The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 4

When she meets her prep team, Iristina is highly unimpressed. The hairdresser in District 9 at least looks like she understands the science and art of beauty; these three prattling fools are an explosion of mismatched styles in garish colours. However, she submits to them with the good grace upon which her mentors have insisted.

“Wow,” breathes one of the females, who has a perfect heart of vermilion hair, glittering silver make-up and a skirt suit in three different shades of green. “You're so well-groomed.”

“Of course.” She's frowning, confused as to why anyone – outside of 12 – wouldn't be on Reaping Day. “My hairdresser visited yesterday.”

“You have a hairdresser, Jesu?” the male exclaims, shrilly. His ensemble shows no more taste than that of his female colleagues: a sleeveless magenta top that reveals tattooed vines down both arms, skin-tight trousers in neon orange and a powder-blue quiff. “And such beautiful hair,” he adds, pulling one gold-flecked brown lock away from her face.

“I think, still, we need to wax her down,” pipes the final member of the trio, who seems to be in charge. She has unnaturally elongated eyes – to which she draws even more attention with dramatic red and black eye-shadow – and neon yellow dreadlocks. Her skirt is made of what appears to be strips torn from three dozen other garments from across the colour spectrum stitched onto an underskirt the colour of bird droppings. Above this curious article, she has on a hot-pink blouse with horizontal slashes where one would normally expect buttons and a bomber jacket made entirely of amber sequins. Iristina despises the lot of them and can't believe anyone has entrusted them with the beautification of a tribute. “I think, also, a manicure and pedicure, yes, Philo?” The mountain of blue hair moves from side to side as he nods. “Also, those awful bags under her eyes, they must be gone. And, maybe, those lines. How did she get so wrinkled?”

“Hard living,” retorts Iristina, annoyed by the woman's refusal to speak to her directly. “It's not easy being an orphan.”

“Mr P did say he wanted her to look grown-up,” murmurs the junior female. “The lines make her look older but not in a bad way.” The girl is somewhat touched by the fool's urge to re-assure her and not give offence.

“Well, she has good colouring, if poor skin,” muses the yellow-haired freak with no malice. “We can fix that, of course. Not too starved or too plump, good. I think, nothing to do to her lips, they're plump enough. Nice eyes, shame blue doesn't go with Mr P's colour scheme.” She's quite glad when the verbal inventory eventually ends as she was becoming more and more inclined to forget her promises to her mentors so far as to hit the woman. She is pleased that her sojourn with the prep team lasts less than two hours as she is impatient to meet her stylist, Pyrrhus, who is apparently a by-word in fashion. However, as she gets a whiff of the vermilion-haired woman's perfume – which puts her strongly in mind of beer – she's not so sure that an advocate of Capitol fashion is exactly what she wants.

When the prep team leave her, chirruping farewells and best wishes, she dons her paper robe and waits for this celebrity stylist to enter. A few minutes later, her worst fears are realised. Pyrrhus had dyed his hair magenta and had it layered but, as it's all standing upright, the differing lengths give his head the look of a forest, not extra volume. His skin is tinged silver, making him look as though he's got diamond dust ingrained in his skin, and his make-up is all varying shades of pink. The clothing is, at least, all one style and in complimentary colours, even if his hair does clash with it all. An emerald tail-coat over a jade waist-coat and a turquoise shirt next to his skin with olive-green trousers as tight as those worn by Philo. His blood-red neck-tie is both shocking against all that cool green and an eye-catching reminder of the carnage of which she is soon to be a part.

“You're…” he begins but his voice and eyes trail away as though caught by a passing bumble-bee. “Lovely!” he finishes at last, although it is hard for her to tell whether he's describing her or whatever just distracted him. She rather suspects the latter as she's never been called 'lovely' before. She knows – has done since she was 13 – that she's desirable to men but she's always put it down to a certain magnetism, a good body and her striking cornflour-blue eyes. She's certainly never looked in her mirror and seen loveliness. “I think…” This time, he fills the pause with a simpering smile. “You'll look great.” She's on the point of asking what he's designed for her, when he adds: “In gold!” It's obvious to Iristina that this man, who has the power to make a laughing-stock of her in front of the whole Capitol and leave her unprotected against the elements of the arena, is addicted to some sort of drug, although she doubts it's morphling. That suspicion does explain her lamentably dressed prep team; he's probably so high that he hadn't noticed their woeful lack of fashion sense. In fact, he might have hired whoever was cheapest, so he could keep funding his habit.

“Isn't Flickerman wearing gold this year?”

“Yes,” he yawns, making it impossible to discern whether the matching colour scheme is coincidental or deliberate. “I think… Hestia!” The chief beautician re-enters, carrying a hanger with a simple sheath of gold silk on it in one hand and, in the other hand, a crown even more ridiculous than Pyrrhus' hair. It's main components are ears of wheat and the whole thing looks like two sets of inverted pan-pipes curved to form a circlet. She's about to complain when she remembers last year, when both tributes were dressed as windmills with rotating blades that kept hitting each other because the chariot forced them too close together. She does protest, however, when they begin to wind her hair around the wicker band that forms the base of her crown.

“You'll make me look like a bloody haystack, rather than Harvest Queen.” That last being what the stylist had muttered at the prep team before leaving them to it. Once they're finished tugging at her hair, they apply metallic gold eye-liner, dramatic eye shadow in autumnal colours and even paint a fall of autumn leaves from the corner of her left.

“You should so have those tattooed!” exclaims Philo, stepping back and surveying his work.

“Maybe I will,” she replies with a sycophantic grin. “After the Games.”

“Absolutely!” chimes in Sulpicia. She's interested that her prep team seem convinced that she's going to still be around after the Games but maybe they're paid to believe in her or don't want to depress her. Gaspar's costume turns out to be just as on-the-nose but adult as her own: he's stripped to the waist and carrying a threshing fork. She groans inwardly at the connotation of her, the wheat sheaf, being threshed by him. However, the lack of thought that seems to have gone into these costumes makes her doubt that that imagery has even been considered.

“So, how are we going to play this, man with the plan?” she teases him and this new, grown-up Gaspar smirks back at her.

“We want the crowd to love us but we're too old for silly costumes,” he informs her with a haughty tilt to his chin and a boyish gleam in his eye. “I'm going to stab this thing into the floor of the chariot at a suitably dramatic moment. Can you do anything about that daft crown?”

“Not easily,” she sighs, lifting the wicker band to show him how her hair is wrapped around it.

“Come here.” She takes a step towards him and he uses the threshing fork to fray the band above her left ear. “There. Pull it a little with your right hand.” She does. “Yes, it slides through your hair quite easily. At the right moment–“

“Pull it off and toss it to the crowd?” she suggests.

“Exactly,” he grins. “Now, I think we should come onto the streets as we left the district.”

“You mean, clasped hands held high?” He nods. “I was thinking the same.”

“Come along you two,” harries Perilla, Gaspar's stylist. She has been dressing District 9 tributes for over two decades, so Iristina thinks she should really know better than a shirtless thresher or last year's windmill with rotating blades but she knows enough to keep from saying anything. The pair are loaded into a standard chariot with a pair of honey-coloured horses between the traces. As the chariots ahead of them roll out, Gaspar and Iristina straighten their postures and clasp hands. They punch the air with their joined hands as soon as they exit into the sunset light and there's a definite cheer in response. They leave their ludicrous costumes in peace until they can see the City Circle on the horizon. Then Gaspar holds his fork out at waist-level, spins it a couple of times and, finally, stabs it viciously into the floor of their chariot. Iristina takes her cue from him and, once he's done, she wrenches the crown from her head and flings it like a discuss at the crowd. The onlookers start screaming their names – their first names – but, as 'Iristina' is uncomfortably long, it sounds like they're calling 'Ares' over and over. She and Gaspar are both beaming, have been since they first appeared, but now they use their free hands to toss kisses at the adoring crowd. When the chariots stop in front of President Snow's mansion, Gaspar releases her hand and drops his arm around her shoulders, instead. She smiles, leans her head against his chest and pulls him closer with her left arm. In that moment, she forgets their friendship is a fiction and, when the screens show them in close-up, they look as natural as a couple on their wedding day. She doesn't like the romantic overtones but she does like the fact that they don't look like children playing dress-up This procession might not have made them eternally memorable but it has laid a good foundation and no-one else has made a staggering impression. Eventually, they escape the twilight chill and enter the Training Centre.

There's a whole welcoming committee waiting for them. First, there's the prep teams cooing over the state of Iristina's hair and the chariot; next come the stylists, both of whom look displeased at the cavalier treatment their creations had received from their tributes; then, Siprian exclaiming over how grown-up they had looked; and, finally, behind him, District 9's five mentors.

“Good show,” Adolphus says, slowly, once Iristina and Gaspar have made it to him and the others. However, she caught an edge to his voice that suggested that he was contemplating them or wary of them.

“I loved your crown toss,” purrs Cai, stepping up beside his fellow victor.

“Oh, come along! We don't want to be late for the broadcast. I'm sure you'll want to make notes, Iristina.” Siprian smiles and proceeds to babble as he leads the way to the bank of elevators, which already have a throng of people in front of them. The prep teams melt away but Adolphus insists that the two stylists join them for dinner. It interests her that Adolphus is the one taking charge; Gaius Thell and Amina Heslot are both older, after all. However, even without the prep teams, there are too many of them to fit into one elevator. So, the two tributes choose to separate with their own stylist accompanying each of them. Siprian and the Barvens join Iristina, while the other three victors take the elevator with Gaspar. The view through the crystal walls of the elevator takes the girl's breath away. She pretends at sophistication and she has seen more of the good life than most tributes and certainly more than most orphans. However, the beauty and opulence of the Capitol amaze her on an hourly basis, she just doesn't let it show.

“Oh, Iristina!” breathes Siprian – as though invoking a deity – upon seeing their temporary living quarters. The elevator opens directly onto an open-plan living space that's furnished in minimalist style. To their left, there's a raised dining area and, straight ahead, several low couches grouped around a TV; the whole space is decorated in amber and black. “Oh, do come down here and see your room.” The escort takes her along a corridor to their right, which she notices is wider than some people's houses, and leads her to a maple door with her name burnt into it. When he touches the spot that would hold the handle in a district building, the panel slides away and she is looking at the most luxurious bedroom she has ever seen. The bed clothes are the green of her Reaping dress and look to be silk; two of the walls are the same colour as the dress she is currently wearing and one is a window; and the furniture is elegantly classical, not brutally minimalist like the communal area. Obviously, it has been decorated with her in mind and she wonders if it is Pyrrhus' work.

“It's perfect,” she sighs and Siprian nods approvingly before crossing the room to open doors into a bathroom, walk-in wardrobe and dumb waiter. Iristina struggles to keep the awe off of her face; she had never imagined that she would be given an entire suite to herself.

“Oh, you can programme the wardrobe with your tastes. If you want anything to eat, speak in here.” He indicates a mouthpiece beside the dumb waiter with a computer screen in front of it. “The bathroom has all the latest functions – shower-bath with massage feature, full-body dryers and an automated hairdresser's chair.”

“Thanks, Siprian,” she says, a little repressively. “I'm going to jump in the shower, get dressed and then… oh, could you send someone to fetch me for dinner?”

“Oh, of course.” He clatters out on those ridiculously high shoes and she walks to the wardrobe. She programs in her preferences for style and colour – no green or gold – and then strips off her parade dress. She hangs the offending item in the wardrobe, hoping it will be cleaned and returned to her stylist's studio. Iristina then walks into the bathroom, shedding underclothes and hairpins, and turns her attention to ridding herself of the make-up. Standing over the sink and scrubbing at the eye shadow with a damp cloth, a bout of hilarity overcomes her. It's such a normal happening – her stood at the bathroom sink, removing her make-up, but what a bathroom! When the giggling subsides, she sets aside the cloth and looks at herself critically in the mirror. Lank hair, air-brushed skin and tired eyes are what greet her impartial scrutiny.

“They say, beauty's in the eye of the beholder,” she mutters, then gives her head a vicious little shake and gets back to her task. Once clear of make-up and painted leaves, she gets into the overly complicated shower-bath. First, she showers and then she sits on the little stool and lets the massage function have a go at her back. Feeling clean and drowsy, she steps out onto the mat and lets the dryers gently drive all the water from her skin. Finally, she moves to the hairdresser's chair and programs it to only dry and brush her hair. Iristina is still reclining with her head encased in the automated hairdressing device, when she hears what she thinks is a knock. She pauses the program and, sure enough, the knocking comes again. “I'm not dressed yet!” she yells and goes back to having her hair done. However, a moment later, a distinctly masculine figure appears in the doorway and she leaps from the chair, blindly flinging a handy bar of soap at the intruder. “Cai!” she yelps in relief, she realises who has walked in on her but sighs at the lack of anything with which to cover her nakedness.

“Not bad,” he comments, looking down at the wet mark on the front of his shirt. “If that had been a knife and I was a baby tribute, I'd be in serious trouble.”

“What are you doing here?” she snaps, rolling her eyes at his mockery.

“You requested someone come to fetch you for dinner. I volunteered.”

“I told you that I wasn't dressed yet!”

“Oh, should I have left because of that? Would that have been the gentlemanly thing to do?” She opens her mouth to retort but then realises that she's in no position to demand honourable treatment.

“Fine,” she snaps and turns to face him fully. “As you are here, you can help me decide what to wear.” She stalks right past him, wearing her nakedness and loose hair like battle armour.

“You and Gaspar looked very cosy out there,” the mentor goads as he trails her to the wardrobe door, careful to avoid stepping on the items she discarded on her way into the bathroom.

“Underwear,” she tells the wardrobe in a flat, exasperated voice and, within a minute, is stepping into knickers and bra. “It's just an act. We can't stand each other.” She doesn't turn to look at him but she's sure his face is a picture of surprise and disbelief.

“I thought you'd been best friends for years?”

“Red or purple?”

“Purple,” he answers and she pulls out the strappy, dark violet dress.

“No, we've known each other for years. He used to bully me when we were children.” This time she gets to see the double-take and it makes her feel slightly better about him walking in on her.

“So, was any of that story real?”

“I can't speak for him but what I said was mostly true, apart from saying we were friends and had made a pact to volunteer together. I was just as surprised as everyone else when he stepped forward.” She is now fully into the dress and turns her back towards him. “Will you get the zip, please?” His fingers are warm on her back through the synthetic fabric but Iristina feels no sudden rush of desire for the man, although she rather wishes that she could. Maybe, however, it's just her irritation at him barging in that's making her so indifferent.

“Shall we go to dinner, madame?” Cai asks with a taunting lilt to his voice and she rolls her eyes at him. However, she steps into the shoes that have appeared at the bottom of the wardrobe and allows him escort her out into the main living space. The company are all gathered around the couches with Gaspar – arrayed in a brilliant white shirt and smart navy trousers – chatting to Perilla and Daria on one, the three eldest victors on the other and Pyrrhus and Siprian gossiping over aperitifs in front of the TV.

“Oh, Iristina. You look marvellous,” beams the escort as he catches sight of them. “And Cai – so dapper.”

“I try my best,” smirks the man at her side. She lets herself actually assess his outfit and is fondly surprised that his three-piece, deep grey suit has a shimmering purple thread running through it.

“Let we be sitting down to dinner, eh?” suggests Thell and they all follow him up to the dining area. They find the table spread with a variety cold vegetable dishes, which are followed in succession by a further six courses.

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