take Cato's hand and tear off up into the mountains. We'd make it. They'd never catch us. If only I could move.


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