Chapter no 7

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Shrieks came from the audience members nearest to the attack. Arachne’s face drained of color as she dropped the sandwich and clawed at her neck. The blood poured down her fingers as the District 10 girl released her and gave her a small shove. Arachne stepped back, turning and reaching out a dripping hand, imploring the audience for help. People were either too stunned or too scared to respond. Many drew away as she fell to her knees and began to bleed out.

Coriolanus’s initial reaction was to recoil like the others, to grab hold of the monkey house bars for support, but Lucy Gray hissed, “Help her!” He remembered the cameras streaming live to the Capitol audience. He had no idea what to do for Arachne, but he did not want to be seen cringing and clinging. His terror was a private thing, not meant for public display.

He forced his legs into motion and was the first to reach Arachne. She clutched his shirt as the life seeped out of her. “Medic!” he cried as he eased her to the ground. “Is there a doctor? Please, someone help!” He pressed his hand over the wound to stem the blood but removed it when she made a choking sound. “Come on!” he screamed at the crowd. A couple of Peacekeepers were shouldering their way toward him, but much, much too slowly.

Coriolanus glanced over in time to see the District 10 girl retrieve the cheese sandwich and take a furious bite before the bullets pierced her body, slamming her into the bars. She slipped into a heap as her blood commingled with Arachne’s. Bits of half-chewed food fell from her mouth and floated in the red pool.

The crowd surged back as panicked people tried to flee the area. The fading light added a level of desperation. Coriolanus saw one small boy fall and watched his leg being trampled before a woman yanked him from the ground. Others weren’t so lucky.

Arachne’s lips made soundless words that he could not decipher. When her breathing stopped abruptly, he guessed it was pointless to try to resuscitate her. If he forced air into her mouth, wouldn’t it only spill out the gaping wound in her neck? Festus was next to him now, and the two friends exchanged helpless looks.

Stepping back from Arachne, Coriolanus flinched at the red, shiny stuff coating his hands. He turned and found Lucy Gray huddled against the bars of the cage, her face hidden in her ruffled skirt, her body shaking, and realized he was shaking as well. That’s how it was with him: The wash of blood, the whiz of bullets, the screams in the crowd all caused flashbacks to the worst moments of his childhood. Rebel boots pounding through the streets, he and the Grandma’am pinned down by gunfire, dying bodies twitching around them . . . his mother on the bloodstained bed . . . the stampedes during the food riots, the smashed faces, the moaning people . . .

He took immediate steps to mask his terror. Cramming his hands into fists at his sides. Trying to take slow, deep breaths. Lucy Gray began to vomit, and he turned away to keep his own stomach in check.

Medics appeared, lifting Arachne onto a stretcher. Others assessed those who had been wounded by stray bullets or tromped by the feet of the audience. A woman was in his face, asking was he hurt, was this his blood? Once they’d confirmed it wasn’t, they gave him a towel to wipe himself with and moved on.

As he scrubbed at the blood, he spotted Sejanus kneeling near the dead tribute. He had reached through the bars, and he seemed to be sprinkling a handful of something white over her body while he mumbled some words. Coriolanus only caught a glimpse before a Peacekeeper came and pulled Sejanus back. The soldiers were swarming the place now, clearing out the last remnants of the audience and lining up the tributes along the back of the cage with their hands on top of their heads. Calmer, Coriolanus tried to catch Lucy Gray’s attention, but her eyes were locked on the ground.

A Peacekeeper took him by the shoulders and gave him a respectful but firm push toward the exit. He found himself following Festus up to the main path. They stopped at a water fountain and worked a bit more on

removing the blood. Neither knew what to say. Arachne hadn’t been his favorite person, but she’d always been in his life. They’d played as babies, been at birthday parties, stood on ration lines, attended classes together. She’d been dressed head to toe in black lace at his mother’s funeral, and he’d cheered her brother’s graduation only last year. As part of the wealthy old guard of the Capitol, she was family. And you didn’t have to like your family. The bond was a given.

“I couldn’t save her,” he said. “I couldn’t stop the blood.”

“I don’t think anyone could have. At least you tried. That’s what matters,” Festus consoled him.

Clemensia found them, her whole body trembling in distress, and they made their way out of the zoo together.

“Come to my place,” Festus said, but when they reached his apartment, he suddenly broke into tears. They saw him onto the elevator and said good night.

It was not until Coriolanus had walked Clemensia home that they remembered the assignment Dr. Gaul had given them. The proposal about sending tributes food in the arena and the option to bet on them. “Surely, she won’t still expect it,” said Clemensia. “I couldn’t do it tonight. I couldn’t possibly think about it. You know, without Arachne.”

Coriolanus agreed, but on the way home he thought about Dr. Gaul. She would be just the type to penalize them for missing such a deadline, regardless of the circumstances. Maybe he should write something up to be on the safe side.

When he’d climbed the twelve flights to the apartment, he found the Grandma’am in a state, railing at the districts and airing out her best black dress for Arachne’s funeral. She flew at him, patting his chest and arms, making sure he was uninjured. Tigris simply wept. “I can’t believe Arachne is dead. I just saw her this afternoon at the market, buying those grapes.”

He comforted them and did his best to reassure them of his safety. “It won’t happen again. It was like a freak accident. And now the security’s bound to be even tighter.”

When things had calmed down, Coriolanus went to his bedroom, stripped off his bloodstained uniform, and headed to his bathroom. In the near-scalding water of the shower, he scoured the remainder of Arachne’s blood from his body. For about a minute, a painful sobbing made his chest ache, but then it passed, and he wasn’t sure if it had to do with sorrow over her

death or unhappiness over his own difficulties. Probably some of both. He pulled on a worn silk robe that had been his father’s and decided to take a shot at the proposal. It wasn’t as if he would be able to sleep, not with the burbling sound of Arachne’s throat still fresh in his ears. No amount of rose-scented powder could temper that. Losing himself in the assignment helped to calm him, and he preferred working in solitude, not having to parry the thoughts of his classmates diplomatically. Without interference, he created a simple but solid proposal.

Reflecting on the classroom discussion with Dr. Gaul and the electricity in the audience when they’d fed the starving tributes at the zoo, he focused on the food. For the first time, sponsors would be able to buy items — a piece of bread, a chunk of cheese — to be delivered by drone to a specific tribute. A panel would be established to review the nature and value of each item. A sponsor would have to be a Capitol citizen in good standing who was not directly related to the Games. This ruled out Gamemakers, mentors, Peacekeepers assigned to guard the tributes, and any of the aforementioned parties’ immediate family members. When it came to his idea of betting, he suggested a second panel to create a venue that would allow Capitol citizens to officially wager on the victor, establish the odds, and oversee the payments to the winners. Proceeds from either program would be funneled toward the costs of the Games, making them essentially free for the government of Panem.

Coriolanus worked steadily until Friday morning dawned. As the first rays came through his window, he dressed in a clean uniform, tucked his proposal under his arm, and left the apartment as quietly as possible.

Dr. Gaul wore several hats between her research, military, and academic duties, so he had to venture a guess as to where her desk might be located. Since it was Hunger Games business, he walked to the imposing structure known as the Citadel, which housed the War Department. The Peacekeepers on duty had no intention of letting him into the high-security zone, but they assured him the pages of the proposal would be placed on her desk. It was the best he could do.

As he walked back to the Corso, the screen that had shown only the seal of Panem in the early hours came alive with the events of the previous night. Again and again they aired the tribute slitting Arachne’s throat, him arriving to help her, and the gunning down of the murderer. He felt strangely detached from the action, as if all his emotional reserve had been

depleted by his brief outburst in the shower. Since his initial reaction to Arachne’s death had been somewhat lacking, he was relieved to see that the cameras had only recorded his attempt to save her, the moments when he appeared brave and responsible. You would only notice his shaking if you looked closely for it.

He was particularly pleased to catch a quick shot of Livia Cardew flailing her way through the crowd at the sound of the gunfire. In rhetoric class, she’d once attributed his inability to decipher the deeper meaning of a poem to the fact that he was too self-absorbed. The irony, coming from Livia, of all people! But actions spoke louder than words. Coriolanus to the rescue, Livia to the nearest exit.

By the time he reached home, Tigris and the Grandma’am had recovered somewhat from the shock of Arachne’s death and were declaring him a national hero, which he waved off but secretly relished. He should have been exhausted, but he felt a nervous energy running through him, and the announcement that the Academy would still be holding classes gave him a boost. Being a hero at home had its limitations; he needed a larger audience. After a breakfast of fried potatoes and cold buttermilk, he made his way to the Academy with the somberness the occasion demanded. Since he was

known to be Arachne’s friend, and had proven it by trying to save her, he seemed to have been designated chief mourner. In the hallways, condolences came in from every side, along with praise for his actions. Someone suggested that he cared for her like a sister, and although he’d done nothing of the sort, he allowed it. No need to disrespect the dead.

As dean of the Academy, it should’ve been Highbottom who led the schoolwide assembly, but he did not make an appearance. Instead it was Satyria who spoke of Arachne in glowing terms: her audacity, her outspokenness, her sense of humor. All the things, Coriolanus thought as he dabbed his eyes, that were so annoying about her and had ultimately brought on her death. Professor Sickle took the mic and commended him, and to a lesser extent Festus, for their response to a fallen comrade in arms. Hippocrata Lunt, the school counselor, invited anyone with grief issues to visit her office, especially if they were having violent impulses toward themselves or others. Satyria came back and announced that Arachne’s official funeral would be the following day, and the entire student body would attend to honor her memory. It would be aired live to all of Panem, so they were encouraged to look and behave as befitted the youth of the

Capitol. Then they were allowed to mingle, to remember their friend, and to console one another for her loss. Classes would resume after lunch.

After a gloppy fish salad on toast, the mentors were scheduled to meet with Professor Demigloss again, although no one really felt like going. It didn’t help that the first thing he did was pass out a mentor sheet, updated with the tributes’ names, saying, “This should facilitate keeping track of your progress in the Games.”



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

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

Boy (Circ) Io Jasper

Girl (Teslee) Urban Canville DISTRICT 4

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

Boy (Hy) Dennis Fling

Girl (Sol) Iphigenia Moss DISTRICT 6

Boy (Otto) Apollo Ring Girl (Ginnee) Diana Ring DISTRICT 7

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

Boy (Bobbin) Juno Phipps

Girl (Wovey) Hilarius Heavensbee DISTRICT 9

Boy (Panlo) Gaius Breen

Girl (Sheaf) Androcles Anderson DISTRICT 10

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

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

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

Coriolanus, along with several people around him, automatically crossed off the name of the girl from District 10. But then what? It would make sense to cross off Arachne’s name as well, but that felt different. His pen hovered over her name and then left it alone for the moment. It seemed pretty cold to scratch her off the list like that.

About ten minutes into class, a note arrived from the office instructing him and Clemensia to leave class and report immediately to the Citadel. This could only be in response to his proposal, and Coriolanus felt a combination of excitement and nervousness. Did Dr. Gaul like it? Hate it? What did it mean?

Since he hadn’t bothered to tell her about his proposal, Clemensia was put out. “I can’t believe you wrote up some proposal while Arachne’s body was still warm! I cried all night long.” Her puffy eyes backed up the claim.

“Well, it’s not like I could sleep either,” Coriolanus objected. “After holding her while she died. Working kept me from freaking out.”

“I know, I know. Everyone handles grief differently. I didn’t mean that like it sounded.” She sighed. “So, what’s in this thing I supposedly cowrote?”

Coriolanus gave her a quick overview, but she still seemed annoyed. “I’m sorry, I meant to tell you. It’s pretty basic stuff, and some of it we already discussed as a group. Look, I already got one demerit this week — I can’t afford to let my grades take a hit, too.”

“Did you at least put my name on it? I don’t want it to seem like I was too feeble to pull my weight,” she said.

“I didn’t put anyone’s name on it. It’s more of a class project.” Coriolanus threw up his hands in exasperation. “Honestly, Clemmie, I thought I was doing you a favor!”

“Okay, okay,” she said, relenting. “I guess I owe you. But I wish I’d at least had a chance to read it. Just cover for me if she starts grilling us about it.”

“You know I will. She’ll probably hate it anyway,” he said. “I mean, I think it’s pretty solid, but she’s operating with a whole different rule book.”

“That’s true,” Clemensia agreed. “Do you think there will even be a Hunger Games now?”

He hadn’t thought of that. “I don’t know. What with Arachne, and then the funeral . . . If they happen, they’ll be delayed, I suppose. I know you don’t like them anyway.”

“Do you? Does anyone, really?” Clemensia asked.

“Maybe they’ll just send the tributes home.” The idea was not entirely unappealing when he thought of Lucy Gray. He wondered how the fallout from Arachne’s death was affecting her. Were all the tributes being punished? Would they allow him to see her?

“Yes, or make them Avoxes, or something,” said Clemensia. “It’s awful, but not as bad as the arena. I mean, I’d rather be alive without a tongue than dead, wouldn’t you?”

“I would, but I’m not sure my tribute would,” said Coriolanus. “Can you still sing without a tongue?”

“I don’t know. Hum, maybe.” They had reached the gates of the Citadel. “This place scared me when I was little.”

“It scares me still,” said Coriolanus, which made her laugh.

At the Peacekeeper station, their retinas were scanned and checked against the Capitol files. Their book bags were taken and a guard escorted them down a long, gray corridor and onto an elevator that plunged down at least twenty-five floors. Coriolanus had never been so far underground and, surprisingly, found he liked it. Much as he loved the Snows’ penthouse

apartment, he’d felt so vulnerable when the bombs had fallen during the war. Here, it seemed nothing could reach him.

The elevator doors parted, and they stepped into a gigantic open laboratory. Rows of research tables, unfamiliar machines, and glass cases spread out into the distance. Coriolanus turned to the guard, but she closed the doors and left them without giving further instructions. “Shall we?” he asked Clemensia.

They began to make their way cautiously into the lab. “I have a terrible feeling I’m going to break something,” she whispered.

They walked along a wall of glass cases fifteen feet high. Inside, a menagerie of creatures, some familiar, some altered to the point that no label could easily be attached, roamed and panted and flopped around in apparent unhappiness. Oversized fangs, claws, and flippers swiped the glass as they passed.

A young man in a lab coat intercepted them and led them to a section of reptile cases. Here they found Dr. Gaul, peering into a large terrarium filled with hundreds of snakes. They were artificially bright, their skins almost glowing in shades of neon pink, yellow, and blue. No longer than a ruler and not much thicker than a pencil, they twisted into a psychedelic carpet that covered the bottom of the case.

“Ah, here you are,” Dr. Gaul said with a grin. “Say hello to my new babies.”

“Hello there,” said Coriolanus, putting his face close to the glass to see the writhing mess. They reminded him of something, but he couldn’t think what.

“Is there a point to the color?” asked Clemensia.

“There is a point to everything or nothing at all, depending on your worldview,” said Dr. Gaul. “Which brings me to your proposal. I liked it. Who wrote it? Just you two? Or did your brassy friend weigh in before her throat was cut?”

Clemensia pressed her lips together, upset, but then Coriolanus saw her face tighten. She was not going to be intimidated. “The whole class discussed it as a group.”

“And Arachne was planning to help write it up last night, but then . . . as you said,” he added.

“But you two forged ahead, is that it?” asked Dr. Gaul.

“That’s right,” said Clemensia. “We wrote it up at the library, and I printed it out at my apartment last night. Then I gave it to Coriolanus so he could drop it off this morning. As assigned.”

Dr. Gaul addressed Coriolanus. “Is that how it happened?”

Coriolanus felt put on the spot. “I did drop it off this morning, yes. Well, just to the Peacekeepers on guard; I wasn’t allowed in,” he said evasively. Something was strange about this line of questioning. “Was that a problem?”

“I just wanted to make sure you’d both had your hands on it,” said Dr.


“I can show you the parts the group discussed and how they were developed in the proposal,” he offered.

“Yes. Do that. Did you bring a copy?” she asked.

Clemensia looked at Coriolanus expectantly. “No, I didn’t,” he said. He wasn’t thrilled with Clemensia laying it at his door, when she’d been too shaky to even help write the thing. Especially since she was one of his most formidable competitors for the Academy prizes. “Did you?”

“They took our book bags.” Clemensia turned to Dr. Gaul. “Perhaps we could use the copy we gave you?”

“Well, we could. But my assistant lined this very case with it while I was having my lunch,” she said with a laugh.

Coriolanus stared down into the mass of wriggling snakes, with their flicking tongues. Sure enough, he could catch phrases of his proposal between the coils.

“Suppose you two retrieve it?” Dr. Gaul suggested.

It felt like a test. A weird Dr. Gaul test, but still. And somehow planned, but he couldn’t begin to guess to what end. He glanced at Clemensia and tried to remember if she was afraid of snakes, but he scarcely knew if he was himself. They didn’t have snakes in the lab at school.

She gave Dr. Gaul a clenched smile. “Of course. Do we just reach in through the trapdoor on the top?”

Dr. Gaul removed the entire cover. “Oh, no, let’s give you some room.

Mr. Snow? Why don’t you start?”

Coriolanus reached in slowly, feeling the warmth of the heated air. “That’s right. Move gently. Don’t disrupt them,” Dr. Gaul instructed.

He scooped his fingers under the edge of a sheet of his proposal and slowly slid it out from under the snakes. They slumped down into a heap

but didn’t seem to mind much. “I don’t think they even noticed me,” he said to Clemensia, who looked a little green.

“Here I go, then.” She reached into the tank.

“They can’t see too well, and they hear even less,” said Dr. Gaul. “But they know you’re there. Snakes can smell you using their tongues, these mutts here more than others.”

Clemensia hooked a sheet with her fingernail and lifted it up. The snakes stirred.

“If you’re familiar, if they have pleasant associations with your scent — a warm tank, for instance — they’ll ignore you. A new scent, something foreign, that would be a threat,” said Dr. Gaul. “You’d be on your own, little girl.”

Coriolanus had just begun to put two and two together when he saw the look of alarm on Clemensia’s face. She yanked her hand from the tank, but not before a half dozen neon snakes sank their fangs into her flesh.

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