Once the anthem ends, someone switches off the TV and she can feel the others re-arranging themselves, while she finishes up her notes.
“So,” Adolphus starts, gently drawing everyone's attention to himself. “What do you think?” She assumes he's speaking to the other victors, so she stays quiet until Gaspar nudges her.
“Oh, you mean me?” The others chuckle and even Madame Heslot cracks a smile.
“Yes, girl with the plan,” beams Cai before winking at her.
“For the record,” grins Iristina. “The plan is all Gaspar; I'm just the one making notes.” That rouses more amusement and she feels better. These people are no longer planning to help simply because that's their job, they're beginning to think of the two tributes as friends, people they like for their own merits. “Well, I think at least seven will die in the initial bloodbath. I know it's normally more than that but, without seeing them in training, I can't be certain of more than seven. The other thing is, I think that – if we weren't in it – this would be a Career year, do you agree?” The victors make sounds of assent as she checks her notes. “Winnow from 11 is the only one who isn't a Career who looks like she might make it through the first day, so – again depending on training – she'd make the best ally.”
“What about that girl from 7?” Gaspar tosses in. “She looks ferocious!”
“She does,” nods Iristina. “Her name is… Viatrix by the way. Thing is, she looks to me like she might go berserk at the bloodbath and not even try to survive past the first day. Maybe she doesn't have any survival skills, maybe she thinks she won't survive a fight against a Career but she looks to me like she's going to try to kill as many people as possible as soon as possible and die trying.” The victors around the room are nodding and Cai gives her another wink, so she thinks she must be doing something right. “What I'm not sure about is our strategy between now and the Games. I mean, two volunteers from an outlying district are an anomaly anyway and we looked so happy about it that we obviously can't play at being weak and vulnerable.” Gaspar nods and the composure of the others convey their agreement.
“So, how d'ya think we oughta be in training and them interviews?” asks her district-partner, going straight to the heart of things. The mentors pause to consider and, eventually, it's Cai who clears his throat.
“I think, in training, you need to be casually confident like the Careers.”
“Yes,” agrees Adolphus, weighing in now the conversation is established. “You don't want to show off your best skills but also don't let yourselves be overawed.” Iristina and Gaspar exchange an amused look – as the Head Peacekeeper's concubine and the mayor's surrogate second son, they are probably the two kids from District 9 least likely to be overawed by the Capitol.
“As for the interviews, that will depend on your scores and your stylists,” Amina Heslot tells them.
“We need ter talk of training,” muses old man Thell. “But can wait fer t'morn. Young'ns need rest and eat proper before going inter there arena.” It sounds like an admonishment but they both recognise the wisdom of his pronouncement and don't object. They bid the mentors and Siprian goodnight before heading to their respective suites.
“Good night, Tina,” Gaspar beams as they reach her door.
“Don't call me that,” she growls. “I hate that name.”
“Well, this is the time to change it. This whole trip is about re-invention.”
“Good night, Gaspar.” Her smile is forced but he acts as though he thinks it's genuine and they part as friends or as close to as they'll ever get. She spends almost twenty minutes flipping through her choices of nightgown before settling on a short-sleeved one of pale yellow cashmere. The over-stuffed duvet she leaves folded across the bottom half of the bed content with the bare, peacock-blue sheets and raised temperature controls.
The next morning, she's woken by a gentle hand on her shoulder and the smell of true coffee. Iristina gives a moan of pleasure and her wake up call chuckles, a distinctly masculine chuckle. She peels open the topmost eye and sees Cai leaning over her.
“It occurred to me that you might not be a morning person,” he teases with a smile that gleams in the grey dawn light.
“Are you sure it is morning?” she groans and he chuckles again.
“Yeah, I know. If I was in the Capitol, I wouldn't be up for another four hours but Siprian woke me half an hour ago and threatened to knock you up, too. I thought that might not be wise. You do sleep with a weapon, don't you?”
“Normally,” she smirks at him. “But I didn't bring anything with me to the Reaping. I'm not that suicidal.”
“I'll see you in the dining-room,” he smiles before kissing her forehead and leaving. However, upon reaching the door, he turns back to her. “I never thought Daria could win, she shouldn't have won, but you… Even without Gaspar, I think you could do it.”
“Thanks, Cai.” This time he does leave and she smiles into her coffee cup; it seems Caecilius Durum is much more susceptible to a pretty face and a sexy walk than the fellow-feeling a boy the same age he was when he won invokes. After finishing her coffee, she pushes open the closet. Disdaining yesterday's clothes and thinking of the cameras that will be waiting for them at the train station, Iristina selects a knee-length white crepe skirt and a long-sleeved amethyst top with a scoop neckline. This ensemble makes her look younger – like a girl heading to a summer picnic – but, with no underwear, her shimmering chestnut hair loose and the low neckline, the effect is more that of a virginal girl on the cusp of womanhood, than an innocent child. When she sashays into the dining-room, everyone looks up and then Cai, Gaspar and Siprian look again. However, they let it pass without comment and she takes one of the two empty places, the other belonging to the still-absent Madame Heslot.
“Be we coaching you as two?” begins Thell as Iristina helps herself to a bowl of thick hot chocolate, several sweet rolls and a quantity of fresh fruit. “Or two ones?”
“Together?” suggests Gaspar with half a shrug, looking in her direction.
“That makes sense,” she agrees, after swallowing her first mouthful. “If we're going to be a team, it makes sense if we're co-ordinated.” Thell and Adolphus nod and the younger of the two men moves them onto the next order of business.
“What are your best skills? Last night, you mentioned hand-to-hand combat and fencing skills.” Gaspar glances over at her, sees her mouth is once again full and takes on the burden of outlining their skill-sets.
“I've had formal fencing lessons with the mayor's son and the two of us” – here he gestures at Iristina, who is still busy consuming her food – “have sparred with sticks, so she picked up some of it.”
“But I'm better with knives than swords,” she interjects, her mouth temporarily empty.
“Yes, she's very good with thrown knives. Oh, and, of course, she once smashed a bear's skull with a rock.”
“That was mainly luck,” she puts in hastily. “I would not reckon my chances of sneaking up on a person, let alone a trained Career tribute, with a boulder.”
“And you, Gaspar?” inquires Adolphus.
“I'm good with hand-to-hand; Iristina be only one who ever beats me. So, if it come down to a fist-fight, I'd be like to win. I'm also strong from fetching and carrying in there forge.”
“OK. That all sounds good,” chimes in Daria with an encouraging smile. “But moving from fighting to surviving… What can you do?”
“Well, Iristina's the expert.”
“I'm not an expert,” she says, quickly. “I just spent eight summers living by me wits.”
“Why was that?” demands Amina Heslot, appearing in the doorway in a dress that makes her look like a pillar of flame.
“After I left the orphanage and started at school… Well, during term, they let me have a bed in the care-taker's office but, over the summer, they threw me out onto the streets.” Again, most of the adults are looking shocked. She shrugs. “There are so few orphanage kids – most orphans are taken in by family – that the system doesn't know what to do with them. Anyway, that first summer, a farmer's wife took pity on me and taught which berries and weeds in the hedgerow were safe to eat and which were poisonous. Later on, I used her rough guidelines to work out about other plants I came across.”
“Well, I know how to make a shelter by plaiting saplings together, how to cook on an open fire and how to catch fish.”
“I, of course, know how to tickle fish – that's what I was planning to do the day I found the bear – and I used to sleep near the river, so I know about selecting a good cave or hollow and concealing the entrance. I can also skin and gut anything, including a bear.” The familiarity of the bragging match has her feeling more relaxed and performing less than she has since waking up yesterday.
“Alright,” beams Cai, indulgently. “So, Gaspar, steer clear of the swords until your private session.”
“I would also advise against wrestling,” murmured Adolphus.
“But he won't be able to do that in the private session,” points out Madame Heslot. “Underplay your prowess, though. Don't let the other tributes see how good you really are.” Gaspar nods.
“Ye both need ta focus on plant identification and learning how ta find water,” Thell decrees. “We don't know what the terrain be like but it'll unlikely be exactly like District 9.” They both nod this time.
“Iristina,” says Cai and she turns to listen to him. “Do not throw any knives until your private session and you can practice camouflage and knot-tying, especially learn anything you can about setting traps. I want each of you to keep one skill hidden even from the Gamemakers. Let there be something that you do in the arena that will wow sponsors, OK?”
“Alright,” sighs the girl and Gaspar just nods again, he's looking a lot more grim than he had yesterday. Iristina wonders if maybe he's feeling his illness today, if it exists.
“Tracking,” says Daria, suddenly. “You'll both want to learn how to track. Otherwise, just try some new things.”
“Especially if it is something your potential ally is doing,” Adolphus puts in. “Try to get alongside those you want as friends and also try those things that the Career tributes are best at. If they are doing something that you think you can do well at, then go and do it.”
“We decided your strategy for training is to show the Gamemakers how you are equal to and better than the Careers,” explains Amina Heslot. “If you can get them to see you as viable opponents before your private sessions, your scores might be better.”
“Oh, look. We're almost there!” exclaims Siprian and the two tributes look up at the windows to see the ring of spires that is the Capitol fast approaching.