Arthur crashed through a thick growth of trees and bushes, coming out into a clearing with one knife at the ready and his pack held up to his head as a makeshift shield. It looked empty, and a quick search of the bushes lining the space proved that it was.
Taking only a few moments to catch his breath, he moved forward cautiously, looking around himself for any signs of activity. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of smoke curling upwards in the otherwise still forest.
Someone had not been careful to pick only dry branches for their fire.
He shrugged his pack onto his shoulders again and stepped forward silently, putting each foot down with care. As he moved closer, he could see a body hunched next to the fire with its back to him. It was very small and thin—thirteen or fourteen at most.
Arthur managed to get right up to the fire without making any noise. As soon as he was within distance, he lunged forward, put an arm around the tribute’s neck and pushed his knife up under the ribcage.
The first time he’d had to plunge his knife into a body, his hands had shaken for hours afterwards. Now, it was almost routine.
He made a cursory examination of the pack lying next to the fire but dismissed it. A few pieces of stale bread and a small and blunt knife.
He let the fire burn and moved on, tapping the watch at his wrist. Something nagged at him, though, and he’d only gone a few hundred yards when he realised what. There had been no cannon.
Swearing to himself, he hurried back—although not without caution. More people than him might have been drawn to the spot by the fire. He made it back, took the still body by the neck and plunged his knife in once more. This time, he was rewarded with an almost instant boom.
He shook his head as he wiped his hands and his blade clean. That wasn’t good—kills should always be quick. Still, he’d gone back to finish the job. That had to earn him some points.
He checked his wrist again and frowned. He was running out of time quicker than he’d hoped.
When he’d checked his place last, the river had been to the south. Checking his position against the sun, he set off in that direction, jogging now but keeping an eye and ear out for any other tributes.
He made it to the river safely, then hiked up it until he found the source. He sat down, bathing his feet in the water, and filled up his two water bottles while pondering how he was to set about his task. Dehydration was one of the greatest risks in the arena, and if he could induce that in his fellow competitors, he’d have an edge.
Suddenly, a picture from one of his endless supply of history books came into mind. It was from what had been called the medieval period—a section of history Arthur’s chosen image had forced him to become intimately acquainted with. Siege had been a common mode of warfare then, and he recalled reading about how a besieging power would destroy their enemy’s water supply by launching bloated pigs’ carcasses into the cisterns—and knew that he had realised how to perform his task.
The only problem was what to use. Another tribute’s body was the obvious answer, but those would be collected by the hovercrafts. Still, these woods had their share of beasts.
It meant patience, but he had a bow among his weapons, and after only half an hour, he managed to sneak up on a wild dog and shoot it through the throat. He sliced the animal up generously, smearing its fur with blood, and dragged it back to the river source. He deposited it into the water and weighed it down with several large rocks, but left enough of it above water for the flies to find. The sun and the forest’s pests together should do the job of rotting the corpse and polluting the water below.
Arthur sat back, pleased with his accomplishment. He’d done what he’d been set out to do, and he’d be able to play into his knightly persona when explaining his process, as well. That was a bonus not to be disregarded.
Satisfied for the moment, he decided to rest up and eat some of the dried meat and fruits he carried in his pack, so as to be ready for the final hurdle. The river burbled soothingly next to him, and with the sun above and food in his stomach, it was an almost relaxing respite.
A cannon booming recalled him to his situation. It was time to go.
Before he left, however, he had a sudden thought. Emptying out one of his water bottles, he filled it up again from the water downstream of the dog carcass, then pressed his nail down into the cap until a small indentation appeared. He stowed it easily visible in his pack, set the pack on his shoulders and took directions again. North, now, for his rendezvous.
He had been hiking for little over an hour when he heard a scuffling sound a few hundred metres to his right. Taking his knife out of his belt once more, he moved that way quietly, all the while prepared in case the noise was just meant as a distraction from some trap.
The trees grew close together here, and so Arthur was almost upon the noise before he saw what it was. And then, of course, he had to fight not to start laughing out loud.
“Yeah, very funny,” Gareth said, making a face at him. “Har har har.”
“Comfortable?” Arthur asked. He leant back against a tree, now feeling quite safe in letting his guard down somewhat. He leaned his head to one side, grinning at Gareth’s upside-down one.
“Never better,” Gareth ground out between gritted teeth. He bent his body upwards and flailed ineffectually at the rope encircling both his ankles, then flopped down to once more hang upside down from the snare. “So are you going to let me down, or what?”
“I should really leave you hanging,” Arthur said, smiling lazily. “It would teach you a lesson.”
“I will murder you in your bed,” Gareth said.
“You will try to murder me in my bed,” Arthur corrected, then relented. “Fine, I’ll give you a hand. I’ve managed my task anyway. Ready?”
The rope gave way quickly under his knife, and Gareth fell to the forest floor.
“Ow,” he said pitifully. Arthur laughed.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s play alliance for a bit. I’m rendezvousing in a clearing a little bit up north-west; how about you?”
“Me, too,” Gareth said, brushing himself off with an annoyed grimace. “Although I won’t be seeing any happy expressions on the pick-up crew. I’ve failed this one pretty badly.”
Arthur felt slightly embarrassed as they set off together. In a way he was happy, because every lost point on Gareth’s account meant bringing Arthur into better focus. With only a few months to go until this year’s Hunger Games, it was more and more important to outshine the other two boys left in Year Twelve, and even though Leon was still consistently good, Arthur knew that Gareth was the one to beat.
“How badly is badly? Have you managed to kill anyone at all?” he asked, but Gareth only scowled at him. “No, really. They’ve been generous with this training arena. There are even animal dummies. Maybe you’ve managed to pick off a squirrel?”
“Oh, fuck you,” Gareth said sourly. “I get it. You’ve had a fantastic time. Dead tributes all over the place. I hope the fake blood stains your shirt.”
Arthur laughed, and Gareth finally grinned slightly.
“Seen anything of the others?” he asked.
Arthur shrugged. “No one apart from you. I think Jade was going to be dropped down close to me, but I haven’t seen her. Think she or Glory was the one who set that snare? Probably not Leon, in any case.”
“Glory is great with traps,” Gareth conceded. “But if it was her, I think I’d be dead and out by now and have failed even more miserably.”
Arthur nodded in agreement. Glory usually had a kill plan in place for her traps.
“This is me,” he said, as they stepped into a clearing marked with an emerald green flag. “How about you?”
“Mine was either emerald or sapphire, so I might as well wait with you,” Gareth said. He sat down on the ground heavily, leaning his folded arms on his knees. “Too late for me to earn back any points now, anyway.”
Arthur looked at him. Gareth was looking really unhappy.
“Come on,” Arthur said, sitting down next to him. “It can’t be as bad as that. You’re still alive, at least. With they way Jade’s been vowing to beat all of us no matter what, that’s a bit of an accomplishment, actually.” Gareth only snorted at that, so he went on, “And you were miles ahead when we did the cold test. I really hated that arena.”
Gareth still didn’t say anything, so Arthur moved closer, bumping his shoulder against Gareth’s in a quiet offer of comfort. “Cheer up. There’s still the desert test to go.”
He had been planning to say something else, but a sudden cold sensation against his throat made him stop there. Without turning his head, he felt for his knife and then, finding his sheath empty, glanced sideways.
Gareth grinned at him.
“Apparently I didn’t fail so miserably after all,” he said cheerfully. “Dead?”
“Dead,” Arthur acknowledged. Gareth took the blade away from his neck with an unnecessary and annoying flourish.
“Pack, please,” he said, and Arthur handed it over unwillingly. Gareth tore into it, bringing out fruit and bread with a happy sigh.
“Finally,” he said. “I have hardly had time to eat until now.”
“Happy to oblige,” Arthur said sourly, as Gareth started to wolf down bread. Gareth shook his head, grinning.
“When I got my task for this test, I thought I was done for,” he said. “I thought I’d never be able to take you by surprise. But then I had a feeling that you would fall for the down and wounded gambit. Took me ages to set it up though. Do you have any idea of how hard it is to set off a twitch-up snare just right? I must have practised over a dozen times before I managed to get both feet snared.”
He dug into the pack again and brought out a water bottle, taking several large gulps out of it and then grinning at Arthur again.
“You need to work on trusting people, Arthur,” he said, toasting him with the water bottle. “By which I mean, stop doing it.”
Arthur glared at him, then smiled slightly.
“I guess I should,” he said, staring at the tiny mark in the bottle’s cap. “By the way, that one’s poisoned.”
“I still can’t believe you poisoned me,” Gareth grumbled for what must have been the millionth time, when they came back from their individual afternoon sessions. He had a slight hitch in his step, Arthur noticed; twisted ankle most likely. He filed away the information for the upcoming obstacle course evaluation.
“You killed me with my own knife,” he retorted. “Your fault for not purifying the water first. Consider it a lesson learned.”
Gareth narrowed his eyes. “Well, at least I’m—” He broke off, suddenly very interested in the state of his nails (perfectly polished and painted a deep, cobalt blue), and added, “Good day, sir.”
“Mr Beaumains,” Uther said from behind Arthur. “Well done this morning. I’m glad to see you’re staying focused. Arthur, may I have a word?”
Arthur schooled his face into a neutral expression. “Certainly, sir.”
“Mr Beaumains, if you would excuse us for a minute?”
Arthur watched Gareth leave, then turned to Uther, unsure of whether he was going to receive a lecture for failing out of their last arena evaluation or be commended for managing to take Gareth out with him. “Sir?”
“You have to keep your guard up, Arthur,” Uther said. “I know these people are your friends, but they’re also your competition, and as such, they can’t be trusted. Remember four years ago.”
Arthur nodded. While Percival’s knee had healed well enough in the end, his range of movement in a combat scenario would likely stay limited for the rest of his life. And Cornelius Sigan had ended up cut from the programme and had never been heard from again (something both Arthur and most of the other students around his age were secretly happy about).
“Not everyone is looking to play the Games by the rules,” Uther continued. “Weak and desperate people will do whatever is in their power to survive, regardless of what they become in the process. I trust that Professor Aredian has given you ample examples of just how far some people, historically, have been prepared to go, so I need you to remember that there is a certain point where honour becomes irrelevant. Sometimes, you simply have to fight fire with fire.”
Arthur swallowed. “Sir, are you saying that there is a chance ma—”
“Absolutely not,” Uther said, cooly. “As our President himself has said, the seeds of evil have been thoroughly weeded from this land, and if anything new should try to take root, I assure you it would be most effectively dealt with. I’m simply telling you that in the arena, there is no playing fair. There’s nothing gained by showing mercy.”
Arthur nodded, taking in Uther’s words and turning them in his head, trying to see where they would fit with the rest of his persona. “I’ll remember that, sir.”
“I know you will,” Uther said. He put a firm hand on Arthur’s shoulder, and Arthur felt himself flush with pride at the simple gesture. “Just keep up the hard work, son, and I think I can promise you that you’ll have nothing to worry about at the tribute selection.”
Arthur somehow managed to keep the excitement that surged through him at those words from showing on his face. “Thank you, sir.”
“Keep your focus, Arthur.” Uther said. “That’s all we really need from you at this point. You’re doing admirably in all your evaluations, so just make sure that it’s your head and not your heart doing the thinking.”
“I will,” Arthur said firmly. “My focus is fully on the Games.”
“Good,” Uther said, and Arthur swore he could see a tiny smile tug at the corner of Uther’s mouth. “Now run along. It’s almost time for dinner.”
Arthur inclined his head in a curt bow and left, hardly able to feel his feet as he walked briskly towards the dining hall. Gareth and Leon might still be doing well, but Arthur was the one to watch. And with only a few weeks to go before the tribute announcements, as well.
Arthur quickened his pace. He would make it through. He simply had to.
“Princeling, you need to be far less obvious if you’re going to survive the arena this summer.”
It was a testament to how well Arthur was doing in his media training sessions that he didn’t let the surprise show in his face or body language. He pressed pause on his remote to stop the video he was watching, turned around and managed an expression that was both calm and slightly reproachful.
“I thought we agreed to put the nicknames away. Also, I haven’t been chosen yet.”
Gloss chuckled, pushing off the wall he’d been leaning against and joining Arthur on the couch. “A mere technicality. And you are quite the little prince. Chosen by Pendragon himself to represent both the district and his own legacy. It will be your name called next week. Everyone knows it.”
Arthur shrugged and shot Gloss an artless, open smile. Humility in the face of the great honour bestowed upon him, but still making it clear that he had the confidence in his own skills to be a victor. Getting the balance right was always tricky, especially when his pulse was threatening to run far too fast.
Gloss studied his face and nodded. “Good,” he said. “Very good, even. We’ll make a victor out of you yet.”
“You know that getting to and through the arena are only the first steps,” Gloss said. “I’ve come to tell you that your Advanced Capitol training is coming up, which means that it’s high time we address your little problem.” He nodded pointedly towards the screen and took the remote from Arthur, pressing play.
In front of them, Finnick Odair hefted himself out of the arena river (in slow motion, of course, camera gleefully panning over every inch of tan, wet skin), throwing his head back to get the hair out of his eyes.
Arthur took back the remote and turned off the video. “I know my image.”
“I know you do,” Gloss said. “And I know that you have done very well with all the cheesy, courtly romantic stuff that the debutante crowd will eat up with a spoon. But you’ll need to be able to handle the rest as well.”
“Like what?” Arthur asked, feeling a sting of apprehension. He sincerely hoped it wasn’t more of the silly tourney stuff. Or the courtly dancing.
“This,” Gloss said quietly, and the next thing Arthur knew, he was being pushed back against the couch and Gloss was kissing him.
Gloss Donovan was kissing him.
Arthur couldn’t move, everything in him freezing up in shock as Gloss’s hand found its way into Arthur’s hair, pulling his head back. The instincts he’d honed since coming to the training centre told him to pull away (or push Gloss away—Arthur could name at least five manoeuvres right off the top of his head to get out of a hold exactly like the one Gloss had him in), but something made him hesitate, and that split second was all Gloss needed to drape his whole body over Arthur’s, effectively pinning him in place and making sure that if Arthur wanted out, he’d have to fight for it.
Arthur wished he could claim that he tried, that he didn’t surrender so completely. As the kiss turned deeper, he felt his arms start to move of their own accord, winding themselves around Gloss’s shoulders, pulling him closer instead of away. Gloss responded by putting his other hand on Arthur’s thigh, guiding it out and up, then shifted to get a firm hold on Arthur’s ass, showing him how to move with each push of Gloss’s hips against his.
Somewhere in the back of Arthur’s head, warning bells were ringing weakly. He broke the kiss, trying to focus, but then Gloss kissed him again, and Arthur’s brain stopped listening.
He could feel his pulse racing, making his head spin and heat spread through his body. He kissed back desperately, learning as he went just how to tilt his head or move his body to make the heat between them grow. Gloss moved his mouth away, and Arthur chased it, catching another bruising kiss before there was suddenly a hand on his chest pushing him back.
“I’m sorry to say it, Arthur,” Gloss said, looking down at him with a blank look on his face, “but that? Is definitely not part of your image.”
Arthur felt himself go cold, panic like he hadn’t felt in years rushing up inside him. A test. Of course it had been a test. And Arthur had failed it.
He pushed Gloss further away and got off the couch, stumbling as he regained his footing. He forced himself to stand up straight, to swallow down the bile he could feel at the back of his throat.
Until Gloss told him otherwise, he was still Arthur Pendragon, and he would face whatever consequences were coming with proper grace.
Gloss stood up as well, meeting Arthur’s eyes. “Calm down. It’s not what you think.”
Arthur squared his shoulders.
“This wasn’t a test,” Gloss said, as though he could see straight through him. “Or at least, not in the way you may think. This?” He moved his hand between them. “Was a demonstration.”
“We know you’re gay, Arthur,” Gloss said. “It wasn’t very hard to guess. Everyone involved in your training knows, and it’s not an issue unless you make it one. In fact, it might even make things easier for you in the long run.”
“You have a very appealing image,” Gloss said. “The whole Knight-Reborn thing is just to the Capitol’s tastes. Should you win, you will be very popular. More than that, you will be in a perfect position to promote the interests of our district, but Capitol favour comes with certain… expectations, shall we say?”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, waiting for Gloss to continue.
“You will be sold,” Gloss said bluntly. “Just like now, your body will not be yours to decide what to do with. The victors of District One are the most coveted thing we have to trade, and it’s buying enormous favour for our district in terms of food, shelter, work, medical care and more leniency from the Capitol and the Peacekeepers than any other district can dream to enjoy. Our duty to our district is to please the Capitol. You’ve known this for years and have accepted everything else it means, or you wouldn’t be on the shortlist to go into the arena. And my role, as a fellow victor, is to make sure that you see that this part of your duties is just as important and just as necessary as everything else you’ve been trained to do.
He took a step forward, tilting his head and watching Arthur intently. Arthur somehow managed to look back, to push down a different type of simmering panic. He cleared his throat. “So what does that mean?”
Gloss smiled and reached out towards him, taking Arthur’s hand in his. “It means that, provided nothing drastic happens to make the selection committee change their minds, you’ll have a standing invitation to spend the night with me and Cashmere from Selection Day until your Games start. She’ll teach you how to make sure that every Capitol woman wanting that dreadfully romantic chivalrous fantasy you present get what they want. And I’ll show you how to twist what you really want into things that will work beautifully with your male clients.”
He raised Arthur’s hand to his lips, grazing each knuckle with a fleeting kiss. Arthur swallowed again, feeling some of the previous heat return to his body. “Male clients?”
“Oh, you have no idea,” Gloss said, smirking. “We’re not like the victors from the other districts. People may desire them, but there’s more than a few who just want to demonstrate power, especially with victors from the outer districts. We, on the other hand, don’t need to be put in place, because we’re already exactly what they want us to be. Us, they want to please, as a reward for good behaviour. Trust me, there will be nights when you are stuck escorting whoever is important enough to merit your company that week to events so boring they’ll make you want to stab yourself. But there’ll be other nights as well, and those will more than make up for it.”
Arthur managed a nod, mouth suddenly far too dry for speaking. His mind was reeling, apprehension about his future duties mixing with anticipation so rich he could almost taste it. Whatever hardships awaited him in the Capitol, the possibilities that would come alongside them seemed suddenly endless.
“On second thought,” Gloss said, smirking at him. Arthur felt himself blush like he hadn’t in years at the knowing look on Gloss’s face. “You should come home with me right now. I have a feeling we’ll need some time to take the edge off before you’ll be able to learn anything Cash and I have to teach you.”
Arthur bit his lip, feeling his face burn even hotter from embarrassment. He opened his mouth to protest, to at least demonstrate some focus and control, but whatever remark he’d been able to come up with dissipated when Gloss leaned in and kissed him again, walking Arthur backwards until he had him pinned against the nearest wall.
“Victors’ Square, half an hour. I’ll switch your morning appointments to the afternoon,” Gloss said quietly, taking a step back and winking at Arthur before turning to leave the room. “See you later, Princeling.”
Arthur watched him leave, then sagged against the wall, closing his eyes and breathing deeply to get himself back under control. Once he felt his pulse slow down to something approaching normal, he went back to the sofa and sat down heavily with his hands over his face. The nagging fear that Gloss’s invitation was still part of some kind of bigger test wouldn’t go away, and yet...
Arthur stood up, took another deep breath to steady himself and walked briskly out of the media room, taking a right turn towards the main exit.
The following week passed in a sort of focused daze. Arthur found himself smiling stupidly at the most random moments, and it took all of his skill to keep his regular persona going when he wasn’t actively in training. His body felt different now, alive in a way it hadn’t been before, and everything was somehow sharper and clearer. The first morning, he’d been sore all over—up to par with the aftermath of the most intense evaluation sessions—but he found that this helped rather than hindered him when they went out on the morning obstacle course, aches and pains wearing off quickly and leaving a new sense of awareness of the potential in every muscle and joint behind.
He managed new personal records for different stations three days in a row, won a sword fight against Morgana and caused both Gareth and Leon to skip dinner in favour of extra sessions with their trainers. He caught Uther watching his sessions more than once, always with the tiniest of smiles on his face, and on top of it all, he got to wrap up each day doing and having things done to him that he hadn’t even known to fantasise about.
It was, by far, the best week of Arthur’s life.
The trumpets signalling the official announcement came during dinner the following Monday. Arthur was sitting between Glory and Jade—which meant that for once the dinner table had been relatively free of the constant rivalry that had been building between them for the past month—and he had to actually stop himself from smiling. It wouldn’t do to let on that he knew where the vote had landed beforehand.
He looked at the victors as they all lined up. Kermes, as the latest victor, was at the far right, with Gloss next to him. Arthur tried not to be too obvious, but he couldn’t help looking at Gloss where he stood, tall and straight and strong, a victor to his fingertips.
He realised he’d been staring too long when Gloss turned his head and met his eyes. But there was no reaction—not even a sign of recognition. Gloss stared coolly back at him, his face wooden.
Arthur went cold. Had he misunderstood—had it all been a test, still? Was it possible that he had misjudged so completely? He looked away from Gloss, focusing on Uther instead and fighting down the panic that rose up like a wave.
“Please support this year’s tributes,” Uther finished off his introduction. “First, the male tribute: my son, Arthur Pendragon.”
Arthur sucked in a breath, hardly hearing the applause that broke out around him. He surged to his feet, putting his hands behind his back and allowing a smile to creep onto his face. He met the eyes of Gareth—angry and disappointed, but resigned—and Leon—curiously calm. Gareth looked back at him and, after a moment’s pause, gave a shrug and a thin smile.
Arthur looked further out over the hall, and then back at the victors, where Gloss was now grinning with the rest. Arthur shot him a glare, and Gloss sent him a look that was clearly mocking.
“And joining him, the female tribute,” Uther said, holding up a hand for silence.
Arthur looked back at his year mates, considering. He hadn’t been able to guess which way they would go here. Jade was the strongest fighter by far, but Glory was an excellent trapper and knew more about poisons than anyone in their year. In terms of skill, she would be a better complement to him, but visually, Jade was definitely a better match. It could go either way, really, and Arthur had played around with some different strategies for both of them.
“This year’s female tribute,” Uther said, “will be taken from Year Eleven. Morgana LeFay.”
“What?” Glory shrieked. She went unheard by most of the hall, however. Morgana had already stood up to receive her applause, which was just as loud as Arthur’s. She looked over towards the Year Twelve table, and let a slow smile settle on her face before bowing her head in the direction of Arthur—and, by extension, the rest of the table.
Arthur clapped with the rest, but resolved to warn Morgana against ever leaving food unattended if she intended to keep antagonising the Year Twelve girls. It wouldn’t be the first time a slighted tribute tried to put their rival out of play, after all. She looked at him, raising one eyebrow, and he rolled his eyes.
“We hope to welcome one of you into our ranks this year,” Uther finished off. “Work hard, and make your district proud.”
Arthur kept standing as the victors filed out, accepting the applause and cheers. The taste of glory was electrifying. He looked at Morgana and saw his own excitement mirrored in her eyes.
They’d make a fantastic team in the arena.
Arthur straightened the collar of his simple white shirt, glancing up at the podium. The clock was ticking slowly towards ten, but chances were they would give it a few moments extra, to make sure all the Capitol audience made it to their TV sets in time to catch the whole Reaping.
Behind him, Gareth was making sarcastic comments to Jasper, who had been cut from the programme and their dorm in Year Three, but Arthur willed himself to ignore them and concentrated on looking serious and attentive. For all he knew, the cameras could be on them already.
“You’re at the Reaping, not a reunion party,” he muttered at them. “Remember your audience.”
“Ugh, fine,” Gareth said, leaning forward to poke him in the back of the head. “You should be nice to me, or I might just volunteer for you and steal all your glory.”
“Try it and say goodbye to your kneecaps,” Arthur said calmly.
Before Gareth could respond, Septima Gaudy, their Capitol representative, tottered onto the podium in a pair of lethal-looking heels. Arthur straightened up. Finally, the Reaping was starting.
He was barely aware of Septima as she did her spiel and the Hunger Games anthem played, too focused on what was to come. At last, with her usual trill of “Let’s start with my girls!”, Septima reached into the bowl holding the girl’s names and came up with a slip of paper.
“Morgana LeFay,” she read.
Arthur looked over towards the girls. Morgana, looking strikingly pale and beautiful, straightened up. As she began to walk forward, one of the other girls in her year caught at her arm, and Morgana gave her a brave smile before walking onwards—a nice touch, Arthur thought.
Septima welcomed her onto the stage and shook her hand, then motioned Morgana over to one side before reaching for the boy’s name. She gave a little gasp.
“Arthur—Pendragon,” she said.
Arthur allowed himself to flinch slightly, then raised his gaze and looked straight into the camera that had swivelled to find him. He gave a little nod, then walked forward slowly. As he walked towards the podium, he saw that several of the cameras had found Uther among the victors’ crowd.
He looked down at his feet for a moment to hide his excitement. His name and connection to a previous victor as famous as Uther would already be giving him a headstart with the audience. Now it was up to him to build on it.
Arthur stepped up onto the podium and looked out over the assembly and then, as if he was just recalling his courtesies, turned to Septima and swept her a low bow. She put a hand over her mouth.
He turned to Morgana next and extended his hand. For a moment he thought she was going to Ice Queen it—it had been decided that the two of them were not to be coached together, so Arthur really had no way of knowing exactly how she was going to play things—but then she took his hand and shook it firmly. There was a challenge there, certainly, but she wasn’t as hostile as he’d feared she might be.
He gave her hand an extra hard squeeze all the same. No point in starting out easy when he finally had the moment he’d been waiting for within reach.
Although he’d been to the station to see other tributes off many times, Arthur had never actually been on a train himself before. They turned out to be a lot more comfortable than he had expected; the speed that had made him dizzy when he’d seen them leaving the station hardly noticeable once you were on board.
Since Morgana gave no sign of finding any of this new or interesting—because Morgana, of course, always looked as if nothing in the world could ever startle or unsettle her—Arthur feigned the same disinterested calm.
“Itineraries for this week,” Nimueh said, handing each of them a sheet of paper. “We’ll arrive at the Capitol around four and head over to the training centre and the district apartments. You’ll meet your stylists there for a fitting, then have a quick session in remake—just to check that the pre-stylists have done their jobs, really. Then at six, you have a couple of hours in the gym, then dinner at eight thirty followed by hair and makeup. Your first social engagement is at eleven at one of the most exclusive parties held in the Capitol all year. Anyone who’s anyone will be there, and you’ll be the only tributes in attendance. Use it well.”
Arthur nodded, already picking out conversation topics in his head. Next to him, Morgana was looking equally focused.
“Rest and nutrition will be top priority this week,” Nimueh continued. “You will each meet with a personal trainer who will have a training schedule and diet for you to optimise your form for the Games. Your sessions with the other tributes are for strategy only. Show off enough to intimidate when you need to, but do not tip your hand. I trust that you’re both intelligent enough to know this.”
“You’ll each have private sessions in the evenings,” Gloss added. “We have eight active victors on our team this year, so you’ll have mentoring sessions with several of us, to make sure that you have as wide a perspective as possible of the Games before going in. Your most important session will be interview prep on Thursday. Make sure you review the reading material your image consultants have provided you with before then. We have several hours before we reach the Capitol, so I would suggest that you start by watching the Reapings. District Two through to Five should already be possible to watch through recap, and the rest should all be up before we arrive.”
Arthur glanced at Morgana, who caught his eye and then smiled.
“Let’s check out the competition,” she said, giving him a small wink.
Arthur felt inexplicably relieved. He didn’t know exactly where he stood with Morgana, right now, and Gloss hadn’t given him any instructions. Still, if she was willing to keep playing alliance for the time being, Arthur wouldn’t say no to that. Sooner or later, he and Morgana would have to go their separate ways in the arena—but as long as he could, Arthur wanted to postpone that moment.
“Bet on Top Ten?” he said, and she grinned at him.
“You know that betting against me has never worked out for you,” she said sweetly. “I would be taking your money.”
Arthur laughed, catching the remote she tossed him and switching on the large telescreen covering one wall of the carriage. As he and Morgana settled down in front of it, prepared to both scorn and assess, Arthur caught Nimueh staring thoughtfully at them before leaving the carriage with Gloss. He shivered involuntarily. Morgana had always spoken warmly about her mentor, and Arthur knew that she was a respected part of the trainer team, but for some reason Nimueh just creeped him out.
“Oh, Two. You always deliver,” Morgana said, gesturing at the screen, and Arthur turned back to the task at hand.
Arthur’s stylist was short and plump, with her thick black hair laid in intricate curls and topped with an actual bird’s nest. There was a live lark sitting in it, looking drugged and stupid and giving off the occasional wheezy chirp. Arthur tried not to stare, but the whole thing was so bizarre he felt his eyes drawn to it again and again.
“You are handsome,” she said, looking at him critically. “And I like the idea they went with for you. My name is Rubea, by the way. It’s nice to finally meet you; I’ve only had your measurements and my active imagination to work with so far.”
She winked at him. Arthur cleared his throat.
“I am grateful for your work,” he said, and gave her a bow. Her prep team giggled loudly, and one man gave Arthur a frankly carnivorous look.
“Well, we won’t do any big work tonight,” Rubea went on. “We want that fresh from the district look, after all, so it’s mainly about making you presentable—and I must say, you’re easy to work with there. Do you want to see what you’ll be wearing for the party?”
She nodded at one of her team, who disappeared through a side door and reentered wheeling a mannequin before him. It was wearing a full suit of armour, polished to a high shine and with the golden dragon that would be Arthur’s token for the Games inlaid in the breastplate. A red cloak reminiscent of the one he wore as a student in the Ruby dormitory back home was hung from its shoulders.
You’ve got to be joking, Arthur thought, but outwardly, he only smiled.
“I should make an impression,” he said, and Rubea beamed at him.
Privately, he thought his costume was tacky beyond words. Still, the Capitol had never seemed to learn the meaning of the word subtlety, and he felt sure that Rubea knew what she was doing. She had been promoted to District One only the year before and had done a magnificent job with Micah on her very first go, showcasing both his strength and his beauty perfectly.
(She’d only managed to show her skill in the pre-arena costumes, however. Micah had only managed third place.)
“Try it on,” she urged. “I’ve had this done to the measurements I was sent in May, but we might have to tweak some seams.”
When put on his body, the armour was surprisingly light and comfortable. Arthur had been expecting a tin can, but was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to move about in it. He tested all the joints, bending his arms and knees and turning his head this way and that, while Rubea and her team fussed around him, tucking in the cloth of his undergarments and polishing rivets.
“We need to do something about your hair, of course,” Rubea said, rubbing a few strands between her fingers. “The style is good, but I suppose you can’t get proper conditioner in District One. We’ll need to give it some love before you’re fit to be seen.”
“We lack many of the luxuries you have here,” Arthur said humbly, and she awwed.
“It’s an absolute pleasure to be able to work with real people at last,” she confided in a low tone. “I was on District Seven for years. An absolute nightmare. You wouldn’t believe all the hair! And the nails! I thought I would cry when I did my first Seven styling. OK, now turn, let me see how it fits.”
She examined him critically as he turned in a slow circle.
“Good,” she said. “Very nice. Caelius, see to the rivets on the right shoulder, and give that dragon an extra polish. We want it to really pop.”
She took Arthur’s chin in her fingers, her long nails scraping uncomfortably against his skin. “And I’ll see you later,” she said, giving him another wink. “Just you wait. I’m going to make you gorgeous.”
The party music was so loud that Arthur could feel the bass beat in his throat even while they were still in the elevator. Helen and Cashmere were accompanying them up, with Nimueh and Gloss already in place at the party and talking up the District One tributes to anyone who would listen.
“It’s so hot,” Morgana said, pushing back the crystal coronet holding her long curls in place. Her dress was all crystals as well, with long white gloves covering her arms to the elbow. Artur gave her a sympathetic look. He had thought his costume was bad enough, but Morgana’s had to be excruciating in this heat.
“It’s not hot,” Helen said, raising her eyebrows. “You are hot. Remember that.”
Morgana nodded solemnly and then, as Helen turned to mutter something to Cashmere, made a face. Arthur smiled, then turned his own face away and worked his expression back into its blank mask. They were almost at the top floor.
As the elevator doors pinged open, the heat and the noise hit them like a physical presence. Arthur had prepared himself, but he still had to blink, trying to make his eyes adjust to the dim light.
The first thing he saw was colour. Even in the gloom, the Capitol’s utter lack of restraint showed clearly. There was not a single person who wasn’t wearing something eye-searingly bright, and most of them had hair or jewellery that would put out the eye of an unwary passer-by. Arthur suddenly thought that despite their own outrageous costumes, he and the rest of the District One delegates ran a risk of fading into the background at this event.
Then he spotted Gloss, wearing a blue silk shirt open to the waist and his victor’s crown jauntily askew, and was relieved to find him waving. He glanced at Cashmere, who nodded and made her way over. Arthur and Morgana followed, while Helen melted away, hailed by a man a little further off.
“Darling brother,” Cashmere said, kissing Gloss once on each cheek. “I trust you’ve been keeping out of trouble when I wasn’t here to mind you?”
“Without you, no trouble seems worth the bother of getting into,” Gloss replied lightly, then guided her to a woman at his side. “You remember Apollinia?”
“How could I forget?” Cashmere said, and to Arthur’s slight surprise, kissed the woman’s hand.
“I was just telling Gloss I hoped the two of you would be able to come visit me again this year,” Apollinia said, giggling. “I have added to my collection. I’d love to see what you think of it.”
“We’ll have to check with our scheduler, of course,” Gloss said smoothly, “but I’m sure it won’t be a problem. In the meantime, may I introduce you to our young charges? These are our tributes this year: Arthur Pendragon and Morgana LeFay.”
Arthur bowed low and was rewarded with another giggle. Gloss reached behind him for two glasses of something pink and frothy and handed them to Arthur and Morgana, giving Arthur a glance of approval as he did so.
“Morgana,” Cashmere said, selecting a tall glass of thick black liquid for herself. “I see some people I want to introduce you to. I trust I can leave you boys alone for a minute?”
“We promise to behave,” Gloss said.
On a whim, Arthur smiled at Apollinia. “I promise no such thing,” he said, and she shrieked with laughter.
“Oh, Gloss, I like this one!” she said. “He’s so naughty!”
Other people had moved in, as well, and as Cashmere moved away with Morgana, one man reached forward and put a hand on Gloss’s arm.
“Did I hear that right?” he said, giving Arthur a quick once-over. “Am I looking at a potential future victor?”
“Very strong potential,” Gloss said, smiling lazily. “If you’re looking to sponsor this year, I can promise you that you wouldn’t be wasting your money.”
The man took a few steps further forward.
“I’m Indigo Celestine,” he said. He took one of Arthur’s hands in both of his and shook it warmly, the fingers lingering uncomfortably against Arthur’s. “Cabinet member and founder of Beauty’s Best skin colouring products.”
A woman all but elbowed him out of the way.
“Aurora Flutterley,” she said, blinking vividly purple eyes at Arthur. “Junior executive at Channel One Studios. I would just love to make your closer acquaintance.”
“I think you’ll find that he’s promised me the first dance,” another woman (who Arthur had never seen before, much less spoken to) said. She was very tall, her height made even more pronounced by her hair, which stood up in twisted spirals from her head, interlaced with silver wire and green ribbons. Her dress was green, too, fashioned entirely from ivy leaves.
Arthur, under the pretense of taking another sip from his glass, snuck a glance at Gloss, who bent his head in an almost imperceptible nod.
“My lady,” Arthur said, turning back to the tall woman and bending his face over the hand she held out to him. “Will you do me the honour of granting me this dance?”
The woman smiled triumphantly, then took his arm in a tight grip and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor.
“My name,” she said as they revolved slowly, her hand slipping down over his back, “is Celina Bijou.”
“Ms Bijou,” Arthur said, using his most charming voice. “I’m flattered that you would seek my company.”
“I only sponsor the very best,” she said. “And Gloss assures me you are well worth the investment. Call me Celina, by the way. Don’t stand on ceremony with me! I’d like us to be intimate friends.”
“Your friendship would be of great value to me,” Arthur said.
“Oh, yes, it would,” she agreed. “I am one of the inner circle of Gamemakers, after all, and I flatter myself that my influence in our government is not small, either.” She grinned at him, showing a little too much teeth for Arthur. “I think you’ll find that our mutual friendship could be very profitable.”
When she finally let him go, it was with another pinching grip of his arm and a promise that she would talk to Gloss and make arrangements. Arthur kissed her hand in farewell, wondering if he had actually managed to snag his first sponsor by himself.
After Celina, he danced with Indigo Celestine, and after that with an enormously fat man who held him in a close, sweaty grip the whole dance through. There seemed to be some kind of queue system for dancing with him, but all Arthur knew was that he chatted and danced with the people marked out for him by Gloss, feeling increasingly weary. The armour that had felt so light when Rubea first introduced him to it started to weigh on him, and he felt his attention flagging as the evening ran on. There was something almost childishly pathetic in all these people who kept pushing themselves onto him, flaunting their achievements and vying with each other for his attention.
Suddenly Gloss was there next to him, prying him away from the grasping fingers of Aurora Flutterley and leading him onto the dance floor.
“I can’t let you have him all to yourself,” Gloss said, winking, and Arthur’s heart leapt foolishly. He pulled himself together, allowing Gloss to lead him into a waltz.
“Losing focus a bit there, Princeling,” Gloss said, speaking the words in a soft murmur into Arthur’s ear.
Arthur grinned, taking his hand from Gloss’s shoulder and tapping the victor’s crown.
“I’m not the prince tonight,” he said.
“You’re always the little prince,” Gloss said, dismissive.
“Does that make you my king, then?” Arthur said, emboldened by the music and the darkness. Gloss snorted.
“You definitely need to up your game,” he said, then led Arthur away from the dance floor and to a table laden with different coloured drinks in high, fluted glasses. Arthur reached for a green one, but Gloss steered his hand away quickly.
“Not a good idea,” he said, handing Arthur a bright purple glass instead. “You’ll like this a lot better.”
Arthur took a sip, feeling almost instantly revived.
“Better?” Gloss asked. “Good. I thought you might need it. You didn’t even laugh at Indigo’s latest joke. Granted, the man couldn’t tell a good joke to save his life, but I’ve never let that stop me from finding him extremely amusing.”
Arthur nodded, then demonstrated his most charming smile, throwing in a roguish wink for good measure.
“Good,” Gloss said. “Now let’s go back to pushing the odds along in your favour.”
They didn’t come back from the party until nearly 4 AM, but for some reason, Arthur still couldn’t get to sleep. He meditated, did his breathing exercises and even rolled out of bed to do some push-ups before getting up and wrapping a robe around himself with an annoyed huff. This wouldn’t do. Getting enough sleep at this stage of the game was crucial, but if his body wouldn’t allow him that, then at least he might get some of his pre-interview reading done.
He walked around his room for a while, booklet in hand, trying to get his body to grow tired and heavy. It didn’t really work, and he was already well into the third chapter (Regular Camera Setup And Common Variations) when he heard a door open and close and two voices carry through the main hallway.
One of them was Gloss. The other, he realised with a pang as the person suddenly laughed, was Finnick Odair.
Arthur very nearly walked into his own wall. He berated himself quietly and took a deep breath, then put his booklet down calmly and opened his door. He could go say a casual hello. Victor to future victor and all that. Without making a fool of himself.
Finnick and Gloss were in the kitchen part of the apartment, Finnick leaning against the counter with his back to the hallway. He was wearing a long, translucent sarong that flared at his ankles and clung to his hips and thighs in a most distracting way. His upper body, as well as his feet, was bare, except for some kind of shimmering paint and thick gold bracelets around his forearms and wrists. Arthur swallowed, then told himself firmly not to be ridiculous.
“—every day for the coming week,” Finnick was saying. “Probably more once the Games actually start and the sponsors start throwing some real money around. You?” Something was slightly off with his speech, Arthur noted. Alcohol, possibly, seeing as in the Capitol, there were parties happening every night of the week. Maybe drugs—it was a poorly kept secret that Finnick Odair had a bit of an adventurous streak when it came to such things, after all.
“I’m okay,” Gloss replied. “Some two-for-one exclusives with Cash, a couple of birthday parties and the like. Nothing major. Hey, sit down, will you. Before you fall and hurt yourself.”
“Wouldn’t matter,” Finnick said, the slur in his speech growing more pronounced. “My stylists are experts at hiding marks. Have to stay pretty.”
“I know,” Gloss said, then raised his head and spotted Arthur. “Don’t look behind you, Finn, but we have an audience.”
The change in Finnick’s body was obvious. He turned around with a smooth grace to his movements that Arthur recognised from seeing him on the telescreens. He looked even better in person, Arthur thought dazedly—a bright flash of colour in a world of black and white. Arthur swallowed as subtly as he could, then held out his hand.
“Gloss’s boy,” Finnick said with a smile, taking Arthur’s hand and stroking his thumb slowly along the back of it. “The golden prince. It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Arthur managed. Finnick’s thumb made another little circle.
“All perfect and golden,” Finnick continued, and Arthur stood there, frozen in place, as Finnick let go of his hand and instead reached out and ran his fingers through Arthur’s hair and down the side of his face in one smooth caress. “You know, Haymitch told me once about how in District Twelve, they use canaries down in the mines. Take them down ahead of the workers, and if they fall down dead, that means the air is toxic. And they keep singing prettily, until their last breath. You’re perfect like that, all of you from One. No matter how dark the place or narrow the cage, you just keep singing. Sometimes, I wish I could do that.”
“I think you manage just fine,” Gloss cut in, moving Finnick’s hand away from Arthur and putting a tumbler full of amber liquid and a couple of pills in front of him on the counter. “Here, take these. It’ll help bring you down.”
Finnick swallowed obediently and threw back the drink in one go, then held out the glass to Gloss, who refilled it.
“Which bird is luckier,” Finnick mused, turning back to Arthur, “the one that knows what it feels like to fly but never will again, or the one that’s born in the cage and loves it as its home?”
Up close like this, Arthur could see how blown his pupils were, the unnatural flush to his cheeks beneath the flawless makeup. He swallowed again, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Go back to bed, Arthur,” Gloss sighed. “You need rest, and Finn here needs a cold shower. I’ll see you in the morning.” He moved in and put an arm around Finnick’s waist, pulling him in gently and letting Finnick slump at his side. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
“Can’t stay,” Arthur heard Finnick mumble, even as Gloss was leading him away. “Jo’s out with Callisto Gilding and Lucius Clave tonight. I promised I’d be there when she got back.”
“Let Haymitch do it,” Gloss said. “You need rest too, and she’s—”
Arthur didn’t hear the rest of Gloss’s sentence, only saw Finnick shake his head and pull away, and then Gloss grabbing him again and pretty much pushing him into the bathroom. Arthur did as told and went back to his bedroom, picking up his booklet from where he’d put it down and lying down on the bed. The words on the pages swam before his eyes, and after turning some ten-fifteen pages, he realised he didn’t have a clue what he’d actually read.
A sick feeling of disappointment was building in his gut, and he told himself he was being ridiculous. Finnick Odair was only eighteen, after all—same as Arthur, and Arthur knew painfully well how easily he’d been swept away and lost his mind completely on occasion—and it wasn’t fair to expect him to be exactly the way the broadcasts presented him: all glittering eyes and wit and charm so blinding a person could get lost in it.
Finnick Odair was just a person.
Telling himself that didn’t really make Arthur feel any better.
The Tribute Parade the following evening wasn’t just an opportunity to make an impression and get ahead in the game before it even started; it was also a chance to get a good first handle on the competition Arthur and Morgana would be facing in the arena.
District One usually formed an alliance with Districts Two and Four for the first part of the Games, as long as none of the tributes picked was obviously unsuitable. This year—from what Arthur had observed so far—looked like it was offering up a rather standard mix of people.
The boy and girl from District Two were both tall, the girl eye-catching in particular. She was attractive as well as strong-looking, something her stylist had put to good use. He had put her in striking, dark make-up and had clearly taken a bit of an unorthodox risk with the costumes, focusing on the fact that Two mined metals as well as stone. Both tributes were dressed in metallic clothes—cloth-of-silver, mainly, although Arthur suspected that the girl's stiff bodice was riveted out of actual steel—and had been bedecked with token pieces of faux armour: a spaulder and vambraces for the girl and a sleeveless chainmail shirt for the boy.
Arthur remembered both their names from watching the Two reaping: Morgause and Cenred. Morgause had stridden forward to volunteer with calm determination, not even glancing at the girl she was replacing. It was a bit of a gambit, appearing that detached, but the commentator had loved it. She could be a contender for power.
Arthur wasn't sure about the name of the girl from Four, but the boy was called by the posturing name of Valiant. They were both decked out as mermaids, covered in shiny scales from the hips down and carrying fairytale tridents, fancifully spun and spiralled out of some bronze-coloured metal. The trident obsession that had started with Finnick's win had clearly not run its course yet.
The girl—Saphra or Sophie or something like that—was small and gorgeous, fifteen at most, with pearls strewn in her wavy, blonde hair. She glittered and smiled prettily enough, but there was something clearly calculating in her eyes as she looked around at the rest of the tributes, and her arms spoke of a wiry kind of strength. Obviously not one to disregard. Beside her, Valiant looked massive—a large and well-muscled seventeen-year-old, he was scowling and glaring but didn't seem frightened.
Next to Arthur, Morgana was smoothing down her already perfect hair, looking annoyingly flawless as usual. The six of them would make a solid alliance. There was space for additions to it, of course, and a lot of the training week was going to be about that—scoping out the talents of the other tributes, sizing up the competition and possible allies.
“Notice anyone in particular?” Arthur asked Morgana. She shrugged.
“There are a few with the physique, at least,” she said, jerking her head in the direction of the Sevens, where a boy dressed as the Capitol's idea of a lumberjack was hoisting his district partner onto the wagon with obvious ease, and then towards Girl Eleven, a tall girl with some pretty impressive biceps.
“Takes skill, too,” Arthur mumbled. “And smarts.”
Morgana smiled. “Maybe we should be watching out for the Threes, then?” she said, nodding towards the wagon for District Three. Arthur winced. Both boy and girl were twined in some kind of glowing and twinkling rope, just barely enough to preserve their dignity. It was a terrible costume to be stuck with—there had to be some better way to represent electricity, surely.
The boy wasn't looking nearly as uncomfortable as Arthur had expected, though. He had longish hair that he kept tossing back from his face with somewhat unnecessary vigour, and while he wasn't actively grinning at anyone, he was standing at ease and Arthur saw him share several almost amused looks with the girl at his side.
“Ugh,” Morgana said, grinning. “Look at him. If I knew you could get that fit from connecting wires, I wouldn't have wasted all those hours in the gym.”
Arthur shot her a look, annoyed. “What are you, Caesar Flickerman now?” he said. “Leave the ogling to the Capitol.”
Morgana smirked at him, but turned to take in the rest of the tributes.
“Ten are doing cow costumes again,” she said. “You'd think they'd learn, honestly. Eight is looking good this year, though. Oh, but would you look at what they've dressed Twelve in?”
Arthur turned that way, too, and looked where she was indicating. “Dressed” was a bit too strong a word, really. Twelve's stylist had merely draped a few scraps of black cloth over the parts that really needed to be covered and had then smeared what skin remained—which was a lot—with black dust. The girl was rather a looker and pulled the ensemble off with quiet dignity, but the boy looked like he was trying to make himself turn invisible. The black coal smudges showed up strikingly against his milky pale skin, looking like particularly evil bruises, and he was pulling unhappily at the flimsy covering his stylist had given him. He wasn't entirely unattractive, despite the unfortunate ears, but it was clear that this boy was not going to make it big in the Capitol.
“Someone really ought to fire that stylist,” Morgana muttered.
“Yeah, sure, take it up in your interview,” Arthur said. “Focus, we're heading out.”
The handlers for their wagon stepped aside and gave the horses a sign, and they started rolling out towards the audiences. Arthur tweaked the drape of his cloak, raised his hand in a salute and smiled.
Arthur and Morgana arrived down late the next morning to what was laughably called "training" in the Capitol. Most of the other tributes had already spread out to try some weapons, now and again glancing up at the Gamemakers on their podium. Arthur recognised the head training instructor as Atala from back home. She had been one of the frontrunners in the programme until Year Ten or so, but in the end Cashmere, one year below her, had so outshone everyone else that she had been chosen instead. Quite rightly, as it turned out.
Arthur looked around the room. Girl Four was climbing a rope with every sign of enjoyment. Her district partner was heaving clubs. The tributes from Two, however, were standing off to one side, just watching the rest of the tributes with disdain. Arthur walked over to them and nodded to the girl.
"Morgause, right?" he said. She nodded, raising her eyebrows at him. "I'm Arthur. Do you want to spar?"
She leaned her head slightly to one side, watching him closely. She had absolutely gorgeous eyes, he thought. Even devoid of the dramatic make-up from the tribute parade, they were large and dark and would probably translate well to the screen.
"We're not really supposed to fight each other," she said.
Arthur snorted. Besides the fact that Atala was from his district and programme, he and Morgause were clearly going to be the stars of these Games. Those rules were not for them. "We're from Districts One and Two," he said. "We can do whatever we want. As long as we use practise weapons and don't actively try to kill one another, they'll let it pass. The Gamemakers will want some excitement, too."
"In that case, sure," she said, smiling at him and then glancing around at the other tributes. "I don't mind showing off for a bit. Weapons?"
"Why don't you pick?" Arthur said.
"Swords, then," she said, handing him a blunted one from the practise rack.
They started off slow, circling one another and feinting, trying to draw one another in. Then, as they were getting more into it, Morgause darted quickly left and then right, striking with snakelike speed in under his sword and hitting his armpit.
"First blood," Arthur said, grinning easily. The blow had been heavy, much harder than he'd expected. He mentally upped his estimation of Morgause's strength.
"Want to try for second?" Morgause said softly.
They moved towards one another again, now moving faster and with more purpose. Arthur scored two hits against Morgause and she another one against him, and now they were circling and darting at each other, swords meeting again and again and the ring of steel filling Arthur's ears. He became aware that most of the other tributes were watching them, and from somewhere further off Atala was calling that they were to stick to sparring, no serious injuries allowed, but all Arthur focused on was his next stroke and the growing realisation of something rather disturbing.
He wasn't giving it his all, of course. There was no sense in wasting all his energy on the first day, and he wanted plenty in reserve to dazzle the Gamemakers in the final, private session. But the thing was, although he was holding back, so was Morgause. And he was fighting hard to just keep matching her.
They had moved away from the swords area, pressing each other further and further into the centre of the room. Arthur was keeping a careful eye on the surroundings as he dodged Morgause's blows, not wanting to get skewered by an arrow or something if they were to accidentally get in the way of a target, but as he stepped back to avoid a powerful backward swing of Morgause's sword he bumped suddenly into someone and stumbled. There was an indignant squawk from whoever had been stupid enough to stand in the way, but Morgause was bearing down on him, so Arthur only rolled sideways and rose quickly again into a crouch.
Morgause had left her side entirely open. He hesitated for a moment, then swung his sword.
"Dead," he said, the point of his sword at Morgause's heart. She nodded, pushing back her hair from her face.
"A fair win," she said, and Arthur thought no, not really. She should have been able to use his fall against him. Instead she'd left her guard down and allowed him the opportunity to exploit it. It was a mistake even a fairly well trained swordsman could have made in the heat of the moment, but she was an excellent swordsman. She could have been distracted, but the far more likely explanation was that she'd let him win. Why? To lure him into a false appreciation of her skills? Because she felt herself tiring, and wanted to end the fight quicker? Or because she was simply wary of taking an unnecessary hurt? There could be many reasons for a stunt like that, and not all of them had to be about skewing his perspective of her.
"You're strong," he said, allowing her to pull him to his feet.
"And you're stronger," she said.
Arthur wasn't at all sure that was true.
There was a noise behind him, and he turned to see the person he'd knocked into. It was the boy from Twelve. He seemed to have fallen against a table, and was swearing over his elbow.
"Ow, ow, hurts like a—" He stopped when he saw Arthur watching him, and straightened up. "What the hell do you think you're doing? The swords area is over there!"
Arthur stared at him. The boy was thin and gangly, hardly filling out his training clothes. He was standing at the edible plants table, a sure sign of someone with no faith at all in his abilities to fight, an underfed Twelve miner with no chance in the world of surviving more than two days in the arena. And he was mouthing off to Arthur.
Arthur grinned. "Do you have any idea who I am?" he said. Boy Twelve glared at him.
"Do you have any idea of who I am?" he said.
Arthur raised his eyebrows, looking the boy up and down. "It's harder to recognise you clean, of course," he said, "but the way your accent makes my ears hurt places you in Twelve." He paused for a moment, then added, "I'm from District One."
Not even this had any effect. "Don't they give you names in One, then?" the boy said.
Arthur frowned. This was no longer funny. "Of course they do. I’m Arthur."
"And I'm Merlin," Boy Twelve said. "So now that we know who we are, was there anything you wanted to say?"
Arthur drew in his breath sharply, taking a step forward, but Morgause cleared her throat in warning and he stopped. Atala was watching them closely. She may have let him and Morgause show off, knowing neither of them would be rash enough to sustain hurts before the Games had begun, but there were limits.
"Just stay out of my way, Merlin," Arthur said, checking his temper. "Otherwise you'll wish you had."
Merlin snorted, turning back to his edible plants. "Yeah, sure."
Arthur turned and strode back to the swords area. Depositing his practise sword back in the rack, he headed over to the station for spears and proceeded to make short of work of the targets for the hours until lunch.
He'd never in his life met someone who made such an awful first impression.
"We should look into who else could be good for the alliance," Morgana said at breakfast the next day. "Do you have any thoughts?"
Arthur shrugged. "Not really. Why? Do you have anyone in mind?"
Morgana nodded thoughtfully. "One or two potentials. I was thinking that maybe you could talk to Guinevere?"
Arthur frowned. "Who?"
"Guinevere," Morgana repeated. "Girl Twelve."
Arthur stared at her, then started laughing. "You have to be joking," he said. "You want to bring a Twelve on board?"
Morgana quirked her eyebrows. "You obviously haven't seen her with a mace. She's a blacksmith's daughter, so she's as strong as they get in Twelve, and she knows her way around just about every weapon they've got in there." She shrugged and reached out for another orange. "Watch her for a bit and see if you don't agree. She's a novelty, if nothing else."
"Fine." Arthur nodded. "I'll take a look and if I think you're right, I'll talk to her about the alliance. All right?"
Two hours later he was forced to concede that Morgana was indeed right (always a thing he tried not to acknowledge if possible). Guinevere from Twelve was really rather good, much better than Arthur had expected. She wasn't quite as skilled with the bow and slingshot as with the more close-quarter weapons, but she could use everything from a sword to a morningstar with very good technique.
Her district partner, meanwhile, seemed unable to even pick up a knife without accidentally hurting himself.
The two of them had been sitting with the Sevens, Arthur had noted the day before, and they were working together all day now, as well. He wanted to get Guinevere alone if he were to talk to her, but whenever he looked over at her, she was deep in conversation with Boy Seven (while Merlin and the thirteen-year-old girl tribute from Seven compared incompetence or something).
Finally, right before lunch, Arthur walked over and joined them at their station. Guinevere was explaining spear technique to the rest of her little group, absentmindedly correcting Merlin's atrocious grip while she went through some finer points with Boy Seven.
"—so that's the way to switch between jabbing and throwing grip," she was saying as Arthur came up to them. "Right, Lancelot, just like that. Very good."
Boy Seven—Lancelot—smiled softly at her, and Arthur made a mental note of that. It always paid to keep track of who would protect whom, if it came to it in the arena.
"Looks good," he said casually, and almost smiled at how all four heads snapped around to stare at him. "Can one of you hand me a spear?"
Merlin shot him a look and tightened his grip on the spear (still wrong). "Oh, I hope we're not getting in your way by standing here," he said.
"No, you're fine," Arthur said blithely, ignoring the tone. "Thanks." This was to Lancelot, who had just handed him a spear.
He spent some time stabbing a dummy, then shifted into a throwing grip and attacked some targets, working on accuracy rather than strength. He was aware of the presence of the little group beside him all the time, but gave off every impression of ignoring them completely. It was only when the signal came for lunch and they started packing up that he moved towards Guinevere, who was sorting the weapons they'd been using.
"You've got very good technique," he said. "Not only with this, but with a lot of weapons."
Guinevere frowned. "Thanks," she said. "I think."
"We could always use people who can fight," Arthur said. "Have you thought about alliances at all?"
Guinevere looked at him, and then at her friends. Lancelot was heading off to lunch with his district partner, following the rest of the tributes, but Merlin was hovering a bit further off, watching them with a thoughtful frown.
"You mean with you?" she said, and when Arthur nodded, "Not really. Not so far."
"I think you'd find it helpful," Arthur said. "If you're interested."
Guinevere glanced at Merlin again and then back at Arthur. "And what about Merlin?" she said.
It was Arthur's turn to frown. "What about him?"
"Are you extending this offer to Merlin? I'm not going anywhere he can't come with me."
Arthur stared at her, then crossed his arms over his chest and leaned closer. "Look," he said, "I realise the mentors you have are kind of shit. Haymitch is not even a functioning alcoholic any longer and I don't know if Gaius is senile or just an idiot, but it's just tough luck for you. I'm going to give you the advice they should have been giving you from the start: ditch Merlin. The sooner, the better. In the arena, he's only going to be dragging you down. Cut your losses on that one as soon as you can."
Guinevere looked up at him blankly for several seconds. When the blow came, open-handed and heavy, it surprised the hell out of him.
"I take it your recruiting mission didn't go to plan?" Morgana said, smirking at him across the lunch table. Cenred laughed loudly.
"We could hear the slap all the way out here," he said. "Was that the Twelve girl? She looks like she could pack a punch."
"Let's just say we shouldn't look for an alliance in that quarter," Arthur said sourly. He glared across the table at Morgana and at the boy sitting next to her. "Any more recruiting you want to do, you do on your own. I see you've started."
Morgana smiled. "This is Mordred," she said. "From District Five."
Arthur looked at her, but nothing more was forthcoming. He gave her a look, and she only smiled wider.
"Fine," he said, shrugging. Hopefully she'd tell him sooner or later what reason she had for including a thirteen-year-old without obvious powers in the alliance. Until then, he'd have to trust her judgement, frightening concept though it might be.
He couldn't wait for all of this to be over and the Games to actually start.
Morgana's interview dress was slim, black and absolutely stunning. She did her best model walk onto the podium, up to the twirl at the end and the kisses tossed at the audience.
"Morgana LeFay, District One," Caesar Flickerman said, taking her hands in both of his and kissing her lightly on the cheek. "What a vision you are! Isn't she a vision, everyone?"
The roar from the audience was answer enough. Morgana smiled and waved perfectly.
"And what a wonderful dress," Flickerman went on. "What did you think when you first put that on?"
Morgana laughed. "I fell in love, of course," she said. "I couldn't imagine anything better than to get to wear beautiful clothes like this every day. And then I decided that I would win these Games quickly, so that I could come back to the Capitol as soon as possible."
Flickerman laughed uproariously at that, as did the audience with him. Arthur smiled to himself. She was already laying down some groundwork to have in place if she won, clearly.
"We have a fighter!" Flickerman announced. "And such a charming one, as well. So, Morgana, tell me: what can we expect to see from you in the arena? Any special skills we should know about?"
"Well, I'm fast," Morgana said, winking at him. He chuckled appreciatively. "I have quick reflexes. You could say I'm very intuitive as a person."
That was putting it mildly, Arthur thought.
Morgana and Caesar laughed and flirted their way through the rest of the interview, and when she finally swept off the stage, it was with a look thrown Arthur's way that clearly said top that if you can.
The cameras were all on him now, so unfortunately he couldn't roll his eyes at that.
"And also from District One, Arthur Pendragon!" Flickerman announced, and Arthur strode onto the stage, threw a few smiles in the direction of imagined friends in the audience—show that you are one of them already, and they will have no choice but to love you—and swept a low and courtly bow. A lady in the front row fanned herself with a program theatrically, and he winked at her. Her friends on either side shrieked with delight.
"Someone get that woman a glass of water!" Flickerman exclaimed, and Arthur took his seat to gales of laughter and piercing wolf whistles.
"Arthur Pendragon," Flickerman said, leaning forward to shake Arthur's hand warmly. "Well, of course I have to ask—any relation to the Uther Pendragon? Winner of the 34th Games after a mere seven, brutal days?"
Arthur smiled and shook his head. "I'm adopted into the Pendragon family," he said. "I never knew my biological parents, and after the Pendragons took me in, I never felt the need to."
Several people in the audience aaawed.
"Even so, those blue eyes..." Flickerman turned to the audience, raising his eyebrows. "He is not without resemblance, don't you think?"
Arthur only smiled again. Enigmatic, was what they'd chosen to go with for him here. There was enough superficial likeness between Arthur and Uther for the question to come up, and it would keep the audience interested in him if they thought there was a mystery in his parentage.
Flickerman next led the interview onto questions about how Arthur was finding the Capitol, easily fended—Arthur was meant to be at home in this environment, as befitted the favoured district, but still charmed and grateful for all the attention and privileges—and then onto training scores and fighting skills, where Arthur with the ever-present help of Flickerman's perfectly inserted questions marketed himself as a knight born again.
"Of course, Arthur," Flickerman said finally, "with a father like yours—no, sorry, adoptive father—" He tipped a wink to the audience, then continued, "the pressure must be on for you. How do you feel about that?"
He'd set Arthur up for the perfect finish, and Arthur spared a moment to be grateful that these interviews were run by a professional. Really, they couldn't have managed this thing better if they'd scripted the whole interview together beforehand.
"Well," he said, "I'm very confident in my own abilities. But, um." He allowed himself to hesitate visibly—hardly having to act, either. Flickerman leaned forward, putting a hand on his knee.
"Go on," he said.
"Uther Pendragon basically brought me up," Arthur said, speaking directly into the nearest camera, "and of course he's a big hero to me. He has been ever since I first saw his Games—no, since before that, actually." A woman in the front row of the audience clasped her hands together with an idiotic expression of emotion. "So yes, now that I'm in the Games myself, I feel like—I want to make him proud of me."
Flickerman put a hand to his heart and smiled at the audience, and there were audible sighs from all over the studio. Arthur smiled and stood up to take his bow. Let anyone else try to manage a more diverse image. One of the strongest fighters in the group, with a tantalisingly mysterious background and latent daddy issues. The commentators would eat him up.
He took his seat next to Morgana, leaned back and prepared to enjoy the rest of the interviews.
Morgause went for quietly dangerous in her interview. She smiled a lot, but with a predatory air that seemed to make even Flickerman uneasy. When asked about her skills, she said she'd be happy with any weapon but that she had a penchant for things that were sharp and pointy, achieving the desired laugh.
"I tend to be underestimated," she added then, "which works in my favour."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Flickerman said jovially. "With one of the two highest training scores, that lean frame of yours and, not least, those eyes," he winked at the audience, "I think you'd be one of the tributes to watch out for the most in these games."
Morgause returned his grin with a quiet smile. "And you're still underestimating me," she said.
There was a short, shocked pause, and then the audience exploded with cheers while Flickerman roared with laughter. Arthur mentally applauded Morgause. She was playing the intimidation card for all it was worth, and it was working perfectly. He saw several of the other tributes look even more nervous than before.
Cenred followed Morgause, and spoke the routine Two lines about playing for the glory and honour of his district and the Capitol. He wouldn't have been very memorable if it hadn't been for his clothes—his stylist had dressed him in some ridiculous full-body leather glove that had made Arthur cringe when he first saw it.
This shameless attempt to show off the tribute's body as the most interesting thing about them was repeated in the boy from District Three, who was wearing tight, shiny trousers and a white shirt open to the waist. Like he had at the tribute parade, however, he seemed unusually at ease for a tribute with no media training and barely any clothes on. He grinned at the audience, caught a flower that some insipid person tossed at him and put it between his teeth as he bowed low.
"Gwaine, Gwaine," Flickerman shouted, laughing, "you'll steal the spotlight from me at this rate! Come here and sit next to me." He patted the chair opposite him invitingly, and drew his own chair closer when Gwaine finally sat down.
"Hats off to your stylist," Flickerman said, and the audience laughed and whistled. Gwaine grinned and tossed his head back to bring his shoulder length hair out of his eyes.
"I think they did a great job," he said, "considering that they only have a few days to get the work done. Apparently they didn't have time to find the right buttons or something, though, so I had to make do without."
"I'm sure none of us mind," Flickerman said, to fresh laughs. "So, Gwaine, you don't look like a typical Three tribute, I have to admit."
Gwaine looked innocently puzzled. "How’s that?" he asked, but Flickerman only grinned, inviting the audience into the joke. Arthur wondered if Gwaine was actually simple. He grit his teeth behind the bored, superior expression he had assumed for the non-alliance interviews, determined not to let his annoyance show. Gwaine had all the most irritating qualities of Gareth back home, except that in Gareth, it was all for show. Without the biting intelligence that always shone through in Gareth, there was really nothing redeeming about that type of personality, and yet here was this Three idiot accepting the crowd’s applause as if he’d done something to deserve it.
"What did you do back in District Three, Gwaine?" Flickerman asked, apparently so in love with Gwaine's name that he intended to use it at every opportunity.
"I worked in one of the factories, with Elena," Gwaine said. The cameras found his district partner, who was scratching her elaborately styled hair with an unladylike grimace and started in alarm when she suddenly found herself on one of the big screens. "We made parts for different electrical appliances. It's quite possible that some of these cameras contain parts that I've made, in fact." He waved a hand at the cameras surrounding him.
"Yes, it does seem as though they're glad to see you again!" Flickerman joked, and the interview was once again interrupted by cheers.
Sophia from District Four followed when that spectacle was over at last. Her outfit emulated her tribute costume, with her hair plaited with gold thread and pearls and her dress an abundance of soft blue and green fabric, overlapping in a pattern like waves or the scales of a mermaid. She was utterly charming.
"Do you have any hopes for this year's arena?" Flickerman asked her after the introductions were over, a leading question if ever there was one. District Four tributes always had an affinity for water. Sophia didn't disappoint, either—she would be aware, of course, of how delightfully quaint the Capitol found the idea of district-based skills.
"I wouldn't mind a watery arena, as you probably suspected," she said, smiling sweetly. "I'm a good, strong swimmer. And I'm good at diving, and can hold my breath for a long time. Back home, I work as a pearl diver."
The audience oohed. A pearl diver was an exotic and delightfully pretty occupation, and would surely tickle their fancy. Arthur wondered if there was any truth in it.
After Valiant had succeeded Sophia and scowled threateningly at the cameras for the appropriate amount of time, the interviews started to blur into one for Arthur. Like the audience, he had difficulty staying focused after the principal tributes had been interviewed. Some stood out more than others, of course—but not always in a good way.
Mordred's district partner from Five was extremely nervous. With her long auburn hair almost down to her waist and nut-brown eyes, however, she was rather pretty, and Caesar Flickerman seemed quite taken with her. The same could not be said about the girl tribute from District Six, who looked strung out on something already. Unnervingly thin and pale-skinned, she stared at the audience with wide eyes and open mouth, answering Flickerman's questions with murmured sentences that trailed off into nonsense.
Guinevere's friend from Seven, Lancelot, was stoic in his interview but endeared himself to the audience by talking about how he and his thirteen-year-old district partner were going to do their best to survive together. Boy Eight was furious, barely holding his rage in check as he replied to Flickerman in short, terse sentences. He was eighteen.
Girl Nine cried all through her interview.
Girl Eleven had a high score from her private session with the Gamemakers, and she seemed to be just as strong as her physique promised. Her district partner Emmer, meanwhile, was one of the few non-alliance tributes whose name had stuck for Arthur from the very start. But then, he had already made a splash in the Games—by running away when his name was called at the Eleven Reaping, forcing the Peacekeepers to drag him back to the stage. It was a shameful way to be remembered.
And then there was District Twelve. Like Arthur had expected, Guinevere had received a high training score of eight, and in her interview she managed to somewhat rouse the audience from their stupor with her smiles and her easy manner. Merlin was a disaster, however. He stammered his way through the questions without either wit or charm, sometimes attempting humour that fell completely flat. Not even Flickerman could turn it into something memorable.
Finally the interviews were over, and Arthur stood with the rest of the tributes for the Hunger Games anthem. Tomorrow, the Games would begin in earnest—an end to the waiting for his life to start at last.
Arthur Pendragon smiled for the cameras.
“So, any last advice for tomorrow?” Arthur asked, picking up a cluster of grapes from a bowl on the coffee table back at the District One apartments and throwing them high in the air one by one, catching them with his mouth.
Gloss looked up from the magazine he was reading, shaking his head. “Get some sleep, Princeling. You’ll need it.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, throwing another grape into the air. He could still hear the interview audience cheer inside his head—the obvious approval and excitement that was all because of him. For a moment, when the spotlight had found him as they all took their bow, he’d felt invincible.
“Maybe you could help tire me out,” he said, not caring that he sounded like something out of a Capitol Romance Reel. Gloss raised an eyebrow at him. Arthur picked the magazine out of his hands and leaned in. “Come to bed with me.”
Gloss looked decidedly unimpressed. He also looked tired, despite obvious attempts to hide it behind a pretty spectacular makeup job. Arthur sat down on the edge of the sofa and leaned in further, bracketing Gloss’s head with his hands and pressing a row of slow, wet kisses along the line of his neck.
“Come to bed with me,” he repeated, pitching his voice low. “You’ve worked around the clock for weeks now to get me ready for the Games; let me spoil you a little.”
He moved from Gloss’s neck to his mouth, teasing with soft brushes of lips against lips until Gloss opened for him, letting Arthur deepen the kiss. Arthur shifted his weight and stretched out on the sofa next to him, draping a thigh across Gloss’s hips to anchor himself as the kiss grew hotter. One of Gloss’s hands came up to tangle in Arthur’s hair, and Arthur lost himself in the easy give and take of it all, heat building low and sure in his stomach.
“Come on,” he murmured, letting Gloss’s mouth go in favour of dragging his lips against the underside of his jaw. “I’ll be gone for at least a week in the arena. Let me give you a couple of reasons to miss me.”
The corners of Gloss’s mouth twitched, and for a terrible second, Arthur thought Gloss would start laughing at him. He rolled off the sofa and pulled them both to their feet, leaning in quickly to kiss Gloss again and stop whatever comment or critique was clearly at the tip of his tongue.
Tomorrow, the Games would start, and Arthur was more than ready to step up and play his part. Tonight, however, he wanted something just for himself, and for once in his life, he was going to actually take it.
“I can’t feel my legs anymore.”
Next to him, Gloss hummed in agreement, but still managed to lift a heavy arm and playfully cuff Arthur around the head. “Better sleep it off. If you stumble when getting off that plate tomorrow, I’ll pull you out of the arena and kill you myself.”
Arthur chuckled and rolled over on his back, stretching out his arms. “Duly noted.”
“I’ll miss you, you know,” Arthur mumbled, the lingering pleasure high making his tongue looser than usual. “In the arena. I’ll miss you a lot.”
He felt Gloss grow very still next to him, and when Arthur looked over, Gloss turned his face away. “Don’t say things like that.”
Arthur rolled over on his side, pushing himself up with one arm. “I’ll come back. You know I will.”
He brought a hand up to Gloss’s face, turning it towards him, leaning in to seal his promise with a kiss. Gloss’s answering push nearly sent him falling off the bed.
“Don’t. Say. Things. Like. That,” Gloss hissed, pinning Arthur beneath him and catching his wrists in both hands, locking them above Arthur’s head. Arthur swallowed heavily, taken aback by the sudden coldness in Gloss’s eyes. He managed a small nod, and Gloss’s grip on his wrists loosened a fraction.
“Listen to me,” Gloss said quietly. “And listen closely, because this is easily the most important lesson you still have to learn. Whatever fantasy is in your head right now is a lie. We are not together, and I am not in love with you. I don’t even like you very much, if I’m perfectly honest, because the way you still stubbornly wear your heart on your sleeve after all the time and effort that’s been put into your training makes me want to bash your head against the wall. I don’t fuck you because I want you; I do it because it’s part of my job, and I know how to fake it with the best of them.” He ran a hand up the length of Arthur’s neck, tangling in Arthur’s hair and tilting his head back. Arthur tried to suppress the involuntary shiver that travelled up his spine.
“I can’t believe you,” Gloss spat, giving Arthur’s hair a painful tug before rolling out of bed and throwing some of the scattered pieces of clothing from the floor in his general direction. “What the fuck do I need to do to make you understand this? You. Are. In. This. Alone. What part of that is unclear to you?”
Arthur sat up, pulling his tunic over his head and keeping his eyes down. He could feel his face burn, and a sick, heavy feeling was quickly replacing any lingering pleasure left in his body. “I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Gloss said coldly. “Be smart. Get a fucking grip and start thinking like a victor, or I can tell you right now that Morgana or Girl Two will be accepting that crown from Snow in your stead.” He grabbed a dressing gown from a nearby closet and tied it firmly around his waist. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a previous engagement that I need to get ready for.”
Arthur nodded, swallowing against the sudden sour taste at the back of his throat. He reached for a pair of underwear, pulling them quickly up his hips when there was a knock at the bedroom door and Cashmere entered.
“Gloss, we need to get going,” she said, walking up to her brother and looking him critically up and down. “Let me see.”
Gloss untied the robe, letting it fall off his shoulders with a shrug. He held out his hands and did a slow, sarcastic turn, letting Cashmere inspect him from all angles. “Well?”
“You’ll do,” Cashmere said, then turned to Arthur. “Augustus Prime, likes his partners fucked-out and messy, but dislikes doing the work himself. Thanks for helping out.”
Arthur swallowed again, forcing himself to meet Cashmere’s eyes without flinching, praying that his voice wouldn’t break. “My pleasure.”
Cashmere tilted her head, then looked at her brother, and the two of them had one of their silent conversations that always made Arthur feel a pang of stupid, irrelevant want. Then she suddenly turned and walked up to Arthur, closing her arms around him in a firm hug.
“We believe in you,” she whispered, so quietly that Arthur had trouble making out the words. “Whatever my brother just told you—no matter how true it might be—the victors here, we’re all family, and even though we can’t offer you anything else, we stand by our own.”
She pulled back, giving Arthur a smirk and a wink. “Good luck tomorrow, Little Prince.”
Arthur was still trying to think of a reply when she leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, then put a firm hand at the small of his back and shoved him unceremoniously out the door.
Arthur didn’t realise he was heading up to the roof until he was standing in the lift, watching the numbers for the floors above his slide by on the display. The doors opened with a quiet ding, and Arthur stepped outside. Below him, the Capitol stretched out in every direction, glittering in a thousand colours. Arthur walked up to the railing and leaned against it, closing his eyes and letting the warm wind sweep across his face.
He stood there for a long time, just breathing in the night air, until there was a loud crash to his left, followed by some very creative cursing.
Arthur turned around, just in time to see Merlin pull himself out of a pile of broken pieces of wood that had probably been a small table, once upon a time.
“Killing yourself before the start of the Games would be very stupid, you know,” Arthur said, sending a small smirk Merlin’s way as Merlin struggled to get back on his feet and brush himself off.
“Oh. It’s you,” Merlin said, took a couple of steps forward and then seemed to think better of it. “Wonderful.” He sat down with his back to the railing, still swaying a bit from side to side. He was holding a near-empty whiskey bottle in his right hand.
Arthur frowned. “Where did you get that?”
Merlin looked up on him in confusion, then looked down at his hand, like he only now realised he was holding something. He brought the bottle to his lips and took a long sip, then made a grimace as he swallowed. “Haymitch.”
Arthur’s already extremely low regard of District Twelve and its mentors sank even further. No wonder the Twelve tributes were always so utterly directionless. “Your mentor gave you a bottle of whiskey the night before the start of the Games and told you to go get drunk?”
“Well, no,” Merlin said, tilting his head back and taking another drink. “Technically, I stole it. He passed out on the sofa after dinner, and this bottle was still half-full, so I figured, might as well, right?”
Arthur just looked at him. Might as well? Wow, Merlin really was determined to make an absolute spectacle of himself in the Games, wasn’t he? With an attitude like that, there was no chance he’d even survive the bloodbath. Arthur shook his head and went back to looking over the city.
“My dad died in the arena,” Merlin said, suddenly, pulling at Arthur’s attention after they’d both been quiet for some time. “55th Games. And then my best friend Will, two years ago. I should have figured I would end up there as well, but I thought—lightning isn’t supposed to strike twice, you know? For some reason, I started hoping. So stupid.” He leaned back and closed his eyes, then put the bottle to his lips again for another long drink. The corners of his eyes were wet, Arthur noted. Not that he cared.
Merlin’s melancholy seemed to be contagious, however, because instead of looking out over the Capitol and seeing all the glory that was soon going to be his, all Arthur could see when he turned back to admire the view were Finnick’s blown pupils and Gloss’s stony face. He felt humiliated, all of a sudden, having shown weakness like he had, falling into a childish fantasy because, what? Someone he found attractive had pretended to find him attractive in return. Or had found him attractive, maybe; coming back from the arena or not, that was probably something Arthur would never know the truth of.
It worried him how much something as fickle and subjective as truth suddenly seemed to matter.
“Here,” Merlin said from below, and when Arthur looked down, Merlin’s hand was holding up the bottle. “You suddenly looked like you could use some of this as well. Even though you’re a prat. And I don’t like you. At all, really. Because of the prattishness. And also your hair.”
That certainly pulled Arthur back out of his head. “My hair?”
“It’s all… shiny,” Merlin said, waving his free hand haphazardly around his own head. “No real person has hair like that. It’s Capitol doll stuff. All pretty and empty.”
Arthur sucked in a breath sharply. He slapped away the bottle Merlin was still offering and glared down at him.
“That empty doll stuff could be what keeps me alive in the arena,” he said. “And you have some nerve scorning that. Everyone tries it. We’re just better at it in One.”
Merlin made a face, and took another long pull from the bottle. “Touchy,” he grimaced. “To be fair, I also said ‘pretty’. But fine, sore spot, I get it.” He leant his head back against the railing, closing his eyes again.
“Gwen knows how to do that stuff,” Merlin said quietly. “Be charming, get people to like her. I like her. I hardly even knew her before and now she’s like my best friend. Well. Only friend, really. People didn’t really like me back home. There was only Will, and then he was gone.” He rubbed a hand over his face quickly. “But Gwen—she’s so nice, you know?”
Arthur shrugged. All he really knew about Guinevere was that she was a mean slapper.
“And then you come here, and you have to watch people turn into something they’re not. I mean, Gwen, up on that stage with Flickerman, she’s all charm and cheerfulness and everything, and she’s being this cute person that these horrible Capitol people can love, when in fact she’s hating them all the time. And it’s so fucking stupid that we have to come here and prepare to kill each other, and then we have to pretend like it’s some kind of game so the audience can pretend that, too.”
He drew a deep breath, and Arthur did as well. He felt chilled to the bone. Because if someone was hearing this, then he was almost an accomplice to this speech. He fidgeted and stretched.
“Yeah, well,” he said, “it’s late…”
“And I sometimes think you’re the worst of all,” Merlin said, closely contemplating the bottle in his hands. “All handsome and strong and perfect. It’s like there’s nothing real left of you.”
Arthur stared at him, then ran his hands through his hair and turned away. “You just stopped making sense altogether,” he said. “I’ll get one of your mentors to come do something about you. I hope they don’t put you next to me tomorrow—if you wobble off the platform because you’re hung-over, it will officially be the worst death in Hunger Games history.”
“I’m never hung-over,” Merlin said, making a rude gesture at him. Arthur rolled his eyes and headed for the lift.
“I just think it’s a shame,” Merlin muttered, behind him, and that was something Arthur was just going to ignore.
He turned back just before he went through the doors, and saw Merlin leaning his forehead against the railing, looking out over the Capitol from between the steel bars. His hair curled softly around his face in the gentle breeze, and the lights from below gave his pale face depth, with striking shadows around his eyes and cheekbones. His thin frame, too, looked slender and graceful here; all splayed out and loose with alcohol, Merlin looked considerably less angular and awkward.
Merlin turned his head and looked back at him, and Arthur stepped quickly into the lift, trying to will the doors to close faster. He needed to sleep and get his focus back. And if he could somehow manage to forget that most of this night ever happened while he was at it, that would be even better.
From here on out, he would make a point to be purely professional. And if that made him an empty doll—and screw Merlin and his judgemental Twelve views anyway—well, he could handle that.
District One victors always could.