Diana is rolling a small furry creature down the hall when the guards walk me up to Snow’s office. She doesn’t seem all too happy, and neither does the pet, who comes out of the tumble dizzy and promptly flops onto its fat belly when it tries to walk.
“Cat got your tongue?” I ask, squatting down next to her.
She looks up and gathers her pet back into her arms. “Catadillo,” she says. “And no, his tongue’s big enough on its own.”
I can see the difference now, at least. It’s rounder than any cat I’ve ever seen, with a wide flat face and long whiskers and short pudgy legs. I’m less inclined to pet it than I was, but I don’t shove it away. “Is he new?”
She nods, her lips pressed together. “Grandfather got him for me.”
“Does he have a name?”
“Not yet. I want to name him after whoever wins.”
“What if we have two victors this year?” I ask her.
“Then he gets both names, I guess. Some people have two names.”
“That’s true,” I have to concede. Sometimes kids make sense of the world a lot better than the rest of us do. I wonder if I did, but it’s hard to look back at yourself and tell for sure, knowing what you know when you’re older.
“I have a friend named Roscia Claudia. We just call her Arcee though. Everyone except Mrs. Schermerhorn. She’s our teacher.” Diana hugs the catadillo close. “Are you here to see Grandfather?”
“Yes,” I say. “Are you?”
“Mother’s still sick,” she says. “I can’t show her my pet until she’s better.”
Is she now. I should figure out if we have any acquaintances in common. I’m sure some of them have a better insight into her condition than her daughter does. “Does she like cats or armadillos better?”
“Cats,” Diana says. “She likes cats. She had a big grey one when she was my age. I saw a picture. Her name was Maysilee.”
“Diana,” Snow says, stepping through the doors to his office. “What did I tell you about talking to strangers?”
I straighten up. Diana just looks up at him and smiles. “He’s not a stranger. He’s Finnick Odair. Everyone knows Finnick Odair.”
My smile freezes, but I manage to shrug naturally enough, as if to say you have me there.
“Oh, no,” Snow says. “But everyone certainly wishes they did.” He smiles right back at me. “Come in, Finnick, please. And Diana, let’s see if your new friend can help you with your homework.”
“Yes, Grandfather,” she says, and hugs him, with the catadillo smushed between their bodies. He pats her on the head and sees her off.
I’m more familiar with Snow’s office than I’d like to be by now, but entering it still makes me feel like I’m being hauled before the principal, magnified a hundred times or so.
“Finnick,” he says, and doesn’t offer me a chair. “I’ll get right to the point. I’ve been getting some complaints.”
Please don’t let one of them be Lobotae. “Funny, no one’s ever complained to me.”
“I have it on good authority that people have, actually. Your prep team, for one. They’re concerned that I’ll be cutting their stipend since you haven’t been taking advantage of them. Are you dissatisfied with your prep team, Finnick?”
“I’ve never had a problem with my prep team,” I say, which is more or less true. It’s prep itself that I hate.
Snow raises an eyebrow. “But what other explanation could there be for your showing up to work half-dressed and unprepared? Don’t think the tabloids are beneath my notice. Either you’re growing dissatisfied with them, or they are with you. Have you even been sitting for prep?”
I grit my teeth. “Sometimes.”
“Not nearly enough, then.” He rounds his desk and sits at it. “Perhaps I should get you a new stylist, then, and have him pick a new team.”
Like hell I’m letting him get rid of Drusus. Is that what this is about? “Drusus and I work well together.”
“But these days you don’t seem to work at all.”
Ask Andrea Lobotae what kind of work I’ve been doing, I almost snap, but check myself just in time. My hands won’t stay still at my sides; they curl in, trembling. “I’ve seen everyone on my schedule, Mister President. Everyone. And before my tribute died, I was making contact with as many sponsors as I could.”
“Well, now that you don’t have to mentor anyone, I hope you’ll spend more time concentrating on your other social obligations.” Snow tsks between his teeth and shakes his head, and takes a pen out of the BEST GRANDFATHER coffee cup. “Considering how the following year is shaping up, your current schedule may fill out a great deal before the season ends.”
He knows. No. He might not know, but he suspects, and he doesn’t want to give me time to see any of the other victors. I hope Haymitch picks a good time for that meeting.
“And in light of that,” Snow goes on, “I will be informing your stylist and your prep team that they will be relocating to your apartment. You have the space for them, I’m sure. No more getting stuck in traffic for you, all right?”
“All right,” I say, fake as much conviction as I can. He really doesn’t want me seeing the other victors. Well, he hasn’t explicitly told me not to, and I can’t imagine spending the rest of the Games without them. They understand; it’s as simple as that.
On the other hand, if he wants to keep me in my apartment, he must not know about the override Beetee installed. He only wants me to think he knows everything, I remind myself. But he can’t know that I’ve been looking into him, or we’d be having this conversation somewhere in a cell in Peacekeeper headquarters.
“Good,” he says. The pen he chose seems to be out of ink, so he slides it into the nearest wastebasket and picks out another one. “Keep up with the Games as much as you can, Finnick. They’re proving to be quite the upset.”
“They’re hard not to follow,” I say as neutrally as possible.
“It’s always like this, when an unwritten rule gets broken somehow,” he says.
“Like what, sir?”
He smiles. His lower lip is far too red. “I thought you said they were hard not to follow.”
I swallow. It doesn’t do much. “It’s going to be a memorable year.”
“It is,” he says. And he waits.
For the love of everything holy, he hasn’t even dismissed me yet. He hasn’t given me anything this time, either--no, I suppose I technically have to thank him for filling the holes in my schedule and transferring my prep team to my apartment. I wish I could spit on his desk. Instead, I say, “Thank you, Mister President.”
Better to get it over with, considering what I’m probably in for for the rest of the Games.
“You’re welcome, Finnick,” he says, like it means nothing. It probably does. “You’re dismissed.”
I don’t get much sleep for the next three and a half days. In that respect, it’s not so different than usual.
What’s different is that I see ten separate clients. Of the hundred or so hours after when I walk out of Snow’s office, I’ve definitely spent more than half of them in bed--eight different beds, none of which were mine--but the rest have been in cars, against walls, and in the prep team’s vanity chair. They let me sleep. Only for an hour at a time, but they let me sleep.
My life would be funny, if it weren’t mine.
Drusus packs a cold compress with my things on the third day. I don’t get to use it. I do manage to sneak a few of the pills he packed, mostly to keep myself awake. None of the people I see seem to have that problem; most of them don’t want to go to sleep, in case they miss part of the Games. I could almost be thankful for the Games, because when my clients are glued to the screen during particularly heart-stopping moments (or intimate storytelling sessions, from what I can pick up) they forget to pay attention to me for a few minutes. Then I remember, and wish I’d never thought that.
As far as I know, though, Katniss and Peeta are still in that cave.
I have to admit, I was confused and out of the loop and asked one of my clients where the District 2 girl was, since I hadn’t seen her for a while. Turns out I missed the feast Haymitch was talking about. By now Cato and Thresh are hunting each other out in the woods, both wounded, and everyone has something to watch: either that fight, or Katniss and Peeta necking.
My clients tend to prefer the necking.
Pomponius seems riveted enough by the chase, though. I lean over his shoulder during a moment of downtime to watch. Cato charges through the grass, smacks stalks out of his way and slices them off when they won’t move fast enough. He knows some basics of tracking, because he pauses sometimes to examine stalks bent at strange angles or flattened to half their height and determines what direction to head in from there. If he keeps chopping down branches, he’ll miss some other signs of where Thresh went. The screen splits to show Thresh running, vaulting over the exposed root of a half-burnt tree. He takes cover, flattens his back against the trunk and glances over his shoulder. I wonder how far apart they are.
Pomponius’s mouth moves, but I don’t register the words until a few moments later. “Quite the display of athleticism, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes,” I agree, choke back a yawn.
“I wish I’d had my bets on Cato from the beginning.” Pomponius sighs. “If only it hadn’t seemed too good to be true.”
I’m almost tired enough to say it still might be out loud, but I check myself in time. “It seems like he’s had more bad luck than good.”
“Yes, losing Clove was a blow. But he’ll make that boy pay, and Twelve after.”
Apparently not everyone in the Capitol’s a romantic. Should I press it? I blink at the screen again. Thresh moved out from behind the tree; now he’s digging a hole as fast as he can, using the handle of his scythe to break the dirt and shove it out of the way.
“I haven’t seen a chase this good since five--no, four Games ago,” Pomponius goes on. “That could have been a banner year.”
My jaw locks tight. A banner year? I bet he’s the only person in the Capitol who thinks of them that way. “I don’t even remember,” I say, study my nails so he can’t see if my face lets anything slip.
“A girl from Three,” he says. “She had a hunt going on before it all went to hell--the best chase, I think, was her putting the usual one-two-four alliance to rout. What a way to make a splash. A pity things turned out the way they did.”
“A pity,” I grit out. I need a break from this. I stretch, wince at how loudly my shoulders pop, say, “I need a few seconds to freshen up.”
“Don’t dawdle,” he says.
I smile. I can still manage that, at least. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
It is tempting to slip into dreams once I’m on the other side of the door, or at least drift into sleep. I turn the cold water tap all the way up and splash my face, but the shock only slaps me into awareness for a few moments before it fades. Do I need another pill? Probably. Another pill, and maybe a twin. We could have rotating shifts. I wonder why I’ve been laughing so much at awful jokes these Games.
This time when I turn on the cold water, I let the basin fill and dunk my head in. For a moment, it almost feels like I’m swimming again, letting the water wash over me and hold me and welcome me home, but my chin bumps the basin and the stone’s the wrong texture and I snap out of it.
I’m getting too old for this. It’s a ridiculous thought, but feels so true.
Pomponius is still engrossed in the fight when I come back into the bedroom. He barely acknowledges me, and his eyes are wide enough that I can see the Games reflected back on them--
“See?” he asks, as Cato hacks off Thresh’s arm at the elbow. “I told you so.”
I’m late. The others should be used to it. But between yet another client this afternoon and the stalled traffic in the President’s Square as Thresh finally died onscreen, it was impossible to get from one side of town to the other.
I’m late, but by the Capitol’s standards the night’s barely started, so the bar’s at only about quarter capacity. Better than empty, though, and I’m less likely to get mobbed this way. I sidle up to the bar, signal for a drink, and when the bartender serves it I ask, “Have you seen a girl, about yea high, probably up to her teeth in fur and not wearing much else, looks like she might rip your balls off?”
“Hi, Finnick,” says the bartender. “Johanna’s downstairs.”
I thank him and throw off a few winks at the people who leer in my direction. They probably think I’m going to the janitor’s closet or the ladies’ bathroom, and I let them.
Haymitch has been a genius about this. This is one of the busiest blocks in the Capitol--it’s about a mile of storefronts, if you take the whole perimeter into account, and most of the stores are bars or restaurants. But their basements are connected, if you know where to look. So the cameras can catch me walking in at The Rubicon, and pick up Beetee at some gadget shop and Haymitch and Chaff at Messalina’s, and no one would be the wiser for us congregating in the cellar. It’s all grey concrete down here, racks of condiments and lightbulbs and coffee stacked high as a house. I’m surprised that there aren’t cameras, but then, who in the Capitol would steal food?
I open the door as slowly as I can, but the hinges still creak, and Haymitch cuts himself off before I can make out what he was saying. “Who is it?” he asks.
“Hello to you too,” I say, and close the door behind me. It’s fluorescent and bright down here, so the grey walls are almost white and I can barely see the corners. Haymitch and Chaff are here, and Beetee and Wiress and Cecelia and Mags. That probably means Baste and Seeder are on lookout.
And Johanna greets me with, “You’re late.”
“Some of us work.” I unsling my overnight bag from my shoulder, wince as the muscle seizes tight.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says. There’s an empty folding chair next to her, so I take it.
“Speaking of work, does anyone have any painkillers? Or a massage, that works too.”
“Give me a sec.” Cecelia reaches into her purse and pulls out a bottle of acetaminophen. “Is this enough?”
“Yeah,” I say, swallow two dry. “What did I miss?”
“A lot,” Johanna says. “Mags covered for you.”
“Then you were in good hands.”
“You’re shameless, Finnick,” Mags says. That I don’t need to translate.
Haymitch laughs. “But I’m pretty sure you’ve got a few things you know about what’s going down seaside that she doesn’t.”
“I might,” I say, look around for cameras out of reflex. Nothing I can see, and if there were any Haymitch or Beetee would’ve taken care of it long before I got here. “The Capitol’s been overfishing. A lot of families can’t meet the quotas, and their boats are getting confiscated. My uncle’s was. And some of the dockworkers are getting laid off, because the Peacekeepers think they’ve been letting the private fishermen underreport.”
“Yeah, Mags told us about that,” Haymitch says. “What do you know that we don’t?”
I wonder if this is how my clients feel when I ask them for secrets.
“Well, what happens when you tell a bunch of dockworkers they’re crooked?” I smile. “They get crooked. And they get organized.”
“And then they get even,” Cecelia says. “Glad to know we’re not the only ones.”
“What’s going on in Eight?”
“A new round of foremen at the factories. Peacekeepers only. All the civilian ones are stepping down or shunted out.”
Given what I know about the changes in the Peacekeepers, I can’t imagine that going well. I draw in a sharp breath. “And Three?”
“Believe it or not, they’re shaving a quarter off the school day and mandating work shifts,” Beetee says. “Every child older than twelve has to put in six hours a day at one of the factories or hubs. Not to mention the pay cuts. And the kids who aren’t smart enough for the hubs wind up cleaning the hardware or the floors.”
“Chaff?” I ask. “Johanna? Haymitch?”
Johanna rolls her eyes before either of the others can answer. “Since when are you driving the truck?”
“Since you started the meeting without me.”
Haymitch groans, gets up, and stretches. “Someone bring him up to speed, I’ve gotta see a man about a dog.”
“Same story in Eleven as ever,” Chaff says, while Haymitch shuffles out the door. “And that’s the problem. The days ain't getting any shorter and the whips ain't getting any gentler, and there's only so much a man can take before it breaks his back.” He lifts his chin, meets my eyes. “Or he straightens it.”
“So life sucks. What else is new?” Johanna leans forward in her chair, all sharp jutting angles. “What are we going to do about it?”
“Something, for once,” Cecelia says. “It’s been long enough since we tried.”
“You’ve tried?” Johanna and I ask at the same time.
She smiles, but the corners of her mouth creep into shadow. “Not me. But in the years before my Games, there was a worker’s strike. One of the victors between me and Woof spurred it. She’s dead now--dead during, I mean, most of us think--but we did try something. And it’s been twenty years or so since anyone’s had the guts to try.”
This is the first I’ve heard of it, which as good as tells me how it went.
“Is that what they’re gonna write on our gravestones? At least they tried?” Johanna snorts, crosses her arms. “We’re victors. We don’t try. We win.”
“We won,” Mags corrects, and I don’t have to translate that.
Beetee nods, taps and scratches his thigh like he’s working on an equation on it. “The question, then, becomes what it means to win. What are our objectives? How are we defining victory?”
“Snow’s head on a pike,” Johanna says, and for a moment I’m tempted to second her.
“I’m not sure if...” Wiress starts to say, then trails off, blinking, but Beetee squeezes her hand and picks up for her.
“I’m not sure if assassination is our wisest course of action, given what we have to work with,” he says.
“And what we have to work with is a pair of idiot lovestruck teenagers, you’re saying.”
“Well, fuck me with a chainsaw,” Johanna says.
“Later,” Haymitch says, wiping his hands on the front of his pants. He grins, and swings back into his chair, props his feet up in her lap. “I think if we polled this room, you’d have to roll a die instead of flip a coin to have your chance at killing him.”
Even Wiress smiles a little at that one.
“I think Finnick’s caught up now,” Cecelia says. “Should we pick up where we left off?”
“Yeah.” Since Johanna hasn’t swatted Haymitch’s feet down, he wriggles them, but slides them off on his own and leans forward, looking directly at me. “I’m guessing it comes as no surprise to you that I’m pulling about ninety percent of this out of my ass.”
Mags and I share a grin. This might all be treason of the highest order, but at the same time I can’t remember the last time I felt this good about being in the Capitol. “None at all.”
“But, well, you know what they say,” he goes on. “If your shit doesn’t stink, they won’t smell it coming.”
I don’t usually hear it phrased like that, but I figure I can tease Haymitch more on my own time, what little of it there is. “They’re never going to let both Katniss and Peeta win,” I say, and Johanna nods.
“Whether they do or not, they’re gonna want to,” Haymitch says. “Or at least the people are. The way I see it, if it comes down to her having to kill him, or him having to off himself so she can win--now that they’ve announced the rule change, if they renege on it, they’re the ones to blame, and sure, they’ll just take out Crane and be done with it, but so long as one of my kids wins the people are gonna remember. And not just here--they’ll remember it back home. Back at all of our homes.”
I remember something Cinna said, not so long ago: Then two. Two people the Capitol needs to live. Or three. Or all of them. If the Capitol cared about every single one of the tributes, knew them and cared and thought of them as people--
It’s not the Capitol you need to convince, I told him. It’s the Districts. It’s not about shifting power, it’s about taking it.
“You think this will be the last straw,” I say. “You think this will be more than they can take.” It’s not a question, but maybe it should be one.
He grins. “If it isn’t, we’re all either much stronger or stupider than we think.”
“She has to be able to take it, though,” Mags says, sharper than I’ve heard her in years. “She can’t break. She can’t kill that boy.”
“Then we better hope she ain’t just playing it up for the cameras,” Chaff says.
“So we want her to win the Games, but she can’t win the Games by winning the Games?” Johanna rolls her eyes. “Some plan you’ve got going there, genius.”
“Worked for me,” Haymitch says with a shrug.
I do need to find out how his Games went.
“Then there’s not much we can do at this point, is there?” Cecelia asks. “Other than watch, and wait?”
“We should be used to that by now,” Beetee says.
Wiress shakes her head. “It’s different when you’re waiting for something.”
“Least we have something to wait for.” Chaff stands, straightens his shoulders. “It’s been a while.”
“Meeting adjourned, I’m guessing?” I ask.
Haymitch nods. “Stagger your way out. Chaff and me are staying here a while.”
“I’m out,” Johanna says almost immediately after.
“No surprises there,” I say, and she punches me in the shoulder, but since she’s smiling when she does it can’t be too unfriendly of a punch.
“See you later, if you can catch a break,” she says.
Cecelia helps Mags out of her seat. “The stairs were difficult,” Mags explains as they pass me. “If I leave now, I’ll still be climbing whenever you decide to turn in.”
“Later, I think,” I say, and glance at Beetee over her shoulder. He gives me the barest of nods, but it’s enough.
He taps Wiress on the shoulder, and motions me into a corner, away from Haymitch and Chaff. “You’ve got a right to know,” he says. “The Usher file was a toxin. The Snow file was an antidote.”
I let go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding; it rattles in my throat almost loudly enough to drown out the hammering of my heart. So he did kill her, I almost say, but I’m half-expecting Peacekeepers to pounce on me the moment the words leave my mouth. If they haven’t arrested me for anything I’ve said so far tonight then they can’t be listening in, I try to remind myself, for all the good it does. “Thank you. What does it --” I look around, drop my voice even lower. “What does it do?”
“I assume you mean the poison. It’s a hemotoxin—it destroys red blood cells and stops them from clotting. If enough of it gets in your system, it can damage tissue and cause organs to decay."
I think I understood that. “Organs like your heart?”
“From what I understand, yes."
I nod, but my head doesn’t come back up. “And the antidote in Snow’s file is the antidote for that poison?”
“Yes,” Beetee says. “It can’t reverse the effects, but it can counter them. Depending on the strength of the initial poisoning, you’d have to take the antidote weekly, perhaps even daily.”
I remember Snow’s mouth, the red flecks at the corners of his lips, the stains on his teeth. I can almost smell him now, coppery and cloying all at once, and nausea crawls up my throat. “I guess he thought it was worth it,” I say. “And he uses the roses to mask the smell, I’d bet.”
“I couldn’t say.” But the way Beetee’s looking at me, he doesn’t have to say.
I have proof. It’s solid, I know that somewhere, but the idea of it isn’t; when I try to imagine what this means, what I can do, I meet a solid white wall. What can I do? Blackmail Snow? Never. No matter how popular I am in the Capitol, if he knew I knew this he’d kill me. Or he’d line my family up one by one and bleed them dry and make me watch, and throw Annie to the worst of my old clients before --
I close my eyes. I have enough nightmares. I don’t need to give myself new ones. All right. I breathe. I’ll save this like any other secret, lock it in a vault with all the others. And I’ll see just who else might want Snow dead, if they knew what he’d done to their friends and parents and children.
“Finnick, lean back. I can’t reach your hairline.”
I roll my eyes.
“Your head, Finnick.”
“Good. Thanks.” He all but attacks me with the concealer. “You haven’t had a client this particular at all this season. I have to wonder if she’s testing me.”
“What did she ask for?”
“Yes makeup, no fixative. She wants it to run. Good thing you’ve been sticking to your diet, your skin’s as healthy as it’s ever been.”
At least they haven’t cut me off sugar yet. I sigh. She wants my makeup to run? Some people like it when I look used, I guess. My hand clenches and I resist the urge to punch something, because Drusus doesn’t deserve that and he’s not the one I want to hit, anyway. Now that the tributes are gone, maybe I should head down to the gym when I have free time. Spar. Sweat out everything I don’t need.
“What else does she want?” I ask. “And who is she, anyway?”
“Aurelia Usher,” he says. “And you should see the list of specific scents I had to pack for you.”
My head falls back, and I hit Drusus’s tube of concealer with my chin. It splatters all over my face, which hopefully hides the red creeping into my cheeks. Does she know? Everyone said she never went to her sister’s study, and I didn’t notice any cameras, and I’m good at spotting cameras. Maybe someone else saw me, someone other than the man who interrupted Cinna and me. Maybe she’s had me booked for the past eleven months and this is just awful timing. Maybe I should call Cinna and see if I can get my hands on the papers before I go over there. No, if they’re watching Cinna then they’ll know what we’ve been up to, and he’s put himself on the line enough. And besides, what if I can’t make the switch? I don’t know, and the possibilities click through my head, whirring and whirring until I can’t think straight.
Meanwhile, Drusus is yelling at me and smothering me with a washcloth. “Back to the start,” he sighs.
Aurelia’s house is no less impressive this time around; even more impressive, with fewer people in it. I step into the marble foyer and wonder if the soft echo in the room is the dying sound of my footsteps or the sound of my heartbeat.
“Finnick,” she drawls, descending the stairs. “So good of you to join me.” She looks magnificent for a woman her age, polished in that Capitol way, with hard lines for cheekbones.
“My pleasure,” I say, my knuckles white and hard as the marble.
“Have you eaten?”
“I’m not terribly hungry.”
My stomach growls. I wish I could kick it.
She laughs. “It’s not an imposition, I swear. I’ll have something brought up. Come with me,” she says, already on her way to the dining room. I remember the layout, from the party, but I still feel like I’m pushing through a crowd to get there even if it’s just us.
Claudius Templesmith’s voice filters down from somewhere above us. I strain to make out the words, but he doesn’t seem to be shouting, so I doubt I’m missing something crucial. Besides, no one else is cheering or gasping -- then again, if anyone is watching the television right now they’d be Avoxes and of course they wouldn’t make any noise and I’m an idiot.
Pull yourself together, Finnick.
“Is bread all right to start?” She waves an arm at the table, and there is already a basket of rolls sitting in the center of the table. She pulls out a chair for herself, not at the head, just one of the seats immediately beside. “You mentioned you weren’t hungry.”
I sit across from her -- across feels safer -- and pick one up but don’t eat it, turn it over and over in my hands instead. You can have bread or you can have sugar, Drusus told me once. Pick. I’d still rather have the sugar, but I don’t know how to tell Aurelia that, or whether it’s prudent to. She’s smiling faintly at me, but it stops short of her eyes.
She takes a roll for herself--a 12 roll, it turns out, with charred streaks on the crust--and dips it in a little bowl of oil. “From what I’ve seen of you lately, you ought to be exhausted.”
“A little,” I decide to tell her, “but I’ve been through worse.”
“Of course you have.” She takes a bite of her bread, licks the oil off her lips. “Oh, to be young.”
Between the cricks in my back Drusus didn’t quite rub out and the cracking in my joints and the puffy skin under my eyes, young is one of the last things I feel now, and the knots drawing tighter in my chest don’t make me feel young either. I smile, hope it’ll stay put. “The water’s always clearer on the other side of the pond.”
“Oh, you can’t mean you want to be old and infirm,” she laughs. “Why, then I’d have to poison you more than you poison yourself!”
I sputter, throw the roll down and push the glass of -- I don’t want to know what’s in that glass -- as far away from me as possible.
She laughs. “Did I frighten you?”
“Poison’s a sensitive subject,” I manage to say, find the line of scar tissue hidden under my skin where the vine muttation tore into me during my Games. She knows. She knows and she’s drawing this out. Why? To make me sweat? To give the Peacekeepers time to assemble? To give Snow time to arrive? My heart slams into my ribcage again and again and I’m sure it’s going to crack. What if they’re rounding up my family right now, what if they’ve already brought my family here, what if they’ve already brought Annie here, what if--
“Of course it is, Finnick. Otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten this far going after Snow.”
There’s a knife by the butter dish. Not as sharp as I’d like, but sharp enough. If I palm it without her noticing, if I hold it to her throat so I can make it past the Peacekeepers -- it’s worth a shot. I inch my hand towards it slowly, agonizingly slowly, but I can’t draw her attention too soon.
Her eyes are steady on mine. I keep them there. “You went through my files,” she says, clear and crisp and cutting. “I find it hard to believe you stopped there. You’ve always seen things through to the end. You’re a victor. It’s why you’re here.”
“You’re right,” I say. My voice doesn’t shake. Neither does my hand, when I seize the knife and vault over the table and grab Aurelia by the hair, trap her against the back of her chair and bare her throat. The knife’s tip reddens her skin.
“Call off Snow,” I tell her. I hope she hasn’t already called him. If she has --
If she has I might as well hold a knife to my own throat.
“He’s not coming,” she says, and that tremor in her voice sounds a little too much like laughter. “He’s not anywhere near here. He’s not welcome in this house.”
I didn’t expect to hear that, but I don’t let my grip on her slacken. “What do you want, then?”
“It’s not what I want, it’s what you want.”
She breathes, and her throat presses to the knife’s edge. It doesn’t cut. “If you wanted dirt on Snow, Finnick, all you had to do was ask.”
I can’t have heard her correctly. I keep my grip on the knife, but my jaw gapes like a fish’s.
“Finnick,” she says again, soft, just wary enough that I can tell she knows she hasn’t made herself clear. “Finnick, why else would I keep all those files in my drawer?”
I mumble, “It was your sister’s drawer.”
“She didn’t care for him so much either, in the end,” she says. “And it’s still my house.”
I ease the edge of the knife from her throat, not enough to turn her loose but enough to give her more space to breathe. She hasn’t called for any of her security yet. That might mean something. It might mean she’s trying to lower my guard so I won’t have a chance against the Peacekeepers when they storm in. I’m holding the knife all wrong, I realize, clenched tight in my fist, but I can’t adjust my grip now. “He killed her, didn’t he?”
“Yes, not that I could prove it in court.” She relaxes back into her chair, turns away from the knife with a careful eye. “And certainly not with all my evidence missing.”
“How did you know?”
“That it was missing? I looked. That it was you? Common gossip about you and a young man in a toga taking advantage of my hospitality.”
At least she hasn’t mentioned Cinna by name, though she wouldn’t have to look hard to find it. My fault, my heart seems to beat out. My fault. Cinna never would have gotten mixed up with the resistance if it hadn’t been for me. Some days, when I marvel at the intricacy of his work and the messages he stitches in, I’m proud of that. Today isn’t one of them. “And how did you know Snow killed your sister?”
“Because he had the same symptoms she did.”
I blink. “I thought he had the antidote.”
“I’m sure he does, that’s why he’s alive. I would know the scent anywhere--I watched my sister’s flesh eat itself away, I saw the sores and the bruises, and what she used to treat them until it was too late. He reeks the same. But I can’t prove it.” There’s steel in her voice, sharper than what’s in my knife.
“Why did he do it?” I ask. “Was she blackmailing him?”
“Hardly. She might have considered it--between her and Hawksley, she might have had enough to shake him down. Argentia was ambitious--she always bit off a bit more than she could chew, I told her. She always said she could do a much better job with Panem than Cori could. I took her death as a confirmation that he thought so too.”
Cori. I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. “So everything in that file--”
“--was mine, yes.” Her mouth twists up at the corner, a parody of a smile. “I gathered it in a more innocent time, when I thought there was still justice in Panem.”
I laugh, short and sharp and nothing at all like the one I let the cameras hear.
“Did you bring all the perfumes and makeup I asked your stylist for?”
“And are you wearing fixative?”
“Then let me up,” she says, “and please, come with me.”
I glance at the hall, listen for the sound of footsteps echoing off the marble, but find nothing. All right, she wants Snow dead. I can understand that. I can believe that. I’m still not letting go of the knife, but I lower it.
She thanks me, and lifts herself out of the chair; “The bathroom is just this way,” she says, and gives me time to get my overnight bag from the hall before she beckons me to follow. The bathroom turns out to be almost as large as the kitchen in my apartment, easily larger than my prep room, white and gold tile all over and a raised dais with a deep tub, and mirrors on every wall.
“Shut the door,” she says. “Just in case.”
I comply, but tilt the handle down so I can push it open quickly if I need to.
She doesn’t seem to notice, and reaches into one of the bathroom drawers for something she holds out in my direction. It’s a white hollow tube about the size of a toothbrush, with a metal filter at one end and a faint whirring sound I hear even this far away.
“Is that what I think it is?” I ask.
“If you think I’m going to use it to make you come, then no.” She smiles. “It’s an olfactralyzer. It enhances your sense of smell and taste and lets you zero in on specific sources. Come over here, I need your foundation.”
I lean over, and she scrapes a smear of it off my cheek with the metal section of the device.
“Good. Now, from your toiletries, Charity, Hydracinth, and Bloodlust.”
I take the three bottles out of the bag Dru packed, and she sprays them on the frame. She holds the device out to me, shows me which end to smell through, and the scent of all three perfumes at once is so noxious and awful I come up coughing.
She laughs. “So now you know it works. Try to zero in on the smell of your foundation, just that.” I do, and I tune all three of the perfumes out. She presses a button on the side of the olfactralyzer and the frame at the end spins. “Now try and remember Cori’s perfume and see if you can pick it out of this mess.”
I try, sift through the overripe berries and tobacco and distilled plant extracts, search for the scent of those fake roses. I smell flowers, jasmine and hyacinth and notes of lilac I’d never be able to pick out otherwise, even poppies like the ones back at home. I don’t find roses underneath them, though. All I get is a cloying, sweet copper smell. I recognize it, but it’s too subtle to be what he wears. “I’m not getting it.”
“Yes, you are,” she says. “You’re getting the scent of the antidote he takes to suppress his mouth sores. It blends with the perfume he uses to cover it up.”
“This is three different perfumes.”
“And each of them has one different component in common with the antidote, as does your foundation. You’re just able to pick out the specific scent right now. You’d miss it if you were just smelling all three perfumes.”
I put down the olfactralyzer. “Who makes these?”
“Who do you think?” She and all of her reflections grin.
“It must be convenient to have a pet pharmaceutical company,” I say. “Argentia owned stock in Red Horse too, didn’t she?”
“She did,” Aurelia says. “We both did. I don’t anymore.”
“Did she know why he wanted it?”
“I’ll never know.”
“Did she know about any of it?”
Aurelia shakes her head and sighs. “Well, she certainly knew that her death was someone else’s choice.”
Isn’t it always, I almost bite back, but don’t. Murder must seem so inconceivable in the Capitol, with its gates and locks and cameras, where people tweak themselves tighter and cover themselves in outlandish colors to ward off death. It’s such an unpleasant accusation here, isn’t it? And at home--well, what else do you call it when the Peacekeepers drag you off in the middle of the night, when the trawler captains work you at sea until you wither from thirst, when your children’s lips crack and bellies swell from hunger because you can’t meet your quota? What else do you call the Games? What else do you call its victors? Haymitch, Johanna, me? Either way, wherever you are, no one talks about it. Not where anyone can hear.
I still haven’t set the knife down. I didn’t realize until now. It feels so natural in my hand.
I don’t know what I planned to ask Aurelia, but it wasn’t, “What was she like?”
Aurelia leans a hand beside one of the sinks, like she couldn’t stand otherwise. “Stronger than I was,” she says quietly, “with stronger dreams. She loved this city, and its potential, but wasn’t afraid of you people in the Districts. She loved trains, ever since we were little, anything that moved fast. She kept her hair short so she could feel it against her cheeks whenever the winds grew strong.”
“She sounds like my cousin Maeve,” I say, though I’ve never been sure whether Maeve keeps her hair short so she doesn’t have to tie it back when she runs or whether she wants to look like Jamie. From the pictures I’ve seen of Argentia, she could have looked like Maeve when she was younger.
“Perhaps,” Aurelia says, as if she isn’t quite listening.
I put the olfactralyzer down on the ledge as gently as I can. “I’ll go to my apartment and get the files for you,” I say.
She looks up with a start. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“I paid for you,” she says. “You’re staying the night.”
As Haymitch would say, The Capitol wipes your ass with one hand and feeds you shit with the other. It takes a solid minute before I convince my fingers to uncurl from the knife’s hilt. Not today. Not yet. Watch, wait, work.
Her bedroom isn’t far from the bathroom, and she leads me by the hand once it’s in sight. The television’s on in the corner. Peeta and Katniss are approaching the Cornucopia, and the Games are a mood-killer if ever I saw one but it’s not like I can tell Aurelia that, and besides, I doubt anyone cares about whether I’m in the mood. Aurelia pulls me down to her, kisses my neck and slides her hands all over me, and I wish I’d taken something to help me clock out but the overnight bag is in the bathroom and I can’t really ask her to stop when we’ve just gotten started. Great. Well, at least I can get this over with quickly. Maybe she’ll let me take something before round two. At least the mockingjays on the television sound happy; they trill the four-note melody Rue taught to Katniss, their voices blending and building, and if I listen to them I can tune out the rest--
Their songs transform into shrieks, and I sit bolt upright. So does Aurelia. “What’s happening?” she asks, and I’m more than happy to scramble off her so she can see.
Cato tears through the forest, barreling towards Peeta and Katniss--no, barrelling past them, heading for the distant gleam of the Cornucopia. Katniss turns, and the cameras pan around to show us what she sees.
They’re muttations, wolves and something else I can’t place until the cameras zoom in and the commentators invite the genetic engineers to talk about their “remarkable creations.”
The texture of their fur. The shape of their eyes, and the glimmers of something that’s almost intelligence. The glittering numbers stamped on their collars. They’ve spliced in the dead tributes’ DNA in, stamped the mutts with their personalities and skills and who knows what else.
I’m glad I didn’t eat anything.
Aurelia’s skin chills against mine. “Brilliant,” she says.
“Brilliant?” I echo flatly.
“For the ratings,” she says. “Everyone will want to see what their favorites turned into.”
Of course. I nod once, stiffly. I shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve never been human to them. That’s something they don’t let us keep, either.