The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 6

“How was training?” Adolphus asks them, once everyone has settled at the dinner table that night.

Ares, throws a spear as well as she throws knives,” reports Gaspar, his bitterness discernible to his district-partner, even if not to any of their mentors.

“And the boy-hero beats me hands-down at tracking and camouflage,” she retaliates, rolling her eyes at him.

“What are your plans for tomorrow?” interjects Cai, sensing an atmosphere brewing.

“I thought I might try my hand at archery and wrestling,” the girl suggests.

“Archery, yes, but no wrestling for me,” says Gaspar. “I'll save it for Day 3. Maybe I'll practice climbing. We do also still need to visit the plant identification station.”

“Plant identification, yeah,” she agrees, not wanting to re-ignite their earlier argument. “Renatus mentioned he'd be trying that tomorrow.”

“Which one is Renatus?” asks Madame Heslot, looking at Gaspar.

“The boy from 7,” he answers, laconically. “I like him. Definitely ally material.”

“Do you agree, Iristina?” asks Adolphus, his eyes narrowed at her.

“Absolutely! Him and Winnow, the girl from 11. Her knot-tying is unbelievable and she was tossing around some of those weights after lunch, so she must be really strong.”

“Very well,” decrees Thell. “I'll speak ter their mentors.”

“What do you think of the Career Pack?” inquires Daria, casually.

“The boy from 4 had lunch with us – thick as pig shit. Wouldn't surprise me if he fell off his plinth before the 60 seconds were up,” Gaspar exclaims, chortling.

“The boy from 1 isn't much better,” puts in Iristina. “He stopped by the tracking station while we were there and the trainer looked like she wanted to burst into tears – he kept trampling the animal trails and didn't even bother to try to keep quiet. We'll hear him a mile off in the arena.”

“Yeah,” frowns Gaspar, putting down his fork. ”What is with 4 this year? Neither of them were volunteers.”

“That happens sometimes,” Cai shrugs. “Normally, it means that the two names drawn are considered deadly enough but this year… I'm not sure either of them will make it through the bloodbath.”

“Don't you think the other Careers will keep them alive?” she asks and catches Daria flashing her a smile.

“Maybe. Career Tributes aren't exactly known for their kindness, though,” Cai observes.

The next day, Iristina and Gaspar start at the archery range. It becomes clear, very quickly, that while she is good with throwing blades and spears Iristina is useless with a bow and arrow. She leaves Gaspar to it and wanders over to the wrestling station, which has mostly been left to the boys so far. While she has fought Gaspar multiple times rolling around in the street, she has never had any formal instruction in wrestling. However, she owns up to previous fist-fighting experience and the trainer has her demonstrate with an assistant before teaching her anything. She spends the next couple of hours having her technique sharpened. As she leaves for lunch, she notices that three Gamemakers who have been observing her are converging on the trainer and she wonders if she has just picked up or dropped a training score mark. Lunch today is just a party of four: Gaspar, Iristina, Renatus and Winnow.

“So, my mentor spoke to me after breakfast this morning,” Renatus begins, affecting casualness.

“Mine, too,” hums Winnow, nodding. They both give the pair from 9 appraising looks, who wait with matching smirks for their answers.

“Do you really think we can beat the Career Pack?” asks the boy in an excited undertone.

“Yeah,” Gaspar asserts, jerking up his chin. “Between the four of us. Why not?”

“And after they are dead?” asks Winnow.

“When all six are dead, the alliance is over,” Iristina says, very careful of her wording and trying not to step on her district-partner's metaphorical toes, this time. “Maybe none of us will win but, if we can get rid of the Careers, that makes it a fairer playing-field for everyone.” Winnow looks at her for a long moment and then nods.

“I'm in. Mukhbaza will not survive the bloodbath and no-one else do I want as an ally.” Gaspar grins and shakes her hand.

“I'm not going to say no!” yelps Renatus. “Viatrix hates me, maybe more than everyone else. And, yeah, you're the only ones I trust to keep your word. I mean, I'm sure you'd kill me after the Career Pack are dead but until then…” He shrugs, they all smile and shake hands, drawing curious glances from other tributes.

“So, what are your combat strengths?” asks Gaspar, leaning in conspiratorially.

“I think you should say first. Show of good faith,” suggests Winnow and he shrugs.

“I can use a sword and I can wrestle.”

“I'm good at throwing knives,” Iristina offers.

“And spears,” laughs Renatus and an idea begins to form in her mind; maybe she will have another shot at the spear-throwing range. “Well, I'm good with axes – typical District 7 – either two felling axes at close quarters or I can throw hand axes.” Although she's unclear on the distinction, the fact he knows there is one sounds convincing.

“I am strong,” says Winnow. “In the presses, we must turn heavy wood spokes. I, too, can use a spear but not to throw.”

“What about survival?” asks Renatus. “Have any of you done the plant identification station yet?” All three shake their heads.

“We were going to visit it after lunch,” Iristina explains.

“I don't think we should all go together,” Gaspar puts in before either of the others can suggest it. “We don't want to look too much like a team before we enter the arena or we'll be at the head of their kill list.” The others nod and then Winnow frowns.

“What is our plan for the cornucopia?”

“I think that is a conversation for lunch tomorrow,” Iristina suggests as an assistant trainer calls them back into the gymnasium. Gaspar heads to the climbing wall, Renatus to the fire-starting station and the girls go over to the plant identification station together. After they have completed every test the trainer can set, the pair separate: Winnow goes to learn how to find water, while Iristina joins Viatrix in learning how to wield an axe as a weapon. However, she soon gives up on that in favour of the fishing station. She's been tickling fish in the stream that powers the water-mills since she was 8 but using a trident or net is quite another proposition. The hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor-control required has her forgetting everything else around her and it's only when the trainer comes over and tells her that the training rooms are closing that she realises that all the other tributes have already left the gymnasium. “Sorry,” she smiles at the trainer and heads for the elevators. A young man comes to stand beside her and she thinks it must be Theodoros, until she turns to look at him and realises that she has only ever seen him on TV before.

“The volunteer from District 9,” drawls the 18-year-old victor, once he's sure she's looking at him. “Do you know? I think you might be the first tribute form an out-lying district who has a chance of winning this decade.” He's looking at her openly now; not with sexual interest – although he's trying to give that impression – but with a similar assessment to that of old man Thell.

“While I'm flattered, Mr Odair, shouldn't you be saying something like this to your own tributes?”

“Glaucus and Bess?” His expression has changed to one that indicates he thinks she's crazy. “Do you really see them as threats to your crown?” She colours at that and a small, proud smile steals onto her face. She's had plenty of compliments to her beauty and none of those have ever caused the same shy re-action; she wonders if he knows that.

“No,” she admits, biting down on her smile. “I think, Bess might well go down in the first ten minutes and Glaucus might only make it through the first night, if they weren't Career tributes. However, I won't tell you what my mentors say.”

“Oh, I know what Cai says,” the young man sighs. “He thinks Glaucus will set off the mine in his launch-pad and Bess will be killed by one of the other Career tributes.” He sounds almost bored and Iristina finds herself hoping that her mentors don't talk about her like this behind her back but, suddenly, Finnick Odair is standing in front of her and looking into her eyes with his deep sea-green orbs. “But I am not telling them that they can win – I think you… will.” She's saved from thinking of an answer to that by the arrival of the elevator.

“Well, thank you, Mr Odair. It was very nice meeting someone who doesn't have the better of me.” He gives her a look that blatantly suggests that he does have the better of her. “However, I must–“

“What?” he smirks. “Can't I share the elevator with you?” She accepts that as ridiculous and they both enter, he presses the buttons marked 4 and, more slowly, 9. Once the elevator has started to move, he turns to look at her. “Have you considered what you will be giving up, if you do win?”

“Mr Odair,” she sighs and makes a calculated decision to spill those secrets known to all of District 9. “I was an orphan and a whore before I came here. How much worse can they make my life?” He puts his head on one side and scrutinises her again.

“They will make you a murderer.”

“Is that really the worst part?” she challenges, sardonically. He doesn't answer but then the doors are opening behind him.

“Perhaps, next year, we will meet as equals.”

“Count on it, Mr Odair.”

“Please… call me 'Finnick'.” He winks at her before the closing doors hide him from view and the elevator continues on its way skyward, leaving her to wonder why he had engineered that conversation.

“Oh, where have you been?!” exclaims Siprian as soon as the doors open.

“Sorry, Rian. I got caught up learning how to catch fish.” They all stare at her and she shrugs. “It's a useful skill.”

“As is securing allies,” observes Adolphus. “I hear you have concluded your alliance. It will improve your chance of receiving sponsors, I'm sure.”

“Especially if they get high training scores, too,” puts in Daria.”Gaspar was just telling us about their skills and how you're going to plan your strategy over lunch tomorrow before the private sessions.” Not caring for whatever oblique message the young woman was trying to convey, Iristina cut in:

“I've changed my mind about my skill for the private session. I'm going to throw some spears instead of knives.”

“Why?!” exclaims Cai, vaulting out of his seat.

“Well, we've proven that I'm just as deadly with spears as I am with knives, so if I do that for the Gamemakers, I'll still get a high score and then the knives will be a wow-factor in the arena.”

“I don't agree,” spits Gaspar. “They saw you throw that spear, just like everyone else did. If you do spear-throwing in the private session, you can only live up to expectations and it'll look like you only have one skill.” She has to concede the point and admits to herself that the second consideration actually hadn't occurred to her. Then, a discomforting thought lodges itself in her mind: perhaps, Gaspar has a better handle on the Gamemakers than she does.

The next morning, she starts with a half hour at the wrestling station, followed by an hour with the gymnastics trainer and then moves to the spear-throwing range, where she hits bull's eyes at each successive distance. For the final hour of training, she settles herself at the fire-starting station and lets the world fade away. When they're called for lunch, she joins her three allies and they launch into planning as soon as they're sure that none of the other tributes are listening.

“At the cornucopia, do we go in and fight or do we run?” Renatus asks. She allows the others to air their opinions first, hoping she won't have to tip her hand too soon.

“We are four. We can fight,” pronounces Winnow, looking determined.

“Yeah but we ain't killing no little kids,” Gaspar tells them.

“What d'ya mean?” frowns the other boy. “We're only going to kill Careers?”

“No but Ares and I volunteered to protect little kids in our district and that'll be the line we be taking in them interviews. If we then go inter the arena and, in the first five minutes, we – or our allies – go around killing 12/13/14-year-olds, we'll lose our sponsors and that won't do any of us no good,” Gaspar points out and she's glad he's grasped this vital point as it frees her to follow Adolphus' instructions to not show her leadership before they get into the arena. After all, she might have to take charge; for all any of them know, these three might well lose their heads under pressure and she knows she doesn't have that weakness.

“So, no stopping to kill, just run straight for the cornucopia, right?” Renatus summarises and they all nod. It occurs to her then that the boy from District 7 has a talent for précis and wonders how far he might have gone, if he hadn't been reaped; it brings a lump to her chest to think of all the children that have to die so she can live the life of a Capitol lady. “If we win at the cornucopia, are we gonna stop there and make camp with all the supplies?” She sees Gaspar waver, so allows herself to respond.

“I don't think that's a good idea; unless it's a barren arena – y'know, like a city-scape or something. The– We can find food, they can't; so they'll have to slaughter us, if we horde all the supplies.”

“I thought we wanted them ter come after us?” Renatus queries.

“Yes but it be on our terms, not theirs,” Winnow beams, displaying an impressively white and complete set of teeth. “It be when our cleverness will mean more than their number.” The pair from District 9 nod and their fourth looks thoughtful.

“So, we run for the cornucopia – only killing if we have to defend ourselves – grab the supplies we want and then we get outta there,” Gaspar sums up and the others all assent. They look up and realise that both of the tributes from District 1 have already left for their private sessions. The four of them push their chairs back slightly from the table to finish off their food in greater comfort and openness. The boy from 3 has just been called, when Theodoros sidles up to them.

“Can I join you?” he asks, nervous and awkward.

“Of course!” beams Gaspar, his voice loud enough to echo around the whole cafeteria. “Anyone can join us.” Soon enough, Mukhbaza and the two tributes from District 6 have joined them and Gaspar is telling jokes. Servitus is the first to leave their table and everyone sends him off with calls of 'good luck'. After all, they can afford to be generous at this point as a good performance in one's private session does not guarantee a good performance in the arena. The next to go is Coriolana, who has shyly confided that she only turned 12 three weeks ago; a confession that makes Iristina's stomach turn with pity and revulsion. Barely ten minutes have passed before Renatus is summoned. He waves and there's another chorus of best wishes. At this rate, there will be an hour to wait before Gaspar is called but he's stolen a stick of greasepaint from the camouflage station and the four tributes from Districts 9 and 10 sit there playing the monster game with increasingly obscure words.

“Gaspar Barjon!” calls the head trainer and he stands up.

“See ya later, Tina,” he says to her before handing over the greasepaint. “Good luck, everyone.”

“Best wishes go with you,” replies Winnow.

“Yeah, best of luck, mate,” Iristina tosses at him, already bending back over their game as though she can't bear to look at him in this moment of parting. It's almost 20 minutes before anyone comes to fetch her and she wonders how fencing could have taken so long to demonstrate. She passes the greasepaint to Theodoros and walks away to face her fate. The Gamemakers are clustered in one spot on their raised seating with a board of food standing on the floor to their right. She walks past the knife-throwing range, around the end of their buffet table and comes to stand right in front of them. "Iristina Emmer, District 9," she announces, giving an ancient salute. A few look taken aback but all of them are looking at her as she turns and makes her way over to the knife-throwing range. She can hear the rustle of robes and she knows they are interested by her choice of a station that she has not yet visited. She begins with the novice targets and to her severe annoyance does not hit the bull's eye with her first try. However, her second one does and when she aims her third at the target dummy, which is twice as far away, she hits it square in the forehead. Her third knife takes the next furthest dummy in the heart. She spends the rest of her fifteen minutes flinging knives at targets all over the gymnasium. It's more clinical than inspired but she has broken a sweat by the time she is dismissed.

“You may go,” the head Gamemaker, a blond giant, informs her and she deposits the remaining knives back at their station and bows to the Gamemakers before heading for the elevators with a purposeful stride. She knows she's acquitted herself adequately, both today and on the previous two, but she's not done anything exceptional, apart from that one spear-throw, and the survival skills training only pointed out how woefully lacking she was. She sighs, slightly depressed, and then the elevator doors open on a furore of feathers and gabbling voices.

“What is going on in here?” she exclaims. “It's like'n Goody Twill's hen-coup got loose!”

“Oh, so sorry!” gasps Siprian, turning around, and she discovers the wheel of red and brown feathers are part of his coat and the waterfall of yellow ones are its collar. In fact, as she looks closer, she realises his entire coat is made of feathers. The gabbling, however, is coming from Perilla and Amina Heslot.

“What did you do, Gaspar?” she asks on a not-entirely-convincing laugh, swiftly putting two and two together. He grins up at her from where he's sprawling on the sofa and she's struck for a moment by just how good-looking he really is and then shoves the thought away with a flash of self-loathing.

“I painted a test dummy to look like Glaucus before taking a sword to it.”

“You didn't!” she says, trying to sound scandalised but only managing laughter. “You do know you're only supposed to show-case one skill, right?” she adds, once she's recovered herself. He shrugs and she grins.

“I'm glad you think this it's funny,” hisses out Madame Heslot. “The Gamemakers won't think so.”

“Because he chose a peculiarly idiotic tribute, one whose own mentor doesn't think he has a chance of winning, as a target?” The girl treats the elder woman to a sardonic look. “I highly doubt it. They'll probably just put him down as ruthless or sadistic, which don't hurt in the Games.”

“The girl is right,” weighs in Adolphus and his knowing smile makes her realise that she's just slipped into a dominant role once more.

“What d'ya mean that Glaucus' mentor don't think he can win?” asks Gaspar, swinging himself upright.

“Yeah…” she begins, shifting her weight from foot to foot to make herself seem nervous and non-threatening. “I was meaning to tell you: Finnick Odair shared an elevator with me last night.”


“Oh, I–“


“And you didn't tell us?!” demands Cai, crossing the floor and grabbing her by the arms. She feels a jolt of attraction shoot straight through her and realises her senses must be on full-blast; perhaps the trepidation she felt before the private session has heightened her awareness of everything. Keeping that suspicion in mind, she is very careful in her choice of words.

“I know mentors aren't allowed in the training rooms, so he must have come down and waited for me, specifically.” She draws a deep breath and looks into Cai's eye as Finnick had looked into hers. “I wasn't sure why he would do that, so I didn't want to say anything. But he did say that he thinks I could win and that his tributes aren't a threat to that.” The look he gives her in response to this bit of candour puts her much more in mind of secrets acts than anything Finnick Odair had said or done. She shakes herself free of the man and drops into a spare chair, willing her muscles not to rebel.

“That is of interest,” muses Adolphus. “He has a talent for spotting victors.”

“I don't want to hear this,” she spits out and everyone stares at her. “You're buttering me up – softening me up – making me think this is easy and a foregone conclusion. It isn't! I have to outlive 23 other victors, including that one” – she gestures at Gaspar – “and survive whatever traps the Gamemakers have built into the arena. I don't want to hear how I'm certain to win, I just want advice on staying alive!” She throws herself out of the chair and strides off to her bedroom, the door of which she locks behind her. She's convinced that this a strategy that Gaspar and Madame Heslot have worked out to make her drop her guard and relax enough to give him the edge when it comes down to it. Of the 23 tributes she has to face, Gaspar is the one who scares her most because he is an enemy masquerading as a friend and the one who knows her best.

They send Daria to fetch her for dinner but Iristina, now changed into a dress of brilliant scarlet, refuses to speak to the young woman. She doesn't trust any of them any more and she wonders what in Panem will happen when it comes time for sponsors' gifts to be apportioned. Dinner is a restrained affair, hardly enlivened by the additional presence of the stylists, who are clashing: she in a dress of chartreuse satin and he in a suit in four different shades of wine-red. In fact, Gaspar's open-mouthed chewing is the loudest sound throughout the meal. The girl escapes the table as soon as politely possible and has herself ensconced in the swivel arm-chair with the best view of the TV before the others have finished their meals.

“As you know, the tributes are rated on a scale of 1 to 12,” purrs Caesar Flickerman's familiar voice and all eyes turn to the TV. As per usual, the Careers place in the 8–10 range with Bess taking a higher score than Glaucus to Iristina's surprise and, suddenly, she finds herself wondering if Finnick was trying to get her to underestimate his charges to make her vulnerable. Calidia's score of ten gives her the shortest odds in the betting and, therefore, secures her the top spot on Iristina's kill list. There's nothing else of startling interest until Caesar Flickerman gets to their district. Gaspar's face comes up, she braces herself for the worst and it comes – eleven, he's got an eleven. When they flash up her own ten, she is certain that her district-partner is the one she has to beat. She can't put him high on her kill list but nor can she trust him to stick to the plan he outlined on the train. After all, she only has his word for it that he's ill. Winnow also pulls an eleven and Renatus had received an eight, so she knows her little band ought to get sponsors and a fair share of the betting once they survive the bloodbath. However, it's not pleasure but creeping, insidious fear that fills her heart.

“Well, that settles matters,” she bites out, all bitterness and bile. “We're the team to beat and you can be sure that's what the Careers are thinking. Six of them and they scored one ten, two of us and we scored a ten and an eleven.”

“Just wait 'til they see Winnow and Renatus be with us,” guffaws Gaspar and her nerve snaps. She grabs up a metal plate of sweets and goes to hurl it at his head but Cai catches her wrist and drags her out of the chair before she can release the missile.

“Let's get you to bed,” he says in a tone of firm decision and no flirtation. He drags her down the hall to her bedroom, tosses her in ahead of him and follows, locking the door behind him. “What has gotten into you?”

“I don't know,” she wails. “Everyone's being so nice, even though they despise me, and I can't trust anyone!”

“Hey, hey, hey!” he soothes, the anger visibly flooding out of his body, and crosses to her. Cai catches her by the wrists again but, this time, uses the grip to tug her gently against him. “I don't despise you,” he tells her, firmly, and he re-arranges his arms to encircle her, cradling her against his chest. “Do you think… Can you trust me?” Her wild heartbeat is returning to normal in the privacy of her room and the comfort of his arms. No man has ever asked her to trust him, just to obey him and the idea of trusting anybody… but she'll need someone on her side when she's in the arena and Daria's fear won't be enough to secure her patronage.

“I'll try,” she promises, tilting her head back to look him in the eye. He smiles and then he makes the predictable next move, he kisses her. She has been kissed so many hundreds of times by so many men but never before has it been a sign that she's safe. Every kiss before this has been a mark of her desperation, her need for protection or food or shelter but, this time, she could end it with no repercussions. She could push him away, ask him to leave and he would do it without harming her – because he is actually concerned for her. She doesn't stop the kiss, she doesn't push him away; instead, she luxuriates in the feeling of safety and security. It has never occurred to her that sex could be more than a bargaining-chip, a means to an end, but now she finds herself wanting to know what it would be like to be loved by a man who cares for her.

“Do you want me to leave?” he asks with unwonted seriousness, when they finally separate for breath. It's his honesty in place of the customary 'I should go' that decides her and Iristina takes his hand in hers.

“No,” she tells him with more honesty than she can ever remember imparting to anyone.

“You don't have to sleep with me,” he assures her. “I wouldn't–“

“I want to.”

“I thought you did,” he smirks and she laughs.

“Just kiss me again,” she instructs, teasingly, and he obeys. They aren't very ceremonious or romantic about things; each sheds their own clothes and they slide into bed separately. For once, it's the act she wants, not the power of being the most beautiful thing he's ever tapped. It occurs to her as Cai pulls her into another kiss under the sheets that, as a handsome victor, he has probably had any number of lovers who are much better looking than she is. Oddly, that thought comforts her. In fact, she begins to glow as she realises what it means that he has chosen her.

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