The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 8

The next morning proves amusing, for her, at least. An insistent knock rouses her before dawn and her groan of complaint wakes her bed-mate. She gets up, completely naked, and opens the door to find Pyrrhus looking as tired as she feels.

“Time to… oh!” At her stylist's unwonted alertness, she turns to see Caesar Flickerman picking up his clothes from the floor. It occurs to her, as she watches him, that his body is far too trim for a man of his age; he must have regular cosmetic surgeries. Eventually, he straightens up with the bundle of clothing over his crotch and she smirks at him.

“Feel free to use my bathroom. I have to go. Let the Games begin,” she adds, widening her eyes in a slightly manic way. She crosses to the master-of-ceremonies, kisses him swiftly and then rejoins Pyrrhus in the doorway. The stylist forces her into a simple shift and then covers it with a fox-fur cloak. “Goodbye, Caesar. Wish me well.”

“May the odds be in your favour.” Her lips twist at the stock Capitol sentiment, even if he had varied it.

“Guess that'll have to do. Keep an eye out for me, won't ya?” She winks at him and then slips into the corridor behind the stylist. He leads her to the balcony, where a hovercraft is waiting for them. She steps up onto the ladder, the cloak pulled tight around her, and some sort of current glues her to the metal rungs as the ladder is retracted into the vehicle. A white-coated attendant approaches her and injects something into her arm, which explains why Pyrrhus provided her with a cloak and not a coat. While she and her stylist are picking listlessly at their breakfasts, Iristina tries to remember what the person – she can't even remember if they were male or female – had said was in the injection. Ravenous from her exertions of the last few hours, she eats a good deal of the food provided.

“You…” begins the stylist, startling her as she has temporarily forgotten his presence. “Caesar Flickerman?”

“Yeah, well, you and Siprian Cotton?” she scoffs back at him. “What's the point in that? Flickerman can do me some good in the arena – sympathetic commentary, exclamations at my prowess, that can influence sponsors and the betting.” She gives an elaborate shrug, which makes the neckline of her shift slip down one shoulder.

“It's not about… sex?”

“What do you mean by that?” she frowns, leaning back in her seat. “Sex isn't a thing in itself. People have sex for all sorts of reason, most of them to do with power of one sort or another. I had sex with Flickerman to buy his power over the audience; I had sex with Krill to demonstrate his power over me; and I had sex with any number of men in District 9 because they had the power to give me food or shelter.” She gives another of those shrugs.

“Cai?” Her head snaps up and she stares at him; she had thought they had got away with it.

“I said, it's mostly to do with power,” she begins, hesitantly. “Cai and I… I guess… it's about the absence of power. I mean, yeah, he has some say in signing up sponsors and all the rest of it but he has no power over me, he just wants to help me, and I have no power over him, I'm just one of a thousand.” Pyrrhus' eyebrows shoot up in disbelief but he refrains form saying anything. Suddenly, the windows go black and she knows they're almost there. She doesn't feel excited anymore, merely determined. So, she turns her thoughts to what winning will mean and how meaningless her life will be if she loses. She knows she has made an alright impression on the minds of the Capitol but nothing that will last past the end of these Games. There have been some tributes in the history of the Hunger Games who have made such a strong impression – good or ill – that they are still remembered, although they didn't win. However, Iristina knows she is not one of these – the sexy young woman with a maternalistic attitude to her district is not going to stick in anyone's mind, even if she did volunteer.

She looks around her Launch Room with a proud smile. This place is hers and hers alone – no-one else will get dressed here, no-one else will await the defining moment of their life here. She imagines that, one day, she will return here with some handsome Capitol lover or husband. In fact, she's sure there'll be a great party of them – instead of the minimal human element of herself and Pyrrhus – and they'll follow the steps she's about to take to become the victor of the sixty-seventh Hunger Games.

“It's time to prepare for launch.” The cool, female voice drags her from her daydreams of the future into the stark reality of her present. She realises that she's terrified. Yes, when she gets out there, she'll have her own pack but they have no idea whether they'll be close together or widely spaced. Yes, they're planning to fight the Career Pack but there's only four of them and six Careers. If the latter have decided that killing off the highest-ranking opposition is more important than securing the supplies, they might all die on Day 1, after all. And what if the Careers get to the Cornucopia first? Can her gang cope without weapons? She has to shake off these ephemeral fears as the plate beneath her feet is beginning to rise.

Cai and the rest of the audience at Games HQ are shocked by their first sight of this year's arena. It's an island; more than that, it's a mountain with a wide plateau at the top and a narrow beach at the foot. The slopes are densely forested but there won't be much chance for the tributes to escape one another. Suddenly, the screen is filled with a close-up of the mountain's crown and the 24 figures rising around its edge. The tributes are evenly spaced from one another and none of them have less than 250 metres of detritus-strewn rock between them and the Cornucopia. He's almost certain that the two alliances and the girl from District 7 will make it out of there alive – he certainly hopes so – but it's possible no-one else will.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let the sixty-seventh Hunger Games begin!" announces Templesmith in his booming voice. Then, the worst happens. A little girl, who has been shaking like a leaf since she was pushed out of her cylinder, falls off and the landmine detonates.

Several of the other tributes jump in reaction and Iristina marvels that none of them follow Coriolana's lead. She is shaken, of course, but she remains calm and still, more interested in the acoustics of the crater than the corpse sliding down the embankment, off to her right.

On the screens in the Games Headquarters, they are replaying the girl's premature death in slow-motion and close-up. Cai finally places her as the girl from 6 in the instant before she tumbles from the plate, hitting the ground head-first. When the landmine explodes in a billow of red and orange, it is her head that is blown off, not her legs. It is one of the more gruesome, Gamemaker-inflicted deaths that Cai has ever seen.

“Yet none of our favourites have turned a hair,” says Flickerman's jocular voice as the camera passes quickly from Winnow to Gaspar to Iristina to Calidia.

She has located Winnow; three to her left with the baby boy from 8 and a 14-year-old girl between them. She can only hope that her ally sticks to the plan. After all, Winnow is a victim – forced here by chance and, no doubt, fighting to get back to a family who love her – so why should she have the same compunction about murdering little kids as the volunteers from District 9? The gong sounds and Iristina is sprinting for the Cornucopia. Part of her mind notes that the two children who separated her and Winnow have disappeared backward off the crown, not stopping to collect any supplies. She can see and hear fights breaking out all around her but she is focussed on reaching that golden horn. She leaps an empty water-carrier, disdaining to collect anything until she reaches the weapon cache, and sprints on without breaking stride. To her relief, Renatus is the first tribute to reach the weapons, immediately catching up two wicked-looking axes. She's less pleased to see Viatrix, his deranged district-partner, collect a bow and quiver. It's not that any of her team could use the equipment but she's loathed to let a range weapon fall into the hands of an adversary. However, there's no time to reflect on this oversight as Winnow, having reached the Cornucopia, is catching up a spear and turning to confront one of the male Careers, whose hands are already covered in blood.

“Winnow!” she screams. “Get down!” Her shout gives the younger girl enough time to duck the metal cannister that the boy from 2 was aiming at her head. Iristina dives, catching Canus around the knees and knocking him to the ground. He writhes beneath her, trying to raise his improvised weapon. However, she swarms over him and presses all her weight onto his right arm. Suddenly, a heavy metal blade swings down inches from her face and takes off Canus' head. She looks up, panting, and sees Renatus' grim face. Somewhere behind her, a girl screams and she swivels to see four of the other Careers are loaded with weapons and some supplies.

“Proc!” screams Canus' district-partner. “Let's get outta here!” The red-handed brute snarls but then he stumbles backward and the five remaining Careers turn and run.

“Well, this is interesting,” Flickerman says to Templesmith. “The initial bloodbath still isn't over and two alliances already seem to be established.”

“Yes,” nods the younger-looking man. “With two of our favourites on one side and Calidia Murano on the other. Gaspar Barjon is the wild-card.”

“Where's Gaspar?” she demands, putting her hands on the corpse's chest to lever herself up.

“No idea,” shrugs Winnow.

“I've not seen him, either,” squeaks out Renatus in a high-pitched, carrying voice.

“Damn!” swears Iristina, accepting a knife-belt from the other girl. “Shelter, food and weapons – those are our priorities. The original plan still applies; the Careers will be back. With a vengeance,” she adds under her breath.

“Where are you going?” challenges Winnow, blocking her path.

“To see if I can spot Gaspar. Don't worry – I'll carry my fair share.”

Cai sees his girl – life-sized, splattered in blood and with mud-stains up her front – give a wink and his heart leaps. She jogs along one side of the Cornucopia, cautiously scanning her surroundings as she goes. It's only when she reaches the tail that she spots Gaspar, who is still bending over his first victim. Behind him, dancing through the debris, is the boy from District 10 with a length of irrigation piping in his hands. Iristina doesn't hesitate; with a sigh, she unerringly pulls a blade from her belt, draws back her arm and sends the knife spinning through the air to stick in the younger tribute's thorax.

“Are you joining us or what?” she throws at Gaspar, who looks up in shock.

“He's spent all this time strangling someone,” she informs the others, dryly, when she and her district-partner reach the mouth of the Cornucopia. Winnow nods abstractedly, intent on pawing through a box of medicines.

“How is your arm?” asks the younger girl.

“My arm?” frowns Iristina. She looks down at her arms and finds a thin scratch running up the outside of her left one. “How did that happen?”

“When you dived for his legs. I had stuck out my spear to trip him but the point caught your arm. I am sorry.”

“No, it's fine. Doesn't even hurt… yet.”

“Here. Apply this.” Winnow tosses a tube across, which the older girl stuffs into an outside pocket of the nearest rucksack.

“Thanks, I will. Later. Right now, we need to grab what we want and get gone. I wanna be as far from this summit as possible come nightfall. The Careers are like to come back here to set up camp.” The four of them spend another 5 minutes picking through the supplies in and around the Cornucopia.

“Water or iodine?” calls Renatus, while the other three are forming their chosen supplies into bundles.

“We can get water from the sea and its heavy, so let's take the iodine,” answers Gaspar, not looking up from tightening the webbing around his sleeping-bag. He still hasn't addressed a word directly to her and this cold-shoulder treatment is already beginning to fray Iristina's raw nerves.

“Well, let's start with full canteens, at least,” she laughs. “No point starting out with nothing to drink.”

“I am ready,” announces Winnow. “Shall we go?”

“I wonder if they will realise that a trap has been set for them,” muses Templesmith and Flickerman laughs.

“Of course, she will!” Cai is taken aback by the master-of-ceremonies' choice of pronoun but Adolphus is smiling broadly.

“I see she did get to him, after all.”

“What do you mean?” demands the younger man, a sneaking suspicion making him more short-tempered than usual.

“Caecilius, my boy, her whole interview was aimed at seducing Caesar Flickerman. Did you not realise?” He shakes his head, lost for words at his girl's cold-hearted audacity.

They decide to descend the mountain through the gap at which the Cornucopia's tail is pointing as it's not the direction in which the Career Pack headed and Gaspar, who started off over there, tells them the tributes on either side of him have been killed. It's as they're skirting Lois' corpse that Winnow lets out a heart-felt shriek. Iristina glances around the rest of the crater as her ally runs for crumpled figure of her district-partner. They converge on the body of the 13-year-old, which Winnow is bending over.

“Come on!” hisses the other girl. “We have to get outta here.”

“Just one minute,” snaps back the younger tribute. “I have to get this.” She pulls a collar of woven grasses, worked into a complicated design, from his neck. “He wants– wanted this to get back to his grandmother and he feared it would get lost or destroyed… on his way back home.”

“OK,” whispers Iristina, realising that perhaps she and Winnow have more in common after all. “Last one standing returns it on their Victory Tour.” The boys nod and the other girl accepts her hand to get up.

“Let's see if the Careers have left us a present,” says Gaspar, sourly, leading the way to the lip of the plateau. “Tadia was too bloody good at traps for comfort.”

“Try these,” Renatus offers, holding out a pair of nunchaku.

“Ah, see? I told you they would figure it out,” beams Flickerman, once Gaspar has used the weapon to activate the trip-wire the Careers set up all around the cone. When the five remaining tributes from Districts 1, 2 and 4 arrive, Iristina and her gang are waiting with weapons drawn. Cai grins at the tableau. The camera is obviously in the tree-line as it is looking up at these four young heroes on the crest of the mountain. Gaspar is furthest left, standing tall and proud, with a sword in one hand and a mace in the other; next comes Renatus, looking deadly with an axe in each hand, one still covered in Canus' blood; Iristina is third, smiling complacently and flipping a broad-bladed knife through the air with her right hand; and, finally, there's Winnow with her district-partner's collar now fastened around her own throat and her spear held diagonally across her body in both hands. He's having a drink with a group of lady sponsors and they all sigh at the sight.

“Like what you see?” he asks, smirking.

“They're magnificent,” flutters the youngest one.

“Do you think they're going to have a battle?” demands her aunt with unseemly eagerness.

“Let's watch and see,” he purrs, fluttering dark lashes at the older woman.

“We're leaving,” Gaspar shouts down to the Careers. “There's some food left, the odd tent. You're welcome to it.” The girl from District 1, their greatest rival, laughs.

“Why shouldn't we fight you now?” she calls back.

“Well, I suppose, we could kill you now but 14 deaths on the first day would be a bit boring, wouldn't it? We'll catch you later,” he promises and all four of their alliance smirk.

“You saw what they did to Canus,” says Tadia in a carrying whisper. “Leave it. We'll get them later.”

“Fine!” snaps the other girl. “We'll see you tomorrow!”

“I look forward to it,” laughs Iristina and the four of them charge down the mountainside, making the Careers close rank and raise their weapons. Once safely in the trees, she and her gang put their weapons away.

“The beach?” suggests Renatus and the others all assent.

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