The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 5

After they have finished with the meal, which climaxed with a berry tart, the District 9 party take their coffee across to the TV area.

“I wonder what Flickerman and Templesmith will make of your behaviour,” snarks Perilla in her incongruously girlish voice. No-one comments but just settle themselves on the couches, while an Avox sets up the TV. Siprian hands Iristina the notebook he had given her on the train and she flips to her notes from yesterday. Suddenly, there's Caesar Flickerman's golden visage on the screen.

Tonight… there are almost 100,000 spectators jostling to see this year's tributes. It is impossible to say just how important this parade is as this is when the sponsors get their first look at the tributes… in the flesh.”

“And here they come!” exclaims Templesmith and the screen switches to a fixed camera position at ground-level that catches each chariot as it exits the Remake Centre. Watching the parade is almost entirely an exercise in vanity, although the girl does recategorise a few of her fellow tributes, because she's more interested in how the commentators portray her and Gaspar to the audience.

“What is he doing with that trident?” frowns Flickerman at last, speaking more to his co-anchor than the audience. The screen immediately changes to a close-up of their chariot at the moment Gaspar stabs the threshing fork into the chariot floor. When she drags the crown from her hair and tosses it into the crowd, the camera follows the crown and she's amazed to discover it reached the hands of a Capitol citizen, who promptly swoons.

“I wonder what her stylist will make of that!” jokes Templesmith as the camera is swinging back to the procession of chariots.

“I love these two,” chuckles Flickerman. “Look at them! Holding their hands up, saying they're proud to come from District 9.” The camera lets them roll out of view and the presenters go on to marvel at the beautiful simplicity of the District 1 costumes but she is satisfied.

“How… impertinent!” notes Pyrrhus, lazily. “Do you… any idea… how long I spent… that costume?!” She bites back the impertinent response that leaps to her tongue and shrugs instead.

“It got us noticed. Apart from the Careers, what other district has been given as much screen-time as us?”

“Oh, look, Pyr!” gasps Siprian as the camera fixes on Iristina resting against Gaspar's chest, while the president talks about unity. In the here and now, the boy bursts out laughing.

“That won't hurt, neither. We are the face of unity in this Games!” he adds in a dreadful imitation of Flickerman.

“That's not a bad idea,” muses Madame Heslot with an approving nod in his direction. “If you want allies… The sponsors would like it too.”

“Who think ye will make yer the best allies, Missie Emmer?” She jumps out of her chair like a scalded cat and spins to see that old man Thell is leaning back in his own with his eyes shut, not right behind her as it had sounded.

Please don't call me that,” she forces out through gritted teeth and his eyes fly open to stare at her in surprise. She realises everyone is staring at her and she curses herself as a fool for revealing any weakness to these people. “I'm sorry. I'm not too fond of being defined as a child without a home, a girl without a family.” She produces a tinkling laugh that is most unlike her normal throaty cackle and her crocodile smile seems to be working on Siprian, Daria and the stylists. “Makes it damned difficult in the district, don't you know?” Her voice, she is pleased to note, has slid into a polished Capitol accent. “What were you inquiring of me, Mr Thell?”

“Call me, 'Gaius', girlie,” he tells her with a gap-toothed grin. “And what should I be calling ya?” She slips back into her chair and allows a broad smile of genuine excitement to take over her face.

“The crowd seem to like 'Ares', so I might as well go with that.” She looks more beautiful than ever with her face alight with childlike pleasure and pride, Cai notes.

“I were asking as to which of thicky tributes be yer choice fer allies?” She leans back in her chair, one unblemished arm lying along each of its caramel-coloured ones. Iristina– Ares now looks so completely in control and gratified – rather like a cat that's got the cream – that it's hard to believe the violent outburst that came before. Cai finds himself wondering if she will be so volatile in the arena and whether it will work for or against her.

“The girl from 11,” she says, whip-sharp. “Maybe the boy from 7 and, possibly, the one from 6, too. I was thinking about Glaucus from 4 but…”

“Yeah. What's up with that?” Gaspar's frowning. “I thought they were Careers?”

“They are,” Cai assures him. “But you saw the Reaping – no-one volunteered this year. Glaucus does look strong.”

“Brute strength doesn't make him a very attractive prospect – I've got Gaspar for that!” She laughs, her eyes flashing sideways at the boy, and Cai's heart leaps.

“Remember,” lectures Gaius. “Tomorrer be fer showing the other tributes a tad of what you can do. We be making proper plans at breakfast. Now, offski ta beds.” The two tributes bid everyone goodnight and make their separate ways to their bedrooms. Cai allows her 20 minutes, then he makes his excuses and disappears down the corridor that holds the bedrooms. Ensuring that none of his colleagues see which of the sleeping quarters he's entering, Cai slips into Iristina's rooms.

“Cai!” she gasps, sitting bolt upright in bed.

“I thought you wanted some company,” he tells her with a salacious smile and raised heartbeat. She stares at him for a moment before her head jerks in realisation and she gets out from under the pile of bolsters.

“I'm sorry, Cai. I wasn't fishing for you,” she tells him with a disarming laugh.

“Then, who are you fishing for? Adolphus?! He's devoted to Daria.”

“I should hope so!” Now she laughs in earnest and Cai relaxes.

“So, who are you after? Not Gaius?” He's laughing too and she seems to relax, coming to stand in front of him.

“I'm not fishing for a victor. I'm after someone who will seem impartial but can influence a lot of sponsors,” she answers with a devilish smile tugging at her lips. However, his good humour has suddenly evaporated and he draws back to give her a look of shrewd appraisal.

“That's awfully cold-blooded,” he sneers, not caring how detrimental this might be to his appearance. “Are the Games all that matter to you?”

“Until they're won? Yes. Cai,” she answers with unwonted honesty takes his hands in both of hers. “All I care about is winning these Games… and having the chance to live the rest of my life.”

“So… if I were to ask you again in three months?” he suggests, not even formulating a proper question. He's still holding out hope that she has some liking for him, despite the difference in their ages.

“Get me out alive and then we'll talk,” she smirks and he knows when to give in with a good grace, so he chuckles and kisses her hands before leaving her to climb back into the vast bed alone.

Iristina finds herself waking with the post-dawn gloom, which annoys her as she has nothing to do until breakfast. She drags herself from the bed, takes a shower, wastes as much time as possible in choosing between the three outfits with which her wardrobe has presented her and there is still an hour to go before she can expect anyone else to be up. When she discovers there are no books in the room – not even a History of Panem – part of her wishes she had let Cai stay just to have something to do this morning. Instead, she creeps out to the sitting-room and finds, as she suspected, that even the Avoxes aren't about yet. So much for 'the Capitol never sleeps'! She sits herself in front of the TV, flips it on and immediately mutes it. Once she's worked out how to switch the subtitles on, the girl makes her way systematically through the channels, searching for something worthwhile. She's watching interviews with that year's stylists, when a voice behind her has her literally jumping from her seat for the second time in twelve hours.

“Couldna sleep?” Once again, it is Gaius Thell who has provoked her fight-or-flight response. She claps a hand to her heart before swinging around to smile at the old man.

“I did sleep, thank you, and well but no were tired enough to stay a-bed.” The gap-toothed grin re-appears.

“Ah, so ye do be coming out District 9. I were to thinking you be some Capitol lassie with yer fine talk and no fear of there arena.”

“I be a-feared,” she assures him, slipping into her native vernacular with depressing speed. “But I ain't have nowt better.” She shrugs and he puts his head on one side, considering her.

“Why'd ya be Krill's fancy-lass?”

“No better offers,” she answers with a brittle laugh before walking around the chair to face him properly. “I hate to be 'Miss Emmer' 'cause that name had me on them streets when I be 8. Every summer – warm or wet, well or ill – I were on them streets with no shelter, no protection, until I kill that there bear and Krill wants me, permanent like.” The old man looks her up and down, critically.

“That be why ya jump from a chair when someone a-speaks behind ya,” he says, eventually. “You be used to having ta run.”

“Yeah,”she huffs out on a sigh and then slides a hand through her hair. “I spended eight long summers a urchin what the Peacekeepers always threw out of me hole, so yeah I jump at unknown sounds and, normal-wise, I run.” She draws herself up straighter. “Not in the arena. In there, I'll fight 'em all off.”

“I think ya will. What be an TV?”

“Stylist interviews,” she tells him with a shrug. “It was the only Hunger Games coverage I could find at this time in the morning.”

“Why ya watching Hunger Games?” She laughs properly at that, despite her deep-rooted respect for the Old Man of District 9.

“What else be there? How can I watch propaganda or Capitol gossip, when my life is bound up in the Games?”

“There be more to life than these here Games,” recites the decrepit old man.

“Not to Ares, there ain't!” laughs Gaspar, strolling into the living area. The girl finds herself unable to refute his good looks this morning. Tight black trousers, a ruffled white silk shirt and a tailored jacket of blue crushed velvet make him look quite the dandy, although a physically powerful one. “Look at her! The very goddess of war.” She hitches a dismissive shoulder in reply. Pyrrhus' idea of training apparel is a sleeveless, purple tunic and close-fitting trousers the iridescent colour of pearl.

“I hardly look goddess-like in this get-up.”

“Oh but you look like a statue,” breathes Siprian. “You're so clever, Pyrrhus!” She's marginally surprised to see her stylist, redressed in yesterday's clothes, following the escort from the corridor of bedrooms.

“It is… hardly difficult… to decorate… that figure,” drawls Pyrrhus, laconically.

“Oh, well, let's have breakfast. I'll be taking these two darlings down to the training rooms in an hour.” They all move to the dining area and help themselves from the board covered in platters of food.

“I'm surprised to see you up this early, Pyrrhus,” she teases the stylist, not entirely good-naturedly.

“Up?” he murmurs. “Oh… we've not… slept.” The look he gives her is perilously close to a self-satisfied wink. She grins back because, while she can't see the attraction to Siprian herself, she can relate to his desire to show off his power and allure. If Cai was up, she would probably be doing something similar herself, even though nothing happened. The girl returns her attention to the array of food in front of her, instead, and helps herself to runny eggs, fat sausages, fried seafood and the rich, salty-sweet bread from home. She even fills a separate plate with fruit, which she uses as a palate cleanser after consuming the heavier fare. However, it is the constant flow of strong, fragrant coffee for which she is most grateful.

“So,” hums the old man. “I know Cai told yer ta keep one skill hidden from the Gamemakers and you need another hidden skill for the private session. Do yer wanna decide what they'll be together or apart?” She's thinking about it, looking to Gaspar, when he answers:

“Apart, definitely.” Again, she wonders if there's something more to this plan of his than heroic self-sacrifice. Gaius Thell nods slowly, his eyes on Iristina. She shifts uncomfortably, knowing that her suspicion of her district-partner must have been plain on her face.

“Yeah, yeah,” muses Thell. “Gaspar, you be with Amina and Cai for training. Adolphus and Daria will take you, Iristina.” The girl purposefully avoids her stylist's eye, knowing that the same thought must have crossed his mind as hers at the old man's choice of phrase.

“Let us have a bite of breakfast first, Gaius,” beams Daria, pausing only to kiss the old man's cheek before helping herself to food. Her husband, on the other hand, looks barely compos mentis. Iristina sighs and pushes the coffee in his direction. She is feeling rather sorry for herself, until Cai rolls in as the rest of them are leaving the breakfast table; he is unmistakeably drunk. She feels a rush of pride at her power to reduce him to this state, draws herself up straighter and tips him a wink. His only response is a guttural growl. Iristina leads the Barvens to her bedroom as there isn't much in the way of private spaces within their floor of the Training Centre.

“Alright,” grins Daria, plopping down on the girl's bed, while Adolphus gingerly lowers himself onto the stool in front of her vanity table. “What is this deadly skill that Gaspar knows nothing about?”

“It wasn't my idea to be coached separately,” she tells them with a sigh. “But I don't think he does know of my swimming ability.”

“That could be useful,” muses Adolphus in his slow, deep voice. “There's usually a body of water and, if there's a fire, being able to hide in the water could be a great advantage.”

“I ain't– I'm not that good,” she protests but the two victors wave it aside.

“What about strategy and leadership?” puts in his wife with a gleam in her eye. “You've been very careful to let Gaspar take the lead but the way you're assessing the other tributes says you're a born strategist, too.” The girl shrugs; she has been hoping no-one would notice.

“If you can show leadership in the arena – not before – the sponsors will love you,” Adolphus assures her.

“You didn't have allies, Daria,” the girl points out. “Just that boy from 11 who took that arrow for you.” The young woman's smile tightens and she nods.

“I wasn't a strategist, at 15. I didn't volunteer, intending to win. In fact, when I entered the arena, I expected to die. You're not me and my strategies won't work for you.” Now, it's the girl assessing her mentors with her head on one side.

“Tell me, why are you coaching me?” Iristina asks them, suddenly challenging. “Madame Heslot doesn't like me, Cai is charmed by me and Mister Thell doesn't want to pick sides but what do you two see in me?” At first, the only response is Daria chewing her lip in an oddly childish way.

“I see a victor,” Adolphus answers abruptly, getting to his feet. “A career. A tribute who has been preparing for the Games her whole life.” He's standing right in front of her now, towering over her. “And I don't like it.” She shrugs, putting up a front of calm and self-assurance.

“So, you disapprove of me, too, just for a different reason.” She gives a slight shrug and then peers around him to look at his wife. “What about you, Daria? Does your husband speak for both of you?”

“I like you,” says the young woman with a wide grin. “You're not going to let any of us push you around. You know what you want.” She hitches a one-shoulder shrug. “You scare me.” The 18-year-old blinks at that as she has never thought it possible: she scares a victor.

“Well, then the other tributes should be child's play,” she drawls, suppressing her urge to roll her eyes with difficulty.

As she shoots down in the elevator with Siprian and Gaspar, she is wary of the hubris she senses beginning to grow. Her mentors think she can do it and she has been training for so long that it would be so easy to believe herself a lock for victor. However, there are a lot of obstacles between here and the crown, not all of them in the shape of her fellow tributes. The pair lounge in behind their escort to find that there are still six tributes missing. They wait with melodramatic demonstrations of patience – which draw a few smiles – until someone has pinned their district number to their backs before wandering over to the tributes from District 7.

“G'morn,” Gaspar winks at the ferocious-looking girl, who only sneers back and then stalks away with her nose in the air.

“Are you ready for this?” Iristina asks the boy, forcing some nervousness into her voice.

“Yeah?” he offers. “Looking forward to mess around with the camouflage materials.” She's surprised by Renatus; openness but then realises that it doesn't actually tell her anything.

“That'll be interesting,” she agrees. “But I'm more interested in learning how to use some of those weapons. How deadly do think they'll be?” She flicks a look over at the six Career tributes and the boy's eyes follow hers.

“Probably, very,” he sighs.

“Bet you're pretty deadly!” grins Gaspar, clapping the younger boy on the shoulder. The three of them stand together, establishing a modicum of rapport, until the head trainer steps forward to give them a run-down of the stations. Once the tributes are released, Renatus runs straight to the camouflage station but the other two stay standing in their places in what had been a circle.

“Where do you want to start?” Iristina asks, allowing the boy to take charge.

“How about we do some tracking?” he suggests, his eyes flashing and she grins in reply. They spend two hours at the tracking station, during which time other tributes come and go and the Careers get comfortable at the weapon stations. “Ready to handle a blade?”

“You've no idea,” she laughs and he joins in, drawing the attention of several other tributes. “How about we try spear-throwing?” He nods and they walk across to the range, which is currently occupied by the boys from Districts 4 and 12.

“Have either of you ever handled a spear before?” asks the instructor, coming to stand in front of them.

“No,” they answer in unison and the athlete nods. He spends half an hour teaching them the correct stance and grip – as though they're going to have time to think about that in the arena – before letting them actually throw anything. They step up, parallel to the other two tributes, and each take a spear. Gaspar goes first and his spear thuds into the floor 6 metres short of the first row of targets. The trainer gets the other three tributes to drop their implements and runs out to retrieve the spear but he can't. He tries to tug it out of the hard plastic flooring for a couple of minutes to no avail.

“Here,” offers Gaspar. “Let me.” The trainer looks sceptical but waves him forward. The boy wraps his whole forearm around the aluminium shaft and pulls it free with a single jerk. After seeing the surprise cross the trainer's face, Iristina turns to take in the expressions of their fellow tributes and finds the boy from 4 has been joined by that from District 1. She grins at their petulant scowls, picks up her own projectile and, once she's sure everyone is out of range, sends it hurtling easily into the centre of the nearest target, 75 metres away. If they had been surprised by Gaspar's strength, Iristina's ability with a spear has the trainer and other tributes displaying slack-jawed amazement. “Good show,” grins her district-partner and they clasp hands. “Are you going to have another shot?”

“No, I think I'll go try some knot-tying,” she answers, giving him a significant look. He turns and sees the girl from 11 already at that station. “Good luck. Try and hit the target!” He laughs and she walks away, grinning.

“That was very impressive,” says Winnow, when Iristina joins her. The older girl is surprised, she had thought the other wouldn't have been able to see anything.

“Thank you,” she smiles. “That looks… how did you do that?” Winnow smiles secretively but pulls the knot apart and reties it so the other girl can watch. Iristina tries to copy her actions but her fingers are not nimble enough. The two of them spend the remaining time before lunch tying knots and setting traps, so they wander into the dining room together, not chatting but comfortable in each other's proximity. Gaspar is already there, laughing with Renatus, Glaucus, Theodoros and Servitus. It amuses her that the rest of the Career Pack are glaring daggers at Glaucus for his defection to their table. She and Winnow load up their plates and then walk over to join the crowd that Gaspar has been able to gather.

“Ares!” laughs Gaspar, looking up and seeing them. “Hey, I saved you seat. Theodoros, budge up and let the ladies in beside ya.” The two girls sit down in the tight gap and start attacking their food. “I was just telling everyone about that time we raced up the side of the Justice Building. Do you remember?” She does remember and the memory freezes the blood in her veins. She had overheard Gaspar crowing to Ketill that he had climbed the tower a hundred times and she had dared him to prove it.

“You mean the time we both ended up flat on our backs?” He laughs but his eyes are hard and malicious, a much more familiar expression than those he's been showing her lately.

“How was that?” asks Theodoros, sounding as eager as a little boy.

“Well,” the girl beams, trying to keep the malice off of her face and out of her voice. “I ended up flat on my back, out of breath, on the roof of the building and Gaspar ended up flat on his back for a month because he slipped halfway up and broke his leg in the fall.” Everyone guffaws and the scowls of the Career Pack deepen. After lunch, Servitus leads the way over to the camouflage station with the pair of tributes from 9 on his heels.

“Are you ever going to stop showing off how much better you are at everything?” hisses Gaspar out of the corner of his mouth.

“I was just being honest and, besides, if I'm gonna win this here thing I need ta be looking like a contender, ya see?” She curses inwardly at the dialect-rich expostulation which spews from her lips like vomit but she had been thinking of Gaius' advice.

“Fine,” he snarls, then plasters on a smile for Servitus and the camouflage trainer. As they work on painting themselves into natural backgrounds, Iristina is forcibly reminded that the only victors from District 6 won by camouflaging themselves and out-lasting everyone else. Servitus seems to be following in his mentors' footsteps and she decides that he will be little use as an ally. Just as they're moving over to the discus range, she catches sight of Glaucus in the middle of the knot of Careers. He doesn't look happy but she suspects that he will be throwing in his lot with the other tributes from 1, 2 and 4, not any odd gang she might be able to pull together. By the end of the first training day, there are only two potential allies left.

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