Chapter no 3

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Coriolanus stood on the empty train platform, awaiting his tribute’s arrival, a long-stemmed white rose balanced carefully between his thumb and index finger. It had been Tigris’s idea to bring her a gift. She had arrived home very late on the night of the reaping, but he had waited up to consult with her, to tell her of his humiliations and fears. She refused to let the conversation spin into despair. He would get a prize; he would have to! And have a brilliant university career. As to the apartment, they must find out the specifics first. Perhaps the tax would not affect them, or even if it did, maybe not soon. Maybe they could scrape up enough for the taxes somehow. But he was to think of none of that. Only of the Hunger Games, and how he might make a success of it.‌

At Fabricia’s reaping party, Tigris said, everyone was nuts about Lucy Gray Baird. His tribute had “star quality,” her friends had declared as they drunkenly slurped their posca. The cousins agreed that he needed to make a good first impression on the girl so that she would be willing to work with him. He should treat her not as a condemned prisoner, but as a guest. Coriolanus had decided to greet her early at the train station. It would give him a jump on the assignment, as well as an opportunity to win her trust.

“Imagine how terrified she must be, Coryo,” Tigris had said. “How alone she must feel. If it was me, anything you could do to make me feel like you cared about me would go a long way. No, more than that. Like I was of value. Take her something, even a token, that lets her know you value her.”

Coriolanus thought about his grandmother’s roses, which were still prized in the Capitol. The old woman nurtured them arduously in the roof

garden that came with the penthouse, both out of doors and in a small solar greenhouse. She parceled out her flowers like diamonds, though, so it had taken a good bit of persuasion to get this beauty. “I need to make a connection with her. As you always say, your roses open any doors.” It was a testament to how worried his grandmother was about their situation that she had allowed it.

Two days had passed since the reaping. The city had held on to the oppressive heat, and even though it was just past dawn, the train station was beginning to bake. Coriolanus felt conspicuous on the wide, deserted platform, but he couldn’t risk missing her train. The only information he could get out of his downstairs neighbor, Gamemaker-in-Training Remus Dolittle, was that it was supposed to arrive Wednesday. Remus had recently graduated from the University, and his family had pulled in every favor they had to get him the position, which paid just enough and provided a stepping-stone to the future. Coriolanus could have inquired through the Academy, but he didn’t know if greeting the train would be frowned upon. No rules had been laid out, per se, but he thought most of his classmates would wait to meet their tributes at a session overseen by the Academy the following day.

An hour passed, then two, and still no train of any kind appeared. The sun beat down through the glass panes of the station ceiling. Perspiration trickled down his back, and the rose, so majestic that morning, began to bend in resignation. He wondered if the whole idea was ill-conceived and if he would get no thanks for greeting her in this way. Another girl, a typical girl, would be impressed, but there was nothing typical about Lucy Gray Baird. In fact, there was something intimidating about a girl who could pull off such a brazen performance on the heels of the mayor’s assault. And that, just after she had dropped a venomous snake down another girl’s dress. Of course, he didn’t know that it was venomous, but that was where the mind went, wasn’t it? She was terrifying, really. And here he was in his uniform, clutching a rose like some lovestruck schoolboy, hoping she would — what? Like him? Trust him? Not kill him on sight?

Her cooperation was imperative. Yesterday, Satyria had led a mentor meeting in which their first assignment had been detailed. In the past, the tributes had gone directly into the arena the morning after they’d all arrived in the Capitol, but the time line had been extended now that the Academy students were involved. It had been decided that each mentor was to

interview their tribute and would be given five minutes to present them to Panem on a live television program. If people had someone to root for, they might actually have an interest in watching the Hunger Games. If all went well, it would be prime-time viewing — the mentors might even be invited to comment on their tributes during the Games. Coriolanus promised himself that his five minutes would be the standout of the night.

Another hour crawled by and he was just about ready to give up, when a train whistle sounded deep in the tunnel. Those first few months of the war, the whistle had signaled his father’s arrival from the battlefield. His father had felt that, as a munitions tycoon, military service enhanced his legitimacy in the family business. With an excellent head for strategy, nerves of steel, and a commanding presence, he’d quickly climbed the ranks. To publicly display their commitment to the Capitol cause, the Snow family would all travel to the station, Coriolanus in his velvet suit, to await the great man’s return. Until the day the train brought only the news that a rebel bullet had found its mark. It was hard, in the Capitol, to find a spot that wasn’t linked to a terrible memory, but this was particularly bad. He could not say he had felt great love for the remote, strict man, but he had certainly felt protected by him. His death was associated with a fear and a vulnerability that Coriolanus had never been able to shake off.

The whistle blew as the train sped into the station and screeched to a halt. It was a short train, only an engine and two cars. Coriolanus looked for a glimpse of his tribute in the windows before he realized the cars had none. They were designed not for passengers but for cargo. Heavy metal chains attached by old-fashioned padlocks secured the goods.

The wrong train, he thought. Might as well go home. But then a distinctly human cry came from one of the cargo cars and he remained in place.

He expected a rush of Peacekeepers, but the train sat ignored for twenty minutes before a few made their way to the rails. One of them exchanged words with an unseen engineer, and a set of keys was tossed out the window. The Peacekeeper took his time meandering down to the first car, flipping through the keys before he selected one, stuck it in the padlock, and gave it a twist. The lock and chains fell away, and he rolled back the heavy door. The car appeared empty. The Peacekeeper pulled out his baton and banged it against the doorframe. “All right, you lot, let’s move!”

A tall boy with dark brown skin and patched burlap clothing appeared in the doorway. Coriolanus recognized him as Clemensia’s tribute from

District 11, rangy but muscular. A girl with similar coloring but a skeletal frame and a hacking cough joined him. Both of them were barefoot with their hands cuffed in front of their bodies. It was a five-foot drop to the ground, so they sat on the edge of the car before launching themselves awkwardly onto the platform. A small, pasty-faced girl in a striped dress and red scarf crawled to the door but seemed unable to figure out how to cover the distance to the ground. The Peacekeeper yanked her down and she landed hard, barely catching herself with her bound hands. Then he reached into the car and dragged out a boy who looked about ten years old but had to be at least twelve, and hauled him onto the platform as well.

By now the smell of the car, musty and heavy with manure, had reached Coriolanus. They were transporting the tributes in livestock cars, and not very clean ones at that. He wondered if they had been fed and let out for fresh air, or just locked in after their reapings. Accustomed as he was to viewing the tributes on-screen, he had not prepared himself properly for this encounter in the flesh, and a wave of pity and revulsion swept through him. They really were creatures out of another world. A hopeless, brutish world.

The Peacekeeper moved on to the second car and released the chains. The door slid open, revealing Jessup, the male District 12 tribute, squinting into the brightly lit station. Coriolanus felt a jolt run through him, and his body straightened in anticipation. Surely, she would be with him. Jessup hopped stiffly to the ground and turned back to the train.

Lucy Gray Baird stepped into the light, her cuffed hands half covering her eyes as they adjusted. Jessup reached up his arms, his wrists spread as wide as the chain on his restraints would allow, and she fell forward, letting him catch her by the waist and swing her to the ground in a surprisingly graceful move. She patted the boy’s sleeve in thanks and tilted her head back to drink in the sunlight streaming into the station. Her fingers began combing through her curls, untangling the knots and picking out bits of straw.

Coriolanus’s attention turned for a moment to the Peacekeepers, who were hollering threats into the train car. When he gazed back, Lucy Gray was staring directly at him. He started a bit but then remembered that he was the only one on the platform besides the Peacekeepers. The soldiers were cursing now as they hoisted one of their number into the train car to retrieve the reluctant tributes.

It was now or never.

He crossed to Lucy Gray, extended the rose, and gave a small nod. “Welcome to the Capitol,” he said. His voice was slightly gravelly, as he had not spoken for hours, but he thought it gave him a nice maturity.

The girl sized him up, and for a minute he feared she was going to either walk away or, worse, laugh at him. Instead she reached out and delicately plucked a petal from the flower in his hand.

“When I was little, they used to bathe me in buttermilk and rose petals,” she said in a manner that, despite the unlikeliness of her claim, seemed totally believable. She ran her thumb over the glossy, white surface and slipped the petal into her mouth, closing her eyes to savor the flavor. “Tastes like bedtime.”

Coriolanus took the moment to examine her. She looked different than she had at the reaping. Except for flecks here and there, the makeup had been wiped away, and without it she appeared younger. Her lips were chapped, her hair loose, her rainbow dress dusty and rumpled. The mark from the mayor’s blow had turned to a deep purple bruise. But there was something else, too. He again had the impression that he was witnessing a performance, but a private one this time.

When she opened her eyes, she trained all her attention on him. “You don’t look like you should be here.”

“I probably shouldn’t be,” he admitted. “But I’m your mentor. And I wanted to meet you on my own terms. Not the Gamemakers’.”

“Ah, a rebel,” she said.

That word was poison in the mouths of Capitol citizens, but she had said it approvingly, as a compliment. Or, was she mocking him? He remembered she carried snakes in her pocket and the usual rules didn’t apply to her.

“And what does my mentor do for me, besides bring me roses?” she asked.

“I do my best to take care of you,” he said.

She glanced over her shoulder, where the Peacekeepers were tossing two half-starved children onto the platform. The girl broke a front tooth on the platform, while the boy received several sharp kicks upon landing.

Lucy Gray smiled up at Coriolanus. “Well, good luck, Gorgeous,” she said, and walked back to Jessup, leaving him and his rose behind.

As the Peacekeepers herded the tributes across the station to the main entrance, Coriolanus felt his chance slipping away. He had not secured her trust. He had not done anything except perhaps amuse her for a moment.

Clearly, she thought he was useless, and maybe she was right, but with all that was at stake, he had to try. He ran across the station, catching up to the pack of tributes as they reached the door.

“Excuse me,” he said to the Peacekeeper in charge. “I’m Coriolanus Snow from the Academy.” He inclined his head toward Lucy Gray. “This tribute has been assigned to me for the Hunger Games. I wonder if I might accompany her to her quarters.”

“That’s why you been hanging around here all morning? To catch a ride to the show?” asked the Peacekeeper. He reeked of liquor and his eyes were rimmed with red. “Well, by all means, Mr. Snow. Join the party.”

It was then that Coriolanus saw the truck that awaited the tributes. Less a truck than a cage on wheels. The bed was enclosed by metal bars and topped with a steel roof. He again flashed back to the circus of his childhood, where he had seen wild animals — big cats and bears — confined to such transport. Following orders, the tributes presented their cuffs for removal and climbed into the cage.

Coriolanus hung back but then saw Lucy Gray watching him and knew this was the moment of judgment. If he backed down now, it would all be over. She would think he was a coward and dismiss him entirely. He took a deep breath and hoisted himself up into the cage.

The door slammed shut behind him, and the truck lurched forward, knocking him off balance. He reflexively grabbed for the bars on his right and wound up with his forehead crammed between them as a couple of the tributes fell into him. He pushed back forcefully and twisted his body around to face his fellow passengers. Everyone had hold of at least one bar now except the girl with the broken tooth, who was clinging to the leg of the boy from her district. As the truck rumbled down a wide avenue, they began to settle in.

Coriolanus knew he had made a mistake. Even in the open air, the stench was overwhelming. The tributes had absorbed the odor of the cattle car and it mixed with an unwashed human smell that made him feel slightly nauseous. Up close, he could see how grubby they were, how bloodshot their eyes, how bruised their limbs. Lucy Gray was crammed into a corner at the front, dabbing a fresh scrape on her forehead with her ruffled hem. She seemed indifferent to his presence, but the rest of them stared at him like a pack of feral animals eyeing a pampered poodle.

At least I’m in better condition than they are, he thought, and he made a fist around the stem of the rose. If they attack, I’ll stand a chance. But would he? Against so many?

The truck slowed to let one of the colorful street trolleys, packed with people, cross in front of it. Although he was in the back, Coriolanus hunched down to avoid being noticed.

The trolley passed, the truck began to roll, and he dared to straighten up. They were laughing at him, the tributes, or at least some of them were grinning at his obvious discomfort.

“What’s the matter, pretty boy? You in the wrong cage?” said the boy from District 11, who was not laughing at all.

The undisguised hatred rattled Coriolanus, but he tried to look unimpressed. “No, this is exactly the cage I was waiting for.”

The boy’s hands came up fast, encircling Coriolanus’s throat with his long, scarred fingers and slamming him back. His forearms pinned Coriolanus’s body against the bars. Overpowered, Coriolanus resorted to the one move that had yet to fail him in schoolyard scuffles, driving his knee up hard into his opponent’s crotch. The district boy gasped and doubled over, releasing him.

“He might kill you now.” The girl from District 11 coughed in Coriolanus’s face. “He killed a Peacekeeper back in Eleven. They never found out who did it.”

“Shut it, Dill,” the boy growled. “Who cares now?” said Dill.

“Let’s all kill him,” the tiny boy said viciously. “Can’t do nothing worse to us.”

Several other tributes murmured in agreement and took a step in.

Coriolanus went rigid with fear. Kill him? Did they really mean to beat him to death, right here in broad daylight, in the middle of the Capitol? Suddenly, he knew they did. What, after all, did they have to lose? His heart pounded in his chest, and he crouched slightly, fists extended, in anticipation of the imminent attack.

From the corner, Lucy Gray’s melodic voice broke the tension. “Not to us, maybe. You got family back home? Someone they could punish there?”

This seemed to take the wind out of the other tributes’ sails. She wriggled through and placed herself between them and Coriolanus.

“Besides,” she said, “he’s my mentor. Supposed to help me. I might need him.”

“How come you get a mender?” asked Dill.

“Mentor. You each get one,” explained Coriolanus, trying to sound on top of the situation.

“Where are they, then?” Dill challenged. “Why didn’t they come?”

“Just not inspired, I guess,” said Lucy Gray. Turning from Dill, she gave Coriolanus a wink.

The truck veered onto a narrow side street and bumped down to what appeared to be a dead end. Coriolanus could not quite get his bearings. He tried to remember where the tributes had been held in previous years. Hadn’t it been in the stables that housed the Peacekeepers’ horses? Yes, he thought he had heard some mention of that. As soon as they arrived, he would find a Peacekeeper and explain things, perhaps ask for a bit of protection given the hostility. After Lucy Gray’s wink, it might be worthwhile to stay.

They were backing in now to a dimly lit building, maybe a warehouse. Coriolanus inhaled a musky mix of rotten fish and old hay. Confused, he tried to get a better fix on his surroundings, and his eyes strained to make out two metal doors swinging open. A Peacekeeper opened the back door to the truck, and before anyone could climb out, the cage tipped and dumped them onto a slab of cold, damp cement. Not a slab, actually more like a chute, for it was tilted at such an extreme angle that Coriolanus began to slide immediately, along with the rest. He dropped the rose as his hands and feet scrabbled for purchase but found none. They all traveled a good twenty feet before they landed in a jumbled heap on a gritty floor. Sunlight glared down on Coriolanus as he scrambled to untangle his body from the pack. He staggered out a few yards, righted himself, and froze in horror. This was not the stables. While he had not visited in many years, he remembered it clearly now. The stretch of sand. The artificial rock formations twisting high in the air. The row of metal bars engraved to look like vines curved in a wide arc to protect the audience. Between the sets of bars, the faces of Capitol children gawked at him.

He was in the monkey house at the zoo.

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