Chapter no 20

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Coriolanus squeezed his hands into fists, unsure of the vipers’ intentions. The snakes in the tank, having been exposed to his scent on the proposal, had entirely ignored him. But these seemed magnetically drawn to his tribute. Could it be that the environment made the difference? Violently released from the warm, close quarters of their tank into the vast, unsheltered arena, were they seeking her out as the only familiar scent they could find? Had they gravitated to her to harbor in the safety of her skirt?

Lucy Gray knew nothing of this, because that day in the zoo when he’d meant to tell her about Clemensia and the snakes, her circumstances had been so much worse than his own that he’d kept silent on the subject. Even if he had told her, it would be a real leap of faith in his abilities to imagine he’d found a way to tamper with the snakes in the Games. What did she think was keeping them in check? It had to be her singing. Had she sung to the snakes at home? “That snake was a particular friend of mine,” she’d told the little girl in the zoo. Perhaps she’d befriended several snakes back in District 12. Perhaps she thought if she stopped singing, they would indeed kill her now. Perhaps this was her swan song. She would never want to go out without a finale. She would want to die with her boots on, in the brightest spotlight she could find.

When Lucy Gray began the lyrics, her voice was soft but clear as a bell.

You’re headed for heaven, The sweet old hereafter,

And I’ve got one foot in the door.

But before I can fly up, I’ve loose ends to tie up,

Right here in The old therebefore.

An old song, Coriolanus thought. With talk of the hereafter, which reminded him of Sejanus and his bread crumbs, but also that funny line about the therebefore. That must mean the present. Here. Now. While she was still alive.

I’ll be along

When I’ve finished my song, When I’ve shut down the band, When I’ve played out my hand, When I’ve paid all my debts, When I have no regrets,

Right here in

The old therebefore, When nothing

Is left anymore.

The Gamemakers cut to a longer shot, which made Coriolanus want to shout an objection until he realized why. Every snake in the arena appeared to have fallen subject to her siren’s song and flocked to her. Even those in the nest under Teslee, who was ready prey, had abandoned their target and made for Lucy Gray. Still shuddering from the trauma, Teslee slid shakily to the ground and hobbled over to a chain-link fence on one section of the barricade. She climbed her way to a safe height while the song continued.

I’ll catch you up

When I’ve emptied my cup, When I’ve worn out my friends, When I’ve burned out both ends, When I’ve cried all my tears, When I’ve conquered my fears, Right here in

The old therebefore, When nothing

Is left anymore.

The camera made its way back to a tight shot of Lucy Gray. Coriolanus had the feeling that she usually catered to an audience well plied with liquor. In the days before her interview, he’d listened to many a number that conjured up a drunken group waving tin cups of gin from side to side in some dive bar. Although the liquor didn’t seem essential, because when he took a quick look over his shoulder, he saw that several people in Heavensbee Hall had begun to sway to her rhythm. Her voice rose in volume, echoing around the arena . . .

I’ll bring the news

When I’ve danced off my shoes, When my body’s closed down, When my boat’s run aground, When I’ve tallied the score, And I’m flat on the floor,

Right here in

The old therebefore, When nothing

Is left anymore

. . . and then reaching a crescendo as she brought it home.

When I’m pure like a dove, When I’ve learned how to love, Right here in

The old therebefore, When nothing

Is left anymore.

The last note hung in the air while the audience held its collective breath. The snakes waited for it to fade, and then — or was it his imagination? — began to stir. Lucy Gray responded by softly humming, as if to a restless baby. The viewers quietly relaxed as the snakes relaxed around her.

Lucky looked as spellbound as the snakes when the cameras cut back to him, eyes a bit glazed, mouth slackly open. He snapped back when he saw his own image on the feed, and turned his attention to a stone-faced Dr. Gaul. “Well, Head Gamemaker, take . . . a . . . bow!”

Heavensbee Hall erupted into a standing ovation, but Coriolanus could not peel his eyes off Dr. Gaul. What was going on behind that inscrutable expression? Did she attribute the snakes’ behavior to Lucy Gray’s singing, or did she suspect foul play? Even if Dr. Gaul knew about the handkerchief, perhaps she would forgive him, as the result had been so dramatic.

Dr. Gaul allowed herself a small nod of acknowledgment. “Thank you. But the focus today should be not on me, but on Gaius Breen. Perhaps his classmates might share some remembrances with us.”

Lepidus leaped into action in Heavensbee Hall, collecting stories from Gaius’s classmates. It was well that Dr. Gaul had given him a heads-up, because while everybody had a joke or a funny story to share, only Coriolanus managed to tie in the heroic loss, the snakes, and the retribution they had witnessed in the arena. “We could never let the death of such a stellar youth of the Capitol go without repercussions. When hit, we hit back twice as hard, just as Dr. Gaul has mentioned in the past.”

Lepidus tried to turn the conversation to Lucy Gray’s extra-ordinary performance with the snakes, but Coriolanus only said, “She’s remarkable. But Dr. Gaul is right. This moment belongs to Gaius. Let’s save Lucy Gray for tomorrow.”

After a full half hour of remembrance, Lepidus bid the show’s adieus to Festus and Io, as Coral and Circ had succumbed to venom. Coriolanus gave Festus a bear hug, surprisingly emotional at seeing his reliable friend leave the dais. He felt the loss of Io as well, since she veered more toward clinical than combative, which was more than he could say for the others remaining. Except perhaps Persephone, who he decided to share his supper hour with. Cannibals over cutthroats.

The student body went home, leaving the handful of active mentors to their steak dinners. Coriolanus glanced around at his competitors. Being in the final five, he should have been flying high. But if one of the others won, Dean Highbottom could still give him a prize that was insufficient to pay for university, perhaps citing the demerit as his reason. Only the Plinth Prize would truly protect him.

He shifted his focus to the screen, where Lucy Gray continued to hum to her pets, Teslee disappeared behind the barricade, and Mizzen, Treech, and Reaper held their lofty positions. Clouds rolled in, portending a storm and creating a dazzling sunset. The bad weather brought a quick nightfall, and he had not yet finished his pudding when Lucy Gray faded from view, and a

deep rumble of thunder shook the arena. He hoped for lightning to provide some illumination, but the heavy downpour that followed made the night impenetrable.

Coriolanus decided to sleep in Heavensbee Hall, as did the other four remaining mentors. No one except Vipsania had thought to bring bedding, so the rest arranged themselves in the padded chairs, propping up their feet and using book bags as makeshift pillows. As the rainy night cooled the hall, Coriolanus dozed in his chair, one eye half-open for any activity on the screen. The storm obscured all, and eventually he drifted off. Near dawn, he woke with a start and looked around. Vipsania, Urban, and Persephone slept soundly. From a few yards away, Clemensia’s large dark eyes shone in the dim light.

He did not want to be her enemy. If the Snow fortress was about to fall, he would need friends. Until the snake incident, he’d counted Clemensia among his best. And she’d always gotten on well with Tigris, too. But how to make amends?

Clemensia had one hand tucked inside her shirt, where she fingered the collarbone she’d presented in the hospital. The one covered in scales.

“Did they go away?” he whispered.

Clemensia tensed. “They’re fading. Finally. They said it may take as long as a year.”

“Are they painful?” It was the first time the idea had occurred to him. “Not painful. They pull. On my skin.” She rubbed the scales. “It’s hard to


Heartened by the confidence, he took the plunge. “I’m sorry, Clemmie.

Really. About all of it.”

“You didn’t know what she had planned,” said Clemensia.

“No, I didn’t. But after, in the hospital, I should’ve been there for you. I should’ve broken down the doors to make sure you were okay,” he insisted. “Yes!” she said emphatically, but she seemed to relent a little. “But I

know you were hurt, too. In the arena.”

“Oh, don’t make excuses for me.” He threw up his hands. “I’m worthless and we both know it!”

A hint of a smile. “Almost. I guess I should thank you for keeping me from making a complete fool of myself today.”

“Did I?” He squinted as if trying to recall. “All I remember is clinging to you. Not necessarily hiding behind you. But there was definitely clinging.”

She laughed a little but then became serious. “I shouldn’t have blamed so much on you. I’m sorry. I was terrified.”

“With good reason. I wish you hadn’t had to watch that today,” he said. “Maybe it was cathartic. I feel better somehow,” she confessed. “Am I


“No,” he said. “The only thing you are is brave.”

And so their friendship was shakily renewed. They let the others sleep while they shared the last cheese tart in Coriolanus’s stash, talking of this and that and even rolling around the idea of trying to set up an alliance between Lucy Gray and Reaper in the arena. Since it seemed out of their control, they abandoned it. The two would pair up together or they would not.

“At least we’re allies again,” he said.

“Well, not enemies anyway,” Clemensia allowed. But when they went to wash their faces for the cameras, she loaned him her soap so he wouldn’t have to use the abrasive liquid goop in the bathrooms, and somehow the small but intimate gesture let him know he was forgiven.

No breakfast was provided, but Festus came in early to pass out egg sandwiches and apples in the spirit of camaraderie. Persephone beamed at him over her teacup. Now that Clemensia had lightened up, Coriolanus didn’t feel as threatened by the mentor pool. They all wanted to win, but that was largely in their tributes’ hands. He assessed Lucy Gray’s competitors. Teslee, small and brainy. Mizzen, deadly but injured. Treech, athletic but still something of an unknown. Reaper, too strange for words.

The last of the clouds rolled out with the sunrise. Dead snakes littered the arena, draped over rubble, floating in puddles. Drowned, perhaps, or unable to survive the cold, wet night. Some genetically engineered creatures didn’t do well outside the lab. Lucy Gray and Teslee were nowhere to be seen, but the three boys in soggy clothes hadn’t ventured down from the heights. Mizzen was sleeping, his body belted to the beam. As the other students filed into Heavensbee Hall, Vipsania and Clemensia, who seemed almost normal, sent food to their tributes.

When the drones arrived, Treech ate hungrily, but Reaper again brushed off his food, climbing down into the arena to scoop water from a puddle. Indifferent to Treech and Mizzen, who finally awoke, he went about collecting Coral and Circ and adding them to his row. The other boys watched him warily, but neither engaged him, put off either by his eccentric

behavior or the possibility of stray snakes. They were probably hoping that someone else would finish him off, but his work remained un-interrupted, and he returned to the press box when he’d tidied his morgue. Treech sat on the edge of the scoreboard, swinging his feet, while Mizzen mimed eating. Persephone responded immediately, ordering him a large breakfast.

After a minute, Teslee showed up. Her face pinched in concentration, she hauled out a drone that, while much like the original delivery craft, appeared slightly altered. She positioned herself directly under Mizzen.

“Does she think that will fly?” asked Vipsania dubiously. “Even if it does, how can she control it?”

Urban, who’d been scowling at the screen, sat forward suddenly in his seat. “She wouldn’t have to. She wouldn’t need to if — But how did she . . .” He trailed off, trying to puzzle something out.

Teslee flipped a switch, raised her arms, and launched the drone into the air. It ascended, revealing a cable that connected the base of the drone to a loop on her wrist. Thus tethered, the drone began to fly in a circle about halfway between her and Mizzen. He looked down, clearly perplexed, but got distracted by the arrival of his first drone from Persephone. It dropped a chunk of bread down to him and made as if to return home as usual. Then, a few yards out, it swerved and came back at him. Mizzen leaned back, surprised. He reflexively swatted at it, but it only passed over him, opening its claws to deliver a nonexistent gift, and came in again.

“What’s wrong with that drone?” asked Persephone.

No one knew, but at that moment, a second drone came in with water, and a third with cheese. They, too, deposited their packets, only to hang around, attempting repeated deliveries. But the drones, which had been timed for a smooth airdrop, began to bump into one another, and sometimes into Mizzen. The tail of one caught him in the eye, and he cried out, lashing at it.

“Is there any way for me to contact the Gamemakers? I mean, I sent three more!” said Persephone.

“There’s nothing they can do,” said Urban in amusement. “She found a way to hack them. She’s blocked their homing direction, so his face is their only destination.”

Sure enough, as the other three drones arrived, one at a time, they malfunctioned in a similar fashion. Mizzen was their sole target, and what had seemed at first funny turned deadly. He got to his feet and attempted to

flee down the beam, but they swarmed around him like bees to a honeypot. Having left his trident on the ground, he pulled his knife and attempted to fight them, but the most he achieved was momentarily knocking them off course. They weren’t programmed to make contact with him, but as they ricocheted off one another and his blade, more and more collided into him, until they gave the appearance of an attack. Mizzen began to grope his way to a pole — the very one on which he’d left Teslee to her fate — but his knee would not cooperate. Frantic now, he took a wild swing at the drones, throwing his weight onto his injured leg, which wobbled and then gave way. He lost his balance and plummeted toward the ground, snapping his neck sideways on contact.

“Oh!” Persephone exclaimed as he hit the ground. “Oh, she killed him!” Vipsania frowned at the screen. “She’s smarter than she looks.”

Teslee gave a satisfied smile and reeled in her drone, switching it off and giving it a loving hug.

“Do not judge a book by its cover.” Urban chuckled as he tapped some gifts into his communicuff. “Especially if it belongs to me.”

His glee was short-lived. While featuring the drone incident, the Gamemakers had neglected to show the wider picture, in which Treech had climbed down from the scoreboard and through the stands, dropping into the arena. He seemed to appear out of thin air, making a gigantic leap into the frame and bringing his ax down on Teslee in one fell swoop. She had barely taken a step when the blade connected with her skull, splitting it open and killing her instantly. Treech leaned his hands on his knees, puffing with exertion, and then sat right on the ground next to her, watching the blood ooze into the sand. The drones arriving with a shower of food for her set him in motion again. He collected a dozen parcels and withdrew behind the barricade.

Urban covered his moment of disbelief with disgust and rose to go. He could not escape Lepidus’s ever-present mic, though, and barely managed not to snarl when he said, “That’s it for me. Laugh a minute, wasn’t it?” Then he walked off, leaving Persephone to expand on her regrets and her gratitude for the opportunity to be a mentor.

“You made the top five!” Lepidus beamed at her. “No one can ever take that away from you.”

“No,” she said somewhat dubiously. “No, that’s the kind of thing that sticks.”

Coriolanus looked from Clemensia to Vipsania. “Just us, I guess.” The three arranged their chairs in a row, with Coriolanus in the middle, while others cleared away the seats of the defeated.

Lucy Gray. Treech. Reaper. Final three. Final girl. Final day? Maybe that, too.

Lucky made his entrance in a hat stuck with five sparklers. “Hello, Panem! Had this hat done especially for the final five, but they’ve been sending off their own sparks!” He pulled two sparklers out of the hat and hurled them over his shoulder blindly. “Final three, anybody?”

One of the sparklers fizzled out on the floor, but the second set a curtain to smoking, eliciting a high-pitched yipping sound and panicked footwork from Lucky. A crew member ran on-screen with a fire extinguisher to handle the crisis, allowing Lucky to regain his composure. As his three remaining hat sparklers died, the number for sponsors and gamblers began flashing at the bottom of the screen. “Whoowee! The betting’s getting hot and heavy! Do not miss out on the fun!”

Coriolanus’s communicuff pinged healthily, but so did Vipsania’s and Clemensia’s. “A lot of good it will do me,” Clemensia murmured to Coriolanus. “He doesn’t trust me enough to eat anything I send.”

Lucy Gray had to be hungry, but he assumed she was resting in the tunnels. He wanted to send her food and water, both for sustenance and as a conduit for the poison. Since her last two opponents could easily overpower her, he had to do something to put the odds in her favor. For now, he could think of nothing but to keep the crowd on her side. When Lepidus approached him for his promised thoughts on Lucy Gray’s performance, he laid it on thick. Coriolanus didn’t know what it would take to prove to people she was not district if she hadn’t convinced them by now. “I feel a great injustice may have occurred by her being not just in the reaping, but in District Twelve at all. People will need to judge for themselves. If you agree with me, or even suspect I might be right, you know what to do.” While the new barrage of donations hitting his communicuff was affirming, he didn’t know how it would help. He could probably feed her for weeks on what he already had.

But the only tribute moving around the arena was Reaper, who had descended from the press box, cutting off another large swath of flag on his way. Gaunt and unsteady, he teetered over to add Teslee and Mizzen to his collection, using the new piece of flag to cover them. With effort, he

climbed up to the back row of the arena, where he dozed in the sunlight, rocking gently back and forth, his cape spread out to dry. Coriolanus wondered if he would soon perish of natural causes. If starving to death was a natural cause. He wasn’t entirely sure. Was it natural if hunger had been used as a weapon?

To his relief, Lucy Gray materialized just before noon in the shadows of a tunnel. She surveyed the arena and, judging it safe, stepped into the sunlight. The mud on the hem of her ruffled skirt had begun to cake, but the damp dress still clung to her. While Coriolanus ordered her a feast on his communicuff, Lucy Gray crossed to Reaper’s puddle and knelt. She scooped up water, slaking her thirst and washing her face. After combing out her hair with her fingers, she twisted it into a loose knot, finishing just as a dozen drones entered the arena.

She appeared not to notice them as she took a bottle from her pocket and dipped the neck into the puddle, collecting an inch or so of water. After swishing it around, Lucy Gray poured the water back into the puddle and was making to refill the bottle when the incoming drones caught her attention. As the food and water began to drop around her, she tossed away the old bottle and gathered her gifts into her skirt.

Lucy Gray started for the nearest tunnel but then glanced up at Reaper lolling in the stands. She changed course, hurried to his morgue, and lifted the flag material. Her lips moved as she counted the fallen.

“She’s trying to figure out who’s left in the Games,” Coriolanus said into the mic that Lepidus had pushed in his face.

“Maybe we should put it up on the scoreboard,” joked Lepidus.

“I’m sure the tributes would find that helpful,” said Coriolanus. “Seriously, that’s a good idea.”

Suddenly, Lucy Gray’s head shot up, and the provisions in her skirt fell to the dirt as she turned on her heel and ran. She had heard what the audience could not. Treech swung out from behind the barricade, wielding his ax, and caught her wrist as she passed under the beam. Lucy Gray twisted around, dropping to her knees, fighting wildly as he raised the ax.

“No!” Coriolanus jumped to his feet, pushing Lepidus aside. “Lucy Gray!”

Then two things happened simultaneously. As the ax began to fall, she flung herself into Treech’s arms and clung to him, avoiding the blade. Bizarrely, they seemed to embrace each other for a long moment, until

Treech’s eyes widened in horror. He shoved her away, dropping the ax, and tore something from the back of his neck. His hand shot into the air, fingers gripped tightly around the bright pink snake. Then he collapsed to his knees and smashed it into the ground, again and again, until he fell dead in the dirt, the lifeless snake still clutched in his fist.

Her chest rising and falling, Lucy Gray whipped around to locate Reaper, but he still sat rocking in the stands. Momentarily safe, she pressed one hand against her heart and waved to the audience.

As the crowd in the hall applauded, Coriolanus let his breath out in a huff and turned to acknowledge it. He’d done it. She’d done it. With her pockets full of poison, she’d made it to the final two. She must have sheltered the pink snake in her pocket, just as she had the green one at the reaping. Were there more? Or had Treech beaten the final survivor to death? No telling. But just the possibility of another reptilian weapon made Lucy Gray seem deadly.

While Lepidus ushered off Vipsania — who thanked the Gamemakers through gritted teeth — Coriolanus sank into his chair and watched Lucy Gray reclaim her feast. He leaned over to Clemensia and whispered, “I’m glad it’s us.” She answered with a conspiratorial smile.

As Lucy Gray flattened the wrappings and spread all her food out in a pleasing fashion, Coriolanus thought of their picnic at the zoo. Was she restaging it now for his benefit? Something tugged at his heart, and the memory of the kiss hit him. Were there more in his future? For a minute, he drifted into a daydream of Lucy Gray winning, leaving the arena, and coming to live with him in the Snows’ penthouse, which was somehow saved from taxes. He’d attend the University on his Plinth Prize while she headlined at Pluribus’s newly reopened nightclub, because the Capitol would agree to let her stay and, well, he hadn’t worked out all of the details, but the point was, he got to keep her. And he wanted to keep her. Safe and close at hand. Admired and admiring. Devoted. And entirely, unequivocally his. If what she’d said just before she kissed him — “The only boy my heart has a sweet spot for now is you” — was true, then wouldn’t she want that, too?

Stop it! he thought. No one has won anything yet! She had polished off most of her food, so he ordered another round, a large one that she could squirrel away and live off for the next few days, in case she just decided to hunker down and wait for Reaper to die. It was a good plan, low risk to her

and inevitable if he stayed on his current course of rejecting all sustenance. But what if he didn’t? What if he regained his senses and decided to eat the nearly unlimited sponsor gifts that Clemensia could provide him with? Then it would come down to a physical matchup again, and Lucy Gray would be at a real disadvantage unless she was packing more snakes.

When the drones had delivered her supplies, Lucy Gray sorted them and stowed them in her pockets. They hadn’t seemed spacious enough to hold all the food and drink along with another snake, but she was awfully clever. He hadn’t even seen her remove the snake that killed Treech.

Festus brought Coriolanus and Clemensia sandwiches at lunch, but they were both too nervous to eat. The rest of the students ate in their seats, not wanting to miss a moment. Coriolanus could hear whispered yet passionate debates over who would win the day. He could never remember people caring in the past.

The beating sun began to dry out the arena, soaking up the shallow puddles and leaving only a few deep enough to drink from. Lucy Gray rested on a bit of rubble, her skirt spread out to catch the rays. The lull brought out Lucky, who gave a detailed weather forecast, including a heat advisory and tips to avoid related cramps, exhaustion, and stroke. The line at the lemonade stand outside the arena stretched long, and people hid under umbrellas or crammed into precious bits of shade. Even the dependable coolness of Heavensbee Hall failed, so students stripped off their jackets and fanned themselves with notebooks. By midafternoon, the school had made fruit punch available, which gave a festive feel to the event.

Lucy Gray kept Reaper in her sights, but he’d made no move to engage her. Suddenly, she rose as if impatient to get on with things, and retraced her steps to Treech’s body. Taking hold of one ankle, she began to drag him over to Reaper’s morgue. Reaper appeared to wake up the moment she touched the body. He leaned out and shouted something unintelligible, then hurried down from the stands. Lucy Gray let go of Treech and ran to a nearby tunnel. Reaper assumed the job of transporting Treech, placing him neatly in the row of dead tributes and covering him with the flag remnant. Satisfied, he made his way back to the stands, but he’d only just reached the wall when Lucy Gray ran out from a second tunnel, pulled one of the flag pieces off the bodies, and gave a holler. Reaper whipped around and ran at her. Lucy Gray wasted no time in vanishing behind the barricade. Reaper replaced the flag, tucking the fabric under the bodies to hold it more

securely in place, and went to rest against a pole. After a few minutes, he seemed to drift off, his eyes closed against the sun. Lucy Gray darted out again, yanked one of the flag segments free, and this time ran off with it trailing behind her. By the time Reaper had come to realize her disruption, she’d put fifty yards between them. His indecision allowed her to widen her lead, and she dragged the flag to the dead center of the arena, where she left it in the dirt and made for the stands. Angry now, Reaper ran over and repossessed his flag. He took a few steps after her, but the exertion had taken a toll on him. Pressing his hands against his temples, he panted rapidly, although he didn’t appear to be sweating. As Lucky’s recent update had reminded them, that could be a sign of heatstroke.

She’s trying to run him to death, thought Coriolanus. And it might just work.

Reaper staggered a bit, as though drunk. Flag in tow, he made his way to his puddle, one of the few that hadn’t dried up during the afternoon. He dropped down on his knees and drank, slurping until only a muddy sludge remained on the bottom. As he sat back on his heels, a funny look crossed his face, and his fingers began to knead his ribs and chest. He vomited up a portion of the water, then retched for a while on his hands and knees before rising unsteadily. Still gripping the flag in one hand, he began to walk, in slow, uneven steps, back toward his morgue. Reaper had just made it when he collapsed on the ground, dragging himself in line next to Treech. One hand made an attempt to pull the flag over the group, but he managed only to cover himself partway before he drew in his limbs and went still.

Coriolanus sat frozen in anticipation. Was that it? Had he really won? The Hunger Games? The Plinth Prize? The girl? He studied Lucy Gray’s face as she watched Reaper from the stands, but she had a distant look, as if she were far away from the action in the arena.

The audience in the hall began to murmur. Was Reaper dead? Shouldn’t they be declaring a winner? Coriolanus and Clemensia waved Lepidus and his mic away as they awaited the outcome. Half an hour passed before Lucy Gray climbed down from the stands and approached Reaper. She placed her fingers on his neck, checking his pulse. Satisfied, she closed his eyelids and tenderly arranged the flag over the tributes, as if she were putting children to bed. Then she went over and sat against a pole to wait.

This seemed to convince the Gamemakers, because Lucky appeared, jumping up and down, announcing that Lucy Gray Baird, tribute of District

12, and her mentor, Coriolanus Snow, had won the Tenth Hunger Games.

Heavensbee Hall erupted around Coriolanus, and Festus organized a few classmates to lift his chair and parade him around the dais. When they finally set him down, Lepidus hounded him with questions, to which he could only reply that the experience had been both exhilarating and humbling. Then the entire student body was directed to the dining hall, where cake and posca had been provided for a celebration. Coriolanus sat in a place of honor, receiving congratulations and downing more posca than was good for him. So what? Right now, he felt invincible.

Satyria rescued him just as his head felt fuzzy, ushering him from the dining hall and directing him to the high biology lab. “I think they’re bringing your girl over. Don’t be surprised if they put you on camera together. Well done.”

Coriolanus gave her a spontaneous hug and hurried for the lab, grateful for the moment of quiet. He felt his lips stretching into an insane grin. He had won. He’d won glory, and a future, and maybe love, too. Any minute now, he’d have Lucy Gray in his arms. Oh, Snow lands on top; it most certainly does. He forced his cheeks to relax as he got to the door, and straightened his jacket to help conceal the tipsy mess he actually was. It wouldn’t do, somehow, to let Dr. Gaul see him like that.

When he opened the door to the high biology lab, he found only Dean Highbottom, sitting in his usual place at the table. “Close the door behind you.” Coriolanus obliged. Perhaps the dean wanted to congratulate him in private. Or even apologize for abusing him. A falling star might one day have need of a rising one. But as he approached the dean, a cold dread washed over him. There, arranged on the table like lab specimens, were three items: an Academy napkin stained with grape punch, his mother’s silver compact, and a dingy white handkerchief.

The meeting could not have lasted more than five minutes. Afterward, as agreed, Coriolanus headed directly to the Recruitment Center, where he became Panem’s newest, if not shiniest, Peacekeeper.

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