The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

On a brilliant October afternoon halfway into fall term, Snow descended the marble steps of the University Science Center, modestly ignoring the turning heads. He looked gorgeous in his new suit, especially with the return of his curls, and his stint as a Peacekeeper had given him a certain cachet that drove his rivals wild.

He’d just finished a special honors class in military strategy with Dr. Gaul, after a morning at the Citadel, where he’d reported for his Gamemaker internship. If you wanted to call it that — really the others treated him as a full-fledged member of the team. They were already working on ideas to engage the districts, as well as the Capitol, in next year’s Hunger Games. Snow had been the one to point out that, other than the life of two tributes they might not even know, the people in the districts had no stake in the Games. A tribute’s win needed to be a win for the whole district. They’d come up with the idea that everyone in the district would receive a parcel of food if their tribute took the crown. And to tempt a better class of tributes to possibly volunteer, Snow suggested that the victor should be given a house in a special area of town, tentatively called the Victor’s Village, which would be the envy of all those people in the hovels. That, and a token monetary prize, should go a long way toward bringing in a decent crop of performers.

His fingers stroked his butter-soft leather satchel, a back-to-school gift from the Plinths. He still tripped over what to call them. “Ma” was easy enough, but it didn’t suit to call Strabo Plinth his father, so he used “sir” a lot. It wasn’t as if they’d adopted him; he’d been too old at eighteen. Being designated an heir worked better for him anyway. He’d never give up the name Snow, not even for a munitions empire.

It had all happened very naturally. His homecoming. Their grief. The merging of the families. Sejanus’s death had totaled the Plinths. Strabo had put it simply: “My wife needs something to live for. So do I, for that matter. You’ve lost your parents. We’ve lost our son. I was thinking perhaps we

could work something out.” He’d bought the Snows’ apartment so they didn’t have to move, and the Dolittles’ below it for himself and Ma. There was talk of renovating, of building a spiral staircase and perhaps a private elevator to connect the two, but there was no rush. Ma already came by daily to help with the Grandma’am, who’d resigned herself to having a new “maid,” and she and Tigris got on swimmingly. The Plinths paid for everything now: the taxes on the apartment, his tuition, the cook. They gave him a generous allowance as well. This was helpful because, although he’d intercepted and pocketed the envelope of money he’d sent Tigris from District 12, university life was expensive when done right. Strabo never questioned his expenditures or nitpicked over a few new additions to his wardrobe, and he seemed pleased when Snow asked for advice. They were surprisingly compatible. At times, he almost forgot old Plinth was district. Almost.

Tonight would’ve been Sejanus’s nineteenth birthday, and they were gathering for a quiet dinner to remember him. Snow had invited Festus and Lysistrata to join the party, as they’d liked Sejanus better than most of his classmates and could be counted on to say nice things. He planned to present the Plinths with the box from Sejanus’s locker, but first he had one more thing to do.

The fresh air on the walk to the Academy left his mind razor sharp. He hadn’t bothered to make an appointment, preferring to drop in unexpectedly. The students had been let out an hour ago, and his footsteps rang in the hallways. Dean Highbottom’s secretary’s desk was empty, so he crossed to the dean’s office and tapped on the door. Dean Highbottom bid him enter. Between the weight loss and the tremor, he looked worse than ever, slumped over his desk.

“Well, to what do I owe this honor?” he asked.

“I was hoping to recover my mother’s compact, since you should have no further need of it,” Snow replied.

Dean Highbottom reached into a drawer and slapped the compact on the desk. “Is that all?”

“No.” He removed Sejanus’s box from his satchel. “I’m returning Sejanus’s personal effects to his parents tonight. I’m not sure what to do with this.” He emptied the contents onto the desk and picked up the framed diploma. “I didn’t think you’d want it floating around out there. An Academy diploma. Awarded to a traitor.”

“You’re very conscientious,” said Dean Highbottom.

“That’s my Peacekeeper training.” Snow loosened the back of the frame and slipped out the diploma. Then, as if on impulse, he replaced it with a photo of the Plinth family. “I think his parents will prefer this anyway.” They both stared at the remains of Sejanus’s life. Then he swept the three medicine bottles into Dean Highbottom’s trash can. “The fewer bad memories, the better.”

Dean Highbottom eyed him. “So, you grew a heart in the districts?”

“Not in the districts. In the Hunger Games,” Snow corrected him. “I have you to thank for that. After all, you’re responsible for them.”

“Oh, I think half the credit for that goes to your father,” said the dean.

Snow frowned. “How do you mean? I thought the Hunger Games were your idea. Something you came up with at the University?”

“For Dr. Gaul’s class. Which I was failing, since my loathing of her made participation impossible. We paired off for the final project, so I was with my best friend — Crassus, of course. The assignment was to create a punishment for one’s enemies so extreme that they would never be allowed to forget how they had wronged you. It was like a puzzle, which I excel at, and like all good creations, absurdly simple at its core. The Hunger Games. The evilest impulse, cleverly packaged into a sporting event. An entertainment. I was drunk and your father got me drunker still, playing on my vanity as I fleshed the thing out, assuring me it was just a private joke. The next morning, I awoke, horrified by what I’d made, meaning to rip it to shreds, but it was too late. Without my permission, your father had given it to Dr. Gaul. He wanted the grade, you see. I never forgave him.”

“He’s dead,” said Snow.

“But she isn’t,” Dean Highbottom shot back. “It was never meant to be anything more than theoretical. And who but the vilest monster would stage it? After the war, she pulled my proposal out, and me with it, introducing me to Panem as the architect of the Hunger Games. That night, I tried morphling for the first time. I thought the thing would die out, it was so ghastly. It didn’t. Dr. Gaul took it and ran, and she has dragged me along with it for the last ten years.”

“It certainly supports her view of humanity,” said Snow. “Especially using the children.”

“And why is that?” asked Dean Highbottom.

“Because we credit them with innocence. And if even the most innocent among us turn to killers in the Hunger Games, what does that say? That our essential nature is violent,” Snow explained.

“Self-destructive,” Dean Highbottom murmured.

Snow remembered Pluribus’s account of his father’s falling out with Dean Highbottom and quoted the letter. “Like moths to a flame.” The dean’s eyes narrowed, but Snow only smiled and said, “But, of course, you’re testing me. You know her far better than I do.”

“I’m not so sure.” Dean Highbottom traced the silver rose on the compact with a finger. “So, what did she say when you told her you were leaving?”

“Dr. Gaul?” Snow asked.

“Your little songbird,” the dean said. “When you left Twelve. Was she sad to see you go?”

“I expect it made us both a little sad.” Snow pocketed the compact and gathered Sejanus’s things. “I’d better go. We have a new living room set being delivered, and I promised my cousin I’d be there to oversee the movers.”

“Off you go, then,” said Dean Highbottom. “Back to the penthouse.” Snow did not care to talk about Lucy Gray with anyone, particularly not

Dean Highbottom. Smiley had sent him a letter at the Plinths’ old address, mentioning her disappearance. Everybody thought the mayor had killed her, but they couldn’t prove it. As to the Covey, a new commander had replaced Hoff, and his first move had been to outlaw shows at the Hob, because music caused trouble.

Yes, thought Snow. It certainly does.

Lucy Gray’s fate was a mystery, then, just like the little girl who shared her name in that maddening song. Was she alive, dead, a ghost who haunted the wilderness? Perhaps no one would ever really know. No matter — snow had been the ruination of them both. Poor Lucy Gray. Poor ghost girl singing away with her birds.

Are you, are you Coming to the tree

Where I told you to run, so we’d both be free?

She could fly around District 12 all she liked, but she and her mockingjays could never harm him again.

Sometimes he would remember a moment of sweetness and almost wish things had ended differently. But it would never have worked out between them, even if he’d stayed. They were simply too different. And he didn’t like love, the way it had made him feel stupid and vulnerable. If he ever married, he’d choose someone incapable of swaying his heart. Someone he hated, even, so they could never manipulate him the way Lucy Gray had. Never make him feel jealous. Or weak. Livia Cardew would be perfect. He imagined the two of them, the president and his first lady, presiding over the Hunger Games a few years from now. He’d continue the Games, of course, when he ruled Panem. People would call him a tyrant, ironfisted and cruel. But at least he would ensure survival for survival’s sake, giving them a chance to evolve. What else could humanity hope for? Really, it should thank him.

He passed Pluribus’s nightclub and allowed himself a small smile. A person could get rat poison at any number of places, but he’d surreptiously scooped up a pinch of it from the back alley last week and taken it home. It’d been tricky getting it into the morphling bottle, especially using gloves, but eventually he’d squeezed what he judged to be a sufficient dose through the opening. He’d taken the precaution of making sure the bottle was wiped clean. There was nothing to make Dean Highbottom suspicious of it when he pulled it from the trash and slipped it into his pocket. Nothing when he unscrewed the dropper and dripped the morphling onto his tongue. Although he couldn’t help hoping that, as the dean drew his final breath, he’d realize what so many others had realized when they’d challenged him. What all of Panem would know one day. What was inevitable.

Snow lands on top.


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