Arthur was seven years old when he won his first tournament. His memories of his life before that point were hazy and jumbled, and once he’d been taken to the training centre, he’d been told not to waste his energy looking back. He was a tribute in training now, and the future was all that mattered. Proving his worth. Being the best. Making it to the arena and coming out a victor.
“This is the Ruby Dormitory,” the man leading their small group down through the centre said. “Boys to the right, girls to the left. Any belongings you have brought with you should be kept in the storage unit under your bed. Your new clothes and any other necessities will be delivered shortly. Dinner is in fifteen minutes at the dining hall, after which I suggest you all retire. Training will begin at 6 AM tomorrow morning.”
He left them with a brisk nod, and Arthur turned his attention to finding his bed and figuring out how to fold away the beautiful red cloak he had been given by the recruiters when they picked him up at the community home.
“I’m Leon Chevalier,” one of the boys closest to Arthur said. “I’m seventh in my family to make the training centre, and my cousin Leah came in second in the 56th games.”
“Gareth Beaumains,” one of the others replied. “My older brother is hoping to compete next year, and my uncle is a trainer here. Archery.”
The remaining three boys made their introductions as well—each with a pedigree more illustrious than the next—until only Arthur was left. He squared his jaw.
“Arthur what?” Gareth demanded. “Who’s your family?”
Arthur raised his chin, determined not to show weakness on his first day, when he detected movement at the corner of his eye. He turned towards the open doorway and came face to face, for the first time, with Uther Pendragon—one of District One’s most legendary victors and current head of the training centre besides.
The other boys noticed the new presence in the room as well, turning and falling still and silent as Uther looked at each of them in turn. He looked far from impressed with what he saw. Arthur stood up a little taller.
“He’s Arthur Pendragon,” Uther said, narrowing his eyes in warning when Gareth opened his mouth. “Highest qualification score in five years and a clear natural affinity for swordsmanship.”
Gareth’s mouth quickly closed again.
“You would all do well to remember,” Uther continued, “that from now on, your only loyalty is to this centre. Whatever decisions we make when it comes to your training, you accept. We don’t care where you come from, only what you are able to do, and you will meet every standard befitting a future tribute of District One, or be sent home to live out the rest of your lives in deep, deep shame. Do I make myself clear?”
Arthur desperately tried to think of something to say that would match the faith the training centre was placing in him and came up empty. He met Uther’s steely blue eyes and saw a challenge there—a clear message that he, in particular, had better live up to expectations.
“Yes, sir,” Arthur said, forcing himself to keep meeting Uther’s eyes. The other boys quickly followed his lead, and Arthur thought he saw the smallest of smiles cross Uther’s face.
“Welcome to the centre, boys,” Uther said, giving them all a brisk nod and exiting the room.
Life at the training centre turned out to be both easier and harder than Arthur had expected. Training was intense, even for the lower years, and more often than not, he woke up with some part of his body hurting. The trainers, though strict and demanding, were fair, however, and after the community home, everything about his surroundings felt like living in luxury. Socially, things went a lot better than he’d feared after his first meeting with his dorm mates; even Gareth, it turned out, didn’t need more than a week to warm up to the rest of them, and after the first couple of months, Arthur could barely even remember what being lonely had felt like.
For some reason, Uther Pendragon kept checking in on him, asking about his progress and dropping clear reminders of how much the centre was investing in Arthur’s potential. Other students sometimes teased him about being so singled out, bowing theatrically and announcing Arthur’s presence loudly when he entered a room. Arthur kept his face calm and pleasant through even the most ridiculous of pet names they came up with for him, reminding himself that only one boy and one girl made the arena each year—everybody at the centre already knowing his name gave him a lot better odds than most to prove what he was made of.
He met Morgana LeFay at the start of his second year. She was one of seven girls accepted into the programme that term and the smallest one by far. Her pretty features and small stature made her look vulnerable; the lack of visible defensive wounds from the audition process and the way she held herself told him she most likely wasn’t. There was a glint of steel in her eyes that made Arthur curious, and after seeing her on the practice field for the first time, he became even more so. Morgana was fast, showing an almost uncanny ability to know exactly where a coming blow would fall and striking when her opponents least expected it.
He and the rest of his class were practicing using staffs while watching the Year One students make their way across the junior obstacle course, when he saw Morgana suddenly hesitate mid-step and drop to the ground with her arms over her head. Arthur frowned, turning to ask Leon what he thought that was about, when there was a loud crack and huge black balls started falling from the ceiling. Screams filled the air, the students on the course running everywhere to get away—except for Morgana, who kept completely still until the last ball had fallen, then stood up with only a slight tremble and launched into the next part of the course as though nothing had happened.
“Good instincts, that one,” Arthur heard their trainer tell Catrina Tregor, principal trainer for Year One. “Reminds me a little of Nimueh at that age.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Ms Tregor replied. “Well worth keeping an eye on, for sure. With Nimueh going into the arena this summer, I’m sure Helen would be glad to take on a new protegé.”
“Especially one this young,” Arthur’s trainer said. “I wonder if—” He broke off, looking over at their group as though he could sense someone paying a little too close attention. “Pendragon! Ten laps, right now!”
Arthur felt his neck burn hot, mumbling a quick ‘yes, sir’ and setting off towards the dirt tracks. He pictured Morgana crossing the finish line, being praised for her performance by trainers arguing with each other over who would get to coach her first.
She was definitely one for the arena.
Arthur picked himself off the ground and gripped his staff with both hands to try and hide the fact that they’d begun to tremble slightly. His trainer waited for him to steady himself, then attacked with a succession of sharp jabs that made Arthur’s arms ache. He managed a quick glance at the clock while dodging to his right, and saw that he’d made it past three minutes, coming up on four if he could just manage to parry the next attack. No one in their year so far had managed four minutes in the ring, and the current record for Year Three was 5.25. If Arthur could just hold up a little while longer, he’d—
“Aaaand, dead,” his trainer exclaimed, sweeping Arthur’s feet out from under his body and pointing the end of her staff against his throat after he crashed to the ground. “3.55, not bad at all.”
Arthur swallowed down his disappointment and got to his feet, remembering to bow to his trainer before slinking off to the changing rooms. Galahad and Leon were already there, together with Jasper, who looked utterly devastated.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Galahad was saying. “Everyone has a bad day now and then. It’s awful when it’s on evaluation day, but it happens. Don’t worry.”
“It’s the fifth evaluation I’ve failed this year,” Jasper said. “Who else in our year has failed even half that?”
Nobody answered him. Jasper slumped forward dejectedly, hiding his face in his hands.
“Maybe you’ll do better tomorrow,” Galahad tried. “There are still two more days of tests for this quarter, and you’ll have the spring evaluations after that as well. Let’s go take a shower, and then I’ll help quiz you on edible plants before dinner.”
Arthur watched the two of them leave, and then caught Leon’s eye.
“How bad?” he asked quietly, keeping an eye on Jasper’s retreating back.
“1.05,” Leon answered. Arthur winced.
“I know,” Leon said, shaking his head. “I don’t think he’ll make the cut for next year.”
Arthur agreed, but didn’t want to say so out loud. Getting accepted to the training centre was an incredible honour; getting cut after only a few years was shameful to say the least. Still, cuts had to be made—only the very best could go on to the arena, after all.
“Starting this year, you will be training on the main obstacle course,” their new trainer said. “I’m Topaz Carrington and will be taking you through Survival Training and Agility this term. You are Year Four now, so you should know what will be expected of you. Don’t let us down; you’ve already seen what happens to people who do.” The last part was said with a nod towards the empty space next to their group. Arthur was suddenly glad he was standing next to Galahad (who was several inches shorter than him), instead of Leon with his freakishly early developed frame. At the end of last year, three students from their year had been cut from the programme. Arthur was determined not to be number four.
“As you will come to see, there are several different sections to this course,” Mr Carrington continued. “Some simulate a specific nature hazard, so you have fast-running water, climbing, extreme temperatures, avoiding or handling different types of animals and mutts, and so forth; others are more general to train your speed, agility and the ability to think fast in a crisis. There are several ways to get through each section, suited for different physical attributes. You will need to find how to play to your own particular strengths, and then adapt this as your bodies grow. For example.” He motioned for them to follow him over to an inspection balcony overlooking a vast plain. Down below, some of the older students were running back and forth, trying to keep out of the way of dozens of giant moving boulders.
“This is the Grind,” Mr Carrington said. “Three levels of stone, moving in a complex pattern that changes from one session to the next. A small person might charge ahead, relying on their speed and agility to get them through any cracks that open up, while a bigger person has to be more patient and make sure they have a firm idea of how the stones move to avoid getting trapped once inside.”
“Don’t forget telling them about the importance of being a realistic judge of their own abilities,” another trainer said, joining their group on the balcony with stopwatch in hand. “Not enough confidence will make you too slow; too much of it leads to stupid decisions. It’s a balancing act.”
Below, three students had managed to get through the course, all of them clearly winded, one sporting several tears in his training gear. A buzzer went off, and another two went up to the starting plates.
“Gloss and Cashmere Donovan, Year Nine,” the second trainer said. “We have high hopes for them both.”
A second buzzer sounded, and the pair was off. Arthur watched with interest as they reached the first row of moving stones, Cashmere looking back over her shoulder with a smirk before leaping up on the nearest one and climbing quickly through an open passage above it. Arthur could see Gloss narrow his eyes, hesitating briefly before deciding not to follow. Instead, he moved along the boulders to the end of the row, slipping through a larger opening to the left. From their position on the balcony, Arthur could see both of them make their way forward, dodging and climbing with practiced ease.
“Another important lesson here is tactical retreat”, Mr Carrington said, pointing at Cashmere, who’d found herself trapped and was moving backwards, looking around for new space to open up. “You will also improve your ability to think in three dimensions; if trapped on one level, you might be able to exit by moving vertically instead.”
He moved on to describing how Arthur’s year would train on the course, and Arthur listened with one ear, filing the information away for later use. Normally, he made a point of giving every trainer his full attention, but this time... Arthur didn’t see how anyone could keep from being completely captivated by the display below. Gloss and Cashmere were nearing the finish now, both utterly focused on their task, every movement strong, controlled and graceful.
Five years, and that could be me, Arthur thought, feeling both elated and intimidated at the thought. Maybe, if he worked himself harder, he could manage it in four.
Arthur turned, toothbrush in his mouth. Gareth grinned at him. He was holding his own toothbrush like a rapier, with his free hand in a somewhat flamboyant duelling pose.
“Ah, you thought yourself safe?” he said, mimicking Mr Carrington’s voice. “But you must always be on your guard. Never relax! Relaxing in the arena can mean your death.”
Arthur took his toothbrush out of his mouth and spat, then nodded solemnly. “However,” he said in a nasal voice, mimicking their head swordsmistress, “since you have challenged me thus, I believe we will abide by the rules of a duel. I will need a second. Leon?”
“Huh?” Leon said. He was clipping his toenails over one of the wastepaper baskets. “OK, sure. Let me just finish this.”
“Are you a fool?” Arthur snapped at him. “In the arena, every weapon counts! Keep those daggers on your feet sharp!”
Sable, who was brushing his teeth at the next sink, turned and grinned. Gareth snorted, then worked his face into the same cool mask Arthur was affecting. “Galahad, I count on you to take up my mantle, should I fall.” He waited, then raised his voice. “Galahad?”
“I’m in the bathroom, pick someone else,” Galahad shouted from the furthest corner of the room.
“Fine, Sable, then,” Gareth said. Sable made a face. “Glad to see you’re into it. Then I challenge you, sir Arthur!”
Arthur snatched up his towel and wound it around his shield arm, then started moving in a slow half circle, stepping carefully first in one direction, then the other. Gareth mimicked him, watching the point of Arthur’s toothbrush carefully. Should have been watching my eyes, Arthur thought triumphantly, feinting to the right and then striking up and under Gareth’s arm.
“Ah!” Gareth cried, clutching a hand to his chest and sinking to his knees. “I die. Everyone in the Capitol weeps for me. What a cruel fate. Avenge me, Sable!”
“I don’t really feel like it,” Sable said, through a mouthful of toothpaste. “Can’t you go back to letting Galahad be second instead?”
“Against Arthur?” Galahad shouted from the distance. “You must be out of your mind.”
Arthur grinned. Gareth, still in a melodramatic dying pose, sighed theatrically.
“I have to do everything myself,” he said, and threw his arms around Arthur’s knees.
“Treachery, you villain!” Arthur shouted, laughing as he crashed to the floor. Gareth had planned it badly, and it was easy enough to wrestle him into a hold. “A nasty trick, and it didn’t get you far.”
“No, but it might have,” someone said, and they all looked round to see Percival from Year Eight and Gloss from Year Nine, standing in the doorway. Gloss grinned at them. “Gareth was right in what he did. In the arena, no one follows duelling rules. Best to learn that as soon as possible.”
“We know that,” Gareth said, sounding put out, and Gloss grinned even wider.
“Your footwork is good, Gareth,” Percival cut in to add, “but watch your elbow in your turns.” He nodded at Arthur. “Good idea with the towel. Everyone knows that anything can be a weapon, but it’s good to remember that anything can be a shield, too. Smart thinking, there.”
“See you in training,” Gloss said, and the two of them left.
Gareth twisted out of Arthur’s hold. “Do they think they’re our trainers or something?” he said.
“Shut up, Gareth,” Leon said. “I think they’re nice. Besides—” Leon paused to stow the last of his things in his toilet case, then looked up and grinned. “You do raise your elbow too high.” He was off in a flash, dashing through the open door and back towards the dormitories.
“What?” Gareth exclaimed, scrambling to his feet to follow. “You coward! Stand and fight!”
As Arthur turned back to the mirror to continue his interrupted wash, he could hear Leon’s laughter mingling with Gareth’s indignant shouts in the distance. Sable went to watch the fight from the doorway, and Arthur glanced back, then raised his toothbrush again and repeated his steps from earlier carefully. He winced. Percival’s critique didn’t only apply to Gareth—Arthur’s elbow was also slightly too high in the turns. He had to practice harder.
“So is this where you hide out when you don’t want to spar?”
Arthur looked up from his work and saw Morgana standing in the doorway to the library, grinning at him. He grinned back, throwing a hand out over the table to indicate his notes.
“Normally I’d love to give you a hint or two,” he said, ignoring her noise of protest, “but I need to finish this essay. Aredian saddled me with analysing weapons choices in Games 30 through 39, and I’m only on page two.”
She grimaced. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Arthur said. “I mean, it’s all useful things. Just a lot of tapes to watch, you know?”
Gareth, who was sitting on the other side of the table, leant back and ran his hands through his hair. “At least you got something useful,” he said. “I got the purge of magic. Again. I don’t get why Aredian keeps harping on about something that’s been dead and gone for at least thirty years.”
Morgana raised her eyebrows, and Arthur grinned.
“Only twenty-three, actually,” he said. “Last documented case was in the 37th Games when the boy from Five tried to protect himself from a swarm of tracker jackers. There have even been some rumours since then, especially surrounding Abernathy’s win in the last Quell, but they’ve all been dispelled quickly.”
“Seriously?” Gareth replied. He rifled through his papers, looking thoroughly put out. “Great. Now I have rewrites to do. Thanks a lot.”
“Thank me when you actually get a passing grade in History for once,” Arthur said, smirking. “Remember, the victors of District One—”
“Are polished diamonds, not lumps of coal, yes, I know,” Gareth said, rolling his eyes. “I guess I’ll just have to compensate with my stunning looks and physical prowess.”
“Yes,” Morgana said sweetly. “Well, good luck with that.”
She gave Gareth a bright smile and turned back to Arthur. “Come find me when you get tired of your books,” she said, and then left the library.
Galahad stared after her, incredulous. “Tell me again why you’re friends with her?” he said.
“She can get you to shut up, so that’s one point in her favour,” Arthur said smugly, then turned back to his work. “Just tell me if you need any further help with your essay,” he added, and laughed when Gareth’s pen bounced off his shoulder.
From the start of Year Five, their quarterly reviews gained a new aspect. Rather than their usual teams of trainers—all solid, stable men and women teaching them everything from sword work to wrestling—these new additions were like exotic birds, dressed in bright colours and makeup, twittering over the way Arthur looked and talked and held himself.
“Look at that hair,” one said, twirling one of her own magenta braids around her fingers. “Perfectly angelic. Should we use that, do you think?”
“Oh no, it’s overdone right now,” said another, a tall man with tiny jewels set all around his eyes. It made his eyes flash with reflected light and made him almost painful to look at. “So Fifties Games. Remember that awful styling they did in, what was it, the fifty-fifth? They actually put wings on the girl for her pre-arena interview. No subtlety at all.”
“He has nice eyes, too,” the magenta-haired woman said, ignoring this tangent into styling history. She put a finger under Arthur’s chin, tipping his head up. “A lovely shade of blue. And I think his cheekbones have promise.”
Arthur wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say anything during this process, but she was looking straight at him, and it seemed rude to only stare back mutely.
“Thank you, you are much too kind,” he said. When she leaned back from him, smiling, he inclined his head in a bow and went on, “Any eyes pale in comparison to your own, if I may be so bold.”
He’d laid it on a bit thick, but Uther had once told him that it was practically impossible to flatter a Capitol person too much. And if he wanted to be a victor, he would have to learn this, too: how to speak to the people of the Capitol, when to be one of them and when to be the awed district citizen. It was just as well to start practising as soon as possible.
Another woman, this one dressed in a gown that seemed to be only feathers, clapped her her hands together in a jangle of silver bracelets. “Oh, he’s so polite!” she squealed. “I love it. Perfectly charming. And quite fresh—it’s been all about the brawn lately. We could spin this.”
The one in magenta braids was still looking at Arthur, considering. “A Man Out of Time,” she said, with finality. There were gasps from the other two.
“Maribelle, darling, that’s perfect,” the tall man said. “And I’ve always wanted to do one. What do you think—Victorian—or do I mean Edwardian? I’ve never really understood the difference.”
Maribelle shook her head. “Medieval times, I think,” she said. “You know, the one with the knights. Chivalry and all that.” She gave Arthur a wide smile, showing teeth that had been stained the same violent shade of purplish pink as her hair. It made her mouth look bloody and sick, Arthur thought with a suppressed shiver.
He made himself smile back at her without any trace of unease. On a whim, he caught her hand and bent his head low over it in the gesture he’d seen in old history books, and the woman in the feathers squealed again.
“Oh, yes,” Maribelle said, sounding pleased. “We can definitely work with this.”
Gareth’s image was easy to see: The Seducer. He’d get to flirt and posture and flex and generally have an air of lighthearted fun. Possibly they would want to twist the role to give it more of a Bad Boy edge, but in either case, Gareth would pull it off well.
For Sable they would probably want to focus on his physique—but, Arthur thought with a twinge of unhappiness that he tried to squash, Sable would probably not last much longer in the programme. He was too slow, and his blade work had lagged behind for two terms now. He’d recently started to pull ahead in strength, and they might keep him for a while longer to see if anything came of that, but Arthur had already resigned himself to seeing him go.
Galahad was harder to pinpoint than any of the others. He was smaller than the rest of them and often shy with new people, and although he talked and joked when they were in their dorm room, in the training area he was soft-spoken and careful. They might do something with that—spin him as someone too innocent and pure for this cruel world (in which case, he would most likely be reaped a bit too young for his own good). Or they might focus on the fact that his best weapon was the bow, and turn him into a stoic and silent sniper. There were some different options, certainly.
Arthur looked up from his thoughts and saw that Gareth, with a nudge and grin at Sable, was aiming an apple at Galahad’s head. Galahad, who was lying back and watching the sky, didn’t seem to have noticed. Arthur frowned, but before he could say anything, Gareth let the apple fly.
Leon stretched out a hand quickly and caught it, then handed it to Galahad.
“From Gareth,” he said calmly, then lay back, too, looking innocently dull. Gareth, who—to his credit—usually took being thwarted in stride, only laughed.
Arthur kept frowning to himself. The role they’d give Leon was the easiest of all to figure out. He’d be The Protector, sent into the arena to watch his district partner’s back and take the brunt of the danger upon himself. It was a role he’d fill to perfection, and Arthur hated knowing that.
Protectors almost always died. And if Leon was selected to go in with someone like Morgana, his chances would be slim to none. So would Gareth’s or Galahad’s for that matter.
All in all, one more reason for Arthur to make absolutely sure he got there himself.
“You leave your left side open when you move to the side like that, you know.”
Morgana lowered her sword and gave Arthur a challenging look. “Oh, do I?” She moved over to the gear rack, picking out another practice sword and tossing it to him. “Why don’t you show me how it’s done, then?”
Arthur made a show out of rolling his eyes, but picked up the sword without further protest. “Do your worst.”
“Are you sure about that?” Morgana taunted, raising her guard with a smile. “It would be such a shame if Pendragon’s golden boy were injured, or worse, scarred.” She gasped theatrically.
“They have treatments for that.”
“But they’re expensive,” Morgana said, moving her sword in a graceful arc. “Are you sure you’re pretty enough to warrant it? Maybe they’ll just pick one of the other boys your year.”
“I guess we’ll see,” Arthur replied, twirling his own sword to get a feel for its weight and balance. It was slightly heavier and longer than the ones they would normally use, from the fourteen-year-olds’ rack, most likely. Arthur smiled. He’d been sparring with Percival in Year Ten lately, who had more than a foot and thirty pounds on him; Arthur could probably handle the swords from the sixteen-year-olds’ rack by now.
“I guess we will,” Morgana said, and charged. Arthur met her first blow easily, using his extra weight to press her back. He managed to keep his advantage for nearly a minute, striking hard, heavy blows to wear her down as she was forced to parry. Morgana rallied soon enough, taking advantage of her speed and shorter range by attacking close, where Arthur had difficulty getting his longer sword into position in time.
The fight was close through to the finish, when Arthur accidentally took a wrong step and lost his balance for a split second. Instantly, Morgana was there, precise blows taking him down until she was standing tall above him, the tip of her sword to Arthur’s throat.
“I win,” she said, looking exceedingly pleased with herself.
Arthur opened his mouth to retort, when he spotted Uther approaching them together with Nimueh Cara, victor of the 59th Games and Morgana’s individual trainer for the past year. He quickly stood up, resisting the urge to brush off his clothes.
“Miss LeFay, well done,” Uther said. “Arthur, a word?”
He walked away, leaving Arthur to follow. Arthur deposited his sword, remembered to bow to Morgana—it rankled, but being gracious about a defeat while you still had the opportunity to learn from it was one of those things that had been hammered into him—and then walked as quickly as he dared after Uther. He could practically feel Morgana smirking after him.
Uther stopped just outside the doors to the training area, but allowed them to shut after Arthur before he said anything.
“This is not good enough, Arthur,” he said coolly. “When you approach someone with a view to teach them, you cannot allow yourself to be beaten.”
Arthur swallowed, fighting down the urge to point out the unfairness of that statement. He’d lost his balance for a moment; it could happen to anyone. It was just luck on Morgana’s part that she had managed to be in the right position to make use of it. He nodded instead, pressing his lips together.
Uther looked at him disapprovingly. “You have been taught to always watch your opponents’ eyes,” he said. “You have failed to draw the conclusion of what your own conduct must be. You must train yourself, Arthur, to never give away with your body or your expression what it is you intend to do. Or, indeed, when something doesn’t go according to plan. You must be unreadable in every moment, be it planned or accidental. Morgana is a girl with a strong natural talent for reading any situation. You can not allow her any advantage.”
Arthur’s eyes smarted, but he nodded again. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’ll practice.”
For the first time this day, Uther looked slightly approving—or at least not openly disgusted. “Very good,” he said. “I expect more from you than this. Don’t disappoint me again.”
“I won’t, sir,” Arthur said, and Uther gave him a curt nod, then strode away.
The door opened, and Morgana swept past him.
“Thanks for the lesson, Golden Boy,” she said, and threw him a devastating smile before running lightly away down the corridor.
Arthur could feel her laughing at him for days to come.
Arthur was shaken awake by Galahad in the early hours of the morning during the 63rd Hunger Games.
“What?” he snapped.
“It’s heading towards the finish,” Galahad said. “Quick! Leon is waking Gareth.”
Arthur shook himself awake immediately. The Games had been going on for almost three weeks. Cashmere Donovan had led her alliance skillfully for the first one and a half weeks, then split from them to hunt solo.
“Pellinore?” Arthur asked, yanking on his shirt.
“Axed,” Galahad said shortly. “Last night. The boy from Seven. But Boy Ten got him afterwards.”
Arthur nodded grimly, jumping into his shoes. Sable was already up, and even Gareth was stirring.
When they got down to the common area, it was already packed. The big monitor on one wall was showing Cashmere running through a forest with a spear in one hand and a long, curved knife in the other. Smaller monitors on either side showed Nimueh pacing up and down in the mentor’s lounge, and the Capitol commentators looking surprisingly fresh, considering what time it was.
“She’s in pursuit?” Arthur asked shortly of the nearest person, receiving a confirming nod.
“Fucking Ten,” someone said. “Who saw them coming?”
“They won the 52nd,” Sable said.
“Yeah, on a fluke,” Gareth muttered.
On the monitor, Cashmere turned her head suddenly to one side and then to the next, then thrust the knife in her belt, hung her spear from the back harness she’d made a day or two previous, and swung herself quickly into a tree.
“Clever girl,” one of the commentators said. “She’s been very good at not falling into any of our little traps. Here the stampede comes now!”
On screen, a wall of wild boars cascaded through the wood, trampling everything in sight. Cashmere’s tree shook but stood firmly rooted, and she kept climbing higher, testing each new branch before transferring her weight.
“Heading up for a look-out, I think,” the commentator said, as she poked her head through the foliage. “Don’t know how she plans on seeing anything, though.”
Cashmere looked out over the wood, turning slowly in a full circle. Then she stopped, as several magpies burst from the trees.
“Oh, she’s using the birds,” the commentator said. “Very good. And, yes, now she’s noticed that they’re moving her way. District Ten’s Aurochs is walking straight into her arms.”
Cashmere climbed quickly down the tree again, now moving with care and stealth. She reached one of the lower branches and perched there, one hand on her knife and the other steadying her with a light touch to the tree trunk.
It felt as though they were all collectively holding their breath. Even the commentators ceased their usual prattle.
There was movement below Cashmere, and she tensed up, then jumped.
She landed just behind Aurochs, her knife already drawn, but didn’t make a move towards him. Instead, she allowed him to turn around and stumble backwards, then smiled.
“She has guts, this one,” one commentator said, sounding grudgingly impressed.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t cost her,” the other replied drily.
Arthur saw movement to his right and turned his head. Gloss was standing a little off from the biggest press of people before the monitor, his arms crossed over his chest. Arthur saw him flinch as Aurochs drew his sword, but the next moment, Gloss was looking every bit the proud and confident brother again, and Arthur frowned, wondering if he had imagined it. He looked closer at Gloss’s arms; the knuckles of his hands were almost white.
He turned back to the screen when he heard a gasp. Aurochs was lunging forward. Cashmere, looking ludicrously small next to him and brandishing a knife that suddenly looked like a toy, darted swiftly aside, dealing him two quick slashes just above the elbow and knee and then turning back to face him when she was just out of reach again.
Aurochs grimaced, and when he tried to raise his sword now, Arthur saw that it was costing him to even get it up to chest height. Cashmere hadn’t cut him deep enough to hit ligaments, but she’d hit him hard, even so.
They rushed at each other again, and once again Cashmere emerged unhurt, having dealt Aurochs another deep gash. He stumbled, then raised his sword with clear effort.
Cashmere backed away even further. She dropped her knife to the ground and then just stood there. As Aurochs began to run towards her, she reached behind her head, snatched her spear from its harness and threw it straight at him.
The spear went into his stomach with such force that it propelled him backwards. He crashed into the soft moss-covered ground, landed on his back and lay still.
Cashmere picked up her knife and walked over to him. She inclined her head in a bow and then, merely nudging his sword hand out of the way, plunged her knife up under his ribcage.
Aurochs hadn’t even stopped twitching before the cannon sounded and the commentators began cheering.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” one of them said, “we present to you the victor of the 63rd Annual Hunger Games: the charming, beautiful, utterly deadly—Cashmere Donovan, from District One! What a finish! What a performance!”
The common room exploded. Arthur threw his arms into the air, and Leon cheered loudly beside him.
“I knew it!”
“It was never a question. She had it in the bag from the start.”
“District One, back on top!”
“Pressure’s on for next year, Donovan,” someone said, and Arthur looked back over at Gloss. “Can’t let your sister show you up.”
Gloss lazily uncrossed his arms and reached for the celebratory drinks being passed around with a wide grin. “I think I have a few extra tricks up my sleeve that would make even Cash green with envy.”
Whoops and cheers followed that statement. Someone turned on some music, more drinks were passed around and soon, an impromptu party was well underway, students from all twelve years celebrating Cashmere’s win.
It was mid-morning when Arthur finally tore himself away, stumbling back towards his dorm to catch another couple of hours of sleep before his private fencing session. A flash of blue caught his eye as he waited for the elevator, and Arthur stopped and looked closer. Someone was curled up beneath the emergency stairway, someone quite large, in sapphire blue. That meant Year Eleven. Arthur frowned.
“Gloss?” he said, walking closer. “You all right?”
“Piss off, Princeling,” Gloss replied. “Go back to the celebration like a good potential tribute.”
He sounded tired, Arthur thought, no real venom in his voice despite the choice of words. Arthur went closer, ducking his head beneath the steps and fitting himself into the narrow space underneath. Gloss didn’t stop him. From what Arthur could see, he wasn’t doing much of anything at all.
“Nothing,” Gloss said. He looked up at Arthur, giving him an easy, charming smile. “Everything’s just perfect.”
Arthur sat down on the floor, waiting.
“My sister is perfect,” Gloss continued, turning his head away. “She just played a perfect Games, and she’ll go on to the Capitol to be a perfect victor. And next year.” Gloss’s voice wavered just slightly. “Next year, she’ll be a perfect mentor. To me. And I’ll go into the arena and better fucking hope that I’ll be equally perfect so that she won’t have to sit there and smile her perfect smile while listening to her imperfect, stupid brother’s cannon blow.”
Arthur swallowed, closing his eyes for a moment while trying to think of something to say. Gloss’s hands were on his knees, shaking visibly. On impulse, Arthur reached out, putting his left hand over Gloss’s right one to still it. Gloss didn’t remark on it, but his fingers moved to curl around Arthur’s, tightening their hold until Arthur had to bite down hard on his bottom lip to keep a pained sound from escaping.
“This never happened,” Gloss said quietly, his hand squeezing Arthur’s a little tighter still.
Arthur shook his head, squeezing back. He stayed where he was until Gloss’s hold loosened, until Arthur could hear his breathing grow deep and regular. Feeling his own tiredness wearing on him, he moved a little closer to the wall, leaning against it and closing his eyes. When he woke up an hour later, Gloss was gone.
From the start of their seventh year, the Ruby dormitory no longer had curfews. To Arthur’s surprise, this meant that some of his dorm mates started to disappear in the evenings. Their training was still as rigorous as it had ever been, and to Arthur’s mind it was unacceptable to stay out late the day before a sword practice. Gareth only laughed when this was pointed out to him.
With the breaking of the curfew, new problems arose, as well. Arthur had thought that over the last six years, he and the other boys in his year had managed to iron out the differences between them, but he arrived back to the dorm one night to find Galahad and Gareth grappling on the floor, dealing each other open blows and kicks that Arthur knew would leave ugly marks. Their image consultants would scream the next time they saw them.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, stepping in close enough to be heard—but not close enough to be hit. He had a session with his stylist first thing next morning and did not want to have to explain away bruises.
Leon, who was sitting on his bed looking thoroughly exasperated with the whole affair, shrugged at him.
“Gareth made a comment about Jade,” he said. “It was not appreciated.”
Gareth twisted out of Galahad’s grip and got to his feet, panting.
“It’s not like I’m the only guy who’s noticed her tits,” he spat. “I mean, you’d have to be blind not to.”
Galahad jumped up as well, red in the face with rage. “You slight my lady’s honour!”
“Oh, come off it!” Gareth shouted. “No one buys that schtick! You act like I haven’t seen you putting your hand up her shirt. And, by the way, I would say that calling her my lady is a bit naive, because let me tell you, you’re not the only one who—”
Galahad launched himself at Gareth with a roar, and Arthur joined Leon on his bed, rolling his eyes.
“You’re both idiots,” he said, the next time Gareth and Galahad were calm enough to listen. “You’re wasting your energy on something stupid like this, when you really ought to be worrying about beating Jade and the others in the next exam if you want to stay in the programme. Sable was cut only last term; do you really want to join him?”
“Sable was a shit fighter,” Gareth said shortly. He’d rolled away from Galahad and stared at Arthur balefully, holding a hand to his left eye.
“Yes, and you’re a decent fighter, who loses all semblance of control as soon as you get the least bit excited,” Arthur said coolly. “I’ve been watching you. The way you were fighting now, you’d lose a training match against a third-year. People get cut for all kinds of reasons. Start thinking less about what’s in your trousers and more about your knife work, or you won’t last. Remember what happened to Tristan and his girl from Year Nine.”
Leon fidgeted uneasily, but Gareth only snorted.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “You’re acting very high and mighty, but you can’t tell me you haven’t ever taken a tumble with Morgana outside of the mats. The amount of time you two spend between each other’s thighs, I’m surprised she hasn’t got one in the oven yet.”
Arthur went cold. He had to physically stop his fists from rising—instead he stood up, staring down Gareth until he looked away.
“Morgana,” he said, “is like a sister to me. We wrestle regularly, because she’s one of the few who can actually keep up. She’s a true warrior, which is more than I can say for you at the moment. While you’re focusing on what’s under her shirt, she’s planning how to gut you. In the arena, your kind of thinking gets you dead. I suggest you get yourself under control and start thinking about how to beat the girls in our year, not bed them. Otherwise we’ll be seeing you on the bloodbath toll one day.”
Gareth glared at him and opened his mouth, then straightened up suddenly and looked at the floor instead.
“Arthur,” Uther’s voice said from behind him. “I’d like to speak to you for a moment.”
Arthur stiffened. “Yes, sir,” he said, turning and following Uther into the corridor. As he did so, he ran through what he had been saying in his mind. He didn’t think he’d used any swear words—but he’d been harsh, and although by no means as crude as Gareth, he’d still been coarser than was his wont and his role. He forced himself to stand up straight and look right at Uther, taking his chastisement like an adult.
“Sir?” he said.
Uther looked at him for some time and then, to Arthur’s astonishment, put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m very proud of you, Arthur,” he said.
Arthur breathed in more sharply than he intended. He could feel the blood rush to his face as he flushed hot with pleasure.
“You are showing a very good understanding of what this programme demands of you,” Uther went on. “You are an example to those other boys. I hope that they are wise enough to follow where you lead.”
“Thank you, sir,” Arthur managed, fighting down the grin that was too obviously and childishly pleased.
“You are also right about Morgana,” Uther said, and now he looked somewhat more grim. “It is well to remember, Arthur, that she—or any one of the girls close to you in age, of course—might be going into the arena with you one day. She is your ally, yes, but beware of making ties that—can’t one day be broken.”
Arthur nodded solemnly, doing his best to hide the thrill that went through him from the implications of Uther’s statement.
One step closer to the goal.
That summer, after twelve gruelling days in a ruined cityscape filled with horribly humanoid muttations impervious to everything but fire, Gloss was proclaimed the victor of the 64th Hunger Games. Arthur and Morgana watched the final two hours together, almost breathless with anxiety as Gloss raced across crumbling rooftops pursued by the unsettling creatures and finally managed to lure them into a fire trap he’d set up days previously using an old paint warehouse.
The final fight was between him and both Two tributes, who had kept up their alliance to the very end and who caught him unawares just after he’d set off his trap and watched the mutts die in the explosion. Morgana’s nails left grooves in Arthur’s arm as Gloss finally managed to stab the girl only to have the boy slice open his back from armpit to hipbone, but in the end, Gloss found an extra reserve of strength somewhere and buried his knife in the boy’s throat.
As the cheering started in the common room, Morgana finally let go of her death grip on Arthur’s arm and exhaled slowly.
“I thought for sure Girl Two was going to take it in the end,” she said, smiling faintly. “I haven’t ever been so scared for one of our own before.”
Arthur frowned. “Really?” he said. “She was good, sure, but she’d never have had the strength to take on Gloss alone.”
“She didn’t need to,” Morgana said. “She just needed to outlast the other two. And with the way she could beat back those mutts, if she’d broken her alliance with her district partner, it would be her they’d be crowning in the Capitol.”
Arthur looked at her, considering. While it was true that Girl Two had been extremely proficient at cobbling together fire-based weapons to hold the mutts off—and how she’d even managed to work them was beyond Arthur; he’d seen her make a spark take hold of a torch in all but pouring rain—he thought Morgana’s statement was somewhat too bold.
“I think this is the first time you haven’t picked the winner,” he said, smiling to show he meant it as a joke. Morgana took it as such, and pouted at him in an exaggerated fashion.
“Should have known you’d rub it in my face,” she said, then added in a more serious tone, “But it’s true. It’s a good lesson for me, actually. I think I counted too much on her—skill.”
Arthur shrugged. “Had to happen some time,” he said. “But I understand if the shock of being wrong for the very first time in your life has been hard on you. If you want to go lie down, I’ll understand.”
“Shut up!” Morgana shrieked, throwing an arm around his neck for a headlock, and by the time the tray of celebratory snacks reached them, they were locked in a full-on wrestling match that only ended when Gareth threatened to pour his drink over the two of them.
The next year marked the start of their last four in the programme, which meant that media training took up more and more of Arthur’s time. He spent long, tedious afternoons practising and refining his persona, and, at random intervals, was woken two hours before the rest of his dorm and bundled into an interview room, where he was expected to be charming and lovely despite actually wanting to murder whoever was posing the questions.
“Have you had time to see anything of the Capitol?” his interviewer said on this particular morning—a dismal, grey March day. She was a woman Arthur recognised as being on Galahad’s image team, and she had a gratingly nasal, insistent voice. Arthur mentally congratulated Galahad on not stabbing her.
“A little, but certainly not enough,” he said, giving the woman a bright smile. “And I feel like I never could, actually. There’s something new to see everywhere you go.”
She nodded approvingly, making a mark on her clipboard. In actual fact, Arthur had of course never seen anything of the Capitol outside of the telescreens, but after over half a year of this training, that particular question was one he’d be able to answer in his sleep by now.
“And tell us a bit more about yourself,” the woman went on. “What are your strengths? Any particular weapon you favour?”
“Well,” Arthur said, “I am most versed in swordwork, although of course—”
“Wrong,” the woman said, cutting him off sharply. “You are not especially fond of any weapon. You are equally proficient in all possible arts.”
“I must be allowed to profile myself,” Arthur protested. “And people have signature weapons all the time. That guy from District Ten with the meat cleaver, and—”
“People, yes,” the woman told him. “District One tributes, no. You may profile yourself, of course, but you may not do so by naming a specific skillset. Do that, and you are asking for the Gamemakers or the other tributes to make sure your preferred weapon is unavailable.”
Arthur breathed in slowly. It was far too early in the morning for this. He managed to nod humbly, smoothing all annoyance out of his face.
“Moving on,” she said, making another mark. “Tell us about District One. Is there anyone back home you wish you could talk to, right now?”
Arthur sat back, let his face go soft and caring, and lied through his teeth.
He made it through the rest of his interview, and had only just sat down for breakfast with the rest of his dorm when the trumpets that announced an official training centre announcement sounded. Arthur almost swore out loud, but then there was an extra flourish that signalled the head of the training centre himself, and he snapped back into attention immediately.
As Uther entered the dining hall, all conversations quickly came to a halt. Following behind him were all of District One’s currently living victors—sixteen in total—ranging from eighty-year-old Chalcedony Alvarez (3rd Games, still utterly formidable) to Cashmere and, joining the victors’ ranks for the first time, Gloss.
“It’s time for our yearly announcement,” Uther said. “With only three months until the start of the 65th annual Hunger Games, I present to you our tributes: Titania Harington and Percival de Troyes.”
Over at the Year Twelve table, Titania and Percival both stood up, hands held respectfully behind their back but with smiles on their faces.
“We are glad to extend this privilege to you both,” Uther said. “And we’ll be looking forward to welcoming one of you into our ranks. Becoming a victor means becoming a part of the very best our district and centre have to offer, and it will be your duty to help maintain our position as the number one winning district in all of Panem. For one of you, sharing this stage could be the future. Make yourself worthy of it.”
He cleared his throat and looked around the dining hall. “For the rest of our potential tributes in here, these two are to be seen as an example of what you might one day strive to attain. Give them all your support, and help cheer one of them to victory.”
As Uther left the dining hall, it broke into cheers and applause. Arthur stood up with the rest of his dormitory and moved towards the Year Twelves to give his congratulations. He’d thought it must come down to Percival—he’d been miles ahead in his age group for the last couple of years.
Arthur could see how well it would play out, too. Percival was a classic Angel of Mercy, delivering a clean death to those tributes who were most vulnerable. He’d be regretful but kind, and it would be the best thing for those tributes that could otherwise have ended up as bait. It would be especially heartwarming coming from him, too, since he looked more like the typical brawny tribute.
“How about a sparring match, Perce?” someone from Year Ten asked. “Show us what victors are made of.”
Percival only laughed. “My schedule didn’t open up just because I was chosen,” he said. “We’re on the Grind this morning, and then there’s Survival and Tracking after lunch.”
“We have a free hour,” Leon said, turning to Arthur. “Should we go and watch?”
Arthur grinned. “Why not?” he said. “It’s a privilege to get to see tributes in action close up.”
They weren’t alone in heading for the observation balcony. Everyone not actually in training or class seemed to be up there with them.
“Show us your moves, Perce!” someone shouted, and Percival looked up and grinned. He was heading into the Grind together with Cornelius Sigan, the only other boy left in Year Twelve. Titania was waiting for her turn together with the two remaining girls in their year, watching the boys with her hands on her hips and a calculating expression.
The starting bell clanged, and Percival ran forward. A fast-moving boulder headed towards him, and he jumped up, steadying himself with a light touch to the stone and swinging his legs over. He was back on both feet quickly, moving to the right to reach an opening between two stones that would fit his large bulk.
“He has a good eye,” a trainer standing close to Arthur and Leon said. “He was aiming for that opening from the start.”
Cornelius, who was much smaller than Percival, had not been able to leap the first line of boulders as easily and had been forced to wait for an opening. As Percival had to retreat before a series of boulders too closely spaced for him to get through, however, they were brought into the same part of the Grind again. Finally Percival found an opening and dove through, and Cornelius followed close behind. They scanned the area for alternatives, and then both seemed to realise they would need to head down a level. Cornelius headed down first, Percival followed after him, and for a while they were out of sight among all the different levels of stone.
“Hey,” Galahad said breathlessly, stepping up to Leon and Arthur. “I had an image consultation; did I miss it?”
“No, Titania hasn’t gone in yet,” Arthur said. “And Percival is only halfway through. He’s just out of sight right now—he’s over there, by—”
He didn’t have time to finish the sentence. Sirens blared suddenly and alarmingly, and there were gasps all along the balcony. Several of the trainers melted away from the audience quickly, and the moving stones in the course below ground to an immediate and unnerving halt.
“What happened?” Galahad said. “I’ve never seen it stop before. Why would they stop it?”
And then the stones started moving again, slowly and hesitantly, and the course opened up below. Several people screamed.
One large boulder seemed to have been split almost in half. It was stationary, not moving on rails like the rest of the course, and Percival was lying trapped beneath it, not moving.
There was a lot of blood.
“I don’t know what happened!” Cornelius said as he came into view, cowering a little way off. “The stone just broke apart, and Percival was beneath it…”
Trainers were rushing onto the course, pushing Cornelius out of the way and congregating around Percival. Medical staff from the centre’s hospital were rushing to the scene, too. Someone at the back of the the balcony was saying that they should leave, but Arthur and the others stood frozen, unable to look away.
Several of the trainers, as well as the girls from Year Twelve, finally managed to lift and move the boulder together. There were renewed gasps and stifled cries all along the balcony.
“Oh, god,” Leon said faintly.
Arthur nodded, swallowing. The medical staff moved quickly to help, covering Percival with their bodies, but they hadn’t been quick enough to hide what had happened. Percival’s leg was twisted far beyond what was normal, with the knee obviously crushed and what looked like shinbone showing beneath his torn training clothes. His arm seemed to have escaped the worst of it, but his chest looked strange and caved in. Arthur couldn’t even tell if he was breathing.
“Come on,” Galahad muttered. He looked pale and sick. “Come on, we shouldn’t be here.”
Arthur agreed, taking Leon’s arm to tug him away. He looked back himself before they left, and saw Cornelius being led away by the head trainer for Twelve—joined by Uther and, to Arthur’s mild surprise, Aredian, their history professor.
Then, as he turned back to leave the balcony, he caught sight of Morgana, her face beautifully controlled as always but distinctly paler than usual. She was talking quietly to Nimueh, and whatever information was being exchanged, it seemed to be increasing Morgana’s unease rather than relieving it. Arthur bit his lip; Morgana was clearly ahead of him when it came to networking, something which could prove fatal in a future Games, should they be chosen to go in together. Sponsor money was, in most cases, given to a specific district rather than a specific tribute, and whether it ended up benefitting the representing boy, girl or both of them as a unit largely depended on who the district mentors thought had the best chance of winning.
Still, Arthur’s potential Games were a few years away. He still had time to catch up to Morgana.
Cashmere and Gloss both came to their dorm room that night, looking weary but professional.
“Many of you were watching this morning, and doubtless those of you who weren’t have heard from other sources,” Cashmere said calmly. “Percival was trapped beneath a boulder during a training session in the Grind and has been badly hurt. His injuries are too serious for him to be able to compete in the arena this summer.”
Arthur sucked in a breath, even though he’d been expecting it. If that knee was as bad as it had looked from the balcony, it could never be repaired in time for Percival to get his strength and agility back.
“Who will be chosen instead?” Gareth asked.
A quick glance passed between the two siblings.
“Mr Pendragon has been in conference with the PR team and the trainers,” Gloss said. “They have decided to choose one of the potentials from Year Eleven. They haven’t decided who yet.”
Arthur looked from Gloss to Cashmere, frowning. In order to keep things interesting for the Capitol, District One’s tributes weren’t exclusively eighteen-year-olds, of course, and it wasn’t unusual for someone from Year Eleven—like Cashmere in her Games—or sometimes even younger to be picked as tribute. What was strange was that they’d had a back-up from Year Twelve ready in Cornelius, and had decided to pass him by.
“How is Cornelius doing?” Arthur asked, and knew by the smooth smile that settled onto Cashmere’s face what she was going to say even before she opened her mouth.
“Cornelius had a bad shock, but is otherwise well,” she said. “But he hasn’t met all qualifications for the arena.”
“The new tribute chosen will be announced within the week,” Gloss said. “Give them your support.”
“How is—” Leon began, hesitated, then went on, “What about Percival? What will happen to him now?”
Gloss fidgeted and frowned, looking suddenly unhappy. Cashmere looked at Leon, and then said in a surprisingly gentle tone, “It’s early days yet, but they’re hopeful. If he—when he gets out of hospital, it’ll be up to his old trainers to decide where his skills are best put to use. If you want my guess, I think he’ll be joining the trainers’ ranks himself.”
“Those who can’t do, teach,” Gareth muttered. “Poor bastard.”
Gloss straightened up suddenly. “Don’t waste your pity,” he said sharply. “Being a trainer will suit Percival well. He’ll have a good life—better than most of—”
“Gloss,” Cashmere said quietly but firmly, “we need to get the news out to all the dormitories before ten. We should move on.”
She took Gloss’s arm in a tight grip, and smiled around at the rest of them. “Good night,” she said, and steered Gloss away.
The 65th Games seemed to be off to a great start, with Gilderoy from Year Eleven getting picked by the Reaping Ball as predicted, and Titania managing a spectacular Volunteering in the place of an extremely pretty and innocent-looking twelve-year-old who wept beautifully on camera. Gloss and Cashmere welcomed them up on the podium with warm smiles, presenting them with matching gold and silver tokens, as was traditional for District One.
Once the ceremony was over, everyone headed back to the training centre to watch the Capitol recap of the Reapings in the other districts. The common room was filling up quickly, but Arthur wound his way forward easily.
“—a solid start to this year’s field,” the commentator was saying as Arthur slid into a seat next to Leon. “District One has had a very good run recently. How about you, Plinius—are you betting on a hat trick from District One or are you playing the long odds this year?”
Plinius waved a finger playfully. “You can’t expect me to divulge that,” he said. “It’s hard enough for me to appear unbiased as it is!”
“You’re right, of course,” the other commentator said, grinning. “But let’s just say that for those of you at home contemplating a little flutter on either Titania Harington or Gilderoy Dubois, the odds appear to be ever in your favour.”
They both laughed. Arthur rolled his eyes, then snuck a look at Percival, who was sitting on the other side of Leon and watching the screen in sober silence. One hand rested on his crushed knee, repaired well enough to walk on but never enough to be a fighter again. Percival had returned from hospital only a few weeks earlier, a newly minted trainer but still pale from his long convalescence.
It must have been killing him, Arthur thought, to have to sit there and watch Gilderoy have the glory that was supposed to have been his. He was bearing up well, though, hardly letting his disappointment show. As the other Reapings started and they all began deconstructing the tributes together, Percival even smiled.
“Two looks solid,” Leon remarked. “Especially him, as long as he has the brains to back up his strength.”
“She’s not too bad either,” Amethyst from the year above them added. “You can see from the way that she walks that she knows exactly how to shift her weight to keep perfectly balanced. I’m betting she’s been trained in close combat. Possibly blade work as well.”
“Definitely blade work,” one of the trainers sitting close by said, as always ready to guide and correct their observations. “Watch her hands; you can tell by her callouses.”
“Three is looking pretty bad, though,” one of the other girls said. “Boy Three is out of breath just from climbing up on the podium. Probably asthmatic.”
“A goner for the bloodbath,” someone else agreed. “She might make it a couple of days, though.”
Girl Three looked pretty weak in Arthur’s opinion, small and underfed as she clearly was. But she did have a certain focus in her gaze. Sometimes, that was enough to get someone through.
“She’ll make top ten,” he guessed, and got an approving nod from Percival. “So will both from Two.”
“Agreed,” Leon said. “Oh, look, here’s Four coming up.”
District Four was always interesting to watch, in Arthur’s opinion. They rarely volunteered, but there was a training system in place for them, and some quite strong fighters had come out of the district over the years. This year, too, looked interesting. The girl was seventeen and looked like a dock worker—fit and strong. Then the boy's name was called, and there was movement among the fourteen-year-olds.
He's the same age as me, Arthur thought, and was suddenly interested. District Four tributes didn't train anywhere as long as the ones from One and Two, of course, but it would still be intriguing to see how this boy would do.
The tribute separated from his group and started walking towards the podium where the girl tribute and District Four's Capitol representative waited. As he walked, the camera zoomed in on his feet, which despite his otherwise neat, Reaping Day appearance were bare. They were very tanned.
"Ooh," Gareth said, gleeful. "That's embarrassing."
"He wasn't expecting to be Reaped," Arthur said, speaking his thoughts out loud. "In a crowd, no one can see your feet."
He was going to say something more, but then the boy reached his spot by the girl tribute and turned, staring out across the assembly straight into the cameras—straight through the cameras, and right at Arthur.
He had the greenest eyes Arthur had ever seen, the exact colour of the ocean that made District Four such a popular vacation spot for people in the Capitol. The boy blinked, and then, as though he’d only just now noticed the crowd in front of him, let a soft and absolutely breathtaking smile light up his face.
Arthur froze, feeling his heart miss a beat as he just stared at the screen for several long seconds.
Someone laughed close to him, making Arthur snap back to himself with a jerk that was far, far too revealing. He looked around quickly to see if anyone had noticed, mentally fighting down the blush he could feel climbing up the back of his neck, but the other people around him were still making disparaging comments about Boy Four’s shoes and lack thereof. For a split second, he thought he saw Percival frowning at him, but when Arthur glanced that way, he was watching the screen with everyone else.
"—this year's tributes, Clew Mandall and Finnick Odair!" the commentator exclaimed, and Arthur turned back, too. The boy was still smiling
Finnick Odair, he thought, swallowing a little too hard and knowing that, privately, at least, he wouldn't be rooting for the District One tributes that year.
“I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but seeing that, I’m almost glad you got injured.”
Arthur paused on his way down the hall. That was Leon’s voice.
And that was Percival’s. Arthur frowned and moved closer to one of the media rooms, where the door had been left slightly ajar.
“I just mean,” Leon continued, “Odair is so clearly the Capitol favourite this year. How many sponsor gifts has he received by now? The rest of them are practically starving, and he got sent cupcakes, for crying out loud.”
Arthur smiled in spite of himself. That had been one weird sponsor gift; even Odair had seemed utterly bewildered by it, looking at the first cupcake from all angles before taking a careful bite. The resulting expression of bliss on his face as he swallowed it down had been carefully captured by the cameras and played on repeat for several days. Or so Arthur had heard, since he most definitely wasn’t sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to catch the late night recaps.
“He’s both young and incredibly beautiful,” Percival said, sounding tired all of a sudden. “The Capitol can’t help but fall in love with him. We should know; our district plays that angle more often than not.”
Leon huffed. “He’s not that beautiful. I mean, yes, if you like that sort of thing. But he’s nothing compared to—I mean, there are other qualities that—”
“Leon,” Percival said quietly. “Please don’t.”
He sounds sad, Arthur thought with a pang. Worse than that, there was something terribly hopeful underlying the sadness. Percival sounded like someone who didn’t want to hear those words because—
Because he wanted to hear them too much.
He quickly stepped back, moving away from the door. This was clearly not a conversation that was meant to be overheard.
He went back to the dorm room, glad to find it empty, and sat down on his bed, running his hands through his hair. He felt like he’d walked in on something private, and part of him wanted to apologise to Leon for it.
Another part of him, shameful but insidious, resented Leon for daring to have something that Arthur himself was not able to have.
The door swung open, and Arthur looked up sharply. He didn’t want to talk to Leon just yet. But it was only Gareth, who grinned at him.
“What’s eating you?” he said, flinging himself onto his own bed.
Arthur shrugged. “Just thinking.”
“Dangerous habit, that,” Gareth said. “You should stop now before it gives you wrinkles.”
“I’m perfectly serious,” Gareth said. “Look at me, I never think if I can help it, and my skin is flawless. If I lose out on going into the arena—not that there’s any real chance of that with how fantastic my scores have been lately—I can have an extremely successful career doing commercials for Capitol beauty products.”
Arthur shook his head but couldn’t hide a small smile. In a way, Gareth was a perfect example of the way they all needed to live up to the image that had been set for them. With Gareth’s looks developing into a more beautiful and lithe version of what the consultants had been expecting, his image had been tweaked into “artistic and flawless” rather than the “rebellious and exciting” persona he’d been practicing through years five and six. In a way, he and Arthur had much the same problem with potential relationships; while no one would even blink if Gareth were to be discovered with a string of lovers (provided they were appropriately older than him, extremely wealthy and either men or very powerful women as per his target audience for future sponsors), acting on his long-standing crush on Amethyst in the year above them would be out of the question. And while Arthur could probably date every girl in the programme if he wanted to (provided he didn’t compromise anyone whose virtue was part of their image), letting on that he found people like Gloss, and even Percival, more attractive than all the girls put together would be exceedingly… inappropriate.
Besides, even if he somehow would get an opportunity, forming attachments while still at the centre would be beyond stupid. Having a district sweetheart going into the arena might be quaint and generate a little bit of goodwill from sponsors under very specific circumstances, but usually, it just made tributes on edge and easily manipulated. And since anyone Arthur would actually want to date would never fit the accepted criteria, the whole point was moot, anyway.
Waiting was fine, though. Only yesterday, he’d spotted Gloss and Cashmere in the Capitol tabloids again, lounging in a corner at some starlet’s birthday party, flanked by a group of men and women who looked about ready to fight each other for the right to sit closest to them.
Everyone at the centre knew that victors got special liberties. As long as you stayed relatively discreet and didn’t embarrass your district, you would be allowed to go out and enjoy yourself however you wished, and Arthur fully intended to do just that, as soon as he made it through to the Capitol.
Until then, however. Arthur suppressed a sigh.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Gareth asked, frowning. “I can bring you back something from dinner if you’re not feeling well.”
“I’m fine,” Arthur said, “Do you want to bring dinner with us to the common room, though? Games should be coming to an end soon.”
“Sounds good,” Gareth said. “Have you seen Leon? He owes me big. Odair got Girl Six sometime around noon, and Boy Ten was still going strong the last I saw.”
Arthur scowled. “What? She was outlasted by that skinny kid?”
Gareth grinned at him. “Don’t tell me you were counting on District Six in the top three, too,” he said. “I should have bet against you as well. Clearly, neither you nor Leon have any sense at all.”
“We don’t?” Leon said, stepping in through the door, feigning indifference but looking very much like he wanted to punch something.
“Boy Ten made top three and Girl Six is out,” Gareth said quickly and triumphantly. “Pay up.”
“Your fault for picking a loser,” Gareth said.
“Anyone would have picked her over that kid,” Arthur said automatically. He watched a muscle twitch in Leon’s clenched jaw and added, “She was built like Percival.”
Leon flinched. It was subtle and gone in a second, but now that Arthur knew what he was looking for, it was an easy thing to spot. And judging from the level of tension in Leon’s shoulders, Arthur was willing to bet that his conversation with Percival had not gone the way he’d wanted it to.
Which was a good thing really, for Leon’s sake. They all had more important things to focus their energy on, after all.