Chapter no 2

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The District 12 girl? Could there be a bigger slap in the face? District 12, the smallest district, the joke district, with its stunted, joint-swollen kids that always died in the first five minutes, and not only that . . . but the girl? Not that a girl couldn’t win, but in his mind the Hunger Games were largely about brute force, and the girls were naturally smaller than the boys and therefore at a disadvantage. Coriolanus had never been a particular favorite of Dean Highbottom, whom he jokingly called High-as-a-Kite-Bottom among his friends, but he had not expected such a public humiliation. Had the nickname gotten back to him? Or was this just an acknowledgment that, in the new world order, the Snows were fading into insignificance?

He could feel the blood burning his cheeks as he tried to remain composed. Most of the other students had risen and were chatting among themselves. He must join them, pretend this was of no consequence, but he seemed incapable of movement. The most he could manage was to turn his head to the right, where Sejanus still sat beside him. Coriolanus opened his mouth to congratulate him but stopped at the barely concealed misery on the other boy’s face.

“What is it?” he asked. “Aren’t you happy? District Two, the boy — that’s the pick of the litter.”

“You forget. I’m part of that litter,” said Sejanus hoarsely.

Coriolanus let that sink in. So ten years in the Capitol and the privileged life it provided had been wasted on Sejanus. He still thought of himself as a district citizen. Sentimental nonsense.

Sejanus’s forehead creased in consternation. “I’m sure my father requested it. He’s always trying to get my mind right.”

No doubt, thought Coriolanus. Old Strabo Plinth’s deep pockets and influence were respected if his lineage was not. And while the mentorships were supposedly based on merit, strings clearly had been pulled.

The audience had settled into seats now. At the back of the dais, curtains parted to reveal a floor-to-ceiling screen. The reaping aired live from each district, moving from the east coast to the west, and was broadcast around the country. That meant District 12 would kick off the day. Everyone rose as the seal of Panem filled the screen, accompanied by the Capitol anthem.

Gem of Panem, Mighty city,

Through the ages, you shine anew.

Some of the students fumbled for the words, but Coriolanus, who had heard his grandmother butcher it daily for years, sang all three verses in a forceful voice, garnering a few nods of approval. It was pathetic, but he needed every drop of approval he could get.

The seal dissolved to show President Ravinstill, his hair streaked with silver, dressed in his prewar military uniform as a reminder that he’d been controlling the districts long before the Dark Days of the rebellion. He recited a brief passage from the Treaty of Treason, which laid out the Hunger Games as a war reparation, young district lives taken for the young Capitol lives that had been lost. The price of the rebels’ treachery.

The Gamemakers cut to the bleak square of District 12, where a temporary stage, now lined with Peacekeepers, had been erected before the Justice Building. Mayor Lipp, a squat, freckled man in a hopelessly outdated suit, stood between two burlap sacks. He dug his hand deeply in the bag on his left, pulled out a slip of paper, and barely glanced at it.

“The District Twelve girl tribute is Lucy Gray Baird,” he said into a mic. The camera swept over the crowd of gray, hungry faces in gray, shapeless clothing, seeking the tribute. It zoomed in toward a disturbance, girls drawing back from the unfortunate chosen one.

The audience gave a surprised murmur at the sight of her.

Lucy Gray Baird stood upright in a dress made of a rainbow of ruffles, now raggedy but once fancy. Her dark, curly hair was pulled up and woven

with limp wildflowers. Her colorful ensemble drew the eye, as to a tattered butterfly in a field of moths. She did not make straight for the stage but began to weave through the girls off to her right.

It happened quickly. The dip of her hand into the ruffles at her hip, the wriggle of bright green transported from her pocket and deposited down the collar of a smirking redhead’s blouse, the rustle of her skirt as she moved on. Focus stayed on the victim, her smirk changing to an expression of horror, her shrieks as she fell to the ground, pawing at her clothes, the shouts of the mayor. And in the background, her assailant was still weaving, still gliding her way to the stage, not looking back even once.

Heavensbee Hall came to life as people elbowed their neighbors.

“Did you see that?”

“What did she drop down her dress?” “A lizard?”

“I saw a snake!” “Did she kill her?”

Coriolanus scanned the crowd and felt a spark of hope. His long shot of a tribute, his throwaway, his insult had captured the Capitol’s attention. That was good, right? With his help, perhaps she could keep it, and he could turn disgrace into a respectable showing. One way or another, their fates were irrevocably linked.

Up on the screen, Mayor Lipp flew down the steps of the stage, pushing his way through the assembled girls to reach the fallen one on the ground. “Mayfair? Mayfair?” he cried. “My daughter needs help!” A circle had opened up around her, but the few halfhearted attempts to help her were blocked by her thrashing limbs. The mayor broke into the clearing just as a small, iridescent green snake shot out of the folds of her dress and into the crowd, bringing screams and scrambles to avoid it. The departure of the snake calmed Mayfair, but her distress was immediately replaced by embarrassment. She looked straight into the camera as she realized all the citizens of Panem were watching. One hand tried to straighten a bow that had gone askew in her hair, the other moved to right her garments, filthy with the coal dust that coated everything and torn from her clawing. As her father helped her to her feet, it was apparent she had wet herself. He removed his jacket to wrap around her and handed her over to a Peacekeeper to lead away. He turned back to the stage and trained a murderous look on District 12’s newest tribute.

As Coriolanus watched Lucy Gray Baird take the stage, he felt a stab of uneasiness. Could she be mentally unstable? There was something vaguely familiar but disturbing about her. The rows of raspberry pink, royal blue, and daffodil yellow ruffles . . .

“She’s like a circus performer,” one of the girls remarked. The other mentors made sounds of agreement.

That was it. Coriolanus reached back into his memory to the circuses of his early childhood. Jugglers and acrobats, clowns and dancing girls in puffy dresses twirling around while his brain grew giddy with spun sugar. His tribute’s choosing such festive attire for the darkest event of the year showed a strangeness beyond a simple lapse of judgment.

The allotted time for District 12’s reaping had no doubt come and gone, but they still lacked a male tribute. Even so, when Mayor Lipp retook the stage, he ignored the bags of names, made a beeline for the girl tribute, and struck her in the face so powerfully that she was knocked to her knees. He had raised his hand to hit her again, when a couple of the Peacekeepers intervened, grabbing his arms and attempting to redirect him to the business at hand. When he resisted, they hauled him back into the Justice Building, bringing the whole proceeding to a standstill.

Attention shifted to the girl on the stage. As the camera zoomed in on her, Coriolanus was not reassured about Lucy Gray Baird’s sanity. Where she’d gotten the makeup he had no idea, for it was only just becoming accessible again in the Capitol, but her eyes were shadowed blue and lined with black, her cheeks rouged, and her lips stained a somewhat greasy red. Here in the Capitol, it would have been bold. In District 12, it felt immoderate. She was impossible to look away from as she sat there running her hand over her skirt, compulsively smoothing the ruffles. Only when they were neatly arranged did she raise her hand to touch the mark on her cheek. Her lower lip trembled slightly and her eyes shone with tears that threatened to spill over.

“Don’t cry,” Coriolanus whispered. He caught himself and looked around nervously to find that the other students were riveted. Their faces showed concern. She had won their sympathy, despite her oddness. They had no idea who she was or why she had attacked Mayfair, but who couldn’t see that the smirking thing was spiteful, and her father a brute who would flatten a girl he’d just sentenced to death?

“I bet they rigged it,” Sejanus said quietly. “Her name wasn’t on that slip.”

Just as the girl was about to lose her battle with the tears, a strange thing happened. From somewhere in the crowd, a voice began to sing. A young voice, which might belong to either a boy or a girl, but of such a pitch that it carried across the silent square.

You can’t take my past. You can’t take my history.

A puff of wind blew across the stage, and the girl slowly lifted her head.

Somewhere else in the crowd, a deeper, distinctly male voice sang out.

You could take my pa, But his name’s a mystery.

The shadow of a smile played on Lucy Gray Baird’s lips. She suddenly pushed herself to her feet, strode to the center of the stage, grabbed the mic, and let loose.

Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping.

Her free hand dug into the ruffles of her skirt, swishing it side to side, and all of it began to make sense — the costume, the makeup, her hair. Whoever she was, she had been dressed for a performance all along. She had a fine voice, bright and clear on the high notes, husky and rich on the low, and she moved with assurance.

You can’t take my charm. You can’t take my humor. You can’t take my wealth, ’Cause it’s just a rumor.

Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping.

Singing transformed her, and Coriolanus no longer found her so disconcerting. There was something exciting, even attractive, about her. The camera drank her in as she crossed to the front of the stage and leaned out over the audience, sweet and insolent.

Thinking you’re so fine. Thinking you can have mine. Thinking you’re in control.

Thinking you’ll change me, maybe rearrange me. Think again, if that’s your goal,

’Cause . . .

And then she was off, sashaying around the stage, right past the Peacekeepers, some of whom were having trouble suppressing smiles. None of them moved to stop her.

You can’t take my sass. You can’t take my talking. You can kiss my ass

And then keep on walking.

Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping.

The doors to the Justice Building banged open and the Peacekeepers who had taken the mayor off burst back onto the stage. The girl was facing front, but you could see her register their arrival. She headed to the far end of the stage for her big finish.

No, sir,

Nothing you can take from me is worth dirt. Take it, ’cause I’d give it free. It won’t hurt.

Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping!

She managed to blow a kiss before they were on her. “My friends call me Lucy Gray — I hope you will, too!” she called out. One of the Peacekeepers wrested the mic from her hand as another picked her up and carried her back to the middle of the stage. She waved as if to raucous applause, not dead silence.

For a few moments, they were silent in Heavensbee Hall as well. Coriolanus wondered if, like him, they were hoping she’d keep singing. Then everybody broke out talking, first about the girl, then about who’d been lucky enough to get her. The other students were craning their heads around, some giving him a thumbs-up, some shooting resentful looks. He

gave a bemused shake of his head, but inside he was glowing. Snow lands on top.

Peacekeepers brought the mayor back out and planted themselves on either side of him to avoid further conflict. Lucy Gray ignored his return, having seemingly regained her poise by performing. The mayor glowered at the camera as he slapped his hand into the second bag and pulled several slips out. A few fluttered down to the stage and he read the remaining paper. “The District Twelve boy tribute is Jessup Diggs.”

The kids in the square stirred and made way for Jessup, a boy with a fringe of black hair plastered down on his prominent forehead. As District 12 tributes went, he was a fine specimen, bigger than average and strong-looking. His griminess suggested he was already employed in the mines. A halfhearted attempt at washing had revealed a relatively clean oval in the middle of his face, but it was ringed with black, and coal dust caked his nails. Awkwardly, he ascended the stairs to take his place. As he neared the mayor, Lucy Gray stepped forward and extended her hand. The boy hesitated, then reached out and shook. Lucy Gray crossed in front of him, switched her right hand for her left, and they were standing side by side, holding hands, when she made a deep curtsy, pulling the boy into a bow. A smattering of applause and a lone whoop came from the District 12 crowd before the Peacekeepers closed in and the reaping broadcast cut to District 8.

Coriolanus acted engrossed in the show as 8, 6, and 11 called their tributes, but his brain spun with the repercussions of landing Lucy Gray Baird. She was a gift, he knew it, and he must treat her as such. But how best to exploit her showstopping entrance? How to wrangle some success from a dress, a snake, a song? The tributes would be given precious little time with the audience before the Games began. How could he get the audience to invest in her and, by extension, him, in just an interview? He half registered the other tributes, mostly pitiful creatures, and took note of the stronger ones. Sejanus got a towering fellow from District 2, and Livia’s District 1 boy looked like he could be a contender as well. Coriolanus’s girl seemed fairly healthy, but her slight build was more suited to dancing than hand-to-hand combat. He bet she could run fast enough, though, and that was important.

As the reaping drew to a close, the smell of food from the buffet wafted over the audience. Fresh-baked bread. Onions. Meat. Coriolanus could not

keep his stomach from growling, and risked another couple swallows of posca to quiet it. He felt wired, light-headed, and ravenous. After the screen went dark, he had to use all the discipline he could muster not to rush for the buffet.

The endless dance with hunger had defined his life. Not the very early years, before the war, but every day since had been a battle, a negotiation, a game. How was it best to stave off hunger? Eat all the food at one meal? Spread it through the day in dribs and drabs? Wolf it down or chew every morsel to liquid? It was all just a mind game to distract himself from the fact that it was never enough. No one would ever let him have enough.

During the war, the rebels had held the food-producing districts. Taking a page out of the Capitol’s playbook, they’d tried to starve the Capitol into submission using food — or a lack thereof — as a weapon. Now the tables had turned again, with the Capitol controlling the supply and taking it one step further, twisting the knife into the districts’ hearts with the Hunger Games. Amid the violence of the Games, there was a silent agony that everyone in Panem had experienced, the desperation for enough sustenance to bring you to the following sunrise.

That desperation had turned upstanding Capitol citizens into monsters. People who dropped dead from starvation in the streets became part of a gruesome food chain. One winter’s night, Coriolanus and Tigris had slipped out of the apartment to scavenge some wooden crates they’d spotted earlier in an alley. On the way, they passed three bodies, recognizing one as that of a young maid who served tea so nicely at the Cranes’ afternoon gatherings. A heavy, wet snow began falling and they thought the streets deserted, but on the way home, a bundled figure sent them scurrying behind a hedge. They watched as their neighbor Nero Price, a titan in the railroad industry, carved the leg from the maid, sawing back and forth with a terrifying knife until the limb came free. He wrapped it in the skirt he ripped from her waist and then bolted down the side street that led to the back of his town house. The cousins never spoke of it, even to each other, but it was burned into Coriolanus’s memory. The savagery distorting Price’s face, the white anklet and scuffed black shoe at the end of the severed limb, and the absolute horror of realizing that he, too, could now be viewed as edible.

Coriolanus credited both his literal and moral survival to the Grandma’am’s foresight early in the war. His parents were dead, Tigris orphaned as well, and both children were living with their grandmother. The

rebels had been making slow but steady progress to the Capitol, although arrogance kept that reality from being widely acknowledged in the city. Food shortages required even the richest to seek out certain supplies on the black market. That was how Coriolanus found himself at the back door of a once-trendy nightclub one late October afternoon, holding the handle of a small red wagon in one hand and the Grandma’am’s gloved hand in the other. There was a bitter chill in the air that warned ominously of winter, and a blanket of gloomy, gray clouds overhead. They had come to see Pluribus Bell, an aging man with lemon-tinted spectacles and a white powdered wig that fell to his waist. He and his partner, Cyrus, a musician, owned the shuttered club and now made do by trafficking goods from its back alley. The Snows had come for a case of canned milk, the fresh stuff having disappeared weeks ago, but Pluribus said he was sold out. What had just arrived were crates of dried lima beans, stacked high on the mirrored stage behind him.

“They’ll keep for years,” Pluribus promised the Grandma’am. “I plan on setting aside twenty or so for personal use.”

Coriolanus’s grandmother had laughed. “How ghastly.”

“No, my dear. Ghastly is what happens without them,” Pluribus said.

He didn’t elaborate, but the Grandma’am stopped laughing. She shot a look at Coriolanus, and her hand clenched his for a second. It seemed involuntary, almost a spasm. Then she looked at the crates and appeared to be figuring something in her head. “How many can you spare?” she asked the club owner. Coriolanus pulled one crate home in his wagon, and the other twenty-nine arrived in the dead of night, as hoarding was technically illegal. Cyrus and a friend hauled the crates up the stairs and piled them in the middle of the lavishly furnished living room. On the top of the pile, they placed a single can of milk, compliments of Pluribus, then bid them good night. Coriolanus and Tigris helped the Grandma’am hide them in closets, in fancy wardrobes, even in the old clock.

“Who’s going to eat all these?” he asked. At this time, there was still bacon in his life, and chicken, and the occasional roast. Milk was spotty but cheese plentiful, and some sort of dessert could be counted on at dinner, even if it was just jam bread.

“We’ll eat some. Perhaps some we can trade,” said the Grandma’am. “They’ll be our secret.”

“I don’t like lima beans.” Coriolanus pouted. “At least, I don’t think I do.”

“Well, we’ll have Cook find a good recipe,” said the Grandma’am.

But the cook had been called to serve in the war, then died of the flu. The Grandma’am, it turned out, did not even know how to turn on the stove, let alone follow a recipe. It fell to eight-year-old Tigris to boil the beans to the thick stew, then the soup, then the watery broth, which was to sustain them throughout the war. Lima beans. Cabbage. The ration of bread. They lived on it, day in, day out, for years. Surely, it had impeded his growth. Surely, he would be taller, his shoulders broader, had he had more food. But his brain had developed properly; at least he hoped it had. Beans, cabbage, brown bread. Coriolanus grew to hate the stuff, but it kept them alive, without shame, and without cannibalizing the dead bodies in the streets.

Coriolanus swallowed the saliva flooding his mouth as he reached for the gilt-edged plate embossed with the Academy’s seal. Even in the leanest days, the Capitol had not lacked fancy dishware, and he had eaten many a cabbage leaf from fine china at home. He collected a linen napkin, a fork, a knife. As he raised the lid on the first sterling silver chafing dish, the steam bathed his lips. Creamed onions. He took a modest spoonful and tried not to drool. Boiled potatoes. Summer squash. Baked ham. Hot rolls and a pat of butter. On second thought, two pats. A full plate, but not a greedy one. Not for a teenage boy.

He set his plate on the table next to Clemensia and went to retrieve his dessert from a cart, because last year they had run out and he’d missed the tapioca entirely. His heart skipped a beat when he saw the rows of apple pie wedges, each decorated with a paper flag sporting the seal of Panem. Pie! When had he last tasted that? He was reaching for a medium-sized piece when someone thrust a plate with an enormous slice under his nose. “Oh, take a big one. Growing boy like you can handle it.”

Dean Highbottom’s eyes were rheumy, but they had lost the glazed look of the morning. In fact, they were trained on Coriolanus with an unexpected sharpness.

He took the plate of pie with a grin he hoped was boyishly good-natured. “Thank you, sir. I can always find room for pie.”

“Yes, pleasures are never hard to accommodate,” said the dean. “No one would know better than I.”

“I suppose not, sir.” But that sounded wrong. He had meant to agree with the part about pleasures, but it sounded like a snide remark about the dean’s character.

“You suppose not.” Dean Highbottom’s eyes narrowed as he continued to stare at Coriolanus. “So, what are your plans, Coriolanus, after the Games?” “I hope to go on to university,” he replied. What a strange question.

Surely, his academic record made that evident.

“Yes, I saw your name among the prize contenders,” said Dean Highbottom. “But if you shouldn’t be awarded one?”

Coriolanus stammered. “Well, then we’d . . . we’d pay the tuition, of course.”

“Would you?” Dean Highbottom laughed. “Look at you, in your makeshift shirt and your too-tight shoes, trying to hold it together. Strutting around the Capitol, when I doubt the Snows have a pot to piss in. Even with a prize, it would be a stretch, and you don’t yet have one, do you? What then, I wonder, would happen to you? What then?”

Coriolanus could not help but glance around to see who else had heard the terrible words, but most people were engaged in mealtime chatter.

“Don’t worry — nobody knows. Well, hardly anyone. Enjoy that pie, boy.” Dean Highbottom walked away without bothering to take a piece himself.

Coriolanus wanted nothing so much as to drop his pie and run for the exit, but instead he carefully set the oversized slice back on the cart. The nickname. It could only be that the nickname had found its way back to Dean Highbottom, with Coriolanus given the credit. It had been stupid on his part. The dean was too powerful a person, even now, to be ridiculing in public. But was it really such a horrible thing? Every teacher had at least one nickname, many far less flattering. And it wasn’t as if High-as-a-Kite-Bottom had made much effort to hide his habit. He seemed to invite derision. Could there be some other reason he hated Coriolanus so much?

Whatever it was, Coriolanus needed to set it right. He could not risk losing his prize over such a thing. After university he planned to embark on some lucrative profession. Without an education, what doors would be open to him? He tried to imagine his future in some low-level city position . . . doing what? Managing the coal distribution to the districts? Cleaning cages of genetic freaks in the muttations lab? Collecting taxes from Sejanus Plinth in his palatial apartment on the Corso while he lived in some rat hole fifty

blocks out? That’s if he were lucky! Capitol jobs were hard to come by, and he would be a penniless Academy graduate, no more. How was he to live? Borrow? Being in debt in the Capitol was historically a ticket to being a Peacekeeper, and that came with a twenty-year commitment to who knew where. They’d ship him off to some horrid backwater district where the people were hardly better than animals.

The day, which had held such promise, came crashing down around him. First the threat of losing his apartment, then the lowliest tribute assignment — who, on further reflection, was definitely crazy — and now the revelation that Dean Highbottom detested him enough to kill his prize chances and condemn him to a life in the districts!

Everyone knew what happened if you went to the districts. You were written off. Forgotten. In the eyes of the Capitol, you were basically dead.

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