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Chapter no 22

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Coriolanus had never been so glad to see anyone in his life. “Sejanus!” he burst out. He launched off his bunk, landed shakily on the painted concrete floor, and flung his arms around the newcomer.

Sejanus embraced him. “This is a surprisingly warm welcome for the person who almost destroyed you!”

A slightly hysterical laugh left Coriolanus’s lips, and for a moment he considered the accuracy of the claim. It was true, Sejanus had endangered his life by stealing into the arena, but it was too far a reach to blame him for all the rest. As aggravating as Sejanus could be, he’d had no hand in Dean Highbottom’s vendetta against his father or in the handkerchief debacle. “No, no, quite the opposite.” He released Sejanus and examined him. Dark circles shadowed his eyes and he must have lost at least fifteen pounds. But on the whole he had a lighter air, as if the great weight he’d carried in the Capitol had been lifted. “What are you doing here?”

“Hm. Let’s see. Having defied the Capitol by entering the arena, I, too, was on the verge of expulsion. My father went before the board and said he’d pay for a new gymnasium for the Academy if they would let me graduate and sign up for the Peacekeepers. They agreed, but I said I wouldn’t take the deal unless they’d let you graduate, too. Well, Professor Sickle really wanted a new gym, and she said what did it matter if we were both tied up for the next twenty years anyway?” Sejanus set his duffel on the floor and dug out his box of personal items.

“I got to graduate?” said Coriolanus.

Sejanus opened the box, removed a small leather folder with the school’s emblem, and held it out with great ceremony. “Congratulations. You are no longer a dropout.”

Coriolanus flipped open the cover and found a diploma with his name inscribed in curlicues. The thing must have been written out in advance, because it even credited him with High Honors. “Thank you. I guess it’s stupid, but it still matters to me.”

“You know, if you ever wanted to take the officer candidate test, it might matter. You need to have graduated secondary school. Dean Highbottom brought that up as something that should be denied you. He said you broke some rule in the Games to help Lucy Gray? Anyway, he got outvoted.” Sejanus chuckled. “He’s really wearing on people.”

“So I’m not universally reviled?” said Coriolanus.

“For what? Falling in love? I think more people pity you. A lot of romantics among our teachers, come to find out,” said Sejanus. “And Lucy Gray made quite a good impression.”

Coriolanus grabbed his arm. “Where is she? Do you know what happened to her?”

Sejanus shook his head. “They usually send the victors back to their districts, don’t they?”

“I’m afraid they’ve done something worse to her. Because we cheated in the Games,” Coriolanus confessed. “I tampered with the snakes so they wouldn’t bite her. But all she did was use rat poison.”

“So that was it. Well, I haven’t heard anything about that. Or about her being punished,” Sejanus reassured him. “The truth is, she’s so talented, they’ll probably want to bring her back next year.”

“I thought of that, too. Maybe Highbottom was right about her being sent home.” Coriolanus sat on Beanpole’s bunk and stared down at the diploma. “You know, when you came in, I was weighing the merits of suicide.”

“What? Now? When you’re finally free from the clutches of Dean Highbottom and the evil Dr. Gaul? When the girl of your dreams is in reach? When my ma is, at this moment, packing a box the size of a truck full of baked goods for you?” exclaimed Sejanus. “My friend, your life has just begun!”

And then Coriolanus was laughing; they both were. “So this isn’t our ruin?”

“I’d call it our salvation. Mine anyway. Oh, Coryo, if you only knew how glad I was to escape,” said Sejanus, turning grave. “I never liked the Capitol, but after the Hunger Games, after what happened to Marcus . . . I don’t know if you were kidding about suicide, but it was no joke to me. I had the whole thing worked out. ”

“No. No, Sejanus,” said Coriolanus. “Let’s not give them the satisfaction.”

Sejanus nodded thoughtfully, then wiped his face on his sleeve. “My father says it won’t be better here. I’ll still be a Capitol boy as far as the districts are concerned. But I don’t care. Anything would have to be an improvement. What’s it like?”

“We’re either marching or mopping,” said Coriolanus. “It’s mind-numbing.”

“Good. My mind could stand a little numbing. I’ve been trapped in these endless debates with my father,” said Sejanus. “At the moment, I don’t want to have a serious discussion about anything.”

“Then you’ll love our roommates.” The pain in Coriolanus’s chest had retreated, and he felt a glimmer of hope. Lucy Gray had, at least publicly, been spared punishment. Just knowing that he still had allies in the Capitol buoyed Coriolanus’s spirits, and Sejanus’s mention of becoming an officer caught his attention. Perhaps there was a way out of his predicament after all? Another path to influence and power? It was solace enough, at the moment, to know this was something Dean Highbottom feared.

“I’m planning to,” said Sejanus. “I’m planning to build a whole new beautiful life here. One where, in my own small way, I can make the world a better place.”

“That’s going to take some work,” said Coriolanus. “I don’t know what ever possessed me to ask for Twelve.”

“Completely random, obviously,” Sejanus teased.

Like a fool, Coriolanus felt himself blush. “I don’t even know how to find her. Or if she’ll still be interested in me, now that so much has changed.”

“You’re kidding, right? She’s head over heels in love with you!” said Sejanus. “And don’t worry, we’ll find her.”

As he helped Sejanus unpack and make his bed, Coriolanus got caught up on the Capitol news. His suspicions about the Hunger Games were right.

“By the next morning, there was no mention of it,” said Sejanus. “When I went into the Academy for my review, I heard some of the faculty talking about what a mistake it’d been to involve the students, so I think that was a one-off. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Lucky Flickerman back again next year, or the post office open for gifts and betting.”

“Our legacy,” said Coriolanus.

“So it seems,” said Sejanus. “Satyria told Professor Sickle that Dr. Gaul is determined to keep it going somehow. A part of her eternal war, I guess. Instead of battles, we have the Hunger Games.”

“Yes, to punish the districts and remind us what beasts we are,” said Coriolanus, focused on lining up Sejanus’s folded socks in the locker.

“What?” asked Sejanus, giving him a funny look.

“I don’t know,” said Coriolanus. “It’s like . . . you know how she’s always torturing that rabbit or melting the flesh off something?”

“Like she enjoys it?” asked Sejanus.

“Exactly. I think that’s how she thinks we all are. Natural-born killers. Inherently violent,” Coriolanus said. “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” “So, not only is the world a brutal place, but people enjoy its brutality?

Like the essay on everything we loved about the war,” said Sejanus. “As if it had been some big show.” He shook his head. “So much for not thinking.”

“Forget it,” said Coriolanus. “Let’s just be happy that she’s out of our lives.”

A downcast Beanpole appeared, reeking of urinals and bleach. Coriolanus introduced him to Sejanus, who, upon learning of his predicament, cheered him up by promising to help him with the drills. “It took me awhile to get it, too, back at school. But if I can master it, so can you.”

Smiley and Bug rolled in shortly after and greeted Sejanus warmly. They’d been cleaned out at the poker table but were excited about the following Saturday’s entertainment. “There’s going to be a band at the Hob.”

Coriolanus practically jumped on him. “A band? What band?”

Smiley shrugged. “Can’t remember. But some girl will be singing.

Supposed to be pretty good. Lucy somebody.”

Lucy somebody. Coriolanus’s heart leaped and a grin nearly split his face in two.

Sejanus grinned back at him. “Really? Well, that’s something to look forward to.”

After lights-out, Coriolanus lay beaming at the ceiling. Lucy Gray was not only alive, she was in 12, and he would reunite with her next weekend. His girl. His love. His Lucy Gray. They had survived the dean, the doctor, and the Games somehow. After all the weeks of fear and yearning and uncertainty, he would wrap her in his arms and never let her go. Wasn’t that why he had come to 12?

But it wasn’t just news of her. As ironic as it was, the appearance of that decade-long irritant, Sejanus, had helped bring him back to life as well. Not just with his diploma and promised cakes, or his reassurances that the Capitol did not scorn him, or even the hope of a career as an officer. Coriolanus was so relieved to have someone to talk to who knew his world and, more importantly, his true worth in that world. He felt heartened by the fact that Strabo Plinth had allowed Sejanus to insist his graduation be part of the deal for the gym, and took it as at least partial payment toward his having saved Sejanus’s life. Old Plinth had not forgotten him, he felt sure of that, and might be willing to use his wealth and power to help him in the future. And, of course, Ma adored him. Perhaps things were not so dire after all.

With Sejanus, plus another few stragglers from the districts, they had enough recruits to form a full squad of twenty, and they began to train as such. There was no question, the Academy’s regimen had given Coriolanus and Sejanus a decided edge in fitness and drilling, although they’d had no class in firearms as they did now. The standard Peacekeeper’s rifle was a formidable thing, capable of firing a hundred rounds before reloading. To start out, the trainees focused on learning the weapon parts as they cleaned and assembled and disassembled their guns until they could do it in their sleep. Coriolanus had felt a little leery on the first day they did target practice, so bad were his memories of the war, but he found having his own weapon made him feel safer. More powerful. Sejanus turned out to be a natural marksman and soon earned the nickname Bull’s Eye. Coriolanus could tell the name made him uncomfortable, but he accepted it.

The Monday after Sejanus’s arrival, August 1st, had brought disappointment. The recruits discovered they had to be in service for a full

month to collect their first payment. Smiley was particularly down, as he’d been counting on his pay to cover his weekend revelries. Coriolanus felt his heart drop as well. How could he hope to see Lucy Gray without the price of a ticket?

After three days of nothing but training, Thursday brought a bright spot. Ma’s packages arrived, bursting with sugary delights. Beanpole’s, Smiley’s, and Bug’s faces were something to behold as they watched the unpacking of the cherry tarts, caramel popcorn balls, and frosted chocolate cookies. Sejanus and Coriolanus made them common property in the room, cementing the brotherhood even further. “You know,” said Smiley through a mouthful of tart, “if we wanted, I bet we could trade some of this on Saturday. For gin and all.” It was agreed, and a certain amount of the bounty was set aside for the big event on Saturday night.

Juiced by the sugar, Coriolanus got off a thank-you note to Ma and a letter to Tigris reassuring her that he was fine. He tried to make light of the grueling routine and play up the officer angle. He’d picked up a dog-eared manual for the officer candidate test, which had a sampling of questions. It was designed to measure scholastic aptitude and consisted primarily of verbal, math, and spatial problems, although he’d need to learn some basic rules and regulations for the one military section. If he passed, he wouldn’t be an officer, but he would get to begin training as one. He had a good feeling about his chances, if for no other reason than that many of the other recruits were barely literate. Their handful of classes on Peacekeeper values and traditions had made that clear. He told Tigris the regretful news about his pay but assured her that money should be coming in like clockwork as of September 1st. As his tongue dug the popcorn out of his teeth, he remembered to mention Sejanus’s arrival and advised that if she ever had an emergency, Ma Plinth could probably be counted on to help.

On Friday morning, a tense mood infused the mess hall, and Smiley got the story out of a nurse he’d met at the clinic. About a month earlier, just around the time of the reaping, a Peacekeeper and two District 12 bosses had been killed by an explosion in the mines. A criminal investigation had led to the arrest of a man whose family had been known rebel leaders during the war. He was to be hanged at one that afternoon. The mines were shutting down for the event, and the workers were expected to attend.

Green as he was, Coriolanus couldn’t see how this could involve him, and went about his schedule as usual. But during drill practice, the base

commander himself, an old goat named Hoff, dropped by and observed for a short time. Before leaving, he exchanged a few words with their drill sergeant, who promptly called Coriolanus and Sejanus forward. “You two, you’re to go to the hanging this afternoon. Commander wants more bodies there for show, and he’s looking for recruits who can handle the drills. Report to transport at noon in uniform. Just follow orders, you’ll be fine.”

Coriolanus and Sejanus bolted their lunches and hurried back to the barrack to change. “So, was the murderer targeting the Peacekeeper in particular?” asked Coriolanus as he pulled on his crisp, white uniform for the first time.

“I heard he was trying to sabotage coal production and accidentally killed the three,” said Sejanus.

“Sabotage production? To what end?” asked Coriolanus.

“I don’t know,” said Sejanus. “Hoping to get the rebellion going again?”

Coriolanus only shook his head. Why did these people think that all they needed to start a rebellion was anger? They had no army, weapons, or authority. At the Academy, they’d been taught that the recent war had been incited by rebels in District 13 who were able to access and disseminate arms and communications to their cohorts around Panem. But 13 had vanished in a nuclear puff of smoke, along with the Snow fortune. Nothing remained, and any thought of re-upping the rebellion was pure stupidity.

When they reported for duty, Coriolanus was surprised to be issued a gun, since his training was minimal at best. “Don’t worry, the major said all we need to do is stand at attention,” another recruit told him. They were loaded onto the bed of a truck, which rolled out of the base and down a road that ringed District 12. Coriolanus felt nervous, as this was his first real Peacekeeping assignment, but a little excited, too. A few weeks ago he was a schoolboy, but now he had the uniform, the weapon, the status of a man. And even the lowest-ranking Peacekeeper had power conveyed on him by his association with the Capitol. He stood up straighter at the thought.

As the truck drove around the perimeter of the district, the buildings went from dingy to squalid. The doors and windows of the decrepit houses gaped in the heat. Hollow-faced women sat on doorsteps, watching half-naked children with sharp rib cages playing listlessly in the dirt. In some yards, pumps attested to the lack of running water, and the sagging power lines suggested that electricity was not guaranteed.

It frightened Coriolanus, this level of want. He’d been broke most of his life, but the Snows had always worked hard to maintain decency. These people had given up, and some part of him blamed them for their plight. He shook his head. “We pour so much money into the districts,” he said. It must be true. People always complained about it in the Capitol.

“We pour money into our industries, not into the districts themselves,” said Sejanus. “The people are on their own.”

The truck rattled off the cinders and onto a dirt road that curved around a large field of hard-packed earth and weeds, ending at a wood. The Capitol had small wooded areas in some of the parks, but even those were fairly well manicured. Coriolanus supposed this was what people meant by a forest, or even a wilderness. Thick trees, vines, and underbrush grew every which way. The disorder alone felt disturbing. And who knew what sort of creatures inhabited it? The medley of buzzing, humming, and rustling set him on edge. What a racket the birds here made!

A great tree stood at the edge of the wood, its branches stretching out like large, knotty arms. A noose dangled from one particularly horizontal appendage. Directly below it, a rough platform with two trapdoors had been erected. “They keep promising us a proper gallows,” the middle-aged major in charge said. “Until then, some of us rigged this. We used to just string them up from the ground, but then they’d take forever to die, and who’s got time for that?”

One of the female recruits Coriolanus recognized from his walk to the base raised her hand tentatively. “Who are we hanging, please?”

“Oh, some malcontent who tried to shut the mines down,” said the major. “They’re all malcontents, but this one’s the ringleader. Name’s Arlo Something-or-other. Still tracking down some of the others, although I don’t know where they plan on running. Nowhere to run. Okay, everybody out!”

Coriolanus’s and Sejanus’s roles were largely decorative. They stood at parade rest in the back row of one of two squads of twenty that flanked the platform. Another sixty Peacekeepers spread along the edge of the field. Coriolanus did not like to have his back facing all the unkempt flora and fauna, but orders were orders. He stared straight ahead, across the field and into the district, from which a steady stream of people began to emerge. By the looks of them, many had come directly from the mines, for coal dust blackened their faces. They were joined by only slightly cleaner women and children as families formed in the field. Coriolanus began to feel anxious

when scores became hundreds, and still more people arrived, pushing the crowd forward in an ominous fashion.

A trio of vehicles slowly made its way down the dirt road toward the gallows. Out of the first, an old car that would’ve been classified as luxury before the war, stepped District 12’s Mayor Lipp, followed by a middle-aged woman with dyed blonde hair, and Mayfair, the girl Lucy Gray had targeted with the snake on the day of the reaping. They formed a tight knot at the side of the platform. Commander Hoff and a half dozen officers emerged from a second car, which sported a fluttering flag of Panem on the hood. A wave of distress went through the crowd as the back of the final vehicle, a white Peacekeepers’ van, swung open. A pair of guards jumped to the ground, then turned to help the prisoner out. Heavily shackled, the tall, lean man managed to stay upright as they escorted him to the platform. With difficulty, he dragged his chains up the rickety steps, and the guards positioned him on one of the two trapdoors.

The major barked the order for attention, and Coriolanus’s body snapped into position. Technically, his gaze should have been forward, but he could just see the action from the corner of his eye, and he felt concealed in the back row. He’d never seen an execution in real life, only on television, and somehow he couldn’t look away.

The crowd fell silent, and a Peacekeeper read out the list of crimes the condemned, Arlo Chance, had been convicted of, including the murder of three men. Although he tried to project, his voice seemed puny in the hot, damp air. When he concluded, the commander gave a nod to the Peacekeepers on the platform. They offered the condemned a blindfold, which he refused, and then put the noose around his neck. The man stood stoically, staring into the distance as he awaited his end.

A drumroll began from the far side of the platform, triggering a cry from the front of the crowd. Coriolanus shifted his gaze to locate the source. A young woman with olive skin and long black hair rose above the mass into the air as a man tried to carry her off, but she desperately fought to move forward, shrieking, “Arlo! Arlo!” Already, Peacekeepers were closing in on her.

The voice had an electrifying effect on Arlo, as his face registered first surprise, then horror. “Run!” he screamed. “Run, Lil! Run! Ru — !” The clap of the trapdoor release and subsequent twang of the rope cut him off

mid-word, drawing a gasp from the crowd. Arlo dropped fifteen feet and seemed to die instantly.

In the ominous silence that followed, Coriolanus could feel the sweat running down his ribs as he waited for the outcome. Would the people attack? Would he be expected to shoot them? Did he remember how the gun worked? He strained his ears for the order. Instead he heard the voice of the dead man ringing out eerily from the gently swaying corpse.

“Run! Run, Lil! Ru — !”

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