Chapter no 4

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)

The stink of unwashed bodies, stale urine, and infection breaks through the cloud of antiseptic. The three figures are only just recognizable by their most striking fashion choices: Venia’s gold facial tattoos. Flavius’s orange corkscrew curls. Octavia’s light evergreen skin, which now hangs too loosely, as if her body were a slowly deflating balloon.

On seeing me, Flavius and Octavia shrink back against the tiled walls like they’re anticipating an attack, even though I have never hurt them.

Unkind thoughts were my worst offense against them, and those I kept to myself, so why do they recoil?

The guard’s ordering me out, but by the shuffling that follows, I know Gale has somehow detained him. For answers, I cross to Venia, who was always the strongest. I crouch down and take her icy hands, which clutch mine like vises.

“What happened, Venia?” I ask. “What are you doing here?” “They took us. From the Capitol,” she says hoarsely.

Plutarch enters behind me. “What on earth is going on?” “Who took you?” I press her.

“People,” she says vaguely. “The night you broke out.”

“We thought it might be comforting for you to have your regular team,” Plutarch says behind me. “Cinna requested it.”

“Cinna requested this?” I snarl at him. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that Cinna would never have approved the abuse of these three, who he managed with gentleness and patience. “Why are they being treated like criminals?”

“I honestly don’t know.” There’s something in his voice that makes me believe him, and the pallor on Fulvia’s face confirms it. Plutarch turns to the guard, who’s just appeared in the doorway with Gale right behind him. “I was only told they were being confined. Why are they being punished?”

“For stealing food. We had to restrain them after an altercation over some bread,” says the guard.

Venia’s brows come together as if she’s still trying to make sense of it. “No one would tell us anything. We were so hungry. It was just one

slice she took.”

Octavia begins to sob, muffling the sound in her ragged tunic. I think of how, the first time I survived the arena, Octavia sneaked me a roll under the table because she couldn’t bear my hunger. I crawl across to her shaking form. “Octavia?” I touch her and she flinches. “Octavia? It’s going to be all right. I’ll get you out of here, okay?”

“This seems extreme,” says Plutarch.

“It’s because they took a slice of bread?” asks Gale.

“There were repeated infractions leading up to that. They were warned. Still they took more bread.” The guard pauses a moment, as if puzzled by our density. “You can’t take bread.”

I can’t get Octavia to uncover her face, but she lifts it slightly. The shackles on her wrists shift down a few inches, revealing raw sores beneath them. “I’m bringing you to my mother.” I address the guard. “Unchain them.”

The guard shakes his head. “It’s not authorized.” “Unchain them! Now!” I yell.

This breaks his composure. Average citizens don’t address him this way. “I have no release orders. And you have no authority to—”

“Do it on my authority,” says Plutarch. “We came to collect these three anyway. They’re needed for Special Defense. I’ll take full responsibility.”

The guard leaves to make a call. He returns with a set of keys. The preps have been forced into cramped body positions for so long that even once the shackles are removed, they have trouble walking. Gale, Plutarch, and I have to help them. Flavius’s foot catches on a metal grate over a circular opening in the floor, and my stomach contracts when I think of why a room would need a drain. The stains of human misery that must have been hosed off these white tiles…

In the hospital, I find my mother, the only one I trust to care for them. It takes her a minute to place the three, given their current condition, but already she wears a look of consternation. And I know it’s not a result of seeing abused bodies, because they were her daily fare in District 12, but the realization that this sort of thing goes on in 13 as well.

My mother was welcomed into the hospital, but she’s viewed as more of a nurse than a doctor, despite her lifetime of healing. Still, no one interferes when she guides the trio into an examination room to assess their injuries. I plant myself on a bench in the hall outside the hospital entrance, waiting to hear her verdict. She will be able to read in their bodies the pain inflicted upon them.

Gale sits next to me and puts an arm around my shoulder. “She’ll fix them up.” I give a nod, wondering if he’s thinking about his own brutal flogging back in 12.

Plutarch and Fulvia take the bench across from us but don’t offer any comments on the state of my prep team. If they had no knowledge of the mistreatment, then what do they make of this move on President Coin’s part? I decide to help them out.

“I guess we’ve all been put on notice,” I say. “What? No. What do you mean?” asks Fulvia.

“Punishing my prep team’s a warning,” I tell her. “Not just to me.

But to you, too. About who’s really in control and what happens if she’s not obeyed. If you had any delusions about having power, I’d let them go now. Apparently, a Capitol pedigree is no protection here. Maybe it’s even a liability.”

“There is no comparison between Plutarch, who masterminded the rebel breakout, and those three beauticians,” says Fulvia icily.

I shrug. “If you say so, Fulvia. But what would happen if you got on Coin’s bad side? My prep team was kidnapped. They can at least hope to one day return to the Capitol. Gale and I can live in the woods. But you? Where would you two run?”

“Perhaps we’re a little more necessary to the war effort than you give us credit for,” says Plutarch, unconcerned.

“Of course you are. The tributes were necessary to the Games, too. Until they weren’t,” I say. “And then we were very disposable—right, Plutarch?”

That ends the conversation. We wait in silence until my mother finds us. “They’ll be all right,” she reports. “No permanent physical injuries.”

“Good. Splendid,” says Plutarch. “How soon can they be put to work?”

“Probably tomorrow,” she answers. “You’ll have to expect some emotional instability, after what they’ve been through. They were particularly ill prepared, coming from their life in the Capitol.”

“Weren’t we all?” says Plutarch.

Either because the prep team’s incapacitated or I’m too on edge, Plutarch releases me from Mockingjay duties for the rest of the day. Gale and I head down to lunch, where we’re served bean and onion stew, a thick slice of bread, and a cup of water. After Venia’s story, the bread sticks in my throat, so I slide the rest of it onto Gale’s tray. Neither of us speaks much during lunch, but when our bowls are clean, Gale pulls up his sleeve, revealing his schedule. “I’ve got training next.”

I tug up my sleeve and hold my arm next to his. “Me, too.” I remember that training equals hunting now.

My eagerness to escape into the woods, if only for two hours, overrides my current concerns. An immersion into greenery and sunlight will surely help me sort out my thoughts. Once off the main corridors, Gale and I race like schoolchildren for the armory, and by the time we arrive, I’m breathless and dizzy. A reminder that I’m not fully recovered. The guards provide our old weapons, as well as knives and a burlap sack that’s meant for a game bag. I tolerate having the tracker clamped to my ankle, try to look as if I’m listening when they explain how to use the handheld communicator. The only thing that sticks in my head is that it has a clock, and we must be back inside 13 by the designated hour or our hunting privileges will be revoked. This is one rule I think I will make an effort to abide.

We go outside into the large, fenced-in training area beside the woods. Guards open the well-oiled gates without comment. We would be hard-pressed to get past this fence on our own—thirty feet high and always buzzing with electricity, topped with razor-sharp curls of steel.

We move through the woods until the view of the fence has been obscured. In a small clearing, we pause and drop back our heads to bask in the sunlight. I turn in a circle, my arms extended at my sides, revolving slowly so as not to set the world spinning.

The lack of rain I saw in 12 has damaged the plants here as well, leaving some with brittle leaves, building a crunchy carpet under our feet. We take off our shoes. Mine don’t fit right anyway, since in the spirit of waste-not-want-not that rules 13, I was issued a pair someone had outgrown. Apparently, one of us walks funny, because they’re broken in all wrong.

We hunt, like in the old days. Silent, needing no words to communicate, because here in the woods we move as two parts of one being. Anticipating each other’s movements, watching each other’s backs. How long has it been? Eight months? Nine? Since we had this freedom? It’s not exactly the same, given all that’s happened and the trackers on our ankles and the fact that I have to rest so often. But it’s about as close to happiness as I think I can currently get.

The animals here are not nearly suspicious enough. That extra moment it takes to place our unfamiliar scent means their death. In an hour and a half, we’ve got a mixed dozen—rabbits, squirrels, and turkeys

—and decide to knock off to spend the remaining time by a pond that must be fed by an underground spring, since the water’s cool and sweet.

When Gale offers to clean the game, I don’t object. I stick a few mint leaves on my tongue, close my eyes, and lean back against a rock, soaking in the sounds, letting the scorching afternoon sun burn my skin, almost at peace until Gale’s voice interrupts me. “Katniss, why do you care so much about your prep team?”

I open my eyes to see if he’s joking, but he’s frowning down at the rabbit he’s skinning. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“Hm. Let’s see. Because they’ve spent the last year prettying you up for slaughter?” he suggests.

“It’s more complicated than that. I know them. They’re not evil or cruel. They’re not even smart. Hurting them, it’s like hurting children. They don’t see…I mean, they don’t know…” I get knotted up in my words.

“They don’t know what, Katniss?” he says. “That tributes—who are the actual children involved here, not your trio of freaks—are forced to fight to the death? That you were going into that arena for people’s amusement? Was that a big secret in the Capitol?”

“No. But they don’t view it the way we do,” I say. “They’re raised on it and—”

“Are you actually defending them?” He slips the skin from the rabbit in one quick move.

That stings, because, in fact, I am, and it’s ridiculous. I struggle to find a logical position. “I guess I’m defending anyone who’s treated like that for taking a slice of bread. Maybe it reminds me too much of what happened to you over a turkey!”

Still, he’s right. It does seem strange, my level of concern over the prep team. I should hate them and want to see them strung up. But they’re so clueless, and they belonged to Cinna, and he was on my side, right?

“I’m not looking for a fight,” Gale says. “But I don’t think Coin was sending you some big message by punishing them for breaking the rules here. She probably thought you’d see it as a favor.” He stuffs the rabbit in the sack and rises. “We better get going if we want to make it back on time.”

I ignore his offer of a hand up and get to my feet unsteadily. “Fine.” Neither of us talks on the way back, but once we’re inside the gate, I think of something else. “During the Quarter Quell, Octavia and Flavius had to quit because they couldn’t stop crying over me going back in. And Venia could barely say good-bye.”

“I’ll try and keep that in mind as they…remake you,” says Gale.

“Do,” I say.

We hand the meat over to Greasy Sae in the kitchen. She likes District 13 well enough, even though she thinks the cooks are somewhat lacking in imagination. But a woman who came up with a palatable wild dog and rhubarb stew is bound to feel as if her hands are tied here.

Exhausted from hunting and my lack of sleep, I go back to my compartment to find it stripped bare, only to remember we’ve been moved because of Buttercup. I make my way up to the top floor and find Compartment E. It looks exactly like Compartment 307, except for the window—two feet wide, eight inches high—centered at the top of the outside wall. There’s a heavy metal plate that fastens over it, but right now it’s propped open, and a certain cat is nowhere to be seen. I stretch out on my bed, and a shaft of afternoon sunlight plays on my face. The next thing I know, my sister is waking me for 18:00—Reflection.

Prim tells me they’ve been announcing the assembly since lunch. The entire population, except those needed for essential jobs, is required to attend. We follow directions to the Collective, a huge room that easily holds the thousands who show up. You can tell it was built for a larger gathering, and perhaps it held one before the pox epidemic. Prim quietly points out the widespread fallout from that disaster—the pox scars on people’s bodies, the slightly disfigured children. “They’ve suffered a lot here,” she says.

After this morning, I’m in no mood to feel sorry for 13. “No more than we did in Twelve,” I say. I see my mother lead in a group of mobile patients, still wearing their hospital nightgowns and robes. Finnick stands among them, looking dazed but gorgeous. In his hands he holds a piece of thin rope, less than a foot in length, too short for even him to fashion into a usable noose. His fingers move rapidly, automatically tying and unraveling various knots as he gazes about. Probably part of his therapy. I cross to him and say, “Hey, Finnick.” He doesn’t seem to notice, so I nudge him to get his attention. “Finnick! How are you doing?”

“Katniss,” he says, gripping my hand. Relieved to see a familiar face, I think. “Why are we meeting here?”

“I told Coin I’d be her Mockingjay. But I made her promise to give the other tributes immunity if the rebels won,” I tell him. “In public, so there are plenty of witnesses.”

“Oh. Good. Because I worry about that with Annie. That she’ll say something that could be construed as traitorous without knowing it,” says Finnick.

Annie. Uh-oh. Totally forgot her. “Don’t worry, I took care of it.” I give Finnick’s hand a squeeze and head straight for the podium at the front of the room. Coin, who is glancing over her statement, raises her eyebrows at me. “I need you to add Annie Cresta to the immunity list,” I tell her.

The president frowns slightly. “Who’s that?”

“She’s Finnick Odair’s—” What? I don’t really know what to call her. “She’s Finnick’s friend. From District Four. Another victor. She was arrested and taken to the Capitol when the arena blew up.”

“Oh, the mad girl. That’s not really necessary,” she says. “We don’t make a habit of punishing anyone that frail.”

I think of the scene I walked in on this morning. Of Octavia huddled against the wall. Of how Coin and I must have vastly different definitions of frailty. But I only say, “No? Then it shouldn’t be a problem to add Annie.”

“All right,” says the president, penciling in Annie’s name. “Do you want to be up here with me for the announcement?” I shake my head. “I didn’t think so. Better hurry and lose yourself in the crowd. I’m about to begin.” I make my way back to Finnick.

Words are another thing not wasted in 13. Coin calls the audience to attention and tells them I have consented to be the Mockingjay, provided the other victors—Peeta, Johanna, Enobaria, and Annie—will be granted full pardon for any damage they do to the rebel cause. In the rumbling of the crowd, I hear the dissent. I suppose no one doubted I would want to be the Mockingjay. So naming a price—one that spares possible enemies

—angers them. I stand indifferent to the hostile looks thrown my way.

The president allows a few moments of unrest, and then continues in her brisk fashion. Only now the words coming out of her mouth are news to me. “But in return for this unprecedented request, Soldier Everdeen has promised to devote herself to our cause. It follows that any deviance from her mission, in either motive or deed, will be viewed as a break in this agreement. The immunity would be terminated and the fate of the four victors determined by the law of District Thirteen. As would her own. Thank you.”

In other words, I step out of line and we’re all dead.

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