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Nistar

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Shushanna is her name only with family. Call her Shine.

Shine Jemini, from District One, where they live almost as richly as the Capitol; where people have leisure to look around and notice who's different, so being different isn't safe. At least certain differences aren't. That doesn't mean you give them up, it just means you hide them the best you can, or camouflage them with affected quirks: profess a distaste for shellfish and pork, sculpt lavish ornamentation on your doorposts so nobody notices the little scroll-case embedded in it, always keep a pair of candles on your dining room table so nobody notices that you make a special point of lighting them on Friday nights.

The conspiracy -- and it is a conspiracy, against any number of laws -- is everywhere in District One. (Probably in the other Districts as well, if the whispered histories are to be believed, but communication between them has become all but impossible.) At certain shops, if you mention the right code words to the manager, you can buy the books that it is illegal to print, own, or sell -- some of them written in a script and a language that it is illegal to teach. At certain public gyms, if you know who to speak to, you will be led down a side corridor to the rainwater bath, where no one but the attendant will see you immerse the requisite three times or hear you speak the prohibited blessing.

-----

Part of fitting in is sending your kids to train as Career Tributes. It's illegal, but everybody does it and everybody knows everybody does it; nobody who reported it would be taken seriously. Shine trains twice a week with tough old Myrta Mersina -- not the best trainer in the District, but good enough to be respectable, and more than once her trainees have gone on to win the Games.

Like everything else, it's a cover. One of Shine's weekly training sessions is with a group, and that's combat and tracking and other survival skills. The other is private: reading in the strange backwards script, studying the huge sprawling chronicle called the tanakh, the commandments and strictures and practices, the names of the holidays and the reasons for them, all the secret history of their people.

A different kind of survival, Myrta calls it.

-----

Shine is fifteen, the year one of the chosen Tributes is a landsman: someone from the community. The conspiracy. A boy two years older than her, whose face she's seen on the holiest days of the year, on those rare occasions when the community gathers together. His name is Gem.

His name is Gavriel.

He bounds up to the platform laughing, and waves to the crowd. He gives no secret sign to the rest of them, standing scattered through the crowd and watching; he has only the right to say goodbye to his family, later, not his people.

They watch the Games that year with a new tension, a new fear, hidden like everything else. They're careful to show no more than the expected disappointment when the victor turns out to be a tough blonde girl from District Two, and they're careful to hide their grief from everybody else even as they share it in secret with each other. Especially when the TV crews come to interview Gem's parents; they were his only family, and there must be no sign that anyone else is mourning him at all.

-----

This isn't the first time their religion has been outlawed, Shine's father says, and it won't be the last.

It will be if it succeeds this time, she thinks. Doesn't say, because she knows what his answer will be: that's why it won't succeed.

-----

The year of the seventy-first Hunger Games, Shine turns eighteen. It's the last time she'll stand in the crowd with the other girls, waiting to hear which of them will be taken.

She watches the lady from the Capitol who comes every year for the Drawing, glittering and foreign and altogether gorgeous. She tries hard not to envy the woman's vivid green hair, her jewels set into earlobes and eyebrows and cheeks, her thrillingly sophisticated accent.

She thinks about the drawing of lots, and young women being gathered to the capitol city to compete for the favor of a royal court, and a chance to do or say something in the public eye to save one's people.

It's a mad dream and she knows it. And it's not as though the Capitol is trying to kill her people; there's nothing to save them from that isn't equally applied to everybody else. Or even more so to everybody else, in light of the annual drawing -- they're such a tiny fragment of the population that most years go by without a single one of their children being chosen. It's a weird reversal in so many ways: the odds really are ever in their favor.

-----

All the old stories have God in them. Shine isn't sure whether or not she believes in God; if He's there, why hasn't He done something to save them by now? Myrta says that believing in Him or not isn't the point. Shine is pretty sure that means Myrta doesn't believe in Him.

Maybe God is in hiding too, she thinks. Constantly pretending to be something He's not, to escape notice.

Like His people, hiding so well one might think He isn't there at all.