Chapter no 9

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

When he reached the apartment, the Grandma’am took one look at him and suggested a nap before supper. He fell on his bed, feeling too stressed to ever sleep again. The next thing he knew, Tigris was gently shaking his shoulder. A tray on his night table gave off the comforting smell of noodle soup. Sometimes the butcher would give her chicken carcasses for free, and she’d boil them into something wonderful.

“Coryo,” she said. “Satyria has called three times, and I can’t think of any more excuses. Come on, eat some supper and call her back.”

“Did she ask about Clemensia? Does everyone know?” he blurted out. “Clemensia Dovecote? No. Why would she?” Tigris asked.

“It was so awful.” He told her the story in all its gory detail.

As he spoke, the color left her face. “Dr. Gaul made the snakes bite her?

Over a little white lie like that?”

“She did. And she didn’t care at all whether Clemmie survived,” he said. “Just shooed me out so she could get her afternoon snack.”

“That’s sadistic. Or completely demented,” said Tigris. “Should you report her?”

“To who? She’s the Head Gamemaker,” he said. “She works directly with the president. She’ll say it was our fault for lying.”

Tigris thought it over. “All right. Don’t report her. Or confront her. Just avoid her as much as possible.”

“That’s hard as a mentor. She keeps showing up at the Academy to play with this rabbit mutt and ask a lot of crazy questions. One word from her could make or break my prize.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “And

Arachne’s dead, and Clemensia’s all full of venom, and Lucy Gray . . . well, that’s another really awful story. I doubt she’ll make it to the Games, and maybe that’s for the best.”

Tigris tucked a spoon into his hand. “Eat your soup. We’ve gotten through worse than this. Snow lands on top?”

“Snow lands on top,” he said with so little conviction they had to laugh. It made him feel a bit more normal. He took a few bites of soup to please her, then realized he was starving and made short work of it.

When Satyria called again, he almost launched into his confession, but it turned out that all she wanted to do was ask him to sing the anthem at Arachne’s funeral in the morning. “Your heroics at the zoo, combined with the fact that you’re the only one who knows all the words, made you the faculty’s first choice.”

“I’d be honored, of course,” he replied.

“Good.” Satyria slurped something, causing the ice to clink in her glass, then came up for air. “How are things with your tribute?”

Coriolanus hesitated. To complain might seem childish, like he couldn’t handle his own problems. He almost never asked Satyria for help. But then he thought of Lucy Gray buckling under the weight of her chains and threw caution to the wind. “Not well. I saw Lucy Gray today. Just for a minute. She’s very weak. The Capitol hasn’t fed her at all.”

“Since she left District Twelve? Why, that’s been, what? Four days?” Satyria asked, surprised.

“Five. I don’t think she’s going to make it to the Hunger Games. I’m not even going to have a tribute to mentor,” he said. “A lot of us won’t.”

“Well, that’s not fair. It’s like telling you to do an experiment with broken equipment,” she responded. “And now the Games will be delayed at least another day or two.” She paused, then added, “Let me see what I can do.”

He hung up and turned to Tigris. “They want me to sing at the funeral.

She didn’t mention Clemensia. They must be keeping it a secret.”

“Then that’s what you do, too,” said Tigris. “Maybe they’ll pretend the whole thing didn’t happen.”

“Maybe they won’t even tell Dean Highbottom,” he said, brightening. Then another thought hit him. “Tigris? I just remembered, I can’t really sing.” And somehow, this was the funniest thing either of them had ever heard.

The Grandma’am, however, thought it was no laughing matter, and the following morning she had him up at dawn so she could coach him. At the end of every line she’d poke him in his ribs with a ruler and shout, “Breathe!” until he couldn’t imagine making any other choice. For the third time that week, she sacrificed one of her darlings to his future, pinning a light blue rosebud to his carefully pressed uniform jacket and saying, “There. It matches your eyes.” Looking sharp, with a belly full of oatmeal and a rib cage dotted with bruises reminding him to inhale, he set off for the Academy.

Although it was Saturday, the entire student body reported to homeroom before they assembled on the front steps of the Academy, divided neatly and alphabetically by class. By virtue of his assignment, Coriolanus found himself in the front row with faculty and distinguished guests, first and foremost President Ravinstill. Satyria gave him a quick overview of the program, but the only thing that stuck in his head was that his rendition of the anthem opened the ceremonies. He didn’t mind public speaking but had never sung publicly — there was little occasion to in Panem. It was one reason that Lucy Gray’s song had caught people’s attention. He calmed his nerves by reminding himself that even if he howled like a dog, there wasn’t much to compare him to.

Across the avenue, the temporary stands set up for the funeral procession quickly filled with mourners dressed in black, the one color everyone could be counted on to have, given the loss of loved ones during the war. He looked for the Cranes but couldn’t spot them in the crowd. The Academy and the surrounding buildings were festooned with funereal banners and sported Capitol flags in every window. Numerous cameras were positioned to record the event, and multiple Capitol TV reporters streamed live commentary. Coriolanus thought it was quite a display for Arachne, disproportionate to both her life and death, the latter of which could have been avoided if she’d refrained from being such an exhibitionist. So many people had died heroically in the war, with so little recognition, that it grated on him. He was relieved that he was singing instead of having to praise her talents, which, if memory served, were limited to being loud enough to fill the school auditorium without a mic and the ability to balance a spoon on her nose. And Dean Highbottom had accused him of showboating? Still, he reminded himself, she was practically family.

The Academy clock struck nine, and the crowd fell silent. On cue, Coriolanus rose and walked to the podium. Satyria had promised accompaniment, but the silence stretched so long he actually drew breath to begin the anthem before a tinny version began to play over the sound system, giving him sixteen measures of introduction.

Gem of Panem, Mighty city,

Through the ages, you shine anew.

His singing was more like sustained talking than a melodic tour de force, but the song was not particularly challenging. The high note the Grandma’am consistently missed was optional; most people sang it an octave lower. With the memory of her ruler prodding him, he sailed through it, never missing a note or running out of breath. He sat to generous applause and an approving nod from the president, who now took the podium.

“Two days ago, Arachne Crane’s young and precious life was ended, and so we mourn another victim of the criminal rebellion that yet besieges us,” the president intoned. “Her death was as valiant as any on the battlefield, her loss more profound as we claim to be at peace. But no peace will exist while this disease eats away at all that is good and noble in our country. Today we honor her sacrifice with a reminder that while evil exists, it does not prevail. And once again, we bear witness as our great Capitol brings justice to Panem.”

The drums began a slow, deep boom, and the crowd turned as the funeral procession rounded a corner onto the street. Although not as wide as the Corso, Scholars Road easily held the honor guard of Peacekeepers, standing shoulder to shoulder, twenty wide and forty deep, that stepped in flawless uniformity to the rhythm of the drums.

Coriolanus had wondered about the strategy of telling the districts about a tribute killing a Capitol girl, but now he saw the point. Behind the Peacekeepers came a long flatbed truck with a crane affixed to it. High in the air, the bullet-ridden body of the District 10 girl, Brandy, dangled from its hook. Shackled to the truck bed, looking utterly filthy and defeated, were the remaining twenty-three tributes. The length of their restraints made it impossible to stand, so they either crouched or sat on the bare metal floor.

This was just another chance to remind the districts that they were inferior and that there would be repercussions for their resistance.

He could see Lucy Gray trying to hold on to a shred of dignity, sitting as upright as the chains would allow and gazing straight ahead, ignoring the corpse swinging gently over her head. But it was no use. The dirt, the shackles, the public display — it was too much to overcome. He tried to imagine conducting himself under those circumstances, until he realized this was undoubtedly what Sejanus was doing, and snapped out of it.

Another battalion of Peacekeepers followed the tributes, paving the way for a quartet of horses. They were decked in garlands and pulled an ornate wagon with a pure white coffin draped in flowers. Behind the coffin came the Cranes, riding in a horse-drawn chariot. At least her family had the decency to look uncomfortable. The procession halted when the coffin drew up in front of the podium.

Dr. Gaul, who’d been sitting next to the president, approached the mic. Coriolanus thought it was a mistake to let her speak at such a moment, but she must have left the crazy lady and her pink snake bracelets at home, because she spoke with a stern and intelligent clarity. “Arachne Crane, we, your fellow citizens of Panem, vow that your death will not be in vain. When one of ours is hit, we hit back twice as hard. The Hunger Games will go forward, with more energy and commitment than ever before, as we add your name to the long list of the innocent who died defending a righteous and just land. Your friends, family, and fellow citizens salute you and dedicate the Tenth Hunger Games to your memory.”

So now that loudmouth Arachne was a defender of a righteous and just land. Yes, she laid down her life taunting her tribute with a sandwich, thought Coriolanus. Maybe her gravestone could read, “Casualty of cheap laughs.”

A row of Peacekeepers in red sashes lifted their guns and sent several volleys over the procession, which then rolled down a few blocks and disappeared around a corner.

As the crowd thinned, several people took the pained look on Coriolanus’s face as sorrow at Arachne’s death, when ironically he felt like killing her all over again. Still, he felt he’d handled himself well, until he turned to find Dean Highbottom looking down at him.

“My condolences on the loss of your friend,” the dean said.

“And on your student. It’s a difficult day for all of us. But the procession was very moving,” Coriolanus replied.

“Did you think so? I found it excessive and in poor taste,” said Dean Highbottom. Taken by surprise, Coriolanus let out a short laugh before he recovered and tried to look shocked. The dean dropped his gaze to Coriolanus’s blue rosebud. “It’s amazing, how little things change. After all the killing. After all the agonized promises to remember the cost. After all of that, I can’t distinguish the bud from the blossom.” He gave the rose a tap with his forefinger, adjusting the angle, and smiled. “Don’t be late to lunch. I hear we’re having pie.”

The only good thing about the encounter was that it turned out there really was pie, peach this time, at the special buffet in the school dining hall. Unlike on the day of the reaping, Coriolanus loaded his plate with fried chicken and took the largest wedge of pie he could find. He slathered his biscuits with butter and had three refills of grape punch, filling the last glass so much it spilled over and he stained his linen napkin sopping it up. Let people talk. The chief mourner needed sustenance. But even as he ate, he recognized it as a sign that his usual gift for self-control was eroding. He blamed it on Dean Highbottom and his continual harassment. What was he babbling on about today anyway? Buds? Blossoms? He should be locked up somewhere or, even better, deported to a far-off outpost to leave decent Capitol people in peace. Just the thought of him sent Coriolanus back for more pie.

Sejanus, however, poked at his chicken and biscuits without taking even one bite. If Coriolanus had disliked the funeral parade, it had to have been misery for Sejanus.

“They’ll report you if you throw out all that food,” Coriolanus reminded him. He wasn’t crazy about the guy, but he didn’t particularly want to see him punished.

“Right,” said Sejanus. But he still seemed unable to down more than a sip of punch.

As the luncheon was finishing up, Satyria gathered the twenty-two active mentors to inform them that not only were the Hunger Games still on, they were supposed to be the most visible yet. With this in mind, they were to escort their tributes on a tour of the arena that very afternoon. It was to be aired live to the entire country, somehow driving home the resolution Dr. Gaul had made at the funeral. The Head Gamemaker felt that separating the

Capitol kids from the district ones suggested weakness, as if they were too afraid of their enemies to be in their presence. The tributes would be handcuffed but not fully shackled. The Peacekeepers’ top sharpshooters would be among their guards, but the mentors were to be seen side by side with their charges.

Coriolanus could sense some reluctance among his classmates — several of their parents had lodged complaints about shoddy security after Arachne’s death — but no one spoke up, none of them wanting to seem cowardly. The whole thing seemed dangerous and ill-advised to him — what would prevent other tributes from turning on their mentors? — but he’d never say so. A part of him wondered if Dr. Gaul wasn’t hoping for another act of violence so she could punish another tribute, maybe a live one this time, in front of the cameras.

This further display of Dr. Gaul’s callousness made him feel mutinous.

He glanced over at Sejanus’s plate. “All done?”

“I can’t eat today,” said Sejanus. “I don’t know what to do with this.”

Their section had emptied. Under the table, Coriolanus spread his stained linen napkin on his lap. He felt even more delinquent when he realized it was emblazoned with the Capitol seal. “Put it here,” he said with a furtive glance.

Sejanus gave a look around and quickly transported the chicken and biscuits to the napkin. Coriolanus gathered it up and stuffed the whole thing in his book bag. They were not allowed to take food from the dining hall, and certainly not for a tribute, but where else would he get some before the tour? Lucy Gray couldn’t eat the stuff in front of the cameras, but her dress had deep pockets. He resented that half of his takings would go to Jessup now, but maybe that investment would pay off when the Games began.

“Thanks. You’re quite the rebel,” said Sejanus as they carried their trays to the conveyor belt that ran to the kitchen.

“I’m bad news, all right,” said Coriolanus.

The mentors piled into a few Academy vans and headed for the Capitol Arena, which had been built across the river to prevent crowds from swamping the downtown. In its day, the huge, state-of-the-art amphitheater had been the site of many an exciting sporting, entertainment, or military event. High-profile executions of the enemy were staged there during the war, making it a target for the rebel bombers. While the original structure stood, it was battered and unstable now, useful only as a venue for the

Hunger Games. The lush field of meticulously tended grass had died from neglect. It was riddled with bomb craters, with weeds providing the only greenery on the expanse of dirt. Rubble from the explosions — chunks of metal and stone — lay everywhere, and the fifteen-foot wall that encircled the field was fissured and pockmarked from the shrapnel. Each year, the tributes would be locked in with nothing but an arsenal of knives, swords, maces, and the like to facilitate the bloodshed while the audience watched from home. At the end of the Games, the one who had managed to survive would be shipped back to their district, the bodies removed, the weapons collected, and the doors locked until the following year. No maintenance. No cleanup. Wind and rain might wash away the bloodstains, but Capitol hands would not.

Professor Sickle, their chaperone for the outing, ordered the mentors to leave their belongings in the vans when they arrived. Coriolanus stuffed the food-filled napkin in one of his front pants pockets and kept it covered with the hem of his jacket. As they stepped from the air-conditioning into the blazing sun, he saw the tributes standing in a line in handcuffs, heavily guarded by Peacekeepers. The mentors were directed to take their places beside their respective tributes, who’d been lined up numerically, so he was near the end with Lucy Gray. Only Jessup and his mentor, Lysistrata, who couldn’t tip the scales at a hundred pounds, were behind him. In front of him, Clemensia’s tribute, Reaper — the one who’d strangled him in the truck — stood glowering at the ground. If it came to a mentor-tribute showdown, the odds were not in Coriolanus’s favor.

Despite her delicate appearance, Lysistrata had some grit. The daughter of the physicians who treated President Ravinstill, she’d been lucky to get a mentorship, and she’d apparently been working hard to connect with Jessup. “I brought you some cream for your neck,” Coriolanus heard her whisper. “But you must keep it hidden.” Jessup made a grunt of assent. “I’ll put it in your pocket when I can.”

The Peacekeepers removed the heavy bars from the entrance. The massive doors swung open, revealing a huge lobby lined with boarded-up booths and fly-specked posters advertising events from before the war. Holding their formation, the kids followed the soldiers deep within to the far side of the lobby. A bank of full-height turnstiles, each with three curved metal arms, stood covered in a thick layer of dust. They required a Capitol token for admittance, the same one still used for the price of a trolley fare.

This entrance was for the poor people, Coriolanus thought. Or perhaps not poor. The word plebeian came to mind. The Snow family had entered the arena at another entrance, demarcated by a velvet rope. Certainly, their box could not be accessed with a trolley token. Unlike much of the arena, it had a roof, a retractable glass window, and air-conditioning that had made the hottest day comfortable. An Avox had been assigned to them, bringing food and drink and toys for him and Tigris. If he grew bored, he’d nap on the plush, cushioned seats.

Peacekeepers posted at two turnstiles pumped tokens into the slots so each tribute and mentor could pass through simultaneously. At each rotation, a cheerful voice piped, “Enjoy the show!”

“Can’t you override the ticket barrier?” asked Professor Sickle.

“We could if we had the key, but no one seems to know where it is,” said a Peacekeeper.

“Enjoy the show!” the turnstile told Coriolanus as he passed through. He gave the arm at his waist a backward push and realized that no exit was possible. His eyes traveled to the tops of the turnstiles, where iron bars filled the space to the arched doorway. He guessed the patrons of the cheap seats left the building through passages elsewhere. While that was probably seen as a plus for crowd dispersal, it did nothing to calm a jittery mentor on a questionable field trip.

On the far side of the turnstiles, a squad of Peacekeepers marched into a passageway, guided only by the red glow of emergency lights on the floor. On either side, smaller arches leading to different seating levels were marked. The line of tributes and mentors fell into step, flanked by tight columns of Peacekeepers. As they moved into the gloom, Coriolanus took a page from Lysistrata’s book and used the opportunity to slip the napkin of food into Lucy Gray’s cuffed hands. It swiftly disappeared into her ruffled pocket. There. She was not going to starve to death on his watch. Her hand found his, intertwining their fingers and sending a buzz through his body at their closeness. At this small intimacy in the dark. He gave her hand a final squeeze and released it as they headed into the sunlight at the end of the passageway, where such a display would have been inexplicable.

He’d been to the arena several times as a small boy, to see the circus, mostly, but also to cheer military displays under his father’s command. For the past nine years he’d watched at least part of the Games on television. But nothing prepared him for the sensation of walking out through the main

gate, beneath the enormous scoreboard, and onto the field. Some of the mentors and tributes gasped at the sheer size of the place and the grandeur that defied even the decay. Staring up at the towering rows of seats made him feel diminished to the point of insignificance. A raindrop in a flood, a pebble in an avalanche.

The sight of the camera crews brought him back to himself, and he adjusted his face to say that nothing much really impressed a Snow. Lucy Gray, who seemed more alert and moved better without the weight of the chains, gave a wave to Lepidus Malmsey, but like all the reporters, he remained stony-faced and didn’t engage. Their directive had been clear; gravity and retribution were the hallmarks of the day.

Satyria’s use of the term tour had suggested a sightseeing excursion, and while he had not anticipated pleasure, he had not expected the palpable sadness of the place either. The Peacekeepers who’d been flanking them spread out as the kids dutifully followed the lead squad around the inside perimeter of the oval, forming a dusty, joyless parade. Coriolanus remembered the circus performers taking the same route, riding elephants and horses, bespangled and brimming with mirth. With the exception of Sejanus, probably all of his classmates would have been in the audience, too. Ironically, Arachne would have been in the box adjacent to his, dressed in a sequined costume and cheering at the top of her lungs.

Coriolanus surveyed the arena, looking for anything that might be an advantage for Lucy Gray. The high wall that enclosed the field, keeping the audience above the action, had some promise. The damaged surface provided hand- and footholds, offering access to the seats for a nimble climber. Several of the gates spaced symmetrically around the wall looked compromised as well, but as he was unsure what lay beyond in the tunnels, he thought those should be approached with caution. Too easy to get trapped. The stands would definitely be her best bet, if she could climb up. He made mental notes for later.

As the line began to stretch out, he initiated a whispered conversation with Lucy Gray. “It was awful this morning. Seeing you like that.”

“Well, at least they fed us first,” she said.

“Really?” Had his conversation with Satyria triggered that?

“A couple of kids blacked out when they tried to round us up last night. I think they decided that if they want to have anyone left for their show, they’re going to have to feed us. Mostly bread and cheese. We got dinner,

and breakfast, too. But don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of room left for whatever’s in my pocket.” She sounded more like her old self. “Was that you I heard singing?”

“Oh. Yes,” he admitted. “They asked me to sing because they thought Arachne and I were such great friends. We weren’t. And I’m embarrassed you heard me.”

“I like your voice. My daddy would’ve said it had real authority. Just didn’t much care for the song,” Lucy Gray replied.

“Thanks. That means a lot, coming from you,” he said.

She nudged him with her elbow. “I wouldn’t broadcast that. Most people here think I’m lower than a snake’s belly.”

Coriolanus shook his head and grinned. “What?” she said.

“You just have funny expressions. Not funny, per se, more colorful,” he told her.

“Well, I don’t say ‘per se’ much, if that’s what you mean,” she quipped. “No, I like it. It makes the way I talk seem so stiff. What was it you

called me that day in the zoo? Something about cake?” he remembered. “Oh, the cake with the cream? You don’t say that?” she asked. “Well, it’s

a compliment. Where I come from, cake can be pretty dry. And cream’s as scarce as hen’s teeth.”

For a moment he laughed, forgetting where they were, how depressing the backdrop. For a moment there was just her smile, the musical cadence of her voice, and the hint of flirtation.

Then the world exploded.

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