Chapter no 17

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

“He’s rabid,” Lysistrata said softly.

Rabies had made a comeback in the Capitol during the war. With doctors needed in the field, and facilities and supply lines compromised by the bombings, medical treatment had become sketchy for humans, like Coriolanus’s mother, and almost nonexistent for the pampered Capitol pets. Vaccinating your cat wasn’t on the list of priorities when you couldn’t scrape up enough money for bread. How it began remained a matter of debate — an infected coyote from the mountains? A nocturnal encounter with a bat? — but the dogs spread it. Most of them were starving, abandoned casualties of the war themselves. From dog to dog, and then to people. The virulent strain developed with unprecedented speed, killing over a dozen Capitol citizens before a vaccination program brought it under control.

Coriolanus remembered the posters alerting people to the warning signs in animals and humans alike, adding just one more potential threat to his world. He thought of Jessup with his handkerchief pressed against his neck. “The rat bite?”

“Not a rat,” said Lysistrata, shock and sadness on her face. “Rats almost never spread rabies. Probably one of those mangy raccoons.”

“Lucy Gray said he mentioned fur, so I’d assumed . . .” He trailed off. Not that it mattered what had bitten Jessup; it was a death sentence any way you sliced it. He must have been infected about two weeks ago. “It was fast, wasn’t it?”

“Very fast. Because he was bit in the neck. The quicker it gets to the brain, the quicker you die,” Lysistrata explained. “And, of course, he’s half-starved and weak.”

If she said so, it was probably true. This was just the sort of thing he imagined the Vickers family discussing over dinner, in their calm, clinical manner.

“Poor Jessup,” said Lysistrata. “Even his death has to be horrible.”

The recognition of Jessup’s illness put the audience on edge, setting off a wave of comments thick with fear and revulsion.

“Rabies! How did he get that?” “Brought it from the districts, I’ll bet.” “Great, now he’ll infect the whole city!”

All the students dropped back into their seats, not wanting to miss anything, dredging up childhood memories of the disease.

Coriolanus stayed silent in solidarity with Lysistrata, but his concern grew as Jessup zigzagged across the arena in Lucy Gray’s direction. No telling what was going on in his mind. Under normal circumstances, Coriolanus was certain he’d protect her, but he’d clearly lost his reason if she’d run for her life.

The cameras tracked Lucy Gray as she sprinted across the arena and began to scramble up the broken wall into the stands holding the main press box. Positioned midway in the arena, it occupied several rows and had somehow been spared in the bombing. She stopped a moment, panting, while she considered Jessup’s erratic pursuit, then she made for the debris of a nearby concession stand. The skeleton of the frame remained, but the center had been blasted into bits and the roof had been flung thirty feet away. Strewn with bricks and boards, the area presented a sort of obstacle course that she traversed until she planted herself at the top of the mess.

The Gamemakers took advantage of her stillness and zoomed in for a close-up. Coriolanus took one look at her cracked lips and reached for his communicuff. She appeared to have had no access to water since she’d been left in the arena, and that had been a day and a half ago. He punched in the order for a bottle of water. The promptness of the drone delivery was improving with each request. Even if she had to keep running, they would be able to get the water to her if she stayed in the open. If she could escape Jessup, Coriolanus would load her up with both food and drink, for her own

use and to lace with the rat poison. But that seemed like a long-term plan at the moment.

Jessup had made his way across the arena and seemed confused by Lucy Gray’s rejection. He began to climb after her into the stands, but he had trouble keeping his balance. As he entered the field of debris, his coordination diminished further, and twice he fell with great force, opening gashes on his knee and temple. After the second wound, which generated a fair amount of blood, he sat, somewhat stunned, on a step, reaching out to her. His mouth moved while the foam began dripping from his chin.

Lucy Gray remained motionless, watching Jessup with a pained expression. They created a strange tableau: rabid boy, trapped girl, bombed-out building. It suggested a tale that could only end in tragedy. Star-crossed lovers meeting their fate. A revenge story turned in on itself. A war saga that took no prisoners.

Please die, Coriolanus thought. What eventually killed you when you had rabies? You couldn’t breathe, or maybe your heart stopped? Whatever it was, the sooner it happened to Jessup, the better it was for everyone involved.

A drone carrying a bottle of water flew into the arena, and Lucy Gray lifted her face to track its wobbly progress. Her tongue flicked across her lips as if in anticipation. However, as it passed over Jessup’s head, something registered and a shudder racked his body. He swung at it with a board, and the drone crashed into the stands. The water pooling out of the cracked bottle sent him into a state of heightened agitation. He backed away, tripping over the seats, and then made straight for Lucy Gray. She, in turn, began to climb even higher.

Coriolanus panicked. While the strategy of putting the wreckage between herself and Jessup had some merit, she was in danger of being cut off from the field. The virus may have compromised Jessup’s movement, but it also loaned a manic speed to his powerful body, and nothing distracted him from Lucy Gray. Except that moment with the water, he thought. The water. A word surfaced in his brain. A word from the poster that had papered the Capitol for a time. Hydrophobia. A fear of water. The inability to swallow made rabies victims go wild at the sight of it.

His fingers began to work his communicuff, to order bottles of water. Perhaps enough of them would frighten Jessup away. He would drain his bank if he had to.

Lysistrata placed her hand on his, stopping him. “No, let me. He’s my tribute, after all.” She began to order bottle after bottle. Sending in the water to drive Jessup over the brink. Her face registered little emotion, but a single tear slid down her cheek, just kissing the edge of her mouth before she brushed it away.

“Lyssie . . .” He hadn’t called her that since they were tiny. “You don’t have to.”

“If Jessup can’t win, I want Lucy Gray to. That’s what he’d want. And she can’t win if he kills her,” she said. “Which might happen anyway.”

On-screen, Coriolanus could see that Lucy Gray had indeed worked herself into a tough spot. To her left stood the high back wall of the arena, to her right the thick glass side of the press box. As Jessup continued his pursuit, she made several attempts to escape him, but he kept correcting his course to block her. When he came within twenty feet, she began to talk to him, putting her hand out in a soothing manner. It stopped him, but only momentarily, and he made for her again.

Far across the arena, the first bottle of Lysistrata’s water, or perhaps the replacement for the one that had crashed, began its flight toward the tributes. This machine seemed steadier and truer in course, as did the small fleet that followed it. The moment Lucy Gray spied the drones she stopped her retreat. Coriolanus saw her hand pat the ruffles of her skirt over the pocket with the silver compact, and he took it as a sign that she had grasped the significance of the water. She pointed over at the drones, beginning to shout, and succeeded in getting Jessup to turn his head.

Jessup froze, and his eyes bulged with fear. As the drones closed in on him, he pawed at them but failed to connect. When they started releasing the bottles of water, he lost all control. Explosive devices could not have elicited a stronger response, and the impact of the bottles smacking into the seats whipped him into a frenzy. The contents of one splattered his hand, and he recoiled as if it were acid. He gained the aisle and bounded down toward the field, but another dozen drones arrived and bombarded him. Since they were directed to deliver right to the tribute, there was no escaping them. As he flew down toward the front-row seats his foot caught, and he tripped forward, hurtling over the arena wall and onto the field.

The sound of snapping bones that accompanied his landing surprised the audience, as Jessup had landed in a rare pocket of the arena with good audio. He lay on his back, motionless except for the heaving in his chest.

The remaining bottles rained down on him while his lips curled back and his eyes stared unblinkingly at the bright sun glinting off the water.

Lucy Gray darted down the steps and hung over the railing. “Jessup!” The most he could do was shift his gaze to her face.

Coriolanus could barely hear Lysistrata whisper, “Oh, don’t let him die alone.”

Weighing the danger, Lucy Gray took a moment to assess the empty arena before she picked her way down the broken wall to his side. Coriolanus wanted to groan — she needed to get out of there — but he couldn’t do it with Lysistrata beside him. “She won’t,” he reassured Lysistrata, thinking of how Lucy Gray had dragged the burning beam from his body. “It’s not her style.”

“I’ve got some money left,” said Lysistrata, wiping her eyes. “I’ll send some food.”

Jessup followed Lucy Gray with his eyes as she jumped the last yard to the field, but he seemed unable to move. Was he paralyzed by the fall? She approached him with caution and knelt just out of reach of his long arms. Trying to smile, she said, “You go to sleep now, you hear, Jessup? You go on, it’s my turn to stand guard.” Something seemed to register, her voice or perhaps the repetition of words she’d spoken to him over the past two weeks. The rigidity eased in his face, and his eyelids fluttered. “That’s right. Let yourself go. How are you going to dream if you don’t go to sleep?” Lucy Gray scooted forward and laid a hand on his head. “It’s okay. I’ll watch over you. I’m right here. I’m staying right here.” Jessup stared at her fixedly as the life slowly ebbed out of his body and his chest became still.

Lucy Gray smoothed his bangs and sat back on her heels. She heaved a deep sigh, and Coriolanus could feel her exhaustion. She shook her head as if to wake herself, then grabbed the nearest bottle of water, twisting off the top and draining it in a few gulps. A second followed, then a third, before she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She stood up and examined Jessup, then opened another bottle and poured it over his face, washing away the foam and spittle. From her pocket she took the white linen napkin that had lined the picnic box Coriolanus brought her the final night. She leaned down and used the edge to gently shut his eyelids, then shook out the cloth and covered his face to hide it from the audience.

The food parcels from Lysistrata thumping down around her seemed to bring Lucy Gray back to the moment, and she quickly scooped up the

pieces of bread and cheese and stuffed them in her pockets. She gathered the bottles of water in her skirt, but pulled up short as Reaper appeared at the far end of the arena. Lucy Gray lost no time in vanishing into the nearest tunnel with her gifts. Reaper let her go but walked over to collect the last few water bottles in the fading light, taking note of Jessup but leaving his body alone.

Coriolanus thought it might bode well for later. If the tributes kept making a habit of scavenging the gifts of the fallen, they’d play right into the poisoning plan. He didn’t have much time to dwell on it, though, as Lepidus arrived to claim Lysistrata.

“Whoa!” Lepidus said. “That was unexpected! Did you know about the rabies?”

“Of course not. I would’ve alerted the authorities so they could test the raccoons in the zoo,” she said.

“What? You mean he didn’t bring it from the districts?” said Lepidus. Lysistrata was firm. “No, he was bitten here in the Capitol.”

“At the zoo?” Lepidus looked worried. “A lot of us have been spending time at the zoo. A raccoon was over by my equipment, you know, scratching around with those weird little hands and —”

“You don’t have rabies,” Lysistrata said flatly.

Lepidus made a clawing motion with his fingers. “It was touching my things.”

“Did you have any questions about Jessup?” she asked.

“Jessup? No, I never got near him. Oh, um, you meant . . . Did you have any thoughts?” he asked.

“I do.” She took a deep breath. “What I’d like people to know about Jessup is that he was a good person. He threw his body over mine to protect me when the bombs started going off in the arena. It wasn’t even conscious. He did it reflexively. That’s who he was at heart. A protector. I don’t think he would’ve ever won the Games, because he’d have died trying to protect Lucy Gray.”

“Oh, like a dog or something.” Lepidus nodded. “A really good one.” “No, not like a dog. Like a human being,” said Lysistrata.

Lepidus eyed her, trying to decipher whether she was joking. “Huh.

Lucky, any thoughts from headquarters?”

The camera caught Lucky gnawing on a stubborn hangnail. “Oh, what?

Hey! Nothing upstairs at present. Let’s peek back at that arena, shall we?”

With the cameras averted, Lysistrata began to collect her things. “Don’t go yet. Stay for dinner with us,” Coriolanus said.

“Oh, no. I just want to go home. But thanks for being there, Coryo.

You’re a good ally,” she said.

He hugged her. “You are. I know that wasn’t easy.” She sighed. “Well, at least I’m out of it.”

The other mentors gathered around her, saying good job and whatever, before she left the hall without waiting for the rest of the student body to head out. That was soon to follow, and within a few minutes the ten remaining mentors were all that was left behind. They examined one another with new eyes now that the Plinth Prize was in play, each hoping not just to have a victor but to be a victor in the Games.

The same thought must have occurred to the Gamemakers, because Lucky reclaimed the screen to do a rundown of the remaining tributes and their mentors. A split screen showed photos of the pairings side by side, accompanied by his voice-over. Some of the mentors groaned when they realized their unflattering student ID photos had been downloaded, but Coriolanus felt relieved that they weren’t highlighting his current scabby face. The tributes, who had no official photographs, showed up in random shots taken since the reaping.

The list went chronologically by district, starting with District 3’s Urban-Teslee and Io-Circ pairings. “Our tech district tributes have us all wondering, what did they do with those drones?” said Lucky. Festus and Coral appeared next, followed by Persephone and Mizzen. “The District Four tributes are sailing high as we enter the final ten!” Lamina on her beam and Pup’s photo brought a cheer from Pup until it was replaced by Treech juggling at the zoo and Vipsania. “And crowd favorites Lamina and Pliny Harrington are joined by the District Seven boy, Treech, and his mentor, Vipsania Sickle! So, Districts Three, Four, and Seven all have both their teams intact! Now to the solo tributes.” A blurry picture of Wovey crouched down at the zoo, coupled with Hilarius with a bad acne outbreak. “Wovey from Eight with Hilarius Heavensbee as a guide!” Since they used his interview shot, Tanner looked better as he came up side by side with Domitia. “The boy from Ten can’t wait to put his slaughterhouse techniques to good use!” Then Reaper, standing strong in the arena, matched with a flawless-looking Clemensia. “Here’s a tribute you might want to rethink! Reaper from Eleven!” Finally, Coriolanus saw his own photo — not great,

not bad — with a dazzling photo of Lucy Gray singing at the interview. “And the award for most popular goes to Coriolanus Snow and Lucy Gray from Twelve!”

Most popular? It was flattering, Coriolanus supposed, but not especially intimidating. Never mind, though. Popular had gotten Lucy Gray a pile of money. She was alive, watered, fed, and well stocked. Hopefully, she could hole up while the others thinned their ranks. Losing Jessup as her protector was a blow, but it would be easier for her to hide by herself. Coriolanus had promised her she would never really be alone in the arena, that he would be with her all the way. Was she holding on to that compact now? Thinking of him as he was of her?

Coriolanus updated his mentor sheet, taking no pleasure in crossing out Jessup and Lysistrata.



Boy (Facet) Livia Cardew Girl (Velvereen) Palmyra Monty DISTRICT 2

Boy (Marcus) Sejanus Plinth Girl (Sabyn) Florus Friend DISTRICT 3

Boy (Circ) Io Jasper

Girl (Teslee) Urban Canville DISTRICT 4

Boy (Mizzen) Persephone Price Girl (Coral) Festus Creed DISTRICT 5

Boy (Hy) Dennis Fling

Girl (Sol) Iphigenia Moss DISTRICT 6

Boy (Otto) Apollo Ring

Girl (Ginnee) Diana Ring DISTRICT 7

Boy (Treech) Vipsania Sickle Girl (Lamina) Pliny Harrington DISTRICT 8

Boy (Bobbin) Juno Phipps

Girl (Wovey) Hilarius Heavensbee DISTRICT 9

Boy (Panlo) Gaius Breen

Girl (Sheaf) Androcles Anderson DISTRICT 10

Boy (Tanner) Domitia Whimsiwick Girl (Brandy) Arachne Crane DISTRICT 11

Boy (Reaper) Clemensia Dovecote Girl (Dill) Felix Ravinstill DISTRICT 12

Boy (Jessup) Lysistrata Vickers Girl (Lucy Gray) Coriolanus Snow

The field had narrowed considerably, but several of the surviving tributes would be tough to beat. Reaper, Tanner, both of those District 4 tributes . . . and who knew what that brainy little pair from District 3 was up to?

As the ten mentors gathered for a delicious lamb stew with dried plums, Coriolanus missed Lysistrata. She had been his only real ally, just as Jessup had been Lucy Gray’s.

After supper, he sat between Festus and Hilarius, doing his best to keep from nodding off. At around nine, with nothing eventful having happened since Jessup’s death, they were sent home with orders to be there all the earlier the following morning. The walk home loomed, but he remembered the second token from Tigris and gratefully mounted the trolley, which dropped him a block from his apartment.

The Grandma’am had gone to bed, but Tigris waited for him in his bedroom, again enveloped in her mother’s fur coat. He collapsed on the chaise longue at her feet, knowing he owed her an explanation of his time in the arena. It wasn’t only fatigue that made him hesitate.

“I know you want to hear about last night,” he told her, “but I’m afraid to tell you. I’m afraid you could get in trouble for knowing it.”

“It’s okay, Coryo. Your shirt’s told me most of it.” From the floor she retrieved the shirt he’d worn in the arena. “Clothes speak to me, you know.” She smoothed it out on her lap and began to reconstruct the terrors of his night, first lifting the bloodstained slit in the material on the sleeve. “Right here. This is where the knife cut you.” Her fingers tracked the damage down the fabric. “All these little rips, and the way the dirt’s ground in, tell me you slid — or maybe even were dragged — which matches up with the scrape on your chin and the blood on your collar.” Tigris touched the neckline, then moved on. “This other sleeve, the way it’s torn, I’d say you caught it on barbed wire. Probably at the barricade. But this blood here, the stuff splattered on the cuff . . . I don’t think it’s yours. I think you had to do something really awful in there.”

Coriolanus stared down at the blood and felt the impact of the beam on Bobbin’s head. “Tigris . . .”

She rubbed her temple. “And I keep wondering how it came to this. That my baby cousin, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, has to fight for his life in the arena.”

This was the last conversation in the world he wanted to have right now. “I don’t know. I didn’t have any choice.”

“I know that. Of course I know that.” Tigris put her arms around him. “I just hate what they’re doing to you.”

“I’m okay,” he said. “It won’t last much longer. And even if I don’t win, I’m a shoo-in for some sort of prize. Really, I think things are about to take a turn for the better.”

“Right. Yes. I’m sure they are. Snow lands on top,” she agreed. But the look on her face spoke otherwise.

“What is it?” he asked. She shook her head. “Come on, what?”

“I wasn’t going to tell you until after the Hunger Games . . .” She fell silent.

“But now you have to,” he said. “Or, I’ll imagine the worst things possible. Please, just tell me.”

“We’ll figure something out.” She started to rise. “Tigris.” He pulled her back down. “What?”

Tigris reluctantly reached into her coat pocket, pulled out a letter marked with the Capitol stamp, and handed it to him. “The tax bill came today.”

She didn’t have to elaborate. Her expression told him everything. With no money for the taxes, and no way to borrow more, the Snows were about to lose their home.

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