The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 19

The wine – along with the fine food and high spirits and exhaustion – makes them giddy and they end up dancing next to the fire. They keep falling over and breaking into fresh peels of laughter as they try to dance with ghosts in a dance designed for eight people, not two. Part of her mind – the part that does the scheming – knows their blatant disregard for secrecy must be driving the surviving Career crazy and she derives yet greater pleasure from the thought of the tribute huddled up somewhere, trying to stay warm, and listening to them. They're spinning with their arms around each other's waist, when the anthem begins to play. The shock has them staggering sideways and cackling. They look up into the sky, their arms still around each, and watch Proc's face appear. Gaspar lets out a cheer but she isn't quite as pleased but there's no time to reflect on that as Viatrix – who was only 13, Iristina reminds herself – is hanging there in the sky and her district-partner is punching her on the shoulder. She can't help but wonder what this scene would be like if it was Renatus stood beside her, if Gaspar had died… she can hardly believe that it's been four days already since his death. She also can't keep herself from speculating about tomorrow.

“Do you want to guard first or shall I?” she asks Gaspar, once Winnow's face has faded from the sky, and he turns to stare at her.

“You don't think she'd try anything, d'ya?”

“I would. If I was the one by myself and she and Proc had survived, I'd try to kill them in their sleep. And she's just as good a… strategy-er as me,” she answers, dredging up a smile and the term he had invented the morning after her fever. Unconsciously, her finger-tips fly up to the bundle of scar tissue at her temple.

“Does it hurt?” he asks with a sour twist to his lips. She shakes her head, gently.

“No. It's just… it reminds me how close I came to dying and how Renatus looked after me and that morning.” Her face splits into a broad grin but he doesn't smile back at her.

“Y'know, if you get outta here, they'll get rid of it.”

“I hope not,” she answers with innocent pride. “I'd like to have one reminder of my time here.”

“You're crazy,” he tells her, grinning and shaking his head. “And I'm taking first watch. So, you pull out that sodden sleeping-bag and get some sleep.”

“It's not still sodden,” she complains, good-naturedly. However, she pulls out the spare sleeping-bag – the one they haven't used since its drenching during her fight with the girl from 12 – and spreads it out on the small hill behind their boulder.

“Don't want to sleep next to me?” laughs Gaspar, looking up at her from the beach.

“Don't want to sleep on sand and risk getting wet all over again at high-tide.” It's true enough but so is the reason he gave. She cannot shake the sense that he's been manipulating her, that he intends to be the one who walks out of the arena, and she's just given him the idea of killing each other in their sleep, so she lies down with the knife-belt strapped on and a blade in each hand.

The sound of a twig breaking under his boot wakes her and she jerks up, ready to kill him but he's just grinning at her, leaning on his spear like a walking-stick.

“Paranoid, much. I'm just coming to kick you out of the sleeping-bag; it's time for you to take on the watch.” She gives him a sheepish smile.

“Sorry, I guess it's being this close to the end.” He nods, appearing as convinced as she does sincere.

“You were right. Tide's come in. Can't sit any lower than the boulder.” It's her turn to nod. They swap places and she walks out onto the boulder with the spear in her hand. She can only imagine what impression the tableau will have on Calidia, a lone girl without the equipment she's been trained to use to survive. She wonders if the dreadful cold that is cutting through her will kill the other girl before they get to her. And what about Gaspar? Should she go and kill him now? Practically, yes. However, she does not want to be remembered as the victor who killed her district-partner, ally and fellow-volunteer in his sleep. If, after they've killed Calidia, he kneels down and asks her to kill him, no-one can blame her. If he reneges on their deal and she kills, all well and good. But to kill him in his sleep? No, that no-one could forgive and she wants the people of District 9 to forgive her for killing their home-town hero.

“Why do they always have to start at dawn?” complains Amina, shuffling into the sitting-room in a lurid green dressing-gown with a cup of coffee in hand. “Why can't they wait for a more civilised hour?”

“They don't exactly have much else to do,” bites out Cai. It's been so long since they had a tribute survive the initial bloodbath that he's forgotten how grating she is. Now, however, he's having flash-backs to the year Daria won and how close he had come to strangling the woman. “Think of it this way, our victor might be back by lunch-time.”

“What makes you think it'll be our victor?” sneers the older woman.

“That wee girl be in no shape to fight 'im an' 'er,” points out Gaius, sagely.

“Yeah,” puts in Daria. “Look at the betting, Amina. Calidia's a distinct third; it's just a question of which of our tributes will win.”

“Oh, I wish I knew what they said to each other that first day,” whines Siprian, fidgeting. It's the first day of the Games when he's made it out of bed before noon but then all bets are off as to how long it will last. Everyone knows that Day 11 will be the last.

“As you can see, our erstwhile favourite is already up and checking her weapons,” announces Templesmith, his tone one of thinly veiled fatigue. They can, indeed, see Calidia – who has spent the night in a hollow in the rhyolite – cleaning the blade of her laughably petite dagger and checking the thong of her whip for damage. “Now, let's check in with our two under-dogs.” The screen switches to a shot of the two tributes from District 9 sitting on their boulder and sharing breakfast.

“So, what's the plan, oh strategy-er?” asks Gaspar, his tone playful. She groans and leans into him.

“I dunno if I can be bothered to hunt her down. How about we just sit here and let her come to us? Means we'd have all our strength and she'd be the one tried from traipsing through the island.”

“True… but it's cold. If we just sit here, our muscles will seize up and she'll have the element of surprise.”

“Damn you, Gaspar!” she shouts, melodramatically. “You couldn't just let me rest, could you?” He laughs and she joins in before pushing herself to her feet. They wash their hands in the sea, which is still lapping at their boulder, and then pull on their packs. “If I win this thing, I'm going to come back here one day and I'll leave some kind of gift on this boulder in memory of you. What would you like?” The pair walk away from the camera, proposing increasingly ridiculous presents to leave in the arena in memory of the other.

“Well, it seems they're in good spirits,” comments Templesmith, once the screens have returned to a shot of the studio.”

“So, who do you think will win, Claudius?” asks Flickerman, beaming.

“It's hard to say. I mean, I've always liked Calidia for the victor's coronet. Perhaps she will surprise us all.”

“I doubt that's likely. There are two of them and she's not eaten for more than a day,” points out his co-anchor.

“That is true,” concedes Templesmith. “Well, we all know who you want to win but do you think she'll be able to kill her district-partner?”

“I don't know. She might be too tender-hearted.” Cai and Amina both snort at the exact same moment, proving that there is at least one thing upon which they still agree.

Tracking down Calidia proves much more difficult than either of them had imagined. The island – with which they had become very familiar – has been irrevocably altered by the crystallised lava, which shows absolutely no marks.
"Obviously, she ain't so anxious to be caught," comments Gaspar, after a few hours.
"That... or she finds... the new terrain... as confusing... as I do. Gi'e us... the wa'er," she pants, holding out a hand to him. He slaps the lukewarm bottle into her hand and then pushes his sweat-drenched fringe out of his eyes, while she chugs down three mouthfuls of the tepid water before restoppering the bottle. “You'd think with the eruption yesterday and there being only three of us, they could let up with the heat.”

“If you die, I'll leave you a bottle of water on the boulder, shall I?” he suggests, nudging her shoulder with his.

“Alright, alright,” she grumbles. “You can't tell me you're enjoying this heat, though.”

“No,” he concedes. “And I like this not finding her even less.”

“Agreed,” nods Iristina. “Do you want to split up?”

“No,” hisses Cai and Haymitch chuckles.

“She'll be alright, mate. She could take that girl without a weapon between them and she got more'n enough to share.”

“I doubt Calidia'd give her the chance to use them.” Cai takes a deep swallow from the whiskey bottle, his eyes fixed on the Career. The current view is coming from a camera situated behind Calidia, giving a clear shot of her, the trees behind which she is hiding and his two charges beyond them. However, they must be using a microphone feed from much closer to Gaspar and Ares as their words are all too clear.

“She don't have a choice in the matter,” his friend assures him, staunchly. “Calidia'll have to get in close to use that piddly dagger of hers.” Cai has to concede the sense of that, although not the dagger. He wishes he could ask her mentor what the girl was thinking of to choose a weapon like that.

“Sure,” says Gaspar but his tone is a little strange. Cai hasn't taken his eyes off the screen but he's sure something must have happened.

She had heard the rustle of movement too, so she answers his wink with a grin.

“Right. So, I'll just head through that thicket of trees – I think that sorta hill might be that way – and you can–“

“I'll go that way.” He points to the opposite side of their current trajectory to that which she had chosen. “I think there might be a river that way and we be needing more water, way you're drinking it.”

“Hey!” she protests, laughingly. “Well, if I can't find the hill or if I do and I see her, I'll come find you at the river. Otherwise, you come find me once you're done, alright?” He grumbles at being forced to climb the hill all the way from the riverbed but he goes. Iristina is only just into the trees when she stops and silently turns to watch the clearing they've just left, the clearing which wasn't there before the eruption. She has to give Calidia credit for caution as she waits a quarter of an hour before coming into the clearing and, when she does at last show herself, she's somersaulting. Iristina has to admit herself impressed; if she had been waiting to throw a knife as soon as Calidia appeared, the other girl would have thwarted her. However, she had not been that obvious. The hilt of a knife is resting in the palm of her throwing-arm but she's waiting to see which of them the Career will choose to kill first. They all know the cannon from one death will warn the final target. On the whole, she would probably go for– Yes, Calidia is making her way stealthily towards Gaspar's fictional riverbed. Flying knives can be dodged but using a whip on a boy who fights with a spear or axe needs the element of surprise and the suggestion that he won't have a weapon in his hand. She doesn't follow the other girl but, instead, circles around to meet her, moving through the trees with the stealth of a cat. She hears a feral growl that certainly could not have come from Gaspar and throws caution to the wind, running across the twig-strewn ground without a care for the noise she's making. When she sees them, however, she comes to a dead halt. Gaspar is down on one knee with his spear thrusting upwards through Calidia's chest. She looks like a glorious tiger – beautiful and terrible even at the moment of death. Then, as Iristina watches, he shakes the other girl free of his spear and straightens up to face her.

“We needa get outta the way, so they can take there body.” She nods and they walk downhill, maintaining their distance. They stop when they reach another clearing created by the lava stream, one on either side of the glittering rock. She waits for the sound of the cannon to die away before speaking, knowing that this moment will be of up-most importance for posterity.

“Now what?” she asks, cursing herself for not formulating a more elegant epithet. Gaspar's lips twitch up into a smirk, the same smirk he had worn every time he had her cornered as a child.

“Now… I kill you, Miss Emmer. What did you–?“ His words die as her thrown knife sticks in his gut but her aim was off and she hasn't hit anything vital enough to kill him. Annoyed, she comes at him across the volcanic rock and knocks his spear aside, slicing the wrist that holds it, before slithering around him to press the serrated edge up under his chin.

“I told you that my compassion wouldn't save you,” she whispers into his perfectly formed ear before slitting his throat. She hopes that his mother is watching. And Krill. And Amina Heslot. Because she is no longer the Urchin Girl – unwanted by all but the most desperate of men – or the Bear Girl – desired for her unwomanly notoriety – or the Reaped Girl. Now, she is a victor; now, she is beloved by millions.

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