Chapter no 15

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The moment Ma said it, Coriolanus knew she was right. Perhaps only a mother would make the connection in that gloom, but with her prompting he recognized Sejanus. Something about the posture, the slight stoop, the line of the forehead. The white Academy uniform shirt glowed faintly in the dark, and he could almost make out the bright yellow mentor badge, still hanging by the lanyard on his chest. How Sejanus had gotten into the arena, he had no idea. A Capitol boy, a mentor no less, might not have drawn too much attention at the entrance, where you could buy fried dough and pink lemonade, where you could join the crowd watching the Games on the screen. Had he merely blended in, or even used his minor celebrity to set suspicions at bay? My tribute’s finished, so I may as well enjoy myself! Posed for pictures? Chatted up the Peacekeepers and slipped in somehow while their backs were turned? Who would think he’d want to enter the arena, and why on earth had he?

On-screen, a shadowy Sejanus knelt, set down a parcel, and rolled Marcus onto his back. He did his best to straighten the legs, to fold the arms on the chest, but the limbs had grown stiff and defied arrangement. Coriolanus couldn’t tell what was happening next, something with the parcel, but then Sejanus rose to his feet and held his hand over the body.

That’s what he did at the zoo, thought Coriolanus. He remembered when, after Arachne’s death, he’d caught a glimpse of Sejanus sprinkling something over the dead tribute’s body.

“That’s your son in there? What’s he doing?” asked the Grandma’am, aghast.

“He’s putting bread crumbs on the body,” said Ma. “So Marcus has food on his journey.”

“His journey where?” asked the Grandma’am. “He’s dead!”

“Back to wherever he came from,” said Ma. “It’s what we do, back home. When someone dies.”

Coriolanus couldn’t help feeling embarrassed for her. If you ever needed proof of the districts’ backwardness, there you had it. Primitive people with their primitive customs. How much bread had they wasted with this nonsense? Oh, no, he starved to death! Somebody get the bread! He had a sinking feeling that his supposed friendship was going to come back to haunt him. As if on cue, the phone rang.

“Is the whole city up?” wondered the Grandma’am.

“Excuse me.” Coriolanus crossed to the phone in the foyer. “Hello?” he said into the receiver, hoping it was a wrong number.

“Mr. Snow, it’s Dr. Gaul.” Coriolanus felt his insides contract. “Are you near a screen?”

“Just got home, actually,” he answered, trying to buy time. “Oh, yes, there it is. My family’s watching.”

“What’s going on with your friend?” she asked.

Coriolanus turned his head away from the gathering and lowered his voice. “He’s not really . . . that.”

“Nonsense. You’ve been thick as thieves,” she said. “‘Help me give away my sandwiches, Coriolanus!’ ‘Empty seat next to me, Sejanus!’ When I asked Casca what classmates he was close to, yours was the only name he could think of.”

His civility to Sejanus had obviously been misread. Really, they were hardly more than acquaintances. “Dr. Gaul, if you’d let me explain —”

“I don’t have time for explanations. Right now the Plinth brat’s loose in the arena with a pack of wolves. If they see him, they’ll kill him on the spot.” She turned to speak to someone else. “No, don’t cut away abruptly, that will only draw attention. Just make it as dark as you can. Make it look natural. A slow blackout, as if a cloud has drifted over the moon.” She was back in the next breath. “You’re a smart boy. What message will that send to the audience? The damage will be considerable. We must remedy the situation at once.”

“You could send in some Peacekeepers,” Coriolanus said.

“And have him bolt like a rabbit?” she scoffed. “Imagine that for a moment, the Peacekeepers trying to chase him down in the dark. No, we’ll have to lure him out, as uneventfully as possible, so we’ll need people he cares about. He can’t stand his father, no siblings, no other friends. That leaves you and his mother. We’re trying to locate her now.”

Coriolanus felt his heart sink. “She’s right here,” he admitted. So much for his “acquaintances” defense.

“Well, done and done. I want you both here at the arena in twenty minutes. More, and it will be me serving you with a demerit, not Highbottom, and you can kiss any chance of a prize good-bye.” With that, she hung up.

On his television, Coriolanus could see that the image had darkened. He could barely make out Sejanus’s figure at all now. “Mrs. Plinth, that was the Head Gamemaker. She’d like you to meet her at the arena to collect Sejanus, and I’m to accompany you.” He could hardly admit to more without giving the Grandma’am a heart attack.

“Is he in trouble?” she asked, wide-eyed. “With the Capitol?”

Coriolanus found it strange that she’d be more worried about the Capitol than an arena full of armed tributes at this point, but maybe she had reason after what had happened to Marcus.

“Oh, no. They’re just concerned with his well-being. Shouldn’t be long, but don’t wait up,” he told Tigris and the Grandma’am.

As fast as he could, short of carrying her, he moved Mrs. Plinth out the door, down the elevator, and through the lobby. Her car rolled up soundlessly, and the driver, most likely an Avox, only nodded at his request to be taken to the arena.

“We’re rather in a hurry,” Coriolanus told the driver, and the car sped up immediately, gliding through the empty streets. If it was possible to cover the distance in twenty minutes, they would.

Mrs. Plinth clutched her handbag and stared out the window at the deserted city. “First time I saw the Capitol, it was night, like this.”

“Oh, yes?” said Coriolanus, only to be polite. Honestly, who cared? His entire future was on the line because of her wayward son. And one had to question the parenting of a boy who thought breaking into the arena would solve anything.

“Sejanus sat right where you are, saying, ‘It’ll be all right, Ma. It’ll be okay.’ Trying to calm me down. When we both knew it was a disaster,” said

Mrs. Plinth. “But he was so brave. So good. Only thinking of his ma.”

“Hm. Must have been a big change.” What was it with the Plinths anyway? To be constantly turning advantage to tragedy? You needed only to take a cursory glance at the interior of this car, the tooled leather, the upholstered seats, the bar with its crystal bottles of gem-colored liquids, to know they were among the most fortunate people in Panem.

“Family and friends cut us off,” Mrs. Plinth went on. “No new ones to be made here. Strabo — his pa, that is — still thinks it was the right thing to do. No kind of future in Two. His way of protecting us. His way of keeping Sejanus from the Games.”

“Ironic, really. Given the circumstances.” Coriolanus tried to redirect her. “Now, I don’t know what Dr. Gaul has in mind, but I imagine she wants your help getting him out of there.”

“I don’t know if I can,” she said. “Him so upset and all. I can try, but he’ll have to think it’s the right thing to do.”

The right thing to do. Coriolanus realized that this was what had always defined Sejanus’s actions, his determination to do the right thing. That insistence, the way, for instance, he would defy Dr. Gaul when the rest of them were just trying to get by, was another reason he alienated people. Frankly, he could be insufferable with those superior little comments of his. But playing on that might be the way to manipulate him.

As the car pulled up to the entrance of the arena, Coriolanus saw an effort had been made to conceal the crisis. Only a dozen or so Peacekeepers were present, and a handful of Gamemakers. The refreshment booths had shut down, the day’s crowd had dispersed earlier, so there was little to draw curious spectators. Stepping out, he noticed how quickly the temperature had dropped since his walk home.

In the back of a van, a Capitol News monitor displayed a split screen with the actual feed of the arena next to the darkened version going out to the public. Dr. Gaul, Dean Highbottom, and a few Peacekeepers were gathered around it. As Coriolanus walked up with Mrs. Plinth, he made out Sejanus kneeling next to Marcus’s body, still as a statue.

“At least you’re punctual,” said Dr. Gaul. “Mrs. Plinth, I presume?” “Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Plinth, a quaver in her voice. “I’m sorry if Sejanus

has caused any inconvenience. He’s a good boy, really. It’s just he takes things so to heart.”

“No one could accuse him of being indifferent,” Dr. Gaul agreed. She turned to Coriolanus. “Any idea how we might rescue your best friend, Mr. Snow?”

Coriolanus ignored the barb and examined the screen. “What’s he doing?”

“Just kneeling there, looks like,” said Dean Highbottom. “Possibly in some kind of shock.”

“He appears calm. Perhaps you could send the Peacekeepers in now without startling him?” suggested Coriolanus.

“Too risky,” said Dr. Gaul.

“What about putting his mother on a speaker, or a bullhorn?” Coriolanus continued. “If you can darken the screen, surely you can manipulate the audio as well.”

“On the broadcast. But in the arena, we’d alert every tribute to the fact that there’s an unarmed Capitol boy in their midst,” said Dean Highbottom.

Coriolanus began to get a bad feeling. “What do you propose?”

“We think someone he knows needs to slip in as unobtrusively as possible and coax him out,” said Dr. Gaul. “Namely, you.”

“Oh, no!” burst out Mrs. Plinth with surprising sharpness. “It can’t be Coriolanus. The last thing we need is to put another child in danger. I’ll do it.”

Coriolanus appreciated the offer but knew the chances of this were slim. With her red, swollen eyes and wobbly high heels, she did not inspire confidence as a covert operator.

“What we need is someone who can make a run for it, if necessary. Mr. Snow is the man for the job.” Dr. Gaul gestured to some Peacekeepers, and Coriolanus found himself being suited up in body armor for the arena. “This vest should protect your vital organs. Here’s your pepper spray and a flash unit that will temporarily blind your enemies, should you make any.”

He looked at the small bottle of pepper spray and the flash unit. “What about a gun? Or at least a knife?”

“Since you’re not trained, this seems safer. Remember, you’re not in there to do damage; you’re in there to bring your friend out as quickly and quietly as possible,” instructed Dr. Gaul.

Another student, or even the Coriolanus of a couple of weeks ago, would have protested this situation. Insisted on calling a parent or guardian. Pleaded. But after the snake attack on Clemensia, the aftermath of the

bombing, and Marcus’s torture, he knew it would be pointless. If Dr. Gaul decided he was to go into the Capitol Arena, that’s where he would go, even if his prize was not at stake. He was just like the subjects of her other experiments, students or tributes, of no more consequence than the Avoxes in the cages. Powerless to object.

“You can’t do this. He’s just a boy. Let me call my husband,” begged Mrs. Plinth.

Dean Highbottom gave Coriolanus a little smile. “He’ll be all right. It takes a lot to kill a Snow.”

Had this whole idea been the dean’s? Had he seen a neat shortcut to his ultimate goal of destroying Coriolanus’s future? At any rate, he seemed deaf to Ma’s entreaties.

With Peacekeepers at either elbow — for his safety, or to prevent him from bolting? — he crossed to the arena. He had little recollection of being carried out after the bombing — perhaps they’d gone out another exit? — but now he could see the significant damage to the main entrance. One of the two great doors had been entirely blown away, leaving a wide hole framed with twisted metal. Besides the guard, little had been done to secure this area other than placing a few rows of waist-high concrete barriers across the opening. Sejanus wouldn’t have had much trouble getting past those if there’d been a decent distraction, and there’d been the bustle of a carnival most of the day. If the Peacekeepers had been concerned about rebel activity, they would have been focused on someone targeting the crowd. Still, it seemed a little too relaxed. What if the tributes tried to make a break for it again?

Coriolanus and his escort wove their way through the barriers and into the lobby, which had taken multiple hits. The few unbroken electric bulbs around the admission and concession booths showed a layer of plaster dust coating chunks of ceiling and floor, toppled pillars and fallen beams. To reach the turnstiles required navigating the debris, and again he could see how Sejanus might have crossed it undetected, with a little patience and a bit of luck. The turnstiles on the far right side had been targeted, leaving gnarled, melted metal shards and open access. Here, the Peacekeepers had built the first real fortification, installing a temporary set of bars encased in barbed wire, and a half dozen armed guards. The undamaged turnstiles were still an effective blockade, as they did not allow reentry.

“So he had a token?” asked Coriolanus.

“He had a token,” confirmed an old Peacekeeper who seemed to be in command. “Caught us off guard. We’re not really looking for people breaking into the arena during the Games, only out.” He produced a token from his pocket. “This one’s for you.”

Coriolanus turned the disk in his fingers but made no move to the turnstiles. “How did he think he’d get out?”

“I don’t think he did,” said the Peacekeeper.

“And how will I get out?” asked Coriolanus. This plan seemed dicey at best.

“There.” The Peacekeeper pointed to the bars. “We can pull back the barbed wire and tilt the bars forward, creating an opening big enough for you to crawl under.”

“You can do that quickly?” he said doubtfully.

“We’ve got you on camera. We’ll start moving the bars when you’re successfully bringing him out,” the Peacekeeper assured him.

“And if I can’t convince him to come?” Coriolanus asked.

“We have no instructions on that.” The Peacekeeper shrugged. “I guess you stay until the mission is accomplished.”

A cold sweat bathed Coriolanus’s body as the words registered. He would not be allowed back out without Sejanus. He looked through the turnstile to the end of the passage, where the barricade had been erected under the scoreboard. The one he’d seen Lamina, Circ, and Teslee scampering in and out of earlier in the Games. “What about that?”

“That’s for show, really. It blocks the view of the lobby, of the street. Can’t put that on camera,” the Peacekeeper explained. “But you won’t have trouble getting through it.”

Then neither would the tributes, Coriolanus thought. He ran his thumb over the slick surface of the token.

“We’ve got you covered up to the barricade,” the Peacekeeper said. “So you’ll kill any tributes who attack me,” Coriolanus clarified.

“Scare them off anyway,” said the Peacekeeper. “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.”

“Excellent,” said Coriolanus, not at all convinced. He steeled himself and jammed the token in the slot, then he pushed the metal arms. “Enjoy the show!” the turnstile reminded him, sounding ten times louder in the stillness of the night. One of the Peacekeepers chuckled.

Coriolanus made for the wall on the right and walked forward as swiftly and silently as he could. The red emergency lights, his only illumination, suffused the passageway with a soft, bloody glow. He pressed his lips tightly together, controlling his breathing through his nose. Right, left, right, left. Nothing, no one stirred. Perhaps, as Lucky had suggested, the tributes had all bedded down for the night?

He paused for a moment at the barricade. Just as the Peacekeeper had said, it was a sham. Flimsy layers of barbed wire mounted on frames, rickety wooden structures and concrete slabs arranged to block the view, not imprison the tributes. Probably hadn’t been enough time for a real one, or perhaps it had been deemed unnecessary with the bars and Peacekeepers behind him. As it was, he had only to wind his way through the backdrop to find himself at the edge of the field. He hesitated behind a final stretch of barbed wire, surveying the scene.

The moon had risen high in the sky, and in the pale, silvery light he could make out the figure of Sejanus, back toward him, still kneeling over Marcus’s body. Lamina hadn’t stirred. Other than that, the immediate area seemed deserted. Was it, though? The wreckage from the bombings provided ample hiding places. The other tributes could be concealed a few yards away and he’d never know it. In the chilly air, his sweat-soaked shirt felt clammy against his skin, and he wished for his jacket. He thought of Lucy Gray in her sleeveless dress. Had she curled up against Jessup for warmth? The image didn’t sit well with him, so he pushed it away. He could not think of her now, only of the present danger, and Sejanus, and how to get him to the other side of that turnstile.

Coriolanus took a deep breath and stepped out onto the field. He padded across the dirt, channeling the circus wildcats he had seen here as a boy. Fearless, and powerful, and silent. He knew he must not spook Sejanus, but he needed to get close enough to converse.

When he was ten feet behind him, he stopped and spoke in a hushed voice. “Sejanus? It’s me.”

Sejanus stiffened, then his shoulders began to shake. At first, Coriolanus took it for sobbing, but it was quite the opposite. “You really can’t stop rescuing me, can you?”

Coriolanus joined in the laughter under his breath. “Can’t do it.”

“They sent you in to fish me out? What madness.” Sejanus’s laughter trailed off, and he rose to his feet. “Did you ever see a dead body?”

“A lot. During the war.” He took it as an invitation to join Sejanus and closed in. There. He could grab his arm now, but what then? It was unlikely he could drag him from the arena. He shoved his hands into his pockets instead.

“I haven’t so much. Not this close. At funerals, I guess. And at the zoo the other night, only those girls hadn’t been dead long enough to stiffen up,” Sejanus said. “I don’t know if I’d rather be burned or buried. Not that it matters, really.”

“Well, you don’t have to decide now.” Coriolanus’s eyes swept the field.

Was that a person in the shadows behind the broken wall?

“Oh, it won’t be up to me,” said Sejanus. “I don’t know what’s taking the tributes so long to find me. I must have been in here awhile.” He looked at Coriolanus for the first time, and his brow wrinkled in concern. “You should go, you know.”

“I’d like to,” Coriolanus said carefully. “I really would. Only there’s the matter of your ma. She’s waiting out front. Pretty upset. I promised I’d bring you to her.”

Sejanus’s expression turned indescribably sad. “Poor Ma. Poor old Ma. She never wanted any of this, you know. Not the money, not the move, not the fancy clothes or the driver. She just wanted to stay in Two. But my father . . . Bet he isn’t here, is he? No, he’ll keep his distance until this is settled. Then let the buying begin!”

“Buying what?” The breeze ruffled Coriolanus’s hair and made hollow, echoing sounds in the arena. This was taking too long, and Sejanus was making no effort to speak softly.

“Buying everything! He bought our way here, bought my schooling, bought my mentorship, and he goes nuts because he can’t buy me,” said Sejanus. “He’ll buy you if you let him. Or at least compensate you for trying to help me.”

Buy away, thought Coriolanus, thinking of next year’s tuition. He only said, “You’re my friend. He doesn’t need to pay me to help you.”

Sejanus laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’re the only reason I’ve lasted this long, Coriolanus. I need to stop causing you trouble.”

“I didn’t realize how bad this was for you. I should have traded tributes when you asked,” he answered.

Sejanus sighed. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing does, really.”

“Of course it matters,” Coriolanus insisted. They were coming now, he could feel it. The sense of a pack closing in on him. “Come out with me.”

“No. There’s no point,” said Sejanus. “There’s nothing left to do but die.” Coriolanus pressed him. “That’s it? That’s your only choice?”

“It’s the only way I might possibly make a statement. Let the world see me die in protest,” Sejanus concluded. “Even if I’m not truly Capitol, I’m not district either. Like Lucy Gray, but without the talent.”

“Do you really think they’ll show this? They’ll quietly remove your body and say you died of the flu.” Coriolanus stopped, wondering if he’d said too much, if it pointed too directly at Clemensia’s fate. But it wasn’t as if Dr. Gaul and Dean Highbottom could hear him. “They’ve all but blacked out the screen now.”

Sejanus’s face clouded over. “They won’t show it?”

“Not in a million years. You’ll be dead for nothing, and you’ll have wasted your chance to make things better.” A cough, small and muffled, but definitely a cough. Coming from the stands to his right. Coriolanus had not imagined it.

“What chance?” asked Sejanus.

“You have money. Maybe not now, but one day you’ll have a fortune. Money has a lot of uses. Look how it changed your world. Maybe you could make changes, too. Good ones. Maybe if you don’t, a lot more people will suffer.” Coriolanus’s right hand tightened around his pepper spray, then flitted to his flash unit. Which would actually help if he was attacked?

“What makes you think I could do that?” said Sejanus.

“You’re the only one who had the guts to stand up to Dr. Gaul,” said Coriolanus. He hated giving that to him, but it was true. He was the sole member of the class who’d defied her.

“Thank you.” Sejanus sounded tired but a bit saner. “Thank you for that.” Coriolanus put his free hand on Sejanus’s arm, as if comforting him, but really to grip his shirt if he decided to run. “We’re being surrounded. I’m going. Come with me.” He could see Sejanus starting to cave. “Please. What do you want to do, fight the tributes or fight for them? Don’t give Dr.

Gaul the satisfaction of beating you. Don’t give up.”

Sejanus stared down at Marcus for a long moment, weighing his options. “You’re right,” he said finally. “If I believe what I say, it’s my responsibility to take her down. To end this whole atrocity somehow.” He lifted his head,

as if suddenly realizing their situation. His eyes turned to the stands, where Coriolanus had heard the cough. “But I won’t leave Marcus.”

Coriolanus made a snap judgment. “I’ll get his feet.” The legs were stiff and heavy, reeking of blood and filth, but he crooked the knees in his arms as best he could and hoisted Marcus’s lower half. Sejanus encircled his chest with his arms, and they began to move, half carrying, half dragging the body toward the barricade. Ten yards, five yards, not far now. Once they’d cleared it, the Peacekeepers should provide some cover.

He tripped on a rock and went down, driving his knee into something sharp and piercing, but sprang back up, heaving Marcus’s body with him. Almost there. Almost —

The footsteps came from behind him. Quick and light. Speeding from the barricade, where the tribute had lain in wait. Coriolanus reflexively dropped Marcus and spun around just in time to see Bobbin bring down his knife.

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